By Rob Kelly
“We have to keep the quality of our performances and keep the urgency of the defending we showed against Dortmund. Most of all, the priority is to keep the dynamic we have in the team.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
Perceptions tend to change quickly in football. It is the nature of a sport with an intense 24-hour news cycle that stories come and go, figures rise and fall and minor issues can extrapolate into disasters and vice versa.
Three days ago, Arsene Wenger was the calm at the centre of a storm as the Gunners headed into their Champions League showdown against unbeaten Borussia Dortmund. The manager faced down probing questions and dismissed talk of a crisis, emphasised his belief in his squad and stated his cast-iron certainty that his players would deliver on their promise.
They responded with a measured, mature performance that endorsed everything that the boss had said about them. It was exactly the sort of display that was required, but there was also an immediate awareness post-match that it was only the start. Per Mertesacker was at pains to reiterate the importance of translating their European form into their domestic duties - and that begins on Saturday.
After a punishing game against Jurgen Klopp’s high-energy side, a lunchtime kick off three days later in the Midlands does not offer the Gunners much recovery time. But Wenger is certainly not seeking any early excuses: far from it, he wants even more from his side as they continue on the road to recovery.
“It's not ideal [timing], but we don't have any influence on that,” the manager told Arsenal Player. “We cope with it. I don't think that between 12.45pm and 3pm is a massive difference on the recovery side. We came back from Anderlecht and went to Sunderland, and it didn't stop us from winning that game. Let's just focus on our game.”
Having played with such control against Dortmund, Wenger will demand more of the same at The Hawthorns. It has been a happy hunting ground for the Gunners in recent years, as their record of three wins and two draws in their last five visits can attest, while they have not lost to West Brom in seven games overall.
However, the Arsenal manager does have some selection issues that make his side’s task that bit tougher.
The headline news this week has been the loss of Jack Wilshere for the next three months after surgery on his left ankle. There is no dressing up the fact that it is a significant setback for both the player and the squad, but Wenger is sure that the England international will bounce back.
"I believe that the players who have played in different positions are doing remarkably well in that position - Monreal has had outstanding games at centre back"
“It's a blow, first for him and of course for the team as well because we are hit very hard this season by injuries that you cannot do anything about,” he said. “People always question the medical [side of things], but what can you do about [the tackle Jack received]?
“He's strong - he's already focused on a comeback, and he'll help us in the final sprint over the last three months. I think he will be available at the earliest at the end of February or the beginning of March. Then there's still three months to go and he can play an important part in the season.”
Elsewhere, Wenger will also have to do without Mikel Arteta and Theo Walcott at The Hawthorns, while there are doubts over Wojciech Szczesny, Danny Welbeck and Yaya Sanogo. Despite the defensive issues that Wenger has had to deal with this term, he has been pleased with the response of his players - and feels there is a natural cohesion growing.
“We want to find a good balance between attacking and defending but we didn’t always get that,” he said. “It’s also because we’ve had a lot of change in personnel with many experienced defenders out.
"I believe that the players who have played in different positions are doing remarkably well in that position - Monreal has had outstanding games at centre back. We have paid a little bit for instability but we’ve also gained confidence from players in positions where it was not obvious they would perform as well.”
West Brom, like Arsenal, head into this fixture on the back of successive Premier League defeats - although they have not lost three on the bounce since the final three fixtures of last season.
Alan Irvine’s side also have one of the hottest young English strikers in the land in Saido Berahino. The 21-year-old has made quite an impression this term, and his eight goals in all competitions - including a well-taken strike against Man United - have caught the eye of Wenger, who fully appreciates the danger that he poses.
"They are used to the Premier League and create chances through the flanks as well - they have good deliveries from the crosses"
“He's a young player coming through now and he looks like one of the future strikers for the English national team,” the manager said. “He's developing well - he always had pace but his composure is much better now and he has shown that from the start of the season.”
Having been beaten last time out on their travels, Wenger also pinpointed the key areas that his side must dominate if they are to leave the Midlands with three points on Saturday afternoon.
“West Brom are a team with a good technical level,” he said. “They are used to the Premier League and create chances through the flanks as well - they have good deliveries from the crosses. They are strong on set pieces as well - [these are] all kinds of aspects to their game that we'll have to control.”
The omens are good for Arsenal ahead of their latest road trip. The win against Dortmund did more than revive confidence, it also spoke of a renewed energy and increased maturity to their game. Dortmund, with 13 goals, had been the second top scorers in the Champions League prior to kick off, yet only really came close on one occasion.
West Brom will offer a different test to the Bundesliga giants, but one that the Gunners will have to meet with a similar resolve if they are to build on the foundations they have laid for themselves.
The signs were positive following Wednesday night’s game but, as stated before, perceptions and the mood around a team can change very quickly. Wenger appreciates more than anyone the need to maintain the intensity and drive that saw them to victory in midweek when they return to domestic action.
“We have to keep the quality of our performances and keep the urgency of the defending that we showed against Dortmund,” he concluded. “Most of all, the priority is to keep the dynamic we have in the team. You see this team is alive; it plays with a good dynamic. Let's just focus on that and keep that.”
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