Earnshaw adds to Arsenal woe

Arsenal 1 West Brom 1
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The Independent Online

For all Arsenal's potency, and West Brom's apparent poverty, this was never going to be a nine-goal feast. But it provided plenty of food for thought and not least about where Arsenal's season is in danger of heading. Following their defeat at Manchester United the champions have drawn with three of the relegation candidates and, at times, enjoyed good fortune, with last weekend's mayhem against Tottenham Hotspur the meat in the sandwich. The only crumb of comfort yesterday came with Chelsea's draw.

For all Arsenal's potency, and West Brom's apparent poverty, this was never going to be a nine-goal feast. But it provided plenty of food for thought and not least about where Arsenal's season is in danger of heading. Following their defeat at Manchester United the champions have drawn with three of the relegation candidates and, at times, enjoyed good fortune, with last weekend's mayhem against Tottenham Hotspur the meat in the sandwich. The only crumb of comfort yesterday came with Chelsea's draw.

The last time these two sides met here, two seasons ago, West Brom conceded five goals. But with a defensive rigour and aggression installed by new manager Bryan Robson, they refused to countenance a repeat and admirably recovered from a horrendous goalkeeping error to garner a richly deserved, hugely prized point. "You have to respect Arsenal but you cannot be overawed by them," said Robson afterwards. It is a mantra for all visiting teams - as perhaps is the way Robson set his team out. Frustration was the theme. It is something Arsenal have encountered - and struggled with - in Europe. Defend deep, string five players across midfield and hit hard on the break.

Even though it should not detract from West Brom's performance, it helped Robson's cause that Arsenal were again far from their best. Maybe it is all to do with tiredness. Arsenal were certainly careless - not just in the number of opportunities they wasted but in the constant sloppiness of their passing and their lack of incision. West Brom's best chance - before they scored - came courtesy of a bizarre first-half hoof into the air by Ashley Cole, clearly in need of a rest, which eventually allowed Neil Clement to cross. The impressive Zoltan Gera slid in but his shot struck the side-netting.

Wenger's options are limited, as he readily acknowledges. Jose Antonio Reyes and his sore shins were excused from starting here. But with injuries to Gilberto Silva, who is unlikely to appear again this season, Edu, Mathieu Flamini, Gaël Clichy and Sol Campbell, the manager has little room for manoeuvre ahead of Wednesday's vital Champions' League tie away to PSV Eindhoven.

The midfield, in particular, appears unbalanced even if it is Campbell's absence that is so clearly missed. Arsenal may not have conceded from a set-piece but the way in which substitute Robert Earnshaw was allowed to steal in between three defenders to equalise was, Wenger said, "stoppable". "Maybe we lost a bit of confidence by conceding four goals [against Spurs] last week," he reasoned.

In the first half, it had appeared to be West Brom, with their muscular but one-paced defence, who were inherently vulnerable. But perversely the two Darrens, Purse and Moore, contrived time and again to get a boot, knee, torso or head in the way of a succession of shots.

Although Robert Pires provided a degree of control, and a threat, and although the precocity of 17-year-old Cesc Fabregas shone at times, Arsenal could not find a way through. Pascal Cygan, who missed horribly with a header in the second half, came closest from a corner. His header spun off Clement's leg but the goalkeeper Russell Hoult blocked.

Then, on the stroke of half-time, a curling free-kick from Thierry Henry was pushed away alertly by Hoult. The interval did not loosen West Brom's resolve and after Pires's shot had struck Cole, Gera threw himself at Dennis Bergkamp, forcing him to side-foot over.

Finally that dam did burst but it came courtesy of a terrible blunder by Hoult. A long hoof by his opposite number, Jens Lehmann, was headed straight to Pires by Purse. The midfielder steadied himself and curled in a shot from 25 yards. Hoult, mindful of the approaching Fredrik Ljungberg, opted to try to catch the ball only to allow it to squirm through him and into the net on 55 minutes. It was a soft goal, and hard luck for West Brom.

Arsenal pressed, but a second goal would not come. Cygan missed, Ljungberg crossed behind his team-mates and Arsenal tried to walk the ball into the net. "We could not finish the game off," Wenger lamented, even if he maintained that his team are "close" to recovering their form: "We are not far away."

They were from Earnshaw, however. He and Geoff Horsfield came on with 15 minutes to go, and within 120 seconds Earnshaw was celebrating his fourth goal in three Premiership matches. It followed a brilliant piece of skill by Jonathan Greening, who pulled down Purse's skied header, turned and whipped in a cross from the right flank. It was a consummate execution to cap an admirably paced performance from West Brom to secure a rare away point. It is also a rarity for Arsenal to be booed off by their fans but that is what happened amid the frustration of the final whistle.

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