Arsenal’s final game before the international break sees them travel to the Hawthorns to play Tony Pulis’ high-flying West Brom team. It’s yet another super-important, must-win encounter as we seek to get an edge on our rivals before they all play this weekend.
Last year’s visit to the Hawthorns was one to forget. Back then, Arsenal were near the top of the table and putting together a title challenge. A first half goal from Olivier Giroud set them on their way, but West Brom equalised through James Morrison, then got the lead before half-time when Arteta, playing a cameo that all-but confirmed his days as a top-level player were over, scored an own goal. Cazorla missed a penalty in the second half and all our puff against the Pulis Bus were for naught.
There’s no title challenge this time, but Arsenal can ill-afford slip-ups against mid-table opposition. Our form doesn’t inspire much confidence; just the two wins in our last five games, both coming against National League opposition. The end of our season schedule is far from easy, so it’ll be incredibly handy to get a win to kickstart our charge for a top four spot.
West Brom, meanwhile, are enjoying a very good season. Pulis was unpopular at the start of the season for his brand of football and lack of progress, but he’s found the results to back his methods up. Everyone knows what to expect from a Pulis team: 4-4-2, deep block, big man up front and a reliance on set-pieces. That 37-year-old Gareth McCauley is their second highest scorer speaks for itself. This is the challenge Arsenal must overcome.
It’s a game that screams frustrating draw. They’ve only beaten a Tony Pulis team away from home once (a 3-1 win at Stoke in 2010, infamous for Ramsey’s leg break). A compact, organised team is the last thing Arsenal want to come up against in their current form.
There are, though, no shortage of methods for us to use in our endeavour. Wenger said Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck should return in time from the illness that ruled them out of the Lincoln game. Mohamed Elneny has returned sooner-than-expected from an ankle injury, too. Gibbs has been ruled out, and Oxlade-Chamberlain will have a late test on a tight hamstring. Barring long absentee Santi Cazorla, it’s a full squad.
Given the options, we could see a return of the Xhaka-Ramsey-Ozil midfield. All three have been much maligned this season for one reason or another, yet in theory offer a very nice blend of skills. Ramsey’s movement in behind could be important towards pulling West Brom out of shape, while Xhaka and Ozil will see plenty of the ball. Questions remain over who plays in attack. Alexis will certainly play somewhere, but which two of Giroud, Walcott, Chamberlain, Iwobi and Welbeck accompany him is up in the air. I suspect Wenger may opt for Giroud’s height and aerial prowess, given West Brom are a tall team strong on set-pieces.
We’re close to the final two months of the season and will soon be down to single figures for games remaining. At this point, the performances matter less than the results, and we could really, really do with some positive results. The international break will be intolerable enough without another Arsenal defeat to mull over. With Liverpool away to Manchester City on Sunday, it’s a chance to put on some pressure.
Oh, and make sure to keep your eyes to the sky when watching this one. West Brom will ensure the ball will stay up there most of the time, and we’re expecting a plane to fly over pulling a Wenger Out banner. I’m very much looking forward to being mocked for it.