April 8, 2014

Gunners keep shooting themselves in the foot

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

With all due respect to Liverpool and its ability to stay on top of the table, the story of the week was Arsenal choking yet again.

While we can’t take anything away from Everton – which has been excellent lately and are earning their lofty place in the table – shouldn’t we expect more from Arsenal?

The team that topped the table for the majority of season looked lost in a must-win game. There was no sense of urgency, no tactical awareness and no adjustments to counter the Toffees.

Roberto Martinez’s decision to start Romelu Lukaku out on the right caused problems most of the day for the Gunners, who are defensively deficient in that area.

It’s just a typical collapse for Arsenal, one that probably won’t result in much more than unfulfilled rumours of Arsene Wenger’s demise.

At least with their FA semifinal against Wigan on the horizon, the Gunners can come one step closer to finally claiming some long-awaited silverware. Of course, it may come at the expense of a fourth-place finish – Arsenal’s calling card for years.

How ironic would it be if in the year it finally wins a cup, Arsenal fails to make the Champions League?

Of course, Everton’s fixture list is trickier down the stretch with games against both Manchester sides remaining.

One thing’s for certain: This race for fourth is just another of the compelling storylines coming down the stretch.

CONTROVERSY AT UPTON PARK

For once, the table-toppers were able to hold their lead – albeit in a game filled with controversy.

The Reds looked flat for the first half against West Ham, a low-table team that makes a habit of frustrating opponents at home.

But the Hammers weren’t the only ones to cause frustration on the day. Referee Anthony Taylor had his hand in all three goals on the day, when only one should have been given.

First, he gave a penalty on a play that saw West Ham keeper Adrian get the ball, then brush the leg of Jon Flanagan, who made the most of it.

If there’s one way to tell if an offensive player thought it was a penalty or not, it’s his reaction after the foul – and Flanagan didn’t appeal for the penalty at all. In fact, he continued trying to play the ball.

A dubious call for sure, but it was the type of penalty that you could file under “I’ve seen it be given.”

On West Ham’s goal, it looked pretty clear that former Red Andy Carroll clobbered goalkeeper Simon Mignolet in the head, causing the ball off the cross to drop to the feet of Guy Demel, who swiftly deposited it in the net.

The second half was much different, with Liverpool turning it on after a smart substitution by Brendan Rodgers, who is earning a reputation as one of Europe’s best.

But the real test is right ahead and could easily be a fixture that goes a long way to deciding the title race. Yes, next Sunday Manchester City visits Anfield – with Sergio Aguero reportedly ready to return from injury.

No that’s a game of the year if I’ve ever seen one.

ABOUT THE GUYS IN BLUE

The other top two contenders did their jobs against inferior opposition.

Chelsea beat Stoke 3-0 in a game that saw the Blues start some of its B team. Granted, some of those B team guys, like Fernando Torres, Frank Lampard, Mohamed Salah and Andre Schurrle would be unquestioned starters on a team like Stoke, but it was obvious that Jose Mourinho was looking for a new spark.

And at least Chelsea could claim for 24 hours on the weekend that it was back on top of the EPL, which I’m sure Mourinho had no interest in doing considering his capitulation last week.

The Sky Blues of Manchester defeated Southampton 4-1, a scoreline that flatters them for that game.

The Saints gave City a run for their money, even out-possessing the title challengers.

But the news of this game was that potential England forward Jay Rodriguez suffered a serious injury, ending his season and hopes for Brazil.

It was a tough blow too, considering he has 15 goals this season to lead the team.

AROUND THE PREMIER LEAGUE

It was no Wayne Rooney, no problem for Manchester United against Newcastle. Without him or Robin van Persie, the Red Devils offence had little trouble slicing through the Magpies’ back line. Why can’t David Moyes do this sort of thing more consistently? … Juan Mata had his best game yet with United, scoring twice – including a brilliant free kick – and playing a stunning back heel leading to Adnan Januzaj’s goal. Perhaps there’s hope yet for the former Chelsea man … If Spurs showed the kind of fight it did every week that it did to pot five against Sunderland after going down one, they’d be fighting for a Champion’s League spot instead of holding on to the second Europa League place. It will be interesting to see what direction Tottenham goes in this summer … The relegation race is very slowly sorting itself out, with Sunderland, Cardiff and Fulham left holding the bags. Of course, a win in any given week would help their causes greatly, it’s getting harder to see these sides pick up points. Even the Black Cats, with two games in hand, aren’t in good position. Remember, those games in hand are against top sides Man City and Everton.

THE LAST WORD

After news Norwich sacked manager Chris Hughton, the general sentiment was, “Damn, he was such a nice guy.” My question is if he kept his job precisely because he was such a nice guy.

Norwich’s record has been awful recently, slumping down to 17th in the table, five points out of the relegation zone. The Canaries have scored the second least goals in the league with 26 while not being particularly stout in the back.

So while this sacking may not be too shocking, what comes out of it might be. A quick glance at the list of current Premier League managers shows a shocking trend: Just seven managers have been with their teams for more than a year.

Breaking it down further, only three managers have led their teams more than two years.

That is an incredible rate of turnover. And when you figure that there have been calls for Wenger, Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce to be sacked this season – the three longest-tenured gaffers – you understand why that rate is so high.

Wenger, the elder statesman of the league has been in charge of Arsenal for 17 years, 189 days. To put in perspective how remarkable that is, his 6,394 day reign with the Gunners is just 533 days less than the rest of the EPL managers combined.

Wenger must be one heck of a nice guy.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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