Tag Archives: Arsenal

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

   The Gunners qualified for the quarterfinals of the Europa League by thrashing Rennes 3-0 in the second leg on Thursday. Arsenal, Chelsea, Napoli and Valencia are among the favorites left in the draw. Relying on the team that defeated Manchester United last weekend, Emery made only 2 changes with Mustafi replacing a suspended Sokratis while Cech got the nod over Leno. It was a physical game with a lot of duels and challenges. There were 29 fouls committed and that total could have been higher with a stricter referee.

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

   Arsenal got off to a flying start. Maitland-Niles picked out Ramsey, who made a blind cross for Aubameyang in the fifth minute. From 3 yards, Aubameyang converted the cross to open the scoring. Aubameyang then improvised a one-two with Ramsey before making a cross toward the far post where Maitland-Niles doubled the lead with a downward header in the 15th. TV replays showed Aubameyang was in an offside position. The goal stood because the VAR system will only be used for the Europa League final. The Gunners sealed the win in the 72nd when Mkhitaryan swapped passes with Ramsey and Aubameyang before releasing Kolasinac down the left flank. Kolasinac made a pinpoint low cross that Aubameyang tapped home.

   Rennes had a spell of domination in the beginning of the second half and nearly cut the lead to 2-1 when Niang’s low drive hit the post in the 47th. The French side threw the kitchen sink at Arsenal in the closing minutes with dangerous runs from Ben Arfa but offside calls saved the Gunners.

  1. Ramsey aging like fine wine

   The Wales midfielder showed his creative side, leading all players with 3 key passes. Ramsey set up Aubameyang for the opening goal and would have made a second assist if the Gabon striker had not missed a big chance in the 83rd. Spectators could see Ramsey’s passing range and vision through two half-chances. Lacazette chased a long ball from Ramsey in the fourth minute but Koubek beat the French striker by a split second to clear the danger. Ramsey then played the ball to Aubameyang along the touchline in the 50th. Aubameyang rounded Koubek but his cross for Lacazette was caught by the Rennes goalkeeper.  

   A few years ago, Ramsey lacked discipline in the role of a central midfielder. Now, he’s smarter in his reading of the game and more selective with his forward runs. His only scoring chance came in the 39th when Lacazette teed him up for a shot straight at Koubek. Defensively, Ramsey was tidy in possession with only 1 turnover compared to 3 for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The workload was more evenly distributed than against Manchester United. Ramsey won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception, Xhaka won 3 of 3 tackles and made 2 interceptions and Ozil won 2 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception.  

  1. Lacazette’s short fuse

   The French striker had an off day with 0 of 3 shots on target. One play in the 36th summed up his struggles on the pitch. The Gunners were hitting Rennes on the fast break and Lacazette should have delivered the final ball to his right. But Lacazette looked to his left and picked out Kolasinac in an offside position.

   Lacazette was allowed to play against Rennes because UEFA reduced his three-match ban to two games. You would think that Lacazette would be more careful after his ejection in Belarus. But he wasn’t. Lacazette got booked in the 31st for a rash tackle on Andre. And he nearly received a second yellow card in the 55th for a block attempt on Bensebaini, catching the defender’s foot with his follow-through. It was quite a relief when Emery replaced Lacazette with Iwobi in the 69th.  

  1. Aubameyang should have notched a hat trick

   The Gabon striker finished the game with 2 goals and 1 assist. But he also missed two big chances in the closing minutes. Aubameyang poked the ball wide in the 82nd after Iwobi had played him in. A minute later, Ramsey fed Aubameyang, who missed the target again by miskicking the ball from 8 yards. Aubameyang received a yellow card in the 73rd for wearing a Black Panther mask to celebrate his goal. He won’t be suspended for the next round but will need to be careful because yellow cards only expire on completion of the quarterfinals.      

  1. The wingbacks were on fire

   Maitland-Niles made the penultimate pass for the opening goal and netted the second goal while Kolasinac made the assist for the third goal. The Gunners have maybe found the balance on the flanks that has been missing since Bellerin’s injury. Jenkinson is a limited player while Lichtsteiner and Mustafi contribute very little offensively. It’s a big challenge for Maitland-Niles because he’s only 21 and consistency is still an issue at that age. Maitland-Niles showed outstanding work-rate, making 2 interceptions and leading all players by winning 5 of 6 tackles, according to whoscored.com. Among the highlights, Maitland-Niles made a sliding tackle on Ben Arfa in the 22nd while Kolasinac blocked Sarr’s close-range effort in the 61st.  

  1. Mustafi was the weak link at the back

   The German defender was caught in possession on the edge of the box in the 47th, offering Rennes their best scoring chance of the game. He also gave the ball away in the 67th but the French side couldn’t capitalize on that blunder. Technically, Mustafi was very poor with a passing accuracy of 62%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters according to whoscored.com. Assuming Holding’s rehab goes according to plan, the Gunners should sell Mustafi this summer to boost their transfer kitty.

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Arsenal vs. Manchester United: Gunners ride their luck in 2-0 win

   The Gunners showed a lot of steel and resilience in their 2-0 win over Manchester United to move into fourth place in the Premier League on Sunday. While Manchester City and Liverpool are contending for the title, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United are fighting for the two remaining Champions League spots. The Gunners are 1 point behind Spurs, but 2 points clear of the Red Devils and 3 points ahead of the Blues, who have a game in hand.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   With 60 points from 30 games, the Gunners have 12 more points than last season. There are two main reasons for that difference. Under Wenger, Arsenal had mediocre results against the Top 6 clubs and suffered from a poor away form. The Gunners have won 12 points against the Big Six under Emery (4 points vs. Spurs, 4 points vs. Manchester United, 3 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City), whereas they only earned 6 points last season (3 points vs. Spurs, 0 point vs. Manchester United, 2 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City).

   The Gunners are on course to finish the season with 76 points. I believe Arsenal must reach that target to have a good shot at a Top 4 finish. Liverpool secured fourth place with 76 points in 2017 and 75 points in 2018. You may point out that Manchester City finished fourth with only 66 points under Pellegrini in 2016, but that was a different era. The arrivals of Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have made the Premier League much more competitive.

Emery trusting Ramsey in central midfield

   If you take a look at the graph below, you can see that Arsenal lost some momentum in December after dropping points against Southampton, Brighton and Liverpool. By collecting 13 points from their last 5 league games, the Gunners have managed to increase their cruising speed to 2.0 points per game, which is the required average to finish with 76 points.

Arsenal tally comparison 2019Comparing Arsenal’s 2017-18 season and the current season

 

   Arsenal won’t face any Top 6 club in their run-in but their schedule is no gimme. They have home games against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Brighton and away games against Wolverhampton, Everton, Watford, Leicester and Burnley. If we assume that the Gunners will win their home games and draw their away games, they would still be 2 points short of the 76-point target. It means that one away win would be necessary to reach 76 points.

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that was defeated in Rennes with Lacazette, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac and Leno replacing Iwobi, Torreira, Mkhitaryan, Mustafi and Cech in the starting lineup. Torreira was serving a three-match ban while Mkhitaryan was sidelined by a back injury. Most fans were not surprised that Emery left Mustafi and Guendouzi on the bench. Mustafi gave away a silly penalty against Spurs while Guendouzi showed a blatant lack of effort against Rennes.

   The only real surprise was to see both Ozil and Ramsey playing in a fluid 3-4-3 formation. It was the first time since the 2-0 win over Watford in September that Ramsey and Ozil started together. Ozil reads the game better than Iwobi, so I guess the plan was to have the German playmaker deliver the final ball to Aubameyang and Lacazette. To a certain extent, the starting lineup had a Wengerian feel with Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield. Emery prefers to deploy Ramsey as a false 10 or as a second striker. But on Sunday the Spanish manager played Ramsey in central midfield for the first time this season.

United’s tactical ploy

   Xhaka opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a swerving shot from 29 yards. Then Aubameyang converted a soft penalty in the 69th after Fred shoved Lacazette from behind. The Gunners really rode their luck because the Red Devils created 5 big chances compared to none for Arsenal if we except the penalty. Emery got a lot of credit from TV pundits after the game but I thought the Arsenal defense looked shaky at times.

   Two of those 5 big chances came from crosses. Shaw played a one-two with Pogba in the ninth minute before making a cross for Lukaku, who hit the bar from close range with a bouncing volley. Maitland-Niles failed to stay with Shaw on that play while Monreal lost his duel with Lukaku at the far post. In stoppage time, Young made a cross for Rashford, who had a free header from 9 yards but sent the ball straight into Leno’s arms. Iwobi failed to close down Young on that play while Maitland-Niles left Rashford unmarked. That vulnerability on crosses is a legacy of the Wenger era that Emery hasn’t fixed yet.

   The Gunners also failed to adjust to the tactical ploy used for the other 3 big chances. Lukaku and Rashford often dropped off to find space between the defense and the midfield. Lukaku hit a ball over the top for Rashford, who shot wide in the 28th. Monreal should have been tight to Lukaku on that play, while Koscielny missed his clearance by attempting a stupid high kick instead of heading the ball away. Lukaku and Rashford swapped roles in the 36th. Rashford slipped a through ball to Lukaku, who was denied by Leno. Sokratis gave Rashford too much time on the ball while Lukaku took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line to make a run between Koscielny and Monreal.

   You would expect the wide centerbacks (Sokratis and Monreal) to understand at halftime the need for pressing Lukaku and Rashford when they drop off. But the same situation happened again in the 51st. Sokratis failed to close down Rashford, who played Lukaku clean through on goal. Leno somehow managed to divert Lukaku’s 9-yard shot over the bar. Monreal made the mistake of trying to play Lukaku offside instead of tracking him.

A streetwise Leno

   Leno was the main reason why Arsenal kept a clean sheet. The German goalkeeper definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. Besides his 4 saves, Leno also sprinted outside the box to intercept a ball over the top for Lukaku in the 47th and quickly came off his line to catch Pogba’s through ball for Rashford in the 65th.

   There were some question marks when Leno joined the club. Why was he not part of Germany’s World Cup squad, knowing that a flawed goalkeeper like Trapp still managed to make the cut? The doubts grew louder when Leno made a couple of errors leading to a goal in the first half of the season. But Leno worked hard to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League. He is now more streetwise in aerial duels.  

   Emery relied on an experienced back three to cope with the threat of Lukaku and Rashford. But Koscielny, Monreal and Sokratis nearly made a mess of it. Despite the fresh memory of his red card against Rennes in the Europa League, Sokratis dived in again and got booked in the 37th for a mistimed challenge on Pogba. Some fans had the jitters when Monreal made a sliding challenge on Lukaku in the 36th. Monreal didn’t win the ball but at least he didn’t bring Lukaku down inside the area either.

   Playing as a sweeper, Koscielny blocked Fred’s shot with his ribs in the 51st. Koscielny was the captain of the team but he didn’t have the leadership skills to sort out the tactical problem created by Lukaku and Rashford when they dropped off to deliver the final ball. Because Arsenal played a relatively high defensive line, it was crucial that Sokratis and Monreal press the United strikers. The Gunners definitely need an organizer at the back who can spot and correct tactical issues without waiting for the manager’s instructions.

Maitland-Niles’ inexperience and desire

   In the wingback position, Emery gave Maitland-Niles the nod over Mustafi. Maitland-Niles’ performance was a mixed bag. I thought he was too easily beaten down the right flank in the first half. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and made some decisive contributions, intercepting Lukaku’s ball over the top in the 17th, breaking up play with a sliding tackle in the 63rd, winning a foot race with Rashford to win the ball back in the 89th, and dispossessing Martial inside the area in the 90th.

   Maitland-Niles still showed his inexperience on the 2 crosses that led to big chances for the Red Devils. Despite those blemishes, Emery might be tempted to trust Maitland-Niles in that position for the rest of the season, especially if he shows the same desire. Maitland-Niles won 2 of 4 tackles and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 interceptions, according to the club’s website.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac was able to attack in the opening minutes, making a teasing cross for Lacazette, who couldn’t make contact with the ball at the near post. But Solskjaer’s tactical tweak in the first half, shifting from a flat 4-4-2 formation to a 3-5-2 system, put Arsenal on the back foot and forced Kolasinac to defend. Kolasinac finished the game with 11 recoveries. Only Fred had more with 12.

   The Gunners bossed the midfield in the opening minutes with Xhaka, Ramsey and Ozil outmuscling Matic and Fred. This led to Solskjaer’s tactical tweak, moving Pogba from a wide position to the No. 10 role to match Arsenal in midfield. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries and led all players with 64 passes, while Ramsey was the more mobile of the 2 central midfielders and showed outstanding work-rate, making 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries and leading all players by winning 3 of 7 tackles, according to the club’s website. The Wales midfielder had even better stats on whoscored.com, winning 7 of 8 tackles. I tend to prefer stats from the Arsenal website, which are more conservative and safer to use.

Limiting Pogba’s influence  

   Wenger always relied on Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield last season. I was wondering why Emery was reluctant to use Ramsey alongside Xhaka and preferred to play him in a more advanced position. That must have been because of Ramsey’s end product in the final third because on Sunday Ramsey showed that he could defend, too. The duo needed to step up because Ozil’s work-rate was poor with just 1 interception and 3 recoveries. Xhaka made a crucial sliding clearance on the stroke of halftime to protect Arsenal’s lead while Ramsey was so focused on his defensive duties that he only had 1 scoring chance. Maitland-Niles cut the ball back for Ramsey, who blazed over the bar in the 22nd.

   The duo did a good job to limit Pogba’s influence. Apparently frustrated, Pogba caught Ramsey’s neck with a high arm in the 54th before getting booked in the 76th for fouling Xhaka. The only time Pogba managed to really pull the strings was in the 65th when Fred dispossessed Ramsey to find Pogba. Free of his minders, Pogba slipped a through ball to Rashford, who lost his duel with Leno. Because Xhaka lacks mobility and Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder, the Gunners allowed some dangerous long-range strikes. Fred hit the post with a 25-yard drive in the 19th while Pogba fired a 30-yard effort straight at Leno in the 26th. Maybe the more mobile Torreira would have been able to block those shots.  

   It wasn’t a game for attacking players. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes but couldn’t create any clear-cut chance. His technical quality still helped Arsenal retain ball possession. Ozil led all starters with a passing accuracy of 91.2%, according to whoscored.com. He also made smart runs to be an easy passing option for his teammates and was unlucky to be flagged offside twice despite being level with the last defender.

Aubameyang’s risky technique for penalties

   Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to have only 1 of 9 shots on target because most of those shots were taken from unfavorable positions. Lacazette had the best half-chance in the 24th, bullying Lindelof to fire a strike from 18 yards that deflected off Smalling for a corner. The French forward lacked a bit of composure in the 71st when Lindelof misjudged the bounce of the ball following a header from Sokratis. Lacazette pounced on the loose ball only to drag his shot wide from 15 yards.

   To his credit, Lacazette won the penalty for the second goal with a penetrative run in the 68th. Lacazette outpaced Fred, who shoved him from behind. Aubameyang was gutsy enough to take the spot kick just a week after missing one against Spurs. The Gabon striker waited for De Gea to dive before rolling the ball into the middle of the net. I’m not a fan of that kind of technique and definitely prefer when the penalty taker hits the corners of the net.  

   Emery’s narrow formation gave Shaw and Young a lot of freedom when Solskjaer shifted to a 4-3-3 system in the 70th with Martial replacing Dalot and then to a 4-4-2 system in the 81st with Greenwood replacing Matic. So the Spanish manager decided to shut up shop by shifting to a 5-4-1 formation with Iwobi replacing Ozil in the 76th and Suarez taking Aubameyang’s spot in the 80th. Iwobi didn’t really help with 5 turnovers in his short cameo. Only Lacazette had more with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Likewise, Suarez was too easily brushed off the ball at times. The Spaniard was dribbled past twice, tied with Xhaka and Maitland-Niles for the most by any Gunner. Suarez has two months and a half to prove his worth, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to sign him.  

   The Gunners next face Rennes in the second leg of their Europa League encounter. They need a victory by at least 2 goals on Thursday to qualify for the quarterfinals. Emery should field his best team since it will be the last game before the international break. He will miss Lacazette and Sokratis through suspension, but the squad is strong enough to cope without those two players.

 

Rennes vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 3-1 loss

   The Gunners are on the verge of elimination in the Europa League after losing 3-1 to Rennes on Thursday in the first leg of their last-16 encounter. They will miss Sokratis and Lacazette for the second leg next week. The Greek defender picked up two yellow cards while Lacazette is still serving a three-game ban.

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

   Arsenal opened the scoring with a cross-shot from Iwobi in the fourth minute. They had a couple of chances to lead 2-0 before Sokratis’ ejection in the 41st. Iwobi found Torreira, whose 12-yard effort was parried by Koubek in the 12th. Then Torreira teed up Mustafi, who rifled wide from a good position in the 30th. Under siege in the second half, the Gunners could have snatched a 2-2 draw against the run of play in the 68th but Ozil shot straight at the goalkeeper from 10 yards.

  1. Arsenal should focus on recruiting in France

Wenger led Arsenal to 3 Premier League titles by signing some of the best French players (Henry, Vieira, Pires, Petit, Anelka, Wiltord). Nowadays, the Gunners are no longer contenders because their scouting department is doing a poor job in the French league. It’s no coincidence if the club has missed out on the top prospects in the past few years, whether it’s French players (Mbappe, Pogba, Martial, Kante, Dembele, Varane, Umtiti, Lemar, Mendy, Ndombele) or non-French players (Hazard, Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, Pjanic, Azpilicueta).

   Rennes used 13 players last night. Nine of them (Zeffane, Da Silva, Bourigeaud, Grenier, Andre, Hunou, Ben Arfa, Lea-Siliki, Gelin) grew up in French football academies. The other four players (Bensebaini, Sarr, Mexer, Koubek) learned their trade in Algeria, Senegal, Mozambique and the Czech Republic. France arguably has the best football academies in the world because they provide a smart mix of technique and physicality.

   The Arsenal board has big calls to make in the scouting department. Mislintat, Arsenal’s head of recruitment, left last month, while Grimandi, Arsenal’s chief scout in France, joined French club Nice as technical director this week. Overmars and Monchi are among the favorites for the position of sporting director at the club. Could they improve Arsenal’s recruitment on a limited budget?

  1. Emery’s tactical choices were puzzling

   When the referee sent Sokratis off in the 41st, the logical move would have been to replace Ozil with Maitland-Niles and switch to a 4-4-1 formation. But Emery made a bolder decision by shifting Mkhitaryan to the rightback position in an improvised 4-2-3 system. That gamble worked to a certain extent since Mkhitaryan won 4 of 6 tackles and made 1 interception, according to whoscored.com.

   Noticing that the Gunners were struggling in midfield and on the left flank, Emery sent on Guendouzi for Iwobi in the 53rd, switching to a 4-3-2 formation with Aubameyang and Ozil playing in the front two. Rennes’ second goal led to a like-for-like substitution with Ramsey replacing Ozil in the 70th. That substitution came too late as Ozil’s poor work-rate definitely helped Rennes dominate the game.

   Emery’s final substitution was probably the weirdest one. The Spanish manager yanked Aubameyang off to send on Kolasinac. On paper, it could have been a 4-4-1 system with Kolasinac on the left wing. But on the pitch, Kolasinac played like a free roaming midfielder alongside Ramsey in a 4-3-2 formation. Nketiah would have been a better choice if Emery wanted a player to combine with Ramsey up front.  

  1. Sokratis is not a dominant centerback

   The Greek defender is an upgrade on Mustafi but he’s not a world-class centerback like Koscielny in his prime. I was surprised by the praise Sokratis received after the North London derby. Many fans seemed to forget about his mistakes in the first half of the season. On Thursday, Sokratis panicked against a team sitting in 10th place in the French league. Sokratis gave away a free kick in the 27th with a challenge from behind on Hunou. He was then booked in the 33rd for blocking Ben Arfa’s run. Sokratis received a second yellow card in the 41st for killing a Rennes counterattack by tripping Sarr. It was a silly foul because Koscielny was covering Sokratis and because Rennes capitalized on the free kick to equalize. The Gunners will need to make fewer fouls in the second leg because Grenier, Ben Arfa and Bourigeaud are free-kick specialists.  

  1. Monreal has lost a step

   It’s not the first time this season that Monreal makes an opponent look like Usain Bolt. Monreal simply couldn’t cope with Sarr’s pace. He performed well against Tottenham, but at 33 you kind of wonder if Monreal can still play two games a week at 100 percent. Monreal was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy also dipped to 65.6%, the lowest percentage for any outfield starter. Monreal was unlucky to turn Zeffane’s cross into his own net in the 65th, but he was guilty of switching off defensively on that play, hoping for an offside call against Hunou instead of chasing the ball down the left flank. The Spaniard struggled defensively but his work-rate was not an issue: he led all players by winning 7 of 10 tackles and making 5 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.    

  1. Mustafi’s desire was questionable

   Does Mustafi enjoy playing at rightback? After fouling Ben Arfa in the 12th, Mustafi stayed on the ground, complaining about his leg. The German defender collapsed to the ground again in the 21st as if he had not recovered from that knock. That’s how a player would behave to get substituted. But when Mustafi moved back to the centerback position in the 41st, he stopped hobbling around. Mustafi’s work-rate was poor: he won 1 tackle and made 0 interception, compared to 1 tackle won and 2 interceptions for Koscielny and 4 tackles won and 1 interception for Mkhitaryan. He also lived up to his reputation as an error-prone player by giving the ball away in the 69th, forcing Cech to turn Ben Arfa’s shot around the post.  

  1. The midfield was shambolic

   Down to 10 men, the Gunners could not rely on their midfielders to shield the defense. Xhaka’s lack of mobility was badly exposed in the holding midfielder role. The Switzerland international won 0 tackle and made 0 interception, compared to 1 tackle won and 3 interceptions for Torreira. Sokratis earned his first booking in the 33rd because he tried to make up for Xhaka’s turnover. Xhaka couldn’t cope with Ben Arfa’s movement and received a yellow card in the 61st for pulling back the Rennes playmaker. Ben Arfa led all players with 3 key passes and 7 successful dribbles out of 12, according to whoscored.com.  

   Emery tried to beef up the midfield by replacing Iwobi with Guendouzi in the 53rd, but the French teenager was too casual with 3 turnovers in 40 minutes compared to 0 turnover for Torreira and 2 for Xhaka. Guendouzi also showed a lack of defensive awareness in the 88th. After Monreal’s pass was intercepted on the edge of the Rennes box, Guendouzi let Sarr run past him instead of covering Monreal in the leftback position. An unmarked Sarr headed home Lea-Siliki’s cross for a 3-1 lead.      

  1. Iwobi lacks spontaneity

   To his credit, Iwobi scored the away goal that gives Arsenal a bit of hope for the second leg. But he wasted a couple of good situations because of a lack of spontaneity. When Ozil released Iwobi on the left flank in the 23rd, the Nigeria international could have made a quick cross. But he preferred to take his time, shifting the ball to his right foot for a telegraphed cross that Koubek punched away. When Monreal cut the ball back in the 25th, Iwobi could have taken a first-time shot, but he tried to control the ball and lost possession with a poor first touch. And when the Gunners launched a counterattack in the 48th, Iwobi failed to release the ball quickly enough. He dallied on the ball and his pass for Torreira was intercepted.

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Gunners let down by strikers in 1-1 draw

  The Gunners drew 1-1 with Tottenham on Saturday to slip to fifth place in the Premier League, 4 points behind their North London rivals and 1 behind Manchester United. There was a lot of talk about some officiating decisions, but those poor calls will still be made as long as the Premier League doesn’t have the VAR system. The harsh reality is that Arsenal could have won the game if Lacazette and Aubameyang had converted some big chances. On the bright side, the Gunners won more points in North London derbies than Pochettino’s Spurs for the very first time. Under Emery, Arsenal earned 4 points out of 6 this season. Under Wenger, the Gunners only collected 1 point in the 2014-15 season, 2 points in 2015-16, 1 point in 2016-17 and 3 points last season.

Spurs vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that smashed Bournemouth on Wednesday with Lacazette, Ramsey, Iwobi, Xhaka and Mustafi replacing Aubameyang, Ozil, Kolasinac, Torreira and Jenkinson in the starting lineup. I thought the Spanish manager got his team selection and his game plan right. The bastardized 4-4-2 formation was a bit of a surprise because Emery relied on a back three in the previous away games.

   Up front, Lacazette got the nod over Aubameyang because of his better all-around game. In midfield, Ramsey played as a second striker when Arsenal had the ball. When the Gunners lost possession, Ramsey helped Xhaka and Guendouzi to match the work-rate of Sissoko, Wanyama and Eriksen. On the flanks, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan provided width while tracking the runs of Trippier and Rose. At the back, Monreal and Mustafi kept an eye on Son and Kane whenever they tried to run in the channels.

   Emery clearly adopted a cautious approach. Instead of pressing high up the pitch, the Gunners waited near the halfway line to prevent Tottenham from finding space for runs in behind the defense. Spurs were toothless until the 44th minute when they finally had their first scoring chance.

Ramsey’s love story with Wembley

   Surprisingly, Pochettino started the game with a conservative 3-5-2 formation. Forced to chase an equalizer in the second half, Pochettino switched to a 3-4-3 system in the 59th when Lamela replaced Wanyama. The Argentine manager made another tactical change in the 70th by moving Rose to a central midfield position in a 4-3-3 formation. Those moves paid off as Tottenham leveled in the 74th.

   Emboldened by Kane’s goal, Pochettino tried to put more pressure on the Arsenal defense by replacing Son with Llorente in the 79th, switching to an improvised 4-4-2 system with Llorente and Kane up front and Eriksen and Lamela in the wide positions. Pochettino spotted Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses, but that emphasis on aerial duels came at the expense of Spurs’ passing game.  

   The Gunners will definitely miss Ramsey next season. As a link player, Ramsey can link defense and attack by winning the ball in midfield, delivering the final ball and being a goal threat. We have no player in the squad with that kind of profile. Three years ago, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain could have played in that role. Now an aging Cazorla is finishing his career at Villarreal while Oxlade-Chamberlain has improved under Klopp at Liverpool. Signing a link player should be a priority for the club this summer.

   Ramsey scored the opening goal with a dash from his own half in the 16th. Sanchez initially misjudged the flight of a clearance from Xhaka and missed his header. The ball fell to Lacazette, who played Ramsey clean through on goal with a first-time pass. Ramsey faked a curling shot by opening his body up and rounded Lloris to knock the ball into an empty net.

The power of anticipation

   As you can see on the screen capture below, Tottenham played an incredibly high defensive line. As the last defender, Sanchez was more than 70 yards away from his goal. When Ramsey started his run, Vertonghen and Alderweireld were already out of position. And Wanyama was on the same line as Ramsey when Sanchez was about to head the ball. Ramsey’s genius here was to anticipate and believe that Lacazette would somehow win the ball and start a counterattack.

Spur vs. Arsenal M16a edited.jpgVertonghen and Alderweireld are out of position while Ramsey runs past them. (Photo credit: NBC)

   As you can see on the next screen capture, there was no offside since Ramsey was still in his own half when Lacazette made the pass. Ramsey built a four-yard lead over Wanyama because the Spurs midfielder slowed down for a split second, thinking that Sanchez would head the ball.

Spur vs. Arsenal M16b edited.jpgTottenham’s back three can’t catch Ramsey, clean through on goal. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Besides his goal, Ramsey worked hard for the team, winning 1 of 1 tackle, and making 1 block, 3 fouls, and 7 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Ramsey also put off Alderweireld, who fired into the side-netting in the 55th after Mustafi poorly cleared a free kick. Emery replaced a tiring Ramsey with Ozil in the 72nd. It didn’t prove a good omen as Kane won the penalty for the equalizer a minute later.

   Ramsey converted the only scoring chance that he had. It was a lot of hard work because Ramsey ran 80 yards from Xhaka’s clearance to the moment the ball rolled into the back of the net. Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t have to run that hard for the big chances that they missed.

   Lacazette could have opened the scoring by the second minute when Iwobi’s pass took a heavy deflection off Wanyama and fell into his path. From 8 yards, Lacazette attempted a volley with his weaker left foot, but he completely miscued his shot and the ball lazily bounced wide. Lacazette had a better chance when Monreal overlapped with Iwobi to cut the ball back in the 53rd. From 8 yards, an unmarked Lacazette missed the target with his right foot. Emery felt that it wasn’t Lacazette’s day and replaced the French striker with Aubameyang in the 56th.

The need to be clinical in the big games

   Mkhitaryan won the ball in the 72nd and fed Aubameyang, who was dispossessed by Sissoko inside area before he could even pull the trigger. The Borussia Dortmund connection worked again in the 89th when Mkhitaryan beat Vertonghen along the touchline with some great footwork. Leading a counterattack, Mkhitaryan picked out Aubameyang, who made a run in behind Sanchez. There was minimal contact between Aubameyang and Sanchez when the Gabon striker fell inside the area. But the referee still awarded the Gunners a penalty. From the moment the referee gave Spurs a penalty for Mustafi’s shove on Kane, it was very likely that he would try to compensate in a similar situation for Arsenal.  

   Aubameyang had the opportunity to be the hero by converting that spot kick. He usually waits for the goalkeeper to dive before kicking the ball in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, Lloris proved even more patient. Instead of anticipating, Lloris decided to react to the shot. With no giveaway from Lloris, Aubameyang hit a tame shot that was poorly placed and that Lloris palmed away. The rebound fell to Iwobi ,who squared the ball back to Aubameyang. It should have been a simple tap-in. But Vertonghen, who was encroaching into the area, made the block and deflected Aubameyang’s shot over the bar.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M91 edited.jpgAubameyang’s poor shot placement. (Photo credit: NBC)

   If you’re the manager, you probably tell Aubameyang to change his penalty routine because other goalkeepers will wait like Lloris did. It’s time for Aubameyang to hit the corners at Colney. Aubameyang could have redeemed himself in stoppage time. Torreira spread the ball to the right wing, where Aubameyang could have set up Ozil for a 9-yard shot. But Aubameyang played the ball behind Ozil, allowing Sanchez to clear the danger. In the big games, strikers need to be clinical because they won’t have many chances. I couldn’t help myself and think that Henry or Van Persie would have converted one of those big chances. But here’s the difference: Henry and Van Persie were world-class players while Lacazette and Aubameyang are just very good strikers.  

Iwobi’s decision-making

   In the wide positions, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi provided the creative touch. They led all players with 3 successful dribbles each, according to whoscored.com. Iwobi made 2 key passes while Mkhitaryan led all players with 2 accurate through balls. Pochettino’s pressing game limited the Gunners’ passing accuracy to 63.5%, compared to 77.6% for Spurs. Mkhitaryan proved highly valuable in the transition game as he led Arsenal starters with a passing accuracy of 75%, compared to 72% for Ramsey and 66.7% for Iwobi.

   Trippier had Iwobi in his pocket, winning 6 of 6 tackles. Yet, Iwobi had two occasions to shine. In the second minute, Iwobi made a pass that took a heavy deflection off Wanyama and accidentally led to Lacazette’s first scoring chance. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had in fact a better option with Ramsey making a run in the big gap between Sanchez and Alderweireld.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M2a edited.jpgIwobi fails to slip a through ball to Ramsey. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Iwobi held onto the ball too long, forcing Ramsey and Lacazette to check their runs. As you can see on the next screen capture, Iwobi killed the momentum of the play as there was less space for a pass. When Iwobi finally decided to feed Lacazette, both Sanchez and Wanyama were in a good position to intercept the pass. But Wanyama put the Tottenham defense in trouble by inadvertently redirecting the ball into Lacazette’s path.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M2b edited.jpgSanchez and Wanyama are ready to intercept Iwobi’s pass to Lacazette. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Poor decision-making has held Iwobi’s development back. Emery can show him thousands of videos, but in the end Iwobi is the one making the decisions on the pitch. Is Iwobi overthinking in those situations? Or is he simply unable to see the best passing option? You put Ozil in the same situation and I bet you he plays Ramsey clean through on goal.  

   Another issue has been Iwobi’s poor finishing. Iwobi has a tendency to aim at the middle of the net. As a result, Lloris had no trouble to save Iwobi’s 15-yard curling shot in the 41st. Hopefully, Iwobi will have more competition on the left wing next season when Nelson returns from his loan spell at Hoffenheim.  

Torreira’s ejection

   Defensively, Iwobi put in a shift and even had better stats than Mkhitaryan, which is unusual. Iwobi won 1 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries, while Mkhitaryan won 1 of 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Nigeria international still needs to improve his defensive awareness. He forgot to track Trippier a couple of times.

   In midfield, Guendouzi got the nod over Torreira, who has suffered a dip of form since the end of December. Guendouzi had a decent game, making 3 recoveries and winning 2 of 2 tackles and 66.7% of his duels. He was charged with an error for giving the ball away to Vertonghen in the 39th.

   At halftime, Emery was worried about Eriksen’s impact and therefore sent on Torreira for Guendouzi in the 46th. As a natural ballwinner, Torreira was more suited to mark Eriksen than Guendouzi. The Uruguay international made a crucial clearance as the last defender to kill a counterattack in the 62nd. In the last minute of stoppage time, Torreira won the ball with a sliding tackle but planted his studs into Rose’s shin with his follow-through. The referee thought the challenge was dangerous and sent Torreira off. I thought it was a fair call because Torreira was not in control. Of course, some fans will point out the referee’s inconsistency. Why did he not give Rose a straight red card for banging Leno’s belly with his studs in the 68th?

   In the holding midfielder role, Xhaka showed good work-rate by making 1 tackle, 1 interception and 10 recoveries. The trouble is that Xhaka is not a natural defensive midfielder because of his lack of mobility. He made 3 fouls and was dribbled past 3 times, tied with Trippier for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. The Switzerland international was very lucky not to receive a red card in the 13th for a tackle from behind on Kane.

Thinking about the transfer market

   At the back, Monreal produced an outstanding performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 92.3% of his duels and leading all players with 4 interceptions and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Monreal especially won a crucial challenge to stop Son’s mazy run in the 27th. The Spaniard was very selective in his forward runs but he still managed to make an important contribution by setting up Lacazette in the 53rd.

   On the opposite flank, Mustafi didn’t work as hard as Monreal, winning 2 of 4 tackles and 50% of his duels and making just 2 interceptions and 1 recovery. Mustafi struggled to cope with Tottenham’s high press as his passing accuracy dipped to 43.3%, the lowest percentage for any Gunner. The German defender showed in the 73rd that he will always have an error in him. On a set piece, Mustafi shoved Kane from behind to give away a cheap penalty. TV replays showed that Kane was offside. Would Kane have been flagged offside if Mustafi had not made the foul? Kane sent Leno the wrong way to level the game. In stoppage time, Mustafi gave away a free kick with another silly foul on Kane.  

   There’s no way Mustafi can be in the starting lineup if the Gunners want to contend for the title in the next few years. Mustafi’s only asset is that he’s younger than Koscielny and Sokratis and more experienced than Holding. But otherwise, Mustafi is weaker than those 3 centerbacks. The club has a big decision to make this summer. They must sell Mustafi, Chambers and Jenkinson to fund transfers. Then they must decide where is the recruitment priority at the back. Should they sign a leftback because Monreal has lost a step and Kolasinac lacks defensive awareness? Or a centerback because Koscielny is getting old, Mavropanos is still raw and Holding will miss the start of the season? Or a rightback because Lichtsteiner is too slow, Maitland-Niles is still raw and Bellerin will miss a few months?

Leno’s double save

   Koscielny and Sokratis did a good job to keep Kane and Son quiet. The French veteran got the better of Kane in the 16th to start the play for the opening goal, while Sokratis blocked a dangerous cross from Son in the 33rd. The only weakness of the pair of centerbacks was in the air: Koscielny and Sokratis won only 60% and 40% of their aerial duels, respectively, according to whoscored.com. I thought Dixon’s comment on NBC was quite telling. The Arsenal legend claimed that Mustafi fouled Kane for the penalty because he didn’t trust Koscielny to win the header.

   I was a bit surprised by the praise Sokratis received after the match. Koscielny looked more solid than Sokratis, who made a couple of mistakes. Sokratis gave the ball away to Son in the 11th, was caught ball-watching when Eriksen tested Leno in the 44th, and fouled Lamela in the 73rd for the free kick that led to the penalty.

   There’s not much Leno could do to save Kane’s penalty. The German goalkeeper did his homework and dived in the corner where Kane usually dispatches most of his spot kicks. To Leno’s credit, he protected Arsenal’s lead with a spectacular double save before halftime. Iwobi failed to track Trippier, who found Kane on the edge of the box in the 44th. The England striker made a clipped pass for Eriksen, who ghosted past Sokratis for a 7-yard effort that Leno stopped wth his leg. The rebound fell to Sissoko, whose powerful strike was parried by Leno with a firm hand. Leno also reacted quickly enough when Mkhitaryan missed his clearance in the 68th. Rose chested the ball down, but Leno came off his line to deny the English fullback.

   The Gunners next visit Rennes in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday. The priority is to get 3 points against the Red Devils, who are direct rivals for a Top 4 finish. Torreira’s suspension will make Emery’s job more difficult. Arsenal will need to stop Pogba and Pereira in midfield. Ramsey is the obvious choice to mark those players when they drop off. When they charge forward, Emery will have to find an alternative to Torreira. Xhaka and Guendouzi are not defensive midfielders and don’t have the pace to track Pogba. Playing Maitland-Niles in central midfield could be an interesting gamble although his turnover rate would be an obvious concern.

 

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth: Ozil & Mkhitaryan show talent in 5-1 win

   Ozil and Mkhitaryan were the driving force behind Arsenal’s 5-1 demolition of Bournemouth on Wednesday. The Gunners consolidated fourth place in the Premier League but also closed the gap with Spurs to 4 points before Saturday’s North London derby.

Arsenal vs. BournemouthPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery’s rotation policy paid off. The Spanish manager made 6 changes to the side that sank Southampton 2-0 last weekend with only Mkhitaryan, Torreira, Kolasinac, Sokratis and Leno retaining their starting spots. Xhaka, Ramsey, Mustafi and Lichtsteiner were rested while Iwobi, Lacazette and Suarez came off the bench in the second half.

   The Gunners played at an average tempo in a conservative 3-4-3 formation with Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang in the front three while Kolasinac and Jenkinson provided width as wingbacks. It initially looked like a strange tactical choice for a home game but it somehow worked. Emery then switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation when Iwobi replaced Kolasinac in the 57th minute.

   Arsenal proved quite clinical, scoring 5 goals from 6 shots on target while Bournemouth could only find the net once from 5 shots on target. In the fourth minute, Kolasinac headed a long ball into the path of Mkhitaryan, who miscontrolled it. But Kolasinac pounced on the loose ball to make a first-time pass for Ozil. Taking advantage of a dysfunctional Bournemouth defense, Ozil bore down on goal and chipped Boruc to open the scoring. Mkhitaryan combined with Ozil to double the lead in the 27th. The Armenia international found Ozil inside the area. Ozil faked a curling shot by opening up his body and teed up Mkhitaryan, who volleyed home from 10 yards.

   The two players were again involved in Arsenal’s third goal. Mkhitaryan played a one-two with Ozil in the 47th before making a low cross for Koscielny, who scored with a close-range strike that took a deflection off a defender and ricocheted off the post. The Gunners’ fourth goal in the 59th was a one-pass counterattack. Daniels gave the ball away to Mkhitaryan, who ran 30 yards before slipping a through ball to Aubameyang. The Gabon striker rounded Boruc to score into an empty net. The last goal was the only one that didn’t involve Ozil or Mkhitaryan. Lacazette replaced Mkhitaryan in the 64th and curled a free kick into the bottom corner to put the result beyond doubt in the 78th.

Mkhitaryan’s hot run of form

   Ozil and Mkhitaryan were both brilliant against Bournemouth and many fans must wonder why they haven’t been able to show more consistency this season. They led all players with 4 key passes each. Ozil’s high technical quality is no secret. He led Arsenal starters with a passing accuracy of 96.9%. His understanding with Aubameyang is still a work in progress. Aubameyang was flagged offside when he collected a through ball from Ozil in the 20th. Their partnership improved in the second half. Aubameyang charged down the right flank in the 54th to cut the ball back for Ozil, who shot straight at Boruc. They swapped roles a minute later. Ozil made a run in behind the defense to set up Aubameyang, whose effort was blocked. In the 83rd, Ozil showcased again his vision with a clipped pass for Lacazette, whose volley missed the target.

   Is Ozil finally buying into Emery’s method? The stats seem to suggest it. Ozil managed to match Mkhitaryan’s work-rate. The German playmaker won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 interception and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website, while Mkhitaryan won 1 of 1 tackle and made 6 recoveries. Ozil will probably get the plaudits because of the way the club has treated him in the winter. But I felt Mkhitaryan was the unsung hero of Wednesday’s game. Mkhitaryan could have added another goal in the ninth minute when he chested down a pass from Kolasinac but his volley was cleared off the line by Ake.

   Mkhitaryan is on a hot run of form. He has notched 2 goals and 3 assists in the last two games to become Arsenal’s most productive attacking midfielder this season with 6 goals and 4 assists in 17 Premier League games. That’s an average of 0.59 goal or assist per game. Ozil has an average of 0.38 goal or assist per game with 4 goals and 2 assists in 16 games, slightly ahead of Ramsey (2 goals and 6 assists in 23 games for a 0.32 average) and Iwobi (3 goals and 4 assists in 25 games for a 0.28 average).

Paying a price for youth

   If Ozil and Ramsey could get near their best, the Gunners would definitely have a better shot at finishing in the Top 4. For the record, here are their averages of goal or assist per Premier League game in the past five seasons: Ozil had an average of 0.38 in 2017-18, 0.52 in 2016-17, 0.71 in 2015-16, 0.41 in 2014-15, and 0.54 in 2013-14, while Ramsey had an average of 0.63 in 2017-18, 0.22 in 2016-17, 0.29 in 2015-16, 0.41 in 2014-15 and 0.78 in 2013-14.

   The Cherries’ consolation goal came from an error by Guendouzi in the 30th. The Gunners were trying to play out from the back as Guendouzi dropped off to take a pass from Leno. The key is to move the ball quickly in order to beat pressing opponents. But Guendouzi dallied on the ball and was dispossessed by Gosling on the edge of the Arsenal box. The Bournemouth midfielder fed Mousset, who scored into an empty net.

   As you can see on the screen capture below, Guendouzi had two passing options with Monreal on the left flank and Leno inside the area. Leno was the more conservative option and would have aimed at attracting more Bournemouth players, whereas Monreal was the more daring option and would have aimed at launching an attack down the left flank with Monreal possibly finding Kolasinac along the touchline.

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth M30 editedGuendouzi fails to pass the ball to Monreal or Leno. (Photo credit: Sportsnet)

   That’s the price you pay for playing an inexperienced teenager in the Premier League. What really matters is that Guendouzi learns from his mistakes. He must get rid of this bad habit of taking too many touches and not releasing the ball quickly enough, especially since deep-lying playmaker is most likely his best position. Guendouzi dallied on the ball again in the 50th and the subsequent turnover led to a scoring chance for Fraser, whose low drive was saved by Leno.

The Suarez enigma

   However, there’s a reason why the fans love Guendouzi: he doesn’t hide, even after a high-profile blunder. Guendouzi led all players with 96 passes. He also had a cross-shot palmed away by Boruc in the 43rd and hit a ball over the top for Lacazette in the 65th. Lacazette held off Ake to fire a shot that Boruc turned around the post. Guendouzi finished the game with better stats than Torreira: 1 key pass vs. 0, 2 turnovers vs. 4, and 8 recoveries vs. 4. But Guendouzi cost his team a goal while Torreira didn’t.

   As the Gunners had the game under control, Emery gave Suarez some playing time by yanking Aubameyang off in the 71st. The Barcelona loanee hasn’t shown much in his 5 short appearances for Arsenal. Suarez still lacks a bit of match sharpness. And time is not on his side: the Spaniard only has 3 months left to make an impact. If Suarez doesn’t score or make assists, signing him could turn into a big gamble.

   On the right flank, Jenkinson was given a rare start. His limited technique showed at times. The academy graduate had 4 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 78.7%, compared to 90.7% for Kolasinac. Jenkinson’s contract runs until 2020. I hope Arsenal will be able to sell him this summer because he’s not good enough for a Top 4 club and Maitland-Niles has more potential than Jenkinson. On the opposite flank, Kolasinac had a quiet game with 2 key passes and 2 recoveries. In his post-match conference, Emery disclosed that Kolasinac was playing with a muscle problem.

   In the back three, Koscielny was our most solid defender, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 1 block, 4 interceptions and 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Fraser managed to expose Koscielny’s age with a sprint in the 19th. Clean through on goal, the Scotland winger was denied by Leno’s diving save. The rebound fell to Gosling, whose shot was blocked by Koscielny. The French veteran prevented a goal in the 85th with a sliding clearance to prevent Surridge from connecting with King’s pass for a tap-in. Playing alongside Koscielny, Sokratis had an off day with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 0 recovery. Those are very unusual stats for a centerback.

Time for the Premier League to adopt VAR

   King doesn’t have a reputation for being a dirty player. Yet, his performance on Wednesday gave that kind of impression. King knocked the ball past Koscielny in the 32nd before falling to the ground in the hope of winning a penalty. The referee wasn’t conned and booked King for diving. King crossed Koscielny’s path again in the 87th. Koscielny killed a counterattack by knocking the ball off King’s feet with a sliding tackle. In that kind of situation, the forward usually jumps over the defender’s leg. But King made no effort to avoid the collision and planted his studs into Koscielny’s knee. TV replays showed it was a deliberate stamp. Maybe the referee and the linesman didn’t see the foul. King was very lucky that the VAR system is not used in the Premier League because it should have been a sending-off.

   Leno definitely made a crucial save by denying Fraser in the 16th. At 1-1, it could have been a different story. The German goalkeeper also tipped a 20-yard strike from King over the bar in the 67th. The crossbar came to Leno’s rescue in the 57th when Gosling took his chance with a swerving effort from 30 yards.  

   Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes might depend on their next two league games. They visit Tottenham on Saturday before hosting Manchester United a week later. Both Spurs and the Red Devils are direct rivals for Champions League spots. Three points out of 6 would be a decent return while a single point would force the Gunners to have a perfect run-in.

   I suspect Emery will start Xhaka and Ramsey at Wembley since Pochettino’s Spurs are known for pressing and running a lot. The Spanish manager will also have to make a big call on the right flank where Son usually makes his runs. Lichtsteiner doesn’t have the legs to cope and Maitland-Niles is still a raw player. Mustafi could be a tactical surprise in that position.

Arsenal vs. Southampton: Gunners move into 4th with 2-0 win

   The Gunners leapfrogged Manchester United into fourth place in the Premier League by downing Southampton 2-0 on Sunday. They did the hard work in the first half before dropping their intensity in the second half. The positive is that Arsenal scored quickly while at the beginning of the season they struggled to reach halftime with the lead. The negative is that they could have scored more goals. The Top 4 race is so tight that it could be decided by goal difference.

Arsenal vs. SouthamptonPhoto credit: Premier League

   Most of the Gunners’ chances came from the left flank. Iwobi and Kolasinac combined to make 5 key passes while Mkhitaryan and Lichtsteiner only had 1 key pass. That’s ironic because Arsenal’s passing game tilted to the right side in the first half of the season. Bellerin’s knee injury last month was obviously the factor that led the Gunners to rely more heavily on Kolasinac and Iwobi to create chances from the left flank.

   Iwobi made a cross for Torreira, who was shoved from behind by Stephens in the seventh minute. The ball fell to Mkhitaryan, whose half-volley was diverted home by Lacazette with a backheel flick. One basic rule in football is to play to the whistle. When Torreira fell inside the area, some Southampton defenders stopped playing and looked at the referee, waiting for his reaction. But Mkhitaryan and Lacazette kept their focus, continued to play and were rewarded with the opening goal. We will never know whether the referee would have awarded a penalty even though TV replays suggested Torreira had been fouled.

Rotation policy

   Lacazette initiated the second goal in the 17th by pressing Stephens, who made a clumsy back pass to his goalkeeper. Gunn’s off-balance clearance fell into the path of Iwobi, who made a cross that took a deflection off Bednarek. Somehow, the ball landed at the feet of Mkhitaryan, who side-footed into the bottom corner from 12 yards. You sometimes need a bit of luck to score in football. The goals came from an off-target shot by Mkhitaryan and an inaccurate cross from Iwobi. That’s funny because Arsenal built better plays which did not end up with a goal because of some poor finishing or a poor final ball.

   Emery made 6 changes to the side that thrashed BATE Borisov on Thursday with Leno, Kolasinac, Sokratis, Torreira, Ramsey and Lacazette replacing Cech, Monreal, Koscielny, Guendouzi, Ozil and Aubameyang in the starting lineup. That kind of rotation is necessary because the Gunners play two games a week until mid-March. Such a hectic schedule can lead to injuries if some players are not rested. Changing the team selection is also a means to inject some freshness. It’s no coincidence if Arsenal won 60.8% of the duels, according to the club’s website.

   Those are the reasons that Emery gave in his post-match conference: “I think we can use these moments and different players to get good paces and fresh players with energy and quality. We need the mix to reserve some players for some matches, because we are going to play a lot of matches.” And you can trust Emery on that issue because Sevilla had to play a lot of games to win the Europa League.

The new Wiltord

   Up front, Lacazette got some decent service and could have notched a hat trick with better finishing. Lacazette surprisingly lacked composure in the 40th when Kolasinac pounced on a poor clearance from Bednarek to feed the French striker. Somehow, Lacazette found a way to blaze over the bar from 6 yards. Two minutes later, Kolasinac ran through the Southampton defense to tee up Lacazette, who fired straight at Gunn from 16 yards. Lacazette forced Gunn to make a save but his shot placement was poor. Those are the kind of chances you would expect a world-class striker to bury. After one season and a half at Arsenal, Lacazette seems closer to the level of a Wiltord than the heights of a Henry.

   Lacazette had two more scoring chances, which were more difficult to convert than his miss in the 40th. He chased a long ball from Xhaka in the 26th and cut inside Stephens only to have his shot blocked by Bednarek. Then Lacazette met a corner from Xhaka for a tame header that Gunn caught in the 38th. On the bright side, Lacazette led all players by having 5 successful dribbles out of 5, according to whoscored.com.  

   Iwobi was the creative force behind Arsenal’s attack, making crosses with his weaker left foot for both goals. He led all players with 3 key passes. You would still expect a bit more from Iwobi. In terms of end product, Mkhitaryan had 1 goal and 1 assist while Iwobi had no goal or assist because his cross for the second goal took a deflection off Bednarek. In terms of work-rate, Mkhitaryan made 7 ball recoveries and led all players by winning 4 of 4 tackles, according to the club’s website, while Iwobi won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 interception and 1 recovery.

Iwobi’s decision-making

   Are we expecting too much from Iwobi? Or his relatively young age should not be an excuse for his lack of productivity in the final third? Despite all the talk about his improvement under Emery, Iwobi has only notched 3 goals and 4 assists in 24 Premier League games this season, about the same stats as last season under Wenger when he had 3 goals and 5 assists in 26 league games.

   Both Alli and Iwobi are 22 and have 4 Premier League seasons under their belt, but Alli is already the finished product whereas Iwobi is still a work in progress. Iwobi will certainly need time to improve his composure in front of goal, but Emery should find a way to quickly improve his decision-making because that has been the main stumbling block in his development so far.

   Here’s an example of a good situation wasted because of Iwobi’s poor decision-making. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had two good passing options with Lacazette to his left and Ramsey to his right. In the end, Iwobi opted for a 20-yard curler that was blocked by Vestergaard. You can bet that Ozil would have delivered the final ball in that kind of situation.

Arsenal vs. Southampton M38 editedIwobi ignores 2 good passing options. (Photo credit: Sportsnet)

   Playing in the hole, Ramsey had an off day with 0 key pass and 0 shot. He also led all players with 8 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. To his credit, Ramsey helped create overloads by drifting to the left flank. The Wales international was also involved in a couple of good situations, combining with Kolasinac for Lacazette’s chance in the 42nd and making teasing crosses in the 6-yard box that no one anticipated in the 60th and 61st.

A quiet afternoon for the midfield

   Emery replaced Ramsey with Ozil in the 63rd and Iwobi with Aubameyang in the 74th. Ozil and Aubameyang combined twice in the closing minutes. First, Ozil fed Aubameyang, whose cross took a deflection off Vestergaard, forcing Gunn to make a reflex save with his foot in the 86th. Then Aubameyang took a pass from Ozil in the 87th only to have his shot blocked by Bednarek. In stoppage time, Aubameyang swapped passes with Xhaka before missing his final ball for Lacazette.  

   In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka had a quiet afternoon as the Gunners enjoyed 62% of ball possession. They combined to win 1 of 2 tackles and make 1 block, 3 interceptions and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Saints gave Xhaka a lot of time on the ball. Yet, the Switzerland midfielder still managed to make a blunder in the 52nd with a risky pass that Ward-Prowse intercepted to shoot wide from 19 yards.  

   Arsenal struggled at St Mary’s stadium in December, conceding 3 goals from headers. They did their homework as Sokratis, Mustafi and Lacazette led all players on Sunday by winning 4 aerial duels each, according to whoscored.com. In fact, Southampton’s best chance came from a long ball in the sixth minute. Redmond beat the offside trap to bear down on goal, but Leno made himself big to deny the English forward. Mustafi and Sokratis probably felt the need to squeeze play. But why did they stand a couple of yards from the halfway line when there was no pressure on the ballholder?

Kolasinac’s outstanding performance

   The fullback positions were a concern before the game but Lichtsteiner and Kolasinac showed good tactical discipline. Kolasinac had arguably his best game of the season, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 9 recoveries. When you add his offensive contribution with 2 key passes and his tidiness with a passing accuracy of 86.3% and only 1 turnover, there might still be hope to turn Kolasinac into a good leftback. Kolasinac saved Arsenal twice, blocking Armstrong’s header in the 14th and blocking Ward-Prowse’s close-range shot in the 76th.

   By contrast, Lichtsteiner looked again like the lethargic player that most fans know. He won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 key pass, 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. Lichtsteiner also had 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy dipping to 71.4%. Emery replaced Lichtsteiner with Koscielny in the 55th as the Switzerland defender picked up a knock.

   At centerback, Sokratis had a solid performance, winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 3 interceptions and 4 recoveries. He also led all players by winning 87.5% of his duels, according to the club’s website. His only blemish was the ball he gave away in the 71st, forcing Mustafi to make a professional foul.  

   Leno kept a rare clean sheet by making 4 saves. The most important one was obviously the chance Redmond had to open the scoring in the sixth minute. The other 3 could be considered routine saves. The German goalkeeper pushed away Armstrong’s mid-range strike in the 14th, caught Austin’s looping header in the 72nd and parried Targett’s volley in the 89th.

   The Gunners will again need 3 points to stay in the Top 4 race when they host Bournemouth on Wednesday. This could prove a tricky match for Arsenal because the Cherries have enjoyed one more day of rest and are known for running a lot. Hopefully, Emery’s rotation policy will bear fruits this week.

 

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

   The Gunners qualified for the last 16 of the Europa League by sinking BATE Borisov 3-0 in the second leg on Thursday. In a rather unspectacular game, Arsenal had 22 shots to just 4 for the visitors. Despite missing Lacazette through suspension and Maitland-Niles through illness, the gulf in class between the two sides showed. Emery could even afford to leave Ramsey, Torreira and Sokratis on the bench at kickoff.

Arsenal vs. Borisov.jpgPhoto credit: Getty Images

   Arsenal opened the scoring in the fourth minute when Volkov diverted Aubameyang’s cross into his own net. Mustafi then bullied Baga to meet Xhaka’s corner and doubled the lead with a downward header. Sokratis sealed the win in the 60th by heading in Xhaka’s corner after Scherbitski missed his punch.

  1. Ozil was rusty in his return

   In his first game since Jan. 29, Ozil underperformed in the No. 10 role. He made 3 key passes, compared to 3 for Iwobi and 4 for Mkhitaryan, but had 0 accurate cross and 0 through ball, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Mkhitaryan made 1 accurate cross out of 2 and had 1 accurate through ball out of 2. However, Ozil showed better ball retention skills with a passing accuracy of 89%, compared to 80% for Mkhitaryan and 75% for Iwobi.

   Ozil made his best pass in the eighth minute when he pulled the ball back for Mkhitaryan, who blazed over the bar from 17 yards. His technique let him down in the 32nd when he miskicked the ball from 10 yards. Emery won’t be happy about Ozil’s work-rate. Ozil made 0 tackle while Iwobi won 2 of 3 tackles and Mkhitaryan won 1 of 2 tackles. In Emery’s shoes, I would only play Ozil in the home games where the Gunners dominate possession.  

  1. Lichtsteiner had his best game of the season

   The Switzerland veteran made 2 key passes and led all players with 3 accurate crosses out of 7, according to whoscored.com. Lichtsteiner has been guilty of a couple of high-profile blunders this season. But on Thursday, he was incredibly sound defensively, making a crucial clearance off the line in the ninth minute after Dragun had beaten Cech with a low strike. At 1-1, it could have been a different story for the Gunners.

  1. Iwobi must work on his finishing

   The Nigeria international had 2 of 3 shots on target, which is better than Ozil and Mkhitaryan, who combined to have 0 of 5 shots on target. But those 2 efforts were mostly down the middle of the net. Iwobi controlled a cross from Lichtsteiner in the second minute only to shoot straight at Scherbitski from 13 yards. He then curled a shot that the Belarusian goalkeeper parried in the 54th. At Colney, Iwobi will have to aim at the corners in order to be more prolific in front of goal.  

  1. Aubameyang had an off day

   Of his 6 shots, at least 2 should have found the net. Aubameyang controlled a cross from Lichtsteiner in the 29th only to produce a tame effort straight at Scherbitski. He had a better chance when Arsenal hit BATE on the fast break in the 71st: Aubameyang took a pass from Mkhitaryan only to send his chip wide.

   When Aubameyang plays in a front three with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan, there’s simply too much pressure on Aubameyang to score because Iwobi and Mkhitaryan have poor scoring records. Aubameyang definitely feels more comfortable when he plays alongside Lacazette, but the issue then becomes the formation and the relative lack of width.    

  1. Koscielny picked up a calf injury

   At 33, Koscielny knows his best days are behind him. So he tries to compensate for the relative loss of pace with his experience while hoping that injuries won’t put an end to his career. There were concerns that it was again the Achilles tendon that troubled Koscielny when Sokratis replaced him in the 56th.

   Koscielny’s performance was a mixed bag. On the one hand, Koscielny won 6 of 7 aerial duels and killed a counterattack with a timely tackle on Skavysh in the 21st. On the other, Baga was able to make a run in behind Koscielny to create the chance for Dragun in the ninth minute. And both Koscielny and Monreal failed to clear the danger in the 49th when Skavysh capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to test Cech.