Cardiff vs. Arsenal: Gunners earn first away win this season

Arsenal’s poor record on the road last season was the main reason why they missed out on a Top 4 finish. They had 4 wins, 4 draws and 11 losses from 19 away games while Premier League teams like Manchester City, United, Spurs and Chelsea won at least 10 away games. Sunday’s 3-2 victory at Cardiff City is definitely a step in the right direction. It should have been a comfortable win for the Gunners, who enjoyed 72% of ball possession and mustered 11 shots on target to just 3 for the Bluebirds. But they made life difficult for themselves by blowing the lead twice with some poor defending.

Cardiff vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery made 2 changes to the side that defeated West Ham 3-1 the previous weekend with Ozil and Lacazette replacing Mkhitaryan and Iwobi in the starting lineup. I thought it was a bold approach from Emery, who started Lacazette and Aubameyang together for the first time. Lacazette produced a ‘Man of the Match’ performance with 1 goal and 3 key passes, including 1 assist. With a backheel flick, Lacazette found Aubameyang, who curled a shot into the far corner for a 2-1 lead in the 62nd minute. Then Lacazette took a pass from Torreira in the 81st and, on the turn, beat Etheridge from a tight angle for the winning goal.

Lacazette was involved in most of Arsenal’s scoring chances. He set up Monreal for a low volley in the 54th and met a corner from Xhaka in the 74th for a header that Etheridge saved. Besides the individual performance of the France international, I’m sure Emery must have noticed the understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey, which was one of the few positives from last season.

Adapting to a new manager

In the sixth minute, Ramsey made a cross for Lacazette, who had a penalty shout denied despite an obstruction from Morrison. Three minutes later, Lacazette found Ramsey with a backheel flick and the Wales midfielder tested Etheridge with a low strike. Lacazette nearly made it 2-0 in the 33rd after taking a pass from Ramsey to fire a 20-yard drive that hit the base of the post. In stoppage time, Ramsey picked out Lacazette, whose first-time effort was parried by Etheridge.

I hope Emery will build his team around that duo despite the uncertainty created by Ramsey’s contractual situation. Emery hasn’t found his best starting XI yet, but he still has time to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Although centerforward is Aubameyang’s favorite position, the Gabon international started again on the left wing. Aubameyang netted his first goal of the season and showed some good work-rate with 2 tackles won, 1 interception and 3 recoveries, according to the club’s website.

In the Wenger era, Ramsey played as a central midfielder while Ozil was given a lot of freedom either in the hole or in a front three. In fact, Wenger built his team around the duo formed by Sanchez and Ozil. Now Ramsey and Ozil have to play differently under Emery. Ozil started Sunday’s game on the right wing while Ramsey played again in the role of a free-roaming midfielder. Both players have no goal and no assist so far. The big difference is that Ramsey had an impact at Cardiff with 2 shots on target and 3 key passes while Ozil struggled to fit in Emery’s plans with 0 shot and 1 key pass.

In central midfield, Emery was again reluctant to start Torreira even though the Uruguay international would provide more protection to the back four than Xhaka or Guendouzi. One explanation is that Emery is trying to ease Torreira into the league. But that sounds weird since Guendouzi is younger and has less experience than Torreira.

The Hollywood pass

Guendouzi had an off day. He is considered an upgrade over Elneny but on Sunday he looked pretty much like a pedestrian version of the Egypt international. In the previous league games, Guendouzi had better stats than Xhaka. That trend was inverted at Cardiff as Guendouzi made only 1 tackle, 0 interception, 2 recoveries and 55 passes, compared to 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 9 recoveries and 99 passes for Xhaka, according to the club’s website. Were youth and inconsistency the reasons behind Guendouzi’s below-par performance, or was it the result of some tactical instructions? I noticed Guendouzi was more cautious in his positional play and almost seemed to take a back seat to let Xhaka shine in midfield.

It’s hard to see Xhaka as a leader in this Arsenal team for the simple reason that he’s not effective. As a holding midfielder, he doesn’t protect the back four. As a deep-lying playmaker, he creates very few chances from open play. Xhaka had 3 key passes against Cardiff, but they all came from corner kicks. And as a pacesetter, he doesn’t have the vision, technique and speed of a Cazorla in his prime.

Xhaka has improved his disciplinary record, but he’s still guilty of some poor decision-making. The Gunners should have reached half-time with a 1-0 lead. In injury time of the first half, Xhaka opted for a risky crossfield pass to Bellerin instead of slipping the ball to an unmarked Guendouzi. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Guendouzi is the safest passing option. Hoilett intercepted Xhaka’s pass and the ball traveled to our right flank, where Bennett made the cross that led to Cardiff’s equalizer.

Cardiff vs. Arsenal M45a edited.jpgThere is no Bluebird in a 10-yard radius around Guendouzi. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Switzerland international nearly put his team in trouble again by giving away a cheap free kick with a silly handball in stoppage time of the second half. Emery felt the need for more security in midfield and sent on Torreira for Guendouzi just a few seconds after Cardiff leveled at 2-2 in the 70th. Torreira made an instant impact in his short cameo, winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 interception and 2 recoveries. He also drew fouls from Hoilett and Arter, who both got booked.

When to pull the plug

The Gunners are not yet playing the way Emery wants them to. One reason is that some players are a poor match for his brand of football. Another reason is the bad habits inherited from the Wenger era.

Playing the ball out from the back with Cech in goal has proved challenging so far. Cech was put under pressure in the opening minute and ran out of trouble by dribbling past Reid inside his own area. That’s not the kind of risk you want your goalkeeper to take. It could have been a blunder like the one experienced by Lloris in the World Cup final. Two plays highlighted Cech’s limited passing skills. In the seventh minute, Cech gave the ball away to Arter, who missed the target from 16 yards. Then the Czech goalkeeper made a sloppy pass to Guendouzi in the 46th. Hoilett intercepted the ball but opted for a long-range strike that sailed wide instead of playing Ward through on goal.

At 36, Cech is unlikely to improve his passing skills. Obviously, Cech is an important character in the Arsenal dressing room. He’s also highly respected in the league. But Emery will just embarrass Cech more by persisting with him in goal. The Spanish manager should take advantage of the international break to make a change and play Leno in the Premier League games while starting Cech in the European and domestic cup games.

Ghosts of the Wenger era

The Gunners were less open than against West Ham, but some defensive frailties of the Wenger era re-emerged. The 2 goals scored by Cardiff came from a cross and a set piece. On the stroke of halftime, Bennett hoisted the ball into the Arsenal box where Camarasa beat Monreal to the ball to fire into the roof of the net. On that play, Lacazette failed to track back and left Bellerin in a 1v2 situation down the right flank. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Bennett had acres of space when he took the pass from Arter. That play also showed that the Gunners are not playing like a unit yet. The team was split in two in some kind of 4-2-4 formation.

Cardiff vs. Arsenal M45b edited.jpgBennett has plenty of space and time to make a good cross. (Photo credit: Sky)

There were a couple of warnings before that goal. Sokratis failed to stop a cross from Reid in the 19th, but Ward couldn’t make contact with the ball. Then Ozil failed to track Bennett in the 29th. The Cardiff fullback made a cross for Ward, who miscontrolled the ball. Monreal pounced on the loose ball, only to head it into the path of Reid, whose overhead kick sailed over the bar. And Hoilett put the Arsenal defense under pressure again in the 43rd, but the referee didn’t spot the body check on Ward and Cech easily caught the ball.

Morrison did a lot of damage in the air. The Cardiff centerback led all players with 10 aerial duels won, compared to 5 for Mustafi and 4 for Sokratis, according to whoscored.com. The Gunners are more vulnerable in the air this season because Sokratis doesn’t perform as well as Koscielny in that area. They also lost Giroud, who played an important role defensively on set pieces.

The Bluebirds’ plan on set pieces was quite simple but Arsenal simply had no answer. Morrison outjumped Xhaka and Monreal in the 45th to redirect a free kick toward an unmarked Arter, who volleyed over the bar from 16 yards. The Gunners lost again the second ball in the 70th. At the far post, Morrison outjumped Ramsey to head a free kick toward Ward, who beat Cech with a header inside the post. On that play, Monreal was not tight to Ward. Cardiff also created a favorable matchup by isolating Ramsey with Morrison.

In Sagna’s shoes

In the closing minutes, the Bluebirds nearly salvaged a draw with another set piece. Morrison outjumped Sokratis to knock the ball down for Madine, who slipped the ball to Zohore. Morrison got the better of Xhaka and Mkhitaryan to meet Zohore’s cross but headed over the bar.

Bellerin was more selective in his runs than against West Ham. He still contributed offensively with a low drive in the 11th and a teasing cross in the 77th that Etheridge spilled. A few years ago, Sagna was often left in 1v2 situations because of Walcott’s poor work-rate. The same situation is developing now with Bellerin because whoever plays on the right wing (Ozil, Lacazette or Mkhitaryan) doesn’t make the required effort defensively. On the opposite flank, Monreal missed a golden chance to double the lead in the 15th. He was also shaky defensively, losing 3 key duels inside the Arsenal area.

Sokratis and Mustafi form a relatively complementary duo in the heart of the Arsenal defense because Mustafi is a pro-active defender while Sokratis is a more traditional, passive centerback. Mustafi opened the scoring in the 11th with a powerful header off a corner from Xhaka. The German defender nearly added a second goal in the 54th from another corner but Etheridge palmed away his bouncing header. Last season, Mustafi was let down by a few lapses of concentration. It happened again on Sunday when Ward robbed Mustafi in the 79th to feed Reid, who rounded Sokratis only to shoot straight at Cech.

Emery and his staff must take advantage of the international break to figure out how they can improve Arsenal’s defensive record because there’s no way the Gunners can have a shot at a Top 4 finish if they keep leaking 2 goals per game. When the Premier League resumes, Emery’s managerial skills will be tested by the hectic schedule. With 7 games in all competition from Sept. 15 to Oct. 7, Emery will have to rotate in order to avoid fatigue and injuries.

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