Tag Archives: Chambers

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Gunners win 5-0 for Wenger’s last home game

It had to be a beautiful day for Wenger’s last game at the Emirates stadium. Burnley and Arsenal both formed a guard of honor to welcome Wenger onto the warm pitch before kickoff. Even Kroenke acknowledged the importance of the French manager in the history of the club by attending what looked like a meaningless game.

Arsenal vs. Burnley

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

Wenger still took Sunday’s match seriously enough to leave Nelson, Willock and Nketiah out of the squad. As a glorious send-off for their manager, the Gunners routed Burnley 5-0 to secure 6th place in the Premier League and avoid playing in some preliminary round of the Europa League this summer. Wenger made 7 changes to the side that lost 1-0 to Atletico Madrid on Thursday with Cech, Kolasinac, Mavropanos, Chambers, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang replacing Ospina, Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi, Ramsey, Ozil and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Dyche has built a disciplined, solid defense at Burnley but once you have faced a wall like Atletico Madrid, I guess all the other teams seem porous.

I hope the next Arsenal manager will use Aubameyang in the centerforward role because it really doesn’t make sense to play him on the left wing. Aubameyang is a pure fox in the box while Lacazette is a second striker. The opening goal in the 14th minute summed up their strengths. Lacazette played a one-two with Iwobi before firing an off-target shot that Aubameyang diverted in. On that play, Aubameyang behaved like a poacher while Lacazette showed off his all-around game. The Gabon striker also scored the last goal by stabbing home a cross from Bellerin in the 75th.

Optimizing the potential of a duo

Aubameyang has performed decently on the left wing. He could have had an assist in the 46th when he squared the ball back to Wilshere, who blazed over the bar from 6 yards. But too often his all-around game is not good enough to deliver a quality final ball. Aubameyang outpaced Tarkowski in the 78th only to overhit his cross for Welbeck. He then wasted a counterattack in the 86th by playing a pass behind Ramsey.

I believe that putting Aubameyang in the centerforward role would optimize the potential of the duo formed by Aubameyang and Lacazette. Aubameyang has electric pace and is more likely to stretch a defense than Lacazette, who doesn’t enjoy playing as a target man, especially in the physical Premier League. The referee should have given a yellow card to Long for a cynical foul on Aubameyang in the 45th. Nowadays, referees are so lenient that Pope could even hold the ball for 15 seconds without being penalized in the 48th. For those who don’t know the rule, an indirect free kick should be awarded when the goalkeeper controls the ball with his hands for more than 6 seconds.

There was a touch of Sanchez in Lacazette’s performance on Sunday. Lacazette scored a goal and led all players with 4 key passes and 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The France international doubled the lead by volleying home a cross from Bellerin on the stroke of halftime. Obviously, Lacazette has developed a good understanding with Bellerin. If the next manager wants to rely on a 4-3-3 system, Lacazette could efficiently play on the right wing. Another tactical option would be a 4-4-2 formation with Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front two, a bit like Henry and Bergkamp in the old days.

Iwobi’s impact in the final third

Mkhitaryan only joined Arsenal at the end of January but he has already struck a good understanding with Lacazette. The Armenia playmaker’s through ball for Lacazette was intercepted by Tarkowski in the fifth minute. They swapped roles later on. Lacazette made a cross for Mkhitaryan, whose first-time effort sailed over the bar in the 33rd. Then Mkhitaryan played a one-two with Lacazette in the 43rd before firing a deflected shot that Pope kept out with a reflex save. Mkhitaryan had no goal or assist, but his movement and creativity gave the Burnley defense some food for thought. He cut inside Westwood in the 55th to curl a shot wide of the far post. In the closing minutes, Mkhitaryan also teed up Welbeck for a long-range strike that rattled the post.

Ozil’s absence because of a back injury meant that the onus for creating chances was on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. You never know what you will get with Iwobi because of his inconsistency. But on Sunday, Iwobi showed good work-rate and end product. The Nigeria international, who turned 22 last week, scored 1 goal, won 1 tackle, and made 2 interceptions and 2 key passes.

I hope the next manager will show as much patience as Wenger because Iwobi is not the finished product yet. Iwobi made poor passes in the final third for Bellerin in the 18th and Lacazette in the 45th. He also cheaply gave the ball away in the 62nd and showed poor decision-making in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had 3 decent passing options with Wilshere, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, but he opted for a speculative shot that Ward easily blocked.

Arsenal vs. Burnley M34ed Iwobi ignoring 3 passing options. (Photo credit: SN360)

However, the main positive from Sunday’s game is that Iwobi didn’t shy away from his responsibilities and definitely had an impact. He led all players with 93 passes, according to whoscored.com, while Xhaka is usually the one with the most passes. Iwobi is slowly improving his understanding with Lacazette. He found Lacazette inside the box in the fourth minute but the France forward was crowded out and dispossessed. Then Iwobi made the return pass to Lacazette for the opening goal in the 14th. On the stroke of halftime, it was also Iwobi who released Bellerin down the right flank for the second goal.

Where does Wilshere fit?

In previous posts, I compared Iwobi to Bergkamp and Anelka. At this stage of his career, Bergkamp would be a better model for Iwobi, who can both make assists and be a goal threat when he plays in midfield. He still needs to work on his finishing obviously. Iwobi has a tendency to either miss the target or shoot in the middle of the net. On Sunday, Iwobi managed to fire into the top corner for a 4-0 lead in the 64th. He showed better composure than in the eighth minute when he rushed and hit a tame shot straight at Pope instead of controlling Mkhitaryan’s pass with his first touch.

Wenger has also played Iwobi on the wings, but his dribbling skills and crossing ability are average. Iwobi has decent pace but he simply doesn’t provide the penetration needed for a winger. So I guess the Anelka comparison no longer works. Especially since Nelson is knocking on the door and could become the Arsenal version of Sterling at Liverpool.

If Wilshere leaves the club this summer, Iwobi would be his natural replacement in midfield. Honestly, it’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in a team trying to contend in the Top 4 race. His defensive contribution is not good enough. Wilshere made 0 tackle and 0 interception. Even the sluggish Xhaka managed to win 2 tackles, according to whoscored.com. Wilshere produced a mazy run in the 54th to set up Kolasinac for the third goal, but we already have Ozil and Mkhitaryan to pull the strings in midfield and there’s no way that Wilshere can match their numbers for goals and assists.

A rare Mertesacker appearance

What do you need to quench your thirst on a hot day? A Kola! The Burnley defense was all over the place in the 54th when Kolasinac took a pass from Wilshere to smash a low drive into the far corner. Kolasinac raised his tally to 5 goals in all competitions this season, but there are still big question marks about his ability to defend. He won only 12.5% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. On the opposite flank, Bellerin struggled defensively, winning only 25% of his duels, but he contributed offensively with 2 assists, making the cross for Lacazette on the stroke of halftime and picking out Aubameyang for the last goal.

Chambers and Mavropanos did OK at Old Trafford. Therefore Wenger gave another start to the young pair of centerbacks. The Clarets were a good matchup for Chambers because Barnes, Hendrick and Vokes are physical forwards with average pace. Chambers tends to struggle against fast players with tricky footwork. The tactical setup also helped Chambers as the Arsenal defense dropped off when Burnley had the ball. A high defensive line would have exposed Chambers’ lack of pace. The obvious drawback with Chambers as a centerback is that the Gunners can’t squeeze the play and the midfielders also have more distance to cover.

In a classy gesture, Wenger yanked Chambers off in the 77th to send on Mertesacker. The German defender was offered the opportunity to say goodbye to the fans in the last home game of the season. As a sign of respect, Cech acknowledged the moment by giving the armband to Mertesacker. Although Mertesacker is not the longest-serving player at the club (Ramsey is), he is a leader in the dressing room and he helped steady the ship after the infamous 8-2 loss at Old Trafford in 2011. The fans showed their affection for Mertesacker by cheering each of his touches.

Winning key duels

At 20, Mavropanos looks more mature than his age. The Greek defender seems to like the physicality of the Premier League. He coped well with Lukaku a week ago and went toe to toe with Vokes on Sunday. The Gunners definitely need that kind of imposing centerback. In the past seasons, they have been too often bullied by Costa, Deeney and other intimidating strikers. The crowd encouraged Mavropanos by applauding him every time he had the ball.

Mavropanos showed good composure against Manchester United. On Sunday, Mavropanos also showed that he could read the game well. He led Arsenal players with 4 interceptions. The only negative in his performance was the 46.2% of duels that he won, compared to 71.4% for Chambers, according to the club’s website. Mavropanos will quickly find out that the Premier League is about winning duels, especially key duels. Burnley’s only scoring chance of the game came in the 49th when Hendrick rounded Bellerin to make a cross for Vokes, who got the better of Mavropanos for a header straight at Cech.

For the last two games of the season, the Gunners will visit Leicester on Wednesday and Huddersfield on Sunday. The challenge for the team is to finally earn a point on the road this year. I still hope that youngsters like Nelson and Nketiah will get some playing time even if the U23 team will face Porto in the International Cup on Tuesday.

In the meantime, the board will have to speed up the interview process in their search for the next Arsenal manager. I assume the board won’t make any accouncement before the official end of the season out of respect for Wenger. But it is crucial for the club to know by the end of May who is the next manager. The summer transfer window is shorter this year and the Gunners have no room for error in the transfer market.

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Atletico Madrid vs. Arsenal: A few toughts on the 1-0 loss

Wenger’s last season at Arsenal will definitely leave a bitter taste. The Gunners got knocked out of the Europa League after losing 1-0 to Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their semifinal tie on Thursday. The Colchoneros gave Arsenal a lesson in defending by limiting the visitors to just one shot on target. Now the Gunners have nothing to play for: they have been eliminated from every cup competition and can no longer finish in the Top 4 of the Premier League.

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

The French manager fielded the same team that started in the first leg. There was no surprise for Simeone, who has turned the Wanda Metropolitano stadium into a fortress: the Colchoneros haven’t conceded any goal at home since January. Arsenal never really looked threatening. They lacked penetration to crack a disciplined and compact Atletico defense. Oblak only had one save to make as he turned Xhaka’s long-range strike around the post in the 63rd minute. Defensively, the Gunners struggled to cope with Costa’s physicality and Griezmann’s movement.

  1. Dealing with long balls

Simeone was obviously aware that defending long balls was an Arsenal weakness. That’s how Griezmann scored the equalizer in the first leg. On Thursday, the Colchoneros repeated the trick in the opening minutes. Koscielny relied on his reading of the game to intercept a long ball for Costa in the fourth minute. But two minutes later, Costa ridiculed the Arsenal defense by controlling Oblak’s clearance and bullying Koscielny and Monreal to be clean through on goal. Fortunately, Ospina spread himself to force an off-target effort from Costa.

On the stroke of halftime, the Arsenal defense was all over the place when Oblak hit another long ball. Chambers outjumped Griezmann only to head the ball into the path of Partey, who found Griezmann with a first-time pass. Costa made a run in behind Bellerin to collect Griezmann’s pass and fire past Ospina for the winning goal. Chambers’ header was poor but he also made the mistake of not staying tight to Griezmann afterwards. Bellerin’s positional play was also questionable. Costa had a 5-yard lead over Bellerin when Partey made the pass. By playing in a too advanced position, Bellerin left Mustafi with a too large area to patrol.

  1. The stain on Wenger’s resume

Wenger is the most successful manager in the history of the club but you wouldn’t put him in the same class as Guardiola, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Ferguson, Benitez, Heynckes or even Simeone because he has never won any European trophy. The French manager had his best chances against Galatasaray in the 2000 UEFA Cup final and against Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final. There’s no shame in losing to a Spanish side that won the Europa League twice and reached the Champions League final twice in the past few years. But the comparison between Atletico’s budget and Arsenal’s resources tells you that Simeone has overachieved while Wenger has underachieved.

  1. The missing ingredient

Why did Arsenal struggle so badly to create chances? One reason was the poor quality of the final ball. Lacazette and Welbeck were deprived of service as they finished the game with 0 shot taken. The Gunners only made 2 accurate crosses out of 20, according to whoscored.com. And they didn’t produce any through ball whereas the Colchoneros had 2 accurate through balls out of 3. Starting on the right wing in a 4-3-3 system, Ozil had a poor game with only 1 key pass.

Here are a few plays that could have made the difference with a better final ball: Monreal made a poor cross for an unmarked Lacazette in the 15th; Bellerin overhit his cross for Welbeck in the 19th; and Ozil missed his cross for Welbeck in the 61st.

In a three-man midfield, Ramsey worked hard, leading all players with 7 tackles won according to whoscored.com. Ramsey even created the two best half-chances, picking out Lacazette and Monreal inside the Atletico area in the 27th and 32nd, respectively. Unfortunately, Lacazette and Monreal were both let down by a poor first touch.

  1. Arsenal shouldn’t count on Koscielny next season

Koscielny collapsed to the ground in the seventh minute because of a torn Achilles tendon and was replaced by Chambers in the 12th. It would be foolish from the staff to bet on a fit Koscielny for next season. The France centerback still has two years left on his contract but it could look like the last seasons at the club of Arteta, Rosicky and Cazorla. Mertesacker’s retirement, Koscielny’s nagging injuries and Chambers’ limitations mean that the club should sign 2 centerbacks this summer.

  1. Chambers is not good enough for Arsenal

At 23, Chambers may still have room for improvement, but two flaws in his game can’t be fixed: his lack of recovery pace and his inability to quickly turn. Costa dribbled past Chambers in the 67th to feed Griezmann, whose shot was deflected high in the air. Then Griezmann skipped past a diving Chambers in the 76th only to be dispossessed inside the area by Xhaka. Chambers was guilty on Costa’s goal and he gave away another chance in the 88th with a risky pass for Welbeck that Saul Niguez blocked. The loose ball fell to Torres, whose shot was parried by Ospina.

Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Youngsters impress in 2-1 loss

   A few years ago, there would have been a lot at stake in a Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester United. On Sunday, there was no such tension in the air because the Red Devils had secured a Top 4 finish while the Gunners had already dropped out of the Top 4 race a few weeks ago. In fact, both clubs have set their sights on different competitions: Mourinho wants to win the FA Cup whereas Wenger is still chasing his first European trophy.

Manchester United vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger made 8 changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid on Thursday with only Ospina, Bellerin and Xhaka retaining their starting spots. The manager obviously wanted to give a break to some key players before the second leg in Madrid. You can’t blame Wenger for such a pragmatic approach. Last season, Mourinho also heavily rotated in a game against Arsenal that was sandwiched between the two legs of a Europa League tie.

At kickoff, the Gunners looked like a makeshift team with 3 academy players (Mavropanos, Maitland-Niles and Nelson), 4 benchwarmers (Ospina, Chambers, Kolasinac and Iwobi) and 4 regular starters (Bellerin, Xhaka, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang). The heavy rotation helps explain why they struggled to create chances. Xhaka led Arsenal players with just 2 key passes while Bellerin, Maitland-Niles, Mkhitaryan, Nelson and Aubameyang had 1 key pass each.

Up front, Aubameyang got very little service. His only scoring chance came in the 36th minute when he met a cross from Bellerin for a tame header straight at De Gea. Iwobi was supposed to pull the strings in the No. 10 role but he showed again a lack of end product with 0 shot, 0 key pass, and 0 cross. The Nigeria international can be very frustrating to watch. He can produce one great performance and then look completely anonymous in the next five games. Iwobi will be turning 22 in a couple of days. It’s time for him to show more consistency and maturity in his game.

Vulnerable on crosses

Starting on the left wing, Nelson played with more confidence than against Southampton. The academy starlet had 2 goal attempts and made 1 key pass. In the 15th, Nelson cut inside only to hit a tame effort that didn’t trouble De Gea. And in the 44th, he headed wide a cross from Aubameyang. Nelson is more clinical with the U23 team but there’s no shame for a youngster to lack a bit of composure at the top level. There’s obviously less time and less space in the Premier League. I believe Nelson needs more exposure to such games in order to adjust to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. Wenger yanked Nelson off in the 64th to send on Welbeck, who tested De Gea with a long-range strike in the 69th.

Arsenal’s consolation goal came from Mkhitaryan, who was making his return from a knee injury. Mkhitaryan didn’t look 100 percent fit but he managed to beat De Gea with a low drive in the 51st. Xhaka capitalized on some poor communication between Matic and Herrera to win the ball back and feed Mkhitaryan, who fired through the legs of Lindelof. Mkhitaryan was less fortunate with his other goal attempts: he missed the target in the 20th and curled a shot wide in the 55th.

The Red Devils didn’t look impressive on Sunday but they exposed Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses. Pogba led a counterattack in the 16th and picked out Lukaku, who made a cross for Sanchez. The Chile forward struck the post with his header but the rebound fell into the path of Pogba, who tapped in to open the scoring. Xhaka made the first mistake on that play by diving in, Bellerin made the second by not marking Sanchez, and Maitland-Niles made the third by not tracking Pogba’s run inside the box. Young nearly doubled the lead in the 41st with a cross-shot that hit the woodwork.

Mavropanos’ Premier League debut

Spotting Arsenal’s weakness on crosses, Mourinho replaced Lingard in the 64th with Fellaini, who played as a second striker and proved an aerial threat inside the box. The first warning came in the 88th when Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Martial. Fellaini got ahead of Mavropanos only to head the ball onto the post. Three minutes later, Fellaini outjumped Xhaka to head a cross from Young into the top corner. Arsenal’s defensive organization was poor on that play. The nearest Gunner was 20 yards away from Young.

Xhaka was involved in both United goals. Maybe no Gunner could have done anything to prevent Fellaini from scoring in stoppage time, but Xhaka’s decision-making on the opener was poor. Xhaka also gifted the Red Devils a scoring chance in the fourth minute with a sloppy pass to Chambers. And he was booked in the 24th for pulling back Lingard.

In his Premier League debut, Mavropanos had a decent game. He looked comfortable on the ball and showed good composure. Mavropanos had 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 91.9% compared to 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 75% for Chambers, according to whoscored.com. His only moment of madness was a risky pass in a congested midfield that was intercepted in the 36th.

The staff definitely has some food for thought this summer. Should they sell Chambers to get some cash that will be used in the transfer market? The club has spent 4 years trying to develop Chambers only to see his obvious limitations. Mavropanos has more potential than Chambers. It would make more sense for the staff to invest their time in the Greek defender.

That defeat was a useful rehearsal before the Madrid game. You can bet that Costa will play in the second leg. And the former Chelsea striker is a bigger threat in the air than Gameiro. If the Gunners fail to stop dangerous crosses again, Costa and Griezmann could do a lot of damage. Mkhitaryan’s return from injury also gives Wenger more options for his starting lineup. Ramsey, Xhaka, Ozil and Lacazette will probably start on Thursday, which means that Mkhitaryan, Wilshere and Welbeck should compete for the two remaining spots behind the striker.

Newcastle vs. Arsenal: 2-1 loss sums up worst season in Wenger era

The Gunners are on course to finish the Premier League season with their worst tally in the Wenger era after losing 2-1 at Newcastle on Sunday. With 54 points from 33 games so far, they must win all their remaining games to avoid a tally as low as the 67 points of the 2005-06 season. The reason for such a mediocre season obviously lies in Arsenal’s poor away form. The Gunners are the only Premier League team without a point on the road this year.

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

Wenger made 6 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with CSKA Moscow in the Europa League on Thursday with Chambers, Holding, Xhaka, Willock, Iwobi and Aubameyang replacing Bellerin, Koscielny, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Lacazette and Aubameyang started together for the first time, but the real surprise on the team sheet was Willock playing in the hole.

Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession but created very little with just 3 shots on target to 4 for the Magpies. There was an obvious lack of creativity and penetration as the Gunners played at a too slow tempo to trouble the Newcastle defense.

At the back, Mustafi, Chambers and Monreal produced another horror show after the dodgy performance against Southampton a week ago. Gayle made a run in behind Mustafi in the 29th minute to chase a long ball from Shelvey and find Yedlin on our left flank. The American international made a cross for Perez, who beat Mustafi to the ball at the near post to open the scoring. You would expect a World Cup winner to win those duels at the near post. Mustafi was already at fault for Southampton’s opening goal from a similar cross. Mustafi also showed poor decision-making on that play. He could have played Gayle offside but didn’t. Monreal didn’t cover himself in glory either. The Spaniard was pulled out of position on that play, forcing Xhaka to cover him on the left flank. The trouble is that Xhaka didn’t track Yedlin when Shelvey hit the long ball.

Chambers’ limitations

The Magpies’ second goal came from a throw-in. Mustafi outjumped Slimani to head the ball sideways in the 68th. Monreal pounced on the loose ball only to head it into the path of Slimani, who found Perez inside the area. The Newcastle striker flicked the ball toward Ritchie, who shot past Cech from close range. Monreal made an error on that play and was again pulled out of position but Chambers and Xhaka were guilty too for not tracking Perez, leaving Holding in a 1v2 situation.

Could Mustafi improve under a new manager? I’m not so sure. Keown, who works as a TV pundit nowadays, pointed out what was wrong with Mustafi’s defending. You can bet that Bould, who played alongside Keown in the 1990s, made the same criticisms on the training ground at Colney. Is Mustafi listening? Maybe. But it’s hard to see him marshal the Arsenal defense when Koscielny will be gone. Mustafi was dominant in the air, winning 10 of 11 aerial duels. However, you can’t really be a top centerback if you keep losing key duels. Slimani dribbled past Mustafi in the 77th to cut the ball back for Perez, who fired into the side-netting.

Chambers didn’t make glaring mistakes like Mustafi, but his performance was just as poor. He did OK in the first half but was exposed after the break: the Magpies’ chances in the second half all came from his flank. Chambers led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, compared to 0 for Mustafi, 1 for Monreal and 1 for Holding, according to whoscored.com. As evidence of his technical limitations, Chambers’ passing accuracy dipped to 71.4%, compared to 85.1% for Mustafi, 88.8% for Monreal and 89.6% for Holding.

Chambers was also tortured in one-on-one situations, winning only 2 of 8 tackles according to Squawka. Kenedy turned Chambers in the 16th while Perez easily dribbled past the English defender in the 33rd. Playing as a rightback, Chambers’ lack of recovery pace allowed Kenedy to play a one-two with Slimani in the 75th before having his shot deflected by Mustafi onto the bar. Wenger ended Chambers’ suffering by replacing him with Maitland-Niles in the 78th.

Iwobi’s inconsistency

In the front three, Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang and Iwobi started on the wings. There are two mysteries here. Iwobi had a good game in the No. 10 role against Southampton. Yet, Wenger moved Iwobi to the right wing to play an academy player, Willock, in the hole. The second mystery is Wenger’s conviction that Aubameyang can shine as a winger. Yes, Aubameyang occasionally played as a winger for Saint-Etienne from 2011 to 2013, but he then became a prolific centerforward at Borussia Dortmund.

Arsenal’s opening goal in the 14th might give the impression that the manager made the right choice. Aubameyang controlled a long ball from Mustafi to make a cross for Lacazette, who volleyed home from close range. But that was the only meaningful play in which Lacazette and Aubameyang interacted.

Aubameyang was ineffective from the wing with 0 of 3 shots on target, while Lacazette’s weakness in the air was again exposed with just 1 of 4 aerial duels won, according to Squawka. Besides the goal, Lacazette was no threat in the final third, dragging a shot wide from the edge of the box in the fifth minute and wasting a scoring chance in the 42nd with a poor pass to Willock while he could have taken the shot himself. I still believe that the more natural partnership is to have Lacazette play off Aubameyang and not the other way around. Lacazette has a better all-around game than Aubameyang, who’s stronger in the air than the France international.

Starting on the right wing, Iwobi wasn’t able to repeat the performance he produced against the Saints with just 1 of 3 shots on target and 2 key passes. He also had 5 turnovers and showed poor work-rate again (0 tackle, 0 block, 1 interception). Inconsistency is normal for a 21-year-old player but the poor work-rate is a coaching problem. Ferguson wouldn’t have tolerated that while Wenger seems more lenient in that regard. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 86th, shifting from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a poorly balanced 4-2-4 system.

Willock’s Premier League debut

In midfield, Wenger overestimated Willock’s abilities by playing him behind Lacazette. Willock has made quite a few assists with the U23 team this season, but the gap with the Premier League level is massive. In his Premier League debut, Willock wasn’t really up to speed. He led all players with 3 fouls. In the opening minute, Willock turned over the ball after a poor first touch. He then dallied on the ball in the 35th and lost possession under Ritchie’s pressure.

Willock must certainly realize now that he has less time and space in the Premier League than in the U23 games. His work-rate at St. James’ Park was decent with 2 of 6 tackles won, 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. However, Willock will have to improve his tactical awareness. He failed to close down Shelvey in the 28th. The Newcastle midfielder hit a long ball for Gayle and it took a timely challenge from Mustafi to end the threat. A minute later, Willock was a split second late to close down Shelvey, who initiated the equalizer with another long ball for Gayle. Wenger yanked Willock off in the 68th to send on Welbeck. I tend to see Willock as a utility midfielder with the profile of a Coquelin or Flamini. He clearly doesn’t have the skills to play as a No. 10 or even as a box-to-box midfielder like Ramsey.

The Gunners have one week to recharge their batteries before facing West Ham on Sunday. At this stage of the season, the priority is the Europa League, which means that the two legs against Atletico Madrid on April 26 and May 3 will lead to rotation in Premier League games. I don’t think Wenger will rest key players against West Ham because the three days of rest before the first leg should be enough to recover. However, I’m pretty sure the manager will field a makeshift team against Manchester United to avoid injuries for the second leg.

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.

Arsenal vs. Stoke: Aubameyang, Lacazette score in 3-0 win

A quick look at the bench on Sunday showed that the Europa League has become the top priority for Arsenal. Koscielny, Xhaka, Mkhitaryan and Lacazette were sitting on the bench when the Gunners started their Premier League game against Stoke. In a normal season, those four players would be in the starting lineup. But a poor run of form from January to March means that Arsenal can no longer expect to finish in the Top 4 as they trail Spurs by 13 points with just 7 games left.   

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

The low stakes maybe explain why the Gunners produced a listless performance in the first half with a lot of misplaced passes. Arsenal showed more urgency in the second half and capitalized on two cheap fouls from the Stoke defense to convert two penalties. Ozil is a great asset against the weak and average sides because the quality of his final ball can really make the difference. He played Aubameyang clean through on goal in the 71st minute but Butland saved the Gabon striker’s chip attempt.

Ozil led all players with 6 key passes and created the opening goal by dribbling inside the Stoke area in the 74th. Martins Indi was on the wrong side of Ozil but still managed to toe poke the ball. Unfortunately, the Dutch defender also tripped Ozil and the referee thought it was a foul while TV replays showed Martins Indi kicked the ball before making contact with Ozil’s leg. Because the Premier League still hasn’t adopted VAR technology, the referee had no chance to double-check his call.

From the penalty spot, Aubameyang sent Butland the wrong way to put Arsenal ahead. He doubled the lead in the 86th by pouncing on a poor clearance from the Stoke defense to volley home from 10 yards. With 3 of 4 shots on target, 1 key pass and 0 turnover, Aubameyang had a good game. But he had to show a lot of patience because he got no service in the first half and his first goal attempt only came in the 65th, just four minutes after Lacazette had replaced an inefficient Welbeck.

The understanding between Lacazette and Bellerin

Lacazette and Aubameyang had already played together in the 1-0 loss to Tottenham. The France international came off the bench to play as a centerforward while Aubameyang shifted to the left wing both against Spurs and Stoke. I thought Wenger’s tactical choice was weird. Aubameyang occasionally played as a winger for French club Saint-Etienne from 2011 to 2013 but Lacazette has a better all-around game than Aubameyang and is therefore a more natural candidate to play on the wings. And Aubameyang is also a more natural candidate to lead the line as he is 5 inches taller than Lacazette and has electric pace.

In the end, those tactical considerations didn’t matter as Lacazette managed to make an impact. He chased a long ball from Bellerin down the right wing to feed Mkhitaryan, whose low strike was parried by Butland in the 85th. Three minutes later, Bellerin picked out Lacazette, who was smart enough to shield the ball with his body. Ndiaye gave away a cheap penalty by shoving Lacazette from behind. The Stoke midfielder made the decision easy for the referee by showing no genuine intent to play the ball.

In his return from a knee injury, Lacazette found the net by converting the penalty himself to seal the win. I believe Lacazette is a natural second striker, a bit like Griezmann who shines more by playing off Costa at Atletico Madrid and off Giroud with the French national team. Would Wenger use a 4-4-2 formation to accommodate Lacazette and Aubameyang? Another option would be to use Lacazette as a false winger like Sanchez. On the right wing, Lacazette has struck a good understanding with Bellerin. On the left wing, he could check back on his stronger right foot. In the 90th, Lacazette displayed great footwork on the left flank to dribble past 2 Potters before Martins Indi fouled him.

The Arsenal defense wasn’t much tested although each defender had a poor moment. Mustafi gave the ball away 3 times from the 10th to the 14th; Monreal was not tight enough to Shaqiri, whose curling shot sailed wide in the fourth minute; Chambers was nutmegged by Shaqiri in the 50th; and Bellerin was lucky not to get booked for a reckless challenge on Sobhi in the fourth minute.

Lapses of concentration on set pieces

Chambers was arguably our most solid defender on Sunday. He led all players with 4 interceptions and 89 passes, according to the club’s website. The English centerback also stole the limelight from Mustafi on set pieces, heading a free kick over the bar in the 44th and flicking a corner straight at Butland in the 72nd. Obviously, Chambers won’t face strikers as poor as Diouf and Berahino every weekend.

While Monreal had a quiet game on the left flank, Bellerin proved our most attacking defender on the right flank. Bellerin tested Butland with an angled strike in the 83rd before making the pass that led to the penalty in the 88th. Hopefully, Arsenal will keep him because I believe Bellerin could become one of the best fullbacks in the world with better coaching.

The scoreline was quite flattering for the Gunners, who could have conceded the opening goal because of lapses of concentration on set pieces between the 68th and 70th minutes. Shaqiri capitalized on a recycled corner in the 68th to fire a curling shot straight at Ospina. A minute later, the Switzerland international hit the far post with a direct corner. The Gunners had nobody to guard the far post and they failed to clean up the 6-yard box for Ospina, who wasted his time wrestling with Shawcross and Sobhi. Then Berahino ghosted past Mustafi on a throw-in but was denied by Ospina in the 70th.

In midfield, Elneny played behind Ramsey and Wilshere in an inverted pyramid. Elneny can survive as a holding midfielder against weak teams like Stoke but he would definitely struggle against the top teams because he doesn’t win duels. The Egypt international missed his tackle on Shaqiri in the opening minute and received a yellow card in the 37th for a poor challenge on Allen. In Arsenal’s passing game, Elneny is a facilitator because of his mobility and high passing accuracy. But he’s not an organizer like Cazorla or Xhaka.

Empty seats

The Gunners definitely seemed to miss a deep-lying playmaker in the first half. Wilshere could have dropped back to play alongside Elneny and pull the strings in midfield, but he mostly played as a No. 10 with a limited impact. Ramsey took a pass from Wilshere in the 29th for a shot that Pieters deflected out. A few seconds later, Wilshere made a cross for Mustafi, whose tame header didn’t trouble Butland. Unable to play for England during the international break because of knee tendonitis, Wilshere was replaced in the 76th by Mkhitaryan.

Ramsey also missed games with Wales to undergo surgery during the international break. His performance was a mixed bag. He had a couple of chances and made 2 key passes, but he also led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. After a poor punch from Butland in the 23rd, the ball fell to Ramsey, whose lob attempt bounced off the bar. Ramsey then teed up Welbeck in the 57th but the England forward missed the target from 15 yards. In the 83rd, Ramsey made a run in behind the Stoke defense to collect Xhaka’s long pass only to be denied by Butland, who came off his line.

There were again a lot of empty seats at the Emirates stadium and you can’t really blame the fans for Arsenal’s disappointing run in the league. Those who attended the game booed the team at halftime. Again, it was a mediocre first half, not worthy of the ticket prices. If some regular starters can’t perform at a decent level, then why not play youngsters who are more hungry? Players like Welbeck, Lacazette and Wilshere need some playing time to show their fitness and improve their chances of participating in the World Cup. But I’m sure players like Xhaka and Ozil wouldn’t mind getting some rest to be fresh for that competition this summer.

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.