Kolasinac’s attacking verve and Ramsey’s dynamism fired Arsenal to a 2-1 win over Swansea on Saturday as the Gunners pulled within a point of third-place Tottenham in the Premier League. Wenger made no change to the side that routed Everton 5-2 a week ago. The big difference is that Swansea didn’t give as much space as the Toffees. In a 3-5-2 formation, Clement somehow managed to contain the threat from Sanchez, Ozil and Lacazette.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The visitors could have come away with three points but Naughton proved a weak link at the back. The Swansea wingback left Kolasinac unmarked for both goals. Lacazette set up Ozil with a backheel flick in the 51st minute. Van der Hoorn blocked Ozil’s shot but the ball fell into the path of Kolasinac, who fired past Fabianski to level the game. As you can see in the screen capture below, Naughton didn’t want to leave Van der Hoorn in a 1v1 situation with Sanchez.
Kolasinac, circled, is unmarked while Naughton and Van der Hoorn are double-teaming Sanchez. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
In a fluid 3-5-2 system, Fer should have dropped back to cover Naughton on that play. Quite a few English clubs have adopted a back three since Conte’s success with Chelsea last season. However, the tactical cogs are complex, especially for the wingback position and for the players who have to cover the wingbacks defensively and offensively.
Seven minutes later, Xhaka switched play from the right flank to the left with a long ball toward Kolasinac, who chested the ball down to feed an onrushing Ramsey. With a first-time effort, Ramsey guided the ball into the bottom corner for a 2-1 lead. As you can see in the screen capture below, Naughton made the mistake of following Sanchez in midfield and left Kolasinac unmarked. Then Fer failed to track Ramsey inside the area.
Naughton gives Kolasinac plenty of time to control the ball. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
The slim lead made for a nervy finish. The Gunners simply don’t have that ruthless streak to finish off their opponents like Manchester City. Arsenal had 73% of ball possession and 17 shots to 4 for the Swans, who parked the bus and waited for counterattacking opportunities. Swansea made 25 interceptions compared to just 8 for the hosts, according to Squawka.
A week ago, Everton exposed Arsenal’s defensive sloppiness by taking advantage of blunders to score twice. The Gunners put themselves in trouble again with some poor defending. Koscielny slipped while missing an interception in the 22nd and gave Abraham plenty of time to play Clucas in. The Swansea wingback ghosted past Bellerin to beat Cech with a low strike. Clucas perfectly timed his run but Bellerin should have never lost that duel. Then Bellerin lost possession with a poor first touch in the 40th and Clucas pounced on the loose ball to miss the target from the edge of the Arsenal box. On the stroke of halftime, Mertesacker dallied on the ball and was robbed by Ayew, who was denied by Cech.
The Swans came close to doubling the lead in the 52nd as the Arsenal defense was all over the place. Mertesacker blocked Clucas’ shot and Abraham converted the rebound but the goal was disallowed for offside. The back three looked nervous a couple of times while playing a high defensive line. Last season, the Gunners defeated Chelsea in the FA Cup final with Mertesacker in the starting lineup but I wouldn’t feel so confident for the next league game against Manchester City.
Mertesacker proved dominant in the air by winning 5 of 5 aerial duels while Monreal was the most creative centerback with 3 key passes. The Spaniard also led all players with 114 passes, according to whoscored.com. Koscielny was the most proactive of the back three with 3 interceptions but his missed interception in the 22nd led to the opener.
Kolasinac’s hip injury
On the left wing, Kolasinac produced a Man of the Match performance with a goal and an assist. Kolasinac also won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 1 aerial duel, according to Squawka. He was replaced by Holding in the 78th because of a hip problem. I just hope that Kolasinac will be able to fully recover during the next international break. Bellerin had more defensive work than Kolasinac on the opposite flank. The Spaniard was guilty on the opener and also failed to stop a cross from Clucas in the 77th. Abraham connected with the cross for a spinning shot that sailed wide. Bellerin nearly redeemed himself in the 66th with a volley that hit the crossbar.
A lot of fans keep asking who’s the best partner for Xhaka in midfield. Maybe the more appropriate question is: who’s the best partner for Ramsey in midfield. Both players can’t protect the defense. However, Ramsey is a more valuable player than Xhaka because he’s more mobile and versatile. Ramsey produced a good all-around performance by making 2 key passes and 1 interception and winning 2 of 5 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, while Xhaka made 0 key pass, 1 interception and 1 block and won 0 of 3 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels.
In a 10-minute span, Ramsey caused problems for the Swansea defense. First, Ozil cushioned a long ball into the path of Ramsey, whose goal attempt was blocked in the 56th. Two minutes later, Ramsey found the net from Kolasinac’s pass. The Wales midfielder proved a bit greedy in the 61st, firing over the bar with his left foot as he took the ball off Sanchez, who was about to pull the trigger with his right foot. Finally, Ramsey created a chance for Bellerin in the 66th.
Xhaka showed his value last season with his accurate long balls that helped evade a high press. However, English teams are giving him less time on the ball this season. That explains the dip in his passing accuracy as well as the team’s difficulty to set a high tempo. Under pressure, Cazorla could dribble his way out of trouble. Xhaka doesn’t have Cazorla’s mobility or dribbling skills. Against Swansea, Ozil occasionally dropped back to help the team build up plays.
The front three couldn’t replicate the brilliance of their performance at Goodison Park. Arsenal’s attack looked one-dimensional: Lacazette, Ozil and Sanchez were not involved in any aerial duel. That’s the problem when you don’t have a complete centerforward. Henry and Van Persie had pace and could win headers. Giroud has no pace while Lacazette is not dominant in the air.
The Gunners struggled to find Lacazette because of Swansea’s compact defense. Lacazette doesn’t have Giroud’s physicality but he still proved tidy in possession with 0 turnover. His only scoring chance came in the 64th when he took a pass from Bellerin for a spinning shot that Fabianski saved. Since the start of the season, I keep thinking that Lacazette would be more comfortable in the role of a second striker than as a centerforward, especially in the Premier League which is more physical than the French league where Lacazette used to play.
Ozil had a decent game with 5 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 2. The Germany playmaker also won 2 of 3 tackles. In the front three, Sanchez acts like an equalizer because he can both create and finish while Lacazette is mostly a finisher and Ozil mostly a passer. The Chile striker had 3 shots and 3 key passes. That kind of profile will be hard to find when Sanchez leaves the club.
The accuracy of Sanchez’s delivery nearly made a difference on set pieces. Mertesacker nodded a Sanchez free kick straight at Fabianski in the eighth minute while Koscielny missed the target with his header from a Sanchez free kick in the 55th. Fabianski caught a cross-shot from Sanchez in the sixth minute and parried his angled strike in the 41st. Sanchez didn’t score but the fear he instilled in defenders created gaps for his teammates.
Challenging the board
The Gunners next host Red Star Belgrade on Thursday before visiting Manchester City on Sunday. I expect the manager to rest his key players against the Serbian side because the game at the Etihad stadium is much more important. A defeat would leave Arsenal 12 points behind the Citizens. Such a gap would imply the end of any title bid for the Gunners.
Of course, I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the Annual General Meeting of the club. Thursday’s meeting showed the disconnect between the board and the supporters. Most small shareholders were against the re-election to the Arsenal board of Keswick and Josh Kroenke and forced a vote with a show of hands from the floor. Stan Kroenke saved their seats because he owns 67% of the shares and his vote had therefore more weight.
Gazidis tried to quell the supporters’ dissatisfaction with the governance of the club. Citing metrics comparing points with transfer expenditure, Gazidis claimed that the Gunners were overperforming. Rational supporters thought that it was a joke. Spurs spent less than Arsenal and still finished 11 points ahead of their North London rivals last season.
Over the past few years, Wenger has received the biggest share of the criticism. There’s no doubt that Wenger’s powers are waning. The Gunners finished outside the Top 4 last season for the first time under his tenure. But the owner is the one really holding back the club. Finishing fifth in the league and winning the FA Cup is seen as a success at Arsenal while it would be considered an average season at other big clubs.
Kroenke is only interested in the financial aspect of the club. He has no vision for Arsenal for the simple reason that his passion for sport is diluted in other U.S. teams. The club needs a completely focused owner who can provide some guidance and leadership. The best scenario for the supporters would be Usmanov selling his shares to an investor knowing the club and showing more ambition than Kroenke, someone who could challenge the American billionaire and the board.