Sunday, April 10, 2016

Faint Title Hopes Collapse as Arsenal Settle for 3-3 Draw at West Ham

Arsenal jumped to a 2-0 lead at West Ham only to allow the Hammers to score the next three, settling for a draw in the end as Koscielny scored the equalizer. With the draw, Arsenal’s fading dreams of a first title in 12 years are now gone and the usual struggle for Champions League football begins. The draw did little to help the Hammers either, as they now sit five points behind Man City, who won later in the day. Four dropped points from winning positions in the past two games means they will need City or Arsenal to essentially collapse if they are to bring Champions League football to their new Olympic Stadium home next season. The Europa League is certainly still in play though.

Three Thoughts on the Game:
1. Wenger Blows it Again: it is looking increasingly likely that Arsenal will settle for third or fourth place for the 11th season in a row with the draw today and two decisions by Wenger before the first ball was kicked should bear close scrutiny. The first, which has already bitten him twice in the first two UCL Group Stage matches back in September, was to keep a fit again Cech on the bench in lieu of Ospina. It is true that the Columbian has been playing well the past two games, but Cech is better at dealing with the aerial threat the Hammers possess, particularly when Bilic made the brilliant decision to start Andy Carroll for the first time since January 2. Carroll scored his first hat trick since 2011, with two of the three coming from powerful headers and the third after Gabriel failed to clear a scuffed shot from the West Ham striker. That brings us to the second Wenger mistake, starting the error-prone Gabriel in front of the more reliable Mertesacker. Gabriel looked like an excellent signing last winter after a few shaky starts and seemed to have claimed the position from Mertesacker at the turn of the new year. But Arsenal have been conceding goals at an alarming rate until the two clean sheets against Everton and Watford and even in those games, his poor positioning and tendency to go into tackles with a little too much alacrity should have pushed Wenger to chose the more reliable choice against a team that has been good for goals of late.

Wenger will, of course, be back next season and it appears that only he can ultimately decide his fate, but it seems increasingly clear that the Gunners will never again get over the finish line with him in charge. After changing his tactics in the second half of last season in big games to reverse several years of terrible results against the other top teams in the league, Arsenal seemed to have repaired the defensive frailties and lapses that cost them so many results. And then it all unraveled. Arsenal have conceded 12 goals in the last 15 minutes of the first half this season (the most in the league), are tied with City for the most porous defense in the Top 5 (33 goals apiece), have conceded two or more goals in 7 of their last 10 matches (after conceding that many in only 1 of their previous 11) and are again the victims of far too many defensive errors; with Gabriel and Monreal leading the pack today. When Wenger does finally leave, we will remember him fondly for his early success and the incredible achievement of an undefeated campaign over a decade ago. But the diehard fans will also remember the countless opportunities that have gone wanting over the past 12 years, from the cup finals to the UCL final in 2006 to failed title challenges in 2008, 2014 and this season. It is this season that is probably the most unforgivable, as Arsenal have never had a better chance with Chelsea, City, United and Liverpool all underperforming.

That the draw might also end St. Tottenham Day should be the death knell for a manager who has changed the sport but been left behind as others adapt those same changes. But we know it won’t. We must steady ourselves for the inevitable press conference excuses we are sure to here, the many transfer rumors that will go unrealized and one more season of a manager who just cannot seem to perform at the top level any longer. To be fair, hindsight is always 20-20 and one could buy the argument that Wenger was simply trying to ride the momentum of a winning formula that has seen the team outscore their last two opponents 6-0 and given us a faint whiff of an upset in the second leg against Barcelona. On the other hand, Bilic has now outcoached Wenger in both meetings this season, and might well have taken all six points if the early Hammer’s goal had not wrongly been adjudged offsides. The real problem is the lack of discipline by a team 2-0 up with a chance to close the gap to the leaders, with the recognition they would have a game in hand after Sunday. Instead it was the same old Arsenal and another season is sailing away, though this time without the consolation of an FA Cup trophy to salve wounds that just will not heal.

2. Iwobi Rising: Alex Iwobi was brought into the squad as another injury crisis hit the team and, coupled with Wenger continued lack of faith in Joel Campbell even as he appeared to be improving in the first half of the season, meant the youngster would have his chance to shine. Too many Arsenal academy players over the past several years have given us hope only to fade into oblivion and so we should be wary of the hype, but it is clear that Iwobi is a special player with incredibly upside. It seems clear that the mini-upswing in form over the past few games has come as the youngster has changed the dynamic of the attack. Today he contributed assists for the first two goals, first with a quick nutmeg through ball to a charging Ozil and then with a clever chip over the defense to Sanchez. He now has two goals and three assists in nine appearances in all competitions and has clearly and profoundly outshined the more seasoned but ultimately disappointing Walcott and Giroud. In fact, it might be time to finally considering giving up on the latter two if Arsenal are to compete with the series of quality managers who will soon be plying their trade in the league.

The other revelation today was Elneny, who has been growing in quality and stature ever since his first start in the FA Cup at the end of January. He completed the most passes of any player on the pitch before being sacrificed as Arsenal chased an equalizer they were lucky to find. Elneny fed the ball to Iwobi for both of the first two goals and worked effectively as the fulcrum of the attack. He did chip in defensively as well, though he and Coquelin were both at fault for the late first half charge by West Ham. Elneny is a real capture and appears to be a player that can challenge Ramsey and even Cazorla for a starting birth, though he will have to learn to balance his charges forward with a more disciplined tactical sensibility (a rather perpetual problem for Arsenal midfielders since Viera departed). Iwobi and Elneny are the only positives to be taken from this second half collapse and may just provide the competition necessary to get better performances from our wayward stars.
3. Could Refereeing Cost Hammers a European Place: West Ham were set to jump above Man City, at least for a few hours, as they led Crystal Palace 2-1 with 23 minutes left in the game a week ago. And then star midfielder Kouyate was shown a questionable straight red by the often questionable refereeing of Mark Clattenburg and Palace equalized eight minutes later. Today, before the Arsenal first-half onslaught began, Lanzini latched on to a clever header from Andy Carroll and appeared to give West Ham the lead. The goal was incorrectly adjudged offsides, costing the home team an early lead. The two incidents potentially cost the team four invaluable points and probably hope of finishing in the top 4. And they are just the latest examples of the poor refereeing that seems to be plaguing the league, and European football in general, this season. From the disallowed Bale goal in El Classico last weekend to the bizarre red cards that have been flung about and the disallowed goals that were clearly onsides, we have seen a clear dip in the quality of refereeing this term and should really consider the video technology now available to correct these mistakes. A simple formula could be established in this regard that does not become too complex or cause too many stoppages in play. If the ball ends up in the back of the net, go to videotape to determine if it was a legitimate goal. It will not solve all the problems of the sport, but is a simple fix that could have changed the outcome of countless games this season alone. As to the offsides flag, just hold up raising it for a few extra seconds if it is too close to call, then raise it and allow the video replay officials to get the decision right.

No matter what happens with West Ham this season, though, this has been a memorable campaign, punctuated by the rise of Payet to star-level and the tactical tinkering of Bilic, which should have him in the running for manager of the season. West Ham have been excellent against the top sides, have played well on the road and have shown a penchant for coming back from behind, though also giving up leads in the second half of games. They have punched above their weight pretty consistently, dropping points against the lower sides more often than against the top. And they have shown the sort of “never say die” attitude that Arsenal have long ago abandoned. The game today was really a microcosm of the season for both teams, with West Ham coming back from a deficit with flair only to drop points in the end while Arsenal let another lead slip away, as they have against Swansea, Tottenham and Watford before the capitulation today.

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