Nine-minute burst brought three goals and a first win since October but the hour that preceded it saw Arsenal plumb new depths
Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates after scoring his team’s third goal against West Ham United.
There was a brief moment between Nicolas Pepe’s excellent goal to put Arsenal 2-1 in front and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang’s third when the visiting fans who have spent too much time dabbling with gallows humour in the past couple of months started singing “We are staying up.”
The song brought plenty of laughter but it was also a reminder of the position that this team finds itself in.
At the conclusion of a weekend where the other five members of the soon-to-be-former Big Six were packing tighter near the top, Arsenal went into this game against a similarly rudderless West Ham in the bottom half of the table.
Whatever about clinging on to hope of a top-four finish, ensuring that they did not get dragged into a relegation battle was the first priority.
In the end this victory was comfortable but do not let the scoreline, a nine-minute spell of good play and a late passage of showboating mask what had preceded it.
By earning three points against a Hammers side in even deeper trouble, a solitary point above the bottom three, they papered over the cracks. It would take a fair whack of overexuberant confidence to describe it as a turning point.
For 59 minutes Arsenal’s performance was appalling, a new low for a team that appeared devoid of character or self-respect. Aside from the shoddy body language, a stinking attitude and shortage of effort, what was the intended game plan?
There was a point midway through the opening half when Freddie Ljungberg’s team had enjoyed 84 per cent possession but they did nothing with it, passing the ball aimlessly across the back.
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There was no intensity to their play, a lack of movement from the front-line seldom providing options, and their first attempt did not arrive until the 33rd minute, when Mesut Ozil tamely headed over.
West Ham were happy to leave their visitors dawdle, attempting to coerce them forward with the aim of counterattacking. They knew there would be mistakes. The only question was if they could punish them sufficiently.
In truth Manuel Pellegrini’s team did not have to do much for their first-half lead. Angelo Ogbonna’s goal, awarded following a lengthy VAR check because the ball appeared to come off his shoulder, arrived courtesy of embarrassingly poor defending rather than a piece of creative genius.
Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles ducks and allows West Ham centre back Angelo Ogbonna to break the deadlock at the London Stadium. (Image: Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Lucas Torreira failed to clear initially and when the West Ham centre back sent Pablo Fornals’s ensuing cross from the right goalwards Ainsley Maitland-Niles inexplicably ducked and the ball came off his back and diverted past Bernd Leno.
Simple balls were misdirected too often. When one of the attacking players actually made a run it was too often mistimed. They showed no interest in winning a second ball and were bullied physically.
“For 60 minutes there was only one team on the bench,” Pellegrini said. Ljungberg’s assessment of the opening period was: “We were slow, we were lethargic. We didn’t run, we didn’t move.”
After such a diabolical half, a response seemed inevitable but the initial signs were not promising. Mesut Ozil failed t
o beat the first man with a corner and Aubameyang comically overhit a cross from the right in the 58th minute.
Within 60 seconds, though, Ljungberg’s team remembered how to play football and from not having had a single attempt on target they scored three times in nine minutes. The blitz was thrilling. Martinelli’s equaliser was well-taken, Pepe’s finish a stunner and Aubameyang’s finish was one of a clinical finisher.
But this was a comeback that had as much to do with the fragility of a West Ham team immersed in an even deeper crisis. Once Arsenal equalised Pellegrini’s players disappeared into a shell, paralysed by their own fear of playing the game.
“We saw West Ham getting a bit tired around the 60th minute and we sliced them open,” Ljungberg said. “We played some really good football in my opinion, that’s how we want to play. “Of course we won’t get carried away. We have a lot of work to do on things but all credit to the players for that they did.”
It would be a stretch to say Arsenal are back on track but such has been the scarcity of reasons to celebrate in recent weeks, those fans deserved their moment.
And, yes, they are staying up. West Ham, on the other hand, do have cause to fear.