Giroud celebrates massive goal at Newcastle
I hope you've all had a wonderful Christmas. I haven't written since Christmas Eve and since then Arsenal have leapt back to the top of the Premier League. If you didn't realise how tight it is then it's worth noting that Liverpool were top at Christmas and will be fifth at New Year. The value of Arsenal's two superb away wins this week is underlined in that very statistic. Defeats in those matches would not only have seen us slipping away from the top, but we would have been back within two points of Manchester United and Tottenham. The need to keep winning is there for all to see.
The victory at West Ham was significant and was the result of a very good performance. Olivier Giroud again missed chances in the match that might have been costly, but Santi Cazorla turned on last seasons form to dominate the game, and Lukas Podolski provided the spark that the attack required. I know Theo's first goal was a horrendous goalkeeping error, but if you don't shoot you won't score. His second goal was a superb header showing a real willingness to attack the ball. In recent weeks we've seen Theo win a few good headers, including the assist for Ozil's goal against Everton. If it's something else that Walcott is adding to his game then it can only be a good thing for Arsenal.
Podolski had been an unused substitute in the Chelsea game on Monday last week. Very few of us could see why he hadn't come on in a game where we were on top but unthreatening. With the gale behind our backs in the second-half a Podolski exocet from the edge of the box might have made the difference. When the ball dropped to him at West Ham he showed what a sweet striker of the ball he is. Regular readers will know I'm a huge Podolski fan and I have never understood the notion (largely created by the anti-Arsenal jokers in the media) that he has been some kind of flop. A look at his goals and assists stats, per games played, tell you how effective he is. He is also an incredibly popular member of this squad with the other players. He seems to be the joker in the dressing room and is always smiling. Podolski is an Eboue with ability, if you like. His presence could be huge in the second half of this season.
Yesterday was a completely different performance and was, in some ways, even more satisfying. Tiote clearly wanted to turn midfield in to a battleground and made at least four bookable fouls in the first-half alone (though only one of them was deemed worthy of a free-kick by the referee). Williamson should also have been looking nervously over his shoulder for a terrible over the top foul on Olivier Giroud. With it being that sort of game it's fair to say that the midfield selection helped Arsenal. A trio of Flamini, Wilshere and Rosicky was unlikely to take a step back in a battle, while Per Mertesacker was fairly imperious at the back (I feel sorry for Thomas Vermaelen who might well have kept his place ahead of Koscielny but for illness).
I thought Tomas Rosicky was immense at Newcastle. For all that Ozil might pick a pass from Heaven every now and again he does not give the hard work and energy that Rosicky provided yesterday. He was a genuine help to the tireless Giroud up front, constantly backing up the Frenchman in the chasing down stakes and that set the tone. Arsenal defended from the front thanks to Rosicky. When he got the ball he was running at people and making things happen. Mesut Ozil is more than capable of all these things but he is seemingly yet to realise that he needs to put in that effort if he's going to dominate in this country. When Ozil went nose to nose with Ivanovic last Monday he showed that he has the bottle to go with his skill. I hope he took note of how Tomas Rosicky played yesterday and realises he must do the same. While I'm on this subject I think the fact that Tomas was preferred to Santi Cazorla as the direct replacement for Ozil shows that Santi is moving down the pecking order. I fully expect Cazorla to not be at Arsenal next season.
The winning goal at Newcastle was not only huge for Arsenal, but also for the goalscorer himself. I read that Giroud had not scored in 11 games before yesterday. That is poor for any striker. He has not been without chances in those games (and he missed another sitter yesterday shortly after we scored) but his header yesterday was perfect, as was the delivery from Theo Walcott. People have said recently that Giroud was suddenly lacking confidence in front of goal. If that is the case then any goal he gets is only going to restore that confidence.
If Arsenal can beat Cardiff on Wednesday then we will have taken ten points from four games in just nine days over Christmas. That would represent an exceptional festive period given that we would have played Chelsea and two tricky away fixtures in that time. Following the City game if someone told you that we might be in that position I think we'd have taken it. Of course beating Cardiff is still a big "if". It's one of those games which last seasons Arsenal really struggled in. Every time they were expected to beat someone comfortably they invariably failed to do so. Cardiff are in such disarray that they must be there for the taking. What the players must not do is take them for granted. The Manager must ensure that doesn't happen. I fully expect some rotation in the team, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be up for the win. Podolski or Bendtner may well come in for Giroud, while Walcott, Mertesacker or Sagna could also get a rest. Whatever team Arsenal put out it ought to have enough to beat Cardiff. They just need to come out and make themselves worthy of the win.
I'll be writing the annual mid-season review tomorrow and it should be posted at some point in the afternoon or early evening.