After a disappointing week which had seen them derailed twice against lower league opposition in the domestic cup competitions, Arsenal put themselves back on track with a dominating win at Upton Park against a West Ham side beset by rumours that manager Avram Grant had reached the end of the line and was due to be sacked after the game. A Robin van Persie brace and Theo Walcott‘s tenth goal of the season ensured the Hammers remained rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table.
Van Persie scored twice, and only a post denied him a hat-trick (image courtesy of arsenal.com)
If the visitors had braced themselves for an early onslaught from a team desperate to fight their manager’s corner, it did not materialise, as Arsenal bossed both possession and territory in the early exchanges. Indeed it was Wenger’s side, so often accused of a lackadaisical attitude without the ball, who seemed to be working the harder, pressing hard all over the pitch and not being afraid to put a challenge in.
The breakthrough was not long in coming. Jack Wilshere‘s astute pass found Walcott on his own on the right. With Wayne Bridge nowhere near him, the England winger had plenty of time to measure his low cross into the box. Nasri dummied it, leaving it for van Persie to meet it with a precise right-footed shot – his so-called ‘chocolate leg’ – from 11 yards, which he steered just inside Robert Green‘s left-hand post.
Arsenal did not let up. Repeatedly they carved out openings with both intricate passing moves and the kind of direct ball over the top which had troubled their own defence so frequently at Ipswich. Cesc Fàbregas missed the target from 20 yards. Walcott struggled with an awkward ball over the top, allowing Green to smother his weak shot. Wilshere, played in by Samir Nasri, skipped clear into the box but was let down by a heavy touch.
West Ham were left mostly chasing shadows, and their cause was not helped when Mark Noble went off injured, weakening a midfield already missing the inspirational Scott Parker.
But if there is one certainty in football, it is that Arsenal will always present you with a chance. And when Johan Djourou sold Wojciech Szczęsny short with a routine back-pass, it offered Carlton Cole a gilt-edged chance to equalise. But Szczęsny’s presence was as strong as Cole’s effort was weak, and Zavon Hines was equally wasteful in scooping the resultant loose ball high and wide.
Walcott terrorised Bridge, scoring one, setting up another and winning a penalty (image courtesy of arsenal.com)
The chance briefly breathed life into the moribund Hammers, but Arsenal were soon back in the ascendancy. Nasri scuffed one good chance straight at Green. A deflection took the sting off another promising effort by Song. And van Persie struck the inside of the post.
It was developing into an all too familiar story of profligacy for Arsenal, but one moment of quality shortly before half-time gave them the two-goal cushion their dominance had deserved. Fàbregas fed van Persie, who raced to the by-line and pulled the ball back across the face of goal, where Walcott made no mistake in smashing a left-foot shot into the roof of the goal.
And it could have been even worse. Of all people, Djourou galloped into the area on the stroke of half-time, but Green charged out bravely and blocked with his face.
As last year, West Ham found themselves 2-0 down at the interval, but never really threatened to repeat their comeback this time around. Other than a Cole header and a Bridge free kick either side of half-time – both deflected away to safety - Szczęsny was little more than an interested bystander.
Instead Arsenal continued to dominate possession and carve out the lion’s share of chances while the home side huffed and puffed in vain. Van Persie and Walcott had four presentable chances between them during the third quarter of the game, and Arsenal’s ability to retain possession slowly strangled the life out of the contest.
There was still time, though, for Arsenal to hammer a final nail into Grant’s coffin. A West Ham attack broke down and the visitors sprung forward at pace. Walcott, who had Bridge in his pocket throughout the game, accelerated into the area. Bridge missed with tackle as Walcott nudged the ball away from him, and Andre Marriner had no hesitation in awarding a penalty. Van Persie made no mistake from the spot. Game over.
Wenger was delighted by the comprehensive nature of a win which equalled Arsenal’s best away victory in this season’s Premier League:
We had a very strong first half. That certainly affected West Ham’s morale and in the second half it looked as if they were a bit more flat. West Ham in the second half didn’t put us under pressure, didn’t really get out of their own half, and we always looked like we were closer to scoring the third goal than to conceding one. And from then on it became a comprehensive victory. But we had a good, mature performance today.
He praised Robin van Persie who, in addition to his two goals, had his strongest overall performance since returning from injury:
We have many offensive players and he gets them in well because he keeps the ball. And of course you can see now that because he has a few games he’s much sharper physically, and that is very interesting.
And he remained optimistic about Arsenal’s prospects in the title race:
I think it’s in our hands. We play all of the big teams at home. We have played many away games, so now we’ll see that it is down to us. We have done the job today.
Finally, he also expressed sympathy for the unenviable situation which his counterpart Avram Grant finds himself in:
I have big sympathy for Avram Grant. I don’t think it affects him at all, but you don’t know how much it affects your environment. Our job is difficult enough not to put some more on your back.
Bridge had a debut to forget
Albeit against poor opposition, this game ranked alongside the win over Chelsea as Arsenal’s best complete team performance of the season. The front six crackled with energy and invention, leaving the West Ham defence – and debutant Wayne Bridge in particular – looking ponderous and overly reliant on last-ditch blocks and tackles.
It is no coincidence that this return to form coincided with van Persie’s best game for more than a year. At his best, the Dutchman’s strength, vision and trickery – and his ability to bring others into the game – make him one of Europe’s most dangerous front men, and only repeated injuries have prevented him from being more widely recognised as such.
Fàbregas, though still not at his best, set an impressive tempo in midfield, with his ambition and speed of though and passing constantly driving his teammates forward, and bringing the best out of both Nasri and Walcott, whose pace, movement and willingness to link up with van Persie had the Hammers on the back foot throughout. (Bridge, understandably rusty given that this was only the second time he has played more than 45 minutes in a league game this season, lacked the sharpness to deal with Walcott’s pace). Song and Wilshere provided both a solid defensive screen and a supplementary attacking threat.
The only real down-sides for Wenger were in defence, where twice poor back-passes gifted West Ham with opportunities. Djourou, Arsenal’s rock in recent weeks, had a couple of wobbles – unsurprising for a player who has seen so much recent action after an extended injury absence – and Eboué remains erratic, but otherwise the unit answered what few questions West Ham asked them with assurance.
With Manchester City also winning and Manchester United visiting Tottenham tomorrow (Sunday), Arsenal remain third in the table, and will now travel to Elland Road to take on Leeds in their FA Cup replay in good heart. This performance does not wholly make up for the disappointments of the last week, but it is a good start. For Avram Grant, however, the end is nigh.