I hear West Ham have a new club song, that goes: “We’re forever blowing three goal leads...”
Not that we can afford to gloat. Yes, it was an impressive achievement to dig ourselves out of a 0-3 hole and get back on level terms by full time, but the way we got into that hole in the first place raises a lot of questions.
This is not a blow by blow report (I’d need an extra thousand words to cover all the incidents that happened); rather I have picked out three lessons I took from the game and from our performance.
- Lack of Professionalism
Not for the first time this season we started a game half asleep and allowed our opponents to run rings around us, such that when Lingard opened the scoring for West Ham it was not a surprise.
Remember the Manchester City game when we let them score after two minutes, Raheem Sterling – Raheem Sterling! – rising unchallenged in the middle of our six yard box to head home a cross while Rob Holding stood there like Eeyore? We allowed Leicester to score after six minutes.
Our habit of letting our focus drift at really important times (the opening minutes, the crucial minutes either side of half time) speaks to a problem of coaching, discipline and professionalism.
Then there’s the lack of awareness we frequently display. The most egregious example all season happened yesterday for West Ham’s second goal. We had just gone one-nil down, we needed to really up our game, steady the ship and fight our way back. Instead, what did we do when the Hammers won a free kick just outside our area? Several of our players ambled towards our goal with their back to the ball looking as if they were heading back to the hotel after a few bevvies at the beach bar.
A quick free kick and we were two nil down before some of our players even noticed!
I think Mikel Arteta is attempting to get to grips with the ill discipline and unprofessionalism at the club – it’s why he publicly disciplined Aubameyang for lateness and why he has been prepared to freeze out players like Ozil and Guendouzi. But there is a long way to go, judging by yesterday’s performance.
There ought to be consequences for such casual negligence as was displayed by the players who ignored the quick free kick possibility – perhaps a couple of games in the reserves (and yes, I know that the particular culprits in this case include some of our supposedly best players: Tierney, Partey and Xhaka who all had their backs to the ball, and Saka who was too busy arguing with the ref to notice what West Ham were up to).
Leno letting the ball in at his near post also shows that he was mentally on the back foot too.
But this disease needs severe treatment now. Come on Mikel: consequences, consequences, consequences.
2. Formation Problems
Leaving aside the broader question of whether Aubameyang is worth his place at the moment, it is clear that we function really badly when he plays with Lacazette.
Laca had a very good game yesterday (including bagging two goals, even if one of them was ludicrously put down as an own goal for West Ham). But when Auba is out on the wing and we are attempting to play a possession game, it effectively puts us a man down.
The captain’s contribution is so negligible except when he attempts to get a run on goal or to get on the end of a cross that we are playing with 10 men. If we had started yesterday with Smith Rowe or even Pepe in the Left Attacking role I’m sure we would not have found ourselves two down in 17 minutes.
As GiE put it starkly in the comments after yesterday’s game: “Aubameyang (does) not really suit the type of game Arteta wants to play, yes on occasion where we planned to sit deep and break he was the man, but when we are trying to control possession and a pass and move build up he just hasn’t got the tools in his locker, he is not a great dribbler, he is not a great passer and his first touch is woeful for someone so handsomely paid. And perhaps most importantly he has never been a player who can stand up to the rigours of a premier league defence, competing for high balls, playing back to goal and risking a knock or two are just not within his skillset.“
Unless we are playing the likes of Manchester City where, as GiE says, we aim to sit deep and break fast (as we did to win the FA Cup), there is just no real place for Auba in the side.
3. Light at the End of the Tunnel
Notwithstanding the points above, the way we played to get back in that game and salvage a draw was tremendously encouraging: not just because of the character it showed, but also because of the attacking football we played.
In the end we might even have come away with all three points (although in fairness we rode our luck at the back at times).
Odegaard was outstanding and linked up really well with Lacazette (whose versatility is really coming to the fore – he seems to combine well with Saka, ESR and now Ode).
Some of our attacking play was slick and pretty, properly Wengeresque. And although it was “only West Ham”, this Hammers team is the best they have had in years by a long way and is fifth in the table for a reason. Even so, we ripped them apart for the entire second half.
Right now we are a team that, if it can only exorcise its demons of carelessness and self-harm, has the players and the potential to be competing with the top four.
Leno – 5
Sleeping for their second goal and I thought he could have done better with the first. He was also leaden-footed for the third, although the fault for that one lies more with Luiz.
Chambers – 7
Assisted for two of our goals and had plenty of good moments, although I thought he looked nervous whenever we tried to play out from the back.
Luiz – 5
Not his best game by a long chalk.
Mari – 5.5
I don’t remember any particular mistakes but then I don’t remember him much from the game generally.
Tierney – 7
Was one of the guilty group with his back to the play for West Ham’s second, but apart from that did well.
Xhaka – 6
Seemed tired. Not entirely surprising.
Partey – 6.5
Steadily growing into his role, but I wish he would stop those long range shots before the England rugby team try to recruit him.
Saka – 6
Not as influential as he has been. He looks like a lad who needs a good long rest (and definitely does not need three pointless internationals in six days).
Odegaard – 8 (MoTM)
In his first couple of games for us I felt he was slowing things down a bit too much, but now he has slipped into gear and boy, he is a player.
Aubameyang – 4
Mostly a passenger and also managed to lose possession every time he got the ball, putting us in danger on several occasions. He should not be considered an automatic starter.
Lacazette – 7.5
Great link-up play and two goals. Led the line really well. We’re a better team when we start with Laca up front and any combo from Pepe/Saka/ESR/Ode behind.
Smith Rowe – 7
Pepe – 7
Martinelli – 6