Sunday, May 01, 2016

Arsenal Flat in 1-0 Win; Champions League All but Secure

Arsenal hosted lowly Norwich in a game that had big implications for both sides. With Manchester United and West Ham breathing down their necks, Arsenal needed three points to further secure their place in the Top 4 for an 18th straight season. Norwich, drawn back into the relegation battle after a resounding loss against Sunderland need points to avoid the drop. And while the visitors played with the requisite hunger, Arsenal seemed flat for long stretches of the game. Sure they bossed possession, but for the fourth time in their last nine home games, they failed to produce a solitary shot on goal in the opening 45 minutes. Norwich had three of note and but for the quick reflexes of Cech, would have been ahead at the break. They started the second half in the ascendancy as well, though the maligned Wenger found the right substitute in bringing on Welbeck for Iwobi, as he finished a cushioned header from the otherwise ineffective Giroud to earn all three points. It was a less than stellar display and begged further questions of a manager who had to bear two rather tame protests in the 12th and 78th minute from a patch of fans, though those who supported him seemed to outnumber the detractors. Three thoughts on the game:

Wenger Silences His Critics, At Least for a Game
Wenger can be lauded for subbing out the youngster Iwobi rather than Giroud in the 55th minute, as the English International scored the only goal of the game four minutes later, as Giroud cushioned a header into his path from a Bellerin cross. Many, including me to be fair, believed it was another boneheaded decision from our maligned manager, as Giroud was having yet another game to forget. And yet the question of why Giroud was even playing is certainly worthy of further scrutiny. After a purple patch in the first half of the season, the Frenchman has been abject, not only failing to score in his last 15 games, but seemingly unable to hold the ball up with his usual efficiency, create the link-up play of last couple of years or be effective in any way. He had 18 touches in the first half, the lowest total of anyone on the pitch, and most of those were wayward. He seems to have forgotten that you do not always need to hopefully head the ball forward every time you win a duel and can actually bring it down and distribute or even head back to a waiting midfielder. When a shot is available, he tends to look for a pass instead. His runs look aimless and often late, he offers no speed or presence on the counter and, when he is presented with chances – more often than almost any other striker in England given the laudatory number provided by Ozil – he fluffs them wide, sideways or over the bar. He has completely lost his confidence and looks lost on the pitch, his only sign of emotion the wry smile he often offers after another wasted opportunity.

Giroud needs to go this summer or Wenger’s final season in England will be 2016-17, though many argue the misfiring striker is just the most acute evidence of why the long-running manager should have already been ushered to the exit. Arsenal fans can dream of Benzema or, if we are to believe the latest rumors, Lewandowski, but until we see a quality striker with a Gunner’s jersey on, we must fall back on the assumption he will again confound his critics by stubbornly trying to win the league his way (aka, never get over the line). The fact that the planned protest largely fizzled was provided as evidence the majority of fans are still behind him, but I must wonder at this point if they are not looking around at United, Liverpool and Chelsea struggling and thinking the Top 4 every years is better than a true title tilt. I’m not sure I agree.

Arsenal Close on Top 4 Yet Again
The win yesterday helped to stem the tide of recent poor results, but it was still the case that United winning out and Arsenal not at least drawing at City could see them dispatched from the Top 4 when the final whistle blew. However, results went their way after the game, with United settling for a 1-1 draw with Leicester and City offering their worst display of the season in a 4-2 blown out loss to Southampton. What those results mean is a win against lowly Aston Villa on the final day of the season now guarantees no worse than fourth place for the Gunners. More encouragingly, they can help dump Manchester City out of the Top 4 next weekend with a win, as United continue to breath down their neighbor’s necks. In fact, the City loss even opens the door, if narrowly, for West Ham, who stand five points behind the Capital One Cup winners with a game in hand. What it all means is the City-Arsenal game next weekend will be watched by a number of sides with City having everything to play for while Arsenal can finally relax and, hopefully, give fans a display of the talent they do still possess.  

Norwich Plunder into Relegation Netherworld
Norwich acquitted themselves well at the Emirates yesterday, squeezing the Arsenal attack to the wings, smothering possession around the box and surging on the counter. Redmond had two quality chances in the first half, with both saved well by Cech and a few more chances went wanting throughout the game. Like most of the season, it is their dearth of goals that will be the biggest factor in their return to the Championship next season. They might still escape, but it looks less likely as they run out of games while Newcastle and Sunderland appear to have found some form at the right end of the season. If they do yo-yo back to the second division, it is the loss to Sunderland 3-0 two weeks ago that was where the season truly went wrong. Heading into that home tie, they had the opportunity to put seven points between themselves and 18th place. Instead they were crushed and together with the loss to Crystal Palace the week before and Arsenal yesterday pushed them back into the relegation zone. Their 32 goals for the season is third worst in the division, only ahead of Aston Villa and West Brom and, like Arsenal, the lack of a proven striker up front has been the major culprit. Like Sunderland, they do have a game in hand on Newcastle in 17th, but United, Everton and Watford await them as they try to save their season. It might be too big an ask at this point. 

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