West Ham fans know better than anyone that hopes and dreams fade and die but Arsenal must have believed they would last longer than this.
An opening weekend that began with so much expectation after victory over Chelsea in the Community Shield last week has already been earthed in reality following a miserable performance against a West Ham side superbly set up by new manager Slaven Bilic.
All the old problems that have dogged Arsenal in recent seasons seemed to reappear as they were deservedly beaten 2-0; and not even new signing Petr Cech could save them. In fact the former Chelsea goalkeeper, the man who was meant to bring Arsenal the title, flapped unconvincingly at a free-kick for Cheikhou Kouyate’s opening goal and went the wrong way for Mauro Zarate’s second.
Two days in, then, and already it looks like Arsenal’s bubble has burst — with a very tricky trip to Crystal Palace to follow next Sunday.
In reality, of course, it is too early to make such a call after a weekend in which Chelsea and Manchester United also looked rusty — and it would also be fair to point out that West Ham, following a summer Europa League campaign, looked fitter and sharper because of it.
But whatever the reasons behind the result, this performance has certainly punctured the air of excitement that preceded the campaign and broughtArsenal’s limitations into focus.
“Our performance was not convincing, not going forward or defending,” said manager Arsene Wenger. “We gave two very cheap goals away and West Ham looked a bit sharper than us.
“We have to come back from this. It’s difficult but it’s part of our job. A successful team is down to how you respond to disappointment. It’s never a clear motorway and we have to respond quickly.”
Arsenal looked anything but champions-elect in a display in which they were careless with the ball and often shapeless in attack. Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin and Matthieu Debuchy in particular gave possession away too cheaply, and there was an air of panic by the end as Wenger’s players battled to break down West Ham.
The one shining light was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who provided a series of mazy dribbles and a volley that flew narrowly over the bar. But even he descended into bad habits after the break as Arsenal imploded.
Ramsey did hit the woodwork with a deflected shot and dragged another effort wide when Debuchy was in acres of space; but it was West Ham who went ahead shortly before half-time.
Dimitri Payet floated in a cleverly curled free-kick which was headed home by Kouyate as Cech hared out to meet him, flapping helplessly as he was beaten to the ball.
“The way we conceded just before half-time,with the experience we have in our side, is difficult to understand,” Wenger admitted later.
If anything, the second half was even more disappointing for Arsenal as they struggled to put passes together, wasted opportunities from set pieces and committed careless errors as impressive West Ham —with 16-year-old debutant Reece Oxford effortlessly playing the holding midfielder role — grew in confidence.
The visitors went 2-0 up after 57 minutes when Oxlade-Chamberlain gave the ball away and Cech bizarrely went the wrong way as Zarate cut a shot into the near post.
Bilic said: “It’s a great result for us, a great performance. To come here first game of the season against one of the biggest title contenders and win is the best proof you are doing things right. We haven’t won here for 20 years so it’s a really proud moment for the club.”
Not such a great start for Arsenal of course; and even the arrival of Alexis Sanchez from the bench failed to wake them from their slumbers.
Instead, the Gunners left the field to a smattering of boos and thousands more sighs of disappointment as the reality of defeat sunk in — and fans called, as ever, for more signings.
“If an exceptional solution turns up we do it,” Wenger said in response to that point. “But after a defeat like that it’s important not to say only let’stake a solution from the outside.”
We’ve heard that one before, of course, so the prospect of Karim Benzema suddenly arriving in north London remains pretty low. The reality is it will probably be up to the current squad to ensure the title dreams at Arsenaldon’t die too quickly. Right now they are already flying a little lower than a week ago.
ARSENAL: Cech 5; Debuchy 5 (Sanchez 67, 6), Mertesacker 6, Koscielny 6, Monreal 5; Coquelin 5 (Walcott 58, 6), Ramsey 5; Oxlade-Chamberlain 6, Ozil 6, Cazorla 6; Giroud 6.
WEST HAM: Adrian 7; Tomkins 7, Reid 8, Ogbonna 7, Cresswell 7; Oxford 7 (Nolan 79; 6), Noble 7, Kouyate 7; Payet 8, Zarate 7 (Jarvis 83), Sakho 8 (Maiga 90).
Referee: Martin Atkinson
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