The Gunners earned their first point in the Premier League this season with a goalless draw at Leicester on Saturday. It was a decent result if we consider that Arsenal survived two penalty shouts and that the Foxes had the best clear-cut chances.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The first two games of the season showed exactly where the Gunners need some reinforcements. They conceded four goals against Liverpool a week ago because of limited options at centerback. That’s why Wenger hit the panic button and started Koscielny at the King Power stadium although the France defender only had a few days of training under his belt. And they couldn’t crack the Leicester defense because Arsenal lacked a sharp centerforward. You can bet that many teams will park the bus this season and wait for counterattacking opportunities like the Foxes did on Saturday.
Wenger made four changes to the side that lost to Liverpool with Koscielny, Xhaka, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing Chambers, Elneny, Ramsey and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The Gunners made a few crosses in the opening minutes, but once it became obvious that Sanchez, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain were no match in the air for Morgan and Huth, they tried to create chances with short passes around the Leicester box.
The Arsenal defense definitely looked less shaky with Koscielny back in the side. His fitness was tested in the opening minute when Vardy ran at him. Koscielny tumbled to the ground but Holding was able to clear the danger. Leicester’s first penalty shout came in the 42nd minute. Mahrez slipped a through ball to Vardy, who was denied by Cech. Drinkwater chased the rebound but Koscielny made a sliding tackle before Drinkwater could pull the trigger. After watching several replays, I concluded that Koscielny got a touch on the ball. Koscielny apparently tired in the closing minutes and was outpaced by Mahrez, whose shot was saved by Cech with his legs.
Accelerating Holding’s development
Maybe the biggest surprise in the starting lineup was that Holding got the nod over Chambers. Before this summer, Holding had never played in the Premier League while Chambers had already made 57 appearances. In the end, the manager made a decision based on the players’ abilities.
Holding performed well until his level of concentration dipped in the last 20 minutes. He gave the ball away to Drinkwater in the 72nd, proved a bit naive in the 82nd by not denying Vardy the inside route on a counterattack, and gifted a dangerous free kick by fouling Ulloa in stoppage time. Holding will have to work hard in training to improve his passing accuracy, which is too low for a centerback (73.6% compared to 93.2% for Koscielny according to whoscored.com). Basically, we are accelerating Holding’s development by starting him in league games even though his inexperience might cost us a few points. A contending club wouldn’t do that.
Bellerin and Holding were both born in 1995. Holding is still a rookie while Bellerin could almost be considered a senior player after he was voted into the PFA Team of the Year last season. Leicester’s second penalty shout in the 88th somehow betrayed Bellerin’s youth. Musa rounded Bellerin to enter the Arsenal area. For a split second, Bellerin thought he had enough room to flick the ball away. But Musa managed to shield the ball with his body and Bellerin ended up tripping the Leicester substitute. At normal speed, it looked like an accidental tangle of legs. But replays clearly showed that Bellerin kicked the back of Musa’s leg. In hindsight, Bellerin should have waited a bit more before trying to win the ball, especially since Musa still had to beat Holding.
Xhaka as a pace-setter
In midfield, Wenger started the three players who finished the Liverpool game: Coquelin, Xhaka and Cazorla. Coquelin won 5 of 8 tackles, more than any other Arsenal player, and made 4 interceptions, according to Squawka. He had to walk a fine line after picking up a yellow card in the 23rd for a late challenge on Vardy. The crowd tried to put some pressure on the referee in the 55th when Coquelin was tricked by Mahrez’s footwork and fouled him on the edge of the Arsenal box but Clattenburg refrained from pulling out a second yellow card.
In the past two seasons, Coquelin often teamed up with Cazorla to shield the back four. However, the manager made a slight change on Saturday by playing Cazorla in the hole while Xhaka was the one linking defense and attack. Xhaka is still a bit shy in his game, which is normal since he’s adjusting to a new league, but you can already feel his impact on the team. The Switzerland international was the player who made the most passes (73) in that match although he was replaced in the 73rd.
Xhaka is pretty much a pace-setter like Pirlo, Xavi or Kroos. The Foxes were aware of his tactical importance and often pressed him. Xhaka lost possession to Okazaki in the 19th while dribbling in his own half. He was then robbed by Albrighton in the 70th after a poor first touch. Vardy beat the offside trap to collect Albrighton’s first-time pass but fired wide under Koscielny’s pressure.
Sanchez’s weird passes
Playing in the No. 10 role, Cazorla struggled to create chances because of Leicester’s tight defending but also because of the poor passing options offered by his teammates. Schmeichel palmed away Cazorla’s curling free kick in the 31st and stopped his long-range strike in the 34th. Cazorla faded in the second half and was replaced in the 73rd by Ozil, who had a positive impact in his first game of the season.
Up front, Sanchez had a poor game again in the lone striker role. He had 6 turnovers, the most for any player, and failed to win any aerial duel. The Chile forward clearly feels more comfortable facing play than back to goal. Twice Sanchez was in the final third, and twice he gave away the ball with weird passes. First he sent a back pass straight to Vardy in the 46th and then he hit a long ball that put Holding in trouble in the 64th. In terms of finishing, Sanchez could only muster 2 shots (1 blocked and 1 off target).
On the bright side, Sanchez was not caught offside and was able to produce 3 key passes when he dropped back to play like a second striker. He fed Ozil in the 83rd but the Germany playmaker was denied by Schmeichel.
Walcott’s overconfidence in his dribbling skills
On the wings, Walcott’s work-rate proved a nice surprise. He won 2 of 3 tackles, made 2 interceptions, and had 2 of 3 shots on target, according to the club’s official website. When you have Sanchez, Iwobi, the Ox, Gnabry and even Ramsey competing for two spots on the wings, you’d better show the manager that you deserve a start. Walcott could have scored the winner in the second half. Coquelin released Walcott down the right flank in the 75th but the England international could only muster a tame low strike. Bellerin then played Walcott in six minutes later, but Morgan blocked Walcott’s effort with a sliding tackle. In the closing minutes, Walcott took a pass from Ozil only to send his lob attempt straight into Schmeichel’s gloves.
Walcott does not play an important role in Arsenal’s passing game. His runs in the final third are his main asset since very few defenders can match his pace. I think Walcott should realize that he’s not a natural dribbler like the Ox. Walcott can outpace defenders when there’s a lot of space on the fast break but he lacks the footwork and close control to slalom through a compact defense. He was dispossessed in the 55th and 60th while dribbling his way out of trouble, and also lost the ball while taking on Fuchs in the 86th.
On the other hand, the Ox had 6 successful dribbles out of 10 according to Squawka. He cut inside Mahrez and Simpson in the 25th to curl a low shot wide of the post. Then he made a cross for Bellerin, who fired a half-volley straight at Schmeichel in the 58th. The challenge for the Ox this season will be to show more end product. No one doubts his skills and work-rate, but at the end of the day it’s all about goals and assists when you play as a winger.
Questioning Arsenal’s transfer budget
The Gunners trail Chelsea and the two Manchesters by five points in the standings. They must target a victory at Watford on Saturday otherwise they will be under intense scrutiny during the international break and will face even more pressure to sign players before the summer transfer window closes on Aug. 31.
My guess is that Arsenal will only sign one player in the next few days. On paper, the Gunners have enough money to sign two players. Liverpool and Chelsea have spent at least 20 million pounds more than Arsenal despite not qualifying for any European competition. That doesn’t make sense when you know that Arsenal earned more Premier League prize money than any other English club last season (10 million pounds more than Liverpool and 13 million more than Chelsea). Then you add 20 million pounds for playing in the Champions League group stage this year. Plus the higher gate receipts because the Gunners have the most expensive tickets in the league and a bigger stadium than Liverpool and Chelsea. And I come to the conclusion that Arsenal should spend 40 million pounds more than Liverpool and Chelsea and have a transfer kitty of 100 million pounds for this summer that would not jeopardize the club’s finances (European clubs like Valencia and Lyon must be thinking the same thing when dealing with the Gunners).
The board’s puppet
Unfortunately, Arsenal’s business model is not about reinvesting as much money as possible in the squad. If you analyze all the transfers made since 2013, when the club started having more financial maneuvering room, you will realize that the Gunners ‘only’ spend 50 to 60 million pounds per year in average. That explains Gazidis’ comment last month: “We can’t afford to make huge mistakes in the transfer market. We can’t afford to outgun competitors that have far more money to splurge on transfer fees than we do. So we have to be very careful, very selective about how we do things.”
Some fans thought that Arsenal could start competing with the big clubs in the transfer market when more than 80 million pounds were spent on Sanchez, Welbeck, Ospina, Debuchy and Chambers in the summer of 2014. But the next summer showed them that it was an illusion. Signing only Cech meant the club had already spent a big chunk of its 2015 transfer budget the previous year.
Basically, the board expects Arsenal to contend for the title with a transfer kitty of 50 to 60 million pounds per year. That was very tough in 2014. That has now become unrealistic with the boom in TV revenues and the hiring of top managers by the big clubs, especially since Arsenal’s scouting is not good enough to sign hidden gems like Leicester or Tottenham. In an era when the club defines success by profits and not by league titles, I believe it is time for Wenger to let someone else be the board’s puppet.