Since the Gunners’ Champions League exit to Bayern Munich, manager Arsène Wenger’s future has dominated the discourse. One example: The manager’s press conference before the FA Cup quarterfinal against Lincoln City did not feature one question about the match itself. The only topic was Wenger’s career plan.
This did a huge disservice to Lincoln City, of course. It also perpetuated the boring, binary debate among Arsenal supporters.
In all likelihood, Arsenal’s players aren’t bothered with this contention. They have 12 league matches and an FA Cup semifinal date to concentrate on. Ignoring the role each plays in the overall assessment of the season could be critical to success.
The first of these fixtures certainly requires its own level of attention. West Brom manager Tony Pulis knows how to play the foil to Arsenal, configuring his teams to nullify skill on the ball as a matter of course.
The Baggies succeeded in the reverse fixture, holding Arsenal scoreless until a late header by Oliver Giroud carried the day for the Gunners.
How do Arsenal cope tactically with that approach, especially given confidence is not at the brim these days?
In particular, will Wenger pursue the three-man midfield he has introduced in recent weeks? The trio of Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided an interesting and effective departure from the longtime 4-2-3-1 system.
Against Lincoln City, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury prompted the reintroduction of Mesut Özil to the side. The German, returning from illness and suffering poor form since the turn of the year, seems the key figure of the 4-2-3-1. It’s geared to allowing him playmaking freedom with minimal defensive responsibilities.
But his return did not prompt the team to revert to 4-2-3-1. Instead, he played deeper in the midfield trio and asserted himself physically against the tiring Imps. Özil has also enjoyed great success with the German national team as part of an attacking trio.
The advantage of either Özil position for Arsenal is a more cohesive midfield. Offensively, the flow improves because more routes forward open; defensively, Arsenal are less vulnerable to counterattacks.
Both dynamics will be important against West Brom. The Baggies will try to congest the interior approaches to their final third and to force Arsenal wide. They’ll be confident their large defenders can cope with any crosses from there. Lincoln executed a similar approach with some success in the first half last weekend.
When the Gunners switch the play quickly, though, defenders have to scramble. Ramsey and Alexis should be ideally placed to exploit the resulting spaces, and Xhaka and Özil possess the skill and vision to find them.
Vision and implementation on that plane—rather than at the corporate level or on the level of the manager’s future—should be all anyone cares about.
Mesut Özil against Claudio Yacob. Arsenal will have the bulk of possession in this match. The outcome will hinge on what the Gunners accomplish with that possession. Özil has seemed pedestrian in 2017 and needs to spark into form for the last 12 league matches. He’ll have to avoid the attentions of West Brom’s pesky Yacob to start that resurgence at the Hawthorns.
Where to Worry
No mystery here—set pieces. That’s West Brom’s main offensive threat. The Baggies have scored 17 of their 36 goals (47 percent) in dead-ball scenarios. Their 12 goals from corners are far and away the highest of any Premier League team. (Stats from Opta via Squawka.com)
West Brom will make Arsenal labor, as always. Pulis’s defenses will be difficult to break down, but as Arsenal increase the tempo, West Brom will tire. A lapse in concentration will provide the opening, and Arsenal will rely on a clinical finish to carry the day.
Players to Watch
Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. This seems like a perfect environment for Welbeck. He has the speed to run away from West Brom’s hulking defenders and the strength to take them on if necessary.
West Brom. Ben Foster. The only reason West Brom didn’t get swamped at the Emirates was Foster’s performance in goal. Another stellar outing from him would deepen Arsenal’s frustrations.