When can a manager say ‘no’ to his star players?
Sanchez and Ozil lacked freshness in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to Everton. Both were playing their seventh game in a 25-day span. If you do the math, it’s one game every three days and a half. Wenger could have left them on the bench to start Iwobi in the No. 10 position and Perez in the lone striker role. But the manager didn’t trust those second choices and thought two days of rest was enough for Ozil and Sanchez to perform well at Goodison Park.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Sanchez and Ozil put in a shift but lacked sharpness in the final third. Ozil managed to win 3 of 4 tackles, but created only 1 chance, had 4 turnovers and none of his 2 shots was on target, according to Squawka and whoscored.com, while Sanchez created 3 chances, had 1 successful dribble out of 2, won 1 of 5 tackles, made 2 blocks and had 9 turnovers. Sanchez and Ozil were not the only Gunners who looked tired. Coquelin and Xhaka combined to win only 2 of 14 tackles. The two central midfielders have started 4 of Arsenal’s last 5 games.
It’s easy to see the impact of fatigue on the team’s performance. The Gunners only created 6 chances compared to 11 chances for Everton. In fact, Arsenal looked so toothless that Stekelenburg didn’t make any save at all. The Gunners had the game under control in the first 20 minutes before the Toffees raised their game while our energy levels dropped. Everton’s pressing game led to Arsenal turnovers and off-target shots for Lennon in the 32nd and Lukaku in the 36th. The same pattern was repeated in the second half with the Gunners enjoying half-chances in the first 20 minutes before the Toffees came knocking on Cech’s door.
Arsenal’s version of gegenpressing
The main reason for the lack of clear-cut chances was the average quality of the final ball. Sanchez outpaced Williams in the second minute only to overhit his pass for Walcott. Five minutes later, Monreal pulled the ball back slightly behind Ozil, who fired over the bar from 14 yards. After the break, Sanchez made a cross for Walcott, who could only send his off-balance header wide. Then Iwobi controlled a high cross from Sanchez in the 76th for an acrobatic effort that went wide. If that cross had been higher, Iwobi could have headed the ball, and if it had been lower, he could have attempted a first-time effort. Add 5% of freshness and you can bet the final ball would have been more accurate.
Deprived of their silky passing, Arsenal relied on gegenpressing and set pieces to hurt the Everton defense. The Gunners pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back in the 18th and Jagielka fouled Coquelin on the edge of the box. Sanchez opened the scoring with the subsequent free kick that Williams inadvertently diverted to beat a wrongfooted Stekelenburg. Another gegenpressing play in the 54th gave Arsenal an opportunity to make it 2-1. Coquelin robbed Coleman to release Sanchez down the left wing. The Chile striker cut the ball back for Ozil, who missed the target from 16 yards. That was the turning point of the game. Ozil should have caught the frame with what was basically a free shot.
In the closing minutes, the Gunners enjoyed numerical superiority as Jagielka picked up a second yellow card for a cynical foul on Perez. Somehow, they could have salvaged a draw in the fourth minute of stoppage time with a goalmouth scramble from a corner. The ball fell to Iwobi, who aimed for the bottom corner. Stekelenburg was lying on the ground and unable to stop the shot, but Baines covered his goalkeeper and cleared the ball off the line. I wouldn’t blame Iwobi for not scoring. The ball was well placed, you just have to give Baines some credit for his outstanding positional play.
Everton’s direct approach
Koeman made the game more difficult for the Gunners by turning it into a physical contest with a lot of duels. Everton’s commitment made the difference against an Arsenal team that lacked freshness. Wenger only made one change to the side that defeated Stoke 3-1 last weekend with Bellerin replacing the injured Mustafi in the starting lineup. The Toffees won 52.8% of the duels, according to the club’s website, and made 40 tackles compared to 35 for the Gunners. It wasn’t a dirty game as only 3 yellow cards were handed out.
When Arteta and Mertesacker were regular starters a few years ago, Arsenal struggled to stop counterattacks because of their lack of pace. We also poorly defended set pieces. Now the Gunners are no longer vulnerable on the fast break. Koscielny, Paulista, Mustafi, Bellerin and Coquelin have enough pace to track speedy opponents. Lukaku tried to outpace Paulista down the right flank in the 70th only to have his angled strike deflected out by the Brazilian centerback. Valencia managed to dribble past Monreal and Xhaka in the ninth minute to slip the ball to Lukaku, but Coquelin rushed back to cut the Everton striker’s low cross.
The Gunners are able to kill counterattacks because the centerback and holding midfielder positions are no longer weaknesses. On the other hand, they have become more vulnerable to crosses and long balls since last season.
The Toffees knew they would struggle to penetrate through the heart of the Arsenal defense. So they opted for a more direct approach with a lot of crosses and long balls. Gueye and Barkley combined to hit 11 accurate long balls while Koscielny and Paulista were tested a lot in the air. Koscielny won 0 of 1 tackle and 9 of 13 aerial duels compared to 1 of 2 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels for Paulista.
Leaving the far post exposed
Everton’s equalizer came from a cross in the 44th. Baines cut inside Walcott to find Coleman at the far post for a free header. Basically, Arsenal left the far post exposed by committing too many defenders at the near post. It’s been a recurring mistake since last season. If you look at the screen capture below, it was a 6v4 situation that the Gunners poorly handled.
Koscielny in a 1v2 situation with McCarthy and Coleman at the far post (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
On that play, we have 6 Gunners vs. 4 Toffees inside the box. I’m not counting Oxlade-Chamberlain who’s stepping inside the area when Baines is about to cross the ball. Bellerin is covering Walcott while Xhaka is marking Lennon at the near post. So we’re pretty safe if Baines wants to pick out Lennon. Near the 18-yard line, Coquelin is keeping an eye on the edge of the box. Again, we’re safe if Baines wants to set up a teammate for a long-range effort. The whole problem is the situation at the far post. Monreal is marking Lukaku while Koscielny has to deal with two Toffees, McCarthy and Coleman. It shouldn’t be the Ox’s job to defend like a centerback. So I’m fine with him not following Coleman to the 6-yard line. On the other hand, Paulista is not marking anybody. He should have spotted the threat at the far post to give Koscielny a hand instead of standing in no man’s land. Koscielny is obviously not tight enough to Coleman but Baines’ cross is so perfect that Koscielny doesn’t even have a chance to head the ball away.
Everton wingers proved relatively quiet. Koeman relied instead on his fullbacks to put the Arsenal defense under pressure with Coleman and Baines combining to hit 8 long balls. Questions must be asked about the defensive contribution of Walcott and the Ox. Walcott made 1 block but no tackle and lost his duel against Baines for the equalizer. Baines finished the game with 3 key passes, tied with Sanchez and Barkley for the most by a player. The Ox did OK by winning 2 of 3 tackles and making 4 blocks.
Everton’s winning goal showed that set pieces are still an issue for the Arsenal defense. There was already a warning in the 39th when Monreal failed to clear a Barkley free kick and the ball fell to Lennon, who fired wide. The defending became almost comical when Barkley took a corner in the 86th. Coquelin, Paulista and Giroud surrounded Jagielka at the near post but none of the three Gunners attacked the ball. Jagielka somehow cushioned the ball with his head before firing a close-range shot that Cech palmed away. The next corner exposed Ozil’s poor defensive awareness. See the screen capture below.
Ozil failing to hamper Williams’ run (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
One remedy to zonal marking on corners is to make a run from deep since defenders usually stand around the 6-yard line. Williams starts his run about 13 yards from the goal line. You don’t expect Ozil to win a header against a centerback. But one thing Ozil should have done is to hamper Williams’ run so that he doesn’t have a clean jump and a free header. Once Williams ghosts past Ozil, only Xhaka is in a decent position to head the ball. Xhaka is initially marking Lukaku. When Barkley hits the ball, Lukaku is drifting away from Xhaka, who believes he will get the ball. However, Xhaka doesn’t see Williams’ run and fails to attack the ball. From eight yards, Williams doesn’t miss the target with his downward header. Zonal marking works only if every player does his job.
Salvaging a draw or chasing a winner?
It was interesting to see that Wenger wanted three points from the game by replacing Walcott and the Ox with Iwobi and Giroud in the 71st. You can’t blame the manager for being ambitious, knowing that the Toffees had conceded 2 draws and 3 losses from their 5 previous games. I felt the team needed a midfielder to win more duels. Elneny would have been a too defensive choice. On the other hand, Ramsey would have been a good compromise because he can win tackles and roam forward. Unfortunately, the Wales midfielder was sidelined by a toe injury.
The result is frustrating because Arsenal lost a point in the closing minutes. But if we compare with last season, the Gunners are almost in a similar position. They have racked up 34 points from 16 games, trailing Chelsea by 6 points, while they had 33 points a year ago, 2 points behind Leicester.
Ozil and Sanchez have four days of rest, so I expect them to start against Manchester City on Sunday. Anything can happen between two teams with defensive problems. But what really matters is that the Gunners win their easy games on Boxing Day and in January. Any slip would make a Top 4 finish difficult.