Saturday, May 23, 2015

Match Preview, Arsenal v West Brom: Pre-Final Finale

Arsenal faces an odd scenario as it closes its Premier League campaign against West Bromwich Albion Sunday at Emirates Stadium.

It's comfortable but not totally secure in a third-place league finish, which would allow the Gunners to avoid a Champions League qualifier in August. Comfortable thanks to a three-point advantage over Manchester United; not totally secure because two bizarre results, say a 3-0 Arsenal loss and a 5-0 United win at Hull, would see United pip Arsenal for third on goal differential.

Then there's the matter of the FA Cup Final against Aston Villa six days later. Manager Arsène Wenger will likely decide Sunday's personnel to set the stage for a top performance from his first-choice team in the cup final. Given that many of those preferred players have looked less than energetic in Arsenal's last three matches, Wenger has to weigh giving them a rest against the risks of upsetting the team's chemistry and perpetuating the team's indifferent recent form.

After a run of eight consecutive wins between February and April, the Gunners have won only one of their last five matches. In the three of those matches, Arsenal failed to score at home against opposition organized to foil the Arsenal attack.

That's standard operating procedure for West Brom manager Tony Pulis, who has saved another team from relegation by instilling discipline in defense. It will therefore come as no surprise on Sunday when the Baggies allow the Gunners possession, force them into crowded central areas, hope for a moment of brilliance from leading man Saido Berahino, or try to catch the Gunners napping on a set play.

These principles have paid off in West Brom's recent matches. The Baggies are unbeaten in their last five, including wins over champions Chelsea on Monday and Manchester United at Old Trafford.

These results--and the manner West Brom have achieved them--will give Wenger, his staff, and his players plenty to contemplate. In particular, West Brom pose a significant aerial threat: 15 goals from headers is tied with West Ham for most in the league. Meanwhile, Arsenal have conceded the league's largest proportion of goals from headers (35 percent).

Given all these dynamics, Wenger's team selection will be interesting. He only introduced two new starters against Sunderland on Wednesday--left back Kieran Gibbs for Nacho Monreal and midfielder Jack Wilshere for Francis Coquelin--but those changes were not the ones most observers expected. Defender Laurent Koscielny, midfielder Santi Cazorla, and forwards Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud all seemed likelier candidates for a game off.

Should we expect all four to get a break on Sunday? Wenger has suggested not. "Will I rest one or two players?" he asked in his pre-match press conference. "Certainly." But he didn't say he'll make wholesale changes to inject energy.

Now, Wenger probably wouldn't admit plans for major lineup turnover. The last time he made more than two outfield changes between league matches was between the early February loss at Tottenham and the home victory over Leicester three days later.

The selections against Leicester might, in fact, help us anticipate some changes for Sunday's match. Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky have a solid chance of repeating their starting appearances. Both came on as substitutes against Sunderland on Wednesday, when they introduced quickness and drive to the Arsenal attack. Expect them to do something similar from the outset against West Brom.

We might also see Gabriel replace one of the two center halves. The Brazilian's aggressiveness in the air and alertness to counterattacks would help offset West Brom's two major threats. The aerial threat might also encourage Wenger to prefer the more imposing Calum Chambers to Hector Bellerin at right back.

Also of interest is the choice in goal. In last season's final match against Norwich City, Lukasz Fabianski got the nod in preparation for his start in the FA Cup Final. Will similar thinking give Wojciech Szczesny the start on Sunday?

Whatever the selection, energy and tempo should be the priorities. Arsenal have the talent to end the campaign successfully; the questions are about imagination, vigor, and will. West Brom will present a test of all three.

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