Sam Allardyce takes his side to the Emirates on Sunday evening in the knowledge that Albion will be playing football in the Championship next season. The big unanswered question is whether Allardyce will be at the helm when the Baggies kick off their promotion challenge in August.
Mathematically, of course, Albion can still escape. Four wins would lift them onto 38 points, more than the tally that Burnley (36), Southampton (37) and Brighton (37) have at the time of writing, but it would be an incredible set of results and would need to start with a win at the Emirates, something Albion have achieved just once.
The 3-2 win for Robert di Matteo’s newly promoted side in September 2010 was as unexpected as a win for Big Sam’s team would be on Sunday evening, and in the seven visits to Arsenal since then, the Baggies have scored just once losing them all by an aggregate score of 15-1.
This season, however, Arsenal have been less than impressive at the Emirates having lost seven Premier League games there this season, just one less than the Baggies have at the Hawthorns, including home defeats to Burnley, Wolves and Everton and draws with Southampton, Crystal Palace and Fulham.
Another disappointing home draw on Thursday with Villareal saw the Gunners crash out of the Europa League and, with them sitting in tenth place in the league, the Gunners face the prospect of playing a season without European football for the first time since 1995/96.
Arteta will be expecting a reaction from that result on Sunday, and Arsenal retain faint hopes of finishing in the top seven thereby securing a European spot (although that could go down to 8th should Chelsea win the Champions League and finish outside the top four).
For Albion, with Fulham and Burnley not playing until Monday, they cannot be relegated mathematically before kick off but in truth they are now playing for pride, and perhaps a target of finishing 18th rather than 19th. At least until relegation is confirmed, Allardyce cannot afford to experiment with his line up, although he will need to make at least one change with Ainsley Maitland-Niles ineligible to play against his parent club.
Big Sam’s choice of replacement in central midfield could be quite telling. Jake Livermore and Romaine Sawyers were regular starters under Slaven Bilić but they have been largely frozen out under Allardyce. Livermore’s last start was in the defeat to Sheffield United at the beginning of February and has made just two appearances from the bench since then, playing the last 23 minutes against Manchester United and a few seconds in the closing stages of the win over Chelsea. Sawyers, meanwhile, has made just one appearance since Allardyce took charge as a starter in the 2-0 defeat at Tottenham in February – he was replaced by Okay Yokuslu for the last 12 minutes as the Turk made his Albion debut and hasn’t featured since.
Assuming Allardyce opts for 4-3-3, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Matt Phillips line up in the central three with Callum Robinson coming back into the starting line-up. Phillips has played well in recent weeks and has dropped into central midfield more than once late in games as Allardyce has looked to shuffle the pack. If that is the decision, it could mean that Livermore and Sawyers aren’t in Big Sam’s plans for next season, assuming he stays, of course.
For me, both players performed superbly last season but neither has been able to produce the goods this season. However, I believe that Bilić was asking them to play as defensive midfielders which neither of them are. At 31, Livermore’s best days are undoubtedly behind him, but I would retain him as an experienced squad player. I would like to see Sawyers given an opportunity as a number right with a proper defensive midfielder behind him, and maybe Sunday is that opportunity – I think he is a talented player and can certainly do the business in the Championship next season.
I don’t expect too much else to change. Allardyce may, of course, opt for a back three, in which case we could see Pereira playing centrally in front of Yokuslu and Gallagher, but with Arteta preferring a back four, I would expect Albion to so the same.
Arsenal may have had a poor season by their standards, but they have some wonderful players in the likes of Aubameyang, Lacazette, Martinelli and Willian. Furthermore, Kieran Tierney, who is one of the best young full backs in the Premier League in my opinion, and scored a wonderful goal at the Hawthorns earlier in the campaign (albeit his only goal this season), made his return from injury from the bench on Thursday evening and could be back in the side.
It will be another tough test for Albion, but given the improvement in the side, I expect the Baggies to be competitive but a the victory they need is a very tough ask.