Monday Night Brawling: Talking Points from Arsenal v West Bromwich Albion

Monday Night Brawling: Talking Points from Arsenal v West Bromwich Albion

It is not often that a big club in England is able to answer its critics against a smaller club, but on Monday night Arsenal were able to do just that. In addition to their fellow perennial ‘top 6’ foes, Arsenal have occasionally struggled in recent times with the bigger, more physical sides that the Premier League has to offer. The Gunners have lately found themselves shying away from some of their most winnable games on paper, leaving them too much to overcome in the league table during the run up to the end of the season.
Right from the first whistle, both teams were intent on establishing themselves on the match. Arsenal looked at first to move the ball around quickly, obviously conscious of allowing West Brom to gather their footing in defence. However, Baggies manager Tony Pulis allowed his side to pressure more on the front foot than might have been expected going into the match, leaving Arsenal to attempt a few long passes to bypass the clogged midfield. Pulis went with a 3-5-2 to match Arsenal’s 3-4-2-1 and limit the amount of space the Gunners had to work their passing combinations through the midfield.
Pulis’ side could not avoid retribution for their physical play, as on the 20 minute mark, Alexis Sanchez stroked his second threatening free kick toward the top of the goal, leaving keeper Ben Foster to knock the rebound back out front where Alexandre Lacazette was there to head the first Arsenal goal home. If anything, West Brom picked up their intensity even further, finishing every challenge and often leaving Gunners sprawled on the turf for their efforts. In the final 10 minutes of the first half, the Baggies started to create chances for themselves, putting Petr Cech under pressure for the first time all match. The Gunners were fortunate to hear the halftime whistle without conceding as West Brom threatened to steal momentum away from their hosts.
The second half saw a return to normal order, with Arsenal again seeing more of the ball and West Brom reverting back to their less threatening ways from most of the first half. The Gunner defence continued to hold strong and the attack started creating sustained pressure in the final third, probing for an opening. In the 60th minute, it looked as though Aaron Ramsey had a chance to slot a ball across the goalmouth to a teammate when he was clattered in the box, receiving a penalty for his side. It was Alexandre Lacazette who put away his second of the match, effectively putting the game out of reach for Tony Pulis’ men. The rest of the match became about survival for the Gunners, who continued to endure frequent hard challenges of questionable legality up until the final whistle. Relief flooded the Emirates as the Gunners were able to close out the match with a hard fought 2-0 victory.

Another Premier League Clean Sheet

Ever since their very public humiliation at the hands of Liverpool at Anfield 4 weeks ago, Arsenal have worked very hard on their defensive shape. That afternoon on Merseyside saw a shambolic performance, with soon-to-be Liverpool midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain proving to be especially ineffective and selfish in his little audition for Jurgen Klopp. Since then, Arsenal have returned to fundamentals without the ball, maintaining a much more organised back line and properly spaced central midfield. As a result, the Gunners have only allowed 1 goal in their last 5 matches in all competitions and none in their last 3 league matches.
Monday night was not without its tense moments, including a match-saving goalline clearance from Nacho Monreal. The Spaniard was one of the Gunners’ best players, keeping things tidy at the back for most of the match while still finding the space to surge forward (particularly in the second half) and create some chances. Many fans were ready to replace the 31-year-old last season, as he was unspectacular from his left back position for much of the season and had appeared to very obviously lose a step of his pace. A shift into a back 3 has seen him rejuvenated, often looking like the most consistent Arsenal player week in, week out. The starting defence has now been fully worked out, with the trio of Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal having performed extremely well since Koscielny and Mustafi returned from their absences at the beginning of the season. This recent turn of solidity at the back has had an effect on the whole team, who have collectively maintained much better organisation and discipline since their shaky start to the season.

An Inconsistent Ref

While some referees are perfectly content playing a bit part in the outcome of the match, Robert Madley is one who clearly enjoys the spectacle. Unlike some referees, he seems to relish engaging the players in banter over his calls, leaving many players shaking their heads and smiling in disbelief. It was obvious from the start that Monday night’s match would be a physical affair, and to Madley’s credit, he attempted to let the match run its course. However, as the challenges kept coming in harder, he was forced to take action with bookings.
Both teams will have their grievances with Madley after the match. The ref missed a clear penalty after West Brom striker Jay Rodriguez was tripped up by a trailing foot from a Mustafi challenge, which only infuriated the visitors more when Ramsey was awarded a penalty for a much less certain foul at the other end. Though Tony Pulis will rightfully be seething from the missed opportunity, Arsene Wenger will have his grievances as well. Though Madley eventually got his book out, there were several more rough West Brom challenges that could have easily received a booking. Overall, it was not a strong performance for the follically challenged (ok fine, bald) ref from Wakefield.

A Returning Son

Arsene Wenger created “news” for the bloggers this week as he talked about his sadness at losing Kieran Gibbs this summer, who had been at Arsenal since he was a school boy. Though his point was to suggest how hard it is to lose a player that has been educated at the club and steeped in its values and traditions, it was taken as a knock on fellow defector Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had come over from Southampton as a teen. Gibbs received a warm welcome from the Emirates faithful, who understood the Englishman’s desire for playing time at this point in his career.
Tony Pulis attempted to give Gibbs a heroic return by putting him over all of the Baggies’ free kicks. Gibbs delivered several threatening balls into the box, especially from the right side with his in-swinging left footed efforts. The former Gunner had a quiet day besides, playing at left wing back in Pulis’ back 5, but he was able to catch up with his former teammates and manager after the match. Gibbs will be remembered as one of Arsene Wenger’s famous (and increasingly, nonexistent) young English core players from the Emirates era, and fans will undoubtedly be wishing him the best for the future. Despite not seeming to be a fit in the Baggies’ less fluent attacking system, his quality delivery could net him a few assists this season with such a big and physical team on set pieces.

My Revenge On Ben Foster

New Boys Make the Difference

With Danny Welbeck set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines after a groin injury against Chelsea, it is even more important that Alexandre Lacazette continue to adapt quickly to the Premier League. On Monday, the former Lyon man obliged with a brace, including a timely header and his smoothly taken penalty. Lacazette continues to impress with his clever movement skills, clearly possessing that poacher’s knack for arriving in the right place at the right time to bang home the goals. After potting his first, the striker was brimmed with confidence, positively skipping around with the ball, favouring deft touches and feints over flamboyant dribbling. His only problem on Monday was a lack of service, with the majority of the Gunners’ creation coming from Sanchez down the right flank, meaning fewer balls into the feet of the strikers and more speculative hero passes.
Sead Kolasinac is continuing to prove his toughness every week. One could argue that he was signed exactly for matches like the one on Monday night, when the opponents’ physicality demands a response. Kolasinac is as physically solid a player as can be seen on a top flight football pitch, and one opponent after the other is discovering this season the inadvisability of going into a 50/50 challenge with the big Bosnian. He was incredibly active against West Brom, scampering up and down the left flank and being responsible for some of Arsenal’s most threatening moments. Few players have adapted to their new clubs as quickly as he has so far this season.

Star Power Held in Reserve

Since last weekend’s scoreless draw with Chelsea, in which the Gunners put on an admirable display of defensive solidarity, some fans have begun to wonder whether a future without Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez is not such a bad thing after all. Both of Arsenal’s star men missed the Chelsea clash and while the team did not create an incredible amount of chances, the defensive effort from all 11 players on the pitch was top notch. Against West Brom, Mesut Ozil was once again held out of the starting XI. With such a physical match to play, and having just recovered from an apparent muscular injury, perhaps it was always Wenger’s intention to hold his mercurial playmaker out of the fray unless it was absolutely necessary.
Alexis Sanchez finally returned to the starting XI for a Premier League match for the first time this season and did start to look more like the player we saw most of last season. Sanchez is still losing the ball and looking for the ‘Hollywood’ pass far too often. As the team’s principal creator on Monday night, his flaws were exposed as he repeatedly and predictably cut in onto his right foot and either attempted to dribble in or send a swerving chipped pass toward the mouth of the goal, frequently turning the ball over in the process. He will need to improve massively in his distribution if this is to be a continuing method of attack for the Gunners. Against better and more skilful teams, Sanchez’ frequent turnovers and roaming around the final third can lead to more opportunities for the opponent.
It is becoming apparent that neither player is likely to return for next season. Mesut Ozil has been able to avoid the bulk of the wrath heaped on Sanchez, as his PR team have had him saying all of the right things and maintaining silence on contract negotiations while his Chilean teammate publicly courted with a rival club. Arsene Wenger may be smart to look for solutions in matches that neither player is involved in, as that could indeed become reality for Arsenal next season.

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