Down to 10 men in the last 25 minutes, the Gunners showed character on Saturday by protecting their lead in a 3-2 victory over Swansea. They earned their sixth straight win in the Premier League to go level on points with leader Manchester City.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Walcott capitalized on two mistakes from the Swansea defense to give Arsenal a 2-0 lead. Amat poorly controlled a headed pass from Bellerin in the 27th minute and Walcott sneaked past the clumsy centerback to open the scoring from close range. Six minutes later, Cork failed to clear a corner with a header that bounced off Sigurdsson and into the path of Walcott, who spun to fire home.
While Walcott proved clinical in the first half as a goal poacher, he became wasteful in the second half despite some outstanding service from his teammates. In the 56th, Ozil knocked the ball down for Walcott, who hit a low volley straight at Fabianski. Walcott moved into the centerforward position in the 82nd when Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gibbs replaced Sanchez and Ozil. Leading a counterattack in the 84th, the Ox found Walcott, who struck the post from 18 yards. Another fast break gave Walcott a chance to put the result beyond doubt in stoppage time, but he sent his 10-yard effort over the bar.
Walcott was Arsenal’s main goal threat on Saturday, but he also had 10 turnovers according to whoscored.com and won only 12.5% of his duels, the worst stats for any player. That’s what you get with Walcott: the promise of end product combined with the likelihood of technical glitches.
The Sanzil magic
The winning goal resulted from the great understanding between Sanchez and Ozil. Dropping back to collect the ball in the 57th, Sanchez made a cross for an unmarked Ozil, who celebrated his birthday by volleying the offering into the roof of the net for a 3-1 lead. Ozil had a good game, leading the team with 58 passes and 5 shot assists.
On the other hand, I thought Sanchez’s performance was average. I expected Perez to start the match since Sanchez had been exhausted by his trip to South America for World Cup qualifiers during the international break. Sanchez was caught offside five times and had no success in front of the net with a lob attempt wide in the 29th and a shot blocked in the 45th.
It has often been said that Arsenal’s attack is one-dimensional when Giroud leads the line but the same is also true for Sanchez. In the role of a false nine, Sanchez can make runs in behind or drop back to make pinpoint crosses, but he can’t win headers or hold the ball up like Giroud. It would have been helpful to have a player strong in the air when Swansea pressed high up the pitch. Sometimes, there were up to six Swans in Arsenal’s half. If you play a long ball and the centerforward knocks the ball down for a teammate, it means you have beaten six players with two passes. Cech cleared the ball to evade Swansea’s high press in the 18th, but Fernandez got the better of Sanchez in the air.
Questioning Iwobi’s work-rate
While Walcott made a significant contribution on Saturday, Iwobi struggled to have an impact on the game. Fans got a glimpse of Iwobi’s talent when he slalomed past three defenders in the 56th with some amazing footwork. Unfortunately, the 20-year-old Iwobi showed very little end product. Consistency is the main issue for most young players and Iwobi is lucky to have a manager as patient as Wenger.
However, Iwobi will need to improve his work-rate. He made no effort to win the ball back after losing possession in the 10th. The turnover led to a dangerous counterattack, forcing Koscielny to concede a corner. The defensive contribution from the wingers was quite poor against Swansea. Walcott made no tackle and no interception while Iwobi made just one interception, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Ozil produced 1 tackle and 2 interceptions and Sanchez 2 tackles and 1 interception. There’s definitely room for the Ox and Perez to get back in the starting lineup if some players don’t work their socks off.
It could have been a walk in the park if Xhaka had not made two silly mistakes. Xhaka lost possession in the 38th while trying to dribble past Sigurdsson on the edge of the Arsenal box. Sigurdsson curled the ball past Cech to pull one back. Xhaka had three decent passing options on that play (Cech, Koscielny and Mustafi). Then Xhaka killed a counterattack by making a cynical foul on Barrow in the 69th. Surprisingly, the referee gave Xhaka a straight red card although this was his first foul of the game.
You can see on the screen capture below that if Xhaka had not tripped Barrow, it would have been a dangerous situation with 3 Swans vs. 2 Gunners. However, it was not a scoring chance yet since Barrow was still in his own half along the touchline.
Xhaka about to trip Barrow (photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
The Gunners have often been the victims of similar cynical fouls and each time the culprit only received a yellow card. The only rational explanation for the red card is that Moss thought Xhaka’s basic trip seriously endangered Barrow’s physical integrity. If Moss had been as strict in the 43rd, Amat should have been booked for slapping Walcott in the face instead of getting a free pass.
Xhaka and Cazorla are both deep-lying playmakers, i.e. players who can set the tempo. Cazorla has better dribbling skills while Xhaka is a bigger shooting threat from long range. They took turns roaming forward against Swansea. When Cazorla was in the final third, Xhaka acted as the holding midfielder, and the other way around. On the play that led to the red card, Xhaka was in a too advanced position. His average pace means that he must be more cautious in his positional play.
Wenger signed Xhaka because he’s the natural replacement for Cazorla in midfield and also because of his leadership skills. Xhaka wore the armband with his former club, Borussia Monchengladbach, and recently captained the Switzerland team. The Gunners have often been accused of lacking character. There’s no way you can call Xhaka a soft player since he has a long history of red cards. But he will need better judgment to become a steady force in the Premier League.
Conceding two goals against a lowly side should be a concern. Monreal was the obvious weak link at the back. Swansea clearly targeted Monreal to create chances as the Spain international struggled badly in duels against Barrow. The Swansea winger outpaced Monreal in the 80th to make a cross for an unmarked Sigurdsson, who missed the target from 12 yards. In the 89th, Monreal failed to stop a cross from Naughton for Fer, who outjumped Mustafi only to head the ball straight at Cech.
Monreal also gifted a dangerous set-piece by fouling Sigurdsson on the stroke of half-time. Amat met Sigurdsson’s subsequent free kick for a tame header that Cech easily saved. It was a play similar to the opening goal in the 2-0 loss to West Ham last season. The marking was poor as the Gunners played a high defensive line but failed to properly execute the offside trap. See the screen capture below. Mustafi is on the wrong side of Amat, who is played onside by 4 Gunners.
Amat is played onside by four Gunners (photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
At 30, Monreal’s best years are behind him. He worked hard on Saturday, making 3 tackles and 5 interceptions. No player made as many interceptions and only Coquelin produced more tackles in the Arsenal team. But Monreal simply lost too many key duels. Monreal has average pace, so he compensates with his reading of the game and sound positional play. To prevent a winger from dribbling past him, Monreal often leaves some space between him and the winger. The trouble then is that the winger has too much room for a cross. Monreal is still a decent fullback, but the staff needs to quickly identify a replacement for next summer.
Vulnerable on crosses
Monreal’s limitations should be no excuse for ignoring Arsenal’s defensive frailties. For years, the Gunners have been too vulnerable on crosses. Failing to stop crosses is one part of the problem. The other part is the defenders’ poor focus. Despite Monreal’s presence in the 66th, Barrow managed to cut the ball back to an unmarked Borja, who beat Cech with a first-time effort. Mustafi was caught ball-watching on that play.
The defending was even more pathetic in the 76th as Coquelin allowed Routledge to make a perfect cross for an unmarked Barrow, who headed the ball straight into Cech’s arms. See the screen capture below for the amateurish marking. In stoppage time, Coquelin failed to press Rangel, who crossed the ball for Sigurdsson. Bellerin was beaten to the ball by Sigurdsson, but Cech stopped the Iceland international’s header. The manager must find a training drill to improve the defenders’ marking on crosses because ball-watching could cost us many points by the end of the season.
Poor marking from Monreal and Coquelin (photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
The centerbacks’ performance was a mixed bag. Mustafi headed an Ozil corner onto the bar in the 12th and was tight enough to Sigurdsson in the 41st to block his shot. But he also lost possession while dallying on the ball in the 75th. Likewise, Koscielny intercepted a through ball for Barrow with a sliding tackle in the 52nd, but he also showed poor decision-making by attempting a risky pass that was intercepted by Barrow in the 64th. Instead of bearing down on goal on his own, Barrow killed the chance by slipping the ball to an offside Borja.
In the end, Bellerin was the only defender who had a good game at the Emirates. It’s a relief to see Bellerin perform so well after the rumors linking him with a move to Barcelona or Manchester City destabilized him a bit. The Spaniard set up the opening goal and was unlucky to be denied by Fabianski in the 32nd and in injury time.
After the first international break in September, Arsenal played 7 games in a 23-day span. Wenger took advantage of the League Cup tie against Nottingham Forest to rest the regular starters. That plan yielded great results with 6 wins and 1 draw in all competitions.
The manager might be tempted to use the same blueprint after the recent international break in October. That would make sense since the League Cup tie against Reading on Oct. 25 is the fourth of 7 games in a 23-day span. However, the lucky 1-0 win over Burnley on Oct. 2 is a reminder that playing 6 games in 23 days is still a demanding challenge for the regular starters. The Gunners can’t afford to feel exhausted for the last game before the next international break in November because they will face Spurs. Rotating against Ludogorets in the Champions League would help reinject a bit of competition within the squad and rest some key players.