Tag Archives: Bellerin

Arsenal vs. Lincoln City: A few thoughts on the 5-0 win

The Gunners bounced back from a humiliating Champions League exit by routing Lincoln City 5-0 on Saturday to reach the semifinals of the FA Cup. Wenger did not underestimate the Imps as he made only two changes to the side that was thrashed 5-1 by Bayern Munich on Tuesday, replacing Ospina and Monreal with Cech and Gibbs in the starting lineup. Even the bench looked strong with Ozil, Monreal, Coquelin, Iwobi, Perez, Paulista and Martinez available for substitutions.

Arsenal vs. Lincoln

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

Lincoln City, a club leading the fifth division of English football, put up a good fight for 45 minutes before the gulf in class showed in the second half. Arsenal enjoyed 77% of ball possession and had 23 goal attempts compared to 4 for the visitors. That sounds like a one-sided encounter but it could have been a different story if Walcott had not opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime.

  1. Walcott is still on fire

Just a few days after finding the net against Bayern, Walcott proved a live wire in the first half. He pounced on a clearance from the Lincoln defense in the 14th minute to fire a volley that hit the base of the post. The England international then got ahead of his marker in the 34th to take a pass from Sanchez and unleash a low strike straight at the goalkeeper. The Gunners capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to finally take the lead in the 45th. Gibbs teed up Walcott, who buried the ball into the bottom corner.

  1. Sanchez loves the game

Amid rumors of a departure this summer, Sanchez keeps giving everything on the pitch. Surprisingly, Sanchez’s body language was less negative than usual as he even applauded his teammates when they overhit a pass. The Chile striker was relatively quiet in the first half before coming to life in the second. He finished the game with 1 goal, 3 key passes, 3 tackles won and 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Ozil met a cross from Sanchez in the 68th only to head over the bar. Five minutes later, Sanchez evaded a tackle from Wood and made it 4-0 with a curling shot from the edge of the box. Sanchez set up Ramsey for the fifth goal in the 75th before rattling the bar with a free kick in the 86th.

  1. Giroud could play key role in run-in

In the first half of the season, Wenger played Sanchez as a centerforward while using Giroud as a super-sub. That tactical shift gave more pace to the offense but it also proved a bit one-dimensional since Sanchez is no threat in the air. In the past three games, the manager has switched back to the blueprint of last season by starting Giroud up front while moving Sanchez back to the left wing. Giroud’s performance against Lincoln City was a mixed bag. He converted Bellerin’s cross in the 53rd and also had an angled effort palmed away by Farman in the 50th. However, the Frenchman did not cover himself in glory with a tame chip attempt from 12 yards in the 51st and an air shot in the 53rd.

  1. The midfield is still a work in progress

Like in the Bayern game, Wenger used again an inverted pyramid with Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain playing as all-rounders in front of Xhaka, the holding midfielder. The manager had to change his plans in the 27th when the Ox picked up an injury. Wenger switched to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing the Ox with Ozil. Ramsey teamed up with Xhaka in central midfield for 34 minutes before the manager sent on Coquelin in the 61st for Xhaka, who got booked for a rash challenge on Rhead in the 24th. Was Wenger able to draw any significant conclusion from those three different midfield combinations?

  1. Ramsey is still a bit rusty

This has been a challenging season for Ramsey, who had to deal with a calf injury and two hamstring injuries. Definitely not the best scenario to build self-confidence. The Wales midfielder still made his trademark deep runs on Saturday but had only 1 of 6 shots on target. He met a low cross from Walcott on the stroke of halftime only to blaze over the bar from 15 yards. Ramsey managed to score in the 75th by controlling a cross from Sanchez to dribble past Farman and walk the ball into the net. His hyperactivity in midfield is perfectly tailored for an inverted pyramid. Ramsey doesn’t have Ozil’s passing skills but he makes more tackles and interceptions than the Germany playmaker while still being a goal threat.

  1. The fullbacks did a great job

Gibbs and Bellerin finished the game with two key passes each. They also won 70% and 75% of their duels respectively, according to the club’s website. Gibbs set up Walcott for the opening goal and had his cross diverted into his own net by Waterfall in the 58th for the third. Both Gibbs and Bellerin helped Arsenal stretch the Lincoln defense by making good use of the flanks. Gibbs could have scored in the 50th but headed Walcott’s cross over the bar.

  1. Referees lose credibility when they make inconsistent calls

Taylor is the infamous fourth official who had a beef with Wenger in the 2-1 win over Burnley in January. The row led to a four-game touchline ban for Wenger. The French manager kept his cool on Saturday although some of Taylor’s calls were dodgy. Arnold was not even booked for a stamp from behind on Sanchez in the ninth minute. And Sanchez did not get any free kick despite an obvious obstruction from Wood in the 36th. For a similar obstruction on Muldoon in the 37th, Koscielny received a yellow card. In the end, those poor calls did not affect the outcome because of the gulf in class between the two teams.

 

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

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

arsenal-vs-hull

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

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

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

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

One-man show

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

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

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

The Watford ghost

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

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

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

A younger version of Cazorla

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

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

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

Hull targeting the fullbacks

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

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

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

Filling Wenger’s shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

chelsea-vs-arsenal

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

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

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

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

Working as a unit

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

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

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

Improving defensive awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s the enforcer?

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

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

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

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

Sanchez’s poor performance

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

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

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

Let’s get physical

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

arsenal-vs-burnley

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

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

Bournemouth’s playbook

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

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

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

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

Poor service for Giroud

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

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

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

A costly lapse of concentration

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

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

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

Bellerin & Coquelin return

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

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

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

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

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Resilience makes up for sins of youth in 3-3 draw

Giroud scored in the second minute of stoppage time to salvage a 3-3 draw with Bournemouth on Tuesday as the Gunners slipped to fifth place in the Premier League. Pundits said before the game that Arsenal needed to win at the Vitality stadium to stay in the title race, but I already had my doubts when the Gunners couldn’t beat Middlesbrough in October. Their inability to get a point against Everton and Manchester City last month made me more skeptical. Actually, it’s quite foolish to think about the title now that the Red Devils are just two points behind Arsenal in the standings. The league has become so competitive this season that finishing with 80 points may not even guarantee a Champions League spot.

bournemouth-vs-arsenal

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

The Gunners trailed 3-0 on Tuesday because of some unbelievable naivety at the top level. Daniels cut inside Bellerin in the 16th minute to beat Cech from close range. Instead of diving in, Bellerin should have closed the inside door and forced Daniels to take his chance from a tight angle. Four minutes later, Xhaka gave away a penalty by shoving Fraser from behind. That was a silly foul because Fraser was running toward the corner flag while Bellerin was covering Xhaka. Wilson converted the spot kick by firing down the middle to double the lead.

The game turned into a nightmare for Bellerin in the 58th when Fraser bullied the Spaniard to win the ball and slip it through Cech’s legs for a 3-0 lead. Bellerin tried to be too cute on that play. As the last defender, he should have simply cleared the ball into touch. There was also a moment when Xhaka failed to smell the danger. In the 12th, Xhaka gave too much space to Stanislas, who slipped a through ball to Wilson. Cech quickly came off his line to knock the ball away. If you are reluctant to close down an opponent, at least you have to cut the passing channel and Xhaka didn’t.

Xhaka’s bad instincts

To a certain extent, I am not surprised that Xhaka and Bellerin made those mistakes. Only Iwobi was younger than those two players in Arsenal’s starting lineup. I still think that Bellerin is a world-class player but he really had a poor game by his own standards. Bellerin had clearly not recovered from Sunday’s game as he won none of the 3 tackles he made. The Spaniard was even booked in the 31st for a late challenge on Fraser.

Throughout his career, Xhaka has often struggled to control his temper. The Switzerland international has tried to curb his instincts since his red card against Swansea, but he was let down by some poor self-control in the play that led to Bournemouth’s penalty. Wenger will need to have a word with Xhaka. That’s not a new situation for the manager since his former captain, Vieira, still shares the Premier League record for the most red cards received by a player (8).

It was a complicated game for Xhaka, who had to play in a more defensive role after Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced an injured Coquelin in the 28th. Xhaka only produced 71 passes, which is not much for a deep-lying playmaker, but he made a significant defensive contribution by winning 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He wasted a couple of set pieces in the first half with a poor delivery that failed to beat the first man. That’s when you realize that you really miss Ozil’s quality delivery, especially with a Giroud so dominant in the air. Somehow, Xhaka made amends in the second half by creating Arsenal’s second goal and making the assist for the equalizer.

A Frenchie’s revolt

We can give some credit to the Gunners for not giving up despite a three-goal deficit. As an example of their resilience, they won more tackles than Bournemouth: 13 of 35 tackles for Arsenal compared to 8 of 25 tackles for the Cherries, according to Squawka.

Giroud proved the key player in leading the revolt by making two assists and netting the equalizer. He held off Cook in the 70th to redirect a cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain toward the far post where Sanchez headed home. Five minutes later, Giroud flicked a pass from Xhaka toward Perez, who volleyed into the far corner to make it 3-2. In stoppage time, Giroud outjumped Cook to head Xhaka’s cross into the bottom corner.

The Frenchman’s work-rate was quite impressive. He made 4 tackles and won 5 of 10 headers. Giroud even killed a Bournemouth counterattack with a sliding challenge on King in the 52nd. There was a minor injury scare as King stamped on Giroud’s ankle on that play. Giroud also played in the position of a centerback in the 82nd when Paulista was pulled out of position. Gosling managed to roll away from Giroud but sent his curling shot wide with just Cech to beat. Down 4-2, it would have been game over for the Gunners.

In stoppage time, Cech parried an angled shot from Arter to salvage a point. I thought Cech made some decent saves but nothing outstanding. I can’t help wondering whether De Gea or Courtois would have stopped Fraser’s goal from a tight angle. Cech was lucky to get away with a poor punch in the 56th. The ball fell to Arter, whose long-range strike deflected off Wilson’s hand to go into the net. The goal was disallowed for a handball but quite honestly it was similar to Koscielny’s goal against Burnley.

Lack of rotation

In the end, the draw was a fair result. The Cherries dominated the first half while Arsenal dominated the second half. Bournemouth played at a high tempo in the first half and the Gunners simply couldn’t cope with the intensity because of a lack of freshness. The energy levels of the Cherries dropped after the break while Arsenal somehow caught a second wind in the last 30 minutes.

At kickoff, I felt Wenger didn’t rotate enough. The manager only made 3 changes to the side that defeated Crystal Palace 2-0 on Sunday with Mustafi, Coquelin and Ramsey replacing Paulista, Elneny and Perez in the starting lineup. Wenger is right to complain about the schedule. But then, he has to understand the implications and adapt. Bellerin, Koscielny and Iwobi clearly looked jaded. In hindsight, Holding, Paulista and Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been better starting options.

Koscielny had a decent game, making 2 interceptions and winning 2 of 2 tackles and 3 of 5 headers, until a bout of cramping led to his replacement by Paulista in the 64th. You can bet the manager would have been crucified if it had been a serious injury. In his return from a hamstring injury, Mustafi proved hyperactive with 8 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 blocks. He made a crucial sliding tackle in the 34th when Wilson made a run in behind the defense. However, his decision to set the offside trap in the 82nd was quite dodgy.

Ramsey in search of form and consistency

The situation in midfield is becoming a concern after Coquelin picked up a hamstring injury. Cazorla won’t return before March, Elneny is with the Egypt squad for the African Cup of Nations, and Ozil is still recovering from illness. That means we only have two established midfielders available: Xhaka and Ramsey.

Coquelin’s injury was unexpected since he didn’t even start against Palace and had therefore enough rest. The manager sent on the Ox for Coquelin in the 28th, as Xhaka teamed up with Ramsey in midfield. Ramsey is still struggling to get back on top of his game. His season has been marred by injuries so far.

In midfield, Ramsey will have to find the right balance between defense and attack. He let his team down by not marking Daniels in the 16th. Bellerin took the blame for the opening goal, but if you look at the screen capture below, you can see that the Spaniard was busy tracking Fraser. In fact, each Arsenal defender was marking one player before Stanislas made a cross-field pass to Daniels. That means Ramsey had to show more defensive awareness and cover the space created by Fraser’s movement.

bournemouth-b-edited

Ramsey does not pay attention to Daniels, who has plenty of space to run into (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Ramsey still lacks a bit of sharpness as none of his 4 goal attempts was on target. The Wales midfielder controlled a cross from Sanchez in the 29th for an effort that Ake deflected out. He then connected with another cross from Sanchez in the 86th for a volley that sailed wide. On the bright side, Ramsey had 3 successful dribbles out of 4 and made 79 passes, more than any other player. His passing accuracy also reached 93.7%, the highest percentage for any player according to whoscored.com.

Season on the line at Swansea

The Cherries were down to 10 men after Francis made a two-footed challenge on Ramsey in the 82nd. However, Arsenal had gathered plenty of momentum by then. The turning point was arguably the shift to a 4-4-2 formation with Perez replacing Iwobi in the 63rd. Perez netted his first Premier League goal and could push Walcott out of the starting lineup if he keeps scoring and showing great work-rate. The Ox also made a good cameo appearance with 3 key passes and 3 accurate crosses, the most for any player. He also won 2 of 3 tackles and made 1 interception and 1 block.

The next league game against Swansea on Jan. 14 has suddenly become massive because of the two points dropped at Bournemouth. Our season could slip away if we can’t beat Swansea, Burnley and Watford this month. There’s enough quality in the squad to rest key players on Saturday when the Gunners face lower-league Preston in the FA Cup. We simply have too many players injured (Cazorla, Coquelin, Gibbs, Walcott) or still recovering (Ozil, Mertesacker, Welbeck) right now to make another silly gamble.

 

 

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Gunners show lack of fight in 2-1 loss

For the first time this season, the Gunners have lost two games in a row. That could be the beginning of a crisis. A 2-1 defeat at Manchester City is not embarrassing in itself. The real issue is the poor performance in Sunday’s match and the lack of character displayed in the second half. Questions about Arsenal’s mental weakness will inevitably be raised if the squad doesn’t bounce back quickly.

manchester-city-vs-arsenal

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

Let’s not kid ourselves, this was the best moment to play Manchester City. They were missing their best centerback, Kompany, their best central midfielders, Gundogan and Fernandinho, and their best striker, Aguero, either through suspension or injury. So how did the Gunners lose that game after reaching halftime with the lead?

There were many similarities between that game and the 2-1 loss at Everton. Arsenal struggled so badly to create clear-cut chances that neither Everton goalkeeper Stekelenburg nor City keeper Bravo made any save. In fact, both the Toffees and the Citizens deserved to win because they had many more chances than the Gunners: 11 chances for Everton compared to 6 for Arsenal and 12 chances for City compared to 4 for Wenger’s team, according to Squawka.

Another similarity was Arsenal’s poor performance in the duels. The Toffees won more duels than the Gunners by showing more commitment. The Citizens did not turn the game into a physical battle like Everton but still showed more desire, winning 61 duels compared to 49 for Arsenal, according to the club’s website. No matter how talented you are, it becomes very difficult to win a game when you don’t want the ball more than your opponent.

Guardiola did not use Everton’s direct approach as there were fewer aerial duels at the Etihad stadium than at Goodison Park, but he definitely took a leaf out of Koeman’s playbook. The Everton game exposed Arsenal’s main defensive frailties: crosses, set pieces and the coverage of the area between the striker and the central midfielders.

Ozil’s poor performance

The Citizens could have opened the scoring by the fourth minute when Sane made a cross for Sterling. Koscielny missed his clearance but Cech was alert enough to gather the loose ball. Two minutes later, Sterling made a run in behind Koscielny to head wide De Bruyne’s cross. It was a play similar to Everton’s first goal against Arsenal. Sane then dribbled past Monreal in the 42nd but had his cross cleared by Paulista. On the stroke of halftime, Toure made a run from the edge of the box to meet a corner for a 13-yard header straight at Cech. It was a play similar to Everton’s second goal against Arsenal. No Gunner hampered Toure’s run but at least Paulista and Koscielny challenged for the ball.

City pressed high up the pitch to force Arsenal turnovers or long balls. The Gunners were often cornered in their own half as Guardiola’s team enjoyed 61% of ball possession. That was not the type of game tailored for Ozil, who performed poorly with only 1 key pass compared to 7 for De Bruyne. Ozil won only 28.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website, had 4 turnovers, made no interception, completed no cross, had no successful dribbling attempt and won 0 of 2 tackles.

Ozil’s only significant contribution was a high pass for Walcott who volleyed over the bar in the 32nd. The Germany playmaker can produce outstanding performances when his team dominates, but when the going gets tough he can also become a passenger who disappears from the game. Ozil was dispossessed by Silva in the 62nd but made no effort to win the ball back. After a midfield scramble, the ball fell to Sane, who was denied by Cech. Ozil showed poor teamwork again in the 77th by not tracking Silva. That laziness left Monreal in a 1v2 situation as Silva skipped past Monreal to feed Navas, whose deflected cross hit the post.

Limited midfield options

Silva and De Bruyne are creative players like Ozil, yet they worked hard for their team by making 5 tackles each. Ozil’s reluctance to defend means that the area between Sanchez and the two central midfielders, Coquelin and Xhaka, becomes a playground for the opposition. Toure and Fernando combined to hit 6 accurate long balls out of 10.

Coquelin and Xhaka often looked swamped in midfield. They combined to win only 2 of 9 tackles. The few times they managed to get hold of the ball, they had no solid outlet for a pass. In that type of game, what you need is a midfielder who can both defend and attack. Cazorla fits that profile, unfortunately he won’t be back before next year because of an ankle injury. Ramsey might have bridged the gap between the defense and the attack but he’s still recovering from a toe injury. In hindsight, loaning out Wilshere to Bournemouth this season has really hurt the club in terms of midfield options.

At the back, Monreal proved again the weak link. He won only 45.5% of his duels, the lowest percentage among Arsenal defenders. Sterling cut inside Monreal in the 71st to fire the winning goal into the bottom corner. Cech could have done a better job at his near post but Monreal should have also pushed Sterling against the touchline instead of letting him enter the area.

Monreal doesn’t dive in like Gibbs but the drawback is that the Spaniard often gives too much space to his opponent, which explains why he struggles to stop crosses. He’s had a great 2014-15 season but there have been signs last season that he’s losing a step. I hope the club will sign a leftback next summer. The holding midfielder and centerback positions used to be Arsenal’s main defensive weakness. Now it’s the leftback and playmaker positions that make the Gunners vulnerable.

An ill-advised offside trap

To be fair, Monreal wasn’t the only defender who had a hard time on Sunday. Bellerin is usually reliable at rightback but Guardiola clearly spotted a weakness as the Citizens attempted to crack the Arsenal defense by making runs between Bellerin and Paulista. That’s what happened in the 47th when Silva sent a ball over the top for Sane, who slipped the ball past Cech for the equalizer. Sane was marginally offside but Bellerin made the wrong decision by not staying with Sane.

You also have to question why Arsenal played a high defensive line on the equalizer, especially with nobody pressing Silva while De Bruyne and Sane made dangerous runs. The Gunners defended deep in the first half and seemed to absorb well the pressure. So why did they not retreat?

Koscielny was unlucky not to get the offside call on the equalizer. He was our best defender, winning 85.7% of his duels and making timely tackles and interceptions. His calm contrasted with Paulista’s shakiness. Paulista had a risky pass intercepted in the third minute and forced Cech to come off his line by underhitting a backpass in the 70th. The Brazilian centerback nearly scored an own goal in the 31st when his clearance bounced off Bellerin’s head but Cech made the save.

The only positive from Sunday’s game was our finishing. The Gunners took the lead in the fifth minute with their only shot on target. Bellerin ran 50 yards to find Sanchez, who played Walcott in. The England international needed two touches to control the ball before beating Bravo with a low strike.

Arsenal’s season depending on Ramsey’s fitness

Walcott didn’t do much besides that goal. He won only 1 of 6 aerial duels and 0 of 2 tackles, made 1 interception and 1 block, and his three other shots were off target. When the Gunners dominate ball possession, Walcott is a constant threat with his runs. But when they are deprived of the ball, his limited passing skills become a glaring weakness.

Iwobi also quickly faded and was replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 65th. The Ox had no time to make an impact as he picked up a hamstring injury. Wenger pulled him out to send on Elneny in the 78th. That was obviously an attempt from the manager to balance the team after Giroud had replaced Coquelin in the 75th. Giroud headed wide Bellerin’s cross in the 83rd. The France striker could have been a starting option to evade City’s high press. Unable to play the ball out from the back, Arsenal often hit long balls. Unfortunately, Sanchez did not win any aerial duel.

The Gunners have slipped to fourth place in the Premier League, 9 points behind Chelsea and just 1 point ahead of Tottenham. The title race could be over for Arsenal if they don’t win their next few games. They host West Brom on Boxing Day and then play Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Swansea, Burnley and Watford in January. Any point dropped against those weak or average teams could put the Gunners in a difficult situation.

Cazorla won’t be back before March. That means our season pretty much depends on Ramsey’s fitness. The Wales midfielder is one of the few players in our squad who can provide a smooth transition from defense to attack and the other way around. If Ramsey can’t be fit, then the manager might have to tweak the team’s passing game and opt for a more direct approach.

Arsenal vs. Stoke: Bellerin helps Gunners fight back in 3-1 win

The Gunners consolidated second place in the Premier League and moved four points clear of Manchester City by coming from behind in a 3-1 win over Stoke on Saturday. Bellerin’s return from injury and the end product from the wingers helped Arsenal defeat a team that had lost only one of its nine previous games.

arsenal-vs-stoke

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

In an attempt to inject freshness, Wenger made 6 changes to the side that routed Basel 4-1 last Tuesday in the Champions League with Cech, Monreal, Mustafi, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott replacing Ospina, Gibbs, Holding, Ramsey, Iwobi and Perez in the starting lineup.

Despite 64% of ball possession, the Gunners did not produce a performance as dominant as the scoreline might suggest. They had 6 shots on target compared to 5 for the Potters. Arsenal played at an average tempo and gave too much space in the first half.

The referee’s leniency did not help as Stoke slowed play down by taking 30 seconds for each goal kick. Grant only received a warning for his time-wasting tactics in the beginning of the second half. That’s really poor officiating. Mason should have warned Grant before his second goal kick instead of allowing a player to disrupt the flow of the game for 45 minutes.

Mustafi’s hamstring injury led to Bellerin’s introduction in the 25th minute with Paulista shifting from rightback to centerback. Bellerin is a key factor in Arsenal’s attacking fluency. His presence down the right flank allows Walcott to drift inside and be more often in a scoring position. Bellerin also provides more ammunition than Paulista with his pace and technique. The Spaniard finished the game with 3 key passes.

Triangular play

Bellerin’s first foray was not successful as he crossed the ball into the stands in the 33rd. Three minutes later, his low cross for Ozil was cleared by Diouf. However, the Stoke defense was helpless in the 42nd when Sanchez released Bellerin down the right wing. Walcott got ahead of Martins Indi to flick home Bellerin’s offering. It was a triangular play similar to the second goal scored against Chelsea. On the stroke of halftime, Bellerin created another chance but Oxlade-Chamberlain sent his first-time effort over the bar from 14 yards.

Walcott had a decent game with 3 of his 6 goal attempts on target. He made a run in behind Pieters to collect a deep pass from Mustafi in the 12th but Grant stopped his angled strike. Walcott was again denied by the Stoke goalkeeper after skipping past two defenders in the 82nd.

The Ox had mixed fortunes on the left wing. He made 2 key passes and had 3 successful dribbles out of 3, but his passing accuracy was down to 69.6%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal players. The Ox set up Arsenal’s second goal in the 49th with a ball over the top for Ozil, who beat an advanced Grant with a looping header. The England international could have also found the net with a bit more composure. The Ox met a cross from Sanchez in the 53rd for a downward header that sailed wide. He finally tested Grant in the 58th by chesting down a long ball from Sanchez to cut inside Muniesa and curl a low shot that the Stoke goalie saved.

Competition on the wings

Iwobi came off the bench to replace the Ox in the 69th. The Nigeria international quickly had an impact as he made it 3-1 in the 75th. Martins Indi fouled Sanchez on the edge of the box, but the referee played advantage and Iwobi beat Adam to the loose ball to net with a low curling shot. Iwobi, who also scored against Basel a few days ago, is rediscovering his form. With the busy Christmas period coming up, it doesn’t hurt to have competition for starting spots on the wings. Especially if Iwobi improves his defensive awareness. He made 2 blocks and won 1 of 1 tackle. Saturday’s game also shows that the team doesn’t have to depend on Sanchez for goals.

I guess the big difference between the top players and the good ones is the capacity to perform consistently even on an average day. Sanchez had none of his 3 shots on target and none of his 2 dribbling attempts was successful, according to Squawka. But he was involved in the build-up of 2 goals and made 5 key passes, more than any other player.

Even if he doesn’t get goals or assists, Sanchez will always put in a shift. Sanchez won 3 of 4 tackles, and made 1 interception and 1 block against Stoke. He nearly embarrassed Grant by charging down the goalie’s clearance in the ninth minute.

Sanchez was disappointed when the manager replaced him with Giroud in the 77th, but the Chile striker has to look at the bigger picture: Giroud was a greater asset in the air against Crouch and fans still remember how Arsenal badly struggled last season when Sanchez picked up a hamstring injury. If the FA is serious about punishing violence, Adam should be suspended for his deliberate stamp (notice the change in his stride) on Sanchez’s leg in the 75th.

Ozil’s lax coverage

Ozil scored the second goal and made 2 key passes, but his defensive contribution is becoming an issue. He made no tackle, no interception and no block. A week ago, West Ham took advantage of Ozil’s lax coverage of the zone between the striker and the central midfielders to hit long balls.

The Potters used that same trick to create chances with Adam and Imbula combining for 7 accurate long balls, according to whoscored.com. Arnautovic ghosted past Koscielny to chase a long ball in the 37th but Cech came off his line to head the ball away. Diouf then beat the offside trap to collect Adam’s long ball in the 65th only to have his shot deflected out by Paulista.

Stoke also relied on crosses to put the Arsenal defense under pressure. Monreal failed to stop a cross from Shaqiri in the 48th but Bellerin managed to put off Pieters, whose tame header sailed wide. Pieters got the better of Bellerin in the 69th to make a cross for Diouf, who missed the target despite some poor marking from Koscielny. Hugues sensed an opportunity and sent on Crouch for Diouf in the 72nd. That move from the Stoke manager nearly paid off as Crouch outjumped Paulista and Koscielny to meet a corner from Shaqiri and force a save from Cech.

Paulista and Koscielny did OK at centerback if we except one play in the 41st when Allen outmuscled Bellerin to feed Arnautovic inside the area. Arnautovic dribbled past both Paulista and Koscielny and only a timely challenge from Monreal prevented the Stoke striker from pulling the trigger.

The gap between the back four and the midfield

Allen proved a live wire in the first half and exposed a weakness in the partnership formed by Coquelin and Xhaka. Arnautovic controlled a long ball from Adam in the 23rd to cut it back for Allen, who fired wide from a good position. Neither Coquelin nor Xhaka tracked Allen on that play.

Basically, Allen exploited the small gap between Arsenal’s back four and the central midfielders. There are two remedies to that kind of threat. Either zonal marking with each central midfielder in charge of one side of the pitch. Or man-marking, with one central midfielder protecting the defense while the other is tracking Allen.

The Wales midfielder flew under the radar again in the 27th. Unmarked inside the area, Allen took a pass from Shaqiri with a clumsy first touch. That gave Xhaka enough time to challenge for the ball. Running away from goal, Allen managed to poke the ball past Xhaka, who turned around in an attempt to put his body between Allen and the ball. That soft obstruction looked worse when Xhaka’s elbow went into Allen’s face. Maybe the referee wouldn’t have awarded a penalty if Allen’s face had crashed against Xhaka’s back, but the golden rule is that you have to win any challenge inside the box. Adam converted the subsequent spot kick to give Stoke the lead.

Finding a better balance

Xhaka and Coquelin made their fifth start together in central midfield. I thought Xhaka was less shy than against West Ham, making 87 passes, 22 more than any other player, and hitting 6 accurate long balls out of 10. However, Xhaka was a bit too hyperactive to my liking. The Switzerland international made more tackles and won more aerial duels than Coquelin, while both created 2 chances each.

It would make more sense to have Coquelin do more defensive work so that Xhaka can focus on his pacesetting duties. To be fair, Coquelin also made 4 interceptions and 3 blocks compared to 1 interception and 2 blocks for Xhaka. It’s obviously a young partnership so they still have room to find a better balance.

The Gunners have two tough trips in the Premier League before they can enjoy a one-week break. They will travel to Everton on Tuesday and then play at Manchester City on Sunday. Maybe Ozil or Sanchez could have a breather at Goodison Park since it is the game with the highest risk for an injury. The manager has rotated on the wings but not yet in the No. 9 and 10 positions. Mustafi’s hamstring injury also means Paulista may start the next 3 games at centerback. Will the Brazilian defender rise to the occasion?