Arsenal vs West Ham post-match tactical breakdown
The Right Wing Problem
All the action in this game came down one side of the pitch: our right/their left.
On the defensive end, there were two main aspects we failed to cope with:
1) Saka Struggles
The first was Arsenal’s LWB, Bukayo Saka, adopting a central position when his team had the ball.
There was a warning shot of what was to come within the first two minutes of the game:
We didn’t heed that warning nor did we ever figure out how to deal with Saka’s movement. He was constantly able to position himself in acres of space when he tucked in as an extra central midfielder:
No-one marked him and we did a poor job of cutting off passes into Saka when he situated himself in that box between Fredericks/Diop/Bowen/Souček on the right side of our defence.
It inevitably cost us, as Saka played a pivotal role in the opening goal:
So whose job was it to sort this out? On paper, you’d say that, as our RWB, Ryan Fredericks should’ve been the one to deal with the opposition LWB. But when Kolašinac rotated forward from LCB to play on the left wing, he pinned Ryan Fredericks back in his defensive line (as you can see below). With Saka becoming an extra central midfielder, he’s really the responsibility of Souček and/or Bowen.
In the build-up to the opening goal, Souček jumped forward to pressure Xhaka, but didn’t angle his run or position his body to stop the pass into Saka. That issue was compounded by Bowen’s flat-footedness, which made him slow to react as Saka drifted in behind him:
Ultimately I think this was a system failing. We took a player out of central midfield and put them into the backline, but it didn’t really achieve anything: Diop can’t deal with what’s in front of him because of the threat of Aubameyang running in behind (more on that in a sec) and Ogbonna can’t step across to help without disrupting the defensive line.
If we’d had Rice sitting behind two other CMs, he could have covered across to stop Saka while Souček closed down the player in possession.
2) The Definition of Insanity
The second part of Arsenal’s left wing assault was a succession of runs in behind our defensive line by their left-sided attackers.
They tried to find this run all game long…
… and, although the defensive line kept their discipline and caught Arsenal offside a few times, we didn’t ever find a way stop the supply for these runs.
Good defending is about restricting space and we didn’t manage to do that at any point. Some of the decision making and execution by Arsenal players once they got into the box wasn’t fantastic but we gave them enough opportunities to correct that and if you give players enough chances to pick these passes and make these runs, they’ll eventually get the timing and the weight right and you’ll get punished.
Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened in the last 5 mins of the game:
Saka was once again the architect of our downfall. By actually playing on the outside this time, Fredericks was drawn out to Saka which opened up a huge expanse on the right side of our defence:
Diop would have to abandon Aubameyang to cover the vacated space and he understandably doesn’t feel comfortable doing that. In an ideal world, all 3 CBs shuffle across one: Diop steps across to fill the RB space, Ogbonna picks up Aubameyang, and Cresswell marks Nketiah. But these lads are playing in an unfamiliar system and organise themselves poorly at the best of times, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to do that in a back 3.
Ceballos is probably Yarmolenko’s player here but in this scenario, I think I’d want Souček to recognise the problem, take the initiative, and track the midfield runner. Souček presumably doesn’t want to do that because he’s worried about leaving a pass open to Kolašinac (who is the one playing narrow this time) but Rice is sitting in front of the backline doing nothing and could have dealt with that square pass. A bit of awareness and communication between those two could’ve prevented this situation.
The players near the ball do an ok job of squeezing Saka and he does pick out a great pass tbf to him:
Diop has half-stepped across but can’t fully commit because of Auba; he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place here. Ogbonna, meanwhile, has let Nketiah peel off the back of him and he’s not getting that half a yard back once the ball makes its way into the box.
Maybe it’s tired legs and tired minds that eventually did us in, but the warning signs were there from the first 2 mins of the game. Both goals we conceded were remarkably similar and when that happens, something’s gone wrong in your defensive set up.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
The system we played here was a continuation of the one we tried last week but with the in possession/out of possession shapes flipped.
Against Newcastle, Rice dropped in as a third CB to make a 3–4–3 when we had the ball and we defended in a 4–4–2/4–2–3–1 shape without it:
Here it was 3–4–3 (or 5–4–1 if you’d rather) when we didn’t have the ball and a rough 4–3–3/4–2–3–1 when we were attacking, depending on what exactly Fornals was doing. Masuaku pushed up the line and Cresswell spread out to LB:
Alternatively you could say that Moyes mirrored Arsenal’s approach, which I explained in the preview for this game.
Rafa Benítez has a line about football tactics suggesting that they’re a “short blanket…if you cover your head, you have your feet cold, but if you cover your feet, you have your head cold.”
Whenever you look at a formation, the most important thing to ask is which part of the body is being covered by it? What problems did this set up actually solve? What did we gain by doing this? What was the point?
As far as I can tell, the main idea behind this switch was to create this compact horseshoe/trapezium in midfield when we were defending:
The purpose of which was to enable the front 5 to collapse on Xhaka/Ceballos and deny them space in order to stifle Arsenal’s build-up play.
This shape kind of worked in the opposition half and it did help us create a couple of turnovers, but it didn’t resolve the Saka situation and it didn’t stop those direct passes over our defensive lines (primarily played by Xhaka and Ceballos). Perhaps that was a calculated risk Moyes took here, but it got exploited in the end.
It also wasn’t that difficult to play through once Arsenal had advanced up the pitch, as the first goal showed:
I’m not sure it really protected the FBs or the CBs in the way this kind of shape should.
In possession, it was a little less clear what the benefit was. It did allow Fornals to occasionally knit things together and get more involved in central areas than he did last week (in a similar sort of role) but he struggled to have a major impact on the game. Arsenal are difficult opponents though, so perhaps he’ll have more influence if this shape gets trotted out again.
Not quite a bullseye for Bowen
After a pretty anonymous display against Newcastle last week, I thought Bowen had a better game here but it was still a bit of a mixed bag.
He’s clearly good at getting the ball from point A to point B and his ability to carry the team in transition has value in games like this. It all fell apart once he got into the final third though:
This final third breakdown is a bit like Arsenal’s situation — encouraging by itself, but it’s a problem if it becomes a pattern.
On the defensive side, Bowen maintained his positional discipline, which is all you can ask for if things aren’t quite coming off at the other end of the pitch.
Various xG counts had us coming out on top in this match: Understat had this as 1.33 vs 2.06 in our favour; Infogol’s got it as 1.33 vs 2.31; whereas Caley Graphics has it down as 1.4 vs 2.0. Fbref’s numbers of 1.4 vs 1.9 are in a similar ball park.
That doesn’t feel quite right to me. Aside from the legitimately excellent first goal, the rest of our xG tally is based on two other shots from Michail Antonio. So let’s have a look at those chances:
It’s from a central position and close to goal, but there’s a defender right on top of him as he makes contact and I think Gabriel’s dive obscures the ball’s trajectory from Antonio.
A shot from this location might be a high probability chance, but I don’t this shot from Antonio results in a goal over 50% of the time. What happens after the ball has been struck matters.
Here’s the second:
Unfortunately there isn’t a better angle or replay available for this one, so it’s not entirely clear, but I don’t think this is a particularly great chance either. I get why it rates highly — the goalkeeper’s out of position, it’s fairly central, it’s on the ground and struck with Antonio’s stronger foot — but Gabriel is 6 inches away from Antonio when he hits it. That shot doesn’t get scored 5 times out of 10.
And, more broadly, to what degree should a chance that derives from an unforced error like this be used as evidence of a side’s attacking/creative prowess?
The general consensus seemed to be that Arsenal struggled to create anything in this game and that they were fortunate to win. Having watched this match twice now, I don’t agree and it seems to me that this sort of thinking is a product of hyper-fixating on xG. It’s certainly a useful metric and the adage that if you don’t shoot, you don’t score is self-evidently true, but using xG as your main framework for evaluating a team’s attacking threat has its limitations.
We’ve already seen how often Arsenal were able to move the ball into dangerous parts of the pitch, even if it didn’t always result in shots, but just look at the touches their attackers had:
If you’re doing this every week and consistently struggling to generate shots from it, then clearly you’ve got a problem. But in one isolated match? I’d be inclined to find this encouraging more than anything else.
If you offered me both sets of chances beforehand, I’d take Arsenal’s.
The defensive shape created some transition moments for us, but it didn’t help us get to grips with Bukayo Saka and it didn’t dampen Arsenal’s attacking endeavours down our right hand side. Arteta’s team didn’t play well here but they were never anything less than completely in control of this game.
It was our first attempt at playing this shape under Moyes, so there were inevitably going to be some kinks to be ironed out, but I’m unconvinced this system has much mileage going forward, particularly in possession.
This performance was better than the Newcastle one, but still not good.