West Brom have been a bit of a surprise this season. Studying their macro-level stats does not give the impression that this is a team competing for the top four places after 15 games of the season. Steve Clarke’s side are 4th from bottom in terms of possession with an average of 43.5 percent. They’re 13th in pass accuracy, which is less than 80 percent. The Baggies are 14th in shots per game with 12.7 and concede 15.7 shots per game which is worse than 14 other teams. 13 teams make more tackles than West Brom while 17 make more interceptions.
Even if we dig deep into these numbers, there isn’t much that says West Brom are competing at the level of the bigger teams. But the simple and most important fact is that they have 26 points after 15 games and are 5th in the table only on goal difference as they’re level on points with Chelsea and Spurs. That too after two successive defeats in the last two weeks.
Clarke and his players are doing something right for sure. The simplest way to explain their game, although this doesn’t do them complete justice, is to say that they’re an efficient team that works hard in defence and controls the quality of chances they concede while being effective with their limited attacking forays.
Steve Clarke has worked under Mourinho and the influence is clearly visible. The Baggies often look extremely comfortable without the ball as their organization is impeccable. The way they maintain the spacing between the players; the off-the-ball decision making of individuals i.e. when to close an opponent down, when to hold, etc.; manner of protecting the vital central areas by denying time and space to opponents; and other such details point to meticulous planning and diligent training.
However, their tactics make the players chase the ball a lot and as a result they seem to tire towards the end of games. This stat is telling – If games lasted 80 minutes in the Premier League, West Brom would be second.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Gunners approach this game. Ideally, one would want to see them come out aggressively and play higher up the pitch with consistent pressure on the ball. But pressing high up the pitch has just not clicked this season and that invariably leaves the defence vulnerable. That in turn has led to the defenders and midfield dropping back deeper inside the Arsenal half, which has given the opponents more time and space to build their attacks. The Gunners have generally defended well when they drop back but there has been a noticeable effect on the attack as effective transitions from deep have been rare.
Arsenal’s build-up play has also been laborious at times as the midfield does not have the right balance. The load on Arteta has been high as we’ve discussed in earlier posts. West Brom could exploit this by having someone like Morrison marking the Spaniard. By doing that, many teams have been able to control the Gunners in the central third of the pitch.
Having said that, I doubt West Brom will push higher up the pitch unless they’re chasing the game. The visitors will try to minimize the space behind their defenders and in the central areas in front of goal. Once again, Arsenal will have to find some creative moments from the flanks. In many games, the full-backs or even the wide players have gotten into useful attacking positions but their final ball hasn’t been very good. This has to improve or it could be a comfortable day for the Baggies.
At the back, Arsenal will have to watch out for quick transitions, particularly down the flanks. West Brom also have a good aerial threat and many players who can shoot from distance. Not only will the Gunners be tested from set-pieces, they’ll have to quickly close down shooting opportunities after the first ball has been cleared. Long’s energetic running can cause concerns if the defenders have one of those unfortunate slips when in possession.
I’m not sure what the injury situation is. Team News says Podolski and Walcott are out while Sagna and Koscielny are not back. But the German and the French full-back can be seen in the pictures from the training session. I’m assuming they were just involved in some light work and will not be risked.
That means Wenger basically has to decide between Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Ramsey. All three have their strengths and weaknesses but none of them have done enough to justify automatic selection.
Rosicky’s fitness will have an impact on team selection. Hopefully, he’ll be fit enough to start even if he isn’t ready to finish the game. His ability to thread balls through will bring the direct player on the flank into the game in a purposeful manner. The Czech star will also be able to provide meaningful service to Giroud. The alternate option is to have him on the bench in case the game is close late on but I’d prefer a start as Arsenal have to impose themselves on the game from the beginning.
If Little Mozart is fit, I’d be tempted to push Cazorla to the left, Rosicky up the pitch centrally, and Gervinho on the right. But I’ve a feeling that Arsene will play TR7 on the flank if he’s deemed fit enough to start.
Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla – Gervinho, Giroud, Rosicky.
With that starting eleven, bulk of the creativity would have to come from the left and central areas. Gervinho should look to make runs in behind on the right or diagonally across the box depending on the availability of space.
One would expect Rosicky and Cazorla to switch places occasionally, and even Wilshere could also join in to make it a very fluid midfield, but they’ll have to ensure the defence isn’t left open. The problem has been one of balance. Keep an eye on the tussle between Mulumbu and Wilshere.
Arsenal’s recent home record has been disappointing. W3 D4 L3 does not make for pleasant reading. It is understandable that many fans will be cautiously optimistic at best. Right now it’s more about hope than genuine belief. It’s up to the players to change that with their performances.Follow @goonerdesi