Monday, April 03, 2017

Arsenal Top Four Ambitions Take Another Hit (2-2 Man City)

Arsenal showed some spirit today, coming back from one-goal deficits twice to draw even with City, but failed to finish the job and now sit seven points clear of fourth place with only 10 games to play. This marks the worst position Arsenal have been in after 28 games in Wenger’s reign, though they ironically have more points and wins than in any of the other four seasons where they sat outside the top 4 this late in the season (always in fifth place, finishing in fourth in every season except one – 1999-00, when they came in second).

Three thoughts on a game that makes the task of getting back to the Champions League that much more difficult:

1. Wenger Must Go
The time has come to state the obvious – the Frenchman must go, whether he wants to or not. The upper management has to finally put their collective feet down and say enough is enough. Not only is the Top Four looking less likely with each game, but Arsenal are in real danger of falling behind the pack for years to come. Sanchez looks almost certain to leave, maybe to move across town to hated rivals Chelsea, Ozil might follow him out the door, Bellerin appears to have had his head turned by Barcelona and several others could well exit as well.

Chaos reigns supreme at the moment, the team lacking confidence, lacking the will to win, lacking leadership and seemingly lost on the pitch. Simple passes go wanting, every counterattack appears likely to end up in the Gunner’s net and our biggest stars continue to underperform in the biggest games. Not just Ozil, who is the biggest recipient of fan unrest at the moment, but Sanchez, who again was largely uninspired in a game Arsenal had to win. Yet who is to blame? With Ozil, it is hard not to argue that he himself is largely culpable for his inability to perform in the biggest games, or really in several months at the level we have come to expect (even as it was his corner that Mustafi headed into the far corner to equalize in the 53rd minute). With Sanchez, it is hard to understand why Wenger took him out of the centre forward role where he thrived so well when the Gunner’s were on a long unbeaten streak and still in the title race. Yet it is just the latest example of the questionable decisions Wenger has made throughout the season, including leaving Sanchez on the bench for the first half against Liverpool, his 45 minutes on the pitch not enough to stop the rot.

The ultimate measure of a manager is results, but the problems at Arsenal go beyond the one win in their last six premier league games and seventh straight knockout from the Champions League in the Round of 16. Even as Arsenal fought hard today, showing a physicality largely missing from the team for over a decade, closing on the ball with vigor and coming back to equalize twice, it was two defensive mistakes and an inability to complete the comeback over the final 39 minutes (including three minutes of stoppage time), the way Walcott waddled off the field without protestation, the pathetic effort from Ozil and the lack of celebration even when they did score that speaks volumes. Wenger has lost the side and only a new manager can turn things around for a side this hollowed of belief. Be a mensch, Arsene, say adieu.  

2. Defense the Key Problem (as usual)
As with so many of their disappointing results this season, it was the defense that let them down, even as they seemed to play with more passion and aggression. Within five minutes, Mustafi charged forward to challenge for a 50/50 ball too far in City’s half, leaving Bellerin and Koscielny to track back after a wonderful pass forward by De Bruyne to Sane, who rounded Ospina and finished coolly into the open net. The second came after Arsenal had gotten back into the game with a cool finish from Walcott after a fortuitous failed clearance from a corner. Ozil carelessly gave the ball away and then failed to chase it down or even get into position defensively, allowing City to get the ball to an open Aguero, who score with impressive precision between Ospina and two Arsenal defenders. It was typical of the Gunners over the past three months.  

To put things in perspective, Arsenal started the season shipping four goals to Liverpool in an uninspiring opener. Then they went the next 9 games conceding no more than a goal, before a 3-2 victory over Swansea. Three clean sheets followed, before a 4-1 victory over Sunderland. From there, things were up and down, including a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over lowly Ludogorets, two straight 1-1 draws, a blown 2-1 lead over PSG (ended 2-2) before a stretch of five games where they again conceded one (4 times) or no (1 time) goals. It was in the next game, against Everton, on December 10 ,where their nearly perennial defensive collapse began.

They, of course, ceded the early 1-0 lead in that game before losing 2-1, followed by the same turnaround against City five days later. Two clean sheets followed, but since that Everton loss, which started a slow tailspin that took them first out of the title race and then the Top 4 full-stop, Arsenal have conceded 34 goals. That is 34 goals in 20 games, in all competitions. If we take out the four FA Cup games, where they played vastly inferior competition, it becomes 33 goals in 16 games. And therein lies the problem. It is hard to win consistently when you are ceding over two goals per game. And since January 31, it is even worse. Two goals to lowly Watford in a 2-1 loss, three to Chelsea (1-3), five to Bayern (5-1), three to Liverpool (1-3), five to Bayern again (5-1), three to West Brom (3-1) and the two to Man City today.

Koscielny went out at halftime today, again displaying the fragility that has beset him for much of the season, forcing Arsenal to turn to Gabriel. Ironically, the Brazilian actually comported himself well and the Gunners held City scoreless in the second half. But it was the two goals in the first half, both on defensive errors, that cost them the three points they dearly needed. The first came down to Mustafi, who seems to have declined considerably since returning from injury and the second from Ozil, who has a proclivity for poor and uninspired performances when the games count.

3. Top 4 Calculations
The draw today, like the one against Bournemouth back on January 3, might feel good for the resiliency displayed in coming back twice, but the reality is it is two points dropped that the Gunners simply couldn’t afford to cede. Arsenal have 10 games left and sit seven points behind City in fourth place – though with a game in hand. How do those ten games look? Well, the next four are winnable, hosting West Ham and Sunderland, with road trips to Crystal and Boro in between. Then things get considerably trickier, with a matchup against a resurgent Leicester, a North London Derby at White Hart Lane, a visit from a United side that hasn’t lost in 19 games, a tricky visit to Stoke and then a final home game against a much-improved Everton.

City do head to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea on Wednesday and have the Manchester Derby April 27, but otherwise have a pretty smooth ride, playing many of the same teams as Arsenal, with a couple of other easy games thrown in. Liverpool are in even better position, with none of their eight remaining games against any of the Top 7. The only advantage Arsenal has is the two games in hand, but that might no longer be enough, particularly with the eight points now separating the two.

Arsenal’s chances of finishing in the Top 4 are more perlious than at any time in the past decade and it appears unlikely they will climb the two spaces necessary to reclaim something Wenger has been able to provide every year of his two-decade tenure. If that isn’t enough to finally replace him, I suppose nothing is.

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