Tag Archives: Cech

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Blackpool

The Gunners edged Blackpool 2-1 on Wednesday to next play Tottenham in the League Cup quarterfinals. They made life difficult for themselves with a silly red card in the second half. The third-division Seasiders proved toothless in the first half, giving Arsenal plenty of time on the ball. After Guendouzi’s ejection in the 56th minute, Blackpool started pressing high up the pitch and could have equalized to force a penalty shootout.

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

Emery made 9 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace on Sunday with only Mustafi and Guendouzi retaining their starting spots. In a 4-3-3 formation, Guendouzi played behind Ramsey and Maitland-Niles in midfield while Smith-Rowe teamed up with Mkhitaryan and Welbeck in the front three. The numerous changes led to a lack of fluency in Arsenal’s passing game. The Gunners also lacked penetration in the final third as they had no natural dribbler in their starting lineup.

  1. Smith-Rowe is making an impact

The English teenager scored the winning goal with an awkward effort in the 50th, volleying a rebound into the ground, but the ball looped over a defender and into the net. I’ve already said that Smith-Rowe reminds me of a young Raul because of his flair for finding good positions in the final third. Some fans have suggested that he could be a replacement for Ramsey in midfield but I think second striker will be Smith-Rowe’s best position.

  1. Guendouzi showed his immaturity

Traditionally, you play a ballwinner as your holding midfielder because you want protection for your defense. But in the modern game, more and more managers like to have a deep-lying playmaker in the No. 6 role to build play from the back. That can become a problem when the deep-lying playmaker has poor defensive instincts.

Knowing that Guendouzi had a history of making silly fouls at Lorient, Emery gambled again by playing him as a holding midfielder. The French teenager was booked in the 21st for a late challenge on Thompson. He then received a second yellow card for pulling back the Blackpool midfielder in the 56th.

Some fans complained that the referee was too harsh. But at least the referee showed consistency by sending O’Connor off in the 84th for a late tackle on Aubameyang. To Guendouzi’s credit, he created the opening goal in the 34th with a cross that Lichtsteiner diverted home.

  1. Cech made another blunder

In his return from injury, Cech had a poor game. He was in no man’s land when O’Connor headed a corner against the bar in the 53rd. Then Cech lost possession while trying to dribble past Spearing inside the area in the 70th. The ball fell to Delfouneso, who scored into an empty net, but the goal was disallowed for an offside position.

The crowd had jitters each time the ball was played back to Cech. It wouldn’t make sense for Emery to start Cech in the Premier League after Leno’s recent string of good performances. Cech was the player who made the most errors leading to a goal in the Premier League last season. Emery could limit the damage by using Cech in the Europa League and the cup competitions.

  1. Jenkinson could be the last of the Mohicans

A few years ago, Jenkinson was part of the British core with Ramsey, Wilshere, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gibbs. Four of them have departed the club and Jenkinson will be the only one left next summer if the Gunners don’t renew Ramsey’s contract. It was a mistake from the staff to extend Jenkinson’s contract because he was arguably the most limited player in that British core. Arsenal must sell him next year otherwise Jenkinson will leave for free in 2020.

In his return from injury, Jenkinson created the second goal with a cross-shot that Howard palmed into the path of Smith-Rowe. Emery will certainly be upset that Jenkinson gave away 3 free kicks with unnecessary fouls from behind in midfield. If the Spanish manager needs an alternative at leftback, he should give a chance to Pleguezuelo, who had a good game at centerback. Pleguezuelo showed good composure and was comfortable on the ball. But at 5’11, he’s unlikely to shine as a centerback, especially in the Premier League.

  1. Maitland-Niles gives Arsenal more options in midfield

After breaking his leg in August, Maitland-Niles made his return from injury last week by playing with the U23 team. On Wednesday, Maitland-Niles played 60 minutes before Emery yanked him off to send on Torreira in an effort to protect the defense. Maitland-Niles made a decent cross for Ramsey in the 44th but the Wales midfielder missed the target from a tight angle. He’s definitely an interesting option on the bench because he doesn’t have the same profile as Xhaka, Guendouzi, Torreira, Ramsey or Elneny.

  1. Mustafi keeps disappointing

He was supposed to become the next leader of the Arsenal defense when the club signed him in 2016. But Mustafi has mixed decent performances with poor ones since then, struggling in his positional play and making reckless challenges. Mustafi lost the key duel that led to Blackpool’s goal in the 66th as O’Connor beat him to the ball to head in a corner.

 

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Arsenal vs. Watford: Iwobi makes an impact in 2-0 win

The Gunners rode their luck in a 2-0 victory over Watford on Saturday to stay level on points with fourth-place Spurs in the Premier League. That seventh straight win in all competitions is giving Emery more time to figure out what his best starting lineup is.

Arsenal vs. Watford.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Saturday’s performance was similar to the Everton game a week ago. Nobody would have been shocked if Watford had come away with a draw. In fact, the Hornets outperformed Arsenal in the key stats: 14 goal attempts to 9, 6 big chances to 3, 5 shots on target to 2, 15 interceptions to 7 and 23 tackles to 10, according to the club’s website. The Gunners’ attacking play looked poor but a brief scoring spell in the last 10 minutes and some dreadful finishing from Watford made the difference.

Emery needed 5 league games to understand that the midfield pairing of Xhaka and Guendouzi was a flawed partnership. It’s only since Torreira has started alongside Xhaka that the midfield seems more balanced and that the Gunners have kept clean sheets. Now the question is: how many games Emery needs to realize that the attacking setup is dysfunctional? Here’s how the team looked like at kickoff:

Arsenal formation 4-2-3-1

On paper, it’s a 4-2-3-1 formation, but on the field, it often morphed into a narrow 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 system. The problem with the starting lineup is that Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ozil and Ramsey all prefer to play through the middle. So there’s an obvious lack of width when Ozil drifts inside and when Aubameyang makes diagonal runs to be in scoring positions. Ramsey occasionally moved to the left to make some space for Ozil and fill in the void vacated by Aubameyang, but that positional change impacted Ramsey’s main strength, which is to make penetrative runs.

Another issue with that starting lineup is the poor wing play. Ozil and Aubameyang barely combined with the fullbacks and also often left Monreal and Bellerin in 1v2 situations, allowing Holebas and Navarro to make dangerous crosses.

Can Ozil & Ramsey play together?

The front four is not clicking because Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey and Ozil can’t play together without at least 2 of them sacrificing their qualities. The main loser in that configuration has been Aubameyang because he doesn’t have the all-around game to play on the left wing. Instead of leading the line like in his former club Borussia Dortmund, Aubameyang suddenly becomes a bit player. Can Aubameyang and Lacazette play together? Of course, they can. A 4-4-2 formation would be the most obvious solution:

Arsenal formation 4-4-2

In that 4-4-2 formation, Iwobi or Welbeck would play on the left wing while Ozil or Mkhitaryan would play in the half-space between the right flank and the central area. Emery would also optimize Lacazette’s potential with that system because the France international is more a second striker than a pure centerforward.

Aubameyang and Lacazette could also play together in a traditional 4-3-3 formation:

Arsenal formation 4-3-3

Lacazette has the all-around game to play on the right wing like Salah does at Liverpool. His technique is good enough to make accurate crosses. That positional change shouldn’t affect Lacazette’s scoring record since he gets most of his chances on the right side of the area. To balance the attacking setup, a creative player would have to roam down the left wing. Iwobi seems more comfortable on that side of the pitch than Ozil or Mkhitaryan.

A more risky option would be Emery’s favorite 4-2-3-1 formation:

Arsenal formation 4-2-3-1 bis

Aubameyang and Lacazette could rely on service from Ozil and Iwobi in that system, but it would also make the Arsenal midfield more vulnerable because of Ozil’s poor work-rate and Xhaka’s lack of mobility.

Can Ozil and Ramsey play together? Under Wenger, it wasn’t an issue because Ramsey played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. As a result, the back four got very little protection. The partnership formed by Torreira and Xhaka this season is a bit more solid than the Ramsey-Xhaka duo. Emery might be tempted to pair Ramsey with Torreira, but Ramsey is not a pacesetter like Xhaka and has a higher turnover rate.

The only formation in which Ramsey and Ozil could play together without hurting the balance of the team would be a 4-3-3 system:

Arsenal formation 4-3-3 bis

It would mean that Aubameyang or Lacazette would have to be sacrificed. Lacazette might be willing to play on the left wing, but he would have to drift inside to be in scoring positions and the team would look narrow again.

Emery’s tactical rigidity

Emery doesn’t know what his best team is. He also doesn’t know how to optimally use some of his key players. In the second half, Emery tinkered tactically by asking Aubameyang and Ozil to swap positions. It didn’t really work. So he made two substitutions that finally provided the width his team needed, sending on Iwobi for Ramsey in the 63rd minute and Welbeck for Aubameyang in the 76th.

Maybe the most surprising part of Emery’s tenure at the club so far has been his tactical rigidity. The Spanish manager has used the same 4-2-3-1 formation for all his Premier League games. He could have tried a different formation more suitable for his best players. Managers like Guardiola, Pochettino and Mourinho are more flexible tactically.

At least, Emery is aware of the intensity of the game in England as he made 8 changes to the side that knocked Brentford out of the League Cup on Wednesday with only Monreal, Mustafi and Holding retaining their starting spots.

Although Lacazette finished the game with 0 of 4 shots on target, he was still involved in Arsenal’s best chances. Lacazette should have been awarded a penalty when Kabasele tripped him in the fifth minute, but Lacazette was too honest and stayed on his feet. Ten minutes later, Lacazette created his own chance by robbing Cathcart to be clean through on goal. With just Foster to beat, Lacazette sent his chip wide. He then managed to connect with a cross from Aubameyang in the 54th only to head the ball wide.

Lacazette’s efforts were finally rewarded in the 81st when he got ahead of Cathcart to meet a cross from Iwobi. The Watford defender could not sort out his feet and diverted the cross into his own net. Two minutes later, Lacazette swapped passes with Iwobi before setting up Ozil for the second goal. Besides the assist, Lacazette showed good work-rate, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 1 interception and 2 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website.

The understanding between Iwobi & Lacazette

By contrast, Aubameyang had a miserable afternoon with 0 shot, 0 tackle, 0 interception and 0 recovery. Two plays summed up his performance: he produced an air shot while attempting to volley Bellerin’s cross in the 39th and his ball over the top for Ozil bounced out of play in the 58th.

At 22, Iwobi could be starting to make the kind of impact that his breakthrough season suggested in 2016. He made the cross that led to the opening goal and it would have counted as an assist if Lacazette, and not Cathcart, had touched the ball. The Nigeria international also made the right decision on the second goal by slipping the ball to Lacazette instead of taking on a defender. The main positive from Saturday’s game is that Iwobi showed some good understanding with Lacazette whereas their connection on the pitch was poor last season.

Ozil was again a peripheral figure for most of the game. On paper, it wasn’t a game for him because of the Hornets’ physical approach. Until the 83rd minute, Ozil had 0 shot and 0 key pass. His best move in the first half was a lobbed pass for Monreal, who tried to find Lacazette with a header in the 21st. Surprisingly, Ozil’s technique let him down in the 24th. Aubameyang made a run in behind the Watford defense to be clean through on goal but Ozil overhit his long ball for the Gabon striker. Playing in a more central role after Emery’s substitutions, Ozil scored with his first goal attempt, side-footing Lacazette’s cross into the bottom corner. In stoppage time, Ozil made his first key pass of the game by heading the ball into Lacazette’s path.

Ramsey struggling under Emery

Despite his 2 assists against Everton, Ramsey is clearly struggling in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 system where he’s playing in a more advanced position than under Wenger. It’s true that Ramsey also plays as a free-roaming midfielder for the Wales team, but it’s because they lack quality up front to support Bale. The situation is completely different at Arsenal where Emery has many attacking options. Wenger preferred to play Ramsey in a deeper position because his late runs and his work-rate were more valuable in central midfield.

Ramsey had a poor game, leading all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, and winning only 30% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any midfielder according to the club’s website. His work-rate was average with 1 of 2 tackles won, 0 interception and 0 recovery, compared to 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 8 recoveries for Torreira and 1 of 2 tackles won, 0 interception and 5 recoveries for Xhaka.

Has Ramsey been affected by the breakdown of the contract talks with the club a few days ago? Whatever the outcome, it doesn’t reflect well on the Arsenal board because it creates an atmosphere of uncertainty around the squad. It’s also bad business because both Ramsey and Welbeck could leave for free next summer. It will be very difficult to find 2 players of the same quality with a transfer kitty of £60 million. Some fans want Emery to bench Ramsey because he has not committed to the club. But I have no problem with starting Ramsey if he can make a significant contribution on the pitch. I mean, the club’s priority is to finish in the Top 4. It would make no sense to weaken the team and hurt Arsenal’s bid for a Champions League spot.

Holding’s solid performance

In central midfield, Torreira’s performance was a mixed bag. He led all midfielders by winning 61.5% of duels, but he also had 4 turnovers, compared to just 2 for Xhaka. Torreira got a taste of the physicality of the Premier League when Hugues bullied him off the ball in the 18th. Ozil and Bellerin were also outmuscled by the Hornets. Out of frustration, Torreira tried to reply with a late challenge on Deeney in the 45th only to receive a yellow card. Torreira was credited with an error for giving the ball away in the 88th when Pereyra fired a speculative shot over the bar. However, I thought Torreira’s worst mistake was when he misread a play in the 75th and dived in, allowing Deeney to turn and play Success clean through.

Alongside Torreira, Xhaka had a low-key performance in midfield. Offensively, Xhaka tested Foster with a low drive in the 39th and sent a ball over the top for Monreal, whose sliding volley sailed wide in the 67th. Defensively, Xhaka was no match for the hard-working Capoue and Doucoure in midfield. The Switzerland international lost a key duel in the 36th when Kabasele outjumped him to head a cross from Holebas. But Cech made the save and managed to catch the rebound before Deeney could hit it. Xhaka also switched off defensively in the 17th when Hugues made a reverse pass to Deeney. The Watford striker ran past a static Xhaka to make a dangerous cross for Gray.

At the back, Holding produced a solid performance, winning 75% of his duels, having a passing accuracy of 89% and making 1 block, 3 interceptions and 9 recoveries, while Mustafi only won 45.5% of his duels, had a passing accuracy of 77% and made just 1 block, 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website.

Leno’s distribution

Holding made a crucial block in the 72nd, but two plays exposed his average pace. He lost a foot race with Gray, who chased a through ball from Deeney only to be denied by Leno in the 68th. Then Holding was on the wrong side of Success, whose chip brushed the far post in the 75th. Because Holding doesn’t have the recovery pace of a Koscielny in his prime, he must find a way to improve his reading of the game and his positional play.

The Hornets created many chances in great part because Mustafi had a poor game. Mustafi was caught ball-watching when Deeney knocked the ball toward an unmarked Hugues in the 11th. He also let Deeney run in front of him to meet a free kick from Holebas in the 52nd. His lack of composure led Mustafi to give away silly free kicks in the 23rd, 35th and 73rd.

The Gunners can definitely thank Leno for the clean sheet. He came off the bench to replace Cech on the stroke of halftime. Leno made a couple of outstanding saves, turning Deeney’s volley around the post in the 52nd, and denying Gray in the 68th and Cathcart in the 74th. His only dodgy moment was when he went for a high ball in the 57th and completely missed his catch. Leno will certainly start the next few games as Cech pulled his hamstring with a goal kick. The German goalkeeper had a much better distribution than Cech with a passing accuracy of 67% compared to 39% for the Czech veteran.

I expect Emery to rest his key players against Qarabag in the Europa League on Thursday because the Premier League game against Fulham on Sunday starts at noon. There’s a too big risk of injury with the long trip to Azerbaijan and the short rest between those 2 games.

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners keep 1st clean sheet this season

The Gunners are making baby steps under Emery. They reached halftime without conceding a goal for the first time this season against Newcastle in mid-September. On Sunday, they finally kept their first clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Everton to move 2 points clear of Manchester United in the Premier League.

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

Sunday’s game was an interesting contest because on paper the Toffees are supposed to be direct rivals for European spots. It was an even game and Everton could have split the points if they had converted their big chances. But they didn’t because they had Calvert-Lewin and Walcott in their front three instead of more clinical finishers like Lacazette and Aubameyang. Arsenal had just 5 shots on target compared to 6 for the visitors.

The Gunners’ attacking play was poor in the first half even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that defeated Vorskla on Thursday with only Sokratis, Monreal, Torreira and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. There was more movement in the second half but Arsenal didn’t really look more threatening. To a certain extent, it felt like the Wenger team of last season: struggling to create chances before a brief scoring spell saved their day.

At the start of the season, Emery tried to impose his brand of football: playing the ball out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. After 6 Premier League games, it is safe to say that Emery will have to wait another season because right now he doesn’t have the personnel to implement it. Cech’s limited ball-playing abilities and Xhaka’s lack of mobility are liabilities when the Gunners try to break the press. Likewise, the Gunners struggle to press like a unit because only a couple of their midfielders have the work-rate and mobility to close down the ball holder. When you press, you must also squeeze play to prevent your opponents from finding space. That implies a high defensive line which exposes Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace. So my guess is that Emery can only make small adjustments in his first season at the club.

Cech’s outstanding saves

The Toffees had 2 golden opportunities to open the scoring in the first half. Calvert-Lewin beat the offside trap to collect a through ball from Davies in the second minute but he was denied by a tackle from Cech. Calvert-Lewin’s decision-making was poor on that play. If the Everton striker had squared the ball back, it would have been a simple tap-in for an unmarked Richarlison. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Everton M2 edited.jpgCalvert-Lewin should have passed the ball to Richarlison. (Photo credit: NBC)

On that play, there was no pressure on Davies. Was it up to Ramsey to drop off and close Davies down? Or was it Xhaka’s responsibility to charge forward even if it meant leaving a big gap in midfield? It will be Emery’s job to sort out that kind of tactical uncertainty in his post-match analysis. The lack of pressure from Xhaka and Ramsey made Arsenal’s high defensive line completely suicidal. Calvert-Lewin made a run in behind Sokratis and no one could catch him.

Everton’s second big chance in the 38th was quite similar. It all started with a 2v2 situation on the left flank with Sokratis and Monreal dealing with Walcott and Sigurdsson. From the moment Sigurdsson dribbled past Monreal, Sokratis was in deep trouble. Walcott made a run in behind Sokratis to take Sigurdsson’s pass and bear down on goal. Cech somehow stopped Walcott’s low effort with his leg. The difference between this play and Calvert-Lewin’s chance is that Walcott had no decent passing option because Mustafi and Bellerin were tightly marking Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.

Cech definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. The Gunners could have been trailing 2-0 at halftime without his outstanding saves. The Czech goalkeeper also tipped Digne’s free kick over the bar in the 31st, scooped Keane’s header around the post in the 71st, and parried long-range efforts from Richarlison in the 21st and Tosun in the 85th.

Bellerin’s hard time

Mustafi and Bellerin performed poorly at the back. The German centerback made a sloppy pass in the fourth minute, overran the ball and lost possession on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 29th, and gave away a dangerous free kick with a poor challenge on Richarlison in the 89th. There’s no way Mustafi could be the leader of the back four when Koscielny leaves the club. Let’s be honest, Mustafi wouldn’t even start for Manchester City, Liverpool or Tottenham.

Sokratis had to bail Mustafi out with a cynical foul on Walcott in the 29th. The Greek defender also picked up a knee injury and had to be replaced by Holding in the 38th. Holding’s stats were not impressive. He made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website. You kind of wonder whether it was because Holding was too passive or because the midfielders did a good job to shield the defense. Last season, Holding was let down by some poor decision-making as well as lapses of concentration. Those issues re-emerged on Sunday when Holding went on a dribbling run on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 54th.

On the flanks, Bellerin had a harder time than Monreal. Obviously, marking Richarlison is a more difficult task than dealing with Walcott. Digne’s forays down our right wing also left Bellerin in 1v2 situations quite a few times. Bellerin was the culprit for playing Calvert-Lewin onside in the second minute. He then made the mistake of letting Richarlison turn in the 10th. Richarlison also got the better of Bellerin in the 21st, the 44th and the 50th. In the closing minutes, Sigurdsson ghosted past Bellerin to hit the post with a cross-shot. To his credit, Bellerin provided some width down the right flank whenever Ozil drifted inside. The Spaniard created Arsenal’s first chance with a teasing cross in the 12th. Bellerin also tested Pickford with a drive in the 65th.

A complementary partnership

Emery is slowly putting together the pieces of the Arsenal puzzle. Torreira finally made his first Premier League start on Sunday. It’s easy to understand why Emery has been so cautious with Torreira. Because the pace of the game is faster in England than in Italy, Torreira might lose some of the 50-50 challenges that he would normally win in Serie A. Remember how Xhaka got sent off in his first season at the club because of mistimed tackles.

The first league games showed that the partnership formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi was flawed. Neither Xhaka nor Guendouzi is a natural ballwinner. Both are deep-lying playmakers. That’s why Torreira gives more balance to the team: his partnership with Xhaka is more complementary. In fact, that duo is very similar to the midfield combination in the other top clubs.

On Sunday, Arsenal finally played with a ballwinner (Torreira) and a deep-lying playmaker (Xhaka) like the Blues do with Kante and Jorginho, like Spurs do with Dier and Dembele and like the Citizens do with Fernandinho and Silva. The Reds are the exception here as they prefer to play with a holding midfielder (Henderson) in front of two all-rounders (Milner and Wijnaldum) who can both defend and attack.

A partnership between Torreira and Guendouzi might work too. Guendouzi may have more potential than Xhaka as a deep-lying playmaker, but Xhaka is in his prime while Guendouzi is still learning the ropes. In the big games, experience will help you have more composure in the final third. It will also help you recognize certain plays.

Some fans will point out that Arsenal still had a ballwinner a few months ago with Coquelin. However, Coquelin’s technique is more limited and he doesn’t read the game as well as Torreira. I mean there’s a reason why Coquelin never played for the France team while Torreira was a starter for Uruguay at the last World Cup.

Ramsey’s first assists

Torreira won 66.7% of his duels against Everton, the highest percentage for any Gunner according to the club’s website. His stats (1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 7 ball recoveries) may not look impressive, but Torreira’s tactical awareness and his underrated role in Arsenal’s attacking play really made a difference. He received a yellow card for a rash challenge on Sigurdsson in the 15th and Everton tried to get Torreira sent off when he inadvertently stepped on Digne’s hand with his trailing leg on the stroke of halftime.

The Uruguay midfielder created the opening goal by intercepting Davies’ clearance in the 56th. He also helped protect Arsenal’s two-goal lead by deflecting Sigurdsson’s shot in the 83rd and blocking Digne’s cross in the 84th. His only blemish was the ball he gave away in the 73rd but he somehow managed to recover the ball and draw a foul from Davies.

The Gunners maybe lacked a bit of creativity in midfield. They’ve lost Rosicky, Cazorla and Wilshere in the past couple of seasons and haven’t replaced them. While Torreira is an upgrade on Coquelin, Xhaka can’t really reach the level of a Cazorla. Ramsey and Ozil led Arsenal players with 2 key passes each, which is a low figure. By contrast, Sigurdsson led all players with 4 key passes.

At least, Ramsey finally got his first assists this season. He set up Lacazette for the opener in the 56th before teeing up Aubameyang for the second goal with a backheel flick in the 59th. The Wales midfielder also attempted a through ball that was intercepted by Pickford in the 45th and made a cross for Aubameyang that led to a penalty shout in the 55th. Emery yanked Ramsey off to send on Welbeck in the 80th.

Ozil’s work-rate in the 2nd half

Ozil has definitely been one of the players struggling to adapt to Emery’s style of football. While Wenger cajoled Ozil by giving him plenty of freedom first in a 4-2-3-1 formation and then in a 3-4-3 system, Ozil has become an ordinary cog under Emery. Ozil made only 38 passes on Sunday compared to 101 for Xhaka. His influence was limited by Gueye’s crazy work-rate. One of the best ballwinners in the league, Gueye made 10 tackles, 3 interceptions and 7 ball recoveries. That explains why Ozil had 5 turnovers, an unusually high number for him.

The former Germany international was a peripheral figure in the first half. His performance significantly improved after the break. He set up Ramsey for a low volley in the 49th before leading the counterattack for the second goal in the 59th. Ozil had so much time that he missed his pass for Ramsey, who kept the play alive with a backheel flick.

His critics will probably notice Ozil’s improved work-rate in the second half. Ozil won 2 of 4 tackles after the break. Is it the price Ozil must pay to stay in the starting lineup? To a certain extent, that made me think of Arshavin. The Russian forward barely contributed defensively when he arrived at Arsenal. But in his last seasons at the club, Arshavin earned the crowd’s appreciation by tracking back and even making tackles.

Until Koscielny’s return from injury, Emery will stick with Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis and Monreal at the back. In midfield, Torreira has made himself indispensable in the No. 6 role. Emery still has to figure out whether the team is more balanced with a three-man midfield a la Liverpool or with a midfield pyramid. The bigger concern is the attack which lacks fluency despite the goals scored. The Gunners also lack natural width because Ramsey, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette prefer to play through the middle.

Lacazette’s top-class finish

On Sunday, Ramsey occasionally moved to the left wing when Ozil drifted inside and Aubameyang made diagonal runs. One solution would be to play Lacazette on the right wing like Salah at Liverpool while moving Aubameyang to his favorite centerforward position. That still leaves open the question of who plays on the left wing as Aubameyang doesn’t have the all-around game for that.

Lacazette showed good work-rate by winning 2 of 3 tackles, and making 1 interception and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 aerial duels won, according to whoscored.com. The France international wasted a good situation in the 40th by attempting to shift the ball from his left foot to his right one instead of taking a first-time shot from 10 yards. The extra touch allowed Gueye to dispossess Lacazette and the chance was gone. Lacazette made amends in the 56th with a top-class finish, curling a powerful strike into the top corner. He also had a hand in the second goal by releasing Ozil down the right flank.

Boosted by his 2 goals against Vorskla, Aubameyang found again the net against Everton. Aubameyang was in an offside position when he took Ramsey’s pass in the 59th, but the referee let the goal stand because the Premier League is not using VAR technology. The Gabon striker also cut the ball back to Monreal for a close-range effort in the 12th before hitting the bar with a cross-shot in the 42nd. Emery gave Aubameyang some rest by replacing him with Iwobi in the 68th.

I expect some heavy rotation for the League Cup game against Brentford on Wednesday for the simple reason that the Gunners play Watford on Saturday. The Hornets have enjoyed a great start to the season as they are 1 point clear of Arsenal in the standings and could be a direct rival for European spots this season.

 

Cardiff vs. Arsenal: Gunners earn first away win this season

Arsenal’s poor record on the road last season was the main reason why they missed out on a Top 4 finish. They had 4 wins, 4 draws and 11 losses from 19 away games while Premier League teams like Manchester City, United, Spurs and Chelsea won at least 10 away games. Sunday’s 3-2 victory at Cardiff City is definitely a step in the right direction. It should have been a comfortable win for the Gunners, who enjoyed 72% of ball possession and mustered 11 shots on target to just 3 for the Bluebirds. But they made life difficult for themselves by blowing the lead twice with some poor defending.

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

Emery made 2 changes to the side that defeated West Ham 3-1 the previous weekend with Ozil and Lacazette replacing Mkhitaryan and Iwobi in the starting lineup. I thought it was a bold approach from Emery, who started Lacazette and Aubameyang together for the first time. Lacazette produced a ‘Man of the Match’ performance with 1 goal and 3 key passes, including 1 assist. With a backheel flick, Lacazette found Aubameyang, who curled a shot into the far corner for a 2-1 lead in the 62nd minute. Then Lacazette took a pass from Torreira in the 81st and, on the turn, beat Etheridge from a tight angle for the winning goal.

Lacazette was involved in most of Arsenal’s scoring chances. He set up Monreal for a low volley in the 54th and met a corner from Xhaka in the 74th for a header that Etheridge saved. Besides the individual performance of the France international, I’m sure Emery must have noticed the understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey, which was one of the few positives from last season.

Adapting to a new manager

In the sixth minute, Ramsey made a cross for Lacazette, who had a penalty shout denied despite an obstruction from Morrison. Three minutes later, Lacazette found Ramsey with a backheel flick and the Wales midfielder tested Etheridge with a low strike. Lacazette nearly made it 2-0 in the 33rd after taking a pass from Ramsey to fire a 20-yard drive that hit the base of the post. In stoppage time, Ramsey picked out Lacazette, whose first-time effort was parried by Etheridge.

I hope Emery will build his team around that duo despite the uncertainty created by Ramsey’s contractual situation. Emery hasn’t found his best starting XI yet, but he still has time to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Although centerforward is Aubameyang’s favorite position, the Gabon international started again on the left wing. Aubameyang netted his first goal of the season and showed some good work-rate with 2 tackles won, 1 interception and 3 recoveries, according to the club’s website.

In the Wenger era, Ramsey played as a central midfielder while Ozil was given a lot of freedom either in the hole or in a front three. In fact, Wenger built his team around the duo formed by Sanchez and Ozil. Now Ramsey and Ozil have to play differently under Emery. Ozil started Sunday’s game on the right wing while Ramsey played again in the role of a free-roaming midfielder. Both players have no goal and no assist so far. The big difference is that Ramsey had an impact at Cardiff with 2 shots on target and 3 key passes while Ozil struggled to fit in Emery’s plans with 0 shot and 1 key pass.

In central midfield, Emery was again reluctant to start Torreira even though the Uruguay international would provide more protection to the back four than Xhaka or Guendouzi. One explanation is that Emery is trying to ease Torreira into the league. But that sounds weird since Guendouzi is younger and has less experience than Torreira.

The Hollywood pass

Guendouzi had an off day. He is considered an upgrade over Elneny but on Sunday he looked pretty much like a pedestrian version of the Egypt international. In the previous league games, Guendouzi had better stats than Xhaka. That trend was inverted at Cardiff as Guendouzi made only 1 tackle, 0 interception, 2 recoveries and 55 passes, compared to 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 9 recoveries and 99 passes for Xhaka, according to the club’s website. Were youth and inconsistency the reasons behind Guendouzi’s below-par performance, or was it the result of some tactical instructions? I noticed Guendouzi was more cautious in his positional play and almost seemed to take a back seat to let Xhaka shine in midfield.

It’s hard to see Xhaka as a leader in this Arsenal team for the simple reason that he’s not effective. As a holding midfielder, he doesn’t protect the back four. As a deep-lying playmaker, he creates very few chances from open play. Xhaka had 3 key passes against Cardiff, but they all came from corner kicks. And as a pacesetter, he doesn’t have the vision, technique and speed of a Cazorla in his prime.

Xhaka has improved his disciplinary record, but he’s still guilty of some poor decision-making. The Gunners should have reached half-time with a 1-0 lead. In injury time of the first half, Xhaka opted for a risky crossfield pass to Bellerin instead of slipping the ball to an unmarked Guendouzi. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Guendouzi is the safest passing option. Hoilett intercepted Xhaka’s pass and the ball traveled to our right flank, where Bennett made the cross that led to Cardiff’s equalizer.

Cardiff vs. Arsenal M45a edited.jpgThere is no Bluebird in a 10-yard radius around Guendouzi. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Switzerland international nearly put his team in trouble again by giving away a cheap free kick with a silly handball in stoppage time of the second half. Emery felt the need for more security in midfield and sent on Torreira for Guendouzi just a few seconds after Cardiff leveled at 2-2 in the 70th. Torreira made an instant impact in his short cameo, winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 interception and 2 recoveries. He also drew fouls from Hoilett and Arter, who both got booked.

When to pull the plug

The Gunners are not yet playing the way Emery wants them to. One reason is that some players are a poor match for his brand of football. Another reason is the bad habits inherited from the Wenger era.

Playing the ball out from the back with Cech in goal has proved challenging so far. Cech was put under pressure in the opening minute and ran out of trouble by dribbling past Reid inside his own area. That’s not the kind of risk you want your goalkeeper to take. It could have been a blunder like the one experienced by Lloris in the World Cup final. Two plays highlighted Cech’s limited passing skills. In the seventh minute, Cech gave the ball away to Arter, who missed the target from 16 yards. Then the Czech goalkeeper made a sloppy pass to Guendouzi in the 46th. Hoilett intercepted the ball but opted for a long-range strike that sailed wide instead of playing Ward through on goal.

At 36, Cech is unlikely to improve his passing skills. Obviously, Cech is an important character in the Arsenal dressing room. He’s also highly respected in the league. But Emery will just embarrass Cech more by persisting with him in goal. The Spanish manager should take advantage of the international break to make a change and play Leno in the Premier League games while starting Cech in the European and domestic cup games.

Ghosts of the Wenger era

The Gunners were less open than against West Ham, but some defensive frailties of the Wenger era re-emerged. The 2 goals scored by Cardiff came from a cross and a set piece. On the stroke of halftime, Bennett hoisted the ball into the Arsenal box where Camarasa beat Monreal to the ball to fire into the roof of the net. On that play, Lacazette failed to track back and left Bellerin in a 1v2 situation down the right flank. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Bennett had acres of space when he took the pass from Arter. That play also showed that the Gunners are not playing like a unit yet. The team was split in two in some kind of 4-2-4 formation.

Cardiff vs. Arsenal M45b edited.jpgBennett has plenty of space and time to make a good cross. (Photo credit: Sky)

There were a couple of warnings before that goal. Sokratis failed to stop a cross from Reid in the 19th, but Ward couldn’t make contact with the ball. Then Ozil failed to track Bennett in the 29th. The Cardiff fullback made a cross for Ward, who miscontrolled the ball. Monreal pounced on the loose ball, only to head it into the path of Reid, whose overhead kick sailed over the bar. And Hoilett put the Arsenal defense under pressure again in the 43rd, but the referee didn’t spot the body check on Ward and Cech easily caught the ball.

Morrison did a lot of damage in the air. The Cardiff centerback led all players with 10 aerial duels won, compared to 5 for Mustafi and 4 for Sokratis, according to whoscored.com. The Gunners are more vulnerable in the air this season because Sokratis doesn’t perform as well as Koscielny in that area. They also lost Giroud, who played an important role defensively on set pieces.

The Bluebirds’ plan on set pieces was quite simple but Arsenal simply had no answer. Morrison outjumped Xhaka and Monreal in the 45th to redirect a free kick toward an unmarked Arter, who volleyed over the bar from 16 yards. The Gunners lost again the second ball in the 70th. At the far post, Morrison outjumped Ramsey to head a free kick toward Ward, who beat Cech with a header inside the post. On that play, Monreal was not tight to Ward. Cardiff also created a favorable matchup by isolating Ramsey with Morrison.

In Sagna’s shoes

In the closing minutes, the Bluebirds nearly salvaged a draw with another set piece. Morrison outjumped Sokratis to knock the ball down for Madine, who slipped the ball to Zohore. Morrison got the better of Xhaka and Mkhitaryan to meet Zohore’s cross but headed over the bar.

Bellerin was more selective in his runs than against West Ham. He still contributed offensively with a low drive in the 11th and a teasing cross in the 77th that Etheridge spilled. A few years ago, Sagna was often left in 1v2 situations because of Walcott’s poor work-rate. The same situation is developing now with Bellerin because whoever plays on the right wing (Ozil, Lacazette or Mkhitaryan) doesn’t make the required effort defensively. On the opposite flank, Monreal missed a golden chance to double the lead in the 15th. He was also shaky defensively, losing 3 key duels inside the Arsenal area.

Sokratis and Mustafi form a relatively complementary duo in the heart of the Arsenal defense because Mustafi is a pro-active defender while Sokratis is a more traditional, passive centerback. Mustafi opened the scoring in the 11th with a powerful header off a corner from Xhaka. The German defender nearly added a second goal in the 54th from another corner but Etheridge palmed away his bouncing header. Last season, Mustafi was let down by a few lapses of concentration. It happened again on Sunday when Ward robbed Mustafi in the 79th to feed Reid, who rounded Sokratis only to shoot straight at Cech.

Emery and his staff must take advantage of the international break to figure out how they can improve Arsenal’s defensive record because there’s no way the Gunners can have a shot at a Top 4 finish if they keep leaking 2 goals per game. When the Premier League resumes, Emery’s managerial skills will be tested by the hectic schedule. With 7 games in all competition from Sept. 15 to Oct. 7, Emery will have to rotate in order to avoid fatigue and injuries.

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.

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.