Sunday, March 5, 2017

A decision to define the end of an era

In many ways, the last couple of months have had a very familiar feel to them. Arsenal have fallen away in the title race, they’re going to exit the Champions League at the round of 16 and there have been the usual failings in the big games against strong opposition. But there has been another factor at play to make this season feel different. It feels like we’re coming to the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign at the club.
The hammering against Bayern was the final straw for some, but the decision to leave out Alexis Sanchez against Liverpool will have pushed more over the edge with the Gunners losing 3-1. Regular readers and listeners will know the esteem in which I hold Arsene Wenger and how much I fear the future without him at the helm, but it is looking increasingly difficult to see how he can remain in charge for another few years.
He’s a great manager, he can do tactics and can motivate his players, but it just feels like it is the right time for a change because of the negativity and uncertainty building around the club. Even if the team picks up form before the end of the season and maybe even wins the FA Cup, the frustrations around the club and the lack of clarity over the future of what happens when Arsene leaves will only continue. If he signs a two-year contract, I’m struggling to see that the board will have any intention of using that time to properly plan for the future.
Should Arsene Wenger not sign a new contract in the summer and depart the club, people will look back at Saturday’s defeat at Anfield as one of the key moments in the end of his reign. In a vital game, Alexis Sanchez was left on the bench as the boss tried to change his tactics to counter Liverpool’s pressing game. Clearly Wenger felt he had to do something to mix it up in the big away games, and in principle, I didn’t mind him wanting to do that. The selection of Welbeck was very welcome, and Olivier Giroud has a great record against the Reds. But those two could have started alongside the electric Chilean. Just psychologically, the hosts will have got a huge boost seeing Alexis on the bench prior to the game.
When the team sheet was announced, it seemed like Arsene Wenger was taking a do-or-die risk, both in terms of the game, and in terms of his future beyond the end of the season. He will have known how much criticism would be levelled his way if the non-selection of Alexis didn’t pay off. As it didn’t work, I suspect that it will just increase the likelihood of him stepping away from the club in the summer.
Among all of this, a lot of responsibility has to be taken by the players. This week, there were quotes in the press from senior members of the squad about how they want the boss to stay. If they are so desperate for him to do that, it’d be nice if they backed that up with performances on the pitch. A team there were desperate for a manager to stay wouldn’t continue to have these rubbish halves, especially in big games. The first half at Anfield was another one to add to the list of ones recently that just haven’t been good enough.
With Alexis not selected and Ozil unwell, it was a chance for the team to prove that they don’t need their biggest stars to perform well, something they might have to do next season if Arsene Wenger leaves and prompts his two biggest signings to follow him out the door. The team selected was still good enough to compete and cause Liverpool plenty of problems, but if the plan to select Welbeck and Giroud was to be more direct, it didn’t really materialise. Poor Olivier Giroud had almost nothing to work off in the first half as Arsenal couldn’t get control in midfield to create opportunities for him.
While selecting two more defensive-minded midfielders in these sort of games makes sense, as a partnership, I’ve yet to see Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka have a good game together. Since signing a new contract, Coquelin has been particularly poor and was rightly hooked at half-time. He was careless in possession and just doesn’t seem to click alongside the Swiss international. In general, Arsenal’s midfielders allowed Liverpool to directly attack the centre-backs too often, especially when Arsenal were sitting off for a lot of the time that Liverpool had possession.
Partly down to Liverpool being able to sit back on a 2-0 lead, but partly down to Oxlade-Chamberlain being moved into the middle of midfield, Arsenal got much more control on the game in the second half. Alexis was direct after coming off the bench and Danny Welbeck provided a threat running in behind the defence. That combination brought Arsenal back into the game with a goal, but they couldn’t build on it.
The performance was made all the more frustrating when looking at the options available to the manager. Especially in attacking areas, there are brilliant options available to the manager, but he is struggling to pick the right combinations for the right games. For Arsene Wenger’s final changes off the bench on Saturday, Lucas Perez and Theo Walcott were brought on, which wasn’t unreasonable in the situation. There were boos for the removal of Danny Welbeck, but that was understandable given he is still returning to full fitness. But it was very strange to take Olivier Giroud off. In the final quarter of the game, should Arsenal have needed to go more direct, Giroud was the ideal man to have on the field.
It is worth a minor note that at 2-1 down, Arsenal were in a position to apply pressure on a nervy Liverpool team. Already on a yellow for a cynical challenge, Emre Can then wiped out Theo Walcott in combination with Joel Matip. Bobby Madley was having a decent enough game with the whistle but then completely bottled the obvious decision to give a second yellow to Can. The midfielder rolled around on the floor as a delaying tactic and inexplicably it worked. For all the jokes of Granit Xhaka getting cards for a similar offence, Xhaka ended up getting booked for that incident itself for protesting the decision not to bring out a second yellow. Arsenal shouldn’t have been in the position they found themselves in during the game, but it would have been helpful to play against 10 men for the last 15 minutes had the referee done his job properly.
But one refereeing decision shouldn’t be the takeaway from the game. Unfortunately, it is the manager’s decision that is the one that will be talked about, and will be continually referred to until a decision is made on his future beyond the end of this season.