To say Arsenal’s season opener against West Ham didn’t go as planned would be a gross understatement. After a summer where the buzzword around the London Colney training facility seemed to have been ‘cohesion’, Arsenal looked anything but against Bilic’s men. Few things went right last Sunday for Wenger’s men and while we live in a world where it is easy to find scapegoats, the blame for this result has to be shared equally between the players and the manager.
What went wrong?
When the line-ups were first submitted, one could’ve been forgiven for expecting Santi Cazorla to start this season as he ended the last as a deep lying playmaker. Aaron Ramsey was expected to feature from the right, a position he performed ably from at the back end of last season. That it was Ramsey starting centrally and Cazorla playing from the left hand side, a position that he doesn’t seem to have the legs for anymore was surprising to say the least. Arsenal lacked the calmness in possession that the Spaniard provides while operating from deep and looked laboured in their attempts to break down a stubborn West Ham defence. The combination of Coquelin and Ramsey was thought to be a more effective shield in front of the back four as showcased against Chelsea in the Community Shield a week prior. The thinking behind this was to have a mixture of Coquelin’s tenacity and Ramsey’s dynamism to win back the ball and supply the more creative players in Özil and Cazorla to work their magic further upfield. Suffice to say, that didn’t quite go as planned. Ramsey, despite completing a respectable 5 interceptions, has yet to complete a tackle this season. Even Özil did better than that and completed 2 tackles. Going forward, it doesn’t make for much better reading for the Welshman as he had 2 wayward shots and only created 2 chances in his 90 minutes on the field. A performance to forget by his standards.
Ramsey wasn’t the only member of that midfield to underperform however. Coquelin produced possibly his most limp display since being introduced to the team last winter. That he was withdrawn immediately after West Ham’s second goal would’ve been no surprise. In his 57 minutes, Coquelin completed only 2 interceptions and no tackles. A far cry from being among the best in the league last season in said categories. With a passing average of 85%, he’ll need to tighten up both with the ball and without it if he wants to hold on to that starting position. For a player with so much to prove, it was a poor start to the season and he’ll be keen to put it behind him as the Gunners go to Crystal Palace on Sunday for another London derby.
Arsenal will want to bounce back quickly and while on paper, a trip to Selhurst Park would seem a decent opportunity to do so, nothing can be taken for granted. The return to fitness of Hector Bellerin to provide an extra injection of pace down the right hand side to go along with Oxlade-Chamberlain who was possibly the only player to come out of the West Ham game with his head held somewhat high. What Arsenal lacked that day were more ball carriers to force the issue against the Hammers. Oxlade-Chamberlain completed 9 dribbles on the day and will want to continue in that vein against Palace. The addition of Alexis Sanchez who has been declared fit to play from the start will also be a welcome return. Despite being subbed on last Sunday, he looked far from ready but a full week of training should go some way to rectifying that. What the Chilean’s inclusion will mean for the midfield battle between Cazorla and Ramsey remains to be seen but one would expect Cazorla to start centrally to accommodate the Chilean. Indeed, after Coquelin’s substitution, Cazorla was shifted to a more central position alongside Ramsey and immediately looked more comfortable but the damage at that point had already been done. Wenger will want to have Cazorla pulling the strings from the first whistle to avoid his team looking as lethargic as last week.
The less said about Petr Cech’s poor debut the better. A goalkeeper of his calibre and experience will be beating himself up for making 2 poor errors to allow both West Ham goals. He should have the bottle to come back from that however, and make a good impression for his new club. For his sake, it had better happen sooner rather than later as Wenger has already shown in the past that he will not hesitate to replace a keeper performing poorly.
This Arsenal team have enough talent to bounce back and be a real challenger for the title this season but they will have to put the season opener behind them. There have been very few soundbites coming out of the club following Sunday’s disappointment, standard procedure for Wenger’s team after an embarrassing performance. Whether those around the club will put the West Ham result down first day nerves, or just a bad day at the office is immaterial. Arsenal simply must turn up against Crystal Palace to ensure that this false start doesn’t render them out of the title race before it truly gets going.