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Battle of the Backline: How Arsenal should line up against West Ham

By Mac Johnson (Deputy Editor)

With a fully fit squad, selecting Arsenal's backline became a wonderfully predictable venture. Tomiyasu and Tierney would start outside of White and Gabriel, and things looked rosy when that combination played. And a few niggles could be handled—Holding is a capable third option at centre-back, and Tavares or Cedric could easily be plugged in alongside three of the regular four.

Unfortunately, we don't have that luxury any longer. Kieran Tierney's season-ending injury has made that a near impossibility, and Tomiyasu's long saga of calf injuries hasn't exactly helped the issue. As a result we've had to rely on a medley of defenders who don't exactly work together, namely the aforementioned Portuguese duo, whose defensive insecurities make us susceptible to penetration from both flanks.

After a woeful losing slide in early April, it became perfectly evident that we needed change at the back, and Arteta brought it against Chelsea, reverting to a hybrid back three, with Ben White shifting into the Tomiyasu hybrid role in possession, and it worked wonders. Against Manchester United, Arteta reverted to the unsuccessful fullback pairing, but with the additional defensive security of Mo Elneny dropping between the centre-backs out of possession, the system still ran smoothly. The only caveat is that Manchester United created a much larger volume of chances, and unlike against Chelsea we were lucky to win.

So the question is, what needs to happen against West Ham to keep this run of results going. After all, the East London team are Arsenal's last massive test of the season before Spurs, and getting three points will be paramount to maintaining momentum through the Leeds fixture. We need a strong and resolute backline to do that, especially against the combative and creative Hammers attack.

There are two options in my mind, and both hinge on the fitness of Takehiro Tomiyasu. If he is fit enough to play and start—remember, last time he started at half fitness, he had a shambolic performance against Liverpool—then he should do so, and Arsenal can absolutely revert to a back four, with Nuno Tavares filling a more attacking role on the left flank. That system would most resemble the tactic that has brought us a majority of our profitable results this campaign.

If Tomiyasu cannot start, though, then I think Arsenal should revert to the system they deployed against Chelsea. With Thomas Partey looking unlikely to return for the rest of the season, Elneny will have to return the side to provide defensive security, and I think Rob Holding will be better equipped to face West Ham's strong central presence than Cedric will be to deal with their tricky array of left wingers, especially given his waning defensive influence in recent months.

What's beyond evident is that neither White or Gabriel can miss a game right now, so important are they to both our defending and providing a solid foundation for our attacking play. The good news is that West Ham's open style will likely lead to chances that favor Arsenal, but it also means our backline must be up to snuff.

Ahead of the defense, it's pretty clear what Mikel Arteta should select. A 4-2-3-1 will be Arsenal's best hope, with a pivot of Elneny and Xhaka supporting Martin Ødegaard, who in turn should be flanked by Bukayo Saka and one of Smith Rowe or Martinelli. Eddie Nketiah has earned himself another start. But at the back, there are necessary questions to be answered. Only time will tell, but tomorrow's team sheet might be among our most important this season.

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