We’re back in Premier League action against West Bromwich Albion on Boxing Day, and ahead of the game tactical expert Michael Cox analyses our opponents.
We know precisely what to expect from a Tony Pulis side: deep defending and long balls. Although West Bromwich Albion are capable of good football on their day, and Pulis has invested talented forwards like Nacer Chadli, the Baggies’ approach is largely about rudimentary, direct football. Nevertheless, they remain extremely difficult to break down.
In goal, the most telling part of Ben Foster’s season is that he has the worst pass completion rate in the entire Premier League. It’s not that he can’t pass, simply that he’s under strict instructions to hit long balls whenever he can. Foster plays behind a defence which is, in general, comprised of four centre backs.
The most talented of the defensive options, Jonny Evans, looks set to miss out through injury, which means Craig Dawson, Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson are likely to start, probably with Allan Nyom playing left-back.
The Cameroon international is a rare beast – a natural full back in a Pulis side – although he’s also 6ft 2in, and more of a right back than a left back. This means he tucks inside and remains close to the centre backs, denying space for the opposition to play through balls. West Brom will sit very deep, probably on the edge of their own penalty box for long periods.
Pulis will deploy a 4-5-1 formation, although the midfield can be tilted in two ways. Sometimes Argentine Claudio Yacob sits deep and protects the defence by himself, with Darren Fletcher playing a more advanced role, and sometimes Fletcher acts his partner and forms a strict, disciplined midfield duo. The former is probably more likely, with James Morrison – an intelligent, creative footballer – completing the midfield trio.
Going forward, Chadli made a flying start to life at the Hawthorns with four goals in five matches, but a knee injury meant he missed most of November and hasn’t fully regained his sharpness. Still, the Belgian’s off-the-ball movement is excellent and he looks well suited to West Brom’s counter-attacking gameplan too.
Matt Philips is more of a classic winger and should start on the opposite flank, although Pulis usually manages to squeeze in Chris Brunt somewhere – at left back, in central midfield or on the flank. Brunt boasts a tremendous left-footed delivery, useful in both open play and at set-pieces.
Up front, Salomon Rondon will receive little support but has proved himself an excellent lone centre forward, holding up possession effectively and getting on the end of crosses. His recent hat-trick against Swansea was only the second all-headed hat-trick in Premier League history, after Duncan Ferguson did so for Everton against Bolton 19 years ago. Arsenal must push up and keep him away from goal.
Pulis has some decent super subs up his sleeve. James McClean is a dangerous, speedy winger, Craig Gardner can do a job in midfield, while Hal Robson-Kanu has been used as a substitute in 12 of the 13 matches since he joined the club after his Euro 2016 heroics. However, don’t expect Pulis to go chasing the game if the scores are level.
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