LONDON - It is becoming undignified now. Being overwhelmed by Bayern Munich is one thing; West Brom quite another.
Tony Pulis’s side did not go the full Bayern; they stopped at three, not quite being able to reach five goals. But they did enough damage to dig deep into Arsenal’s wounds and expose the laughable fragility of this team.
The fightback that was promised after the Bayern debacle only managed to do for Lincoln City. In serious competition, Arsenal players folded again. This is now Arsene Wenger’s worst-ever run of results at the club since he started there 21 years ago: four defeats in five Premier League games, six in nine. His future, he says, is decided but it will not be announced yet.
But if this is Wenger’s twilight year, it is not ending well. Perhaps you are allowed one off year in 21. But you do not want it to be your last. At present, there is no sign that these Arsenal players are responding to whatever their manager is telling them.
Leaderless on and off the pitch, it is no wonder fans are confused. Aeroplanes had been hired to trail banners, with one demanding, ‘No contract, Wenger Out’, another stating, ‘In Arsene we Trust’.
‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ chanted the fans in the stadium when, at 3-1 down, Alexis Sanchez was withdrawn for Alex Iwobi. But Sanchez had been badly hurt by an awful James McClean challenge and that, at least, was an understandable decision.
Nevertheless, the ‘Wenger Out’ banners are no longer the lonely protests of oddballs. There were several displayed at the end — and this from Arsenal’s hardcore away support.
Other than the bombshell that he had made a decision on his future, Wenger was remarkably composed afterwards. ‘We had 77 per cent possession but we didn’t create enough chances,’ he said. His other thoughts included: ‘Our record on defending set-pieces is quite good since the start of the season’; ‘we were a bit naive’; and ‘you don’t see any obvious signs of a lack of attitude’. That did not quite cover the abject failures of his players.
All that ought not to overshadow West Brom’s performance, which was excellent. ‘We deserve a bit of credit,’ said boss Pulis. ‘We had a meeting last Monday after our two defeats and I told the players not to listen to people outside who are not involved. Irrespective of what people say, it’s the most demanding league in the world and what they have achieved has been fantastic.’
But Arsenal’s awfulness will be discussed more than West Brom’s excellence. Arsenal are attempting to maintain a 19-year run in the Champions League.
It looked to be a familiar Arsenal tale of woe when Craig Dawson headed home Nacer Chadli’s corner in the 13th minute. Arsenal had already been exposed when Allan Nyom charged down the right wing leaving Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi in his wake early on and then by McClean’s excellent strike, saved well by Petr Cech.
All the familiar Arsenal tropes were featured: the soft centre, the lack of defensive organisation, the absence of leadership. So it was something of a surprise that they did not take the setback lying down. Danny Welbeck found Xhaka, who played a chipped ball in to the feet of Sanchez, who stepped inside a clutch of West Brom defenders and lashed the ball home.
The Chilean’s performances of late have been questionable but this first-half display was not. He was engaged in most good things Arsenal did, so much so that McClean took him out in the 42nd minute with a horrible challenge.
Arsenal survived Salomon Rondon pulling a shot wide in the 31st minute and Darren Fletcher’s terrific strike, for which Cech had to be at his best. It was his last significant contribution as the goalkeeper limped off injured three minutes later having seemingly pulled a hamstring while making a simple pass to Hector Bellerin.
And another warning was served when Rondon headed wide in the 51st minute from Chris Brunt’s excellent cross. He was substituted shortly after for Hal Robson-Kanu.Consternation for Arsenal followed. McClean’s initial cross was cleared to Chadli, who dinked a chip into the area.
It was tricky to deal with but hardly impossible. Yet David Ospina, on for Cech, and Bellerin made a mess of it, the ball rebounding out to Robson-Kanu, who prodded it goalwards.
McClean, stood well offside by now in the six-yard box, had to quickly get out of its way to avoid it being disallowed, which he managed and which a brief referees’ summit confirmed.
Arsenal, however, did not roll over immediately. There was a Xhaka corner which Welbeck headed against the bar and from the rebound Robson-Kanu looked to foul Mustafi, but no penalty was awarded.
Yet still West Brom looked the more dangerous. Brunt played in Robson-Kanu in the 67th minute and only the sharpness of Ospina in coming out denied him, with Mustafi having to clear the rebound shot from Chadli off the line.
Then the denouement. Having conceded once from a corner, only Arsenal among the leading clubs could contrive to let in precisely the same goal. The differences were that McClean delivered the corner and that this time it was Ospina being blocked by Fletcher.
Yet otherwise it was identical: the in-swinging corner, the absence of any marking and Dawson coming through to head in. It was a fitting finale: West Brom excellent at what they do best, Arsenal just awful.
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