Arsenal came back from a 1-0 deficit to beat West Ham 3-1 yesterday. It was a match which featured a Podolski brace, a Giroud wondergoal, the return of Aaron Ramsey and Arsenal climbing back into 4th place. And after the match, the fans went into hyperbole overdrive.
Aaron Ramsey limped off injured the last time these two teams met on Boxing Day and has been slowly working his way back to full fitness for three months. He played 112 minutes in the FA Cup win over Wigan and Wenger gave him a rest to start this game but when he did come on in the last 20 minutes Arsenal’s pace quickened, they controlled the midfield, and they created a number of good chances. In just a short 20 minute cameo, Ramsey created two shots for teammates, including a cushioned header assist for Podolski’s second goal, and took two shots himself. He also put in a tackle high up the pitch which resulted in a good chance missed and provided Arsenal’s front line with deadly service throughout. It says a lot about Ramsey that he can miss 3 months of football and still be in contention for our player of the season.
I say that knowing full well the dangers of post-match hyperbole. But Ramsey is simply a tireless worker who is constantly presenting himself for the pass, who demands the ball in pressure situations, who quickens the pace of Arsenal’s midfield, and whose vision for finding teammates and for getting himself into important positions upsets the opposition defenders. And when Arsenal lose the ball he works hard to get the ball back. It’s no coincidence that he leads Arsenal in a number of those stat categories, then, and that his reintroduction to this Arsenal team couldn’t have come at a better time.
Meanwhile, Lukas Podolski scored two goals yesterday and after the match slipped into the role of New Arshavin: the player everyone argues over whether he is being played out of position, whether he needs more playing time, whether he should bother defending, and whether he is not getting the respect he is due.
Podolski is actually a simple player to figure out. He is inconsistent away from home (scored in just 6 of 30 away appearances) and not terribly good against top clubs. He also requires excellent service to score but once he has that service he is deadly. He has a wicked cross on him and has hooked up with Giroud on numerous occasions to great effect. He’s not going to play defense and you almost don’t want him to because when he does it’s usually messy. He is almost certainly a better forward in a two striker system, but you can’t really play him as a number 10 because he’s not creative enough.
Fortunately, he is perfect for the final five game run in. First, Arsenal will be playing all little clubs for the remainder of the season. Second, Arsenal’s 4-3-3 is a fluid formation meaning that Podolski is basically playing as a second striker, albeit a wide striker. And third, while the defenders were yelling at Podolski to drop back against West Ham, Cazorla, Kallstrom, Arteta, and Vermaelen were all able to cover for him. So, Podolski’s good qualities should win out over the bad, I think, for these last 5 games.
Giroud also suffers from post match anti/pro hyperbole and he’s also not really much of a mystery. He’s a hard working player who, because Arsenal didn’t have a viable backup, has basically run himself into the ground — he had a combined 14 lost possessions yesterday (dispossessed, turnovers, offsides) which is high even for him. Even when fully fit he has a tendency to miss gilt edged chances and his record over the last two seasons as the player who has missed more of them than any other proves that. But if he just plays instinctively, he’s able to pull off moments of football so beautiful that you wonder if he’s even the same person! Yesterday was a perfect example of Giroud: playing little chips in to teammates, being harassed off the ball, missing a shot one-v-one with the keeper, and scoring a goal from a long pass which he plucked softly out of the air and simply powered past the keeper.
Every match is critical now in terms of earning a 4th place finish and the team knows it. Podolski was interviewed after the match and his assessment of the end of season run-in was perfect for its simplicity: “The FA Cup is after the season. We’ll leave that for the moment and focus on the Premier League… we must understand that we have hard matches to come – we play away at Hull City and Norwich. It’s not easy but if we win all of our matches we’ll qualify.”
For anyone who feels like finishing in the top four isn’t important you only need to take a look at how the media (ironically) play up the fight for fourth between Arsenal and Everton. These same reporters who guffawed at Arsene Wenger’s suggestion that 4th place is an achievement are snapping at the story that plucky upstarts Everton might nip Arsenal to the 4th Place Cup. Finishing 4th is worth 10s of millions of pounds, both in terms of prize money but also in terms of player recruitment in the off season. Everton want to convince Lukaku to stay and they will have a powerful hole card if they can offer Champions League football. Meanwhile, Arsenal need to recruit possibly 4 players this Summer and the cost of doing that kind of business will be doubled if we don’t have Champions League football to offer.
In the end, a good win for Arsenal and puts the Gunners back on track for 4th place. We still have to win every remaining fixture and hope that Everton drop points but given the opposition that they face I’d put the money on Arsenal to finish 4th again. I’d also put money that our three most talked about players from yesterday’s match, Podolski, Giroud, and Ramsey will have a big say in where we end up in the League table at the end of the season.