Sunday, August 02, 2015

Wenger Finally Beats Mourinho, Arsenal Win Community Shield

The Community Shield is not on par with other Super Cups, as for example in Germany, at least not in recent years. In fact, the winner of this event rarely goes on to win the league and many pundits do not even count it as a trophy. Loser Jose Mourinho was so unimpressed with his runners’ up medal, he threw it into the crowd. Yet Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal squad will care little, as they finally beat his bitter rival Mourinho for the first time; only taking them 14th meetings to do so.

Arsenal started brightly creating a couple of half chances with Walcott’s pace, though John Terry intervened to block a shot that could have given the Gunners the early lead. From there the game was largely back and forth, with Arsenal dominating early possession but giving the ball away a little too frequently. Then, on 29 minutes, Arsenal got forward on the counter and a fine pass from Ozil to an open Walcott in the middle, was swung out to a charging Oxlade-Chamberlain who rounded Azpilicueta rather easily and then sent a stunning shot past Courtois into the far left corner. It was actually John Terry who was most to blame for the opener, having ventured a little too far outside the box to try to pressure Walcott before the pass. Ox almost added an assist to his goal a few minutes later, though Courtois was able to collect his clever chip over from the right byline. And then Chelsea had two chances of their own to draw even before the break. Both came from Ramires, who first sent a fine shot just wide of the far post and then should have tied things up with a free header from a Lois Remy cross that he missed badly.

Mourinho was providing tips on the proper header technique from the sideline, but the halftime whistle blew with his side behind. The second half was a different game with Arsenal slotting into a more defensive formation and Mourinho bringing on Falcoa for Remy and then Oscar for Ramires. The moves paid off as Chelsea dominated possession, though few chances arose from that possession. Oscar did send a free kick from just outside the box toward the near corner, but new Gunner Petr Cech dove across goal and parried it away. The Gunners should have then doubled their lead in the dying moments as first Cazorla and then Gibbs were set free one-on-one with Courtois, but the Belgian won out on both occasions. Gooners around the world held their breath as four minutes of extra time elapsed and they could finally celebrate Wenger’s first win over a Mourinho-led Chelsea (and their first win of any kind since 2011). Four thoughts on the game and one on an old Arsenal reject finding a little redemption this weekend:

1. Wembley Magic: Arsenal have now played and won in Wembley six straight times. Two were the semifinals of the FA Cup the past two years, but the other four wins brought trophies, with two FA Cups and two Community Shields, beating first Manchester City last year and then Chelsea today. Winning on that hallowed ground against tough opposition with as much to gain from victories is emblematic of a strengthening of the mentality of the Gunners, after years in the hinterland blowing big game after big game. The reality is they have rarely played great football at the stadium, with the exception of the 3-0 drubbing of City in the largely meaningless Community Shield, but they have found ways to win – coming back from an early 2-0 deficit against Hull City two seasons ago to end the nine-year trophy drought, in the semifinals staving off a spirited Wigan performance and then repeating the job in the finals last year. This win will sit near the apex though, as Wenger finally got over the hump and beat Mourinho and Chelsea in an important game. Arsenal fans will hope they can carry that momentum into a real title challenge this year.

2. That Hoodoo that You Did to Me: many have already began criticizing Wenger for failing to shake Mourinho’s hand after the game (with two opportunities to do so), but I’m not sure I’m one of them. Mourinho has belittled his rival for far too long, playing mind games and diminishing Wenger’s impressive start to his career at Arsenal by focusing on the lean years when they moved from Highbury to the Emirates and didn’t have the money to compete with rich Russian and Arab owners. Maybe some of his criticism was true (I mean 0-13 seems like more than a fluke!), but Mourinho’s spitefulness and lack of respect for a manager who is arguably one of the classiest in the league reminded many of what they don’t like about the successful Portuguese provocateur. Wenger is also, one should note, the longest running manager in the EPL by a rather large margin. But 0-13 was always the sticking point in Wenger responding to that criticism. 1-14 isn’t great, but it will be a relief for the Frenchman to finally check beating Mourinho off his bucket list. Here’s hoping he adds two more victories before the season is through!

3. Direct Attack: the biggest critique of Arsenal since the Invincibles were disbanded and the Gunners lost the UCL Final to Barcelona in 2006 has been that they lack the mettle and spine to deal with the big games. It was a fair critique, given the losses in Domestic Cup Competitions, particularly to lower tier and lower quality teams (Birmingham City anyone; or how about Bradford City?), the failure to get back to the latter stages of the Champions League (with only one semifinal appearance since 2006 and one and done for five years now), the late season fades in the title race and the terrible record they accrued against their main competitors. Last season, they started to show a new resolve as they played Chelsea to a draw, beat United in the FA Cup (at Old Trafford), took down Man City 2-0 at the Etihad, crushed Liverpool and played some of the best football in England until another late fade of sorts – even as they secured third place and finished on an up note. That same mettle was on display today, as they staved off a wave of Chelsea attacks by pressing up field or sitting back with a good defensive shape. It was not a vintage display, but their direct attacking style on the counter paid dividends not only with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s beautifully taken goal but also with a few other chances to sew up the victory late, that they failed to cash in on. Wenger finally abandoning his desire to play “beautiful football” no matter the cost appears to have paid dividends as he tries to again rise to the upper echelon of managers who can deliver trophies on a regular basis. Restoring the title to North London is his next task, along with making another sustained run at the UCL title. For now, it is good to know that Arsenal have the personnel to attack more directly when their flair passing fails and to sit back and absorb pressure when they are ahead. The return of Ox from injury and the ability to play Walcott or Sanchez through the middle should both contribute to a more diverse style than we have seen in the past and one that can break down teams that sit with 10 men back and defend throughout games, hoping for a goal on the counter or to play out drab nil-nil draws.

4. The Costa Problem: Chelsea could easily have won the game today if they had avoided the defensive lapse on the Ox goal and finished even one of the many half chances they had throughout the game. But while the introduction of Giroud in the second half appeared to calm the Gunners and provide an outlet from the back, the absence of Costa appeared to disrupt the Chelsea attack in profoundly disturbing ways. If we look to last season, we can really speak of a “tale of two halves.” In the first, Chelsea built an almost insurmountable lead early in the campaign, playing open football and scoring with ease – with Costa the key figure throughout the early run. But as the halfway point passed and City somehow caught the Blues, Mourinho reverted to form and started playing the more defensive, boring football that causes many in the game to dislike the mercurial but amiable manager. As this year began, fans and pundits alike wondered how Chelsea would play this time around, particularly given the reality that most of their rivals have strengthened during the transfer window while they have arguably not. The answer, at least when Diego Costa is out with yet another hamstring problem, is to revert to form and play a more defensive, possession over creative style. One could see the effect on their star player, Hazard, who started going all the way back toward the back 4 to try to get some time on the ball. Remy just doesn’t pose the same problems that Costa does to defenders and, one must admit, Falcoa still looks a shadow of his former self – lacking the confidence and speed that once made him among the best strikers in the world. Anyone who has followed Mourinho’s career knows that he will figure out a way to win the majority of the games he plays, but one wonders if this might involve the sort of negative football Wenger and his acolytes loath.
5. Bendtner Redemption: if we are to believe the hype, Nicklas Bendtner is among the greatest strikers in the world. Of course, that hype came predominantly from the Danish player himself. His time at Arsenal was filled with some great goals and a lot of missed opportunities, most tellingly in the second leg against Barcelona in 2011. Bendtner finally got a taker a few years back and left the squad. At Sunderland, his personality caused some trouble and, even as he scored a respectable 8 goals in 25 games, he was let go. He moved on to Juve, where he played 9 times without scoring over the course of an entire season. They moved him onto Wolfsburg, where he had only scored one goal in a little over a year. But against Bayern Munich in the German Super cup, Bendtner finished a lovely Kevin De Bruyne cross to equalize the game in the final minute before winning the Cup with the fifth successful penalty of the resultant shootout. This won’t make up for a career that has not lived up to early promise, but it is a nice moment for a Gunner who was always worth an interesting headline or two throughout his long stretch with a team in transition.

Chelsea open up their title defense on Saturday at home against Swansea City and Arsenal Sunday at the Emirates against a battered West Ham side.

No comments: