Arsenal 2-0 West Brom
The Emirates Stadium witnessed Thursday night football for the first time as Arsenal welcomed West Brom to North London in a rearranged league match which saw a large number of seats left empty as the apathy around the club becomes more and more palpable with each game.
Arsene Wenger and the club’s board will hope that the Gunners do not let their place amongst the top four slip and enter Europe’s secondary competition, the Europa League, next season, as judging by this showing, the club’s fans are not interested in attending matches on a Thursday night.
The players for their part did put in a far improved performance especially during the first half but at the end of the day it was all rather pointless. West Brom arrived at the Emirates with much the same appetite for the game as the Arsenal supporters. In fact such was their lack of ambition that goalkeeper Ben Foster was actually wasting time and taking an age over goal kicks, even after his side had gone behind.
In the end Arsenal won the game comfortably with Tony Pulis’ side only having one real effort on goal of any note. The Gunners defence was once again culpable for poor defending from a corner as they allowed McAlley to run unmarked towards the near post and head the ball towards goal without a single challenge being made. Fortunately for the home side the ball came crashing back off the cross bar rather than hitting the back of the net. Alexis Sanchez had earlier given the home side the lead with an excellent show of skill and strength to turn his marker as he received the ball, before catching the goalkeeper off guard by taking an early shot from outside the box. Ben Foster couldn’t really be blamed for the goal as it was somewhat unexpected given that this was Arsenal’s first league goal from outside the box in 2016.
The Gunners were essentially strolling towards three points as they dominated possession throughout and were far the better team. However had McAlley equalised with his free header, it would have been a different story as frustrations would have once again been brought to the fore as a result of yet more simple mistakes from those in red and white. Arsenal it seems just never learn their lessons and in the second half they were almost caught out from a corner delivery once again. This time the ball into the box evaded everyone including Petr Cech, as it sailed towards the back post. Fortunately the West Brom player stationed there failed to make sufficient contact with the ball to steer it towards the empty net and instead the ball looped up into the air. Against West Ham Gabriel was castigated for poor defending from crosses but with Per Mertesacker deployed in his place on Thursday, it appears that no matter who Wenger selects in defence, the same errors are repeated time and time again. There are no leaders or organisers amongst the back four and this is just one of many aspects Wenger has consistently failed to address for several years and which continues to cost his side dear.
At least there was one aspect to this win which was rather pleasing and that was the second Arsenal goal. For years Arsenal have appeared to be a side that frustratingly do not work on set pieces in training, however on Thursday, for the first time in a very, very long time, the Gunners scored from a free kick which had clearly been worked on during training. With Arsenal awarded a free kick on the edge of the box, Alexis Sanchez stepped up to take it. It appeared that the free kick was too close to the area for the Chilean to get the ball up and over the wall and back down again, however Sanchez had a trick up his sleeve. Oliver Giroud and Per Mertesacker stood alongside the West Brom wall and as Sanchez took his shot, both players ducked, with the ball travelling into the space they had created and into the net as Ben Foster stood still, helplessly rooted to the spot.
With Arsenal now back up to third and four points ahead of fifth place Manchester United, the Gunners should be able to seal a top four finish and with it Champions League qualification for yet another season, unless both Manchester City and Liverpool are victorious in Europe and finish outside the top four. Arsenal’s almost perpetual place amongst the top four used to be a source of some pride to the Gunners faithful, but unfortunately this season the prospect is simply greeted with a shrug of the shoulders. Those in the red half of North London now expect more and in a season which sees the Arsenal faithful begrudgingly looking at their North London rivals, Tottenham, with admiration, the perpetual stagnation of their club is becoming more and more difficult to swallow. There was a time when Arsenal fans would look to the summer transfer window and the following season with hope and optimism, but years of false hope has worn down the majority and one would be hard pressed to find any Gunners fan who truly expects to see their side fighting for the big names during the transfer window and then mounting a real title challenge next season. It is an extremely sad state of affairs, especially when considering the fact that the move to the Emirates Stadium was conducted in the expectation that the club would be able to compete with the biggest sides in Europe. That notion has now been quashed and if the supporters keep voting with their feet and stay away in large numbers as did on Thursday, the move to the Emirates will begin to seem a pointless exercise from a once ambitious club. Ultimately the board only have themselves to blame. You reap what you sow as the saying goes and apathy often breeds contempt.