Tag Archives: Chambers

Arsenal vs. BATE Borisov: A few thoughts on the 6-0 win

The Gunners finished the group stage of the Europa League on a high note with a 6-0 demolition of BATE Borisov on Thursday. Arsenal played in a half-empty stadium because they had secured the top spot in the previous round and the game was therefore a dead rubber.

Arsenal vs. Borisov

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

Wenger made 11 changes to the side that lost 3-1 to Manchester United a few days ago. Against the weakest club of Group H, the manager also shifted to a back four with Chambers and Holding as centerbacks and Debuchy and Maitland-Niles as fullbacks. Although the Gunners won 4-2 in Belarus, Wenger fielded an experienced lineup with just one player from the academy. Youngsters like Nelson, Willock and Nketiah only came off the bench in the second half.

  1. The World Cup is coming

For some players, the World Cup is the most important competition in their careers. They only have a few months left to convince their national managers that they should go to Russia. Welbeck played in the 2014 World Cup and is facing some tough competition for the England squad this season. He knows goals will definitely impress Southgate.

On Thursday, Welbeck had 2 shots saved by Scherbitski and proved selfish at least twice. Wilshere released Welbeck down the left flank in the 22nd minute. Instead of making a low cross for an unmarked Giroud, Welbeck attempted an angled effort that Scherbitski blocked outside his area. Welbeck was again obsessed with scoring on his own in the 37th. The Englishman tried to dribble past 2 defenders but lost possession with a heavy touch. Milunovic knocked the loose ball into the path of Walcott, who fired past Scherbitski for a 2-0 lead.

Giroud also tried too hard with just 2 of 7 shots on target. He took his chance from tough positions a couple of times. His hold-up play was also poor but at least he found the net and worked hard for his teammates. Giroud beat Scherbitski with a spot kick into the top corner in the 63rd but was forced to re-take the penalty because of an encroachment. The Frenchman chose the same side but fired low the second time to make it 5-0.

As a selfless player, Giroud set up Elneny for a strike that hit the base of the post in the third minute. He also redirected a cross from Wilshere into the path of Walcott, whose half-volley was saved in the 26th. And he won the ball in midfield for the second goal. Playing time might be a less important issue for Giroud to earn a World Cup spot because his unique profile in the France squad makes him more valuable.

Few football fans would bet on Walcott making the England squad, but he still has an outside chance. The Belarusian side played to his strengths by leaving a lot of space between the goalkeeper and the backline. Walcott notched 1 goal and 2 assists in a good all-around performance. He could have added another goal in the 40th but Milunovic cleared his low effort off the line. Poliakov was less lucky in the 51st as he sent Walcott’s cross into his own net. Walcott then won the penalty in the 63rd by poorly controlling Welbeck’s pass. Milunovic tried to win the ball but Walcott was quicker and got fouled by the BATE defender.

  1. Holding is slightly ahead of Chambers

The football website whoscored.com gave a better grade to Chambers but I thought Holding performed better. They didn’t have much work to do, but at least they didn’t make any cock-up like Koscielny and Mustafi. The case for Holding: He had a passing accuracy of 94%, made 4 interceptions and 2 blocks, hit 3 accurate long balls out of 3, and had 0 turnover, while Chambers had a passing accuracy of 84%, made 1 interception and 1 block, hit 5 accurate long balls out of 12, and was dispossessed twice. The case for Chambers: He won 1 of 1 tackle and 5 of 5 aerial duels, while Holding won 0 of 2 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. It doesn’t show in the stats but Stasevich rolled away from Chambers in the 68th to shoot straight at Ospina.

  1. What is the best system for Wilshere?

It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in a 3-4-3 system. His limited defensive contribution prevents him from playing as the holding midfielder even if Xhaka is a choice by default. Wilshere doesn’t have Ramsey’s all-around game to play in the demanding position of a box-to-box midfielder. And he doesn’t have the pace of Sanchez or Ozil to play in the front three. On Thursday, the switch to a back four made clear that Wilshere is more comfortable in a 4-2-3-1 formation. As he is aging, Wilshere looks more and more like Fabregas in his game. Wilshere can slip those through balls from midfield while proving a serious goal threat from mid-range.

Wilshere finished the game with 1 goal and 1 assist and led all players with 5 key passes. He also had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, according to Squawka. Wilshere curled a shot from the edge of the box that Scherbitski tipped over the bar in the 42nd. A minute later, Wilshere took a pass from Walcott and created some space to smash the ball into the corner for a 3-0 lead. In a similar situation in the 74th, Wilshere drew two defenders before setting up Elneny, who curled into the far corner to seal the win. It was a great performance but the weakness of the opposition definitely helped Wilshere.

  1. Debuchy scored his first goal since 2014

Debuchy broke the deadlock in the 11th minute by pouncing on a loose ball to rifle into the far corner. Milunovic initially brought down Walcott inside the area but the referee didn’t blow the whistle, so Debuchy took his chance from 16 yards. Debuchy looked a better fit at rightback than Chambers against Cologne. Most Arsenal attacks came from the right flank although Debuchy didn’t create any chance. BATE forwards also never really tested Debuchy’s relative lack of pace. Debuchy seems to have come to terms with the end of his international career as he hasn’t been vocal about his playing time this season.

  1. Coquelin and Elneny bossed the midfield

The opposition was so weak that Coquelin and Elneny only combined for 1 tackle. The more surprising stat is the 3 key passes they each made. Only Wilshere had more key passes. Elneny led all starters with a passing accuracy of 96% while Coquelin’s technical limitations showed with 6 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player.

 

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Cologne vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 loss

   Arsenal secured a first-place finish in Group H of the Europa League despite a 1-0 defeat at Cologne on Thursday. Their four-point lead in the standings means that neither Cologne nor Red Star Belgrade can win the group even if the Gunners lose to BATE Borisov in two weeks.

Cologne vs. Arsenal.jpg

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

Wenger made 11 changes to the side that won the North London Derby last weekend. The manager injected a bit more experience than usual as Willock and Nelson were on the bench even though they started both Belgrade games. The Gunners played at a slow tempo but still dominated Thursday’s match with 16 shots compared to just 4 for the hosts, who haven’t won any game in the Bundesliga this season. Somehow, Cologne managed to score against the run of play in the second half. In hindsight, maybe Wenger should have started more youngsters instead of keeping some senior players happy.

  1. Ospina, Welbeck and Chambers returned from injury

If we except Cazorla, the Gunners have no player on the disabled list now. That’s good news when you look at the busy schedule for the next two months. Ospina was not much tested in Germany. He palmed away an angled strike from Cordoba in the sixth minute and could do nothing about Guirassy’s penalty in the 62nd. The manager was cautious with Welbeck, who only played the first half and was replaced by Iwobi at halftime. Welbeck seemed fit, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and curling a shot wide of the far post in the 33rd.

On the other hand, the sluggish Chambers didn’t prove a convincing choice at wingback. Debuchy played most of his career as a fullback and would have been a better option on the right flank. Chambers made no cross in the first half. The only chance he created came in the 67th with a cross that Wilshere headed over the bar. Chambers was guilty on the play that led to the penalty by failing to stay with Guirassy, who played a one-two with Jojic.

  1. There are too many average players in the squad

Thursday’s game showed the gap between the regular starters and the second-choice players. It’s hard to see what players like Chambers, Debuchy, Elneny, Coquelin, Giroud and even Wilshere could bring to the side that defeated Spurs. Elneny sent long balls out of play in the 15th and 39th and couldn’t beat the first defender with a couple of corner kicks. Only 2 of his 11 crosses were accurate, according to whoscored.com.

Hopefully, hiring Mislintat as the head of recruitment at Arsenal will help improve the squad. The scouting department has performed poorly in the past few years under Rowley. A change was long overdue. France used to be a gold mine for Arsenal but the club has missed out on the best players from the French league lately (Kante, Pogba, Martial, Mbappe, Varane, Kondogbia).

While Arsenal made mistakes in signing Park, Chamakh and Gervinho from French clubs, Mislintat helped Borussia Dortmund sign Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro. Here’s the difference between those two groups of players: Park, Chamakh and Gervinho shone in the French league but failed to adapt to the Premier League whereas Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro carried their success from France to the Bundesliga. A smart scout will spot the skills that can be imported to any league while an average scout will focus on the less important skills.

It’s OK to gamble once in a while on young players like Sanogo, Reine-Adelaide, Bielik and Holding. But when you spend £16 million on Chambers, £13 million on Paulista and £7 million on Elneny, you expect to get regular starters and not benchwarmers.

  1. Debuchy was the weak link in the back three

The French defender led all players with 5 fouls. He clearly struggled with Guirassy’s pace and was booked for a cynical foul on the Cologne forward in the 49th. A poor clearance from Debuchy led to a scoring chance for the German side in the 60th: Guirassy took a pass from Jojic but could only hit a tame effort straight at Ospina. A minute later, the referee awarded the hosts a penalty for some minimal contact between Debuchy and Guirassy. It was a play similar to Bellerin’s challenge on Richarlison in the Watford game.

  1. Mertesacker had a decent game

The German defender led Arsenal players with 5 interceptions and was dominant in the air with 9 headers won. He made up for his lack of pace with his smart positional play. In fact, Mertesacker was the only Arsenal centerback who won a tackle. He won 1 of 2 tackles compared to 0 of 2 for Holding and 0 of 6 for Debuchy, according to Squawka. Mertesacker nearly leveled from a corner in the 64th, but his header was cleared off the line by Horn.

On the left side of the back three, Holding lacked focus a couple of times. Cologne capitalized on a Holding turnover in the 12th to launch a counterattack but Mertesacker intercepted Cordoba’s final ball. Mertesacker had Holding’s back again in the 28th. Cordoba rolled away from Holding only to have his pass for Osako intercepted by Mertesacker. In the closing minutes, Holding was pulled out of position and Mertesacker had to kill a counterattack by blocking a cross.

  1. Maitland-Niles rose to the occasion

The contrast with Chambers’ performance on the opposite flank was glaring. Although Maitland-Niles is a right-footed player, he still managed to make 3 key passes from the left wing. He also had a passing accuracy of 95%, won 2 of 4 tackles and had 5 successful dribbles out of 7, while Chambers had a passing accuracy of 77%, won 0 of 1 tackle and had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, according to Squawka. Maitland-Niles is not playing in his favorite position (central midfield) but at least he’s honing his skills by getting some experience in competitive European games.

  1. Wilshere’s performance raised more question marks

Wenger said before the international break that Wilshere was ready for the England team. However, Wilshere’s performance against a weak German side was a mixed bag. Wilshere tested Horn with a downward header in the 21st and long-range strikes in the 66th and stoppage time. He also had 8 successful dribbles out of 11. But his defensive contribution was limited and he only made 2 key passes despite 69% of ball possession for the Gunners. The most frustrating part was his poor ball-retention skills that led to 5 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in Southgate’s plans. The England manager seems to build his squad around the pressing game implemented at Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City.

  1. Arsenal didn’t play to Giroud’s strengths

Giroud is an old-fashioned centerforward. He won’t create a chance out of nothing like Van Persie. That means Giroud needs decent service in the box. Unfortunately, the Gunners didn’t feed him with crosses. Giroud was involved in only 1 aerial duel and that was in midfield. That’s criminal when you know the France striker’s dominance in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 76th. Giroud chased a ball over the top from Wilshere but had a heavy second touch which allowed Horn to tackle the ball out of play. Deprived of service, Giroud tried to work for his teammates. He drifted to the left wing in the 30th to make a cross for Coquelin, who hit the near post.

  1. When a senior player is blocking a youngster’s path

Nelson is the most promising prospect in the academy. Walcott’s presence in the squad has forced Wenger to play Nelson in the wingback position. Nelson initially struggled in that role before improving his understanding of the position and his defensive skills. The manager could have started Nelson against Cologne but he preferred to give some playing time to Chambers and Debuchy, who both had a poor game.

When Nelson came off the bench to replace Chambers in the 67th, the Gunners suddenly looked more threatening down the right wing. Nelson could have won a penalty for an obstruction from Sorensen in the 83rd. He also showed off his dribbling skills in the 89th by slaloming through the Cologne defense to sting Horn’s gloves with a toe poke. The teenager got bonus points in the 71st for his defensive awareness. Guirassy outpaced Debuchy but Nelson rushed back to recover the ball.

What Wenger’s new contract means for Arsenal

The 2016-17 season proved the most challenging period for Wenger in his Arsenal career because the fans turned against him while the board was reluctant to back him. Despite the criticism in the news media, the uncertainty around the squad and a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Premier League, Wenger has been handed a two-year contract extension. Let’s see what that means for the Gunners.

  1. The club structure is still an issue

The board missed an opportunity to fix structural flaws at the club. The timing would have been perfect this summer to prepare the transition and create the position of sporting director. You wouldn’t expect a manager to simultaneously supervise the squad, the youth teams, the recruitment and the scouting. That’s too much work for one person, especially in a big club. Yet, that’s pretty much what Wenger does at Arsenal. And I think it’s counterproductive.

Arsenal Pre-Season Tour

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

Big clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG and Manchester City have a sporting director helping the manager. It’s important to understand that the manager should not be accountable to the sporting director. Both are like teammates. The sporting director should remove some workload off the manager’s shoulders so that the manager can focus on the game and the squad.

It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s most successful era occurred when Dein was a vice-chairman on the board. Dein had a great knowledge of football and basically acted as a de facto sporting director by facilitating transfers and keeping an eye on the youth teams. It was the complementarity between Dein and Wenger that propelled the club to success. Nowadays, nobody on the board is knowledgeable enough to challenge Wenger’s views and provide a different perspective.

  1. Recruitment and scouting are still erratic departments

The recruitment and scouting departments have underperformed in the past few years. It might be a consequence of the flaws in the club structure. The Gunners haven’t signed any hidden gem lately. Don’t start mentioning Holding because at this stage of his career he’s just a prospect who wouldn’t be in the starting lineup if everybody was fit. When I say hidden gem, I mean players like Kante and Alli who had a major impact in their first Premier League season.

There have been at least two scouting mistakes since 2014. Signing Chambers from Southampton for about 17 million pounds was quite puzzling. That’s the kind of fee you would pay for a starter, but not for a prospect. To put things in context, Chambers cost more than Koscielny and Paulista. At 22, Chambers still has room to improve, but three flaws won’t change: his slow first steps, his inability to quickly turn and his weakness in the air. In my eyes, Chambers is a decent fit for an average team but not good enough for a club chasing a Champions League spot.

Another weird signing was Elneny, hired from Basel for about 10.5 million pounds. Arsenal needed a ballwinner at that time. Instead, the Gunners signed a utility midfielder. It might be OK to get the profile wrong if the player has great skills. Unfortunately, Elneny is not a decisive player. Defensively, he doesn’t win many tackles or duels. And offensively, he doesn’t make assists or score goals. Elneny’s main asset is his passing accuracy, which can prove useful to keep a high tempo against the weak sides but is not enough against the big teams.

An underwhelming recruitment has been the main reason for Arsenal’s inability to contend in the Premier League. Everybody knows the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. It’s the same with transfers. You need to act quickly to sign the best players who are available. You also need a decent number of players to fill the holes in the squad. And finally, the quality of those new signings must be good enough to improve the team.

Let’s analyse the last 4 transfer windows. In the summer of 2013, the Gunners signed Sanogo on July 1, Flamini on Aug. 29 and Ozil on Sept. 2. The timing was poor since Flamini and Ozil were not even available on opening day. As a prospect, Sanogo could not be the answer in the centerforward position. And of the three players, only Ozil was top quality.

The summer of 2014 was arguably the club’s best transfer window over the past four years. Arsenal signed Sanchez on July 10, Debuchy on July 17, Ospina on July 27, Chambers on July 28 and Welbeck on Sept. 2. The timing and the quantity were fine. The only question mark was about the quality with Sanchez as the only top signing on paper.

The summer of 2015 was undoubtedly the worst transfer window. the Gunners signed Cech on June 29 and that was it. The squad was not competitive enough because there were too many holes in it. That poor recruitment campaign allowed Leicester to win the league against all the odds.

Last year, the club signed Xhaka on May 25, Holding on July 22, and Perez and Mustafi on Aug. 30. The quality was decent and the quantity right, but the timing was poor as Perez and Mustafi could only make their Arsenal debut in September. Maybe the Gunners would have not dropped five points in the first two games of the season if Perez and Mustafi had joined in July.

The comparison with Manchester United and City really hurts as Mourinho and Guardiola acted much faster than Wenger. United signed Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Bailly and Pogba before opening day while Stones, Sane, Gundogan and Nolito joined City before the first game of the season.

  1. The Gunners won’t be contenders

Arsenal signed Schalke leftback Kolasinac on June 6 and Lyon striker Lacazette on July 5, but it will take more than two signings for Arsenal to have a shot at the Premier League title. Wenger tends to be too optimistic in the assessment of his squad. As a result, he fails to identify all the weaknesses in the squad and becomes reluctant to clear the dead wood.

First, the Gunners need a defensive midfielder. They currently don’t have a destroyer like Petit or Gilberto to effectively shield the defense. In his first season at the club, Wenger played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. It’s only after signing Petit in the summer of 1997 that the manager was able to switch to a back four.

And second, the Gunners should sign a creative midfielder to make up for Cazorla’s long-term absence. The Spaniard could be sidelined until November. At 32, there’s no guarantee that Cazorla will rediscover his form. The end of his Arsenal career could echo Arteta’s last couple of seasons at the club. On paper, Wilshere would look like a natural replacement but he doesn’t have Cazorla’s defensive awareness and his fitness could be a concern too.

  1. A perfect storm for players’ contracts

Quite a few Gunners haven’t signed any extension yet although their contracts end in 2018. The most obvious cases are Sanchez and Ozil, whose wage demands exceed 250,000 pounds a week. It is not just a matter of money. Sanchez and Ozil both feel that the club is lacking ambition. They could ask for a move if they think that the squad is not strong enough to contend for the title. And we would end up with a situation very similar to what happened in 2011 when Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy left the club before Van Persie and Song also jumped off the ship the following year.

If Sanchez and Ozil can’t be tied to the club beyond 2018, then it might be better to sell them this summer. If it was up to me, I would sell Walcott and Sanchez but keep Perez and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are among the clubs interested in Sanchez, who’s got the highest resale value of all the squad members. Obviously, it would be better to sell Sanchez to a German club so that it doesn’t backfire on Arsenal. But Bayern Munich seemed to have balked at the player’s wage demands.

Lacazette and Perez would be natural replacements for Sanchez as both are strikers who score a lot of goals and make a lot of assists. They also have plenty of pace and good dribbling and passing skills. However, Perez has been unhappy about the lack of opportunities last season, especially when Giroud and Welbeck were injured, as Wenger preferred to give the nod to Walcott or Iwobi. His omission from the squad touring Australia and China could hint at his departure this summer.

Selling Ozil would be more tricky. First, he has a lower resale value than Sanchez. And second, there’s no natural replacement in the squad for the Germany playmaker: Cazorla plays in a deeper position while Wilshere is not as prolific for assists as Ozil. Of course, that would become a different story if the Gunners sign Lemar from Monaco.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere and Gibbs also have their contracts ending next year. Money is not really the issue here. The key factor is their playing time. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs need to play regularly in order to shine and catch the attention of the England manager. Another factor is Wenger’s declining aura after a disappointing season. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs must be frustrated when they see other players improve under Klopp, Pochettino and Guardiola and snatch starting spots in the England team. They might think that they would perform better under a different manager. Arsenal will let Gibbs go after signing Kolasinac last month.

  1. Arsenal will stick to the 3-4-3 formation

The Gunners conceded a lot of goals last season because their midfield was not strong enough to protect the defense and because the back four was flawed: Bellerin lacked consistency because of injury and transfer rumors, Monreal and Gibbs struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank, and Mustafi performed poorly in the second half of the season. It took a shift to a back three to stop the bleeding. Unless the club signs a world-class ballwinner, Arsenal would still be too vulnerable with a back four against strong and even average teams.

  1. Tension with some fans won’t go away

Some fans turned against the team when Arsenal had a poor run of form in the winter. The ‘Wenger Out’ brigade seemed to make it personal by deliberately hurting the club with hostile chants and banners to get Wenger sacked. In my eyes, that attitude was completely wrong. Chelsea and Leicester were flirting with relegation when Mourinho and Ranieri were dismissed. Yet, neither Mourinho nor Ranieri suffered such abuse from the Chelsea and Leicester fans. By contrast, the Gunners were always in the Top 6 last season.

The main problem with such a hostile behavior is that it puts off a lot of players by instilling fear and anxiety in them. Nobody wants to play in that kind of atmosphere. And players may think twice before signing a contract at the Emirates.

Now that the board has made its choice clear, the fans have to stand by the team, which means no protest for this upcoming season unless the Gunners are stuck in a relegation battle. In the final year of Wenger’s contract, if the fans want to put some pressure on the board to hire a new manager, then empty seats at the Emirates and protests outside the stadium would be the only decent options. Displaying hostile banners and shouting hostile chants inside the stadium would be like scoring an own goal.

I have no doubt that the Wenger issue will come back in the 2018-19 season. The board had no serious replacement for Wenger this year and therefore extended his contract. They will have to anticipate and act more decisively in a year and half. Finding the right successor is a long process and should leave no room to improvisation as Moyes’ failure at Manchester United showed.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Do the Gunners really want to contend?

“Where do we go? Where do we go now?” would sing Guns N’ Roses after Arsenal’s 4-3 loss to Liverpool in the Premier League on Sunday. The Gunners also lost their opening games in 2013 and 2015, but that was mostly a matter of complacency against Aston Villa and West Ham, whereas they were focused and motivated against the Reds.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool

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

A quick look at the starting lineups showed how both clubs fared in the transfer market this summer. Liverpool started the game with three new signings (Klavan, Wijnaldum and Mane) while Arsenal only had one (Holding) at kick-off. Wenger’s defensive options were limited by Koscielny’s lack of match fitness as well as long-term injuries to Mertesacker and Paulista. I think it was a wise move to leave Koscielny out of the squad since he had not played in any summer friendly.

The manager made more questionable choices in midfield. Wenger was obviously wary of the Reds’ attacking threat and tried to protect the back four by stuffing the midfield with a ballwinner (Coquelin) and two all-rounders (Elneny and Ramsey). That ploy worked in the first half but Klopp adjusted in the second half by attacking down the flanks. I think the manager could have shown more ambition at the Emirates stadium by starting Coquelin, Xhaka and Cazorla in midfield. That’s how the Gunners finished the match.

Losing Ramsey & Iwobi

Up front, Wenger had the choice between Sanchez, Walcott and Akpom. Walcott proved inefficient in the lone striker role last season as well as in the summer friendlies. Akpom is stronger in the air and more physical than Sanchez and Walcott, but lacks experience in the Premier League. In the end, the manager gave the nod to Sanchez, who felt as uncomfortable as Walcott while playing back to goal. The Chile striker’s work-rate could not make up for his weakness in the air and his inability to hold the ball up.

Arsenal lost three points on Sunday but also two players. Iwobi picked up a thigh injury and was replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 59th minute before a hamstring injury forced Ramsey to let Cazorla take over the playmaking duties in the 62nd. Both Ramsey and Iwobi will be sidelined for three to four weeks.

Iwobi’s injury was unfortunate since he had a normal pre-season training. On the other hand, I think starting Ramsey was a big gamble. Some fans will say that Kante and Payet played for Chelsea and West Ham respectively last weekend despite reaching the Euro 2016 final with the France team. That’s true. But Kante and Payet don’t have Ramsey’s injury history. I believe Ramsey is like a diesel engine and therefore needs a lot of time to hit match fitness. In my eyes, the fact that Ramsey only played in the last summer friendly against Manchester City was a red flag.

Holding’s inexperience

Chambers’ limitations and Holding’s inexperience really hurt us at the back. If you add Monreal’s poor performance, Arsenal had very little chance of containing Liverpool’s firepower. Holding only made small mistakes, but as you know, it’s all about small margins at the top level. He will need time to adjust to the pace of the Premier League where the game is faster than in the Championship. Holding has decent pace but he really needs to think more quickly. His passing accuracy of 74.1% was too low for a centerback, especially in a club traditionally building play from the back.

Holding only made one foul in Sunday’s game but it gave the Reds an opportunity to level in the closing seconds of the first half. He shoved Coutinho from behind although the Brazil midfielder was back to goal. It was a soft foul, but Holding gave the referee an excuse to blow the whistle by putting his hand on Coutinho’s shoulder. Coutinho curled the subsequent free kick into the top corner to tie the game.

Coutinho created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense by often drifting inside from our right flank. He pulled Holding out of position in the 49th and played Wijnaldum in with a clever flick. Wijnaldum ghosted past Bellerin and made a cross for Lallana, who chested the ball down to fire through Cech’s legs for a 2-1 lead. All the defenders made a mistake on that play. Bellerin was on the wrong side of Wijnaldum, Holding should have let a midfielder press Coutinho, Chambers was not tight enough to Mane, and Monreal left too much space for Lallana by attempting to compensate for Chambers’ lax marking.

Too slow to turn

Liverpool took a 3-1 lead in the 56th when Coutinho connected with a cross from Clyne for a close-range volley. Monreal failed to stop the cross while Holding was beaten to the ball by Coutinho. Again, football is about winning duels. Monreal only won 54.5% of his duels according to the club’s official website, which is less than Holding (66.7%), Bellerin (75%) and Chambers (80%). Monreal performed well last season but what happened on Sunday is a reminder that he’s already 30 and that the staff will soon have to find an alternative.

Monreal lost possession on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 23rd, forcing Bellerin to take the ball away from Firminho with a last-ditch tackle. Two minutes later, Firminho ghosted past Monreal to take a pass from Lallana but had his shot blocked by Chambers. On paper, Gibbs is the logical replacement at leftback. He’s younger and faster than Monreal. Unfortunately, Gibbs often performed poorly when he was given a chance because of lapses of concentration.

Chambers headed home Cazorla’s free kick in the 75th to cut the deficit to 4-3 but his inability to turn quickly was badly exposed against the Reds. Firminho toyed with Chambers in the 58th before making a low cross for Coutinho, whose first-time effort was saved by Cech. Coutinho lost Holding inside the box on that play. Then Mane outpaced Chambers down our left flank in the 63rd and cut inside Monreal to beat Cech with a curling shot into the top corner for a 4-1 lead. Chambers also had a couple of silly turnovers, sending a long ball to Bellerin straight into touch in the 27th and having a sloppy pass intercepted by Firminho in the 40th. Firminho’s interception led to a tame low strike from Wijnaldum that Cech easily saved.

Sanchez struggling up front

The Gunners pressed high up the pitch in the first half to dominate possession. Somehow, they lost their compact shape in the second half as Liverpool proved more aggressive in midfield and capitalized on the poor defensive contribution from Iwobi and Walcott to make the difference on the wings.

Wenger used Ramsey as a free-floating midfielder like Wales did in the Euros. Ramsey took a reverse pass from Sanchez in the seventh minute to poke the ball straight at Mignolet. He was about to pull the trigger in the 14th but was denied by a last-ditch tackle from Moreno. The Wales midfielder played a role in the opening goal by making a decoy run to create space for Walcott. Still, Ramsey’s activity in midfield couldn’t make up for the lack of a playmaker who could feed Sanchez. It’s quite telling that Cazorla had more key passes than any other Arsenal player despite playing just the last 30 minutes.

Up front, Sanchez struggled in an unfamiliar role, winning only 28.6% of his duels and getting caught offside 4 times. His weakness in the air prevented the Arsenal defense from relying on a target man to evade Liverpool’s pressing game. Lovren easily outjumped Sanchez whenever there was a long ball. In the end, a lack of service combined with a poor reading of the plays explain why Sanchez could only muster one shot off target. I just think that Sanchez’s qualities are better used when he plays on a wing.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s solo goal

The manager seemed to give up on his idea of turning Walcott into a centerforward as the England international started on the right flank. Walcott did his bit in the first half, winning a penalty in the 29th that he failed to convert before opening the scoring with a diagonal shot in the 31st. The trouble is that Walcott completely disappeared in the second half. In the closing minutes, Walcott took a pass from Bellerin but the ball stayed under his feet and the chance was gone.

Iwobi started on the left wing and didn’t do much besides his assist for Walcott. The challenge for the Nigeria international will be to be more consistent in his performances this season. The Ox came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 59th and scored a solo goal by dribbling past Clyne, Lallana and Henderson to fire past Mignolet in the 64th. He just turned 23 this week and I believe it’s the perfect age for him to show more composure in the final third and have a breakthrough season like Ramsey did in 2013.

The defeat against Liverpool is not just three points dropped. It also reflects Arsenal’s poor performance in the transfer market this summer. There are four persons who can be blamed for that disaster: Kroenke, Gazidis, Law and Wenger.

Laughing stock in the transfer market

Kroenke and Gazidis are responsible for the transfer budget. Liverpool and Chelsea did not even qualify for any European competition, yet they’ve spent at least 20 million pounds more than Arsenal in the transfer market this summer. That’s a joke knowing that the Gunners topped the list for Premier League prize money last season with 100 million pounds and will get at least 20 million pounds for playing in the Champions League group stage this year. The club has more maneuvering room financially since Ozil’s signing but it looks like it only wants to spend 50 to 60 million pounds per year in average on transfers despite increasing revenues.

Law is another culprit. Arsenal shouldn’t be waiting for key signings at the end of August. That’s unprofessional. The two Manchesters acted quickly enough in the offseason to have their squads ready for opening day. It just shows that the Gunners are completely inefficient in the transfer market. As the club’s chief negotiator, Law is responsible for the transfer policy. He doesn’t have great ties with agents and is known for being difficult to deal with.

Starting from scratch again?

The club’s bid for Lyon striker Lacazette clearly hints at Law’s poor understanding of the market. The bid matched Lacazette’s official market value, which is about 29 million pounds. French clubs expect more money from English clubs than from other European clubs. Wenger is aware of that financial reality and would have never made such a low bid. Arsenal’s only chance to convince Lyon of releasing Lacazette would have been to offer at least 40 million pounds. That sounds like a crazy amount of money, but you have to remember that Manchester United paid a fee of 38.5 million pounds to sign Martial (with bonuses possibly inflating that fee to 61.6 million) and that Chelsea spent 33 million pounds this summer to get Batshuayi, who’s not as prolific as Lacazette.

Kroenke, Gazidis and Law are making Wenger’s job much harder. But the manager must also take responsibility for taking too long to realize that the scouting staff has done a poor job over the past few years. Arsenal signed Wrigglesworth, Leicester’s head of technical scouting, in February. However, it will take more than one scout to improve the detection of transfer targets. Which means that the club’s only option this summer is to spend if it wants to contend this season. Otherwise, it will lose its best players next summer and will have to start from scratch again with a project a la Dortmund.

FA Cup: Giroud ends goal drought in 4-0 Pyrrhic win over Hull

Arsenal paid a hefty price to qualify for the quarterfinals of the FA Cup as Mertesacker, Paulista and Ramsey picked up injuries in the 4-0 victory over Hull on Tuesday. On the positive side, the Gunners snapped a five-game winless streak in all competitions while Giroud scored his first goal since mid-January.

FA Cup 5th round replay

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

Mertesacker got injured in a clash of heads with Powell after 16 minutes. The German centerback tried to soldier on but eventually had to throw in the towel in the 32nd. Monreal came off the bench to team up with Paulista in the heart of the Arsenal defense. Then Paulista pulled his hamstring in the 53rd, leading Wenger to send on Ramsey for the Brazilian defender. Flamini shifted to rightback while Chambers took over the centerback position. The manager was forced to make his last substitution in the 73rd when Ramsey suffered a thigh strain.

We are now depleted in midfield since Cazorla, Wilshere, Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain are still on the disabled list. At the back, Mertesacker should be able to recover from what looks like a swollen eye, but Koscielny is still doubtful for this weekend and we don’t know yet how serious is Paulista’s hamstring injury. At least the manager rested Bellerin, Welbeck, Sanchez and Ozil while Coquelin was serving a one-game suspension.

Wenger made six changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Tottenham on Saturday with Chambers, Flamini, Iwobi, Walcott, Campbell and Giroud replacing Bellerin, Coquelin, Ozil, Sanchez, Ramsey and Welbeck in the starting lineup. The Tigers made it difficult for Arsenal to build play from the back by pressing high up the pitch. The absence of an organizer in midfield led to a lot of back passes in the opening minutes.

Giroud’s movement inside the box

I thought the tactical setup was a bit weird with Walcott on the left wing and Campbell on the right wing. Playing with inverted wingers does not really favor crosses since they tend to cut inside and shoot with their stronger foot. Giroud has been struggling with confidence lately, so it made more sense to feed him with crosses like when he had Podolski on the left flank and Walcott on the right one a couple of years ago.

Deprived of decent service, Giroud initially drifted to the wings where he made some crosses for Walcott. That didn’t work. So Giroud moved back into the box, where he pounced on Meyler’s blind back pass in the 41st to slip the ball through Jakupovic’s legs for the opening goal. The Gunners could have doubled the lead two minutes later when Gibbs struck the bar with a curling shot from 30 yards.

Gibbs initiated the second goal with a run from midfield in the 71st to connect with Walcott, whose cross was volleyed home by Giroud. The France striker finished the game with 3 of 4 shots on target, reminding everybody that he is still our most accurate forward. His lack of pace does not allow him to make lethal runs in behind the defense, but his movement inside the area is excellent and his power helps him hold the ball up and win aerial duels.

Campbell’s work-rate

Those two goals should definitely boost Giroud’s confidence. He last scored against Liverpool on Jan. 13. However, let’s remember that Hull is just a Championship side. In his return from a hamstring injury, Sanchez found the net against second-tier Burnley on Jan. 30, but he waited for more than a month before scoring his next goal against Tottenham. Hopefully, it won’t take that long for Giroud to rediscover his form in the league.

Walcott also had a poor run of form as his previous goal came against Leicester on Feb. 14. The England international did not really impress in the first half with two corner kicks poorly taken and a low drive off target. But Walcott is an unusual and frustrating player. He can be invisible for 89 minutes and still show up to make the difference in the final third for one minute. That’s what happened in the 77th. Leading a counterattack, Campbell slipped a through ball to an unmarked Walcott, who took a perfect first touch to beat Jakupovic with a low effort. In the closing minutes, Walcott sealed the win by taking a pass from Iwobi to fire an angled strike that took a deflection off a defender to beat a wrongfooted Jakupovic.

Campbell displayed again his fantastic work-rate by winning 4 of 5 tackles, the most for any player. He lacked accuracy in the first half with a curling shot wide of the far post in the 10th and an overhit return pass for Giroud in the 44th. But the Costa Rica forward made amends in the second half with an assist for the third goal.

Elneny as the new Song

Tuesday’s match at the KC stadium confirmed what most fans know about Iwobi. His technique and reading of the game are outstanding for a teenager, but he really needs to toughen up if he wants to become a Premier League player. Iwobi was a bit too eager in the opening minutes with a couple of inaccurate through balls. Somehow, he settled down in the second half, testing Jakupovic with a long-range strike in the 87th before delivering the assist for the fourth goal. Iwobi finished the game with 3 shot assists, the most for any player, but also just 38% of his duels won, tied with Elneny for the lowest percentage among the midfielders.

Elneny made the midfield more balanced against Tottenham by adding some fluency in Arsenal’s passing game. He’s not a ballwinner like Coquelin, or an organizer like Cazorla or Wilshere or a goal threat like Ramsey. The Egypt midfielder’s role is simply to make the defense connect with the attack. His passing accuracy against Hull reached 94%, the highest percentage among the midfielders. He’s also improving the physical side of his game, winning 3 of 5 tackles.

I tend to see Elneny as a more mature version of Song when he arrived at the club, that is, a player whose development could produce a solid Premier League midfielder. But right now, Elneny is mostly a back-up for Wilshere and Cazorla. He still needs to work on his ball retention skills as Aluko dispossessed him in the 70th to hit Arsenal on the fast break. To his credit, Elneny hit a looping volley from 25 yards that Jakupovic tipped over the bar in the 51st.

Getting the priorities right

Chambers’ slow first steps were again exposed on the right flank. He gave away a free kick in the 30th by tripping Meyler and failed to cut Odubajo’s cross for Diame in the 53rd. Chambers felt more comfortable when Paulista’s injury led him to move to centerback.

The Tigers only had two clear-cut chances. Ospina preventing them from taking the lead in the 30th by stopping Meyler’s low strike from the edge of the box following a goalmouth scramble. Hull’s best opportunity to level came in the 64th when Diomande fed Powell on a counterattack. The Manchester United loanee ignored an unmarked Odubajo to his left and dragged a low shot wide. Ospina had very little to do in the second half, claiming a cross from Aluko in the 63rd and saving a long-range effort from Huddlestone in the 90th.

Arsenal will play Watford in the quarterfinals on Sunday, which means that the Premier League match against West Brom scheduled for this weekend is postponed to April or May. Let’s be honest, the FA Cup is our only chance of winning some silverware this season. So I would definitely field the strongest team against Watford. Then comes the Champions League game against Barcelona next Wednesday. Our chances of advancing in that competition are zero after losing 2-0 in the first leg at home. So I would rest some key players for the Premier League game against Everton on March 19, which is much more important because a poor result at Goodison Park could jeopardize our chances of finishing in the Top 4.

 

FA Cup: Gunners rest key players in 3-1 win over Sunderland

Arsenal advanced to the fourth round of the FA Cup despite resting five regular starters in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Sunderland. Mertesacker, Flamini and Ozil were not even in the squad while Ramsey and Monreal sat on the bench. The manager did not take any gamble with Sanchez, leaving the Chile striker out of the squad. Cech should have been given the day off, but Ospina’s groin injury during the warm-up forced Wenger to play the Czech goalkeeper.

FA Cup 3rd round

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

I thought it made sense to keep Paulista sharp by handing him a start. Debuchy should have been in the starting lineup too, but the possibility of a loan might have deterred the manager. France hosts the European Championship this summer and Debuchy made no bones about his desire to get more playing time and become the first choice at rightback for the France team. The Arsenal side looked very attack-minded with Chambers, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi in midfield, Campbell and Walcott on the wings, and Giroud up front. I would have opted for a more conservative midfield to rest Giroud and start Arteta.

The Gunners dominated Sunderland, enjoying 63% of ball possession and having 13 shots on target to just 3 for the visitors. The midfield was my main concern before the game since Chambers (20), Oxlade-Chamberlain (22) and Iwobi (19) are much younger than Cattermole (27), Toivonen (29) and Lens (28). But Iwobi really produced an eye-catching performance with 4 shot assists, 3 of 4 shots on target, and a passing accuracy of 95.8% (the best percentage among the midfielders).

Iwobi’s reading of the game

What I like about Iwobi is his movement, his close control and his reading of the game. Now he still needs to improve his fitness and his work-rate if he wants to become a starter in league games. Iwobi made no interception, won only 27.3% of his duels and lost the only tackle he made. Basically, he needs to toughen up. I believe Iwobi is ready for the level of the Premier League, but not yet for its physical side.

Iwobi dribbled past three Black Cats in the 20th minute to fire an angled strike that Coates deflected out. Five minutes later, Iwobi created the equalizer by finding Walcott on the left wing. Walcott cut the ball back for Campbell, who sent a first-time effort into the bottom corner. The same trio nearly added another goal in the 54th. Iwobi slipped a through ball to Campbell, who made a pass to Walcott with the outside of his left boot but Yedlin cleared the danger.

The Ox was our most senior midfielder on Saturday. Wenger gave him the playmaking duties but the Ox struggled to dictate the tempo as our passing game in the first half was too slow to destabilize Sunderland. The England international also showed his bad habit of forcing plays, attempting difficult passes and firing a speculative shot from 30 yards in the 29th when both Giroud and Walcott were in a better position.

The Ox struggling with confidence

Somehow, the Ox played more naturally in the second half, letting the situation dictate his move. He hit the post with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 57th. Walcott pounced on the rebound but his half-volley sailed wide. The Ox also created the last goal by releasing Bellerin down the right flank in the 75th. In stoppage time, the Ox led a counterattack and crossed for Reine-Adelaide, who controlled the ball and was denied by Pickford while a first-time effort was the better option. You can feel that a goal would lift the Ox’s confidence. He vented his frustration with a cheap foul on M’Vila in the 63rd, shoving the Sunderland substitute from behind.

After making a good impression against Bournemouth two weeks ago, Chambers was careless quite a few times against Sunderland. I believe Chambers is a decent option in midfield against the weak teams but a liability against the good ones. His lost duel in the third minute led to a Sunderland counterattack and a long-range strike from Lens that missed the target. Chambers was then outmuscled by Lens inside the Arsenal area in the 24th but the goal attempt of the Dutch midfielder was blocked. Koscielny had to recover the ball with a tackle in the 39th after Lens dispossessed Chambers again. Fans must certainly hope that Flamini is fit for the next few games because neither Chambers nor Arteta seems an attractive option.

Of our three forwards, Campbell delivered the best performance, scoring the equalizer and having a hand in Ramsey’s goal in the 72nd. Bellerin played a one-two with Campbell before outpacing Graham to make a low cross that Ramsey converted for a 2-1 lead. Ramsey replaced Iwobi in the 66th and made the difference with one of his deep runs which are difficult to track for any defense. Campbell could have also scored in the 61st. He played a one-two with Walcott and had his close-range shot saved by Pickford. The Costa Rica forward finished the game with 5 shot assists and 2 of 4 shots on target. Campbell has average pace and dribbling skills but his reading of the game has definitely helped the team this season.

Giroud’s understanding with the fullbacks

Walcott’s performance on the left wing proved a mixed bag. On the one hand, he gets the opportunity to cut inside and shoot with his right foot. But on the other, he does not provide as much ammunition to Giroud as when he’s on the right wing. Walcott made the assist for the equalizer and should have scored at least a goal. Pickford parried Walcott’s bouncing drive in the 27th. Walcott then missed the target with a half-volley in the 57th and could only muster a tame shot straight at Pickford from Gibbs’ low cross in the 70th. I don’t blame Walcott for not finding the net with that half-volley because he had to react quickly but I thought he should have been able to guide the ball toward the corner with his last chance. Walcott also showed a bit of naivety in his defensive work when Yedlin cut inside him in the 59th. Instead of diving in, Walcott should have protected the inside route and forced Yedlin to stay along the touchline.

As the Gunners played with two inverted wingers on Saturday, Giroud had to rely on the fullbacks for service. Giroud has developed a good understanding with Gibbs over the past few years. Giroud picked out Gibbs in the ninth minute but Pickford palmed away the angled effort from the Arsenal leftback. Gibbs then led a counterattack in the 68th but Giroud couldn’t make contact with his low cross. Giroud finally connected with a cross from Gibbs in the 84th only to have his header tipped over the bar by Pickford.

Bellerin’s stellar performance

Giroud was rewarded for his efforts in the 75th when Bellerin charged down the right flank to make a pinpoint cross through Van Aanholt’s legs. The French striker made a run at the far post to tap the offering home. I felt Giroud should have been awarded a penalty in the 78th. He took a pass from Walcott and had his shooting leg clipped by Yedlin just before pulling the trigger. It was a foul similar to the one made by Puyol on Fabregas in the Champions League six years ago. In my eyes, that was definitely a spot kick and a red card for killing a scoring chance.

The referee made another bad call in the 64th, giving Sunderland a free kick for a handball from Iwobi, who didn’t have time to get his arm out of the way. O’Shea made a similar handball a few minutes earlier but the referee didn’t blow the whistle. You know the referee is doing a poor job when there is no consistency in his officiating. In the end, those bad calls did not prevent the Gunners from qualifying for the next round.

At the back, Bellerin produced a stellar performance. The Spanish rightback made two assists, won 2 of 3 tackles and 87.5% of his duels (the best percentage among the starters). Paulista was brilliant against Bournemouth but lost a couple of key duels against Sunderland. Fletcher outmuscled Paulista to head Yedlin’s cross against the bar in the 59th. That was the turning point of the game. It could have been a different story if the Black Cats had taken a 2-1 lead. In stoppage time, Paulista received a yellow card for a poorly timed challenge on Watmore on the edge of the box. Cech saved Van Aanholt’s subsequent free kick.

Can Arsenal become a powerhouse again?

Among the defenders, Koscielny proved a disappointment. Pundits currently mention him as the best centerback in the league, but every once in a while Koscielny shows his dodgy decision-making. Gibbs dispossessed Watmore in the 17th and slipped the ball to Koscielny, who tried to dribble past Lens instead of clearing the ball. Lens won the ball back and fired a powerful strike past Cech to open the scoring. Koscielny then poorly marked Graham on a counterattack in the 78th. Lens fed Graham, who was denied by Cech.

The Gunners have managed to keep their confidence high with that victory while resting some key players ahead of tough trips to Liverpool on Wednesday and Stoke next Sunday. Winning the FA Cup for a third straight season would be a fantastic achievement but there’s no comparison with what a Premier League title would mean. We haven’t won the league since 2004. A league title would speak volumes about Arsenal’s new status as a powerhouse.

 

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth: Ozil gives passing masterclass in 2-0 win

Ozil scored and made an assist in the 2-0 win over Bournemouth on Monday to fire Arsenal to the top of the Premier League. His exceptional form is the main reason why the Gunners are contenders this season.

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth

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

Paulista bullied his marker to head in Ozil’s pinpoint corner from seven yards in the 27th minute. Then Ozil combined with Ramsey down the right flank before playing a one-two with Giroud to make it 2-0 in the 63rd. The Frenchman sent Ozil clean through on goal with a clever backheel flick. Ozil chested the ball down and showed great composure to slip it under Boruc.

Here’s a quick look at Ozil’s stats to understand how outstanding his performance was: 9 shot assists, a passing accuracy of 95% and 2 of 2 tackles won. The only negative: Ozil lost 70% of his duels.

The Germany playmaker has racked up 3 goals and 16 assists in 18 Premier League games this season for an average of 1.06 goal or assist per game. Ozil is a much better player than the one we saw in his first two seasons at Arsenal. To put things in context, Ozil averaged 0.54 league goal or assist per game in the 2013-14 season and 0.41 last season.

I never doubted Ozil’s abilities. Technically, he’s clearly the most gifted player in the squad. The key issue was why he didn’t seem to fulfill his potential. Somehow, Ozil gave the answer for his newfound consistency in an interview with a German magazine last week, saying he has changed his diet and is having more sleep and physiotherapy. Quite a contrast with the photos showing him smoking and partying like an animal a couple of years ago.

The quarterback and his receivers

Let’s analyze Ozil’s shot assists: four were from corners and five from open play. Paulista connected with Ozil’s corner kicks three times and Giroud once. In open play, Ozil created four chances for Walcott and one for Giroud. If Ozil were a quarterback, Walcott would definitely be his favorite receiver.

The understanding between Ozil and Walcott is more natural than the one between Giroud and Ozil. Because of his pace, movement and penetration, Walcott is a fantastic passing option for any midfielder who can read plays quickly. Ozil spotted Walcott’s run in behind the defense in the 24th and made a perfect cross for the England forward but Walcott failed to make contact with the ball while attempting a volley.

Walcott took another pass from Ozil in the 34th and had his shot blocked by Cook. The angle would have been better for Walcott with a first-time effort. A minute later, Walcott collected a through ball from Ozil and forced Boruc into a leg save with an angled strike. In stoppage time, Ozil led a counterattack and picked out Walcott with a cross from the left wing. However, Walcott’s heavy first touch allowed Boruc to deny him.

Ozil’s relationship with Giroud is different. Giroud is less mobile than Walcott but also more physical, which means that Giroud is a great target in the air and a solid option on the ground for executing a one-two. Ozil’s movement combined with Giroud’s quality link-up play led to the second goal. The duo nearly repeated the move in the 79th. Giroud held off Smith to release Ozil down the left wing. Ozil played the ball back to Giroud with a first-time cross but the Frenchman’s sliding effort sailed wide from 12 yards.

Cech’s Premier League record

Neither Walcott nor Giroud could find the net on Monday. Walcott was a bit selfish in the 67th, firing a low drive wide while an unmarked Ramsey was waiting at the far post for a cross. The Bournemouth defense poorly dealt with a punt from Cech in the 72nd, clearing the ball into the path of Giroud, whose long-range strike was parried by Boruc.

Bournemouth pressed high up the pitch in the opening minutes in an attempt to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game like Southampton did on Saturday.The crowd got some jitters with cheap turnovers by Ramsey and Mertesacker respectively in the fifth and 10th minutes. But in the end, Cech had a quiet evening with just a couple of routine saves, breaking a Premier League record by keeping a 170th clean sheet. Cech gathered King’s tame curling shot in the fifth minute, stopped Ritchie’s 30-yard drive in the 73rd and palmed away Murray’s diagonal strike in stoppage time.

What made the difference in the first half was Bournemouth’s poor defending on set pieces. The Cherries were in danger every time Arsenal had a corner. With better finishing, the Gunners could have reached halftime with a two-goal lead. Ozil’s technique combined with Paulista’s ability to attack the ball put the hosts ahead in the 27th. Then Paulista made a run at the near post to meet another Ozil corner in the 34th but his header bounced off the far post and Mertesacker’s face to go wide. Giroud and Paulista exposed again Bournemouth’s weakness in the air but missed the target respectively in the 36th and the 66th. The only time the Cherries did a decent job was in the 43rd when Paulista redirected Ozil’s offering toward the far post. Gosling prevented Ramsey from heading home with a timely challenge.

A new partnership in midfield

Wenger made four changes to the side that suffered an embarrassing 4-0 loss at Southampton on Boxing Day with Paulista, Gibbs, Chambers and Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing Koscielny, Monreal, Flamini and Campbell in the starting lineup.

Koscielny has been struggling with lower back and Achilles injuries in the past seasons, so I guess it made sense to rest him on Monday. Paulista deputized for the French centerback and had a great game, making 7 interceptions (the most for any player on the pitch) and winning 62.5% of his duels and 2 of 2 tackles. He made a crucial contribution in the 49th when King beat the offside trap to be clean through on goal. The Brazilian centerback sprinted to cut out King’s cross with a sliding block.

Flamini had an inflamed ankle according to the manager. With Arteta and Coquelin sidelined by injuries, losing a third defensive midfielder was not an option. So Wenger gave Chambers a chance in midfield. I had my doubts about the brand new partnership formed by Chambers and Ramsey. Chambers is a defender by trade while Ramsey enjoys roaming forward. Would they find the right balance to protect the back four?

Surprisingly, Ramsey restrained his attacking instincts to make up for Chambers’ inexperience in that position. The Wales midfielder won 2 of 2 tackles and made 4 interceptions, including one that prevented King from converting Daniels’ cross in the 13th. Chambers proved an efficient holding midfielder by keeping it simple and releasing the ball quickly. Obviously, Chambers doesn’t have Coquelin’s relentless energy but his stats were good for an unfamiliar position with 3 interceptions, 1 tackle won, no turnover and a passing accuracy of 89.8%.

The Ox enigma

Whether Chambers can reach Coquelin’s level of performance against bigger teams is a different story. Chambers had two minor lapses of concentration on Monday. After blocking Gosling’s long-range effort in the 59th, Chambers lost track of the Bournemouth midfielder, who took a pass from Smith and made a run inside the area. Gibbs dispossessed Gosling but Paulista kicked Gosling in the foot while attempting to clear the loose ball. In the 81st, Chambers gave O’Kane too much space for a curling shot that sailed wide.

The only negative for Chambers and Ramsey is that they both got booked. Ramsey held Gosling to stop a counterattack in the 30th while Chambers made a late tackle on Arter in the 61st. I’m fine with both decisions but I thought the referee was inconsistent. Arter in the 14th and Smith in the 45th made cynical fouls on the Ox but did not receive any yellow card.

It’s been a disappointing season for the Ox. The England international performed brilliantly against Chelsea in the Community Shield but he hasn’t been able to reproduce that kind of form so far, which explains why he’s currently competing with Campbell for the starting spot on the right wing. Does the Ox need to read the game a bit better? Is it a mental hurdle? Or does he simply need some luck?

At least, you can never blame the Ox for his work-rate. He won 5 fouls, 3 of 4 tackles and 81.3% of his duels. Daniels nearly turned a cross from the Ox into his own net in the 49th, forcing Boruc into a diving save. The Ox then led a counterattack in the 83rd, slipping the ball to Campbell, who found Walcott on the edge of the box. Walcott spun and picked out the Ox, whose deflected shot hit the post.

Title up for grabs

The Premier League title is really up for the grabs this season. The picture is pretty clear at the halfway stage. Arsenal (39 points), Leicester (39), Manchester City (36) and Tottenham (35) are still in the title race while Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have already fallen out of contention. The Blues of last season would have been miles ahead of Arsenal but they have self-destructed under Mourinho in the past few months. Liverpool and Manchester United are still going through a rebuilding process as their most realistic target seems to be a European spot.

The Red Devils trail Arsenal by nine points and it’s hard to see how they could win the title with just 30 points at the halfway stage. Assuming 80 points would be enough to win the league, that would imply racking up 50 points from the last 19 league games. Nobody can seriously believe that Manchester United will achieve that feat. The only team that came close to such a crazy run was Liverpool in the 2013-14 season. The Reds reached the halfway stage with 36 points before collecting 48 points in the second half of the season to finish second, two points behind Manchester City.

It’s the first time since the 2002-03 season that the top team has such a low total after 19 games. Arsenal was leading then with 39 points, followed by Chelsea with 37 and Manchester United with 35. Ferguson went on to win the title that season with 83 points and the Gunners finished second with 78.

In the past five seasons, the leading team at the halfway stage and the future champion always had at least 41 points after 19 games. For those who are superstitious, don’t read the next sentence. Of all the teams leading at the halfway stage in the past five seasons, the Gunners were the only ones who didn’t win the title.

It’s hard to predict which teams will still be in contention in March, but the next two months will seriously test Arsenal’s title credentials as the majority of their injured players won’t return before mid-February. Can the Gunners sustain their title challenge with a weakened squad?