Now Arsene Wenger has key players back from injury, his team are showing their ability to compete in multiple competitions as the squad looks fresh heading into the business end of the season. Although likely to go out of the Champions League in the coming week, Arsenal are otherwise well positioned to carry momentum through to the end of May.
Arsenal made five changes to their starting line-up in the FA Cup win at Old Trafford last Monday, and another five to the team to face West Ham United. But these alterations didn’t affect the fluidity and confidence of the team. It feels like a real luxury to Arsenal fans to have these options, and it means individual players don’t have to be played relentlessly and get burned out. With players knowing there is serious competition for places in the team, performances are improving and beginning to bring out the best in some of the squad.
Two of the players that came in to the side against West Ham were Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud, and both were influential in a relatively comfortable win. After such a wonderful season last year, it was always going to be tough for Ramsey to follow it up with another stellar campaign. The Welshman has been in and out with injury, but after returning from his latest setback against Manchester United, Ramsey looked to be back to his best as he rampaged around the pitch against the Hammers. With the safety net of Francis Coquelin sitting alongside him in midfield, Ramsey was able to make the late bursts into the box that were so effective in 2013-2014.
Ramsey’s link-up play with Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil was a feature of Arsenal’s play in the first half of last season when they topped the league, and it was at its fluid best against West Ham. Giroud was providing the strength and subtle flicks, while Ozil and Ramsey floated around him, pulling defenders around.
It was this combination that brought Arsenal’s opening goal. After the Gunners spurned some good chances, Olivier Giroud seemed fed up of the messing about by taking the ball from Ramsey in the box in first half injury time, and slamming the ball past goalkeeper Adrian via the post. It was a thunderous finish, and one that emphasised the confidence that the Frenchman is playing with right now. The debacle against Monaco is a long way behind him.
West Ham rarely threatened, but Arsenal still went into the last 20 minutes without killing the game off. But that changed when Aaron Ramsey completed an energetic performance with a brilliantly worked goal. Giroud cleverly left a throw-in to run to Ramsey, and then returned the ball back to the Welshman to fire in after a swift one-two.
Both Giroud and Ramsey are benefitting from competition and the ability to rotate players. I doubt Giroud was chuffed to see Danny Welbeck start the quarter-final at Old Trafford on Monday, but his response against West Ham was excellent. While Ramsey has been out injured, he’s seen Santi Cazorla dominating matches from the centre of the pitch. The all-action showing on Saturday was a excellent reminder of the box-to box presence Ramsey can provide.
Cazorla himself was given a rest ahead of the Monaco mission on Tuesday, but he did come off the bench to link up brilliantly with Giroud and slide the ball across the box to give Mathieu Flamini a tap-in to seal a 3-0 win. Flamini was returning from injury, and was sent on by Arsene Wenger to see out the game playing on the right-wing. He couldn’t believe his luck to get such a simple finish for his first touch.
The man who started on the right was probably very envious of Flamini waltzing onto the field and immediately scoring. With everyone else stepping up their game, it’s somehow not quite happening for Theo Walcott. He missed some good opportunities in the first half and didn’t provide much else in his all-round game, except for being a threat with pace in-behind the defence. With contract talks ongoing, and questions beginning to emerge about his future, hopefully Walcott will follow the rest of the squad and be inspired to face up to the competition for places, otherwise Arsenal might feel they need to cash in on Theo this summer.
Overall, it was a game that emphasised how much more confidence Arsenal compared to earlier in the season. The players have finally clicked into gear, and while everything looked a bit forced and scrappy in the first part of the campaign, some of the slick passing and movement looked effortless on Saturday.
As fans, we shouldn’t take scoring these goals for granted. Sometimes the intricate passing game doesn’t come off, and it looks quite bad, but when it comes together, as it did three times on Saturday, it is gorgeous to watch. The same again in Monte Carlo on Tuesday would secure an unprecedented recovery to go with Arsenal’s beautiful football.