Arsenal vs. Qarabag: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win

In Thursday’s dead rubber, the Gunners edged Qarabag 1-0 in the Europa League to extend their unbeaten run to 22 games in all competitions. Despite what the scoreline might suggest, it was a one-sided encounter with Arsenal enjoying 67% of ball possession and having 11 goal attempts to just 1 for the Azerbaijani side.

Arsenal vs. Qarabag.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Gunners had already secured a first-place finish in Group E before this game. Therefore Emery took no risk by leaving 9 first-team players out of the squad (Cech, Leno, Bellerin, Lichtsteiner, Kolasinac, Torreira, Xhaka, Iwobi and Aubameyang). The Spanish manager still fielded an experienced side with only 3 academy players in the starting lineup (Willock, Nketiah and Saka). In case of trouble, Emery had Monreal, Mkhitaryan and Guendouzi on the bench. Monreal came off the bench in the second half while Mkhitaryan and Guendouzi were not even used.

  1. The captain is back

Koscielny finally made his first appearance this season after tearing his Achilles tendon in May. There were some concerns over his fitness because he had only played a couple of games with the U23 team, but the French centerback looked sharp with a passing accuracy of 100%. The small crowd at the Emirates stadium warmly applauded Koscielny when Monreal replaced him in the 72nd minute. Koscielny produced a low-key performance, winning 1 tackle and 1 of 2 aerial duels and making 0 interception, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis had slightly better stats, winning 1 tackle and 2 of 3 aerial duels and making 2 interceptions.

  1. Saka showed personality

For his first Arsenal start, Saka wasn’t impressed by the big stage. The 17-year-old winger had 3 of 4 shots on target, 1 key pass, and led all players with 8 successful dribbles out of 10, according to whoscored.com. Saka tested Vagner with a curling shot in the ninth minute for Arsenal’s first scoring chance. He should have found the net in the 89th but fired straight at the goalkeeper from 8 yards. While youngsters like Nketiah and Smith-Rowe sometimes struggle with the physicality of the game, Saka is surprisingly quite strong in challenges for a teenager. Saka might prove a fantastic asset in the next few years as Mkhitaryan and Iwobi lack efficiency in the wide positions while Welbeck’s future at the club is uncertain.

  1. Nketiah is still a work in progress

Since his heroics in the League Cup against Norwich last year, Nketiah has struggled to have an impact with the first team. Nketiah keeps shining with the U23 side but the gap with the top leagues is massive. At 19, Nketiah still has time on his side though. He showed good work-rate against Qarabag by winning 5 tackles, tied with Willock for the most by any player. His defensive work in the 16th forced the turnover that led to the winning goal. However, his end product was a bit disappointing with 0 of 1 shot on target and 1 key pass. Nketiah headed a corner over the bar in the 37th and created the golden chance for Saka in the 89th. He headed home a cross from Saka in the 76th but the goal was disallowed for offside. Nketiah also needs to be more tidy in possession. He had 6 turnovers compared to 4 for Saka.

  1. Ozil made his return from a back injury

The quality of his passing was badly missed against Huddersfield last weekend. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes before Emery yanked him off in the 83rd to send on Gilmour. The German playmaker created the winner in the 16th by finding Lacazette inside the area. Lacazette rounded Huseynov to shoot past Vagner from a tight angle. The key question this season is whether Ozil will follow Emery’s tactical instructions. Pressing is a team effort. The whole chain can be broken if one player fails to close down an opponent. If Ozil improves his work-rate, he will be a regular starter. Otherwise, he will only be an impact player coming off the bench.

  1. Elneny should be sold next summer

The Egypt international is not decisive enough. Defensively, Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi win more tackles than Elneny. Offensively, Torreira and Guendouzi are more creative than Elneny while Xhaka is more useful for set pieces. On Thursday, Elneny won 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 1 key pass, compared to 5 tackles won, 1 interception and 1 key pass for Willock. Elneny’s main asset is that he’s more experienced and more tidy in possession than Willock. He had 2 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 95.9% compared to 4 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 88.5% for Willock.

 

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Arsenal vs. Huddersfield: 5-tool Torreira fires Gunners to 1-0 win

This has become the hit of the season at the Emirates: “Torreira woooah, Torreira woooah, he comes from Uruguay, he’s only five foot five.” You can’t blame the fans for chanting Torreira’s name to the tune of the old Vieira song. Where would Arsenal be without Torreira? The Uruguay midfielder scored with a spectacular bicycle kick in a 1-0 win over Huddersfield on Saturday to help the Gunners keep pace with Chelsea and Spurs in the Top 4 race.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery made 3 changes to the side that drew with Manchester United on Wednesday with Lichtsteiner, Xhaka and Lacazette replacing Holding, Ramsey and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also switched from a 3-4-3 system to a more defensive 3-5-2 formation, which was quite strange for a home game. The problem with that lineup was the absence of a creative link player -a midfielder who could link defense and attack, obviously, but also deliver the final ball and be a goal threat.

Ramsey and Ozil usually play that role in the Arsenal team but both were on the disabled list. So Torreira stepped up and made a telling impact. In the 83rd minute, Aubameyang made a cross for Torreira, who catapulted the ball into the net with an overhead kick. For a few seconds, I thought about Cazorla. Both Cazorla and Torreira are tiny players who had to change of position at different stages of their respective careers.

Cazorla spent most of his career playing as an attacking midfielder before Wenger converted him into a deep-lying playmaker during the 2014-15 season. The Spaniard was not a natural ballwinner and therefore had to team up with Coquelin in central midfield. Torreira is a better defensive midfielder than Cazorla could ever be. On the other hand, Cazorla is a better attacking midfielder than Torreira will ever be. Yet, Torreira started his career in Uruguay as a winger. When Torreira moved to Italy, he wasn’t deemed good enough as a winger and was therefore converted into a defensive midfielder.

The most complete midfielder

In a three-man midfield, Torreira performed the role of link player alongside Xhaka and Guendouzi. Torreira doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Cazorla or the pace of wingers like Walcott and Van Persie, but his all-around game made the difference on Saturday. He had 2 of 3 shots on target, won 1 of 2 tackles and 76.9% of his duels, and made 2 key passes and 7 recoveries, according to the club’s website. In fact, Torreira might be the most complete midfielder in the Arsenal squad. Torreira can play in any midfield position while it’s hard to envision Ozil and Ramsey as ballwinners.

Because Torreira doesn’t have Ozil’s technical ability, he overhit his final ball for Bellerin in the 16th and underhit his through ball for Aubameyang in the 30th. At 22, Torreira still has room for improvement, but his reading of the game is already very good. He led a counterattack in stoppage time and slipped a through ball to Guendouzi, who was denied by the Huddersfield goalkeeper. Torreira also nearly opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime, but Lossl turned his long-range strike around the post.

At the start of the season, Emery showed patience with Torreira, easing him into a new league. By October, Torreira became the heartbeat of the team with outstanding performances against Fulham and Leicester. Any pundit could see that Torreira was the rock his teammates could rely on, winning the ball back and building play from the back.

Despite his diminutive frame, Torreira has adapted quickly to the physicality of the Premier League. On Saturday, Torreira was fouled 7 times, the most for any player. He draws a lot of fouls because he has good close control, is quicker than his opponent in 50-50 duels, and smartly uses his body to shield the ball. Torreira could be the cornerstone of a team contending for the title and I believe Arsenal should build the squad in Torreira’s image with a mix of talent, hard work and grit.

Huddersfield’s negative tactics

As a team fighting relegation, the Terriers did their best to frustrate Arsenal. They pressed high up the pitch in the first half. Depoitre even managed to charge down a clearance from Leno in the fifth minute. The visitors also resorted to repetitive fouling to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game. Huddersfield finished the match with 20 fouls, compared to 13 for the Gunners. A couple of times, the Terriers crossed the line and roughed up some players. Williams was booked in the 37th for a tackle from behind on Torreira, while Smith received a yellow card two minutes later for a late challenge on Guendouzi.

Huddersfield’s negative tactics should be no excuse for Arsenal’s lack of urgency in the first half. The Gunners had two potential pacesetters with Xhaka and Guendouzi but played at a too slow tempo to pressure the visitors. It was quite interesting to see Emery play Xhaka as the holding midfielder. I believe it’s a choice by default. Torreira is a better defensive midfielder than Xhaka, but the trouble is that Torreira is also more mobile and has more impact in the final third than Xhaka. In the manager’s mind, Xhaka was more useful in front of the defense than in the final third. We already got a glimpse into Emery’s thinking when he played Torreira in a more advanced position than Xhaka against Spurs.

It was therefore no surprise to see Xhaka have better defensive stats than Torreira and Guendouzi. The Switzerland international won 3 of 5 tackles and 70% of his duels and made 1 interception and 10 recoveries. Despite those glossy stats, Xhaka had a couple of defensive lapses. He gave the ball away in the 44th and was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 49th. Both turnovers led to scoring chances for the Terriers.

Lack of urgency

Guendouzi also had weaker defensive stats than usual (0 tackle, 1 interception, 6 recoveries) because he played in a more advanced position as a deep-lying playmaker. Emery clearly wanted Guendouzi to focus on his passing. Guendouzi led all players with 5 key passes and a passing accuracy of 94.1%. The French teenager created the winner with a ball over the top for Aubameyang in the 83rd. He also created a big chance for Lacazette in the 29th.

The Gunners dominated possession with their three-man midfield but they lacked urgency and penetration. Arsenal’s midfield looked more like Liverpool’s laborious midfield than Manchester City’s creative trio. So Emery decided to switch to a 4-3-3 at halftime by replacing Lichtsteiner and Lacazette with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.

Iwobi and Mkhitaryan had a limited impact in the final third with 1 key pass each. A quick look at the winner tells you what’s wrong with them. Wide players often deliver the final ball but they also need to be a goal threat. In the screen capture below, you can see that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan made no effort to get in behind their markers when Guendouzi picked out Aubameyang. If Aubameyang had made a first-time pass, only Torreira would have been in a decent position to score.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield M83ed.jpgIwobi and Mkhitaryan waiting passively on the edge of the box while Torreira makes a run. (Photo credit: TSN)

Mkhitaryan failed to catch the frame with a a low drive in the 46th, headed a Kolasinac cross over the bar in the 82nd and made a sloppy pass while releasing Bellerin down the right flank in injury time. The Armenia international has been struggling to show end product this season with just 2 goals and 1 assist from 13 Premier League games, but at least you know Mkhitaryan will work hard for the team.

Iwobi under pressure

Iwobi seemed to turn a corner under Emery but now he’s looking more and more like the player of last season, showing poor end product and work-rate. He made 2 recoveries and won 9.1% of his duels compared to 4 recoveries, 1 tackle and 44.4% of duels won for Mkhitaryan.

What frustrated a lot of fans was how Iwobi proved too casual in possession, leading Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Lacazette had just 1 turnover and Mkhitaryan 0 turnover. Iwobi’s passing accuracy of 63.2% was also the lowest among the Gunners. He sent a pass out of play after misreading Kolasinac’s run in the 62nd. Then Iwobi produced an air header in the 76th, confusing Kolasinac who could have connected with Mkhitaryan’s cross. And he showed a lack of composure on a counterattack, losing possession with a heavy touch in the 88th when he could have fed Aubameyang to his left.

If Iwobi keeps underperforming, the fans will get more and more on his back. Dealing with pressure is not fun but it’s the reality of football at the top level. At 22, Iwobi still has time to mature and prove himself, but not much. This is already his fourth season in the Premier League. Youngsters like Nketiah and Nelson will soon be knocking on the door.

I thought yanking Lacazette off at halftime was a risky move by Emery. If Aubameyang had picked up an injury, Emery only had Nketiah on the bench to play in the centerforward position. Lacazette missed a big chance in the 29th. Completely unmarked, Lacazette took a pass from Guendouzi and fired over the bar from 13 yards while losing his footing.

Then Lacazette had a goal disallowed for offside in the 42nd. He was indeed offside when Aubameyang flicked on Leno’s goal kick. But the ball fell to Jorgensen, who made a poor backpass toward his goalkeeper. Lacazette intercepted the ball and dribbled past Lossl to score into an empty net. The controversy here is that the referee let play continue when Jorgensen had the ball but decided to cancel the second phase of play when there was no advantage for the Terriers. That’s a common practice in rugby but very unusual in football.

A show of faith

Lacazette’s substitution looked like a show of faith in Aubameyang. The Gabon striker definitely deserves to be the first-choice striker. He has scored 10 league goals this season compared to 6 for Lacazette. Starved of decent service, Aubameyang had an off day with 0 of 4 shots on target. He pounced on an off-target shot from Xhaka in the 28th only to divert the ball wide from 9 yards. Then Aubameyang missed the target with his close-range header from a Xhaka corner in the 63rd. Despite that poor finishing, Aubameyang kept working hard and played a key role for the winner. He controlled Guendouzi’s ball over the top only to have his effort blocked by Kongolo. As the ball bounced behind him, Aubameyang spun to make a blind cross for Torreira, who jumped in the air for a bicycle kick.

On the flanks, Kolasinac didn’t have the same offensive impact as in the previous league games, making only 1 key pass. The initial 3-5-2 formation deprived Kolasinac of a wide player to combine with. He felt more comfortable in the second half when Iwobi played on the left wing. Kolasinac had solid defensive stats, winning 3 of 4 tackles and making 9 recoveries, but he showed again his technical limitations with 6 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 66.7%. On the right flank, Bellerin was almost anonymous. The Spaniard showed signs of fatigue against Manchester United. I thought Emery could have rested Bellerin while giving a start to Maitland-Niles. Bellerin’s only significant contribution was a teasing cross that Lossl poorly cleared in the 68th.

The Gunners have been hit by an injury crisis at the back. Holding will miss the rest of the season after rupturing his knee ligament against Manchester United. Emery improvised by playing Lichtsteiner on the right side of the back three. Lichtsteiner compensated for his lack of pace with his positional play and reading of the game. However, I doubt Lichtsteiner will be a long-term solution at centerback, especially since Monreal and Koscielny made their return to the squad.

Mustafi caught ball-watching (again)

Of the three centerbacks, Sokratis had the best defensive stats, winning 1 of 3 tackles and 70% of his duels and making 1 block, 5 interceptions and 8 recoveries. He will miss the next league game after receiving his fifth booking of the season for a mistimed challenge on Hogg in the 40th. Although Huddersfield created very little, the Gunners struggled in the air. Sokratis and Mustafi combined to win only 3 of 8 aerial duels, while Depoitre won 10 of 18 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. That’s one area where Holding will be badly missed.

This game won’t convince Mustafi’s critics. The German defender won 1 of 1 tackle and 42.9% of his duels and made just 1 interception and 2 recoveries before pulling his hamstring in the 64th. He led Arsenal players with 3 fouls, including 2 silly fouls in the 27th and 30th, and was booked for diving at the end of the first half.

The biggest concern with Mustafi is that he doesn’t seem to smell danger. The Terriers had their best chance in the 44th. Smith made a cross for Pritchard, who fired over the bar from 12 yards. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka was covering Sokratis but couldn’t stop Smith’s cross. Inside the area, Depoitre was double-teamed by Lichtsteiner and Bellerin. Only Pritchard was left unmarked. Mustafi was again caught ball-watching, focusing on Smith instead of finding out where the goal threat would come from.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield M44ed.jpgMustafi leaves Pritchard unmarked. (Photo credit: TSN)

The Gunners next play Qarabag on Thursday before visiting Southampton on Sunday. Emery will probably rest his key players against Qarabag because the Gunners have already secured the top spot in Group E of the Europa League. However, the Spanish manager might face a tricky decision at the back. Knowing that Mustafi and Sokratis will be suspended for the Southampton game, will Emery play them in the Europa League? Or will he start Koscielny and Mustafi against Qarabag to help them build their fitness? A good compromise could be to play with Koscielny and Monreal in the first half and replace them with Mustafi and Sokratis in the second half.

Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Holding, Ramsey injured in 2-2 draw

In a physical contest, Arsenal drew 2-2 with Manchester United on Wednesday to slip to 5th place in the Premier League, two points behind Spurs. I have mixed feelings over the result. On the one hand, the Gunners extended their unbeaten run to 20 games in all competitions. They’ve also improved against the Big 6, defeating Tottenham and drawing with Liverpool and Manchester United after losing to Chelsea and Manchester City in August. On the other hand, Arsenal missed an opportunity to get three points against a team short on confidence and creating very little from open play. The Red Devils had one more day of rest than Arsenal but that should not be an excuse because Spurs managed to beat the Saints, who drew with United last Saturday.

Manchester United vs. Arsenal

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery made two changes to the side that smashed Spurs last weekend with Ramsey and Guendouzi replacing Mkhitaryan and a suspended Xhaka in the starting lineup. Ramsey sprained his ankle in the 44th minute and was replaced at halftime by Mkhitaryan. That injury puts more pressure on Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to deliver the final ball. It also means that Emery might need Ozil this weekend if Iwobi and Mkhitaryan are still inefficient in the final third.

Iwobi has been trying to fill Ozil’s shoes in the past couple of games. On Wednesday night, those shoes were simply too big for him. Iwobi lacked end product with 0 shot and 0 key pass. He made a poor pass to Kolasinac in the opening minute, overhit his through ball for Bellerin in the 17th, and wasted a counterattack in the 47th by missing a short pass. Obviously, Iwobi doesn’t have Ozil’s technical quality. The Nigeria international led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, despite playing only 64 minutes.

Iwobi’s lack of effort

The main reason why Emery keeps playing Iwobi on the left wing is because the other attacking midfielders feel more comfortable on the right wing. It’s a choice by default. The Spanish manager will have more options on the left wing next season with Nelson’s return from his loan spell at Hoffenheim.

Fans have been talking about Iwobi’s improvement this season, but he keeps showing poor work-rate. Iwobi won 0 of 1 tackle and made 6 recoveries, barely matching Mkhitaryan, who won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 block and 5 recoveries in 45 minutes, according to the club’s website. His lack of effort was blatant on United’s first equalizer. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi was standing next to Herrera when Rojo took his free kick in the 30th.

MU M30a edited.jpgIwobi stands next Herrera behind the Arsenal wall. (Photo credit: BT)  

Leno made a good save by palming Rojo’s effort aside. The trouble is that Herrera reacted quickly to keep the ball in play and cut it back for Martial, who fired home from close range. On the screen capture below, you can see that Herrera built a 6-yard lead over Iwobi in a 15-yard foot race. In the end, Iwobi was just a yard late to intercept Herrera’s pass.

MU M30b edited.jpgIwobi fails to track Herrera. (Photo credit: BT)

On the right wing, Mkhitaryan had more impact than Iwobi in the final third. Mkhitaryan closed down Rojo, who gave the ball away to Lacazette in the 68th. Lacazette swapped passes with Mkhitaryan and was about to pull the trigger when Rojo made a sliding tackle only to knock the ball into his own net. Mkhitaryan could have scored the winner in the 72nd but flicked Kolasinac’s cross over the bar from 3 yards. That’s the kind of chance that Giroud would have converted. In stoppage time, Mkhitaryan set up Torreira, whose powerful strike was parried by De Gea. Mkhitaryan pounced on the rebound and somehow found the net from the most acute angle, but his goal was disallowed for offside.

Torreira’s consistency

In midfield, Guendouzi had a decent game, winning 1 of 2 tackles, making 1 interception and 7 recoveries, and leading all players with 74 passes. He had a rough start though. Guendouzi panicked and turned the ball over in the sixth minute. Then Herrera outmuscled Guendouzi to win the ball in the 11th. His inexperience cost his team in the 29th as Guendouzi mistimed his challenge on Martial to give away the free kick that led to United’s first equalizer.

However, Guendouzi managed to keep his cool when the Red Devils targeted him. Rojo was booked in the 38th for a nasty scissor tackle on Guendouzi before Fellaini pulled the French teenager’s hair in the 87th. For that disgraceful foul, Fellaini did not even receive a yellow card. At 19, Guendouzi is far from the finished product. He needs to release the ball more quickly, not just to cut his turnover rate but also to up the tempo. His partnership with Torreira in central midfield was quite complementary because Guendouzi is a deep-lying playmaker like Xhaka.

Torreira did not reach the heights of his performance against Spurs, but he had another good game and is becoming a key player for Arsenal because of that consistency. The Uruguay midfielder won 1 of 1 tackle, made 2 key passes, 1 interception and 9 recoveries, and had just 1 turnover, compared to 5 for Guendouzi. There was the fear of an injury when Torreira landed awkwardly after colliding with Martial in the 54th. Emery will have to carefully monitor Torreira’s playing time during the Christmas period because he’s not used to a season without a winter break. The club will also have to give Torreira a raise because he’s reportedly only earning £50,000 a week.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

Up front, Aubameyang lacked a bit of sharpness after working his socks off against Spurs. He was quite anonymous in the first half before coming to life in the second half. His pace definitely frightened the Manchester defense as Matic killed a counterattack in the 42nd by holding Aubameyang. The Gabon striker should have scored the winner in the 71st when he met a cross from Kolasinac, but De Gea saved Aubameyang’s 6-yard effort with his leg. Four minutes later, Aubameyang tested De Gea with a curling shot from the edge of the box.

On the left flank, Kolasinac was again Arsenal’s main ammunition provider. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international led all players with 3 key passes, including big chances for Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. However, his offensive contribution can’t erase his defensive lapses. Kolasinac failed to stop a dangerous cross from Dalot in the 14th, did not track Dalot on a Manchester fast break in the 57th and gifted a goal to Lingard with a poor first touch in the 69th. To prevent that equalizer, Kolasinac should have either cleared the danger or made a first-time pass to Leno. Running with the ball inside the area was clearly the wrong option.

On the opposite flank, Bellerin produced a lackluster performance. He won only 28.6% of his duels and made 0 key pass, 0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block and only 2 recoveries, according to the club’s website. I suspect Bellerin suffered from a bit of fatigue. The Spaniard was booked in the 41st as he was late on a 50-50 ball and tripped Darmian.

The Gunners have shown great resilience to come back in the second half this season, but one concern for Emery is that they struggle to protect the lead. It’s a reason why they still haven’t reached halftime in a winning position this season in the Premier League. On Wednesday, Arsenal blew their first lead after 4 minutes and threw away their second lead after 1 minute. That tells you there’s a lack of leadership at the back. This Arsenal team desperately needs a commanding defender who can help the players keep cool heads and focus on the basics.

Mustafi caught ball-watching

Don’t count on Sokratis or Mustafi for that role. Sokratis missed his clearance in the fourth minute, gave the ball away in the 34th and showed poor positional play for the last goal. At the restart in the 69th, Rojo hit a long ball toward Lukaku, who held off Sokratis. As you can see on the screen capture below, Sokratis had no chance to win a header by standing behind Lukaku. The correct defensive play would have been to sandwich Lukaku between Sokratis and Mustafi, with Sokratis trying to win the ball in front of Lukaku, and Mustafi covering his teammate.

MU M69a edited.jpgSokratis should have been in front of Lukaku to win the header. (Photo credit: BT)

Both Lukaku and Sokratis missed the ball, which bounced into the path of Kolasinac. Mustafi was caught ball-watching on that play. While Kolasinac and Sokratis were busy with Lukaku and the ball, Mustafi should have blocked Lingard’s run into the box. See the screen capture below. But Mustafi failed to spot Lingard’s threat and remained passive as the equalizer unfolded in front of him.

MU M69b edited.jpgMustafi fails to block Lingard’s run into the box. (Photo credit: BT)

Mustafi met a corner from Torreira in the 26th to open the scoring with a bouncing header that De Gea fumbled into his own net. Herrera cleared the ball off the line but technology told the referee that the ball had entirely crossed the line. Like for Kolasinac, Mustafi’s offensive contribution can’t make up for his defensive lapses. The German defender received a yellow card for a reckless challenge on Rashford in the 37th. And his passing accuracy of 72.7% was relatively weak for a centerback. By contrast, Sokratis’ passing accuracy reached 91.2%.

Koscielny returning this weekend?

The bad news of the evening was Holding’s knee injury. He held onto the ball too long in the 32nd and seemed to twist his knee after Rashford bumped into him. That injury is coming at the wrong time for Holding, who has been performing better than Mustafi and Sokratis in the last few games.

Things didn’t start well for Holding, who lost possession in the second minute while trying to dribble his way out of trouble. Then he missed his interception for United’s first equalizer. Lichtsteiner replaced Holding in the 36th and produced a lackluster performance with just 1 recovery, while Holding made 1 interception and 2 recoveries. If Emery wants to stick with a back three, he might have to rush Koscielny’s return. The French centerback played two games with the U23 team and was initially tipped to play in the Europa League match against Qarabag next week.

December is always a challenging month for Premier League teams because injuries start piling up and suddenly test the depth and quality of the bench. Sure, Emery has attacking midfielders who can replace Ramsey in the starting lineup, but none has been as efficient as Ramsey in the final third. The Gunners will have a good chance to move back into the Top 4 on Saturday as they host Huddersfield while the Citizens visit Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Aubameyang, Torreira shine in North London derby

Trailing 2-1 at halftime, Emery stamped his authority on the North London derby by replacing Iwobi and Mkhitaryan with Ramsey and Lacazette for the start of the second half. Those substitutions helped turn the match around as the Gunners won 4-2 on Sunday to leapfrog Spurs into fourth place in the Premier League on goal difference.

Arsenal vs. TottenhamPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

That result could prove crucial in the Top 4 race because Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have dropped very few points against the weak and average sides. As a consequence of that hectic pace, there’s already an eight-point gap between Arsenal and the sixth-placed team, Everton. That basically means that the Champions League spots might be decided by the direct confrontations between the top clubs.

Emery made no change to the side that edged Bournemouth 2-1 a week ago. The only difference was on the bench where Lacazette made his return from a groin injury while Ozil was not even in the squad. Officially, Ozil was suffering from back spasms but it sounded very much like a diplomatic injury.

The Gunners should have reached halftime with the lead but they wasted good situations with inaccurate final balls and some poor finishing. Although Tottenham capitalized on 2 defensive errors to lead 2-1 against the run of play, Arsenal showed resilience in the second half to overturn the deficit and stretch their unbeaten run to 19 games in all competitions. According to the club’s website, the Gunners have earned 11 points from losing positions this season.

Iwobi’s poor game

Playing as inside forwards in a 3-4-3 formation, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi didn’t have the impact that Emery expected. Iwobi had a poor game, showing poor work-rate and lacking end product. In 45 minutes, Mkhitaryan and Ramsey made 2 key passes each compared to 0 for Iwobi. The Nigeria international overhit his pass for Mkhitaryan in the 39th minute and sent his crossfield pass for Bellerin straight into touch in the 41st. Iwobi also made poor choices in the final third by running into traffic in the 12th and 27th to lose possession and give Spurs counterattacking opportunities. His only offensive contribution was a low effort that Lloris saved with his leg in the 19th.

Any player can have an off day, but the poor work-rate in a North London derby is unacceptable. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries, compared to 2 tackles and 4 recoveries for Mkhitaryan and 2 tackles and 3 recoveries for Ramsey, according to the club’s website. At least, work-rate is not an issue with Mkhitaryan, who is struggling this season with just 2 goals and 1 assist in 11 Premier League games. Mkhitaryan created 2 chances with crosses from the right flank. Aubameyang met his cross in the second minute only to head over the bar. Mkhitaryan found again Aubameyang on the stroke of halftime, but the Gabon striker poorly controlled the ball, allowing Vertonghen to clear the danger.

Sending on Ramsey and Lacazette was a no-brainer for Emery. The Tottenham defense only had to worry about Aubameyang in the first half because Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were limited goal threats. Spurs faced a tougher test in the second half with Ramsey and Lacazette, who have a better goalscoring record than Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Emery shifted to a 3-5-2 system with Ramsey playing behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Aubameyang suddenly looked less isolated while Ramsey delivered the final ball that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were unable to provide.

Arsenal’s triple threat

It was quite interesting to see Emery build his team around Ramsey in the second half after having benched the Wales midfielder in the previous league games. Even when Arsenal switched to a 4-4-2 formation in the 71st because Mustafi picked up a hamstring injury and was replaced by Guendouzi, Emery kept playing Ramsey behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Would a front two be the best approach to optimize Ramsey’s potential? There have been games in which Ramsey played with Aubameyang and Lacazette, but each time Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang was on the left flank. Defensively, playing Ramsey in the hole would allow Arsenal to man-mark a deep-lying playmaker.

Off the pitch, Ramsey had his contract offer taken off the table. On the pitch, Ramsey is still more consistent than Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Ramsey currently leads the Premier League with 6 assists, 4 more than Iwobi and 5 more than Mkhitaryan and Ozil. That’s such an awkward situation for the club to reject its best attacking midfielder. Can there be a climbdown?

Ramsey spotted Aubameyang’s run in the 52nd but overhit his through ball. Four minutes later, Ramsey made a run between Foyth and Vertonghen to chase Bellerin’s through ball and feed Aubameyang with a first-time pass. In a 1v1 situation with Aurier, Aubameyang curled a 20-yard shot into the bottom corner to level the game. Ramsey then dispossessed Foyth in the 75th to play Lacazette in. The pass lacked pace, forcing Lacazette to cut inside Vertonghen and shoot with his weaker left foot. Lacazette’s long-range effort took a deflection off Dier to beat Lloris for a 3-2 lead.

Pochettino replaced Alli with Winks in the 79th to contain Ramsey’s influence but it was already too late to repair the damage. The Tottenham defense simply couldn’t cope with that triple threat. Aubameyang dropped off in the 77th to slip a through ball to Torreira. From a tight angle, Torreira drilled the ball into the far corner to seal the win. A frustrated Vertonghen shoved Lacazette from behind to give away a free kick in the 80th. Five minutes later, Vertonghen received a second yellow card for a stamp on Lacazette’s ankle.

Aubameyang’s work-rate

Torreira was named Man of the Match, but I thought Aubameyang was more deserving. Aubameyang finished the game with 2 goals and 1 assist, raising his tally to 10 goals and 2 assists in the Premier League this season. Actually, the Gabon striker is the top scorer in the league with 2 more goals than Aguero and Kane.

The Gunners are a greater threat on the fast break when Aubameyang leads the line than when Lacazette plays as a false nine. Aubameyang gave Arsenal the lead in the 10th minute by converting a penalty after Vertonghen handled the ball to deny Mustafi a clear scoring opportunity. Of course, Aubameyang’s performance was not perfect. He was flagged offside 5 times and led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. But his work-rate was phenomenal. Aubameyang won 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player, according to the club’s website.

In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka formed again a complementary partnership. Torreira won 2 of 3 tackles, made 1 interception and led all players with 12 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The only blemish in his performance was his 5 turnovers. But most fans will only remember Torreira’s wild celebration after the last goal, when he took off his shirt to slide on his knees toward the corner flag. Xhaka was less active than Torreira, winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, but he had 0 turnover and led all midfielders by winning 75% of his duels, according to the club’s website. The Switzerland international will miss the Manchester United clash after picking up his fifth booking of the season in the 49th when he tripped Alli.

Leno’s error

I’m not sure whether Pochettino watched Arsenal’s victory at Bournemouth because Kolasinac enjoyed a lot of freedom down the left flank. Kolasinac led all players with 5 key passes and had decent defensive stats with 1 tackle won and 6 recoveries, compared to 1 tackle won and 8 recoveries for Bellerin on the right flank. Things didn’t start well for Kolasinac, who delivered a poor final ball for Aubameyang in the third minute and lost possession by running into traffic in the seventh. But Kolasinac grew into the game and made another teasing cross in the 13th for Aubameyang, who couldn’t control the ball. Then Kolasinac set up Iwobi in the 19th and Bellerin a few seconds later. In the back three, Holding is the one shifting to the left when Kolasinac roams forward. The move to a 4-4-2 formation in the 71st led to a change of plans with Guendouzi covering Kolasinac.

Maybe opponents are taking their eyes off Kolasinac because of Bellerin’s runs down the opposite flank. Bellerin created Arsenal’s equalizer in the 56th by picking out Ramsey. The Spaniard also had a volley blocked by Davies in the 19th. However, his lapse of concentration nearly cost his team in the 68th. Leno parried a drive from Son after Bellerin gave the ball away.

Leno made 4 saves but he also committed his second error leading to a goal this season. He threw Spurs a lifeline by palming Dier’s header into his own net in the 31st. A couple more mistakes could change the pecking order for goalkeepers. Leno is usually reliable with his distribution but his passing accuracy dipped to 53% because of Tottenham’s high press.

Holding’s inexperience

At the back, Holding’s inexperience cost Arsenal a penalty. Holding seemed to clip Son’s foot in the 33rd with a sliding block attempt. Watching TV replays, it looked like a dive because there was really minimal contact. In hindsight, Holding should have refrained from diving in because Son had nowhere to go and was unlikely to score from such a tight angle. Despite that defensive error, Holding had better defensive stats than Sokratis and Mustafi. The English centerback won 67% of his duels, made 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries compared to 33% of duels won, 1 block, 1 interception and 3 recoveries for Sokratis, and 53% of duels won, 3 interception and 4 recoveries for Mustafi, according to the club’s website.

Using a back three is a tactical ploy to safely cover the wingbacks, but it’s also an implicit acknowledgement that your centerbacks are not good enough. Sokratis got no booking despite leading all players with 4 fouls. The Greek defender struggled to cope with Son’s pace and Kane’s physicality. His foul on Son in the 29th led to the free kick for Spurs’ equalizer. Sokratis also misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 22nd and gave the ball away to Alli in the 41st.

Mustafi was shaky too. Son easily dribbled past Mustafi to test Leno in the 23rd. The German defender was then booked for a studs-up challenge on Son in the 37th and turned the ball over to Davies in the 65th. In a typical case of the Vermaelen syndrome, Mustafi nearly found the net to make up for his poor defending. On the stroke of halftime, Mustafi met a cross from Xhaka for a looping header that Lloris palmed away. Mustafi also had a volley cleared off the line by Alli in the 60th. Emery might have to rush Koscielny’s return as Mustafi seemed to pull his hamstring with an awkward clearance in the 68th.

The Gunners next visit Old Trafford on Wednesday. It’s a fantastic opportunity to knock Manchester United out of the Top 4 race: the Red Devils are short on confidence and would trail Arsenal by 11 points with a loss.

Vorskla vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 3-0 win

The Gunners secured the top spot in Group E of the Europa League by routing Vorskla 3-0 on Thursday. Even if Sporting Lisbon go level on points after Matchday 6, Arsenal will still finish ahead of the Portuguese club because of a better head-to-head record.

Vorskla vs. Arsenal

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

There was a bit of uncertainty over the game. It was relocated from Poltava to Kiev because of military tensions in the Crimea region between Russia and Ukraine. In a freezing and half-empty stadium, the Gunners turned the match into one-way traffic with 9 shots on target to just 2 for Vorskla. The Ukrainian side only threatened in the opening minutes from two set pieces and at the end of the game when Emery made some substitutions. Their only big chance was Perduta’s point-blank shot that Cech saved in the 70th minute.

  1. The North London derby is on Emery’s mind

Emery left most of the regular starters at home. Leno, Sokratis, Mustafi, Bellerin, Kolasinac, Torreira, Xhaka, Ozil, Iwobi and Aubameyang were not in the Arsenal squad traveling to Ukraine. Among the players who might feature against Spurs, only Maitland-Niles played the full 90 minutes. Holding, Guendouzi and Ramsey were replaced in the second half while Mkhitaryan stayed on the bench.

Prioritizing the North London derby led Emery to build his weakest squad of the season with 5 academy players on the bench (Gilmour, Medley, Osei-Tutu, John Jules and Saka) and 3 academy players in the starting lineup (Nketiah, Smith-Rowe and Willock).

The absence of many first-team players explains why Willock and Jenkinson had to play out of position. Jenkinson is a fullback by trade but played at centerback on Thursday. In the past, Wenger also made similar moves with Sagna, Debuchy and Monreal. A stranger experiment was to play Willock on the right wing. Usually, managers tend to move players into a deeper position. For instance, central midfielders like Coquelin, Flamini and Maitland-Niles helped out by playing in the fullback position.

  1. Willock stole the show

Emery’s decision to play Willock in the winger position was a stroke of genius. Willock produced an outstanding all-around performance with 1 goal, 3 of 3 shots on target, 1 key pass, 4 successful dribbles, 3 tackles won, and 1 interception, according to whoscored.com. The only blemish in Willock’s performance was his 6 turnovers, the most for any player.

Willock is a central midfielder by trade and looked pretty much like a mini-Coquelin under Wenger last season. His offensive output was quite a surprise because Willock doesn’t have the scoring abilities and dribbling skills of Nketiah or Smith-Rowe. Willock made it 3-0 in the 41st with a curling shot Thierry Henry would have been proud of. He also tested Shust with an angled strike in the 32nd and a close-range effort in the 90th.

  1. Ramsey showed he’s a leader

A second choice for Emery now, Ramsey has not let his decline in the pecking order affect his performance. Ramsey created the opening goal by swapping passes with Nketiah in the 10th before earning a penalty with some clever footwork for the second goal in the 26th. Emery used Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder again. This is not Ramsey’s best position but the Wales international can only make the best of each appearance to deserve a new lucrative contract elsewhere.

  1. Smith-Rowe keeps growing

At the age of 18, Smith-Rowe has already scored 3 goals in all competitions this season. Smith-Rowe definitely has a talent for finding good positions in the final third. The English teenager scored a poacher’s goal in the 10th by pouncing on a loose ball to fire home from 11 yards. He found the net again by converting a cross from Lichtsteiner in the 65th, but the goal was disallowed because of Nketiah’s offside position on that play. Smith-Rowe had another scoring chance in the 71st but Shust parried his powerful strike. As the icing on the cake, Smith-Rowe’s work-rate was also impressive with 2 tackles won, 3 interceptions and 2 key passes, including a lobbed pass for Nketiah in the 33rd.

  1. Nketiah is feeling the pressure

It’s hard not to make comparisons between Nketiah and Smith-Rowe since Nketiah is only a year older than Smith-Rowe. Despite scoring many goals in the Premier League 2, Nketiah still hasn’t found the net with the senior team this season.

In the centerforward position, Nketiah drew 4 fouls and led all players with 5 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com. Nketiah was involved in the opening goal by charging down Dallku’s clearance. He seemed to try too hard a couple of times. Nketiah was right to fire a low strike that Shust turned around the post in the 53rd. But he rushed his shot after struggling to control a high ball in the 33rd and attempted a blind effort in stoppage time.

I don’t think centerforward is Nketiah’s best position at this stage of his career. He still lacks a bit of physicality for that role. Nketiah won only 1 of 3 aerial duels and had 4 turnovers. Maybe he would perform better as a second striker or as a winger, especially since he has the all-around game for those positions. For instance, Nketiah made very good crosses in the 52nd and 85th.

  1. Guendouzi is an upgrade over Elneny

Guendouzi’s rise is the main reason for Elneny’s slip down the pecking order. Defensively, Guendouzi outperformed Elneny, winning 1 tackle and making 3 interceptions compared to 0 tackle won and 1 interception for the Egypt international. Elneny lost a duel that led to a scoring chance for Kulach on the stroke of halftime. Offensively, Guendouzi offers a bit more variety. Elneny had 3 key passes compared to 2 key passes for Guendouzi, but a closer look at the stats tells you why Emery prefers Guendouzi. The French teenager hit 2 accurate crosses out of 8 and 5 accurate long balls out of 5, compared to 0 accurate cross out of 1 and 2 accurate long balls out of 3 for Elneny, according to whoscored.com. However, Guendouzi could learn from Elneny in his passing game. Elneny releases the ball more quickly whereas Guendouzi tends to slow down the tempo by holding onto the ball too long.

 

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Lucky Gunners get back to winning ways

The Gunners made up ground in the Top 4 race with an ugly 2-1 win at Bournemouth on Sunday. They snapped a 3-game winless streak in the Premier League to move within a point of Chelsea in the standings. Emery had a tactical surprise for the Cherries as he switched from his favorite 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 system. The Spanish manager had already used a back three against Qarabag in the Europa League, mostly to give some playing time to Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner. But it was the first time that Emery relied on such a system in the Premier League.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The tactical shift made sense because it provided cover to Bellerin and Kolasinac down the flanks, where Fraser and Brooks could cause a lot of damage and feed Wilson and King. The downside of that shift is that Emery basically replaced an attacking player, Ozil, with a centerback, Sokratis, in his starting lineup. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners struggled to create clear-cut chances: they never really found any rhythm in their passing game and made no through ball attempt. By contrast, Manchester City and Liverpool made 5 and 3 through ball attempts on Saturday, respectively.

The 3-4-3 formation played to Kolasinac’s strengths because he’s more a wingback than a proper fullback. In fact, Kolasinac turned out to be Arsenal’s main attacking threat at the Vitality stadium. He created the opening goal in the 30th minute with a cross that Lerma catapulted into his own net. Kolasinac then set up the winning goal by squaring the ball back to Aubameyang in the 67th. While the Cherries managed to keep Bellerin quiet, they seemed to underestimate Kolasinac, who also had 2 scoring chances. Kolasinac tested Begovic with a cross-shot in the 22nd. A minute later, Kolasinac met a cross from Aubameyang, only to head the ball wide.

Benching Ozil

Kolasinac played a key role for both goals but his passing accuracy of 63.2%, which is low compared to Bellerin’s 93.8%, betrayed his technical limitations. Likewise, Kolasinac’s stats showed some decent work-rate with 3 tackles won, 2 interceptions and 3 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website, but he was pulled out of position for Bournemouth’s equalizer on the stroke of halftime. I expect Monreal to remain the first choice at leftback when he recovers from his hamstring injury.

Despite netting the winning goal, Aubameyang struggled in the final third with just 1 of 4 shots on target. Aubameyang fired over the bar from 10 yards after Bournemouth failed to clear a corner in the 23rd. To his credit, Aubameyang made numerous runs to stretch the Bournemouth defense. He was also involved in his team’s passing game with 2 shot assists, tied with Kolasinac and Mkhitaryan for the most by an Arsenal player.

Will that performance change Emery’s opinion about what is Aubameyang’s best position? Lacazette was not in the squad because of a groin injury. Emery seems to like using Lacazette as a false nine even though he doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace. On the other hand, Ozil was fit but Emery decided to leave him on the bench, preferring to start Iwobi and Mkhitaryan as inside forwards. It’s easy to understand Emery’s rationale here. The Cherries work their socks off and Ozil tends to struggle in away games. So Mkhitaryan got the nod over Ozil.

Mkhitaryan short on confidence

Mkhitaryan had a poor game with only 1 of 7 shots on target. He also led all players with 9 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. And his 2 key passes somehow hid his lack of creativity as he simply set up Torreira and Aubameyang for long-range efforts in the 10th and 64th. Mkhitaryan definitely has Emery’s backing, otherwise he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup. Yet, he performed like a player short on confidence. One play in the 69th summed up his struggles. Aubameyang led a counterattack by running 50 yards with the ball before slipping the ball to Mkhitaryan. The Armenia international was in a perfect position for a first-time effort but he opted to control the ball. His first touch was so poor that the ball got away from Mkhitaryan, who ended up kicking the ball out of play.

Iwobi has improved under Emery but there are still parts of his game that remain quite frustrating. Let’s start with the positives. Pulling the strings in midfield, Iwobi made the penultimate pass for both goals and had 2 of 3 shots on target. His low drive in the 21st didn’t trouble Begovic while his curling shot in the 34th forced the Bournemouth goalkeeper to palm the ball away.

Let’s talk now about the negatives. We know about Iwobi’s great potential since Wenger played him in the No. 10 role. However, his work-rate and his end product have often been questionable. Iwobi didn’t work hard enough against Bournemouth, making no tackle, no block, no interception and just 3 recoveries. That’s why Emery replaced him with Ramsey in the 82nd to protect Arsenal’s lead. Iwobi only won 16.7% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. That reputation of softie won’t go away until if he puts in a shift like Welbeck does.

Throwing away the lead with 16 seconds left

Another flaw that Iwobi needs to fix is decision-making in the final third. Last season, Iwobi had that tendency to run into traffic even though he doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Neymar or Hazard. It’s true that Iwobi can occasionally nutmeg a defender along the touchline but he needs a lot of room to beat an opponent.

In stoppage time of the first half, the Gunners had an opportunity to double the lead. But Iwobi showed poor decision-making and his turnover led to Bournemouth’s equalizer. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Iwobi had two very good passing options: he could have teed up Bellerin for a mid-range shot or played Torreira in with a reverse pass.

Bournemouth M45a edited Iwobi has 2 good passing options with Torreira and Bellerin. (Photo credit: Sky)

With his back to goal and surrounded by 3 Cherries, Iwobi attempted a dribbling trick. As you can see on the screen capture below, Daniels dispossessed Iwobi and the ball fell to Fraser who initiated a fast break.

Bournemouth M45b edited.jpgSurrounded by 3 defenders, Iwobi loses possession to Daniels. (Photo credit: Sky)

In hindsight, Arsenal would have been better off if Iwobi had fired into the stands. There were only 16 seconds left to play before the end of the first half. Without Iwobi’s error of judgment, the Gunners would have reached halftime with the lead for the first time in the league this season.

Torreira as a box-to-box player

Fraser released Wilson down our right flank, and the Bournemouth striker bought a bit of time before picking out Brooks on the edge of the Arsenal box. Brooks slipped the ball to King, who curled into the far corner to level the game. If you look at the screen capture below, it wasn’t a disastrous situation yet when Fraser fed Wilson.

Bournemouth M45c edited.jpgArsenal in a ‘favorable’ 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

However, the Gunners wasted their numerical superiority with some poor positional play. Fraser sped past Xhaka in midfield after releasing the ball. Xhaka decided to track Fraser instead of passing him on to Sokratis. When Xhaka realized Fraser made a dummy run, it was already too late. As you can see on the screen capture below, there was a huge gap between Holding on the left side of the pitch and Sokratis, Xhaka and Mustafi on the right side.

Bournemouth M45d edited.jpgFraser’s dummy run creates a huge gap between Holding and Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Cherries exploited that disequilibrium by overloading the left side of the Arsenal defense with late runs from Brooks and King. On the screen capture below, you can see that Holding was in an unfavorable 1v2 situation because Kolasinac didn’t track back while Sokratis and Xhaka were too far to help Holding. Xhaka made the key mistake on that play by failing to plug the gap between Sokratis and Holding.

Bournemouth M45e edited.jpgHolding in a 1v2 situation with Brooks and King. (Photo credit: Sky)

You might wonder why Xhaka was the holding midfielder in that game. The Gunners are an attacking player short in a 3-4-3 formation compared to the 4-2-3-1 system. Emery therefore used Torreira as a box-to-box player to provide support to Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. A more natural team selection would have been to play Torreira as the holding midfielder and Ramsey as the box-to-box player.

Still feeling like a Wenger team

Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka mainly because he’s more mobile than the Switzerland international. Emery’s tactical gamble nearly paid off in the ninth minute when Torreira won the ball in midfield and hit the post with a 22-yard drive. Torreira led all midfielders by winning 75% of his duels, according to the club’s website. He was also reliable technically with a passing accuracy of 90.8% compared to 85.1% for Xhaka. Emery yanked Torreira off in the 79th because the Uruguay international felt a bout of fatigue.

As a holding midfielder, Xhaka had decent stats with 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries. But there are always moments in a game when his lack of defensive awareness will let him down. His positional play on the equalizer was poor. Xhaka also put his team in trouble with a poor clearance in the 85th. The ball fell to Lerma, who rattled the post with a 30-yard strike.

Last season, Wenger also relied on a 3-4-3 formation in an effort to stop conceding goals before switching back to a more traditional 4-3-3 system in December. Out of intellectual curiosity, it would have been interesting to know who Wenger would have played in central midfield. Torreira and Ramsey? Or Ramsey and Xhaka just like last season? Or Torreira and Xhaka like Emery did on Sunday?

Emery is the new Arsenal manager but it still feels very much like a Wenger team. Bournemouth exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on counterattacks, a typical trait of Arsenal under Wenger. In other games, the Gunners also struggled to defend crosses. There have been defensive improvements under Emery, but they have been incremental.

Mustafi’s curse

The Spanish manager definitely has a positive influence on Holding and Bellerin. While Holding had lapses of concentration and showed poor decision-making under Wenger, he now looks close to fulfilling his potential. Holding won 62.5% of his duels on Sunday, more than Sokratis (60%) and Mustafi (47.1%) according to the club’s website. Likewise, Bellerin has refound the balance in his game between attack and defense.

Of course, Emery can’t perform miracles. Kolasinac and Mustafi still look as dodgy defensively as they were under Wenger. Mustafi was very active with 3 tackles, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries. The German centerback covered Bellerin in the third minute to kill a counterattack with a timely challenge on Fraser. He also recovered the ball in the 48th after Lerma intercepted Holding’s pass.

But you know that Mustafi will always have an error in him. He completely missed his tackle on King in the eighth minute. The Bournemouth forward fed Brooks, who beat Leno from close range. However, the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside. Looking at TV replays several times, I couldn’t even tell with certainty whether Brooks was offside. Mustafi also showed poor judgment in the 54th by diving in near the Bournemouth area as the Cherries launched a counterattack. The threat came to an end when Brooks overhit his cross. In the last minute of injury time, Mustafi gave away a silly free kick with a reckless challenge on Wilson. Fortunately, Stanislas missed the target with the subsequent free kick.

I’m not sure what was the idea behind signing Sokratis. His decision-making is sound but he lacks the pace to play a high defensive line. Sokratis clearly struggled to cope with King’s movement. King toyed with Sokratis in the 65th before cutting the ball back for Brooks, who shot straight at Leno. To contain King’s speed, Sokratis often tried to put his body between the ball and King -some kind of legal obstruction. But in the 25th King got the better of Sokratis, who received a yellow card for holding the Bournemouth forward.

Emery’s 1st North London derby

Sokratis’ ball-playing abilities are also limited. He’s an old-fashioned centerback and doesn’t help build up play from the back like Stones or Alderweireld. The Greek defender missed his clearance in the 18th and was lucky to see the ball bounce off Wilson and roll out of play. Sokratis nearly scored an own goal with another poor clearance in the 89th but Leno reacted quickly enough to palm the ball away. Is Sokratis the replacement for an aging Koscielny? In his prime, Koscielny was a much better defender than Sokratis. There’s no way Koscielny could have missed his interception like Sokratis did in the 80th when Daniels made a cross for Stanislas, whose toe poke was saved by Leno.

Leno has consolidated his starting spot with another decent performance. The German goalkeeper made 5 routine saves but his passing accuracy dipped to 42.9%, in part because the Cherries pressed high up the pitch to prevent Arsenal from playing out from the back.

The Gunners next visit Vorskla in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Tottenham in the Premier League on Sunday. The North London derby is obviously the most important game of the two because it could decide the Top 4 race whereas Arsenal would still lead Group E with a defeat in Ukraine. Spurs have a slight edge after their impressive performance against Chelsea last Saturday.

Arsenal vs. Wolverhampton: Leno’s heroics salvage a point

The international break is coming at the right time for the Gunners who are running out of steam. Arsenal salvaged a 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton on Sunday for their third straight draw in all competitions to stay fifth in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. WolverhamptonPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

It looks like the Gunners are hitting the wall after their 11-game winning streak was snapped at Crystal Palace. Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession against the Wolves but simply lacked the passing speed and the movement to destabilize a compact defense. In fact, the Gunners struggled so badly to create clear-cut chances that they had 0 shot on target in the first half.

On paper, Arsenal should have earned 3 points because the Wolves had lost their 3 previous games in the league. On the pitch, the Gunners were lucky to split the points because Wolverhampton proved the better team, winning 53% of the duels and having 5 shots on target to just 3 for Arsenal, according to the club’s website.

Emery did his best to inject some freshness by making 9 changes to the side that drew with Sporting Lisbon on Thursday with only Holding and Iwobi retaining their starting spots. Unfortunately, Sunday’s game showed that the Gunners are almost back to square one. Emery still doesn’t know what his best team is after 4 months of competition.

I thought the Spanish manager got his starting lineup wrong by not including Ramsey, whose runs can make a difference against teams parking the bus. At the start of the season, Emery built his team around Ramsey. Of course, the trouble is that Emery played Ramsey in the hole, which is not his best position. Then Emery changed his mind and decided to build the team around Ozil, who’s a better fit for the No. 10 position. Ozil shone in the 3-1 win over Leicester, but it turned out to be a false dawn because Ozil simply lacks the consistency to become the cornerstone of a team. Wenger also tried and failed. The French manager played Ozil behind the striker before moving him to the right flank.

Starved of service

Some fans say that Ozil should get the nod over Ramsey because Ozil is tied to the club until 2021 whereas Ramsey’s contract will end next summer. Contract talks between Ramsey and the club collapsed at the end of September. Is it a coincidence if Ramsey hasn’t started a Premier League game since the 2-0 win over Watford?

Making a team selection based on politics doesn’t make sense because it would be against the interests of the club. How do you finish in the Top 4 if you’re not starting your best player? Last season, Arsenal had no certainty over the future of Ozil and Sanchez at the club. Yet, Wenger kept starting them because he thought the Gunners had a better chance of winning games with Ozil and Sanchez on the pitch.

Despite Ozil’s presence in the starting lineup, Lacazette and Aubameyang were starved of service on Sunday. They only mustered one shot each. Lacazette had Arsenal’s only chance of the first half. Ozil made a pass across the area to Lacazette, whose close-range effort was blocked by Coady in the 22nd minute. Aubameyang was in a better situation in the 73rd when Bellerin made a low cross. But the Gabon striker hit the post from 7 yards. It was a big miss that hurt the Gunners’ chances of winning the match.

Arsenal’s tactical options were limited because Aubameyang and Lacazette don’t have the physicality and aerial threat of a Giroud to blow up a congested area. Unsurprisingly, the Wolves won 65% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. You might say that the Citizens don’t have strikers who can dominate in the air. However, the big difference between Arsenal and Manchester City is that Guardiola can rely on dribblers like Sterling, Mahrez and Sane to penetrate in the final third. Some Arsenal fans will mention Iwobi, but the Nigeria international doesn’t have the ability to dribble in tight spaces like an Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The need for more creativity

The Gunners couldn’t challenge in the air or dribble past defenders. So the only option left was the passing game. Arsenal’s main problem this season has been the inconsistency of the creative players. Starting on the right wing, Iwobi had a poor game with 0 key pass and was replaced at halftime by Guendouzi. In the No. 10 position, Ozil managed to make just 2 key passes.

Emery shifted from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-1-2 system at halftime in the hope of giving Ozil better passing options. The idea was to use Ozil like a quarterback with Lacazette and Aubameyang as receivers. It didn’t really work. Ozil overhit his cross for Aubameyang in the 66th. Out of frustration, Ozil slammed the ball against the ground three minutes later and got booked by the referee.

When your attacking midfielders have an off day, the alternative is to create chances from a deeper position. Unfortunately, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the passing and dribbling skills of a Cazorla. It’s no coincidence if the club’s struggles to finish in the Top 4 started with Cazorla’s long-term injuries. In the past two seasons, the Gunners have lost a lot of creativity in midfield with the departures of Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Signing an upgrade over Xhaka should be a priority next summer.

The lack of movement in the final third also contributed to Arsenal’s poor passing game. In fact, the poor work-rate of some players was shocking. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 1 recovery in the first half. By contrast, Wolverhampton forward Costa made 1 interception, 7 recoveries and 4 fouls.

Looking like a Wenger team

Realizing that Ozil had no impact on the game, Emery replaced Ozil and Kolasinac with Ramsey and Mkhitaryan in the 75th. Xhaka was moved to the leftback position while the team played in some kind of 4-2-4 formation. Ramsey nearly made the difference with one of his runs in the 86th, trapping a ball over the top from Guendouzi and spinning away from a defender only to be denied by Patricio. The equalizer came from the subsequent corner, quickly taken by Xhaka. The ball fell to Ramsey, who set up Mkhitaryan for a cross. Aubameyang couldn’t climb high enough to head the ball, which sailed past Patricio and into the far corner.

Besides the equalizer, the Gunners were also lucky to concede just one goal. They looked so much like a Wenger team on Sunday, vulnerable on at least 5 counterattacks from the Wolves. The visitors took advantage of some poor decision-making from Xhaka to open the scoring in the 13th. Kolasinac made a routine pass to Xhaka, who thought there was a teammate behind him and let the ball roll past him. Cavaleiro pounced on the loose ball and found Jimenez, who played the ball back to Cavaleiro. Poorly tracked by Xhaka inside the area, Cavaleiro beat Leno with a first-time effort.

To put it bluntly, a midfield trio of Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil is not good enough to protect the defense. Torreira and Xhaka had an outstanding game against Liverpool but it’s unlikely that they will be able to repeat that kind of performance on a regular basis. Xhaka still lacks defensive awareness and is simply too error-prone.

Torreira had a decent game, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Uruguay midfielder contributed offensively with a dipping drive that Patricio turned aside in the 60th. Defensively, Torreira should have been more cautious in his positional play in the 84th. Leading a counterattack, Traore rolled away from Torreira to pick out Jimenez, who made a cross for Jota. Leno prevented Wolverhampton from doubling the lead by saving Jota’s close-range effort. In stoppage time, Leno was rescued by luck as Gibbs-White struck the post from 25 yards.

Kolasinac’s limitations

At the back, Kolasinac showed his technical limitations again. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 76.9%, much weaker than Bellerin’s 88.2% on the opposite flank. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international whipped his cross beyond Lacazette in the 17th and made a sloppy pass in the 72nd. Whoscored.com even credited Kolasinac with 2 errors. Kolasinac missed his clearance in the 36th and the ball fell to Doherty, who set up Jimenez for a low drive. Then, his first touch was so poor in the 62nd that the ball bounced 5 yards away from him and led to a turnover.

The Wolves knew Kolasinac was a limited threat and focused instead on Bellerin, who leads Arsenal with 4 assists so far this season. The visitors clearly did their homework as they intercepted Iwobi’s passes to Bellerin in the 27th and 31st. Despite Wolverhampton’s close scrutiny, Bellerin still managed to make 1 key pass and have 1 scoring chance. Xhaka cut the ball back for Bellerin, who missed the target with his weaker left foot in the 70th. Three minutes later, Bellerin created a golden chance for Aubameyang who hit the post. The Spaniard showed his more cynical side in the 78th by holding back Traore to kill a counterattack.

Holding has been one of the young players improving under Emery. His performance on Sunday was a mixed bag. Holding made 11 recoveries, tied with Torreira for the most by a Gunner. He intercepted Neves’ through ball for Jimenez in the 11th and outmuscled Jimenez inside the box in the 50th. However, the Wolves capitalized on Holding’s average pace twice. Costa beat Holding to a 50-50 ball on a fast break in the 23rd. The Wolverhampton forward was denied by Leno, who reacted quickly enough to beat Jimenez to the rebound. In stoppage time, Traore won a foot race with Holding on a counterattack. The pacy substitute struggled to control the ball, allowing Holding to make up ground. Holding slid for a desperate block attempt, forcing Traore to cut inside. Leno quickly came off his line to save Traore’s close-range effort.

Leno’s Man of the Match performance

Mustafi looked more shaky than Holding. The German defender read the game well enough to clear dangerous crosses in the 28th and 63rd. But his technique let him down a couple of times. Mustafi’s passes for Bellerin rolled out of play in the 67th and 76th. Then his poor first touch led to a dangerous turnover in the 83rd. Arsenal also had to deal with an unfavorable 2v3 situation in the 84th because Mustafi was stranded up the pitch, forcing Bellerin to cover him.

In goal, Leno produced a Man of the Match performance. He pulled off a couple of outstanding saves to prevent Wolverhampton from winning the game. Cech’s hamstring injury was a blessing in disguise for Emery. Cech is one of the leaders in the dressing room, so it could have been tricky to justify the change of goalkeeper in the starting lineup. Leno proved himself during Cech’s absence and gave Emery no reason to drop him after Cech’s return from injury. From the moment Leno can match Cech’s shot-stopping skills, he will have the edge over Cech because of his better distribution and his ability to play out from the back.

The Gunners have no maneuvering room in the Top 4 race after dropping points against Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton. They will play Bournemouth, Tottenham and Manchester United after the international break. That run of games could decide Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes as they trail Spurs by 3 points and are 4 points clear of the Cherries and the Red Devils. A string of poor results could mean the end of the honeymoon period for Emery.