West Bromwich Albion came into this critical match on an eighteen match winless streak (D9, L9), the longest such run since Aston Villa’s 19-match run in January 2016. Alan Pardew has not enjoyed the best of starts to the league campaign with a 1-3 loss to Stoke City symptomatic of the relegation troubles the Baggies find themselves in. Arsenal, on the other hand, came in on a five-match unbeaten run and needing three away points to keep pace with Liverpool and Manchester United, who won and drew, respectively. A deflected free kick goal by Sanchez and a harsh handball by Chambers led to two points dropped and a 1-1 scoreline.
Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Cech // Koscielny (Mertesacker, 72’) – Mustafi – Chambers // Kolasinac (Maitland-Niles, 37’) – Xhaka – Wilshere – Bellerin // Sanchez – Iwobi (Welbeck, 74’) // Lacazette
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Foster // Gibbs – Evans – Hegazi – Dawson // Brunt (Krychowiak, 72’) – Barry – Livermore – Phillips (McClean, 72’) // Robson-Kanu (Nyom, 75’) – Rodriguez
West Brom Prevent Arsenal’s Buildup
While West Brom’s rough 4-4-2 shape was not surprising considering the absence of Rondon, the way they structured their defensive posture towards negating Arsenal’s strengths points toward detailed tactical planning on the behalf of Alan Pardew. Like previous opponents, Robson-Kanu and Rodriguez opted to maintain their positioning instead of pressing the first line of buildup. When West Brom was on the ascendency, which is too common in every Arsenal match nowadays, they would get aggressive in pressing the side backs but for the majority of the match, they sat in a bank of two.
Behind the two forwards, West Brom planned to negate Arsenal’s easy entry into the half-spaces that they have deployed throughout the season as one of their three preferred distributional outlets (in case the other two weren’t evident: moving through the wingbacks or through the deepest midfielder). This involved Brunt sitting narrower and Livermore positioning himself wider to cover the gaps. Barry pushed up to engage either Wilshere or Xhaka, whichever was deeper, while Phillips would hold his positioning towards the flanks to maintain defensive coverage and provide a quick option when West Brom counterattacked. Alongside a man-oriented pressing scheme, West Brom ensured that quick vertical progression would be difficult.
With West Brom’s proclivity to create natural compression in the centre of the pitch, progression was available on the flanks. Bellerin maintained a higher position down the flank to provide a wide option with auxiliary support from Iwobi. Brunt preferred to maintain the midfield compactness than drift wide with the logic that Arsenal prefers central occupation through dynamic positional chains than building down the flanks. Unfortunately for Arsenal, they easily obliged West Brom’s defensive setup and several unproductive movements in the central space led to failed attacking sequences. Clearly, Arsenal missed the dynamism and vision of Ozil, the type of player adept at finding space and fashioning chances from multiple angles. Wenger instructed Sanchez to act as the fulcrum for most of the match, diversifying his movement across the pitch to maintain ball access but he lacks the patience of Ozil in the final third.
Arsenal Defensive Fragility… Again
Arsenal’s defensive shortcomings were keenly exploited by West Brom throughout the first half, mainly the lack of coverage behind the wingbacks when Arsenal are deep in the opponents final third. Having a third centre back hypothetically provides greater horizontal coverage but with the lack of cover from the midfield, they are tasked to cover far too much ground that they are able. West Brom’s attacking game plan was simple: force Arsenal’s defender to cover the width of the pitch by having Robson-Kanu and Phillips split wide during their transition, opening space centrally for others to aggressively move into. Phillips, in particular, caused Kolasinac considerable trouble as it has proven the Bosnian struggles with a direct, pacy winger. They were able to attack the flanks at will, forcing Koscielny and Chambers to cover the spaces behind the wingbacks. This made it impossible for Arsenal to maintain any form of defensive compactness.
The freedom that Arsenal afforded West Brom surely would have led to some halftime changes yet the same problems continued. Wilshere and Xhaka ventured too far forward to press West Brom’s midfield, leaving Rodriguez to drop deep and link with the midfield. One of the side backs, typically Chambers, would push up to close the passing angle but would leave the flanks uncovered. With Bellerin further forward to act as an attacking outlet, West Brom was able to maintain possession through strong occupation out wide. Arsenal could have strangled West Brom’s attacking strategy through aggressive touchline pressing and shadow covering their passing angles but they simply lack the training required to implement a cohesive strategy.
Arsenal’s defensive problems are easily fixable but that the same issues crop up every game points towards a lack of vision from the coaching staff as to what kind of team Arsenal want to be. Their pressing strategy, as one example, is more individualistic than team-oriented with the midfield and forwards pressing the backline while the back five sit deeper, ceding the central area. It is certainly tempting to believe that the inclusion of a defensive sentry can solve the ills that have existed for nearly a decade. Transfer windows, in this sense, are quintessentially utopic: with the right amount of money, an identity and purpose can be bought. Yet we see with Guardiola and Mourinho that a nearly infinite economic stream does not guarantee success. Manchester City, compared to Manchester United and Arsenal, have one thing beyond reason: a clear organisational identity purely enveloped by the Guardiola experiment. For now, Arsenal’s future is featureless and the inevitable departure of Sanchez and Ozil portends a much-needed reckoning. What Arsenal need more than anything else is self-awareness and as long as that is fleeting, the best Arsenal will always remain a dream.