Sunday, August 09, 2015

New Season, Same Old Arsenal

Arsenal opened their campaign for a potential title tilt by playing one of the worst games I’ve seen from them in the past two seasons, losing 2-0 at the Emirate to West Ham, a team they had beaten nine times in a row, hadn’t lost to in 14 and at the Emirates since 2008. It was, as Wenger said afterwards, a tepid performance without any standout performance across the 11 players on the pitch (or the subs, for that matter). Ramsey was back to his give-the-ball-away worst, Giroud was less than convincing with his chances, Ozil did another disappearing act when needed most, Coquelin sprayed bad pass after bad pass, Monreal was guilty for the first goal, Ox, who otherwise had a decent game, for the second and Petr Cech had one of his worst games as a professional footballer.

It was an extraordinary display after a promising preseason and victory over Chelsea just seven days earlier in the Community Shield. In fact, it was only the second time Arsenal have lost on the opening weekend in the past 15 years, the other coming two years ago when a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa arguably led to the signing of Ozil and a title charge that fizzled in the second half. Today they had an opportunity to pick up two early points on Chelsea in the title race, but instead find themselves already a point adrift. The most fundamental question that must be asked of the players is how they could be so unprepared for a game to start a season? West Ham, possibly on the back of a just concluded Europa League campaign, certainly were and took their chances while shoring up their defense to withstand periods of Arsenal threat. Three thoughts on the game …

1. Plaudits to West Ham: the visitors had a new manager, a terrible record against the Gunners in recent years, the second youngest player ever to start a league game and some key players missing. They were dominated in three categories – possession (38%), shots (8 to 22) and shots on goal (4 to 6). Yet the only statistic that matters in the end is how many of your shots go past the keeper and there they put two in the net while a high powered Arsenal offense was held in check, with their Czech number one apparently catching the Gunner’s Goalkeeper Disease in his first league game with the new team (aka, inability to get through a game without a mistake or five). West Ham were well disciplined, timed their counters well and were very rarely caught behind the ball, with some great defending in an around the box undermining the intricate Arsenal passing game. Early they fouled repeatedly, breaking up the Gunners rhythm and earning three yellow cards, but they soon shaped into the game and took their chances. The youngster Oxford was excellent until subbed out, largely stubbing out Ozil’s threat, Kouyate scored with a great header on excellent delivery from Payet, Sakho was a threat up front and the QPR flunky Zarate scored the second, all backed by excellent goalkeeping from Adrian and good work from Tomkins, Reid, Ogbonna and Cresswell.

2. Here We Go Again: while Arsenal have done relatively well on opening day, they have had a tendency for early season struggles in recent years that led to fans calling for Wenger’s head. This season seemed to be different, with two FA Cups and two Community Shields victories in a row and the signing of a world-class goalkeeper. Oh what a difference a game can make in this case. Cech looked downright awful and Arsenal lost three points that could be paramount if they are to really to mount a challenge to Chelsea for the crown. If one were a conspiracy theorist, which I’m not, they might wonder if Mourinho hired a voodoo doctor to hex his departing keeper before he left, so uninspiring was Cech’s performance today. The problem was he wasn’t the worst of the lot, as Ramsey had a game to forget, Monreal and Koscielny were both guilty on the first goal, Ox and four others on the second, Giroud missed two good chances to draw even and Ozil floundered about as he too often does when things aren’t going right. The only bright spot may have been an otherwise impressive performance from Ox, who almost set up the first goal with an excellent run around five defenders before sending a nice cross to the charging Cazorla, though he chipped just over. And Wenger should get some of the blame as well, deciding to start Cazorla out on the left rather than in the position alongside Coquelin where he thrived for much of last season – though he moved back over before the half time whistle. After the disappointing first half display, I would have taken Giroud out for Walcott and maybe replaced a floundering Ramsey, but Wenger waited and brought him on for Coquelin instead. Sanchez was introduced later and seemed to bring the Gunners alive, but maybe should have been on the pitch earlier as Arsenal tried to save at least a point. The more fundamental question, though, is why Arsenal so often play so poorly and why Wenger can’t get them to improve in the second half of games like this.

3. What Arsenal Need: one assumes Cech will wake up after this performance, or one hopes given how uninspiring he was, but what else do they need to really challenge for a title? Some thoughts: 1. Another striker. Giroud is a quality player who is arguably among the Top 6 in the league (if we consider everything he does for the team), but he looked off the pace today and has never really felt like the kind of player to lead a team to a title (as Henry argued a couple of weeks ago). Looking over the past few years, Aguero, RVP and Costa are the type of strikers that make a difference, as Suarez almost did for Liverpool two seasons ago. Giroud will chip in goals, but he isn’t the game changer the Gunners need. Benzema could be that player, linking back up with Ozil. Whether Real will really sell him for the mooted 45 million pounds, of course, remains to be seen. 2. Another DM: Coquelin was incredible after returning to the team last season and contributed to Arsenal’s impressive second half. Yet it was hard to ignore how bad his distribution was today, along with the fact he left Arsenal exposed on more than one occasion. He will play a big role this year, but challenging for a title means being strong through the middle. Arsenal had the opportunity to sign Schneiderlin or Khedira this summer, but instead let them go to United and Juve, respectively. It is this sort of shortsightedness that has driven Arsenal fans crazy ever since David Dein left. Carvalho is out injured for a couple of months, and that probably means the Gunners will rely on Coquelin and Arteta (with Wilshere maybe slotting in at times, if he ever can stay on the pitch for more than a couple of weeks). But a sustained title challenge arguably required more than those two can provide. Watching the scintillating Chelsea game yesterday, one saw how an average performance from the usually reliable Matic contributed to them losing two points. 3. Winning Mentality: Arsenal have, of course, been better over the past two season, first mounting a strong title challenge before the “Wenger Fade” in 2013-14 and winning two FA Cups on the bounce. But their inability to win the big games enough or keep their focus throughout a campaign remains troubling. Two years ago, a draw against Napoli in the final group game of the UCL would have given them a better draw for the Round of 16, but after playing strong defensively for 70 minutes or so, they conceded and instead faced Bayern Munich and an early exit (even as they had a penalty and chance to take the early lead in the first leg of that matchup – missed by Ozil, of course, before Szczesny did his best to ensure defeat). A kind draw last year gave them their best chance in years to get through to the final eight, with Monaco there for the scalping, but a performance at the Emirates on par with the one we saw today left them a goal too far in the second leg (though they came oh so close). Hosting Chelsea in the second half of last season they had a chance to keep their dim title hopes alive, but instead floundered in a nil-nil draw. After that game, second place looked firmly in their grasp, but a couple of slipups ensured that City even took that consolation prize away from them. And now another campaign begins with a tepid performance and more questions than answers for a side that just can’t seem to recapture the winning mentality of that Invincibles side. 4. Last year I laid off the Ax Wenger dialogue I have been engaged in for many years now. But if this campaign fails to provide a genuine title challenge, isn’t it time for the Frenchman to finally depart? He had the opportunity to strengthen the side with 200 million pounds in the bank, but has only brought in Cech, ignoring the calls for a DM and Striker by every sane pundit in the world. Maybe they will turn things around quickly, but this was not the way to start a season.

Next up for Arsenal is a trip to Crystal Palace before returning home to take on Liverpool, back on the road to Newcastle, hosting Stoke and then to Chelsea on September 19. If they are not careful, they could again find themselves well adrift of the leaders, as they were last season. West Ham, on the other hand, host Leicester City.

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