As Arsène Wenger might say, tonight saw Arsenal playing with the handbrake off. The Gunners put on a spectacular show, with superb link-up play, incisive runs and clinical finishing bringing four goals in the space of ten second-half minutes. The front four of Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud and Walcott were rampant, ripping through West Ham’s defence almost at will to record the Hammers’ heaviest defeat of the season. This sparkling exhibition of free-flowing football will have reminded Arsenal fans of the halcyon days of Pires, Ljungberg, Bergkamp and Henry, who exuded danger and menace with every foray forward. It also provided a timely lift after two morale-sapping losses to Man City and Chelsea.
High-scoring victories have become a frequent occurrence for Wenger’s side in the past few months, having netted at least five times on seven separate occasions so far this term. These goal-fests prove that whatever the rumour mill would have us believe, the North London club possesses attackers who on their day can run any team ragged. Over the course of the season, only Chelsea and Man Utd have hit more goals. However, in some matches the Gunners are often guilty of looking one-dimensional in possession, as moves with innumerable sideways passes slowly peter out under the most basic defensive pressure. So why are Wenger’s side unable to produce scintillating attacking displays on a consistent basis?
A solitary strike from matches against City and Chelsea is somewhat excusable, as the two sides have have conceded fewer than any other team in the league this season. Koscielny’s red card in the former game also made it difficult for his side to get a handle on possession, meaning that opportunities to score were extremely limited. This does not fully explain Arsenal’s erratic offensive form though, as demonstrated by similarly limp performances going forward against Aston Villa, Norwich, Southampton and Wigan. Wenger stated after tonight’s game that “I was worried they were a bit sometimes inhibited in the recent big games”, but this explanation is falsely limiting. To some extent, it doesn’t matter who Arsenal face, because they can play tense, unadventurous football against any team.
Instead, it is a matter of self-belief. Wenger’s handbrake analogy is useful here, as it conveys the idea that when Arsenal falter in the last third, it is self-inflicted. The Gunners lack the confidence needed to convince themselves that every time they step out on to the pitch, they can win by a tennis score. Whether this phenomenon is down to the club’s barren trophyless spell or simply a consequence of having to bed in three new forward-minded players, Wenger must solve it. If he succeeds, expect the Emirates to play host to many more nights like this one, with swashbuckling play that reaps goals galore for Arsenal.
It is also worth mentioning that West Ham defender Dan Potts, who suffered a concussion during the second half, recovered consciousness in the ambulance. He is staying in hospital overnight for observation.