Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Absurdity of Our Insularity

One of the biggest problems facing America today is the insularity that appears to spread across the political spectrum, or at least outward from the center with increasing magnitude as it nears the dual poles. There are arguably many reasons to explain this insularity from the echo chamber offered on digital and traditional media platforms that allow one to only receive news and perspectives that reinforce what you already believe to the increasing segregation in society in general. Both conservatives and liberals are both guilty of abiding this new paradigm, existing in blissful ignorance of arguments that might differ with their own.

The costs of this insularity are profound, from the inability to engage in political discussion and debate across ideological lines to the very real and deleterious ways it has created an uber-partisan environment in DC that undermines compromise and forward movement on issues that affect our lives. It has led to increased violence, though predominantly from the right-leaning end of the political continuum, and an inability to even consider confounding evidence or arguments. Maybe most troubling to our long-term prospects, is the ways it has cut off the critical thinking facilities essential to the effective functioning of democracy.

One way in which we see this new political insularity is exposed is, of course, through those who continue to support President Trump, and those who blindly reject everything conservatives do from one day to the next (though one has to admit that has become more reasonable in recent years). Another way is the reactionary fervor that seems to sprout out from every corner of our cultural landscape, often more fervent and fiery than an Evangelical sermon.

The latest example emerged just yesterday, on the heals of the absurd imbroglio started by Trump himself, as he tweeted a video of him body slamming and punching CNN, followed by claims that CNN blackmailed the adult reddit user that made that video. The latest event to cause an Internet uproar? Well, that most offensive of American documents, The Declaration of Independence.

That’s right. A group of Trump supporters thought that NPR was tweeting propaganda, as it used 113 consecutive posts over a 20-minute period to convey the entire 1776 document to its followers, a tradition, one might mention, that has been going on for 29 years now. Some just thought it was spam, but others figured lines like “He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary power” and “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people” were a reference to our current Commander in Thief. And they were not going to take those remarks from the very media outlet they are hoping to defund as soon as possible.

While this is a minor example, and some even took the time to apologize for the reactionary posts, it does show how quick many are to apoplectic frenzy any time anyone writes, says or posts something they disagree with. It is a troubling trend that only seems to worsen with each passing year. On the left, activists seek to silence anyone who says anything offensive to their social justice agenda, which I do largely ascribe to I should admit, while on the right confounding perspectives are attacked like the words of Beelzebub himself.

I don’t believe the answer is simply more civility in the public sphere, as many have argued, as there is nothing wrong with being impassioned about your positions and arguing for them vigorously. In fact, one could argue the Democrats tendency to try to stand above the fray of political disagreement has cost them dearly, maybe none as clearly as Hillary Clinton. Others call for increased tolerance, but as Zizek so cleverly points out it too has its limits. Maybe the answer instead resides in finding ways to cross ideological boundaries, to talk to one another without the generally held notion that whatever your beliefs, those who disagree with you are just less intelligent, and to seek to stem the inflamed passions that have stoked the insularity toward silos of identity that are immune to all outside influence.

More than anything, we need to return to public spaces that are diverse, whether in our schools, our media or our daily interactions with others. We need to learn to actively listen, rather than simply wait for our turn to talk. We need content producers to stop feeding the flame of partisanship and violence. Ultimately, we need to find ways for those with different values, beliefs and cultural traditions to live harmoniously together. Easier said than done, one must admit, when one of the two founding documents of our country sends those who claim to love it most into a fury, on the very day we are celebrating its birth … 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Seven Thoughts on the NHL/NBA Playoffs

Two teams are a game from winning their respective championships, the Golden State Warriors, still arguably slated as one of, if not THE, best team of all times and the Penguins, pushing to be the first to win back to back Stanley Cups in 19 years and solidify their position as the best franchise over the past two decades. Some thoughts on the playoffs so far in both leagues …

1.    Pittsburgh Uneven Performance Startling
The Penguins cruised 4-1 through what was supposed to be a tough first round series with the Columbia Blue Jackets, but were then pushed to the limit in their next two series, with a decent chance they will have to win Game 7 back in Pittsburgh to lift the cup for the second year in a row. In the second round, they won two games against the Caps that they probably should have lost and then somehow survived a resilient comeback to dominate and ultimately win Game 7. The Caps had all the momentum and home ice going into the clincher, but Pittsburgh found a way with veteran Marc-Andre Fleury delivering a momentous effort to shut them out 2-0.

In their next series, Ottawa was even closer, taking them to double overtime in Game 7 and having several chances to advance before the heroics of Chris Kunitz, 5:09 into that second OT. In Game 3 of that series, Ottawa won 5-1, before losing the next two 3-2 and 7-0. The series seemed over, but then Ottawa held on for a 2-1 lead in Game 6 and had their opportunities to take Game 7. Pittsburgh’s veterans were the difference in the end, but it was the second series in a row they arguably could, and should, have lost.

In the Finals, home ice has been king, with Nashville coming back to tie up Game 1 3-3 before two goals from Pittsburgh ended that night 5-3. The second game was an easier turn, with the Penguins winning 4-1, but Nashville road the home crowd to 5-1 and 4-1 wins that seemed to turn the tide of the series. That was until Pittsburgh got back home and absolutely steamrolled the Predators 6-0. Crosby was the hero, even without scoring, putting in three assists to take over the Finals scoring record from Lemieux at 20 (though it is only 4 goals and 16 assists) and Murray threw down a shutout of a Nashville team that was hot coming in. Malkin chipped in to continue his hot playoffs and Crosby, clearly the greatest player in the world at the moment, could add a third Stanley Cup to two Olympic Golds, a World Championship, Junior World Championship and World Cup of Hockey. Nashville could well win Game 6 on Sunday, but it would be hard to bet against this Pittsburgh side winning one of the last two, having overcome injuries, long series and momentum going against them to stand on the cusp of another Cup.

2.    NBA Playoffs Largely a Yawn
Golden State finally lost a game after sweeping through the first three rounds of the playoffs and the first three games of the Finals and, while Cleveland could argue that they could – and should – be knotted at two games apiece, it seems unlikely they will be able to overcome a 3-1 deficit this time around. The reality of these playoffs is that there have only been three competitive and entertaining series so far – the Celtics-Washington seven gamer, the Houston-Spurs series (4-2) and a Clips-Utah first rounder that also went the distance (even as LA had to play the latter part of that series without star Blake Griffin). Even in these series, there were a number of blowouts. Cleveland only lost once, to the Celtics, before the Finals and Golden State has only lost once all postseason, while the Spurs overcame slow starts to close their two series’ wins relatively efficiently.

The main problem has been the competitiveness of the series (only one has gone to 7 games and 5 have been sweeps) and the games themselves, which have more often than not been blowouts. Let’s move backwards from the Finals to look at the yawnfest in detail. With the exception of Game 3, when the Warriors roared back in the final 3:09 to steal the game, each of the other three has been decided long before the final whistle. In the two conference finals, the Cavs and Warriors crushed their opponent, with Cleveland winning their four games by an average of 25.8 points (including a 44-point decimation in Game 2) and Golden State by an average of 16, including a 26-point comeback after Leonard went down in Game 1. Moving to the Semifinals, Golden State swept by Utah in four easy wins (average margin: 15), the Spurs won four of the last five after getting blown out in Game 1, winning three of those games by a combined 75 points (with only the Game 5 OT win being close) and Cleveland made easy work of Toronto in a sweep with the average margin of victory 15.25. Only the Boston-Washington series was competitive, though two of those seven games came down to the wire (the Game 2 OT win for the Celtics (129-119 in the end) and the Wizards one-point win in Game 6). The first round was actually the most competitive of the entire playoffs, with the Celtics having to recover from an 0-2 home deficit to get past a Rondo-less Chicago, the Bucks and Raptors trading blows in the first three before Toronto ended it with three straight wins, Washington taken to 6 by a resilient Hawks side, the Spurs needing six to get by Memphis and the Clippers losing a tough seven-game series to Utah.

This all leads to a troubling question …

3.  Verdict Still Out on Whether Kevin Durant Broke the NBA
Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton, to name three, might have chosen the same path as Kevin Durant if provided with the opportunity, but super teams used to be built from the ground up, with good drafts, smart trades (Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish for Joe Barry Caroll, anyone?) and strong team chemistry. Sure, the Lakers and Celtics seemed to stockpile talent during their long successful runs, but neither in my memory ever added a Top 3 talent to a side that had won a title two seasons previously or lost a close one the year before. Durant wants the ring(s) and can’t be blamed for giving himself the best chance to do so, but could that victory be a little bittersweet, knowing he was never able to accomplish it with OKC, that his old side really should have beaten the team he joined in last year’s playoffs and that other opportunities might have kept his cred more intact (say the Celtics?).

Blaming Durant himself, though, is beside the point. Hearkening back to point #2 above, the real problem is that a dynasty in the making added a tool that makes them all but unstoppable. Until the Game 4 defeat to the Cavs, Golden State had lost once since April, a stretch of 31 games. That is absurd and shows how top heavy the league has become. No two teams have played in three straight finals in the history of the NBA and one wouldn’t be surprised to see these two going at it again next year. Sure, Golden State lost the Finals in 7 games last year and figured they needed to improve to get past LeBron again, but taking one of the top three players in the league seems beyond the fold, particularly on the back of the best regular season in history.

The irony is LeBron can partially blame himself, helping to craft a new collective bargaining agreement that allowed a signing like this to happen in the first place. Remember a few years back when the league actually blocked the Lakers from signing CP3, forcing him to move on to the hapless Clippers instead? Well, look how that turned out … the Lakers have been one of the worst teams in the league the past three seasons and the Clips one of the better in the regular season, even as their playoff collapses and bad luck have become as predictable as a Super Hero sequel, prequel or reboot. In any case, barring some change in this series or the team over the next few years, a dynasty might well be in the making, but one built like never before and that threatens to undermine the competitiveness of the entire league – along with its entertainment value (even as rating are sky high at the moment).

4.  Ovechkin Continues to Underperform in Playoffs
Ovechkin could never get to the conference finals, much less win a Stanley Cup, and still retire having had an admirable and Hall of Fame worthy career. But his inability to perform in the playoffs will mar memories of his professional career if he fails to take that next step and lead his team to the Cup. After a poor start to the Pittsburgh series in Round 2, Ovechkin helped keep his team alive and actually bring the momentum into a Game 7 on home ice. Yet once the game got going, it became clear the Caps attack was well below par and Ovechkin, unlike Crosby, or other greats of the past, failed to lift his team to victory. In 12 seasons with largely quality regular seasons, Ovechkin has been unable to get his team two series wins in any playoffs so far.

The career playoff numbers aren’t bad, actually, with 90 points (46 goals and 44 assists) in 97 games, and a plus/minus of 5, along with 6 game-winning goals. However, this year, surrounded by probably the best supporting case he has ever been offered, was far less impressive, with only 8 points in 13 games, including 5 goals and a measly 3 assists, a -4 plus/minus and no game-winning goals. In his NHL career, Ovechkin has scored more than a point a game (1,035 in 921 games, an average that puts him 17th all time), 554 goals (27th at present – though 5th all-time in goals per game (.626) and 20th in game winning goals (88). Some of the greats never do it in the playoffs and there is a chance Ovechkin might well join that group, though he still has some years to right that gaping hole in his resume. It might be with a new team, though, as rumors are swirling the Capitals might move on for their talisman of over a decade. Stay tuned for next season …

5.  No Lead Safe in These NHL Playoffs
While Ovechkin will be disappointed, alongside a host of others, the NHL playoffs have far outstripped those of the NBA this time around. The Finals are heading to Game 6 with every chance of going the distance, the Conference Finals were six and seven games, respectively, with the Eastern Finals going to double OT to decide, with 11 series going at least six games and three the full seven.

What has been more impressive is the number of improbable comebacks, including these finals, where the Predators scored three straight to erase a Penguin lead early in the third, before Pittsburgh stormed back to win 5-3. The Rangers blew two leads in their series with Senators, but came back to win one, and two earlier in the playoffs. Anaheim scored three late to actually win a game outright and had several other impressive comebacks and Pittsburgh scored two in the last three minutes to force OT in a game they ultimately lost to the Caps. The result is no lead of less than four games seemed completely safe and pulling the goalie reaped rewards far more often than in the past. With one or two games left in the season, these have been the best playoffs I’ve witnessed in many years, even with the more lopsided wins for both sides in the Finals.

6.  LeBron Still Building Case for GOAT
Even if the Cavaliers fall short on Monday night, and LeBron’s Finals record falls to 3-5, he continues to rack up numbers and records that will keep the debate of Greatest of All Time up in the air. In Game 4 Friday night, he moved to third on the all-time finals scoring list, behind only Kareem and Jerry West and surpassed Magic Johnson for the most triple-doubles in Finals history (9 to 8); with the next closest chasers all stuck on a measly two. He is already the leading scorer in playoff history (with 6,122 points) and seventh in all-time scoring, though still almost 10,000 behind the inimitable Kareem. He is the first player to go to seven straight finals and, over the past few seasons, seems to play his best when the season is on the line. In these finals, even with talented scorers like Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and JR Smith, the Cavs have been dominated when LeBron is off the court. In Game 3, which turned on three misses down the stretch by the Cavs, as they went the final 3:09 without a single point, LeBron was +7 on the court, and before that game-ending 11-0 run by the Warriors, that was a +18. This has been true all season and was the case again in Game 4.

Many will point to that 3-5 record in Finals if the Cavaliers do not follow up being the first in NBA Finals history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to become the first ever to come back from a 3-0 deficit, but it is important to acknowledge that his side has been the underdog in all but two of their Finals and that this was the case last year. The Cavaliers should be tied 2-2 in this series, but for misses by Korver on an open three, Irving on a fade away and, to be fair, LeBron on a tough shot with the clock running down. Yet a player’s career is not defined only by Finals wins, as can be attested to by greats like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Wilt and West himself.

Many will look at the 6-0 record of Michael Jordan in Finals and I still think there is a strong case to be made he is the best ever, but LeBron can play any position on the court, a feat only matched by Magic Johnson, who had much better teammates top to bottom throughout his career. In the end, the GOAT question is impossible to answer, given changes in the game, the difficulty in comparing different eras and the subjective nature of the questions itself. But those who refuse to field the question simply on the basis of number of Finals won fail to recognize the incredible performance of LeBron over all these years, the workload he sustains – which far surpasses any of the others in that conversation – and the pressure that has followed him throughout his career. GOAT, maybe not yet, but add another Championship and he might close the book on that debate.

7.  Underperformance of Steph Curry Largely Under the Radar
While LeBron continues to sparkle, even in defeat, Steph Curry has been far below his best in the Finals going back to Game 5 of last season. In last season’s finals, Curry’s numbers dropped precipitously, from 30.1 ppg during the regular season and 26.7 in the Western Conference playoffs, to 22.6 in the Finals. His assists per game dropped even more precipitously, from 6.7 to 6.1 to a measly 3.7, while his rebounding was also down (5.4, 5.9, then 4.9). The most troubling drop was in his shooting efficiency, though, as his overall field goal percentage dropped from 50.4 to 40.3 and his three-point efficiency from 45.4 to 40. Behind these numbers were some troubling trends, including attacking the basket much less frequently (with more pull-ups (48 vs. 43.7 percent) and less shots from within 10 feet (26.6 vs. 29.8 percent), throwing up more contested jumpers (54.8 vs. 47% of his shots were “defended tightly” in the Finals), dribbling too much and then the costly turnovers at the backend of the series, particularly in Game 7.

Moving forward to this season, Curry looks poised to add a second Championship in three years, maybe as early as tomorrow night. And yet it is hard to ignore the drop-off in performance this series. He is actually shooting lights out from behind the arc (42.5 percent), but that percentage is higher than his overall FGP: 42.3. To put that in perspective, he shot 46.8/41.1 during the regular season. This decline was particularly noticeable in Game 4, where he shot 2-9 from behind the three-point line and 4-13 overall, though he did chip in with 10 assists and 5 rebounds. In fact, to be fair, he has been far above his season average in assists (9.3 vs. 6.6) and rebounds (8.5 vs. 4.5) in the four games so far.

But there is a sense that he has become more of a defensive liability over the past two games, that he is taking bad shots a little too often and that his overall efficiency has declined in maybe 6 of the last 8 Finals games. Some will disagree, and others will argue having Durant by his side means that his numbers are likely to decline. But one could argue that the addition of one of the best scorers in NBA history should actually lead to more open looks and thus better performance overall. Whatever the reason, it might become a minor storyline if the Warriors finish the job, either Monday or in any of the next four possible chances.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Arsenal Strong Finish Could All Be For Nought

Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Sunderland Tuesday makes it five wins in their last six, including victories over Manchester United in the League and Manchester City in the FA Cup Semifinals. Yet the 2-0 loss to Tottenham a little over a fortnight ago might very well be the nail in the coffin of their 20-year residency in the Champions League. That loss, which guaranteed the Spurs would finish above Arsenal for the first time in 22 years, also should have been the final straw for Arsene Wenger. Instead the strong finish and the potential for a record-breaking seventh FA Cup victory could just keep the Frenchman around for another year or two. Some thoughts on the run in and future of my beloved Gunners:

1.    The Losses That Hurt the Most
Arsenal are tied for the third most wins in the league this season, with 22, but have three more losses (9) than any team in the top 6 and only one less than their opponent, Everton, in the final game of the season. They have only drawn 6 games all year, tied for third lowest with Sunderland, behind only Chelsea (3), Crystal and Swansea (5 each). And they have the fifth best goal difference, behind the four teams in front of them in the table. With the chances of Middlesboro taking at least a point from Liverpool in the final game to save Wenger’s perfect Champions League qualification record unlikely, particularly as Middlesboro have absolutely nothing to play for, it truly looks like the end of an era.

Unfortunately, Wenger hasn’t gotten the news, or refuses to accept it. As with a few years ago, it seems likely his two best players might be heading for the exit a year after a legitimate title tilt was undermined by another second half meltdown, right on the heals of a last gasp victory against the eventual Champions Leicester. And a couple of other stars might also be on their way out, including a suddenly rejuvenated (though still injury-prone) Oxlade-Chamberlain. Why? Not only the lack of silverware on offer over the past decade, but the inability of Wenger, the last remaining “emperor” of English football, to get his players signed before they enter the final two years of their contract. Maybe Ozil will stay, with high end suitors yet to surface, and maybe Wenger will keep his promise and force Sanchez to line up in red and white for another year, but we’ve heard that line before (all Gooners must remember that Robin Van Persie open letter on his way to helping Ferguson go out with one final title, huh?).

Looking at a season on the brink, a few losses and draws stand out as the most painful to contemplate as we consider the one point that will likely separate us from another year in the UCL. One should start with a brief mention of the opening day 4-3 defeat to Liverpool at the Emirates, a game Arsenal should have at least drawn but for a short spell when the team that will likely supplant us in the Top 4 ran riot over a makeshift defense. Arsenal, of course, then went on a 19-game unbeaten streak in all competitions before losing 2-0 to Southampton in the League Cup. They won their next three on the bounce before two games that defined a slow collapse that only accelerated over the next three months. First they ceded a 1-0 lead to Everton ultimately losing 2-1 and then did the same thing five days later at Man City.

They did rebound well from those two losses, winning three on the bounce, but then gifted Bournemouth three goals before a spirited comeback that ended in a 3-3 draw. Even as many positives could be taken out of that comeback and team spirit, the two dropped points are among the reasons they find their destiny outside their hands heading into the final day of the season and one should remember the look Sanchez gave Giroud as he celebrated the extra time equalizer while there was still time to take all three points. Was that the moment Sanchez decided he wanted to leave? We will never know, but that draw might be as instrumental as any of their nine losses.

They did go on another four-game winning streak after that draw, but then came the match that is probably the worst loss of the entire season, capitulating 2-1 to a poor Watford side at the Emirates, a game they just couldn’t afford to lose. It is from here the season began to unravel completely. Next came a 3-1 capitulation at Stamford Bridge, the 10-2 two-leg destruction by Bayern, a 3-1 loss to Liverpool and two more embarrassing losses – 3-1 at West Brom and 3-0 to lowly Crystal Palace, in the relegation fight until a week ago. The loss to Crystal did at least signal a change in the side, switching to a back three that has seen them win six of their last seven matches (more on this below). And yet it felt like an act of desperation a few weeks too late.    

2.    Record Against Top 7
Arsenal have a chance to finish with a victory against the Top 7, which would be only their third in the league all season. They suffered a double to the Liverpool side that is likely to finish above them, split the two games with Chelsea (with their 3-0 win at the Emirates a costly one for the entire league as it pushed the Blues to switch to three at the back and stand on the cusp of setting the record for wins in a season along the road to their title), did take four points from United, drew and lost to Tottenham, got one point from two games with City and lost to Everton in the reverse fixture. That is a record of (2-3-6) and 9 out of a possible 33 points. More than the disappointing losses to Watford, West Brom and Crystal, or the disappointing 3-3 draw with Bournemouth, another season of underperformance against their closest competition is both the proximate cause of their failures and a further indictment of a man who has outstayed his welcome by at least two seasons now and seems likely to continue onward undaunted by criticism from the fans or the pundits.

One should not discount some more positive results over the course of the season, however. Arsenal absolutely crushed Chelsea in their first encounter at the Emirates, came back to draw with City, beat the same side in the FA Cup semifinals and took four points from United in a season for the first time in recent memory. They also played Tottenham to a tough 1-1 stalemate in the first half of the season and only lost three games at home all season. The real story of their season has a lot to do with going from one of the best road teams in the league over the past few seasons to a decidedly suspect side away from home and the continued pattern of second-half capitulation before a late charge. This year, for the first time in a couple of decades, the charge could well be a point too few …

3.  Late Rejuvenation of Ozil and Sanchez Hopeful or Baffling?
It is hard not to place at least some of the blame for the second half collapse at the feet of our second most talented player, as Ozil continued to show a troubling tendency to disappear at the most inopportune of moments. The truth is he has been wildly inconsistent for over a season now, after an excellent three quarters of a season last year where he was on the cusp of breaking Henry’s record 20 assists in a season (he came up short in the end). Early on this season, as the Gunners went on their 19-game unbeaten streak, he was contributing less assists but more goals. But then the goals dried up, his assist record didn’t improve dramatically and his inability or unwillingness to play on both sides of the ball cost Arsenal dearly in several games. He has returned to scintillating form of late, with one goal and two assists in the last three and two more goals and an assist in his last 10. It is informative to consider, however, that two of his worst performances came in the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Crystal Palace and the 2-0 humiliation at Tottenham (the only two losses over that period). Overall, Ozil has 12 goals and 11 assists in 38 appearances in the league and Champions League, which is not a bad haul. But those numbers have come in chunks and his performance in games against the Top 7 and Bayern, to name the most obvious, over the past few months raise continued concerns about his commitment and ability to help Arsenal win on the biggest stage.

Sanchez, of course, is having an extraordinary season, the best of his professional career. He has 23 goals and 10 assists in 37 league appearances, 3 and 3 in 8 Champions League appearances and another two goals in four FA Cup appearances (two off the bench). Overall, that is 29 goals and 13 assists, including four goals and an assist in the past three games alone and six since the Gunners went on their run of six wins in the last seven. But his performance has also been a little uneven at times, with stray passes contributing to Arsenal’s defensive woes and several important games where he failed to score, including the 2-0 loss to Tottenham, the 3-0 capitulation to Crystal Palace, the 3-1 loss to Liverpool, the 2-2 draw with Man City, the second leg of the Bayern tie, the 3-1 loss to Chelsea, the 2-1 loss to Watford and the 2-1 loss to City in December. We can’t expect Sanchez to score every game, but his record against the Top 6 is not great and one could argue his negative energy on the field appears to spread like a pandemic across the entire side at times.

Even given the issues with the two, Arsenal will be a better football team with both lining up next season. The problem is the reality that it is likely one or both of them will be gone and the gulf in class that will leave will be hard to fill if they are stuck in the Europa League with a manager who seems to be unwilling to say goodbye even as his best days are becoming a speck in the rearview mirror. The rejuvenation does give the side some hope for next season, with Xhaka emerging as a great deep-lying creator, Ramsey improving (even as he can’t seem to find the back of the net), Rob Holding showing that he has the talent to be a consistent starter in the near future, and even Bellerin rediscovering the form that made him one of our most exciting youngsters earlier in the season. Lacazette has just played his last game in France and it now appears that we will go head to head with Atletico Madrid this summer to sign a prolific striker who has scored 100 in 203. But other reinforcements are necessary, particularly if Sanchez, Ozil, or both leave. There are simply too many fair-to-middling players in the side from Walcott, Ramsey and Gibbs to Coquelin, Iwobi and Giroud. In some ways, assuming Liverpool don’t choke, next season could become one of the most important in a decade for a side that could well fall off the cliff if they aren’t careful.

4.  Wenger’s Delusions to Send Arsenal on a Liverpool Spin?
Even with the positive signs and the slim possibility that the Gunners could slip into the Champions League place through the back door of a Liverpool slipup, there is real concern for the future. There is uncertainty around whether Wenger will stay or go, which makes planning for his replacement more difficult. There is even more uncertainty around Ozil and Sanchez, alongside concerns about Ox, Gibbs and Ramsey entering the final year of their contracts, whether to take another chance on Wilshere after yet another injury derailed his decidedly average loan spell at Bournemouth and concerns Bellerin, on a long-term contract, might get his head turned by a return to his hometown Barcelona side. Usimov has offered up an astounding one billion dollars to replace our absentee owner Stan Kroenke and the board is pushing for systemic reforms, even if Wenger does get another couple years at the helm.

The reality of playing in the Europa League is another issue that must be contemplated, as the average side to do so in the Premier League era has dropped 2.5 spaces in the table, with some taking a much steeper fall, like Newcastle and Chelsea along the way. Only two sides have jumped up from the Europa League after one season – Chelsea and Manchester United – and both have much deeper pockets than the Gunners. It is quite plausible to see Arsenal sinking into a Liverpool-like slump that could endure for several years. The lost revenue means spending has to be pared down, the allure of Champions League football being gone makes attracting top talent more difficult and the Big three has become a Top 6 or 7 who are all vying for four spots, signaling a tougher road to getting back.

Wenger now has a huge choice to make, though the remaining two games (actually three, as Liverpool will have to help the cause) could assist in that decision. The first decade of his career was marked by extraordinary success, including three league titles and four FA Cups, alongside a heartbreaking Champions league Final loss to Barcelona. That success led the board to move from Highbury to the Emirates and Wenger steered the side through the lean years always remaining in the Top 4. Two FA Cups in a row ended a long barren spell of silverware and things began to look up. But the second-half collapse last season has become far too familiar an experience for fans and this season was even worse.

The question now is whether he can steer the Gunners back toward the top before finally leaving or whether he will abandon a side he sliced into tatters, as Ferguson more or less did after exiting on a high with a title and an aging squad that needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. Wenger could of course exit stage left in a couple of weeks and leave the rotting mess to the next manager, could sneak into the Top 4 and throw the chains to a newbie with the energy and hunger to challenge the new crop of talented managers the league has attracted or, as is most likely, will continue in his position for at least another season no matter how much damage he does to his legacy.

Wenger has become a farcical figure, unwilling to admit the need to change – beyond a surprising turn to three at the back, unwilling to cede too much of his power (with, for example, a Director of Football, who could try to bring back the magic Wenger once shared with David Dein) and continuing to let key player’s contracts run down too far. He has lost in the Round of 16 in the Champions League for 7 straight years, only had one (or if you are kind) two title tilts in over a decade, and seems unwilling or unable to truly change to adapt to the modern game. The same old excuses, the same old results and the same old questions emerge over and over again and yet very little changes. He finally spent some money over the past few years bringing in Sanchez, Ozil, Mustafi and Xhaka, but might again see his best players leave, as happened with RVP, Nasri and Fabergas not too long ago. Until the Board somehow gains the balls to take a stand, as apparently two of the six seem ready to do, Gazidis takes a hard line or leaves for a stronger figure or Kroenke finally sells the team, one can imagine a slow but steady decline unseen since the 90s. Let’s hope someone in the organization wakes up before it’s too late …