Although disheartening, it is perhaps not surprising that Arsenal were so bad off the ball against West Ham. As Aaron Ramsey said after the match, Unai Emery wants Arsenal to press for the entirety of the game, and to press high up the pitch, necessitating a high defensive line. That takes time. When Mauricio Pochettino managed Southampton, it took the Saints six or seven months of working on it according to Morgan Schneiderlin: “We couldn’t do this immediately, because it’s a huge job in training. He wants us to get the ball back as high as possible, so it’s normally an attacker who triggers the pressure and we must all follow.” That is similar to what Emery wants, and for a time, it is likely that Arsenal will be disjointed defensively. That is why Arsenal must be sound going forward, but furthermore, it is also Arsenal’s strength. Yet, as Ramsey indicated post-match, Arsenal are “trying to figure it out going forward as well.”
Arsenal had 7 shots in the first half; 10 in the second, indicating improvement, as well as fortune, as West Ham had to push for the equalizer. And while a faulty defensive show was a part, Arsenal’s expected goal difference was lower than 14 of 19 home games last year; frankly, it was a poor attacking showing. There are a few reasons for this, including an obvious one: the lack of Mesut Özil. In both halves, Arsenal failed to play penetrative passes between the lines for runners, the type of passes that Özil makes, exemplifying his importance to the side going forward.
Another issue, though, was positional play. This is going to take some time, as Arsenal are playing from the back in a different way under Unai Emery than Arsene Wenger, and it involves rejigging aspects of the side. Under Emery, the fullbacks—Bellerin and Monreal—push high up the pitch. The centre backs split, and the midfielders drop in. Thus far, though, Arsenal’s midfield has split itself, with whoever playing in a #10 role, here Aaron Ramsey, slightly cut off from the midfield. That is because, in part, no one has taken a #8 role, with Xhaka and Guendouzi both dropping in.
This changed in the second half, with Torreira coming in, and giving the Arsenal midfield more of a defined structure. This improved Arsenal’s play all around, with Aaron Ramsey far more involved in the second half than he was in the first.
Greater involvement for Ramsey was crucial for two reasons. One, it added more midfield creativity in the final third, to go along with Ramsey’s usual midfield darts. But secondly, a greater influence on connectivity throughout the side, exemplified by Ramsey’s higher involvement, turned the game for Arsenal in an attacking sense. In the first half, Bellerin and Monreal were frequently forward, as Arsenal built their attacks in the wide areas, especially down the right hand side. Yet while Bellerin was quite productive in the final third, he often had to go backwards or square because of a lack of passing options, stunting Arsenal’s attacks.
The same happened to Nacho Monreal.
Here, Monreal has the ball, just under the score bug, but has just two passing options: going backwards to Matteo Guendouzi, or a much trickier pass to Alex Iwobi. Luckily, Monreal is under medium pressure, and so can go back to Guendouzi, who enables Arsenal to retain possession. In a better situation, a midfielder would be around where the referee is, giving Monreal a square option, and opening up the middle of the park. That could be Xhaka, or Ramsey, but Ramsey has been briefed with a second-striker role as a number 10, and Xhaka is occasionally awkward at choosing moments to push forward, given he is a natural box to box midfielder.
After half time, Arsenal gave the fullbacks more passing options, and there was greater importance placed at moving the ball quickly in the attacking areas, with one-touch passing. In part, having Alexandre Lacazette upfront gave the side a little more fluidity and spontaneity, but it was also presumably a tactical change too, with emphasis placed on players using relationships—automatisms—as Bellerin mentioned after the game.
Here, Ramsey receives possesion and can do multiple things: return the ball to Guendouzi, turn and switch play to Monreal, turn and drive into space, or, as Jack Wilshere charges out, play around Wilshere into Mkhitaryan or Lacazette, or try a through ball for Bellerin. By having more options, it allows Arsenal to move the ball more swiftly, crucially getting the ball into dangerous areas, and as a result, Arsenal attacked the half-spaces better in the second half.
There is still room for improvement, of course, and very much room for Mesut Özil. But with more time on the training pitch, more time in game situations facing challenges like the one West Ham presented, and examining videos on his USB sticks, Emery can begin to get a better sense of how he can balance his side, and the role of Lucas Torreira in balancing the side, along with tactical changes, should not go unnoticed.