Monday, May 16, 2016

Arsenal Win 4-0; Jump Above Spurs into Second in the Final Table

Arsenal will look back on this season with great regret, knowing that the title was there for the taking. That they didn’t finish the job of the first half of the season may haunt these players for years to come. But with their emphatic 4-0 victory over Aston Villa, coupled with a humiliating 5-1 Tottenham defeat to relegated Newcastle, the last game of the season turned into a party that salved at least some of those wounds. Olivier Giroud, who has been as guilty as any player of leading the second half collapse, came good in the home finale, scoring early and then twice late, on the road to a victory that gave the Gunners second place and their best finish since moving to the Emirates a decade ago. Three thoughts on the game:

The Autumn of Wenger’s Career
Wenger has now completed his 20th year at the helm of Arsenal, with that career breaking rather conveniently into two 10-year halves. The first decade in charge was quite successful, with three premier league titles, four FA Cups, four Community Shields, the famed “Invincibles” undefeated season in 2003-04 and a Champions League final loss from a goal up in 2006. That Finals loss, where an early red card played a key role, seemed to mark an emphatic change in the fortunes of Wenger and his squad. Over the next 10 years, that sort of heartbreak has become the norm, with only two FA Cups and two Community Shields to show for a decade’s worth of work.

All 20 years have brought Top 4 finishes and Champions League football, but the past six have also brought exits from the tournament in the Round of 16. The past 20 years have also invariably brought St. Tottenham’s Day, the name fans have coined for the day the Gunners are guaranteed to finish above the Spurs. They have brought often beautiful football and an attacking spirit that was once the envy of Europe. But they have also brought disappointment with increasing frequency. The past two seasons, which culminated in FA Cup victories, brought hope that this was finally the season when Arsenal could recapture the title that has eluded them for 12 long years. Instead, it appeared to reinforce the notion that Wenger just can’t get his side over the line in the league any longer.

To call these 20 years mediocre would be absurd, as Wenger has been a model of consistency ensuring the financial stability of the team as they transitioned to a new stadium, finishing in the Top 4 even when he was losing his best players with regularity, getting through the group stage of the Champions League with regularity and finishing above crosstown rivals Tottenham every season in charge. And yet, the eight-year barren spell without a single trophy (before the two aforementioned FA Cups), losing to an average Monaco team in the Champions League knockout stage last season, the loss of the Capital One Cup final back in 2011 and an almost preternatural ability to lead his team into a second half collapse calls into question why the Frenchman is still in charge. This season was his chance to silence the critics and maybe even leave on a high rarely seen in sports. Instead, he failed to make the necessary signings last summer, only bought one player in the winter transfer window and watched as the two position players every expert in the world except Wenger knew Arsenal needed, cost them the crown.

In the absence of Coquelin, Arsenal started to conceded goals at an alarming rate, that didn’t really abate upon his return. When Giroud went 15 league games without a solitary goal, there was no one, really, to turn to. Welbeck and Iwobi added excitement to the Arsenal attack but not enough goals to save them as the season began unravelling in February and March. Since their 2-1 loss to Watford in the FA Cup and their 3-1 loss to Barca in the second leg of the Champions League three days later, the side have actually gone undefeated, with five wins and four draws. And yet, it still left them a full ten points behind Leicester in the table. Three of their four draws, against City, Sunderland, Crystal Palace and West Ham, sum up the season for Arsenal, as each of those games was winnable. Against Sunderland, their inability to score against a leaky side that stood relegation in the face until this week, led to a stolid 0-0 draw. Against Crystal it was a late soft goal that cost them, after the Gunners failed to put the game away by missing several gild-edged chances. And against West Ham, lax defending before the halftime break saw a 2-0 lead ultimately become a 3-2 deficit early in the second half, just as the game that seemed to kill their title challenge went against Tottenham a month earlier when a 1-0 lead turned upside down after Coquelin got one of the silliest second yellow cards of the season. And so Wenger will have one more season, at least, to try to turn around a decade of relative failure. Can he finally allow his infamous stubbornness to abate and take the advice of those around him? Only time can tell, but one does wonder if the result today will lead him down the wrong path yet again.

Giroud Finishes Strongly, but Needs to be Replaced
Olivier Giroud had his first hat trick ever in the league today, scoring two second half goals in quick succession to complement his powerful first half header that gave the team the lead. That makes four in his last two games after a league scoreless streak that hit 15 games. Could this late flurry lead Wenger to give the French misfiring striker another season at the helm of the attack, again forgoing the world-class striker that could very well be available this summer? One hopes not, as Giroud just cannot lead the line effectively across an entire season. His final numbers will not look terrible, as he had 16 goals in 26 stars and 12 sub appearances, with another 5 in 7 Champions League appearances, and 3 in 5 FA Cup matches. That’s a total of 24 goals in 50, not a bad return on investment. But as in the past, those goals tend to come in bunches, too often against the lesser sides (though he did score in both matches against City and in the 3-3 draw with Liverpool in January) and with far too many flubbed sitters along the way. Giroud appears more apt to score a wonder goal than a tap in since his move to the Emirates four years ago and just isn’t the sort of striker that leads a team to a title.

His last season in Montpellier, he scored 24 goals in 43 appearances. While he seemed a strange choice for a move to Arsenal, he did add an aerial threat to a side that had been trying to pass the ball into the net for a few years before his arrival. That first year in England was less than impressive, though, with only 11 league goals in 34 appearances (24 starts), two in four UCL matches and 4 in six Cup matches. So the return was 17 goals for the season. In 2013-14, he hit 22 for the season and improved on his league total, with 16 goals (and 8 assists) in 36 appearances (all starts). Last season, he took a small step backwards, scoring a total 19 goals (14 in the league, though in only 28 appearances). And this season we have the 24. The problem is, after a hot start, Giroud looked like a lost player on the pitch, not holding the ball up well, completing far fewer passes than normally, not making effective runs into the box and missing chance after chance. That he finally came good at the end of the season, when Arsenal were really playing for nothing except local pride, seems to exemplify the season perfectly, and why a change up top is necessary if Arsenal are to finally surpass the last hurdle and get the EPL trophy back.

Fond Farewells for Two Beloved Arsenal Stars
The feel good factor at the Emirates today revolved as much around the Spurs getting crushed by 10-man Newcastle in their own finale, allowing Arsenal to finish above them yet again, as in the 4-0 victory. Another was the fond farewell availed to a couple of long serving members of the squad who are heading to greener pastures this summer. One was Mikel Arteta, who has been with the side for five years now, though his injury-plagued season means he had but three appearances, including the second half cameo today. That the cameo helped Arsenal to their fourth goal seemed a fitting end for a leader of the team during the roughest patch of Wenger’s reign. He was never a world beater, and I’ll always remember the penalty he missed in extra time to cost us two points last season, but he was a class act and will be missed. The other is the epidemically injured Tomas Rosicky, who has a solitary appearance this season as his decade long stay at Arsenal ended, rather aptly, on the training table and then bench. That the players came over to hug and celebrate with him after the second goal shows the family spirit of the side, but maybe also their weakness. Many of the players do appear to love each other, but it does not, it appears, include the sort of tough love great teams require, where one player can lead the others back on those ugly nights when they are off the pace a little but really need a 1-0 win. Sitting next to Arteta was Flamini, another player who has served the club with passion and bite, but whose lack of innate talent and reckless decision-making has made him a liability for much of his second spell. This season, he might best be remembered for his personal exploits in the early season Capital One Cup victory over the Spurs, setting the tone for the only positive of a disappointing season.

Others may well go this summer as well, including Joel Campbell, who came on with Arteta to finish the game but appears to have fallen out of favor with Wenger after a decent run in the first team around the holiday season. Walcott is another prospect who hasn’t quite reached the heights expected of him, with Gibbs even further down the pecking order, unable to even get time on the pitch when Monreal appears to be struggling down the left channel. It might be the best thing for both the players and the club, as the former seek out more first team opportunities (or coaching jobs in Arteta’s case) and the latter seek to find more winners to disperse among their small cadre of stars (only Ozil, Sanchez, Cech and, maybe, Bellerin, fit that bill at the moment).

The good news overall is that Arsenal have their highest finish since moving from Highbury, can skip the almost perennial Champions League qualifying tie and should have some money to splash to improve the team from back to front. Whether Wenger will make the right choices and keep the key players, like Sanchez, who may be considering a move, will determine whether he leaves on a high note … or a dirge.

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