Sunday’s 3-0 defeat in the League Cup final showed the gulf in class between the Gunners and Manchester City. The Citizens clearly have the better squad as well as the better manager. The game also exposed the recurrence of Arsenal’s defensive frailties. As long as the Gunners don’t fix that issue, they won’t be able to contend in the Premier League. Arsenal will finish outside the Top 4 for the second straight year, and unless the board acts this summer, fans should expect the same mess next season. Wenger simply can’t keep up with the younger generation of talented managers. A massive rebuilding job is needed this summer. The trouble is that Wenger doesn’t have the answers. So why should the board let Wenger sign new players, knowing that his contract ends in 2019 and that another manager will take over and will want to impose his own vision of football?
A young fan crying while watching Arsenal’s poor performance. (Photo credit: BeIn Sports)
The Gunners did OK in the first half but couldn’t match the Citizens’ intensity when City moved up a gear in the second half. Down 2-0 in the 58th minute, you could feel Arsenal’s fear of taking a beating. Before kickoff, I expected Wenger to use a 3-4-3 formation because the midfield provides no protection to the defense. It looked pretty much like a 5-4-1 formation when City had the ball. The main concern on the team sheet was Chambers’ presence in the back three. How would Chambers cope with the pace of Aguero and Sane? I would have played Bellerin in the back three with Maitland-Niles as the right wingback.
Of the 3 centerbacks, only Koscielny had a decent performance. Mustafi reminded every fan why he was on the verge of a move to Italy last summer while Chambers looked like an expensive scouting mistake. The first goal in the 19th came from Mustafi’s poor positional play. Mustafi was too far from Aguero when Bravo kicked the ball. Running backward to head the ball, Mustafi felt Aguero’s arm against his back and froze in the hope of getting a foul. But the referee didn’t blow the whistle, and Aguero bore down on goal to chip an advanced Ospina. Aguero also made a run in behind Mustafi to shoot wide in the ninth minute. Sane tested Mustafi in the second half, earning a free kick in the 56th and outpacing the Germany international in the 71st.
Rebuilding the spine: 5, 6, 10
Chambers was the culprit for the third goal in the 65th. Danilo held off Wilshere to feed Silva, who rolled away from Chambers to fire a low strike past Ospina. It was a goal similar to the one scored by Ostersund a few days ago. Chambers’ slow first steps will always be a liability, especially inside the area. The Citizens clearly targeted Chambers with a lot of their plays testing the right side of the Arsenal defense. Chambers fouled Sane in the 20th before receiving a yellow card in the 47th for holding Aguero. With nothing left to lose, Wenger shifted to a back four in the 66th by yanking Chambers off to send on Welbeck.
City’s second goal in the 58th resulted from some pub defending on a corner. Instead of hoisting the ball into the box, De Bruyne played the ball to Gundogan, whose low drive was diverted in by Kompany. No one marked Gundogan on the edge of the box. That speaks volumes about the lack of leadership in the squad. In most teams, you would have experienced players making sure no opponent is left unmarked. The Gunners have no excuse for such a poor distribution of resources. De Bruyne was taking the corner while Danilo and Walker were standing back to stop any potential counterattack. That means Arsenal had 3 more outfield players on that play.
I mentioned that a massive overhaul is needed this summer. It’s not just the centerback position which is creating problems. The entire spine of the team is wrong: No. 5, No. 6 and No. 10. The No. 5 is the one marshalling the defense. Koscielny is arguably our best centerback but he will turn 33 this year and has never been a vocal leader unfortunately. Mustafi can bark on the pitch but he lacks credibility as a leader because he doesn’t back up his swagger with solid performances. The No. 6 is the one bossing the midfield and shielding the defense. Xhaka and Elneny are miles away from the level of a Petit or Gilberto Silva. And the No. 10 is the one creating plays and leading the offense. When Ozil joined Arsenal, you could say that he was the best playmaker in the world. But now Eriksen and De Bruyne perform much better in the Premier League than Ozil.
A team that can’t press
Of the top teams in the league, the Gunners are the only one that can’t efficiently press high up the pitch. Wenger simply doesn’t have the personnel in his squad for such tactics. Elneny doesn’t win duels, Xhaka lacks mobility and Wilshere lacks pace. Klopp can rely on hard-working midfielders like Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain to implement gegenpressing. Likewise, Pochettino has Dier, Wanyama, Dembele and Winks to play Tottenham’s pressing game. Guardiola’s approach at Manchester City is a bit different. The Spanish manager believes in total football and therefore asks gifted players like Silva and De Bruyne to contribute defensively and help less talented players like Fernandinho and Gundogan.
The Gunners were no match for City in midfield. Fernandinho (1), Gundogan (1), Silva (3) and De Bruyne (2) combined to win 7 tackles while Xhaka (1), Ramsey (1), Wilshere (0) and Ozil (0) combined to make only 2 successful tackles, according to whoscored.com. Wilshere has lost a bit of pace since recovering from his injuries. That was pretty obvious when Walker sped past him in the sixth minute. Yet, Wilshere kept making dribbling attempts in midfield. He was dispossessed 3 times, the most for any player. What saved Wilshere from more turnovers was his close control.
Xhaka’s lack of mobility means that he’s an obvious target for pressing teams. Twice Xhaka dallied on the ball, and twice the Citizens robbed him to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Aguero had a shot blocked in the sixth minute after Xhaka lost possession in his own half. The Argentina striker then saw his chip attempt cleared by Koscielny in the 40th after Gundogan dispossessed Xhaka. It was a really bad day for Xhaka, who overhit his set piece for Mustafi in the 37th and sent a basic pass straight into touch in the 81st.
A long-ball team
Ramsey and Xhaka didn’t cover themselves in glory when the Citizens scored the last goal. Wilshere was on his own pressing Danilo while Ramsey and Xhaka were walking on the edge of the box. Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness has become legendary. It’s really mind-boggling that Wenger keeps playing him as a holding midfielder. The manager also took a gamble by starting Ramsey in his return from a groin injury. Ramsey wasn’t sharp. His passing accuracy of 64.5% was the lowest for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. Ramsey tested Bravo with a 30-yard free kick in the 23rd and was replaced by Iwobi in the 73rd.
There was nothing to cheer about on Sunday. The Gunners were a mess defensively and created very little offensively. Their only scoring chance came from a counterattack in the eighth minute. Ramsey released Ozil down the right flank and the Germany playmaker made a low cross for Aubameyang, who was beaten to the ball by Walker. Bravo parried Walker’s awkward interception with his leg. The rebound fell to Aubameyang, who was denied by the City goalkeeper. As evidence of Arsenal’s poor passing game, they only made 2 key passes compared to 9 for the Citizens.
The Gunners mostly relied on long balls to reach the final third. Aubameyang chased a long ball in the 31st and volleyed it toward Wilshere, but Walker got ahead of Wilshere to clear the danger. Then Xhaka sent a ball over the top for Aubameyang in the 36th. Bearing down on goal, Aubameyang was outmuscled by Kompany and the chance was gone. Aubameyang could have been a hero at Wembley but he didn’t win the 2 duels that mattered the most.
The board facing a big decision
Arsenal will play City again in the Premier League on Thursday. Even if they win that game, and that’s a big if, the Gunners are unlikely to finish in the Top 4 as they trail fourth-place Tottenham by 10 points. Winning the Europa League is Arsenal’s best chance to qualify for the Champions League next season. I believe the manager should use the remaining Premier League games to make experiments and give a chance to some youngsters who are more hungry than some regular starters. For the fans, the league games could be an opportunity to protest by leaving empty seats at the Emirates stadium. That’s their only means to be heard by the Arsenal board.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The board will have to make a decision this summer. The Gunners won’t improve under Wenger. Has the board identified a manager who could succeed Wenger? Whoever takes over must: 1. have a good knowledge of European football; 2. be able to develop youngsters; and 3. have a shrewd transfer policy by signing underrated players.
Jardim would be the perfect match for Arsenal but he’s unfortunately tied to Monaco until 2020. Timing will obviously play a key role in the hiring of the next Arsenal manager. Some pundits have speculated that Guardiola could have joined the club. The truth is that Arsenal never had a shot at Guardiola because of timing. Bayern Munich announced in December 2015 that Guardiola would leave the club at the end of the 2015-16 season. The stars aligned for City because Pellegrini’s contract expired in 2016 whereas Wenger’s contract expired in 2017. At that time, the board was unwilling to fire Wenger because the French manager was still seen as good value for money and it would have been bad publicity for the club.
Now the context is completely different. Wenger has lost his aura as everybody can see that Liverpool and Tottenham are doing better with less resources. The choice for the board is pretty simple. Either they have identified the next manager and can pull the trigger this summer by giving Wenger a seat on the board or a position as consultant for the club. Or they still haven’t found the right manager and would rather let Wenger run down his contract. In that case, the board would have to say that 2019 will be Wenger’s final year at the club, otherwise you can bet the fanbase will run riot.