West Ham United 0-3 Arsenal
The win may not be as celebrated as others that have come before it but it serves to highlight Arsenal’s continued growth if not for the fact they also close the gap on Manchester United’s lead. Last season, The Gunners succumbed a two-goal lead to eventually draw; here they took advantage with some neat interplay – albeit against a weak and even more weakened West Ham team due to the absence of Scott Parker and any full-backs – to comfortably win 3-0.
Victory asserts Arsenal’s title winning credentials, especially with the speed and accuracy that they passed the ball around their opponent’s penalty area while West Ham, on the other hand, sink ever more closer to the mire and are in such a position because they are woeful at the back. Which begs the question – could the same Arsenal teams that drew and lost against Leeds United and Ipswich Town respectively have won here? Given that they [front three of Bendtner, Chamakh and Arshavin] were so functional up front, the answer is not altogether obvious however it is evident that Arsenal are a much better side with Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie playing and as such, players like Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere are able to raise their game. From a defensive point of view, Arsenal were initially posed some problems by West Ham but alleviated any danger through more ruthless forward play. The two goals, this time round, was enough to kill off the game and sap The Hammer’s energy thus making the second-half a simple finishing job.
Robin van Persie the “hybrid” striker
Typically, this would have been a match where Arsenal are made to work for their win but their opponents were so average at the back, failing to deal with the most rudimentary of movements, that their technical superiority was able to come out on top. Arsenal’s manipulation of space and creation of triangles evoked similarities between their 3-0 defeat of Birmingham City only a few weeks earlier and a lot boiled down to the personnel on show. Arsène Wenger was able to select what must be considered his best starting eleven and with Robin van Persie back in the side, Arsenal look a more fluid unit.
Van Persie’s success has been down to the way he balances the central striker role – knowing when to go behind and when to hold the ball up – allowing his team-mates to play around his movement and attack with unpredictability. Because West Ham defended deep, we were not as much able to see his “false nine” tendencies but what was perhaps most encouraging was his running across the channels as an orthodox striker. Arsenal have, at times, been said to be too elaborate; more complicated than they should be but his working of the two centre-backs – James Tomkins and Matthew Upson – made it difficult for them to mark him. Van Persie constantly looked to play in the channels between the full-back and defence and that stretched West Ham’s back line. Wayne Bridge in particular had difficulty holding his position as left-back and the need to tuck in while Walcott’s presence as an outside forward made the task all the more trickier. This type of tireless horizontal movement is what helped Wayne Rooney deliver his 34 goals last season and in an analysis for Match of the Day, Alan Hansen criticised Dimitar Berbatov’s static movement against Chelsea for failing to break them down. As it was, Federico Macheda’s introduction helped got a goal back although they still lost 2-1. Berbatov’s improved performances this season is maybe because he is better understanding the demands of the main striker although there is still a niggling doubt whether he can as effective without a runner. Van Persie’s success as the runner is perhaps dispalyed by his statistics last year at the World Cup, where, even for a over-cautious Holland side, he was fourth on the list for chances created (every 37 minutes). Perhaps a direct threat would have given the Dutch more goals but they went for a team approach for which van Persie was seen as crucial. The numbers are even better for his impact last season in the Premiership, making a chance every 30.6 minutes – the third highest in the league.
<Figure 1>van Persie’s movement across the channels helped drag the defenders across, creating space for others. For Theo Walcotts’ goal, van Persie siezed upon the space afforded by Tomkins challenging Fabregas to set up the England winger. The Dutch striker continued working the West Ham defenders all game by running the channels high up the pitch and mixing it by dropping deep.
<Figure 2>Van Persie showed his ability to roam as false nine, creating space in front of him. The West Ham central defenders are forced to mark space and are at a threat of late movement from one of Arsenal’s offensive players. Here, Samir Nasri aims takes advantage of the space vacated by van Persie and Tomkins’ uncertainty to make a run beyond the backline (which was unfortunately offside). False nine movement is hard to counter as defenders hate marking space and by dropping deep, van Persie forces the defensive line to push up. Marouane Chamakh did similarly for Arsenal earlier this season in the 4-1 win against Bolton as their 24 pass move found Carlos Vela as the defence attempted to squeeze the space. The question then becomes should the defence push up or stay deep? Should they go with the unconventional or stick to the textbook? Arsenal tried the latter in the 2-2 draw with Barcelona last season after half-time and proceeded to concede two over-the-top goals to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (Disclaimer: we are not planning to do screen capture analysis as a regular feature. But if you do look back to the archives, we did start it on the tactical blogging scene).
<Figure 3 ~ deleted> Robin van Persie’s heatmap shows just how he tried to drag the West Ham centre-backs out of position. The striker spent a lot of his time drifting to the left flank – also because of Samir Nasri’s central inclinations – to shift the defenders aside.
There is only one Song
It’s hard to forget but West Ham had a competitive first twenty-five minutes. Avram Grant’s bravery to play three forwards initially troubled the backline somewhat with Johan Djourou having to be pressed into some last minute action. His mistake from a ball down the right channel gifted Carlton Cole a chance to test Wojciech Szczęsny but blasted straight at him while Cole had another effort blocked by the head of Djourou. ESPN’s co-commentator attempted to rip into Arsenal’s centre-back duo but their vulnerability is not as much due to their individual ability but the way the team attacks. It is a balance that The Gunners needs to achieve and particularly down Emmanuel Eboue’s side did they find space. The Ivorian’s enthusiasm leaves gaps for the centre-backs to cover – in this case Djourou – while another essential component – Alex Song – was similarly pressed into action.
Song had another fantastic match, covering ground along the channels – his job more towards the right and Jack Wilshere’s along the left – and often dropped back into the back four when the ball entered Arsenal’s penalty area. Arsenal may be playing a double pivot this season but it’s obvious Song is the main holder and his authoritative style allows to match technique with aggression.
The four fixtures Robin van Persie has started since his comeback have all seen The Gunners score three goals – except for the 0-0 draw with Manchester City which serves as a blot to his style. Arsenal failed to make their early goal attempts count and that led to calls for a more direct threat. Those calls were justified as it is not always were a team can play in the same style and sometimes going gung-ho in the last minute is the best option. But as it stands, perhaps, Arsenal are better overall with van Persie’s careful balancing of the striker role despite Maroaune Chamakh’s impressive first half-season. Space is finite, and because most teams defend deep, denying space behind the backline, it means they have to concede it in front. And because of van Persie’s work – as Steve Mclaren once pointed out when analysing Roma’s 4-6-0 – allows the multitude of Arsenal’s attacking players to play around. “We have many offensive players and he gets them in well because he keeps the ball,” said Wenger. “And of course you can see now that because he has a few games he’s much sharper physically, and that is very interesting.”