One-nil to the Arsenal! It was a popular chant in the early 1990’s when the Gunners played boring football under Graham but still found a way to win. On Sunday, Luiz scored the winning goal from a corner as the 1-0 victory over Bournemouth lifted Arsenal into third place in the Premier League, one point behind Manchester City.
Photo credit: Premier League
The standings don’t mean much at this stage of the season because some teams will improve while some will fade away. Another factor to keep in mind is that the Gunners still haven’t played Manchester City, Chelsea and Leicester, which are more likely to finish in the Top 4 than Tottenham and Manchester United on current form. Nevertheless, Sunday’s win is a massive result for the club because it gives Emery more time to find his best team.
Some fans regretted that Arsenal played quite defensively for a game at the Emirates stadium. You can’t accuse Emery of not doing his homework. With 3 strikers in the starting lineup (Wilson, Solanke, King), that Bournemouth team was set up to hit the Gunners on the fast break.
The Cherries were so inhibited in the first half that Emery’s approach seemed way too cautious. But Bournemouth took control of the game in the second half, dominating ball possession and creating some decent chances. Any time the Gunners felt in danger, they dropped into a solid defensive shape so that there was no disorganization like in the Watford game.
In the end, that defensive focus paid off as Arsenal limited the Cherries to 10 shots compared to 31 shots for Watford. The obvious criticism against Emery is that the Gunners only managed to have 12 shots. Emery must find a better balance between defense and attack, especially at home where fans expect the team to grab games by the scruff of the neck.
Both ends of the pitch
Arsenal lost the control of the game in a nervy second half because they couldn’t boss the midfield. Emery tried to fix those midfield issues by replacing Ceballos with Willock in the 74th and Saka with Torreira in the 82nd. But Bournemouth kept threatening until the closing minutes.
To a certain extent, Emeryball is the opposite of Wengerball. In the last few seasons of Wenger’s reign, the Gunners used to dominate ball possession and boss the midfield because of their technical superiority. But they were often found out at both ends of the pitch, missing big chances in the final third and making mistakes in the defensive third.
Emery is not so much obsessed with ball possession and controlling the midfield. Instead, the Spanish manager emphasizes the transition game and efficiency at both ends of the pitch. When the transition game works, you get goals like the one scored by Ramsey against Fulham or the one scored by Aubameyang against Leicester. When the transition game fails, you get end-to-end plays like in a cheap basketball game.
The conversion rate of Aubameyang and Lacazette definitely shows Arsenal’s improved efficiency in the final third. It’s a different story in the defensive third. Emery has taken Mustafi out of the back four in the Premier League but the Gunners still make a lot of mistakes. Rebuilding the team was always going to be a long process. You just have to look at Manchester United to understand the scale of the task at Arsenal.
Making choices after the international break
Emery made 10 changes to the side that thrashed Standard de Liège on Thursday with only Ceballos retaining his starting spot. You could almost think that Emery has one lineup for Europa League games and another for the Premier League since there was just 1 change to the side that drew at Old Trafford a week ago with Ceballos replacing Torreira in the starting lineup. My guess is that Emery was simply managing the fitness of his players, hoping that everyone will be available after the international break to make the important choices.
Aubameyang didn’t get any decent service. He curled a shot wide of the far post in the sixth minute. Then he pounced on a poor clearance from the Bournemouth defense in the 23rd for a tame effort that Solanke cleared. On paper, Pepe, Saka and Ceballos were in charge of providing ammunitions to Aubameyang, but they didn’t create any big chance.
Despite making the assist for the winner with a pinpoint corner kick, Pepe didn’t make any key pass from open play. His only goal attempt was a mid-range curling shot that missed the target in the 19th. When Lacazette is fit again, Pepe could lose his starting spot because of his lack of end product. One play in the 47th summarized Pepe’s struggles: he dribbled past 3 Cherries only to leave the ball behind.
Defensively, Pepe also needs to step up. Bournemouth leftback Rico made 12 of his team’s 16 crosses because Pepe gave him too much freedom. Saka even had better stats than Pepe. The academy player made 3 tackles and 3 recoveries and had 2 key passes and a passing accuracy of 76.2% compared to 1 tackle, 3 recoveries, 1 key pass, and a passing accuracy of 66.7% for Pepe, according to whoscored.com. For an 18-year-old player, Saka didn’t look out of his depth. He tested Ramsdale with an angled strike in the 35th and made a crucial recovery in the 46th when the Cherries were creating chaos inside the Arsenal area.
Lack of creativity
The midfield has been an issue for the Gunners since the start of the season. The club spent £72 million on Pepe this summer to boost their firepower. At the time, that transfer decision made sense because Nketiah was the only back-up option if Aubameyang or Lacazette got injured. In hindsight, maybe the £72 million could have been better spent on signing a couple of midfielders.
Arsenal dominated the first half but couldn’t create clear-cut chances. Ceballos had a good game, leading all players with 3 key passes and 11 recoveries in 73 minutes. There was a touch of Cazorla when he made a crossfield pass to Saka in the sixth minute or when he set up Chambers for a volley in the 36th. Ceballos also showed off his dribbling skills with a nutmeg in the 41st. However, his delivery from corners was poor. The Real Madrid loanee failed to beat the first man in the fifth minute and overhit his corner in the 22nd.
The trouble is that Ceballos was the only creative player in the starting lineup. Some fans would love to see Ceballos and Ozil play together, but that scenario is unlikely because Ozil’s poor work-rate prevents Arsenal from implementing a high press. Would anybody seriously think that Ozil can make more than 10 recoveries in a game?
During the summer transfer window, the club definitely got the balance of the squad wrong. The Gunners lost 3 attacking midfielders (Ramsey, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan) but only signed Ceballos as a temporary replacement. That’s quite a contrast with the Arsenal of 2015 when Wenger had the choice between Cazorla, Ozil, Rosicky, Ramsey, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Some pundits may mention Liverpool as the example of a team playing without any creative midfielder. In Liverpool’s case, the creativity comes from Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Firmino. While Lacazette can play like a false nine and create chances, Saka and Pepe don’t have the end product of a Salah, just like Kolasinac and Chambers don’t have the skills of a Robertson or Alexander-Arnold.
Where’s the ballwinner?
Ceballos had an impact when the Gunners dominated the first half but he became useless when his team had to chase the ball in the second half. Arsenal lost the control of the game because neither Guendouzi nor Xhaka is a ballwinner. That’s another position that was overlooked by the club during the summer transfer window.
Xhaka led all players with 3 fouls. His work-rate was decent with 2 tackles and 8 recoveries, but his poor positional play and lack of mobility will always make him a defensive liability. Guendouzi made one important clearance in the 89th, preventing King from tapping home Danjuma’s pass, but he still had a weaker work-rate than Xhaka with 2 tackles and 4 recoveries.
Since last season, I’ve said that Xhaka and Guendouzi are not complementary because they have the same profile: they are both deep-lying playmakers with a lack of end product. Xhaka led all players with 61 passes but made 0 key pass compared to 1 key pass for Guendouzi. The Gunners could have put more pressure on Bournemouth in the first half, but they played at an average pace because Xhaka and Guendouzi are not as good as Cazorla or Fabregas at setting a high tempo.
At the back, Chambers and Kolasinac focused on their defensive duties, contributing very little offensively. Chambers made 4 tackles, 1 interception and 6 recoveries while Kolasinac made 3 tackles and 7 recoveries. By contrast, their impact in the final third was poor. Kolasinac and Chambers combined to make only 1 key pass and had 0 accurate cross out of 7 attempts, according to whoscored.com.
Kolasinac’s technique was especially shocking. He overhit his cross for Pepe in the 42nd and then made a lazy cross that led to a Bournemouth counterattack in the 84th. Chambers had a scoring chance in the 36th but sent his 13-yard volley wide. The Cherries exposed Chambers’ lack of pace, dribbling past him 3 times. But Chambers’ experience made the difference inside the Arsenal area. He prevented tap-ins by clearing Wilson’s cutback in the 51st and King’s cross in the 64th.
Luiz, a casual jogger
In the heart of the defense, Luiz and Sokratis had some poor moments. Luiz scored the winner but he also lost quite a few key duels. Bournemouth’s best chance came in the 51st. Luiz was pulled out of position by Wilson, who held the ball up before finding Solanke. The former Chelsea starlet outpaced Kolasinac to play the ball back to Wilson, who dribbled past Sokratis and rounded Leno to square the ball back to King, but Chambers read the play and cleared the danger. Luiz failed to stay with Wilson on that play. By casually jogging back toward the area, Luiz left Sokratis in a 1v1 situation with Wilson. A minute later, Luiz missed a clearance but Wilson could not make contact with Rico’s dangerous cross. In the closing minutes, Cook beat Luiz to the ball only to head a corner over the bar. In stoppage time, Wilson held off the Brazilian centerback but shot straight at Leno.
Sokratis didn’t cover himself in glory either. Solanke got ahead of Sokratis to meet Rico’s free kick in the 17th but missed the target with a free header. It was Wilson’s turn to get the better of Sokratis in the 47th but Luiz managed to block Wilson’s pass to Solanke. Sokratis also stupidly lost possession in the 74th by dallying on the ball. I expect Holding to start at centerback after the international break. He should be 100 percent match fit by then.
It’s definitely a bonus for the Gunners to be third in the Premier League despite missing Holding, Bellerin, Tierney and Lacazette through injury. Lacazette hasn’t played since the North London derby on Sept. 1 while the other three players haven’t featured in the league yet.
Hitting the nuclear button?
Despite this good start to the season, the knives are already out for Emery. Some Arsenal fans wanted his dismissal after the 2-2 draw at Watford. Can you imagine Manchester City fans calling for Guardiola’s sacking after the 2-0 loss to Wolverhampton at home? That wouldn’t make any sense, right? Some fans even hoped that the Gunners will miss out on a Top 4 finish to have Emery kicked out even though it would be more difficult for the club to attract a top manager and world-class players without the lure of Champions League football.
As long as the Gunners are in the Top 4 race, I believe that Emery has the right to stay at the club. Then the board will draw it own conclusions about Emery’s performance at the end of the season. Frankly, it’s madness to fire a manager after one season and a couple of months, especially when every reasonable person knew that rebuilding the squad would take several transfer windows. Can you imagine the kind of message it would send to prospective managers? Third place for a club in transition is not good enough!
I don’t want Arsenal to turn into a drama club like Chelsea or Manchester United. For some fans, it might be fun to hit the nuclear button, but then what next? Is it the beginning of a cycle of instability and player power?
Some fans don’t like Emery because the football played by the Gunners is boring. Fair enough. But I don’t think many managers would do much better with the current squad. The entire 5-6-10 spine is flawed. When Guardiola joined Manchester City, he already had a solid spine with Kompany, Fernandinho, Silva, De Bruyne and Aguero. By contrast, Klopp had to rebuild the entire spine at Liverpool by heavily spending on Alisson, Van Dijk, Fabinho, Salah and Mané.
Emery is not in the same class as Guardiola and Klopp. But he’s still among the 30 best active managers in the world. Some abusive fans call him a fraud even though Arsenal defeated Napoli twice in the Europa League last season. Yet, Liverpool lost to Napoli in the Champions League last month.
Some criticisms against Emery are fair. But when some fans don’t want to give him credit for anything and jump on any result to discredit him, that’s a hateful vendetta. And then you have crazy conspiracy theories like the one claiming that Ljungberg is the one managing the team in the Europa League. The danger with the Emery haters is that they could bring back the toxic atmosphere in the stands. That’s the last thing that the club needs in the middle of a rebuilding process.