WEST BROMWICH, England — Three quick thoughts from West Brom’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal at the Hawthorns on Sunday.
1. Baggies snatch late draw in dramatic finale
A forgettable game of football came alive in the final 10 minutes, and ended with West Brom snatching what could be a vital point in their relegation battle.
An 83rd-minute own-goal from James McClean appeared to have won it for Arsenal but then Kieran Gibbs, the former Gunners left-back, flicked the ball against Calum Chambers’ hand and referee Mike Dean awarded a highly debatable penalty. Jay Rodriguez converted the spot kick and ensured Alan Pardew’s side will not enter 2018 at the bottom of the league.
The Baggies created the first opening six minutes in, Matt Phillips overlapping down the right and clipping in an accurate cross from which Rodriguez forced Petr Cech into a save. Moments later the Arsenal goalkeeper dropped a high, swirling ball at the feet of Hal Robson-Kanu, whose effort was blocked. Alexandre Lacazette then saw a shot deflected inches wide at the other end, and a game that had started sluggishly began to show some promise. Alex Iwobi curled not far over the top and just before the half-hour mark, forced Ben Foster to shovel a long-range effort behind although, in terms of pressure, the struggling hosts were giving as good as they got.
In truth it was scrappy fare. Arsenal lost Sead Kolasinac to injury before the break, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles replacing him, but the left wing-back’s struggles against Phillips suggested this may not have been a curse. West Brom continued to ask questions early in the second half but, as the hour mark ticked over, Arsenal finally put a slick, instinctive move together.
Lacazette and Iwobi linked up smartly inside the box, the former getting a left-footed shot away that Foster repelled with his legs. The Frenchman then came within inches of diverting a cute Alexis Sanchez pass inside the near post. Arsenal were beginning to crank up the intensity now and, with 20 minutes to play, Ahmed Hegazi made an outstanding block to prevent Sanchez from opening the scoring.
Pardew responded with three defensively minded substitutions, the emphasis appearing to be on securing a hard-earned point. Yet it was Rodriguez who threatened next, warming Cech’s palms after Shkodran Mustafi had given the ball away, and the match appeared to be petering out into a draw. But then Sanchez applied what appeared to be the killer blow, his 22-yard free kick deflecting in off McClean. Arsenal appeared to have landed a barely deserved win; Rodriguez, though, would have a dramatic late say.
2. Arsenal dispute penalty but didn’t earn a win
Arsene Wenger will doubtless be upset at the manner of West Brom’s equaliser but would be hard pressed to contend that Arsenal really deserved three points here. From some angles, the penalty incident looked like a classic case of “ball to hand”, while from others Chambers appeared to have moved his arm towards the ball; Gibbs had certainly knocked the ball against him from very close quarters but, however you view it, this was another showing on the road that will not live long in the memory for Arsenal supporters.
The Gunners had experienced one of their most chastening defeats of 2017 in their previous visit here, losing 3-1 in March for a fourth loss in five Premier League games. Having righted a similar wrong at Crystal Palace three days ago, three points at the Hawthorns would have buried a few more ghosts from a difficult 12 months and hinted that — at last — perhaps a few old lessons were being learned.
But Arsenal’s stodginess away from home is, that 3-2 victory at Selhurst Park apart, a recurring theme nowadays. This team struggles to move the ball anywhere near as quick enough as many of its predecessors, the result all too often being a laboured and indecisive approach that yields little reward for all their extensive periods of possession.
Against a West Brom team that was happy to sit in and close off space, passes repeatedly went astray — notably when Jack Wilshere aimed a crossfield ball to nobody as half-time approached. They improved around the hour mark and finally began to find space between a tightly packed defence, but the understanding between a front three of Sanchez, Lacazette and Iwobi seemed limited at best.
Arsenal were not helped by the absence of Mesut Ozil, who sat out proceedings through injury and may yet be a doubt for Wednesday’s visit of Chelsea. There will now be added pressure to win that one and go into a difficult January — with the futures of Ozil and Sanchez bound to loom large — in positive shape.
3. West Brom need to finish Phillips’ good work
You get the impression that Phillips is the kind of player Pardew loves to work with; and with somebody on the end of his best work, Albion might have come away with a win. The West Brom manager loves his wingers and will surely have pinpointed Phillips, who can be devastating on his day but patchy on others, as a player capable of providing the kind of X factor Albion have so sorely lacked. Phillips is still just 26 and should be around his peak; he impressed in the Boxing Day draw against Everton, a match that Albion should have won, and carried that form into a fixture in which any kind of positive outcome have been considered a bonus.
In the opening period most of their best attacking work came down his flank. Phillips, whose combination of size and speed make him an intimidating prospect in full flow, had the beating of Kolasinac from the opening minutes and that did not change when the inexperienced Maitland-Niles — who is quicker but nowhere near as strong — took the Bosnian’s place. The problem was that, all too often, there was not really anyone for him to aim for despite a string of tempting deliveries.
Salomon Rondon’s injury-enforced absence robbed West Brom of one penalty-box presence while Rodriguez and Robson-Kanu, the two strikers who started here, are more adept at working the channels than attacking the box. Robson-Kanu, in particular, did that to decent effect but rarely had anyone to aim for whenever he pulled out wide. Gareth Barry and Jake Livermore are not midfielders particularly given to making lung-busting bursts from box to box and it was not hard to see how West Brom, with 14 goals from their 21 games, are the second-lowest scorers in the division.
A centre-forward will be top of Pardew’s priorities in the transfer window, although he may have to wheel and deal to get one — which may entail the sale of Jonny Evans, who was impressive again at the back here. If he finds the right man then Phillips may be able to make more tangible difference.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.