Midway through the first half of an utterly forgettable London derby, Nuno Tavares picked up the ball near the halfway line and set off on an adventure. Suddenly, it seemed something special was happening. A brief surge of energy went round the ground. Then Tavares ran out of steam, realized that he had no idea what to do next and basically let the ball run away from his feet.
Still, on he went, Arsenal’s second-choice left-back a blur of yellow as he continued to run in a straight line, his momentum taking him all the way into West Ham’s area and giving him an excellent view of Lukasz Fabianski booting the ball away.
At which point it became clear that a gaping hole had appeared on the Arsenal left. Nothing came from it but it was a problem for Mikel Arteta’s team. West Ham were repeatedly finding space down that flank, repeatedly running through the same passing sequences to send Vladimir Coufal away, and it was not much of a surprise that Tavares was caught out eventually, the Portuguese’s positioning all over the place when Jarrod Bowen canceled out Arsenal’s lead on the stroke of half-time.
At least it made little difference to the final outcome. This was not a memorable display from Arsenal, who played in a daze at times and occasionally seeded intent on handing the initiative to Tottenham in the race to finish fourth, but it was enough for Arteta.
“In England you say win ugly,” Arsenal’s manager said. “But I am extremely happy to see a team win ugly.” Arteta had a point. There is a hardier feel to this version of Arsenal: goals from set-pieces, more sturdiness, an unashamed willingness to run down the clock.
Whisper it, but are they growing up? Is Arteta actually José Mourinho in disguise? Is he soon to be found hiding in a laundry basket on a big Champions League night at the Emirates? There is certainly something about Arsenal that rubs opponents up the wrong way.
Towards the end, as Arsenal protected their 2-1 lead at an increasingly irate London Stadium, West Ham seemed to snap. Arsenal had made it bitty. Eddie Nketiah, who had a lively game up front, had suddenly transformed into Diego Costa and was doing his very best to get a rise out of Aaron Cresswell.
Equally there were moments to remind Arteta that Arsenal are not the finished article. The lack of urgency was a concern given that West Ham’s focus was on their Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt.
The game drifted and it was a long time before Arsenal managed to create anything against a defense made up of three full-backs and an underpowered Kurt Zouma.
Perhaps it is an inevitability of Arsenal’s youth; their most exciting forwards, Nketiah, Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe, are young and are going to have the odd off day. Yet Arsenal cannot afford to be inconsistent now. They have to be more assertive in the final third and, at the other end, they need to stop teams targeting Tavares, who always seems to be more than a second away from doing something utterly disastrous in defense.
With Kieran Tierney out for the season, Tavares is a worry for Arteta. When Tottenham watch this game they will know where to attack Arsenal in next week’s pivotal north London derby. Antonio Conte’s instructions to Dejan Kulusevski will be simple: get the ball to Harry Kane, wait for him to turn and be ready to run when the striker knocks a pass into space down the right flank.
It is an obvious point of weakness in Arsenal’s set-up; the one area where they have not lost their maverick tendencies. Everybody knows that Tavares is vulnerable. He was hooked during the first half against Nottingham Forest in January, replaced early against Crystal Palace last month and was very fortunate only to give away one penalty against Manchester United last weekend, while against West Ham he spent large portions of the game simply knocking easy passes straight out of play, needlessly putting his team under pressure.
This is a player who is not comfortable with his defensive duties. So it proved when West Ham canceled out Rob Holding’s headed goal. Declan Rice switched play, Tavares was too far infield and Coufal knocked the ball down to Bowen, whose deflected shot beat Aaron Ramsdale.
It must be a concern for Arteta, particularly as the excellent Takehiro Tomiyasu limped off on his first start since January. Tomiyasu is the opposite of Tavares: steady, imposing, dependable. The Japanese right ‑ back kept Saïd Benrahma quiet throughout and losing him for the run-in would be a huge blow.
All the same Arsenal still found a way here, taking advantage of West Ham’s lack of height through set-piece goals from Holding and Gabriel Magalhães. And to give him his due Tavares was still surging at the end, winning a crucial header in his area before starting a counterattack. In many ways he was the most entertaining player on the pitch. Arteta, though, could have done with more calm.