Perhaps, eight months into his reign as Arsenal manager, we are finally gaining some insight into what the quintessential Unai Emery performance looks like. A frustratingly slipshod start, an eye-gouging moment of defensive incompetence courtesy of Shkodran Mustafi, and an awkward post-match press conference dominated by Mesut Ozil, who was once again left out of the squad for “tactical reasons”.
With the score somehow still goalless at half-time, after an increasingly buoyant West Ham had missed a glut of opportunities, Arsenal looked to have gotten away with their now customary slow start. But that costly Mustafi mishap was inevitable. At the start of the second-half he graciously nodded Felipe Anderson’s cross into the heart of his own penalty area, allowing Declan Rice to curl home what turned out to be the winning goal.
It is Arsenal’s first defeat at West Ham in 12 matches. It is also a result with potentially disastrous consequences for their attempt to finish in the top four. Should Chelsea beat Newcastle at home today they will move six points ahead of Arsenal; should Manchester United beat Tottenham, Arsenal may even fall out of the top five altogether. Next Saturday’s match against Chelsea already looks huge.
West Ham can meanwhile afford to look up after a performance that ranks alongside their 3-1 victory over United earlier this season. This dazzling West Ham front three of Anderson, Marko Arnautović and Samir Nasri is just so irresistibly West Ham: three excellent but enigmatic entertainers who have the God-given talent to run rings around any defence, if not always the aptitude. Here they seamlessly swapped positions like particularly energetic line dancers, impossible to track and very difficult to stop.
But — given the highly stung personalities involved — there naturally had to be a minor sting in the tail. After being substituted late on, Arnautović theatrically waved to the crowd, before eschewing the full-time celebrations for a swift exit down the tunnel. Afterwards, Manuel Pellegrini batted away the suggestion Arnautović had been saying his farewells ahead of a move to the Chinese Super League. “Everyone can understand what you want to think,” he said with a slight curl of the lip. “But we are just focused on what happened in the game and no other issues.”
Whisper it quietly, but maybe West Ham have already found the Austrian’s replacement in Nasri. The Frenchman, who was signed to many a mocking smile and Drip Doctors gag, was outstanding against his former club today, a compact blob of PVA glue holding this ragtag band of entertainers together. He selflessly knitted together West Ham’s attacks, constantly looked to poke the ball in behind and hassled and harried Arsenal’s defence throughout.
Will he play like this every week? Probably not — but if Pellegrini can keep him focused he will more than help to ease the blow Arnautović’s seemingly inevitable departure will cause.
Nasri, whose every touched was jeered by Arsenal’s travelling support as if it was a mortal sin, was at the heart of everything West Ham did well. A neat first-half flick sent Mark Noble scampering into the box, only for his scuffed shot to dribble limply into Bernd Leno’s arms, and later Nasri repeated the trick with Anderson after some fine hold-up play from Arnautović. His shot was fierce but just slightly off target.
Naturally Nasri played an important role in West Ham’s goal, too, although it was a current Arsenal player, rather than a former one, who had the most significant contribution.
Chasing a rather heavy touch around Alexandre Lacazette, Anderson did superbly well just to reach the ball before it ran away for a goal kick, and even better to stab the ball at Mustafi, stationed at the near post. The German headed it directly into the path of Nasri, who quickly sorted out his feet and laid off Declan Rice, on a rare soiree forward.
Nobody anticipated what was to come next. With Laurent Koscielny haring towards him and Granit Xhaka watching on, Rice found himself with about as much room as Yao Ming in a Mini Cooper, forcing him to take the shot on early. No matter: with an elegant wave of his right boot he lifted the ball past Leno and into the top corner of the net — his first league goal for a club he joined as a 14-year-old.
It was a goal that epitomises Arsenal’s current problems, of which there are many. Even when facing a stop-start side languishing in mid-table, and even though he was protectively ensconced between two other centre-backs, Mustafi still managed to find a way to make a fatal mistake. He is little short of a liability in an already creaking defence, and was almost immediately withdrawn by Emery, for Aaron Ramsey.
But that was it. With the exception of 19-year-old Eddie Nketiah — a player Emery clearly does not yet trust — Emery had no other attacking options on his bench. Instead he threw on defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira and full-back Hector Bellerin, as Ozil no doubt arched an eyebrow back home.
Emery later explained that Ozil was not deserving of a place in his squad. “I can say this week that he has been working normally [in training],” he said. “But we have won matches with him and lost matches with him, and today I chose the players who deserved to play in this match.”
Arsenal gamely flooded forwards as they lurched ever closer to a fifth league defeat of the season and thought they had equalised right at the very death when Koscielny headed home Sead Kolašinac’s cross. The away end erupted. But they had missed Marc Parry’s checkerboard flag, which shot up as soon as a clearly offside Kolasinac received the ball. They abruptly fell silent, and Arsenal’s race was run.
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