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.
Photo 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.
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.
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.