Arsenal suffered a fourth defeat in five league games as Craig Dawson’s double helped West Brom inflict a major blow to the Gunners’ hopes of a top-four finish. Dawson capitalised on some awful defending from the Gunners to head both of his goals from corners – the first to give the Baggies the lead, the second to seal their win. Arsenal had initially rallied after falling behind, levelling through Alexis Sanchez’s close-range finish – the Chilean forward’s 18th league goal of the season. However, they fell behind again 10 minutes into the second half when substitute Hal Robson-Kanu rolled the ball home with only his second touch after coming on. Arsenal, who lost goalkeeper Petr Cech to injury, were outfought and unable to rally a second time, their challenge wilting soon after Danny Welbeck’s header from a corner struck the crossbar.
It was an eventful encounter, both on the pitch and above it as two planes pulling banners – one pro-Arsene Wenger and the other against the Arsenal boss – made circles around The Hawthorns. It was the anti-Wenger camp who were most present and vocal by the end, though, holding aloft banners declaring ‘Enough is enough’ and booing their beleaguered manager’s decision to substitute Sanchez, who had picked up a knock. After the game, Wenger said that he would announce “very soon” whether he will remain at the club after reaching a decision on his future. The current facts are these – Arsenal trail fourth place by five points (albeit with a game in hand). They must arrest a run that has seen them win just one of their last five league games if they are to continue their proud record of finishing in the top four in each of Wenger’s 20 seasons at the club so far. After claiming a top-two finish in every season between 1997-98 and 2004-05, Arsenal have often flirted with fifth or worse since, but this is looking increasingly likely to be the campaign when they drop below the division’s premier quartet.
There is also a growing feeling this is likely to be Wenger’s last as manager. A two-year contract extension remains on the table but with fan protests growing in size and volume, rumours of players wanting away from the club and form deteriorating, there may be no appetite for it to be signed, by either manager or club. This result felt like a new low. Wenger is used to seeing his side outfought and beaten at the home of teams managed by Tony Pulis – he has only managed one win in eight such encounters – but the lack of chances they created from almost 77% possession and the speed with which they fell apart after Robson-Kanu’s goal, lays bare a side with dwindling belief and backbone. They rallied efficiently after falling behind, but this also speaks to their over-reliance on Sanchez, whose movement made the goal and who remained their only real creative spark, despite the heavy-handed treatment dealt out to him by the home side. Their vulnerability at the back is alarming. They knew about West Brom’s threat from corners – the Baggies have now scored 14 from them this season – but yet they were unable to prevent Dawson twice getting his head to the ball first in the box to score.
Robson-Kanu’s goal was equally damning as Ospina proved an inadequate replacement for Cech, sliding out to meet a chipped ball over the top and gifting the striker his finish. West Brom have never managed more than 49 top-flight points. Prior to Saturday they had not managed to beat a top-seven team this season. Having rectified the latter, they now look on course to better the former. They came into this game having lost their last two games and from the off it was clear they were not prepared to entertain the prospect of suffering three successive defeats for the first time this campaign. But for Cech, they could have been ahead before Dawson broke the deadlock, with the Gunners keeper tipping away Darren Fletcher’s goalbound drive. When they were pegged back by Sanchez, their belief held, as did their faith in Pulis’ game plan, which also stretched to superbly-timed substitutions. It helps, of course, when you are so lethal from set-pieces and your opponent so incapable of defending them.