Thursday, July 18, 2024

West Ham 2-2 Arsenal: Only ourselves to blame

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If there was a debate to be had last week about whether Arsenal’s draw at Anfield represented a point gained or two lost, there are no such doubts about yesterday’s 2-2 draw at West Ham. 

Not only is it two points dropped, we choked so badly at vital moments in the game that it feels like a defeat. After the game, Opta revealed it was the first time ever in the Premier League that we had surrendered a two-goal advantage in successive matches. 

When you consider there’s a title on the line, that’s not the type of stat you want the boffins to be digging up. 

Speaking to Sky Sports, Mikel Arteta’s disappointment was matched only by his annoyance. 

“You go two-nil up and you have the game in total control. Then we have to blame ourselves. We lost that purpose to really attack them, to threaten that goal, instead we kept the ball just for the sake of playing and we give them hope and then conceded a terrible penalty where we give the ball away.”

While he didn’t deny Saka’s second half penalty miss was a turning point, he returned a second time to the mentality shown in the first half. 

“You can go 3-1 up after 50 minutes, and the game is probably over… then two minutes later, you concede a goal. But this is part of football. My worry is after 2-0, we made that huge mistake and didn’t understand what the game required in that moment.”

Look, I know that all is not lost and the title, for the moment, remains in our hands. Unfortunately, any margin for error has evaporated. 

We will head to the Etihad with a seven-point advantage if we beat Southampton on Friday, but City will have played two games fewer and they’ll know a win over us on 26th April will put them in pole position. I guess with their goal difference advantage that’s been the case for a while but looking at the other fixtures I was greedy for some wiggle room. 

It’s probably not even worth looking that far ahead right now. Captain Martin Odegaard, who didn’t have a great game, certainly isn’t. He said:

“We have to come back tomorrow on the training ground and be ready for the next game. That’s all that matters now, the next one. We have to come on Friday [against Southampton] and win. That’s all that matters, we have to keep going, keep working. As we said all season, just look for the next game. That’s all.”

In the short term, Arteta needs to figure out why his team is starting games quickly but then uses the momentum to smash into a brick wall as hard as possible. It feels like a variation of a habit we had last season where we’d edge into the lead and then start defending for our lives as if a second goal was known to be out of reach. 

It’s definitely psychological rather than physical. When it was put to Arteta that his team looked tired, he was dismissive. 

“I don’t think that the team is fatigued or looked fatigued and the best way to put it is just to convince them how good they are when they do what they have to do, and this is what we have to put in our brains.”

It certainly didn’t help that two of our first-choice defenders were missing yesterday. 

There is no hiding that there’s a drop-off in quality when you compare William Saliba and Rob Holding. And for all his qualities, Kieran Tierney doesn’t bring the same level of experience and bravery on the ball to the inverted left-back position that Oleksandr Zinchenko, who had a tight groin, has made his own this season.

To be clear, the individual performances of Tierney and Holding are not the reason we dropped points at West Ham. I just think the team has more confidence in itself as a high-functioning unit when Saliba and Zinchenko are in the lineup. The automatisms aren’t as smooth when personnel change and it felt like Odegaard and Partey, in particular, suffered as a result yesterday. At one point the Sky Sports commentary team were lauding Gabriel Jesus for picking up the ball in the right-back position. The question in my mind was why he felt the need to be there in the first place. 

Was I thinking any of this after 10 minutes? Of course not. We looked brilliant. 

The football for the first goal was pure Arteta-ball. A give-and-go with White saw Saka work his way into the box, he played backwards to Partey who popped it to Odegaard, who in turn sliced open the defence with a pass to White who’d run into space behind three West Ham players. The right-back spotted Jesus at the back post, made a perfectly weighted pass and the striker tucked home his third fourth goal in three starts. It was beautiful. 

In the blink of an eye, we had our second. Hovering on the left edge of the area, after a first cross had been cleared, Martinelli, given the ball by Tierney, made the Hammers pay for the space they afforded him. It’s not like the home side didn’t have the numbers to deal with the situation, it’s just they were completely static as Odegaard ghosted onto the Brazilian’s pinpoint cross at the back post. Having had his arm up calling for the ball, the Norwegian knew exactly how to execute the finish, cushioning it past Fabianski at close quarters. 

By the 15th minute, we’d completed 125 passes to West Ham’s 26. By the 27th minute, the home fans were booing their players and the travelling Gooners were taunting them with a round of “Are you Tottenham in disguise?”

That cockiness was reflected on the pitch. “We started to get sloppy and playing flicks and losing the ball inside too many times and allowing counters. It broke our flow,” said Arteta. 

It also made the subsequent fall from grace all the more painful. 

Five minutes later, Partey collected the ball in midfield and tried to flick the ball over the onrushing Rice. He didn’t get the ball high enough, it hit the England international in the chest (not arm, despite our midfielder’s protestations) and we were immediately on the back foot. Two on two with Gabriel and Holding, Rice fed Paqueta with a square ball and the Brazilian had no qualms going down when his compatriot went to ground with a half-hearted tackle. Even if he was looking for it, the contact was undeniable and referee David Coote had no issue pointing to the spot. As was the case at the Emirates, Benrahma sent Ramsdale the wrong way. 

Flustered by his blunder, Partey made another and was booked trying to rectify the situation with a foul on Benrahma. Capping a disastrous five-minute spell, he then put a pass out of play unchallenged. The frustration was contagious and Jesus joined the Ghana international in the book for a tug on Antonio.

The half time whistle came as a relief and I jotted down in my notes, “Amazing how momentum can change.” “Amazing” being another word for “fucking tiresome”. 

Arteta said the message at half time was “to change the dynamic” but we got more of the same. He later lamented:

“You start to get in that roller coaster where everything is throw in, throw in, corner and then corner. And we didn’t manage to get away from that.”

Our get-out-of-jail-free card came on 52 minutes. Trying to return a cleared corner back into the box, Martinelli’s ball hit Antonio and Coote pointed to the spot again. I actually think it was pretty soft. Yes, Antonio’s arm was slightly out from his body but he was so close to the ball, it didn’t look like he could do much about it. I wasn’t complaining, this was exactly what we needed; a goal against the run of play to dampen the mood of the buoyant home fans. Except we didn’t capitalise. Saka put the ball down, did that little dancing feet movement and curled wide of Fabianski’s right post. It wasn’t even close. 

You feared the worst at that point and sure enough, two minutes later, the Hammers equalised. 

Gabriel did well clearing a long throw, but when Kehrer hoofed an up-and-under back into our box he was caught out positionally. Bowen stole in behind, followed the flight of the ball and, not unlike Odegaard, cushioned the ball into the ground. The shot was deceptively quick and even though Ramsdale got fingers to it, it found its way in at the near post via a touch off the woodwork. After his heroics in front of the Kop, there’s no doubt the keeper will have been disappointed by this one. 

With 35 minutes remaining and five subs at our disposal, there was plenty of time for Arsenal to regroup but for all the possession brought about by the introduction of Jorginho and Trossard (for Partey and Jesus), we had no cutting edge. By his own high standards, Odegaard had a stinker. The only time in the half we overloaded their defence, Saka carried the ball a long way only to hit a tame shot straight at Fabianski. It was the effort of a player still thinking about his earlier miss. 

West Ham might have won it when Antonio climbed at the back post to meet a Benrahma cross but his header clipped the bar. Nelson, Vieira and Nketiah represented a last throw of the dice but they barely had any time to get a feel for the game before it was over. 

In his post-game press conference, Arteta was asked whether the pressure of the title race had gotten to his players. He disagreed, saying: 

“I would say yes, if I’d seen a team from the beginning playing [does sound effect to suggest tight and tense] but when I see a team playing with that flow, it’s a no. At two-nil, it’s not the pressure, it’s that we really misunderstood what the game required in that moment.” 

Right now, I find it hard to take any solace from that assessment. 

__

That’s your lot from me. Tim is going to pick up the baton tomorrow and Blogs will be back at his desk on Wednesday. Thanks for reading over the last few days. 

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