Arsenal vs. Hull: Gunners restore confidence with 2-0 win

The Gunners stopped the bleeding by defeating Hull 2-0 on Saturday to stay in the Top 4 of the Premier League. It was an average performance but restoring a bit of confidence was crucial after the recent losses to Watford and Chelsea.

arsenal-vs-hull

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

Arsenal created very little as Hull goalkeeper Jakupovic only made 3 saves compared to 4 for Cech. In fact, the Tigers were so well organized defensively that the Gunners couldn’t produce any through ball. Last month, Arsenal’s desire against weak sides like Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford was questionable. The Gunners showed a bit more commitment this time as they won more duels and more tackles than the visitors (15 tackles to 12 according to Squawka and 53.8% of the duels to 46.2% according to the club’s website).

However, what really made the difference was Sanchez and two handballs. Sanchez opened the scoring in the 34th minute by pouncing on a rebound for a close-range effort that Jakupovic deflected onto the Chile striker’s hand and the ball trickled into the net. Obviously, it was an unintentional handball since Sanchez had no time to react. But the Tigers were clearly frustrated by the referee’s decision to let the goal stand because the ball would have not found the net without Sanchez’s hand.

In stoppage time, Sanchez sealed the win by converting a penalty after Clucas received a red card for handling Perez’s goalbound header. Sanchez initially capitalized on a counterattack to round Jakupovic and cross the ball for Perez at the far post. It was interesting to see Jakupovic stay in the middle of the net when Sanchez took his penalty kick. I guess the Hull goalkeeper expected a Panenka from Sanchez.

One-man show

Sanchez is now the top scorer in the Premier League with 17 goals. If you add his 8 league assists, there’s no doubt that the team heavily depends on one player this season. Not as badly as when Van Persie scored 30 league goals in the 2011-12 season, but not far. The game sometimes looks like a one-man show. Sanchez had 4 of 6 shots on target, 3 key passes, 6 turnovers, and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 3 tackles and had 4 successful dribbles out of 5.

Wenger has tweaked Arsenal’s style of play this season to optimize Sanchez’s performance. Honestly, I’m not a big fan. Shifting Sanchez to the centerforward position creates space for Walcott and Ozil to run into. But it can also slow down play as Sanchez sometimes takes too many touches before releasing the ball and his hold-up play is poor. Sanchez dragged a 12-yard shot wide in the 16th and wasted another chance in the 27th by releasing Ozil down the left wing instead of feeding the onrushing Bellerin. He was harshly booked for diving in the 76th as TV replays showed Ranocchia seemed to clip his leg.

I was a bit surprised that the manager only made one change to the side that lost 3-1 to Chelsea a week ago with Gibbs replacing Monreal in the starting lineup. Walcott, Ozil and Iwobi had a poor work-rate at Stamford Bridge. Yet, Wenger did not give a chance to Perez, Welbeck or Giroud to start on Saturday.

The Watford ghost

Welbeck and Perez came off the bench to replace Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 82nd while Giroud was an unused substitute. Walcott and Iwobi did very little to justify the manager’s choices. Walcott and Iwobi had no key pass and no interception. Iwobi made 2 blocks and no tackle while Walcott made 1 block and won just 1 of 4 tackles. Their defensive awareness is still an issue. Markovic dispossessed Iwobi in the ninth minute to make a teasing cross for Niasse, who couldn’t connect with the ball. Four minutes later, in a play similar to Chelsea’s opening goal, Walcott failed to track Grosicki as Bellerin was pulled out of position by a run from Clucas. Grosicki crossed the ball for Niasse, whose header was tipped over the bar by Cech. Hull could have led 2-0 after 13 minutes just like Watford did.

In terms of end product, Walcott could only muster a tame low strike in the 63rd while Iwobi curled a shot over the bar in the 60th. Iwobi is only 20 years old, so it’s normal for him to struggle with consistency. Right now, Iwobi really looks like the youngster who hit a poor run of form in the first half of the season. What really puzzles me is why Perez hasn’t enjoyed more playing time. The Spaniard has great passing skills and a tremendous work-rate for a forward.

Ozil proved the biggest disappointment at the Emirates stadium. He made no tackle, no interception, no block, and had 6 turnovers, tied with Sanchez for the most by an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy is usually close to 90% but it dropped to 75.6% against Hull, a lower percentage than Iwobi, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott.

A younger version of Cazorla

The Germany playmaker is considered an automatic starter by Wenger but his current performances don’t justify that status. Ozil volleyed over the bar a cross from Sanchez in the 25th and wasted another chance with a poor touch in the 85th. He last scored in the league against Stoke in mid-October and his last assist came from a set-piece against Burnley on Jan. 22.

If the manager keeps his faith in Ozil for the Champions League match against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, he will have to take into account the poor defensive contribution from his highest paid player. In the No. 10 role, Ozil would give a lot of maneuvering room to Xabi Alonso. On a wing, Ozil wouldn’t track Lahm’s dangerous runs.

Besides Sanchez’s two goals, the main positive from Saturday’s game was the Ox’s solid performance in central midfield. At 23, the Ox is finally fulfilling his potential, almost looking like a younger version of Cazorla. He had no turnover and won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage of all the starting midfielders according to the club’s website. The Ox also had 1 key pass, 5 successful dribbles out of 5, and a decent distribution with 4 accurate long balls out of 10. Obviously, the Ox still has room to improve his defensive reading of the game as he made no interception and won only 1 of 5 tackles, according to Squawka. He was alert enough to cover Bellerin in the 30th and block a dangerous cross from Grosicki. The England international moved to the right wing when Elneny replaced Walcott in the 69th.

Hull targeting the fullbacks

Coquelin did most of the heavy lifting in midfield, winning 5 of 7 tackles and making 3 interceptions. There was a minor scare in the second minute when Coquelin allowed a Hull counterattack by diving in and missing the ball. It took a timely tackle from Koscielny on Grosicki to end the threat. Coquelin still has a tendency to give away cheap free kicks like when he fouled Markovic in the 40th. Those silly fouls could cost dearly against Bayern Munich.

At the back, the defenders still bore the scars of the losses to Watford and Chelsea as they seemed shaky at times. Koscielny had a poor game by his own standards, winning only 3 of 5 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels, compared to 4 of 4 tackles and 5 of 7 aerial duels for Mustafi. Markovic capitalized on an Iwobi turnover in the 51st to outpace Koscielny and make a cross for Niasse, who escaped Mustafi’s marking and chested the ball down to test Cech with a powerful strike. Three minutes later, Mustafi collided with Koscielny as Niasse headed the ball toward Markovic, who was fouled by Gibbs. Koscielny should have let Mustafi challenge for the ball on that play, while Gibbs was lucky to only get a yellow card as the last defender. I assume the referee thought Gibbs made a genuine attempt to play the ball.

The Tigers tested the Arsenal defense by making numerous crosses. They especially seemed to target the fullbacks. Markovic outjumped Gibbs in the 77th to meet a cross from Maguire, but Cech easily saved the tame header. Then Diomande got the better of Bellerin in the 86th but headed a corner over the bar. I was a bit surprised to see Bellerin in the starting lineup after the concussion he suffered against Chelsea. Hopefully, the medical staff took all the precautions. Bellerin played a one-two with the Ox in the 15th only to fire into the side-netting.

Filling Wenger’s shoes

There has been a lot of speculation about the manager’s future after the defeat at Stamford Bridge. I think the picture is pretty clear. The board won’t give Wenger a new contract if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4 because it would be the obvious sign that the club is regressing. Keeping Wenger at the club would create so much negativity among the fans that it could spill into the next season. Finding a younger manager with more energy and a new approach would be a wiser choice.

If the Gunners finish in the Top 4, the board has two options. The first option is based on the assumption that the board has already found a replacement. Wenger would step down at the end of this season and stay at the club either as a special advisor or sporting director to guide the new manager. I felt it was a mistake from Manchester United not to keep Ferguson involved when Moyes took over at Old Trafford. Ferguson didn’t want to be seen as interfering in Moyes’ work, but in the end the transition proved too brutal.

The second option is based on the assumption that the board hasn’t found the right match yet. In that case, the board could extend Wenger’s contract by a year or two to get more time in the search for his successor. It’s about doing the right thing and not having a new manager just for the sake of changing. There are very few managers who can fill Wenger’s shoes. His successor must be good at developing youngsters, must have some significant experience of European football, and must have a shrewd transfer policy because Arsenal can’t compete financially with the two Manchesters.

I disagree with what the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade is doing. It doesn’t make sense to bring negative banners inside the stadium when there are still 3 months of competition left. Making the atmosphere toxic and putting more pressure on the squad is like scoring an own goal. If the Gunners do their best and still finish outside the Top 4, then fair enough, Wenger should go. But the fans shouldn’t impact the outcome of games by instilling fear and anxiety in the players. Wenger’s departure should be a fair process decided on the pitch and not from the stands.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Now it’s all hands on deck to save season after 3-1 loss

Saturday’s 3-1 loss at Stamford Bridge confirmed that the title race is over for the Gunners as they trail Chelsea by 12 points in the Premier League. The chase for a Champions League spot could quickly turn into a mad scramble if the two Manchester clubs win on Sunday.

chelsea-vs-arsenal

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

Arsenal enjoyed 59% of ball possession because the Blues were happy to sit back and hit the visitors on the fast break. A quick look at a few stats may give the impression that it was an even contest. Chelsea mustered 6 shots on target compared to 5 for the Gunners. According to Squawka, the Blues won 15 of 45 tackles while Arsenal won 19 of 48. And according to the club’s website, the Gunners won 52.8% of their duels compared to 47.2% for Chelsea. So where should we look to understand why Arsenal trailed 3-0 in the second half?

First, we should notice that Chelsea capitalized on turnovers to score 3 goals. The Blues are basically a counterattacking team. To kickstart their transition game, they rely on interceptions. Chelsea made 17 interceptions compared to 10 for the Gunners, which helps explain why the Blues created 10 chances compared to 7 for Arsenal.

Second, Chelsea’s attacking players worked harder than their Arsenal counterparts. Costa, Hazard and Pedro combined to make 13 tackles, 4 interceptions and 3 blocks compared to 11 tackles, 0 interception and 1 block for Sanchez, Ozil, Iwobi and Walcott. That poor defensive contribution from the attacking players is the main reason why Arsenal couldn’t keep a compact shape.

Working as a unit

The stats are telling us that Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t fare too poorly compared to Kante and Matic. Coquelin and the Ox combined to win 5 of 14 tackles and make 1 interception and 9 blocks, while Kante and Matic combined to win 5 of 15 tackles and make 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. So why did we feel like the Gunners were outplayed in midfield?

The explanation is pretty simple. Arsenal didn’t work as a unit. When the Ox had the ball in the 21st minute, he was quickly surrounded by 3 Blues and lost possession as Coquelin and Ozil failed to come to his rescue. Coquelin made 10 tackles but won only 2 of them because he was swamped in midfield.

Many fans blamed Wenger’s team selection for the 2-1 defeat against Watford. The manager made three changes to the side that lost last Tuesday with Bellerin, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott replacing Paulista, Ramsey and Giroud in the starting lineup. The performance at Stamford Bridge showed that it’s really the team’s attitude that is preventing Arsenal from working as a unit. The Gunners have already conceded 28 league goals, 11 more than Chelsea. They are on pace to finish the season with 44 goals allowed, 8 more than in the previous campaign.

Improving defensive awareness

Chelsea’s opening goal in the 13th showed the lack of defensive awareness from the wingers. Some poor allocation of resources led Ozil, Iwobi and the Ox to surround Kante while leaving Moses unmarked on our left flank. In a perfect world, Ozil would have tracked Moses, Monreal would have marked Pedro, Mustafi would have kept an eye on Costa, and Koscielny would have been the sweeper (I initially thought Iwobi was in charge of marking Moses, but it was in fact Ozil for the simple reason that Iwobi was playing in midfield while Ozil started on the left wing). See the screen capture below.

chelsea-01aedWhat should have been the marking duties when Hazard finds Moses. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

Ozil’s lapse of concentration completely changed the marking duties, forcing Monreal to close down Moses, Koscielny to mark Pedro, Mustafi to track Hazard and Bellerin to handle Costa. See the screen capture below. Obviously, Costa vs. Bellerin is a bad matchup in the air.

chelsea-02edOzil’s marking mistake forces 4 Gunners to adjust tactically. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

When Pedro is about to make the cross, Walcott is 15 yards away from Alonso, who potentially has a free volley. See the screen capture below. Pedro picks out Costa, who outjumps Bellerin to send a header crash against the bar. The rebound falls into the path of Alonso, who runs in front of Walcott to beat Bellerin to the ball and head into an empty net.

chelsea-03edWalcott neglecting his defensive duties. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

You have to question Walcott’s professionalism on that play. Walcott lacked the desire to get ahead of Alonso for the rebound. The England international proved casual again in the 32nd when an unmarked Alonso squared the ball back for Pedro, whose first-time effort was spilled around the post by Cech.

Where’s the enforcer?

The second goal in the 53rd showed how Koscielny and Mustafi were badly exposed because of the poor protection provided by the midfielders. Hazard won a second ball and shrugged off Coquelin before toying with Koscielny to shoot past Cech. The way Hazard strolled from the halfway line to the Arsenal box speaks volumes about our soft midfield.

Arsenal used to boss the midfield at Highbury with Petit, Vieira and Gilberto. The Gunners have been missing that kind of enforcer since the move to the Emirates. Xhaka was supposed to be the answer to our midfield woes but he has struggled to curb his instincts, receiving 2 red cards and giving away 2 penalties in the Premier League.

Coquelin left Mustafi and Koscielny exposed a couple of times because he dived in and missed the ball. Mustafi was booked in the 23rd for crashing into Hazard while Koscielny was lucky to escape punishment in the 10th for a challenge from behind on Costa. Coquelin formed a great partnership with Cazorla in the past two seasons but I tend to think that Maitland-Niles is a more complementary option alongside the Ox, who won 68.8% of his duels, the highest percentage among the central midfielders according to the club’s website.

The Blues put the result beyond doubt in the 85th when Fabregas intercepted a sloppy pass from Cech to make it 3-0 with a lob. A clearance was obviously the safer option for Cech on that play.

Sanchez’s poor performance

Ozil often gets a free pass for his poor defensive contribution because of his ability to create chances. That kind of tactical gamble didn’t pay off against Chelsea as Ozil finished the game with only 2 key passes, the same number as the Ox who worked much harder. When Ozil makes no effort to win the ball back after losing possession, it can send a negative signal to his teammates. Why should they press and defend if Ozil, the highest paid player in the squad, is not doing it?

Sanchez is often praised for his work-rate but his performance on Saturday was really poor. He had no shot, no key pass, and was dispossessed 4 times. While Hazard and Pedro rose to the occasion for Chelsea, Ozil and Sanchez were outshone by the Ox, a second-choice player.

The Gunners had opportunities to level in the first half but were not as clinical as Chelsea. Ozil slipped a through ball to Walcott, who was let down by a poor first touch while making a run between Cahill and Luiz in the 35th. Then Paulista met a cross from the Ox for a free header in the 38th, but couldn’t beat Courtois from 8 yards. On the stroke of halftime, Ozil took a pass from Coquelin and cut inside to fire a low strike straight at Courtois.

Let’s get physical

Wenger replaced Coquelin with Giroud in the 65th and Walcott with Welbeck in the 69th. Welbeck headed a cross from Mustafi in the 78th to force a diving save from Courtois. In stoppage time, Giroud scored a consolation goal by heading a cross from Monreal into the bottom corner. The France striker was heavily criticized after his poor performance against Watford, but he got at Stamford Bridge the service he didn’t have last Tuesday.

Arsenal will need a strong performance against Hull next Saturday to prevent the atmosphere at the Emirates stadium from becoming toxic. You can bet the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade will be loudly heard if the Gunners can’t reach halftime with the lead. I think it would hurt the club if those fans call for the manager’s resignation. A wiser approach would be to wait for the last game of the season before staging any protest.

A finish outside the Top 4 would be the only scenario that would really put the board under pressure. Also, let’s remember that Manchester City and United may not finish ahead of Arsenal despite spending more money in the transfer window. Yet, Guardiola and Mourinho will still be in charge of their respective clubs next season.

The Tigers have probably seen how Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford created problems by turning the game into a physical contest. The Gunners should be mentally ready for a lot of duels. They will miss Xhaka through suspension and Ramsey through injury and maybe Bellerin, who suffered a concussion on the opening goal.

 

Arsenal vs. Watford: Title bid over after pathetic 2-1 loss

The Gunners had a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday to get back in the Premier League title race. A victory over Watford combined with Chelsea’s 1-1 draw at Liverpool would have narrowed the gap to 6 points. This was the perfect moment to make a statement. But Arsenal bottled it with an abject performance at the Emirates stadium, losing 2-1 to the Hornets to trail the Blues by 9 points in the standings. Even if the Gunners win at Stamford Bridge this Saturday, Chelsea will still have a six-point lead atop the league. That’s a massive gap knowing that Arsenal will have to face Liverpool, Tottenham and the two Manchesters in the next couple of months while the Blues are already done with two of those clubs.

arsenal-vs-watford

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

In the first half, Arsenal never looked like a team contending for the title. They didn’t create any chance and had no shot on target in what was arguably their worst performance of the season. It wasn’t a fitness issue since only Mustafi had started the FA Cup game against Southampton last Saturday. It’s just that the Hornets showed more hunger, making more interceptions (19 vs. 8) and more tackles (53 vs. 37) than Arsenal, according to Squawka. Anybody could see that the Gunners were not at the races with a flurry of stray passes and turnovers.

Arsenal gave away cheap free kicks in the first 10 minutes of the match. The third free kick led to the opening goal with a long-range strike from Kaboul that deflected off Ramsey to beat Cech in the 10th. Three minutes later, a poor throw-in from Paulista led to a Watford counterattack. Capoue intercepted the ball, ran past Coquelin and rounded Mustafi to be denied by Cech. However, the rebound fell into the path of Deeney who doubled the lead from close range. It was a basic 3v2 situation that got out of control because Coquelin and Mustafi failed to challenge Capoue. Did Coquelin and Mustafi defend too passively because they still had in mind Xhaka’s red card against Burnley?

Nobody to steer the ship

The fans punished the Gunners for their complacency by booing them at halftime. The scoreline could have been worse if Cech had not made a couple of decent saves, tipping Prodl’s header over the bar in the 34th and parrying Janmaat’s powerful strike in the 36th. The manager made a tactical adjustment during the break by yanking off Giroud to send on Walcott. Giroud was inefficient in his hold-up play as he was dispossessed 4 times. But he never really got any decent service from Ozil, Sanchez or Iwobi.

The club still hasn’t reached any agreement with Sanchez and Ozil in their contract negotiations. If they ask for more than £200,000 per week, I believe it wouldn’t be worth it to keep them. Sanchez and Ozil are the technical leaders of the team but they completely went missing in the first half. In fact, no player was able to steer the ship in the right direction after the Gunners got off to a poor start.

Sanchez finished the game with only 1 key pass, 0 of 5 shots on target, and was dispossessed 8 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. A risky dribbling attempt by Sanchez on the edge of the Arsenal box led to a turnover in the 26th but Capoue’s low drive did not trouble Cech.

Ozil made 6 key passes, the most for any player, but no through ball. He was let down by his nerves in the 43rd with a cross that sailed beyond Giroud and Sanchez. The Germany playmaker also had a decent goalscoring chance in the 55th but could only muster a tame half-volley straight at Gomes.

Iwobi leading the revolt

Iwobi and Perez were two players who showed more desire than Sanchez and Ozil. Iwobi had very little impact on the right flank in the first half, but his switch to the left wing in the second half led to Arsenal’s revolt. He held off a defender in the 50th to find Ozil, who slipped the ball to Walcott. The England international finally tested Gomes with a low strike. Five minutes later, Iwobi played a one-two with Oxlade-Chamberlain only to be denied by a diving save from Gomes. Iwobi then met a cross from Sanchez in the 57th for an awkward volley that trickled into the far corner to cut the Hornets’ lead.

Desperately chasing an equalizer, Wenger switched to a 4-2-4 formation by replacing Coquelin with Perez in the 67th. The Gunners had more presence in the box but still couldn’t crack the Watford defense. Perez proved our most dynamic player in the closing minutes. He cut the ball back for Paulista, who fired over the bar in the 76th. The Spaniard then rattled the bar with a powerful drive in the 85th. In stoppage time, Perez took a pass from Ozil to hit a tame effort straight at Gomes.

The manager started Coquelin and Ramsey in central midfield. Ramsey is mostly a box-to-box player and couldn’t really perform the role of a deep-plying playmaker that the Gunners need against average sides like Watford to set the tempo. He had to leave the pitch in the 18th after picking up a calf injury. Oxlade-Chamberlain, who replaced the Wales midfielder, worked his socks off, winning 2 of 7 tackles and having 2 successful dribbles out of 3. His partnership with Coquelin didn’t look as complementary as the duo he formed with Maitland-Niles against Southampton.

Rethinking the Ox’s position

Ramsey is having a nightmarish season with already three injuries so far. I believe the staff should use the Ox as a central midfielder until the end of the season to make up for the lack of options in that area. Cazorla may not return before April, Ramsey is now doubtful for the next couple of games, and Xhaka is still serving a four-game ban.

At the back, Paulista had the best stats amongst Arsenal defenders, winning 4 of 8 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels, and making 3 key passes, 3 interceptions and 1 block. Wenger would have probably started Bellerin at rightback if the Spaniard had not been sidelined by an ankle injury last month.

In the first half, I really felt that Arsenal’s season was unraveling. This is not the first time that the Gunners are dropping points against weak or average teams. The draws with Leicester, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth and the loss to Watford all point to the same pattern: the Gunners aren’t ruthless enough. That’s why they aren’t serious contenders this season. Will those results cost them a Top 4 finish, too?

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 5-0 win over Southampton

Walcott notched a hat trick on Saturday and Welbeck opened his account this season with two goals as the Gunners thrashed Southampton 5-0 in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Last November, Arsenal lost 2-0 to the Saints in the League Cup after fielding a weakened team. The Gunners learned their lesson and picked a stronger starting lineup while Southampton preferred to rest some key players.

  1. Perez is such an underrated player

Arsenal signed Perez last summer because of his goalscoring abilities. But the Spaniard has tremendous passing skills too. He hit 3 accurate through balls out of 4, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. He also displayed a fantastic work-rate by winning 4 tackles.

fa-cup-southampton

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

In the role of a false nine, Perez helped create two goals with some nifty link-up play. He fed Welbeck for the opening goal in the 15th minute. Initially, the play didn’t look dangerous when Maitland-Niles found Perez back to goal. But Perez created some space behind the Saints’ backline by dropping back and he gave them no time to regroup by making a first-time pass. You can see Perez’s intelligence on the pitch as he spots Welbeck’s run before receiving the ball from Maitland-Niles. Welbeck then played a one-two with Perez before setting up Walcott for the third goal in the 35th.

Perez struck a good understanding with Welbeck at St Mary’s stadium just like he was on the same wavelength with Ozil against Ludogorets and with Giroud against Preston and Bournemouth. He made a teasing cross for Welbeck in the fifth minute but the England international couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Perez also teed up Bellerin, who shot straight at the goalkeeper in the 53rd.

  1. Maitland-Niles is the revelation of the season

Much like Bellerin enjoyed a breakthrough season two years ago and Iwobi broke into the first team last season, Maitland-Niles is the youngster who is knocking on the door of the manager with a string of good performances.

At 19, Maitland-Niles is already showing some smart positional play. He helped set a good tempo on Saturday by taking very few touches. His sober and clean performance as a holding midfielder allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain to focus on his playmaking duties. Maitland-Niles won 6 tackles and made 3 interceptions, the most for any player in both categories according to whoscored.com. He also made 79 passes, the most for any player, an obvious sign that his teammates trust him on the pitch.

If Maitland-Niles keeps performing at this level, he could leapfrog Elneny in the pecking order just like Bellerin got ahead of Debuchy and Jenkinson. Maitland-Niles stood on his feet to win a tackle inside the Arsenal area in the 44th. Knowing that Xhaka got sent off for some reckless challenges, it must be good news for the manager to see that Maitland-Niles does not dive in.

His reading of the game also saved the Gunners a couple of times. Long in the 51st and Sims in the 74th got the better of Mustafi, but each time Maitland-Niles covered the Germany international to either clear the danger or make a crucial block. He also came to Bellerin’s rescue when the Spaniard lost possession in the 56th.

Maitland-Niles seems more ready than Holding or Reine-Adelaide to join the first team. Holding still needs to iron out basic mistakes like taking unnecessary risks in his own half while Reine-Adelaide is a bit too soft for the Premier League despite showing his class with some stunning dribbling moves. The French teenager was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any Arsenal player.

  1. The Ox is a solid option in central midfield

Oxlade-Chamberlain really looked comfortable in the deep-lying playmaker role. He made 3 key passes, more than any other player, and slipped 2 accurate through balls out of 3. His passing range also helped the Ox hit 7 accurate long balls out of 8.

The former Southampton player created the second goal in the 22nd with a ball over the top for Welbeck, who ghosted past Stephens to beat Lewis. The Ox also played Perez clean through on goal with a long ball in the 89th, but the Spaniard was denied by Lewis. His delivery on set pieces was a mixed bag. The Ox wasted a free kick and a corner by overhitting the ball. On a more positive note, Mustafi met an Ox free kick in the 29th to head wide from six yards.

Some fans may wonder why the Ox is not playing more often in midfield. Competition with Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka is one obvious explanation. But another reason is the time it took for the Ox to mature as a player. In the past seasons, inconsistency combined with a high turnover rate and an average decision-making have prevented the Ox from claiming a starting spot in midfield.

The Southampton game was pretty much an audition for central midfielders since Coquelin and Ramsey are the only two players available now. Xhaka is serving a four-game suspension, Elneny is on national duty with Egypt and Cazorla may not return before April.

The Ox and Maitland-Niles formed a complementary duo. However, we shouldn’t get our hopes high too quickly. The Southampton midfield was poor. Also, there’s no guarantee that Maitland-Niles or the Ox will perform as well with a different partner in central midfield. For the next FA Cup game, Wenger could test again the tandem formed by the Ox and Maitland-Niles or experiment with a Ramsey-Maitland duo or an Ox-Coquelin duo.

  1. Sanchez is always hungry

Somehow, the manager couldn’t keep Sanchez on the bench for the entire match. The Chile striker replaced Welbeck in the 64th and showed his hunger by making two assists. He capitalized on a mazy run from the Ox in the 69th to cut the ball back for Walcott, who made it 4-0 with a low strike into the far corner. Sanchez then collected a long ball from Perez in the 84th and kept two defenders busy before picking out Walcott, who sealed the game with a first-time finish.

  1. Gibbs is not taking his chance

Monreal has had his ups and downs this season. Yet, Gibbs has not been able to snatch the starting spot at leftback. Monreal has made 20 starts in the Premier League compared to just 2 for Gibbs. Saturday’s game showed why. Gibbs gave away a cheap free kick on the edge of the box by tripping Long in the 32nd. The Saints then capitalized on silly turnovers from Gibbs in the 45th and 76th to start counterattacks.

  1. The Premier League is still the top priority

Wenger clearly had Tuesday’s game against Watford on his mind as he left regular starters like Cech, Koscielny, Coquelin, Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud out of the squad while giving some playing time to youngsters like Reine-Adelaide and Maitland-Niles and to second-choice players like Ospina, Holding, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Perez and Welbeck. The Gunners need a victory over Watford to stay in the title race.

  1. Wenger started serving his four-game ban

The manager watched the match from the stands and it made no real difference since Wenger is not a control freak like Conte or Guardiola. Bould proved just as quiet on the bench as the French manager usually is. On paper, Wenger mostly makes an impact on the game with the starting lineup, tactical adjustments at halftime and substitutions in the second half. The touchline ban did not affect Wenger’s influence on the team, especially since the Gunners were leading 3-0 at the end of the first half.

I thought the 10-game ban suggested by some pundits was simply ridiculous. Pardew was hit with a two-game suspension for pushing a linesman in 2012. A four-game ban looked like standard punishment for the small shove on Taylor in the 2-1 win over Burnley combined with the red card for dissent. It wouldn’t have made sense to punish Wenger with a 10-game ban knowing that Pardew was suspended for 7 games in 2014 for headbutting a player. In fact, it would have made the FA look bad to hit Wenger with the same 10-game ban Suarez got for biting Ivanovic in 2013. Comparing a shove with a bite, really?

  1. Mertesacker is back in the squad

Mertesacker sat on the bench at St Mary’s stadium after recovering from a knee injury he picked up last summer. The German centerback is a leader in the dressing room but I’m not sure he should be on the bench for a Premier League game. Mertesacker’s lack of pace makes the Gunners vulnerable on the fast break and prevents them from playing a high defensive line efficiently. Paulista’s decision-making can be dodgy, but I still think he would be a more valuable centerback as long as he plays alongside Koscielny. Putting Mertesacker on the bench would also mean slowing down Holding’s development.

  1. Improving the chemistry in the dressing room

There are a couple of days left before the end of the winter transfer window. It’s unlikely that the club will sign a new player this month. However, the Gunners should take advantage of that window to make some adjustments in the squad and get rid of grumpy players who want more playing time.

Debuchy is the big thorn in Arsenal’s side. A loan seems the most realistic option given his age and wages. Jenkinson is of no use either for the team as he has slipped behind Bellerin, Paulista and Maitland-Niles in the pecking order at rightback. Crystal Palace and Arsenal have agreed a deal but the move has stalled because of Jenkinson’s salary demands. The club might also consider loaning out Akpom and Reine-Adelaide to speed up their development.

 

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Gunners grind out 2-1 win despite Xhaka’s red card

The Gunners scored in the eighth minute of stoppage time to move into second place in the Premier League with a 2-1 victory over Burnley on Sunday. However, I still don’t see them as serious contenders this season. First, they trail Chelsea by 8 points. Of course, there are 16 league games left. That means 48 points up for grabs. But the Blues have been incredibly consistent so far, dropping points in just 4 games. Chelsea lost to Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, and drew with Swansea at the beginning of the season when Conte had not switched to a back three yet. By contrast, the Gunners have conceded 5 draws and 3 defeats. It’s OK to lose to Liverpool and Manchester City and draw with Tottenham and Manchester United, but dropping points against weak or average sides like Leicester, Middlesbrough, Bournemouth and Everton has significantly hurt Arsenal’s title bid. And second, the Gunners have a tougher schedule than some of their rivals. Spurs are 1 point behind Arsenal but they have already played Chelsea and Manchester City in the second half of the season while the Gunners haven’t faced any Top 6 team yet.

arsenal-vs-burnley

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

Moss, the referee, was under the spotlight for a couple of questionable calls. Xhaka’s ejection in the 65th minute was the least controversial one. The Switzerland international definitely deserved a red card for his reckless two-footed lunge on Defour. What really upset Wenger was the penalty that Moss awarded to Burnley in the second minute of stoppage time. Coquelin tripped Barnes while trying to control the ball. It was pretty similar to the play involving Koscielny and Ki a week ago. Coquelin flicked out a leg and withdrew it when he saw Barnes intercept the ball. There was contact, but was it enough to give a penalty? Wenger disagreed with the referee and got sent off after Gray converted the spot kick.

Bournemouth’s playbook

Managers usually rely on consistency to assess a referee’s performance. Wenger probably had in mind the penalty shout ignored by Moss in the 56th when Gray shoved Mustafi from behind while challenging for the ball. Honestly, it was a soft penalty, the kind of call that can go either way. But then, Coquelin’s foul was a soft penalty too. So where’s the consistency?

Then, Sanchez made a cross for Koscielny in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Koscielny met the cross but was kicked in the head by Mee. If Moss thought Coquelin’s foul was a penalty, there’s no way he could not award a penalty to Arsenal for Mee’s dangerous kick. Sanchez scored the winner with a cheeky Panenka and threw his shirt in the crowd after the final whistle.

It looks like the weak and average sides are taking a leaf out of Bournemouth’s playbook by turning the game into a physical contest. After the match, Wenger described Burnley as “a team who made the game very uncomfortable” for Arsenal. The Gunners enjoyed 70% of ball possession but struggled to create clear-cut chances, mustering just 8 shots on target compared to 7 for the visitors.

There was no mid-week game, yet Arsenal played at a too average tempo to really trouble a well-organized Burnley side. The Clarets showed more commitment by winning 18 of 49 tackles, while the Gunners only won 7 of 22 tackles according to Squawka. They also added a touch of cynicism to prevent Arsenal from punishing them on the fast break. Lowton received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 58th and Marney got booked for a cynical foul on Ozil in the 73rd.

Poor service for Giroud

As a sign of Arsenal’s lack of penetration, most of our chances came from crosses or long-range efforts. Ozil had a curling shot tipped around the post by Heaton in the 14th while Sanchez tested the Burnley goalkeeper with a low drive in the 40th. The Gunners struggled with the quality of the final ball but they put the Burnley defense under pressure the few times their delivery proved accurate. Koscielny connected with a cross from Ramsey in the 15th for a header straight at Heaton. Giroud then redirected a cross from Sanchez in the 48th toward Ramsey, whose backheel flick sailed over the bar. Mustafi finally opened the scoring in the 59th by nodding a corner from Ozil into the bottom corner. Arsenal could have doubled the lead in the 89th when the Clarets poorly cleared a cross from Bellerin. The loose ball fell to Coquelin, whose powerful strike was parried by Heaton.

Sanchez showed great composure to convert his penalty but I thought his finishing was poor a couple of times. He headed wide a long ball from Mustafi in the 10th and missed the target with curling shots in the 42nd and 49th. The Chile striker also held onto the ball too long and was dispossessed 5 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Sanchez has made progress in improving his understanding with Giroud, but it still doesn’t come naturally.

Giroud didn’t get much service although he’s a dominant player in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 20th when Ozil found him with a low pass. Giroud made poor contact with the ball for a first-time effort that rolled wide. Sanchez and Iwobi are great options for plays on the ground but crosses from the wings aren’t their forte. Maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been a better choice to feed Giroud. Despite the lack of opportunities, Giroud contributed by making 2 key passes and winning 3 of 5 headers.

A costly lapse of concentration

Xhaka was having a good game until his red card. Besides his 3 key passes, tied with Ozil, Sanchez and Iwobi for the most by any player, Xhaka was the only Arsenal midfielder who won a tackle on Sunday, according to Squawka. He also won 85.7% of his duels, the best percentage for any midfielder according to the club’s website, and helped his team evade Burnley’s high press with his passing range, hitting 8 accurate long balls out of 9.

His ejection resulted from a lapse of concentration and some poor judgment. For a split second, Xhaka lost his focus and failed to realize that the Clarets were cutting his passing options. When Defour intercepted his risky pass for Paulista, Xhaka panicked and made a reckless challenge on the Belgium midfielder although Mustafi and Koscielny were covering him. A similar lapse of concentration from Xhaka cost Arsenal a goal in the 3-2 win over Swansea last October. Can Xhaka quickly learn his lesson like Koscielny did after his first season in England? Koscielny is now the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense but he was just as reckless as Xhaka when he joined the club in 2010.

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka is still a work in progress. I felt Ramsey could have contributed a bit more defensively. The Wales midfielder made no tackle and no interception. Offensively, Ramsey made 2 key passes and had 5 successful dribbles out of 6, but none of his 4 goal attempts was on target. His failure to clear the ball in stoppage time led to the Clarets’ equalizer. Koscielny initially won the header from a Burnley throw-in and the second ball fell to Ramsey, who was reluctant to clear the danger with his left foot. Ramsey put Coquelin in trouble by awkwardly knocking the ball with his right foot. Coquelin couldn’t control the ball with his first touch and ended up tripping Barnes.

Bellerin & Coquelin return

In a strange game of symmetry, the Clarets also relied on crosses and long-range efforts to create chances. Cech turned around the post a diagonal drive from Barnes in the 16th before Marney fired straight at the Czech goalkeeper in the 60th. The Gunners struggled again to stop crosses from their left flank. Lowton capitalized on a Sanchez turnover in the 13th to make a cross for Barnes that Cech intercepted. Burnley could have taken the lead in the 28th when Boyd picked out Gray, who rolled away from Xhaka only to shoot straight at Cech. Boyd made another teasing cross in the 44th but Cech beat Gray to the ball. In the second half, Keane hit a long ball toward Vokes, who outjumped Mustafi to flick the ball on. Barnes beat Paulista to the second ball, but Koscielny managed to block the striker’s close-range attempt.

Within a few months, Koscielny and Mustafi have built a solid partnership at centerback. Koscielny acts like a sweeper, relying on his positional play and sound reading of the game, while Mustafi is a pro-active defender, more mobile and more involved in the team’s passing game. When Mustafi was dispossessed by Gray in the 20th, Koscielny killed the counterattack with a timely tackle. At 24, Mustafi is still a young centerback. He must learn to refrain from making silly fouls like the one in the 71st that allowed Defour to test Cech with a dangerous free kick.

In his return from an ankle injury, Bellerin came off the bench to replace Ozil in the 88th as Wenger was trying to protect his team’s lead. I expect Bellerin to start the next games at rightback since Paulista doesn’t have the Spaniard’s pace and passing skills. Paulista only won 16.7% of his duels, the lowest percentage among all the defenders. His passing accuracy reached 92.5% but it’s a misleading stat because a lot of Paulista’s passes went sideways or backward. He only made 1 cross compared to 3 for Monreal.

Xhaka’s second red card in the Premier League means that he will miss the next 4 games. It also means that the manager will have no room for rotation in midfield since Elneny is still on national duty with Egypt while Cazorla may not return before April. Coquelin, who made his return from a hamstring injury by replacing Iwobi in the 69th, will therefore team up with Ramsey until mid-February.

Swansea vs. Arsenal: Gunners make up ground with 4-0 win

Arsenal thrashed Swansea 4-0 on Saturday to move into fourth place, one point behind Liverpool and Tottenham. The scoreline was quite flattering since two goals resulted from deflected shots and the other two came from poor clearances. However, what really matters is the clean sheet, only their seventh in the Premier League this season.

swansea-vs-arsenal

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

One big reason why the Gunners have struggled to mount a serious title challenge is their defensive record. They have conceded 22 goals so far, 7 more than Chelsea and 8 more than Tottenham. The draw with Bournemouth and the losses to Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool are obvious examples of points dropped because of some poor defending. By contrast, the Gunners have an outstanding offensive record with 48 goals scored. Only Liverpool can match that tally. The goalless draws with Middlesbrough and Leicester are the only two league games in which Arsenal failed to find the net.

At the Liberty stadium, the Gunners produced a lethargic display in the first half with a slow tempo and no penetration. Somehow, they took the lead in the 37th minute thanks to Giroud, the man who scores important goals. The France striker didn’t cover himself in glory on that play though. Ramsey squared the ball back to Giroud, who couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Sanchez kept the ball in play and made a cross for Ozil, whose header was blocked by Mawson. The ball fell into the path of Giroud, who slammed it into the top corner.

Giroud usually loves celebrating his goals, but an ankle injury he picked up while missing the tap-in led him to ask for a substitution. He managed to stay on the pitch until the 60th when Oxlade-Chamberlain finally came off the bench. By winning 4 of 6 aerial duels, Giroud proved a valuable outlet for long balls when Arsenal tried to evade the Swans’ high press.

The bigger picture

Sanchez sealed the win by scoring from close range in the 73rd. The Ox initially made a poor cross that sailed behind Sanchez. Routledge beat Ramsey to the loose ball only to knock it back into the path of Sanchez, who volleyed home. Sanchez could have made it 5-0 in the 78th but he was dispossessed by Mawson after an awkward first touch.

The Chile striker had 2 key passes, 2 successful dribbles out of 2, and tested Fabianski with a low strike in the 28th. He showed a tremendous work-rate by winning 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player according to Squawka. As a result of his hyperactivity, Sanchez was also dispossessed 4 times.

Much was said about Sanchez’s reaction when Welbeck replaced him in the 79th. Sanchez clearly looked upset. However, it shouldn’t be a big deal. It simply shows that Sanchez wants to give his all. Players like Aguero and Cristiano Ronaldo also look frustrated when they are yanked off the pitch. The bigger picture is that Wenger needed to give some playing time to Welbeck, who is the only forward with a skillset similar to Giroud’s.

On the right wing, Iwobi gave Arsenal a 3-0 lead with two deflected shots. He capitalized on a good spell of domination in the 54th to fire a shot that took a deflection off Cork to loop over Fabianski. Then, Iwobi’s cross was diverted by Naughton into his own net in the 67th. Those were lucky goals, but you have to give Iwobi some credit for his desire. The Nigeria international also improved his defensive contribution by winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels.

A work in progress

In his return from illness, Ozil didn’t show much although he managed to make 3 key passes, the most for any player. His work-rate is still questionable. Ramsey ended up pressing a Swan in the space occupied by Ozil because the Germany playmaker was reluctant to do it. It’s not the first time that Ozil has ignored his defensive duties. Giroud against West Brom and Sanchez against Manchester City also had to close down opponents in Ozil’s zone.

The tandem formed by Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield is still a work in progress. When Coquelin starts alongside Cazorla or Xhaka, it’s pretty clear that Coquelin will do most of the defensive work while Cazorla or Xhaka will focus on building plays. The distribution is more even when Xhaka teams up with Ramsey because Xhaka doesn’t have Coquelin’s mobility while Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder. Offensively, Xhaka is the one connecting the defense with the forwards while Ramsey is the one making the runs in the final third. Defensively, Xhaka is the one protecting the back four while Ramsey is the one pressing high up the pitch.

Xhaka had two passes intercepted in the first 10 minutes before growing into the game. The Switzerland international finished the match with a passing accuracy of 93.5%, the highest percentage for any starting player. He also hit 5 accurate long balls out of 6. Among the outfield players, only Ki had more accurate long balls according to whoscored.com. At 24, Xhaka still has room for improvement, especially in his reading of the game. He dropped back in a too deep position in the 11th instead of staying with Naughton, who took a pass from Dyer for a low drive that Cech turned around the post. In the closing minutes, Xhaka tested Fabianski twice with long-range efforts.

Ball-watching

Ramsey and Xhaka combined to win only 2 of 8 tackles. Xhaka made 4 interceptions compared to just 1 for Ramsey. That’s an area in which Ramsey could improve. Aware of his defensive duties, Ramsey was also more frugal with his runs in the final third. His only goal attempt was a low strike that Fabianski saved in the 53rd.

The Swans were not as shabby as the scoreline would suggest. They created 7 chances compared to 9 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. Their best chances came from turnovers and ball-watching by the Gunners. Wenger really needs to do something about ball-watching in training because that could become a serious problem for his team.

Managers often talk about fitness, technique, mental toughness and reading of the game as key factors in the success of a player, but focus is just as important. One short lapse of concentration is enough to prevent a player from spotting a dangerous situation or a goalscoring opportunity.

Swansea could have equalized in the 43rd when Llorente held off Koscielny to feed Ki. The South Korea international took a heavy first touch and the ball got away from him. Koscielny flicked out a leg but removed it to avoid a penalty. Ki went down while the loose ball fell to Routledge, who got ahead of Paulista to fire a low strike that Cech parried with his legs. The referee booked Ki for diving although there seemed to be contact between Ki and Koscielny. However, the main defensive mistake on that play was Xhaka’s failure to track Ki’s run inside the area. See the screen captures below.

swansea-aedXhaka caught ball-watching as Ki makes a dangerous run in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Gunners were guilty of another ball-watching moment in the 65th when Kingsley’s half-volley hit Llorente, who teed up Fernandez for an off-target shot. The main defensive mistake on that play was the Ox’s failure to properly mark Fernandez. See the screen captures below.

swansea-bedOxlade-Chamberlain caught ball-watching as Fernandez gets a free shot in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Swans also capitalized on turnovers to have a crack at goal. Dyer intercepted Paulista’s poor pass to Koscielny on the stroke of halftime but wasted a good situation with a long-range effort instead of choosing one of his three passing options. Paulista put his team in trouble again in the 62nd by chesting the ball down instead of heading it away. Kingsley dispossessed Paulista to feed Routledge, whose low strike was parried by Cech. Mustafi also cheaply gave the ball away in the 86th, but Sigurdsson could only drag his shot straight at Cech.

Looking beyond Cazorla

Koscielny was a dominant force in the air, winning 7 of 7 aerial duels. His only blemish was an underhit header that Sygurdsson nearly intercepted in the 16th. Paulista got the nod over Holding at rightback but proved the weak link in the back four with some dodgy decision-making. By contrast, Monreal had a solid performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and making 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.

January is a key month for Arsenal. First, because they have an easy schedule on paper and can therefore make up ground before visiting Chelsea in February. And second, because they have no mid-week game for three consecutive weeks, which means more time available on the training ground to work on tactical issues. Knowing that Cazorla underwent a second surgery and may not return before April, the Gunners should wisely use that time to make their team more compact in order to improve their defensive record.

Cazorla’s contract expires this summer. That’s a tricky issue for Arsenal because the Spaniard has become a key component in midfield. At 32, his best days are obviously behind him. A one-year extension would seem the most reasonable outcome for both parties as Cazorla’s past two years at the club have been marred by injuries and strangely echo the end of Arteta’s career.

From a long-term perspective, the manager will need to sign a specific type of midfielder this summer. We can divide our midfielders into three categories: those who mostly defend (Coquelin, Elneny, Xhaka), those who mostly attack (Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain), and those who can both defend and attack (Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere). The problem is that Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey are injury-prone players. We therefore need cover for that kind of profile, whether it’s a box-to-box player like Ramsey or a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla.

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Preston

The Gunners overcame an embarrassing first-half performance on Saturday to edge Preston 2-1 in the third round of the FA Cup. The Lilywhites may ply their trade in the Championship, the second division of English football, they still managed to outplay Arsenal for 45 minutes. It was as bad as the 1-1 draw with Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

  1. An FA Cup game is about work-rate and desire

Preston took a leaf out of Bournemouth’s playbook by giving everything in the first half. The Lilywhites played at a high tempo and showed more commitment than Arsenal, whose lack of intensity was blatant. The Gunners looked like they were playing some kind of pre-season friendly. The poor defensive contribution from the attacking players allowed Preston to easily reach the Arsenal box on counterattacks.

fa-cup-preston

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

It’s only after the halftime break that the Gunners fixed those issues. In the old days, Vieira, Petit or Gilberto Silva would have screamed at their teammates for their poor work-rate. I felt Xhaka and Ramsey should have said in the first half that they needed more defensive support. If there’s a lack of leadership on the pitch, then it becomes a liability because the best teams have players who can quickly spot problems and make adjustments without waiting for the manager to intervene. The Lilywhites parked the bus in the second half as they started tiring while Arsenal played with more purpose.

The Gunners’ first-half performance was so pathetic that Preston could have led 3-0. Hugill made a run in behind Monreal to collect a through ball from McGeady in the seventh minute. The Preston striker fed Robinson, who beat Ospina with a low strike. Arsenal lost three duels on that play as Monreal failed to intercept McGeady’s pass, Paulista missed his clearance and Mustafi was beaten to the ball by Robinson.

The Lilywhites nearly doubled the lead on a counterattack in the 22nd but Mustafi blocked Robinson’s header. Two minutes later, Paulista gifted Preston another chance with a poor offside trap. Robinson got away from Paulista to cross the ball for Hugill, who couldn’t make contact for a tap-in. Ospina kept the Gunners in the game by turning around the post a dipping drive from Pearson in the 25th. Mustafi then lost possession on the edge of the box with a poor first touch in the 36th but Gallagher’s lob attempt was cleared off the line by Monreal.

Fatigue played a role in Tuesday’s 3-3 draw with Bournemouth. That was not the case for Saturday’s game at Deepdale stadium since Arsenal had 3 full days of rest and Wenger made 5 changes to the side that played in Bournemouth with Ospina, Paulista, Maitland-Niles, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Perez replacing Cech, Koscielny, Bellerin, Coquelin and Sanchez in the starting lineup.

  1. Perez is a good value signing

The Gunners signed him for 20 million euros last summer. Perez has shown great work-rate as well as consistency in his performances after needing a couple of months to recover from an ankle injury and adapt to English football. He set up Giroud with a backheel flick for the winning goal in the 89th. What I like about Perez is that he’s technically more gifted than Walcott but also works harder. His attitude is spot on. He’s also more consistent than the Ox.

Perez has struck a good understanding with Giroud. He played a one-two with the France striker in the 16th before firing straight at Maxwell from the edge of the box. Giroud then volleyed home the Spaniard’s cross in the 77th but the goal was disallowed for offside. That kind of understanding is important for the team because Giroud heavily depends on good service to find the net.

  1. Giroud scores important goals

His late goal against Preston sent Arsenal into the next round of the FA Cup. Giroud has scored 9 goals in all competitions this season. Seven were game-changing goals. In the Premier League, he scored twice in the 4-1 win over Sunderland on Oct. 29. His first goal gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead and his second made it 3-1. Giroud also scored the equalizer in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United on Nov. 19. He then netted the winner in the 1-0 victory over West Brom on Dec. 26 and opened the scoring in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on Jan. 1 before salvaging a point in the 3-3 draw with Bournemouth. In the Champions League, Giroud made it 2-2 at Ludogorets before Ozil scored the winner. He also made it 1-1 in the 2-2 draw with Paris Saint-Germain. Basically, only his second goal against Sunderland and his equalizer against PSG did not directly yield points.

  1. Ramsey opened his account

In a season marred by injuries, Ramsey finally scored his first goal in the 46th. Iwobi held off three Lilywhites to buy time for Ramsey, who equalized from 18 yards. The shot was at a good height for Maxwell but simply had too much power.

Ramsey finished the game with 102 passes. Only Xhaka made more passes with 112. Ramsey is definitely a box-to-box player, not a playmaker. He made just 1 key pass, less than five other Gunners (Maitland, Mustafi, Perez, Iwobi and the Ox). His main strength is to make those deep runs and be in a good position to score. He played a one-two with Giroud in the 33rd but was reluctant to shoot with his weaker foot. See the screen capture below. Ramsey checked back before slipping the ball to Perez and the chance was gone.

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Ramsey’s shooting options with his left foot from 16 yards (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Wales midfielder also met a cross from Maitland in the 36th for a header that Maxwell saved. The Gunners need Ramsey to be close to his performance level of the 2013-14 season if they want to finish in the Top 4, especially since Cazorla won’t return before March. In modern football, midfielders who can both attack and defend are a hot commodity because they can make a big difference in transition plays.

  1. Welbeck is back

In his return from a knee injury, Welbeck came off the bench to replace the Ox in the 83rd. Welbeck nearly scored in stoppage time with a curling shot that Maxwell tipped over the bar. Although Welbeck played on the left wing, he’s a more interesting option up front because he’s the only forward in the Arsenal squad who can win headers and hold the ball up like Giroud.

  1. Maitland-Niles’ future is in midfield

The manager is looking for alternatives at rightback because Jenkinson and Debuchy are poor options if Bellerin gets injured. Maitland-Niles’ performance as a fullback was a mixed bag. He made 2 key passes and 8 tackles, more than any other Gunner, but he also failed to stop some dangerous crosses from McGeady. Maitland-Niles especially struggled to hit the brakes and turn quickly. It wasn’t as bad as Chambers but Maitland-Niles doesn’t look like a natural fullback. I believe ballwinner is his best position. Since Coquelin is sidelined by a hamstring injury, it would make sense to play Maitland-Niles as a defensive midfielder in the next FA Cup game.

  1. Some attacking players forget their defensive duties

Iwobi and the Ox made 2 key passes each but contributed little defensively. They made no tackle and were not tidy in possession with 7 turnovers each, according to whoscored.com. They must improve their work-rate if they want to become regular starters. Offensively, Iwobi had a decent game as he made the assist for Ramsey’s goal and fed Giroud in the 34th for a chip that sailed wide. The Nigeria international also tested Maxwell with a low strike in the 86th. By contrast, the Ox had a rough day as he tried to overcomplicate things instead of keeping it simple.