As time wore on at the Emirates yesterday, with Arsenal attempting time after time to work the ball through the eye of a needle on the edge of the West Ham area, it seemed almost inevitable that if the home side were going to sneak this game, they would have to do so through more straight-forward means. And there is nothing more simple in the game of football than a cross being headed home by the man on the other end of it.
That's precisely what occurred on 88 minutes when Gael Clichy, with his right foot, curled the ball enticingly into the West Ham six-yard box, where the diving Alex Song diverted it past Robert Green. With Chelsea coming from behind to beat Blackburn, it was essential that Arsenal got all three points here but that they did so shouldn't hide their Achilles heel.
Yesterday, as in so many games before, there seemed to be an informal rule that no player could shoot until the team had put a minimum number of passes together. Early on, Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri were guilty of attempting one pass too many on the edge of the box, allowing West Ham to scramble the ball clear, while on 24 minutes, there was even more stark example of Arsenal's penchant for the elaborate. Alex Song, 35 yards from goal, slid a delightful ball between Danny Gabbidon and Herita Ilunga which Bacary Sagna ran onto inside the box. The full-back, admittedly out of his comfort zone, had a clear shot on Robert Green's goal from 12 yards, to the right, but elected instead to pull the ball back to the on-rushing Cesc Fabregas. The keeper produced an excellent save to deny the Spaniard but there was no need, bar the aesthetic, to involve another player in the move.
Nobody is saying that Arsenal need to give up on their intricate football – truth is, they create a multitude of opportunities that way, not to mention provide fantastic entertainment for everyone watching – but it might be no bad thing for Arsene Wenger's to vary their play from time to time. Green, though, was still the busier keeper over the course of the game. That save from Fabregas aside, he dived to his right to parry a stinging drive from Song clear on 44 minutes and from the resulting corner, the much-maligned English international tipped over a header from Sebastien Squillaci that was just creeping under his bar. Late on, the West Ham keeper did well to tip away a deflected shot from substitute Theo Walcott, and a further effort from close-range from Fabregas. He didn't deserve to be beaten.
West Ham, though, contributed richly in every other way bar the creation of scoring opportunities. Scott Parker provided the bite (including one ferocious but just-about legal challenge on Denilson at the start of the second half), Mark Noble the inventiveness and up-front, Frederic Piquionne held up the ball extremely well all on his own. The visitors' best chance of the half came from Noble's powerful run on 35 minutes but, overall, they were neat, tidy and organised. If they are the worst side in the Premier League, the overall quality of the division is much better than some critics of English football have argued.
Still, Avram Grant's side spent most of the second half on the back foot. Arsenal, clearly buoyed by Wenger's words at the interval, started with a manic intensity. They still passed the ball around with the same frequency, just faster. Arshavin dragged a shot wide on 51 minutes, with Nasri smashing a 30-yard free-kick off the bar shortly after. Then, on 70 minutes Walcott struck the post after a delicious through ball by Fabregas. Song, though, saved his side. In the most simple way possible.