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.

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