23 May 2015

West Brom Preview: Pulis just keeps poppin' up...

Sigh. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be a thing of beauty, not this…this monstrosity. Three matches and two weeks ago, we were booking our best finish in a decade, offering a nifty bookend to winning our first bit of silverware in a decade a season ago. Instead, we’ve staggered and stumbled through our last three matches, dropping seven points from nine, and now have to settle for a third place finish—provided we can get at least a point from the Baggies.

If we lose, of course, we then have to worry about goal difference and Man U. If we lose and they can beat Hull, there’s an outside chance that Man U could slip past us to claim third. Therefore, let’s just do what we’d been planning to do all along: beat West Brom. While it’s a welcome-change of pace to be backing our way into third instead of scrambling to snatch fourth, that’s no reason to cross the finish line as if we’re coasting on the last fumes in the tank.

This is not to suggest that a win will be easy—the Baggies are undefeated in their last three away-matches (with wins at Selhurst Park and Old Trafford and a draw at St. James’). We’ll set aside their 3-0 demolition of Chelsea, ascribing it to the sending off of Cesc Fabregas and Chelsea’s mailing it in after winning the Prem two weeks prior. Tony Pulis, who took over on New Year’s Day, has whipped this squad into better shape—they’ve lost just five matches in 17 after losing ten of their first 20 and are now safely ensconced midtable. Undefeated in their last, they’ll pose a challenge to an Arsenal squad that has looked increasingly jaded and leggy of late, scoring just once in three matches. Arsène said after the slog versus Sunderland that we “lacked a change of pace”—until Theo Walcott came on and tested Pantilimon almost immediately. From his introduction, we looked much more aggressive both through his own direct approach and through the space and chances he created for others.

West Brom will probably continue to play four centre-backs, shielded by Claudio Yacob, among the lead-leaguers in tackles. There will be plenty of space on the wings, in all likelihood, with an invitation/dare to cross into the box, but those CBs are well-drilled and more than capable of winning aerial duels. With nothing to risk and less to gain, this much-vaunted defensiveness will only be exacerbated by a reluctance or outright refusal to get forward.

A draw suits us just fine, of course, and maybe there’s a lesson to learn from Chelsea—one point is better than none. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about Man U overtaking us on goal-difference, but by why risk it? Discretion is the better part of valour, after all. We can probably look forward to pounding and pummeling Pulis’s pawns to little effect either way.

LAST 3
West Brom 0-1 Arsenal (29.11.2014)
 Arsenal 1-0 West Brom (04.05.2014)
West Brom 1-1 Arsenal (10.06.2013)

FACTFILE
The two clubs first met on 31 March 1901, a 2-1 win for Woolwich Arsenal.
Arsenal have kept a clean sheet at home in five of six matches.
Arsenal have not lost to West Brom in nine consecutive matches.
This is the first match on your correspondent’s birthday since 2009—a 4-1 win over Tony Pulis’s Stoke.

INJURIES
Danny Welbeck has been ruled out, while Mikel Arteta, Laurent Koscielny, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, and Mathieu Debuchy face late tests and are likely unavailable.

POSSIBLE STARTING XI Ospina; Gibbs, Mertesacker, Gabriel, Bellerin; Coquelin, Ramsey, Alexis, Özil, Walcott; Giroud

As alluded to above, I’d expect a dour match in which the Baggies resist any and all efforts to score or be scored upon—which is not the same as saying they can deny us.

PREDICTION
Arsenal 1-0 West Brom

This match-preview first appeared at Goonersphere and reappears by permission.