Sunday 25 February 2018

Sanchez piles pressure on Bilic and hapless Hammers

West Ham United 1 Arsenal 5

Slaven Bilic can only look on as Arsenal tear West Ham apart. Photo: PA
Slaven Bilic can only look on as Arsenal tear West Ham apart. Photo: PA

Jonathan Liew

He sighed. He grimaced. He wrung his hands and he bared his soul. But ultimately, the one place Slaven Bilic appears powerless to do anything is the most important of all.

The last West Ham squad who were "too good to go down" went down. It was in 2003 when a team containing Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Paolo di Canio, Jermain Defoe and Freddie Kanouté somehow contrived to get relegated with 42 points.

Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

If the current side harboured any notion that such a fate was beyond them, then the towelling Arsenal gave them on Saturday night will have thoroughly disabused them of it.

Arsenal's fans may have been jesting when they sang "we'll never play here again". But nobody in the home stands was laughing.

It says something about this West Ham side that Arsenal put five past them and will still feel they were a little profligate.

Whether it was a first touch, a second ball or the last man, West Ham were outsprinted, outmuscled, outmanoeuvred.

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez scores Arsenal's third goal. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez scores Arsenal's third goal. Photo: Reuters

Alexis Sanchez scored a sublime hat-trick, departing with the match ball and at least two defenders in his washbag.

It was the seventh time in 15 games that West Ham had conceded three goals or more. That is relegation form.

And at the eye of the storm, Bilic: a manager not given to prevarication, yet increasingly resembling a doctor with the diagnosis but no medicine.

Intensity

"What should I say?" he asked. "That we are not in this situation, when we are?

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring his side's second goal. Photo: PA
Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring his side's second goal. Photo: PA

"I think it's better to say to the journalists and players, the manager, the staff, our wives, our dogs: we are in that situation. Only when you realise you are in that situation can we change it."

The situation, as Bilic saw it, was that the "intensity" had gone from last season: not just on the pitch and not just recently, but every day in training, and from when the team reassembled in the summer.

"The dedication to the cause is missing," he said. "The majority of the team, individually, have lost that intensity.

"It is not 'one of the reasons'. It is not 'maybe' that. It is a fact, 100 per cent, 500 per cent."

Why this might have happened, on the other hand, is another question entirely.

Defender Angelo Ogbonna suggested that after last season's stunning seventh-place finish, the turbulence of the off-season may have played a part.

"The expectations were so high," he explained. "There has been a lot of change: new stadium, new training ground, new players.

"Maybe we relaxed a bit. But this is now December, and we need to get back. I can talk until the end, but phrases are not important."

Did the new stadium force Ogbonna to misplace a pass that handed Arsenal an early lead?

Was the new stadium responsible for West Ham's half-baked recruitment over the summer?

Probably not. But Ogbonna had a point: there is an anxiety and irritability to the London Stadium at present that all too readily transmits itself onto the pitch.

"It takes two years," said Arsene Wenger, who has a fair amount of expertise in this field. "Because you have to create a history. Now, there is no history."

Yet as Ogbonna and every single one of his team-mates knows, if West Ham fail to turn things around, it will not be their heads on the block, but their manager's.

"I don't think about that," Bilic said. "What is going to happen with this, how many more games I have until the next contract talks, the chop, the sacking, whatever.

"I don't think that way. I'm positive. I'm brave. I'm optimistic.

"But we can't continue like this. We can't. I don't want to feel like this. I want to go home and enjoy my evening with my family."

Perhaps it was simply the pall of a recent thrashing, but there was a genuine sadness to Bilic as he delivered these words. This is the management game: it crowns you king, and then kicks you in the nuts.

For a side unable to stop conceding, a trip to Liverpool on Sunday is probably the last fixture they would want.

On the other hand, it was pointed out to Bilic, if West Ham could pull off a shock win at Anfield, it could turn their entire season around.

"Really?" Bilic replied, the incredulity etched on his face like a scar. And then he laughed: a hollow laugh that bounced through the concrete corridors of the stadium and ebbed into the cold, cold night.

Wenger, meanwhile, hailed Sanchez for showing the "killer instinct" of a world-class striker after he tore West Ham to shreds.

Bemoaned

Arsenal fans have long bemoaned Wenger's inability to sign a 20-goal a season forward to fire them to the title.

But the Frenchman looks like he has finally struck gold after moving the Chile international from midfield into attack.

"I think he likes the position," the Gunners manager said. "When it comes off and he walks off with the ball under his arm it's a good feeling and I hope there is more to come.

"He has all the ingredients to be a top-class striker and he showed that again. He's quick, he can dribble, and he has the killer instinct."

Sanchez unselfishly set up Mesut Ozil for Arsenal's 23rd-minute opener, but the visitors had to wait until 18 minutes from the end to double their lead.

It was worth the wait, though, as Sanchez burst into the penalty area, brushing off Arthur Masuaku and Angelo Ogbonna before drilling his shot across Darren Randolph.

Sanchez crashed in the third from the edge of the area with 10 minutes remaining to spark an exodus from disgruntled home fans at the London Stadium.

Andy Carroll emerged from the bench after three-and-a-half months out to pull one back for West Ham, but moments later Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain restored the three-goal cushion.

And Sanchez completed his treble in style, racing onto Oxlade-Chamberlain's pass and putting Randolph on his backside with a cute dummy before clipping home. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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