How West Ham Neutralized Saka: Arsenal 1-0 West Ham – Tactical Analysis
Following a shocking Europa League exit, Arsenal and Mikel Arteta returned to Premier League action now with an extra piece of motivation. Their opponents were West Ham United who similarly came into the season with high hopes and have found themselves underachieving. Arsenal went into the season very optimistic, looking to build on a season where they narrowly missed out on Champions League football and West Ham looked to continue their ambitious project with Manuel Pellegrini. The Gunners are certainly still in the hunt for the top four but the season has had its bumps in the road. For their inner-city rivals West Ham, they’re struggling through a relegation battle despite their managerial change to David Moyes.
During this tactical analysis, we will see how the manager’s tactics influenced the midfield battle, how West Ham neutralized Saka, how Ozil and Pepe connected in attack, and West Ham’s attacking structure.
Arsenal lined up with an interesting team-sheet as Mikel Arteta maintained his 4-2-3-1 formation. Starting from the back, January signing Pablo Mari made his first Premier League start after a good performance in the FA Cup against Portsmouth. Similarly, Eddie Nketiah maintained his spot at the tip of the attack benching Alexander Lacazette. Ainsley Maitland-Miles could not break into the team and Sokratis started at right-back which brought an interesting piece to Arteta’s tactics that we will detail later.
West Ham and David Moyes have not settled on a consistent lineup or shape. In this tactical analysis, we will see how their formation changed throughout phases of play and managerial adjustments. After seeing victory against Southampton in their previous bout, they maintained the exact same playing personnel with no changes. Youngster Jeremy Ngakia played in defence, interestingly in his three appearances for the Hammers the team have not kept a clean sheet in these matches.
Ceballos pulls the strings
Dani Ceballos has been on a great run of form since being given a chance under new boss Mikel Arteta. The Spanish midfielder would continue to showcase a fantastic performance level during this match. He had the most touches of any player on the pitch, made 49 forward passes and completed 58 in the opposition half. This was produced through the tactics of his manager. In a previous tactical analysis of Arteta’s Arsenal, we have seen him deploy a diamond pattern during the buildup. In this Xhaka becomes a part of the back three and Ceballos or Torreria at the tip of this diamond but initially, he implemented a 2-3-5 in possession which we would see its return today. Sokratis played as an inverted full-back and operated on the right of this three-man midfield.
David Moyes attempted to prevent Arsenal’s ball progression through a 4-4-2 press. As we can see in the analysis below Arteta’s tactics would create a solution against this. The midfield three was more stretched than narrow as we can see through Xhaka’s positioning. This stretched midfield would in turn also stretch West Ham’s first two-man first line of pressure and open up space for Ceballos to receive the ball into. None of the midfielders reacted to press Ceballos in these sequences and allowed him to turn and look for a vertical pass to make and drive Arsenal forward.
How West Ham Neautrialized Saka
Bukayo Saka has been one of Arsenal’s most effective attacking threats this season for the gunners, making the most assists in all competitions. His athletic and technical quality has been on full show and been given every opportunity to shine through the attacking structure in Arteta’s tactics. However, against West Ham, he completed 0 crosses and 13 passes inside the attacking third.
They did this by attempting to eliminate the wide overload of him and Aubameyang on the left wing. Utilising the right-sided winger Jarrod Bowen as an extra defender when the ball was progressed into their defensive third. As a result, Aubameyang and Saka could not create a 2 v 1 overload against Ngakia at right-back as they’ve done with success against other opposition right-backs. Arteta had Xhaka begin to operate in the left half-space during the second half in order to try and assist them and create numerical balance on that side of the pitch.
In one sequence Saka and Aubameyang create a solution that gets Saka in a position to cross, however, Moyes would still have his bases covered in his tactics. He had Decland Rice drop into the back four whenever Arsenal attempted a penalty area entry, creating a back five and a significant numerical advantage inside the box against Arsenal’s forwards. Pablo Fornals would also come inside to win any second balls at the top of the box.
Ozil and Pepe Arsenal’s attacking solution
With West Ham opting to drop back rather than attacking the ball out of possession Arsenal maintained 69% of the possession. This gave them loads of opportunities to assault the visitors as they bunkered down. Mesut Ozil had been tasked with moving to where the ball is from flank to flank and assist in linking play together. In the second half though, he was nailed down to the right and as we mentioned earlier Xhaka would move to the left. Ozil and Pepe could be found receiving the ball on the right flank and in-between the lines inside the right half-space. They interchanged positions and made an overload against the opposition full-back of a 2 v 1, unlike what was achieved on the opposite side of the pitch with Saka-Aubameyang.
As you can see through the analysis below, Ozil has the ball on the right flank and Pepe is making a run in-between the full-back and centre-back which is a very vulnerable zone to attack in a team’s defence. However, this would not always work as sometimes they would not be on the same wavelength as each other or the fact that they are both left-footed made it difficult to get a good passing angle for one another.
They only created one chance between them and it didn’t involve them working together but you could see the idea and opportunity was there to make some good sequences of play, however, the execution was not there at times. So you could consider their relationship as a work-in-progress. Below is Ozil’s pass map in the attacking third and you can see how common and prevalent they were working together on the pitch.
West Ham threaten in possession
The Hammers boast the fifth-worst expected goals in the league and it’s no surprise given their tactical approach. Despite having great talented forwards in the likes of Sebastian Haller, Pablo Fornals, Manuel Lanzini, and Felipe Anderson, they’re too conservative to get the most out of this list of talent. Many teams have looked to force Arsenal into making errors through an aggressive press which as we mentioned during this tactical analysis they did the opposite and dropped off allowing for Arteta’s men to play with the ball.
Despite this West Ham would match Arsenal’s xG of 1.3 on the day. Their attacking structure has many similarities to what you’ve seen with Liverpool and Arsenal. Diop and Ogbonna would look for switches of play to either Rice or Noble. They would occupy the space left behind by full-backs, preventing space to attack in defensive-transition. With the full-backs coming forward they provided width and pinned Pepe and Aubameyang back hampering the gunner’s numbers in attacking-transition. This would also stretch Arsenal’s 4-4-2 defensive shape opening up space for the wide players come inside as they try to create an overload between the lines and receive the ball inside the half-space as you see with Pablo Fornals below.
In the sequence below Cresswell receives the ball out wide with time and space to cross, he finds Sebastian Haller inside the box for West Ham’s best chance of the game but it is saved by Bernd Leno.
A vulnerability Arsenal had in defensive transition was the positioning of Sokratis. The Greek defender is not a full-back by trade and his tendency to step out the defensive line in order to win the ball would cause a problem, as the West Ham forwards on numerous occasions would identify the space he left behind to exploit. In the analysis below you can see he steps out to try and win the ball but Haller has made a move into the now vacant space where he is played through onto goal.
Mikel Arteta was able to beat his former boss David Moyes in what was an interesting tactical matchup. As we detailed during this tactical analysis, West Ham made some adjustments out of possession that forced Arsenal to attack in different ways and tweak their tactics to try and make solutions. They are level on points with 18th place Bournemouth but with all the talent in their squad, Moyes should be able to steer the ship clear of what would be a disaster. Arsenal, on the other hand, bounce back well following their Europa Leauge exit and Arteta can instil belief into the squad to push them upward.