This is Arsenal’s second visit to the Hawthorns in a couple of weeks but the demands this time around will be completely different. Both manager’s changed bulk of their side for the Capital One Cup encounter but they should field the strongest available line-up for this one. The manner in which the Gunners defeated Napoli also adds to the expectations. Wenger’s team won five away games at the end of last season after the win in Munich. They’ve already picked up wins when revisiting Fulham and Swansea. West Brom are also part of that list. Throw in the opportunity to go into the international break leading the League and the pressure, hopefully of the positive kind, should be high.
Steve Clarke did well in his debut season as a top flight boss. By basing his side on his own strengths, the Scot has given them a stable and reliable platform. Stints as assistant under some big name managers, chief among them being Mourinho, has given Clarke an excellent grip on the defensive aspects of the game.
We can expect West Brom to be extremely compact at the back with two banks of four or even with an extra attacker dropping into midfield to make it five. They like to defend with the back four around the edge of their penalty area with the first line of defence a few yards further ahead. The meticulousness with which Clarke organizes the spacing between his lines and the interlinked movement of the defensive players to constantly provide cover for each other have given them a strong defensive record and allows them to get results where other comparable teams might struggle.
There might not be the same hype around the Baggies as there was with Napoli but it’s quite likely the Gunners will find it harder to score at the Hawthorns than they did in midweek. It’ll be a delightful surprise if they come out flying and are able to settle the game in the first 15-20 minutes.
McAuley and Olsson are not the quickest of defenders but they work very well in the tight knit defensive unit of West Brom because their weaknesses are covered and strengths brought to the fore. Both are good at attacking crosses and staying tight to the striker. Usually, there is very little space behind them or even in front so their vertical mobility is rarely tested. Giroud might have a very hard time finding space in this game but his performance is also going to be vital for the Gunners because he can contribute to the quick one-touch play in the attacking areas and drag the central defenders away from their comfort zone.
Mulumbu and Yacob offer physicality, discipline, and stamina in front of the back four with the wide players and attackers also pulling their weight.
No defence is going to be watertight for the duration of ninety minutes. I believe that one of the measures of the quality of a defensive side is the speed at which they can shut the openings after the movement and passing of the opposition attack has created one. West Brom rate fairly high in this regard. Space and time, between the lines and in creatively vital central areas, will be at a premium. Wenger’s side have the diversity and quality to score against pretty much any defence but this will surely be another test of the pace and precision of Arsenal’s attack. Even a five percent drop in offensive quality will make things noticeably harder for the Gunners.
The Baggies are not exactly famous for their rapid counter-attacks but in Sessegnon and Amalfitano they have two players with enough individual quality to punish a team that makes errors at the back. Berahino, too, looks like a promising prospect while further up Anichebe, Anelka, and Long all bring Premier League experience and other useful qualities to the side.
With Sagna missing, Clarke might place one of his mercurial offensive players on the left flank with instructions to attack Jenkinson or the space behind him if the youngster bombs forward repeatedly. For West Brom the best chance of scoring might come from isolating their key attackers against the Arsenal defence in a two-v-two or three-v-three (even one-v-one but that would need a massive mess up from the Gunners). That and set-pieces where the aerial strengths of their defenders will be a constant threat.
Arsenal have kept only one clean sheet in the Premier League and I don’t expect them to add to that on Sunday.
The team selection is bit of a tossup. Wenger has a few options at his disposal. He could keep the Flamini-Arteta duo in central midfield if he wants greater assurance, although that might seem overly defensive for this game.
Wilshere could come back into the starting eleven on the left. It’s not an ideal position for him and he is not in the best of form but it’s very hard to keep a player of that potential out of the starting eleven for too long a period.
Ramsey could come back into the middle, stay on the right, or get a breather like Jack did in the last game. Rosicky could man either flank or he might drop back to the bench.
Monreal is another player who deserves more minutes but will Wenger disrupt the balance on both flanks?
All-in-all, this is a hard line-up to predict but there are a few permutations that could all work well.
I’d probably only make a couple of changes,
Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Arteta, Özil, Flamini, Wilshere – Giroud
Before games like this it’s not hard to see why Wenger often tells his team to just play the way they always do. They’ve shown enough quality all over the pitch to deal with everything the hosts could throw at them. But over the last few seasons there have been so many mishaps that I, for one, will always have some questions marks at the back of my mind even when things looks straightforward until we see consistency for at least one whole season.
The question is not whether the Gunners are good enough to win this game. They so obviously are. The question is can they win such games again, and again, and again… Can they get three points every time they’re the favourites and quite often even when they are not? To answer this question in affirmative we have to wait and watch till May. On the other hand, the negative answer could come in any game. As they say, getting to the top is easy, the hard part is in staying there.Follow @goonerdesi