First, a little housekeeping. I want to thank Naveen, Chary, Jonathan, and Les for all of their contributions to this site. Without them, 7amkickoff would be just another boring Arsenal blog. And more important than their contributions to my blog are their contributions to the discussion about Arsenal in general. Naveen’s tactical insight is yards ahead of everyone else and I’ve honestly learned more about football by editing his pieces than I did watching it, reading news reports, and listening to pundits for the last 15 years. Meanwhile, Les Crang’s history pieces are a wonderful reminder of who we are and where we came from, Jonathan’s monthly photo article is a great way to highlight fans from all over the globe, and I love Chary’s acerbic man at the match reports. There are other folks who contribute articles when they can but these four consistently give back to the Arsenal community through their writing and I am grateful for each of them.
As for the match, Arsenal host West Ham tomorrow for an 8am (PST) kickoff and Arsenal are at the time of the season where every point counts. At the start of the season points only count for half a point. Then, somewhere in the middle of the season, points start counting as 3/4 of a point. But now, every point counts as a whole point. I know, it’s complicated but just trust me, I’m the stats guy and I created the 7amkickoff relativity scale of points.
I also know a little bit about West Ham. West Ham is a team who concede possession (45% overall, 43% away). They not only concede possession but they also win a lot of aerial duels (almost 24 a game) and lead the League in Key Passes off long balls. 63 key passes off long balls or 2.5 per game — can I say that again? They average 2.5 shots per game, just off long balls. Arsenal, for contrast, average 1.3.
The Hammers also lead the League in shots per game off set plays, with 4.5. 34% of their shots are from set pieces. Arsenal only take 21% of their shots from set plays.
West Ham also lead the League in headed goals with 15. 15 of their 38 goals (40%!!!) are from headers. Arsenal have scored 9 headed goals, but that’s just 17% of their 52 goals.
West Ham also lead the League in (accurate) crosses per game with 6.1. They lead the League in crosses attempted. They lead the League in key passes (61) off crosses and in assists (12) off crosses.
West Ham are also second in the League in accurate corners and are second in the League in key passes off corners, though interestingly they have only managed 2 assists off corners.
So, to conclude, West Ham are a long ball team who concede possession but who still get the ball forward enough to get their wing players involved and put teams under pressure with aerial balls and wicked crosses from set pieces which they like to head home. And if you’ve been an Arsenal fan for more than five minutes, and watched Arsenal concede goals from crosses (this year) and corners (years past) while dominating possession against teams like West Ham then all of those stats will make you about as comfortable as a man wearing a wool sweater in summer. In the desert.¹
One last odd wrinkle. In the last meeting between these two teams Arsenal did something no one expected: they conceded possession. Arsenal have beaten West Ham in all of the previous 9 encounters and when looking at the data for those matches, Arsenal averaged over 60% of the possession. For example, in the last 6 encounters the possession numbers for Arsenal are 69%, 64%, 62%, 62%, 58%, 45%. I believe that there is a trend at Arsenal away from possession in general (which shows here as the numbers get lower over the years) and there is also a trend in the Premier League with teams like West Ham simply getting better but that drop from 58% possession to 45% possession isn’t in line with the trend, that is indicative of Arsène Wenger employing a tactical shift in that match.
More evidence that Wenger eschewed possession in that game comes in the fact that in the three previous encounters West Ham scored first and in many football matches the team who score first usually concede possession. And in the last encounter between Arsenal and West Ham, Arsenal scored first. You would think that was the reason for Arsenal conceding possession but when I look at the possession stats prior to the Arsenal goal (a penalty) the numbers are exactly the same as after the goal – 55% for West Ham, 45% for Arsenal.
I don’t think we will see this same tactic tomorrow. This was a one-time strategy dictated by injury. Wenger was forced to start with two destroyers, Flamini and Coquelin, in midfield. This time out, Wenger has all of his top midfielders available to him: Cazorla, Özil, Coquelin, Rosicky, and Ramsey. I expect to see a starting attack consisting of Giroud, Özil, Alexis, Cazorla, Coquelin, and Rosicky. In defense, I suspect we will see Bellerin², Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Gibbs.
The big question for me is who will start at keeper? Ospina is one of the smallest keepers in the League. He’s also not commanding in the penalty area and that is where West Ham will be lobbing in balls to head into goal. Do we start Szczesny? Against Man U, he was good in the air but there was that moment he decided to try to dribble around Rooney. He managed to beat Rooney but then had to play a forced pass to Koscielny, who kicked to Mertesacker, and then Mertesacker turned the ball over. Man U didn’t score off this mess but it was a moment of unprofessionalism from Szczesny.
It’s incredible to think that Szczesny has 179 games worth of experience and had literally just returned to first-team football after being benched for being unprofessional and he’s out there pulling stunts like dribbling around a forward in one of the biggest games of the season. But there you have it, that’s Szczesny. And I still think Arsenal have to start him.
This should be an easy match for Arsenal. West Ham are in terrible form and haven’t won a match since January 25th (P7 W0 D3 L4 F4 A13). Downing is the main crossing and set play threat and Song’s main two weapons are over the top balls and through balls. But without Enner Valencia (who cut his foot on glass) making runs behind the defense and Andy Carroll’s presence on headers, the Hammers shouldn’t be too much of a goal threat. Meanwhile, Arsenal will have an entire retinue of forwards they can throw at West Ham and a healthy midfield who are playing some of the best football of the season (P7 W6 D0 L1 F13 A7). If Arsenal can stay focused and professional, if Arsenal can keep their defensive shape, and if Arsenal can remember the lessons that Monaco taught them a few weeks ago, then all three points should go Arsenal’s way.
¹Defensively, West Ham are a bit of an odd team. They concede possession but they don’t tackle a lot (they are 15th) and they don’t try to intercept the ball either (they are 13th). This is odd because we would normally expect a team who doesn’t have the ball to try to actively win the ball back but here’s the thing about West Ham: they don’t want the ball.
I’m being a bit cheeky here but the truth is that Allardyce’s philosophy is that he wants his team to control space first, then worry about the ball. West Ham’s approach to the game is to jockey the opponent into spaces that they don’t mind you being in and allowing the opponent to do things that they don’t mind you doing. So, they will allow Arsenal to keep the ball, grant them spaces to put in crosses, and when they win the ball back they will try to get the ball up the field in a counter attack situation (down the wings) where they can get in a cross to a forward.
It’s simple football but effective, as you can tell by the fact that West Ham are 10th in the League and basically safe from relegation.
I actually take a similar approach to football when I play. Amateurs are not very good at crosses and not only that but when you crowd the target area it makes crossing very difficult. So, if you stay compact and allow them to get in crosses you have a great chance of cutting the cross out and moving the ball up the field in a counter attack situation. It’s ugly football but effective. Also, I sell it by saying “we are going to play like Chelsea” instead of saying “we are going to play like West Ham.”
²Congratulations on the new deal. He deserved it after the great shifts he’s put in.