Category Archives: Football

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners keep 1st clean sheet this season

The Gunners are making baby steps under Emery. They reached halftime without conceding a goal for the first time this season against Newcastle in mid-September. On Sunday, they finally kept their first clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Everton to move 2 points clear of Manchester United in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. EvertonPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Sunday’s game was an interesting contest because on paper the Toffees are supposed to be direct rivals for European spots. It was an even game and Everton could have split the points if they had converted their big chances. But they didn’t because they had Calvert-Lewin and Walcott in their front three instead of more clinical finishers like Lacazette and Aubameyang. Arsenal had just 5 shots on target compared to 6 for the visitors.

The Gunners’ attacking play was poor in the first half even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that defeated Vorskla on Thursday with only Sokratis, Monreal, Torreira and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. There was more movement in the second half but Arsenal didn’t really look more threatening. To a certain extent, it felt like the Wenger team of last season: struggling to create chances before a brief scoring spell saved their day.

At the start of the season, Emery tried to impose his brand of football: playing the ball out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. After 6 Premier League games, it is safe to say that Emery will have to wait another season because right now he doesn’t have the personnel to implement it. Cech’s limited ball-playing abilities and Xhaka’s lack of mobility are liabilities when the Gunners try to break the press. Likewise, the Gunners struggle to press like a unit because only a couple of their midfielders have the work-rate and mobility to close down the ball holder. When you press, you must also squeeze play to prevent your opponents from finding space. That implies a high defensive line which exposes Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace. So my guess is that Emery can only make small adjustments in his first season at the club.

Cech’s outstanding saves

The Toffees had 2 golden opportunities to open the scoring in the first half. Calvert-Lewin beat the offside trap to collect a through ball from Davies in the second minute but he was denied by a tackle from Cech. Calvert-Lewin’s decision-making was poor on that play. If the Everton striker had squared the ball back, it would have been a simple tap-in for an unmarked Richarlison. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Everton M2 edited.jpgCalvert-Lewin should have passed the ball to Richarlison. (Photo credit: NBC)

On that play, there was no pressure on Davies. Was it up to Ramsey to drop off and close Davies down? Or was it Xhaka’s responsibility to charge forward even if it meant leaving a big gap in midfield? It will be Emery’s job to sort out that kind of tactical uncertainty in his post-match analysis. The lack of pressure from Xhaka and Ramsey made Arsenal’s high defensive line completely suicidal. Calvert-Lewin made a run in behind Sokratis and no one could catch him.

Everton’s second big chance in the 38th was quite similar. It all started with a 2v2 situation on the left flank with Sokratis and Monreal dealing with Walcott and Sigurdsson. From the moment Sigurdsson dribbled past Monreal, Sokratis was in deep trouble. Walcott made a run in behind Sokratis to take Sigurdsson’s pass and bear down on goal. Cech somehow stopped Walcott’s low effort with his leg. The difference between this play and Calvert-Lewin’s chance is that Walcott had no decent passing option because Mustafi and Bellerin were tightly marking Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.

Cech definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. The Gunners could have been trailing 2-0 at halftime without his outstanding saves. The Czech goalkeeper also tipped Digne’s free kick over the bar in the 31st, scooped Keane’s header around the post in the 71st, and parried long-range efforts from Richarlison in the 21st and Tosun in the 85th.

Bellerin’s hard time

Mustafi and Bellerin performed poorly at the back. The German centerback made a sloppy pass in the fourth minute, overran the ball and lost possession on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 29th, and gave away a dangerous free kick with a poor challenge on Richarlison in the 89th. There’s no way Mustafi could be the leader of the back four when Koscielny leaves the club. Let’s be honest, Mustafi wouldn’t even start for Manchester City, Liverpool or Tottenham.

Sokratis had to bail Mustafi out with a cynical foul on Walcott in the 29th. The Greek defender also picked up a knee injury and had to be replaced by Holding in the 38th. Holding’s stats were not impressive. He made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website. You kind of wonder whether it was because Holding was too passive or because the midfielders did a good job to shield the defense. Last season, Holding was let down by some poor decision-making as well as lapses of concentration. Those issues re-emerged on Sunday when Holding went on a dribbling run on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 54th.

On the flanks, Bellerin had a harder time than Monreal. Obviously, marking Richarlison is a more difficult task than dealing with Walcott. Digne’s forays down our right wing also left Bellerin in 1v2 situations quite a few times. Bellerin was the culprit for playing Calvert-Lewin onside in the second minute. He then made the mistake of letting Richarlison turn in the 10th. Richarlison also got the better of Bellerin in the 21st, the 44th and the 50th. In the closing minutes, Sigurdsson ghosted past Bellerin to hit the post with a cross-shot. To his credit, Bellerin provided some width down the right flank whenever Ozil drifted inside. The Spaniard created Arsenal’s first chance with a teasing cross in the 12th. Bellerin also tested Pickford with a drive in the 65th.

A complementary partnership

Emery is slowly putting together the pieces of the Arsenal puzzle. Torreira finally made his first Premier League start on Sunday. It’s easy to understand why Emery has been so cautious with Torreira. Because the pace of the game is faster in England than in Italy, Torreira might lose some of the 50-50 challenges that he would normally win in Serie A. Remember how Xhaka got sent off in his first season at the club because of mistimed tackles.

The first league games showed that the partnership formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi was flawed. Neither Xhaka nor Guendouzi is a natural ballwinner. Both are deep-lying playmakers. That’s why Torreira gives more balance to the team: his partnership with Xhaka is more complementary. In fact, that duo is very similar to the midfield combination in the other top clubs.

On Sunday, Arsenal finally played with a ballwinner (Torreira) and a deep-lying playmaker (Xhaka) like the Blues do with Kante and Jorginho, like Spurs do with Dier and Dembele and like the Citizens do with Fernandinho and Silva. The Reds are the exception here as they prefer to play with a holding midfielder (Henderson) in front of two all-rounders (Milner and Wijnaldum) who can both defend and attack.

A partnership between Torreira and Guendouzi might work too. Guendouzi may have more potential than Xhaka as a deep-lying playmaker, but Xhaka is in his prime while Guendouzi is still learning the ropes. In the big games, experience will help you have more composure in the final third. It will also help you recognize certain plays.

Some fans will point out that Arsenal still had a ballwinner a few months ago with Coquelin. However, Coquelin’s technique is more limited and he doesn’t read the game as well as Torreira. I mean there’s a reason why Coquelin never played for the France team while Torreira was a starter for Uruguay at the last World Cup.

Ramsey’s first assists

Torreira won 66.7% of his duels against Everton, the highest percentage for any Gunner according to the club’s website. His stats (1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 7 ball recoveries) may not look impressive, but Torreira’s tactical awareness and his underrated role in Arsenal’s attacking play really made a difference. He received a yellow card for a rash challenge on Sigurdsson in the 15th and Everton tried to get Torreira sent off when he inadvertently stepped on Digne’s hand with his trailing leg on the stroke of halftime.

The Uruguay midfielder created the opening goal by intercepting Davies’ clearance in the 56th. He also helped protect Arsenal’s two-goal lead by deflecting Sigurdsson’s shot in the 83rd and blocking Digne’s cross in the 84th. His only blemish was the ball he gave away in the 73rd but he somehow managed to recover the ball and draw a foul from Davies.

The Gunners maybe lacked a bit of creativity in midfield. They’ve lost Rosicky, Cazorla and Wilshere in the past couple of seasons and haven’t replaced them. While Torreira is an upgrade on Coquelin, Xhaka can’t really reach the level of a Cazorla. Ramsey and Ozil led Arsenal players with 2 key passes each, which is a low figure. By contrast, Sigurdsson led all players with 4 key passes.

At least, Ramsey finally got his first assists this season. He set up Lacazette for the opener in the 56th before teeing up Aubameyang for the second goal with a backheel flick in the 59th. The Wales midfielder also attempted a through ball that was intercepted by Pickford in the 45th and made a cross for Aubameyang that led to a penalty shout in the 55th. Emery yanked Ramsey off to send on Welbeck in the 80th.

Ozil’s work-rate in the 2nd half

Ozil has definitely been one of the players struggling to adapt to Emery’s style of football. While Wenger cajoled Ozil by giving him plenty of freedom first in a 4-2-3-1 formation and then in a 3-4-3 system, Ozil has become an ordinary cog under Emery. Ozil made only 38 passes on Sunday compared to 101 for Xhaka. His influence was limited by Gueye’s crazy work-rate. One of the best ballwinners in the league, Gueye made 10 tackles, 3 interceptions and 7 ball recoveries. That explains why Ozil had 5 turnovers, an usually high number for him.

The former Germany international was a peripheral figure in the first half. His performance significantly improved after the break. He set up Ramsey for a low volley in the 49th before leading the counterattack for the second goal in the 59th. Ozil had so much time that he missed his pass for Ramsey, who kept the play alive with a backheel flick.

His critics will probably notice Ozil’s improved work-rate in the second half. Ozil won 2 of 4 tackles after the break. Is it the price Ozil must pay to stay in the starting lineup? To a certain extent, that made me think of Arshavin. The Russian forward barely contributed defensively when he arrived at Arsenal. But in his last seasons at the club, Arshavin earned the crowd’s appreciation by tracking back and even making tackles.

Until Koscielny’s return from injury, Emery will stick with Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis and Monreal at the back. In midfield, Torreira has made himself indispensable in the No. 6 role. Emery still has to figure out whether the team is more balanced with a three-man midfield a la Liverpool or with a midfield pyramid. The bigger concern is the attack which lacks fluency despite the goals scored. The Gunners also lack natural width because Ramsey, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette prefer to play through the middle.

Lacazette’s top-class finish

On Sunday, Ramsey occasionally moved to the left wing when Ozil drifted inside and Aubameyang made diagonal runs. One solution would be to play Lacazette on the right wing like Salah at Liverpool while moving Aubameyang to his favorite centerforward position. That still leaves open the question of who plays on the left wing as Aubameyang doesn’t have the all-around game for that.

Lacazette showed good work-rate by winning 2 of 3 tackles, and making 1 interception and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 aerial duels won, according to whoscored.com. The France international wasted a good situation in the 40th by attempting to shift the ball from his left foot to his right one instead of taking a first-time shot from 10 yards. The extra touch allowed Gueye to dispossess Lacazette and the chance was gone. Lacazette made amends in the 56th with a top-class finish, curling a powerful strike into the top corner. He also had a hand in the second goal by releasing Ozil down the right flank.

Boosted by his 2 goals against Vorskla, Aubameyang found again the net against Everton. Aubameyang was in an offside position when he took Ramsey’s pass in the 59th, but the referee let the goal stand because the Premier League is not using VAR technology. The Gabon striker also cut the ball back to Monreal for a close-range effort in the 12th before hitting the bar with a cross-shot in the 42nd. Emery gave Aubameyang some rest by replacing him with Iwobi in the 68th.

I expect some heavy rotation for the League Cup game against Brentford on Wednesday for the simple reason that the Gunners play Watford on Saturday. The Hornets have enjoyed a great start to the season as they are 1 point clear of Arsenal in the standings and could be a direct rival for European spots this season.

 

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Arsenal vs. Vorskla: A few thoughts on the 4-2 win

The Gunners started their Europa League campaign with a 4-2 victory over Vorskla to top Group E on Thurday, level on points with Sporting Lisbon. It was a more one-sided contest than the scoreline might suggest. The Gunners earned a fourth straight win in all competitions but they still haven’t kept any clean sheet this season.

Arsenal vs. Vorskla.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery lifted the Europa League trophy 3 times with Sevilla. Of course, he’d like to lead Arsenal to glory in that competition but he’s also aware that the Premier League remains the top priority for the club. The Spanish manager therefore made 8 changes to the side that defeated Newcastle last weekend with only Monreal, Sokratis and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots.

  1. Aubameyang is more comfortable in the centerforward role

The Gabon striker has been less efficient under Emery than when he played under Wenger on the left wing. On Thursday, Emery played Aubameyang up front and the positional change worked wonders. Aubameyang met a cross from Iwobi to open the scoring with a sliding effort in the 32nd minute. That goal boosted Aubameyang’s confidence as he killed a counterattack with a sliding tackle on Kobakhidze in the 46th before creating a chance for Welbeck with a low cross in the 50th.

Aubameyang made it 3-0 in the 56th by taking a pass from Mkhitaryan to fire into the bottom corner from 20 yards. With a bit of luck, Aubameyang could have notched a hat trick. He cut inside 2 defenders on the stroke of halftime to curl a shot that hit the base of the post. Then he missed the target from 8 yards with an off-balance volley in the 53rd. Managers are usually reluctant to yank off a player on a hat trick. But Emery clearly had the Premier League game against Everton in mind as he replaced Aubameyang with Ozil in the 57th.

  1. Torreira shielded the back four

Vorskla had no scoring chance as long as Torreira was on the pitch. Despite his diminutive stature, Torreira was not afraid of playing physical. He even took a knock when Kulach made a late tackle in the fourth minute. In a solid all-around performance, Torreira made 2 key passes and took a free kick in the 38th that flirted with the post. His only blemish was a missed interception in the 12th but the Arsenal defense managed to clear the danger. Guendouzi replaced Torreira in the 57th and was late to make the block in stoppage time when Sharpar scored with the last kick of the game.

  1. Can Emery improve Iwobi?

Iwobi’s development stalled under Wenger. The poor decision-making and the lack of end product were the obvious weaknesses in his game. At 22, Iwobi still has room for improvement, but he will soon reach an age at which he should fulfill his potential. On Thursday, Iwobi led all players with 4 key passes, including an assist for the opening goal. It could have been 5 key passes if Elneny had not wasted a scoring chance with a poor first touch in the 22nd.

The Nigeria international is not the finished product yet. He still needs to work on his technique. Iwobi led all players with 9 turnovers, 4 more than any other Gunner according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy also dipped to 76%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal player. To his credit, Iwobi provided some width on the left wing while neither Mkhitaryan nor Welbeck stretched the Vorskla defense on the right wing.

  1. Mkhitaryan’s creativity made a difference

The Armenia international was involved in the first 3 goals. He led the counterattack for the opening goal, made the cross for Welbeck’s header in the 48th and found Aubameyang on the edge of the area for the third. A live wire in the final third, Mkhitaryan didn’t enjoy much success with his finishing. He was denied by Shust in the 45th and 58th, missed the target in the 47th and was let down by a poor first touch on the stroke of halftime, allowing the Vorskla goalkeeper to collect the ball.

  1. European football fits Sokratis

While Sokratis’ average pace can be exposed in the Premier League, the less frenetic pace of the Europa League plays to his strengths. Sokratis had a good game, leading Arsenal defenders with 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 1 block, according to whoscored.com. He covered Lichtsteiner in the 54th by making a timely tackle on Rebenok. The Greece centerback also created the fourth goal by sending a ball over the top in the 74th.

  1. Lichtsteiner is the second choice at right back

Arsenal fans sometimes complain about Bellerin, but there’s no way Lichtsteiner can dislodge him. Lichtsteiner was involved in the 2 goals scored by the weak Ukrainian side. He struggled to control a loose ball in the 77th and was dispossessed by Chesnakov who fired into the top corner. In injury time, Lichtsteiner failed to stop Rebenok’s cross for Sharpar, who cut the deficit to 4-2 with another powerful strike. On the bright side, Lichtsteiner found Ozil with a lobbed pass for the fourth goal.

Newcastle vs. Arsenal: Gunners boost confidence with 3rd straight win

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.

Newcastle vs. ArsenalPhoto 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.

Newcastle lineup

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.

No-nonsense defender

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.

 

 

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.

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Gunners earn 1st win under Emery

When a manager joins a new club, he quickly needs results to win his players’ support and get the fans and journalists off his back. A manager can be a smart tactician and have a stellar resume, but if his team can’t win games, his words will ring hollow in the dressing room. Somehow, Emery managed to buy a bit of time with Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over West Ham on Saturday.

Arsenal vs. West HamPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger was the consummate man-manager, always protecting his players, almost cajoling their ego. You would never see him make a substitution before the 60th minute unless there was an injury. There is no such diplomatic consideration with Emery, who doesn’t mind making early changes if a player is underperforming. The Spanish manager replaced Ramsey in the 54th minute against Manchester City and yanked Xhaka off at halftime against Chelsea.

On Saturday, Emery replaced Iwobi at halftime and Guendouzi in the 56th before pulling Aubameyang out in the 75th. Those moves paid off as two of the substitutes had a major impact on the game: Lacazette initiated the second goal in the 70th while Welbeck put the result beyond doubt in stoppage time.

The Gunners are not yet playing the way Emery wants them to. They still struggle to implement Emery’s pressing game and no longer put a strong emphasis on playing the ball out from the back. Although Arsenal enjoyed more ball possession on Saturday than in their first two games, Cech made only 24 passes against the Hammers compared to 36 against Chelsea and 42 against City.

However, one obvious break from the Wenger era has been the way the Gunners reach the final third. Slow build-ups with a lot of back passes were common under Wenger. Now the team moves the ball forward more quickly under Emery. The aim is to prevent the opponents from parking the bus. That means making more first-time passes, even in midfield. If you see players making a lot of stray passes, it’s because they’re taking more risks.

What kind of front three?

My main impression from the first three games is that Emery still hasn’t found his best starting lineup and is still experimenting. Emery won’t change his back four until Koscielny is back in contention for a starting spot. By contrast, the front three is a mystery, especially Emery’s choice of wide players. So far, Emery has always started with 2 attacking midfielders (Ozil and Mkhitaryan against City, then Iwobi and Mkhitaryan against Chelsea and West Ham), which is strange because he used to play with 3 forwards at Paris Saint-Germain with Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe.

I definitely think that playing with 2 attacking midfielders in the wide positions is the worst option because they tend to drift inside and make the play too narrow. Another problem is the absence of a natural finisher on the wings and the over-reliance on the pass to beat a defense. Arsenal only had 9 successful dribbles to 17 for West Ham, according to whoscored.com. The Gunners need more aggression in the final third. They could play with 3 forwards like Liverpool under Klopp (Mane, Firmino, Salah) or under Rodgers (Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling). There’s also the hybrid solution with an attacking midfielder on one wing and a forward on the other like when Arsenal played with Pires and Ljungberg more than a decade ago.

The midfield is a work in progress, too. Emery made just one change to the side that lost 3-2 at Chelsea with Ramsey replacing Ozil in the starting lineup. Ozil was not even in the squad because of illness. For the third game in a row, Emery kept his faith in the flawed partnership formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi to protect the back four and it completely failed. The Arsenal defense was so open in the first half that the Hammers could have scored 3 or 4 goals.

A soft midfield

West Ham had numerous counterattacking opportunities and found plenty of space in midfield because Arsenal oscillated between a high defensive line and a medium one. The Chelsea game showed that the Gunners were vulnerable to balls over the top. Mustafi and Sokratis therefore played in a slightly deeper position against West Ham. The problem is that it left more space in midfield for the Hammers to run into while Xhaka and Guendouzi drowned because the team was not compact enough.

Emery will face that kind of dilemma for the rest of the season because he has the wrong personnel for his tactics: Sokratis is sluggish, Mustafi poorly reads the game, Monreal has lost a step, Bellerin’s positional play is dodgy, and Xhaka lacks mobility. Either the Gunners press high up the pitch and have to squeeze play by playing a high defensive line, which makes them vulnerable to balls over the top. Or they play a medium defensive line and therefore leave too much space in midfield, forcing Xhaka and Guendouzi to chase shadows.

Playing between the lines, Anderson did a lot of damage in midfield because neither Xhaka nor Guendouzi could catch him. Unchallenged by Xhaka and Bellerin, the Brazilian midfielder ran 50 yards in the 25th to set up Arnautovic, who opened the scoring with a strike into the bottom corner. Then Xhaka failed to close down Anderson, who fed Antonio for a tame effort in the 32nd. The Arsenal midfield looked soft again in the 37th when a West Ham fast break led to a 2v2 situation. Arnautovic beat Cech but the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside.

Anderson also made an interception in the 55th and ran 60 yards before picking out Arnautovic, who shot straight at Cech. Emery didn’t find the tactical answer because Anderson kept creating chances after Torreira had replaced Guendouzi in the 56th. Anderson cut inside Mkhitaryan and Torreira in the 68th to fire a low drive that Cech spilled. The Brazilian midfielder showed no sign of exhaustion as he ran again 50 yards in the 84th to find Perez, who overhit his cross.

4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1?  

Xhaka can’t flourish as a holding midfielder because he lacks the pace to stop counterattacks. That’s why he plays alongside Behrami in the Switzerland team. Xhaka led all players with 5 fouls and was lucky to escape a booking in the 44th for stamping on Snodgrass’ ankle. He tried to stop Anderson in the 51st but ended up giving away a free kick with a late challenge.

Guendouzi didn’t perform at the same level as against Chelsea, but his work-rate on Saturday was decent. He won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 6 ball recoveries in 56 minutes, according to the club’s website. In fact, those stats are better than those of Xhaka and Ramsey, who played the full 90 minutes. Ramsey won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 7 recoveries while Xhaka won 1 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception and 9 recoveries. The French teenager will still need to cut some basic mistakes out of his game. Guendouzi gave the ball away in the 20th and his risky pass in the 55th led to a scoring chance for West Ham.

In the role of a free-roaming midfielder, Ramsey tested Fabianski in the 37th and 83rd and was involved in Arsenal’s second goal by heading a loose ball toward Lacazette. He also created a chance for Aubameyang by rounding a defender in the 72nd. Ramsey has already played in that position with the Wales team but I still think that it negates some of his strengths, especially his late runs in the box. I’d prefer to see Ramsey play on the right side of a three-man midfield, but that would require a switch to a 4-3-3 formation. Emery has preferred to rely on a 4-2-3-1 system so far.

Lacazette’s hunger

Up front, Aubameyang had an off day with just 1 of 3 shots on target, but he worked hard for his teammates, leading all players with 4 key passes, according to whoscored.com. Somehow, Aubameyang survived a nasty tackle from Diop in the 41st. Diop was lucky to get only a yellow card because TV replays showed his studs on Aubameyang’s shin. You can bet that Diop would have been sent off if the Premier League had adopted VAR technology. Welbeck came off the bench to replace Aubameyang in the 75th. The England international sealed the win in stoppage time by controlling a cross from Bellerin to shoot past Fabianski from close range.

The poor performance from the wide players also helps explain why Aubameyang got very little service. Iwobi remained on the periphery of the game with 0 shot, 1 key pass and only 12 passes in the first half. He made one crucial tackle to stop a counterattack in the 17th, but one of his turnovers also led to the Hammers’ goal. Decision-making in the final third is still an issue for Iwobi, who decided to run into traffic in the 25th, taking on 3 players. A few seconds later, Arnautovic opened the scoring for the visitors.

Emery sent on Lacazette for Iwobi at halftime. The France international showed his hunger in the 53rd with a long-range strike straight at Fabianski. Four minutes later, Lacazette took a pass from Torreira and forced a fine save from the Polish goalkeeper with a low shot on the turn. The West Ham defense finally cracked in the 70th when Lacazette chested down a header from Ramsey and attempted a high pass toward Aubameyang. The ball bounced off Diop to beat Fabianski. In his 45-minute cameo, Lacazette had 2 of 2 shots on target as well as 2 key passes. Emery saw Lacazette play for Lyon and is therefore aware of the striker’s versatility. I hope the Spanish manager will also consider playing Lacazette as a false winger or as a second striker to optimize the potential of his squad.

A static Sokratis     

On the right wing, Mkhitaryan had a poor game like Iwobi. The Armenia midfielder led all players with 7 turnovers and made 0 key pass, according to whoscored.com. His only positive contribution was a snapshot from 16 yards that Fabianski parried in the 11th and the pass for Bellerin in the build-up to the equalizer in the 30th.

At the back, Mustafi produced a decent performance. He intercepted Arnautovic’s cross for Sanchez to kill a counterattack in the third minute. The truth is that Mustafi looks average when he plays alongside Koscielny. But when he teams up with Sokratis, the Germany international can almost look good.

Sokratis is the main reason why playing a high defensive line will always be a problem. His lack of pace is a too big liability in any foot race. Saturday’s game also exposed his lack of agility. Sokratis failed to intercept Snodgrass’ through ball for Arnautovic in the 12th. Then he missed his clearance in the 21st but Arnautovic couldn’t connect with Snodgrass’ cross. Sokratis also failed to block Arnautovic’s low drive on the opening goal in the 25th. I believe Koscielny would have made the block in his position. On the stroke of halftime, Sokratis failed again to intercept Antonio’s through ball for Snodgrass. Like Lichtsteiner for City’s second goal, Sokratis looked incredibly static when Arnautovic escaped his marking in the 55th to take a pass from Anderson and test Cech. To cap his mediocre performance, Sokratis earned a yellow card in the 90th for time-wasting.

3 weeks to find a fix

Bellerin’s performance on Saturday divided the fans. No one can deny his huge offensive contribution. Bellerin set up Mkhitaryan in the 11th before making the crosses for Arsenal’s first and third goals. But his defensive contribution is questionable. Bellerin can definitely improve his positional play. He played Arnautovic onside in the 12th, was flagged offside in the 23rd, and let Antonio ghost past him in the 32nd. Antonio also cut inside Bellerin to curl a shot wide in the 39th. If Emery wants Bellerin to play like a wingback, then he needs someone to cover him down the right flank. It can’t be Mkhitaryan because he plays in a too high position. So it has to be one of the midfielders.

On the left flank, Monreal played in a more conservative way than Bellerin but still managed to net the equalizer. The Hammers exposed Monreal’s declining pace twice on the stroke of halftime. First, Arnautovic made a run in behind Monreal to chase a ball over the top from Masuaku. Then, Snodgrass ghosted past Monreal to collect a through ball from Antonio only to shoot straight at Cech.

The Gunners have plenty of work to do on the training ground. They can’t afford to be so open against better sides than West Ham. Emery has three weeks to fix the defensive issues. Once the Europa League starts, Emery won’t have time anymore because Arsenal will play two games per week and the focus will then be on recovering.

 

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: More pressure on Emery after 3-2 loss

It looks like the summer tour has been of no use to Emery because the Spanish manager still has no idea what his best team is. Time is running out after Saturday’s 3-2 loss at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal hired Emery in May while Chelsea only appointed Sarri last month. Yet, Sarri has adapted more quickly to the Premier League than Emery as the Blues have 6 points from their first two games compared to zero for the Gunners.

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

Emery relied on a 4-2-3-1 formation again with Xhaka and Guendouzi in central midfield, Ozil in the hole, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings and Aubameyang up front. I thought the team selection was wrong. That’s the kind of starting lineup you might use in a home game against a weak side but definitely not against the Blues, who enjoyed 62% of ball possession. Although Xhaka and Guendouzi failed to protect the defense against Manchester City, Emery kept persisting with that flawed partnership. And picking 3 attacking midfielders, whose work-rate is questionable, also hurt Emery’s pressing plan.

In the first half, the Arsenal defense was all over the place. There was no coordination in the high press. Chelsea often put the visitors in trouble with balls over the top because the Gunners played a very high defensive line without closing down the ball holder. That’s exactly what happened with the first two goals. Arsenal also struggled again to play the ball out from the back. Like in the summer friendly, the Blues’ high press proved more efficient and they often won the ball back inside Arsenal’s half. What saved the Gunners from a complete disaster was Chelsea’s inability to defend crosses. Arsenal could have led by a couple of goals at halftime but they were let down by some really poor finishing.

The second half was pretty much one-way traffic with the Arsenal defense under siege. The Gunners switched back to the Wenger way with a low defensive line as the first half clearly exposed Sokratis’ lack of pace. Fans sometimes wonder why Arsenal didn’t implement a pressing game under Wenger. Saturday’s game showed why: the French manager had the wrong players for such a tactical ploy.

Better wing play

The Gunners were unlucky to face such a brutal Premier League schedule but at least they learned a lot from those first two games. While Ozil and Mkhitaryan too often drifted inside against City, the Gunners improved their wing play against the Blues as Iwobi and Mkhitaryan stretched the Chelsea defense by staying wide. The Gunners also improved their final ball, which was poor against City. They created some big chances against Chelsea because of the quality of their crossing.

One area that Emery must get right for the next game is the midfield. Jorginho had too much time to release Alonso down our right flank in the ninth minute. Pedro converted Alonso’s cross to open the scoring. If you look at the screen capture below, you will see several mistakes on that play. First, Willian pulled Bellerin out of position, creating space for Alonso to run into. Bellerin shouldn’t be wandering into Chelsea’s half, it should have been Xhaka’s job to track Willian in that part of the pitch. Second, Ozil failed to close down Jorginho when he took Willian’s pass. Third, Mkhitaryan failed to mark Alonso down the right flank. And fourth, the high defensive line exposed Sokratis’ lack of pace. The Greek centerback was 5 yards behind Pedro when Alonso made his cross.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M09ed Willian pulls Bellerin out of position before slipping the ball to Jorginho. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

The second goal looked similar. Azpilicueta hit a ball over the top for Morata, who toyed with Mustafi before beating Cech with a low shot in the 20th. First, Iwobi made no effort to close down Azpilicueta. And second, it made no sense for the Arsenal defense to play an offside trap on the halfway line for the simple reason that a player in his own half is never in an offside position. From the moment Morata walked back into his own half, Sokratis or Mustafi should have decided to drop off.

Ozil’s poor work-rate

Emery must have a serious chat with Ozil because his work-rate is not good enough. Mendy had too much freedom a week ago because Ozil didn’t close down the City leftback. Emery thought he could solve the problem by moving Ozil to the No. 10 position against the Blues but the Spanish manager made the problem worse. Jorginho capitalized on Ozil’s laziness to dictate play and lead all players with 99 passes. Besides the opening goal, Jorginho created chances by sending balls over the top to Barkley in the sixth minute and to Kante in the 13th.

In 67 minutes, Ozil won 0 tackle and made 0 interception and just 2 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website. By contrast, Barkley who played in a similar position with Chelsea won 0 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries in 60 minutes. It’s quite surprising Emery didn’t realize that Ozil is a defensive liability. When he was the PSG manager, Emery could see how Verratti and Di Maria took advantage of Ozil’s poor work-rate to drop back and send balls over the top in the 2016 Champions League games between Arsenal and the French club.

Ozil’s offensive contribution was just as poor as his defensive work. He made 0 key pass and had 0 shot on target. Monreal gave him a chance to shine in the eighth minute but Ozil’s volley sailed wide of the far post. Ozil then failed to anticipate a teasing cross from Aubameyang in the 47th. Emery replaced Ozil with Ramsey in the 67th and the Wales midfielder proved a greater goal threat in his cameo. Ramsey tested Kepa with a low strike in the 77th before firing a half-volley over the bar in the 90th.

Emery has a big problem on the right wing because Ozil couldn’t contain Mendy a week ago and Mkhitaryan struggled badly against Alonso on Saturday. Obviously, you don’t face leftbacks as good as Mendy and Alonso every weekend but you can bet that other Premier League teams have spotted that chink in the Arsenal armor.

The understanding between Mkhitaryan and Iwobi

Mkhitaryan worked harder than Ozil as he made 2 interceptions and 9 recoveries. He was arguably Arsenal’s best player, finishing the game with 1 goal and 1 assist and leading all players with 5 key passes. The Armenia international found the net in the 37th by pouncing on a loose ball to fire into the bottom corner from 18 yards. Then Mkhitaryan set up Iwobi for the equalizer with a low cross in the 41st. Interestingly, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan seemed to strike an understanding in that game. Iwobi cut the ball back for Mkhitaryan, who blazed over the bar from 9 yards in the 32nd. They swapped roles on the stroke of halftime as Iwobi met a low cross from Mkhitaryan only to miss the target from 12 yards. If Emery had to choose between Ozil and Mkhitaryan, the latter made a strong case that it should be him.

Iwobi’s performance was a mixed bag. On the bright side, he showed end product with 1 goal and 2 key passes. Iwobi picked out an unmarked Aubameyang, who shot wide from 8 yards in the 44th. I believe he still needs to improve his work-rate and cut his turnovers to become a solid starter. The Nigeria international won no tackle and made just 1 interception and 4 recoveries. He also led all players with 6 turnovers and had a passing accuracy dipping to 56%, the lowest percentage for any player according to whoscored.com.

In central midfield, Guendouzi performed better than against City. He not only cut some mistakes out of his game but also won 2 of 4 tackles and 82% of his duels, had a passing accuracy of 94%, and made 4 interceptions, 1 block and 8 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Those are much better stats than Xhaka, who won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 interception and 1 recovery in the first half. Guendouzi showed an eye for a pass in the 19th by releasing Bellerin down the right flank. The Spaniard made a low cross for an unmarked Aubameyang, who fired over the bar from 8 yards with the goal at his mercy.

Guendouzi as an all-rounder

Obviously, Guendouzi still has a lot of room for improvement, but I can see why Emery started the French teenager. If you love total football and watch the Liverpool midfield or the City midfield, you would think that Guendouzi could make the cut as an all-rounder. He made a timely tackle on Hazard as the last defender in the 83rd and took his chance in the 43rd with a long-range strike that Kepa easily saved. Like Pires some 18 years ago, Guendouzi will have to toughen up a bit. Jorginho brushed him off the ball in the fourth minute to create a half-chance for Pedro.

It’s just a question of weeks before Emery drops Xhaka from the starting lineup because he is not a good fit for the manager’s tactics. Xhaka simply lacks the mobility and pace to press or show for the ball when the team tries to play out from the back. The Switzerland international gave the ball away in the 13th and was booked in the 27th for a late tackle on Pedro. Xhaka was replaced at halftime by Torreira, who seemed to lack match sharpness. Torreira was dispossessed by Pedro on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 52nd and received a yellow card in the 71st for a foul on Kovacic. The Uruguay midfielder was also guilty on the last goal as he failed to track Alonso in the 81st.

Chelsea’s winning goal started with a turnover from Lacazette, who replaced Iwobi in the 75th. Lacazette attempted a risky back pass toward Torreira. Hazard intercepted the ball and the play developed on our right flank where Hazard dribbled past Lacazette to square the ball back for Alonso,who shot past Cech. Lacazette got some stick for his turnover but Bellerin failed to stop Hazard’s cross and Torreira let Alonso run past him.

If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Lacazette only had one safe passing option: Aubameyang. But Lacazette panicked because he felt Luiz’s presence behind him. Lacazette is simply not comfortable playing with his back to goal. He played as a centerforward for Lyon but he’s still not used to the physicality of the Premier League. I don’t understand why Wenger and Emery both played Aubameyang on the left wing and Lacazette up front when Aubameyang is a more natural choice for the centerforward position. Lacazette should be playing on the right wing or as a second striker.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M80ed Lacazette ignores his best passing option, Aubameyang. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Aubameyang could have notched a hat trick with better finishing. Unmarked, he missed the target from 8 yards in the 19th and 44th. He also chased a long ball from Mustafi in the 17th to fire a low effort straight at Kepa. Despite that poor performance, Aubameyang should still retain his starting spot for the next game because he’s more clinical than Welbeck and has more pace than Lacazette.

Lack of leadership

It’s hard to find any positive at the back. Bellerin made the penultimate pass for the equalizer but he’s still playing too much like a wingback. He needs to improve his positional play and find the right balance between attack and defense. Hazard too easily rounded him in the 70th. Bellerin also let his teammates down in the 78th. The Spaniard casually jogged back, letting Mkhitaryan and Ramsey deal with Pedro and Alonso on the right flank. Pedro made a cross for Kante, who headed over the bar.

Monreal initiated Arsenal’s first goal by dispossessing Willian but Saturday’s game also confirmed that he has lost a step. In the 14th, Monreal failed to stay with Pedro, who chased a ball over the top from Willian. Then Pedro easily turned Monreal in the 55th before Barkley rounded Monreal in the 57th to test Cech with a low strike.

Mustafi led Arsenal players with 3 fouls. He got booked in the 77th for fouling Hazard from behind. Mustafi is not a world-class defender like Koscielny and simply lacks the leadership to marshal the back four. Playing a high defensive line will be an issue for Emery because Sokratis has no recovery pace while Mustafi’s reading of the game can be poor.

The Gunners threw caution to the wind in the closing minutes. Cech saved them from an embarrassing scoreline by making a couple of fine saves, parrying an angled shot from Hazard in the 86th and denying Giroud in the 87th and in stoppage time. Cech occasionally played out from the back, but when he felt that it was too risky, he opted for a long kick.

This is a transition season for Arsenal. But the club can’t afford a poor result against West Ham on Saturday. Even Manchester United under Moyes never lost three straight games in the Premier League. And if the Gunners were to fall in the relegation zone, that would be the start of a crisis. In any club, most fans call for the sack of the manager when their team stays in the drop zone for weeks.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City: Gunners suffer rough start to the season

Emery has become Arsenal’s new manager but this is not his team yet. Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Manchester City looked pretty much like the embarrassing defeats of last season under Wenger. Obviously, it will take more than a season for the Gunners to play the way Emery wants them to.

Arsenal vs. Manchester CityPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

As a rule of thumb, I consider that a manager is entirely responsible for his team only when he has changed more than half of the players in his predecessor’s favorite starting lineup. See Liverpool’s starting XI under Rodgers and how it looks now under Klopp. Assuming every player was fit, Wenger would usually start Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette. On Sunday, Emery opened the season with Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Aubameyang. That’s 3 changes to Wenger’s best starting lineup. We can safely assume that Emery would have made only 1 change if Monreal and Koscielny had been available.

Fans already got a glimpse in the summer friendlies of what Emery wanted to change at the club: playing the ball out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. Against City, Cech took more passes than he did under Wenger because Emery tends to see the goalkeeper as a sweeper too. Unfortunately, Cech didn’t really feel comfortable in that role.

Cech nearly scored an own goal in the 22nd minute while attempting a first-time pass to Mustafi. Then he made a risky pass to Guendouzi that was nearly intercepted in the 39th. Tired of the drama, Cech finally opted for a long punt in the 42nd, drawing cheers from the crowd. I’m afraid Cech is not the right goalie to play out from the back. If Emery wants to stick with that idea, then he should replace Cech with Leno just like Pep ditched Hart to sign Ederson.

Choosing the right players for a high press

Implementing a pressing game is still a work in progress. Arsenal enjoyed mixed results against the Citizens. It wasn’t a systematic high press like the one performed by Liverpool under Klopp. The Gunners seemed to choose their moments and often preferred to wait inside their own half. The first high press attempt in the 10th minute led to nothing. Two attempts led to dangerous fast breaks for City, but Aguero’s final ball was blocked in the 18th while Xhaka cleared Sterling’s cross in the 36th. On the bright side, two other attempts led to half-chances for Arsenal but Ramsey received the ball in an offside position in the 45th and Mkhitaryan shot wide on the stroke of halftime after Mendy put him off.

Emery must ask himself if he chose the right players to implement a successful pressing game. You need players who are smart enough to read the game, mobile enough to cut the passing channels, strong enough to make interceptions or win duels, and industrious enough to repeat such a tiring task.

The Citizens love dominating ball possession. It was therefore no surprise to see them enjoy 58% of possession. The real surprise was Emery’s tactical setup with Xhaka, Guendouzi and Ramsey in midfield. You usually play with 2 deep-lying playmakers like Xhaka and Guendouzi when you intend to control the game. That was obviously the wrong option because City dictated play while Xhaka and Guendouzi failed to protect the defense. Emery implicitly acknowledged his mistake by yanking off Xhaka in the 70th to send on Torreira.

The opening goal in the 14th highlighted the poor defensive work from Xhaka and Guendouzi. Sterling cut inside Bellerin and Guendouzi to curl into the the far corner. Xhaka was late to make the block on that play. Guendouzi’s overall performance was a mixed bag. He won 4 tackles and made 4 interceptions, compared to 1 tackle and 0 interception for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The French teenager also led Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, compared to 1 for Xhaka.

Coordinating a recruitment strategy

Guendouzi didn’t look out of his depth, but his inexperience means that he will make mistakes this season. He gave the ball away in the 29th, dived in and fouled Sterling in the 55th, and allowed Aguero to be clean through on goal after misjudging the flight of the ball in the 63rd.

On the other hand, Xhaka had no excuse for his errors. Despite starting his third season in the Premier League, Xhaka keeps playing like a rookie. He made a sloppy pass in the seventh minute, was dispossessed by Gundogan in the 27th, and made a cynical foul on Aguero after being pulled out of position in the 52nd. Xhaka is definitely not a good fit for Emery’s pressing game.

Playing in the role of a free-roaming midfielder like he does for Wales, Ramsey was ineffective in great part because his strength mostly lies in the late runs he makes inside the box when the Gunners dominate possession. Running after the ball, Ramsey seemed in charge of leading the high press and there were times when he wasn’t on the same wavelength as his teammates. In the transition game, Ramsey tried to create space with his runs or acted as a water-carrier by finding Ozil in the 33rd and Mkhitaryan on the stroke of halftime.

At the back, Mustafi and Bellerin had a decent game. Mustafi won 4 tackles and made 3 interceptions, compared to 1 tackle and 0 interception for Sokratis, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis is an old-fashioned centerback with limited ball-playing abilities. You kind of wonder whether there was any coordination between Emery, Mislintat, Sanllehi and Gazidis in the recruiting process because Sokratis does not have the profile of a centerback playing Emery’s brand of football. His sluggishness is also a concern. Sokratis was booked in the 27th for a late tackle on Aguero.

A too predictable offense

The Gunners have an injury crisis at leftback. Maitland, who deputized for Monreal and Kolasinac, had a rough time down the left flank. Mahrez in the 13th and Sterling in the 25th got the better of Maitland-Niles. The academy player was so busy defensively that he rarely charged forward. One of his few offensive contributions was a crossfield pass for Bellerin, who beat Mendy only to shoot straight at Ederson in the 21st. Maitland-Niles’ day was cut short by a leg tangle with Walker and an awkward fall in the 30th. He got back on his feet after a couple of minutes but had to be replaced by Lichtsteiner in the 35th.

In his Premier League debut, Lichtsteiner used his experience to cope with Mahrez’s trickery. Lichtsteiner fouled Mahrez in the 39th and then backed down in a 1v1 situation in the 42nd when the Algeria international curled a shot wide of the far post. However, one lapse of concentration cost his team a goal in the 64th. Lichtsteiner failed to track Bernardo, who connected with Mendy’s low cross to fire into the top corner.

The quality of Arsenal’s passing game deteriorated in Wenger’s last season at the club. One reason was the poor recruitment, another was the tactical answers found by the other Premier League sides. Emery started Ozil and Mkhitaryan as wide players. Unfortunately, his plan was too predictable and City easily coped with Arsenal’s attacking threat. The Gunners produced no through ball and were forced by City’s compact shape to resort to long balls.

Aubameyang was deprived of service because the final ball was often poor. Xhaka in the 16th, Mkhitaryan in the 24th and Ozil in the 69th all overhit their final ball for the Gabon striker. Aubameyang finally collected a decent ball over the top from Torreira to chip Ederson in the 79th but his goal was disallowed for an offside position.

Finding the best lineup for the Chelsea game

Both Ozil and Mkhitaryan had a poor game. Ozil finished the game with 5 turnovers and wasted 2 scoring chances with a miskick in the 80th and a heavy touch in the 84th. Mkhitaryan dallied on the ball and couldn’t get his shot away in the 33rd. In stoppage time, Mkhitaryan intercepted a sloppy pass from Ederson, but his final ball for Lacazette was so poor that the France international couldn’t even catch the frame.

The offense looked a bit more lively when Lacazette replaced Ramsey in the 54th. Lacazette added more directness and aggression to the team. His best chance came in the 56th when he took a pass from Aubameyang and lifted the ball to set up a half-volley that sailed wide. Emery will have to think about the work-rate of his wide players. Walker and Mendy did a lot of damage down the flanks. In the eighth minute, Mkhitaryan failed to track a run from Walker, whose cross was cut out by Cech. In the 64th, Bellerin was left in a 1v2 situation with Mendy and Sterling because neither Ozil nor Mkhitaryan tracked the City leftback.

Emery does not have much time to find his best starting XI because the Gunners visit Chelsea on Saturday. If the Spanish manager wants to continue with a high press, then he must switch to an inverted pyramid midfield with Torreira in the No. 6 role, Ramsey on the right and a third player on the left. Guendouzi, Xhaka, Elneny and Maitland-Niles are the candidates for that third spot in midfield and they all have flaws: Maitland-Niles and Guendouzi are inexperienced, Xhaka lacks the mobility for a high press, and Elneny struggles in duels.

Passing vs. dribbling

More aggression and penetration will also be needed in the front three. The Gunners are too predictable with Ozil and Mkhitaryan as wide players. Under Wenger, both would drift inside and the fullbacks would roam forward like wingbacks to provide the width. That configuration is not possible under Emery because of the flatter back four. So it has to be either Ozil or Mkhitaryan, but not both.

Lacazette, Nelson or Welbeck should play on one of the wings because they could stretch play, dribble past defenders and work their socks off to win the ball back. Although De Bruyne and Sane started on the bench, it was quite telling that City finished the game with 11 successful dribbles to 6 for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. When teams are too well organized, you can’t always crack a defense with a pass, you also need some dribbling skills. That’s why the Reds have Salah and Mane while the Blues can rely on Hazard and Willian. Will Emery be more pragmatic than Wenger?