Perez notched a hat trick in a 4-1 rout of Basel on Tuesday to help Arsenal finish first in Group A of the Champions League after Paris Saint-Germain surrendered the top spot by drawing at home against Ludogorets. This is the first time since 2011 that the Gunners won their group. There’s no guarantee that they will get an easy draw for the last 16 but at least they will host the second leg of their tie.
- First start for the Xhaka-Ramsey duo
The manager was not scared of experimenting in a Champions League match as he partnered Xhaka with Ramsey for the first time in central midfield. They got off to a shaky start, especially with Basel pressing high up the pitch to force turnovers. Xhaka in the 11th minute and Ramsey in the 14th cheaply gave the ball away on the edge of the Arsenal box. Ramsey played in a too high position in the opening minutes, leaving Xhaka a bit isolated in midfield.
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Ramsey made the necessary tactical adjustment by playing in a deeper position. The key for Ramsey is really to figure out when to defend and when to roam forward. He killed a counterattack in the 63rd by blocking Lang’s cross. One game is obviously a small sample but the Xhaka-Ramsey duo looks quite complementary, definitely more than the Coquelin-Elneny tandem. On the other hand, the Xhaka-Coquelin partnership seems to provide more protection to the back four than the Xhaka-Ramsey duo.
Xhaka acted like a deep-lying playmaker, making 111 passes compared to 63 for Ozil and 60 for Ramsey, and reaching a passing accuracy of 93.7%, the highest percentage among the starting midfielders, according to whoscored.com. However, Xhaka’s defensive performance was questionable as he won none of the 8 tackles he made, while Ramsey won 3 of 4 tackles. Maybe it had something to do with his brother’s presence in the Basel team.
- Perez can be clinical
Starting on the right wing, Perez had 3 shots and scored 3 goals. You can’t be more clinical than that. Perez capitalized on a missed clearance from Balanta to control Gibbs’ underhit cross and score from close range in the eighth minute. He then smashed home a rebound in the 16th after Vaclik had saved Gibbs’ low strike. The Spaniard made it 3-0 in the 47th when Sanchez inadvertently diverted Gibbs’ high pass with a poor touch. The ball fell to Perez, who fired into the bottom corner from a tight angle.
Perez tried to contribute defensively but won none of the 5 tackles he made, according to Squawka. In the 18th, he failed to track Traore, whose low drive sailed wide of the far post. Perez showed smart movement inside the box with his first two goals as well as electric pace with his third. His understanding with Gibbs in the Basel game and with Ozil in the 6-0 win over Ludogorets is the sign of a good integration in the team. That means Perez can step up if Walcott suffers from a dip in form.
- Holding is learning the ropes with Koscielny
In their third start together, Holding and Koscielny produced a mixed performance. They did fine in the first half but made a couple of mistakes after the break. Koscielny won only 1 of 4 tackles compared to 1 of 3 tackles for Holding. The good news for Holding is that he won 70% of his duels, the highest percentage among Arsenal defenders according to the club’s website, and reached a passing accuracy of 92.8%, much better than when he started playing for the club.
The bad news for Holding is that he needs to improve his focus. Holding was guilty of ball-watching when Delgado headed Lang’s cross over the bar in the 43rd. Then his risky pass in the 78th was intercepted by Calla and led to Basel’s goal. Doumbia played a one-two with Janko before flicking the ball over Ospina. Holding, Koscielny and Gibbs were all guilty on that play. Holding showed poor judgment, Koscielny was ridiculed by Doumbia’s roulette, and Gibbs played Janko onside.
Wenger could have rested Koscielny to start Mustafi at the back. However, the manager preferred to partner Holding with a more seasoned centerback. Koscielny made a crucial block in the 10th and won the ball back after Ramsey had lost possession to Die in the 14th, but he also failed to challenge Janko in the air in the 51st when the Basel striker headed wide Delgado’s cross.
- Could the Sanchez-Ozil duo cost more than half a million pounds per week?
Wenger is aware of their importance to the team as he yanked them off in the second half. Ozil and Sanchez combined in the build-up to the first two goals. Then Sanchez sent a ball over the top for Ozil, who set up Iwobi for the fourth goal in the 54th. Sanchez didn’t score but he made 2 key passes and produced 4 through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Chile striker also rattled the bar with a swerving free kick in the 67th. Ozil made 3 key passes, tied with two Basel players for the most. In the 73rd, he made a perfectly weighted pass for Giroud, who missed the target with a flick at the near post.
As both are negotiating a contract extension, there are rumors that they could seek to earn as much as Pogba’s 290,000 pounds per week. Sanchez and Ozil are respectively getting 130,000 and 140,000 pounds per week from the club. Offering 200,000 pounds per week would be a significant effort from Arsenal since Manchester United’s revenues dwarf any club in England. I wouldn’t be upset if the club refuses to offer more than 200,000 pounds. Any payroll increase has an impact on the transfer policy.
Also keep in mind that both Sanchez and Ozil will turn 29 next year. How many years at the top do they still have and is it worth taking such a financial risk knowing that any injury could make the contract extension backfire? Arsenal sold Van Persie when he was 29. The Dutch striker had only one great season at Manchester United before declining.
- Arsenal can thank Ospina for the first-place finish
In hindsight, we now know that the two points earned against PSG were crucial to top the group. Ospina made some great saves in those two games. The Colombia goalkeeper pulled off 4 saves against Basel, including one that helped Arsenal protect a 2-0 lead. Steffen cut inside Gibbs in the 40th to unleash a low strike that Ospina stopped. Ospina reacted quickly enough to collect the rebound before Janko could tap it home.