Tag Archives: Bellerin

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 race over after 1-0 loss in North London derby

The Top 4 race is virtually over for Arsenal after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Tottenham. The Gunners trail their North London rivals by 7 points and Liverpool by 9 in the Premier League. Even if we assume a miraculous improvement in Arsenal’s poor away form, it’s hard to see how they could make up so much ground with just 11 league games left. To match their total from last season (75), they would need to win 10 of those games.

Tottenham vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The scoreline doesn’t reflect how Tottenham outplayed the Gunners in the second half. With some decent finishing, Spurs could have won by a four-goal margin. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves but the hosts also wasted some big chances by simply missing the target. If we except interceptions, Tottenham had the edge in all the key categories: 6 shots on target to 1 for Arsenal, 13 chances to 4, 15 key passes to 4, 13 successful tackles to 12, 14 successful dribbles to 8, 34 crosses to 13, and 52.6% of duels won, according to the club’s website and Squawka.

From those stats, we can see that dribbling is a weakness in the current Arsenal squad. The staff will have to address that issue in the summer transfer window unless they think Nelson and Nketiah are ready to start in the Premier League. That weakness means that the Gunners rely heavily on their passing game to crack a defense. By denying space and pressing the ballholder, Spurs managed to limit Arsenal to just 4 key passes. Arsenal had a couple of promising situations in the first half but failed to turn them into clear-cut chances because of a poor final ball. At the end of the second half, the Gunners improved the quality of their final ball but were let down by their finishing.

Failing to stop crosses

Tottenham did most of the damage from crosses. Last season, the leftback position was identified by opponents as the weak link in the Arsenal defense. Pochettino took a more sophisticated approach by exploiting the poor defensive contribution from Ozil and Mkhitaryan as Trippier and Davies charged down the flanks to hoist the ball into the box. In the 25th minute, Mkhitaryan failed to close down Trippier. The Tottenham rightback made a cross for Eriksen, whose looping header didn’t trouble Cech.

On the opposite flank, Davies was given plenty of time and space by Ozil in the 49th and the Wales leftback made a cross for Kane, who outjumped Koscielny to head the ball into the bottom corner. The timing of Kane’s jump was perfect. The only thing Koscielny could have done better was to try and put Kane off by colliding into the Spurs striker while pretending to jump.

Making crosses was a simple ploy but it worked wonders for Spurs. In the 54th, Monreal was caught out of position and Mkhitaryan failed to track Trippier, who set up Kane for a volley that Cech parried. As you can see on the screen capture below, Wilshere covered Monreal on the left flank and somehow managed to slow down the counterattack, but Xhaka left Kane unmarked on the edge of the Arsenal box.

Tottenham M54ed Xhaka showing his lack of defensive awareness by leaving Kane unmarked. (Photo credit: BT)

Tottenham even had a Plan B if Ozil or Mkhitaryan made the effort to close down Davies or Trippier. In the 52nd, Trippier lured Mkhitaryan down our left flank, creating space for Dier, who whipped a cross into the box. Kane made a run between Koscielny and Mustafi only to head the cross wide. Wilshere sat too deep on that play, failing to press Dier, while Koscielny was not tight enough to Kane.

Questionable tactics

In the battle of playmakers, Eriksen got the better of Ozil with 4 key passes compared to just 2 for the Germany international. Eriksen created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense by playing between the lines and finding pockets of space to pull the strings. Dier in the 14th and Kane in the 27th met his crosses but missed the target. Then Bellerin failed to stop another cross from Eriksen in the 76th. Unmarked at the far post, Trippier connected with the ball for a volley that Cech saved.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that smashed Everton 5-1 a week ago with Elneny and Wilshere replacing Iwobi and an injured Ramsey in the starting lineup. I would have played a back three like in the 2-0 win at the Emirates in November. To the manager’s credit, the team did OK in the first half in a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny, Xhaka and Wilshere in midfield.

Chasing an equalizer, Wenger made some substitutions that were questionable. He replaced Elneny and Mkhitaryan with Iwobi and Lacazette in the 65th, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ozil in the hole, Aubameyang on the left wing, Iwobi on the right and Lacazette up front. Aubameyang has never been known for his crossing ability or all-around game, so I don’t quite understand what Wenger had in mind. It would have been more rational to play Lacazette on the right wing, Iwobi on the left and keep Aubameyang in the centerforward role. Another tactical option would have been to use a 4-4-2 formation with Ozil and Iwobi as the wide players and Lacazette as a second striker playing behind Aubameyang.

The Chamakh syndrome

The manager switched back to a 4-3-3 formation in the 86th by sending on Welbeck for Xhaka. Iwobi teamed up with Ozil and Wilshere in midfield while Welbeck joined Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front three. The move nearly paid off as Spurs started tiring in the closing minutes and invited pressure by sitting deeper and deeper. Bellerin made a pinpoint cross for an unmarked Lacazette in stoppage time, but the France international sent his volley over the bar from 12 yards. Two minutes later, Iwobi slipped a through ball to Lacazette, who lacked composure and dragged his shot wide instead of attempting a chip.

Besides those 2 golden chances, Lacazette led all players with 3 offside calls in his 25-minute cameo. When he signed for Arsenal, there was some uncertainty about his level. Was Lacazette a world-class player like Henry and Van Persie or just a good striker like Lukaku? We don’t have the answer yet, but now the danger for Lacazette is the Chamakh syndrome.

Don’t get me wrong, Lacazette is a much better player than Chamakh. But if he doesn’t show more mental strength, his spell at Arsenal could end next year. Chamakh joined Arsenal in 2010 and scored 7 goals in his first 15 Premier League games. But then the Morocco international couldn’t find the net in the league for the rest of the season. The similarities with Lacazette’s new career in England are quite obvious. Lacazette scored 8 goals in his first 15 league games but has netted only once in the following 11 league games.

There have been many comparisons made between Aubameyang and Henry. I think those comparisons make no sense at all because Aubameyang and Henry are 2 completely different players. Yes, both Aubameyang and Henry have electric pace. But Henry was not a fox in the box like Aubameyang, and the former Borussia Dortmund player doesn’t have Henry’s dribbling and passing skills. Aubameyang is a pure centerforward who depends on good service. He won’t create a goal out of nothing like Henry.

An awkward left foot 

On Saturday, Aubameyang took 0 shot and made 2 crosses that went nowhere. Although Aubameyang is 5 inches taller than Lacazette, Spurs exposed his relative weakness in the air by winning 1 of 8 aerial duels against him, according to Squawka. Despite Tottenham’s high defensive line, the Gunners never managed to capitalize on Aubameyang’s speed. Wilshere played Aubameyang clean through on goal in the 12th but the Gabon striker was flagged offside. Then Xhaka overhit his through ball for Aubameyang in the 60th before Aubameyang was again caught offside in the 82nd while collecting a through ball from Ozil. It will take a bit of time to develop a good understanding between Aubameyang and his teammates. Aubameyang scored in his first Arsenal game but we should remember that Mkhitaryan, who made the assist, previously played with him in Germany.

Starting on the left wing, Mkhitaryan had a much weaker impact than against Everton. Let’s be honest, Mkhitaryan seems more comfortable on the right wing than on the left for the simple reason that his left foot is a mess. The Armenia international couldn’t find anybody with his cross in the 22nd and he wasted a golden chance with a poor final ball in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Mkhitaryan just had to make a basic pass to set up Aubameyang for what would have looked like a spot kick. Somehow, Mkhitaryan catapulted the ball straight into touch.

Tottenham M34edWhere Mkhitaryan should have played the ball. (Photo credit: BT)

Mkhitaryan’s technical struggles meant that Arsenal had to rely on Ozil or Wilshere for the final ball. Spurs limited Ozil’s impact to 2 key passes, 2 crosses and 3 successful dribbles. Ozil has always struggled in games where players have to fight for the ball. Saturday’s North London derby was not a game for him. In stoppage time, Ozil had the opportunity to salvage a point with a dead ball but his free kick crashed into the wall. That was quite a contrast with the quality of Eriksen’s free kick that Cech tipped over the bar in the 57th.

Inability to win duels

The Gunners never had the control of the match because Tottenham outplayed them in midfield. Elneny is more mobile than Xhaka but his defensive contribution is poor. The scouting department made a mistake in failing to spot Elneny’s inability to win duels. The Egypt international was not involved in any aerial duel and made 0 tackle, 0 interception and 2 blocks. Those are weak stats for a holding midfielder. By contrast, Dier made 3 interceptions and 0 block and won 2 of 4 tackles and 5 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Taking over Elneny’s spot in the 65th, Iwobi initially struggled to adjust to the intensity of the game. Iwobi was dispossessed twice before creating Arsenal’s best chance in stoppage time.

Among the 3 starting midfielders, Xhaka had the best defensive stats. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 1 block and won 2 of 3 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels. For a No. 8, that would be a decent defensive contribution. Unfortunately, Xhaka’s offensive stats are too weak. Xhaka created 0 chance and never proved a goal threat like Ramsey.

It was quite the opposite with Wilshere, who had decent offensive stats but weak defensive stats. Wilshere was not involved in any aerial duel, won 1 of 5 tackles, and made 0 interception and 0 block. He also led all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Dier and Dembele were much more tidy in possession with 0 and 1 turnover, respectively. To Wilshere’s credit, he tested Lloris with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 68th. Wilshere also fed Welbeck in the 87th but the rusty substitute had a heavy first touch which allowed Lloris to gather the ball.

Son in Bellerin’s pocket

The Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. As the goal showed, Koscielny struggled badly in the air against Kane, winning only 3 of 6 aerial duels. The France defender had an unusual lapse of concentration in the 71st, giving the ball away to Lamela, who sent a ball over the top for Alli. Clean through on goal, Alli flicked the ball wide. Koscielny won only 44.4% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi, according to the club’s website. Mustafi was again the most pro-active of the 2 centerbacks, leading all players with 5 interceptions but winning just 1 of 4 tackles. Koscielny and Mustafi didn’t cover themselves in glory in the 90th when Lamela beat the offside trap to chase a long free kick and fire wide.

On the flanks, Bellerin and Monreal were mostly focused on their defensive tasks. Monreal remained anonymous throughout the game (passing accuracy of 75%, 0 chance created, 2 crosses, 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 of 3 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 2 blocks) while Bellerin had Son in his pocket and contributed offensively (passing accuracy of 85%, 1 chance created, 4 crosses, 2 of 4 tackles won, 1 of 2 aerial duels won, 0 interception and 6 blocks). Bellerin took a pass from Ozil in the 40th only to miss the target from 20 yards.

Still no clean sheet

Cech’s quest for a 200th clean sheet in the Premier League has become a running gag. The Gunners haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last 9 league games. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves on Saturday but his error rate is a concern. The Czech goalkeeper had a pass blocked by Alli in the 71st and he nearly lost possession with a dribbling attempt in the 48th. According to the Premier League’s website, Cech tops all players for the number of errors leading to a goal this season (4). At 35, Cech is clearly past his prime but I guess the staff will let Cech run down his contract instead of signing a new goalkeeper this summer.

The Gunners next play Ostersund in the Europa League on Feb. 15 before hosting the Swedish side a week later. The staff has two options: 1. Either leave their key players out of the squad for the first leg in Sweden and play their best team in the second leg; 2. Or leave their key players out of the squad for the second leg to give them a break before the League Cup final on Feb. 25. In any case, I hope youngsters like Nelson, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock will get some playing time against Ostersund.

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Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Gunners pay price for poor transfer policy

   The Arsenal board must act quickly to clean up the mess created by the uncertainty about Sanchez’s situation at the club. Sanchez was not even on the bench Sunday when the Gunners lost 2-1 to Bournemouth in the Premier League. That tells you the club did not want to take any risk of injury before a possible transfer. Ironically, Bordeaux had no scruples about starting Malcom in the French league on Saturday even though the Brazilian forward has been tipped as the replacement for Sanchez. Guess what? Bordeaux won at Troyes.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

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

Last August, the Gunners performed poorly in losses to Stoke and Liverpool. The contractual situations of Sanchez, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly created doubt in the dressing room. The Ox is gone but Sanchez and Ozil are still at the club and the Arsenal squad could get destabilized again by all the transfer rumors. Sanchez could have joined Manchester City a few months ago for £60 million but Arsenal wasted too much time to meet Monaco’s asking price for Lemar, offering £31 million in June, then £40 million in July and finally £92 million at the end of August. By the time Monaco accepted the Gunners’ bid, Lemar had already started his season with the French side and was no longer willing to move, forcing Arsenal to call off the Sanchez deal.

   Will the Arsenal board learn from its mistakes and quickly sell Sanchez while signing his replacement? Or will it be another debacle with Sanchez leaving on a free transfer and his replacement coming only in the summer? If the Gunners want to know how to do some proper business, they just need to look at Liverpool. The Reds sold Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million and signed Van Dijk from Southampton for £75 million. The impact on the dressing room has been quite positive since Liverpool edged Manchester City 4-3 on Sunday.

A mid-table team

The Gunners face a massive rebuilding task this summer. Sunday’s game at the Vitality stadium gave them a foretaste of what the team could look like next season if they don’t improve the squad. Wenger fielded pretty much a mid-table team with 6 high-profile players (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Sanchez and Ozil) missing in the starting lineup. The club has already lost a year in the rebuilding process by refusing to sell Sanchez and Ozil last summer. And I don’t think the Arsenal board understands the financial implications of a massive overhaul.

Before the start of the season, I said Arsenal should have sold Chambers, loaned out Holding and signed an experienced centerback. The club chose the worst solution by selling Paulista while keeping Chambers and Holding as back-up options for the aging Mertesacker, Monreal and Koscielny. We saw the result of that poor transfer policy against Bournemouth as Chambers and Holding were involved in the two goals conceded.

The Cherries equalized in the 70th minute when Wilson converted a cross from Fraser. That’s the kind of goal that doesn’t make sense. Wilson was double-teamed by Chambers and Bellerin while Fraser and Mousset were surrounded by 4 Gunners along the touchline. Arsenal had numerical superiority on that play but lost two key duels. First, Maitland-Niles allowed Fraser to ghost past him. And second, Chambers failed to intercept the cross because of his lack of pace. To make things worse, Mustafi was pulled out of position by Mousset and couldn’t act as a safety. Cech was credited with an error by whoscored.com, but I don’t think that the Czech goalkeeper made a mistake for the simple reason that Wilson beat Chambers to the ball and had a free shot from 11 yards.

A flawed back three

Bournemouth scored the winner in the 74th, just a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four. As you can see on the screen capture below, the backline was not ready: Holding played Wilson onside by staying 4 yards behind Mustafi. With his back to goal, Wilson controlled a ball over the top from Cook and set up Ibe, who rifled a half-volley past Cech.

Bournemouth M72a editedHolding is 4 yards behind Mustafi while Xhaka keeps an eye on Ibe. (Photo credit: Sky)

Holding should have stood on the same line as Mustafi and Maitland-Niles. Xhaka also made a mistake on that play by not tracking Ibe, who beat everybody to the second ball. It’s not the first time this season that Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness has cost his team a goal.

Bournemouth M72b edited Xhaka forgets to track Ibe, who scores the winning goal. (Photo credit: Sky)

   While a back three of Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi can perform at a good level, Sunday’s back three of Mustafi, Holding and Chambers is deeply flawed. As the sweeper, Mustafi should be cautious but he’s sometimes too easily pulled out of position. That rashness can be deadly with 2 youngsters at the back. Holding is a pro-active defender like Mustafi but tends to dive in too often, winning only 2 of 7 tackles according to Squawka. By contrast, Chambers is way too passive: he made no tackle at all.

On the left wing, Maitland-Niles had a poor game. He had some lapses of concentration that are not acceptable at the top level. As the last defender on a corner in the 13th, Maitland-Niles gave the ball away to Ibe, who initiated a counterattack. He then fouled Smith in the 39th after losing possession with a poor touch on the edge of the Arsenal box. A few seconds later, Maitland-Niles had a pass intercepted by Smith, whose tame effort didn’t trouble Cech. Besides the cross for Bournemouth’s equalizer in the 70th, Maitland-Niles also failed to stop dangerous crosses from Ibe in the 40th and Francis in the 65th. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress, but he will have to quickly get rid of his naivety. The academy player was dribbled past 3 times.

Lacazette deprived of service

On the opposite wing, Bellerin was arguably Arsenal’s best player. The Spaniard scored a goal, won 5 of 6 tackles and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. He opened the scoring in the 52nd by firing a low strike that Begovic could only divert into his own net. After an average start to the season, Bellerin is getting close to the level of performance that led to his inclusion in the 2015-16 PFA Team of the Year, striking the right balance between attack and defense.

In midfield, Xhaka and Wilshere struggled defensively. Xhaka was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, while Wilshere led all players with 7 turnovers. They received yellow cards and combined to win only 1 of 11 tackles. Ramsey made his return from injury by replacing Chambers in the 74th. The Wales midfielder didn’t look sharp, making some inaccurate passes. It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks whether the manager switches to a back four to have Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield, or if he sticks to a back three and therefore benches one of the three midfielders.

In the front three, Lacazette was deprived of service. Sanchez and Ozil are two world-class players who can see and execute plays. The less talented Welbeck and Iwobi couldn’t make up for their absence. Lacazette was so frustrated that he dropped back to create chances for his teammates. He took 0 shot but attempted 4 through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles met a cross from Lacazette in the eighth minute and created space to fire a shot that clipped the bar. Then Lacazette slipped a through ball to Welbeck, who was denied by Begovic in the 35th. In the second half, Lacazette sent a ball over the top for Iwobi, who was dispossessed by Cook, and slightly overhit a through ball for Welbeck.

No Top 4 finish?

I’m worried about Lacazette’s confidence. He hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game. The France international worked hard on Sunday, winning 1 of 2 tackles, and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, but he struggled again in the centerforward role with 7 turnovers and only 1 of 10 aerial duels won. Welbeck and Iwobi didn’t do much to feed him. They combined to make only one cross. Iwobi wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 12th by ignoring Lacazette twice on the same play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi ended up running into traffic before playing a backpass to Wilshere and the chance was gone.

Bournemouth M12b edited Lacazette shows Iwobi where to play the ball. (Photo credit: Sky) 

Bournemouth M12c edited A second later, Lacazette points again where the ball should be played. (Photo credit: Sky)

Iwobi made the assist for Bellerin’s goal but his creative contribution was limited. In fact, that was Iwobi’s only key pass of the game. Somehow, it put more pressure on Wilshere and Xhaka to create plays even though they were busy defensively (Xhaka and Wilshere combined to make 6 key passes). Iwobi tested Begovic with a 20-yard drive in the 10th but missed his cross for Welbeck in the 28th in a situation that was similar to Bournemouth’s equalizer. The Nigeria international was lucky not to get penalized in the 39th for a silly handball inside the Arsenal area.

Arsenal’s record on the road has been poor this season with just 3 away wins while Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have won 6 away games at least. We shouldn’t look elsewhere if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4.

The Gunners trail fourth-place Chelsea by 8 points in the standings with 15 games left. Mathematically, Arsenal can still finish in the Top 4. But that would imply a winning run from Arsenal and an implosion from Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea. If we’re honest, winning the Europa League is the club’s most realistic chance to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Gunners salvage 2-2 draw despite erratic defending

In Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea, the Gunners got a foretaste of what their defense could look like next season. Injuries to Monreal and Koscielny led Wenger to start Mustafi, Chambers and Holding in the back three. And the result on the pitch wasn’t pretty. The Blues could have won by a big margin if Cech had not pulled off a couple of outstanding saves and if Morata had not missed some big chances.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 1-1 at the Hawthorns on Sunday with Holding, Maitland-Niles and Ozil replacing Koscielny, Kolasinac and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Both teams used 3-5-2 formations which favored a lot of end-to-end plays. The Blues were the better team, creating 14 chances to just 6 for the Gunners, according to Squawka.

Defensively, Arsenal’s back three was all over the place. Mustafi is not an organizer like Mertesacker and he doesn’t absorb pressure like Koscielny. In the role of the sweeper, Mustafi failed to chaperone Chambers and Holding. There have been some cases of pub defending this season because of poor focus or poor decision-making, but the level of panic and disorganization reached on Wednesday was a first.

Chambers was again the weak link at the back, winning only 23% of his duels according to the club’s website. He’s a decent player for an average club but not good enough to start for Arsenal or any team chasing a Champions League spot. Chambers got off to a bad start with a poor challenge on Alonso in the second minute. He was then dispossessed in dangerous areas in the 13th and 79th and gave the ball away in the 28th.

His lack of pace was also exposed a couple of times. Morata made a run in behind Chambers in the 14th to be clean through on goal but missed the target from 12 yards. Then Hazard outpaced Chambers in the 50th to fire a diagonal strike that Cech saved with his leg. Chambers was again tortured by Morata in the 70th. Chasing a through ball from Fabregas, Morata bullied and held off Chambers but his chip attempt sailed wide.

Chambers’ passivity

I don’t think Chambers understands the difference between a back four and a back three. While Koscielny and Monreal are pro-active wide centerbacks, Chambers is too passive for such a position. Chambers made 0 interception and 0 block whereas Holding and Mustafi made 5 interceptions and 2 blocks each, according to Squawka.

It was quite telling that Mustafi and Chambers had a heated argument in the 14th after Chambers stopped chasing Morata, hoping that Mustafi would cover him. Mustafi was so frustrated by Chambers’ passivity that he tried to compensate and too often dived in. That’s why Mustafi was out of position when Chelsea had chances in the 50th and 70th.

The Blues exploited the mess in the Arsenal defense by sending long balls. Morata received a long ball from Cahill in the 76th to feed Hazard, who played the ball back to Morata. Holding was out of position on that play while Mustafi was outpaced by Morata, whose cross was intercepted by Cech. Chelsea nearly scored the winner in stoppage time. Morata made a run in behind Mustafi to bear down on goal but was denied by Cech. Zappacosta pounced on the rebound only to rattle the bar.

When Koscielny retires, I’m not sure Mustafi will be the right person to marshal the defense. Mustafi gave away some cheap free kicks with silly fouls on Morata in the eighth minute and Hazard in the 57th. He also lost two key duels inside the area. Morata got ahead of Mustafi in the 15th but couldn’t convert Moses’ cross. Then Alonso ghosted past Mustafi in the 84th to tap in Zappacosta’s cross for a 2-1 lead.

Lack of protection from the midfield

Of the 3 centerbacks, only Holding did OK. He won 71% of his duels, compared to 50% for Mustafi. At 22, Holding will need to learn faster because he’s still too raw. He was lucky not to get a yellow card in the 48th for a cynical foul on Morata. Five minutes later, Holding finally got booked for a late challenge on Fabregas. Holding will have to get rid of his naivety. He was pulled out of position by Hazard in the 27th when Bakayoko tested Cech with a high shot. His reading of the game is also a concern. Bakayoko made runs in behind Holding in the 34th and 69th while chasing long balls from Fabregas.

The Gunners are paying the price for their failure to sign good centerbacks in the past few years. Paulista never really convinced and was therefore sold to Valencia last summer. Holding is a work in progress while Chambers will never be a top centerback because of his lack of pace and poor ability to win duels. Mustafi is still a big question mark and hasn’t performed yet at the level of a Koscielny in his prime.

Arsenal’s defensive frailties are made more obvious by the lack of protection provided by the midfield. Fabregas had so much freedom on Wednesday that he racked up 6 key passes before Drinkwater replaced him in the 71st. Fabregas often dropped back to escape marking and deliver pinpoint long balls. In that kind of situation, a midfielder or a forward must mark him. But neither the manager nor the players could find the solution.

Fabregas’ performance showed how much the Gunners missed Ramsey in midfield. Xhaka and Wilshere simply can’t match Ramsey’s mobility and work-rate. Wilshere opened the scoring in the 63rd with a powerful strike into the top corner, but his defensive contribution was poor: he won 0 tackle, made 0 interception and 0 block. In fact, Chelsea completely outplayed Arsenal in midfield. Kante, Bakayoko and Fabregas combined to win 7 of 16 tackles and make 10 interceptions and 7 blocks, according to Squawka. By contrast, Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil combined to win 2 of 9 tackles and make 2 interceptions and 3 blocks.

A soft penalty

In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 3 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. Ozil fired a long-range strike that Courtois turned around the post in the 39th. He also added more fluency in the team’s passing game and was able to find pockets of space in a compact Chelsea defense. But the comparison with Fabregas showed again Ozil’s main weakness in those tight games. The Germany playmaker won’t fight for the ball like Fabregas. He will also struggle offensively when under pressure. Kante dispossessed Ozil on the stroke of halftime to launch a counterattack.

On the wings, Bellerin and Maitland-Niles were among Arsenal’s best performers with Cech, although they will probably be remembered for their involvement in Chelsea’s goals. Bellerin showed poor decision-making in the 66th when Hazard’s cross was blocked. The Spaniard thought he could beat Hazard to the loose ball but ended up kicking his boot. It was a soft foul and Hazard definitely exaggerated contact. But the golden rule is that when you make a challenge inside the box, you have to win the ball. And Bellerin didn’t. Hazard sent Cech the wrong way to level the game. Wenger called the penalty a “farcical” decision. I can understand the manager’s frustration. Bellerin has been denied two penalties that they were more obvious this season. The Spaniard made amends in stoppage time by pouncing on a poor clearance from the Chelsea defense to volley into the far corner.

Besides that late goal, Bellerin had 2 successful dribbles out of 3, made 1 interception, and won 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels, according to Squawka. At 20, Maitland-Niles looked very mature against Chelsea. He led Arsenal players with 4 blocks and 3 successful dribbles out of 4. Maitland-Niles also created a chance, won 75% of his duels and 3 of 6 tackles, according to the club’s website.

Poor final ball

Some fans keep complaining about Maitland-Niles being played out of position, but the problem is that he looks more solid at left wingback than Kolasinac. When Bakayoko controlled a long ball from Fabregas in the 69th, Maitland-Niles covered Holding and dispossessed the Chelsea midfielder just before he could pull the trigger. Does anybody seriously think that Kolasinac would have covered Holding on that play? Maitland-Niles’ only blemish in the first half came in the 15th when he failed to stop a cross from Moses. Morata got ahead of Mustafi but couldn’t make contact with the ball, allowing Cech to gather it. Conte acknowledged Moses’ ineffectiveness and replaced him with Zappacosta in the 56th. With a sharp turn in the 84th, Zappacosta created a bit of space for a cross that Alonso converted for a 2-1 lead. What could Maitland-Niles have done better on that play? Maybe guess that Zappacosta’s initial move to cut inside was just a bluff.

Chelsea played 3 games in a 9-day span while Arsenal played 3 games in a 7-day span, so I wasn’t surprised that the Blues created more chances. A relative lack of freshness could help explain the poor quality of the Gunners’ final ball: Sanchez overhit his cross for Ozil in the 10th, Maitland-Niles missed his cross in the 13th, and Wilshere overhit his pass for Ozil in the 27th.

Up front, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, leading all players with 9 turnovers, while Morata had just 5 turnovers according to whoscored.com. However, Lacazette worked hard, making 1 interception and winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. Despite skipping a winter break for the first time in his career, Lacazette still managed to have 3 of 3 shots on target. The France international took a pass from Ozil in the 23rd and rolled away from Cahill to hit a low strike that Courtois palmed away. Lacazette then benefited from a lucky bounce in the 52nd but couldn’t get the ball out of his feet quickly enough and was denied by the Chelsea goalkeeper. His last chance came in the 64th. Sanchez found Lacazette, whose angled shot deflected off Azpilicueta before being tipped around the post by Courtois. No big miss like Morata but a golden chance that should have found the net in the 52nd.

Bleak Top 4 chances

How do you recognize great players? Even when they have an off day, they can still be able of one moment of magic. Sanchez wasn’t sharp on Wednesday, having 1 of 4 shots on target and winning only 22% of his duels and 0 of 3 tackles. But he nearly opened the scoring in the 16th with a snapshot that Courtois diverted onto his near post. The ball ricocheted off the far post before gently rolling back toward Courtois. In the second half, Sanchez could only head wide a cross from Maitland-Niles.

I have mixed feelings after this game. It’s a decent result if we consider the number of injuries (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Giroud) and the unfavorable schedule. But a quick look at the standings shows that Arsenal’s Top 4 chances are weak. The Gunners trail Chelsea by 7 points and Liverpool by 5. It basically means that Arsenal must put together a winning run while hoping for a slip from Chelsea or Liverpool. I expect the manager to rest his key players when the Gunners face Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup on Sunday. Then he might field a makeshift team for the League Cup game against Chelsea on Wednesday.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: Sanchez nets twice in 3-2 win

Sanchez might leave the club next month but he made a significant contribution on Thursday by scoring two goals in the 3-2 win over Crystal Palace as the Gunners stayed in the Top 4 race, 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 3-3 with Liverpool a week ago with Kolasinac, Mustafi and Chambers replacing Maitland-Niles, Monreal and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The manager also made a tactical change with a switch from the 4-3-3 formation to a 3-4-3 system. Palace played with 10 men behind the ball in the first half and the game looked similar to recent encounters with Newcastle, West Ham and Southampton. The Eagles then showed more aggression and ambition in the second half and came close to earning a draw.

Zaha was the main source of trouble for the Arsenal defense. He started as a second striker and caused more damage when Hodgson moved him to the left wing by sending on Sako for the ineffective Loftus-Cheek in the 70th minute. Wenger also put his team in trouble by replacing Lacazette with Coquelin in the 75th. The move basically invited pressure since the Gunners no longer had an outlet up front. Welbeck would have been a better option because he’s stronger in the air than Lacazette and works his socks off to press high up the pitch.

Sanchez gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead in the 63rd by pouncing on a pass from Lacazette to fire an angled strike into the bottom corner. Speroni was well positioned at the near post, but the shot simply had too much power for the Palace goalkeeper. Three minutes later, Sanchez beat the offside trap to control a ball over the top from Wilshere with his thigh before flicking the ball past Speroni for a 3-1 lead.

Lacazette’s goal drought

The Chile striker produced a good all-around performance. He led all players with 5 successful dribbles and created several plays despite making only 2 key passes. Sanchez slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was saved by Speroni in the 30th. He fed Ozil again in the 39th but the Germany playmaker preferred to pick out Lacazette on the right wing instead of taking his chance. Bellerin then met a cross from Sanchez in the 47th, but a heavy first touch allowed Speroni to gather the ball. Sanchez’s hyperactivity also generated 12 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, but the return was worth the risk in the end.

Lacazette didn’t score but he was involved in 2 goals. The France international capitalized on a recycled free kick in the 25th to fire an angled strike that Speroni palmed into the path of Mustafi, who converted the rebound with a first-time effort to open the scoring. Then Lacazette took advantage of a recycled corner in the 63rd to tee up Sanchez for Arsenal’s second goal. Decent service is still an issue for Lacazette, especially against teams parking the bus. He managed to create space against 3 defenders in the 35th only to drag his shot wide. Ramsey is the Gunner who understands really well Lacazette’s game. The absence of the Wales midfielder is indirectly impacting the productivity of Lacazette, who hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game.

Starting on the right wing, Ozil had 4 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. In the 3-4-3 formation, Ozil doesn’t shine as much as in the 4-3-3 system for the simple reason that the team sometimes needs him to finish off plays as a second striker. Ozil was denied by Speroni in the 30th and shot over the bar in the 70th after an average final ball from Kolasinac. To his credit, Ozil showed decent work-rate by making 2 tackles and even closing down Zaha on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 45th.

Bambi on ice

In midfield, Wilshere showed his technical quality with a spectacular assist for Sanchez, who acknowledged the gift by pointing at the England international after scoring. Wilshere led all starters with a passing accuracy of 93.8%, according to whoscored.com. As he is maturing, Wilshere looks like the natural replacement for Cazorla in the deep-lying playmaker role. Ozil’s probable departure means that it is crucial for the club to extend Wilshere’s contract: Wilshere is one of the few creative midfielders in the squad with Ozil and Cazorla. As a bonus, he’s also a homegrown player.

The partnership formed by Xhaka and Wilshere is OK against average sides but it doesn’t provide much protection to the defense against the top teams. Neither Xhaka nor Wilshere is a natural ballwinner. Xhaka’s lack of mobility is obviously an issue. With a sharp turn, Milivojevic made Xhaka look like Bambi on ice in the 82nd. Xhaka was also late in the 15th to block Cabaye’s low drive, which sailed wide.

Arsenal and Palace had 16 shots each. What made the difference was the Gunners’ shooting accuracy with 9 shots on target to just 2 for the Eagles. In the wingback position, Bellerin’s performance was a mixed bag. Bellerin led all players by winning 5 tackles but his passing accuracy also dipped to 74.5%, the lowest percentage for any outfield players, according to whoscored.com. The Spaniard proved a threat in the final third but was let down by his final ball. He sent a cross straight to Speroni in the 18th and had a pass blocked inside the area in the 33rd. On a more positive note, Bellerin tested Speroni with a half-volley in the 81st.

Kolasinac & Chambers having a poor game

Zaha’s shift to the left wing in the second half exposed the poor coordination between Bellerin and Chambers. Zaha outmuscled Bellerin to head Sako’s cross wide in the 83rd. The Palace winger then ghosted past Bellerin in the 85th to pull the ball back for Benteke but Mustafi cleared the danger. A poor clearance from Bellerin in the 88th gave the Eagles another scoring chance. Schlupp squared the ball back to Sako, whose effort got blocked by Koscielny.

On the opposite wing, Kolasinac had a poor game. He won only 22.2% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international gave away a dangerous free kick by holding Townsend in the 41st. And he failed to stop a dangerous cross from Sako in the 83rd.

The Gunners signed Kolasinac because Monreal and Gibbs dealt poorly with crosses. If Kolasinac can’t do better, then it makes complete sense to give Maitland-Niles a chance at leftback. Kolasinac’s poor defensive awareness is indeed becoming a growing concern. He failed to identify the danger when Palace equalized in the 49th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Koscielny and Kolasinac were left in a 2v2 situation with Benteke and Townsend because Mustafi was protecting the near post. While Koscielny was marking Benteke, Kolasinac gave Townsend too much space at the far post.

Crystal Palace M49aedKolasinac not marking Townsend before Zaha’s cross. (Photo credit: Sky)

When Townsend met Zaha’s cross, Kolasinac was too far to make a decent block. See the screen capture below. From 14 yards, Townsend guided the ball into the bottom corner to make it 1-1.

Crystal Palace M49bed Kolasinac too far to block Townsend’s goal attempt. (Photo credit: Sky)

Kolasinac’s performance really makes the scouting department look bad. Chambers is another player recommended by the scouting department. The English defender also had a poor game. He was guilty on Tomsend’s equalizer as he failed to stop Zaha’s cross. Zaha, who led all players with 5 key passes, exposed Chambers’ lack of pace. Chambers even received a yellow card in the 29th for pulling back Zaha. The Ivory Coast dribbled past Chambers in the 13th but Bellerin covered his teammate and flicked the ball to safety. Chambers can thank his teammates for having his back. Zaha rounded Chambers in the 39th to make a cross but Koscielny cut it out. Mustafi then made a timely tackle on Zaha after a sloppy pass from Chambers led to a Palace counterattack in the 51st. And Kolasinac cleared a cross from Zaha, who had evaded Chambers’ marking in the 85th.

Doing better in away games

   I’m definitely not a fan of Chambers and I still don’t understand what the scouting department saw in him. I guess Chambers got the nod over Holding because he’s more conservative in his game while Holding sometimes dives in. The presence of a sweeper in a back three gives the right-sided and left-sided centerbacks more room for initiative whereas the two centerbacks in a back four have no room for error. In the end, Chambers played like a centerback in a back four, making only 1 interception compared to 3 for the more pro-active Koscielny. In the manager’s shoes, I would have played Bellerin in the back three with Maitland-Niles in the wingback position.

Mustafi was the only Arsenal defender who didn’t perform below par on Thursday. He won 2 of 4 tackles, blocked 2 shots, and broke the deadlock in the 25th by converting a rebound from a tight angle. His only blemish was a sloppy pass that led to a Palace counterattack in the 80th. By contrast, Koscielny looked his age, winning only 30.8% of his duels and allowing Tomkins to outjump him for the Eagles’ second goal.

The Gunners improved their record on the road with a third victory from 10 away games, but they will have to do much better if they want to finish in the Top 4. Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have already won at least 5 away games this season. Even Burnley, Watford and Leicester have racked up more points on the road than Arsenal.

I expect the manager to rotate and inject a bit of freshness in the starting lineup for the trip to West Brom on Sunday. Last season, the Gunners lost 3-1 at the Hawthorns, conceding two goals from set pieces, so they know where the threat will come from. Welbeck and Holding are stronger in the air than Lacazette and Chambers while Maitland-Niles could do better than Kolasinac to stop crosses. A victory is a necessity if the Gunners want to make up ground and preserve their chances of reaching the 76-point target.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Gunners overcome 2-goal deficit in 3-3 draw

The Gunners scored 3 goals in a five-minute span to draw 3-3 on Friday and stay 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. In a thrilling game, the poor defending from both teams also showed why they are not contending for the title. With 9 shots on target to 4, the Reds were the better team, making more interceptions, winning more tackles, and having more successful dribbles. The Gunners were so badly outplayed in the first half that they could have trailed 3-0 at halftime. But Arsenal capitalized on Liverpool’s drop in intensity after the second goal to take the lead against the run of play with some clinical finishing.

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

Wenger made no change to the side that edged Newcastle 1-0 a week ago. The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese again because there was no natural ballwinner in the trio formed by Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil to stop the Reds’ counterattacks. A poor corner kick from Sanchez in the 48th minute led to one of these fast breaks but Cech saved Salah’s low effort. Four minutes later, Maitland-Niles was dispossessed by Gomez near the Liverpool corner flag. Gomez slipped the ball to Milner, who found Salah. The Egypt forward ran 40 yards unchallenged and swapped passes with Firminho before curling a shot past Cech to make it 2-0. In the closing minutes, Wijnaldum also led a counterattack and fed Salah, who fired into the side-netting.

Friday’s game showed why the manager switched to a back three at the end of last season. The Arsenal defense simply doesn’t get any protection from the midfielders, who get bypassed too easily. With 3 centerbacks, you have some room for error if one of the centerbacks is pulled out of position. With a back four, if one the centerbacks is drawn out of position, the holding midfielder must cover him.

Liverpool used Firminho as a bait for the opening goal from a throw in the 26th. Milner sent a long ball toward Salah, whose cross deflected off Koscielny. The ball fell into the path of Coutinho, who beat Cech with a looping header. The Reds had a bit of luck for the first 2 goals since Salah’s curling shot also took a deflection off Mustafi. Still, that doesn’t excuse the Gunners’ defensive naivety.

Pulled out of position

For the opening goal, Monreal made the mistake of following Firminho deep into Liverpool’s territory. That left a huge space at the back with Koscielny and Bellerin in a 2v2 situation with Mane and Salah. See the screen capture below. In hindsight, either Wilshere or Xhaka should have marked Firminho on the throw-in. Maitland-Niles also had a lapse of concentration, looking at the ball and failing to spot Salah’s run in behind. Coutinho finished off the play by running into the space created by Firminho. Wilshere and Xhaka were on the same line as Coutinho when Milner hit the long ball but they lost the foot race with the Brazil midfielder. With a back three, the third centerback could have covered Maitland-Niles or won the header against Coutinho.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M26ed Bellerin and Koscielny in a 2v2 situation as Maitland-Niles and Monreal are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Reds pulled the same trick again in the 62nd. You have to question the Gunners’ lack of commitment since it started with a basic goal kick played short by Mignolet. The ball travelled down our right flank where Coutinho made a crossfield pass for an unmarked Mane, whose volley was parried by Cech. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Salah dropped back to pull Koscielny out of position. Mustafi was also drawn out of position as he covered Bellerin by marking Coutinho. That forced Maitland-Niles to drift inside and mark Firminho, leaving Mane completely free on the left flank. In hindsight, Xhaka or Wilshere should have closed down Salah on that play. When you have a forward playing between the lines, your holding midfielder must be able to play like a third centerback and mark that forward. I just don’t think that Xhaka or Wilshere can be that holding midfielder.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M62edMane, circled, is unmarked while Koscielny and Mustafi are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

While the opening goal resulted from the poor defensive contribution of the Arsenal midfielders, the last goal was pub defending at its best. Liverpool had a corner in the 71st and implemented gegenpressing after losing the ball. Salah dispossessed Sanchez and slipped the ball to Can, who had plenty of time to play Firminho in. From 16 yards, Firminho shot past Cech, who could only divert the powerful strike into his own net. As you can see on the screen capture below, no one closed down Can. When Wilshere reacted, it was already too late. But the worst part was the space given to Firminho. He was in front of goal and no one seemed to realize that he was the main danger. What were Koscielny and Mustafi doing?

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M71ed Firminho, circled, given acres of space by the Gunners. (Photo credit: Sky)

Monreal had a poor game. He won no tackle and made no interception in the first half. The Spaniard showed his limits as a centerback in a back four. His qualities are better suited for a back three because of his relative lack of pace and weakness in the air. He picked up a knock in the 34th and was replaced by Mustafi at halftime.

Bellerin’s good performance

For his return from injury, Mustafi produced a decent performance, winning 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for an Arsenal defender according to the club’s website. However, there are still question marks over his partnership with Koscielny. The France defender had 2 dodgy moments on Friday. He was unlucky for the opening goal. But his slip in the 44th nearly cost his team a second goal. Koscielny attempted to intercept Milner’s through ball for Mane and ended up diverting it into the path of Salah, who was denied by Cech. The rebound fell to Mane, who wasted the chance with a useless bicycle kick instead of controlling the ball to have a better shot. Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal are clearly past their prime, which means that 2 centerbacks should be signed next summer.

On the right flank, I thought Bellerin produced one of his best performances this season. He found the right balance between defense and offense, winning 4 tackles, keeping Mane quiet, and making 1 assist. The Spaniard could have scored the winner in the 78th but Mignolet tipped his angled strike over the bar. If we want to be really picky, maybe Bellerin could have done better on 2 plays. He failed to stop a cross from Coutinho in the 24th and Firminho outjumped Maitland-Niles at the far post to head wide. Then Firminho cut inside Bellerin in the 32nd to curl a shot inches over the bar.

On the left flank, Maitland-Niles did OK. Although he showed his inexperience on the opening goal, I thought he didn’t look ridiculous against Salah. Some supporters keep asking why is he played out of position. Maybe Maitland-Niles is a safer option at leftback than Kolasinac right now. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Wenger has converted a midfielder into a fullback with Lauren and Bellerin as successful examples.

Iwobi’s poor work-rate

In midfield, the Gunners can be outplayed by the big clubs because they have no world-class ballwinner. The Blues have Kante while Manchester City can rely on Fernandinho. We used to have Petit and Gilberto, two World Cup winners, but nowadays we must make do with Coquelin, Xhaka and Elneny. Not quite the same category.

Xhaka made it 2-2 with a 30-yard drive in the 56th, but you expect your holding midfielder to protect the defense first. His poor positional play showed on the counterattack that led to Liverpool’s second goal. Wilshere shone in the Europa League games and against Newcastle, but he had less time on the ball against Liverpool, which explains his 5 turnovers. I think deep-lying playmaker is his best position because he has less pace than Ozil, which is crucial in the final third. Ozil had no influence in the first half because the Reds were so dominant. The Germany playmaker showed his class in the second half by netting Arsenal’s third goal with a chip in the 58th. He could have scored the winner in stoppage time but Mignolet palmed his cross-shot over the bar.

In the front three, I was very frustrated by Iwobi’s poor work-rate. Robertson had so much freedom that he finished the game with 47 passes, the second most for a Liverpool player behind Milner according to whoscored.com. In the 15th, Iwobi completely forgot to close down Robertson, who made a dangerous cross that Koscielny eventually cleared. You would think that Iwobi understood the threat coming from Robertson’s delivery. But he didn’t. The Scottish leftback made a few more dangerous crosses, one that Cech caught in the 20th and another that led to a scoring chance for Firminho in the 22nd.

Rough evening for Lacazette

A few years ago, Waddle accused Walcott of having no football brain. How would you call a player who needs to see several dangerous crosses before understanding that he should close down his opponent? Iwobi also showed a lack of lucidity in the final third, sending passes straight into touch in the 21st, 25th and 33rd, and giving the ball away to Can in the 31st despite having 2 decent passing options. Iwobi got an assist for his sideways pass to Xhaka in the 56th but his end product was really poor. The Gunners can only afford to have one softie against the top teams, and that’s Ozil. Starting two softies like Ozil and Iwobi puts a big strain on the Arsenal defense. If Wenger wants to stick to a back four, playing Ozil or Ramsey on the right wing would make more sense.

On the left wing, Sanchez had an anonymous first half before coming to life in the second. Sanchez cut the deficit to 2-1 by heading home Bellerin’s cross in the 53rd. He also set up Xhaka for a shot that missed the target in the 61st and almost scored the winner with a low strike that lacked power to beat Mignolet in the 83rd. The Chile striker led all players with 3 key passes but also had 5 turnovers, including one that led to Liverpool’s equalizer. Even at 90% of his potential, Sanchez will still give you more end product than Welbeck or Iwobi.

Up front, it was a rough evening for Lacazette. Since the start of the season, I’ve always said that Lacazette would be more comfortable in the role of a second striker than as a centerforward because the Premier League is more physical than the French league where he used to play. Lacazette looked isolated in the first half and got no service because his teammates didn’t see his runs or had not enough time to make the pass.

Poor away form

Hitting long balls is the easiest way to evade a high press. Unfortunately, Lacazette is not Giroud. Liverpool centerbacks Lovren and Klavan exposed Lacazette’s weakness in the air. Lacazette is usually tidy in possession but he was dispossessed 5 times on Friday because of Liverpool’s pressing game. Despite the lack of support and opportunities, Lacazette worked hard for the team and played Ozil in with a clever backheel flick for Arsenal’s third goal.

Lacazette’s lack of physicality might not be an obstacle to lead the line. But he will have to tweak his game a bit. If you look at the top teams, you basically see two types of centerforwards. Morata, Lukaku, Ibrahimovic and Kane are strong in the air and can hold the ball up, while Firmino and Aguero play more like false nines, dropping back to create space and link up play. The Gunners haven’t optimally used Lacazette’s potential yet.

A draw is a decent result knowing that Arsenal lost both league games against Liverpool last season. The Gunners will next visit Crystal Palace on Thursday and West Brom on Sunday before hosting Chelsea on Jan. 3. They will need to improve their away form if they want to finish in the Top 4. The Gunners have only won 2 away games this season while Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have won at least 5 away games. Even Leicester and Watford have a better record on the road than Arsenal.

 

  

Arsenal vs. Newcastle: The volley heard ’round the world

The Gunners got back to winning ways on Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Newcastle to leapfrog Burnley and Spurs in the Premier League standings. The performance was average but it was unrealistic to expect much from Arsenal’s third game in a 7-day span. If we look at the bigger picture, the Gunners restored some order at the back by keeping a second straight clean sheet after the poor defensive display against Manchester United and Southampton.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle

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

Wenger made only one change to the side that drew with West Ham on Wednesday with Lacazette replacing Giroud in the starting lineup. Arsenal enjoyed 71% of ball possession but struggled again to create clear-cut chances with just 5 shots on target, which was slightly better than the 3 shots on target at the London stadium. Decision-making and the final ball were the main issues. Iwobi could have set up Sanchez in the 61st minute but preferred to attempt an improbable overhead kick which went nowhere. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M61edIwobi could have teed up Sanchez instead of going for personal glory. (Photo credit: Movistar)

Iwobi was less selfish in the 34th. He had 3 decent passing options with Lacazette, Sanchez and Ozil. However, he killed the momentum of the counterattack by playing the ball behind Sanchez. Ozil also lacked accuracy in the 70th by overhitting his final ball for Lacazette. Football sometimes looks like a choreographed ballet: one wrong move is enough to make the whole play fail. In the role of the playmaker in the 68th, Lacazette could have slipped the ball to Ozil at the near post or Sanchez at the far post. He played the ball between his two teammates, allowing the Magpies to make an interception. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M68edLacazette could have fed Sanchez or Ozil. (Photo credit: Movistar)

The few times the Gunners had decent chances, they simply lacked the finishing touch. Lacazette and Sanchez combined to have only 1 of 8 shots on target, which is a poor return for top strikers. In the 12th, Lacazette teed up Sanchez, who fired over the bar from 16 yards. At least, Bellerin had the excuse in the 27th of attempting a volley with his weaker left foot. The best chance of the game came in the 75th when Giroud headed a cross from Sanchez into the path of Wilshere, who shot straight at Elliot from 9 yards. From the ensuing corner, Koscielny missed the target with his header.

Capitalizing on second balls

Surprisingly, some of Arsenal’s chances came from second balls. Newcastle cleared a deflected shot from Lacazette into the path of Bellerin, whose goal attempt got blocked by 3 Magpies in the eighth minute. Sanchez also pounced on another poor clearance on the stroke of halftime to hit a snapshot wide. The Gunners score the winner by capitalizing on a second ball in the 23rd. The ball flew high in the air when Yedlin blocked Sanchez’s first-time effort. Lejeune outjumped Sanchez to head the ball into the path of Ozil, who volleyed high past Elliot from 16 yards. It wasn’t as spectacular as Ramsey’s long-range volley against Galatasaray, but you have to give Ozil some credit for anticipating the clearance. Ozil took a few steps back while Sanchez and Lejeune were challenging for the ball. That’s why he was perfectly positioned for the volley.

After an average performance against West Ham and a mediocre one against Southampton, Ozil finally lived up to his world-class billing. Ozil was arguably the best Gunner on Saturday, having 2 of 2 shots on target and making 8 key passes, the most for any player. He could have doubled the lead in the 38th when he played a one-two with Lacazette to chip Elliot from a tight angle, but Lejeune cleared the ball to safety.

Ozil is clearly benefiting from the switch to a back four against the weak teams, shining in the heart of a 4-3-3 formation. The Germany playmaker led all players with 106 passes, according to whoscored.com. In the more defensive-minded 3-4-3 formation, Xhaka and the centerbacks are usually the players making the most passes while Ozil’s weak defensive contribution is compensated by the addition of a third centerback. I don’t think the manager has completely dropped the back three. The Arsenal defense would be too exposed with a 4-3-3 formation against the top teams because we don’t have any top holding midfielder.

Lacazette’s confidence

Up front, Lacazette struggled against a team parking the bus just like Giroud did against West Ham. We know Giroud’s limitations: he lacks the pace to make runs in behind or dribble past defenders. Lacazette also has his own limitations: he’s not strong in the air and can’t hold defenders off. Basically, the Gunners are still missing the complete centerforward that Henry or Van Persie could be: a fast striker with lethal finishing and great dribbling skills, strong in the air, who can hold the ball up and link up play. The Citizens don’t have the complete centerforward either but they have found a way to become the most irresistible attack in the league with Aguero, Jesus, Sterling and Sane.

Lacazette hasn’t scored since the loss to Manchester United. That must feel like an eternity for any top striker. At times, Lacazette seemed short on confidence. He tested Elliot with a low drive from 25 yards in the third minute. But then his shooting boots let him down. Lacazette controlled a long ball in the 54th and created space against Lascelles only to fire over the bar. He had a better chance in the 59th. Monreal won a header in midfield and the ball fell to Iwobi who played Lacazette in. The France international could have fired past Elliot but opted for a lob attempt from 14 yards that sailed over the bar. Seeking a more comfortable cushion, Wenger sent on Giroud for Lacazette, who looked upset while leaving the pitch in the 72nd.

Sanchez had a worse day than Lacazette with 0 shot on target and 6 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The manager wants Sanchez to play higher up the pitch because the Gunners need goals. In fact, there is no need for Sanchez to drop back since the 4-3-3 formation makes room for 3 passers with Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil. What the team definitely needs is receivers. Sanchez was replaced by Coquelin in the 89th as Arsenal aimed to shut up shop.

Iwobi’s directness

On the right wing, Iwobi had a decent game with 4 key passes including 1 through ball. In the manager’s plans, Iwobi’s role is clearly to inject more directness. He won 63.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website, and had 5 successful dribbles, tied with Wilshere for the most by any player. Dribbling is one alternative when you can’t break down a defense with passing. Iwobi slalomed through the Newcastle defense with some clever footwork in the 66th to muster a tame shot straight at Elliot.

I hope Iwobi will be more selective in his dribbling attempts. Sometimes it works, but too often it ends with a turnover that gives the opponents a breather. If you’re in a 1v1 situation, fair enough, take your chance. But a couple of times Iwobi ran into traffic and lost possession. Iwobi picked up an injury in the 71st and was replaced by Welbeck, who had no real impact.

The Gunners controlled the game with the midfield trio of Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil. That’s not as impressive as Fernandinho, Silva and De Bruyne, but the technical level is good enough to dominate possession and create chances against the weak sides. Xhaka proved the weak link in midfield by winning only 26.1% of his duels (compared to 46.7% for Wilshere and 55.6% for Ozil) and having a passing accuracy of 81.4% (compared to 89.6% for Ozil and 91.4% for Wilshere). He also led all players with 3 fouls, including an obstruction on Perez which cost him a yellow card in the 87th. I was shocked to see Xhaka play in a more advanced position than Wilshere quite a few times. Xhaka has weaker dribbling skills and less pace than Wilshere, so it doesn’t make any sense.

Maitland-Niles taking Kolasinac’s spot

At the back, the defensive performance was acceptable if we except the lapse of concentration in the fifth minute. Nobody marked Lascelles, who met a free kick from Merino for a header that Cech turned around the post. See the screen capture below. In that kind of situation, it’s up to Cech and Koscielny to have a quick look around and make sure that every Magpie near the 18-yard line is marked.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M5ed.jpgLascelles, circled, is left unmarked at the far post. (Photo credit: Movistar)

Arsenal’s energy levels dropped in the last 15 minutes, giving the Magpies some hope that they could score a late equalizer. Joselu’s low strike deflected off Xhaka for a corner in the 80th. Then Perez outjumped Bellerin to head wide a cross from Ritchie in the 83rd. Monreal got in trouble in the 86th by diving in and ended up holding Joselu to prevent a dangerous situation from developing.

For his second straight start, Maitland-Niles had a good game. The academy player intercepted the ball in the 13th to run past 2 Magpies and fire a low drive wide. Kolasinac was on the bench Saturday, so it was a deliberate choice from the manager to give the nod to Maitland-Niles. I guess the main reason is Kolasinac’s average defensive awareness. Kolasinac sometimes fails to cover the left-sided centerback. Maitland-Niles showed defensive awareness in the 34th by covering Monreal, who was out of position, and intercepting Murphy’s cross for Joselu.

The most important game of the season

If Maitland-Niles were to unseat Kolasinac as the regular starter at leftback, that would be another blow for the scouting department. There’s still a long way to go for Maitland-Niles though. At 20, he’s not the finished product yet. He must also show consistency week in, week out. Before joining Newcastle, Hayden was an Arsenal player too, but he never made it to the first team. His performance on Saturday showed why the Gunners let him go last year. Hayden was booked in the 40th for repetitive fouling. He is a decent fit for a Championship team or a weak side in the Premier League, but he’s not a top ballwinner.

It’s too bad that the Gunners don’t have a player who can compete with Bellerin for the starting spot at rightback. Debuchy is past his prime while Chambers lacks pace and has limited passing skills. Ritchie capitalized on a Bellerin turnover in the 55th to curl a shot over the bar. A minute later, Murphy cut inside Bellerin and Wilshere to test Cech with a low strike.

The Gunners next play West Ham in the League Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday before hosting Liverpool in a Premier League game on Friday. I expect the manager to rest his key players on Tuesday because the Liverpool game could decide the Top 4 race. Last season, Arsenal lost both league games to Liverpool to finish 1 point behind the Reds and miss out on Champions League football. A loss combined with a draw would have been enough to leapfrog Liverpool into 4th place. After 18 league games this season, the Gunners sit in 5th place, 1 point behind Liverpool. A victory on Friday would give Arsenal the edge over the Reds in the Top 4 race. While a defeat would create doubt in the squad after the losses to Manchester City and United.

 

West Ham vs. Arsenal: Gunners struggle in 0-0 draw to slip to 7th

The Gunners have collected only 2 points from their last 3 Premier League games to drop to 7th place in the standings, 19 points behind Manchester City. The most embarrassing part is that we haven’t reached the halfway stage yet.

West Ham vs. Arsenal

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

Arsenal split the points with West Ham in a goalless draw on Wednesday just three days after drawing 1-1 with Southampton. You would expect 6 points from away games against a mid-table team, Southampton, and a side fighting relegation, West Ham. Everton and City only had two days of rest like Arsenal, yet they managed to win on the road on Wednesday. If the Gunners don’t improve their away form, they are unlikely to finish in the Top 4. According to Opta, 8 clubs have racked up more points on the road than Arsenal this season.

Wenger injected a bit of freshness by making 4 changes to the side that drew at St Mary’s stadium with Maitland-Niles, Wilshere, Iwobi and Giroud replacing Mertesacker, Kolasinac, Ramsey and Lacazette in the starting lineup. The manager also started a Premier League game with a back four for the first time this season, switching from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-3-3 formation.

Tactically, Arsenal’s lack of width played into the hands of the West Ham defense. Sanchez and Iwobi often cut inside, which means that the final third was too congested. The Gunners also failed to play to Giroud’s strengths. In the France team, Giroud has pacy strikers like Griezmann and Mbappe making runs off him. Sanchez and Iwobi don’t make those runs. Giroud is an old-fashioned centerforward with a limited mobility, but he can dominate in the air, hold the ball up, and link up play. The France striker only had one decent service throughout the game. In the 53rd minute, Maitland-Niles made a cross for Giroud, who headed the ball wide.

Lack of penetration

Like in the Southampton game, Arsenal dominated ball possession but lacked penetration in the final third. There was a lack of urgency in the first half and when the Gunners upped the tempo in the second half, they seemed devoid of ideas. Arsenal mustered only 3 shots on target at the London stadium compared to 15 in the 3-1 loss to Manchester United. Adrian had a relatively quiet evening. The Gunners created 3 decent chances but never really troubled the West Ham goalkeeper.

The first scoring chance came in the 29th when Sanchez found Iwobi inside the area. Iwobi took a touch before striking the post with his weaker left foot from 12 yards. Then Sanchez had a shot blocked in the 56th. The ball fell to Ozil, who controlled it in his stride but poked wide. Wilshere also had an opportunity to break the deadlock in the 70th when Maitland-Niles made a cross for Giroud, who knocked the ball down for Wilshere. From 10 yards, Wilshere controlled the ball with his thigh only to fire over the bar. The Gunners must find a solution to create more chances because weak and average sides will park the bus like the Saints and the Hammers.

When I saw the starting lineup, I had my doubts about the midfield, which looked a bit soft defensively with Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil. But Wilshere helped balance the midfield with his technical quality and commitment. Wilshere led all starters with a passing accuracy of 91.8% according to whoscored.com. He also won 91.7% of his duels, according to the club’s website. For his first Premier League start this season, it was definitely a positive performance from Wilshere, who was the target of a couple of rough challenges but held his nerve.

Running into traffic

I guess the main surprise in the starting lineup was the inclusion of Maitland-Niles at leftback. A midfielder by trade, the academy player did not look out of his depth and produced a decent performance for his first Premier League start. Maitland-Niles made 2 key passes and led all players with 4 accurate crosses. In fact, he was one of the few Gunners who tried to feed Giroud. On the opposite flank, Bellerin had a poor game. The Spaniard made no accurate cross and even failed to stop a dangerous cross from Masuaku in the 14th. Arnautovic headed in Masuaku’s offering but the goal was disallowed for offside.

It can only be positive to have some competition within the squad. Hopefully, Maitland-Niles will push Kolasinac to perform better. Maybe the lack of competition down the right flank is the reason for Bellerin’s average performances this season. Debuchy and Chambers don’t have the pace to play at the top level as fullbacks. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player obviously. He won only 15.4% of his duels, according to the club’s website. A couple of times, Maitland-Niles also showed his naivety, diving in to let Arnautovic dribble past him in the 31st and giving away a cheap free kick in the 37th while Noble had nowhere to go.

Iwobi is just a year older than Maitland-Niles. The Nigeria international has been in the first team since the 2015-16 season but is far from the finished product. He showed his potential by rattling the post in the 29th. However, there are parts of his game that are still frustrating to watch. Playing on the right flank, Iwobi made no cross at all. How is Giroud supposed to score if Bellerin and Iwobi don’t feed him? Iwobi also led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He definitely needs to get rid of this habit of running into traffic, thinking he’s the new Messi or the ghost of Garrincha. And his work-rate is not good enough. Iwobi failed to close down Cresswell, who made a cross for Noble in the 46th. The West Ham captain redirected the ball toward Arnautovic, whose first-time effort sailed over the bar. Iwobi also made no effort to win the ball back after losing possession in the 66th.

Pub defending again

Against a compact defense, you would expect Ozil to produce some magic. But the Germany playmaker had no answer. He led all players with 104 passes, including 3 key passes, but none of those key passes led to Arsenal’s best chances. Sanchez had an off day, too. The Chile striker made 4 key passes but none of his crosses was accurate. I waited for a repeat of his cross that helped salvage a point at St Mary’s stadium, but that moment never came. Sanchez still tested Adrian with a curling free kick in the 73rd before being replaced by Lacazette in the 82nd.

The Gunners made no big blunder in the opening minutes, but they nearly threw away a point with some pub defending in the last minute of regulation time. Stuck along the touchline, Koscielny only had one decent option: a long ball toward Giroud or Welbeck. Yet, the Arsenal captain made a risky crossfield pass similar to the one that led to Manchester United’s opening goal earlier this month. The ball was intercepted, then Monreal poorly cleared the ball into the path of Noble, who played Hernandez in. The defending was so shambolic that Koscielny and Xhaka both rushed toward Noble while Bellerin let Hernandez run past him. With just Cech to beat, Hernandez curled a shot that hit the underside of the bar and bounced in front of the goal line.

There’s a lot of doubt in that Arsenal team since the 3-1 defeat against the Red Devils. They will need to show more mental toughness against Newcastle on Saturday, otherwise the Top 4 race could be over by December for the club. And all the negativity from last season could come back.