Arsenal’s best chance to finish in the Top 4 this season is to perform like a flat-track bully. They lost their first 2 Premier League games against Manchester City and Chelsea before defeating West Ham, Cardiff and Newcastle. The Gunners looked far from their best on Saturday but they managed to win 2-1 at St James’ Park to go level on points with Spurs in the standings.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Emery made no change to the side that edged Cardiff before the international break. The Gunners created no clear-cut chance in the first half but the most important thing is that they reached halftime without conceding any goal, a first for the club this season. Arsenal looked more solid defensively than against Cardiff and would have kept a clean sheet if the Magpies had not scored in stoppage time.
Despite the positive result, there’s still a lot of work needed to turn Arsenal into a Top 4 team. The Gunners pretty much played in a 4-4-2 formation in the first half because of Ozil’s tendency to drift inside. The lack of balance was obvious with a diamond midfield that failed to stretch the Newcastle defense. On the right flank, Bellerin was again left on his own. In the No. 6 role, Xhaka didn’t offer much protection to the back four but the Magpies’ weakness spared Arsenal’s blushes.
Arsenal’s tactical setup in the first half
Anybody can spot the flaws in that Arsenal team: a goalkeeper uncomfortable on the ball, no ballwinner in the starting lineup, and a right wing completely vacated. Emery seems reluctant to make the tough decisions. Of course, as a manager you have to handle egos in the dressing room. But Emery will have to pull the plug at some stage if he really wants to improve the team.
Experience vs. youth
The team looked more balanced after Torreira replaced Guendouzi at halftime. Guendouzi didn’t have a bad game. He won 1 of 3 tackles, had 1 turnover and a passing accuracy of 97.5%, and made 0 key pass, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries in 45 minutes, according to whoscored.com and the club’s website. Those stats are at least as good as Xhaka’s stats. In 90 minutes, Xhaka won 0 of 1 tackle, had 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 82.5%, and made 1 key pass, 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries.
The only reason why Emery yanked Guendouzi off, and not Xhaka, is experience. Xhaka is in his prime while Guendouzi is still learning the ropes. Experience will help you have more composure in the final third. With several seasons under your belt, you will also recognize certain plays more easily. Guendouzi overhit his cross for Aubameyang in the 18th minute and was caught napping in the 21st, playing Murphy onside. Murphy connected with Yedlin’s ball over the top to force a save from Cech.
By contrast, Xhaka showed great composure in the 49th when he curled a free kick into the top corner for the opening goal. Then Xhaka showed tactical awareness in the 58th with a run toward the corner flag to make a low cross for Lacazette, whose shot was blocked. Ozil pounced on the loose ball to double the lead with a low strike from 16 yards.
Torreira’s presence on the pitch definitely gave Xhaka more freedom. Xhaka led all players with 103 passes, which is an impressive number compared to Ozil’s 38 passes. When the Gunners dominate possession against the weak sides, Xhaka can produce that kind of performance. But Xhaka is nowhere near the level of a Cazorla in his prime. The top Premier League teams have already exposed Xhaka’s limits.
Ramsey’s lack of end product
To a certain extent, Ozil is similar to Xhaka. The former Germany international can go missing in the big games but his skills can make a difference against weak opposition. His first half was a mixed bag. Ozil wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the eighth minute by holding onto the ball too long. He thought more quickly in the 24th and slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who was dispossessed by a timely tackle from Fernandez. Ozil stepped up in the second half, scoring his first goal in the league since December 2017 before setting up Torreira for an effort over the bar in the 71st.
Both Ozil and Ramsey are still adapting to their new manager, who doesn’t know what his best starting lineup is yet. Ramsey hasn’t scored or made any assist for Arsenal this season. Obviously, contract negotiations with the club might distract Ramsey, but it’s up to him to prove on the pitch that he deserves the raise he’s asking for. Ramsey showed good work-rate with 2 key passes, 2 tackles, 0 interception and 10 recoveries, but his impact in the final third was disappointing. Ramsey missed his cross for Aubameyang, who was unmarked at the far post in the 33rd. His cross in the 73rd was more accurate but Mkhitaryan’s effort was blocked by a Magpie. The Wales midfielder picked up an injury and was replaced by Welbeck in the 80th.
Saturday’s game proved frustrating for our two strikers, Lacazette and Aubameyang, who combined to have 0 of 5 shots on target. Lacazette made up for his lack of end product with his work-rate and creativity. The France international created a chance with a first-time pass to Ramsey in the 33rd. He then robbed Kenedy to initiate a counterattack in the 73rd. Lacazette’s best move came in the 89th when he slipped a through ball to Welbeck, who held off a defender only to fire into the side-netting.
Monreal as the weak link
Oscillating between the left wing and the centerforward position, Aubameyang struggled to have an impact in the final third. Aubameyang simply doesn’t have Lacazette’s passing skills to survive in a hybrid position. To his credit, Aubameyang won the free kick that led to the opening goal by beating Fernandez to the ball. However, he should have done much better in the 60th when he took a pass from Lacazette and missed the target from 8 yards.
At the back, Monreal was the weak link in the Arsenal defense. Monreal failed to stop several dangerous crosses. In the 14th, the Spaniard was late to close down Ritchie, who made a cross that Bellerin cleared. Then Monreal was not tight to Perez, whose cross-shot was caught by Cech in the 86th. Having spotted a weakness, the Magpies kept working down our left flank. Monreal gave again too much space to Perez, who found Joselu with a pinpoint cross in the 88th. Cech tipped Joselu’s header over the bar. In stoppage time, Monreal failed to block a cross from Fernandez, and an unmarked Clark beat Cech with a downward header. On that play, Monreal had no reason to give Fernandez so much room. Fernandez is a centerback, so he’s not going to beat Monreal with his pace. Mustafi made the second mistake on that play by failing to look over his shoulder. The German defender kept his eyes on the ball and was never aware of Clark’s run at the far post.
On the right flank, Bellerin left too much space behind him in the opening minutes. Murphy made a run in behind Bellerin to make a teasing cross that Xhaka cleared in the ninth minute. But Bellerin improved his positional play and was more cautious with his runs. Bellerin has often mentioned Alves as a role model, but Atletico Madrid leftback Hernandez would be a better choice. Hernandez smartly selects his runs and despite his cautiousness, he still finished the last World Cup with 2 assists, the same tally as Messi, De Bruyne and Coutinho.
It will be interesting to see who Emery picks at centerback when Koscielny is fit. Mustafi was guilty on Newcastle’s consolation goal and had a couple of poor moments in the game. He misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 21st and slipped. It took a last-ditch clearance from Sokratis to prevent Murphy from pulling the trigger. On the stroke of halftime, Joselu toyed with Mustafi before making a cross that Monreal headed away. Sokratis’ main asset is that he’s a no-nonsense defender. You won’t confuse Sokratis with a world-class centerback like Varane, Ramos or Godin. On the other hand, Sokratis won’t make basic mistakes like Mustafi. Sokratis killed a dangerous fast break in the 41st with a timely challenge on Perez.
The Gunners next host Vorskla in the Europa League on Thursday before playing Everton in the Premier League on Sunday. Emery won’t rotate much because those are two games at home. However, I suspect he will tinker more for the following games because there’s no way Arsenal can physically cope with such a hectic schedule.