West Bromwich Albion 2 Arsenal 2
Reid 3, Odemwingie 58; Arshavin 70, van Persie 78
Two goals in eight minutes by Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie brought Arsenal back from the brink of a catastrophic defeat to West Bromwich Albion, but they could not complete the turnaround by applying the finishing touch of a winning goal. That proved costly, as ten-man Manchester United won courtesy of an 88th-minute goal and extended their lead at the top of the Premier League to five points. The difference in the title contenders’ results owed something to luck, but also underlined perhaps the biggest difference between the two sides: Arsenal possess character but lack belief, whereas United possess not only character and belief, but also the killer instinct to grab an opportunity when it presents itself.
With Johan Djourou and Abou Diaby joining a lengthening injury list, Arsène Wenger was forced to field a depleted XI at the Hawthorns. However, he did give a start to Aaron Ramsey, making his first league appearance since breaking his leg against Stoke last February.
Sagna – Squillaci – Koscielny – Gibbs
Denilson – Ramsey
Nasri – van Persie – Arshavin
Arsenal had suffered a surprise 3-2 defeat in the home game at the Emirates back in September, when two late Samir Nasri goals were not enough to cancel out three second half goals by the visitors, who capitalised on some lethargic play and fully deserved all three points.
The worst possible start
Ramsey should have scored on his league return (image courtesy of arsenal.com)
That lethargy was in evidence again here as Arsenal got off to the worst possible start. Inside three minutes, Bacary Sagna lost his man at a throw-in, resulting in the concession of a soft corner. Chris Brunt‘s excellent outswinging delivery was met by the head of Steven Reid, who had the luxury of powering in a virtually free header for his first league goal of the season. It was also the first time Arsenal have conceded in the first 15 minutes in the Premier League this season.
The visitors, shell-shocked, dominated possession but did not have their first shot until the 25th minute – and then they should have scored twice over. Gaël Clichy whipped in an excellent cross from the left which van Persie headed against the bar with Scott Carson stranded. Ramsey collected the rebound, but with the goal at his mercy shot straight at the West Brom keeper.
And that was basically it for the first 45 minutes. Arsenal prodded and probed, and had a couple of spells of decent pressure in and around the West Brom box, but Carson was not called into significant action again before half-time.
Worse, then better – but still not good enough
Wenger made a positive tactical switch at half-time, removing the ineffective Denilson and replacing him with Marouane Chamakh. But it was West Brom who had the first big chance of the half, as a sliding Brunt could only find the side netting from Marek Čech‘s cross.
Almunia's howler left Arsenal 2-0 down (image courtesy of arsenal.com)
That was soon followed by the arrival of Nicklas Bendtner for the tiring Ramsey. The Dane had barely set foot on the pitch when disaster struck. Sébastien Squillaci appeared to have Youssouf Mulumbu‘s simple long ball over the top covered, but Manuel Almunia inexplicably charged out of his box and tangled with the French defender, allowing Peter Odemwingie to score. It was a goalkeeping howler of the highest proportion.
Stung into desperation, Arsenal pressed forward in search of a way back to the game, and it finally arrived in the 70th minute courtesy of Arshavin. The Russian passed to Chamakh and continued his run into the box to receive the return. He flicked the ball with his right foot, and then hammered it past Carson with his left from 15 yards. It was a superb finish, completely out of context with Arsenal’s preceding efforts.
Arshavin was instrumental in Arsenal's comeback (image courtesy of arsenal.com)
Re-energised, the visitors surged on in search of the equaliser. Eight minutes later Arshavin, with two defenders in close attendance, made himself enough space to whip in a cross to the back post. Bendtner touched it back, and as the ball got stuck between Abdoulaye Meite‘s feet van Persie just managed to get a toe in and it rolled almost apologetically over the line.
With parity restored, Arsenal sought a winner but were almost caught out when Marc-Antoine Fortuné charged through on goal only to be denied by a fantastic sliding block by Squillaci. Nonetheless it was virtually one-way traffic as Carson looked distinctly uncomfortable under a succession of high balls. Clichy lashed in a late effort which was well saved, but Arsenal just could not find a way through the home side’s increasingly desperate defence and had to settle for a point.
Somehow, you just feel United would have had the killer instinct to leave with all three.
Meanwhile, Arsenal now have a record of just five points from five games against the three promoted clubs, and are winless in four games. Their only victory since the Carling Cup defeat three weeks ago was the FA Cup win over League One Leyton Orient.
Post-match reaction and analysis
Arsène Wenger refused to be too downcast – at least publicly – after the game:
I am proud of the spirit we have shown. It shows we are ready for a fight. We made things difficult for ourselves with the second goal and we faced opponents who were very well organised.
It was more down to character and resilience, which we have shown plenty of. Mathematically, we [have] lost two points but psychologically we have won a point because when you are 2-0 down with 20 minutes to go, you are not too unhappy to come back.
And he refused to assign blame for West Brom’s crucial second goal:
I do not want to go too much into individual criticism. What was good was the reaction the whole team has shown. It will be interesting until the end [of the season], we are ready to focus and ready to fight.
He also pointed out that, despite this setback, the title race is far from over:
I felt, no matter what happened today, it will not be over. For the team, it was important not to lose. With what happened to us recently, of course, you wonder how you would recover if you lose the game today.
I have heard that Manchester United won in the last two minutes. It is the least predictable season since I have been in England.
Wenger was certainly right about the title race remaining alive, although Arsenal can ill afford setbacks like this one. Nonetheless, they are only five points behind with a game in hand and United are still to come to the Emirates. However, they are a long way from showing title-winning form right now. For once, the international break could not have come at a better time as an opportunity to heal and regroup.
There isn’t much point doing an in-depth tactical analysis of this game, as the majority of Arsenal’s problems at the moment are mental rather than tactical. So instead let’s examine what those issues are, and what needs to be done over the summer, regardless of whether the title is won or lost.
A busy summer ahead?
For me, the problem lies not so much with the starting XI – which can stand toe-to-toe with any team in Europe – as with their backups. Ever since the second-string started to feature regularly over the Christmas period, it has become increasingly obvious that most of them lack either the ability or the mentality – and in some cases both – to step up and deliver when called upon. While the club have been admirably patient with many of the current crop of players, giving them time to develop and rewarding them with lucrative new contracts to ward off potential suitors, there comes a point when it is time to accept that some players have simply not made the grade.
I don’t think a wholesale clear-out is required, but there are certainly at least four players who need to be moved on in the summer, starting with Denilson, Emmanuel Eboué, Carlos Vela and Almunia. Arshavin has been the target of many fans’ dissatisfaction because of his poor fitness and work-rate, but he remains a game-changer without whom Arsenal would not have earned even a single point here. Squillaci is adequate as an experienced fourth-choice defender (but no more than that), and while Bendtner and Abou Diaby have their flaws, they both serve useful roles as squad players. Whatever happens, the squad needs to be shaken up and reminded that their places are not secure if they cannot perform to the required level.
The problem facing the club is twofold. Firstly it requires Wenger to accept that some of the squad he has been developing for years simply isn’t good enough. There is no shame in that – sometimes even the most promising of youngsters do not fulfil their promise, no matter how good the coaching – but it will require the notoriously stubborn Wenger to accept that. And secondly, those same lucrative contracts that prevented other clubs from tempting them away now provide a significant barrier to moving those players on. That’s not to say the club would not be able to sell, say, Denilson – but they might have to accept a substantially reduced fee to compensate for another team taking on his wages.
A reduced transfer fee should not be a show-stopper, though. There is already cash in the kitty, and if the sale of the four identified players can raise anywhere north of £10m, that would be fine. (If Bendtner can be sold for anywhere near the £17m Newcastle were reportedly offering for him on transfer deadline day, that would be excellent business too.)
But who should these four be replaced with? I don’t believe it is necessary to sign four new players in their place. With on-loan youngsters like Kyle Bartley (Rangers), Henri Lansbury (Norwich) and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Cardiff) all potentially ready to take their places on the edges of the squad, two or three signings of sufficient quality would suffice. Without naming names, I would like to see some decent money spent on experienced, tough players who can step easily into the first team, if not necessarily displace them. A 30-something goalkeeper, an uncompromising defender (someone like Blackburn‘s Christopher Samba, say) and a robust central midfielder in their mid-to-late twenties (a two-years-younger Scott Parker would have been ideal) would be perfect. Whether they come from England or elsewhere doesn’t really matter, but they would need to have that never-say-die attitude which too many of the current squad lack.
All that is in the future now. With the international break, Arsenal do not play again until the home fixture against Blackburn in two weeks’ time. They will need to bounce back with a more convincing performance and result than this if their one remaining chance of silverware is not to slip away.