Friday, January 28, 2022

Arsenal 2-0 West Ham: Five things as Gunners make it back to top four

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One of the more balanced fixtures of the 17th round of the Premier League campaign, played through the middle of the week, saw Arsenal beat West Ham at the Emirates Stadium 2-0 on Wednesday, courtesy of goals from Gabriel Martnelli and Emile Smith.

Has Arteta discovered the right formula?

The home side expectedly dominated the proceedings for the most of the match. They ended up with 57% of possession and a total of 21 shots taken, compared to West Ham’s seven. They successfully kept the play deep in the opposition half for long spells, winning possession high up and recycling attacks, and their victory cannot be described as anything but deserved.

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It seems manager Mikel Arteta has indeed discovered the best way to select his starting XI and set them up in his preferred 4-2-3-1 shape. He started with the back four of Gabriel Magalhaes and Ben White flanked by Tahekiro Tomiyasu and Kieran Tierney, the newly appointed captain. Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka provided a strong midfield base and protection, while Martin Odegaard was tasked with the more creative role of a No.10, flanked by Gabriel Martinelli on the left and Bukayo Saka on the right. Alexandre Lacazette led the line.

It’s fair to say that every player did his job well, though the team perhaps got more impetus and determination with the introduction of Smith Rowe instead of Odegaard in the 66th minute. Martinelli and Saka often caused the West Ham defence problems out wide, while Lacazette’s hard work, skill and experience in central attacking areas proved very valuable too. Partey and Xhaka were always there to pick up the pieces if anything went wrong. Tomiyasu and Tierney marauded up and down the flanks, defending and attacking with plenty of balance, while White and Gabriel mostly kept the Hammers’ danger man Michail Antonio quiet throughout.

We’d seen flashes of good football from Arsenal this season already, though consistency hasn’t always been their trait. This was the third match in a row with the same lineup for Arsenal, so it would seem that Arteta is working on that aspect. The problem is, the December schedule is packed, and the Spaniard will hardly be able to use the same players over and over again. Some rotation will have to happen.

Moyes defeated in landmark match

This was the 600th Premier League game in the managerial career of David Moyes. His teams won 236 times, drew 161, and lost 203, with a point average of 1.45 per match. Interestingly enough, it was none other than Moyes who signed a midfielder by the name of Mikel Arteta for Everton back in the summer of 2005, from Real Sociedad. Arteta spent six years at Goodison Park playing under Moyes, making a total of 209 appearances in all competitions for the Toffees, before joining Arsenal.

Only three managers in the history of the English top flight have been involved in more matches than Moyes; Harry Redknapp (642), Arsene Wenger (828), and Sir Alex Ferguson (897, counting both the Premier League era and the First Division before).

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Nonetheless, his former charge was no more sympathetic to Moyes’ achievement than expected, condemning his former boss to a mixture of landmark celebration and woes of defeat.

West Ham played as they always do – tight at the back, always looking to hit on the counter and exploit any potential mistake from the opposition, but to their dismay, there weren’t too many of those where Arsenal were concerned on Wednesday evening.

The penalty controversy

There has been some debate over the penalty which referee Anthony Taylor awarded Arsenal after Vladimir Coufal made contact with Alexandre Lacazette inside the box, and that’s almost always the case in these situations.

Coufal made a sliding tackle, raising his leg a bit too high, catching the top of the ball very slightly, before completely mowing Lacazette down. It took a few seconds for Taylor to make his mind up and then he gave the penalty. VAR obviously had a look and the decision was – the penalty stands. Further more, Taylor also judged it was worthy of a second yellow card and Coufal was sent off, leaving his teammates to try to find an equalizer (it had been 1-0 at the time) a man down as best they can.

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West Ham still resilient

But outnumbered or not, the Hammers went for it with all they had, and there were a couple of periods, albeit short ones, when they managed to move the balance of the game towards the goal of Aaron Ramsdale. Their resilience after Coufal’s red card is truly commendable, and it goes some way to show why they are where they are in the Premier League table at the moment.

Looking at the individual performances of the visiting players, there weren’t too many glittering ones, but there weren’t too many bad ones either. More was perhaps expected from Antonio given his form so far this season, but one player that did stand out a bit in a negative way, though, was Craig Dawson.

The 31-year-old centre-back struggled on numerous occasions with the pace of Martinelli. The opening goal was a perfect example of this; once the young Brazilian went on the inside of Coufal, Dawson simply couldn’t close the gap fast enough and it proved costly. Even Lacazette, who is by no means among the fastest attackers in the Premier League, was too fast for Dawson more than once. The penalty was also his fault to an extent; he lost the race to the ball to Martinelli again and was too slow to return to his position, allowing Lacazette to storm into the box and leaving Coufal in a very difficult situation against the French striker.

In truth, Dawson probably wouldn’t have played in this match had either Kurt Zouma (hamstring) or Angelo Ogbonna (knee) been fit.

The top-four twist

Arsenal entered this match with the idea of overtaking West Ham in the table, as Arteta openly said in his pre-match presser, and they have. Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea seem far away at the top at this point of the season, but the race for the fourth is wide open. Arsenal are now fourth with 29 points, Manchester United are just behind with 28, and the Hammers follow with 27. Tottenham Hotspur (25 and Wolverhampton Wanderers (24) aren’t too far away either.

There is obviously a long way to go yet. While United and Arsenal, arguably Spurs too, need that Champions League spot to still be considered among the European elite, West Ham and the others obviously see it as a great opportunity to boost their own status, raise their ambitions further and significantly improve their financial situation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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