Arsène Wenger chose to play down his disappointment after Manchester United had moved five points clear at the top of the table but the Arsenal manager's magnificent obsession with the aesthetic aspects of football has left him with a blind spot when it comes to the basics of defending, and the lack of a reliable goalkeeper and effective centre-halves will almost certainly leave an otherwise admirable team empty-handed for the sixth season in succession.
Wojciech Szczesny's blunder in goal condemned them to defeat by Birmingham in the Carling Cup final and now Manuel Almunia's senseless charge out of his penalty area at The Hawthorns cost two points which could prove decisive as the title race enters its final furlong. Wenger would neither confirm or deny it but Jens Lehmann, persuaded out of retirement at 41, is in line for early promotion from the bench when the Premier League resumes after the international break.
It should never have come to this. For years now pundits and punters alike have been saying Arsenal need a top keeper and rock solid central defenders in the Adams-Bould-Keown tradition but Wenger, perversely, will not have it and continues to make do with inadequates, his persistence smacking of obstinacy.
Almunia, Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci effectively handed Albion a 2-0 lead, necessitating a frantic fightback against modest opponents still threatened with relegation. Roy Hodgson's canny management has kept his new team unbeaten for five matches but he could hardly claim credit for either of their goals here.
The first, after only three minutes, saw Koscielny and Squillaci carelessly concede possession and a corner, then go missing in the goalmouth as Steven Reid scored with a powerful header. As comparatively new foreign imports, neither centre-half seems attuned to the intensity of the English game and Wenger should have recruited an alternative with suitable experience during the January transfer window. West Bromwich's second goal was a horror show, Almunia vacating his area to meet a hopeful punt from Youssouf Mulumbu and getting in an embarrassing tangle with Squillaci which left Peter Odemwingie to roll the ball into the unguarded net.
In extremis Wenger sent on Marouane Chamakh, then Nicklas Bendtner, and the switch to 4-4-2 had the desired effect, restoring equality through Andrey Arshavin's excellent finish and a close‑range nudge from Robin van Persie. It was, however, very much a case of two points dropped and yet another setback for Arsenal after their Carling Cup defeat and elimination from the FA Cup and Champions League. Wenger thought those demoralising results preyed on his players' minds.
"We had four targets and suddenly we have only one‚" he said. "You cannot go out of the Champions League like we did and be left with no doubts. After that we were a bit nervous at the start of this game." Of his team's elementary defensive errors he said: "We will be dealing with that. Our marking was not good for the first goal. I think we were a bit tentative at the start." Would he play Lehmann against Blackburn on 2 April? "I'm not going to get into that now. We have two weeks to decide. He has not been involved for a long time but he has kept fit. He needs to sharpen his decision making, and a bit more practice."
Hodgson, justifiably, was pleased with Albion's progress. They were good value for their point, consolidating the ground gained with that 3-1 win at Birmingham City, but their programme gets no easier. Their next four games are at home to Liverpool and Chelsea and away to Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur.
Hodgson said: "The good thing about the league is that the teams at the top have got so much to play for that they aren't going to give anything away. If Arsenal had been sixth or seventh in the table, with nothing to play for, maybe they'd have been a bit less aggressive to get back in the game but they are playing for the title. Hopefully it will be the same for the other teams in our position when they meet the teams at the top."
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