It took longer than it should have done as Arsenal dominated West Ham for the majority of the game, but when the Gunners did gets the goals that their play deserved at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday, Alexis Sanchez was at the heart of it in a devastating display and a 5-1 win.
West Ham do have serious issues. Off the pitch, fans are hardly warming to their new home, but the main issues are on the field where Slaven Bilic’s team look a shadow of the one that qualified for Europe last season. After they defended well to hold Manchester United at Old Trafford last weekend, Bilic kept with playing three at the back. This was a formation that Tottenham used to good effect to nullify Arsenal at the Emirates recently, but West Ham were regularly pulled apart as Arsenal put in their most fluent performance for a good number of weeks.
With the news this week that Santi Cazorla is out for another two months, the game against West Ham was a great time for Arsenal to look like they have finally got the centre of their midfield sorted. Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka gave their most convincing performance as a pair with Xhaka playing some lovely passes from deep, and Coquelin getting through his usual disruptive work in the middle of the pitch, stopping the supply line to Dimitri Payet.
It was a Coquelin interception that led to the opening goal as he stopped Angelo Ogbonna’s pass out of defence, allowing Alexis Sanchez to run in towards goal. He unselfishly squared the ball to Mesut Ozil for the German to apply the easy finish. That goal in the first half was thoroughly merited for how Arsenal started the game, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal getting a lot of joy on the left-hand side, with the final ball just missing on occasion. Alexis then should have doubled the lead before half-time as he took a slightly heavy touch when trying to go round the goalkeeper, but he more than made amends in an explosive second half.
There were always a concern that Arsenal might regret not making the most of their first-half chances, and West Ham made more of a game of it in the second half. But as the game ticked into the final 20 minutes, Alexis took control.
His first goal came after superb control from a fizzed ball from Shkodran Mustafi. He turned away from the defender, held him off sprinting into the box and then fired a powerful low strike into the bottom corner from a tight angle. It should have been almost impossible for someone to score a goal after receiving the ball with his back to goal in the way Alexis did, but he found a way. That made it 2-0 and almost settled Arsenal down. The Gunners hadn’t been nervous as such at 1-0, but needed the boost of the second goal to free their game up again.
Moments after bagging his first, Alexis netted again with another excellent goal. As the ball came to him on the edge of the box, without touching the ball he was able to shimmy away from the defender into a shooting position and fire an accurate strike past Randolph into the bottom corner.
West Ham did get a goal back when Andy Carroll headed in after Payet’s free-kick hit the post, but Arsenal just roared back to turn the game into a comprehensive win. First, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain capped a vey encouraging personal performance with a splendid curling shot from 25 yards out. His increasing contribution to goals was highlighted again as he followed his goal up with an assist for Alexis to bag a hat-trick, but somehow the Ox’s pass through won’t be the most memorable thing about that goal.
Alexis raced away from the defenders, drew the goalkeeper off his line and then executed an outrageous piece of skill to bag the match ball. His fake shot led to a stepover that allowed him to chip the ball over Randolph as the keeper started to fall to the floor. It was a bit humiliating for the goalkeeper, but was ingenius from Alexis. Since his hamstring scare for Chile in the last international break, Alexis has got back to his best. The beautiful third goal just confirmed the confidence that that he’s playing with at the moment, and completed one of the best Arsenal hat-tricks since Dennis Bergkamp at Leicester, with every goal being impressive in its own way.
I wrote last week about how important the Chilean is to Arsenal. It does annoy me slightly when pundits or fans lazily just say things like ‘imagine how bad Arsenal would be without Alexis Sanchez’. For one, they wouldn’t be a bad team, just would lack some cutting edge, but also because unless he gets injured, we don’t have to imagine how bad Arsenal might be without him because Arsene Wenger paid the money for him and identified him as someone that could be perfectly suited to the Premier League. It is the sort of comment you might hear from people that are slightly jealous that Alexis plays for the Arsenal and not their club.
But those sort of comments are more prominent at the moment because of the contract situation. Obviously signing both Mesut Ozil and Alexis to extended deals are slightly complex, but Arsenal have to be prepared to give as much as possibly can to get the deals done. If that means some of the other players dog-sitting for Alexis when he needs it, then stick it in the contract. Contary to what Alan Shearer tries to claim on Match of the Day, Alexis is a world class player and a joy to watch playing football. Keeping him must be one of the club’s highest priorities.
Overall, the 5-1 win was slightly flattering on West Ham. After Chelsea made a statement about their title challenge with the 3-1 win at Manchester City and Tottenham put five past Swansea, Arsenal needed to respond playing in the late kick-off, and they did so superbly. November wasn’t bad for Arsenal, but in the context of how the rest of the season has gone, it was a stutter from the Gunners. Now things are looking much more positive again, not just because of the results against Bournemouth and West Ham, but also because of the quality of the performances. The balance of the team looks good again, and if that can be maintained heading in the busy periods in December and January, Arsenal can make a push for the title this season. With Alexis Sanchez in supreme form, anything is possible.