After two timely wins on the bounce, the fixture had all the makings of a sobering uppercut barbed with reality. Although Sam Allardyce’s “reputation” against Arsenal is steeped in revisionism (his actual record being P35-L21-D8-W6), he was one of few managers at the “smaller teams” who occasionally got the better of Arsène. They’d usually come as a result of us being virtually kicked off the park and end up narrowly losing to a Kevin Davies special after he’d evaded his 17th bookable offence of the game.
That being said, there was no Kevin Davies to save him this time and despite staunchly holding Liverpool to a draw, they then decided to roll over against Leeds, which meant it was difficult to gauge what kind of performance to expect from West Brom. It goes some ways in explaining Arteta’s reluctance to rest either Saka or Emile Smith Rowe, with Martinelli making way after looking jaded against Brighton. With an unchanged backline, the only other change saw Ceballos replace Elneny, who was the only player noticeably off the pace against Brighton. Arteta wasn’t to know what kind of West Brom we’d face, and while we thankfully got the Leeds edition, his wariness to rest players or change the formula ultimately paid dividends.
The timing of Tierney’s breakaway first felt just right, as West Brom were already showing signs of hunkering down for a long winter with men behind the ball. For him to score in the manner he did probably wasn’t in their playbook, and it was a perfect ice-breaker to force a response. This was something Allardyce alluded to after the game, saying “we leave too many spaces when we try and attack and don’t fill them properly”, which I’m sure Arteta was aware of after seeing his indirect teacher Bielsa dismantle them in similar fashion.
The crucial second didn’t take long to emerge and it’s been on repeat many a time in the last 24 hours – easily the best moment of the season for me. From a humble beginning in Smith Rowe coming short to give Bellerín an option, the first-time pass and immediate drop of the shoulder set the move in motion. Saka and Lacazette were equally alert, with both stepping forward away from their man; Saka found the half-yard to turn and pass into Lacazette, who had already seen the overlapping “third man” run from Smith Rowe and found him. The rest of the move felt like unfamiliar territory; so often our undoing even on the rare occasions we found ourselves in such positions this season, undone by an extra touch or an inability to find the final ball or take a risk. Smith Rowe simply took it in his stride on the outside of his weak foot and selflessly put it on a plate for Saka.
The fact that two academy products could do that and combine in such a way just warms my soul. Saka had already been undroppable for some time but for Smith Rowe to seamlessly waltz into the role and make everything tick is genuinely remarkable. It’s not like you can point to the standard of opposition either because he did the same thing against Chelsea… in his first Premier League start since Freddie’s last game in charge last season.
There are also early signs of balance for a team that’s struggled for much of the season to find just that. Dysfunctional fullback and winger pairings, a lack of ambition and ability through the middle, endless back-and-forths as to who should play on the right wing. Until recently, that disconnect between our defence and midfield, and attack meant that whoever played in the centre-forward role was isolated. No movement around them left us resorting to crosses from deep and neither Lacazette nor Aubameyang are the kind of players to convert chances like that.
Smith Rowe’s introduction seems to have acted as a double-edged solution. As he’s comfortable playing on either side of the pitch, there’s space on whichever side he isn’t occupying. Tierney and Bellerin took full advantage of this, by bombing forward when the ball was on the opposing side of the pitch to allow Xhaka and Ceballos to clip diagonal balls behind to great effect. This has the added benefit of pushing Aubameyang and Saka into more central areas to overload the box. The other edge of this solution is that Lacazette is no longer the only passing option in central areas, and options + movement = space. Seeing that second goal unfold looked like a goal you’d see in training because it looked so orchestrated but it really boils down to that tried and tested formula.
Another development is the emergence of Saka as a right-sided winger, who, despite initially struggling in the position last season, has begun to ring the death knell for both Willian and Pépé. He was just as devastating and relentless as his last two, Man of The Match winning performances and he’s now got a Hale End friend to spice things up with. He’s the type of player I’d imagine defenders are already beginning to hate playing against; humble and pure enough to not be wound up by opposition hijinks (hello Granit), strong, low centre of gravity, mazy runs, capable on either foot (hello Mendy) and end product. His backpost cross to Aubameyang could easily have been converted on another day, reminiscent to some of the Pépé-Aubameyang combinations in the tail end of last season. He obviously made his way into the box for the second and his right-footed cross was dangerous enough to send the West Brom defence into a calamitous frenzy to bring about the third (which I was sad to see denied from Emile but delighted for Lacazette to continue scoring). I honestly dread to think how much Saka’s worth and hope no one’s going to come knocking.
On the topic of Aubameyang, while it was the second game in a row that he missed golden opportunities to score, neither were glaring or costly. He was clearly desperate for a goal, and was sometimes caught uncharacteristically going alone to make it happen for himself but there’ll be more opportunities for him to make amends. With Tierney behind him, there’s no reason for him to stay anchored to the wing and as we saw for his delivery on the 4th, there’s no reason Aubayemang won’t be on the end of that next time.
The table was also set for Willian to be eased back into the team after an absence that strangely coincided with 3 wins in a row. It was the absolute kindest of ties, an already-beaten West Brom, seemingly in freefall back down to the Championship. I really tried to see something positive or rationalise what he was doing with a clean slate but he made it nigh-on impossible, with more wayward passing and dead-end runs, and his only notable contribution being one good cross. The gift that keeps on giving.
It’s funny how things can change in such a short space of time, from battling relegation to 3 points off Chelsea and 6 off Spurs and the unfamiliar sight of the Top Four. Okay, there’s a few complications like games in hand but that’s what we have in front of us. They’ve also earned a week’s rest before hosting Newcastle in the F.A. Cup and then another 5 day’s rest before our next Premier League game against Crystal Palace. By that time, Arteta should have a fully fit squad to choose from including Thomas Partey. Throw in a shrewd January transfer or two and things might not look so complicated in a few weeks.