Arsenal vs. West Bromwich: Gunners clinch Champions League spot, earn 4th straight win

   You can feel the end of the season is nigh when a Premier League game looks like a friendly. The Gunners had very little pressure while playing West Bromwich on Sunday for the simple reason that they were guaranteed a Champions League spot after Everton lost 3-2 to Manchester City on Saturday. For the last home match of the season, Arsenal still got the job done by defeating the Baggies 1-0.

   The Gunners qualified for the lucrative European competition for the17th straight season. That achievement could make a difference in the transfer market this summer as Arsenal must strengthen its squad to become a genuine contender in the Premier League. In theory, top players would rather join a club competing in the Champions League than sign for Tottenham or Manchester United.

   Wenger made just one change from the side that thrashed Newcastle 3-0 a week ago by replacing Ramsey with Flamini. Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain are facing a race against the clock to be ready for the FA Cup final on May 17 as they are respectively nursing a hamstring strain and a groin injury. Ramsey’s absence was keenly felt on the pitch as the Gunners lacked energy in midfield.

Giroud’s 16th league goal

   Arsenal dominated possession but played at a slow tempo against a West Bromwich team that showed very little aggression if we except Sessegnon’s stamp on Flamini’s ankle in the 35th minute. The Gunners produced a decent performance in the first half but became lazy in the second half when they mostly focused on protecting their slim lead.

   Flamini is a defensive midfielder by trade but on Sunday he played like a box-to-box midfielder to help create more chances. In the 25th minute, a Baggy headed a ball over the top from Cazorla into the path of Flamini, whose angled shot was saved by Foster. The West Bromwich defense poorly tracked another run from Flamini on the stroke of halftime. Flamini pounced on a poor clearance from Lugano but shot straight at the goalkeeper.

   Flamini’s technique somehow let him down in the 13th when Ozil found him inside the area. The Frenchman fluffed his shot but the loose ball fell to Cazorla, whose effort deflected off a defender for a corner. Giroud got ahead of Dawson to nod home the ensuing corner for the winning goal. Just like in the Newcastle game, Arsenal needed a set piece to break the deadlock. It may not be pretty, but that’s how the big teams win when they don’t have their best stuff.

Experience makes a difference on set pieces

   Surprisingly, the Gunners scored from their first corner. That’s quite clinical. I remember a period when Fabregas was still our playmaker: those Gunners needed to play well in order to score, they simply couldn’t win ugly like Manchester United or Chelsea. Obviously, the current team is more mature than when Fabregas was at the club and experience definitely helps make a difference on set pieces. If you’ve watched Real Madrid’s 4-0 demolition of Bayern Munich, you must probably remember that Ramos gave the Spanish club a 2-0 lead by heading in a corner and a free kick.

   Giroud notched his 16th league goal, five more than last season. He may not be a world-class striker, but nobody can deny that he has improved within a year. His performance on Sunday was typical Giroud. He worked hard, back to goal, to set up his teammates. Giroud redirected a high ball from Ozil toward Podolski, who fired over the bar from a tight angle in the fourth minute while an unmarked Cazorla was waiting for a pass at the far post. In the second half, Giroud played Ozil in with a header, but the Germany playmaker dragged his shot wide as the ball got stuck under his feet.

Podolski’s miscued shot

   At times, Giroud also looked like the messy and frustrating player some fans know. He attempted a complicated shot in the 42nd while Podolski was unmarked to his left. Giroud then got ahead of Olsson in the 61st but failed to connect with a cross from Ozil. In the end, he deserves some credit for staying relatively fit despite 49 appearances for the club this season. Only Mertesacker has played more games than the French striker.

   The Gunners could have doubled the lead in the 34th. Podolski cut the ball back to Cazorla, whose low strike was turned around the post by Foster. Their best chance in the second half also came from a play initiated by Podolski, who released Ozil down the left wing. Olsson poorly cleared Ozil’s cross and Podolski pounced on the loose ball to hit the post with a miscued shot in the 76th.

Offside trap problems

   One issue the Gunners will need to fix before the FA Cup final is the execution of the offside trap. Berahino was played onside by Koscielny in the 7th but Szczesny saved the angled shot from the West Bromwich striker. Amalfitano then beat the offside trap in the 71st to collect a through ball from Berahino. However, Mertesacker rushed back to clear the ball to safety. In both cases, the Baggy was unmarked and Koscielny failed to step forward.

   Another concern is Szczesny’s poor handwork. A lack of pressure from our midfielders allowed Dorrans to unleash a long-range strike in the 32nd. Szczesny spilled the shot into the path of Berahino, who was fortunately offside. A good goalkeeper should have quick hands to palm the ball to safety.

   In stoppage time, Mertesacker preserved the win by blocking Anichebe’s spinning shot. It’s Arsenal’s 16th clean sheet in the Premier League this season, but that figure can be misleading. The Gunners have conceded 41 goals, four more than last season. They currently claim the fourth tightest defense in the league while they were second in that category last season.

Preparing for the FA Cup final

   Many fans have said that Arsenal lost the title because of a lack of striking options. There’s some truth in that argument: the Gunners only have the fourth most prolific attack in the league behind the top three teams. But let’s not forget that they had just the third most potent offense at the halfway stage when they were leading the league. What really made the difference then was that they could claim the tightest defense. Basically, Arsenal has enough quality to shut out and score against the weak and average teams, but it’s not good enough against the top teams.

   Since the Gunners have secured a Champions League spot, their priority now should be to prepare for the FA Cup final. That would mean rotating against Norwich next Sunday to rest exhausted players (Giroud, Sagna, Mertesacker, Cazorla) and give some playing time to benchwarmers (Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Kallstrom, Sanogo) or players returning from injury (Wilshere, Diaby).

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Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

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