Tag Archives: Cech

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Defensive shambles exposed in 4-0 loss

It’s time to get really worried. The Gunners are on pace to finish the Premier League season with more than 100 goals conceded after an embarrassing 4-0 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday. They have already let 8 goals in. Only the Hammers have a more porous defense in the league with 10 goals conceded.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal 2017

Photo credit: Alexis Sanchez’s Instagram account

The Reds completely outplayed Arsenal with 10 shots on target to 0. The scoreline could have been more humiliating if Cech had not made 6 saves. Liverpool showed more desire, winning 59% of the duels and 22 tackles to 12, according to the club’s website. By contrast, the Gunners were not at the races. Their performance was so listless that some fans even sang: “you’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

A lot of fans are frustrated because the same old defensive frailties resurfaced at Anfield: Arsenal couldn’t handle crosses, turnovers and counterattacks. What made the loss more bitter is that the Reds looked like a slick machine with a great work-rate while the Gunners couldn’t press as a unit and didn’t seem to pull for each other.

There are obvious signs that this Arsenal squad is regressing. Sunday’s result brought back memories of the 2013-14 season when Arsenal suffered heavy losses at Manchester City (6-3), Liverpool (5-1) and Chelsea (6-0). The players definitely deserve some stick but in the end Wenger can’t escape the fact that he’s the one who hired them.

Three months ago, the manager said the club was one or two signings away from contending in the league. Well, the Liverpool game showed that the Gunners will need more than Lacazette and Kolasinac just to have a decent shot at finishing in the Top 4.

Organizational mess

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Stoke the previous weekend with Koscielny, Holding and Sanchez replacing Mustafi, Kolasinac and Lacazette in the starting lineup. I thought the team selection was weird. Why would you give the nod to Holding over the more experienced Mustafi? Then why would you play a right-footed player like Bellerin in the left wingback position instead of Kolasinac or Monreal? It’s no surprise if Arsenal only made 1 accurate cross compared to 8 for Liverpool, according to whoscored.com.

Up front, the manager picked Welbeck for his pace and physicality. Giroud and Lacazette are more clinical than Welbeck, but Giroud lacks pace while Lacazette is still adjusting to the physical side of the Premier League. The only positive from the team selection was the return of Koscielny and Sanchez, respectively from suspension and injury.

Defending crosses was an issue last season. Sadly, the staff still hasn’t found the cure. Liverpool midfielder Can outjumped the Arsenal defense to head Moreno’s cross wide in the sixth minute. You can see the organizational mess in the screen capture below.

Liverpool M06 edited

Moreno and Henderson, circled, are unmarked while 6 Gunners deal with 3 Reds inside the box. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Gunners were so scared of the danger that there were too many of them inside the area while Moreno and Henderson were left unmarked. The irony is that while the Gunners had numerical superiority inside the box, they committed too many players at the near post and left Bellerin in a 1v2 situation with Salah and Can at the far post. What’s the point of having 3 defenders at the near post if they don’t mark anybody?

Some more gruyere cheese?

Liverpool capitalized on some nifty one-touch passing to torment the Arsenal defense with another cross in the 10th. Ramsey failed to track Can, who made a cross for Salah at the far post. Salah beat Bellerin to the ball for a low effort but was denied by Cech.

The Reds finally opened the scoring in the 17th when Xhaka’s risky pass for Bellerin was intercepted by Gomez. Bellerin barely attempted to stop Gomez’s cross while Firmino took advantage of Arsenal’s poor marking to find the net from 6 yards with a free header. You have to give credit to Firmino for his smart movement and his ability to play between the lines. But there was a too big gap between Holding and Koscielny and I thought Holding should have put off Firmino when the Brazilian striker ghosted past Koscielny.

The second goal came from a counterattack starting from the Liverpool box in the 40th. Gomez made an interception and found Wijnaldum, who beat Xhaka with a pass to Can. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M40a editedRamsey and Xhaka are stuck high up the pitch as the Reds counterattack. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese as the ball travelled to Mane, who cut inside Holding to curl a shot into the far corner. The shift to a back three means that the Gunners don’t have numerical inferiority if the midfield is overrun. Of course, the trouble is that defenders still have to win duels. See the screen capture below.

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The Gunners have numerical superiority but Holding loses his duel. (Photo credit: Sky)

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka in central midfield struggled against Stoke. So it was no surprise to see them completely outplayed by Henderson, Wijnaldum and Can. Ramsey’s tactical indiscipline definitely cost his team. The Wales midfielder was dispossessed 3 times, tied with Ozil for the most by any player. The irony is that Ramsey still performed better than Xhaka, winning 41.7% of his duels and 2 of 6 tackles compared to 20% and 0 of 3 tackles for the Switzerland international, according to Squawka and the club’s website.

Xhaka’s poor positional play

Xhaka has performed poorly in the first 3 games of the season. His weak positional play has often been exposed when opponents hit Arsenal on the fast break. That’s a big concern when you are supposed to be the holding midfielder. Arteta also lacked pace but his positional play wasn’t as dodgy as Xhaka’s. What made Xhaka’s performance look bad was his passing accuracy of 86.8%, well below his usual standards and lower than Ramsey’s 95.8%.

The most depressing part for Arsenal fans is that whoever the manager picks, the midfield is flawed. Wenger replaced Ramsey with Coquelin at halftime, shifting from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Bellerin and Monreal as fullbacks and Oxlade-Chamberlain as a winger. In 45 minutes, Coquelin won 0 tackle and 0 aerial duel and made just 1 interception.

The final goal from a counterattack in the 77th showed again the ineptitude of our midfielders. Coquelin was in a too advanced position as Firmino found Can in midfield. Firmino was already surrounded by Monreal and Xhaka, so there was no reason for Coquelin to come forward. See the screen capture below.

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Firmino beats Monreal, Xhaka and Coquelin with a pass to Can. (Photo credit: Sky)

Trying to make up for Coquelin’s mistake, Holding sprinted forward to press Can. It proved a losing gamble as Can held off Holding to feed Salah on our right flank. Bellerin failed to block Salah’s cross for an unmarked Sturridge, who headed home from two yards. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M77b edited

Koscielny left in a 1v2 situation as Monreal and Holding are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

It was not a game tailored for Ozil, who still led Arsenal players with 2 key passes. The Germany playmaker also won 1 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions. Some poor communication allowed Henderson to dispossess Ozil in the 19th. Henderson played a one-two with Firmino before missing the target. Koscielny hesitated for a split second, probably thinking about the offside trap, and failed to stay with Henderson.

Rushing Holding’s development

Some Gunners seemed incredibly casual on Sunday as if they were playing some kind of friendly. Monreal made a dribbling attempt in midfield and lost possession to Salah, whose low strike was parried by Cech in the 54th. Three minutes later, Liverpool cleared a corner into the path of Bellerin. As the last defender, Bellerin should have kicked the ball back into the box with his first touch. But the Spaniard tried to control the ball with a poor first touch and was dispossessed by Salah, who sprinted 70 yards to slip the ball past Cech for a 3-0 lead. That goal mentally killed the team as a dejected Sanchez sank to his knees.

Bellerin looked like a shadow of the fullback who was voted in the PFA Team of the Year during the 2015-16 season. He won only 22.2% of his duels and 1 of 4 dribbles. The Ox had a poor game too, winning just 28.6% of his duels while making no tackle, but at least he wasn’t involved in a high-profile blunder. It was quite obvious that the Ox had his mind elsewhere.

It might not be the best time for a youngster to play in such a dysfunctional club. I can only sympathize with Holding, whose development is being recklessly rushed. Holding looked average in a back three. The shift to a back four made him look pedestrian in the second half. Holding gave the ball away to Mane in the 70th but Cech took the sting out of Mane’s effort before Bellerin cleared the ball off the line. Three minutes later, Holding was let down by another poor touch and got booked for crashing into Henderson.

Koscielny’s decent performance

Holding was obviously the weak link in the Arsenal defense, leading all players with 4 turnovers. You can’t afford that many turnovers in such a key position. Liverpool’s pressing game clearly put Holding under pressure as he hit only 2 accurate long balls out of 12 and had a passing accuracy of 71.9%, the lowest percentage of all the defenders. On the bright side, Holding won 4 of 4 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions. I still believe Holding should be loaned out to develop at a reasonable pace.

Monreal also underperformed at the back, winning only 1 of 9 tackles and 28.6% of his duels compared to 70% for Koscielny and 55.6% for Holding. The Spaniard was guilty on the last goal and struggled with the pace of the Liverpool wingers. Salah cut inside Monreal in the 25th to fire a low strike that Cech palmed away.

In his first game of the season, Koscielny was one of the few Gunners who performed at a decent level, winning 2 of 2 tackles and 5 of 7 aerial duels and making 4 interceptions and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. Koscielny is a quiet man but he must raise his voice to prevent the ship from sinking, especially since Mertesacker, the natural leader in the squad, is no longer a starter.

Up front, it was a rough day for strikers deprived of service. Welbeck worked his socks off, winning 2 of 4 tackles. He nearly dispossessed Karius twice. His only scoring chance came in the seventh minute when Sanchez led a counterattack. Wrestling with Gomez, Welbeck could only send an off-balance shot over the bar.

Sanchez still lacked a bit of match sharpness in his first game of the season. I guess the manager opted for Welbeck in the lone striker role because Sanchez is more familiar with Welbeck’s game than with Lacazette’s runs. Wenger yanked Sanchez off in the 62nd to send on Giroud, who proved dominant in the air, knocking a high ball down for Lacazette in the 69th and heading Ozil’s free kick over the bar in the 89th.

Just a few days left to save the season

The Gunners now sit in 16th place, 6 points behind Manchester United and 4 points behind Liverpool and City. The manager and the team will be under heavy scrutiny for the next game against Bournemouth on Sept. 9. The atmosphere at the Emirates stadium could quickly become suffocating if the Cherries take the lead or if the Gunners struggle to find the net.

The board members were aware of such a risk when they extended Wenger’s contract. They can only blame themselves for the club’s messy dressing room and shambolic start to the season. Wenger is a very good manager, but the Premier League has become much more competitive in the past couple of years.

During the 2006-07 season, the league had Ferguson, Mourinho and Benitez as top managers. Now Wenger has to compete with Mourinho, Guardiola, Benitez, Conte, Klopp and Pochettino. Some of them belong to a new generation of hands-on manager while Wenger has a more hands-off approach. In the era of micro-managing, some players need more guidance and want answers quickly because their careers are short. I’m not sure Wenger is the kind of person they need.

I still think it’s non-sensical to talk of firing Wenger for the simple reason that no decent manager is available at this stage of the season. If the board wanted a new manager, they had to make a move in the summer.

Now the staff has the international break to sort out the dressing room. And the club has until August 31 to save this season by signing the players it desperately needs. Wenger mentioned Lemar and Mbappe in his news conferences. But Sunday’s humiliating defeat made it clear that the Gunners need defensive leaders, not attacking players.

 

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A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Australia and China

The Gunners enjoyed mixed fortunes in the recent summer tour aimed at building up their fitness and increasing their worldwide fan base. Last week, Arsenal faced two Australian teams that would probably sit at the bottom of the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners defeated Sydney FC 2-0 before downing Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1.

Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Pre-Season Friendly

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

The level was much higher this week with games in China against Bayern Munich and Chelsea. The German champions completely outplayed Arsenal but somehow lost 3-2 in a penalty shootout after drawing 1-1 in regulation time. Chelsea proved more clinical than the Bavarian side by thrashing Arsenal 3-0 on Saturday.

  1. Omissions aren’t always innocent

Paulista, Wilshere and Cazorla were not in the squad for the summer tour because of injury. Holding, Chambers, Bellerin, Campbell, Mustafi and Sanchez also missed the pre-season friendlies because they were given some time off to recover from international competitions.

On the other hand, the absence of Szczesny, Debuchy, Gibbs, Jenkinson and Perez had nothing to do with an injury or international competition. Those five players seem to no longer be part of the club’s future plans. In fact, Juventus signed Szczesny a few days ago while Gibbs and Jenkinson have been linked to several English clubs.

Among the youngsters, Akpom and Reine-Adelaide missed out on the tour because their performances stagnated last season. Akpom showed poor attitude during his loan spell at Brighton while Reine-Adelaide failed to impress with the U23 team. Therefore, Wenger preferred to give a chance to Willock, Nelson, Nketiah, Bramall and Malen instead of including Akpom and Reine-Adelaide in the squad.

  1. Cech, Ramsey and Ozil are already sharp

Without Cech’s saves, Arsenal could have lost 5-1 to Bayern again. At 35, Cech is no longer the goalkeeper who led Chelsea to a flurry of titles, but he’s still among the best in the Premier League.

Ramsey’s 2016-17 season was marred by injuries because the manager didn’t give him enough time to recover from the Euros. It was therefore important to gradually build up Ramsey’s fitness this summer. The Wales midfielder made a run in behind to score the second goal against the Wanderers. He also set up Iwobi for the equalizer against Bayern with a left-footed cross.

Although Ozil only has one year left on his contract, it looks like he will play the upcoming season with Arsenal. Ozil sometimes gets criticized for his poor work-rate but the quality of his delivery can make a difference in the tight games, especially when you compare with the relative lack of accuracy from Xhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain on set pieces. The Germany playmaker slipped a through ball to Walcott against the Wanderers and to Lacazette against Bayern. He also volleyed a cross from Welbeck straight at Starke.

  1. Mertesacker’s lack of pace is still an issue

Mertesacker’s performance in the FA Cup final gave the illusion that a back three could make up for his lack of pace. Unfortunately, the pre-season friendlies showed that some situations could put Mertesacker in trouble. Sydney FC created their first scoring chance by isolating Mertesacker with a speedy forward.

In the FA Cup final, Arsenal protected Mertesacker by seating deep. In Beijing, the Gunners were punished for playing a high defensive line. Mertesacker was pulled out of position by chasing Batshuayi in midfield and couldn’t recover as Willian cut inside Monreal to open the scoring. Two minutes later, Mertesacker didn’t want to dive in like on the first goal and gave plenty of space to Batshuayi, who doubled the lead with a curling shot.

  1. Lacazette and Giroud are different players

Lacazette scored the second goal against Sydney FC by converting a low cross from Iwobi. The British news media often portray Lacazette as the back-up for Giroud in the France striker role but that description is inaccurate. In fact, Lacazette is a second striker like Griezmann, not a pure centerforward like Giroud. When France manager Deschamps picks his lineup, he is therefore choosing between Griezmann and Lacazette, and not between Giroud and Lacazette.

Because the French league is more technical but also less physical than the Premier League, Lacazette was able to play as a lone striker for Lyon. However, at 5’9 Lacazette simply can’t play as a target man like Giroud or Welbeck. He couldn’t help Arsenal evade Chelsea’s high press like Welbeck did in the FA Cup final.

  1. The Gunners still miss the complete centerforward

Remember when Henry and Van Persie led the line? They had everything. They could outpace defenders, dribble past them, win headers, hold the ball up, link up play and of course score plenty of goals. Among the six strikers at Arsenal (Sanchez, Giroud, Perez, Lacazette, Welbeck, and Walcott), none of them possesses all those qualities.

There are rumors that Giroud could leave the club this summer although no Gunner has his skill set. Welbeck can win headers and hold the ball up but he’s less prolific than the Frenchman. Giroud scored against the Wanderers with his trademark first-time effort at the near post.

Walcott failed in his attempt to become a centerforward during the 2015-16 season. It’s hard to see where Walcott fits in the 3-4-3 system. He started as an inside forward against Sydney FC and clearly struggled to adjust to that new position as he was caught offside three times in the first half.

  1. The midfield is weak

Wenger paired Xhaka and Coquelin against Bayern and Xhaka and Ramsey against Chelsea. The way Bayern and Chelsea outplayed Arsenal shows that we need a destroyer in midfield. Xhaka is not a natural ballwinner. He fouled Batshuayi and Willian in the opening minutes of the Beijing match. Coquelin may be a better tackler than Xhaka, but his technical limitations really hurt the team: he made a couple of poor passes to Welbeck in the first half of the Shanghai match.

Friendlies are often an opportunity for experiments. A midfielder by trade, Elneny played all four games as a centerback. Does it mean that the manager no longer considers Elneny as a midfield option? Or was it just to make up for the lack of centerbacks on the tour? In any case, Elneny’s stint at centerback was not really convincing. He made a poor backpass to Martinez against Sydney FC and a sloppy pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain against the Wanderers. Then Lewandowski and Willian got the better of Elneny in China. It’s hard to imagine how Elneny could mark physical forwards.

  1. Iwobi must end his sophomore slump

After breaking into the first team during the 2015-16 season, Iwobi struggled with consistency and lost his starting spot when Wenger shifted to a 3-4-3 formation a few months ago. There were mostly two issues last season: Iwobi’s lack of end product and his poor work-rate. Iwobi did well on the first issue by making an assist against Sydney FC and scoring a goal against Bayern. However, his work-rate was questionable against Chelsea. He had a high turnover rate in the first half and became nearly invisible when moved to the wingback position in the second half.

  1. Nelson is the most promising youngster

Nelson showed good technique and movement against Sydney FC. His runs helped create space in the final third. The 17-year-old midfielder set up Walcott and Bramall with accurate crosses. Nelson also produced a decent cameo against Chelsea, dancing around defenders to find Malen, who hit the post. He’s still a bit soft physically, especially in duels. Nelson could either stay at the academy to continue his development or be loaned out to a Championship side to beef up his game.

Despite the obvious needs in midfield, Wenger preferred to use Maitland-Niles as a centerback and wingback during the summer tour. Initially, I had high hopes for Maitland-Niles after his performances with the first team at the end of 2016. But his lack of effort with the youth team in 2017 raised some doubts about his work ethic.

Maitland-Niles was too casual against Sydney FC, losing possession after dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box, as well as against Chelsea, making a sloppy pass to Mertesacker and a poor clearance into the path of Willian. He also showed his defensive naivety against Bayern by allowing Ribery and Bernat to easily dribble past him because of some poor body-positioning along the by-line. To a certain extent, Maitland-Niles reminds me of Song when he joined Arsenal in 2005.

The games against Bayern and Chelsea showed that some youngsters still have a long way to go before joining the first team. Bramall struggled to cope with the level of play against Chelsea, even panicking at times. He cleared the ball straight into touch in the 24th and was dispossessed by Moses in the second minute and Kante in the 42nd on the edge of the Arsenal box. Technically, Bramall also showed some limitations with poor crosses in the sixth minute and the 44th.

Bielik was overwhelmed by the level against Bayern too, giving the ball away in the 18th and allowing a counterattack by diving in on the stroke of halftime. In midfield, Willock often looked like a mini-Coquelin, mixing up snappy tackles with cynical fouls. The best Bielik and Willock can hope for is a loan deal to a Championship side.

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners miss out on Top 4 despite 3-1 win

The Gunners’ 3-1 win over Everton on Sunday was their fifth straight victory in the Premier League. Unfortunately, they hit top form too late as they finished fifth, one point behind Liverpool. Optimists will point out that Arsenal racked up 4 more points than last season, suggesting that it’s an improvement. Realists will notice the 18-point gap with Chelsea, concluding that the club is regressing, especially since it’s only the second time under Wenger’s tenure that Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League.

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

For most fans, 2016-17 has been a disappointing season. It’s definitely not a bad season, otherwise the Gunners would have wound up in the middle of the table like Chelsea did a year ago. But it can’t be described as a good season for the simple reason that Arsenal finished behind Tottenham and Liverpool. I can accept the fact that Chelsea and Manchester City do better because they are both backed by generous billionaires while Kroenke is treating Arsenal like a cash cow, taking money out of the club. But finishing behind Liverpool and Tottenham is embarrassing because the Gunners have a bigger payroll and spent more money in the transfer market than those two clubs.

A quick look at the table shows where the problem is. Arsenal scored 77 goals in 38 games to claim the fifth best offense in the league and conceded 44 goals to have the sixth best defense. A total of 77 goals is decent compared to Tottenham and Chelsea, which are the top scoring teams with 86 and 85 goals respectively. But conceding 44 goals is too much compared to Spurs and the Red Devils, who have leaked 26 and 29 goals respectively. The last time the Gunners conceded 44 goals or more was during the 2011-12 season, when they finished 19 points behind the two Manchester clubs. Yes, we are back to square one!

Holding’s inexperience

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that defeated Sunderland 2-0 last Tuesday, with Koscielny, Paulista and Welbeck replacing Mustafi, Gibbs and Giroud in the starting lineup. Mustafi and Gibbs were injured while Welbeck’s pace meant that he was a better option against Everton than Giroud. Arsenal showed more commitment than the Toffees, winning 61% of the duels, and making 12 interceptions to 10 and 18 tackles to 9, according to the club’s website.

The Toffees tried to press high up the pitch in the opening minutes but ended up running into the void because the 3-4-3 formation means that the Gunners have an extra man at the back. The system gives more room for error but is not infallible. Holding’s inexperience proved quite costly in the 14th minute. What was he doing 70 yards away from the Arsenal goal? Valencia outpaced Monreal down our left flank and dribbled past Holding before Koscielny took him down with a reckless tackle.

Koscielny’s red card was deserved. The France defender was not in control and missed the ball. That was really poor decision-making. But I can understand his rationale. Holding was out of position, which means that a dangerous 3v2 situation was developing, with Koscielny and Paulista facing Mirallas, Lukaku and Valencia. To a certain extent, that challenge reminded me of Koscielny’s first season at the club when he collected two red cards.

Holding had a poor game, with a passing accuracy dipping to 73.9%, the lowest percentage for any defender. He made 0 interception and 2 blocks and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Ten years ago, Arsenal could start a youngster like Holding on a regular basis and still finish in the Top 4. Nowadays, it’s no longer possible because the level in the Premier League has significantly improved. For instance, Ake is a promising prospect at Chelsea but even Conte sees him as a bench warmer. A loan next season is a necessity both for Holding and Arsenal: Holding needs more playing time while the club needs to speed up his development.

Mertesacker’s 1st game of the season

Everton’s goal in the 58th came from another mistake from Holding, who misjudged the flight of the ball and handled it while trying to chest down a cross from Baines. Lukaku converted the subsequent penalty to cut Arsenal’s lead to 2-1. Everton found more space after Koscielny’s ejection. The shift to a back four also exposed Holding a bit more. In the 62nd, Valencia outmuscled Holding, who was booked for an obstruction on the Everton winger. Then Lukaku ghosted past Holding in the 83rd but headed Barry’s long ball wide.

Maybe the Gunners would have not struggled so badly if the referee had treated Williams with the same severity he showed to Koscielny. The Everton centerback received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 19th and should have been booked again in the 55th for tripping Welbeck. The referee kept the card in his pocket although it was clearly a cynical foul.

Paulista became a second choice after his poor performance against Tottenham. Yet, he stepped up following Koscielny’s sending-off. Paulista cut out a cross for Lukaku in the 30th, made a perfectly timed challenge on Mirallas in the 36th, killed a counterattack with another timely tackle in the 42nd and deflected out Lukaku’s shot on the stroke of halftime. However, his luck ran out in the 49th when he challenged Valencia, twisting his knee in the collision.

In less than 50 minutes, Paulista had a passing accuracy of 95.8%, made 1 interception and 3 blocks, and won 1 of 2 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He also won 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for any starting defender, according to the club’s website. Paulista was stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Mertesacker in the 53rd. The German defender was making his first appearance of the season and caused a bit of panic with a dodgy tackle on Valencia in the 55th. The referee turned down Everton’s penalty shout.

A more confident Bellerin

Cech made a couple of key saves to help Arsenal reach halftime with a 2-0 lead. He stopped a toe poke from Lukaku afer a goalmouth scramble in the 38th, turned around the post a long-range strike from Gueye in the 41st and tipped over the bar a looping header from Lukaku in the 43rd.

Wenger shifted to a back three last month because the midfield was not good enough to protect the defense, but also because the back four was not performing well: Bellerin and Mustafi both had a drop in form while Monreal struggled to stop crosses.

In the 3-4-3 formation, Bellerin proved he could be an attacking threat down the right flank. He doesn’t have Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dribbling skills but his deep runs and movement can create problems for any defense. The Spaniard finished the game with 1 goal, 2 key passes, 2 interceptions and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 1 tackle and 1 of 3 aerial duels. Bellerin has not yet recovered his defensive level from last season, but at least he’s playing with more confidence than 2 months ago. He only won 33% of his duels compared to 71% for Monreal.

Monreal is more comfortable with the new system because his positional play makes a bigger difference. He started Sunday’s game as a wingback before Koscielny’s ejection forced him to turn into a fullback. In a back four, Monreal’s relative lack of pace can be a liability to stop crosses. He was more busy defensively than Bellerin because Valencia proved a bigger threat than Mirallas. Monreal won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 1 block.

Ozil and Sanchez have a lot of freedom in the 3-4-3 system. Offensively, Sanchez enjoys cutting inside from the left flank while Ozil roams across the entire attacking line. Defensively, their lack of tactical discipline can put the wingbacks in trouble. It’s therefore not a surprise that fullbacks Holgate and Baines led Everton players with 3 key passes each.

Awkward in the final third

While his work-rate is still an issue, Ozil’s creativity is definitely an asset in the final third. The Germany playmaker created the opening goal in the eighth minute by squaring the ball back for Welbeck, who missed a tap-in from 3 yards. As the ball rolled under Welbeck’s studs, Bellerin rushed at the far post to score into an empty net. In stoppage time, Ozil produced some slick work on the left wing to set up Ramsey, who quickly turned to curl into the top corner for a 3-1 lead.

Ozil often showed off his dribbling skills when he played for Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen. Nowadays, he doesn’t dribble much, which is a shame, because I think he could still beat defenders. Ozil won a free kick in the 64th by completely wrongfooting Schneiderlin. He finished the game with 3 key passes, but also 0 tackle, 0 interception, and 0 aerial duel won, compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 1 aerial duel won for Sanchez, and 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 aerial duels won for Welbeck.

Despite his involvement in 2 goals, Welbeck was incredibly awkward in the final third. Bellerin combined with Sanchez in the second minute to make a cross for Welbeck, who missed the target with his volley from 4 yards. Somehow, Welbeck was credited with an assist for the opening goal because he slightly diverted Ozil’s cross. He claimed a second assist in the 27th for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A long-range effort from Sanchez hit Welbeck, who was played onside by two Toffees. Welbeck beat Robles to the loose ball to set up Sanchez for a tap-in.

Ramsey’s 1st goal of the season

Early in the second half, Welbeck capitalized on a mazy run from Sanchez to be clean through on goal but was denied by Robles. In stoppage time, Bellerin picked out Welbeck, who shot straight at the Everton goalkeeper. Besides the two assists, Welbeck impressed with a strong hold-up play. He won 83.3% of his duels according to the club’s website and had a passing accuracy of 96.4%. Both stats are quite unusual for a centerforward.

Sanchez has enjoyed his best season in the Premier League with 24 goals and 10 assists. He could have raised his tally to 25 goals but Robles punched away his angled free kick in the 32nd. The bad news is that the Chile striker picked up a hamstring injury later on and was replaced by Iwobi in the 67th. Iwobi had a couple of chances to make a good impression. He chested down a cross from Bellerin in the 85th only to have his shot blocked by Holgate. Three minutes later, Iwobi slalomed through the Everton defense but was denied by Robles.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey were ineffective defensively, combining to win 0 of 5 tackles and make 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. They might be the most complementary midfield pairing by default because of Cazorla’s absence, but that should give the manager some food for thought for next season, especially if Cazorla’s ankle injury doesn’t heal and if the Gunners switch back to a back four. Ramsey struggled in the first half before growing into the game. The Wales midfielder slipped a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Robles in the 75th. He then scored his first goal of the season with a curling shot in stoppage time. It might be a good omen for the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday.

Lack of choice at the back

The Blues are the favorites because they just won the league and have no injured player. On the other hand, the Gunners will miss some key players. Koscielny will serve his suspension, Paulista is unlikely to recover from his knee injury, and Sanchez, Mustafi, Gibbs and the Ox will have late fitness tests.

The back three is clearly the biggest problem for the manager. When everybody is fit, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are the obvious starters. Now Wenger only has the choice between Mertesacker, Holding, Monreal and maybe Mustafi for the three starting spots. Starting Mertesacker would be a huge gamble because he has only played one competitive game this season and his lack of pace would be a liability against Costa, Hazard, Willian and Pedro.

The beauty of football is that anything can happen in a game. The better team doesn’t always win. In the FA Cup semifinals, the Citizens played better than Arsenal but still ended up losing 2-1 in extra time. Winning the FA Cup wouldn’t make up for the disappointing Premier League campaign. But it would definitely bring a smile to the fans and the players after a rough season.

Southampton vs. Arsenal: Sanchez, Giroud keep Top 4 hopes alive

Arsenal defeated Southampton 2-0 on Wednesday to make up ground in the race for a Champions League spot. They still trail Manchester City and Liverpool by 3 and 4 points respectively, but if we take form into account, they could pip the Citizens or the Reds to the post. Since the shift to a 3-4-3 system, the Gunners have won 4 of their last 5 Premier League games, which is as good as Chelsea and Tottenham and better than Liverpool and Manchester City.

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made just one change to the side that defeated Manchester United 2-0 on Sunday with Mustafi replacing an injured Koscielny in the starting lineup. The Gunners proved toothless in the first half as they failed to test Forster. On the other hand, Southampton had two great chances to open the scoring. Both came from a poor execution of the offside trap. Tadic chested down a ball over the top in the 31st minute and was about to pull the trigger when Mustafi dispossessed him with a sliding tackle. The loose ball fell to Gabbiadini, who was denied by Cech. Then Gabbiadini beat the offside trap in the 37th to chase a long ball but could only muster a tame volley that did not trouble Cech. I think Mustafi’s first game in a back three is the main reason for that poor defensive coordination. Koscielny was the sweeper in the other games played with the 3-4-3 formation.

It took a moment of magic from Sanchez to give Arsenal the lead in the 60th. Sanchez took a pass from Ozil and sent two Saints to the floor with a quick turn before shooting past Forster with his weaker left foot. The Chile striker was pretty quiet in the first half and things didn’t look good in the second half when he was penalized in the 52nd for a foul throw. In fact, Sanchez didn’t produce his usual energetic performance: he made no key pass and no tackle. But his class was enough to break the deadlock.

The supersub strikes again

In his best season at the club, Sanchez has already racked up 20 goals and 9 assists in 35 Premier League appearances for an average of 0.83 goal or assist per game. Among the top scorers in the league, only Kane (1.00) and Lukaku (0.86) have a better average whereas Costa (0.79), Ibrahimovic (0.79) and Aguero (0.68) are a notch below Sanchez.

While Welbeck was clinical against Manchester United a few days ago, he proved inefficient at St Mary’s stadium with none of his 2 goal attempts on target. The England international was leading a promising counterattack in the 44th but was pulled back by Ward-Prowse, who got booked. I thought Welbeck should have done better on the stroke of halftime when Bellerin made a pinpoint cross. Welbeck made a good run toward the near post but completely missed his header.

Welbeck was replaced by Giroud in the 80th and the France striker lived up to his supersub status by doubling the lead four minutes later. Ramsey headed a Sanchez cross into the path of Giroud, who beat Forster with a downward header. The Saints’ defending was quite lax on that play as neither Ramsey nor Giroud was marked. Over the years, Ramsey and Giroud have developed a good understanding, which nearly paid off again in stoppage time. Sanchez found Giroud, who flicked the ball into Ramsey’s path but the Wales midfielder couldn’t control the ball with his first touch.

Overloading Arsenal’s right flank

In midfield, Xhaka acted as the stabilizer while Ramsey provided support to the forwards with his deep runs. Xhaka nearly scored with a long-range strike that Forster palmed away in the 67th. The Switzerland international led all players with 71 passes and won 50% of his duels compared to 12.5% for Ramsey, who had none of his 3 goal attempts on target. The Gunners showed plenty of commitment as they won 57.8% of their duels and made 6 more tackles than Southampton, according to the club’s website.

Tottenham and Manchester United identified the right flank as Arsenal’s main weakness because Ozil doesn’t really help Oxlade-Chamberlain. Unsurprisingly, the Saints tried the same trick by overloading our right flank. In the opening minutes, Tadic even left his wing to join Redmond and Bertrand in pressuring the Ox. Redmond created the first chance for the hosts in the third minute by setting up Davis, who fired over the bar from the edge of the box. The Southampton winger then cut inside the Ox in the eighth minute but had his shot deflected out. On a counterattack in the 18th, Gabbiadini drifted to our right flank and made a cross for Tadic that Cech intercepted.

Ozil led all players with 6 key passes, but his poor work-rate also explains why Bertrand led Southampton with 4 key passes. Ward-Prowse met a cross from Bertrand in the 69th but missed the target from 5 yards as Gibbs put him off. Ozil’s poor defensive contribution means that Ramsey sometimes had to help out the Ox or Bellerin along the touchline. In the closing minutes, the manager yanked off Ozil to send on Coquelin.

The Ox’s hamstring injury

The Ox had a busy time down the right flank. He got off to a good start by squaring the ball back to Ramsey, whose 12-yard volley sailed wide in the 15th. Defensively, the Ox put off Redmond, who couldn’t properly connect with a cross from Ward-Prowse in the 30th. Unfortunately, he picked up a hamstring injury in the 35th and was replaced by Bellerin. That’s really bad luck for the Ox, who is enjoying his best season at the club.

Bellerin had a decent game with 2 key passes, including a cross for Ramsey, whose volley hit Welbeck before bouncing out of play in the 51st. The Spaniard is still not performing at his level of last season though. He cheaply gave the ball away in the 46th but Davis missed the target with his long-range effort. Is it a lack of confidence because of the team’s results and his demotion? Or is it a lack of focus because of transfer rumors?

At the back, Cech prevented Southampton from taking the lead with a couple of fine saves in the first half. He tipped a 30-yard strike from Redmond over the bar in the 42nd. In his return from injury, Mustafi looked sharp if we except the offside issues. He led Arsenal defenders by winning 81.8% of his duels and 4 of 5 tackles according to the club’s website. The Germany international was especially dominant in the air against Gabbiadini.

I didn’t expect the Gunners to come away with three points since they have a poor record at St Mary’s stadium. That could be a good omen for the run-in as they have to travel to Stoke on Saturday. Arsenal last won at the Britannia stadium in 2010. A loss or even a draw would end any hope of a Top 4 finish.

 

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Gunners to finish behind Spurs for 1st time under Wenger

The Gunners lost 2-0 at White Hart Lane on Sunday to fall 17 points behind Tottenham in the Premier League. The result means that Spurs will finish above Arsenal for the first time since 1995. The gap in the standings is embarrassing but reflects the gulf in class between the two teams.

Tottenham vs. Arsenal

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

Much of the talk before the game was about a power shift in North London. Wenger said it would take Spurs more than a season to undo the 20 consecutive celebrations of St Totteringham’s Day under his tenure. The trouble is that Arsenal’s results in the North London derby have been poor since Pochettino became the Tottenham manager: 2 losses and 4 draws in 6 Premier League games.

What really hurts is that Spurs are getting better results despite having a smaller payroll and spending less money in the transfer market. Pochettino could almost be the poster boy for the football version of Moneyball. By contrast, the Gunners have spent a lot of money in the past couple of years on average players. Tottenham fans were so happy about Arsenal’s bad business that they even sang: “Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay.”

Wenger could still survive when competing against managers like Rodgers, Moyes, Van Gaal, Sherwood, Villas-Boas and Pellegrini. But the situation has dramatically changed. The new generation of managers (Klopp, Pochettino, Conte, Guardiola) are simply better. Wenger has contributed to the success of the Premier League with his rivalry against Ferguson, Mourinho and Benitez. Ironically, this success has led to Wenger’s slow demise by attracting the best managers and turning the Premier League into a world championship of managers.

It’s the players, not the system

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that edged Leicester 1-0 last week with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud replacing Bellerin, Coquelin and Walcott in the starting lineup. The French manager relied again on the 3-4-3 formation that produced wins over Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Leicester.

Sunday’s game showed that whatever system is used, the result still depends on individual performances. Giroud lacked support against Manchester City and the Gunners lacked penetration against Leicester. Both issues became obvious against a Tottenham side that started its second-choice fullbacks in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Spurs outplayed Arsenal with 11 shots on target to 4. They also outran the Gunners with a combined 117 kilometers to 107. And they proved stronger in challenges, winning 52.5% of the duels and making 8 interceptions to 5, according to the club’s website.

Xhaka struggled in midfield, winning only 16.7% of his duels compared to 41.7% for Wanyama and 50% for Ramsey and Dier. Once linked with a move to Arsenal, Wanyama displayed a tremendous work-rate, making as many tackles (6) as Ramsey and Xhaka combined, and more interceptions (3), blocks (3) and dribbles (4) than the two Gunners combined, according to Squawka.

The Gunners’ defending was not good enough as they failed to cut the supply lines to Kane, who had 5 of 7 shots on target. Some fine saves from Cech prevented Tottenham from winning by a bigger margin. The Czech goalkeeper saved an angled strike from Kane in the opening minute, tipped a long-range effort from Wanyama over the bar in the 48th, turned around the post curling shots from Vertonghen in the 45th and 68th, and denied Kane in the 77th.

Struggling to defend set pieces

Both teams struggled to keep hold of the ball in the first half. Arsenal tested Lloris only once with a curling shot from Ramsey in the 38th while Spurs could have reached halftime with a 2-0 lead if they had converted 2 big chances. Tottenham stepped on the accelerator in the beginning of the second half and the Gunners simply couldn’t match their intensity. The opening goal came from a throw-in. Eriksen rounded Koscielny in the 55th but was denied by Cech. Alli beat Gibbs and Xhaka to the rebound to flick into an empty net. Oxlade-Chamberlain could have cleared the ball with his left foot but missed his clearance with his right one.

If you remember the 1-0 win over the Foxes, 3 Leicester chances also came from a throw-in. The Gunners are really bad at defending set pieces, whether it’s corners, free kicks or throw-ins. A lack of defensive awareness combined with an inability to win key duels make them vulnerable in their own area. Arsenal switched off on a short corner in the 49th, allowing Son to make a run in behind Sanchez and fire into the side-netting. Then Alderweireld beat Koscielny to the ball in the 78th to head a corner that Cech parried. Alderweireld also held off Paulista in the seventh minute to head a corner over the bar.

Spurs capitalized on some poor decision-making from Paulista to double the lead in the 57th. Kane was running away from goal, yet Paulista tried to knock the ball away and ended up kicking Kane’s foot. The England striker converted the subsequent penalty to make it 2-0.

Ozil’s poor work-rate

Paulista performed poorly on Sunday, winning none of the 4 tackles he made, compared to 2 of 3 for Koscielny and 3 of 8 for Monreal, according to Squawka. The Brazilian defender’s poor passing skills were also exposed by Tottenham’s pressing game. His passing accuracy dropped to 65% compared to 95% for Koscielny and 89% for Monreal, according to whoscored.com.

A Paulista turnover in the 25th led to a dangerous counterattack. Son dribbled past the Ox to have a shot deflected by Koscielny. Eriksen pounced on the loose ball but somehow clipped the bar from 7 yards. In the 51st, Kane intercepted a sloppy pass from Paulista to hit a diagonal drive that didn’t trouble Cech. Paulista got booked in the 70th for a poor challenge on Alli before Bellerin replaced him in the 75th.

The Ox is usually a threat down the right flank, but Ozil’s poor work-rate gave Davies plenty of room to bomb forward. That forced the Ox to deal with both Davies and Son along the touchline. The Ox created no chance and made only one dribbling attempt because he was too busy defensively, winning 3 of 5 tackles and making 9 blocks, the most for any player according to Squawka. The England international made a good recovery to deflect Davies’ cross into the side-netting in the 18th and then put off Alli, who headed wide with the goal at his mercy in the 22nd. The Ox shifted to a central midfield position when Welbeck replaced Xhaka in the 65th.

A six-pointer against United

Arsenal’s front three proved toothless against the tightest defense in the league. Spurs have only conceded 22 goals from 34 league games compared to 42 goals from 33 games for the Gunners. Sanchez worked harder than Ozil, mustering 4 shots, creating 2 chances, winning 3 of 4 tackles, having 4 successful dribbles out of 6, and making 1 interception while Ozil won just 1 of 2 tackles and had no shot, no key pass, no dribbling attempt and no interception. Does anybody still want to pay Ozil £200,000 a week?

Up front, Giroud proved a liability to put pressure on Tottenham’s high defensive line. His lack of pace means he can’t make runs in behind. The Frenchman is more efficient against a defense sitting deep and when the Gunners dominate possession. Welbeck would have been a better option against mobile opponents.

A Top 4 finish is still possible mathematically but very difficult now that the Gunners trail Manchester City and United by 6 and 5 points respectively. Sunday’s game against the Red Devils is definitely a six-pointer. A loss or even a draw would virtually knock Arsenal out of the race for a Champions League spot. It would also confirm their inability to beat the big teams.

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.