Arsenal‘s 3-1 win over West Ham was a huge confidence boost after the team’s nine-game spell without a win in all competitions. It wasn’t that exciting for the Hammers though, since they are in a worse position, getting closer to the relegation zone, after being defeated seven times in their last ten Premier League games.
Both Manuel Pellegrini’s and Freddie Ljungberg‘s jobs were put under question, but it looks like the Swedish has a better chance to stay on charge after their latest fixture.
Manuel Pellegrini initially opted for 4-4-1-1 formation, starting off with David Martin. Aaron Cresswell, Angelo Ogbonna, Fabián Balbuena and Ryan Fredericks formed the backline. The midfield area was covered by Pablo Fornals, Declan Rice, Mark Noble, and Robert Snodgrass. The manager relied on Felipe Anderson and Michail Antonio to lead the attacking actions.
Freddie Ljungberg had to do a last-minute change in the starting XI due to the injury of Héctor Bellerín. Bernd Leno covered the goal, with Kieran Tierney, Sokratis, Callum Chambers, and Ashley Maitland-Niles as support. Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira positioned centrally with a more defensive role, whilst the trio of Gabriel Martinelli, Mesut Özil and Nicolas Pépé supported Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the attack.
Arsenal’s continued struggle defending set-pieces
Arsenal have been struggling in their defensive actions for a long time now, and more worrying thing is that there’s no improvement noticed. The game against West Ham has proved their inability to defend set-pieces once again. Their awareness and positioning when defending set-pieces have been poor and cost them a lot throughout the season. They have been struggling to cover their opponents properly and there’s always a player that has too much free space to exploit.
The Hammer’s goal happened in a similar pattern. They took a corner, but Arsenal committed too many players in the box. There was no second line of players to cover the edge of the box, which left Mark Noble able to pick up the second ball. This caused chaos in the box, which allowed Pablo Fornals to cross the ball. Their strategy when defending set-pieces has been uncertain and caused the team to crack under pressure.
The Gunners have conceded seven goals directly from set-pieces in the Premier League this season, excluding the ones that were conceded due to them being unable to structure right after defending a set-piece.
The Gunners being helpless on a counter
Another issue of Arsenal’s defence is their actions when caught on a counter. They often commit too many players in the opposition half, which results in leaving their own half free to be exposed. Due to the 4-2-3-1 formation and Maitland-Niles’ and Kolašinac’s frequent contribution to the forward actions, the team often struggles to position defensively on time and there’s rarely a player to cover depth.
Against West Ham, Torreira and Xhaka had to split their responsibilities and help with the build-up and retaining possession, but also provide defensive support. This added some stability to their performance, but what made them extremely vulnerable is that they would lose the ball in key areas too often. That allowed West Ham to take control of the game on a few occasions, being unable to bypass the press, despite the bigger possession Arsenal had. The Hammers also managed to form two successful counter-attacks that ended with shots. In the first half, four of the times they lost the possession they conceded a shot right after.
Part of the reason to be unable to stop their opponents’ build-up was them being insecure to dive into tackles and win the ball back. The other reason for the defensive lapse is their wrong timing and lack of awareness of their opponent’s positioning. They’ve been struggling to allocate the opposition players properly, which has resulted in them sneaking behind the defensive line.
Seeing the threat, Arsenal’s backline was positioned lover than usual, which both Torreira and Xhaka staying in their own half right behind the central line. What improved since their last performances is their aerial success rate. They won more than half of their aerial duels. That’s a very important area of improvement since the lost duels in key areas are part of the reason for many of their conceded goals this term. What made them lose the ball that often though was their poor performance when it comes to ground duels. Their inability to take on their opponents and keep the possession was crucial.
Second-half improvement and both teams’ build-up
Arsenal were building-up from the back with the intense contribution of their centre-backs and the goalkeeper. Chambers and Sokratis were the main responsible for delivering the ball further. Chambers would often spread out to Maitland-Niles who would then reach the more advanced areas and combine with Pépé.
When the Gunners were trying to retain possession, they used the likes of Torreira and Özil, who both provided 92% accurate passes and were the main reason for Arsenal to be able to control the game most of the time. The key player when it comes to build-up though was Chambers who contributed with 95% pass accuracy, being the main passing link in their own half. The team’s overall passing accuracy (88,35%) was better, compared to West Ham’s 81,51%. Despite losing the ball often, Arsenal stuck to their short pass combinations and produced twice as more passes (644) than their opponents, which was crucial for their confidence, since they feel more comfortable when they have enough time to build-up and exploit spaces.
With their 4-4-2 out of possession, the Hammers were occasionally applying high press which troubled Arsenal’s build-up, especially in the first half. That’s one of the reasons the centre-backs had to send the ball back to Leno quite often. Their marking strategy helped them in gaining back possession and stealing the ball, which was the reason for many of their ten shots. Switching from 4-4-1-1 to 4-4-2 when out of possession allowed Anderson to drop deeper and contribute to the actions on the left, helping for the team’s build-up. He was part of the main passing links, including Creswell and Rice.
Rice was the main responsible for keeping the ball and then delivering it to the more advanced areas. He fulfilled his role, ending with 96% passing accuracy, distributing the ball to the final third nine times.
What helped with their build-up were the keeper’s distributions of the ball. He sent 11 long balls directly to Arsenal’s half, which brought more explosiveness to West Ham’s attack.
Along with to their strong performance when taking set-pieces, they tried to threaten Leno with crossing too, although only four of their 16 crosses were accurate.
Similarly to West Ham, Arsenal were attacking mainly through the flanks, using the players’ speed and trying to expose the Hammers’ defence using Pepe’s skills on the ball, although his performance in the first half was poor.
What made the difference is Arsenal’s speed attacks. Their efficiency is higher when they use higher pace to build-up and rely on short pass combination and link-up play. In this case, Aubameyang and Pepe formed a good partnership, showing awareness of each other’s positioning and trying to combine in the best possible way. They both proved that they haven’t lost their strong finishing abilities.
The team send nine shots, and although only three of them were on target, they converted them into goals. Taking advantage of their opportunities has been an issue for Arsenal lately since they were unable to convert their chances into goals.
Pépé has been struggling to show his abilities on the ball. He is known for his dribbling skills, but he couldn’t do many successful dribbles against West Ham since they managed to block Arsenal’s efforts on the right. The Ivorian won only four of his 23 offensive duels. It’s actually West Ham who managed to dribble past their opponents on the flanks.
Arsenal need to find their playing style again in order to be able to convert their chances into goals. Using short pass combination and applying higher pace might be the key to their success, although they need to increase their confidence and creativity and learn to bypass the press. Of course, working on their defensive uncertainty is still on the agenda, which includes improving their movement on the ball, their decision-making and work under pressure.
West Ham need to work on using their players’ strengths. Improving their movement in the opposition’s half and creating more opportunities, would immediately increase their chances for scoring. They also need to take advantage of the good press they apply and work on their consistency on that matter.
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