Arsenal thrashed Swansea 4-0 on Saturday to move into fourth place, one point behind Liverpool and Tottenham. The scoreline was quite flattering since two goals resulted from deflected shots and the other two came from poor clearances. However, what really matters is the clean sheet, only their seventh in the Premier League this season.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
One big reason why the Gunners have struggled to mount a serious title challenge is their defensive record. They have conceded 22 goals so far, 7 more than Chelsea and 8 more than Tottenham. The draw with Bournemouth and the losses to Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool are obvious examples of points dropped because of some poor defending. By contrast, the Gunners have an outstanding offensive record with 48 goals scored. Only Liverpool can match that tally. The goalless draws with Middlesbrough and Leicester are the only two league games in which Arsenal failed to find the net.
At the Liberty stadium, the Gunners produced a lethargic display in the first half with a slow tempo and no penetration. Somehow, they took the lead in the 37th minute thanks to Giroud, the man who scores important goals. The France striker didn’t cover himself in glory on that play though. Ramsey squared the ball back to Giroud, who couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Sanchez kept the ball in play and made a cross for Ozil, whose header was blocked by Mawson. The ball fell into the path of Giroud, who slammed it into the top corner.
Giroud usually loves celebrating his goals, but an ankle injury he picked up while missing the tap-in led him to ask for a substitution. He managed to stay on the pitch until the 60th when Oxlade-Chamberlain finally came off the bench. By winning 4 of 6 aerial duels, Giroud proved a valuable outlet for long balls when Arsenal tried to evade the Swans’ high press.
The bigger picture
Sanchez sealed the win by scoring from close range in the 73rd. The Ox initially made a poor cross that sailed behind Sanchez. Routledge beat Ramsey to the loose ball only to knock it back into the path of Sanchez, who volleyed home. Sanchez could have made it 5-0 in the 78th but he was dispossessed by Mawson after an awkward first touch.
The Chile striker had 2 key passes, 2 successful dribbles out of 2, and tested Fabianski with a low strike in the 28th. He showed a tremendous work-rate by winning 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player according to Squawka. As a result of his hyperactivity, Sanchez was also dispossessed 4 times.
Much was said about Sanchez’s reaction when Welbeck replaced him in the 79th. Sanchez clearly looked upset. However, it shouldn’t be a big deal. It simply shows that Sanchez wants to give his all. Players like Aguero and Cristiano Ronaldo also look frustrated when they are yanked off the pitch. The bigger picture is that Wenger needed to give some playing time to Welbeck, who is the only forward with a skillset similar to Giroud’s.
On the right wing, Iwobi gave Arsenal a 3-0 lead with two deflected shots. He capitalized on a good spell of domination in the 54th to fire a shot that took a deflection off Cork to loop over Fabianski. Then, Iwobi’s cross was diverted by Naughton into his own net in the 67th. Those were lucky goals, but you have to give Iwobi some credit for his desire. The Nigeria international also improved his defensive contribution by winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels.
A work in progress
In his return from illness, Ozil didn’t show much although he managed to make 3 key passes, the most for any player. His work-rate is still questionable. Ramsey ended up pressing a Swan in the space occupied by Ozil because the Germany playmaker was reluctant to do it. It’s not the first time that Ozil has ignored his defensive duties. Giroud against West Brom and Sanchez against Manchester City also had to close down opponents in Ozil’s zone.
The tandem formed by Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield is still a work in progress. When Coquelin starts alongside Cazorla or Xhaka, it’s pretty clear that Coquelin will do most of the defensive work while Cazorla or Xhaka will focus on building plays. The distribution is more even when Xhaka teams up with Ramsey because Xhaka doesn’t have Coquelin’s mobility while Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder. Offensively, Xhaka is the one connecting the defense with the forwards while Ramsey is the one making the runs in the final third. Defensively, Xhaka is the one protecting the back four while Ramsey is the one pressing high up the pitch.
Xhaka had two passes intercepted in the first 10 minutes before growing into the game. The Switzerland international finished the match with a passing accuracy of 93.5%, the highest percentage for any starting player. He also hit 5 accurate long balls out of 6. Among the outfield players, only Ki had more accurate long balls according to whoscored.com. At 24, Xhaka still has room for improvement, especially in his reading of the game. He dropped back in a too deep position in the 11th instead of staying with Naughton, who took a pass from Dyer for a low drive that Cech turned around the post. In the closing minutes, Xhaka tested Fabianski twice with long-range efforts.
Ramsey and Xhaka combined to win only 2 of 8 tackles. Xhaka made 4 interceptions compared to just 1 for Ramsey. That’s an area in which Ramsey could improve. Aware of his defensive duties, Ramsey was also more frugal with his runs in the final third. His only goal attempt was a low strike that Fabianski saved in the 53rd.
The Swans were not as shabby as the scoreline would suggest. They created 7 chances compared to 9 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. Their best chances came from turnovers and ball-watching by the Gunners. Wenger really needs to do something about ball-watching in training because that could become a serious problem for his team.
Managers often talk about fitness, technique, mental toughness and reading of the game as key factors in the success of a player, but focus is just as important. One short lapse of concentration is enough to prevent a player from spotting a dangerous situation or a goalscoring opportunity.
Swansea could have equalized in the 43rd when Llorente held off Koscielny to feed Ki. The South Korea international took a heavy first touch and the ball got away from him. Koscielny flicked out a leg but removed it to avoid a penalty. Ki went down while the loose ball fell to Routledge, who got ahead of Paulista to fire a low strike that Cech parried with his legs. The referee booked Ki for diving although there seemed to be contact between Ki and Koscielny. However, the main defensive mistake on that play was Xhaka’s failure to track Ki’s run inside the area. See the screen captures below.
Xhaka caught ball-watching as Ki makes a dangerous run in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
The Gunners were guilty of another ball-watching moment in the 65th when Kingsley’s half-volley hit Llorente, who teed up Fernandez for an off-target shot. The main defensive mistake on that play was the Ox’s failure to properly mark Fernandez. See the screen captures below.
Oxlade-Chamberlain caught ball-watching as Fernandez gets a free shot in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
The Swans also capitalized on turnovers to have a crack at goal. Dyer intercepted Paulista’s poor pass to Koscielny on the stroke of halftime but wasted a good situation with a long-range effort instead of choosing one of his three passing options. Paulista put his team in trouble again in the 62nd by chesting the ball down instead of heading it away. Kingsley dispossessed Paulista to feed Routledge, whose low strike was parried by Cech. Mustafi also cheaply gave the ball away in the 86th, but Sigurdsson could only drag his shot straight at Cech.
Looking beyond Cazorla
Koscielny was a dominant force in the air, winning 7 of 7 aerial duels. His only blemish was an underhit header that Sygurdsson nearly intercepted in the 16th. Paulista got the nod over Holding at rightback but proved the weak link in the back four with some dodgy decision-making. By contrast, Monreal had a solid performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and making 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.
January is a key month for Arsenal. First, because they have an easy schedule on paper and can therefore make up ground before visiting Chelsea in February. And second, because they have no mid-week game for three consecutive weeks, which means more time available on the training ground to work on tactical issues. Knowing that Cazorla underwent a second surgery and may not return before April, the Gunners should wisely use that time to make their team more compact in order to improve their defensive record.
Cazorla’s contract expires this summer. That’s a tricky issue for Arsenal because the Spaniard has become a key component in midfield. At 32, his best days are obviously behind him. A one-year extension would seem the most reasonable outcome for both parties as Cazorla’s past two years at the club have been marred by injuries and strangely echo the end of Arteta’s career.
From a long-term perspective, the manager will need to sign a specific type of midfielder this summer. We can divide our midfielders into three categories: those who mostly defend (Coquelin, Elneny, Xhaka), those who mostly attack (Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain), and those who can both defend and attack (Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere). The problem is that Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey are injury-prone players. We therefore need cover for that kind of profile, whether it’s a box-to-box player like Ramsey or a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla.