I'm used to pain. I'm of Scottish stock; I'm South London born and bred and I also happen to be a West Ham fan. These last two often make for physical as well as emotional pain- being an 'ammer south of the river is rather like being Sunni in a Shi'ite area. However, last night's display by the rip roaring goal scoring Irons was something that caused me an inordinate amount of pain even by my own excruciating standards.
Even writing the scoreline seems wrong. It actually says much for the excellent season we've had prior to the last four games that I can't quite believe it's true. I mean, did we actually concede five goals against Arsenal? They're crap! Yes they are- but yes we did.
A questionable line up made very clear Big Sam's priorities for the game; defend, defend, defend. One could see where the manager was coming from on this; the most important thing when facing Arsenal is to get in their faces and disrupt their passing rhythm. Allardyce's tactics were spot on, his team selection very much less so. Few fans will have seen the logic in dropping Momo Diame, given the urgent need to get stuck into our opponents, and his absence provoked all manner of questions, given Arsenal's reported interest in him and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's praise of him on the morning of the game. To the untutored eye, it almost looked as if Allardyce was fielding a deliberately weak team, with winger Matt Jarvis' reward for a man of the match display against QPR on Saturday being demotion to the bench, and the hardworking, but less gifted Matty Taylor taking his place. Saturday's goal hero Joe Cole also hit the bench, drawing yet more raised eyebrows from the travelling Irons. The manager's continued faith in the misfiring and increasingly disinterested Ricardo Vaz Te will baffle many supporters too- what does he see in him?
Big Sam's curious team selection didn't seem quite so curious after a solid start to the game, capped by Jack Collison's opener after eighteen minutes. The Academy graduate appears to be on a new lease of lfie after returning in the New Year from an injury sustained in the play off final victory that kept him out for nearly eight months, and continued his rich vein of form by blasting past Szczesny from eighteen yards. The travelling Irons celebrated wildly, but their partying was short-lived. The home side, stung, stormed forward and Germany forward Podolski, who opened the scoring in the previous fixture at the Boleyn Ground, was given too much space by the Hammers defence and equalised with a fierce shot.
The Gunners piled on the pressure and Podolski saw a second effort cleared off the line by Joey O'Brien, with James Tomkins then halting a surging run by England international Theo Walcott, fresh from signing a new long term deal at the Emirates Stadium. The remainder of the first half was a typical Arsenal performance of the manner that most frustrates their supporters- all the possession, all the chances, but no more goals. A solid defensive display from the Irons had set them up well for the second half and with every chance of taking something out of the game. Then the floodgates opened.
With five minutes of the second half played, the home side won a corner. Amid all the pushing and shoving, no one in the Hammers defence seemed to have picked up Olivier Giroud- even James Tomkins, who was supposed to be marking him. Result: the Frenchman had a simple tap-in at the back stick and Arsenal regained the lead. But worse was to come. A complete breakdown in communication in the West Ham back four and a dismally failed attempt at an offside trap made it easy for Giroud and Podolski to set up Carzola, who backheeled home; a Podolski cross found another unmarked Arsenal player, this time Walcott, who smashed past Jussi Jaaskelainen; and the rout was complete when Giroud grabbed his second of the match from another piercing, angled pass from Podolski. At this point, the Hammers were afforded a brief respite after substitute Dan Potts, on for goalscorer Collison, went down injured and required lengthy treatment before being stretchered off. Big Sam told reporters afterwards that he hoped the eighteen year old full back had just suffered "severe concussion." Having used all of their substitutes already, West Ham had to play the final twenty minutes or so with ten men, but the home side blessedly took their foot off the gas and the match petered out, thankfully.
Lessons learnt for the Irons- largely in defending and the importance of marking the opposition's best players. All five of Arsenal's goals came when one of their players was given too much room or wasn't marked tightly enough, and fingers can be pointed at the entire back four for their part in was a complete dismantling of, what was before kick off, one of the most miserly defences in the Barclays Premier League. As I say, lessons learnt, and West Ham can count themselves lucky that the Gunners took their foot off the gas in the final twenty minutes or we could have been on the wrong end of a cricket score. During that ten minute spell in the second half, almost every time the home side attacked, they looked like scoring and that is incredibly worrying for us fans. The Irons have a brief respite with no game this weekend because of the FA Cup Fourth Round but will have to put some serious work in to put things right before the next game, away at Fulham, in six days time.
WEST HAM UNITED: Jaaskelainen; Demel, Tomkins, Reid (Diarra '62), O'Brien; Vaz Te (Diame '70), Nolan, Noble, Collison (Potts '62), Taylor; C Cole
Substitutes: Henderson, Potts, Jarvis, Diame, Diarra, J Cole, O'Neill
ARSENAL: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen (Koscielny '57), Gibbs; Wilshere, Walcott, Ramsey, Carzola; Podolski (Santos '70), Giroud (Oxlade-Chamberlain '73)
Substitutes: Mannone, Koscielny, Santos, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arshavin, Frimpong
Referee: Andre Marriner
Report by Alex Shilling