There was a funny moment after the game, when Sky Sports interviewed Aaron Ramsdale and Rob Holding. The Arsenal keeper was asked if Sp*rs winning had put more pressure on the players beforehand, and he insisted he didn’t know their result, saying he’d gone out early to warm up.
Geoff Shreeves then asked Holding if he and the other players knew.
“Yes, of course!”, he said, and it made me love Ramsdale a bit more, and in the wake of a 2-1 win which had my palms sweating in that second half, believe in this team a bit more too.
As much as Mikel Arteta refused to put some aspects of our performance down to nerves or pressure, you can’t help but think it was a factor to some extent. Knowing the team you’re scrapping against for top four has won and gone above you has to play some part. It can motivate you, but it can also add stress. I think there was some of that yesterday in how we played. Not that it completely debilitated us or anything like that, but it manifested itself in moments of carelessness, players doing things they wouldn’t normally do, but in the end we got there.
Arteta described it as an ugly win, which I think does it a little bit of a disservice. I know what he means, because we didn’t play anywhere near as well as we can, but at this point of the season games can be disjointed for various reasons. We have a lot to play for, West Ham picked a strong side despite having a European semi-final second leg on Thursday because they wanted the three points which would have taken them above Man United, and this felt to me like a real business end of the season scrap.
We had Takehiro Tomiyasu back but Ben White absent so Rob Holding filled in at centre-half, and in truth the first 30 minutes of this game was about two sides holding each other at arms length with occasional moments of sloppiness rather than football quality defining the action. Holding made an impact at both ends, pulling off a great block from a Lanzini shot before heading us into the lead from a corner which came from Nketiah driving forward and testing Fabianski.
It was his first ever Premier League goal. “It just took 6 years and new hairline!”, quipped Ramsdale on Sky afterwards. The Arsenal keeper had to make a great save from Declan Rice almost straight away, but could do nothing about West Ham’s equaliser, a Jarrod Bowen shot which deflected off Gabriel. I think when the manager looks back at this goal he’ll see Rice given too much room to make the pass; Coufal in too much space too make the cross; maybe Bowen allowed get his shot off too easily; and the deflection did for Ramsdale.
Just before the break is always a bad time to concede, but scoring early in the second period goes some way to offset that and that’s what we did. Holding had made another good block from a Benramha shot, and Bowen was booked for what you could call a dive or perhaps an escape leap out the way of Ramsdale who had come a long way out of his area. A few inches either way and that incident could have had a very different outcome.
Fabianski made a good near post save from Saka which resulted in another corner, and from that we went ahead again. Initially cleared, Martinelli clipped a very nice ball to the back post where Gabriel’s smart movement gave him a point blank headed chance which he powered in off the body of the former Arsenal keeper. On days when your forwards can’t find the breakthrough, goal threat from set-pieces is very useful, and the Brazilian is possibly our most regular central defensive goalscorer since Laurent Koscielny – a player who had a knack of coming up with a big goal when it was needed.
I would really have liked another goal, just to settle the nerves because these one goal leads and one goal wins – while splendid in the end – really put me through the wringer while the games are on. It’s not that West Ham even threatened that much, it’s just that you know one moment, one slip, one mistake, can cost you in a big, big way.
We did have chances, and while I’ve seen varying opinions on Eddie Nketiah’s performance yesterday, I thought he was pretty good. There was one where he really should have hit the target and made the game safe, but curled his shot just wide. However, he showed how a striker with mobility and a bit of pace can impact a game in a positive fashion. He was a nuisance to Zouma all day, he had 6 shots with 4 on target, and he’s creating opportunities which we wouldn’t get with Alexandre Lacazette up front. That’s not a criticism of the Frenchman, but we know he doesn’t have the legs to drive forward the way Eddie did yesterday.
I also thought that one or two moments aside when it didn’t stick with him the way it should or he was caught on his heels, his hold up play was good, he passed it well and he worked hard. That bit late on when he dropped into midfield, held onto the ball and won us a free kick to ease the pressure was not a guy just strolling around. Yes, the finishing needs to be better, but there was plenty to like about his performance yesterday, and I also really enjoyed his spat with Rice. Eddie caused a bit of ruck trying to waste some time, he didn’t back down and when it boils right down to it, he goaded them into distraction and nonsense at a point in the game when they should have been fully focused on scoring a goal, not acting like Billy Big Bollocks for the cameras.
Final thing to say on Eddie, and to an extent Mohamed Elneny and Rob Holding, is that players who have been on the fringes most of the season have come in at a time when they’ve never been needed more and made positive contributions. You can’t get top four without using your squad well, and fair play to these guys – not least because a couple of them are doing it in the knowledge they could be out the door in June.
Afterwards, Mikel Arteta touched on the performance and the outcome, not happy with how we played but obviously delighted with the win:
It’s a massive win, under very difficult circumstances because we put ourselves in real problems, especially with our decision making and in ball possessions, and the spaces we were attacking, and the timing of it and the efficiency of it. But the team showed huge character, not to give up, to continue trying to do the right things. The way they fought, the way they understood how they have to manage the game in certain moments, with the way we defended, because we didn’t concede anything, it was phenomenal. In England you say ‘win ugly’, I think from my point of view today we won ugly, and I’m extremely happy to see a team that has this capacity to find a way to win and show the character that they showed today.
I really think at this point of the season there’s not much else to focus on other than results. It would be nice to have played well and won, but there’s something to be said for being able to scrap out a win too. When the stakes are high the opposition will do what they can to stop your fluency, so you have to find a way around that. It will be something similar next weekend when Leeds, now 100% back in the relegation dogfight, will do whatever it takes to make life tough for us. This the reality of where we are and what we’re doing.
The other reality is that we’re back into the top four, with four games left to play. It’s impossible not to start looking at next weekend as a pivotal one in this fight to return to the Champions League. We face Leeds, Sp*rs go to Liverpool. The right results could make the table look very healthy. However, the only thing we’re in control of is what we do ourselves, and yesterday we made sure we got the maximum, making it an impressive 9 from 9 against Chelsea, Utd and West Ham after the disappointing run before.
Now, reset, recuperate, and go again next Sunday.