Tag Archives: Elneny

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Lacazette, Ramsey fire Gunners to 4-1 win

The announcement of Wenger’s resignation at the end of the season had little impact on Sunday as there were still many empty seats at the Emirates stadium. The Gunners smashed West Ham 4-1 to move 4 points clear of Burnley in the Premier League standings. I guess we will have to wait until the final home game of the season to see a packed stadium again.

Arsenal vs. West HamPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger made 5 changes to the side that lost at Newcastle the previous weekend with Ospina, Bellerin, Koscielny, Ramsey and Welbeck replacing Cech, Chambers, Holding, Willock and Aubameyang in the starting lineup. Considering the absences due to illness (Ozil) or injury (Cech, Kolasinac, Wilshere and Mkhitaryan), the manager fielded his best team.

The Europa League has become the top priority because it is Arsenal’s only chance to qualify for next season’s Champions League, but the Gunners have enough time to recover before Thursday’s game against Atletico Madrid. If Wenger had rested his key players on Sunday, those who haven’t played since the Moscow game could have been rusty for the Europa League tie.

   The first half against West Ham looked quite familiar with a sluggish passing game as well as a lack of creativity and penetration. Arsenal’s few chances came from set pieces and long-range strikes. They played with more intensity in the second half but what really turned around the game was the substitution made in the 70th minute. By replacing an ineffective Iwobi with Aubameyang, the manager finally made the attack click and the Gunners scored 3 goals in the last 10 minutes of regulation time.

The absences of Ozil and Mkhitaryan meant that Iwobi was in charge of pulling the strings. Unfortunately, Iwobi looked like the clumsy player we all know instead of the pass master who shone against Southampton 2 weeks ago. Iwobi lacked end product with 0 shot on target and only 1 key pass. He also made poor passes to Lacazette in the 17th and Welbeck in the 40th and overhit a cross in the 53rd despite the presence of 4 Gunners inside the box. The cherry on the cake was the 2 times Iwobi ran the ball out of the play in the 30th and 45th.

Lacazette as a second striker

Iwobi’s poor performance meant that someone else had to deliver the final ball. Ramsey rose to the challenge by showing off his passing skills. The Wales midfielder is mostly known for his late runs in the box but he’s more versatile than most people think. Ramsey initiated a counterattack in the 50th by picking out Welbeck, who was brought down by Zabaleta. Then Ramsey made a cross for Aubameyang in the 82nd. Instead of heading the ball away, Rice ducked and the ball sailed past Hart for a 2-1 lead. Ramsey was not done yet. Aubameyang released him down the left wing in the 89th and Ramsey skipped past Zabaleta with some impressive footwork to cut the ball back for Lacazette, who fired a low strike past Hart to seal the win.

In the role of a free-roaming midfielder, Ramsey stepped up when the team needed him. He led all players with 4 successful dribbles and 3 key passes, according to whoscored.com. The only negative in his performance was his 5 turnovers and the 2 times he failed to catch the frame with mid-range shots in the 45th and 57th. The staff must make sure to extend Ramsey’s contract this summer in order to avoid the uncertainty created this season by the situations of Sanchez and Ozil.

Aubameyang’s involvement in the last 20 minutes was really the catalyst for change because it helped Lacazette express himself as a second striker. Lacazette had no success as a centerforward in the first 70 minutes. He took a pass from Elneny in the 20th, dallied on the ball inside the West Ham area and lost possession. Three minutes later, Lacazette overhit his final ball for Ramsey.

I have said many times on this blog that Lacazette is not tailored for the centerforward position in the Premier League. It’s true that Lacazette played in that role for Lyon, but the French league is less physical than the Premiership and there is not the same emphasis on aerial duels. Lacazette feels more comfortable playing off a centerforward than being the spearhead of the attack.

Elneny’s ankle injury

Arsenal’s second and third goals clearly show what is more natural for Aubameyang and Lacazette. If you look at the screen capture below for Ramsey’s goal in the 82nd, you can see that Aubameyang plays as a centerforward while Lacazette acts as a false winger.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M82ed Aubameyang in the centerforward role, Lacazette as a false winger. (Photo credit: Sky)

Lacazette’s goal in the 85th confirms that positional preference. Welbeck found Aubameyang inside the area and the Gabon striker spun to slip the ball to Lacazette, who beat Hart with an angled shot.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M85ed Aubameyang in the centerforward role, Lacazette as a false winger. (Photo credit: Sky)

To a certain extent, Lacazette is a bit like Sanchez. The Chile forward often cuts inside from the left wing to be in scoring positions. Lacazette can do the same from either wing. Messi and Salah have shown that playing as a false winger is no obstacle to finding the net. For the last goal, Aubameyang and Lacazette swapped positions. Aubameyang dropped off to take a pass from Maitland-Niles while Lacazette ran into the space created by the Gabon international. I hope the next Arsenal manager will figure out what are the best positions for Aubameyang and Lacazette because using Aubameyang as a winger and Lacazette as a centerforward makes no sense at all.

Starting on the left wing, Welbeck had no goal or assist. He tested Hart with a curling shot in the 79th but also missed the target 3 times from decent positions. To his credit, Welbeck worked hard for his teammates by creating 3 chances, teeing up Bellerin in the 23rd, Monreal in the 48th and Xhaka in the 72nd.

In midfield, Xhaka and Elneny were supposed to protect the Arsenal defense and give Ramsey more freedom to break forward. Elneny rolled his ankle while challenging Noble in the 41st and was replaced by Maitland-Niles on the stroke of halftime. Xhaka, Elneny and Maitland-Niles combined to win only 1 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels compared to 4 of 7 tackles and 5 of 10 aerial duels for Noble and Kouyate, according to Squawka. Always keen to display his shooting skills, Xhaka had a curling free kick and a low drive saved by Hart in the 34th and 72nd. Xhaka also set up the opening goal in the 51st with a pinpoint corner that Monreal volleyed into the bottom corner.

Losing key duels

At the back, Mustafi produced another horror show. The alarm bell started ringing in the 11th. Arnautovic pulled Koscielny out of position before slipping the ball to Mario, who slightly overhit his through ball for Fernandes, allowing Ospina to gather the ball. As you can see on the screen capture below, there were 2 mistakes on that play. First, Elneny was attracted to the ball and failed to mark Mario. And second, Mustafi failed to adjust his position and left a big gap with Monreal. The Spaniard was already keeping an eye on both Zabaleta and Fernandes, so it was Mustafi’s responsibility to move closer to Monreal.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11ed Elneny is not marking Mario while Mustafi fails to move closer to Monreal. (Photo credit: Sky)

In a shaky performance, Mustafi lost too many key duels. Mario dribbled past Mustafi in the 12th for a tame shot straight at Ospina. A minute later, Arnautovic made a run in behind Mustafi to chase a clearance from Hart. It took a last-ditch block from Mustafi to thwart the West Ham striker. Then Mustafi missed an interception in the 14th, allowing Arnautovic to collect a punt from Creswell and be clean through on goal. Ospina saved Arnautovic’s curling shot to prevent the Hammers from opening the scoring.

West Ham’s equalizer in the 64th resulted from a chain reaction. Kouyate had a goal attempt blocked by Koscielny. The rebound went back to Kouyate, who fed Lanzini. With a first-time pass, Lanzini found Arnautovic inside the area. Despite the tight angle, Arnautovic managed to fire into the far corner.

It’s the kind of goal that Arsenal should never concede because they outnumbered the Hammers on that play. That numerical superiority proved useless because the Gunners behaved like headless chickens. A ball-watching Maitland-Niles was not tight enough to Lanzini. This led Bellerin to run toward Lanzini instead of staying with Arnautovic. When Mustafi became aware of Arnautovic’s presence, it was too late to make a block.

Playing on the back foot

The second half showed that the Gunners perform poorly when they try to protect the lead. Between the 15th and the 60th, Arsenal had the game under control. But when Moyes sent on Lanzini and Hernandez for Fernandes and Mario in the 60th, the Gunners played on the back foot and struggled to cope with the Hammers’ pressure.

The left side of the Arsenal defense (Koscielny and Monreal) did OK on Sunday while the right side (Mustafi and Bellerin) was often in trouble. Bellerin lost 2 key duels against Hernandez. The Mexico striker evaded Bellerin’s marking to head a free kick over the bar in the 61st. Two minutes later, Hernandez outjumped Bellerin to flick the ball on for Arnautovic, who volleyed over the bar.

The Gunners will have to defend much better on Thursday because Atletico Madrid will be more ruthless than West Ham. The Spanish club has world-class strikers with Costa and Griezmann as well as top midfielders with Koke and Saul Niguez. Another dodgy performance from Mustafi and the Europa League tie is over before the second leg.

 

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CSKA Moscow vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 2-2 draw

Arsenal survived a scare on Thursday to qualify for the last 4 of the Europa League. Despite a three-goal advantage in the first leg, the Gunners were one goal away from elimination in the second leg of their quarterfinal tie. It took great passing skills from Elneny and cool finishing from Welbeck and Ramsey to draw 2-2 with CSKA Moscow.

CSKA Moscow vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

The Gunners will play in the semifinals of a European competition for the first time since 2009, when they got knocked out by Manchester United in the Champions League. It will also be their first semifinal in the Europa League since 2000, when they lost to Galatasaray in the final. The second-tier competition was then known as the UEFA Cup.

  1. How a few percent can make the difference

Subconsciously, teams lose a few percent in their level of intensity when they take a three-goal advantage into the second leg. That’s what happened to Barcelona against AS Roma in the Champions League on Tuesday. The Gunners nearly fell into the same trap. They lost duels in their own half and lacked movement in the final third. The opening goal in the 39th minute summed up the difference between the two sides. Elneny was left in a 1v2 situation and couldn’t block Kuchaev’s cross. At the far post, Nababkin outjumped Monreal for a header that Cech saved. And Chalov reacted more quickly than Mustafi to tuck the rebound home.

  1. Tactical moves can backfire

Down 1-0 at halftime, Wenger tried to protect Arsenal’s aggregate lead by shifting to a back three after the break with Elneny playing alongside Koscielny and Mustafi. The Gunners clearly lacked Elneny’s mobility in midfield on the second goal as neither Wilshere nor Ramsey closed down Golovin in the 50th. Cech palmed Golovin’s long-range strike into the path of Nababkin, who reacted more quickly than Monreal to pounce on the rebound and fire past Cech for a 2-0 lead. Wenger made up for his mistake by replacing Wilshere with Chambers in the 68th. Chambers played in the back three while Elneny teamed up with Ramsey in central midfield.

  1. Elneny had his best game of the season

The Egypt international was the only Gunner who rose to the occasion. Arsenal fans know Elneny as a utility midfielder, but not as a playmaker. On Thursday, Elneny won 2 tackles, made 1 interception, had 0 turnover and led all players with a passing accuracy of 94.3%, according to whoscored.com. But what really stood out was the 2 assists Elneny made. He slipped a through ball to Welbeck in the 75th and repeated the feat for Ramsey’s goal in stoppage time. Both assists were good examples of verticality and looked pretty similar: 15-yard forward passes. On current form, Elneny should be ahead of Wilshere in the pecking order.

  1. Wilshere and Lacazette performed poorly

There was no surprise with Wenger’s substitutions. The French manager yanked off the 2 worst Gunners on the pitch. Wilshere had no impact on the game. Defensively, Wilshere won 0 tackle and made 0 interception. Offensively, Wilshere made just 1 key pass although he played in a more advanced position than Elneny. By contrast, Ramsey made 3 interceptions and scored a goal. The more irritating part in Wilshere’s performance was his inability to cut turnovers. Vitinho dispossessed Wilshere in the 45th, 61st and 64th.

What was Lacazette thinking? The France international played in Moscow as if it was a friendly. Lacazette lacked end product (0 shot on target, 0 key pass) and showed poor work-rate (0 tackle won, 0 interception, 0 block). Lacazette preferred to jog quite a few times instead of closing down CSKA players. The quality of his runs in the final third was also questionable. In the closing minutes of the game against Southampton last weekend, I already noticed that Lacazette made it more difficult for Iwobi to find him by making runs at the far post. Wenger replaced an ineffective Lacazette with Iwobi in the 77th. Ozil fed Iwobi, who missed the target in the 88th with just the goalkeeper to beat. Iwobi will need to take some advice from Ramsey to improve his composure.

  1. Welbeck’s on fire

The England international has scored 5 goals in his last 5 games in all competitions. Welbeck has definitely increased his chances of participating in the World Cup this summer with those recent performances. His work-rate, his versatility and his efficiency are arguments that Southgate can’t ignore. I think Welbeck is a better option up front than on a wing because his passing skills are average. Welbeck wasted a counterattack with a cross slightly ahead of Ramsey in the 35th. He then overhit a through ball for the Wales midfielder in the 49th. But let’s give Welbeck some credit for initiating the goal that shattered the morale of the Russian side. Welbeck turned Nababkin and played a one-two with Elneny before shooting past Akinfeev in the 75th. He could have scored another goal in stoppage time, but the CSKA goalkeeper palmed away his shot.

 

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.

 

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 race over after 1-0 loss in North London derby

The Top 4 race is virtually over for Arsenal after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Tottenham. The Gunners trail their North London rivals by 7 points and Liverpool by 9 in the Premier League. Even if we assume a miraculous improvement in Arsenal’s poor away form, it’s hard to see how they could make up so much ground with just 11 league games left. To match their total from last season (75), they would need to win 10 of those games.

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

The scoreline doesn’t reflect how Tottenham outplayed the Gunners in the second half. With some decent finishing, Spurs could have won by a four-goal margin. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves but the hosts also wasted some big chances by simply missing the target. If we except interceptions, Tottenham had the edge in all the key categories: 6 shots on target to 1 for Arsenal, 13 chances to 4, 15 key passes to 4, 13 successful tackles to 12, 14 successful dribbles to 8, 34 crosses to 13, and 52.6% of duels won, according to the club’s website and Squawka.

From those stats, we can see that dribbling is a weakness in the current Arsenal squad. The staff will have to address that issue in the summer transfer window unless they think Nelson and Nketiah are ready to start in the Premier League. That weakness means that the Gunners rely heavily on their passing game to crack a defense. By denying space and pressing the ballholder, Spurs managed to limit Arsenal to just 4 key passes. Arsenal had a couple of promising situations in the first half but failed to turn them into clear-cut chances because of a poor final ball. At the end of the second half, the Gunners improved the quality of their final ball but were let down by their finishing.

Failing to stop crosses

Tottenham did most of the damage from crosses. Last season, the leftback position was identified by opponents as the weak link in the Arsenal defense. Pochettino took a more sophisticated approach by exploiting the poor defensive contribution from Ozil and Mkhitaryan as Trippier and Davies charged down the flanks to hoist the ball into the box. In the 25th minute, Mkhitaryan failed to close down Trippier. The Tottenham rightback made a cross for Eriksen, whose looping header didn’t trouble Cech.

On the opposite flank, Davies was given plenty of time and space by Ozil in the 49th and the Wales leftback made a cross for Kane, who outjumped Koscielny to head the ball into the bottom corner. The timing of Kane’s jump was perfect. The only thing Koscielny could have done better was to try and put Kane off by colliding into the Spurs striker while pretending to jump.

Making crosses was a simple ploy but it worked wonders for Spurs. In the 54th, Monreal was caught out of position and Mkhitaryan failed to track Trippier, who set up Kane for a volley that Cech parried. As you can see on the screen capture below, Wilshere covered Monreal on the left flank and somehow managed to slow down the counterattack, but Xhaka left Kane unmarked on the edge of the Arsenal box.

Tottenham M54ed Xhaka showing his lack of defensive awareness by leaving Kane unmarked. (Photo credit: BT)

Tottenham even had a Plan B if Ozil or Mkhitaryan made the effort to close down Davies or Trippier. In the 52nd, Trippier lured Mkhitaryan down our left flank, creating space for Dier, who whipped a cross into the box. Kane made a run between Koscielny and Mustafi only to head the cross wide. Wilshere sat too deep on that play, failing to press Dier, while Koscielny was not tight enough to Kane.

Questionable tactics

In the battle of playmakers, Eriksen got the better of Ozil with 4 key passes compared to just 2 for the Germany international. Eriksen created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense by playing between the lines and finding pockets of space to pull the strings. Dier in the 14th and Kane in the 27th met his crosses but missed the target. Then Bellerin failed to stop another cross from Eriksen in the 76th. Unmarked at the far post, Trippier connected with the ball for a volley that Cech saved.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that smashed Everton 5-1 a week ago with Elneny and Wilshere replacing Iwobi and an injured Ramsey in the starting lineup. I would have played a back three like in the 2-0 win at the Emirates in November. To the manager’s credit, the team did OK in the first half in a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny, Xhaka and Wilshere in midfield.

Chasing an equalizer, Wenger made some substitutions that were questionable. He replaced Elneny and Mkhitaryan with Iwobi and Lacazette in the 65th, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ozil in the hole, Aubameyang on the left wing, Iwobi on the right and Lacazette up front. Aubameyang has never been known for his crossing ability or all-around game, so I don’t quite understand what Wenger had in mind. It would have been more rational to play Lacazette on the right wing, Iwobi on the left and keep Aubameyang in the centerforward role. Another tactical option would have been to use a 4-4-2 formation with Ozil and Iwobi as the wide players and Lacazette as a second striker playing behind Aubameyang.

The Chamakh syndrome

The manager switched back to a 4-3-3 formation in the 86th by sending on Welbeck for Xhaka. Iwobi teamed up with Ozil and Wilshere in midfield while Welbeck joined Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front three. The move nearly paid off as Spurs started tiring in the closing minutes and invited pressure by sitting deeper and deeper. Bellerin made a pinpoint cross for an unmarked Lacazette in stoppage time, but the France international sent his volley over the bar from 12 yards. Two minutes later, Iwobi slipped a through ball to Lacazette, who lacked composure and dragged his shot wide instead of attempting a chip.

Besides those 2 golden chances, Lacazette led all players with 3 offside calls in his 25-minute cameo. When he signed for Arsenal, there was some uncertainty about his level. Was Lacazette a world-class player like Henry and Van Persie or just a good striker like Lukaku? We don’t have the answer yet, but now the danger for Lacazette is the Chamakh syndrome.

Don’t get me wrong, Lacazette is a much better player than Chamakh. But if he doesn’t show more mental strength, his spell at Arsenal could end next year. Chamakh joined Arsenal in 2010 and scored 7 goals in his first 15 Premier League games. But then the Morocco international couldn’t find the net in the league for the rest of the season. The similarities with Lacazette’s new career in England are quite obvious. Lacazette scored 8 goals in his first 15 league games but has netted only once in the following 11 league games.

There have been many comparisons made between Aubameyang and Henry. I think those comparisons make no sense at all because Aubameyang and Henry are 2 completely different players. Yes, both Aubameyang and Henry have electric pace. But Henry was not a fox in the box like Aubameyang, and the former Borussia Dortmund player doesn’t have Henry’s dribbling and passing skills. Aubameyang is a pure centerforward who depends on good service. He won’t create a goal out of nothing like Henry.

An awkward left foot 

On Saturday, Aubameyang took 0 shot and made 2 crosses that went nowhere. Although Aubameyang is 5 inches taller than Lacazette, Spurs exposed his relative weakness in the air by winning 1 of 8 aerial duels against him, according to Squawka. Despite Tottenham’s high defensive line, the Gunners never managed to capitalize on Aubameyang’s speed. Wilshere played Aubameyang clean through on goal in the 12th but the Gabon striker was flagged offside. Then Xhaka overhit his through ball for Aubameyang in the 60th before Aubameyang was again caught offside in the 82nd while collecting a through ball from Ozil. It will take a bit of time to develop a good understanding between Aubameyang and his teammates. Aubameyang scored in his first Arsenal game but we should remember that Mkhitaryan, who made the assist, previously played with him in Germany.

Starting on the left wing, Mkhitaryan had a much weaker impact than against Everton. Let’s be honest, Mkhitaryan seems more comfortable on the right wing than on the left for the simple reason that his left foot is a mess. The Armenia international couldn’t find anybody with his cross in the 22nd and he wasted a golden chance with a poor final ball in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Mkhitaryan just had to make a basic pass to set up Aubameyang for what would have looked like a spot kick. Somehow, Mkhitaryan catapulted the ball straight into touch.

Tottenham M34edWhere Mkhitaryan should have played the ball. (Photo credit: BT)

Mkhitaryan’s technical struggles meant that Arsenal had to rely on Ozil or Wilshere for the final ball. Spurs limited Ozil’s impact to 2 key passes, 2 crosses and 3 successful dribbles. Ozil has always struggled in games where players have to fight for the ball. Saturday’s North London derby was not a game for him. In stoppage time, Ozil had the opportunity to salvage a point with a dead ball but his free kick crashed into the wall. That was quite a contrast with the quality of Eriksen’s free kick that Cech tipped over the bar in the 57th.

Inability to win duels

The Gunners never had the control of the match because Tottenham outplayed them in midfield. Elneny is more mobile than Xhaka but his defensive contribution is poor. The scouting department made a mistake in failing to spot Elneny’s inability to win duels. The Egypt international was not involved in any aerial duel and made 0 tackle, 0 interception and 2 blocks. Those are weak stats for a holding midfielder. By contrast, Dier made 3 interceptions and 0 block and won 2 of 4 tackles and 5 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Taking over Elneny’s spot in the 65th, Iwobi initially struggled to adjust to the intensity of the game. Iwobi was dispossessed twice before creating Arsenal’s best chance in stoppage time.

Among the 3 starting midfielders, Xhaka had the best defensive stats. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 1 block and won 2 of 3 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels. For a No. 8, that would be a decent defensive contribution. Unfortunately, Xhaka’s offensive stats are too weak. Xhaka created 0 chance and never proved a goal threat like Ramsey.

It was quite the opposite with Wilshere, who had decent offensive stats but weak defensive stats. Wilshere was not involved in any aerial duel, won 1 of 5 tackles, and made 0 interception and 0 block. He also led all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Dier and Dembele were much more tidy in possession with 0 and 1 turnover, respectively. To Wilshere’s credit, he tested Lloris with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 68th. Wilshere also fed Welbeck in the 87th but the rusty substitute had a heavy first touch which allowed Lloris to gather the ball.

Son in Bellerin’s pocket

The Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. As the goal showed, Koscielny struggled badly in the air against Kane, winning only 3 of 6 aerial duels. The France defender had an unusual lapse of concentration in the 71st, giving the ball away to Lamela, who sent a ball over the top for Alli. Clean through on goal, Alli flicked the ball wide. Koscielny won only 44.4% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi, according to the club’s website. Mustafi was again the most pro-active of the 2 centerbacks, leading all players with 5 interceptions but winning just 1 of 4 tackles. Koscielny and Mustafi didn’t cover themselves in glory in the 90th when Lamela beat the offside trap to chase a long free kick and fire wide.

On the flanks, Bellerin and Monreal were mostly focused on their defensive tasks. Monreal remained anonymous throughout the game (passing accuracy of 75%, 0 chance created, 2 crosses, 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 of 3 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 2 blocks) while Bellerin had Son in his pocket and contributed offensively (passing accuracy of 85%, 1 chance created, 4 crosses, 2 of 4 tackles won, 1 of 2 aerial duels won, 0 interception and 6 blocks). Bellerin took a pass from Ozil in the 40th only to miss the target from 20 yards.

Still no clean sheet

Cech’s quest for a 200th clean sheet in the Premier League has become a running gag. The Gunners haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last 9 league games. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves on Saturday but his error rate is a concern. The Czech goalkeeper had a pass blocked by Alli in the 71st and he nearly lost possession with a dribbling attempt in the 48th. According to the Premier League’s website, Cech tops all players for the number of errors leading to a goal this season (4). At 35, Cech is clearly past his prime but I guess the staff will let Cech run down his contract instead of signing a new goalkeeper this summer.

The Gunners next play Ostersund in the Europa League on Feb. 15 before hosting the Swedish side a week later. The staff has two options: 1. Either leave their key players out of the squad for the first leg in Sweden and play their best team in the second leg; 2. Or leave their key players out of the squad for the second leg to give them a break before the League Cup final on Feb. 25. In any case, I hope youngsters like Nelson, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock will get some playing time against Ostersund.

Swansea vs. Arsenal: Poor away form continues with 3-1 loss

The Gunners are now 8 points outside the Top 4 in the Premier League after losing 3-1 to Swansea on Tuesday. Their poor away form this season has seriously hurt their chances of finishing in the Top 4. They only have 3 victories on the road while Manchester City, United, Chelsea and Liverpool have won at least 7 away games.

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

It was an embarrassing performance. Arsenal lacked desire and played at a too slow tempo to trouble the hosts, who were well organized and kept a compact shape. The Gunners enjoyed 74% of ball possession but had the same number of shots on target as Swansea (4). The Swans showed more commitment, winning 12 tackles to 10, making 18 interceptions to 8 and winning 52.9% of the duels, according to the club’s website.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that knocked Chelsea out of the League Cup a week ago with Ramsey and Cech replacing Wilshere and Ospina in the starting lineup. Tactically, Arsenal fluctuated between a 4-3-3 formation and a 3-4-3 system with Elneny playing as a centerback when the team lost possession.

Chasing a winner, the manager replaced Elneny with Mkhitaryan in the 60th minute. The Swans capitalized on that substitution to press high up the pitch and take a 2-1 lead a minute later. It’s not the first time this season that the Gunners have struggled to adjust to a tactical change. A couple of weeks ago, Bournemouth also scored the winning goal a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four.

Wenger threw caution to the wind in the 76th by sending on Giroud for Iwobi and therefore shifting to a 4-4-2 formation. The move backfired as the Gunners conceded a third goal in the closing minutes. The defending has been shambolic this season. And the fact that Arsenal couldn’t keep the lead for more than a minute shows their mental weakness.

Monreal’s poor defensive performance 

Monreal opened the scoring in the 33rd by stabbing home Ozil’s cross to the far post. Because of that goal, Monreal got the best grade among Arsenal players on whoscored.com, but his defensive performance was a disaster. The Gunners signed Kolasinac because neither Gibbs nor Monreal could stop dangerous crosses on the left flank last season. However, the struggles of Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles in the leftback position created the illusion that Monreal had rediscovered his youth. Tuesday’s game was a reminder that Monreal has lost a step.

   Dyer got the better of Monreal in the eighth minute to make a low cross for Mawson at the far post. It took a challenge from Ramsey to prevent a tap-in from the Swansea defender. Dyer also dribbled past Monreal in the 57th but his cross was then intercepted by Cech. Monreal will turn 32 in a few weeks and his declining pace no longer allows him to recover from positional mistakes. The Spaniard was out of position in the 27th when the Swans hit Arsenal on the fast break. It took a clearance from Elneny to prevent Clucas from scoring. Monreal then killed a counterattack with a cynical foul on Naughton in the 67th.

To make matters worse, Monreal was involved in Swansea’s last two goals. Cech was credited with an error for his poor clearance that led to Ayew’s goal in the 61st. But Monreal was just as guilty for letting the ball roll out of play. That was really poor decision-making from Monreal. Why would you invite pressure near the Arsenal goal? As you can see on the screen capture below, Monreal had plenty of time to slip the ball to Cech.

Swansea M61a editedMonreal could have played a safe back pass to Cech. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Once Ayew was in a position to intercept Monreal’s pass to Cech, the Spaniard could have picked out Xhaka instead. See the screen capture below. Then the throw-in was a complete mess. Monreal made a poor throw toward Mustafi, who was under pressure and played the ball back to Cech with his first touch. Surrounded by 3 Swans, Cech panicked and missed his clearance. The ball rolled toward Ayew, who swept it into the net for a 2-1 lead.

Swansea M61b editedXhaka was a safe passing option that Monreal ignored. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

For the last goal, Monreal gave away the ball with a botched clearance in the 86th. Carroll got hold of the ball to feed Ayew, who rounded Mustafi to square the ball back for Clucas. The Swansea winger beat Bellerin and Koscielny to the ball to shoot past Cech from close range.

Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness

   Mustafi’s performance was a mixed bag. He cleared a dangerous cross from Clucas in the fourth minute and made a crucial block to deflect Ayew’s goal attempt in the seventh. But he’s not a commanding presence at the back. Mustafi won 0 of 6 tackles, according to Squawka. He also offered a scoring chance to Dyer with a poor header in the 70th. Dyer had just Cech to beat but somehow missed the target from 12 yards.

Again, the Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfield. Ramsey and Xhaka won 0 tackle. Ramsey lacked a bit of sharpness and had 3 turnovers, while Xhaka showed his lack of defensive awareness. Both were caught up front in the 15th as Fer slipped a through ball to Clucas. The Swansea winger was bearing down on goal but was dispossessed by Elneny’s sliding tackle.

The passivity of the Arsenal midfield played a key role in Swansea’s equalizer. Ozil put himself in trouble with a poor first touch before having his pass for Bellerin intercepted by Mawson, who played Clucas in. Making a run between Xhaka and Koscielny, Clucas beat Cech with a low strike. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Elneny failed to close down Mawson, giving the Swansea defender plenty of time to deliver a perfect final ball.

Swansea M34a editedElneny fails to press Mawson while Xhaka is on the right side of Clucas. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Xhaka was smart enough to cover Bellerin but his poor defensive awareness let him down on that play. He was initially on the right side of Clucas when Mawson had the ball. But he ended up on the wrong side of the Swansea winger when Mawson made the pass. By allowing Clucas to make that inside run, Xhaka also left Koscielny in a 1v2 situation. See the screen capture below.

Swansea M34b editedXhaka is on the wrong side of Clucas. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   Up front, Lacazette struggled again in the centerforward role. The Swansea backline exposed his poor hold-up play. Lacazette took 0 shot and led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The France international clearly lacks the physicality to deal with a compact defense. He doesn’t have Giroud’s power to hold players off. And Lacazette’s weakness in the air also means his teammates are reluctant to feed him with crosses or long balls. Bellerin still made a cross in the 53rd but Van der Hoorn got ahead of Lacazette to clear the ball. Fernandez then beat Lacazette to the ball in the 73rd to head out Monreal’s cross.

Lacazette as a false nine?

   Some football fans will point at Aguero or Firmino as centerforwards who don’t have the physicality of a Giroud, Lukaku or Kane. But Aguero and Firmino both play in the false nine role while Lacazette is used as a traditional striker at Arsenal. Since his signing, I’ve kept saying that Lacazette is mostly a second striker who would struggle to lead the line in the Premier League. I’m not surprised that Lacazette led all players with 3 key passes because that’s what second strikers do: they are involved in the build-up besides scoring goals.

Ozil did his bit by providing the assist for Monreal. With a decent defense, it would have been enough to claim the 3 points. Ozil finished the game with 2 key passes and led all players with 121 passes. I still thought he lacked a bit of support in sharing the creative burden. Mkhitaryan’s cameo injected more creativity in the team but also made it slightly more vulnerable defensively. The Armenia international made a clever cross in the 79th but Giroud failed to anticipate and missed a tap-in opportunity.

Starting on the left wing, Iwobi showed some poor work-rate after his good performance against Chelsea in the League Cup. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 0 interception and just 1 block, according to Squawka. That’s not good enough at the top level. On the other hand, Iwobi’s offensive contribution was decent. He tested Fabianski with an angled strike in the 30th and created 2 chances. The Nigeria international still has this tendency to go for personal glory instead of feeding teammates in a better position. He opted for a long-range strike in the 65th while he could have picked out Monreal or Ramsey to his left.

Missing a dribbler

In the end, the Gunners missed one key weapon to crack the Swansea defense: dribbling. They only had 5 successful dribbles on Tuesday. The Citizens can rely Sane and Sterling to run at defenders when the passing game can’t make the difference. Likewise, the Blues have Hazard while the Reds have Salah and Mane. The Gunners lost their best dribbler by selling Oxlade-Chamberlain last summer. We no longer have that kind of profile in the current squad. Nketiah and Nelson have great dribbling skills, but they are just prospects at this stage of their career and therefore unlikely to have an immediate impact in the Premier League.

The January transfer window closed on Wednesday night as the Gunners were more busy than usual in the transfer market. They signed Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund for £56 million (a club record fee), extended Ozil’s contract, sold Giroud to Chelsea, and let Debuchy join Saint-Etienne on a free transfer.

If we analyze the transfer window from a tactical viewpoint, Aubameyang and Lacazette are replacing Giroud and Sanchez for goals while Mkhitaryan is replacing Cazorla for creativity. It’s a step in the right direction but not enough to turn Arsenal into a contender or even improve the club’s chances of a Top 4 finish.

The attacking stats are OK: the Gunners have scored more goals than Chelsea and only 3 fewer than Spurs and Manchester United. On the other hand, the defensive stats are a disaster: the Gunners have conceded 34 goals from 25 league games, the same total as Brighton and West Brom, which are both fighting relegation. By contrast, Manchester City and United have only conceded 18 goals each. Tuesday’s loss showed that Arsenal must sign at least a defensive midfielder, a centerback and a leftback to have a shot at a Top 4 finish next season. Elneny and Xhaka can’t protect the defense, Koscielny and Monreal are past their prime, and Kolasinac has disappointed in the fullback position.