Sunday, June 16, 2024

West Ham 3-3 Arsenal: Two faces

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Let’s start with Mikel Arteta’s post game comments, which pretty much sum things up for me:

I’m really disappointed because I cannot accept my team to play the way we did for certain periods of the first half…the goals we conceded. What I expect, is the team to play at the level we showed afterwards. We played incredibly well, we should have scored six or seven goals. But we are all the time in reverse because we have two faces. The first face is about giving goals to the opponent and not doing what we have to do. It’s not good enough.

That first half, those first 32 minutes in particular, were genuinely awful. Up there with the worst we’ve ever produced under this manager. West Ham’s first goal was decent, in fairness, although like any you concede you can always see where we could have done more to stop it.

However, the next two were infuriating. I don’t care one bit that the free kick wasn’t taken from the exact spot the foul happened. It was only a matter of a few feet, and anyway when Lingard played the ball it was further away from our box than where the offence took place. The issue isn’t where it was taken from, it was that no Arsenal player – beyond David Luiz in the distance – is looking at the ball.

Kieran Tierney, Thomas Partey, Pablo Mari, and Granit Xhaka, all turn their backs and trudge away, and not even Bernd Leno is on his toes. West Ham were smart, made the most of an opportunity, and while there was a touch of good fortune in that Jarrod Bowen’s shot deflected off Mari and fizzed past Leno, we can’t complain about that given what came later. We didn’t so much have a lapse of concentration as throw the whole concept out the window of a speeding car. Bemoan that, not where the free kick was taken from.

Arteta was furious about the third too. I don’t know if it was the difficult ball Leno played to Tierney; Tierney’s casual ball inside; Aubameyang’s lack of defensive work in failing to close down the man who crossed; or Luiz getting battered in the air by Antonio which vexed him most, but I suspect it was the captain’s role which would have really frustrated him. He had a poor day at the office, and that was a moment where he could certainly have done more. The other issues in that goal are not great, but less egregious.

Whether it was a Europa League hangover or something else, it was abysmal from Arsenal. I know people have their issues with team selection, but regardless of who he picked, and where, that performance level was way below acceptable. As evidenced by what we did when we came to life as a team around the 40 minute mark.

Before that, the brilliant Martin Odegaard was about the only player to earn any credit. He didn’t let his head go down, he wanted the ball, he tried to play, and thankfully, eventually, others followed suit. It’s a bit unfortunate that Alexandre Lacazette’s first strike was given as an own goal, because the touch, turn and shot in a tight area was excellent. The delivery from the right from Calum Chambers played a huge part. I could see why Chambers was picked, but at 3-0 I wondered if we might have to use up a sub to play someone more attacking. He made that a non-issue, fair play to him.

We should have gone in at the break a mere goal down. Lacazette’s fantastic ball put Saka through and he should have scored, and right before half-time the ball squirted just wide – again from Saka. We started the second half like a team which had a lot to make up for, dominating West Ham in terms of possession and territory.

Lacazette was instrumental in how we played. I wonder if he’d gone down as he went through from Chambers’ clever pass if they might have had a red card, but he tried to score and was denied by a great piece of defending as Diop cleared off the line. That the second goal was also an own goal was unusual, but reward for our dominance and the quality of the deliveries from Chambers. 3-2. Game on.

It was game on for West Ham too, and they almost put the game to bed when Antonio slid in to put the ball off the post from close range. It came from impressive work by Said Benrahma, but the defensive coach needs to have a word with Mari about his positioning in the build-up because despite the disparity in pace, he was run past way too easily.

Pepe and Smith Rowe replaced Xhaka and Saka, and as Aubameyang made his way back to the bench having been hooked for Martinelli, Arsenal drew level. Odegaard’s pass for Pepe gave him space to cross with a right foot that hasn’t always been convincing, but this time he delivered perfectly and Lacazette was there to thump home a headed equaliser.

We even had chances to win. Another great Chambers delivery was palmed away desperately by Fabianski but no Arsenal player was there for the rebound; while Pepe should have done better after a Fabregassian pass from Odegaard gave him a chance on his right foot. I think there might have been a hint of a tug from a defender, but it was still a glorious chance to get the fourth goal. At the other end, a run which can only be described as ‘barnstorming’ from Declan Rice ended up with a shot that forced Leno into a save.

Both teams could have won it. One team really should have won it given the lead they had, so West Ham will feel most disappointed about what was probably a fair result in what was a truly extraordinary game of football. When you overcome a 3-0 deficit to come back and get anything, you have to be pleased. Not simply with the character and how deep you have to dig to make that happen, but with the quality we showed to force/score the goals and make chances.

The frustration, of course, is that you were in that position in the first place, and as proud as he might be about the way his team responded, Arteta needs to focus first and foremost on what went wrong. Afterwards, Alexandre Lacazette said the players ‘didn’t respect the gameplan‘, but I just wonder if that’s something players say – unless the gameplan was specifically ‘Don’t be idiots’, because we were idiots.

I didn’t really understand Aubameyang starting on the right, and it wasn’t long before he was shifted to the left. Whether that’s an admission of having got it wrong, or reacting to what went wrong, it’s hard to quantify. It wasn’t a good day for the captain, and while I think people are too quick to jump to conclusions about how he doesn’t care (he didn’t react to the equaliser like someone who doesn’t care), his form is a concern at the moment.

I also have some worries about the Luiz/Mari partnership. The former showed signs of the schedule having an impact on his legs, and I don’t think the Spaniard can offset that with the kind of running Gabriel does. His selection was probably down to size and dealing with West Ham’s aerial threat more than compatibility with Luiz, so I can sort of see where Arteta was coming from. Regardless of who he picked though, we ought to be capable of producing much better than we did in that first half, and it’s down to Arteta to sort that nonsense out and fast.

It does feel a bit incongruous to finish on a negative considering we did work so hard to earn a point. I think Chambers and Lacazette had their best games in ages, while the growing influence of Odegaard is hugely exciting, even if it comes with that big asterisk in the shape of Real Madrid. Whatever happens, and I would dearly love us to keep him, there can be no question that while he’s here he’s giving us 100%. His quality is obvious, and his character/commitment are so impressive. The double-edged sword of him putting in excellent performances making it more difficult to sign him on a permanent basis was something we understood when we brought him in, so let’s just enjoy what he gives us between now and May, and cross that bridge when we come to it.

Now, an Interlull – keep all your fingers crossed for our players away on international duty, both in terms of fitness, and the ludicrousness of travel during a pandemic. Perhaps the two weeks Arteta has to take stock of the two faces of his team will be beneficial. The variance between how good we can be, and how bad we can be, is too big, and it’s something that has to be addressed.

James and I will be recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning, trying to make some sense of yesterday. As ever if you have questions or topics for discussion, send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast will be out before lunch, until then, take it easy.

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