Arsenal suffered their fifth league defeat of the season at the London Stadium on Saturday, as West Ham managed to edge them out and take all the points. Despite the opposition not being among the ‘top six’ sides, there’s no real shame in losing an away game to a well-drilled, experienced team with a Premier League winner as their manager.
However, there certainly are things to be closely looked at and taken as lessons from this game. To put it simply, Unai Emery got outsmarted by Manuel Pellegrini this time. How? Let’s take a look.
What went wrong?
There has been a huge gap in the quality and the appreciation of Arsenal’s attack and defence for quite some time now. The back line was far too often at fault for conceding goals, while the front men repeatedly worked hard to cover that up at the other end of the pitch. However, this game was won and lost in the middle of the park.
A 3-4-3 formation can work really well sometimes. It makes the team very flexible, with an added centre-back and wing-backs who can slot beside the back three and turn it into a five if needed, but also push high up and provide extra width in attack.
In turn, the wing-backs pushing high can allow the wide forwards to cut inside, which can be deadly if the centre-forward succeeds in taking a defender out of position with a dummy run. Pace and quality finishing are in those instances a powerful weapon. But it is in very middle of the park where the right balance has to be found.
It’s always nice and comfortable to speak in hindsight, but pairing up Granit Xhaka with Matteo Guendouzi now seems to have been the call that made Arsenal’s chances of scoring and winning the game far slimmer than they needed to be. The presence of Mark Noble and Declan Rice in there made the Gunners’ duo work very hard, and that in turn left far too much space for former Arsenal player Samir Nasri to get between the lines and work his magic from there. The constant runs of Michail Antonio and Felipe Anderson down the flanks added to the overall impression of the Arsenal team being stretched too thin, as the wingers often exposed Maitland-Niles and Kolašinac with the centre-back trio tied up by the presence of Marko Arnautovic and Nasri.
But the most important point here is, there was no source from which any creativity would come in that line-up. Without any one of Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, or the injured Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the pitch, it was very hard for the front three to get into proper goalscoring positions. Alexandre Lacazette, Alex Iwobi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang worked really hard and did their best to create for themselves, but the West Ham back four were ready for them. Every single one of them, including former Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, put in a fine performance, and the Gunners needed a bit of magic from their midfield to make anything happen. But where was it going to come from?
Certainly not from Xhaka who is a great fighter and an excellent shooter, but not the kind of player to really make a difference. The same goes for young Guendouzi, who just couldn’t find enough space anywhere to try and make something happen in front of him.
It all looked a lot different after the substitutions were made and the shape became a 4-3-3, but the biggest difference was the presence of Torreira and Ramsey. Maybe something to consider for the near future? At least while Ramsey is still an Arsenal player.