This was a London derby win far less easy on the eye than their opening-day triumph at Fulham but immensely more satisfying. As Mikel Arteta’s reaction to the final whistle highlighted.
The Gunners were well below par against a West Ham side which showed glimpses of the character that many doubt they possess. Indeed, David Moyes will make the short journey home feeling hard-done-by once more, but on this occasion, it would be justified. The Hammers deserved a point and had they taken their chances, they could have taken three.
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That was the reason for Arteta’s enthusiasm when Michael Oliver called a halt to West Ham’s late siege. The Arsenal boss has seen this side chuck away points with gay abandon during his reign and for too many years prior to his appointment. Winning ugly is not a trait anyone would associate with good old Arsenal these days but Arteta is seeing some evidence that his side are forming a backbone.
Why were Arsenal so off-colour? The cruise at Craven Cottage last week can only have enhanced their confidence but the hosts at the Emirates looked somewhat thrown throughout a first half which ended with them conceding a soft equaliser.
Mitigation perhaps comes in the Kieran Tierney-shaped hole on the left side of Arsenal’s defence. The Scotland star sustained a hip injury in warm-up and his absence was keenly felt. Or, rather, it was barely covered by Sead Kolasinac.
Tierney and Ainsley Maitland-Niles completely flummoxed Fulham last week, with the former starting as one of three centre-backs but drifting to the flank while the latter played as a wing-back floating towards the centre. Maitland-Niles’ performance demonstrated why Arteta vetoed any plans to sell the England international while Tierney’s display, coupled with the gaping hole he left on Saturday, further enhanced his status as perhaps Arteta’s second-most important player.
Tierney trails only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in that ranking and in his first game since committing his future to Arteta’s Arsenal, the captain suffered for the lack of cohesion that had been developed down the Gunners’ left. He laid on the opening goal for Alexandre Lacazette, but Aubameyang spent most of the evening feeding on scraps while Kolasinac and Bukayo Saka struggled to offer anything like the same kind of service.
Arteta tried to make Kolasinac and Saka feel more familiar in their surroundings by reverting Arsenal’s shape to a back four and both seemed more at ease after the break once the manager had the opportunity to guide them through where they were going wrong. But a change in formation failed to cover the chasm between the quality offered on the left flank by last week’s starters compared to this week’s stand-ins.
As well as tactically, Arsenal did not seem as sharp technically as they appeared in the opening week of the season. West Ham’s hustle may account for some of the Gunners’ wastefulness in possession but there was nothing particularly notable about the visitors’ press other than how favourably it compared to what we have seen so often from these Hammers previously.
If Arsenal don’t want to meet Lyon’s asking price for Houssem Aouar then Arteta need hope that somewhere in Kia Jorabchain’s Rolodex is the number of a similar midfielder who can take the ball on the half-turn and break defensive lines as stubborn as West Ham hinted they could be.
As Arteta admitted, “a lot of issues we created ourselves” but more telling was the fact the manager could barely stop smiling while he said so. “A few months ago we would draw that game,” he added. And quite often they would have lost.
There are very encouraging signs coming from the Emirates in the opening weeks of the season but not yet enough to shake off the feeling that calamity is just around the corner. Getting Tierney fit – and keeping him that way – coupled with some savvy dealings in the next fortnight – will certainly go a long way to putting Arteta and the supporters at ease.