Sunday, December 27, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Blow Another Chance to Go Top

The world is a beautiful and sad place. Maybe more sad than beautiful for the majority. But sometimes, if you can rise above the sound and the fury, the bluebirds do sing. I wrote those words a few years ago and while they may seem more apropos to an existential novel than reportage on the beautiful game, my fellow Arsenal fans might find some solace in the thought. For just as our optimism had risen like a phoenix from the ashes of our discontent, reality has smacked us in the face yet again. It is an all too familiar story over the past 12 years – hope builds, success seems within our reach, we begin to believe past glory can return, only to be reminded of our almost preternatural tendency to ultimate failure. After Leicester had lost to Liverpool earlier yesterday, the Gunners were given the opportunity to rise to the summit of the Premier League. Instead, for not the first time this season, they took several steps backward in a 4-0 loss to a Saints team that was in the midst of a poor run of form that included six losses and a draw in their last seven since a November 1 win. Arsenal were flat for much of the game while the Saints played with real verve and hunger, putting the game beyond reach with more than 20 minutes to play. Three thoughts on the loss:

1. One Game Does Not a Season Make: Five days after an inspiring victory over Manchester City, Arsenal collapsed in their second chance to go top in recent weeks. They seemed flat from the onset and while some will now again take the opportunity to write off their title aspirations, the busy festive season tends to lead most teams to at least one poor outing. In reality, Arsenal have been up and down throughout the season, though, and it could be their lack of consistency that does them in in the end. The season began with a deflating 2-0 loss to West Ham at the Emirates, but the team then went on a nice run and established themselves near the acme of the table. That, of course, occurred as their European Campaign began with inexplicable back-to-back losses to Olympiakos and Dynamo Zagreb; a contentious 2-0 loss to Chelsea sandwiched in between. A dominant 3-0 win over United and 2-0 victory against Bayern restored the preseason hype. Yet just when they seemed to have turned a corner, they were booted out of the Capital One Cup by lower side Sheffield and went through the entire month of November with only one win (an essential victory over Zagreb).

The turning of the calendar appeared to turn the fortunes of the team as well, as they went on a nice run of four straight wins, including qualifying for the knockout stage of the Champions League against the odds and beating the team most believe will be the main rival for the domestic crown (with all due respect to Leicester City). With four winnable fixtures before a rematch with Liverpool, most expected the Gunners to build on their momentum, particularly when facing a Southampton team struggling with the loss of even more of their stars last summer. They surprised the British pundits and fans with a great run last season, but those results had dried up over the past couple of months. In this most unpredictable of EPL seasons, I suppose no one should be surprised that both teams forgot to read the script and the result went against all expectations.

2. Feckless Moss a Saints Fan? However, it is worth noting one of the worst performances by a Barclays Premier League official in years. Not only did he get one foul (or no foul) call after another wrong all game, but all four of Southampton goals were suspect at best. The first, a blistering, curling shot from Cuco Martina on 19 minutes that might be included in the Top 5 at the end of the season, came moments after a marginal (though clear) offsides. The second, which seemed to deflate an Arsenal team growing in stature, followed a clear foul by Shane Long on Koscielny just outside the box, felling the Gunner’s CB and making his tap in a lot easier than it should have been. One might mention here that the cynical kick out could easily have been Long’s second yellow in a very physical game where it is hard to understand how he stayed on the pitch. The third goal, while the result of far too passive defending from the Gunners, should never have happened to begin with, as it was utterly absurd that Southampton even had a corner after Koscielny blocked out the charging Saint and watched the ball go harmlessly out for what should have been a goal kick.

As I was watching the game on my stepfather’s cell phone on the way home from visiting an uncle (and feeling increasingly car sick – or was it “Gooner sick”), I turned off the game soon after that third goal went in, I did not see the fourth, but Wenger again believed that the goal came under questionable circumstances. Thus all four goals could have gone the other way, several free kicks for the Gunners went wanting, the Saints were the recipients of several soft foul calls themselves and serious questions persist about whether the winners should have had 11 men on the pitch when the final whistle blew.

3. On the Other Hand: Far too often in football, poor officiating changes the results of a game, but I’m not sure it is fair to blame Moss for this loss. Arsenal were flat for long stretches, failing to get into any rhythm with their passing for more than a few minutes at a time as the high press saw them giving the ball away regularly. Southampton were excellent on the counter, storming past the Arsenal defense and pressuring Cech, playing the perfect foil to the recent Gunner success by clogging the passing lanes, directly attacking the center of an injury-plagued midfield and then lining the box to cut off the few chances available. They played a physical band of football that appeared more akin to old school Leeds United savagery and one that has often caused the Gunners trouble in the past. That has not been the case throughout most of this calendar year, where Arsenal have had substantially more success against their closest rivals than in year’s past, but the troubling proclivity to drop points to the lower teams in the first half of this season might ultimately cost them the title they have been craving for 12 long years now. A lot might depend on the transfer window that will open in five short days, as Arsene Wenger is arguably going to have to buy at least two players to fill gaps in the midfield and up front if injuries and lack of squad depth is not to derail their title chase yet again. Southampton, on the other hand, can take positives from this game as they attempt to stabilize their campaign and build momentum for a potential run.

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