West Bromwich Albion came to the Emirates today, played very well, and beat a very flat Arsenal team by a final score of 3-2. It was Arsenal's first defeat in any competition this year and meant that the Gunners failed to gain ground on first-place Chelsea, who also lost today to Manchester City.
From the very off, there seemed to be something slightly rusty about Arsenal. It is impossible to pin down psychological states, but if the physical manifestation tells one anything, the Gunners looked to be either very tired or very overconfident after their 4-1 win against Tottenham in the Carling Cup four days ago.
The match started with Arsenal's usual sharpness missing, passes going astray from Song, Diaby, and Squillaci in the midfield, giving West Brom the initiative on counterattacks early on. Emmanuel Eboué also made a couple of bad passes after cutting in from the right wing; indeed, the Ivorian looked out of position today, failing to find possession in wide areas and work in tandem with right back Bacary Sagna in any productive way. He often popped up in the middle and occasionally even on the left, Sagna left to work by himself against Jerome Thomas. Kenny Sansom on Arsenal TV Online remarked after the match that this would have been incredibly frustrating for his teammates, lack of knowledge about where a man is going to be leading to confusion and anxiety.
Arsenal did have their chances, both Gael Clichy and Sagna missing wide as the first half rolled on. West Brom, too, had shots on target, a Peter Odemwingie effort saved smartly at the near post by a diving Manuel Almunia.
The Spaniard would have to do even better shortly, however. Odemwingie was released through on goal by a Chris Brunt through ball. Almunia raced out to smother, but Odemwingie made the crucial touch, and the keeper brought him down for a penalty kick and a yellow card. Brunt took the penalty, but as he usually does at the Emirates (5 out of 6 times in his career), Almunia saved the spot kick in a moment of redemption.
Arsenal briefly sparked up their play following the crucial save, Sébastien Squillaci heading over the bar from a free kick. Halftime approached with Arsenal lucky to be level.
Had they been 1-0 down, perhaps Arsène Wenger would have felt justified in giving them the business and making changes immediately at the start of the second half, but the original eleven emerged to kick off again.
If there was any hope that a different Arsenal team would come out of the tunnel, those hopes quickly faded. In a goal eerily reminiscent of Bolton's goal at the Reebok, Thomas weaved past his marker on the left and had the freedom to cut back from the byline, slotting the ball across the box for Odemwingie to tap in at the far post. 1-0 West Brom, nothing less than they or Arsenal deserved based on the opening five minutes of the half, and the Gunners suddenly found themselves needing to put up or shut up.
But if they thought 1-0 was ominous, they hadn't seen anything yet. Within two minutes of the opener, Brunt backheeled through the legs of Clichy, setting Gonzalo Jara free towards goal. Laurent Koscielny afforded the midfielder too much room to shoot, and the forthcoming blast skipped off of Almunia's knee and into the net. Almunia had been kneeling, thinking to just collect easily, but the power of the shot was such that it turned out to be a bad idea. 2-0 West Brom, and Wenger, with a face of granite, prepared a couple of changes.
The below-par Diaby and Eboué made way for Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky, both of who had played at White Hart Lane earlier in the week. Arsenal set about their task with a little more attacking intent. Alex Song missed a header from a corner, and Wenger increased his attack further, bringing on Carlos Vela for Laurent Koscielny, Song moving to center back, at least nominally.
Arsenal pushed forward, but West Brom held firm, and found a precious third goal shortly thereafter. Chris Brunt found himself set free on the right, and as he entered the box, Almunia, rather than diving in, perhaps aware of his yellow, tried to encourage the West Brom player out wide, but Brunt maintained possession, floated a cross in front of the Arsenal goal, and Thomas calmly lifted West Brom's third into the back of the net.
Arsenal were hanging onto the side of the cliff by one fingernail. Samir Nasri got their pinky back over the edge, slotting home a good goal after cutting in from the right in the 76th minute. West Brom packed everyone back, trying to hold off the storm, and did a good job of simply clearing the ball up the pitch or out for corners.
Nasri found himself free in the six-yard box at the dawn of five minutes' injury time to send home Arsenal's second, and a miracle draw hung in the balance. It was not meant to be, though; despite better pressure from a suddenly awake and desperate Arsenal team, their life flickered out with one minute left as Rosicky blasted over the bar from eighteen yards following a corner kick.
No one individual was to blame, Arsenal as a squad playing poorly for most of the match. Surprisingly, they completed 85% of their passes, although seemingly every one they missed led to a West Brom attack in a crucial area. However, Arsenal quite simply were not good enough. Eboué was playing out of position, Song and Diaby struggled to maintain possession in the midfield, Arshavin, Nasri, and Chamakh lacked their usual deft touch, the fullbacks were beaten far too easily. Arsène Wenger summed it up in his quite angry press conference, saying he "didn't recongnize [his] team today".
Nobody did, Arsène.
Questions now come to the surface about whom to put in the squad in Belgrade on Tuesday ahead of Sunday's crucial league tie against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Will Wenger field a weaker squad, saving his best players for what is always a huge match? We will find out more as Tuesday approaches, but the timing of the matches for an already tired-looking and injury-riddled Gunners squad could not be worse.
The team must come to terms with today's match. Perhaps it came at the right time, waking the players from their success-induced slumbers in time for them to realize the importance of the task ahead. More will be known in eight days' time.