Sunday, 1 February 2009

West Ham v Arsenal (John Simkin)

Two years ago, when West Ham became the first visiting team to win at the Emirates, Robert Green was in outstanding form. This time Arsenal only managed three shots on target and two of these were straight at the goalkeeper. The Hammers have now drawn at Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal and Steve Clarke, speaking after the game rightly pointed out that: "It's very important for the players' confidence to come to these places and get a draw. There has been significant progress from October."

However, the game once again highlighted problems that have not been completely solved by the Zola/Clarke regime. As always, the opposition targeted Lucas Neill. Samir Nasri causing a great deal of panic in the opening stages with his pace down the left flank. Valon Behrami did what he could to help Neill but there is little he can do when the full-back gives the ball away in dangerous positions.

Even against a team like Arsenal, Neill loves to go forward and there are times when he can actually deliver a dangerous ball into the opposition half. The problem is that he is extremely slow to get back when the attack breaks-down. The sight of him jogging or walking back to his position during a counter-attack increases my blood-pressure. This is in direct contrast to Illunga, who is just as fast going back as he is going forward.

The other major problem concerns the substitutes. For example, Noble was in poor form and as well as badly directed passes he was rarely able to get forward to support Cole and Di Michele. I suspect that he had not fully recovered from the knock he got on Wednesday and it was no real surprise when he was brought off in the 72nd minute. However, his replacement was Savio, a striker, who had to play in the centre of midfield. As it happens he did a fine job and I felt the team performed better after his introduction, but it does highlight the need for more options on the bench. So far this season we have not had too many injuries to first-team players, but if our luck changes, with the current squad, we are going to struggle to maintain our position in the top half of the league. I know we will have Radoslav Kovac available next week but we still need a couple more defenders, especially a high-quality right-back.

Clarke’s summary of the game was fairly accurate: "It's always difficult when you come here against a team who pass so well, you have to be disciplined and do the right things. Maybe I'm disappointed we didn't do more with the ball, but today was more a defensive performance. We came here with the intention of playing as we have been playing recently and didn't concede too many clear-cut chances which was pleasing.”

What he did not say was that West Ham gave the ball away too much against Arsenal. When this happens against a quality team, it takes you sometime to get the ball back. This is reflected in the stats with the Hammers only achieving a 75.6% pass completion compared to the 81.2% achieved against Hull. The 37% possession figure was also not very impressive.

Clarke was right to point out that it was a good defensive performance and Collins, Upson, Parker, Illunga, Collison and Behrami all had impressive games. Although Green only had to save two shots (Collins headed the other off the line), eleven were blocked by West Ham defenders.

Cole, closely marshaled by Toure and Gallas, had few opportunities but still managed to get two shots on target, which was only one less than the whole of the Arsenal team managed. Di Michele was very disappointing and was unable to hold onto the ball against a tough-tackling midfield. This was to be expected but it would have been very difficult for Zola to have dropped him after his great performance against Hull. Only the really great managers have the confidence to do that sort of thing.

West Ham have shown that they are capable of getting draws away from home against top clubs like Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. Next Sunday they have the opportunity to prove themselves against the best team in the league. Hopefully, Zola will play Savio alongside Cole in the game against Manchester United. I would also like to see him take a chance in playing Tomkins at right-back but I suspect Zola will opt for incompetence over inexperience.

Player Ratings

Green: Little to do but a poor punch at a corner resulted in Collins having to head the ball of the line. (6)

Neill: Given a torrid time against Samir Nasri. Also gave the ball away several times. (5)

Collins: Put his body in the way of numerous shots on target. Also headed off the line when Green found himself out of his goal. (8)

Upson: Another commanding performance from someone who fully deserves his place in the England squad. (8)

Ilunga: Was not able to go forward as often as normal but rarely looked like he was going to be beaten in defensive positions. (7)

Behrami: Spent most of the match covering for Neill and therefore made very few offensive breaks. One of the most important players in the side at the moment. (8)

Parker: Another inspiring performance from the man who controls everything in the centre of midfield. (8)

Noble: Well below his best. Distribution was poor and he gave very little support to Di Michele and Cole. I suspect he had not recovered from the knock he took against Hull. (6)

Collison: Except for a couple of poor passes in advanced positions, he had another highly promising game. (7)

Cole: Closely marked by Toure and Gallas he had few opportunities but still managed to get two shots on target. (6)

Di Michele: Found it difficult to get in the game and was fairly anonymous until he was taken off near the end. (5)

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