EMIRATES STADIUM, LONDON, U.K.—In recent weeks, Arsenal’s character has been questioned. Rightly so: When the pressure is on, they’ve shown a worrying tendency to capitulate.
However, in this Premier League fixture Arsene Wenger’s team showed real steel to see off Sam Allardyce’s Hammers and jump back into the top four.
Make no mistake: This was a huge test. After a gruelling 120-minute tussle with Wigan on Saturday, a physical side led by Allardyce are probably the last team Arsenal would have chosen to face.
This is a squad stretched by injury problems and ravaged by fatigue. Arsene Wenger was forced to name one of the oldest starting XIs he has ever picked. Olivier Giroud was the youngest outfield player on display, and he is already 27. What’s more, Arsenal began with four players over 30 on the field: Bacary Sagna, Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and Kim Kallstrom.
Speaking to reporters, Wenger confirmed:
It was a gamble but I said before the game as well that it was the oldest team certainly that I've ever played at Arsenal. I trusted the experience of the players because… tonight it was an unusual around-30 team, and that experience of course helps when you are a little bit backs against the wall.
Several players in this team had played the entirety of the tie with Wigan. Per Mertesacker, Thomas Vermaelen, Sagna, Arteta and Santi Cazorla were all still aching from their two-hour semi-final clash.
In the first half, Arsenal looked what they were: a side down to the bare bones—and those bones were creaking. It’s no surprise that an ageing, worn-out side seemed to be suffering with a chronic lack of pace.
When Arsenal fell behind, those aches and pains will have felt all the worse. At 1-0 down, the Gunners could feel the Champions League slipping away from them.
However, they showed remarkable resolve to battle back and win the game. The fight was led by Lukas Podolski, who played with a fiery sense of injustice after having been unhappy to be substituted at Wembley. He responded in the best possible manner, scoring with two explosive finishes to underline his quality.
Olivier Giroud was Arsenal’s other goalscorer, again showing impressive powers of recovery to bounce back from a poor first-half miss to score a goal of outstanding calibre. The way he brought Vermaelen’s long pass under control was reminiscent of the elegant touch of Dennis Bergkamp. The finish took his tally for the season to 20, suggesting that he is not quite the carthorse some unkind fans have labelled him.
Perhaps his manager had given Giroud a pep talk at half-time. Wenger told reporters:
At half-time he came in, he was very very down because he missed a great chance in the first half, but he responded very well in the second half because he's mentally a strong guy.
Giroud and his team-mates had to be strong tonight. This was no easy task, but Arsenal showed their mettle to beat the Irons. The ball has been batted back into Everton’s court. Arsenal move on to the next of five remaining finals.