Monday, February 25, 2013

Well Beaten by a Better Side...

... and then they Scrape a Win against a Rubbish One.

Arsenal 1-3 Bayern Munich
Arsenal 2-1 Aston Villa

Arsenal came perilously close to repeating their familiar and unwelcome trick of allowing a whole season to crumble in the space of a week.

Defeat to Bayern was expected, but the performance didn't get half the criticism it deserved. It was another exhibition of naive defending, the self-destruct button pressed yet again on the big occasion.They play like a team that knows it's not good enough. The lack of belief in whatever it was they were supposed to do was painfully clear.

Anything less than a win against Villa and Arsenal's top four hopes would have been hanging by a thread. Cazorla scored early; they failed to build on it. Yet another soft concession to add to the collection, and it was 1-1 without much time to change things. It was some relief when Wilshere scooped a super pass through to Monreal down the left, and the new boy conjured a clever cut back for Cazorla to slide in his second of the game.

Back to Bayern. The manager, and many pundits, were happy to shower the impressive German side with praise, rather than spotlighting Arsenal's failings. Maybe it's because those failings have been evident for so long. Maybe people are tired of talking about them. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't acknowledge that Bayern didn't have to be particularly impressive to kill the tie at the Emirates. And that, for a club of Arsenal's stature, is embarrassing.

After a promising, high tempo start by the home side, the inevitable sucker punch wasn't long in coming. Muller's cross from the right seemed harmless enough, but bounced beyond a flat footed Ramsey, and Kroos drove an emphatic, demoralising shot past Szczesny. A brilliant finish, but the chance came so easily.

The second was even more disappointing from an Arsenal viewpoint. A corner, a painfully free header, Szczesny scrambling the ball out only for Muller to knock the ball in from point blank range.

Arsenal toiled to almost zero effect for the rest of the opening period, could have been three down by half time. A glimmer of hope was gifted to the Gunners when a wrongly awarded corner was inexplicably allowed to bounce in the goalmouth and Podolski simply nodded the ball in.

There was something of a revival, and sub Giroud might even have equalised. He was unlucky that his instinctive right footed strike from Walcott's cutback was straight at the keeper. Soon after, it was game over, tie over: Arsenal undermanned at the back, Lahm overlapping Robben, Mandzukic scooping the low cross into the net.

Some people are saying that Arsenal simply lack for quality. I don't think there are many poor individuals in the team though. They are poorly organised and tactically inept. And even if they lack for stars compared to Arsenal teams of the past, they should be able to recognise a superior team, and play with a suitable plan. AC Milan have less quality than Arsenal but were able to beat Barcelona. Arsenal should at least be able to give Bayern a game.

The fact that they didn't is down to the manager.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bayern: No Expectations

You could scour London looking for a sane man to support the notion that Arsenal will progress beyond the second round of the Champions League; it would be a forlorn search.

There is no reason to expect anything other than a clear defeat over two legs.

This is Wenger's worst Arsenal team by a distance.

The Blackburn defeat may well have been the result of complacency, and the Gunners may well raise their game for Bayern.

But after years of steady decline, the line between success and failure is no longer defined only by mentality and motivation, it is now a question too of quality.

Arsenal, though far from completely lacking in it, have far less than they did in the recent past.

If they weren't good enough then, they certainly aren't now. Because if not superior quality, what else do they have in their favour?

To beat better opposition, you need a plan, and you need a backbone.

But Wenger doesn't do tactics, and Arsenal are so often spineless on the big occasion.

This last point is a particularly painful one, because for so long youth and callowness could be used as a convenient and indeed convincing excuse.

Now, the squad and the first team boasts several experienced heads, but the old problems of complacency (against the poor teams) and a lack of belief (against the good ones) continue to surface.

Bayern are the should-be-holders after Chelsea's flukey win last season, runaway leaders of the Bundesliga and among the favourites to triumph in Europe. For them, the Emirates will hold no fear. They may be vulnerable to wily, resourceful opponents who will sit deep and disciplined and wait for a chance to strike on the break. But for Arsenal, there are no precedents for such a performance. If it comes, it will come from nowhere. They have had it done to them so many times, by the great and the good and even by Championship Blackburn, but they've never done it themselves

If today affords no optimism, we can search for it in memories. In 2006, Arsenal were enduring what was, at the time, a shockingly bad domestic season, struggling to win on the road and struggling to fill the Vieira-shaped void in central midfield. Fourth place would be secured eventually, on the last day, after Spurs had led the way for most of the season. When the Gunners were drawn against Real Madrid in the first knockout round of the Champions League, most expected a drubbing.

Arsenal plundered a memorable win at the Bernebeau, via Henry's classic individual goal, and then progressed after a bonkers, unbelievably goalless slugfest at Highbury.

Unfortunately, it's hard to envisage a similar outcome this time around. That was bloated, late Galactico era Madrid, still boasting legends like Zidane, Raul and an ever-inflating Ronaldo and celebrities like Beckham. They were lacking in hunger, lacking in organisation, and Arsenal took sweet advantage, to kickstart a run that brought them to the very brink of that elusive European success.

And Arsenal themselves, while in something of a transitional phase (one that's arguably continued ever since!)     still boasted their own attacking riches. Henry was enjoying his last season of true greatness. Players like Pires and Ljungberg were now plainly saving their best for Europe. Gilberto Silva was a selfless World Cup winner who shielded the defence and left the fancy stuff to the others. Fabregas alongside him was busy announcing himself as one of Europe's great young talents.

That said, there were reasons to be very surprised by that European run. In league games, Arsenal's defending was often shambolic. Senderos sometimes appeared a liability, embarrassingly vulnerable to fleet footed attackers. Because both Cole and Clichy were injured, Flamini was playing at left back. And with Lauren also struggling for fitness and form, a lunatic called Eboue was marshalling the right side of the defence, in front of the similarly insane but sometimes brilliant Lehmann.

Somehow, this motley crew, along with the then still reliable Kolo Toure, conjured clean sheet after clean sheet. Arsenal, basically, need something that weird to happen again. Starting tomorrow night.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Eight Years: Arsenal 0-1 Blackburn

That's eight years without a trophy.

Forget about the Champions League. Forget it.

Arsenal produced close to their worst against Blackburn and were dumped out of the FA Cup.

Even if they produce their very best against Bayern, they are absolute underdogs.

Whatever happens over those two legs, the season is another write off as far as silverware is concerned.

Fourth place is still of paramount importance, but Arsenal's inability since the Birmingham League Cup final debacle two seasons back to even come close to competing for honours is a huge embarrassment to the club.

This season, they have exited both domestic cup competitions to lower league opposition; if they lose as expected to Bayern and fail to reel Tottenham in in the league, it will indisputably rank as Wenger's worst season.

Anger rises again in the stands, on phone in shows, on message boards, from the die hards and from the blowhards.

When the gleaming Emirates was opened for business seven years ago, this is not what they envisaged.

And selling the future is no longer a viable excuse. Suddenly the future looks quite murky. With the climate at the club as it is, it seems unlikely that Wenger will last beyond the end of his current deal. Who will come in? How long before "future captain" Jack Wilshere's head is turned? And if Arsenal fall out of the Champions League positions this season, will it prove the monumental kick up the backside that most people now feel the club needs? Or will it be just the beginning of the real decline?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Comeback Draw, Jammy Win, Backs to the Wall Victory... it the stuff that decisive runs are made from?

Arsenal came perilously close to losing at home to Liverpool, to drawing at home to Stoke, and to drawing away to Sunderland; but seven points from nine has kept alive genuine hopes of another top four finish.

The first hour or so in the Liverpool game was very depressing. Not only were Arsenal second-best, but the  defence was in full-blown self-parody mode.

The goal from Suarez that opened the scoring came from a Sagna slip, a trademark botched clearance from Vermaelen, and some vintage penalty area ping pong. As well as a deflection on the striker's finish.

When Henderson profited from more madcap defending to slip the ball into an empty net, it looked like that was that, but Arsenal responded in rousing fashion.

First,Wilshere's inswinging free kick from the right was headed down and past Reina by Giroud. Game on.

Then, before Liverpool could catch breath, Cazorla slid a pass into Giroud, the Frenchman laid it off nicely to Walcott to his right, and Walcott confounded Reina by bulleting an early shot low into the far corner.

Both sides had chances to win it, but in the end a draw seemed fair.

Against Stoke, a draw might have been terminal to Arsenal's Champions League hopes. The Potters, typically, defended very well, and typically, too, were not averse to rough house tactics.

Arsenal needed a large slice of luck to secure the three points, with Podolski's late free kick deflecting heavily on its way into the net.

Against Sunderland, Arsenal hit their stride in the first half, but squandered opportunities to build an unassailable lead.

Leading at half time was a nice change in itself, and the lead was secured by a fine goal that saw Wilshere scoot forward in trademark fashion, then play a pass into the box for Walcott. The winger, who is showing sporadic improvements in his appreciation of team mates' positioning, laid the ball back for Cazorla, and the Spaniard angled a low, left-footed effort past the keeper in a flash.

While Arsenal should really have won comfortably, the ultimate nature of the win may prove more useful, morale-boosting even.

Koscielny had broken down in the warm up, and Wenger opted to move Sagna to centre half, and bring Jenkinson in at right back. With new boy Monreal playing on the left side of the defence, it was an unfamiliar backline, and one that Martin O'Neill's side would have expected to score against.

That they didn't should be viewed as encouraging, especially after Jenkinson was dismissed for a second yellow card and Ramsey was moved back to full back.

Sagna, who is a brilliant all-round defender,produced his best display of the season, as did Szczesny, making some vital saves.

Arsenal will want to be more ruthless in future, but a resilient defensive display was long overdue.