Arsenal recorded a much-needed 1-0 victory over West Brom to get back to winning ways and ensure league leaders Chelsea disappeared no further over the horizon. The result means the Gunners remain nine points behind Antonio Conte’s side: a gap any larger at the turn of the year would surely be impossible to overturn.
This was a game that Arsenal needed to win at any cost. The festive period sees Arsene Wenger’s team facing a winnable run of fixtures but they were in desperate need of three points to reignite their title hopes. With a win under their belts, they can set about the task of reigning in Conte’s runaway leaders.
Arsenal will also be delighted to keep their first clean sheet since the 0-0 draw with Middlesbrough in October. West Brom didn’t play with much attacking ambition but Wenger will be satisfied with the shut-out nevertheless.
This was not a good performance from Arsenal. They lacked fluency and purpose, particularly in the first half. There is a reasonable explanation; for example, their intricate style of play is so dependent on confidence that it can often take time for them to recover their swagger after a big defeat. However, Arsenal will need to improve quickly if they’re to put together the run of form they need.
It wasn’t a great day for Arsenal on the injury front. Both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott failed to make the matchday squad while Kieran Gibbs had to be withdrawn early with what looked like a muscle strain.
Manager rating out of 10
6 — The Gunners boss got away with it today. His decision to start Olivier Giroud up top ultimately paid dividends with the winning goal, but for most of the match it saw Arsenal revert to a style of play that they had seemingly discarded as predictable and one-paced. He also might have acted earlier with his substitutions; with the Baggies offering minimal attacking threat, Aaron Ramsey might have been introduced for Coquelin sooner.
West Bromwich Albion
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Petr Cech, 6 — With West Brom only managing three shots in the entire game (only one of which hit the target), this was a quiet game for Arsenal’s experienced stopper.
DF Hector Bellerin, 6 — With Giroud in the side, Arsenal needed a supply line of quality crosses from the flank. Unfortunately, Bellerin was unable to provide: all too often he finished an impressive run with an over-hit delivery.
DF Gabriel Paulista, 6 — Another competent performance from Arsenal’s stand-in centre-half. Salomon Rondon is a handful but the Brazilian seemed to be comfortable containing his threat.
DF Laurent Koscielny, 7 — The Frenchman rarely has on off day. With Shkodran Mustafi still absent, he is now taking responsibility for instigating Arsenal’s attacking moves from deep.
DF Kieran Gibbs, 6 — Having been granted an opportunity to start ahead of Nacho Monreal, Gibbs will be gutted to have picked up an injury that forced him from the field. With Monreal in indifferent form, this was a chance for him to establish himself in the side. It seems that chance may now pass him by.
MF Francis Coquelin, 5 — The combative midfielder is usually an important cog in the Arsenal machine. However, against a team as defensive as West Brom, he’s not strictly necessary. Wenger might have been better off starting Ramsey, whose passing has more range than Coquelin’s conservative distribution.
MF Granit Xhaka, 6 — The Swiss international continues to bed into the Arsenal midfield. It will be fascinating to see what happens when Ramsey and Santi Cazorla are deemed ready to start games: will Wenger decide that he only needs one of Coquelin or Xhaka to play every week?
No. 10 Mesut Ozil 7 — For most of the match, Ozil was a peripheral figure. However, it was he who created the late winner, launching a perfect cross in Giroud’s direction. That’s the value in keeping Ozil on the field, even when he’s underperforming: the playmaker is always capable of producing one telling moment of magic.
FW Alex Iwobi, 7 — When Arsenal’s experienced players were failing to produce their best, Iwobi continually took responsibility for trying to make something happen. It didn’t always come off, but his application and ingenuity warrant recognition.
FW Alexis Sanchez, 7 — Arsenal’s busiest and best player was unlucky not to open the scoring with a shot that cannoned off the post. He’s at his best through the middle, but playing on the flank affords him the opportunity to drop deeper and involve himself in Arsenal’s approach play.
FW Olivier Giroud, 7 — Could any other Arsenal player have scored that winner? Giroud’s goal was a towering header that showcased his astonishing aerial ability. However, Arsenal do appear to be a better side without him. Perhaps a better strategy would have been to have started with Lucas Perez and introduced Giroud as a late substitute.
DF Nacho Monreal, NR — Replaced the injured Gibbs (71 minutes) and should now come back into the starting XI.
FW Lucas Perez, NR — Came on for Iwobi (71 minutes) and looked lively. The Spaniard will surely get a rare Premier League start over the festive period.
MF Aaron Ramsey, NR — Replaced Coquelin (74 minutes) and might have fared better with a couple of scoring opportunities.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.