Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Arsenal Lose UCL Opener 2-0 to Dortmund

Arsenal have shown both their best and their worst in the past two games. First they fell behind Man City at home on Sunday 1-0, before storming back to take a 2-1 lead. With time running out, Mathieu Debuchy went off with an injury, that will see him out for at least two months, and they soon conceded an equalizer by failing to mark a defender on a corner. The game ended 2-2, resulting in their third draw in four games this season. Then they headed to Borussia for the Champions League opener tonight, already facing the defensive crisis many, including me, thought they might face this term.

They were outrun in the first half, almost always second to a 50/50 ball and lucky to find themselves heading into the break still at nil-nil. But right on the strike of halftime, an errant thrown-in led to Ciro Immobile collecting the ball deep in his own half and running past five Arsenal defenders on his way to a beautiful goal. Yet it was a score that shouldn’t have happened, but for a troubling tendency by Arsenal to give up soft goals this season. The second half started as the first ended and Dortmund were soon 2-0 up, when Pierre Aubameyang slid around Szczesny before shooting past a diving Koscielny. The Gunners started finding some possession but were unable to find a way through and lucky only to ship two goals in the end. In composite, the game was a microcosm of all that is wrong with the team in recent years and why serious questions persist about Wenger’s ability to take this team back to the top of England, much less Europe. Some quick thoughts:

1. Finishing Touch? Many were happy to see Wenger finally sign a striker as the transfer window came to a close. And yet there were certainly questions about Welbeck’s finishing touch, which have been exposed in the past two games. He had a great chance to open up scoring against City on Saturday, but fluffed the chance before missing three great chances in this game. The first came about half way through the first half, when a ball was bundled to him a few feet away from the goal, only for him to get it caught in his feet and ultimately snatched away. A confident striker would have pounded it into the net. The next came in the 41st minute, when Ramsey’s clever work sent him free on the right one-on-one with Weidenfeller, but he sent his shot weakly wide of the mark. A third chance came in the second half, blown again. There was hopes the young striker would take the momentum from a brace for England in their Euro qualifier forward, but it appears he still needs some work.

2. Defensive Mid: this is becoming a tired refrain, but Arteta looked like a clown tonight, unable to do anything to stop a relentless Dortmund attack. One could ask a series of questions of Wenger, but let’s stick with two. The first is why he didn’t sign a DM in the window when everyone said he should (he could even have gotten Song back for, well, a song). That extra layer of defense is key to top teams and the reason Real look somewhat lost in the early season so far (even after an impressive 5-1 win tonight). The second is why he seems to never learn from his previous tactical errors against top teams on the road – allowing his fullbacks to maraud forward leaving the back line exposed. It was particularly baffling in this game, given that Mert and Kos looked tired after the City game four days earlier, Bellerin was making his first competitive start ever and Gibbs has just come back from injury. Bayern had 23 shots, 7 on target and obviously 2 that went in. Arsenal avoided two potential penalties in the first half and were lucky not to lose four or six to zero. It is beyond sanity and one wonders if he will address the issue in the winter window.

3. Defensive Woes: not surprisingly, given the issues in midfield, Arsenal have been shipping goals at an alarming rate in this young season. Since beating Man City to the Community Shield 3-0, the Gunners have only kept two clean sheets – both in the UCL qualifying tie against Besiktas. They gave up one to Crystal in their first game, two early to Everton before the comeback for a draw in their second, an equalizer to Leicester only two minutes after scoring the opener, one in the first half and then late against City and then two in the contest today. For those counting, that’s 8 goals in 5.

4. Starless: Arsenal signed Alexis Sanchez to inject pace and finishing into the attack, a year after bringing in Ozil to supply service to those around him. While Sanchez has been impressive at times, and already has two important goals for the team, he looked off the pace for much of the match, losing the ball on far too many occasions. And while Ozil showed a few examples of his immense talent, he just can’t dominate games the way other top players do and was subbed off with about 30 minutes to play. Beyond these two, there is Cazorla, who some believe should be playing ahead of Ozil, Ramsey, who doesn’t seem to be quite the same player in the early season, the up and down Wilshere and then a group of players that are very good while not being great. Potential is there, with Ox, Walcott, Gibbs, Chambers and Welbeck, but it must be realized or the team becomes little more than a promise unfulfilled.

5. Wenger Swan Song: fans must be wondering how much longer we will be compelled to support a manager whose best days seem to be behind him. For years now we have watched Arsenal consistently underperform while staying in the top four and the competition that seems to be more of a revenue generator than one we can actually compete for silverware in. They too often fail to perform in the top games, always seem between one and three players short of a good transfer window, have serious tactical rigidity that consistently hurts them and just can’t seem to put together a campaign from beginning to end. Wenger finally got off the snide with his come from behind FA Cup victory, but will more follow this term? Based on the early season performances, they will be lucky to stay in the top four or get out of their UCL group. Many professors grow jaded near the end of their careers and one wonders if it isn’t time for Le Professeur to start considering a final move to finish his career.

Looking around the rest of the games, Liverpool were lucky to escape with a 2-1 win, after conceding an equalizer to minnows Ludogorets Razgard before a late penalty converted by Gerrard saved them. Real pummeled FC Basel 5-1, Juve got past Malmo 2-0 and Zenit continued their early season form with a 2-0 victory at Benfica. The big surprises came from Monaco, who took down Bayern Leverkusen 1-0, and Olympiakos, who beat Atletico Madrid 3-2. Arsenal next face Galatasaray (who drew 1-1 with Anderlecht) at the Emirates and must get all three points to get themselves back into position to advance out of the group. They will certainly be happy that their nemesis Drogba has moved on, though the fact he is back at league leader Chelsea provides another headache to consider. COYG!

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