With Leicester still to entertain Bilic’s men, three points for Arsenal against a West Ham team punching well above their weight could be one of the critical stepping stones towards a title or a 23rd consecutive finish above our neighbours.
To do so they’ll need to learn the lessons of their opening day defeat.
Do you remember August 9th?
It was the first game of the new season.
As we walked towards the Emirates, optimism coursed through our veins, memories lingering of our promising end-of-season form including a record 12th FA cup triumph, and the ink still fresh on Petr Cech’s unlikely Arsenal contract.
And then the cards all came crashing down around our ears.
First, we missed some very presentable chances, and then Chelsea fans must have been laughing through their teeth as our star signing came for a cross, extended two big paws and…watched helpless as Cheick Kouyate beat him to the ball.
It was a shocking start from our new keeper, and arguably the only mistake he has made in his Arsenal career. But it was also the first evidence of a flaw which was to afflict the team throughout the season: when Arsenal go behind they almost never win.
The importance of a headstart
This season, we have gone behind in seventeen games, yet on just three occasions have we turned the game around: against a much-changed Sunderland side in the FA Cup, and somewhat bizarrely twice against league leaders Leicester.
We’ve haven’t even scored in six of those games.
Meanwhile in the 25 games we have taken the lead, we have come out victorious a whopping 21 times. So when Arsene talks of the first goal often being the decider, we can see why.
Another feature of that reverse fixture against West Ham was the somewhat poor decision making and wayward finishing in the final third. Some of the football was pretty slick, but after fourteen shots, six on target, we had nothing to show for it. There were simply too many occasions when we missed the pass, Ramsey being particularly culpable, or failed to finish our chances.
A familiar story.
So how can we fare better this time around?
Well for starters, there’s the small matter of having Hector Bellerin at right back, and having cemented his place in the team so securely that the incumbent on that fateful day in August is now plying his trade back in France.
Then there’s the availability and at least partial return to form of our Chilean superstar. With two goals and six assists in his last eight games for club and country, he’s finally started to reach towards the dizzy heights of last season, after a run of six straight games without contributing.
Of course, there’s the emergence of a player who everyone is talking about: Alex Iwobi.
We have missed Santi Cazorla dreadfully over a winter period where our midfield lacked any sort of cohesion or combination. Yet in the last couple of games our young Nigerian has started to grease the wheels of the Arsenal midfield once again, mixing quick feet and a willingness to carry the ball forward with incisive passing and clinical finishing, not to mention his excellent understanding with our most complete centre forward, Danny Welbeck.
Plus, 16-year-old Reece Oxford is unlikely to play and have Mesut Ozil “in his pocket” this time.*
Plenty of reasons to be cheerful then.
*Anyone who watched that game and thought Reece Oxford had Mesut Ozil in his pocket needs not only to pay a visit to Specsavers, but also to re-evaluate their interest in football.
West Ham will likely turn out a very similar lineup, with Oxford and Mauro Zarate replaced by loanee Manuel Lanzini and deadline day signing Michail Antonio, so it is a very much a case of the devil you know.
No happy ending at the Boleyn Ground
This season, the Hammers have caused problems to a number of the teams either historically or currently near the top of the table. Liverpool, City, Chelsea and Spurs have all lost at least once, and United have drawn on both of their attempts to date.
At home their record is somewhat intimidating, to us at least.
Unbeaten since losing their opening two games in August, they’ve won seven and drawn six matches. While impressive, it’s hardly the form that will strike paralysing fear into most Gunners hearts usually, given they drop points as often as they win.
However, we’re now in a situation where only three points will do, so we will need to end their thirteen game unbeaten run and emulate Bournemouth and Leicester on Saturday.
There would be something poetic if we could ruin the West Ham party on our last trip to the Boleyn Ground in the same way that West Ham beat us the last time they visited Highbury and then echoed it by taking the three points home the first time they played on the Emirates turf.
Remember, remember the…9th of August
With Leicester still to entertain Bilic’s men, three points for Arsenal against a team punching well above their weight against the big boys could be one of the critical stepping stones towards a very distant title or perhaps more realistically a 23rd consecutive finish above our neighbours. To do so they’ll need to learn the lessons of that opening day defeat.
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Let’s hope Arsenal have been watching those August videos this week then.