Friday, March 04, 2016

Losers! Wenger Must Go! (Arsenal 1 Swansea City 2)

Arsenal had a nice chance to move within three points of Leicester with what should have been an easy home fixture against 16th place Swansea, made even easier, in theory, when the away side made six changes from their last game, preparing for a relegation-battle against Norwich this weekend. And the Gunners started brightly, cruising to a 1-0 lead when Joel Campbell finished smartly across goal as he fell backwards on an excellent pass from Sanchez in the 15th minute. The Gunners had plenty of chances to extend that lead, but each went wanting, with Sanchez (in particular) guilty, missing four quality chances across the two halves. Giroud missed two sitters himself, including pounding a free ball from eight-yards out into the goal post when he could have easily cushioned it to either side of the keeper in the second half. In the 32nd minute, they were made to pay for that continued profligacy, as a clear foul on Ozil was missed and the Gunners defense shut off for a moment, allowing Wayne Routledge to run through them and finish smartly to the left of Cech. Arsenal had more chances before halftime, but as has become their habit, they scorned one after another like a heartless beauty her suitors, and ended the half in parity.

The second half saw a number of changes from Swansea, whose interim manager for the game, Alan Curtis, actually changed his formation three times across the game in a positive sign of his future potential. The third shift did the job, as Arsenal found it harder to find any space behind the Swans defense and began giving away possession far too easily, or simply meandering on the ball without any ideas how to get through. Ironically, a year after a strong run for a Gunner’s side that had seemed to find an identity (playing more defensive and on the counter in big games and with attacking flair against the lesser sides), they now seem like a team without a plan, looking around at each other to avoid taking the blame that each player on the pitch, with the general exception of Ozil, Koscielny and Cech, should claim. Unfortunately, it was a less than stellar performance from Cech himself Wednesday, as he seemed a little slow in coming out for the opening goal and then failed to punch away the Sigurdsson cross that Williams then bundled in to the net in the second half winner.

Cech was not alone in performing below his best, of course. Giroud has now gone nine games without scoring after a promising start to the season, his worst run as a Gunner. Sanchez has been abject, not scoring in a league game since October, and seemingly so drained of confidence he is becoming a hindrance to the offensive flow of the game. Mertesacker and Gabriel are not a good pairing, and the Brazilian, in particular, looks like a lost puppy at the moment, dispelling the sense he was ready to supplant the German World Cup winner in short order. Coquelin was better than his teammates, but often left to fend alone because of Ramsey, who keeps flying forward and leaving the defense exposed, a tendency that is hard to understand, given his own inability to find the scoring touch of a few seasons back. Ramsey, in fact, is playing as badly as he has in some time, missing easy passes, going sideways rather than forward, running less than he did in the past, and failing to cover on the defensive end far too often. One can feel Ozil’s frustration rising as he looks around the pitch at players performing far below their best, including Walcott, who besides the equalizer against Leicester, has been more invisible than a cloaked Harry Potter on the pitch. And even Bellerin and Monreal seemed below par in the the last two games, missing the mark with wayward crosses and failing to overlap with their usual precision. The reality, though, is no one is stepping up to get the team’s engine going again, and the lack of goals coupled with a more porous defense mean they are chasing shadows in trying to beat any team.

On the heels of a deflating 2-0 defeat to Barcelona at the Emirates and the pathetic 3-2 capitulation to Manchester United’s worst team in decades, this was a game the Gunners had to win, but they seemed to have no energy or will to even chase it after falling behind 2-1. And this is the main reason I believe it is time for Wenger to finally depart. This title was there for the taking and it is predominantly Wenger’s failure to make the right signings, the right tactical choices, employ the right formations, the right selections and the right substitutions that is at the heart of the 12 years of failure that followed those wonderful first eight years in charge. But more than any of those well-trodden critiques is the most damning one for any coach or manager in any sport at any level. The great coaches get the best out of their players, they make their players better, they fill them with belief and they get them to perform when the pressure is on. Wenger seems to be the opposite, a Frenchman who looks like his country in the two World Wars, unwilling or unable to muster the force of will to find a winning formula. The absence of leadership off the pitch is down to him, as is the lack of on the pitch leadership from the players he has chosen to sign and groom over the intervening years.

Wenger has been a model of consistency, leading his team to the Top 4 in every year in charge, to the Round of 16 for almost as long and keeping them near the top even as they moved stadiums and their budget shrunk. He has cultivated the talents of a lot of raw and promising youngsters and has a better trophy haul then most of the managers plying their trade in the league today. And yet it is fair to consider the failures alongside the successes, and beyond the two FA Cups and rather meaningless Community Shields in the past two years, the Gunners have clearly underperformed ever since the Invincibles completed their run with the 2005 FA Cup and 2006 Champions League Final loss. That team was disbanded and every subsequently composed squad has fallen short of expectations and of the chances afforded them. As a quick rundown of the profligacy in the face of opportunity: 2007 when they lost in the FA cup, Champions League and League Cup Final in an eight-day span that dismantled a promising season, 2008 when they blew a five-point lead in February, were crushed by United in the FA Cup and ended up in third place, 2010 when they blew a decent 2-2 first leg draw with Barcelona on the way to a torrid run-in with four points from their last five league game and another third place finish, the run in 2011 when they blew a first-leg lead against Barcelona, threw away the League Cup final against Birmingham (who were later relegated) and dropped down the table again and 2014, when a terrible start to the season saw them all but gift the title to Chelsea even before the Boxing Day 0-0 draw.

The run this season seemed to start immediately after the emboldening 2-1 win over Manchester City on December 21. This was two weeks after the excellent 3-0 win at Olympiakos that got them through to the knockout stage of the Champions League and an easy 2-0 win at Aston Villa. Right after becoming the de facto title favorites, they put in one of their worst displays of the season, losing 4-0 at Southampton (with a little help from terrible officiating). They did win their next three games, but then blew a 3-2 lead at Anfield at the death settling for a 3-3 draw, then only earning a point at Stoke and against Southampton (failing to score in both games), with a victory over Burnley in the FA Cup and yet another red card and loss at Chelsea in between. They did win two on the bounce next, beating Bournemouth and winning the game that many thought would turn things around, nipping Leicester with almost the last kick of the game, with Danny Welbeck the unlikely hero. Since then, they had yet another uninspiring 0-0 draw, this time with Hull in the FA Cup, the deflating 2-0 loss to Barca, where they blew chances and then supplicated in the last 20 minutes, and then the most recent losses to depleted United and Swansea squads. They are less solid on the road than in recent years and substantially worse at home, on a run of two wins, two losses and two draws in their last six in all competitions.

This is the first three-game losing streak for Arsenal since 2010, one of the many seasons that disappeared in a poor second half run that almost saw them fall out of the Champions League position. If they fail to win Saturday at White Hart Lane, one can look back at dropping all six points to Chelsea, three to United’s youth team, three to West Ham, four at Liverpool and, most bizarrely, five against Southampton along the road to abject failure. But really it has been a season of inconsistency, where the highlights – including a 2-0 win over Bayern, a 3-0 home victory over United, the 3-0 road win at Olympiakos and the 2-1 victory over City – are really the only great games they have played all season. After winning the “calendar title” in both 2013 and 2015 (the most points over the January to December stretch), they have seemingly lost their identity completely. They now seem a bunch of players thrown together on the pitch, trying to use their exceptional technical skills to beat opponents without a clear game plan or any unity of purpose. The aforementioned lack of leadership is clear and no one seems able to restore the confidence of Walcott, Sanchez, Ramsey or the oft-injured Ox, belying Wenger’s earlier success with cultivating young talent.

In the end, this could be the season that finally sees Wenger head toward the exit door. He will leave on his own terms and an unlikely title charge could still be in the cards if they find a way to win on Saturday. Everything indicates the obverse, though, even as the Spurs dropped three points themselves on Wednesday. Wenger must look to the past to find inspiration for how to inspire his players. If he doesn’t, this might be the final straw for a fan base that has been far too forgiving for a manager who gave us glory and then year after year of consternation. 

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