And breathe (again). Arsenal downed West Ham 2-1 at the London Stadium, earning another crucial three points to move them back ahead of Tottenham in the table. The win also guarantees the Gunners finish no worse than 6th place, meaning they will be back in a European competition next season. Of course, Mikel Arteta’s bunch have their sights set higher. They’ve got four more “cup final” matches. The job is straightforward: win them all, qualify for the Champions League.
It was a tale of two halves for the Gunners. The first half was nervous, lacked composure, and could have been managed better. The second half was an exercise in how to kill off a match. You’d like to see Arsenal not give the ball away so cheaply or frequently over the 90 minutes. You’d hope for better decision-making / shot selection around the box (please stop shooting from 20-25 yards out, it’s a terrible play). You want a higher quality finishing from the attackers. But all told, it was a scrappy win — part one of those “good teams find a way” results and part a darn good, team performance.
But that’s all wrapped up in what makes this roster so promising and makes me excited for the future. The areas for improvement are plain to see. There are several matches you can look back over and think, “yeah they need to get something there,” and even with that, Arsenal control their own fate with 4 matches to play. And don’t forget, Arsenal have the youngest average starting 11 in the Premier League this season.
One of those areas for improvement is game management. Arsenal have given up too many quick, cheap goals towards the end of the first half, especially after taking a lead. It happened again today. Just six minutes after Rob Holding (and his magnificent hairline) put the Gunners in front with his first Premier League goal for the club, Arsenal let West Ham equalize.
A cheap giveaway in the middle third. Zero pressure on Declan Rice from either Martin Ødegaard or Gabriel Martinelli. Nuno Tavares not getting tight enough to Vladimír Coufal. Gabriel Magalhaes not getting tight enough to Jarrod Bowen. Little things they’ve got to get right if they want to cement themselves among the top clubs.
To be fair, while there was plenty Arsenal could have done better in the run-up to the West Ham equalizer, the shot only went in because of a deflection of Gabriel’s backside. Bowen’s shot was headed right at Ramsdale. The change of direction put it into the corner. But as I said, there was plenty the Gunners could have done to stop the play from ever getting to that point.
It was a solid afternoon from Aaron Ramsdale. He made a fantastic save on a Declan Rice header in the first half. He did well not to clatter Jarrod Bowen in the second half when he came charging well out of his box, because if he had, it could have been a red card (although I think a red would have been harsh - the ball was angling away from goal, headed out of play, and there was another defender). Instead, Bowen was (rightly) booked for diving. Ramsdale hasn’t managed a clean sheet in 11 matches, which you’d like to see change. The big save on Rice today is reassuring, though. Ramsdale had been looking a bit shaky, likely due in part to the defense being a bit more porous in front of him.
Takehiro Tomiyasu’s return to the lineup helped with that. He played quite well for 70 minutes before being subbed off with a problem that Mikel Arteta said he wasn’t worried about. Arteta said the same thing about Bukayo Saka’s knock, nothing concerning. Ben White, who was a surprise exclusion from the squad, has a hamstring problem picked up against Manchester United and will be evaluated in the coming days.
Circling back to the defense, Rob Holding played really well, especially for a guy who’s minutes have come at the end of matches to shut things down. He made several critical blocks and didn’t put a foot wrong all match. Nuno Tavares had a dreadful first half but was quite good in the second. His ability to burst forward, even late in matches when you’d expect him to be tired, is impressive. Some of the credit for his second half improvement goes to Granit Xhaka who, whether on Mikel Arteta’s instructions or his own behest, paid more attention to helping Nuno out, ensuring he wasn’t as isolated defensively.
You can’t say enough good things about Granit Xhaka. The man is maligned from every angle, including by some in his club’s fanbase, and has put in absolutely rock-solid performances when the club has needed him most. Arsenal are clearly a lesser team without Thomas Partey in the lineup, but Xhaka’s performances the past few games have lessened that loss considerably more than most any of us could have expected.]
One more observation from the day’s action: Eddie Nketiah had a great second half. Like most of the side, he did not have a good opening 45 minutes. He gave away / lost the ball cheaply, shot when he shouldn’t have, and didn’t accomplish much. After the break and especially once Arsenal went ahead, his holdup play was excellent, his willingness to run and chase was important, he helped out defensively, and he even mixed it up physically as the clock ticked down.
The way this injury-hit, young roster has responded to a run of bad results is incredibly impressive. They’ve beaten West Ham and Chelsea away and Manchester United at home. I’ll say it again — there is something special about this bunch. I hope they can keep the magic going for four more matches.