THE HAWTHORNS: Ending The Year With A Bang

What do you get an Arsenal fan for Christmas? Tickets to see them play on New Year’s Eve, of course. My girlfriend’s stepdad, Phil, is a Gooner and we treated him and Saffron’s mom to this very experience. The only snag was we’d all be sitting in the West Brom end.

Nonetheless, he seemed excited at the prospect of seeing his team play as he kindly drove us into the Black Country.

The Highs

The club

We arrived very early and that allowed us to check out the surroundings.To be honest, the ground didn’t wow me all too much on first arrival. I found myself more interested in watching the Arsenal Fan TV crew hanging out on the side of the road.

All of us thought the stand which housed the club shop and reception looked like an office on a business estate. It didn’t look at all like a footballing venue and kind of subdued my excitement.

Things improved when we entered the ground and I found myself thoroughly impressed by West Brom as a football club. Their facilities were top notch. Everything was clean and spacious, there was plenty of food and merchandise stands, whilst there were also some really nice, modern refreshment bars upstairs. It felt like a real community club as well. People of all ages and backgrounds were present. Saffron said she was shocked that she had to queue for the ladies toilets at a football ground for once.

Inside the stadium was impressive too. It’s very blue. But very impressive. The fans around us during the game helped make the day special as well. They were vocal and added to the sense of community.

The only thing that let the matchday experience down was the terrible Tannoy system. Particularly as the club was honouring one of their departed fans and we couldn’t hear their family speak. The man’s family did get to walk around the ground to a standing ovation and the stadium also stood up and applauded during the 42nd minute, as that was the man’s age when he passed away. So credit to West Brom for arranging that.

Alexis Sanchez

After seeing Manchester City’s 5-0 win over Crystal Palace in May, I raved about the performance of David Silva. The Spaniard oozed quality as he demonstrated why he’s won so many of the game’s top honours. I felt privileged to see football played at such a high level and at West Brom, I had a similar reaction when presented with Alexis Sanchez.

The Chilean has been tipped for a move away from Arsenal for some time and, unfortunately for Gunners fans, you can understand why. Throughout the contest he provided Arsenal’s brightest spark. While his team-mates played cautiously and waited for an opening, Sanchez forced the issue with fantastic turns and runs. His vision was also on another echelon as his penetrative passes were squandered. To their credit, the West Brom defence and goalkeeper were sharp and snuffed out several dangerous runs. But it did often feel like more players of Sanchez’ quality would have profited in the same situations.

Whereas Silva scored for Man City when I watched him play, Arsenal’s goal came from the boot of Sanchez via a deflection from James McClean. It was difficult to tell if his shot would have gone wide or bend into the bottom corner. Replays seemed to conclude the former, so an own goal was given. However, the talent level of both Silva and Sanchez were equally apparent in their respective games. Definitely worth the entrance fee.

Arsene Wenger’s record

This match broke the record for the highest amount of games managed in the Premier League by one coach. Sir Alex Ferguson had held the record with his 810 matches at the helm of Manchester United until Wenger took charge against West Brom.

It’s quite a milestone, especially when you consider managers are regularly getting sacked after only a few months, or even days in charge (West Brom manager Alan Pardew was 12th on the list with five clubs to his name). Add that to the number of times Wenger has been urged to leave recently by Arsenal fans and it’s even more remarkable.

Many of those voices can be heard on the aforementioned YouTube channel Arsenal Fan TV. After this result, the infamous ‘DT’ didn’t have many positive things to say on Wenger’s record and even talked negatively about the Invincibles team which went unbeaten for a full season (a feat which no one has yet managed to emulate in modern English football).

I know most people on AFTV are probably after cheap views with outlandish ranting but not enough respect is given to Wenger these days. Last season was the first time Arsenal finished outside the top four in 20 years of Wenger’s reign. He’s also the most decorated manager in their history and all of this seems to have been forgotten.

I was well pleased to be at his record-breaking match. The man’s a Premier League legend and in another 20 years, perhaps people will recognise that a bit more.

A late bonanza

Following a bright start in the opening exchanges, the game went flat fast and was nailed on to finish goalless. In the final 10 minutes, I pleaded for Sanchez to save the day as he teed up a free-kick on the other end of the pitch. After he hit it through the wall, the net shook and he ran to the cheering away fans behind the goal. Even I gave a little jolt of celebration in the home stand. With 83 minutes gone, there was something to play for and that proved the catalyst for a rousing finale.

West Brom poured forward in search of an equaliser but couldn’t create any chances despite being in promising positions. There was also the danger of Arsenal trying to break and truly kill off the hapless Baggies. Suddenly we didn’t want the match to end.

Just before the 90 minutes were up, West Brom were given a lifeline when referee Mike Dean penalised Calum Chambers for a handball in the box. The Arsenal players protested and I could understand their point. They argued it was impossible for Chambers to get his hand out of the way in time. However, even though he was very close, I thought Chambers moved his arm towards the ball. You could almost call it a 50-50 penalty claim and perhaps in that situation they shouldn’t be given. But Jay Rodriguez stepped up and slotted the ball past Petr Cech to continue the goalkeeper’s own record of never saving a spot-kick for the Gunners.

More frantic action ensued during the four minutes of added time with both teams hoping to find a winner. But ultimately it was too late as the home fans cheered a point that is more welcoming for them in their bid for Premier League survival.

The Lows

Not much action

This was my second West Brom match of the season and the second time they’ve been awful. In attack, they have nothing. There was no way they were going to score without that penalty. It’s no surprise they’ve failed to find the net more than once in a game since March. But at least they were organised in both games. A somewhat lucky goal against them here and a wonder strike for Huddersfield stopped them getting clean sheets.

Arsenal, meanwhile, were also terrible in the final third. Everything slowed down as they tried to find the perfect opening through the West Brom defence. Sanchez, as previously stated, was the only player trying to shake things up. It would have been interesting to see if Mesut Ozil – the Gunners’ other superstar name – would have made much difference to the outcome. I can’t tell what influence or importance the German has on this Arsenal team but Sanchez looks like he’d be heavily missed if he moves on.

Arsenal’s ‘tactics’

There were quite a lot of questionable tactics used by the Arsenal team throughout the match. Accusations of players feigning injury were aimed at the away side along with them falling to ground too easily. Granit Xhaka seemed to be the worst culprit for this, looking agonised in one moment before instantaneously charging forward when his team had won the ball back.

I don’t like accusing players of this kind of thing but it looked like the Baggies fans had a point. Even Phil agreed that Arsenal hit the floor too often. But I suppose it’s difficult to judge when you’re not the player affected. Which is why it’ll probably continue to rile fans for some time.

The Verdict

Even without the late controversy and talking points, Phil seemed to really enjoy his day out watching the Gunners. As did Saff’s mom. That was the best thing to take away. I had a really good time and Saff did too. The two goals were a bonus, it was just great to see out the year with everyone in good spirits. Hopefully 2018 brings more happy memories.

West Brom 1 – 1 Arsenal
Premier League

Ground rating: 7/10

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