West Brom 1-1 Arsenal
Arsenal's winning run came to an end yesterday as they left the Hawthorns with a hard fought point in a game in which the Gunners failed to reach the heights of that great midweek performance against Napoli.
Steve Clarke’s side were extremely wary of being caught on the counter attack and as a result were happy to sit back in numbers, in an attempt to restrict the space between the defence and the midfield and therefore nullify the threat of Mesut Ozil. It was a tactic which forced the German international to drop deeper and deeper, as the first half wore on, in an attempt to get on the ball and influence the game. However from such deep positions, Ozil struggled to assert his usual authority on proceedings and the Gunners struggled to create goal scoring opportunities. With West Brom sitting back so deep, the space available for Arsenal to attack was naturally in the wide areas, but with Wenger deploying Ramsey and Wilshere out wide, the Gunners did not have any width to their play as both tend to drift inside into an already congested central area. The manager has often decided to deploy one natural winger and one central midfielder in these positions, which has worked so far this season, but yesterday with two central midfielders, the game was crying out for Serge Gnabry, who did so well away to Swansea, to enter the fray, yet Wenger stubbornly refused to accede to this viewpoint and stuck to his guns.
As a result, the Gunners were reliant on their full backs, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson to provide the width their game so desperately lacked. However with Arsenal struggling to hold onto possession, neither full back could have the confidence to push forward time and time again. On the few occasions they did, the final ball, from Jenkinson in particular, was not good enough to trouble the West Brom defence. Consequently, Arsenal chances were few and far between, with Ramsey coming closest, with a rasping drive from the edge of the box, following an Arsenal corner, which stung the hands of Myhill in the West Brom goal.
During the first half in particular, Wenger’s decision to deploy Jack Wilshere out wide spectacularly backfired. The young Englishman had been in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons following the victory over Napoli, having been pictured smoking outside a nightclub and Wilshere seemed to have been greatly affected by this during the first period of the game as time and time again he lost possession and was pushed off the ball far too easily. Although he was playing out of position, his performance was simply not good enough, leading several TV pundits to predict he would be replaced at half time, especially with the home side going into the break with a 1-0 lead.
With only three minutes of the first half remaining, a West Brom corner was headed out, but as the ball was played out wide again to Amalfitano, Arsenal failed to either get close to the Frenchman and block the cross, or pick up Claudio Yacob, who was free in the box to head home his first goal in a West Brom shirt.
In the first few minutes of the second half, the home side had two clear opportunities to double their lead through former Arsenal man Nicolas Anelka, which fortunately the Frenchman squandered. First Anelka failed to connect with Berahino’s low ball across the box, with the goal seemingly at his mercy, before Anelka beat the Arsenal offside trap to race through on goal, only just missing the bottom corner of the net with a curling effort, á la Thierry Henry.
While Arsenal may have been fortunate not to be two goals down, they could easily have been given the opportunity to draw level during the same early second half period as in between those two West Brom chances, Wilshere may well have been awarded a penalty, as he was released inside the penalty area and clattered into by Billy Jones as he took a shot, which flew high and wide of the goal.
As the game approached the hour mark, Wenger finally decided to change personnel in the Arsenal midfield by sending Rosicky on instead of Ramsey and the Czech international had an immediate impact, claiming an assist for the Gunners equaliser. Ozil battled well to win the ball back just in front of his own penalty area before laying the ball into Giroud, whose excellent first touch fell to Rosicky, who in turn fed Wilshere to fire a first time shot into the net via a lucky deflection. The young Englishman was now deployed in a slightly more central role and was performing back to his usual high standards.
Yet the Gunners failed to push on from here and did not swarm all over the West Brom goal, as might have been expected. Although they did still manage to create an excellent chance to take all three points thanks to a wonderful through ball from Wilshere to release Giroud inside the box. The Frenchman’s first touch took him across goal and as he tried to steer the ball home, Myhill made a very good save to deny him.
In the last few minutes of the game, Arsenal enjoyed a significant amount of possession but each and every time there were no options out wide and the game became congested in the central midfield area, where there was no space whatsoever.
Consequently, the game effectively fizzled out and at the final whistle, the Gunners could not really complain with the result. Steve Clarke had got his tactics right and Wenger had steadfastly refused to react to them in an attempt to change the outcome of the game. Yet this is a problem which the manager will come across time and time again this season. With the likes of Cazorla due to return to full fitness after the international break, the manager will naturally struggle to accommodate all his central midfielders into a system which does not make Arsenal’s attacks far too narrow, predictable and easy to defend against.