The Gunners displayed their fighting spirit in Saturday night’s 2-1 win at the Emirates but they exhibited a familiar lack of control in midfield
After the highs of recent weeks, this will certainly have been a wake-up call for Arsenal.
Mikel Arteta’s side were excellent against Fulham on the opening weekend of the new season, just as they had been when they beat champions Liverpool in the Community Shield.
But against West Ham on Saturday night, they showed they are still very much a work in progress.
They may have snatched a 2-1 win to continue their 100 per cent start to the season thanks to Eddie Nketiah’s late strike, but Arteta’s side produced a performance that posed more questions than answers.
Arsenal have spent the summer looking to add to their midfield, with Thomas Partey and Huseem Aouar their chief targets, and on this evidence you can see why Arteta is keen to bolster his options in the centre of the park.
Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos have been excellent for the Spaniard since lockdown, but both players really struggled against a compact West Ham side who gave them very little time on the ball.
The result was a performance more in keeping of what we saw from Arsenal under Unai Emery last season, rather than what we have seen from them under Arteta since he took over in December.
“I think they’ve been really good since I joined the club,” said Arteta, when asked about Xhaka and Ceballos after the game and whether the midfield performance showed why the club are so keen to bring others in before the transfer window closes.
“I thought it was a game where we were going to attack the spaces and the way they defended, we wanted to create some situations with Dani there. But if we can strengthen the team then we’re going to try and do that. Until the market is gone, everything is still open.
“Depending on what happens with some other players, we are open to discussions. The market can surprise us. [Teams] can come for any of our players in different positions and we have to react, like it happened with Emi [Martinez]. So let’s see what happens.”
West Ham had 17 shots on goal to Arsenal’s seven at the Emirates. Arteta’s midfield was cut open time and time again, especially in the second half, with Xhaka unable to offer the defence any sort of defensive shield.
And going forward, Arsenal’s struggles to open up a packed defence were apparent once again.
Willian failed to mark his home debut with a performance as eye-catching as the one he produced at Craven Cottage, and with Ceballos as off the pace as Xhaka, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were often left totally isolated.
The visitors were certainly the better side during the opening 20 minutes, although they only tested Bernd Leno once when Angelo Ogbonna headed straight at the German keeper from a corner.
With the midfield unable to get control of the game, Arsenal’s attack was left to feed on scraps, but they suddenly burst into life on 25 minutes when Bukayo Saka released Aubameyang down the left.
The Gunners skipper sent in a wonderful cross and Lacazette was on hand to head home his 50th Arsenal goal, and his fifth in his last eight Premier League games.
It was a goal Arteta’s side scarcely deserved, but it did lead to an improvement, with Saka going close to doubling the lead soon after having been picked out by Willian’s pass.
West Ham were always in the game, though, and they got the equaliser they deserved just before half-time when a quick break ended with Ryan Fredericks crossing for Michail Antonio to poke home from close range.
The second half saw the visitors take control and Antonio had two golden chances to give them the lead. The first, he headed against the bar and then second, he failed to connect properly with when picked out by a ball in from the left.
Arsenal were offering next-to-nothing going forward, but then with just five minutes remaining they produced their only moment of real quality in the half to snatch an unlikely win.
Saka was the architect, playing in Ceballos with a clever ball and to the Spaniard’s credit, he stayed calm to pick out the waiting Nketiah, who rolled the ball into the empty net for his first goal of the season.
Arteta let out a huge roar when the full-time whistle blew, more in relief than anything else. He will know his side will have to up their game drastically when they head to Liverpool on Monday week.
There are less than three weeks left of the transfer window now and Arsenal’s boss will be desperate to add to his squad before the October 5 deadline.
The addition of Gabriel has improved the defence and Willian will certainly give Arsenal more joining forward. But the midfield is still an area of concern as was clearly demonstrated against West Ham.
A player of the guile and craft of Aouar would certainly give Arsenal an extra dimension in the attacking areas, while Partey would add some stability to the central areas that has been missing for a long time.
Arsenal continue to head in the right direction under Arteta. Beating West Ham despite playing so poorly was another indicator of that.
But the three points shouldn’t mask the fact that there is plenty of work still to be done.