By Chris Harris at Emirates Stadium
Olivier Giroud turned frustration to pure joy as we left it late to win on Boxing Day.
The France striker held off Gareth McAuley to head home Mesut Ozil’s cross after an ultra-defensive Albion had kept us at bay for so long.
We had around 80 per cent of the ball but Albion defended in numbers and did it expertly, filling gaps and closing down space while offering very little at the other end.
Alexis fired against the post in the second half and Albion goalkeeper Ben Foster denied the Chilean as well as Alex Iwobi and Giroud.
In this game of attack v defence it was the defence that looked like going home the happier - but Giroud changed all that.
SETTING THE SCENE
Arsenal fans last filed out of the Emirates with their team top of the table after a win over Stoke. They returned 16 days later with that same team nine points adrift of leaders Chelsea.
That made for a rather subdued, not-so-festive atmosphere in north London. Never mind Santa, it was time for the Gunners to deliver the goods.
Arsene Wenger made two changes from the side that lost at Manchester City.
One was enforced - Theo Walcott’s slight calf problem opening the door for Giroud. The other wasn’t - Kieran Gibbs getting the nod ahead of Nacho Monreal at left back.
Aaron Ramsey marked his birthday by returning to the squad after injury, and Jeff Reine-Adelaide was also among the substitutes with the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dropping out.
Tony Pulis’ West Brom arrived in half-decent form after four wins in seven games. They were expected to be direct, defend in numbers and threaten from set-pieces.
The visitors made their intentions clear from the off. With a bank of four, a bank of five and just Salomon Rondon up front, the onus was on us to break them down.
Giroud’s return saw Alexis move to the left and Iwobi start on the right, and they would be key to our tempo and mobility. Iwobi started promisingly, drifting past a defender and feeding Alexis, and he carried on in the same vein.
Ozil had a half-chance as we looked for an early goal that would open the game up, but his shot was blocked. Then Giroud curled over from distance.
Width would be vital in stretching West Brom’s massed defence. Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs offered it and both crept in behind the Albion back line for crosses that were cut out.
Alexis saw a snap-shot fly wide and his understanding with Ozil almost opened up West Brom thanks to a raking pass from the Chilean and an outrageous Cruyff turn from the German.
Albion offered very little in response, other than two corners from Chris Brunt that Petr Cech punched away.
But as a defensive force they were hard to fault. For all our probing, gaps were closed in an instant and chances were kept to a minimum.
Iwobi’s movement and vision worried West Brom and Claudio Yacob made one desperate block to stop him. But Foster was only forced into one regulation save by Alexis’ low shot.
Foster was well protected in the first half but he was at full stretch at the start of the second.
Our first attack of note saw Gibbs swing in a cross on the left which was headed back to Iwobi. His first-time shot was pushed away by the diving Foster, who got up in time to smother Alexis’ follow-up.
From the resulting corner Alexis seized on a loose ball in the six-yard box, evaded two markers and smacked a shot against the post.
Our Player of the Month was taking the game by the scruff of its neck. His next contribution was a sizzling strike from 22 yards that Foster brilliantly tipped over the bar.
It wasn’t just Alexis though. Everyone in a red-and-white shirt had a fraction more urgency. Giroud was among them: he beat his man but was denied by Foster’s outstretched leg.
West Brom regrouped. Cross after cross was met by defensive header after defensive header. Loose balls were ferried away from danger. Three Albion corners were forced - and Yacob skied a decent opening.
Lucas, Monreal and Ramsey replaced Iwobi, Gibbs and Francis Coquelin as we prepared for one last push.
Giroud was inches away from connecting with a low cross from the left. Bellerin headed wide from Lucas’ right-wing cross.
The game seemed to be up. But Ozil swung in a cross and Giroud held off McAuley to head past Foster.
There could and perhaps should have been a second as Alexis, Giroud and Ramsey all went close in the dying stages. But one was enough.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
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