Thursday, February 16, 2012

Slightly More Than Humbling

On Tuesday, a friend of mine asked me why, with Arsenal making a surprising move back into the top four, I hadn't bothered to update my blog to celebrate the momentous occasion. The straightforward, factual answer is that I didn't watch the match. I was down in Brooklyn over the past weekend and didn't get a chance to find a way to tune in. Then there was the annoying problem of how Arsenal vs Sunderland wasn't being shown on any television channel that we receive through our cable package, so I couldn't even DVR the game and watch it a later time, like I often will when I'm not at home to catch when everything goes live. And as I've said before on this blog, I don't feel comfortable making grandiose statements about Arsenal's quality (or lack thereof) when I don't get to experience their play personally. So, this blog was not updated after Theirry Henry saved three points in a (reportedly) boring match and Chelsea made a mess of their momentary advantage because I wasn't around to celebrate.

After Wednesday's game against AC Milan however, it seems like the fates might have conspired to make sure I didn't look like too much of an ass for relishing the victory. I think I know myself well enough to say that my tone would have fallen short of triumphant, but the Champions League debacle would have made anything remotely positive I said sound misguided at the very least and downright foolish as we near the other end of the spectrum. Anyone who watched the match live knows what I'm talking about. Arsenal was embarrassed. Plain and simple. Anyone who thought that Arsenal could walk into Milan and earn a draw, or perhaps even steal a victory, now knows exactly how pie-in-the-sky that kind of thinking truly was. It would be one thing if Arsenal was handled but only gave up a goal or two. That can happen occasionally when an opposing team just clicks on a given day, but it's salvageable. Return to London, put in a good performance, and who knows what might happen? But this? This wasn't just being thrashed out of the Champions League (barring a miraculous turnaround at the Emirates come March 6th). This was a clinical, surgical removal of hope, or a enthusiastic bludgeoning into submission, depending on your outlook on the game as well as the character of Arsenal. This was a sobering view of just exactly what Gunners fans can hope for this season.

The worst kept secret in the Premiership is that this Arsenal team just isn't that good. Now, there are reasons for that. It is tough to be consistent on defense when there are now eight different Arsenal fullbacks that have missed time due to injury. There is the absence of Jack Wilshere, a player that could markedly improve the Gunners' midfield play and help to control games. But what else is there at this point? What other excuses can there be? The reality is that the talent level is not high enough. Robin Van Persie is the only world class player on the team, compared to squads like Manchester City who boast such talents in every area of the field. The wing play has been woefully inconsistent when it should be the driving force of the attack, while the center of midfield has been underwhelming if we want to be nice about it. The return of Wilshere would certainly help and the evolution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will shore up the quality of attacking play, but look at the straws we're grasping at. The saviors of Arsenal are two players that wouldn't be legal to drink in the US and there is no guarantee that they will come through and fix all ills. The team needs serious fixes during the offseason and they may have an even more serious gap to fill if Van Persie decides that he needs to jump ship to a team that can win trophies. Crisis is an overblown word for a team that will still finish in the top half of the table and may hold onto fourth place to make their way back into Champions League play next year, but this is a dominant power that is in serious decline and there are no easy solutions in sight. This team could be better and this team could be more than they have been, but not much better and not much more unless there is a seriously influx of talent. If you weren't sure of that before, I kindly invite you to watch the tape of Wednesday game to learn the sobering lesson that AC Milan already taught the Arsenal players.

Game Notes

-Arsene Wenger is a master of developing young talent while I am an amateur writer with a laptop and some opinions. Noted. But one still has to question how he has handled Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain this year. First "The Ox" was left off the bench for entirely too long as he supposedly got used to the level of play in the top flight. Then once he proved himself beyond what should be necessary, Wenger treated him as a player still on trial rather than someone who has earned the right to play 90 minutes every match. Of course Wenger may know things that I may not. Of course there is something to be said about the wisdom in starting an 18 year-old on the road in the San Siro for one of the biggest games of the year. But aside from Van Persie, Chamberlain is the only Arsenal player who has truly strikes fear in the hearts of opponents. It does not make sense any longer to leave him on the bench given all he can contribute to the team.

-The eternal question of "what do we do with the back line" now takes on extra importance for Arsenal. Assuming that both Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny will miss and least some game time over the next month (or, god help us, more), what on earth do the Gunners do with their fullbacks? Bacary Sagna is a starter of course, and Thomas Vermaelen will have to return to his natural position as a central defender, but who acts as his partner? Who starts on the left, or right if Sanga is to play out of position? Johan Djourou has been so bad this year that he was pulled at halftime for an 18 year-old making his first appearance in the Premier League, while Sebastien Squillaci is, well, Sebastien Squillaci. My gut says that Sagna switches to the left so that Francis Coquelin can play on the right, while Djourou does indeed get the start in the center. The problem is that even if I'm right, Arsenal looks to have it all wrong.

-I made the point several times during the week that though Arsenal was beaten badly by AC Milan, they were also incredibly unlucky. Kevin Prince-Boateng's goal was a thing of absolute beauty, Zlatan Ibrohimovic looked to be offside when he received the ball on the second goal, Robinho's goal was perfectly placed as well as perfectly timed (right before Alex Song's foot arrived on the scene) after the defender in front of him fell down, and the fourth goal was a penalty. Now, Milan might have gotten four other goals from different plays, but it is a little difficult to not shake your head as an Arsenal fan. Not in disbelief, but ruefully as if to say "of course, what else is new?" In a year where everything seems to be going wrong, it is becoming the destiny of Arsenal to suffer yet another blow at the hands of fate. But still. Fourth place with big matches looming. Things could always be worse. Unfortunately, we seem to marching inexorably in that direction. As Always, Go Gunners.

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