Arsene Wenger took a risk by picking Arsenal’s old guard for their clash against West Ham United on Tuesday, but it paid off with a 3-1 win for the Gunners that saw the weary side regain fourth place in the Premier League.
The Frenchman fielded a team with an average age of 29 at the Emirates Stadium that featured 27-year-old Olivier Giroud as the youngest outfield player, as he banked on his golden oldies to get a result.
Renowned for developing young players, Wenger this time opted for a wealth of experience to overcome a stubborn West Ham and wrestle back the fourth and final UEFA Champions League qualification spot from Everton, who are a point behind with a game in hand.
“It was a gamble,” Wenger told a news conference. “I said before the game it was the oldest team that I have ever played at Arsenal since I’ve been here.”
Although the Gunners coach fielded a team with an average age of 30 against Leeds United in 2003, his point was valid.
“I trusted the experience of the players,” Wenger said. “Tonight it was an unusual around 30 [years of age] team and that experience helps when your backs are against the wall.”
Arsenal reached the FA Cup final on Saturday on penalties against second-tier holders Wigan Athletic, but, without a win in four league games and with the semi-final having taken its toll, Wenger decided older heads were needed against West Ham.
Arsenal came from behind on Tuesday as Lukas Podolski’s double inspired the vital 3-1 win over West Ham, alleviating the Gunners’ danger of failing to reach Europe’s elite club competition for the first time in 17 years.
Their European bid looked in dire straits when Matthew Jarvis struck for the visitors late in the first half, but the shock revitalized a previously lethargic Arsenal and German forward Podolski equalized minutes later before France striker Giroud put them ahead soon after the interval.
Podolski’s second in the closing stages sealed Arsenal’s victory and lifted the north Londoners above Everton, although Roberto Martinez’s men are still in pole position as they would have reclaimed fourth by drawing or winning at home to Crystal Palace yesterday.
Wenger made five changes from the team that just barely got past Wigan on Saturday, with Swedish midfielder Kim Kallstrom making his first start and Laurent Koscielny returning from injury.
The Gunners had been underwhelming for long periods after their Wembley Stadium win over Wigan, prompting Wenger to suggest his team were guilty of complacency and there were few signs of improvement in the early stages against the Hammers.
When they did get behind the West Ham rearguard thanks to Santi Cazorla’s defense-splitting pass, Giroud, back in the starting lineup after being left out of the Cup semi-final, could only flick a tame effort straight at Adrian.
It seemed Arsenal might pay the price for that miss when Sam Allardyce’s team took the lead in the 40th minute courtesy of Jarvis’ goal, but the Gunners pulled level in the 44th, after which West Ham became the architects of their own demise.
A poor clearance from Stewart Downing from his team’s throw-in fell to Cazorla, who slipped a lovely pass to Podolski to fire a superb low strike past Adrian for his ninth goal of the season.
Wenger’s men now had the platform to play with more freedom and went ahead 10 minutes after the break thanks to a moment of inspiration from Giroud when Thomas Vermaelen lofted a high ball into the penalty area and Giroud held off Winston Reid and Andy Carroll to lash home from close range.
Giroud celebrated his 20th goal of the season by paying tribute to the 96 fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster by kissing his black armband and pointing to the sky.
Podolski sealed the Gunners’ eighth straight win over West Ham in emphatic fashion, driving home a lethal finish after Giroud and substitute Aaron Ramsey combined to open up the visitors’ defense in the 78th minute.
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