Monday, March 14, 2016

Arsenal Out of FA Cup as Season Slides Toward Despair

Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal side are on the brink of letting a once promising season collapse in despair. After beating Leicester City 2-1 on February 14, they have gone on a run of only one win in seven games. If we look further back, they have won only 4 of their last 14 matches and only two of their last eight at the Emirates (along with two draws and four losses). In fact, they have lost their last three at home and are winless in their last four (the “best” result over that period was the 0-0 draw with Hull). Including the 4-0 midweek FA Cup victory over Hull in the replay, Arsenals form has looked like this: LWDLLLDW. It is an extraordinary turn of events after the last second header by Welbeck drew them back within two points of Leicester heading into what looked like a routine visit from Championship side Hull in the FA Cup. But starting with that match, Arsenal has reverted to their old form, making mistakes on the defensive end, missing clear cut chances and seeming completely discombobulated overall.

Yesterday they had a good chance to right the ship, keeping hopes of silverware for a third straight season with a victory over a Watford team that has slipped from his turn-of-the-year form. Instead they blew another game they largely dominated, with 71 percent of possession, 20 to 7 shots (4 to 2 on target) and even more fouls (8 to 6). But all that matters in the end is goals and after Giroud and Walcott finally came alive after months of struggling, with a brace each in a 4-0 win over Hull on Wednesday), the chances again went wanting, as they have so often this season. Elneny had two in the first half, one with the goal gaping from 12 yards out, but skied both. Gibbs had an open header he sent high, Giroud missed a decent opportunity, Sanchez wasted a couple of half-chances and, after scoring an 88th minute goal that gave the Gunners hope, Welbeck missed an absolute sitter from four yards out, with only the bar to beat. Watford, on the other hand, took their chances, scoring on their only two on-target shots of the afternoon. It started with the misfiring Ighalo in the 50th minute, finding space after a throw in, before cutting around a too-tight Gabriel and rifling it past Ospina. The lead was doubled in the 63rd, when the Gunners defense failed to cover the onrushing Guedioura, who absolutely blasted it past Ospina and into the upper right corner of the net.

Welbeck, Walcott and Iwobi came on a few minutes later and the Gunners suddenly looked lively, but the scorned chances meant they were out of the FA Cup and probably out of winning any silverware this season. It was a well-played game by Watford, who sat back, absorbed pressure, cut off passing lanes around the box and then exploded on the counter, but Arsenal still dominated the game and really should have won it in the end. That they didn’t, speaks volumes to the problems with the team at present and the calls for Wenger to finally cede the reigns of the club after 20 years in charge, with the last 10 largely assessed as underachieving.

Three thoughts on the game:

1.     Wenger Gets It Wrong Again: Wenger started the game with an almost full-strength side, but it was the changes that left many, including me, scratching our heads. Calum Chambers is a player for the future, I still believe, but why throw him in over Bellerin in a game that is so important to Arsenal’s flagging season. And in the same regard, why recall Gibbs when Monreal has made the position his own. Both of those choices contributed to the two goals, along with the continued poor play of Gabriel, who seems to make at least two mistakes every time he is on the pitch.

2.    Wenger’s Final Stand? Another run to an FA Cup crown might well have staved off the inevitable call for Wenger’s head, after yet another title charge collapsed in the second half of the season, but one wonders if this is the final straw, even for the brass upstairs who seem to think fourth place and advancing from the group stage of the Champions League is enough to warrant Wenger staying in his job. The FA Cups to the past two seasons are probably the only reason he is still at the helm but can he even believe he can turn things around after another wasted season? The truth is that this game is a microcosm of Arsenal ever since 2006, with all of the old narratives playing out within the 98 or so minutes on the pitch: 1) Strikers who are good without being world class, missing clear chances to score, 2) Defensive mistakes costing the team goals (at a rate higher than most in the league), 3) Inconsistency in the money end of the season, 4) Lack of leadership on, and off, the pitch, 5) Injury crises that derail a promising campaign, and 6) Wenger acting as if this is just another game and not the latest example of a decade-long trend.

The reality at the moment is that Arsenal are on the brink of complete collapse, potentially falling out of the Top 4 before the season ends, though West Ham currently look more likely to usurp them than United. As per usual, Wenger will probably cobble together enough wins to get that fourth position, or maybe even third if City continue their own indifferent play. But after two quality calendar years – 2013 and 2015 – when Arsenal led the league form table, they have continued their trend of only playing half a season at title-winning pace. There are a number of factors that contribute to this tendency including a thin squad that means fewer “impact” subs and more injuries, the inability to beat teams they are clearly more talented than, a penchant for red cards and mistakes in big games, an inability to finish chances with enough consistency, questionable tactics, starting lineups and subs and the lack of the winning mentality necessary to win across 38 league games. Wenger seems unwilling to admit his weakness as a manager over the past decade, papered over, to some extent, by the aforementioned back to back FA Cups, but the murmur for his dismissal is only growing in fervor. Anything short of a surprise rebound to the title seems like the final nail in his coffin anywhere but at Arsenal, but I certainly would not be surprised to see him perched in his usual seat as next season collapses around him.

3.     The Culprits: As we look back on another failed season, the question is who is to blame. As I’ve indicated above, I think Wenger certainly has to take his fair share of the culpability, but others have also performed below their best. In this game, let’s start with those who played well. Elneny, even as he missed two good chances to put Arsenal in front in the first half, had a quality game and showed the skills that could see him starting his fair share of games while Ramsey is out. Coquelin was decent without doing anything spectacular, leaving the defense behind him exposed for both goals. Welbeck did continue a decent scoring return of late, but blew any positives he could have taken from the game when missing a sitter that could have drawn a replay. And Mertesacker, while marginally at fault for the first goal, was excellent for most of the game. The same cannot be said for the other three defenders, with Chambers lively but ineffective in his crossing or defensive work, Gibbs a shadow of the player that was a regular starter not so long ago and Gabriel so inept since the turn of the year he could well be on his way out if they can find a better alternative. Further up the pitch, Ozil provided enough chances for the Gunners to win the game, but as has become their tendency, they blew one after another. Campbell played well again, though he missed a half-chance himself, and one does wonder if the reversal of Arsenal’s fortunes have more than a little to do with him getting less time on the pitch. He certainly couldn’t do any worse than Giroud or Walcott if pushed to the middle of the pitch, as he has done for Costa Rica in the past. Giroud and Walcott, it should be said, are among the major reasons Arsenal’s skid has come at the wrong side of the season, as both have been in terrible scoring slumps save the 4-0 win over Hull, and Walcott, in particular, was invisible in this game, as he has been for much of the season. And that leaves Sanchez, the biggest disappointment of the season and a player that has not really lived up to the hype that his first-half performance last season suggested. In this game, he seemed to give the ball away every time he touched it (I lost count at 14 giveaways of either passes or failed dribbles) and, except for the late equalizer against Tottenham, this has been a season to forgot. Not only is his confidence shot, but his predictability in consistently dribbling in from the left makes him the most blocked shooter in the entire league.

Injuries have also played a role, as they seem to every year for Arsenal. The taller Cech might have gotten a mitt to the second Watford goal, even as it was beautifully taken, and his leadership could certainly have helped in preventing the absurd first, on a throw in passed so easily into the center of the box, where Gabriel was isolated on Ighalo. The absence of Coquelin earlier in the campaign hurt the Gunners as well, right when they seemed to be taking the race by the scuff of the table’s neck, and he has been a little off his best since returning. That again points to Wenger, of course, who really should have bought the DM the team has needed since Viera left. Ramsey is missed at times, but he has arguably taken two steps back this season, even as he has been in finer tether of late. And it is clear that Koscielny is missed, with the Gunners conceding goals at a much higher rate when he is on the sideline over the past three seasons. Most important, however, is the knee injury that has kept out Cazorla. He and Coquelin had formed a solid defense-to-offense pivot in front of the defense, with Coquelin breaking up play and Cazorla sending the team on the counter so effectively. They won plenty of games right after the injury, but the fall from grace appears to have a lot to do with the absence of his crisp passing, solidity in the middle and vision on the counter.

In the end, the team spirit that seemed to flourish over the past two seasons, from the moment the team rebounded from an early two-goal deficit to Hull to win their first trophy in eight years, seems to have fizzled and frayed. Why that is is not entirely clear, but the only consistent performers this season have been Cech and Ozil, with the latter looking increasingly disenchanted with teammates who make too many mistakes in midfield and defense and an attacking force in front of him that looks more like F-Troop than the A-Team. With their departure from the FA Cup, Everton and United will suddenly see a great opportunity to salvage their own floundering seasons, with Watford and Crystal Palace the other semifinalists (unless, of course, West Ham win the replay with United). Arsenal will be watching on their televisions wondering how they let yet another opportunity slip through their fingers and whether the elusive title will ever grace the Emirates again. So will the fans …

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