Saturday, October 29, 2016

Arsenal Go Top … For a Couple of Hours (4-1 at Sunderland)

Arsenal dominated the first half to the tune of 65 percent possession and nine shots to two, but only led 1-0, after spurning some quality chances to at least double that lead (four of those shots were on target). They were made to pay for that profligacy after Sunderland equalized on a 65th minute penalty converted by, who else, the ageless Jermaine Defoe. It took Arsenal only 6 minutes to get back even, as Giroud scored a brace in quick succession before Sanchez eliminated any doubt with his own second, in the 78th minute.

It was more misery for Moyes’ Sunderland side, who sit on a mere two points after 10 games, the worst start in the history of the Premier League, unable to keep a clean sheet in any of those 8 losses or two draws. For Arsenal, it was another three points and, for a couple of hours, sole possession of first place. Three thoughts:

1. Sanchez on the Double: Sanchez continued his recent hot streak, scoring a sumptuous header from a still-hot Ox cross, at the end of a 22 pass move. The Sunderland defenders towered over him, but his movement and positioning was perfect for the opener and he terrorized the aging, ex-United defender John O’Shea, who was off the pitch before halftime. After two from Giroud put the Gunners comfortably ahead, Sanchez finished the scoring, with a clever turn and finish after a Gibb’s shot bundled off the crossbar and Ramsey, finally back in the side, bundled it forward to the Chilean.

Sanchez now has half a century of goals for Arsenal in a mere 106 games and, if he can keep up this form, might just prove the difference for any silverware Arsenal are able to secure.

2. Giroud Scores on First Two Touches: with the way Sanchez is playing through the middle, Giroud must be wondering over his way back to the starting 11. Of course, scoring two on your first two touches against a side you have scored seven goals in seven matches against, certainly provides some hope. The first for Giroud was an excellent finish from a Gibbs cross, reaching his left foot backwards to steer the ball across goal from relatively close range. It was his first of the season. The second came five minutes later, as Giroud sent a well-placed header past the keeper from Ozil, who picked up his second assist of the season, from corner delivery.

Sanchez has been largely scintillating through the middle, but the Arsenal attack has looked a little disjointed at times over the past four games and the presence of the bigger Giroud through the middle appeared to provide the target the Gunners needed to get their offensive machine humming effectively again.

When all are healthy, it will leave Wenger with something of a headache. Should Sanchez be moved back to the left wing to allow Giroud back into the side? Would they then lose the dynamism, though poor finishing, of Iwobi? With Walcott and Cazorla healthy, where does Ox fit into the side? And how about the suddenly healthy Ramsey, after an excellent summer at the Euros? Who to choose among Xhaka, Coquelin and Elneny when Cazorla is pushed back into the starting 11? These are the kinds of questions a manager is happy to consider, but Wenger must be careful not to break up the growing confidence of a side that looks like a fair odds bet to end their title drought. Wenger has been excellent with his rotation so far and will have to continue to maintain that, not overworking players as he has been apt to do.

3. Injuries Piling Up: speaking of that health issue, the Gunner’s injury list is starting to grow yet again – as seems to be the case every season. The hot Walcott is out with a muscle strain, Cazorla is still absent with an Achilles problem, Gibbs had to start for an injured Monreal for the first time since last March, Mertesacker and Welbeck are still on long term recovery and Perez has just been ruled out for two months with a major ankle problem.

None of these injuries have yet cost Arsenal many points, beyond the flat 0-0 draw with Middlesbrough, but they must be vigilant as they embark on a month that has rarely been kind to their long-serving French manager.

The truth is, those injuries still leave plenty of talent on and off the pitch, but a couple more could leave the side threadbare and the absence of Cazorla, in particular, has disrupted some of Arsenal’s fluency going forward, even if they have stiffened at the back with Coquelin and Elneny providing protection for the back four.

Overall, Arsenal’s unbeaten streak continues to lengthen and they sit joint top with City, only behind on goal difference, after Guardiola’s side finally ended their six-game winless streak with a 4-0 hiding of West Brom. United played out a flat draw with Burnley at Old Trafford and Tottenham, while still undefeated on the season, had to settle for a 1-1 draw with the struggling Champions Leicester. Liverpool were tied 2-2 as I write this, and this does really seem like a season where five teams can compete for the title, though City, Liverpool and Arsenal do seem a cut above a Tottenham side that is a little short on goals at the moment and a Chelsea side that still looks suspect at times. Liverpool might be the most exciting team in the league, but their suspect defending might very well cost them the title again. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Guardiola v. Mourinho II: United 1 City 0

Mourinho’s numbers against Guardiola are the stuff that nightmares are made of. 18 games and only four wins is not the sort of record any manager would like to have against one of their main rivals. Particularly when Guardiola has won nine of those games, with five draws (one game did go to penalties, with Pep winning the Super Cup in the process). But that fourth win today will do wonders to turn around a souring tide at Old Trafford and does even their record within England this season. Guardiola might have won the more important game, 2-1 in the league, but this will be sweet revenge for Mourinho, just as his season appeared to be unraveling before his suddenly sleepy eyes.

Guardiola won’t worry too much about the loss, particularly as it is the least important of the four competitions City are competing in and he played with a severely weakened side. But a win is a win and a six game run without a victory is certainly troubling for a manager who has never experienced that in his sparkling career. For City, it is the first time they have had a long winless streak this long since 2008 and the first time since 2012 they went an entire game without a solitary shot on goal.  

What might be most worrying, however, was the level of play for City, who sent wayward pass after wayward pass throughout the game, got caught out with some suspect defending on the Mata winner and seem to have a lack of confidence that is not new to this side. The fact Kompany came off after 45 minutes, purportedly because he was tired, might also cause concern. And there is the fact they need a victory to stop the bleeding but Guardiola decided to take a pass on ending his winless streak against a rival who was suffering through his own troubling spell.

The hero here is a guy who doesn’t seem to get the respect that he deserves. At Chelsea, after two straight years as player of the year, he was largely consigned to the bench by Mourinho before being unceremoniously sold to a direct rival. Now that Mourinho has returned to United, he has left the Spaniard largely out in the cold again, even as he continues to contribute and score whenever given the chance. Rumors even have him heading to Milan in the winter, a move that seems a bit odd given the dearth of offensive threat from his side so far this season.

And while Mourinho and United will take some comfort from this victory, there is still the troubling form of the most expensive player in the world and a guy who chipped in 50 goals a season ago. Ibrahimovic had one of the worst 45 minutes of his career, according to Jamie Carragher and other observers, though he redeemed himself partially by providing the assist for the winning goal. Pogba, on the other hand, was largely anonymous yet again, and one has to now wonder if the pressure of his pricetag is pushing him to try too hard and lose his form in the process.

In the larger scope of things, the game won’t matter much for other side unless United go on to win the League Cup, but winning a skirmish of this nature will certainly bolster Mourinho while amplifying the critique of Guardiola’s stubbornness. United have a good chance to get through to the semis, hosting a struggling West Ham at Old Trafford in the next round. Arsenal take on Southampton at the Emirates, Liverpool host Leeds at Anfield and strugglers Hull City invite a streaking Newcastle to KCOM.

Liverpool is the hottest side among the remaining teams, though Arsenal are still undefeated since their opening day loss to the Reds and have added a defensive stability long absent from the side. One would expect the winner to come among the big three left in the competition, but you never know …

Arsenal into EFL Quarters (2-0 over Reading)

While Arsenal probably should have scored more in their 2-0 victory over Reading in the League Cup, it was a seventh clean sheet in their past eight games in all competitions. It was also another fine showing for the Ox, who scored both goals in the win.  
Some thoughts on the weekend …

1.  Ox Rising: Oxlade-Chamberlain has found it difficult to break into the starting 11 this term, largely because Walcott is playing some of the best football of his career on the right and Cazorla is generally preferred in the middle. Now that Cazorla is out injured for a spell, one does wonder if Wenger might consider giving Ox a run in the team, particularly if Coquelin or Xhaka are fit and starting further back to provide cover for the back four. Ramsey is still out with a bizarrely lingering hamstring issue, Wilshere is plying his trade for Bournemouth and the defensive setup used last weekend seemed to undermine the attacking thrust of the side.

Walcott is a must starter at the moment on the right and Sanchez has proven himself capable of making the move to the number 9, but two options for Ox are in central midfield or, possibly, on the left cutting in. That role has been played by Sanchez in the past and Iwobi more recently, but if Ox can keep up his scoring pace he might be an option to share time with the youngster. When Cazorla returns, it is hard to see where Ox can play week in and out unless he moves to the left wing, though opportunities will surely present themselves. One is him playing in the number 10 when Ozil is rested, on the right when Walcott gets needed breaks (or plays through the middle) or deeper in midfield for Cazorla.

His return of five goals so far this term is certainly an improvement on the past and moves him closer to the complete player many believed he could become. He is probably the second best dribbler on the team, behind Sanchez, and certainly the strongest option in the front line, though his range of pass and forward movement could make him a formidable central midfielder in the coming years. Whether that will be with Arsenal is still an open question without a clear answer. The competition for places, which will only grow when Ramsey and Welbeck return, can only be a positive for the side, as we have already seen marked improvement in Walcott and Ox as they realize nothing is guaranteed with this side.

2. Youngbloods Impress: Wenger decided to go radically toward non-starters in this game and it paid dividends not only in the result but building confidence for a series of youngsters and backups to the starting 11. Holding and Paulista were strong through the middle, important as Mertesacker’s time is probably nearing its end at the Emirates and an injury to Koscielny or Mustafi seems likely before the season is done. Jenkinson acquitted himself well in his return to the side, after a long injury layoff after a spell with West Ham, displaying the potential to be a decent backup for Bellerin. Gibbs was solid as a potential medium term replacement for Monreal and Martinez had a couple of high quality saves, though his route to the starting line-up seems rather distant. Teenagers Zelalem and Maitland-Niles both looked solid if nervy and Perez continued to show his potential, making a case for the playing time he hoped to have secured with his summer move (even as a berth in the starting 11 on a weekly basis seems unlikely).

Giroud, on the other hand, must be wondering if this might be his final season with the club, a decent scoring record varnished by the sense he never quite crossed the threshold to top scorer, potentially costing the team the crown last season with his long second-half scoring drought. His lack of dynamism just doesn’t seem to suit the side any longer and, while his aerial threat might have been useful against a compact Middlesbrough last weekend, substitute appearances and the odd start seem to be his future, barring injuries to others, for the remainder of the campaign.

One other disappointment was the absence of Krystian Bielek from the side, as he looked a promising prospect a couple of seasons ago, though one wonders if he will ever break into the side now. Among those playing, one does expect to see more of Perez as the season unfolds, much more of Ox if he keeps up this level, Elneny as a more defensive option in midfield to hold leads or in particular games (unlucky to be replaced by his former teammate Xhaka, who does seem a step up, after a decent first few months with the team) and the continued presence of Iwobi as a dynamic forward, though one would like to see him show more poise when scoring opportunities present themselves.

3.  Arsenal Finally back through to Final 8: Wenger has generally seen the League Cup, in its many manifestations, as an opportunity to give young players and non-starters the opportunity for game time. Not surprisingly, that result has led some toward the starting 11, but has also meant the Gunners have never won the competition under the Frenchman. A lost final to Birmingham in 2011, during their longest barren spell under Wenger, was a moment not soon forgotten by Gooners, but they are certainly in a position now to make a march toward a final, after going out early for five years now. The competition will probably be stiff, but a trophy in February could be just what the Gunners need to build confidence for the second half run-in where they have faltered so often since 2004. Arsenal will hope to avoid a hot Liverpool or either Manchester side in the next round, but should now bring more starters into the fold for an opportunity to win some early silverware, hopefully on the way to bigger things … 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Chelsea & Liverpool Win; Arsenal, Tottenham & City All Draw

It’s getting clogged up at the top after Arsenal, Tottenham and Man City all settled for draws while Chelsea and Liverpool both won big this weekend. Liverpool looks like the hottest team in the league at the moment, though one suspects their suspect defending could catch up with them over the long season. On the other hand, the lack of European football will certainly help, as it did a few years back when only a Gerrard slip stood between them and an increasingly elusive league title.

Chelsea are also clearly on the rise, with the team settling into their new 3-4-3 formation and rolling over two quality opponents in succession (and outscoring the past three 9-0 after the Arsenal thrashing), assuming we still fit United in that category. Man City, the most talented squad in the league, should not be discounted just because of a short downward cycle, and even as the pundits try to ignore Arsenal, they are unbeaten since the opening weekend with more clean sheets in recent weeks than in some whole seasons. Finally, is hated Tottenham, the only team still undefeated this season and certainly a danger to again compete for the crown.

Some thoughts on the weekend …

1. United Struggles Against Chelsea Continue: the start to Mourinho’s run as Manchester United manager is starting to look a little like the period before his exit at Chelsea last season. The team looks timid, is defensively suspect and seems to lack a coherent plan, with several stars underperforming, none as much as Pogba and the recently-benched Rooney.

In the 4-0 loss today, it was Chris Smalling who looked particularly bad, exposed on all four of the Blues goals. He appears slow in his reactions, out of position too often and unable to replicate the imperious form that made him one of the better defenders in England (at least among the English defenders). Pogba was equally inept, as was most of the team. But the real question is Mourinho and the growing sense that he has lost that magic touch that has made him a perennial winner for so long.

To look over the past five seasons, he did have the title win with Chelsea a mere two seasons ago, but otherwise the results have been below par. One could argue his Real Madrid side underperformed in his final season, his first year with Chelsea saw suspect defending and plenty of dropped points to lesser sides, last year was a clear disaster of a title defense now a United side that look, yet again, lost. In his latest title-winning tilt, the Blues exploded out of the blocks and built a lead big enough for him to play the defensive-oriented style that garnered him so much success at Porto, Inter, Real and in his first stop at Chelsea. But even as strong defending and counterattacking football has reaped huge benefits across European football over the past few seasons, most notably with Atletico and Leicester, Mourinho’s back to front style appears to reap neither enough goals or enough clean sheets. Has the game passed him by? It seems a little early for that harsh a verdict, but hints are emerging along those lines.

The loss means that United have now failed to win in 11 straight matchups against Chelsea, dating back to October 2012. Over that stretch, the Blues have won 6 and drawn 5. While United have fallen far off the form that started Mourinho’s reign, Chelsea appear to be settling in under Conte, having risen to within one point of the top after a poor run of form earlier in the season. United will have to turn things around quickly, or the Top 4 could again become a step too far for a team still trying to find itself in the hangover of Ferguson’s departure over three seasons ago. And to make matters worse for Mourinho, he now has the same number of points as Moyes at the same point three years back.  

2. Arsenal still Arsenal … not so fast? In the first sign that the Gunners might still be short of the spine and resolve necessary to maintain a title charge throughout the campaign, they again settled for a 0-0 draw at home, a result that has become a little too familiar over the past few seasons. Arsenal certainly had chances to take all three points and almost did so in added time, though Ozil was clearly offsides before another excellent finish. The truth, though, is that Middlesbrough could have just as easily won the Saturday matchup at the Emirates, but for some poor finishing and excellent goalkeeping from Cech. Arsenal looked flat for the first time in weeks, after a somewhat bright first 20 minutes, and too exposed on the defensive end, particularly to the runs of the exciting youngster Adama Traore, who might be getting a look from bigger sides soon, after this display.

It is worth noting they were without both Cazorla and Xhaka, who have been instrumental through the six-game winning streak in the league, but the combo of Coquelin and Elneny might have been a bit too defensive, particularly after a strong game for the more creative Ox midweek. The big issue, even as Arsenal had 75 percent possession and plenty of half chances, was the approach to a team that sat back and defended in too closely connected banks of defenders. It appeared the perfect time to bring Giroud back into the fold, to provide an aerial threat, or at least to give Perez a start to see what he could do.

This could be one of the inevitable slipups that are bound to happen over the course of an EPL season and was helped by Tottenham and City both settling for draws as well. But it is troubling, based on the history over the past decade, when Arsenal drop two points with the chance to go top against a side they should beat 9 out of every 10 times they play. Of course, all the pundits now claiming Arsenal are not a serious threat for the title after this draw do seem to conveniently fail to note that this is their sixth clean sheet in their past seven games and they were rather unlucky not to win this one 1 or 2 nil.

But Wenger has a chance to rebound quickly, as they face Reading in the League Cup Tuesday before trips to struggling Sunderland and a seemingly outmatched Ludogorets. Those three games will be important though, as the first North London Derby of the season, at the Emirates, might be the real barometer for where this team is going to finish this season.

3. Moyes in Trouble Again? It was not so very long ago that David Moyes was one of the more respected managers in English football, outperforming expectations and financial limitations with an Everton side that won with heart, grit and resolve enough to stay midtable, and sometimes even higher. But without having won a single trophy, he was vaunted up to the top level of the sport and suffered a rather humiliating fall from grace. His stop in Spain was not much better and, in returning to England with Sunderland, the best that could be said is that expectations would be much lower than his last two stops.

Yet Moyes might have reached the unenviable point of falling short of even these extremely low expectations, with a side that must consider itself lucky to still be in the top domestic league after five straight years mired in a relegation battle. Two mere points after nine games is certainly a pecuniary return and the late goal from fellow strugglers West Ham must have turned the stomach of a manager who has a lot of work to do if he is to lead them to the great escape yet again.

4. City Struggle with Consistency Again: one of the most surprising things about Manchester City is the inconsistency with which they play out a season, even in the years they are ultimately successful. As the team has aged, little has changed in this regard and the 1-1 draw with Southampton was the fifth straight game without a win for new boss Guardiola, only the second time in his sparkling career this has occurred. Of course the last time he suffered through a similar stretch, Barcelona went on to win the treble. This City side appears less likely to accomplish that rare feat, but still have the talent to go far this season, if they can get the ghosts of doubt out of their heads and keep focused throughout their congested schedule.

The reality, of course, is that they are still likely to make it through their group in the Champions League, though in second place, and are still tied for the lead at the top with Liverpool and Arsenal, ahead on goal difference. But there are clearly some troubling signs, with some questioning Guardiola’s tactical choices, particularly against Barca, and the same lack of defensive solidity that has marked City for a few seasons now. The mistake today came from John Stones, who sent a blind pass backwards that was intercepted and slotted home. The presence of Kompany back in the side should have been a positive, but after 34 injuries in recent seasons, one wonders who long he will be around. He looked shaky at times, though he helped stop any further damage. Guardiola’s record against Spanish sides since leaving his birthplace is a second issue that must be resolved if he is to lead City to their first European triumph.

A third is the continued struggles of Aguero, after a blistering start to the season, having now gone six appearances without a goal. It was instead Iheanacho who came to the rescue with another poached goal that continues his impressive scoring streak since the beginning of last season. Maybe most troubling for the side is their composition, the oldest side in the league and getting older every season.
5. America’s First Point: while Swansea might not be the dream job of the EPL at the moment, sitting second from bottom on five points, it is the spot now occupied by ex-US men’s team manager Bob Bradley, the first American to hold a managing job in any of the top five European leagues. After a respectable performance in a loss to Arsenal, a largely soporific display was enough to earn the Swans a point in a 0-0 draw with Watford. It was the first point ever earned by an American manager in England and a nice foundation to move forward for a coach who tends to get the best out of the players at his disposal. Congrats to Bob and hoping he can keep Swansea up and continue the slow evolution of America gaining more global respect in World Football!

6. Around the Horn: La Liga looks set to be a fascinating race this season with both Barcelona and Real looking more vulnerable than in recent years. Barca were able to comeback from a 2-1 deficit at Valencia and win 3-2 on a last second penalty that Messi converted. Real, too, were able to win late as Morata finished off an excellent Bale cross after his first-time shot was parried by the Athletic Bilboa goalkeeper. But Real has already drawn 3 of their first 9, Barca have drawn 1 and lost 2 and Atletico have three draws and an ugly 1-0 loss to second place Sevilla today. At present, Real lead the way, but four teams sit within three points, including a Villareal side that is still undefeated through the first nine games (5-4-0). One expects the talent of Real and Barca to rise to the top as the season progresses, but you never know after Atletico pipped the title two seasons ago.

In Italy, Juve were starting to pull away again before a resurgent AC Milan beat them 1-0 to draw to within two points of the champions, alongside a Roma team with the best goal differential in the league. Moving to France, PSG’s indifferent start to the season continues, as they sit in third place, a full six points behind Nice and three behind Monaco after running away with the title in record fashion last season. And in Germany, Munich sit at the top by two points over Liepzig and three over Berlin, with a recently struggling Dortmund six points back after eight games.