Mesut Ozil may often be accused of ‘going missing’ but when Arsenal needed him last night, he turned up right on time. The playmaker, so often a frustrating figure, found the breakthrough against a resolute West Ham United just as his side were beginning to become desperate. His goal not only broke down the visitors’ initially steadfast defence, which was breached twice again by strikes from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, but boosted his manager’s hopes of Champions League qualification for the 21st successive season.
Arsene Wenger made two changes from, the most significant being the replacement of injured David Ospina with Emiliano Martinez in goal. It was the inexperienced 24-year-old’s first Premier League start since conceding three in defeat at Stoke 28 months ago. Slaven Bilic, meanwhile, switched Sofiane Feghouli for the fit-again Michail Antonio, while Arthur Masuaku replaced the injured Aaron Cresswell to make only his seventh league start of the season, his last coming in December’s 5-1 defeat to the Gunners at the London Stadium.
Some members the ‘Wenger Out’ contingent did not take their seats until 13th minute, in a rather feeble protest against 13 years without a league championship, and this quiet start in the stands was reflected out on the pitch. Arsenal were perhaps thankful for it, mind, given how frantic they were in early stages against Manchester City three days earlier. By the time the demonstrators had returned, they had not missed much.
The punctual ones among them arrived just in time for the game’s first true chance and it fell to the visitors. Mark Noble pounced on Mohamed Elneny, in for the injured Francis Coquelin, and muscled his way past the Egyptian before shooting just past Martinez’s right-hand post. In truth, the chance had been coming. The first quarter of an hour was a bitty affair, but if it belonged to any side, it was the Hammers.
On that early evidence, a repeat of Bilic’s excellent victory here on the opening day of last season seemed possible. Arsenal were somnambulant, apparently content with possession rather than progress. Theo Walcott briefly threatened after being slipped through into the penalty box and demanded a penalty after Masuaku bundled him over. Martin Atkinson, our referee, waved off the appeals.
Moments of inspiration were brief but, predictably, they came from the feet of Alexis Sanchez. He offered little in open play after Wenger chose to shackle him to the left flank again, but from a set-piece he created his side’s best chance of the first-half. The Chilean dinked a free-kick over the top of West Ham’s wall and sent it heading for the boot of Danny Welbeck. The man who has replaced him as Arsenal’s focal point swung a foot at the ball but only found thin air.
Arsenal now had a hold of the game but it was a conservative one, lacking in any cutting edge until the final minutes of the first half. Sanchez, central for once, turned to make space in the penalty area then slipped in Hector Bellerin. The full-back’s shot hit Jose Fonte, then James Collins hit the deck to block Elneny’s drilled rebound. An excellent, raking pass from Granit Xhaka sent Walcott through minutes later, but Darren Randolph dashed off his line to clear.
The second half started as the first had ended, with Collins crashing to the earth and the Emirates’ home supporters frustrated. This time the Wales international had denied Mesut Ozil, who had a brief sight of the goal but saw the ball swept away from him before he could pull the trigger. The same fate befell Sanchez five minutes later, when he had time and space in the same inside-left channel.
The hosts were dominant yet becoming increasingly desperate, but they did not have to wait long for a breakthrough. A spell of exerted pressure ultimately proved too much for Fonte, who scuffed West Ham’s umpteenth clearance in the space of two minutes. It broke for Ozil, whose effort from around 20 yards out could have been stopped, but Randolph was unsighted. It nestled in bottom right-hand corner of his net.
The Emirates can be toxic when games do not go its way, and its assessment of its players can be brutal, but Ozil had lightened the mood. “£250,000-a-week,” one supporter cried, recalling the midfielder’s reported wage demands, before sarcastically adding: “What a waste of money.”
Andy Carroll’s substitution brought more mirth and a reminder that his “caravan’s parked on double yellows”, but only a second goal would really settle the crowd. Walcott found it in the 68th minute, thanks to superb link-up play between Sanchez and Ozil. The former’s sublime backheel slipped in the latter, and Walcott sliced the low cross past Randolph.
Any fight in Bilic’s side at the start of the night had dissipated by now, his players resigned to a fifth straight league defeat. West Ham’s descent into a tightening relegation battle was confirmed by Giroud, who, after being fed by fellow substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, had all the time he needed to coolly send a effort from range into the top corner.
Nacho Monreal should have been awarded a late penalty after Sam Byram took his shins, but half-hearted protests were again turned down by Atkinson. No matter. The game was won and after a few days dominated by demonstration and protest, victory had made the Emirates a little more harmonious.
Arsenal: Martinez, Bellerin, Mustafi, Gabriel, Monreal, Elneny (Ramsey 81), Xhaka, Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain 81), Ozil, Sanchez, Welbeck (Giroud 74).
Substitutes: Macey, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Iwobi.
West Ham United: Randolph, Byram, Collins, Fonte, Masuaku, Kouyate, Noble (Fernandes 80), Antonio (Snodgrass 45), Lanzini, Ayew, Carroll (Sakho 63).
Substitutes: Adrian, Nordtveit, Feghouli, Calleri.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire)