Steve Clarke has done well in his debut season as a full-time manager. West Brom started well and were 3rd in the table after the opening 13 games or roughly the first third of the Premier League season. Then they suffered a winter blip and won only 2 of their next 12 games picking up just 8 points in that period.
While that may have ended any hopes of a fairy tale run for the Champions League spots, recent improvement in form has helped them stay in a very respectable 8th place.
Their results have been impressive but they’ve not been based on scintillating football. Clarke’s team are in the bottom half of the table when we consider possession, pass completion, shots per game, tackles and interceptions per game, and other such statistics. And they concede a fairly high number of shots per game (6th highest).
West Brom don’t play opponents off the park on a regular basis. The Baggies rely on qualities like hard work, discipline, and determination – often considered the hallmark of a British footballing side. They have made themselves hard to beat and grind out results. And like many other relatively smaller teams that punch above their weight, the Albion rely heavily on their home form.
Clarke’s team are 6th in the League on home form and boast the Premiership’s third best home defence conceding just less than one goal per game. A back four devoid of star names relies on stellar organization to meticulously protect Ben Foster and his goal. Mulumbu (missing this game) and Yacob have formed a surprisingly efficient partnership in front of them. The wide players pull their weight while the strikers – often Long as the solitary man for most of the game – chase the ball and run into channels tirelessly.
I’ll be surprised if Arsenal get the kind of time and space that they found against Reading in that enjoyable but distinctly one-sided encounter last week. The Gunners will have to be a lot more efficient in this game as they won’t get into promising attacking positions as often. Poor technique or choices in the final third will hurt the team’s chances, particularly if they come when an opening has been created.
We will also have to see if the midfield and the forwards are able to combine seamlessly without losing any fluidity. In away games Arsenal have been nowhere near as prolific as they’ve been at home.
Away games for Wenger’s side have produced 2.2 goals per game, which is the third lowest in the League. In contrast, their home figure of 3.93 is the highest in the Premiership. This difference is noteworthy as it shows the Gunners have been particularly cautious on their travels. They don’t take as many risks and thus create fewer chances, which in turn leads to a lower ‘goals for’ tally. Arsenal’s 20 away goals is roughly half the number they’ve notched up at home (39).
On the other hand, a more conservative style enables them to keep things tight at the back. You might not have noticed this (I hadn’t, till recently) but Wenger’s team have the best defence on the road this season. Just cast your mind back to the recent wins over Bayern and Swansea and you’ll get the picture.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Arsenal revert to their guarded approach or they try to push up and build on some effective high pressing we saw against Reading. In my opinion, as stated in the post match review, at least a part of the success against Reading was down to the Royals’ inability to adapt to the tactical changes that Adkins was trying to implement. So there isn’t sufficient reason to assume that pressing will work well against a confident West Brom side that is tactically assured, even if predictable and somewhat limited.
The Baggies will not take unnecessary risks in their own half and they will go long (no pun intended but chuckles welcome anyway!) if they have to. They’ll also be much better prepared and well-organized to absorb pressure if Arsenal can sustain spells of possession in their half. Getting to the penalty box and a clear sight of goal will take genuine skill and effort.
In such a case starting the game in a controlled manner seems to be the best option for the Gunners. Drop back without the ball, stay in shape, and minimize their opportunities to score via set-pieces and shots from distance. Arsenal also have to find a way to delay West Brom’s forward movement when possession is lost. The defence really struggles when the ball reaches their penalty box from the opposite one within a matter of seconds on a consistent basis.
This will be of particular significance if the hosts start with both Lukaku and Long in attack as they’ll have more offensive options. Long is likely to pull wide while the on-loan Chelsea man could use his physical qualities to receive the ball in front of defenders before passing it around. Both of them are capable of making runs in behind a high line. The importance of pressure on the ball, even if it’s not full-fledged pressing, and the decision making of the defenders cannot be overstated.
In attack, as already mentioned above, the Gunners have to be more efficient with their possession. A lot of mistakes are ignored and forgotten when a team completely dominates the opponents like they did last week. But that doesn’t mean the areas of improvement don’t exist. Inefficiency might be expensive in this game. Gervinho’s performance, if he starts, will deserve closer attention.
An early goal does change things and both sides will be wary of conceding one. Arsenal will certainly find it easier to stay back and solid if they are defending a lead. However, an interesting trend in West Brom’s games is that 24 of the 82 goals scored (~30 percent) have come in the final 15 minutes (76-90+) with the Baggies lagging 11-13. Another 20 goals have come in the final 15 minutes of the first half.
The grinding nature of their games could be a factor here. Their players probably tire towards the end and can’t keep up their meticulous routine. On the other hand, Clarke has often made clever use of late attacking substitutions to score against opponents who are pushing for goals or are tiring themselves.
Arsenal are 15-2 in the final 15 minutes of games. If memory serves, those two goals came in that home defeat against Swansea. Other than that Arsenal have not conceded goals at the death. That’s exceptionally impressive and provides a strong indication of their mental and physical strengths.
Keeping things tight in the early exchanges could work in their favour once again as long as they don’t get desperate and sacrifice balance at the end.
Wenger has a fairly strong squad at his disposal despite injuries to key players like Wilshere, Walcott, and Diaby.
I would recommend going with the same starting line-up that worked so well against Reading. There is sufficient balance in that side and all the players in midfield are capable of bringing the ball out from back, which would mean less burden on Arteta and a harder pressing job for the hosts. Building from the back is vital to the style Wenger wants from his team so that balance with an extra midfielder on the flanks helps.
I’d like to see,
Fabianksi – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Ramsey, Rosicky, Arteta – Gervinho, Giroud, Cazorla.
Arsene might make one or two changes to keep things fresh but I doubt there will be many surprises in this game from either side.
It’s going to be a battle of minimizing errors while searching for that decisive moment or two. West Brom have beaten Chelsea, Liverpool, and Everton at the Hawthorns but they’ve lost to City and Spurs. What will Arsenal do?Follow @goonerdesi