The fight back which was promised after the Bayern debacle only encompassed Lincoln City. In serious competition. Arsenal players folded yet again. 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‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ chanted the Arsenal fans in the stadium when, at 3-1 down, Alexis Sanchez was withdrawn for Alex Iwobi. And the ‘Wenger Out’ banners are no longer lonely protests. There were several displayed at the end, and this from Arsenal’s hard-core away support.
All that ought not to overshadow West Bromwich Albion’s performance, which was excellent. Pulis knew exactly which buttons to press to induce an Arsenal collapse and his players duly followed his instructions.
It will do, however. West Brom are merely playing for extra bonus money dependent on which mid table positon they can secure. Arsenal are attempting to maintain a 19-year run in the Champions League. They may drop down to sixth by the end of the weekend if Manchester United beat Middlesbrough.
If this is Arsene Wenger’s twilight year, it’s not looking like ending well, an FA Cup run notwithstanding. Perhaps you are allowed one off year in 21? But you don’t want it be your last. And yet there is no sign that these Arsenal players are responding to whatever their manager is telling them.
It looked to be a familiar Arsenal tale of woe when Craig Dawson headed home Nacer Chadli’s delightful in-swinging corner on 13 minutes. Arsenal had already been exposed when Allan Nyom had charged down the right wing leaving Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi in his wake. It was an extraordinary burst, ruined only by him pulling the ball harmlessly across goal when Salomon Rondon was waiting for the pass.
And there was Chris Brunt’s superb through ball to James McClean and his equally-excellent strike, which forced a fine save form Petr Cech. All of this in the first 12 minutes before the goal,which featured a noticeable lack of marking and Darren Fletcher blocking Cech on the goal-line. All the familiar Arsenal tropes were featuring: the soft centre, the lack of defensive organisation, the absence of leadership with a Tony Pulis team thrown in for good measure.
So it something of a surprise that they didn’t take the setback lying down but responded almost immediately on 16 minutes. Welbeck found Xhaka who played an exquisite chipped ball into the feet of Alexis Sanchez, who stepped inside a clutch of West Brom defenders and lashed the ball home.
The Chilean performances of late have been questionable but this first half display wasn’t. He was engaged in most good things Arsenal did, so much so that McClean felt the need to take him out on 42 minutes with a horrible challenge. Bizarrely, Sanchez was then booed by West Brom fans for having the temerity to be fouled.
Not that Arsenal were out of the woods. They survived Rondon pulling a shot wide on 31 minutes and Darren Fletcher’s terrific strike on 34 minutes, 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 seeming pulled a hamstring whilst making a simle pass to Hector Bellerin.
For Arsenal there was Ramsey’s lovely movement and strike on 31 minutes which brought a good save from Ben Foster and some robust team defending to prevent Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from turning in the rebound.
Yet Arsenal being Arsenal, they always find a way to conform to type. Warning was served when Rondon headed wide on 51 minutes from Brunt’s excellent cross. He should have scored and was substituted shortly after for Hal Robson-Kanu.
Consternation for Arsenal followed soon after. McClean’s initial cross was cleared to Chadli who dinked a challenging chip into the penalty area. It was tricky to deal with but hardly impossible; yet David Ospina, on for Cech, and Bellerin made a mess of it in both going for the ball. It rebounded out to Robson-Kanu who prodded it goal-wards. 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 a brief referees’ summit confirmed.
Arsenal didn’t wholly cease competing. There was a Xhaka corner which Welbeck thundered against the bar with a powerful header on 65 minutes; from the rebound Robson-Kanu looked to foul Mustafi, but no penalty was awarded.
Yet still West Brom looked the most dangerous. Brunt, who was excelling, played in Robson-Kanu on 67 minutes and only the sharpness of Ospina in coming out denied him, with Mustafi having to clear the rebound shot, from Chadli, off the line.
And so it came to pass, the denouement. Having conceded once from a corner, only Arsenal amongst the leading clubs, could contrive to concede precisely the same goal later in the game. The significant differences were that McClean delivered the corner and that this time it was Ospina being blocked off by Fletcher. Yet otherwise, it was identical: the in-swinging corner, the absence of any marking and Dawson coming crashing through to head home. It was a fitting finale for both teams: West Brom at their most effective with Arsenal utterly hapless.