Arsenal vs. Leicester: Gunners survive poor defending in 4-3 win

Should we be picky or not after Arsenal opened the Premier League season with a 4-3 victory over Leicester? The Gunners didn’t really look like credible title contenders on Friday as their old defensive frailties resurfaced against an average side. Yet, we shouldn’t forget that Arsenal dropped 3 points on opening day in the past two seasons, losing 4-3 to Liverpool a year ago and 2-0 to West Ham in 2015. In mathematical terms, it’s definitely an improvement.

Arsenal vs. Leicester 2017

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

Down 3-2 with about 10 minutes left, the Gunners showed character to grind out a win that was fully deserved. They enjoyed 70% of ball possession and had 27 shots compared to just 6 for the Foxes. Arsenal also showed more commitment than the visitors, winning 61% of the duels, and making 24 tackles and 13 interceptions compared to 17 tackles and 10 interceptions for Leicester, according to the club’s website. It’s a good result if we keep in mind that Koscielny was suspended, Mustafi was on the bench but not really fit, and Sanchez, Mertesacker, Paulista and Cazorla were injured.

Wenger made two changes to the side that defeated Chelsea in the Community Shield a week ago with Ozil and Kolasinac replacing Iwobi and Mertesacker in the starting lineup. Tactically, there was no surprise from the Foxes, who used the blueprint that helped them win the league during the 2015-16 season.

Arsenal relied on the 3-4-3 system that has produced good results since April. Chasing the victory, Wenger shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 67th by sending on Ramsey and Giroud for Elneny and Holding. When the Gunners charged forward, it pretty much looked like the old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system used against Manchester United last season. But whatever system is used, the closing minutes showed that it’s still the quality of the players that makes the difference.

The super-sub strikes again

In his Premier League debut, Lacazette found the net by the second minute. The French international headed in a cross from Elneny to give Arsenal the lead. He could have scored another goal in the 85th but Schmeichel tipped his strike over the bar. Lacazette was tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 90%, which is unusual for a centerforward. He also displayed some great work-rate by making 5 tackles and contributed to the team’s passing game with 3 shot assists. Lacazette made a cross for Ramsey, who headed wide in the 68th, and then set up Xhaka for a volley that Schmeichel saved in the 70th.

I thought Lacazette could have enjoyed better service. His teammates probably need a bit more time to understand his runs and capitalize on his excellent movement. Lacazette’s integration is nevertheless a success if we remember how long it took for Henry to score his first Arsenal goal after his transfer from Juventus. He’s a false nine like Sanchez, but the big difference between the two strikers is that Lacazette doesn’t feel the need to touch the ball as often as the Chile forward. Last season, Sanchez sometimes ended up making more passes than Ozil. That won’t happen with Lacazette.

Giroud does not have Lacazette’s pace but his power and dominance in the air are great assets in a physical league like the Premier League. Wenger had no doubt that Giroud and Lacazette could be complementary as they played together the last 25 minutes of the game. It was in fact Giroud who played the ball back to Lacazette in the 85th. Giroud scored the winning goal a few seconds later by holding off Maguire and Morgan to head Xhaka corner under the bar.

Welbeck’s crucial equalizer

Technically, Welbeck is a compromise between Giroud and Lacazette. The England international has more pace than Giroud and is stronger in the air than Lacazette. He has often been criticized for his relative lack of end product, but his crucial goal on the stroke of halftime allowed the Gunners to head back to the dressing room with the score tied at 2-2. When Ozil found Lacazette inside the box, the French striker could only muster a tame sliding effort. Yet, the ball fell to Kolasinac, who fed Welbeck for a close-range chip.

Starting on the left wing, Welbeck teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain for a long-range strike in the 59th and played Bellerin in for a low shot that Schmeichel saved with his legs in the 62nd. Welbeck can swap positions with Lacazette, which means that the ballholder often has two passing options inside the box. The 3-4-3 system then turns into a 3-5-2 formation when Ozil drops back to get involved in the build-up.

By his own standards, Ozil had an average game. He led all players with 6 key passes but also had 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. One of his turnovers led to a corner and Okazaki’s equalizer in the fifth minute. Ozil finished the game with 81 passes, trailing only Xhaka’s 99. He seemed to lack a bit of sharpness in the final third as he dragged a low drive wide in the 49th and attempted a poor volley in the 74th. Ozil’s only moment of magic was the one-two he played with Welbeck in the 22nd.

The Ox’s work-rate

On the left flank, Oxlade-Chamberlain was among the Gunners who suffered from a bout of nervousness in the first half. Despite a couple of stray passes from the wingback position, the Ox grew into the game to lead all players with 8 successful dribbles out of 9. His work-rate was quite impressive as the Ox won 3 of 4 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions, 2 key passes and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. The only weakness in the Ox’s performance was his lack of accuracy in the final third with just 2 of 6 shots on target. On the opposite wing, Bellerin didn’t shine as much as the Ox for the simple reason that Albrighton gave him a hard time while Mahrez’s poor work-rate played into the Ox’s hands.

In central midfield, the manager partnered Xhaka with Elneny. Cazorla’s long-term absence means that Xhaka is the only player in the squad who can set the tempo, assuming that Ozil can’t play in a deeper position. To build his midfield around Xhaka, Wenger had the choice between Coquelin, Ramsey and Elneny. Coquelin is the most defensive option and is technically limited. Ramsey is a bigger goal threat but lacks tactical discipline. In the end, the manager opted for a compromise by starting Elneny.

Elneny did enough defensive work to help Xhaka pull the strings in midfield. He won 2 of 4 tackles, made 2 blocks and even created 2 chances, including the cross for Lacazette’s opening goal. When Arsenal needed more presence in the final third, Wenger replaced Elneny with Ramsey. The Wales midfielder made it 3-3 in the 83rd by controlling Xhaka’s cross to fire an angled effort past Schmeichel.

Pub defending

Xhaka is usually tidy in possession but made a couple of sloppy passes on Friday. His turnover in the 29th led to Vardy’s goal. Xhaka nearly cost his team another goal in the 52nd when Mahrez intercepted his pass to send a ball over the top for Vardy. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to clear the ball. Despite a passing accuracy of 81%, Xhaka still managed to hit 12 accurate long balls out of 15, the most for any outfield player according to whoscored.com. Xhaka somehow made up for his mistakes by setting up the last two goals.

At the back, the Gunners got plenty of stick for their pub defending. Most of Leicester’s chances came from turnovers or set pieces. The Foxes leveled in the fifth minute from a short corner. Unmarked at the far post, Maguire headed Albrighton’s cross into the path of Okazaki, who outjumped Xhaka to beat Cech. The Gunners committed too many players at the near post and in the middle of the box, leaving the far post exposed. Cech’s decision-making was poor on that play as he ended up in no man’s land.

The Foxes’ third goal in the 56th showed the limits and complexity of zonal marking. Vardy started his run from beyond the penalty spot and jumped unopposed to nod in Mahrez’s corner. The Leicester striker was able to get a free header because he spotted a gap between Monreal, Xhaka and Welbeck. The culprit on that play was Xhaka, who saw Vardy run in front of him but failed to mark him. Zonal marking requires flexibility to be successful and Xhaka clearly failed to adapt to the situation. Still, it’s very tricky to make the right decision in a split second. If you follow a player, you may leave a gap that could be exploited by another player. And if you stay in your zone, you may let an opponent have a free header. Xhaka’s involvement in the 3 Leicester goals tells you that he’s not a defensive midfielder.

Loaning out Holding?

Holding was again the weak link in the back three. The U23 player proved strong in the air, winning 4 of 4 headers, but he’s still a bit too naive for the Premier League. He made a sloppy pass in the 23rd and was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Fuchs in the 33rd and Maguire in the 44th. Holding definitely needs to iron out mistakes from his game. Ten years ago, Arsenal could finish in the Top 4 despite starting youngsters like Denilson, Djourou and Bendtner in league games. But the Premier League has become much more competitive nowadays. If Wenger tries to speed up Holding’s development by playing him in league games, that will cost Arsenal quite a few goals. It would be less dangerous to loan him out.

Monreal took over the sweeper role when Mertesacker got injured in the Community Shield. The manager left Monreal in the middle of the back three on Friday, thinking the Spaniard could cope with Vardy and Okazaki in the air. Monreal won only 3 of 6 headers. He misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 40th and missed his header but Holding covered him and cleared the danger. On the bright side, Monreal’s technique allowed him to have a passing accuracy of 95% and his reading of the game helped him make 5 interceptions, the most for any player according to Squawka.

No gimme

Kolasinac’s performance was a mixed bag. He won 4 of 5 tackles, the most for any player, made an assist and had a volley turned around the post in the 27th. But he should have been tighter to Vardy for Leicester’s second goal. Kolasinac also had a risky pass intercepted by Mahrez on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 55th. If everybody was fit, I’d feel more comfortable with Kolasinac in the wingback position than as a centerback.

Saturday’s results show that there’s no gimme in the Premier League nowadays: Chelsea lost to Burnley and Liverpool drew with Watford. Arsenal’s defensive performance against Leicester was horrible but the three points give the team some time to work on those weaknesses and build confidence. The Gunners will need to show the same team spirit when they visit Stoke on Saturday as Koscielny will still be suspended and Sanchez won’t have recovered yet from his abdominal strain.

Community Shield: Kolasinac stuns Chelsea as Gunners win penalty shootout

The Community Shield doesn’t necessarily show a glimpse into the upcoming Premier League season. Despite thrashing Manchester City 3-0 in the curtain-raiser of the 2014-15 season, Arsenal then got off to a sluggish start, taking only 6 points from their first 4 games to finish third in the league, 12 points behind Chelsea and 4 behind City.

2017 Community Shield

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

FA officials made it clear that the Community Shield wasn’t a major trophy by allowing Koscielny to be available for Sunday’s game. The Gunners kept the bragging rights for a few more weeks by downing Chelsea 4-1 in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in regulation time.

Wenger obviously thought the season opener against Leicester on Friday was more important than the Community Shield as he left Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez and Mustafi out of the squad. Ramsey and Ozil picked up knocks on the training ground while Sanchez and Mustafi still lack match fitness after recovering from the Confederations Cup.

The manager made 4 changes to the side that edged Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final with Lacazette, Iwobi, Elneny and Cech replacing Sanchez, Ozil, Ramsey and Ospina in the starting lineup. Conte also tweaked his lineup by replacing Costa, Hazard and Matic with Batshuayi, Willian and Fabregas.

The Blues might complain that Pedro’s ejection in the 80th minute was harsh, but if you look at the TV replays, his foul on Elneny ticks all the boxes for a straight red card: studs-up challenge from behind; Elneny’s physical integrity in danger with a stamp on his Achilles; and no real intent to play the ball with Pedro’s tackling foot far from the ball.

Chelsea relied on a tight defense and some clinical finishing to win the league last season. The trouble with the Blues’ emphasis on defending is that it can sometimes prove too aggressive: Azpilicueta and Alonso also got booked in the first half for cynical fouls.

Lacazette as a false nine

Arsenal fans probably have a better understanding of Lacazette’s abilities after watching his performance in the Community Shield. When leading the line, Lacazette is a false nine like Sanchez, not a target man like Giroud. The Chelsea defense easily intercepted a long ball for Lacazette in the 19th. Lacazette can’t outmuscle an opponent like Giroud or Welbeck would, but he can contribute in the build-up play with his passing skills.

The former Lyon striker created Arsenal’s best chance in the first half by playing a one-two with Bellerin before swapping passes with Welbeck to curl a shot that struck the post in the 22nd. Those are the flashes of brilliance that Sanchez can typically produce in a game. The big difference is that Sanchez can make those moments happen 2 or 3 times in a game while that was Lacazette’s only touch of magic on Sunday. On the bright side, Lacazette is more tidy than Sanchez, having only 2 turnovers and reaching a passing accuracy of 94.4% according to whoscored.com. Lacazette also showed his willingness to perform defensive tasks by making 3 tackles.

Although Giroud replaced Lacazette in the 66th, I definitely believe the two players can be quite complementary. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger sent on Giroud to add an aerial threat inside the Chelsea box. Giroud had no scoring chance but showed nerves of steel in the penalty shootout. Walcott, Monreal, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud converted their spot kicks while Courtois and Morata both missed the target.

Iwobi’s poor work-rate

Playing on the left flank, Welbeck sometimes swapped positions with Lacazette. His work-rate was quite impressive: Welbeck dispossessed Azpilicueta in the 13th and made a robust tackle on Moses in the 27th. His only scoring chance came in the eighth minute when he met a long ball from Xhaka for a header that lacked power to beat Courtois.

Iwobi showed some poor work-rate compared to Lacazette and Welbeck. The Nigeria international made no effort to win the ball back after Kante dispossessed him in the 24th. He produced some clever footwork on the stroke of halftime to create space for a tame shot straight at Courtois. Yet, that kind of contribution is not enough to justify a lack of effort.

The Gunners finished strong last season because they shifted from a 4-2-3-1 system to a 3-4-3 formation. Tactically, it made the defense less vulnerable by adding a centerback, but what some fans overlook is that it also removed 2 softies among the attacking players. At the end of 2016, Arsenal mostly relied on Walcott, Iwobi, Ozil and Sanchez in the final third. When Wenger made his tactical switch, Walcott and Iwobi were gone while Giroud or Welbeck joined Sanchez and Ozil in a front three. There was still one softie in the attacking line with Ozil, but it was better than having 3 softies in the previous system.

If the club sticks to the 3-4-3 formation, I doubt Iwobi will get much playing time this season. It would be better to loan him out so that he could improve his work-rate.

Conceding on a set piece

At the exception of the goalkeeper, Wenger made no change to the defense that frustrated Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Mertesacker, Holding and Monreal formed the back three while Bellerin and the Ox played as wingbacks. The manager could have used Koscielny on Sunday, but left him out of the squad because he felt that defenders available for the first two league games needed more playing time than Koscielny.

Wenger had to change his plans in the 28th when Mertesacker suffered a head injury after challenging Cahill for a high ball. The German centerback needed several stitches to close the cut above his right eye and was replaced by Kolasinac in the 33rd. Despite the change in personnel, Arsenal managed to limit Chelsea to two half-chances before the break as Cech parried a cross-shot from Moses in the 32nd and punched away an angled strike from Pedro in the 35th.

Unfortunately, Arsenal’s vulnerability on set pieces was exposed in the 46th when Xhaka poorly cleared a corner. Cahill beat Xhaka to the loose high ball and headed it toward Moses, who ghosted past Holding and Bellerin to score from close range. Bellerin was the main culprit on that play. He was initially on the right side of Moses but then failed to stay with him when the Chelsea wingback made a few steps back to beat the offside trap.

Kolasinac’s versatility

If we compare with the FA Cup final, Bellerin and the Ox both under-performed in the Community Shield. The Ox had an average game while Bellerin let his team down with a couple of big mistakes. Bellerin finished the game with a passing accuracy of 70,4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal starters. The Spaniard received a yellow card in the 14th for a late tackle on Alonso, underhit a backpass for Cech in the 25th and nearly gave away a penalty with a poor first touch in the 37th. My guess is that Bellerin still lacks a bit of match fitness after recovering from the European U21 Championship.

At the back, Monreal had a solid game, winning 4 aerial duels and making 3 tackles. Mertesacker’s injury forced Monreal to play as a sweeper for the last 60 minutes. Monreal’s experience, reading of the game and smart positional play made the transition seamless when Kolasinac came off the bench to play as the left centerback.

A leftback by trade, Kolasinac’s versatility made up for the absence of Paulista and Koscielny. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international is definitely a more natural option at centerback than Elneny or Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac won the hearts of many fans by heading home the equalizer in the 82nd off a Xhaka free kick.

Midfield trouble?

Holding proved again the weak link in the back three. His performance was a mixed bag. He showed his commitment by winning 4 aerial duels and making 2 tackles and 2 interceptions. But his naivety also put the Arsenal defense in trouble a couple of times. Holding was dispossessed by Alonso while dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 16th. In stoppage time, he gave away a dangerous free kick by fouling Morata, who was playing with his back to goal. However, I wouldn’t blame Holding for Chelsea’s goal. Holding was not aware of Moses’ presence behind him. Maybe a more experienced defender would have given a quick look behind instead of looking at the ball throughout the entire play like Holding did.

In midfield, Chelsea gave Xhaka plenty of maneuvering room. Conte’s 3-4-3 formation means that only Kante or Fabregas can really press Xhaka. Since Fabregas has lost much of his mobility and Kante can’t both protect the defense and press high up the pitch, Xhaka was therefore able to dictate play for Arsenal. The Switzerland international led all players with 4 key passes, including 2 through balls, and hit 10 accurate long balls out of 14. Xhaka nearly scored in the 76th but Courtois tipped his 35-yard drive around the post.

There are still 3 weeks left before the end of the transfer window. I hope the club will sign a midfielder because Wenger’s 3-4-3 system is very demanding for that position. Basically, the two central midfielders must cover a lot of ground to connect the defense with the front three. Ramsey and Wilshere have a bad injury record and Cazorla won’t return before November. We might be one injury away from trouble in midfield, knowing the limitations of Coquelin and Elneny.

 

A few thoughts on the Emirates Cup

The Gunners retained the Emirates Cup after thrashing Benfica 5-2 on Saturday and losing 2-1 to Sevilla on Sunday. That may sound weird since Sevilla won both games they played but the competition rules state that a point is awarded for each goal scored.

Emirates Cup 2017

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

The level of that tournament proved decent as Benfica and Sevilla both qualified for the Champions League. However, I still felt that I learned more about the squad from the China tour than from the Emirates Cup.

  1. Can Lacazette shine as a centerforward in the Premier League?

Lacazette’s performance in the Emirates Cup was a mixed bag. He scored against Sevilla but several plays showed that he doesn’t have the right mindset yet. As the most expensive player signed by Arsenal, you can bet the fans and pundits will judge Lacazette on his goals. In the first half of the Sevilla game, Lacazette hid twice at the far post while the more natural choice would have been to make a run to the near post when Welbeck crossed the ball.

The French striker will need to develop his killer instinct. Lacazette could have shot from 15 yards in the 16th minute but preferred to slip the ball to Bellerin, who was in a less favorable position. Then, Lacazette could only muster a tame shot in the 58th before finding the net four minutes later by converting an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross.

Obviously, Lacazette is still trying to understand his team’s passing game and will need a bit of time to completely fit in. I just don’t think he’s the right choice for the centerforward position, especially in the Premier League. Many English clubs simply park the bus when they face Arsenal, which means that Lacazette would have very little space to run into. An old-fashioned striker like Giroud, strong in the air and able to outmuscle defenders, would be more useful in those situations.

At 5’9, Lacazette is quite a short forward. Optimists will mention Aguero as the example of a successful centerforward despite his short height, but then they would need to remember that Manchester City had a plan B with the towering Dzeko. I believe Lacazette will do better in the Premier League as a second striker or false winger than as a centerforward.

  1. Arsenal should keep Giroud

Giroud has a low resale value. Therefore it wouldn’t make sense to sell this summer a player who has a unique skill set in the Arsenal squad. Giroud is not just our most dominant forward in the air. Only Welbeck can maybe hold the ball up like Giroud. And only Sanchez can match Giroud’s link-up play. In terms of goals per minute played, Giroud is also more clinical than Welbeck and Walcott.

The Benfica game highlighted those skills. Giroud held off a defender in the 27th to feed Walcott on a counterattack. He then volleyed into the far corner to make it 4-2 in the 64th. The France striker set up the last goal in the 71st by cushioning Kolasinac’s cross into the path of Iwobi, who fired into the roof of the net.

  1. Walcott is learning a new position

As an inside forward, Walcott looked lost on the pitch against Sydney FC. He seemed to have a better understanding of the position against Benfica. Walcott may have no impact in Arsenal’s passing game but he still has some flair for goals. He converted Kolasinac’s cross in the 24th before pouncing on Coquelin’s offering in the 32nd to tap into an empty net.

The more interesting part of the Benfica game is that Walcott had an assist in the 52nd when Lopez diverted his cross into his own net. Walcott also made a pinpoint cross for Giroud in the fourth minute but Julio Cesar saved the Frenchman’s header. During the 2012-13 season, Walcott had 12 assists in the Premier League. For whatever reason, his assist numbers have significantly dropped over the past few years. Walcott would have a better shot at starting games if he could balance more evenly his goals and assists.

  1. Experience is key at the back

It is easier for a youngster to break through as a striker than as a defender for the simple reason that mistakes are less costly up front than at the back. Martial and Mbappe are the obvious names that come to mind while you would struggle to name one teenager who has shone as a centerback. Experience clearly makes a huge difference for a defender.

I found it strange that Wenger played Maitland-Niles at centerback and wingback in the summer friendlies while the team more urgently needs a defensive midfielder, which is Maitland-Niles’ natural position. Maybe the manager wanted to show Maitland-Niles the cost of defensive errors and help him improve his reading of the game.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety cost Arsenal two goals in the Benfica game. First, he hesitated in his positional play and was not tight enough to Cervi, who opened the scoring in the 12th. Then his risky pass was intercepted by Pizzi and the ball fell to Salvio who made it 2-2 in the 39th. You would think that Maitland-Niles learned from his mistakes, but he didn’t. The English teenager attempted another risky pass that was intercepted in the 67th and led to a Benfica counterattack. At 19, Maitland-Niles still has time to develop, but he must learn at a faster pace otherwise he could be discarded like Akpom.

Holding is two years older than Maitland-Niles but only has one Premier League season under his belt. His inexperience showed in the 35th when he made a dribbling attempt as the last defender and lost possession to Pizzi, who was denied by Ospina. If Paulista was not injured, it would have made sense to loan Holding out to a Premier League club.

The Gunners made a good investment this summer by signing Kolasinac on a free transfer. At 24, Kolasinac is a much more experienced defender than Holding with five Bundesliga seasons under his belt. Kolasinac has produced some solid performances in the pre-season friendlies and has adapted to his new team more quickly than Lacazette. He made the cross for Walcott’s first goal in the Benfica game and created Iwobi’s goal by picking out Giroud. With his strong frame, Kolasinac is perfectly tailored for the physical Premier League.

  1. No Premier League starter from the youth team

The current crop of youngsters may be promising with Nelson and Willock, but it’s hard to see how they could claim a starting spot in the Premier League. It’s true that Bellerin became a regular starter during the 2014-15 season and Iwobi walked in the Spaniard’s steps a year later. But now Premier League clubs are massively spending to upgrade their squads. Even average sides have a flurry of internationals. With more competition and more pressure to finish in the Top 4 after a disappointing 2016-17 season, Wenger is more likely to take a gamble on a youngster in a League Cup game than in the Premier League.

In the long term, Nelson would be the most natural replacement for Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing. Nelson made a couple of impressive runs against Benfica. Although he’s right-footed, Nelson managed to make a pinpoint cross with his left foot in the 64th. Giroud pounced on the offering to volley into the bottom corner for a 4-2 lead. At 17, Nelson is far from the finished product. He was brushed off the ball twice against Benfica. Obviously, Nelson must beef up his game to win duels, but his technique and reading of the game are already quite outstanding for a youngster.

  1. Elneny doesn’t make the cut as a centerback

For some reason, Wenger only used Elneny as a centerback during the summer friendlies. That decision didn’t really make sense with Holding and Chambers back in the squad for the Emirates Cup. The manager expects the team to play the ball out from the back and Elneny has better passing skills than your average centerback. But as a defender, you still have to properly execute the offside trap and win duels.

Elneny struggled with the offside trap against Bayern Munich and that weakness was again exposed in the Sevilla game. On the stroke of halftime, Elneny stepped forward and was unable to recover as Nolito was clean through on goal. Fortunately, Koscielny rushed back to block Nolito’s cross for Ben Yedder. Then Elneny failed to stay with Correa, who played a one-two with Ben Yedder to slip the ball past Cech for the opening goal in the 49th. Wenger was pretty straightforward about Elneny’s performance after the game: “I don’t think in the future he will be a centerback.”

  1. The midfield still looks like a gruyere cheese

Throughout the summer friendlies, Wenger only relied on Xhaka, Ramsey, Coquelin and Willock to rotate in midfield. Whatever the pairing was, the midfield often looked porous. The Sevillans ran unopposed quite a few times from their own half to the Arsenal area. Banega broke forward from midfield in the 15th to feed Ben Yedder, who hit the post. In the second half, neither Xhaka nor Ramsey pressed N’Zonzi, who had plenty of time to curl the winner into the top corner. The Gunners desperately need a destroyer in midfield. Can the manager see it?

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Australia and China

The Gunners enjoyed mixed fortunes in the recent summer tour aimed at building up their fitness and increasing their worldwide fan base. Last week, Arsenal faced two Australian teams that would probably sit at the bottom of the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners defeated Sydney FC 2-0 before downing Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1.

Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Pre-Season Friendly

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

The level was much higher this week with games in China against Bayern Munich and Chelsea. The German champions completely outplayed Arsenal but somehow lost 3-2 in a penalty shootout after drawing 1-1 in regulation time. Chelsea proved more clinical than the Bavarian side by thrashing Arsenal 3-0 on Saturday.

  1. Omissions aren’t always innocent

Paulista, Wilshere and Cazorla were not in the squad for the summer tour because of injury. Holding, Chambers, Bellerin, Campbell, Mustafi and Sanchez also missed the pre-season friendlies because they were given some time off to recover from international competitions.

On the other hand, the absence of Szczesny, Debuchy, Gibbs, Jenkinson and Perez had nothing to do with an injury or international competition. Those five players seem to no longer be part of the club’s future plans. In fact, Juventus signed Szczesny a few days ago while Gibbs and Jenkinson have been linked to several English clubs.

Among the youngsters, Akpom and Reine-Adelaide missed out on the tour because their performances stagnated last season. Akpom showed poor attitude during his loan spell at Brighton while Reine-Adelaide failed to impress with the U23 team. Therefore, Wenger preferred to give a chance to Willock, Nelson, Nketiah, Bramall and Malen instead of including Akpom and Reine-Adelaide in the squad.

  1. Cech, Ramsey and Ozil are already sharp

Without Cech’s saves, Arsenal could have lost 5-1 to Bayern again. At 35, Cech is no longer the goalkeeper who led Chelsea to a flurry of titles, but he’s still among the best in the Premier League.

Ramsey’s 2016-17 season was marred by injuries because the manager didn’t give him enough time to recover from the Euros. It was therefore important to gradually build up Ramsey’s fitness this summer. The Wales midfielder made a run in behind to score the second goal against the Wanderers. He also set up Iwobi for the equalizer against Bayern with a left-footed cross.

Although Ozil only has one year left on his contract, it looks like he will play the upcoming season with Arsenal. Ozil sometimes gets criticized for his poor work-rate but the quality of his delivery can make a difference in the tight games, especially when you compare with the relative lack of accuracy from Xhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain on set pieces. The Germany playmaker slipped a through ball to Walcott against the Wanderers and to Lacazette against Bayern. He also volleyed a cross from Welbeck straight at Starke.

  1. Mertesacker’s lack of pace is still an issue

Mertesacker’s performance in the FA Cup final gave the illusion that a back three could make up for his lack of pace. Unfortunately, the pre-season friendlies showed that some situations could put Mertesacker in trouble. Sydney FC created their first scoring chance by isolating Mertesacker with a speedy forward.

In the FA Cup final, Arsenal protected Mertesacker by seating deep. In Beijing, the Gunners were punished for playing a high defensive line. Mertesacker was pulled out of position by chasing Batshuayi in midfield and couldn’t recover as Willian cut inside Monreal to open the scoring. Two minutes later, Mertesacker didn’t want to dive in like on the first goal and gave plenty of space to Batshuayi, who doubled the lead with a curling shot.

  1. Lacazette and Giroud are different players

Lacazette scored the second goal against Sydney FC by converting a low cross from Iwobi. The British news media often portray Lacazette as the back-up for Giroud in the France striker role but that description is inaccurate. In fact, Lacazette is a second striker like Griezmann, not a pure centerforward like Giroud. When France manager Deschamps picks his lineup, he is therefore choosing between Griezmann and Lacazette, and not between Giroud and Lacazette.

Because the French league is more technical but also less physical than the Premier League, Lacazette was able to play as a lone striker for Lyon. However, at 5’9 Lacazette simply can’t play as a target man like Giroud or Welbeck. He couldn’t help Arsenal evade Chelsea’s high press like Welbeck did in the FA Cup final.

  1. The Gunners still miss the complete centerforward

Remember when Henry and Van Persie led the line? They had everything. They could outpace defenders, dribble past them, win headers, hold the ball up, link up play and of course score plenty of goals. Among the six strikers at Arsenal (Sanchez, Giroud, Perez, Lacazette, Welbeck, and Walcott), none of them possesses all those qualities.

There are rumors that Giroud could leave the club this summer although no Gunner has his skill set. Welbeck can win headers and hold the ball up but he’s less prolific than the Frenchman. Giroud scored against the Wanderers with his trademark first-time effort at the near post.

Walcott failed in his attempt to become a centerforward during the 2015-16 season. It’s hard to see where Walcott fits in the 3-4-3 system. He started as an inside forward against Sydney FC and clearly struggled to adjust to that new position as he was caught offside three times in the first half.

  1. The midfield is weak

Wenger paired Xhaka and Coquelin against Bayern and Xhaka and Ramsey against Chelsea. The way Bayern and Chelsea outplayed Arsenal shows that we need a destroyer in midfield. Xhaka is not a natural ballwinner. He fouled Batshuayi and Willian in the opening minutes of the Beijing match. Coquelin may be a better tackler than Xhaka, but his technical limitations really hurt the team: he made a couple of poor passes to Welbeck in the first half of the Shanghai match.

Friendlies are often an opportunity for experiments. A midfielder by trade, Elneny played all four games as a centerback. Does it mean that the manager no longer considers Elneny as a midfield option? Or was it just to make up for the lack of centerbacks on the tour? In any case, Elneny’s stint at centerback was not really convincing. He made a poor backpass to Martinez against Sydney FC and a sloppy pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain against the Wanderers. Then Lewandowski and Willian got the better of Elneny in China. It’s hard to imagine how Elneny could mark physical forwards.

  1. Iwobi must end his sophomore slump

After breaking into the first team during the 2015-16 season, Iwobi struggled with consistency and lost his starting spot when Wenger shifted to a 3-4-3 formation a few months ago. There were mostly two issues last season: Iwobi’s lack of end product and his poor work-rate. Iwobi did well on the first issue by making an assist against Sydney FC and scoring a goal against Bayern. However, his work-rate was questionable against Chelsea. He had a high turnover rate in the first half and became nearly invisible when moved to the wingback position in the second half.

  1. Nelson is the most promising youngster

Nelson showed good technique and movement against Sydney FC. His runs helped create space in the final third. The 17-year-old midfielder set up Walcott and Bramall with accurate crosses. Nelson also produced a decent cameo against Chelsea, dancing around defenders to find Malen, who hit the post. He’s still a bit soft physically, especially in duels. Nelson could either stay at the academy to continue his development or be loaned out to a Championship side to beef up his game.

Despite the obvious needs in midfield, Wenger preferred to use Maitland-Niles as a centerback and wingback during the summer tour. Initially, I had high hopes for Maitland-Niles after his performances with the first team at the end of 2016. But his lack of effort with the youth team in 2017 raised some doubts about his work ethic.

Maitland-Niles was too casual against Sydney FC, losing possession after dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box, as well as against Chelsea, making a sloppy pass to Mertesacker and a poor clearance into the path of Willian. He also showed his defensive naivety against Bayern by allowing Ribery and Bernat to easily dribble past him because of some poor body-positioning along the by-line. To a certain extent, Maitland-Niles reminds me of Song when he joined Arsenal in 2005.

The games against Bayern and Chelsea showed that some youngsters still have a long way to go before joining the first team. Bramall struggled to cope with the level of play against Chelsea, even panicking at times. He cleared the ball straight into touch in the 24th and was dispossessed by Moses in the second minute and Kante in the 42nd on the edge of the Arsenal box. Technically, Bramall also showed some limitations with poor crosses in the sixth minute and the 44th.

Bielik was overwhelmed by the level against Bayern too, giving the ball away in the 18th and allowing a counterattack by diving in on the stroke of halftime. In midfield, Willock often looked like a mini-Coquelin, mixing up snappy tackles with cynical fouls. The best Bielik and Willock can hope for is a loan deal to a Championship side.

What Wenger’s new contract means for Arsenal

The 2016-17 season proved the most challenging period for Wenger in his Arsenal career because the fans turned against him while the board was reluctant to back him. Despite the criticism in the news media, the uncertainty around the squad and a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Premier League, Wenger has been handed a two-year contract extension. Let’s see what that means for the Gunners.

  1. The club structure is still an issue

The board missed an opportunity to fix structural flaws at the club. The timing would have been perfect this summer to prepare the transition and create the position of sporting director. You wouldn’t expect a manager to simultaneously supervise the squad, the youth teams, the recruitment and the scouting. That’s too much work for one person, especially in a big club. Yet, that’s pretty much what Wenger does at Arsenal. And I think it’s counterproductive.

Arsenal Pre-Season Tour

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

Big clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG and Manchester City have a sporting director helping the manager. It’s important to understand that the manager should not be accountable to the sporting director. Both are like teammates. The sporting director should remove some workload off the manager’s shoulders so that the manager can focus on the game and the squad.

It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s most successful era occurred when Dein was a vice-chairman on the board. Dein had a great knowledge of football and basically acted as a de facto sporting director by facilitating transfers and keeping an eye on the youth teams. It was the complementarity between Dein and Wenger that propelled the club to success. Nowadays, nobody on the board is knowledgeable enough to challenge Wenger’s views and provide a different perspective.

  1. Recruitment and scouting are still erratic departments

The recruitment and scouting departments have underperformed in the past few years. It might be a consequence of the flaws in the club structure. The Gunners haven’t signed any hidden gem lately. Don’t start mentioning Holding because at this stage of his career he’s just a prospect who wouldn’t be in the starting lineup if everybody was fit. When I say hidden gem, I mean players like Kante and Alli who had a major impact in their first Premier League season.

There have been at least two scouting mistakes since 2014. Signing Chambers from Southampton for about 17 million pounds was quite puzzling. That’s the kind of fee you would pay for a starter, but not for a prospect. To put things in context, Chambers cost more than Koscielny and Paulista. At 22, Chambers still has room to improve, but three flaws won’t change: his slow first steps, his inability to quickly turn and his weakness in the air. In my eyes, Chambers is a decent fit for an average team but not good enough for a club chasing a Champions League spot.

Another weird signing was Elneny, hired from Basel for about 10.5 million pounds. Arsenal needed a ballwinner at that time. Instead, the Gunners signed a utility midfielder. It might be OK to get the profile wrong if the player has great skills. Unfortunately, Elneny is not a decisive player. Defensively, he doesn’t win many tackles or duels. And offensively, he doesn’t make assists or score goals. Elneny’s main asset is his passing accuracy, which can prove useful to keep a high tempo against the weak sides but is not enough against the big teams.

An underwhelming recruitment has been the main reason for Arsenal’s inability to contend in the Premier League. Everybody knows the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. It’s the same with transfers. You need to act quickly to sign the best players who are available. You also need a decent number of players to fill the holes in the squad. And finally, the quality of those new signings must be good enough to improve the team.

Let’s analyse the last 4 transfer windows. In the summer of 2013, the Gunners signed Sanogo on July 1, Flamini on Aug. 29 and Ozil on Sept. 2. The timing was poor since Flamini and Ozil were not even available on opening day. As a prospect, Sanogo could not be the answer in the centerforward position. And of the three players, only Ozil was top quality.

The summer of 2014 was arguably the club’s best transfer window over the past four years. Arsenal signed Sanchez on July 10, Debuchy on July 17, Ospina on July 27, Chambers on July 28 and Welbeck on Sept. 2. The timing and the quantity were fine. The only question mark was about the quality with Sanchez as the only top signing on paper.

The summer of 2015 was undoubtedly the worst transfer window. the Gunners signed Cech on June 29 and that was it. The squad was not competitive enough because there were too many holes in it. That poor recruitment campaign allowed Leicester to win the league against all the odds.

Last year, the club signed Xhaka on May 25, Holding on July 22, and Perez and Mustafi on Aug. 30. The quality was decent and the quantity right, but the timing was poor as Perez and Mustafi could only make their Arsenal debut in September. Maybe the Gunners would have not dropped five points in the first two games of the season if Perez and Mustafi had joined in July.

The comparison with Manchester United and City really hurts as Mourinho and Guardiola acted much faster than Wenger. United signed Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Bailly and Pogba before opening day while Stones, Sane, Gundogan and Nolito joined City before the first game of the season.

  1. The Gunners won’t be contenders

Arsenal signed Schalke leftback Kolasinac on June 6 and Lyon striker Lacazette on July 5, but it will take more than two signings for Arsenal to have a shot at the Premier League title. Wenger tends to be too optimistic in the assessment of his squad. As a result, he fails to identify all the weaknesses in the squad and becomes reluctant to clear the dead wood.

First, the Gunners need a defensive midfielder. They currently don’t have a destroyer like Petit or Gilberto to effectively shield the defense. In his first season at the club, Wenger played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. It’s only after signing Petit in the summer of 1997 that the manager was able to switch to a back four.

And second, the Gunners should sign a creative midfielder to make up for Cazorla’s long-term absence. The Spaniard could be sidelined until November. At 32, there’s no guarantee that Cazorla will rediscover his form. The end of his Arsenal career could echo Arteta’s last couple of seasons at the club. On paper, Wilshere would look like a natural replacement but he doesn’t have Cazorla’s defensive awareness and his fitness could be a concern too.

  1. A perfect storm for players’ contracts

Quite a few Gunners haven’t signed any extension yet although their contracts end in 2018. The most obvious cases are Sanchez and Ozil, whose wage demands exceed 250,000 pounds a week. It is not just a matter of money. Sanchez and Ozil both feel that the club is lacking ambition. They could ask for a move if they think that the squad is not strong enough to contend for the title. And we would end up with a situation very similar to what happened in 2011 when Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy left the club before Van Persie and Song also jumped off the ship the following year.

If Sanchez and Ozil can’t be tied to the club beyond 2018, then it might be better to sell them this summer. If it was up to me, I would sell Walcott and Sanchez but keep Perez and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are among the clubs interested in Sanchez, who’s got the highest resale value of all the squad members. Obviously, it would be better to sell Sanchez to a German club so that it doesn’t backfire on Arsenal. But Bayern Munich seemed to have balked at the player’s wage demands.

Lacazette and Perez would be natural replacements for Sanchez as both are strikers who score a lot of goals and make a lot of assists. They also have plenty of pace and good dribbling and passing skills. However, Perez has been unhappy about the lack of opportunities last season, especially when Giroud and Welbeck were injured, as Wenger preferred to give the nod to Walcott or Iwobi. His omission from the squad touring Australia and China could hint at his departure this summer.

Selling Ozil would be more tricky. First, he has a lower resale value than Sanchez. And second, there’s no natural replacement in the squad for the Germany playmaker: Cazorla plays in a deeper position while Wilshere is not as prolific for assists as Ozil. Of course, that would become a different story if the Gunners sign Lemar from Monaco.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere and Gibbs also have their contracts ending next year. Money is not really the issue here. The key factor is their playing time. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs need to play regularly in order to shine and catch the attention of the England manager. Another factor is Wenger’s declining aura after a disappointing season. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs must be frustrated when they see other players improve under Klopp, Pochettino and Guardiola and snatch starting spots in the England team. They might think that they would perform better under a different manager. Arsenal will let Gibbs go after signing Kolasinac last month.

  1. Arsenal will stick to the 3-4-3 formation

The Gunners conceded a lot of goals last season because their midfield was not strong enough to protect the defense and because the back four was flawed: Bellerin lacked consistency because of injury and transfer rumors, Monreal and Gibbs struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank, and Mustafi performed poorly in the second half of the season. It took a shift to a back three to stop the bleeding. Unless the club signs a world-class ballwinner, Arsenal would still be too vulnerable with a back four against strong and even average teams.

  1. Tension with some fans won’t go away

Some fans turned against the team when Arsenal had a poor run of form in the winter. The ‘Wenger Out’ brigade seemed to make it personal by deliberately hurting the club with hostile chants and banners to get Wenger sacked. In my eyes, that attitude was completely wrong. Chelsea and Leicester were flirting with relegation when Mourinho and Ranieri were dismissed. Yet, neither Mourinho nor Ranieri suffered such abuse from the Chelsea and Leicester fans. By contrast, the Gunners were always in the Top 6 last season.

The main problem with such a hostile behavior is that it puts off a lot of players by instilling fear and anxiety in them. Nobody wants to play in that kind of atmosphere. And players may think twice before signing a contract at the Emirates.

Now that the board has made its choice clear, the fans have to stand by the team, which means no protest for this upcoming season unless the Gunners are stuck in a relegation battle. In the final year of Wenger’s contract, if the fans want to put some pressure on the board to hire a new manager, then empty seats at the Emirates and protests outside the stadium would be the only decent options. Displaying hostile banners and shouting hostile chants inside the stadium would be like scoring an own goal.

I have no doubt that the Wenger issue will come back in the 2018-19 season. The board had no serious replacement for Wenger this year and therefore extended his contract. They will have to anticipate and act more decisively in a year and half. Finding the right successor is a long process and should leave no room to improvisation as Moyes’ failure at Manchester United showed.

Gunners save season by downing Chelsea 2-1 in FA Cup final

Sanchez and Ramsey scored on Saturday to give Arsenal a record 13th FA Cup and make Wenger the most successful manager in that competition with a 7th title. The Gunners were complete underdogs before kickoff. I remember reading the Evening Standard on Friday and all their six pundits predicted a Chelsea victory. On the one hand, the Blues had no injured or suspended player and could therefore field a full-strength team. On the other, the Gunners were so badly crippled by injury or suspension that there was no defender on the bench.

FA Cup final

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

Wenger made a gutsy call by giving Mertesacker his first start of the season despite question marks over the match fitness of the German centerback. Koscielny’s suspension, Gibbs’ illness and injuries to Mustafi and Paulista also forced the manager to use Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback on the left flank. The key for Arsenal was to avoid playing a high defensive line that could expose Mertesacker’s lack of pace.

Tactically, the Gunners annihilated Chelsea’s strengths by using the same 3-4-3 system as Conte. They met twice in the Premier League this season. Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates stadium in September when both sides were playing with four defenders at the back. Conte then switched to a back three to beat the Gunners 3-1 in February. At that time, Wenger was still hesitating between his favored 4-2-3-1 formation and a more industrious 4-3-3 system. Those Premier League games became irrelevant on Saturday since the FA Cup final was the first meeting between Conte and Wenger in which both played a back three.

I wasn’t optimistic before the game. I thought Arsenal would be punished for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Holding’s inexperience. My only hope was the 2-1 win over Manchester City in the semifinals. Maybe we could win if the Blues missed their chances and the Gunners converted theirs. In the end, Arsenal showed more desire than Chelsea, making 23 tackles to 20 and 17 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website. The scoreline was quite misleading. The Blues were so badly outplayed that nobody would have complained if the Gunners had won 4-1 or 5-2.

Ramsey’s late runs

Arsenal capitalized on a spell of domination in the opening minutes to open the scoring with a controversial goal. Sanchez charged down a clearance from Kante and the ball hit the Chile striker’s arm before landing at the feet of an offside Ramsey. Luiz and Cahill froze while Ramsey let Sanchez take his chance. Sanchez flicked the ball past Courtois with the outside of his boot to put the Gunners ahead after three minutes.

The controversy was not so much about Ramsey’s offside position, since he didn’t play the ball, but about Sanchez’s handball. You can argue that Sanchez was simply trying to protect his face and that the handball was therefore unintentional. It’s not the first time that a referee has allowed a goal to stand despite a handball in the buildup. Trezeguet scored a similar goal in France’s 2-2 draw with Croatia at the Euro 2004.

Sanchez created the winning goal in the 79th by releasing Giroud down the left wing. Giroud made a cross for Ramsey, who headed the offering into the bottom corner. The understanding between Ramsey and Giroud made the difference on that play. Ramsey’s deep runs are hard to track for any defense. Kante lost track of Ramsey, who was able to find some space between Luiz and Alonso inside the box.

Chelsea struggled to mark Sanchez and Ozil because they have a lot of freedom in Wenger’s 3-4-3 system. As inside forwards, Sanchez and Ozil can find space between the centerbacks and the wingbacks. They can also drop back to exploit the space between the centerbacks and the midfielders. The main drawback of that formation is that Sanchez and Ozil can sometimes be isolated if there’s no support from the wingbacks or midfielders. That explains in great part their high turnover rate. Sanchez had 11 turnovers and Ozil 6, more than any other player according to whoscored.com.

Ozil’s work-rate

The reason why Sanchez and Ozil are considered world-class players is their reading of the game. They can see and make the right pass even under pressure. Sanchez initiated a counterattack in the 55th with a cross-field pass to Bellerin, who failed to find two Gunners at the far post with his cross. The Chile striker also slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was cleared off the line by Cahill in the 16th. It was a good effort since Ozil hit the ball with his weaker right foot. In the closing minutes, Giroud picked out Ozil, who cut inside Azpilicueta only to strike the near post.

Ozil finished the game with 3 key passes and worked harder than usual. The Germany playmaker made 2 tackles compared to none for Pedro and Hazard. He also played a key role in Arsenal’s passing game with 65 passes, second behind Xhaka’s 73. By contrast, Hazard made only 35 passes, fifth behind Azpilicueta, Luiz, Kante and Cahill in the Chelsea team. Sanchez made no tackle but disrupted the Blues’ passing game with 3 interceptions, tied with Monreal and Bellerin for the most by an Arsenal player.

Up front, Welbeck struggled with his finishing. He met a corner in the 19th for a header that crashed against the far post. Then Welbeck took a pass from Bellerin in the 30th and was denied by Courtois from a tight angle while a cross to Ramsey for a tap-in was the better option. On the bright side, Welbeck worked his socks off to cover Sanchez or Ozil when they were stuck high up the pitch. Giroud came off the bench in the 78th to set up Ramsey for the winner.

Moses’ dive

Ramsey has received a lot of stick this season and much of it was not deserved. First, injuries have marred his season. Ramsey never really had a good run of games to find his groove. And second, the few times Ramsey was fit, he had to play in a dysfunctional team. It’s only last month against Middlesbrough that Wenger found the right balance between defense and attack with the 3-4-3 formation.

In my eyes, Ramsey was Arsenal’s best player at Wembley. Ramsey didn’t get off to a good start by collecting a yellow card for pulling back Pedro in the ninth minute. But he grew into the game and was unlucky to chest the rebound against the post after Welbeck hit the woodwork in the 19th. Ramsey finished the game with 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 95.1%, the highest percentage among the starters. He also made 2 interceptions and won 60% of his duels and 2 of 3 tackles for an outstanding overall performance. Kante, Xhaka and Matic had a lower percentage for duels won, according to the club’s website. Xhaka’s focus on the defensive tasks allowed Ramsey to make his trademark late runs in the box. The Switzerland midfielder tested Courtois with a long-range volley in the 32nd.

The Blues were surprisingly lethargic in the first half. Maybe they took their foot off the pedal after celebrating their Premier League title. Chelsea played with more purpose in the second half and equalized after Fabregas replaced Matic in the 61st and Conte sent on Willian for Pedro in the 72nd. Somehow, Moses hurt the Blues’ chances by receiving two yellow cards. The first one was for a cynical foul on Welbeck in the 57th and the second resulted from a blatant dive to win a penalty in the 68th.

Holding as the weak link

Arsenal showed a lot of solidarity at the back to frustrate Chelsea. One defensive play in the 15th set the tone for the game: three Gunners united their efforts to block a shot from Costa. Mertesacker was dominant in the air, winning 5 duels. Only Cahill did better with 6, according to whoscored.com. On the ground, Monreal relied on his reading of the game to win 4 of 4 tackles, the most for any Gunner.

The wingbacks, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin, contributed defensively to keep Pedro and Hazard relatively quiet. Pedro still managed to get two chances by finding some space between Monreal and Mertesacker in the 39th and then between Ramsey and the centerbacks in the 59th. But each time Pedro missed the target.

In his return from injury, the Ox ran out of gas in the second half and was replaced by Coquelin in the 82nd. Bellerin was cautious in the first half and showed more audacity after the break. The Spaniard tested Courtois with a first-time effort from 18 yards in the 65th. Bellerin then led a counterattack in the 84th and dribbled past Luiz to fire a low strike wide of the far post.

Holding proved the weak link at the back. Chelsea’s best chances came from duels Holding lost. As Costa chased a long ball in the 28th, Holding tried to shield the ball for Ospina but was outmuscled by Costa, whose point-blank shot bounced off the Colombia goalkeeper. That was poor decision-making from Holding, who made a similar mistake against Manchester United three weeks ago by attempting a risky backpass instead of clearing the ball into touch. Holding was booked in the 53rd for an obstruction on Costa.

Wenger’s snipe

Chelsea’s equalizer in the 76th was the result of three Arsenal errors. First, Ozil lost possession to Luiz in midfield. Second, the Ox was late to stop Willian’s cross. And third, Holding was wrongfooted and struggled to change direction when Costa chested the ball down before pulling the trigger. TV Commentators claimed Ospina made a mistake because he got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. I thought that was harsh for Ospina because Costa’s 10-yard shot took a deflection.

The Blues nearly leveled in the 86th. Giroud sat too deep and failed to prevent Kante from hitting a ball over the top. Hazard beat Holding to the high ball and redirected it into the path of Costa, who chested the ball down and was denied by Ospina from 7 yards. Costa reacted more quickly than Mertesacker on that play. Ospina made two other key saves, stopping a long-range effort from Kante in the 49th and palming away a low strike from Moses in the 51st.

The Gunners have saved their season with that FA Cup title. Wenger couldn’t help having a snipe at the Arsenal board and the fans before and after the game. The French manager complained about the “lack of respect” and stressed how the “uncertainty” over his future affected the players. It’s now obvious that Wenger wanted some public backing from the board when the results were poor and the fans protested. In any case, that was a no-win situation for the board. If they had backed him, they would have antagonized the fans. By remaining coy, the board put Wenger under more scrutiny, which is what happened with Van Gaal last season at Manchester United. Ironically, both Wenger and Van Gaal finished fifth and won the FA Cup.

Papering over the cracks

Wenger also chastised the fans by stating that “once the game starts and you’re a fan, you stand behind the team.” He also added: “We played some games in a very hostile environment and I will never accept that.” It’s hard to disagree on that point. I think the best way for the fans to protest was to leave a lot of empty seats like they did against Sunderland. Demonstrations outside the stadium were OK but hostile chants and banners inside the stadium were wrong. What kind of player would like to stay in such a club?

The board will meet on Tuesday before announcing Wenger’s future. There’s some obvious tension between the board and the manager. It feels like the FA Cup is papering over the cracks of a disappointing season. The Gunners played 6 games and faced only 2 big teams (Manchester City and Chelsea) to lift the FA Cup, while Chelsea played 38 games and faced 5 big teams twice to win the Premier League. There’s no doubt that the Premier League is the more important competition and the 18-point gap between Chelsea and Arsenal is a reminder that the club needs more than one or two signings to contend next season. Wenger’s failures in the transfer market and in the assessment of the quality of his squad have been obvious in the past two years.

If the board has found a better manager, now is the perfect time to make the transition and maybe offer Wenger the position of sporting director. Otherwise, the board will have to say that it’s Wenger’s last contract in the hope that it could appease the fans with the obvious risk that protests could start again next season if the results are poor.

 

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners miss out on Top 4 despite 3-1 win

The Gunners’ 3-1 win over Everton on Sunday was their fifth straight victory in the Premier League. Unfortunately, they hit top form too late as they finished fifth, one point behind Liverpool. Optimists will point out that Arsenal racked up 4 more points than last season, suggesting that it’s an improvement. Realists will notice the 18-point gap with Chelsea, concluding that the club is regressing, especially since it’s only the second time under Wenger’s tenure that Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League.

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

For most fans, 2016-17 has been a disappointing season. It’s definitely not a bad season, otherwise the Gunners would have wound up in the middle of the table like Chelsea did a year ago. But it can’t be described as a good season for the simple reason that Arsenal finished behind Tottenham and Liverpool. I can accept the fact that Chelsea and Manchester City do better because they are both backed by generous billionaires while Kroenke is treating Arsenal like a cash cow, taking money out of the club. But finishing behind Liverpool and Tottenham is embarrassing because the Gunners have a bigger payroll and spent more money in the transfer market than those two clubs.

A quick look at the table shows where the problem is. Arsenal scored 77 goals in 38 games to claim the fifth best offense in the league and conceded 44 goals to have the sixth best defense. A total of 77 goals is decent compared to Tottenham and Chelsea, which are the top scoring teams with 86 and 85 goals respectively. But conceding 44 goals is too much compared to Spurs and the Red Devils, who have leaked 26 and 29 goals respectively. The last time the Gunners conceded 44 goals or more was during the 2011-12 season, when they finished 19 points behind the two Manchester clubs. Yes, we are back to square one!

Holding’s inexperience

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that defeated Sunderland 2-0 last Tuesday, with Koscielny, Paulista and Welbeck replacing Mustafi, Gibbs and Giroud in the starting lineup. Mustafi and Gibbs were injured while Welbeck’s pace meant that he was a better option against Everton than Giroud. Arsenal showed more commitment than the Toffees, winning 61% of the duels, and making 12 interceptions to 10 and 18 tackles to 9, according to the club’s website.

The Toffees tried to press high up the pitch in the opening minutes but ended up running into the void because the 3-4-3 formation means that the Gunners have an extra man at the back. The system gives more room for error but is not infallible. Holding’s inexperience proved quite costly in the 14th minute. What was he doing 70 yards away from the Arsenal goal? Valencia outpaced Monreal down our left flank and dribbled past Holding before Koscielny took him down with a reckless tackle.

Koscielny’s red card was deserved. The France defender was not in control and missed the ball. That was really poor decision-making. But I can understand his rationale. Holding was out of position, which means that a dangerous 3v2 situation was developing, with Koscielny and Paulista facing Mirallas, Lukaku and Valencia. To a certain extent, that challenge reminded me of Koscielny’s first season at the club when he collected two red cards.

Holding had a poor game, with a passing accuracy dipping to 73.9%, the lowest percentage for any defender. He made 0 interception and 2 blocks and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Ten years ago, Arsenal could start a youngster like Holding on a regular basis and still finish in the Top 4. Nowadays, it’s no longer possible because the level in the Premier League has significantly improved. For instance, Ake is a promising prospect at Chelsea but even Conte sees him as a bench warmer. A loan next season is a necessity both for Holding and Arsenal: Holding needs more playing time while the club needs to speed up his development.

Mertesacker’s 1st game of the season

Everton’s goal in the 58th came from another mistake from Holding, who misjudged the flight of the ball and handled it while trying to chest down a cross from Baines. Lukaku converted the subsequent penalty to cut Arsenal’s lead to 2-1. Everton found more space after Koscielny’s ejection. The shift to a back four also exposed Holding a bit more. In the 62nd, Valencia outmuscled Holding, who was booked for an obstruction on the Everton winger. Then Lukaku ghosted past Holding in the 83rd but headed Barry’s long ball wide.

Maybe the Gunners would have not struggled so badly if the referee had treated Williams with the same severity he showed to Koscielny. The Everton centerback received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 19th and should have been booked again in the 55th for tripping Welbeck. The referee kept the card in his pocket although it was clearly a cynical foul.

Paulista became a second choice after his poor performance against Tottenham. Yet, he stepped up following Koscielny’s sending-off. Paulista cut out a cross for Lukaku in the 30th, made a perfectly timed challenge on Mirallas in the 36th, killed a counterattack with another timely tackle in the 42nd and deflected out Lukaku’s shot on the stroke of halftime. However, his luck ran out in the 49th when he challenged Valencia, twisting his knee in the collision.

In less than 50 minutes, Paulista had a passing accuracy of 95.8%, made 1 interception and 3 blocks, and won 1 of 2 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He also won 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for any starting defender, according to the club’s website. Paulista was stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Mertesacker in the 53rd. The German defender was making his first appearance of the season and caused a bit of panic with a dodgy tackle on Valencia in the 55th. The referee turned down Everton’s penalty shout.

A more confident Bellerin

Cech made a couple of key saves to help Arsenal reach halftime with a 2-0 lead. He stopped a toe poke from Lukaku afer a goalmouth scramble in the 38th, turned around the post a long-range strike from Gueye in the 41st and tipped over the bar a looping header from Lukaku in the 43rd.

Wenger shifted to a back three last month because the midfield was not good enough to protect the defense, but also because the back four was not performing well: Bellerin and Mustafi both had a drop in form while Monreal struggled to stop crosses.

In the 3-4-3 formation, Bellerin proved he could be an attacking threat down the right flank. He doesn’t have Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dribbling skills but his deep runs and movement can create problems for any defense. The Spaniard finished the game with 1 goal, 2 key passes, 2 interceptions and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 1 tackle and 1 of 3 aerial duels. Bellerin has not yet recovered his defensive level from last season, but at least he’s playing with more confidence than 2 months ago. He only won 33% of his duels compared to 71% for Monreal.

Monreal is more comfortable with the new system because his positional play makes a bigger difference. He started Sunday’s game as a wingback before Koscielny’s ejection forced him to turn into a fullback. In a back four, Monreal’s relative lack of pace can be a liability to stop crosses. He was more busy defensively than Bellerin because Valencia proved a bigger threat than Mirallas. Monreal won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 1 block.

Ozil and Sanchez have a lot of freedom in the 3-4-3 system. Offensively, Sanchez enjoys cutting inside from the left flank while Ozil roams across the entire attacking line. Defensively, their lack of tactical discipline can put the wingbacks in trouble. It’s therefore not a surprise that fullbacks Holgate and Baines led Everton players with 3 key passes each.

Awkward in the final third

While his work-rate is still an issue, Ozil’s creativity is definitely an asset in the final third. The Germany playmaker created the opening goal in the eighth minute by squaring the ball back for Welbeck, who missed a tap-in from 3 yards. As the ball rolled under Welbeck’s studs, Bellerin rushed at the far post to score into an empty net. In stoppage time, Ozil produced some slick work on the left wing to set up Ramsey, who quickly turned to curl into the top corner for a 3-1 lead.

Ozil often showed off his dribbling skills when he played for Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen. Nowadays, he doesn’t dribble much, which is a shame, because I think he could still beat defenders. Ozil won a free kick in the 64th by completely wrongfooting Schneiderlin. He finished the game with 3 key passes, but also 0 tackle, 0 interception, and 0 aerial duel won, compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 1 aerial duel won for Sanchez, and 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 aerial duels won for Welbeck.

Despite his involvement in 2 goals, Welbeck was incredibly awkward in the final third. Bellerin combined with Sanchez in the second minute to make a cross for Welbeck, who missed the target with his volley from 4 yards. Somehow, Welbeck was credited with an assist for the opening goal because he slightly diverted Ozil’s cross. He claimed a second assist in the 27th for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A long-range effort from Sanchez hit Welbeck, who was played onside by two Toffees. Welbeck beat Robles to the loose ball to set up Sanchez for a tap-in.

Ramsey’s 1st goal of the season

Early in the second half, Welbeck capitalized on a mazy run from Sanchez to be clean through on goal but was denied by Robles. In stoppage time, Bellerin picked out Welbeck, who shot straight at the Everton goalkeeper. Besides the two assists, Welbeck impressed with a strong hold-up play. He won 83.3% of his duels according to the club’s website and had a passing accuracy of 96.4%. Both stats are quite unusual for a centerforward.

Sanchez has enjoyed his best season in the Premier League with 24 goals and 10 assists. He could have raised his tally to 25 goals but Robles punched away his angled free kick in the 32nd. The bad news is that the Chile striker picked up a hamstring injury later on and was replaced by Iwobi in the 67th. Iwobi had a couple of chances to make a good impression. He chested down a cross from Bellerin in the 85th only to have his shot blocked by Holgate. Three minutes later, Iwobi slalomed through the Everton defense but was denied by Robles.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey were ineffective defensively, combining to win 0 of 5 tackles and make 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. They might be the most complementary midfield pairing by default because of Cazorla’s absence, but that should give the manager some food for thought for next season, especially if Cazorla’s ankle injury doesn’t heal and if the Gunners switch back to a back four. Ramsey struggled in the first half before growing into the game. The Wales midfielder slipped a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Robles in the 75th. He then scored his first goal of the season with a curling shot in stoppage time. It might be a good omen for the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday.

Lack of choice at the back

The Blues are the favorites because they just won the league and have no injured player. On the other hand, the Gunners will miss some key players. Koscielny will serve his suspension, Paulista is unlikely to recover from his knee injury, and Sanchez, Mustafi, Gibbs and the Ox will have late fitness tests.

The back three is clearly the biggest problem for the manager. When everybody is fit, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are the obvious starters. Now Wenger only has the choice between Mertesacker, Holding, Monreal and maybe Mustafi for the three starting spots. Starting Mertesacker would be a huge gamble because he has only played one competitive game this season and his lack of pace would be a liability against Costa, Hazard, Willian and Pedro.

The beauty of football is that anything can happen in a game. The better team doesn’t always win. In the FA Cup semifinals, the Citizens played better than Arsenal but still ended up losing 2-1 in extra time. Winning the FA Cup wouldn’t make up for the disappointing Premier League campaign. But it would definitely bring a smile to the fans and the players after a rough season.