West Ham vs. Arsenal: Shambolic defense exposed in 3-3 draw

A draw at Upton Park is a decent result in itself. The Hammers are still chasing a Champions League spot and they’ve defeated some big clubs this season. But the way Arsenal blew a 2-0 lead on Saturday to draw 3-3 with West Ham will put back on the table some questions about the Gunners’ mental weakness. Some news media are saying that Arsenal lost the Premier League title by dropping two points at the Boleyn Ground, but the truth is that they fell out of contention with a poor run of form from January to the beginning of March. The Gunners would still be in the title race if they had beaten Swansea and Southampton at home and split the points with Chelsea at the Emirates stadium and with some under-strength Red Devils at Old Trafford.

West Ham vs. Arsenal

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Arsenal knew what was coming with Carroll playing up front. Yet, they failed to stop dangerous crosses while their positional play inside the box proved a disaster. The first warning came in the 14th minute. Sanchez forgot to track Noble, who made a cross for an unmarked Carroll. The West Ham centerforward hit an off-target bicycle kick that Lanzini diverted home. The goal was disallowed for offside although TV replays showed that Bellerin played Lanzini onside. That’s a rookie mistake that Bellerin shouldn’t make anymore. But the real issue here is Carroll enjoying too much space and an attacking player, Sanchez, not performing his defensive duties. Koscielny was livid on the club’s website: “You can’t let them get a cross in easy because they have some good players on the wings. It is a job for everyone, not just the defenders. The guys on the flanks need to help their teammates with defending.”

Overprotecting the near post

The Gunners ran into trouble in the 44th when Iwobi gave the ball away to Noble. Sanchez failed to close down Cresswell, who made a perfect cross for Carroll and the England international powered a header into the bottom corner from nine yards. What went wrong inside the area with three Gunners (Koscielny, Paulista and Monreal) facing two Hammers (Kouyate and Carroll)? First, Carroll created a bad matchup for the Arsenal defense by isolating himself with Monreal at the far post -the Spaniard is shorter than Koscielny and Paulista. And second, the Gunners made a positional mistake by overprotecting the near post. Paulista stood in an advanced position at the near post, not marking anybody, while Koscielny was in the middle, keeping an eye on Kouyate. See the screen capture below that I made from the highlights on the Arsenal website.

West Ham vs. Arsenal screen 01ed

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

That’s where you see the limits of zonal marking. A better approach would have been to cover the middle with Paulista and the far post with Monreal and Koscielny. If Kouyate had made a run to the near post, Paulista would have followed him. There would have been a risk to see Kouyate beat Paulista to the ball but it’s better than letting Monreal deal with Carroll. With Koscielny at the far post, it would have been a tougher duel for Carroll. When Carroll met a cross from Cresswell in the 43rd, he managed to outjump Koscielny but could only muster a bouncing header that Ospina easily saved.

Looking like a football cone

On the stroke of halftime, Arsenal conceded a second goal by overprotecting the near post and therefore leaving the far post exposed. Ospina punched a corner into the path of Noble, who dribbled past Ozil and made a cross for an unmarked Carroll. The West Ham striker chested the ball down and had his effort blocked by Paulista. But the rebound fell to Carroll, whose bicycle kick from 10 yards deflected off Paulista to beat Ospina.

The first mistake on that play is that Ozil made Noble’s job too easy by looking like a football cone. If you can’t tackle, then stay with your opponent and buy time for the defense to reorganize. Defending is a team effort. Sanchez and Ozil are the stars of the team but they still have to contribute defensively. The second mistake is that there were too many Gunners at the near post and not enough at the far post. The far post area was so weakened that two Hammers behind Carroll were also unmarked. See the screen capture below to understand Arsenal’s positional mess. Whether it’s zonal marking or man-marking, in both cases it doesn’t make any sense. And it’s not the first time this season that the Gunners concede those kind of goals. I don’t know what is Bould’s contribution on the staff, but our defending remains poor.

West Ham vs. Arsenal screen 02ed

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

West Ham’s third goal in the 52nd looked similar to Carroll’s first goal. Antonio got the better of Monreal to cross the ball for Carroll, who outjumped Bellerin for a header from six yards that Paulista could only divert into his own net. Monreal lost his duel against Antonio and really had a poor game, winning only 25% of his duels, compared to 42% for Bellerin, 50% for Paulista and 77% for Koscielny. Then we had again a bad matchup at the far post with Bellerin dealing with Carroll. And we overprotected the near post again with Koscielny in no man’s land, Paulista marking Emenike in the middle, Elneny tracking Noble, and an unmarked Payet standing behind Carroll. See the screen capture below for Arsenal’s poor positional play. In that kind of situation, you want to have Koscielny marking Emenike, Paulista containing Carroll and Bellerin keeping an eye on Payet.

West Ham vs. Arsenal screen 03ed

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Hammers came close to adding a fourth goal in the 57th. Carroll got ahead of Koscielny but sliced Payet’s cross over the bar. Some Arsenal fans claimed that Cech would have done a better job than Ospina but I really don’t think that the Colombia goalkeeper can be blamed for any of the goals conceded. Carroll scored his three goals from close range. The first one was well placed and the other two were deflected by Paulista. Maybe Ospina could have tried to catch the ball from the corner for the second goal instead of punching it away.

Poor decision-making

Ospina quickly came off his line to intercept Lanzini’s pass for Emenike in the 60th and made a couple of good saves, palming away a curling shot from Payet in the 74th and turning Cresswell’s low drive around the post in the 77th. Blaming Ospina for the blown lead would just be an excuse to ignore the issues with our centerbacks.

The hosts capitalized on an Iwobi turnover in the 50th to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Instead of clearing the danger, Koscielny tried to shield the ball under pressure from Carroll. Koscielny ended up colliding with Ospina and Payet pounced on the loose ball to score into an empty net. However, the goal was disallowed because Carroll had put his arms around the French defender. That was poor decision-making from Koscielny. Paulista didn’t cover himself in glory either on that play as he was caught ball-watching.

Pace is the main reason why Paulista is getting the nod over Mertesacker. If it was just about decision-making, Paulista would stay on the bench. As the last defender, Paulista tried to dribble past Carroll in the 72nd and lost possession. Somehow, the referee came to Paulista’s rescue by spotting a minor foul from Carroll. In the closing minutes, Emenike easily skipped past Paulista but Ramsey ended the threat by bullying Payet on the edge of the box. Whether it’s Koscielny, Paulista, Mertesacker or Chambers, the level of our centerbacks is simply not good enough. We have already conceded eight more goals than Tottenham and are on course to finish the season with 39 goals allowed.

Iwobi’s composure

Iwobi’s brilliant performance was what saved Arsenal from disaster. The Nigeria international created the first two goals, had 4 successful dribbling attempts out of 4, and won 87.5% of his duels, compared to 47% for Sanchez, 43% for Elneny, 40% for Coquelin and 33% for Ozil, according to stats from the Arsenal website. Iwobi often cut inside to act like a playmaker. He fed Ozil in the 18th and the Germany midfielder beat the offside trap to shoot past Adrian for the opening goal. Iwobi then sent a ball over the top for Sanchez in the 35th. The Chile forward controlled the ball and opened up his body to slip the ball past Adrian for a 2-0 lead. Iwobi nearly created a third goal with a through ball for Welbeck in the 41st but Antonio outmuscled Welbeck to let the ball roll out of play.

At 19, Iwobi still needs to work on his fitness. He shone in the first half but faded after the break. The bad news is that Iwobi will play for Nigeria at the Olympic Games and the African Cup of Nations, which means that the club will miss him for three to four months next season. He will probably come back exhausted from those two competitions.

Iwobi also needs to cut his turnover rate. He put his team in trouble with some poor passes on Saturday. But what really impressed me against West Ham was Iwobi’s composure. Surrounded by three players in the 43rd, Iwobi still managed to slip a through ball to Bellerin that was intercepted by Cresswell. Noble even tried to wind up Iwobi in the 54th but the youngster did not lose his cool.

Sanchez’s chocolate leg

Ozil’s performance at Upton Park was a mixed bag. On the one hand, he scored his sixth league goal this season and created the equalizer for Koscielny. On the other, he seems to be running out of gas. He made some poor crosses and the quality of his free kicks in injury time was terrible. His poor defensive contribution is also a liability for the team. Ozil did not make any effort to track back after losing possession in the 39th. Lanzini led the counterattack and picked out Carroll, whose diagonal strike was parried by Ospina with difficulty. Ozil’s poor work-rate explains why Noble finished the game with 4 key passes, the most for any player.

Despite also letting the team down defensively, Sanchez removed some pressure off Ozil’s shoulders by creating two chances. He made a cross for Elneny, whose volley was blocked in the 11th, and fed Monreal, who was denied in the 45th. Sanchez tested Adrian with a low drive in the 30th but wasted a good opportunity in the 81st by refusing to shoot with his left foot. He managed to cut inside Reid and had just the goalkeeper to beat from 12 yards, but instead of taking his chance with his weaker foot, the Chile forward ran back into traffic and was dispossessed by Reid. Sanchez needs to work on that weakness in training otherwise he will keep struggling against compact defenses.

City’s pressure

Up front, Welbeck worked his socks off, winning 2 of 2 tackles and 63% of his duels, but showed no end product. He has scored four goals in all competitions since his return from a knee injury. However, there’s a fear that he could revert back to the inefficient forward that Manchester United sold instead of becoming a decent striker a la Adebayor. Welbeck connected with a clipped pass from Ozil in the 20th only to produce an awkward effort that sailed wide. Ironically, his only meaningful contribution in the final third was a poor first touch that set up the equalizer in the 70th. Welbeck inadvertently flicked a cross from Ozil into the path of Koscielny, who sweeped the ball into the top corner.

That equalizer resulted from a tactical move from the manager, who pulled out Coquelin in the 61st and Elneny in the 68th to send on Ramsey and Giroud respectively. The Gunners were basically playing with Ramsey, Iwobi and Ozil in midfield, not really the best configuration to stop a counterattack. West Ham delayed the equalizer in the 68th when Lanzini cleared Monreal’s low strike off the line. But another corner two minutes later gave Arsenal the opportunity to snatch a point. Giroud and Walcott are now behind Welbeck in the pecking order. Giroud’s only chance came in the 76th when he met a cross from Monreal to head wide. Walcott replaced Welbeck in the 82nd and did very little of note.

The only positive from the draw is that the Hammers are unlikely to overtake Arsenal in the standings as there is a seven-point gap and just six games left. However, Manchester City increased the pressure on the Gunners by closing the gap to two points. We definitely need three points from Sunday’s home game against Crystal Palace to preserve our chances of finishing in the Top 3.