Sunday, March 06, 2016

Tottenham and Arsenal Share the Spoils (2-2)

Well that’s it. Another season down the drain. Ironically, it came as Arsenal valiantly fought back to earn a point after allowing a 1-0 lead to become a 2-1 deficit within seven minutes of Coquelin’s boneheaded red card. Down a man, they fought back to equalize and appeared to have the better chance at a late winner. That winner did not come though and now both teams find themselves starring further up at Leicester, who snatched all three points at Watford a few hours after this latest North London Derby ended. It was certainly an entertaining game and one that both teams feel they could have, and should have, won. Tottenham might feel more aggrieved, after playing the last 35 minutes of the second half a man up and missing out on a number of opportunities to put the game away, but Arsenal can look to the first 10 minutes of the second half and having the game completely within their reach until Coquelin’s completely inexplicable second yellow.

Three thoughts on the game:
1. Same Old Arsenal; Same Old Tottenham? It was Arsenal’s last chance to get back into a title race they seemed to have become the favorites of a mere three weeks back, when a last second header from Danny Welbeck beat Leicester City 2-1. But as has become their habit over the past 11 years, they found a way to blow it. What has followed? A 0-0 FA Cup draw against Hull, a 2-0 loss to Barcelona at home, a 3-2 loss to a depleted United team, a 2-1 loss to Swansea and now this draw that just was not good enough. For Arsenal, the tendency to make mistakes in the biggest games is becoming more than a habit; it’s the signature of the team. They were not cruising up 1-0, in fact lucky to have that lead after Aaron Ramsey’s clever looping backheel from a Bellerin pass in the 39th minute. But they took that lead into halftime and looked marginally the better side in the first ten minutes of the second half. That all changed when Coquelin inexplicably went down to tackle Harry Kane miles from the goal on the right touchline with nowhere to go. His red card in the 55th minute changed the complexion of the game, but it was two Arsenal errors that gifted the Spurs the lead. The first was failing to cover Alderweireld on the far post on a corner, allowing him to take time and crush the ball past Ramsey and Ospina. The second was a wonderstrike from Harry Kane, but followed a bungled job of seeing the ball out from Mertesacker, leaving the left side of the box open for the striker to finish across goal. But Arsenal rallied, finding a way through when Sanchez took another Bellerin assist and clipped it across goal just beating Hugo Lloris (who probably should have done better). From there, they were in the ascendancy and Aaron Ramsey had a chance at the winner in the final minute, but the Spur’s defender got back and cleared it out for a corner. Typical Arsenal, earning a red in a big game, as they have in the Champions League this season and twice against the worst Chelsea side they have faced in years. It was a red card that contributed to them losing the 2006 Champions League Final, even as they had a 1-0 lead heading into the final 10 minutes of that game, and so many other games since. And so another season without a title and more questions about Wenger’s fitness as manager to ever get them across the line. The task will certainly be harder next season and the window the last three seasons provided appears to have closed. One should add, as a final dagger in the heart that Arsenal were ahead in both of their last two games, but unable to hold those leads, another key habit in their extending title drought.

For Tottenham, of course, the wait for a title is much longer. In fact, besides their 2009-10 adventure in the Champions League, the Top 4 has been a road too far for some time now. Their last title came way back in 1961 and their last Top 4 in 2009. This bizarre season looked their best chance to claim domestic glory in many, many years but they might be letting it slip away. Firs there was the loss to giant killer West Ham on Wednesday and now two dropped points with a lead and an extra man. Don’t count this team out yet, particularly with the easiest run-in of any of the remaining teams in the top five, but they will have to overcome the demons that have haunted them for so many years. And they will have to overcome the five points that now separate them from Leicester, a team that continues to find ways to win. The good news for the Spurs? They have a young team that has been on the rise for two seasons now and have collected more points, 18 now, than any other team from losing positions. That could make the difference if they can stay tight as Leicester face stiff competition in their final three games against United, Everton and Chelsea (with two on the road). Can the Spurs still win the title? The answer is maybe. For the Gunners, it looks again like a road too far.

2. Wenger’s Final Stand? As Arsenal were booed off the pitch on Wednesday evening, having gifted a win to a Swansea team they outplayed for large stretches of the game. Thierry Henry said afterwards that it was the angriest fans have been in many years, and I think he has a point. The two FA Cups and Community Shields in succession have quieted some of the animosity many now feel toward Wenger, but how much more can the Gooners take? The answer will only come when another team has secured a title that no one seems to want, except maybe Leicester, but serious questions remain about whether the Frenchman can ever win a major trophy again. And it is really his own fault, as it has been so many times in the past. Sure some bad calls have gone against the team, costing them at least five to seven points in my estimation. But this team has been flat for long stretches of the season, failed to beat lesser opponents after big wins, dropped points to the worst Chelsea and United sides in years and somehow deigned to give five of six points to Southampton this season. The critiques of Wenger are clear and this season is no different. One can argue he has gotten more tactically flexible, on the positive side, but the failure to add outfield additions to the squad is not just questionable, it borders on reckless endangerment of their title quest. At the heart of the matter, however, as I argued two days ago, is his inability to cultivate a “belief” in his team that they can, in fact, win the big games. The irony, of course, is they have beaten the leaders of the league in both encounters this season, crushed United at home, beat back Man City at the Emirates and even took down Bayern. But the decline in form over the past two months is a narrative so familiar I was simply waiting for it to repeat itself this year. Wenger might get one more year at the helm, but does anyone really give him any chance to redeem the meager trophy haul since 2005? I unfortunate am one of the doubters.

3. Sanchez & Ramsey Final Come Good; Harry Kane Continues to Shine: As Arsenal’s title charge slipped away, two players at the heart of their problems were Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez. Both are flair players with incredible talent and drive but both had stopped scoring and were starting to become counterproductive to the squad. Ramsey was forced to move back deeper into midfield once Cazorla was injured and seemed to revert to some of his old problems, giving the ball away too frequently, trying slick backheels when a simple pass was better and charging forward to get in the box, leaving the back four exposed. It is no accident that this saw a dramatic upswing in the number of goals Arsenal allowed (4 against Southampton, 3 against Liverpool, another 3 to United, 2 to Tottenham, 2 to Barcelona at home, etc.). The missed chances by the Welshman were the most disappointing aspect of his game, though, as those foragings forward failed to reap just reward. And Sanchez was even worse, not scoring since October until his equalizer Saturday. His high energy style seemed without a clear aim in mind, snatching at shots, getting more shots blocked than any other player in the league and dribbles too often ending up with a counter for their opponents. But for two brief moments, the two showed the best of themselves, first with the Ramsey flick and then the scuffed shot by Sanchez that was just good enough to beat Lloris. If Arsenal are to salvage anything out of this season, which might simply mean staying in the top four, then these two must up their games going forward.

For Tottenham, any notion that Harry Kane was a one-season wonder has been long dispelled, but his third goal in the last two games at White Hart Lane against Arsenal reinforce how good a forward the Englishman is. The sublime second goal owes a lot to Dele Alli’s rounding Mertesacker and backheeling the ball that ultimately found Kane, but he still had a lot to do and his rising shot across goal left Ospina no chance of the save. It was his 17th goal in 29 games this season, with another four in the Europa League and one in the FA Cup. And while questions can be asked about their performance at the back for both Arsenal goals, the Spurs could have easily gotten four or five past the Gunners. That they didn’t could be their greatest regret if they do not go on to win the title, but it is clear that they are one of the most exciting teams in England at the moment and with so many young stars and a young manager, the future does look quite bright, even if they did drop two points here.

No comments: