Arsenal hit by dwindling confidence, says Wenger

Arsenal 1 - West Bromwich Albion 1
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The Independent Football

Bryan Robson articulated what a lot of people are thinking: Arsenal are vulnerable. "They set such unbelievably high standards that you can't keep them all the time," said the West Brom manager. "There is going to be a time when those standards drop off." And that time is now.

Bryan Robson articulated what a lot of people are thinking: Arsenal are vulnerable. "They set such unbelievably high standards that you can't keep them all the time," said the West Brom manager. "There is going to be a time when those standards drop off." And that time is now.

The realisation was also there in Arsène Wenger's face. The Arsenal manager spoke of his team "being close" to their best but he also talked of a "loss of confidence", "nerves" and "worries". That defeat at Old Trafford has left them with some hangover.

Six points from five Premiership matches has rocked their serene progress. Add to that the spectre of Wednesday's vital Champions' League tie away to PSV Eindhoven - just the sort of organised, rigorous side to test Arsenal - and Wenger looked pained.

A further, genuine concern is the patched-up nature of his squad. "Yes, we are suffering because we have lost two defensive midfielders," Wenger said of the absence of the injured Brazilians Gilberto Silva and Edu. Mathieu Flamini is also out, as is Gaël Clichy and, most crucially, Sol Campbell. "Even though Arsenal are a great side, it's difficult to replace him," Robson noted.

To Wenger's immense relief, the 30-year-old should be back for next weekend but that will not remedy his worries over the form of the bruised Jose Antonio Reyes, a substitute here, and Thierry Henry's complaint that he is just "70 per cent" fit. "I can't rest him," Wenger said emphatically. But Henry is not the only one who is tired.

Extraordinarily this was the seventh time this season that Arsenal had taken the lead only to draw. Even more extraordinarily, three of those matches have involved contests with genuine relegation candidates and four of them have taken place at Highbury. The frustration is palpable. "Once again we were leading and didn't keep a clean sheet," complained Henry. However the striker also mounted a spirited defence.

"Some people say the Premiership is only three or four teams, but I don't agree," Henry said. "The likes of Southampton, Bolton, Crystal Palace and West Brom have shown that." And been allowed to show that. Each has hauled Arsenal back with a similar game plan (and one that is acting as a template). The gist is this: defend deep, with discipline, five men across midfield, harry, frustrate, hit on the break - and don't panic if you concede a goal.

West Brom certainly didn't and there was the immense satisfaction for Robson in knowing that his prolonged absence from the game may well have honed rather than dulled his tactical acumen. "The way Arsenal have been playing, we felt that if we were patient with our play, then we could get a goal against them," he said.

The caveat is that such a plan also depends on Arsenal being compliant. And they were. The passing of the prodigious Cesc Fabregas veered from brilliant to abysmal while Patrick Vieira seemed preoccupied by an early bang on the back, Dennis Bergkamp's radar malfunctioned and Henry flickered. Defensively Arsenal seemed seized by a collective panic. Only Robert Pires shone and Henry noted that he was not involved in the midweek internationals.

Still, and such is their quality, Arsenal should have won at a canter. Russell Hoult saved smartly from Pascal Cygan's header and from Henry's free-kick but the goalkeeper blundered badly in allowing Pires's curling, but relatively gentle, shot from 20 yards to squirm through on 54 minutes. The only mitigation was that Hoult tried to catch, rather than simply parry, as he was concerned not to present the ball to the onrushing Fredrik Ljungberg.

Once ahead Arsenal should have sealed the game. Earlier Bergkamp had perpetrated a glaring miss when sidefooting high but that was nothing compared with Cygan's wayward header from the Dutchman's chipped cross. Not quite as bad as Kanu's miss against Middlesbrough but a candidate nevertheless. The West Brom captain himself gave way with a quarter to go and substitute Robert Earnshaw earned a point, and his fourth goal in three Premiership matches, with the move of the game.

Jonathan Greening brilliantly brought down a hoof forward, turned and whipped in a right-wing cross which was met by Earnshaw, stealing in between the Arsenal defenders who were, once again, caught out.

`Goals: Pires (54) 1-0; Earnshaw (79) 1-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Cygan, Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira, Fabregas (Reyes, 81), Pires; Bergkamp (Van Persie, 88), Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Senderos, Hoyte.

West Bromwich Albion (4-5-1): Hoult; Scimeca, Moore, Purse, Clement; Contra (Earnshaw, 75), Greening, Johnson, Gera, Sakiri (Gaardsoe, 84); Kanu (Horsfield, 75). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Haas.

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: West Bromwich Albion: Gera.

Man of the match: Purse.

Attendance: 38,109.

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