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 …

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