Arsenal showed resolve to secure their place in the FA Cup final by the narrowest of margins but it was still far from an overwhelmingly positive weekend for Arsene Wenger’s side. Against Championship opposition in Wigan, Arsenal were labored and sterile in possession for the vast majority of the encounter at Wembley. Indeed, it was only when adopting an uncharacteristically direct style late on that Arsenal penetrated a well-organized Wigan side before they sealed their spot in the final on penalties. It was certainly not the atonement for their woeful showing at Everton the week before for which Wenger had called.
But the biggest disappointment of the weekend for Arsenal arguably came before they had even kicked off at Wembley. Everton’s narrow win over Sunderland means that Arsenal are now on the outside looking in in the battle for the final Champions League place with five matches remaining. Already trailing Roberto Martinez’s in-form side by two points, it means that Arsenal can ill-afford anything less than a victory when they host West Ham United on Tuesday.
The most encouraging factor for Arsenal currently is that their run-in is significantly more favorable than that of Everton’s. But having won just one of their last seven matches (discounting a victory on spot-kicks), Arsenal cannot take any wins for granted right now.
On the face of it, the matchup with West Ham is that should present problems for Arsenal. It is a well-worn and not unmerited cliché that the Gunners struggle up against physical sides. That has been shown in Stoke City’s good record against Arsenal at the Britannia Stadium, which continued with a 1-0 win just last month. And West Ham could certainly cause similar issues, especially if Arsenal are again without Laurent Koscielny at the back. But it is a slicker, quick-breaking style that now causes Arsenal the most problems.
With the exception of Stewart Downing, West Ham are not a side with particular pace. And Per Mertesacker will be more comfortable dealing with aerial balls in toward Andy Carroll than dealing with quick passing and players catching him on the turn. At the other end West Ham have it within them to frustrate Arsenal. Jose Mourinho famously lambasted West Ham’s negative tactics when parking the bus to secure a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge in January. With Olivier Giroud having scored just once in his last seven appearances, Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil out injured and Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski all looking poor in recent weeks, Arsenal could struggle to break Sam Allardyce’s side down.
Yet, there is reason to believe that they will eventually be successful in doing so. In all three matches between the sides since West Ham were promoted back to the Premier League, the scores have been level at half-time before Arsenal going on to win by a comfortable margin. And West Ham have been fairly timid when going up against the big sides this season. The recent clash with Manchester United was a case in point. Having showed some threat early on, after going 2-0 down just past the half-hour mark, West Ham meekly accepted their fate.
The determined performance offered against Liverpool last time out was predictable given the point that Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing had to prove against their former club. Although West Ham showed real resistance against Chelsea, that contest came when they desperately needed points in the battle to avoid the drop. While not yet safe, now sitting seven points clear of the drop zone, there will likely be a sense that the hard work has now been done in ensuring survival.
In a London derby, West Ham should still show some resolve on Tuesday. And Arsenal’s recent performances, coupled with fatigue and fresh injuries that could rule out Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain suggest that they will not find it easy to break them down. But their quality should eventually allow them to do so, before, as in recent meetings, West Ham’s mind could turn to better opportunities to secure points ahead and allow Arsenal to ultimately comfortably secure a vital three points.
Prediction: Arsenal 2-0 West Ham