West Bromwich Albion 2-2 Arsenal - Two Precious Points Squandered

Arsenal's title challenge is not dead, but the patient took a turn for the worse yesterday after two more points were frittered away thanks to slack defending, an appalling piece of goalkeeping from Manuel Almunia and the lack of offensive cohesion shown in the first half.

Heading into the kickoff, it looked like an Arsenal lineup that should have had a great chance to gain revenge for the shocking reverse to this lot earlier in the season. Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy manned the fullback positions as usual, with Sebastian Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny in the center of defense (a bit worrying at the time, but they didn't prove to be the problem in fairness). Aaron Ramsey made a welcome return to the team in the middle of the park, with Denilson and Jack Wilshere joining him. Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin were in their customary positions, with Robin van Persie leading the line.

I don't care how many injuries we have - that team should beat West Brom nine times out of ten.

It's almost funny in a way...after the events of the last few weeks, I don't have much anger left. A poster on the Arseblog forums put it brilliantly when she said that she was now at a place of "weary acceptance" with this team...that's about where I'm at too. It's telling how when the Baggies went up 1-0 inside of the first three minutes, it didn't seem like too many people at the Pig were all that surprised. How typical, it was from poor marking of a corner kick. Steven Reid, who got the goal, apparently hadn't scored in five years before he nodded home from close range...how charitable of us.

That said, it wasn't the center halves at fault this time. You can make an argument that Almunia should have come out for it (and he did make an incredible catch on a set piece under heavy pressure later in the match, credit where it's due), but once he didn't, he didn't have much chance of saving it. From that close in, and the point over his shoulder where it went, that's unsaveable...trust me on that. Instead, it was young Ramsey who let Reid get away from him, the rust still showing from his long absence away from the team.

So, one-nil down early in a must-win match...this is where the urgency would REALLY show itself, right?


In the entirety of the first half, there was exactly two serious attempts on the West Brom goal, both on the same play. The excellent Arshavin found RVP, whose header could only find the woodwork. It came out to Ramsey, and honestly it's unfair to the lad with everyone saying he absolutely should have scored there. My predilection is to give Scott Carson the credit for coming off his line, staying big, and not giving Rambo much to shoot at. It was a brilliant save from the West Brom keeper (continuing the trend of marginal keepers having great games against us), end of.

Beyond that, there was no fluidity to Arsenal's play. The book on us is that we spend too much time passing, and that's largely true. But, the Gunners couldn't even do that right yesterday. While no one covered themselves with glory in this respect in the first half, the two biggest offenders were Clichy and Denilson. With Clichy you can sort of understand as many of them were crosses that didn't come off, but if you're curious take a look at the same chart for Sagna. Most of the play did come down that left-hand side, but the quality of that final ball just wasn't there from Gael. As for the absolutely atrocious Denilson, look at how often he loses it in the middle of the park, just as we're getting to the final third. He also took his now-usual stupid yellow card for a lazy defensive play (he could give a clinic on how to leave a trailing leg in for the opposing player to fall over in a way where the ref is most likely to see it).

by Guardian Chalkboards

The above is the chalkboard for the entire team for the first half - take a look at the left side for what I was saying about Clichy. Now, here's Denilson's first half "performance":

by Guardian Chalkboards

His passing percentage of 86% was slightly higher than the team's overall 82%, but the real key is where that final pass is going. Once again, through the center of the park, Arsenal just weren't good enough and Denilson was a huge reason why. To Arsene Wenger's credit, he was immediately hauled off at halftime and replaced with Marouane Chamakh. This gave Arsenal a little more size and presence up front, and it would pay dividends later on in proceedings.

Before that though, Arsenal would gift their opponents the goal that would so crucially batter our title pretensions. Once again, Almunia has shown that as long as he doesn't have to think or is under no pressure, he's fine. Put him in a big game and give him time to make a decision, and he will decide incorrectly almost every time. A nothing long ball came over the top, and Squillaci had everything under control. For some reason, Almunia came tearing off his line, coming out about ten yards outside of his penalty area. He gave Squillaci a two-handed shove to the back trying to get him out of the way, and then failed to clear the ball himself. Peter Odemwingie has decent predatory instincts in any case, but in this scenario couldn't fail to roll the ball into the empty net. This was a goal that was only missing the Yakity Sax soundtrack.

I won't join those who pin the blame on Wenger here, or I should say, blame him specifically for not buying a goalkeeper in the January window. At the time, Wojciech Szezcsny was coming into his own and Vito Mannone was still fit. You just can't legislate for three senior goalkeepers being injured in the same season - if United had to play Ben Amos or Chelsea had to play Rhys Taylor, where do you think they'd be right now?

On the other hand, I do blame Almunia. I mean, what was the thought process there? I can understand if the defense had pushed up to the halfway line and thus he was the only one back there. If he comes out in that case and a speedy forward beats him to the ball, then fine. But this? It's mystifying.

So, 2-0 down and at that point, I absolutely admit that I thought we were done. I didn't see where the goals were going to come from when we weren't unduly troubling Carson's penalty area. However, the boss threw the dice and went more to a 4-3-3, taking off the ineffective Ramsey and replacing him with Nicklas Bendtner. While my old pet peeve returned with Bendtner often playing on the wing, in truth the three forwards switched positions with regularity, stretching the West Brom defense and opening up space for some of our passing to get through. It really changed the game, and having two big strikers gave us much more of a chance against their gigantic mutant defenders. I can't help but wonder how many we might have scored if we had lined up that way from the start, though I freely admit that this is Monday-morning quarterbacking of the worst sort.

Twelve minutes later, Arsenal pulled one back. That man Arshavin was in the center of it again, with the unlikely assist coming from Chamakh. Normally, you'd expect that to be the other way around, eh? Not that we cared, though...once it got to 2-1, West Brom were a bit spooked and 2-2 was infinitely more likely. The finish was absolutely gorgeous as well, as the little Russian took it at the edge of the penalty area and lashed an unstoppable shot across the face of goal. The relief on the team's collective face was palpable, and it gave them the conviction to carry on and get the equalizer.

What a scruffy old thing that equalizer was, too. As the old cliche goes, it wasn't pretty but they all count! Take a wild guess who was in the center of things once again? Arshavin fed a brilliant cross for Bendtner, but the woodwork denied Arsenal for the second time on the day. The deflection of the crossbar was a kind one though, and RVP's scuffed shot eluded the attentions of Abdoulaye Meite and rolled over the line at about 0.000000000000001 MPH. If we end up winning the title by one point or something, remember that goal.

Of course, winning the title is a much harder proposition now than it was before the game kicked off. That's one point out of six won against West Brom this season, when four really should have been the minimum (and six preferable, of course). Even though a lot of this was down to the same old failings - inability to defend against set pieces, Denilson, a touch of arrogance against lesser sides - it still burns at me that had Szezcsny not been injured on a routine catch in a total freak accident, we win this game.

Jens Lehmann HAS to start our next match.

Look, I don't like the idea of relying on a 41-year old recent retiree any more than many of you do...but what other choice do we have? If we lose the title by 2 or 3 points thanks to Almunia's continual inability to do basic shit right (which rather dulls the impact of his decent performances otherwise), aren't you going to remember that on your deathbed? It is obvious to me that Almunia is a pretty good keeper who goes to pieces mentally whenever the spotlight is on him. I sincerely hope that he goes somewhere nice and sunny in the offseason, where he can see out his career with comfortable mid-table football. Arsenal is just not his level, and it never was.

Of course, that falls on the manager. But, I don't want to spend too much time on this because MAN, is it getting virulent out there. Actually, I should say in Facebook comments, which I know are only a half-step up from Youtube comments as the worst of the worst. Either way, I don't want to contribute too much to an increasingly-poisonous atmosphere, so how about I just say that NOTHING has changed for me since November, and leave it at that?

If we're going to win the title though, this international break will be what wins it for us. If Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott and Alex Song come back and manage to stay injury-free for five whole seconds, if we beat Liverpool and United and Spurs, we can do it. This match sucked as a result but if it means we never see Almunia or Denilson in Arsenal shirts again, maybe it was for the best.

I still believe...faintly.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Almunia 3, Clichy 6, Koscielny 7, Squillaci 7, Sagna 7, Denilson 5 (Chamakh 7), Wilshere 7, Ramsey 6 (Bendtner 7), Nasri 7, Arshavin 9 (MOTM), van Persie 8