Arsenal 2 - West Bromwich Albion 0
This was a pretty good performance for long periods but we were undone by terrible refereeing, not taking very good chances and, in my opinion, a refusal to change our formation in the final third of the game.
Having seen the starting eleven I joked about Pulis adopting a swivelling back 10 - The lack of pace up top worried me. I'd have gone 4-5-1 with Brunt or McClean on the left and Phillips on the right to give us wingers who could get out, support the attack and double up on Arsenal in their wide vulnerable areas. This is not a great Arsenal team.
We started brightly enough - I was impressed by the way we pressed very high up to try and force Arsenal into mistakes and I think most people will agree that the referee bottled the first penalty decision - despite that JRod was unlucky with his effort that was tipped onto the post but I'm afraid Livermore has to hang his head at that miss. Wrong foot or not, a player at this level should be able to side-foot a moving ball into an open net from 15 yards.
I thought the free kick that led to the goal was harsh but as a general pattern we did give away too many free-kicks in and around our box and Arsenal have too many players of quality for you to do that. Many were silly and careless - despite relegating Yacob to the bench we can't kick the habit. I think it is fair to say though that the referee gave any hint of a free-kick in Arsenal's favour - the first free kick given to Sanchez was for nothing.
After the goal we continued to press well and it was so frustrating the amount of times we broke in good positions but had no pace of width to get up the pitch despite the Arsenal wide players being out of the game. We got loads of change in those pockets and big Greg at one stage, with no pass to release, simply stomped up the field unchallenged on the left and then crossed for JRod who had to score - his tame header did enough to beat the keeper but 'Monreal' made an 'unreal' block. JRod had made a great run and the header was OK but I still think he had to score.
Later on, again in open play, we got in out wide from the right and JRod was inches from getting on the end of another cross.
So at half time despite being a goal down we'd had the better chances and I was optimistic.
The 2nd half however was a more toiled affair and we began to run out of legs. At around 65-70 minutes I thought it was time to go 4-5-1 with wingers and introduce Rondon to stretch them like we did against Man City in midweek.
Pulis's first change was to swap Mozza for Livermore - I'm Mozza's biggest fan but I felt this was a wasted sub because it meant we could only get one winger and Rondon on.
I thought the Arsenal penalty was very harsh - I can see why it was given but in the first half Evans was bundled over on the touchline just inside our half in an almost identical way and the foul wasn't given. That second goal killed us.
And then we couldn't change it tactically - Phillips came on at wing back and Rondon came on up top but there just wasn't enough gas left in the team for us to get up the pitch and help him.
So we can feel proud that for large parts of the first half we were the better team, angry and bitter about the referee, frustrated that despite changes personnel we keep missing easy chances, but optimism that if Pulis can just get it right there is a seriously decent, solid and entertaining team here. I can see how difficult it is for him. We have options in various positions where there is little difference overall between players just individual strengths and weaknesses - and trying to pick the best player based upon how the opposition play but maintain continuity, key partnerships and rhythm is difficult.
Watford will be a very difficult game - they are big, powerful, full of running and have a tactically astute manager. It's early days but we need a win to get some momentum going.
Questions, questions and more questions
Looking at the changes made to the starting XI for this game, compared to the one that started that abysmal game against WHU, changes which consisted of getting rid of both wingers, even if they had started on their wrong sides, and ditching the midfield creativity of Morrison for Livermore, one might have been fooled into thinking that this was side set up to simply sit back and frustrate the Arsenal, however, as things turned out, with the change to a back five allowing for the deployment of a front two, Albion's typical long balls up towards the lone isolated striker approach appeared to have a lot more going for it, as a result of there now being two players who might be able to do something with such hit and hope service.
There was, however, nothing hit and hope about the passage of play that could, indeed should, have seen Albion a goal to the good before ten minutes had passed, as Barry, who was breaking the appearance record on the night, played a slide-rule pass for Rodriguez to run onto through the inside-left channel, and even though Mustafi seemed to have forced him wide to the bye-line, Rodriguez showed great skill in cutting back, at which point the Arsenal defender brought him down. Not content with waiting for the ref's whistle though, the Albion striker got back to his feet, fired off a far-corner-goalbound drive that Cech could only tip onto the inside of the far post with his fingertips, at which point it rebounded into the path of the oncoming Livermore but he was unable to direct onto the goal, let alone into an empty net, from around the penalty spot. No matter though, now the ref will just rule that there's been no advantage gained from not awarding the penalty and do so.
Sadly, no. Not only had the ref not indicated that he had been allowing play to go on, but he clearly hadn't been intending to award a penalty either. Cue some incredibly subdued glances and words in the direction of the ref but it was almost as though the Albion were consigned to their fate and, to make matters worse, the free-kick that Evans conceded, around twenty minutes in, appeared to have had less contact with Sanchez, a threat all night, that Mustafi had had on Rodriguez. It would get worse still, in that although Sanchez's free-kick came back off the bar, Albion's static defence simply failed to run with Lacazette, who was then able to convert the kind of open-goal chance that Livermore hadn't been able to, and so Albion found themselves a goal down.
For the rest of the first-half though, Albion's "two up top" approach saw them remain very much in the game and you have to wonder how much more they might have got into the game had one out of every three passes found its target but, even so, Rodriguez had a couple more good chances to score, first when Krychowiak floated over a lovely cross from the left that the former failed to get enough direction and power into his header from, allowing Monreal to clear of the line with the whole of the Arsenal defence struggling to get into position, and later, when, on a couple of occasions as the ball was played in from the right, he failed to get enough, if anything on the ball to turn it goalwards.
Even though they would have left they field a goal down, and aggrieved, there had been more than enough in the first-half showing to have suggested that the point they'd started the game with wasn't beyond recovery, however if the second-half showing didn't really match the first, it needs to be pointed out that Arsenal's showing was much improved and so, as the hour-mark passed, Pulis made changes that looked to spark things back into life, in bringing on Morrison for the fairly ineffective Livermore (possibly still not completely over whatever's been ailing him enough to see him rested?) and, a minute later (why not both at once?), Rondon for HRK, whilst still keeping the two up front. But it didn't seem to spark anything.
Indeed, two or three minutes after Rondon's entrance, Arsenal would end a spell of one-touch passing, in which Nyom had already clattered into Sanchez outside the box, by playing in Ramsey down our right side, and although Nyom has charged back to deny Ramsey much progress other than towards the goal line, the defender found himself on the wrong side of the Welshman and, in trying to fall into him in way that would impede his progress whilst making it look less of a foul, made no contact that might have been classed as shoulder-to-shoulder and so only succeeded in making it look very much like a foul, at which point the referee got to point to the exact spot that he had failed to point to when Rodriguez had been brought down. Lacazzete would dispatch it to give Arsenal a 2-0 lead.
Although Pulis's final throw of the dice, Phillips on for Nyom with some fifteen minutes remaining, seemed to be yet another offensive move, the accompanying tactical swap to a more usual back four and a midfield five, with Rondon now very much alone again, pretty much failed to trouble the home team at all, and must have left a few wondering why we didn't stick with the back-three, two up front, that had served us so well in the first-half.
Indeed, given the showing in that first-half, I would be very interested to see what would happen if we could tweak it just a little, so that instead of longer balls to the "two up top" we could drop one of the defensive central midfield three and have Morrison (or even our almost forgotten attacking centre-mid Chadli?) doing a box-to-box in there, along with playing a winger instead of full-back as one of the wing-backs - and my preference would be Phillips in for Nyom on the right, rather than McClean (or Brunt?) for Gibbs on the left - although, as I suggest, it would be interesting with either swap-out, though feeling it'd be a little too much adventure for our manager to contemplate. But who knows?
Despite the loss, this one has certainly raised more questions than it has answered and that's even before the one as to why Rodriguez didn't get that penalty, although even that raises the question as to how our decent, three-at-the-back, showing over forty-five minutes might have played out, had we gone a goal up after just seven!
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