September 25, 2010 4 Comments
Nasri 75, 90; Odemwingie 50, Jara 52, Thomas 73
Samir Nasri‘s two late goals were not enough to prevent Arsenal from slipping to an unexpected defeat against a West Brom side who fully deserved to leave the Emirates Stadium with all three points.
Arsène Wenger made nine changes from the side who started Tuesday’s extra time Carling Cup win over Tottenham, retaining only Laurent Koscielny and Samir Nasri, and also welcomed back Abou Diaby and Alex Song from injury and suspension respectively.
Without looking close to their flowing best, Arsenal carved out several chances in the first quarter of the game. Nasri was off target with a number of efforts, Andrey Arshavin contrived to hit the post twice from close range in quick succession, and Marouane Chamakh headed wide. But the more chances that went begging – and the more Arsenal, in the absence of the injured Cesc Fàbregas, drifted into over-elaboration – the more the visitors established their own neat passing game.
The first sign that those early misses might prove costly came eight minutes before half-time, when Manuel Almunia raced recklessly off his line and brought down Peter Odemwingie. But having conceded the penalty, Almunia atoned by diving to his right to save Chris Brunt‘s tame spot-kick, but in so doing injured his shoulder, requiring treatment during the interval.
Despite the all too clear warning, Arsenal were equally sluggish after the break, and two goals in two minutes early in the half swung the match decisively in the Baggies’ favour. First former Gunner Jerome Thomas, West Brom’s best player, wriggled easily past Bacary Sagna and squared for Odemwingie to slide in, then Chilean international Gonzalo Jara, with Koscielny standing off him, struck a low shot straight at Almunia which the keeper allowed to go straight through him.
Wenger responded by sending on Jack Wilshere and Tomáš Rosický for the ineffective midfield pair of Diaby and Emmanuel Eboué, and then Carlos Vela for Koscielny, but as Arsenal pressed harder in their attempts to find a way back into the match they laid themselves open to the counter-attack. From one such move, Almunia sprinted off his line and ended up in no-man’s land as Brunt was left with an easy pass for the unmarked Thomas to tap in.
Nasri, Arsenal’s one outstanding performer, responded immediately, hitting the bar from the edge of the box before skipping past two tackles and coolly steering a left-footed shot past Scott Carson. Then, in the first of five minutes of injury time, Arshavin’s quick feet set up the Frenchman to score from near the penalty spot. But the improbable comeback remained tantalisingly incomplete, and West Brom clung on for their well-earned win.
Poor as Arsenal were throughout the game, that should take nothing away from a West Brom side who were committed, bold and executed a clear tactical plan to deny Arsenal space in the middle and force them wide. In attack, they caused Arsenal more problems than most visitors to the Emirates will this season, and they capitalised on their chances with a ruthlessness in stark contrast to their hosts’ lackadaisical finishing.
Wenger was at a loss to explain the poverty of his team’s performance after the exhilarating win over Spurs in midweek, during which most of today’s starting eleven had been rested:
We made it more difficult because we were not at our usual level. Not defensively, not offensively. Overall everything was difficult for us today – passing the ball, winning the ball back, winning the one against ones – and we got what we deserved which was zero points. We didn’t deserve more. The positive is that we did fight until the last minute but it was just not good enough at that level to get three points. It is the first real bad performance [of the season] and it is unexplainable how bad the whole thing looked for the whole game.
Inevitably the goalkeeping position will once again come under scrutiny, with Almunia at fault for both the second and third goals. Wenger refused to single out the Spanish keeper for blame, although he was somewhat equivocal in defending a goalkeeper who is widely considered to be the weakest link in the team:
You can have question marks about many players today if you look at the performance, especially the defensive one. Many players made massive mistakes defensively. I do not want to come out on any individual performances because we were collectively poor. You could single out a few players who have made mistakes.
Full backs Sagna and Gaël Clichy both endured poor games. Such sub-par performances are becoming increasingly commonplace for the latter, whose starting berth must surely now be under increasing threat from Kieran Gibbs, once his understudy has recovered from a minor foot injury sustained on Tuesday. And Diaby, who so often looks great when Arsenal are in confident, attacking mode, was yet again conspicuous by his absence when required to stamp some authority on a struggling team performance. These three were not Arsenal’s only poor performers on an afternoon where only Nasri – despite completing five hours of competitive football across three games in the space of a week – showed the consistent invention, drive and application which will be required as the players embark on a long run of two-a-week fixtures which extends through to mid-November.
Despite the histrionics, vitriol and general end-of-the-world-is-nighedness which flooded the internet during and in the immediate aftermath of the match, defeat hardly constitutes a mortal blow to Arsenal’s title aspirations. With Chelsea also losing and less than one-sixth of the season completed thus far, there is still all to play for. A missed opportunity? Of course. The sort of game that aspiring contenders do not lose, as many near-suicidal voices have been trumpeting over the last few hours? Give me a break. I can clearly recall a humbling home defeat to Blackburn – a performance far worse than today’s – which proved to be a turning point in a triumphant march to the 1997/98 League and Cup double. And didn’t Manchester United lose both games a few seasons back to a West Ham side who escaped relegation only by beating the champions on the final day of the season?
Freak defeats happen; they are part of the warp and weft which make up the fabric of football. Wenger alluded to this himself when he said:
I believe that today’s game was an exception – until today we had very, very good games. I didn’t recognise my team today and we have to sit down together to analyse what happened. Something is unexplanable in such a poor performance. It is always difficult to [sense it before the game] but something was not right and it is unusual to see a team as flat as we were today.
It is not the defeat itself or even its cause – after the Lord Mayor’s show? complacency? – which is the most critical aspect in assessing Arsenal’s title credentials. What matters most is how the team responds to this. If complacency was a contributing factor to this afternoon’s setback, then it is important that the team learns from this and approaches every game with the same level of intensity, no matter how ‘easy’ it may seem.
After a Champions League jaunt to play Partizan Belgrade on Tuesday, next up will be a trip to defending champions Chelsea next Sunday in a game which will give a much truer reflection of Arsenal’s standing in the title race. There is little chance of complacency creeping in for that game, however. The title race proper starts here.