The Gunners got back to winning ways on Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Newcastle to leapfrog Burnley and Spurs in the Premier League standings. The performance was average but it was unrealistic to expect much from Arsenal’s third game in a 7-day span. If we look at the bigger picture, the Gunners restored some order at the back by keeping a second straight clean sheet after the poor defensive display against Manchester United and Southampton.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger made only one change to the side that drew with West Ham on Wednesday with Lacazette replacing Giroud in the starting lineup. Arsenal enjoyed 71% of ball possession but struggled again to create clear-cut chances with just 5 shots on target, which was slightly better than the 3 shots on target at the London stadium. Decision-making and the final ball were the main issues. Iwobi could have set up Sanchez in the 61st minute but preferred to attempt an improbable overhead kick which went nowhere. See the screen capture below.
Iwobi could have teed up Sanchez instead of going for personal glory. (Photo credit: Movistar)
Iwobi was less selfish in the 34th. He had 3 decent passing options with Lacazette, Sanchez and Ozil. However, he killed the momentum of the counterattack by playing the ball behind Sanchez. Ozil also lacked accuracy in the 70th by overhitting his final ball for Lacazette. Football sometimes looks like a choreographed ballet: one wrong move is enough to make the whole play fail. In the role of the playmaker in the 68th, Lacazette could have slipped the ball to Ozil at the near post or Sanchez at the far post. He played the ball between his two teammates, allowing the Magpies to make an interception. See the screen capture below.
Lacazette could have fed Sanchez or Ozil. (Photo credit: Movistar)
The few times the Gunners had decent chances, they simply lacked the finishing touch. Lacazette and Sanchez combined to have only 1 of 8 shots on target, which is a poor return for top strikers. In the 12th, Lacazette teed up Sanchez, who fired over the bar from 16 yards. At least, Bellerin had the excuse in the 27th of attempting a volley with his weaker left foot. The best chance of the game came in the 75th when Giroud headed a cross from Sanchez into the path of Wilshere, who shot straight at Elliot from 9 yards. From the ensuing corner, Koscielny missed the target with his header.
Capitalizing on second balls
Surprisingly, some of Arsenal’s chances came from second balls. Newcastle cleared a deflected shot from Lacazette into the path of Bellerin, whose goal attempt got blocked by 3 Magpies in the eighth minute. Sanchez also pounced on another poor clearance on the stroke of halftime to hit a snapshot wide. The Gunners score the winner by capitalizing on a second ball in the 23rd. The ball flew high in the air when Yedlin blocked Sanchez’s first-time effort. Lejeune outjumped Sanchez to head the ball into the path of Ozil, who volleyed high past Elliot from 16 yards. It wasn’t as spectacular as Ramsey’s long-range volley against Galatasaray, but you have to give Ozil some credit for anticipating the clearance. Ozil took a few steps back while Sanchez and Lejeune were challenging for the ball. That’s why he was perfectly positioned for the volley.
After an average performance against West Ham and a mediocre one against Southampton, Ozil finally lived up to his world-class billing. Ozil was arguably the best Gunner on Saturday, having 2 of 2 shots on target and making 8 key passes, the most for any player. He could have doubled the lead in the 38th when he played a one-two with Lacazette to chip Elliot from a tight angle, but Lejeune cleared the ball to safety.
Ozil is clearly benefiting from the switch to a back four against the weak teams, shining in the heart of a 4-3-3 formation. The Germany playmaker led all players with 106 passes, according to whoscored.com. In the more defensive-minded 3-4-3 formation, Xhaka and the centerbacks are usually the players making the most passes while Ozil’s weak defensive contribution is compensated by the addition of a third centerback. I don’t think the manager has completely dropped the back three. The Arsenal defense would be too exposed with a 4-3-3 formation against the top teams because we don’t have any top holding midfielder.
Up front, Lacazette struggled against a team parking the bus just like Giroud did against West Ham. We know Giroud’s limitations: he lacks the pace to make runs in behind or dribble past defenders. Lacazette also has his own limitations: he’s not strong in the air and can’t hold defenders off. Basically, the Gunners are still missing the complete centerforward that Henry or Van Persie could be: a fast striker with lethal finishing and great dribbling skills, strong in the air, who can hold the ball up and link up play. The Citizens don’t have the complete centerforward either but they have found a way to become the most irresistible attack in the league with Aguero, Jesus, Sterling and Sane.
Lacazette hasn’t scored since the loss to Manchester United. That must feel like an eternity for any top striker. At times, Lacazette seemed short on confidence. He tested Elliot with a low drive from 25 yards in the third minute. But then his shooting boots let him down. Lacazette controlled a long ball in the 54th and created space against Lascelles only to fire over the bar. He had a better chance in the 59th. Monreal won a header in midfield and the ball fell to Iwobi who played Lacazette in. The France international could have fired past Elliot but opted for a lob attempt from 14 yards that sailed over the bar. Seeking a more comfortable cushion, Wenger sent on Giroud for Lacazette, who looked upset while leaving the pitch in the 72nd.
Sanchez had a worse day than Lacazette with 0 shot on target and 6 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The manager wants Sanchez to play higher up the pitch because the Gunners need goals. In fact, there is no need for Sanchez to drop back since the 4-3-3 formation makes room for 3 passers with Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil. What the team definitely needs is receivers. Sanchez was replaced by Coquelin in the 89th as Arsenal aimed to shut up shop.
On the right wing, Iwobi had a decent game with 4 key passes including 1 through ball. In the manager’s plans, Iwobi’s role is clearly to inject more directness. He won 63.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website, and had 5 successful dribbles, tied with Wilshere for the most by any player. Dribbling is one alternative when you can’t break down a defense with passing. Iwobi slalomed through the Newcastle defense with some clever footwork in the 66th to muster a tame shot straight at Elliot.
I hope Iwobi will be more selective in his dribbling attempts. Sometimes it works, but too often it ends with a turnover that gives the opponents a breather. If you’re in a 1v1 situation, fair enough, take your chance. But a couple of times Iwobi ran into traffic and lost possession. Iwobi picked up an injury in the 71st and was replaced by Welbeck, who had no real impact.
The Gunners controlled the game with the midfield trio of Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil. That’s not as impressive as Fernandinho, Silva and De Bruyne, but the technical level is good enough to dominate possession and create chances against the weak sides. Xhaka proved the weak link in midfield by winning only 26.1% of his duels (compared to 46.7% for Wilshere and 55.6% for Ozil) and having a passing accuracy of 81.4% (compared to 89.6% for Ozil and 91.4% for Wilshere). He also led all players with 3 fouls, including an obstruction on Perez which cost him a yellow card in the 87th. I was shocked to see Xhaka play in a more advanced position than Wilshere quite a few times. Xhaka has weaker dribbling skills and less pace than Wilshere, so it doesn’t make any sense.
Maitland-Niles taking Kolasinac’s spot
At the back, the defensive performance was acceptable if we except the lapse of concentration in the fifth minute. Nobody marked Lascelles, who met a free kick from Merino for a header that Cech turned around the post. See the screen capture below. In that kind of situation, it’s up to Cech and Koscielny to have a quick look around and make sure that every Magpie near the 18-yard line is marked.
Lascelles, circled, is left unmarked at the far post. (Photo credit: Movistar)
Arsenal’s energy levels dropped in the last 15 minutes, giving the Magpies some hope that they could score a late equalizer. Joselu’s low strike deflected off Xhaka for a corner in the 80th. Then Perez outjumped Bellerin to head wide a cross from Ritchie in the 83rd. Monreal got in trouble in the 86th by diving in and ended up holding Joselu to prevent a dangerous situation from developing.
For his second straight start, Maitland-Niles had a good game. The academy player intercepted the ball in the 13th to run past 2 Magpies and fire a low drive wide. Kolasinac was on the bench Saturday, so it was a deliberate choice from the manager to give the nod to Maitland-Niles. I guess the main reason is Kolasinac’s average defensive awareness. Kolasinac sometimes fails to cover the left-sided centerback. Maitland-Niles showed defensive awareness in the 34th by covering Monreal, who was out of position, and intercepting Murphy’s cross for Joselu.
The most important game of the season
If Maitland-Niles were to unseat Kolasinac as the regular starter at leftback, that would be another blow for the scouting department. There’s still a long way to go for Maitland-Niles though. At 20, he’s not the finished product yet. He must also show consistency week in, week out. Before joining Newcastle, Hayden was an Arsenal player too, but he never made it to the first team. His performance on Saturday showed why the Gunners let him go last year. Hayden was booked in the 40th for repetitive fouling. He is a decent fit for a Championship team or a weak side in the Premier League, but he’s not a top ballwinner.
It’s too bad that the Gunners don’t have a player who can compete with Bellerin for the starting spot at rightback. Debuchy is past his prime while Chambers lacks pace and has limited passing skills. Ritchie capitalized on a Bellerin turnover in the 55th to curl a shot over the bar. A minute later, Murphy cut inside Bellerin and Wilshere to test Cech with a low strike.
The Gunners next play West Ham in the League Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday before hosting Liverpool in a Premier League game on Friday. I expect the manager to rest his key players on Tuesday because the Liverpool game could decide the Top 4 race. Last season, Arsenal lost both league games to Liverpool to finish 1 point behind the Reds and miss out on Champions League football. A loss combined with a draw would have been enough to leapfrog Liverpool into 4th place. After 18 league games this season, the Gunners sit in 5th place, 1 point behind Liverpool. A victory on Friday would give Arsenal the edge over the Reds in the Top 4 race. While a defeat would create doubt in the squad after the losses to Manchester City and United.