When a smaller club plays a bigger club, it isn’t rare to see the smaller club play outstanding soccer for about 10 minutes before being beaten back by the better side. This was the case when Arsenal played West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, but the Baggies could have kept on pressing and it could have led to them beating the Gunners.
Criticizing managers is something that is really hard to do, because these guys know their players better than any of us. They have been around the game more than someone sitting at home watching on their laptop or TV, and they are at training every day. But that doesn’t mean we can’t question what they’re doing.
Alan Irvine’s West Brom has been one of the most well-organized teams all season. The Baggies lineup in a 4-4-2 that is very compact, rigid, and easy to define. One of the tweaks to the system is that the two wide midfielders tuck in when the team attacks, as the full backs get forward. Stephane Sessegnon drops behind Saido Berahino when the team attacks, but analyzing them from a defensive point of view, this team plays 4-4-2.
As strategy in games against the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool, they try to sit back and defend in a low block hoping to spring on the break to get a goal or take advantage of a set-piece opportunity. This strategy will probably be enough for West Brom to stay up this year. Irvine’s team is very reliant on Berahino for goals (the forward has eight, and seven other players on the team have netted one), though, so it’s compact defense will have to be able to keep it in games.
But that doesn’t mean the team can’t be more proactive in defense as opposed to being reactive. West Brom pressed Arsenal in the first 10 minutes of its match at the weekend, before it sat back and let the Gunners boss the game.
In the early going, the team is excited and the forwards are working hard and the midfield is pushing up. In the above GIF, this forces Arsenal to play a long ball and the Baggies win the ball in the opposition’s half.
While they don’t do it in that first GIF, when West Brom won the ball they were able to keep it too. In the first 10 minutes of the match, they out-pass their opponents and have the run of play in their favor.
Although after a quarter of an hour, this all stops. The team completely switches off and sits back into its shell. All of the pressing comes to an end and Arsenal is able to dominate.
For example, in the 17th minute, West Brom is still somewhat active, but they just let Arsenal’s attackers find space in between the lines.
While the Gunners are often criticized, the team has a bunch of highly skilled players, who are very good on the ball in tight spaces. As a result, they are even better when it comes to working with a lot of space. Yes, it is hard to break down a compact team, but such skilled players can usually muster up one quality opportunity in the course of 90 minutes to get a goal.
But as soon as the pressure lets up those moments can happen more frequently, and as the game goes on, it seems as if West Brom just continues to give up when it clearly has the means to put pressure on the Gunners and grab the game by the scruff of the neck.
In no way should these two pieces of play from West Brom be considered acceptable. Mathieu Flamini isn’t the best holding midfielder in the league and there’s no reason why his life should be made easier by defending like this.
It’s the opposite of the pressing with which West Brom started the match and it ultimately leads to their demise. From West Brom’s forwards there is no pressure on the ball in these situations, which gives Flamini the ability to distribute the ball wherever he pleases. The worst effort from the forwards comes below though, as the midfielder walks in between them to pick out a pass.
It is likely that this has come from a switch in the team’s mentality. While the two forwards know that they have two banks of four behind them, there’s no reason for them to just let their opponent walk in unscathed. Doing so leads to the defense getting opened up again for Arsenal’s goal.
Arsenal is playing the ball out of the back as the Baggies sit deep. While Berahino puts pressure on the ball, it’s easy for play to be worked between the lines to Santi Cazorla, who puts in the cross that leads to the goal.
While West Brom is good enough to stay up this season, it had the opportunity to lock in Arsenal and make the opposition pay. This is hindsight, but perhaps Irvine should have instructed his team and his forwards to continue to press for as long as it could, instead of giving up so easily.
100+ Channels With Sports & News
- Starting price: $29.99/mo. for fubo Español Package
- Watch Premier League, LaLiga, Liga MX & MLS
- Includes NBC, NBCSN, ESPN, FS1, FS2, TUDN, beIN SPORTS and more
Favorite Leagues At The Best Price
- Starting price: $7.99/mo. for Live TV Package
- Watch LaLiga, Primeira Liga and Copa Libertadores
- Includes beIN SPORTS, GolTV, TyC Sports and more
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
- Price: $5.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $12.99/mo.)
- Features Serie A, Bundesliga, FA Cup, EFL & more
- Also includes daily ESPN FC news & highlights show
Live TV, Soccer & Originals
- Starting price: $5.99/mo.
- Features Champions League, Europa League & NWSL
- Includes CBS, Star Trek & CBS Sports HQ