Saturday 16 November 2019

Gunners' comeback fails to hide cracks

West Brom 2 Arsenal 2

Arsenal avoided another defeat, which appeared to be their fate for two-thirds of the match, but they have now won only one of their past six -- and that was against little Leyton Orient.

This was very much a case of two points dropped on a day when Manchester United won to extend their lead at the top of the table to five points. Arsene Wenger and his team still have a game in hand, but, on recent evidence, it would be reckless to gamble on them taking maximum advantage.

West Bromwich Albion were left in if-only mode after blowing a 2-0 lead, but they remain impressively resurgent under Roy Hodgson's restorative management, unbeaten in their past five and in the sort of form that should edge them clear of relegation. Both goals Arsenal conceded were embarrassing, indicating their need for a more reliable goalkeeper and rock-steady centre-halves.

It is a recurring weakness and one that will probably leave Wenger and company empty-handed for a sixth season. The problem is something of a blind spot for the Arsenal manager; Albion's second was horribly reminiscent of the way Birmingham were gifted the Carling Cup.

The opening goal here, after only three minutes, was not much better from a defensive viewpoint. When Steven Reid rose above Aaron Ramsey to power a header into the roof of the net, one wondered why Ramsey, and not one of the big defenders, was guarding the centre of the six-yard box.

The thought also occurred that Jens Lehmann, back on the bench, would have made a better fist of organising those in front of him.

Arsenal threatened equality after 26 minutes, when Andrey Arshavin crossed to Robin van Persie, whose header rebounded from the crossbar. Ramsey, following in, had his shot saved. Unable to assemble their customary passing game on an uneven surface, the Gunners needed a more direct approach, and Wenger sent on an extra striker, Marouane Chamakh, in place of Denilson, switching to 4-4-2. The desired improvement was still a long time coming and Albion should have doubled the margin nine minutes after the interval, when Chris Brunt wasted Marek Cech's left-wing cross by shooting wide from six yards.

The second goal was not delayed long. After 58 minutes, a long clearance from Youssouf Mulumbu panicked Manuel Almunia into rushing out of his penalty area to deal with a situation that was Sebastien Squillaci's responsibility. The bounce of the ball confused both of them, each looking to the other as Peter Odemwingie rolled it into an untenanted net. When the television cameras panned to the bench, Lehmann's face was a picture.

Arsenal were back in it after 70 minutes when Arshavin, supplied by Chamakh, scored emphatically and nine minutes later it was 2-2, Arshavin crossing from the left for Nicklas Bendtner to head against the far post. The ball bounced into the six-yard box where Abdoulaye Meite's maladroit intervention could not stop Van Persie from nudging it home.

Arsenal would have won it in added time had Scott Carson not plunged low to his right to repel Gael Clichy's drive, but such a result would have been hard on West Brom, who deserved their point. Wenger played down his obvious disappointment. "Mathematically, we lost two points, but psychologically we gained one," he said. "I'm proud of the spirit we have shown, which proves we are ready for the fight."

Roy Hodgson praised his team's "sterling effort", and singled out contributions from James Morrison, who played with a gashed forehead, Paul Scharner, who was concussed, and Brunt, who insisted on taking part despite a high temperature. "It is always disappointing to be 2-0 up and not to get a victory, but it has to be a point gained when you're in a relegation battle and playing serious contenders for the title," the Albion manager said.


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