Welbeck steers Arsenal past West Ham, into Carabao Cup semifinal
LONDON -- Three thoughts on Arsenal's 1-0 win vs. West Ham in the Carabao Cup quarterfinal.
1. Gunners reach the last four
Danny Welbeck's scrappy first-half goal kept alive Arsene Wenger's hopes of winning this competition for the first time, even though this performance was hardly that of title-winners.
Welbeck bundled home from close range in the 42nd minute with one of just two quality chances the Gunners created, in what was a dull affair between two sides playing each other for the second time in six days. It was enough to put Arsenal into the Carabao Cup semifinals, a double-edged achievement that puts the team three games away from a trophy but also congests an already busy January schedule.
Arsenal have the squad depth to deal with that, though, as evidenced by Tuesday's line-up which featured 10 established first-teamers and only one youngster in Joe Willock, despite Wenger making 11 changes from last Wednesday's 0-0 draw vs. the same opponents at the London Stadium.
Willock formed a midfield trio with Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny, leaving Arsenal without a natural playmaker. And it showed in an opening period devoid of quality chances at either end until the 39th minute, when Sead Kolasinac sent in a perfect cross to Theo Walcott who, despite being unmarked, opted for a difficult diving header that went harmlessly wide.
It was a finish that summarized Walcott's contributions up to that point, as his decision making and accuracy left something to be desired.
But Arsenal, who have struggled to convert a multitude of chances in the Premier League recently, needed one more to find the opener. Coquelin's ball over the top was headed into the six-yard box by right-back Mathieu Debuchy and, after Welbeck and Olivier Giroud both failed to connect, Welbeck reacted well to bundle Joe Hart.
West Ham brought on Andy Carroll and Marko Arnautovic in the second half as they searched for an equaliser, but David Ospina was never really troubled in the Arsenal goal.
2. Mixed night for Arsenal's second stringers
This competition has traditionally been about getting a glimpse of the future for Arsenal but, this season, it's more of a chance for unwanted veterans to prove they still have a place in Wenger' near-term plans.
None of them made a very convincing case, though, on this occasion; despite pace up front in the form of Walcott and Welbeck, the build-up play was slow and laborious, constantly lacking in imagination and incisiveness.
Walcott struggled to seize his chance and rarely seemed to be on the same page as his teammates. Once again he wore the captain's armband, but that felt like a consolation for not making the bench in recent league matches, something that's unlikely to change barring injuries.
There was some promise for the future in defence, though. Centre-backs Calum Chambers and Rob Holding started together in a back four for the first time this season and looked composed and confident against Andre Ayew. They may have been relieved to see the more physical Carroll on the bench, but held their own against the towering striker when he came on for the last 25 minutes.
Ironically, this win could actually decrease the chances of Wenger sanctioning a January move for the likes of Giroud, Walcott or Debuchy, at least until after the two semifinal legs have been played.
3. West Ham can focus on the league
David Moyes said before this game that a place in the last four would "definitely boost the club and everything we do, 100 percent." In reality, though, defeat won't be difficult to get over for the improving Hammers, who can do without the extra January fixtures that a two-legged semifinal would have meant.
Moyes has guided the team to impressive wins over Chelsea and Stoke, along with the draw vs. Arsenal, in their last three league fixtures. With the team still trying to gain distance from the relegation battle amid a hectic holiday schedule, the Carabao Cup could have served as a distraction rather than added motivation.
Moyes' priorities were clear for all to see on the team sheet, with Arnautovic on the bench and Michail Antonio rested completely. Still, this was a slightly more ambitious side compared to a week ago, when West Ham put 10 men behind the ball for most of the match.
But without Arnautovic for most of the game, they sorely lacked a creative spark and a solid threat up front. Hernandez made his first start since Nov. 4 after his recent return from an injury but had little in terms of service.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.