In Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea, the Gunners got a foretaste of what their defense could look like next season. Injuries to Monreal and Koscielny led Wenger to start Mustafi, Chambers and Holding in the back three. And the result on the pitch wasn’t pretty. The Blues could have won by a big margin if Cech had not pulled off a couple of outstanding saves and if Morata had not missed some big chances.
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Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 1-1 at the Hawthorns on Sunday with Holding, Maitland-Niles and Ozil replacing Koscielny, Kolasinac and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Both teams used 3-5-2 formations which favored a lot of end-to-end plays. The Blues were the better team, creating 14 chances to just 6 for the Gunners, according to Squawka.
Defensively, Arsenal’s back three was all over the place. Mustafi is not an organizer like Mertesacker and he doesn’t absorb pressure like Koscielny. In the role of the sweeper, Mustafi failed to chaperone Chambers and Holding. There have been some cases of pub defending this season because of poor focus or poor decision-making, but the level of panic and disorganization reached on Wednesday was a first.
Chambers was again the weak link at the back, winning only 23% of his duels according to the club’s website. He’s a decent player for an average club but not good enough to start for Arsenal or any team chasing a Champions League spot. Chambers got off to a bad start with a poor challenge on Alonso in the second minute. He was then dispossessed in dangerous areas in the 13th and 79th and gave the ball away in the 28th.
His lack of pace was also exposed a couple of times. Morata made a run in behind Chambers in the 14th to be clean through on goal but missed the target from 12 yards. Then Hazard outpaced Chambers in the 50th to fire a diagonal strike that Cech saved with his leg. Chambers was again tortured by Morata in the 70th. Chasing a through ball from Fabregas, Morata bullied and held off Chambers but his chip attempt sailed wide.
I don’t think Chambers understands the difference between a back four and a back three. While Koscielny and Monreal are pro-active wide centerbacks, Chambers is too passive for such a position. Chambers made 0 interception and 0 block whereas Holding and Mustafi made 5 interceptions and 2 blocks each, according to Squawka.
It was quite telling that Mustafi and Chambers had a heated argument in the 14th after Chambers stopped chasing Morata, hoping that Mustafi would cover him. Mustafi was so frustrated by Chambers’ passivity that he tried to compensate and too often dived in. That’s why Mustafi was out of position when Chelsea had chances in the 50th and 70th.
The Blues exploited the mess in the Arsenal defense by sending long balls. Morata received a long ball from Cahill in the 76th to feed Hazard, who played the ball back to Morata. Holding was out of position on that play while Mustafi was outpaced by Morata, whose cross was intercepted by Cech. Chelsea nearly scored the winner in stoppage time. Morata made a run in behind Mustafi to bear down on goal but was denied by Cech. Zappacosta pounced on the rebound only to rattle the bar.
When Koscielny retires, I’m not sure Mustafi will be the right person to marshal the defense. Mustafi gave away some cheap free kicks with silly fouls on Morata in the eighth minute and Hazard in the 57th. He also lost two key duels inside the area. Morata got ahead of Mustafi in the 15th but couldn’t convert Moses’ cross. Then Alonso ghosted past Mustafi in the 84th to tap in Zappacosta’s cross for a 2-1 lead.
Lack of protection from the midfield
Of the 3 centerbacks, only Holding did OK. He won 71% of his duels, compared to 50% for Mustafi. At 22, Holding will need to learn faster because he’s still too raw. He was lucky not to get a yellow card in the 48th for a cynical foul on Morata. Five minutes later, Holding finally got booked for a late challenge on Fabregas. Holding will have to get rid of his naivety. He was pulled out of position by Hazard in the 27th when Bakayoko tested Cech with a high shot. His reading of the game is also a concern. Bakayoko made runs in behind Holding in the 34th and 69th while chasing long balls from Fabregas.
The Gunners are paying the price for their failure to sign good centerbacks in the past few years. Paulista never really convinced and was therefore sold to Valencia last summer. Holding is a work in progress while Chambers will never be a top centerback because of his lack of pace and poor ability to win duels. Mustafi is still a big question mark and hasn’t performed yet at the level of a Koscielny in his prime.
Arsenal’s defensive frailties are made more obvious by the lack of protection provided by the midfield. Fabregas had so much freedom on Wednesday that he racked up 6 key passes before Drinkwater replaced him in the 71st. Fabregas often dropped back to escape marking and deliver pinpoint long balls. In that kind of situation, a midfielder or a forward must mark him. But neither the manager nor the players could find the solution.
Fabregas’ performance showed how much the Gunners missed Ramsey in midfield. Xhaka and Wilshere simply can’t match Ramsey’s mobility and work-rate. Wilshere opened the scoring in the 63rd with a powerful strike into the top corner, but his defensive contribution was poor: he won 0 tackle, made 0 interception and 0 block. In fact, Chelsea completely outplayed Arsenal in midfield. Kante, Bakayoko and Fabregas combined to win 7 of 16 tackles and make 10 interceptions and 7 blocks, according to Squawka. By contrast, Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil combined to win 2 of 9 tackles and make 2 interceptions and 3 blocks.
A soft penalty
In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 3 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. Ozil fired a long-range strike that Courtois turned around the post in the 39th. He also added more fluency in the team’s passing game and was able to find pockets of space in a compact Chelsea defense. But the comparison with Fabregas showed again Ozil’s main weakness in those tight games. The Germany playmaker won’t fight for the ball like Fabregas. He will also struggle offensively when under pressure. Kante dispossessed Ozil on the stroke of halftime to launch a counterattack.
On the wings, Bellerin and Maitland-Niles were among Arsenal’s best performers with Cech, although they will probably be remembered for their involvement in Chelsea’s goals. Bellerin showed poor decision-making in the 66th when Hazard’s cross was blocked. The Spaniard thought he could beat Hazard to the loose ball but ended up kicking his boot. It was a soft foul and Hazard definitely exaggerated contact. But the golden rule is that when you make a challenge inside the box, you have to win the ball. And Bellerin didn’t. Hazard sent Cech the wrong way to level the game. Wenger called the penalty a “farcical” decision. I can understand the manager’s frustration. Bellerin has been denied two penalties that they were more obvious this season. The Spaniard made amends in stoppage time by pouncing on a poor clearance from the Chelsea defense to volley into the far corner.
Besides that late goal, Bellerin had 2 successful dribbles out of 3, made 1 interception, and won 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels, according to Squawka. At 20, Maitland-Niles looked very mature against Chelsea. He led Arsenal players with 4 blocks and 3 successful dribbles out of 4. Maitland-Niles also created a chance, won 75% of his duels and 3 of 6 tackles, according to the club’s website.
Poor final ball
Some fans keep complaining about Maitland-Niles being played out of position, but the problem is that he looks more solid at left wingback than Kolasinac. When Bakayoko controlled a long ball from Fabregas in the 69th, Maitland-Niles covered Holding and dispossessed the Chelsea midfielder just before he could pull the trigger. Does anybody seriously think that Kolasinac would have covered Holding on that play? Maitland-Niles’ only blemish in the first half came in the 15th when he failed to stop a cross from Moses. Morata got ahead of Mustafi but couldn’t make contact with the ball, allowing Cech to gather it. Conte acknowledged Moses’ ineffectiveness and replaced him with Zappacosta in the 56th. With a sharp turn in the 84th, Zappacosta created a bit of space for a cross that Alonso converted for a 2-1 lead. What could Maitland-Niles have done better on that play? Maybe guess that Zappacosta’s initial move to cut inside was just a bluff.
Chelsea played 3 games in a 9-day span while Arsenal played 3 games in a 7-day span, so I wasn’t surprised that the Blues created more chances. A relative lack of freshness could help explain the poor quality of the Gunners’ final ball: Sanchez overhit his cross for Ozil in the 10th, Maitland-Niles missed his cross in the 13th, and Wilshere overhit his pass for Ozil in the 27th.
Up front, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, leading all players with 9 turnovers, while Morata had just 5 turnovers according to whoscored.com. However, Lacazette worked hard, making 1 interception and winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. Despite skipping a winter break for the first time in his career, Lacazette still managed to have 3 of 3 shots on target. The France international took a pass from Ozil in the 23rd and rolled away from Cahill to hit a low strike that Courtois palmed away. Lacazette then benefited from a lucky bounce in the 52nd but couldn’t get the ball out of his feet quickly enough and was denied by the Chelsea goalkeeper. His last chance came in the 64th. Sanchez found Lacazette, whose angled shot deflected off Azpilicueta before being tipped around the post by Courtois. No big miss like Morata but a golden chance that should have found the net in the 52nd.
Bleak Top 4 chances
How do you recognize great players? Even when they have an off day, they can still be able of one moment of magic. Sanchez wasn’t sharp on Wednesday, having 1 of 4 shots on target and winning only 22% of his duels and 0 of 3 tackles. But he nearly opened the scoring in the 16th with a snapshot that Courtois diverted onto his near post. The ball ricocheted off the far post before gently rolling back toward Courtois. In the second half, Sanchez could only head wide a cross from Maitland-Niles.
I have mixed feelings after this game. It’s a decent result if we consider the number of injuries (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Giroud) and the unfavorable schedule. But a quick look at the standings shows that Arsenal’s Top 4 chances are weak. The Gunners trail Chelsea by 7 points and Liverpool by 5. It basically means that Arsenal must put together a winning run while hoping for a slip from Chelsea or Liverpool. I expect the manager to rest his key players when the Gunners face Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup on Sunday. Then he might field a makeshift team for the League Cup game against Chelsea on Wednesday.