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Why Was That Arsenal Performance Against West Ham So Bad?

Riding on the highs of the opening day, this wasn’t expected.

The main takeaway from Saturday’s uninspired victory over West Ham was that Arsenal did not deserve anything. Three utterly unjust points went by the way of the Gunners, but while that’s all that matters, there is still cause for concern.

As Mikel Arteta said post-match, the performance of his side came as a genuine shock after what was described as one of the “best week in terms of decision making, quality and execution with the ball by far since I joined the club”. What happened then? Did they use up all their talent in those sessions?

Because, genuinely, you couldn’t argue a case for anyone having a good game in that opening 25 minutes.

Gabriel Magalhaes perhaps, but passes were going astray every other kick, nobody had a first touch that was above Sunday League level. It was really quite woeful. So why?

Firstly it’s best to address what West Ham did well.

David Moyes knew that the base of Arsenal’s attacks stems from the connection between the centre-halves and the midfield duo. Whether it’s Rob Holding to Granit Xhaka, Gabriel to Dani Ceballos or any other combination, that quartet are the foundation for the Gunners to build out from the back.

Tomas Soucek and Declan Rice ensured they were touch tight on the midfield, while Duracell Bunny, Michail Antonio, never gave the defence a moment’s peace. He was joined by Jarrod Bowen in pressing from the front, and it starved Arsenal of that creative base.

That does not, however, exempt the players from blame. Oh no. Whenever a successful pass was made it was slow or unimaginative, while the ones that were misplaced were so far off target that you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d just got the shirt colours wrong.

If any one word springs to mind, it’s rustiness; a word that shouldn’t be used because this team has been playing and can’t fall on that excuse as backup. Since it clearly wasn’t the reason – despite looking like it – the change in personnel could be telling.

A lack of continuity in the lineup – three changes from the Fulham game – could have hindered the performance. Too much chopping and changing across the midfield four may have taken some bite out of proceedings. People will point to Bukayo Saka’s two key passes for the goals, but overall he didn’t have the best of games. Ceballos turned it on after about 60 minutes, yet he was as culpable as anyone else for looking leggy, giving the ball away and struggling for any meaningful impact.

Perhaps Arteta will learn from his decision to alter the skeleton of a confident team.

We do need to talk about Kolasinac, too. Kieran Tierney is a member of this squad whose importance can’t be measured. Defensive discipline and boundless energy are just two of the traits he offers the side, but also on the ball he gives more options to his teammates than the Bosnian does.

Kolasinac did not have a good game in any third of the pitch, with the uncertain nature of his display reverberating to the rest of the team, who looked like rabbits in headlight.

Hoping for a different side in that second period, somehow Arsenal got worse. Like, a lot worse.

Sitting back and watching a considerably poor West Ham side grow into the match was the first head-in-hands moment of the season. Slowly slouching further back into the couch, as the minutes wore on and the chances came, a draw looked like a increasingly enticing proposition.

They were quick and efficient on the break, whereas in possession Arsenal looked clueless. Ceballos began dropping deeper to try and claw his side back into the game, and all of a sudden, heads previously slumped down picked themselves up and the adrenaline kicked in. Where did it come from?

I suppose we’re so used to Emeryball that the only outcome from this point was either a draw or a Neal Maupay somehow joining the Hammers mid-game and scoring a 95th minute winner. So many times last season – and before – these were the positions Arsenal dropped crucial points.

Having been so dire for the entire match, perhaps the poisonous flashbacks of the previous regime seeped into the players’ minds, thus forcing them to buck up their ideas. Suddenly, there was energy and purpose to the play. The substitutions helped too.

A few arguments can be made for why that display was so bland, but the taste of success tends to overrule any cause for concern. At this point, we can be joyous in winning matches we absolutely wouldn’t have won under Unai Emery, in a match we thoroughly didn’t deserve three points from.

Due to that, let’s reign in the criticisms. Winning ugly is vital cog in any footballing machine, one that always has faulty moments. With Liverpool up next in the league, the system we’ve grown accustomed to will return and, in a sense, normality resumes.

Take the win and make minor excuses, just ensure this is a one-off topic of conversation.

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