Arsene Wenger: “What am I doing here?”
Last two days made us wiser. Or rather: they confirmed what we were suspecting; what we were predicting; what we were all afraid of. Premier League failed. The strongest, most exciting, most followed, most lucrative competition in the world managed to breed two futile teams that produced two useless, ugly performances and registered two rather embarrassing home defeats. The competition that unanimously pops up after typing ‘the best football league in the world’ in Google – has just put it’s own quality in question. And not for the first time this season, considering that Basel took out Liverpool 1-0 at home and dominated the rematch on Anfield, which was eventually drawn only to send down The Reds to the Europa League. It’s not even the second time: not that long ago, at White Hart Lane, Tottenham could’ve and should’ve beaten Fiorentina by three or four goals but instead drew 1-1 and is on the verge of elimination, having to score an away goal in today’s game to ever dream of advancing. Frankly, if not for Cavani’s lack for precision against Chelsea, the EPL disaster in continental competitions would’ve been complete – but even as it stands, it’s nothing short of frustrating to talk about.
What the hell is wrong with EPL? Three years ago, Chelsea has won the Champions League; two years ago, they backed it up with Europa League trophy; all those while their leading star, symbol and a founder of those successes – José Mourinho – was away at Real Madrid. With him back on the bench at Stamford Bridge, the old, well-known Chelsea has returned. In Paris, The Blues exhibited their trademark ability to withstand the onslaught and get away with a good result despite the lack of control over the game. Visually speaking, PSG was almost robbed of a victory which, during the game, seemed like only a matter of time. And this is the main quality of Chelsea those days, Ladies and Gentlemen: at times, they can pass, tackle and shoot badly but even if it happens, they still have the determination to fix each other’s failures; the determination that is going to make them the EPL champions this summer because no other team can maintain their stability of decent results despite sub-par form. It’s almost amazing that a team which needs their right-back to score crucial goals and does not change their starting eleven at all, still rises well above their domestic contemporaries. Who knows, maybe they’re going to win it all with their flexibility?
If that happens, though, it will only fuel the massive delusion of English fans, pundits and journalists: the delusion that top English teams can go toe-to-toe with Bayern, Barcelona or Real Madrid. They can’t. At all. Perhaps with the exception of days when nothing goes Bayern’s, Barcelona’s or Real Madrid’s way; the days when all football Gods are from Great Britain and when English clubs are not really willing to cooperate in the other team’s job of outplaying them. Apart from those days, EPL sides are doomed to lose. And let’s be realistic: it’s not like any reasonable football fan expects anything else from them. It’s not like a logically thinking person thinks that the pharaonic amounts of money top EPL sides have can seamlessly translate into players’ individual quality and that quality will then smoothly transform into an excellent performance of a team. Hell no. All what’s expected from those players, all that should – and can! – be done out there, on the pitch, against the top European clubs: is a close fight, a fight to the end – a fight concluded with a one-goal loss on aggregate; an extra-time thriller; a penalty shootout; the away goal rule. Needless to say, conceding five goals in two home appearances is pretty damn far from that.
Manuel Pellegrini is a decent manager, but he isn’t failure-proof at all. It’s hard to say whether he believed in the English Delusion as strongly as some people we’re seeing in media, but he certainly acted like he did. Last year, his idea was to lock out Barcelona’s right wing by playing Aleksandar Kolarov as the left midfielder; the role he only occasionally played in. It didn’t work: Blaugrana went on to win both games; Dani Alves scored a late goal on Ettihad to help his team. So this year, upon drawing Barca again, the Argentinian felt obliged to do something fancy again; something special that might swing the balance that was obviously in favour of the other team. Thus, he invented 4-4-2: the system City hardly used this season; the system that, above everything else, requires two strikers who can put a big effort to pressurize the opposition and cooperate when the team is on the ball. When was the last time Džeko and Agüero played together against a side stronger than Premier League’s mid-table clubs? I don’t remember – and neither do you. But they finally did – and, as a result, City needed 45 minutes to remind themselves how to 4-4-2 well.
Before they’ve wrapped it up and started to actually play football, The Citizens looked like a team on tranquillizers. Demichelis’ sliding challenge saved them from very early trouble but it was still early when Suárez picked up a little, cute floating pass from Messi and flawlessly blasted it in the back of the net. But – none of that would’ve actually happened if not for the lack of aggression! After a bad throw from Clichy, Barcelona reclaimed the ball, Rakitic gave it to Messi who literally had enough time to leave the stadium, buy a sandwich in the nearest snack bar, eat it, come back on the pitch and play that key pass to Suarez. In the end, Leo skipped the sandwich part, but his ball was insanely dangerous anyway – again, only because the three players down there – Clichy, David Silva and Fernando – stood there as if they were mere spectators. After the pass was on, it was too late; yet, City had Kompany, who was in a better position than anyone else and should’ve cleared it. Sadly, the Belgian accidentally controlled the ball with his shoulder, it landed behind his back and Suárez, whose reflexes are second to none, took his chance and buried it.
Tuesday was Luis Suárez’s day.
Attacking moves weren’t working for City either. The runs weren’t there, central midfielders voluntarily made their own task harder by making little inaccuracies and hampering the tempo of play – exactly the opposite of what Atletico Madrid does with a good success against Barca. Due to Rakitić and Busquets safeguarding the central zones, playing through balls was utterly impossible – thus, City preferred long passes and crosses. Again, the luck evaded City: apparently, Gerard Pique’s slump is over and the guy is back to his old self – miles and miles ahead of Citizens’ centre-backs, heading away all aerial danger when it appears. Pique kept Džeko in his pocket, forcing MC to virtually play with 10 people long before Clichy saw his second booking; and, without Yaya Touré to cover the dynamic part of the game, even the improvements they made during the halftime were not enough. Stats don’t lie: with only 1 tackle made by combined likes of Kompany, Demichelis and Fernando, the hard work was not there and Barcelona cruised to the victory; Messi’s run, Alba cross and another Suárez’s classy finish were only blunt confirmations of what anyone could see from miles and miles away.
The game next day was a slightly different story. Unlike Manchester City, Arsenal has a bunch of rather average players who can, from time to time, play as if they were a good team – providing people like Cazorla or Sánchez lead them on the pitch and nobody screws up at the back. Unfortunately, their main weakness this season is a total lack of mental toughness, especially when faced with unfavourable circumstances. Just as many more games from the past, this one involved Gunners playing the ball quite comfortably, patiently waiting for their chance and… eventually conceding, instead of scoring. It was a pure accident, a fluke: Kondogbia’s shot took a weird deflection and not much could keep it from going in. Those things happen; what truly matters, however, is the team’s response to them. Arsenal players responded with Olivier Giroud missing every single chance he was provided with. The Frenchman, who scored 5 goals and added 3 assists in his eight 2015 appearances for his club, took five shots, mostly from decent to good positions: of no avail. It’s frightening to think that it’s him, who is the main striker for a club with international ambitions; it’s even more frightening that he’s likely to be in the CL next year too.
But if Gunners’ wannabe goalscorer was awful, what can be said about Mesut Özil? Well, in order to rate his play in that game, we have to realize that he was on the pitch in the first place. Gravitating more towards the left wing, he started by running towards the ball over the top – and being beaten to it by Wallace, who turned the danger into just a conceded corner. Soon afterwards, Özil attempted a through ball to Giroud, failed and his body language explained everything: he had enough of this hard, physical struggle with Monaco’s powerful midfielders. Just like him, players who usually seek their chances in passing and moving like Coquelin and Cazorla, had a nightmary day. With possibilities being locked down by Fabinho and Kondogbia, they were forced to dribble too often and too far from the opposition’s goal for it to make any difference. Özil himself was just strolling; he resurfaced only once, getting a yellow couple minutes before the final whistle. Mindlessly, attack after attack, Gunners tried to pierce through ASM’s centre – and they were being punished over and over again for this stubbornness, until more goals for the visitors happened.
‘Typical Arsenal’ was what was screaming from the pitch much louder than usual in 53rd minute. The ball was transported to Gunners’ right wing where Bellerín tried to aid the attack by getting forward. Tackle after tackle, Monaco would disrupt that move, close the space until the ball was stolen back from Sánchez by Fabinho. The Brazilian moved forward with the ball to his foot and was eventually closed down by no less than five (!) players at once – all that happening on his own half of the pitch! Needless to say, at this point, one decent pass into space resulted with Martial and Berbatov running at lone Per Mertesacker, who is probably the worst professional centre-back on Earth when it comes to shutting down the pacey counterattack chances. By the time Martial delivered the pass to Berbatov, it was too late; three people who kept tracking back could as well stay in the middle of the pitch and watch the Bulgarian finishing his chance, because there was no catching him anyway. All in all: a painful punishment for attacking without any protection at the back – and another glaring example of abysmal decision-making by the team as a whole.
And let’s not delude ourself anymore: Oxlade’s beautiful goal was meaningless anyway. No team on this level can afford to lose two goals at home and still hope to go through; no such team even deserves to go through. Wenger’s boys made a clear statement of what they’re up to by allowing another deadly counterattack and handing Monaco the third goal on a silver platter. With their main striker and main offensive playmaker both failing at this early stage of Champions League, Arsenal currently looks unprepared to take the CL challenge next year. And so does Man City: the club in which skilful players crumble upon the weight of expectations, the inability to connect as a international-class team and upon the improper tactics they are asked to employ. What to make of it? My private guess is that the results like City 1-1 Hull or Stoke 3-2 Arsenal should be viewed from a different angle than the usual ‘everyone can beat everyone in EPL’ stereotype. Despite fortunes being spent on overpriced, overpaid players, Premier League is in a deep slump. And let’s hope Chelsea does not undermine this fact; someone out there needs a wake-up call now.