The Gunners earned a third straight victory in the Premier League by edging West Ham 1-0 on Saturday to pull within 3 points of Wolverhampton and Sheffield United in the race for a European spot.
Photo credit: Premier League
Despite enjoying 69% of ball possession, Arsenal created very few chances and looked shaky defensively. West Ham had 14 shots and 1.61 expected goals compared to 9 shots and 1.56 expected goals for the Gunners, according to understat.com. Those xG metrics did not even include 2 big chances for the Hammers. Antonio wasted a 2v1 situation in the 11th minute by missing his final ball for Haller. Then Leno won a 1v1 against Haller in the 19th. Because there was no shot in both situations, understat.com did not count them as chances. Obviously, you can’t score if you don’t shoot.
Arteta made 6 changes to the side that knocked Portsmouth out of the FA Cup last Monday with only Saka, Mari, Luiz, Sokratis and Nketiah retaining their starting spots. At the back, Arteta didn’t have much choice since Mustafi, Chambers, Tierney, Kolasinac and Soares are injured while Holding and Bellerin have been struggling for form this season.
In midfield, Arteta believes that the combination of Xhaka, Ceballos and Ozil provides the best balance for his playing style. So it’s no surprise that they have started the last 3 Premier League games. The front three is where there might be some controversy. Aubameyang is arguably Arsenal’s best striker. Yet, Arteta keeps using him on the left wing even though Martinelli or Nelson would be a better fit in that position.
Using the wrong software
Aubameyang had only 1 goal attempt but he made it count. The Gabon striker drifted inside to take a pass from Saka in the 78th. From the edge of the box, Aubameyang took his chance. Rice blocked the shot and the loose ball looped into the path of Ozil. The German playmaker headed the ball toward Lacazette, who slotted into the bottom corner from 6 yards.
The goal was initially disallowed for an offside position. However, the VAR review showed that Ogbonna played Ozil onside, forcing the referee to reverse his decision and let the goal stand. There was a lapse of 2 minutes and 12 seconds between the moment the goal was disallowed and the moment the decision was overturned in Arsenal’s favor. That’s way too long. Premier League officials are clearly using an inefficient software because UEFA referees are much faster in Champions League games.
Besides his involvement in the goal, Aubameyang also made 2 key passes. He crossed the ball for Sokratis, whose header bounced off the bar in the 22nd. Then Aubameyang found Pepe, whose volley was blocked by Cresswell in the 66th. Aubameyang’s contract expires in the summer of 2021. Why should he stay at the club if there’s no Champions League football and if Arteta keeps playing him on the left wing?
Arteta trusted again Nketiah to lead the line. Nketiah had a penalty shout turned down on the stroke of halftime. He beat Ngakia to a second ball but the referee didn’t think that the Gunners deserved a penalty for the awkward challenge from the West Ham defender. Nketiah’s best chance came in the 52nd when Saka played him in. However, Fabianski came off his line to deny Nketiah. Three minutes later, Nketiah chased a through ball from Ozil, but Fabianski was quicker and collected the ball.
Nketiah’s poor work-rate
Nketiah’s overall performance was poor. He definitely needs to work on his link-up play. His pass for Pepe rolled out of play in the 4th minute. Then Nketiah headed a long ball from Luiz toward a Hammer in the 20th. His hold-up play also has plenty of room for improvement. Nketiah was dispossessed by Diop in the 19th and lost again possession in the 54th by waiting for the ball to reach his feet.
Arteta replaced Nketiah with Lacazette in the 59th. The French striker showed more desire, making 3 defensive actions (3 recoveries) in 36 minutes compared to 0 for Nketiah in 58 minutes, according to the club’s website. On merit, Lacazette would deserve to start the next Premier League game.
Just like Lacazette is competing with Nketiah for a starting spot up front, Pepe is competing with Nelson for a starting spot on the right wing. Pepe lacked end product with 0 key pass and 0 of 2 shots on target. Even Nketiah and Lacazette managed to make at least 1 key pass. Pepe’s best contribution came in the 38th when he dribbled past 3 Hammers but was denied a shot by an offside Nketiah, who shamelessly stole the ball.
The Ivory Coast international had only 1 successful dribble out of 4, according to whoscored.com. Pepe must be more selective in his dribbling attempts because Premier League sides are now aware of his skills and sometimes double-team him. Arteta was not convinced by Pepe’s performance and replaced him with Nelson in the 69th. Nelson made 3 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 recovery) in 26 minutes compared to 2 (1 tackle, 1 recovery) for Pepe in 68 minutes.
The midfield problem
Saturday’s game made clear that Arteta has a massive rebuilding job in midfield. In every position, the Gunners are weaker than during the Wenger era. Xhaka and Torreira are weaker defensive midfielders than Petit, Gilberto, Song or even Coquelin. Arsenal’s only box-to-box player is Willock, who is nowhere near the level of Vieira or Ramsey. Xhaka and Guendouzi struggle so badly to set a high tempo that Arteta has used Ceballos as a deep-lying playmaker lately, but the Real Madrid loanee is still a notch below the level of Fabregas or Cazorla.
The Gunners struggled to create chances against West Ham because they rely heavily on Ozil, who is past his prime. There was a time when the Gunners could have up to 4 creative midfielders on the pitch. Think of Fabregas, Rosicky, Nasri and Wilshere during the 2010-11 season. Or Cazorla, Ozil, Rosicky and Wilshere during the 2013-14 season. Those days are gone because the current Arsenal squad badly lacks creativity.
At 31, Ozil’s moments of magic are rare. But the Gunners definitely needed one to break the deadlock. His headed pass for Lacazette was perfectly placed and was more difficult than it looked. Ozil was at the heart of some of Arsenal’s best situations. He had a shot blocked by Cresswell in the 13th after Nketiah chested the ball down for him. Then Ozil attempted an audacious through ball for Nketiah in the 55th. The German playmaker was tidy in the final third with just 1 turnover compared to 4 for Pepe, 3 for Aubameyang, 3 for Nketiah and 2 for Lacazette, according to whoscored.com.
Arteta’s support has helped Ozil express himself on the pitch. But the Spanish manager must also realize that Ozil will never reach again the heights of the 2015-16 season when he had 19 assists in the Premier League while averaging 4.2 key passes per game. A younger Ozil would have not missed his final ball for Lacazette in the 75th.
Ceballos’ outstanding performance
Ozil made only 1 key pass against West Ham and raised his tally to just 2 assists in the Premier League this season. Pepe leads the Gunners with 6 assists, followed by Lacazette (3) and Saka (3). Arteta will have to improve the understanding between Ozil and Pepe. They were not on the same wavelength in the 20th: Ozil made a pass in one direction while Pepe ran in another direction.
Ceballos has become the heartbeat of the Arsenal midfield, leading all players with 98 passes, compared to 77 for Xhaka, 82 for Mari, 79 for Luiz and 49 for Ozil. The Spaniard also showed some outstanding work-rate, leading all players with 25 defensive actions (5 tackles, 6 interceptions, 14 recoveries), while Xhaka and Ozil only made 8 and 4 defensive actions respectively, according to the club’s website. In fact, Ceballos made more tackles, more interceptions and more ball recoveries than any other player. His percentage of duels won was quite impressive, too. Ceballos won 72.7% of his duels, compared to 50% for Ozil and 28.6% for Xhaka.
It’s easy to understand why Emery signed Ceballos. As a hard-working midfielder, Ceballos was the perfect fit for Emery’s version of Liverpool lite. Unfortunately, Ceballos never showed the consistency required to carry the team. Ceballos is slightly more creative than Xhaka and Guendouzi, but he’s still far from the high standards of Cazorla or Fabregas.
Another issue is that Ceballos is not a natural defensive midfielder. Ceballos initially marked Antonio in the 40th when the Hammers had their best scoring chance on a corner. The Spaniard failed to stay with Antonio when Diop outjumped Aubameyang to redirect Noble’s corner. Somehow, Antonio missed the target from 3 yards. Then Bowen easily turned Ceballos to set up Haller in the 83rd.
The double pivot formed by Ceballos and Xhaka did not provide much protection to the Arsenal defense. The Gunners looked like an Emery team on Saturday as they were highly vulnerable on transitions because the midfield was too porous.
Wenger, Emery and Arteta have been using Xhaka as the main defensive midfielder but he’s simply not good enough. Under Arteta, Xhaka is in charge of patrolling the left flank when Saka roams forward. When the Hammers hit Arsenal on the fast break in the 75th, Xhaka covered Saka and blocked Bowen’s shot. However, Xhaka failed to close down Ngakia in the 86th. Haller met Ngakia’s cross for a tame effort that did not trouble Leno.
Xhaka plays as a deep-lying playmaker for the Switzerland team. But his skills are simply too limited in that position for Arsenal. Xhaka’s lack of mobility is a liability when the Gunners play out from the back. He gave the ball away in the 2nd minute, allowing Bowen to hit the post with a low drive. In the last minute of stoppage time, Xhaka had a great opportunity to play Nelson clean through on goal. But he refused to deliver the final ball. Instead, Xhaka made a lazy pass to Aubameyang, who wasted time by running toward the corner flag.
Xhaka can already see his best passing option. (Photo credit: NBC)
Xhaka runs forward while keeping his options open. (Photo credit: NBC)
This is the best moment for Xhaka to feed Nelson. (Photo credit: NBC)
Nelson must check his run not to be offside. (Photo credit: NBC)
In the leftback position, Saka produced another solid performance. That kind of consistency is rare for any 18-year-old player. Saka provided a lot of penetration with 2 successful dribbles out of 3, according to whoscored.com. He created a big chance for Nketiah in the 52nd with an impressive dribbling run. In a team lacking creativity, the quality of his final ball can make a huge difference. Saka made 3 key passes, tied with Noble for the most by any player. His defensive awareness is still a work in progress. Saka failed to mark Antonio when Cresswell made a cross in the 56th.
Mari’s baptism of fire
While Saka played pretty much like a wingback in the leftback position, Sokratis played like a centerback in the rightback position. Sokratis made only 1 cross compared to 5 for Saka. In the FA Cup game against Portsmouth, Sokratis already showed his limitations as a fullback. Antonio liked the matchup as he often got the better of Sokratis, who got booked in the 63rd for a cynical foul on the West Ham forward. Sokratis made 3 fouls, tied with Aubameyang for the most by any player.
In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mari had less flattering stats than against Portsmouth. Mari won only 50% of his aerial duels, compared to 67% for Luiz, 80% for Ogbonna and 100% for Diop, according to whoscored.com. And the Spanish centerback hit just 8 accurate long balls out of 16, compared to 5 out of 8 for Luiz and 5 out of 7 for Sokratis.
For his first Premier League game, Mari had to adapt to the fast pace of English football. He made the wrong decision in the 11th, attempting to intercept Fornals’ pass for Antonio. Mari dived in and missed the ball, allowing the Hammers to have a 2v1 situation. As you can see on the screen captures below, Luiz saved Arsenal with his smart positional play.
Luiz has to deal with Antonio and Haller in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: NBC)
Luiz has a quick look to spot Haller’s run. (Photo credit: NBC)
Luiz encourages Antonio to either take an angled shot or make a difficult cross. (Photo credit: NBC)
Antonio can no longer play the ball between Luiz and Leno and plays the ball behind Haller. (Photo credit: NBC)
That was the only mistake Mari made on Saturday. What saved Mari was his good reading of the game. He made 10 defensive actions (1 tackle, 9 recoveries) compared to 3 for Luiz (1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 recovery). Mari will need a flawless positional play to survive in the Premier League. He’s not as sluggish as Mertesacker but he doesn’t have the recovery pace of a Koscielny in his prime.
Arsenal can thank Leno for the clean sheet. Besides winning a 1v1 against Haller in the 19th, Leno made 6 saves. The German goalkeeper stopped Antonio’s close-range header in the 56th, parried Bowen’s low strike in the 66th, and palmed away Haller’s sliding effort in the 83rd. To protect Arsenal’s slim lead, Arteta switched to a 3-4-3 formation in the 88th by replacing Bellerin with Ozil.
The Gunners next visit Manchester City in the Premier League on Wednesday before facing Brighton on Saturday. They have no maneuvering room with just 10 games left to finish 5th or better. Their run-in is not easy. Arsenal will play 3 teams in the Top 4 (Manchester City, Leicester, Liverpool), 2 teams also chasing a European spot (Wolves, Spurs) and 4 teams fighting relegation (Brighton, Norwich, Aston Villa, Watford). Only Southampton will have nothing to play for.