West Brom's commanding win over Arsenal piles more pressure on Wenger
WEST BROMWICH, England -- Three thoughts from Arsenal's stunning 3-1 defeat at West Brom.
1. Arsenal fall to another defeat
Arsenal crashed to their fourth defeat in five Premier League matches on a drizzly afternoon at the Hawthorns. They were undone by two set-piece goals, both headers by West Brom right-back Craig Dawson, which sandwiched a scrappy effort by substitute Hal Robson-Kanu.
It was a flat, underwhelming performance by Arsene Wenger's side, with Mesut Ozil out injured and Alexis Sanchez only contributing sporadically from his left-wing position. The Chilean did fire in a fine equaliser but faded from view after a nasty tackle from James McClean in the first half. On another day dominated by discussion about the future of Arsene Wenger, which then turned to a plane-based discussion high above the Hawthorns, this limp display was exactly what Wenger didn't want.
Plane banners have become a curiously familiar sight when supporters are unhappy with their manager or owner, but seeing dueling banners was quite a remarkable sight. The first read "No Contract #Wenger Out" and had widely been expected, but the second caught everyone by surprise, a counter-banner: "In Arsene We Trust #RespectAW."
Arsenal's performance somehow captured the debate. There was a wonderful team goal finished by the marvellous Sanchez, epitomising everything that has been good about the last two decades of Wenger's management, but this was overshadowed by concessions owing much to Arsenal not being physical enough, the type of problem that has dogged them for years. Petr Cech's first-half injury, forcing a substitution, amplified a difficult afternoon.
Somehow, the nature of Arsenal's defeats -- and perhaps whole seasons too -- are frustratingly predictable, which might explain why so many supporters are unhappy.
2. Pulis defeats Wenger
Tony Pulis vs. Wenger is a meeting between an old-school direct football merchant and a footballing philosopher obsessed with short passing and pretty play. It's among the greatest stylistic contrasts in Premier League history, and this game didn't disappoint.
From the first whistle, Arsenal had a long spell of possession lasting well over a minute. West Brom quickly dropped back into a solid defensive shape, remaining narrow and compact to prevent Arsenal playing through the middle. This basic battle set the tone for the game. West Brom, who average the least possession in the Premier League, were setting out their stall. They would eventually manage just 23 percent of possession, one of the lowest figures you'll see all season. But this is Pulis, and Pulis doesn't care about possession.
The two first-half goals also couldn't be more typical of the two approaches. West Brom's came from a set-piece -- they've now scored 17 goals from this route so far this season, by far the most in the division -- although the left-wing corner had been won following a fine counter-attack, with Chris Brunt slipping the ball between Arsenal's defenders for McClean to run onto. His powerful near-post blast was saved by Cech.
From the resulting corner, Brunt (one of the best set-piece takers in the division) curled the ball perfectly onto the head of Dawson, who had hung back towards the edge of the box before making a perfectly timed run and nodding the ball into the far corner. Arsenal's marking system, which was essentially zonal but involved a couple of players attempting to block exactly the type of run Dawson had made, failed dramatically.
But Arsenal responded quickly and equalised 165 seconds later through an equally typical goal that featured 19 passes in the build-up. Dawson was sucked inside from his right-back role, which left Sanchez free at the far post. He received a simple ball from Granit Xhaka, cut inside and crashed the ball home off the bar.
If you wanted a summary of the two sides' approaches, this first half was perfect.
3. West Brom win the game in the second half
For long spells of Saturday's match, Arsenal were almost entirely dominant in terms of possession, but it was Pulis' side that created the better chances and fully deserved the three points here following a fine second-half performance. The hosts created a couple of fine chances in open play, with Salomon Rondon nodding wide from Brunt's left-wing cross, and Robson-Kanu foiled by Ospina's one-on-one save. Their two goals after the break, however, were somewhat more typical.
The go-ahead goal was a curious one. McClean ran inside from the left flank to meet Nacer Chadli's lofted pass in behind, but Ospina got there just before him. Yet Ospina challenged for the ball with his feet rather than his hands, and therefore it fell invitingly for Hal Robson-Kanu to poke home, with the ball trickling between the legs of McClean and over the line. McClean was in an offside position but not interfering with play as he didn't play the ball, motion to the play the ball, interfere with the goalkeeper's line of sight or block an opponent.
Arsenal complained, but the goal rightly stood. Robson-Kanu, incidentally, is the Premier League's most-used substitute, having now come off the bench in 21 of the Baggies' last 25 games. This was his most crucial contribution yet.
Wenger introduced Olivier Giroud in place of Theo Walcott in a bid to get back into the game, although their next major chance came from Danny Welbeck, who nodded Xhaka's inswinging, left-footed corner onto the crossbar.
But West Brom remain the set-piece masters. Their 17th set-piece goal of the season wrapped up the points: Dawson again trotted up for a corner, this time from the right flank. McClean took it, as Brunt had been substituted, and again Dawson timed his run from deep excellently to power home a firm header and seal the victory.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.