The Gunners defeated Bournemouth 3-1 on Sunday to keep pace in the Premier League title race. The pressure before the game was huge as Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City had won on Saturday. A fourth straight draw in all competitions would have left Arsenal 5 points behind the Blues and 4 behind the Reds and the Citizens. It would have also meant Arsenal joining Tottenham and Manchester United in the infamous race for fourth place.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
In an attempt to inject freshness, Wenger made 7 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Paris Saint-Germain last Wednesday with Debuchy, Monreal, Cech, Xhaka, Elneny, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing Jenkinson, Gibbs, Ospina, Coquelin, Ramsey, Giroud and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The most intriguing part in the manager’s tinkering was the reshuffle of the central midfield.
Wenger has used 7 midfield pairings in all competitions this season. The partnership formed by Cazorla and Coquelin has been the manager’s favorite option so far with 5 starts, followed by the Cazorla-Xhaka duo (4 starts), the Coquelin-Elneny duo (4 starts), the Coquelin-Xhaka duo (3 starts), the Xhaka-Elneny duo (2 starts), the Coquelin-Ramsey duo (1 start) and the Elneny-Maitland-Niles duo (1 start).
Of the 5 central midfielders in the squad, Ramsey has been the least used by the manager, in part because he was injured for two months, but also because Wenger prefers to play him on a wing. It’s also interesting to see that the manager has paired Xhaka with every central midfielder except Ramsey. Is it because of Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline or Xhaka’s relative inexperience in the Premier League? Or is it just a matter of circumstances like injuries or the teams that we face?
Cazorla-Coquelin as the gold standard
The pairing formed by Cazorla and Coquelin is the most balanced combination on paper and a proven recipe for success since the 2014-15 season. However, injuries to Cazorla and Coquelin last season showed the need for decent alternatives.
Arsenal won the four games in which Cazorla and Xhaka started in central midfield. That’s definitely a more attacking partnership than the Cazorla-Coquelin duo since Xhaka has better passing and shooting skills than Coquelin. Cazorla and Xhaka were brilliant against Watford and Basel but struggled against Burnley and Swansea. Their complementarity would need to be tested against stronger opposition.
Xhaka and Coquelin started 3 games together. On paper, they are nearly as complementary as the Cazorla-Coquelin duo since Xhaka is a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla. They don’t provide the same attacking threat since Cazorla has better dribbling skills than Xhaka, but they should provide more defensive protection as Xhaka is a more prolific tackler than Cazorla. The Xhaka-Coquelin duo performed well in the draws with Leicester and Tottenham but couldn’t make up for the team’s lack of focus in the opening quarter against Ludogorets.
I’m not really a fan of the pairing formed by Coquelin and Elneny. They lack creativity and put more pressure on Iwobi, Ozil and Sanchez to engineer plays. The goalless draw with Middlesbrough summed up what the Gunners lack when Coquelin and Elneny team up in midfield.
The only time he started in central midfield, Ramsey partnered Coquelin. The manager made a big call last week by starting them against Paris Saint-Germain, the best team we have played so far this season. It’s a partnership perfectly tailored for counterattacks and end-to-end plays but which would lack control against the average sides because Ramsey has weaker passing skills than Cazorla and a higher turnover rate.
On Sunday, Wenger decided to partner Xhaka with Elneny against Bournemouth. Their fine performance against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup two months ago had very little meaning because of the weakness of the opposition. I thought the game against Bournemouth exposed Elneny’s limitations in that partnership. Elneny won only 28.6% of his duels, the lowest percentage among Arsenal midfielders according to the club’s website. Of the 4 tackles he made, Elneny won just one and committed 3 fouls.
Xhaka had better offensive stats (1 through ball and 1 accurate cross) but also better defensive stats than Elneny. The Switzerland international made 3 interceptions, 2 blocks, and won 7 of 10 tackles, the most for any player according to Squawka. Bournemouth midfielder Gosling made 13 tackles but won just 5 of them. Xhaka’s passing range is definitely an asset when the Gunners transition from defense to attack. He found Sanchez with a ball over the top in the 14th minute. Sanchez had his ankle clipped by Ake on the edge of the box but the referee turned a blind eye. Xhaka also slipped a deep ball to Sanchez down the left flank in the 60th, but the Chile striker then slightly overhit his pass for Ozil.
Sanchez produced an outstanding all-around performance with 2 goals and 5 key passes. He also won 2 of 6 tackles and made 2 successful dribbles out of 3. However, the limits of his hyperactivity were also exposed with 10 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com.
Sanchez’s one-man show
Arsenal opened the scoring in the 12th when Sanchez intercepted a weak back pass from Cook to slip the ball past Federici. Sanchez nearly added a second goal on the stroke of halftime by taking a pass from Ozil to rattle the bar with an angled strike. This almost felt like a one-man show. In fact, Sanchez’s performance (8 goals and 3 assists in the Premier League so far) is optimized by the way the Gunners are playing this season.
On the other hand, I’m wondering whether Sanchez’s shift to the centerforward position has negatively impacted Ozil’s performance. Ozil has racked up 3 goals and 1 assist in 12 Premier League games so far. At the same stage last season, Ozil had already notched 1 goal and 11 assists in 12 league games. There have been moments of brilliance from Ozil with his hat trick in the Champions League and his goal gainst Chelsea, but his start to the season has been quite average by his own standards. The consistency he achieved last season is now a distant memory.
Ozil had a decent game against Bournemouth, making 3 key passes and initiating the last 2 goals. He made a cross in the 53rd that Ake could only deflect into the path of Monreal, whose first-time pass was headed home by Walcott for a 2-1 lead. Ozil then released Giroud down the right flank in stoppage time. Giroud cut the ball back for Sanchez, who tapped in to seal the win. Ozil could have scored in the opening minutes but somehow lacked conviction with a nine-yard shot blocked by Ake. I thought it was weird that Ozil tried to place the ball with his right foot instead of going for power with his stronger left foot.
Solving the left wing issue
Ramsey and Giroud came off the bench to replace Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 75th. The Ox benefited from Iwobi’s poor run of form to start on the left wing. Unfortunately, the Ox showed very little end product with just 1 key pass whereas Ramsey and Giroud managed to make 2 key passes each.
The left wing has become Arsenal’s main weakness this season. Walcott has performed consistently well on the right wing with 6 goals and 2 assists in the Premier League so far. But neither Iwobi (3 league assists and no goal) nor the Ox (1 league goal, 2 assists) has reached a similar level of form on the left wing. Welbeck and Perez would be the obvious alternatives but they are both injured. Another solution could be to move Sanchez back to the left flank and play Giroud up front but the manager has been reluctant to start Sanchez on the wing this season.
The Gunners lost a bit of pace when Giroud finished the match as the centerforward. On the other hand, they gained more directness. Giroud proved a handful for the Bournemouth defense with his physicality. He connected with a cross from Sanchez in the 82nd but missed the target from 6 yards as Ake put him off. Five minutes later, Giroud chested down a pass from Xhaka to set up Ramsey, whose half-volley was deflected out for a corner. In stoppage time, Giroud offered a goal on a plate to Sanchez. The understanding on the pitch between Sanchez and Giroud was really poor last season. So it’s definitely a positive sign to see them improve their chemistry.
Guilty of ball-watching
The Cherries were no threat until an awkward challenge from Monreal in the 22nd gave them a chance to level. It was quite a messy play. The Gunners were under siege after a corner and Bournemouth capitalized on a turnover from Ozil and a missed control from Sanchez to hoist the ball into the box. Wilson drew a foul from Monreal by putting his body across. It was a soft penalty but the golden rule is that you have to win any challenge inside the box. Wilson sent Cech the wrong way to convert the subsequent spot kick.
Somehow, Arsenal lost a bit of confidence after that goal. The Cherries even reached halftime with as many goal attempts as the hosts. The Gunners will have to work on set pieces in training. Bournemouth could have taken the lead in the 25th when Ake redirected a Stanislas free kick toward Smith, who missed the target with a free header from 8 yards. Two Gunners were guilty of ball-watching on that play. Xhaka forgot to track Smith while Paulista poorly marked Ake.
Paulista displayed again his ball-watching skills in the 77th. Francis beat Giroud to the ball to flick a corner toward the far post where Afobe stuck a foot in front of Paulista for a low volley that Cech saved with his leg. Paulista, who replaced the injured Debuchy in the 16th, is not a fullback by trade. However, any good defender can’t afford to lose those 2 key duels inside the area.
Fullbacks as the weak link
The Cherries only created 2 chances from open play. In the 28th, Xhaka failed to close down Arter, who found Wilson on the edge of the box. The Bournemouth striker played Smith in with a backheel flick but Cech was able to turn Smith’s angled effort around the post. Walcott switched off on that play as he should have tracked Smith down the right flank. The Cherries could have equalized in the 90th when Paulista failed to stop a cross from Smith. Mousset beat Monreal to the ball but sent his header wide from 8 yards. What was Monreal thinking by trying to play Mousset offside?
Monreal and Paulista proved the weak link in the Arsenal defense while Koscielny and Mustafi put in a solid shift by combining to make 11 interceptions and win 5 of 8 tackles and 5 of 6 aerial duels.
If any Gunner needs a rest, that has to be against Southampton in the League Cup. I expect the manager to give Cech, Koscielny, Mustafi, Ozil, Sanchez and Walcott a break on Wednesday.