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Sam Allardyce must wish he had kept his mouth shut. A couple of weeks ago, when Arsenal was hovering above the relegation zone amidst a dismal winless run, the newly-installed West Bromwich Albion boss suggested the Gunners were in a relegation battle. Mikel Arteta no doubt instructed his players to remember those comments ahead of their trip to The Hawthorns on Saturday, which ended in a 4-0 thumping of the hosts by the men from north London.
The first half of this season has undoubtedly been underwhelming for Arsenal, who remain in the bottom half of the table despite three wins on the bounce. But Arteta’s side is not – and never truly was – in a relegation battle. The same cannot be said for West Brom, whose appointment of survival expert Allardyce might not be enough to save them from an immediate return to the Championship. There is still a long way to go, but this already looks like Allardyce’s toughest test yet.
It is too early to assert that Arsenal has definitely turned a corner, but things look a lot rosier after the festive period than they did before it. A 3-1 triumph over Chelsea on Boxing Day was fully deserved, as a youthful line-up featuring Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli in behind Alexandre Lacazette proved too strong for the Blues.
The Gunners followed that up with a hard-fought 1-0 win against Brighton in midweek, before their vanquishing of West Brom on Saturday. Arsenal was excellent at both ends of the field at The Hawthorns, keeping a third consecutive clean sheet while showcasing the type of free-flowing attacking soccer that has proved elusive for much of the campaign to date. Things are looking up at the Emirates Stadium.
The same cannot be said for West Brom. The club decided to part with Slaven Bilic last month, with Allardyce appointed in his place. There was much talk of the decision being unfair on Bilic, who had led West Brom to promotion ahead of schedule last season, but such arguments rather miss the point. Managerial decisions of this nature should be forecasts of the future, not assessments of the past. If West Brom felt Allardyce was more likely to keep them in the Premier League than Bilic, replacing the latter with the former was justified.
They were probably right too. Bilic has plenty going for him, but no one in English soccer can match Allardyce’s experience of successful battles against relegation. The 66-year-old has led Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, and Everton out of sticky situations during his career. He has never suffered demotion out of the Premier League.
The highlight of Allardyce’s career was his eight-year stay at Bolton, the club he guided from the second division to the top six of the Premier League. The Trotters participated in the UEFA Cup under his stewardship and provided a home to several talented players coming towards the end of their careers, including Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo, and Fernando Hierro.
In recent years he has accepted his status as the Premier League’s foremost firefighter. Sunderland and Palace were in particularly precarious positions when he took charge, but Allardyce worked his magic and both clubs retained their top-flight status. West Brom are in need of a similar rescue mission, but the odds are against Allardyce – the Baggies are second-favorites for the drop with DraftKings Sportsbook, which offers -835 on their relegation.
The January transfer window will be vital for Allardyce. He arguably had more talent already at his disposal at Sunderland and Palace than he does at West Brom, yet he still made use of the mid-season market at both clubs.
At Sunderland, he bought Lamine Kone, Jan Kirchhoff, Wahbi Khazri, Steve Harper, and Dame N’Doye, and took the club from 19th to 17th. At Palace, he acquired Jeff Schlupp, Patrick van Aanholt, Luka Milivojevic, and Mamadou Sakho, and took the side from 17th to 14th.
West Brom is currently six points adrift of safety – a far-from-insurmountable margin with over half of the season still to play. But their squad is short of proven Premier League quality, and Allardyce will be looking to rectify that this month. Reports suggest he is targeting a center-back, a midfielder, and a striker, which indicates he believes the entire spine of the side requires strengthening.
Arteta may also have been considering entering the market in January, but three wins on the bounce might have changed his mind. Saka and Smith Rowe have emerged as two of Arsenal’s most important players, with the latter helping to fill the creative void in the No.10 role. Lacazette is scoring goals again and Arsenal looks defensively solid, having conceded only 19 times in 17 matches – less often than Liverpool and Manchester United, among others.
Their recent run of seven matches without a win saw the pressure on Arteta rise, but the Spaniard now looks to have come out the other side. The experience of a tough few weeks will serve him well in the long-term, and he retains the backing of the board and the fan base. Even so, finishing 11th (the position in the table Arsenal currently occupies) would not be good enough, leaving Arteta with plenty of work to do in the second half of the campaign.
Arsenal have no chance of winning the Premier League title this term, with DraftKings Sportsbook offering +10000 on them topping the table. A more interesting bet could be on Arsenal winning one trophy, which is available at +450. The FA Cup holders begin the defense of that prize against Newcastle on Saturday. Perhaps that game will mark the start of another successful season in the oldest cup competition in world soccer.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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