West Ham give Arsenal space to breathe

If I were a West Ham supporter I’d be livid with that second half performance against Arsenal. Sitting where West Ham are, in a relegation battle, the midfield dried up, the defense looked like it had just been slapped together, and worst of all, the players didn’t close down space or even remotely challenge the Arsenal players when they had the ball. It was an insipid performance by West Ham, and it was also exactly what Arsenal needed.

The Hammers did well in the first half, keeping the game tight and half a clean sheet. Hammers took the ball away from Arsenal’s forwards, causing Ozil to lose the ball 5 times in the first half, Alexis 4 times, and Walcott 3. As a result, Arsenal couldn’t get penetration and only managed 2 shots on target, one from Walcott in the 14th minute where he was left in acres of space, and the other an excellent header from Welbeck off an Özil corner.

After the match Walcott was asked if something was said at half-time and he laughed, saying that what’s said in the locker stays in the locker. And as the second half kicked of there was a slightly better air about the Arsenal as they knocked the ball about. But all of Arsenal’s shots between the second half kickoff and the goal were from outside the box. And we are talking just four shots in 13 minutes. Arsenal weren’t coming out gangbusters, in fact West Ham had 72 touches to Arsenal’s 119 in those first 13 minutes.

What actually happened is that West Ham kind of just… gave up. Arsenal have five players in the box. Fonte gives a half-clearance and Özil collects at the edge of the box. Kouyate doesn’t even remotely challenge Özil, and Özil just pops the ball across goal, taking a skip along the way. The softest 18+ yard goal you will see all season.

I’m not trying to sound like sour grapes, I’m glad that Özil scored, and overjoyed that the whole team came over and gave each other a hug and slap on the fanny, but man, I would hate to see the banners, vans, letters, and panto protests at the Arsenal training grounds if we let in a goal like that. And not only that, I’m absolutely certain I’d be writing 1,000 words right now about how Alexis Sanchez was offside and interfering with the keeper on that goal.*

West Ham had conceded a wide open chance to Theo Walcott in the first half, here’s the screen cap:

But that was pretty rare in the first, in the second, those chances would flow like whine from the President’s twitter feed.

Here’s Welbeck getting on the end of one:

And here’s Xhaka’s long range bomb, note that literally no one is near him in the middle of the pitch, again I shudder to think how Arsenal TV would light up if we played defense like this.

The king daddy of not closing down, however, was when Alexis put the ball on a plate for Bellerin in the 6 yard box, who pushed his shot just wide. Alexis has this strange relationship with defenders this season where at times they will just stand off him as he stands still with the ball and waits for the play to develop. He’s then allowed to clip the ball in to his teammates or as Wenger and the Daily Mail suggest “turns the ball over.” On this play, Ayew does nothing to close the space and feebly puts a leg out on the cross, Bellerin is unmarked for his run, and the best chance of the match was spurned by the Spanish right back.

After a defensive display like that Arsenal were bound to score, though ironically, the second goal was scored in a crowd.

Alexis and Özil did a little razzle-dazzle on the corner of the box and Özil looked to return the ball to Alexis. But instead Walcott was on the end and did a fantastic job to score in a crowd, 2-0 to the Arsenal.

And Arsenal finished off the Hammers with yet another wide open shot, this time from super-sub Olivier Giroud. Ox dribbled past the West Ham midfield with ease, dumped off to Giroud, who simply stopped, popped, and dropped it in. On his way back gets a little skin. From the hand of the man named AC Green, slams so high breaks your TV screen.**

It wouldn’t have been an Arsenal match without some late scares and Manuel Lanzini provided. Lanzini had his way with the Arsenal midfield, making 9/13 dribbles, taking three shots, setting up a teammate’s shot, making 90% of his passes, and only turning the ball over three times. Arsenal’s two most dribbled players on the day were Elneny, who made just 2/6 tackles and Xhaka who was just 4/8, both were victims of Lanzini’s dribble-fest.

Many people lauded the midfield pairing of Elneny and Xhaka (especially Xhaka not getting a card) and there is some merit to that praise: Wenger called Elneny generous which is true, he generously moves and passes back to people who pass to him. Elneny’s movement and ability with the ball also frees Xhaka up to create a bit more and Xhaka actually led all players with 122 passes, including 4 key passes and 1 through ball. But Lanzini waltzing through those two without any resistance is not going to work against opposition who have come to play football.

West Ham’s second half performance was so terrible that Arsenal probably deserved to win 5-0. Nacho Monreal was fouled twice in the box, both times his foot was stepped on and both times referee Martin Atkinson waved his arms as if there were no foul. I’ve mentioned his record before but Atkinson is quickly setting out his stall as the new Mike Dean: like Dean, who awards a lot of penalties, he has only awarded Arsenal 2 penalties since 2010. That’s 2 penalties awarded in 32 matches (all competitions). This is a referee who averages a penalty awarded every 4 matches. Conversely he has awarded 9 penalties to the opposition in that same time. That means on average he awards a penalty every 2.5 matches for the opposition and every 16 matches for Arsenal. I’m going to sit over here in America holding my breath waiting for the FA inquiry into why Atkinson is yet another of these officials who has an unusual record when it comes to Arsenal. Especially in light of Monreal getting stomped on twice.

There’s an old saying about how you can only beat the team in front of you. Never was that more true than in every game ever played in the history of sport. It was also true yesterday.

The next team in front of Arsenal is Crystal Palace and with Sam Allardyce and his goblet of wine they will provide much stiffer competition.


*Watch the replay, Alexis sticks his foot out, making what looks like a play for the ball. That’s offside, folks. (On further review, I am convinced that Alexis Sanchez was not only offside but committed a red card foul).
**Back to back that’s a badass fact, a claim that remains intact.


  1. Tim, take another look at the replay. The video itself doesn’t seem to record time, but at 58:00 to 58:04 on the game clock. Alexis has started his run pretty damn deep.

    At 58:02, if not the closest defender to him (no.22), the defender on the shorter edge of the box up north has definitely played him on. Theo might be offside, if anyone, but he hasn’t interfered with play.

    A lot of effort for a throwaway moment, but then we have enough shit to deal with without also denying ourselves these half moments of happiness.

  2. FaKE NEwS! SAd!
    Just kidding, but if you look at 43 sec, Sanchez is played onside by two players.

    But seriously, if Atkinson isn’t fired or publicly rebuked and demoted then the default explanation has to be corruption at PGMOL. That referee performance was breathtakingly bad.

    And if the PGMOL is conspiring against our manager and our club then there’s no way I’m going to join WOB.

  3. 1. What everyone else has already said!
    2. I would bet you all the dunkin donuts in New England that Ozil meant that pass to go to Walcott (though of course we could never settle this particular bet, as we can’t get inside Ozil’s head (at least not without lots of blood)).

  4. I think I am going to go with 22 playing Alexis onside
    Even if he were offside there have been more egregious interfering with play against us not given to get too worried about more incompetence.
    We all know that the errors dont even up over a season but even if they did why would you want 5 bad errors on each side instead of a competently refereed game. I am minded of the Boro game in that dire run after Eduardo was assaulted – it sticks in the mind as one of the few games I took my wife too. She was shocked at the lack of decisions that should have been given to the Arsenal. For those more regularly at games the reaction was ‘Meh, more incompetence in the black’

  5. I just watched the first goal again in super slow mo and Alexis was definitely onside with two defenders in front of him. Darren Randolph starts moving as soon as the ball leaves Ozil’s feet and he is watching the ball all the way through. The ball is past Sanchez before it even drops on the ground so there is no interference. The appeal by the keeper at the end is an obvious attempt to hide his mistake.

    The Martin Atkinson stat is one that definitely raises an eyebrow. Here is another example of how stats can be used to smooth out some of the human errors in the game. Even if Atkinson’s skewed stats aren’t out of bias or something more sinister, using stats to stop referees from officiating in games of teams where these skewed stats are showing up may go some ways in addressing the issue.

  6. Incredible how I can write an entire article on one, rather controversial, topic and the comments are on an aside I raised.

    You people are easily distracted.

  7. What’s controversial? That we haven’t been playing well? That WHU are the football equivalent of a tomato can? That Atkinson smells bent?

    We’ve had so little joy lately that anyone trying to deny us the pleasure of this win is going to get pushed back.

  8. Meh, Tim, while I don’t disagree that this game was more about West ham sucking than about us being great, it’s also a bit churlish to harp on about that. On the balance of chances this was another 5-1 game, we left 2 goals at least on the pitch in the first half. Also Ollie’s finish was pure class. Just imagine if Zlatan scores that goal, match of the day would be gushing over it and and not all like “meh, Giroud scored because west ham suck.”

    Also, there is no excuse for Atkinson on the Monreal penalties.

    I think it’s too early to talk about corners being turned but you can’t help but feel the worst is now behind us. Also, Man City lost and Liverpool have Mane out for the season. We can still make the CL places.

  9. Interesting comments today from Wenger about what he liked in the Xhaka-Elneny partnership, namely the tempo of their pass-and-move combinations. I’ve said for a while that this is the one thing that Elneny really brings to the table that the other options don’t (perhaps along with his stamina, though Ramsey also has that), and it’s why I think he can form a great partnership with Xhaka. If our midfield can move the ball much more quickly (and accurately!) on a regular basis, we can break through opponents’ defensive lines and get the ball to our danger men further upfield where they can do damage against any back four. His comments also may have been intended as a none-too-subtle message to some other, more high-profile, midfielders in the squad (Ramsey and Ox): move the ball more quickly, or find yourselves on the bench.

    The problem is, as many of us have said for a while, Elneny is a lightweight defensively. He gets back into good positions, but his tackling is almost nonexistent, and he gets shrugged off the ball (both when he has it, and when he’s trying to win it) way too easily. I think he’ll improve in these areas if given a run of games–at least he’s more likely to than, e.g., Coquelin is likely to learn how to play possession football–but the question is can he improve enough against better opposition? I think if we could fuse Coquelin and Elneny together, we’d have almost the perfect partner for Xhaka (almost, because neither is a great dribbler, but we have others for that). And this isn’t some pie-in-the-sky idea like finding a combination of Messi and Yaya, or finding a combination of Ronaldo and Xavi: neither Coquelin nor Elneny are extraordinary players, so we SHOULD be able to find one affordable player out there, in all of Europe, who combines their best attributes (Elneny’s mobility, passing, football brain; Coquelin’s interceptions, tackling, tigerish aggression (at least when he’s in form)).

    Anyway, I mostly agree with Tim that West Ham were softies and “let us play” and that we’ll have much sterner tests in the coming weeks, but then, given how low confidence in the squad was going into this game, it’s to be expected now that we can build on this win and play in the same way but better as the challenges become greater going forward. An encouraging start, anyway, and I think it started with Xhaka and Elneny.

    1. Yes that weakness is why we will get found out against opponents who actually want to attack us but at least there was a measure of discipline against West Ham and it didn’t look as disjointed.

      I think we have to move Ozil to the left when we play Spurs and United. He is not going to find space in the middle vs. those teams like he did against the Hammers. Add Ramsey to a midfield 3, let Alexis lead the line and play either Welbeck/Theo on the right. Alternately, we could keep Ozil in his role and put Ramsey on the right instead of Theo and let him come drift inside to support the midfield but we do run the risk of exposing the right flank. Basically the idea here is to build on this partnership and add Ramsey in the mix to help out defensively (he is not a bad tackler) against better opposition.

      1. I agree with everything you’ve said, except the Ramsey bit. I think an extra body in there (who’s at least willing/able to mix it up physically and put a tackle in) will help against better teams so Ozil should be pushed forward and one of either Walcott or Welbeck (or maybe both, if Perez ever gets healthy and gets a chance) should be sacrificed. Personally, I’d keep Welbeck in for his size, versatility, and athleticism, over Walcott in the big games, in spite of Theo’s impressive goal scoring.
        But I think the Ox has done WAY more this season to suggest he deserves a spot in a midfield three than has Ramsey, who continues to underwhelm and yet somehow keeps getting chance after chance (Ox was as poor as Ramsey against West Brom (but so was everyone else), but otherwise has been very good in the center). And Ox adds the powerful dribbling from deep that can be so vital in the modern game and which Xhaka/Elneny lack.
        Basically, I’ve lost patience with Ramsey, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my posts for the last 6 months.

        1. I have no problems with playing Ox over Ramsey but I suspect Wenger will pick Ramsey in the starting XI which is why I mentioned him. As a matter of fact, my take on our British core midfield is that Ramsey and Wilshere should both be sold in the summer and we should get one world class midfielder with the proceeds. We should try to hold on to Ox. I think he has the most potential among those three. He is also the most versatile, and that’s valuable.

          1. As much as I have a soft spot for Wilshere, I don’t disagree with any of that (especially since Jack doesn’t seem willing to just be a squad player and wait for his chance). Above average quantity over genuine world class quality is definitely a problem with the current squad. I even wonder whether the sheer number of youngish players with lots of “potential” has (along with injuries!) been an obstacle to any of them fully realizing their potential, since they’ve effectively been competing against each other for a regular starting position (this is not to excuse these players, and AW, for their chronic underperforming). If, e.g., Ramsey and Jack are moved on, maybe the Ox will flourish.

    2. How about instead of us buying a plethora of cheap-ass, half formed midfielders, we pay top dollar for a top, complete midfielder? Flog Jack and Coquelin, pension off Santi who is done, and bring in world class quality. One (we’ll need two) can be a good player with a few miles left on the clock like an Arturo Vidal, another can be a badass youngster, like one of the Bender twins, perhaps

      1. The bender twins ain’t that great, and are hardly young any more. Like 26 or 27 I’m guessing?

      2. You’re missing the point. And the “perhaps”, deliberately stated. My alternative career as a scout didn’t work out, but I expect those at AFC to do theirs. I was also an advocate of buying Kante over Mahrez or Vardy, right at the end of last season. Get a good all-round midfielder with sound positional and defensive sense, and who’s a good tackler. That’s really the point.

        1. How am I “missing” the point? I didn’t address your main point one way or the other, and I’m certainly not opposed to it (as I said: “above average quantity over genuine world class quality is definitely a problem with the current squad”). I was just pointing out I don’t think the Benders are the right guys, though maybe the better one has finally stayed injury free and had a massive year at Leverkusen, but I haven’t heard anything to suggest that’s the case (I confess I don’t watch the Bundesliga regularly).
          I agree with nycgunner that we should try to sell two or even three of Ramsey, Coquelin, Wilshere, and Ox, and bring in one really top quality midfielder who can partner Xhaka, which to me means at a minimum they can cover lots of space, contribute defensively, and are much better on the ball than Coquelin, whether they’re an imposing colossus type (e.g. William Carvalho) or a smaller/energetic/dribbler type (e.g. Naby Keita).
          Personally I’d sell Ramsey (also think out of all of them we’re most likely to get a healthy sum for him), try to keep Ox, and sell one or the other or both of Jack and Coquelin depending on circumstances (identity of who we bring in, likelihood that Santi will ever be a contributing member of our squad again, willingness of Jack to stay and fight for his place, offers we get from buying clubs). If Ox and his agent make it virtually impossible for us to keep him, I’d push hard to keep Jack, as dribblers from central midfield are a precious commodity right now, and in Ox and Jack we have two of them with potential to get much better, who are English to boot (yes, I know they’ve as of yet failed to reach that potential, blah blah blah, etc etc). It would be insane for us to let them both go in one summer, unless we get big money for both, which we’re not going to get since we’ve failed to tie them down to longterm deals.

  10. I bought a Wilshere shirt in 2009 when he was still JW19 and a fellow gooner buddy made fun of me at that time saying that I was the only Arsenal fan in the world with a Jack Wilshere jersey. I, also have a soft spot for him as I would for any of our boys who has been brought up through our academy. It’s been somewhat of a mental sh8storm to reach a point where I am fine with him leaving.

    I don’t think the either of the Benders would make a good partner for Xhaka. Granted, I have not seen them play week in week out but I feel like I have seen enough to confidently say that they don’t really possess the skills that Xhaka lacks. I believe he needs a partner who makes up for his speed, is positionally disciplined and helps us keep possession – an eye for a good forward passes would be a bonus but not an absolute necessity. Kinda like an Elneny Coquelin combo but with better ball control.

  11. i don’t understand why anyone says that arsenal should sell aaron ramsey. how? it’s the same problem arsenal had when they couldn’t sell the likes of denilson and bendtner. ramsey is on a long contract at £100k a week! who’s going to match those wages? that’s the reason aaron ramsey will be an arsenal player for the foreseeable future. we don’t need to talk about that anymore.

    likewise, why is there so much talk about who to partner with xhaka? the real talk should be on how to eliminate his shortcomings. the problems xhaka has will remain relevant regardless of who partners him in midfield. arsenal need to make xhaka a better player.

    1. There will be a lot more interest in someone like Ramsey than we had for Denilson and Bendtner. He is way more marketable than those two. Also, there are plenty of clubs now in the premier league alone who will happily pay him 100k/ week.

      Xhaka will eventually become better. I have no doubts about that but there are are some things that you can’t change – his speed for e.g so it’s not a bad idea to find him a partner who compliments him. We have seen this time and time again so why not with Xhaka as well?

      1. plenty of clubs willing to pay £100k a week for ramsey? who? certainly not, “plenty of clubs”. there are those that would like to take aaron ramsey and there are those who could afford to pay his wages. i don’t think many clubs fit both molds. also, you have to be careful because what if it’s obvious you tried to sell him but failed? that could be a problem for the dressing room.

        it’s a good idea to find a complimentary partner for any player, not just xhaka. however, if not addressed, his shortcomings are still going to be a problem regardless of how complimentary his partner is. i don’t think it’s real to believe he and elneny is the way forward based on the strength of a decent performance against a bad west ham team. we’ll see.

  12. A German friend whose opinion on football I respect told me that from what he’s seen of him at Gladbach (a lot) Xhaka is exceptional, and in time, he’ll settle and be a terrific player for Arsenal.

    Reading some comments here on on other threads, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s a slow oaf, but can pass a bit. It’s his first season, folks. In a league that’s faster, and where a misstep can be costly. He also made the mistake of saying/thinking when he signed that the physicality suits his style. It does, unless the game is refereed by the awful Stephen Moss. He will settle, he will adapt, he will even thrive — because he is a superb heads-up central midfield orchestrator, the likes of which we haven’t had since Cesc Fabregas left, and a role Arteta filled successfully for about a season and a half, till injuries ad old age caught up with him. Koscielny had a forgettable first season as well, because he was out-of-step with the league.

    Speaking of Arteta, he wasn’t Usain Bolt either. But he had long experience of the premier league, was positionally outstanding, and read the high-tempo English game very well. A little like Mertesacker. Arteta played the Xhaka role, and when he played it well, his pace (or lack of it) was not an issue. Pace is great to have, but some darned good players — including some outstanding central midfielders — were not that quick. Pirlo, Fabregas, Arteta, Emmenuel Petit, Xabi Alonso… superb passers all, not particularly fast.

    Some superb water-carriers of recent vintage, Makelele and Dunga, weren’t fast either. Two central defenders I could spend all day watching were Rafael Marquez of Mexico and Barcelona, and Fernando Hierro of Real Madrid. They weren’t athletes like Hummels and Sergio Ramos, but their READING and interception play were absolutely drool-worthy.

    Xhaka’s pace is fine. His speed, for what he does, shouldn’t be an issue. The question is who you complement him with. You need an all-rounder, who can both destroy and use the ball, and yes, who is quick. Coquelin could be that guy if you clone him with Wilshere. Wilshere can be that guy if you clone with with Coquelin. Petit (and later Gilberto, who was also slow), had the once-in-a-generation excellence of Patrick Viera to complement their play. Some players who came and went showed the promise to be that all-rounder… Song in Van Persie’s golden season showed both toughness and good use of the ball (but was positionally indisciplined — the fans at home games kept screaming at him to get back), Flamini when he displaced Gilberto, and Lassana Diarra, the one that sadly got away, who had something about him — the makings of an exceptional all round Arsenal midfielder.

    Xhaka will come good.

  13. On a related note, I watched the Bayern/Dortmund game today. Some thoughts.

    Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal played at the base of the midfield. Xabi did his thing of knitting play, and you hardly noticed him. Vidal caught the eye. He was everywhere, tackling, passing, tidying up, snuffing out. They complemented each other perfectly. What’s more, both were recently two old(ish) men of football who had been on the market. Which makes PFo’s comment on age a curious one.

    Were we in for either? I don’t know. Im not even saying that transfer would have been possible, but either one of them (Vidal more than Alonso) can do a job for us for a time, maybe a couple of years. This is the standard. Not Coquelin.

    Two, one passage of play made me go completely cold on the much hyped Ousmane Dembele. Stationed in the Dortmund wall for the Lewandowski free-kick, he DUCKED. Yes, he ducked a ball he could have stood still and headed, Lewa kicked it straight over his head and the goalie had no chance on a side that his wall should have been protecting. We need fighters at Arsenal. We have far too many pretty artists who can’t tackle, or are afraid to put their head where it can hurt. Pass.

    Thomas Tuchel could probably feel my adoring eyes through the TV. He’s a tracksuit man, like Klopp. Like Wenger, he clearly pays close attention to personal diet and fitness. Come or Arsene. Do the decent thing, and let’s have a taste of Tom.

    1. vidal and alonso have always been better than everyone at the base of arsenal’s midfield. likewise, it’s not their age that’s relevant, it’s their experience and leadership compared to the arsenal’s lack of experience and leadership in midfield. experience winning tough games is how you win championships, not just talent. this is why, when cazorla’s injury happened, i’ve declared that arsenal would miss his experience more than his talent and that arsenal would not win the league.

      speaking of experience and tuchel, he’s deliberately handicapped dortmund the same way that arsenal are handicapped. his decision to sell both gundogan and hummels in the same transfer window last summer meant that dortmund were a very talented but leaderless team. anyone that’s seen dortmund this season can see the talent they possess. however, despite that talent, their not in the title race in germany. dortmund has the talent to win most games but, without leadership, they can’t win tough games. sound familiar?

      1. do you really think it was Tuchel’s decision to sell Gundogan and Hummels? I think it’s more the case of the players pushing to go and the Dortmund hierarchy deciding to sell. Unlike Wenger at Arsenal, Tuchel doesn’t have the final say on all those decisions.

    2. Haha, what, pray tell, was my “comment on age” that your insights showed up as so “curious”? Could it have been where I pointed out that the Benders aren’t that young in response to YOU offering them as examples of a “badass youngster” that YOU suggested we get to partner Xhaka?

      It’s hardly controversial that, all else being more-or-less equal, it’s better to sign, e.g., a 24 year old than a 31 year old to do the same job, or that a player’s age (e.g. 27 vs 21) is relevant when trying to determine if they have the potential to improve much beyond their current level. But I didn’t say any of that, I never spoke in principle against signing older players, and I certainly never said I’m against signing Vidal (though I can’t see why he’d want to come to us, unless Bayern told him he’s surplus to requirements).

      But hey, let’s not let small things like reality get in the way of a chance to criticize a fellow commenter, am I right?

    3. Wenger tried to get Xabi Alonso 10 years ago. Back when Benitez was manager of Liverpool and he wanted that guy who plays for Everton now. The British guy. We fell short in our bid and the deal fell through. Recon with him and Cesc in midfield, Arsenal would have won the League.

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