Tuesday, April 12, 2016

West Ham 3 Arsenal 3

It was a captivating game for neutrals, but the result was no good for either side. West Ham's aspiration for a Champions League spot was dealt a blow, while Arsenal's faint title hopes all but ended. In normal circumstances, a draw would have not been a bad result against an in-form West Ham side, who went into the game atop of the London-derby mini-league with 14 points, including their opening day win at the Emirates and 1-0 defeat of Tottenham at Upton Park. However, what was most disheartening for us, Gooners, was the way our team threw away a 2-0 lead. The capitulation came after an encouraging few weeks and, in fact, a reassuring display in first 35 minutes of this game.

True to his words prior to the match, "I am reluctant to change anything that works", Arsene Wenger named the unchanged starting XI who started in impressive wins over Everton and Watford in the last 2 weeks. This meant that fit-again Petr Cech remained on the bench alongside Per Mertesacker. Other places on the bench were occupied by Aaron Ramsey, who has returned from a thigh injury that kept him on the sidelines for a month, Calum Chambers, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, and Olivier Giroud.

The team sheet raised a few eyebrows among us who were unaware of Wenger's pre-match comment. Against Andy Carroll's physical threat, Mertesacker seemed to have been a natural answer to us. The English striker is not known for his speed, so BFG's lack of pace is unlikely to be exposed. In the post-match interview, Wenger stated that he did not expect Carroll to feature in this game as he hadn't played for the last 5 or 6 games. It was Diafra Sakho who mainly led the line during the period and he was omitted from the matchday squad all together. The official reason for the absence was a minor injury, but rumours are rife that the Senegalese striker had fallen out with Slaven Bilic. So we don't know whether the West Ham coach's decision to play Carroll was a tactical or forced one, but the selection proved effective.

Another talking point prior to the match was whether Cech should replace Ospina. The Colombian keeper has put in an almost impeccable performance since deputising for the first-choice keeper during his injury lay-off. It would have been unfair to him if he had had to be dropped to the bench as soon as Cech had returned. On the other hand, some think that the first-choice keeper should play whenever he is available. Also, Ospina's relatively small build for a goalkeeper was always regarded disadvantageous against big strikers. Cech's commanding presence in goal and his ability to communicate with defenders and organise set-pieces might have been helpful in this game.

After feisty and eventful opening stages, Arsenal were 2-0 up thanks to goals from Özi and Alexis. Just when we thought we were going into half time with a two-goal lead and our team were totally in control, Carroll struck twice in 160 seconds just before the break. At Doolan's Bar, the buoyant mood was wiped off.

Carroll was a continuous menace after the break and completed a hat-trick (although this will be disputed at the Dubious Goal Committee without doubt) 7 minutes from the restart. Wenger made offensive changes, bringing on Ramsey and Giroud at the expense of Coquelin and Elneny. Laurent Koscielny restored the parity and both sides looked for a fourth goal, which wasn't to be.

A few decisions by the officials came under spotlights. After Lanzini's goal was chalked off as off-side at early stages, replays suggested that Hector Bellerin kept him just about on side. Some pundits and West Ham supporters claimed Slaven Bilic's side has been the victims of wrong decisions in recent weeks, including the eventually overturned suspension of Kouyate, but we also have a case here to complain about a decision. Andy Carroll was lucky to get away with his late and potentially dangerous challenge on Koscielny with only a yellow card and he was even luckier when his flailing arm caught Gabriel in the face early in the second half. On  balance, you may say West Ham were not as unlucky as they claimed as they could have Carroll suspended for Wednesday night's FA Cup quarter-final replay against Manchester United and of course, he scored their third goal after his challenge on Gabriel, when he shouldn't have been on the pitch.

We argued what Wenger could have done to prevent the defensive capitulation. Maybe another defender, perhaps Mertesacker, should have been brought on specifically to mark Carroll. But the Frenchman never makes early substitutions unless there is an injury. Especially, a defensive change is beyond his imagination. In contrast to Wenger's tactical rigidness, Bilic replaced Tomkins for Emenike at half time, when he had witnessed enough evidence for West Ham's 3-4-2-1 system being ineffectual, with both Ozil and Alexis exploiting space behind defenders through the left-hand channel for their goals.

After the match, Arsene Wenger pointed out his side's vulnerability against headers in the box since the start of the season. If he has identified the weakness, why hasn't he sorted it out yet? Leicester is not where they are for no reason. Ranieri successfully transformed an attacking side with a "you score, we score" approach (which was taken advantage of by Arsenal in their 5-2 win at King Power Stadium) into a solid defensive unit in the middle of the season, which was key to their sustained run of form during Vardy's goal drought.

Our target remains the same: to win all the remaining games. It is interesting to see if Wenger's "if it is not broken, don't fix it" approach will be forced to change now the frailty of his new unit has been exposed. In particular, will Koscielny-Gabriel pairing continue? Will Cech reclaim his place in the team? Can Ramsey return to the starting line-up, breaking up Coquelin-Elneny partnership? As Koscielny called for more help in defence from wingers in his post-match interview, defending is a collective responsibility. We allowed West Ham to cross too easily. We hope this game -both performance and result- did not undermine the team's confidence and spirit that had been built over the last few weeks. Hopefully, we will put things right before the next game and get back to winning ways quickly.

Players ratings

Ospina: 6
Could not do much about Carroll's goals.

Bellerin: 6
He should have closed down and stop crosses in.

Gabriel: 5

Struggled to cope with Carroll's aerial presence. For West Ham's second goal, he managed to block Carroll's initial scuffed attempt, but he should have reacted more quickly to the rebound and not allowed him to have another chance. West Ham's third goal was arguably his own goal.

Koscielny: 7

Captain on the day was our best defender, winning 5 aerial battles and scored an important equaliser.

Monreal: 6
Struggled to cope with Antonio's pace and allowed to him to run past him in the build-up to West Ham's third goal. Unlucky to not score when his fierce low shot was cleared off the line. The rebound fell for him, but he shot it high.

Coquelin: 6

Subbed in the 61st minute. He initiated moves leading to goals by finding Iwobi. 

Elneny: 6
Gave way to Giroud in the 68th minute. Making 64 passes with a 93.8 % accuracy was impressive, but failed to help defence more on the flank when needed.

Alexis: 7
Composed finish for his goal. In Arsenal's search for a fourth goal, he took wrong options.

Özil: 7
Scored his 8th goal of the season. Created 3 chances. Faded in the second half.

Iwobi: 8

Claimed assists for Arsenal's 2 goals in the first half with his through ball to Özi and lofted pass to Alexis, but he was anonymous in the second half.

Welbeck: 6

Claimed an assist for Koscielny's goal. Worked hard, but largely ineffectual.


Ramsey: 6
Replaced Coqulein in the 61st minutes. Showed some fine skills.

Giroud: 5
Came on for Elneny in the 68th minute. Had 1 attempt at goal, which was a header just wide.

Walcott: 5
Replaced Welbeck in the 81st minute. Little time to influence the game, having only 4 touches.

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