Tag Archives: Elneny

Burnley vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang on fire in 3-1 win

Too little, too late.

   The Gunners defeated Burnley 3-1 on Sunday to finish 5th in the Premier League, one point behind Spurs and two behind Chelsea. The loss to Crystal Palace and the draw with Brighton, both at the Emirates stadium, were the turning points in Arsenal’s season. A victory against either of these teams would have been enough to secure a Top 4 spot.

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

   Now the only way to qualify for next season’s Champions League is to win the Europa League. Emery was aware of the priorities as he made 9 changes to the side that knocked Valencia out of the European competition with only Monreal and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. Koscielny, Kolasinac, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka and Lacazette were on the bench while Sokratis, Torreira and Ozil were not even in the squad.

The Gunners enjoyed 60% of ball possession and had 6 shots on target to 5 for the hosts. They wasted some good situations with a poor final ball, in part because the numerous changes had a negative impact on the fluency of the team’s passing game. For instance, Aubameyang overhit his cross for Nketiah in the 78th minute, and Iwobi played the ball behind an unmarked Mkhitaryan in stoppage time.  

   Aubameyang could have been left on the bench to avoid any injury before the Europa League final, but finishing as the top scorer in the Premier League was one of his ambitions, so Emery let him lead the line. He nearly opened the scoring in the fourth minute. Aubameyang made a run to the near post to meet Mkhitaryan’s free kick but his header hit the woodwork. Three minutes later, Aubameyang chased a long ball from Mustafi to fire an angled strike that Heaton parried.

Aubameyang’s 31 goals

   The opener came from a mistake by the Clarets in the 52nd. Cork missed his backpass to Mee and the ball fell to Aubameyang, who beat Heaton with a low strike. Aubameyang doubled the lead in the 63rd by volleying Iwobi’s cross into the far corner. The Gabon striker then had a few opportunities to notch a hat trick. Iwobi made a teasing cross in the 72nd but Aubameyang didn’t anticipate and failed to make contact with the ball. A minute later, Mkhitaryan made another offering. From 4 yards, Aubameyang missed the target with a sliding effort.

   The Gunners really tried hard to give him a hat trick but Aubameyang failed to connect with a cross from Elneny in the 79th. In stoppage time, Aubameyang took a pass from Iwobi and worked some space only to shoot over the bar from 12 yards. Despite those misses, Aubameyang still finished the Premier League season as the joint top scorer with 22 goals, tied with Salah and Mane. Aubameyang is also the fourth Gunner to score at least 30 goals in all competitions in a single season since the move to the Emirates stadium. Adebayor, Van Persie and Sanchez achieved that feat before Aubameyang.

   This season confirmed Aubameyang’s successful adaptation to the Premier League. He sometimes gets criticized for missing some big chances, but his electric pace and movement inside the box are a headache for most defenders. Emery can only hope that Aubameyang will maintain that level of form until the Europa League final.  

The inconsistency of the attacking midfielders

   Mkhitaryan has been inconsistent this season and it really showed in his performance on Sunday. Playing on the right wing, Mkhitaryan finished the game with 2 key passes and 2 of 4 shots on target, but no goal and no assist. His delivery on set pieces was especially poor. Mkhitaryan couldn’t beat the first defender with a free kick on the stroke of halftime. He then sent a cross straight into Heaton’s arms in the 49th.

   Assuming Emery relies on a 3-5-2 formation for the Europa League final, that means only one attacking midfielder will start for Arsenal against Chelsea. Because of Ramsey’s hamstring injury, Emery will only have the choice between Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi, who have all lacked consistency in the final third this season. Mkhitaryan and Ozil are a slightly bigger goal threat than Iwobi. However, if Emery’s priority is to mark Jorginho out of the match, then Mkhitaryan is the more natural choice because of his work-rate. Mkhitaryan won 1 of 2 tackles, and made 3 interceptions and 4 recoveries against Burnley, compared 2 of 3 tackles won, 0 interception and 1 recovery for Iwobi, according to the club’s website.

   Iwobi led all players with 5 key passes. Despite 2 assists against Burnley, the overall impression this season is that Iwobi has stagnated under Emery. His finishing is still poor and his reading of the game is not good enough. It’s no coincidence if Iwobi was not involved in the best team goals scored by Arsenal. His work-rate is also far from the level required for a Top 4 club. Iwobi’s failure to close down Lowton led to a couple of chances for Burnley.

Loaning out Willock and Nketiah?

   Benefiting from the rest given to Ozil and Lacazette, academy player Willock made his second start in the Premier League. Willock impressed against Blackpool in the FA Cup, but there’s quite a gap between facing a third-division team and playing in the Premier League. Obviously, Willock is not the finished product yet. He will need to work on his close control because youngsters have more time and space in the Premier League 2 and often show too much of the ball. Willock led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He will also have to play more with his head up. The English teenager often needed too much time on the ball before finding a decent pass. At the same age, Fabregas already knew what were his passing options before even receiving the ball.

   Willock showed his potential on a couple of plays. His shot on the turn was blocked for a corner in the 10th and his low curling shot sailed wide on the stroke of halftime. However, the lack of end product was a real issue. Willock had 0 shot on target, 0 key pass and 0 successful dribble out of 2. His work-rate was also disappointing with just 1 tackle and 1 recovery. I don’t think Willock was lazy but he clearly struggled with his positional play. If you’re not in the right spot, you’re unlikely to win the ball or make a challenge.

   Emery replaced Willock with Nketiah in the 62nd. The young striker made an impact by scoring the last goal in stoppage time. His cross-shot took a deflection off Lowton before rolling through Heaton’s legs. The staff should consider loaning both Willock and Nketiah to a Championship side next season because they are too good for the Premier League 2 and need to develop.  

Vulnerable on crosses (again)

   In central midfield, Guendouzi played alongside Elneny. Surprisingly, Elneny had more influence in the final third with 3 key passes, compared to 0 key pass for Guendouzi. However, they had relatively similar defensive stats with Guendouzi making 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 9 recoveries, compared to 0 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries for Elneny, according to the club’s website.

   So far, Guendouzi is the same type of player as Elneny. Both are utility midfielders because they don’t have the same defensive impact as ballwinners and can’t match the offensive impact of deep-lying playmakers or box-to-box players. The only difference between Elneny and Guendouzi is that Elneny is more conservative in his passing while Guendouzi wins slightly more duels. This has been a positive season for Guendouzi, who has managed to make the leap from the French second division to the much tougher Premier League. Next season, Guendouzi will have to be less casual. He gave the ball away in the 17th and 29th and was lucky to win a foul after recklessly dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 75th.

   The Clarets mostly threatened on crosses and set pieces. Their consolation goal came from a cross in the 65th. Leno initially palmed away a deflected shot from Gudmundsson, but the rebound fell to Hendrick, who made a cross for Wood. The Burnley forward could only head the ball toward the far post, where Gudmundsson got hold of the ball and picked out Barnes who headed in. The Gunners lost 4 duels on that play: Monreal failed to block Hendrick’s cross, Koscielny lost his aerial duel with Wood, Gudmundsson reacted more quickly than Lichtsteiner, and Barnes beat Mustafi to the ball.

Mavropanos looking out of his depth

   Some fans sweated a lot when they saw Mavropanos starting alongside Mustafi at centerback. Mustafi produced a solid performance, leading all players by winning 8 of 11 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. The German defender also won 2 of 2 tackles and 76.9% of his duels and made 2 blocks, 1 interception and 5 recoveries. Mustafi made a timely challenge after Guendouzi gave the ball away in the 29th. A minute later, Mustafi prevented Burnley from opening the scoring by blocking Lowton’s close-range effort. The only blemish in Mustafi’s performance was his passing accuracy of 74.2%, much lower than Koscielny’s 97.1%.

   It has been a rough season for Mavropanos, who has played only 4 games after needing several months to recover from a groin injury. To be honest, Mavropanos looked out of his depth. When Taylor made a cross in the fifth minute, Mavropanos completely missed his header, allowing Barnes to have a free header. Fortunately, the Burnley striker missed the target. Mavropanos made the same mistake again in the ninth minute as Barnes connected with a cross from Lowton for a half-volley that Leno palmed away.

   The Clarets had a penalty shout in the 20th when Mavropanos wrestled with Barnes inside the area. Burnley nearly took the lead in the 28th. Wood made a run in behind Mavropanos to chase a long ball from Lowton and hit the base of the post. Burnley then capitalized on a Mavropanos turnover in the 30th to launch a counterattack. Mavropanos’ injury in the 31st was almost a blessing in disguise because there seemed more troubles coming his way. The Greek defender is not yet ready for the Premier League. In his 30-minute performance, Mavropanos made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 0 recovery. There are big question marks about his reading of the game. The club should loan him out in the summer.

Singing the blues in Baku

   Emery replaced Mavropanos with Koscielny in the 34th. The French veteran struggled again in the air, winning only 2 of 7 duels. Koscielny had an injury scare in the 50th when Wood shoved him into the advertising hoardings. That was similar to Arnautovic’s dangerous shove that led to Debuchy’s shoulder injury. Yet, the referee didn’t award any foul. There were other examples of leniency from the referee, who ignored Westwood’s shove on Guendouzi in the eighth minute even though the ball was already gone. And Hendrick was not even booked for pulling back Willock in the 61st.  

   The Gunners only have one game left to play this season: a Europa League final against Chelsea in Azerbaijan. It would definitely be a successful season if they manage to lift the trophy. The Gunners are in good hands since Emery is the most successful manager in that competition. I assume Emery will plan the training sessions so that the players hit peak form on May 29.

 

 

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Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Top 4 hopes dealt a blow in 3-2 loss

   Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Crystal Palace was a bad result for Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the Top 4. The Gunners slipped to fifth place in the Premier League and you have to keep in mind that the home game against the Eagles was one of the easiest fixtures in their run-in, at least on paper. The defeat against Hodgson’s team was all the more disappointing that it came after 3 straight clean sheets in all competitions. Somehow, the result simply confirmed that the Arsenal squad is not good enough to cope with a heavy schedule.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery got a lot of stick for making 7 changes to the side that edged Napoli 1-0 last Thursday with only Kolasinac, Koscielny, Aubameyang and Lacazette retaining their starting spots. Obviously, the midfield looked very soft with Elneny and Guendouzi. Ramsey and Xhaka were left out of the squad because of injuries while Emery was careful with Torreira, who picked up a knock against Napoli. The options at the back were also limited: Sokratis was completing his two-game ban while Emery wanted to rest Monreal and Maitland-Niles. Quite a few fans must have felt nervous at kickoff with a backline including Mavropanos, Jenkinson, Mustafi and Kolasinac.

   I thought Emery’s team selection for a home game was too conservative with only 3 attacking players (Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette) in the starting lineup. The Gunners enjoyed a lot of sterile possession in the first half with very few chances. The team looked a bit more balanced after Emery shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Jenkinson and Mavropanos with Maitland-Niles and Iwobi at halftime. Nevertheless, the final stats showed Emery’s tactical approach was still a failure with only 12 shots to 16 for the Eagles despite 73% of ball possession.

The importance of decision-making

   The goals scored by Palace all came from set pieces. You would think that it’s a legacy of the Wenger era. But a closer inspection reveals that it was a matter of individual errors and not poor defensive organization. Arsenal perfectly executed the offside trap against Napoli. So the Gunners tried that ploy again when the Eagles had a free kick in the 17th. Unfortunately, Benteke connected with Milivojevic’s set piece to beat Leno with a free header from 8 yards.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M17ed.jpgJenkinson fails to play Benteke offside. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   As you can see on the screen capture above, the Arsenal defense played the offside trap. But Jenkinson didn’t get the memo and played Benteke onside. Jenkinson was 100 percent guilty on that play because Benteke and the other Gunners stood right in front of him, so there’s no way he couldn’t see what was going on. Jenkinson furiously gesticulated after Benteke scored, probably thinking that Mustafi poorly marked Benteke. But Jenkinson was the one who undermined the offside trap by standing one yard behind Mustafi and Mavropanos.

   That was definitely poor decision-making from Jenkinson. I mean, Emery can show his players tons and tons of videos to improve their performance, but at the end of the day, it’s the players on the pitch who make the decisions.

   Mustafi is famous for his brain farts. On Sunday, the German defender lived up to his reputation as an error-prone player by costing 2 goals. The Eagles won a free kick in their own half in the 61st. They punted the ball toward Benteke, who flicked it on. The second ball fell to Mustafi, who shielded the ball, expecting Leno to come off his line. Zaha stole the ball to beat Leno with a low strike for a 2-1 lead.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M61ed.jpgMustafi expects Leno to beat Zaha to the ball. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   Let’s make things clear: the goal was 100 percent Mustafi’s fault. When the ball bounced in front of Mustafi 25 yards from goal, Leno was standing just outside his 6-yard box. Because the ball had very little pace and Mustafi seemed in control of the situation, Leno decided to stay inside his area. As you can see on the screen capture above, Leno had no chance to beat Zaha to the ball when Mustafi started to shield it with his body. Leno made the right decision while Mustafi made the wrong one. In that kind of situation, Mustafi should have simply cleared the danger.

Owning a mistake (or not)

   The worst part is that Mustafi tried to blame Leno for that goal just like he tried to blame Cech a year ago for a goal scored by Southampton in a 3-2 win. Making a blunder is already bad, but not owning your mistakes can be a morale killer in any team. Mustafi showed again poor decision-making for Palace’s third goal in the 69th. McArthur redirected a corner toward Dann, who nodded in from close range.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M69aed.jpgMustafi initially marking Dann on the corner. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   As you can see on the screen capture above, Mustafi was in charge of marking Dann at the far post. But for some strange reason, Mustafi started running away from Dann when McArthur was about to flick the ball on. At first, I thought maybe Mustafi was trying to play Dann offside. But it’s unlikely for a team to play the offside trap on a corner before the ball is even headed. As you can see on the screen capture below, Guendouzi, Aubameyang and Kolasinac played Dann onside, which means that there was no plan to execute the offside trap on that corner.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M69bed.jpgMustafi running away from Dann. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   It’s only after watching several TV replays that I finally came to the conclusion that Mustafi was trying to meet the corner. From his initial position, Mustafi had no chance to win the first header. It’s not just poor decision-making, it’s also poor tactical discipline. Mustafi could have prevented that goal by staying with Dann and winning the second ball. Both Mustafi and Jenkinson are 27. They won’t improve their reading of the game or their decision-making at that age. The club should offload them this summer to improve the defense.

Koscielny’s aerial struggles

   The visitors’ goals were just the tip of the iceberg. Mustafi could have cost more goals on Sunday. He failed to mark Benteke on the stroke of halftime. The Palace striker took a pass from Zaha only to miss the target from 12 yards. Then Mustafi missed his header in the 56th while attempting to intercept McArthur’s ball over the top for Zaha. Fortunately, Maitland-Niles covered Mustafi and prevented Zaha from pulling the trigger. Besides his blunders, Mustafi showed poor discipline, leading all players with 4 fouls. He even embarrassed himself by earning a booking for diving in the 85th. And his work-rate was poor with just 1 tackle, 2 interceptions and 1 recovery, compared to 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries for Koscielny, according to the club’s website.    

   Koscielny made no glaring mistake like Mustafi, but he lost the key duels with Benteke and McArthur for Palace’s second and third goals. The French defender performed poorly in the air, winning only 1 of 5 aerial duels, while Mustafi won 5 of 8 headers according to whoscored.com. At 33, playing a fourth game in an 11-day span was always going to be a tough ask. His 5 turnovers, a high number for a centerback, clearly reflected his fatigue.

   Playing in a back three alongside Koscielny and Mustafi, Mavropanos looked a bit less hesitant than against Watford. He showed again his naivety in the 16th when he dived in and received a yellow card for holding Benteke. That foul led to the free kick for the opening goal. Emery yanked Mavropanos off at halftime to switch to a back four. At 21, Mavropanos needs playing time in order to learn and develop. A loan in the Championship next season would be a good opportunity.

Jenkinson’s poor work-rate

   On the right flank, Jenkinson’s limited technique was exposed. He contributed very little offensively, sending a cross out of play in the third minute and guiding the ball into touch after miscontrolling a crossfield pass in the 35th. There’s something wrong when a player still looks raw at 27. I’m puzzled that Wenger extended Jenkinson’s contract. What did Wenger see in him? Jenkinson is known as a boyhood Arsenal fan, but his work-rate was incredibly poor with 0 tackle, 1 block, 0 interception and 2 recoveries in the first half.

   At halftime, Emery replaced Jenkinson with Maitland-Niles, who put in a shift with 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 5 recoveries in the second half, according to the club’s website. Maitland-Niles saved the Arsenal defense twice, making a crucial clearance in the 56th and a last-ditch block in the 65th. Frankly, I don’t understand the transfer rumors linking Wan-Bissaka to Arsenal because Maitland-Niles can deputize for Bellerin and the money should be spent on the centerback and central midfield positions.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac’s performance was a mixed bag. He should have been awarded a penalty in the 38th for a cross that Wan-Bissaka blocked with his arm. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also tested Guaita with a half-volley in the 59th. Unfortunately, Kolasinac’s defensive lapses outweighed his offensive contributions. He gave away cheap free kicks with 3 fouls. And his lack of defensive awareness was exposed a couple of times. Kolasinac failed to track Kouyate in the 43rd as the Palace midfielder forced Leno into a spectacular double save. Then Kolasinac left Dann unmarked in the 63rd. The Palace centerback met a free kick from Milivojevic only to volley straight at Leno.

How standards have declined in midfield

   In midfield, Guendouzi and Elneny were responsible for the lack of urgency in the first half. The Gunners used to have deep-lying playmakers like Fabregas and Cazorla who could dictate the tempo and create chances. But neither Guendouzi nor Elneny is a pacesetter. The sterile possession forced Ozil to drop back in the first half to build up plays.

   Guendouzi led all players with 86 passes but he still has that tendency to take too many touches instead of quickly releasing the ball. The French midfielder is simply not decisive enough at both ends of the pitch. His work-rate against the Eagles was good with 2 tackles and 9 recoveries, the most for an Arsenal player. But Guendouzi can’t shield the back four like a Fernandinho, Kante or Torreira. He was dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com. The more Guendouzi plays, and the more he looks like a utility midfielder. He’s an upgrade over Elneny but he’s still below Xhaka in the pecking order.

   Elneny played in a slightly more advanced position than Guendouzi. Emery wanted to use Elneny as a box-to-box player, which is kind of funny because Wenger tried to play him in the centerback position. The Egypt international was too conservative in his passing. And the few times Elneny tried to play the ball forward, his passing lacked accuracy. His only offensive contribution was a volley over the bar in the 11th. If Emery really wanted a box-to-box player, he should have given a chance to Willock.

   Defensively, Elneny made a blunder by failing to play to the whistle in the 65th. Kouyate led a Palace counterattack and collided with Guendouzi along the touchline. Elneny could have kicked the loose ball out of play. But expecting the referee to make a call in Arsenal’s favor, Elneny stopped playing and let Zaha run past him to continue the fast break. Emery had seen enough and replaced Elneny with Torreira in the 68th. Elneny and Mustafi are examples of the poor job done by the scouting department under Wenger.    

3 wins out of 4 games?

   The only positive of Sunday’s match was the attacking players, who scored 2 goals. In a normal game, that should be enough to get 3 points. Ozil was a bit isolated in the first half. Iwobi’s appearance after halftime helped Ozil have more impact in the final third. Ozil could have put the Gunners ahead in the opening minute but his curling shot from the edge of the box lacked power to trouble Guaita. The German playmaker equalized in the 47th with his trademark chip. Lacazette fed Ozil with a reverse pass. From a tight angle, Ozil knocked the ball into the ground to produce an awkward bounce that fooled Guaita. Ozil nearly leveled again in the 87th with a cross that evaded everybody, except Guaita who tipped the ball away. Two minutes later, Iwobi could have also salvaged a point, but his tame effort from 14 yards was not good enough to beat Guaita. The only blemish in Ozil’s performance was his 10 turnovers, which is unusual for a player with good ball retention skills.  

   Lacazette and Aubameyang are having a good run of form. The French striker scored the winner against Napoli and made the assist for Ozil’s goal on Sunday, while Aubameyang scored the winner against Watford and found the net against Palace. Starting a dribbling run from the right flank in the 77th, Aubameyang slalomed past 3 Eagles before attempting to play Lacazette in. A defender blocked the pass but Aubameyang pounced on the loose ball to fire into the bottom corner. Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t get much service. Lacazette’s only chance was an off-balance shot from 20 yards that sailed over the bar in the 42nd.

   One month before the end of the season, the board and the staff can already draw their own conclusions about last summer’s transfers. Leno and Torreira have proved successful signings while Lichtsteiner has been a failure, too slow for the Premier League. Sokratis and Guendouzi has been upgrades over Mustafi and Elneny, respectively, but are not at the level of Koscielny and Cazorla in their prime.

   To finish in the Top 4, Arsenal will probably need 3 wins from their last 4 games. The Gunners visit Wolverhampton on Wednesday and Leicester on Sunday. The game at Molineux stadium is more tricky because the Gunners only have 2 days of rest compared to 3 for the Leicester game. Ramsey’s absence is a huge blow because he’s the kind of player whose work-rate makes a difference in away games. I expect Ozil to be on the bench and Mkhitaryan to start for both games.

Everton vs. Arsenal: Gunners show lack of fight in 1-0 loss

   The Gunners have a massive mountain to climb in the Top 4 race. They lost 1-0 at Everton on Sunday to slip to 4th place, level on points with Chelsea in the Premier League. A quick look at the schedule tells you that securing a Champions League spot won’t be easy. Arsenal will play 2 home games against Crystal Palace and Brighton and 4 away games against Watford, Wolverhampton, Leicester and Burnley. The Hornets, the Wanderers and the Foxes are stuck between 7th and 10th like the Toffees. Even the Burnley game will be no gimme, knowing that the Gunners still haven’t kept a clean sheet on the road this season.

Everton vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that defeated Newcastle 2-0 a week ago with Elneny and Mkhitaryan replacing Ramsey and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Iwobi performed poorly against the Magpies while Emery was simply cautious with Ramsey, who was recovering from a minor groin injury. The problem with the team selection was the obvious lack of leadership and aggression. The Gunners were still missing their most experienced centerback (Koscielny) as well as their two most reliable central midfielders (Torreira and Xhaka).

   Arsenal lost 3 duels on the play that led to Everton’s goal in the 10th minute. Jagielka beat Mustafi and Elneny to the ball to flick on Digne’s throw-in. Then Calvert-Lewin ghosted past Mkhitaryan to win the second ball. Calvert-Lewin’s header ricocheted off Kolasinac’s foot and into the path of Jagielka, who reacted more quickly than Mustafi to tap the loose ball home. It looked like a lucky goal for the Toffees but the Gunners were really outplayed at Goodison Park. Everton had 23 shots and 4 big chances to 7 shots and 0 big chance for Arsenal.

A team losing its balance

   In the first half, the Gunners had 2 good situations but lacked accuracy with the final ball. Mkhitaryan released Lacazette down the left flank in the second minute. Under pressure from Zouma and Coleman, the French striker overhit his low cross for Ozil at the far post. Then Maitland-Niles failed to put enough bend on his cross for Elneny in the 37th. Left completely unmarked inside the area, Elneny would have had a free header from 8 yards.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery switched from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system at halftime by replacing Elneny and Kolasinac with Ramsey and Aubameyang. Despite enjoying more ball possession, the Arsenal team lost its balance in the second half. The Gunners created a couple of half-chances but they also looked more open. In the 48th, Aubameyang whipped in a cross for Ramsey, whose looping header was awkwardly punched away by Pickford. The ball fell to Ramsey, who volleyed over the bar from 12 yards. In the 59th, Mustafi hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, whose tame header gently bounced into Pickford’s arms. Mkhitaryan also took his chance in the 71st with a curling shot that sailed wide of the far post. Emery switched to a 4-4-2 formation by replacing Ozil with Iwobi in the 74th, but that last tactical change didn’t trouble the Everton defense.

   Sunday was not a good day to be an Arsenal striker. Aubameyang had 0 shot while Lacazette could only muster 1 goal attempt. That game summed up why Lacazette is not a centerforward but a second striker. The Gunners had no natural out ball when Lacazette was on his own up front because the France international is not a target man like Giroud or Henry. At 5’9, Lacazette will never be dominant in the air. He won 2 of 6 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com, while Calvert-Lewin won 8 of 17 aerial duels. Lacazette has decent speed but not electric pace like Aubameyang. That explains why Lacazette has less maneuvering room to beat the offside trap. In the 22nd, Ozil hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, who was flagged offside.

Ozil struggling on the road

   Ozil certainly impressed Emery with his work-rate against Newcastle. But at Goodison Park, Ozil reverted back to the gutless player struggling so badly in away games. Ozil had no impact in the final third with 0 shot and 0 key pass. Even Ramsey, who only played in the second half, managed to do better with 1 of 3 shots on target and 1 key pass. When a player struggles offensively, he can still show his value to the team with his defensive work. But Ozil had the poorest work-rate of the attacking midfielders who started the game. In his 73-minute performance, Ozil only made 2 recoveries compared to 11 for Mkhitaryan, who led all players according to the club’s website.

   I believe Emery should leave Ozil out of the starting lineup for the remaining away games. Ozil simply doesn’t have the required aggression for those games. The German playmaker was too easily bullied by the Toffees. He was dispossessed 3 times and led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   The work-rate of the Arsenal midfield was not good enough to destabilize the Toffees. The Everton midfield won 7 of 8 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 24 recoveries for a total of 35 defensive actions, while the Arsenal midfield won 3 of 4 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 10 recoveries for a total of 16 defensive actions, according to the club’s website. Here are the stats for each midfielder:

  • Guendouzi: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 3 recoveries.
  • Elneny (45 minutes): made 0 tackle, 1 interception, 2 recoveries.
  • Ramsey (50 minutes): won 2 of 2 tackles, 0 interception, 3 recoveries.
  • Ozil (73 minutes): made 0 tackle, 0 interception, 2 recoveries.
  • Gueye: won 4 of 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 recoveries.
  • Gomes: won 1 of 2 tackles, 8 recoveries.
  • Sigurdsson (90 minutes): won 2 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Davies (5 minutes): made 0 tackle, 1 recovery.

Where’s the enforcer?

   Elneny’s work-rate was really poor while Guendouzi’s numbers were average for a holding midfielder. Emery can’t be blamed for starting Elneny and Guendouzi in central midfield since Torreira was suspended, Xhaka was injured and Ramsey was recovering from a groin injury. But Sunday’s midfield issues show that the Gunners need to offload Elneny in the summer and sign an enforcer with the right mix of physicality and technique. The club needs an intimidating factor like Vieira and Gilberto Silva in their prime.

   Right now, the Gunners are still too soft in the middle of the park. Elneny was too easily brushed off the ball in the 21st and his passing was so conservative that Ozil had to drop back in order to move the ball forward. Arsenal got away with starting Guendouzi in the holding midfielder role against Newcastle. There was no such luck against Everton. Guendouzi is not a natural defensive midfielder and his inexperience cost him a yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Digne in the fifth minute. The French teenager was also casual at times, giving the ball away in the 38th and 45th. Emery’s switch to a back four in the second half was very risky because it wrongly assumed that Guendouzi could shield the Arsenal defense. If the Gunners want to have a chance of winning on the road, they will have to start Torreira, Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield.

   On the flanks, the wingbacks proved ineffective with 0 key pass for Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac was let down by his technique with a passing accuracy of 53.9%, the lowest percentage for any starting outfielder. He even managed to send a cross out of play in the 31st. Knowing Kolasinac’s reluctance to track back, the Toffees targeted the space behind him in the first half. When Arsenal switched to a back four in the second half, Everton targeted Monreal with Richarlison making runs in behind. The Gunners have been quite vulnerable down the left flank this season. Signing a leftback should be a top priority this summer.

Maitland-Niles’ lack of diligence

   On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles performed poorly too. He won only 33.3% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Bernard too easily skipped past Maitland-Niles in the 10th to make a low cross that Sokratis cleared. His inexperience nearly cost his team. Maitland-Niles lost possession while dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 54th. That turnover led to a scoring chance for Sigurdsson, who blazed a long-range strike over the bar. Five minutes later, Maitland-Niles was too casual, heading a loose ball toward Leno instead of simply knocking it into touch. Bernard intercepted the header but was denied by Leno.

   The worst part in Maitland-Niles’ performance was his lack of diligence. He sent a throw-in out of play in the 63rd and was so slow to track back in the 77th that Ramsey ended up covering him at rightback. Maitland-Niles was mediocre in the 1-0 loss to West Ham just like he was brilliant in the 3-0 win over Rennes. Inconsistency is not unusual for a 21-year-old player. But Emery should make it clear that Maitland-Niles needs to show more desire. Maybe Maitland-Niles would prefer to play in central midfield, but his inconsistency and casualness make that option unlikely right now. Rightback is the best position for him to learn the ropes. Maitland-Niles should follow the example of Flamini, who was humble enough to deputize at fullback when he arrived at the club.

   Mustafi had the best stats of the 3 centerbacks but he was also the main culprit for Everton’s goal. The German defender won 4 of 4 tackles and 8 of 12 aerial duels and made 2 blocks and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. It’s better than the numbers produced by Sokratis (who won 2 of 3 tackles and 3 of 7 aerial duels and made 4 blocks, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries) or Monreal (who won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 block, 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries). Mustafi was booked in the 82nd for a cynical foul on Calvert-Lewin along the touchline.

Not prioritizing (yet)

   Signing Sokratis was a quick fix to replace an aging Koscielny but I don’t think he’s the answer to Arsenal’s defensive problems. The Greek defender will miss the next 2 league games after collecting his 10th yellow card in the Premier League for blocking Calvert-Lewin’s run in the 24th. Sokratis is definitely not as good as Koscielny in his prime, otherwise he wouldn’t need to make so many fouls. In each of the past 6 Premier League seasons, Koscielny never had more than 4 yellow cards. Koscielny’s worst tally came in the 2011-12 season when he received 9 yellow cards. In terms of discipline, Van Dijk has even better stats than Koscielny. So yes, the Gunners still need to sign a top centerback this summer, especially since Koscielny will turn 34 this year. And please, don’t mention Chambers as a possible solution because he’s miles away from the level of a Koscielny or Van Dijk.      

   While Torreira proved the best signing in the first half of the season, Leno has turned out to be our best signing in the second half. Leno prevented Arsenal from suffering a heavier loss by making 5 saves. The final score is important because goal difference could play a crucial role at the end of the season for the Champions League spots. Leno especially saved 2 big chances, denying Bernard after Maitland-Niles’ blunder in the 59th and stopping Sigurdsson’s 12-yard strike in the 72nd. The German goalkeeper also parried Bernard’s angled strike in the 81st and acted like a magnet to attract Sigurdsson’s curling shot in the 38th and Calvert-Lewin’s tame header in the 70th.

   The Gunners next host Napoli in the Europa League on Thursday before visiting Watford in the Premier League on Monday. That’s a tough schedule but at least they have 3 days of rest before each game. At this stage of the season, Arsenal can’t afford to prioritize a competition because the Europa League is their only chance to win a trophy while they still have a good shot at finishing in the Top 4. But a poor result in the first leg of their quarterfinal tie against Napoli could change their approach.  

 

 

Arsenal vs. Cardiff: Gunners grind out 2-1 win to move into 4th

   Any win will do. Aubameyang and Lacazette scored in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Cardiff as Arsenal went level on points with Chelsea in the Premier League while moving two points clear of Manchester United.

arsenal vs. cardiffPhoto credit: Premier League

   The Gunners performed poorly in the first half, lacking urgency, width and penetration. When they managed to have some good situations, their final ball was not accurate enough. Cardiff had a couple of half-chances and could have reached halftime with the lead. But the absence of a decent finisher penalized the visitors. The Bluebirds finished the game with 19 shots to 15 for Arsenal but just two of their goal attempts were on target.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that got knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United with only Kolasinac, Torreira, Lacazette and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. The Spanish manager had to improvise at the back because of injuries to Maitland-Niles, Koscielny, Sokratis, Bellerin and Holding. Monreal played in the centerback position alongside Mustafi while Lichtsteiner made a rare start at rightback.

   The Arsenal team was built around Ozil in a narrow 4-4-2 formation with Elneny, Torreira and Guendouzi shielding the defense. Ozil was making his first start since Dec. 26 when he was replaced at halftime in a 1-1 draw with Brighton. It’s no secret that the Arsenal board and staff want to offload Ozil. Off the pitch, his wages put a strain on the club’s financial resources. On the pitch, his performances are not good enough for £350,000 a week. Ozil notched 3 goals and 1 assist in 14 Premier League games this season for an average of 0.29 goal or assist per game. Those are pedestrian stats for one of the best playmakers in the world. Iwobi has the same average with 2 goals and 4 assists in 21 league games.

The Ozil conundrum

   Managing Ozil has turned into a tough balancing act for Emery. On the one hand, you want to implement your ideas and you need results. On the other, you don’t want to hurt Ozil’s resale value or worsen the mood in the dressing room. Emery opted for the best compromise by starting Ozil in a home game against a weak side. Ozil can be ineffective when he comes off the bench. Most fans still remember his dreadful cameo in the 3-2 loss to Southampton. It’s therefore less risky to start Ozil and take him off if he underperforms.

   Ozil was not influential in his 76-minute performance against Cardiff. He made 66 passes, the third most behind Monreal (68) and Guendouzi (83), but only one was a key pass from open play. On the bright side, there are signs that Ozil might finally buy into Emery’s method. Ozil made 3 recoveries and won 2 of 3 tackles, according to the club’s website. Only Mustafi won more tackles on the Arsenal team. However, I doubt that Emery would use Ozil for a pressing job like the one done by the Gunners against Chelsea. Ozil was dribbled past 3 times by the Bluebirds, the most for any Arsenal player. He was also easily bullied off the ball by Peltier in the 43rd.

   Emery broke the deadlock by shifting to a 4-2-3-1 system at halftime with Iwobi replacing Elneny to provide more width and inject more directness. Iwobi created the opening goal in the 65th by playing Kolasinac in. Ecuele Manga tripped Kolasinac, forcing the referee to award a penalty that Aubameyang converted. Three minutes later, Iwobi played a one-two with Ozil and nearly doubled the lead but Etheridge denied the Nigeria international. In stoppage time, Iwobi was a bit naive as he dived in and allowed Mendez-Laing to cut inside and curl a shot into the far corner. Iwobi has built a good understanding with Kolasinac this season. Yet, that’s not enough to claim a starting spot because of his inconsistency.

An effective one-two punch

   The Gunners are still in the Top 4 race because of Aubameyang and Lacazette. They are the second best one-two punch in the Premier League behind Liverpool’s Salah and Mane. While Wenger used Aubameyang on the left wing, Emery prefers to play him on the right wing or in a front two. By scoring from the penalty spot, Aubameyang raised his tally to 15 goals in the league this season. Aubameyang nearly notched a second goal in stoppage time but Etheridge parried his first-time effort from 11 yards. Surprisingly, Aubameyang led Arsenal players with 3 key passes, all from open play.

   You often hear about competition between strikers in the same squad. Giroud and Morata barely played together at Chelsea just like Aguero and Jesus hardly start together at Manchester City. But Aubameyang and Lacazette look more like the complementary duo formed by Yorke and Cole at Manchester United. Aubameyang can stretch any defense with his electric pace while Lacazette has the all-around game to bring teammates into play.

   Lacazette scored the winning goal with a rampaging run in the 83rd. Tripped by Bamba along the touchline, Lacazette quickly got back on his feet and drove into the box to bury the ball into the far corner. Lacazette then set up Ramsey for a scoring chance in the 85th but the Wales midfielder headed wide.

   Until his goal, Lacazette struggled in the final third. He pounced on a loose ball in the second minute after Etheridge diverted Kolasinac’s cross, but his first touch was average and only allowed him to produce a tame flick with his second touch. Lacazette then missed his final ball for Aubameyang on the stroke of halftime and failed to catch the frame with a curling effort in the 73rd.

A too conservative approach

   The referee let Lacazette know that they wouldn’t go on holiday together by denying him an obvious penalty in the 44th and by booking him for exaggerating contact in the 81st. Things didn’t go Lacazette’s way but the France international kept fighting and Emery showed patience. Lacazette finished the game with 2 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 3. He also contributed defensively by making 4 fouls in Cardiff’s half.

   I suspect Emery had Sunday’s game at Manchester City in mind as he used Ramsey only for the last 20 minutes. The tired Bluebirds couldn’t cope with Ramsey’s movement. The Wales midfielder made the key pass for Aubameyang’s chance in injury time. Ramsey also had an opportunity to score in the last minute of the game but Peltier blocked his shot.

   Emery relied on Elneny, Guendouzi and Torreira to make up for any defensive lapse from Ozil. It proved a too conservative approach against Cardiff. In the holding midfielder role, Elneny had 0 turnover and showed a decent work-rate by winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 2 blocks and 2 recoveries. But his missed interception led to a scoring chance for Reid in the 12th. And the main reason why Emery yanked Elneny off at halftime was his poor contribution in Arsenal’s buildup play.

Killing the momentum of a play

   If you look at the screen captures below, you can see how Elneny wasted an opportunity to hit Cardiff on the fast break in the 37th. Lichtsteiner made a run down the right flank and could have found Lacazette in the final third with a first-time pass. But Elneny dallied on the ball, giving Cardiff more time to regroup.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37a edited.jpgElneny spots Lichtsteiner’s run but fails to pass the ball. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Because Elneny slowed down the momentum, you can see on the next screen capture that Lacazette and Aubameyang stopped running. However, Elneny still had an opportunity to move the ball forward by making a pass to Ozil.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37b edited.jpgOzil runs in front of Elneny, who fails to pass the ball again. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Elneny completely killed the momentum of the play by ignoring two good passing options (Lichtsteiner and Ozil). Surrounded by 3 Bluebirds, Elneny finally made a backpass to Torreira. On the next screen capture, you can see that Elneny’s poor decision-making allowed all the Bluebirds to get behind the ball, even Niasse who was 20 yards behind Elneny at the start of the play.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37c edited.jpgThe Gunners have to start from scratch again after Elneny’s backpass to Torreira. (Photo credit: TSN)    

   On the left side of the midfield, Guendouzi was much more positive than Elneny in his passing. Guendouzi made 2 key passes, 1 interception and 1 block and led all players with 8 recoveries. His reading of the game helped Guendouzi win 50-50 balls as Arter and Ralls received yellow cards for poor challenges on the French teenager. Guendouzi also showed his character with a booking for dissent at halftime, complaining about the missed penalty on Lacazette.

A rusty Monreal

   On the right side of the midfield, Torreira survived another game. He won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 7 recoveries. Those are decent stats for most midfielders but well below the level Torreira showed in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder played a lot of games last year and it’s no surprise to see his form dip since the end of December. Emery could leave him out of the squad for easy Europa League games while hoping that Torreira can catch a second wind by March.

   The Gunners nearly kept a clean sheet despite a makeshift back four. In his return from a hamstring injury, Monreal looked a bit rusty. The Spaniard received a yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Reid in the 29th. Monreal only won 28.6% of his duels, compared to 57.1% for Mustafi according to the club’s website. Cardiff mostly threatened with crosses and managed to expose Monreal’s weakness in the air in stoppage time. Zohore outjumped Monreal at the far post to flick on a cross from Harris. The ball fell to Mendez-Laing who cut the deficit to 2-1. Monreal only won 2 of 6 aerial duels compared to 5 of 9 for Mustafi.

   Often maligned for his reckless challenges, Mustafi lived up to his reputation with a silly foul on Reid in the 40th. Mustafi also gave away the ball with a poor header in the 82nd, forcing Leno to stop a curling effort from Zohore. Besides those two blemishes, Mustafi had a decent game, winning 3 of 3 tackles and 57.1% of his duels and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 1 recovery.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

   On the flanks, Lichtsteiner showed his age with a weak offensive contribution and a passive defensive performance. The Swiss veteran roamed forward a few times but made 0 key pass. His defensive stats were just as bad with 0 tackle, 0 interception, 1 block, 0 recovery and only 12.5% of duels won. Emery had seen enough and replaced Lichtsteiner with Jenkinson in the 60th. Kolasinac was more active with 1 key pass, 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries and 50% of duels won. He won the penalty for the opening goal but his defensive lapses nearly cost his team. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international was not tight to Paterson, who made a cross for Reid in the 15th. Despite that warning, Kolasinac left Paterson unmarked a couple more times. The Cardiff midfielder hit Kolasinac in the chest with a volleyed pass in the 42nd, before missing the target with long-range efforts in the 50th and 56th.

   The Gunners have reportedly signed Denis Suarez on loan to boost their chances of finishing in the Top 4. That move makes sense because they desperately need more creativity in midfield to feed Aubameyang and Lacazette. Arsenal can’t simply rely on Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Ozil, who have been too inconsistent this season. There’s no guarantee that Suarez will adapt quickly to the Premier League but it’s a low-risk gamble. If it doesn’t work out, Suarez will return to Barcelona at the end of the season.

   The Gunners visit Manchester City on Sunday. They have nothing to lose in that game. A defeat would be considered normal, especially with the injury crisis at the back, whereas any point would be deemed a bonus in the Top 4 race.

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Aubameyang fires Gunners to 3-1 win

Aubameyang has a good shot at becoming Arsenal’s Player of the Season. He scored twice in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Burnley as the Gunners bounced back from two straight losses in all competitions to go level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea in the Premier League.

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

The Gabon striker put Arsenal ahead in the 14th minute by stabbing Kolasinac’s offering into the bottom corner. He then concluded a counterattack with a powerful strike to double the lead in the 48th. Aubameyang is the top scorer in the league with 12 goals so far this season. If you add his 3 assists from 18 league games, that’s 0.83 goal or assist per game. Only Hazard (8 goals, 9 assists) and Salah (11 goals, 5 assists) have made a bigger offensive impact.

Is Aubameyang a world-class player? I don’t know, it’s a really close call. He doesn’t have the physicality and hold-up play of a Henry or the technique of a Van Persie, but he’s definitely an upgrade over Giroud, whose lack of pace was a liability on the fast break.

Lacazette led the line under Wenger, forcing Aubameyang to play on the left wing. Emery has a different opinion as Aubameyang has become the first choice for the centerforward position. I think that decision makes sense because Lacazette doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace to stretch a defense. On the other hand, Lacazette has a better all-around game than Aubameyang to play as a second striker or as a false winger.

Giving the keys to Ozil

Despite falling behind in the pecking order, Lacazette has managed to make a significant contribution with 6 goals and 4 assists in 17 league games, for an average of 0.59 goal or assist per game. Lacazette didn’t score against Burnley, but he made 2 key passes, including the assist for Aubameyang’s goal in the second half. Elneny connected with Lacazette’s cross in the eighth minute but his header was blocked by Mee.

Lacazette could have added 2 more key passes but either lacked accuracy or vision. On the stroke of halftime, Lacazette made a run into the box. He first dribbled past Tarkowski and then tried to take on Long instead of setting up Ozil for a 10-yard shot. Long dispossessed Lacazette and the chance was gone. Lacazette also wasted a counterattack in the 62nd by overhitting his return pass for Ozil.

Emery made 5 changes to the side that got knocked out of the League Cup by Spurs with Lacazette, Ozil, Elneny, Kolasinac and Leno replacing Mkhitaryan, Iwobi, Ramsey, Torreira and Cech in the starting lineup. In a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield, Emery gave the keys of the game to Ozil, who had 2 targets with Aubameyang and Lacazette and 3 midfielders (Xhaka, Elneny and Guendouzi) to do the defensive work for him.

That tactical choice paid off as Arsenal reached halftime with the lead for the first time in the Premier League this season. Ozil’s passing skills and reading of the game can make a difference against teams parking the bus. His perfectly weighted cross for Kolasinac in the 14th was a technical wonder. Ozil also created the last goal in stoppage time. He skipped past Long and Mee only to have his shot blocked by Tarkowski. The rebound fell into the path of Iwobi, who beat Hart from close range.

Burnley’s thuggery

That game doesn’t solve the Ozil conundrum, though. Despite his involvement in the first and last goals, Ozil finished the game with 0 key pass. And his work-rate was poor again with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 3 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Because of the hectic schedule and the inconsistency of other attacking midfielders, Emery will definitely play Ozil again. But Ozil has no guarantee of a starting spot.

Iwobi came off the bench to replace Lacazette in the 78th. His goal in stoppage time shouldn’t hide his lack of end product this season. In fact, Iwobi is the most inefficient of our attacking midfielders with 2 goals and 2 assists in 15 league games for an average of 0.26 goal or assist per game. Ramsey has 1 goal and 6 assist in 15 games (0.47), followed by Mkhitaryan with 4 goals and 1 assist in 14 games (0.36) and Ozil with 3 goals and 1 assist in 12 games (0.33). Fans and pundits often mention how Iwobi has improved under Emery, but he’s simply on course to match his stats from last season, when he notched 3 goals and 5 assists in 26 games (0.31) under Wenger.

If you’re a neutral spectator, you don’t want to see Burnley in the Premier League. The Clarets play a boring, outdated brand of football, relying on long balls, second balls and borderline physicality. Dyche complained after the game about some Gunners going to the ground easily. That was a poor attempt to distract attention from the Clarets’ thuggery.

Barnes was booked for holding Sokratis in a headlock while the ball was out of play in the 35th. The Burnley forward got away with the benefit of the doubt for kneeing Guendouzi in the back in the 50th. But I thought Barnes should have been sent off in the 57th for a deliberate stamp on Guendouzi’s chest. Dyche can be thankful that Guendouzi didn’t play act to draw the referee’s attention.

Guendouzi’s composure

Surprisingly, Arsenal matched Burnley’s aggression in a good way by winning 17 of 23 tackles compared to 16 of 23 tackles for the visitors, according to whoscored.com. Despite his young age, Guendouzi kept his cool when Cork in the 60th and Wood in the 75th stamped on him. Guendouzi started alongside Elneny and Xhaka in midfield. The French teenager still has a tendency to take too many touches. He killed the momentum of a counterattack in the seventh minute by failing to see Aubameyang’s run and holding onto the ball. Defensively, he showed his naivety in the second minute by failing to stay with Westwood on a counterattack. Barnes fed Westwood, who fired wide. On the bright side, Guendouzi started the fast break that led to the second goal by finding Kolasinac with a ball over the top.

Elneny made his first start in the league under Emery. It’s easy to understand why the Spanish manager doesn’t rate him. Elneny struggles to win duels and lacks end product in the final third. The Egypt international led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He wasted an interesting situation in the 20th by having a shot blocked instead of feeding Ozil.

Emery yanked Elneny off to send on Torreira in the 59th. Guendouzi and Elneny were no match for Torreira’s work-rate. In his short cameo, Torreira won 2 of 3 tackles and made 1 interception and 2 recoveries, compared to 1 of 1 tackle and 2 recoveries for Guendouzi and 1 of 3 tackles and 2 recoveries for Elneny, according to the club’s website. Torreira was unlucky to have his clearance charged down for Burnley’s goal in the 63rd. In hindsight, maybe Xhaka could have cleared the danger himself instead of making a risky pass to Torreira.

Maitland-Niles learning the hard way

Xhaka started as the holding midfielder before moving to the centerback position in the 37th when Lichtsteiner replaced an injured Monreal. The Switzerland midfielder gave the ball away in dangerous situations in the 9th and the 80th. He also failed to challenge for a long ball in the 18th, letting Burnley have a scoring chance but Westwood missed the target. Signing a centerback in January might be an option for the club because there’s no way Arsenal can continue to rely on Xhaka and Lichtsteiner as makeshift centerbacks.

Maitland-Niles deputized for Bellerin at rightback. Saturday’s game against a weak side was a good opportunity for him to shine. But Maitland-Niles showed that he’s still a raw player who needs to improve his reading of the game. He never made the kind of dangerous runs that Kolasinac and Bellerin usually make. Maitland-Niles started brightly, testing Hart in the second and the 20th minutes, before fading in the second half. The Clarets targeting him on long balls by creating unfavorable matchups in the air. Maitland-Niles lost his aerial duel against Mee in the 63rd when Burnley capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to score. Tarkowski also beat Maitland-Niles in the air to set up Taylor, whose low strike sailed wide in the 81st. Maitland-Niles will have to work on his jump and find ways to put off taller opponents. He will also have to be more tidy in possession as the Clarets robbed him 3 times.

On the opposite flank, Kolasinac was a constant threat for the Burnley defense. He made the assist for Aubameyang’s opener and made the penultimate pass for the second goal by picking out Lacazette. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also created chances for Elneny in the 20th and for Lacazette in the 66th. Aubameyang certainly lacked flair in the 88th when he decided to stay back instead of jumping into the six-yard box to meet Kolasinac’s teasing cross. Technically, Kolasinac had one of his best games with a passing accuracy of 92.1% while it’s usually below 80%.

A busy Christmas period

Sokratis marshalled the defense at the back, winning 5 of 5 aerial duels and having 0 turnover, according to whoscored.com. Holding’s long-term injury, Koscielny’s poor form and Mustafi’s absence mean that Sokratis is Emery’s most reliable option at centerback right now. Sokratis was unfazed by Burnley’s physical approach. In fact, he even seemed to enjoy it. Sokratis won 2 of 2 tackles, and made 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries. He also led all players by winning 72.7% of his duels, according to the club’s website. His only blemish of the game was the yellow card he received in the 41st for holding Barnes. Sokratis was too tight to Barnes and ended up on the wrong side of the Burnley striker.

Monreal’s relapse is depriving Emery of options because the Spanish defender can play at fullback and centerback. At 32, Monreal’s best years are behind him. The club will need to sign a leftback next summer to make up for Kolasinac’s defensive lapses and Monreal’s physical decline. Monreal was pulled out of position for Burnley’s first scoring chance in the second minute. His replacement, Lichtsteiner, left Barnes unmarked for the visitors’ lone goal in the 63rd. Seven minutes later, Lichtsteiner switched off again by failing to close down Cork, who fired wide.

In his first season in England, Emery is already aware of the busy Christmas period. The Spanish manager rested Koscielny, Ramsey and Torreira. Koscielny was left out of the squad, Ramsey stayed on the bench and Torreira only played 35 minutes in the second half. The Gunners visit Brighton on Wednesday and Liverpool on Saturday. Arsenal must stay within a couple of points of fourth place after those 2 away games, otherwise a Top 4 finish might become too difficult.

Arsenal vs. Qarabag: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win

In Thursday’s dead rubber, the Gunners edged Qarabag 1-0 in the Europa League to extend their unbeaten run to 22 games in all competitions. Despite what the scoreline might suggest, it was a one-sided encounter with Arsenal enjoying 67% of ball possession and having 11 goal attempts to just 1 for the Azerbaijani side.

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

The Gunners had already secured a first-place finish in Group E before this game. Therefore Emery took no risk by leaving 9 first-team players out of the squad (Cech, Leno, Bellerin, Lichtsteiner, Kolasinac, Torreira, Xhaka, Iwobi and Aubameyang). The Spanish manager still fielded an experienced side with only 3 academy players in the starting lineup (Willock, Nketiah and Saka). In case of trouble, Emery had Monreal, Mkhitaryan and Guendouzi on the bench. Monreal came off the bench in the second half while Mkhitaryan and Guendouzi were not even used.

  1. The captain is back

Koscielny finally made his first appearance this season after tearing his Achilles tendon in May. There were some concerns over his fitness because he had only played a couple of games with the U23 team, but the French centerback looked sharp with a passing accuracy of 100%. The small crowd at the Emirates stadium warmly applauded Koscielny when Monreal replaced him in the 72nd minute. Koscielny produced a low-key performance, winning 1 tackle and 1 of 2 aerial duels and making 0 interception, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis had slightly better stats, winning 1 tackle and 2 of 3 aerial duels and making 2 interceptions.

  1. Saka showed personality

For his first Arsenal start, Saka wasn’t impressed by the big stage. The 17-year-old winger had 3 of 4 shots on target, 1 key pass, and led all players with 8 successful dribbles out of 10, according to whoscored.com. Saka tested Vagner with a curling shot in the ninth minute for Arsenal’s first scoring chance. He should have found the net in the 89th but fired straight at the goalkeeper from 8 yards. While youngsters like Nketiah and Smith-Rowe sometimes struggle with the physicality of the game, Saka is surprisingly quite strong in challenges for a teenager. Saka might prove a fantastic asset in the next few years as Mkhitaryan and Iwobi lack efficiency in the wide positions while Welbeck’s future at the club is uncertain.

  1. Nketiah is still a work in progress

Since his heroics in the League Cup against Norwich last year, Nketiah has struggled to have an impact with the first team. Nketiah keeps shining with the U23 side but the gap with the top leagues is massive. At 19, Nketiah still has time on his side though. He showed good work-rate against Qarabag by winning 5 tackles, tied with Willock for the most by any player. His defensive work in the 16th forced the turnover that led to the winning goal. However, his end product was a bit disappointing with 0 of 1 shot on target and 1 key pass. Nketiah headed a corner over the bar in the 37th and created the golden chance for Saka in the 89th. He headed home a cross from Saka in the 76th but the goal was disallowed for offside. Nketiah also needs to be more tidy in possession. He had 6 turnovers compared to 4 for Saka.

  1. Ozil made his return from a back injury

The quality of his passing was badly missed against Huddersfield last weekend. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes before Emery yanked him off in the 83rd to send on Gilmour. The German playmaker created the winner in the 16th by finding Lacazette inside the area. Lacazette rounded Huseynov to shoot past Vagner from a tight angle. The key question this season is whether Ozil will follow Emery’s tactical instructions. Pressing is a team effort. The whole chain can be broken if one player fails to close down an opponent. If Ozil improves his work-rate, he will be a regular starter. Otherwise, he will only be an impact player coming off the bench.

  1. Elneny should be sold next summer

The Egypt international is not decisive enough. Defensively, Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi win more tackles than Elneny. Offensively, Torreira and Guendouzi are more creative than Elneny while Xhaka is more useful for set pieces. On Thursday, Elneny won 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 1 key pass, compared to 5 tackles won, 1 interception and 1 key pass for Willock. Elneny’s main asset is that he’s more experienced and more tidy in possession than Willock. He had 2 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 95.9% compared to 4 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 88.5% for Willock.

 

Vorskla vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 3-0 win

The Gunners secured the top spot in Group E of the Europa League by routing Vorskla 3-0 on Thursday. Even if Sporting Lisbon go level on points after Matchday 6, Arsenal will still finish ahead of the Portuguese club because of a better head-to-head record.

Vorskla vs. Arsenal

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

There was a bit of uncertainty over the game. It was relocated from Poltava to Kiev because of military tensions in the Crimea region between Russia and Ukraine. In a freezing and half-empty stadium, the Gunners turned the match into one-way traffic with 9 shots on target to just 2 for Vorskla. The Ukrainian side only threatened in the opening minutes from two set pieces and at the end of the game when Emery made some substitutions. Their only big chance was Perduta’s point-blank shot that Cech saved in the 70th minute.

  1. The North London derby is on Emery’s mind

Emery left most of the regular starters at home. Leno, Sokratis, Mustafi, Bellerin, Kolasinac, Torreira, Xhaka, Ozil, Iwobi and Aubameyang were not in the Arsenal squad traveling to Ukraine. Among the players who might feature against Spurs, only Maitland-Niles played the full 90 minutes. Holding, Guendouzi and Ramsey were replaced in the second half while Mkhitaryan stayed on the bench.

Prioritizing the North London derby led Emery to build his weakest squad of the season with 5 academy players on the bench (Gilmour, Medley, Osei-Tutu, John Jules and Saka) and 3 academy players in the starting lineup (Nketiah, Smith-Rowe and Willock).

The absence of many first-team players explains why Willock and Jenkinson had to play out of position. Jenkinson is a fullback by trade but played at centerback on Thursday. In the past, Wenger also made similar moves with Sagna, Debuchy and Monreal. A stranger experiment was to play Willock on the right wing. Usually, managers tend to move players into a deeper position. For instance, central midfielders like Coquelin, Flamini and Maitland-Niles helped out by playing in the fullback position.

  1. Willock stole the show

Emery’s decision to play Willock in the winger position was a stroke of genius. Willock produced an outstanding all-around performance with 1 goal, 3 of 3 shots on target, 1 key pass, 4 successful dribbles, 3 tackles won, and 1 interception, according to whoscored.com. The only blemish in Willock’s performance was his 6 turnovers, the most for any player.

Willock is a central midfielder by trade and looked pretty much like a mini-Coquelin under Wenger last season. His offensive output was quite a surprise because Willock doesn’t have the scoring abilities and dribbling skills of Nketiah or Smith-Rowe. Willock made it 3-0 in the 41st with a curling shot Thierry Henry would have been proud of. He also tested Shust with an angled strike in the 32nd and a close-range effort in the 90th.

  1. Ramsey showed he’s a leader

A second choice for Emery now, Ramsey has not let his decline in the pecking order affect his performance. Ramsey created the opening goal by swapping passes with Nketiah in the 10th before earning a penalty with some clever footwork for the second goal in the 26th. Emery used Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder again. This is not Ramsey’s best position but the Wales international can only make the best of each appearance to deserve a new lucrative contract elsewhere.

  1. Smith-Rowe keeps growing

At the age of 18, Smith-Rowe has already scored 3 goals in all competitions this season. Smith-Rowe definitely has a talent for finding good positions in the final third. The English teenager scored a poacher’s goal in the 10th by pouncing on a loose ball to fire home from 11 yards. He found the net again by converting a cross from Lichtsteiner in the 65th, but the goal was disallowed because of Nketiah’s offside position on that play. Smith-Rowe had another scoring chance in the 71st but Shust parried his powerful strike. As the icing on the cake, Smith-Rowe’s work-rate was also impressive with 2 tackles won, 3 interceptions and 2 key passes, including a lobbed pass for Nketiah in the 33rd.

  1. Nketiah is feeling the pressure

It’s hard not to make comparisons between Nketiah and Smith-Rowe since Nketiah is only a year older than Smith-Rowe. Despite scoring many goals in the Premier League 2, Nketiah still hasn’t found the net with the senior team this season.

In the centerforward position, Nketiah drew 4 fouls and led all players with 5 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com. Nketiah was involved in the opening goal by charging down Dallku’s clearance. He seemed to try too hard a couple of times. Nketiah was right to fire a low strike that Shust turned around the post in the 53rd. But he rushed his shot after struggling to control a high ball in the 33rd and attempted a blind effort in stoppage time.

I don’t think centerforward is Nketiah’s best position at this stage of his career. He still lacks a bit of physicality for that role. Nketiah won only 1 of 3 aerial duels and had 4 turnovers. Maybe he would perform better as a second striker or as a winger, especially since he has the all-around game for those positions. For instance, Nketiah made very good crosses in the 52nd and 85th.

  1. Guendouzi is an upgrade over Elneny

Guendouzi’s rise is the main reason for Elneny’s slip down the pecking order. Defensively, Guendouzi outperformed Elneny, winning 1 tackle and making 3 interceptions compared to 0 tackle won and 1 interception for the Egypt international. Elneny lost a duel that led to a scoring chance for Kulach on the stroke of halftime. Offensively, Guendouzi offers a bit more variety. Elneny had 3 key passes compared to 2 key passes for Guendouzi, but a closer look at the stats tells you why Emery prefers Guendouzi. The French teenager hit 2 accurate crosses out of 8 and 5 accurate long balls out of 5, compared to 0 accurate cross out of 1 and 2 accurate long balls out of 3 for Elneny, according to whoscored.com. However, Guendouzi could learn from Elneny in his passing game. Elneny releases the ball more quickly whereas Guendouzi tends to slow down the tempo by holding onto the ball too long.