Humiliating 4-1 loss in Europa League final shows lack of quality in Arsenal team

   The Gunners will miss out on the Champions League for the third season in a row after losing 4-1 to Chelsea in the Europa League final on Wednesday. They were badly outplayed in the second half and will keep struggling against the top teams if there is no significant investment in the squad this summer.

Europa League finalPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   In the first half, the Gunners did a decent job defensively but failed to capitalize on some good situations offensively. The double threat of Lacazette and Aubameyang forced Azpilicueta and Emerson to drift inside and play in a narrow back four, giving more space to Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Unfortunately, the Arsenal wingbacks lacked accuracy with their final ball, depriving Lacazette and Aubameyang of good service.

   When Chelsea took the lead early in the second half, it became a different story. The Blues had more counterattacking opportunities and the Arsenal defense looked much more vulnerable. The Gunners also showed their mental weakness by conceding 3 goals in a 16-minute span. It’s not the first time this season that they have collapsed after conceding the opening goal. The Wolverhampton game was another recent example.

   Down 3-0, Emery threw caution to the wind and shifted from a 3-5-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Monreal and Torreira with Guendouzi and Iwobi in the 66th minute. Iwobi played on the left wing while Aubameyang moved to the right wing. In the end, what made the difference was that Chelsea had a matchwinner with Hazard while Lacazette and Aubameyang couldn’t even find the net. The Blues also wanted it more as they ran 101.59 kilometers compared to 95.94 for Arsenal, according to the UEFA statistics.

Losing a step

   I have no issue with the team selection. On paper, this was the best starting lineup, knowing that Ramsey was injured while UEFA couldn’t guarantee Mkhitaryan’s safety in Azerbaijan. For his last game, Cech produced a decent performance. The Czech goalkeeper prevented Chelsea from taking the lead in the first half by parrying Emerson’s diagonal shot in the 34th and palming away Giroud’s low strike in the 39th. He limited the damage in the second half by saving Hazard’s curling shot in the 75th and turning Willian’s low strike around the post in the 78th.

   On the other hand, Wednesday’s game made clear that Koscielny and Monreal have lost a step. Giroud is often mocked for his lack of pace but he still beat Koscielny to the ball to head in Emerson’s cross for the opening goal in the 49th. Monreal also lost a key duel in the 60th. Pedro escaped Monreal’s marking to double the lead with a first-time effort. Sokratis performed better than Monreal and Koscielny but he was guilty on the last goal. Hazard ran past Sokratis in the 72nd to volley Giroud’s cross past Cech.

   Sokratis won 3 of 3 tackles and led all players by winning 6 of 7 aerial duels and blocking 3 shots, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Koscielny won 1 of 3 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels and made 1 block while Monreal won 1 of 1 aerial duel and made 0 tackle and 1 block. The alternatives at centerback were unappealing with the error-prone Mustafi and the sluggish Lichtsteiner.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety

   The Gunners struggled to cope with Chelsea’s high press. Turnovers from Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang led to goals in the 60th and 72nd, respectively. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player. He definitely needs to work on his technique. A couple of times, his first touch was shockingly poor. The academy graduate was involved in the first 3 goals. Maitland-Niles failed to close down Emerson for the opener in the 49th. He then tried to dribble his way out of trouble in the 60th only to lose possession. Hazard recovered the loose ball to set up Pedro for the second goal. Finally, Maitland-Niles lost his composure in the 64th and gave away a silly penalty by shoving Giroud from behind. Hazard converted the subsequent spot kick to make it 3-0.

   Kolasinac had less defensive work than Maitland-Niles, in great part because Pedro was less threatening than Hazard. However, Kolasinac’s offensive contribution was disappointing. Despite 2 key passes, Kolasinac’s technique often let him down in the final third. He finished the game with a passing accuracy of 72.1%, the lowest percentage for any player.

   In midfield, it could only be an uphill battle from the moment Ramsey and Mkhitaryan were not available because Ozil and Iwobi don’t have their work-rate. Emery trusted Ozil to mark Jorginho out of the game like Ramsey did in the 2-0 win some four months ago. There were two problems with that idea. First, Ozil followed Jorginho and tried to cut the supply lines but he simply doesn’t have Ramsey’s impact. Defensively, Ozil made 0 tackle and 1 interception. Offensively, Ozil had 0 shot and 1 key pass. The German playmaker also led Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. And second, Chelsea had a Plan B. Because of the focus on Jorginho, Kovacic enjoyed more freedom and led Chelsea players with 64 passes despite playing only 75 minutes.

Iwobi’s cameo

   Ozil lived up to his reputation as a talented player going missing in the big games. You just have to compare with Hazard’s performance to understand what a clutch player is. Hazard scored twice and made an assist. In hindsight, maybe Iwobi would have been a better option than Ozil in the playmaking role. In his 27-minute cameo, Iwobi scored a goal and made 3 key passes. Iwobi pounced on a Chelsea clearance in the 69th to volley into the far corner from 25 yards. Ozil was replaced by Willock in the 77th. The academy midfielder played in the Ramsey role, making penetrative runs instead of pulling the strings like Ozil. Willock should have scored in the 84th when he played a one-two with Lacazette but his curling shot sailed wide of the far post.

   Playing in front of the back three, Torreira and Xhaka had contrasting fortunes. Torreira produced a disappointing performance, making 2 interceptions and winning only 2 of 7 tackles, whereas Jorginho made 1 interception and won 7 of 10 tackles. It was a difficult game for Torreira because he had to help Xhaka in midfield while also marking Hazard when the Belgium international dropped back.

   Xhaka almost had a decent game compared to Ozil and Torreira. He led all players with 68 passes and hit 12 of 14 accurate long balls, according to whoscored.com. His long-range effort flirted with the bar in the 28th. However, Xhaka’s work-rate wasn’t good enough to help Arsenal match Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic in midfield. Xhaka made 0 interception and won 2 of 2 tackles.

Aubameyang’s off day

   Lacazette and Aubameyang have carried the Gunners in this competition but they really lacked support on Wednesday. The Chelsea defense had a relatively quiet evening. Would Ramsey’s presence have made a difference in the final third?

   After walking on water against Valencia, Aubameyang had an off day in Azerbaijan with 0 of 4 shots on target and 0 key pass. Aubameyang sent a 15-yard volley wide in the ninth minute, hit a cross beyond Lacazette in the 52nd, had a turnover that led to the final goal in the 72nd, and completely fluffed his shot in stoppage time.

   It was quite ironic that Arsenal sold Coquelin, Walcott and Giroud last year to finance the signing of Aubameyang because Giroud played a key role in Chelsea’s victorious campaign. Giroud finished the season as the top scorer in the Europa League with 11 goals. In Azerbaijan, Giroud crucified his former team by scoring a goal, making an assist and winning a penalty. The Gunners got more speed with Aubameyang but they also lost a dominant player in the air. The Blues sometimes used Giroud as a target man to evade Arsenal’s high press. Giroud won 3 of 7 aerial duels, while Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win only 1 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

A deep-rooted problem

Lacazette performed a bit better than Aubameyang with 3 key passes and 1 of 3 shots on target. The French striker had 2 good situations in the first half. Aubameyang fed Lacazette, who dribbled past Kepa in the 18th. Kepa was a split second late and clipped Lacazette’s foot. Despite a VAR review, no penalty was given. Four minutes later, Torreira hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, who held off Azpilicueta but couldn’t control the ball. Lacazette finally tested Kepa in the 83rd but the Spanish goalkeeper made the save.

   As a knee-jerk reaction, some fans wanted Emery to leave the club after this embarrassing defeat. I think it would be unfair for Emery, who did better than Wenger both in the Premier League and the Europa League. It would also make things worse for the club because that kind of instability would put off prospective managers and players.

   Anyway, Emery’s departure this summer wouldn’t help the club because the real issue is the board. Dismissing Emery won’t solve a deep-rooted problem, which is the owner’s lack of ambition and his failure to invest in the squad. An average manager with a great squad can win titles. Think of Di Matteo with Chelsea in 2012. But a great manager with an average squad won’t win anything. Think of Benitez at Newcastle.    

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Burnley vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang on fire in 3-1 win

Too little, too late.

   The Gunners defeated Burnley 3-1 on Sunday to finish 5th in the Premier League, one point behind Spurs and two behind Chelsea. The loss to Crystal Palace and the draw with Brighton, both at the Emirates stadium, were the turning points in Arsenal’s season. A victory against either of these teams would have been enough to secure a Top 4 spot.

Burnley vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Now the only way to qualify for next season’s Champions League is to win the Europa League. Emery was aware of the priorities as he made 9 changes to the side that knocked Valencia out of the European competition with only Monreal and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. Koscielny, Kolasinac, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka and Lacazette were on the bench while Sokratis, Torreira and Ozil were not even in the squad.

The Gunners enjoyed 60% of ball possession and had 6 shots on target to 5 for the hosts. They wasted some good situations with a poor final ball, in part because the numerous changes had a negative impact on the fluency of the team’s passing game. For instance, Aubameyang overhit his cross for Nketiah in the 78th minute, and Iwobi played the ball behind an unmarked Mkhitaryan in stoppage time.  

   Aubameyang could have been left on the bench to avoid any injury before the Europa League final, but finishing as the top scorer in the Premier League was one of his ambitions, so Emery let him lead the line. He nearly opened the scoring in the fourth minute. Aubameyang made a run to the near post to meet Mkhitaryan’s free kick but his header hit the woodwork. Three minutes later, Aubameyang chased a long ball from Mustafi to fire an angled strike that Heaton parried.

Aubameyang’s 31 goals

   The opener came from a mistake by the Clarets in the 52nd. Cork missed his backpass to Mee and the ball fell to Aubameyang, who beat Heaton with a low strike. Aubameyang doubled the lead in the 63rd by volleying Iwobi’s cross into the far corner. The Gabon striker then had a few opportunities to notch a hat trick. Iwobi made a teasing cross in the 72nd but Aubameyang didn’t anticipate and failed to make contact with the ball. A minute later, Mkhitaryan made another offering. From 4 yards, Aubameyang missed the target with a sliding effort.

   The Gunners really tried hard to give him a hat trick but Aubameyang failed to connect with a cross from Elneny in the 79th. In stoppage time, Aubameyang took a pass from Iwobi and worked some space only to shoot over the bar from 12 yards. Despite those misses, Aubameyang still finished the Premier League season as the joint top scorer with 22 goals, tied with Salah and Mane. Aubameyang is also the fourth Gunner to score at least 30 goals in all competitions in a single season since the move to the Emirates stadium. Adebayor, Van Persie and Sanchez achieved that feat before Aubameyang.

   This season confirmed Aubameyang’s successful adaptation to the Premier League. He sometimes gets criticized for missing some big chances, but his electric pace and movement inside the box are a headache for most defenders. Emery can only hope that Aubameyang will maintain that level of form until the Europa League final.  

The inconsistency of the attacking midfielders

   Mkhitaryan has been inconsistent this season and it really showed in his performance on Sunday. Playing on the right wing, Mkhitaryan finished the game with 2 key passes and 2 of 4 shots on target, but no goal and no assist. His delivery on set pieces was especially poor. Mkhitaryan couldn’t beat the first defender with a free kick on the stroke of halftime. He then sent a cross straight into Heaton’s arms in the 49th.

   Assuming Emery relies on a 3-5-2 formation for the Europa League final, that means only one attacking midfielder will start for Arsenal against Chelsea. Because of Ramsey’s hamstring injury, Emery will only have the choice between Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi, who have all lacked consistency in the final third this season. Mkhitaryan and Ozil are a slightly bigger goal threat than Iwobi. However, if Emery’s priority is to mark Jorginho out of the match, then Mkhitaryan is the more natural choice because of his work-rate. Mkhitaryan won 1 of 2 tackles, and made 3 interceptions and 4 recoveries against Burnley, compared 2 of 3 tackles won, 0 interception and 1 recovery for Iwobi, according to the club’s website.

   Iwobi led all players with 5 key passes. Despite 2 assists against Burnley, the overall impression this season is that Iwobi has stagnated under Emery. His finishing is still poor and his reading of the game is not good enough. It’s no coincidence if Iwobi was not involved in the best team goals scored by Arsenal. His work-rate is also far from the level required for a Top 4 club. Iwobi’s failure to close down Lowton led to a couple of chances for Burnley.

Loaning out Willock and Nketiah?

   Benefiting from the rest given to Ozil and Lacazette, academy player Willock made his second start in the Premier League. Willock impressed against Blackpool in the FA Cup, but there’s quite a gap between facing a third-division team and playing in the Premier League. Obviously, Willock is not the finished product yet. He will need to work on his close control because youngsters have more time and space in the Premier League 2 and often show too much of the ball. Willock led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He will also have to play more with his head up. The English teenager often needed too much time on the ball before finding a decent pass. At the same age, Fabregas already knew what were his passing options before even receiving the ball.

   Willock showed his potential on a couple of plays. His shot on the turn was blocked for a corner in the 10th and his low curling shot sailed wide on the stroke of halftime. However, the lack of end product was a real issue. Willock had 0 shot on target, 0 key pass and 0 successful dribble out of 2. His work-rate was also disappointing with just 1 tackle and 1 recovery. I don’t think Willock was lazy but he clearly struggled with his positional play. If you’re not in the right spot, you’re unlikely to win the ball or make a challenge.

   Emery replaced Willock with Nketiah in the 62nd. The young striker made an impact by scoring the last goal in stoppage time. His cross-shot took a deflection off Lowton before rolling through Heaton’s legs. The staff should consider loaning both Willock and Nketiah to a Championship side next season because they are too good for the Premier League 2 and need to develop.  

Vulnerable on crosses (again)

   In central midfield, Guendouzi played alongside Elneny. Surprisingly, Elneny had more influence in the final third with 3 key passes, compared to 0 key pass for Guendouzi. However, they had relatively similar defensive stats with Guendouzi making 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 9 recoveries, compared to 0 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries for Elneny, according to the club’s website.

   So far, Guendouzi is the same type of player as Elneny. Both are utility midfielders because they don’t have the same defensive impact as ballwinners and can’t match the offensive impact of deep-lying playmakers or box-to-box players. The only difference between Elneny and Guendouzi is that Elneny is more conservative in his passing while Guendouzi wins slightly more duels. This has been a positive season for Guendouzi, who has managed to make the leap from the French second division to the much tougher Premier League. Next season, Guendouzi will have to be less casual. He gave the ball away in the 17th and 29th and was lucky to win a foul after recklessly dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 75th.

   The Clarets mostly threatened on crosses and set pieces. Their consolation goal came from a cross in the 65th. Leno initially palmed away a deflected shot from Gudmundsson, but the rebound fell to Hendrick, who made a cross for Wood. The Burnley forward could only head the ball toward the far post, where Gudmundsson got hold of the ball and picked out Barnes who headed in. The Gunners lost 4 duels on that play: Monreal failed to block Hendrick’s cross, Koscielny lost his aerial duel with Wood, Gudmundsson reacted more quickly than Lichtsteiner, and Barnes beat Mustafi to the ball.

Mavropanos looking out of his depth

   Some fans sweated a lot when they saw Mavropanos starting alongside Mustafi at centerback. Mustafi produced a solid performance, leading all players by winning 8 of 11 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. The German defender also won 2 of 2 tackles and 76.9% of his duels and made 2 blocks, 1 interception and 5 recoveries. Mustafi made a timely challenge after Guendouzi gave the ball away in the 29th. A minute later, Mustafi prevented Burnley from opening the scoring by blocking Lowton’s close-range effort. The only blemish in Mustafi’s performance was his passing accuracy of 74.2%, much lower than Koscielny’s 97.1%.

   It has been a rough season for Mavropanos, who has played only 4 games after needing several months to recover from a groin injury. To be honest, Mavropanos looked out of his depth. When Taylor made a cross in the fifth minute, Mavropanos completely missed his header, allowing Barnes to have a free header. Fortunately, the Burnley striker missed the target. Mavropanos made the same mistake again in the ninth minute as Barnes connected with a cross from Lowton for a half-volley that Leno palmed away.

   The Clarets had a penalty shout in the 20th when Mavropanos wrestled with Barnes inside the area. Burnley nearly took the lead in the 28th. Wood made a run in behind Mavropanos to chase a long ball from Lowton and hit the base of the post. Burnley then capitalized on a Mavropanos turnover in the 30th to launch a counterattack. Mavropanos’ injury in the 31st was almost a blessing in disguise because there seemed more troubles coming his way. The Greek defender is not yet ready for the Premier League. In his 30-minute performance, Mavropanos made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 0 recovery. There are big question marks about his reading of the game. The club should loan him out in the summer.

Singing the blues in Baku

   Emery replaced Mavropanos with Koscielny in the 34th. The French veteran struggled again in the air, winning only 2 of 7 duels. Koscielny had an injury scare in the 50th when Wood shoved him into the advertising hoardings. That was similar to Arnautovic’s dangerous shove that led to Debuchy’s shoulder injury. Yet, the referee didn’t award any foul. There were other examples of leniency from the referee, who ignored Westwood’s shove on Guendouzi in the eighth minute even though the ball was already gone. And Hendrick was not even booked for pulling back Willock in the 61st.  

   The Gunners only have one game left to play this season: a Europa League final against Chelsea in Azerbaijan. It would definitely be a successful season if they manage to lift the trophy. The Gunners are in good hands since Emery is the most successful manager in that competition. I assume Emery will plan the training sessions so that the players hit peak form on May 29.

 

 

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

   The Gunners will play a European final for the first time since 2006 after sinking Valencia 4-2 in the second leg of the Europa League semifinals on Thursday. The Spanish side enjoyed 58% of ball possession and had 18 goal attempts to 10, but Arsenal proved more clinical with 6 shots on target to 3, according to the UEFA statistics.

Valencia vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that won the first leg 3-1 with Torreira and Monreal replacing Guendouzi and Mustafi in the starting lineup. The 3-5-2 formation gave no real protection to the wingbacks, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Occasionally, Aubameyang and Lacazette tracked back the Valencia fullbacks when Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles were busy with the wingers, Guedes and Wass.

   The Gunners had a sluggish start like in the first leg. Quite a few Arsenal fans became nervous when Valencia opened the scoring in the 11th minute because the Spanish side could have qualified with a 2-0 victory. But Aubameyang’s equalizer in the 17th calmed the nerves. Lacazette virtually put an end to Valencia’s hopes by making it 2-1 in the 50th. Because of the away-goal rule, the Bats needed to win by a three-goal margin to qualify.

  1. A telepathic understanding

   Signing Aubameyang has been the best legacy of Wenger’s last season at the club. His understanding with Lacazette has played a key role in Arsenal’s scoring form. There were flashes of their telepathic understanding in the first half. The equalizer came from a goal kick by Cech in the 17th. Paulista, a former Gunner, headed the ball up in the air. Lacazette outjumped Paulista to win the second ball and knock it down. Aubameyang anticipated the bounce and ran past Lacazette to chest the ball forward before drilling a snapshot into the bottom corner. The duo swapped roles in the 39th. Aubameyang charged down the right flank to set up Lacazette, whose curling shot clipped the near post.  

  1. Aubameyang rose to the occasion

   On Thursday, Aubameyang arguably produced his most complete performance in an Arsenal shirt. He notched a hat trick, had 3 successful dribbles out of 6, made 1 interception, and won 4 of 8 aerial duels and 1 of 2 tackles, according to whoscored.com. The Gabon striker also had a hand in Lacazette’s goal, making a sliding tackle to dispossess Gaya in the 50th before Torreira found Lacazette on the edge of the box.

   Aubameyang gave the Gunners a 3-2 lead in the 69th by making a run to the near post to convert Maitland-Niles’ low cross. In the closing minutes, Aubameyang swapped passes with Guendouzi before letting the ball run past him and into the path of Mkhitaryan, who played Aubameyang in with a first-time pass. From a tight angle, Aubameyang fired into the roof of the net to seal the win. The Valencia defense struggled to cope with Aubameyang’s movement. Aubameyang lost his marker in the 25th but headed Xhaka’s corner over the bar. Then Aubameyang took a pass from Ozil in the 32nd only to hit a tame drive straight at Neto.    

  1. Lacazette was motivated

   Before joining Arsenal, Lacazette played many Europa League games with Lyon but never managed to reach the final. In his last season at the French club, Lacazette was knocked out by Ajax Amsterdam in the semifinals. Lacazette scored Arsenal’s second goal in the 50th, dancing around 2 defenders before burying the ball into the far corner on the turn. He produced an outstanding all-around performance like Aubameyang, making 1 interception, having 4 successful dribbles out of 6, and winning 3 of 8 aerial duels and 1 of 1 tackle. In the last minute of stoppage time, Lacazette received a yellow card for his involvement in a brawl with Paulista.      

  1. Why did Ozil start in an away game?

   Ozil was anonymous at the Mestalla stadium. He was not involved in any of the four goals. It was a strange choice by Emery to start Ozil, knowing his poor performances on the road. Ozil’s work-rate was so weak that Parejo had plenty of time and space to pull the strings in midfield. The German playmaker looked unhappy when Emery replaced him with Mkhitaryan in the 62nd, but Mkhitaryan did more in his 30-minute cameo than Ozil in his 61-minute performance.

   Mkhitaryan won 1 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 1 assist, while Ozil won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 interception and 0 assist. In the final against Chelsea, it would be suicidal to give so much freedom to Jorginho. Arsenal defeated the Blues 2-0 in the Premier League because Ramsey marked Jorginho out of the match. In Baku, Mkhitaryan would be a better choice than Ozil to press the Chelsea midfielder.  

  1. What happened to Torreira?

   Torreira is not performing at the same level as in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder was involved in both goals scored by Valencia. As you can see on the screen capture below, Torreira failed to cover Maitland-Niles on the right flank when Neto released the ball to start a counterattack. Instead of marking Guedes to his right, Torreira made the wrong decision and ran toward Rodrigo, who was already marked by Koscielny in the center circle. Rodrigo spread the ball wide to an unmarked Guedes, who bought a bit of time before playing the ball back to Rodrigo. The Valencia striker then made a cross for Gameiro, who opened the scoring with a sliding effort at the far post. The Gunners initially had a favorable 3v2 situation, but Torreira’s poor decision-making forced Sokratis to close down Guedes and led to a 2v2 situation.

Valencia M11ed.jpgTorreira should have marked Guedes on the right flank. (Photo credit: BT)

   Parejo took advantage of Torreira’s passivity to feed Wass in the 58th. The Denmark international cut the ball back for Rodrigo, whose shot hit Gameiro. Benefiting from a lucky bounce, Gameiro bundled the ball over the goal line to level the game at 2-2. To his credit, Torreira made the assist for Lacazette’s goal, but his defensive work was unconvincing. Torreira was dribbled past twice, tied with Maitland-Niles for the most by an Arsenal player, and won just 1 of 3 tackles, compared to 2 of 3 tackles for Valencia ballwinner Coquelin. I believe the club will need to sign another defensive midfielder this summer because Torreira and Xhaka don’t give enough protection to the defense.  

  1. Maitland-Niles grew into the game

   The academy graduate has often felt intimidated or inhibited in away games this season. It was no surprise to see Valencia target him. Maitland-Niles gave the ball away twice in the fourth minute. His missed interception in the 14th led to a scoring chance for Rodrigo, whose shot was inadvertently blocked by Gameiro. In the 43rd, Gaya even tried to win a penalty by knocking the ball forward before initiating contact with Maitland-Niles’ leg. But the referee was not conned and booked Gaya for diving. Maitland-Niles felt more confident in the second half and outpaced Guedes down the right flank in the 69th to set up Aubameyang for Arsenal’s third goal. Still, Maitland-Niles will have to work on his passing accuracy because he finished the game with a percentage of 63.6%, the lowest among outfield starters.    

  1. Monreal is looking his age

   At 33, Monreal is past his prime, unfortunately. He lost the key duel against Gameiro for Valencia’s opener in the 11th and he played Gameiro onside for the French striker’s second goal in the 58th. Other defenders were also guilty. Koscielny failed to block Rodrigo’s cross for the first goal while Kolasinac failed to track Wass for the second. Monreal worked hard, leading all players with 5 interceptions, but the club definitely needs younger and better options at leftback.

Arsenal vs. Brighton: Gunners throw away lead to finish outside Top 4

  The Gunners showed mental weakness in the clutch. Their Top 4 hopes came to an end after they drew 1-1 with Brighton on Sunday. Theoretically, Arsenal could still finish level on points with Spurs in the Premier League, but there’s no way that the Gunners could overturn a goal difference of eight. Now the only question left is: Who will finish sixth between Arsenal and Manchester United?

Arsenal vs. Brighton.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   A month ago, the Gunners still had the Top 4 race in their hands after they defeated Newcastle to move into third place. But they have blown their best chance of qualifying for the Champions League by having a poor run of form at the worst moment of the season, earning only a point from their last 4 league games.

   It is quite ironic that Arsenal paid tribute to the departing Ramsey with a guard of honor at the Emirates stadium. Ramsey is the longest-serving Gunner in the current squad. He will join Juventus this summer after 11 years at Arsenal. It requires a lot of mental toughness to return from a double leg fracture and score the winning goal in two FA Cup finals despite several hamstring injuries. Ramsey is exactly the kind of player that the Gunners need: mentally tough and performing in the clutch. At 28, Ramsey still has at least 4 years left at the top. Yet, the Arsenal board decided to withdraw his contract offer.

   Calling for Emery’s sacking would be a knee-jerk reaction to this disappointing run of form. I don’t think it would help the club. First, because the Gunners have done slightly better than last season. Emery kept Arsenal in the chase for Champions League spots until May while the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race by March under Wenger. And the Gunners can still reach the Europa League final whereas they got knocked out in the semifinals a year ago. We are very far from Moyes’ poor tenure at Old Trafford where the defending champions finished seventh in 2014.

Slow transition

   Second, what kind of signal would Arsenal send to future candidates by firing Emery after a decent season? Arsenal would be seen as an unstable club where managers must succeed in their very first season. Even Guardiola won nothing in his first season at Manchester City.

   And third, the main culprit for the slow transition and lack of competitiveness is the Arsenal board. Financially, Emery had limited ressources to rebuild the squad last summer. Liverpool and Manchester City spent more than £50 million to sign top centerbacks like Van Dijk and Laporte and more than £40 million to sign top midfielders like Fabinho and Bernardo Silva. Quality has a price but the club wasn’t willing to match the investments made by City, Liverpool or even Chelsea. So the Gunners spent £17 million for Sokratis and £26 million for Torreira. What’s the point of changing of manager after a year if the transfer kitty will limit the scope of the rebuilding effort?

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that defeated Valencia last Thursday with Leno, Monreal, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Mkhitaryan replacing Cech, Koscielny, Kolasinac, Guendouzi and Maitland-Niles in the starting lineup. On paper, it looked like a 4-2-2-2 formation, but it often morphed into a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield because Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka while Mkhitaryan filled the hole on the left.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M44ed.jpgArsenal’s diamond midfield. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Seagulls preferred to sit deep instead of pressing high up the pitch. The advantage of that plan is that you have a solid defensive shape. The drawback is that you invite pressure. Brighton winger Jahanbakhsh gave away a penalty with an awkward challenge on Monreal in the eighth minute. There was minimal contact and even the referee had a doubt for a split second. Aubameyang converted the penalty by firing into the bottom corner to give Arsenal the lead.

Xhaka’s silly challenge

   I mentioned the issue of mental weakness because the Gunners were too passive after the opener. They created no scoring chance between the 9th and the 36th and allowed the Seagulls to get back into the game. Arsenal had a couple of chances before halftime but Ryan pulled some fine saves. At the restart, the Gunners were again very quiet in the final third with no scoring chance between the 46th and the 68th.

   Some teams are ruthless and just pile on the pressure. But this Arsenal team lost its intensity and got punished in the 60th. Brighton capitalized on a poor pass from Mkhitaryan to launch a counterattack. Bernardo’s clearance fell to March, who sprinted down our right flank before rounding Xhaka. The Switzerland midfielder panicked and pulled March back. March lost his balance and fell to the ground. The referee awarded a penalty to the Seagulls and gave a yellow card to Xhaka for that cynical foul. Murray equalized by sending Leno the wrong way.  

   It was a silly challenge from Xhaka because March could only cut the ball back and Mustafi was in a very good position to block the pass. Looking at the big picture, Brighton’s chances of scoring on that play were low because Sokratis was marking Murray, who was the only Seagull inside the Arsenal area, while Monreal had an eye on Knockaert on the edge of the box. Again, some Gunners simply lack mental toughness and keep making blunders under pressure. The Gunners won’t have a solid spine as long as they rely on error-prone players like Xhaka and Mustafi.

   I thought Emery’s substitutions came really late. And they looked pretty much like a punishment for the three players involved in the Brighton equalizer. Kolasinac, Iwobi and Guendouzi came off the bench to replace Lichtsteiner, Mkhitaryan and Xhaka in the 77th.

Aubameyang’s tally

   Mkhitaryan got some stick from the fans for missing a short pass to Lichtsteiner on the play that led to the equalizer. But I thought Mkhitaryan had more impact in the final third than Ozil. The Armenia international nearly opened the scoring in the second minute with a 19-yard strike that hit the base of the post. Then he tested Ryan with a long-range effort on the stroke of halftime. Just before his replacement, Mkhitaryan set up Aubameyang for a big chance in the 74th and fed Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Ryan in the 75th. As usual, Mkhitaryan’s work-rate was better than Ozil’s with 1 interception and 5 recoveries compared to 1 interception and 3 recoveries for the German playmaker, according to the club’s website.

   Although Arsenal enjoyed 71% of ball possession, Ozil didn’t have the influence that fans can expect from him. He led all players with 3 key passes, but one was from a corner and another was a short pass for a long-range strike. Ozil’s best contribution of the game was a cross for Aubameyang, whose 10-yard shot was turned around the post by Ryan in the 39th. Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi have lacked consistency this season, but Mkhitaryan has one advantage over the other two attacking midfielders: his work-rate. Mkhitaryan can press high up the pitch like Ramsey but you wouldn’t trust Ozil and Iwobi to do that job.

   Aubameyang raised his tally to 20 goals in the Premier League this season, trailing only Salah who has 22 goals. He had opportunities to score the winner, first volleying Xhaka’s corner over the bar in the 68th, and then meeting a cross from Mkhitaryan in the 74th only to miss the target from 8 yards. In the closing minutes, Kolasinac also made a pinpoint cross but Aubameyang failed to make any contact for a close-range header.  

Emery making the same mistake as Wenger

   Arsenal’s offense struggled in the air again. Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to win only 2 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. It was so bad that Lacazette even managed to head Aubameyang’s cross into touch in the 87th. Lacazette’s best chance came on the stroke of halftime when he pounced on a rebound and had his 18-yard effort headed out by Dunk. He also forced a comfortable save from Ryan with a strike on the turn in the 90th. Although Lacazette didn’t find the net, he showed outstanding work-rate with 2 tackles and 6 recoveries.

   In midfield, Xhaka cost his team the win with his blunder in the 60th. He also gave the ball away twice in the opening minutes. It’s quite puzzling that both Wenger and Emery have relied on Xhaka to be Arsenal’s holding midfielder. His passing range and his delivery can sometimes make the difference. Xhaka finished the game with 3 key passes, including 2 from corners. Mustafi met a corner from Xhaka in the 36th for a diving header that Ryan saved at the near post. But in the end, Xhaka’s lack of mobility and poor decision-making far outweigh his positive contributions.

   Playing on the right side of a diamond midfield, Torreira had a decent game but his performance didn’t match the high standards he set in the first half of the season. Torreira won 2 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. He was also dribbled past 3 times, tied with Brighton midfielder Stephens for the most by any player. Torreira may have not any proper rest this summer if the Uruguay team goes deep in the Copa America.

Sokratis’ 12 yellow cards

   The main problem with a diamond midfield is that it can make the attack too narrow unless the fullbacks roam forward to provide the width. Lichtsteiner and Monreal were no threat on the flanks as they combined to have 0 key pass and 0 accurate cross. Brighton midfielder March exposed Lichtsteiner’s lack of pace a couple of times. In the 26th, Lichtsteiner failed to close down March, who created a scoring chance with a cross for Murray. Then March rounded Lichtsteiner in the 30th only to shoot into the side-netting. At least, Lichtsteiner didn’t make a silly foul on that play like Xhaka. Lichtesteiner also received a yellow card for dissent in the 64th.

   In the heart of the defense, Mustafi refrained from making any high-profile blunder while Sokratis lost a couple of key duels. Murray beat Sokratis to the ball in the 26th for a downward header that Leno saved. Then March rounded Sokratis to fire an angled strike in the 51st. Sokratis broke a record in the 14th by diving and earning his 12th yellow card in the Premier League, the most for an Arsenal player in a single season.

   Leno salvaged a point for the Gunners by saving March’s header in the 85th. Iwobi left March unmarked at the far post on that play. Leno’s distribution is usually reliable but on Sunday the German goalkeeper had two poor moments, having a pass intercepted by Jahanbakhsh in the 26th and kicking the ball straight to Bissouma in the 33rd.

   The Gunners next visit Valencia on Thursday before facing Burnley on Sunday for their last Premier League game of the season. There’s no doubt that Emery will field his best team against the Spanish side because the Europa League has become the only way for Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League. If Emery is bold enough, he will play a few youngsters against Burnley because players like Nketiah, Willock and Saka will certainly show more desire than the regular starters.

 

 

 

Arsenal vs. Valencia: A few thoughts on the 3-1 win

   The Gunners took a big step toward qualifying for the Europa League final by defeating Valencia 3-1 in the first leg of the semifinals on Thursday. They showed more desire than against Leicester and had a bit of luck as the Spanish side could have led 2-0 after 15 minutes.

Arsenal vs. ValenciaPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   Emery relied on a 3-5-2 formation with Ozil playing behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Lacazette initiated the equalizer in the 18th minute by playing Aubameyang in. The Gabon striker cut inside Roncaglia before slipping the ball to Lacazette, who scored into an empty net from 17 yards. Then Lacazette lost Roncaglia inside the box to head Xhaka’s cross for a 2-1 lead in the 25th. Neto diverted Lacazette’s bouncing header onto the post and palmed the ball out after it entirely crossed the line. In the last minute of regulation time, Aubameyang met Kolasinac’s cross to seal the win with a volley from a very tight angle.

  1. Arsenal’s version of Cole & Yorke

   The telepathic understanding between Lacazette and Aubameyang reminds me of Manchester United’s strike partnership of the late 1990s. They both produced a good all-around performance, making 2 key passes each and winning 1 of 2 tackles each, according to whoscored.com.

   Lacazette definitely feels more comfortable with continental football, which is less physical than the Premier League. He could have notched a hat trick with better finishing in the second half. Aubameyang rounded Paulista in the 63rd to make a cross for Lacazette, who produced an air shot from 6 yards. Four minutes later, a long-range strike from Kolasinac fell into the path of Lacazette, whose 5-yard effort was saved by Nieto.

   Aubameyang didn’t get off to a great start. He missed the target with an awkward shot in the 23rd when a pass to an unmarked Maitland-Niles was the better option. Then Aubameyang connected with a cross from Xhaka in the 33rd for a volley that bounced over the bar. But Aubameyang grew into the game, worked his socks off and was rewarded with the last goal.

  1. The Gunners struggled to defend set pieces (again)

   Arsenal will need to train harder on set pieces for the second leg because Valencia created 2 chances from corners and 1 chance from free kicks. The Spanish side should have opened the scoring in the eighth minute when an unmarked Rodrigo redirected Parejo’s free kick into the path of Garay, who fired over the bar from close range. Maitland-Niles failed to track Rodrigo’s run on that play. Three minutes later, Valencia finally found the net. An unmarked Rodrigo headed a corner toward Diakhaby, who nodded in. Sokratis lost the first duel with Rodrigo while Xhaka lost the second duel with Diakhaby. Cech is a keeper who can command his area, yet he proved powerless against Diakhaby, who beat him to a corner in the 69th. Fortunately, Diakhaby could only flick the ball on and Mustafi cleared the danger.    

  1. The Arsenal defense was shaky but survived

   Every Arsenal defender had a poor moment. Sokratis was lucky not to get booked for a late challenge on Diakhaby in the sixth minute. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick with a clumsy challenge on Soler in the 35th. Koscielny lacked focus in the 73rd when Gameiro made a run in behind to collect Parejo’s through ball and be denied by Cech. But Maitland-Niles arguably made the worst blunder in the 15th after Cech parried Parejo’s long-range strike. The rebound fell to Maitland-Niles, who headed the ball toward Cech. Guedes pounced on the tame backpass only to flick the ball over the bar.

  1. Kolasinac was let down by his technique

   The Bosnia-Herzegovina international had a passing accuracy of 71.4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters according to whoscored.com. He gave the ball away twice in the opening minutes and wasted good situations with a poor delivery. Out of the 6 crosses Kolasinac made, only one was accurate, but it proved the assist for Aubameyang’s goal.  

  1. A flawed midfield

   Emery played Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in central midfield. I think it’s a less complementary partnership than the duo formed by Xhaka and Torreira because Xhaka is not a natural defensive midfielder and therefore needs a ballwinner to cover him. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times and led all players with 4 fouls. Despite those flaws, Xhaka was still able to pull the strings in midfield and led all players with 3 key passes and 5 accurate crosses, including those for Lacazette’s goal in the 25th and Aubameyang’s chance in the 33rd.

   I expect Emery to start Torreira alongside Xhaka for the second leg because Guendouzi’s work-rate on Thursday was not good enough. Guendouzi won 0 of 1 tackle compared to 2 of 5 tackles for Xhaka and 2 of 2 tackles for Ozil, according to whoscored.com. Emery must probably be managing Torreira’s playing time because he sent on the Uruguay midfielder for Guendouzi in the 58th.

 

Leicester vs. Arsenal: Top 4 hopes in tatters as Gunners self-destruct

   The Top 4 race is virtually over for the Gunners after they suffered a third straight defeat on Sunday, losing 3-0 at Leicester. In hindsight, the home loss to Crystal Palace has been the turning point in Arsenal’s Premier League campaign. The Gunners would still have their fate in their hands if they had beaten the Eagles.

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

   Arsenal Women have been the only ray of light at the club this season. The ladies clinched the Super League title on Sunday by winning 4-0 at Brighton. That’s quite a contrast with the lads, who are miles away from contending. The Gunners trail Manchester City by 26 points and Liverpool by 25 points. There’s a massive rebuilding job required this summer, not even to turn Arsenal into a contender, but simply to have a shot at a Top 4 finish next season.

   A quick look at the standings tells you where the priority should be. The Gunners have scored 69 goals and conceded 49 goals in 36 Premier League games under Emery. The most depressing part is that they are actually overperforming, both defensively and offensively. Arsenal should have scored only 59.56 goals and conceded 53.66 goals, according to understat.com.

   Those are worse stats than under Wenger. The Gunners scored 74 goals and conceded 51 goals in 38 Premier League games last season. The irony is that they were slightly underperforming then, according to understat.com, calculating that Arsenal should have scored 72.27 goals and conceded 48.75 goals. As long as the club doesn’t fix those defensive issues, the Gunners will still be closer to 6th place than 2nd.

Down to 10 men

   Emery made 3 changes to the side that lost at Wolverhampton with Kolasinac, Mustafi and Aubameyang replacing Monreal, Koscielny and Ozil in the starting lineup. Surprisingly, the Spanish manager opted for an attacking 4-4-2 formation with Aubameyang and Lacazette up front, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings, and Xhaka and Torreira in central midfield.  

   Leicester outplayed the Gunners with 67% of ball possession and 12 shots on target to 1 for the visitors. If you think the scoreline was harsh, keep in mind that Leno was Arsenal’s best player and made 9 saves. The Arsenal midfield looked completely spineless without Ramsey. Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi are not link players like Ramsey and don’t have his impact in the final third.

   The Foxes dominated the game because they had an extra man in midfield. So it was up to Lacazette or Aubameyang to drop off and help Xhaka and Torreira. Or maybe Emery should have tweaked his system by playing Mkhitaryan in the hole and Aubameyang on the right wing.

   The Gunners had reasonable hopes of earning a point until Maitland-Niles’ sending off for a second yellow card in the 36th minute. I thought the first yellow card in the eighth minute was a bit harsh. Maitland-Niles definitely made a foul when he collided with Chilwell. The problem was the referee’s interpretation. The referee certainly thought that the Arsenal rightback made no genuine attempt to play the ball and only wanted to kill a dangerous counterattack. If we give Maitland-Niles the benefit of the doubt, maybe he miscalculated the angle of his run.

   The second yellow card was not controversial in itself. Maitland-Niles lost his footing after his first touch and made a late challenge on Maddison while trying to win the ball back. That’s a booking in any game. The referee showed his consistency by booking Ndidi in the 13th and Pereira in the 63rd for similar fouls. Maitland-Niles thought his ejection was harsh because he only made 2 fouls. Somehow, his inexperience cost his team on Sunday, because a Sagna or a Monreal would have been more careful.

Koscielny’s twilight

After Maitland-Niles’ ejection, Mkhitaryan played as a rightback until halftime. Emery replaced Iwobi with Koscielny before the start of the second half, moving Mustafi to the rightback position. Leicester finally opened the scoring in the 59th when Tielemans made a deep run to nod Maddison’s cross into the bottom corner. Torreira failed to close down Maddison on that play while Koscielny couldn’t climb high enough to clear the cross. That goal forced Emery to add more density in midfield by sending on Guendouzi for Mkhitaryan in the 73rd.

The Foxes doubled the lead with a direct ball from Schmeichel to Vardy in the 86th. Koscielny missed his interception while Sokratis lost the foot race with Vardy, who hit the bar with his lob. However, Vardy pounced on the rebound to head home. The Gunners gave up in the last minute of stoppage time, making Pereira look like Maradona. The Leicester rightback ran past Guendouzi, Kolasinac and Koscielny to set up Vardy for a tap-in.

Koscielny was the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense in the past few seasons, but he has lost a step physically. There were moments on Sunday when Koscielny really looked sluggish. He was dribbled past twice, tied with Lacazette and Guendouzi for the most by an Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. So Koscielny is relying on his reading of the game to compensate. The French centerback won a crucial tackle to prevent Vardy from shooting in the 57th and intercepted a through ball for Vardy in the 61st. In his 50-minute cameo, Koscielny even managed to make more interceptions (2) and recoveries (7) than Sokratis and Mustafi combined (2 interceptions and 6 recoveries), according to the club’s website. The desire is still there but the physical ability is waning.

The offside trap that didn’t work

The Arsenal defense was wary of Vardy’s pace, especially since Emery wanted to play a high defensive line. The first warning came in the seventh minute when the Gunners struggled to defend a set piece. Evans met Chilwell’s free kick for a header that Leno saved. On that play, Mustafi played Evans onside while Sokratis failed to mark the Leicester centerback. Mustafi played Vardy onside again in the 27th. Maddison took Vardy’s pass to test Leno with an angled strike. Five minutes later, Vardy beat the offside trap with a run in behind Sokratis. The England international chased a long ball from Albrighton to send a lob over the bar. What worked so well against Napoli failed against Leicester. Vardy also beat the offside trap in the 42nd, running past Mustafi to fire a shot that Leno turned around the post.

Mustafi didn’t produce a disastrous performance like against Crystal Palace but he looked shaky at times. He dived in and gave away a cheap free kick in the second minute. Then Mustafi collided with Leno in the 14th for what should have been a routine catch for the German goalkeeper. Under pressure, Mustafi’s passing accuracy dipped to 50%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis barely did better with a passing accuracy of 53.9%. Koscielny, who only played in the second half when the Gunners were down to 10 men, showed his cool with a passing accuracy of 82.6%.

Sokratis lost a couple of key duels that led to scoring chances for Leicester. The Greek defender was pulled out of position by Vardy in the 24th and missed his tackle. The ball fell to Maddison who hit a tame shot straight at Leno. Four minutes later, Ndidi outjumped Sokratis to meet a corner for a header that Leno palmed away. In stoppage time, Barnes evaded a tackle from Sokratis to bear down on goal but was denied by Leno.

The card collector

The icing on the cake was Sokratis’ 11th yellow card in the Premier League for an obstruction on Maddison in the 64th. Only two players have collected more yellow cards in the league this season than Sokratis: Capoue (13) and Holebas (12), who both play for Watford. That may not sound like a lot but Sokratis has only made 24 Premier League appearances compared to 32 for Capoue. Obviously, Sokratis leads Arsenal players for yellow cards, followed by Xhaka (9) and Mustafi (8). To put those numbers in context, Fabinho leads Liverpool players with 6 yellow cards while the Manchester City player with the most yellow cards is Fernandinho with 5.

On the flanks, Kolasinac worked hard, leading Arsenal players with 9 recoveries while also winning 1 of 4 tackles and making 1 interception, according to the club’s website. However, Kolasinac let Albrighton have too much influence on the game as the Leicester midfielder made 5 crosses and had 3 key passes. Signing a leftback should be a priority this summer since the Gunners have struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank in the past few seasons. On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles paid for his inexperience. Some fans don’t like him at rightback but I’d rather play him in that position next season than extend Lichtsteiner’s contract or hire a new rightback.

In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka looked pedestrians. They worked their socks off but were no match for the Foxes. Xhaka made 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries while Torreira made 3 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. Leicester ballwinner Ndidi beat those stats with 5 tackles, 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries in the first 45 minutes before Rodgers replaced him with the more attacking Barnes at halftime.

Iwobi missing a big chance

Torreira is nowhere near the level he showed in the first half of the season. Is Torreira playing hurt or is it a case of physical burnout? Signing a defensive midfielder should be a priority for the club this summer. Xhaka lacks the mobility for the job. He gave away a free kick by holding Maddison in the seventh minute and fouled Ndidi to stop a counterattack on the stroke of halftime. The Switzerland international was also late a couple of times to block shots from the edge of the box.

Emery relied on Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to feed Lacazette and Aubameyang. The two attacking midfielders were in search of redemption after their poor performance against Wolverhampton. Yet, Mkhitaryan made 0 key pass and showed some poor work-rate with 0 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 4 recoveries in 72 minutes. He failed to close down Chilwell in the 14th as the Leicester leftback made a dangerous cross. Chilwell had enough freedom to finish the game with 3 crosses and 3 key passes. Iwobi’s work-rate was even worse than Mkhitaryan’s with only 1 interception and 1 recovery in his 45-minute cameo. At least, Iwobi had an impact in the final third with 1 key pass and 1 shot on target.

It could have been a different story if Iwobi had converted Arsenal’s only big chance of the game in the 35th. Hitting Leicester on the fast break, Aubameyang played Iwobi clean through on goal. From 10 yards, Iwobi mustered a tame effort straight at Schmeichel. In that kind of situation, you can bet that Ramsey would have scored. Iwobi clearly hasn’t worked on his finishing. He still has that tendency to shoot toward the middle of the net instead of aiming at the corners. Emery should introduce more competition for the winger positions next season, especially since Nelson, Nketiah, Saka and Smith-Rowe have better finishing skills than Iwobi.

Walking a tightrope

That wasn’t a game for Arsenal strikers. Starved of service, Aubameyang took 0 shot despite contributing offensively with 2 key passes. Lacazette led the line but missed the target with his 3 goal attempts. His best chance came in the 23rd when Iwobi made a cross from the left flank. From 12 yards, Lacazette volleyed wide with his right foot. He would have had a better chance of catching the frame with his weaker left foot.

Sunday’s game also highlighted the main weakness of the Arsenal frontline: they don’t have a target man. Leicester centerbacks were dominant in the air with Maguire winning 5 of 6 aerial duels and Evans winning 5 of 8, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win only 2 of 11 headers. Lacazette also led all players with 5 turnovers. The few times the Gunners tried to relieve the pressure with long balls, Aubameyang and Lacazette simply couldn’t beat Maguire and Evans in the air.

Mathematically, the Gunners are still in the Top 4 race. But on current form, it’s hard to see how Arsenal could get more than 4 points from their last two games against Brighton and Burnley. Even if we assume that the Gunners finish the season with 70 points, Chelsea would just need a win against either Watford or Leicester to pip them to the post. And Manchester United could also leapfrog Arsenal with 6 points from their last two games against Huddersfield and Cardiff.

The Leicester game gave the impression that the players have prioritized the Europa League over a Top 4 finish. It wouldn’t be something new. Arsenal did the same last season under Wenger. The Gunners will next play Valencia in the Europa League on Thursday and Brighton in the Premier League on Sunday. The players are walking a tightrope. Another defeat could bring back the toxic atmosphere under Wenger. Are they still fit to wear the shirt?

 

 

Wolverhampton vs. Arsenal: Top 4 finish out of Gunners’ hands after 3-1 loss

  The Gunners produced their worst performance of the season on Wednesday, conceding 3 goals in the first half of a 3-1 defeat at Wolverhampton. After the embarrassing loss to Crystal Palace last weekend, Arsenal found a way to sink even further as a Top 4 finish is now out of their hands. The Gunners trail Tottenham by 4 points and Chelsea by 1 point with just 3 rounds left in the Premier League.

Wolves vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   The clean sheets against Napoli and Watford gave the impression that Arsenal had fixed their defensive problems. But the 6 goals conceded in the last two games show that the Gunners have been struggling for consistency since December and the end of their 22-game unbeaten run.

   In his post-match news conference, Emery made one telling admission. He said: “We didn’t do the game plan like I wanted.” At the start of the season, Emery wanted his team to play out from the back and press high up the pitch. That style of football requires a lot of movement and energy. I think Emery is just finding out how physically demanding the Premier League can be.

   Klopp also learned his lesson in his first season at Liverpool. Because the Reds were inconsistent at that time, Klopp understood that he couldn’t implement gegenpressing in every game and therefore needed to play in a more economical way when his players were jaded. The Reds are not pressing frantically in every game this season because they can rely on Salah, Mane and Firmino to score goals and they have improved their defense by signing Van Dijk and Alisson.

Poor final ball

   At Molineux stadium, the Gunners seemed to be running out of gas even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that lost to Crystal Palace with only Lacazette, Ozil, Koscielny and Leno retaining their starting spots. Were the players unconsciously prioritizing the Europa League over a Top 4 spot in the Premier League?

   Offensively, Arsenal enjoyed 70% of sterile possession with only 1 shot on target compared to 3 for the hosts. In fact, Rui Patricio had no save to make until the last 15 minutes. Ramsey’s absence was badly felt in the final third where the lack of movement played into the hands of the Wolverhampton defense. It’s hard to see how Arsenal could win on the road without Ramsey. The Gunners also lacked penetration because they have no dribbler who can slalom past defenders in a tiny space. Liverpool and Manchester City can beat teams parking the bus because they have dribblers like Salah, Mane, Sterling, Sane and Bernardo Silva.

   Arsenal tried to stretch the Wolverhampton defense with combination play on the wings but it didn’t really click between Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles on the right flank. The Gunners managed to find an opening on the left flank in the 17th minute when Monreal played a one-two with Iwobi but Doherty cynically pulled the Spaniard back on the edge of the box.

   The few times Arsenal had some good situations, the final ball simply lacked accuracy. Mkhitaryan delivered a poor final ball in the eighth minute, Ozil’s cross for Monreal went out of play in the 39th, Iwobi played the ball behind Mkhitaryan in the 40th, and Ozil missed his pass to Lacazette in the 70th.

Wengerian frailties

   Wolves showed more commitment, winning 15 of 25 tackles and making 20 interceptions while Arsenal only won 6 of 13 tackles and made 4 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. The hosts also exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on set pieces and counterattacks -defensive frailties belonging to the Wenger era.

   The first warning came in the 25th. An unmarked Boly redirected Bennett’s throw toward Jimenez, who flicked the ball over the bar. Three minutes later, Monreal gave away a dangerous free kick with a cynical foul on Jonny. Neves curled the subsequent set piece into the bottom corner to give Wolves the lead. The players in the wall failed to do their job: they turned their backs instead of attempting to block the shot.

   Wolverhampton’s second goal was even more comical. Playing a short corner in the 37th, Moutinho swapped passes with Jonny as only Torreira tried to close them down. When Ozil finally decided to run toward Jonny, it was already too late. Doherty met Jonny’s cross to head home for a 2-0 lead. Leno was harshly credited with an error for trying to claim the ball. Because Doherty had a free header from 7 yards, Leno had almost no chance of making a save by staying on his line. That’s how Benteke scored for Crystal Palace a few days ago. In my eyes, it would have been an error if an Arsenal defender still had a chance to beat Doherty in the air, but that wasn’t the case. The real issue on that play was Sokratis’ decision-making. The Greek centerback stood 2 yards behind his teammates and played Doherty onside.

   The hosts also caused damage on the counterattack. Jota outpaced Xhaka in the 26th to feed Jonny, whose leg was clipped by Monreal. Four minutes later, Xhaka failed to close down Jonny, who played Jimenez in. From a tight angle, the Wolves striker fired over the bar. On those two plays, Xhaka was too sluggish to break the counterattack while Torreira was stranded up the pitch. Xhaka made the blunder that led to the third goal on the stroke of halftime. He gave the ball away to Jota, who treated Sokratis like a vulgar training cone before firing a low diagonal strike past Leno. Sokratis should have either made a tackle ot stayed with Jota.

Overrun in midfield

   The Arsenal defense was again carved wide open in the second half. Dendoncker blocked Xhaka’s pass and ran past the Switzerland international to take Doherty’s return pass before releasing Jimenez down our left flank in the 55th. Jimenez wasted the scoring chance by overhitting his cross for Jota. In the hope of stopping Wolverhampton’s counterattacking threat, Emery shifted to a back three in the 58th by replacing Torreira and Mkhitaryan with Guendouzi and Kolasinac. That did not prevent Wolves from hitting Arsenal on the fast break in the 68th. Jonny picked out an unmarked Jimenez, who missed the target.

   All these counterattacks clearly show that the Gunners were overrun in midfield. First, the work-rate of the Arsenal midfielders was not good enough. Neves, Moutinho and Dendoncker combined for 32 defensive actions while Xhaka, Torreira, Guendouzi and Ozil only combined for 21 defensive actions. Wolverhampton basically played with one extra man in midfield. Here are the stats for each midfielder according to the club’s website:

  • Neves: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Moutinho: won 4 of 4 tackles, 3 blocks, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Dendoncker: made 1 interception, 8 recoveries.
  • Xhaka: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 block, 3 recoveries.
  • Torreira (57 minutes): made 1 interception, 7 recoveries.
  • Guendouzi (37 minutes): made 3 recoveries.
  • Ozil: made 4 recoveries.

   The second reason for the Gunners’ inability to stop counterattacks was Emery’s tactical configuration in midfield. Xhaka played as the holding midfielder while Torreira was in a more advanced position as a box-to-box player. It’s just as flawed as Sarri’s decision to play Jorginho behind Kante at Chelsea. If you are a rational manager, you want your best defensive midfielder to shield the defense and break up plays, not a sluggish deep-lying playmaker.

Mental block on the road

   Xhaka lacks defensive awareness. He was completely out of position in the 21st when Dendoncker controlled a long ball from Neves to find Doherty on our left flank. Doherty set up Moutinho, who curled a shot wide. And more importantly, Xhaka simply lacks the mobility necessary for the No. 6 role. Jota too easily ran past Xhaka in the 31st before Koscielny blocked his run on the edge of the box. We saw how vulnerable the Arsenal defense was when Arteta played as the holding midfielder. Emery shouldn’t be making the same mistake by relying on Xhaka for defensive duties.  

   Torreira has struggled for form since December. On Wednesday, he lost 50-50 balls that he would have won in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder made a late challenge on Moutinho in the second minute, received a yellow card in the 45th for a two-footed lunge on Neves, and led all players with 3 fouls. At 23, Torreira is still a young player who can improve his reading of the game. He should have played in a deeper position to help out Xhaka in midfield.  

   Emery trusted Ozil in an away game and the move backfired. Ozil was ineffective in the final third and untidy in possession, leading all players with 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. Pundits and fans often talk about Arsenal’s mental block on the road, and Ozil is the player who embodies that issue. Emery also relied on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi to feed Lacazette. Their work-rate was even poorer that Ozil’s. Mkhitaryan only made 1 recovery in 57 minutes and Iwobi barely did better with 2 recoveries in 70 minutes. Looking at the big picture, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi have one thing in common: they have been inconsistent this season, very far from the standards set by attacking midfielders like Silva and Eriksen. Emery replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 71st. The academy player showed more desire and end product than the anonymous Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.    

Don’t leave Lacazette on his own

   Up front, Lacazette showed again why he’s not a centerforward, but a second striker. The France international feels much more comfortable when he can make runs off Aubameyang, who was not in the squad because of a sinus procedure. On Wednesday, Lacazette led the line on his own and spent most of his time dropping back and running away from goal. That obviously made Ozil’s job more difficult because the German playmaker loves having a target in front of him like a quarterback with a receiver.

   Sokratis hit a long ball for Lacazette in the 14th, but Lacazette doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace and the ball bounced out of play. Lacazette doesn’t have Giroud’s strong hold-up play either. Back to goal, Lacazette took passes in the 22nd and 48th and lost possession. Lacazette’s performance improved when Emery sent on Nketiah in the 71st. Nketiah got the better of Boly in the 73rd and made a cross for Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Bennett. Then Guendouzi won possession in the 79th and fed Lacazette, who had another effort blocked. In the end, Arsenal’s consolation goal came from a set piece in the 80th. Sokratis outjumped Neves and Jonny at the far post to head in a corner.  

   The Gunners next visit Leicester on Sunday. They should expect the same kind of treatment since the Foxes perform well against the top clubs and capitalize on counterattacking opportunities. A defeat could virtually end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes if the Blues win at Old Trafford.