Two sides who have endured very contrasting starts to their respective domestic seasons prepare for battle in the second round of the EFL Cup as West Bromwich Albion face Arsenal at The Hawthorns on Wednesday.
The Baggies claimed a 2-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers in the Championship at the weekend, while Arsenal’s woeful start continued with a 2-0 defeat to Chelsea.
With their sights firmly set on an immediate return to the top flight, Valerien Ismael has overseen a splendid start to the season for West Brom, employing the highly effective 3-4-3 which turned Barnsley into the unlikeliest of promotion contenders.
West Brom kicked off the new season with a 2-2 draw against Bournemouth but have since marched to three consecutive victories in the second tier, with Luton Town, Sheffield United and most recently Blackburn falling to the Baggies’ superiority.
During their visit to Ewood Park over the weekend, Alex Mowatt – who followed Ismael to West Brom from Barnsley – saw his sweetly-struck volley sail into the net in the first minute, and Matt Phillips would double his side’s advantage in first-half added time before Ben Brereton Diaz netted what proved to be nothing more than a consolation.
The less said about West Brom’s home fortunes in the 2020-21 Premier League season the better, but they have found the back of the net seven times in their opening two games at The Hawthorns this term and will surely have studied Arsenal’s defensive frailties ahead of this contest.
Not since the 2016-17 season have West Brom been knocked out in the second round – suffering a penalty-shootout defeat to Northampton Town – but they fell at the first round in the 2019-20 campaign and will surely prioritise immediate promotion rather than an unlikely cup run here.
Facing the champions of Europe with a new £97.5m signing in tow would render any team the underdogs, but it was just the same old story for Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal during a 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in front of the Emirates faithful.
Romelu Lukaku bullied his way past Pablo Mari to tap home Reece James’s cross during his second debut for the Blues, and provider soon turned to goalscorer as James – in acres of space on the right-hand side – fired home past Bernd Leno in a dominant first half.
With a 2-0 loss to Brentford another blot on his notebook, the pressure on Arteta’s shoulders is growing by the week, and with a trip to champions Manchester City to come next weekend, the prospect of Arsenal finishing August without a single win is very real.
Injuries and a coronavirus cluster have decimated Arteta’s squad early doors, but ending the club’s 28-year wait for another EFL Cup title would be a welcome feat, and Arsenal’s most recent second-round fixture in this tournament saw them thrash Hartlepool United 8-0 on aggregate in the 1995-96 season.
Arsenal eased to a 3-1 success over Sam Allardyce’s West Brom as recently as May, and the two sides faced off in EFL Cup action back in September 2013, where forgotten men Nicklas Bendtner and Nacho Monreal helped the Gunners progress on penalties in the third round.
West Bromwich Albion EFL Cup form:
Arsenal form (all competitions):
We say: West Bromwich Albion 2-2 Arsenal (Arsenal to win on penalties)
Ismael’s West Brom have slain everything before them in the early weeks of the season, and the Baggies faithful have no reason to believe that a shock could not be on the cards here.
With Arsenal’s absentee list stretching into the double figures and morale at an all-time low, the gulf in historical class between the two clubs should pale into insignificance here, but we still have faith in Arteta’s men to get over the line on penalties and kickstart their stuttering season.