By Richard Clarke
Arsenal were goalless but hardly soulless against West Ham at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
The point they gained does little to help the top four aspirations of Arsène Wenger’s side – although Villa’s draw at home to Wigan meant they lost nothing either – but their domination of the game was heartening.
West Ham came into this game as one of the Premier League’s form teams. However they barely had a chance this afternoon. Wenger's side controlled the game throughout – hitting the bar in the third minute through Abou Diaby and going excruciatingly close when Emmanuel Adebayor slid an effort past the post midway through the second half.
They cranked up the pressure towards the end but the kings of the last-gasp goal saw their crown slip a little this afternoon.
West Ham will argue they defended well, Arsenal’s critics will say they did not create enough. They are probably both right.
Still, there is some consolation in Villa’s result plus the fact Liverpool and/or Chelsea will drop points aswell when they play each other on Sunday.
However the fact remains that Arsenal are still playing catch-up and this was an opportunity lost.
Before kick-off, you would have gotten long odds on Robin van Persie beginning this game on the bench with Kolo Toure and William Gallas paired at centre half.
The Dutchman had scored or assisted every goal in January while those two defenders had only played in tandem once since October 4 – and that was only because Johan Djourou hurt himself in the warm-up at Aston Villa.
However that was Wenger’s choice this afternoon. Nicklas Bendtner came in for Van Persie and Djourou dropped to the bench. The other change from Wednesday’s draw at Everton saw Denilson move back into the centre of midfield alongside Abou Diaby. Alex Song missed out.
In all honesty, Arsenal’s result at Goodison Park had been better than the performance. That had been the trend in recent weeks and perhaps it was the reason Wenger had been forced to make a rallying cry against the prevailing pessimism in his press conference ahead of this game.
Six points off second, Arsenal were still in touch but the margin for error was getting narrower with every game. Wenger’s men needed nothing but victory on this bitterly cold January afternoon and they started the game as if they knew it.
They controlled the first 15 minutes with energy and determination but, in reality, only created one chance.
That came in the third minute, Arsenal won a corner on the left. Nasri floated it to the near post and Diaby rose highest to plant a header against the top of the bar.
It would take until the 18th minute for them to create another. Nasri showed his pace down the left and crossed for Bendtner at the near post. The Dane met it powerfully with his head but it deflected wide off the covering Lucas Neill.
West Ham’s only forays in to the Arsenal half were sanguine runs by Carlton Cole on to equally optimistic balls forward.
The hosts’ grip on the game was hardly vice-like but they were showing much more appetite than Zola’s side, who had rattled up six wins and a draw in their previous seven games.
Midway through the half, Diaby slid in late on Valon Behrami. The Frenchman’s booking was inevitable. It was also his fifth of the season and means he misses the North London derby next weekend.
Arsenal suffered another blow nine minutes before half-time when Eboue limped off following a challenge by Scott Parker. Carlos Vela replaced him and his introduction caused a complete change of formation.
The Mexican took up his now usual role on the left flank, Bendtner went to the right and Nasri played just behind Adebayor. Depending on your viewpoint (and whether Arsenal had the ball) it was a 4-4-1-1, a 4-2-3-1 or a straight 4-5-1. Whatever it was, it was a change.
However the alteration would actually lead to West Ham’s only chance of the half.
It came deep into injury time after Jack Collison had won a corner. Mark Noble swung it over and James Collins stooped to send a header towards the far end of the goal. Gael Clichy nodded the ball off the line when in fact the effort may have been drifting wide.
Whatever Wenger said to his side at the break, it gave them renewed urgency immediately after the restart.
A couple of minutes in, Bendtner’s swivelling shot was blocked. And there would be an even better chance in the 49th minute after Neill hacked down Vela on the left.
Nasri’s floated free-kick was only half-cleared by Robert Green and eventually the ball was looped towards goal by Toure on the edge of the area. With the keeper stranded, Collins had to nod the ball off the line.
As we moved to the hour-mark, the home side were now utterly on top and starting to pen West Ham in their own area.
Denilson had a header blocked then, on 62 minutes, came a flash of the old flowing Arsenal.
A sweeping move saw Nasri’s touch release Sagna on the right. He measured a low cross to the onrushing Adebayor. However he slid the ball agonisingly wide at the near post. Clearly, the best chance of the match.
A couple of minutes later, Denilson sent a bending, swirling effort inches past the angle of post and bar. The ball was barely back in play before Van Persie was called to the bench so he could get stripped. It was something the Arsenal fans had been calling for over the previous 10 minutes. The 25-year-old came on for Bendtner.
If Arsenal had been urgent they were now on red alert. In the 72nd minute, Vela's high, hanging cross was met by the equally high and hanging Adebayor. However his header was easy fare for Green.
Arsenal pushed right up to the final whistle but they would do no better. They also lost Diaby to a nasty looking injury
At full time emotions were mixed. Arsenal had been the better side but the scoreline did not reflect it.
That scenario needs to change in the next few weeks.
Referee: Steve Bennett
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