It finally happened. For the first time since October, Arsenal picked up a Premier League win as they came away with a much needed 3-1 away victory against West Ham.
The contest was essentially a game of two halves. Arsenal were sluggish throughout the first half and went into the locker room down 1-0. To their credit, they woke up and responded to adversity over the final 45 minutes. The Gunners scored three goals over a ten-minute span to give them the lead, and ultimately the win.
The overall performance was far from flawless; there were several tactical miscues that still need to be addressed. But with the current state of the team, interim manager Freddie Ljungberg and his side will take three points however they can get them.
Ljungberg’s build-up setup is still a work in progress
Every team in the Premier League has several routes they rely on when it comes to progressing the ball into the final third. Some teams like to launch long balls in behind the opponent’s backline. Others use their fullbacks to gradually move play down the flanks. In essence, how a team moves the ball upfield is a major component of their attacking identity.
With Arsenal under Ljungberg, the team’s build-up on the pitch is an area of play that needs to be improved on as their struggles in this department were apparent against West Ham.
Arsenal’s lack of an effective build-up setup was essentially exposed throughout the first half. It came to the point where they were not able to establish much when in possession due to their inability to move the ball away from their own half. Sure, they controlled possession for 65% of the time over the opening 45 minutes, but it all amounted to a grand total of two shots.
Overall, the Gunners failed to find a sustainable route to progress the ball into the final third against West Ham’s blend of a 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 defensive formations. They were not able to rely on their fullbacks on the flanks, wingers within the half-space or midfielders through the center. Most notably, fullbacks Kieran Tierney and Ainsley Maitland-Niles did not offer much with their play on the ball while on the flanks.
To make matters worse, it was not as if West Ham were high pressing or striving to overload over the first half. Their tactical approach stemmed on positioning their defensive setup around the middle third while also opting to have their four midfielders focus on preventing any passages of play from reaching Aubameyang or the two wingers in open space. The last thing West Ham wanted was Pepe or Martinelli flying down the flanks and dishing out through balls to Aubameyang in the box.
For instance, see here how West Ham formed the front end of their 4-4-2 defensive setup in the middle third. Felipe Anderson and Michail Antonio roamed the space in behind Arsenal’s double pivot duo of Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira. West Ham were relentless in clogging up the space between the middle and final third.
As shown above, one of Arsenal’s issues with building up play is how much responsibility was given to Xhaka and Torreira since they did not have passing options through the middle. It seemed as if Arsenal’s attacking-minded players upfront were more inclined on keeping the positional shape of the team’s 4-2-3-1 setup rather than dropping deep to assist in the gradual build-up of play. Thus, Xhaka and Torreira were not able to consistently find open players in between the lines. Now while there were sequences where Arsenal caught West Ham off guard by finding space in behind their midfield line, it did not come as a regular occurrence in the first half.
Over the second half, Arsenal did show signs of improvement when it came to stringing together passes upfield. But there was one significant reason as to why the script completely flipped for the Gunners after a horrid opening half.
Arsenal take advantage of West Ham’s second half tactical switch
The first half was marred by Arsenal’s continual problems with successfully pushing possession into the final third. West Ham enjoyed great success in keeping Arsenal stagnant in the middle third, and preventing them from relaying passes to either of their wingers in open space. West Ham’s underlying objective centered on forming a deep low block and breaking on the counter after winning back the ball.
As a result, West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini decided to make a game-changing tactical switch — one which he likely regrets employing. He kept the same 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 defensive setups but implemented a high pressing approach when Arsenal maintained possession either in their own half or middle third -- a more aggressive approach than their first half showing. To an extent, this seemed like a low risk, high reward move considering Arsenal produced two total shots even while dominating possession in the first half.
Over the opening 10 minutes of the second half, Pellegrini’s tactical switch worked to near perfection. His side were able to win the ball back five times in Arsenal’s own half, including on this sequence where Nicolas Pepe loses the ball after three West Ham players quickly close down the space around his area. Pepe had no forward options to distribute a pass to.
However, Pellegrini’s master plan did not work for long. As with any high pressing setup, there are multitudes of open space that the team orchestrating the press inevitably leaves behind. This also leaves the pressing team vulnerable to quick transitions upfield by the opponent if they are unable to win the ball back, or are simply just reckless with their positioning.
In West Ham’s case, they both failed to consistently retrieve possession via their high press as the second half progressed and also were inattentive to Arsenal’s movements in behind their midfield. As shown in the Pepe sequence, West Ham shifted seven players to Arsenal’s own half, which they persisted on keeping throughout the game. Meanwhile, Ljungberg’s side recognized West Ham’s assertive approach and wound up finding space in the middle third. They used both fullbacks to weave into open space while Pepe and Martinelli often dropped deep more frequently to negate West Ham’s high press.
Arsenal’s success in countering West Ham’s defensive shape was perfectly exemplified in their third goal of the game. The entire goal sequence was jump started by Torreira’s ability to not only recognize seven West Ham players positioned in Arsenal’s own half but also his decision to dish out a forward pass into the opponent’s half considering both Aubameyang and Pepe were making unmarked runs into the box. The end result saw Aubameyang score his 11th league goal of the season.
Ljungberg and his side deserve a ton of credit for their success in combating Pellegrini’s second half tactical change.
A win is a win
The emotion and passion shown by Arsenal after Aubameyang’s goal really illustrated how much this group needed the win. They knew how much a strong finish to the game was critical after a dull opening half. Not only did they generate high-percentage, goal-scoring opportunities, but they finally were able to make the necessary adjustments to counter an opponent’s tactical setup.
Tactics aside, it was an exceptional win for Arsenal. It was ugly and full of errors, but at the end of the day, they get the victory and mercifully end the two-month Premier League winless streak.
Arsenal now shift their focus to their final Europa League group stage matchup as they face Standard Liege on Thursday.