Arsenal started out against West Ham replicating the best parts of the match script against Liverpool. They started fast, took control of the match with a goal, and added a second. West Ham were out of it. Unfortunately, Arsenal also copied the horrid part of the script against Liverpool. Instead of putting the match out of reach, the Gunners let their opponent back into things. And the worst part of the script repeated: Arsenal had to settle for a draw after giving up a two-goal lead.
The Gunners did not look themselves after the opening 20 minutes of the match. They vacillated between seeming uncharacteristically uncomfortable on the ball, making poor decisions, and playing it too quickly and lingering on the ball too long, not moving it with the rapidity and sharpness that has become a hallmark of their attack going right. Thomas Partey had an absolute nightmare of a game, and he was rightfully hooked for Jorginho early in the second half.
The rest of Mikel Arteta’s subs didn’t make as much sense. Leandro Trossard was excellent, but bringing him on to replace Gabriel Jesus nullified his brilliance. Jesus was one of the livelier Arsenal players on the afternoon. Arteta left it too late to bring on Fabio Vieira and Reiss Nelson, and even later with Eddie Nketiah. None of them had enough time to make a difference. They needed to come on 5-10 minutes earlier. Substitution patterns are one of the largest areas for improvement for Mikel Arteta as a manager.
The match was also a stark reminder that Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney aren’t suited to the way that Arsenal want to play. Neither of them are good enough on the ball. The Gunners frequently struggled to break the press and progress the ball up the pitch. That starts with the defenders, their ability to make the correct first pass is critical. Neither Holding nor Tierney do that well enough. It all starts to break down from there.
I don’t mean to pile on Kieran Tierney because I love him as a player. He gives every ounce that he has for the team and put in a critical piece of 1-v-1 defending late in the second half to help preserve the draw. But his lack of on-ball quality hurts the Gunners in the attacking third, too. Attacking moves end with him aimlessly floating a ball into the box rather than picking out a teammate or fizzing it on the ground across the face.
It was also a reminder that while Arsenal have performed well beyond expectations this season, they are a young team that still has plenty of growing and maturing to do. They don’t have the practiced, ruthless efficiency that Manchester City and Liverpool do and did during their title-winning seasons. How could they? This is Arsenal’s first rodeo. They still need a bit of luck, bounces, and calls to do the thing, and it looks as if that all may be starting to run out on them.
That thing could have come in the form of a handball call against Declan Rice to nullify West Ham’s penalty. Thomas Partey was far too casual on the ball, once he lost it, instead of trying to recover, he stops to put his arm up and ask for a call. He was probably right to ask for the handball, though. The more replays I watch of the incident, the clearer it becomes that after the ball bounces off Rice’s stomach, it ricochets off his outstretched arm. Whether he intends it that way should be irrelevant. He arm is extended away from his body and he uses it to control a ball that would have otherwise ran away from him. It’s not the incidental handball by an attacker that is now ignored under the rules.
That bit of good fortune also could have come by either the referee or VAR not being deceived by Lucas Paqueta’s dive, too. Gabriel slips and clearly collides with him, the problem is he’d already decided the throw himself over before the contact happens. He starts going to ground when he sees Gabriel, not when Gabriel makes contact.
Or it could have come in the form of Vladimir Coufal being called for coming through Gabriel Jesus’ back AND raking his studs down the Arsenal striker’s Achilles. There has to have been a reason his boot came off, right? Turns out it’s because he got fouled. Instead of an Arsenal free kick that would have seen the ball harmlessly cycled backwards to start building an attacking, West Ham took a long throw and scored off the clearance attempt.
Sometimes you just don’t get those kind of breaks. On those days, it’s up to you to respond and to find a way regardless. Arsenal didn’t. They weren’t good enough, sharp enough, or composed enough on the afternoon. They were in control of the match and instead of putting it away with another goal or two, they allowed an all-but-dead West Ham side back into it by becoming too casual on the ball and not continuing to turn the screw.
Bukayo Saka missing a penalty certainly didn’t help. He has a 100% penalty conversion record for Arsenal. His only miss came at the 2020 Euros. It’s a shame that changed today, but that’s the way it goes. If you take enough penalties, you’re bound to miss one at some point. Unfortunately for Saka and Arsenal, it came on a penalty that desperately mattered. Missed penalties can be deflating for a team and sap your morale. I think there was a bit of that for Arsenal today.
Don’t despair. The title race isn’t over, yet. There are almost assuredly multiple twists and turns left this Premier League season. Arsenal still control their own destiny. If the Gunners take points off Manchester City and match their other results, Arsenal win the title.