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.

No comments: