We have seen days like this before, and will surely see them again: we huff and we puff, and struggle to breach the opponents’ defence. Arsene said afterwards he was relieved, as it looked like we would have to settle for a point, at best – and I can certainly agree with him. Despite a plethora of below-par showings in this Arsenal side, we stuck with it and finally made the breakthrough two minutes from time. I have been critical of Alexandre Dimitri Song Billong in recent matches, for getting too far forward, and (I felt) neglecting his defensive duties. Today, he – and perhaps Arsene – showed me just why he does this, and why I need to cut him some slack. Without him being on hand to head Clichy’s cross past Rob Green, we almost certainly settle for the solitary point.
I would characterize the match as more tense than exciting. This was due, understandably, to the minutes ticking by without an Arsenal goal. Watching on TV here in the metro DC area, I could still feel the tension in the stands at the Emirates. We certainly started with intent, and Arshavin forced Green into a fine save within a couple of minutes after the start. I felt he (Arshavin) had a good game – he worked hard throughout, at both ends of the pitch, and created chances both he and his teammates contrived to waste. The bright start did not last long, however. Our pace quickly dropped, and we settled for a gear or two lower than we should have. As a result, we did not cause West Ham too many problems, and they started to come into the match. They had only a couple of shots on goal, both from free kicks I think. They did not really look like scoring, but still caused us a few nervous moments from corners and free kicks. Mark Noble was particularly accurate with his deliveries, but they weren’t really able to get anyone on the end of them to convert.
We stepped on the gas towards the end of the first half, but that fizzled out. We started energetically in the second half, but West Ham put in a few hefty challenges, particularly their Captain Scott Parker, who got Cesc’s nose a bit out of joint. For the record, I did not have a big problem with what West Ham were doing – they held out for the first half, certainly believed they were going to get something from this game, and so decided to put us off our game. If our players didn’t appreciate what Parker was doing, the correct response should have been to give some back – and not direct retaliation, either, as the second man is always the one whistled.
Anyways, Boa Morte (remember him from Arsene’s early years here?) was booked for a shirt tug/shove on Denilson, and that was the last significant foul/player incident, until Chamakh was booked late on. Cesc, by the way, did get payback on his opposite number, smashing a shot directly off Parker’s face, which laid the latter out for a couple of minutes.
We upped the tempo and took almost complete control. Boa Morte’s foul on Denilson was punished by the booking and (almost by) a sweetheart of a free kick from Nasri. From 35 yards out, he beat Green all ends up, only to smash against the crossbar and over. From a goalmouth scramble, Green saved a Cesc first-time point-blank shot and despite getting the ball back several times, we couldn’t get another shot off and West Ham cleared.
I had hoped Arsene would change things up earlier than his customary hour mark, but he waited until almost 70 minutes (partially due to a stoppage while the prostrate Parker was attended to) to bring Theo on for Denilson. Within a couple of minutes, Cesc set him away, and Theo hit it well, beating Green easily. This time, the ball crashed against the post and bounced directly into Green’s arms.
When it’s not your day……..
With ten minutes to go, Arsene brought Bendtner on for Arshavin, and by now we had virtually all of the play, without looking like we would break through. With just a couple of minutes left, Clichy made a good run down the left, cut inside and curled a fine cross into the box.
For once, someone – Song – was on hand to head home. FINALLY!!!
The sense of relief was palpable, and despite two more minutes of regulation and five of added time, we held on comfortably. Extra time featured Arsenal passes all around the pitch, keep-ball at its finest. Last season, we were not able to hold the ball – when necessary – as effectively as this. Perhaps further evidence of a more mature and experienced side.
Another positive is winning without being nearly at our best. Our best players were clearly in defence – Clichy, Koscielny and Fabianski. West Ham may not exactly have put us under tremendous pressure, but they did cause us some problems. Clichy and Sagna defended our flanks quite well, Koscielny and Squillaci were both solid in the centre, and Fabianski was commanding and decisive again. This is what confidence does. Denilson did not have particularly good game. I imagine that injury (Diaby) and suspension (Jack) forced Arsene to pick the midfield he did, but I think it was still too defensive, considering we were playing the bottom-of-the-table side.
Theo should have been introduced at halftime, in my opinion. Some would say Chamakh had a stinker; I prefer to characterize his afternoon as a fine player having an off-match. In his defence, he did work hard throughout the match, and the service he got was generally poor. But I also felt he was slow of thought and reaction today – when the ball did come to him, he either lost it, or was slow to react, allowing the West Ham defence to mop up. When the team does not play particularly well, Arsene likes to say we “lacked sharpness”. Chamakh personified that term today. I just felt he was not sharp, not quick enough to react to what his teammates were trying to do. All players have matches like this, so it is nothing to get worried about. If this becomes a trend, then we have a problem, but I do not expect it to be such. As with the Theo substitution, I thought Arsene waited too long to bring Bendtner on, and Chamakh should have been the player to make way.
Cesc was rather subdued today as well, and Arsene said afterwards that our captain felt his troublesome hammy again, and that he considered subbing him at halftime. Cesc made it through the entire match, and as long as we were deadlocked, there was no way Arsene would bring him off. We got the win, but the question now becomes at what cost? We have a long flight to the Ukraine for Wednesday’s CL tie in Donetsk – a minimum of a point should virtually ensure progress to the knockout round, and three will do it, so this is a match we should have our strongest side for. But if Cesc’s hammy is still bothering him, it may be prudent to keep him behind for the trip. Fortunately, a rested Jack will be available for selection, and he should be an able deputy.
Even though this is Arsenal-focused, I try and say a word or two about the opponents. West Ham played well today, and I certainly would not have begrudged them a hard-earned point, if they had managed to hold out for the entire match. They were solid and organized, and admirably stuck to their plan of trying to avoid conceding, and perhaps hit us on the break. Similar to Chamakh, Piquionne got very little service up front, but still worked hard while he was on (Cole came on for him late on), and made a nuisance of himself. They may have had some poor recent results, but they can take plenty of positives from the performance and effort today, regardless of not bringing any points back across London.
So we won without playing particularly well. Another Highbury House regular is a fellow New York Giants (National Football League) fan, and when we previewed their game against the Detroit Lions a couple of weeks ago, I characterized it as a classic “Trap Game”. In the NFL, we call that a game where a good, top-of-the-table team (in this case, the NY Giants) plays a lowly, downtrodden team (Detroit) they are expected to easily beat, with a much more significant and difficult match (at the Dallas Cowboys) looming. We call it a “trap” because the favorites sometimes fall into the trap of looking too far ahead and then get turned over. For Arsenal, this afternoon’s fixture was a “Trap Game” for them, one which they thankfully got through. Let’s try and make this the exception (not playing well, that is) rather than the rule.
It is good we got three points here, as we are set for a pretty demanding upcoming six weeks. We have the remaining three group CL ties (two away), and a series of tough away fixtures (Everton, Wolves, Villa), a couple of should-not-be-so difficult home fixtures versus Newcastle and Fulham (not that I want to see Mark Hughes), the League Cup quarterfinal tie versus Wigan, and a home derby versus the Spuddies. It culminates with a mid-December trip to Old Trafford. This will not necessarily make or break our season, but will go a long way towards telling what we really have with this side. Whatever happens in these matches, we should see some old friends who have been gone, but certainly not forgotten. Robin should be back by or for the Spuddies, and hopefully Tommy V will be back soon as well.
For me and for many of us I am sure, the best moment will undoubtedly be when Aaron Ramsey runs out on the pitch for the first time since the Britannia.
Written by Oliver