Just over a year ago, in last season’s corresponding fixture, Arsenal went to West Ham and played out a dire 0-0 draw. The team that day was Cech, Bellerin, Maitland-Niles, Koscielny, Monreal, Wilshere, Xhaka, Ozil, Iwobi, Sanchez and Giroud. Wilshere was the Gunners’ only bright light in an instantly forgettable performance.
Yesterday lunchtime, Arsenal started the game with only four of those names. Wilshere, now a West Ham player, was a pundit in Sky Sports’ box overlooking the pitch. Plenty has changed in 13 months, but the result was even worse, and the performance not dissimilar. Strange as it may sound, overall, I felt the Gunners’ defence actually had a better game than normal. They invariably concede at least a goal. West Ham’s winner came as a consequence of a poor clearing header from Xhaka. It felt like he was playing a header to try and find Kolasianc rather than simply get it out of the danger area. It was intercepted by Samir Nasri, who knocked it to Declan Rice, whose shot beat Bernd Leno.
The first half had been fairly even. Alex Lacazette came close a couple of times, as did Guendouzi, while West Ham had enjoyed a couple of very decent chances. West Ham’s goal came early in the second half, allowing plenty of time for the visitors to mount a comeback. They created some opportunities, but nothing gilt-edged. The change to a back four with the introduction of Aaron Ramsey from the bench helped a little, but for once, the Arsenal attack was impotent.
West Ham had worked out that a lot of Arsenal’s danger stems from the overlapping runs of Kolasinac, and countered this successfully with a tight offside trap. There were predictably calls for Mesut Ozil to return to the team to add creativity and unpick defensive locks. His standing rises with every game he is not available for as long as Arsenal’s patchy run continues. However, Ozil played in the 0-0 draw at the London Stadium last season, so it is not a given. Yesterday’s game was suited to him though. There was enough space in the midfield to play in. It was a generally open match with two teams going for the win.
I’d expressed in the preview piece for this match on the website yesterday that this was the kind of game Arsenal needed to take three points from if they are to return to the Champions League next season. I have now resigned myself to the likelihood that isn’t going to happen. Arsenal have ramped up their marketing to sell club level seats for the 2019/20 season, with a flurry of emails to those on the season ticket waiting list. The club know they are going to have to work very hard to shift the extra two rows they have installed over two summers, especially if they remain as non-participants in the Champions League. Now, that looks more and more likely, especially if there are no signings of substance in the current transfer window.
Some bad decisions have been made in recent seasons. Cash was left in the bank when players were cheaper than they are now. Players were on wages that did not reflect their talent. The club were able to justify it because the manager continued to get them into the lucrative Champions League. So they let him do as he wished with his transfer budget (including not using it), all the time seeing the club never genuinely challenge for the title. The Champions League was enough. Fourth place was a trophy, at least in financial terms. This didn't allow for Liverpool and Spurs to finally get their act together and recruit decent managers. It had to happen in the end, and so it has. Manchester United have been in a lull of sorts since the retirement of Alex Ferguson, but their revenues have remained high and they are able to spend big. As it stands, Arsenal are on the outside looking in, when it comes to the major prizes.
The real question is how long they will remain in this Europa League zone level. On that score, it’s ironic they have recruited a manager who seems to be an expert in that particular competition. One thing that does fox me though. To be successful in a European knockout competition three years in a row, as Sevilla were under Emery, don’t you need a good defence? Yesterday wasn’t too bad on that score, but over the course of the season, everyone can see there are problems. A change in personnel does not seem likely, so only a change in tactics can rectify this issue. It was perhaps significant that it was Xhaka who was hauled off yesterday for Torreira to come on. He was undoubtedly the main culprit for the goal. Arsenal need to stop trying to play quite so much possession football in their own third.
At West Ham though, it was the attack that really did not work out. Arsenal generally score at least two goals per game. It was the first home win for the Hammers against the Gunners since 2006-07. Gooners have had a pretty good run when it comes to this particular away trip.
There is understandable frustration at this defeat, and it means that the last four league away matches have seen one point gained out of 12 available. When you consider three of the teams faced were Southampton, Brighton and West Ham that is worrying. This run looks unlikely to improve given the next trip will be to Manchester City. Arsenal will look to beat Chelsea and Cardiff in their next two league outings, and a win over Manchester United in the FA Cup would bring some feelgood back to the club.
But in terms of the season as a whole, the outlook is a lot gloomier than it was before the visit to Southampton. The job of rebuilding from the wreckage left behind by the Wenger / Gazidis era is going to take time, and it is possible Emery is not the man to do it. He will be given another season, another summer transfer window. And if there is no progress by the summer of 2020, the club will try someone else.
The owner is not too fussed. He has other priorities. The key for him is that Arsenal remain in the cash cow that is the Premier League. Anything on top of that is a bonus. The club winning the major prizes is no big deal. Given the choice, Stan Kroenke would probably choose an FA Cup final sitting next to royalty than a Champions League final sitting next to the head honcho at UEFA.
The turnaround will be dependent on the club bucking the odds, turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. That is why Sven Mislintat has been brought in, but it needs the combination of a top scout and a top coach to make it happen. Emery was getting results in the opening months of the season, but watching his team, there was always a feeling he was getting away with it. His attackers were bailing out the defence. Yesterday at the London Stadium, it didn’t happen. Teams are working out how to nullify Arsenal’s threat. It isn't complicated. A good offside trap will catch one of Emery’s players out much of the time.
I am not really sure how it will go from here. Arsenal could possibly lose three out of their next four matches. They need a reaction next weekend. Aside from Rob Holding, Emery will have all of his defenders fit. And he has a decision to make about how or whether to utilise Mesut Ozil. He has a week to come up with a plan for the Chelsea game.
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