A hugely encouraging performance on a snowy night in the Midlands saw Arsenal come away with all three points, a clean sheet and four goals to the good.
With the important caveat that we were facing the leakiest defence in the Premier League, we should all just take a moment to enjoy a confident, dominant performance.
Two goals in the first half, two in the second and some excellent displays from individuals (with the young contingent shining again) saw us comfortably through what might have been a difficult away game. When you get to the player ratings you will see a very rare thing: a three-way tie for Man of the Match.
We know that Sam Allardyce has, in the past, frustrated Arsenal by getting committed, well-organised performances out of inferior players. He has only been in the West Brom job for two weeks but I thought his message would be starting to rub off on them and they would give us a tough challenge. Thankfully, the walrus magic is not happening yet.
Mikel Arteta stuck with some of the young players who have fuelled his team’s recent revival: Saka continued as right attacking midfielder and Smith Rowe took up the drifting sort-of No 10 role he occupied against Chelsea and Brighton.
Mari was preferred at CB despite Luiz being available: a pleasing example of El Patron showing that if you play well enough when you get your chance you can keep your place even when supposedly more senior players comes back from injury or suspension.
Laca was started as the central striker again (the position he filled so well against Chelsea and in the second half against Brighton), with Aubameyang as the wide left attacker (I assume Martinelli’s game time is being carefully managed after such a long lay-off, so he was on the bench).
We started the game on the front foot with Tierney causing all sorts of problems for Albion down our left and Saka looking dangerous every time he picked up the ball. Two of his crosses almost found Auba at the back post.
Kieran Tierney opened the scoring with a brilliant solo effort on 23 minutes, “giving the eyes” to the West Brom defender as if he was going to cut inside, then pushing the ball outside him and going the long way round to collect it. The defender was just about able to recover before KT turned him inside out again, sliced into the box and curled home a beauty into the far post. “Kieran Thierrny” as someone said in the comments last night.
The goal was no more than we deserved for our pressure, movement and attacking intent and four minutes later we had another – and this one was pure Wengerball. We moved the ball from side to side probing for an opening. Bellerin made the telling forward pass to Smith Rowe, who pulled off a Bergkamp-like turn and immediately slipped an acute-angle pass to Saka, who pinged it straight to Lacazette. Laca slid a first time pass into the box, right into the stride of Smith Rowe, who squared for Saka to tap into an empty net.
The speed of thought and movement was delicious. It shows what can be achieved with one-touch passing and fast give-and-go football (it was crucial to the goal that both ESR and Saka went like the clappers the moment they had laid off the ball).
We had more opportunities before half time but went into the break comfortably on top as the weather conditions worsened.
The pitch was noticeably whiter when we came out for the second half and I’m sure that played a part in a sloppy period of play for the next 15 minutes or so. The West Brom players had no doubt been given a going over by Allardyce and they upped their game. But players from both teams were slipping and the ball was holding up in the thick slush, making it risky to play across the back.
West Brom got the ball in the net, but the goal was correctly ruled out for an earlier offside (I noticed how well our defence had stepped up as a unit to put the Baggies striker off).
On the hour mark we got our third. The rejuvenated Lacazette started the move, driving through the middle of the park before laying off to Saka out right. Saka got into the box and put in yet another lethal cross. The West Brom central defender, panicked by the presence of Aubameyang, sliced his clearance off the post. It came out to Smith Rowe who belted in a powerful shot well save by the ‘keeper, only for Laca to tuck away the rebound.
Four minutes later after another great run and cross from Tierney, Lacazette had his second and Arsenal’s fourth. It was Laca’s fifth goal in four games.
There were opportunities for more goals later on, particularly as the snow eased off and the conditions improved, but in the end we settled for 4-0.
West Brom had very few chances, a result of their own struggles and our resolute defending. Leno had to make two good stops (one early and one late) but otherwise was not troubled. The early one resulted from Xhaka doing one of those ridiculous toddler tumbles where he waits for the slightest contact in his back before toppling forward like a chimney being demolished. The ref rightly ignored this nonsense and West Brom almost scored. Cut it out Granit – I know it has worked in the past to win us cheap free kicks, but referees are wise to it (and you). It was a shame because apart from that he had a really good (if unspectacular) game.
We are now three points behind Chelsea in sixth with more winnable league games coming up: after we play Newcastle in the FA Cup next weekend we then have Palace and Newcastle again in quick succession.
It’s early days for our recovery and the memory of that truly dismal run is still fresh in all our heads, but we do seem to have turned some kind of a corner with the introduction of the energetic young players and the shift in formation to what some call a 4-3-3 and what I call a 4-2-3-1.
The excitement among the players seemed positive (I loved the way Luiz was way off the bench to hug Saka after his goal) and there are grounds for more optimism than we have had since last season’s FA Cup win.
Leno – 7
Not that busy, but was faultless when called on. His handling in difficult conditions was excellent.
Bellerin – 6.5
Picked up a yellow early on and was substituted on 54 minutes. He was involved in Saka’s goal and made a number of good forward runs, but also was a little sloppy in possession once or twice.
Holding – 8
He was really dominant at the back and dealt with everything that came his way. His passing out has improved a lot and he seems very comfortable with playing out from the back.
Mari – 7
I like the big Spaniard. He never looks flustered and defends well. He even sprayed a couple of long David Luiz-type passes.
Tierney – 9 (Joint MoTM)
Many have said that our wee Braveheart is a future Arsenal captain. Whatever ‘ingredient X’ is, he has it in spades: skill, energy, strength, attitude. What a great young player.
Ceballos – 7
Some really good moments from Dani, although there was also some loose passing at times (at least most of his wayward passes were ambitious, forward-looking ones that he overhit). Along with Xhaka he formed a reliable central midfield partnership, keeping the ball flowing from side to side and out to our dangerous flanks.
Xhaka – 7
An understated performance but one that should not be overlooked. He did simple things well all night long and that is not to be sniffed at.
Smith Rowe – 8.5
His play for the Saka goal reminded me of Bergkamp. I can give no higher praise than that. He continues to look like he should be an automatic starter except when needing a rest.
Saka – 9 (Joint MoTM)
The English language is going to have to come up with some new superlatives for this young man. Most of all I love his fearlessness. He plays on the front foot and expects things to come off. He is on course to be a world superstar.
Lacazette – 9 (Joint MoTM)
Laca’s recent performances are a lesson to all of us who are tempted to write off players when they’re going through a bad patch. Five minutes ago the Frenchman was “dead wood” who should be offloaded in January. Now he’s back to being a vital part of our attacking threat. The difference, of course, is that we have shifted to a new formation with a Number 10 (ESR) which allows him to have players much closer to him as the lone striker. The previous system left him isolated and having to try to hold up the ball and hang on to it, which is just not his game. In short, formation and team selection can have a huge impact on whether a player seems great or rubbish – it’s not always the player’s fault. Laca gets joint MoTM not just for his two goals, but for his all-round effort and involvement.
Aubameyang – 7
See above. Auba is taking a lot of criticism right now, but we have not been playing in a way that best suits his game. However, last night he showed more effort and determination and was very unlucky not to be on the scoresheet. He was inches away from two Saka crosses and had other chances that were saved or blocked. Like Laca, it will come good for Auba soon.
Maitland-Niles – 6.5
Ainsley was a little shaky when he came on, but still managed to contribute reasonably well. He needs more regular game time.
Willian – 6.5
I have been giving him a bit of a hard time lately. Last night he did a couple of really useless things (giving the ball away too softly) but he also had a couple of very nice moments. He’s going to have to work his way back into first team consideration with excellent outings in fringe games or as a sub. In that regard, this appearance was OK and no more.
Willock – 6.5
Joe got 16 minutes and was energetic.