Tag Archives: Cazorla

What Wenger’s new contract means for Arsenal

The 2016-17 season proved the most challenging period for Wenger in his Arsenal career because the fans turned against him while the board was reluctant to back him. Despite the criticism in the news media, the uncertainty around the squad and a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Premier League, Wenger has been handed a two-year contract extension. Let’s see what that means for the Gunners.

  1. The club structure is still an issue

The board missed an opportunity to fix structural flaws at the club. The timing would have been perfect this summer to prepare the transition and create the position of sporting director. You wouldn’t expect a manager to simultaneously supervise the squad, the youth teams, the recruitment and the scouting. That’s too much work for one person, especially in a big club. Yet, that’s pretty much what Wenger does at Arsenal. And I think it’s counterproductive.

Arsenal Pre-Season Tour

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

Big clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG and Manchester City have a sporting director helping the manager. It’s important to understand that the manager should not be accountable to the sporting director. Both are like teammates. The sporting director should remove some workload off the manager’s shoulders so that the manager can focus on the game and the squad.

It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s most successful era occurred when Dein was a vice-chairman on the board. Dein had a great knowledge of football and basically acted as a de facto sporting director by facilitating transfers and keeping an eye on the youth teams. It was the complementarity between Dein and Wenger that propelled the club to success. Nowadays, nobody on the board is knowledgeable enough to challenge Wenger’s views and provide a different perspective.

  1. Recruitment and scouting are still erratic departments

The recruitment and scouting departments have underperformed in the past few years. It might be a consequence of the flaws in the club structure. The Gunners haven’t signed any hidden gem lately. Don’t start mentioning Holding because at this stage of his career he’s just a prospect who wouldn’t be in the starting lineup if everybody was fit. When I say hidden gem, I mean players like Kante and Alli who had a major impact in their first Premier League season.

There have been at least two scouting mistakes since 2014. Signing Chambers from Southampton for about 17 million pounds was quite puzzling. That’s the kind of fee you would pay for a starter, but not for a prospect. To put things in context, Chambers cost more than Koscielny and Paulista. At 22, Chambers still has room to improve, but three flaws won’t change: his slow first steps, his inability to quickly turn and his weakness in the air. In my eyes, Chambers is a decent fit for an average team but not good enough for a club chasing a Champions League spot.

Another weird signing was Elneny, hired from Basel for about 10.5 million pounds. Arsenal needed a ballwinner at that time. Instead, the Gunners signed a utility midfielder. It might be OK to get the profile wrong if the player has great skills. Unfortunately, Elneny is not a decisive player. Defensively, he doesn’t win many tackles or duels. And offensively, he doesn’t make assists or score goals. Elneny’s main asset is his passing accuracy, which can prove useful to keep a high tempo against the weak sides but is not enough against the big teams.

An underwhelming recruitment has been the main reason for Arsenal’s inability to contend in the Premier League. Everybody knows the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. It’s the same with transfers. You need to act quickly to sign the best players who are available. You also need a decent number of players to fill the holes in the squad. And finally, the quality of those new signings must be good enough to improve the team.

Let’s analyse the last 4 transfer windows. In the summer of 2013, the Gunners signed Sanogo on July 1, Flamini on Aug. 29 and Ozil on Sept. 2. The timing was poor since Flamini and Ozil were not even available on opening day. As a prospect, Sanogo could not be the answer in the centerforward position. And of the three players, only Ozil was top quality.

The summer of 2014 was arguably the club’s best transfer window over the past four years. Arsenal signed Sanchez on July 10, Debuchy on July 17, Ospina on July 27, Chambers on July 28 and Welbeck on Sept. 2. The timing and the quantity were fine. The only question mark was about the quality with Sanchez as the only top signing on paper.

The summer of 2015 was undoubtedly the worst transfer window. the Gunners signed Cech on June 29 and that was it. The squad was not competitive enough because there were too many holes in it. That poor recruitment campaign allowed Leicester to win the league against all the odds.

Last year, the club signed Xhaka on May 25, Holding on July 22, and Perez and Mustafi on Aug. 30. The quality was decent and the quantity right, but the timing was poor as Perez and Mustafi could only make their Arsenal debut in September. Maybe the Gunners would have not dropped five points in the first two games of the season if Perez and Mustafi had joined in July.

The comparison with Manchester United and City really hurts as Mourinho and Guardiola acted much faster than Wenger. United signed Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Bailly and Pogba before opening day while Stones, Sane, Gundogan and Nolito joined City before the first game of the season.

  1. The Gunners won’t be contenders

Arsenal signed Schalke leftback Kolasinac on June 6 and Lyon striker Lacazette on July 5, but it will take more than two signings for Arsenal to have a shot at the Premier League title. Wenger tends to be too optimistic in the assessment of his squad. As a result, he fails to identify all the weaknesses in the squad and becomes reluctant to clear the dead wood.

First, the Gunners need a defensive midfielder. They currently don’t have a destroyer like Petit or Gilberto to effectively shield the defense. In his first season at the club, Wenger played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. It’s only after signing Petit in the summer of 1997 that the manager was able to switch to a back four.

And second, the Gunners should sign a creative midfielder to make up for Cazorla’s long-term absence. The Spaniard could be sidelined until November. At 32, there’s no guarantee that Cazorla will rediscover his form. The end of his Arsenal career could echo Arteta’s last couple of seasons at the club. On paper, Wilshere would look like a natural replacement but he doesn’t have Cazorla’s defensive awareness and his fitness could be a concern too.

  1. A perfect storm for players’ contracts

Quite a few Gunners haven’t signed any extension yet although their contracts end in 2018. The most obvious cases are Sanchez and Ozil, whose wage demands exceed 250,000 pounds a week. It is not just a matter of money. Sanchez and Ozil both feel that the club is lacking ambition. They could ask for a move if they think that the squad is not strong enough to contend for the title. And we would end up with a situation very similar to what happened in 2011 when Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy left the club before Van Persie and Song also jumped off the ship the following year.

If Sanchez and Ozil can’t be tied to the club beyond 2018, then it might be better to sell them this summer. If it was up to me, I would sell Walcott and Sanchez but keep Perez and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are among the clubs interested in Sanchez, who’s got the highest resale value of all the squad members. Obviously, it would be better to sell Sanchez to a German club so that it doesn’t backfire on Arsenal. But Bayern Munich seemed to have balked at the player’s wage demands.

Lacazette and Perez would be natural replacements for Sanchez as both are strikers who score a lot of goals and make a lot of assists. They also have plenty of pace and good dribbling and passing skills. However, Perez has been unhappy about the lack of opportunities last season, especially when Giroud and Welbeck were injured, as Wenger preferred to give the nod to Walcott or Iwobi. His omission from the squad touring Australia and China could hint at his departure this summer.

Selling Ozil would be more tricky. First, he has a lower resale value than Sanchez. And second, there’s no natural replacement in the squad for the Germany playmaker: Cazorla plays in a deeper position while Wilshere is not as prolific for assists as Ozil. Of course, that would become a different story if the Gunners sign Lemar from Monaco.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere and Gibbs also have their contracts ending next year. Money is not really the issue here. The key factor is their playing time. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs need to play regularly in order to shine and catch the attention of the England manager. Another factor is Wenger’s declining aura after a disappointing season. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs must be frustrated when they see other players improve under Klopp, Pochettino and Guardiola and snatch starting spots in the England team. They might think that they would perform better under a different manager. Arsenal will let Gibbs go after signing Kolasinac last month.

  1. Arsenal will stick to the 3-4-3 formation

The Gunners conceded a lot of goals last season because their midfield was not strong enough to protect the defense and because the back four was flawed: Bellerin lacked consistency because of injury and transfer rumors, Monreal and Gibbs struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank, and Mustafi performed poorly in the second half of the season. It took a shift to a back three to stop the bleeding. Unless the club signs a world-class ballwinner, Arsenal would still be too vulnerable with a back four against strong and even average teams.

  1. Tension with some fans won’t go away

Some fans turned against the team when Arsenal had a poor run of form in the winter. The ‘Wenger Out’ brigade seemed to make it personal by deliberately hurting the club with hostile chants and banners to get Wenger sacked. In my eyes, that attitude was completely wrong. Chelsea and Leicester were flirting with relegation when Mourinho and Ranieri were dismissed. Yet, neither Mourinho nor Ranieri suffered such abuse from the Chelsea and Leicester fans. By contrast, the Gunners were always in the Top 6 last season.

The main problem with such a hostile behavior is that it puts off a lot of players by instilling fear and anxiety in them. Nobody wants to play in that kind of atmosphere. And players may think twice before signing a contract at the Emirates.

Now that the board has made its choice clear, the fans have to stand by the team, which means no protest for this upcoming season unless the Gunners are stuck in a relegation battle. In the final year of Wenger’s contract, if the fans want to put some pressure on the board to hire a new manager, then empty seats at the Emirates and protests outside the stadium would be the only decent options. Displaying hostile banners and shouting hostile chants inside the stadium would be like scoring an own goal.

I have no doubt that the Wenger issue will come back in the 2018-19 season. The board had no serious replacement for Wenger this year and therefore extended his contract. They will have to anticipate and act more decisively in a year and half. Finding the right successor is a long process and should leave no room to improvisation as Moyes’ failure at Manchester United showed.

Swansea vs. Arsenal: Gunners make up ground with 4-0 win

Arsenal thrashed Swansea 4-0 on Saturday to move into fourth place, one point behind Liverpool and Tottenham. The scoreline was quite flattering since two goals resulted from deflected shots and the other two came from poor clearances. However, what really matters is the clean sheet, only their seventh in the Premier League this season.

swansea-vs-arsenal

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

One big reason why the Gunners have struggled to mount a serious title challenge is their defensive record. They have conceded 22 goals so far, 7 more than Chelsea and 8 more than Tottenham. The draw with Bournemouth and the losses to Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool are obvious examples of points dropped because of some poor defending. By contrast, the Gunners have an outstanding offensive record with 48 goals scored. Only Liverpool can match that tally. The goalless draws with Middlesbrough and Leicester are the only two league games in which Arsenal failed to find the net.

At the Liberty stadium, the Gunners produced a lethargic display in the first half with a slow tempo and no penetration. Somehow, they took the lead in the 37th minute thanks to Giroud, the man who scores important goals. The France striker didn’t cover himself in glory on that play though. Ramsey squared the ball back to Giroud, who couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Sanchez kept the ball in play and made a cross for Ozil, whose header was blocked by Mawson. The ball fell into the path of Giroud, who slammed it into the top corner.

Giroud usually loves celebrating his goals, but an ankle injury he picked up while missing the tap-in led him to ask for a substitution. He managed to stay on the pitch until the 60th when Oxlade-Chamberlain finally came off the bench. By winning 4 of 6 aerial duels, Giroud proved a valuable outlet for long balls when Arsenal tried to evade the Swans’ high press.

The bigger picture

Sanchez sealed the win by scoring from close range in the 73rd. The Ox initially made a poor cross that sailed behind Sanchez. Routledge beat Ramsey to the loose ball only to knock it back into the path of Sanchez, who volleyed home. Sanchez could have made it 5-0 in the 78th but he was dispossessed by Mawson after an awkward first touch.

The Chile striker had 2 key passes, 2 successful dribbles out of 2, and tested Fabianski with a low strike in the 28th. He showed a tremendous work-rate by winning 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player according to Squawka. As a result of his hyperactivity, Sanchez was also dispossessed 4 times.

Much was said about Sanchez’s reaction when Welbeck replaced him in the 79th. Sanchez clearly looked upset. However, it shouldn’t be a big deal. It simply shows that Sanchez wants to give his all. Players like Aguero and Cristiano Ronaldo also look frustrated when they are yanked off the pitch. The bigger picture is that Wenger needed to give some playing time to Welbeck, who is the only forward with a skillset similar to Giroud’s.

On the right wing, Iwobi gave Arsenal a 3-0 lead with two deflected shots. He capitalized on a good spell of domination in the 54th to fire a shot that took a deflection off Cork to loop over Fabianski. Then, Iwobi’s cross was diverted by Naughton into his own net in the 67th. Those were lucky goals, but you have to give Iwobi some credit for his desire. The Nigeria international also improved his defensive contribution by winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels.

A work in progress

In his return from illness, Ozil didn’t show much although he managed to make 3 key passes, the most for any player. His work-rate is still questionable. Ramsey ended up pressing a Swan in the space occupied by Ozil because the Germany playmaker was reluctant to do it. It’s not the first time that Ozil has ignored his defensive duties. Giroud against West Brom and Sanchez against Manchester City also had to close down opponents in Ozil’s zone.

The tandem formed by Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield is still a work in progress. When Coquelin starts alongside Cazorla or Xhaka, it’s pretty clear that Coquelin will do most of the defensive work while Cazorla or Xhaka will focus on building plays. The distribution is more even when Xhaka teams up with Ramsey because Xhaka doesn’t have Coquelin’s mobility while Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder. Offensively, Xhaka is the one connecting the defense with the forwards while Ramsey is the one making the runs in the final third. Defensively, Xhaka is the one protecting the back four while Ramsey is the one pressing high up the pitch.

Xhaka had two passes intercepted in the first 10 minutes before growing into the game. The Switzerland international finished the match with a passing accuracy of 93.5%, the highest percentage for any starting player. He also hit 5 accurate long balls out of 6. Among the outfield players, only Ki had more accurate long balls according to whoscored.com. At 24, Xhaka still has room for improvement, especially in his reading of the game. He dropped back in a too deep position in the 11th instead of staying with Naughton, who took a pass from Dyer for a low drive that Cech turned around the post. In the closing minutes, Xhaka tested Fabianski twice with long-range efforts.

Ball-watching

Ramsey and Xhaka combined to win only 2 of 8 tackles. Xhaka made 4 interceptions compared to just 1 for Ramsey. That’s an area in which Ramsey could improve. Aware of his defensive duties, Ramsey was also more frugal with his runs in the final third. His only goal attempt was a low strike that Fabianski saved in the 53rd.

The Swans were not as shabby as the scoreline would suggest. They created 7 chances compared to 9 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. Their best chances came from turnovers and ball-watching by the Gunners. Wenger really needs to do something about ball-watching in training because that could become a serious problem for his team.

Managers often talk about fitness, technique, mental toughness and reading of the game as key factors in the success of a player, but focus is just as important. One short lapse of concentration is enough to prevent a player from spotting a dangerous situation or a goalscoring opportunity.

Swansea could have equalized in the 43rd when Llorente held off Koscielny to feed Ki. The South Korea international took a heavy first touch and the ball got away from him. Koscielny flicked out a leg but removed it to avoid a penalty. Ki went down while the loose ball fell to Routledge, who got ahead of Paulista to fire a low strike that Cech parried with his legs. The referee booked Ki for diving although there seemed to be contact between Ki and Koscielny. However, the main defensive mistake on that play was Xhaka’s failure to track Ki’s run inside the area. See the screen captures below.

swansea-aedXhaka caught ball-watching as Ki makes a dangerous run in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Gunners were guilty of another ball-watching moment in the 65th when Kingsley’s half-volley hit Llorente, who teed up Fernandez for an off-target shot. The main defensive mistake on that play was the Ox’s failure to properly mark Fernandez. See the screen captures below.

swansea-bedOxlade-Chamberlain caught ball-watching as Fernandez gets a free shot in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Swans also capitalized on turnovers to have a crack at goal. Dyer intercepted Paulista’s poor pass to Koscielny on the stroke of halftime but wasted a good situation with a long-range effort instead of choosing one of his three passing options. Paulista put his team in trouble again in the 62nd by chesting the ball down instead of heading it away. Kingsley dispossessed Paulista to feed Routledge, whose low strike was parried by Cech. Mustafi also cheaply gave the ball away in the 86th, but Sigurdsson could only drag his shot straight at Cech.

Looking beyond Cazorla

Koscielny was a dominant force in the air, winning 7 of 7 aerial duels. His only blemish was an underhit header that Sygurdsson nearly intercepted in the 16th. Paulista got the nod over Holding at rightback but proved the weak link in the back four with some dodgy decision-making. By contrast, Monreal had a solid performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and making 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.

January is a key month for Arsenal. First, because they have an easy schedule on paper and can therefore make up ground before visiting Chelsea in February. And second, because they have no mid-week game for three consecutive weeks, which means more time available on the training ground to work on tactical issues. Knowing that Cazorla underwent a second surgery and may not return before April, the Gunners should wisely use that time to make their team more compact in order to improve their defensive record.

Cazorla’s contract expires this summer. That’s a tricky issue for Arsenal because the Spaniard has become a key component in midfield. At 32, his best days are obviously behind him. A one-year extension would seem the most reasonable outcome for both parties as Cazorla’s past two years at the club have been marred by injuries and strangely echo the end of Arteta’s career.

From a long-term perspective, the manager will need to sign a specific type of midfielder this summer. We can divide our midfielders into three categories: those who mostly defend (Coquelin, Elneny, Xhaka), those who mostly attack (Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain), and those who can both defend and attack (Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere). The problem is that Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey are injury-prone players. We therefore need cover for that kind of profile, whether it’s a box-to-box player like Ramsey or a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla.

Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Giroud’s equalizer helps Gunners overcome off day

The Gunners can thank Giroud for a late equalizer at Old Trafford as they really looked listless on Saturday. The 1-1 draw is definitely a better result than the 3-2 loss of last season and leaves Arsenal in fourth place just two points behind Liverpool and Manchester City in the Premier League.

manchester-united-vs-arsenal

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

There were a couple of surprises in the starting lineup with Ramsey on the left wing, Jenkinson at rightback and Sanchez in the lone striker role. Aware of Iwobi’s poor run of form in the last few games, Wenger decided to play Ramsey in an unfamiliar position although Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been a more natural choice on the left flank. At the back, Bellerin’s ankle injury meant that the manager had to either trust Jenkinson or gamble on Holding. Jenkinson is more experienced whereas Holding is stronger in the air and more comfortable on the ball. Holding is a centerback by trade but played a few games at rightback for Bolton last season. Up front, I thought it was risky to start Sanchez after an exhausting trip to South America. Giving the nod to Giroud would have been the wiser option.

Arsenal enjoyed 55% of ball possession but only produced 1 shot on target compared to 5 for some Red Devils still struggling to find their feet. Before I start analyzing the game, I need to mention how badly the Gunners are missing Bellerin and Cazorla. Bellerin will be sidelined for 4 weeks after picking up an ankle injury against Tottenham while Cazorla is dealing with a nagging Achilles injury that could echo Arteta’s last two seasons at the club.

Bellerin is not just a better defender than Jenkinson, he also has more pace and better passing and dribbling skills than the English fullback. Jenkinson had a passing accuracy of 61% at Old Trafford, the lowest among all the starters according to the club’s website. Mourinho obviously targeted Jenkinson by starting Martial, although the French forward is low on confidence this season.

Lack of creativity

Jenkinson did fine on the ground, winning 3 of 5 tackles compared to 0 of 2 for both Mustafi and Monreal according to Squawka. However, Jenkinson struggled in the air, winning only 3 of 6 aerial duels compared to 8 of 10 for Mustafi, 3 of 3 for Koscielny and 1 of 1 for Monreal. Martial was able to bear down on goal in the 49th minute after Jenkinson missed his header but he could only drag a low shot straight at Cech. Rojo then outjumped Jenkinson in the 80th to head wide a cross from Blind.

The Gunners have struggled to build play from the back since Cazorla’s absence. The Manchester game was no exception. Wenger wanted to protect the back four by playing Coquelin and Elneny in midfield. The downside is that you have very little creativity with those two players. Sanchez and Ozil dropped back a few times to give a hand but Arsenal still finished the match with just 3 key passes. In modern football, the through ball is the most lethal weapon to crack a defense. However, the penultimate pass can prove just as important by creating the conditions for that assist. And that’s what Cazorla is very good at.

Ozil and Ramsey should have injected the touch of creativity that was missing but they both had a poor game. They had 7 turnovers each, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Ramsey only won 1 of 7 tackles while Ozil had very little impact on the team’s passing game despite not playing for Germany during the international break.

A good old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system

Darmian was the weak link in the Manchester defense. The Italian fullback was booked in the 25th for fouling Walcott and could have received a second yellow card in the 32nd for planting his studs in Jenkinson’s shin. In the second half, the Gunners failed to test Darmian, who was nevertheless replaced by Blind in the 64th.

Somehow, Sanchez could have opened the scoring by the seventh minute. Walcott redirected a cross from Monreal toward the far post, where Sanchez got ahead of Herrera but headed wide from six yards. Sanchez made 4 successful dribbles out of 4 but it wasn’t a game tailored for him. Giroud has skills that Sanchez doesn’t have and the other way around.

Chasing an equalizer, the manager replaced Elneny with Giroud in the 73rd, Coquelin with Xhaka in the 80th and Jenkinson with Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 84th. The initial 4-2-3-1 formation turned into an old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system with Koscielny and Mustafi at the back, Xhaka as the holding midfielder between Monreal and the Ox as the wingbacks, Ozil and Ramsey as the attacking midfielders, and Sanchez, Giroud and Walcott as the three forwards.

That’s how it looked like on paper. When Arsenal equalized in the 89th, any tactical consideration was thrown out the window. The Ox dribbled past Rashford down the right flank to make a cross for Giroud, who outjumped Jones and Valencia at the far post to head home. There were five Gunners (Walcott, Ramsey, Giroud, Koscielny and Monreal) inside the Manchester box when the Ox crossed the ball while Ozil and Sanchez were standing outside.

Lack of movement

When you watch that Manchester side play under Mourinho, it’s hard to see where are the improvements compared to the Van Gaal era. The Red Devils seemed the better team from the 20th to the 80th only because they showed a bit more desire while Arsenal lacked the movement necessary to destabilize a compact defense.

Mimicking Liverpool and Tottenham, the hosts implemented a high press in the hope of creating chances from turnovers. Valencia intercepted a sloppy pass from Elneny in the 12th but had his cross cut out by Coquelin. Then Coquelin gave the ball away to Rashford, who overhit his cross for Pogba in the 19th. Ramsey also put the Gunners in trouble with a risky pass in the 41st when the ball fell to Martial, whose shot was tipped over the bar by Cech.

Mourinho obviously remembered Arsenal’s loss at Old Trafford last season as he tried to exploit their vulnerability on crosses. Manchester made 30 crosses compared to just 13 for the Gunners. The opening goal came from a low cross from Herrera in the 69th. Mata pounced on the offering to fire a first-time effort into the bottom corner.

A bad chain reaction

You realize it’s a silly goal when you watch the replay. Basically, it’s a terrible chain reaction triggered by Monreal falling to the ground after losing a duel against Pogba. There seems to be no danger when the Red Devils have a throw-in. Valencia’s throw is a bit awkward but Pogba manages to control the ball while Monreal loses his footing in an attempt to head the ball away. Koscielny wants to cover Monreal and leaves a gap in the heart of the defense. Monreal is getting back on his feet but doesn’t track Herrera who is running past him. Pogba releases Herrera down the flank, therefore pulling Mustafi out of position as the Germany international is trying to make up for Monreal’s poor marking. Jenkinson is now dealing with both Rooney and Rashford inside the area. See all the space left by the Arsenal defense in the screen capture below.

man-united-vs-arsenal-capture-edited

The Red Devils have plenty of space to run into as Herrera ghosts past Monreal (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Coquelin notices the mismatch and tracks Rooney. However, Elneny doesn’t have Coquelin’s defensive awareness and fails to spot Mata’s run inside the box. The first mistake on that play is Koscielny’s decision to cover Monreal. It would have been safer to have a midfielder challenging Pogba with Monreal acting as a cover. The second mistake is Monreal’s failure to track Herrera. And the third mistake is Elneny leaving Mata unmarked.

Elneny is a utility player who does a bit of everything without excelling in any area. He’s not a ballwinner like Coquelin, he’s not a deep-lying playmaker like Xhaka, he doesn’t make deep runs like Ramsey and he doesn’t deliver through balls like Ozil. Elneny is a great asset when you have injuries in midfield, but he also shows his limits in specific situations when you need to score or defend. He gave away a free kick by putting his hand on Herrera’s shoulder in the fourth minute and failed to close down Pogba in the 36th. Pogba had plenty of time to play Mata in. Mustafi was a split second late and missed his interception. It took an outstanding save from Cech to tip Mata’s low strike around the post.

The need for a better game plan

The Manchester match was just the first of nine games in a 30-day span. In what is the most hectic period of the season for Arsenal, the manager must find a way to improve their build-up play otherwise they will struggle against the average sides and drop crucial points.

Wednesday’s game against Paris Saint-Germain could determine Arsenal’s future in the Champions League. In the past seasons, the Gunners often had a tough draw in the knockout phase because they finished second in the group stage. Arsenal and the French club are currently level on points but the Gunners have a better goal difference. Since both teams drew 1-1 in September, Arsenal would top the group with a victory over PSG no matter what happens against Basel in December.

A draw at the Emirates could also be enough if the score is 0-0 or 1-1, assuming the Gunners beat Basel while the Parisians defeat Ludogorets next month. However, PSG would snatch the top spot with a 2-2 draw because of the away goal rule.

Wenger will have to come up with a better game plan because he was badly outfoxed by Emery in September. Aurier enjoyed too much freedom down our left flank, PSG outnumbered Arsenal in midfield, and nobody marked Verratti and Di Maria when they dropped back to make key passes.

Arsenal vs. Southampton: Cazorla & Cech save Gunners from poor performance

That was a really narrow escape. The Gunners could have lost to Southampton in the Premier League but somehow they scored in stoppage time to win 2-1 on Saturday. Arsenal created very few clear-cut chances and could have fallen behind in the second half if Cech had not made a couple of fine saves. At this stage of the season, I guess it’s all about racking up points to build confidence for the next games.

arsenal-vs-southampton

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

The Gunners dominated possession but lacked urgency to put some well organized Saints under pressure. Southampton used a diamond midfield to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game with Romeu and Clasie respectively winning 5 and 4 tackles according to whoscored.com, more than any other player.

It didn’t help that Ozil had an off day. Wilshere would have been a useful alternative for through balls, but as you all know, he has been loaned out to Bournemouth for the entire season. Ramsey could have made the difference with his deep runs, but unfortunately he’s still recovering from a hamstring injury. In the end, Iwobi was the only attacking midfielder available on the bench.

I hope the staff will analyze the second half because Puel won the tactical battle even though Long couldn’t properly execute. Basically, the Saints played with 10 men behind the ball, waiting for counterattacking opportunities. They finished the game with 5 shots on target compared to just 2 for Arsenal. And Cech ended up pulling off 5 saves while Forster didn’t make any.

Mustafi growing into the game

Wenger made a big call on Saturday by starting both Mustafi and Perez. They enjoyed mixed fortunes in their Premier League debut. Obviously, striking an understanding with their teammates was an issue since they joined the club in the final days of the summer transfer window.

There were a couple of hesitations between Mustafi and Koscielny in the first half. Mustafi cheaply gave the ball away in the eighth minute but he somehow managed to grow into the game. He still lost two key duels in the second half. Long outjumped Mustafi in the 74th to head a cross over the bar. The Eire international then beat Mustafi to a rebound in the 83rd. You would expect a good defender to win those duels.

Koscielny stunned Arsenal fans by equalizing with an overhead kick in the 29th after the Southampton defense failed to clear a corner. Technically, it was a really pure kick. But at the end of the day, Koscielny is still a defender and you want him to protect our net first. He only won 37.5% of his duels according to the club’s website, the weakest percentage among all the defenders.

The France international made a poor decision in the 66th when Tadic fed Long with a backheel flick. Clean through on goal, Long sent his chip wide from eight yards. On that play, Koscielny should have kept an eye on Long instead of helping Mustafi press Tadic. Long read the play well by making a smart run between Koscielny and Monreal. I also thought Monreal did not react quickly enough to fix Koscielny’s mistake.

Handling Koscielny’s playing time

Then Koscielny was pulled out of position while intercepting a pass for Long in the 83rd. The ball fell to Davis, who found Ward-Prowse on the edge of the box. Ward-Prowse set up Hojbjerg for a long-range drive that Cech parried into the path of Long. The Eire international could only muster a tame effort that Cech saved with his foot. Koscielny made the first mistake on that play by giving the ball back to the Saints. Cazorla made the second mistake by not being aware of Hojbjerg’s presence behind him. When the Spaniard ran to make a block attempt, it was already too late. And Mustafi made the third mistake as he was caught ball-watching.

I guess the manager will need to rest Koscielny after international breaks. Koscielny has become the cornerstone of the France defense. So it was no surprise to see him play two games with his national team this month. However, I suspect Koscielny may struggle to recover from international duty at 31. And I believe he would have performed better against Southampton if he had not played with the France team.

Age is also a concern for Monreal who turned 30 this year. He hasn’t really had a convincing start to the season and his performance against the Saints raises more questions. Monreal made a reckless challenge on Redmond in the 16th, giving away a dangerous free kick that Tadic converted to give Southampton the lead. Cech initially diverted Tadic’s free kick onto the bar, but the ball bounced off Cech’s back and into the net. In the closing minutes, Monreal got away with a nasty foul on Long.

Aguero’s book

Up front, the Gunners struggled to find Perez. The Spaniard has more pace than Giroud but he’s not strong enough in the air to feast on high crosses or hold the ball up. Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 14th and Monreal in the 28th made low crosses for Perez but each time Van Dijk was able to clear the danger. Perez finally connected with a low cross from Ozil in the 57th but had his shot blocked.

Wenger sent on Giroud for Perez in the 62nd and the Frenchman’s physical presence helped him earn a penalty in injury time. It was a soft penalty but then Fonte gave the referee an excuse to blow the whistle by grabbing Giroud’s shirt. Perez will need time to adjust to a new league and develop a good understanding with his teammates. On paper, Giroud is better equipped than Perez to play as a lone striker against teams parking the bus. Maybe Perez could take a leaf out of Aguero’s book. The Argentine forward is arguably the best striker in the league despite his diminutive stature.

For the third straight game, Arsenal started with the Ox and Walcott on the wings. Their pace is a promising threat. However, they barely combined with the fullbacks and their lack of end product remains an issue. Walcott headed a Cazorla free kick over the bar in the 25th while the Ox had a shot deflected behind in the 42nd. Technically, the Ox is one of the most gifted players in the squad. Yet, he made two crosses that went nowhere. No wonder the manager often prefers to mix and match by starting a midfielder on one of the wings.

It’s all about the first touch

Like Koscielny, Ozil played in two games during the international break and his performance against Southampton was really average. Ozil overhit a long ball over the top for Walcott in the 38th and wasted two good situations with a poor first touch. Walcott picked out Ozil in the 55th but the Germany international lost possession before he could set up an unmarked Ox. Ozil then took a pass from Sanchez in the 65th but a bad control prevented him from feeding an unmarked Giroud.

Ozil finished the game with 7 turnovers according to whoscored.com, the most for any player. He also had 4 shot assists, including one that led to an off-target strike from Sanchez in the 68th. Tactically, Ozil dropped back a couple of times to help organize play. That’s not a good sign when he does that because Wenger wants him in the final third and not in the position of a deep-lying playmaker. That begs the question: Is the duo formed by Coquelin and Cazorla efficient enough in the build-up play? Or is the low number of scoring chances simply due to Ozil’s average performance?

Maybe Coquelin was a too defensive option for that match. He can be a fantastic destroyer, stopping a counterattack with a late challenge on Redmond in the 41st, but his limited passing skills can hurt the team in the final third, too. The Gunners were looking for a crack in the Southampton defense in the 37th when Coquelin received the ball on the edge of the box. He didn’t know what to do with it and lost possession. Xhaka would have added more creativity in midfield, but maybe the back four would have been more exposed, too.

Nerves of steel

With Ozil struggling to reach the heights of last season and Coquelin lacking playmaking skills, the onus was on Cazorla to create chances. Despite his defensive duties, Cazorla still managed to have 3 shot assists. He also made 4 successful dribbles, tied with Romeu for the most by any player. In the 85th, Cazorla made a cross for Giroud, whose header sailed wide. In stoppage time, the Spaniard showed nerves of steel to convert a penalty down the middle for the winning goal.

The Gunners are forced to play catch-up because of their poor start to the season. They are currently sixth in the Premier League, five points behind Manchester City. Rotation will play a key role in the next few weeks with games every three or four days. The victory over Southampton was just the first of seven games in a 23-day span. The next match is a Champions League encounter against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday. That game could determine which team will top Group A since Arsenal and PSG are the two strongest clubs on paper. If the Gunners win their group, they could have a decent draw for the last 16.

 

Watford vs. Arsenal: Sanchez fires Gunners to 1st win of season

The Gunners relied on a great performance from Sanchez on Saturday to earn their first win of the season. The Chile forward scored a goal and was involved in two others as Arsenal defeated Watford 3-1 in the Premier League.

Watford vs. Arsenal

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

The Hornets tried to stuff the midfield with a 3-5-2 system similar to the one used by Italy in the Euro 2016. However, the Gunners bypassed the Watford midfield by attacking down the flanks and sending long balls over the top. After reaching half-time with a 3-0 lead, Arsenal dropped in intensity and allowed Watford to enjoy more possession in the second half. The Hornets were also able to create more chances by switching to a 4-4-2 formation in the 52nd minute.

Wenger made just one change to the side that drew with Leicester the previous weekend with Ozil replacing Coquelin in the starting lineup. That move had two major consequences. First, the Gunners played Ozil as a second striker behind Sanchez whereas they used Cazorla as a playmaker against Leicester. And second, they played with no natural ballwinner since Cazorla dropped back to take Coquelin’s spot next to Xhaka.

The manager clearly opted for an attack-minded midfield with two pace-setters or deep-lying playmakers (Xhaka and Cazorla) and a No. 10 (Ozil). That pyramid midfield is perfectly tailored for Ozil as it echoes the system used by Germany with Kroos, Schweinsteiger and Ozil, or the one used a few years ago by Mourinho’s Real Madrid with Xabi Alonso, Khedira and Ozil. It’s definitely more offensive than Zidane’s Real Madrid which is using an inverted pyramid midfield with a ballwinner, Casemiro, covering Kroos and Modric.

Ozil as a ‘nine and a half’

That kind of midfield with Ozil at the top of the pyramid and Xhaka and Cazorla at the bottom could help Arsenal beat the weak sides in the Premier League. Last season, the Gunners performed well against the top teams but dropped too many points against the weak ones. When Cazorla was injured, Arsenal only had Ramsey, Flamini, Elneny and Coquelin as back-up options and none of them are deep-lying playmakers. Ozil too often dropped back to pull the strings in midfield because Arsenal struggled to build play from the back without Cazorla.

Signing Xhaka this summer means that the Gunners no longer depend on Cazorla as the only pace-setter. It also means that Ozil can focus on the final third instead of engineering the build-up play. Ozil’s role as a ‘nine and a half’ explains why he combined a lot with Sanchez against Watford. In the eighth minute, the Germany playmaker made a cross for Sanchez, who was fouled inside the area by Amrabat. Cazorla converted the subsequent penalty to open the scoring. Sanchez then played a one-two with Ozil in the 36th but had his angled effort stopped by Gomes’ foot.

The role of ‘nine and a half’ implies that Ozil still makes assists but it also means that he is more often in a position to score than a traditional playmaker. Ozil took a pass from Sanchez in the 38th but was denied by Gomes. On the stroke of half-time, Ozil made a deep run to connect with a cross from Sanchez and headed home for a 3-0 lead.

Walcott’s tactical role

Sanchez was able to shine on Saturday because of Watford’s tactical mess in the first half but also because he got better service from his teammates. He made it 2-0 by converting Walcott’s teasing cross in the 40th. Sanchez made poor contact with the ball but somehow it still bounced over the line despite Prodl’s late clearance. The goal was awarded following use of the goal-line technology. Sanchez could have rounded off the scoring in the 88th but Gomes saved his high shot. The Chile forward was a bit greedy on that play as he had two good passing options with Walcott to his left and Cazorla to his right.

Walcott had a good game with an assist and 2 of 3 shots on target. He met a cross from Cazorla in the 24th but Gomes parried the angled effort from the England international. Walcott then chased a long ball from Xhaka in the 45th for a half-volley that Gomes tipped away. His only poor effort was a lob attempt over the bar in the 62nd. Walcott also made a teasing cross in the 49th but neither Sanchez nor Oxlade-Chamberlain could get on the end of it. You barely notice Walcott in Arsenal’s passing game but he plays an important role in stretching the defense by hugging the touchline and making smart runs.

The Ox is technically more gifted than Walcott, but struggled to have an impact in the final third against the Hornets. He must find a way to better read the game and make smarter runs otherwise he’ll end up on the bench when Iwobi and Ramsey are back in the squad.

Xhaka’s passing range

In midfield, Xhaka and Cazorla were the cornerstone of Arsenal’s passing game with 71 and 65 passes respectively, compared to just 37 for Ozil. Xhaka’s passing range proved an interesting weapon to bypass the Watford defense with 6 of his 9 long balls finding the target, according to whoscored.com. Cazorla also had 2 accurate long balls out of 3. When you have so many players who can deliver the final ball, it becomes very difficult for the other team to anticipate where chances will be created. Xhaka, Cazorla, Ozil, Walcott, Sanchez, Bellerin and the Ox finished the game with one key pass each.

Xhaka and Cazorla have obviously struck a good understanding in midfield. The key question is whether they will provide enough protection to the back four against the good teams. Xhaka won 2 of 4 tackles and Cazorla 2 of 3, according to the club’s official website. But if you check Squawka’s stats, their defensive performance was not that good with 2 of 7 tackles won by Xhaka and 2 of 4 by Cazorla.

Of course, Xhaka and Cazorla have plenty of time to improve their partnership. But they don’t seem to smell danger like Coquelin or a natural ballwinner. Watford’s consolation goal in the 57th came from two lucky bounces and some poor defensive work from the Ox, who failed to track Janmaat. Koscielny headed away Janmaat’s cross but his clearance bounced off Cazorla and into the path of Capoue. Koscielny was unlucky on that play as he blocked Capoue’s 17-yard shot and the ball ricocheted off Bellerin’s leg. Pereyra beat Xhaka to the loose ball and fired past Cech to cut the deficit to 3-1.

Caught ball-watching

The Hornets could have added a second goal in the 69th when Cech pushed away Holebas’ 25-yard strike. Ighalo beat Bellerin to the rebound but Cech saved the angled strike from the Watford forward. On that play, Xhaka and Cazorla were both inside the area but too far from Holebas to make a block. Would Coquelin have kept an eye on the edge of the box and blocked Holebas’ effort?

At the back, I thought Bellerin had a poor game. The Spaniard made a decent offensive contribution by setting up the Ox for a lob attempt in the 67th and by turning Kaboul inside out in the 54th for a teasing cross that Sanchez couldn’t meet. But he had a couple of turnovers in the first half because of sloppy passes and a few more in the second half because he dallied on the ball.

Defensively, there were quite a few holes in Bellerin’s game. He was caught ball-watching when Ighalo sneaked behind him in the 69th. Then Bellerin’s awkward header from a throw-in gifted Watford a scoring chance in the 72nd with an overhead kick from Ighalo. He also lost an aerial duel to Success, who forced Cech into a save in the 78th. Hopefully, it’s just one poor game and Bellerin will perform again at his level from last season.

Holding’s a fast learner

Monreal had a hard time on the left flank with Amrabat. The Spaniard only won 40% of his duels according to the club’s official website, the weakest percentage among all the defenders. Amrabat outmuscled Monreal in the 25th to make a cross that Koscielny diverted goalward. It took a reflex save from Cech to prevent Watford from equalizing. Then Kabasele beat Monreal to the ball to head a corner wide in the 34th. The international break is coming at the right time to help Monreal get 100 percent fit and tidy up his game.

The main positive from Saturday’s game was Holding’s performance. His passing accuracy reached 90.9%, much better than his 73.6% against Leicester and 74.1% against Liverpool. Maybe the biggest surprise was that 4 of his 7 long balls found the target while Koscielny only had 1 accurate long ball out of 5. Holding is definitely learning fast. He seems a fine option against the weak teams but I still think he’s not ready yet to play against the big teams. Holding showed his naivety twice. First, by letting Ighalo dribble past him in the 12th. And second, by making a sloppy pass to Koscielny that the Hornets intercepted in the 36th.

Despite the victory, the Gunners are still five points behind Chelsea and the two Manchesters in the standings. I don’t think that they are serious contenders this season, even with late additions like Mustafi and Perez, but keeping the gap with the leaders below 6 points is a necessity to protect the team’s morale. Arsenal should have an opportunity to make up ground after the international break with games against Southampton and Hull.

 

Leicester vs. Arsenal: Gunners earn 1st point but trail leaders by 5

The Gunners earned their first point in the Premier League this season with a goalless draw at Leicester on Saturday. It was a decent result if we consider that Arsenal survived two penalty shouts and that the Foxes had the best clear-cut chances.

Leicester vs. Arsenal

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

The first two games of the season showed exactly where the Gunners need some reinforcements. They conceded four goals against Liverpool a week ago because of limited options at centerback. That’s why Wenger hit the panic button and started Koscielny at the King Power stadium although the France defender only had a few days of training under his belt. And they couldn’t crack the Leicester defense because Arsenal lacked a sharp centerforward. You can bet that many teams will park the bus this season and wait for counterattacking opportunities like the Foxes did on Saturday.

Wenger made four changes to the side that lost to Liverpool with Koscielny, Xhaka, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing Chambers, Elneny, Ramsey and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The Gunners made a few crosses in the opening minutes, but once it became obvious that Sanchez, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain were no match in the air for Morgan and Huth, they tried to create chances with short passes around the Leicester box.

The Arsenal defense definitely looked less shaky with Koscielny back in the side. His fitness was tested in the opening minute when Vardy ran at him. Koscielny tumbled to the ground but Holding was able to clear the danger. Leicester’s first penalty shout came in the 42nd minute. Mahrez slipped a through ball to Vardy, who was denied by Cech. Drinkwater chased the rebound but Koscielny made a sliding tackle before Drinkwater could pull the trigger. After watching several replays, I concluded that Koscielny got a touch on the ball. Koscielny apparently tired in the closing minutes and was outpaced by Mahrez, whose shot was saved by Cech with his legs.

Accelerating Holding’s development

Maybe the biggest surprise in the starting lineup was that Holding got the nod over Chambers. Before this summer, Holding had never played in the Premier League while Chambers had already made 57 appearances. In the end, the manager made a decision based on the players’ abilities.

Holding performed well until his level of concentration dipped in the last 20 minutes. He gave the ball away to Drinkwater in the 72nd, proved a bit naive in the 82nd by not denying Vardy the inside route on a counterattack, and gifted a dangerous free kick by fouling Ulloa in stoppage time. Holding will have to work hard in training to improve his passing accuracy, which is too low for a centerback (73.6% compared to 93.2% for Koscielny according to whoscored.com). Basically, we are accelerating Holding’s development by starting him in league games even though his inexperience might cost us a few points. A contending club wouldn’t do that.

Bellerin and Holding were both born in 1995. Holding is still a rookie while Bellerin could almost be considered a senior player after he was voted into the PFA Team of the Year last season. Leicester’s second penalty shout in the 88th somehow betrayed Bellerin’s youth. Musa rounded Bellerin to enter the Arsenal area. For a split second, Bellerin thought he had enough room to flick the ball away. But Musa managed to shield the ball with his body and Bellerin ended up tripping the Leicester substitute. At normal speed, it looked like an accidental tangle of legs. But replays clearly showed that Bellerin kicked the back of Musa’s leg. In hindsight, Bellerin should have waited a bit more before trying to win the ball, especially since Musa still had to beat Holding.

Xhaka as a pace-setter

In midfield, Wenger started the three players who finished the Liverpool game: Coquelin, Xhaka and Cazorla. Coquelin won 5 of 8 tackles, more than any other Arsenal player, and made 4 interceptions, according to Squawka. He had to walk a fine line after picking up a yellow card in the 23rd for a late challenge on Vardy. The crowd tried to put some pressure on the referee in the 55th when Coquelin was tricked by Mahrez’s footwork and fouled him on the edge of the Arsenal box but Clattenburg refrained from pulling out a second yellow card.

In the past two seasons, Coquelin often teamed up with Cazorla to shield the back four. However, the manager made a slight change on Saturday by playing Cazorla in the hole while Xhaka was the one linking defense and attack. Xhaka is still a bit shy in his game, which is normal since he’s adjusting to a new league, but you can already feel his impact on the team. The Switzerland international was the player who made the most passes (73) in that match although he was replaced in the 73rd.

Xhaka is pretty much a pace-setter like Pirlo, Xavi or Kroos. The Foxes were aware of his tactical importance and often pressed him. Xhaka lost possession to Okazaki in the 19th while dribbling in his own half. He was then robbed by Albrighton in the 70th after a poor first touch. Vardy beat the offside trap to collect Albrighton’s first-time pass but fired wide under Koscielny’s pressure.

Sanchez’s weird passes

Playing in the No. 10 role, Cazorla struggled to create chances because of Leicester’s tight defending but also because of the poor passing options offered by his teammates. Schmeichel palmed away Cazorla’s curling free kick in the 31st and stopped his long-range strike in the 34th. Cazorla faded in the second half and was replaced in the 73rd by Ozil, who had a positive impact in his first game of the season.

Up front, Sanchez had a poor game again in the lone striker role. He had 6 turnovers, the most for any player, and failed to win any aerial duel. The Chile forward clearly feels more comfortable facing play than back to goal. Twice Sanchez was in the final third, and twice he gave away the ball with weird passes. First he sent a back pass straight to Vardy in the 46th and then he hit a long ball that put Holding in trouble in the 64th. In terms of finishing, Sanchez could only muster 2 shots (1 blocked and 1 off target).

On the bright side, Sanchez was not caught offside and was able to produce 3 key passes when he dropped back to play like a second striker. He fed Ozil in the 83rd but the Germany playmaker was denied by Schmeichel.

Walcott’s overconfidence in his dribbling skills

On the wings, Walcott’s work-rate proved a nice surprise. He won 2 of 3 tackles, made 2 interceptions, and had 2 of 3 shots on target, according to the club’s official website. When you have Sanchez, Iwobi, the Ox, Gnabry and even Ramsey competing for two spots on the wings, you’d better show the manager that you deserve a start. Walcott could have scored the winner in the second half. Coquelin released Walcott down the right flank in the 75th but the England international could only muster a tame low strike. Bellerin then played Walcott in six minutes later, but Morgan blocked Walcott’s effort with a sliding tackle. In the closing minutes, Walcott took a pass from Ozil only to send his lob attempt straight into Schmeichel’s gloves.

Walcott does not play an important role in Arsenal’s passing game. His runs in the final third are his main asset since very few defenders can match his pace. I think Walcott should realize that he’s not a natural dribbler like the Ox. Walcott can outpace defenders when there’s a lot of space on the fast break but he lacks the footwork and close control to slalom through a compact defense. He was dispossessed in the 55th and 60th while dribbling his way out of trouble, and also lost the ball while taking on Fuchs in the 86th.

On the other hand, the Ox had 6 successful dribbles out of 10 according to Squawka. He cut inside Mahrez and Simpson in the 25th to curl a low shot wide of the post. Then he made a cross for Bellerin, who fired a half-volley straight at Schmeichel in the 58th. The challenge for the Ox this season will be to show more end product. No one doubts his skills and work-rate, but at the end of the day it’s all about goals and assists when you play as a winger.

Questioning Arsenal’s transfer budget

The Gunners trail Chelsea and the two Manchesters by five points in the standings. They must target a victory at Watford on Saturday otherwise they will be under intense scrutiny during the international break and will face even more pressure to sign players before the summer transfer window closes on Aug. 31.

My guess is that Arsenal will only sign one player in the next few days. On paper, the Gunners have enough money to sign two players. Liverpool and Chelsea have spent at least 20 million pounds more than Arsenal despite not qualifying for any European competition. That doesn’t make sense when you know that Arsenal earned more Premier League prize money than any other English club last season (10 million pounds more than Liverpool and 13 million more than Chelsea). Then you add 20 million pounds for playing in the Champions League group stage this year. Plus the higher gate receipts because the Gunners have the most expensive tickets in the league and a bigger stadium than Liverpool and Chelsea. And I come to the conclusion that Arsenal should spend 40 million pounds more than Liverpool and Chelsea and have a transfer kitty of 100 million pounds for this summer that would not jeopardize the club’s finances (European clubs like Valencia and Lyon must be thinking the same thing when dealing with the Gunners).

The board’s puppet

Unfortunately, Arsenal’s business model is not about reinvesting as much money as possible in the squad. If you analyze all the transfers made since 2013, when the club started having more financial maneuvering room, you will realize that the Gunners ‘only’ spend 50 to 60 million pounds per year in average. That explains Gazidis’ comment last month: “We can’t afford to make huge mistakes in the transfer market. We can’t afford to outgun competitors that have far more money to splurge on transfer fees than we do. So we have to be very careful, very selective about how we do things.”

Some fans thought that Arsenal could start competing with the big clubs in the transfer market when more than 80 million pounds were spent on Sanchez, Welbeck, Ospina, Debuchy and Chambers in the summer of 2014. But the next summer showed them that it was an illusion. Signing only Cech meant the club had already spent a big chunk of its 2015 transfer budget the previous year.

Basically, the board expects Arsenal to contend for the title with a transfer kitty of 50 to 60 million pounds per year. That was very tough in 2014. That has now become unrealistic with the boom in TV revenues and the hiring of top managers by the big clubs, especially since Arsenal’s scouting is not good enough to sign hidden gems like Leicester or Tottenham. In an era when the club defines success by profits and not by league titles, I believe it is time for Wenger to let someone else be the board’s puppet.

A rough season ahead for Arsenal & Wenger

For the very first time, I am NOT looking forward to the start of the season as an Arsenal fan. I am simply getting tired of seeing the squad stagnate. The club has only signed three players so far. Xhaka is good enough to claim a starting spot whereas Asano and Holding are mostly prospects. What makes me angry is that the two Manchester clubs are pretty much done with their summer transfers while the Gunners still haven’t upgraded the two key positions that would turn them into potential contenders: centerback and centerforward.

Arsenal 2016-17 intro

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

We have until Aug. 31 to improve our squad but there are two significant issues. First, any club is reluctant to release its top striker in the last days of the transfer window because it’s very difficult to find a replacement who’s available. For instance, Lyon forward Lacazette has been linked with a move to Arsenal. If the French club accepts to let him go, it would lose the guarantee of 20 league goals per season and hurt its chances of securing a Champions League spot. And second, even if the Gunners manage to sign a defender and a striker, it will take weeks for the team to gel.

Koscielny, Ozil and Giroud are Arsenal’s best centerback, assists leader and top scorer respectively. They haven’t played any pre-season game and will likely miss the opening match against Liverpool on Sunday. They will also lack match fitness for the game against Leicester the following weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gunners get zero point from their first two Premier League matches. A poor start would put a lot of pressure on the club and the manager. Fans still remember those seasons when Arsenal fell out of contention by October.

What is really at stake this summer

Injuries to Mertesacker and Paulista in the pre-season mean that Chambers, Holding and Bielik are the only centerbacks available for the opening game. That sounds like bad luck but I really don’t feel sorry for Wenger. Heavy losses to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea during the 2013-14 season showed that Mertesacker’s lack of pace was a liability. The manager signed Paulista in January 2015 to inject more pace at the back. However, the Brazilian’s dodgy performances didn’t convince anybody that Arsenal had a reliable centerback partnership.

Will the manager hit the panic button? Last summer, Sanchez was rushed back into action after his Copa America heroics. The lack of rest finally caught up with the Chile international when he picked up a hamstring injury in the winter. Wenger could make the same mistake with Koscielny this season because of the injury crisis at centerback. I can imagine an unfit Koscielny pulling his hamstring while chasing Sturridge or Vardy.

Inactivity in the transfer market has an impact not just on the upcoming season but also on the future of the club. Sanchez and Ozil haven’t signed any contract extension yet because they feel that the club is lacking ambition. Their contracts both end in 2018. They could ask for a move next summer if they think that the squad is not strong enough to contend for the Premier League title. We would then end up with a situation similar to what happened in 2011 when Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy left the club before Van Persie and Song also jumped off the ship the following year.

A flawed business plan

A lot of Arsenal fans are upset because they realize that the club is just a small step away from becoming a legitimate contender. The priority for the board is consistency and a top-four finish every year. Playing in the Champions League is obviously an important factor to sign top players when you are not a big club like Manchester United.

But there’s a flaw in the board’s business plan. The Red Devils have become a major global brand that can generate huge commercial revenues and sponsorship deals because they were the most successful British team in the past two decades. The Gunners are a big club in England but they are not a major global brand like Manchester United because they haven’t won the Premier League title since 2004. And the reality nowadays is that you need investments in the squad to win the league.

Do Wenger and the board want to win the Premier League? Yes. But if we analyze the recent transfer windows, they seem to believe that the key to success is about signing a couple of big names and developing a lot of youngsters. That idea is an utopia! Sure, the Red Devils managed to build half of their team with academy players (Neville, Butt, Scholes, Giggs, Beckham and Hugues) in the 1990’s and Barcelona repeated that feat in the past decade with Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi and Pedro. But those teams are the exception that proves the rule.

The reality of the transfer market

On average, one academy player joins the Arsenal first team every two years. Of the current crop, only Bellerin is an automatic starter while Wilshere, Gibbs, Iwobi and Gnabry are substitutes when everybody is fit. If I were cynical, I’d say that Ozil and Sanchez will be in their 40’s by the time half of the starting lineup is made up of academy players.

The choice for Wenger and the board is therefore pretty simple. Either they financially compete head on with the two Manchesters. Or they try to find hidden gems with great scouting like Tottenham and Leicester.

I’m not really sure that the club has adjusted to the reality of the transfer market. Arsenal slightly paid over the odds when they signed Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach for about 35 million pounds. But then they tried to get Lacazette for 29 million pounds, which is exactly the player’s market value. A bid of 40 million pounds would have been more realistic, knowing that there’s a normal price tag for most European clubs and an inflated price tag for English clubs and powerhouses like Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Gunners are unlikely to get any deal done if they don’t take that factor into account.

Nobody expects Arsenal to spend more than 150 million pounds in the transfer market like Manchester United or City. But you can’t ignore the fact that both Manchester teams have significantly improved with new additions. Stones, Gundogan, Nolito and Sane should feature in Guardiola’s starting lineup while Moreno, Gabriel Jesus and Zinchenko could be interesting impact players. Likewise, Bailly, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic should be first choices for Mourinho. By contrast, only Xhaka among the new signings might be a starter for Arsenal.

Bielik & Holding are not ready

The Gunners have only spent about 40 million pounds this summer, which is less than Liverpool and Chelsea, who have splashed about 64 million pounds each despite missing out on a Champions League spot. Given Arsenal’s financial results, I would have assumed that Wenger got a transfer kitty of at least 80 million pounds like in 2014 when the club signed Sanchez, Chambers, Welbeck, Debuchy and Ospina. But recent comments by the manager about scouts looking in the lower leagues suggest that the board did not give Wenger much maneuvering room financially.

I’m not really optimistic for this season after watching the summer friendlies in America and Scandinavia. At the back, Bielik and Holding are not ready yet for the Premier League. Their decision-making was terrible against average sides and could prove a disaster against top English clubs.

Bielik tends to hold onto the ball for too long and can make poor passes when he’s under pressure. One of his turnovers led to Drogba’s goal in the game against the MLS All-Stars. Holding may have great potential but he’s still too naive in my eyes. He cheaply lost possession against Chivas, lost a key duel against Viking forward Pedersen, and tried to dribble twice in his own half against Manchester City. Aguero ghosted past Holding to tuck home the opening goal.

Some fans have suggested that Chambers is a reliable centerback. Well, they just need to watch again his performance in the 3-0 loss to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup last season to understand his limitations. Chambers made a reckless challenge against Chivas, and gave Manchester City a counterattacking opportunity with a sloppy pass.

On the same wavelength

Midfield is the one area we don’t have to worry about. Elneny has replaced Flamini as a utility midfielder, Xhaka has filled Arteta’s shoes as the pacesetter, and Iwobi has taken Rosicky’s spot as an attacking midfielder.

In their first game together, Xhaka and Cazorla showed a great understanding against Chivas as if they were on the same wavelength. If ever Ozil gets injured this season, Cazorla will probably be the main alternative as he shone in the playmaking role against Viking. Xhaka’s smart positional play enabled him to make a couple of interceptions against Manchester City. After winning the ball back, Xhaka also slipped a through ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose chip sailed wide.

Ramsey produced outstanding performances as a free-floating midfielder for Wales at the Euros. The manager obviously noticed that and played him in a similar position behind the striker against the Citizens. With his trademark deep runs, Ramsey ghosted past Fernando to head a Sanchez cross over the bar before leading a counterattack to fire a powerful strike that Caballero parried.

Zelalem and Reine-Adelaide have been touted as having a great future but the reality is that they are still miles away from the Premier League level. Wenger used Zelalem as a deep-lying playmaker in the summer friendlies. The American teenager struggled to have an impact. Physically, Zelalem must beef up a bit to win duels in midfield. Tactically, he needs to improve his defensive game, especially when the team loses possession.

Typical goal poacher

Reine-Adelaide started his Arsenal career as a winger. The manager tried him in the No. 10 role against the MLS All-Stars and Viking. Obviously, Reine-Adelaide needs to be more efficient in the final third. He also needs to simplify his game and release the ball more quickly. He often lost possession because he either took too many touches or showed too much of the ball.

Up front, Walcott showed against the MLS All-Stars that he’s not really thinking like a centerforward. He had opportunities to make runs to the near post but didn’t seize them. Walcott clearly feels uncomfortable when he’s playing back to goal, which explains his poor link-up play against the MLS All-Stars and his inability to hold the ball up against Viking. He also proved wasteful by missing some good chances against Chivas and Viking.

Wenger moved Walcott back to the right flank for the Manchester City game. The difference was obvious: Walcott is a more lethal weapon when he can make those smart runs from the right wing. He set up Iwobi for an equalizer and then played a one-two with Sanchez to chip Hart for a 2-1 lead.

I would be very surprised if Walcott starts as a lone striker for the opening match against Liverpool. Akpom or even Sanchez would be more suited for that position. Akpom might be given a chance since he scored four goals in the summer friendlies. He is the typical goal poacher, in the right place at the right time, and able to outmuscle his marker to score from close range. But shining in the pre-season is no guarantee of a brilliant campaign. Sanogo shone in the 2014 Emirates Cup but then failed to score in the Premier League.

Not a contender

There’s also the issue of work-rate. Akpom doesn’t contribute as much defensively as Giroud. When Akpom was on loan at Hull, Bruce dropped him to the bench because of his attitude. Sanchez would be a better choice up front for a high press although he doesn’t have Akpom’s aerial threat and physicality.

On the wings, the Ox displayed some great footwork to beat two defenders and the keeper for a solo goal against Chivas while Iwobi and Campbell scored three goals each in the summer friendlies. Willock also got some playing time, showing some good decision-making and a laudable work ethic.

I don’t think any of the youngsters will have an impact on the first team like Wilshere and Bellerin did after shining in the Emirates Cup. Some of them might play in the League Cup but they will most likely be loaned out to Championship sides to hone their skills.

Right now, the squad is not strong enough to contend for the Premier League title. We struggled at both ends of the pitch last season and haven’t solved those problems since we still haven’t signed any seasoned centerback or centerforward. On paper, the two Manchesters are the overwhelming favorites to win the title.

Finishing in the Top 4 will be even more difficult than in the past seasons. Liverpool and Chelsea have a big advantage over Arsenal because they are not involved in any European competition. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4 for the first time under Wenger’s tenure.