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Jan 20, 2013

Signs of classic Arsenal in demolition

For now, reports of Arsenal's demise can be considered exaggerated. Arsene Wenger's pedigree as a manager ought to negate the urge to suggest that his project is finally at its end even if recent signs have been damning. The post-mortems are on hold for now. History should have provided caution against premature obituaries.

A year ago, a Harry Redknapp-led Tottenham were streets ahead, finally able to assume primacy in North London. By the end of the season, Wenger was being acclaimed for powers of recovery and an unbending faith in his players. Spurs still finished in the top four, but they and their manager fell through the booby trap of Chelsea winning the Champions League.

Chelsea are again a fly in the North London ointment, a known unknown led by an unpopular manager; Everton a fresh arrival on the scene, who may yet be sunk by an inability to turn draws into wins. After a gleeful destruction of West Ham, Arsenal are back breathing down the necks of fellow contenders for the Champions League.

The 'classic Arsenal' their fans celebrate is the free-flowing salvos of four goals that took the game away from the Hammers in seven minutes. There was evidence of the other 'classic Arsenal' in the first half, as West Ham seized on poor defensive organisation but positive classicism won out.

"Great movement, great quality in our final ball and combination play," enthused a visibly pleased Wenger, happy that recent bad days against Chelsea and Manchester City are behind him.

"I worry that sometimes they are inhibited in the big games from the start," he continued. "But this team has a fantastic mentality and good quality."

Jack Wilshere's early clash with Jack Collison had the home crowd gasping in fear as the Gunner collapsed to the floor clutching his ankle. A motionless form encouraged anxiety but recovery was thankfully quick. To play in the Champions League for the 16th straight season, Arsenal need their best player, and Wilshere is already that man. Assuming a deep-lying role that Mikel Arteta made his own before his recent injury, Wilshere thrived on full involvement in the heart of midfield.

The player Wilshere most resembles is the one we once all expected Joe Cole to be. Despite his equalising goal at the weekend, Sam Allardyce was clearly in no mood to select a luxury player not yet meeting his expected Pro-Zone read-outs. A comparison of the pair at the same age - Cole left West Ham at the 21 years of age that Wilshere is now - would suggest that the younger model possesses more tenacity and speed, though they share a need to increase their goal power.

Cole, an unused sub here as his team suffered injuries, always coveted a central role but was never trusted there at Chelsea or Liverpool. Wilshere, dovetailing sweetly with Santi Cazorla, already struts as if there is no other place for him than central. He has an altogether tougher disposition than his predecessor as England's great hope. Together, Wilshere and Cazorla set up the moves that breezed Arsenal into utter dominance.

But first came the set-back, something Arsenal are hardly known for dealing with. Collison, a player who has shared similar injury problems to his Arsenal namesake, smashed home from the edge of the area after powder-puff defending of a corner. A classic Allardyce goal in that it resulted from a second ball, Arsenal's weaknesses laid bare.

Arsenal's lack of command of the crossed ball is no trade secret and Allardyce, long a thorn in Wenger's side and rather proud of it too, was keen to exploit it. Despite some first-half scares, the limited plan did not work, since West Ham's defence, badly missing James Collins, was far, far more vulnerable. The game was lost in a fateful period.

"A horrible 12 minutes for us and a brilliant 12 minutes for Arsenal," said Allardyce. "My strategy was working brilliantly and completely fell apart in the second half. They completely tore us apart in that period."

Lukas Podolski has not yet produced a consistent body of work. He looks a player capable of great goals rather than being a great goalscorer but his contribution here was match-winning.

The German's quickfire equaliser was drilled with ferocious power - "an unbelievable shot," according to his manager - and he supplied three assists: one each for Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Walcott as the game was swiftly won at the start of the second half. Podolski left the field to a standing ovation, the happy mood reflected by the warm welcome extended to imminent disaster Andre Santos. "He took responsibility at a time we most needed it," said Wenger. Giroud, culpable at Chelsea, celebrated two smart finishes and a night of quality line-leading.

Allardyce's team, since a keynote win against Chelsea on December 1, are badly off-form and beginning to look nervously over their shoulders. Injury the following week against Liverpool robbed them of Mohamed Diame, the midfielder Arsenal may or may not trigger a release clause for, according to which transfer tavern you drink in.

Diame was on the bench, alongside Alou Diarra, a former France captain who this week described his six months at Upton Park as "a waste of time" and like a "prison". Diarra arrived on the field at 5-1, booed on by his team's fans, with damage prevention the limit of his brief. A little later, Diame was clapped on by both sets of fans but a re-arranged Christmas game offered little belated festive cheer for Scroogle-like Sam. "It's the worst 45 minutes I've suffered this season," he lamented.

Despite no goals after the 57th minute, Arsenal spirits stayed high, on a red-letter day for two players in Giroud and Podolski with previous doubts against their names. Questions should remain if they, and other previously under-performing team-mates, can thrive in a more testing environment than thumping underpowered West Ham. However, Arsenal had enjoyed their football for the first time in a while. And all ballboys survived unscathed too.

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