Arsenal – West Ham United: Gunners Grasp The Top Four Trophy (2-0)
A London derby of rising parity saw West Ham duke it out at the Emirates Stadium for fourth place. Though familiar flaws cropped up in the display of the traditional favorites, their quality pulled through, kindling hope that there may be reward for their efforts this season in the end.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
This clash marked nearly two years since both managers took on the reins. The prize for a victory may have been a spot in the top four, but divergent moods have hung over the outlook of these outfits.
At Arsenal, the strategy has been to forego the tried and tested. As young stars seek to step up to the plate, Mikel Arteta has ventured on the path of a managerial role in the dugout. In the absence of more established names, this trial and error approach has brought about its fair share of highs and lows. But, as inconsistent results prevail, the final result of this project is still very much up in the air.
On the other hand, no one can doubt how David Moyes has made the most of his second stint at West Ham United. If a top six finish at the end of last season was not enough, he is indulging the fans in East London this time around. Pushing for the top four in conjunction with progress in the Europa League, the guests have taken challenges in their stride. So, on a more even keel than ever with Arsenal, was another scalp of a member of the Big Six soon to come?
Off the back of an easy 3-0 win over Southampton, Arteta ought to have got a few days of respite. But drama is never too far away from Arsenal. Indeed, stripping the role of captain from Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang two days ago, he kept the striker out of the fold once more. To this end, the same eleven players that featured on the weekend had the chance to bag a second Premier League victory in a row.
Keen to see his men get back to winning ways, Moyes has steered clear of drama. A 0-0 stalemate on the road at Burnley may have taken away momentum, but the three points here would make sure of their place among the elite for now. Only one new face appeared in the lineup for this fixture. Saïd Benrahma dropped to the bench, making way for Pablo Fornals, who operated in the number ten role.
From their initial 4-2-3-1 formation, Arteta’s men ended up running out the same old playbook when they held control of the ball. The asymmetry between the fullbacks gave way to a back three, where Takehiro Tomiyasu held back in a reserved role from the right flank. The wide triangle on this side of the field would see Martin Ødegaard feature in the halfspace while Bukayo Saka started on the wing.
Arsenal’s asymmetric 4-2-3-1 offensive structure against West Ham’s medium block
To the left, Kieran Tierney offered more depth than Tomiyasu, leaving Gabriel Martinelli to roam inward. Granit Xhaka, who formed the standard double pivot next to Thomas Partey, could drop into the halfspace. As has been the case before, Alexandre Lacazette popped off the front quite early to offer a line breaking option from the center, leaning into his tendency to link up the play.
Right renders itself redundant, luckless left
Yet, sticking with this setup has not seen Arteta’s men become surer of themselves. Instead, displays this month have shone a light on recurrent flaws. The right side of Arsenal’s attack, which has seldom been a source of joy in the final third under Arteta, lacks a clear profile. Underlapping runs through the channel from Ødegaard were absent while he, Saka, and Tomiyasu rarely all worked in tandem.
Rotations prompting the left back to bomb into the final third are more productive on the other flank. However, even here, defects are evident. The movement from Lacazette and Martinelli is not always ideal to pin the right back inward to open room for Tierney. What’s more, the timing of the rotation can be problematic, leaving the fullback too deep to threaten a delivery at the point he gets the ball.
16th minute: dynamic wide triangle from Arsenal featuring a rotation. Xhaka, Tierney and Martinelli rotate but the flaws are in the details. Beyond the execution of Xhaka’s misplaced pass, a lack of depth in the left halfspace and lack of automatism to interchange depth strands the left back wide.
Engineering a breakthrough
However, Arsenal’s best prospects of creating danger mainly came from the right. Room for Saka on the right flank afforded him the chance to threaten the goal either through deliveries from the inside channel or interplay with Ødegaard. Meanwhile, Martinelli’s thrusting runs to the box were an ideal foil for Lacazette’s involvement in the play in theory on the left. Yet, the interaction between the pair had not worked to break down a block. That would change in a matter of moments after the restart.
In the 48th minute, Gabriel threaded a pass into the striker. His positioning split the double pivot, drawing the attention of Souček. The left winger then darted away from his marker, raced onto a through ball from his captain, and buried an effort neatly into the bottom right corner of the net.
An old ally proves a foe
Moyes’ men needed to battle their way back into the game. The fullbacks held the width, Souček had earned the freedom to offer an extra threat in the box third ahead of Declan Rice, and Manuel Lanzini roamed deeper. But the guests looked off the pace in the face of a relatively solid block. Mistakes at pivotal points on their end made a difference, putting the game on a knife’s edge in the 66th minute.
Indeed, it was Vladimír Coufal that chalked up a critical error. Picking up the ball from a goal kick, Martinelli squared the ball to Lacazette, intending to slip away from Coufal in the box. The right back made it first to the danger, but his duel was unclean, barely contacting the top of the ball and, in turn, hacking the striker’s shin. The referee duly pointed to the penalty spot. And the damage was not over.
🗣"I thought he should've got more of the ball."— Football Daily (@footballdaily) December 16, 2021
David Moyes shares his opinion on Vladimir Coufal's red card and penalty that was given to Arsenal pic.twitter.com/4GqlZJLw64
Doling out a second yellow card and subsequent red to the defender, the away team were down to ten men. The last nail in the coffin for West Ham would have been a goal from twelve yards. Fortunately for them, Lukasz Fabiański, a former Arsenal goalkeeper, had other ideas. Reading Lacazette’s effort, he dived to his left, parrying the ball out of harm’s way to keep his side’s slim stake in the contest.
Although only twenty minutes remained on the clock, Moyes did not make any substitutions to make up for the dismissal, shuffling the pack already on the field. The ever-willing Antonio dropped to the right of the backline while Bowen filled in upfront. The lifeline from Fabiański seemed to spur on the guests, who faced a side more willing to sit on their goal lead. Benrahma’s introduction in place of Fornals forced home the issue all the more, leaving Arsenal with work to do before the final whistle.
As ever, the inspiration came from the youth. Tomiyasu harassed Benrahma off the ball, setting away Saka on the break. The winger dribbled into enemy territory from the right before reversing the play into the path of substitute Emile Smith Rowe. His fellow Hale End graduate then drove to the edge of the box before slotting a strike between the legs of Issa Diop into the back of the net. A cry of relief echoed around the Emirates. At last, the three points, and a traditional spot in the top four, were theirs.
Saka to Smith Rowe... And Arsenal are going into the top four 👊— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) December 15, 2021
A lovely placed finish from the edge of the area! pic.twitter.com/y6YSuamku0
A stickier opening, furious flurry of intent, and nervy conclusion depicted many of the themes of Arsenal’s performances as of late. Fourth place brings back a familiar sense of nostalgia to the Emirates while critics cannot level at the team any longer that they have not beaten one of the high flyers in the league. So, cause for optimism off the back of this showing may be greater than usual, but this process still has a way to go to catch up with a broadly strong run of results.
For the second game in a row, West Ham United have dropped points, failing to meet the lofty standards they have set for themselves at the outset of the campaign. Injuries at the back have been frustrating, but no goals from two ring the most alarm bells. A resurgent Norwich City are up next, and Moyes will hope more dropped points do not signal an abrupt end to their fairytale form.
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