Arsenal vs. Norwich: Aubameyang leads Gunners to 4-0 win

   Aubameyang scored 2 goals and made 1 assist in the 4-0 demolition of Norwich on Wednesday. The Gunners earned their 3rd straight win in all competitions, but the result doesn’t change much in the Premier League standings. They are still 6 points outside the Top 6 and won’t qualify for the Champions League. However, finishing this season on a high is important to prepare the next season in the best conditions.

Arsenal vs. Norwich 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Arteta made 4 changes to the side that knocked Sheffield United out of the FA Cup last weekend with Nelson, Aubameyang, Ceballos and Bellerin replacing Pepe, Saka, Willock and Maitland-Niles in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager gave Pepe and Saka a break while rewarding Ceballos for his good performance against the Blades. Among the fans, the main talking point was the absence of Guendouzi and Ozil from the matchday squad. Their attitude on the training ground must be really poor if they can’t even be on the bench.

   Arsenal played in a flexible 3-4-3 system that morphed into a 4-4-2 formation when Tierney roamed forward as Aubameyang drifted inside to join Lacazette up front. Arteta shifted to a 3-5-2 formation when the Canaries had more ball possession in the second half, replacing Nelson with Willock in the 58th. Just like they did against Southampton, the Gunners sat back to absorb the pressure and hit Norwich on the fast break.

   The scoreline was a bit flattering. Arsenal enjoyed 52% of ball possession and had 13 goal attempts to just 8 for the Canaries. Defensively, the Gunners deserved their clean sheet. Norwich had no big chance and could only shoot from outside the box. Offensively, the quality of the passing game is still a work in progress. Arsenal managed just 7 key passes compared to 6 for the visitors. In fact, the Gunners even scored 3 goals without a key pass.

Elite striker

   Aubameyang reached a milestone by opening the scoring in the 33rd minute. Krul took a back pass from Godfrey and attempted a Cruyff turn in front of Aubameyang, who dispossessed the Norwich goalkeeper to slot into an empty net for his 50th career goal in the Premier League. Aubameyang smelt blood again in the 67th when Drmic made a sloppy pass to Godfrey. The Arsenal captain robbed the ball to slip it past Krul for a 3-0 lead. This was Aubameyang’s 19th goal in the Premier League this season. The Gabon striker is now the joint top scorer in the league and is still on course to win a second straight Golden Boot.

   With a bit more luck, Aubameyang could have notched a hat trick. Krul palmed away his curling shot in the 10th. Then Aubameyang outjumped Aarons to meet a cross from Nelson in the 19th but his header lacked power to trouble Krul. Besides his 2 goals, Aubameyang also created chances. He teed up Xhaka for the second goal in the 38th and made a pinpoint cross for Lacazette, who lacked confidence for a volley in the 66th and completely missed his first touch while attempting to control the ball.

   If the club must sell either Lacazette or Aubameyang to fund transfers this summer, then Aubameyang is the striker that Arsenal should keep. Lacazette is 29 while Aubameyang is 31, but Aubameyang is a more clinical finisher and will still be faster than Lacazette in a couple of years. With 51 goals in 79 Premier League games, Aubameyang averages 0.65 goal per game. Only elite strikers reach that kind of ratio. To put things in context, Henry averaged 0.68 goal per Premier League game compared to 0.68 for Aguero, 0.63 for Van Nistelrooy, 0.59 for Shearer and 0.53 for Wright.  

Arsenal values

    Keeping Aubameyang is also important to preserve the values of this club. When Arsenal let Koscielny, Ramsey, Monreal and Cech go, the club lost leaders who knew those values. Suddenly, the dressing room had Ozil, Xhaka and Mustafi as the most experienced players at Arsenal. And you definitely don’t want those players to represent the values of the club. That’s a mistake Sanllehi and Emery made when they failed to replace Koscielny, Ramsey, Monreal and Cech with proper leadership on and off the pitch.

    Aubameyang deserves to wear the armband because he leads by example. That makes Arteta’s job much easier. You can bet that the players buy into Arteta’s methods when they see Aubameyang’s pressing effort for the opening goal. Aubameyang made 5 defensive actions (1 tackle, 4 recoveries) in 84 minutes, according to the club’s website.

   Leading the line, Lacazette had a rough day against the bottom side with 0 key pass, 1 of 2 shots on target, and 6 turnovers. Lacazette worked hard for the team with 5 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 interception, 1 recovery) in 78 minutes. But at the end of the day, it’s all about end product when you’re a striker.

   Lacazette should have done better with 2 good chances. He met a cross from Ceballos in the 22nd only to head the ball straight at Krul. Then Lacazette pounced on a low cross from Nelson in the 32nd but missed the target from 10 yards. His relative weakness in the air was also exposed in the 30th and 36th: Lacazette couldn’t climb high enough to head crosses from Tierney. Those crosses would have been perfect for Giroud but were harshly counted as inaccurate by whoscored.com.

   Nketiah replaced Lacazette in the 76th and created problems for the Norwich defense with his mobility. The English striker dribbled past a Canary in the 85th to set up Willock for a curling shot that sailed wide. In stoppage time, Nketiah led a counterattack but was cynically pulled back by Stiepermann, who received a yellow card.

Pulling the strings in midfield

   On the right flank, Nelson made his first Premier League start since December. His performance was a mixed bag. He led all players with 3 key passes, creating chances for Aubameyang in the 19th, Lacazette in the 32nd and Xhaka in the 40th. The academy graduate also led Arsenal starters with a passing accuracy of 94.1%. However, Nelson could have done more both offensively and defensively. He had 0 shot, won just 28.6% of his duels, and made just 2 defensive actions (2 recoveries) in 60 minutes. It was an encouraging start for Nelson, but not good enough to take Pepe’s starting spot.  

   In midfield, Ceballos had a brilliant first half before fading in the second half. He pulled the strings in midfield like a deep-lying playmaker. Ceballos led all players with 63 passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 3, according to whoscored.com. The basic stats don’t reflect Ceballos’ impact on Arsenal’s passing game. Ceballos made just 1 key pass like Xhaka, but he also made the penultimate pass for some of Arsenal’s best chances.

   In the 8th minute, the Real Madrid loanee slipped a through ball to Bellerin, whose cross was blocked by Tettey. Two minutes later, Ceballos picked out Xhaka, who fed Aubameyang for his first scoring chance. Ceballos created another chance in the 19th by finding Nelson, who made a cross for Aubameyang. The Spaniard then delivered the final ball for Lacazette in the 22nd.

   The Canaries became aware of Ceballos’ importance in building plays and fouled him 4 times, the most for any player. Ceballos got away from his marker with an outstanding first touch in the 26th but McLean killed the counterattack with a cynical foul. Aarons was nutmegged by Ceballos in the 78th and swung an arm into his face.

Leaning to the left

   Ceballos showed his flair for creating plays but his defensive output was impressive too. He led all midfielders by winning 71.4% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Ceballos also won 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 11 defensive actions (1 tackle, 4 interceptions, 6 recoveries) compared to 10 for Xhaka (1 block, 1 interception, 8 recoveries).

   Xhaka struck a good understanding with Ceballos in central midfield but that partnership might prove lightweight against better sides. The Switzerland international scored his first goal this season by taking a pass from Aubameyang in the 38th to fire through the goalkeeper’s legs for a 2-0 lead. The Arsenal midfield was less porous than usual as Ceballos and Xhaka were dribbled past once each. Xhaka seems to be Arteta’s first choice for the position of holding midfielder. Despite Norwich’s weakness, Xhaka still managed to lead all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com

   Willock replaced Nelson in the 58th to beef up the midfield. His work-rate was decent with 3 recoveries in 36 minutes. Willock lacked composure in the final third, shooting over the bar in the 66th and curling a shot wide in the 85th. At 20, Willock still has a lot of room for improvement. In any case, it’s a positive season for the English youngster who has already made 37 appearances and scored 5 goals in all competitions this season. Arsenal will still have to spend big this summer to sign a top defensive midfielder and a box-to-box player.

   Whether Saka or Tierney plays in the left wingback position, the team leans to the left. Tierney made 6 crosses compared to 1 for Bellerin and 1 for Nelson. To understand Tierney’s importance in Arsenal’s passing game, you have to check an obscure metric called xG Buildup (the total expected goals of every possession a player is involved in without key passes and shots). Tierney led all players with an xG Buildup of 0.79 compared to 0.68 for Aubameyang, 0.05 for Bellerin and 0.00 for Nelson, according to understat.com. The Scottish defender made the penultimate pass for the second goal by finding Aubameyang on the edge of the box.

Soares’ Arsenal debut

   The Gunners lean to the left because Aubameyang drifts inside and Tierney therefore takes the space vacated by the Gabon striker. That explains why Tierney plays in a more attacking role than Bellerin. Tierney made just 2 defensive actions (1 interception, 1 recovery) in 97 minutes compared to 9 defensive actions (2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 recoveries) for Bellerin in 79 minutes.

   But a look at Soares’ cameo raises some questions. The Portuguese defender replaced Bellerin in the 76th and scored 1 goal while making 5 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 interception, 1 recovery) and 3 crosses in 18 minutes. Soares pounced on a poor clearance from the Norwich defense in the 81st to take his chance from 25 yards. His shot took a slight deflection before landing in the bottom corner for a 4-0 lead.

   Soares found a better balance in his game between defense and attack than Bellerin. Maybe the Gunners lean to the left because Bellerin is still not playing at his best level after recovering from a bad knee injury. Bellerin lost possession with a poor first touch in the 3rd minute. He then lacked spontaneity in the 57th, dallying on the ball when a cross was the obvious choice.

   Because Tierney roams forward a lot, Arteta needs a defender who can cover Tierney on the left flank. Kolasinac therefore got the nod over Holding as the third centerback against Norwich. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international made 12 defensive actions in 97 minutes compared to 3 for Mustafi in 48 minutes and 3 for Luiz in 97 minutes. Kolasinac had a small scare in the 59th when Cantwell looked for contact and went down. However, the VAR review confirmed that there was no foul from Kolasinac.

Saka’s new contract

   On the right side of the back three, Mustafi had a poor game. The German defender gave the ball away in the 35th and 43rd and made a silly foul on the edge of the box on the stroke of halftime. His passing accuracy also dipped to 78.4% compared to 89.5% for Kolasinac and 89.1% for Luiz. Mustafi was replaced by Holding at halftime.

   In the role of a sweeper, Luiz didn’t have much work to do but looked sluggish when Idah cut inside to test Martinez with a low shot in the 46th. The Brazilian defender was late in the 49th and committed a foul by kicking Idah’s heel. Martinez kept a clean sheet by turning around the post a curling free kick from McLean on the stroke of halftime. The Argentine goalkeeper could thank his post in the 20th when Godfrey fired a piledriver from more than 30 yards.

   The Gunners next visit Wolverhampton on Saturday before hosting Leicester on Tuesday. They need good results to get back in the race for a European spot. Arteta will have 2 headaches with the midfield and the rightback spot. The Wolves and the Foxes are obviously stronger in midfield than Norwich. Arsenal will also need a better performance on the right flank to keep Wolverhampton and Leicester on their toes.  

   Meanwhile, the club signed Saka to a 4-year deal, therefore ending the uncertainty about his contractual situation. At 18, Saka is a better player than Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey at the same age. If Saka stays humble and keeps working hard on the training ground, he will become a world-class player.

 

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Sheffield United

   The Gunners edged Sheffield United 2-1 on Sunday to next play Manchester City in the semifinals of the FA Cup. Frankly, Arsenal produced an average performance, enjoying 59% of ball possession but having only 10 goal attempts to 12 for the hosts. The lack of quality in the passing game was reflected in the number of key passes: 5 for Arsenal, 8 for the Blades. To put things in context, Manchester City and Newcastle respectively had 15 and 4 key passes in the other quarterfinal.

FA Cup quarterfinalsPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arteta made 5 changes to the side that defeated Southampton on Thursday with Lacazette, Willock, Kolasinac, Maitland-Niles and Luiz replacing Nketiah, Aubameyang, Ceballos, Bellerin and Holding in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager relied again on a 3-4-3 system with Kolasinac, Luiz and Mustafi in the back three, Xhaka and Willock in central midfield, Tierney and Maitland-Niles as wingbacks, and Saka, Lacazette and Pepe in the front three.

   It still looked like an Emery team even though Arteta has been in charge of the squad since the end of December. Plays in the 14th and 17th minute summarized Arsenal’s sterile possession: the Gunners reached the final third only to play the ball back to Luiz. Missing creativity in midfield and Aubameyang’s pace up front, the Gunners struggled to crack the Sheffield defense. On paper, Saka, Pepe, Tierney and Maitland-Niles were supposed to provide the penetration with their dribbling or crossing.

  1. Lacazette is a generous team player

   The French striker had 0 shot but led the Gunners with 2 key passes. Back to goal, Lacazette won the penalty for the opening goal in the 25th by taking a pass from Tierney a split second before Basham could get to the ball. Lacazette again used his body in the 31st to shield the ball from Fleck, who received a yellow card for a tackle from behind.

   Nketiah replaced Lacazette in the 67th and created the second goal by finding Pepe at the far post in stoppage time. The Blades were scared of Nketiah’s pace as Robinson killed a counterattack in the 75th by making a cynical foul on the academy graduate. At this stage of his career, Nketiah is more a striker running into space like Aubameyang than a forward dropping back to link up with his teammates like Lacazette. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if Nketiah can learn from both Aubameyang and Lacazette.

  1. Pepe is the new Houdini

   The Ivory Coast international can be frustrating to watch. Pepe is such a talented player. Yet, he has this habit of drifting out of games before reappearing. “He needs to take care of moments in the game when he disconnects himself a little bit,” Arteta said after the match.

   On Sunday, Pepe scored a goal, made 1 key pass and had 2 of 3 shots on target. He gave Arsenal the lead by firing a penalty into the bottom corner. Pepe nearly doubled the lead in the 29th but Henderson turned his low strike around the post. The mercurial winger was involved in the winning goal by taking on Stevens. He failed to dribble past Stevens but the loose ball fell to Ceballos, who cleverly shot into the small gap between the goalkeeper and the near post.

   On the opposite wing, Saka looked a bit tired with 0 tackle, 0 key pass, and 0 shot on target. The teenager has set such high standards for himself this season that the lack of end product was a surprise. Despite an off day, Saka still managed to have 2 successful dribbles out of 3, according to whoscored.com.

  1. The Gunners ares still vulnerable on set pieces

   It wasn’t a marking issue at Bramall Lane. Arsenal simply lost key duels on set pieces. In the 8th minute, McBurnie outjumped Xhaka to redirect a corner toward Lundstram, who headed home. Fortunately, the goal was disallowed because of Lundstram’s offside position. Then Mustafi completely missed his clearance in the 13th, heading a throw-in toward the far post, where McGoldrick was a split second late to make contact with the ball. Another throw-in caused panic in the 48th. McBurnie beat Xhaka and Mustafi to the ball but sent his header straight at Martinez. The Blades capitalized on a throw-in to equalize in the 87th. Kolasinac’s clearance bounced off Mustafi and into the path of McGoldrick, who shot past Martinez from close range.  

  1. Arsenal can’t play out from the back

   The many attempts to play out from the back often looked cringe-worthy. Tierney ran the ball into touch in the 5th minute. Then Mustafi knocked the ball out of play with a poor first touch in the 12th. The German defender also gave the ball away in the 18th and put Kolasinac in trouble with a sloppy pass on the stroke of halftime. The Gunners again turned over the ball in the 61st when Holding made a poor pass to Xhaka. Arteta likes Mustafi for his ball-playing abilities. Yet, Mustafi had the lowest passing accuracy of the 3 centerbacks: 76.1% for Mustafi, 84.4% for Luiz and 87.7% for Kolasinac, according to whoscored.com.

   The Arsenal backline struggled to find passing options in midfield. Xhaka lacked the mobility to be often available while Willock’s positional play was poor. The Gunners no longer have the personnel to efficiently play out from the back. Xhaka, Willock, Guendouzi and Ceballos don’t have the mobility, vision and passing skills of Cazorla and Ramsey.

  1. Xhaka is not a defensive midfielder

   The Switzerland international simply lacks the skills for that position. Xhaka won 3 tackles, made 1 interception and blocked Robinson’s shot in the 7th minute. But there are too many negatives. Xhaka lost key duels in the 8th and the 48th, led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, was late to block Norwood’s long-range strike in the 44th, and gave away a cheap free kick in the second minute. Even as a deep-lying playmaker, his offensive contribution was poor with 0 key pass and 0 of 2 shots on target.

  1. There’s a spot up for grabs in midfield

   If we assume that Xhaka is an automatic starter for Arteta, then Willock, Ceballos, Guendouzi have to compete for the other spot in central midfield. Willock was rewarded for his late goal against Southampton with a start against Sheffield. His work-rate on Sunday was disappointing. Willock won 1 tackle, had 0 shot, and made 1 interception and 0 key pass. He won only 35.7% of his duels compared to 69.2% for Xhaka, according to the FA website. At 20, Willock still has room for development, but he needs to improve his reading of the game and be more consistent. He missed his final ball for Lacazette in the 20th and failed to beat the first man with a corner in the 22nd. Ceballos replaced Willock in the 67th and definitely made an impact with 1 goal and 1 key pass. The Real Madrid loanee might get the nod over Willock for the next game.

  1. The team leans to the left

   Just like Saka played in a more attacking role than Bellerin against Southampton, Tierney was a more potent threat on the left flank than Maitland-Niles on the right flank. Tierney made 5 crosses compared to just 1 for Maitland-Niles. Pepe connected with a low cross from Tierney in the 45th only to miss the target from 15 yards. Tierney made another teasing cross in the 80th but Pepe couldn’t make contact with the ball. The Scottish defender even had an opportunity to score with a snapshot that sailed wide in the 43rd.  

   Maitland-Niles had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, but it was his defensive performance that caught the eye. He led Arsenal players by winning 4 tackles while also making 1 interception. By contrast, Tierney won 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions. Maitland-Niles especially killed a counterattack in the 15th by easing McGoldrick off the ball.

  1. Kolasinac was the weak link at the back

   He won only 45.5% of his duels, compared to 68.8% for Mustafi and 83.3% for Luiz, according to the FA website. Besides his botched clearance for the Blades’ equalizer, Kolasinac also gave the ball away in the 11th, committed fouls in the 40th and the 58th, and lost a key duel against Basham in the 60th.

  1. Sanllehi’s deals make no sense for the club

   Arsenal extended Luiz’s contract while signing Mari and Soares on long-term deals. Luiz picked up a knee injury against Sheffield and was replaced by Holding in the 54th. The Brazilian defender is an error-prone player and clearly past his prime at 33. Knowing that the Gunners will have Sokratis, Mustafi, Holding, Chambers, Mari and Saliba as centerbacks next season, there was no rational reason to keep Luiz at the club.

   The most baffling decision was to give Soares a four-year contract. Signing a rightback was not a priority, especially at a time when the Gunners need to trim payroll. Bellerin and Maitland-Niles are competing for the starting spot at rightback while Sokratis, Chambers and Mustafi can deputize in that position. What makes the decision worse is that Soares has not played for Arsenal this season because of injuries, is already 28, and has a low ceiling.

   Making Mari’s loan move from Flamengo permanent looks like a gamble. Mari only played in 2 Premier League games before an ankle injury put an end to his season. It’s a too small sample size to know whether Mari will shine in England.

   It looks like those deals aimed at keeping Sanllehi’s network of agents happy instead of meeting the needs of the club. Aubameyang and Saka are world-class players and more important for Arsenal’s future than Luiz, Mari and Soares. Yet, Sanllehi still hasn’t sorted out their contracts.

 

Southampton vs. Arsenal: Gunners capitalize on blunders in 2-0 win

   The Gunners earned their first win since the resumption of the Premier League by downing Southampton 2-0 on Thursday. That victory doesn’t change much in the standings as the Gunners are still 6 points outside the Top 6.

Southampton vs. Arsenal 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Arteta made 4 changes to the side that lost at Brighton with Martinez, Tierney, Xhaka and Nketiah replacing Leno, Kolasinac, Guendouzi and Lacazette in the starting lineup. Surprisingly, the Spanish manager relied on a 3-4-3 system like Wenger did at the end of the 2016-17 season after a run of poor results. Wenger, Emery and Arteta have all used a back three because the Arsenal centerbacks are not good enough to win key duels and because the midfield does not provide enough protection to the defense.

   When Southampton started dominating possession in the second half, Arteta switched to a 3-5-2 formation to add more density in midfield by replacing Pepe with Willock in the 64th. However, the Saints kept creating chances while the Arsenal attack was toothless. So Arteta opted for a more compact shape to hit Southampton on the fast break by replacing Ceballos and Nketiah with Maitland-Niles and Lacazette in the 79th.

   The Gunners finished the game with only 47% of ball possession and just 10 shots compared to 12 for the hosts. Arsenal did not even make a pass for both goals. Nketiah intercepted McCarthy’s pass for Hojbjerg in the 20th minute to score into an empty net. This goal was the result of Nketiah’s individual pressing effort and McCarthy’s poor decision-making. The Southampton goalkeeper had 2 easier passing options with Bednarek and Stephens but chose the most risky one.

   The Saints made another blunder in the closing minutes. Aubameyang pounced on a poor pass from Hojbjerg to Stephens. As the last defender, Stephens tripped Aubameyang, denying a clear scoring opportunity. The referee sent Stephens off and awarded Arsenal a free kick on the edge of the box. Lacazette sent the free kick into the wall in the 87th. However, the loose ball fell into his path. McCarthy parried Lacazette’s second attempt only to see Willock slot the rebound into the bottom corner.

Nketiah’s development

   Nketiah raised his tally to 4 goals in all competitions this year. At 21, this is the moment for Nketiah to make big strides in his development, otherwise he’ll just be another prospect who didn’t fulfill his potential. Nketiah showed some good work-rate, pressing McCarthy for the opening goal in the 20th and tracking back to win the ball in the 38th. Of course, Nketiah is not the finished product yet. He needs to be more tidy in possession. Nketiah was dispossessed 5 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The English forward can also improve his link-up play. Nketiah especially lacked composure on the stroke of halftime when he missed his final ball for Aubameyang because of some poor footing.

   Aubameyang proved a nightmare for the Southampton defense as he won 80% of his duels, according to the club’s website. He chased a long ball from Tierney in the 10th to be clean through on goal but McCarthy diverted his shot onto the bar. Aubameyang hasn’t found the net since Feb. 27 but still worked hard for the team, making 1 tackle and 3 recoveries according to the club’s website. He made another run in behind Stephens to collect a long kick from Martinez in the 54th, unfortunately his pass for Nketiah was cut out by Bednarek. Saka found Aubameyang down the left flank in the 90th but again Bednarek blocked the Gabon striker’s pass for Lacazette.

   Starting on the right wing, Pepe struggled to make an impact. His work-rate was decent with 4 recoveries in 67 minutes, but he only won 12.5% of his duels. Maybe it had something to do with the 3-4-3 system and the poor understanding with Bellerin on the right flank. Despite that lackluster performance, Pepe still produced one moment of magic with the only through ball of the game on the stroke of halftime.

The headache in midfield

   Playing the role of super sub, Lacazette came off the bench to replace Nketiah in the 79th. The French striker didn’t score but was involved in the second goal. Lacazette could have done better in stoppage time when he met a cross from Saka for a header that flew wide.

   If the Gunners want to boost their transfer funds, then they definitely need to sell Lacazette. Youngsters like Nketiah and Martinelli have a higher ceiling than Lacazette and will improve with more games under their belt. Aubameyang is the striker who will be harder to replace because of his pace and finishing.

   The midfield will give Arteta a headache until the end of the season. Technically, this is the poorest Arsenal midfield of the last 20 years. Southampton had a passing accuracy of 79.3% compared to 76.4% for the Gunners, according to the club’s website. If you think it’s because the Saints only made safe passes, you got it wrong. Southampton’s passing accuracy in the opposite half reached 71.3% compared to 68.8% for Arsenal. The Saints finished the game with 8 key passes to 5 for the Gunners.

   One improvement over the Brighton game is that the central midfielders nearly made as many passes as the centerbacks. Xhaka and Ceballos made 45 and 39 passes respectively compared to 49 and 46 for Mustafi and Holding at St Mary’s stadium. By contrast, Mustafi and Holding made about twice as many passes as Guendouzi and Ceballos at Falmer stadium. Of course, the problem then is what Xhaka and Ceballos do with the ball.

   No fan will disagree if I say that Xhaka, Guendouzi and Ceballos have weaker passing skills than Fabregas, Cazorla and Ramsey. Xhaka’s crossfield pass for Bellerin in the 3rd minute landed into touch. Then Xhaka lost possession in the 30th before having a pass blocked in the 38th. Likewise, Ceballos didn’t cover himself in glory. The Real Madrid loanee was dispossessed by Ings in the 13th and gave the ball away in the 40th.

Wasting golden situations

   Xhaka and Ceballos had a passing accuracy of 84.4% and 76.9% respectively. That’s simply not good enough for an Arsenal midfielder, especially when their passing is more conservative than progressive. You would expect a passing accuracy around 90%. The most infuriating part is when they sabotage golden situations either because of poor decision-making or because of poor passing.

   When the Gunners hit Southampton on the fast break in the 42nd, Ceballos had 4 passing options with Pepe on the left flank, Aubameyang and Nketiah down the middle, and Saka on the right flank. As you can see on the screen capture below, Aubameyang even pointed the space where the ball should be played.

Southampton M42a editedAubameyang shows Ceballos where to play the ball. (Photo credit: Sky)

   In that kind of situation, you can trust Fabregas, Cazorla and Ramsey to play Aubameyang clean through on goal. But Ceballos dallied on the ball and killed the momentum of that counterattack. Because Aubameyang was in an offside position, Ceballos had to wait for another run from Pepe to finally release the ball. In the end, Pepe made a poor cross and McCarthy caught the ball.

Southampton M42b editedCeballos’ hesitation kills the momentum of the counterattack. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Xhaka wasted a similar golden situation in the 82nd. Initially, Lacazette was his only decent passing option as Willock on the right flank and Aubameyang on the left flank were trying to catch up. Xhaka made the right call by buying a bit of time because Lacazette was still too far from the Southampton box.

Southampton M82a editedXhaka with plenty of time and space. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The situation became more complex when Xhaka reached the halfway line. The Southampton defense played Lacazette offside, depriving Xhaka of a passing option. But Aubameyang’s pace on the left wing suddenly gave Xhaka another passing option.

Southampton M82b editedThe Saints play Lacazette offside. (Photo credit: Sky)

   As Lacazette rounded Bednarek to put himself back in an onside position, Aubameyang was on the same line as Lacazette, giving Xhaka 2 solid passing options.

Southampton M82c editedXhaka has 2 good passing options. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Aubameyang had Stephens’ number on Thursday, so he was the obvious choice for Xhaka, especially since the risk of an interception was low. Lacazette was in a more central position than Aubameyang but he was double-teamed by Bednarek and Bertrand and the risk of an interception was higher. Feeling 2 Saints closing him down, Xhaka tried to slip the ball to Lacazette but it was poorly executed. Instead of playing the ball in the gap between Stephens and Bednarek, the Switzerland midfielder tried to play the ball to Lacazette’s feet. Bednarek perfectly read the play and intercepted the pass.

Southampton M82d editedBednarek intercepts Xhaka’s poor pass. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The lack of quality in midfield also explains why the Gunners struggle so badly to play out from the back. When the ball goes back to the goalkeeper, the wingback or fullback becomes the natural out ball. Wenger used to rely on Sagna as an out ball just like Guardiola relies on Walker as an out ball at Manchester City. Unfortunately, Martinez lacked accuracy in his mid-range kicking to find Saka or Bellerin.

Lacking creativity and penetration

   Xhaka and Ceballos are not ballwinners. That was a real issue in the second half when Southampton started dominating ball possession. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Armstrong got the better of Xhaka in the 56th but his tame effort didn’t trouble Martinez. Ceballos didn’t provide much protection either as the Saints dribbled past the Spaniard twice.

   This Arsenal team clearly lacks a defensive midfielder. Ceballos made 10 defensive actions (3 tackles, 4 interceptions, 3 recoveries) in 82 minutes and won 50% of his duels, while Xhaka made only 7 defensive actions (1 tackle, 6 recoveries) in 101 minutes and won 33% of his duels, according to the club’s website. That kind of defensive output is not good enough. To put things in context, Hojbjerg made 13 defensive actions (6 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries) in 101 minutes and won 84.6% of his duels.  

   Because the Gunners lack creativity and penetration in midfield, Arteta decided to use Saka and Bellerin as wingbacks. Saka and Bellerin led Arsenal players with 2 successful dribbles each, according to whoscored.com. As you can see on the graphic below for the players’ average position on the pitch, Saka (#77) played in a more attacking role than Bellerin (#2).

Southampton average positioning

Saka plays in a higher position than Bellerin. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   Saka led all players with 2 key passes, followed by Tierney (1), Pepe (1) and Ceballos (1). In the 8th minute, the academy player set up Nketiah for a tap-in but the goal was disallowed because of Saka’s offside position in the build-up. In stoppage time, Saka made a good cross for Lacazette, who missed the target. By contrast, Bellerin’s offensive contribution was disappointing. The Spaniard made no cross and his passing accuracy dipped to 60.9% compared to 75.8% for Saka.

   Bellerin needs to find a better balance between attack and defense. He was clearly focused on his defensive duties against Southampton, making 9 defensive actions (1 tackle, 3 interceptions, 5 recoveries) compared to 5 defensive actions (1 interception, 4 recoveries) for Saka. Bellerin still had a few lapses defensively. He failed to track Bertrand in the opening minute, lost possession in the 20th and 23rd and was late to block Redmond’s shot in the 73rd. At least, Bellerin made a last-ditch tackle to prevent Redmond from scoring in the 41st.

Holding’s good game

   Saka is not a natural defender and that was obvious in the opening minute. The academy player missed his clearance when Bertrand made a cross. Then Saka received a yellow card for a late challenge on Walker-Peters in the 47th. At 18, Saka is a better player than Oxlade-Chamberlain at the same age. However, Saka will need to cut his turnover rate. The English youngster had 5 turnovers, compared to 3 for Bellerin, 0 for Bertrand and 0 for Walker-Peters, according to whoscored.com.

   Arteta used Tierney in a back three like Wenger and Emery used Monreal in a back three. Tierney did OK in that new role although he was vulnerable in the air, winning only 50% of his aerial duels compared to 100% for Holding and 80% for Mustafi. Bednarek outjumped Tierney to meet a corner in the 62nd but missed the target with his header. The Scottish defender also lost a key duel in the 68th as Armstrong cut inside to curl a shot wide.  

   Mustafi showed more commitment than against Brighton, making 5 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 interception, 2 recoveries) and winning 70% of his duels. He especially blocked Obafemi’s final ball for Ings in the 41st. The German centerback still found a way to put himself in trouble by receiving a yellow card in the 11th for a studs-up tackle on Ings. Mustafi is still vulnerable to runs in behind. Long ghosted past Mustafi in the 78th to chase a long ball and test Martinez with an angled strike.

   Playing as a sweeper in that back three, Holding had a good game, making 4 defensive actions (2 blocks, 1 interception, 1 recovery) and winning 80% of his duels. The only blemish in his performance was the poor marking in the 63rd when Long made a cross for Ings, who fired over the bar with an off-balance volley. Hopefully, that game will boost Holding’s confidence for the rest of the season.

   The Gunners next play Sheffield United in the FA Cup on Sunday. That’s their only chance of lifting some silverware this season. Arteta should field a full-strength team even though there’s a Premier League game against Norwich 3 days later.

 

 

Brighton vs. Arsenal: Maupay takes Leno out, trolls Gunners

   The illusion that Arsenal could still qualify for the Champions League was shattered on Saturday when Brighton came from behind to edge the Gunners 2-1 in the Premier League. Despite an average performance, Arsenal should have never lost that game. The Gunners enjoyed 59% of ball possession and had 13 shots and 0.86 expected goal compared to 9 shots and 0.80 expected goal for the Seagulls, according to Infogol.

Brighton vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Mathematically, Arsenal can still snatch a Champions League spot as they are 6 points outside the Top 5. In the real world, the Gunners are a dysfunctional club unable to hold onto the lead against a weak Brighton side that had not won any game yet this year. At this stage of the season, the only positive is that the Gunners are virtually safe from relegation with 40 points from 30 games.

   Arteta made 5 changes to the team that was thrashed at Manchester City with Holding, Kolasinac, Ceballos, Pepe and Lacazette replacing Mari, Tierney, Xhaka, Willock and Nketiah in the starting lineup. On paper, it looked like a 4-3-3 formation with Saka in midfield and Aubameyang on the left wing. But in the final third it morphed into a 4-4-2 system with Aubameyang drifting inside and Saka shifting toward the left wing.

   The Spanish manager seemed to have a few certainties before the suspension of the competition. But some injuries and poor performances against Brentford and Manchester City have led Arteta to tinker. The lack of quality in midfield means that the Gunners struggle to penetrate through the middle. Arteta put the emphasis on wing play against Brighton a bit like what Guardiola did at Bayern Munich with Robben and Ribery.

Leno’s knee injury

   Leno’s season might be over after Maupay took him out in the 36th minute. Maupay claimed that he had no intention to injure the German goalkeeper, but Leno did not buy it. As Leno was stretchered off the pitch, he accusingly pointed the finger at Maupay. Leno has played hundreds of games at the top level, so you can bet that he knows what an opponent’s intent is.

   Maupay was chasing a long ball when the collision happened. As you can see on the screen capture below, Maupay had the opportunity to slow down and veer toward the touchline when Leno caught the ball in the air. But Maupay maintained his momentum and deliberately jumped into Leno, who lost his balance and injured his knee by landing awkwardly. Sometimes, you see goalkeepers jumping with a high knee. It’s to deter an opponent from looking for physical contact. Maybe next time Leno will go with his knee first instead of making a clean jump.

Brighton M36 editedLeno beats Maupay to the ball. (Photo credit: BT)  

   The referee should have given Maupay a yellow card because the Brighton striker made no genuine attempt to play the ball. Frankly, the level of officiating in that game was poor. The referee failed to blow the whistle when Burn stamped on Pepe in the 22nd. He also failed to spot fouls off the ball on Saka and Lacazette. His leniency was so bad that Bissouma finished the game with no card despite committing 6 fouls, 4 more than any other player. In fact, Bissouma should have received a yellow card for a cynical foul on Saka in the 35th and another one for a late challenge on Mustafi in the 55th. At least, the referee did not miss obvious booking offenses like Burn’s late tackle on Pepe in the 30th and Mooy’s kick on Ceballos’ ankle in the 44th.

Poorly defending set pieces

   Leno’s injury was not the reason why Arsenal lost. Martinez, who replaced Leno in the 41st, did a decent job with 3 saves, stopping Mooy’s snapshot in the 42nd and parrying Maupay’s angled strike in the 56th. However, it might prove more difficult for the Gunners to play the ball out from the back since Martinez doesn’t have Leno’s passing skills. Martinez gave the ball away with a poor clearance in the 41st.

   Brighton’s equalizer came from a short corner in the 75th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Ceballos was left in a 1v2 situation. March made a cross for Maupay, whose backheel flick was blocked on the line by Holding’s chest. Unfortunately, Dunk charged down Holding’s clearance and the ball trickled over the line. Maybe Holding could have cleared the ball with his left foot, therefore forcing Dunk to kick into his leg.

Brighton M75 editedCeballos in a 1v2 situation with March and Trossard. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Arteta deserves a lot of the blame for the poor organization on that short corner. Ceballos should have never been in a 1v2 situation. It’s not the first time that the defensive setup on set pieces has been poor under Arteta. Arsenal also conceded goals from set pieces against Everton, Olympiakos, Crystal Palace and Chelsea. What do the Gunners do on the training ground at Colney?

Holding’s confidence issues

   Brighton’s second goal was schoolboy defending. Propper found an unmarked Mac Allister, who picked out Connolly. With a simple flick, Connolly slipped the ball to Maupay, who chipped Martinez. The passivity of the centerbacks was criminal on that play. Holding was beaten to the ball by Connolly while Mustafi allowed Maupay to run in front of him.

Brighton M95b editedMustafi caught ball-watching as Maupay runs past him. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Arteta likes Mustafi because of his ball-playing skills but the trouble is that Mustafi can’t even do the basics. Maupay rounded Mustafi in the 20th to test Leno with a low strike. The Brighton forward got the better of Mustafi again in the 65th, but Bellerin managed to block Maupay’s shot.

   Mustafi’s work-rate was poor with just 2 defensive actions (2 recoveries) in 100 minutes. You can feel that Mustafi no longer wants to be at the club and that he’s simply going through the motions on the pitch. Mustafi made 2 key passes but his passing accuracy of 82.5% was much lower than Holding’s passing accuracy of 96.4%, according to whoscored.com. The German centerback made a sloppy pass to Pepe in the 5th and another poor pass to Holding in the 82nd.  

   At least, Holding is trying but he’s very low on confidence. Holding missed a routine clearance in the 55th and showed poor decision-making in the 44th by dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box. The English centerback finished the game with 6 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 4 recoveries) but won only 25% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any defender according to the club’s website.

Trash talking

   Arteta is still looking for the right balance between defense and attack. The fullbacks did not roam forward as much as they used to under Wenger and Emery. Bellerin and Kolasinac were clearly focused on their defensive duties. The Spaniard made 9 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception, 5 recoveries) and 3 crosses while Kolasinac made 10 defensive actions (1 tackle, 9 recoveries) and 0 cross.

   The Seagulls created 2 chances from Kolasinac’s flank in the second half. Kolasinac failed to mark March in the 67th. The Brighton substitute crossed the ball for Schelotto, whose downward header was saved by Martinez. Kolasinac failed again to stop another dangerous cross from March in the 74th, but Bellerin headed the ball out before Trossard could meet the cross.

   Arsenal struggled to play out from the back because Holding and Mustafi don’t have the passing skills of a Laporte or Fernandinho, but also because the central midfielders don’t have the mobility and vision of a Fabregas or Cazorla. Guendouzi and Ceballos made only 42 and 39 passes respectively compared to 83 and 81 passes for Holding and Mustafi. That’s abnormal because when the Gunners dominate ball possession, Xhaka makes at least as many passes as a centerback.

   Arteta needs to talk to Guendouzi because the French midfielder is not getting his priorities right. It’s OK to do some trash talking on the pitch if you back it up with a solid performance. Unfortunately, Guendouzi had a poor game while trying to wind Maupay up. When the referee blew the final whistle, Guendouzi lost his cool and grabbed Maupay by the neck. Guendouzi could be retrospectively suspended for violent conduct.

Guendouzi’s lack of defensive awareness

   Playing as a holding midfielder, Guendouzi showed some poor work-rate with only 7 defensive actions (1 block, 1 interception, 5 recoveries) in 100 minutes, according to the club’s website. By contrast, Bissouma made 18 defensive actions (6 tackles, 2 interceptions, 10 recoveries) for Brighton in 98 minutes. Even Gross, who is not a defensive midfielder by trade, managed to make 11 defensive actions (5 tackles, 1 interception, 5 recoveries) in 75 minutes.

   Guendouzi simply lacks the defensive awareness to be an efficient holding midfielder. He allowed Mac Allister to make the penultimate pass for Brighton’s second goal. As you can see on the screen capture below, Guendouzi was miles away from Mac Allister when Propper found him. By giving Mac Allister so much space and time, Guendouzi put his team in danger.

Brighton M95a editedGuendouzi fails to mark Mac Allister. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The French midfielder also missed his header in the 56th, forcing Martinez to save an angled strike from Maupay. Then Guendouzi was dispossessed in the 67th and the Seagulls hit Arsenal on the fast break with March creating a scoring chance for Schelotto. I still don’t understand what Emery and Arteta see in Guendouzi. He’s simply not good enough for this club.

   Ceballos usually plays on the left side of the midfield, but Arteta moved him to the right side on Saturday to make some room for Saka. That positional change had a negative impact on Ceballos’ defensive output. Ceballos only made 5 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 3 recoveries) in 91 minutes. His passing accuracy also dipped to 82.5% compared to 93% for Guendouzi. The Real Madrid loanee still managed to lead all players with 3 key passes, feeding Aubameyang in the 48th and making a cross for Mustafi in the 83rd.

Saka’s huge impact

   Arteta doesn’t know what his best team is, but there’s one certainty: Saka and Aubameyang must be in the starting lineup. Playing in a hybrid role, Saka struggled at times with his positioning, which explains in great part why he only made 2 defensive actions (2 recoveries) in 91 minutes. Yet, Saka is so talented that he still made a huge impact. He rattled the bar with a curling shot from 20 yards in the 8th. Then Saka set up Lacazette for a diving header in the 31st before making the assist for Pepe’s opening goal in the 68th. The academy player also slipped a through ball to Aubameyang in the 53rd but the Gabon striker’s goal was ruled out for a marginal offside.

   At 18, Saka still has room to improve his reading of the game, his decision-making and his finishing, but technically he is almost the finished product. Saka had 3 successful dribbles out of 5 and his passing accuracy reached 92.6%, according to whoscored.com. It’s a shame that the club hasn’t promoted Saka to the first team yet. Gazidis and Wenger were criticized for poorly handling the contract negotiations with Ozil and Sanchez, but Sanllehi has also mismanaged the contract talks with Ramsey and could let both Aubameyang and Saka leave for free.

   On the right wing, Pepe had a disappointing game but produced a moment of magic to put Arsenal ahead in the 68th with a curling shot into the far corner. Pepe needs to be more selective in his dribbling attempts. He took on 2 Seagulls in the 18th and lost possession. A minute later, Pepe tried again to dribble past 2 Seagulls only to run the ball out of play. Pepe had only 1 successful dribble out of 5. Even Ceballos did better with 2 successful dribbles out of 2. Pepe could have been credited with an assist in the opening minute but Aubameyang completely missed his scissor kick.

An old recipe

   On the left wing, Aubameyang took his chances but had no luck against Ryan. The Brighton goalkeeper saved Aubameyang’s angled effort in the 48th, turned around the post his low strike in the 66th and palmed away his curling shot in the 80th. Aubameyang managed to beat Ryan in the 53rd but the VAR review disallowed the goal for a marginal offside.

   In his first season at the club, Emery relied a lot on the understanding between Aubameyang and Lacazette. Arteta used that old recipe on Saturday after omitting Lacazette from the starting lineup in the 4 previous league games. Aubameyang created a scoring chance for Lacazette in the 10th but Dunk blocked the French striker’s shot. Lacazette returned the favor in the 66th: Aubameyang played a one-two with Lacazette before testing Ryan with a low strike. Arteta will have some food for thought for the next game. Does he walk in the steps of Wenger and Emery by relying on the partnership between Aubameyang and Lacazette? Or does he value more Nketiah’s pace?

   The Gunners next visit Southampton on Thursday in the Premier League before facing Sheffield United in the FA Cup on Sunday. It’s impossible to know what to expect with this Arsenal squad. In any case, Arteta gets a free pass for this season because he inherited the mess created by Wenger, Emery, Gazidis, Sanllehi and Kroenke. It will take years to rebuild a competitive team. To a certain extent, what happens in the transfer market and in the contract talks is more important for this club than the remaining games.  

 

 

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Luiz sent off, Xhaka and Mari injured in 3-0 loss

   Everything went wrong on Wednesday when the Gunners resumed their Premier League campaign against Manchester City. Arteta was forced to make 2 early substitutions because Xhaka and Mari got injured in the first 24 minutes. The Citizens then capitalized on 2 blunders from Luiz to take a 2-0 lead. Down to 10 men after Luiz’s ejection in the 49th minute, Arsenal limited the damage with a 3-0 defeat that left them in 9th place in the standings, 8 points outside the Top 4.

Manchester City vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   There were a couple of surprises in Arteta’s team selection. In the front three, Nketiah started up front with Aubameyang and Saka playing in the wide positions. While Nketiah got the nod over Lacazette because of his pace, I don’t know what was the rationale for using Saka on the right wing. Pepe and Nelson would have been more natural choices in that position.

   In midfield, Arteta relied on Xhaka, Guendouzi and Willock. The lack of creativity in that area of the pitch has been a major problem this season. Yet, Ceballos started on the bench while Ozil was not even in the squad. In his post-match news conference, Arteta said that leaving Ozil out of the squad was a “tactical” decision. I can only assume that the 4-3-3 system used by Arteta is too demanding for Ozil, who feels more comfortable in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

   The backline looked quite audacious for an away game, especially against City. Arteta opted for 2 ball-playing centerbacks (Mari, Mustafi) and 2 attacking fullbacks (Tierney, Bellerin). The Arsenal fullbacks never had the opportunity to make any dangerous cross while Mustafi, Mari and Luiz combined to hit just 1 accurate long ball out of 11, according to whoscored.com.

Taking a knee

   The players’ fitness level was a concern before the game because the Premier League was suspended for 3 months. Of course, they were able to train but it wasn’t like a normal pre-season. The Gunners only played 2 friendlies (Charlton, Brentford) before the City game whereas they played 9 friendlies (Boreham Wood, Colorado Rapids, Bayern Munich, Fiorentina, Real Madrid, Barnet, Lyon, Angers, Barcelona) before the start of the season. Did the relative lack of sharpness play a role in the injuries to Xhaka and Mari?

   Arsenal and City showed their support for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement by taking a knee before kickoff. Then the match felt like deja vu. The Gunners lost 3-1 at the Etihad stadium under Emery last year and in Wenger’s final season at the club. The Citizens dominated the first half with 65% of ball possession and 9 goal attempts compared to just 2 for the Gunners.

   Luiz, who replaced Mari in the 24th, tried to control a cross from De Bruyne on the stroke of halftime. But the ball bounced off Luiz’s thigh and into the path of Sterling, who shot past Leno for the opening goal. The Brazilian defender made another blunder in the 49th. Ederson hit a long ball toward Walker, who knocked it down for Mahrez. The Algeria international ran past Luiz, who held him back. The referee awarded City a penalty and gave a red card to Luiz, who killed a goal-scoring chance and made no genuine attempt to play the ball.

   De Bruyne converted the spot kick to double the lead while Arteta had to improvise with a 4-3-2 system, moving Tierney into the centerback position and shifting Saka from the right wing to the leftback position. In stoppage time, the Citizens played the ball out from the back. Fernandinho found Walker with a long ball. The England fullback picked out Aguero, who played a one-two with Sterling to be clean through on goal. Leno diverted Aguero’s effort onto the post, but Foden followed up to convert the rebound.

Leno’s 9 saves

   Despite conceding 3 goals, Leno was arguably the best Gunner. The scoreline would have been much harsher without the 9 saves Leno made. The German goalkeeper tipped De Bruyne’s free kick over the bar in the fourth minute, palmed away a low strike from Sterling in the 34th, parried a shot from David Silva with a diving save in the 35th, denied Mahrez in the 37th, stopped De Bruyne’s low effort in the 69th, and saved Gundogan’s close-range attempt in the 77th.  

   Leno took Cech’s spot last season because of his passing skills as a sweeper keeper. He nearly set up Nketiah with a long kick in the second minute but the academy graduate was flagged offside. Somehow, Leno still has room for improvement in that part of his game. Ederson made 41 passes with a passing accuracy of 87.8% compared to 42 passes and a passing accuracy of 76.2% for Leno.

   Wednesday’s game showed why the club doesn’t plan to keep Luiz. The experienced Brazilian defender leads the Premier League with 4 penalties conceded this season. There was already a warning sign in the 35th when Luiz failed to block Silva’s low strike. The recruitment has been such a mess under both Wenger and Emery that Arteta can’t rely on any centerback to build his backline.    

   Mari could have been the defensive leader the Gunners have been missing since Koscielny’s departure. Unfortunately, the Spanish centerback picked up an ankle injury in the 21st and might have played his last game of the season. That doesn’t leave much choice for Arteta: Luiz will be suspended, Chambers won’t return before next season, Sokratis is recovering from a knock, and Holding doesn’t seem to have Arteta’s trust.

Tierney’s poor positional play

   It’s scary to think that Mustafi is Arteta’s first choice at centerback. His defensive output against City was poor. Mustafi only made 2 defensive actions (1 block, 1 recovery) in 103 minutes, according to the club’s website. Not really the kind of stats that you would expect from a leader. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick in the 45th by fouling Jesus from behind. In stoppage time, Mustafi comically slipped while marking Aguero for the third goal. It’s not as bad as Luiz’s blunders but we’re far from the standards of a Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gallas, Campbell, Keown or Adams.

   On the flanks, Bellerin and Tierney were so busy defensively that they didn’t make any cross. Bellerin had a decent game. The only blemish in his performance was when he let Sterling cut inside to test Leno in the 34th. By contrast, Tierney struggled badly. His positional play was so poor that he had no clue where the danger was coming from.

   Tierney was too easily pulled out of position in the 37th when De Bruyne slipped a through ball to Mahrez. Then Sterling made a run in behind Tierney in the 39th to be clean through on goal only to chip over the bar. On the stroke of halftime, Tierney failed to mark De Bruyne, who made the cross for the opening goal. In the second half, Tierney lost again key duels against Mahrez in the 47th, De Bruyne in the 69th, and Bernardo in stoppage time. The Scottish fullback even received a yellow card for a stamp on Gundogan in the 76th. There’s a massive gap between the Scottish league and the Premier League. Tierney will need to learn the ropes faster otherwise his second season at the club could be rough.

Lacking the personnel

   The Gunners used to be known as the most technical team in the Premier League, but this is no longer true. On Wednesday, City had a passing accuracy of 92.3% compared to 83.8% for Arsenal, according to the club’s website. You just have to look at the midfield to find the reason for the gap in technical quality. The Gunners started with Xhaka, Guendouzi and Willock while City had Gundogan, De Bruyne and David Silva.

   Most of the problems the Gunners face when they press or play out from the back come from the midfield. They simply lack the personnel for those situations. Xhaka and Guendouzi lack the mobility and defensive skills for an efficient press. Willock has the mobility but still lacks defensive awareness. The Citizens easily beat the Arsenal press in the 20th but Walker played the ball behind Jesus in the final third. The last goal came from an ill-advised attempt to press City. From his own box, Fernandinho switched play with a long ball to Walker, who found Aguero. In the sixth minute of stoppage time, the Gunners played with fire again. Nelson and Saka pressured Bernardo Silva into playing the ball back to Ederson. The City goalkeeper beat the press with a mid-range pass to Foden, who picked out Aguero. From 15 yards, Aguero somehow missed the target.

   When the Gunners play out from the back, their midfielders either lack mobility to receive the ball or lack the passing skills to play the ball forward. Fernandinho is a defensive midfielder by trade, yet he’s more creative in his passing than Xhaka, Guendouzi or Willock. Surprisingly, Arsenal managed to beat the City press in the 16th but Walker blocked Aubameyang’s cross.

Aubameyang’s decision

   Guendouzi played in the holding midfielder position even though he’s just a utility midfielder like Elneny. De Bruyne was able to shine because Guendouzi, Willock and Ceballos were no match for him. The Belgium international evaded Guendouzi’s challenge in the 12th. Then Guendouzi missed the ball in the 31st while attempting an interception. In the defensive third, Guendouzi failed to close down Jesus in the 35th and De Bruyne in the 39th. Guendouzi’s work-rate was decent but he’s simply a bad fit for the holding midfielder role. Willock and Guendouzi both made 10 defensive actions each in 68 minutes, according to the club’s website.

   Ceballos came off the bench to replace Xhaka in the 8th minute. Xhaka seemed to roll his ankle and might miss a couple of games. Ceballos’ performance was a mixed bag. The Spaniard led all players with 4 interceptions, but he was also dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. I liked Ceballos’ work-rate. He closed down Mahrez in the 27th and won the ball back. Tactically, Ceballos would be a better option than Xhaka and Guendouzi in a 4-3-3 system. How much would Arsenal be willing to pay in order to keep him? In any case, the midfield is the area where the Gunners need to improve this summer. They need better attacking midfielders to create chances, better box-to-box players for the transition game, and better defensive midfielders to shield the back four.

   This was the game that no Arsenal forward wanted to play. The Gunners finished the game with only 3 goal attempts and 0 shot on target. Nketiah, Aubameyang and Saka wasted their time running after the ball. Aubameyang missed the target with a speculative shot in the 25th and completely miskicked the ball when Nelson set him up in stoppage time. If you’re Aubameyang, there’s no reason to stay at the club. Arsenal won’t contend for the title in the next couple of seasons. Barcelona and Real Madrid are among the clubs linked to Aubameyang and could offer him the same wages.

A big ask

   Frankly, I don’t understand why Arteta left Aubameyang on the pitch when it was game over in the second half. The Spanish manager replaced Nketiah with Lacazette in the 67th. Nketiah had 2 good situations but didn’t make the most of them. First, he chased a through ball from Ceballos in the 8th minute but Garcia put him off and Ederson collected the ball. Nketiah needs to be stronger in those duels. Then Nketiah met a low cross from Saka in the 13th but flicked the ball wide.

   Obviously, both Nketiah and Saka are young players still developing but they need to be less naive in the final third. Saka and Nketiah combined to be caught offside 5 times while Aubameyang, Jesus, Sterling and Aguero were not even flagged offside on Wednesday.    

   The Gunners next visit Brighton on Saturday and Southampton next week. Earning 4 points from 2 away games is a big ask but this might be what the Gunners need to keep their hopes of Champions League football alive, assuming a 5th-place finish would be enough to qualify for the lucrative European competition.  


Coronavirus puts Arsenal’s mediocre season on hold

  Football games in the Premier League have been suspended until April 30 because of the coronavirus crisis. Premier League clubs and executives hope that play will resume in June so that the next season can start on time. But the more you think about it and the less realistic this timetable looks.

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

   The coronavirus outbreak will reach its peak in the next few weeks, according to scientists. Then it will also take a few more weeks for the number of cases to significantly decline. Italy has enforced a lockdown since March 9. Yet, there are still more than 4,000 new cases and 700 new deaths per day in Italy. Knowing that Italy is about 2 weeks ahead of the United Kingdom in the coronavirus spread, it is therefore unlikely that Premier League clubs will be able to play in June.

   Premier League clubs and executives want to complete the current season because of the financial implications: they would lose a lot of money if they fail to meet their broadcast commitments. Even if we assume that the current lockdown measures will bring down the number of coronavirus cases, the British government would still face a medical dilemma. What number would be safe to prevent a second coronavirus wave? Remember, the UK had just a few cases in February before the number of cases exceeded 25,000 at the end of March.

   In the most optimistic scenario, the Premier League might resume in July. That basically means that the remaining games would overlap with the start of next season. Can you imagine the scheduling headache if the 2020-21 season starts in September? That gets even worse if you add the possibility of another coronavirus outbreak in the winter. In my eyes, the wisest option would be to have a shortened season.

Setting a bad precedent

   Some Premier League clubs would like to cancel this season. Such a decision wouldn’t be fair for the Reds, who have produced one of the most dominant performances in Premier League history and would be robbed of the title. And it wouldn’t be fair for Championship sides like Leeds United and West Brom that have a very good shot at promotion. It would also set a bad precedent for the next seasons.

   The issue of Champions League spots would be a point of contention, too. The Foxes are in a very good position to qualify for the lucrative European competition. But if this season is declared null and void, Leicester City wouldn’t even play European football because the standings of the 2018-19 season would then be used for the allotment of European spots. On the other hand, Spurs would benefit from a cancellation because they finished 4th a year ago while they are 7 points outside the Top 4 this season.

   You just have to look at American sports for examples of a shortened season. In 1981, baseball teams only played 62 percent of the MLB regular schedule because players went on strike in the middle of the season. It was so messy that the Giants finished the regular season with 111 games while the Cardinals only played 102 games. Because the standings were flawed, the division winner of the first half of the season faced the division winner of the second half in the playoffs. The two teams in the World Series, the Dodgers and the Yankees, did not have the best win percentage in their respective divisions.

   In 2011, a lockout shortened the NBA regular season from 82 games to 66 per team. Some employees lost their jobs while team owners and players lost millions of dollars. Owners and players finally reached a deal in December and the show went on with fewer days off during the 2011-12 season. Miami defeated Oklahoma City 4-1 in the NBA finals.

   The NHL also had a shortened season because of a lockout imposed by franchise owners. The start of the 2012-13 season was therefore delayed before the players and the league reached an agreement in January. The NHL regular schedule was cut from 82 games to 48 per team as Chicago defeated Boston 4-2 in the Stanley Cup finals.

The best compromise

   Taking into account the first 28 games played by each Premier League club, the standings in a shortened season would look like this: 1. Liverpool 79 points, 2. Manchester City 57 pts, 3. Leicester 50 pts, 4. Chelsea 45 pts, 5. Sheffield 43 pts, 6. Manchester United 42 pts, 7. Wolverhampton 42 pts, 8. Tottenham 40 pts, 9. Arsenal 40 pts, 10. Burnley 38 pts, 11. Everton 37 pts, 12. Crystal Palace 36 pts, 13. Southampton 34 pts, 14. Newcastle 32 pts, 15. Brighton 28 pts, 16. West Ham 27 pts, 17. Watford 27 pts, 18. Bournemouth 27 pts, 19. Aston Villa 25 pts, 20. Norwich 21 pts.

   Obviously, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich would be unhappy because they would be relegated. Likewise, Manchester United would be frustrated because they still had a shot at finishing in the Top 4. The Gunners would miss out on a European spot with a ninth-place finish. In the Premier League era, that would be Arsenal’s worst finish since the 1994-95 season when they wound up 12th.

   The lack of European football would have massive financial implications for Arsenal. The club will already make a loss this year after spending nearly £140 million in the summer transfer market. The loss of TV revenue from European football means that the Gunners will have to sell their top players and will only be able to afford small signings like Martinelli or Mari. Big fees to sign players like Pepe or even Tierney would no longer fit Arsenal’s transfer kitty.

   Some fans would like to complete this season because they still hope that Arsenal can secure a European spot. But at the end of the day, what’s the point of resuming the Premier League when people in the UK still die of this coronavirus? Sure, clubs will lose a lot of money for not playing the remaining games. But it’s the same for everybody. Millions of people have lost their jobs because of this pandemic while thousands of businesses have filed for bankruptcy.

   Some fans would like to cancel this season because Arsenal could claim a European spot based on the standings of the 2018-19 season. That would be an act of denial. The Gunners have had a mediocre season because Emery, Sanllehi and the board did a poor job. It’s a fact that cannot be erased. Rewarding them with a European spot would be like telling them that they did a good job, which is not true. Ultimately, this bloody coronavirus will dictate the agenda. And a shortened season is the best compromise between completing the current season and cancelling it.  

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Lacazette deliVARs in 1-0 win

   The Gunners earned a third straight victory in the Premier League by edging West Ham 1-0 on Saturday to pull within 3 points of Wolverhampton and Sheffield United in the race for a European spot.

Arsenal vs. West Ham 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Despite enjoying 69% of ball possession, Arsenal created very few chances and looked shaky defensively. West Ham had 14 shots and 1.61 expected goals compared to 9 shots and 1.56 expected goals for the Gunners, according to understat.com. Those xG metrics did not even include 2 big chances for the Hammers. Antonio wasted a 2v1 situation in the 11th minute by missing his final ball for Haller. Then Leno won a 1v1 against Haller in the 19th. Because there was no shot in both situations, understat.com did not count them as chances. Obviously, you can’t score if you don’t shoot.

   Arteta made 6 changes to the side that knocked Portsmouth out of the FA Cup last Monday with only Saka, Mari, Luiz, Sokratis and Nketiah retaining their starting spots. At the back, Arteta didn’t have much choice since Mustafi, Chambers, Tierney, Kolasinac and Soares are injured while Holding and Bellerin have been struggling for form this season.

   In midfield, Arteta believes that the combination of Xhaka, Ceballos and Ozil provides the best balance for his playing style. So it’s no surprise that they have started the last 3 Premier League games. The front three is where there might be some controversy. Aubameyang is arguably Arsenal’s best striker. Yet, Arteta keeps using him on the left wing even though Martinelli or Nelson would be a better fit in that position.  

Using the wrong software

   Aubameyang had only 1 goal attempt but he made it count. The Gabon striker drifted inside to take a pass from Saka in the 78th. From the edge of the box, Aubameyang took his chance. Rice blocked the shot and the loose ball looped into the path of Ozil. The German playmaker headed the ball toward Lacazette, who slotted into the bottom corner from 6 yards.

   The goal was initially disallowed for an offside position. However, the VAR review showed that Ogbonna played Ozil onside, forcing the referee to reverse his decision and let the goal stand. There was a lapse of 2 minutes and 12 seconds between the moment the goal was disallowed and the moment the decision was overturned in Arsenal’s favor. That’s way too long. Premier League officials are clearly using an inefficient software because UEFA referees are much faster in Champions League games.

   Besides his involvement in the goal, Aubameyang also made 2 key passes. He crossed the ball for Sokratis, whose header bounced off the bar in the 22nd. Then Aubameyang found Pepe, whose volley was blocked by Cresswell in the 66th. Aubameyang’s contract expires in the summer of 2021. Why should he stay at the club if there’s no Champions League football and if Arteta keeps playing him on the left wing?

   Arteta trusted again Nketiah to lead the line. Nketiah had a penalty shout turned down on the stroke of halftime. He beat Ngakia to a second ball but the referee didn’t think that the Gunners deserved a penalty for the awkward challenge from the West Ham defender. Nketiah’s best chance came in the 52nd when Saka played him in. However, Fabianski came off his line to deny Nketiah. Three minutes later, Nketiah chased a through ball from Ozil, but Fabianski was quicker and collected the ball.

Nketiah’s poor work-rate

   Nketiah’s overall performance was poor. He definitely needs to work on his link-up play. His pass for Pepe rolled out of play in the 4th minute. Then Nketiah headed a long ball from Luiz toward a Hammer in the 20th. His hold-up play also has plenty of room for improvement. Nketiah was dispossessed by Diop in the 19th and lost again possession in the 54th by waiting for the ball to reach his feet.

   Arteta replaced Nketiah with Lacazette in the 59th. The French striker showed more desire, making 3 defensive actions (3 recoveries) in 36 minutes compared to 0 for Nketiah in 58 minutes, according to the club’s website. On merit, Lacazette would deserve to start the next Premier League game.

   Just like Lacazette is competing with Nketiah for a starting spot up front, Pepe is competing with Nelson for a starting spot on the right wing. Pepe lacked end product with 0 key pass and 0 of 2 shots on target. Even Nketiah and Lacazette managed to make at least 1 key pass. Pepe’s best contribution came in the 38th when he dribbled past 3 Hammers but was denied a shot by an offside Nketiah, who shamelessly stole the ball.

   The Ivory Coast international had only 1 successful dribble out of 4, according to whoscored.com. Pepe must be more selective in his dribbling attempts because Premier League sides are now aware of his skills and sometimes double-team him. Arteta was not convinced by Pepe’s performance and replaced him with Nelson in the 69th. Nelson made 3 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 recovery) in 26 minutes compared to 2 (1 tackle, 1 recovery) for Pepe in 68 minutes.

The midfield problem

   Saturday’s game made clear that Arteta has a massive rebuilding job in midfield. In every position, the Gunners are weaker than during the Wenger era. Xhaka and Torreira are weaker defensive midfielders than Petit, Gilberto, Song or even Coquelin. Arsenal’s only box-to-box player is Willock, who is nowhere near the level of Vieira or Ramsey. Xhaka and Guendouzi struggle so badly to set a high tempo that Arteta has used Ceballos as a deep-lying playmaker lately, but the Real Madrid loanee is still a notch below the level of Fabregas or Cazorla.

   The Gunners struggled to create chances against West Ham because they rely heavily on Ozil, who is past his prime. There was a time when the Gunners could have up to 4 creative midfielders on the pitch. Think of Fabregas, Rosicky, Nasri and Wilshere during the 2010-11 season. Or Cazorla, Ozil, Rosicky and Wilshere during the 2013-14 season. Those days are gone because the current Arsenal squad badly lacks creativity.

   At 31, Ozil’s moments of magic are rare. But the Gunners definitely needed one to break the deadlock. His headed pass for Lacazette was perfectly placed and was more difficult than it looked. Ozil was at the heart of some of Arsenal’s best situations. He had a shot blocked by Cresswell in the 13th after Nketiah chested the ball down for him. Then Ozil attempted an audacious through ball for Nketiah in the 55th. The German playmaker was tidy in the final third with just 1 turnover compared to 4 for Pepe, 3 for Aubameyang, 3 for Nketiah and 2 for Lacazette, according to whoscored.com.

   Arteta’s support has helped Ozil express himself on the pitch. But the Spanish manager must also realize that Ozil will never reach again the heights of the 2015-16 season when he had 19 assists in the Premier League while averaging 4.2 key passes per game. A younger Ozil would have not missed his final ball for Lacazette in the 75th.

Ceballos’ outstanding performance

   Ozil made only 1 key pass against West Ham and raised his tally to just 2 assists in the Premier League this season. Pepe leads the Gunners with 6 assists, followed by Lacazette (3) and Saka (3). Arteta will have to improve the understanding between Ozil and Pepe. They were not on the same wavelength in the 20th: Ozil made a pass in one direction while Pepe ran in another direction.

   Ceballos has become the heartbeat of the Arsenal midfield, leading all players with 98 passes, compared to 77 for Xhaka, 82 for Mari, 79 for Luiz and 49 for Ozil. The Spaniard also showed some outstanding work-rate, leading all players with 25 defensive actions (5 tackles, 6 interceptions, 14 recoveries), while Xhaka and Ozil only made 8 and 4 defensive actions respectively, according to the club’s website. In fact, Ceballos made more tackles, more interceptions and more ball recoveries than any other player. His percentage of duels won was quite impressive, too. Ceballos won 72.7% of his duels, compared to 50% for Ozil and 28.6% for Xhaka.

   It’s easy to understand why Emery signed Ceballos. As a hard-working midfielder, Ceballos was the perfect fit for Emery’s version of Liverpool lite. Unfortunately, Ceballos never showed the consistency required to carry the team. Ceballos is slightly more creative than Xhaka and Guendouzi, but he’s still far from the high standards of Cazorla or Fabregas.

   Another issue is that Ceballos is not a natural defensive midfielder. Ceballos initially marked Antonio in the 40th when the Hammers had their best scoring chance on a corner. The Spaniard failed to stay with Antonio when Diop outjumped Aubameyang to redirect Noble’s corner. Somehow, Antonio missed the target from 3 yards. Then Bowen easily turned Ceballos to set up Haller in the 83rd.

   The double pivot formed by Ceballos and Xhaka did not provide much protection to the Arsenal defense. The Gunners looked like an Emery team on Saturday as they were highly vulnerable on transitions because the midfield was too porous.

Saka’s consistency

   Wenger, Emery and Arteta have been using Xhaka as the main defensive midfielder but he’s simply not good enough. Under Arteta, Xhaka is in charge of patrolling the left flank when Saka roams forward. When the Hammers hit Arsenal on the fast break in the 75th, Xhaka covered Saka and blocked Bowen’s shot. However, Xhaka failed to close down Ngakia in the 86th. Haller met Ngakia’s cross for a tame effort that did not trouble Leno.  

   Xhaka plays as a deep-lying playmaker for the Switzerland team. But his skills are simply too limited in that position for Arsenal. Xhaka’s lack of mobility is a liability when the Gunners play out from the back. He gave the ball away in the 2nd minute, allowing Bowen to hit the post with a low drive. In the last minute of stoppage time, Xhaka had a great opportunity to play Nelson clean through on goal. But he refused to deliver the final ball. Instead, Xhaka made a lazy pass to Aubameyang, who wasted time by running toward the corner flag.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96a editedXhaka can already see his best passing option. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96b editedXhaka runs forward while keeping his options open. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96c editedThis is the best moment for Xhaka to feed Nelson. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96d editedNelson must check his run not to be offside. (Photo credit: NBC)

   In the leftback position, Saka produced another solid performance. That kind of consistency is rare for any 18-year-old player. Saka provided a lot of penetration with 2 successful dribbles out of 3, according to whoscored.com. He created a big chance for Nketiah in the 52nd with an impressive dribbling run. In a team lacking creativity, the quality of his final ball can make a huge difference. Saka made 3 key passes, tied with Noble for the most by any player. His defensive awareness is still a work in progress. Saka failed to mark Antonio when Cresswell made a cross in the 56th.

Mari’s baptism of fire

   While Saka played pretty much like a wingback in the leftback position, Sokratis played like a centerback in the rightback position. Sokratis made only 1 cross compared to 5 for Saka. In the FA Cup game against Portsmouth, Sokratis already showed his limitations as a fullback. Antonio liked the matchup as he often got the better of Sokratis, who got booked in the 63rd for a cynical foul on the West Ham forward. Sokratis made 3 fouls, tied with Aubameyang for the most by any player.

   In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mari had less flattering stats than against Portsmouth. Mari won only 50% of his aerial duels, compared to 67% for Luiz, 80% for Ogbonna and 100% for Diop, according to whoscored.com. And the Spanish centerback hit just 8 accurate long balls out of 16, compared to 5 out of 8 for Luiz and 5 out of 7 for Sokratis.

   For his first Premier League game, Mari had to adapt to the fast pace of English football. He made the wrong decision in the 11th, attempting to intercept Fornals’ pass for Antonio. Mari dived in and missed the ball, allowing the Hammers to have a 2v1 situation. As you can see on the screen captures below, Luiz saved Arsenal with his smart positional play.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11a editedLuiz has to deal with Antonio and Haller in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11b editedLuiz has a quick look to spot Haller’s run. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11c editedLuiz encourages Antonio to either take an angled shot or make a difficult cross. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11d editedAntonio can no longer play the ball between Luiz and Leno and plays the ball behind Haller. (Photo credit: NBC)

   That was the only mistake Mari made on Saturday. What saved Mari was his good reading of the game. He made 10 defensive actions (1 tackle, 9 recoveries) compared to 3 for Luiz (1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 recovery). Mari will need a flawless positional play to survive in the Premier League. He’s not as sluggish as Mertesacker but he doesn’t have the recovery pace of a Koscielny in his prime.

Tough run-in

   Arsenal can thank Leno for the clean sheet. Besides winning a 1v1 against Haller in the 19th, Leno made 6 saves. The German goalkeeper stopped Antonio’s close-range header in the 56th, parried Bowen’s low strike in the 66th, and palmed away Haller’s sliding effort in the 83rd. To protect Arsenal’s slim lead, Arteta switched to a 3-4-3 formation in the 88th by replacing Bellerin with Ozil.  

   The Gunners next visit Manchester City in the Premier League on Wednesday before facing Brighton on Saturday. They have no maneuvering room with just 10 games left to finish 5th or better. Their run-in is not easy. Arsenal will play 3 teams in the Top 4 (Manchester City, Leicester, Liverpool), 2 teams also chasing a European spot (Wolves, Spurs) and 4 teams fighting relegation (Brighton, Norwich, Aston Villa, Watford). Only Southampton will have nothing to play for.

 

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

   Arsenal reached the quarterfinals of the FA Cup by defeating Portsmouth 2-0 on Monday. It was a tighter encounter than the scoreline might suggest. The Gunners enjoyed 73% of ball possession but had just 15 shots to 11 for the League One side.

FA Cup 5th roundPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Arteta made 9 changes to the team that was knocked out by Olympiakos in the Europa League with only Luiz and Saka retaining their starting spots. Bellerin, Mustafi, Ozil and Aubameyang were left out of the squad while Pepe, Lacazette, Holding, Xhaka, Ceballos and Maitland-Niles sat on the bench at kickoff.

   The Spanish manager sent a strong signal by starting Mari, Nelson and Martinelli at Fratton Park. Those 3 players could play an important role not just in the FA Cup but also in the Premier League.

   On the other hand, it wasn’t a good sign for Holding and Maitland-Niles to be on the bench. Holding has struggled for form since his return from a knee injury. Arteta will certainly not rely on Holding this season to rebuild the Arsenal defense. Maitland-Niles started the first 5 Premier League games under Arteta. But the academy graduate has slipped down the pecking order, becoming the third-choice rightback behind Bellerin and Sokratis.

  1. Nelson’s creativity

   The Gunners have been struggling offensively this season because they have very few players who can deliver the final ball. In his first start since Jan. 6, Nelson showed on Monday that he could be a credible alternative to Pepe on the right wing by setting up both goals.

   From a recycled corner, Nelson made a cross for Sokratis, who volleyed into the bottom corner to give Arsenal the lead on the stroke of halftime. Then Nelson outpaced Seddon in the 51st minute to hoist the ball into the box. Bolton missed his clearance and the ball bounced off Nketiah, who reacted quickly enough to keep the ball in play and beat Bass at the near post for a 2-0 lead. Nelson could have notched another assist in the 31st but his cross was slightly behind Martinelli, who could only head the ball over the bar.

   Nelson led all players with 4 key passes and made 5 accurate crosses out of 13, according to whoscored.com. He also displayed his technique with a solo run in the 69th and a passing accuracy of 93.1%.

  1. Mari’s composure on the ball

   In his first Arsenal start, Mari produced a solid performance. The Spanish centerback won 75% of his aerial duels, compared to 60% for Luiz, 50% for Burgess and 30% for Bolton, according to whoscored.com. The Flamengo loanee’s passing accuracy of 89.5% was decent compared to 92.9% for Luiz.

   Mari could have been a Guardiola signing. His ball-playing abilities were obvious with 13 accurate long balls out of 17, compared to 5 out of 9 for Luiz. Calm on the ball, Mari doesn’t seem to be an error-prone player like Mustafi, Luiz or Sokratis. His defensive stats were not really flashy: Mari made no tackle and no interception. That’s because his game is based on a sound positional play. Mari made 0 foul, had 0 turnover and no Portsmouth player dribbled past him.

   I wouldn’t be surprised if Arteta rebuilds the Arsenal defense around Mari. The club has an option to buy in the summer. Mari definitely needed to play against Portsmouth to have a chance to start against West Ham this weekend because the games he has played with the U23 team are no match for the intensity of the Premier League.

  1. Nketiah’s impressive form

   Since his return from a loan spell at Leeds United, Nketiah has put together some impressive stats, scoring 3 goals in 4 starts under Arteta. Nketiah showed his mental resilience on Monday. He had a shot blocked by Burgess in the 20th and produced a poor effort in the 40th, completely missing the target from 14 yards. But Nketiah bounced back by scoring a poacher’s goal in the 51st.

   Nketiah finished the game with 2 key passes, 2 tackles won and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to whoscored.com. His hold-up play is still underwhelming. Nketiah was dispossessed in the 8th minute while taking a pass from Torreira. Portsmouth hit the Gunners on the fast break, forcing Mari to block a shot from Harrison. Nketiah led all players with 7 turnovers, compared to 3 for Martinelli and 2 for Nelson.

  1. The level of officiating in England is mediocre

   The referee didn’t blow the whistle in the 12th when Bolton made a strong challenge on Torreira. Bolton got the ball but also took Torreira down. It should have been a yellow card for 2 reasons: 1. Bolton went into the tackle with excessive force; 2. Bolton made a dangerous scissor tackle as you can see on the screen capture below.

FA Cup 5th round Torreira editedTorreira’s ankle is trapped between Bolton’s legs. (Photo credit: BT)

   It would have been an automatic yellow card in a European game. Torreira was stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Ceballos in the 16th. That kind of tackle would have been tolerated as a virile challenge in the 1970’s. But we’re in the 21st century and the priority nowadays is to protect the players’ physical integrity so that they can have long careers. Somehow, English referees didn’t get the memo.

  1. Sokratis managed to survive

   Maitland-Niles’ attitude on the training ground must be really poor because Sokratis struggled in the rightback position. Sokratis doesn’t have the pace to cope with wingers and is less likely to roam forward than Maitland-Niles. Most of Pompey’s chances came from Sokratis’ flank. Harness got the better of Sokratis several times but lacked end product. Curtis replaced Harness in the 66th and cut inside Sokratis in the 73rd to test Martinez with an angled strike.  

 

Arsenal vs. Olympiakos: A few thoughts on the 2-1 loss

   It’s a huge disillusion. The Gunners got knocked out in the last 32 of the Europa League on Thursday after reaching the final of the second-tier competition last season. Arsenal initially did the toughest part by winning the first leg 1-0 in Greece. But somehow, the Gunners found a way to self-destruct by losing the second leg 2-1 at home.

Arsenal vs. OlympiakosPhoto credit: Getty Images

   Arsenal ran out of luck. They had 2.19 expected goals compared to 1.50 expected goals for Olympiakos, according to Infogol. But the Gunners can’t really complain because they were supposed to lose against Everton last weekend when in fact they won 3-2.

   Those are dark times for the club. Arsenal won’t play in the Champions League next season. They are 7 points outside the Top 4 in the Premier League and are unlikely to catch Chelsea. However, the Gunners still have a shot at earning a European spot if they win the FA Cup or finish 5th in the Premier League.

   Qualifying again for the Europa League may sound trivial but the lack of European football would definitely impact the club’s recruitment strategy. Last season, Arsenal earned about €39 million in Europa League revenue, according to the UEFA figures. Obviously, the Gunners will earn less than €30 million this season because they were eliminated in the last 32.

  1. The Gunners are still vulnerable on set pieces

   Arsenal conceded 2 goals from set pieces against Everton last weekend. You have to wonder whether they seriously work on set pieces at Colney. Olympiakos opened the scoring from a corner in the 53rd minute. Cisse had a free run to head in Valbuena’s corner. The first mistake came from Ozil, who failed to block Cisse. While Aubameyang was busy blocking Ba, Ozil was caught ball-watching, letting Cisse run past him. The second mistake came from Mustafi, who completely missed his header. The most embarrassing part is that Cisse didn’t even need to jump.  

   In the 29th minute of extra time, El Arabi scored the winning goal with a sliding effort. Initially, Martinelli headed away an Olympiakos corner. The clearance fell to El Abdellaoui, who found Masouras near the touchline. Masouras evaded a tackle from Martinelli to make a teasing cross for El Arabi, who ghosted past Sokratis to beat Leno from close range. Martinelli made the first mistake by diving in. The Brazilian teenager should have just tried to prevent Masouras from crossing the ball. Pepe made the second mistake by failing to close down Masouras, who had plenty of time and space to make a perfect cross. And Sokratis made the third mistake by not marking El Arabi, especially since he could see that Xhaka was playing everyone onside.

  1. Arteta got his approach wrong

   This elimination will be an indelible stain on Arteta’s resume. It was a poor managerial performance no matter how you look at it. Did Arteta pay the price for his inexperience as a manager? Wenger and Emery also had some poor moments in that competition, but they always managed to qualify over 2 legs against the average sides. Arsenal lost the second leg against Ostersund under Wenger and the first leg against BATE Borisov and Rennes under Emery. Some fans will say that Ostersund, BATE Borisov and Rennes are weaker sides than Olympiakos. That may be true, but Olympiakos lost their away games against Spurs, Bayern Munich and Red Star Belgrade this season.

   The Gunners were too passive in the first half. They lacked urgency as if the goal from the first leg was enough to qualify. Something felt wrong when Arsenal played with a medium defensive block in the 4th minute with the forwards waiting near the halfway line instead of pressing high up the pitch. The Gunners finally played inside Olympiakos’ half after Cisse opened the scoring. But it was too late because the damage had already been done: the Greek side gained confidence and believed it could qualify.

   There will be a lot of second guessing inside the club. Last season, Emery heavily rotated in the Europa League to keep his players fresh. Arteta chose the opposite path and fielded his strongest team by making only 2 changes to the side that edged Everton with Saka and Lacazette replacing Kolasinac and Nketiah in the starting lineup. Obviously, the workload has become lighter with that Europa League elimination.

  1. The Aubameyang conundrum

   Is the Arsenal offense weaker when Aubameyang plays in a wide position? Aubameyang scored 2 goals against Everton despite playing on the left wing. But it was a different story against Olympiakos. Aubameyang had nothing to feed off until Arteta made a tactical change in the 84th, shifting to a 3-5-2 formation by replacing Bellerin with Willock. The Gabon striker joined Lacazette in a front two while Xhaka played alongside Luiz and Mustafi in a back three. Aubameyang equalized in the 23rd minute of extra time with a bicycle kick at the far post. He nearly saved his team in the final minute of the game but his half-volley sailed wide.

  1. The Gunners struggled with the final ball

   That has been a recurrent theme this season. Olympiakos also deserved some credit for keeping a compact shape and showing good defensive discipline. But the Gunners can only blame themselves for not moving the ball quickly enough and for lacking accuracy in the final third. Ozil overhit his final ball for Lacazette in the 11th, Pepe missed his cross for Aubameyang and Lacazette in the 27th, Lacazette’s clipped pass for Aubameyang in the 47th was too heavy, Luiz overhit his long ball for Pepe in the 48th, and Aubameyang made a poor cross for Lacazette in the 64th.    

  1. Can Pepe play the Arteta way?

   Pepe showed against Newcastle that he could simplify his game and be more efficient in the final third. On Thursday, Pepe reverted back to the messy player lacking end product. He led all players with 12 successful dribbles out of 14, according to whoscored.com, but had just 1 key pass compared to 2 key passes for Ozil.

   Ozil created Arsenal’s 2 best chances. Martinelli met a cross from Ozil in the 23rd minute of extra time for a header that bounced off Ba and fell into the path of Aubameyang, who acrobatically leveled. In the final minute of the game, Ozil created panic in the Olympiakos defense with another cross. Ba headed the ball against Cisse and the loose ball fell to Aubameyang, who failed to convert from 8 yards.

   Pepe made his best offensive contributions when he showed spontaneity. He made a smart run to collect Lacazette’s through ball in the 20th, forcing Ba to foul him on the edge of the box. Then Pepe tested Sa with a curling shot in the 77th. By contrast, Pepe wasted a good situation in the 75th by multiplying dribbles in the final third instead of feeding Lacazette.

   Arteta has a lot of work to do on the training ground to improve the understanding between Pepe and Ozil. The two players were not on the same page. In the first half, Ozil made a couple of smart runs but Pepe held onto the ball instead of feeding Ozil. A neutral spectator could have thought that Pepe and Ozil had never played together. Pepe missed his final ball for Ozil in the 37th and the 49th before missing short passes to the German playmaker in the 81st and 83rd.

   Guardiola also had to deal with selfish players like Robben and Ribery at Bayern Munich. Somehow, Guardiola built his offense around Robben and Ribery while finding a way to integrate them into his passing game. Arteta is facing a similar problem with Pepe at Arsenal.  

 

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners overcome fatigue in 3-2 win

  For only the second time this season, Arsenal won 3 games in a row by edging Everton 3-2 on Sunday. Nobody can deny that the Gunners have improved under Arteta. They scored 1.38 goals and conceded 1.46 goals per Premier League game under Emery while they have scored 1.50 goals and conceded 1.21 goals per Premier League game under Ljungberg and Arteta.

Arsenal vs. Everton 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Despite the improvements, the Gunners are in a worse position than when Emery was dismissed. They earned 1.384 points per Premier League game under Emery to have 18 points from 13 games, 1 point away from 5th place and a European spot and 1 point clear of Spurs and Manchester United. Under Ljungberg and Arteta, they have earned 1.357 points per game to have 37 points from 27 games, 4 points behind Manchester United in 5th place and 3 points behind Spurs.

   The situation in the standings reflects badly on Sanllehi and the Arsenal board, who waited too long to sack Emery. Arteta needed time to implement his ideas. It’s no coincidence if the results have recently improved after the training sessions in Dubai.  

   Arteta has pretty much found his best team after 2 months at the helm of the club. He made only 1 change to the side that thrashed Newcastle a week ago with Kolasinac replacing a knackered Saka in the starting lineup. That’s quite a contrast with Emery, who kept tinkering in the first half of the season.  

   The Gunners were lucky to get 3 points from Sunday’s game because they struggled physically in the last 20 minutes. Everton finished stronger but failed to convert their 2 big chances. The Toffees had 17 shots and 1.79 expected goals compared to 9 shots and 1.35 expected goals for Arsenal, according to understat.com.

Losing the second ball

   Both Everton goals came from set pieces. The Gunners played a high defensive line when Sigurdsson took a free kick in the opening minute. Kolasinac didn’t get the memo as he played everyone onside by chasing Mina inside the area. Luiz got the better of Holgate but redirected Sigurdsson’s free kick into the path of Calvert-Lewin, who opened the scoring with an overhead kick. Xhaka failed to stay with Calvert-Lewin on that play.

   The Toffees made it 2-2 on the stroke of halftime by winning again the second ball on a set piece. Aubameyang cleared a corner into the path of Sigurdsson, who miskicked his volley. Mina outjumped Mustafi to head the loose ball forward. Richarlison reacted more quickly than Leno to win the 50-50 ball, scoring with an acrobatic kick.

   The 4-0 win over Newcastle already showed that Pepe and Saka provide a lot of penetration in the final third. Saka came off the bench to replace an injured Kolasinac in the 18th. The English teenager helped Arsenal level in the 27th with a pinpoint cross for Nketiah, who made a run between Mina and Holgate to side-foot into the bottom corner. Aubameyang’s pace made the difference for the Gunners’ second goal in the 33rd. The Gabon striker made a run in behind Sidibe to collect a through ball from Luiz before beating Pickford with a curling shot into the far corner. The Arsenal captain scored the winner in the 46th by heading Pepe’s cross past Pickford.

A pure finisher

   Aubameyang raised his tally to 17 goals in the Premier League this season. If you look at his stats, you can see that he’s a pure finisher. First, Aubameyang was clinical against Everton with 2 of 2 shots on target. And second, he has only 1 assist this season while top scorers like Vardy, Aguero and Salah have more assists.

   In theory, Aubameyang should have more assists since he has often started on the left wing. The trouble is that his all-around game is not good enough to deliver the final ball. He missed his return pass to Saka in the 29th and overhit his through ball for Ozil in the 50th. The main benefit of playing Aubameyang in a wide position is that he can make that diagonal run into the half-space between the fullback and the centerback.

   Aubameyang wears the armband because he performs consistently on the pitch. He led by example on Sunday with an outstanding work-rate, making 9 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 interception, 5 recoveries), compared to 6 for Pepe and 3 for Nketiah, according to the club’s website. In fact, only Xhaka (11) and Ceballos (10) made more defensive actions than Aubameyang on the Arsenal team.

   In his post-match press conference, Arteta made it clear that he wants to keep Aubameyang, whose contract expires in the summer of 2021. The club has struggled to retain its star players since failing to qualify for the Champions League. First, there was the mess with the contracts of Sanchez and Ozil during the 2017-18 season. Then, there was the Ramsey fiasco last season.

   Assuming that Aubameyang is willing to stay at Arsenal despite the lack of Champions League football, the club would still need to sell some top players in order to fund transfers. Selling Lacazette would be the rational decision since the Gunners already have Nketiah and Martinelli as replacements.

Pepe adapting to English football

   Nketiah showed good movement to find the net in the 27th. He finished the game with 1 of 3 shots on target, firing over the bar with an angled effort in the 24th and hitting the bar with a curling shot in the 87th. His passing accuracy of 77.8% was good compared to 64.3% for Richarlison and 50% for Calvert-Lewin.

   Although Nketiah has more pace than Lacazette, the academy graduate still needs to work on his all-around game, whether it’s his hold-up play or his link-up play. Nketiah was dispossessed in midfield in the 32nd and missed a short pass to Pepe in the final third in the 58th. He made a decent defensive contribution with 1 tackle, 2 recoveries and 3 fouls. However, his defensive stats are still weaker than Lacazette’s because he doesn’t read the game well enough.

   On the right wing, Pepe made 4 key passes, tied with Richarlison for the most by any player. He made the assist for the winning goal in the 46th and slightly overhit his final ball for Ozil in the 29th. I thought Pepe could have done better with a curling shot in the 26th that didn’t trouble Pickford.

   In his first season at Arsenal, Pepe has proved a decent investment with 6 goals and 8 assists in all competitions. On paper, the transition was not easy for Pepe. First, the Premier League is faster and more physical than the French league. And second, Lille’s success relied on a counterattacking style whereas Arteta prefers possession football.

The limitations of the Arsenal midfield

   In midfield, Arteta relied on the trio that started against Newcastle. While Ceballos and Ozil showed a bit of creativity against the Magpies, their limitations were exposed against Everton with 0.03 expected assist for Ozil and 0.00 expected assist for Ceballos compared to 0.64 expected assist for Saka, 0.34 expected assist for Luiz and 0.27 expected assist for Pepe, according to understat.com. There’s no way Arteta could have confused Ozil and Ceballos with De Bruyne and Silva. Signing a creative midfielder should be a top priority for Arsenal this summer.

   Despite 53 passes and a passing accuracy of 90.6%, Ozil could only make 1 key pass. The German playmaker dribbled past Sidibe in the 75th to tee up Ceballos, whose curling shot from 20 yards sailed wide. Ceballos was even less sharp in the final third with 0 key pass despite 55 passes and a passing accuracy of 87.3%. The Spaniard’s best attacking contribution was a through ball for Aubameyang, whose cross was deflected out by Sidibe in the 6th minute.

   Defensively, the Arsenal midfield looked porous at times. Ceballos showed some good work-rate with 10 defensive actions (2 tackles, 4 interceptions, 4 recoveries) in 75 minutes, compared to 11 defensive actions in 95 minutes for Xhaka and 3 defensive actions in 81 minutes for Ozil, according to the club’s website. But the Real Madrid loanee is not a natural ballwinner. Ceballos made 3 fouls, tied with Xhaka and Nketiah for the most fouls by a Gunner. His foul on Richarlison led to the free kick for Everton’s opening goal.

   As the holding midfielder, Xhaka showed a lack of defensive awareness a couple of times. He failed to stay with Calvert-Lewin on the opening goal. Then Xhaka was too slow to close down Bernard while covering Saka in the 72nd. After Bernard made the cross, Xhaka forgot to play Calvert-Lewin offside. The Switzerland midfielder also gave the ball away in the 77th.

Losing key duels

   The Toffees too easily beat Arsenal’s high press in the 9th minute, pulling Xhaka and Ceballos out of position before Richarlison reached the final third with a run from midfield. Richarlison found Iwobi, who fired wide from our left flank. Ancelotti exploited Ozil’s reluctance to press by sending on Gomes for Schneiderlin in 59th. Gomes created a big chance in the 80th by sending a long ball to Richarlison.

   As the Gunners lost the control of the game in the last 20 minutes, Arteta replaced Ceballos with Torreira in the 76th and Ozil with Guendouzi in the 82nd. Somehow, Arsenal more efficiently pressed high up the pitch in the 87th. Torreira recovered the ball to feed Nketiah, who struck the woodwork.

   Despite that key pass, Torreira didn’t impress in his 19-minute cameo. His passing accuracy of 72.7% was the lowest among Arsenal players. The Uruguay international also gave the ball away in the 89th and was dispossessed in stoppage time by Kean, who missed the target with a low drive.

   Playing in a 4-4-2 formation, Everton put a lot of pressure on the Arsenal defense with Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin up front and Iwobi and Sigurdsson in the wide positions. The Toffees were dominant in the air, winning 19 aerial duels compared to just 8 for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. Calvert-Lewin led all players by winning 9 of 11 aerial duels, while Mustafi and Luiz combined to win just 5 of 10 aerial duels.

   Mari hasn’t played yet for the first team but he will definitely get his chance because Luiz and Mustafi keep losing key duels. Luiz was credited with an error for heading the ball into Calvert-Lewin’s path on the opening goal. The Brazilian defender was then late in the 58th when Richarlison got the better of Mustafi to deliver the final ball but Calvert-Lewin failed to make contact with the ball.

Saka’s off day

   Mustafi has received praise from some fans lately, but his performances are still a mixed bag at best. The German defender won 63.6% of his duels compared to 50% for Luiz, according to the club’s website. Mustafi lost a key duel on Everton’s second goal as Mina outjumped him to feed Richarlison. In stoppage time, Mustafi was also beaten in the air by Calvert-Lewin, who headed Bernard’s cross wide. Calvert-Lewin dispossessed Mustafi in the 44th but Nketiah covered Mustafi and fouled the Everton striker on the edge of the box.

   The few times he was isolated with Richarlison, Mustafi didn’t cover himself in glory. Richarlison rounded Mustafi in the 78th to test Leno with a low strike. Two minutes later, Richarlison toyed with Mustafi before slipping a through ball to Calvert-Lewin, who wasted the big chance with an air shot.

   Saka was supposed to get some rest on Sunday. But Kolasinac’s shoulder injury forced Arteta to send on Saka for the Bosnia-Herzegovina international in the 18th. Saka’s lack of freshness was obvious. He won only 22.2% of his duels and led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers. The English teenager hit the wall physically in the second half, losing possession to Bernard in the 64th and Sidibe in the 65th, and giving the ball away in the 66th and 72nd.

   Despite having an off day, Saka still managed to have a passing accuracy of 92.5% while making 2 key passes, including the assist for Nketiah’s goal. Saka raised his tally to 3 goals and 9 assists in all competitions this season. Some pundits mentioned 10 assists. Officially, it’s 9 assists because Saka’s cross for Martinelli’s goal against Sheffield United took a deflection off a defender.

Leno’s big saves

   On the opposite flank, Bellerin is still struggling to get back to his best. He waited too long to play Pepe clean through on goal in the 69th and the Ivory Coast winger was flagged offside. Bellerin lost a key duel in the 72nd as Richarlison outjumped him to create a big chance for Calvert-Lewin.

   Leno played an important role in the victory. He protected Arsenal’s lead with a reflex save in the 72nd, making himself big to deny Calvert-Lewin. The German goalkeeper then made a leg save in the 78th to parry Richarlison’s close-range effort. Leno also took some pressure off the shoulders of the back four by catching Baines’ teasing cross in the 84th before coming off his line to clear the danger in the 89th as Gomes hit a long ball toward Richarlison.  

   The Gunners next host Olympiakos in the Europa League on Thursday before visiting Portmouth in the FA Cup on Monday. Arteta will probably rotate against Portsmouth to avoid injuries.