Lacazette fuels Arsenal's unlikely top-four quest by breaking the deadlock vs. stubborn West Ham
LONDON -- It was one of those afternoons when it was hard to see where a goal was going to come from for Arsenal, but Mikel Arteta had an inkling.
With the Gunners struggling to break down an obdurate West Ham team at an increasingly impatient Emirates Stadium, Arteta decided to pitch Alexandre Lacazette into the fray. From the moment he locked eyes with the French striker on the side of the pitch, the Arsenal manager had a feeling he might make the difference.
"I saw it straight away, the moment I was talking with him and giving him instructions on the touchline," Arteta told reporters after his side's 1-0 win. "He was alert, he was focused and I could see in his face that he was really determined to go out there and score the goal like he did."
Lacazette had been on the pitch for 19 minutes when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's shot was deflected into the air, Mesut Ozil deftly cushioned a header into his path and he swept a side-foot volley past Lukasz Fabianski from six yards, with the goal given following a VAR review after initially being ruled out for offside. That it was the second of the two shots on target that Arsenal would muster all game told you everything you needed to know about what a difficult afternoon it had been for the home side.
Aubameyang -- chasing his 50th Premier League goal in Arsenal colours -- was a peripheral figure on the left, registering only one off-target shot, while Ozil struggled to find space in central areas in which to influence proceedings and Nicolas Pepe alternated enterprising dribbles with frustrating darts down blind alleys. Not for the first time, Arsenal's greatest threat came from 18-year-old left-back Bukayo Saka, whose purposeful run infield from the left laid the foundations for the hosts' winner.
Eddie Nketiah kept his place up front after scoring in Monday's FA Cup fifth-round win at Portsmouth, with Arteta explaining that he had picked the 20-year-old striker over Lacazette "for the type of defenders they had and the game plan that we had." But with West Ham defending deep, there was precious little space in behind for Nketiah to exploit and at times he was bullied by the visitors' twin bulwarks of Issa Diop and Angelo Ogbonna. Lacazette is one of the most accomplished strikers in the league with his back to goal, and his physical presence helped Arsenal to gain the upper hand in the game's decisive closing stages.
After a nine-game goal drought, Lacazette appeared to have turned a corner last month when he followed up a late goal-scoring cameo in a 4-0 win over Newcastle by netting the only goal of the game in the first leg of Arsenal's ill-fated Europa League round-of-32 tie against Olympiakos. He has started only one of the four games since, but with three goals in his past four appearances, the 28-year-old will hope he has earned the right to start in Wednesday's rearranged league game at Manchester City.
His seventh league goal of the campaign, all of which have come at home, allowed Arsenal to chalk up three straight wins within the same season for the first time since February. Arteta's side are only five points off the Champions League places and their run of eight games without defeat is the longest in the division.
Arteta did not try to pretend that his side had been at their best, acknowledging that they had struggled to find their "flow," but he took satisfaction from the manner in which they had ground out victory, in much the same way as they did in the recent 3-2 win over Everton. "Big teams find a way," he said.
If there was little to write home about in an attacking sense for Arsenal, Lacazette's contribution aside, there was something to be taken from Dani Ceballos' performance alongside Granit Xhaka in central midfield. With Lucas Torreira facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines after fracturing his ankle at Portsmouth, Ceballos has an opportunity to nail down a starting berth. The Spain international orchestrated Arsenal's attacks intelligently, constantly looking to stretch the play and completing six of the seven long passes he attempted.
Prior to Lacazette's introduction, the most dangerous man on the pitch for much of the game had been West Ham's Michail Antonio, who thrived in a central attacking role alongside Sebastien Haller. The West Ham No. 30 caused Arsenal no end of problems with his direct running and twice went close to breaking the deadlock, first scuffing wide from a matter of yards after Diop had headed down a Mark Noble corner and then drawing a brilliant reaction save from Bernd Leno with a header from point-blank range.
While David Moyes' men find themselves once again glancing nervously over their shoulders towards the relegation zone, Arsenal's improbable quest for a top-four finish continues to gather pace. But if Lacazette's nose for goal got them off the hook on this occasion, Arsenal still look very far from being a Champions League side.