The final score was 1-1 up in the skies where a pre-match protest plane bearing the slogan “No contract #Wenger out” was followed during the game by a second aircraft trailing a message of support for Arsenal’s beleaguered manager.
Down on the ground, though, there was only more misery for Arsène Wenger. This 3-1 defeat, Arsenal’s fourth in five Premier League matches, only deepens the sense that the Frenchman’s long reign is reaching an imminent, and unhappy, end.
Champions League qualification is looking less likely by the week for a team in their worst run of form since 1995 and Arsenal will finish the weekend down in sixth place if Manchester United win at Middlesbrough tomorrow. Most worrying of all was the nature of their defeat – Arsenal were well beaten here, second-best to a more determined Albion side.
Although Alexis Sanchez scored a swift equaliser from Craig Dawson’s early opening goal, Albion overpowered them in the second period with Hal Robson-Kanu scoring and Dawson adding a third.
There was audible disgruntlement among the away supporters before the final whistle with chants of “We want Wenger out” after Dawson’s third goal and a chorus of “You don’t know what you’re doing” when Wenger withdrew Alexis Sanchez for Alex Iwobi 12 minutes from time. By the end the away block of the Smethwick End was pockmarked with a number of anti-Wenger banners.
The spotlight burns intensely on Wenger but a word of credit for West Brom. If Arsenal’s defending was poor for all three Albion goals, Tony Pulis’s team have so much more to them these days than a set-piece threat and have now won eight of their last ten home league games.
Indeed the game’s first piece of action was a foretaste of the danger they carried throughout on the counterattack as left-back Allan Nyom dashed 60 yards upfield before drilling a ball across goal. Nobody was there to connect but the opening goal arrived soon enough.
Jake Livermore, newly recalled by England, won the ball in the middle of the pitch before Chris Brunt sent McLean driving away down the inside-left channel. Although Petr Cech repelled his shot, from Chadli’s ensuing corner, Dawson was allowed an unchecked run at the ball at the near post and leapt above Laurent Koscielny to nod in. Once again, Arsenal undone by a set-piece.
Sanchez’s equalising goal arrived two minutes and 45 seconds later. Picked out by Granit Xhaka in space on the left of the box, he stepped inside Dawson and smashed a shot into the roof of the net. Quite rightly, Dawson shot an angry glance at Chadli, a passive spectator who had switched off and left Sanchez unmarked.
Sanchez had his 18th league goal of the campaign but his influence diminished after he was caught on the right ankle by McLean in a poor challenge that earned the Albion winger a booking, and explains Wenger’s later substitution.
And if Arsenal dominated possession, too much of it was in front of the Albion back four. There was no Mesut Ozil, the German having suffered a hamstring injury in training yesterday, and whether Ozil would have made any difference is a moot point in an Arsenal team with little spark at all.
Aaron Ramsey turned and drew a fine save from Ben Foster but Petr Cech saved equally well from a flashing Fletcher half-volley moments later. Cech’s involvement ended soon after when he limped off with a calf problem.
The first half had featured the whir of a light aircraft’s engine and the trailing of the message “In Arsene We Trust #RespectAW” but even Wenger loyalists must have felt their doubts grow in the second period. Salomon Rondon failed to convert a superb Chris Brunt cross early in the second half.
He headed straight down the tunnel after being replaced by Robson-Kanu in the 54th minute but the substitute duly scored with his second touch, 75 seconds later.
It was a scruffy goal but an instinctive finish by Robson-Kanu who rolled a first-time shot under Ospina after the goalkeeper had beaten McLean to Chadli’s chip into the box, but knocked the ball only as far as the Wales striker. Arsenal appealed in vain that McLean, standing behind Ospina, was offside and interfering with play.
Olivier Giroud came on as Arsenal chased an equaliser and it nearly came from Danny Welbeck who headed against the crossbar. Yet Albion finished the stronger. Ospina saved at the feet of Robson-Kanu and Nacho Monreal blocked Chadli’s follow-up on the goalline. Instead, Dawson was the man to finish Arsenal off with another header from a McLean corner after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had failed to block his run. That so-familiar Arsenal set-piece failing once again, but these days it is just one of many.
West Brom: Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Nyom; Chadli (Field 90), Fletcher, Livermore, Brunt (Yacob 73), McClean; Rondon (Robson-Kanu 54)
Subs: Myhill (gk), Olsson, Wilson, Leko
Arsenal: Cech (Ospina 38); Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Xhaka, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Walcott (Giroud 65), Sanchez (Iwobi 78), Welbeck
Subs: Mertesacker, GabrielIwobi, Coquelin, Elneny
Man of the match: McLean (West Brom)