Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Arsenal Snatch Three Points Late (1-0 over West Brom)

Arsenal needed three points badly and they got them … just. For 86 minutes, with almost 80 percent possession and a couple dozen shots, Arsenal were staring at two more dropped points on the back of the last six on the offing. But then Giroud, in his first league start of the season, received a pinpoint cross from Ozil and was finally able to crack a well-organized and resilient West Brom defense, his lofted header ballooning over man of the match Forster. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Giroud Scores When He Plays: it took a while … a long while in the specter of a football match … but Giroud finally made one of the 26 shots in total (and 11 on target) Arsenal manufactured against Tony Pulis’ West Brom count. It was an absolutely essential three points for Arsenal to stay in the title race, particularly as those around them all earned maximum points, with only Tottenham yet to play this round of fixtures. Giroud has now scored 14 in his last 16 for club and country, an impressive run for any striker not named Messi or Ronaldo. And he has chipped in with key goals in a number of games already – the 89th minute header to snatch a point at United, the opener against PSG in the ultimate 2-2 draw, the equalizer against Ludogorets in a 3-2 come-from-behind win and now an essential winner at the Emirates.

The question some may ask is whether this means he should find his way back into the starting lineup. The answer to me is a resounding no. Giroud certainly has a winner’s mentality and has scored goals wherever he has gone, but though the winner was a brilliantly taken header that was only possible as a result of his strength, he also missed two quality chances earlier to give his side the lead and slowed down the entire side with his lack of pace. Arsenal are a substantially more deliberative side when Giroud is on the pitch and his lack of pace smarted for long stretches, particularly on the few occasions when West Brom forged forward.

It was not that Arsenal didn’t have chances, but the dynamism of their attack truncates with Giroud, rather than Sanchez, through the middle. It did improve for a short spell in the second half and a more frenetic last 15, with Ramsey and Perez adding some zip to the attack, but the entire side seems more ponderous when they have a fulcrum of attack who cannot get behind the lines. With some combination of Walcott, Ox, Iwobi or Sanchez on the wings, Arsenal can use Giroud as a central distributor, but that does not work against sides like West Brom who sit back in banks of five.

The most prosperous line of attack with Giroud in the middle is for Bellerin to get overlapping runs down the right-hand side or Gibbs/Monreal on the other and put it crosses, but the quality Monday were well below par and Sanchez and Ozil were not able to navigate around West Brom’s stout defense much better. Chances came and went, but Giroud was not heavily involved in many of them and it is clear the attack is better in his absence.

Given these realities, it appears, at least for now, Giroud’s role should be to play in cup ties and come on as an impact sub in second halves of games that are still in the balance. Whether he will accept that role beyond this campaign is still to be seen, and his only route back to the starting 11 appears to be if, god forbid, Sanchez gets hurt or leaves next summer in search of more money and trophies.

2. A Clean Sheet … Are You Sure? Petr Cech is among the greatest goalkeepers in the history of the Premier League, and yet he had only been able to keep three clean sheets heading into the game Monday. His fourth came after a nine-game wait for the side, a disappointing 0-0 draw with Middlesboro. It has not that there has been a major drop-off in his form, though there have been a few instances where he missed a save or two he probably would have secured in the past, but a more porous Arsenal defense, particularly in the absence of standout transfer Mustafi at centreback.

Earlier in the season, Arsenal had a run of four straight clean sheets, beating Nottingham Forest 4-0 in the League Cup, Chelsea 3-0 in the league, Basel 2-0 in the Champions League and Burnley 1-0 back in the EPL. After a heart-pounding 3-2 victory over Swansea, they pulled off three more (against Ludogorets in the UCL, Boro in the EPL and Reading in the League Cup). Not a bad run, of clean sheet in 7 of 8 games, even if the competition might have been a level below the best. Since then, however, Arsenal’s defense has gotten considerably leakier. They allowed a side bereft of goals, Sunderland, to get one past them, had to come back to beat Ludogorets 3-2 after gifting them an early 2-0 lead, gave up a lead to Tottenham (1-1 draw in the end), were lucky to get a point at United (1-1), ceded another lead at PSG (2-2) then gave up at least a goal in their next five (with the worst result seeing them booted out of the League Cup 2-0 by Southampton). That was followed, of course, by ceding 1-0 leads in two straight, dropping six points that could have kept them within a whisker of the leaders Chelsea. Instead, their lack of defensive nous, particularly in the absence of Mustafi (who is still undefeated when he starts), has cost them dearly and they now stand 9 points behind the breakout leaders. They will need more clean sheets down the second half stretch if they are to overcome that deficit.

3. Master Class by Forster Falls Short: Fraser Forster is among the best goalkeepers in England, though playing for West Brom sometimes leads others to forget this. He reminded them Monday with a stunning string of saves before Giroud was able to beat him with a precise header that sailed over his 6’7” frame and then plopped down into the net for the winner. Before that, he put together 10 saves, some of them quite spectacular to keep the Gunners at bay. They included quick reflexes (with his hands and feet), the ability to stretch wide, to get out quickly and to recover (on two double saves). Sanchez did hit the woodwork in the second half after a poorly defended corner, but Forster came close to pulling off another clean sheet, which would have been, rather surprisingly, only his fourth of the campaign in all competitions.

It is clear that Pulis has a keeper keeper at the moment, though, and that England might want to consider starting him in the future. Nonetheless, West Brom, though struggling against the top sides, continues to impress with their current position at 9th in the table, only three points from 7th. Should they start dreaming of a European place? While it might be a step too far, they remain in the conversation for now.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Arsenal Allergic to Title Charge Again, Lose 2-1 to City

--> Arsenal lost from a 1-0 lead for the second time this week, collapsing at the Etihad 2-1 today to put a huge dent in their title challenge, particularly given the stellar form of Chelsea, who won their 11th game on the bounce Saturday (by the same 1-0 score Arsenal might well have won their last two). It was the first victory for City in their last seven matches against Arsenal, with the latter Arsenal winning two and drawing the other three. For City, it eased some of the pressure on their slightly beleaguered manager while it might well have ended Arsenal’s title challenge even before the halfway point of the season. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Arsenal Defensive Woes Bubbling Up: Arsenal are undefeated when Mustafi starts at centreback (13-6-0), but have been substantially less stable when he is off the pitch (4-3-2). There was the 4-3 loss to Liverpool on opening day, the 2-0 loss to Southampton in the League Cup and then the two 2-1 losses this week. Gabriel is just not the same quality of defender and his lack of positional acuity and pace seems to affect all those around him. He cannot take all the blame, though, as City were able to get behind the entire defense with far too much ease far too often. They almost equalized less than five minutes after the opener, had a couple other chances before the half, scored two in the second half and could have had a couple more but for three excellent Petr Cech saves. After taking the lead early, Arsenal pressed high and kept City on the back foot for a nice spell, but the linkup play was not up to their usual standard and then they seemed to completely lose their cool after the equalizer.

Arsenal have seven clean sheets this season, but only four in the league, with two coming in 0-0 draws (at Leicester and against Boro). However, the last time they held a team scoreless was that Boro game, with them shipping at least a goal in eight straight games and, obviously, two in the last two. In this game, it was a lack of poise on the ball, an inability to close players down in and around the box, a failure to clear their lines and getting caught with a high line for both goals. The first came after Arsenal gave the ball up twice, and Sane beat Gabriel on a lofted ball over the top, easily finishing past Cech. The second came when Monreal was unable to beat Sterling to an excellent long cross field pass from De Bruyne and then three Arsenal defenders couldn’t stop his run into the box and then shot. There are serious questions about a passive offsides from Silva, who appeared to be right in front of Cech on the shot, but most of the pundits believe it shouldn't have been called.

Arsenal have to figure out a way to shore up their defense if they are to have any chance to get back into the title race, assuming Chelsea slip up going forward, and might need to turn to the lumbering Mertesacker if Gabriel continues to perform at this level. They certainly have a winnable slate of six fixtures before a vital rematch with Chelsea, but will need to play better on both sides of the ball if they are to stay close in the interim.

2. Offense is Stuttering as Well: Alexis Sanchez added an assist early on, with a perfect through ball to Walcott, who took two touches and then finished smartly, sending Claudio Bravo the wrong way. That makes it 28 goals Sanchez has scored or created in his last 28 games. But then Arsenal seemed to lose their momentum. They dominated the midfield for the next 20 minutes, but neglected to register another shot on goal, failing to turn possession and turnovers into clear-cut chances. In fact, their only shot on goal the entire game was that early Walcott goal; a poor time for an off day when serious questions have been raised about Claudio Bravo’s poise in goal. Yet they were still able to get to halftime with the lead and had every opportunity for a huge win to draw back within six points of Chelsea. Instead, they played one of their worst halves of football all season, unable to deal with City’s high press and slick passing. Ozil was largely anonymous for the entire match, Sanchez seemed to slow down after an ankle knock late in the first half and the supporting cast sent one askew pass after another.

Coquelin and Xhaka were particularly susceptible to the second-half City press, sending hopeful long balls, askew clearances or missing open men in front of them, while giving up the ball in dangerous positions over and over again. The free-flowing football Arsenal are so famous for seemed to abandon them and the introduction of Ox (who only lasted a short spell before a hamstring problem forced Wenger to replace him with Elneny) and Giroud did little to stop the rot.

As I mentioned on Wednesday, the continued absence of Cazorla is really hurting the Gunner’s transition from defense to attack, and while he might be back in a month or so, it might be too late. Iwobi, too, has hurt the side at times with his indecision and poor passing in key moments of the game. It was telling that he finished beautifully for a disallowed goal, having already heard the whistle go for offsides, but missed the open man on at least three counters. Walcott had a couple of good chances after his goal, but skyed two of them and sent a lofted cross a little too far for Giroud late on.

What was lacking in this game, at its core, though, was the belief and drive to keep the three points, just as it was on Tuesday. Arsenal made the mistake of sitting back for much of the game and seemed unsure of themselves on the ball, an odd problem for a side managed by Wenger. But we have seen this collapse so many times before over the past ten years. It is as if the 2006 Champions League final, when they lost a 1-0 lead to Barcelona in the second half, has marked a shift in the side, their mettle and steel replaced by shiftlessness and collapses in big games. They have shown some of that old spirit this season, winning points and games when trailing, but besides a three-game spell when they scored 10 goals against Bournemouth, West Ham and Stoke, Arsenal have been unable to score more than a goal in four of their last seven. In those games, they ceded a 1-0 lead to Tottenham, had to score late to equalize against a United side that largely dominated them and then lost leads against struggling Everton and City. A run of 18 points in their next six might be their only chance to get back in the title chase, with even the Top 4 now in doubt as both United and Tottenham are breathing down their necks.

3. A Needed Three Points for City: City were down 1-0 after only five minutes and their shambolic defending for the first half of the first half seemed like it should have left them even further behind. But they settled as the first half wore on, had two excellent chances to equalize and then dominated the second half with a combination of excellent passing and, in the style of Guardiola’s best Barca side, winning the ball back whenever they lost it. They could easily have won this game 3 or 4-1 and were rampant on the offensive end, just missing the finishing touch to obliterate an Arsenal side that complete lost their bearings under the constant onslaught. Even without Aguero, City’s passing was extraordinary and their movement around the box created chance after chance. Most impressive, however, was the pressing that seemed to disrupt not only Arsenal’s ability to counter but their overall mentality. In the end, they bossed 61 percent of possession against an Arsenal side that seemed to decide they would rather hold on to what they had than go for the throat of a shaky City defense early. They also outshot the Gunners 14 to 6 (with 5 on target to Arsenal’s measly 1).

This should do a lot to quiet the critics and City now have what should be a cake walk against Hull before a key showdown at Anfield on New Year’s Eve. They will not face Chelsea until April 5, four days after the return fixture with Arsenal, and could well be on to the quarterfinals of the Champions League by then. Things are finally looking up for Guardiola’s side, though they will need Chelsea to slip up if they are to get back to the summit anytime soon. The same old questions regarding Arsenal appear to have surfaced yet again, right on the heels of the announcement they face another daunting Round of 16 Champions League draw.