Temperatures have plunged, snow has fallen and ice clings to the nation’s trees and rooftops; and somewhere in the Midlands, squatting on an ice floe, a blubbery, jowly creature is licking its flabby lips. Fat Sam the Walrus Man is waiting for us.
Tonight’s opponents, West Bromwich Albion, may be rooted near the bottom of the table but their new manager loves nothing more than putting one over on the Arsenal.
Sam Allardyce took over from Slaven Bilic on December 16th. In his three games in charge, Albion have taken one point, scored one goal and conceded nine.
Overall this season they have conceded more goals (35) than any other Premier League team. So we have a team that can’t score (us) against a team that can’t stop conceding (them): what you might call a resistible force meeting a movable object.
Anyway, don’t let West Brom’s woes lull you into a false sense of security.
For a start, the single point they earned under their new boss was away at the champions, Liverpool. It suggests Allardyce has lost none of his skill for getting a team of lumpen journeymen to perform well against much better opposition (while losing to teams more on their level).
Whether these days we count as ‘much better opposition’ than West Brom or ‘more on their level’ I shall leave up to you.
But I reckon this will be a tough battle for the boys in red and white, with Allardyce in his time-honoured Jurassic fashion sending out his players to ‘get about’ Arsenal. You can just hear him in the dressing room, telling the Baggies’ players that Arsenal a bunch of fancy-dan southern softies who don’t like it up ’em. “Let them know you’re there,” he’ll be saying, “get stuck in.”
Our players will need to win some physical battles before they can win the tactical ones.
Nevertheless, we have sufficient quality to come away with all three points provided that Mikel Arteta is prepared to learn the lessons of the last two games (against Brighton and Chelsea). In those matches we switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation and gave some of our exciting young players their head. It worked and we need to stick with it at West Brom.
This is the sort of game we have to be winning if we are going to salvage any kind of respectability this season. We know that players like Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli are up for the fight, even away in the Midlands on a freezing early January evening. Can we say the same about some of the more senior players?
My heart sank when I saw that Willian is available to play tonight after missing the last couple of matches because of “illness”. Surely El Patron will not start the hopelessly out-of-form Brazilian? Right? Please tell me I’m right.
Luiz is also back after his equally mysterious “illness” but it does not look as if Partey will be ready yet, although perhaps there will be room for him on the bench.
I don’t foresee too many changes, although I think Luiz will come in for Mari despite the latter’s decent performances. There is also a big question mark over our captain. Aubameyang was really poor against Brighton and we were a much better team when Lacazette took up the central attacking role. Laca’s skills are much better suited to it than Auba’s.
I suppose El Patron might consider starting Pepe to give one of the younger players a rest, but I hope not. We have a full week after tonight before our next game. When players are on a roll the best thing is to point them downhill and step out of the way.
I expect this line-up:
Bellerin – Holding – Luiz – Tierney
Elneny – Xhaka
Saka – Smith Rowe – Martinelli
Here’s hoping that Elneny cuts out those ‘moments of madness’ that he’s been having in the last few games and that Xhaka brings the same level of performance that he did against the Chavs.
This game will probably feel more like the Brighton match than the Chelsea one, with West Brom keeping 11 men behind the ball for much of the game (that’s the reason I have gone with Laca ahead of Auba in the starting line-up). They will be looking to score from set pieces, so we will need our midfielders to avoid silly fouls around the penalty area.
With a bit of luck, skill and effort we could administer a proper thrashing like Leeds did to West Brom the other day (5-0), but this is far more likely to be a close game. I’m looking for 2-1 to the good guys.
Come on you Gunners.