Following their opening day win over Fulham Athletic, Arsenal entered Saturday night’s match against West Ham United in good spirits. An emphatic attacking display at Craven Cottage had given new boys Willian and Gabriel Magalhães a chance to impress and in the days following their win in South London, captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finally put pen to paper on a three-year contract.
Heading into matchday two, Arsenal’s opponents West Ham United had faired a little differently. Their opening game of the season had seen them slump to a disappointing 0-2 home loss to Newcastle United and a miserable set of fixtures in which they play five of the pure top six in their opening twelve matches.
Arsenal entered in high spirits, but those spirits were somewhat dampened by the news that Kieran Tierney had had to pull out of the starting eleven, owing to a tight hip that he picked up in the warmup, which prompted the selection of Sead Kolašinac.
Elsewhere, Arsenal made a few other changes; despite his emphatic performance over Fulham, Mohamed Elneny was replaced by Dani Ceballos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles was dropped in favour of Arsenal’s new number seven, Bukayo Saka, while the aforementioned Willian and Gabriel made home debuts.
What was also interesting about Arsenal’s lineup was that it looked remarkably like Mikel Arteta had decided to move to a back four, rather than a back three. In previous weeks, Arteta has opted to insult his defence as best he can with the introduction of three defenders, however, this week, it looked as though the Spaniard had opted for the midfield three that he has been so desperate to see, with Saka taking up a somewhat marauding role in the midfield.
The game started a little shaky from Arsenal as their midfield battle against Tomáš Součeck and Declan Rice saw a number of misplaced passes, mainly from Granit Xhaka. Arsenal’s carelessness in possession showed West Ham way too much of the ball and the visitors went close on a number of occasions.
Jarrod Bowen used a quick burst of speed to break into the Arsenal penalty area, before being seemingly tripped by Gabriel Magalhães, thankfully for Arsenal, VAR saw contact as being minimal and no penalty was given.
In the 25th minute, Granit Xhaka broke the midfield line with a powerful pat for Bukayo Saka, who then released Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into the penalty area, beating the offside trap, Aubameyang ran the ball down the line and swung the ball across the face of goal with his weaker left-foot for the ball to be met with the emphatic head of Alexandre Lacazette, whose powerful header was far too much for former Gunner Łukasz Fabiański to keep out.
It was Lacazette’s 50th goal for Arsenal in 129 games and was yet another fantastic example of the classy combination of Aubameyang and Lacazette, who’s combination has resulted in 11 goals assisted for each other since February 2018, with only Ryan Fraser and Callum Wilson registering more in the league in that time.
Despite taking the lead, Arsenal’s performance did not improve much. Sloppy possession in the middle of the park and misplaced passes resulted in a number of healthy West Ham attacks. There was a half-hearted shout for another penalty after VAR checked a possible handball incident from Gabriel, though the claims as quickly brushed aside by VAR, though this too seems controversial, given that a similar incident, only an hour or so previously, by Victor Lindelöf in their 1-3 defeat to Crystal Palace, had resulted in a penalty being given.
It looked as though Arsenal had weathered much of the storm, before West Ham broke forward with Ryan Fredericks, who linked up well with Bowen, to put the ball on a plate for Michail Antonio, who drew the visitors level, right on the stroke of half-time.
In the second-half, Arsenal still looked a bit shell-shocked and West Ham began to take advantage of Arsenal’s increasingly nervy defence. Antonio came close once again, with his header, cannoning off Gabriel into Leno’s hands on the goal-line.
Arsenal seemed reluctant to clear their lines and, as a result, West Ham began to question Leno more and more. The German goalkeeper stood his ground, but Antonio still managed to rattle the Arsenal crossbar with a looping header and the resultant mess in the penalty area, led to Leno scrambling to block the shot from his dropped ball.
It wasn’t before long that Arteta decided to introduce Nicolas Pépé and Eddie Nketiah to proceedings; Willian’s performance had not reached the heights of his dizzying display against Fulham and Lacazette had started to look tired for a while now. Arsenal still struggled to create, until the 86th minute, when Saka drove inside and released Ceballos into the penalty area, who then released Nketiah to slot the ball into the open net and give Arsenal a very undeserved winner.
It was a super-sub appearance from Nketiah, who put his recent spat with Ceballos behind him to celebrate with the Spaniard in emphatic fashion.
From there, Arsenal introduced David Luiz to help ease the pressure on the defence, but by this point, the damage was done for West Ham and Michael Oliver mercifully drew the game to a close as Arsenal celebrated an undeserved three points.
If ever there was a game that emphasised how justified Mikel Arteta’s interest in Lyon’s Houssem Aouar and Atlético Madrid’s Thomas Partey, this was it.
Arsenal were sloppy in midfield and their cover in the middle of the park was lacklustre at best. West Ham’s equaliser had come about as a direct result of Arsenal’s lack of bodies in midfield. Saka has been caught too far upfield, Ceballos was sucked in following the ball and Xhaka was simply not quick enough to cover the overlapping runs, leaving Arsenal overrun, despite the man advantage in the middle of the park.
It seems as though a player such as Partey, would have likely identified the problem areas in midfield and would have been able to position the two to cope with the overlapping runs better and would have likely provided better cover for Holding and Gabriel, who were caught out themselves.
With regards to creativity, it was yet another sorry display of reduced creativity from an Arsenal side that boasts an embarrassment of attacking riches. Aubameyang and Lacazette essentially fed off scraps, meanwhile, Willian seemed to be on a different page to the others entirely, bringing attacks to a grinding halt and with a seeming lack of ideas.
While it is likely that the signing of Aouar would change the creative side of the team, it is also fair to say that the exiled Mattéo Guendouzi and Mesut Özil would have likely changed the game as well. Özil ability to drift between the lines and to pick a pass, would have unlocked West Ham a lot easier and would have benefitted the wide players.
The absence of Kieran Tierney was also felt. It is not Arsenal’s fault that the talented former Celtic left-back had to withdraw and that the underprepared Sead Kolašinac had to fill in for him, however, it was certainly a sign of how lost Arsenal are without their number three, that they began to struggle a lot in his absence.
Much as it had been in the final days of Unai Emery, Arsenal struggled without a creative influence in the middle of the park and thus all creative exploits (particularly in the second half) were filtered through Kolašinac, who also struggled to create much as Arsenal’s off-the-ball movement, or lack thereof, and West Ham’s low-block made it impossible to create much more.
At the end of the day, the game was a tale of finishing, Arsenal’s forward line is one of the most frightening in world football when it is properly supported, especially since Aubameyang and Lacazette have a combined 122 goals in 240 appearances for the club in all competitions. West Ham created enough chances to cause Arsenal some real problems, but their finishing let them down.
Overall, Arteta can be happy with the three points and his celebrations at the end certainly reflect that, but Arsenal know that they cannot play like that again if they want to challenge for the top four this season and with tricky games coming up against Leicester City in the League Cup and Liverpool in the Premier League only a few days later, Arsenal know that they need to improve.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín
16.) Rob Holding
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
31.) Sead Kolašinac
34.) Granit Xhaka
8.) Dani Ceballos
7.) Bukayo Saka (David Luiz 89’)
12.) Willian (Pépé 64’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Nketiah 77’)
33.) Matt Macey
23.) David Luiz
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
25.) Mohamed Elneny
28.) Joe Willock
19.) Nicolas Pépé
30.) Eddie Nketiah
West Ham United team:
1.) Łukasz Fabiański
24.) Ryan Fredericks
23.) Issa Diop
21.) Angelo Ogbonna
3.) Aaron Cresswell
26.) Arthur Masuaku (Felipe Anderson 90’)
20.) Jarrod Bowen (Yarmolenko 83’)
28.) Tomáš Souček
41.) Declan Rice (c)
18.) Pablo Fornals (Haller 88’)
30.) Michail Antonio
West Ham United subs:
35.) Darren Randolph
4.) Fabián Balbuena
31.) Ben Johnson
8.) Felipe Anderson
10.) Manuel Lanzini
7.) Andriy Yarmolenko
22.) Sébastien Haller