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Dec 8, 2012

Victory masks Arsenal's bigger problems

"The season starts here" is a familiar refrain among football managers and Arsene Wenger has found himself voicing similar sentiments rather often of late. From such a state of affairs does the manner of victory become less important than the result itself.

• Arsenal 2-0 West Brom

"It is part of being a sportsman," a rather relieved Wenger said. "When you have to win, you win."

Arsenal were far short of being wonderful. Both their goals arrived through disputed penalties but the rot was stopped ahead of an eminently winnable spate of Christmas and New Year fixtures. In the league table, they are again looking down on, rather than up at, Stoke City. Vanquished West Bromwich Albion are but two points ahead.

There are still four sets of medals on offer, if the Wenger logic of fourth place being a trophy is followed. Crisis? What crisis? It will take more than victory against a painfully out-of-form West Brom to convince that Arsenal are back.

For all their lack of creativity, West Brom felt aggrieved and were entitled to. Santi Cazorla's dive for Arsenal's first goal was the type that has more notorious players labelled enemies of the game. For the clinching second, referee Mike Jones should have awarded a foul to West Brom for a pull on Goran Popov before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain went on to be clearly tripped by Chris Brunt. The Baggies could perhaps also have had their own first-half spot-kick when Per Mertesacker handled in his own area, only for a mystery infringement to be levelled against Jonas Olsson.

The visitors were deserving of little but they might have hoped for better officiating. "We got the poorest of a really good group of referees," an angry Steve Clarke said of Jones.

Instead of Clarke's team, it was Arsenal who were able to arrest their slide. For them to have suffered their worst start to a Premier League campaign in this particular season is a damning indictment. The empirical evidence of the Champions League, where two English teams have perished, suggests that the previous strength of the division is waning.

Of course, Arsenal were not one of those teams and Wenger said in midweek that he would prefer to be in his position than Manchester City's, given they have 24 games left to play and remain in European competition, but his comments bear a distinct edge of rationalisation.

Even if fourth is claimed, and the gleam of silver returns to Arsenal, this season should register as a missed opportunity. Neither City nor Manchester United have announced themselves as a dominant force yet Wenger's team has not been able to land a blow on the leading lights since they were beaten in September by Chelsea. They have not been able to capitalise on Chelsea's slide either. On an afternoon where Rafa Benitez's team were humiliated by West Ham, Arsenal were deservedly beaten by Swansea City to make for a mutinous atmosphere.

This week, it took time for a nervous atmosphere to turn into a modicum of home comfort. The beginning of the game brought poor from both sides. West Brom were bereft of form, and not helped by the lack of Claudio Yacob, the star man of a season that briefly had the Midlanders in a Champions League position.

Liam Ridgewell's early ankle injury and sickness, perhaps a side effect of the rather odd stance in which he addresses his 'throne' when making his novel and wasteful uses of bank notes, robbed Clarke's team of another first-choice player. Jack Wilshere remained a beacon for hope. A player who spent so long out of the game made a slaloming run to carve West Brom open, only for Olivier Giroud to be off-beam with his return ball. The first applause of the afternoon was for Wilshere. "He is getting closer to the player we know he is and today he made a big step," Wenger said in admiration.

With Theo Walcott's time at Arsenal whittling down to the type of contract impasse that is as yearly an Emirates occurrence as a Christmas tree, Oxlade-Chamberlain may find himself becoming a crucial player. And perhaps ahead of development since his contribution is too often fitful. A fine attempt at a bicycle kick created artistic impression in the first half, but he had offered little before that. The quixotic enigma that is Gervinho had been by far Arsenal's biggest threat but perhaps only because of his unpredictability. Cazorla was not quite as sainted as his forename suggests when simulation deceived for a penalty. Steven Reid's tackle hit only fresh air and the Spaniard threw himself to the floor. Any claims of Cazorla taking evasive action were dimmed by his grabbing of an ankle to enact a phantom injury. Mikel Arteta scored where he had missed against Fulham a month ago, and repeated the act for the second too.

"I am sorry if it was not a penalty," said Wenger, who said he would speak to the player if it was proved to be a dive. "Of course, no, I don't want to see that but he has told me he has been touched."

"There was zero contact, not even close," Steve Clarke said, stopping short of condemning Cazorla as a cheat. "I am not sure what the referee saw. It was a bad decision and it changed the shape of the afternoon. Arsenal hadn't created much."

Even with a sense of injustice to inspire, West Brom were still toothless, their best chance of the entire game being Giroud skewing a Zoltan Gera free-kick just past the angle of Wojciech Szczesny's goal. Arsenal suffered few scares as a welcome victory was claimed.

There were no sounds of boos or ridicule as 90 minutes approached - save only for Lukas Podolski's horrendous late miss. The sound of Emirates seats flipping up as fans headed for the exits was irregular rather than the recently familiar angry clatter of thousands en masse.

"It's important for our season," Wenger said. "Our spirit has been questioned. It was a flat performance last week and we came and won on the football pitch."

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