Saturday 21 October 2017

James Lawton: Arsenal and City underline cash-rich Premier League has lost its competitive currency

Perhaps Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil will remember he is supposed to be a world-class player and, at a transfer cost of £40m, recognise somewhere deep in his psyche that he is honour-bound to express something more in the way of frustration at an appalling individual performance than a roll of his eyes and the puffing out of his cheeks.
Perhaps Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil will remember he is supposed to be a world-class player and, at a transfer cost of £40m, recognise somewhere deep in his psyche that he is honour-bound to express something more in the way of frustration at an appalling individual performance than a roll of his eyes and the puffing out of his cheeks.
James Lawton

James Lawton

Is this the last funeral pyre being built for the career of Arsene Wenger - and will Manchester City's Manuel Pellegrini survive the extreme likelihood of another brisk expulsion from the Champions League by a Barcelona side still clearly inhabiting a superior form of football life?

The questions are inevitable but then so is a much broader one after Monaco - beautifully, practically organised, and casually disregarded - delivered their stunning counter-punches at the Emirates Stadium.

It is one which flies beyond the fate of two high-profile managers. It goes to the heart of the claims that not only is the Premier League the richest and most popular in the world, it is also the best.

This week only the first two declarations were not guaranteed outright mockery.

Of course it is the richest: the TV contract numbers emblazon this reality across the sky.

Certainly it is the most watched, as worldwide audience figures regularly attest.

But the best? Who is kidding whom?

Barca and Monaco made a blazing bonfire of such pretensions, and who could be too confident that league leaders Chelsea will see off PSG after the somewhat fortuitous draw at the Parc des Princes?

WIPE-OUT

The possibility of a round of 16 wipe-out is, after all, scarcely coming out of a clear blue sky. Over the last five years there have been just two Premier League finalists - Manchester United, overwhelmed by Barca in 2011, and Chelsea, winners in 2012 in a manner so widely considered freakish that triumphant manager Roberto di Matteo would soon be swept from office.

This, of course, does not preclude the possibility of some kind of salvation for City and Arsenal as they attempt to overturn their unpromising situations.

Perhaps Arsenal's Mesut Ozil will remember he is supposed to be a world-class player and, at a transfer cost of £40m, recognise somewhere deep in his psyche that he is honour-bound to express something more in the way of frustration at an appalling individual performance than a roll of his eyes and the puffing out of his cheeks.

Maybe Yaya Toure will return to his old Nou Camp hunting ground in a mood to augment the efforts of his City clubmate Sergio Aguero, the one City player who seemed unintimidated at the Etihad Stadium by the sharp finishing of Luis Suarez and the revived genius of Lionel Messi.

Maybe so, maybe not, but what is unarguable is the fact that this has been a terrible week for the Premier League, and one that invites not only questions about the standards built in to the performance of the leading teams but also the collective will of some of the most lavishly rewarded players in the history of football.

How deeply did the Arsenal players feel the inadequacy of a performance which, this side of some miraculous re-invention of the team's nerve and commitment, might indeed signal the end of a brilliant managerial journey which started for Wenger in the gilded tax-haven all those years ago?

How profoundly did those of City curse the ineptitude and the timidity of their first-half performance against a team which Samir Nasri asserted had lost the power to scare them?

Jamie Redknapp was withering in his assessment of the Arsenal effort, as was fellow Sky pundit Gary Neville. They singled out Ozil for special rage, that of former professionals who believed they had seen not only an abject contribution to a vital game but the betrayal of an old competitive trade.

The haunted Wenger said, lamely, that the biggest problem was that his team had been a "bit suicidal defensively,' but that was never going to placate a fierce body of criticism.

The most damaging of it came from Graeme Souness, the old lion of the European Cup-winning Liverpool, who said: "An average team has blown Arsenal away. They were a dream to play against. I have to blame Wenger. Arsenal were so disorganised."

That was a hard assessment of the work of a manager who for so long has represented some of the most refined thinking in the English game and it was, suddenly, quite hard to see it as anything other than the first words of a professional epitaph.

Certainly the man who gave the Premier League some of its most uplifting football, and sent out the Invincible team of Henry, Vieira and Pires, had never looked so vulnerable to the charge that at the highest competitive level his best days have indeed come and gone.

It was a conclusion hardly dissipated by the manager's own tortured post-game analysis.

At no point did he seem willing to manhandle the oppressive sense that his team had failed at every level, that it seemed to be suffering less from passing inattention to the most pressing needs of adequate performance but a terrible hollowness at its core.

Wenger said: "We had a lot of possession but I just believe that defending we were not at the right level. Our weakness was down to mentality. We rushed our play and we were too impatient. . . this is a tie of 180 minutes.

EXPOSED

"The balance wasn't right because we always had to attack and when we lost the ball we were exposed physically. And at the back it was not one of our best nights. Maybe it was more heart than brain."

Heart? For the more detached, that too seemed to be a killing deficiency.

For City there was comfort in the fact that there was something of a concentration of the mind, and the sinew, in the second half before an exquisite piece of play by Messi earned a fourth penalty he has so curiously recently failed to exploit.

Yet for the Premier League champions, there was still the discouraging fact that they were so close to a two-goal disadvantage going to Nou Camp.

Who knows, Wenger and Pellegrini may dodge the firing squads. They may glean from the best and most resilient of their talent -a little fresh and life-giving momentum.

The hard view, though, makes that seem extremely unlikely at the end of a week in which those billions of TV banknotes seem all that much more like the wages of passing glamour and excitement rather than lasting achievement.

A forlorn conclusion, indeed seemed almost impossible to avoid. It is that the league awash with cash remains hard pushed to make a competitive currency of its own.

Wenger and Pellegrini may be the men at most risk but then Premier League stock has rarely dipped so low.

Irish Independent

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