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West Brom-Arsenal: Blockade running and gunning

Arsenal will have to stand tall against West Brom’s stiff blockade and find a way through.

Hello Gooners, and happy New Year! Good riddance to that absolute pile of shit of a year, 2020. The transfer window is open, Arsenal have a match, and there is definitely a buzz in the air in Goonerland.

It’s the first match of the new calendar year, and while 2021 doesn’t mean Arsenal will be a new team, every Arsenal fan will be hoping the building blocks seen in Arsenal’s last two wins will continue to develop and support their success.

Against Chelsea, we saw a lovely blend of youthful energy and veteran experience come together to produce not only Arsenal’s best match of the season, but probably one of the most efficient and effective. That match was followed by nearly the same lineup, with only Lacazette making way for Aubameyang against Brighton. Unfortunately, the performance against Brighton wasn’t a like for like repeat to the Chelsea match, but a betting man could have probably predicted that.

Chelsea are a team that wants to get after you and teams like that leave spaces, something Arsenal has shown they can play decently against. Brighton showed they were content to sit in their block, let Arsenal come to them, and try and catch the Gunners out when they made a mistake, while still looking for chances to settle on the ball and possess. It’s a strategy that has been devastating to Arsenal in the past, and one that frustrated them in significantly in the first half again.

In the second half, Arsenal upped their tempo, maintained their quality, imposed themselves, and looked to take chances. They were rewarded for it against Chelsea, and rewarded once agains versus Brighton, even if it did take a moment of brilliance from Bukayo Saka to create the goal.

Arsenal will need to carry that mindset through to their matchup with West Brom because you can guarantee that Sam Allardyce will have his West Brom side fully convinced they can get something from this game given Arsenal’s struggles against full-on blockades. To add to the confidence, Allardyce will point to their success against Liverpool and the reward of one point against the league champions at Anfield. Even with the drubbing against Leeds in between then and now.

Arteta was asked about his thoughts on the two West Brom matches under Big Sam’s guidance.

“Two very different matches, the first one against Liverpool where they had a really clear plan and they executed it really good. Even going 1-0 down they didn’t really change anything at all, they knew they would have their moments, they grew and got into the game and were much more efficient in the second half and put Liverpool in trouble.”

“Sam is very efficient about what he does, he has a very clear philosophy of playing, he always picks up results, he always makes it really difficult for you and he is not going to be different. His teams are always really well organised and know exactly what to do, so it will be a tough test again.”

There is one phrase in that second paragraph that will kept me up at night. “He always picks up results.” Seems a bit obvious, but it’s enough to have me worried. Allardyce is an expert at getting his team to scrape points along the way and edge themselves into safety, and you cant help but dread the idea of being one of his ‘victims’.

To add to the troubles, Arsenal are in the middle of their busy period, just getting certain players back to full fitness, and will demand they play a game that takes the initiative to the Baggies. With that, there are question marks a person could put around whether or not Saka, Smith Rowe, or Martinelli are going to be able to go. All three of them have been key factors in turning around Arsenal’s fortunes and breaking down Brighton’s block.

To do this, Arsenal are going to have to square up with West Brom’s blockade, keep their tempo high, and take chances to slip runners in behind or through the middle. Inevitiably, much of Arsenal’s game with get funneled into the wings where they space are, but Arsenal need to challenge themselves to do better and not settle for that every time they enter the final third. Additionally, it was visible against Brighton that the Gunners were quick to retreat when Brighton’s defense shifted from side to side and applied even a little pressure on Arsenal’s build up play. This notion of ‘retreat and retain’ needs to be addressed and corrected.

A good summary of Arsenal’s troubles? Against Chelsea, a team that offered more open spaces, Granit Xhaka’s top two targets were Emile Smith Rowe and Kieran Tierney — both advanced. Versus Brighton, they were Tierney and Pablo Mari — negative once more.

When Arsenal find themselves staring down a block they get cautious, and often find themselves moving the ball much slower given their extra time on the ball. That won’t work for them today. Even in the Brighton match, after Arsenal won, Brighton’s coach commented that the goal came in the moments Brighton were attempting to push their pressure higher up the pitch which opened up the space. West Brom won’t offer the same opportunity, especially not if the match is level.

It’s a huge challenge for the Gunners. It’s arguably a harder challenge for them than either of their last two matches given the style of play and expectations everyone has. Even if the low block is their kryptonite, dropping points to the 19th place side won’t sit well. We shall see what Arteta has up his sleeve.

Check out today’s team news, lineup, and predictions blog!

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