West Ham United 0 Arsenal 1: Wenger confident his youngsters will not shrivel in spotlight
Arsenal, generally written off pre-season, sit two points clear with a game in hand as the Premier League approaches the quarter-way mark. They have played 11 matches, at home and abroad, won 10 and drawn one, at Blackburn Rovers.
Such a start, especially in the context of Thierry Henry's departure in the summer, might be expected to attract a fanfare. Instead the boardroom shenanigans at Tottenham Hotspur initially distracted attention; now the implosion at Chelsea hogs the headlines. Even at Arsenal the focus is on the ownership issue. The latest on this, according to managing director Keith Edelman yesterday, is that Alisher Usmanov's advisers have assured the board the Russian is simply a smart investor with no desire to take over the club. Meanwhile, quietly, and stylishly, the team carry on winning.
"We like it like that," said Arsène Wenger after Robin van Persie's header had secured their first win at Upton Park in seven years. Such relative obscurity cannot last, not if Arsenal keep winning, but Wenger is confident that his young team will not shrivel under the spotlight.
"They are at an age, mostly 22 to 24, when you become a football player who can cope with all kind of situations," said the Arsenal manager. "I think they are experienced enough to cope as the pressure grows. They like to play and I will encourage them to continue to do that; but let's see."
Wenger said the same maturity applied to those occasions, such as Saturday, when they had to show steel as well as silk. "In the last couple of seasons maybe that toughness was missing, but you expect that," he said. "We couldn't always face the physical side. Before, when we were less experienced, when teams played like that against us we forgot to put them under pressure with our own game. We did that much better here, we did not forget to play."
A skilful side with muscle, which keeps its collective head under pressure, is a potent combination.
"They're looking very strong, definitely title contenders," said West Ham United's Anton Ferdinand. "They were putting a foot in today, which is not something they've been known for in the past. You've got to do that in English football and they've added that to their game this season.
His manager, Alan Curbishley, concurred. "One of their characteristics is they put their foot in, especially [Mathieu] Flamini and [Cesc] Fabregas, so it's very competitive out there."
Too much at times. Alexander Hleb was carried off after Mark Noble ploughed into him with a challenge that could have drawn a red card rather than yellow. Scott Parker limped out of his Hammers League debut after Flamini caught him with a foul.
Not that it was an ugly match. Both sides play passing football and there was much to admire, especially from Arsenal who perhaps illustrate the former Stoke City manager Tony Waddington's description of football as the "working man's ballet" better than any team has.
"Hleb epitomises Arsenal," said Curbishley. "He was fantastic: quick feet, quick brain, quick movement. Simple things like quick throw-ins and free-kicks. That enabled them to get the ball down, get it to feet and shift it somewhere else. There's always a danger."
That also applied when West Ham were attacking, as they were after 12 minutes. Then Dean Ashton lost possession. Seconds later Van Persie was rising above Lucas Neill to head in Hleb's cross.
It could have been more, for Rob Green in the home goal made three exceptional saves. Yet the Hammers might have taken a point. Shortly before the hour Freddie Ljungberg, making one of those runs he perfected at Arsenal, drifted between defenders and on to Henri Camara's pass before converting. The linesman wrongly flagged offside.
West Ham continued to push but after Ashton, who generally looked a contender for England's forthcoming trip to Moscow, missed a free header, Arsenal went to 4-5-1 and closed the game down. It was evidence of another aspect of their developing game.
At the final whistle Fabregas and Flamini went to the away end and threw their shirts into the crowd. Bacary Sagna, Van Persie, Emmanuel Eboué and Kolo Touré followed, the latter having to toss in a West Ham shirt he had swapped. It was reminiscent of the way Chelsea's players had acted after winning a battle of a match at Blackburn in Jose Mourinho's first season. That night Chelsea began to believe they would be champions. Arsenal look on a similar wavelength.
Curbishley, meanwhile, said West Ham "have to get to the bottom" of Craig Bellamy's injury problems, the Welshman pulling out of Saturday's game with a groin strain following training on Friday.
Goal: Van Persie (13) 0-1.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Green; Neill, Ferdinand (Gabbidon, 48), Upson, McCartney; Bowyer (Boa Morte, 83), Parker (Mullins, h-t), Noble, Ljungberg; Ashton, Camara. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Cole.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Touré, Senderos, Clichy; Hleb (Eboué, 31), Fabregas, Flamini, Diaby; Adebayor (Gilberto, 79), Van Persie (Bendtner, 88). Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Denilson.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: West Ham Bowyer, Noble; Arsenal: Flamini, Eboué.
Man of the match: Green.