Those supporters who commissioned planes to fly high above The Hawthorns with conflicting messages about Arsene Wenger’s future do not now have long to wait.
For the first time, Wenger revealed that he has already decided whether he wants to remain Arsenal manager beyond the end of the current season and has promised that this decision will be communicated “very soon”.
A two-year contract extension has long been drawn up and, while there have been clear indications recently that Wenger is ready to fight on into a 22nd season, the competing suspicion is that a nightmare recent sequence has convinced him that enough is enough.
It remains only those very few closest Wenger confidantes who know what he has decided but, from a point of indecision in January, it would be remarkable if this recent sequence of six defeats in nine games had convinced him to stay.
In losing here 3-1 to West Bromwich Albion and taking their goals conceded tally to 21 in seven Premier or Champions League games, there were further alarming signs that certain key Arsenal players are either now shattered mentally or no longer playing for the manager.
The on-field demeanour of his team must be far more concerning just now than the sight of further off-field protests but, asked whether clarity on his future would end the recent disquiet, Wenger replied: “Don’t worry, I know what I will do in my future. You will soon know.”
Asked how soon, Wenger replied: “Very soon.” Within seconds, Wenger seemed almost to regret his candour. Asked if the club knew what he would do, he said: “No". Wenger was then asked whether his decision would be communicated during the fortnight before Arsenal’s next match against Manchester City. “No,” he said.
It all leaves enormous lingering uncertainty but what must also be factored into this guessing game is the remarks of Wenger’s assistant, Boro Primorac.
He was quoted on Friday as saying that his friend “isn’t considering leaving” and that “Arsenal’s strength in the past 20 years has been Wenger”. There might be considerable truth in that statement but, amid another occasion that bordered on humiliation, the wider question is whether he has now become irretrievably divisive.
Not only did the West Brom fans chant mercilessly at Wenger about the prospect of being sacked but the Frenchman also suffered the added indignity of having Arsenal’s fans shout ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ in response to the second-half substitution of Alexis Sanchez.
This was despite the Chile striker being injured and having played through the pain of what Wenger said was "a bad" ankle injury.
After the two aeroplane messages had cancelled each other out – ‘No Contract #Wenger out’ followed by ‘In Arsene we trust. #Respect’ – there were also more banners on the final whistle which called for Wenger’s departure.
“We are in a unique bad patch that we never had in 20 years, we lose game after game at the moment and for me that is much more important than my future,” said Wenger.
“There is no other way than fighting until the last day of the season and then if it is not good enough we have to take the consequences. Finishing in the top four will be very difficult now. One day, if we don’t do it, people will enjoy it again.”
The pattern of this match was established very quickly and, while Arsenal were dominant in possession, it was equally striking how West Brom were creating better chances with their fast counter-attacking breaks.
Allan Nyom set the tone when he powered into the penalty after intercepting a pass for Theo Walcott and, although his delivery was wasteful, the doubt in Arsenal's defending was obvious.
James McLean then soon forced a diving save of Petr Cech before Nacer Chadli floated the resultant corner onto the edge of the six-yard box.
Darren Fletcher had been positioned in front of Cech and, while there was no direct infringement, the Arsenal goalkeeper struggled to get himself to the ball as Craig Dawson towered easily above the rest of the Arsenal defence to head West Brom into the lead. Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey were especially culpable.
Arsenal seemed almost shocked into action and were level inside three minutes when Granit Xhaka expertly picked out Sanchez in space to the side of West Brom’s back four.
He then had just enough time to cut inside and smash a right-footed shot past Ben Foster and in off the underside of the crossbar. There was no great change to the second-half pattern as Arsenal remained largely in control of the ball - they finished with 77 per cent possession - but horribly fragile whenever they were required to defend.
With Cech forced off with a calf injury, replacement David Ospina gifted West Brom their crucial second goal when he came to collect Chadli’s cross before fumbling his clearance into the path of a grateful Hal Robson-Kanu.
Wenger reacted by taking the anonymous Walcott off and adding the aerial presence of Olivier Giroud but it was Danny Welbeck who then almost scored with a header; beating Foster but denied by the crossbar following Xhaka’s cross.
Arsenal’s more glaring aerial weakness from corners was again soon punished, with McLean producing another precise delivery before Dawson evaded Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with embarrassing ease to score the first brace of his entire career.
Oxlade-Chamberlain later apologised for the whole team and acknowledged that the performance was “not acceptable” but, looking down from the Sky Sports studio, a more damning verdict was soon flowing. Thierry Henry, the club’s all-time record goalscorer, described the display as “shambolic” and questioned the mentality of the players. “It was all about attitude; it’s not acceptable for Arsenal Football Club,” he said.
"They were nowhere near the desire, commitment and attitude needed to win the game.” Jamie Redknapp was even more blunt. “That's the kind of performance that gets managers the sack,” he said.
“The players have let him down and let the club down. It was diabolical.” Lost amid the inquest was another wonderfully organised West Brom performance and, as their gleeful fans wished Wenger to stay on, Arsenal's supporters were left to wonder if an incomparable era really is now destined to end amid such rancour.
The first time that Arsenal have lost four league matches in a five game run in Arsene Wenger's reign. First time since April 1995.— Orbinho (@Orbinho) 18 March 2017
FT West Brom 3 Arsenal 1
A disastrous result for Arsenal in their pursuit of a top-four finish, and it was thoroughly deserved by West Brom. They did not have much of the ball, but created the better chances. That is only the fourth time West Brom have beaten Arsenal in Premier League history - two of them have come within 18 months under Tony Pulis.
Arsenal's only victories in the last seven have come against non-league opponents Sutton United and Lincoln City.
Time on ball (at full time)
Average touch positions (full time)
Into stoppage time now, of which there is three minutes. Bellerin skips forward and wins a corner. They have to score from here and hope for a miracle. They don't and they won't.
Arsenal swinging crosses in aimlessly as full time approaches. They have been pretty dire in this first half. Chadli hooked by Pulis.
Arsenal look to have given up the ghost here, which is a pretty damning statement. They have had their faults over the years, but you still felt they were committed to Wenger's vision and had faith in each other. That looks to have dissipated in the last few months.
Oxlade-Chamberlain misplaces a pass that drifts out for a throw-in. Some shots of Wenger out banners in the crowd - so well done guys you've got yourself on TV.
Arsenal continue to probe with patient possession as they have done all game. It would be very Arsenal to salvage a 3-3 draw from this and gain a result that is still not good enough.
Arsenal do have a corner, but Alexis Sanchez has come off for Alex Iwobi. Perhaps still feeling the effects of his ankle knock in the first half, but either way the Arsenal fans are not happy.
Time on ball (60 - 75 min)
Dawson at it again
Superb delivery from McClean and Dawson meets it on the six-yard line and plants a header home with Ospina rooted to his line.
A goal from Craig Dawson for West Brom makes the score 3-1.
Sanchez steps on the ball in the inside left position and chips a cross towards Giroud. He was well marshaled however, and Foster claimed the ball cleanly. West Brom break through the impressive Robson-Kanu and Mustafi conceded a corner blocking his cross.
Claudio Yacob replaces Chris Brunt for West Brom.
Xhaka fired a free kick into the wall from just outside the penalty area. Fervent West Brom appeals for a free kick when it looked like Mustafi was pulling Robson-Kanu. Referee viewed it as six of one.
Ospina all over the place
That could have been game over. Robson Kanu just had too much speed for Mustafi and Ospina hesitated. The Wales hero rounded him and fired a shot towards goal that was cleared off the line by Koscielny.
Giroud is in indeed ready to come on. Arsenal put together another long spell of possession without any end product. Nyom tried to be a bit too clever and shepherd the ball out but Walcott kept scrapping and won a corner.
Giroud then replaces the England man. From the corner, Welbeck plants a header against the bar at the back post.
Time on ball (45 - 60 min)
Not much in the way of a response from Arsenal. In fact, it is the hosts who are on the front foot currently. Welbeck has looked like a player short of football today -Arsenal have struggled to find their centre forward.
Arsenal have it all to do now against a team with one of the league's best defensive records. Think we might see Olivier Giroud soon.
Robson-Kanu with the goal
Maybe Arsenal fans won't be so pleased after all. Robson Kanu stabs home the rebound after Ospina came out to block at McClean's feet. Swarbrick went to consult his linesman amid Arsenal appeals for offside.
West Brom are back in front again - Hal Robson-Kanu makes it 2-1.
West Brom sub
Arsenal fans will be pleased to see Rondon go off. Robson-Kanu replaces him.
Possession last 15 minutes
Better tempo from Arsenal in that passage of playing, punching their passes in quickly. Bellerin exchanged a 1-2 with Sanchez but his cross was blocked and the resulting corner came to nothing.
Mustafi steps out to make an extra midfielder for Arsenal and fed Bellerin on the overlap. His cross was cut out before Walcott teased a pass across the six-yard box but no Arsenal player was there.
West Brom break through Brunt, who whipped a magnificent cross from the left into the six yard box. Rondon got above Koscielny but glanced the header just wide.
Good defending from Dawson to nip in front of Sanchez before the Arsenal man fouls him. Ironic cheers from the home crowd.
The pattern of the first half is continuing with West Brom keeping numbers behind the ball. Arsenal have the greater need for the three points so expect them to commit even more bodies forward as the game progresses.
Sanchez is back out there after his ankle knock, and we're under way in the second half.
Arsenal need to find a way
You would be hard pressed to say Arsenal have played badly in that half, but the game has been very even in terms of chances created.
Wenger will feel aggrieved by West Brom's rotational fouling, particularly on Alexis Sanchez, but somehow they have to find a way around it to get the win they desperately need.
Shots on goal
HT: West Brom 1 Arsenal 1
Honours even after 45 minutes at the Hawthorns, and the scores are also level in the sky with one Wenger-in plane and one Wenger-out plane.
Average touch positions (half time)
Time on ball (first half)
Three minutes added on
West Brom have done a 'good' job of stopping Arsenal counter-attacks by committing plenty of niggly fouls. Perfectly legitimate tactic - it's up to the referee to police the game.
McClean caught the Chilean on the ankle with a late tackle for which he was subsequently booked. He is limping very heavily but it looks like he will soldier on. There will be plenty of stoppage time here.
Xhaka does that very foolish thing off listening to the away fan's calls to shoot from 35 yards. Slices it well wide. How many will do that before Arsenal fans stop shouting 'shooot'?
The shot count is similar
West Brom have attempted six shots so far, compared to four for Arsenal.
Opsina's introduction a real concern for Arsenal given his relative lack of height. He also never comes for crosses. Pulis will be licking his lips, or perhaps braying.
Petr Cech collected a routine ball over the top but pulled up straight away. Replays show he tweaked his calf playing a pass out from the back a few minutes earlier. David Ospina to get a rare outing in the Premier League.
Very inventive effort from Ramsey there. Sanchez forced a turnover around 30 yards from goal and found Ramsey's forward run with a cute reverse pass. The Welshman swiveled and his left foot strike hit the foot of the far post.
Moments later Fletcher finds himself free in the inside right channel and his right-footed half volley forces Cech into an acrobatic save.
Xhaka strides forward into an unusually advanced position - a symptom of how deep West Brom are sitting. Cannot find the killer pass however, and Arsenal recycle possession and go again. They let West Brom out of a corner however and Chadli runs down the right flank and feeds Rondon. One v one with Koscielny but he dragged his shot wide.
Time on ball (15 - 30 min)
Touches in the penalty area quite even
Arsenal just about cleared the corner and Rondon bundled over Sanchez as he was trying to break. Usually referees book players in that situation, but the big striker gets away without further punishment.
West Brom sitting very deep. Arsenal aggrieved with the referee again after Welbeck is blocked off, but again the referee waives away there appeals. Koscienly heads behind a long ball and the hosts have a corner.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has impressed in midfield in recent weeks, but has just hammered a pass about 10 feet over Monreal's head and out for a throw. Sanchez wants a foul against Livermore, but nothing given - cue verbals at Neil Swarbrick.
Arsenal have controlled the game from the off in terms of possession, but have looked vulnerable to counter-attacks. You've heard that before. Andy Hinchcliffe is struggling to understand the concept of zonal marking.
There's a Wenger-in plane
There's a rival plane! Arsenal fans have actually spent their hard earned cash hiring light aircraft. This time it was an 'In Arsene We Trust' banner tailing behind it.
Time on ball (0 - 15 min)
Immediate reply - magnificent from Xhaka
Nacer Chadli did not do his defensive duties and let Sanchez run off his shoulder. Xhaka picked him out with a delightful chipped pass from 30 yards out. Sanchez stepped inside and rattled home off the underside of the bar.
An equaliser from Alexis Sánchez for Arsenal makes it 1-1.
Arsenal hit back
Arsenal register their first shot, in response to three so far from West Brom.
Arsenal can't make their domination of the ball count
The visitors have had the majority of the ball - but West Brom have the lead.
Dawson gives West Brom the lead
Tony Pulis' side score from a set-piece against Arsenal. How very predictable. An in-swinger from the right, and Dawson got a run on the Arsenal centre backs who were defending zonally, and glanced a header past Cech into the far corner.
West Brom take an early lead and they have Craig Dawson to thank for it: 1-0.
Sanchez gave the ball away sloppily, and West Brom broke through McClean. Koscielny had stepped out so it looked as though a cross was on. The Irishman went for goal, but Cech stood up and beat the ball away.
Koscielny tried to force a through ball to Danny Welbeck, but it was never really on. Welbeck's pace enable him to retrieve the ball and put it out for a throw rather than a goal kick.
Arsenal respond through Sanchez, who played a lovely five yard pass from just outside of the area to find the overlapping Monreal, threaded between centre back and full back. Monreal tried to cut back for Walcott but Dawson was there to block.
Nyom turned into Gareth Bale there, running the length of Arsenal's right flank and playing a teasing ball across the six-yard box. Nobody there, but after a controlled start that was worrying for Arsenal.
Wenger's side pressing very high in the early stages, with central midfielder Aaron Ramsey closing down Gareth McAueley in one phase of play. Solomon Rondon wins a free kick to get West Brom up the pitch.
Welbeck starts through the middle, with Sanchez starting from the left of Arsenal's front three. The visitors dominating possession early on with West Brom sitting off with a bank of four and midfield five.
The Wenger Out plane has flown over the ground! The devil will make work for idle hands to do, as one of the Psalms/Morrissey said. Danny Welbeck kicks-off for Arsenal and we're under way.
Players in the tunnel
Arsenal kept West Brom waiting in the tunnel but Laurent Koscielny eventually leads his troops out. How will West Brom approach this? Sit back and look to limit space or get up against Arsenal and try to disrupt their build-up play? Players are out, and we're treated to that jarring Premier League music.
Point to prove?
Theo Walcott was left out of Gareth Southgate's England squad despite the fact he has scored more goals than any other player in the squad.
Walcott is a player with some very obvious strengths: his movement off the ball, his finishing and of course his pace. However, he is very limited technically and frequently goes through games not having more than 20 or so touches.
That can be accommodated at Arsenal where he is surrounded by Xhaka, Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and over his right shoulder Hector Bellerin, because they can look after the ball and let Walcott stay on the shoulder of the last defender. England do not have that base of technical players however, which might be why Southgate has omitted Walcott.
Arsenal at West Brom
Arsenal's most notable trip to West Brom in the last few years was their 3-2 win on the final day of the 2011-12 season to secure Champions League football. Laurent Koscielny scored the winner, as he did one year later at Newcastle. That game at the Hawthorns also gave us this amazing moment between Wenger and Pat Rice:
Former Spurs player to haunt Arsenal?
Nacer Chadli's form at the Hawthorns has earned him a recall to the Belgium squad, and as a former Tottenham player this fixture has added spice. Chadli scored at the Emirates when Spurs got a 1-1 draw there in September 2014. Let's see if he can follow in the footstep's of Nayim, whose name will send a shiver down every Arsenal fan's spine.
Assessing Arsenal's squad: who should stay and who should go?
Wenger feels for Xhaka
Wenger leaped to the defence of Xhaka in his Friday press conference, saying his propensity to pick up cards is the result of his reputation.
For £34 million, many expected Xhaka to have more of a transformative effect on Arsenal, but it is worth remembering that these fees are long-term investments. The Switzerland captain has just turned 25 and penned a five-year deal last summer.
He has showed moments of true class with his vertical passing and distribution from deep, but his lack of speed makes him vulnerable if left isolated. Which is where all of the cards come from.
No James Morrison for West Brom
Morrison has flourished in a more advanced role this season but misses out today with a knock. Matt Phillips has also added cutting edge but is another absentee.
No Ozil a convenient problem for Arsenal?
Mesut Ozil misses out with a hamstring problem having missed Arsenal's previous league game with flu (or contractitis as the more cynical out there referred to it).
His absence has prompted Wenger to tweak Arsenal's shape to more of a 4-3-3 based on a midfield trio of Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Ozil has operated predominantly as a second striker this term, which leaves Arsenal with a midfield two that can be overrun against the better sides.
Xhaka's immobility exacerbates this issue, and Arsenal's summer signing looks far more comfortable with two athletic ground-coverers alongside him.
West Brom team and subs
Arsenal team and subs
Wenger faces an old foe
Good morning and welcome to live coverage of Arsenal's trip to West Brom.
It is difficult to know what to expect of Arsenal because they have had such a quirky run of games: two ties against Bayern Munich, Liverpool away and two FA Cup meetings with non-league opposition.
They are back to the bread and butter of the season now, and face a West Brom team who have added attacking output to their characteristic obduracy this season.
Team news to follow.
What is it?
Arsène Wenger faces his old foe Tony Pulis as Arsenal travel to West Brom in the Premier League.
When is it?
This is the first Premier League game of the weekend and is on Saturday, March 18.
What time is kick-off?
Kick-off at the Hawthorns is 12.30pm.
What TV channel is it on?
The game will be broadcast live on Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports HD 1, with the build up beginning at 11.30am. Alternatively you can listen to live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live or of course, bookmark this page and return for Telegraph Sport's minute-by-minute live coverage.
What is the team news?
The hosts will be without winger Matt Phillips, who is yet to recover from a hamstring problem that has kept him out of the last three games. He is joined on the sidelines by James Morisson who has an ankle knock.
Kieran Gibbs is a doubt for Arsenal while Santi Cazorla is their only long-term absentee as he continues his recovery from Achilles surgery. Mohammed Elneny is available for selection again and Alex Oxlade-Chamerlain faces a late fitness test after tweaking his hamstring against Lincoln City in the FA Cup.
What are they saying?
“The important thing is that we regroup. We’ve got some really tough games coming up now. We’ve got five out of the top six teams to play and they will be real tough challenges for us.
“I’m delighted to be on 40 points. No-one should take away what the players have achieved and what they’ve done.
“But we’ve got to try and get as many points as we possibly can and work as hard as we can to do that.”
“It’s a strange championship because there’s no continuity at the moment - we’ve had games cancelled, then after you play away, you don’t play, you play FA Cup and you play away again.
“So you don’t really know where you stand. You don’t have the same number of games, you don’t have the continuity home and away. What is for sure is that we are in a position where we can’t waste points.
“We want to play in the Champions League next season. We have a tough job because we have six or seven teams fighting for the places and how well we do until the end of the season will of course depend on that.
“On the rest, we are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, we have an opportunity to do that as well. So overall those are our targets. After that, success is basically to take the maximum out of the potential of the team. Where is that? We will see.”
What are the odds?
- West Brom 4/1
- Arsenal 8/11
- Draw 3/1
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What is our prediction?
Arsenal have won just one of their last seven away games against teams managed by Pulis, but we fancy them to double that tally on Saturday lunchtime. If Arsenal's seasons are really as predictable as people say, then we are due a spring revival after February's annual fall from the title race and Champions League exit. Wenger usually finds a formula to get his into the top four, and with West Brom past the magical 40-point barrier Arsenal have the stronger incentive.
Verdict: West Brom 1 Arsenal 3.