The Gunners stopped the bleeding by defeating Hull 2-0 on Saturday to stay in the Top 4 of the Premier League. It was an average performance but restoring a bit of confidence was crucial after the recent losses to Watford and Chelsea.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Arsenal created very little as Hull goalkeeper Jakupovic only made 3 saves compared to 4 for Cech. In fact, the Tigers were so well organized defensively that the Gunners couldn’t produce any through ball. Last month, Arsenal’s desire against weak sides like Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford was questionable. The Gunners showed a bit more commitment this time as they won more duels and more tackles than the visitors (15 tackles to 12 according to Squawka and 53.8% of the duels to 46.2% according to the club’s website).
However, what really made the difference was Sanchez and two handballs. Sanchez opened the scoring in the 34th minute by pouncing on a rebound for a close-range effort that Jakupovic deflected onto the Chile striker’s hand and the ball trickled into the net. Obviously, it was an unintentional handball since Sanchez had no time to react. But the Tigers were clearly frustrated by the referee’s decision to let the goal stand because the ball would have not found the net without Sanchez’s hand.
In stoppage time, Sanchez sealed the win by converting a penalty after Clucas received a red card for handling Perez’s goalbound header. Sanchez initially capitalized on a counterattack to round Jakupovic and cross the ball for Perez at the far post. It was interesting to see Jakupovic stay in the middle of the net when Sanchez took his penalty kick. I guess the Hull goalkeeper expected a Panenka from Sanchez.
Sanchez is now the top scorer in the Premier League with 17 goals. If you add his 8 league assists, there’s no doubt that the team heavily depends on one player this season. Not as badly as when Van Persie scored 30 league goals in the 2011-12 season, but not far. The game sometimes looks like a one-man show. Sanchez had 4 of 6 shots on target, 3 key passes, 6 turnovers, and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 3 tackles and had 4 successful dribbles out of 5.
Wenger has tweaked Arsenal’s style of play this season to optimize Sanchez’s performance. Honestly, I’m not a big fan. Shifting Sanchez to the centerforward position creates space for Walcott and Ozil to run into. But it can also slow down play as Sanchez sometimes takes too many touches before releasing the ball and his hold-up play is poor. Sanchez dragged a 12-yard shot wide in the 16th and wasted another chance in the 27th by releasing Ozil down the left wing instead of feeding the onrushing Bellerin. He was harshly booked for diving in the 76th as TV replays showed Ranocchia seemed to clip his leg.
I was a bit surprised that the manager only made one change to the side that lost 3-1 to Chelsea a week ago with Gibbs replacing Monreal in the starting lineup. Walcott, Ozil and Iwobi had a poor work-rate at Stamford Bridge. Yet, Wenger did not give a chance to Perez, Welbeck or Giroud to start on Saturday.
The Watford ghost
Welbeck and Perez came off the bench to replace Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 82nd while Giroud was an unused substitute. Walcott and Iwobi did very little to justify the manager’s choices. Walcott and Iwobi had no key pass and no interception. Iwobi made 2 blocks and no tackle while Walcott made 1 block and won just 1 of 4 tackles. Their defensive awareness is still an issue. Markovic dispossessed Iwobi in the ninth minute to make a teasing cross for Niasse, who couldn’t connect with the ball. Four minutes later, in a play similar to Chelsea’s opening goal, Walcott failed to track Grosicki as Bellerin was pulled out of position by a run from Clucas. Grosicki crossed the ball for Niasse, whose header was tipped over the bar by Cech. Hull could have led 2-0 after 13 minutes just like Watford did.
In terms of end product, Walcott could only muster a tame low strike in the 63rd while Iwobi curled a shot over the bar in the 60th. Iwobi is only 20 years old, so it’s normal for him to struggle with consistency. Right now, Iwobi really looks like the youngster who hit a poor run of form in the first half of the season. What really puzzles me is why Perez hasn’t enjoyed more playing time. The Spaniard has great passing skills and a tremendous work-rate for a forward.
Ozil proved the biggest disappointment at the Emirates stadium. He made no tackle, no interception, no block, and had 6 turnovers, tied with Sanchez for the most by an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy is usually close to 90% but it dropped to 75.6% against Hull, a lower percentage than Iwobi, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott.
A younger version of Cazorla
The Germany playmaker is considered an automatic starter by Wenger but his current performances don’t justify that status. Ozil volleyed over the bar a cross from Sanchez in the 25th and wasted another chance with a poor touch in the 85th. He last scored in the league against Stoke in mid-October and his last assist came from a set-piece against Burnley on Jan. 22.
If the manager keeps his faith in Ozil for the Champions League match against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, he will have to take into account the poor defensive contribution from his highest paid player. In the No. 10 role, Ozil would give a lot of maneuvering room to Xabi Alonso. On a wing, Ozil wouldn’t track Lahm’s dangerous runs.
Besides Sanchez’s two goals, the main positive from Saturday’s game was the Ox’s solid performance in central midfield. At 23, the Ox is finally fulfilling his potential, almost looking like a younger version of Cazorla. He had no turnover and won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage of all the starting midfielders according to the club’s website. The Ox also had 1 key pass, 5 successful dribbles out of 5, and a decent distribution with 4 accurate long balls out of 10. Obviously, the Ox still has room to improve his defensive reading of the game as he made no interception and won only 1 of 5 tackles, according to Squawka. He was alert enough to cover Bellerin in the 30th and block a dangerous cross from Grosicki. The England international moved to the right wing when Elneny replaced Walcott in the 69th.
Hull targeting the fullbacks
Coquelin did most of the heavy lifting in midfield, winning 5 of 7 tackles and making 3 interceptions. There was a minor scare in the second minute when Coquelin allowed a Hull counterattack by diving in and missing the ball. It took a timely tackle from Koscielny on Grosicki to end the threat. Coquelin still has a tendency to give away cheap free kicks like when he fouled Markovic in the 40th. Those silly fouls could cost dearly against Bayern Munich.
At the back, the defenders still bore the scars of the losses to Watford and Chelsea as they seemed shaky at times. Koscielny had a poor game by his own standards, winning only 3 of 5 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels, compared to 4 of 4 tackles and 5 of 7 aerial duels for Mustafi. Markovic capitalized on an Iwobi turnover in the 51st to outpace Koscielny and make a cross for Niasse, who escaped Mustafi’s marking and chested the ball down to test Cech with a powerful strike. Three minutes later, Mustafi collided with Koscielny as Niasse headed the ball toward Markovic, who was fouled by Gibbs. Koscielny should have let Mustafi challenge for the ball on that play, while Gibbs was lucky to only get a yellow card as the last defender. I assume the referee thought Gibbs made a genuine attempt to play the ball.
The Tigers tested the Arsenal defense by making numerous crosses. They especially seemed to target the fullbacks. Markovic outjumped Gibbs in the 77th to meet a cross from Maguire, but Cech easily saved the tame header. Then Diomande got the better of Bellerin in the 86th but headed a corner over the bar. I was a bit surprised to see Bellerin in the starting lineup after the concussion he suffered against Chelsea. Hopefully, the medical staff took all the precautions. Bellerin played a one-two with the Ox in the 15th only to fire into the side-netting.
Filling Wenger’s shoes
There has been a lot of speculation about the manager’s future after the defeat at Stamford Bridge. I think the picture is pretty clear. The board won’t give Wenger a new contract if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4 because it would be the obvious sign that the club is regressing. Keeping Wenger at the club would create so much negativity among the fans that it could spill into the next season. Finding a younger manager with more energy and a new approach would be a wiser choice.
If the Gunners finish in the Top 4, the board has two options. The first option is based on the assumption that the board has already found a replacement. Wenger would step down at the end of this season and stay at the club either as a special advisor or sporting director to guide the new manager. I felt it was a mistake from Manchester United not to keep Ferguson involved when Moyes took over at Old Trafford. Ferguson didn’t want to be seen as interfering in Moyes’ work, but in the end the transition proved too brutal.
The second option is based on the assumption that the board hasn’t found the right match yet. In that case, the board could extend Wenger’s contract by a year or two to get more time in the search for his successor. It’s about doing the right thing and not having a new manager just for the sake of changing. There are very few managers who can fill Wenger’s shoes. His successor must be good at developing youngsters, must have some significant experience of European football, and must have a shrewd transfer policy because Arsenal can’t compete financially with the two Manchesters.
I disagree with what the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade is doing. It doesn’t make sense to bring negative banners inside the stadium when there are still 3 months of competition left. Making the atmosphere toxic and putting more pressure on the squad is like scoring an own goal. If the Gunners do their best and still finish outside the Top 4, then fair enough, Wenger should go. But the fans shouldn’t impact the outcome of games by instilling fear and anxiety in the players. Wenger’s departure should be a fair process decided on the pitch and not from the stands.