Arsenal had to dig deep and remain focused for the full ninety minutes to keep West Ham at bay and record a win after Thomas Vermaelen’s red card early in the first half.
Arsenal is learning how to win things the hard way. Late goals at Hull and Stoke reaffirmed their new found mental mental strength while the emphatic turnaround against Porto and the defeat of Liverpool displayed the correct application of flair and pragmatism. This time however, they faced arguably their most difficult proposition since being written off the title after the loss to Chelsea – having to defend a whole half with ten men.
Recent statistics on the other hand will dispute that notion, indicating that not much changes once a team experiences numerical disadvantage from a level or winning position and in some cases, gets better. That was the case in the win over West Ham as the away side visibly found it just as difficult to make their man advantage count as creating opportunities with the head count at evens. The Carlton Cole effort that hit the crossbar stands as the real notable moment in which West Ham looked dangerous in the second-half and Gianfranco Zola was particularly displeased with his side’s overall application. “I am disappointed, especially after the first half when I thought that we were playing the best game of the season,” he said. “The key was to keep the discipline because you have the extra man and I told them to keep it simple, to move the ball around until we have two versus one. Scoring the penalty would have been a big help because Arsenal would have played different football. But they just sat back and played the counter-attack. We just did not use the extra man.”
The aftermath of the defeat asks what West Ham could have done different to disrupt Arsenal’s compactness. Zola did revert to the 4-4-2 in a bid to catch Arsenal in moments of transition but found in front of them, the defensive shield of Song and Denilson in imperious form, the latter scoring a well worked first. As usual, Andrey Arshavin’s pearls of wisdom capture the Brazilian’s performance best; “He [Denilson] was the best in this game. Not because he scored early in the first half, but because he worked miracles in the second one. He kept on snatching the ball from West Ham players; he was everywhere, ahead of everybody like a “clockwork bunny”. In my opinion, Denilson played phenomenal game.” [Stats: 73 passes – 100% accuracy, 10 tackles attempted– 6 won, 3 interceptions and 3 free-kicks won.]
The problem with the Hammers was that their formation mirrored Arsenal when attacking, even with a man down. The full backs weren’t able to get forward freely so the Gunners never at any moment felt stretched despite the pretty patterns West Ham created. By moving Valon Behrami to right back, Zola effectively displaced his most industrious player and the one most likely to double up in zones to create uncertainty.He could have switched to the 4-3-3 he played when he had less strikers at his disposal but as is the case with West Ham, their final ball is often missing when there is less space to manoeuvre.
Arsenal also upped their concentration levels and in introducing Diaby, gave the side the ability to win back the ball better. Wigan manager Roberto Martinez says it’s normal that it’s sometimes easier at times to defend a lead with a man down as the team’s mentality instantly shifts: “When you go [the opposition] down to ten men, that didn’t help us at all,” he said after his sides draw against Manchester City earlier this year. “It gives a reason for the opposition to be alert, to be concentrating, to get behind the ball, to be well organised and that’s makes it even harder.”