Friday, February 17, 2017

Capitulation: Bayern 5 Arsenal 1!

In what is likely to be Arsene Wenger’s last game of consequence in the Champions League, at least for Arsenal, his side flopped to a 5-1 defeat at Bayern, showing the sort of mettle one generally finds among a kindergarten team playing against High Schoolers or Commodus. After scraping out a 1-1 halftime score, the Gunners absolutely collapsed after Bayern retook the lead in the 53rd minute, shipping three goals in 10 minutes. The final Bayern score came from a guy who can’t seem to find the side of the barn, much less a goal, this season.

Three thoughts on a game that should lead to major change in the offseason for the boys in Red and White (and I do mean boys!):

1. Wenger Done: there is unlikely to be an announcement until the end of the season, but it is hard to see the Frenchman wanting to repeat the seven-year Groundhog’s Day procession of mediocrity that has marked his knockout stage record in the UCL over that period. In the last six first leg Round of 16 matchups, the Gunners have lost by a combined score of 19-3 (5-1 yesterday, 2-0 at Barca last season, 3-1 to Monaco at home in 15, 2-0 and 3-1 to Bayern the two years prior and 4-0 on the road to AC Milan in 2012). That cannot be all down to the players and has to ultimately fall at the feet of a manager whose second decade in charge has been marred by epic collapses whenever success seems available on some distant horizon the team is too myopic to see, much less realize.

It is also important to note that this loss comes on the heels of a series of poor performances that have taken the Gunners out of the title race and League Cup. In total, Arsenal have lost 5 of their last 13 fixtures in all competitions, with the only two truly convincing performances over that period the 4-0 mauling of bottom-dwelling Swansea in the league and 5-0 dispatching of Southampton’s B-team in the FA Cup. In the others, Arsenal ceded the lead twice and lost to a side they should have been able to beat with their B-squad, who one should note were the group that garnered that second victory, with a few regular starters peppered in. As the now old cliché goes, true insanity is to try the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. Might that more or less encapsulate the French manager’s approach since his halcyon first decade in charge?

Wenger has simply lost either the will or ability to motivate and organize his team to win the big games. The pattern is the same most years. Hopes of a title fizzle in the second half of the season as they lose key games to rivals, like the 3-1 capitulation at Stanford Bridge a week and a half ago, or drop points to sides they should easily beat, like the 2-1 home loss to Watford the week before or the earlier 3-3 draw with Bournemouth. Injuries seem to play a role each season, with the loss of Cazorla quickly leading to a drop-off in form that has only worsened with time, points dropped when Mustafi is out and Ramsey, Koscielny and a host of others spending time on the sidelines in losses or draws. The team shows some defensive solidity and then fall off as the season continues. Players become jaded and perform well below their talent level or expectations. Some bad result seems to cause most to then lose all faith and the side is suddenly playing like a disjointed set of squares pegs. After a disappointing loss in the Round of 16 in the Champions League and with the title more-or-less out of reach, they rebound to finish in the Top 4.

There was real hope after back-to-back FA Cups in 2014 and 2015, ending a ten-year drought without a trophy and the victory in the preseason Community shield over Chelsea before the 2015-16 season had some choosing the side to win the title. That title charge lasted longer than most, but in a season where they beat the champions twice, the bitterness of losing to a side threatened with relegation on either side of that crown will probably smart for years to come. This season, some believed Arsenal might learn their lesson from last season and finally be poised to get back to the summit, particularly after a long unbeaten streak followed a 4-3 loss to Liverpool on opening day, including several comebacks for victory or draws from the jaws of defeat. But the same reason most pundits doubted their title credentials have again come home to roost.

But as seems to happen to this side every season since the Invincibles reign ended, they lose control of the midfield and forget that defending is as important as attack. The 2-1 loss to Everton, after taking a 1-0 lead early, started the downward turn and pulling off the same collapse against City less than a week later begged the same old questions. Arsenal rebounded from those losses with two wins and then gifted struggling Bournemouth a 3-0 lead before coming back for a scintillating, but ultimately unfulfilling, draw. Then Arsenal won four straight, though less convincingly than earlier in the season, before three losses in their last four matches essentially ended their chance of anything but the Top 4 and what increasingly looks like an unlikely FA Cup run.

Wenger has been criticized for years for his miserly spending, his tactical inflexibility, his powerlessness to get his players up for the big games and some questionable personnel choices. Starting in 2014, there were signs, though, that he was finally willing to splash some cash, that he had the capacity to instruct his teams to defend and play on the counter in big games on the road and that he could be a little more ruthless with underperforming stars. Yet this season the same old patterns have reemerged and one wonders how much longer the organization can suborn this perennial mediocrity.

Wenger will be missed on the sideline for all my criticism over the past few years, but we need change, even if it leads to a few fallow years in the interim. The football is just too stale when it counts the most, the extinguished hope more heartbreaking each season and the inability of the players to truly show up week after week apoplectic-inducing. Wenger has served the club well over his tenure, winning plenty of trophies in his first seven years in charge and then seeing them through the transition to the Emirates, which should guarantee the long-term financial viability of the club. But given money to spend and a sense that practicality might serve him well, he failed to find the right formula to succeed from the beginning of a campaign until its end. And that, more than anything, is the likely reason he will leave this summer.

2. Defensive Woes Only Worsen: even with Koscielny in the starting lineup, the Gunners have reverted to the defensive problems that have beset them for most of the past decade. Without him, they looked like a B-team against a roster of All-Stars, which isn’t that far off with Bayern. Before listing all of the problems with the Gunner’s defending, though, it is important to give the German side credit, as they controlled possession through most of the games, had a multifaceted attack in full throttle and finished with real verve. Even Thomas Mueller, suffering through the first sustained goal drought of his career, chipped in at the end. And the first from Robben was sublime, if not predictable. There was some fortuitousness in the other three, but the Germans appeared to be playing at three-quarter speed after the third goal and missed several other opportunities to pile it on.

And the game epitomizes everything that is wrong with Arsenal. For one is their inability to close down the ball in and around the box, leaving them exposed far too often. For the opener, Gibbs was unable to keep up with Robben as he started his signature cut in to the left. Ospina failed to take the two steps to the right any keeper should, if they have studied Robben’s goals over the years. And Coquelin, the guiltiest of the three, failed to come across to block the angle and shot. And so, Arsenal were behind early in the first leg of the Round of 16 – a position that has become endemic for the side since 2011, though in that game they famously came back to steal a 2-1 win that almost led them past Barcelona. Might things have turned out differently if Van Persie wasn’t shown one of the most ridiculous second Yellow Cards in the history of the competition? Well, alternative history might be fun to mull over, but it does little to salve our wounds.

Arsenal held on as Bayern poured on the pressure and then earned a slightly fortuitous penalty (as Koscielny appeared to lean in to the hack that left him splayed on the pitch), followed by a very fortuitous bit of magic by Sanchez, after whiffing on both his penalty kick and the seemingly unmissable rebound to atone for both mistakes with a sublime goal that was truly a thing of beauty. He first chested his own rebound and then with lightning quick reflexes sent it at an acute angle across goal with enough pace to beat Neuer and two Bayern defenders. Suddenly even with 15 minutes to go in the half, Arsenal grew into the game and actually had two good chances to take the lead before the break, with Neuer doing well to save both.
The second half began with Arsenal again looking more agile, but then Koscielny went down with a hamstring problem and the entire team seemed to lose their steam and determination in equal measure. The second goal came as a result of Gibbs again getting beat, this time down the right channel for a cross that Lewandowski rose above Mustafi to place away from Ospina at the far post. This has been a problem that has occurred with increasing frequency in the past couple of months, players getting free down the right wing and sending in crosses that are met by players who outmuscle Mustafi or Bellerin or some other midfielder trying to cover. It has also been the case on too many set pieces in recent months and it is hard to ignore the fact Arsenal are the first English side to concede 200 goals in the competition.

One could argue the entire defense, with the exception of Ospina and Koscielny, before he went off, were bad, but it is also important to note the downturn in Coquelin’s form. He registered the fewest touches of any outfield player, besides Kos, completing just 44% of his passes on 20 touches. Xhaka was not much better, unlucky to be the player the ball careened off for the third. But watching the Gunners standing around and tracking back in a jog as the game collapsed around them really told us everything we need to know about a team in disarray.

Arsenal’s defense is shipping goals like a malfunctioning Fed Ex truck and one reason appears to be a very high conversion rate for their opponents, who are turning 44 percent of their shots into goals. That is a seven-year high and 12 percent increase over last term. But maybe most disturbing of all from the game Wednesday was the number of fouls the entire side committed in the second half – one. That’s right, as the game started to get out of hand, no one stepped up to stop the Bayern attack with a simple tackle or foul. That lack of will to win is at the heart of the problem with this side and the reason Wenger is likely to leave at the end of the season, even as he suggested today he will be coaching somewhere next term.

3. Squad in Turmoil: As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I truly believe others should follow Wenger out the door. For all his talent, it is clear Ozil is not the man to lead Arsenal to trophies and should be sold while he still has value in the market. To put numbers to his ineptitude on the biggest stage, he has only created 14 chances and no assists in the games against Chelsea, United, Tottenham, City, Liverpool, Munich and the two games with PSG (leading to a 19-14 deficit for the side). Against these seven clubs, Ozil is completing just 43.5 passes and creating 1.67 chances per game, compared to 58.1 and 2.93 against everyone else. To be fair, it appears his production declines when Giroud (who has converted 10 of his 14 shots in all competitions this season) is not on the pitch. It is also worth noting that his chances created per game has been on a steady decline since 2010-11, with the exception of last season when he was excellent for 5 months and then slowed down. Over that seven-year period, he has gone from 4.5 to 2.5 chances created per game. Even if he does go on to win trophies elsewhere, I think we can be comfortable in knowing he was not the man to do it in North London.

There are also questions to be asked of Theo Walcott, whose overall statistics actually look good until you dig deeper. He has 21 starts and 6 sub appearances this season and has accrued 14 goals, or more than one every other appearance. But he has only contributed two assists all season as a winger and only 0.5 key passes a game. He also has a completion rate on his passes of 75.4; not bad, but not exemplary. However, it is his defense where the numbers become truly damning, with only 1.3 tackles a game, 0.5 interceptions and 0.6 fouls. Those are better than earlier in his career, when he barely played on the back end of the pitch, but still troubling for how they expose those behind him on the counter. And that closer look at the goals show they have come in bunches, with a hat trick against a weakened Southampton side in the FA Cup and seven in a six-game patch between mid-September and mid-October. Since then, forgoing the FA Cup game, he has scored only three goals in 15 games, including providing almost no threat against Bayern.

Gabriel looked like a potential starter when he first arrived, but his development has gone backwards with less time on the pitch and he does not appear to be the reliable backup or starter in the side, Wenger hoped he would become. He might be more solid on the left than through the middle, but the following stat might be the most telling: he has been on pitch for each of the Gunner’s five losses since December. More troubling, is when we compare his stats to Koscielny’s. Gabriel puts in more tackles per game (1.9 to 1.6), but less interceptions (1.6 to 2.6), more fouls (1 to .6), less clearances (4 to 5.6) and fewer blocks (0.4 to 0.6). To be fair, Gabriel has been playing on the right more often this season, and might be an able backup for Bellerin going forward, but it is clear the Gunners ship more goals with him in the side, including the last 4 on Wednesday. And while Mustafi and Koscielny appear to be the short to medium term starters for the side, a troubling drop-off from the new man must be addressed, after he went undefeated for the first half season of his Arsenal career.

And questions must also be asked about Ramsey and Ox. The two have looked like superstars in the making at times, but have failed to deliver consistently or in the biggest games for some time now. Ramsey has been mediocre at best this season after a great Euros and his penchant for injury makes him a liability at key points of the season almost every term. Ox, after some good performances that made one wonder if he might be the answer in the center of the midfield, put in one of his worst performances in an Arsenal uniform and it is that inconsistency which is starting to ask deeper questions about his long-term potential.

The problem, of course, is Arsenal are not a FIFA videogame side that can be shunted about without problem and unloading so many players in one summer, particularly when Sanchez seems closer to the exit every day, is unrealistic. Some changes must come, with more chances for the academy kids to push the starters to put in more effort, with a clear number 1 striker if Sanchez goes and a creative box-to-box midfielder to backup Cazorla when another long-term injury inevitably emerges.

It is the exit of Sanchez that will hurt the most, of course, as the impetus for him to go seems to grow with every game, including a group of 7,000 Chileans who are planning to take to the streets in a march to demand that he move on to greener pastures next season. Why not take the money and run to Paris or Turin, where the opportunities for annual trophies are so much greater? Sanchez has been the standout performer for Arsenal this term, scoring 20 while chipping in an impressive 13 assists, but his consternation with his teammates is palpable and growing in magnitude as another season slips away. With his departure and potentially Ozil’s to follow, Arsenal will be without a star and in desperate need of a summer of spending they have never pulled off in their history. A storm is coming, Mr. Kroenke. Are you up to making the changes necessary to bring winning ways back to North London, or ready to start a downward spiral of mediocrity that could undo the good work Wenger did in his first decade in charge? Only the future will tell. 

No comments: