Tag Archives: Cech

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: More pressure on Emery after 3-2 loss

It looks like the summer tour has been of no use to Emery because the Spanish manager still has no idea what his best team is. Time is running out after Saturday’s 3-2 loss at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal hired Emery in May while Chelsea only appointed Sarri last month. Yet, Sarri has adapted more quickly to the Premier League than Emery as the Blues have 6 points from their first two games compared to zero for the Gunners.

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

Emery relied on a 4-2-3-1 formation again with Xhaka and Guendouzi in central midfield, Ozil in the hole, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings and Aubameyang up front. I thought the team selection was wrong. That’s the kind of starting lineup you might use in a home game against a weak side but definitely not against the Blues, who enjoyed 62% of ball possession. Although Xhaka and Guendouzi failed to protect the defense against Manchester City, Emery kept persisting with that flawed partnership. And picking 3 attacking midfielders, whose work-rate is questionable, also hurt Emery’s pressing plan.

In the first half, the Arsenal defense was all over the place. There was no coordination in the high press. Chelsea often put the visitors in trouble with balls over the top because the Gunners played a very high defensive line without closing down the ball holder. That’s exactly what happened with the first two goals. Arsenal also struggled again to play the ball out from the back. Like in the summer friendly, the Blues’ high press proved more efficient and they often won the ball back inside Arsenal’s half. What saved the Gunners from a complete disaster was Chelsea’s inability to defend crosses. Arsenal could have led by a couple of goals at halftime but they were let down by some really poor finishing.

The second half was pretty much one-way traffic with the Arsenal defense under siege. The Gunners switched back to the Wenger way with a low defensive line as the first half clearly exposed Sokratis’ lack of pace. Fans sometimes wonder why Arsenal didn’t implement a pressing game under Wenger. Saturday’s game showed why: the French manager had the wrong players for such a tactical ploy.

Better wing play

The Gunners were unlucky to face such a brutal Premier League schedule but at least they learned a lot from those first two games. While Ozil and Mkhitaryan too often drifted inside against City, the Gunners improved their wing play against the Blues as Iwobi and Mkhitaryan stretched the Chelsea defense by staying wide. The Gunners also improved their final ball, which was poor against City. They created some big chances against Chelsea because of the quality of their crossing.

One area that Emery must get right for the next game is the midfield. Jorginho had too much time to release Alonso down our right flank in the ninth minute. Pedro converted Alonso’s cross to open the scoring. If you look at the screen capture below, you will see several mistakes on that play. First, Willian pulled Bellerin out of position, creating space for Alonso to run into. Bellerin shouldn’t be wandering into Chelsea’s half, it should have been Xhaka’s job to track Willian in that part of the pitch. Second, Ozil failed to close down Jorginho when he took Willian’s pass. Third, Mkhitaryan failed to mark Alonso down the right flank. And fourth, the high defensive line exposed Sokratis’ lack of pace. The Greek centerback was 5 yards behind Pedro when Alonso made his cross.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M09ed Willian pulls Bellerin out of position before slipping the ball to Jorginho. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

The second goal looked similar. Azpilicueta hit a ball over the top for Morata, who toyed with Mustafi before beating Cech with a low shot in the 20th. First, Iwobi made no effort to close down Azpilicueta. And second, it made no sense for the Arsenal defense to play an offside trap on the halfway line for the simple reason that a player in his own half is never in an offside position. From the moment Morata walked back into his own half, Sokratis or Mustafi should have decided to drop off.

Ozil’s poor work-rate

Emery must have a serious chat with Ozil because his work-rate is not good enough. Mendy had too much freedom a week ago because Ozil didn’t close down the City leftback. Emery thought he could solve the problem by moving Ozil to the No. 10 position against the Blues but the Spanish manager made the problem worse. Jorginho capitalized on Ozil’s laziness to dictate play and lead all players with 99 passes. Besides the opening goal, Jorginho created chances by sending balls over the top to Barkley in the sixth minute and to Kante in the 13th.

In 67 minutes, Ozil won 0 tackle and made 0 interception and just 2 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website. By contrast, Barkley who played in a similar position with Chelsea won 0 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries in 60 minutes. It’s quite surprising Emery didn’t realize that Ozil is a defensive liability. When he was the PSG manager, Emery could see how Verratti and Di Maria took advantage of Ozil’s poor work-rate to drop back and send balls over the top in the 2016 Champions League games between Arsenal and the French club.

Ozil’s offensive contribution was just as poor as his defensive work. He made 0 key pass and had 0 shot on target. Monreal gave him a chance to shine in the eighth minute but Ozil’s volley sailed wide of the far post. Ozil then failed to anticipate a teasing cross from Aubameyang in the 47th. Emery replaced Ozil with Ramsey in the 67th and the Wales midfielder proved a greater goal threat in his cameo. Ramsey tested Kepa with a low strike in the 77th before firing a half-volley over the bar in the 90th.

Emery has a big problem on the right wing because Ozil couldn’t contain Mendy a week ago and Mkhitaryan struggled badly against Alonso on Saturday. Obviously, you don’t face leftbacks as good as Mendy and Alonso every weekend but you can bet that other Premier League teams have spotted that chink in the Arsenal armor.

The understanding between Mkhitaryan and Iwobi

Mkhitaryan worked harder than Ozil as he made 2 interceptions and 9 recoveries. He was arguably Arsenal’s best player, finishing the game with 1 goal and 1 assist and leading all players with 5 key passes. The Armenia international found the net in the 37th by pouncing on a loose ball to fire into the bottom corner from 18 yards. Then Mkhitaryan set up Iwobi for the equalizer with a low cross in the 41st. Interestingly, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan seemed to strike an understanding in that game. Iwobi cut the ball back for Mkhitaryan, who blazed over the bar from 9 yards in the 32nd. They swapped roles on the stroke of halftime as Iwobi met a low cross from Mkhitaryan only to miss the target from 12 yards. If Emery had to choose between Ozil and Mkhitaryan, the latter made a strong case that it should be him.

Iwobi’s performance was a mixed bag. On the bright side, he showed end product with 1 goal and 2 key passes. Iwobi picked out an unmarked Aubameyang, who shot wide from 8 yards in the 44th. I believe he still needs to improve his work-rate and cut his turnovers to become a solid starter. The Nigeria international won no tackle and made just 1 interception and 4 recoveries. He also led all players with 6 turnovers and had a passing accuracy dipping to 56%, the lowest percentage for any player according to whoscored.com.

In central midfield, Guendouzi performed better than against City. He not only cut some mistakes out of his game but also won 2 of 4 tackles and 82% of his duels, had a passing accuracy of 94%, and made 4 interceptions, 1 block and 8 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Those are much better stats than Xhaka, who won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 interception and 1 recovery in the first half. Guendouzi showed an eye for a pass in the 19th by releasing Bellerin down the right flank. The Spaniard made a low cross for an unmarked Aubameyang, who fired over the bar from 8 yards with the goal at his mercy.

Guendouzi as an all-rounder

Obviously, Guendouzi still has a lot of room for improvement, but I can see why Emery started the French teenager. If you love total football and watch the Liverpool midfield or the City midfield, you would think that Guendouzi could make the cut as an all-rounder. He made a timely tackle on Hazard as the last defender in the 83rd and took his chance in the 43rd with a long-range strike that Kepa easily saved. Like Pires some 18 years ago, Guendouzi will have to toughen up a bit. Jorginho brushed him off the ball in the fourth minute to create a half-chance for Pedro.

It’s just a question of weeks before Emery drops Xhaka from the starting lineup because he is not a good fit for the manager’s tactics. Xhaka simply lacks the mobility and pace to press or show for the ball when the team tries to play out from the back. The Switzerland international gave the ball away in the 13th and was booked in the 27th for a late tackle on Pedro. Xhaka was replaced at halftime by Torreira, who seemed to lack match sharpness. Torreira was dispossessed by Pedro on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 52nd and received a yellow card in the 71st for a foul on Kovacic. The Uruguay midfielder was also guilty on the last goal as he failed to track Alonso in the 81st.

Chelsea’s winning goal started with a turnover from Lacazette, who replaced Iwobi in the 75th. Lacazette attempted a risky back pass toward Torreira. Hazard intercepted the ball and the play developed on our right flank where Hazard dribbled past Lacazette to square the ball back for Alonso,who shot past Cech. Lacazette got some stick for his turnover but Bellerin failed to stop Hazard’s cross and Torreira let Alonso run past him.

If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Lacazette only had one safe passing option: Aubameyang. But Lacazette panicked because he felt Luiz’s presence behind him. Lacazette is simply not comfortable playing with his back to goal. He played as a centerforward for Lyon but he’s still not used to the physicality of the Premier League. I don’t understand why Wenger and Emery both played Aubameyang on the left wing and Lacazette up front when Aubameyang is a more natural choice for the centerforward position. Lacazette should be playing on the right wing or as a second striker.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M80ed Lacazette ignores his best passing option, Aubameyang. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Aubameyang could have notched a hat trick with better finishing. Unmarked, he missed the target from 8 yards in the 19th and 44th. He also chased a long ball from Mustafi in the 17th to fire a low effort straight at Kepa. Despite that poor performance, Aubameyang should still retain his starting spot for the next game because he’s more clinical than Welbeck and has more pace than Lacazette.

Lack of leadership

It’s hard to find any positive at the back. Bellerin made the penultimate pass for the equalizer but he’s still playing too much like a wingback. He needs to improve his positional play and find the right balance between attack and defense. Hazard too easily rounded him in the 70th. Bellerin also let his teammates down in the 78th. The Spaniard casually jogged back, letting Mkhitaryan and Ramsey deal with Pedro and Alonso on the right flank. Pedro made a cross for Kante, who headed over the bar.

Monreal initiated Arsenal’s first goal by dispossessing Willian but Saturday’s game also confirmed that he has lost a step. In the 14th, Monreal failed to stay with Pedro, who chased a ball over the top from Willian. Then Pedro easily turned Monreal in the 55th before Barkley rounded Monreal in the 57th to test Cech with a low strike.

Mustafi led Arsenal players with 3 fouls. He got booked in the 77th for fouling Hazard from behind. Mustafi is not a world-class defender like Koscielny and simply lacks the leadership to marshal the back four. Playing a high defensive line will be an issue for Emery because Sokratis has no recovery pace while Mustafi’s reading of the game can be poor.

The Gunners threw caution to the wind in the closing minutes. Cech saved them from an embarrassing scoreline by making a couple of fine saves, parrying an angled shot from Hazard in the 86th and denying Giroud in the 87th and in stoppage time. Cech occasionally played out from the back, but when he felt that it was too risky, he opted for a long kick.

This is a transition season for Arsenal. But the club can’t afford a poor result against West Ham on Saturday. Even Manchester United under Moyes never lost three straight games in the Premier League. And if the Gunners were to fall in the relegation zone, that would be the start of a crisis. In any club, most fans call for the sack of the manager when their team stays in the drop zone for weeks.

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Arsenal vs. Manchester City: Gunners suffer rough start to the season

Emery has become Arsenal’s new manager but this is not his team yet. Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Manchester City looked pretty much like the embarrassing defeats of last season under Wenger. Obviously, it will take more than a season for the Gunners to play the way Emery wants them to.

Arsenal vs. Manchester CityPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

As a rule of thumb, I consider that a manager is entirely responsible for his team only when he has changed more than half of the players in his predecessor’s favorite starting lineup. See Liverpool’s starting XI under Rodgers and how it looks now under Klopp. Assuming every player was fit, Wenger would usually start Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette. On Sunday, Emery opened the season with Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Aubameyang. That’s 3 changes to Wenger’s best starting lineup. We can safely assume that Emery would have made only 1 change if Monreal and Koscielny had been available.

Fans already got a glimpse in the summer friendlies of what Emery wanted to change at the club: playing the ball out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. Against City, Cech took more passes than he did under Wenger because Emery tends to see the goalkeeper as a sweeper too. Unfortunately, Cech didn’t really feel comfortable in that role.

Cech nearly scored an own goal in the 22nd minute while attempting a first-time pass to Mustafi. Then he made a risky pass to Guendouzi that was nearly intercepted in the 39th. Tired of the drama, Cech finally opted for a long punt in the 42nd, drawing cheers from the crowd. I’m afraid Cech is not the right goalie to play out from the back. If Emery wants to stick with that idea, then he should replace Cech with Leno just like Pep ditched Hart to sign Ederson.

Choosing the right players for a high press

Implementing a pressing game is still a work in progress. Arsenal enjoyed mixed results against the Citizens. It wasn’t a systematic high press like the one performed by Liverpool under Klopp. The Gunners seemed to choose their moments and often preferred to wait inside their own half. The first high press attempt in the 10th minute led to nothing. Two attempts led to dangerous fast breaks for City, but Aguero’s final ball was blocked in the 18th while Xhaka cleared Sterling’s cross in the 36th. On the bright side, two other attempts led to half-chances for Arsenal but Ramsey received the ball in an offside position in the 45th and Mkhitaryan shot wide on the stroke of halftime after Mendy put him off.

Emery must ask himself if he chose the right players to implement a successful pressing game. You need players who are smart enough to read the game, mobile enough to cut the passing channels, strong enough to make interceptions or win duels, and industrious enough to repeat such a tiring task.

The Citizens love dominating ball possession. It was therefore no surprise to see them enjoy 58% of possession. The real surprise was Emery’s tactical setup with Xhaka, Guendouzi and Ramsey in midfield. You usually play with 2 deep-lying playmakers like Xhaka and Guendouzi when you intend to control the game. That was obviously the wrong option because City dictated play while Xhaka and Guendouzi failed to protect the defense. Emery implicitly acknowledged his mistake by yanking off Xhaka in the 70th to send on Torreira.

The opening goal in the 14th highlighted the poor defensive work from Xhaka and Guendouzi. Sterling cut inside Bellerin and Guendouzi to curl into the the far corner. Xhaka was late to make the block on that play. Guendouzi’s overall performance was a mixed bag. He won 4 tackles and made 4 interceptions, compared to 1 tackle and 0 interception for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The French teenager also led Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, compared to 1 for Xhaka.

Coordinating a recruitment strategy

Guendouzi didn’t look out of his depth, but his inexperience means that he will make mistakes this season. He gave the ball away in the 29th, dived in and fouled Sterling in the 55th, and allowed Aguero to be clean through on goal after misjudging the flight of the ball in the 63rd.

On the other hand, Xhaka had no excuse for his errors. Despite starting his third season in the Premier League, Xhaka keeps playing like a rookie. He made a sloppy pass in the seventh minute, was dispossessed by Gundogan in the 27th, and made a cynical foul on Aguero after being pulled out of position in the 52nd. Xhaka is definitely not a good fit for Emery’s pressing game.

Playing in the role of a free-roaming midfielder like he does for Wales, Ramsey was ineffective in great part because his strength mostly lies in the late runs he makes inside the box when the Gunners dominate possession. Running after the ball, Ramsey seemed in charge of leading the high press and there were times when he wasn’t on the same wavelength as his teammates. In the transition game, Ramsey tried to create space with his runs or acted as a water-carrier by finding Ozil in the 33rd and Mkhitaryan on the stroke of halftime.

At the back, Mustafi and Bellerin had a decent game. Mustafi won 4 tackles and made 3 interceptions, compared to 1 tackle and 0 interception for Sokratis, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis is an old-fashioned centerback with limited ball-playing abilities. You kind of wonder whether there was any coordination between Emery, Mislintat, Sanllehi and Gazidis in the recruiting process because Sokratis does not have the profile of a centerback playing Emery’s brand of football. His sluggishness is also a concern. Sokratis was booked in the 27th for a late tackle on Aguero.

A too predictable offense

The Gunners have an injury crisis at leftback. Maitland, who deputized for Monreal and Kolasinac, had a rough time down the left flank. Mahrez in the 13th and Sterling in the 25th got the better of Maitland-Niles. The academy player was so busy defensively that he rarely charged forward. One of his few offensive contributions was a crossfield pass for Bellerin, who beat Mendy only to shoot straight at Ederson in the 21st. Maitland-Niles’ day was cut short by a leg tangle with Walker and an awkward fall in the 30th. He got back on his feet after a couple of minutes but had to be replaced by Lichtsteiner in the 35th.

In his Premier League debut, Lichtsteiner used his experience to cope with Mahrez’s trickery. Lichtsteiner fouled Mahrez in the 39th and then backed down in a 1v1 situation in the 42nd when the Algeria international curled a shot wide of the far post. However, one lapse of concentration cost his team a goal in the 64th. Lichtsteiner failed to track Bernardo, who connected with Mendy’s low cross to fire into the top corner.

The quality of Arsenal’s passing game deteriorated in Wenger’s last season at the club. One reason was the poor recruitment, another was the tactical answers found by the other Premier League sides. Emery started Ozil and Mkhitaryan as wide players. Unfortunately, his plan was too predictable and City easily coped with Arsenal’s attacking threat. The Gunners produced no through ball and were forced by City’s compact shape to resort to long balls.

Aubameyang was deprived of service because the final ball was often poor. Xhaka in the 16th, Mkhitaryan in the 24th and Ozil in the 69th all overhit their final ball for the Gabon striker. Aubameyang finally collected a decent ball over the top from Torreira to chip Ederson in the 79th but his goal was disallowed for an offside position.

Finding the best lineup for the Chelsea game

Both Ozil and Mkhitaryan had a poor game. Ozil finished the game with 5 turnovers and wasted 2 scoring chances with a miskick in the 80th and a heavy touch in the 84th. Mkhitaryan dallied on the ball and couldn’t get his shot away in the 33rd. In stoppage time, Mkhitaryan intercepted a sloppy pass from Ederson, but his final ball for Lacazette was so poor that the France international couldn’t even catch the frame.

The offense looked a bit more lively when Lacazette replaced Ramsey in the 54th. Lacazette added more directness and aggression to the team. His best chance came in the 56th when he took a pass from Aubameyang and lifted the ball to set up a half-volley that sailed wide. Emery will have to think about the work-rate of his wide players. Walker and Mendy did a lot of damage down the flanks. In the eighth minute, Mkhitaryan failed to track a run from Walker, whose cross was cut out by Cech. In the 64th, Bellerin was left in a 1v2 situation with Mendy and Sterling because neither Ozil nor Mkhitaryan tracked the City leftback.

Emery does not have much time to find his best starting XI because the Gunners visit Chelsea on Saturday. If the Spanish manager wants to continue with a high press, then he must switch to an inverted pyramid midfield with Torreira in the No. 6 role, Ramsey on the right and a third player on the left. Guendouzi, Xhaka, Elneny and Maitland-Niles are the candidates for that third spot in midfield and they all have flaws: Maitland-Niles and Guendouzi are inexperienced, Xhaka lacks the mobility for a high press, and Elneny struggles in duels.

Passing vs. dribbling

More aggression and penetration will also be needed in the front three. The Gunners are too predictable with Ozil and Mkhitaryan as wide players. Under Wenger, both would drift inside and the fullbacks would roam forward like wingbacks to provide the width. That configuration is not possible under Emery because of the flatter back four. So it has to be either Ozil or Mkhitaryan, but not both.

Lacazette, Nelson or Welbeck should play on one of the wings because they could stretch play, dribble past defenders and work their socks off to win the ball back. Although De Bruyne and Sane started on the bench, it was quite telling that City finished the game with 11 successful dribbles to 6 for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. When teams are too well organized, you can’t always crack a defense with a pass, you also need some dribbling skills. That’s why the Reds have Salah and Mane while the Blues can rely on Hazard and Willian. Will Emery be more pragmatic than Wenger?

 

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Europe

The summer tour has been positive overall with 2 wins and 2 draws, but it is still difficult to see Emery’s impact on the Arsenal team. The Gunners drew 1-1 with Chelsea on Wednesday before defeating Lazio 2-0 on Saturday.

2018 European TourPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Both games raised concerns about the Arsenal defense. Chelsea looked sharper and could have put the game to bed in the first half while Lazio played at a slower tempo and couldn’t find the net despite torturing the Gunners with crosses.

  1. Implementing the pressing game

Pressing is a defensive tool to stop counterattacks but it’s also an attacking tool to create chances. Chelsea and Arsenal both tried to press high up the pitch when they lost possession. The Gunners still have a long way to go. The Blues looked better drilled, forcing turnovers in dangerous areas, while Arsenal’s pressing never really troubled Chelsea.

  1. Same old defensive frailties

The last years of Wenger’s tenure were defined by recurrent defensive issues: the Gunners often looked vulnerable on set pieces and crosses as well as on the fast break. The Blues took advantage of some poor defensive organization to open the scoring in the fifth minute. Rudiger lost Smith-Rowe to head in Fabregas’ corner. A rookie shouldn’t be marking one of Chelsea’s main aerial threats. The problem wasn’t fixed at halftime as Rudiger toyed again with Smith-Rowe in the 57th only to head a corner wide.

The Blues also did a lot of damage on the fast break. Fabregas wasted a counterattack in the 10th by slipping the ball to an offside Morata. Then Hudson-Odoi dispossessed Elneny in the 24th to feed Morata, who was denied by Cech. Three days later, the Lazio game exposed Arsenal’s poor job in stopping dangerous crosses. Yet, Caicedo in the 16th, Lulic in the 37th and Parolo in the 35th and 49th all missed the target.

This is not Emery’s team yet. Fans will need to show a bit of patience for what is mostly a transition season. But if those defensive issues are not corrected by the end of the season, then the club may not have hired the right manager.

  1. The back four is a worry

The Gunners have a problem at leftback. Kolasinac picked up a knee injury against Chelsea and will be sidelined for 2 months, while Monreal didn’t play in any summer friendly and currently has a knee problem preventing him from training with the team. Wenger got some stick last season for playing Maitland-Niles in the leftback position but the irony is that Emery did the same thing against Lazio.

At rightback, Hudson-Odoi had Bellerin in his pocket and even won a penalty when the Spaniard tripped him in the 14th. Bellerin is expected to get a bit of competition from Lichtsteiner, who made his Arsenal debut on Saturday and had a more comfortable evening against Lazio veteran Lulic. There are big question marks about Lichtsteiner’s ability to adapt to the pace of English football. Lichtsteiner performed well with Juventus, but Serie A games don’t really match the intensity of the Premier League.

Sokratis and Mustafi started at centerback against Chelsea and looked vulnerable when Arsenal played a high defensive line. The Blues capitalized on Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace to send balls over the top. Hudson-Odoi collected a long ball from Jorginho in the 42nd but had his effort cleared off the line by Mustafi.

If Sokratis and Mustafi perform poorly or get injured, the back-up options are very limited. Koscielny will miss the first half of the season. That means Holding, Chambers or Mavropanos would have to step up. Chambers was so slow in the 26th that Lulic was able to charge down his clearance. Lulic got again the better of Chambers, who made a cynical foul on the Lazio veteran in the 54th. Meanwhile, Holding put himself in trouble with some poor decision-making, attempting a risky pass that was intercepted in the 31st and losing possession after dribbling inside his own half in the 77th.

  1. The Gunners need more creativity

Over the past 12 months, the club has lost a lot of creativity with the departures of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanchez, Cazorla and Wilshere. The responsibility for creating chances now rests on the shoulders of Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. Against Chelsea, Mkhitaryan had an off day. The Gunners played better when Nelson replaced Mkhitaryan in the 72nd. The academy player made a cross that Lacazette converted in stoppage time to force a penalty shootout. Nelson also opened the scoring against Lazio, tapping home a rebound in the 18th after Iwobi struck the post with a low diagonal strike.

At 18, Nelson is a very promising youngster. He can deliver the final ball and dribble past defenders. But he is unlikely to perform consistently in the Premier League. If you add Iwobi’s own inconsistency issues, that means Arsenal can only rely on Ozil and Mkhitaryan for a significant number of assists this season. Maybe the Gunners could sign another creative midfielder this summer if they manage to offload for a good fee the players that Emery does not want.

  1. The Arsenal midfield is too soft

Elneny, Guendouzi and Smith-Rowe started in midfield against Chelsea. That trio would badly struggle against any decent Premier League side. It’s true that Torreira, Xhaka and Ramsey are more likely to be the starters in a three-man midfield. But I can’t help thinking that Wilshere, Cazorla and the Ox were better options than Elneny, Guendouzi and Smith-Rowe.

There’s no doubt that Guendouzi has great potential as a deep-lying playmaker, but the brutal contrast with Jorginho’s flawless performance on Wednesday showed the gap between those 2 players. Guendouzi is simply too casual for such a key position. He put his team in trouble against Atletico by dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area.

You would have thought that Guendouzi learned his lesson, but he didn’t. The French teenager was reckless against Chelsea, attempting again to dribble on the edge of the Arsenal box. Guendouzi was lucky to draw a foul in the 20th, he nearly lost possession in the 28th, and he was dispossessed in the 33rd as the Blues hit Arsenal on the fast break. As long as Guendouzi doesn’t cut those mistakes out of his game, it would be foolish to start him in a Premier League game.

Torreira finally made his Arsenal debut on Saturday. He’s definitely the kind of defensive midfielder that the club has been missing since Gilberto Silva. His strong tactical discipline and his sound positional play make him a better fit for the No. 6 role than Xhaka.

It was quite intriguing to see Torreira play with Xhaka in a 4-4-2 formation against Lazio. Maybe Emery will use that system if Ramsey is still injured or leaves the club. Ramsey picked up a calf strain while warming up for the Chelsea game and was replaced by Smith-Rowe in the starting lineup. Chelsea and Liverpool seem both interested in the Wales midfielder, who only has a year left on his contract. The Blues don’t have that type of player in their squad while Ramsey would be a perfect fit for Liverpool’s football style.

  1. How much gas does Cech still have left in the tank?

At 36, Cech is in the twilight of his career. Past the age of 35, some goalkeepers can still perform at the top level (Zoff, Van der Sar, Buffon), while others tend to decline sharply (Taffarel, Casillas). Cech was the player who made the most errors leading to a goal in the Premier League last season. Can he catch a second wind?

His performance against Chelsea seems to suggest that Cech may still have one season left at the top. He saved Morata’s tame penalty in the 15th and helped Arsenal stay in the game with a couple more outstanding saves. In the penalty shootout, Cech stopped Loftus-Cheek’s spot kick before Iwobi converted the last kick of the game.

Leicester vs. Arsenal: Mavropanos learns the hard way in 3-1 loss

At some stage, it had to happen. Mavropanos performed well against Manchester United and Burnley, but on Wednesday he paid a hefty price for his first glaring mistake in an Arsenal shirt. The 3-1 loss at Leicester City was a reminder that the 20-year-old defender still has a lot to learn.

Leicester vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made 4 changes to the side that routed Burnley 5-0 last weekend with Holding, Maitland-Niles, Ramsey and Welbeck replacing Chambers, Bellerin, Wilshere and Lacazette in the starting lineup. Because it was the third game in a 7-day span, it made sense to rotate and inject some freshness into the team. Bellerin, Monreal, Chambers, Wilshere and Lacazette were given the day off while the manager kept experimenting at the back by leaving Mustafi on the bench and starting Mavropanos alongside Holding in the heart of the defense.

Despite Mavropanos’ red card in the 15th minute, the Gunners still finished with 60% of ball possession in a 4-4-1 system with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi on the wings and Aubameyang on his own up front. Leicester capitalized on its numerical superiority to find more space on the fast break and could have won by a bigger margin if Cech had not pulled off some fine saves.

Mavropanos showed good composure and smart decision-making in his 2 previous appearances, but there were already signs that he could struggle in key duels: Fellaini outjumped Mavropanos to head the ball onto the post at Old Trafford while Vokes also got the better of the Greek youngster to head a cross straight at Cech in the Burnley game.

The Foxes’ opening goal in the 14th came from a corner that Mavropanos poorly cleared. The ball fell to Fuchs, who hoisted it into the box. At the far post, Diabate beat Maitland-Niles to the ball to knock it down for Iheanacho, who volleyed home. Mavropanos was also guilty of ball-watching on that play as he left Iheanacho unmarked.

An error-prone defense

A minute later, Mavropanos took a pass from Maitland-Niles and dallied on the ball instead of passing it to Holding. By the time Mavropanos made up his mind, it was already too late as Iheanacho charged down his clearance. Realizing that Iheanacho would be clean through on goal, Mavropanos brought down the Leicester forward and got sent off.

Wenger complained about the call after the game but Mavropanos was the last defender and Holding, positioned on the right flank, would have been unlikely to catch Iheanacho. An aggravating factor for the referee was Mavropanos’ cynical body-check. From the moment Iheanacho sprinted toward him, the alarm bell should have been ringing loudly in Mavropanos’ head. Now Mavropanos knows that he has less time on the ball in England than in the Greek league.

Spectators will only remember Mavropanos’ ejection, but Mustafi and Holding made the same mistakes as Mavropanos. As the last defender, Holding poorly controlled a backpass from Maitland-Niles in the 61st and was dispossessed by Iheanacho. Holding was more lucky than Mavropanos as the loose ball fell into the path of Vardy, giving the Arsenal defense enough time to regroup.

Mustafi came off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 19th. He’s definitely more experienced than Mavropanos or Holding. Yet, he panicked inside the Arsenal area in the 74th. Instead of clearing a teasing cross high into the air, Mustafi played the ball back to Gray, who won a penalty after Mkhitaryan seemed to trip him. Vardy converted the spot kick to make it 2-1. I’ve watched several replays and it’s hard to know whether there was enough contact for Gray to fall down. But Mkhitaryan’s decision-making was poor. He was on the wrong side of Gray, who still had to beat Maitland-Niles.

Walking in Flamini’s steps

The next Arsenal manager may have no power over individual mistakes but he should be able to make tactical adjustments when the team is dealing with long balls. Holding was pulled out of position in the 48th when Morgan punted the ball toward Iheanacho. Holding missed his interception and the ball bounced toward Vardy. In a 2v2 situation, Vardy fed Diabate, whose shot took a deflection off Cech before Mustafi cleared the ball off the line. In stoppage time, Mahrez beat the offside trap to chase a long ball from Choudhury. The Leicester winger, who was played onside by Mustafi, gave Holding the slip before shooting past Cech to seal the win.

   Cech will finish the season with the most errors (6) leading to a goal in the Premier League. However, the Gunners could thank him on Wednesday for preventing the scoreline from looking unflattering. Cech parried an angled effort from Vardy in the 13th, tipped over the bar a volley from Maguire in the 17th, saved a curling free kick from Silva in the 39th and stopped a low strike from Iheanacho in the 41st.

While Mavropanos, Mustafi and Holding struggled to cope with the pace and movement of Vardy and Iheanacho, fullbacks Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles enjoyed mixed fortunes. Maitland-Niles had a decent game, leading all players with 4 successful dribbles and leading Arsenal players with 2 key passes, according to whoscored.com. He also showed some good work-rate by winning 3 tackles and set up the equalizer in the 53rd with a pinpoint cross for Aubameyang.

At 20, Maitland-Niles is proving relatively strong in challenges, but he still needs to improve in those that matter. He lost a key duel on the opening goal and gave away a dangerous free kick in the 37th by shoving Vardy from behind. Maitland-Niles could definitely be used like Flamini in his first seasons at Arsenal, learning the ropes at rightback before moving to central midfield when more mature tactically.

A poor final ball

On the left flank, Kolasinac led all players with 5 successful tackles and led Arsenal players with a passing accuracy of 91.1%, which is unusually high for him. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international nearly scored in the 47th with an angled strike that hit the base of the post. In his first season at the club, Kolasinac has looked more like a wingback than a fullback. His defensive awareness can be dodgy. He left Maguire unmarked in the 17th and forgot to track Mahrez on the last goal.

In midfield, Ramsey had a poor game and led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Because the Foxes are a team feasting on turnovers, the Gunners needed a Ramsey more tidy in possession to control the game. The next Arsenal manager will have to decide which formation can optimize Ramsey’s strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

The Gunners often wasted good situations with a poor final ball. Iwobi overhit his pass for Ramsey in the 10th and 44th, Kolasinac made a cross that sailed beyond every Gunner in the 12th, and Mkhitaryan completely missed his final ball for Aubameyang in the 26th and for Ramsey in the 71st.

Iwobi raised the fans’ level of expectations after his good performance against Burnley. But on Wednesday he reverted back to the awkward player that we all know. There were glimpses of hope in the first half when Iwobi tested Jakupovic with a snapshot in the seventh minute or when he set up Mkhitaryan for a low strike that the Leicester goalkeeper turned around the post in the 34th. But it all went downhill in the second half. Iwobi showed poor decision-making in the 54th by failing to pick out Ramsey, who was ready to pull the trigger. See the screen capture below. Iwobi gave the ball away with a sloppy pass to Kolasinac, who was in a worse position than Ramsey.

Leicester vs. Arsenal M54edIwobi can’t make a 5-yard pass to Ramsey. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Two minutes later, Iwobi ignored the overlapping run of Kolasinac and went for personal glory by firing a 25-yard strike into the stands. Oops! Wenger had seen enough and replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 84th. Iwobi is as inconsistent as Oxlade-Chamberlain at the same age. But the big difference is that you could never fault the Ox for his work-rate. Iwobi made 0 tackle and 1 interception, while Mkhitaryan won 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.

Earning an away point?

Up front, it was a lonely evening for Aubameyang, who was often crowded out inside the Leicester area. But Aubameyang didn’t give up and was rewarded for his perseverance in the 53rd. He met a cross from Maitland-Niles for a first-time effort that Jakupovic parried. However, Aubameyang pounced on the rebound to fire into the roof of the net. Although Wenger has often played him out of position, Aubameyang has quickly adapted to the Premier League with 9 goals and 4 assists in 12 appearances. That average of 1.08 goal or assist per game is much better than Morata’s average of 0.57.

For the last game of the season, the Gunners will need a draw at Huddersfield to get at least a point away from home this year. All the other Premier League teams have managed that ‘feat’. After the Leicester game, Wenger claimed that the squad was good enough to contend for the title next season if the Gunners could improve their away form. Such statements show why the club had to replace him.

Wenger is a great manager but he has become delusional in the past couple of years. Arsenal had no such problem in away games last season, yet they were far from contending. A quick look at the team this year tells you that there are holes in at least 5 positions (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, ballwinner, deep-lying playmaker). Wenger has been unable to improve the squad despite obvious weaknesses. The next manager will have to do a better job.

 

Arsenal vs. Southampton: Iwobi pulls the strings in 3-2 win

The Gunners showed great character to edge Southampton 3-2 in the Premier League after conceding the opening goal in the first half and squandering a 2-1 lead in the second. In a match between two leaky defenses, Wenger fielded a makeshift team, leaving Koscielny, Ramsey and Mkhitaryan out of the squad while Monreal, Wilshere, Ozil and Lacazette were on the bench at kickoff. Arsenal’s hectic schedule basically means that the French manager has to rotate like Mourinho did last season with Manchester United.

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

Welbeck received most of the plaudits for his two goals and his assist, but I really thought that Iwobi was the Gunner who produced an outstanding performance on Sunday. Iwobi was smarter in his decision-making and less selfish than usual. He didn’t get off to a good start, missing a 5-yard pass for Welbeck in the fifth minute and wasting a counterattacking opportunity with a poor cross in the 15th. But Iwobi managed to grow into the game. Surrounded by 4 Saints in the 29th, Iwobi needed just two touches to control Aubameyang’s pass and slip the ball to Welbeck, who flicked it toward Aubameyang. In a fine example of triangular play, Aubameyang beat Soares to the ball to poke it past McCarthy and level the game.

The understanding between Iwobi and Welbeck played a key role in that equalizer as well as in the other two goals scored by Arsenal. Iwobi released Welbeck down the left flank in the 38th and the England international cut inside Stephens to beat McCarthy with a shot that took a deflection off Yoshida for a 2-1 lead. Then Iwobi worked some space in the 81st to make a cross for Welbeck, who netted the winner with a downward header at the far post. It’s interesting to see such a partnership blossom because Iwobi never really struck a good understanding with Giroud last season while Lacazette has mostly relied on service from Ozil and Ramsey so far.

Welbeck’s contract

Iwobi created two other chances in the second half. He picked out Aubameyang, whose angled strike was parried by McCarthy in the 47th. The Nigeria international also made a cross for Wilshere, who redirected the ball toward Welbeck in the 78th. With the goal at his mercy, Welbeck somehow flicked the ball over the bar from 3 yards. The bounce was a bit high and Welbeck couldn’t adjust his legs quickly enough to keep the ball down. That game showed Iwobi’s potential. But his poor performance against Watford last month is also a reminder that consistency remains an issue for most 21-year-old players.

A few weeks ago, Iwobi would have probably taken his chance from a tight angle instead of making those crosses. His only goal attempt on Sunday was a snapshot from the edge of the box that McCarthy turned around the post in the 52nd. Being more selective with your shots is a sign of tactical intelligence: it’s about seeing the difference between a good spot and a bad one. Iwobi also did a better job of recognizing dribbling opportunities. He had 1 successful dribble out of 1. In the first half of the season, Iwobi too often lost possession by running into traffic. The only blemish in Iwobi’s performance was his poor work-rate. He made 0 interception and 0 block and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 1 aerial duel, according to Squawka. In the eighth minute, Iwobi poorly closed down Stephens, who put the Arsenal defense in trouble with a long ball.

Welbeck is definitely giving the staff some food for thought with his two goals and his assist. His contract expires next year and there has been no loud call yet for an extension. Honestly, it’s a tough choice for the club. On the one hand, Welbeck is a versatile forward who will always provide you some good work-rate: he made 2 blocks and won 1 of 3 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels against Southampton. On the other, he’s an injury-prone player who will never hit the heights of a Henry or Sanchez. Would the staff be happy to keep Welbeck as an interesting bench option? Or do they think that the new crop of forwards (Nelson, Nketiah) has more to offer?

Nelson’s 1st Premier League start

A superstar in the Arsenal academy, Nelson finally made his first Premier League start on Sunday. I thought he was a bit too shy. Nelson showed some good work-rate with 1 interception, 3 blocks and 1 tackle won, but he lacked end product with 0 shot, 0 key pass, 0 cross and 0 dribble. Maybe Tadic’s nasty challenge in the second minute played a role in Nelson’s cautiousness. The Serbian midfielder should have received a yellow card for stamping on Nelson’s ankle. Tactically, Nelson too often drifted inside instead of staying wide to stretch the Southampton defense. Physically, Nelson will need to be stronger in duels because he got too easily brushed off the ball a couple of times. Nelson flashed a glimpse of his talent by releasing Aubameyang down the left flank in the 30th. Unfortunately, Aubameyang overhit his through ball for Welbeck, allowing McCarthy to collect the ball.

Wilshere replaced Nelson in the 64th and showed why the club won’t offer him better contract terms. He started one of his dribbling runs in the 65th and lost possession by falling over the ball. By sending on Wilshere, the manager simply wanted his team to retain the ball. But the opposite happened. In his 30-minute cameo, Wilshere led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers according to whoscored.com. He also proved a defensive liability as Soares played a one-two with Tadic in the 73rd before setting-up Austin for a tap-in to make it 2-2. Wilshere failed to track Soares on that play. In stoppage time, Wilshere lost possession again with a poor pass for Welbeck. Trying to make up for that error, Wilshere chased Stephens and ripped his shirt. Stephens retaliated by throwing Wilshere to the ground.

Ten years ago, Wilshere was making his Premier League debut. He is now a league veteran. But on Sunday Wilshere behaved like a petulant brat. His supporters will say that he got Stephens sent off. But they are missing the point: Wilshere gave away the ball as well as a dangerous free kick and the Gunners lost control of the situation. Kolasinac could have been booked for shoving Stephens while Elneny received a straight red card for pushing Soares and knocking the ball off Ward-Prowse’s hands. It was a harsh call but I can understand the referee’s rationale. The Saints were taking their free kick, so Elneny had no right to touch the ball. His behavior threatened to trigger another brawl and the referee probably considered that Elneny brought the game into disrepute.

Poor performance from the centerbacks

   That was a sad conclusion for Elneny, who had a decent game in midfield alongside Xhaka. The duo might lack creativity and defensive nous against the top teams but they are quite complementary against the weaker sides. They were at the heart of Arsenal’s passing game with 125 passes for Xhaka, the most for any player, and 116 passes for Elneny. The Egypt international contributed to his team’s fluency with a passing accuracy of 95.7%, the highest percentage for any player. Xhaka proved strong in duels, winning 3 of 4 tackles and 6 of 9 aerial duels, while Elneny compensated for his teammate’s lack of mobility by making 3 interceptions and 1 block, according to Squawka.

At the back, poor performances from Mustafi and Chambers showed the need for signing a centerback this summer.The pair’s horror show started with Southampton’s first scoring chance in the eighth minute. Chambers failed to intercept Stephens’ long ball and could only redirect it into the path of Tadic, who fed Ward-Prowse. The English midfielder outpaced Mustafi only to have his shot cleared off the line by Bellerin.

Chambers’ lack of pace has become legendary. Long outpaced Chambers in the 11th but wasted a good situation with a poor pass to Tadic. Arsenal can’t really play a high defensive line with Chambers because they face the same problems they had with Mertesacker a couple of years ago. That’s why I think Chambers would be a decent fit for a team parking the bus because there’s not much space behind the backline. By contrast, the Gunners dominate ball possession against 70% of the teams, which means that they have to push forward and leave plenty of space behind the centerbacks.

Another issue with Chambers is his inability to turn quickly, especially inside the area. Chambers couldn’t adjust his feet quickly enough to block Soares’ cross for Southampton’s equalizer in the 73rd. And he was not tight enough to block Tadic’s volley in the 86th. Chambers finished the game with 3 turnovers, which is too much for a centerback. Mustafi and Chambers combined to win 0 of 4 tackles, 5 of 14 aerial duels, while making just 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka.

Cech’s saves

The Gunners spent about £35 million to sign Mustafi two years ago. Such an investment hasn’t been justified so far. Mustafi was the main culprit for the opening goal in the 17th. Kolasinac failed to cut out a cross from Soares and Long got ahead of a static Mustafi to flick home the cross. Mustafi tried to blame Cech for the goal but Cech had no chance to beat Long to the ball since it was an outswinging cross.

If you believe Mustafi is Koscielny’s successor, then you’d better think twice because Mustafi can switch off at the most unexpected time like in the League Cup final for Aguero’s goal or when he shouted at Bellerin while Alcantara ran past him to score in Munich a year ago. Mustafi lost another duel in the 56th when Hoedt headed a corner goalward but Elneny cleared the ball off the line. The Germany international was lucky not to get penalized for body-checking Tadic in the 67th.

At fullback, Kolasinac won 6 of 9 aerial duels but also showed his limitations with a passing accuracy of 75%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters. Bellerin didn’t completely recover from the game against CSKA Moscow as he made fewer runs than usual down the right flank. The Spaniard even received a yellow card in the 50th for pulling back Long. Wenger replaced Bellerin with Holding in the 75th as Chambers shifted to the rightback position. Holding lost a foot race against Austin in the 79th but he also made a crucial block in the 87th.

In the end, the Gunners can definitely thank Cech for the win. The Czech goalkeeper made 5 saves, stopping long-range strikes from Hojbjerg in the 54th and Hoedt in the 68th, palming away a header from Long in the 62nd, and tipping Tadic’s volley over the bar in the 86th.

There are just 6 Premier League games left this season. The manager will probably use them to build confidence for the Europa League and give some playing time to second-choice players. I hope Nelson, Nketiah and maybe Maitland-Niles will features in those games. They will get a better idea of the efforts required to compete in the Premier League, while the staff could decide whether those youngsters already have the level to be loaned out to a Championship side.

The art of squad building and how Wenger lost the plot

Poor recruitment is the main reason why the Gunners are no longer in the Top 4 of the Premier League. Last season, they finished in fifth place, 11 points behind Spurs. Arsenal will again miss out on the Top 4 this season as they currently sit in sixth place, 13 points behind Spurs after 30 games.

Squad buildingPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

You may think that money is the issue. It’s true that the Red Devils generate more revenue than any other football club, while Manchester City and Chelsea are backed by billionaires. But you also have to remember that Liverpool and Tottenham have a smaller budget than the Gunners and spend less money in the transfer market.

On paper, building a squad looks pretty simple: you spot the weaknesses in the team, you clear the dead wood, and you sign the players who will make the team stronger. To understand how that process works, I will compare the job done by Pochettino, Klopp and Wenger. I have chosen Tottenham and Liverpool as case studies because Arsenal can match them financially.

The 2013-14 season proved an unstable period for Spurs, who replaced Villas-Boas with Sherwood in December. Despite the managerial change, Tottenham finished in sixth place, 10 points behind Arsenal. I have used startingeleven.co.uk to provide a picture below of Sherwood’s favorite lineup.

2014 Spurs

The 2014 Spurs lineup under Sherwood

Here’s the Tottenham squad under Sherwood:

Goalkeepers: Lloris as the starter (Friedel as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Walker, Rose (Naughton, Fryers). Centerbacks: Vertonghen, Dawson (Kaboul, Chiriches). Central midfielders: Dembele, Paulinho (Sandro, Capoue, Bentaleb). Playmakers: Eriksen (Sigurdsson). Wingers: Chadli, Lennon (Townsend, Lamela). Centerforwards: Adebayor (Soldado, Kane, Defoe).

When Pochettino took over in May 2014, he quickly spotted the weaknesses in the Spurs lineup. First, the team lacked a commanding centerback. Dawson was a decent fit for an average side but not good enough for a club aiming at a Top 4 finish. So Pochettino signed Fazio in August 2014 and Wimmer and Alderweireld in the summer of 2015. Fazio was a flop while Wimmer turned out to be a benchwarmer. However, Alderweireld proved a key signing as he helped stabilize the Tottenham defense.

Becoming a contender within 2 years

Pochettino inherited good players at fullback with Rose and Walker, but he wasn’t happy with the back-up options. So the club signed Davies in July 2014 and Trippier in June 2015. The development of Trippier and Davies helped Spurs cope with Walker’s departure last summer and Rose’s injuries. The Argentine manager also strengthened the bench for the goalkeeping position by replacing an aging Friedel with Vorm.

In midfield, Pochettino realized that Spurs lacked a good holding midfielder. Capoue, Sandro and Bentaleb were not good enough, Dembele played as a deep-lying playmaker and Paulinho was mostly a utility midfielder. So Pochettino recalled Mason to the squad and signed Dier and Stambouli in the summer of 2014. Stambouli struggled in the Premier League but Dier proved a good investment as he efficiently shielded the Tottenham defense.

On the wings, Pochettino noticed the lack of end product. So he signed Alli and Son in 2015 while putting more pressure on Lamela. Up front, he spotted Kane’s potential and gave him the nod over an aging and more limited Adebayor. Pochettino also shook up the bench by releasing Soldado in 2015 and signing N’Jie, who didn’t manage to make the cut.

Within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino turned Tottenham into a title contender. If you look at the picture below, you will notice 5 changes between Sherwood’s lineup and Pochettino’s team. Spurs ran out of steam at the end of the 2015-16 season, but they were the only real threat to Leicester’s title bid.

2016 Spurs

The 2016 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

Instead of resting on his laurels, Pochettino stayed busy in the transfer market to make Spurs more competitive, in part because some of his signings didn’t deliver, but also because other rivals were spending lavishly. So within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino made 4 changes to a team that was in contention until April 2016.

2018 Spurs

The 2018 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

At the back, Pochettino promoted Walker-Peters and signed Aurier to make up for Walker’s departure last summer. He also hired Sanchez and Foyth as cover for Vertonghen and Alderweireld. In his first season at the club, Sanchez impressively stepped up when Alderweireld picked up a hamstring injury last November.

Seeing the weaknesses and the potential

In midfield, Pochettino was a bit conservative but he still promoted Winks and added more power by signing Wanyama and Sissoko in 2016. On the wings, the Argentine manager clearly wanted more pace as he signed N’Koudou in 2016 and Moura this year. N’Koudou is still a raw player and has been loaned out to Burnley while Moura is close to the finished product with 5 seasons under his belt at French club PSG.

Up front, Pochettino signed Janssen in 2016 and Llorente in 2017 as cover for Kane. Janssen failed to impress and was loaned out to Turkish club Fenerbahce, while expectations were low for Llorente, an aging striker who was willing to deputize for Kane.

Over a four-year period, Pochettino has cleared the dead wood and strengthened both the lineup and the bench. He has also lost some gambles in the transfer market, but at least they didn’t cost the club a fortune. So there is no doubt that Spurs have a good squad builder with Pochettino.

Klopp’s appointment at Liverpool in October 2015 also provides a good example of squad building. Despite coming in the middle of the season, Klopp still managed to lead the Reds to the League Cup final and a runner-up finish in the Europa League.

Liverpool famously challenged for the Premier League title during the 2013-14 season, but it all went downhill for Rodgers after the departures of Suarez in 2014 and Sterling in 2015. Rodgers also struggled to replace leaders like Gerrard and Toure. In the summer of 2015, Rodgers signed Ings, Firmino and Benteke to add more firepower up front, but the team didn’t really gel. Stuck in 10th place after 8 Premier League games, the club lost patience and sacked Rodgers in October.

2015 Liverpool

The 2015 Liverpool lineup under Rodgers

Here’s the Liverpool squad under Rodgers:

Goalkeepers: Mignolet as the starter (Bogdan as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Clyne, Moreno (Flanagan, Gomez). Centerbacks: Skrtel, Lovren (Sakho, Toure). Midfielders: Henderson, Milner, Can (Allen, Leiva). Playmaker: Coutinho. Wingers: Lallana (Origi, Ibe). Centerforwards: Benteke (Sturridge, Firmino, Ings).

When Klopp took over, he could only make tactical adjustments because he had to wait eight months for the next summer transfer window. The Reds finished eighth in the Premier League at the end of the 2015-16 season. But Klopp got plenty of time to see the weaknesses as well as the potential of the squad he inherited.

Rebuilding an entire defense

Liverpool conceded a lot of goals under Rodgers, so Klopp decided to completely rebuild the defense. Klopp had doubts about Mignolet in goal and therefore signed Karius in 2016. Karius hasn’t been really convincing yet, even playing fewer games than Mignolet. That might explain why Roma goalkeeper Alisson has recently been linked with a move to Anfield. At centerback, Klopp shipped out Toure, Sakho and Skrtel while signing Matip and Klavan in 2016 and Van Dijk a couple of months ago. Klopp also signed Robertson in 2017 to take the leftback spot from Moreno. At rightback, Clyne’s long-term injury obliged Klopp to hand Gomez a starting spot.

By contrast, Klopp has been relatively conservative in midfield. The German manager sold Allen and Leiva, who were second-choice midfielders, and hired Grujic and Wijnaldum in 2016 and Oxlade-Chamberlain last year. Henderson and Can are still regular starters under Klopp while Milner gets plenty of playing time, too. In fact, the biggest change in midfield is Klopp’s rotation policy to keep fresh legs for his gegenpressing tactics.

The Reds struggled to score in Rodgers’ last season at the club. Klopp realized that Benteke and Ibe were not good enough for a Top 4 club and let them go. He also noticed a lack of penetration in the final third and therefore signed Mane in 2016 and Salah in 2017. Both Mane and Salah have a lot of pace and great dribbling skills.

However, Klopp’s really smart decision was to play Firmino as a false nine. Rodgers didn’t know how to use Firmino and made the mistake of believing that Benteke could deliver at the top level. Klopp also took a gamble on a youngster by signing Solanke last summer. This season, only Manchester City can claim a front three (Aguero, Sane, Sterling) as threatening as Liverpool’s.

2018 Liverpool

The 2018 Liverpool lineup under Klopp

The only blemish in Liverpool’s transfer policy was the sale of Coutinho to Barcelona in January. The Reds lost a versatile playmaker who could play either as a false winger or in a three-man midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain is versatile too but he doesn’t have Coutinho’s creativity. Plus Coutinho was a free-kick specialist who could make the difference in any tight game.

Having a coherent plan

Within two years and a half, Klopp has turned Liverpool into a Top 4 team by making 9 changes to Rodgers’ lineup. You can see the similarities between Klopp and Pochettino: they both have a coherent plan to build their respective squads and they only need a couple of years to implement it.

We have analyzed what Pochettino has achieved at Tottenham since the summer of 2014 and how Klopp has transformed Liverpool since the end of 2015. Now let’s compare with what Wenger has done at Arsenal since 2015. I’ve chosen 2015 because the club had not much cash to spend in the transfer market before 2013 (remember, the Gunners signed Ozil in 2013 and Sanchez in 2014). It’s also similar to the amount of time that Pochettino and Klopp had to change their clubs’ fortunes. You can see below Wenger’s favorite lineup at the end of the 2014-15 season.

2015 Arsenal

The 2015 Arsenal lineup   

Here’s the Arsenal squad during that season:

Goalkeepers: Ospina as the starter (Szczesny as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Bellerin, Monreal (Debuchy, Gibbs). Centerbacks: Koscielny, Mertesacker (Paulista, Chambers). Midfielders: Cazorla, Coquelin, Ramsey (Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere). Playmakers: Ozil (Rosicky). Wingers: Sanchez, Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski). Centerforwards: Giroud (Welbeck, Sanogo).

If you were a neutral manager, you could see that Ospina and Szczesny were not good enough in goal for a Top 4 team. Ospina struggled to command his area while Szczesny was error-prone and had discipline issues off the pitch. At the back, Mertesacker was an obvious target for strikers because of his lack of pace, while Wenger also had a problem at leftback where Gibbs and Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses. In midfield, Coquelin was too limited in his all-around game and was not smart enough in his positional play to shield the defense. On the right wing, Ramsey was a starter by default simply because Oxlade-Chamberlain lacked end product while Walcott had limited passing skills. Up front, Giroud lacked the pace to stretch a defense while Welbeck lacked end product.

Failing to fix 6 positions

Did Wenger spot those weaknesses in the Arsenal squad? The answer must be yes since he made moves in the transfer market for those positions. The Gunners signed Cech in 2015, Holding and Mustafi in 2016, Kolasinac in 2017 and Mavropanos a couple of months ago. In midfield, the club added Elneny and Xhaka in 2016. On the wings, Sanchez’s contractual situation led to a swap deal with Manchester United as Mkhitaryan joined Arsenal in January. Up front, pace was clearly the priority as the Gunners signed Perez in 2016, Lacazette in 2017 and Aubameyang a couple of months ago. Wenger also relied on the academy to strengthen the first team by promoting Iwobi and Maitland-Niles.

Over the past three years, Wenger was less active than Pochettino in the transfer market and less successful than Klopp in getting the right targets for the club. Let’s be honest, the majority of the signings have been flops. And the manager hasn’t fixed the 6 positions that were weaknesses during the 2014-15 season (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, holding midfielder, right winger, centerforward). You can see below Arsenal’s best lineup for this year.

2018 Arsenal

The 2018 Arsenal lineup

Lacazette’s injury means that Aubameyang is the natural choice up front. In midfield, you may argue that Iwobi or Welbeck could replace Wilshere if the team plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But that tactical difference doesn’t change my analysis. Cech used to be the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, but at 35 he’s already past his prime. In fact, Cech has the most errors leading to a goal (6) this season. At centerback, Mustafi is not the player who will marshal the defense. And Koscielny’s nagging Achilles injury also means that the club will need to sign an experienced centerback this summer. At leftback, Kolasinac’s defensive performances have been disappointing. In central midfield, Elneny doesn’t win duels while Xhaka lacks mobility and defensive awareness. On the wings, Iwobi lacks end product while Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck don’t have the dribbling skills to crack a defense. Up front, Aubameyang and Lacazette both struggle in the air. And Aubameyang has a limited all-around game while Lacazette’s hold-up play is weaker than Giroud’s.

Another issue with Wenger’s squad management is the time wasted to clear the dead wood. Walcott and Coquelin should have been shipped out way before January. And there’s no reason to hang onto Chambers and Elneny, especially since the Gunners also have Holding and Mavropanos at centerback as well as Wilshere and Maitland-Niles in midfield. Chambers lacks pace and struggles to turn, while Elneny may be more mobile than Xhaka but the Egypt international is not a decisive player defensively or offensively.

No challenge before 2021?

Because Wenger failed to improve the team in the past 3 years and took too much time to clear the dead wood, it doesn’t make sense to rely on the French manager for an overhaul of the squad this summer. The next manager will have a lot of work to bring Arsenal back into the Top 4.

2019 Arsenal

How a competitive Arsenal team could look like

It will take more than a season to rebuild the squad. And the way the Citizens are dominating the Premier League, Arsenal might not be able to challenge for the title before 2021. Look at Liverpool: Klopp has done a good job within 3 years, but the Reds are still miles behind City.

The board and the staff will obviously have to set the priorities in terms of transfers. If a centerback and a holding midfielder are the top priorities, it means that Arsenal might have to stick with Cech or Ospina next season. I’ve chosen a 4-3-3 formation because that’s the best system to implement a pressing game. I don’t think the Gunners could finish in the Top 4 without pressing high up the pitch. That implies signing a more dynamic midfielder than Wilshere or Xhaka to harry opponents. I believe only Ramsey would have the pace, stamina and skills to play in Liverpool’s three-man midfield. Ozil’s poor work-rate means that he can only play in the front three.

For next season, assuming that Arsenal can only sign one attacking player because of financial constraints, a winger with great dribbling skills should also be at the top of the list. Liverpool, City and Chelsea respectively have Salah, Sane and Hazard to make the difference against compact defenses.

If the club runs out of cash, the Gunners could either play Lacazette or Perez on the right wing, or fast-track Nelson a bit like Sterling at Liverpool. Mkhitaryan and Ozil would have to fight for the spot on the left wing. Of course, Arsenal could switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation and play both Ozil and Mkhitaryan against the weak sides, but that would still depend on the hiring of a defensive midfielder. Up front, the Gunners would have the choice between Lacazette, a false nine coming to the ball, and Aubameyang, a striker stretching a defense.

The board and the staff have no room for error this summer because they have poorly performed in the previous transfer windows. By the end of August, we will know whether the Gunners have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish for next season.

 

Arsenal vs. Watford: 3-0 win highlights youth dilemma

There were a lot of empty seats at the Emirates stadium on Sunday when the Gunners smashed Watford 3-0 in the Premier League. It wasn’t as bad as in the league game against Manchester City, but it showed some fans’ disillusion with Arsenal’s performances in the Premier League this year. You can’t really blame the fans: the Gunners had never been out of the Top 4 race so early in the season under Wenger. For some, it was also a means to protest against the Arsenal board and put pressure on them to hire a new manager this summer. In that regard, leaving empty seats is better than creating a toxic atmosphere with hostile chants and banners. And it’s definitely smarter than what the West Ham fans did against Burnley by invading the pitch.

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

The Europa League is the only option left to win a trophy this season. Wenger clearly prioritized that competition by making 6 changes to the side that won in Milan on Thursday with Cech, Holding, Maitland-Niles, Elneny, Iwobi and Aubameyang replacing Ospina, Koscielny, Chambers, Ramsey, Wilshere and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Monreal, Bellerin and Lacazette were still sidelined by injuries and were therefore not available. The manager took no risk with Ramsey and Koscielny and kept them out of the squad, while Welbeck, Wilshere and Chambers came off the bench in the second half.

Fielding an under-strength team was a smart move from the manager since there is nothing at stake in the Premier League now. To a certain extent, the club must also give some playing time to the most promising youngsters, otherwise they will leave. Willock joined Benfica last summer while Barcelona signed McGuane two months ago. According to the Evening Standard, Nelson threw his bib to the ground on Sunday when he found out that he wouldn’t play the last minutes against Watford. That’s a tricky situation for the staff. Nelson’s contract expires next year and it’s easy to understand his frustration about the lack of opportunities when you see Iwobi’s mediocre performances.

Holding’s ups and downs

There’s a massive gap between the Premier League and the level of U23 games. At this stage of his career, Nelson won’t improve by playing with the academy team. He needs a loan to a Championship side or even a League One team to develop at a faster pace. It was fine to keep him at the club in the first half of the season because there were opportunities with the League Cup and the Europa League. But I think the staff made a mistake by not loaning out Nelson and Nketiah in the second half of the season. A successful loan spell would have made the Arsenal squad stronger for next season.

At 22, Holding is not a rookie anymore. He had his ups and downs since joining the club two years ago. Low confidence combined with some poor performances have seen Holding drop behind Chambers in the pecking order. Holding was given a second chance on Sunday as he started alongside Mustafi at centerback. To be honest, Holding’s performance was a mixed bag. He led all players with 4 interceptions but won no tackle. On the bright side, Holding blocked Femenia’s volley in the 48th minute and forced Richarlison wide in the sixth minute after Mustafi was pulled out of position.

But there are at least 3 key areas Holding needs to work on: 1. Winning duels inside the box. Doucoure dribbled past Holding in the ninth minute and only a heavy touch from the Watford midfielder enabled Mustafi to clear the danger; 2. His positional play. Holding was on the wrong side of Richarlison a few times. He was nowhere near Richarlison when the Hornets played a ball over the top in the 12th. Richarlison teed up Doucoure, whose shot was parried by Cech; 3. Smelling danger. Holding gave the ball away with sloppy passes in the 24th and 89th. He also lost possession with a dribbling attempt in the 70th. Those are the kind of mistakes that Holding could make in a Championship club but which are not acceptable at Arsenal. That’s why I said last summer that Holding should have been loaned out to iron out mistakes from his game.

Iwobi’s regression

Maitland-Niles is only two years older than Nelson. Yet he has already played 23 games with the first team this season, including 10 in the Premier League. Obviously, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress at 20. He showed his naivety in the 61st when Pereyra cut inside the Arsenal rightback and crashed into his trailing leg to win a penalty. An experienced player would have gotten out of the way, guessing that Pereyra was looking for contact. Maitland-Niles needs to improve his focus and be more tidy in possession. He led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

On a more positive note, Maitland-Niles has more pace than Chambers and did a good job to stop crosses. He also performed better than Kolasinac, having 2 successful dribbles out of 3, winning 2 of 5 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels, and making 1 interception and 3 blocks, compared to 0 successful dribble, 1 of 3 tackles won, 2 of 5 aerial duels won, and no interception or block made by the Bosnia-Herzegovina international. Maitland-Niles is right-footed and has played as a right midfielder, so rightback is a more natural position for him than leftback. Although Maitland-Niles prefers to play as a central midfielder, he still lacks the tactical maturity to play in such a key position at the top level.

While Maitland-Niles is learning the ropes, Iwobi seems to be regressing. Iwobi showed a poor work-rate and a lack of end product, creating 0 chance, winning 0 tackle, and making 0 interception and 0 block. His decision-making in the final third was questionable, too. He tried to score from a tight angle in the 19th instead of crossing the ball for the 3 Gunners inside the box. Then he ran into traffic in the 37th and lost possession, allowing Watford to launch a counterattack. Wenger replaced Iwobi with Welbeck in the 66th and the England international took a pass from Wilshere to test Karnezis with a powerful strike in the 86th.

The Dortmund connection

Before Sunday’s match, there was much talk about Deeney’s infamous comments in October. Deeney basically said that the Gunners didn’t like the physical side of the game. It was no coincidence if the Hornets tried to rough up Arsenal at the Emirates stadium. And each time, the referee failed to spot the foul. First, Prodl stamped on Ozil’s heel in the 31st. Then Mariappa stamped on Mkhitaryan’s ankle inside the area in the 64th and no penalty was given. And finally, Deeney got away with a stamp on Xhaka in the 79th. Despite the poor officiating, the Gunners didn’t lose their temper and proved the better side, having 7 shots on target to 4, and winning 54.2% of the duels and 61.9% of the tackles, according to the club’s website.

The understanding between two players can make a difference at the top level. For the passer, it’s about knowing what kind of run the striker will make and where he wants to have the ball. For the runner, it’s about knowing when the pass will be made and if the passer can execute the play. The Gunners can thank the Dortmund connection for the last two goals. Mkhitaryan slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who rounded Karnezis to slot into an empty net for a 2-0 lead in the 59th. Then Aubameyang pounced on a rebound to tee up Mkhitaryan for the third goal in the 77th.

Things didn’t get off to a good start for the former Borussia Dortmund players though. Mkhitaryan made a cross beyond Aubameyang in the fifth minute. The Armenia international showed more accuracy with his through ball for Aubameyang in the 11th but Prodl brushed the Arsenal striker off the ball. The Watford defense also blocked a pass from Mkhitaryan in the 35th but the ball somehow fell into the path of Aubameyang, who was put off by Mariappa while taking his chance.

Mkhitaryan is a gambler

Aubameyang hasn’t ajusted to the physicality of the Premier League yet. He needs to be stronger in duels. The Gabon striker will also have to improve in the air. He won 0 of 3 aerial duels in midfield. That’s not good enough if the team wants to use him as a target man. By contrast, Mkhitaryan had a good all-around performance. He won 2 of 6 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. The only blemish was his passing accuracy of 71.7%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters. Mkhitaryan is a gambler in the final third and often goes for the killer pass. The real issue is Mkhitaryan’s approach in his own half where he is not cautious enough. Wilshere came off the bench to replace Mkhitaryan in the 78th.

Playing in the hole, Ozil led all players with 3 key passes. Ozil set up the opening goal in the eighth minute with a pinpoint free kick that Mustafi headed into the bottom corner. Watford’s marking was poor on that play but you have to credit the complicity between Ozil and Mustafi, who both play for the Germany team. Ozil was also involved in the third goal as he made the cross that Karnezis palmed into the path of Aubameyang. With better finishing, Ozil could have claimed 2 assists and 1 goal. In the third minute, Ozil slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who shot straight at Karnezis from 15 yards. In the 27th, Ozil took a pass from Elneny and skipped past Mariappa only to be denied by Karnezis.

Season on the line

In goal, Cech finally earned his 200th clean sheet in the Premier League. The fact that it was the first clean sheet in the league since a 1-0 win over Newcastle in mid-December tells you how poorly the Gunners have defended in the past couple of months. Cech protected Arsenal’s lead by turning around the post a header from Richarlison on the stroke of halftime. Iwobi made a poor clearance on that play while Mustafi was not tight enough to Richarlison. Cech forced Deeney to eat some humble pie in the 62nd by stopping a penalty from the Watford striker. It was a moment to cheer about but some fans won’t forget some poor goalkeeping in the 26th when Cech, instead of pushing the ball to safety, palmed a low free kick into the path of Pereyra, who missed the target from 7 yards. Cech also sent a goal kick straight into touch in the 74th.

Arsenal’s season will be on the line when they host AC Milan on Thursday for the second leg of their last 16 encounter in the Europa League. Lose, and there’s nothing to play for. Win, and there’s still the hope of lifting some silverware in May.