Mikel Arteta admitted he cannot guarantee Alexandre Lacazette will win back his place in the Arsenal team after the French striker came off the bench to clinch a 1-0 victory against West Ham on Saturday.
Arteta’s side struggled to find any momentum for long periods at the Emirates Stadium and could easily have been behind before Lacazette settled a scrappy London derby.
He turned in Mesut Ozil’s header with 12 minutes left, but it took several minutes before VAR finally confirmed the German was onside when he laid on the goal.
It was a sweet moment for Lacazette, who has been reduced to a substitute role on several occasions since Arteta took charge in December.
“It is my job to give the manager a big headache. I’m struggling to make the team but I’m happy to score again,” said Lacazette, who has three goals in his last four games.
“Now I have to play well again the next game. Everyone wants to give their best.”
Arteta praised Lacazette’s focus in the face of his demotion.
But he said the form of youngster Eddie Nketiah, who started against the Hammers, plus the presence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who played on the left but could easily lead the attack, meant he had a welcome selection problem.
“We have two strikers that are making life difficult for me. They are both scoring and in a good moment,” Arteta said.
“I thought Eddie was the choice today with the way we wanted to play. But I knew Laca was ready to score in the final moments.
I could see in his face he was alert and focused when I was talking to him.”
Arsenal’s third successive Premier League win lifted them within five points of fourth placed Chelsea, who play Everton on Sunday.
Earning a Champions League berth still looks a long-shot for Arsenal, especially after this uneven display.
But the Gunners, who face Manchester City on Wednesday, are unbeaten in their last eight league games and showed commendable spirit to make the late breakthrough.
“I’m happy because big teams find a way when they aren’t playing well. You can build from there, with the unity and solidarity the players are showing,” Arteta said.
“We are turning the corner in terms of results, but our ship still has to turn a few times more to see what we want to see. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
West Ham have lost five of their last seven league games and, with only one win in their past nine, they are destined for a nervous finish to the season as they battle to avoid relegation.
“We didn’t deserve to lose. We played very well. We didn’t take the chances when we had them,” West Ham manager David Moyes said.
“I felt we should have been in front by half-time. That’s the disappointing thing.”
– Lacazette impact –
Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka carelessly surrendered an early chance to Jarrod Bowen, whose long-range drive slipped through Bernd Leno’s grasp onto the near post.
West Ham’s enterprising opening was nearly undone when Sokratis thumped his close-range header onto the bar from Aubameyang’s cross.
There were still plenty of holes for West Ham to exploit and only a shocking miss from Michail Antonio stopped them scoring just before half-time.
Issa Diop climbed above Aubameyang and headed Mark Noble’s corner to Antonio, who somehow managed to screw wide from just two yards.
It took a superb save from Leno to deny Antonio’s close-range header.
Arteta sent on Lacazette in place of Nketiah for the final 30 minutes and his arrival turned the game.
Lacazette broke the deadlock with his ninth goal of the season in the 78th minute.
Aubameyang’s shot deflected off Declan Rice and looped to Ozil, whose header found Lacazette for a clinical close-range finish that survived a lengthy VAR review.
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