Saturday, 14th March 2015
Until they popped their second in, ten minutes before the end, it wasn't a foregone conclusion. In fact, until mere seconds before the half-time whistle, it looked like backs-to-the-wall, never-say-die might get us a point. Just as we got back in the 19th Century last season, with that performance against Chelsea...
Alas! The trouble with playing the big boys in this division is that they are usually a class above. I've said before, there are three tiers at the top of English football, spanning at least 30 clubs.
There's the top 5, undeniably better than the rest, by and large; richer, able to attract better players. There's the next group of around 8 clubs (headed by Spurs, whose fans still seemingly believe the top 5 are actually a top 6), who either have a long (or permanent) history in the Premier (Spurs, Everton, Newcastle, Villa, us), or have well established themselves in recent seasons e.g. Stoke, Southampton, Swansea.
And then you have a slew of clubs who believe, and whose fans believe, that they should be an established top division club. Your West Broms and your Birminghams; your Sunderlands and Middlesboroughs; your Leicesters, Forests, Derbys...
Some, like the last three, have a history of top division tenure, but not for some years. Others, such as Sunderland and West Brom, tend to yo-yo between the Premier and the Championship and, generally, must consider beating relegation from the top flight a successful season.
Tier Three can compete with Tier Two on sheer determination and organisation, if they've nothing better. Winning promotion from the Championship is arguably world football's biggest, baddest dog-fight. But that isn't normally enough to avoid engaging in a season-long relegation scrap.
Sometimes, they can establish themselves for some time at the top level - Charlton, Bolton, Wigan have all done it in the past, Hull are managing it at the moment - and perhaps progress. All generally fail at some point, though, often within a season or two of promotion (Ipswich, Norwich, Watford, Derby, Burnley, and so on), and few finish in the top half of the table for more than a season at a time.
But the gulf in wealth, in the class of player, is much wider between Tier Two and Tier One, as compared with Three and Two. When Three switches off against Two, Three might get punished. When Two switches off against One, Two usually does get punished.
That's what happened on Saturday. We'd done so well to keep the score at 0-0. Then, with the clock having run past 46 minutes, the one minute of added time, our makeshift defence went slightly dozy, and Arsenal unpicked us. And punished us.
A lovely move, a great finish from Giroud. From there, it was always going to be an uphill task; a steep gradient to climb, too; but until we went completely to sleep on a throw-in, there was hope. Then, in the 80th minute, a quick 1-2-3 from the throw, and Ramsey put away the second.
For Arsenal, the third three minutes later rounded things off nicely and they will say it was a fair reflection of the game. For us, it was rather deflating and was more of a margin than all our effort deserved.
It's true that we didn't make Ospina work awfully hard. I can only remember one on-target shot - Nolan's volley halfway through the first period. Noble, I think it was, played a cracking ball through that got Jarvis right to the byline. He didn't blindly whack it across, but looked up, pulled it back to Nolan... Straight at the Gunners' keeper, unfortunately.
But young Chambers didn't have an easy game at right back for Arsenal, nor could our hosts afford to take it easy. Adrian, with several good saves that stopped us being buried, will inevitably get Man of the Match. Were it not for him, I'd nominate Jarvis.
Our one-time record signing has never lived up to that billing, but in this match he was very much on the good side of his erratic ability. As always, his delivery was sometimes hugely frustrating, but he kept the Arsenal defence on their toes for the hour and a quarter that he played; Chambers particularly; and worked hard in defence also.
Sakho, too, put the miles in up front. He does need to work on his tendency to get caught offside, but he did a decent job ploughing a lone furrow up front. Indeed, he won a couple of corners when there seemed little on.
Valencia, of course, was out, courtesy of this freak "broken cup" incident. And then there was our defence - Reid out, Tomkins out, Jenkinson ineligible. For all of us, the centre back position has been a concern all season long.
Even those who support Sam cannot deny that still only having three senior players for that position is legitimate criticism. Especially after last season. Yes, we have both Burke and Hare.... I'm sorry... Burke and Oxford, but Sam obviously doesn't feel either are ready for first team action. Doneil Henry we've signed and promptly loaned out.
So Signor Allardici cannot be excused for the weakness of our defence. Having to play Kouyate alongside Collins should be an unnecessary stopgap, as well as an undesirable one. He did well enough, but not flawlessly, as you might expect. Worse, having to play him there weakens the midfield; something we can ill-afford against opposition of this quality.
Still, Sam must also be given a share of the credit for the performance, which was far from bad. It remains a mystery to me. We were poor against Palace, and awful in the Cup against the Baggies. Yet we are up for games against Man Utd, Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal... If only we could play against all the so-called "lesser" sides the same way.
Adrian, as already mentioned, is my Man of the Match today. His most spectacular saves were actually somewhat more comfortable than his best ones. He made at least 4 good ones, nevertheless. With a keeper not on his best form, this could easily have been 5 or 6 conceded.
The defence, in the circumstances, didn't do too badly, despite the three goals, and the midfield, unlike the Palace match, didn't go missing to expose them. Going forward was trickier, given that we didn't have a lot of the ball, but we did cause the Gunners a few problems.
Apart from Nolan's volley, our best chance, Song played Sakho through with a great pass on 37 minutes. On his own, the best Sakho could manage was a weak shot, but that still won one of the afore-mentioned corners. Arsenal may have been dominant, but they also needed to be vigilant.
Almost immediately after the restart, a low Jarvis cross caused a certain amount of consternation. Ospina and Sakho both went in for it, and Arsenal were eventually able to shovel the ball clear.
Our last decent chance came just before the hour. From another corner won by the lonely Sakho, Jarvis himself had the chance to volley. With little time to set himself, he couldn't keep it down. Whilst we held out for another twenty minutes, in went goals 2 and 3, and that was that.
Still, it was a battling performance against a side not only considerably superior on paper, but also in much better form (domestically, at least) on the grass. It could have been a lot worse, both in terms of the performance and the final score.
And, from here, we face those so-called "lesser" sides for the rest of the season. We've only one of those top draw sides still to play, and City have been woefully out of sorts of late. Every other game, starting with Sunderland at home on Saturday, is winnable.
That's not to say that we'll win them all. We won't, of course. After all the disappointment and angst of the slide from our pre-Yule peak, though, we still have the opportunity to finish the season strongly.
I said several games ago that I thought our chance of qualifying for Europe had gone. But then I said at the end of last year that the Champion's League would almost certainly be beyond us, and that even the Europa League was probably wishful thinking. Eighth would represent a really good season for us this year, it should always be remembered.
So it seems to have proven. We can still challenge for eighth, maybe even for seventh if either of Southampton or Spurs lose form and we regain it. Now who wouldn't have taken that, eagerly, way back in August? But to do that, first we have to get back to winning ways against Sunderland!
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Adrian San Miguel del Castillo
Couldn't do anything about the three goals, but stopped everything else!
One of my least favourite current Hammers, but had a solid game without any of his too frequent rushes of blood.
Below average performance. Yes, 6, for Aaron, is below average!
Like O'Brien, prone to rash challenges but, as the only bona fide DC today, did a good job, both in his own game and in trying to marshal the defence.
He certainly could be a DC, but he isn't one right now, and consequently gets caught out occasionally. Still, a good effort, and showed his amazing energy levels by getting well forward at times and still got back.
Looked much more like the on-form Song that we were raving about around November time. Still gave the ball away, and free kicks too, but less than for most of his 2015 games, and probably his best performance of the calendar year.
Faded from the game in the second half, but did good work in the first half, despite appearing to pick up an injury fairly early. No fault of his, but have to question why Poyet was not brought on.
Fairly standard Noble fare; neither his best nor worst game.
Occasional flashes, but mostly fairly subdued.
A bit-part player this season. In a rare start, played really well.
Worked hard in trying circumstances.
(Replaced Jarvis) Couldn't perform any miracles in his quarter-hour.
(Replaced Noble) Ten minutes only; no time to have any influence.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Referee: Chris Foy.
Man of the Match: Adrian San Miguel del Castillo.
West Ham United
Adrian San Miguel del Castillo, Joey O'Brien, Aaron Cresswell, James Collins, Cheikhou Kouyate, Alex Song, Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble, Stewart Downing, Matt Jarvis, Diafra Sakho.
Booked: Diafra Sakho 78 .
Sent Off: None sent off. .
Subs not used: .
Sent Off: .