West Ham 3 Arsenal 3: Arsene Wenger called his players naïve for the way they defended against West Ham’s hat-trick hero Andy Carroll, but maybe the Arsenal manager will also be questioning his own approach to the last London derby to be played at Upton Park.
Though Arsenal’s genuine title hopes disappeared weeks if not months ago, Wenger was still talking their chances up going into this match so it was a must-win fixture.
So, it was a surprise when Wenger dispensed with his only summer signing, goalkeeper Petr Cech, and also left giant German central defender Per Mertesacker on the bench in the knowledge Carroll is just the sort of player his teams often struggle against.
Leading through Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez goals it should have been enough to see Arsenal home, but they conceded two Carroll efforts before the break. The former Newcastle and Liverpool striker added his third soon after the break before Laurent Koscielny finished a scintillating Arsenal move for the visitors’ equaliser.
A frustrated Wenger countered claims after the game that he had blundered, insisting Cech was not fully fit and explaining the same outcome could have occurred whoever he had picked.
Carroll said afterwards they had targeted Arsenal’s aerial frailties in training all week and the omission of Cech must have been an added bonus, but Wenger defended his selection.
He stated Cech is still his No. 1 and said: “He has just came back from injury and played just one week in training and I decided to keep David Ospina in. I don’t think you can blame Ospina. He is a great goalkeeper as is Petr Cech. No matter what I decide I am right, and no matter what I decide, I am wrong.
“With Carroll they can score from nothing and no matter who played we have conceded headed goals before.”
Asked if he was let down by a lack of leaders after taking a two-goal lead, he retorted: “Leaders? Every time we concede goals people talk about leaders and say ‘you lacked this, and you lacked that.
“I don’t deny we lacked something at 2-0. Is it leadership? I’m not convinced — it was just about heading the ball.
“On our defensive record we are the third defence in league and we should not make too much of it. If we have a weakness [in this match] it is in the air and we lacked a tricky attitude.
“We jumped, but we did not make it uncomfortable for him to head it well. Ideally, you never want the opponent to have an easy header.”
Questioned as to whether Arsenal had blown their best title chance for over a decade, Wenger answered: “I will leave it for others to judge at the end of the season, Now it is important to look forward and not to talk too much.”
One of the Arsenal defenders in the firing line was goalscorer Koscielny, who commented: “Carroll is quality when it comes to heading the ball. If you want to win the duel, you need to be stronger and arrive early on the cross. You can’t let them get a cross in easy because they have some good players on the wings. It is a job for everyone, not just the defender. The guys on the flanks need to help their team-mates with defending.”
The result was greeted by a mixed reaction from the Arsenal fans with the usual mix of some calling for Wenger to go and others venting their disappointment at owner Stan Kroenke. Wenger will be in charge for at least next season, however, and now they have six games left this season to decide whether or not to stay behind the manager and players.
For West Ham’s Slaven Bilic and his men there was more to cheer as a Champions League spot remains an outside chance as they bid to take European football into their first year in the Olympic Stadium next season. It says something for how much they have improved under the Croat in his first term in charge that their players were disappointed not to complete a league double over their London rivals.
Both Carroll and the impressive Michail Antonio said a top four spot is still within their grasp, though the first task is to try to beat Manchester United in Wednesday night’s FA Cup quarter final replay, in the last ever Cup tie at the Boleyn Ground.
After four consecutive draws, Antonio said: “It’s one of those things where it’s happened to us in the last four games, where we’ve had the lead and we didn’t manage to hold on.
“We’ve just got to find that solidity at the back and not let any more goals in. We’ve not had a clean sheet in a while now so that’s got to be our next plan.”
Adrian 7, Tomkins 6 (Emenike 46, 6), Reid 7, Ogbonna 6, Cresswell 7, Kouyate 6, Noble 6, Lanzini 7, Antonio 8, Carroll 9, Payet 7.
Randolph, Valencia, Obiang, Moses, Hendrie, Oxford.
Ospina 6, Bellerin 6, Gabriel 5, Koscielny 7, Monreal 5, Elneny 6 (Giroud 68, 6), Coquelin 6 (Ramsey 61, 5), Iwobi 8, Ozil 7, Sanchez 7, Welbeck 7 (Walcott 81, 5)
Cech, Gibbs, Mertesacker, Chambers.
Craig Pawson 4/10
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved