Qarabag vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 3-0 win

In their 8th straight win in all competitions, the Gunners routed Qarabag 3-0 on Thursday to stay top in Group E of the Europa League, level on points with Sporting Lisbon. Emery rested several regular starters by making 9 changes to the side that defeated Watford last weekend with only Monreal and Holding retaining their starting spots. The Spanish manager still had Lacazette, Ozil, Torreira, Xhaka, Bellerin and Mustafi available on the bench if things didn’t go well. On the other hand, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang missed the trip to Azerbaijan. Mkhitaryan did not travel for political reasons while Aubameyang is recovering from illness and Ramsey’s wife is expecting a baby.

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

The main surprise in Thursday’s game was the 3-4-3 formation used by Emery in the first half. Sokratis played alongside Holding and Monreal in a back three while Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner got up and down the flanks like wingbacks. Emery replaced Monreal with Torreira at halftime to switch to a back four. In the 4-3-3 system, Torreira played behind Elneny and Guendouzi in midfield. Then, Emery shifted to a casual 4-4-2 formation by replacing Smith-Rowe with Ozil in the 65th. Elneny and Iwobi patrolled the flanks while Ozil and Welbeck stayed up front.

To a certain extent, it felt like those pre-season games where the manager wants to make tactical experiments. That’s a welcome change from the 4-2-3-1 system that Emery has been using since the start of the season. Nowadays, managers need to be flexible tactically. First, because a formation may prevent some players from expressing their potential. And second, because you can’t afford to be too predictable. Everything is analyzed in the modern game, so you must always find ways to create problems for your opponents.

  1. Smith-Rowe is taking his chances

What a difference a year can make. Last season, Wenger gave some playing time to Nelson, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock in the Europa League. While Nelson has been loaned out to Hoffenheim, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock haven’t played yet in the Europa League under Emery. In fact, Emery has used only one academy player in that competition: Smith-Rowe.

Smith-Rowe reminds me of a young Raul because of his flair for finding good positions in the final third. Obviously, Smith-Rowe is not the finished product yet. He needs to work on his composure in the final third and his reading of the game. For instance, Smith-Rowe killed the momentum of a counterattack in the 36th minute by making an inside run whereas an outside run would have given Iwobi a passing option and helped stretch play.

Still, his performance against Qarabag was quite impressive for a teenager. Smith-Rowe found the side-netting with a sliding effort in the 18th. He then met a cross from Kolasinac for a volley that bounced wide in the 38th. His efforts were finally rewarded in the 53rd when he took a pass from Iwobi to slip the ball through Vagner’s legs for a 2-0 lead. That was Smith-Rowe’s first goal in a competitive game with the first team. Besides that goal, Smith-Rowe also made 1 key pass and had just 2 turnovers.

  1. Kolasinac lacks defensive awareness

Somehow, Kolasinac embodies the failures of the scouting department under Wenger. He loves charging forward like a winger but he simply doesn’t have the mindset of a defender. Kolasinac led the Gunners with 3 key passes in Baku but his defensive lapses clearly outweighed his offensive contribution. He failed to stop dangerous crosses from Medvedev in the 10th and 39th. Then Medvedev in the 44th and Madatov in the 52nd made runs in behind Kolasinac. The cherry on the cake was Madatov’s nutmeg on Kolasinac just before testing Leno with a low strike in the 27th.

  1. Guendouzi is still a raw player

Some Arsenal fans have high expectations for Guendouzi. There’s no doubt that Guendouzi has strong potential but he’s still a raw player. I remember Denilson was also highly touted after a few games at the club before his career went downhill by 2011. The optimists will only remember Guendouzi’s first Arsenal goal in the 79th. Guendouzi took a pass from Lacazette and created space to bury a diagonal drive into the bottom corner for the final goal. The pessimists will only remember Guendouzi’s 4 turnovers, the most for any Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Guendouzi has average pace and limited dribbling skills. Yet, he ran into traffic in the 8th and the 34th and lost possession on both occasions. Guendouzi was also robbed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Zoubir in the 14th and Michel in the 24th.

  1. Elneny showed his limitations

The Egypt midfielder led all players with a passing accuracy of 98%, according to whoscored.com. His main contribution was to replace Xhaka and Ozil for corner kicks. Monreal met a corner from Elneny in the fourth minute for a header that deflected off Sokratis to beat Vagner. Welbeck also connected with another corner from Elneny in the 21st but his header sailed wide. From open play, Elneny struggled to have an impact at both ends of the pitch. He completely missed his cross in the 25th when 4 Gunners were waiting inside the area. And his final ball for Kolasinac in the 57th rolled out of play. Defensively, Elneny won no tackle and his lost duel in the 27th led to a scoring chance for Madatov.

  1. Iwobi’s péché mignon

Much has been said about Iwobi’s improvement under Emery. The stats don’t lie. Iwobi already has 1 goal and 4 assists from 7 games in all competitions this season. By contrast, he had just 3 goals and 7 assists from 39 games last season, according to transfermarkt.com. However, Iwobi shouldn’t relax in his efforts. He can still have that tendency to take on players when he shouldn’t. The Nigeria international tried to dribble past 3 Qarabag players in the 30th and lost possession. Then he attempted to dribble out of trouble on the edge of the Arsenal area and was dispossessed by Michel in the 55th.

 

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Arsenal vs. Watford: Iwobi makes an impact in 2-0 win

The Gunners rode their luck in a 2-0 victory over Watford on Saturday to stay level on points with fourth-place Spurs in the Premier League. That seventh straight win in all competitions is giving Emery more time to figure out what his best starting lineup is.

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

Saturday’s performance was similar to the Everton game a week ago. Nobody would have been shocked if Watford had come away with a draw. In fact, the Hornets outperformed Arsenal in the key stats: 14 goal attempts to 9, 6 big chances to 3, 5 shots on target to 2, 15 interceptions to 7 and 23 tackles to 10, according to the club’s website. The Gunners’ attacking play looked poor but a brief scoring spell in the last 10 minutes and some dreadful finishing from Watford made the difference.

Emery needed 5 league games to understand that the midfield pairing of Xhaka and Guendouzi was a flawed partnership. It’s only since Torreira has started alongside Xhaka that the midfield seems more balanced and that the Gunners have kept clean sheets. Now the question is: how many games Emery needs to realize that the attacking setup is dysfunctional? Here’s how the team looked like at kickoff:

Arsenal formation 4-2-3-1

On paper, it’s a 4-2-3-1 formation, but on the field, it often morphed into a narrow 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 system. The problem with the starting lineup is that Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ozil and Ramsey all prefer to play through the middle. So there’s an obvious lack of width when Ozil drifts inside and when Aubameyang makes diagonal runs to be in scoring positions. Ramsey occasionally moved to the left to make some space for Ozil and fill in the void vacated by Aubameyang, but that positional change impacted Ramsey’s main strength, which is to make penetrative runs.

Another issue with that starting lineup is the poor wing play. Ozil and Aubameyang barely combined with the fullbacks and also often left Monreal and Bellerin in 1v2 situations, allowing Holebas and Navarro to make dangerous crosses.

Can Ozil & Ramsey play together?

The front four is not clicking because Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey and Ozil can’t play together without at least 2 of them sacrificing their qualities. The main loser in that configuration has been Aubameyang because he doesn’t have the all-around game to play on the left wing. Instead of leading the line like in his former club Borussia Dortmund, Aubameyang suddenly becomes a bit player. Can Aubameyang and Lacazette play together? Of course, they can. A 4-4-2 formation would be the most obvious solution:

Arsenal formation 4-4-2

In that 4-4-2 formation, Iwobi or Welbeck would play on the left wing while Ozil or Mkhitaryan would play in the half-space between the right flank and the central area. Emery would also optimize Lacazette’s potential with that system because the France international is more a second striker than a pure centerforward.

Aubameyang and Lacazette could also play together in a traditional 4-3-3 formation:

Arsenal formation 4-3-3

Lacazette has the all-around game to play on the right wing like Salah does at Liverpool. His technique is good enough to make accurate crosses. That positional change shouldn’t affect Lacazette’s scoring record since he gets most of his chances on the right side of the area. To balance the attacking setup, a creative player would have to roam down the left wing. Iwobi seems more comfortable on that side of the pitch than Ozil or Mkhitaryan.

A more risky option would be Emery’s favorite 4-2-3-1 formation:

Arsenal formation 4-2-3-1 bis

Aubameyang and Lacazette could rely on service from Ozil and Iwobi in that system, but it would also make the Arsenal midfield more vulnerable because of Ozil’s poor work-rate and Xhaka’s lack of mobility.

Can Ozil and Ramsey play together? Under Wenger, it wasn’t an issue because Ramsey played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. As a result, the back four got very little protection. The partnership formed by Torreira and Xhaka this season is a bit more solid than the Ramsey-Xhaka duo. Emery might be tempted to pair Ramsey with Torreira, but Ramsey is not a pacesetter like Xhaka and has a higher turnover rate.

The only formation in which Ramsey and Ozil could play together without hurting the balance of the team would be a 4-3-3 system:

Arsenal formation 4-3-3 bis

It would mean that Aubameyang or Lacazette would have to be sacrificed. Lacazette might be willing to play on the left wing, but he would have to drift inside to be in scoring positions and the team would look narrow again.

Emery’s tactical rigidity

Emery doesn’t know what his best team is. He also doesn’t know how to optimally use some of his key players. In the second half, Emery tinkered tactically by asking Aubameyang and Ozil to swap positions. It didn’t really work. So he made two substitutions that finally provided the width his team needed, sending on Iwobi for Ramsey in the 63rd minute and Welbeck for Aubameyang in the 76th.

Maybe the most surprising part of Emery’s tenure at the club so far has been his tactical rigidity. The Spanish manager has used the same 4-2-3-1 formation for all his Premier League games. He could have tried a different formation more suitable for his best players. Managers like Guardiola, Pochettino and Mourinho are more flexible tactically.

At least, Emery is aware of the intensity of the game in England as he made 8 changes to the side that knocked Brentford out of the League Cup on Wednesday with only Monreal, Mustafi and Holding retaining their starting spots.

Although Lacazette finished the game with 0 of 4 shots on target, he was still involved in Arsenal’s best chances. Lacazette should have been awarded a penalty when Kabasele tripped him in the fifth minute, but Lacazette was too honest and stayed on his feet. Ten minutes later, Lacazette created his own chance by robbing Cathcart to be clean through on goal. With just Foster to beat, Lacazette sent his chip wide. He then managed to connect with a cross from Aubameyang in the 54th only to head the ball wide.

Lacazette’s efforts were finally rewarded in the 81st when he got ahead of Cathcart to meet a cross from Iwobi. The Watford defender could not sort out his feet and diverted the cross into his own net. Two minutes later, Lacazette swapped passes with Iwobi before setting up Ozil for the second goal. Besides the assist, Lacazette showed good work-rate, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 1 interception and 2 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website.

The understanding between Iwobi & Lacazette

By contrast, Aubameyang had a miserable afternoon with 0 shot, 0 tackle, 0 interception and 0 recovery. Two plays summed up his performance: he produced an air shot while attempting to volley Bellerin’s cross in the 39th and his ball over the top for Ozil bounced out of play in the 58th.

At 22, Iwobi could be starting to make the kind of impact that his breakthrough season suggested in 2016. He made the cross that led to the opening goal and it would have counted as an assist if Lacazette, and not Cathcart, had touched the ball. The Nigeria international also made the right decision on the second goal by slipping the ball to Lacazette instead of taking on a defender. The main positive from Saturday’s game is that Iwobi showed some good understanding with Lacazette whereas their connection on the pitch was poor last season.

Ozil was again a peripheral figure for most of the game. On paper, it wasn’t a game for him because of the Hornets’ physical approach. Until the 83rd minute, Ozil had 0 shot and 0 key pass. His best move in the first half was a lobbed pass for Monreal, who tried to find Lacazette with a header in the 21st. Surprisingly, Ozil’s technique let him down in the 24th. Aubameyang made a run in behind the Watford defense to be clean through on goal but Ozil overhit his long ball for the Gabon striker. Playing in a more central role after Emery’s substitutions, Ozil scored with his first goal attempt, side-footing Lacazette’s cross into the bottom corner. In stoppage time, Ozil made his first key pass of the game by heading the ball into Lacazette’s path.

Ramsey struggling under Emery

Despite his 2 assists against Everton, Ramsey is clearly struggling in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 system where he’s playing in a more advanced position than under Wenger. It’s true that Ramsey also plays as a free-roaming midfielder for the Wales team, but it’s because they lack quality up front to support Bale. The situation is completely different at Arsenal where Emery has many attacking options. Wenger preferred to play Ramsey in a deeper position because his late runs and his work-rate were more valuable in central midfield.

Ramsey had a poor game, leading all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, and winning only 30% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any midfielder according to the club’s website. His work-rate was average with 1 of 2 tackles won, 0 interception and 0 recovery, compared to 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 8 recoveries for Torreira and 1 of 2 tackles won, 0 interception and 5 recoveries for Xhaka.

Has Ramsey been affected by the breakdown of the contract talks with the club a few days ago? Whatever the outcome, it doesn’t reflect well on the Arsenal board because it creates an atmosphere of uncertainty around the squad. It’s also bad business because both Ramsey and Welbeck could leave for free next summer. It will be very difficult to find 2 players of the same quality with a transfer kitty of £60 million. Some fans want Emery to bench Ramsey because he has not committed to the club. But I have no problem with starting Ramsey if he can make a significant contribution on the pitch. I mean, the club’s priority is to finish in the Top 4. It would make no sense to weaken the team and hurt Arsenal’s bid for a Champions League spot.

Holding’s solid performance

In central midfield, Torreira’s performance was a mixed bag. He led all midfielders by winning 61.5% of duels, but he also had 4 turnovers, compared to just 2 for Xhaka. Torreira got a taste of the physicality of the Premier League when Hugues bullied him off the ball in the 18th. Ozil and Bellerin were also outmuscled by the Hornets. Out of frustration, Torreira tried to reply with a late challenge on Deeney in the 45th only to receive a yellow card. Torreira was credited with an error for giving the ball away in the 88th when Pereyra fired a speculative shot over the bar. However, I thought Torreira’s worst mistake was when he misread a play in the 75th and dived in, allowing Deeney to turn and play Success clean through.

Alongside Torreira, Xhaka had a low-key performance in midfield. Offensively, Xhaka tested Foster with a low drive in the 39th and sent a ball over the top for Monreal, whose sliding volley sailed wide in the 67th. Defensively, Xhaka was no match for the hard-working Capoue and Doucoure in midfield. The Switzerland international lost a key duel in the 36th when Kabasele outjumped him to head a cross from Holebas. But Cech made the save and managed to catch the rebound before Deeney could hit it. Xhaka also switched off defensively in the 17th when Hugues made a reverse pass to Deeney. The Watford striker ran past a static Xhaka to make a dangerous cross for Gray.

At the back, Holding produced a solid performance, winning 75% of his duels, having a passing accuracy of 89% and making 1 block, 3 interceptions and 9 recoveries, while Mustafi only won 45.5% of his duels, had a passing accuracy of 77% and made just 1 block, 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website.

Leno’s distribution

Holding made a crucial block in the 72nd, but two plays exposed his average pace. He lost a foot race with Gray, who chased a through ball from Deeney only to be denied by Leno in the 68th. Then Holding was on the wrong side of Success, whose chip brushed the far post in the 75th. Because Holding doesn’t have the recovery pace of a Koscielny in his prime, he must find a way to improve his reading of the game and his positional play.

The Hornets created many chances in great part because Mustafi had a poor game. Mustafi was caught ball-watching when Deeney knocked the ball toward an unmarked Hugues in the 11th. He also let Deeney run in front of him to meet a free kick from Holebas in the 52nd. His lack of composure led Mustafi to give away silly free kicks in the 23rd, 35th and 73rd.

The Gunners can definitely thank Leno for the clean sheet. He came off the bench to replace Cech on the stroke of halftime. Leno made a couple of outstanding saves, turning Deeney’s volley around the post in the 52nd, and denying Gray in the 68th and Cathcart in the 74th. His only dodgy moment was when he went for a high ball in the 57th and completely missed his catch. Leno will certainly start the next few games as Cech pulled his hamstring with a goal kick. The German goalkeeper had a much better distribution than Cech with a passing accuracy of 67% compared to 39% for the Czech veteran.

I expect Emery to rest his key players against Qarabag in the Europa League on Thursday because the Premier League game against Fulham on Sunday starts at noon. There’s a too big risk of injury with the long trip to Azerbaijan and the short rest between those 2 games.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 3-1 win over Brentford

In their sixth straight win in all competitions, the Gunners defeated Brentford 3-1 on Wednesday to move into the fourth round of the League Cup. Emery gave the evening off to Cech, Ozil, Xhaka and Aubameyang while making 9 changes to the side that sank Everton 2-0 last weekend with only Mustafi and Monreal retaining their starting spots. Maybe the Spanish manager would have also rested Mustafi and Monreal if Sokratis, Kocielny, Maitland-Niles and Mavropanos had not been injured.

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

Emery didn’t underestimate Championship side Brentford as he included just one academy player in his starting lineup: Smith-Rowe. A decade ago, Wenger would have started more youngsters in that competition. But nowadays, the gap in quality between academies and the Championship has become bigger.

A day after Derby County knocked out Manchester United on penalties, the Bees were hoping to cause another upset. They had 5 internationals (Dalsgaard, Mokotjo, Judge, Mepham and Sawyers), 3 players coming from the French league (Maupay, Jeanvier and Benrahma) and 4 players with a bit of experience in the Premier League (McEachran, Daniels, Yennaris and Canos).

Arsenal had the game under control in the first half, reaching halftime with a 2-0 lead. But Brentford proved more daring in the second half, even enjoying a good spell of domination. Embarrassingly, an equalizer from the visitors looked more likely than a third goal from Arsenal. Emery put an end to the suspense by sending on Lacazette, Torreira and Ramsey in the last 30 minutes.

  1. Welbeck is showing his value

His contract ends next year and no one can deny his value as an impact player. Welbeck can play in any position of the front three, he can score goals off the bench, and his work-rate and attitude have never been questioned. Obviously, the key question is whether Welbeck wants to be a regular starter in an average side or if he’s happy to compete for a spot in a big club. Welbeck opened the scoring in the fifth minute by heading home a cross from Guendouzi. The England international then doubled the lead by converting a cross from Monreal in the 36th.

  1. Smith-Rowe still has a lot of work to do

I was surprised that Smith-Rowe got the nod over Nketiah. On Wednesday, Smith-Rowe sometimes looked out of his depth. He wasted two good situations because of a lack of composure in the final third. Smith-Rowe missed his cross for Welbeck in the 54th before overhitting a final ball in the 56th. His best move was a run in behind to collect a long ball from Elneny in the seventh minute. Jeanvier deflected Smith-Rowe’s angled shot out for a corner. At 18, Smith-Rowe is a promising youngster but he’s far from the finished product. He will probably win more duels by bulking up a bit.

  1. The Gunners still struggle to play out from the back

Playing out from the back is very demanding because it requires good technique, focus, and movement. Leno nearly scored an own goal in the opening minute by miscontrolling a back pass. While trying to build up play, Holding in the 15th and 59th and Mustafi in the 35th gave the ball away. Those 3 turnovers led to 3 Brentford shots. Is the risk worth it? Maybe if we look at the second goal which started with Leno’s lobbed pass for Lichtsteiner. But the Gunners definitely need more practice on the training ground.

  1. There’s a reason why Arsenal fans dislike Dean

His controversial calls against Arsenal have been well documented. Dean added another chapter on Wednesday by denying a penalty in the 20th when Jeanvier tripped Iwobi inside the area. The referee could have used VAR technology to make the right call but he preferred not to. Then Dean failed to give Yennaris a yellow card for a stamp on Guendouzi in the 26th. That leniency was all the more stunning that Lichtsteiner was booked for an obstruction in the 28th.

  1. Guendouzi is learning the hard way

There’s a reason why Emery preferred to play Xhaka alongside Torreira in the Everton game. Guendouzi may have more potential than Xhaka, but the Switzerland international has more experience. The naivety of the French teenager nearly cost his team on Wednesday. His turnover in the 56th led to a scoring chance for Watkins, who got bullied off the ball by Holding. A minute later, Guendouzi gave away a cheap set piece by shoving Odubajo from behind. Judge cut the deficit to 2-1 with a curling free kick.

Guendouzi wasn’t really helped by Emery’s decision to play him alongside Elneny in central midfield. Neither Guendouzi nor Elneny is a ballwinner. It wasn’t clear who was supposed to shield the back four. Emery finally solved the problem by sending on Torreira for Mkhitaryan in the 76th as the team morphed into a 4-3-3 formation with Torreira, Elneny and Guendouzi in midfield and Lacazette, Iwobi and Welbeck in the front three. Torreira killed a dangerous play by intercepting Benrahma’s through ball for Maupay in the 82nd.

  1. Emery didn’t gamble

The Spanish manager played it safe by replacing Smith-Rowe, Mkhitaryan and Elneny with Lacazette, Torreira and Ramsey. Those substitutions helped Arsenal see the game out. Lacazette swapped passes with Ramsey in the 87th but was put off by Barbet while pulling the trigger. In stoppage time, Lacazette won a 50-50 ball and made it 3-1 with a strike into the bottom corner.

In a similar situation, I think Wenger would have gambled on youth to see if they had the mental strength to overcome adversity. Last year, Wenger sent on Nketiah when the Gunners were trailing 1-0 against Norwich in the League Cup. As you all remember, Nketiah scored twice to lead Arsenal to a 2-1 win.

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 unusually 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.

 

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.