Friday, October 02, 2015

The Nightmare Way Before Christmas: Arsenal Lose in Europe Again

Arsene Wenger always has excuses. Along with those excuses came wins and titles, at least through the 2004-05 season. However, over the past 11 years, the excuses have replaced the three Premier League crowns, four FA Cups and four community shields he won in his first eight years in charge. After a title drought that stretch to nine years, Wenger did finally lead the Gunners to a fifth FA Cup and Community Shield within a few months, followed by earning the same two trophies the following season. Yet it is the lack of a sustained title challenge and failure in Europe that has marked his career since that fateful night in Paris in 2006 when Arsenal took a 1-0 lead over Barcelona only to concede twice late and lose the Champions League crown that has eluded the club throughout their history (even in its previous incarnation as the European Cup). This was the season when things were supposed to change. Arsenal had beaten United at Old Trafford, City at the Etihad, drew with Chelsea and United and finished in third place for the first time in years. They finished the season on a high with the aforementioned second FA Cup in a row (setting records for wins by a manager (6) and a team (12)). Wenger then secured the services of world-class goalkeeper Petr Cech from Chelsea and everyone assumed two or three additional signings would come. They never did and even after finally getting off the snide by beating arch nemesis Mourinho in the Community Shield, the Gunners started their season inauspiciously with a 2-0 loss at home to West Ham.

The major issue that has plagued the French manager for much of his Arsenal career is the tendency for his teams to collapse on the biggest stage. In 1999, for example, Arsenal played Manchester United in the FA Cup semifinals. First they drew level and then found themselves up a man with 30 minutes left on the clock. They were unable to score but Phil Neville fouled Ray Parlour in the penalty area and the usually reliable Dennis Bergkamp stepped up to seal the game and a return to the FA Cup Final. Instead Schmeichel parried the penalty kick aside before a dramatic drive from Ryan Giggs from midfield resulted in the late goal that won it for United. The Ferguson-led team went on to win the FA Cup, beat the Gunners to the league title and then scored two late goals to complete the treble in Barcelona over Bayern Munich. Other near misses would follow, along with a fair haul of trophies, before the incredible 2003-04 season when Wenger became the first manager in top flight European football (and the only one ever in England) to go through an entire season without a single loss. The Invincibles were a collective phenom, but would only win one more trophy for Wenger, the 2005 FA Cup Final. What followed was a series of near misses in the league, often the result of second half of the season collapses, lost finals in the FA Cup and League Cup and the 2006 Champions League Final. Going through a few of the lowlights: losing the FA Cup Final in 2001 after being up 1-0 to Liverpool, losing to Chelsea in the semifinals of the UCL in 2004 2-1 even as they had dominated that team the past two seasons, drawing with Birmingham 2-2 in 2008 up five points with 12 games to play and end up blowing the title, losing the 2011 Carling Cup Final when Koscielny and Szczesny couldn’t decide who should collect the ball to fall 2-1 and losing to Manchester United 8-2 in the early going of 2011.

His record against his closest rivals has been horrible for years, including only beating Mourinho once in 15 meetings (with five draws and nine losses), going through a stretch of five years (ending in March 2014) when he played the Top 4 15 times with only 1 win, 1 draw and 13 losses (a total of 4 of a possible 45 points with a goal difference of -27), and an inability to beat Manchester United (1 win, 3 draws, 4 losses since 2009) after a favorable record from 1996-08 (7 wins and 4 draws in 14). Even with a more positive calendar year so far in 2015, Arsenal have lost at bitter rival Tottenham, blown the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 at home 3-1, faded late to fall out of a bid for second place, lost to a reeling Chelsea 2-0 and now find themselves on the precipice of failing to advance from their Group in the Champions League for the first time in 13 years.

Losing in the first game of the Group Stage 2-1 this year was a bit of a fluke, as they had to play a half of the game a man down after Olivier Giroud was sent off for a pretty soft second yellow. They still should have won that road game against Dinamo Zagreb, but for a number of missed opportunities to equalize and then go on to victory. But this is a common pattern for the Gunners, mistakes like red cards, missed penalties or missed opportunities to win their group that ultimately cost them. In fact, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Arsenal have failed to progress past the Round of 16 since 2009-10, losing to Barcelona twice (once with a first leg 2-1 lead), Bayern Munich twice and then Monaco on away goals last season (3-3 aggregate score). In fact, it is hard to ever forget the red card goalkeeper Jens Lehmann earned early in the first half of the 2006 Final, often lost in the two late goals the Gunners conceded on the way to losing the crown. Going a few years back, Arsenal were rampant in the first leg against Bayern at the Emirates before Ozil decided to take an ill-advised penalty kick that he powdered right into countryman Neuer’s arms. Szczesny would soon be sent off for a foul in the box on Arjen Robben and the tie was all but over before it had really begun.

So heading into the home game against Olympiakos that was really a must win you would think this long history would be in the head of Wenger, known for many years as Le Professuer. Instead, he made two baffling decisions to go with the omission of key players in the first leg. First he decided to sit the keeper he believed could finally get him over the hump to that fourth league title, replacing him with Ospina, who acquitted himself well last season, but who is just not on par with Cech. Then he decided to start Ox, who has (as Wenger himself admitted) been playing a little jaded of late, over *. Ospina, of course, made one of the worst errors by a keeper in a Game Week 2 full of them, allowing Olympiakos to forge ahead a second time after Walcott had cancelled out the surprise Greek side opener. Arsenal were dominating possession and chances, but that domination was not reaping the results the team were hoping for. Midway through the second half, however, Arsenal showed some resolve, coming back a second time as Sanchez met a Walcott cross, heading it into the far corner. Yet the same old naivety that has marked Wenger’s teams since 2005 was in full display, as they forget that half of the game of football is defending and again ceded a goal that could have easily been avoided, falling behind for good 3-2. Arsenal now sit on 0 points at the bottom of the Group, with a -2 goal difference, and could be out of the competition if they are swept by Bayern in the next two games and one of Zagreb and Olympiakos win both matches between the two. In fact, Arsenal could even finish bottom of the Group and be eliminated from the Europa League, a result that could further jeopardize England’s fourth place spot in the Champions League (to Italy).

The Gunners are not alone in suffering in Europe in recent years, of course, which is why Italy could overtake England for that fourth place qualifying position if results continue at this rate. Chelsea lost to Porto after winning their opener at the same time Arsenal were losing. Luckily, Manchester United and Man City, who both lost their opening Group games 2-1, came back from 1-0 deficits to win their Match 2 ties 2-1. But for the heroics of Hart, however, City could have again found themselves in big trouble in the Group Stage. The problems in Europe since Chelsea won it all in 2012 appear to me to revolve around a certain naivety in the English approach to these games. It is as if all of the Top Four have caught “Wenger disease,” believing possession alone can win games, only to get beat on the counter and lose matches they feel like they are dominating. It has happened over and over again over the past three plus seasons, as results and time of possession go in opposite directions. Chelsea and United have the strong possibility of getting out of their Groups this year, however, and City is still in a good position to advance. Arsenal, on the other hand, now have their future outside their own hands, unless they can at least get a draw in the home and away matches against Bayern. Assuming they lose both of those matches to Bayern, they will have to hope results go their way in the matches between Zagreb and Olympiakos before needing to win the last two matches in the Group by enough goals to offset potential goal difference deficits.

Arsenal have a great chance to erase this bitter loss on Sunday, when they face LVG’s hot Manchester United side. If Wenger can find a way to again beat the real nemesis of his long career at Arsenal, they will draw level with United and be within sniffing distance of first place. A loss, on the other hand, will start yet another inquest into why the board refuses to put the Frenchman under more pressure. Were they really happy when Wenger left 200 million pounds in the bank this summer? Can they accept FA Cup and Community Shield titles every few years and relative failure in the league and Europe? Are they really happy to pocket hefty profits and ignore the long title drought? Or will they finally nudge Wenger toward the exit many believe he should have been ushered through a few years back now? Only time will tell. Even a title this year would not absolve Wenger of his many failures over the years, but it would certainly go a long way to salving those many wounds. As Primo Levy once wrote, echoing the old Hillel the Elder saying, “If not now, when?”    

No comments: