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Premier League
Saturday, 31st January 2009

Arsenal 0
West Ham United 0

by Gordon Thrower


Champions’ League? You’re ‘avin a laugh!

Before my comments on the Arsenal match I should deliver a few words on the victory against Hull, time constraints having precluded my preparing a full match report over the past few days (sorry boss). The performance has been debated at length on the forums, and rightly so. My main regret from the match was that we didn’t run up the sort of score that the performance merited.

In particular I’d have given anything to have seen the Collison effort that hit the post go in, capping as it did a superb flowing move of the sort we all love to see at the Boleyn. It was also good to see the return of Mr Nicholas behind the mike. A thoroughly decent chap, it probably hurt like hell when the club dispensed with his services so he can be excused his barely-disguised glee at his return. Besides, he’s promised not to play Build Me Up B*ttercup so he gets my vote every time.

So to Arsenal away. Overnight, I had this strange dream. It involved Real Madrid paying us £1.5m to take Julien Faubert on loan for the rest of the season. It was only when swapping pre-match text messages with Maltese Hammer did I realise that the move was a genuine one.

The mood was good in the Drayton Park hostelry we adopted as home for the pre-match lubricants with the Zola/West Ham claret & blue army chants lasting longer than it takes Stoke to take a dozen throw-ins. Despite the confirmation of the arrival of loan-signing Kovac, the Czech had spent less time with his team-mates than I do with ‘er indoors on an away weekend and so he didn’t make the squad. Unsurprisingly then we lined up unchanged from the eleven that had started against Hull: Green, Neill, Ilunga, Upson, Collins, Noble, Parker, Collison, Behrami, Cole DiMichele.

The match started almost exactly as it continued for the following 90 minutes. The home side had plenty of the ball but had all the cutting edge of a withering remark from Dale Winton. What danger they caused came mainly from their left where Nasri was a constant threat to Neill, a threat increased by ref Bennett’s habit of awarding corners by guessing who had had the last touch – a tactic that met with mixed success. A couple of Nasri corners caused particular problems early on with Upson, and even more impressively Collins blocking dangerous-looking headers. The Collins block – from, I believe, Diaby, ended up clipping the top of the bar.

Other than that the story of the half was long, long periods of watching the home side pass the ball amongst themselves only for messrs Parker, Behrami, Upson and Collins to step in and break things up or put a block in on the rare occasions they actually looked like threatening anything. Indeed it was notable that, despite the possession conceded, Green’s only contribution was to safely gather a few weak efforts from distance.

In truth, we weren’t creating much ourselves though. For all the industry in the middle, service to the front pair bordered on the non-existent and the passing game that had worked so well against Hull seemed to have taken the afternoon off. A particular example of the profligacy that seemed to have affected the side came on 22 minutes when Diaby became the latest in a long series of players to upend Behrami. Following a pause for the issue of the yellow card, Noble lined up the free-kick and dropped it safely into the hands of Almunia.

The home support was doing its best to live down to expectations – it was as if someone had once heard that it was an offence to cause a breach of the peace. However there was a bit of a ripple on 35 minutes when they had a substitution to look at. Parker had put in a crunching – but perfectly legal – tackle on Eboue who clearly didn’t fancy playing against such rough boys and spent the next few minutes hobbling about.

Vela replaced the hapless midfielder. The home support clearly haven’t made their minds up as to whether they hate Eboue or simply detest him and were in two minds as to whether to cheer his replacement, give the standard applause given to an injured player or boo for the sake of it. What we got was a mixture of all three though it was largely academic as a passing bus in the Holloway Road drowned it out anyway.

Given the possession the home side had it was a bit strange that one of the better chances came our way. Shortly before the interval Collison got himself down to the by-line and forced a corner. Noble’s effort found Ginge whose header was hooked off the line by Clichy who had been guarding the far post. The effort was the last meaningful action of the half.

The second period started in similar vein to the pattern that had established itself during the first - long periods of possession for the home side but little to show for it. Upson and Collins got blocks in on shots from Denilson and Toure but the best chance probably fell to Adebayor just after the hour.

The move came following a promising cross field run from Cole who played in Collison. Unfortunately the youngster’s attempted lay-off to Di Michele saw Wales and Italy operating on entirely different wavelengths as the attack broke down. Even more unfortunately this left our left hand side a little short on numbers as the home side broke forward through Nasri and Sagna. Sagna’s low near-post cross fell to Adebayor who put the ball wide of the near post.

10 minutes later Noble, who in my opinion had been having a slightly disappointing match, was replaced by new boy Savio who is a lot smaller than he looks from upstairs at the Boleyn Ground. The substitution was followed shortly after by what turned out to be probably Arsenal’s best chance of the match. Vela put in a cross from the left and, for about the only time in the match Upson went missing. Adebayor’s free header was comfortably saved by Green for what was his only proper save of the match if you don’t count coming for the occasional cross.

The home side were becoming rather desperate by this point and, not for the first time somewhat dodgy methods were used in an effort to force a goal. However, what next took place may be something of a unique event. Vela dived – and was actually booked for doing so. This is something that referees never do enough in my opinion – Steve Gerrard would send much of a season suspended if he were ever to pick up a caution for each time he attempted to con the officials and, as we all know from the past Arsenal are not exactly backward in going to ground when it suits them. So to see a yellow on this occasion was a refreshing change.

There then followed a bizarre few seconds that saw DiMichele caught offside. In his haste to get on with things Almunia played the free-kick straight back to us and the ball found its way to Cole who shot straight at Almunia, thouh he probably had a bit more time than he thought and could have made more of an angle for himself.

In the last minute of normal play Savio showed that an apparent slightness of frame is no disadvantage in the tackle to a player who knows what he is doing. Another solid – and again perfectly legal – tackle from the new boy left Diaby in a heap serious enough for the Arsenal player to be stretchered off.

The injury and substitutions gave us four minutes of stoppage time which were survived with a reasonable degree of comfort and the only real worry was that ref Bennett might miss the increasing number of desperate fouls in the box to which Adebeyor was resorting at corners. He didn’t and, to a few disinterested boos from the home support and much louder chants of “we are unbeatable” from those of us in the away section, the match ended with us still unbeaten in 2009.

Happy though I was at the final whistle to see us take another point from the Emirates, in the cold light of day I must confess to having one tiny amount of disappointment at the performance, that being our failure to hold on to the ball for long enough. There was a brief spell in the second half where the standard cheer for every successful pass was heard, but it was the exception rather than the rule and I can’t help but wondering how much we’d have come away with in the event that we’d been more on form going forward. Still it’s a measure of progress that we can look back on a point taken from the Emirates and wonder what might have been if we’d been on slightly better form.

The Hull match was evidence of a side that had a good pattern of play and an awareness of the manner in which the coaching staff want them to play. Added to that against Arsenal we also saw a side that knows how to work damned hard when required and we all know that hasn’t always been the case in the past. Zola has made mistakes this season – understandably so given that this is his first proper job. However, it’s clear that he has been intelligent enough to learn from those errors and, with Clarke’s influence showing in matches such as this one, there’s every reason for the support to be optimistic at the moment.

Too often in the not too-distant past I’ve woken up on a Saturday morning (or Sunday, or Monday or whenever the TV companies have decreed that a match can be played) with the feeling that I was about to go out for a few beers with some mates first, with the watching football bit coming out of some kind of duty – like your Mum making you visit an aging and not much-liked relative. However, the quality of some of the football of late has been such that I look forward to games much more these days and either Zola is doing something right or they’ve started putting double strength Prozac in the coffee at work. Either way I’ll look forward to more of the same!



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Player Ratings

Robert Green
Not much to do really. Confident on crosses and made the one proper save he had to make with little fuss.


Lucas Neill
Given a difficult time by Nasri but stuck to the task well.


Herita Ilunga
Not his normal swashbuckling self going forward but a decent job on the defensive side of things.


James Collins
Superb. Immense in the air and got in block after block after block.


Matthew Upson
One lapse when Adebayor was given a free header in the second half but an otherwise impressive 90 minutes.


Scott Parker
A fine performance in the middle. Simply worked himself into the ground to break things up time after time after time. Glad to see the energy levels have improved from earlier in the season when he was complaining of being knackered halfway through the second half.


Mark Noble
A slightly disappointing run-out. Gave the ball away a few times and, though he did a lot of tracking back, I just had the feeling he can do better.


Jack Collison
Stuck to the task well though circumstances dictated that he didn’t impose his authority on the game as much as of late.


Valon Behrami
Another excellent 90 minutes from Pep – he never once let the home midfield settle. On the receiving end of some early “treatment” from the opposition, each foul met with the same phlegmatic and laid-back response as he simply picked himself up and got on with it. Did a fine job helping the skipper out on the right as well.


Carlton Cole
Rarely a goalscoring threat, he did however get through a lot of running and, on a day when service was at a premium, that was all you could ask of him really.


David Di Michele
Like Cole he rarely posed the defence any problems but, also like Cole, he go through a hell of a lot of unsung work as we attempted to defend from the front.


Substitutes


Savio Nsereko
(Replaced Noble, 70 mins) A fairly impressive 20 minutes for the lad. Only little but he’s not afraid to get stuck in and he seems to have a decent turn of pace too.


Luis Boa Morte
(Replaced Di Michele, 83 mins) Given five minutes or so at the end so not really on for long enough to influence proceedings to any significant degree.


Jan Lastuvka
Did not play.


Walter Lopez
Did not play.


Jonathan Spector
Did not play.


Diego Tristan
Did not play.


Fred Sears
Did not play.



Match Facts

Referee: Steve Bennett.

Attendance: 60,109.

Man of the Match: James Collins.

West Ham United

Robert Green, Lucas Neill, Herita Ilunga, James Collins, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Jack Collison, Valon Behrami, Carlton Cole, David Di Michele.

Goals: None.

Booked: James Collins 56 Lucas Neill 85        .

Sent off: None.

Arsenal

Almunia, Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy, Eboue, Diaby, Denilson, Nasri, Adebayor, Bendtner.

Substitutes: Vela (Eboue 36), Van Persie (Bendtner 68), Song (Diaby 90).

Subs not used: Fabianski, Ramsey, Djourou, Gibbs.

Goals: .

Booked: Diaby (22), Vela (75).

Sent Off: None.

 
Gordon Thrower's Man of the Match: James Collins