The Gunners dropped two points on Sunday by conceding a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns. The penalty that gave West Brom a point was highly controversial because the referee made the wrong call. Gibbs chased a long ball from Barry in the 88th minute and hit Chambers’ arm with his cross. Both Gibbs and Chambers expected a corner. At least that’s what their body language said. But Dean stole the limelight from the players by awarding a spot kick to the hosts. Such an officiating mistake would have never been made with a video assistant referee. The German and Italian leagues already use VAR technology. And the Spanish and French leagues will introduce it next season. So why can’t the Premier League keep up with the other European leagues, which have less money?
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The Laws of the Game are pretty clear about what is a handball. Law 12 says that it “involves a DELIBERATE act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm”. Law 12 also says that “the movement of the hand TOWARD THE BALL (not the ball toward the hand) and the DISTANCE between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)” must be considered by the referee when deciding if the handball is intentional.
Chambers was only 1 yard away from Gibbs, so he had no time to get his arm out of the way. His arms were also in a natural position. Both Gibbs and Chambers were running after the ball and their arms had similar movements. Dean could have had an excuse if Chambers’ arms were outstretched but they were across his torso. The referee was standing some 20 yards from the ball and thought Chambers’ arm had moved toward the ball. Viewing the play from a better angle, a video assistant referee could have told Dean that Chambers only tried to raise his arm in an instinctive gesture to protect his face.
Even without VAR technology, Chambers only met 1 of 3 criteria for a handball. But instead of giving Chambers the benefit of the doubt, Dean overlooked the 2 other criteria and awarded a penalty that Rodriguez converted. What makes Dean’s decision so infuriating is that he ignored a more obvious penalty shout in the 62nd when Evans shoved Lacazette from behind. Lacazette was chasing a through ball from Sanchez and the push was enough to prevent him from controlling the ball.
Lack of creativity
A few days ago, Arsenal came away with the victory at Selhurst Park despite inviting pressure in the closing minutes. The Gunners played again with fire against West Brom and got punished this time. The penalty was controversial but how did Arsenal allow Gibbs to venture inside the box? It all started with Lacazette dropping back instead of closing down Barry. The veteran midfielder had plenty of time to spot Gibbs’ run and hit a pinpoint long ball. The second mistake came from Mertesacker, who had replaced an injured Koscielny in the 72nd. Gibbs made a run in behind Mertesacker and had his cross blocked by Chambers’ hand. The Gunners broke the deadlock in the 83rd but couldn’t even protect their lead for 10 minutes against one of the weakest sides in the league.
Wenger made only 1 change to the side that edged Crystal Palace 3-2 on Thursday with Iwobi replacing an injured Ozil in the starting lineup. Iwobi doesn’t have Ozil’s passing skills and doesn’t make smart runs like the Germany playmaker. There were other problems with that lineup. Wilshere is no goal-scoring threat like Ramsey while Chambers doesn’t play the ball out from the back like Monreal. Both Ramsey and Monreal were not available because of injury. It might just be tiny details but put together they make a difference in Arsenal’s ability to crack a defense.
Arsenal enjoyed 65% of ball possession but created very few chances with just 4 shots on target to 3 for the Baggies. Obviously, the scheduling didn’t help as West Brom had 2 more days of rest than Arsenal. England is the only major European nation with no winter break. Yet, Premier League executives couldn’t even avoid a congested schedule for the Christmas period. Because Iwobi couldn’t fill Ozil’s shoes, Sanchez often dropped back to make up for the lack of creativity. Sanchez led all players with 3 key passes. But it was too taxing for Sanchez to both create and finish. The Chile striker had 0 of 6 shots on target.
Lacazette’s poor hold-up play
Ozil is the kind of player that you need against teams playing with 10 men behind the ball because he has an eye for a pass. On Sunday, the Gunners too often lacked accuracy with the final ball. Sanchez played a one-two with Lacazette in the fourth minute but the France international’s return pass was deflected out for a corner. Then Bellerin overhit his through ball for Lacazette in the 40th while Iwobi played a short pass behind Sanchez in the 69th. In stoppage time, Lacazette sent a cross straight into Foster’s gloves instead of pulling the ball back for Bellerin. Ozil’s absence was also noticeable on set pieces with several corners poorly taken.
When you can’t beat with the pass, then the alternatives are running at defenders and playing more direct. The Gunners lost their best dribbling asset by selling Oxlade-Chamberlain to Liverpool last summer. Walcott is not as skillful in tight spaces while Nelson is still unproven and inconsistent. Sanchez has decent dribbling stats, but he doesn’t make penetrative dribbles: it’s mostly lateral dribbles to cut inside and then pass or shoot with his right foot. The Citizens have Sane and Sterling, the Red Devils have Martial and Rashford, and Liverpool can rely on Mane and Salah. Dribbling is no longer an option at Arsenal. A direct approach (i.e. long balls, crosses) could have been possible with Welbeck up front, but the manager preferred to start Lacazette.
Lacazette struggled again in the centerforward role. His hold-up play was poor. He led all players with 6 turnovers, compared to just 2 for Sanchez, according to whoscored.com. Lacazette didn’t feel comfortable each time he received the ball with his back to goal, winning only 33.3% of his duels, compared to 90% for Sanchez and 66.7% for Iwobi, according to the club’s website. Despite a poor performance, Lacazette still managed to create the best chance in the 60th by swapping passes with Iwobi before testing Foster with an angled strike. In the manager’s shoes, I would have rested Lacazette and started Welbeck up front. I still believe second striker is the best position for Lacazette in the Premier League whereas leading the line is not an issue in European games.
Sanchez taking the blame for the club’s poor transfer policy
Sanchez got some stick from Arsenal fans lately. It’s true that he under-performed in the first three months of the season because of an injury and the disappointment over an aborted move to Manchester City. But let’s be honest, it’s the club that mismanaged the summer transfer window. You let a player run down his contract only if he has a low resale value or if he’s past his prime. By failing to sign a replacement for Sanchez in the summer, the club created that tension around his contractual situation.
Yet, Sanchez has performed at a decent level in November and December. He helped Arsenal rack up points in the last three games by starting the rally against Liverpool, scoring twice against Crystal Palace and taking the free kick that led to McClean’s own goal in the 83rd. Whatever the club does in January (sell or keep Sanchez), it can only be a no-win situation because there’s no replacement of that quality available on the market.
It was quite optimistic to think that Iwobi could deputize for Ozil. The Nigeria international simply doesn’t have Ozil’s selflessness. How he ended up with 2 key passes is still a mystery. Iwobi was more interested in personal glory than in creating chances for his teammates. To his credit, Iwobi tested Foster with a long-range strike in the 30th. Welbeck replaced Iwobi in the 74th and had no impact on the game.
West Brom’s main threat in the first half came from Phillips, who made Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles look really bad. Phillips nutmegged Kolasinac in the sixth minute to make a cross for Rodriguez, who outjumped Mustafi for a tame header that Cech caught. The West Brom winger beat again Kolasinac in the 20th but overhit his cross. Two minutes later, Kolasinac was too far from Phillips to prevent another cross that Mustafi headed out. Kolasinac seemed to pick up a knock and was replaced in the 37th by Maitland-Niles, who also failed to stop crosses from Phillips in the 40th and 41st. The situation at leftback is worrying. Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress but Kolasinac is supposed to be the finished product and an upgrade over Monreal.
Top 4 race could be over this week for Arsenal
Chambers was unlucky with the penalty call but he still proved the weak link in the back three. Robson-Kanu beat Chambers in the 46th to make a low cross for Rodriguez, whose goal attempt was blocked. Then Chambers was too slow to react in the 77th, allowing Rodriguez to shoot from the edge of the box. The Baggies were aware of Chambers’ technical limitations and let him have the ball. Chambers made 91 passes compared to 48 for Koscielny and 50 for Mustafi. While Koscielny and Mustafi had a passing accuracy above 91%, Chambers’ passing accuracy dipped to 81.3%, according to whoscored.com. A more telling stat is Chambers’ success rate for long balls: he hit only 7 of 13 accurate long balls compared to 5 of 6 for Mustafi and Koscielny.
Koscielny performed better than against Palace while Mustafi made a couple of silly challenges on Robson-Kanu in the 26th and 58th. I’m guessing it’s a recurrence of his Achilles problem that led to Koscielny’s substitution in the 72nd. Basically, we could miss Koscielny, Monreal, Ozil and Ramsey for Wednesday’s clash against Chelsea. The stakes are pretty high. If the Gunners lose that London derby, they could trail fourth-place Liverpool by 9 points at the end of this week. The Top 4 race would then be virtually over for Arsenal and the only way to qualify for the Champions League next season would be to win the Europa League.