Having leapt immediately to the dizzy heights of seventh in the Premier League following our promotion back into the big time, West Ham came crashing down to earth with the 3-1 defeat to Arsenal before the international break.
Losing to Arsene Wenger’s side was not a complete disaster, though. Not only did we slip down just one place to eighth, the Gunners have looked quite impressive this season. So much so that they are actually tipped to seriously compete for honours for the first time in a long time. What is worrying, though, is that the Arsenal game was our first big test since our return to England’s elite division, and we failed that test.
Until we met the North Londoners, Sam Allardyce had made West Ham look like a side that could ruffle a few feathers in the top flight. Not the most entertaining side; instead one that would be hard to break down and could grab a goal or two. But, when you think about it, we hadn’t really played any decent sides until our last appearance.
A quick review of the teams we have faced so far shows the worst is definitely yet to come for the Hammers. Not one side out of Aston Villa, Swansea, Fulham, Norwich, Sunderland or QPR have performed well so far. Villa have been poor. Paul Lambert’s task of resuscitating the Birmingham club appears to be a long and arduous one. Swansea have not won a league game since they thrashed us 3-0 at the Liberty Stadium in the second week of the season, and they are the only team who, in addition to Arsenal, have beaten us in the league this season.
Fulham are the only one of our opponents prior to the Gunners that are in the top half of the Premier League table, just two points behind us actually. But, we did put on our most convincing display against Martin Jol’s men, beating them 3-0. Norwich have looked awful. They have conceded 17 goals in seven games, including 5-0, 5-2 and 4-1 defeats to Fulham, Liverpool and Chelsea respectively. West Ham are the only side not to score past the Canaries in the league this season.
We just scraped a draw against Sunderland with Kevin Nolan’s stoppage time equaliser and were actually pretty fortunate to win against QPR, all things considered, and they sit at the bottom of the league having only been able to draw two games – one against Norwich and the other in a game against Chelsea when the European Champions’ focus was seemingly on the race row their captain was embroiled in. Overall then, West Ham, despite a relatively healthy league position, have failed to impress against teams that we really need to be making light work of if we hope to stand a chance against the big boys of the Premier League. Our inferiority was really exposed when we played our first one of the aforementioned big boys in our last outing.
Defensive frailties allowed Olivier Giroud to score his first league goal in England and pull Arsenal level at Upton Park, and after Momo Diame had put us ahead so excellently. More holes in the back line then granted Giroud a gap to slide in Theo Walcott for a one-on-one with Jussi Jääskeläinen. The England winger finished with uncharacteristic expertise with less than 15 minutes left on the clock. Then Santi Cazorla scored that goal. You know the one. But West Ham could have even prevented the Spanish magician’s stunning 25-yard strike had the midfield not granted him the amount of space he had. Limiting Cazorla’s space is much easier said than done though I suppose.
No one really expected to get much from the Arsenal game. Nevertheless, the next two matches against Southampton and Wigan have now become ‘must win’ games. I hate to use clichés and I dislike using that melodramatic one the most, especially so early in the season, but such is the severity of our fixture pileup leading to the New Year. Basically, if we cannot defeat those two sides, we could be in serious trouble. In issue two of Blowing Bubbles, I outlined the minefield that is West Ham’s fixture list in November and December. Just to remind you, we play all of last season’s top eight Premier League teams within the space of 11 games. And yes, that includes Arsenal again, this time on their turf.
To choose just a few of the other tough fixtures, we play Manchester City at Upton Park, their red neighbours at Old Trafford, and Chelsea at home. A tough run indeed. When I first looked at that predicament, I said we need to gather points early on. We have picked up a few wins, albeit in a generally unconvincing fashion, but wins are wins and points are points. Now we need maximum points against Southampton and Wigan to give us the boost we need going into the winter.
Even if that is to happen, the Arsenal defeat has proved we’re not in for a season of exceeding all expectations like so many newly promoted sides enjoy – like we enjoyed in 2005/2006. This season is definitely going to be a long, hard slog. Another relegation scrap is highly likely. But we look okay for now. Although West Ham may not have fallen, and instead merely stumbled, with our imminent rough patch in mind, we should be in no doubt that we need to gather our composure straightaway or fall right back down to the Championship.