Arsenal’s stumble in the Premier League better now than later in the season

Wenger would prefer Arsenal stumble in the first week – as they did against West Ham United – than at the business end of the season, writes Greg Lea.
Arsenal’s performance against West Ham United went from bad to worse after the interval to the dismay of Olivier Giroud at Emirates Stadium on Sunday. Frank Augstein / AP Photo
Arsenal’s performance against West Ham United went from bad to worse after the interval to the dismay of Olivier Giroud at Emirates Stadium on Sunday. Frank Augstein / AP Photo

London // Much has changed in the world since Arsenal last got their hands on the Premier League trophy.

In May 2004, YouTube and Twitter had not been created, Pep Guardiola was still a midfielder for Al Ahli in Qatar and every professional English club – with the exception of the north Londoners – had a different manager than the one they have today.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a starter against West Ham United on Sunday, was then 10 years old.

Eleven years without a league championship is a substantial and protracted drought for a club of Arsenal’s size.

The relocation from Highbury to the 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium will be a fruitful long-term move, providing them with a stable source of revenue that is the envy of most sides across the continent.

In the short-term, though, it necessitated a scaling back of resources apportioned to on-field matters.

Results suffered, Uefa Champions League qualification replacing the pursuit of silverware as the club’s primary objective. But Arsenal are out of that period and were expected to re-enter the race for the championship.

A 2-0 loss at home to West Ham was not the start to a new era they had envisaged.

Arsenal began the game bright and purposeful, early bookings to Mark Noble and Angelo Ogbonna for late challenges indicative of the fact that the hosts were first to every loose ball.

As things began to settle, though, they became increasingly sloppy, neat pieces of one-touch interplay followed by over-hit passes and rusty first touches.

The configuration of the midfield did not look right, Aaron Ramsey shackled in a deeper role and Santi Cazorla not as effective on the left as in the middle where he is able to control the tempo of the game with space in front of him.

Wenger’s side soon came unstuck when Cheikhou Kouyate nodded home Dimitri Payet’s free kick just before the break.

Petr Cech, heralded as the missing piece in the Arsenal puzzle, came to punch the ball clear but was left stranded and beaten, leaving the goal behind him gaping and his new team unexpectedly behind.

To the dismay of the vast majority of the Emirates Stadium crowd, things got worse rather than better after the interval.

West Ham, emboldened by Arsenal’s subdued showing, looked to steal the ball in advanced areas, using their pace and power to cause problems for a nervous-looking defensive unit.

When Mauro Zarate doubled their lead, in the 57th minute, it was difficult to argue that they did not deserve it, even if Cech again hardly covered himself in glory with a puzzlingly half-hearted dive.

Most worryingly of all, Arsenal never looked like getting back into the match. There was a strange lack of urgency and penetration to their play, with West Ham appearing just as likely to get the game’s third goal.

There was talk of this being typical Arsenal, crumbling when the expectation levels had been ratcheted up.

While the sentiment was understandable, in a sense this was not typical Arsenal at all; Wenger’s outfit are usually extremely reliable in this sort of game, losing just three home encounters with teams outside the top six in the past three seasons.

Characteristic or not, this was undoubtedly a missed opportunity to make a statement of intent following champions Chelsea’s draw at home to Swansea City.

Instead, Arsenal’s players left the Emirates pitch to boos and further question marks about their true level.

Much has changed since 2004, but one thing that has remained constant is Wenger’s desire to return English football’s principal domestic prize to the Arsenal trophy cabinet.

There is still far to go until such matters are decided, but the Frenchman will hope to look back on Sunday’s defeat as a stumble on the path towards something special rather than an avoidable setback that proves fatal come May.

sports@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter at NatSportUAE

Published: August 9, 2015 04:00 AM

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