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.

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