Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Capitulation: Arsenal Fall 3-0 to Crystal Palace

Arsenal’s season has gone from crisis to downright catastrophe after a humiliating 3-0 loss at Selhurst Park Monday evening. It was the fifth loss in their last eight league games, the first time they have lost four straight away league games under Wenger and the furthest they have been behind Tottenham (14 points) since 1963. Even more troubling, they are closer to Crystal Palace in 16th than Chelsea in first in terms of points earned this season. Three thoughts on a season on the brink:

1. Wenger Continues to Hem and Haw
According to multiple sources, Wenger has a contract awaiting his signature to extend his stay for two more torturous years. Yet is there any way we can envision the fans being happy with him at the helm after the displays we have seen over the past three months? Not only did the loss put their Top 4 ambitions in serious doubt, now sitting seven points behind fourth place City, but it comes with the strong possibility of losing our two best players come season’s end.  

Wenger seemed to have rebuilt the team over the past few seasons, challenging for the title last season and finishing in second place for the first time in a decade. They lost the season opener this campaign and then went on a long 19-game unbeaten streak before two losses in a week in mid-December seemed to start a slow downward spiral that has only accelerated as the months have passed. One can understand losses to Liverpool and Chelsea and a draw with Man City, in line with Wenger’s rather awful record against the rest of the Top 4 over the past decade, but a 3-3 draw with Bournemouth, 2-1 loss to Watford, 3-1 defeat by West Brom and then 3-0 loss to Crystal? All within this calendar year? And coupled with the 10-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern in the Champions League? Or the fact that our defense has ceded three or more goals in six of their last twelve games in all competitions, and two or more in 11 of their last 21? A defensive record like that seems more in line with a midtable side than one vying for titles.

How low can the expectations at Arsenal now go before they finally make the move that should have occurred at least two seasons ago? Wenger might well carry on, but if he does leave, who would want the job? There were rumors of Allegra or Tuchel, among others, but I wonder if any of them would still be interested without Champions League football on offer and no sense that a quick turnaround is in the offing. Some will blame injuries, or the poor performance of the players on the pitch, but isn’t that the job of the manager? Why have so few of the youngsters he has cultivated over recent years lived up to their potential, including Wilshere, Walcott, Gibbs, Ramsey or Ox? Why has a losing mentality again taken hold of the club after a long unbeaten streak? Why is every season like a remake of Groundhog’s Day without any happy ending? And why has Wenger refused to put Sanchez back through the middle, where he thrived during the first half of the campaign?

There are no good answers to any of these questions but to say that Wenger is the primary source of blame for the current malaise in the club. He seems unable to motivate his players from week to week, fails to make the right tactical adjustments either between or within games (as Conte has on the way to the title), has not replaced the leadership of Mertesacker or Arteta since their departure (and really since Viera) and fails to find the right formula for victory more often than any other “top” manager in the world. Keeping the 67-year-old these last few seasons might actually push Arsenal into Liverpool territory, as their best players are sold and they have to find inferior replacements. The one thing Wenger has brought since the fecund eight-year spell that started his reign is continuity, getting them through the movement to the Emirates and keeping them in the Top 4. Now even that rather mediocre achievement might be lost and with it a clear path forward. One season out of the UCL might actually not be that big a deal, as United have shown by spending big and enticing stars to join the project even without the preeminent European competition on offer. But can the same be said for Arsenal? They have had trouble securing many of their targets over the past five or six years, even with perennial Champions League participation on offer.

A miracle is still possible, but more likely is an ignominious end to the career of the manager who is arguably the greatest, and most confounding, Arsenal have ever had. In his wake, years of mediocrity might be the price for sticking with him far too long.

2. Players Poor Across the Board

Arsenal were awful in all three facets of the game Monday, outplayed from back to front by every player on the pitch, save maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain, who came on for a 20 minute sting. They again bossed possession, to the tune of 72% for the game, but were outshot 17-11 (with only 3 on target to Crystal’s 6) and outfouled (11 to 10). When Townsend scored the opener in the 17th minute, after some poor defending and failing to close on the ball, Arsenal woke up but failed to make much of their possession or a few opportunities to equalize. The second half started with Crystal in the ascendancy, as the Gunners seemed bereft of ideas or energy, and doubled the lead from a thundering strike by Cabaye across goal. From there Arsenal seemed to lose any semblance of fighting spirit and the defeat was complete five minutes later when third-string keeper Martinez felled Townsend in the box, easily beaten by Milivojevic from the resultant penalty.

Hopes of a sustained renaissance from Ozil were quickly put to bed, as he failed to spark a comeback down 1-0 and was among the players who seemed to give up one of the second goal went in. Others appeared to give up from the kickoff, including Bellerin, who is on an increasingly troubling decline in form since the turn of the calendar to 2017. Paulista was nowhere to be found for the opener and out of position for the second, Mustafi continues to flounder without Koscielny by his side (and even with him there of late), Elneny and Xhaka provided little cover to the back and the front line failed to find its way around a Crystal Palace that sat back and absorbed their possession without much peril. Even Sanchez again seemed below his best, a tendency that has been underreported given his impressive statistics over the course of the entire campaign.

Most troubling might have been Walcott, who had five touches in the first half and didn’t do much better after the break, before apologizing to the fans after the game claiming Palace simply “wanted it more.” How is that even possibly after Arsenal had again put the Top Four within their own hands? Why is there no response from a team after suffering one humiliating loss after another? Where is the leadership? Where is the will to win? Maybe a complete overhaul and a few years in the European hinterlands are the only thing that can restore Arsenal to their prior glory. This bunch certainly seems unlikely to get them there any time soon.

3. Crystal Streaking Toward Safety
As pathetic as the Gunners were, one has to be impressed with Crystal Palace and the progress they have recently made under Big Sam, the man who has yet to be relegated in his career. Crystal have won five of their last six games, including the win Monday and a 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge less than a fortnight before. They are now six points above 17th place Swansea, with a game in hand, and a full ten points above Middlesboro and Sunderland. After many thought they were going down around the turn of the year, after a torrid 2016, they have found their feet again, combining some stout defending with a strong counterattack and good play from set pieces.

In a rather ironic turn of events, Arsenal had only conceded one goal from a corner all season coming into this game, but Palace made it two on the way to their comprehensive victory. And it was the comprehensiveness of that victory that was so impressive. Against Chelsea, they battled through and took their chances; here they dominated for most of the game and absorbed the pressure for the few stretches when Arsenal did awake from their almost 90-minute slumber.

Looking at their fixture list for the rest of the season, this was an imperative three points and they are still far from safety. Among their last seven games, they still have a suddenly hot Leicester, a trip to Anfield, a visit from second place Tottenham, a trip to the Etihad and a final-day match at Old Trafford. Given that list, the home matchups against Burnley and Hull could be the key to their survival.

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