House hunting is taking up a lot of our time during weekends and I’m not getting the chance to watch the games live or write about them on the same day. This time some other work also kept me busy and thus the extra delay in this post. Apologies to those who have been waiting and thanks to everyone who still clicked through to read this. Let’s get straight to business.
Arsene didn’t make any changes to the line-up. That was understandable given the quality of football produced against Reading and the congestion-free fixture schedule for the rest of the season.
The game however, was quite different from the thumping 4-1 win at the Emirates last week. West Brom were much better organized defensively and limited the chances that Arsenal could create. They also posed a relatively greater threat at the other end. In the preview I’d mentioned the importance of efficiency in attack and it was heartening to see two goals being scored from three or four good chances.
I thought the first half was closely fought with both teams taking a cautious approach. The omission of Lukaku from the starting line-up signalled Steve Clarke’s intent or, you could say, his respect for the Gunners. West Brom stayed really deep for most of the first half with very little gap between the lines. They allowed Arsenal possession in the central and wider areas but protected the edge of the penalty box and about 10-15 yards in front of that.
The Gunners didn’t find much penetration. The goal was probably the first real chance. It was created by a clever long diagonal pass by Arteta that exploited the gap behind the West Brom defence. The hosts had pushed really high up for a free-kick that Foster punted long. After a couple of headers, Ramsey recovered the ball and a quick exchange of passes between other midfielders found Areta is some space with many opponents rushing back. There was no pressure on the ball and space behind the defence. It’s the kind of problems we see Arsenal suffer from at times. The Spaniard’s pass was superb in that it held up on the turf instead of running away after bouncing. I don’t know how much of it was down to the pitch and to what extent did the back spin on the ball contribute to this. In any case it allowed Gervinho the chance to make a diagonal run from his position on the right.
The Ivorian also deserves credit for the way he controlled the ball, beat the defender, and found Rosicky. I’m not sure if he intended that to be a cross for Little Mozart or if he was going for a shot or even trying a cross for Giroud. But it worked perfectly as Rosicky deftly headed it home. A decisive moment executed with precision and efficiency.
Arsenal’s only other major opportunity in the first half came just before the break. Sensational combination play between Rosicky, Giroud, and Cazorla put Ramsey in the clear. The Welshman seemed a touch short of confidence in front of goal and somehow found a way to miss the target when it seemed easier to score.
At the other end, the hosts had one good chance from a corner that was cleared off the line. They also had a decent penalty shout. From one angle it seemed as if Koscielny got the ball, from another it seemed he didn’t. Given Howard Webb’s tendency to be lenient in debatable moments, his non-call was not surprising. It must be said all of West Brom chances were either directly from set-pieces or from immediate follow-up attacks. In that regard it was disappointing that the Gunners were conceding so many free-kicks. But it did also highlight the limited nature of the Baggies’ attacking threat.
The second half started on a different note. Arsenal played at a higher intensity in the first five minutes or so.
In the first half Arsenal had completed 203 of their 247 passes. West Brom had managed 150/194. That means the Gunners were roughly making 5.5 passes per minute and the hosts were around 4.3. The gap wasn’t that big.
But in the first five minutes of the second half Arsenal upped their tempo. 48 passes attempted in that period is almost close to 10 passes per min. In contrast, Steve Clarke’s side only managed 16 @ 3 passes per min.
We don’t need to worry about the exact numbers but the difference is large enough to show Arsenal’s dominance and the change in approach. That paid off. Sagna had a good chance early in the second half before Rosicky doubled his tally and his side’s advantage.
There were a few points worth noting in that goal. Arsenal’s fluidity was one. Gervinho had moved to the left, Cazorla had come in central just moments before, and Ramsey had seamlessly transitioned to the wide right. The Welshman might not get an assist but his movement in the build-up was excellent. If you haven’t already seen it, do try and see how he drifts into useful defensive positions when West Brom had the ball (thanks to a deflection of Webb) before springing forward into space as soon as it was recovered.
Rosicky’s first touch, his initial shot, the lightning fast reaction to the loose ball from the initial save, and finally the finish were all immensely enjoyable.
After the second goal the game changed completely. West Brom no longer had anything to lose. At 0-1 they’d still have thought of keeping things tight at the back as Clarke likes to attack late in games and they could still have hoped for a draw or a late turnaround. But at 0-2 they just had to throw everything forward.
Their defenders started stepping up a lot more and midfielders started pushing up in support of Shane Long. Arsenal, on the other hand, lost some of their intensity.
The position of interceptions made provides some indication of the hosts’ push up the pitch.
The game was fairly even over the next ten minutes – roughly the 50-60 minute period.
Arsenal could not sustain the tempo they’d started the half with, and that was understandable. They came back down to roughly five passes per minute but now West Brom were also holding on to the ball just as much. With more of their players pushing forward their long balls became more effective as Long was no longer isolated.
At the same time, with their defenders pushing up and compressing space, the Gunners were finding it hard to get close to the West Brom penalty area.
Over the next ten minutes the momentum further shifted towards the hosts. During this period Clarke also brought two strikers on to get more presence in the attacking areas.
Arsenal were caught out tactically. The defenders were dropping deep but the front players were unsure of their role. At times they were pressing higher up the pitch but unsuccessfully. Arsenal were getting stretched vertically.
There was a two minute period before and leading up to the goal when Arsenal were particularly ragged.
The Gunners couldn’t hold on to the ball while the hosts did a good job of circulating it at the back in the face of some attempted pressing from the visitors.
There were six passes from Clarke’s side before the ball finally came to Morrison. The following snapshot was taken just before the sixth pass was made.
As you can see, Arsenal had five players fairly high up the pitch. But the attempts to press seemed more a result of individual endeavour than a coordinate tactic. It was actually pretty easy for the hosts to find a teammate in space. Furthermore, a large gap appeared between the Arsenal back four and those pressing up the pitch.
The following two images approximately capture the time Morrison received the pass. See the gap between him and Arteta/Cazorla who’d pushed up. Also note the horizontal gap with Ramsey who’d moved towards the right when the ball came towards Olsson earlier in the build up.
Finally, take a look at the space in front of the defence and that between Sagna and Mertesacker.
In this kind of a situation it’s very difficult to pin-point one player as the culprit. It remains a problem with the team’s defensive thinking as a unit.
It’s important to get the abstract picture from individual examples. Any one of a number of small details could have prevented this goal. For instance, on another occasion Morrison might have over hit his pass and taken Long away from goal. Or the defenders would have stepped up and caught the striker offside (there was a hint of offside anyway). Or Long might not have had a good first touch and the ball might have bounced away enabling Mertesacker to pull out of the challenge. And so on.
It happens all the time. But just because a particular incident doesn’t result in a goal doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the defence. Similarly, just because a goal is scored doesn’t make one instance of collective errors much worse than others. Irrespective of whether a goal is scored or not, there are many occasions when Arsenal get caught out because of their tactical incoherence which results in a terrible team shape and gaps all over. A couple of decent defensive games in recent past were encouraging but hardly proof that issues that have plagued the side for years have gone away.
After the red card it was just a matter of hanging on. It was disappointing that the Gunners found no way to hold on to the ball. Of course it’s tough, but top teams generally find a way to control the game defensively while creating the occasional counter-attack.
Now you can say it was great rearguard action from the Gunners with just 10 men on the pitch. People who base their analysis on results often do that. But in reality this wasn’t a great defensive effort, it just proved adequate in this instance. The players deserve credit for their hard work and for getting their bodies in front of goal but West Brom’s wastefulness (Lukaku and Long missed great chances) and over reliance on crossing and long balls was just as big a factor.
On another day a freakish deflection might have resulted in an equalizer. That might also have given the hosts the momentum to go on and win the game. We’ve seen Arsenal suffer that way often enough and that remains the big difference between them and the teams that genuinely contest for the Premier League title.
Fabianski: Catching was confident but I don’t know why he came for some of the balls that he did. Haven’t the coaches and players learnt their lesson? Distribution was tentative and inefficient at times. Still hasn’t been forced into great saves that often.
Sagna: Crossing was poor and had very limited attacking contribution apart from a shot after a good run. Did fairly well defensively but was quite some distance away from Mertesacker for the penalty incident. Passing was a touch below par. Not his best day.
Mertesacker: Put Koscielny in trouble with a poor pass. Lack of pace and turning speed were exposed by the ball over the top. Did make a fair number of clearances but wasn’t really tested till he got sent off.
Koscielny: Was again the busier of the two defenders. Did a good job of covering behind Monreal and cleared the danger often. Might have conceded a penalty with some other ref in charge. Respectable game on the whole.
Monreal: Wasn’t able to join the attack as often as he might have liked. Didn’t have as much to do defensively as Sagna because West Brom didn’t focus on his flank as much, but was mostly convincing when a challenge was posed.
The defenders had poor passing rates, although the ratios were probably skewed by the long punts at the end. They looked vulnerable on set-pieces and couldn’t really take charge of the box. There were one or two instances where communications gaps could be perceived.
Arteta: Mostly played a conservative game in the central third of the pitch but his pass to expose the space behind the defence was crucial to the first goal. Gave good support to the defence for most of the game.
Rosicky: MotM without a doubt. Produced the decisive moments of quality and cleared a ball off the line. Movement around the pitch was pretty good and was involved with almost everything Arsenal created going forward. Did concede some cheap, avoidable fouls.
Ramsey: Again a game where he showed a big heart and an impressive engine. Put in a respectable defensive shift but also got involved with attacks. If he had the confidence of his early days he’d probably have scored. Good role in the build up to the second goal and recovered the ball in the build up of the first.
Cazorla: Was part of the best move that Arsenal created and in the build up of both goals but his influence was largely curtailed. Didn’t really have that much to do defensively on the left.
The midfield had a decent game and for a while they were controlling things effectively. But once the Gunners lost their tactical bearings things got tougher. It’s hard to say just what went wrong without access to the team’s plans but there is clearly scope for improvement.
Gervinho: Good work and assist for the first goal. Also created a chance for Sagna and had a shot on goal himself. But otherwise his offensive impact was limited by West Brom’s positioning. Needs to do more defensively, particularly when positioned on the edge of the box on set-pieces.
Giroud: Movement and work rate were again appreciable. Excelled when combining with Rosicky and Cazorla to set up Ramsey. But he also struggled to get into the game when West Brom were defending resolutely. Also failed to hold the ball up late in the game, although that was partially a tactical issue as he had virtually zero support.
The forwards didn’t find enough time and space in the attacking areas and that limited the impact they could make. Over time they’ll have to find ways to influence games against such defences.
Subs: It was ‘all hands to deck’ stuff at the end and the subs played their part but I don’t recall any incident that stands out.
Wenger: Strong winning run continues but the last couple of games have shown the defensive issues are far from resolved. Can his team keep grinding out results or will the problems make their presence known in a costly manner before the season is over?