Arsenal rely on set pieces, Alexandre Lacazette to take 2-0 victory over West Brom
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Arsenal's 2-0 Premier League win over West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates on Monday night:
1. Arsenal win despite lack of quality
They say the sign of a good side is "winning without playing well," but few Arsenal fans will be fervently discussing the quality of their side on their way home on Monday. This was a nervous and unconvincing performance from the home side, who relied upon Alexandre Lacazette nodding home a rebound from Alexis Sanchez's free kick and then converting a second-half penalty for their goals.
Arsenal's disappointing performance was partly explained by manager Arsene Wenger being unable to count upon the attacking firepower of Danny Welbeck or Alex Iwobi, while Mesut Ozil was only fit enough for the bench. Aaron Ramsey was pushed forward into an inside-right position, with Sanchez playing from the left and Lacazette up front.
Without a genuine playmaker in their ranks to break down a packed West Brom defence, Arsenal struggled to create chances from open play. Their passing deep in midfield was sluggish, and further forward they lacked penetration. There were a smattering of boos at half-time despite a one-goal lead, and the stadium was half-empty by full time.
"In the first half it was difficult physically," Wenger said. "West Brom were very strong, very mobile, they disturbed our build-up play, they are very direct and it took us some time to adapt to that.
"In the second half we controlled the game more, they dropped in intensity and it become more comfortable for us. It ended for us in a comfortable way, but the first half was a bit nervy."
Ultimately, though, Arsenal's victory means they move into seventh place in the table -- just a point behind Tottenham and Liverpool. Considering the crisis Arsenal found themselves in after their 4-0 defeat at Anfield in August, Wenger will be pleased with their recovery.
2. Arsenal depend on set pieces for decent shots
The opposition at the Emirates are renowned for their expertise from set pieces, but it was Arsenal who depended upon free kicks -- and a penalty -- for their best chances.
The first came inside the first 10 minutes when Ramsey was fouled by Craig Dawson, and Sanchez stepped up to curl the ball, from an inside-left position, narrowly wide of the far post.
That was just a sighter, and Sanchez's second attempt was more crucial. After Mohamed Elneny was tripped by Jonny Evans right on the edge of the box, Sanchez feathered an attempt up and down over the wall, and with Ben Foster scrambling to tip the ball over the bar, he only managed to divert the ball off the woodwork and into the path of the grateful Lacazette, who nodded home from an unmissable position. The Frenchman became the first Arsenal player in the Premier League era to score in his first three home games.
Arsenal's closest to a second goal before half-time also came from a Sanchez free kick -- this one further out, and a couple of yards wide of Foster's left post.
The Gunners started the second half more brightly, passing at a higher tempo. Lacazette had an effort deflected over after Elneny had fed him unselfishly and Shkodran Mustafi's elaborate backheel from a bouncing corner kick flew into the arms of Foster.
It took them until midway through the second period to double their advantage, however. Ramsey won a penalty when Allan Nyom unnecessarily barged him off the ball, and Lacazette coolly converted into the bottom corner to effectively seal the three points. He should have sealed a hat trick minutes later, having rounded Foster, but could only slash the ball well wide.
"I think he is not only a goalscorer," Wenger said of his No. 9. "His link-up play is very good, he fights as well, he was not fazed by the physical challenges West Brom gave us today, he looks to have adapted very well."
Lacazette's two goals mean it's now three wins from three home matches for the Gunners -- five in five in all competitions -- but the Gunners are still searching for their first away points, and first away goal, of the season.
3. West Brom's plan proves effective in first half
Tony Pulis has a reputation for winding up Wenger, but he seldom manages this at the Emirates Stadium. Coming into this contest, Pulis' unenviable record at this ground was played 10, lost 10.
But this was a very commendable performance from West Brom. Pulis went safety first: He deployed three natural centre-backs and two full-backs, along with three broadly defensive midfielders. Jay Rodriguez and Hal Robson-Kanu were the only two attackers on show.
The Baggies set out in a 5-3-2 system, getting men back behind the ball and shuffling across the pitch as a compact unit before attempting long diagonal balls for the two forwards. This largely worked well in the opening stages, and the lively Rodriguez was unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty when Mustafi clumsily slid in and toppled him. Rodriguez, to his credit, picked himself up and curled a shot that Petr Cech diverted onto the post -- although one suspects Pulis would have preferred a penalty.
Another West Brom counter, on 38 minutes, saw them again come close to a goal. Grzegorz Krychowiak motored down the left before chipping a far-post cross onto the head of Rodriguez, whose downward header beat Cech but found the recovering Nacho Monreal, who somehow managed to divert the ball over the crossbar. It was a quite remarkable clearance.
Rodriguez couldn't stay away from the action; he again went close five minutes later, when narrowly failing to reach a Nyom right-wing cross, flicked on by Robson-Kanu, and then in first-half stoppage time was again inches away from a ball knocked back into the 6-yard box by Gareth Barry. Pulis likely will feel Rodriguez should have managed at least one goal.
West Brom's second-half effort was disappointingly flat, even after the introduction of creative midfielder James Morrison, target man Salomon Rondon and speedy winger Matt Phillips. When this side concedes the first goal, you never back them to turn things around, and it's now 11 defeats from 11 at the Emirates for Pulis.
But the final word must go to Barry, West Brom's captain for the evening. His appearance on the night means he surpassed Ryan Giggs to become the Premier League appearance record holder, with a staggering 633 appearances. Since becoming a regular for Aston Villa in 1998-99, only once has he failed to make 30 appearances in a campaign, and his evolution from centre-back, to left-back, to briefly left midfield before ending up at holding midfield has been fascinating.
The classic underrated, understated defensive midfielder, his record is likely to stand the rest of time; of current Premier League players, his closest challenger is fellow holding midfielder Michael Carrick, who remains more than 150 games behind.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.