So, was there a spectacular training ground bust up or wasn't there? The drama started as soon as the printers began spitting out the teamsheets at The Emirates on Saturday, where the absence of Mesut Ozil quickly sparked frenzied rumours of an argument at London Colney, which supposedly culminated in an irate Ozil walking out of training and refusing to take up his place on the substitutes bench for the visit of West Ham. In case anyone is bothered: Arsenal won 3-1.
But such was the strength of the speculation that the match itself — an entertainingly end-to-end affair which Arsenal fought back to win — was relegated to subplot status. Ozil’s absence loomed large over everything. And afterwards, Emery was given precious little time to savour his first three points in the Premier League. Instead, the Ozil questions came thick and fast.
Emery was entirely unequivocal that there had been no bust-up. “The information isn’t true. I don’t know who started telling people this information,” he said with a touch of exasperation in his post-match press conference. “He was sick yesterday. And it was decided that he would not play today.”
Whether people accept that explanation is an entirely different matter, and the saga will surely dominate all of the build-up ahead of next weekend’s trip to Cardiff. Which is a shame. Because despite their defensive frailties Arsenal deserve credit for the way they fought back against a lopsided West Ham, who took the lead through Marko Arnautović before proceeding to shoot themselves squarely in the foot in the second-half.
We’ll get to Arsenal’s own shoddy defending momentarily. But even the bumbling Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos will have winced at the goal which turned this game around. With the score at 1-1 following Nacho Monreal’s first-half equaliser, Issa Diop endured five seconds to forget on his West Ham debut to gift Arsenal the game.
His first mistake was to mindlessly balloon the ball fifty yards above his own head rather than play it out for a throw, or simply lump it forward. His second was to turn the ball into his own net, after Alexandre Lacazette had come into possession and fizzed a low shot into the box. On the touchline, Manuel Pellegrini held his head in his hands. It was a cruel way to throw away what had appeared to be a hard-won point.
West Ham gamely pressed on as the game ticked over into injury-time, only for a decisive goal at the other end of the pitch. Late substitute Danny Welbeck made sure of the win, and West Ham’s miserable start to the new season continued.
“They won 3-1, but if you analyse the game you see we had so many options to score the goal,” poor Pellegrini attempted to convince himself afterwards. “I am very happy in the way we played, we played well with good pace and movement, so I am sure soon it will come.”
He would have been fancying his chances after Arnautović gave West Ham the lead, courtesy of yet more appealing defending from Arsenal’s haphazard backline.
Mustafi may be an exceptionally tidy footballer with the ball at his feet. But really, what good is finishing the game with a 90.4 per cent pass completion rate when he continues to prove such a liability when an opponent runs at him? Other Arsenal players were of course guilty for allowing Felipe Anderson the time and space he needed to storm forward — quite what Granit Xhaka was doing so far upfield is anybody’s guess — but it was Mustafi who backed off and backed off, allowing the Brazilian to languidly tee up the waiting Arnautovic.
Encouragingly for Arsenal, the reaction was immediate, much as it was last weekend when they twice conceded to Chelsea in the first-half. Only this time, they seized their opportunity to immediately hit back. After an animated minute long discussion with Emery on the touchline, Bellerin finally received the ball in space down the right, winging past the positionally suspect Arthur Masuaku and fizzing a low cross into the box.
It will concern Emery that the onrushing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — who needs a goal more than anyone — was nowhere near it. Fortunately neither were West Ham’s scrambling defenders, with Montreal granted sufficient time at the back stick to control the ball, before ramming it past the flailing Lukasz Fabianski.
The second-half started with a flurry of action at both ends, and Arnautović really should have added to his tally before being withdrawn with a muscular injury. But Diop’s decision to see how high he could boot the ball into London’s clear blue sky was a misguided one, before Welbeck added some sheen to the scoreline.
Not that anybody will care for very long, of course. No, Ozil’s absence is the true story of the afternoon, and one which shall run and run throughout most of next week. Ultimately, this was a curious afternoon that has raised far more questions than it has provided answers.
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