Saturday, December 9th, 1663. Samuel Pepys, a British diarist, parliamentarian, and naval administrator, wrote "Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas". What's that got to do with Arsenal? Other than the British military association, it sheds the slimmest sliver of light on Boxing Day. For those of us unfamiliar, Pepys is referring to a tradition in England that happens on the first weekday after Christmas when servants and other workers would receive a gift or tip in a box. The custom itself seems to date back to the Middle Ages; the tradition of Boxing Day football dates back to 1860.
On that Boxing Day, the first and second clubs ever formed in England played the first-ever inter-club match. Sheffield FC defeated Hallham FC 2-0. A closer connection to Arsenal formed in 1888-89, the Football League's first 22-match season, when Preston North End defeated Derby County on its way to the first-ever "Invincible" record. We of course achieved the same in 2003-04 and will face Preston North End in the FA Cup in January. So that's Boxing Day for you.
Now, for the actual match. On this Boxing Day, we "welcome" West Brom, which is to say we don't welcome them at all. They're in middle-of-the-pack form, squeezed in among six other squads somewhere between 24 and 21 points. They've fought through tough losses to Chelsea (1-0) and Man U (0-2) either side of trouncing Swansea (3-1). They're not awful on the road, but after our own recent setbacks, it is absolutely imperative that we get back on track, finding either the form or the grit that once launched us to the top of the table. It might be encouraging to suggest that, despite our worst performance of the season, we emerged from the Etihad having lost "only" 2-1.
We've looked jaded of late, so there's some hope to be found in the fact that West Brom feature the Prem's oldest squad. Mainstays like Gareth McAuley (37), Chris Brunt (32), Ben Foster, (33), Jonas Olsson (33), and Darren Fletcher (32) are no longer spring chickens, and they are likely to struggle to hold us off, what with the pace and movement we have in attack. Still, we have to know what to expect from a side managed by our old friend Tony Pulis: a well-organised defense and rugged, physical play. This lot may not be quite as stingy as his infamous Stoke sides but we should be prepared for a low-scoring match.
With that in mind, I hope we see Olivier Giroud played as centre-forward. Against the size and physicality that the Baggies offer, we are going to need more muscle than Alexis, chiseled though he may be, can offer. Giroud can wear McAuley and Olsson out for 60-70 minutes, after which the Energizer Bunny that is Alexis can run circles around them. One or both should even find a few chances to score. With Giroud as a target-man, our offense, which has lacked direction or focus in recent outings, should be able to find its way past Pulis's defense.
Arsenal 2-0 West Brom (21 April 2016)
West Brom 2-1 Arsenal (21 November 2015)
Arsenal 4-1 West Brom (24 May 2015)
Cazorla, Welbeck, Mustafi, Debuchy, and Mertesacker are out; Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey face late fitness tests.
POSSIBLE STARTING XI
Čech, Monreal, Koscielny, Gabriel, Bellerín; Xhaka, Elneny; Alexis, Özil, Walcott; Giroud.
Although we'll likely have to endure long, fruitless spells, ultimately, there's too much at stake and too much firepower available. Arsenal 3-0 West Brom.
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