Arsenal entering a dark era

The future of the club is more uncertain than ever after majority shareholder Kroenke recently made a £525 million offer to buy Usmanov’s shares. Most Arsenal fans have had doubts about the club’s ambitions in the past couple of years. Now they are skeptical about the direction taken by the club on and off the pitch.

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

Despite what the Arsenal board says, the summer transfer window has been disastrous for the club: the squad is weaker at the end of the window than when it opened; the dead wood hasn’t been cleared; weaknesses in the team, especially at centerback and in central midfield, haven’t been addressed; and funds for the next summer transfers have been lost even if the Gunners sell Sanchez and Ozil at a discounted price in January. The worst part is that this transfer window is only a symptom of deeper problems inside the club.

Here’s below the Arsenal squad for this season. Premier League rules allow a maximum of 25 players per squad, excluding U21 players. Of those 25 players over 21, there can only be a maximum of 17 players not homegrown. My list looks a bit different from the Premier League squad submitted by the club because I’ve added some youngsters from the academy:

Goalkeepers: Cech, Ospina, Macey (HG); leftbacks: Kolasinac, Monreal; centerbacks: Koscielny, Mustafi, Mertesacker, Holding (HG), Chambers (HG); rightbacks: Bellerin (HG), Debuchy; defensive midfielders: Coquelin (HG), Elneny, Maitland-Niles (-21), Willock (-21); all-around midfielders: Xhaka, Ramsey (HG), Wilshere (HG); attacking midfielders: Ozil, Reine-Adelaide (-21), Zelalem (-21); left wingers: Sanchez, Iwobi (-21); strikers: Giroud, Lacazette, Welbeck (HG), Akpom (HG), Nketiah (-21); right wingers: Walcott (HG), Nelson (-21).

There are serious concerns at centerback since Mertesacker and Koscielny are past their prime, Holding and Chambers are inexperienced and error-prone while Mustafi’s motivation could be a question mark after being denied a move to Inter Milan. At rightback, Debuchy is a weak alternative if Bellerin gets injured.

In midfield, the team has no world-class ballwinner to shield the defense. It also lacks creativity with just Ozil and Wilshere as established playmakers. Cazorla might join the squad in the second half of the season but there’s no guarantee the Spaniard will rediscover his form. It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s brand of football is less exciting to watch than a few years ago. During the 2010-11 season, the Gunners could rely on Nasri, Fabregas, Rosicky and Wilshere to create breathtaking moves. Up front, Walcott struggles against defenses sitting deep while Welbeck and Iwobi may lack end product.

Kick and rush?

To understand why the club will be in trouble next season, here’s a look at the Arsenal squad in the summer 2018 when the contracts of players like Ozil, Sanchez, Cazorla and Wilshere expire while some loanees return:

Goalkeepers: Cech, Ospina, Martinez; leftbacks: Kolasinac, Monreal, Bramall; centerbacks: Koscielny, Mustafi, Holding, Chambers; rightbacks: Bellerin, Jenkinson, Debuchy; defensive midfielders: Coquelin, Elneny, Maitland-Niles, Willock; all-around midfielders: Xhaka, Ramsey; attacking midfielders: Reine-Adelaide; left wingers: Iwobi; strikers: Giroud, Lacazette, Perez, Welbeck, Akpom, Nketiah; right wingers: Walcott, Nelson.

Assuming the club does not sign any player next summer, the 2018-19 squad will have the same weaknesses as this season but will also lose the firepower of Sanchez and the creativity of Ozil, Cazorla and Wilshere. Can you imagine the Gunners play some ‘kick and rush’ football with Ramsey in the No. 10 role?

The picture becomes even more gloomy when you think of what will be left of the squad in the summer 2019 (see the list below). Optimistic fans will say that the board and the manager won’t let the club sink that low. But the last few transfer windows just tell us that Arsenal could pile up average players simply to make the numbers.

Goalkeepers: Martinez; leftbacks: Kolasinac, Bramall; centerbacks: Koscielny, Mustafi, Holding, Chambers; rightbacks: Bellerin, Jenkinson; defensive midfielders: Coquelin, Elneny, Maitland-Niles, Willock; all-around midfielders: Xhaka; attacking midfielders: none; left wingers: Iwobi; strikers: Lacazette, Perez, Nketiah; right wingers: none.

Going into the 2019-20 season, the Arsenal squad would rely heavily on youngsters, with only Kolasinac, Mustafi, Bellerin, Xhaka, Coquelin, Elneny and Lacazette in their prime. There’s no way such a weak squad could contend for a Champions League spot or even qualify for the Europa League. That prospect has led the board to panic and mention contract extensions a few weeks ago. I definitely think this squad needs a massive overhaul. The club must be ruthless in clearing the dead wood and only keep players who can turn the Gunners into a competitive team. At this stage, Nelson is the only player that Arsenal should keep at any cost.

A punch-drunk boxer

Over the past few months, Wenger has been the catalyst for anger. He could have walked away this summer but in the end opted for a two-year extension. In my eyes, Wenger is like a punch-drunk boxer who believes he’ll win the next fight even though he just got knocked out. The French manager is destroying his legacy by refusing to accept the reality that his powers are waning.

I don’t think Wenger is so delusional that he hopes to end his Arsenal career on a Premier League title. But finishing outside the Top 4 last season was definitely a blemish on his record at the club. Therefore he must probably think that he needs a Top 4 finish to prove that he’s leaving a good squad to his successor.

Wenger hasn’t become a bad manager overnight. In fact, he’s still a good manager. The big difference is that the Premier League is much more competitive than 10 years ago. Money from the TV rights has attracted top managers and allowed average clubs to sign more internationals.

The arrival of Pochettino and Klopp at Tottenham and Liverpool respectively is the key factor that has accelerated Wenger’s decline. The Gunners haven’t beaten Pochettino’s Spurs and Klopp’s Reds in the Premier League yet. Since Pochettino’s appointment in August 2014, the Gunners have drawn 4 Premier League games and lost 2 against Tottenham. Their record against Liverpool is worse with 3 defeats and 1 draw since Klopp took over.

It’s no coincidence if several players have refused to extend their contracts or have even asked to leave Arsenal. They can clearly see that Wenger is not the best manager in the league and won’t turn the club into a contender. Unless the Gunners are stuck in a relegation fight, it doesn’t make sense to fire Wenger at this stage of the season because there is no decent option available now. And don’t start mentioning Ancelotti. The Italian manager may be more astute tactically than Wenger but he’s not a team builder.

Power struggle at the top

A lot of fans are upset with the manager, but the irony is that Wenger is not even the biggest problem at Arsenal. The club’s inefficiency in the transfer market this summer has exposed the power struggle between the manager and the board. Despite their poor knowledge of football, Josh Kroenke and Gazidis can feel that Wenger is doing something wrong, but they make the situation worse by interfering. The club sent contradictory signals this summer because Kroenke and Gazidis acted as de facto sporting directors, undermining Wenger and making Arsenal’s transfer policy unintelligible.

When the transfer window opened, Wenger mentioned expensive signings like Lemar and Mbappe. But a few days before the end of the window, the club said it would need to sell several players before maybe signing one. Basically, the club tried to show some sporting ambition in the beginning of the summer. But deadline day made clear it was all about financial results as Arsenal spent much less than Liverpool and Everton and even made a profit in the transfer market.

The antagonism between Wenger and the board was obvious in three cases. The manager doesn’t rate Chambers. It should have been a no-brainer when Leicester made a £20 million bid for him. But instead of making a profit on an unused player, the club turned down the offer. There can only be two possible conclusions: either the board hoped it could get more money from Leicester, or it thought that Chambers could still improve under another manager.

The second case was Mustafi’s aborted move to Inter Milan. The club sold Paulista to Valencia on Aug. 18. It didn’t make sense to also offload Mustafi without having a decent replacement at centerback, especially since the manager plays a back three. In the end, the transfer was called off on deadline day possibly because Arsenal couldn’t sign Evans from West Brom. Waiting until the last day to make a move for such a key position as centerback shows the dysfunctional relationship between the manager and the board.

Embarrassment in the transfer market

Yet, nothing could beat the amateurish attitude of the club in the botched Lemar and Sanchez deals. Last year, Arsenal made a £29 million bid for Lacazette but Lyon rejected the offer because it wanted £50 million. The Gunners finally accepted to spend £46 million on Lacazette in July. The club seemed to accept the reality that there is a price for English clubs and one for continental clubs. But guess what? Arsenal repeated the same mistake with Lemar this summer.

Manchester City and Chelsea understood how the market worked and met Monaco’s asking prices to sign Silva, Mendy and Bagayoko. On the other hand, Arsenal tried to get Lemar on the cheap with a £31 million bid in June, which was very far from Monaco’s valuation. The Gunners improved that offer to £40 million in July and finally £92 million on deadline day. Monaco accepted that bid but Lemar changed his mind and preferred to stay. If you’re in the player’s shoes, you’d rather move in June or July and have enough time to adapt to a new country and league. From the moment Lemar played in Monaco’s first game of the season on Aug. 4, it was very unlikely that he would switch clubs.

The Gunners not only wasted the whole summer to meet Monaco’s asking price for Lemar, they also sold Oxlade-Chamberlain to a rival and kept an unhappy player like Sanchez. Arsenal needed a massive overhaul this summer. In the end, the club only made two signings and was unable to offload average players like Debuchy, Chambers and Elneny.

Kroenke’s cash cow

While Wenger has definitely been the catalyst for anger, only a different owner could prove the real catalyst for change. Despite all his flaws, the manager is doing his best to win titles. The same can’t be said of Kroenke. A quick look at his mediocre U.S. teams shows that Kroenke is not interested in success on the pitch. For the American billionaire, financial results trump sporting results. Kroenke basically treats Arsenal as a cash cow, taking money out of the club. He has never injected money into the club like Abramovich at Chelsea or Mansour at Manchester City.

Optimists will point at Manchester United and the Glazer family, but the context is completely different. United’s huge commercial revenue means that the Red Devils still have a big transfer kitty despite paying dividends to the Glazers every season. Arsenal would need to win several Premier League titles before having a shot at enjoying a similar commercial revenue. Here’s the catch: it won’t happen unless the Gunners splash the cash to sign top players in the transfer market. The club does not have an academy that can produce a winning generation like Xavi’s Barcelona or Giggs’ United.

In that light, Kroenke’s offer to buy Usmanov’s shares does not bode well for Arsenal. Kroenke owns 67% of the club compared to 30% for Usmanov. Technically, a threshold of 75% is required to pass special resolutions without putting them to a vote. With about 97% of the shares, Kroenke could squeeze out minority shareholders and delist the club.

Leaving empty seats

By taking Arsenal into private ownership, Kroenke would basically throw accountability and transparency out the window. Kroenke could take out as many dividends as he wants. He could even load debt onto the club since there would be no requirement for an AGM or for the publication of accounts. A lot of fans fear that Kroenke will use Arsenal’s revenues to finance the new stadium in Los Angeles for the Rams. At a time when the top teams in the Premier League are massively spending to contend, that would be a deadly blow to the Gunners’ ambitions and reputation.

The divided fanbase reflects the existential crisis which is affecting the club. It’s so depressing to watch Arsenal fans fighting each other while they should be united to protect the club. I believe it’s important that the fans keep supporting the team when they attend games. Arsenal must still look attractive for potential recruits. Top players won’t join the club if the fans create a hostile atmosphere and boo the team every week.

The best way to bring about change would be to protest outside the stadium before kickoff and then leave empty seats during the game. It may not force Kroenke out of the club but it could pave the way for a new majority shareholder who would show more ambition and give a new direction to the club.

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Watford vs. Arsenal: Gunners show mental weakness in 2-1 loss

The Gunners conceded two late goals in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Vicarage Road to slip to 6th place in the Premier League, 9 points behind Manchester City. The turning point of the game was the penalty awarded to the Hornets in the 71st minute. Bellerin and Richarlison were both chasing a ball rolling toward the by-line when the Watford forward fell to the ground. TV replays showed there was no shove, no shirt-pulling and no leg tangle, just minimal contact between two players running side by side. To put it bluntly, it was clearly a dive from Richarlison. Deeney converted the spot kick to level the game.

Watford vs. Arsenal

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

Until that penalty, Arsenal had the game under control, limiting the Hornets to just one half-chance in the 19th. It became a completely different story after the equalizer as all the scoring opportunities in the last 20 minutes were for the hosts. If you’re a good team, you find a way to salvage a point despite that officiating mistake. But the Gunners lacked the mental strength to react and spent the closing minutes inside their own half, waiting for the final blow.

Tactically, the hosts mirrored Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation. The Hornets switched to a back four in the second half when Carrillo and Deeney replaced Mariappa and Gray in the 62nd. Both teams had 8 chances each. What really made the difference was Watford’s desire. The Hornets won 64% of their tackles and made 19 interceptions compared to 43% of tackles won and 10 interceptions for Arsenal, according to Squawka.

Saturday’s game also raised questions about injury management at the club. The staff wisely let Ramsey and Sanchez recover from international duty and did not include them in the squad. However, Welbeck and Koscielny both started the game despite returning from injury. It proved a risky gamble as Welbeck picked up a hamstring injury in the 59th while Koscielny had a calf problem in the 85th. Ozil also made his return from injury but was eased back into the team by coming off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 61st. Why such a difference of treatment? In hindsight, Walcott or Giroud could have started in the front three alongside Iwobi and Lacazette. And Holding could have played alongside Mertesacker and Monreal in the back three.

A foretaste of life without Ozil and Sanchez

In a news conference before the game, Wenger mentioned that the club could sell Sanchez and Ozil in January. The first 60 minutes gave us a foretaste of how life without those stars could look like. The Gunners had no clear-cut chances from open play because of a lack of creativity and penetration. They only had 2 successful dribbles compared to 6 for Watford, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal also wasted some good situations with inaccurate final balls. Bellerin made a cross that was too high for Lacazette in the 12th. A minute later, Kolasinac sent the ball behind Welbeck. Then Iwobi overhit crosses for Lacazette in the 35th and for Welbeck in the 41st.

Despite all the hype surrounding Iwobi, the Nigeria international doesn’t read the game as well as Ozil yet. No one doubts Iwobi’s potential but it’s all about translating it into end product. Iwobi only made 1 key pass compared to 3 for Welbeck and 2 for Ozil. At 21, Iwobi still has time to improve. He especially needs to work on his composure. Iwobi lacked lucidity twice in the final third on Saturday. He missed a five-yard pass to Bellerin in the 33rd and opted for a tame curling shot instead of feeding Lacazette in the 36th.

From a financial perspective, it would make sense to sell Sanchez and Ozil in January. However, the consequences on the pitch could be devastating in terms of assists and goals. If the plan is to replace Ozil with Iwobi for assists and Sanchez with Welbeck for goals, then fans should expect a significant drop in end product. Welbeck worked his socks off, setting up Xhaka for a long-range strike that Gomes parried in the 43rd and picking out Bellerin who missed the target a few seconds later.

Lacazette’s poor game

When Ozil replaced Welbeck in the 61st, anybody could see the difference in the final third. Ozil played a perfectly weighted pass to Iwobi, whose angled effort was tipped around the far post by Gomes in the 63rd. Iwobi returned the favor in the 70th, slipping a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Gomes. If he had scored, Ozil would have been hailed a hero for doubling the lead. Unfortunately, Ozil missed that chance and mentally disappeared from the game. That’s not an issue when the Gunners dominate ball possession. But when they have to fight for the ball and are put on the back foot, then Ozil becomes a liability. Arsenal definitely missed Welbeck’s work-rate after the equalizer.

Lacazette still hasn’t scored away from home yet and produced his worst performance in an Arsenal shirt on Saturday. The France international had 0 shot, made 0 key pass and had a passing accuracy as low as 60% compared to 90% for Welbeck and 87.7% for Iwobi. The lack of understanding between Lacazette and Iwobi didn’t help obviously. It was at least the second game in which Iwobi chose personal glory instead of feeding Lacazette, who was in a better position to score. I just hope this poor game won’t affect Lacazette’s confidence. Giroud replaced Lacazette in the 67th and proved inefficient in retaining the ball, leading the team with 5 turnovers and winning only 2 of 5 aerial duels.

There was a small surprise in the team selection with Mertesacker making his first Premier League start in more than a year. Since Mustafi picked up a hamstring injury on international duty, Wenger only had the choice between Holding and Mertesacker for the third centerback playing alongside Koscielny and Monreal. The manager gave the nod to the more experienced Mertesacker, who had a good game.

Some more gruyere cheese

The German centerback opened the scoring in the 39th by heading home a corner from Xhaka. Despite his lack of pace, Mertesacker proved quite solid at the back by winning 1 of 1 tackle and 12 of 14 aerial duels and making 2 interceptions and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. In fact, Mertesacker outperformed Koscielny (0 of 3 tackles won, 7 of 13 aerial duels won, 2 interceptions, 1 block) and Monreal (2 of 7 tackles won, 0 of 5 headers won, 1 interception, 1 block). Koscielny lacked sharpness in his return from injury while Monreal seemed a bit jaded after playing for Spain during the international break.

On the wings, Bellerin had a decent game despite failing to stop Doucoure’s cross for Pereyra, who headed wide in the 19th. I thought Kolasinac could have done more on the opposite flank. The former Schalke 04 player created no chance and lost the only tackle he made.

If the wingbacks and the centerbacks did OK defensively, how come Arsenal conceded two goals? You have to look at the midfield to find the answer. Gruyere cheese has been a recurrent theme since the start of the season. As long as the Gunners don’t sign a world-class ballwinner, there’s no way they will ever be able to contend.

Elneny teamed up with Xhaka in midfield. The duo matched Cleverley and Doucoure in the first half before fading in the second half. Xhaka and Elneny played with their national teams during the international break. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to start Coquelin and Wilshere in midfield. Xhaka and Elneny combined to create 1 chance, win 3 of 5 tackles and make 1 interception and 1 block while Cleverley and Doucoure created 4 chances, won 5 of 7 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.

Can’t smell the danger

As the holding midfielder, Xhaka had a poor game. His passing accuracy dipped to 76% on Saturday while it was around 90% last season. Xhaka has no competition inside the squad. Does that explain his increasing sloppiness this season? A bigger concern is Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness: he simply can’t smell the danger.

In the 83rd, Deeney cut the ball back for Capoue, whose effort deflected off Mertesacker’s chest to hit the post. As you can see in the screen capture below, there was no Gunner near Capoue in a 10-meter radius. Both Xhaka and Elneny sat too deep and did not spot Capoue’s presence on the edge of the box.

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Xhaka and Elneny leave Capoue unmarked. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

That play should have acted as a warning for Xhaka. But the Switzerland international made the same mistake in stoppage time. A long-range strike from Holebas led to a goalmouth scramble in which Watford won the second ball twice. Mertesacker blocked Deeney’s shot before Cleverley pounced on the rebound to slam the ball into the back of the net. Elneny was pulled out of position because he made up for Ozil’s laziness and tried to block Holebas’ effort. Therefore only Xhaka was available to track Cleverley’s movement inside the Arsenal box. As you can see in the screen capture below, there was no Gunner near Cleverley in a 5-meter radius.

Watford vs. Arsenal M92ed

Xhaka fails to mark Cleverley. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Among the top teams, the Gunners are the only ones still winless on the road. They have already suffered 3 defeats from 8 Premier League games and are on pace to finish the season with 14 defeats, which would be a record under Wenger. They next play Red Star Belgrade on Thursday before travelling to Goodison Park on Sunday. The Europa League game is meaningless because the Gunners top their group and can afford to drop points. By contrast, a second straight loss in the Premier League could trigger a crisis. Remember all the negativity around the club after they lost to Stoke and Liverpool in August.

Arsenal vs. Brighton: Gunners get back in Top 4 race with 2-0 win

The Gunners earned a fourth straight win in all competitions and a fourth straight clean sheet in the Premier League by defeating Brighton 2-0 on Sunday. They also got back in the race for a Champions League spot by going level on points with fourth-place Chelsea in the standings.

Arsenal vs. Brighton

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

Wenger made 9 changes to the side that played in the Europa League on Thursday with only Mustafi and Holding retaining their starting spots. Despite the team’s freshness, Arsenal played at an average tempo and needed a second goal in the 56th minute to start feeling comfortable. A lot of fans were frustrated by the number of passes made to reach the final third. Xhaka and the 3 centerbacks combined to make 390 passes, 34 more than the entire Brighton team according to whoscored.com.

Maybe we are too demanding as fans. When a Mourinho team wins ugly, pundits say it’s how champions lift silverware. In August, the Gunners dominated Stoke but ended up losing 1-0. And two weeks ago, they produced their best performance of the season against Chelsea but could only collect one point. On Sunday, Arsenal led in most key categories. They had 25 shots and 16 chances to 9 shots and 6 chances for the Seagulls, according to Squawka. The Gunners also won 11 of 27 tackles compared to 6 of 25 tackles for Brighton. However, the visitors’ tactical approach allowed them to make 8 more interceptions than Arsenal.

Monreal capitalized on a goalmouth scramble in the 16th to open the scoring with a low strike. Credit should be given to Lacazette for keeping the ball in play. The France international headed Xhaka’s overhit free kick toward Mustafi, whose effort got cleared off the line by Duffy. Bellerin pounced on the rebound but had his shot blocked. The ball fell to Monreal, who fired home from 11yards.

Sanchez’s flash of brilliance

Lacazette could have found the net in the opening minutes. He took a pass from Iwobi and unleashed a 25-yard piledriver that rattled the post. Lacazette is often described in the English press as a fox in the box but he also has this ability to score from outside the area and from any angle. From his 4 goal attempts on Sunday, 2 were blocked, 1 was saved and 1 hit the woodwork. Lacazette dispossessed Dunk in the 34th but could only muster a tame shot straight at Ryan.

In their second start together, Lacazette and Sanchez kept working on their understanding. Sanchez made 2 key passes for Lacazette. The Chile striker is now fully fit as stats reflected his trademark hyperactivity: he won 1 of 2 tackles, had 3 of 8 shots on target, 7 turnovers, 6 key passes, and 4 successful dribbles out of 5.

His flash of brilliance in the 56th led to Iwobi’s goal. Sanchez slipped the ball to Lacazette before penetrating in the heart of the Brighton defense. Ramsey played the ball back to Sanchez, who created space for Iwobi by attracting 3 defenders. With his back to goal, Sanchez played Iwobi in with an outrageous backheel flick. Unmarked, Iwobi shot high past Ryan to double the lead.

Iwobi and his reading of the game

Sanchez took on the playmaking duties because Iwobi didn’t create much. Iwobi had a good game with 3 of 3 shots on target, 2 key passes, 1 interception, 2 successful dribbles out of 3, and 2 tackles made, but he’s not as smart as Ozil in his movement and reading of the game. The Nigeria international mustered a tame effort from a tight angle in the 13th instead of feeding Lacazette. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M13 editedIwobi attempts to curl a shot instead of feeding Lacazette. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Obviously, Iwobi tried to curl a shot inside the far post like Thierry Henry. But he doesn’t master that technique yet and Lacazette, a better finisher, was in a better position to score. Iwobi wasted another good situation in the 28th. He ran 40 yards while leading a counterattack. Reaching the edge of the Brighton box, Iwobi had 3 good passing options but opted for a low effort that didn’t trouble Ryan. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M28 editedIwobi could have passed the ball to Lacazette to his right, to Kolasinac to his left or to Sanchez on the left wing. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Iwobi is only 21, so he still has time to improve. But those situations show the gap between a youngster like Iwobi and world-class players like Ozil and Sanchez, who perfectly read the play and make the right decision at the right time.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey had very similar stats. Although Arsenal dominated ball possession, both midfielders still contributed defensively by winning 3 of 8 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels, while making 3 interceptions and 4 blocks. Ramsey had an off day with 6 turnovers and 0 key pass, but he nearly scored from a counterattack in the 42nd. Kolasinac cut the ball back for Ramsey, whose goal-bound effort was stopped by Ryan’s leg.

Lack of coordination

The Seagulls never managed to crack the Arsenal defense. Their plan was to sit deep and wait for counterattacking opportunities. Yet, their few chances came from set pieces and crosses. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick in the fifth minute by fouling Brown. The Brighton striker headed wide the subsequent set piece. The turning point of the game was probably March’s indirect free kick in the 23rd. March struck the post from 25 yards as no Arsenal defender could block his shot.

Brighton decided to throw the kitchen sink in the last 15 minutes by replacing Izquierdo and Brown with Knockaert and Murray, but it proved too little too late. Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Gross in the 84th. Murray got ahead of Mustafi to meet the cross but headed wide. Three minutes later, Mustafi nearly headed into his own net another teasing cross from Gross.

In the first half, Kolasinac was in trouble because of March’s runs in behind. A lack of coordination left Monreal in a 1v2 situation in the 19th. March got the better of Monreal to make a cross that Mustafi cleared. Three minutes later, Kolasinac made a stupid foul on Propper and the subsequent set piece led to March’s scoring chance. Kolasinac was more solid defensively after halftime. He finished the game with 3 key passes, 1 of 2 tackles won, 4 of 4 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 1 block. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also had a header cleared off the line by March in the 62nd. On the opposite wing, Bellerin had a decent game defensively but failed to create any chance.

Holding’s calm performance

At the back, Holding produced a sober and calm performance, miles away from what we see in the Europa League. He showed his self-control by not making any foul. His stats were as good as Mustafi’s. I still wouldn’t trust Holding for big games against the two Manchester clubs, but he’s good enough against weak sides like Brighton. In the continuity of his performance against West Brom, Monreal scored the opener, made 2 key passes, and led all starters with a passing accuracy of 97%. His passing skills and reading of the game are an asset against teams parking the bus.

Koscielny, Ozil, Welbeck and Coquelin should return from injury after the international break. Those injuries show the need for a smart rotation policy throughout the season. The quality of the bench could make the difference in the race for a Top 4 finish. The next game is a trip to Watford on Oct. 14. The Gunners still haven’t won on the road in the Premier League while Manchester United, City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool have already won away from home. Arsenal will need 3 points at Vicarage Road to prove that they can match their rivals.

BATE Borisov vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 4-2 win

Despite a tricky schedule, the Gunners defeated BATE Borisov 4-2 on Thursday to consolidate their lead atop Group H of the Europa League. They had the game under control in the first half but somehow relaxed their grip on the Belarusian club, which finished stronger in the second half with a total of 18 shots and 11 chances compared to 16 shots and 7 chances for Arsenal, according to Squawka.

Borisov vs. Arsenal 2017

Photo credit: Walcott’s Twitter account

Wenger obviously had Sunday’s early kickoff against Brighton in mind as he made 9 changes to the side that downed West Brom with only Mustafi and Elneny retaining their starting spots. The manager fielded a makeshift team with 4 youngsters (Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Willock and Holding), 6 benchwarmers (Ospina, Mertesacker, Elneny, Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud) and just 1 regular starter (Mustafi).

If things had turned ugly, Wenger had no Plan B because he left Cech, Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Bellerin, Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, Iwobi, Sanchez and Lacazette out of the squad, filling instead the bench with youngsters like Macey, Akpom, Dasilva, Dragomir, Gilmour, McGuane and Nketiah. And that audacious gamble paid off.

  1. Never give space to Walcott

Premier League clubs often sit deep when they face Arsenal because they know the damage Walcott can do with his pace. The Belarusian club did not want to adapt its game plan and paid a hefty price as Walcott exploited the space between Scherbitski and the backline to score two goals.

The first warning came in the eighth minute when Walcott played a one-two with Wilshere before striking the base of the post. A minute later, Walcott met a cross from Wilshere for a header that Scherbitski saved, but Walcott pounced on the rebound to tap home. Then Walcott intercepted a sloppy pass from the BATE goalkeeper in the 22nd to double the lead with a low strike. The English forward could have notched a hat trick in the 43rd but Scherbitski tipped his angled shot around the post. I thought Walcott was a bit too greedy in the 50th when he took his chance and missed the target instead of slipping the ball to an unmarked Wilshere.

Walcott definitely produced a good all-around performance. Usually, you just see the goal(s) and nothing else. Besides his 2 goals, Walcott also made 3 key passes and 10 crosses (including 5 corners), had 4 successful dribbles out of 4, won 1 of 2 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels, and made 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. It doesn’t mean that he will start against Brighton, for the simple reason that the Seagulls won’t play like BATE.

  1. The issue with wingbacks in a 3-5-2 system

Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 3-5-2 system against West Brom to give Ramsey more freedom. The manager relied on that 3-5-2 system again basically to accommodate Walcott, who looks more comfortable as a second striker than as an inside forward.

The main problem with the 3-5-2 formation is that the wingbacks can be left on their own defensively. It’s not a coincidence if BATE wingers Gordeychuk and Stasevich made 3 key passes each while fullbacks Rios and Volodko combined to create 3 chances.

In the 3-4-3 system, the inside forwards and the wingbacks respectively mark the fullbacks and the wingers in midfield. When the team sits deep, it is then the wingbacks and the centerbacks who respectively mark the fullbacks and the wingers. In Thursday’s 3-5-2 formation, the wingbacks had no inside forwards to help them out in midfield since Walcott played as a second striker while Wilshere was in the No. 10 role.

Maitland-Niles did better defensively than Nelson, leading all Arsenal players with 5 interceptions. However, Maitland-Niles needs to improve his positional play. He left Holding in a 1v2 situation for BATE’s first goal in the 28th and should have covered Holding when the hosts scored in the 67th.

Nelson had 3 successful dribbles out of 4 and a passing accuracy of 88%, but won 0 of 3 tackles and lacked end product with only 1 key pass. In my eyes, Nelson is still too soft defensively for the wingback position. That’s the main reason why BATE mostly attacked down our right flank.

  1. Wilshere is building up his fitness and confidence

The manager used Wilshere as a central midfielder against Cologne. On Thursday, Wenger moved Wilshere further up the pitch to relieve him of his defensive duties and let him focus on his playmaking role. Wilshere set up Walcott for Arsenal’s first two chances. He also slipped a through ball to Maitland-Niles in the 25th. Unfortunately, Maitland-Niles lacked spontaneity and took two touches instead of feeding Giroud with a first-time pass. Wilshere faded in the second half and moved back into a deeper position when Nketiah replaced Willock in the 89th.

  1. The midfield lost control

The Gunners led 3-0 after 25 minutes but somehow allowed BATE to get back in the game. Elneny was teaming up with Willock for the first time. The duo made no key pass, leaving all the creating burden on Wilshere’s shoulders. Defensively, they had their flaws. Elneny won 0 of 5 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, while Willock won 4 of 5 tackles, but was dispossessed 5 times, according to whoscored.com. Willock looks so much like a mini-Coquelin. I feel that he needs to simplify his game. There are times when Willock is overestimating his abilities and running into trouble instead of releasing the ball more quickly.

  1. The back three looked suspect

Mertesacker won just 1 of 4 aerial duels, Mustafi won 0 of 4 tackles and Holding made a couple of mistakes. Stasevich in the 20th and Gordeichuk in the 71st too easily dribbled past Mustafi. Holding scored from a corner in the 25th and hit the post from another corner in the 44th, but you don’t want him to become the new Vermaelen, i.e. a flawed defender occasionally finding the net.

Holding didn’t look out of his depth like in the Cologne game. He even won more tackles than Mustafi and more aerial duels than Mertesacker. But he needs to get rid of his naivety. Holding was penalized in the 40th for making a rash tackle after giving the ball away. And he was the main culprit on BATE’s second goal. Volodko beat Mertesacker in a foot race to make a cross in the 67th. Holding lost his footing, allowing Ivanic to head the ball. Ospina made the save but Gordeichuk followed up to slam the rebound home.

  1. Giroud scored his 100th goal for Arsenal

The France striker had not scored since the Leicester game on opening day. He ended that bad run of form by converting a penalty in the 49th after Dragun had pulled Mustafi’s shirt inside the area. Giroud didn’t get much service throughout the game. However, he proved a solid target man, winning 4 of 4 aerial duels.

  1. Ospina had a decent game

Some fans complained about Ospina’s performance. Well, there’s not much he could do about BATE’s goals. Ivanic’s header from 8 yards had too much power in the 28th while Ospina could only make a reflex save in the 67th to parry the Montenegro midfielder’s header from 6 yards. To his credit, Ospina palmed away a glancing header from Signevich in the 57th and stopped a low drive from Stasevich in the 75th.

Arsenal vs. West Brom: Lacazette nets twice in 2-0 win

The Gunners had no room for error on Monday after the top teams won over the weekend. Lacazette scored both goals in the 2-0 win over West Brom to help Arsenal move into 7th place in the Premier League, 6 points behind the two Manchester clubs, and 3 points behind Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. West Brom 2017

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

The defensive performance in the first half was so poor that West Brom could have reached halftime with the lead. The Gunners were more focused on their defensive tasks in the second half and prevented the Baggies from creating any chance.

After the game, Pulis complained about a penalty that the referee failed to award in the eighth minute for a poor challenge from Mustafi on Rodriguez. Obviously, it could have been a different match with West Brom taking the lead. But then, the Gunners were also denied a penalty in the 34th when Krychowiak held Sanchez inside the area. Pulis can blame the referee but if he’s honest, he should also blame himself for relying on a very defensive 5-3-2 system and shifting to a 4-3-3 formation only after his team was two goals down. Arsenal finished the game with 16 shots and 8 chances to 7 shots and 2 chances for the visitors, according to Squawka.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that drew with Chelsea more than a week ago with Elneny and Sanchez replacing Welbeck and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The team selection was a bit intriguing because Sanchez and Lacazette started together for the first time. They might only play 9 months together, or just 5 months if Sanchez leaves in January, but their understanding could prove crucial in helping Arsenal secure a Top 4 finish.

Spot-kick specialist

Lacazette had a solid performance with 2 of 4 shots on target, 1 key pass, 4 successful dribbles out of 4 and 2 of 3 aerial duels won. He showed his flair for goals in the 20th by heading in a rebound after Foster had saved a free kick from Sanchez. The France international doubled the lead in the 67th by drilling a penalty into the bottom corner after Nyom had fouled Ramsey. Lacazette earned a strong reputation in the French league for converting spot kicks, so it made sense to have him as our No. 1 penalty taker. He’s definitely more convincing than Sanchez and Ozil in that duty. Lacazette could have notched a hat trick, but Gibbs deflected out his goal attempt in the 51st. Then Lacazette missed the target from a tight angle in the 70th.

Giroud came off the bench to replace Lacazette in the 82nd. In a 10-minute cameo, Giroud made a positive contribution with 2 key passes. He controlled a long ball from Elneny in the 87th to tee up Xhaka. Three minutes later, Giroud, released Ramsey down the right flank for a low drive that Foster saved with his leg.

When Sanchez starts, the game usually revolves around him. On Monday, Sanchez nearly played second fiddle to Lacazette, often dropping back to create chances with 2 accurate crosses and 1 accurate through ball. Sanchez played a one-two with Lacazette in the fourth minute but was shoved by Dawson when Lacazette returned the pass. Pulis claimed it was a dive but TV replays clearly showed Dawson putting an arm across Sanchez’s chest. Then Sanchez hit a ball over the top for Lacazette in the 70th. It was a decent start for that new attacking duo.

Ramsey as a free-roaming midfielder

Anybody having doubts about the Chile striker’s desire should look at his work-rate: Sanchez made 6 tackles and won 5 fouls and 3 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka. He also led all players with 10 turnovers, his péché mignon, compared to 4 for Lacazette and 3 for Ramsey, according to whoscored.com. Wenger yanked Sanchez off in the 83rd to send on Ozil, who has been nursing a knee inflammation. If his knee doesn’t heal properly, that means Arsenal could miss their two most creative players (Ozil and Cazorla) for many games this season.

One alternative to Ozil in midfield is Iwobi. Unfortunately, Iwobi is still inconsistent and can lack end product. Maybe that’s why the manager played Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder on Monday. In fact, it’s Ramsey’s position when he plays with the Wales team. He headed Bellerin’s volleyed pass over the bar in the 11th and dribbled past Foster in the 32nd only to have his cross intercepted by the West Brom goalkeeper. However, it was his run inside the box in the 66th that gave Arsenal a two-goal cushion. Nyom basically bumped Ramsey out of the pitch with his thigh. The referee awarded a penalty for two obvious reasons. First, Nyom was not playing the ball. And second, Ramsey had run past Nyom.

Elneny teamed up with Xhaka in central midfield. They did OK offensively but their defensive performance was unconvincing. Both had a passing accuracy above 92%, which means that Arsenal could apply constant pressure on the West Brom defense. Their passing range also means that the team can quickly find the forwards when play is stretched. Xhaka and Elneny combined to hit 10 accurate long balls out of 10, according to whoscored.com.

Some more gruyere cheese

However, their defensive contribution was not good enough. They combined to make only 2 tackles, 0 interception and 0 block. The Baggies too easily ran through the midfield in the first half. Krychowiak intercepted Ramsey’s sloppy pass for Elneny in the 38th and ran half the length of the pitch to make a cross for Rodriguez, who headed the ball past Cech. It took a clearance from Monreal off the line to prevent West Brom from equalizing.

It’s not the first time this season that the Arsenal midfield looks like the football version of gruyere cheese. As you can see on the screen capture below, Krychowiak ran past Ramsey and Elneny before getting involved in a foot race with Koscielny. The Gunners still seemed to have the situation under control with Monreal and Mustafi keeping an eye on Robson-Kanu while Xhaka was ahead of Rodriguez.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M38a editedXhaka is ahead of Rodriguez as the Gunners deal with a 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

Then the situation became critical because Xhaka failed to track Rodriguez while Mustafi made the mistake of helping Koscielny, leaving Monreal in a 1v2 situation with Rodriguez and Robson-Kanu. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M38b editedXhaka loses the foot race with Rodriguez as Monreal is in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

Three minutes later, Xhaka showed his lack of defensive focus by not being tight enough to Robson-Kanu. See the screen capture below. Monreal and Kolasinac did not cover themselves in glory either as they failed to block Nyom’s cross for Robson-Kanu. The Wales international flicked the ball on for Rodriguez, who couldn’t put the finishing touch.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M41a editedMonreal and Kolasinac fail to stop Nyom’s cross as Xhaka is not tight to Robson-Kanu. (Photo credit: Sky)

Stopping crosses from the left flank was an issue last season as neither Monreal nor Gibbs could do a decent job. Kolasinac had a decent game but that’s definitely one area where he could improve. The Baggies capitalized on another cross to test Cech on the stroke of halftime. Following a corner, the Gunners cleared their lines and played the offside trap, which turned out to be a mistake. Krychowiak found an unmarked Gibbs down our left flank and the former Arsenal fullback hoisted the ball into the box. Bellerin missed his clearance and Barry forced Cech into an acrobatic save with a header.

Monreal’s outstanding performance

Mustafi proved again the weak link at the back. He won only 30% of his duels, compared to 58.3% for Koscielny and 66.7% for Monreal, according to the club’s website. The Germany international still has this bad habit of making reckless challenges. When Barry hit a long ball toward Rodriguez in the eighth minute, Mustafi just had to show Rodriguez down the line and keep him off his right foot. Somehow, Mustafi brought down Rodriguez with an awkward block attempt as he thought the West Brom striker would shoot with his weaker left foot while in fact Rodriguez was checking back. The referee either played advantage or simply didn’t spot the foul. In any case, he didn’t blow the whistle. So Rodriguez quickly got back on his feet and fired a low strike that Cech diverted onto his far post. Livermore followed up only to sweep the rebound wide.

Monreal was arguably our best defender on Monday. The Spaniard led all players with 6 interceptions and all starters with a passing accuracy of 93.8%, according to whoscored.com. He also won 2 of 5 tackles, while Koscielny and Mustafi won none, and 3 of 4 aerial duels. His clearance in the 38th allowed Arsenal to retain the lead at halftime. Monreal has definitely benefited from the shift to a 3-4-3 system. He wasn’t strong enough in the air to play as a centerback in a back four and his inability to stop dangerous crosses made him a liability as a fullback.

The Gunners next face BATE Borisov on Thursday. I expect the manager to rest a lot of regular starters because it’s an exhausting trip to Eastern Europe and those who play won’t have much time to recover for the early kickoff against Brighton on Sunday. Arsenal can afford a draw or even a loss in Belarus whereas they desperately need 3 points against Brighton to make up ground in the standings.

 

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win over Doncaster

The Gunners edged Doncaster 1-0 on Wednesday to next play Norwich in the fourth round of the League Cup. Because it is a less important competition than the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Europa League, Wenger fielded a makeshift team that included Sanchez, 4 youngsters (Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Holding and Chambers) and 6 benchwarmers (Ospina, Mertesacker, Elneny, Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud).

Arsenal v Doncaster Rovers - Carabao Cup Third Round

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

The heavy rotation explained Arsenal’s poor passing game. The poor finishing was more embarrassing and more difficult to justify with Sanchez, Giroud and Walcott in the front three. By failing to put the result beyond doubt, the Gunners gave third-division Doncaster plenty of hope in the second half. With a bit of luck, the Rovers could have equalized in the closing minutes to force extra time.

  1. Wilshere could play a big role this season

In his first start of the season, Wilshere teamed up with Elneny in central midfield. I would have preferred to see Willock or Maitland-Niles play alongside Wilshere, but I can understand the manager’s decision to give Wilshere an easy ride by partnering him with a seasoned player like Elneny.

In the role of a deep-lying playmaker, Wilshere had not much defensive work as the Gunners dominated ball possession. He took his chance in the 28th minute with a long-range strike that got deflected out. With Cazorla set to miss most of the season and Coquelin sidelined by a hamstring injury, Wilshere could easily finish the season with more than 20 games under his belt. Ramsey and Xhaka currently form Arsenal’s best duo in midfield, but the 3-4-3 system is very demanding for both of them and will require some rotation to avoid injuries.

  1. Walcott saved the day

He scored the winner in the 25th by making his signature diagonal run to control a long ball from Sanchez before lifting it over Lawlor. Walcott should have added a second goal in the 49th. On a counterattack, Giroud made a perfect cross for Walcott, who missed the target from 15 yards. TV replays seemed to suggest that his shot took a deflection off the goalkeeper.

Our options on the wings are limited this season. Oxlade-Chamberlain was sold to Liverpool this summer, Perez has been loaned out to Deportivo, and Welbeck picked up a groin injury against Chelsea. Walcott doesn’t have the work-rate and all-around game to start in Premier League games when everybody is fit, but he’s a decent option off the bench. Iwobi replaced Walcott in the 76th and wasted two good situations with a poor final ball.

  1. Sanchez is building up his fitness

This has been a complicated summer for Sanchez. He had some time off in July to recover from the Confederations Cup. Then he picked up an abdominal strain in August before being involved in an aborted move to Manchester City. He hasn’t performed at 100 percent of his abilities yet. Sanchez has basically used the games against Cologne and Doncaster to build up his fitness.

The Chile striker hit a cross-shot wide in the fourth minute before testing Lawlor with a bouncing free kick in the 10th. Because there are only 2 central midfielders in the 3-4-3 system, one of the players in the front three is usually a creative player. On Wednesday, Sanchez often dropped back to help create chances. He made the assist for Walcott’s goal and also set up Giroud for a scoring chance in the second half.

  1. Is Giroud going through a scoring drought?

The France striker hasn’t scored since the Leicester game on opening day. His old understanding with Wilshere (remember that Norwich goal?) showed in the sixth minute. The English midfielder made a chipped pass for Giroud, who rattled the bar with a spectacular bicycle kick. That was unfortunately Giroud’s best goal attempt. He headed Elneny’s cross over the bar in the 20th and missed the target with volleys in the 28th and 88th.

His physicality caused problems for the Doncaster defense but Giroud had two penalty shouts turned down. Giroud also had injury scares in the second half. First, Mason made a late challenge on the Frenchman in the 68th. Then Butler trapped Giroud’s left ankle with an awkward sliding clearance three minutes later. I hope Giroud will rediscover his finishing touch because he may start in the next 3 Premier League games against West Brom, Brighton and Watford. You can expect Arsenal to dominate ball possession in those games.

  1. Youngsters always give you the jitters

Nelson and Maitland-Niles are the two most promising prospects in the academy. They were rewarded with starting spots in the League Cup. Yet, it nearly looked like a poisoned gift as they were played out of position. Nelson is usually a winger but played as a wingback because the manager wanted to give Walcott some playing time. And Maitland-Niles is usually a central midfielder but played also as a wingback because Wenger wanted to rest both Kolasinac and Monreal. The positive is that they see the game differently and can hone their defensive game. The negative is that they don’t feel comfortable in those positions.

Maitland-Niles wasted two good situations in the first half with crosses that lacked accuracy. He then gave away the ball to Whiteman by attempting a blind pass to Dasilva in the 79th. However, Maitland-Niles had enough pace to catch Whiteman and win the ball back. Nelson also ran into trouble with a dribbling attempt on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 55th. The U23 winger then let May bear down on goal in the 58th by misreading the bounce of the ball. Fortunately, Maitland-Niles covered him and bullied May off the ball.

By his own standards, Nelson had a poor game. He was dispossessed a couple of times with cheeky dribbles in the opening minutes. Despite a below-par performance, Nelson still managed to test Lawlor with a 20-yard drive in the 45th and an angled shot in the 65th.

 

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Gunners show desire & discipline to earn a point

The Gunners produced their best performance of the season on Sunday to split the points with Chelsea in a goalless draw. Given Arsenal’s poor record at Stamford Bridge in the past few seasons, it’s definitely a good point. Very little separated both teams in a highly tactical match. Chelsea and Arsenal had 8 chances each. The Blues enjoyed 51% of ball possession and mustered 13 shots to 11 for the visitors. But the Gunners showed a bit more commitment by winning 20 tackles to 13 and making 20 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal 2017

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

Wenger has often been maligned for his poor record against Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager. Yet, he slightly outfoxed Conte in Sunday’s encounter. Both teams started with a 3-4-3 formation. But the duo formed by Ramsey and Xhaka got the better of Kante and Fabregas in midfield. At halftime, Conte decided to beef up his midfield by replacing Pedro with Bakayoko, switching to a 3-5-2 system.

Conte has a more defensive approach to the 3-4-3 formation than Wenger. The Italian manager mostly uses it as a counterattacking device. The Blues pounced on a sloppy pass from Bellerin in the third minute to hit Arsenal on the fast break. However, the Gunners quickly retreated and Pedro could only fire a 25-yard drive straight at Cech.

Making the most of a disequilibrium

The problem with Conte’s approach is that it puts a strong emphasis on defensive discipline. Chelsea coped well with such an austere system last season. But we can see the limits of this demanding approach as the Blues have already received 3 red cards in 5 league games this season. Luiz got booked in the 52nd for hitting Koscielny’s head with an overhead kick in a crowded area. In the closing minutes, Luiz overran the ball and fouled Kolasinac with a studs-up challenge. The referee made the right call by giving Luiz a straight red card. As you can see on the screen capture below, the Brazilian defender’s block attempt was a potential leg-breaker.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M87ed Luiz’s studs land on Kolasinac’s shin. (Photo credit: Sky)

By contrast, Wenger’s approach is more messy. His switch to the 3-4-3 formation was not a deliberate choice but a decision by default. He realized his midfield could not control the game. Because his midfield had become a weakness, Wenger tacitly accepted the lack of balance in his team by adopting a system that made the most of such a disequilibrium. You therefore often see the team split in two because the 3-4-3 formation optimizes what happens at both ends of the pitch. Defensively, the Gunners are never outnumbered. Offensively, they are at least 4 or 5 on a counterattack.

Wenger made just one change to the side that routed Bournemouth 3-0 the previous weekend with Iwobi replacing an injured Ozil in the starting lineup. However, there were 8 changes to the team that defeated Cologne 3-1 on Thursday with only Bellerin, Monreal and Iwobi retaining their starting spots. That rotation was crucial to have enough freshness against Chelsea.

Mustafi as the weak link

The Gunners earned their second straight clean sheet in the Premier League. Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi seem our best options for the back three. Chambers and Holding are still too naive while Mertesacker’s lack of pace is a liability for a high defensive line. Mustafi proved the weak link at the back on Sunday. The Germany international had 3 turnovers, made 2 interceptions and 0 block and won only 46.7% of his duels, compared to 1 turnover, 4 interceptions, 2 blocks and 88.9% duels won for Koscielny and 0 turnover, 4 interceptions, 2 blocks and 70% duels won for Monreal, according to Squawka and the club’s website.

Chelsea’s only clear-cut chance came from Mustafi’s poor positional play in the 21st. Monreal and Koscielny both played a high defensive line but Mustafi was caught napping four yards behind them, playing Pedro and Morata onside. See the screen capture below. Fabregas slipped a through ball to Pedro, who was clean through on goal but was denied by Cech.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M21ed Mustafi, circled, is 4 yards behind the potential offside line as Pedro makes a run in behind. (Photo credit: Sky)

Mustafi also misjudged the flight of Cahill’s long ball for Morata on the stroke of halftime. Morata was about to bear down on goal but Monreal rushed back to beat Morata to the ball and divert it into Cech’s path. Mustafi could have been the hero by heading in Xhaka’s free kick in the 75th but his goal was disallowed for offside.

Ramsey’s mazy run

In midfield, Ramsey ran the show with 3 interceptions, 2 blocks, 3 of 6 tackles won and 4 successful dribbles out of 4. Arsenal’s best scoring chance came from Ramsey’s mazy run in the 41st. Ramsey slalomed through the Chelsea defense only to hit the far post with a toe poke. Sanchez was so excited in the stands that he slapped Ospina’s back a couple of times. The Blues simply couldn’t cope with Ramsey’s movement.

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka outperformed the duo formed by Kante and Fabregas. Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 14 tackles, 5 interceptions and 4 blocks, compared to 10 tackles, 3 interceptions and 4 blocks for Kante and Fabregas, according to Squawka. In the first half, Ramsey and Xhaka got the better of Kante and Fabregas with a mix of zonal marking and man-marking. They had more defensive work in the second half when Bakayoko joined Kante and Fabregas in midfield. Wenger tried to steady the midfield by sending on Elneny for Iwobi in the 80th.

On the wings, Kolasinac was more busy defensively than Bellerin. Kolasinac won 4 of 6 tackles, had 5 turnovers and made 2 interceptions, 2 blocks and 0 key pass while Bellerin won 1 of 1 tackle, had 1 turnover and made 0 interception, 5 blocks and 2 key passes. Kolasinac was signed as an upgrade over Gibbs and Monreal at leftback. Yet, the Gunners still struggle to stop crosses from their left flank. In the 23rd, Kolasinac couldn’t block Moses’ cross for Morata, who headed wide.

Welbeck’s groin injury

Despite his defensive workload, Kolasinac managed to test Courtois with a long-range strike in the 20th and had a shot blocked by Azpilicueta in the 62nd. Bellerin proved an attacking threat down the right wing in the first half but faded after the break. The Spaniard was one of the three Gunners who also started in the Europa League game against Cologne.

Wenger can have regrets about the front three, which underperformed compared to the rest of the team. Iwobi started on the right wing because Ozil had not recovered from a minor injury. The Nigeria international led Arsenal with 3 key passes but also 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. I thought Iwobi’s work-rate was not good enough. He made no tackle, no interception and no block while Welbeck made 2 interceptions and 1 block and Lacazette made 3 tackles and 1 block. Iwobi also needs to improve his spatial awareness. He is not as good as Ozil in finding pockets of space, which explains why his movement is not good enough.

While Welbeck played as a centerforward in the FA Cup final, the manager decided to play him on the left wing on Sunday. Welbeck should have caught the frame from 7 yards in the 16th but he inexplicably headed Bellerin’s cross wide. He also wasted a good situation in the 57th by overhitting his final ball for Ramsey. Welbeck suffered more bad luck by picking up a groin injury in the 72nd. His injury could become an issue because he’s the only forward in the squad who is both pacey and strong in the air.

Worst start since 2011

Lacazette struggled in the centerforward role. His passing accuracy dropped to 53.3% while his teammates preferred to rely on Welbeck as an outlet for high balls. He had two chances in the first half. Bellerin cut the ball back for Lacazette in the 17th. Tightly marked by Luiz, the France international could only hit a first-time effort straight at Courtois. Then Lacazette had a better opportunity in the 41st when Ramsey’s toe poke hit the post. The rebound fell to Lacazette, who volleyed wide from 6 yards with his weaker left foot. Sanchez replaced Lacazette in the 66th but had no real impact in the final third.

The Gunners produced a great performance but I still don’t see them as serious contenders for the simple reason that their options at centerback and in midfield are limited. If Koscielny gets injured, would you trust Mertesacker and Holding to step up? Likewise, if Ramsey is sidelined for a few weeks, which midfielder could be an attacking force while performing defensive duties? Cazorla and Wilshere are the only players matching that profile, but Cazorla is out for most of the season while Wilshere has a dreadful injury record.

With just 7 points from the first 5 league games, the Gunners are having their worst start to the season since 2011 when they collected only 4 points. In the past two seasons, Arsenal enjoyed a decent start with 10 points. Those results mean that the Gunners desperately need a victory over West Brom next weekend. I therefore expect the manager to rest key players in Wednesday’s League Cup game against Doncaster Rovers.