Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Arsenal Empire crumbling

Today’s 2-1 loss to Tottenham means Arsenal are seven points behind their north London rivals in the race for a coveted Champions League spot.
Crumbling Empire
The once mighty Gunners
Arsenal’s Champions League qualification hopes are hanging by a thread and they have no one to blame but themselves.

A season missing decisive quality, at both ends of the field, was encapsulated in today’s loss to Tottenham; and although it’s difficult to know where Arsenal go from here, it’s probably safe to say Arsene Wenger has ten games to salvage a legacy.

Before going overboard with the customary wild criticism, it’s always important to keep in mind Arsene Wenger has built this empire brilliantly through his intelligence and prudence. However, the cracks which shown for a while have now developed into full scale chasms.

It’s not that Arsenal are a bad team, they’ve just abandoned the game’s basics and now lack a winning game-plan.

Holding a high defensive line with no pressure on the ball is a recipe for disaster in anybody’s football manual and Arsenal’s persistence with this tactic today was another demonstration of their almost suicidal approach. That coupled with a lack of coordination in defence means the gap between Arsenal and Tottenham is now seven points.

And this Spurs side don’t look like one that will throw it away.

Tottenham are on their longest unbeaten run in the Premier League era and Andre Villas-Boas, after a slow start, has got the team dancing to his tune. It’s a different Spurs, with a more efficient mentality.

Certainly today they had a plan, and it was clear. Spurs allowed Arsenal have the ball in the first two thirds of the field and pressed when the Gunners got near the offensive third. And like all top teams, Tottenham took their chances to win a game in which they were largely second best.

In many ways the teams were similarly set-up today with the respective wingers Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott essentially playing through the middle. It caused a peculiar situation where one flank (Tottenham’s left and Arsenal’s right) was generally open and patrolled only by either fullback. This was to be decisive.

Arsenal, nonetheless, were better team in the first 25 minutes and had a lot of good possession.

This was partly down to a combination of Tottenham letting Arsenal have the ball in the first two thirds and Arsenal resultantly being able to press the ball high up the field. The effect was more openings for the visitors with the best falling to Olivier Giroud, who was twice denied by blocks from Tottenham’s excellent centre-backs Michael Dawson and Jan Vertonghen.
Uncertain times...
Arsene Wenger
Still, this inability to find a killer ball or finish, as it has been all season, was the killer for Arsenal and Spurs slowly found ways to impose themselves offensively.

There was a warning of this fact on 31 minutes when Gylfi Sigurdsson’s through pass was just too strong for a breaking Bale. Still, the double whammy that followed was unexpected and is a microcosm of Arsenal’s season – two slack defensive mistakes undoing any good work.

Again, the problems climaxed through the middle of defence but throughout the team Arsenal aren’t good enough defensively.

For Spurs’ first goal Bale won the ball from the centre-backs, the ball dropped un-checked into Arsenal defensive midfield zone, Sigurdsson was again given too much time – a result of general poor team pressing – and he found Bale who was not tracked by Mikel Arteta and easily dissected two square centre-backs.

It was in contrast, for example, to Tottenham who had Scott Parker really spoiling whenever Arsenal had promise. It’s too easy to attack Arsenal’s core.

The second goal 140 seconds later was similar, Parker was allowed to progress unchecked and pick out a pass. Again, Arsenal pressed high and this time it was Aaron Lennon who ran in behind a sleeping defence. Again, there was a whole host of mistakes – left-back Nacho Monreal not staying with his runner or communicating the danger to Thomas Vermaelen, Vermaelen being unaware and the defence as a whole pushing up blindly.

These are all football basics.

Per Mertesacker got a goal back almost out of nothing from a free-kick six minutes after the break. But there was no immediate feeling Arsenal would manufacture another one.  No real pattern.

In the 58th minute Wenger brought off Carl Jenkinson for Tomas Rosicky with Aaron Ramsey moving to right-back. It brought a good chance in the 79th minute when Benoit Assou-Ekotto tracked Walcott inside leaving Ramsey open, but the Welshman dragged his shot wide.

But generally, although the change meant more short-passing possession, there was no progression in play from Arsenal and they couldn’t build up consistent pressure. There was never a real sense they would score.

Now five points behind Chelsea, seven behind Tottenham and all but out of the Champions League it’s looking like a catastrophic season for Arsenal.

The club has been in slow decline for a few years. Missing out on a Champions League spot and finishing below Spurs for the first time since 1995 would be confirmation Arsene’s empire is over.

Magical Coutinho just what the doctor ordered for Liverpool
Samba Magic
Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho
Liverpool have been Jekyll and Hyde this season but the arrival of Philippe Coutinho may finally usher in a new beginning.

In his first two starts for the club Liverpool have scored nine goals and conceded none. Yes, they’ve come against a Swansea side looking forward to a cup final and a poor Wigan team, but Liverpool have looked razor-sharp.

This incisive nature is what Liverpool lacked in the first half of the season but with Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge joining Luis Suarez upfront, manager Brendan Rodgers now possesses three attackers that know exactly what they want when they get into the final third and have the ability to execute.

Liverpool’s real test will come next Sunday against Tottenham nevertheless the Anfield faithful have plenty to be optimistic about when it comes to their attack.

Always eager to find space, Coutinho’s touch, mobility and vision make him the kind of player that can transform Liverpool into at least a Champions League team

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