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 …

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