The smile wiped off John Terry’s face by Swansea will be back in all its smirking glory on Sunday after West Ham spectacularly burst Arsenal’s bubble.
It was a glorious 43 minutes for the expectant home faithful before the return of the nervous hum that has become so familiar at the Emirates. Nobody expected to hear it on Sunday and it was an even greater surprise to so many that Petr Cech played such a large part in its return.
Terry said his former team-mate would “save Arsenal 12 to 15 points” this season, and however sincere the Chelsea skipper may or may not have been, plenty jumped on the bandwagon, with Cech’s mere presence being enough for many to make the Gunners favourites for the title.
Cech was supposed to bring an air of calm to an Arsenal defence that had already tightened up considerably last season in front of Colombia international David Ospina, who you might be forgiven for thinking was a complete clown, given the way Cech’s arrival has been greeted. Regardless, the Czech stopper certainly seems to have put his team-mates at ease. In typical Arsenal fashion, too much so.
West Ham’s opener came from a set-piece from deep, but not so far from goal that justified the Arsenal defence being strung along a line five yards outside the box. A splendid flat and fast delivery took out the whole rearguard and tempted Cech into an area that should have been avoided. Cheik Kouyate profited by nodded into an unguarded net.
Cech’s biggest mistake was not that he came for the ball, but that he sanctioned such a high line. Any delivery such as the one provided by the impressive Dimitri Payet was always going to cause a major headache for Arsene Wenger’s side.
So often you see goalkeepers motioning for their defenders to push further up the field to reduce congestion should they decide to leave their line. Arsenal left the entire penalty area to their keeper, leaving Cech horribly exposed. Even so, the goalkeeper’s judgement in attempting to double-fist a ball he had no hope of reaching must be questioned.
Arsenal’s over-confidence also cost them the second goal. Francis Coquelin won the ball, causing all around him to relax, before he promptly lost it again. Cech chilled out, Koscielny and Santi Cazorla too, and nobody in red could recover their focus in time to realise the threat. The statue-esque Koscielny failed to step out to the ball, being only of use to Zarate, who used the centre-half as a shield. Cech – weight not set, on the back foot – could only drop to his knee as the ball rolled tamely past him.
The mistakes of their new goalkeeper confounded Arsenal’s old deficiencies. Against a side set up to defend narrow, the Gunners attacked in the same way. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided at least some pace and urgency but the West Ham defence was entirely comfortable until the later stages, when the hosts chucked in the kitchen sink as well as Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott.
The result came not only as a result of Arsenal’s flaws, but also the impressive way West Ham exposed them. New boy Payet was disciplined, energetic and inventive, while 16-year-old boy Reece Oxford strolled around with the composure of an international veteran. The man-child finished the game with the highest pass completion rate, and while he wasn’t attempting 50-yard switches of play, he shackled the likes of Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla seemingly effortlessly.
For Arsenal, the future will not be as rosy as many predicted if their season opener was anything but a one-off. There will be little concern over Cech but Wenger’s belief that he does not necessarily need another top-class striker requires reassessment. The manager admitted pre-match: “I’m an optimist and sometimes that takes over.” He also believes his players should take collective responsibility for scoring goals, but in a title race, to rely on a squad without a 20-goal striker reeks of over-confidence. If any good can come of today for Arsenal, it must mean an end to whatever complacency had built up over a summer of hype.