The Gunners produced their worst performance of the season on Wednesday, conceding 3 goals in the first half of a 3-1 defeat at Wolverhampton. After the embarrassing loss to Crystal Palace last weekend, Arsenal found a way to sink even further as a Top 4 finish is now out of their hands. The Gunners trail Tottenham by 4 points and Chelsea by 1 point with just 3 rounds left in the Premier League.
Photo credit: Premier League
The clean sheets against Napoli and Watford gave the impression that Arsenal had fixed their defensive problems. But the 6 goals conceded in the last two games show that the Gunners have been struggling for consistency since December and the end of their 22-game unbeaten run.
In his post-match news conference, Emery made one telling admission. He said: “We didn’t do the game plan like I wanted.” At the start of the season, Emery wanted his team to play out from the back and press high up the pitch. That style of football requires a lot of movement and energy. I think Emery is just finding out how physically demanding the Premier League can be.
Klopp also learned his lesson in his first season at Liverpool. Because the Reds were inconsistent at that time, Klopp understood that he couldn’t implement gegenpressing in every game and therefore needed to play in a more economical way when his players were jaded. The Reds are not pressing frantically in every game this season because they can rely on Salah, Mane and Firmino to score goals and they have improved their defense by signing Van Dijk and Alisson.
Poor final ball
At Molineux stadium, the Gunners seemed to be running out of gas even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that lost to Crystal Palace with only Lacazette, Ozil, Koscielny and Leno retaining their starting spots. Were the players unconsciously prioritizing the Europa League over a Top 4 spot in the Premier League?
Offensively, Arsenal enjoyed 70% of sterile possession with only 1 shot on target compared to 3 for the hosts. In fact, Rui Patricio had no save to make until the last 15 minutes. Ramsey’s absence was badly felt in the final third where the lack of movement played into the hands of the Wolverhampton defense. It’s hard to see how Arsenal could win on the road without Ramsey. The Gunners also lacked penetration because they have no dribbler who can slalom past defenders in a tiny space. Liverpool and Manchester City can beat teams parking the bus because they have dribblers like Salah, Mane, Sterling, Sane and Bernardo Silva.
Arsenal tried to stretch the Wolverhampton defense with combination play on the wings but it didn’t really click between Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles on the right flank. The Gunners managed to find an opening on the left flank in the 17th minute when Monreal played a one-two with Iwobi but Doherty cynically pulled the Spaniard back on the edge of the box.
The few times Arsenal had some good situations, the final ball simply lacked accuracy. Mkhitaryan delivered a poor final ball in the eighth minute, Ozil’s cross for Monreal went out of play in the 39th, Iwobi played the ball behind Mkhitaryan in the 40th, and Ozil missed his pass to Lacazette in the 70th.
Wolves showed more commitment, winning 15 of 25 tackles and making 20 interceptions while Arsenal only won 6 of 13 tackles and made 4 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. The hosts also exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on set pieces and counterattacks -defensive frailties belonging to the Wenger era.
The first warning came in the 25th. An unmarked Boly redirected Bennett’s throw toward Jimenez, who flicked the ball over the bar. Three minutes later, Monreal gave away a dangerous free kick with a cynical foul on Jonny. Neves curled the subsequent set piece into the bottom corner to give Wolves the lead. The players in the wall failed to do their job: they turned their backs instead of attempting to block the shot.
Wolverhampton’s second goal was even more comical. Playing a short corner in the 37th, Moutinho swapped passes with Jonny as only Torreira tried to close them down. When Ozil finally decided to run toward Jonny, it was already too late. Doherty met Jonny’s cross to head home for a 2-0 lead. Leno was harshly credited with an error for trying to claim the ball. Because Doherty had a free header from 7 yards, Leno had almost no chance of making a save by staying on his line. That’s how Benteke scored for Crystal Palace a few days ago. In my eyes, it would have been an error if an Arsenal defender still had a chance to beat Doherty in the air, but that wasn’t the case. The real issue on that play was Sokratis’ decision-making. The Greek centerback stood 2 yards behind his teammates and played Doherty onside.
The hosts also caused damage on the counterattack. Jota outpaced Xhaka in the 26th to feed Jonny, whose leg was clipped by Monreal. Four minutes later, Xhaka failed to close down Jonny, who played Jimenez in. From a tight angle, the Wolves striker fired over the bar. On those two plays, Xhaka was too sluggish to break the counterattack while Torreira was stranded up the pitch. Xhaka made the blunder that led to the third goal on the stroke of halftime. He gave the ball away to Jota, who treated Sokratis like a vulgar training cone before firing a low diagonal strike past Leno. Sokratis should have either made a tackle ot stayed with Jota.
Overrun in midfield
The Arsenal defense was again carved wide open in the second half. Dendoncker blocked Xhaka’s pass and ran past the Switzerland international to take Doherty’s return pass before releasing Jimenez down our left flank in the 55th. Jimenez wasted the scoring chance by overhitting his cross for Jota. In the hope of stopping Wolverhampton’s counterattacking threat, Emery shifted to a back three in the 58th by replacing Torreira and Mkhitaryan with Guendouzi and Kolasinac. That did not prevent Wolves from hitting Arsenal on the fast break in the 68th. Jonny picked out an unmarked Jimenez, who missed the target.
All these counterattacks clearly show that the Gunners were overrun in midfield. First, the work-rate of the Arsenal midfielders was not good enough. Neves, Moutinho and Dendoncker combined for 32 defensive actions while Xhaka, Torreira, Guendouzi and Ozil only combined for 21 defensive actions. Wolverhampton basically played with one extra man in midfield. Here are the stats for each midfielder according to the club’s website:
- Neves: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
- Moutinho: won 4 of 4 tackles, 3 blocks, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
- Dendoncker: made 1 interception, 8 recoveries.
- Xhaka: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 block, 3 recoveries.
- Torreira (57 minutes): made 1 interception, 7 recoveries.
- Guendouzi (37 minutes): made 3 recoveries.
- Ozil: made 4 recoveries.
The second reason for the Gunners’ inability to stop counterattacks was Emery’s tactical configuration in midfield. Xhaka played as the holding midfielder while Torreira was in a more advanced position as a box-to-box player. It’s just as flawed as Sarri’s decision to play Jorginho behind Kante at Chelsea. If you are a rational manager, you want your best defensive midfielder to shield the defense and break up plays, not a sluggish deep-lying playmaker.
Mental block on the road
Xhaka lacks defensive awareness. He was completely out of position in the 21st when Dendoncker controlled a long ball from Neves to find Doherty on our left flank. Doherty set up Moutinho, who curled a shot wide. And more importantly, Xhaka simply lacks the mobility necessary for the No. 6 role. Jota too easily ran past Xhaka in the 31st before Koscielny blocked his run on the edge of the box. We saw how vulnerable the Arsenal defense was when Arteta played as the holding midfielder. Emery shouldn’t be making the same mistake by relying on Xhaka for defensive duties.
Torreira has struggled for form since December. On Wednesday, he lost 50-50 balls that he would have won in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder made a late challenge on Moutinho in the second minute, received a yellow card in the 45th for a two-footed lunge on Neves, and led all players with 3 fouls. At 23, Torreira is still a young player who can improve his reading of the game. He should have played in a deeper position to help out Xhaka in midfield.
Emery trusted Ozil in an away game and the move backfired. Ozil was ineffective in the final third and untidy in possession, leading all players with 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. Pundits and fans often talk about Arsenal’s mental block on the road, and Ozil is the player who embodies that issue. Emery also relied on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi to feed Lacazette. Their work-rate was even poorer that Ozil’s. Mkhitaryan only made 1 recovery in 57 minutes and Iwobi barely did better with 2 recoveries in 70 minutes. Looking at the big picture, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi have one thing in common: they have been inconsistent this season, very far from the standards set by attacking midfielders like Silva and Eriksen. Emery replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 71st. The academy player showed more desire and end product than the anonymous Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.
Don’t leave Lacazette on his own
Up front, Lacazette showed again why he’s not a centerforward, but a second striker. The France international feels much more comfortable when he can make runs off Aubameyang, who was not in the squad because of a sinus procedure. On Wednesday, Lacazette led the line on his own and spent most of his time dropping back and running away from goal. That obviously made Ozil’s job more difficult because the German playmaker loves having a target in front of him like a quarterback with a receiver.
Sokratis hit a long ball for Lacazette in the 14th, but Lacazette doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace and the ball bounced out of play. Lacazette doesn’t have Giroud’s strong hold-up play either. Back to goal, Lacazette took passes in the 22nd and 48th and lost possession. Lacazette’s performance improved when Emery sent on Nketiah in the 71st. Nketiah got the better of Boly in the 73rd and made a cross for Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Bennett. Then Guendouzi won possession in the 79th and fed Lacazette, who had another effort blocked. In the end, Arsenal’s consolation goal came from a set piece in the 80th. Sokratis outjumped Neves and Jonny at the far post to head in a corner.
The Gunners next visit Leicester on Sunday. They should expect the same kind of treatment since the Foxes perform well against the top clubs and capitalize on counterattacking opportunities. A defeat could virtually end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes if the Blues win at Old Trafford.