Monday, August 31, 2015

Top 10 Explanations for Arsenal Inactivity in Transfer Window

When Arsenal started the summer by capturing Petr Cech from Chelsea there was hope that manager Arsene Wenger would follow this up with the purchases necessary to make them real title challengers this year. There was talk of Schneiderlin finally making the mooted move from Southampton and for the addition of a striker to compete with Olivier Giroud up front. Benzema seemed like the natural choice and there was hints he might accept the offer after new Real manager Rafael Benitez claimed Bale and/or Ronaldo would play through the middle this season. Gooners waited with baited breath for further moves. Yet none have materialized and even after a shock opening day defeat at home to West Ham, the Gunner’s mercurial leader continued to deny rumors of an imminent move for more firepower up front. Chelsea had strengthened by stealing Pedro from under United’s nose (along with Rahman and Kennedy), United had brought in Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger (along with the exciting youngster Memphis Depay, Sergio Romero in goal and Matteo Darmian), City have spent huge sums on Otamendi, Sterling and now DeBruyne (among a host of other bit players), Liverpool added Ings, Milner, Firmino, Clyne Benteke, Bogdan and Gomez and almost every other club in the Top Flight added quality players. Arsenal have either sold or sent 14 players out on loan but made that sole signing.

While Wenger’s notion of continuity has some merit, two new players of real quality don’t seem like they would undermine the team that has won two FA Cups in succession but only competed at the top level for half of the last two seasons. What then can explain this lack of activity as the other 19 teams spend the new influx of money to improve? The excuse of the move to the Emirates no longer works. Lack of funds in general is clearly inaccurate given the reports that there is 200 million in the bank. Lack of quality players available also fails to pass the sniff test, as we watch signings at Crystal, Leicester, Bournemouth and a host of other teams contribute to improved results in the opening four games. The explanations from many pundits range from Wenger’s naivety to his arrogance. I decided I would offer some other possibilities for why the Frenchman, after spending big on Ozil and Sanchez in the past two windows, has returned to his old parsimonious ways …

10. Wenger is a gambling addict and has been having someone surreptitiously place bets against his teams in the biggest games ever since 2006, making him, secretly, one of the richest men in the world.

9. Mourinho has been blackmailing Wenger for years knowing that he is actually Jack the Ripper -- thus his discomfort with zippers.

8. Wenger was going to leave Arsenal after the invincible run, but was convinced by French officials to torture North Londoners for as long as possible as revenge for the 100 Years War loss. He only buys players when he gets too close to being sacked.

7. Wenger was replaced by an evil robotic double in 2006 and control over this mechanical parts are offered to the manager of whomever the Gunners play in the knockout stage of the champions league or in the biggest games in the league.

6. Wenger is an ancient relative of the real life Shylock of Shakespeare yore and would rather have perpetual enemas for the rest of his life than spend another shekel on a player, no matter how many goals and wins he might offer.

5. David Dein, having watched the Wizard of Oz one too many times, decided to take Wenger’s brain when he left the club. He replaced it with Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison.

4. Wenger, suffering through allergies in the two week England summer, was offered pills from rival Alex Ferguson to address the problem. Instead the wily Scott gave him stupid pills that only wear off in mid-September.

3. Arsene has a special form of color blindness that makes him think that whoever plays up front for him is actually Terry Henry, just having an off night when he doesn’t score.

2. Wenger left his heart in San Francisco.

And the number one reason, Wenger has again refused to splash the cash is …

Wenger forgot to thank Jesus after the undefeated run of 2003-04 and has been punished for that oversight ever since.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

EPL Week 4 Recap

The theme of this fourth weekend was red, as Newcastle, Liverpool, West Ham, Stoke (twice) and Norwich all saw the dreaded color in their games, with only West Ham able to gain points from that position (already having been a man and two goals up when Nolan was incorrectly sent off late at Anfield). Arsenal started things off in the early Saturday fixture with a rather uninspiring 1-0 win at Newcastle, thanks in no small part to the referee, whose red on new striker Markovic seemed to have as much to do with his reputation as the foul itself, and Coloccini, who together with a Leicester defender have scored 67 percent of the Gunners goals in the first four games. From there, things got pretty interesting, starting with West Ham winning at Anfield for the first time since 1963 (3-0). Man City cruised in a 2-0 home win over Watford after a nervy first half, with Raheem Sterling opening his account with a poised tap in from an excellent Sagna cross early in the second before Silva added his 50th EPL assist through a scorcher by Fernandinho. Stoke City lost 1-0 to West Brom playing much of the game with nine men, while Aston Villa settling for a 2-2 draw with Sunderland after taking a 2-1 lead and Bournemouth did the same against Leicester City after seeing their goal of the season by Callum Wilson equalized in the last five minutes after giving away a silly penalty (1-1).

The shock result of the day, of course, was Chelsea losing 2-1 at home to Palace for only their second loss at the Bridge in 100 games under Mourinho. Crystal truly earned these three points by playing adventurous attacking football, giving Pardew his third win over the “special one,” two more than Wenger, one should note. But Chelsea were largely the architects of their own destruction, failing to capitalize on early chances, failing to close down the Palace attack and failing to get back on the counter as they did throughout the last season. In the late game on Saturday, a winless Tottenham hosted a revitalized Everton and the game ended as it began, for the fifth nil-nil result of the young season. Tottenham dominated the affair for long stretches and, even as the final statistics said it was a dead heat possession wise, the Spurs had 20 shots with 6 on goal to the Toffees 8 and 3. The third consecutive draw after the opening day loss to United means this is the worst start for the Spurs since 2008-09, when manager Ramos was subsequently fired. It was arguably a better result for the visitors, who are starting in better stead than last year’s nightmare, largely due to the return to form of American keeper Tim Howard, who made a half dozen excellent saves.

In Sunday’s early game, Southampton benefitted from a second Norwich yellow card for Steven Whittaker on 30 minutes and cruised to a 3-0 victory with a late first half Pelle strike and a Tadic double in the second. United target Sadio Mane was a key architect in the victory, the first for the Saints this term. The final game of the weekend pitted United against a Swansea team that pulled the double on them last year. There were chances galore throughout the first half for both teams, even as United dominated possession (62 percent). Early in the second half, an excellent cross from Luke Shaw found Juan Mata at the far post, with the Spaniard finishing in the roof of the net to score his first of the season on his third good chance. But on 61 minutes, Swansea evened things up as Sigurdsson sent a dangerous cross in from the right to Ayew, quickly becoming the (free) transfer of the young season, with a great header into the ground that then easily beat Romero. It was the first goal conceded by United all season, arguably the result of Gary Monk switching to something resembling a 4-3-1-2 formation, and five minutes later the Swans made it two when Ayew turned from scorer to provider, sending a lovely through ball to a charging Gomis, who scored his fourth of the season (and 9th in his last 10). Romero should have done better on that second goal, really, as the Swans held on for the victory, making it three straight over United, only the seventh team in the history of the league to accomplish that feat (and making Gary Monk 3-0 versus LVG).

What can we glean after four games? Man City are imperious, having scored 10 goals alongside four clean sheets before maybe adding the signing of the summer on Sunday afternoon (in De Bruyne). Chelsea, on the other hand, are in deep trouble, failing to set the league alight on the offensive end while being on the border of shambolic defensively. One can see why they have pushed so hard to buy Stones, who it appears would go directly into the starting 11, and why they bought Rahman, who should soon displace Ivanovic. They find themselves eight points behind City after only four games and face Arsenal at the suddenly less mystical Stamford Bridge after a trip to the improved Everton. The Gunners were themselves far from scintillating in their victory, but three points is three points and they are now five points from the high flying Citizens and a full game above the Blues. Liverpool were brought back to earth after their undefeated start, their lack of goals continuing (they only have two in four) in the shock Anfield loss, as their goal difference fell to zero even with their three clean sheets. And United might soon be in crisis themselves, with few alternatives to the misfiring Rooney at the moment. Among the rest of the teams, Bournemouth again showed they can score goals while will need to be stronger on the defensive end (giving up a penalty with only five minutes left), Leicester is somehow still undefeated after four games, Newcastle are still struggling, Pardew’s revolution at Crystal is running at pace, Swansea are showing they are a team on the rise that can beat anyone on their day and the Saints finally got their first win in what looks like a more trying season to come (reaffirming the notion that you can only lose so many players before the knock on effect kicks in).

Some thoughts on Game Week 4:

1. West Ham Wonder: West Ham started the season with a surprise 2-0 victory at the Emirates. That was followed by a 2-1 lost to Leicester and a wild 4-3 loss to Bournemouth. Given those results and 50 years of history, it seemed like a good bet to take an undefeated Liverpool in this game. Yet even as Liverpool almost triple the number of passes completed and dominated possession (71 percent), West Ham found themselves 2-0 up before the break, having taken their chances well, while Liverpool floundered in and around the goal. Lovren, who has been much better in the early going of their three clean sheets this season, suddenly lost his mind and the ball on the touchline, leading directly to West Ham’s second, a finely taken shot by Noble from just inside the box to the far corner. After trading red cards, the Hammers added a third by Sako for a comprehensive win, their first in 52 years. Each season seems to bring a surprise giant killer and though they have been below par in their other games, they have already scalped Liverpool and Arsenal on the road. The rest of the top teams be forewarned!

2. Churlish Costa and the Chelsea Crisis: Diego Costa was the player of the year in the first half of last season to me, scoring at a clip of almost a goal a game as Chelsea were in cruise control garnering enough points to hold onto the title, even after a more uneven and defensive oriented second half. This year he appears to be spending more time fighting with opponent centre backs, trying to elicit fouls and complaining incessantly to officials. Even as Chelsea dominated the first 30 minutes of their game with Palace on Saturday, they were failing to really challenge the visitor’s goal and almost found themselves down 1-0, when new signing Cabaye missed a great opportunity from 12 yards out. More surprising Crystal were arguably marginally outplaying Chelsea at the physical level, challenging a team that has arguably been the most physically imposing in the league for most of the last decade. Ivanovic, in particular, was having a terrible time of it yet again, beaten on the left side far too frequently for comfortable, and lucky not to be guilty when Wickham had a tap in on a cross that he bundled terribly. To be fair, Chelsea had a pretty good penalty appeal ignored by the ref (when Zouma was pulled down by the jersey about to strike a header on goal) and were only denied later by an excellent double save by new Palace #1 McCarthy.

They were dominating in the second half, though, when Crystal stunned a suddenly dangerous Chelsea by scoring a goal against the run of play, as Sako was located on a cutback and, after Azpilicueta blocked his first shot, grabbed the rebound and sent it right over the charging Chelsea keeper and into the back of the net. After tying things up with just over 10 minutes left, when Falcoa scored on a lovely cross from Pedro in what Chelsea hope will be the commencement of his career’s second act, Crystal took the lead again within minutes when Ward headed a touchback from another excellent Bolasie cross into the far corner for a 2-1 lead. Chelsea charged forward for another equalizer, but Crystal hung tough and almost scored a third themselves. Mourinho seemed apoplectic after the game, too tired or shocked to play his usual mind games and instead giving one of the most honest interviews I’ve ever seen from him. A question that might be emerging, though, is whether the generally tempestuous and combative nature of the manager is feeding the bellicose tendencies of his star striker this season, undermining his ability to get into good positions and score?

Beyond Costa, Chelsea continued to look less than impressive, with Palace having more quality chances and putting two past Chelsea for the eighth and ninth goals they have conceded this year. Ivanovic was consistently beaten and almost gave up an own goal before being partially guilty on the opener. Fabergas continued to flounder for long patches of the game though he contributed to the opener and almost scored himself. And the rest of the players seemed more intent on winning fouls and yellows than the game. Hazard impressed, as usual, but someone needs to finish the chances he continuously sets up and there was also the surprising way in which Crystal passed the ball around and even in the box with too great an ease for patches throughout the game (with Chelsea defenders sitting off their opponents, rather than challenging them). Chelsea had only lost once in their first 99 home games under Mourinho, now they have made it two, to go with the 3-0 thrashing by City, the 2-2 with Swansea and a somewhat fortuitous win a man down against West Brom – cumulatively giving them their worst start since 1971. Crisis is a funny word in sports, cancelled out by one or two quality wins, but it is hard to argue that the current titleholders are not now in at least an S&L variety, teetering toward Titanic.

3. Solid As a Rock: Everton were impressive this week, failing to be bullied by Chelsea into selling their young prized centre back John Stones. The fact the bid of 39 million pounds for a 21-year-old who is really yet to prove himself was rejected shows the growing power of the midtier teams to hold onto their best players…at least in the short term. This follows West Brom playing hardball over Berahino, Championship side QPR over Charlie Austin and a host of other smaller examples, while Liverpool forced City to stump up over 50 million for a winger who arguably had a pretty average final three quarters of last season. On one level, demonstrates shows the insanity of the transfer window at present, the risks associated with “moving up” too quickly (just ask Sinclair after his five-goal week), the new financial power across the EPL and the resolve of some teams to hold onto their best players rather than cash in immediately. The reality is it is highly unlikely Everton will keep Stones for more than another year or two, but one never knows. They sold Fellaini and Arteta for large profits, have somehow kept ahold of Jagielka and Baines all these years, have picked up some quality players like Stones, Lukaku, Coleman and Mirallas for reasonable fees and, though they had a tough time last season, are generally just outside the Champions League battle (and lest us forget would have stolen fourth from Arsenal two years ago but for a barren late run). On the flip side, Chelsea could certainly use Stones not only as the long-term replacement for Terry but as an immediate replacement for the suddenly porous back line. That seems unlikely and they are down to two days to find an alterative, after a second target chose Valencia over the reigning champions of England.

4. Arsenal Road Warriors: Arsenal have been all but unbeatable on the road this calendar year, while being much more suspect at home. They have failed to score in five of their last six league games at the Emirates, were absolutely destroyed by Monaco in the first leg of the UCL Round of 16 last February and had a host of other suspect results at home. On the road, they have won two trophies and three games at Wembley, beaten City at the Etihad, United at Old Trafford (in the FA Cup), a miserly Monaco 2-0 at their home stadium and just about everyone else, beside alas Tottenham, they have faced on the road in 2015. After a few years where they were all but unbeatable at home, what has happened? There is a sense among some that the Emirates crowd does little to help cheer the team on and often turns negative and even vitriolic when they don’t like the quality of their team’s play, but it is obviously more than that. There appears to be a complex forming among the squad about their performance at home leading them to play more nervous and pensively, failing to finish chances, even when they’re sitters. They have done that on the road as well, of late, including the game Saturday, but will have to figure out a way to restore the swagger that once made all nervous to play them in their home stadium. Sanchez, Giroud and Ramsey, in particular, need to pick up the quality of their play in North London. They will have that chance a fortnight from today.

5. Scintillating Sinclair; Roiling Rooney: Scott Sinclair could barely get a game after moving to Man City a few years back and like several English players before him finally decided to leave before he was a rich hasbeen no one remembered. His stock had fallen so far over that period, though, that he headed right back to his old bottom dwelling side Aston Villa. He has since shown why moving up too early can be a mistake as he’s had a week to remember, scoring an astounding five goals in five days starting with a hat trick in a Capital One Cup win and then two more in the first half after the Villains had fallen behind Sunderland in the early going, Callum Wilson also impressed again, giving Bournemouth a 1-0 lead with a beautiful scissor kick that was well placed into the near corner for his fourth goal of the young season, following the 20 he scored in the Championship last term. These two players could be key as their teams fight against what many assume will be relegation battles that could drag toward the 38th game. Beyond them, Gomis continued to impress with his fourth in four (and ninth in 10) and Andre Ayew has three together with his first assist, an excellent pass that set up the winner.

On the flip side is Rooney, who now has no goals in his last 10 games. It was not for a lack of chances though, as Rooney was in on goal one on one three times, but failed to take his shots fast enough and was caught by defenders in each case – as he was in the first game against Tottenham. There appear to be three possibilities explaining the sudden decline in the form of a man one could generally count on to finish quality chances: 1. The number of games he has played over the last 13 years is finally catching up with him and he is now on the downward slide all strikers ultimately face, a few years earlier than many supposed, 2. He has a niggling injury of some sort that is undermining his ability to use his left foot and thus making him easier to defend, even from behind, or 3. His confidence is shot after two poor seasons for the club and his having been moved all over the pitch. It should be noted he did have the hat trick against Bruges Wednesday and that he thus isn’t completely without confidence. When your striker goes this long without a league goal, however, it is a great concern, and one could argue United would have cruised to victory if he had taken even one of those chances.

6. Tottenham Turmoil; Top Team Timidity: Tottenham came into their game against Everton as one of only six teams in the league who have yet to garner a win. They left the game with the same problem, earning their third draw in a row and 15th place in the table. The Spurs largely dominated the game, as they had against United, but cannot seem to finish their chances and again are suffering from too strong a reliance on their young striker Harry Kane, who appears to be wilting a little under the pressure of trying to repeat his impressive haul of 21 in the league and 31 overall from last term. Spurs fans might remind the skeptics firing up their vitriol that he did not score his first goal last season until November 5, but they will probably be saying that with clenched teeth, as he missed a couple of great chances to open his account on Saturday. The team now find themselves a full nine points behind leaders Man City after just four games, four behind their hated North London rivals and scratching their head for answers after strong defensive displays fail to garner maximum points.

Yet beyond Manchester City, all of the presumed Top 7 are having a tough time putting the ball in the back of the net. Arsenal have the same three goals total through four as the Spurs, with two of those being own goals from their opponents. United are also stuck on three, with one own goal themselves in their 1-0 opening day victory over Tottenham. Liverpool have an even more parsimonious two goals to their name, and one of those should not have counted. Chelsea have a more respectable six, but three of those came against shambolic defending by West Brom, and their own defensive woes mean they actually have a -3 goal difference. And Everton have also scored a more respectable five, though they have failed to put it in the back of the net in their last two. When compared to some of the early fliers this season, we see the cost of a potentially more defensive approach to tactics, as the adventurous Crystal Palace (currently in second) and Leicester City (3rd) have 8 apiece while Swansea have 7 (and fourth place, above Arsenal, Liverpool and United). West Ham have an impressive nine goals to complement their away scalpings of Arsenal and Liverpool and even lowly bottom dweller Sunderland have scored as many as Chelsea. Does that mean there is more parity in the early going this year or that the top teams are just being too cautious in their approach? It appears to be the case with United, though Rooney’s poor form is contributing, and an argument can be made Liverpool are also focusing too much on the midfield and defensive end of the pitch. An alternative narrative would be that their strikers just are not finishing enough of the chances they create, as is clearly the case with Arsenal and, to a lesser degree, Tottenham. It’s too early to tell for sure, really, though the way Crystal Palace took it to Chelsea at the Bridge and Swansea came back to snatch three points from United at home should be a warning that the Top 5 might no longer be a foregone conclusion for the Usual Suspects.

Beyond the premier league, Barcelona again won a tight 1-0 victory, this time over Malaga, as ex-Arsenal CB Thomas Vermaelen scored the only goal of the game with 17 minutes remaining; Messi, Neymar and Suarez unable to break through. Real made easier work of their opponent, Real Betis, thrashing them 5-0 to stay two points behind their Catalunan rivals. James Rodriguez had a brace, Benzema added his first of the season and Bale again answered the critics with two of his own, providing visual evidence of why Arsenal and United, respectively, are so desperate to take the latter two (and why Real is unlikely to sell either player). In Germnay, Bayern Munich cruised to a 3-0 victory over Leverkusen and Dortmund beat back Bertha 3-1 while in Italy, Roma shocked a suddenly vulnerable Juve 2-1, with Dzeko making an immediate impact with his first goal, and AC Milan bounced back from their opening day loss with a 2-1 victory over Empoli.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Arsenal Slip By Newcastle 1-0

Early season crisis brought on, at least to many, by a lack of activity in the transfer window? Check. Disappointing result against a team they usually beat with relative ease? Check. One point from two games at home? Check. Sense that the manager will find a way to undermine his own positive momentum yet again? Check. And so another Arsenal crisis stood just around the corner when they visited St. James Park today to take on a Newcastle side that had just held off United for a 0-0 draw. The Gunners, while struggling at home, are actually unbeaten in their last 10 league games on the road, winning nine since their 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane last February and were dominating the game at Newcastle in the early going, though failing to capitalize on their chances. The best came to Walcott before 10 minutes had passed, when a through pass left him one-on-on with Krul. He needed to make a quick decision, as the pass came with pace, ultimately just bundling it right into the path of Krul. A few minutes later, a clear penalty on Bellerin was missed by Andre Mariner, who then appeared to attempt to make up for that missed decision as Newcastle’s contentious striker Mitrovic, who sometimes seems like he would rather foul than score, was given a straight red for a nasty foul on Coquelin (16’). The red card seemed a little harsh, but he did plant his studs high on Coquelin’s ankle with what appeared like, at least casual, intent.

In the 23rd minute, Arsenal secured their first corner of the game, but Krul easily dealt with Cazorla’s cross. Newcastle were fouling like angry Sunday League scousers, accruing the aforementioned red together with three other yellows. And while one or two seemed marginal, I think it is fair to say they were playing a physical game that bore a striking, and rather troubling, resemblance to the Don Revie Leeds teams of the 70s. In the 31st minute, Sanchez sent a dangerous shot from distance that Krul just got to, pushing it right into the path of a charging Walcott, who somehow missed a completely open goal for his second blown chance in the first 30 minutes. Up a man with a chance to all but bury the game, Walcott appeared to be suffering from the disease besetting all of the Gunners of late, missing clear chances that have to be taken, or at minimum at least shot on goal. Sanchez, Giroud, Ramsey, and the rest have scored on less than 5 percent of their chances this year, reaffirming what every earth dwelling citizen that watches English football not named Arsene knows – Arsenal need a finisher.

In the 39th minute, Walcott missed a third chance of the first half and looked like a striker completely lacking confidence. Chances are being blown regularly and but for a missed penalty today, the own goal and a missed offside call that cost Ramsey a goal Monday, the Gunners look like a team that lacks the killer instinct necessary to win with consistently. A man up to a team that can barely buy a win in 2015, they were suddenly being outplayed by that team, looking as likely to make it three clean sheets out of four – for their opponents. They were playing predictable, slow football, rarely getting a quality shot on goal, or a shot at all (they had 10 in the first half, but only one on goal, the aforementioned tepid effort from Walcott). It is all too reminiscent of Arsenal teams of the past, passing the ball around without real penetration, or even palpable urgency.

The second half began with the Gunners needing a goal to salvage a season quickly running away from them, particularly given Man City’s early season dominance and addition, within the next few hours, of the player of the year in the Bundesliga last season – the Chelsea flunky DeBruyne. Within the first minute of the second half, Sanchez gave the ball away trying to dribble around too many Newcastle defenders and then Ox literally lost the ball, turning around as a Newcastle player collected it. Anita soon made it a fourth yellow for a foul on Sanchez, before another poor pass into the box ended a threat. Cazorla earned the Gunner’s first yellow on 49 minutes, for a relatively minor foul from behind, followed by a yellow for Wijnaldum for protestation, apparently assuming a minor foul deserved a red for Cazorla. Finally, in the 52nd minute, Sanchez got the ball at the top of the box, cut in and for the what seems like the 2,000th time this season had the shot blocked (a couple more followed before the game was done). Luckily for the Gunners, the rebound fell nicely to Ramsey, who sent a powerful shot right at Krul. He parried it out, but right into the path of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who sent it across goal with pace, burying it in the far corner (with an assist to Coloccini, who was ultimately awarded an own goal).

The Gunners finally had their goal and a 1-0 lead. From the restart, Newcastle were suddenly in the attack for the first time since the ice caps began melting, and almost made it count with some incisive passing and a marginal offsides on a clever through ball. Another terrible pass from Sanchez led Newcastle on the counter and only a fine intervention from the speedy Bellerin stopped a promising attack from the home side. Arsenal settled down and were dominating possession on their way to what would be an eighth straight victory over Newcastle, yet the Toons looked occasionally dangerous when they did get forward. Arsenal were continuing to play slowly, though occasional bursts of speed like in the 62nd minute, led to a half chance, undermined by a Monreal cut back a little behind a charging Ox. They were managing the game, nursing the 1-0 lead without really pushing for a second to bury the game. A nice move in the 66th minute, led to a Ramsey cutback to Cazorla, who shot powerfully right at Krul for an easy save. Giroud came on for the ineffective Walcott in the 70th minute and I might have considered taking off Sanchez as well, as he had a third pretty average game in four (but for the header that ultimately became the winner against Crystal, he appears a shell of his former self). Within a couple of minutes, Giroud was offsides and shot wildly from just outside the box. Yet it was clear the team were playing marginally better with him in the side.

A Monreal cross left him with a shot in the 76th minute, though he hit it too close to Krul and the chance was lost. Less than a minute later, Sanchez was almost released in on goal until Krul beat him to the ball. Then the game appeared to shift, as Newcastle went on the offensive with 10 minutes to play, searching out an equalizer from a suddenly shaky Gunner defense. Arteta replaced Ox (81’) to try to shore the three points up and appeared largely successful in that role. In the 83rd minute, Bellerin burst forward with real purpose and style, laying it off to Cazorla, who seemed largely uninterested and blew a decent half chance. Yet another blocked Sanchez shot gave Arsenal a corner with a little more than a minute on the clock; a Monreal shot off the rebound failing to really trouble Krul. Coloccini added insult to injury by earning a sixth yellow, to go with the red, in the 91st minute of the game (and apparently a rather healthy fine for the team). It is surprising the Argentine, who was angling for a move back to his native country two years ago, is still here. Right at the end, Giroud had a great chance to score one on one with Krul, but shot high rather than rolling it low and another chance was gone. It was of little importance as all three points were already secured, though it did provide further evidence this is a team that just cannot seem to take their chances at the moment, with only one goal credited to a Gunner in four games!

Hopes were high heading into this season, the sense the Gunners were a couple of signings away from a real title challenge. Instead the season is beginning to look like the first three months of last season, when they essentially were out of the title race by November. Last season it was due to an injury plague and some lax defending, leading them to only two wins in their first eight. This season began with a flat performance against West Ham, a narrow victory over Leicester and then the stale 0-0 draw against Liverpool (with an assist to the officials). Even as this was a poor performance overall, the three points is what ultimately matters and they are still within striking distance of Man City five points ahead of them. Arsenal have also now won 13 of their last 14 away from home (with only the 1-1 draw at United during that stretch), including the three at Wembley, but it was a fourth average performance this season from a team that many tapped as a potential challenger to Chelsea’s crown. On the evidence of these four games, they are a long way off that goal, possibly as long as Wenger stays at the helm of the club.

Watching the game today reaffirmed a thought I’ve had for some time. Walcott is good when Ozil is playing in the 10 and Arsenal are willing to absorb some pressure. If they are playing against a team sitting back defensively, Walcott doesn’t really provide the threat or presence of Giroud. Two of Arsenal’s three goals have been courtesy of their opponents, which more or less speaks for itself. In case it does not, there is 200 million pounds in the bank waiting to be spent and yet we are forced to watch a winger play centre forward or a striker who is clearly a rung or two below the best in the world lead the line while all the teams around us spend big to improve their clubs; with City adding a world class player they do not even appear to need. To be fair, two wins, a draw and a loss is not a terrible start to a BPL season – particularly when there is a strong argument it should be three wins and a loss but for a poor refereeing decision last Monday. On the other hand, one goal credited to your team in four games and being shut out in five or your last six at home, should turn a few heads.

Some of the Gunners can now rest through the international break while others will have to travel for European qualifiers, leaving Wenger to sit back and hope none of them come back injured or even more tired than they appeared in this game. Upon their return to action, two weeks from today, they face Stoke at the Emirates, trying to recapture their home form, before trips to Chelsea and Leicester and then back home to host Olympiakos, in the Group Stage opener of the UCL and then United in the league The Chelsea and United fixtures stick out, but Arsenal will have to start scoring more goals if they are to navigate through this tricky period without falling further off the pace, or undermining what looks like a pretty navigable path back to the Round of 16 in the Champions League. With a mere three days left in the transfer window, will Wenger surprise us with a world-class signing? I would not hold my breath!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Arsenal Troubles Run Deep and Narrow

So another season, another early Arsenal disappointment. Really, Arsenal should be on nine points and hailed as a potential rival to City and Chelsea for the crown. But as seems to be the case every year since the Invincibles, Arsenal have started with as many questions as answers, already finding themselves five points behind the leaders after only three games. The opening 2-0 loss to West Ham was clearly an outlier, with Cech having a terrible game and Arsenal missing far too many chances to score. On the other hand, this appears to be a burgeoning habit having failed to score in five or their last six at the Emirates, where they have generally been imperious over the past few years. The second game brought three points, but not without a scare, as their slender 1-0 lead evaporated before a somewhat lucky winner from Sanchez (with the help of a defensive own goal). And then there was the game against Liverpool. Arsenal dominated the second half, but should have been 1-0 up after an eighth-minute opener was incorrectly ruled offsides. This seems to be missing from many of the pundit critiques currently flying across the digital waves. Yet they had plenty of chances to score in the second, missed by Giroud (arguably three), Sanchez (at least one great chance) and Gabriel (though one should never fault a defender for failing to win the game in the closing seconds). Four points from nine, with a loss and draw at home (and no goals) is not the beginning one envisioned, particularly after Wenger finally beat his bitter rival Mourinho in the Community Shield the week before the season began.

So what is the problem at Arsenal? In an ironic twist that only Arsenal fans can truly appreciate, it is our offensive play that has floundered in the past eight games or so, going back to last season (forgoing the 4-1 win against a West Brom team playing for absolutely nothing), and our defensive solidity vastly improved. Sure Liverpool could have scored three times in the first half, but Cech atoned for the opening day performance by showing why Arsenal fans were so happy when he arrived. He lost the team a point in the opening game and then grabbed it right back in the third. One assumes he will be on the positive side of that equation within a few weeks. Even with a makeshift backline of Gabriel, who impressed thoroughly, and Chambers, who still needs to work on his positioning and passing out of the back, the Gunners kept a clean sheet. They were rampant in the second half of the game on Monday and disposed Liverpool players or intercepted passes at a rate that reminded of Barcelona in their heyday. The problem now is in attack, and there appears no easy answers to solving it, even if the pundits – including me – often argue that a World Class striker will make fait accompli a serious Arsenal challenge at the title.

Let’s look at the deeper problem in depth. Giroud only scores in about 2 of 5 games (he has 42 goals in his first 100 appearances, which is not at all bad), which means someone else needs to score in the other 3 (and he sometimes scores two in a game, so maybe even other 4). Ox does seem to be the best option out of the midfield right now, but he has to improve just a little with his finishing, as he is close to scoring far too often without the end result. Ramsey did score, though it was disallowed, and could come back into form, but he needs to work on his discipline. He does appear to be playing with increased confidence the past several games, though I still think he tries to be too cute too often and loses possession a little more often than seems necessary. I'd also like to see Ozil take a few more shots, as he places the ball so well and could be a strong connect point for their incisive passing game with a deft touch and decent finish. And, of course, Sanchez could fill in for a lot of those necessary goals but he definitely seems off after the Copa America, odd since the World Cup didn't seem to impact his season last term. Even going back to last year, he has only scored in one of their last nine league games (a brace that makes the numbers look better). The reality is that all the passing in the world cannot win you games if no one is finishing those intricate passing moves off. Sanchez missed a great chance to score, Giroud missed three and others were also guilty of squandering chances against Liverpool. At the heart is not even taking the shot, as the Gunners went long spells without even taking a shot. Ramsey solved the problem during the run two seasons ago by going on a hot streak and Giroud did so with his own hot streak during their nine-win streak last season. Yet what happens when either of them fails to score? Sanchez took up the slack in a disappointing first half last season that would have otherwise been truly disastrous, but defenders are growing more accustomed to his moves and making it harder for him to find the room to even get his shots off at the moment.

A new striker like Cavani could solve some of these problems, having scored at a clip of about 1 in 1.5 for PSG, if the French club decide to let him go. That is a big “if” at the moment, though, as there are rumors they are trying to offload Ibrahimovic before the window closes. Would they really let that many goals leave in one week, just as they are moving to a position where they think they can take a real shot at the Champions League? It seems doubtful to me, though Cavani could maybe push through a move, as he is tired of playing out of position for the club to accommodate Ibra. Beyond Cavani, and the pipedream of Benzema, there are few options left. Arsenal could have gone for Lacazette, but now he has signed a new contract and seems unlikely to go. Bayern appear to have a surfeit of forwards, but also appear unwilling to let any of them go. Muller might be the perfect player in this regard and Lewandowski would be a real steal. Again both seem unlikely. And then there is Higuain, who we looked certain to purchase two summers ago before being outbid by Napoli. Now they want to double the price for us to buy him, when we weren’t even willing to match half that sum two summers ago. So Arsenal might be stuck in the wilderness again, with Wenger’s arrogance, or naivety, or downright ignorance leading to this situation.

The reason I wrote the problem runs deeper, however, is because beyond the multifaceted Benzema, I’m not sure any of them will solve the fundamental problem of balance right now. Coquelin has been a huge and welcome surprise for Arsenal, maybe at the heart of Wenger’s decision not to buy in the other position they have needed for years, but he is a player that has two shortcomings that will probably hurt the Gunners this year: 1. He will miss games due to a likely red card or two, or the accumulation of 5 yellows he is certain to do at least twice over the course of a 38-game season and, 2. His range of passing appears to be stunting the Arsenal attack, with his long diagonal passes too often hit long and his ability to hit the right man for the counter suspect at best. He has shorn up the defense, and seems to have a positive impact on the players around him, as Arsenal were impressive in the second half in the midfield, dispossessing Liverpool over and over again, but seems to be stunting the offense at the same time. The problem is balance. Coquelin either needs to improve his passing or Ramsey should be moved back into the center and maybe push Cazorla out to the wing. It might be a waste of his talent, but the reality is that Arsenal are not getting the ball forward with enough pace or intent. That could be resolved by pushing Walcott or Ox to the right wing with Sanchez continuing on the left, but then Ramsey or Cazorla have to sit out. The alternative is to find a DM that has better passing range from the back, putting Ramsey beside him, Walcott or Ox on the wing and Sanchez on the other side with Ozil in the hole. That could have been taken care of this summer by signing either Schneiderlin, who seemed keen to join, or going back in for Khedira, now playing in Italy (though injured again, so maybe a positive missed opportunity in the end). The problem is this option leaves one of our best players on the bench (either Cazorla or Ozil).

What is the answer, then? I'm really not sure at the moment. One issue is clearly adding more width to their attack. In recent games, the Gunners have lined up most of their players from the middle to the left, with only Bellerin sitting across, often unmarked. This is not the case when Ox or Walcott is in, but they otherwise appear to be trying to score in a smaller window where the channels can be easily clamped shut by overloading on that side. That is what Liverpool did in the second half and Arsenal just about ran out of ideas after a few missed chances, with several shots from range and a couple of free kicks the only alternative. Creating that width on both flanks is imperative now, as it forces opponents to defend wider, as we can see with the success of Swansea and even Crystal Palace, using their wingers to great effect (and more obviously with Man City). Forgoing that rather obvious adjustment, maybe Arsenal should consider lining Arteta up alongside Ramsey for lighter competition and maybe giving Cazorla some time in the #10, with Ozil taking a breather. He is playing very well, but needs more efficiency and forward thrust from those around them. In that regard, Ramsey and Ox are arguably the best players to take advantage of his creativity, while Walcott is most likely to benefit from Cazorla and Ozil passing to the flanks on the break. That would mean absorbing more pressure and having cooler heads at the back, an issue that should be resolved when Mertesacker and Koscielny return.

With a possession first game, a more dynamic striker is clearly necessary and if Arsenal are going to absorb some pressure to open up the counter game, as they did more often during the winning streak from January through March, then I think Walcott is the better choice through the middle. The problem there is his holdup play is below par most of the time (though Giroud did not do much better against Liverpool, beaten by Skrtel on most of the 50/50 balls in the air). The key issue is the balance of the squad, and while Wenger already has too many creative-minded midfielders without sufficient defensive skills, another option at striker and a more well-rounded DM would really help the cause. The question that then remains is what the hell to do with Wilshere when he returns. There are four competitions, so he'll get games, but does he really fit into the system as it is currently configured? I think the only way is if he moved to the deeper lying midfield role, but that will mean displacing Coquelin (unlikely) or Cazorla/Ramsey. No easy answers at the moment, though hopefully some will come against Newcastle.

Man City have shown what a balanced side can do, as Chelsea did last term. They can interchange on the offensive end, use the wingers to open up space, rely on two deeper lying midfielders that can add an extra layer of defense and come forward when necessary and a back four that show solidity and strong communication. Their left and right backs can also get forward to add even more space and provide the sort of overlapping runs that City uses to such great effect (while the other sits back to cover any counterattacks). Chelsea still have that on the offensive end and through the midfield, but Fabergas’ lack of defensive tactical sense means they are a little more open to the counter and their defense has been in shambles. Liverpool and United have also started with solid defending, but they seem to lack the cutting edge on the offensive side – as Liverpool have really only scored one goal this year that should have counted, even if Benteke, Coutinho and Fermino look like a dangerous trio up front, and United must be worried about the lack of production of Rooney at the #9 (they have only scored two goals in three league games themselves). Arsenal will win more games, be at the cusp of the title challenge and probably fail again unless they solve this tactical aporia that for all the pundit bluster, is not nearly as obvious as they make it seem. On the other hand, who is really to blame at this point besides Wenger, who might make it 11 long years without a title if he cannot right the ship in the coming weeks?