West Ham vs. Arsenal: Gunners struggle in 0-0 draw to slip to 7th

The Gunners have collected only 2 points from their last 3 Premier League games to drop to 7th place in the standings, 19 points behind Manchester City. The most embarrassing part is that we haven’t reached the halfway stage yet.

West Ham vs. Arsenal

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

Arsenal split the points with West Ham in a goalless draw on Wednesday just three days after drawing 1-1 with Southampton. You would expect 6 points from away games against a mid-table team, Southampton, and a side fighting relegation, West Ham. Everton and City only had two days of rest like Arsenal, yet they managed to win on the road on Wednesday. If the Gunners don’t improve their away form, they are unlikely to finish in the Top 4. According to Opta, 8 clubs have racked up more points on the road than Arsenal this season.

Wenger injected a bit of freshness by making 4 changes to the side that drew at St Mary’s stadium with Maitland-Niles, Wilshere, Iwobi and Giroud replacing Mertesacker, Kolasinac, Ramsey and Lacazette in the starting lineup. The manager also started a Premier League game with a back four for the first time this season, switching from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-3-3 formation.

Tactically, Arsenal’s lack of width played into the hands of the West Ham defense. Sanchez and Iwobi often cut inside, which means that the final third was too congested. The Gunners also failed to play to Giroud’s strengths. In the France team, Giroud has pacy strikers like Griezmann and Mbappe making runs off him. Sanchez and Iwobi don’t make those runs. Giroud is an old-fashioned centerforward with a limited mobility, but he can dominate in the air, hold the ball up, and link up play. The France striker only had one decent service throughout the game. In the 53rd minute, Maitland-Niles made a cross for Giroud, who headed the ball wide.

Lack of penetration

Like in the Southampton game, Arsenal dominated ball possession but lacked penetration in the final third. There was a lack of urgency in the first half and when the Gunners upped the tempo in the second half, they seemed devoid of ideas. Arsenal mustered only 3 shots on target at the London stadium compared to 15 in the 3-1 loss to Manchester United. Adrian had a relatively quiet evening. The Gunners created 3 decent chances but never really troubled the West Ham goalkeeper.

The first scoring chance came in the 29th when Sanchez found Iwobi inside the area. Iwobi took a touch before striking the post with his weaker left foot from 12 yards. Then Sanchez had a shot blocked in the 56th. The ball fell to Ozil, who controlled it in his stride but poked wide. Wilshere also had an opportunity to break the deadlock in the 70th when Maitland-Niles made a cross for Giroud, who knocked the ball down for Wilshere. From 10 yards, Wilshere controlled the ball with his thigh only to fire over the bar. The Gunners must find a solution to create more chances because weak and average sides will park the bus like the Saints and the Hammers.

When I saw the starting lineup, I had my doubts about the midfield, which looked a bit soft defensively with Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil. But Wilshere helped balance the midfield with his technical quality and commitment. Wilshere led all starters with a passing accuracy of 91.8% according to whoscored.com. He also won 91.7% of his duels, according to the club’s website. For his first Premier League start this season, it was definitely a positive performance from Wilshere, who was the target of a couple of rough challenges but held his nerve.

Running into traffic

I guess the main surprise in the starting lineup was the inclusion of Maitland-Niles at leftback. A midfielder by trade, the academy player did not look out of his depth and produced a decent performance for his first Premier League start. Maitland-Niles made 2 key passes and led all players with 4 accurate crosses. In fact, he was one of the few Gunners who tried to feed Giroud. On the opposite flank, Bellerin had a poor game. The Spaniard made no accurate cross and even failed to stop a dangerous cross from Masuaku in the 14th. Arnautovic headed in Masuaku’s offering but the goal was disallowed for offside.

It can only be positive to have some competition within the squad. Hopefully, Maitland-Niles will push Kolasinac to perform better. Maybe the lack of competition down the right flank is the reason for Bellerin’s average performances this season. Debuchy and Chambers don’t have the pace to play at the top level as fullbacks. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player obviously. He won only 15.4% of his duels, according to the club’s website. A couple of times, Maitland-Niles also showed his naivety, diving in to let Arnautovic dribble past him in the 31st and giving away a cheap free kick in the 37th while Noble had nowhere to go.

Iwobi is just a year older than Maitland-Niles. The Nigeria international has been in the first team since the 2015-16 season but is far from the finished product. He showed his potential by rattling the post in the 29th. However, there are parts of his game that are still frustrating to watch. Playing on the right flank, Iwobi made no cross at all. How is Giroud supposed to score if Bellerin and Iwobi don’t feed him? Iwobi also led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He definitely needs to get rid of this habit of running into traffic, thinking he’s the new Messi or the ghost of Garrincha. And his work-rate is not good enough. Iwobi failed to close down Cresswell, who made a cross for Noble in the 46th. The West Ham captain redirected the ball toward Arnautovic, whose first-time effort sailed over the bar. Iwobi also made no effort to win the ball back after losing possession in the 66th.

Pub defending again

Against a compact defense, you would expect Ozil to produce some magic. But the Germany playmaker had no answer. He led all players with 104 passes, including 3 key passes, but none of those key passes led to Arsenal’s best chances. Sanchez had an off day, too. The Chile striker made 4 key passes but none of his crosses was accurate. I waited for a repeat of his cross that helped salvage a point at St Mary’s stadium, but that moment never came. Sanchez still tested Adrian with a curling free kick in the 73rd before being replaced by Lacazette in the 82nd.

The Gunners made no big blunder in the opening minutes, but they nearly threw away a point with some pub defending in the last minute of regulation time. Stuck along the touchline, Koscielny only had one decent option: a long ball toward Giroud or Welbeck. Yet, the Arsenal captain made a risky crossfield pass similar to the one that led to Manchester United’s opening goal earlier this month. The ball was intercepted, then Monreal poorly cleared the ball into the path of Noble, who played Hernandez in. The defending was so shambolic that Koscielny and Xhaka both rushed toward Noble while Bellerin let Hernandez run past him. With just Cech to beat, Hernandez curled a shot that hit the underside of the bar and bounced in front of the goal line.

There’s a lot of doubt in that Arsenal team since the 3-1 defeat against the Red Devils. They will need to show more mental toughness against Newcastle on Saturday, otherwise the Top 4 race could be over by December for the club. And all the negativity from last season could come back.

 

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Southampton vs. Arsenal: More pub defending in 1-1 draw

Giroud scored in the closing minutes to salvage a 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday as the Gunners stayed 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. This weekend’s results clearly show that Manchester City is running away with the title, while 5 clubs (Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham) will fight for the 3 remaining Champions League spots. Last season, Arsenal missed out on Europe’s elite competition with 75 points from 38 games, 1 point behind the Reds. The cut line this season could be 76 points again. So far, the Gunners are 1 victory short of the cruising speed required for Champions League football with 29 points from 16 games.

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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

The Gunners hurt their chances of getting 3 points at St Mary’s stadium with another poor start. They conceded a goal by the third minute with some pub defending. Cech was not happy after the game as he bluntly said that Arsenal “could have been 3-0 down after 10 minutes again.” The Czech goalkeeper was referring to the disastrous start against Manchester United the previous weekend. While the Gunners had one day less of rest than United after a mid-week game, there was no such excuse for the Southampton game: the 11 starters did not even play in the Europa League on Thursday. An early goal was obviously the best scenario for the Saints, who parked the bus and proved hard to break down.

   Wenger made just one change to the side that lost to United the previous weekend with Mertesacker replacing an injured Mustafi. The FA Cup final provided the blueprint for playing Mertesacker in a back three: Arsenal left very little space between the goalkeeper and the backline against Chelsea even if it meant a lot of distance to cover for the midfielders. Yet, the Gunners decided to play a high defensive line against Southampton. Mertesacker’s lack of pace made such a plan completely suicidal.

Mertesacker and Koscielny struggling at the back

   Mertesacker didn’t cover himself in glory in the third minute. The German defender gave the ball away to Austin, who found Tadic on the edge of the box. Taking advantage of Mertesacker’s comical fall, Tadic had plenty of time to play Austin in. The Southampton striker took a touch before beating Cech from close range. Monreal was slow to react on that play as he let Austin run past him.

Playing on the shoulder of Mertesacker near the center circle, Austin beat again the offside trap in the fifth minute to collect a pass from Tadic but was denied by Cech. The Gunners did not learn their lesson as Austin made another run in behind in the 43rd to chase a through ball from Romeu. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to beat Austin to the ball and clear the danger. A static Mertesacker also failed to close down Romeu, who clipped the bar with a long-range strike in the 62nd.

A week after his poor performance against United, Koscielny had another miserable moment. Koscielny gave the ball away to Redmond in the 66th and the Southampton forward hit a long ball toward Bertrand. Koscielny intercepted the ball with a header but only to knock it into the path of Tadic. Attempting to make up for his mistakes, Koscielny missed his tackle on Tadic and let Bertrand run past him to take Tadic’s pass. With just Cech to beat, Bertrand somehow missed the target. You don’t often see a player make 4 mistakes on the same play.

We know Mertesacker and Koscielny have lost a step. It’s a different story with Bellerin who is only 22. The Spaniard has produced a lot of average performances this season, well below the level that helped him get named in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year.

A more direct approach

Bellerin had a hard time on Sunday with Bertrand and Redmond roaming down his flank. He won only 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage for an Arsenal midfielder according to the club’s website. Bertrand outpaced Bellerin in the eighth minute to make a cross for Austin, who hit the post but was flagged offside anyway. Then Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Ward in the 29th. An unmarked Austin knocked the ball down for Van Dijk, whose flick bounced off Xhaka to gently roll toward Cech. Bellerin lost another duel in the 53rd, allowing Redmond to test Cech with a long-range effort, before receiving a yellow card in the 78th for pulling back Boufal.

After Southampton took the lead, the Gunners enjoyed plenty of ball possession but lacked penetration in the final third. As a symbol of Arsenal’s sterile possession, Koscielny (102), Xhaka (95) and Monreal (93) led the team in passes, according to whoscored.com. If you can’t beat with the pass, then running at defenders is the obvious alternative. Unfortunately, our dribbling options are limited since Oxlade-Chamberlain joined Liverpool. Arsenal finished the game with fewer successful dribbles than the Saints.

So the manager opted for more directness by replacing Mertesacker with Welbeck in the 64th and Lacazette with Giroud in the 72nd. With those 2 substitutions, the Gunners suddenly became more threatening in the air. Yet, it took them 16 minutes to finally feed Giroud. The France striker converted his only scoring chance of the game by outjumping Yoshida in the 88th to head Sanchez’s cross into the bottom corner. Let’s give some credit to Giroud for isolating himself with Yoshida and therefore creating a bad matchup for the Southampton defense.

Very good or world class?

Arsenal had to rely on Giroud’s physicality because Lacazette’s pace was of no use against a compact defense. Receiving the ball in tight spots, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, which is not his forte. Xhaka redirected a high ball from Sanchez toward Lacazette, who held off Yoshida only to fire a low shot straight at Forster in the 16th. A minute later, Lacazette wasted a better chance on a counterattack. See the screen capture below. In a 3v1 situation, Lacazette controlled Bellerin’s pass with a poor first touch, allowing Hojbjerg to clear the ball to safety. In hindsight, Lacazette should have made a first-time pass to Ozil to his right. Easy to say, but very difficult to do at full throttle.

Southampton M17edLacazette wasting a 3v1 situation on a counterattack. (Photo credit: BT)

Then Bellerin made a low cross for Lacazette, who fired over the bar from 12 yards in the 41st. The France international should have caught the frame in that kind of situation. If Lacazette doesn’t become more clinical, football fans will keep thinking he’s a very good player but not a world-class striker, i.e. the difference between Lukaku and Aguero.

Sanchez and Ozil didn’t shine either on Sunday. Sanchez had an average game while Ozil was pretty much anonymous. Ozil finished the game with 0 key pass and had 6 turnovers, trailing only Sanchez (7) for the most by any player. By contrast, Tadic led Southampton with just 4 turnovers. Ozil’s lack of end product meant that the creative burden rested on the shoulders of Sanchez, who led Arsenal with 3 key passes. Besides the assist for the equalizer, Sanchez also had a curling free kick punched away by Forster in the 84th.

Questions about Sanchez and Ozil

Any time Sanchez and Ozil don’t perform well, Arsenal supporters can’t help wondering whether they are still playing for the club or preparing their transfers. You can only blame the manager and the board for having created this situation. It feels very much like a transition season because of all that uncertainty.

In hindsight, most supporters wouldn’t have been mad at the club for letting Sanchez and Ozil go this summer if they had been properly replaced. There was a dressing room revolt in 2011 because Fabregas and Nasri had not been replaced. Oxlade-Chamberlain was just a prospect then. By contrast, Van Persie’s departure generated no such drama in 2012 because the club had signed Podolski and Giroud for goals as well as Cazorla to finally fill the hole left by Fabregas.

It was also in 2011 that the Gunners signed Arteta. The Spaniard proved a leader in the dressing room but his time with Mertesacker became the symbol of Arsenal’s porous defense, especially during the 2013-14 season. Their lack of pace made the team vulnerable on counterattacks. The same issue is repeating itself with the gradual decline of Koscielny and Monreal at the back and Xhaka’s lack of mobility in midfield.

There were suggestions before Sunday’s game that Arsenal might start with a back four like in the 6-0 win over BATE Borisov. In the end, the manager was too much aware of the lack of protection provided by the midfield and stuck with the 3-4-3 formation. The third centerback is basically making up for the lack of a decent defensive midfielder. In theory, Xhaka is the holding midfielder but you never know what you are going to get with him. He made a reckless challenge on Bertrand to give away a cheap free kick in the 26th. But he also made a clean tackle on Redmond to kill a Southampton counterattack in the 35th. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger finally switched to a back four in the 64th even though it exposed Monreal and Koscielny, who had to cope with 2v2 situations a couple of times.

Ramsey’s hamstring injury

Ramsey was the only Arsenal player who really tested Forster in the first half. He met a low cross from Sanchez in the 32nd for a first-time effort that the Southampton goalkeeper saved. In the closing minutes, Ramsey seemed to pick up a hamstring injury. He stayed on the pitch because Wenger had already used up his substitutions. On one leg, Ramsey still managed to connect with a cross from Kolasinac in stoppage time but his shot had no power.

The Wales midfielder has been Arsenal’s most valuable player this season in terms of goals and assists. His injury is coming at a bad time because of the hectic schedule. Knowing Ramsey’s injury record, the staff definitely needs to be careful and not rush him in his return. Wilshere would seem the most suitable replacement for Ramsey in midfield even though they have 2 different profiles.

The Gunners need 2 wins from their next 2 games to make up for the points dropped against Stoke, Watford and Manchester United. I don’t expect too much rotation against West Ham on Wednesday but some tinkering against Newcastle on Saturday might be necessary to inject some freshness and avoid injuries.

 

 

Arsenal vs. BATE Borisov: A few thoughts on the 6-0 win

The Gunners finished the group stage of the Europa League on a high note with a 6-0 demolition of BATE Borisov on Thursday. Arsenal played in a half-empty stadium because they had secured the top spot in the previous round and the game was therefore a dead rubber.

Arsenal vs. Borisov

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

Wenger made 11 changes to the side that lost 3-1 to Manchester United a few days ago. Against the weakest club of Group H, the manager also shifted to a back four with Chambers and Holding as centerbacks and Debuchy and Maitland-Niles as fullbacks. Although the Gunners won 4-2 in Belarus, Wenger fielded an experienced lineup with just one player from the academy. Youngsters like Nelson, Willock and Nketiah only came off the bench in the second half.

  1. The World Cup is coming

For some players, the World Cup is the most important competition in their careers. They only have a few months left to convince their national managers that they should go to Russia. Welbeck played in the 2014 World Cup and is facing some tough competition for the England squad this season. He knows goals will definitely impress Southgate.

On Thursday, Welbeck had 2 shots saved by Scherbitski and proved selfish at least twice. Wilshere released Welbeck down the left flank in the 22nd minute. Instead of making a low cross for an unmarked Giroud, Welbeck attempted an angled effort that Scherbitski blocked outside his area. Welbeck was again obsessed with scoring on his own in the 37th. The Englishman tried to dribble past 2 defenders but lost possession with a heavy touch. Milunovic knocked the loose ball into the path of Walcott, who fired past Scherbitski for a 2-0 lead.

Giroud also tried too hard with just 2 of 7 shots on target. He took his chance from tough positions a couple of times. His hold-up play was also poor but at least he found the net and worked hard for his teammates. Giroud beat Scherbitski with a spot kick into the top corner in the 63rd but was forced to re-take the penalty because of an encroachment. The Frenchman chose the same side but fired low the second time to make it 5-0.

As a selfless player, Giroud set up Elneny for a strike that hit the base of the post in the third minute. He also redirected a cross from Wilshere into the path of Walcott, whose half-volley was saved in the 26th. And he won the ball in midfield for the second goal. Playing time might be a less important issue for Giroud to earn a World Cup spot because his unique profile in the France squad makes him more valuable.

Few football fans would bet on Walcott making the England squad, but he still has an outside chance. The Belarusian side played to his strengths by leaving a lot of space between the goalkeeper and the backline. Walcott notched 1 goal and 2 assists in a good all-around performance. He could have added another goal in the 40th but Milunovic cleared his low effort off the line. Poliakov was less lucky in the 51st as he sent Walcott’s cross into his own net. Walcott then won the penalty in the 63rd by poorly controlling Welbeck’s pass. Milunovic tried to win the ball but Walcott was quicker and got fouled by the BATE defender.

  1. Holding is slightly ahead of Chambers

The football website whoscored.com gave a better grade to Chambers but I thought Holding performed better. They didn’t have much work to do, but at least they didn’t make any cock-up like Koscielny and Mustafi. The case for Holding: He had a passing accuracy of 94%, made 4 interceptions and 2 blocks, hit 3 accurate long balls out of 3, and had 0 turnover, while Chambers had a passing accuracy of 84%, made 1 interception and 1 block, hit 5 accurate long balls out of 12, and was dispossessed twice. The case for Chambers: He won 1 of 1 tackle and 5 of 5 aerial duels, while Holding won 0 of 2 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. It doesn’t show in the stats but Stasevich rolled away from Chambers in the 68th to shoot straight at Ospina.

  1. What is the best system for Wilshere?

It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in a 3-4-3 system. His limited defensive contribution prevents him from playing as the holding midfielder even if Xhaka is a choice by default. Wilshere doesn’t have Ramsey’s all-around game to play in the demanding position of a box-to-box midfielder. And he doesn’t have the pace of Sanchez or Ozil to play in the front three. On Thursday, the switch to a back four made clear that Wilshere is more comfortable in a 4-2-3-1 formation. As he is aging, Wilshere looks more and more like Fabregas in his game. Wilshere can slip those through balls from midfield while proving a serious goal threat from mid-range.

Wilshere finished the game with 1 goal and 1 assist and led all players with 5 key passes. He also had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, according to Squawka. Wilshere curled a shot from the edge of the box that Scherbitski tipped over the bar in the 42nd. A minute later, Wilshere took a pass from Walcott and created some space to smash the ball into the corner for a 3-0 lead. In a similar situation in the 74th, Wilshere drew two defenders before setting up Elneny, who curled into the far corner to seal the win. It was a great performance but the weakness of the opposition definitely helped Wilshere.

  1. Debuchy scored his first goal since 2014

Debuchy broke the deadlock in the 11th minute by pouncing on a loose ball to rifle into the far corner. Milunovic initially brought down Walcott inside the area but the referee didn’t blow the whistle, so Debuchy took his chance from 16 yards. Debuchy looked a better fit at rightback than Chambers against Cologne. Most Arsenal attacks came from the right flank although Debuchy didn’t create any chance. BATE forwards also never really tested Debuchy’s relative lack of pace. Debuchy seems to have come to terms with the end of his international career as he hasn’t been vocal about his playing time this season.

  1. Coquelin and Elneny bossed the midfield

The opposition was so weak that Coquelin and Elneny only combined for 1 tackle. The more surprising stat is the 3 key passes they each made. Only Wilshere had more key passes. Elneny led all starters with a passing accuracy of 96% while Coquelin’s technical limitations showed with 6 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player.

 

Arsenal vs. Manchester United: Gunners pay for defensive errors in 3-1 loss

The Gunners threw their perfect home record out the window with some pub defending from the centerbacks, losing 3-1 to Manchester United on Saturday to slip to fifth place in the Premier League, 1 point behind Liverpool and 4 points behind Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Paradoxically, Arsenal produced a good performance with 15 shots on target to just 4 for the visitors. The trouble is that the Gunners proved wasteful in the final third. Sure, De Gea was at his shot-stopping best with 14 saves, but only a couple of those saves were really outstanding. By contrast, the Red Devils were more efficient at both ends of the pitch, sound defensively and clinical offensively, pretty much like the Inter Milan side managed by Mourinho from 2008 to 2010.

United created very little: all their goals came from Arsenal turnovers. The Gunners made Mourinho’s job much easier by conceding 2 goals in the first 11 minutes. United then just had to sit back and hit Arsenal on the fast break. The Arsenal centerbacks and Xhaka usually lead the team in passes. But on Saturday, it was Ozil (107), Ramsey (77) and Sanchez (67) who made the most passes according to whoscored.com, which clearly shows that the Red Devils were happy to let Arsenal enjoy 75% of ball possession.

Wenger made no change to the side that thrashed Huddersfield Town 5-0 on Wednesday. I thought the Gunners’ approach in the opening minutes was wrong. United had one day more of recovery and therefore tried to put Arsenal on the back foot early in the game. Instead of absorbing the pressure, the Gunners tried to match United’s intensity. Unfortunately, United’s fresher legs made the difference in the opening minutes. If Arsenal had played their previous league game on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, maybe it would have been a good idea to go tit for tat.

When a simple pass is the best option

Besides the final scoreline, the losses to Manchester City and United have one thing in common: both teams created chances by forcing Arsenal turnovers. The Red Devils made 14 interceptions compared to 8 for the Gunners, according to Squawka. Koscielny put his team in danger with a risky crossfield pass for Kolasinac in the fourth minute. Valencia intercepted the pass and played a one-two with Pogba before firing through Cech’s legs to give United the lead.

As you can see on the screen capture below, Pogba, Lukaku and Valencia were positioned to cut two of Koscielny’s passing options (Sanchez and Kolasinac). The static Xhaka was standing in front of Koscielny, preventing the France centerback from spotting Ozil and Lacazette. In hindsight, Ramsey to his left was Koscielny’s best passing option. It was a simple pass and maybe an overambitious Koscielny thought it didn’t help Arsenal move forward. On that play, Monreal made the mistake of rushing toward Pogba instead of staying with Valencia.

Arsenal vs. United M4editedPogba, Lukaku and Valencia cutting Koscielny’s passing options. (Photo credit: BT)

The second goal also resulted from United’s work in cutting the passing channels. Lingard pressured Mustafi into making a mistake in the 11th. Looking for a solution, Mustafi dallied on the ball and was robbed by Lingard, who slipped the ball to Lukaku. The Belgium striker dribbled past Mustafi to find Martial, who played Lingard in with some clever footwork. Lingard doubled the lead by beating Cech with a low strike off the post. Cech was Mustafi’s best passing option on that play. As you can see on the screen capture below, Monreal was even showing Mustafi where to play the ball.

Arsenal vs. United M11editedMartial, Lingard and Lukaku cutting Mustafi’s passing options. (Photo credit: BT)

The Gunners didn’t cover themselves in glory with the last goal either. The Red Devils capitalized on a Sanchez turnover to launch a counterattack from their own half in the 63rd. Lingard ran past Xhaka to release Pogba down our left flank. Instead of showing Pogba the corner, Koscielny dived in and missed his challenge, allowing Pogba to cut the ball back for Lingard, who tapped in for a 3-1 lead.

Fixing 2 key positions 

This defeat shows that the Gunners have weak defensive foundations. A world-class centerback and a top defensive midfielder should be signed next summer. As long as the club doesn’t fix those 2 positions, Arsenal will never be able to contend. Mustafi’s leadership skills were seriously questioned with his blunder that led to the second goal. Losing possession as the last defender is a no-no at the top level. Meanwhile, Koscielny is losing a step at 32 and his nagging Achilles problem means that playing 3 games in a 7-day span could prove a too big challenge for him. Koscielny only won 23% of his duels compared to 58% for Monreal, according to the club’s website.

Lingard beat the offside trap in the 52nd to collect a through ball from Martial. After Cech diverted Lingard’s shot onto the far post, Martial pounced on the rebound only to have his close-range effort blocked by Monreal. With no pressure on Martial, Koscielny should have dropped off on that play instead of playing a high defensive line. In the closing minutes, Koscielny was booked for bringing down Lukaku. Bellerin’s nearby presence somehow prevented Koscielny from getting a red card.

On the flanks, Bellerin had a poor game. The Spaniard made no interception and no block and won 0 of 4 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Kolasinac did a bit better by making 1 interception and winning 1 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels. Both tested De Gea with long-range strikes in the 44th. The switch to a back four in the 15th because of Mustafi’s injury did not benefit Bellerin, whose game is better tailored for the wingback position. Bellerin received a yellow card for a poor challenge on Young in the 72nd. Two minutes later, Bellerin had an injury scare as Pogba stamped on the back of his knee. The Manchester midfielder was sent off for that dangerous play.

Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness

In midfield, Ramsey and Xhaka performed well against Huddersfield but the duo showed again their limits against top opposition (first Liverpool, then Manchester City and now United). Ramsey is obviously the attacking spear of the duo because of his deep runs. He won 1 of 4 tackles and made 3 key passes and 2 interceptions. The Wales midfielder set up Lacazette for the consolation goal in the 49th, raising his tally to 6 assists this season. Only De Bruyne and Silva have more assists in the league with 8 each. Ramsey could have scored in stoppage time but sent his half-volley over the bar.

Xhaka is supposed to be the shield in the midfield partnership. His stats look decent with a passing accuracy of 93%, 2 chances created, 5 of 7 tackles won, 1 of 2 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 2 blocks. No one can deny that Xhaka put in a shift. The issue is Xhaka’s lack of mobility and his poor defensive awareness.

When Xhaka is well positioned, he can make clean tackles like the one on Martial in the 40th. But when he’s a yard off, the challenge turns into a foul because of his lack of mobility. Xhaka made an obstruction on Rojo in the third minute, missed his tackle on Lingard in the 52nd and made another mistimed challenge on Lingard in the 62nd. Despite this flaw, Xhaka has shown enough self-discipline to avoid penalties and red cards this season.

A too big hole to climb out of

However, the real problem is Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness. Xhaka doesn’t smell the danger. On the opening goal, Xhaka was on the same line as Valencia when the interception was made. Yet, Xhaka didn’t rush back. In fact, he only entered the Arsenal area when Valencia pulled the trigger. The last goal showed how clueless Xhaka was. Sanchez gave away the ball with a backheel flick. Matic launched the counterattack by finding Lukaku in midfield. As you can see on the screen capture below, 7 Gunners were ahead of Xhaka when Matic made the pass. Xhaka should have realized that Koscielny and Monreal were badly exposed. He was also in a good position to spot Lingard’s run. As the holding midfielder, Xhaka should have dropped off to mark Lingard or even block his run.

Arsenal vs. United M63aeditedXhaka should have dropped off as Lingard made his run. (Photo credit: BT)

Xhaka only reacted once Lingard took Lukaku’s pass. Because Lukaku pulled Monreal out of position, Xhaka’s passivity basically meant that Lingard was in a 1v1 situation with Koscielny within a couple of seconds. See the screen capture below. Xhaka got some stick for not marking Lingard when Pogba cut the ball back, but I don’t blame Xhaka for not spotting Lingard’s movement behind his back. On the other hand, Xhaka could have killed the counterattack if he had smelt the danger in midfield.

Arsenal vs. United M63bedited Lingard running past Xhaka to be in a 1v1 situation with Koscielny. (Photo credit: BT)

We can give Arsenal some credit for reacting after a disastrous start. But the Gunners really digged a hole that was too big to climb out of. The manager shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation when Iwobi replaced Mustafi in the 15th with Ozil playing in the hole. Arsenal looked vulnerable on the Red Devils’ counterattacks because the back four didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. On a weird play in the 33rd, Ozil even ended up in the centerback position because Ramsey and Xhaka got stuck high up the pitch while Monreal was again pulled out of position.

Lacazette deprived of a hat trick by De Gea

Trailing by two goals, Wenger threw the kitchen sink at United by replacing Xhaka with Welbeck in the 70th with Iwobi joining Ramsey in midfield while Welbeck played on the right wing. Pogba’s ejection in the 74th led to another tactical change with a switch back to a 3-4-3 system. The manager sent on Giroud for Kolasinac in the 76th with Iwobi and Welbeck playing as wingbacks while Ozil and Ramsey pulled the strings in midfield. The team lacked balance especially since Giroud had no source of supply from the left wing.

Lacazette was arguably the best Gunner on Saturday with a good all-around game. He scored a goal, created 2 chances, had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, made 2 blocks and won 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. My only criticism is the 7 turnovers he had, tied with Sanchez for the most by an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Lacazette is usually tidy in possession but the density of the Manchester defense deprived him of any space.

Without De Gea’s outstanding saves, Lacazette could have notched a hat trick. The Manchester defense failed to clear a corner in the 20th and Xhaka headed the loose ball toward Lacazette, who could only flick the ball with the tip of his boot while wrestling with Rojo. De Gea was lucky to see the ball bounce off his leg as he had no idea of what was going on.

A deflected pass from Sanchez led to another goalmouth scramble in the 32nd. Lacazette took the loose ball and got the better of Rojo before rounding De Gea to fire a shot that the goalkeeper, crawling on the ground, diverted onto the bar. The France striker finally found the net in the 49th, blasting the ball past De Gea from 5 yards. Lacazette was then denied the equalizer in the 56th as De Gea dived to parry his 10-yard strike.

Iwobi finally connecting with Lacazette

Coming off the bench, Welbeck had more impact than Giroud. De Gea tipped Welbeck’s deflected shot over the bar in the 83rd. Two minutes later, Welbeck headed Ramsey’s cross over the bar. He was also involved in a small controversy in the 88th. Welbeck should have been awarded a penalty after Darmian tripped him inside the area. But Welbeck quickly got back on his feet and the referee refrained from blowing the whistle. I felt that the referee bottled it. After giving a red card to Pogba, he probably didn’t want to seem too harsh with United. In his post-match news conference, a cynical Mourinho suggested that it was a dive. Well, we all know what Mourinho would have said if it had happened to his team.

There was a lot of pressure on Iwobi when he replaced Mustafi in the 15th. Substitutes sometimes want to do too much when their team trails by two goals. But Iwobi kept things simple and showed more end product than usual with 3 shots on target and 3 key passes. He also made 2 blocks and won 1 of 1 tackle. The main positive from the game for Iwobi is the improvement of his relationship with Lacazette. In the 52nd, the Frenchman picked out Iwobi, who lifted the ball for himself to test De Gea with a 13-yard snapshot. Four minutes later, Iwobi set up Lacazette for a scoring chance. Iwobi definitely needs to work on his finishing, which is mediocre. While Lacazette naturally aims for the corners, too many of Iwobi’s goal attempts are either off target or near the middle of the net.

3 must-win games

Although Arsenal dominated ball possession, Ozil and Sanchez didn’t really shine. Sanchez led the team with 5 key passes, followed by Ozil with 4. The Chile striker produced an average performance by his own standards. He had no successful dribble and made no tackle, no interception and no block. It was very similar to his performance against Huddersfield, except that he didn’t score on Saturday. Sanchez still made the penultimate pass for Lacazette’s goal with a pinpoint cross for Ramsey. He also found Iwobi with another cross in the 55th but the Nigeria international could only hit a tame header.

I thought Sanchez should have done better when De Gea parried Lacazette’s shot in the 56th. Sanchez pounced on the rebound and had his effort saved by De Gea’s foot. After watching several TV replays, maybe a chip or a strike into the roof of the net would have been the better option. Or maybe De Gea would have still made the save. That was definitely the turning point of the game. Who knows how United would have reacted to an equalizer. Sanchez also tested De Gea with a shot from the edge of the box in the 65th.

Amid all the talk about his contract, Ozil did his bit but nothing more. Ozil managed to beat De Gea with a free kick in the 30th but Young cleared the ball off the line. Then Ozil fired a low volley straight at De Gea in the 36th. When your team is struggling, you want a player who can take the game by the scruff of the neck. Unfortunately, Ozil is not that kind of player.

I expect the manager to heavily rotate against BATE Borisov on Thursday. The Gunners have already secured a first-place finish in the group stage of the Europa League, so there’s no need to start any key player and risk a stupid injury. The priority is still the Premier League, where Arsenal will need to win their next 3 games against Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle to make up ground in the Top 4 race.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield: Ozil shows his class in 5-0 win

   In a five-minute span, Ozil made 2 assists and scored 1 goal to lead Arsenal to a 5-0 rout of Huddersfield on Wednesday. The Gunners needed that victory to stay fourth in the Premier League and keep pace with the top teams as Manchester City, the Red Devils, Chelsea and Liverpool also won their games.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield

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

Wenger made just one change to the side that edged Burnley 1-0 on Sunday with Ozil replacing Iwobi in the starting lineup. That move made a huge difference on the pitch. At 21, Iwobi has great potential but he’s not the finished product yet. He only managed 1 key pass against a compact Burnley defense because his reading of the game is not good enough. By contrast, Ozil is at the top of his game at 29. Ozil may go missing against the big teams but the quality of his runs and final ball proves so valuable against the weak and average sides.

Ozil led all players with 5 key passes. The Germany playmaker was relatively quiet in the first half. But his performance after halftime was a different story. In the 3-4-3 formation, Ozil has a lot of freedom. He can drop back to create plays. He can also drift to the right flank to escape marking. And he can play as a second striker by making runs in behind.

Sanchez caught the attention of three Terriers in the 47th minute to set up Ozil, unmarked at the far post. Ozil controlled the ball and curled a 12-yard shot that Cranie blocked. Maybe a first-time effort was the better option. Then the Ozil show started. Ozil played a one-two with Sanchez in the 68th before squaring the ball back to Giroud, who made it 2-0 with a low strike. In that kind of situation, I have too often seen Iwobi run into traffic this season only to lose possession. Ozil has a perfect picture of the situation before he gets the ball, which means that he knows exactly what are his passing options when he makes his first touch.

The understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey

Another difference between Ozil and Iwobi is that Ozil is smarter in his runs off the ball because he can visualize how a play will unfold and what his role in that play will be. As soon as Mustafi won a header in midfield in the 70th, Ozil made a run along the touchline. The ball fell to Giroud, who played it back to Ramsey. With a first-time pass, Ramsey released Ozil down the right wing. By the time Lowe saw the danger, it was already too late. Ozil got a head start over the Huddersfield wingback and had therefore plenty of time to make a pinpoint cross with his weaker foot for Sanchez, who volleyed high past Lossl for a 3-0 lead.

Ozil swapped positions with Giroud in the 72nd and perfectly timed his run to beat the offside trap. Collecting a through ball from Ramsey, Ozil added a fourth goal by chipping Lossl. In the closing minutes, Ozil nearly got a third assist with a ball over the top for Welbeck, but the England international couldn’t trap the ball and Lossl was able to gather it. Ozil is simply one of the best playmakers in the world and Iwobi needs to work harder to get near his level.

While Ozil stole the show in the second half, the Gunners owed their first-half lead to Lacazette. In the third minute, Ramsey played Lacazette in with a backheel flick and the France striker slipped the ball past Lossl to open the scoring. While the understanding between Ozil and Sanchez proved instrumental in the second and third goals, it was the understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey that cracked the Huddersfield defense in the opening minutes. It’s kind of ironic because Ozil and Sanchez may no longer be at the club next season whereas the duo formed by Lacazette and Ramsey could define Arsenal’s future.

Giroud’s hunger

Lacazette came close to doubling the lead in the 31st. Xhaka initially overhit his pass for an offside Kolasinac, but Lacazette sprinted to keep the ball in play and attempted a cheeky lob from the by-line. Cranie somehow cleared the ball off the line with an overhead kick. Unfortunately, Lacazette picked up a groin injury and was replaced by Giroud at halftime. That injury is coming at the worst time for the Gunners because they have a busy schedule until mid-January.

Giroud showed his hunger by taking 6 shots and reaching a passing accuracy of 100%, according to Squawka. His first scoring chance came from a counterattack in the 51st. Bellerin made a low cross for Giroud, whose shot was blocked by Schindler. Then Ramsey slipped a through ball to Giroud, who rounded Lossl in the 59th only to hit the near post. Giroud made amends by converting Ozil’s pass in the 68th for his first goal in the Premier League since the opening game against Leicester in August. As a boost to his confidence, Giroud took the ball off Kolasinac to seal the win from close range in the 87th. Hopefully, Giroud’s rediscovered form will help compensate for Lacazette’s absence.

Sanchez didn’t have a great game, but he still managed to find the net with a clinical volley in the 70th. His previous goal attempts were unimpressive to say the least. Sanchez took a pass from Ozil in the 27th only to produce an air shot. Then Kolasinac found Sanchez inside the area in the 62nd and the Chile striker curled a shot wide of the far post. The manager clearly had the United game in mind as he yanked Sanchez off in the 73rd to send on Welbeck.

In midfield, Ramsey shared the creative burden with Ozil by making 3 key passes, including 2 accurate through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Sanchez is usually the one helping Ozil to create chances, but Sanchez had an off day with only 1 key pass so Ramsey had to step up in that area.

Complacency after the opener

At times, the team morphed into a bastardized 4-4-2 formation with Xhaka, Mustafi, Koscielny and Monreal at the back, Ramsey, Ozil, Bellerin and Kolasinac in midfield, and Sanchez and Lacazette up front. Xhaka helped Ramsey have an impact in the final third by focusing on his defensive duties. The Switzerland international won 3 of 6 tackles compared to 0 of 3 tackles for Ramsey, according to Squawka.

On the wings, Kolasinac and Bellerin contributed offensively with 3 and 2 key passes, respectively. Kolasinac was involved in the second and fifth goals but his passing accuracy of 68% was the lowest of any Arsenal player. Obviously, Kolasinac is taking risks in the final third, so you shouldn’t expect him to have Bellerin’s passing accuracy of 91%. But Kolasinac’s technique is decent enough to expect a passing accuracy around 80%. Hopefully, the Arsenal staff can sort out what is the issue.

Besides Lacazette’s injury, the only negative from Wednesday’s game is the complacency that hit the team after the opening goal. The Gunners basically took their foot off the pedal. They put themselves in trouble by playing at 90 or 95% of their potential between the third minute and the 68th. Mustafi in the 29th, Xhaka in the 35th and Koscielny in the 63rd cheaply gave the ball away. In the final third, Bellerin crossed the ball out of play in the 33rd, and Xhaka’s long-range strike veered toward the corner flag in the 42nd.

The Gunners lost their minds in the 37th by trying to dribble their way out of trouble from their own area. A poor clearance from Koscielny led to an Arsenal turnover and a penalty shout for Huddersfield as Mustafi lost an aerial duel and collided with Mounie. A minute later, a string of misplaced passes led to a dangerous Huddersfield counterattack. Quaner dribbled past Xhaka to find Mounie, who played the ball back to Quaner. A poor first touch from Quaner gave Koscielny enough time to rush back and block the shot from the German forward.

The best and worst of Cech

There was also a lack of focus that could have cost the Gunners dearly. Mustafi misread the flight of a long ball in the 21st and missed his header, forcing Cech to come off his line. The Czech goalkeeper beat Mounie to the ball to clear the danger. Then the Arsenal defense was completely disorganized in the 51st. As Monreal was pulled out of position, Kolasinac forgot to cover the Spaniard and gave Quaner a boulevard to the area. Mustafi hesitated for a split second and came too late to make the block. It took a leg save from Cech to prevent Quaner from equalizing. Two minutes later, Cech nearly scored an own goal by panicking in his own area. Monreal diverted Mounie’s shot high in the air. Cech could have caught the loose ball but he preferred to punch it to safety off the crossbar.

If we except those chances gifted by Arsenal’s complacency, the Terriers created very little. Lowe skipped past Bellerin in the 12th only to have his cross intercepted by Cech. Jorgensen then connected with a free kick from Lowe in the 22nd but Koscielny did enough to put off the Huddersfield centerback, who headed over the bar. After the break, Hadergjonaj made a dangerous cross from Kolasinac’s flank but Mounie missed his header in the 65th. Mustafi produced the most decent performance at the back by making 7 interceptions and winning 3 of 4 tackles and 4 of 12 headers while Koscielny and Monreal combined to win only 1 of 8 tackles, according to Squawka.

A perfect record on the line

The Gunners have turned the Emirates stadium into a fortress this season with 7 wins from 7 Premier League games. That perfect record could be in danger against Manchester United on Saturday. Lacazette’s injury means that either Giroud or Welbeck will lead the line. Giroud is a good choice when the team dominates ball possession while Welbeck is a better option when the team has to run after the ball. Welbeck also has more pace but the Frenchman has scored more goals recently.

Wenger was again asked about Ozil’s future in his news conference before the United game. It could prove a tricky match for Ozil, who has been linked with a move to the Red Devils. The more we look at it, and the more it’s obvious that the club completely mismanaged the summer transfer window. Scenario 1: the manager and the board win their gamble if both Sanchez and Ozil extend their contracts at Arsenal. Scenario 2: if both players leave next summer while the Gunners finish in the Top 4, the club will limit the damage on the pitch but lose £50-90 million of transfer fees. Scenario 3: if both players leave next summer while the Gunners miss out on a Champions League spot, the club will lose on the pitch and financially. Scenario 4: Ozil and/or Sanchez leave in January but there’s no replacement. The club will limit the damage financially but the squad will be significantly weakened. Scenario 5: Ozil and/or Sanchez leave in January and are replaced by top signings. The club will limit the damage financially but only a Top 4 finish will tell whether it is a smart move.

Burnley vs. Arsenal: Gunners leapfrog Spurs into 4th place after 1-0 win

   Sanchez converted a penalty in the last minute of stoppage time to lead Arsenal to a 1-0 victory over Burnley on Sunday. The scrappy win propelled the Gunners to fourth place in the Premier League, 1 point behind Chelsea and 1 point clear of Spurs.

Burnley vs. Arsenal.jpg

Photo credit: Getty

Wenger made only one change to the side that defeated Tottenham the previous weekend with Iwobi replacing a sick Ozil in the starting lineup. Dyche is like the new Pulis: his Burnley side played with a lot of commitment, relying on crosses and long balls to test the Arsenal defense and parking the bus in a 4-5-1 formation when the Gunners had the ball. I thought Arsenal didn’t work hard enough in the first half. They were miles away from the level displayed against Spurs. Somehow, the Gunners could have opened the scoring before halftime but were let down by some poor finishing. They played with more intensity in the second half and wasted good situations with some poor decision-making or a final ball lacking accuracy. On the bright side, the Clarets had no clear-cut chances after forcing Cech into a couple of fine saves in the first half.

Dyche complained about the penalty in his post-match news conference, saying the big clubs get those big decisions, but not small clubs like Burnley. It’s basically a manager trying to protect one of his players, Tarkowski, by deflecting the blame on the officiating. If Dyche is honest, he should acknowledge that the Clarets could have been down to 10 men in the first half and that Arsenal could have been awarded another penalty in the second half. Brady was not even booked for a reckless studs-up tackle on Monreal in the 17th, which means that the Burnley winger should have received a second yellow card instead of his first one for his poor challenge on Iwobi in the 25th. Then Brady brought down Bellerin inside the area in the 67th. The Burnley winger completely missed the ball while making a sliding tackle. I guess the only reason why the referee didn’t spot the foul is because Bellerin tried to chip the ball over Brady and the ball bounced off the winger’s chest, leading the referee to assume that Brady cleanly got the ball.

Ramsey’s movement

The last-minute penalty shouldn’t be controversial for the simple reason that Burnley earned free kicks for less obvious shoves from Lacazette and Mustafi. The referee was therefore consistent in his decisions when he saw Tarkowski deny Arsenal a scoring chance by shoving Ramsey from behind in stoppage time. Tarkowski was on the wrong side of Ramsey and simply panicked. To a certain extent, that foul reminded me of Rosicky’s shove in the infamous 4-4 draw between Newcastle and Arsenal a few years ago.

When you face a compact defense, you need a lot of movement and creativity to find and exploit a gap. The Gunners’ few chances came from Ramsey’s movement in the final third. Lacazette skipped past Tarkowski in the 19th to make a cross for Ramsey, whose half-volley sailed wide. Then Ramsey picked out Kolasinac, who missed the target with a free header from 12 yards in the 43rd. The Wales midfielder also took a pass from Sanchez in the 64th for an angled effort that went wide. Ramsey finished the game with 0 of 4 shots on target. But it was his late foray in the area that led to the penalty.

Ozil’s absence meant that the creative burden rested on the shoulders of Sanchez. The Chile striker led all players with 4 key passes. He was also more tidy in possession than usual with just 3 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Sanchez may not be our best penalty taker, but he showed nerves of steel to fire his spot kick low past the goalkeeper.

Up front, Lacazette didn’t get much service. Out of frustration, Lacazette unleashed a low drive in the 51st that didn’t really trouble Pope. The France international also struggled in the air, winning only 1 of 4 headers. To put more pressure in the air, Wenger replaced Lacazette with Welbeck in the 79th.

Within a few months, Lacazette has built a decent understanding with Sanchez and Ramsey, but his interaction with Iwobi is still poor mostly because Iwobi doesn’t read the game well enough. Ozil’s shoes were too big for Iwobi to fill on Sunday. Iwobi doesn’t make smart runs off the ball like Ozil and his end product was limited to only 1 key pass at Turf Moor.

The balance between attacking and defending

The manager tried to inject more creativity in the final third by sending on Wilshere for Iwobi in the 66th. The positives and negatives Wilshere showed in Europa League games were summarized in two plays. Defour capitalized on a Wilshere turnover in the 70th to take his chance from the edge of the box. Wilshere must make an effort to cut his turnover rate otherwise he’ll hurt his team. Ten minutes later, Wilshere played a one-two with Sanchez before mustering a shot that deflected off Tarkowski for a corner. Wilshere can provide more penetration with his ability to play in tiny spaces.

On the wings, Kolasinac created the best chances despite a passing accuracy of 61.4%, the lowest percentage for an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. His decision-making was questionable on a couple of plays. Kolasinac dribbled past Tarkowski in the 49th only to have his shot blocked by Mee. The Bosnia-Herzegovina wingback produced another mazy run in the 68th and completely miscued his shot across goal instead of feeding Lacazette or Ramsey, who both were in a better position. See the screen capture below.

Burnley M68ed Kolasinac could have passed the ball to Ramsey or Lacazette. (Photo credit: CNBC)

In stoppage time, Xhaka sent a long ball toward Kolasinac, who headed it across goal. Ramsey was fouled by Tarkowski before he could even flick it on. Amid all the controversy about the penalty, Wilshere was a better passing option than Ramsey, sandwiched between 2 defenders. See the screen capture below.

Burnley M91ed Kolasinac could have knocked the ball down for an unmarked Wilshere. (Photo credit: CNBC)

In the last few games, I felt Bellerin didn’t find the right balance between attacking and defending. The Spaniard made no interception and no block and won only 1 of 5 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Burnley’s main chances came from his flank in the first half. Bellerin failed to stop a Brady cross for Barnes, who was flagged offside in the 10th. Five minutes later, Bellerin was dispossessed by Brady and the ball fell to Gudmunsson, who rounded Monreal to rattle the near post. Hendrick then met a cross from our right flank in the 22nd but Cech parried the close-range header from the Irish midfielder.

Team selection dilemma

It’s obviously easier to deal with crosses when you have 3 centerbacks. Mustafi was the most active of the trio as he made 2 interceptions and 2 blocks and won 3 of 5 tackles and 7 of 12 headers. He also led all players with 4 fouls, including a silly one that led to a dangerous free kick on the edge of the box in the 59th. In the closing minutes, Wenger could have shifted to a back four to send on Giroud but he preferred to stick with the back three.

I only expect a couple of changes for Wednesday’s game against Huddersfield Town. Then the Gunners will have just 2 days of rest before hosting Manchester United on Saturday. That game could prove tricky since Arsenal will have one day less to recover than the Red Devils. Can Ramsey start 3 Premier League games in a 7-day span or is that a too big risk?

 

Cologne vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 loss

   Arsenal secured a first-place finish in Group H of the Europa League despite a 1-0 defeat at Cologne on Thursday. Their four-point lead in the standings means that neither Cologne nor Red Star Belgrade can win the group even if the Gunners lose to BATE Borisov in two weeks.

Cologne vs. Arsenal.jpg

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

Wenger made 11 changes to the side that won the North London Derby last weekend. The manager injected a bit more experience than usual as Willock and Nelson were on the bench even though they started both Belgrade games. The Gunners played at a slow tempo but still dominated Thursday’s match with 16 shots compared to just 4 for the hosts, who haven’t won any game in the Bundesliga this season. Somehow, Cologne managed to score against the run of play in the second half. In hindsight, maybe Wenger should have started more youngsters instead of keeping some senior players happy.

  1. Ospina, Welbeck and Chambers returned from injury

If we except Cazorla, the Gunners have no player on the disabled list now. That’s good news when you look at the busy schedule for the next two months. Ospina was not much tested in Germany. He palmed away an angled strike from Cordoba in the sixth minute and could do nothing about Guirassy’s penalty in the 62nd. The manager was cautious with Welbeck, who only played the first half and was replaced by Iwobi at halftime. Welbeck seemed fit, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and curling a shot wide of the far post in the 33rd.

On the other hand, the sluggish Chambers didn’t prove a convincing choice at wingback. Debuchy played most of his career as a fullback and would have been a better option on the right flank. Chambers made no cross in the first half. The only chance he created came in the 67th with a cross that Wilshere headed over the bar. Chambers was guilty on the play that led to the penalty by failing to stay with Guirassy, who played a one-two with Jojic.

  1. There are too many average players in the squad

Thursday’s game showed the gap between the regular starters and the second-choice players. It’s hard to see what players like Chambers, Debuchy, Elneny, Coquelin, Giroud and even Wilshere could bring to the side that defeated Spurs. Elneny sent long balls out of play in the 15th and 39th and couldn’t beat the first defender with a couple of corner kicks. Only 2 of his 11 crosses were accurate, according to whoscored.com.

Hopefully, hiring Mislintat as the head of recruitment at Arsenal will help improve the squad. The scouting department has performed poorly in the past few years under Rowley. A change was long overdue. France used to be a gold mine for Arsenal but the club has missed out on the best players from the French league lately (Kante, Pogba, Martial, Mbappe, Varane, Kondogbia).

While Arsenal made mistakes in signing Park, Chamakh and Gervinho from French clubs, Mislintat helped Borussia Dortmund sign Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro. Here’s the difference between those two groups of players: Park, Chamakh and Gervinho shone in the French league but failed to adapt to the Premier League whereas Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro carried their success from France to the Bundesliga. A smart scout will spot the skills that can be imported to any league while an average scout will focus on the less important skills.

It’s OK to gamble once in a while on young players like Sanogo, Reine-Adelaide, Bielik and Holding. But when you spend £16 million on Chambers, £13 million on Paulista and £7 million on Elneny, you expect to get regular starters and not benchwarmers.

  1. Debuchy was the weak link in the back three

The French defender led all players with 5 fouls. He clearly struggled with Guirassy’s pace and was booked for a cynical foul on the Cologne forward in the 49th. A poor clearance from Debuchy led to a scoring chance for the German side in the 60th: Guirassy took a pass from Jojic but could only hit a tame effort straight at Ospina. A minute later, the referee awarded the hosts a penalty for some minimal contact between Debuchy and Guirassy. It was a play similar to Bellerin’s challenge on Richarlison in the Watford game.

  1. Mertesacker had a decent game

The German defender led Arsenal players with 5 interceptions and was dominant in the air with 9 headers won. He made up for his lack of pace with his smart positional play. In fact, Mertesacker was the only Arsenal centerback who won a tackle. He won 1 of 2 tackles compared to 0 of 2 for Holding and 0 of 6 for Debuchy, according to Squawka. Mertesacker nearly leveled from a corner in the 64th, but his header was cleared off the line by Horn.

On the left side of the back three, Holding lacked focus a couple of times. Cologne capitalized on a Holding turnover in the 12th to launch a counterattack but Mertesacker intercepted Cordoba’s final ball. Mertesacker had Holding’s back again in the 28th. Cordoba rolled away from Holding only to have his pass for Osako intercepted by Mertesacker. In the closing minutes, Holding was pulled out of position and Mertesacker had to kill a counterattack by blocking a cross.

  1. Maitland-Niles rose to the occasion

The contrast with Chambers’ performance on the opposite flank was glaring. Although Maitland-Niles is a right-footed player, he still managed to make 3 key passes from the left wing. He also had a passing accuracy of 95%, won 2 of 4 tackles and had 5 successful dribbles out of 7, while Chambers had a passing accuracy of 77%, won 0 of 1 tackle and had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, according to Squawka. Maitland-Niles is not playing in his favorite position (central midfield) but at least he’s honing his skills by getting some experience in competitive European games.

  1. Wilshere’s performance raised more question marks

Wenger said before the international break that Wilshere was ready for the England team. However, Wilshere’s performance against a weak German side was a mixed bag. Wilshere tested Horn with a downward header in the 21st and long-range strikes in the 66th and stoppage time. He also had 8 successful dribbles out of 11. But his defensive contribution was limited and he only made 2 key passes despite 69% of ball possession for the Gunners. The most frustrating part was his poor ball-retention skills that led to 5 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in Southgate’s plans. The England manager seems to build his squad around the pressing game implemented at Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City.

  1. Arsenal didn’t play to Giroud’s strengths

Giroud is an old-fashioned centerforward. He won’t create a chance out of nothing like Van Persie. That means Giroud needs decent service in the box. Unfortunately, the Gunners didn’t feed him with crosses. Giroud was involved in only 1 aerial duel and that was in midfield. That’s criminal when you know the France striker’s dominance in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 76th. Giroud chased a ball over the top from Wilshere but had a heavy second touch which allowed Horn to tackle the ball out of play. Deprived of service, Giroud tried to work for his teammates. He drifted to the left wing in the 30th to make a cross for Coquelin, who hit the near post.

  1. When a senior player is blocking a youngster’s path

Nelson is the most promising prospect in the academy. Walcott’s presence in the squad has forced Wenger to play Nelson in the wingback position. Nelson initially struggled in that role before improving his understanding of the position and his defensive skills. The manager could have started Nelson against Cologne but he preferred to give some playing time to Chambers and Debuchy, who both had a poor game.

When Nelson came off the bench to replace Chambers in the 67th, the Gunners suddenly looked more threatening down the right wing. Nelson could have won a penalty for an obstruction from Sorensen in the 83rd. He also showed off his dribbling skills in the 89th by slaloming through the Cologne defense to sting Horn’s gloves with a toe poke. The teenager got bonus points in the 71st for his defensive awareness. Guirassy outpaced Debuchy but Nelson rushed back to recover the ball.