Arsenal retained third place in the Premier League by downing Everton 2-0 on Sunday in a performance that was more convincing than against Crystal Palace and Leicester. I was a bit worried after Wednesday’s humiliating 3-1 loss to Monaco in the Champions League. But the Gunners showed character like they did last year when they bounced back from a 2-0 loss to Bayern Munich with a 4-1 rout of Sunderland.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Before I analyze the victory over the Toffees, let’s talk about the dreadful performance against Monaco. Here are some interesting lessons from that match:
1) The manager’s motivational speech did not work since Arsenal played with the handbrake on in the first quarter. First-leg losses to Bayern Munich and AC Milan still haunted some players. But is that an acceptable reason to play at a slow tempo and show very little urgency against Monaco (the weakest team among those finishing first in the group stage of the Champions League)?
2) The team lacks a strong spine. There was an obvious lack of leadership against Monaco, with no commanding centerback, no top defensive midfielder, no leading playmaker and no world-class striker. We need a serious facelift this summer. One addition won’t be enough to turn Arsenal into a contender for the Premier League title.
3) Time is up for Mertesacker and Koscielny. Our defense will never be good enough with these two centerbacks. The Gunners conceded three goals against Monaco, a side that scored only four goals in the group stage against weaker teams than Arsenal. Mertesacker and Koscielny keep making basic mistakes in their fourth season together. Mertesacker showed poor decision-making on Monaco’s second goal when he charged down the right flank for a risky interception, letting Koscielny deal with both Berbatov and Martial. Koscielny then showed poor positional play on Monaco’s third goal, diving in on Silva, who played Ferreira-Carrasco in.
4) Arsenal can’t play a high defensive line with Mertesacker. The Gunners played a low defensive line in the first half to protect the slow-footed German. The problem is that Arsenal hardly troubled Monaco because of the gap between our defenders and our attacking players. When the Gunners switched to a high defensive line in the second half, they put more pressure on Monaco but also gave the French side more opportunities on the fast break. At the top of its game, Barcelona had Puyol, Abidal and Toure to stop counterattacks. On Wednesday, we had Mertesacker, Koscielny and Coquelin. Quite a brutal contrast.
5) Our midfield is too soft. Coquelin, Cazorla and Ozil were outmuscled by Kondogbia, Fabinho and Moutinho. Coquelin was very lucky not to receive a second yellow card. Kondogbia is two years younger than Coquelin but showed more maturity and more discipline in his positional play. Ozil played in his favorite position, in the hole behind the striker. However, he was unable to set the tempo and lead his team’s passing game. Once again, he lived up to his reputation as a passenger in the big occasions. And Cazorla should have closed down Kondogbia on the opening goal. For sure, Wenger’s choices were limited by injuries. Maybe Flamini, Ramsey and Wilshere would have added a bit more aggression in midfield. But we still miss an enforcer. Hard to believe that we had plenty of choice in the ‘Invincibles’ era with such monsters as Gilberto, Vieira, Edu and Parlour.
6) The Gunners were wasteful while Monaco proved clinical. Arsenal created more chances than their opponents, but had 10 of 14 goal attempts off target while Monaco caught the frame with 7 of its 10 goal attempts. A shooting accuracy of 29 percent is not good enough at the top level. Giroud missed a sitter in the 57th minute and at least two good chances while Welbeck should have done better with the goal at his mercy in the 64th.
7) Sanchez is not using his chocolate leg. The Chile forward wasted two good chances by shooting with his right foot instead of using his weaker left foot for more control and a wider angle. As the old saying goes, it’s the situation that dictates which foot you should use.
8) Oxlade-Chamberlain is not the finished product yet. At 21, the England international showed the best and worst parts of his game in the closing minutes. The best was a curling shot that cut Monaco’s lead to 2-1. The worst was his high turnover rate, including one that led to Monaco’s third goal in stoppage time.
Paulista’s sliding tackle
Wenger made two changes to the side that lost to Monaco with Oxlade-Chamberlain and Paulista replacing Welbeck and Mertesacker in the starting lineup. Everton opted for a more defensive approach with Barry, McCarthy, Barkley and Besic in midfield. You could see that Martinez had watched Arsenal’s debacle against Monaco and intended to bully the hosts. The first half was played at a slow tempo with compact lines which made play congested both in midfield and the final third. Chasing an equalizer, the Toffees presser higher up the pitch in the second half.
In his first Premier League start, Paulista had a couple of shaky moments. Instead of clearing a long ball from the Everton defense in the 17th minute, he preferred to let the ball bounce and lost possession to Lukaku. Ospina quickly came off his line to handle the ball away before knocking it into touch with a perfect challenge on the Belgium striker. Paulista then made a sloppy pass to Koscielny in the 78th, forcing the French centerback to stop a counterattack with a cynical foul on Lennon.
However, the Brazilian defender redeemed himself in the 38th by killing an Everton chance with a sliding tackle inside the area. The Toffees capitalized on a Sanchez turnover to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Koscielny missed his interception, leaving Lukaku one-on-one with Paulista. It’s still too early to have a solid opinion on Paulista. He will need time to build a good understanding with his teammates. But at 24, his best years are ahead of him.
Keeping faith in Ospina
This season must be frustrating for Koscielny who has lost a step because of his Achilles tendons problems. He gave away a free kick with a late challenge on Barkley in the 30th, had a weak pass for Gibbs intercepted by Mirallas in the 49th, and lost two key duels inside the area. Lukaku beat Koscielny to the ball in the 65th to meet a cross from Barkley and fire a half-volley that Ospina tipped over the bar. Koscielny then failed to spot a run from Lennon, whose sliding effort was saved by Ospina in the 72nd.
Whatever mistake Paulista or Koscielny made, Ospina stayed alert to deny the Toffees, palming behind a free kick from Garbutt in the 47th. The manager could have benched Ospina after his poor performance against Crystal Palace, but he preferred to keep faith in the Colombia goalkeeper by starting him against Monaco. If Ospina remains the No. 1 goalkeeper until the end of the season, I’m pretty sure he’ll make as many saves as Szczesny and fewer blunders. Szczesny has played 17 Premier League games this season and lost his spot after a horrendous performance against Southampton.
Why Giroud is so irritating
Giroud was under heavy scrutiny on Sunday because of his missed chances against Monaco.The Frenchman reacted well, ghosting past Jagielka in the 27th to connect with a Sanchez cross for a diving header that sailed wide. It was a difficult play since Giroud had very little room to both beat the offside trap and twist his body for the header. He showed again his good movement inside the box by running backward to lose Stones in the 39th before volleying home Ozil’s corner.
Giroud could have added a second goal in the 53rd when he took a pass from Chambo and outmuscled Jagielka, but the Everton centerback blocked his close-range shot. In stoppage time, Giroud met a cross from Bellerin but missed the target with a free header from six yards. For a lot of fans, Giroud is an irritating player because he can convert the toughest chances and blow the easiest ones. He also contributed defensively with a cynical foul on Coleman in the 46th.
Ozil set up the opening goal and created the second with a pinpoint pass for Rosicky, whose low strike deflected off Jagielka to beat a wrongfooted Howard in the 89th. Let’s give some credit to Giroud who headed Ospina’s clearance into the path of Ozil. The Germany playmaker nearly scored in the 81st when Sanchez won the ball in midfield to start a counterattack. Chambo fed Ozil, who took a touch and had an effort with the outside of his left boot blocked by Jagielka. The better option on that play was a first-time strike with his right foot.
No helping hand
You would think that Ozil had a great game with two assists, but stats don’t tell the whole story. Among the attacking players, Ozil was the one with the weakest work rate. He lost possession in the 21st and made no effort to win the ball back. Basically, Ozil is only interested in attacking plays and shies away from challenges. He does track back but just to close gaps and not to win tackles. Cazorla is much shorter than Ozil and yet he still managed to steal the ball from Barkley in the 74th.
What I fear with Ozil’s attitude is that it could hurt the team’s work ethic in the long run. When Everton relentlessly passed the ball at the back in the opening minutes, Sanchez started pressing but Ozil did not bother helping him. That would have not happened with Rosicky. Ozil is arguably our most gifted player technically. But the trouble with him is that you lose an ounce of defensive pressure that can make the difference in the big games.
Bellerin or Debuchy?
Bellerin is still a teenager but a lot of European powerhouses would love to sign him because of his pace, skills, positional play and reading of the game. He’s more gifted than the average fullback in the Premier League but still has room to improve his passing and dribbling skills. Bellerin had a curling effort blocked in the 35th and made an impressive run down the right flank in the 61st. The Spaniard is obviously ahead of Chambers in the pecking order, but it’d be interesting to see who the manager will pick when Debuchy is fit again.
Finishing in the top four will be more difficult for Arsenal now that Liverpool and Tottenham have been knocked out of the Europa League. Tottenham and Southampton only have the Premier League left, while Liverpool and Manchester United are still involved in the FA Cup. How quickly Wilshere, Ramsey, Flamini, Arteta and Debuchy recover could prove crucial in the run-in since the the Gunners are still playing in three competitions.