Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Arsenal Come Back from 3-0 Down for First Time in History … but is their title challenge gone?

Arsenal had never salvaged a point from 3-0 down in their storied history, a dire 0-0-27 in those situations. That is until today at Bournemouth, where they came roaring back with 3 goals in the final 25 minutes of the game. The turnaround started with a wonderfully flicked header from Giroud to a charging Sanchez (70’). Giroud then served up a second, hitting Perez on the left side of the box, with the sub powering the ball from an acute angle across goal (75’). Giroud then completed the comeback with an excellent header of his own in extra time (92’).

It was a spirited showing from a side that has had plenty of them this season, but they were undone in the end by another evening of poor defending, even as Mustafi maintained his undefeated record back in the starting 11. While it will be a nice building block for the second half of the season, it is hard to ignore the fact Arsenal will be at least 8, and as many as 11, points behind a hot Chelsea with 18 games left on the league schedule. Three thoughts on the game and a fourth on the rest of the action over the past few days:

1. Giroud Brings Gunners Back: Giroud just keeps scoring, setting up the first two and then scoring the equalizer. He was largely ineffective, as was the entire team, for the first 70 minutes, but the whole team came alive down the stretch and might well have won it with just a few more ticks on the clock. In fact, for the second time in the past few games, the Gunners failed to get the ball in the box with time running out, the sort of error that costs points and titles.

Giroud has now scored 16 in his last 18 for club and country, an impressive run for any striker not named Messi or Ronaldo. The question, as I recently posed, is whether the team are better with him in it from the start. Just looking at his last three games, he has scored three and added two assists, helping the Gunners to 7 points they might otherwise be without – scoring the winner against a resolute West Brom, the opener in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on Sunday and the equalizer today.

I think the answer, though becoming more difficult, is no, as the side seem to be too ponderous offensively and prone to push forward as a unit, leaving the backdoor gaping for counters. In three of their past five fixtures, they have shipped at least two goals (7 in total, even with two clean sheets) and seem to have continued their tendency to fall asleep defensively, like sides of past years. Giroud only started one of those games, but was a sub for 20 minutes in both of the 2-1 losses that could well have derailed Arsenal’s season. Before that, he failed to score in two wins, but helped Arsenal to a 2-2 draw with PSG and a 1-1 draw with United. In the end, he is useful and prolific as an impact sub and starter in some games but Arsenal appear to be more dynamic and balanced with Sanchez through the middle.

2. Defense Collapses Again After Two Clean Sheets: West Brom are playing good football this season, and scoring at a more frequent clip than one would expect of a Tony Pulis’ side, but a 1-0 clean sheet against them and a 2-0 win over struggling Crystal Palace are not enough to end speculation that Arsenal’s defense is set to cost them the title again. And today those concerns came to fruition, as the Gunners shipped three goals before storming back. But who was guilty?

Top of the list for me was Bellerin, who has seen a drop-off in form without many taking notice. His crosses have been less accurate, his runs forward less successful and his speed unable to make-up for pushing forward too often. He was arguably complicit on all three of Bournemouth’s goals, beaten twice for the first, too far forward for the second and again beaten for the third. Xhaka too must be blamed for a completely unnecessary foul in the box that led to the second, as the Cherries player was angling to get around him but seemed to be moving away from goal, a move that started as Ramsey failed to track back. A fourth player worth mentioning is Cech, who made some fine saves but might have done better on the first, getting nutmegged when he could have come out faster.

In total, Arsenal have but two clean sheets in their past 15 games, with those coming in the two games that preceded this one. Coquelin has been impressive again this season, but really a tier below his old dominant self. Xhaka has a nice range of passing and intercepts his fair share of balls, but has a tendency for boneheaded fouls that either get him yellow and red cards or the penalty today that put Arsenal down two after twenty minutes. Ramsey, once the engine that made those around him look soporific, has lost some of that industry, along with his finishing touch. And even as Cazorla is not thought of as a defensive mastermind, his ability to lead attacks out of the back is supported by much better defending than in the past, particularly his ability to sniff out a pass and intercept it. Even the back line that has been so effective for the Gunners earlier in the season, Koscielny and Mustafi, looked out of sorts today, though one must make allowances for the latter just coming back off of injury reserve.

Arsenal might well be out of the title race, but if they want to secure Top 4 status, as is their perennial “trophy” under Wenger, they will need to shore up the defense in the second half of the season.

3. Time to Call Time on Wenger? Given that this may well end up as their only goal as the second half unfolds, it is time to again ask the question that seems to come up every season over at least the past six – is it time for Wenger to step down and let someone else try to take this team further than the Top 4 and a Round of 16 exit from the Champions League. The move, of course, comes with risks, as we have seen with Liverpool for the past 20 years and United for the past three plus seasons. On the other hand, there are few Gooners that would not take a year out of the UCL for a sustained title charge or another trip to the semis of that venerable tournament.

Chelsea and Liverpool could certainly both go through cold spells that allow Arsenal to sneak back into the title challenge, but for now, it appears their race is run. Given the relative parity of the Top 6 and Chelsea standing on the cusp of breaking Arsenal’s record for consecutive wins, set back in 2001-2, the Gunners can be forgiven for not winning the title. And yet this is arguably the third time in the past four years when they had a reasonable chance to challenge through to the final day of the season. Last season was their best chance since at least 2008 and they collapsed in epic fashion right after a stunning come-from-behind win over the eventual Champions.

This season started rather brightly, with the Gunners finding ways to pull out wins or draws, more defensively stout and scoring freely in many games. But after winning their group with some luck in the Champions League they appear to have taken several steps backwards. And since this appears to be an annual occurrence, starting with some dropped points in November – which continued this year – followed by a few more around Christmas, and then setbacks at some point between February and April. Arsenal have generally finished every season strong over the past decade, but only after they fell out of real contention for the title.

And all this leads to the obvious question – why can’t they keep up a title challenge? The answer for a time was the move to the Emirates but that excuse has grown tired and a little outdated. Another is that they lack “spine,” and even as they have certainly shown more of that this season, they still have too often fallen prey to proving that accusation. Third is that they can’t compete financially with the sides around them, but they have made some fine signings over the past three years, resulting in those two FA Cup wins, two Community Shields and a decent title challenge last season. In the end, some bizarre choices from the manager with starters and subs, continued injury troubles that have plagued them for years, failing to give chances to hungry players from the bench and an inability, for whatever reason, to keep his side at top mental and physical form throughout a campaign, all point to the reason the second half of Wenger’s run with the Gunners has been substantially less prolific than the first. Given all these factors, it appears this really should be his final season in charge. Given a young guy like Howe a chance to move up, or find one of the many top managers around the world the chance to step in and rejuvenate the side. The Frenchman will be missed, but it appears that, like the Gunner’s title aspirations, he has hit a wall he can no longer traverse.  

4. Around the Horn: the ridiculously congested holiday schedule this year meant that plenty of teams had to play twice in little over 48 hours, including Arsenal today. They appeared to be dragging for much of the game and one wonders if that contributed to the vital dropped two points. Chelsea, the leaders, have the most forgiving schedule among the top sides, with a nice gap from Saturday to Wednesday to heal before their key matchup with Tottenham. Arsenal now find themselves in a must-win series of three games, after their FA Cup matchup with Preston.

In a battle of two sides that have recently “relieved” their managers of their jobs, Swansea was able to come out on top with a vital 2-1 win over Crystal Palace that, coupled with other results, pushed them within a point (really two given their awful -22 goal difference) of safety. The losers now appear in real trouble and could well find themselves relegated this season. Sunderland moved closer to jumping above the drop themselves able to snatch a 2-2 draw with a Liverpool side that largely dominated them. The grit and determination in that game showed the old David Moyes people loved from his days at Everton and might just be enough to keep them up, especially if Jermain Defoe keeps defying father time.

Speaking of the Meyerside, Everton are finally starting to play like the side some expected to see with Koeman at the helm, though consistency continues to be spotty. After an awful 1-1 draw with Swansea and 1-0 loss to his old side Southampton, the Toffees salvaged a point against United (1-1), lost a corker to Watford 3-2, pulled off a comeback to beat Arsenal 2-1, lost a tough one late 1-0 to Liverpool, beat Leicester 2-0, drew 2-2 with Hull and then cruised to a 3-0 victory over that same Southampton in the return fixture. The odd thing about the side, now up to seventh after floating around the lower half of the table for a couple of months, is they seem to play better against the top teams than those at the bottom … which sounds a little like another team you might know.

Across to Manchester, the two sides are winning but in very different ways. United, after being gifted a 2-0 win over West Ham yesterday by the maligned Mike Dean (who is doing his best to win worst referee of the season with a spurious red card to go with several other spurious red cards and penalties this season and then allowing his side judge to ignore one of the most obvious offside you will ever see) have now won 6 straight in the league (and 7 straight in total, and are undefeated in their past 13) to push closer to a Top 4 finish. Mourinho has quietly righted the ship and pushed the side to their longest win streak since Fergie last won the league almost four years ago.

On the other side of Manchester, another manager in his first season with the club is about as unhappy as anyone could possibly be winning four of his last five games after a pretty abject stretch. That one loss, to Liverpool 1-0 smarts, but is the style of play that has Guardiola up in arms. After the win yesterday, the Spaniard gave one of his more bizarre set of interviews in memory and then claimed he might quit managing in the relatively near future.

With one game left to go before we settle into a more reasonable set of fixtures, at least until the Champions and European League resume in a couple of months, it appears that Chelsea is creeping toward what could be an insurmountable lead. Don’t count out the chasers yet, though, as City were the favorites before a game was played – and after they started life so brightly under their now irked leader – then Liverpool seemed to be on high, there was a little stretch where people actually took Arsenal seriously and even United had its share of advocates. I think it is shaping up as a two-horse race, with Liverpool certainly capable of catching Chelsea if they slip up at all, while City and Arsenal are still very outside shots.

Looking at the table overall, we might be seeing the restoration of the established order in England, with the two interlopers, City and Tottenham, starting to solidify their credentials as Top table teams into the foreseeable feature. However, given how tight it is below Chelsea, with five points separating second place Liverpool from sixth place United, the battle for the Top 4 is shaping up as one of the best in recent memory. It is another nine points to seventh, where Everton currently reside, a point above a surprisingly sprightly West Broom. At the other end, Hull looks certain for the drop, Sunderland will again probably struggle near the bottom of the table, Swansea are still a decent bet to be relegated and, amazingly, Leicester are still in a relegation battle, alongside Crystal, Middlesboro, Watford and West Ham.

My bold prediction for the end of the season is Chelsea wins the title, Liverpool, City and Arsenal complete the Top 4 and Crystal, Swansea and Middlesboro drop.

No comments: