Arsenal respond to Arteta’s Aubameyang demotion, galvanising Gunners to win over West Ham

LONDON – The pre-match message was for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but now we know he wasn’t the only one listening.

Mikel Arteta’s decision to strip Aubameyang of the captaincy dominated Arsenal’s match against West Ham United on Wednesday and could have had a divisive effect given the striker’s popularity within the squad. However, he had the opposite effect, spurring this young group to put in one of their most complete performances of the season to win 2-0, climb into the top four and provide an exciting glimpse of what life without Aubameyang could be like.

“They were very focused,” Arteta said after the match. “They wanted to show how strong we are as a team. The performance, behavior and commitment they showed today is exactly what we are as a team.

“I expect that from every player: stick to our values. We’ll talk about that another day. Today I want to talk about the game.”

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It wasn’t too long ago when Aubameyang carried his disbanded Arsenal squad on his shoulders. Unai Emery, Arteta’s predecessor, would almost certainly have been sent off earlier in November 2019 had the prolific Aubameyang not been in front of goal until that point.

But after a series of disciplinary issues and a loss of form, Arteta downgraded the 32-year-old on Tuesday citing a lack of “commitment and passion” as well as “certain moments when he did not fulfill his duties”.

The commitment and passion were plentiful on Wednesday. The Emirates Stadium crowd can at times be an unforgiving handful, but they have responded to apparent application, as Arsenal pressured West Ham relentlessly into errors in a breathless first half, which somehow ended goalless at either end.

Aubameyang’s willingness to press has often been questioned, but Gabriel Martinelli, Alexandre Lacazette and Bukayo Saka led from the front in this regard.

Martinelli’s opening goal in the 48th minute looked like more than a pass to Aubameyang at its best, as he drifted far to the left to blast in Lacazette’s pass before slashing his right foot past former Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski. There were even the hallmarks of Thierry Henry about the way Martinelli opened his body to clinically finished, however, one step at a time.

Proving a reliable alternative to Aubameyang would be a very valuable place to start at Martinelli. A bundle of energy with and without the ball, the 20-year-old made four tackles – bested only by Premier League Lacazette (five) – Martinelli’s seventh Premier League goal makes him the most productive pre-21 Brazilian in league history behind Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus ( 16).

“It was definitely one of the [his best performances] Arteta said about Martinelli in every aspect of the game. “Physically growing. He was cramping again and needed to mature in that sense as well.

“But his general understanding of the game is so much better, he is able to put some gears into his play, rather than sometimes doing everything at 100mph. The energy and quality he shows sometimes is the best.”

Anything less than a win on the night would have put Arteta’s authority into question and put pressure on the Spaniard to find a way back into the squad for Aubameyang, who has scored 58 Premier League goals since the start of the 2018-19 season. Instead, this match looked similar to mid-March, when Arteta brought down Aubameyang in the last minute after the Gabon international reported late for the team’s meeting on the day of the north London derby, and his side responded with an impressive 2-1 victory in a. Similar power performance.

However, what happened next could provide an important history lesson. The Gunners won two of the next nine in all competitions, a round that put Aubameyang’s peripheral role sense under renewed scrutiny.

This time, they will face Leeds United – who were defeated 7-0 by Manchester City on Tuesday – Sunderland in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals, Norwich City and then Wolverhampton Wanderers before New Year’s Eve. It is an attractive program that offers an opportunity to generate more momentum and shift the focus on Aubameyang to match the focus and diligence around him if he is to revive his fortunes in North London.

Despite Arsenal’s dominance, the match was not safe until the end. The hosts benefited from a poor penalty decision as Vladimir Koval appeared to win the ball from Lacazette with a tackle in the penalty area, although it was notable afterwards that West Ham manager David Moyes suggested the defender be more decisive in the challenge.

Lacazette missed the resulting penalty – Arsenal missed a third in a row – but the damage was still deep for the Hammers as Koval was sent off for the foul and the resulting numerical damage.

Substitute Emil Smith Rowe finally eliminated the visitors three minutes from the end with another excellent goal, as he made up for Fabianski’s foul with a left-footed shot from Saka’s pass. It was the 10th league goal Arsenal have scored for a player aged 21 or younger, the highest any team has achieved this season.

The significance of this match was already overshadowed by the hype around Aubameyang given Hammers’ impressive form under Moyes and Arsenal’s somewhat shaky progression from Arteta’s. It is also worth noting that Aubameyang initially became captain after winning a player vote. His popularity is that the poor performance could have been interpreted as signs of dissatisfaction with one of Arteta’s boldest decisions in his managerial career to date.

Instead, they put on one of their best performances of the season. They answered Arteta’s call. Time will tell if that continues – and whether Aubameyang can do the same.

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