Arsenal vs. Middlesbrough: Absence of pacesetter hurts Gunners

The goalless draw with Middlesbrough on Saturday showed why it’s so important to have a deep-lying playmaker. The Gunners enjoyed 75% of ball possession but created very few clear-cut chances because their passing was not quick and sharp enough to create gaps in the Boro defense, which did a good job to keep a compact shape. In fact, the Smoggies proved more threatening with 11 shots compared to just 9 for Arsenal.


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Wenger only made two changes to the side that edged Swansea 3-2 the previous weekend with Coquelin and Elneny replacing the suspended Xhaka and the injured Cazorla in the starting lineup. However, those changes had a massive impact on the Gunners’ passing game. The manager wants Ozil to focus on the final third, which means that the two central midfielders are in charge of engineering the build-up play. Coquelin and Elneny made more passes than any other player (98 for Elneny and 89 for Coquelin compared to only 60 for Ozil and 48 for Iwobi). But they combined to produce only 1 key pass.

Coquelin and Elneny provide more defensive protection than the duo formed by Xhaka and Cazorla, but they also lack their creativity and passing skills. Both don’t read the game as well as Xhaka and Cazorla, and when they manage to see interesting passing options, they usually need a couple more touches before releasing the ball. Those extra touches can kill the opportunity for a through ball because they give the defense enough time to regroup. That’s why deep-lying playmakers are also called pacesetters. Players like Xavi, Pirlo, Kroos and Xabi Alonso take time away from opponents by setting a high tempo.

Home form not good enough

The midfield options were limited on Saturday with just Oxlade-Chamberlain, Maitland-Niles and Reine-Adelaide on the bench. If Ramsey had been fit, I don’t think it would have made any difference in midfield since the Wales international mostly contributes with his work-rate and deep runs. On the other hand, if Wilshere had not been loaned out to Bournemouth, I believe he could have played the role of a pacesetter. An alternative to the lack of penetration in our passing game would have been to play with a target man. Unfortunately, both Giroud and Welbeck are still injured.

The Gunners are level on points with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League before Sunday’s match pitting Manchester City against Southampton. However, it’s too early to consider Arsenal a serious contender. First, the Gunners fell out of contention last season because they dropped too many points against the weak and average sides. If they were really a ruthless team, they would have beaten Middlesbrough, a side fighting relegation. Second, our home form is not good enough if we except the 3-0 rout of Chelsea. We lost to Liverpool on opening day and escaped with narrow wins over Southampton and Swansea before drawing with Boro. Third, we have only faced Liverpool and Chelsea among the potential contenders and haven’t played Spurs and the two Manchesters yet. And fourth, if the Champions League is the reason why we struggled to play at a high tempo against Middlesbrough, then the Reds have a big advantage in the title race since they don’t play in any European competition.

Poor first half

Wenger replaced Sanchez and Walcott in the second half of the Champions League match against Ludogorets in an attempt to keep their legs fresh. Yet, both couldn’t find the net against Boro. Walcott had 2 of 2 shots on target and Sanchez 3 of 4, but some of their efforts were really poor. They also had 5 turnovers each, according to

In the first half, the Gunners tested Valdes only once with a curling free kick from Sanchez in the 23rd. From open play, their best half-chance came in the 44th when Sanchez found Walcott on the right side of the area. The England international completely missed the target but nearly had his shot diverted goalward by a sliding Ozil.

Arsenal put the Smoggies under more pressure in the second half. Valdes fumbled a header from Koscielny in the 49th and the ball fell to Sanchez who kicked it back across goal for Koscielny, who couldn’t make contact with the ball for a free header. Five minutes later, Sanchez took his chance with a long-range drive that Valdes turned around the post. Sanchez was in a much better position in the 67th when Coquelin won the ball on the edge of the Boro area. Walcott played Sanchez in but the Chile striker could only muster a tame low strike that Valdes easily saved.

Iwobi’s poor run of form

It’s hard to believe that Valdes used to play for a top club like Barcelona. The Spanish goalkeeper made a couple of mistakes that could have cost Middlesbrough a point. He came off his line in the 73rd to head the ball into the path of Walcott, who made a poor connection with the ball for a first-time effort that Valdes was glad to collect. Nowadays, referees hardly enforce the six-second rule. The Gunners should have been awarded indirect free kicks inside the Boro area after Valdes held onto the ball for more than 10 seconds at least twice.

Walcott has definitely improved his mental side of the game. The manager recently mentioned that Walcott is showing “more desire” this season. One encouraging sign is that Walcott is no longer drifting out of a match. In the past, you could see him produce a moment of brilliance before disappearing like a ghost. On Saturday, Walcott tried to make an impact until the final whistle. He combined with Perez in the 82nd only to hit an awkward shot that looped straight into Valdes’ gloves. A minute later, he met a cross from Ozil to head the ball toward Sanchez, but Valdes intercepted the pass.

Iwobi has underperformed in the last few games. He won only 20% of his duels against the Smoggies, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. In hindsight, maybe it would have been a better choice to start the Ox or Perez on the left wing. Perez replaced Iwobi in the 67th while the Ox was sent on for Elneny in the 74th. In stoppage time, the Ox fired a diagonal strike that Ozil diverted home, but the goal was disallowed for offside.

Cech’s heroics

The Gunners can thank Cech for salvaging a point. Middlesbrough could have led 2-0 at half-time with better finishing. Traore created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense with his electric pace and dribbling skills. Few fans have heard of him but Traore graduated from Barcelona’s football academy. Koscielny dallied on the ball in the 19th and was dispossessed by Traore. The 20-year-old winger evaded a sliding tackle from Mustafi and was denied by Cech. The rebound fell to Negredo, who had his effort saved by Cech.

A minute later, Ramirez struck the bar with his free kick. Monreal was then caught ball-watching in the 21st, but a heavy touch from Traore allowed Cech to claim the ball. Stuck against the corner flag, Traore seemed no threat in the 33rd. Yet, he managed to roll away from Bellerin to cross the ball for Negredo. The Spanish striker’s header bounced off Koscielny and into the path of Ramirez, whose header got parried by Cech.

Traore tortured again the Arsenal defense with his pace in the second half. He bullied Monreal in the 56th to slip the ball to Barragan, whose cross for Ramirez was cleared by Bellerin. Traore then outpaced Coquelin in the 58th and rounded Koscielny for an angled shot that Cech tipped around the post. In the closing minutes, Traore led a counterattack and forced Bellerin to make a sliding tackle that propelled the ball into Negredo’s path. It took a perfectly timed tackle from Koscielny inside the area to prevent Negredo from pulling the trigger.

The draw snapped Arsenal’s seven-game winning streak in all competitions. We are a bit short now in midfield. I guess the manager will try to rest his regular starters in the League Cup match against Reading on Tuesday because the Premier League game at Sunderland next Saturday is much more important. The Gunners can’t afford to drop any point against the weakest team in the league.