Thursday, March 17, 2016

Oops, They Did it Again: Arsenal out in Round of 16 for Sixth Year Running

Finishing, finishing, finishing. This should be what every Gunner hears on repeat every night as they sleep. That and “stand by your man.” In a game that Barcelona won 3-1, it was Arsenal that had more chances and, essentially, Arsenal that dominated the midfield. Yet goals decide games and the Gunners have become much better at receiving than giving in that regard. The misfiring started early, when Welbeck was free on goal within minutes of the opening whistle, only to somehow stumble over the ball and allow it to roll away harmlessly. Other chances would come his way, but he flubbed each one. Sanchez too had several chances to score and was, admittedly, unlucky not to on the stroke of 80 minutes as his free kick looked to have beaten the keeper only for Ter Stegen to get a late hand to it. Giroud had a chance on the rebound, but pounded it into the ground and then Walcott had a relatively open header, but had it blocked out. It summed up an evening when Arsenal both showed what this season could have been and what it has become.

It was defensive mistakes right alongside the inability to put the ball in the net that outdid them in the end, as it has so many times in the past two months. The first goal resulted from too tight a formation, allowing Neymar to sneak behind Gabriel and in front of Bellerin, who had a night to forget. Neymar slotted it home and Barca had the first goal and an almost unassailable 3-0 tie lead. But the goal seemed to wake up the Gunners, who could easily have scored three before the break, with Iwobi missing out on a good chance by tripping himself, Sanchez sending a free header wide and Welbeck spurning a second good chance of the half himself. In the second half, Arsenal were a constant threat to the Barca goal again, but after Elneny scored the equalizer on 51 minutes, several chances went wanting. It was 14 minutes later that Barca lay the tie to rest for good, as Monreal failed to come out on Dani Alves, who sent a perfect cross to the far post. But Bellerin seemed to have it covered before slipping to the ground, allowing a sublime volley across goal from Suarez. Arsenal carved out several more chances but then Barcelona made them pay for their poor defending yet again, as Messi made it 3-1 in the 88th minute. It was a mistake by Gabriel, unable to simply clear his line, which allowed Messi free on goal to coolly chip Ospina. Good effort, another loss and a season dribbling nowhere, like most of Sanchez’s possession since October.

Three Thoughts on the Game:

1. Enough “Moral” Victories for One Lifetime!
Arsenal outplayed Barcelona for stretches of this tie and certainly had chances to win it, but as has become the tired mantra of the season, they are combining excessively poor finishing with frequent defensive mistakes, repeating a trend that plagued them for several years before some defensive solidity appeared like magic in 2015. So they are out of the FA Cup, out of the Champions League and have only a sniff of a chance to get back into the title race. It is beginning to look like most of the past decade – with a Top 4 finish and getting out of their group in the Champions League the equivalent of a “Wenger trophy.” In aggregate (5-1), this wasn’t close to recent heartbreaks in the UCL, but it will certainly go down as the biggest failure in the league since that last, sublime title in 2003-04, when they went undefeated for an entire campaign. But past is not prologue for this team, except if we only count the past since 2006, and the question now becomes where the club goes from here?

And it is hard to say, really. Next season, the competition will be much tougher in the league, they have stars who could leave this summer and lack the leadership and spine necessary to win enough big games. If I were in charge of the club, I would hold a secret meeting with Wenger and ask him very nicely to call it quits at the end of the season. I would seriously consider letting Walcott, Giroud, Gibbs and maybe even Ox go. I would also kick Gabriel to the curb and beg Alexis Sanchez to hit the beach for at least a month, to rejuvenate himself after a really poor season. I would buy a world class striker who can score at least 20 league goals, a defensive midfielder with leadership skills and a strong, nasty centre back to partner with Koscielny. I would change the training regime to try to cut down on the raft of injuries we suffer every season and find ways to toughen these players up. I would also sit down with Ramsey and explain that next season is his absolute last chance to prove that he is worthy of playing for the team, reminding him that the ratings in the papers are not always an accurate assessment of his performance each week.

Now, obviously a lot of these things will not happen, but it is time to rebuild from the bottom up AND the top down. Wenger must go if Arsenal are to turn things around before it’s too late. The good news is some of the dead weight is heading out of the club, with the oft-injured Rosicky, the past-his-prime Arteta and the way-past-his-prime Flamini all set to leave. But questions should be asked of others, including why their development has seemed to stifle in the past year or two. Walcott, for example, seemed to be shaping into a world class winger, but his finishing is gone and his skill set has reverted back to the player of two or three seasons ago. Really he has become Arsenals best imitator of the invisible man. Ramsey and Ox both give the ball away way too much and finish far too few of their chances. Gabriel is a walking goal machine, for whomever we are playing against and needs to be sent back to Brazil, preferably COD. Steve Bould should spend some time with Bellerin, explaining to him that a right back actually has to “cover” the back sometimes, a role he seemed to forget in this game. And they need a leader, a winner who can come in and change the attitude of a team that knows disappointment far better than success; even with the two FA Cup wins. Maybe you keep Giroud around for another season, but it does appear the team works better when Welbeck is playing through the middle, at least recently, and if he could learn to finish (maybe a lost cause at this point), could provide a nice foundation moving forward. But neither is of the class necessary for Arsenal to finally move up the ladder a rung and sustain a title challenge for an entire 38-game stretch. They also need to figure out what is wrong with Sanchez, who has become a shell of his former self, unable to find form for more than the occasion moment of brilliance.

For those who might think I am overreacting, finally a smaller group than usual, let’s put into numbers how bad things have gotten. In the first half of the season, Arsenal gave up two or more goals on 9 occasions; more than one would hope, but not outrageous. Particularly when we consider that three of those came in the Champions League, one by the B-team that lost the Capital One Cup tie to Sheffield Wednesday, one in the bizarre opening day 2-0 loss to West Ham, one in a victory over Leicester City (when they scored 5), another in the 4-0 loss to Southampton where each of the goals could have been disallowed by a referee without a seeing eye dog and finally in a 2-0 loss to Chelsea that included a questionable red card elicited from troublemaker Diego Costa. They also had 11 clean sheets over that period. They then started 2016 in similar form, beating Newcastle 1-0, Sunderland 3-1 in the FA Cup, drawing 3-3 with Liverpool (after trailing early), drawing 0-0 at Stoke and losing 1-0 to Chelsea (after another red card), beating Burnley 2-1 in the FA Cup and drawing 0-0 with Southampton. The drying up of goals was starting, but the defense still seemed largely intact, forgoing the 3-3 thriller with Liverpool where poor last second defending cost them two invaluable points. And then came the false arc turn of the season. They beat Leicester City 2-1 on a last-gasp winner from Welbeck to draw within two points of the surprise leaders.

Since then, they played out a tepid 0-0 draw with Hull at home in the FA Cup, lost 2-0 at home to Barca, 3-2 on the road to injury-plagued United, 2-1 back at the Emirates to Swansea (the back breaker for the season), drew 2-2 a man down at Tottenham, scored a 4-0 outlier victory over Championship side Hull in the replay, lost 2-1 to lowly Watford to get booted from the FA Cup and the 3-1 loss tonight. That is 14 goals conceded in the past six, with only 7 scored. Going further back, Arsenal have failed to score in five games this calendar year, while conceding two or more in 7, including six of their past seven. It is a level of defensive frailty that one assumed they finally got over after the excellent run to end the last season. One was, as they so often are when hope sneaks into a Gooner’s Grinch-stained heart, sadly mistaken.

2. Finishing, Finishing, Finishing: five games into the season, Arsenal had the third worst conversion rate in the entire league, having score on only 5 of 112 shots. They then started to marginally improve and, though they never reached respectable finishing numbers, had enough chances over a game to start converting with some consistency – particularly when Giroud hit a purple patch and Sanchez had his best three weeks of the season. While third in the table at present, Arsenal are 11th in conversion rate over the course of the season, converting only 14.7 percent of their shots. Everton are first (19.3 percent), followed by Leicester City (19.1), United (16.2) and City (16.1). The worst rate in the league is Aston Villa (10), who also sit in the basement on points and are, barring an English Channel splitting miracle, headed for the Championship next season. Ironically, Arsenal are actually fifth in total goals scored (46), behind only Tottenham (53), Leicester (53), City (52) and Everton (51). But those missed goals have been costly, turning wins into draws and draws into losses. Most troubling is that no one in the squad has been consistent across the season. Giroud has the 13th best conversion ratio in the league (26.1%) but has gone cold over the season-defining stretch of losses and draws and just doesn’t seem to have the killer instinct necessary to lead his team consistently to victory (particularly in the biggest games). He does lead the team with 12 league goals, in 29 appearances, but that is not going to win a title. In fact, few teams win a title in any of the major leagues without at least one 20-goal scorer. Second on the team is Sanchez, with 7, followed by Ramsey (5), Ozil (5) and Walcott (a paltry 4). Kos and Campbell have 3 apiece and Welbeck 2 (though he has been out for most of the season). Those are not numbers that are going to scare a lot of teams and, when combined with the defensive leakage noted above, is all you really need to know in understanding how the team went from hopes in three competitions to 4 wins in 15 and the only remaining dream to again finish in the Top 4.

3. Barca’s Murderer’s Row: there were long stretches tonight when Barcelona looked like the lesser team (on the night, obviously, not in general!). One had to account for the comfortable 2-0 lead from the first leg and an injury to important cog Pique. But Arsenal were too easily getting behind the defense and not ahead only because of continued profligacy in front of goal. But when you have one of the fiercest front lines in the history of the game (they have now score 106 combined goals this season alone), an off day can still lead to victory. Today, Neymar scored the first, after Bellerin got caught looking up into the stands of the team he might one day play for, Suarez added the second, after Bellerin fell to the ground in awe, and Messi scored the third, after Gabriel reminded us he is still the worst defender on the pitch as hard as Bellerin was trying to take that honor for the evening. Each finish was cool, savvy and elegant and, while Bayern showed their own firepower today coming back from a two-goal halftime deficit to win 4-2 over Juve in extra time, one has to believe this is the team to beat in the competition, particularly if they stay healthy. They are truly a delight to watch, having transformed from the boring tika-taka side that lulled not only opponents but fans into ennui-soaked complacency, to a side that is hard to take your eyes off. Much credit must be given to Luis Enrique, a little over a year after he seemed to be on his way out. It is a tough road ahead, with Real Madrid looking for some revenge, Atletico having an approach to stop their attack (at least theoretically), PSG cruising and Bayern the marginal favorites to win it all, at least for some. Don’t count this team out of any game until the final whistle blows, though, and don’t ignore the way they rarely concede more than a goal even on an off night.

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