While set to claim the final Champions League place, Arsene Wenger has lamented the failings that have cost his Arsenal side a shot at the Premier League title.
After Everton’s defeat on Saturday, Arsenal will now go into Sunday’s clash with West Brom knowing that they have secured a place in the Champions League for the 17th consecutive season. Yet having been in contention for much more, and even led the table for a large part of the season, to many it has still been a disappointing campaign. The source of Arsenal’s failure to continue their push for a first title in a decade is not hard to come by.
“We started in the worse possible way,” the manager said on Friday, according to Arsenal’s official website, referring to an opening day defeat to Aston Villa. “After that we had a good strong home record.
“The restriction we had was in the big games, when we only made draws and not wins in some of them. That's where the missing points are at the moment because we are very close to the top. Maybe one or two wins at home would have made that difference.
“The regret we have of the season is that we have been remarkably consistent, [but] it is against the teams who did not fight for the Premier League title. But especially away from home in some of the big games, we could not claim the points.”
Massive defeats on the road against each fellow member of the top five have proved massively costly and present a huge sense of frustration, for, as Wenger points out, their record against the lower ranked teams has been remarkably consistent. Since that defeat to Aston Villa, Arsenal have only lost once more against a team currently outside the league’s top seven, failing to win on only three more occasions.
A continuation of that fine record and a win over West Brom would see Arsenal continue their fine recent run ahead of a chance to end their nine-year trophy drought in the FA Cup final against Hull City. Despite the disappointments, there would be a sense of optimism going forward into next season. That sense of positivity, tinged with regret, is also brought up by the return of Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil in recent weeks.
Arsenal were top of the Premier League when Ramsey went down injured on Boxing Day and by the time he returned over four months later they were 3-0 down to Everton and losing their grip of fourth place. Few would have expected Ramsey to be so valuable this season, but his willingness and ability to break forward was key to Arsenal’s fine start to the campaign and has provided a major boost since his return.
His reintroduction to the team has also aided Ozil. Admittedly also suffering with fatigue, it is no coincidence that Ozil’s impact began to decline when both Ramsey and Theo Walcott were out injured. Without that duo there is a distinct lack of pace in the side, which the former Real Madrid’s incisive through balls rely upon. Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky are fine players, but they are similar to Ozil in looking to feed incisive passes rather than getting on the end of them.
A player willing to run in behind the opposition defense also makes Olivier Giroud look a better player. The France international is a fine lineup player, but what he lacks is pace, thus he needs speed around him to compliment his qualities and mask his weakness. Two goals in his last three games after just one in seven previously is indicative of the current Arsenal lineup being more suited to his skill set.
Arsenal’s run of three straight victories is likely to become four on Sunday. West Brom secured a massive victory over West Ham last week to leave them four points clear of the drop zone and with a game in hand. It has been an almighty struggle of a season, but they should now be safe.
West Brom were actually one of the lower-ranked teams to have taken points off of Arsenal with a 1-1 draw last October. That was one of a number of positive results the Midlands side achieved against the higher ranked teams in the early part of the season under Steve Clarke’s counter-attacking approach.
Since Pepe Mel took the reins he has tried to make West Brom a more proactive side, but, not unsurprisingly, he has found changing a team’s ethos midseason challenging. It is perhaps no coincidence that their recent upturn in form has come when restoring the counter-attacking threats of Morgan Amalfitano, Stephane Sessegnon and Saido Berahino to the side and enjoying less possession.
Mel’s team will certainly see little of the ball at the Emirates Stadium. Although they could pose a threat on the break, West Brom lack the firepower to really hurt Arsenal. At the other end, Arsenal are finding their attacking feet once more and should get the three points they crave.
Prediction: Arsenal 3-1 West Brom
Where to watch: The Barclays Premier League encounter will kick off at 8.30 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by NBCSN, with a live stream available on NBC Sports Live Extra.
D: Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal
M: Arteta, Ramsey
Cazorla, Ozil, Podolski
D: Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Reid
M: Mulumbu, Dorrans
Amalfitano, Sessegnon, Brunt