Arsenal take the strange hint from West Ham in watershed win

Date published: Wednesday 15th December 2021 10:41 - Matthew Stead

Arsenal's Mikel Arteta and Gabriel Martinelli

Arsenal under Mikel Arteta are not as good as West Ham and David Moyes feared but they are absolutely far better than most of us thought.

 

It is quite the habit to develop. Mikel Arteta has his flaws as a coach, those blind spots that threaten to undermine the genuine and clear progress he has overseen in north London. But as far as managerial traits go, the ability to make seismic decisions that are immediately justified and validated is thoroughly useful.

There was a suggestion at the start of the week that the situation surrounding Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had allowed a divide to form in the Arsenal dressing room. The erstwhile captain is a popular figure, after all, whose most recent transgression alone did not fit the public punishment he had received. But the club made it expressly clear that this was his ‘latest’ breach, that the line of trust had been crossed one too many times. And if Aubameyang does have his supporters and sympathisers behind the scenes, it was certainly not obvious throughout a watershed win.

That was a proper victory, the first inflicted upon West Ham by more than a single goal since January, and Arsenal’s first of the campaign against an accomplished team that does not need to be followed with an asterisk, such as Tottenham *but Nuno*. It had all the ingredients for something more unsavoury: the Aubameyang furore; the captaincy doubt; the opposition which had beaten both Liverpool and Chelsea in the past five weeks; the fact it was Arsenal. Yet the hosts ignored that recipe for disaster in a professional and deserved win.

For the first time this season, Arsenal are in the top four. For the first time this season, Arsenal have a positive goal difference. For the first time this season, Arsenal seemed to engender trepidation and anxiety in their opponents. West Ham afforded the Gunners an undue amount of respect and were subsequently taken advantage of.

The deep defensive line they deployed was naturally inhibiting and only allowed Arsenal to grow in confidence and stature. Arteta’s side have rarely played better than in those opening 45 minutes when West Ham gave them both possession and the time to do something with it, only really applying pressure when the ball came within 30 yards of Lukasz Fabianski’s net.

Arsenal’s own energy, pressing and intensity only compounded West Ham’s meekness. Four Gunners had made two tackles by half-time. Four more managed one. The exceptions were Gabriel and Kieran Tierney, who both completed at least one clearance and interception each.

Manuel Lanzini, Arthur Masuaku and Alexandre Lacazette

If Aubameyang was sacrificed to underline the importance of teamwork and cooperation, this proved that it was not an offering made in vain.

But Arsenal have done this before: played well, created chances, failed to convert them, grew frustrated and made mistakes. Craig Dawson’s singular mission to block everything could easily have exasperated a more mentally frail team. It was notable that they instead maintained their composure and control to score within three minutes of the second half.

Gabriel passed through the lines. Alexandre Lacazette read in between them, flicking a few chapters ahead of everyone else as West Ham suffered an untimely bout of collective defensive illiteracy. Those who squinted hard enough might have been reminded of Dennis Bergkamp: a centre-forward dropping deep with his back to goal, controlling the ball and turning in the same movement, looking up and sliding a pass as delicate as it was flawless into the path of an onrushing striker. Martinelli ignited the illusion by opening up his body and caressing his finish into the far corner with a shot the club’s record goalscorer might as well have trademarked.

Lacazette and Martinelli had five touches between them in that move. None were too extravagant or ostentatious. The beauty was in the destructive simplicity.

Arsenal rather vexingly retreated somewhat thereafter, inviting West Ham onto them in the hope of defending their hard-earned lead. It has cost them before and will again if Arteta insists on adopting the defensive approach instead of hunting a wounded animal, but not on this occasion. Emile Smith Rowe confirmed that with a brilliant breakaway goal as the time slipped away. The 21-year-old had been brought on 21 minutes prior as Arteta’s golden touch paid dividends again.

There was also an element of luck with Vladimir Coufal’s red card, his fair tackle in the area deemed a second bookable offence. Lacazette won and took the penalty, saved by Fabianski in the current captain’s only misstep of a brilliant evening performance. The man advantage took the sting out of any West Ham revival.

Before that second goal and even after the sending-off, the hosts indulged in a spot of timewasting as Aaron Ramsdale was booked for taking his time at a goal kick, and Arteta actively dragged a cramped-up Martinelli back to his feet and threw him back onto the pitch so he could receive treatment there and disrupt the visitors. The perception of Arsenal as soft and naive is archaic and there is a reason no club has picked up more Premier League points at home so far this season.

Perhaps that imperious record played on the mind of Moyes, who would surely have tweaked his tactics in retrospect. Arsenal are not nearly as good as West Ham feared, although they are absolutely better than most of us think.

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