Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Anatomy of the EPL Season So Far

It has been one of the most riveting and unpredictable of seasons in the history of the Barclay’s Premier League, with a mere eight games to go until we crown a new champion, find out the three teams that will be joining them in the Champions League, the two to three that will be going to the less-glamorous Europa League and the unlucky three that will be relegated. The only certainties at this point appear to be that Chelsea will not repeat as champions, Manuel Pelligrini will not be at the helm come May, Aston Villa are going down and Klopp will be jumping up and down and running around the pitch, win or lose. Some interesting trends have developed since August, though, and I thought I would share some of them here …

The Top 6 Form Table
If Leicester do go on to win the table, it is clear both Arsenal and Man City will see this as a great opportunity lost.  But who do they have to blame for their failed seasons? In the case of City, it is their inability to perform in the biggest league games, with an incredible 0-3-6 record against the Top 6 so far this season and only one win against the current top 9. Arsenal, on the other hand, actually lead the table of games against the top six (8 played, 14 points, 4-2-2), followed by Tottenham (9 played, 12 points, 3-3-3), Leicester (8, 12, 3-3-2), United (7, 12, 3-3-1), West Ham (7, 11, 3-2-2) and City (9, 3, 0-3-6). Worth noting, Arsenal are the only team to take maximum points from the leaders and United could take the lead in the table when they hit the eight games most of the others have played. West Ham, who have been swinging above their weight for most of the season, could also draw even with Arsenal with their next Top 6 showdown. Looking at the mini-table, however, one can see that Arsenal should be right in the running for the title and have instead dropped points against lesser sides this season that have cost them dearly (including 5 to Southampton, 6 to Chelsea, 2 to Norwich and 3 to lowly Swansea at home).

Road Rules
Home teams usually win at a higher percentage, given the home crowd, attacking football and the pressure placed on road teams. That has not been the case this season, as away teams have faired quite well, possibly a result of the rise of counterattacking football as the most effective strategy for most teams. Even Arsenal appear to play better on the counter and have won as many games at home (8) as they have on the road (8). Overall, there have been 120 home wins, 101 away wins and 82 draws. Leicester have actually won more games away from home (10) than at the King Power Stadium (9) and so have Everton (absolutely abysmal at home), Liverpool and Crystal Palace (though they are having trouble at home and away since the turn of the new year). To round it off, no team has been undefeated at home and no team has failed to win away. Could this be a long-term shift or is a one-off? We’ll have to wait and see, but it does call into question the idea of possession winning football matches as Barcelona did not so long ago.

City Struggles
City looked like the odds on favorite to win the title this season, particularly after Chelsea’s horrific start. And yet they continue to confound with their inconsistent and uninspired play. They did win the first trophy of the season (the League Cup on penalties) and are through the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time, but that papers over their relatively terrible league form this year, particularly since Pep Guardiola was formally announced as the manager that would take over this summer (they went from a record of 23-5-8 (63.9 WP) before the announcement to 3-3-5 (27.3 WP) since, in all competitions). Among the damning statistics for the side: 1. They have lost five home league games already this season, as many as their four previous campaigns combined, 2. Their once potent offense has been held scoreless in 8 games this year, after only three last term, four the year before, six in 12-13 and 5 in 11-12. 3. Only Aston Villa players have covered less ground over the course of a game this season than Man City. 4. Man City have 10 less points than they did at this stage last season. That would still not be enough to lead the table at this point, but beyond injuries, one does wonder what happened to a team that seemed to strengthen in the offseason. By the way, their crosstown rivals have nine less points, courtesy of their derby win on Sunday.

Running Wild
Looking at the teams that have covered the most ground per game can be both an indicator of a successful strategy or an indicator of constantly chasing the ball. The team that has run the most kilometers per game is Bournemouth (72.8), followed by Tottenham (72.1), Liverpool and Klopp’s gegenpress (69.8), West Brom (69.7) and Manchester United (69.2). West Ham, Arsenal and then Leicester follow, but from the bottom up we find Aston Villa (65), City (66.7), Stoke City (67) and Chelsea (67.2). Stoke City have actually played quite well this season, and Bournemouth is closer to the bottom than the top of the table, but it does seem to say something about the hunger of Chelsea and City that they are in the basement in this category, exemplifying the sense that the players are not putting in the effort necessary to win.

Chokers versus the Cardiac Kids
Champions find ways to win games when the chips or down or they are off their best while the also-rans tend to drop points that seem secured. As to the latter, Liverpool leads the charge this year having dropped 15 points from winning positions, including the 2-0 lead they ceded to West Ham last weekend. Next on the list are Chelsea, Everton and Swansea City (14), then Crystal, Southampton, Sunderland and Tottenham (13), Arsenal, Leicester and Newcastle (12). The team that has dropped the fewest, surprisingly, is Manchester City (a mere 3). On the flip side, Tottenham erases those 13 lost points by claiming the most from a losing position by far (18). The overachieving Hammers are second (12), followed by Leicester (11), Liverpool (11), Swansea City (11), Southampton (10) and Arsenal and West Brom (9 apiece). Among the others, Chelsea have hit back for 8, Everton for 7, City for 7 and United for a mere 4. As one can see, for many teams the two cancel each other out, though a few trends do seem to emerge: 1. For the second year running, Tottenham are a hard team to put away and can hit you late on, 2. The three most surprising teams in the league lead in comeback points (Tottenham, West Ham and Leicester), 3. City seem to win or lose based predominantly on who scores first, 4. Many of the teams struggling toward the bottom of the table find it hard to come back in games, including Watford, Norwich and Aston Villa, though United are also devoid of the rousing spirit that once colored their fans red (only 4 points from losing positions all year).

Striking Gold
Teams that end up at the top of the table almost always have a scorer of at least 20-goals. With plenty of games to play, only one striker has reached the 20-goal mark in the league (Kane on 21), though several others are closing in on that rubicon. The currently leaders in the golden boot race are Kane (21), Vardy (19), Lukaku (18), Aguero (16), Mahrez (16), Ighalo (14), Giroud (12) and, impressively in less than a full season, Defoe (12). Costa has fallen to 11 goals while impressive Stoke winger Arnautovic has chipped in 10 and Watford’s striking partner Deeney 9. A few other noteworthy numbers include Wijnaldum’s 9 from the wing, Payet’s 8 from the #10 and Ross Barkley finally living up to his potential with 8. One might also mention the measly return of 7 goals Liverpool have received for their 32.5-million-pound investment in Benteke. Arsenal might look back on their failure this season as resulting from a poor conversion rate (they create the most opportunities in the league) and the fact they lack the threat through the middle that the top teams in Europe always have (particularly as most of us screamed for Wenger to buy a world-class striker this past summer!).

The Creators

Mesut Ozil has had a breakout year and is closing in on the league record (he only needs three more, as he currently sits on 18). However, he could be in another galaxy if the corps of strikers in front of him finished more of the chances created. Almost as impressive, however, is the dual threat Riyad Mahrez, who has 11 league assists to go with his 16 goals. Silva is third with 10, surprising given how poor his form appears to be in recent months. From there we can add the impressive emergence of Dele Alli (9), De Bruyne (9, even as he has been out for months), Ericksen (8), the Barca product Deulofeu (8) and Firmino (7).

Sunday, March 20, 2016

EPL Match Week 30: Leicester Edge Closer but Tottenham & Arsenal Win; City Lose Derby to United

Arsenal finally got back to winning ways in the early Saturday fixture, beating Everton 2-0 at Goodison Park, where the Toffees have been abject most of the season. Welbeck got the opener early (his 3rd in his last 5 league starts) and Iwobi got the second, his first senior goal for the Gunners. Next up were four fixtures, with Chelsea winning a questionable late penalty to equalize West Ham in a 2-2 draw that kept the London side from jumping above City into fourth place. Fabergas had a brace as he continues a mini-renaissance with the Blues. Stoke City held on for a 2-1 win over Watford, Norwich City earned three valuable points at West Brom (1-0) and Leicester City moved a step closer to the title with a professional 1-0 win at struggling Crystal Palace. In the final Saturday match, Swansea City piled more frustration on Aston Villa with rumors surfacing today that Remy Garde will leave the club tomorrow.

Sunday Newcastle hosted Sunderland in a key relegation derby, though the two had to share the spoils after a Mitrovich’s header across goal in the 83rd minute cancelled out Defoe’s 44th minute opener. Liverpool stormed to a 2-0 lead over Southampton only to run out of steam in the second and ultimately lose 3-2, the first time the Reds have ever lost after taking a 2-0 lead into halftime in the Premier League era. Tottenham stayed within striking distance of Leicester with a commanding 3-0 takedown of Bournemouth, with Kane on the double. And in the Manchester Derby, Marcus Rashford’s 16th minute gem of a goal was the decider as United moved within a point of struggling City, alongside West Ham.

Thoughts on the Week of Fixtures:
1. Leicester Clear Favorites From Here: throughout the early good form of Leicester, when no one considered them even a long shot at the title, they had only two 1-0 victories, over Crystal Palace on October 24 and at Tottenham on January 13. However, they have now won four of their past five fixtures by that score, beating Norwich, Watford, Newcastle and Crystal Palace by a solitary goal, while keeping clean sheets in each match. While the level of competition must be taken into account during this run, the impressive discipline and focus necessary to keep four clean sheets in five with so much pressure on them has been astounding. The big concern now is that the level of competition will increase substantially for the final run-in. Next up is a visit from a Southampton team that is in fine form, then a trip to relegation-threatened Sunderland, before a trip to a West Ham fighting for a Top 4 finish. A visit from Swansea should be good for three points, but those last three games now loom large, as they face a United side gaining some momentum in the league, an Everton side much better on the road than at home and a finale at Stamford Bridge against a Chelsea team that is much improved since Mourinho’s departure. They are still the odds on favorites to win it, but I think one should watch the Southampton and West Ham results with great interest, as it could allow Arsenal and/or Tottenham to sneak closer and add pressure to those final three fixtures.

2. City Malaise: City have won one game against the current Top 9 teams this season, beating Southampton at home. Yes, you read that right. They have done well against the lower half of the table, but have been abject against the top teams, continuing that trend today by losing to a youthful United side at the Etihad, after drawing with them in the reverse fixture. With four of their remaining fixtures against teams in the Top 9, the impossible is becoming increasingly probable. Can you imagine Pep Guardiola having to ply his trade in the Europa League on Thursday nights next year? It has become a distinct possibility if the side do not find the form from two seasons ago. Injuries have played a role, with the creativity of Kevin De Bruyne, in particular, felt, alongside the continued absence of team leader Vincent Kompany and niggling injuries that appear to keep Aguero off his best. But it is the overall play of the team from back to front that has to be of great concern to Pelligrini and the City brass. The team just seem uninterested far too often, making mistakes on the defensive side and failing to take advantage of possession and shots (only three of their 26 shots were on target today). There is also the sense that the premature announcement of Guardiola’s appointment has negatively affected the team as they moved from a mere two points behind Leicester to the current 15; alongside being knocked out of the FA Cup. Pelligrini can at least point to the League Cup this season alongside his other trophies and league title, but this has to be one of the greatest underperformances in league history – in a year when that same charge can be leveled against Chelsea, United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton. West Ham and United are now breathing down their necks and they better figure out their problems quickly.

3. Surging or Falling Aside: as we turned to the new year, West Ham were the giant-killers of the first half of the season and higher in the table than in years, Crystal Palace had continued the hot run from the second half of last season and Watford looked poised to push for a European place. Only West Ham have kept that momentum into the second half, with Crystal Palace now 13 games without a victory and getting sucked toward the relegation battle (currently in 16th place) and Watford two places above them in 14th, though they are still in the FA Cup and probably safe on 37 points. In a year when one of the Manchester sides are almost certain to miss out on Champions League football, Chelsea are hoping for a late run to earn a place in the Europa League, Leicester City seem poised to become the most unlikely champions in the history of the Premiership and Tottenham could very well finish above Arsenal (or, god forbid, win the title), it appears we have entered the twilight zone. West Ham is among the biggest surprises of the season, with most seeing them lucky to finish in the top half. The emergence of Payet as one of the top players in the league and the brilliant tactical flexibility of Bilic have helped, with even Andy Carroll chipping in goals this season as the Hammers push toward a UCL spot. Even United, maligned for most of the season, are now in with a decent chance of finishing in the Top 4. Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe the league from top to bottom, with the possibility that three relative stalwarts of the EPL on the brink of disappearing into the Championship mist.

4. Race to the Bottom: Aston Villa are going down, as most of us have predicted for months now, but the question of who will join them seems to change from one week to the next. Sunderland and Newcastle currently reside in those dubious spots, but Norwich, Crystal and Swansea should still be in the conversation. The Swans are almost safe, though, on 36 points with 7 games to play. Norwich earned a valuable three points on Saturday, but have played a game more than both Sunderland and Newcastle and could thus find themselves in the relegation zone when the other two catch up. Newcastle appear to be playing the best of the bunch, but still keep dropping points. They will need to score more consistently in the run-in and keep their defensive discipline throughout their remaining games. Benitez should help, though Allardyce is himself an expert on avoiding relegation throughout his career. Something has to give, though, and it does appear at least one of these two is going down so my current prediction is Aston Villa, Sunderland and Norwich say sayonara to the league while Newcastle stay up by the hair of their chinny chin chins.

5. Around the Horn: The quarterfinals of the Champions League are now set with PSG-Man City and Barcelona-Atletico the pick of the litter. Real Madrid were gifted Wolfsburg while Bayern should have little trouble with Benfica. Predicting the ties, I like Barcelona to beat Atletico, Man City to surprise PSG, Real Madrid to crush Wolfsburg and Bayern to slide by Benfica without too much trouble. Bayern are, of course, lucky to still be in the tournament after an extra time equalizer by Mueller saved them from going out to Juve, who fought valiantly but were undone by some late mistakes. City’s form in the league would make most chose PSG, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them steamroll City’s nervous defense, but the Manchester side have been much better in Europe this year and certainly have the offensive nous to give PSG trouble. As far as the leagues go, Barcelona are now cruising, nine points above Atletico and 10 over Madrid. Munich are still only five points above Dortmund with 11 to play, but are still the clear favorites. In Italy, Juve have a three-point lead over Napoli and will have to recover quickly from their UCL disappointment to avoid giving away the title. And PSG sealed up Ligule 1 last weekend and can now concentrate all of their energy on the Champions League and the two French Cups. Really, it appears Italy and possible England are the only two leagues where we could see a shift at the top, though the Champions League ties are anything but certainties.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Arsenal Exacerbate Everton’s Home Struggles (2-0)

Arsenal needed a win Saturday to get their campaign back on track for the final run-in and to put some pressure on Leicester, who played right after them and they finally showed up with two first half goals that decided the game. The first came in the seventh minute, when a clever exchange between Ozil and Sanchez set Welbeck free on goal. He held his run well, rounded Robles and then cut the ball into the open net (7’). Then, after squandering a few more chances, Bellerin sent the ball long up the pitch to a charging Iwobi, who took two excellent touches and then slotted the ball between Robles’ legs for a 2-0 lead (42’). Everton were unable to mount much of a challenge, except with about 20 minutes to play when Lukaku clattered into Ospina and left the Columbian international limping around for a good 10 minutes as they forged forward.

But their momentum fizzled and Arsenal scored a third in the 83rd minute when a Sanchez corner found Giroud, who headed past Robles. Or so they thought. For not the first time in the match, a questionable call by Clattenburg and his crew cost them, as Giroud was adjudged to have fouled Jagielka in the box when, in fact, the Toffee defender actually tripped over Iwobi. Given how important goal difference could end up being, it was pretty disappointing from a referee who seems to make far too many mistakes for a top flight referee. Yet Arsenal were still able to gain all three points and leave Everton in a disappointing 12th place, with only the FA Cup to play for in a season of inconsistency and underperformance.

Three Thoughts on the Game:

1. The Good
: the youngsters, Welbeck, Iwobi and Elneny, played a huge role in Arsenal finally getting back to winning ways after a terrible stretch and it is clear that Welbeck provides a substantially more dynamic option up front than either the misfiring Giroud or the “invisible man” (Walcott). Iwobi still seems a little raw, missing out on open players on the counter on a few occasions, but his all-important goal right before halftime on an excellent long pass from Bellerin showed considerable poise. It is clear that the front line of Ozil, Sanchez, Iwobi and Welbeck are playing a more dynamic brand of football that creates more opportunities. If they had taken more of those chances on Wednesday, they could have made Barcelona sweat a bit more, but their defensive mistakes and poor finishing allowed the Catalan side to ultimately cruise to a 5-1 aggregate victory. Arsenal were better at the back in this game and barely gave Everton a sniff of goal. In fact, after some nervy clearances and questionable positioning early, Gabriel settled in for one of his better defensive displays in months. He was helped by Koscielny, one of the most important cogs in the Arsenal defensive machine, and it is not surprising they had their first league sheet in some time with him back in the side. Overall, it was a solid win for Arsenal, who have only lost once to Everton in their last 19 meetings.

2. The Bad: Arsenal will be happy with the victory, but might be upset with their offensive play in patches, as they could have easily scored more against a porous Everton defense. That they didn’t comes down to some sloppy playing from Iwobi on the counter (though he impressed overall as MOTM), from Sanchez for most of the game (again) and from Bellerin, who has been off his best for a few games now. To be fair, it was Sanchez who produced the seventh minute opener with a wonderful exchange with Ozil and then feathered cutback pass for the assist to Welbeck and it was Sanchez who pushed the team to press through most of the first half. But I still find the frequency with which he gives the ball away either through unsuccessful dribbles or sloppy passes troubling; along with his inability to put the ball in the back of the net for most of the season. Iwobi, of course, scored the opener, but needs to play with a little more poise overall, allowing his decision-making on the counter and around the box to match his talent. And Bellerin contributed with the assist for Iwobi but seems a little off his best moving forward while again leaving too much room behind, where Sanchez is less apt to cover. Barcelona and Watford punished those defensive lapses, but Everton were unable to. In this game, these critiques are really nitpicking though, as Arsenal put in their most complete performance in some time and now have a good foundation to remain in the Top 4 and maybe more, if Leicester and Tottenham both stumble. The bad is that is took them so long to rediscover the form that should have had them running away with the title, with all due respect to Leicester (the team they did beat twice this year). Potential injuries to Ozil and Ospina could also be deadly, but one assumes both are rather minor.

3. The Ugly: Everton are the most confusing side in the entire league this season, playing the best attacking football in the division at times but defensively weak and downright awful at home. This was their ninth loss of the season, with eight of those coming at home, against nine wins (four at home) and 11 draws. They have scored an impressive 51 goals, good for fourth in the division, but have conceded 41, the most of the “Top 12” and worse Watford, Crystal and and Swansea below them. One must question Martinez on why this team is not pushing for a European position with the talent they have, why they are so poor at home and why they have dropped so many points from winning positions this season. Their inconsistency has been the biggest problem in 2015-16, as seen this week, where they blew a 2-0 lead (and a missed penalty) against West Ham to ultimately lose 3-2, knocked a surging Chelsea out of the FA Cup and then were relatively flat today. The concern coming in was that the absence of the hard working fulcrum of their attack Barry would affect them on both sides of the pitch and that prediction came true. Barry leads the team in tackles, completed passes and is second in interceptions. After a relatively poor second season, the less than pacey Barry is actually leading the team in kilometers covered per game as well and his absence was clearly felt. But the lack of dynamism on attack meant that Everton barely created a chance all game, with the majority of their 8 shots (2 on target) from outside or just inside the box. They actually had more possession (54 percent), but did very little with the ball, with much of it coming in the second half, as Arsenal sat further back and largely played on the counter. The best chance of the game fell to Jagielka, with a free header from six yards out, but he sent it over and the threat, as with the season, was lost.

So I can finally get through an Arsenal write-up without any comment on Wenger. And I think, with the international break coming up, I shall allow our beleaguered manager to bask in his momentary reprieve. Roberto Martinez, on the other hand, is a man that needs to really think about his tactics if he is to reach toward elite status, as he seems to be moving backwards from the 72 points he earned in his first season in charge of the Toffees. He could add a second FA Cup to his resume with two more quality performances for his side, but the past two seasons have reminded of his last year in charge of Wigan, when they won the FA Cup but were relegated, predominantly because they could not keep the ball out of the net with enough consistency. Everton will have money to spend this summer with the infusion of cash their new majority owner should provide, but will have to try to keep hold of Stones and Lukaku and find an approach that addresses their defensive frailties.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Oops, They Did it Again: Arsenal out in Round of 16 for Sixth Year Running

Finishing, finishing, finishing. This should be what every Gunner hears on repeat every night as they sleep. That and “stand by your man.” In a game that Barcelona won 3-1, it was Arsenal that had more chances and, essentially, Arsenal that dominated the midfield. Yet goals decide games and the Gunners have become much better at receiving than giving in that regard. The misfiring started early, when Welbeck was free on goal within minutes of the opening whistle, only to somehow stumble over the ball and allow it to roll away harmlessly. Other chances would come his way, but he flubbed each one. Sanchez too had several chances to score and was, admittedly, unlucky not to on the stroke of 80 minutes as his free kick looked to have beaten the keeper only for Ter Stegen to get a late hand to it. Giroud had a chance on the rebound, but pounded it into the ground and then Walcott had a relatively open header, but had it blocked out. It summed up an evening when Arsenal both showed what this season could have been and what it has become.

It was defensive mistakes right alongside the inability to put the ball in the net that outdid them in the end, as it has so many times in the past two months. The first goal resulted from too tight a formation, allowing Neymar to sneak behind Gabriel and in front of Bellerin, who had a night to forget. Neymar slotted it home and Barca had the first goal and an almost unassailable 3-0 tie lead. But the goal seemed to wake up the Gunners, who could easily have scored three before the break, with Iwobi missing out on a good chance by tripping himself, Sanchez sending a free header wide and Welbeck spurning a second good chance of the half himself. In the second half, Arsenal were a constant threat to the Barca goal again, but after Elneny scored the equalizer on 51 minutes, several chances went wanting. It was 14 minutes later that Barca lay the tie to rest for good, as Monreal failed to come out on Dani Alves, who sent a perfect cross to the far post. But Bellerin seemed to have it covered before slipping to the ground, allowing a sublime volley across goal from Suarez. Arsenal carved out several more chances but then Barcelona made them pay for their poor defending yet again, as Messi made it 3-1 in the 88th minute. It was a mistake by Gabriel, unable to simply clear his line, which allowed Messi free on goal to coolly chip Ospina. Good effort, another loss and a season dribbling nowhere, like most of Sanchez’s possession since October.

Three Thoughts on the Game:

1. Enough “Moral” Victories for One Lifetime!
Arsenal outplayed Barcelona for stretches of this tie and certainly had chances to win it, but as has become the tired mantra of the season, they are combining excessively poor finishing with frequent defensive mistakes, repeating a trend that plagued them for several years before some defensive solidity appeared like magic in 2015. So they are out of the FA Cup, out of the Champions League and have only a sniff of a chance to get back into the title race. It is beginning to look like most of the past decade – with a Top 4 finish and getting out of their group in the Champions League the equivalent of a “Wenger trophy.” In aggregate (5-1), this wasn’t close to recent heartbreaks in the UCL, but it will certainly go down as the biggest failure in the league since that last, sublime title in 2003-04, when they went undefeated for an entire campaign. But past is not prologue for this team, except if we only count the past since 2006, and the question now becomes where the club goes from here?

And it is hard to say, really. Next season, the competition will be much tougher in the league, they have stars who could leave this summer and lack the leadership and spine necessary to win enough big games. If I were in charge of the club, I would hold a secret meeting with Wenger and ask him very nicely to call it quits at the end of the season. I would seriously consider letting Walcott, Giroud, Gibbs and maybe even Ox go. I would also kick Gabriel to the curb and beg Alexis Sanchez to hit the beach for at least a month, to rejuvenate himself after a really poor season. I would buy a world class striker who can score at least 20 league goals, a defensive midfielder with leadership skills and a strong, nasty centre back to partner with Koscielny. I would change the training regime to try to cut down on the raft of injuries we suffer every season and find ways to toughen these players up. I would also sit down with Ramsey and explain that next season is his absolute last chance to prove that he is worthy of playing for the team, reminding him that the ratings in the papers are not always an accurate assessment of his performance each week.

Now, obviously a lot of these things will not happen, but it is time to rebuild from the bottom up AND the top down. Wenger must go if Arsenal are to turn things around before it’s too late. The good news is some of the dead weight is heading out of the club, with the oft-injured Rosicky, the past-his-prime Arteta and the way-past-his-prime Flamini all set to leave. But questions should be asked of others, including why their development has seemed to stifle in the past year or two. Walcott, for example, seemed to be shaping into a world class winger, but his finishing is gone and his skill set has reverted back to the player of two or three seasons ago. Really he has become Arsenals best imitator of the invisible man. Ramsey and Ox both give the ball away way too much and finish far too few of their chances. Gabriel is a walking goal machine, for whomever we are playing against and needs to be sent back to Brazil, preferably COD. Steve Bould should spend some time with Bellerin, explaining to him that a right back actually has to “cover” the back sometimes, a role he seemed to forget in this game. And they need a leader, a winner who can come in and change the attitude of a team that knows disappointment far better than success; even with the two FA Cup wins. Maybe you keep Giroud around for another season, but it does appear the team works better when Welbeck is playing through the middle, at least recently, and if he could learn to finish (maybe a lost cause at this point), could provide a nice foundation moving forward. But neither is of the class necessary for Arsenal to finally move up the ladder a rung and sustain a title challenge for an entire 38-game stretch. They also need to figure out what is wrong with Sanchez, who has become a shell of his former self, unable to find form for more than the occasion moment of brilliance.

For those who might think I am overreacting, finally a smaller group than usual, let’s put into numbers how bad things have gotten. In the first half of the season, Arsenal gave up two or more goals on 9 occasions; more than one would hope, but not outrageous. Particularly when we consider that three of those came in the Champions League, one by the B-team that lost the Capital One Cup tie to Sheffield Wednesday, one in the bizarre opening day 2-0 loss to West Ham, one in a victory over Leicester City (when they scored 5), another in the 4-0 loss to Southampton where each of the goals could have been disallowed by a referee without a seeing eye dog and finally in a 2-0 loss to Chelsea that included a questionable red card elicited from troublemaker Diego Costa. They also had 11 clean sheets over that period. They then started 2016 in similar form, beating Newcastle 1-0, Sunderland 3-1 in the FA Cup, drawing 3-3 with Liverpool (after trailing early), drawing 0-0 at Stoke and losing 1-0 to Chelsea (after another red card), beating Burnley 2-1 in the FA Cup and drawing 0-0 with Southampton. The drying up of goals was starting, but the defense still seemed largely intact, forgoing the 3-3 thriller with Liverpool where poor last second defending cost them two invaluable points. And then came the false arc turn of the season. They beat Leicester City 2-1 on a last-gasp winner from Welbeck to draw within two points of the surprise leaders.

Since then, they played out a tepid 0-0 draw with Hull at home in the FA Cup, lost 2-0 at home to Barca, 3-2 on the road to injury-plagued United, 2-1 back at the Emirates to Swansea (the back breaker for the season), drew 2-2 a man down at Tottenham, scored a 4-0 outlier victory over Championship side Hull in the replay, lost 2-1 to lowly Watford to get booted from the FA Cup and the 3-1 loss tonight. That is 14 goals conceded in the past six, with only 7 scored. Going further back, Arsenal have failed to score in five games this calendar year, while conceding two or more in 7, including six of their past seven. It is a level of defensive frailty that one assumed they finally got over after the excellent run to end the last season. One was, as they so often are when hope sneaks into a Gooner’s Grinch-stained heart, sadly mistaken.

2. Finishing, Finishing, Finishing: five games into the season, Arsenal had the third worst conversion rate in the entire league, having score on only 5 of 112 shots. They then started to marginally improve and, though they never reached respectable finishing numbers, had enough chances over a game to start converting with some consistency – particularly when Giroud hit a purple patch and Sanchez had his best three weeks of the season. While third in the table at present, Arsenal are 11th in conversion rate over the course of the season, converting only 14.7 percent of their shots. Everton are first (19.3 percent), followed by Leicester City (19.1), United (16.2) and City (16.1). The worst rate in the league is Aston Villa (10), who also sit in the basement on points and are, barring an English Channel splitting miracle, headed for the Championship next season. Ironically, Arsenal are actually fifth in total goals scored (46), behind only Tottenham (53), Leicester (53), City (52) and Everton (51). But those missed goals have been costly, turning wins into draws and draws into losses. Most troubling is that no one in the squad has been consistent across the season. Giroud has the 13th best conversion ratio in the league (26.1%) but has gone cold over the season-defining stretch of losses and draws and just doesn’t seem to have the killer instinct necessary to lead his team consistently to victory (particularly in the biggest games). He does lead the team with 12 league goals, in 29 appearances, but that is not going to win a title. In fact, few teams win a title in any of the major leagues without at least one 20-goal scorer. Second on the team is Sanchez, with 7, followed by Ramsey (5), Ozil (5) and Walcott (a paltry 4). Kos and Campbell have 3 apiece and Welbeck 2 (though he has been out for most of the season). Those are not numbers that are going to scare a lot of teams and, when combined with the defensive leakage noted above, is all you really need to know in understanding how the team went from hopes in three competitions to 4 wins in 15 and the only remaining dream to again finish in the Top 4.

3. Barca’s Murderer’s Row: there were long stretches tonight when Barcelona looked like the lesser team (on the night, obviously, not in general!). One had to account for the comfortable 2-0 lead from the first leg and an injury to important cog Pique. But Arsenal were too easily getting behind the defense and not ahead only because of continued profligacy in front of goal. But when you have one of the fiercest front lines in the history of the game (they have now score 106 combined goals this season alone), an off day can still lead to victory. Today, Neymar scored the first, after Bellerin got caught looking up into the stands of the team he might one day play for, Suarez added the second, after Bellerin fell to the ground in awe, and Messi scored the third, after Gabriel reminded us he is still the worst defender on the pitch as hard as Bellerin was trying to take that honor for the evening. Each finish was cool, savvy and elegant and, while Bayern showed their own firepower today coming back from a two-goal halftime deficit to win 4-2 over Juve in extra time, one has to believe this is the team to beat in the competition, particularly if they stay healthy. They are truly a delight to watch, having transformed from the boring tika-taka side that lulled not only opponents but fans into ennui-soaked complacency, to a side that is hard to take your eyes off. Much credit must be given to Luis Enrique, a little over a year after he seemed to be on his way out. It is a tough road ahead, with Real Madrid looking for some revenge, Atletico having an approach to stop their attack (at least theoretically), PSG cruising and Bayern the marginal favorites to win it all, at least for some. Don’t count this team out of any game until the final whistle blows, though, and don’t ignore the way they rarely concede more than a goal even on an off night.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Arsenal Out of FA Cup as Season Slides Toward Despair

Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal side are on the brink of letting a once promising season collapse in despair. After beating Leicester City 2-1 on February 14, they have gone on a run of only one win in seven games. If we look further back, they have won only 4 of their last 14 matches and only two of their last eight at the Emirates (along with two draws and four losses). In fact, they have lost their last three at home and are winless in their last four (the “best” result over that period was the 0-0 draw with Hull). Including the 4-0 midweek FA Cup victory over Hull in the replay, Arsenals form has looked like this: LWDLLLDW. It is an extraordinary turn of events after the last second header by Welbeck drew them back within two points of Leicester heading into what looked like a routine visit from Championship side Hull in the FA Cup. But starting with that match, Arsenal has reverted to their old form, making mistakes on the defensive end, missing clear cut chances and seeming completely discombobulated overall.

Yesterday they had a good chance to right the ship, keeping hopes of silverware for a third straight season with a victory over a Watford team that has slipped from his turn-of-the-year form. Instead they blew another game they largely dominated, with 71 percent of possession, 20 to 7 shots (4 to 2 on target) and even more fouls (8 to 6). But all that matters in the end is goals and after Giroud and Walcott finally came alive after months of struggling, with a brace each in a 4-0 win over Hull on Wednesday), the chances again went wanting, as they have so often this season. Elneny had two in the first half, one with the goal gaping from 12 yards out, but skied both. Gibbs had an open header he sent high, Giroud missed a decent opportunity, Sanchez wasted a couple of half-chances and, after scoring an 88th minute goal that gave the Gunners hope, Welbeck missed an absolute sitter from four yards out, with only the bar to beat. Watford, on the other hand, took their chances, scoring on their only two on-target shots of the afternoon. It started with the misfiring Ighalo in the 50th minute, finding space after a throw in, before cutting around a too-tight Gabriel and rifling it past Ospina. The lead was doubled in the 63rd, when the Gunners defense failed to cover the onrushing Guedioura, who absolutely blasted it past Ospina and into the upper right corner of the net.

Welbeck, Walcott and Iwobi came on a few minutes later and the Gunners suddenly looked lively, but the scorned chances meant they were out of the FA Cup and probably out of winning any silverware this season. It was a well-played game by Watford, who sat back, absorbed pressure, cut off passing lanes around the box and then exploded on the counter, but Arsenal still dominated the game and really should have won it in the end. That they didn’t, speaks volumes to the problems with the team at present and the calls for Wenger to finally cede the reigns of the club after 20 years in charge, with the last 10 largely assessed as underachieving.

Three thoughts on the game:

1.     Wenger Gets It Wrong Again: Wenger started the game with an almost full-strength side, but it was the changes that left many, including me, scratching our heads. Calum Chambers is a player for the future, I still believe, but why throw him in over Bellerin in a game that is so important to Arsenal’s flagging season. And in the same regard, why recall Gibbs when Monreal has made the position his own. Both of those choices contributed to the two goals, along with the continued poor play of Gabriel, who seems to make at least two mistakes every time he is on the pitch.

2.    Wenger’s Final Stand? Another run to an FA Cup crown might well have staved off the inevitable call for Wenger’s head, after yet another title charge collapsed in the second half of the season, but one wonders if this is the final straw, even for the brass upstairs who seem to think fourth place and advancing from the group stage of the Champions League is enough to warrant Wenger staying in his job. The FA Cups to the past two seasons are probably the only reason he is still at the helm but can he even believe he can turn things around after another wasted season? The truth is that this game is a microcosm of Arsenal ever since 2006, with all of the old narratives playing out within the 98 or so minutes on the pitch: 1) Strikers who are good without being world class, missing clear chances to score, 2) Defensive mistakes costing the team goals (at a rate higher than most in the league), 3) Inconsistency in the money end of the season, 4) Lack of leadership on, and off, the pitch, 5) Injury crises that derail a promising campaign, and 6) Wenger acting as if this is just another game and not the latest example of a decade-long trend.

The reality at the moment is that Arsenal are on the brink of complete collapse, potentially falling out of the Top 4 before the season ends, though West Ham currently look more likely to usurp them than United. As per usual, Wenger will probably cobble together enough wins to get that fourth position, or maybe even third if City continue their own indifferent play. But after two quality calendar years – 2013 and 2015 – when Arsenal led the league form table, they have continued their trend of only playing half a season at title-winning pace. There are a number of factors that contribute to this tendency including a thin squad that means fewer “impact” subs and more injuries, the inability to beat teams they are clearly more talented than, a penchant for red cards and mistakes in big games, an inability to finish chances with enough consistency, questionable tactics, starting lineups and subs and the lack of the winning mentality necessary to win across 38 league games. Wenger seems unwilling to admit his weakness as a manager over the past decade, papered over, to some extent, by the aforementioned back to back FA Cups, but the murmur for his dismissal is only growing in fervor. Anything short of a surprise rebound to the title seems like the final nail in his coffin anywhere but at Arsenal, but I certainly would not be surprised to see him perched in his usual seat as next season collapses around him.

3.     The Culprits: As we look back on another failed season, the question is who is to blame. As I’ve indicated above, I think Wenger certainly has to take his fair share of the culpability, but others have also performed below their best. In this game, let’s start with those who played well. Elneny, even as he missed two good chances to put Arsenal in front in the first half, had a quality game and showed the skills that could see him starting his fair share of games while Ramsey is out. Coquelin was decent without doing anything spectacular, leaving the defense behind him exposed for both goals. Welbeck did continue a decent scoring return of late, but blew any positives he could have taken from the game when missing a sitter that could have drawn a replay. And Mertesacker, while marginally at fault for the first goal, was excellent for most of the game. The same cannot be said for the other three defenders, with Chambers lively but ineffective in his crossing or defensive work, Gibbs a shadow of the player that was a regular starter not so long ago and Gabriel so inept since the turn of the year he could well be on his way out if they can find a better alternative. Further up the pitch, Ozil provided enough chances for the Gunners to win the game, but as has become their tendency, they blew one after another. Campbell played well again, though he missed a half-chance himself, and one does wonder if the reversal of Arsenal’s fortunes have more than a little to do with him getting less time on the pitch. He certainly couldn’t do any worse than Giroud or Walcott if pushed to the middle of the pitch, as he has done for Costa Rica in the past. Giroud and Walcott, it should be said, are among the major reasons Arsenal’s skid has come at the wrong side of the season, as both have been in terrible scoring slumps save the 4-0 win over Hull, and Walcott, in particular, was invisible in this game, as he has been for much of the season. And that leaves Sanchez, the biggest disappointment of the season and a player that has not really lived up to the hype that his first-half performance last season suggested. In this game, he seemed to give the ball away every time he touched it (I lost count at 14 giveaways of either passes or failed dribbles) and, except for the late equalizer against Tottenham, this has been a season to forgot. Not only is his confidence shot, but his predictability in consistently dribbling in from the left makes him the most blocked shooter in the entire league.

Injuries have also played a role, as they seem to every year for Arsenal. The taller Cech might have gotten a mitt to the second Watford goal, even as it was beautifully taken, and his leadership could certainly have helped in preventing the absurd first, on a throw in passed so easily into the center of the box, where Gabriel was isolated on Ighalo. The absence of Coquelin earlier in the campaign hurt the Gunners as well, right when they seemed to be taking the race by the scuff of the table’s neck, and he has been a little off his best since returning. That again points to Wenger, of course, who really should have bought the DM the team has needed since Viera left. Ramsey is missed at times, but he has arguably taken two steps back this season, even as he has been in finer tether of late. And it is clear that Koscielny is missed, with the Gunners conceding goals at a much higher rate when he is on the sideline over the past three seasons. Most important, however, is the knee injury that has kept out Cazorla. He and Coquelin had formed a solid defense-to-offense pivot in front of the defense, with Coquelin breaking up play and Cazorla sending the team on the counter so effectively. They won plenty of games right after the injury, but the fall from grace appears to have a lot to do with the absence of his crisp passing, solidity in the middle and vision on the counter.

In the end, the team spirit that seemed to flourish over the past two seasons, from the moment the team rebounded from an early two-goal deficit to Hull to win their first trophy in eight years, seems to have fizzled and frayed. Why that is is not entirely clear, but the only consistent performers this season have been Cech and Ozil, with the latter looking increasingly disenchanted with teammates who make too many mistakes in midfield and defense and an attacking force in front of him that looks more like F-Troop than the A-Team. With their departure from the FA Cup, Everton and United will suddenly see a great opportunity to salvage their own floundering seasons, with Watford and Crystal Palace the other semifinalists (unless, of course, West Ham win the replay with United). Arsenal will be watching on their televisions wondering how they let yet another opportunity slip through their fingers and whether the elusive title will ever grace the Emirates again. So will the fans …