Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Six at 16: Arsenal Lose to Barcelona 2-0

And the beat goes on. Arsenal go into a Round of 16 Champions League tie with a faint hope, it is quashed by a poor first leg display at home (or occasionally on the road) and there is just enough room to dream of getting through with a better second leg. Last year it was the inexplicably poor 3-1 first leg loss to Monaco in their best chance to get to the quarters since the slump began. They got two goals back in the return fixture, but couldn’t get over the line with a third. The two years before that, there were poor first legs at home against Bayern that ultimately cancelled out better second leg performances. Going four years back, Arsenal somehow lost 4-0 at Milan in the first leg only to draw three back in the second and fall a goal short when RVP missed a sitter. In fact, falling a goal short has become something of a specialty for the Gunners at this stage. Against Barcelona they were through throughout much of the second leg in 2011, only to give up two goals in quick succession in the second half and then watch the self-proclaimed greatest striker who can’t score blow a very good chance to send them through. Of course, late goals and Barcelona rarely go the Gunners way, going all the way back to the heartbreaking 2006 Finals.

Since then, it has been perennial disappointment, somehow justified because we always get to that spot. It is a consistency of mediocrity that would be just reason for dismissal almost anywhere except the surreal fantasy world of Arsenal Football Club. The irony here is that Wenger got his tactics right yesterday, at least in my estimation. It was the players who lost their cool, failed to convert chances, panicked too often on the ball and ultimately made the two mistakes that undermined 70 minutes of fine defensive work. Looking back, however, it will be the display on the offensive end of the pitch that will be most disappointing. Ox had a great chance early, from about 8 yards out, but shot it right at the keeper. In the 35th minute, after some decent half-chances for Barca, Ox found himself free on the left channel and barreled forward, only to lose the ball on an excellent challenge from Mascherano after a heavy touch by the Englishman. This has become a habit for Ox, who has all the talent in the world but an inability to shine on the break, either missing the open man or shooting without accuracy or the requisite power. Walcott came on for him in the 50th minute and one wonders if he should have started in front of a misfiring Ox.

In the second half, Arsenal started to appear in the ascendancy defending strongly at the back and then creating some good chances themselves. Giroud had a header that was a smidgen too soft to get past a diving Ter Stegen in the 60th minutes; the Barca keeper just about to get his mitt on it at the last second. Aaron Ramsey had two excellent chances within eight yards and completely botched both of them, one five minutes after Giroud’s header. Ramsey, in fact, flattered to deceive throughout much of the game, and much of the season in my view, seemingly intent on throwing the tie away himself. I am amazed sometimes when I read the player ratings after a game and find that Ramsey has been given a much higher score (7 in this case) than seems warranted. Sure he put in a decent defensive display, but in games like this, you have to convert your quality chances, and few were more inviting than the one in the 65th minute, when he could have scored left or right from about eight yards out but instead steered it directly into the hands of the thankful Barca keeper. In the 79th minute an excellent soft header from Welbeck left him free a mere two yards out and he still found a way not to score. On top of this was the mere frequency of errant passes by the normally on target Ramsey, undermining one Arsenal attack after another.

Sanchez too was below his best, slaloming forward with intent at times, but unable to provide the necessary service or get off a good shot himself. He has actually been off his best for some time now, unable to find the form of the first half of last season with quite the consistency the side requires. Petr Cech was excellent until the opening goal, but the extra touch by Messi completely destabilized him and he found himself helplessly on the ground as Messi shot above him, the first time the Argentine has beaten the keeper in his career. Here it was slack defending on the blistering counter and Monreal getting drawn toward Neymar before his brilliant cut back pass across goal. On the second, Wenger made what I consider his first bad decision of the game, taking off Coquelin for the erratic Flamini. It took him less than a minute to commit the foul that probably settled the tie. The real blame lies with Mertesacker, though, who could have easily cleared his line but instead, inexplicably, passed weakly toward Flamini. The Frenchman’s lack of composure and lateness to the ball ensured the penalty and another game where he was guilty of overly physical defending. The only good news in regard to his Arsenal career is that it should be over in three short months now.

Ozil appeared to be the man most clearly aggrieved by the performance, even before the first goal was conceded. For him to play at his best, he needs two things – good service from the back and good movement in front of him. While there were patches, particularly for a nice 20-minute patch before the opener, when he got both, the failure to complete those moves ultimately cost Arsenal the game and, with great probability, a sixth exit at the first step of the knockout stage. Ozil was clearly annoyed, swatting at the ball, arguing with the refs (who did seem rather one-sided throughout much of the match, though not decisively) and giving Ramsey an earful after the goal, but even as he has added a few goals to his productivity, one would like to see a bit more of him in matches of this sort. In the end, Wenger did little wrong before the Flamini move, but he can’t finish the chances for his players or get on the pitch to fix their mistakes. On the other hand, one continues to worry that Wenger has lost his ability to get his squad properly motivated for their biggest games, providing the belief that they can win against the odds. As his career at Arsenal nears its inevitable conclusion, this is what might be remembered most, after the early years of success. Arsenal still have a miracle second leg to rescue this tie, still have a strong shot at winning the title and can certainly get a third straight FA Cup. If they fail in all three competitions, one does wonder if it is time to move on.

On the other side of the ball, Barcelona continue to look like the best team in the world. Even when they play below their best, they still find ways to get results and now look all but certain to move on to the final 8 of the UCL, to win La Liga again (they have an eight-point cushion at the top) and, with Real gone, to complete a second treble in succession. Bayern, Juve, PSG, Real and maybe even City still stand in their path, but can one doubt their resolve? Their front line is the most dangerous in all of world football and arguably among the greatest ever assembled. They are solid from front to back and seem able to deconstruct almost any system over time. Arsenal might have provided a blueprint for beating them, though, with more able finishing and a full 90 minutes of disciplined defending. For now, they must be the favorites to repeat as the champions of European club football.

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