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.