Tactical Points from Arsenal's impressive victory over West Ham
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
A comprehensive victory and sustained performance throughout the entire 90 minutes against top six (or 4) rivals:
Mikel Arteta once again persisted with an unchanged line-up, with Emile Smith Rowe's fitness issues still probably playing a role in this decision. With this in mind, it was probably our strongest available 11.
Arteta has regularly been criticised for a lack of a clear and cohesive plan being implemented offensively. Last night, it was blatant what we were trying to do.
Alex Lacazette was tasked with dropping off into the hole to draw out West Ham's relatively immobile central defenders, leaving space in behind for the likes of Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka in the inside channels.
However, we've seen this tactic prominently used by Arteta previously to no avail. It was more complex than that. The hub of West Ham's team lies in central midfield, with the powerful pivot of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek where West Ham progress the ball, but more importantly, frustrate the opposition. If Arteta hadn't devised a plan to draw them out of central areas, Lacazette would've been marked out of the game and him dropping in to connect play would've been ineffective.
Granit Xhaka and Martin Odegaard were evidently instructed to pull wide as much as possible, dropping into the left and right half spaces respectively (evident in the pair's heat maps and average positions). This drew West Ham's double pivot out of central areas, leaving the untracked Lacazette a lot of space centrally. If Craig Dawson or Issa Diop did follow the Frenchman, it left space in behind, and if they didn't, it left space for Laca to drive into. Win win.
There was also a clear emphasis on trying to isolate Saka with Arthur Masuaku. Takehiro Tomiyasu's positioning enabled this, with the Japanese international tucking in regularly, which dragged Manuel Lanzini inside and left Masuaku alone against the electric Saka. Our Starboy enjoyed the freedom of Holloway against the Congolese, particularly in the first half, and this resulted in a lot of our dangerous moments.
On the left, the tactical structure was very much what we saw in the early days of Artetaball, but was far more effective. Kieran Tierney pushed on very high, hugging the touchline, which drew Vladamir Coufal out, creating space inside for Martinelli. With Laca dropping deep to link play, there was an onus on Martinelli to utilise this space and boy did he do so, with the opening goal demonstrating this tactic in a nutshell. This is exactly what Arteta has tried to do with Aubameyang on the left in the past, but the Gabonese's limitations in possession often made this redundant.
Our build-up from deep areas was much better than it has been in recent weeks. There was a clear 3-2 structure at the back, with Tomiyasu, Ben White and Gabriel sitting behind Xhaka and Thomas Partey. Xhaka didn't bother with the auxiliary left-centre-back role that he often operates in in the build-up, which meant Partey was never isolated, and gave the three an extra passing option through the middle.
With West Ham not pressing particularly high, this allowed us to find our pivot much more regularly and quickly. Given Partey and Xhaka are our most prolific ball progressers, this suited us as we were able to get them the ball and allow them to find the progressive passes, something they are a lot better at than the three behind them. Thomas Partey led the game with a staggering 10 progressive passes, while Xhaka led the game for passes into the final third with 11. Both central midfielders also managed more touches than both our centre-backs, which is rare.
Another notable aspect of our game which enabled us to control the match for long periods was our pressing. With Tierney, Lacazette, Saka, Martinelli and Odegaard all operating very high up the pitch, as soon as possession was lost they were all in good positions to squeeze the ball. The lack of technical quality amongst West Ham's defenders meant their response to this press was to go long in a rushed and untidy manner, and we were excellent at picking up the second balls throughout and thus recovering possession (Xhaka managed an incredible 17 ball recoveries, which was a smart use of his attributes. He's not an effective presser but he's good at anticipating where the second ball will go, so having him drop off when pressing made sense).
Overall, a brilliant performance and one in which Arteta got his tactics spot on.