The announcement of Wenger’s resignation at the end of the season had little impact on Sunday as there were still many empty seats at the Emirates stadium. The Gunners smashed West Ham 4-1 to move 4 points clear of Burnley in the Premier League standings. I guess we will have to wait until the final home game of the season to see a packed stadium again.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger made 5 changes to the side that lost at Newcastle the previous weekend with Ospina, Bellerin, Koscielny, Ramsey and Welbeck replacing Cech, Chambers, Holding, Willock and Aubameyang in the starting lineup. Considering the absences due to illness (Ozil) or injury (Cech, Kolasinac, Wilshere and Mkhitaryan), the manager fielded his best team.
The Europa League has become the top priority because it is Arsenal’s only chance to qualify for next season’s Champions League, but the Gunners have enough time to recover before Thursday’s game against Atletico Madrid. If Wenger had rested his key players on Sunday, those who haven’t played since the Moscow game could have been rusty for the Europa League tie.
The first half against West Ham looked quite familiar with a sluggish passing game as well as a lack of creativity and penetration. Arsenal’s few chances came from set pieces and long-range strikes. They played with more intensity in the second half but what really turned around the game was the substitution made in the 70th minute. By replacing an ineffective Iwobi with Aubameyang, the manager finally made the attack click and the Gunners scored 3 goals in the last 10 minutes of regulation time.
The absences of Ozil and Mkhitaryan meant that Iwobi was in charge of pulling the strings. Unfortunately, Iwobi looked like the clumsy player we all know instead of the pass master who shone against Southampton 2 weeks ago. Iwobi lacked end product with 0 shot on target and only 1 key pass. He also made poor passes to Lacazette in the 17th and Welbeck in the 40th and overhit a cross in the 53rd despite the presence of 4 Gunners inside the box. The cherry on the cake was the 2 times Iwobi ran the ball out of the play in the 30th and 45th.
Lacazette as a second striker
Iwobi’s poor performance meant that someone else had to deliver the final ball. Ramsey rose to the challenge by showing off his passing skills. The Wales midfielder is mostly known for his late runs in the box but he’s more versatile than most people think. Ramsey initiated a counterattack in the 50th by picking out Welbeck, who was brought down by Zabaleta. Then Ramsey made a cross for Aubameyang in the 82nd. Instead of heading the ball away, Rice ducked and the ball sailed past Hart for a 2-1 lead. Ramsey was not done yet. Aubameyang released him down the left wing in the 89th and Ramsey skipped past Zabaleta with some impressive footwork to cut the ball back for Lacazette, who fired a low strike past Hart to seal the win.
In the role of a free-roaming midfielder, Ramsey stepped up when the team needed him. He led all players with 4 successful dribbles and 3 key passes, according to whoscored.com. The only negative in his performance was his 5 turnovers and the 2 times he failed to catch the frame with mid-range shots in the 45th and 57th. The staff must make sure to extend Ramsey’s contract this summer in order to avoid the uncertainty created this season by the situations of Sanchez and Ozil.
Aubameyang’s involvement in the last 20 minutes was really the catalyst for change because it helped Lacazette express himself as a second striker. Lacazette had no success as a centerforward in the first 70 minutes. He took a pass from Elneny in the 20th, dallied on the ball inside the West Ham area and lost possession. Three minutes later, Lacazette overhit his final ball for Ramsey.
I have said many times on this blog that Lacazette is not tailored for the centerforward position in the Premier League. It’s true that Lacazette played in that role for Lyon, but the French league is less physical than the Premiership and there is not the same emphasis on aerial duels. Lacazette feels more comfortable playing off a centerforward than being the spearhead of the attack.
Elneny’s ankle injury
Arsenal’s second and third goals clearly show what is more natural for Aubameyang and Lacazette. If you look at the screen capture below for Ramsey’s goal in the 82nd, you can see that Aubameyang plays as a centerforward while Lacazette acts as a false winger.
Aubameyang in the centerforward role, Lacazette as a false winger. (Photo credit: Sky)
Lacazette’s goal in the 85th confirms that positional preference. Welbeck found Aubameyang inside the area and the Gabon striker spun to slip the ball to Lacazette, who beat Hart with an angled shot.
Aubameyang in the centerforward role, Lacazette as a false winger. (Photo credit: Sky)
To a certain extent, Lacazette is a bit like Sanchez. The Chile forward often cuts inside from the left wing to be in scoring positions. Lacazette can do the same from either wing. Messi and Salah have shown that playing as a false winger is no obstacle to finding the net. For the last goal, Aubameyang and Lacazette swapped positions. Aubameyang dropped off to take a pass from Maitland-Niles while Lacazette ran into the space created by the Gabon international. I hope the next Arsenal manager will figure out what are the best positions for Aubameyang and Lacazette because using Aubameyang as a winger and Lacazette as a centerforward makes no sense at all.
Starting on the left wing, Welbeck had no goal or assist. He tested Hart with a curling shot in the 79th but also missed the target 3 times from decent positions. To his credit, Welbeck worked hard for his teammates by creating 3 chances, teeing up Bellerin in the 23rd, Monreal in the 48th and Xhaka in the 72nd.
In midfield, Xhaka and Elneny were supposed to protect the Arsenal defense and give Ramsey more freedom to break forward. Elneny rolled his ankle while challenging Noble in the 41st and was replaced by Maitland-Niles on the stroke of halftime. Xhaka, Elneny and Maitland-Niles combined to win only 1 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels compared to 4 of 7 tackles and 5 of 10 aerial duels for Noble and Kouyate, according to Squawka. Always keen to display his shooting skills, Xhaka had a curling free kick and a low drive saved by Hart in the 34th and 72nd. Xhaka also set up the opening goal in the 51st with a pinpoint corner that Monreal volleyed into the bottom corner.
Losing key duels
At the back, Mustafi produced another horror show. The alarm bell started ringing in the 11th. Arnautovic pulled Koscielny out of position before slipping the ball to Mario, who slightly overhit his through ball for Fernandes, allowing Ospina to gather the ball. As you can see on the screen capture below, there were 2 mistakes on that play. First, Elneny was attracted to the ball and failed to mark Mario. And second, Mustafi failed to adjust his position and left a big gap with Monreal. The Spaniard was already keeping an eye on both Zabaleta and Fernandes, so it was Mustafi’s responsibility to move closer to Monreal.
Elneny is not marking Mario while Mustafi fails to move closer to Monreal. (Photo credit: Sky)
In a shaky performance, Mustafi lost too many key duels. Mario dribbled past Mustafi in the 12th for a tame shot straight at Ospina. A minute later, Arnautovic made a run in behind Mustafi to chase a clearance from Hart. It took a last-ditch block from Mustafi to thwart the West Ham striker. Then Mustafi missed an interception in the 14th, allowing Arnautovic to collect a punt from Creswell and be clean through on goal. Ospina saved Arnautovic’s curling shot to prevent the Hammers from opening the scoring.
West Ham’s equalizer in the 64th resulted from a chain reaction. Kouyate had a goal attempt blocked by Koscielny. The rebound went back to Kouyate, who fed Lanzini. With a first-time pass, Lanzini found Arnautovic inside the area. Despite the tight angle, Arnautovic managed to fire into the far corner.
It’s the kind of goal that Arsenal should never concede because they outnumbered the Hammers on that play. That numerical superiority proved useless because the Gunners behaved like headless chickens. A ball-watching Maitland-Niles was not tight enough to Lanzini. This led Bellerin to run toward Lanzini instead of staying with Arnautovic. When Mustafi became aware of Arnautovic’s presence, it was too late to make a block.
Playing on the back foot
The second half showed that the Gunners perform poorly when they try to protect the lead. Between the 15th and the 60th, Arsenal had the game under control. But when Moyes sent on Lanzini and Hernandez for Fernandes and Mario in the 60th, the Gunners played on the back foot and struggled to cope with the Hammers’ pressure.
The left side of the Arsenal defense (Koscielny and Monreal) did OK on Sunday while the right side (Mustafi and Bellerin) was often in trouble. Bellerin lost 2 key duels against Hernandez. The Mexico striker evaded Bellerin’s marking to head a free kick over the bar in the 61st. Two minutes later, Hernandez outjumped Bellerin to flick the ball on for Arnautovic, who volleyed over the bar.
The Gunners will have to defend much better on Thursday because Atletico Madrid will be more ruthless than West Ham. The Spanish club has world-class strikers with Costa and Griezmann as well as top midfielders with Koke and Saul Niguez. Another dodgy performance from Mustafi and the Europa League tie is over before the second leg.