When faced with a volley of questions pivoting around the off-field unrest Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s captaincy ordeal has caused, Mikel Arteta delivered a steely appraisal of the reaction he expected from the players that were allowed to take to the field.
“I’m hoping that the team tomorrow is going to get out there with the fire in their eyes and knowing the importance of the game,” Arteta demanded (as quoted by the club’s official website). “West Ham are within catching distance and tomorrow we play at home in front of our people and we expect a great performance and a great result.”
Arsenal’s commanding 2-0 victory on Wednesday night delivered on both fronts, propelling the Gunners into the top four with almost half the campaign behind them.
This lofty position is a far cry from the existential dread that loomed over Arsenal’s opening month of the campaign, where three goalless defeats left them marooned at the foot of the table.
Following an emotional curtain-raiser in Brentford’s first ever Premier League match – and their first in the top flight for 74 years – Arsenal’s start was left in tatters simply by the sheer standard of opposition they were up against.
Manchester City and Chelsea – who are two of the three teams breaking away in the Premier League title race – effortlessly swatted aside the Gunners in a miserable August. A 4-0 mauling at the hands of Liverpool completed the set of implosions against the Premier League’s elite.
While West Ham have fallen away from this league-leading trio, they are aspiring to that calibre and have sat among the top four for seven consecutive weeks – that is, until Arsenal dislodged them on Wednesday night.
Going into the midweek fixture, half of Arsenal’s total goals conceded for the campaign came in their three outings against the leading pack (11 of 22). Yet, pressing high and hard from the off, Arsenal stifled West Ham throughout, limiting the visitors to just seven shots, only one on target.
Arsenal allowed West Ham just 9.1 passes before applying a defensive action (a tackle, foul, etc.) (per UnderStat). This represents a blistering upgrade on a press that had been the least intense in the entire division.
By bottlenecking the play into West Ham’s half, the Gunners largely bypassed the often ponderous possession they can slip into inside the middle third. With Bukayo Saka a particularly favoured outlet haring towards Arthur Masuaku, Arsenal created the highest expected goals (xG) tally West Ham have conceded since top flight football shut down in March 2020 (per Opta).
Unsurprisingly, it also represents a remarkable leap from the previously toothless displays Arsenal could muster against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.
The Gunners amassed just 12 shots worth a combined 0.77 xG across their three meetings with the Premier League’s elite (according to FotMob). Yet, against West Ham Arsenal racked up 2.71 xG (including their joint-highest tally of chances from open play all term) while rattling off 21 shots.
Manchester United, the remaining Champions League representative in the Premier League also managed to wrangle three points off the Gunners in the previous set of midweek fixtures. But Arteta was convinced there had been improvement from the cubbing Liverpool dished out in the wake of that Old Trafford loss: “I think we’ve come a long way since the game at Anfield because we were able to maintain a high level for longer periods,” he told Amazon Prime.
“We had very good structure. We were a threat. They couldn’t run because we had a good structure in our counter-press.”
The same could very much be echoed and expanded upon on Wednesday night as Arsenal finally showed they can not only avoid catastrophe against the division’s sides, but actually beat them.