Do I really even have to say anything here? You all know the drill by now. On a night when goals were being scored for fun by the other League powers, Arsenal once again found themselves locked in a struggle with a team they should destroy on paper. David Moyes has brought some defensive accountability back to the London Stadium upon his arrival, and it seems that he might have found a working formula, having recently shut down the potent Chelsea for 90 minutes. Wednesday night was no different, as Moyes’ accordion-like shape stymied the Gunners, who went on to tie West Ham 0-0 in a tense matchup.
Set Up To Attack
With Aaron Ramsey and Shkodran Mustafi injured, Arsene Wenger decided to be aggressive Wednesday night, naming a starting XI in a 4-2-3-1 with only 1 true central defender on the pitch in Laurent Koscielny. Given the Gunners’ recent struggles scoring goals, many fans were excited to see such an attacking lineup. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was given the nod over Sead Kolasinac to start at left back, and performed reasonably well going forward while doing his part to snuff out attacks on the counter and Jack Wilshere was named to the side In the place of Ramsey.
If the fans were excited to see the lineup, the were not too thrilled about the play that followed. Teams have settled into their seasons and their defensive shapes, and much like last season, Arsenal are going to need to figure out how to score against teams putting 11 men behind the ball. Even with another midfielder added to the mix, Arsenal still couldn’t break down West Ham’s stingy defence, with attacks stalling out just where they have all season long: on the edge of the box with a poor pass. The attack was toothless once arriving in a dangerous area, and there is a clear lack of confidence around the goal. The draw was perhaps a bit unfair to the Gunners, who held the initiative for almost 90 minutes, but the ineptitude around the box is becoming a bit of a pattern.
The Lad In The League
On Wednesday night, many fans got to see what they had been clamouring for since the season began: Jack Wilshere starting a Premier League match. Though many would likely have preferred the Englishman to take over Granit Xhaka’s place in the side, Aaron Ramsey has also been inconsistent this season, showing up in some big matches but disappearing completely in others, so this was a move that likely would have been supported by fans even without the injury.
Wilshere looked sharp and energetic for much of the match, dutifully carrying the ball forward from his box-to-box role next to the Swiss international. His tight quarters control was typically impressive, and he even popped up in the right defensive position at key moments to help relieve the pressure. However, Wilshere still struggled around West Ham’s penalty area, where much like he does in the Europa League, he would often look to play a combination with Olivier Giroud to work around the defence. Wilshere spent much of the match frustrated by a lack of precision in front of goal, culminating in an embarrassing miss blazed over the crossbar in what was perhaps Arsenal’s best opportunity. It was a frustrating night for Jack, but his performance was good enough to warrant future consideration for more league minutes.
Super Sub, Subpar Starter
Olivier Giroud is an enigmatic character. There is no denying that few in the Premier League have his flair for the dramatic, coming on to score goals for fun in the closing stages of matches as he often does. It doesn’t matter how early or lTe he is subbed on, when Arsenal needs a late goal, the odds are as good As any that Giroud will score it. However, the Frenchman and Arsenal struggle mightily in attack whenever Wenger gives him the start. This trend has been going on since the beginning of last season.
There are likely many theories for why this might be, but only one that makes sense. Early in matches, when the opponent has designs on scoring a goal, not just preserving a goalless draw, Arsenal are usually able to find more space in behind for their attackers to run. Opponents might commit more players forward early in the match trying to get an early goal before Arsenal have settled in to their shape. When this happens, the pace of someone like Danny Welbeck or Alexandre Lacazette is far more of an asset than the rather ststionry Giroud, who is not an effective weapon on the counter with his lack of pace. As a result, he and the whole Arsenal team are stuck trying to methodically break down a low block every time they get the ball, with results like the one on Wednesday night. Wenger obviously likes the Frenchman, and he definitely wants more game time, but unfortunately, a starting role is not one that currently suits him or the fortunes of the club.
Developing A Reputation
It is often said by fans of the home team in a big Derby or match that the team and fans should hound the referee for 90 minutes, looking to seek every possible advantage that the pressurised environment affords. In practice, this is almost certainly what Alexis Sanchez does, but with none of the advantageous results. The Chilean can be seen after almost every coming together throwing an angry arm in the air towards the referee, lobbying for a whistle. Instead of helping his case, it seems that every ref in the league has grown tired of his antics. His incessant appeals are now waved away with the hints of a smile playing on the lips of the referee, as if to say “keep shouting, I dare you, and I WILL get my little book out!”
The narrative of the referee denying Arsenal points with the decisions has been well established in recent years, and certainly do suggest some head scratching trends. However, as it has become obvious that Alexis Sanchez is in something of a crisis of confidence, the willingness to bail him out with a whistle has just not been there. Even with the fans, the Chilean’s act has worn thin, and he continued turning the ball over at an alarming rate, even though he was clearly trying to make smarter decisions. With him pressing so hard trying to break through, defenders know to show him to the outside and stay in front of him, causing him to either attempt to dribble through the whole team, or else fire a prayer of a cross in the general direction of the box, usually resulting in a harmless turnover. Perhaps it is time Alexis got some time on the bench while he works through his struggles.
Even in the best of times, Arsenal fans expect a lot of their club. As one of England’s most prestigious clubs, as well as currently one of the richest, Arsenal and its fans are accustomed to a certain level of excellence and trophy winning ambition. However, Manchester City’s unthinkable unbeaten run this season has catapulted the Sky Blues so far into the lead for the title that it is wreaking havoc on fan expectation. To an Arsenal fan, it doesn’t matter if the other team has twice as much money, twice the talent, the better coach or an abundance of luck on their side; Arsenal should be challenging for the title, just like they were promised when the Emirates Stadium was built. It is unreasonable bordering on laughably ridiculous, this level of entitlement among the fans, but it is with this in mind that a panic has descended on some, as Arsenal are now closer to the relegation battle than first place.
This was not helped on Wednesday by news of their rivals winning easily in their own matches. Even Leicester City had an easy go of it against Southampton, who just recently were one last gasp goal away from beating the Gunners. It is that time of year when Arsenal seem to have their typical collapse out of title contention, but in truth, the title has been out of play for months, since City decided to go on an absolute tear. The battle is now, and almost always was this season, for a Champions League berth, which is very much still in play.