Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Three Things: Arsenal 3 West Ham 1

Arsenal won the first of five must win today, beating West Ham at the Emirates 3-1, leaving four EPL games and the FA Cup final to come. The first half was back and forth with both team missing gilded opportunities, including a one-on-one Giroud failed to convert (though he did appear offsides) along with two other decent opportunities and a flub from close range by West Ham’s Diame. West Ham actually got on the scoreboard first, when a parried Nocerino shot was headed in from close range by Jarvis in the 40th minute. This seemed to wake up a somewhat jaded Arsenal side and they were level three and a half minutes later (44’) when a missed clearance by Downey was snatched up by Cazorla just outside the box and sent in to Podolski on the left. The German settled the ball then rifled it in the far corner.

The second half saw a much stronger Arsenal performance and they went ahead with an excellent goal from Giroud (55’), who used his foot to deaden a perfect long ball from Vermaelen, filling in at left back, before taking a touch and smashing the ball between the GK Adrian’s legs. Aaron Ramsey came on for Tomas Rosicky in the 72nd minute and added a creative dimension long missing from a side in recent decline. In fact it was his header that ensured the Gunners would take all three points, as he nudged a Giroud cross forward to Podolski who allowed the ball to roll past before slashing in into the roof of the net (78’). The Gunners thus grabbed the vital three points to push back into fourth place by a point, though Everton play tomorrow against Crystal Palace with a game in hand.

1. It was an important win for the Gunners, but in many ways demonstrated the mistakes that cost them a shot at the title. They have been beating teams outside the top half all year, but failing in the big games against their major competitors and continued that trend today. West Ham played a surprisingly open game at times, and Arsenal had plenty of chances, but failed to convert too many of them. And Giroud scored a spectacular goal but missed too many other opportunities, while Podolski scored on two of his three chances. And Arsenal looked open defensively throughout the first half, seemingly more vulnerable whenever the once reliable Arteta is on the pitch. Most of all, they seemed too predictable at times, a result of having no real backup to Giroud.

2. Everton, like Liverpool, have their fate in their own hands, but face a much more difficult run in, having to play both Manchester teams and a tough Southampton that took points off many of the top seven this season (including Arsenal in the disappointing 2-2 draw last month that was facilitated by a late own goal). But Arsenal’s fate is outside their hands for the time being and they know that they must take maximum points from the next four fixtures to keep the pressure on a young team hungry for a shot at the UCL. And a failure here would have major ramifications for the Gunners, who still need at least one, if not two, first rate strikers, a right back to replace Sagna if he leaves and a defensive mid – along with a CB. Some will not want to come if Champions League football is not in the offing, and that has become a real possibility. On the other hand, I do think Everton will drop points and Arsenal will pip the fourth spot by a nose hair for the third year running. The great irony is that it might open the door for Roberto Martinez to take the reins from Wenger next year.

3.  Giroud is a hard working centre forward with all the skills, except pace, to be exception – if not quite World Class. He has now scored 20 goals in all competitions, but only a largely disappointing 14 goals in 32 EPL starts (though his 7 assists is a better than expected return). He has added two UCL goals (in 7 games) and another 4 very important ones in the FA Cup run (in 6 games, all as a sub). But without having the exact statistics in front of me, I think he fails to convert even 1 in 3 of his chances, many times flubbing three or four in a single game. Given the lack of a backup, which is Wenger’s fault, he sometimes appears to be playing on empty, but this is not a sufficient excuse. The reality is that we should probably sell him this summer and bring in two new strikers. Beyond his profligacy in league games, he is a great hold-up player and strong forward that can give CBs fits, as he did at times against West Ham today. But he too often makes Arsenal a predictable team, and in my estimation, undermines the creative talent of Ozil and Ramsey – to send through balls in that can be easily converted. Walcott will provide that threat again next season, as will Podolski if he stays. But when the post-mortem is written on this term, behind Wenger in the blame column stands Giroud – not for lack of effort, but for failing to the find the back of the net often enough; particularly when it mattered the most. 

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