Arsenal set out in their usual 4-2-3-1, with a double pivot of Arteta and Flamini. Cazorla started out on the right and gave Ozil a free role off Giroud. West Brom set out in a 4-4-2 with Sessesgnon and Berahino up front, Brunt playing at left back.
Due to the current situations of both clubs, it wasn’t a surprise to see West Brom set up in a low defensive block, and attempt to deny the Arsenal midfield any space. Playing two strikers meant on transition they could attempt to exploit the space behind Arsenal, and in wide areas left by advancing full backs, but sitting deep enough out of possession meaning they could press Flamini and Arteta and therefore not get overrun in midfield.
In the early minutes, the extremity of West Brom’s defensive play was evident, as regularly all 10 outfield players were positioned well within their own half. Arsenal struggled to penetrate early on after a period of ineffective crossing. The use of Ozil in a ‘free role’ created the best chance of any penetration, regularly combining in wide areas with wide midfielders and full backs to create overloads and causing problems for both full backs. The use of overloads regularly caused West Brom to over commit players onto one side of the pitch to deal with this, meaning switching play becomes easy for Arsenal. Rotation between Cazorla and Ozil was also evident early on. This may have been an attempt to leave Brunt with a decision of who to press, as he was playing at left back. The corner that lead to the Arsenal goal comes from switching play from the left side, into Ozil who is able to drive at Brunt with space to exploit as the defensive structure hasn’t fully recovered.
The only breakthrough of the game came from a set piece early on, with an Arsenal corner converted by Giroud, whose header came from a run towards the front post. The set up Arsenal used for this set piece perfectly exploited the man marking system used by Mel’s side, attempting to create as much space in the box as possible for Giroud and Koscielny to attack.
Three players were placed on the edge of the box who didn’t move at all, this obviously causes three defenders to mark them. Mertesacker is placed on the front post, and Podolski around the keeper, effectively leaving a 2v2 in the rest of the penalty area with space for the attacking team to exploit. The use of zonal marking is often questioned, with attackers potentially getting a ‘free run’ on a defender, but here it’s evident how an attackers movement can define where a defender is positioned, and how difficult it is to follow an attackers movement towards goal. There are also questions around Mulumbu’s role on the post during the goal, who appeared to be stood outside of it as the cross came in, and never recovered to the correct position. Teams often use a left footed player on this side of the goal as they are able to use their stronger side to clear the ball should it come towards them. This may have helped get a stronger contact on the ball them Mulumbu achieved, although better position could have prevented the goal.
From here Arsenals dominance caused further pressure on the visitors, as a high press stopped any chance of a potential counter attack. West Brom were able to play out through quick forward play on transition into both forwards early on, but the high press of Arsenal meant frequently passing backwards as passing lanes were cut off effectively. This usually resulting in the ball going back to Foster, who opted to go long and hand possession back to the home side. There were instances where West Brom could play out, by passing to one strikers or wide players dropping off their markers, if there was too much space between Arsenal’s lines.
Keeping possession was far easier for Arsenal after scoring, using both centre-backs to keep the ball and to switch play as there was no longer a need to score. This attempting to draw West Brom into a higher press and to open up the space between the defensive lines. Below you can see how starting again from the goalkeeper lures both strikers attempting to press the two centre-backs, but as they split, space for one of the pivots easily opens up, and Flamini is able to receive the ball in space and carry.
If there is an attempt to press high, this needs to be met with further pressure from the midfield four, and defensive four. This rarely occurs as West Brom didn’t want to be exposed with space left in behind, and therefore space is easily opened up for Cazorla to drop into, or Ozil who isn’t marked, further highlighting problems playing a 4-4-2 against a 4-5-1. Here Cazorla drops into the space created, which lures Brunt in and creates space for Sagna to receive the ball in out wide.
The second half saw some changes. West Brom who are chasing the game adopt a higher press in an attempt to regain possession in more dangerous areas. To prevent Arsenal playing out through a holding midfielder, one striker drops to mark him, as Berahino is instructed to do here, and Flamini is forced to play the pass back to Koscielny.
The issue here is that when roles are switched due to the pass to Mertesacker, the other striker now needs to mark Flamini as Berahino presses the ball, but doesn’t and Arsenal are able to play out, potentially caused by a brief rotation between Amalfitano and Sessesgnon.
Berahino correctly forced play down one side of the pitch by over exaggerating his movement which also prevents the switch to the other centre back, but to work effectively the holding midfielder needs to be marked by one striker.
West Brom were able to keep better possession, mostly due to Arsenals decision to move into a deeper defensive set up, although attacking movement from the visitors was far better, with movements from the ‘front four’ dropping off of Arsenal’s back four helping with circulation. The decision from the home side to change their style of play seemed strange, perhaps due to fatigue or to open up spaces for a successful counter, but West Brom were able to create pressure consistently over the second half creating several chances. Arsenal did look likely to score on the counter perhaps justifying the tactical changes, but inviting so much pressure from West Brom was potentially risky.
Taking three points was deserved after the home sides overall dominance. After securing 4th place with this win, attention can now turn to the FA cup final. West Brom despite losing, are all but mathematically safe from relegation, unless an incredible swing in goal difference occurs in their final two matches.