The battle for Arsenal‘s soul goes on. It is an exhilarating and exasperating watch in equal measure, a team so astonishingly intent on reminding everyone of the best and worst of themselves each time they take to the field.
Which is the real Arsenal? The one that was so utterly insipid for half an hour, readily acquiescing to a 3-0 deficit as West Ham seized the initiative? Or the one that responded with remarkable resilience, orchestrated by the excellent Martin Odegaard to rescue a point with a 3-3 draw through a stunning fightback?
This inconsistency of application ultimately cost Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery their position as Gunners boss.
Under Wenger, the accusation was Arsenal were too comfortable. Under Emery, it looked like they didn’t care. Mikel Arteta has sought to tackle this corrosive culture by demanding greater professionalism at all times, a sentiment reinforced by the decision to drop captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for last weekend’s North London derby after he reported late to the training ground on the day of the game.
He could have reprimanded all 11 for turning up late here. This was as bad an opening 30 minutes as Arsenal have produced in years. Thursday night’s Europa League exploits must be taken into account, especially in the context of a condensed schedule, but the lack of the most basic work ethic was a staggering abandonment of responsibility for a professional sports team.
The Hammers started brightly but they did not need to be anything more than focused and purposeful to race ahead. Jesse Lingard continued his fine personal record against Arsenal by scoring his seventh goal in eight games against the Gunners, rifling home a superb volley from just inside the box.
Lingard continues to look reinvigorated and marked his England recall with the seventh goal involvement since joining West Ham on loan from Manchester United in January. No other Premier League player has more during that time span.
Just 98 seconds passed before they went 2-0 up. Arsenal completely switched off after conceding a free kick —Granit Xhaka was one of several players not even facing the play when Lingard fed Jarrod Bowen who hit an unconvincing shot goalwards. Bernd Leno was beaten far too easily at his near post, painfully slow to react. When Tomas Soucek flicked in Michail Antonio‘s header to put West Ham 3-0 up after 32 minutes, Arteta could be seen on the touchline scowling in disbelief.
For all the talk about off-field standards helping inform conduct on the field, this is precisely the kind of spell Arsenal simply have to completely eradicate if they are ever to progress under Arteta.
“This is my responsibility because before we could not play at that level but now we can”, said Arteta afterwards. “So we cannot go from here to there. We have to be all the time here [high].
“This is where he are heading and we have to stop giving the opponents anything because the last shot that they had when they hit the post is a throw-in, we give them the ball and they are through. It is too simple.
“And for the rest, I am incredibly proud of the team. That is what keeps me awake, because it has happened too many times too often. And at that level you cannot do that because the opponents are so good, and the margins are not that big. Then the positive one is the level that we played afterwards of course.”
There was consternation in some quarters on social media of the team Arteta selected, notably with Calum Chambers starting at right-back and Aubameyang pushed out to the right but this wasn’t about tactics, this was simply about a basic will to win.
And what followed makes the first 30 minutes even more of a betrayal. Soucek deflected Alexandre Lacazette‘s 38th-minute shot into his own net and suddenly Arsenal came alive.
They improved dramatically after the break, Odegaard finding pockets of space and delivering intelligent, well-timed passes to puncture West Ham’s rearguard. Chambers was in fact superb down the right, creating three chances and whipping in eight crosses, one of which forced a Craig Dawson own goal just after the hour mark.
Antonio missed a great chance to put the game to bed when Said Benrahma drilled a cross into a dangerous area, hitting the post from two yards as the game became frantically stretched. But Arsenal equalised when substitute Nicolas Pepe crossed for Lacazette to head home, celebrating with Aubameyang who had been taken off moments before.
“I am not worried about the culture because we have come so far on that and I have seen so many positive things to be consistent with what I’m saying; Today was one of those again because I have seen before completely different reactions, with each other as a team, the belief the energy.
“I am not worried about that. I am worried about the levels we can show within a game and that’s where I think we are still far from the top teams.”
Lacazette’s equaliser will no doubt mask the decision to remove Aubameyang when Arsenal were 3-2 down but it says everything about the Gabon striker’s game right now that he was withdrawn in such circumstances. Aubameyang managed 22 touches and just four sprints in the first half and had the worst passing accuracy in the opposing half (62.5 percent) of any outfield starter on either team.
For the second time this week, Aubameyang provided the wrong kind of example to others. Yet he is still the club’s top goalscorer and capable of mixing it with the very best. The same is true of Arsenal, who continue to show signs of developing into a more cohesive — and well-coached — team in their best moments.
We’re just still not really any closer to knowing how often we’ll see it.