Slumped in his chair for most of the evening, chewing on gum, Sam Allardyce seemed to have accepted his fate long before the end of this decisive match for West Bromwich Albion. He had said earlier this season that the first Premier League relegation of his career would “kill” him, but in the end it barely caused him to raise an eyebrow.
And so a proud run comes to an end for the 66-year-old, who can at least make the point that he was not in the post for the entire campaign. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for most of his players, who have shown fight this season but have rarely produced the quality to match. Only Matheus Pereira, scorer of another excellent solo goal here, can realistically expect to remain a top-flight player next year.
Against an Arsenal side in the midst of a crisis of confidence following their painful Europa League defeat, West Brom certainly put in the effort. The odds have been against them for weeks and, when they conceded twice in the first half, they might well have collapsed as a team. Instead they battled to the end, with Pereira pulling them back into the contest in the second half.
Goals from Emile Smith Rowe and Nicolas Pepe, and a fine late free-kick from Willian, were ultimately enough to secure three points for Mikel Arteta’s side and confirm West Brom’s return to the Championship. Arsenal’s disgruntled fans will not feel entirely enthusiastic about the nature of the performance, though.
A couple of hundred supporters again protested against the club’s Kroenke owners before kick off, and it will take much more than a strained win against West Brom to ease the tension in north London.
At least Willian found the net at last, scoring his first goal since moving from Chelsea on a free transfer in the summer. Even then, it did feel typical of his disappointing season that it took him until now, when Arsenal’s campaign is already over in terms of their competitive targets, for him to finally put his name on the scoresheet.
In the moments before Willian’s late free-kick, the visitors had applied some genuine pressure as they pushed for a draw that would have kept them mathematically afloat still. But it never quite became an onslaught. It was not even enough to raise Allardyce from his seat on the bench.
Appointed in December, when West Brom were 19th, Allardyce knew then that survival would be a tough ask. Back-to-back wins against Chelsea and Southampton had given hope of a great escape but, ultimately, there was simply not enough quality in the squad. A better team would have punished Arsenal in the second half here, when the home side were wobbling and nervous.
As a bare minimum, Allardyce and West Brom’s fans would have expected their team to have a go here. They did so in the opening exchanges when, despite making six changes from Thursday’s Europa League match, Arsenal still looked to be reeling from their European exit.
If anything, West Brom were the better side for much of the first half, with Pereira twice going close to scoring a spectacular opener from range. His first effort, whipped with his left foot, almost brushed the outside of Bernd Leno’s post. West Brom were impressive in these moments but, as has been the case so often this season, they did not make the most of the chances they had.
Neither did they help their cause with their reckless defending. The right side of Allardyce’s back four was exposed time and time again by Bukayo Saka, who had started as a left-back but was soon bombing forward with relish. Each time the ball went left, Saka went in behind with ease. On some occasions he was not even spotted by a West Brom runner.
It was only a matter of time before it led to a goal. Saka picked out Smith Rowe, his fellow academy graduate, who lashed in a venomous finish on the volley. It was a timely reminder that the future is not all bleak for Arsenal. In Saka and Smith Rowe, there is hope for the future.
“I was saying to him before that he had to assist me,” said Smith Rowe. “I have assisted him a few times this season. It was good to get the goal together. We are all going to fight for each other until the end.”
The second came just six minutes later, as Pepe demonstrated the sort of quality that Arsenal will hope to see on a more regular basis next season. Cutting inside from the right wing, he launched a curling effort into Sam Johnstone’s top corner.
Despair was setting in now for West Brom, who briefly lost some of their composure and verve. Again and again, Saka sauntered down the left wing and caused havoc in West Brom’s penalty area.
There should have been more goals for the home side after the break, with Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli both failing to connect with Saka’s cross, before Pereira’s moment of individual genius. Running all the way through the Arsenal half, past Arteta’s entire midfield, he fired into the corner from the edge of the box.
From there the visitors pushed, but Willian’s 25-yard free-kick ended the afternoon as a contest and confirmed what has long felt inevitable for West Brom, and for their manager.