Stoke vs. Arsenal: 1-0 loss exposes midfield issues

There was this hope that the Gunners had turned a corner by winning 4-1 at the Britannia stadium last season. But Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Stoke reminded Arsenal fans that their club was stuck in a time loop like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The result showed again the importance of Koscielny at the back. Without the France defender, who was serving the last game of his three-match ban, the Gunners have already conceded four goals in their first two Premier League games. The Potters also exposed our midfield problems as they too easily reached the Arsenal box.

Stoke City v Arsenal - Premier League

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

You would think that Arsenal dominated the match with 77% of ball possession and 18 shots to 11, but Stoke proved as threatening as the visitors in the final third with both teams having 9 shots each from inside the box. Obviously, the Potters’ game plan was to park the bus and hit Arsenal on the fast break. They also showed more commitment than the Gunners by winning 55% of the duels and making 10 interceptions to 8 and 19 tackles to 16, according to the club’s website.

Wenger made two changes to the side that edged Leicester 4-3 the previous weekend with Mustafi and Ramsey replacing Holding and Elneny in the starting lineup. Holding was not even on the bench as Mertesacker took his spot in the squad. The manager also left out Sanchez, who’s recovering from an abdominal strain. I thought partnering Xhaka with Ramsey in central midfield was a bold move. Coquelin or Elneny would have been a more defensive option than Ramsey. Knowing Stoke’s game plan, Coquelin’s technical limitations would have been of no help to crack their defense. And Elneny would have not provided the same goal threat as Ramsey.

A dysfunctional midfield

Whatever pairing Wenger chooses, the Arsenal midfield will still be dysfunctional. Stoke only had Fletcher and Allen in central midfield, yet that was enough to trouble the Gunners. We simply have no pairing that can match the level of the duo formed by Vieira and Petit or Vieira and Gilberto. Since the solution does not exist in the squad, that means Arsenal can only find it in the transfer market.

The club has less than two weeks left to sign the top defensive midfielder who can shield the back three and help provide more tactical flexibility. Under Ancelotti, Real Madrid had Xabi Alonso and Modric in central midfield with Di Maria as a playmaker in front of them. Zidane added more security by playing a defensive midfielder, Casemiro, behind Kroos and Modric. If we assume that Xhaka is a pacesetter like Kroos and that Ramsey is a box-to-box player like Modric, that means the Gunners would need a ballwinner with better passing skills and a better reading of the game than Coquelin.

In the current 3-4-3 system, Xhaka is the holding midfielder. Unfortunately, he lacks the pace and positional play to perform that role. That’s why Xhaka needs a ballwinner who can relieve him of his defensive duties. A three-man midfield with an efficient ballwinner would also make the shift to a back four safer.

Xhaka had a poor game with a passing accuracy of 85.3%. He won just 20% of his duels compared to 60% for Ramsey, according to the club’s website. Although Ramsey plays in a more advanced position than Xhaka, the Wales midfielder performed better defensively, winning 4 of 6 tackles while Xhaka lost the only tackle he made, according to Squawka.

Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline

Ramsey had three scoring chances. First, he chased a ball over the top from Lacazette in the 17th minute but could only muster a tame shot under Diouf’s pressure. Then, he connected with a free kick from Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 28th for a volley at the far post that Butland saved. In the 60th, Ramsey met a cross from Mustafi for a toe poke straight at the Stoke goalkeeper. Ramsey has often been compared to Gerrard and Lampard, but those two players were more selective in their runs and gave the priority to their defensive duties. It’s no coincidence if Ramsey plays as a free-roaming midfielder in the Wales team. That position makes up for his lack of tactical discipline.

The Arsenal midfield becomes too porous with Xhaka and Ramsey. They combined to have 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. The Potters’ first scoring chance in the third minute showed that the Arsenal midfield is the football version of gruyere cheese (see the screen captures below). Shawcross initially outjumped Lacazette to head a long ball into the path of Fletcher. Somehow, the 33-year-old Fletcher ran past Ramsey and Xhaka to feed Jese. The Spain international evaded Mustafi’s tackle but was denied by Cech.

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Fletcher making a 20-yard run between Ramsey and Xhaka. (Photo credit: NBC)

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The shift to a back three prevents the Arsenal defense from being outnumbered. (Photo credit: NBC)

Stoke’s winning goal in the 47th showed how dysfunctional the Arsenal midfield is. Cameron intercepted Xhaka’s pass for Ozil and found Jese, who ran unopposed for 25 yards before slipping the ball to Berahino on the edge of the box. Berahino played the ball back to Jese, who beat Cech with a low diagonal shot. Ozil got plenty of stick from Keown on BT Sport but the Germany playmaker was covering Ramsey, who got stuck up front (see the screen capture below).

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Cameron beats two Arsenal midfielders with that short pass to Jese. (Photo credit: NBC)

Xhaka was the main culprit on that play. First, he made a sloppy pass from the halfway line. Then he tried to make up for his mistake and dived in, giving Jese plenty of space to run into. Last season, Wenger switched to a back three because he realized the defense lacked protection from the midfield. The Arsenal defense is rarely outnumbered with three centerbacks but the centerbacks still have to win their duels (see the screen capture below). Monreal hesitated for a split second and was late to block Jese’s shot. I’m pretty sure Koscielny wouldn’t have made that mistake.

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The Arsenal defense left in a 3v3 situation because of a porous midfield. (Photo credit: NBC)

The absence of Cazorla and Sanchez meant that Ozil carried the burden of creating chances as Xhaka and Ramsey combined to make only one shot assist. The Gunners had 18 shots but very few were clear-cut chances. At times, they even seemed to lack penetration. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes, according to Squawka. He also had 3 successful dribbles out of 4. As usual, his work-rate was poor with 0 tackle and 1 interception.

Losing a source of supply

Wenger’s choices for the wingback positions also limited the potential for creating chances. In the FA Cup final, Bellerin started on the right flank while the Ox roamed down the left. On Saturday, Bellerin and the Ox swapped positions. In both cases, the Gunners are losing a source of supply since Bellerin and the Ox can’t accurately cross with their left foot. It would have made more sense to play Kolasinac on the left flank and the Ox on the right with Mustafi, Monreal and Bellerin as the three centerbacks.

The Ox had a good game with 3 key passes, 7 successful dribbles out of 8 and a passing accuracy of 89%. He also displayed some impressive work-rate with 3 interceptions, 3 blocks and 3 tackles made, according to Squawka. His only weakness was the relative lack of end product with none of his 3 shots on target. Some fans often wonder why the manager hardly plays the Ox in midfield. I guess his dribbling skills are more useful on a wing and his reading of the game is not good enough yet. Lacazette lauched a counterattack with a clearance in the 36th. The ball fell to the Ox, who wasted a promising situation by opting for a long-range effort instead of feeding Ozil or Welbeck (see the screen captures blow).

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The Ox could have played Ozil clean through on goal. (Photo credit: NBC)

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The Ox could have crossed to an unmarked Welbeck at the far post. (NBC)

Bellerin struggled on the left flank as he won only 25% of his duels compared to 58.8% for the Ox on the opposite wing. In fact, his stats are much weaker than when he plays on the right flank. Bellerin made 0 cross, created 0 chance and made 0 dribbling attempt. On the bright side, Bellerin won 2 of 5 tackles and had 2 shots. The Spaniard collected a through ball from Ozil in the 58th to fire a low strike that Butland parried. Bellerin should have definitely been awarded a penalty in the 20th when Diouf tripped him inside the area. Taking the lead so early would have forced Stoke to chase the game and free some space.

Not clinical enough

Up front, it was a frustrating day for Lacazette. The France international had 0 shot, made 0 dribble and won 0 aerial duel. I just think he’s not tailored for the centerforward position in the Premier League. Lacazette used to lead the line for Lyon, but the French league is less physical and more technical than the Premier League. He was outjumped by the Stoke defense whenever the Gunners kicked long balls.

In my eyes, Lacazette would be more productive in the Premier League as a second striker. In the first half, his only moment of brilliance occurred in the 17th when he sent a ball over the top for Ramsey. In the second half, he scored an equalizer but the goal was disallowed for a very marginal offside. TV replays showed the tip of Lacazette’s boot was offside. Wenger was quite upset with the referee’s decision. As long as the Premier League doesn’t introduce the video assistant referee, you can’t really blame the linesmen.

If Lacazette is struggling in the air, why is the manager not playing Welbeck in the centerforward position? One obvious answer lies in Welbeck’s performance: he is simply not clinical enough. The Ox picked out Welbeck with a ball over the top in the 19th but Butland saved Welbeck’s volley. I believe Van Persie would have scored in that kind of situation. Then Ozil made a cross for Welbeck, who headed the ball over the bar in the 59th. When you have a free header, you have to catch the frame. A few minutes later, Giroud played Welbeck in with a first-time pass. Surrounded by two Potters, Welbeck had a heavy second touch and could only hit a toe poke straight at Butland.

Giroud came off the bench to replace Kolasinac in the 66th as the Gunners shifted to a back four. He made an immediate impact by setting up Welbeck in the 67th before feeding Lacazette for the disallowed goal with a backheel flick. In hindsight, maybe the manager should have started Giroud up front knowing that Arsenal would dominate possession and that Stoke would park the bus. In stoppage time, Giroud couldn’t live up to his reputation as a super-sub as he headed Monreal’s cross wide from 12 yards.

A six-pointer at Anfield

At the back, Mustafi had a decent performance for his first game of the season. The Germany international won 2 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels. He missed a tackle that could have proved costly in the third minute before sending shivers down the spine of most Arsenal fans with a 50-50 challenge on Pieters in the 84th. Monreal was obviously guilty on Stoke’s goal but Kolasinac is the centerback whose performance raised a few questions. Kolasinac won 0 of 3 tackles and only 37.5% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi and 66.7% for Monreal. I still believe leftback or wingback is a more natural position for Kolasinac.

I can understand why the manager played Monreal in the back three. The Spaniard is a great asset to play the ball out from the back. Monreal had a passing accuracy of 94% compared to 89% for Kolasinac and 87% for Mustafi. However, Stoke exposed Monreal’s weakness in the air. Shawcross beat Monreal and Mustafi to the ball to head Choupo-Moting’s cross over the bar in the 31st. Berahino also got the better of Monreal in the 62nd for a bouncing header that Cech tipped over the bar.

The Gunners are now under massive pressure for Sunday’s game against Liverpool. A defeat at Anfield could leave them six points off the pace. There’s also the possibility that two straight losses would bring back the negativity from last season. The fans fear the prospect of finishing outside the Top 4 again. For a big club like Arsenal, it’s not acceptable to miss Champions League football two seasons in a row. Sanchez and Koscielny are two of the leaders in the team. The Gunners will definitely need them to get a result at Anfield.

 

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