Category Archives: Football

Coronavirus puts Arsenal’s mediocre season on hold

  Football games in the Premier League have been suspended until April 30 because of the coronavirus crisis. Premier League clubs and executives hope that play will resume in June so that the next season can start on time. But the more you think about it and the less realistic this timetable looks.

CoronavirusPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   The coronavirus outbreak will reach its peak in the next few weeks, according to scientists. Then it will also take a few more weeks for the number of cases to significantly decline. Italy has enforced a lockdown since March 9. Yet, there are still more than 4,000 new cases and 700 new deaths per day in Italy. Knowing that Italy is about 2 weeks ahead of the United Kingdom in the coronavirus spread, it is therefore unlikely that Premier League clubs will be able to play in June.

   Premier League clubs and executives want to complete the current season because of the financial implications: they would lose a lot of money if they fail to meet their broadcast commitments. Even if we assume that the current lockdown measures will bring down the number of coronavirus cases, the British government would still face a medical dilemma. What number would be safe to prevent a second coronavirus wave? Remember, the UK had just a few cases in February before the number of cases exceeded 25,000 at the end of March.

   In the most optimistic scenario, the Premier League might resume in July. That basically means that the remaining games would overlap with the start of next season. Can you imagine the scheduling headache if the 2020-21 season starts in September? That gets even worse if you add the possibility of another coronavirus outbreak in the winter. In my eyes, the wisest option would be to have a shortened season.

Setting a bad precedent

   Some Premier League clubs would like to cancel this season. Such a decision wouldn’t be fair for the Reds, who have produced one of the most dominant performances in Premier League history and would be robbed of the title. And it wouldn’t be fair for Championship sides like Leeds United and West Brom that have a very good shot at promotion. It would also set a bad precedent for the next seasons.

   The issue of Champions League spots would be a point of contention, too. The Foxes are in a very good position to qualify for the lucrative European competition. But if this season is declared null and void, Leicester City wouldn’t even play European football because the standings of the 2018-19 season would then be used for the allotment of European spots. On the other hand, Spurs would benefit from a cancellation because they finished 4th a year ago while they are 7 points outside the Top 4 this season.

   You just have to look at American sports for examples of a shortened season. In 1981, baseball teams only played 62 percent of the MLB regular schedule because players went on strike in the middle of the season. It was so messy that the Giants finished the regular season with 111 games while the Cardinals only played 102 games. Because the standings were flawed, the division winner of the first half of the season faced the division winner of the second half in the playoffs. The two teams in the World Series, the Dodgers and the Yankees, did not have the best win percentage in their respective divisions.

   In 2011, a lockout shortened the NBA regular season from 82 games to 66 per team. Some employees lost their jobs while team owners and players lost millions of dollars. Owners and players finally reached a deal in December and the show went on with fewer days off during the 2011-12 season. Miami defeated Oklahoma City 4-1 in the NBA finals.

   The NHL also had a shortened season because of a lockout imposed by franchise owners. The start of the 2012-13 season was therefore delayed before the players and the league reached an agreement in January. The NHL regular schedule was cut from 82 games to 48 per team as Chicago defeated Boston 4-2 in the Stanley Cup finals.

The best compromise

   Taking into account the first 28 games played by each Premier League club, the standings in a shortened season would look like this: 1. Liverpool 79 points, 2. Manchester City 57 pts, 3. Leicester 50 pts, 4. Chelsea 45 pts, 5. Sheffield 43 pts, 6. Manchester United 42 pts, 7. Wolverhampton 42 pts, 8. Tottenham 40 pts, 9. Arsenal 40 pts, 10. Burnley 38 pts, 11. Everton 37 pts, 12. Crystal Palace 36 pts, 13. Southampton 34 pts, 14. Newcastle 32 pts, 15. Brighton 28 pts, 16. West Ham 27 pts, 17. Watford 27 pts, 18. Bournemouth 27 pts, 19. Aston Villa 25 pts, 20. Norwich 21 pts.

   Obviously, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich would be unhappy because they would be relegated. Likewise, Manchester United would be frustrated because they still had a shot at finishing in the Top 4. The Gunners would miss out on a European spot with a ninth-place finish. In the Premier League era, that would be Arsenal’s worst finish since the 1994-95 season when they wound up 12th.

   The lack of European football would have massive financial implications for Arsenal. The club will already make a loss this year after spending nearly £140 million in the summer transfer market. The loss of TV revenue from European football means that the Gunners will have to sell their top players and will only be able to afford small signings like Martinelli or Mari. Big fees to sign players like Pepe or even Tierney would no longer fit Arsenal’s transfer kitty.

   Some fans would like to complete this season because they still hope that Arsenal can secure a European spot. But at the end of the day, what’s the point of resuming the Premier League when people in the UK still die of this coronavirus? Sure, clubs will lose a lot of money for not playing the remaining games. But it’s the same for everybody. Millions of people have lost their jobs because of this pandemic while thousands of businesses have filed for bankruptcy.

   Some fans would like to cancel this season because Arsenal could claim a European spot based on the standings of the 2018-19 season. That would be an act of denial. The Gunners have had a mediocre season because Emery, Sanllehi and the board did a poor job. It’s a fact that cannot be erased. Rewarding them with a European spot would be like telling them that they did a good job, which is not true. Ultimately, this bloody coronavirus will dictate the agenda. And a shortened season is the best compromise between completing the current season and cancelling it.  

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Lacazette deliVARs in 1-0 win

   The Gunners earned a third straight victory in the Premier League by edging West Ham 1-0 on Saturday to pull within 3 points of Wolverhampton and Sheffield United in the race for a European spot.

Arsenal vs. West Ham 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Despite enjoying 69% of ball possession, Arsenal created very few chances and looked shaky defensively. West Ham had 14 shots and 1.61 expected goals compared to 9 shots and 1.56 expected goals for the Gunners, according to understat.com. Those xG metrics did not even include 2 big chances for the Hammers. Antonio wasted a 2v1 situation in the 11th minute by missing his final ball for Haller. Then Leno won a 1v1 against Haller in the 19th. Because there was no shot in both situations, understat.com did not count them as chances. Obviously, you can’t score if you don’t shoot.

   Arteta made 6 changes to the side that knocked Portsmouth out of the FA Cup last Monday with only Saka, Mari, Luiz, Sokratis and Nketiah retaining their starting spots. At the back, Arteta didn’t have much choice since Mustafi, Chambers, Tierney, Kolasinac and Soares are injured while Holding and Bellerin have been struggling for form this season.

   In midfield, Arteta believes that the combination of Xhaka, Ceballos and Ozil provides the best balance for his playing style. So it’s no surprise that they have started the last 3 Premier League games. The front three is where there might be some controversy. Aubameyang is arguably Arsenal’s best striker. Yet, Arteta keeps using him on the left wing even though Martinelli or Nelson would be a better fit in that position.  

Using the wrong software

   Aubameyang had only 1 goal attempt but he made it count. The Gabon striker drifted inside to take a pass from Saka in the 78th. From the edge of the box, Aubameyang took his chance. Rice blocked the shot and the loose ball looped into the path of Ozil. The German playmaker headed the ball toward Lacazette, who slotted into the bottom corner from 6 yards.

   The goal was initially disallowed for an offside position. However, the VAR review showed that Ogbonna played Ozil onside, forcing the referee to reverse his decision and let the goal stand. There was a lapse of 2 minutes and 12 seconds between the moment the goal was disallowed and the moment the decision was overturned in Arsenal’s favor. That’s way too long. Premier League officials are clearly using an inefficient software because UEFA referees are much faster in Champions League games.

   Besides his involvement in the goal, Aubameyang also made 2 key passes. He crossed the ball for Sokratis, whose header bounced off the bar in the 22nd. Then Aubameyang found Pepe, whose volley was blocked by Cresswell in the 66th. Aubameyang’s contract expires in the summer of 2021. Why should he stay at the club if there’s no Champions League football and if Arteta keeps playing him on the left wing?

   Arteta trusted again Nketiah to lead the line. Nketiah had a penalty shout turned down on the stroke of halftime. He beat Ngakia to a second ball but the referee didn’t think that the Gunners deserved a penalty for the awkward challenge from the West Ham defender. Nketiah’s best chance came in the 52nd when Saka played him in. However, Fabianski came off his line to deny Nketiah. Three minutes later, Nketiah chased a through ball from Ozil, but Fabianski was quicker and collected the ball.

Nketiah’s poor work-rate

   Nketiah’s overall performance was poor. He definitely needs to work on his link-up play. His pass for Pepe rolled out of play in the 4th minute. Then Nketiah headed a long ball from Luiz toward a Hammer in the 20th. His hold-up play also has plenty of room for improvement. Nketiah was dispossessed by Diop in the 19th and lost again possession in the 54th by waiting for the ball to reach his feet.

   Arteta replaced Nketiah with Lacazette in the 59th. The French striker showed more desire, making 3 defensive actions (3 recoveries) in 36 minutes compared to 0 for Nketiah in 58 minutes, according to the club’s website. On merit, Lacazette would deserve to start the next Premier League game.

   Just like Lacazette is competing with Nketiah for a starting spot up front, Pepe is competing with Nelson for a starting spot on the right wing. Pepe lacked end product with 0 key pass and 0 of 2 shots on target. Even Nketiah and Lacazette managed to make at least 1 key pass. Pepe’s best contribution came in the 38th when he dribbled past 3 Hammers but was denied a shot by an offside Nketiah, who shamelessly stole the ball.

   The Ivory Coast international had only 1 successful dribble out of 4, according to whoscored.com. Pepe must be more selective in his dribbling attempts because Premier League sides are now aware of his skills and sometimes double-team him. Arteta was not convinced by Pepe’s performance and replaced him with Nelson in the 69th. Nelson made 3 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 recovery) in 26 minutes compared to 2 (1 tackle, 1 recovery) for Pepe in 68 minutes.

The midfield problem

   Saturday’s game made clear that Arteta has a massive rebuilding job in midfield. In every position, the Gunners are weaker than during the Wenger era. Xhaka and Torreira are weaker defensive midfielders than Petit, Gilberto, Song or even Coquelin. Arsenal’s only box-to-box player is Willock, who is nowhere near the level of Vieira or Ramsey. Xhaka and Guendouzi struggle so badly to set a high tempo that Arteta has used Ceballos as a deep-lying playmaker lately, but the Real Madrid loanee is still a notch below the level of Fabregas or Cazorla.

   The Gunners struggled to create chances against West Ham because they rely heavily on Ozil, who is past his prime. There was a time when the Gunners could have up to 4 creative midfielders on the pitch. Think of Fabregas, Rosicky, Nasri and Wilshere during the 2010-11 season. Or Cazorla, Ozil, Rosicky and Wilshere during the 2013-14 season. Those days are gone because the current Arsenal squad badly lacks creativity.

   At 31, Ozil’s moments of magic are rare. But the Gunners definitely needed one to break the deadlock. His headed pass for Lacazette was perfectly placed and was more difficult than it looked. Ozil was at the heart of some of Arsenal’s best situations. He had a shot blocked by Cresswell in the 13th after Nketiah chested the ball down for him. Then Ozil attempted an audacious through ball for Nketiah in the 55th. The German playmaker was tidy in the final third with just 1 turnover compared to 4 for Pepe, 3 for Aubameyang, 3 for Nketiah and 2 for Lacazette, according to whoscored.com.

   Arteta’s support has helped Ozil express himself on the pitch. But the Spanish manager must also realize that Ozil will never reach again the heights of the 2015-16 season when he had 19 assists in the Premier League while averaging 4.2 key passes per game. A younger Ozil would have not missed his final ball for Lacazette in the 75th.

Ceballos’ outstanding performance

   Ozil made only 1 key pass against West Ham and raised his tally to just 2 assists in the Premier League this season. Pepe leads the Gunners with 6 assists, followed by Lacazette (3) and Saka (3). Arteta will have to improve the understanding between Ozil and Pepe. They were not on the same wavelength in the 20th: Ozil made a pass in one direction while Pepe ran in another direction.

   Ceballos has become the heartbeat of the Arsenal midfield, leading all players with 98 passes, compared to 77 for Xhaka, 82 for Mari, 79 for Luiz and 49 for Ozil. The Spaniard also showed some outstanding work-rate, leading all players with 25 defensive actions (5 tackles, 6 interceptions, 14 recoveries), while Xhaka and Ozil only made 8 and 4 defensive actions respectively, according to the club’s website. In fact, Ceballos made more tackles, more interceptions and more ball recoveries than any other player. His percentage of duels won was quite impressive, too. Ceballos won 72.7% of his duels, compared to 50% for Ozil and 28.6% for Xhaka.

   It’s easy to understand why Emery signed Ceballos. As a hard-working midfielder, Ceballos was the perfect fit for Emery’s version of Liverpool lite. Unfortunately, Ceballos never showed the consistency required to carry the team. Ceballos is slightly more creative than Xhaka and Guendouzi, but he’s still far from the high standards of Cazorla or Fabregas.

   Another issue is that Ceballos is not a natural defensive midfielder. Ceballos initially marked Antonio in the 40th when the Hammers had their best scoring chance on a corner. The Spaniard failed to stay with Antonio when Diop outjumped Aubameyang to redirect Noble’s corner. Somehow, Antonio missed the target from 3 yards. Then Bowen easily turned Ceballos to set up Haller in the 83rd.

   The double pivot formed by Ceballos and Xhaka did not provide much protection to the Arsenal defense. The Gunners looked like an Emery team on Saturday as they were highly vulnerable on transitions because the midfield was too porous.

Saka’s consistency

   Wenger, Emery and Arteta have been using Xhaka as the main defensive midfielder but he’s simply not good enough. Under Arteta, Xhaka is in charge of patrolling the left flank when Saka roams forward. When the Hammers hit Arsenal on the fast break in the 75th, Xhaka covered Saka and blocked Bowen’s shot. However, Xhaka failed to close down Ngakia in the 86th. Haller met Ngakia’s cross for a tame effort that did not trouble Leno.  

   Xhaka plays as a deep-lying playmaker for the Switzerland team. But his skills are simply too limited in that position for Arsenal. Xhaka’s lack of mobility is a liability when the Gunners play out from the back. He gave the ball away in the 2nd minute, allowing Bowen to hit the post with a low drive. In the last minute of stoppage time, Xhaka had a great opportunity to play Nelson clean through on goal. But he refused to deliver the final ball. Instead, Xhaka made a lazy pass to Aubameyang, who wasted time by running toward the corner flag.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96a editedXhaka can already see his best passing option. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96b editedXhaka runs forward while keeping his options open. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96c editedThis is the best moment for Xhaka to feed Nelson. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96d editedNelson must check his run not to be offside. (Photo credit: NBC)

   In the leftback position, Saka produced another solid performance. That kind of consistency is rare for any 18-year-old player. Saka provided a lot of penetration with 2 successful dribbles out of 3, according to whoscored.com. He created a big chance for Nketiah in the 52nd with an impressive dribbling run. In a team lacking creativity, the quality of his final ball can make a huge difference. Saka made 3 key passes, tied with Noble for the most by any player. His defensive awareness is still a work in progress. Saka failed to mark Antonio when Cresswell made a cross in the 56th.

Mari’s baptism of fire

   While Saka played pretty much like a wingback in the leftback position, Sokratis played like a centerback in the rightback position. Sokratis made only 1 cross compared to 5 for Saka. In the FA Cup game against Portsmouth, Sokratis already showed his limitations as a fullback. Antonio liked the matchup as he often got the better of Sokratis, who got booked in the 63rd for a cynical foul on the West Ham forward. Sokratis made 3 fouls, tied with Aubameyang for the most by any player.

   In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mari had less flattering stats than against Portsmouth. Mari won only 50% of his aerial duels, compared to 67% for Luiz, 80% for Ogbonna and 100% for Diop, according to whoscored.com. And the Spanish centerback hit just 8 accurate long balls out of 16, compared to 5 out of 8 for Luiz and 5 out of 7 for Sokratis.

   For his first Premier League game, Mari had to adapt to the fast pace of English football. He made the wrong decision in the 11th, attempting to intercept Fornals’ pass for Antonio. Mari dived in and missed the ball, allowing the Hammers to have a 2v1 situation. As you can see on the screen captures below, Luiz saved Arsenal with his smart positional play.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11a editedLuiz has to deal with Antonio and Haller in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11b editedLuiz has a quick look to spot Haller’s run. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11c editedLuiz encourages Antonio to either take an angled shot or make a difficult cross. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11d editedAntonio can no longer play the ball between Luiz and Leno and plays the ball behind Haller. (Photo credit: NBC)

   That was the only mistake Mari made on Saturday. What saved Mari was his good reading of the game. He made 10 defensive actions (1 tackle, 9 recoveries) compared to 3 for Luiz (1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 recovery). Mari will need a flawless positional play to survive in the Premier League. He’s not as sluggish as Mertesacker but he doesn’t have the recovery pace of a Koscielny in his prime.

Tough run-in

   Arsenal can thank Leno for the clean sheet. Besides winning a 1v1 against Haller in the 19th, Leno made 6 saves. The German goalkeeper stopped Antonio’s close-range header in the 56th, parried Bowen’s low strike in the 66th, and palmed away Haller’s sliding effort in the 83rd. To protect Arsenal’s slim lead, Arteta switched to a 3-4-3 formation in the 88th by replacing Bellerin with Ozil.  

   The Gunners next visit Manchester City in the Premier League on Wednesday before facing Brighton on Saturday. They have no maneuvering room with just 10 games left to finish 5th or better. Their run-in is not easy. Arsenal will play 3 teams in the Top 4 (Manchester City, Leicester, Liverpool), 2 teams also chasing a European spot (Wolves, Spurs) and 4 teams fighting relegation (Brighton, Norwich, Aston Villa, Watford). Only Southampton will have nothing to play for.

 

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-0 win over Portsmouth

   Arsenal reached the quarterfinals of the FA Cup by defeating Portsmouth 2-0 on Monday. It was a tighter encounter than the scoreline might suggest. The Gunners enjoyed 73% of ball possession but had just 15 shots to 11 for the League One side.

FA Cup 5th roundPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Arteta made 9 changes to the team that was knocked out by Olympiakos in the Europa League with only Luiz and Saka retaining their starting spots. Bellerin, Mustafi, Ozil and Aubameyang were left out of the squad while Pepe, Lacazette, Holding, Xhaka, Ceballos and Maitland-Niles sat on the bench at kickoff.

   The Spanish manager sent a strong signal by starting Mari, Nelson and Martinelli at Fratton Park. Those 3 players could play an important role not just in the FA Cup but also in the Premier League.

   On the other hand, it wasn’t a good sign for Holding and Maitland-Niles to be on the bench. Holding has struggled for form since his return from a knee injury. Arteta will certainly not rely on Holding this season to rebuild the Arsenal defense. Maitland-Niles started the first 5 Premier League games under Arteta. But the academy graduate has slipped down the pecking order, becoming the third-choice rightback behind Bellerin and Sokratis.

  1. Nelson’s creativity

   The Gunners have been struggling offensively this season because they have very few players who can deliver the final ball. In his first start since Jan. 6, Nelson showed on Monday that he could be a credible alternative to Pepe on the right wing by setting up both goals.

   From a recycled corner, Nelson made a cross for Sokratis, who volleyed into the bottom corner to give Arsenal the lead on the stroke of halftime. Then Nelson outpaced Seddon in the 51st minute to hoist the ball into the box. Bolton missed his clearance and the ball bounced off Nketiah, who reacted quickly enough to keep the ball in play and beat Bass at the near post for a 2-0 lead. Nelson could have notched another assist in the 31st but his cross was slightly behind Martinelli, who could only head the ball over the bar.

   Nelson led all players with 4 key passes and made 5 accurate crosses out of 13, according to whoscored.com. He also displayed his technique with a solo run in the 69th and a passing accuracy of 93.1%.

  1. Mari’s composure on the ball

   In his first Arsenal start, Mari produced a solid performance. The Spanish centerback won 75% of his aerial duels, compared to 60% for Luiz, 50% for Burgess and 30% for Bolton, according to whoscored.com. The Flamengo loanee’s passing accuracy of 89.5% was decent compared to 92.9% for Luiz.

   Mari could have been a Guardiola signing. His ball-playing abilities were obvious with 13 accurate long balls out of 17, compared to 5 out of 9 for Luiz. Calm on the ball, Mari doesn’t seem to be an error-prone player like Mustafi, Luiz or Sokratis. His defensive stats were not really flashy: Mari made no tackle and no interception. That’s because his game is based on a sound positional play. Mari made 0 foul, had 0 turnover and no Portsmouth player dribbled past him.

   I wouldn’t be surprised if Arteta rebuilds the Arsenal defense around Mari. The club has an option to buy in the summer. Mari definitely needed to play against Portsmouth to have a chance to start against West Ham this weekend because the games he has played with the U23 team are no match for the intensity of the Premier League.

  1. Nketiah’s impressive form

   Since his return from a loan spell at Leeds United, Nketiah has put together some impressive stats, scoring 3 goals in 4 starts under Arteta. Nketiah showed his mental resilience on Monday. He had a shot blocked by Burgess in the 20th and produced a poor effort in the 40th, completely missing the target from 14 yards. But Nketiah bounced back by scoring a poacher’s goal in the 51st.

   Nketiah finished the game with 2 key passes, 2 tackles won and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to whoscored.com. His hold-up play is still underwhelming. Nketiah was dispossessed in the 8th minute while taking a pass from Torreira. Portsmouth hit the Gunners on the fast break, forcing Mari to block a shot from Harrison. Nketiah led all players with 7 turnovers, compared to 3 for Martinelli and 2 for Nelson.

  1. The level of officiating in England is mediocre

   The referee didn’t blow the whistle in the 12th when Bolton made a strong challenge on Torreira. Bolton got the ball but also took Torreira down. It should have been a yellow card for 2 reasons: 1. Bolton went into the tackle with excessive force; 2. Bolton made a dangerous scissor tackle as you can see on the screen capture below.

FA Cup 5th round Torreira editedTorreira’s ankle is trapped between Bolton’s legs. (Photo credit: BT)

   It would have been an automatic yellow card in a European game. Torreira was stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Ceballos in the 16th. That kind of tackle would have been tolerated as a virile challenge in the 1970’s. But we’re in the 21st century and the priority nowadays is to protect the players’ physical integrity so that they can have long careers. Somehow, English referees didn’t get the memo.

  1. Sokratis managed to survive

   Maitland-Niles’ attitude on the training ground must be really poor because Sokratis struggled in the rightback position. Sokratis doesn’t have the pace to cope with wingers and is less likely to roam forward than Maitland-Niles. Most of Pompey’s chances came from Sokratis’ flank. Harness got the better of Sokratis several times but lacked end product. Curtis replaced Harness in the 66th and cut inside Sokratis in the 73rd to test Martinez with an angled strike.  

 

Arsenal vs. Olympiakos: A few thoughts on the 2-1 loss

   It’s a huge disillusion. The Gunners got knocked out in the last 32 of the Europa League on Thursday after reaching the final of the second-tier competition last season. Arsenal initially did the toughest part by winning the first leg 1-0 in Greece. But somehow, the Gunners found a way to self-destruct by losing the second leg 2-1 at home.

Arsenal vs. OlympiakosPhoto credit: Getty Images

   Arsenal ran out of luck. They had 2.19 expected goals compared to 1.50 expected goals for Olympiakos, according to Infogol. But the Gunners can’t really complain because they were supposed to lose against Everton last weekend when in fact they won 3-2.

   Those are dark times for the club. Arsenal won’t play in the Champions League next season. They are 7 points outside the Top 4 in the Premier League and are unlikely to catch Chelsea. However, the Gunners still have a shot at earning a European spot if they win the FA Cup or finish 5th in the Premier League.

   Qualifying again for the Europa League may sound trivial but the lack of European football would definitely impact the club’s recruitment strategy. Last season, Arsenal earned about €39 million in Europa League revenue, according to the UEFA figures. Obviously, the Gunners will earn less than €30 million this season because they were eliminated in the last 32.

  1. The Gunners are still vulnerable on set pieces

   Arsenal conceded 2 goals from set pieces against Everton last weekend. You have to wonder whether they seriously work on set pieces at Colney. Olympiakos opened the scoring from a corner in the 53rd minute. Cisse had a free run to head in Valbuena’s corner. The first mistake came from Ozil, who failed to block Cisse. While Aubameyang was busy blocking Ba, Ozil was caught ball-watching, letting Cisse run past him. The second mistake came from Mustafi, who completely missed his header. The most embarrassing part is that Cisse didn’t even need to jump.  

   In the 29th minute of extra time, El Arabi scored the winning goal with a sliding effort. Initially, Martinelli headed away an Olympiakos corner. The clearance fell to El Abdellaoui, who found Masouras near the touchline. Masouras evaded a tackle from Martinelli to make a teasing cross for El Arabi, who ghosted past Sokratis to beat Leno from close range. Martinelli made the first mistake by diving in. The Brazilian teenager should have just tried to prevent Masouras from crossing the ball. Pepe made the second mistake by failing to close down Masouras, who had plenty of time and space to make a perfect cross. And Sokratis made the third mistake by not marking El Arabi, especially since he could see that Xhaka was playing everyone onside.

  1. Arteta got his approach wrong

   This elimination will be an indelible stain on Arteta’s resume. It was a poor managerial performance no matter how you look at it. Did Arteta pay the price for his inexperience as a manager? Wenger and Emery also had some poor moments in that competition, but they always managed to qualify over 2 legs against the average sides. Arsenal lost the second leg against Ostersund under Wenger and the first leg against BATE Borisov and Rennes under Emery. Some fans will say that Ostersund, BATE Borisov and Rennes are weaker sides than Olympiakos. That may be true, but Olympiakos lost their away games against Spurs, Bayern Munich and Red Star Belgrade this season.

   The Gunners were too passive in the first half. They lacked urgency as if the goal from the first leg was enough to qualify. Something felt wrong when Arsenal played with a medium defensive block in the 4th minute with the forwards waiting near the halfway line instead of pressing high up the pitch. The Gunners finally played inside Olympiakos’ half after Cisse opened the scoring. But it was too late because the damage had already been done: the Greek side gained confidence and believed it could qualify.

   There will be a lot of second guessing inside the club. Last season, Emery heavily rotated in the Europa League to keep his players fresh. Arteta chose the opposite path and fielded his strongest team by making only 2 changes to the side that edged Everton with Saka and Lacazette replacing Kolasinac and Nketiah in the starting lineup. Obviously, the workload has become lighter with that Europa League elimination.

  1. The Aubameyang conundrum

   Is the Arsenal offense weaker when Aubameyang plays in a wide position? Aubameyang scored 2 goals against Everton despite playing on the left wing. But it was a different story against Olympiakos. Aubameyang had nothing to feed off until Arteta made a tactical change in the 84th, shifting to a 3-5-2 formation by replacing Bellerin with Willock. The Gabon striker joined Lacazette in a front two while Xhaka played alongside Luiz and Mustafi in a back three. Aubameyang equalized in the 23rd minute of extra time with a bicycle kick at the far post. He nearly saved his team in the final minute of the game but his half-volley sailed wide.

  1. The Gunners struggled with the final ball

   That has been a recurrent theme this season. Olympiakos also deserved some credit for keeping a compact shape and showing good defensive discipline. But the Gunners can only blame themselves for not moving the ball quickly enough and for lacking accuracy in the final third. Ozil overhit his final ball for Lacazette in the 11th, Pepe missed his cross for Aubameyang and Lacazette in the 27th, Lacazette’s clipped pass for Aubameyang in the 47th was too heavy, Luiz overhit his long ball for Pepe in the 48th, and Aubameyang made a poor cross for Lacazette in the 64th.    

  1. Can Pepe play the Arteta way?

   Pepe showed against Newcastle that he could simplify his game and be more efficient in the final third. On Thursday, Pepe reverted back to the messy player lacking end product. He led all players with 12 successful dribbles out of 14, according to whoscored.com, but had just 1 key pass compared to 2 key passes for Ozil.

   Ozil created Arsenal’s 2 best chances. Martinelli met a cross from Ozil in the 23rd minute of extra time for a header that bounced off Ba and fell into the path of Aubameyang, who acrobatically leveled. In the final minute of the game, Ozil created panic in the Olympiakos defense with another cross. Ba headed the ball against Cisse and the loose ball fell to Aubameyang, who failed to convert from 8 yards.

   Pepe made his best offensive contributions when he showed spontaneity. He made a smart run to collect Lacazette’s through ball in the 20th, forcing Ba to foul him on the edge of the box. Then Pepe tested Sa with a curling shot in the 77th. By contrast, Pepe wasted a good situation in the 75th by multiplying dribbles in the final third instead of feeding Lacazette.

   Arteta has a lot of work to do on the training ground to improve the understanding between Pepe and Ozil. The two players were not on the same page. In the first half, Ozil made a couple of smart runs but Pepe held onto the ball instead of feeding Ozil. A neutral spectator could have thought that Pepe and Ozil had never played together. Pepe missed his final ball for Ozil in the 37th and the 49th before missing short passes to the German playmaker in the 81st and 83rd.

   Guardiola also had to deal with selfish players like Robben and Ribery at Bayern Munich. Somehow, Guardiola built his offense around Robben and Ribery while finding a way to integrate them into his passing game. Arteta is facing a similar problem with Pepe at Arsenal.  

 

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners overcome fatigue in 3-2 win

  For only the second time this season, Arsenal won 3 games in a row by edging Everton 3-2 on Sunday. Nobody can deny that the Gunners have improved under Arteta. They scored 1.38 goals and conceded 1.46 goals per Premier League game under Emery while they have scored 1.50 goals and conceded 1.21 goals per Premier League game under Ljungberg and Arteta.

Arsenal vs. Everton 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Despite the improvements, the Gunners are in a worse position than when Emery was dismissed. They earned 1.384 points per Premier League game under Emery to have 18 points from 13 games, 1 point away from 5th place and a European spot and 1 point clear of Spurs and Manchester United. Under Ljungberg and Arteta, they have earned 1.357 points per game to have 37 points from 27 games, 4 points behind Manchester United in 5th place and 3 points behind Spurs.

   The situation in the standings reflects badly on Sanllehi and the Arsenal board, who waited too long to sack Emery. Arteta needed time to implement his ideas. It’s no coincidence if the results have recently improved after the training sessions in Dubai.  

   Arteta has pretty much found his best team after 2 months at the helm of the club. He made only 1 change to the side that thrashed Newcastle a week ago with Kolasinac replacing a knackered Saka in the starting lineup. That’s quite a contrast with Emery, who kept tinkering in the first half of the season.  

   The Gunners were lucky to get 3 points from Sunday’s game because they struggled physically in the last 20 minutes. Everton finished stronger but failed to convert their 2 big chances. The Toffees had 17 shots and 1.79 expected goals compared to 9 shots and 1.35 expected goals for Arsenal, according to understat.com.

Losing the second ball

   Both Everton goals came from set pieces. The Gunners played a high defensive line when Sigurdsson took a free kick in the opening minute. Kolasinac didn’t get the memo as he played everyone onside by chasing Mina inside the area. Luiz got the better of Holgate but redirected Sigurdsson’s free kick into the path of Calvert-Lewin, who opened the scoring with an overhead kick. Xhaka failed to stay with Calvert-Lewin on that play.

   The Toffees made it 2-2 on the stroke of halftime by winning again the second ball on a set piece. Aubameyang cleared a corner into the path of Sigurdsson, who miskicked his volley. Mina outjumped Mustafi to head the loose ball forward. Richarlison reacted more quickly than Leno to win the 50-50 ball, scoring with an acrobatic kick.

   The 4-0 win over Newcastle already showed that Pepe and Saka provide a lot of penetration in the final third. Saka came off the bench to replace an injured Kolasinac in the 18th. The English teenager helped Arsenal level in the 27th with a pinpoint cross for Nketiah, who made a run between Mina and Holgate to side-foot into the bottom corner. Aubameyang’s pace made the difference for the Gunners’ second goal in the 33rd. The Gabon striker made a run in behind Sidibe to collect a through ball from Luiz before beating Pickford with a curling shot into the far corner. The Arsenal captain scored the winner in the 46th by heading Pepe’s cross past Pickford.

A pure finisher

   Aubameyang raised his tally to 17 goals in the Premier League this season. If you look at his stats, you can see that he’s a pure finisher. First, Aubameyang was clinical against Everton with 2 of 2 shots on target. And second, he has only 1 assist this season while top scorers like Vardy, Aguero and Salah have more assists.

   In theory, Aubameyang should have more assists since he has often started on the left wing. The trouble is that his all-around game is not good enough to deliver the final ball. He missed his return pass to Saka in the 29th and overhit his through ball for Ozil in the 50th. The main benefit of playing Aubameyang in a wide position is that he can make that diagonal run into the half-space between the fullback and the centerback.

   Aubameyang wears the armband because he performs consistently on the pitch. He led by example on Sunday with an outstanding work-rate, making 9 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 interception, 5 recoveries), compared to 6 for Pepe and 3 for Nketiah, according to the club’s website. In fact, only Xhaka (11) and Ceballos (10) made more defensive actions than Aubameyang on the Arsenal team.

   In his post-match press conference, Arteta made it clear that he wants to keep Aubameyang, whose contract expires in the summer of 2021. The club has struggled to retain its star players since failing to qualify for the Champions League. First, there was the mess with the contracts of Sanchez and Ozil during the 2017-18 season. Then, there was the Ramsey fiasco last season.

   Assuming that Aubameyang is willing to stay at Arsenal despite the lack of Champions League football, the club would still need to sell some top players in order to fund transfers. Selling Lacazette would be the rational decision since the Gunners already have Nketiah and Martinelli as replacements.

Pepe adapting to English football

   Nketiah showed good movement to find the net in the 27th. He finished the game with 1 of 3 shots on target, firing over the bar with an angled effort in the 24th and hitting the bar with a curling shot in the 87th. His passing accuracy of 77.8% was good compared to 64.3% for Richarlison and 50% for Calvert-Lewin.

   Although Nketiah has more pace than Lacazette, the academy graduate still needs to work on his all-around game, whether it’s his hold-up play or his link-up play. Nketiah was dispossessed in midfield in the 32nd and missed a short pass to Pepe in the final third in the 58th. He made a decent defensive contribution with 1 tackle, 2 recoveries and 3 fouls. However, his defensive stats are still weaker than Lacazette’s because he doesn’t read the game well enough.

   On the right wing, Pepe made 4 key passes, tied with Richarlison for the most by any player. He made the assist for the winning goal in the 46th and slightly overhit his final ball for Ozil in the 29th. I thought Pepe could have done better with a curling shot in the 26th that didn’t trouble Pickford.

   In his first season at Arsenal, Pepe has proved a decent investment with 6 goals and 8 assists in all competitions. On paper, the transition was not easy for Pepe. First, the Premier League is faster and more physical than the French league. And second, Lille’s success relied on a counterattacking style whereas Arteta prefers possession football.

The limitations of the Arsenal midfield

   In midfield, Arteta relied on the trio that started against Newcastle. While Ceballos and Ozil showed a bit of creativity against the Magpies, their limitations were exposed against Everton with 0.03 expected assist for Ozil and 0.00 expected assist for Ceballos compared to 0.64 expected assist for Saka, 0.34 expected assist for Luiz and 0.27 expected assist for Pepe, according to understat.com. There’s no way Arteta could have confused Ozil and Ceballos with De Bruyne and Silva. Signing a creative midfielder should be a top priority for Arsenal this summer.

   Despite 53 passes and a passing accuracy of 90.6%, Ozil could only make 1 key pass. The German playmaker dribbled past Sidibe in the 75th to tee up Ceballos, whose curling shot from 20 yards sailed wide. Ceballos was even less sharp in the final third with 0 key pass despite 55 passes and a passing accuracy of 87.3%. The Spaniard’s best attacking contribution was a through ball for Aubameyang, whose cross was deflected out by Sidibe in the 6th minute.

   Defensively, the Arsenal midfield looked porous at times. Ceballos showed some good work-rate with 10 defensive actions (2 tackles, 4 interceptions, 4 recoveries) in 75 minutes, compared to 11 defensive actions in 95 minutes for Xhaka and 3 defensive actions in 81 minutes for Ozil, according to the club’s website. But the Real Madrid loanee is not a natural ballwinner. Ceballos made 3 fouls, tied with Xhaka and Nketiah for the most fouls by a Gunner. His foul on Richarlison led to the free kick for Everton’s opening goal.

   As the holding midfielder, Xhaka showed a lack of defensive awareness a couple of times. He failed to stay with Calvert-Lewin on the opening goal. Then Xhaka was too slow to close down Bernard while covering Saka in the 72nd. After Bernard made the cross, Xhaka forgot to play Calvert-Lewin offside. The Switzerland midfielder also gave the ball away in the 77th.

Losing key duels

   The Toffees too easily beat Arsenal’s high press in the 9th minute, pulling Xhaka and Ceballos out of position before Richarlison reached the final third with a run from midfield. Richarlison found Iwobi, who fired wide from our left flank. Ancelotti exploited Ozil’s reluctance to press by sending on Gomes for Schneiderlin in 59th. Gomes created a big chance in the 80th by sending a long ball to Richarlison.

   As the Gunners lost the control of the game in the last 20 minutes, Arteta replaced Ceballos with Torreira in the 76th and Ozil with Guendouzi in the 82nd. Somehow, Arsenal more efficiently pressed high up the pitch in the 87th. Torreira recovered the ball to feed Nketiah, who struck the woodwork.

   Despite that key pass, Torreira didn’t impress in his 19-minute cameo. His passing accuracy of 72.7% was the lowest among Arsenal players. The Uruguay international also gave the ball away in the 89th and was dispossessed in stoppage time by Kean, who missed the target with a low drive.

   Playing in a 4-4-2 formation, Everton put a lot of pressure on the Arsenal defense with Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin up front and Iwobi and Sigurdsson in the wide positions. The Toffees were dominant in the air, winning 19 aerial duels compared to just 8 for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. Calvert-Lewin led all players by winning 9 of 11 aerial duels, while Mustafi and Luiz combined to win just 5 of 10 aerial duels.

   Mari hasn’t played yet for the first team but he will definitely get his chance because Luiz and Mustafi keep losing key duels. Luiz was credited with an error for heading the ball into Calvert-Lewin’s path on the opening goal. The Brazilian defender was then late in the 58th when Richarlison got the better of Mustafi to deliver the final ball but Calvert-Lewin failed to make contact with the ball.

Saka’s off day

   Mustafi has received praise from some fans lately, but his performances are still a mixed bag at best. The German defender won 63.6% of his duels compared to 50% for Luiz, according to the club’s website. Mustafi lost a key duel on Everton’s second goal as Mina outjumped him to feed Richarlison. In stoppage time, Mustafi was also beaten in the air by Calvert-Lewin, who headed Bernard’s cross wide. Calvert-Lewin dispossessed Mustafi in the 44th but Nketiah covered Mustafi and fouled the Everton striker on the edge of the box.

   The few times he was isolated with Richarlison, Mustafi didn’t cover himself in glory. Richarlison rounded Mustafi in the 78th to test Leno with a low strike. Two minutes later, Richarlison toyed with Mustafi before slipping a through ball to Calvert-Lewin, who wasted the big chance with an air shot.

   Saka was supposed to get some rest on Sunday. But Kolasinac’s shoulder injury forced Arteta to send on Saka for the Bosnia-Herzegovina international in the 18th. Saka’s lack of freshness was obvious. He won only 22.2% of his duels and led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers. The English teenager hit the wall physically in the second half, losing possession to Bernard in the 64th and Sidibe in the 65th, and giving the ball away in the 66th and 72nd.

   Despite having an off day, Saka still managed to have a passing accuracy of 92.5% while making 2 key passes, including the assist for Nketiah’s goal. Saka raised his tally to 3 goals and 9 assists in all competitions this season. Some pundits mentioned 10 assists. Officially, it’s 9 assists because Saka’s cross for Martinelli’s goal against Sheffield United took a deflection off a defender.

Leno’s big saves

   On the opposite flank, Bellerin is still struggling to get back to his best. He waited too long to play Pepe clean through on goal in the 69th and the Ivory Coast winger was flagged offside. Bellerin lost a key duel in the 72nd as Richarlison outjumped him to create a big chance for Calvert-Lewin.

   Leno played an important role in the victory. He protected Arsenal’s lead with a reflex save in the 72nd, making himself big to deny Calvert-Lewin. The German goalkeeper then made a leg save in the 78th to parry Richarlison’s close-range effort. Leno also took some pressure off the shoulders of the back four by catching Baines’ teasing cross in the 84th before coming off his line to clear the danger in the 89th as Gomes hit a long ball toward Richarlison.  

   The Gunners next host Olympiakos in the Europa League on Thursday before visiting Portmouth in the FA Cup on Monday. Arteta will probably rotate against Portsmouth to avoid injuries.

 

 

Olympiakos vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win

   The Gunners are in a good position to qualify for the last 16 of the Europa League after edging Olympiakos 1-0 in the first leg on Thursday. Arsenal enjoyed 51% of ball possession and had 12 shots to 11 for the Greek side, according to the UEFA stats. Arteta fielded a strong team because Arsenal could earn a Champions League spot by winning this second-tier competition.

FBL-EUR-C3-OLYMPIAKOS-ARSENALPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   The Spanish manager made 5 changes to the side that thrashed Newcastle in the Premier League last weekend with Lacazette, Martinelli, Willock, Guendouzi and Sokratis replacing Nketiah, Pepe, Ozil, Ceballos and Bellerin in the starting lineup. Ozil, Bellerin and Torreira were left out of the squad to rest while Ceballos and Pepe sat on the bench.

  1. Saka’s value is increasing every week

   Good luck negotiating with his agent! Saka made an underlapping run in the 81st minute to take a pass from Aubameyang before setting up Lacazette for a tap-in with a pinpoint cross. So far, Saka has already notched 3 goals and 8 assists in all competitions this season. That’s better than Chelsea winger Hudson-Odoi, who put himself in a position to earn £120,000 a week by having 5 goals and 5 assists in all competitions last season.  

   The Gunners tend to lack penetration without Pepe. Saka was therefore the key to crack the Olympiakos defense. The English teenager led all players with 3 successful dribbles and 3 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. Saka created panic with a dribbling run in the 33rd, but a misunderstanding with Willock ended the promising situation. Two minutes later, Saka made a cross for Willock, who was beaten to the ball by Ba. Saka made another good run in the 49th to swap passes with Lacazette, who fell in the area under a challenge from Ba, but the referee turned down the penalty shout from the French striker.

  1. Lacazette could have notched a hat trick

   You’d better find the net when you are offered outstanding service. Lacazette showed good movement inside the box for the winning goal but he should have scored more. He missed a big chance in the 20th. Martinelli cut the ball back for Lacazette, who fired wide from 8 yards. Then Aubameyang made an acrobatic pass for Lacazette in the 85th. The French striker controlled the ball before unleashing a powerful strike from 16 yards that Sa parried.

   There were 2 chances where I thought Aubameyang might have done better than Lacazette because he has more pace and is stronger in the air. Aubameyang made a decent low cross in the eighth minute but Lacazette couldn’t make contact with the ball despite throwing himself to the ground. Xhaka made another cross in the 63rd. Lacazette got the better of Ba but again failed to make contact with the ball for a header.

   Lacazette finished the game with 2 of 5 shots on target while Aubameyang sacrificed himself on the right wing and had only 1 goal attempt. I still think that Lacazette would be more comfortable and more efficient in the role of a second striker playing off a centerforward like Aubameyang. Lacazette has a better all-around game while Aubameyang has more speed to make runs in behind the defense.  

  1. Arteta has a massive rebuilding job in midfield

   It’s no secret that the Gunners lack creativity in midfield. Their passing against Olympiakos was too slow to create space. Since Cazorla’s departure, they’ve missed a technical midfielder who can set a high tempo. Xhaka and Guendouzi are simply not good enough as deep-lying playmakers. Arteta’s short-term fix has been to use Ceballos in that role against Newcastle.

   In Greece, Arsenal struggled to play the ball out from the back with Xhaka, Guendouzi and Willock in midfield. Olympiakos had their best scoring chance in the third minute when Guendouzi gave the ball away. The Greek side capitalized on another turnover from Guendouzi in the 80th but Lovera missed the target with his long-range strike.

   Defensively, Arteta still doesn’t seem to realize that he doesn’t have the personnel for an efficient high press. He showed signs of frustration in the 36th as the midfielders failed to help the forwards press Olympiakos. Xhaka, Guendouzi and Willock combined to have 12 turnovers, make 3 interceptions, and win 1 of 5 tackles, according to whoscored.com. They were also dribbled past 4 times.

  1. The Gunners earned a third straight clean sheet

   Leno deserves most of the credit for that clean sheet because Sokratis, Mustafi and Luiz were shaky at times. The Gunners were not at the races in the opening minutes and could have conceded the opening goal when Sokratis failed to mark Valbuena, who met a cross from El Arabi for a volley that Leno palmed away. Arteta played Sokratis in the rightback position like he did for the FA Cup tie against Leeds. The German goalkeeper then made a reflex save in the 26th when Luiz nearly scored an own goal while attempting to clear Masouras’ cross. Leno also stopped a dipping free kick from Valbuena in the 74th, collecting the ball at the second attempt.

   Mustafi performed better than Luiz, winning 3 of 3 tackles and 6 of 8 aerial duels, making 2 interceptions and having 0 turnover while the Brazilian defender made 0 tackle and 1 interception, won 1 of 2 aerial duels and had 2 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Of course, Mustafi had some dodgy moments. He made a risky pass from inside his own area that led to a dangerous situation in the 52nd before receiving a yellow card in the 71st for a mistimed tackle on El Arabi. Luiz and Mustafi seem to be Arteta’s first-choice centerback pairing. Holding has been struggling for form this season while Mari is still building up fitness.      

  1. Willock needs to improve his reading of the game

   At 20, Willock still has time to develop. But Saka’s meteoric rise shows that age is not an issue while Iwobi’s failure to fulfill his potential is a reminder that time is limited. Willock wasted 2 good situations because of his poor reading of the game. As you can see on the screen captures below, Willock could have slipped a through ball to Martinelli in the 22nd, but he lacked spontaneity. When Martinelli was in an offside position, Willock could have made a cross to Aubameyang at the far post or teed up Xhaka on the edge of the box. But Willock balked again, and made the wrong decision by rounding Semedo to make a cross that sailed out of play.

Olympiakos vs. Arsenal M22a editedWillock fails to slip a through ball to Martinelli. (Photo credit: BT)

Olympiakos vs. Arsenal M22b editedWillock fails to set up Martinelli for a cutback. (Photo credit: BT)

Olympiakos vs. Arsenal M22c editedWillock ignores 2 more passing options. (Photo credit: BT)

   You put Ozil in the same situation and you know that he will deliver the final ball. Aubameyang made a run between Ba and Semedo in the 44th in the hope that Willock would play him clean through on goal. But Willock dallied on the ball and had only one passing option left, Martinelli on the right wing. The Brazilian forward made a cross that went out of play and the chance was gone.

Olympiakos vs. Arsenal M44a editedWillock fails to play Aubameyang clean through on goal. (Photo credit: BT)

 

Olympiakos vs. Arsenal M44b editedWillock’s only option left is Martinelli because Aubameyang is offside and Lacazette is marked. (Photo credit: BT)

   Offensively, Willock lacked end product with 0 key pass, 0 shot and only 1 successful dribble out of 4. Defensively, he badly struggled, winning only 1 of 3 tackles, leading all players with 4 fouls and leading the Gunners with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Arteta replaced Willock with Pepe in the 75th.  

Arsenal vs. Newcastle: Pepe steals the show in 4-0 win

   It’s not easy to live up to a £72 million price tag. Was there a moment this season that justified such a transfer fee for Pepe? Maybe when he came off the bench to score 2 late goals in the 3-2 win over Vitoria in the Europa League. Otherwise, most of his appearances in the Premier League have been underwhelming. Until his stellar performance in the 4-0 demolition of Newcastle on Sunday.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Arteta also had his doubts about Pepe. The Ivory Coast international had only started 4 of the 7 previous games in the Premier League. But Pepe seemed to have convinced Arteta of his qualities during the training sessions in Dubai. Things didn’t start well for Pepe, who couldn’t beat the first man with a corner kick in the third minute. Then Pepe showed poor decision-making in the 32nd, losing possession by running into 3 Magpies. But Pepe regained some confidence in the 41st with a free kick that Dubravka tipped over the bar.

   The second half suddenly looked promising in the 50th when Pepe rounded Clark to cut the ball back for Nketiah, who struck the bar from 7 yards. Pepe then capitalized on Rose’s passivity in the 54th to make a pinpoint cross for Aubameyang, who beat Dubravka with a downward header for the opening goal. The Gunners doubled the lead in the 57th when Saka nutmegged Lazaro to set up Pepe for a first-time effort into the bottom corner. Pepe was also involved in the third goal. He fed Lacazette, who acrobatically spun to find an unmarked Ozil in the 90th. From 7 yards, the German playmaker shot past Dubravka for a 3-0 lead. In stoppage time, Pepe teed up Lacazette for the last goal.

Pepe tops attacking and defending stats

   Pepe finished the game with 1 goal and 2 assists. Yet, those stats don’t even tell the tremendous impact that Pepe had on the game. He was the most creative player on the Arsenal team with 1.52 expected assists compared to 0.61 for Lacazette, 0.51 for Saka, 0.19 for Ozil and 0.14 for Ceballos, according to understat.com. Pepe and Ozil were tied with 4 key passes each, but Pepe created 3 big chances while Ozil created 0 big chance. The more outrageous stat is that Pepe led all players with 13 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 interception, 10 recoveries), according to the club’s website.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle Pepe edited

Pepe’s tackles, interceptions and ball recoveries against Newcastle. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)  

   Despite this emphatic victory, the Gunners still sit in the middle of the table, 6 points behind Spurs in the race for a European spot. Arteta made some big calls with his team selection. Because Arteta had 2 full weeks to implement his ideas on the training ground, a lot of fans were curious about the team sheet on Sunday.

   Arteta made 3 changes to the side that drew at Burnley with Ceballos, Pepe and Nketiah replacing Guendouzi, Martinelli and Lacazette in the starting lineup. It’s now obvious that Arteta sees the backline as a springboard for attacking play. Luiz and Mustafi got again the nod over Sokratis and Holding because they have better ball-playing abilities. Likewise, Saka and Bellerin got the nod over Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles because they contribute more in the final third.

   In midfield, Arteta injected a bit more creativity by giving Ceballos his first Premier League start since November. Torreira sat on the bench while Guendouzi was not even in the matchday squad. However, the biggest surprise was in the front three where Arteta preferred Pepe and Nketiah to Martinelli and Lacazette. Initially, Arteta kept starting Lacazette in the Premier League despite his poor run of form. But at the end of the day, the Gunners need goals so Arteta had to give Nketiah a chance.

Manchester City lite

   The fans have a better idea now of Arteta’s football philosophy. While Emery tried to turn Arsenal into Liverpool lite with a counterattacking style and a strong emphasis on the transition game, the Gunners have looked like Manchester City lite under Arteta with the focus on possession football and a more elaborate passing game. Arsenal starters all had a passing accuracy above 75% against the Magpies.

   The Gunners lacked penetration in the first half because of a lack of movement and a passing game not quick enough to destabilize a compact Newcastle side playing in a 5-4-1 formation. In the second half, Arsenal played with more intensity and had more presence in the final third.

   I’ve made the comparison with Manchester City because the Citizens balance passing with dribbling to achieve penetration. Guardiola always includes 1 or 2 dribblers (Sane, Sterling, Mahrez) in the front three because City can’t just rely on the passing skills of De Bruyne or Silva to beat defenders in the final third.

   Pepe’s presence in the front three was crucial in that regard. Aubameyang, Lacazette, Nketiah and Martinelli simply don’t have his dribbling skills. Pepe and Saka combined to have 8 successful dribbles out of 13, according to whoscored.com. Nketiah’s big chance in the 50th came from Pepe’s dribble past Clark. Likewise, Saka created the second goal in the 57th with a nutmeg.

   Arsenal achieved penetration for the last 2 goals with runs. Ozil created a 4v4 situation for the 3rd goal with a run in midfield while Pepe created a 3v2 situation for the 4th goal with a run in behind Schar as you can see on the screen captures below. Ironically, only the opening goal didn’t require any penetration: Rose failed to close down Pepe while Lazaro failed to challenge Aubameyang in the air.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M95a editedThe Gunners have a 3v3 on the right flank and a 2v2 on the edge of the box. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M95b editedPepe creates a 3v2 after his run in behind Schar. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The training sessions in Dubai had a positive effect on Pepe’s game. He seems to be more selective in his dribbling attempts. Pepe only made 3 dribbles against the Magpies whereas he made 5 against Chelsea, 7 against Sheffield United and 6 against Crystal Palace.

Nketiah’s first Premier League start

   To a certain extent, Pepe is a disrupter like Sanchez. Under Wenger, the Gunners often played with very few touches in order to move the ball quickly. Of course, Sanchez was the exception, ending a succession of passes with numerous turns and dribbles. Just like Wenger found a way to make Sanchez fit in Arsenal’s passing game, Arteta must find a way to optimize Pepe’s potential. Sunday’s game showed that Pepe doesn’t need to dribble a lot to score or make an assist.

   The two weeks of training have also contributed to improving the understanding between Pepe and Lacazette. They had combined on a goal only once before Sunday’s game. Their relative lack of chemistry was plain to see against Sheffield United. The last 10 minutes of Sunday’s game changed that perception. Pepe took a pass from Ozil in the 90th and could have cut inside to curl a shot. But Pepe preferred to slip the ball to Lacazette, who took a touch before spinning to set up Ozil for the 3rd goal. In stoppage time, Pepe made the assist for the last goal, helping Lacazette end a two-month goal drought.

   I don’t have any problem with Lacazette playing the role of a super sub, but I don’t think Nketiah has shown enough to start the next Premier League game. The academy graduate was let down by his finishing. From 15 yards, Nketiah curled a shot straight at Dubravka in the 37th instead of aiming at the corners. Then he failed to convert a big chance in the 50th. Nketiah also missed an opportunity to shoot in the 59th when Pepe collided with Clark. The English striker could have pulled the trigger from 15 yards but preferred to take on Lascelles and lost possession.

   At 20, Nketiah is not the finished product yet. But he has a lot of work to do before becoming a Premier League starter. His work-rate was poor with just 2 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 recovery). By contrast, Lacazette had 5 defensive actions against Burnley, 10 against Chelsea, 3 against Sheffield, and 9 against Palace. Nketiah’s all-around game was also poor. He led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Arteta waited until the 85th to replace Nketiah with Lacazette.

A captain leading by example

   Aubameyang is the most prolific and most clinical striker in the Arsenal squad. Yet, Arteta started him on the left wing again. Aubameyang didn’t have much to feed off in the first half. He had an angled effort that Dubravka easily saved in the 32nd. Then Aubameyang fired a long-range strike that Clark deflected out in the 39th. Playing on the left wing exposed Aubameyang’s average link-up play. His left-footed cross sailed out of play in the 6th minute. He also missed a short pass to Saka in the 8th and overhit his return pass to Nketiah on the stroke of halftime.

   The most frustrating part was to watch Aubameyang track Lazaro down the left flank. Why would your top scorer waste so much energy with those defensive tasks? But there’s a reason why Aubameyang is the Arsenal captain. Leading by example, Aubameyang showed some good work-rate with 6 defensive actions (2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 recoveries).

   Arteta did the sensible thing at halftime by asking Aubameyang to play in a more central position while Saka played higher up the pitch to take Aubameyang’s spot on the left wing. The Gabon striker suddenly got better chances. He chased a ball over the top from Ceballos in the 47th for a half-volley that went wide. Aubameyang’s smart movement inside the box made the difference in the 54th. He found a small gap between Lazaro and Fernandez and met Pepe’s cross for the opening goal. Aubameyang nearly found the net again in the 67th when his cross-shot bounced off the bar.

Ceballos’ influence in midfield

   The Arsenal defense has improved under Arteta but the offense has often looked toothless with 13 shots against Burnley, 7 shots against Bournemouth, 2 shots against Chelsea, 11 shots against Sheffield and 7 shots against Palace. Arteta tweaked the midfield against Newcastle to create more chances. Instead of having 2 defensive players (Xhaka, Guendouzi) and 1 offensive player (Ozil), Arteta added more creativity by starting with 2 offensive players (Ozil, Ceballos) and just 1 defensive player (Xhaka). The move paid off as the Gunners had 15 shots to 10 for the Magpies.

   Playing alongside Xhaka, Ceballos proved influential in midfield with 89 passes and a passing accuracy of 95.5%. Only Xhaka made more passes (105) and only Ozil and Luiz had a higher passing accuracy (both 95.9%) among the starters. Arteta used Ceballos in the role of a deep-lying playmaker. In 81 minutes, the Real Madrid loanee made 3 key passes and 11 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 9 recoveries), which is better than Xhaka, who made 0 key pass and just 8 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception, 4 recoveries) in 96 minutes.

   The problem with playing Ceballos, Xhaka and Ozil is that the Arsenal midfield looks porous and the defense becomes vulnerable on transitions, especially if the team does not have a compact shape. Ozil and Ceballos were dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Ceballos is not a natural ballwinner and led all players with 3 fouls. The Spaniard also had 5 turnovers. Ozil’s work-rate was decent with 6 defensive actions (1 tackle, 5 recoveries), but nowhere near Ceballos’ level. Ceballos, Xhaka and Ozil only won 26.3%, 33.3% and 40% of their duels respectively, according to the club’s website.

   Ceballos’ presence in midfield definitely made Ozil’s job easier. The third goal, a 35-pass spell of possession, showed Ozil’s ability to play between the lines. The German playmaker played a one-two with Xhaka to beat 2 Magpies before running some 30 yards to create a 4v4 situation as you can see on the screen captures below.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M90a editedOzil has 2 Magpies in front of him when he gives the ball to Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M90b editedOzil runs past the 2 Magpies to take Xhaka’s return pass. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M90c editedOzil’s run creates a 4v4 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Arteta clearly built his team around Ozil for this game. Ozil’s contribution showed Emery’s stupidity in alienating the German playmaker. Sure, Ozil will go missing in the tough away games, but he can still make a difference at home against the average sides.

Sanllehi’s poor job with Saka’s contract

   It’s hard to believe that Saka is only 18. The academy player is not shy on the pitch and sometimes looks more mature in his game than his age might suggest. Defensively, Saka was not much tested by Almiron, while Bellerin had to cope with Saint-Maximin on the opposite flank. Saka won 64.3% of his duels, compared to 33.3% for Bellerin.

   The second goal showed a glimpse of Saka’s dribbling skills. The English teenager had 6 successful dribbles out of 10, tied with Saint-Maximin for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. Showing his personality, as Emery would say, Saka had Arsenal’s first goal attempt in the 21st, a curling shot from the edge of the box. Saka also created panic in the Newcastle defense with runs in the 80th and 86th.

   In his breathrough season, Saka has already notched 3 goals and 7 assists in all competitions. The fact that the club hasn’t extended Saka’s contract yet shows the poor job done by Sanllehi. As an academy player, Saka currently earns £3,000 a week. Frankly, Saka is entitled to ask for at least £60,000 a week. To put things in context, Kolasinac earns £100,000 a week and Mustafi £90,000 a week. At Chelsea, Hudson-Odoi earns £120,000 a week. Sanllehi and the board would be making a huge mistake if they were to offer Saka £35,000 a week -that’s what Maitland-Niles earns. While Maitland-Niles is just a squad player, Saka has the potential for becoming a world-class player. Clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United would definitely offer Saka £60,000 a week.

   There aren’t many wingers who can match Bellerin’s pace but Saint-Maximin is one of them. Bellerin struggled defensively and was dribbled past 3 times. Saint-Maximin sped past Bellerin to fire wide in the 43rd. The Magpies had their best chance in the 75th when St-Maximin outpaced Bellerin to hit the post. Bellerin was so busy defensively that he made 0 key pass and only 2 crosses.

Relying on an old spine

   In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mustafi was dominant in the air, winning 7 of 8 aerial duels while Luiz won 0 of 2 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. However, Mustafi lost a couple of key duels. Joelinton rounded Mustafi in the 5th minute to make a cross for Lazaro, whose shot was deflected out. Then Joelinton beat Mustafi to the ball to meet Saint-Maximin’s cutback in the 15th but missed the target from close range. Saint-Maximin put the Arsenal defense under pressure with another cross in the 63rd. Clark beat both Mustafi and Luiz to the ball but Luiz managed to divert Clark’s shot.

   Luiz won only 33.3% of his duels compared to 77.8% for Mustafi. However, Luiz made 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 2 blocks, 1 interception, 4 recoveries) compared to just 2 defensive actions for Mustafi (2 recoveries). The Brazilian centerback also showed better composure, making just 1 clearance compared to 9 for Mustafi. Leno didn’t have much work but kept a clean sheet by saving Longstaff’s deflected volley in the 14th, catching Bentaleb’s cross-shot in the 24th and collecting Lascelles’ tame header in the 86th.

   Despite the emphatic win, Arteta’s team selection has raised some questions. Any fan can notice that Arteta has relied on the old spine responsible for Arsenal’s decline under Wenger: Mustafi, Xhaka and Ozil. Will Arteta rebuild the team around those 3 players? Or is it just a short-term approach justified by the necessity to win games? Any manager needs results on the pitch to be credible. Maybe Arteta is waiting for the summer to start a proper rebuild.  

   The Gunners next visit Olympiakos in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Everton in the Premier League on Sunday. Arsenal’s collapse at the end of last season is a reminder that Arteta will need to rotate because the Gunners are still involved in 3 competitions.