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West Brom 0-4 Arsenal: That felt special

Arsenal storm their way to a win over West Brom in one of their most complete matches under Mikel Arteta.

Good morning, Gooners!

That was an enjoyable one wasn’t it? As always when my prediction is a little dreary, I am incredibly happy when the prediction goes wrong. I predicted Arsenal would win, but I thought it would be a slog. A real struggle for Arsenal to break West Brom’s block down. They hadn’t shown a proclivity for doing it, but my hope was that Arsenal could manage to do it once and scrape by with a win.

What I did get right was suggesting that if Arsenal wanted to succeed, they would assist ESR in the midfield through Lacazette dropping deep or a winger tucking in; they would have keep their tempo high and and ball movement crisp; and they would resist the urge to simply retreat and retain possession when under pressure, in favor of taking vertical chances and trying to get themselves in more dangerous areas.

It may sound like the obvious and simple solution, yet it’s one we have only seen Arsenal capable of for stretches at a time. Yesterday, from the very first whistle until Arsenal were up by four and the clock was winding down, the Gunners did just that. It was night and day from anything we have seen this season against sides that play in a block, probably one of their most complete matches under Mikel Arteta, and a third win in three, moving Arsenal up to 11th place and 3 to 6 points behind almost half of the league table.

Before they start really doing that math, they need to see themselves through the next two matches — Crystal Palace and Newcastle — preferably with max points. Getting themselves to 29 points would put them in a decent place before they enter another tough run of games including Southampton, Manchester United, Wolverhampton, Aston Villa, Leeds, Manchester City, and then Leicester. Throw in their Europa League legs with Benfica and the end of January and all of February look tough.

But that’s a future problem for a different day. Yesterday, was all Arsenal and the positive signs were just about everywhere.

The fullbacks were buzzing. None more than Kieran Tierney who claimed an assist to Lacazette and a goal that very well could be Arsenal’s goal of the season. It’s hard to believe there was a vocal contingency a year ago that didn’t want Tierney to be left back and preferred Saka retain that role. Can you imagine? Not only would Arsenal be missing out on Tierney’s skill, we would be missing out on what Saka is offering us in the attack and midfield!

The midfield pivot of Ceballos and Xhaka were very impressive today. Not to rain on the parade but it was clear that West Brom weren’t challenging them much in the center, but that’s not Arsenal’s fault. When they were on the ball, they were very impressive and looking to be dangerous. When they didn’t have the ball they were pressuring people, reading the game well, and helping win it back early. It was a really great performance from them.

We will talk more about the youngsters, ESR and Saka, later but they were great once again. Saka is slowing becoming one of Arsenal’s most important players, now in his third spot within the side. They needed to play left back, he rose. They slid up up to left wingback, he responded. Arsenal have struggled to get their right side involved, he had shouldered the challenge and has thrived. The movement, chemistry, and play between Smith Rowe, Saka, and Lacazette to finish off that second goal will stay vivid in every Gooner’s mind for the next month. It actually may rival the outstanding goal from Tierney when it comes to goal of the season.

Next, it wouldn’t be right to mention the buzzing attack and not talk about the resurgence of Lacazette. He struggled for so long, he didn’t have a fit in the side, and now he has got himself 5 goals in 4 matches. On top of that, he is figuring out how to get himself involved in both the build up to the attack and on the end to create an end product. It’s an incredibly difficult job and we will just ride out this great run for as long as we can.

Finally, it only seems fair to mention the third straight solid performance from Holding and Mari. I know they weren’t tasked with a whole lot today, but it felt like they had to do even less, and I truly believe that is because of how easy they made a lot of it look. They were solid in the air, cleaned almost everything up, and only allowed a few shots late in the match from long range. What was West Brom’s best chance? Probably the one right at the start of the half the they scored but were called offsides.

Many will feel like the flag “saved us” but really it was a line held to perfection, and that is worthy of a pat on the back and a mention. Gabriel is expected back soon, but suddenly that back pairing feels quite competitive. Someone is likely to feel a bit undone given all three have played great.

If you want to say Arteta simply stumbled his way into this success, or that they resisted the change that has led to this for so long that he shouldn’t be praised for it’s success, that’s your prerogative as a fan, but I can’t help but disagree. Whether the he found the success or the success has found him, he is stuck with it, nurtured it, tweaked it in the last three matches, and is clearly doing something right to improve.

It’s fair to say that West Brom is simply a poor team and that Arsenal simply went out there as better footballers, with more skill, more talent, and dominated, but THAT is something they have failed to do a LOT this year. They have failed to realize or recognize where their success is bred from, and struggled to maintain the aspects of their game that is taking them to new heights. If Arteta is playing his role in showcasing that and highlighting it to create the difference we saw between the Brighton match and this one, he deserves a high degree of praise.

It was a near-flawless performance filled with so many fantastic aspects and positive takeaways, but I have tried to narrow it down to a few that haven’t been talked about a lot. Obviously I could rave to you about Saka or Tierney’s play, but we have done that, so here are a few different options.

The confidence is visible
For two months we saw what Arsenal look like when just about everyone is playing with little to no confidence. Maybe Gabriel stands out as one of the few you can be proud of his play. But in the last three matches, we have seen many of the same players, and a few new ones, brimming with confidence and today it was visible. Emile Smith Rowe possibly characterizes that better than anyone else.

The confidence in himself, his teammates, and his game was literally dripping off him. It’s a confidence of a player that is finding his feet in a league that no long feels over his head. The deft flick to set the 2nd goal into motion, the follow through run, and the perfectly cushioned touch with the outside of his left foot to take Laca’s pass past the defender in stride that led to his assist looked like a player who was getting the one hundredth assist of their career, not one who hasn’t cracked 500 minutes in the first team.

He was poised on the ball. He was seeing danger and calmly navigating around it. He was seeing tackles coming and putting his body in between it to draw fouls. He was a player confidently playing with maturity beyond his years. I don’t think you can truly compare it to Jack Wilshere’s Barcelona match for many reasons, but the level of comfort and confidence that Smith Rowe demonstrated in his own game, reminded me a lot of Jack’s on that Champions League night. He was truly unlucky not to add a goal to his name on the night.

Having that level of confidence is clearly contagious. The whole attack is feeding off it as much as he is feeding off them. The movement was sharp, the ideas were daring, the execution quick. Each goal impressive in their own way. West Brom offered too much space for an effective low block, but it was Arsenal that saw it, conquered it, and looked to find more. An absolute joy to watch. Their confidence is definitely rubbing off on me.

The Laca, ESR connection
Two of Arsenal’s most impressive people on the day were Lacazette and Smith Rowe. In the end, I think it’s right that Tierney took home the man of the match award, but Lacazette’s contributions, beyond two goals, certainly put him in the running.

Arsenal has struggled immensely without having a person in between the lines. They tried to reconcile that first by having Lacazette drop into those areas and it was only successful here and there. Arsenal have had true 10’s fill that role, and better ones than Smith Rowe, and there were games they struggled simply because they were outnumbered, marked out, and unaided. Lacazette helped solve that.

Some of Smith Rowe’s, and Ozil’s in the past, most successful moments come when they drift wide of the center. They create that overload in the wings, they find a pocket of space, have time to turn and pick out a pass, and boom.

Yesterday we saw West Brom really struggle with that movement out wide from ESR and Lacazette definitely played a role in making it difficult. By dropping in and going Emile, he creates that numerical superiority to help the build up. By being a realistic option for the Gunners to find with a pass, West Brom have to choose between staying within their shape and denying the center access ball to Lacazette or dedicating a man to stick with that movement. Suddenly they are a step or two behind and Smith Rowe has made them pay.

Those wide overloads are devastating, especially for funneling the attack down the wings effectively and getting the ball into much more dangerous areas than the more simple method of swinging the ball from side to side, fullback to fullback. It’s not been something Arsenal have always had success with, especially when it comes from a player that is naturally gifted in between the lines, but we saw yesterday what happens when the movement is on.

Watching how these two worked with one another to be dangerous, support one another’s movement, and occupy West Brom’s defenders was really impressive, and certainly has to be a feature from from here on out, bar when rest and rotation is needed.

Are we too harsh on Aubameyang?
I need to clarify this heading. Saying Auba has been poor, in bad form, needs to offer more, or even questioning his leadership — to me — isn’t too far. It feels like fair observation and criticism.

Saying he’s shit, not good, doesn’t work, and plucking out moments to point to body language late in the game as a pile on to offer justification for saying whatever you please, feels far to harsh and bordering on out of line.

To be honest, I don’t think Aubameyang was terrible. Was he best on the field? No. Was he good or great? No, probably not by his standards. But if he tallies a goal we are certainly talking about his match in a very different light. He vacated the left wing that gave Tierney running room down the left for the first goal. He knocks the ball into the path of Lacazette to get the third goal’s movement started and it’s his back post run Saka is trying to pick out in a dangerous area that forces the clumsy clearance. It’s Auba that drives at the backline and holds it until the last moment giving Tierney time to overlap while drawing the outside defender another step or two closer. From there, Tierney has an easy avenue to get to the endline and smash it in for Lacazette.

Does it make Aubameyang the understated hero of the match? No, that’s too far, but so is suggesting he’s done nothing. He missed two early chances and that hurts. He’s clearly frustrated, he’s upset, likely as much at himself as anyone else, and isn’t it understandable? This drought is the worst of his entire career.

Late in the game his frustration does poke through. Well lucky for him, the team he carried for two years is giving it back a bit. And as for, the accusation of being selfish or a poor teammate? He’s one of the first one’s celebrating emphatically with his team when all four goals go in the back of the net.

What do you want from him? You sling “chuckle brothers” at him when he laughs, you say his body language is inexcusable when he takes his failings hard up by 4 late in the match.

The whole thing brings me back to a comment on Twitter that Adrian Clarke made when criticized for being to easy on Arsenal in his analysis when the Gunners lose that essentially said, there is a wrong way to harshly criticize and a constructive way to harshly criticize. Faulting body language during a 4-0 win where he visibly wants to get himself on the scoresheet to try to climb out of his hole seems harsh. Especially if you’re not going to acknowledge the positive aspects he did bring to the pitch. Just a bit of food for thought.

Winning makes everything better
Maybe these last two go a little hand in hand. After all, I just wrote that how Auba played was passable when that’s mostly because the team rolled to a 4-0 win. The feeling may not be the same if Burnley squeaked some late 1-0 win, but that’s the thing with all sports — winning makes everything better.

In the last few months we have heard that just about everyone needs to be fired, — and a few probably do — we have heard there are fights at training, players falling out, anger, angst, a lost locker room, player revolt… just about the full gamut, minus the four horsemen riding through London Colney.

Suddenly, that chatter has stopped. Why? Probably because that sort of thing happens in almost every professional team. Arguments, disagreements, fights, angst toward the coach, player fallouts — it happens. But when you’re team is winning that’s not an issue because it’s not deemed as ‘affecting the product’.

Obviously times are cheerier around any org when things are going well, I’m not naive, it’s not fighting day in and day out. But separating out the personal matters that are serious and those that will fade in better times is important. For instance, the idea that that locker room was being lost? Comes with losses, leaves with wins. The William Saliba situation? Serious and needs addressing.

The point being, that was a period of time that probably none of these athletes have faced before. It was a period of time that Arteta certainly hasn’t faced as a manager. It was one that we fans have likely never gone through, at least not anytime recently. But here we are, on the other side of most the issues and the water is calmer. So maybe, just maybe, next time we feel the house is burning down because there is a little smoke in the oven, we just remember that winning makes most problems in sport disappear.

Fantastic result. Absolutely thrilling stuff to watch, and for the first time in a long time, really got me off my seat. Even the Chelsea match, as fun as it was to get one over on them, didn’t quite do it the way yesterday did. Plenty more work to do, plenty of growth to see. Suddenly I am really looking forward to Crystal Place on the 14th.

First up, FA Cup against Newcastle.

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