Arsenal analysis: Arsene Wenger’s side face an identity crisis as they fire blanks

JAMES OLLEY
David Klein/REUTERS

The clarity and precision with which Arsenal played in their pomp under Arsene Wenger is a far cry from this display last night.

West Ham’s five-man defence, diligent organisation and counter-attacking threat posed the Gunners a familiar question, yet all they could muster in response was some fuzzy thinking and three shots on target.

Their dominance in possession and territory was sterile. Adrian won the official ‘Man of the Match’ award but his save from Alexis Sanchez’s late free-kick constituted the only occasion he was called into meaningful action.

Alex Iwobi hit the post. Jack Wilshere wasted a glorious chance (below) that would have capped a night of individual encouragement but the bigger story was Arsenal’s collective malaise.

Photo: David Klein/Reuters

Wenger opted for a 4-3-3 system, with several players in atypical roles. Ainsley Maitland-Niles deputised at left-back, while Mesut Ozil took a deep, central position alongside Wilshere in front of Granit Xhaka in a tight midfield trio.

Iwobi reverted to wide left and Olivier Giroud finally earned his first Premier League start of the season.

Perhaps some of his team-mates did not notice: there was precious little adaptation in Arsenal’s approach to account for both Giroud’s presence and the Hammers’ tactical set-up.

​Giroud was left to feed off scraps, with Arsenal almost obsessed by trying to play through the heart of West Ham’s defence rather than stretching them with width and pace in their passing.He has a vastly different skillset to Alexandre Lacazette, yet there was no adjustment to aid his effectiveness.

Wenger may prefer to play with a back four but abandoning the 3-4-2-1 shape that revived their fortunes earlier this year is largely down to Shkodran Mustafi’s thigh injury and a lack of confidence in Per Mertesacker, Rob Holding, Calum Chambers or Mathieu Debuchy to replace him.

They have used a four-man defence when chasing League matches, coming back to beat Leicester on the opening day before attempting to do the same without success against Stoke, Manchester United and Southampton, but there was no increase in their attacking prowess using it from the outset last night.

Furthermore, Wenger waited until the final 20 minutes to freshen things up. It was a curious decision, given that he bemoaned having a day less to prepare for the game compared to West Ham.

And when he did turn to the bench, he introduced Danny Welbeck ahead of Lacazette before giving his £52.7million club-record signing just eight minutes to find a goal.

Sanchez is usually on the field come what may, yet Wenger took the unusual step of sacrificing him for Lacazette - another surprise even if it was far from the Chilean’s most productive night.

Put it all together and Arsenal’s methodology looked confused, a picture that does not reflect well on Wenger and the decision to award him a contract predicated upon the idea he can take this team forward. They are four points worse off than this time last year.

Close encounters | Marko Arnautovic, in action last night, is shining under David Moyes Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

David Moyes has much more modest targets and a winning goal would have taken his side out of the drop zone.

Substitute Javier Hernandez almost provided it, collecting Mark Noble’s clever pass before curling an effort off the underside of the bar.

Moyes is believed to have prioritised defensive shape and fitness training since replacing Slaven Bilic as manager and the effects were there to see for the second time in five days with the same starting line-up.

Yet one of their more creative talents, Marko Arnautovic, has been among the most responsive to Moyes, again showing flashes of quality to suggest he could yet justify his £25m price tag.

The festive fixtures offer regular chances to reshape a season and the Hammers will approach matches against Stoke, Newcastle, Bournemouth and West Brom with renewed optimism.

Arsenal’s run of Newcastle, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and West Brom before the new year presents opportunities for an upturn in fortunes.

The Gunners used to swat teams aside in such circumstances - the wait to rediscover their swashbuckling best goes on.

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