As much as we might hate to admit it, football moves in cycles. Manchester United fans are currently living the life of mid-90s Liverpool, and vice versa, while the two clubs are also effectively their own late-80s selves.
Arsenal and West Ham, meanwhile, might as well be getting their glow sticks out and playing ‘Golden Skans’ by the Klaxons on full volume from their iPods, such is their commitment to reliving 2007.
In April of that year, when the two clubs met at the Emirates Stadium for the first time, the Gunners were involved in a race for fourth which operated on a different plane of existence to the Premier League’s top three. West Ham, on the other hand, were battling to avoid the drop, having sacked the manager who took them into the top half one year earlier.
Arsenal didn’t have too much to worry about on paper when they hosted their London neighbours 13 years ago. West Ham might have secured back-to-back wins going into the game, but they were still down in 19th and their victory at Blackburn was their first on the road all season.
Arsène Wenger’s side, meanwhile, hadn’t lost at home in more than a year, threatening to turn their new base into just as much of a fortress as Highbury. Sure, they had lost on the road to Everton and Liverpool going into the meeting, but their previous five home games had produced five wins.
As it happened, West Ham were the last visiting team to win at Highbury, but that game was an outlier, overshadowed by Sol Campbell going AWOL and forcing Arsenal into a back four of Seb Larsson, Philippe Senderos, Johan Djourou and Mathieu Flamini for 45 minutes. Back to something approaching full strength, it couldn’t happen again. Right?
Wenger’s men took 35 shots against West Ham in that game. Thirty-five. That’s… well, it’s a lot. In the 2019-20 Premier League, Manchester City have averaged fewer than 20 shots per game, and comfortably lead the way. For Liverpool, who have won 26 of their 28 games, the per-game figure is 15.6. When City beat Watford 8-0 back in September, they recorded 28 shots and 11 on target.
How many goals did Arsenal score from those 35 shots? None. Not a single one. Only Rob Green knows how he kept out all 11 of the Gunners’ shots on target that afternoon.
Green had kept one away clean sheet for West Ham, in 10 games. His team had conceded 22 goals in those games, including six against Reading. No one else has ever conceded more than four against the Royals in Premier League history.
And yet, when it mattered, everything went right for the keeper.
In the first half, Green twice raced from his line to deny Cesc Fàbregas and then Freddie Ljungberg in one-on-one situations. Then, just as we wondered whether West Ham knew they were even allowed out of their own half, Bobby Zamora latched onto a Lucas Neill long ball and lobbed Jens Lehmann to give Alan Curbishley’s team a lead to protect.
If you thought the first half was one-way traffic, the second was another thing altogether. And Green wasn’t just making routine saves – each one of them could easily have been a standout moment for a goalkeeper in any other context. From the dive low to his right to deny Gilberto and push the ball away from danger, to the phenomenal reflexes required to keep out Emmanuel Adebayor’s header – a response so quick that if he’d been an Olympic sprinter on his blocks he’d have been disqualified for a false start. When Fàbregas finally beat Green and saw his shot cannon off the woodwork, it was hard to argue the keeper hadn’t earned his slice of luck.
West Ham didn’t immediately see the full benefit of that win.
They remained in the bottom three after it, and lost their next two outings against Sheffield United and Chelsea. However, without the three points in North London, those results would have seen them mathematically down. Thanks to Green’s heroics, there was still a chance, however tiny, that they could survive.
Sure enough, a Carlos Tevez-inspired four wins from four kept them afloat and launched a beef with Sheffield United which continued for a full decade. But none of that would have been possible without a result which, however you look at it, makes next to no sense.