Arsenal vs. West Brom: Sanchez double puts Gunners back in 3rd

Empty seats at the Emirates stadium on Thursday reflected the club’s loss of momentum in the title race and the fans’ loss of interest in a disappointing season. Actually, there are four games left and quite a lot at stake. Arsenal defeated West Brom 2-0 to move back into third place in the Premier League, two points clear of Manchester City and four clear of the Red Devils. It feels like Groundhog Day for many fans, but a Top 3 finish would guarantee Champions League football next season and would therefore help us sign talented players this summer.

Arsenal vs. West Brom

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Wenger made three changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Crystal Palace last weekend by replacing Paulista, Coquelin and Welbeck with Mertesacker, Ramsey and Giroud in the starting lineup. The Gunners did not prove a great attacking threat against the Eagles in part because they played with two defensive midfielders, Coquelin and Elneny. The manager dropped Coquelin on Thursday to start Ramsey, who can destabilize any defense with his deep runs.

Arsenal lacked efficiency in the final third but two moments of brilliance from Sanchez gave them the victory. Sanchez took a pass from Ramsey in the sixth minute and evaded a tackle from Sandro with a slick turn to fire into the bottom corner from 24 yards. That was clinical from the Gunners who took the lead by converting their first scoring chance of the game. Ramsey was then fouled on the edge of the box in the 37th. Sanchez converted the subsequent free kick to double the lead. The Chile forward whipped the ball between Giroud and Mertesacker, who were both covering a crack in the West Brom wall.

With five goals in his last four games, Sanchez is rediscovering his form in what has been an inconsistent season for him and the club. He often missed the target in February following his return from a hamstring injury. On Thursday, Sanchez was incredibly accurate, scoring from his only two goal attempts.

Ozil as a second striker

The pairing formed by Coquelin and Elneny did OK against Tottenham last month but you need a bit more flair against teams parking the bus. Van Gaal gave Wenger a lesson in audacity by starting Schneiderlin, Mata and Rooney in midfield in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on Wednesday. Obviously, injuries to Wilshere, Rosicky, Cazorla and Ramsey have limited the manager’s midfield options but playing Iwobi in midfield and Campbell on a wing would have been a bolder approach against the Eagles.

In his first start since his return from a hamstring injury, Ramsey produced a solid all-round display. He won 4 of 8 tackles, more than any other player, including a last-ditch tackle to prevent Sessegnon from shooting in the 56th. The Wales midfielder also made 2 key passes and had 3 successful dribbles out of 3, according to Squawka. Ramsey created problems for the West Brom defense with his movement and refrained from taking speculative shots.

Ramsey’s presence in midfield pushed Ozil further up the pitch. Ozil played pretty much like a second striker, tying Giroud with 4 goal attempts and matching Sanchez with 5 successful dribbles. The Germany playmaker nearly scored a comical goal in the 33rd when he connected with a cross from Ramsey to fire a low strike that slipped through Foster’s hands and legs. It took a clearance off the line from Dawson to prevent a clanger. Ozil was then denied by Foster in the 68th after some good work from Iwobi on the left wing and had an effort deflected out by Olsson a few seconds later.

Giroud’s slump

Iwobi led Arsenal players with 3 shot assists. He also cheaply lost possession twice. You want players to take risks in the final third with through balls and dribbles. But you also want them to avoid turnovers that can lead to dangerous counterattacks. Iwobi worked hard to build an understanding with Giroud. Leading a counterattack in the 48th, Iwobi slipped the ball to Giroud, whose tame effort did not trouble Foster. The two players swapped roles in the 69th as Giroud chested down a cross for Iwobi, who fired a half-volley straight at Foster. There were a couple of times when I thought Iwobi was a bit selfish, holding onto the ball instead of simply passing it. Iwobi made an interception in the 79th and had three passing options, but he wasted the chance by trying to dribble past Olsson.

Much has been said about injuries hurting Arsenal in the title race but Giroud’s slump in the second half of the season has proved quite epic too. The France international hasn’t found the net in the league since mid-January. He nearly ended his scoring drought in the 88th, when Ramsey found Campbell inside the area. Campbell spun to set up Giroud, who fired his shot in Foster’s face. If you replace Giroud with Kane, Vardy or Aguero, you can be sure that Arsenal would still be in the hunt for the title. Giroud’s hold-up play and movement inside the box are still good but his finishing touch has deserted him. In the closing minutes, Giroud played a one-two with Campbell only to hit a sliding effort wide.

Bellerin’s pace and technique

The Gunners fixed some of the problems they faced against Crystal Palace, but they were again let down by some poor final balls. Sanchez and Ozil overhit crosses for Giroud in the first half. West Brom also exposed Arsenal’s poor defending on set pieces. McAuley headed a corner onto the bar in the 29th because Ozil failed to track him and Giroud lost his duel at the near post. Then an unmarked Rondon missed an open goal from two yards in the 73rd, meeting a corner at the far post only to kick the ball in the air. Cech looked shaky as he failed to punch the corner away. The Baggies’ only chance from open play came in the 51st when nobody closed down Dawson. McClean outjumped Bellerin at the far post to head the cross from the West Brom fullback, but Bellerin did enough to put McClean off.

Bellerin is the only Gunner who has been voted into the PFA Team of the Year. I’m not really surprised since the Spaniard has been our most consistent player this season. Monreal has been consistent too, but he hasn’t really performed at the same level as Bellerin. Ozil could have been included in the Team of the Year with his outstanding number of goals and assists, but his slump in the second half of the season explains why the voters have preferred Alli in the playmaking position. Bellerin showed flashes of his pace and technique by playing a one-two with Sanchez in the 24th before outpacing the West Brom defense to miss the target from a tight angle. He repeated the trick in the 31st, combining with Giroud before sending a long-range strike over the bar.

No officiating controversy

My main concern before the match was the referee. There were so many inconsistent calls in Leicester’s 2-2 draw with West Ham that I started getting the jitters whenever something happened inside the Arsenal box. Sanchez kicked the ball into his hand with an awkward first touch in the 27th. Technically, it could have been a spot kick for West Brom but Moss took into consideration the spirit of the law and ignored the Baggies’ penalty claim. Seriously, how can you get your arm out of the way with a one-yard kick? The referee also turned down a penalty shout from Arsenal in the 59th when Dawson seemed to clip Iwobi’s leg. In the end, there was no controversial call.

The manager might decide to rotate a bit for Sunday’s game at Sunderland. It always gets physical with any team managed by Allardyce. You can bet there will be a high level of commitment with the Black Cats fighting for their survival in the league.