A focus on defence left Arsenal impotent in attack as they flounder at West Ham

The law of unintended consequences says that, for every purposeful action by an individual, there is an outcome that is not intended or foreseen.

Against West Ham on Saturday, Unai Emery set his side up in such a way as to bring some much-sought after balance to a team that has been leaking goals and chances at an alarming rate.

The move to a much more cautious setup was prompted, no doubt, but the spanking he saw his team take at Anfield just a week prior.

And while the intention was certainly honourable, the consequence was a team blunted in attack, stripped of creativity, and shorn of its potency going forward.

Add to that mix our usual carelessness in possession, an individual error, and some curious selection choices, and you have yourself a damaging defeat.

While I can say with confidence that Emery was looking for a better defensive performance, I can’t say I know what else he was looking for from his side.

It has been a long time since an Arsenal side has offered so little and been so turgid. Pointless possession in attacking areas is one thing, but pointlessly playing the ball across the back line is quite another.

This odd approach was summed up in the 91st minute, with the seconds desperately slipping away, with Arsenal’s centre backs content to just the move the ball across the back and exchange short passes with the deep lying midfielders. It lacked any and all urgency and was maddening to watch.

Though West Ham came into the game in reasonable form, their defence is brick built on sand. In the rare flashes of attacking endeavour that we did see from the Gunners, they cut their hosts to ribbons. Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang and Alex Iwobi both saw good opportunities blasted wide, while Sead Kolasinac would perhaps have done better to shoot then attempt to pull the ball back when he was sent clear of the Hammers defence.

But, in truth, those attacking moments were all too fleeting. Time and again the ball would be played around our back line, into Granit Xhaka or Matteo Guendouzi, and stall from there. Guendouzi played an innumerate number of badly-hit passes into empty space or through to Lukasz Fabianski, while Xhaka played the ball short or back into the defence to reload.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles, deployed wide on the right this week, was ineffectual and as uncomfortable and wasteful as he was against Liverpool. A central midfielder shoe-horned into every position except his preferred one cannot be expected to adapt to every scenario all of the time.

While I have grown a little agitated in recent times but Emery’s over-eagerness to change things at half-time, this was one occasion when the game was crying out for a tactical switch.

As it transpired, the change came in and around the 60th minute, after we had conceded the goal. When it did came, and we switched to a back four, we looked a much better prospect. We were much more progressive and ambitious, with a player in Aaron Ramsey who attempted to link midfield with attack.

Prior to the Welshman’s introduction, we had £110million-worth of talent up front that had next to nothing to do since the 20th minute. They were staggeringly shorn of service and isolated up front and, in truth, almost entirely ineffectual.

While you can reasonably ask a lot more from the players who took the field, the manager has to take a big dollop of blame for what is a damaging defeat.

I can see what he was trying to do, I understand why he was looking for more from the defensive side, but it simply went too far.

At times the players were far too negative, too ponderous, and lacking the sort of energy that was supposed to be the hallmark of an Emery side. The players were out of their comfort zone and it showed.

I agree that a better balance must be struck in this side but it seems counter-intuitive to leave Lucas Torriera and Aaron Ramsey on the bench and Mesut Ozil out of the side entirely.

Torriera would add bags of energy and defensive discipline; Ramsey adds industry, movement and end product; and Ozil adds the sorely-missed craft that means our two attacking Titans are able to do what they do best, instead of left to feed off scraps.

All said and done, it was an atrocious day at the office for Emery and this Gunners side. While they were much better in defence than they have been for a while, conceding fewer chances and generally having much better organisation, that was about all they did well.

The riddle Emery must solve, and solve quickly, is getting more from his defence while retaining the attacking verve that has defined Arsenal teams for the last two decades. While they were flashes of it at the London Stadium, flashes are not enough, even against mid-table sides.

A rapid re-think is required to life the gloom hanging over the Emirates.

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