So after all the pre-match talk highlighting the importance of a strong start to the season for our title dreams, we’ve managed to lose our opening game of the Premier League campaign two nil at home to West Ham, with Petr Cech at fault for at least one of the goals.
Arsene Wenger made two changes to the team that started last Sunday’s Community Shield win, with ‘a slight muscular injury’ ruling out Hector Bellerin, who was replaced at right-back by Mathieu Debuchy, and Olivier Giroud coming in up front at the expense of a benched Theo Walcott.
And right from the off I thought we looked slow in our thinking, rushed in our passing and over-elaborate in a lot of our play, even by our standards. Too many players were ignoring the simple pass in favour of trying to steal the show.
I hate to single out individuals but Aaron Ramsey seemed to me, to be occupying too many of the spaces and too much of the possession Mesut Ozil should have had. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was probably the pick of our performers in the first half with some typically buccaneering bursts but as a team, very little came off for us going forward.
West Ham by contrast, clearly had a contain and counter game-plan instilled in them by new manager Slaven Bilic and were executing it pretty well in the first half. New-boy Dimitri Payet in particular, looked lively and threatening on the break for the Hammers and Cheikhou Kouyaté was full of running.
Even the fact they were fielding a 16 year old, albeit the tallest 16 year old anyone’s ever seen, in midfield, didn’t diminish their display as I was certain it would when the teams were announced. I mean, when was the last time a team played against us with a toddler in their engine room, let alone go on to win comfortably?
But then just before the interval, they won a freekick, it was drifted in, Petr Cech came out to punch it away very unconvincingly, Kouyaté beat him to the ball and glanced home to put them one up. Undoubtedly bad ‘keeping from the Czech but I’m putting it down to first-game jitters and a lack of understanding with the new defence he finds himself behind.
However I’d love to know if there was a shout from either Cech or our defenders as the ball was floated in. Because if the ‘keeper did yell something like “mine!” or “keeper’s!”, then it was an even worse piece of play by the former Chelsea man as it means he misjudged the situation horribly. If not, then communication is something that needs working on back there urgently.
At half-time, I still expected Arsenal to come back out and do the necessary to turn the game around quite easily if I’m honest. I wasn’t being complacent or arrogant in my thinking, I just felt we would improve our game and the goals would arrive. I wasn’t particularly concerned by West Ham’s attacking capabilities despite their goal.
Yet we found ourselves two down on 57 minutes, when about half our team converged on a loose ball in our area before Oxlade-Chamberlain eventually took charge of the situation momentarily, before gifting the ball straight to Mauro Zarate, who fired home at the near post with Cech this time wrong-footed. Perhaps Zarate gave him the eyes because otherwise it was poor ‘keeping again.
After that, we chased the game, Arsene threw on Walcott and a clearly unfit Alexis Sanchez for Coquelin and Debuchy which meant Cazorla ended the game as our deepest central midfielder and our best attacker on the day – the Ox – as auxiliary right-back. I don’t think we came close to scoring if I’m honest and if anything West Ham probably came closer to a third near the end when Mark Noble crossed from the right.
Overall a shocking result to start the new league season and although the players must take a lot of the blame for their performances, I think Arsene will know he got a few things wrong today too.
For instance, the Cazorla-Coquelin combo was crucial to our success in the second half of last season as it enabled efficient ball circulation from the centre, as well as providing a defensive shield, yet was abandoned today. That said, we played with the same set-up as today against Chelsea last weekend and won, which may have swayed the manager.
One way of reverting to it with the same personnel would be Ramsey swapping roles with the Spaniard, or playing from the right, with the Ox switching to the left, even if the Welshman’s made it clear he prefers the central role. If not, then Ramsey needs to improve both his play and his understanding with Coquelin next to him based on today.
It is of course silly to draw any definitive conclusions from the game but even at this very early stage of the season, today’s result feels like a massive opportunity spurned to both make a statement and after yesterday’s results, gain some points on the current champions.
Back tomorrow with post-match reaction. Til then.