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The list of excuses available to Albion today was extensive. Supporters can only hope that the Baggies reject them all.

Because while Steve Clarke and his players deserved so much better from referee Mike Jones at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, they deserved nothing more than they got from a discouraging afternoon.

And if Clarke and his men are to avoid turning a little local difficulty into something more akin to a genuine slump, they must first acknowledge the fractional drop in standards that has contributed to the first difficult period of the new boss' impressive debut season.

The pre-Christmas fixtures – starting with Sunday's Hawthorns game against West Ham – are inviting enough for Clarke and Co to convert their brilliant start to the season into a fabulous position come the dawn of 2013.

But to do so they will need to accept the small but significant failings that culminated in a third successive defeat on a frustrating afternoon in north London.

Albion's players headed into the capital – after Saturday's defeat – for a well-deserved Christmas party to celebrate what remains an excellent opening 16 games of the season. And conversation in London's bars and clubs will have strayed inevitably onto the series of factors that made Saturday's mission even tougher than it would ordinarily have been.

There was critical absence of Claudio Yacob due to a sore hamstring, compounded by the early loss of Liam Ridgewell to a mystery ankle pain that clearly disrupted Clarke's defensive plans.

There was the magnificent intensity to Arsenal's movement without the ball that played havoc with the Baggies' customary attacking fluency.

There was Mr Jones' failure to spot a shove on Ridgewell's replacement, Goran Popov, in the build-up to a crucial second penalty from which Mikel Arteta put the Gunners totally beyond their visitors' reach. And, most critically and most infuriatingly, there was the shocking dive from Santi Cazorla that brought Arteta's first-half spot-kick – and the woeful Mr Jones' willingness to fall for it.


Hopefully, though, before the Hawthorns squad got down to their serious revelry to mark a fabulous campaign so far, they will have reflected on what they need to do to rediscover the form that brought them four successive wins and third place in the table.

There is no cause for alarm and certainly no need for recriminations in the Hawthorns dressing room.

Yet, since they pitched up in Swansea for what would turn out to be the start of a disappointing 11 days, there has been a marginal drop in standards; a subtle but significant loss of ferocity, that has left Clarke's side unable to match the heights that propelled them to their finest top-flight start in a generation.

It was exploited on Saturday by an Arsenal side who displayed an impressive desire to put right the recent problems that had left manager Arsene Wenger in the spotlight.


While their attacking tempo was a little short of its sublime best and their finishing left plenty to be desire, there was a hunger to close down and pressurise Albion that was almost Barcelona-esque in its intensity.

From the opening moments the Gunners' midfield trio of Cazorla, Arteta and the magnificent Jack Wilshere were in the faces of the Baggies with James Morrison and Youssouf Mulumbu never given time to lift their heads and instigate Albion attacks.

And, while the nature of the hosts' winning goals left the Baggies fuming, Wenger's men had more than enough chances at other times to win the game comfortably while Albion rarely forced home keeper Wojciech Szczesny into action. Gervinho and Cazorla had both gone close with Brunt bending a shot just wide at the other end before Cazorla twisted in the Albion box, saw Steven Reid's leg and threw himself to the ground despite no contact.

Referee Jones fell for the deception and Arteta placed his spot-kick down the middle.

Wilshere put an excellent chance wide, the impressive Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hit the crossbar and the hapless Gervinho missed two glorious chances before Oxlade-Chamberlain barged Popov to the ground and drew a foul in the box from Chris Brunt with Arteta converting for a second time from the spot.

It was enough to leave the Baggies fuming. But not enough to mask their own below-par display.

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