When you are down on your luck, you need a handout from somewhere – anywhere – and Arsenal were thankful when the referee, Mike Jones, provided them with a gift.

There has been enough home discomfort for Arsenal this season to have Arsène Wenger shrinking into his enormous coat, but a game that might have been tricky became a whole lot easier once his team were awarded a penalty that was feather-down soft.

Midway through a first half that had not yet flickered into life, Santi Cazorla was well positioned in the penalty area and tried a cute cutback, when he must have felt a waft from Steven Reid's fresh-air kick. He certainly appeared to anticipate it. The tumble was convincing as far as the official was concerned. Penalty kick.

Mikel Arteta, who had been so devastated to miss a stoppage-time penalty here against Fulham last month, stepped up and placed his effort straight down the middle, over the diving Boaz Myhill, and in.

Steve Clarke seethed afterwards. "There was zero contact. I am not sure what the referee saw. It obviously changed the shape of the afternoon." West Brom's manager was deeply frustrated by Jones's performance, as he believed his team should have been awarded a penalty for a handball by Per Mertesacker, and a free kick in the buildup to Arsenal's second penalty. "Since I took the job I said I wouldn't talk about referees ... but today we got one of the poorest."

Wenger could afford to be more philosophical about the referee in this instance. He took Cazorla to one side to get his side of the story before facing the media inquisition. "I'm sorry if it was not a penalty. Santi said he was touched and lost his balance," Wenger said, adding that he would remind the Spaniard what was and was not acceptable if he saw fit once he had reviewed the video.

Although he could have done without the controversy, Wenger was also very satisfied to see his team gain three points, and react with a more positive performance. If they could have added ruthlessness to their many chances, West Brom might have had a hiding.

"We were a bit nervous – that showed in the way we took our chances – but you could feel we were ready for a fight and absolutely ready to win this game," said Wenger.

Arsenal were brighter than they have been lately, perhaps benefitting from the rest that Wenger gave many of his starters in midweek as he omitted them from Champions League duty.

Central to their punchiness were the two youngest performers, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The former made another leap towards his best form, pulling strings with a compelling blend of authority and creativity. The latter encouraged with his willingness, pace and drive. Wilshere might have scored after a burst into the box and later he combined with Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose angled volley bounced off the crossbar.

Gervinho was involved in much of the home team's attacking play, but generally provoked exasperated gasps from the crowd as he treated promising positions with carelessness. He showed an ability to fluff chances with aplomb. Arsenal created far more opportunities than has been the case recently. Wenger hopes his team can now go on to be more "serene" in front of goal. The improvement comes step by step.

At least Arteta was serene on both occasions when it was asked of him. The game was sealed when Oxlade-Chamberlain broke with menace in the 63rd minute and was fouled by Chris Brunt. Arteta produced a replica of his earlier spot kick.

Although West Brom cursed the rub of the green, they really strained to show their qualities. Clarke's assertion that his team were set to pounce the longer it stayed 0-0 with pressure mounting on Arsenal – as Swansea did last week – was plausible, but not necessarily probable.

They are in the midst of a blip, having lost their third consecutive match. Save for a couple of set pieces – a sumptuous curler from Brunt that drifted past the post and a fizzer from distance from Markus Rosenberg – they offered little.

"We have 26 points, we have had a terrific run in the league, that stopped 10 days ago," said Clarke. "I said to the players, if they carry on what they are doing, the next seven games will shape our season – and it could be a very good season."

Arsenal, after their own hiccup of four games without a win, gladly take the points and move on.