Monday 26th December 15.00 GMT
One hopes that Santa brought all the presents the Arsenal players were hoping for because they surely needed a lift in their mood following back-to-back losses which has put a severe dent in their title ambitions. Or, as others might argue, it’s merely a re-alignment to their natural position in the universe – that is, 4th in the league and some distance behind top.
Whatever the French for Bah Humbug is
The result has seen Arsene Wenger shift into full Scrooge mode. It was the ref’s what did it, two offside goals, the world is against us, woe betide the fate of the virtuous man etc etc. The sad and undying truth that Wenger is so slow to recognize, publicly at least, is that this is the Arsenal Way. Play in such a manner as to raise the hopes of fans and neutrals alike, those who see in Wenger and his methods a bulwark against the vulgar excesses of immediacy. Then, just when it feels as if the long-suffering adherents of the Good Path are to finally see the fruits of their faith take mortal shape – CRASH! – they’re back in the slurry with everyone else and their broken dreams.
Tony ‘The Grinch’ Pulis?
Looking to do his level best to make sure Arsene’s Christmas gets even worse is Tony Pulis and West Bromwich Albion. If ever there was a more obvious antithesis to Arsene’s aesthetic affectations, it is surely Pulis. During his time at Stoke, he cultivated a style of play that might generously be referred to as ‘agricultural’. Whatever it was, Wenger was no fan and Pulis seemed to derive great pleasure from getting his charges to rough up their Arsenal counterparts. This reached its most horrifying nadir when Ryan Shawcross managed to break Aaron Ramsey’s leg, an ugly tackle that put the Arsenal player out of the game for a long time.
But that was Stoke, so what about West Brom? Well, under Pulis’ direction, they have been largely as one might expect – ugly, resolutely defensive hoofball. Having said that, this season has seen a shift in play and attitude. Sure, they are still occasionally fond of playing four centre backs across the line but they are now playing a system which puts more faith in the attacking skills of their forwards and as a result, they find themselves sitting in 8th at Christmas time with only three teams outside of the top four having scored more than them.
Injuries and knocks
It will come as no surprise to you to hear that it is over six years since West Brom managed a win away at Arsenal and its probably a bit much to expect them to do so here. In their favour, Arsenal’s defence has become very leaky in the absence of Shkodran Mustafi and, in Salomon Rondon, they have exactly the kind of robust and tenacious striker that Arsenal will not enjoy facing. The Gunners are still missing Santi Cazorla and may also be without Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whilst West Brom are only missing Jonny Evans from their starting 11.
If this turns into an ugly, fractious affair, this column would quite fancy West Brom to steal a win but Arsenal, even for all their mental mis-steps, still enjoy a quality of player that West Brom don’t. If they get their tails up, it’s theirs to lose but it’s difficult to have much faith in them doing that. As is customary, the market is quite at odds with our assessment and have Arsenal as strong favourites but we reckon the price of 23/5 from MarathonBet for a draw is well worth that fiver your uncle slipped into your Christmas card.