Saturday, May 20, 2017

Arsenal Strong Finish Could All Be For Nought

Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Sunderland Tuesday makes it five wins in their last six, including victories over Manchester United in the League and Manchester City in the FA Cup Semifinals. Yet the 2-0 loss to Tottenham a little over a fortnight ago might very well be the nail in the coffin of their 20-year residency in the Champions League. That loss, which guaranteed the Spurs would finish above Arsenal for the first time in 22 years, also should have been the final straw for Arsene Wenger. Instead the strong finish and the potential for a record-breaking seventh FA Cup victory could just keep the Frenchman around for another year or two. Some thoughts on the run in and future of my beloved Gunners:

1.    The Losses That Hurt the Most
Arsenal are tied for the third most wins in the league this season, with 22, but have three more losses (9) than any team in the top 6 and only one less than their opponent, Everton, in the final game of the season. They have only drawn 6 games all year, tied for third lowest with Sunderland, behind only Chelsea (3), Crystal and Swansea (5 each). And they have the fifth best goal difference, behind the four teams in front of them in the table. With the chances of Middlesboro taking at least a point from Liverpool in the final game to save Wenger’s perfect Champions League qualification record unlikely, particularly as Middlesboro have absolutely nothing to play for, it truly looks like the end of an era.

Unfortunately, Wenger hasn’t gotten the news, or refuses to accept it. As with a few years ago, it seems likely his two best players might be heading for the exit a year after a legitimate title tilt was undermined by another second half meltdown, right on the heals of a last gasp victory against the eventual Champions Leicester. And a couple of other stars might also be on their way out, including a suddenly rejuvenated (though still injury-prone) Oxlade-Chamberlain. Why? Not only the lack of silverware on offer over the past decade, but the inability of Wenger, the last remaining “emperor” of English football, to get his players signed before they enter the final two years of their contract. Maybe Ozil will stay, with high end suitors yet to surface, and maybe Wenger will keep his promise and force Sanchez to line up in red and white for another year, but we’ve heard that line before (all Gooners must remember that Robin Van Persie open letter on his way to helping Ferguson go out with one final title, huh?).

Looking at a season on the brink, a few losses and draws stand out as the most painful to contemplate as we consider the one point that will likely separate us from another year in the UCL. One should start with a brief mention of the opening day 4-3 defeat to Liverpool at the Emirates, a game Arsenal should have at least drawn but for a short spell when the team that will likely supplant us in the Top 4 ran riot over a makeshift defense. Arsenal, of course, then went on a 19-game unbeaten streak in all competitions before losing 2-0 to Southampton in the League Cup. They won their next three on the bounce before two games that defined a slow collapse that only accelerated over the next three months. First they ceded a 1-0 lead to Everton ultimately losing 2-1 and then did the same thing five days later at Man City.

They did rebound well from those two losses, winning three on the bounce, but then gifted Bournemouth three goals before a spirited comeback that ended in a 3-3 draw. Even as many positives could be taken out of that comeback and team spirit, the two dropped points are among the reasons they find their destiny outside their hands heading into the final day of the season and one should remember the look Sanchez gave Giroud as he celebrated the extra time equalizer while there was still time to take all three points. Was that the moment Sanchez decided he wanted to leave? We will never know, but that draw might be as instrumental as any of their nine losses.

They did go on another four-game winning streak after that draw, but then came the match that is probably the worst loss of the entire season, capitulating 2-1 to a poor Watford side at the Emirates, a game they just couldn’t afford to lose. It is from here the season began to unravel completely. Next came a 3-1 capitulation at Stamford Bridge, the 10-2 two-leg destruction by Bayern, a 3-1 loss to Liverpool and two more embarrassing losses – 3-1 at West Brom and 3-0 to lowly Crystal Palace, in the relegation fight until a week ago. The loss to Crystal did at least signal a change in the side, switching to a back three that has seen them win six of their last seven matches (more on this below). And yet it felt like an act of desperation a few weeks too late.    

2.    Record Against Top 7
Arsenal have a chance to finish with a victory against the Top 7, which would be only their third in the league all season. They suffered a double to the Liverpool side that is likely to finish above them, split the two games with Chelsea (with their 3-0 win at the Emirates a costly one for the entire league as it pushed the Blues to switch to three at the back and stand on the cusp of setting the record for wins in a season along the road to their title), did take four points from United, drew and lost to Tottenham, got one point from two games with City and lost to Everton in the reverse fixture. That is a record of (2-3-6) and 9 out of a possible 33 points. More than the disappointing losses to Watford, West Brom and Crystal, or the disappointing 3-3 draw with Bournemouth, another season of underperformance against their closest competition is both the proximate cause of their failures and a further indictment of a man who has outstayed his welcome by at least two seasons now and seems likely to continue onward undaunted by criticism from the fans or the pundits.

One should not discount some more positive results over the course of the season, however. Arsenal absolutely crushed Chelsea in their first encounter at the Emirates, came back to draw with City, beat the same side in the FA Cup semifinals and took four points from United in a season for the first time in recent memory. They also played Tottenham to a tough 1-1 stalemate in the first half of the season and only lost three games at home all season. The real story of their season has a lot to do with going from one of the best road teams in the league over the past few seasons to a decidedly suspect side away from home and the continued pattern of second-half capitulation before a late charge. This year, for the first time in a couple of decades, the charge could well be a point too few …

3.  Late Rejuvenation of Ozil and Sanchez Hopeful or Baffling?
It is hard not to place at least some of the blame for the second half collapse at the feet of our second most talented player, as Ozil continued to show a troubling tendency to disappear at the most inopportune of moments. The truth is he has been wildly inconsistent for over a season now, after an excellent three quarters of a season last year where he was on the cusp of breaking Henry’s record 20 assists in a season (he came up short in the end). Early on this season, as the Gunners went on their 19-game unbeaten streak, he was contributing less assists but more goals. But then the goals dried up, his assist record didn’t improve dramatically and his inability or unwillingness to play on both sides of the ball cost Arsenal dearly in several games. He has returned to scintillating form of late, with one goal and two assists in the last three and two more goals and an assist in his last 10. It is informative to consider, however, that two of his worst performances came in the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Crystal Palace and the 2-0 humiliation at Tottenham (the only two losses over that period). Overall, Ozil has 12 goals and 11 assists in 38 appearances in the league and Champions League, which is not a bad haul. But those numbers have come in chunks and his performance in games against the Top 7 and Bayern, to name the most obvious, over the past few months raise continued concerns about his commitment and ability to help Arsenal win on the biggest stage.

Sanchez, of course, is having an extraordinary season, the best of his professional career. He has 23 goals and 10 assists in 37 league appearances, 3 and 3 in 8 Champions League appearances and another two goals in four FA Cup appearances (two off the bench). Overall, that is 29 goals and 13 assists, including four goals and an assist in the past three games alone and six since the Gunners went on their run of six wins in the last seven. But his performance has also been a little uneven at times, with stray passes contributing to Arsenal’s defensive woes and several important games where he failed to score, including the 2-0 loss to Tottenham, the 3-0 capitulation to Crystal Palace, the 3-1 loss to Liverpool, the 2-2 draw with Man City, the second leg of the Bayern tie, the 3-1 loss to Chelsea, the 2-1 loss to Watford and the 2-1 loss to City in December. We can’t expect Sanchez to score every game, but his record against the Top 6 is not great and one could argue his negative energy on the field appears to spread like a pandemic across the entire side at times.

Even given the issues with the two, Arsenal will be a better football team with both lining up next season. The problem is the reality that it is likely one or both of them will be gone and the gulf in class that will leave will be hard to fill if they are stuck in the Europa League with a manager who seems to be unwilling to say goodbye even as his best days are becoming a speck in the rearview mirror. The rejuvenation does give the side some hope for next season, with Xhaka emerging as a great deep-lying creator, Ramsey improving (even as he can’t seem to find the back of the net), Rob Holding showing that he has the talent to be a consistent starter in the near future, and even Bellerin rediscovering the form that made him one of our most exciting youngsters earlier in the season. Lacazette has just played his last game in France and it now appears that we will go head to head with Atletico Madrid this summer to sign a prolific striker who has scored 100 in 203. But other reinforcements are necessary, particularly if Sanchez, Ozil, or both leave. There are simply too many fair-to-middling players in the side from Walcott, Ramsey and Gibbs to Coquelin, Iwobi and Giroud. In some ways, assuming Liverpool don’t choke, next season could become one of the most important in a decade for a side that could well fall off the cliff if they aren’t careful.

4.  Wenger’s Delusions to Send Arsenal on a Liverpool Spin?
Even with the positive signs and the slim possibility that the Gunners could slip into the Champions League place through the back door of a Liverpool slipup, there is real concern for the future. There is uncertainty around whether Wenger will stay or go, which makes planning for his replacement more difficult. There is even more uncertainty around Ozil and Sanchez, alongside concerns about Ox, Gibbs and Ramsey entering the final year of their contracts, whether to take another chance on Wilshere after yet another injury derailed his decidedly average loan spell at Bournemouth and concerns Bellerin, on a long-term contract, might get his head turned by a return to his hometown Barcelona side. Usimov has offered up an astounding one billion dollars to replace our absentee owner Stan Kroenke and the board is pushing for systemic reforms, even if Wenger does get another couple years at the helm.

The reality of playing in the Europa League is another issue that must be contemplated, as the average side to do so in the Premier League era has dropped 2.5 spaces in the table, with some taking a much steeper fall, like Newcastle and Chelsea along the way. Only two sides have jumped up from the Europa League after one season – Chelsea and Manchester United – and both have much deeper pockets than the Gunners. It is quite plausible to see Arsenal sinking into a Liverpool-like slump that could endure for several years. The lost revenue means spending has to be pared down, the allure of Champions League football being gone makes attracting top talent more difficult and the Big three has become a Top 6 or 7 who are all vying for four spots, signaling a tougher road to getting back.

Wenger now has a huge choice to make, though the remaining two games (actually three, as Liverpool will have to help the cause) could assist in that decision. The first decade of his career was marked by extraordinary success, including three league titles and four FA Cups, alongside a heartbreaking Champions league Final loss to Barcelona. That success led the board to move from Highbury to the Emirates and Wenger steered the side through the lean years always remaining in the Top 4. Two FA Cups in a row ended a long barren spell of silverware and things began to look up. But the second-half collapse last season has become far too familiar an experience for fans and this season was even worse.

The question now is whether he can steer the Gunners back toward the top before finally leaving or whether he will abandon a side he sliced into tatters, as Ferguson more or less did after exiting on a high with a title and an aging squad that needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. Wenger could of course exit stage left in a couple of weeks and leave the rotting mess to the next manager, could sneak into the Top 4 and throw the chains to a newbie with the energy and hunger to challenge the new crop of talented managers the league has attracted or, as is most likely, will continue in his position for at least another season no matter how much damage he does to his legacy.

Wenger has become a farcical figure, unwilling to admit the need to change – beyond a surprising turn to three at the back, unwilling to cede too much of his power (with, for example, a Director of Football, who could try to bring back the magic Wenger once shared with David Dein) and continuing to let key player’s contracts run down too far. He has lost in the Round of 16 in the Champions League for 7 straight years, only had one (or if you are kind) two title tilts in over a decade, and seems unwilling or unable to truly change to adapt to the modern game. The same old excuses, the same old results and the same old questions emerge over and over again and yet very little changes. He finally spent some money over the past few years bringing in Sanchez, Ozil, Mustafi and Xhaka, but might again see his best players leave, as happened with RVP, Nasri and Fabergas not too long ago. Until the Board somehow gains the balls to take a stand, as apparently two of the six seem ready to do, Gazidis takes a hard line or leaves for a stronger figure or Kroenke finally sells the team, one can imagine a slow but steady decline unseen since the 90s. Let’s hope someone in the organization wakes up before it’s too late …

Monday, May 01, 2017

Arsenal Crushed by Resilient Tottenham Side (2-0)

Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the Top 4 were dealt a major blow by their bitter rivals to the North today as the Spurs kept their slim title hopes alive. While the Gunners had a few chances throughout the game they again seemed to fold under the pressure of expectation – and opportunity – falling apart after ceding the first goal in the 55th minute and failing to register even a semblance of the resolve that seemed to emerge in the first half of this disastrous season. Three thoughts on the Spur’s 2-0 victory:

1.    Tottenham confirm change in power in North London
In building a combined starting 11, who would you take from the Arsenal squad? Sanchez, arguably, but who else? Cech in his prime, maybe Koscielny in a pinch, certainly not Ozil on current form. Ox at his best, possibly, but it is not hard to see 10 Spurs and one Gunner filling that list. On top of that, St. Tottenham day is dead after 22 years, fitting given the fact Arsenal have one point to show from their two derbies this year and no wins in the last 5, for the first time in the long history of the rivalry. Tottenham could have lost this game, fallen back on old habits and let their slim title chances fade away. Instead they came out from the tunnel after halftime with more verve, more passion and a greater desire to win. It showed.

Arsenal’s high press actually seemed to rattle the Spurs early, but they soon grew into the game and ended up with the best two chances of the first half. A cross from Kane to Alli, who just missed his header wide, and Erickson, who really should have scored with the goal gaping, chipping to the bar and over. Arsenal lacked fluency, with players having trouble catching up to any counterattacks, though Ramsey had an open shot from the top of the box midway through, sending a typically lame effort into a crowd, in keeping with his 26 games without a goal. A second effort was closer, though saved by the outstretched arms of Lloris around the 30-minute mark. Gibbs had a half chance of his own as the game neared 40 minutes, but he too fell short. Arsenal were in the ascendancy as halftime approached and Sanchez didn't miss the far corner by much with a clever chipped shot but Vertonghen shot to the far corner right before the whistle was just parried out by a diving Cech, who kept the game from the blowout that it might well have deserved.

Arsenal had the rare chance as the second half went on, none better than Giroud a few yards out from a Sanchez corner he blazed into the crowd, though the Spurs were again creating the better chances overall. Son found an opening behind Sanchez on a corner and just missed wide with a blazing effort. In was after 55 minutes when some average defending by the Gunners allows Tottenham an opening. Erickson slalomed around two defenders before lashing a shot at the near post that was well-saved by Cech, but parried directly into the path of a charging Alli, who punched it into the gaping goal past Chamberlain, who may well have cleared it if he used his left instead of right foot, or sacrificed his body; something most of these Gunners rarely do on the defensive end.

Two minutes later, Kane appeared to dive under mild pressure from Gabriel in the box but Oliver called what looked like the third dubious penalty of the day and Kane made it 2-0. Given that the first two benefitted United and City with arguably undeserved draws, Arsenal might feel slightly aggrieved, though the truth is they have no one to blame but themselves for a loss that puts the Top 4 almost out of reach. Arsenal carved out a few more chances, including one Welbeck really should have finished from an Ozil lofted pass on 74 minutes, but were really battered by the better and more driven side. But for several excellent saves from Cech, the result would have been much worse.

In the end, the gulf in class between the sides was clear and showed how far Arsenal have fallen from their position near the top of the league as the dial turned on 2016 and from the second-place finish last season. The Gunners are lost at the very moment the Spurs might finally be finding themselves as a team that can challenge for major honors in the future. Arsenal could well beat them to silverware this season in the final of the FA Cup, but it is clear which side is moving in the right direction.

2.    Winning mentality Deserts Arsenal Again/How can Wenger Stay? 
Ramsey was awful, Ozil uninspired, Giroud starved of service and even Sanchez again below his best. The defense played valiantly for the first hour and then collapsed as they have done so many times in recent months. Who would you keep on this team? Sanchez, who looks likely to leave, of course. Koscielny and Gabriel, who has played better in recent weeks, even with the tap that led to a penalty. Xhaka, who can work on his maturity moving forward. But who else? Giroud lacks the pace necessary for a complete forward in the league, particularly one playing for Arsenal. Welbeck will stay and contribute, but lacks the finishing touch necessary to be a regular starter through the middle. Ramsey has had one great season in his many years with the club and that one was cut short by injury, an issue throughout his tenure. Walcott seems unable to develop beyond his current skill set, even if his finishing has improved. And one could go down the list and find few players that inspire full confidence beyond Ox, Sanchez, Koscielny, Monreal and the oft-injured Cazorla. Even Bellerin has been far below his best in this losing spell.

The question is whether another year or two of Wenger can really right the ship he has put on this wayward path. The desperation that led him to abandon his 4-4-3 for 3 at the back did pay dividends for three short games, but showed a side that lacks the attacking nous that have defined the Gunners throughout Wenger’s twenty plus years with the side. Rarely has the team seemed so lost, the seemingly positive progress over the last few seasons suddenly replaced by the reality that the Top 4, Wenger’s perennial “trophy” might finally be beyond their reach. Arsenal have conceded less goals in the new formation, though only one clean sheet, and were lucky to keep it to two today. More troubling is the tendency to surrender at the first sign of trouble and their continued struggles against the rest of the Top 7. Since their comprehensive 3-0 victory over the presumptive champions way back in September, Arsenal have managed draws against Tottenham and United, losses to City and Everton, a reverse loss to Chelsea and Liverpool, a draw with City and now the loss to Tottenham today.

Even worse is their away form and the losses that are likely to dispossess them of the one excuse for keeping Wenger around these past few years – that coveted Top 4 finish and Champions League place it confers. Arsenal have lost to Crystal Palace, West Brom and Watford since the turn of the year, on top of the 3-3 draw with Bournemouth and destruction at the hands of Bayern. Sure, they can win the FA Cup to garner something out of a lost season, but where would they go from there? What will the cost be of Thursday night football in the lowly Europa League? Who can they sign under the circumstances? And who will really want to jump on to this sinking ship, but those looking for a nice paycheck without overly ambition expectations?

Arsenal are lost in a way that seems hard to believe one year removed from a real shot at the title, but maybe in keeping with their struggles over the past near decade. Wenger was tight with the purse strings for too long, even with the move to the Emirates, and can look around the league at all the players they failed to secure who are now thriving at rivals, or even with teams below them. Who can we blame in the end but the manager, a man who has outstayed his welcome but still seems unwilling to read the writing on the skyline above his fading legacy.

3.    Tottenham Keep Slim Title Hopes Alive
Spurs will rue early season slow start and injuries that hurt them in key periods. Yet it is hard to ignore the numbers, even if Chelsea holds on to the title. They have already accrued seven points more than last season (77 at present) and can reach 89 if they win their last four very winnable games. That total would have won the league in every season since United reached 90 in 2008-09 and would mean 13 straight wins, building on the 9 on the spin they have currently managed. On top of that, they are 17 points above the rivals who have finished above them the past 22 seasons, even as they were above them in the run-in several times over the past 6 seasons.

Tottenham are young and hungry with one of the best strikers (Kane) and attacking midfielders (Alli) in European football, together with a solid spine from front to back including a Top 10 keeper (in Lloris), two of the most consistently stout central defenders in the league, players who are improving year over year (Erickson, Dembele, Davies, Son) and even some quality options off the bench.

In this game, they created 20 goal scoring chances, 11 of those hitting the target. Their two stars came through with crucial goals, even if Kane’s penalty seemed quite soft on second viewing. And the ever-improving Erickson again contributed to the cause, along with everyone across the pitch. Arsenal were pushed back soon after kickoff and thus unable to build any consistent pathway from back to front, with Tottenham often clogging the midfield quite effectively, while also using the press strategically to pin back the Gunners at key moments of the game. They dominated possession in the first half and, even as Arsenal pushed to get back in the game for the final 30 minutes, still pipped the final statistics 51 to 49, while outshooting the Gunners 20 to 12 (and 11 to 4) and gaining 14 corners to Arsenal’s pittance of 5. They did all this while committing only 7 fouls, to Arsenal’s 15. It was a comprehensive victory in the end and showed how far this side has come from even a season ago, when a late collapse pushed them from the whisker’s edge of a title all the way down to third place.

The major concern for Tottenham moving forward is to push their wage structure to be competitive with other top sides (they pay well below the odds of most of the Top 10), to finally break the trophy drought that has seen them win only three honors since the 90s (the FA Cup in 1991 and the League Cup in 1999 and 2008) and to keep their young stars for the foreseeable future. It is also imperative to keep Pochettino as long as possible and to find another manager of similar pedigree when he does finally leave. Who can doubt that a trophy, and maybe even the league, lie just around the corner? Even this cold-blooded Gooner is starting to believe …