Friday, April 29, 2016

EPL Match Week 35: One Win Away from the Leicester City Miracle Realized!

The weekend commenced with a commanding 4-0 victory for City over a Stoke side that seems to have lost their motivation as their season peters out. Chelsea then beat Bournemouth 4-1, Southampton took down Aston Villa 4-2 and Liverpool, after jumping to a 2-0 lead, had to settle for a point with Newcastle after the relegation-threatened visitors bounced back with two goals in the second half.

Sunday saw Arsenal continue to reach new depths of ineptitude in a 0-0 home draw at the Stadium of Lights () followed by a comprehensive 4-0 win for Leicester City, after an early Mahrez goal settled the nerves in the absence of suspended Vardy. Monday, Tottenham forged ahead for a 1-0 lead before giving it back, drawing with West Brom in a game that probably ended their dimming title hopes. Worse news followed the game as Dele Alli was eventually suspended for the remaining three games of the season, after a punch of an Albion defender went unnoticed by the match day referee.

Thoughts on Match Week 35:
1. Leicester Best in the EPL? as Leicester City sit one win (or a Tottenham loss) from officially raising the Premier League crown, an interesting question has surfaced in the ether of football journalism: are they the “best” team in the EPL this season? On paper, a squad of journeyman, youngsters and lower division players paired with a manager who has a rather feather light resume would lead one to say no way. Looking at how much the team cost to assemble (around 20 million pounds) provides further fodder for that argument. And the simple reality that not one of these players has ever been anywhere near world-class in their careers and few have any international record to speak of (beside Mahrez playing for Algeria) seems to solidify the point that they are not the best.

And yet the counterargument is equally strong – each team in the EPL plays every other team in the league two times, home and away, with three points for a win, one point for a draw and, of course, no points for a loss. They are on course, barring a collapse in their final three games and Tottenham winning out without one of their players of the season, from garnering the most points of any team in the league. Was there luck involved? Maybe with the point against West Ham and a couple of other games I can’t think of, but it did not appear to play a measurable role. In fact, a stronger argument can be made for at least two of United’s titles, when questionable red cards and ghost penalties earned them just enough points to snatch the crown (as in Ferguson’s final season). Leicester City didn’t have to play European football and didn’t make deep runs in either of the Cup competitions, but does that really discount their achievement? Liverpool had the same advantage a few years ago and couldn’t make it count down the stretch.

On the other hand, is the question of how they would do against the elite of Europe. Some argue they would be destroyed by Bayern, Barca, Real or Juve, but I’m not so sure. One of the trends of the season is that counterattacking teams that are well-organized defensively are doing quiet well. Arsenal used that approach to beat Bayern in the Group Stage of the Champions League, Juve used it in general to win Series A yet again and Atletico has taken a squad built at a huge discount in comparison to Real and Barcelona and stand at the acme of the table and through to the semifinals of the Champions League. And though they could end up with no silverware, they have shown that not only can defensive-minded football still win, but that it can actually be rather engaging to watch. Given how many clean sheets Leicester have in the second half of the season and the blistering pace and lethal finishing they show on the counter, I’m not so sure they could not compete with the best of European football. The unfortunate fact, though, is we probably won’t ever know the answer to the question, as it is likely they will lose at least one, if not two, of the stars that helped this team to the unthinkable. For now, I am relatively comfortable in arguing they are the best team in England this season.

2. Wenger Blames the Fans: while the Leicester story can even inspire a Gooner with a Grinch’s heart, like me, it is still hard to swallow how dramatically Arsenal’s season has plunged into mediocrity and despair. Assuming Leicester do beat United on Sunday, Arsenal will probably finish in the Top 4, but can we really continue to call this a success? 12 years without a title, six straight years exiting at the Round of 16 in the Champions League and no trophy for all but three of those seasons. It is a story so familiar that it is becoming cliché. Yet when our manager then turns and blames the fans for the terrible home form that has contributed to our collapse it is time to ramp up the calls for his dismissal. It’s like a President complaining that his performance is poor because his constituents are complaining about how poor his performance is. Sure the Emirates has been eerily silent at times this year, but isn’t that the result of a massive failure to take advantage of a unique season in which United, City, Chelsea and Liverpool all struggled simultaneously? Might the fans be more excited if he followed the advice of every pundit who knows anything about football and bought the striker and DM we needed last summer to take us over the line? Has Arsenal become such a Theocracy that even questioning our manager of 20 years is no longer allowed? Our tone-deaf board will probably continue to support Wenger, at least for one more season, but does he even deserve it? On his record over the past 12 years, I think the answer is a resounding no. Last weekends 0-0 draw with Sunderland provides all the evidence we really need … and we were on the road for that one, so what’s your excuse for that insipid performance Arsene? Update: Wenger added the media to his critique, claiming they have turned the fans against him ...

3. Relegation Watch: Sunderland’s draw with Arsenal was a nice point earned that they probably didn’t calculate in their formula for staying in the league for another season. What it did do, though, is provide them with the psychological boost of stepping outside the bottom three for the first time in weeks, though they remain tied with Norwich on points. Both Sunderland and Norwich now have games in hand on Newcastle and it is looking increasingly like the Magpies are heading down, even with their impressive draws from losing positions against City and Liverpool. On the other hand, they do have three fixtures to end the season that could earn enough points to put real pressure on the two above them (who are only a point ahead). Crystal Palace has been downright awful in the league this season – except when they played Arsenal to a 1-1 draw, of course – and they will be dreaming of the FA Cup Final at Wembley rather than their league games at this point, one imagines. Then they have an almost guaranteed three points when they visit Aston Villa. And the final game, which looked like a tough ask against Tottenham, might actually be meaningless for the Spurs and provide an opportunity for unexpected points to finish the season. Norwich, on the other hand, as I mentioned last week, could very well finish the season with four straight losses, though they might think three points at home against the reeling Watford is a strong possibility and that Everton, who have been shocking at home this season, could be ripe for an upset. Sunderland don’t have an easy game in their final four either, but they start their end of season run against a Stoke City team that already seems to be on vacation (having conceded four goals in each of their past three matches), a Chelsea side that has little to play for, an Everton that looks set to finally put Roberto Martinez out of his misery a week or two after that game and a finale at Watford, who will have nothing to play for. The relegation battle could go down to the last game and might provide the most excitement as the champion and top 4 will probably be decided before the last game. 

4. European Roundup: Liverpool were less than three minutes from a respectable 0-0 draw at Villareal that would have put them in the driver’s seat to win the Europa League semifinal tie back at Anfield next week. And then the poor defending that has too often defined their season came to the Yellow Submarine’s rescue and they snatched a late 1-0 win as they cut right through the Red’s defense. Liverpool will certainly believe they can overcome that deficit back at Anfield, particularly after what they did to a hot Dortmund in the previous round, but Villareal does have the third best defense in La Liga and stands firmly in fourth place, far ahead of Liverpool at the moment in the EPL. The most confounding decision of a match that Klopp seemed to get right in some ways, was the exclusion of Daniel Sturridge for all 90+ minutes. I was certainly surprised to see him on the bench for the first half, but absolutely apoplectic he wasn’t on in the second as the visitor’s moved into the ascendancy while Sturridge’s replacement (Firmino) had one of the worst games I’ve ever seen him play. Does this indicate Sturridge’s time at Liverpool is coming to a close? There is certainly the sense that he is not a Klopp sort of player, first broached when the German “heavy metal” manager questioned the injury that kept him out around Christmas. With Origi out injured, it is hard to understand the thinking of one of the fastest Liverpool strikers to 50 goals in their long, storied history.

In the Champion League, Real Madrid could be made to rue some missed chances in the first leg as they head back to the Bernabeu, but City will also worry that they couldn’t beat a Real team without Ronaldo or Benzema (for most of the game). The clean sheet at home will give them hope, though, as an away goal could see them through in a draw. Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola is now staring down a potential third year in a row where he was beaten in the semifinals by a Spanish side. Munich had the lion’s share of possession throughout the game but could not break through an Atletico side missing what is arguably their best defender. Saul provided the moment of magic with his early goal, slaloming past five Bayern defenders before finishing to the far corner in one of the goals of the season, but the entire team provided the victory with their disciplined and resolute defending. Munich will think they have enough to win the second leg, but they too might be wondering what Guardiola was thinking leaving out Mueller for most of the game. I predict Real will slip by City by a goal (1-0 or 2-1) and Atletico will win with an away goal (1-1, 2-1 in the second game). Both games could go the other way, though.

5. Around the Horn: Allegri’s credentials were sometimes questioned as the manager of AC Milan, particularly as they floated out of European football in his last years in charge, but he has fully resuscitated his reputation with Juve, having now won the league for the second season in a row. He might feel that his team missed out on a golden opportunity to make another run to the final of the Champions League when they were robbed of a first-half goal in the second leg, but it is clear that he is emerging as one of the best managers in world football. Meanwhile, PSG has added the second piece of their attempt at a domestic treble, winning the French Cup with a 2-1 victory over Rennes. They will have the opportunity to complete the task on May 21, in a final with Marseille. La Liga has tightened up to the extent that a slip from Barcelona in any of their last three games could very well cost them the title. They are tied on points with Atletico and a sole point above Real. The bad news for the two Madrid challengers is their opponents for those final three games, Betis, Espanyol and Granada – 13th, 15th and 17th in the league, respectively. And after a poor run, where they won only one of six (with four losses), they have won their last two league games by a combined 14-0. Finally, to Germany, where Bayern have stretched their lead at the top to 7 points with only three games to play.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Arsenal Vapid in 0-0 Draw with Sunderland

Some weeks this year, Arsenal have been a delight to watch, moving the ball around slickly before finishing off enough chances to take all three points. More often, it has been like watching 10 rats slowly eat away at your feet as you lay tethered to your bed. Today was of the later variety, continuing a second half to forget. They have won 6, lost 4 and drawn 7 in the league in 2016, won 3, drawn 1 and lost 1 in the FA Cup and lost both legs of the Champions League. That leads to a record of 9-8-6 and no chance of any trophies. For not the first time in recent years, it also means they need to win all three of their remaining fixtures to guarantee passage to the Champions League next season, though a draw against City would probably be enough with their superior goal difference against United. Sunderland, on the other hand, have been struggling most of the season, but have now moved out of the drop zone with the point and might feel aggrieved not to have won, having had more quality chances in the game. Three thoughts on the game:

Wenger Gets It Wrong Yet Again
In a season to forget, it is Arsene Wenger who should pay the ultimate price, though we know that will not come to pass. After a rare Thursday night encounter the Gunners won 2-0, one thought Wenger would restore Welbeck to the starting lineup, particularly given that the goal drought for Giroud stood at 14 and Arsenal had looked better in recent weeks with Iwobi, Welbeck and Sanchez up front. Instead he stuck with the misfiring Frenchman and paid the price, as the striker was downright inept. Looking at my “highlights” from Giroud during the game, we have a few completed passes, no shots on target, several aimless headers and giving the ball away more than he made any positive impact. When Welbeck and Walcott finally came on the pitch in the 70th minute, Arsenal’s attack did look momentarily better and one wonders what game Wenger was watching for the first 70, waiting so long to make a change. Giroud, however, was not the only one having a poor performance, as Ozil was off his best, Bellerin spurning a few half chances and Iwobi was ineffective in the box. Sanchez had another quality game, but his two best shots were kept out by fine Mannone saves and the Gunners settled for a point that, while disappoint, might be just enough to stay in the top four.

Yet it hard not to think of all the missed opportunities this season. The wins for the Gunners in 2016 have been over Newcastle, Bournemouth, Leicester, Watford, West Brom and Everton. The losses have come to Chelsea, United and Swansea. And the draws to Liverpool, Stoke, Southampton, Tottenham, West Ham, Crystal Palace and now Sunderland. Incredibly, they were ahead in all four games that had a score, while the other three were 0-0 draws, unacceptable for a team with this much possession and offensive firepower. Against Liverpool, they were down early, then ahead before a last second shot cost them two points. Against Tottenham they were one up before a red card and two Spurs goals meant they had to settle for a point when Sanchez equalized. Against Crystal they could have had four or five, but kept spurning chances before a late equalizer for the visitors and against West Ham they blew a 2-0 lead before coming back to against rescue one point. The losses were even worse, another red card against Chelsea costing them three points, shipping three goals to United’s youth team and then blowing a 1-0 lead against Swansea for the third time in the past few years.

This is the record not of a manager a team can believe in but one who has clearly demonstrated his limitations. He is tactically inflexible, refuses to replace misfiring strikers and stubbornly keeps in underperformers. Just comparing him to Ranieri or Simeone or Enrique or Guardiola, it is not even close. Those managers might have better players (at least the latter two), but they also know how to switch things up, how to prepare their players for each opponent, how to keep leads (though Barcelona has certainly shown some frailties in this regard) and, most importantly, how to get the most out of their players. That is not the case at Arsenal and hasn’t been for some years now. Instead the players show up some weeks and are uninspiring others, fail to see out games, to show the proper level of urgency for long spells and seem to not care enough about winning to create that culture at the club. Again, just this year, Arsenal have given away five leads in the league, along with another that saw them eliminated from an FA Cup they had a good chance to win for a third time in a row. I am out of ways to articulate my despair with watching Wenger continue to screw this team up and can merely dream of the day he finally walks away (assuming I’m still alive a couple decades from now).

Top Four in Jeopardy?
Arsenal should have easily earned three points at the Stadium of Lights today, bossing 70 percent of possession while outshooting their hosts 20-12 (and 7-3), but their ineptitude in attack (as much as finishing today) meant they were actually lucky not to lose, as Sunderland hit the bar early and just missed out on a few other quality chances. They now have two home games left, against Norwich and Aston Villa, with an away trip to Man City sandwiched in between. Assuming they win the six home points, which might be a stretch with their current state, they might well need a draw at the Etihad to guarantee Champions League football for next year. The good news is United host Leicester in their next game and still have to face West Ham away, but they are hot at the moment and might well take Arsenal’s FA Cup crown and their top 4 spot in the coming weeks. If United do win out and Arsenal lose at City, one does wonder whether the board will finally believe a move is necessary to replace Wenger, as that would put them in fifth place and the Europa League. Assuming they do finish in fourth again, it will be the 20th year in a row that Arsenal finishing in one of the top four positions, but make it 12 since their last crown and the 10th time in the past 13 they they won no silverware (unless we include the “glorified friendly” Community Shield). Is that really acceptable for a team of Arsenal’s stature? Is that really acceptable for a team with quality across the pitch and over 100 million pounds in the bank?

One does wonder if it might be the best thing that happens to the team if they are forced to play in the Europa League. The concern, of course, would be the inability to sign the best players in the world without the UCL, and that Sanchez and/or Ozil might push for a move if denied the best club competition in the world. But one does think it might push the board to finally hire a new manager who can change their fortunes. At minimum, I do believe it might elicit the sort of clear-out that is necessary for the team to sustain a title challenge for an entire season. Giroud must go as a forward without pace who has lost his touch and confidence; on top of never really being the sort of striker to lead a title-winning side. Walcott should probably go as well, as an oft-injured disappointment who seems to have lost the scoring instincts he had before the latest two injury layoffs. Rosicky, Flamini and Arteta are almost guaranteed to be taken off the books, but one wonders if the rumors about Ox going as well are not a good idea. He just hasn’t developed as hoped and is another Gunner who is far too prone to injury. That would leave the core of Sanchez, Ozil, Iwobi, Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla (who has been sorely missed this term), Welbeck (another iffy one for me, as he just isn’t a natural finisher), Elneny, Coquelin, Bellerin, Monreal/Gibbs (if he doesn’t go in search of first team football himself), Mertesacker, Koscielny and Cech. From there, Arsenal could search for a midfielder or two, a central defender and, of course, a world-class striker. Barring improvements from back to front, one assumes another season of promise and disappointment awaits tired Gooners like me.  

Sunderland Again in Line for the Great Escape?

For five season now, Sunderland have been flirting with regulation. And yet in the previous four, they have found a way to stay up. Though 1 win and 5 draws in their last seven is nothing like the run of wins the past two Springs, it might be just enough, as Norwich fell below them into the drop zone, on goal difference. Sunderland have four games remaining, as do Norwich, while Newcastle (a further point behind with the worst goal difference of the bunch) has only three. It is starting to look as if Sam Allardyce might again navigate a team away from the drop, though their remaining fixtures will certainly give Newcastle and Norwich hope: Stoke (A), Chelsea (H), Everton (H) and Watford (A). They could easily lose all three, though Stoke has been off their best of late and none of the other three have anything to play for beyond pride. Newcastle have been streaking of late with a win and two draws (against City and Liverpool), but they will need to make the most of winnable fixtures against Crystal Palace (H) and Aston Villa (a), before a finale against a Tottenham side that might still be in the title hunt. As for Norwich, a nice run where they drew with City (0-0), beat West Brom 1-0 and won the critical matchup with Newcastle (3-2) seem like a distant memory, and remaining matches against Arsenal (A), United (H), Watford (A) and Everton (A) mean they look the likeliest of the three to be returning to the Championship.

Friday, April 22, 2016

With the Race Run, Arsenal Finally Come Good Again (2-0 West Brom)

The game yesterday reminded fans of what this season could, and probably should, have been. Arsenal scored early, as they have done through much of the two winning stretches of the season, doubled their lead before halftime and held firm, though admittedly against a team with little to play for and one that has trouble putting the ball in the net this season. The recent phoenix-like renaissance of Alexis Sanchez provided the impetus for the victory, scoring both goals in the first half of their 2-0 win over West Brom. The first, after only 6 minutes, showed some of his old flair, as he cut inside and then shot back across Forster, who maybe could have done a little better, between two Albion defenders. His second was an excellently-conceived free kick on 38 minutes, where he dipped the ball hard in a space vacated by Ramsey and Mertesacker at the last second (in the center of the wall). Arsenal could have scored more with their 71 percent possession and 16 shots (7 on target), but will be happy with a third clean sheet in their past five games. That it was sandwiched by two disappointing draws perfectly exemplifies fan unrest.

Three Thoughts on the Game:

1. Fan Revolt Continues
: Arsenal’s official attendance for the game Thursday was over 59,000, but if one counted the seats around the Emirates, it was clear the number was much higher. There was no formal revolt or organized effort toward this end, but fatigue with the constant struggle for top four finishes and Round of 16 departures from the tournament that position merits have wearied even the most ardent of Wenger supporters. The two FA Cups in succession softened that anger for some and many believed this was the season where that success would finally translate into a sustained title challenge. The second half collapse that has ended the latest title challenge appears to be too much for those supporters, particularly when one realizes that some of Arsenal’s struggles again appear to relate to the stubbornness and tactical inflexibility of our 20-year commander in chief.

While the shortcomings have been catalogued by myself and others for several season now, it is worth considering the specific instances where Wenger has fallen short this season again: 1. His unwillingness to spend the money necessary to construct a truly world class team. Everyone in the universe except Wenger believed the Gunners needed a world class striker to push them over the top and into the title. Early in the season, it appeared Wenger had proven his doubters wrong, as Walcott chipped in with a few goals as Giroud went on a hot streak. But the moment he went cold, there was no real alternative to save the team and they have won only 6 of their past 16 matches in all comps. 2. Strange selection has also played a role this season, as with using Ospina in the first two UCL games, both losses. He also kept Cech on the bench for the match with West Ham, a decision that arguably cost the Gunners two points (though, to be fair, Cech arguably cost them two in the next game against Crystal Palace). There have also been the instances where he kept in Gabriel as he showed an increasing tendency for boneheaded decisions, defensive lapses and generally uninspired play that cost the team points. He stuck with Giroud for way too long and there are countless other examples, like him forgetting that Campbell was available on the bench or to start after a nice run of games or playing Sanchez injured, costing him weeks on the sideline. 3. Tactical inflexibility: late last season and heading into this one, it appeared Wenger had finally changed his approach in big games, willing to lie deeper and play on the counter. It had led to victories over City, United in the FA Cup and even Bayern Munich in the Champions League this fall. And then he seemed to fall back on his old ways and the goals have been pouring in against the Gunners at a much higher rate. Beyond that, he has failed to push his team to stop trying to pass the ball into the net, exemplified by them having the least number of shots and goals from outside the box of any team in the league (even as the two yesterday by Sanchez were from just outside the 18-yard line).

Those are the three main problems, though there are others. It appears his training methods are outdated, as the perennial injury problems and struggles in November (they didn’t win one game in the 11th month in 2015) continued this term. He appears to also overplay his stars, making it more likely they will suffer muscle injuries, or even more serious ones, as the body becomes more vulnerable. He has a poor record in general with substitutions and even in a year when Chelsea have suffered a dramatic drop in form, lost all six points to the London rivals. And in a season when all of the usual rivals have suffered and Arsenal have a great record against the top teams (including being the only ones to win all six points against Leicester), it is his problem with the lower sides that will cost them the crown (a problem in other title-challenging seasons). Ultimately, as I’ve written before, it is the inability of the manager to provide his team with the necessary belief to overcome the doubt that will always emerge in a side that has gone so long without a title, that ultimately should decide his fate. He has already started saying he doesn’t think the team need many reinforcements and it is that stubborn adherence to his own hyperreal worldview that has grown as tired as his excuses.

2. Sanchez Renaissance Continues: Sanchez has been reinvigorated in recent matches and one should credit Wenger with playing a role in his return to form, shifting him from his regular position on the left wing to the right. It seems to have enlivened the Chilean, who is again making smart runs, hungry for a shot and beating defenders either with successful dribbles or clever passes. In his past four games, Sanchez has five goals and an assist. Going further back to the Tottenham game when he saved a point, Sanchez has scored six goals and had five assists in his last ten games. In the period before that, after returning from injury on January 24, he had only one goal and two assists in nine appearances, as Arsenal’s season began to unravel. And beside a hot streak relatively early in the season, Sanchez has been far below his best, a big reason for Arsenal’s struggles. If this hot streak had started a little earlier, Arsenal might still be right in the title hunt. As just one example are the two games that really killed the Arsenal season, the 3-2 loss to United’s youngsters and the 2-1 fall-from-ahead defeat to Swansea. He made no impact in the United game, spurning several chances for the Gunner’s to at least earn a point and, after assisting on the opener against Swansea, failed to secure the points with a few chances and then failed to cover Monreal for either of the Swan’s goals, which both were built from the right side. This fine finish to the season might just save Arsenal from falling out of the Top 4, but Wenger should be a little parsimonious with his use of one of his two world-class players early next season, after he plays in the Copa America again this summer – though one hopes Chile fall away early this time around.

3. Tough Going for Pulis and West Brom: it is always tough for midtable teams as they enter the final stages of a season. While others are at the “money” end of their campaigns, those in the middle have already secured another year in the top flight and have little to no hope of finishing high enough to contemplate European football. This is coupled with the fact that West Brom have the among the most inept offensive output of any team in the league. They have the second lowest goals return (31), only ahead of the completely inept Aston Villa (23), the fewest second half goals and among the fewest shots in the entire league. When Sanchez scored early, the loss was all but fait accompli. Pulis has always been a conservative manager and one who is really the polar opposite of Wenger. He believes in defending deeply and narrowly and playing long balls to try to squeeze out a goal on the “counter,” or awaiting free kicks where his tall players can beat many teams. His stubbornness this term in keeping Berahino from far too many games has certainly hurt the team, but they are just not set up to score enough goals to make the top half of the table. Just looking at how Mark Hughes has completely overhauled the Stoke side he inherited from Pulis tells you all you need to know about his negative tactics, with the Ramsey leg break when Pulis was still at Stoke at the heart of the animosity between the two managers. But he has again seen his team to safety with games in hand and must find it hard to properly motivate them as they start to dream of their summer vacations. The great irony is that his opponents Thursday, having dreamed of glory a couple of months ago, find themselves in a similar state, only needing another win or two to guarantee another year of Champions League football. And if that doesn’t come down to Wenger, it is hard to see who else to blame.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

EPL Match Week 34: Tottenham Closes; Arsenal Done; West Ham Screwed by Refs Yet Again

Saturday started with a key six-pointer between Sunderland and Norwich, with the visitors winning 3-0. Next up was Everton, who again settled for a draw at home (1-1 with Southampton) and thus secured their worst home points total ever (congrats to Roberto Martinez who was somehow impressed with the performance from his 10-man side). Manchester United continued their mini-streak with a 1-0 victory over the punching bag of the league, Newcastle cruised over Swansea 3-0, Watford won 1-0 at West Brom (after Berahino missed not one, but two penalties) and Man City stormed past a jaded Chelsea side 3-0.
On Sunday, Leicester salvaged a point with almost the last touch of the game after Adebayor was adjudged to have fouled a player in the box for a minor bump at the death. This might have been a makeup call for an earlier minor raping of Wes Morgan in the box, but must have driven Bilic crazy, as the third game on the bounce where some questionable refereeing cost them points. Liverpool kept up their recent form with a 2-1 win at Bournemouth and then Arsenal blew two points yet again, after doing the same against West Ham, Tottenham and Swansea in recent games. To be fair, they gave up all three points against Swansea after leading 1-0. It is another abject season for Wenger and his team, this time with no hope of an FA Cup crown to assuage the league failure. One begins to wonder what it will take for the Frenchman to be shown the exit …
Thoughts on Match Week 34:
1. Tottenham Can Continue to Dream: Leicester was the beneficiary of a late, questionable penalty in drawing 2-2 with West Ham, and Tottenham’s decisive 4-0 win at Stoke cut the lead at the top to five points with four to play. Leicester are still the favorites, but with Vardy likely to sit out half of the remaining four games and Tottenham with a pretty comfortable run-in, it might just be that the other half of North London is finally celebrating a title that seems even more elusive than their cross-town rivals. Even if they do fall short, as seems likely at this point, it will have been their most successful season in decades and further evidence that Pochettino is one of the better managers in the league. Leicester, however, were able to snatch at a point at the death and one that could just help see them over the line. It was another gritty performance and a comeback from a man down.
West Ham should have grabbed all three points, as they should have in their previous two league games, but the refs again intervened to cost them – now six points in three. For anyone examining the table, those six points would put have put them even with Arsenal (who would have lost one point), only behind on goal difference. The Hammers have had an excellent season as they prepare to start their residence in the Olympic Stadium, but they might rue the late goals that have cost them far too many points across this campaign, even as they have played the best against the top teams of anyone in the league.
2. Arsenal Throw It Away Again: how much longer can we Gooners take this? It’s like a record that hits the last song and then somehow rewinds to start over and over and over again, week after week, year after year. Wenger generally puts a positive face on his own mediocrity blaming injuries, bad luck or a “jaded” performance, but how much more can we take? Will we ever have a chance like this again? Just as a reminder, Chelsea, United, Liverpool and City are all having mediocre season. Leicester is in the lead; yeah that same Leicester who needed a run of 7 wins in 9 just to avoid relegation last term. And Tottenham is in second. Yeah, that North London rival we’ve been taunting for decades. Arsenal were two points from the Apex a couple of months ago, still in the FA Cup and Champions League. 12 games later, with only three wins, the season is over – except our perennial pursuit of the Top 4. 12 years of settling for this meager goal. Sure we have a few FA Cups in the interim, but that is it. No late title charge, no quarterfinals in the Champions League in 8 years and not even a League Cup to keep us sated. Two years of FA Cup triumphs papered over the obvious reality today. Wenger has no idea what he is doing anymore. He continues to come up with excuses, continues to blow it in every pursuit except keeping up in a competition we always fail in at the first ask of the knockout stage, keeps claiming the future is bright. He actually told the media after our latest blown game that the young players on the squad need time to grow. If that were true, why not use our veterans instead? Why not sign some seasoned professionals to see us over the line? The answers only exist in the head of a man who, like Mourinho argued a couple of seasons ago, “specializes in failure.” And so the beat goes on …
3. Relegation Watch: Saturday kicked off with the key relegation battle between Sunderland and Norwich and decisive 3-0 road win for Sunderland should give Allardyce hope that he can maintain his record of never leading a relegated side. Norwich can still have something to say about that, currently still in 17th by a point, though they have played a game more than both Sunderland and Newcastle. Newcastle matched Sunderland’s win with their own 3-0 victory (over Swansea), but must be looking at their next three games with forlorn, with a visit from the suddenly hot Man City, a trip to trending Liverpool and then a visit from a Crystal Palace side that seems to be coming out of an almost five-month slumber. The only good news is a trip to already relegated and truly awful Aston Villa, before finishing up with title-challenging Tottenham. Sunderland have a slightly better schedule, facing a reeling Arsenal, traveling to Stoke, hosting an indifferent Chelsea, an underperforming Everton and then traveling to Watford to close the season. Finally, is Norwich, who play Arsenal, United, Watford and Everton. If I were a betting man, I think I would now pick Sunderland to avoid the drop yet again, while Newcastle and Norwich join Aston Villa in the championship next season. On the other hand, Newcastle probably has the most talent of the three and might very well be able to pull off an upset or two to stay up.
4. Champions League Roundup: things are rarely easy in the knockout stage of the Champions League and the same was true last week. Tuesday we saw Real Madrid, as many predicted, come back from a 2-0 first leg deficit to win 3-0 at home, on a hat trick from Ronaldo, as they booked their passage into the semifinals. Man City was not the favorite to progress, though most predicted a close tie between two sides that have never made the final 4 of the European Cup. Man City, after an impressive 2-2 draw in Paris, eliminated the runaway French League champions 1-0, as Kevin De Bruyne again played the hero, along with the oft suspect City defense (sans Kompany). City now have a legitimate shot at a seemingly unlikely Champions League crown, particularly after Wednesday’s results.
Wednesday, Barcelona’s stunning collapse of the past month continued, as they surrendered their 2-1 first leg victory and lost to a team that has only beaten them twice in 17 matchups under Diego Simeone. However, those victories both eliminated Barca from the Champions League and one should not forget the late draw two seasons ago that saw Atletico win La Liga. He might not have an impressive record against the Catalans, but he finds a way to get results on the biggest stages. Bayern were luckier, advancing even as they were held to a 2-2 draw at Benfica. They were all square after Benfica opened the scoring, but a powerful volley from Vidal at the top of the box saw them jump ahead and a second goal meant Benfica needed three. They got one, but Bayern are probably now the favorites heading into the final five games of this year’s tournament.
In the marque matchup of the Europa League, Liverpool pulled off another miracle, coming from behind (2-0 and 3-1) to beat Dortmund at the death 4-3 (5-4 on aggregate). The Klopp effect was in clear view and Liverpool now have a clear, though not easy, path to the Champions League – winning at least two of their final three games in the competition to gain a spot in the qualifying round. They are joined by Villareal, who they will face, Shakhtar Donetsk and a Sevilla team that specializes in winning this Cup.
5. Around the Horn: Barcelona followed their Champions League disappointment with yet another loss in the league and are now even on points with Athletic (only ahead on head-to-head) and a solitary point over a Real side they led by 13 points not so long ago. The talk a month ago was of a probably double-treble. Now they might be lucky to win even one of the three titles that seemed well within their grasp. The good news for Barca is they only have five games left in the season; the bad news is any slip-up could well cost them the title they seemed to be cruising toward. Meanwhile, the race to fourth place has tightened, with Villareal now only six points above Bilboa after they seemed certain to return to the UCL. In Italy, Napoli were beaten 2-0 at Inter while Juve cruised past Palermo 4-0, stretching their lead at the top to nine points, with Roma four points above Inter in the race for the third, and final, Champions League place. Meanwhile, in France, where PSG won the title long ago, its is Monaco and Lyon currently holding the other two UCL places, while Nice, St. Etienne and Lille all sit within striking distance. Finally, to Germany, were Bayern won 3-0 before Dortmund matched them with a 3-0 victory of their own, rebounding nicely after giving up a 2-0 and 3-1 lead in falling out of the Europa League to Liverpool.  

Monday, April 18, 2016

Arsenal Blow Lead Again: Draw 1-1 With Crystal Palace

Arsenal find themselves in a familiar position after their 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace today, with no chance of winning the title and concerns now emerging about maintaining their new, but familiar, position in fourth place. Back at home after blowing a 2-0 lead at West Ham last weekend, they controlled possession to the tune of 72 percent, outshot Palace 21 to 7 (and 6 to 2 on target) and essentially controlled the game for all but the few minutes it took the visitors to score the equalizer.

Alexis Sanchez gave the Gunners the lead after a looping header over Palace’s keeper on 46 minutes, finishing a clever lofted pass from Welbeck. The Gunners appeared to be cruising, but wasted most of that possession and the chances they did create behind a compact Palace formation before yet another defensive error allowed the Eagles to equalize on 81 minutes. Worst of all, it was Adebayor who tore down the left channel before passing to Bolasie on the edge of the box. He drove the ball toward the middle, beat Coquelin with a fake shot and then Cech, who probably should have done better at his near post. Arsenal charged forward for the equalizer, but none of Ramsey, Giroud and Walcott seemed to have the requisite drive (or maybe talent) to complete the task. It was thus another draw from the clutches of victory as the season peters toward its disappointing conclusion, maybe best summed up when Walcott free on a counter, dawdled on the ball interminably before dribbling lamely into three Eagle defenders – with players open to his right and left. In the end, game was a microcosm of a season that will be remembered as a missed opportunity and further proof that Wenger really needs to go.

Three Thoughts on the Game:
1. Lack of Belief and Defensive Solidity Continue: Arsenal flattered to deceive after their terrible second half run by beating Everton 2-0 and Watford 4-0 in consecutive games. Since then, they have blown a 2-0 lead at West Ham and a 1-0 lead today. That is four more dropped points that could see them comfortably in front of City and with a sliver of a sniff at the title. Instead, they continued their abject second half defensive display, that sees almost every counterattack dangerous. Today, Coquelin, Gabriel and Cech must all share blame for the goal, though an assist should go to Bellerin, who was again beaten down the left channel, this time by the hated Adebayor. In total, Arsenal have dropped 16 points from winning positions, near the top of the league in that category. Like two seasons ago, the defensive solidity they showed throughout most of 2015 has departed both at home and on the road and they are again a fan’s nightmare waiting for the next, almost inevitable, defensive lapse to occur.
They surely missed Coquelin when he was absent and Cazorla to launch the counterattacks they relied on through the most solid period in many years. But one does again wonder why Wenger refuses to return Mertesacker to the starting lineup given the almost constant mistakes by Gabriel, who failed to get a block on the equalizer and made several other mistakes that could have been costly. Even Koscielny seemed off his best and Cech, after a layoff, certainly was slow getting down to his right, committing the most inexcusable of goalkeeping errors: getting beat at his near post from distance. And while Bellerin has generally been impressive going forward and does use his blistering pace to break up some counterattacks, he seems too intent on going forward and leaving the defense behind him exposed. That is understandable when the team is down or early in games, but is harder to forgive in the final 10 minutes of a game the Gunners have dominated but lead by a solitary goal. Monreal, too, has been a little off his best and contributing very little on the offensive end while sometimes allowing wingers to get behind him at the back.

Overall, the problem appears to be one of belief and philosophy. The Gunners just don’t seem to believe they can win enough games to take the title, and let off in troubling ways against teams closer to the bottom of the table, or when they have the lead. More than that, after a spell where they were solid when ahead and dangerous from behind, the team seems to lack an identity and philosophy for winning games and staying at the top of their game. It is understandable now, out of every competition and just fighting to keep a top 4 finish. But that philosophy has largely been absent since December with the team playing excellently one night and terribly a week later. They seem uninterested at times, lacking the necessary poise at others and always a mistake away from giving up unforgivable goals. If it is not Wenger’s job to instill that belief and create a flexible philosophy to win more games, one does wonder who is to blame. Arsenal have won only 3 of their past 12 games in all competitions, with 4 draws and 5 losses, and that is unacceptable given the talent at his disposal and the money unspent in the bank!

2. Missed Chances Put Spotlight on Wenger Again: Ozil might very well fall short of equalizing Thierry Henry’s Arsenal record for assists in a season, but the only reason will be the abject finishing of his teammates. He created an astounding 8 chances in the game, none of which were scored. Sanchez did get on the score sheet before halftime, continuing a strong run that has seen him score 4 and assist on 2 in this past 5 games. But he, like Welbeck, Iwobi and later Walcott and Giroud, spurned other chances and thus failed to put away a game that seemed a certain three points. As with the problem of the decline in Coquelin’s form since returning from injury, the inability to score is at the heart of Arsenal’s second half decline. It is not that they aren’t creating chances, they just aren’t finishing them. Giroud has had an abject second half of the season, failing to score since the 3-3 draw with Liverpool way back in January – a full 12 appearances ago. Walcott has had an abject season tout court (5 goals and 2 assists in 25 appearances in the league), and Welbeck, for all the positivity since his return, has only scored 3 goals in 8 appearances; though that is actually above his career average. Iwobi has been a breath of fresh air, but his rawness still shows (though 2 goals and 2 assists in 9 appearances is not bad). And one does wonder what has happened to Campbell, who can’t seem to get on the pitch after some good appearances around the turn of the year.

What both trends – lack of defensive solidity and lack of finishing – point out is how the stubbornness of Wenger ruined an excellent chance at a title this season. As I have written before, Arsenal were the only team in the top flight of any European League who failed to sign any outfield player (Cech was the only signing of the summer). Given how heartening the second half of last season was, culminating in a second successive FA Cup, with money in the bank, it was an unforgivable mistake that was papered over for a time, as the Gunners hung around near the top of the table. But as Giroud went into a slump, Walcott never got going and there was no one to replace them, it became clear how Wenger had again undermined his own goal. It is baffling at this point and indicative of a manager who seems to get in his own way whenever things seem to be turning around for the club. A world class striker scoring more of Ozil’s created chances would have been worth at least 10 to 15 points this season and a defensive midfielder to backup (or start over) Coquelin could have really helped sure up the defense. The lack of belief, inconsistent results and failure to really address their defensive frailties all point toward a team ill-equipped to maintain a title challenge. And while the lack of funds after the move to the Emirates kept the criticism to a minimum for a few years, that excuse no longer flies. The question that now emerges is how long the board will overlook his failings and whether it might ultimately lead Arsenal to become the next Liverpool. Given the competition they will face next season, can they really afford another year of Wenger fluffing his lines from the sideline? I imagine we are about to find out …

3. Crystal Palace Visit the Emirates at the Right Time: Crystal have been going through their own struggles, going months without a solitary win and falling from European football qualification to the edge of a relegation battle. Suddenly the players have woken up though, now unbeaten in their past four games. This was not an impressive display, but they were compact on the defensive end and took their chance. They are now up to 39 points and nine points the drop zone with the best goal difference of the bottom 8. They thus look likely to stay up for the third season running and can use the new television money to rebuild for next season. Injuries have hurt them since December, but one does wonder if the “Pardew effect” has waned and the deficiencies of the team on both sides of the ball have come to light. They can certainly build from this unbeaten run as they prepare for a FA Cup semifinal with Watford next Sunday at Wembley. Given the Hornets second half struggles, one could see them with a real chance to get to the finals and maybe even pull off an upset to win silverware in the midst of a pretty terrible league collapse. After an abject run, Pardew and his squad should remind themselves that their season is still largely a success, even if they fall out of the FA Cup and avoid relegation. Arsenal cannot make the same claim.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

EPL Match Week 32-33: Leicester Seem Certain to Be Crowned Kings; Barcelona Slipping in La Liga

Saturday began with a scintillating battle between West Ham and Arsenal, with the visitors jumping to a 2-0 lead only to give it back in the three minutes right before halftime. Andy Carroll was the unlikely hero, gaining a rare start and even rarer hat trick before Koscielny struck back for the late equalizer. The draw all but ended Arsenal’s title hopes, confirmed 24 hours later when Leicester won 2-0 at the King Power. In other action Saturday, Aston Villa lost again (2-1 to Bournemouth), Crystal Palace finally secured a win (1-0 at Norwich, giving Newcastle and Sunderland some modicum of hope), Southampton quashed some of that Newcastle hope by crushing the visitors 3-1, Watford and Everton shared the spoils (1-1) and Chelsea’s league unbeaten streak under Hiddink came to an end, as Swansea hit the magical 40-point mark. In the late game, Man City swept past West Brom 2-1 to keep the pressure on the Hammers and United.
United failed to keep up with their crosstown rivals, rather summarily beaten by a Tottenham flurry of three goals in eight second half minutes (3-0). Liverpool cruised past Stoke rather handily (4-1) and Leicester moved a step closer to their title with a professional 2-0 win at hapless Sunderland. With five games to go, Leicester hold a seven-point advantage over Tottenham, 13 over Arsenal (who do have a game in hand) and 15 over Man City (who also have a game in hand). United sit four points behind City with six games to make that deficit up, though with a much inferior goal differential, will actually need five points in all likelihood. West Ham are a further point back and might look at two referee decisions that cost them four points in the past two games. At the bottom, Norwich sit four points above Sunderland and six above Newcastle, though both have a game in hand. Six further points lead us to Crystal, who now look likely to stay up, though one more win should confirm it. That appears to mean either Sunderland and/or Newcastle are on their way out of the Premier League!
Thoughts on Match Week 32-3:
1. Title Race All but Over: Leicester are not only charging toward the most unlikely title in the history of English, and possibly European, football, but they might even wrap that title up with games to spare. Arsenal dropped two points at West Ham and even as Tottenham pulled off an unusual victory over United, they are still seven points back with five to play. Arsenal do have a game in hand, but they would need the two above them to outright collapse to have any hope. That hope is a waste of energy. Leicester continued their recent run of clean sheets and looked like 1-0 winners once again before a late Vardy goal secured the three points for certain. Vardy was on the score sheet for both goals after a short scoring slump and both were vintage Leicester, scored on breakaways with Vardy’s speed and finishing touch.
2. Tottenham Rising; Arsenal and the Tradition Big Four in Trouble? With the rise of Leicester City, West Ham and Tottenham (not to mention Southampton), the traditional makeup of the top 4 has been thrown into chaos. One of Arsenal, United and City will be left out in the cold this season, while Liverpool will be hoping to climb up the ladder next season. One expects LC to take a step backward next term, but West Ham will be moving into a new stadium and have some money to throw around and Tottenham have one of the best coaches in the league and young talent that should only improve with another season under their belt. What does that mean for the Champion’s League places going forward? It appears the race will be expanding outward, with the traditional powers of Arsenal, United, Chelsea and, more recently, Man City, facing upstarts including Liverpool, Tottenham and maybe even Southampton or Leicester City going forward. The old giants have the financial power to outspend their rivals, but that money will have to be well-spent, as Leicester, Tottenham and Southampton – and even Stoke – have shown that you can build a quality (or even title-winning squad) with quality recruiting instead of money. And all will have more of the latter with the new TV deal. With City, United and Chelsea all likely to have new managers with world class credentials coming in, Arsenal better look over their shoulders as they appear poised to keep Wenger at the helm for at least one more season.
3. United & Liverpool Inconsistency: a rumour has spread from Holland that Louis Van Gaal will see out the final season of his contract, even if they fail to qualify for the Champions League. At the same time, Mourinho’s agents continue to report that he is confident he will be in charge this summer. One of the two is, of course, false, but it is anyone’s guess which. One thing that seems certain is that the United season will fall short of expectations, barring a late run to fourth place and an FA Cup win. LVG can be commended for playing youth and finding some results with the pressure on, but his side were absolutely plastered by Tottenham 3-0 on Sunday, making it highly unlikely they will get that fourth place finish. One wonders if United has been watching too many Arsenal games if they actually keep the aging Dutchman on for another season. He has not only failed to live up to expectations and wasted almost 100s of millions of pounds, but has taken United away from the attacking football that made them one of the most beloved (and hated) brands in world football.
To the southwest, Liverpool is starting to impress again after a rollercoaster season of their own. The 1-1 draw with Dortmund, one of the hottest teams in Europe up to that point, was an impressive display indeed, and they were somewhat unlucky not to leave as winners. They followed that result up with an impressive 4-1 win over Stoke on Sunday, showing the gegenpress is starting to really pay dividends. Klopp returned to Dortmund to warm applause and some love from his old squad, but left as a rival they must now fear. Liverpool could well drop off Thursday and fall out of the Europa league, but a win or favorable draw (0-0) could see them with a new route to the Champions League, as winners of the lesser competition. They will need another first-rate performance across the board, some luck and the will to win, but the league should watch out for a manager who will finally be able to build his own team this summer. United, on the other hand, seem far afield of their best years, a mere three seasons after their iconic manager finally hung ‘em up.
4. Champions League Roundup: All four of the quarterfinal second legs are poised to be tight affairs, with two sides holding a one-goal lead, one expected to cede their two-goal lead and the other all square (though City have the two away goals at their disposal). Tuesday we will see Real Madrid try to turn around their tie with Wolfsburg, considered the easiest matchup of the four before they forgot you actually have to play a game to win it and lost 2-0 to the UCL upstarts. One assumes Real can pull even or even win in regular time, but a goal from Wolfsburg would mean Real would need three to progress. I predict the first goal wins it and that Real is more likely than Wolfsburg to score it. Next up is an excellent match between two sides starving to get to the semifinals, with City marginally in the lead with their two away goals. The fact both PSG goals were based on defensive lapses (and maybe poor refereeing) means that City certainly has the tools to win this one, though the potential start of Demichelles in the middle of defense could certainly derail their dreams. I see a 1-1 draw and City going through. On Wednesday a Barcelona in a mini slump, with losses in their last two league games and a lucky 2-1 victory over Atletico that benefitted greatly from Fernando Torres’ boneheaded red card (and the lack of one for Suarez), head to Atletico for a match the home side could snatch with a 1-0 victory. I think they have a better chance than anyone at the moment and might just be able to pull it off, assuming they keep 11 men on the pitch and avoid mistakes. I’ll take Atletico in the upset. Finally, Bayern take a slender 1-0 lead to Benfica, giving the Portuguese side a glimmer of hope. I think that will fade when Munich score their first goal, meaning Benfica will need three. A 1-1 or 2-1 scoreline for Bayern seems about right.
5. Around the Horn: PSG secured the French league title weeks ago, but just keep on winning, pulling off a 2-0 victory at Gingham. That gives them a ridiculous 28-point lead with five games to go! In Italy, Juve won again, 2-1 at AC Milan, to maintain their six-point lead over Napoli, with Roma another six behind and Inter six further back, outside the Champions League with six to play. Meanwhile, in Spain, the El Classico result is starting to take on increased importance as Barcelona lost 1-0 at Real Sociedad, while Real cruised past Eibar 4-0 and Atletico won 3-1 at Espanyol. That means their lead has slipped to only three points over Atletico and four over Real with six games still on the slate. Could Barcelona run out of steam and fail in all three remaining competitions? Don’t count them out yet! Finally, to Germany, where a 2-2 draw between Dortmund and Schalke, coupled with a 3-1 Bayern win means they have extended their lead to seven points at the top with nine to play.