Having finally stopped the bleeding by drawing on Sunday against Manchester City, Arsenal have now taken a first meaningful step towards recovery.
Yes, the collective seizure they suffered through February and March might yet prove terminally damaging for Arsene Wenger but this emphatic 3-0 win against West Ham United does at least open a window of opportunity.
His Arsenal team have not only risen back above Manchester United into the Premier League’s top five but they could also move level with Liverpool and to within a point of Manchester City by winning their games in hand.
One very obvious caveat was the limitations here of West Ham United – whose alarming slump now stretches to five consecutive defeats – but Wenger will not much care how his own team’s urgent need both for momentum and confidence has been answered.
After another pre-match protest, there was even the post-match sight here of a similarly small section of fans staying on to chant in favour of Wenger staying.
West Ham’s fans summed up what has become an almost comically oscillating debate by singing about what they called the in-out Wenger hokey cokey.
Wenger simply called the result “a relief” – and also pointed out that his team had qualified previously for the Champions League from worse positions – but most instructive were his observations on Mesut Ozil.
His £42 million record signing had delivered a long-awaited match winning performance by scoring Arsenal’s first and then creating the second, with Wenger claiming that he had been “hit hard” by the 10-2 Champions League mauling against Bayern Munich.
“It took some time for him to recovery mentally,” said Wenger. “We live in a world of extremes. We are always praised too much when it goes well and too much [criticism] when it doesn’t.”
Bilic is at the other end of that equation just now and, with the gap to Swansea City in 18th down to five points, he warned his players that they are in the relegation scrap.
“We are in that fight now,” he said. “It’s not being negative. It’s being realistic. Now is the time to show leadership.”
Bilic then described Saturday’s visit of Swansea to the Olympic Stadium as “very, very vital” and admitted that both Michail Antonio and Andy Carroll, who were respectively suffering from sickness and a tight groin, had also been substituted with that game in mind.
“I am not expecting the beautiful game on Saturday, we have to win and give everything, said Bilic, before noting that Tottenham’s dramatic comeback could prove psychologically devastating for Swansea.
“It is a confidence killer,” he said. “It harms you but they probably played good to be winning against Spurs. It’s a killer but also a big warning for us.”
After not knowing who was captain throughout the second-half of Sunday’s 2-2 draw with City, Wenger took the continental approach here in the absence of his three usual options by asking Theo Walcott – his longest-serving player – to wear the armband.
He responded positively and, with Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, was the creative inspiration behind Arsenal’s win. Walcott had forced two good saves as Arsenal gradually increased their first-half pressure and, although they remained dominant in possession at the start of the second-half, it was a goalkeeping error by Darren Randolph that ultimately led to their crucial first goal.
Centre-back Jose Fonte had only half cleared a speculative ball into the feet of Ozil on the edge of the penalty area.
The 28-year-old’s curling shot was far from convincing but a combination of the ball bouncing just in front of Randolph and Sanchez’s darting run forward provided sufficient distraction.
West Ham’s players felt that Sanchez was both offside and influencing play but replays confirmed that Atkinson was correct in allowing the goal to stand. You could tangibly sense the confidence flooding back into the Arsenal team once they had taken their 58th minute lead.
Walcott then brilliantly sprinted into the penalty area and released Danny Welbeck, only for Randolph to make a good reaction save. The wait for a decisive Ozil contribution has been lengthy but he then combined brilliantly with Sanchez to create Arsenal’s second.
Ozil had started the move but Sanchez delivered a wonderful back-heeled return from which Arsenal’s record signing crossed for Walcott to complete what really had been a captain’s performance with an accurate low finish. Arsenal soon almost made it 3-0, with Sanchez’s lofted pass met on the half volley by Hector Bellerin but directed narrowly wide.
Wenger also had plenty of attacking options on the bench and two of his substitutes combined to add the third, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain passing for Olivier Giroud to immediately stake his claim to start ahead of Welbeck as the main central striker with a superb left-footed finish.
Source: Jeremy Wilson