If, before Saturday’s 1-0 win over Arsenal, you had informed a West Ham supporter that Samir Nasri and Marko Arnautovic would be substituted together after 70 minutes, they probably would have imagined a very different storyline. Nasri was seemingly lacking match fitness, and making his first league start for the club. Arnautovic was said to be unhappy, having recently declared his intention to leave.
But, somewhat surprisingly, the pair departed to great acclaim. West Ham were 1-0 up courtesy of Declan Rice’s first career goal, assisted by Nasri, and they were barely troubled in the second half. Nasri ended his full debut with a standing ovation, which extended to hail Arnautovic’s departure too — perhaps an attempt to convince him to stay, perhaps a final show of gratitude before he sets sail.
It was Nasri who was this game’s standout performer, not merely because of his individual contribution and crucial part in the home side’s performance, but also because it highlighted his former club’s complete lack of an equivalent player. Here, Manuel Pellegrini handed the Frenchman his favoured central role in West Ham’s 4-2-3-1 system, a position he rarely played at Arsenal, when he generally drifted inside from the flank. His task here was linking with Arnautovic and bringing in midfield runners, and he performed both roles excellently.
He and Arnautovic produced a number of bright moments on the edge of the Arsenal box before half time. In a two-minute spell, Nasri twice combined excellently with the Austrian on the left corner of the box, first with a clever backheel into his path, and then for a one-two which prompted an Arnautovic shot dragged wide of the near post.
One-twos were a key part of West Ham’s approach, especially when Felipe Anderson drifted inside from the left, and it was the Brazilian who was the next beneficiary of Nasri’s awareness on the edge of the box. Mark Noble sent a long ball forward towards Arnautovic, and the ball broke to Nasri, who had the composure to pause for a couple of seconds, waiting for Anderson’s run from deep, before prodding the ball his path. Anderson’s shot fizzed narrowly wide of the upright.
In Nasri, Arnautovic and Anderson, West Ham boasted the game’s three most creative talents. Arsenal fielded no genuine playmaker here, with Mesut Ozil again omitted from the squad despite training all week, Henrikh Mkhitaryan out injured and Lucas Torreira, a different type of creator, only summoned during the second half.
Arsenal’s closest thing to a playmaker in the first half was Alex Iwobi, whose clever positioning dragged West Ham right-back Pablo Zabaleta out of position and created overlapping possibilities for Sead Kolasinac, although the wing-back was fuming when Iwobi failed to provide him with a pass in the early stages, and this avenue of opportunity was shut down when Pellegrini moved Michail Antonio deeper to defend that flank. Aside from that, Arsenal created very little, either at 0-0 or when attempting to mount a comeback. They barely tested Lukasz Fabianski, another of their former teammates.
In fairness, his opposite number Bernd Leno wasn’t regularly tested by West Ham, but he was left with no chance early in the second half when Rice scored. In the aftermath of a set-piece, Arsenal half cleared a cross and the ball broke to Nasri on the edge of the box. With Arsenal rushing out to pressure him, Nasri played a short, easy but nevertheless perfectly weighted ball into the path of Rice, who instinctively curled a side-footed shot around a defender and inside the near post. Rice was the home side’s hero, named as the man of the match. A fortnight after committing his long-term future to the club, a winner in a London derby was always going to earn that honour.
Nasri, though, had been crucial. The assist was the type of understated pass he played excellently throughout this game — he created three chances, none of those passes played over a distance of around five yards.
“He’s a top player and when he plays more minutes and is 100 percent fit, he will make the difference, as he did at Arsenal and Manchester City,” said Pellegrini.
Pellegrini suggested that, in future, he could be deployed out wide or as a holding midfielder, but on this evidence he’s perfect for a No. 10 role.
It’s the Arsenal No. 10 position, though, that remains the major topic of discussion. They find themselves in a bizarre situation, with their highest-paid player simply not making the matchday squad, despite his club desperately missing a player in his mould.
Arsenal supporters might not support his acrimonious departure in 2011, but here Emery was crying out for a player in the class of Nasri — which summarises Arsenal’s malaise.