For the first time this season, the Gunners lost a game in which they had the lead. Their troubles on Saturday started when Coquelin picked up a knee injury and was replaced by Arteta in the 14th minute. Arsenal suddenly became more vulnerable at the back. West Brom capitalized on two mistakes from Arteta to reach halftime with a 2-1 lead. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger only had Campbell and Reine-Adelaide as attacking options on the bench. The manager sent on Campbell for Gibbs in the 63rd. With the goal at his mercy, Campbell somehow missed a golden opportunity four minutes later.
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The Gunners slipped to fourth place in the Premier League, one point behind the Red Devils and level with Manchester City. On paper, we’re still in contention after 13 games. But if we analyze the first third of the season, there are quite a few ingredients missing for a serious title bid. The Baggies are an average side that lost at the Hawthorns to Leicester, Everton, Chelsea and Manchester City. How can we pretend that we’re contending if we can’t even beat West Brom? We’re still in the Top 4 but one obvious reason is the schedule. The second half of the season will prove more difficult with games at Liverpool, Tottenham and the two Manchesters.
But in the end, what leads me to think that we’re not challenging for the title is our poor bench. Arsenal struggled to stop counterattacks in the past because of Arteta’s lack of pace. Wenger found a solution last season with Coquelin’s emergence in the holding midfielder role. However, the manager failed to address Arteta’s increasing irrelevance by not looking for a better backup during the summer transfer window. So when Coquelin injured his knee with a sliding tackle in the 11th, Wenger had the choice between Flamini and Arteta. The manager opted for Arteta and that turned out to be a disastrous decision.
As evidence of his sluggishness, Arteta missed a challenge on Morrison in the 18th. The Spaniard then gave away a cheap foul with a challenge from behind on Rondon in the 35th. Morrison got ahead of Arteta at the far post to volley Brunt’s subsequent free kick into the top corner. Arteta’s nightmarish day continued with an own-goal in the 40th before ending with a calf injury in the 49th. The trouble with Wenger is that he’s too loyal to his players. It was obvious last season that Arteta could not protect the back four like Coquelin did. So why did the manager feel the need to reward Arteta with a one-year contract extension despite a recurring calf injury?
Wenger’s relationship with Mertesacker could also be tested next summer. At 31, the German centerback seems to be losing a step this season. McLean beat Mertesacker to the ball in the 31st to win a header and feed Rondon. Bellerin ended the threat with a cynical foul that earned him a yellow card. Mertesacker then showed poor decision-making on West Brom’s second goal as he ventured on the right wing, 80 yards from the Arsenal goal, to slip the ball to Ozil. Under Yacob’s pressure, Ozil cheaply lost possession and Morrison released Rondon down the flank for a counterattack. McLean overlapped with Rondon to make a cross that Arteta deflected into his own net. Arteta looked bad on that play but he was covering Mertesacker, completely out of position. Mertesacker also gave the ball away in the 44th and was outmuscled by Rondon in the 54th for a half-volley that sailed over the bar.
Vulnerable on set pieces
The scoreline could have been more flattering for the Baggies. Olsson bullied Flamini in the 72nd to head a corner onto the bar from four yards. The ball bounced in front of the line as the goal-line technology confirmed that West Brom did not score a third goal. The marking matchup was really bad: Olsson is much taller than Flamini, who replaced Arteta in the 49th. And I think Cech could have come off his line more quickly to punch the ball away. The Baggies created two clear-cut chances from a free kick and a corner. It just shows that the Gunners are still vulnerable on set pieces.
Chasing a goal, Wenger sent on Campbell in the 63rd. When Cazorla made a pinpoint cross in the 67th, Campbell was in a better position than when he scored against Swansea. Yet, Campbell managed to volley wide from six yards. If you’re a decent forward, you must catch the frame. But in the end, it all comes down to choices made by the manager in the summer. Any contending team shouldn’t have to rely on a raw player like Campbell to score crucial goals. Wenger underestimated the extent of Welbeck’s injury and did not make any move for a proven forward in the transfer window. And now we’re paying the price for the manager’s optimism.
Ozil could have been the Man of the Match. He could have finished the game with a goal and an assist. With a pinpoint free kick, he set up Giroud for the opening goal in the 28th. Giroud capitalized on West Brom’s erratic marking to nod into the bottom corner. Arsenal nearly repeated that play in the 47th but Olsson held Giroud, preventing the Frenchman from connecting with a free kick from Ozil. It could have been a penalty but the referee did not blow the whistle. A minute later, Ozil pounced on a poor first touch from Sanchez to hit the far post from 15 yards. At the top level, details make the difference. Instead of a goal and an assist, Ozil wound up with an assist and the turnover that led to West Brom’s winning goal. Ozil had an average game and was unable to reproduce the outstanding service he delivered against Tottenham.
Despite the exhaustion from a trip to South America for games with the Chile team, Sanchez was the only Gunner who performed at a good level on Saturday. He tested Myhill with a curling free kick in the 15th and drew the foul from Morrison that led to the set piece for the opener. The Baggies clearly saw Sanchez as the main threat and often double-teamed him.
Cazorla’s missed penalty
Sanchez won five fouls and created a couple of chances. In the 30th, he found Gibbs, who fired over the bar from the edge of the box. The Chile forward then danced inside the West Brom area in the 53rd to set up Gibbs for a shot that was blocked. His best chance came in the 75th when he controlled a cross from Bellerin but a heavy touch allowed Myhill to gather the ball. In the closing minutes, Sanchez was brought down by Brunt while attempting to meet a cross from Cazorla. The referee awarded a penalty that Cazorla scooped over the bar as he slipped in his run-up.
By his own standards, Cazorla had a poor game. He struggled to pull the strings in midfield even though Arsenal enjoyed 73 percent of ball possession. The Spaniard also poorly took a corner that failed to beat the first man in the 25th. One explanation for such a poor performance is the injury crisis that hit our midfield, forcing Cazorla to have three different partners in the same game. Cazorla had to adjust his role when Arteta replaced Coquelin, since Arteta is not as mobile as Coquelin. Then Cazorla enjoyed a bit more freedom when Flamini took over in the second half.
In his return from injury, Bellerin looked a bit rusty. In the opening minutes, McLean too easily cut inside the Spaniard, who cheaply lost possession a minute later. It’s a shame Bellerin was not 100 percent match fit to contribute more offensively, especially since Giroud was in desperate need of good service.
We lost two players on Saturday and only got one back. And losing to an average side really makes it look like double punishment. I think we should stop talking about contending for the title because our squad is too weak for some key positions and because you can’t take a Top 4 finish for granted. The Spurs are just two points behind us and a resurgent Liverpool under Klopp still has a shot at a Champions League spot.