That was better. Despite the average performance (yet great result) against Everton on the weekend, you knew that we would not be able to sustain the winning momentum by churning out results like that. Eventually the swagger would have to come back into our play and it did so against the Hammers.
As I went to bed at 5.30am following a heavy New Year’s Eve, I envisioned a lie in until at least 2pm before waking up for the game and then, possibly, slinking back into bed afterwards. Little did I know I would end up at The Emirates less than twelve hours later. I was awoken by the vibration of my phone (in a non-Cashley Hole manner) at about 11am. My mate DJ was ringing me with the offer of a spare ticket for the game. Do I stay in bed for an extra couple of hours and then watch the match in the warm comfort of my own home? Or do I cut my sleep short and brave the cold weather to watch a potentially tricky home game? It was no contest, the latter option won hands down. So I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, showered and was good to go. I met DJ and his Arsechums at Preston Road and advanced to The Home of Football from there. As we were so early we were afforded the novelty of getting off at Holloway Road, making for a nice short walk to the Armoury for a spot of New Year’s shopping. This sortie was however soured by watching Ballack hit Chelsea’s winner from the spot while I was queuing up.
Such is the strength in depth in the squad that we were able to rest Hleb and Sagna; Rosicky and Justin coming in the pair, whilst Ade replaced the suspended Bendtner and Eboue back for Diaby. Four changes would normally disrupt the team’s flow but these didn’t make a jot of difference. Lining up for the opposition was our old pal Freddie Ljungberg. We were looking to avenge the only defeat inflicted on us at our new home thus far, the Hammers grabbing the jammiest of wins last season courtesy of a freak goal from Bobby Zamora and an even more freakish performance from ‘keeper Robert Green.
So many home games this season and last have been typified by slow starts from Arsenal which have often been punctuated by the opposition breaking the deadlock. Not so this time. Just like for Ade’s opener against the Spuds, Cesc and Rosicky linked up down the left. Cesc drove forward and then picked out Eduardo with a pinpoint pass. The Crozilian controlled on his chest before swivelling to volley across Green and into the bottom corner. 1-0 up as simple as that. Eduardo made a difficult chance look irresistibly simple. Following on from his match-saving/match-winning brace against Everton, his debut season in the red and white goes from strength to strength.
Those expecting West Ham to cower into a corner were mistaken; they didn’t overcome the Mancs for no reason and came back into the game with the creation of some decent chances. They were most notably a threat from set-pieces, which had been the source of both their goals against United. Carlton Cole (who in this form is worth a shout for the England squad) cut in from the left and had an effort deflected wide by Kolo. From the resulting corner Anton Ferdinand got in-front of his market and prodded the ball goalwards, but Gael was equal to it and blocked the effort on the line. The danger had not subsided though as the Hammers earned a subsequent corner which caused further havoc in the Arsenal box. Some 17 minutes in and Arsenal got sloppy at the back, trying to pass it out instead of giving it the hoof. The ball was lost to Freddie and he exchanged passes with the impressive Mark Noble before firing away a left-foot shot on the turn. Although it was probably heading wide of the near post, Manuel was not to know and he palmed it away. So many times we’ve seen Freddie do the exact same thing for us over the years but thankfully this time he was unsuccessful.
Speaking of hoofs, Gael then resorted to the plan that pissed off David Moyes as he launched a long one upfield. The West Ham defence, probably surprised by such primitive tactics, were caught square as Ade raced through to meet the bouncing ball. He knocked it past the onrushing Green with his head and then from THE tightest of tight angles somehow managed to sneak it in, flicking his left foot at the ball with the spin causing it to bounce of the inside of the far post and into the back of the net. If he were to attempt that another hundred times I doubt he would get the same result, such was the impossible angle that he was faced with and the speed at which he was going. An excellent finish which saw us go two-up within twenty minutes and then hit cruise control for the remainder of the half.
Like I say, we barely created anything for the remaining twenty-five minutes of the half except for an Eboue header from an Ade cross on the half-hour mark. Had the roles been reversed then we may have scored a third. To their credit, West Ham kept coming at us and created further chances, the closest coming from an acrobatic overhead effort from John Pantsil. We were running a bit of a risk with such a high line against Carlton Cole’s pace but it seemed to pay off. The final meaningful incident of the half was a penalty shout from the home side as an Eboue cross seemed to strike a West Ham arm, but the ref didn’t budge. In the midst of all this Freddie had picked up a hammy injury and was subbed off. In a very poignant moment, the home faithful rose to a man to applaud a former hero – I personally will never forget the way he single-handedly dragged us over the finishing line in 2002. Interestingly enough as we showered the Swede with applause, DJ’s cousin who was sitting next to me spotted that not one of the Hammers support was applauding Freddie. Strange that. Speaking of the Hammers’ support, they were extremely vocal throughout the entire game and although away supporters of any club are notoriously loud, this bunch was by far the most boisterous I’ve seen at the Emirates.
Half-time was upon us and as I had the honour of sitting in the swanky Club Level it was striking how many people went in to grab their free half-time drink (some of whom went in before the whistle). I was glad I stayed in my seat though as I got to see the "Be a Gooner, Be a Giver" advert, which sums up the class of our beloved club. DJ’s cousin, Nish, also stayed in his seat, although that was more because he was looking to nab the free t-shirts fired into the crowd by the O2 cannon. Kids eh?
The beginning of the second period echoed the first: West Ham a threat from set-pieces but Arsenal looking like they could step up the gears at any stage and grab a third. Ade nearly had a clear opportunity but failed to control Kolo’s launched cross early on. Then Ade was again involved a few minutes later, feeding Rosicky down the left but the Little Maestro’s square ball was cut out before it could reach Eduardo. On the hour we had yet another shout for a penalty waved away. Eboue’s deep cross fell to the head of Eduardo but he could not direct goalwards. However while trying to reach the ball, the Crozilian was being man-handled by Lucas Neill but again we got no joy from the officials. He was then replaced by Theo midway through the half and had little impact in the second period as it looked like he’d moved over to the left. But that is the beauty of his play, he does sod all throughout the game but then finishes any chance with aplomb – exactly the type of player we have been lacking since Ian Wright departed many moons ago.
You felt that we could do with a third goal to take the sting out of the game; at two-nil it was never a foregone conclusion as a single West Ham goal would change the whole complexion of the game. Efforts came and went from Eboue, Justin and Cesc (who was looking a lot brighter than in recent times). Ade was put through on goal on 70 but his early poked effort sailed wide with Green off his line. Five minutes later Clichy, during one of few overlaps, crossed the ball into the near post but the diminutive Rosicky could not get over the ball as it flew off his mop of hair and to safety. Then a minute later Cesc dinked the ball into the box where Theo and Justin (yes Justin!) were waiting in the centre-forward position but neither had the conviction to convert the chip. Theo was getting involved to good effect and immediately picked up the ball in the inside left, niftily turned his man and advanced on goal. Although he had Cesc screaming for the ball to his left he probably took the correct decision to shoot but his effort was tame and straight at Green. Hleb then was seemingly through on goal but opted to lay it left to Rosicky, whose poked effort was stopped by Green’s feet. The final chance of the game fell to Ade but his shot was blocked before it could trouble the keeper.
And that was all she wrote. Despite a lack of goals in the second-half, the swagger was well and truly back and it was nice to see. The balance of the side looked a lot better with two men to stretch the opposition defence, Cesc conducting from the middle, Rosicky prompting from the left and Eboue providing width on the right. When Hleb plays right and Rosicky left, we tend to overcrowd the middle of the pitch as both have a tendency to come infield. With Eboue (or Theo) we have another option on the opposite flank. Now Eboue is off to the African Nations, Le Boss has a bit of a conundrum ahead as to how best he should be replaced.
In goal Manuel did well when called upon, and apart from set-pieces the back four looked solid. It was especially pleasing to see Justin get a run-out – with Kolo away (how we’ll miss him), Sagna is an option in the middle and moving him inside won’t be too much of a loss as Justin is a solid citizen down the right. Clichy gets my vote for Top Gun, not because of his overlapping but his defending which is improving game by game. From stopping the ball on the line to nipping in front of his man to intercept a pass, his development is a joy to behold. The midfield looked a lot more sharp and creative than against Everton. The Flamster snapped away whilst Cesc got back into his groove. Eboue was penetrative down the right and seems to have cut down on the histrionics in recent games. I was very impressed by Rosicky, especially in the second-half where he took up a more central station. Up-front Ade worked hard as always and it is easy to see why so many top defenders regard him as their toughest opponent. The amount of donkey work he does tends to go unnoticed by some, and his unbelievable (if slightly fortunate) goal should keep the haters off his back for a while. As for Eduardo, his goal says it all? He is a finishing machine. The theatre that is the Emirates may have found its first matador.
We can now mix our play very effectively. If the pretty passing ain’t working, we can get it wide and cross it. If that ain’t working, route one is now an option too. We didn’t create many clear cut opportunities but converted the majority that we had. This was the also the case at Goodison Park where we had four shots on target and four goals. This improved efficiency cannot be underestimated, and much of it is down to Eduardo’s emergence as a true goal threat. With his tendency to contribute little else to the play, the question must be whether or not we can afford to play with nine outfielders supplemented by an out-and-out goalscorer. Given the array of talent available in our midfield department and the other striker (be it Ade, Robin or Bendtner), I believe that until Eduardo physically settles into the rhythm of the Premiership we can easily "carry" him (for lack of a better phrase), especially at home against teams who set out for a draw. And there’s gonna be many of those games along the way, so Eduardo’s finishing prowess and icy veins required to break a deadlock could prove vital.