The Gunners were vulnerable on crosses under Wenger. They still haven’t found a fix under Emery. Southampton headed in three crosses to win 3-2 on Sunday and snap Arsenal’s 22-game unbeaten run in all competitions.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
A quick look at the standings tells you that the Gunners are doing fine offensively. With 37 goals from 17 games, they have scored as many goals as Liverpool to boast the second best offense in the Premier League behind Manchester City. On the other hand, they have already conceded 23 goals, that is, 16 more than Liverpool, 13 more than City and 9 more than Chelsea. In fact, the Gunners even have a more porous defense than Wolverhampton, Everton, Leicester and Newcastle.
On Sunday, Arsenal missed Holding through injury and Mustafi and Sokratis through suspension. Emery opted for a 3-4-3 formation with Koscielny playing alongside Xhaka and Lichtsteiner in a back three. What was Emery thinking?
Understanding and complementarity are crucial for any defense. The starting lineup didn’t really put Koscielny in optimal conditions for his first Premier League game this season. The French defender had never played with Lichtsteiner and Xhaka at centerback. Partnering Koscielny with Monreal in a back four would have been a more rational choice.
What also made the back three dysfunctional was Emery’s decision to use Koscielny as the sweeper and Lichtsteiner and Xhaka as the wide centerbacks. Xhaka and Lichtsteiner are simply too sluggish to efficiently play as wide centerbacks. The idea behind a back three is that the sweeper covers the wide centerbacks, who must be more pro-active than the sweeper.
Adjusting to the pace of the game
Koscielny didn’t cover himself in glory on the opening goal. Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Targett and Ings took advantage of Koscielny’s error to give Southampton the lead in the 20th minute. Koscielny showed poor decision-making by trying to intercept the ball with a high boot instead of heading the ball out of play. He misjudged the flight of the ball and missed his interception, basically offering Ings a free header.
Koscielny in a perfect position to head the ball out of play. (Photo credit: Sky)
The irony is that Koscielny was sharp physically. He made more tackles (3), blocks (2), interceptions (1) and recoveries (8) than Xhaka and Lichtsteiner combined (1 tackle, 0 block, 1 interception, 7 recoveries), according to the club’s website. However, one key stat showed that Koscielny struggled to adjust to the pace of the game: he won 0 tackle. Koscielny will certainly need a couple more games to get back to his best level.
Playing Xhaka at centerback was the weirdest decision Emery has made this season. Xhaka never really felt comfortable in that position, especially since his matchup with Redmond was an unfavorable one. The Switzerland international missed his challenge on Redmond in the 18th, was dispossessed by Redmond in the 23rd, gave the ball away in the 39th and fouled Long in the 73rd.
Injury crisis at the back
Xhaka’s lack of pace was exposed in the 85th when the Saints scored the winner. Leading a counterattack, Hojbjerg played Long in and the Southampton substitute made a cross for Austin, who beat Leno to the ball to head home. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka failed to close down Long, giving him plenty of time and space for a pinpoint cross.
Koscielny in a 1v1 situation with Austin as Xhaka is not tight to Long. (Photo credit: Sky)
Leno was credited with an error for that goal, but the reason why he missed his catch by a few inches is because he initially thought Long would shoot. By coming off his line to narrow Long’s angle, Leno missed the couple of steps that would have allowed him to catch Long’s cross. Leno is now tied with Begovic for the most errors (3) leading to a goal in the Premier League. There’s no doubt that Leno’s distribution is better than Cech’s. His passing accuracy reached 92.9% against Southampton. Yet, passing skills are meaningless for a goalkeeper if he can’t do the basics: preventing goals. Leno has been poor at reading crosses this season. He completely missed his punch while coming for Valery’s cross in the 60th. You can bet that other Premier League sides will test Leno again with teasing crosses.
The Gunners have been hit by an injury crisis at the back. Holding will miss the rest of the season to recover from a torn ligament in his knee while Kolasinac was not in the squad because of a thigh strain. The disabled list got longer at St Mary’s stadium as Bellerin was replaced at halftime by Lacazette because of a calf problem that will sideline him for a couple of weeks. The Spaniard underperformed lately and it was clear that something wasn’t right physically.
Lichtsteiner, who moved to the rightback position when Arsenal switched to a back four in the second half, also picked up an injury after a scissor tackle from Armstrong in the 71st. Maitland-Niles came off the bench to replace Lichtsteiner and should likely start at rightback in the next few games. Unless Emery is crazy enough to play Xhaka in that position.
Xhaka and Lichtsteiner were so worried by the pace of Redmond and Armstrong that they preferred to sit back and left a huge gap between the defense and the midfield. That made the task of Torreira and Guendouzi very difficult in the first half.
Torreira produced another good performance, leading all players by winning 4 of 5 tackles and making 9 recoveries. The Uruguay midfielder also made 1 key pass, 1 block and 2 interceptions. In the 30th, Guendouzi picked out Torreira, who squared the ball back for Aubameyang. It took a desperate sliding tackle from Bednarek to prevent Aubameyang from tapping in from 5 yards. Torreira will have regrets about the lost duel in the 85th. Ozil turned the ball over to Hojbjerg, who wriggled away from Torreira to slip a through ball to Long for the winner. For a split second, Torreira thought about holding Hojbjerg before letting him go.
In the partnership formed with Guendouzi in central midfield, Torreira clearly had more defensive responsibilities. Guendouzi still made his defensive contribution by winning 2 of 2 tackles and having 5 recoveries. However, his inexperience cost his team at times. He lacked patience and took speculative shots, with 0 of 3 shots on target, instead of maintaining pressure on the Southampton defense.
Guendouzi also held onto the ball too long when he could have moved it faster. And he failed to smell the danger in the 44th when Redmond made a cross for Ings, whose looping header beat Leno for a 2-1 lead. As you can see on the screen capture below, Redmond got plenty of time and space for his cross. It was definitely not Xhaka’s job to chase Redmond that far and Monreal was busy with Valery down the left flank.
Guendouzi fails to close down Redmond. (Photo credit: Sky)
I guess that’s the price you have to pay for starting a teenager in Premier League games. On the bright side, Guendouzi only had 1 turnover, compared to 2 for Torreira, according to whoscored.com. And he created Arsenal’s first scoring chance in the sixth minute with a ball over the top for Aubameyang, whose close-range effort was saved by McCarthy.
Emery made 10 changes to the side that edged Qarabag in the Europa League, so there was no excuse for Arsenal’s slow passing game and sterile possession. The Gunners only had 4 shots on target to 7 for Southampton despite enjoying 66% of ball possession. Emery tried to shake things up but with no real success. The Spanish manager switched to a 4-4-2 system at halftime when Lacazette replaced an injured Bellerin. Then he gave the keys of the team to Ozil by yanking Iwobi off in the 70th and shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ozil had very little impact in his 25-minute cameo. He had 2 key passes but those stats are misleading: one came from a corner kick and the other was a short pass to set up a long-range effort.
It has been quite obvious in the past few games that the Gunners lack creativity. Yes, they score a lot of goals, but it’s because Aubameyang and Lacazette have been clinical. Arsenal lost Cazorla, Sanchez, Rosicky, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the past couple of years. Those are players who could create chances. The Gunners still have Ozil, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi as creative players. But only Ramsey has been relatively consistent this season while Ozil’s poor work-rate has been an issue, Mkhitaryan has a too peripheral role in the team’s passing game and Iwobi lacks end product.
Emery has a problem on the left wing because Welbeck’s long-term injury means that there’s no competition for Iwobi. Mkhitaryan and Ozil prefer to play on the right wing while Ramsey and Aubameyang are more effective in a central position. How do you motivate a lazy player if there’s no one to take his spot?
Iwobi is the most dispossessed player at Arsenal and 15th in the Premier League despite playing fewer minutes than most players on that list. Hazard is 6th, having been dispossessed 38 times in 1,225 minutes and Sterling is 7th with 37 in 1,140 minutes. Iwobi has already been dispossessed 29 times in 789 minutes. The big difference here is that Hazard and Sterling notch a lot of goals and assists while Iwobi only has 1 goal and 2 assists.
Despite spending only 70 minutes on the pitch, Iwobi led all players with 7 turnovers. His work-rate was average at best with 1 block and 5 recoveries, compared to 4 interceptions and 7 recoveries for Mkhitaryan, according to the club’s website. And his end product was mediocre with 0 shot on target, 0 key pass and 0 accurate cross. Iwobi especially lacked composure in the 54th, missing the target with a 15-yard curling shot.
Aubameyang losing his finishing touch
Managers can see the potential in Iwobi, but he still lacks the mental toughness and the attitude to reach the next level. To his credit, Iwobi released Monreal down the left flank for the first equalizer in the 28th. He then found Mkhitaryan, who set up Aubameyang for a scoring chance in the 46th. It’s usually the deep-lying playmaker who makes the penultimate pass. There’s no way Iwobi could play in that position because it requires more work than playing as an attacking midfielder.
Mkhitaryan had a good game with 2 goals and 1 key pass. The Armenia international headed Monreal’s cross into the bottom corner in the 28th and made it 2-2 in the 53rd with a long-range strike that took a big deflection off Vestergaard to beat a wrongfooted McCarthy. His stats look a bit more decent with 4 goals and 1 assist in the Premier League this season, but we’re still far from the consistency of a Sanchez or a Cazorla in their prime.
Up front, Aubameyang lost his finishing touch. I won’t blame Aubameyang for not scoring in the sixth minute because he was closed down by Yoshida while shooting with his weaker left foot. However, I thought Aubameyang could have done better than a tame toe poke in the 46th and should have hit the target with his sliding volley off a Guendouzi cross in the 81st.
No room for error in the Top 4 race
Emery decided to play with two strikers after halftime because Aubameyang often looked isolated in the first half. The Gunners had a bit more presence in the final third but it didn’t solve the lack of creativity. Arsenal’s second equalizer in the 53rd came from some defensive work by Lacazette, who dispossessed Romeu to feed Mkhitaryan. Lacazette created another chance by charging down McCarthy’s clearance in the 68th but Aubameyang couldn’t pick a spot to shoot. As an example of the poor service, Lacazette had 0 shot. I’m sure Aubameyang and Lacazette would have shone in Ferguson’s Manchester United. Unfortunately, Emery doesn’t have any Giggs or Beckham to provide them a decent service.
The Gunners next play Spurs in the League Cup on Wednesday before hosting Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday. I believe Emery should rotate against Spurs because Arsenal’s situation in the Premier League gives them no room for error. The Gunners are 3 points outside the Top 4 and 5 points behind Tottenham. They could drop out of the Top 4 race by the end of December if they get poor results against Burnley, Brighton and Liverpool.