Tag Archives: Cech

Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal: Gunners make tactical tweak in 2-1 win

Arsenal’s away form has been really poor lately. So Wenger decided to beef up the defense on Monday by relying on a back three. The tactical shift paid off as the Gunners edged Middlesbrough 2-1 for their first away win in the Premier League since Jan. 14 and a 4-0 demolition of Swansea.

Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal

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

In times of crisis, you need leaders. Cech and Koscielny made their return from injury to bring back some calm in the Arsenal team. The manager made 6 changes to the side that was hammered 3-0 at Crystal Palace a week ago with Cech, Koscielny, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud replacing Martinez, Mustafi, Bellerin, Walcott, Elneny and Welbeck in the starting lineup.

The Gunners matched Boro’s commitment, making 11 interceptions compared to 13 for the Smoggies, and winning 19 tackles and 26 aerial duels compared to 17 tackles and 24 aerial duels for the hosts, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal proved the better side in the first half and deservedly took the lead before halftime. But it could have gone either way in the second half. In fact, it was an even contest with each team creating 7 chances and Boro finishing the game with 13 shots compared to 12 for the Gunners.

Cech pulled off a couple of fine saves to prevent Boro from adding a second goal. The Czech goalkeeper stopped Ayala’s header with a reflex save in the 61st minute, parried Negredo’s low strike in the 79th and was lucky to see Gibson muster only a tame effort in the 87th. Arsenal will need to work harder on the training ground as those 3 chances came from set pieces.

In his first season at Arsenal, Wenger frequently played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. Then signing Petit in the summer of 1997 helped the manager switch to the 4-4-2 system he was known for during his time at Monaco.

More room for error

It’s kind of funny that a poor run of form finally led Wenger to use again a 3-4-3 system he has discarded for 20 years. Young managers like Pochettino and Guardiola are more flexible and frequently change formations throughout the season because of injuries or tactical concerns.

Koscielny played as a safety in that back three while Paulista was on the right side and Holding on the left side. On paper, you have more room for error: if Paulista or Holding covers the wingback, you still have two central defenders. In a back four, if Koscielny covers Monreal on the left flank, there’s only one central defender left.

A 3-4-3 system gives you numerical superiority at the back and makes it harder for the opponent to press high up the pitch. That’s why the Gunners enjoyed 65% of ball possession. The problem then is how to avoid sterile possession. Chelsea can play the ball out from the back because Azpilicueta and Luiz are comfortable on the ball. By contrast, Paulista has limited passing skills while Koscielny and Holding are average. Mustafi and Monreal have better passing skills but Mustafi was not in the squad because of an injury while the manager preferred to start Monreal in the wingback position. In the end, Arsenal’s passing game really looked tentative at best and shambolic at worst.

Despite the victory, the performance of the Arsenal defense wasn’t really convincing. Whatever formation used by the manager, you still have to win duels. Koscielny missed his clearance in the 50th, allowing Negredo to volley home Downing’s cross for Boro’s equalizer. The France centerback attempted an acrobatic clearance because he didn’t want to head the ball out of play. Obviously, that was not the safe option.

Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback

Koscielny made no tackle mostly because he was the sweeper. He won 4 of 7 aerial duels and led all players with 4 interceptions. I’m not sure Koscielny enjoys that kind of role. In a back three, the sweeper is usually an organizer too. The best example is Sammer in the Germany team that won the Euro 1996. Sammer had good tackling skills but could also play as a midfielder because of his technical abilities.

The other two centerbacks, Holding and Paulista, combined to win 6 of 11 aerial duels but performed poorly on the ground, winning none of the 6 tackles they made, according to Squawka. Paulista looked the more uncomfortable of the two. The Brazilian defender missed his clearance in the 87th when Gibson had a goal attempt. He also let Friend run past him in the 55th. The Boro substitute fired a diagonal strike that Monreal deflected into the path of Downing, who missed the target from 8 yards.

Oxlade-Chamberlain had a good game as a wingback, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and winning 2 of 5 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. He walked a tightrope after receiving a yellow card for a late tackle on Fabio in the fourth minute but showed enough self-discipline to avoid a second booking. Defensively, the Ox killed a Boro counterattack with a timely challenge as the last defender in the 62nd. Offensively, he tried to feed Giroud from the right wing. In the 28th, Giroud knocked the ball down for Ramsey, whose volley was headed out by a Smoggie. The Ox enjoyed more freedom when Bellerin replaced Ozil in the 89th. He could have scored on a counterattack in stoppage time but was denied by Guzan.

Sanchez as a playmaker

Monreal is a more defensive wingback than the Ox. The Spaniard won 4 of 6 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels and made 2 interceptions and no dribbling attempt. He has been struggling to stop crosses since last season. That flaw led to Boro’s equalizer as Downing had plenty of time and space for a cross. Monreal’s declining pace was also exposed when Traore replaced Ramirez in the 68th. The speedy Boro winger dribbled past Monreal in the 69th but dallied on the ball and lost possession.

In midfield, Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 3 key passes and 3 interceptions and win 3 of 11 tackles and 2 of 6 aerial duels. We’re very far from the standards set by Vieira, Petit and Gilberto when Arsenal could truly boss the midfield. The partnership formed by Kante and Matic at Chelsea or Wanyama and Dembele at Tottenham looks more convincing.

Walcott was the player sacrificed by Wenger in the 3-4-3 system. There are two interesting things that we have learned from Monday’s game. First, Ozil and Sanchez contributed defensively on the wings just like Hazard and Pedro do at Chelsea. Ozil won 3 of 5 tackles compared to 1 of 5 for Sanchez. In the modern game, creative players need to share the defensive burden too. Maybe the Christmas tree or 4-3-2-1 formation is the only system that would require very little defensive work from Ozil and Sanchez.

And second, Ozil played again like a second striker while Sanchez took over the playmaking duties. Sanchez hit 4 accurate long balls out of 5 and 1 accurate through ball out of 2, according to whoscored.com, whereas Ozil did not attempt any and made no key pass. Ozil mostly focused on his runs in the final third and had very little impact on his team’s passing game. In fact, 7 Gunners made more passes than Ozil (46): Xhaka (93), Paulista (73), Ramsey (67), Koscielny (56), Sanchez (50), Holding (49), and the Ox (48).

European football in July or September?

Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead with a dipping free kick in the 40th. He then created the winning goal in the 71st with a cross that Ramsey chested down for Ozil, who buried the ball into the near corner. The Chile striker also had 9 turnovers, including two that led to Boro chances. Ozil could have scored in the 63rd when he collected a through ball from Sanchez but Guzan denied him.

Up front, the misfiring Giroud had none of his 3 shots on target but proved useful as an outlet, winning 6 of 11 aerial duels. In the 29th, Giroud redirected an Ozil corner toward Sanchez, who fluffed his volley straight at Guzan. In the 81st, Sanchez found Giroud, who cut inside to curl his shot wide. Giroud should have been awarded a penalty in the 18th when Ayala held him with both arms on a corner. Arsenal can thank Giroud for the three points as the Frenchman put off Gibson in the 87th.

That victory might be too little too late for the Gunners, who sit in sixth place in the standings, trailing Liverpool, Manchester City and the Red Devils by 9, 7 and 3 points respectively. Arsenal could end up playing in the Europa League for the first time under Wenger. They would participate in the preliminary round in July if they finish sixth in the Premier League. Or they could qualify for the group stage if they win the FA Cup. I don’t think the club will be able to keep Sanchez and Ozil without the prospect of Champions League football.

West Brom vs. Arsenal: Free fall continues with 3-1 loss

Let’s not kid ourselves, Arsenal won’t finish in the Top 4 this season and there will be no St Totteringham’s Day. The Gunners have lost 4 of their last 5 Premier League games after Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at West Brom. They still sit in fifth place in the standings but 5 points behind Liverpool and 6 behind Manchester City and Tottenham.

West Brom vs. Arsenal

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

The Baggies’ game plan was pretty simple: park the bus and capitalize on counterattacks and set pieces to score. Yet, Arsenal couldn’t cope with West Brom’s direct approach. Let’s start with the set pieces. Dawson made a run from the penalty spot in the 12th minute to nod in Chadli’s corner from about 3 yards. We know that the Gunners use zonal marking on corners. One problem with zonal marking is that it’s very static. Dawson was able to outjump Koscielny because he had more momentum. Ramsey made the first mistake on that play by not blocking Dawson, who had a free run inside the box. The second mistake came from the defenders. Cech should be able to claim the ball but Fletcher hampered the goalkeeper’s freedom of movement by standing in front of him. It’s up to the defenders to clean up the 6-yard box for their goalkeeper.

Arsenal tried to adjust to those tactics in the second half but Dawson made it 3-1 by heading home McClean’s corner in the 75th. The plan was to neutralize Dawson and Fletcher. Oxlade-Chamberlain marked Dawson but failed to get in the way of the West Brom fullback when he made his run from the penalty spot. Likewise, Xhaka tried to shield Ospina from Fletcher, but the Colombia goalkeeper, who replaced an injured Cech in the 38th, lost his footing and couldn’t intervene. That goal looked worse than the opening goal because Mustafi and Koscielny both followed McAuley and left a huge gap for Dawson to run into.

Lack of defensive awareness

The Ox and Ramsey are seasoned players. Yet, they showed their lack of defensive awareness on those corners. If Ramsey wants to play in central midfield, he seriously needs to improve his positional play. The Wales midfielder failed to track Fletcher, who took a pass from Livermore to test Cech in the 34th. The Ox had a good work-rate, winning 2 of 3 tackles and making 1 key pass, 1 interception, 2 blocks and 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but it’s the defensive details that are ruining his overall performance.

Ramsey also had a hand in the Baggies’ second goal. Chadli sent a ball over the top to McClean in the 56th but Ospina came off his line to knock the ball into the path of Robson-Kanu, who stabbed the rebound home. The first mistake came from Ramsey, who sat too deep on that play. He was next to Mustafi inside the area while he should have closed down Chadli on the edge of the box. The second mistake came from Mustafi, who played McClean onside. And the third mistake came from some poor coordination between Bellerin and Ospina. The goalkeeper should have dived headfirst to gather the ball instead of going feet first.

At the back, Monreal proved our best defender, winning 80% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 94.6% according to the club’s website. The main disappointment came from the centerbacks. Rondon outjumped Koscielny in the 51st only to head Brunt’s cross wide. Then Robson-Kanu got ahead of Mustafi to take Brunt’s pass in the 67th but was denied by Ospina.

Our defenders were a bit more exposed than usual because our midfield was again too soft. I thought the Baggies too easily reached the final third the few times they led counterattacks. Nyom ran past Xhaka, Bellerin and Mustafi in the fifth minute to square the ball back for Rondon, who couldn’t make contact with the offering for a tap-in. Then Brunt fed McClean, whose angled strike was parried by Cech in the 12th. Chadli also led a fast break in the 31st to pick out Rondon, who dragged his shot wide.

Targeting Sanchez

While we have struggled to keep clean sheets this season, another concern is the team’s lack of ideas. The Gunners enjoyed 77% of ball possession but only produced 2 shots on target compared to 8 for West Brom. A more shocking stat is that the Baggies had 3 accurate through balls compared to just one for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. Ozil was not in the squad because he picked up a knock in training. The quality of his final ball would have maybe made a difference in that kind of game.

Walcott was invisible at the Hawthorns. He had no shot and no key pass, made no dribble and no interception, and won no tackle and no aerial duel. His limited passing and dribbling skills became all the more obvious that the West Brom defense sat deep to give him no space to run into. The manager yanked Walcott off in the 65th to send on Giroud. Welbeck got the nod over Giroud to lead the line but lacked decent service. His only scoring chance came in the 65th when he met a corner from Xhaka for a header that crashed against the bar. Welbeck showed more end product than Walcott by finishing the game with 2 key passes.

Besides Monreal, the only Gunner who performed at a good level was Sanchez. The Chile striker chested down a cross from Xhaka in the 15th to fire into the roof of the net for his 18th league goal this season. Sanchez also slipped a through ball to Ramsey, who forced Foster into a diving save in the 33rd. He was replaced by Iwobi in the 78th because of an ankle injury suffered in the first half.

The Baggies felt Sanchez was the main threat and targeted him. McAuley made a cynical foul on Sanchez in the 19th. Then Livermore pulled Sanchez back and clipped his leg in the 23rd but no foul was given. Rondon killed a counterattack in the 27th by fouling Sanchez and landing on his back with his knee. It could have been a yellow card but the referee only awarded a free kick.

The board’s passivity

If Oliver had been the referee, he would have warned West Brom about repetitive fouling like he did with Manchester United against Chelsea in the FA Cup. Unfortunately, the Gunners had to deal with a referee, Swarbrick, who didn’t seem to care much about the players’ physical integrity. So I wasn’t really surprised when McClean damaged Sanchez’s ankle with a late tackle in the 42nd. The Irish winger received a yellow card but it could have been a sending-off, especially when you compare with Xhaka’s red cards. See the screen capture below.

West Brom vs. Arsenal Sky editedMcClean makes a late studs-up tackle that could have broken Sanchez’s leg. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal’s collective expression was really poor. You have to wonder to what extent the players are affected by those negative banners displayed by the fans in the stands. Putting pressure on the board is fine, but the way it’s done by the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade is completely wrong. Those banners just create a toxic atmosphere for the team, too. There are still 11 league games to play. A free fall won’t help the club sign new players this summer, especially since Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchesters.

Renewing Wenger’s contract would make the atmosphere even more toxic next season. The board must act to protect the club. Wenger is like a punch-drunk boxer who is convinced he can still win the next round. I believe the manager already had his chances and simply failed to take them. Wenger only signed Cech in the summer of 2015 while a couple more signings would have turned Arsenal into a legitimate contender. Last summer, he tried to improve the squad by signing Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez, but the quality of those players has been questionable. It’s unfair for the most successful manager in the club’s history to get so much stick, but the board’s passivity has made the situation worse.


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

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


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

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

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

Xhaka’s bad instincts

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

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

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

A Frenchie’s revolt

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

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

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

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

Lack of rotation

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

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

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

Ramsey in search of form and consistency

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

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

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


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

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

Season on the line at Swansea

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

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



Arsenal vs. West Brom: Giroud shows he still has big role to play this season

What do you do when Plan A is not working? Well, you simply switch to Plan B.

Wenger’s main innovation this season has been to play the diminutive Sanchez in the centerforward role. That Plan A has helped Arsenal crack defenses with intricate plays on the ground. The obvious side effect has been Giroud’s relegation to the bench. However, recent losses to Everton and Manchester City have exposed the limits of Plan A. For Monday’s game against West Brom, the manager switched back to last season’s blueprint, Plan B, with Giroud leading the line and Sanchez on the left wing.


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

This was Giroud’s first start in the Premier League this season. Yet, his teammates barely noticed him in the first half. Giroud somehow expressed his frustration with the lack of decent service by receiving a yellow card for dissent in the 43rd minute. I guess it took a while for Arsenal to rediscover how to play with Giroud up front. In the 56th, Sanchez finally made one good cross for Giroud, whose header lacked power to trouble Foster. Three minutes later, Giroud took a pass from Ozil and fired a low diagonal strike that Foster saved with his leg.

It looked like the Gunners were about to extend their poor run of form by dropping two points at the Emirates stadium against an average side. But Giroud held off McAuley in the 86th to meet a cross from Ozil and send a looping header into the top corner. That 1-0 victory helped Arsenal stay fourth in the standings, 9 points behind leader Chelsea and 4 points clear of Manchester United.

The Gunners definitely proved more threatening against the Baggies than in their two previous games. They created 21 chances compared to 2 for the visitors, according to Squawka. They also had 11 shots on target compared to just 1 for West Brom.

Injecting pace around Giroud

Arsenal fans often complain about Giroud’s lack of pace. At the Euro 2016, France manager Deschamps found a solution by putting pacy players around Giroud. France reached the final of that tournament by using a 4-4-2 formation with Griezmann and Giroud up front, Payet on the left wing, and Coman or Sissoko on the right wing.

There are similarities between the Gunners and the France team. Sanchez and Griezmann are both strikers although Griezmann plays behind Giroud for France while Sanchez plays on the left wing for Arsenal. Likewise, Ozil and Payet are both creative players but Payet roams on the left wing for France while Ozil pulls the strings behind Giroud. On the right wing, Deschamps alternates between a winger, Coman, and a midfielder, Sissoko, just like Wenger has the choice between Walcott, Ramsey and Iwobi.

Giroud is obviously the difference between Plan A and Plan B. Plan A deliberately puts the emphasis on speed and intricate plays with Sanchez, Walcott and Iwobi/Oxlade-Chamberlain as the 3 forwards, while Plan B is more balanced with Giroud, Sanchez and Walcott/Ramsey as the attacking trident. Plan B offers a threat in the air and a physicality that Plan A doesn’t have. Sanchez would have never been able to score the winner against the Baggies because he doesn’t have Giroud’s power and dominance in the air.

Marginal gain for Sanchez with Plan A

I prefer Plan B to Plan A for the simple reason that Ozil is more efficient in the traditional No. 10 role and Giroud is an easy target to hit. Let’s be honest, no player can deliver a better final ball than Ozil. Last season, Ozil racked up 15 assists and 2 goals after 18 league games. This season, he has notched 5 goals and 4 assists in the Premier League by playing in a slightly more advanced position. That’s a small increase in goals but a dramatic drop in assists.

Sanchez is making more key passes with Plan A, but the gain is marginal if we compare with his stats from the 2014-15 season, when he still played on the left wing (I’m not taking last season into account because he came back exhausted from the Copa America and was sidelined for a few games by a hamstring injury). Plan A is tailored for Sanchez’s tendency to be all over the pitch. The Chile striker has racked up 12 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League this season. That’s pretty similar to his tally from the 2014-15 season when he notched 10 goals and 6 assists after 18 league games.

Of course, there are games where Plan A is the better option to carve open a defense. I’m especially thinking of the 3-0 win over Chelsea. It’s also easier to switch from Plan A to Plan B than the other way around. Once you take Giroud off the pitch, you have nobody else on the bench who can give you his physicality and aerial threat, except maybe Welbeck who won’t return before next year. By contrast, if you yank off Walcott, you still have pacy forwards like Oxlade-Chamberlain and Perez on the bench.

Ozil’s work-rate is still an issue

On Monday, Ozil made 7 key passes, the most for any player. In a deeper position, he played a more important role in the team’s passing game than when Sanchez is the centerforward, finishing the match with 122 passes, second only behind Xhaka’s 141, according to whoscored.com.

Ozil’s work-rate is still an issue though. He won just 20% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Only Chadli had a lower percentage among all the players. There was one moment in the first half when Fletcher ran into the space occupied by the Germany playmaker. Noticing that Ozil did not close Fletcher down, Giroud sprinted past Ozil to press the West Brom midfielder. A similar situation happened against Manchester City when Silva dispossessed Ozil, forcing Sanchez to track back and do Ozil’s defensive job in midfield.

In Plan A, Sanchez plays the role of a false nine, often dropping back to relieve Ozil of his playmaking duties and therefore make more key passes. Back on the left wing in Plan B where he is less involved in the passing game and more focused on finishing, Sanchez saw his number of shot assists drop to 2 against West Brom. However, that did not impact his scoring opportunities as he had 4 of 9 shots on target, compared to 3 of 5 for Giroud.

Sanchez could have opened the scoring in the 50th when a corner led to a goalmouth scramble. The ball fell to Sanchez, who rounded Evans to hit the post from 6 yards. Six minutes later, Sanchez controlled a cross from Iwobi to fire a powerful strike that Foster tipped over the bar.

Positive contribution from Ramsey & Perez

This season is still a learning period for Iwobi, who’s just 20 years old. Performances can be quite inconsistent at that age. Only 1 of his 4 goal attempts was on target. Iwobi pounced on a headed pass from Ozil in the 50th to unleash a low volley that Foster saved. Obviously, Iwobi must focus on showing more end product and improving his composure in front of the net. It’s good news for his development that Nigeria failed to qualify for next year’s African Cup of Nations. That means Iwobi will keep training and playing for Arsenal in January and February instead of traveling to Africa.

Ramsey and Perez came off the bench in the second half and made a positive contribution. They had 2 key passes each despite playing only the last 20 minutes. Perez crossed the ball for Giroud in the 76th but the Frenchman failed to make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Ramsey could have made it 2-0 in the 90th after Sanchez knocked down a Bellerin cross but his half-volley was stopped by Foster. In stoppage time, Ramsey had another scoring opportunity on a counterattack but lacked the confidence for a lob attempt.

The Gunners will definitely need both players in the second half of the season. Ramsey is the key player in midfield when they struggle to break the deadlock while Perez is a great alternative if Walcott and Sanchez get injured or have a poor run of form.

A sterile first half

The Baggies made the game difficult for Arsenal by playing with 10 men behind the ball. They also tried to slow the tempo with time-wasting tactics. That became obvious by Foster’s third goal kick in the 21st. The West Brom goalkeeper was booked in the 83rd but I felt the referee should have done it in the first half when Foster used up a lot of time for 7 goal kicks.

The performance in the first half was unconvincing with a lot of sterile possession. The Gunners especially struggled to play the ball out from the back as Paulista doesn’t have Mustafi’s passing skills and Xhaka doesn’t have Cazorla’s dribbling skills. Cazorla is usually the one injecting a sense of urgency in the team’s passing game. Xhaka somehow lacked the Spaniard’s dynamism in setting the tempo.

Arsenal failed to create any clear-cut chance in the first half. Their few goal attempts were long-range strikes that often missed the target. Sanchez’s low drive in the 33rd was the only one that forced Foster into a save. Reaching half-time with no goal scored against an average side didn’t feel good at all, especially since Chelsea and Manchester United had taken the lead in their respective games.

The Gunners opted for a more direct approach in the second half with crosses that put the West Brom defense in trouble. It’s quite telling that Arsenal finished the game with no accurate through balls from 4 attempts but managed to make 7 accurate crosses out of 18.

Question marks about Cech

Xhaka contributed to that directness with 11 accurate long balls out of 15, the most for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. I believe Xhaka and Coquelin have found the right balance in their partnership with Coquelin making 9 tackles against the Baggies while Xhaka made 3. Coquelin’s aggression in midfield allows Xhaka to focus on his passing.

At the back, the Gunners made two defensive mistakes to gift West Brom chances that could have been costly. Rondon beat the offside trap in the 32nd to meet a Chadli cross for a tame header. I don’t understand why Koscielny decided to set the offside trap on that play since Chadli was already in the final third and Koscielny was in a good position to win the header. Despite that rare instance of poor decision-making, Koscielny was arguably our best defender on Monday, bringing calm in the backline and winning 88.9% of his duels, the most for any starter according to the club’s website.

I have mixed feelings about Cech’s performance level since the start of the season. The scrutiny could have been worse without the change in the laws of the game, otherwise Cech would have been sent off this season against Hull and Sunderland for killing goal-scoring opportunities. When I see the leg saves Foster made on Monday, I’m wondering whether Cech could have denied Sterling the previous weekend by sticking a leg out instead of diving to palm the shot away.

Competition for the leftback spot

Cech didn’t have much to do against the Baggies but he did it poorly. He sent a goal kick straight into touch in the 48th. Then he made a handling mistake while to trying to catch a corner kick in the 70th. The ball fell to Yacob, who fired over the bar from 5 yards. In hindsight, Cech should have punched the ball away. Another issue is why the Gunners struggle so badly to win the second ball.

Guessing how a goalkeeper will age can be tricky. Buffon is still a very good goalie at 38 while Casillas lost a step by the age of 31. At 34, Cech seems past his prime. The number of goals he conceded last season from long-range shots was already a concern. His lack of mobility is becoming obvious this season. On current form, Ospina would have taken Cech’s starting spot if he had a better command of his area.

Wenger made just two changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Manchester City the previous weekend with Gibbs and Giroud replacing Monreal and Walcott in the starting lineup. Gibbs got the nod over Monreal while Walcott’s absence was the result of a calf injury. Gibbs had a decent game with 3 key passes and an effort on target. But a clash of knees with Yacob in the 64th led to Gibbs’ substitution for Monreal. The leftback position has been a weakness this season. It will be interesting to see how the manager can fix it.

The Gunners next face Crystal Palace on Sunday and desperately need three points to stay in the title race and keep Tottenham and Manchester United at bay.


Sunderland vs. Arsenal: Giroud makes difference in 4-1 win

It looked like the Gunners were about to drop two points at Sunderland until Giroud came off the bench to score twice in five minutes. Saturday’s 4-1 victory helped Arsenal stay level on points with Manchester City and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League.


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

The scoreline seemed a bit flattering for a team that lacked creativity in midfield. It wasn’t as bad as against Middlesbrough but Elneny and Coquelin, who deputized for the injured Cazorla and the suspended Xhaka, struggled to build up plays despite enjoying 65% of ball possession. Elneny made 97 passes, 28 more than any other Gunner, but only one was a key pass. Since both Elneny and Coquelin have limited passing skills, Ozil often dropped back to give a hand.

The Black Cats also made Arsenal’s job more difficult by committing many cynical fouls. Pienaar was not even booked in the 28th minute for killing a counterattack by tripping Sanchez. Two minutes later, the referee finally handed out the first yellow card of the game when Khazri pulled Ozil down. The punishment did not deter Sunderland from playing rough as Ndong, Pienaar and Djilobodji were also booked for either late tackles or challenges from behind.

Moyes was highly rated a few years ago. That’s why he was appointed manager of Manchester United in 2013. Now, when you see how poorly the Black Cats played on Saturday, it’s easy to understand why his stock has fallen so sharply. Sunderland looked like a Pulis or Allardyce team, playing with a lot of commitment but devoid of ideas.

More directness with Giroud

Sanchez carried the scoring burden on his shoulders in the first half as Walcott was sidelined by a hamstring strain. He got ahead of Kone in the 19th to head home a cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain for the opening goal. In what could have been a dramatic call, Sanchez then had a penalty appeal ignored by the referee in the 62nd when Kone clearly pulled him back. Sanchez capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to seal the win in the 78th. He spun away from Djilobodji with some quick footwork and flicked the ball past Pickford with the outside of his boot.

The Chile striker definitely benefited from a long summer break as he raised his tally to eight goals in all competitions this season. He occasionally dropped back against Sunderland to share the creative duties with Ozil, Iwobi and the Ox. Sanchez found Ozil inside the area in the 13th but the Germany playmaker’s curling shot did not trouble Pickford. A minute later, Coquelin collected a through ball from Sanchez but was robbed by Kone before he could shoot.

The Gunners found space in the first half because Sunderland played a high defensive line. The hosts limited Arsenal’s runs in behind by adopting a more compact shape after the break. Wenger opted for more directness in the 69th by replacing Iwobi with Giroud. The move paid off as Giroud converted his two goal attempts. Sanchez released Gibbs down the left flank in the 71st and the England international made a cross for Giroud, who volleyed into the bottom corner with his first touch of the game for a 2-1 lead. Five minutes later, Giroud made a run toward the near post to head home a corner from Ozil.

The Ox’s end product and work-rate

Giroud’s physicality and dominance in the air could have made the difference against Middlesbrough a week ago. He has skills that Sanchez doesn’t have and the other way around. While Perez is the logical back-up for Sanchez with his pace and technique, only Welbeck can match Giroud’s attributes. The manager will have to find a way to improve the understanding between Sanchez and Giroud because they are not on the same wavelength on the pitch. Giroud controlled a long ball in the 88th and tried to feed Sanchez, who had stopped his run because he expected to collect that ball.

I previously mentioned Iwobi’s poor run of form in the last few games. Saturday was no exception. Iwobi made no key pass and his two goal attempts were long-range strikes that missed the target. Besides the lack of end product, a greater concern is Iwobi’s poor work-rate. The Nigeria international only won 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage among the midfielders according to the club’s website. Iwobi needs to improve his defensive awareness. He was dispossessed by Ndong in the 51st and made no effort to win the ball back. He also exposed the Arsenal defense a couple of times by not tracking Jones, the Sunderland rightback.

If Walcott had been fit, it would have been interesting to see Wenger’s choice for the starting spot on the left wing. The Ox deputized for Walcott on the right wing and showed more end product and work-rate than Iwobi. The England international won 67% of his duels and 4 of 4 tackles, the most for any player. He set up the opener in the 19th by outpacing Watmore to make a pinpoint cross for Sanchez. The Ox could have claimed a second assist with a ball over the top for Ozil in the 38th but the Germany playmaker slightly underhit his lob attempt.

Mustafi’s learning process

The only negative for the Ox on Saturday was his finishing. He lacked the composure he showed against Reading in the League Cup. The Ox dispossessed Khazri in the 35th and cut inside only to shoot straight at the keeper. He developed an interesting understanding with Ozil in the second half. Ozil sent him clean through on goal in the 59th but the Ox rushed his effort and dragged his shot wide. The Ox then took a pass from Ozil in the 69th and fired a cross-shot that ran across goal. On the bright side, the Ox is finally making those runs that put him in a good position to score. He just needs to improve his composure in the final third like Ramsey did in the 2013-14 season.

The Black Cats are such a weak side that their only clear-cut chance came from a mistake by Mustafi, who poorly read the flight of a long ball from Ndong in the 64th. Watmore took advantage of the bounce to cut inside Mustafi and dribble past Cech, who brought him down with his shoulder. Defoe converted the subsequent penalty to level the score. If Ospina had been in goal, his quick legs would have given him a better chance against Watmore.

The Gunners can only be grateful that the new laws of the game only require a yellow card for the keeper if he makes a genuine attempt to play the ball. Mustafi has been a great signing for the club, but he needs to erase those basic mistakes from his game. At 24, he’s still relatively young for the centerback position.

Ramsey’s return from injury

At leftback, Gibbs made a significant offensive contribution with 3 key passes, tied with Ozil for the most by any player. He set up Giroud’s volley in the 71st and struck the post in the goalmouth scramble that led to the last goal. Gibbs also picked out Ozil, whose effort deflected off a defender for a corner in the 73rd. He would need games against stronger opposition to compare his defensive performance with Monreal’s level.

Ramsey made his return from a hamstring injury by replacing the Ox in the 77th. The manager thought it was safe to give Ramsey some playing time with a two-goal lead. Ramsey really looked rusty on the play that produced the final goal. His poor touch turned into a pass for Gibbs, who hit the woodwork. From the rebound, Ramsey’s poor first-time effort turned into a pass for Sanchez, who scored from close range. On current form, there’s no way Ramsey could start the next two games before the international break in November.

What I liked the most about Saturday’s game is that the manager took no risk with the fitness of Monreal, Cazorla and Walcott. Wenger left them out of the squad even though they could have played if needed. Monreal has a muscle strain while Walcott picked up a hamstring strain. The biggest concern is probably Cazorla’s Achilles injury. That could be a recurring problem this season. A long period of rest is the only cure for that kind of injury. Hopefully, Wenger won’t risk any key player against Ludogorets on Tuesday. The North London Derby next Sunday is a much more important game. The Gunners have a squad deep enough to rotate against the Bulgarian side.


Arsenal vs. Middlesbrough: Absence of pacesetter hurts Gunners

The goalless draw with Middlesbrough on Saturday showed why it’s so important to have a deep-lying playmaker. The Gunners enjoyed 75% of ball possession but created very few clear-cut chances because their passing was not quick and sharp enough to create gaps in the Boro defense, which did a good job to keep a compact shape. In fact, the Smoggies proved more threatening with 11 shots compared to just 9 for Arsenal.


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

Wenger only made two changes to the side that edged Swansea 3-2 the previous weekend with Coquelin and Elneny replacing the suspended Xhaka and the injured Cazorla in the starting lineup. However, those changes had a massive impact on the Gunners’ passing game. The manager wants Ozil to focus on the final third, which means that the two central midfielders are in charge of engineering the build-up play. Coquelin and Elneny made more passes than any other player (98 for Elneny and 89 for Coquelin compared to only 60 for Ozil and 48 for Iwobi). But they combined to produce only 1 key pass.

Coquelin and Elneny provide more defensive protection than the duo formed by Xhaka and Cazorla, but they also lack their creativity and passing skills. Both don’t read the game as well as Xhaka and Cazorla, and when they manage to see interesting passing options, they usually need a couple more touches before releasing the ball. Those extra touches can kill the opportunity for a through ball because they give the defense enough time to regroup. That’s why deep-lying playmakers are also called pacesetters. Players like Xavi, Pirlo, Kroos and Xabi Alonso take time away from opponents by setting a high tempo.

Home form not good enough

The midfield options were limited on Saturday with just Oxlade-Chamberlain, Maitland-Niles and Reine-Adelaide on the bench. If Ramsey had been fit, I don’t think it would have made any difference in midfield since the Wales international mostly contributes with his work-rate and deep runs. On the other hand, if Wilshere had not been loaned out to Bournemouth, I believe he could have played the role of a pacesetter. An alternative to the lack of penetration in our passing game would have been to play with a target man. Unfortunately, both Giroud and Welbeck are still injured.

The Gunners are level on points with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League before Sunday’s match pitting Manchester City against Southampton. However, it’s too early to consider Arsenal a serious contender. First, the Gunners fell out of contention last season because they dropped too many points against the weak and average sides. If they were really a ruthless team, they would have beaten Middlesbrough, a side fighting relegation. Second, our home form is not good enough if we except the 3-0 rout of Chelsea. We lost to Liverpool on opening day and escaped with narrow wins over Southampton and Swansea before drawing with Boro. Third, we have only faced Liverpool and Chelsea among the potential contenders and haven’t played Spurs and the two Manchesters yet. And fourth, if the Champions League is the reason why we struggled to play at a high tempo against Middlesbrough, then the Reds have a big advantage in the title race since they don’t play in any European competition.

Poor first half

Wenger replaced Sanchez and Walcott in the second half of the Champions League match against Ludogorets in an attempt to keep their legs fresh. Yet, both couldn’t find the net against Boro. Walcott had 2 of 2 shots on target and Sanchez 3 of 4, but some of their efforts were really poor. They also had 5 turnovers each, according to whoscored.com.

In the first half, the Gunners tested Valdes only once with a curling free kick from Sanchez in the 23rd. From open play, their best half-chance came in the 44th when Sanchez found Walcott on the right side of the area. The England international completely missed the target but nearly had his shot diverted goalward by a sliding Ozil.

Arsenal put the Smoggies under more pressure in the second half. Valdes fumbled a header from Koscielny in the 49th and the ball fell to Sanchez who kicked it back across goal for Koscielny, who couldn’t make contact with the ball for a free header. Five minutes later, Sanchez took his chance with a long-range drive that Valdes turned around the post. Sanchez was in a much better position in the 67th when Coquelin won the ball on the edge of the Boro area. Walcott played Sanchez in but the Chile striker could only muster a tame low strike that Valdes easily saved.

Iwobi’s poor run of form

It’s hard to believe that Valdes used to play for a top club like Barcelona. The Spanish goalkeeper made a couple of mistakes that could have cost Middlesbrough a point. He came off his line in the 73rd to head the ball into the path of Walcott, who made a poor connection with the ball for a first-time effort that Valdes was glad to collect. Nowadays, referees hardly enforce the six-second rule. The Gunners should have been awarded indirect free kicks inside the Boro area after Valdes held onto the ball for more than 10 seconds at least twice.

Walcott has definitely improved his mental side of the game. The manager recently mentioned that Walcott is showing “more desire” this season. One encouraging sign is that Walcott is no longer drifting out of a match. In the past, you could see him produce a moment of brilliance before disappearing like a ghost. On Saturday, Walcott tried to make an impact until the final whistle. He combined with Perez in the 82nd only to hit an awkward shot that looped straight into Valdes’ gloves. A minute later, he met a cross from Ozil to head the ball toward Sanchez, but Valdes intercepted the pass.

Iwobi has underperformed in the last few games. He won only 20% of his duels against the Smoggies, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. In hindsight, maybe it would have been a better choice to start the Ox or Perez on the left wing. Perez replaced Iwobi in the 67th while the Ox was sent on for Elneny in the 74th. In stoppage time, the Ox fired a diagonal strike that Ozil diverted home, but the goal was disallowed for offside.

Cech’s heroics

The Gunners can thank Cech for salvaging a point. Middlesbrough could have led 2-0 at half-time with better finishing. Traore created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense with his electric pace and dribbling skills. Few fans have heard of him but Traore graduated from Barcelona’s football academy. Koscielny dallied on the ball in the 19th and was dispossessed by Traore. The 20-year-old winger evaded a sliding tackle from Mustafi and was denied by Cech. The rebound fell to Negredo, who had his effort saved by Cech.

A minute later, Ramirez struck the bar with his free kick. Monreal was then caught ball-watching in the 21st, but a heavy touch from Traore allowed Cech to claim the ball. Stuck against the corner flag, Traore seemed no threat in the 33rd. Yet, he managed to roll away from Bellerin to cross the ball for Negredo. The Spanish striker’s header bounced off Koscielny and into the path of Ramirez, whose header got parried by Cech.

Traore tortured again the Arsenal defense with his pace in the second half. He bullied Monreal in the 56th to slip the ball to Barragan, whose cross for Ramirez was cleared by Bellerin. Traore then outpaced Coquelin in the 58th and rounded Koscielny for an angled shot that Cech tipped around the post. In the closing minutes, Traore led a counterattack and forced Bellerin to make a sliding tackle that propelled the ball into Negredo’s path. It took a perfectly timed tackle from Koscielny inside the area to prevent Negredo from pulling the trigger.

The draw snapped Arsenal’s seven-game winning streak in all competitions. We are a bit short now in midfield. I guess the manager will try to rest his regular starters in the League Cup match against Reading on Tuesday because the Premier League game at Sunderland next Saturday is much more important. The Gunners can’t afford to drop any point against the weakest team in the league.

Hull vs. Arsenal: Iwobi shines in 4-1 win, Xhaka scores wonder goal

A brilliant performance from Iwobi helped Arsenal earn a third straight victory in the Premier League to go level on points with Chelsea and Liverpool. The Nigeria international was involved in the first two goals as the Gunners routed ten-man Hull 4-1 on Saturday.


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

Wenger made two changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday with Cech and Walcott replacing Ospina and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting lineup. Arsenal got off to a better start than against Southampton the previous weekend. Jakupovic palmed Walcott’s cross into the path of Iwobi, whose first-time effort took a deflection off Sanchez to beat the Hull goalkeeper in the 17th minute. Sanchez was credited for the opening goal but I don’t think his touch was intentional as he seemed to get out of the way. The Gunners doubled the lead in the 55th when Iwobi played Walcott in with a backheel flick. Clean through on goal, the England international deftly chipped Jakupovic.

It’s no surprise to see Iwobi get the nod over the Ox, who is technically gifted but whose end product can be poor. Iwobi reads the game well and often came inside to play as a second striker against the Tigers. He finished the match with 3 key passes, more than any other player. Iwobi could have scored in the 27th when he met a low cross from Bellerin, but Jakupovic saved his low strike. The Nigeria international also had a goal attempt blocked in the 43rd.

Last season, I compared Iwobi to Bergkamp and Anelka. When he plays in midfield, Iwobi can both deliver the final ball and be a goal threat like Bergkamp. And when he plays as a forward, Iwobi is similar to Anelka with his pace, penetration and dribbling skills. That’s why the manager did not hesitate to loan out Wilshere. He felt Iwobi could rise to the occasion.

A mixed bag for Sanchez

Of course, the challenge for Iwobi this season is to be more consistent in his performances. He has cut his turnover rate against Hull but he still needs to improve his defensive awareness. Iwobi was outpaced by Elmohamady in the 34th, forcing Cazorla to foul the Hull rightback and receive a yellow card. Iwobi also failed to close down Elmohamady in the 68th, but no Tiger could connect with Elmohamady’s cross.

Sanchez officially scored two goals but his performance was a mixed bag. He failed to convert a penalty that would have given Arsenal a 2-0 lead in the 41st. Cazorla is the manager’s top choice for penalty takers, so I don’t really understand why Sanchez took that spot kick. Jakupovic made the save but Sanchez’s penalty was a tame effort. Sanchez then collected a through ball from Ozil in the 71st but lost possession after Elmohamady outmuscled him. The Chile forward has more pace than Giroud but he clearly lacks his physicality.

On the bright side, Sanchez had 4 of 5 shots on target and displayed more hunger than his teammates in pressing high up the pitch. He intercepted Robertson’s back pass in the 18th to fire a shot that was blocked by the Hull defense. After the Tigers cut Arsenal’s lead in the second half, Sanchez put the game to sleep in the 83rd. He fed Walcott, who was denied by Jakupovic. The rebound fell to Sanchez, who stepped past Maguire to slam the ball into the roof of the net.

Walcott’s directness

Sanchez and Walcott don’t really have the attributes to play in the centerforward position. Wenger finally came to that conclusion with Walcott this summer. Back on the right wing, Walcott has showed more end product than the Ox. He made the cross that led to the opening goal as well as the one that led to the penalty in the 41st. Coquelin connected with an offering from Walcott for a first-time effort that Livermore deliberately diverted with his hand. That intentional handball left the referee with no other choice than a penalty and a red card. The Gunners could have also opened the scoring by the 13th when Walcott picked out Sanchez, who missed the target from 12 yards.

Walcott’s directness created problems for the Hull defense. But I thought his decision-making was poor quite a few times when he held on to the ball or tried to take on a defender instead of simply making a pass. Walcott was dispossessed five times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Although Walcott netted the second goal, I also thought he could have done better in the 24th when he met a cross from Ozil for a first-time effort straight at Jakupovic.

Maybe the biggest disappointment in Saturday’s match was the performance from the starting midfielders. Cazorla had 1 shot assist and found Walcott for the first two goals. But he was quite lucky not to receive a second yellow card for tripping Snodgrass in the 47th. Meanwhile, Ozil is still struggling to reach his level from last season. He had two key passes and missed the target twice. I thought Ozil should have caught the frame from 6 yards in the 27th when Jakupovic parried Iwobi’s low strike into his path. Coquelin did OK by winning 50% of his duels, making 4 interceptions and having a passing accuracy of 98%, according to the club’s website.

Silencing critics

The main positive from the Hull game was arguably Xhaka’s first goal in the Premier League. The Switzerland international fired a missile into the top corner from 30 yards in stoppage time. He celebrated by putting his index finger over his mouth, implying that he had silenced his critics.

Xhaka has made only two starts so far although he cost Arsenal about 35 million pounds. Maybe Wenger didn’t like what he saw in the Leicester and Watford games and is trying to figure out a way to better integrate him in the team. I was surprised to hear that the manager prefers Xhaka in the role of a box-to-box player. Xhaka performs as a deep-lying playmaker for the Switzerland team and is very similar to Kroos in his style of play. Although he came off the bench in the 66th, Xhaka was still able to make 2 key passes.

Defense was a big question mark after the horror show in Paris. Mustafi got some stick for PSG’s opening goal in the Champions League but he bounced back with a relatively good performance against Hull. He had a passing accuracy of 96.4%, made 3 interceptions, and won 3 of 4 tackles and 85.7% of his duels, the most for any defender. The Germany international killed a counterattack in the eighth minute by dispossessing Hernandez. He then won the ball back after Diomande intercepted a sloppy pass from Coquelin in the 32nd.

Losing a foot race

Mustafi didn’t have a perfect game though. He poorly read the flight of the ball in the 21st, allowing Hernandez to bear down on goal. But Koscielny pushed away the Hull striker, who ended up shooting wide. The partnership between Koscielny and Mustafi is still a work in progress. Hernandez took advantage of a big gap between the two centerbacks to chase a long ball from Elmohamady in the 10th. However, Cech rescued his defenders by quickly rushing outside his area to clear the danger.

The Tigers only had two good chances on Saturday. Each time, it was the consequence of a mistake from an Arsenal midfielder. Coquelin gave Diomande plenty of space in the 36th by diving in. Diomande found Hernandez, who released Snodgrass down our left flank. Somehow, Snodgrass could only muster a low strike straight at Cech. Once Diomande skipped past Coquelin, the Arsenal defenders were left in a 3v4 situation. Mustafi had to keep an eye on Robertson because Walcott lost track of the Hull leftback. Cazorla was in a too advanced position and couldn’t challenge Diomande, which meant that Koscielny had to deal with Diomande while Monreal moved inside to mark Hernandez and leave Snodgrass free.

There’s no excuse for the second chance in the 78th because the Tigers were already down to 10 men. Meyler fed Mason, who made a low cross for Mbokani. Cech came off his line for an interception but was a split second late and brought down Mbokani, who beat him to the ball. The referee gave a yellow card to Cech, who made a genuine attempt to play the ball, and awarded Hull a penalty that Snodgrass converted by wrongfooting Cech. If Cech had made a cynical foul, it would have been a red card. On that play, Xhaka poorly tracked Mason, forcing Koscielny to cover him and leaving Mustafi in a 1v1 situation with Mbokani. The Hull substitute won the foot race against Mustafi and was also quicker than Cech.

What narrative?

The Gunners next face Nottingham Forest in the League Cup on Tuesday before hosting Chelsea in the Premier League on Saturday. I couldn’t care less about the League Cup. That competition is mostly an opportunity to rest our key players (Cech, Koscielny, Monreal, Cazorla, Ozil and Sanchez) while giving some playing time to youngsters (Holding, Reine-Adelaide, Akpom, Willock) and second-choice players (Debuchy, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Xhaka, Elneny, Perez).

The match against Chelsea is much more important than that League Cup tie since the Blues are one of our main rivals for a Top 4 finish. A victory would help Arsenal build momentum while a draw would be a disappointing result but still acceptable. On the other hand, a loss would shape a negative narrative suggesting that the Gunners are not at the level of Liverpool and Chelsea this season.