For the first time this season, the Gunners have lost two games in a row. That could be the beginning of a crisis. A 2-1 defeat at Manchester City is not embarrassing in itself. The real issue is the poor performance in Sunday’s match and the lack of character displayed in the second half. Questions about Arsenal’s mental weakness will inevitably be raised if the squad doesn’t bounce back quickly.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Let’s not kid ourselves, this was the best moment to play Manchester City. They were missing their best centerback, Kompany, their best central midfielders, Gundogan and Fernandinho, and their best striker, Aguero, either through suspension or injury. So how did the Gunners lose that game after reaching halftime with the lead?
There were many similarities between that game and the 2-1 loss at Everton. Arsenal struggled so badly to create clear-cut chances that neither Everton goalkeeper Stekelenburg nor City keeper Bravo made any save. In fact, both the Toffees and the Citizens deserved to win because they had many more chances than the Gunners: 11 chances for Everton compared to 6 for Arsenal and 12 chances for City compared to 4 for Wenger’s team, according to Squawka.
Another similarity was Arsenal’s poor performance in the duels. The Toffees won more duels than the Gunners by showing more commitment. The Citizens did not turn the game into a physical battle like Everton but still showed more desire, winning 61 duels compared to 49 for Arsenal, according to the club’s website. No matter how talented you are, it becomes very difficult to win a game when you don’t want the ball more than your opponent.
Guardiola did not use Everton’s direct approach as there were fewer aerial duels at the Etihad stadium than at Goodison Park, but he definitely took a leaf out of Koeman’s playbook. The Everton game exposed Arsenal’s main defensive frailties: crosses, set pieces and the coverage of the area between the striker and the central midfielders.
Ozil’s poor performance
The Citizens could have opened the scoring by the fourth minute when Sane made a cross for Sterling. Koscielny missed his clearance but Cech was alert enough to gather the loose ball. Two minutes later, Sterling made a run in behind Koscielny to head wide De Bruyne’s cross. It was a play similar to Everton’s first goal against Arsenal. Sane then dribbled past Monreal in the 42nd but had his cross cleared by Paulista. On the stroke of halftime, Toure made a run from the edge of the box to meet a corner for a 13-yard header straight at Cech. It was a play similar to Everton’s second goal against Arsenal. No Gunner hampered Toure’s run but at least Paulista and Koscielny challenged for the ball.
City pressed high up the pitch to force Arsenal turnovers or long balls. The Gunners were often cornered in their own half as Guardiola’s team enjoyed 61% of ball possession. That was not the type of game tailored for Ozil, who performed poorly with only 1 key pass compared to 7 for De Bruyne. Ozil won only 28.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website, had 4 turnovers, made no interception, completed no cross, had no successful dribbling attempt and won 0 of 2 tackles.
Ozil’s only significant contribution was a high pass for Walcott who volleyed over the bar in the 32nd. The Germany playmaker can produce outstanding performances when his team dominates, but when the going gets tough he can also become a passenger who disappears from the game. Ozil was dispossessed by Silva in the 62nd but made no effort to win the ball back. After a midfield scramble, the ball fell to Sane, who was denied by Cech. Ozil showed poor teamwork again in the 77th by not tracking Silva. That laziness left Monreal in a 1v2 situation as Silva skipped past Monreal to feed Navas, whose deflected cross hit the post.
Limited midfield options
Silva and De Bruyne are creative players like Ozil, yet they worked hard for their team by making 5 tackles each. Ozil’s reluctance to defend means that the area between Sanchez and the two central midfielders, Coquelin and Xhaka, becomes a playground for the opposition. Toure and Fernando combined to hit 6 accurate long balls out of 10.
Coquelin and Xhaka often looked swamped in midfield. They combined to win only 2 of 9 tackles. The few times they managed to get hold of the ball, they had no solid outlet for a pass. In that type of game, what you need is a midfielder who can both defend and attack. Cazorla fits that profile, unfortunately he won’t be back before next year because of an ankle injury. Ramsey might have bridged the gap between the defense and the attack but he’s still recovering from a toe injury. In hindsight, loaning out Wilshere to Bournemouth this season has really hurt the club in terms of midfield options.
At the back, Monreal proved again the weak link. He won only 45.5% of his duels, the lowest percentage among Arsenal defenders. Sterling cut inside Monreal in the 71st to fire the winning goal into the bottom corner. Cech could have done a better job at his near post but Monreal should have also pushed Sterling against the touchline instead of letting him enter the area.
Monreal doesn’t dive in like Gibbs but the drawback is that the Spaniard often gives too much space to his opponent, which explains why he struggles to stop crosses. He’s had a great 2014-15 season but there have been signs last season that he’s losing a step. I hope the club will sign a leftback next summer. The holding midfielder and centerback positions used to be Arsenal’s main defensive weakness. Now it’s the leftback and playmaker positions that make the Gunners vulnerable.
An ill-advised offside trap
To be fair, Monreal wasn’t the only defender who had a hard time on Sunday. Bellerin is usually reliable at rightback but Guardiola clearly spotted a weakness as the Citizens attempted to crack the Arsenal defense by making runs between Bellerin and Paulista. That’s what happened in the 47th when Silva sent a ball over the top for Sane, who slipped the ball past Cech for the equalizer. Sane was marginally offside but Bellerin made the wrong decision by not staying with Sane.
You also have to question why Arsenal played a high defensive line on the equalizer, especially with nobody pressing Silva while De Bruyne and Sane made dangerous runs. The Gunners defended deep in the first half and seemed to absorb well the pressure. So why did they not retreat?
Koscielny was unlucky not to get the offside call on the equalizer. He was our best defender, winning 85.7% of his duels and making timely tackles and interceptions. His calm contrasted with Paulista’s shakiness. Paulista had a risky pass intercepted in the third minute and forced Cech to come off his line by underhitting a backpass in the 70th. The Brazilian centerback nearly scored an own goal in the 31st when his clearance bounced off Bellerin’s head but Cech made the save.
The only positive from Sunday’s game was our finishing. The Gunners took the lead in the fifth minute with their only shot on target. Bellerin ran 50 yards to find Sanchez, who played Walcott in. The England international needed two touches to control the ball before beating Bravo with a low strike.
Arsenal’s season depending on Ramsey’s fitness
Walcott didn’t do much besides that goal. He won only 1 of 6 aerial duels and 0 of 2 tackles, made 1 interception and 1 block, and his three other shots were off target. When the Gunners dominate ball possession, Walcott is a constant threat with his runs. But when they are deprived of the ball, his limited passing skills become a glaring weakness.
Iwobi also quickly faded and was replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 65th. The Ox had no time to make an impact as he picked up a hamstring injury. Wenger pulled him out to send on Elneny in the 78th. That was obviously an attempt from the manager to balance the team after Giroud had replaced Coquelin in the 75th. Giroud headed wide Bellerin’s cross in the 83rd. The France striker could have been a starting option to evade City’s high press. Unable to play the ball out from the back, Arsenal often hit long balls. Unfortunately, Sanchez did not win any aerial duel.
The Gunners have slipped to fourth place in the Premier League, 9 points behind Chelsea and just 1 point ahead of Tottenham. The title race could be over for Arsenal if they don’t win their next few games. They host West Brom on Boxing Day and then play Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Swansea, Burnley and Watford in January. Any point dropped against those weak or average teams could put the Gunners in a difficult situation.
Cazorla won’t be back before March. That means our season pretty much depends on Ramsey’s fitness. The Wales midfielder is one of the few players in our squad who can provide a smooth transition from defense to attack and the other way around. If Ramsey can’t be fit, then the manager might have to tweak the team’s passing game and opt for a more direct approach.