With the visit of West Ham sandwiched between last Monday’s hard-fought win at Manchester United and Tuesday’s assignment in Monaco, Arsene Wenger can reflect on Saturday night on a job well done. Third place in the Premier League table consolidated, no further injuries and every decision proved to be the right call.
On paper, West Ham were the perfect opponents for Arsenal, four days before they attempt to overturn a 3-1 deficit in the Champions League round of 16. The Gunners had won their last eight Premier League matches against their London rivals, with Sam Allardyce’s side fading badly after a fine start to the season. The Hammers arrived at the Emirates without a league win for almost two months and depleted by injuries, with only James Collins available from Allardyce’s first-choice back four.
Wenger found a perfect balance in making five changes to his XI, doing so without weakening the side in any area. Crucially, he was able to give Santi Cazorla an hour’s rest, with the Spanish schemer said to be “on the edge” in terms of fitness. Ideally, Wenger would probably have liked to leave Cazorla in reserve all afternoon, but with West Ham refusing to lie down and Alexis Sanchez also due a breather, Cazorla had to be summoned.
Both Cazorla and Sanchez have been heavily relied upon since Christmas, with Sanchez having played seven games in the last month. The Chilean admitted to being “exhausted” after a “very physically demanding game” at United five days ago but with the race for the Champions League places hotting up, Wenger could not afford to rest both Sanchez and Cazorla, especially with a slight pre-match doubt over the latter.
Things turned out swimmingly for Wenger. Sanchez came through the first hour unscathed, despite some tasty early challenges from the visitors. Cazorla took over, despite not directly replacing Sanchez, and drifted through whatever weariness he may have been feeling. His arrival lifted the hosts, who after half-time, struggled to reassert the authority they showed in the first period.
Had Olivier Giroud not smashed in the opener in first-half added time, that period early in the second half may have been more nervy. With a point to prove after Danny Welbeck’s winner on Monday, Giroud impressed in and out of the box. He began confidently with some delightful early touches to penetrate the West Ham lines, and the opening goal was a direct and forceful response to his critics who claim he is not a natural finisher. Having scored the first, he laid on the second, with an inventive dummy and perfectly weighted lay-off for Aaron Ramsey to sidefoot home. Giroud combined superbly all afternoon, particularly with Mesut Ozil, and he has to lead Arsenal’s line at Stade Louis II.
Unlike Giroud, Theo Walcott fluffed his audition for midweek, and possibly England, with Roy Hodgson in attendance at the Emirates. The winger has not played since featuring for the final half-hour of the Monaco first-leg debacle and his rustiness was all too evident. Three first-half chances went begging – not half-chances, either – while his second-half contribution was almost non-existent before he was replaced by the far more influential Cazorla.
Walcott will surely find himself back on the bench on Tuesday, with Welbeck a better option for the wide role, offensively and defensively. Callum Chambers often found himself exposed in the first hour at the Emirates, with Francis Coquelin doing much of his early defensive work in the gaps Walcott left. Monaco got plenty of joy on the counter-attack in the first leg, and despite the onus being on Arsenal to attack this week, Wenger will be wary to leave the kind of gaps West Ham failed to capitalise on in the first half on Saturday.
The injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain aside, Arsenal go to Monaco in splendid shape, considering the criticism they justifiably received after the first leg. Four wins from four since then, including two away victories, have brought Wenger’s side passage into the FA Cup semi-finals and a healthy third position in the Premier League table. Sanchez, Cazorla, Ozil and Giroud all appear in fine fettle and it would be wise not to write off the Gunners’ hopes of scoring the three goals they need in the principality. Whether they can keep the backdoor closed as they go forward is another matter.