Arsenal made a short trip to the eastern side of the city, to the London Stadium, where they were to be hosted by West Ham United in the 22nd round of the 2018/19 Premier League season.
The Hammers have been striving to reform the club and get as close as possible to the top teams in the league for a while now. However, their efforts have had their ups and downs in the recent several years. Slaven Bilić, who had a great start to his stint as the manager, eventually had to be replaced with Manuel Pellegrini the next in line, ready to try and take the club where the Croatian couldn’t. It was never going to be easy for him, but to have his team sitting 10th ahead of this game is far from bad.
Similar to West Ham in some ways but with a different starting point, the Gunners are also striving to reach the heights where they once were under Arsene Wenger, now with Unai Emery in charge.
Pellegrini had a number of injury-related absences to cope with. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Winston Reid, Fabian Balbuena, Manuel Lanzini, Carlos Sanchez, Andriy Yarmolenko, Ryan Fredericks, and former Gunner Jack Wilshere were all out.
Lukasz Fabianski was in goal. Issa Diop and Angelo Ogbonna paired up at the heart of defence, flanked by Pablo Zabaleta and Aaron Cresswell. Mark Noble and Declan Rice were the two deep-lying midfielders, while the trio of Michail Antonio, Samir Nasri and Felipe Anderson played behind striker Marko Arnautovic.
Emery was able to welcome back a significant number of players to face the Hammers. Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, Dinos Mavropanos, Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin were all back in contention. The ones missing were Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Rob Holding and Danny Welbeck.
Bernd Leno stood between the posts. The trio of Mustafi, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Koscielny was the last line of defence. Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi were to hold the middle of the park, flanked by wing-backs Sead Kolasinac on the left and Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the right. Up front, Alexandre Lacazette was joined by Alex Iwobi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The First Half
Faced with a pressing-oriented quality opponent, West Ham showed surprising composure in possession early on and they weren’t ready to give the ball up easily. The first shot came around five minutes in as Antonio charged past Xhaka down the right flank and employed his captain on the edge of the box, but Noble’s effort was too tame to cause any worry for Leno.
Whenever Arsenal managed to organize themselves and attack in numbers, the Hammers would from an impenetrable wall on the edge of their own box and look to hit on the counter through either Antonio or Arnautovic; with former Gunner Nasri quick in support.
Not counting a couple of desperate blocked efforts, the first attempt at Fabianski’s goal came from Lacazette in the ninth minute from 20 yards, but the French striker couldn’t hit the target. Anderson threatened on the other side as he glided past Iwobi and cut inside from the right side, but his left-footed shot went the same way as Lacazette’s. The former Lyon man had another go in the 13th minute and this time it was a decent chance as Iwobi sent him through and he hit the target from close range, but Fabianski was well positioned.
But after the initial spell of West Ham having more of the ball, Arsenal gradually raised their game and their attacks seemed to trouble the hosts more.
The Hammers, however, had a very dangerous moment as Cresswell nutmegged Maitland-Niles on the left and squared it to the far post, but Leno got down quickly to collect it in front of the feet of Antonio. Arsenal retaliated through Nasri whose pass had Lacazette turn around Ogbonna and charge towards Fabianski, but the striker was judged to have pulled the West Ham centre-back by the shirt. In the 22nd minute, Kolašinac combined well with Iwobi down the left, escaped the attention of both Zabaleta and Noble and got behind them, but Ogbonna and Diop worked extremely well to close the Bosnian’s options down and clear their box.
Three minutes later, Noble combined with Nasri well at the other end. Nasri then played a one-two with Arnautovic before hitting it low towards the far post, but Leno was alert. Another great combination created a chance for Arnautovic to shoot from just inside the box, but Sokratis threw himself in the path of the ball and made a fine block.
Just after the half-hour mark, Arnautovic skilfully tamed a long pass for Nasri to collect outside of Arsenal’s box before setting Anderson up for a shot that had Leno beaten but went trickling an inch wide of the target. Three minutes later, Guendouzi suddenly found himself in enough space to hit one from range, and like Anderson, he beat the goalkeeper and just missed the target.
Straight afterwards, the young midfielder gave Emery a scare by staying on the ground after a grapple from behind by Nasri, but with some help from the medical staff he got up and continued playing.
In the last minute of the half, Rice wasted a great opportunity as he rose high in the air and beat Mustafi to the ball and his header went several yards off target.
The Second Half
West Ham broke early on and Mustafi was forced to take out Anderson with a sliding tackle to prevent him from taking on Leno, and for that the Arsenal centre-back received a yellow card. Two minutes later, the Hammers were in front.
Noble recycled an attack by playing Anderson on the right flank, and the winger beat his marker to the byline before sending in a poor cross. However, his poor cross was met with an equally poor clearance from Xhaka who headed straight into the feet of Nasri. The former Arsenal player set Rice up for an unobstructed shot from around 10 yards and Rice smacked it decisively into the top corner, giving Leno no chance to react.
The visitors tried to hit back straight away and combined quickly to get inside the Hammers’ box, but the home side’s defence survived with a joint effort. Guendouzi had another go from range in the 55th minute but he again failed to hit the target.
However, it was fairly obvious that Pellegrini’s men weren’t satisfied with a one-goal lead. They soon pushed Arsenal far back and kept attacking for a while. Anderson and Nasri in particular were giving their opponents a lot to think about, and the home team earned two corners and a free-kick in a good position before the hour had gone. The free-kick was taken by Anderson and it found the head of Ogbonna in the air, but the centre-back missed the target.
Emery sensed it was time to react and he replaced Xhaka and Mustafi with Lucas Torreira and Aaron Ramsey. Arsenal’s formation had now shifted to 4-3-3 as Kolašinac and Maitland-Niles dropped beside Sokratis and Koscielny.
Right on the hour-mark, Kolašinac got into referee John Moss’ book for a foul on Arnautovic.
Arsenal had no time to lose and they pushed forward immediately. After Aubameyang wasted a good cross by Ramsey by heading it over the bar, Kolašinac set the Gabonese striker up for another good chance but Cresswell’s defending was impeccable. Ramsey did well again to send Iwobi through coming in from the left, but Iwobi’s shot trickled just wide of the far post. A long attack ended with Guendouzi sending a low shot straight into the hands of Fabianski.
With 69 minutes gone, Emery threw in his last card by replacing Maitland-Niles with Hector Bellerin.
Pellegrini responded this time. Nasri and Arnautovic made way for Robert Snodgrass and Andy Carroll; a set-piece specialist and a towering forward replacing two very technical players was a clear signal of the way West Ham would be attacking for the rest of the game.
The contest entered what promised to be a very exciting final 15 minutes. Both teams attacked, and crosses came in thick at both ends of the pitch. Defenders were extremely busy all the time, and they mostly did their job well.
In the 82nd minute, Pellegrini made his last substitution as he replaced Antonio with Pedro Obiang.
As time went on, the Hammers seemed to be taking the pace of the game gradually down. Like at the start of the game, they again played with patience, keeping the ball for as long as possible, with Arsenal players looking less prepared to press than ever. Only Ramsey seemed to be putting in his best effort, which is hugely commendable for a player that’s reportedly agreed a move to Juventus in the summer.
The Hammers doing very well at the back during the three minutes of injury time. Koscielny was sent up front to act as a target-man, and he did manage to head the ball into the net after the last attack of the game, only to see the linesman’s flag raised for offside.
As the scoreline suggest, it was a game of fine margins with West Ham overall doing a slightly better job. It was a really solid performance from the home team, and Pellegrini will be very happy with the way the players carried out his plan, especially at the back. He will also be happy with the fact that signing Nasri has already started paying off. His team climbed up to eight place with 31 points, at least for a few hours.
On the other hand, Emery will have seen and learnt a few things from this game. The midfield he chose to start was poor as a whole, especially in terms of attacking output. It all changed with the introduction of Ramsey, but with the Welshman soon to be gone, the likes of Xhaka and Guendouzi will have to pick their game up significantly. Be that as it may, Arsenal gave Chelsea to increase their advantage in the table to six points, if they beat Newcastle later in the day.
WEST HAM: Fabianski 8, Ogbonna 8, Diop 7.5, Zabaleta 7.5, Cresswell 7, Noble 7.5, Rice 7, Antonio 7.5 (82′ Obiang N/A), Nasri 8 (70′ Snodgrass 6.5), Anderson 7.5, Arnautovic 7.5 (70′ Carroll 7).
ARSENAL: Leno 7, Sokratis 7.5, Mustafi 6.5 (59′ Ramsey 8), Koscielny 7, Xhaka 6 (59′ Torreira 6), Guendouzi 6.5, Maitland-Niles 7 (69′ Bellerin 6.5), Kolašinac 6.5, Iwobi 7, Aubameyang 7, Lacazette 7.
GOAL: Rice 48′.
YELLOW CARDS: Mustafi 46′, Kolašinac 60′.
REFEREE: Johnathan Moss.
DATE & VENUE: January 12, 2019, London Stadium.
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