Sunday, August 31, 2014

Arsenal Jaded in 1-1 Draw Against Leicester City

Arsenal took an early lead when Alexis Sanchez scored his second in two, pounding the ball in from close range after a clumsy clip from Yaya Sanogo set him up (20’). But two minutes later the lead was gone, after some pretty bad defending from Mertesacker, Flamini and an injured Koscielny. Why he was even on the pitch after a 50/50 header left him with staples in his head and a bizarre sock on his head was the first of what appeared to be several mistakes by manager Arsene Wenger. Wenger started with Sanogo up top and Ozil on the left (though he switched to the right later), and while the Gunners bossed the game with 69 percent possession, 10 corners (to 5), and 24 shots (and 6 on goal, to Leicester’s 9 and 3) they lacked the cohesiveness and finishing that could have made this a relatively easy afternoon against the just promoted side. Leicester were tough, pressing the ball across the pitch and creating 14 fouls (to just 6 for the Gunners, which itself is rather worrying in my mind). But Wenger arguably waited too long to bring on reinforcements and a couple of late half chances went wanting on the way to a draw that Arsenal easily could have lost.

A hopeful fan might hearkens back to the infamous 3-3 draw on the way to the title way back in 1997, when Bergkamp scored a lovely hat trick, including one of his finest goals ( But after a lackluster first half from a striker who has yet to score in a competitive match for the Gunners (0 for 17, for those counting), one wonders why he was not replaced until the 77 minutes, bringing in the ineffective Podolski instead of the exciting Joel Campbell. The Ox came on for Cazorla, who was only slightly above average, and Ozil stayed on the pitch until the end. Why he is not playing in the #10 role that made him a world-class player is still beyond me and something Wenger will have to sort out soon. Podolski actually had two decent chances to get shots off, but was slow and cumbersome and had the ball taken by defenders.

Slow and cumbersome actually sums up this Arsenal squad so far, except for two late surges to win their first game and then salvage a draw at Goodison Park last weekend. But the team appears to lack the chemistry that served them for much of the season last term and are too often passing up shots, failing to press up defensively and not taking their chances. So four points dropped in three games is quite worrisome, particularly as they next face off against Man City, in a fortnight. Wenger really needs to make moves with slightly over 24 hours to go, but one wonders why it has taken so long.

Three thoughts on the game:

1. “All right, Striker, you listen, and listen close. Flying a plane is no different from riding a bicycle; it's just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes:” Change “Striker” to “Sanogo” and “Flying a plane” to “Finishing a chance” and you have a sense of how absurd the young Frenchman’s play inside the box is. He is a really good holdup player with clear skills, but keeping his cool and finishing chances are not on that list yet. Since letting RVP go, Wenger has failed to sign the kind of world-class striker that could fully capitalize on the Arsenal midfield creativity. Instead we rely on distribution of chances across the pitch and far too many missed opportunities. Falcoa may be an option, Cavani as well and Cerci could certainly liven things up. But why didn’t we move for Remy after the move to Liverpool failed? Why not take a shot on Balotelli? These are questions that might haunt Wenger as the season progresses, as Arsenal look far too toothless in attack. One thing the past two games have shown is that even though Giroud misses too many of his chances, as I outlined in detail here -, Arsenal are currently a better team with him on the pitch, creating chances for his compatriots and finishing some himself.

2. Midfield Iron: for over a season, the back line of Mertesacker and Koscielny was among the best in the world. That no longer appears to be the case and one could argue that the problem in front of them is a big reason. Debuchy is a decent defender, but does appear to allow wingers to get behind him a little too often. Monreal, on the other side, is pretty good going forward, but is again suspect on the defensive side of the pitch. And Flamini, one of the feel-good stories of the first half of last season, has reverted to form and now feels like more of a liability than strong defensive presence on the pitch. Carvalho and Sporting Lisbon are waiting for an improved bid and one hopes that Wenger finally stumps up the cash to get this one done. Ozil, Wilshere and Ramsey need to be able to get out on the counter, but can’t do so as often if they are tracking back so much. Even with 69 percent possession, it appeared that they were too often playing in front of two stacks of four and thus finding it difficult to create real chances.

3. Wenger Inquest: I have been arguing for at least two years that it is time for Wenger to move on and for Arsenal to try a new, more flexible option at the helm. After the FA Cup win, the title challenge and the Community Shield victory, together with four quality signings, I was getting back on the Frenchman’s bandwagon. Yet a few games into the “real” new season, I think we can again question his rigidity, match day decision-making and failure to finish the business he starts in the summer. Looking to save a few million pounds, he often waits until the last second in the window and loses out on players. The Ba failure from the tricky Mourinho comes immediately to mind, but there was also the rash signing of Santos, Arteta et al a couple of years ago, with only a few of those players really shining with an Arsenal team that has dropped points early for three straight seasons. Wenger has needed a striker and DM for two years running (after the baffling decision to sell an improved Song two summers ago), and options are available, but he fails to act decisively or quickly enough. Sure we lost out on Higuian, Suarez, Ba and Remy, but would better management of the window have helped with any of them, or the host of other options available? Hazard looked likely to join the Gunners before the bizarre pickup of a striker from under his team’s nose, causing a riff that ultimately led the Belgian to move to Chelsea a year later. And that is just a few examples of an endless list of blunders in the transfer market. Sure Wenger has had some great success clipping players cheaply and then making them into stars, but there are three or four Andre Arshavin’s for every Henry. Last week, Wenger made subs that had an immediate impact, helping Arsenal to come back for the draw against Everton. But a decent defensive midfielder might have stopped one or both of Everton’s goals, and Giroud starting in the middle might have led to a better start where all three points were gained. Today, putting Sanogo in to start seemed like a poor decision that should have been fixed at halftime, but it took him until there were only 13 minutes on the clock to sub out his baffling striker, who only Wenger appears to think is good enough for a team of Arsenal’s stature. The reality is that Wenger has too much power and maybe too much stubbornness to listen to those around him, making the Gunners a quality side that makes money for the owners while failing to really challenge for the title or Champions League since the mid oughts (last year they obviously led the EPL the longest, but injuries and questionable tactics in big road games saw that very good chance slip away). And that is the final knock on the Gunners – after building a team that was more resilient and actually accumulated more points in 2013 than any other, he then reverted to form and started pushing up the pitch too often, leaving huge gaps behind that were constantly seized upon. If the Gunners are to play the game this way, which I admittedly enjoy, they need a great DM to protect the back four, not a converted creative midfielder like Arteta or a fading star like Flamini. Why can’t Wenger simply admit others are right and do the business necessary to make them contenders? Only he knows anymore …

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