After a summer of talk about Petr Cech’s ability to help Arsenal end their long title drought, the former Chelsea goalkeeper was guilty of two glaring errors as his new team began the Premier League season with a demoralizing 2-0 defeat to West Ham at the Emirates. To be fair to the long-time Chelsea No. 1, there was more than just his errant decision-making to blame for West Ham’s opener two minutes before halftime, when Cheikhou Kouyate headed in a free-kick. That was the case, too, as West Ham stunningly doubled their lead against the run of play just before the hour mark. Still, Cech’s failure to get across and prevent Mauro Zarate’s shot finding the net at his near post was glaring, and only more so due to the level of expectancy surrounding his arrival.
But this was a disastrous start to the season not just for Cech, but for Arsenal. After a fine finish to last season and a Community Shield victory over Chelsea, optimism was flowing around the Emirtaes at the dawn of a new season at a level not witnessed in nearly a decade. Yet, when the real pressure came on, so many of the flaws that have prevented Arsenal from winning the championship since 2004 reared their head once more.
There was plenty of possession for the home side, but, not helped by Alexis Sanchez watching on from the bench for the first hour, they were largely sterile against a West Ham team set up excellently by Slaven Bilic in his first Premier League match in charge. And defensively there was again a soft center about Arsenal. While Cech is unlikely to make such costly errors on a regular basis, Sunday’s outing should be a warning that the veteran will not be a magic fix to Arsenal’s failings. And the fact that Cech is the only signing to date once again raises fears that Arsene Wenger has not been nearly active enough in strengthening his squad. Having won just twice in their first eight games to ultimately cost them a tilt at the title last season, Wenger had spoken of the need to be switched on from the start this time around. Instead, Arsenal will have to bounce back quickly and convincingly to show that it will not be a hugely frustrating case of more of the same this campaign.
Certainly the result on Sunday confounded pre-match expectations. While Arsenal were seemingly brimming with belief, West Ham entered it with plenty of doubts after their new manager led them to defeat in the Europa League qualifiers on Thursday. Yet, rather than Cech, it was West Ham’s newcomers who made the difference. Bilic had shown when in charge of Besiktas last season that he was capable of setting up a team to be difficult to beat against Arsenal, and, indeed fellow Premier League sides Tottenham and Liverpool. And he did so again at the Emirates to encourage that there will be no doomsday scenario following the dismissal of safe-pair-of-hands Sam Allardyce.
West Ham blocked up the center of the pitch, stopping Arsenal from being able to comfortably play their incisive passing game. Key to that was 16-year-old debutant Reece Oxford, playing at the base of midfield with a calmness and discipline well beyond his years. West Ham’s new signings similarly impressed. Former Juventus center-back Angelo Ogbonna, playing alongside the excellent Winston Reid, was alert to take the ball away from Olivier Giroud with one of Arsenal’s clearest sights of goals in the first half. And further forward Dimitri Payet offered plenty of suggestion as to why he was the most productive supplier of assists in Ligue Un last season.
And the France international got his first for his new club to give them the lead going into the interval. A fine free-kick exposed a horridly organized Arsenal defensive line, allowing Kouyate to have a free run to the ball. Cech, perhaps alarmed by the unfamiliar uncertainty in front of him, came anxiously off his line, but Kouyate easily got there first to head into a vacant net.
There were signs that Arsenal had got the necessary wakeup call at the start of the second half, but still, with Giroud twice unable to provide a decisive finish, they were unable to cause West Ham goalkeeper Adrian undue concern. And, out of nowhere, a decisive sucker punch was soon to arrive.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had been the Arsenal player most likely to make something happen in a positive sense throughout the contest, but he was sloppy in overrunning the ball on the edge of his own box in the 57th minute. From there he want not helped, first by the laziness of Arsenal’s defenders in attempting to close down Zarate or block his shot, which initially appeared innocuous, and then by Cech somehow being wrong-footed to allow the ball to find his bottom corner.
The stuffing had well and truly been knocked out of Arsenal. And, despite the arrivals of Sanchez and Theo Walcott, both of whom could well be in the starting lineup when Arsenal visit Crystal Palace next Saturday, Wenger’s men had no answer.