The Premier League: West Ham United vs Arsenal
Just as West Ham supporters were starting to familiarise themselves with the notion that this season might not be a slow motion car crash, though, the team hit a sudden big dip. Losing 4-0 at Oxford United in the League Cup kicked off a run of eight matches without a win which also featured home defeats against Crystal Palace, Newcastle United, and Spurs, whilst they were also handed their buttocks on a plate away from home by Burnley and Everton. Only an away draw at Bournemouth and a home draw with Sheffield United prevented this from being a run of eight straight defeats.
So, last weekend they went to Chelsea in the league, but upset the applecart again by snatching a 1-0 win, following that up by losing at Wolves during the week. Will the real West Ham United please stand up? What, even is the real West Ham United any more? Their results so far this season have read like a malfunctioning computer spitting out lines of binary. Don’t try looking for logic or underlying causes. They don’t live at the
Olympic London Stadium any more.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have discovered over the last week and half that, if there is an institutional sickness within a club, replacing just the manager is as likely to go wrong as it is to go well. Results and performances since the departure of Unai Emery have been, well, no better than what was on offer prior to his departure. A 2-2 draw away to a Norwich City team that seems destined to occupy one of the relegation places for the duration of the season didn’t fill supporters with a great deal of confidence, and a home defeat against Brighton & Hove Albion on Thursday night only seemed to further reinforce the idea that the problems at The Emirates Stadium might run a little deeper than Emery could have been expected to fix.
But that has been the nature of this season’s Premier League, so far. There are only nine points between Manchester United in fifth place and Southampton in eighteenth, and there has been little sense to be made of a jumble of statistics across the entire division. An optimist could say that Arsenal have only lost four Premier League matches out of fifteen, going into this match. Both pessimists and realists can agree that they’ve only won four, as well. The feeling remains that, with a handful of exceptions, there has been little between many of these clubs, with some playing better than expected and several playing quite substantially worse.
There are other matters to throw into this maelstrom, as well – the surprise resurgence of Leicester City, for example, and the fact that several of the behemoths of the pre-season prediction articles are undergoing what might be described as varying degrees of “transitional” seasons – but the truth remains that the Premier League remains a curate’s egg of over-achievement, under-achievement, and unpredictable results. Both West Ham United and Arsenal are part of a bigger story of skittishness on the part of Premier League football clubs. Some – Arsenal included – have already rolled their dice. Manuel Pellegrini is hanging by a thread.
For the first forty-five minutes, we are treated to a soporific exhibition of centres holding it. The lack of energy is quite tangible. When the goal arrives, it’s a bad goal, a decent flick of the outside of the boot sending the ball wide from Declan Rice to Pablo Fornals, whose cross from the right is headed goalwards by Angelo Ogbonna, whose header bounces off Ashley Maitland-Lines and wide of a hopelessly wrong-footed Bernd Leno. It is, in all honesty, a bad score, defended with cowardice, and even then requiring a huge deflection to get over the line.
West Ham lead at half-time, but it feels as though this is primarily because they happened to be leading, rather than as a result of anything that they fashioned. That feels, in the moment of saying it, a little unfair, but it’s borne out by what happens in the second half. All it take is a little more pep from Arsenal, and West Ham fold. The problem with Arsenal up to the end of the first half was the midfield. Unable to take control of the game and, consequently, provide service to their attacking players, they’d played as though neutered.
Eleven minutes in, Gabriel Martinelli levels, a first goal for Arsenal for a young man born in September 2001. It’s a tidy finish, and West Ham are completely left in disarray by conceding. Nine minutes later, a spectacular curling shot from an angle from Nicolas Pepe gives them the lead. “You might have seen the start of Pepe’s career with Arsenal here tonight”, cries Chris Sutton, a man for whom understatement is for the weak-willed. Arsenal, though, are playing as though Freddie Ljungberg’s half-time motivation was three seconds each with an electric cattle-prod. By the time Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sweeps in a third goal three minutes later, West Ham are out on their feet.
Does this match represent the start of The Freddie Ljungberg Years? Will Nicolas Pepe make Denis Bergkamp look like Eddie McGoldrick? Arsenal remain an apprently infinite cycle of questions and contradictions. They’re as capable as being as good in the second half as they are of being as bad as they were in the first. Ljungberg’s job is to try and pick that mess apart, jettison the bad and keep the good. Whether a managerial rookie can do this or not, we shall see.
And as for West Ham United, well, it’s difficult to know where to start. Two straight defeats have knocked most of the stuffing out of their win at Chelsea, and Manuel Pellegrini is back on the endangered species list. We’ll miss his lustrous hair if he goes. But go he may well do. The only reason the boos sounded muted at the full-time whistle was because most West Ham supporters had departed by the time the seven minutes of stoppage-time had been added. They look at least as likely as not to get pulled back into a relegation fight. On the basis of tonight, they seem ill-equipped to deal with such a fight.