The Arsenal board must act before it’s too late

How much time does a good manager need to rebuild a squad?

This is a key question that must be taken into account when assessing Wenger’s performance at Arsenal. Two to three years would seem a fair answer. Spurs were a team in sixth place when Pochettino took over in the summer of 2014. Within two seasons, Pochettino turned Tottenham into a title contender. By contrast, two years were not enough for Van Gaal to restore the Red Devils to their former glory. The Dutch manager was sacked and replaced by Mourinho last summer. Maybe Van Gaal would have found the right recipe in his third season at Manchester United but the board lost patience after the club missed out on a Champions League spot.

arsenal-board

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

That kind of task can prove difficult in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. Klopp has almost turned Liverpool into a contender within a year and half. The German manager will still need at least one more season before the Reds become a genuine threat for the Premier League title because their defense is still too porous. In his first season at Manchester City, Guardiola is facing similar problems. The Citizens have lost too much ground in the title race because they have leaked too many goals. You can expect a spending spree from City on defenders this summer.

Wenger is also rebuilding his squad. Obviously, the big difference is that Wenger has been the Arsenal manager for 20 years. The Frenchman has been heavily criticized by the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade for not winning the league since 2004. I think that time frame is unfair for the simple reason that the club was losing its best players from 2006 to 2012 besides reimbursing the cost of the Emirates stadium. In fact, the club is not done yet with the payments for the new stadium. The Gunners have a net debt of 101 million pounds, according to the latest financial results released a few days ago.

Losing the golden touch

If Wenger deserves some criticism, that can only be for the last four years when the club finally had some money to spend in the transfer market. Signing Ozil in the summer of 2013 was the signal that Arsenal could afford to be ambitious again. The Gunners added Sanchez, Welbeck, Chambers, Debuchy and Ospina in 2014, then Paulista and Cech in 2015 and Elneny, Xhaka, Mustafi, Perez and Holding last year.

Should the board not renew Wenger’s contract because many of those recruits have disappointed? You could argue that Wenger has lost his golden touch in the transfer market and is therefore unlikely to improve the squad this summer. For years, the Gunners have been accused of lacking character, leadership and physicality. Despite some significant spending since 2013, Wenger still hasn’t fixed those flaws as the losses at Chelsea and Bayern Munich showed.

Those who read my blog know that I am not part of the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade. In previous posts like ‘What went wrong for Arsenal this season’ (25 March 2016), ‘How complacency is crippling the club’ (21 May 2016), and ‘Reflecting on Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal’ (12 October 2016), I have acknowledged the manager’s historic contribution to the club but also pointed out his limitations in taking Arsenal to the next level, i.e., becoming a genuine contender again.

Clearing the dead wood

In my assessment of Wenger’s contract situation, what has really tipped the scales is the massive overhaul needed this summer. There’s a lot of dead wood to clear and I just don’t think that Wenger is ruthless enough to do it. The manager was too sentimental in 2015 with Arteta and Rosicky, whose contracts were extended although they were past their prime and had fitness issues. Rosicky only played one game last season while Arteta was involved in 15 games but for a total of just 416 minutes.

The club has pretty much become a retirement home by also extending the contracts of Mertesacker and Cazorla. Mertesacker hasn’t played this season because of a knee injury while Cazorla is set to miss the rest of this campaign because of an ankle injury. Wenger values their experience and the advice they can provide to the youngsters. But if you look at next season, it’s two spots lost in the squad.

To me, it’s clear that the manager has mellowed in his old age. When Arsenal won the Premier League in 1998, 2002 and 2004, each of those titles was preceded by a relentless activity in the transfer market. I believe a younger Wenger would have released Arteta and Rosicky in 2015 and Mertesacker and Cazorla this summer.

Issues at the back

If we have a look at what the squad needs, then it becomes obvious that such a massive task is not tailored for Wenger. In goal, we have three flawed players: Cech is past his prime and his slow legs have cost Arsenal two penalties this season; Ospina can’t command his own area; and Szczesny, on loan at Roma, is error-prone and has attitude issues on and off the pitch. At rightback, Debuchy and Jenkinson are not good enough, even as back-up players, and should be shipped out. It’s quite telling that Paulista is the manager’s second choice in that position behind Bellerin.

At centerback, we have six defenders: Koscielny, Mustafi, Paulista, Holding, Mertesacker and Chambers, on loan at Middlesbrough. That’s simply too many players for two starting spots. Chambers is not good enough and must be sold; Holding needs a loan to speed up his development; and Mertesacker will probably act as an informal assistant coach since his lack of pace is a liability when the team plays a high defensive line. If the club had not extended Mertesacker’s contract, there would have been a spot available for Koscielny’s potential successor. Let’s not forget that Koscielny will turn 32 this year and might decline like Vidic did at the same age.

At leftback, Monreal and Gibbs have struggled this season to stop dangerous crosses. Monreal is performing a notch below the level of his 2014-15 season while Gibbs is a decent back-up option but not a starter. I doubt Bramall could be the answer at leftback next season. As you can see, there are plenty of moves required just to improve our defense. It gets even more shambolic when we analyze the midfield and the offense.

Letting Ozil go?

I divide the midfield into three categories: defensive midfielders, attacking midfielders, and all-around midfielders who can both defend and attack. Elneny, Coquelin, Xhaka and Maitland-Niles are mostly defensive midfielders. Xhaka can be an attacking threat with his long-range strikes and balls over the top, but his limited dribbling and running skills force him to be a deep-lying playmaker. Elneny and Coquelin are utility midfielders not good enough to start for a contending team. They are basically cheap versions of PSG workhorse Matuidi. Coquelin has better tackling skills than Elneny but his end product and positional play can be questionable. I have high hopes for Maitland-Niles but he’s only 19. The English teenager can win tackles and has more tactical discipline than Coquelin. He could do for Arsenal what Kante is doing for Chelsea.

All-around midfielders play an important role nowadays because of the emphasis put on the transition game, whether it’s capitalizing on turnovers or stopping counterattacks. On paper, we have four all-around midfielders with Cazorla, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere, on loan at Bournemouth. The trouble is that Cazorla, Ramsey and Wilshere are injury-prone players. Wilshere is having an injury-free season with Bournemouth, but he’s not playing any European game, which makes a huge difference in terms of physical recovery. And the Ox lacks experience in midfield as he has mostly played on the wings under Wenger.

The difference between an all-around midfielder and an attacking midfielder is the capacity to contribute defensively. Ozil, Iwobi and Reine-Adelaide can’t properly defend and fall therefore in the latter category. I wouldn’t mind letting Ozil go this summer, especially if he wants to earn more than 200,000 pounds a week. The cash from his transfer would help Arsenal sign a player with a stronger work ethic and whose game is better tailored for a high press. At 19, Reine-Adelaide is too soft for the Premier League and would need a loan to toughen up. Iwobi has great potential but you can’t expect much consistency from a 20-year-old kid.

More than 10 moves needed

The forward positions are quite a mess. Sanogo and Campbell, on loan at Sporting Lisbon, should be shipped out. The manager has built the attack around Sanchez this season but the Chile international is not the complete centerforward. Sanchez can’t win aerial duels and his hold-up play is poor. If the club can’t convince Sanchez to stay, then Arsenal should cash in this summer and play differently with Giroud, Welbeck or Perez up front. Walcott has decent stats this season but his poor work-rate doesn’t justify a starting spot. And does Akpom, on loan at Brighton, still have a future as a Gunner?

Basically, more than 10 moves would be required this summer to improve the squad and the chemistry in the dressing room. If the board and the management balk, the Arsenal team will be one or two years late in its development because you can be sure that the managers at Liverpool, Manchester United and City will be ruthless in the transfer market.

If the board is serious about finding Wenger’s successor, they must have a shortlist by now. The timing can be delicate for a changing of the guard. No Arsenal fan wants to see Wenger sacked in the middle of the season like Ranieri. By contrast, Ferguson had the perfect send-off but the Manchester United board mismanaged his succession.

If the Arsenal board can’t sign a top manager this summer, then extending Wenger’s contract by a year could be a wise move to buy a bit of time, assuming the Gunners finish in the Top 4. On the other hand, letting Wenger at the helm of the club would be a risky choice if they finish outside the Top 4. The atmosphere could become toxic next season, especially with a polarised fan base.

What the next Arsenal manager must have

There should be at least three requirements met by the next Arsenal manager: he must be good at developing youngsters otherwise academy players like Bellerin and Iwobi wouldn’t have joined the first team; he must have a shrewd transfer policy because Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs; and he must have a good knowledge of European football to help the club go further in the Champions League.

Let’s have a look at some of the names tossed around: Howe, Simeone, Tuchel, Allegri, Jardim, Henry, Blanc, Koeman and Puel. For a club like Arsenal, Howe is simply not good enough. Some pundits have claimed that Wenger was a relatively unknown manager when Arsenal hired him, but there’s a massive difference between Howe and Wenger’s situation in 1996. Wenger won the French league with Monaco in 1988 and led the French club to the semifinals of the 1994 Champions League. Howe has done a good job at Bournemouth but has no experience of European football and has never managed a big club.

Simeone is a popular name although his team plays more defensive football than Arsenal. He won the Spanish league and the Europa League with Atletico Madrid and led the Spanish club to two runner-up finishes in the Champions League. The Argentine manager also showed some flair in the transfer market by signing Griezmann and Oblak and he helped youngsters like Koke and Saul Niguez blossom at the top level. The only question mark is whether Simeone would contemplate a move to the Premier League.

Tuchel is an intriguing name. He has 7 seasons under his belt as a manager in the Bundesliga but no experience outside Germany as a player or manager. Would he be good enough for a club like Arsenal? Borussia Dortmund finished second in the German league last year but has quickly dropped out of the title race this term.

The Monaco connection

Allegri is the bookmakers’ favorite. The Italian manager won Serie A with AC Milan and Juventus and reached the Champions League final with the Bianconeri two years ago. Known as a tactical expert, Allegri shouldn’t struggle to adjust to the Premier League. The only question mark is about his ability to develop youngsters. There are mostly seasoned players in the Juventus squad and the few youngsters learned their trade at smaller clubs.

Jardim has at least one thing in common with Wenger: the Monaco connection. The Portuguese manager is known for his shrewd transfer policy and his capacity to trust youngsters. He built the tightest defense in the French league to lead Monaco to a third-place finish in 2015. Although PSG keeps spending more money than Monaco, Jardim has tweaked his tactics to lead the French league this season. With 2.89 league goals per game, Monaco has the most prolific attack among the top European clubs.

Arsenal fans have fond memories of Henry, but I don’t think he’s ready yet to become a manager at this club. Some pundits might mention Guardiola and Zidane as successful examples of players who quickly moved into high-profile managerial roles, but the circumstances are really different. Guardiola and Zidane had very little rebuilding to do at Barcelona and Madrid, and they also had leaders in their respective squads.

Blanc is available after PSG sacked him last summer. He won the French league with Bordeaux and then PSG, but the comparison with his successor, Emery, doesn’t look good. Emery has trusted youngsters like Kimpembe and Nkunku while Blanc was reluctant to use Coman, who finally joined Juventus in 2014. PSG under Blanc struggled against the top teams in the Champions League, losing to Barcelona and Manchester City in the 2015 and 2016 quarterfinals. The French club adopted a more aggressive approach under Emery and managed to thrash Barcelona 4-0 in the first leg of their last-16 encounter this month.

Becoming a sporting director?

Koeman and Puel have plenty of experience but are outsiders compared to Simeone, Allegri and Jardim. Koeman has a great knowledge of European football but hasn’t managed a big club since a poor spell at Valencia. Puel has probably won more admirers after Southampton’s good performance in the League Cup final but the lack of silverware on his resume, with just the French league title in 2000, could deter the Arsenal board.

What worries me is that there is no football expert on the Arsenal board. That will make the transition even more difficult. Remember, Arsenal hired Wenger in 1996 because Dein, then a vice-chairman at the club, recommended him. The board might be tempted by a clean break, but it was clearly a mistake in Manchester United’s case. The Red Devils felt that Ferguson’s presence would be an additional weight on Moyes’ shoulders. In the end, Moyes got plenty of freedom but the transition was a mess. I hope the Arsenal board can convince Wenger to become a sporting director although the Frenchman believes he still has a couple of years left in him as a manager. Big clubs like Bayern Munich and Barcelona have sporting directors on their staff.

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-0 win over Sutton

Arsenal defeated Sutton United 2-0 on Monday to next face Lincoln City in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. It doesn’t make up for the humiliating 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League but it shows that the players still care about the club and their manager.

  1. The Gunners overcame nerves

The club was under heavy scrutiny after the defeat in Germany last week. The FA Cup tie at Gander Green Lane looked like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was a great opportunity to bounce back and restore a bit of confidence. On the other, a poor result would have made the atmosphere around the club even more toxic. Neutral fans and pundits were obviously rooting for the Yellows, who play in the fifth division of English football.

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

It could have been a tricky match on Sutton’s artificial pitch, where the ball doesn’t bounce like it does on the grass. The game almost had a goofy feel with balloons rolling on the pitch and a streaker interrupting play after 11 minutes. The Yellows showed a lot of commitment, winning 60.5% of the duels according to Arsenal’s website. Two misplaced passes from Monreal to Iwobi in the opening minutes betrayed the visitors’ nervosity. With 10 men behind the ball, Sutton kept a compact shape until the 27th minute when the Gunners converted their first chance of the game.

  1. Perez deserves more playing time

The Spanish striker capitalized on a counterattack to break the deadlock with a low curling shot. He displayed a tremendous work-rate by making 3 tackles and winning 63.6% of his duels. In my eyes, Perez should be ahead of Walcott in the pecking order not just because he contributes more defensively but also because he has better passing skills.

  1. Walcott reached the 100-goal mark

The England international scored his 100th goal for Arsenal by stabbing home a low cross from Monreal in the 55th. That’s a lot if you compare with Aaron Lennon’s tally. And it’s not much when you know that he has been at the club since 2006. Pundits sometimes say that as a winger Walcott doesn’t get as many chances as a centerforward. But then Sanchez notched 25 goals from the left wing in his first season at Arsenal.

To a certain extent, Walcott embodies the limits of this club. He can produce a moment of magic with his trademark diagonal run. But he can also go missing from an entire game. Walcott has shown consistency at the top level only once in his career: that was in the 2012-13 season when he scored 21 goals for the club. He has a good shot at beating that total with 15 goals so far this season.

  1. Oxlade-Chamberlain must learn from his mistakes

The Ox gifted a goal to Bayern Munich by dribbling on the edge of his own area. He obviously failed to learn his lesson on Monday when he came off the bench to replace Elneny at halftime. Gomis initiated a fast break by dispossessing the Ox in the 77th. It took a clearance from Holding to end the threat.

At 23 and in his 6th season at Arsenal, the Ox is no longer a rookie. He definitely has the skills to play in central midfield but first he needs to cut his turnover rate and improve his passing accuracy. The Ox showed a glimpse of his talent by dribbling past two players in the 69th to make a teasing cross for Walcott who couldn’t make contact with the ball. Then the Ox forced a diving save from Worner with a curling shot in the 81st.

  1. Our goalkeepers are flawed

Cech struggled to stop long-range strikes last season and has already cost two penalties this season. That should be the perfect opportunity for Ospina to claim the starting spot in goal. Unfortunately, Ospina still can’t command his area. The Colombia goalkeeper was outmuscled by Bailey in the 6-yard box and beaten to the ball by Collins, who headed a corner over the bar in the 60th. And just like Cech gifted Chelsea a goal with a sloppy pass, Ospina had a poor pass intercepted by May, who fired wide on the stroke of halftime. For those who think that Szczesny is the answer, just remember his blunders and his attitude issues on and off the pitch.

  1. Reine-Adelaide shouldn’t be in the first team

The French teenager has a lot of potential but is really too soft. He was dispossessed 7 times, more than any other player according to whoscored.com, and won only 11% of his duels. Reine-Adelaide clearly doesn’t have the level to play in the Premier League. And after watching his performance against Sutton, you kind of wonder whether he would be strong enough to play in the fifth division of English football.

Arsenal should definitely loan him out to a lower-league club so that he can toughen up and add some physicality to his game. Otherwise we’ll keep having those “men vs. boys” comments that pundits made after the losses to Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Reine-Adelaide was replaced by Maitland-Niles in the 74th.

I have high hopes for Maitland-Niles and was disappointed not to see him in the starting lineup. He’s pretty much a holding midfielder a la Makelele and has more potential than Coquelin, who doesn’t have the tactical discipline for that role. In fact, I tend to see Coquelin more like a utility midfielder, a cheap version of Matuidi, who has limited skills like Coquelin but provides more end product.

  1. More sobriety needed for Holding

The English centerback must get rid of that habit of taking unnecessary risks. He thought he was Beckenbauer in the 85th and ran past Sutton’s attacking line to give away the ball with a poor pass. Holding was out of position when the Yellows hit Arsenal on the fast break. The ball fell to Hudson-Odoi, whose shot was deflected out by Mustafi. Holding was also late for a block attempt when Deacon smashed the bar with a 25-yard drive in the 65th.

  1. The Premier League is still the priority

The manager left Cech, Bellerin, Coquelin, Ozil, Giroud and Welbeck out of the squad while the injured Koscielny, Ramsey and Cazorla were not available. It won’t hurt to have 11 days of rest before the trip to Anfield Road. The Gunners need at least a draw against Liverpool, a direct rival for a Champions League berth, for the simple reason that the Reds have an easier run-in. A Top 4 finish is crucial to keep our best players and sign top talents this summer.

Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 5-1 disaster

The Champions League tie is dead after the Gunners suffered a humiliating 5-1 defeat in the first leg of their last-16 encounter with Bayern Munich on Wednesday. Arsenal managed to reach halftime with the score tied at 1-1 although the Bavarians were the better team. But the floodgates opened after Koscielny picked up a hamstring injury in the 48th minute.

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Photo credit: Getty Images

The Gunners conceded 3 goals in a 10-minute span to trail 4-1 by the 63rd. The scoreline and the stats don’t lie: Bayern completely outplayed Arsenal, making 516 more passes, creating 14 more chances and hitting 17 more shots, according to the UEFA stats.

  1. Talent means nothing without hard work

Anybody who watched PSG’s 4-0 thrashing of Barcelona on Tuesday could see two similarities with Bayern’s 5-1 demolition of Arsenal. The Spanish side lost because of some poor work-rate and a soft midfield. A quick look at the last 3 goals shows those flaws. The Parisians capitalized on a turnover to take a 2-0 lead as Rabiot dispossessed Messi while Iniesta failed to close down Verratti. By contrast, PSG played the ball out from the back to score the third and fourth goals. Messi and Gomes failed to track Kurzawa for the third goal and Iniesta failed to challenge Di Maria. Then Cavani was able to make it 4-0 because Meunier easily skipped past Neymar before outpacing Iniesta.

  1. Arsenal’s work-rate is not good enough

The Gunners were not as lazy as Barcelona. According to the UEFA stats, the Bavarians ran 109.5 km compared to 108.1 km for Arsenal, which is better than the 105.1 km covered by Barcelona compared to 113.3 km for PSG. The Gunners raised their intensity, winning 18 tackles of 34 compared to 12 of 33 for Bayern, according to Squawka. But it wasn’t enough because Arsenal didn’t defend as a unit. Bayern did a better job at hunting in packs, making 55 ball recoveries compared to 46 for the English side.

The Bavarians love dominating ball possession. A smart way to unsettle them would have been to press high up the pitch like PSG did against Barcelona. Unfortunately, the Gunners were not able to coordinate their pressing efforts. Sanchez often showed signs of frustration because his teammates didn’t help him harry the Bayern defense.

The poor defensive contribution from the attacking players cost Arsenal two goals. Lahm made a cross for Lewandowski, who headed home for a 2-1 lead in the 53rd. Gibbs had to deal with both Robben and Lahm on that play because Iwobi failed to track Lahm. Iwobi was also late for a block attempt in the 15th but Ospina stopped Robben’s low drive. Then Alcantara easily skipped past Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 56th and slipped the ball to Alonso, who was not closed down by Sanchez. With plenty of time on the ball, Alonso picked out Lewandowski, who played Alcantara in for Bayern’s third goal.

  1. Arsenal’s midfield is too soft

Coquelin, Xhaka and Ozil combined to win just 6 of 14 tackles compared to 9 of 18 for Alcantara, Vidal and Alonso. Surprisingly, Ozil put in a good shift, winning 4 of 6 tackles, more than any other Arsenal player. But Ozil couldn’t prevent Alonso and Vidal from dictating play because Coquelin sat too deep while Sanchez focused his pressing efforts on Martinez and Hummels.

Coquelin was the symbol of Arsenal’s softness. Vidal outmuscled the French midfielder in the eighth minute to fire a long-range strike that Ospina saved. Three minutes later, Robben cut inside Coquelin to open the scoring with a drive into the far corner. Coquelin was too slow to react and make a block on that play. He won none of the 3 tackles he made.

Oxlade-Chamberlain moved into central midfield when Giroud replaced Coquelin in the 77th. The England international showed his naivety by dribbling on the edge of his own box and losing possession to Kimmich in the 88th. The ball fell to Muller, who shot past Ospina to seal the win. The Ox led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, and had a passing accuracy of 61%, the lowest percentage among all the midfielders.

If we except Sanchez’s penalty, the Bavarians kept the Arsenal forwards quiet. Ozil and Xhaka ended up having the best chances from open play. In the 40th, the Ox cut the ball back for Xhaka, who volleyed straight at Neuer from 17 yards. On the stroke of halftime, Sanchez fed Ozil, whose angled strike was saved by Neuer. Ozil finished the game with only 1 key pass because the Gunners were starved of possession. Somehow, Arsenal could have reached halftime with the lead against the run of play.

  1. A change of tactics implies a change of manager

The best way to beat Bayern is to implement a pressing game like PSG did against Barcelona on Tuesday or like Atletico Madrid did against the German side last season. Pochettino at Tottenham and Klopp at Liverpool have been able to impose that style of play in the Premier League. Unfortunately, the Gunners don’t have that defensive culture and it’s hard to see how the club could tactically change under Wenger.

The only time Arsenal recently relied on a pressing game to beat a big team was in the 3-0 win over Manchester United last season. It lasted just one half and was not as impressive as the pressing game used by Liverpool, Atletico Madrid or even PSG. Under Wenger, the Gunners prefer to absorb the pressure and hit the big teams on the fast break like in the 2-0 win over Bayern last season or the victories over Pellegrini’s Manchester City.

Another tactical issue is marking duties on set pieces. Alcantara capitalized on a goalmouth scramble from a corner to give Bayern a 4-1 lead with a low drive in the 63rd. He had plenty of time to control the ball and pull the trigger because no Gunner patrolled the edge of the box.

  1. The Gunners must anticipate life without Koscielny

The Arsenal defense completely disintegrated after Koscielny picked up a hamstring injury in the 48th and was replaced by Paulista. Koscielny had Lewandowski in his pocket and even earned a penalty by drawing a foul from the Poland striker in the 29th. His only mistake came in the 43rd when he was not tight to Lewandowski, who met a cross from Alaba to head over the bar. Koscielny won 3 of 3 tackles before leaving the pitch.

The France centerback will turn 32 this year. The staff will have to carefully monitor his fitness. Vidic led Manchester United to the Premier League title in 2013 but suddenly lost a step the following season at the age of 32. Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Paulista’s dodgy decision-making definitely prevent them from becoming the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense.

On paper, Mustafi could lead the back four, but his performance in Munich was a disappointment. He was booked in the 15th for a rash tackle on Alcantara. Then, Lewandowski outjumped Mustafi for Bayern’s second goal and Mustafi failed to spot Alcantara’s run for the third.

  1. Arsenal will need to look for a leftback this summer

Whether it’s Gibbs or Monreal, the Gunners have been highly vulnerable to crosses from the left flank this season. Ancelotti obviously spotted that weakness as Costa sometimes joined Lahm and Robben on that flank to provide numerical superiority.

Gibbs got the nod over Monreal on Wednesday and struggled to stop crosses from Lahm, who led all players with 4 key passes. The English fullback was very lucky not to get sent off in the 61st when Robben pounced on a rebound to hit an effort that Gibbs deflected out with his hand. It looked worse than Hull midfielder Clucas’ deliberate handball. Basically, it should have been a red card and a penalty.

  1. Ospina has been brilliant this season

The Colombia goalkeeper saved Arsenal from defeat against PSG in the group stage and made 6 saves against Bayern to prevent a more embarrassing loss. Some were routine saves but three were really good saves. He kept out Martinez’s header with a reflex save in the 63rd, tipped Robben’s strike over the bar in the 81st and turned Costa’s curling shot around the post in the 82nd.

  1. Groundhog Day is no surprise

We should have expected that outcome since the Bavarians have better players than Arsenal in almost every position. The German side has also reached at least the semifinals in the past 5 seasons while the Gunners have been knocked out in the last 16 in the past 6 seasons. The tie is dead after the first leg just like in 2013 when Bayern won 3-1 in London and three years ago when the Bavarians won 2-0 at the Emirates stadium.

Arsenal vs. Hull: Gunners restore confidence with 2-0 win

The Gunners stopped the bleeding by defeating Hull 2-0 on Saturday to stay in the Top 4 of the Premier League. It was an average performance but restoring a bit of confidence was crucial after the recent losses to Watford and Chelsea.

arsenal-vs-hull

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

Arsenal created very little as Hull goalkeeper Jakupovic only made 3 saves compared to 4 for Cech. In fact, the Tigers were so well organized defensively that the Gunners couldn’t produce any through ball. Last month, Arsenal’s desire against weak sides like Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford was questionable. The Gunners showed a bit more commitment this time as they won more duels and more tackles than the visitors (15 tackles to 12 according to Squawka and 53.8% of the duels to 46.2% according to the club’s website).

However, what really made the difference was Sanchez and two handballs. Sanchez opened the scoring in the 34th minute by pouncing on a rebound for a close-range effort that Jakupovic deflected onto the Chile striker’s hand and the ball trickled into the net. Obviously, it was an unintentional handball since Sanchez had no time to react. But the Tigers were clearly frustrated by the referee’s decision to let the goal stand because the ball would have not found the net without Sanchez’s hand.

In stoppage time, Sanchez sealed the win by converting a penalty after Clucas received a red card for handling Perez’s goalbound header. Sanchez initially capitalized on a counterattack to round Jakupovic and cross the ball for Perez at the far post. It was interesting to see Jakupovic stay in the middle of the net when Sanchez took his penalty kick. I guess the Hull goalkeeper expected a Panenka from Sanchez.

One-man show

Sanchez is now the top scorer in the Premier League with 17 goals. If you add his 8 league assists, there’s no doubt that the team heavily depends on one player this season. Not as badly as when Van Persie scored 30 league goals in the 2011-12 season, but not far. The game sometimes looks like a one-man show. Sanchez had 4 of 6 shots on target, 3 key passes, 6 turnovers, and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 3 tackles and had 4 successful dribbles out of 5.

Wenger has tweaked Arsenal’s style of play this season to optimize Sanchez’s performance. Honestly, I’m not a big fan. Shifting Sanchez to the centerforward position creates space for Walcott and Ozil to run into. But it can also slow down play as Sanchez sometimes takes too many touches before releasing the ball and his hold-up play is poor. Sanchez dragged a 12-yard shot wide in the 16th and wasted another chance in the 27th by releasing Ozil down the left wing instead of feeding the onrushing Bellerin. He was harshly booked for diving in the 76th as TV replays showed Ranocchia seemed to clip his leg.

I was a bit surprised that the manager only made one change to the side that lost 3-1 to Chelsea a week ago with Gibbs replacing Monreal in the starting lineup. Walcott, Ozil and Iwobi had a poor work-rate at Stamford Bridge. Yet, Wenger did not give a chance to Perez, Welbeck or Giroud to start on Saturday.

The Watford ghost

Welbeck and Perez came off the bench to replace Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 82nd while Giroud was an unused substitute. Walcott and Iwobi did very little to justify the manager’s choices. Walcott and Iwobi had no key pass and no interception. Iwobi made 2 blocks and no tackle while Walcott made 1 block and won just 1 of 4 tackles. Their defensive awareness is still an issue. Markovic dispossessed Iwobi in the ninth minute to make a teasing cross for Niasse, who couldn’t connect with the ball. Four minutes later, in a play similar to Chelsea’s opening goal, Walcott failed to track Grosicki as Bellerin was pulled out of position by a run from Clucas. Grosicki crossed the ball for Niasse, whose header was tipped over the bar by Cech. Hull could have led 2-0 after 13 minutes just like Watford did.

In terms of end product, Walcott could only muster a tame low strike in the 63rd while Iwobi curled a shot over the bar in the 60th. Iwobi is only 20 years old, so it’s normal for him to struggle with consistency. Right now, Iwobi really looks like the youngster who hit a poor run of form in the first half of the season. What really puzzles me is why Perez hasn’t enjoyed more playing time. The Spaniard has great passing skills and a tremendous work-rate for a forward.

Ozil proved the biggest disappointment at the Emirates stadium. He made no tackle, no interception, no block, and had 6 turnovers, tied with Sanchez for the most by an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy is usually close to 90% but it dropped to 75.6% against Hull, a lower percentage than Iwobi, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott.

A younger version of Cazorla

The Germany playmaker is considered an automatic starter by Wenger but his current performances don’t justify that status. Ozil volleyed over the bar a cross from Sanchez in the 25th and wasted another chance with a poor touch in the 85th. He last scored in the league against Stoke in mid-October and his last assist came from a set-piece against Burnley on Jan. 22.

If the manager keeps his faith in Ozil for the Champions League match against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, he will have to take into account the poor defensive contribution from his highest paid player. In the No. 10 role, Ozil would give a lot of maneuvering room to Xabi Alonso. On a wing, Ozil wouldn’t track Lahm’s dangerous runs.

Besides Sanchez’s two goals, the main positive from Saturday’s game was the Ox’s solid performance in central midfield. At 23, the Ox is finally fulfilling his potential, almost looking like a younger version of Cazorla. He had no turnover and won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage of all the starting midfielders according to the club’s website. The Ox also had 1 key pass, 5 successful dribbles out of 5, and a decent distribution with 4 accurate long balls out of 10. Obviously, the Ox still has room to improve his defensive reading of the game as he made no interception and won only 1 of 5 tackles, according to Squawka. He was alert enough to cover Bellerin in the 30th and block a dangerous cross from Grosicki. The England international moved to the right wing when Elneny replaced Walcott in the 69th.

Hull targeting the fullbacks

Coquelin did most of the heavy lifting in midfield, winning 5 of 7 tackles and making 3 interceptions. There was a minor scare in the second minute when Coquelin allowed a Hull counterattack by diving in and missing the ball. It took a timely tackle from Koscielny on Grosicki to end the threat. Coquelin still has a tendency to give away cheap free kicks like when he fouled Markovic in the 40th. Those silly fouls could cost dearly against Bayern Munich.

At the back, the defenders still bore the scars of the losses to Watford and Chelsea as they seemed shaky at times. Koscielny had a poor game by his own standards, winning only 3 of 5 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels, compared to 4 of 4 tackles and 5 of 7 aerial duels for Mustafi. Markovic capitalized on an Iwobi turnover in the 51st to outpace Koscielny and make a cross for Niasse, who escaped Mustafi’s marking and chested the ball down to test Cech with a powerful strike. Three minutes later, Mustafi collided with Koscielny as Niasse headed the ball toward Markovic, who was fouled by Gibbs. Koscielny should have let Mustafi challenge for the ball on that play, while Gibbs was lucky to only get a yellow card as the last defender. I assume the referee thought Gibbs made a genuine attempt to play the ball.

The Tigers tested the Arsenal defense by making numerous crosses. They especially seemed to target the fullbacks. Markovic outjumped Gibbs in the 77th to meet a cross from Maguire, but Cech easily saved the tame header. Then Diomande got the better of Bellerin in the 86th but headed a corner over the bar. I was a bit surprised to see Bellerin in the starting lineup after the concussion he suffered against Chelsea. Hopefully, the medical staff took all the precautions. Bellerin played a one-two with the Ox in the 15th only to fire into the side-netting.

Filling Wenger’s shoes

There has been a lot of speculation about the manager’s future after the defeat at Stamford Bridge. I think the picture is pretty clear. The board won’t give Wenger a new contract if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4 because it would be the obvious sign that the club is regressing. Keeping Wenger at the club would create so much negativity among the fans that it could spill into the next season. Finding a younger manager with more energy and a new approach would be a wiser choice.

If the Gunners finish in the Top 4, the board has two options. The first option is based on the assumption that the board has already found a replacement. Wenger would step down at the end of this season and stay at the club either as a special advisor or sporting director to guide the new manager. I felt it was a mistake from Manchester United not to keep Ferguson involved when Moyes took over at Old Trafford. Ferguson didn’t want to be seen as interfering in Moyes’ work, but in the end the transition proved too brutal.

The second option is based on the assumption that the board hasn’t found the right match yet. In that case, the board could extend Wenger’s contract by a year or two to get more time in the search for his successor. It’s about doing the right thing and not having a new manager just for the sake of changing. There are very few managers who can fill Wenger’s shoes. His successor must be good at developing youngsters, must have some significant experience of European football, and must have a shrewd transfer policy because Arsenal can’t compete financially with the two Manchesters.

I disagree with what the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade is doing. It doesn’t make sense to bring negative banners inside the stadium when there are still 3 months of competition left. Making the atmosphere toxic and putting more pressure on the squad is like scoring an own goal. If the Gunners do their best and still finish outside the Top 4, then fair enough, Wenger should go. But the fans shouldn’t impact the outcome of games by instilling fear and anxiety in the players. Wenger’s departure should be a fair process decided on the pitch and not from the stands.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Now it’s all hands on deck to save season after 3-1 loss

Saturday’s 3-1 loss at Stamford Bridge confirmed that the title race is over for the Gunners as they trail Chelsea by 12 points in the Premier League. The chase for a Champions League spot could quickly turn into a mad scramble if the two Manchester clubs win on Sunday.

chelsea-vs-arsenal

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

Arsenal enjoyed 59% of ball possession because the Blues were happy to sit back and hit the visitors on the fast break. A quick look at a few stats may give the impression that it was an even contest. Chelsea mustered 6 shots on target compared to 5 for the Gunners. According to Squawka, the Blues won 15 of 45 tackles while Arsenal won 19 of 48. And according to the club’s website, the Gunners won 52.8% of their duels compared to 47.2% for Chelsea. So where should we look to understand why Arsenal trailed 3-0 in the second half?

First, we should notice that Chelsea capitalized on turnovers to score 3 goals. The Blues are basically a counterattacking team. To kickstart their transition game, they rely on interceptions. Chelsea made 17 interceptions compared to 10 for the Gunners, which helps explain why the Blues created 10 chances compared to 7 for Arsenal.

Second, Chelsea’s attacking players worked harder than their Arsenal counterparts. Costa, Hazard and Pedro combined to make 13 tackles, 4 interceptions and 3 blocks compared to 11 tackles, 0 interception and 1 block for Sanchez, Ozil, Iwobi and Walcott. That poor defensive contribution from the attacking players is the main reason why Arsenal couldn’t keep a compact shape.

Working as a unit

The stats are telling us that Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t fare too poorly compared to Kante and Matic. Coquelin and the Ox combined to win 5 of 14 tackles and make 1 interception and 9 blocks, while Kante and Matic combined to win 5 of 15 tackles and make 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. So why did we feel like the Gunners were outplayed in midfield?

The explanation is pretty simple. Arsenal didn’t work as a unit. When the Ox had the ball in the 21st minute, he was quickly surrounded by 3 Blues and lost possession as Coquelin and Ozil failed to come to his rescue. Coquelin made 10 tackles but won only 2 of them because he was swamped in midfield.

Many fans blamed Wenger’s team selection for the 2-1 defeat against Watford. The manager made three changes to the side that lost last Tuesday with Bellerin, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott replacing Paulista, Ramsey and Giroud in the starting lineup. The performance at Stamford Bridge showed that it’s really the team’s attitude that is preventing Arsenal from working as a unit. The Gunners have already conceded 28 league goals, 11 more than Chelsea. They are on pace to finish the season with 44 goals allowed, 8 more than in the previous campaign.

Improving defensive awareness

Chelsea’s opening goal in the 13th showed the lack of defensive awareness from the wingers. Some poor allocation of resources led Ozil, Iwobi and the Ox to surround Kante while leaving Moses unmarked on our left flank. In a perfect world, Ozil would have tracked Moses, Monreal would have marked Pedro, Mustafi would have kept an eye on Costa, and Koscielny would have been the sweeper (I initially thought Iwobi was in charge of marking Moses, but it was in fact Ozil for the simple reason that Iwobi was playing in midfield while Ozil started on the left wing). See the screen capture below.

chelsea-01aedWhat should have been the marking duties when Hazard finds Moses. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

Ozil’s lapse of concentration completely changed the marking duties, forcing Monreal to close down Moses, Koscielny to mark Pedro, Mustafi to track Hazard and Bellerin to handle Costa. See the screen capture below. Obviously, Costa vs. Bellerin is a bad matchup in the air.

chelsea-02edOzil’s marking mistake forces 4 Gunners to adjust tactically. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

When Pedro is about to make the cross, Walcott is 15 yards away from Alonso, who potentially has a free volley. See the screen capture below. Pedro picks out Costa, who outjumps Bellerin to send a header crash against the bar. The rebound falls into the path of Alonso, who runs in front of Walcott to beat Bellerin to the ball and head into an empty net.

chelsea-03edWalcott neglecting his defensive duties. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

You have to question Walcott’s professionalism on that play. Walcott lacked the desire to get ahead of Alonso for the rebound. The England international proved casual again in the 32nd when an unmarked Alonso squared the ball back for Pedro, whose first-time effort was spilled around the post by Cech.

Where’s the enforcer?

The second goal in the 53rd showed how Koscielny and Mustafi were badly exposed because of the poor protection provided by the midfielders. Hazard won a second ball and shrugged off Coquelin before toying with Koscielny to shoot past Cech. The way Hazard strolled from the halfway line to the Arsenal box speaks volumes about our soft midfield.

Arsenal used to boss the midfield at Highbury with Petit, Vieira and Gilberto. The Gunners have been missing that kind of enforcer since the move to the Emirates. Xhaka was supposed to be the answer to our midfield woes but he has struggled to curb his instincts, receiving 2 red cards and giving away 2 penalties in the Premier League.

Coquelin left Mustafi and Koscielny exposed a couple of times because he dived in and missed the ball. Mustafi was booked in the 23rd for crashing into Hazard while Koscielny was lucky to escape punishment in the 10th for a challenge from behind on Costa. Coquelin formed a great partnership with Cazorla in the past two seasons but I tend to think that Maitland-Niles is a more complementary option alongside the Ox, who won 68.8% of his duels, the highest percentage among the central midfielders according to the club’s website.

The Blues put the result beyond doubt in the 85th when Fabregas intercepted a sloppy pass from Cech to make it 3-0 with a lob. A clearance was obviously the safer option for Cech on that play.

Sanchez’s poor performance

Ozil often gets a free pass for his poor defensive contribution because of his ability to create chances. That kind of tactical gamble didn’t pay off against Chelsea as Ozil finished the game with only 2 key passes, the same number as the Ox who worked much harder. When Ozil makes no effort to win the ball back after losing possession, it can send a negative signal to his teammates. Why should they press and defend if Ozil, the highest paid player in the squad, is not doing it?

Sanchez is often praised for his work-rate but his performance on Saturday was really poor. He had no shot, no key pass, and was dispossessed 4 times. While Hazard and Pedro rose to the occasion for Chelsea, Ozil and Sanchez were outshone by the Ox, a second-choice player.

The Gunners had opportunities to level in the first half but were not as clinical as Chelsea. Ozil slipped a through ball to Walcott, who was let down by a poor first touch while making a run between Cahill and Luiz in the 35th. Then Paulista met a cross from the Ox for a free header in the 38th, but couldn’t beat Courtois from 8 yards. On the stroke of halftime, Ozil took a pass from Coquelin and cut inside to fire a low strike straight at Courtois.

Let’s get physical

Wenger replaced Coquelin with Giroud in the 65th and Walcott with Welbeck in the 69th. Welbeck headed a cross from Mustafi in the 78th to force a diving save from Courtois. In stoppage time, Giroud scored a consolation goal by heading a cross from Monreal into the bottom corner. The France striker was heavily criticized after his poor performance against Watford, but he got at Stamford Bridge the service he didn’t have last Tuesday.

Arsenal will need a strong performance against Hull next Saturday to prevent the atmosphere at the Emirates stadium from becoming toxic. You can bet the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade will be loudly heard if the Gunners can’t reach halftime with the lead. I think it would hurt the club if those fans call for the manager’s resignation. A wiser approach would be to wait for the last game of the season before staging any protest.

A finish outside the Top 4 would be the only scenario that would really put the board under pressure. Also, let’s remember that Manchester City and United may not finish ahead of Arsenal despite spending more money in the transfer window. Yet, Guardiola and Mourinho will still be in charge of their respective clubs next season.

The Tigers have probably seen how Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford created problems by turning the game into a physical contest. The Gunners should be mentally ready for a lot of duels. They will miss Xhaka through suspension and Ramsey through injury and maybe Bellerin, who suffered a concussion on the opening goal.

 

Arsenal vs. Watford: Title bid over after pathetic 2-1 loss

The Gunners had a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday to get back in the Premier League title race. A victory over Watford combined with Chelsea’s 1-1 draw at Liverpool would have narrowed the gap to 6 points. This was the perfect moment to make a statement. But Arsenal bottled it with an abject performance at the Emirates stadium, losing 2-1 to the Hornets to trail the Blues by 9 points in the standings. Even if the Gunners win at Stamford Bridge this Saturday, Chelsea will still have a six-point lead atop the league. That’s a massive gap knowing that Arsenal will have to face Liverpool, Tottenham and the two Manchesters in the next couple of months while the Blues are already done with two of those clubs.

arsenal-vs-watford

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

In the first half, Arsenal never looked like a team contending for the title. They didn’t create any chance and had no shot on target in what was arguably their worst performance of the season. It wasn’t a fitness issue since only Mustafi had started the FA Cup game against Southampton last Saturday. It’s just that the Hornets showed more hunger, making more interceptions (19 vs. 8) and more tackles (53 vs. 37) than Arsenal, according to Squawka. Anybody could see that the Gunners were not at the races with a flurry of stray passes and turnovers.

Arsenal gave away cheap free kicks in the first 10 minutes of the match. The third free kick led to the opening goal with a long-range strike from Kaboul that deflected off Ramsey to beat Cech in the 10th. Three minutes later, a poor throw-in from Paulista led to a Watford counterattack. Capoue intercepted the ball, ran past Coquelin and rounded Mustafi to be denied by Cech. However, the rebound fell into the path of Deeney who doubled the lead from close range. It was a basic 3v2 situation that got out of control because Coquelin and Mustafi failed to challenge Capoue. Did Coquelin and Mustafi defend too passively because they still had in mind Xhaka’s red card against Burnley?

Nobody to steer the ship

The fans punished the Gunners for their complacency by booing them at halftime. The scoreline could have been worse if Cech had not made a couple of decent saves, tipping Prodl’s header over the bar in the 34th and parrying Janmaat’s powerful strike in the 36th. The manager made a tactical adjustment during the break by yanking off Giroud to send on Walcott. Giroud was inefficient in his hold-up play as he was dispossessed 4 times. But he never really got any decent service from Ozil, Sanchez or Iwobi.

The club still hasn’t reached any agreement with Sanchez and Ozil in their contract negotiations. If they ask for more than £200,000 per week, I believe it wouldn’t be worth it to keep them. Sanchez and Ozil are the technical leaders of the team but they completely went missing in the first half. In fact, no player was able to steer the ship in the right direction after the Gunners got off to a poor start.

Sanchez finished the game with only 1 key pass, 0 of 5 shots on target, and was dispossessed 8 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. A risky dribbling attempt by Sanchez on the edge of the Arsenal box led to a turnover in the 26th but Capoue’s low drive did not trouble Cech.

Ozil made 6 key passes, the most for any player, but no through ball. He was let down by his nerves in the 43rd with a cross that sailed beyond Giroud and Sanchez. The Germany playmaker also had a decent goalscoring chance in the 55th but could only muster a tame half-volley straight at Gomes.

Iwobi leading the revolt

Iwobi and Perez were two players who showed more desire than Sanchez and Ozil. Iwobi had very little impact on the right flank in the first half, but his switch to the left wing in the second half led to Arsenal’s revolt. He held off a defender in the 50th to find Ozil, who slipped the ball to Walcott. The England international finally tested Gomes with a low strike. Five minutes later, Iwobi played a one-two with Oxlade-Chamberlain only to be denied by a diving save from Gomes. Iwobi then met a cross from Sanchez in the 57th for an awkward volley that trickled into the far corner to cut the Hornets’ lead.

Desperately chasing an equalizer, Wenger switched to a 4-2-4 formation by replacing Coquelin with Perez in the 67th. The Gunners had more presence in the box but still couldn’t crack the Watford defense. Perez proved our most dynamic player in the closing minutes. He cut the ball back for Paulista, who fired over the bar in the 76th. The Spaniard then rattled the bar with a powerful drive in the 85th. In stoppage time, Perez took a pass from Ozil to hit a tame effort straight at Gomes.

The manager started Coquelin and Ramsey in central midfield. Ramsey is mostly a box-to-box player and couldn’t really perform the role of a deep-plying playmaker that the Gunners need against average sides like Watford to set the tempo. He had to leave the pitch in the 18th after picking up a calf injury. Oxlade-Chamberlain, who replaced the Wales midfielder, worked his socks off, winning 2 of 7 tackles and having 2 successful dribbles out of 3. His partnership with Coquelin didn’t look as complementary as the duo he formed with Maitland-Niles against Southampton.

Rethinking the Ox’s position

Ramsey is having a nightmarish season with already three injuries so far. I believe the staff should use the Ox as a central midfielder until the end of the season to make up for the lack of options in that area. Cazorla may not return before April, Ramsey is now doubtful for the next couple of games, and Xhaka is still serving a four-game ban.

At the back, Paulista had the best stats amongst Arsenal defenders, winning 4 of 8 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels, and making 3 key passes, 3 interceptions and 1 block. Wenger would have probably started Bellerin at rightback if the Spaniard had not been sidelined by an ankle injury last month.

In the first half, I really felt that Arsenal’s season was unraveling. This is not the first time that the Gunners are dropping points against weak or average teams. The draws with Leicester, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth and the loss to Watford all point to the same pattern: the Gunners aren’t ruthless enough. That’s why they aren’t serious contenders this season. Will those results cost them a Top 4 finish, too?

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 5-0 win over Southampton

Walcott notched a hat trick on Saturday and Welbeck opened his account this season with two goals as the Gunners thrashed Southampton 5-0 in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Last November, Arsenal lost 2-0 to the Saints in the League Cup after fielding a weakened team. The Gunners learned their lesson and picked a stronger starting lineup while Southampton preferred to rest some key players.

  1. Perez is such an underrated player

Arsenal signed Perez last summer because of his goalscoring abilities. But the Spaniard has tremendous passing skills too. He hit 3 accurate through balls out of 4, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. He also displayed a fantastic work-rate by winning 4 tackles.

fa-cup-southampton

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

In the role of a false nine, Perez helped create two goals with some nifty link-up play. He fed Welbeck for the opening goal in the 15th minute. Initially, the play didn’t look dangerous when Maitland-Niles found Perez back to goal. But Perez created some space behind the Saints’ backline by dropping back and he gave them no time to regroup by making a first-time pass. You can see Perez’s intelligence on the pitch as he spots Welbeck’s run before receiving the ball from Maitland-Niles. Welbeck then played a one-two with Perez before setting up Walcott for the third goal in the 35th.

Perez struck a good understanding with Welbeck at St Mary’s stadium just like he was on the same wavelength with Ozil against Ludogorets and with Giroud against Preston and Bournemouth. He made a teasing cross for Welbeck in the fifth minute but the England international couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Perez also teed up Bellerin, who shot straight at the goalkeeper in the 53rd.

  1. Maitland-Niles is the revelation of the season

Much like Bellerin enjoyed a breakthrough season two years ago and Iwobi broke into the first team last season, Maitland-Niles is the youngster who is knocking on the door of the manager with a string of good performances.

At 19, Maitland-Niles is already showing some smart positional play. He helped set a good tempo on Saturday by taking very few touches. His sober and clean performance as a holding midfielder allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain to focus on his playmaking duties. Maitland-Niles won 6 tackles and made 3 interceptions, the most for any player in both categories according to whoscored.com. He also made 79 passes, the most for any player, an obvious sign that his teammates trust him on the pitch.

If Maitland-Niles keeps performing at this level, he could leapfrog Elneny in the pecking order just like Bellerin got ahead of Debuchy and Jenkinson. Maitland-Niles stood on his feet to win a tackle inside the Arsenal area in the 44th. Knowing that Xhaka got sent off for some reckless challenges, it must be good news for the manager to see that Maitland-Niles does not dive in.

His reading of the game also saved the Gunners a couple of times. Long in the 51st and Sims in the 74th got the better of Mustafi, but each time Maitland-Niles covered the Germany international to either clear the danger or make a crucial block. He also came to Bellerin’s rescue when the Spaniard lost possession in the 56th.

Maitland-Niles seems more ready than Holding or Reine-Adelaide to join the first team. Holding still needs to iron out basic mistakes like taking unnecessary risks in his own half while Reine-Adelaide is a bit too soft for the Premier League despite showing his class with some stunning dribbling moves. The French teenager was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any Arsenal player.

  1. The Ox is a solid option in central midfield

Oxlade-Chamberlain really looked comfortable in the deep-lying playmaker role. He made 3 key passes, more than any other player, and slipped 2 accurate through balls out of 3. His passing range also helped the Ox hit 7 accurate long balls out of 8.

The former Southampton player created the second goal in the 22nd with a ball over the top for Welbeck, who ghosted past Stephens to beat Lewis. The Ox also played Perez clean through on goal with a long ball in the 89th, but the Spaniard was denied by Lewis. His delivery on set pieces was a mixed bag. The Ox wasted a free kick and a corner by overhitting the ball. On a more positive note, Mustafi met an Ox free kick in the 29th to head wide from six yards.

Some fans may wonder why the Ox is not playing more often in midfield. Competition with Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka is one obvious explanation. But another reason is the time it took for the Ox to mature as a player. In the past seasons, inconsistency combined with a high turnover rate and an average decision-making have prevented the Ox from claiming a starting spot in midfield.

The Southampton game was pretty much an audition for central midfielders since Coquelin and Ramsey are the only two players available now. Xhaka is serving a four-game suspension, Elneny is on national duty with Egypt and Cazorla may not return before April.

The Ox and Maitland-Niles formed a complementary duo. However, we shouldn’t get our hopes high too quickly. The Southampton midfield was poor. Also, there’s no guarantee that Maitland-Niles or the Ox will perform as well with a different partner in central midfield. For the next FA Cup game, Wenger could test again the tandem formed by the Ox and Maitland-Niles or experiment with a Ramsey-Maitland duo or an Ox-Coquelin duo.

  1. Sanchez is always hungry

Somehow, the manager couldn’t keep Sanchez on the bench for the entire match. The Chile striker replaced Welbeck in the 64th and showed his hunger by making two assists. He capitalized on a mazy run from the Ox in the 69th to cut the ball back for Walcott, who made it 4-0 with a low strike into the far corner. Sanchez then collected a long ball from Perez in the 84th and kept two defenders busy before picking out Walcott, who sealed the game with a first-time finish.

  1. Gibbs is not taking his chance

Monreal has had his ups and downs this season. Yet, Gibbs has not been able to snatch the starting spot at leftback. Monreal has made 20 starts in the Premier League compared to just 2 for Gibbs. Saturday’s game showed why. Gibbs gave away a cheap free kick on the edge of the box by tripping Long in the 32nd. The Saints then capitalized on silly turnovers from Gibbs in the 45th and 76th to start counterattacks.

  1. The Premier League is still the top priority

Wenger clearly had Tuesday’s game against Watford on his mind as he left regular starters like Cech, Koscielny, Coquelin, Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud out of the squad while giving some playing time to youngsters like Reine-Adelaide and Maitland-Niles and to second-choice players like Ospina, Holding, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Perez and Welbeck. The Gunners need a victory over Watford to stay in the title race.

  1. Wenger started serving his four-game ban

The manager watched the match from the stands and it made no real difference since Wenger is not a control freak like Conte or Guardiola. Bould proved just as quiet on the bench as the French manager usually is. On paper, Wenger mostly makes an impact on the game with the starting lineup, tactical adjustments at halftime and substitutions in the second half. The touchline ban did not affect Wenger’s influence on the team, especially since the Gunners were leading 3-0 at the end of the first half.

I thought the 10-game ban suggested by some pundits was simply ridiculous. Pardew was hit with a two-game suspension for pushing a linesman in 2012. A four-game ban looked like standard punishment for the small shove on Taylor in the 2-1 win over Burnley combined with the red card for dissent. It wouldn’t have made sense to punish Wenger with a 10-game ban knowing that Pardew was suspended for 7 games in 2014 for headbutting a player. In fact, it would have made the FA look bad to hit Wenger with the same 10-game ban Suarez got for biting Ivanovic in 2013. Comparing a shove with a bite, really?

  1. Mertesacker is back in the squad

Mertesacker sat on the bench at St Mary’s stadium after recovering from a knee injury he picked up last summer. The German centerback is a leader in the dressing room but I’m not sure he should be on the bench for a Premier League game. Mertesacker’s lack of pace makes the Gunners vulnerable on the fast break and prevents them from playing a high defensive line efficiently. Paulista’s decision-making can be dodgy, but I still think he would be a more valuable centerback as long as he plays alongside Koscielny. Putting Mertesacker on the bench would also mean slowing down Holding’s development.

  1. Improving the chemistry in the dressing room

There are a couple of days left before the end of the winter transfer window. It’s unlikely that the club will sign a new player this month. However, the Gunners should take advantage of that window to make some adjustments in the squad and get rid of grumpy players who want more playing time.

Debuchy is the big thorn in Arsenal’s side. A loan seems the most realistic option given his age and wages. Jenkinson is of no use either for the team as he has slipped behind Bellerin, Paulista and Maitland-Niles in the pecking order at rightback. Crystal Palace and Arsenal have agreed a deal but the move has stalled because of Jenkinson’s salary demands. The club might also consider loaning out Akpom and Reine-Adelaide to speed up their development.