The international break is coming at the right time for the Gunners who are running out of steam. Arsenal salvaged a 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton on Sunday for their third straight draw in all competitions to stay fifth in the Premier League.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
It looks like the Gunners are hitting the wall after their 11-game winning streak was snapped at Crystal Palace. Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession against the Wolves but simply lacked the passing speed and the movement to destabilize a compact defense. In fact, the Gunners struggled so badly to create clear-cut chances that they had 0 shot on target in the first half.
On paper, Arsenal should have earned 3 points because the Wolves had lost their 3 previous games in the league. On the pitch, the Gunners were lucky to split the points because Wolverhampton proved the better team, winning 53% of the duels and having 5 shots on target to just 3 for Arsenal, according to the club’s website.
Emery did his best to inject some freshness by making 9 changes to the side that drew with Sporting Lisbon on Thursday with only Holding and Iwobi retaining their starting spots. Unfortunately, Sunday’s game showed that the Gunners are almost back to square one. Emery still doesn’t know what his best team is after 4 months of competition.
I thought the Spanish manager got his starting lineup wrong by not including Ramsey, whose runs can make a difference against teams parking the bus. At the start of the season, Emery built his team around Ramsey. Of course, the trouble is that Emery played Ramsey in the hole, which is not his best position. Then Emery changed his mind and decided to build the team around Ozil, who’s a better fit for the No. 10 position. Ozil shone in the 3-1 win over Leicester, but it turned out to be a false dawn because Ozil simply lacks the consistency to become the cornerstone of a team. Wenger also tried and failed. The French manager played Ozil behind the striker before moving him to the right flank.
Starved of service
Some fans say that Ozil should get the nod over Ramsey because Ozil is tied to the club until 2021 whereas Ramsey’s contract will end next summer. Contract talks between Ramsey and the club collapsed at the end of September. Is it a coincidence if Ramsey hasn’t started a Premier League game since the 2-0 win over Watford?
Making a team selection based on politics doesn’t make sense because it would be against the interests of the club. How do you finish in the Top 4 if you’re not starting your best player? Last season, Arsenal had no certainty over the future of Ozil and Sanchez at the club. Yet, Wenger kept starting them because he thought the Gunners had a better chance of winning games with Ozil and Sanchez on the pitch.
Despite Ozil’s presence in the starting lineup, Lacazette and Aubameyang were starved of service on Sunday. They only mustered one shot each. Lacazette had Arsenal’s only chance of the first half. Ozil made a pass across the area to Lacazette, whose close-range effort was blocked by Coady in the 22nd minute. Aubameyang was in a better situation in the 73rd when Bellerin made a low cross. But the Gabon striker hit the post from 7 yards. It was a big miss that hurt the Gunners’ chances of winning the match.
Arsenal’s tactical options were limited because Aubameyang and Lacazette don’t have the physicality and aerial threat of a Giroud to blow up a congested area. Unsurprisingly, the Wolves won 65% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. You might say that the Citizens don’t have strikers who can dominate in the air. However, the big difference between Arsenal and Manchester City is that Guardiola can rely on dribblers like Sterling, Mahrez and Sane to penetrate in the final third. Some Arsenal fans will mention Iwobi, but the Nigeria international doesn’t have the ability to dribble in tight spaces like an Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The need for more creativity
The Gunners couldn’t challenge in the air or dribble past defenders. So the only option left was the passing game. Arsenal’s main problem this season has been the inconsistency of the creative players. Starting on the right wing, Iwobi had a poor game with 0 key pass and was replaced at halftime by Guendouzi. In the No. 10 position, Ozil managed to make just 2 key passes.
Emery shifted from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-1-2 system at halftime in the hope of giving Ozil better passing options. The idea was to use Ozil like a quarterback with Lacazette and Aubameyang as receivers. It didn’t really work. Ozil overhit his cross for Aubameyang in the 66th. Out of frustration, Ozil slammed the ball against the ground three minutes later and got booked by the referee.
When your attacking midfielders have an off day, the alternative is to create chances from a deeper position. Unfortunately, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the passing and dribbling skills of a Cazorla. It’s no coincidence if the club’s struggles to finish in the Top 4 started with Cazorla’s long-term injuries. In the past two seasons, the Gunners have lost a lot of creativity in midfield with the departures of Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Signing an upgrade over Xhaka should be a priority next summer.
The lack of movement in the final third also contributed to Arsenal’s poor passing game. In fact, the poor work-rate of some players was shocking. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 1 recovery in the first half. By contrast, Wolverhampton forward Costa made 1 interception, 7 recoveries and 4 fouls.
Looking like a Wenger team
Realizing that Ozil had no impact on the game, Emery replaced Ozil and Kolasinac with Ramsey and Mkhitaryan in the 75th. Xhaka was moved to the leftback position while the team played in some kind of 4-2-4 formation. Ramsey nearly made the difference with one of his runs in the 86th, trapping a ball over the top from Guendouzi and spinning away from a defender only to be denied by Patricio. The equalizer came from the subsequent corner, quickly taken by Xhaka. The ball fell to Ramsey, who set up Mkhitaryan for a cross. Aubameyang couldn’t climb high enough to head the ball, which sailed past Patricio and into the far corner.
Besides the equalizer, the Gunners were also lucky to concede just one goal. They looked so much like a Wenger team on Sunday, vulnerable on at least 5 counterattacks from the Wolves. The visitors took advantage of some poor decision-making from Xhaka to open the scoring in the 13th. Kolasinac made a routine pass to Xhaka, who thought there was a teammate behind him and let the ball roll past him. Cavaleiro pounced on the loose ball and found Jimenez, who played the ball back to Cavaleiro. Poorly tracked by Xhaka inside the area, Cavaleiro beat Leno with a first-time effort.
To put it bluntly, a midfield trio of Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil is not good enough to protect the defense. Torreira and Xhaka had an outstanding game against Liverpool but it’s unlikely that they will be able to repeat that kind of performance on a regular basis. Xhaka still lacks defensive awareness and is simply too error-prone.
Torreira had a decent game, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Uruguay midfielder contributed offensively with a dipping drive that Patricio turned aside in the 60th. Defensively, Torreira should have been more cautious in his positional play in the 84th. Leading a counterattack, Traore rolled away from Torreira to pick out Jimenez, who made a cross for Jota. Leno prevented Wolverhampton from doubling the lead by saving Jota’s close-range effort. In stoppage time, Leno was rescued by luck as Gibbs-White struck the post from 25 yards.
At the back, Kolasinac showed his technical limitations again. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 76.9%, much weaker than Bellerin’s 88.2% on the opposite flank. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international whipped his cross beyond Lacazette in the 17th and made a sloppy pass in the 72nd. Whoscored.com even credited Kolasinac with 2 errors. Kolasinac missed his clearance in the 36th and the ball fell to Doherty, who set up Jimenez for a low drive. Then, his first touch was so poor in the 62nd that the ball bounced 5 yards away from him and led to a turnover.
The Wolves knew Kolasinac was a limited threat and focused instead on Bellerin, who leads Arsenal with 4 assists so far this season. The visitors clearly did their homework as they intercepted Iwobi’s passes to Bellerin in the 27th and 31st. Despite Wolverhampton’s close scrutiny, Bellerin still managed to make 1 key pass and have 1 scoring chance. Xhaka cut the ball back for Bellerin, who missed the target with his weaker left foot in the 70th. Three minutes later, Bellerin created a golden chance for Aubameyang who hit the post. The Spaniard showed his more cynical side in the 78th by holding back Traore to kill a counterattack.
Holding has been one of the young players improving under Emery. His performance on Sunday was a mixed bag. Holding made 11 recoveries, tied with Torreira for the most by a Gunner. He intercepted Neves’ through ball for Jimenez in the 11th and outmuscled Jimenez inside the box in the 50th. However, the Wolves capitalized on Holding’s average pace twice. Costa beat Holding to a 50-50 ball on a fast break in the 23rd. The Wolverhampton forward was denied by Leno, who reacted quickly enough to beat Jimenez to the rebound. In stoppage time, Traore won a foot race with Holding on a counterattack. The pacy substitute struggled to control the ball, allowing Holding to make up ground. Holding slid for a desperate block attempt, forcing Traore to cut inside. Leno quickly came off his line to save Traore’s close-range effort.
Leno’s Man of the Match performance
Mustafi looked more shaky than Holding. The German defender read the game well enough to clear dangerous crosses in the 28th and 63rd. But his technique let him down a couple of times. Mustafi’s passes for Bellerin rolled out of play in the 67th and 76th. Then his poor first touch led to a dangerous turnover in the 83rd. Arsenal also had to deal with an unfavorable 2v3 situation in the 84th because Mustafi was stranded up the pitch, forcing Bellerin to cover him.
In goal, Leno produced a Man of the Match performance. He pulled off a couple of outstanding saves to prevent Wolverhampton from winning the game. Cech’s hamstring injury was a blessing in disguise for Emery. Cech is one of the leaders in the dressing room, so it could have been tricky to justify the change of goalkeeper in the starting lineup. Leno proved himself during Cech’s absence and gave Emery no reason to drop him after Cech’s return from injury. From the moment Leno can match Cech’s shot-stopping skills, he will have the edge over Cech because of his better distribution and his ability to play out from the back.
The Gunners have no maneuvering room in the Top 4 race after dropping points against Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton. They will play Bournemouth, Tottenham and Manchester United after the international break. That run of games could decide Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes as they trail Spurs by 3 points and are 4 points clear of the Cherries and the Red Devils. A string of poor results could mean the end of the honeymoon period for Emery.