Shock of season mystifies Wenger

Arsenal 2 West Bromwich Albion 3: Frenchman calls Arsenal 'unrecognisable' after Almunia's howler compounds lacklustre performance
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The Independent Football

Sometimes football throws up a result that defies analysis, and the 60,025 here witnessed one yesterday in a state of collective disbelief.

The incredulity was mixed with joy on the part of the players and supporters of West Bromwich Albion, who ended a run of 18 lossesin Premier League away matches in an unexpected fashion and at an unlikely venue. And it was mingled with rage among the Arsenal fans, most of it directed at Manuel Almunia, but some of it at Arsène Wenger for failing to replace the accident-prone goalkeeper in the summer.

Almunia's second-half howler, when he allowed a shot by GonzaloJara, the Albion right-back, to bounce in off his gloves, set the tone for one of the shock results of the season, and the goalkeeper was partly to blame when Jerome Thomas, the former Arsenal youngster, put Albion 3-0 ahead after 73 minutes.

But Almunia was only one of a number of Arsenal players who failed to approach their best, and Wenger was concerned by how far his team had fallen short of the vibrant standards set in theirprevious matches this season, especially at home, where they had scored 16 goals and conceded only one in three resounding victories.

"Everything was difficult for us today: passing the ball, winning the ball back, one against one," he said. "Overall we got what we deserved. The positive is that we did fight until the last minute, but it is just not good enough at that level." The obvious explanation would be complacency, but Wenger had not detected it before the match and was concerned to get to the bottom of his team's sudden malfunction.

"I believe today's game was an exception," he said. "We have to respond well on Tuesday night [away to Partizan Belgrade in the Champions' League]. It's the first really bad performance, and it's unexplainable how flat the whole team looked for the whole game. It's a mystery for me. I didn't recognise my team today, and we have to sit down together to analyse what happened."

Part of the credit must go to the visitors. Plenty of teams have arrived at the Emirates Stadium intending to attack with a neat, short-passing style when they had the ball, and getting 11 players behind it when they did not. Most have departed with four of five goals put past them, but RobertoDi Matteo's well-organised team proved the exception.

"We pressed them all over the pitch, and managed not to let them play in their usual way," he said. "I thought we played tremendous football but also defended very well."

Arsenal had only one noteworthy effort on goal in a tepid first half, Andrey Arshavin twice poking the ball against the same post from Emmanuel Eboué's cross after 13 minutes. However, that was an isolated moment of penetration by Arsenal, who looked as if they expected only to have to turn up to take the points.

They got a shock when Peter Odemwingie ran on to Chris Brunt's pass and was felled by Almunia, who was perhaps lucky to escape with only a yellow card. West Bromwich's frustration was compounded when Almunia dived to save Brunt's weaklyhit penalty. "It's a question mark whether he should have stayed on or not," Di Matteo said.

But Arsenal did not make the most of their reprieve, and the visitors were deservedly ahead five minutes after the restart. Thomas, a member of Arsenal's FA Youth Cup-winning teams of 2000 and 2001, who shook off a groin problem to play, bam-boozled Bacary Sagna along thebyline and laid an unmissable chance on a plate for Odemwingie.

Almunia's blunder two minutes later made the task harder evenbefore Thomas scored the third,sending Brunt clear on the right of the penalty area and netting gleefullywhen the ball came back across the face of goal with Almunia out ofhis ground.

Plenty of the crowd headed for the exits at that point, missing Samir Nasri's two replies, both well-placed low shots. But these were too littletoo late and, as Wenger admitted, a third would have been more than Arsenal deserved.

Attendance: 60,025

Referee: Michael Oliver

Man of the match: Thomas

Match rating: 7/10