Arsenal and West Ham United came into this London Derby on two different trajectories. While West Ham has struggled all season, they have looked more assured now that David Moyes has taken the helm at the London Stadium. With a pressure-packed 1-0 win over struggling Chelsea, West Ham was hoping to continue the push away from relegation.
Arsenal, however, desperately needed a win to stay in the hunt for a Champions League spot. With a disappointing loss to Manchester United and shocking draw to Southampton, Arsenal continued their downward trend as they played to a 0-0 draw.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech // Maitland-Niles – Monreal – Koscielny – Bellerin // Xhaka – Ramsey // Sanchez (Lacazette, 82’) – Ozil – Iwobi (Welbeck, 70’) // Giroud
West Ham (4-2-3-1): Adrian // Cresswell – Ogbonna – Reid – Zabaleta // Noble – Obiang // Masuaku – Lanzini – Arnautovic // Antonio (Chicharito, 82’)
Arsenal: Different Formation, Same Problems
Lining up in a 4-2-3-1 on paper, Arsene Wenger clearly structured his side around greater ball security in the central areas. Instead of the double pivot in central midfield, Wenger instructed Ozil to drop deeper and form a pairing alongside Wilshere in a 4-3-3 ostensibly to provide a compact structure for easier ball circulation. At times in the first half, Arsenal was able to overload the central areas and bypass West Ham’s press, allowing them to attack at speed as they approached the final third. Better decision-making in these progressions would have caused problems against a back line fully in retreat.
Sanchez and Iwobi, in an effort to provide another midfield progression outlet, sat narrower deep in the half-spaces. While providing greater spatial occupation in the middle third, there was a lack of positioning in wide areas behind the midfield lines. Such narrowness in Arsenal’s possessional structure made West Ham’s defensive organization fairly simple as they had little worries about being exposed on the flanks. Bellerin and Maitland-Niles in Wenger’s style of 4-2-3-1 are usually the ones tasked with providing width but neither seemed able to, either from lack of form (Bellerin) or lack of experience (Maitland-Niles).
Even with a back four, however, Arsenal are still plagued by the same issues that appear more structural than formational. Too often Arsenal is aggressive in their pressing during defensive transitions and exposed behind their midfield line. Normally, these issues are resolved through collective positioning as to restrict the spaces to operate. Arsenal, much to their credit, lacks any form of communal communication in these critical episodes of play. At times multiple players will press the same individual or even worse will assume someone else will claim possession when the ball is passed into space. Better teams than West Ham have shown that with clear intent Arsenal can be constantly exposed to ruthless counterattacks.
Lack of Imagination Halts Arsenal Attack
At the London Stadium, Arsenal enjoyed 69.9% possession and had 362 touches in the final third. While they had 22 shots in total, only 3 found their way on goal. These simple statistics explain the malaise of Arsenal’s attack right now. Frankly, they appear to lack any imagination on how to move the ball towards goal in a way that actually creates clear chances.
Supposedly the inclusion of Jack Wilshere was meant to augment Arsenal’s attack towards more central penetration and quick ball movement. While he was able to occupy dangerous positions between the lines, Arsenal was far too willing to rotate the ball horizontally. Switches-of-play works well when done quickly as they force the opposition to shift sideways, potentially breaking horizontal compactness. Wenger has tried to use Wenger in this type of role, essentially acting as the central pivot in which possession can be rotated between the flanks. Xhaka, as a left-foot dominant player, sometimes circulates possession with no intent. What can normally be used as a strong tactic against compact low blocks instead became another useless possessional strategy.
Arsenal has shown in the past that they have the ability to break down defensively compact teams. Right now, however, their lack of collective movement creates no strategic advantages for them to capitalize on. Compare them to the way Guardiola has set up Manchester City’s attack. All movements have a purpose, whether to distort the shape of the opposition and find space in behind or utilize touchline overloads to rapidly switch the point of attack. This is not how it feels to watch 2017 Arsenal. Opposition managers have caught on and they know that if Arsenal doesn’t score within the first 15 minutes then they struggle to break their self-built complacency. Teams simply sit deep, soak pressure, and counterattack at speed.
While Arsenal dominated possession they simply lacked the incisiveness that great teams can conjure when they come up against obstinate opponents. Great midfield play from Jack Wilshere tried to break the deadlock but slow play in the final third failed to find the spaces to break through. Luckily for Arsenal, Chicharito was only able to hit the crossbar in the dying minutes of the game. If that were to go in, a different storyline would surely consume an Arsenal fan base that is growingly increasingly frustrated with the current state of Arsenal Football Club.