Sunday, August 27, 2017

Arsenal Shamed by Liverpool at Anfield (4-0)

Liverpool bulldozed Arsenal today at Anfield, cruising to a 4-0 win that could have been even worse, but for a couple of decent Cech saves and a few missed opportunities to score. It was a truly disgraceful performance by the Gunners that was universally condemned, even by their own “stars.” The opener came in the 17th minute, when Arsenal killer Firmino (four goals in five games against the North London outfit) snuck between the Gunner’s three centre backs and headed the ball in off the turf from an Emre Can cross, after one of at least 30 needless turnovers by the Gunners. The second, which all but sealed the victory given the lack of offensive thrust from the Gunners, came on 40 minutes, with a deadly Liverpool counter, aided by undisciplined play by Ramsey for the second time, was finished by the impressive Mane. Arsenal started the second half a little brighter and looked poised to make a game of it before Salah robbed Hector Bellerin halfway inside his own half and charged forward to score. The humiliation was made complete in the 77th minute, when Daniel Sturridge scored his first of the season with an open header from a Salah cross.

Three thoughts on the game:

1. Last Week Finishing, This Week …. Everything
It is rare that you witness a game where one side can have no complaints, with everyone chipping in to their strengths, and the other can take absolutely no positives. Liverpool, of course, are the former and Arsenal the latter. This was about as abject as I have ever seen Arsenal play, even worse than the two 5-1 losses to Bayern last season or the 8-2 thrashing at the hands of United in 2011. It was not just the errant passes, the defensive mistakes and the lapses of reason, but the general lack of passion, conviction or effort that defined this capitulation by the Gunners.

In the end, this loss comes down to a lack of effort and will to win by the players, but that is the job of the manager. Sanchez wants to leave. Ozil might want to leave, if there were any worthwhile takers. Ox has an impressive offer on the table, but seems like he would rather move on to Chelsea or another EPL side. And in a surprising story this morning, it appears Mustafi might want to leave a mere year after arriving. That is not healthy for any team and speaks to the sense that the team is just not good enough. On top of that, was the tactics employed by Wenger in this game, and in most of the games against the rest of the top 6 over that past almost decade. He refuses to play defensively, hoping he can outscore his opponents, even on the road, and seems to have no Plan B as things fall apart.

Some questions for Wenger: 1. Why are there still no leaders on this side since the departure of Viera et al? 2. Why not play Mustafi or Kolasinac through the middle, instead of continuing to use Monreal there, even as it is not a natural fit for him? Or what of Mertesacker (though maybe his pace would be an issue against this Liverpool side)? And why did you sell Gabriel? 3. Why wouldn’t you play the prolific striker you signed for a record fee against a Liverpool side that has shown defensive liabilities over the past few seasons? And why play the wasteful Welbeck through the middle instead? On top of that is playing Bellerin on the opposite side of his strength, just to accommodate a player who appears ready to leave no matter what (Ox, for those who are wondering), 4. Might it have made sense to start Coquelin beside Xhaka, to give your side more solidity through the middle? 5. Why has your side been so bad against the Top 6 (and the best teams in Europe) for a full decade now – except a couple of seasons ago when you actually played a more defensive/counterattacking style that actually reaped some positive results? 6. When are you going to leave?  

2.  Want-aways Showed It Today
Ox showed up with a couple of early runs, but was nowhere to be seen in covering the defense on counters or providing anything meaningful on the offensive side. Ozil was downright awful; so bad, in fact, that he collapsed to the pitch at the end of the game looking baffled and lost by how poor he had played. He apologized to the fans via social media this evening, but does that really make up for his continued tendency to disappear in big games. And Sanchez, though just returning from a long layoff, did not display the usual passion or drive we are used to finding from the Chilean. In fact, him grinning on the sideline after being substituted essentially sums up all that is wrong with the side at the moment.

All three seemed like they would rather be elsewhere, and every indication is that their play might just match their desire moving forward if they are not allowed to leave a club they feel will not improve dramatically enough to challenge for the title or in Europe. Who can blame them at this point, though it is worth noting that, beyond Sanchez (and even him on occasion), these players have been on the pitch for at least the past four years and have failed to deliver when the stakes rose.

There are also rumors swirling that Mustafi might move on to Inter. Having watched the game today from up close, let’s hope Wenger realizes he needs Mustafi more than ever, as Holding is starting to look a little out of his depths against speedy wingers and Monreal just shouldn’t play through the middle any longer – the step he’s lost in the last season or so together with his height making him a consistent liability. Koscielny cannot do it alone, and the rest of the side seems more intent on attacking as a unit than ensuring they keep their discipline and, as counterintuitive as it appears to Arsenal, the odd clean sheet.

3. Liverpool Irresistible as Dominance of Top 6 Continues
Liverpool were the best team in the division against the rest of the Top 6 last season and have continued that with one of their most impressive victories since their near miss in 2013. Without two of their best players, in Coutinho and Lallana, they absolutely dominated Arsenal across the pitch, using their pace on the counter to dust the visitors. More impressive was the defensive display, with their three midfielders dominated Xhaka and Ramsey (and later Coquelin).

Klopp might finally have a team close to one of his own making, and that is starting to show. He is among the finest managers in football not only for his tactical nous, though we will again have to see if the players tire around Christmas, as they have the past two seasons, but for his ability to get the best out of his players. Without the budget or stars of the sides around him, he has found a way to compete at the top level, even as trophies have eluded him in recent years (a rather poor record in finals that goes back to his last few years at Dortmund).

The team has plenty of attacking power and pace, with Salah looking like an excellent signing, Mane among the best wingers in the league, Firmino growing in stature, and Sturridge able to score at a stellar rate, even if the rest of his game does not suit his German leader. The back line has improved since the first game of the season and Can and Henderson were everywhere across the pitch, potentially forming a partnership shield that can address the leaky defense that has cost them far too many points, particularly against lesser sides, over the past few seasons. And as a reminder, this is a side that was lacking their most talented player, in Coutinho, and another attacking threat in Lallana.

United seem like the early form team in the league, City are finding ways to garner points without being terribly impressive and Chelsea have bounced back nicely from their shock opening defeat, though three games doesn’t tell us as much as the pundits would like to pretend. But Liverpool should certainly be in the conversation for a title contender, particularly as Tottenham continue to struggle in their temporary home at Wembley, blowing two points in extra time to put a wry smile on the face of Gooners, like me, who are considering simply forgetting about football and following professional bocce tournaments as neutral supporters instead.

Monday, August 21, 2017

New Season, Same Old Arsenal (Stoke 1 Arsenal 0)

This is a headline I’ve written in five of the past six years, and one that just might keep coming up until fundamental changes are made in the side. To be fair, Arsenal largely dominated this game and should have won easily but for some poor refereeing decisions and even worse finishing. Yet a good chance to head to Liverpool with maximum points from their first two games is gone and that matchup next weekend takes on even greater urgency. For Stoke, it was a win over a team in the top half of the table, a feat they only accomplished once all last season.

Three thoughts on the game:

1.    Refereeing Was Downright Awful … and One Sided
Each of the decisions that went against Arsenal was tight, from the offsides call on Lacazette’s equalizer to the three or four penalty claims that were ignored by Andre Marriner and his assistants. The most obvious of all the decisions was a clip on the back of Welbeck when he was about to shoot on goal from close range. If that wasn’t a penalty, I'm not sure what is. In the first half, Bellerin was clearly fouled by Diouf as he charged toward the goal from the left. His touch might have been a tad too heavy, as it is certainly possible Butland would have gotten to the ball anyway, but that’s not really the point. He was taken out with a chance to slot in, inside the box. The Welbeck penalty claim was even more obvious. And there were two other instances when a penalty could have been called.

On top of this, Arsenal somehow accrued more fouls throughout the match, 11 to 6, even with 77 percent possession and Stoke leaving Gunners flattened across the pitch. The days of referees clearly favoring Arsenal’s opponents have withered in recent years, but this was a poor performance by Marriner that was about as one sided as any match I’ve seen in recent years. Marriner, by the way, booked more Gunners last season than any other team …

2.    Awful Finishing by Gunners
The poorly refereed game should not be cited as the sole, or maybe even primary, reason for this disappointing loss. Besides bossing possession to the tune of almost 80 percent, the Gunners outshot Stoke 18 (6) to 11 (4). They created chance after chance, particularly in the second half, but were truly inept in front of goal. Welbeck missed four good chances beside the penalty claim, Ramsey missed three of his own (though one was excellently blocked by Butland, who had a great game in goal) and Giroud missed a great opportunity to save a draw with an open header in extra time. This was less of a problem last season, but with Sanchez still out injured and Lacazette surprisingly short of supply in a game so dominated by Arsenal, it was left to players whose scoring records are suspect, to say the least.

Welbeck has never been a prolific scorer and while he has improved marginally since leaving United for Arsenal, he continues to lose his cool at the most inopportune of moments. Forwards need to be able to finish one of every two or three chances to be value for money, and Welbeck is substantially below that throughout his career. Ramsey had actually been on a hot streak coming into the game, having scored in his last three competitive appearances, the bookend matches of Everton last season and Leicester this one, with an FA Cup goal sandwiched in between. Before that, however, he went 28 appearances without a solitary goal. Yesterday, he had every chance to continue the hot streak, but blew it. Giroud, to be fair, has been excellent off the bench, but missed his one great chance and scorned another half one.

Ultimately, the poor finishing of the forwards, a below average game from Ozil (who was eviscerated by pundits including Steven Gerrard) and the same defensive frailties that keep coming up, all led to Arsenal losing a game they clearly should have won. The Brittania has often been a bogey visit for the Gunners, but they had eked out a draw and an impressive 4-1 win in their last two trips to the Northwest. Dropping points like this could well be the difference between returning to the Top 4 and spending another year in the doldrums of Thursday night football.  

3.  Stoke New Additions Shine
Mark Hughes has been trying to change the identity of Stoke for most of his four plus years in charge. While he has made progress, with three straight finishes in ninth position, they took a step backwards last season, slotting in at 13th. To seek to address that drop in form, Hughes has brought in a number of new faces, including José (via PSG after years with Real), Darren Fletcher (of Man United lore), Bruno Martins Indi (from Porto) and Zouma (from Chelsea). Ironically, Stoke now have more Champions League winners in their side than any other team in England, though one should mention that most of them never got off the bench in those Finals.

In any case, Stoke were dominated for much of this game, but looked bright on the counter, defended stoutly and saw Butland put in another impressive performance, as he seeks to further his case to become England’s number one. Arsenal bossed possession, as I mentioned, but Stoke stayed compact, played a physical game that reminded of Pulis’ time in charge, and found ways to stop attack after attack with last second interventions (though three or four were likely penalties if the referee had not blinked his way through the most important moments of the game).

Hughes has a decent side and could improve on last season’s form, but moving into the Top 7 appears to be too big an ask. A cup run? That seems the only likely path to glory for these stalwarts of the midtable since their arrival in the Premiership in 2008.          

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Arsenal Fight Back to Beat Leicester 4-3 in Season Opener

Arsenal came back from a goal down for the second week in a row, continuing a trend from last season of pulling out victory from the jaws of defeat. After taking an early lead through new striker Alexandre Lacazette (2’), Arsenal gave back two goals over the next half hour, to Okazaki and Vardy. Right before halftime, Welbeck equalized for the Gunners, only for the side to fall behind again as Vardy put in a corner at the near post in the 56th minute. Wenger brought on Giroud and Ramsey in the 67th minute and both scored, in the 83rd and 85th minutes, to complete the comeback for a 4-3 victory.  

Three thoughts on the game:

1.    Defensive Mistakes Almost Cost Arsenal Dearly
Besides a two-month stretch that cost Arsenal their place in the knockout stage of the Champions League and, ultimately, a spot in the top 4, Arsenal cut down on the defensive errors that had beset them for the previous few seasons. With Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gabriel and Mustafi all sidelined, the makeshift back three of Holding, Kolasinac and Monreal, with Ox and Bellerin as wingbacks, and Xhaka and Elneny in the midfield, committed three mistakes in the game, all leading to goals. In fact, those were the only three shots on target for Leicester, among six shots in total across the 90 plus minutes. Arsenal can be forgiven for a few mistakes in the opening game of the season, shaking off the cobwebs and trying to end a stretch of only two wins in the past six openers, but need to limit those mistakes moving forward, as they face Chelsea and Liverpool in two of their next three fixtures, sandwiched by a trip to Stoke and visits from Bournemouth and West Brom.

Their offensive potency saved them in this game, but the aforementioned troubling stretch from January 31 through March 18 earlier this year, saw them conceding at least two goals in 7 of 10 games (with two of the three where they didn’t in the FA Cup against sides from lower divisions) and three or more in six of those games (including 10 over two legs with Bayern in the UCL). Starting with their 2-1 victory over Boro on April 17, the Gunners registered five clean sheets in their last 10 fixtures of the season, conceding one goal in their other five. We should not read too much from the makeshift defense that faced a Leicester side that reminded of the champions of two seasons ago, ceding 70 percent of possession while launching their deadly counter strategically throughout. But getting their starters healthy and back in the lineup quickly will play a big role in taking full advantage of an opening schedule that only features two teams that finished above them among their next eight matches.

2.    Xhaka Continues to Impress
While Xhaka’s errant pass across the pitch in his own half led to Leicester’s opener, he was otherwise excellent, assisting Ramsey’s equalizer with a perfectly lofted pass over the flanked Leicester defense and the corner kick put in by Giroud for the winner two minutes later. Xhaka does not have the range of passes or dribbling ability of Cazorla, but is more solid defensively and has improved his troubling tendency to get into disciplinary troubles. With no slated return for the diminutive Spaniard, Xhaka could play a key role in propelling Arsenal to a title tilt. He has improved his poise and passing range, provides a decent shot from distance that will keep deep-lying defenses honest and is now the leading passer for the team in most games.

The key will be deciding who plays besides him. Ramsey, when healthy, is the obvious choice, and it was his introduction in the second half that took the Gunner offense to the next level, including scoring the equalizer in the 83rd minute. If Ramsey can approach his form of a few seasons ago, Arsenal could well become the most potent attack in the league, only rivaled by a healthy Tottenham and a stacked City. When unavailable or if Arsenal want to play more defensively, either Coquelin (very defensive) or Elneny (a decent option, though his passing is far more erratic than the other options) are both available. If Wilshere stays, he provides another possibility, as does Ox, though he has thrived more on the wings last season and throughout the preseason and last two matches. Whatever the case, Xhaka has certainly silenced his critics throughout last term – sometimes exaggerating his shortcomings – and emerged as a key cog in the first team machine.

3.  Strength in Depth
While Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool are all worried about squad depth, with fans rankling for additional signings, Arsenal’s problem appears to be of the opposite sort – a bloated corps that needs to be culled. While players like Gibbs, Debuchy, Campbell, Perez and Jenkinson will hopefully be sold before the window closes, Arsenal would still have the second best bench in the league, only behind the absurd riches on offer at Man City. Giroud now has the most goals off the bench in the league since the beginning of last season (7), after deciding to stay and fight for a starting spot, rather than move on to a team with more first team opportunities on offer. Walcott is just coming off his best scoring season in a decade with the Gunners (10 goals in the league, four in the Champions League and 5 in the FA Cup). Welbeck is health again, Reiss Nelson is a youngster with big upside after an excellent preseason, Iwobi seems to be returning near to his best form from last season (though he still needs more poise in front of goal) and Lacazette appears to provide a new option for the Gunners with his speed, close control and impressive dribbling abilities.

This, of course, ignored Sanchez, coming off his impressive season of 30 goals and 15 assists in all comps (assuming we keep him before the window shuts in about two-week’s time) and Ozil, who finished with 12 goals and 13 assists after a slow start in the latter category. I’ve already outlined the options in central midfield and then, for the first time in recent memory, Wenger might end up with a selection headache at the back based on performance – with Koscielny, Mustafi, Mertesacker, Gabriel and Holding all vying for three slots through the middle (or two if he returns to a 4-3-2-1) and Bellerin, Monreal, Kolasinac, Gabriel and Ox fighting it out for the wingback spots. Across the lineup, Wenger has viable options at each position on the pitch and a number of impact subs that can change the shape of a game, as was the case Friday night.

It is far too early to raise the prospect of Arsenal finally getting off the 13-year snide and lifting the Premier League trophy once again, but early signs are promising for the Gunners, even as most pundits have them falling outside the Top 4 for the second year running.