The Gunners have lost momentum in the race for the Premier League title after a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford on Sunday. Since the 2-1 win over Leicester two weeks ago, they have conceded a draw and two losses in all competitions. Trailing Leicester by five points and Tottenham by three, they will be virtually out of the title race if they don’t beat Swansea on Wednesday.
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We’ve got massive problems at both ends of the pitch. On the one hand, we struggled to create clear-cut chances against a makeshift defense that was missing Smalling, Jones, Shaw, Valencia and Darmian. Carrick is a midfielder by trade while Varela and Rojo are second-choice fullbacks. On the other hand, we conceded three goals against a side which is having more trouble than Arsenal to find the net and which was missing Rooney and Martial.
Let’s analyze the three goals Manchester United scored. The Red Devils capitalized on a Walcott turnover to open the scoring in the 29th minute. Varela had plenty of space to make a cross that Koscielny couldn’t head away. Paulista fluffed his clearance into the path of Rashford, who fired past Cech from 10 yards. Obviously, Walcott and Paulista were the two main culprits for that goal. But Sanchez failed to mark Varela on that play, leaving Monreal with two players to track on the left flank.
The second goal in the 32nd was a bit similar, with the Arsenal defense failing to stop a cross and losing another duel against Rashford, an 18-year-old forward who was making his Premier League debut. Monreal failed to close down Lingard, whose cross was headed in by Rahsford. Koscielny was in a too advanced position at the near post to clear the danger and was not tight enough to Rashford, while Paulista and Bellerin were busy with Mata and Depay at the far post. I believe Koscielny should fix that flaw in his positional play. He seems so obsessed with being on the right side of the striker that he’s leaving too much space behind him.
Coquelin back to his best
The third goal resulted from a counterattack in the 65th. Rashford set up Herrera for a long-range strike that took a deflection off Koscielny’s chest to beat a wrongfooted Cech for a 3-1 lead. Coquelin was a split second late for the block and I thought Monreal was too passive when Rashford bought time inside the area for Herrera to make his run. Instead of covering Paulista, Monreal should have pressed Rashford and cut the supply line.
Paulista had a decent game, making 4 interceptions and winning 2 of 3 tackles and 80% of his duels according to Arsenal’s website, but he really needs to get rid of the dodgy moments like the one that led to the opening goal. He made a stupid tackle on Rashford that nearly cost Arsenal a penalty in the 13th and made another poor clearance in the 56th that forced Coquelin to acrobatically block Schneiderlin’s close-range effort.
Coquelin is slowly getting back to his best. The French holding midfielder made 3 interceptions and won 3 of 4 tackles and 70% of his duels. He was replaced by Elneny in the 70th as Wenger was trying to inject more fluency in our passing game. I thought Elneny made some pretty reckless challenges, earning a yellow card in the 73rd for a late tackle on Depay and avoiding a second booking in the 87th despite stamping on Lingard’s ankle.
Dysfunctional passing game
The Red Devils’ pressing game clearly exposed Arsenal’s difficulty to build play from the back and create clear-cut chances. Our passing game has been dysfunctional since Cazorla’s injury. We currently lack an organizer who can quickly move the ball from the back four to the forwards. Ramsey doesn’t have the passing skills to play that role. Rosicky or Wilshere would have been a decent alternative to Cazorla but they are both injured. Until Cazorla returns, I believe the manager only has two options to solve that problem: either go for a more direct style of play or ask Ozil to play in a deeper position a la Xavi. The problem with the second option is that Ozil is less likely to deliver the final ball or score.
While Ramsey had an off day with a shot off target and no tackle won and no key pass, Ozil performed well by adding a goal and an assist to his tally. You could see that Manchester United tried to put pressure on Ozil as he lost 76.9% of his duels and had a passing accuracy as low as 68.6% compared to 88.7% for Ramsey. Yet, Ozil still managed to make 6 key passes.
The Germany playmaker created the first chance of the game with a clipped pass for Monreal in the seventh minute. Clean through on goal, Monreal had his close-range half-volley saved by De Gea. Maybe a lob would have been the better option. Ozil then helped Arsenal pulled one back with a pinpoint free kick in the 40th. Welbeck eluded Schneiderlin to head Ozil’s offering home. It was a goal similar to the winner against Leicester.
The Gunners were a bit unlucky on the stroke of halftime. Schneiderlin deflected another corner from Ozil toward his own net. Standing at the near post, Rashford kept the ball out with his arm. It could have been a penalty and a red card for denying an obvious scoring chance. But the referees aren’t generous with Arsenal this season. When you think that Sterling was penalized for an inexistent handball against Tottenham and compare with the two blatant penalties we didn’t get against Hull in the FA Cup, it’s really mind-boggling.
Ozil gave some hope by making it 3-2 with a bouncing volley after De Gea had denied Welbeck in the 69th, but the Gunners proved no threat for the hosts in the closing minutes. Welbeck was the best of our forwards at Old Trafford. His performance was the only silver lining in Sunday’s loss. Fans certainly remember him as a wasteful player before his knee injury. The main positive when you’re sidelined for a long period of time is that you can start from scratch mentally. Right now, Welbeck is our most clinical striker with two goals in our last two league games.
I thought Wenger got his team selection wrong by playing Walcott up front. The idea was probably to use Walcott’s pace for runs in behind the defense. But throughout the entire match Manchester United played a low defensive line which exposed Walcott’s poor link-up play and inability to hold the ball up. Walcott was invisible even before Rashford opened the scoring in the 29th. And when you compare Walcott’s poor work-rate with Rashford’s hunger, you can only conclude that the England winger had a stinker with no key pass, no goal attempt, no tackle made and only 25% of duels won.
No room for error
Giroud replaced Walcott in the 63rd and got very little service. His only scoring chance came in the 80th when Sanchez made a cross. Giroud outjumped a defender to head the ball over the bar. Sanchez’s current form is a real concern. Arsenal would still be in the title race if Sanchez had maintained his level from last season. But on Sunday, his impact in the final third was very limited with just two key passes and three goal attempts that were not even on target. The Chile forward was also dispossessed four times, the most for an Arsenal player.
Let’s not kid ourselves. If the Gunners finish behind Leicester and Tottenham, it will be a failed season because they have a bigger budget and a better squad than those two clubs. Chelsea and the two Manchesters are failing too, but that’s no reason to lower our standards. The season is not over yet as there are still 11 league games left, but now we have no room for error.
I believe our title bid would have been stronger if the staff had correctly assessed the quality (Mertesacker, Arteta, Flamini, Walcott) and fitness (Rosicky, Wilshere, Welbeck) of the squad and invested accordingly in the transfer market last summer. Signing Elneny in January was a tacit acknowledgement that something went wrong in that assessment.