Analysis: A knockout performance that ticked the boxes
While they may not have won as emphatically as they might have liked, there were plenty of positives to take from West Ham United’s Emirates FA Cup third-round win over Birmingham City.
As manager Manuel Pellegrini pointed out, Marko Arnautovic scored a goal and was not seriously injured, despite his first-half withdrawal, Andy Carroll also found the net, Samir Nasri impressed on his debut, the Hammers kept a clean sheet and youngster Declan Rice, Xande Silva and Grady Diangana all caught the eye.
It was no surprise to see Arnautovic score again, bravely and instinctively heading home after Lee Camp had saved Angelo Ogbonna’s initial effort, but the moments leading up to the goal were refreshing to anyone of a Claret and Blue persuasion.
On his full debut, Portuguese youngster Xande Silva produced the first of a number of encouraging moments, beating his man on the outside before testing Camp with a well-struck low shot which the Blues goalkeeper could only turn around the post for the corner which ultimately produced Arnautovic’s opener.
The 21-year-old, signed from Vitoria Guimaraes in the summer, was always available to receive the ball, seldom hesitated when he had the opportunity to take on right-back Wes Harding, drifted inside on occasion and combined well with Nasri and Arthur Masuaku, among others.
Rice, meanwhile, continued to enhance his reputation with another assured display in a central defensive midfield position.
Not only was his tackling perfectly-timed, as usual, but the teenager had clearly heeded the advice of club captain Mark Noble to expand his range of passing.
One ball, in particular, cut out a man and found Michail Antonio in space on the right, saving vital seconds and creating a crossing chance for Arthur Masuaku that could easily have led to a second West Ham goal.
It is perhaps the greatest testament to Rice that his impressive, composed and influential performances are now the norm. If he were to play badly, it would be an unexpected surprise.
Fellow Academy graduate Diangana, meanwhile, was another who showed promise, seeing one shot deflected narrowly wide and troubling left-back Maxime Colin repeatedly with his pace and ability to go both ways.
Perhaps the 20-year-old’s best moment came in his own half, though, as he used strength and tenacity to hold off his man before using his acceleration and dribbling ability to bring the ball away from danger.
At the other end of the experience spectrum, 31-year-old Nasri showed he had lost none of his technical ability, despite spending a year away from the game through suspension.
The Frenchman was everywhere in the final third, drifting from his nominal No10 position to either flank to link up with anyone he could find.
While he will face tougher opponents than Birmingham over the next few months, Nasri’s 58-minute appearance will have West Ham fans excited by the prospect of what is to come, particularly when a combination of Felipe Anderson, Robert Snodgrass, Noble and the injured Manuel Lanzini are playing alongside him.
At the back, captain-for-the-day Adrian and his back four may have ceded chances to the Blues, but they kept Garry Monk’s 22-goal strikeforce of Lukas Jutkiewicz and Che Adams from adding to their impressive seasonal tally.
The Spaniard showed sure handling when he needed to and bravery late on, when he dived at the feet of Harding to smother the ball inside his own six-yard box.
In front of Adrian, Issa Diop and Angelo Ogbonna also put their bodies on the line when required, while full-backs Antonio and Masuaku combined defensive duties with a willingness to join the attack whenever they could.
Carroll, too, stuck to his task at both ends of the pitch, not allowing the frustration of missing a gilt-edged chance and hitting the crossbar with another to put him off his game.
The No9 not only powered home a trademark header in added time to settle any remaining nerves, but he also showed his value at the defensive end of the pitch with three clearances and a block in the space of 60 seconds with the Hammers holding just a one-goal lead.
All in all, it was as Pellegrini said afterwards, a knockout victory that ticked all the relevant boxes and, as a result, West Ham continue to down the road they hope will end at Wembley in May.