Managers know they are in trouble when they make Big Sam look like a genius. That’s what happened on Monday night as Crystal Palace smashed Arsenal 3-0 in the Premier League. In the old days, Wenger could still inject confidence into his squad after a humiliating defeat. The Gunners opened the 2013-14 season with an embarrassing 3-1 loss to Aston Villa but then went on to earn 7 straight victories in all competitions. Two years ago, they bounced back from a 3-1 loss to Monaco by winning the next 9 games in all competitions. Now, Wenger’s powers are clearly waning. There’s something broken in the relationship between the manager and the players. If the board decides to give Wenger a new contract, the situation at the club could worsen next season. Imagine Wenger completely losing the dressing room and Arsenal fighting off relegation like Chelsea a year ago or Leicester this year. Yeah, that would be quite a mess…
Xhaka caught ball-watching as he fails to track Cabaye’s run. (Photo credit: NBC)
The players deserved as much blame as their manager for producing their worst performance of the season at Selhurst Park. Even the 5-1 losses to Bayern Munich didn’t look as pathetic in comparison. Crystal Palace won 63.6% of the tackles compared to 30% for the Gunners, according to the club’s website. The Eagles also made 19 interceptions compared to 10 for Arsenal. The lack of desire was so blatant that some supporters couldn’t help singing “You’re not fit to wear the shirt.”
The 3-0 win over West Ham last week gave the illusion that the Gunners had rediscovered their self-confidence. Wenger therefore named an unchanged side for the Palace game. Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession but created only 9 chances compared to 14 for the Eagles, according to Squawka. Palace also had 6 of 17 shots on target compared to 3 of 11 for the misfiring Gunners.
A dysfunctional team
Allardyce’s game plan was pretty simple: press high up the pitch when Arsenal tried to play the ball out from the back, then play with 10 men behind the ball when the Gunners reached the halfway line. The Gunners proved toothless throughout the game as if Wenger had no tactical answer to break down the Palace defense. Hennessey made 3 routine saves in the first half, turning Elneny’s longe-range effort around the post in the ninth minute, stopping Sanchez’s low strike in the 21st and catching Paulista’s tame header on the stroke of halftime. The Palace goalie was not even tested in the second half as Arsenal shamelessly capitulated.
The defensive performance showed how dysfunctional the Gunners were as a team. There’s no surprise when you’re facing an Allardyce team. It’s all about directness, duels and commitment. Yet, Arsenal seemed to have no clue. The way they conceded the opener from a goal kick in the 17th was a joke. Benteke bullied Paulista to win a header, then Townsend beat Elneny to the second ball and swapped passes with Cabaye, who was not tracked by Xhaka. Cabaye released Zaha down our left flank and the Palace winger squared the ball back to Townsend, who got ahead of Mustafi to sweep the ball home.
The Gunners lost all their duels on that play. That’s not good enough for a team pretending to chase a Champions League spot. The first mistake came from Paulista, who was drawn out of position by challenging Benteke in the air. If you’re a manager and want to play it safe tactically, then you ask Xhaka to mark Benteke when he drops back on goal kicks. Arsenal made a similar mistake against Manchester City 10 days ago: Sane opened the scoring because Mustafi was pulled out of position by Aguero on a goal kick. You kind of wonder what kind of defensive drills do they practice on the training ground. The second mistake came from Xhaka, who made no effort to track Cabaye. See the screen capture at the top of this post. Xhaka’s passivity left Monreal in 1v2 situation, giving the Spaniard no chance to stop Zaha’s cross.
What’s on Bellerin’s mind?
Mustafi performed poorly. He won just 4 of 9 aerial duels and none of the 6 tackles he made, according to Squawka. Paulista struggled in the air too and lost the only tackle he made. Obviously, the Arsenal defense is weakened by Koscielny’s absence. The France centerback is turning 32 this year and if he loses a step next season, no fan can seriously think that Mustafi or Paulista would be able to marshall the defense.
The fullbacks were quite busy on Monday as Palace relied on wing play to crack the Arsenal defense. Bellerin and Monreal combined to win 6 of 16 tackles and 3 of 4 aerial duels. Monreal had a decent game although the first two goals came from his flank. On the other hand, Bellerin is really having a poor run of form. He was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Two of Bellerin’s turnovers led to dangerous counterattacks in the opening minute and the 41st. He also misjudged the flight of a long ball in the third minute, allowing Sakho to feed Cabaye for an off-target effort.
On paper, Bellerin is one of the most gifted fullbacks in the league. But his performance on Monday was full of technical errors. He underhit a backpass that was nearly intercepted by Benteke in the 36th, gave away a free kick because of a poor touch in the 39th, fluffed a volley wide in the 58th, and sent a pass intended for Walcott straight into touch in the 65th. There can only be two possible explanations. Either the team’s poor results are affecting his confidence, or his mind is distracted by the idea of a move.
Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness
Martinez made a couple of fine saves to keep Arsenal in the game, parrying an angled strike from Benteke in the 41st, palming away a low effort from Townsend in the 50th and stopping Puncheon’s header in the 54th. But he showed his inexperience in the 67th by fouling Townsend to give away a cheap penalty. Milivojevic converted the spot kick to make it 3-0. That was poor decision-making from Martinez, who didn’t need to charge out, first because Townsend still had to beat Bellerin, and second because Townsend was running away from goal.
Xhaka and Elneny performed well against West Ham but their limits were exposed by Palace. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka had decent stats with 4 key passes, tied with Zaha and Townsend for the most by any player. He also won 2 of 3 tackles and 4 of 4 aerial duels. However, Xhaka is less effective than Cazorla against compact teams because he can’t dribble like the Spaniard. And his lack of defensive awareness is a problem. He didn’t spot Cabaye’s run on the opening goal and didn’t care at all on the second goal.
Sometimes I wonder what the scouts saw in Elneny when they recommended him. Elneny is not a decisive player. Offensively, he made no key pass. And defensively, he won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 air duels. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger replaced Elneny with Ramsey in the 59th. The move backfired as Ramsey failed to spot Cabaye’s run for the second goal in the 63rd. It all started from a throw-in. Surrounded by Monreal and Ramsey, Benteke still won the header and found Townsend, who released Zaha down our left flank. Zaha cut the ball back to Cabaye, who beat Martinez with a looping effort into the far corner. Ramsey’s lack of effort on that play was shocking. See the screen capture below.
Ramsey caught ball-watching as Cabaye runs in front of him. (Photo credit: NBC)
Maybe the failure of the Ozil project is what will define Wenger’s last seasons at the club. Ozil notched 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 Premier League games last season for an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. That was definitely his best season at the club. However, his work-rate was an issue. Ozil didn’t work in midfield as hard as Silva at City or Lallana at Liverpool. So the manager thought about playing Ozil in a slightly more advanced position, almost like a second striker (Ozil had 42 through balls in the Premier League last season compared to 15 this term).
What a waste, Mesut
We were told Ozil scored a lot of goals on the training ground. Unfortunately, he rarely showed any killer instinct in competitive games this season. As a result, his number of assists significantly dipped while his number of goals didn’t really soar. With 6 goals and 6 assists from 25 Premier League appearances so far, Ozil is averaging 0.48 goal or assist per game.
At 28, Ozil should be at the top of his game. But the sad reality is that Alli at Tottenham is having the kind of impact that Wenger expected from Ozil. With 16 goals and 5 assists from 30 Premier League appearances, Alli is averaging 0.7 goal or assist per game. At 21, Alli is already a better player than Ozil in his prime. Of Alli’s 16 goals, 4 were headers, 8 were scored with the right foot, 4 with the left foot and only 1 was a penalty.
Ozil enjoys more being a playmaker than a finisher. Wenger has implicitly acknowledged his failure to turn Ozil into a nine and half like Bergkamp or Baggio by moving him back into his former position. At Selhurst Park, Ozil played like someone who didn’t seem to care about his future at the club. He had no goal attempt, won no tackle, and made no key pass, interception or block. His technique also let him down a couple of times. Ozil couldn’t beat the first defender with a corner in the 15th and sent a pass straight into touch in the 62nd. His performances this season have confirmed that he’s not a leader on the pitch and can’t carry the team in times of trouble.
Only the FA Cup to play for
Sanchez tried a bit harder than Ozil with 4 shots, 1 key pass and 2 interceptions, but it’s difficult to see him stay at the club. The Chile striker is an ambitious and demanding player, who knows that he won’t win the Premier League with Arsenal. The club could face in a couple of months its most unstable summer since 2011. Even if the British core (Gibbs, Holding, Ramsey, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Welbeck) remains at the club, a lot of them have either regressed or stagnated this season. Walcott couldn’t find any space behind the Palace defense for his trademark runs while Welbeck got no decent service up front. Welbeck chased a long ball from Xhaka in the 44th only to fire an angled volley wide.
The end of the season could turn ugly for Arsenal. They have no realistic hope of finishing in the Top 4. If the target is 75 points, that would imply 7 wins from the final 8 games in the Premier League, which is very unlikely since the Gunners have won just 1 of their last 5 games. Basically, they only have the FA Cup to play for. Will the squad throw away the next league games to focus on the Cup?