Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Arsenal Title Race Run after 3-1 Loss to Chelsea

Arsenal were thoroughly dominated by Chelsea in the early kickoff Saturday, essentially ending any hopes of a first title in 13 years. The Gunners actually started brightly before more shambolic defending all but gifted Chelsea the opener as a powerful header from Costa bounded off the bar and into the path of a charging Alonso, who swatted Bellerin like a fly before powering a header into the net in the 13th minute. Arsene called foul, but it was simply a player, emblematic of the team, overpowered by superior opponents.

Arsenal had a few chances to equalize, none more clear than a Gabriel header he really should have put in the back of the net, but went into the break behind. In the 53rd minute, Eden Hazard went on a Maradonesque run that included juking no less than four Gunners, before popping the ball over a diving Cech. With that goal, the goal was essentially over, though Cech decided to gift a goal to old teammate Fabergas with a truly pathetic gaffe before Giroud’s late meaningless header bounded in at the death.

Besides a compelling 5-3 away victory way back in October, 2011, Arsenal have had no answers against Chelsea, winning only two of the last 13 between the sides, with one the glorified friendly known as the Community Shield. The other was the comprehensive 3-0 victory in September of last year, a loss that has set Chelsea on their path to the title. In total, Chelsea have outscored them 22-6, winning 8 and drawing 3. As is often the case, the pressure on Wenger is again ramped up and a Top 4 finish might be enough to keep him in the job.

Four thoughts on the game:

1. 13 Years of Futility: Gary Neville, of all people, came to the defense of Arsene Wenger after the loss, calling a fan an “idiot” for bringing a sign calling on the maligned boss to call it a career. But the fan has a point. Arsenal will not win another title with the Frenchman in charge and really need to overcome their fear and take a chance on a new manager. There are plenty of young guns out there just waiting for a chance to jump up to the next level, and do a better job of adapting to the contemporary, more competitive and counterattacking milieu than the aesthete Wenger. He shows glimpses of that ability and then falls back on old habits, leaving the players and fans alike to rue yet another missed opportunity.

Wenger has won two pieces of silverware in his last 13 years in charge, the two FA Cups of 14 and 15, alongside two glorified-friendly Community Shields, if we are feeling particularly sorry for the old master. Is that really enough for the talent and money on offer from what was, a little over a decade ago, one of the best teams in all of Europe? Wenger used the move to the Emirates as a shield for several seasons, but he has now had three years with those reins stripped and the same old problems keep emerging. The title tilt ends after a poor February, or November, or March, they depart the Champions League at the first knockout ask and then enter the fight for the Top 4, which many then treat as a trophy.

I have laid out the case against Wenger in the past, generally around this time, though sometimes earlier. The past few seasons, minus two years ago, there has been real hope of a push forward to the top, but last season’s acquiescence to Leicester really was unforgiveable. And to do so again this year with two runs of double losses, both showed the age-old defensive frailties of the side is just too much to take. Wenger is a great coach, but his shortcomings have been on display for over half his reign and it is time to move forward and stop settling for mediocrity cloaked in the veil of consistency.

Would Chelsea really cede their two titles in three years for a Top 4 berth they missed in the seasons that sandwiched those titles? And finishing above Tottenham, on the rise as Arsenal have stuttered, is also not a trophy I any longer take much solace from.

If Wenger departs, as I truly hope he does, some others should follow him out the door. These players have been given chances to shine for years, but too often fail under the pressure of the biggest asks of the season. Walcott is not good enough, particularly on the biggest stage. His first touch is erratic, his defensive efforts pathetic and his finishing, while sometimes sublime, too often fails the Gunners when they need it most. He was unanimous in this game, as he often is when it really counts. Ozil is also not good enough when the games truly matter and, in reality, a disappointment since the second half of last season.

His blasé style is off-putting to some, but it is his lack of productivity in the biggest games that bothers me most. Last season, as Arsenal were on the cusp of overtaking Leicester after their last gasp winner, it was Ozil, along with Giroud and others, whose form seemed to dip considerably. His assists dried up to the point where he didn’t even catch Thierry Henry’s record for a season, after being on pace to absolutely smother that mark. And it is hard to forget the penalty he missed against Bayern a couple of seasons ago that could well have set Arsenal on their way to a huge upset (particularly given the 2-0 victory in the second leg). Finally, is Ramsey, who is injured too often and seemingly unable to replicate the form from a few years ago. There was talk back then that he was one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world, and the pundits had a point. And while rumors still swirl of a move to Barcelona that seem as accurate as the tweets coming out of the White House these days, I say let them have him.

It's the capitulation that hurts the most, the inability to truly show up when it matters most, to shore up a defense that was much better earlier in the year, to finish chances that have cost them so many points and to show the spirit against the big sides they have in some other matches this season. Who else can we blame in the end for the “naivety,” “immaturity” and “lack of preparation” for these games but the man in charge?

2. Defense in shambles: for the first goal, there was no organization or desire, several players caught ball watching as Bellerin tried to save the day. For the second, Hazard ran through the heart of the midfield and defense, as if in a no-touch pickup game with 50-year-olds. The third came on a Cech blunder, though who could blame him as he saw another chance at the title crumble passively before his eyes. Arsenal did have some chances to get back into the game and dominated possession, but lacked the strength or will to win. 

Two seasons ago, it looked like Wenger had finally learned his lesson. In tough games, particularly on the road, cede possession and play on the break. That strategy is out the window now and we have returned to meandering possession with little end product, getting caught defensively and showing no will to win. One could certainly point to the makeshift midfield of Ox and Coquelin, but don’t forget that the latter was part of a resurgent side that really should have won the title last season and that Ox started this campaign somewhat brightly.

Most disappointing of all, though, is the fact that not only Ozil, as is his habit, disappeared her, but that Sanchez was equally poor. When looking across the squad, it was hard to find a solitary performer who could leave the pitch with their head held high. And that includes a defensive pairing that seemed to be finding some success before new signing Mustafi suffered an injury. He was actually undefeated in the league until the two losses last week, but those two losses effectively ended Arsenal’s season, at least in the league.

Since a 2-0 win over Reading in the League Cup on October 25, Arsenal have played 21 games in all competitions, racking up only four clean sheets – in a 1-0 victory over West Brom, a 2-0 victory over the goal-shy Crystal Palace, a 4-0 destruction of Swansea on the cusp of a managerial shift and in a 5-0 thrashing of Southampton’s B-team. Over that stretch, they blew 1-0 leads over both Everton and Man City, let Bournemouth take a 3-0 lead and shipped five in the last two games. That is not the stuff of champions.

3. Anatomy of Another Wasted Season: Arsenal were within points of the pinnacle of the league, when their faulty defense cost them six points and built a gap to first-place Chelsea for the first time. The first was against an Everton side that was not playing well at the time and a reeling City that seemed ripe for the plucking. That came after a nice unbeaten stretch that included a disappointing draw with United, who were not playing well before the game.

After those two losses, Arsenal bounced back with a couple of clean-sheet wins, as outlined above, but then came the disappointing 3-3 draw at Bournemouth that perfectly captures the problem with this team. Arsenal had every opportunity to complete that unlikely comeback, but instead Giroud spent valuable time celebrating the equalizer as the clock ran toward conclusion. Sanchez yelled at him at the time, but it was a fruitless call to arms. Five wins followed, with the impressive 5-0 victory over Southampton in the FA Cup on the 28th of January.

And then, with a chance to cut the gap to Chelsea to six and make the game Saturday an opportunity to put real pressure on the leaders, Arsenal failed to show up for their midweek clash with Watford, finding a way to lose 2-1, as their comeback was halfhearted at best. And then there was this futile display. Those four losses and draw within the past seven weeks have cost the side 14 points and are thus the difference between their current position and first place. In the EPL, no one is going to go an entire season without a loss – unless we look back to those very Invincibles that stunned the world in 2003-04 – but to pick these games to put in their worst performances of the season shows the lack of mettle that has cost Arsenal for so long.

The great irony this term is all those late goal comebacks to snatch draws, as in the United and Bournemouth games, or winners, as in the two Burnley games, against Ludogrets and, with a little more time, against Swansea. But when they look back, it will be two two-game losing streaks that cost them the season, rather than a longer run of poor form that generally does the job.

4. Conte Impresses Again: Chelsea have won 16 of their last 18 after that impressive Gunners 3-0 win earlier in the season. In fact, it was halftime of that game when he switched to the 3-4-3 system that started the run. At the same point last season, the Blues had 30 less points and were in 13th - with essentially the same team. It's an extraordinary accomplishment and shows Conte is among the most undervalued managers around, with his dominance at Juve, which has admittedly continued since he left, a nice brief stint with Italy culminating with the victory over Spain at the Euros and now the presumptive title in his first season in England, crushing a United side that has been spending truckloads full of money, a City side that appeared to be the most talented heading into the season and a Spurs team that went on a long unbeaten run that stretched to December. I'd like to add an Arsenal team that had a long unbeaten run themselves after their opening loss to Liverpool, but their perennial collapse right around this time of year every season for 13 means Gooners like me were just waiting for the moment they would fall out of the race.

Last season was their real shot to stop the rot and sea changes will be needed to mount another title charge in the coming years. For Chelsea, a coronation is a bit premature, but it's hard to see them giving up their second title in three seasons while Arsenal will again get to work attempting to finish in the top four, which they could soon be looking up at. They could take a lesson from Conte, who was unafraid to leave talented players on the bench, to adjust to the team at his disposal and to imbue a winning attitude that looks set to bear fruit in short order. 

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