After a convincing win in the North London derby and less than convincing procession to the Europa League quarter finals, West Ham posed a different test.
It’s one thing to still be vying for a place in the Top Four in November or December – Spurs were even hilariously billed as “title contenders” in this time – but it’s by no means down to luck that West Ham are still on the cusp. It was all the more surprising that for whatever reason, Arsenal didn’t seem to appreciate this difference if the opening 32 minutes were anything to go by.
The fixture was an opportunity to build some momentum in the league. Too many times this season, good results have been immediately followed by bad performances. The win against United on 1st November saw Arsenal then take 2 points from their next 7 games until the Boxing Day win against Chelsea. What we got yesterday was a “return to tinkering”; no longer content with either/or, both Lacazette and Aubameyang were shoehorned onto the pitch at the same time, along with two changes in defence. The changes alone were hardly enough to explain the capitulation; in reality, Arsenal were simply second-best in every department.
The writing was on the wall even before the inevitable Jesse Lingard goal, which I’m at least partly responsible for but it wasn’t until West Ham’s third that Arsenal even hauled themselves off the starting block. The frequency at which Arteta’s Arsenal are forced into these reactionary, seemingly no-win-scenario situations is incredibly frustrating as a fan, and yet time and again, they come back fighting. It makes it difficult to commit to a full-blown lambasting because there’s always a silver lining and I don’t know what to make of that.
Arsenal’s first response wasn’t down to luck, they just woke up. I once had a teacher say to me at school that there are two paths to success; being motivated to actually succeed and fear of failure. More often than not, it feels like this team leans towards the latter and their true colours come out when their backs are against the wall. It feels like a blessing and a curse; fear sent them into pandemonium when Spurs went down to 10 men, but suffering setbacks, both in terms of results and even in the span of 90 minutes, has sometimes brought out the best in them.
Looking at where it all went wrong before it went right, I don’t really have any complaints for the first. Antonio running at Luiz isn’t an ideal matchup, and Luiz was probably right to back off but the cleverly disguised pass was too quick for Chambers to intercept and the control and finish were both brilliant in fairness. This was the point at which a response was needed, because the goal had been coming and usually, going behind once is the catalyst to get back into the game.
West Ham clearly had other ideas, but once again, the biggest threat to Arsenal.. was Arsenal. Five players not looking at the ball, no one standing over it. It’s fair to say that Jon Moss waddling over with his foam spray while talking to Saka might have lulled them into a false sense of security, and quickly-taken free kicks seem to hinge purely on the discretion of the official on that particular day which makes them difficult to predict, but someone has to be alert there. To make matters worse, it was really, really poor from Leno to be beaten at his near post like that. The shot wasn’t even particularly well hit and it was only a continuation of his poor form of late.
The third was just as bad given the shear number of offenders. Sloppily given away by Tierney, not closed down by Aubameyang who curtailed his press for some reason, Luiz was beaten by Antonio because he was too static and Soucek slipped between to flick it on. Periods of dominance are, simply put, a result of whoever’s winning more duels. Arsenal’s problem was the accumulation and overwhelming majority being won by West Ham, and the 3-0 lead was absolutely deserved.
While a response of some kind should have come earlier, the timing of Lacazette’s deflected effort was integral to the fightback, because the circumstances always feel different if you go into half time with nothing to your name. I’m resigned to reduce his effort to an own goal, as much as it was, because I thought he did brilliantly to control Chamber’s cross and get a shot away quickly. Wide though it was, he was rewarded for being sharp. He was also able to cleverly slip in Saka moments later, but a lack of composure delayed the fightback. While Ødegaard was instrumental in every Arsenal did well, and was the only one who looked switched on in the early capitulation, Lacazette deserves real praise for his work. Creative on the ball, clinical when he needed to be and he was always willing to drop deeper to provide options for Partey and Ødegaard.
There was also the curious case of Calum Chambers, a player whom commentators are unable to speak about without also mentioning the one time he had a bad game. I still don’t know what to make of him as a player, or where his best position is. I thought he was very good at centre back for a period under Emery and has qualities suited to Arteta’s approach in that area, but also had a solid loan by all accounts at Fulham, largely as a holding midfielder, Yesterday took him back to his roots as a full back, and you wouldn’t think it was only his 2nd Premier League start of the season. He was always available on the right flank, bombing up and down without a problem and with a little more ambition from players gambling in the box, his deliveries would have produced more. His cross for the second left Dawson without an option with Aubameyang breathing down his neck. He even threw in some flair when the opportunity presented itself, almost like he could hear Carragher jokingly comparing him to Cafu, with that deliciously clipped ball over the top to Lacazette with the outside of his boot. It’s also just occurred to me that he has quite a penchant for using the outside of his right boot, because he’s scored not once but twice in the same manner.
The main man to thank however, was Martin Ødegaard who produced his best performance yet in an Arsenal shirt. His influence has been growing game by game, and was immediately obvious when he came on to shore things up against Olympiakos. Yesterday provided a different opportunity to showcase his talent without Smith Rowe alongside in the double-8, because he was expected to be the main focal point of creativity and did just that. Considering the ambition and constant threat he presented with his distribution, he still came away with a pass completion of 93% and was heavily involved in all three goals after assuming responsibility as the puppet master. I don’t know how we sign him permanently or for how much but he seems to be the real deal.
There were changes that should have come sooner and that’s a familiar theme when it comes to Arteta. On the one hand, it was the same set of players that went 3-0 down as those that clawed the game back but there were drivers and passengers. At any rate, the changes had the desired effect and despite being left with work to do after a slightly overhit pass from Ødegaard, Pépé’s weak-footed cross was inch-perfect for Lacazette who got the goal he deserved.
From the start of the fightback, it was still far from a one-sided affair. Antonio hitting the post from point-blank range was the best of the bunch but West Ham had several other opportunities to score, just as Arsenal did. The difference between the two teams was the manner in which they conceded, with Arsenal’s extreme variance between “good” and “bad” coming in stark contrast to West Ham simply succumbing to the relentless pressure. Still incapable of staying focused for 90 minutes and still haunted by individual errors, there’s no clear solution. I’m just glad we have some spine and some players that can make a difference when it matters.
After the game, Arteta summed up the problems at hand by saying “that’s what keeps me awake. It’s happened too many times too often. At that level you cannot do that because the margins are not so big.”
Familiar story, familiar words. That’s not to be glib – I’m sure he’s far more frustrated than I or anyone else is but I can’t think of another team in the Premier League that so routinely displays such extremes. And that’s about the size of it.