In their first defeat since August, the Gunners lost 2-0 to Southampton in the fifth round of the League Cup on Wednesday. I couldn’t care less about the League Cup. Spain, Germany and Italy only have one cup competition while England is stupid enough to exhaust its clubs with two cup competitions. Therefore, I completely agree with Wenger’s decision to rest his key players in the League Cup. However, Wednesday’s game showed some significant weaknesses that could hurt Arsenal in the Premier League.
- Our bench is not good enough
Wenger made 10 changes to the side that defeated Bournemouth 3-1 on Sunday. The Saints also heavily rotated as Puel dropped eight players who started in the 1-0 victory over Everton last weekend. Basically, the Southampton bench proved stronger than the Arsenal bench. Experienced players like Jenkinson and Elneny showed their limitations while Ramsey and Gibbs under-performed.
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The 18-year-old Reine-Adelaide got the nod on the right wing but is nowhere near the level of Manchester United forward Rashford, who made his breakthrough at the same age last season. I believe Reine-Adelaide still needs more time with the U23 team to hone his skills and learn from his mistakes.
Iwobi was arguably our best player. He burst from midfield in the 49th minute to release Jenkinson down the right flank. The Arsenal rightback made a cross for Ramsey, who shot straight at Forster with a sliding effort. Iwobi then cut inside in the 83rd to test Forster from the edge of the box.
In his return from an ankle injury, Perez struggled in the lone striker role. The Spaniard made quite a few misplaced passes and had very little support from his teammates. Perez finished the game with just one shot on target, a tame strike from a tight angle in the 47th. He obviously lacks match fitness but could be an interesting option on the left wing.
- The rightback position is a concern
Bellerin won’t be back before mid-December while Debuchy picked up a hamstring injury against Bournemouth. That means Jenkinson is the only rightback left in the squad. Jenkinson performed poorly against Southampton as both goals came from his flank. He failed to close down Bertrand in the 13th. Boufal connected with Bertrand’s cross but had his shot blocked by Holding. The rebound fell into the path of Clasie, who fired home from 16 yards. Then Jenkinson lost possession to Bertrand in the 38th and walked back toward the Arsenal box instead of tracking Boufal, who teed up Bertrand for a low strike into the bottom corner.
The Saints nearly scored a third goal in the 51st when Jenkinson gave away the ball with a poor pass but Martinez palmed away Long’s drive. When Maitland-Niles replaced Jenkinson in the 64th, the pessimist in me thought Wenger wanted to rest Jenkinson before Saturday’s match against West Ham while the optimist in me hoped the manager tried to find an alternative at rightback.
Jenkinson had a passing accuracy of 69%, the lowest percentage among all the defenders according to the club’s website. I’d be pretty scared if Jenkinson starts in our next Premier League games because Payet, Arnautovic, Bolasie and Sterling could create a lot of problems down our right flank. If it was up to me, I’d give a chance to Maitland-Niles or Holding. In the 80th, Maitland-Niles made a cross for Gibbs, whose header was cleared off the line by Yoshida. In the closing minutes, Maitland-Niles made a crucial block to prevent McQueen from tapping home.
- The Gunners must improve their defensive awareness
They concede a lot of chances because of ball-watching. When the Saints opened the scoring, Elneny saw the play unfold but had no clue that Clasie was just a few yards behind him to smash the rebound home. It was a lack of defensive awareness similar to the goal netted by Mata at Old Trafford. The second goal showed the same flaw with Ramsey and Coquelin jogging toward the ball and leaving plenty of space for Bertrand to run into. Can Wenger find a trick in his training sessions to improve his team’s defensive awareness?
Very often young players focus on creating chances and forget their defensive duties. It happened at least twice with Iwobi on Wednesday. Iwobi gave Martina plenty of space in the 50th for a cross that Long headed over the bar. Then Iwobi failed to track Martina on a counterattack in the 55th, but Holding managed to clear Martina’s cross for Long.
McQueen was also left unmarked after Martinez punched away a corner in the 56th but the Southampton winger had his shot deflected wide. Then Davis took advantage of some poor marking from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xhaka to volley McQueen’s cross over the bar in the 77th.
- The manager must ditch the Elneny-Coquelin duo
Arsenal badly lacked creativity with Coquelin and Elneny in midfield. They struggled to build play from the back, making a lot of lateral passes but providing no penetration in their passing game. Elneny made no tackle and won only 25% of his duels, the lowest percentage among the starting midfielders. He picked up a yellow card for pulling back Bertrand in the 29th and was replaced by Xhaka in the 43rd.
Xhaka tested Forster with a 35-yard free kick in the 54th and fed Oxlade-Chamberlain for Arsenal’s best chance in the 79th but the Ox missed the target from 13 yards. The Switzerland international made 4 shot assists while Elneny made none in the first half. That’s the big difference between Xhaka and Elneny: Xhaka makes more forward passes.
Knowing that Cazorla will be sidelined for 3 months because of a nagging ankle injury, I believe Wenger should build his midfield around Xhaka. Cazorla provided defensive stability to the team via his partnership with Coquelin as well as attacking fluidity via his understanding with Ozil.
Elneny would be a weak link in a partnership with Xhaka because he has worse defensive and offensive stats than Xhaka. By contrast, Coquelin is a better tackler than Xhaka while Ramsey is a bigger goal threat than the Switzerland international. It’s up to the manager to find out whether Coquelin or Ramsey is the best partner for Xhaka.
- The Gunners are too vulnerable on the flanks
Most of Southampton’s chances came from the flanks. Gibbs and Jenkinson won only 20% and 30% of their duels respectively, whereas Bertrand and Martina won more than 85% of their duels. The only time the Saints managed to carve open the heart of the Arsenal defense was in the 78th. Hojbjerg won a duel against Coquelin and the ball fell to Davis, who slipped a through ball to Long. The Southampton striker had just Martinez to beat but shot wide. Paulista was not tight enough to Davis on that play while Holding was on the wrong side of Long.
- Modern football is about penetration, not possession
The Gunners enjoyed 62.7% of ball possession but produced very few chances, with just 5 shots on target compared to 4 for the Saints. Of those 5 Arsenal shots, 3 were long-range strikes. The Gunners could have lost by a bigger margin if Martinez had not made two fine saves, tipping Sims’ shot around the far post in the 84th and diving to save Hojbjerg’s powerful strike in stoppage time. Martinez is a solid No. 3 goalkeeper and it’s great news that the club extended his contract last month.