It is always an interesting tactical watch when a Sam Allardyce team takes on an Arsène Wenger side and Saturday evening proved no different. Two such obviously contrasting styles came head to head, with various tactical nuances from these differing ideals shaping the game as it goes on. Whilst Wenger favours the total football school of thought, Allardyce uses what he trusts and knows preferring the slightly more simplistic style that British football was previously accustomed to. That is not to say that West Ham play just a long football game, merely they use it as a starting point to build their attacks, as the successful British teams of the Seventies and Eighties did.
With the two teams meeting at Upton Park, it gave us another chance to observe this almost cultural difference and again it was interesting. Arsenal finished as 3-1 winners, having produced probably their most effective attacking display of the season, yet for spells it looked as though the game could swing either way. I say Arsenal’s most effective attacking performance, as despite knocking six past a hapless Southampton defence this was the most fluid display. They attacked with a real unity and verve, aided by the use of Olivier Giroud as a central pivot, against a defensive unit which has grown in solidity in recent weeks.
The first half, however, was very tight. West Ham set up in a deep and narrow formation, encouraging Arsenal to play in front of them whilst closing off the space that Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla like to operate in, much as Chelsea did at the Emirates a week earlier. Even Matt Jarvis affected the game centrally, with West Ham effectively lining up with a central four in midfield and Jarvis mostly affecting the game just in front of the defence, as shown below.
And for the most part it worked, with the Gunners finding it hard to break down the organised and resolute backline. They dominated possession, as you would expect, but found it hard to break through and when Mohamed Diame gave the home side the lead with an excellent individual goal, Allardyce’s plans looked to be coming to fruition. Interestingly, it took a turnover in play around the centre circle and a very quick and effective break for Arsenal to level the game. Giroud won the ball and released Lukas Podolski who whipped a perfect cross to meet the outstretched boot of the onrushing Giroud. It was the first time that West Ham had been caught out up the pitch and they were made to pay. Indeed, had the normally reliable Kevin Nolan taken a chance on the stroke of half-time, they would have gone into the break with a lead.
Then West Ham made an interesting and yet, at the same time, strange tactical switch at half-time. Despite neutralising the attacking threat of the away side to a large extent, Allardyce opted to push his charges further up the pitch and revert to their more usual style with added width. Perhaps it was out of fear from Arsenal controlling the game via their domination of possession or perhaps there was a sense that the game was there to be won. Either way, the system that worked in the first half was scrapped.
The team as a whole pushed further up the pitch and the width was restored, with Jarvis reverting to his usual left-wing position. It proved detrimental as it opened up the space in which Arteta and most noticeably Cazorla love to exploit, with both being more influential in the second half. Looking at the player dashboards for each half, both were able to influence the game significantly more in this attacking central area.
It proved to be the difference with both goals coming as a result of the tactical switch. For the second, Giroud was able to drop into this space before sliding Theo Walcott in behind the West Ham defence, allowing the England winger to stroke the ball past Jussi Jääskeläinen with a composed finish. The third came via Cazorla, who hit a tremendous strike from outside the edge of the area.
There was an obvious change in West Ham’s attacking play, as you would expect for a game of this nature. Whilst Andy Carroll received roughly the same amount of passes as Carlton Cole had against QPR, there was a difference in the style. Cole received some longer passes in central areas, but this was broken up with balls to the left and right channels. Carroll however was tasked with remaining in the more dangerous central areas only, and was targeted with more direct straighter balls throughout the game. This was designed to target Arsenal’s perceived weakness and at times was threatening, although too often the supporting run was lacking to make the most of this.
The tactical switch ultimately played into Arsenal’s hands, assisting them in sealing a good victory at a ground on which few teams will leave with maximum points. I can understand the potential logic behind it and it is quite feasible that Arsenal would have proven too strong anyway, but with hindsight I wonder whether Allardyce wishes he’d kept things the same.
This victory capped an excellent start to the season for the Gunners. They will be disappointed with the reverse at home to Chelsea but trips to Anfield, the Brittania, the Etihad and now Upton Park are all out of the way with a decent points return to boot. The improved performance of Giroud, who has been steadily improving since joining in the summer, will be another positive for Wenger whilst the resilience to fight back from behind will have heartened him.