Tag Archives: Elneny

Arsenal vs. Leicester: Gunners survive poor defending in 4-3 win

Should we be picky or not after Arsenal opened the Premier League season with a 4-3 victory over Leicester? The Gunners didn’t really look like credible title contenders on Friday as their old defensive frailties resurfaced against an average side. Yet, we shouldn’t forget that Arsenal dropped 3 points on opening day in the past two seasons, losing 4-3 to Liverpool a year ago and 2-0 to West Ham in 2015. In mathematical terms, it’s definitely an improvement.

Arsenal vs. Leicester 2017

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

Down 3-2 with about 10 minutes left, the Gunners showed character to grind out a win that was fully deserved. They enjoyed 70% of ball possession and had 27 shots compared to just 6 for the Foxes. Arsenal also showed more commitment than the visitors, winning 61% of the duels, and making 24 tackles and 13 interceptions compared to 17 tackles and 10 interceptions for Leicester, according to the club’s website. It’s a good result if we keep in mind that Koscielny was suspended, Mustafi was on the bench but not really fit, and Sanchez, Mertesacker, Paulista and Cazorla were injured.

Wenger made two changes to the side that defeated Chelsea in the Community Shield a week ago with Ozil and Kolasinac replacing Iwobi and Mertesacker in the starting lineup. Tactically, there was no surprise from the Foxes, who used the blueprint that helped them win the league during the 2015-16 season.

Arsenal relied on the 3-4-3 system that has produced good results since April. Chasing the victory, Wenger shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 67th by sending on Ramsey and Giroud for Elneny and Holding. When the Gunners charged forward, it pretty much looked like the old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system used against Manchester United last season. But whatever system is used, the closing minutes showed that it’s still the quality of the players that makes the difference.

The super-sub strikes again

In his Premier League debut, Lacazette found the net by the second minute. The French international headed in a cross from Elneny to give Arsenal the lead. He could have scored another goal in the 85th but Schmeichel tipped his strike over the bar. Lacazette was tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 90%, which is unusual for a centerforward. He also displayed some great work-rate by making 5 tackles and contributed to the team’s passing game with 3 shot assists. Lacazette made a cross for Ramsey, who headed wide in the 68th, and then set up Xhaka for a volley that Schmeichel saved in the 70th.

I thought Lacazette could have enjoyed better service. His teammates probably need a bit more time to understand his runs and capitalize on his excellent movement. Lacazette’s integration is nevertheless a success if we remember how long it took for Henry to score his first Arsenal goal after his transfer from Juventus. He’s a false nine like Sanchez, but the big difference between the two strikers is that Lacazette doesn’t feel the need to touch the ball as often as the Chile forward. Last season, Sanchez sometimes ended up making more passes than Ozil. That won’t happen with Lacazette.

Giroud does not have Lacazette’s pace but his power and dominance in the air are great assets in a physical league like the Premier League. Wenger had no doubt that Giroud and Lacazette could be complementary as they played together the last 25 minutes of the game. It was in fact Giroud who played the ball back to Lacazette in the 85th. Giroud scored the winning goal a few seconds later by holding off Maguire and Morgan to head Xhaka corner under the bar.

Welbeck’s crucial equalizer

Technically, Welbeck is a compromise between Giroud and Lacazette. The England international has more pace than Giroud and is stronger in the air than Lacazette. He has often been criticized for his relative lack of end product, but his crucial goal on the stroke of halftime allowed the Gunners to head back to the dressing room with the score tied at 2-2. When Ozil found Lacazette inside the box, the French striker could only muster a tame sliding effort. Yet, the ball fell to Kolasinac, who fed Welbeck for a close-range chip.

Starting on the left wing, Welbeck teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain for a long-range strike in the 59th and played Bellerin in for a low shot that Schmeichel saved with his legs in the 62nd. Welbeck can swap positions with Lacazette, which means that the ballholder often has two passing options inside the box. The 3-4-3 system then turns into a 3-5-2 formation when Ozil drops back to get involved in the build-up.

By his own standards, Ozil had an average game. He led all players with 6 key passes but also had 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. One of his turnovers led to a corner and Okazaki’s equalizer in the fifth minute. Ozil finished the game with 81 passes, trailing only Xhaka’s 99. He seemed to lack a bit of sharpness in the final third as he dragged a low drive wide in the 49th and attempted a poor volley in the 74th. Ozil’s only moment of magic was the one-two he played with Welbeck in the 22nd.

The Ox’s work-rate

On the left flank, Oxlade-Chamberlain was among the Gunners who suffered from a bout of nervousness in the first half. Despite a couple of stray passes from the wingback position, the Ox grew into the game to lead all players with 8 successful dribbles out of 9. His work-rate was quite impressive as the Ox won 3 of 4 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions, 2 key passes and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. The only weakness in the Ox’s performance was his lack of accuracy in the final third with just 2 of 6 shots on target. On the opposite wing, Bellerin didn’t shine as much as the Ox for the simple reason that Albrighton gave him a hard time while Mahrez’s poor work-rate played into the Ox’s hands.

In central midfield, the manager partnered Xhaka with Elneny. Cazorla’s long-term absence means that Xhaka is the only player in the squad who can set the tempo, assuming that Ozil can’t play in a deeper position. To build his midfield around Xhaka, Wenger had the choice between Coquelin, Ramsey and Elneny. Coquelin is the most defensive option and is technically limited. Ramsey is a bigger goal threat but lacks tactical discipline. In the end, the manager opted for a compromise by starting Elneny.

Elneny did enough defensive work to help Xhaka pull the strings in midfield. He won 2 of 4 tackles, made 2 blocks and even created 2 chances, including the cross for Lacazette’s opening goal. When Arsenal needed more presence in the final third, Wenger replaced Elneny with Ramsey. The Wales midfielder made it 3-3 in the 83rd by controlling Xhaka’s cross to fire an angled effort past Schmeichel.

Pub defending

Xhaka is usually tidy in possession but made a couple of sloppy passes on Friday. His turnover in the 29th led to Vardy’s goal. Xhaka nearly cost his team another goal in the 52nd when Mahrez intercepted his pass to send a ball over the top for Vardy. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to clear the ball. Despite a passing accuracy of 81%, Xhaka still managed to hit 12 accurate long balls out of 15, the most for any outfield player according to whoscored.com. Xhaka somehow made up for his mistakes by setting up the last two goals.

At the back, the Gunners got plenty of stick for their pub defending. Most of Leicester’s chances came from turnovers or set pieces. The Foxes leveled in the fifth minute from a short corner. Unmarked at the far post, Maguire headed Albrighton’s cross into the path of Okazaki, who outjumped Xhaka to beat Cech. The Gunners committed too many players at the near post and in the middle of the box, leaving the far post exposed. Cech’s decision-making was poor on that play as he ended up in no man’s land.

The Foxes’ third goal in the 56th showed the limits and complexity of zonal marking. Vardy started his run from beyond the penalty spot and jumped unopposed to nod in Mahrez’s corner. The Leicester striker was able to get a free header because he spotted a gap between Monreal, Xhaka and Welbeck. The culprit on that play was Xhaka, who saw Vardy run in front of him but failed to mark him. Zonal marking requires flexibility to be successful and Xhaka clearly failed to adapt to the situation. Still, it’s very tricky to make the right decision in a split second. If you follow a player, you may leave a gap that could be exploited by another player. And if you stay in your zone, you may let an opponent have a free header. Xhaka’s involvement in the 3 Leicester goals tells you that he’s not a defensive midfielder.

Loaning out Holding?

Holding was again the weak link in the back three. The U23 player proved strong in the air, winning 4 of 4 headers, but he’s still a bit too naive for the Premier League. He made a sloppy pass in the 23rd and was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Fuchs in the 33rd and Maguire in the 44th. Holding definitely needs to iron out mistakes from his game. Ten years ago, Arsenal could finish in the Top 4 despite starting youngsters like Denilson, Djourou and Bendtner in league games. But the Premier League has become much more competitive nowadays. If Wenger tries to speed up Holding’s development by playing him in league games, that will cost Arsenal quite a few goals. It would be less dangerous to loan him out.

Monreal took over the sweeper role when Mertesacker got injured in the Community Shield. The manager left Monreal in the middle of the back three on Friday, thinking the Spaniard could cope with Vardy and Okazaki in the air. Monreal won only 3 of 6 headers. He misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 40th and missed his header but Holding covered him and cleared the danger. On the bright side, Monreal’s technique allowed him to have a passing accuracy of 95% and his reading of the game helped him make 5 interceptions, the most for any player according to Squawka.

No gimme

Kolasinac’s performance was a mixed bag. He won 4 of 5 tackles, the most for any player, made an assist and had a volley turned around the post in the 27th. But he should have been tighter to Vardy for Leicester’s second goal. Kolasinac also had a risky pass intercepted by Mahrez on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 55th. If everybody was fit, I’d feel more comfortable with Kolasinac in the wingback position than as a centerback.

Saturday’s results show that there’s no gimme in the Premier League nowadays: Chelsea lost to Burnley and Liverpool drew with Watford. Arsenal’s defensive performance against Leicester was horrible but the three points give the team some time to work on those weaknesses and build confidence. The Gunners will need to show the same team spirit when they visit Stoke on Saturday as Koscielny will still be suspended and Sanchez won’t have recovered yet from his abdominal strain.

A few thoughts on the Emirates Cup

The Gunners retained the Emirates Cup after thrashing Benfica 5-2 on Saturday and losing 2-1 to Sevilla on Sunday. That may sound weird since Sevilla won both games they played but the competition rules state that a point is awarded for each goal scored.

Emirates Cup 2017

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

The level of that tournament proved decent as Benfica and Sevilla both qualified for the Champions League. However, I still felt that I learned more about the squad from the China tour than from the Emirates Cup.

  1. Can Lacazette shine as a centerforward in the Premier League?

Lacazette’s performance in the Emirates Cup was a mixed bag. He scored against Sevilla but several plays showed that he doesn’t have the right mindset yet. As the most expensive player signed by Arsenal, you can bet the fans and pundits will judge Lacazette on his goals. In the first half of the Sevilla game, Lacazette hid twice at the far post while the more natural choice would have been to make a run to the near post when Welbeck crossed the ball.

The French striker will need to develop his killer instinct. Lacazette could have shot from 15 yards in the 16th minute but preferred to slip the ball to Bellerin, who was in a less favorable position. Then, Lacazette could only muster a tame shot in the 58th before finding the net four minutes later by converting an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross.

Obviously, Lacazette is still trying to understand his team’s passing game and will need a bit of time to completely fit in. I just don’t think he’s the right choice for the centerforward position, especially in the Premier League. Many English clubs simply park the bus when they face Arsenal, which means that Lacazette would have very little space to run into. An old-fashioned striker like Giroud, strong in the air and able to outmuscle defenders, would be more useful in those situations.

At 5’9, Lacazette is quite a short forward. Optimists will mention Aguero as the example of a successful centerforward despite his short height, but then they would need to remember that Manchester City had a plan B with the towering Dzeko. I believe Lacazette will do better in the Premier League as a second striker or false winger than as a centerforward.

  1. Arsenal should keep Giroud

Giroud has a low resale value. Therefore it wouldn’t make sense to sell this summer a player who has a unique skill set in the Arsenal squad. Giroud is not just our most dominant forward in the air. Only Welbeck can maybe hold the ball up like Giroud. And only Sanchez can match Giroud’s link-up play. In terms of goals per minute played, Giroud is also more clinical than Welbeck and Walcott.

The Benfica game highlighted those skills. Giroud held off a defender in the 27th to feed Walcott on a counterattack. He then volleyed into the far corner to make it 4-2 in the 64th. The France striker set up the last goal in the 71st by cushioning Kolasinac’s cross into the path of Iwobi, who fired into the roof of the net.

  1. Walcott is learning a new position

As an inside forward, Walcott looked lost on the pitch against Sydney FC. He seemed to have a better understanding of the position against Benfica. Walcott may have no impact in Arsenal’s passing game but he still has some flair for goals. He converted Kolasinac’s cross in the 24th before pouncing on Coquelin’s offering in the 32nd to tap into an empty net.

The more interesting part of the Benfica game is that Walcott had an assist in the 52nd when Lopez diverted his cross into his own net. Walcott also made a pinpoint cross for Giroud in the fourth minute but Julio Cesar saved the Frenchman’s header. During the 2012-13 season, Walcott had 12 assists in the Premier League. For whatever reason, his assist numbers have significantly dropped over the past few years. Walcott would have a better shot at starting games if he could balance more evenly his goals and assists.

  1. Experience is key at the back

It is easier for a youngster to break through as a striker than as a defender for the simple reason that mistakes are less costly up front than at the back. Martial and Mbappe are the obvious names that come to mind while you would struggle to name one teenager who has shone as a centerback. Experience clearly makes a huge difference for a defender.

I found it strange that Wenger played Maitland-Niles at centerback and wingback in the summer friendlies while the team more urgently needs a defensive midfielder, which is Maitland-Niles’ natural position. Maybe the manager wanted to show Maitland-Niles the cost of defensive errors and help him improve his reading of the game.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety cost Arsenal two goals in the Benfica game. First, he hesitated in his positional play and was not tight enough to Cervi, who opened the scoring in the 12th. Then his risky pass was intercepted by Pizzi and the ball fell to Salvio who made it 2-2 in the 39th. You would think that Maitland-Niles learned from his mistakes, but he didn’t. The English teenager attempted another risky pass that was intercepted in the 67th and led to a Benfica counterattack. At 19, Maitland-Niles still has time to develop, but he must learn at a faster pace otherwise he could be discarded like Akpom.

Holding is two years older than Maitland-Niles but only has one Premier League season under his belt. His inexperience showed in the 35th when he made a dribbling attempt as the last defender and lost possession to Pizzi, who was denied by Ospina. If Paulista was not injured, it would have made sense to loan Holding out to a Premier League club.

The Gunners made a good investment this summer by signing Kolasinac on a free transfer. At 24, Kolasinac is a much more experienced defender than Holding with five Bundesliga seasons under his belt. Kolasinac has produced some solid performances in the pre-season friendlies and has adapted to his new team more quickly than Lacazette. He made the cross for Walcott’s first goal in the Benfica game and created Iwobi’s goal by picking out Giroud. With his strong frame, Kolasinac is perfectly tailored for the physical Premier League.

  1. No Premier League starter from the youth team

The current crop of youngsters may be promising with Nelson and Willock, but it’s hard to see how they could claim a starting spot in the Premier League. It’s true that Bellerin became a regular starter during the 2014-15 season and Iwobi walked in the Spaniard’s steps a year later. But now Premier League clubs are massively spending to upgrade their squads. Even average sides have a flurry of internationals. With more competition and more pressure to finish in the Top 4 after a disappointing 2016-17 season, Wenger is more likely to take a gamble on a youngster in a League Cup game than in the Premier League.

In the long term, Nelson would be the most natural replacement for Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing. Nelson made a couple of impressive runs against Benfica. Although he’s right-footed, Nelson managed to make a pinpoint cross with his left foot in the 64th. Giroud pounced on the offering to volley into the bottom corner for a 4-2 lead. At 17, Nelson is far from the finished product. He was brushed off the ball twice against Benfica. Obviously, Nelson must beef up his game to win duels, but his technique and reading of the game are already quite outstanding for a youngster.

  1. Elneny doesn’t make the cut as a centerback

For some reason, Wenger only used Elneny as a centerback during the summer friendlies. That decision didn’t really make sense with Holding and Chambers back in the squad for the Emirates Cup. The manager expects the team to play the ball out from the back and Elneny has better passing skills than your average centerback. But as a defender, you still have to properly execute the offside trap and win duels.

Elneny struggled with the offside trap against Bayern Munich and that weakness was again exposed in the Sevilla game. On the stroke of halftime, Elneny stepped forward and was unable to recover as Nolito was clean through on goal. Fortunately, Koscielny rushed back to block Nolito’s cross for Ben Yedder. Then Elneny failed to stay with Correa, who played a one-two with Ben Yedder to slip the ball past Cech for the opening goal in the 49th. Wenger was pretty straightforward about Elneny’s performance after the game: “I don’t think in the future he will be a centerback.”

  1. The midfield still looks like a gruyere cheese

Throughout the summer friendlies, Wenger only relied on Xhaka, Ramsey, Coquelin and Willock to rotate in midfield. Whatever the pairing was, the midfield often looked porous. The Sevillans ran unopposed quite a few times from their own half to the Arsenal area. Banega broke forward from midfield in the 15th to feed Ben Yedder, who hit the post. In the second half, neither Xhaka nor Ramsey pressed N’Zonzi, who had plenty of time to curl the winner into the top corner. The Gunners desperately need a destroyer in midfield. Can the manager see it?

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Australia and China

The Gunners enjoyed mixed fortunes in the recent summer tour aimed at building up their fitness and increasing their worldwide fan base. Last week, Arsenal faced two Australian teams that would probably sit at the bottom of the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners defeated Sydney FC 2-0 before downing Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1.

Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Pre-Season Friendly

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

The level was much higher this week with games in China against Bayern Munich and Chelsea. The German champions completely outplayed Arsenal but somehow lost 3-2 in a penalty shootout after drawing 1-1 in regulation time. Chelsea proved more clinical than the Bavarian side by thrashing Arsenal 3-0 on Saturday.

  1. Omissions aren’t always innocent

Paulista, Wilshere and Cazorla were not in the squad for the summer tour because of injury. Holding, Chambers, Bellerin, Campbell, Mustafi and Sanchez also missed the pre-season friendlies because they were given some time off to recover from international competitions.

On the other hand, the absence of Szczesny, Debuchy, Gibbs, Jenkinson and Perez had nothing to do with an injury or international competition. Those five players seem to no longer be part of the club’s future plans. In fact, Juventus signed Szczesny a few days ago while Gibbs and Jenkinson have been linked to several English clubs.

Among the youngsters, Akpom and Reine-Adelaide missed out on the tour because their performances stagnated last season. Akpom showed poor attitude during his loan spell at Brighton while Reine-Adelaide failed to impress with the U23 team. Therefore, Wenger preferred to give a chance to Willock, Nelson, Nketiah, Bramall and Malen instead of including Akpom and Reine-Adelaide in the squad.

  1. Cech, Ramsey and Ozil are already sharp

Without Cech’s saves, Arsenal could have lost 5-1 to Bayern again. At 35, Cech is no longer the goalkeeper who led Chelsea to a flurry of titles, but he’s still among the best in the Premier League.

Ramsey’s 2016-17 season was marred by injuries because the manager didn’t give him enough time to recover from the Euros. It was therefore important to gradually build up Ramsey’s fitness this summer. The Wales midfielder made a run in behind to score the second goal against the Wanderers. He also set up Iwobi for the equalizer against Bayern with a left-footed cross.

Although Ozil only has one year left on his contract, it looks like he will play the upcoming season with Arsenal. Ozil sometimes gets criticized for his poor work-rate but the quality of his delivery can make a difference in the tight games, especially when you compare with the relative lack of accuracy from Xhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain on set pieces. The Germany playmaker slipped a through ball to Walcott against the Wanderers and to Lacazette against Bayern. He also volleyed a cross from Welbeck straight at Starke.

  1. Mertesacker’s lack of pace is still an issue

Mertesacker’s performance in the FA Cup final gave the illusion that a back three could make up for his lack of pace. Unfortunately, the pre-season friendlies showed that some situations could put Mertesacker in trouble. Sydney FC created their first scoring chance by isolating Mertesacker with a speedy forward.

In the FA Cup final, Arsenal protected Mertesacker by seating deep. In Beijing, the Gunners were punished for playing a high defensive line. Mertesacker was pulled out of position by chasing Batshuayi in midfield and couldn’t recover as Willian cut inside Monreal to open the scoring. Two minutes later, Mertesacker didn’t want to dive in like on the first goal and gave plenty of space to Batshuayi, who doubled the lead with a curling shot.

  1. Lacazette and Giroud are different players

Lacazette scored the second goal against Sydney FC by converting a low cross from Iwobi. The British news media often portray Lacazette as the back-up for Giroud in the France striker role but that description is inaccurate. In fact, Lacazette is a second striker like Griezmann, not a pure centerforward like Giroud. When France manager Deschamps picks his lineup, he is therefore choosing between Griezmann and Lacazette, and not between Giroud and Lacazette.

Because the French league is more technical but also less physical than the Premier League, Lacazette was able to play as a lone striker for Lyon. However, at 5’9 Lacazette simply can’t play as a target man like Giroud or Welbeck. He couldn’t help Arsenal evade Chelsea’s high press like Welbeck did in the FA Cup final.

  1. The Gunners still miss the complete centerforward

Remember when Henry and Van Persie led the line? They had everything. They could outpace defenders, dribble past them, win headers, hold the ball up, link up play and of course score plenty of goals. Among the six strikers at Arsenal (Sanchez, Giroud, Perez, Lacazette, Welbeck, and Walcott), none of them possesses all those qualities.

There are rumors that Giroud could leave the club this summer although no Gunner has his skill set. Welbeck can win headers and hold the ball up but he’s less prolific than the Frenchman. Giroud scored against the Wanderers with his trademark first-time effort at the near post.

Walcott failed in his attempt to become a centerforward during the 2015-16 season. It’s hard to see where Walcott fits in the 3-4-3 system. He started as an inside forward against Sydney FC and clearly struggled to adjust to that new position as he was caught offside three times in the first half.

  1. The midfield is weak

Wenger paired Xhaka and Coquelin against Bayern and Xhaka and Ramsey against Chelsea. The way Bayern and Chelsea outplayed Arsenal shows that we need a destroyer in midfield. Xhaka is not a natural ballwinner. He fouled Batshuayi and Willian in the opening minutes of the Beijing match. Coquelin may be a better tackler than Xhaka, but his technical limitations really hurt the team: he made a couple of poor passes to Welbeck in the first half of the Shanghai match.

Friendlies are often an opportunity for experiments. A midfielder by trade, Elneny played all four games as a centerback. Does it mean that the manager no longer considers Elneny as a midfield option? Or was it just to make up for the lack of centerbacks on the tour? In any case, Elneny’s stint at centerback was not really convincing. He made a poor backpass to Martinez against Sydney FC and a sloppy pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain against the Wanderers. Then Lewandowski and Willian got the better of Elneny in China. It’s hard to imagine how Elneny could mark physical forwards.

  1. Iwobi must end his sophomore slump

After breaking into the first team during the 2015-16 season, Iwobi struggled with consistency and lost his starting spot when Wenger shifted to a 3-4-3 formation a few months ago. There were mostly two issues last season: Iwobi’s lack of end product and his poor work-rate. Iwobi did well on the first issue by making an assist against Sydney FC and scoring a goal against Bayern. However, his work-rate was questionable against Chelsea. He had a high turnover rate in the first half and became nearly invisible when moved to the wingback position in the second half.

  1. Nelson is the most promising youngster

Nelson showed good technique and movement against Sydney FC. His runs helped create space in the final third. The 17-year-old midfielder set up Walcott and Bramall with accurate crosses. Nelson also produced a decent cameo against Chelsea, dancing around defenders to find Malen, who hit the post. He’s still a bit soft physically, especially in duels. Nelson could either stay at the academy to continue his development or be loaned out to a Championship side to beef up his game.

Despite the obvious needs in midfield, Wenger preferred to use Maitland-Niles as a centerback and wingback during the summer tour. Initially, I had high hopes for Maitland-Niles after his performances with the first team at the end of 2016. But his lack of effort with the youth team in 2017 raised some doubts about his work ethic.

Maitland-Niles was too casual against Sydney FC, losing possession after dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box, as well as against Chelsea, making a sloppy pass to Mertesacker and a poor clearance into the path of Willian. He also showed his defensive naivety against Bayern by allowing Ribery and Bernat to easily dribble past him because of some poor body-positioning along the by-line. To a certain extent, Maitland-Niles reminds me of Song when he joined Arsenal in 2005.

The games against Bayern and Chelsea showed that some youngsters still have a long way to go before joining the first team. Bramall struggled to cope with the level of play against Chelsea, even panicking at times. He cleared the ball straight into touch in the 24th and was dispossessed by Moses in the second minute and Kante in the 42nd on the edge of the Arsenal box. Technically, Bramall also showed some limitations with poor crosses in the sixth minute and the 44th.

Bielik was overwhelmed by the level against Bayern too, giving the ball away in the 18th and allowing a counterattack by diving in on the stroke of halftime. In midfield, Willock often looked like a mini-Coquelin, mixing up snappy tackles with cynical fouls. The best Bielik and Willock can hope for is a loan deal to a Championship side.

What Wenger’s new contract means for Arsenal

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

  1. The club structure is still an issue

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

Arsenal Pre-Season Tour

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

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

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

  1. Recruitment and scouting are still erratic departments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The Gunners won’t be contenders

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

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

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

  1. A perfect storm for players’ contracts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Tension with some fans won’t go away

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

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

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

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

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: Time for board to find a new manager for next season

Managers know they are in trouble when they make Big Sam look like a genius. That’s what happened on Monday night as Crystal Palace smashed Arsenal 3-0 in the Premier League. In the old days, Wenger could still inject confidence into his squad after a humiliating defeat. The Gunners opened the 2013-14 season with an embarrassing 3-1 loss to Aston Villa but then went on to earn 7 straight victories in all competitions. Two years ago, they bounced back from a 3-1 loss to Monaco by winning the next 9 games in all competitions. Now, Wenger’s powers are clearly waning. There’s something broken in the relationship between the manager and the players. If the board decides to give Wenger a new contract, the situation at the club could worsen next season. Imagine Wenger completely losing the dressing room and Arsenal fighting off relegation like Chelsea a year ago or Leicester this year. Yeah, that would be quite a mess…

Crystal Palace Abised

Xhaka caught ball-watching as he fails to track Cabaye’s run. (Photo credit: NBC)

The players deserved as much blame as their manager for producing their worst performance of the season at Selhurst Park. Even the 5-1 losses to Bayern Munich didn’t look as pathetic in comparison. Crystal Palace won 63.6% of the tackles compared to 30% for the Gunners, according to the club’s website. The Eagles also made 19 interceptions compared to 10 for Arsenal. The lack of desire was so blatant that some supporters couldn’t help singing “You’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

The 3-0 win over West Ham last week gave the illusion that the Gunners had rediscovered their self-confidence. Wenger therefore named an unchanged side for the Palace game. Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession but created only 9 chances compared to 14 for the Eagles, according to Squawka. Palace also had 6 of 17 shots on target compared to 3 of 11 for the misfiring Gunners.

A dysfunctional team

Allardyce’s game plan was pretty simple: press high up the pitch when Arsenal tried to play the ball out from the back, then play with 10 men behind the ball when the Gunners reached the halfway line. The Gunners proved toothless throughout the game as if Wenger had no tactical answer to break down the Palace defense. Hennessey made 3 routine saves in the first half, turning Elneny’s longe-range effort around the post in the ninth minute, stopping Sanchez’s low strike in the 21st and catching Paulista’s tame header on the stroke of halftime. The Palace goalie was not even tested in the second half as Arsenal shamelessly capitulated.

The defensive performance showed how dysfunctional the Gunners were as a team. There’s no surprise when you’re facing an Allardyce team. It’s all about directness, duels and commitment. Yet, Arsenal seemed to have no clue. The way they conceded the opener from a goal kick in the 17th was a joke. Benteke bullied Paulista to win a header, then Townsend beat Elneny to the second ball and swapped passes with Cabaye, who was not tracked by Xhaka. Cabaye released Zaha down our left flank and the Palace winger squared the ball back to Townsend, who got ahead of Mustafi to sweep the ball home.

The Gunners lost all their duels on that play. That’s not good enough for a team pretending to chase a Champions League spot. The first mistake came from Paulista, who was drawn out of position by challenging Benteke in the air. If you’re a manager and want to play it safe tactically, then you ask Xhaka to mark Benteke when he drops back on goal kicks. Arsenal made a similar mistake against Manchester City 10 days ago: Sane opened the scoring because Mustafi was pulled out of position by Aguero on a goal kick. You kind of wonder what kind of defensive drills do they practice on the training ground. The second mistake came from Xhaka, who made no effort to track Cabaye. See the screen capture at the top of this post. Xhaka’s passivity left Monreal in 1v2 situation, giving the Spaniard no chance to stop Zaha’s cross.

What’s on Bellerin’s mind?

Mustafi performed poorly. He won just 4 of 9 aerial duels and none of the 6 tackles he made, according to Squawka. Paulista struggled in the air too and lost the only tackle he made. Obviously, the Arsenal defense is weakened by Koscielny’s absence. The France centerback is turning 32 this year and if he loses a step next season, no fan can seriously think that Mustafi or Paulista would be able to marshall the defense.

The fullbacks were quite busy on Monday as Palace relied on wing play to crack the Arsenal defense. Bellerin and Monreal combined to win 6 of 16 tackles and 3 of 4 aerial duels. Monreal had a decent game although the first two goals came from his flank. On the other hand, Bellerin is really having a poor run of form. He was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Two of Bellerin’s turnovers led to dangerous counterattacks in the opening minute and the 41st. He also misjudged the flight of a long ball in the third minute, allowing Sakho to feed Cabaye for an off-target effort.

On paper, Bellerin is one of the most gifted fullbacks in the league. But his performance on Monday was full of technical errors. He underhit a backpass that was nearly intercepted by Benteke in the 36th, gave away a free kick because of a poor touch in the 39th, fluffed a volley wide in the 58th, and sent a pass intended for Walcott straight into touch in the 65th. There can only be two possible explanations. Either the team’s poor results are affecting his confidence, or his mind is distracted by the idea of a move.

Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness    

Martinez made a couple of fine saves to keep Arsenal in the game, parrying an angled strike from Benteke in the 41st, palming away a low effort from Townsend in the 50th and stopping Puncheon’s header in the 54th. But he showed his inexperience in the 67th by fouling Townsend to give away a cheap penalty. Milivojevic converted the spot kick to make it 3-0. That was poor decision-making from Martinez, who didn’t need to charge out, first because Townsend still had to beat Bellerin, and second because Townsend was running away from goal.

Xhaka and Elneny performed well against West Ham but their limits were exposed by Palace. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka had decent stats with 4 key passes, tied with Zaha and Townsend for the most by any player. He also won 2 of 3 tackles and 4 of 4 aerial duels. However, Xhaka is less effective than Cazorla against compact teams because he can’t dribble like the Spaniard. And his lack of defensive awareness is a problem. He didn’t spot Cabaye’s run on the opening goal and didn’t care at all on the second goal.

Sometimes I wonder what the scouts saw in Elneny when they recommended him. Elneny is not a decisive player. Offensively, he made no key pass. And defensively, he won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 air duels. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger replaced Elneny with Ramsey in the 59th. The move backfired as Ramsey failed to spot Cabaye’s run for the second goal in the 63rd. It all started from a throw-in. Surrounded by Monreal and Ramsey, Benteke still won the header and found Townsend, who released Zaha down our left flank. Zaha cut the ball back to Cabaye, who beat Martinez with a looping effort into the far corner. Ramsey’s lack of effort on that play was shocking. See the screen capture below.

Crystal Palace Bbised

Ramsey caught ball-watching as Cabaye runs in front of him. (Photo credit: NBC)

Maybe the failure of the Ozil project is what will define Wenger’s last seasons at the club. Ozil notched 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 Premier League games last season for an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. That was definitely his best season at the club. However, his work-rate was an issue. Ozil didn’t work in midfield as hard as Silva at City or Lallana at Liverpool. So the manager thought about playing Ozil in a slightly more advanced position, almost like a second striker (Ozil had 42 through balls in the Premier League last season compared to 15 this term).

What a waste, Mesut

We were told Ozil scored a lot of goals on the training ground. Unfortunately, he rarely showed any killer instinct in competitive games this season. As a result, his number of assists significantly dipped while his number of goals didn’t really soar. With 6 goals and 6 assists from 25 Premier League appearances so far, Ozil is averaging 0.48 goal or assist per game.

At 28, Ozil should be at the top of his game. But the sad reality is that Alli at Tottenham is having the kind of impact that Wenger expected from Ozil. With 16 goals and 5 assists from 30 Premier League appearances, Alli is averaging 0.7 goal or assist per game. At 21, Alli is already a better player than Ozil in his prime. Of Alli’s 16 goals, 4 were headers, 8 were scored with the right foot, 4 with the left foot and only 1 was a penalty.

Ozil enjoys more being a playmaker than a finisher. Wenger has implicitly acknowledged his failure to turn Ozil into a nine and half like Bergkamp or Baggio by moving him back into his former position. At Selhurst Park, Ozil played like someone who didn’t seem to care about his future at the club. He had no goal attempt, won no tackle, and made no key pass, interception or block. His technique also let him down a couple of times. Ozil couldn’t beat the first defender with a corner in the 15th and sent a pass straight into touch in the 62nd. His performances this season have confirmed that he’s not a leader on the pitch and can’t carry the team in times of trouble.

Only the FA Cup to play for

Sanchez tried a bit harder than Ozil with 4 shots, 1 key pass and 2 interceptions, but it’s difficult to see him stay at the club. The Chile striker is an ambitious and demanding player, who knows that he won’t win the Premier League with Arsenal. The club could face in a couple of months its most unstable summer since 2011. Even if the British core (Gibbs, Holding, Ramsey, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Welbeck) remains at the club, a lot of them have either regressed or stagnated this season. Walcott couldn’t find any space behind the Palace defense for his trademark runs while Welbeck got no decent service up front. Welbeck chased a long ball from Xhaka in the 44th only to fire an angled volley wide.

The end of the season could turn ugly for Arsenal. They have no realistic hope of finishing in the Top 4. If the target is 75 points, that would imply 7 wins from the final 8 games in the Premier League, which is very unlikely since the Gunners have won just 1 of their last 5 games. Basically, they only have the FA Cup to play for. Will the squad throw away the next league games to focus on the Cup?

 

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Gunners restore confidence with 3-0 win

The Gunners thrashed West Ham 3-0 on Wednesday for their first victory in the Premier League since Feb. 11. They still have a lot of ground to make up if they want to get back in the race for a Top 4 finish, but at least the results are going Arsenal’s way as Manchester City lost at Chelsea while Liverpool split the points with Bournemouth.

Arsenal vs. West Ham edited

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

I was a bit anxious at kickoff. Injuries forced Wenger to make 3 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Manchester City on Sunday with Martinez, Paulista and Elneny replacing Ospina, Koscielny and Coquelin in the starting lineup. In a dull first half, the Gunners managed to test Randolph only once. Then they capitalized on a spell of domination in the second half to take the lead. You could feel that their confidence was back after they added a second goal: their passing game suddenly became crisp just like when they had a 19-game unbeaten run in the first half of the season.

The scoreline clearly reflected Arsenal’s dominance as West Ham created only 2 chances compared to 17 for the Gunners, according to Squawka. However, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too quickly. The Hammers don’t have the technical ability and movement of Manchester City and were low on confidence after losing their 4 previous league games.

Ozil made the difference by scoring the opening goal and setting up the second. He beat Randolph with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 58th minute. Ozil then played a one-two with Sanchez to square the ball back for Walcott, who got ahead of Byram to stab it home in the 68th. Somehow, Ozil could have notched one more goal and one more assist. Instead of attempting a first-time effort in the 49th, Ozil controlled a reverse pass from Sanchez and was dispossessed by a sliding tackle from Collins. He also played another one-two with Sanchez in the 66th to make a cross for Elneny, whose bouncing header went straight into Randolph’s gloves.

Ozil ends scoring drought

The Germany playmaker finished the game with 5 key passes, 3 successful dribbles out of 3 and 8 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Shifting Sanchez back to the left wing has helped restore Ozil’s influence on the game. When Sanchez plays as a false nine, he’s stepping on Ozil’s toes in midfield. Sometimes, they can create moments of magic like the goal scored against Chelsea in September. But too often Ozil has very little opportunity to deliver the final ball because he’s making runs in the final third. That’s why his number of assists has dropped this season.

I believe Ozil performs better in the role of a free-roaming midfielder than as a second striker when Sanchez leads the line. Ozil may score a lot of goals in training but he simply doesn’t have the killer instinct to repeat that feat in competitive games. His goal against West Ham was his first one in the Premier League since the 3-1 win over Stoke on Dec. 10. The Gunners were second in the standings after that Stoke game, three points behind Chelsea. In the end, Wenger’s tactical gamble on Ozil as a second striker backfired since Arsenal’s free fall also coincided with Ozil’s scoring drought.

Ozil slightly improved his work-rate by making 2 interceptions, 3 blocks and winning none of the 4 tackles he made against West Ham. But there are still issues about his attitude. In the first half, Ozil was reluctant to press high up the pitch, forcing Xhaka to do the job in his zone. In the second half, it was Elneny’s turn to perform Ozil’s pressing duties. The Gunners can survive that kind of behavior against the weak teams but they get in trouble against the stronger sides. Remember how Chelsea and Bayern Munich outplayed Arsenal in midfield. You also have to wonder to what extent it affects the chemistry in the dressing room. Players like Silva and Hazard would be criticized in their respective clubs for such a lack of effort.

Welbeck’s poor finishing

Sanchez had an off day with none of his 3 shots on target. He still managed to create 3 chances, finding Bellerin with a ball over the top in the 70th but the Spaniard missed the target from 7 yards. I’m guessing Sanchez must still feel the exhaustion from his trip to South America for the World Cup qualifiers with the Chile team. You can’t blame a player who has carried the club on his shoulders for most of the season, racking up 18 goals and 9 assists in the Premier League.

On the other hand, Walcott had a good game with 1 goal and 1 key pass. He also won 2 of 2 tackles and had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but made no interception and no block. Walcott has 10 goals and 2 assists in 23 Premier League appearances this season. It’s only the second time in his career that he’s reaching the 10-goal mark. He still has enough games to do better than the 14 league goals scored during the 2012-13 season. My views on Walcott haven’t changed. He’s a great option against teams leaving space at the back, but his limited passing skills are exposed against teams with a tight defense.

Recently, Wenger has preferred Welbeck to Sanchez and Giroud in the lone striker role. Welbeck is stronger in the air than Sanchez and has more pace than Giroud. His main problem is the lack of end product. With some clinical finishing, he could have scored a hat trick. Welbeck met a clipped free kick from Sanchez in the 24th only to fluff his volley. He then connected with a corner from Ozil in the 42nd for a header straight at Randolph. His worst miss came in the 61st when Walcott played him clean through on goal. Welbeck had just Randolph to beat from 10 yards but was denied by the West Ham keeper.

Giroud the supersub

The manager sent on Giroud for Welbeck in the 74th and the Frenchman lived up to his supersub status by cutting inside Collins for a curling shot into the far corner in the 83rd. Giroud has 9 goals and 3 assists from 21 Premier League appearances this season, which is a good return for Arsenal’s third-choice centerforward. That last goal started with a fantastic run from Oxlade-Chamberlain, who dribbled past two Hammers to feed Giroud.

The Ox and Ramsey made their return from injury by replacing Walcott and Elneny in the 81st. They could make a difference in a busy run-in knowing that Cazorla will miss the rest of the season. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka was not as efficient as Cazorla in setting a high tempo. But he still did a decent job by creating 3 chances, winning 4 of 10 tackles and leading all players with 120 passes. Xhaka also tested Randolph with a long-range strike in the 79th.

The midfield partnership formed by Xhaka and Elneny performed well on Wednesday. I’m still not convinced by their quality against the stronger teams but they looked complementary against West Ham. Elneny struggled in his defensive duties, winning only 1 of 6 tackles. However, he contributed to the fluency of Arsenal’s passing game with a passing accuracy of 97%.

On paper, Carroll was supposed to be West Ham’s main threat but had no decent service. Lanzini overhit his free kick in the seventh minute for Carroll, who had isolated himself with Bellerin at the far post. The Hammers’ chances came in fact from duels lost by Elneny. Noble dispossessed Elneny in the 13th to drag a diagonal drive wide. Lanzini then got the better of Elneny in the 75th and dribbled past Mustafi to fire a powerful strike that Martinez parried. In the closing minutes, Martinez also saved a low drive from Fernandes.

Mediocre officiating

At the back, Bellerin slightly improved after a poor performance against City. The Spaniard created 2 chances, had 3 successful dribbles out of 3, won 1 of 3 tackles, and made 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. He got booked for a cynical foul on Antonio in the 18th. Surprisingly, Paulista proved our most solid defender, winning 1 of 1 tackle and 4 of 6 aerial duels, and leading all players with 5 interceptions.

The Gunners won despite some mediocre officiating from Atkinson. Another referee would have awarded at least 2 penalties. In the 18th, Walcott dribbled past Masuaku, who made a blatant obstruction inside the area. The only penalty shout that looked weak was the collision between Collins and Monreal in the 80th. Both pounced on a loose ball and missed it. I’m OK with that call. On the other hand, I thought Atkinson showed poor judgement by dismissing Monreal’s penalty appeal in stoppage time. Monreal cut inside Byram, who made a late tackle and not only missed the ball but also stamped on Monreal’s foot. Any decent referee would have awarded Arsenal a spot kick and given Byram a second yellow card. Atkinson missed another call when Carroll elbowed Mustafi on the stroke of halftime. The referee should have given Arsenal a free kick and stopped play because it was a head injury.

The Gunners only have fourth place to play for now. Qualifying for the Champions League is crucial to boost the club’s transfer budget and sign top players this summer. Trailing Manchester City and Liverpool by 4 and 6 points respectively, the Gunners have no room for error. That implies victories over Crystal Palace on Monday and over Middlesbrough on April 17.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Closer to a Top 4 dogfight than a title race after 19 games

Arsenal defeated Crystal Palace 2-0 on Sunday to reach the halfway stage with 40 points in the Premier League. That’s one more point than last season when the Gunners were topping the table after 19 games. The big difference is that the league has become more competitive this season as the Gunners only sit in third place, 9 points behind Chelsea and 3 behind Liverpool.

arsenal-vs-crystal-palace

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

The title is a distant dream for Arsenal right now because the Blues are on pace to finish the season with 98 points and break the record for the highest points total (95 points by the Chelsea team of 2004-05). There’s still a long way to go but the Blues seem to enjoy the luck that Leicester had last season. The Foxes did not need to rotate because they played no European game and suffered no big injury. Similar circumstances have enabled Conte to rely pretty much on the same 14 players.

The reality for the Gunners is that they should not take a Top 4 finish for granted. They are just one point clear of Tottenham and Manchester City and 4 points ahead of Manchester United after 19 games. Basically, it means that two big teams will bite the dust at the end of the season.

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that edged West Brom 1-0 a week ago with Monreal, Elneny and Perez replacing Gibbs, Coquelin and Ozil in the starting lineup. The manager had no choice with Ozil and Gibbs. The Germany playmaker was ill while Gibbs is recovering from a knee injury.

On the other hand, Wenger started Elneny to give Coquelin some rest. That move made sense since Elneny will join the Egypt squad for the African Cup of Nations and will therefore not be at the club for a couple of weeks at least. Tactically, there was also no need to have a ballwinner like Coquelin against a weak Palace side. The Gunners lost a bit of defensive security without Coquelin but gained a bit more fluency in their passing game with Elneny.

The forwards’ work-rate

What really struck me in Sunday’s game was the work-rate of the Arsenal forwards. You can see a major difference when Giroud and Perez take the spots occupied by Ozil and Walcott. The Gunners won more tackles than Palace, 19 out of 38 tackles for Arsenal compared to 12 out of 33 for the visitors, according to Squawka. The Gunners lost a bit of pace and fluency in their passing game without Ozil, but they gained more aggression and physicality with Giroud, who won 3 of 5 tackles and made 1 interception.

Giroud deservedly grabbed the headlines with his sensational scorpion kick in the 17th minute. Sanchez capitalized on a counterattack to make a poor cross for Giroud, who reacted quickly enough to attempt an acrobatic backheel flick. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar before bouncing behind the goal line. Sanchez tried again to set up Giroud in the 79th but the Frenchman couldn’t climb high enough to connect with the cross.

It’s positive for the club to see Sanchez improve his relationship on the pitch with Giroud. Last season, their poor understanding played an important role in Arsenal’s offensive problems: Sanchez and Giroud only interacted once to score a league goal. That was when Giroud set up Sanchez in the 2-2 draw with Manchester City. They have already interacted twice this season in the league with Giroud also making an assist for Sanchez against Bournemouth.

Can Arsenal be ruthless?

Some fans get frustrated with Giroud because he can score the most difficult goals and miss the easy ones. Giroud lived up to to his reputation in the sixth minute as he failed to connect with a bouncing cross from Monreal for a tap-in. Surprisingly, the stat sheet says Giroud scored with his only shot of the game. To some extent, that speaks volumes about the relative lack of service Giroud got.

That leads me to the second thing that caught my attention. The Gunners completely outplayed Palace, finishing the match with 15 chances compared to 5 for the visitors. The Eagles were so toothless in the first half that Arsenal should have reached halftime with a 3-goal lead. Unfortunately, the Gunners don’t have that capacity to kill off games. Sanchez should have doubled the lead on the stroke of halftime when some poor defending by Palace gifted Arsenal a golden opportunity. The Chile striker pounced on a loose ball but had his 10-yard effort saved by Hennessey.

Sanchez lacked his finishing touch on Sunday with only 2 of his 8 goal attempts on target. I thought he was also a bit selfish and could have released the ball more quickly instead of holding onto it. That’s the difference with Ozil, who’s a selfless player in the final third. Sanchez was dispossessed 6 times, tied with Zaha for the most by any player, according to whoscored.com.

Perez’s strong performance

When he plays on the left wing, Sanchez becomes a bit predictable because he often cuts inside to shoot with his right foot. That did not prevent him from having 4 successful dribbles out of 6. On the other hand, Sanchez’s limited ability to win headers becomes a problem when he plays in a central position. Giroud is a better option at centerforward to hold the ball up. The Frenchman won 4 of 5 aerial duels against Palace and 4 of those duels were in midfield.

Perez made a strong impression on Sunday. He made 2 key passes, 5 tackles, 1 block and 1 interception. With a better scoring record, Perez could take Walcott’s spot on the right wing. The Spaniard has scored in the Champions League and the League Cup, but not yet in the Premier League. His work-rate against Palace was outstanding. Perez initiated the first goal by making an interception on the edge of the Arsenal box. He then showed his stamina in the 24th by running the length of the pitch to lead a counterattack and tracking back 50 yards after losing possession. His best chance to score came in the 27th when Iwobi sent a ball over the top. Unfortunately, Perez missed his first touch and Hennessey was able to gather the ball. In the second half, Perez made a run in behind Flamini to take a pass from Sanchez for an angled strike that Dann deflected out.

Ozil’s illness meant that Wenger had the choice between starting Iwobi in the No. 10 role and playing Sanchez as a second striker. The manager opted for the first solution, which made sense since Iwobi is more spontaneous in his passing game than Sanchez. Iwobi made 5 key passes, tied with Sanchez for the most by any player.

Iwobi’s finishing

After the game, Wenger said that Iwobi had worked hard in training to improve his finishing and it showed as the Nigeria international caught the frame with 2 of his 3 shots. Iwobi did not really trouble Hennessey with a tame effort in the 16th. But he was much more clinical in the 56th when Dann deflected a cross from Monreal high into the air. Iwobi headed the loose ball past Hennessey and two Palace defenders. Ward tried to head the ball out but his clearance bounced off the bar and back into the net.

Iwobi had a poor run of form in October and November. He has rediscovered his form lately with 3 goals in all competitions since December. Expectations should be kept low for a player who’s only 20 years old. But if he wants to set the bar high, then he should try to match Alli’s performance level at Tottenham.

In his return from a hamstring injury, Oxlade-Chamberlain made an interesting cameo appearance with 1 key pass, 1 shot on target and 3 successful dribbles in the last 15 minutes. The Ox set up Ramsey, who missed the target in the 88th. He then controlled a pass from Sanchez for a low strike that Hennessey saved in stoppage time. As long as the Ox shows some end product, he’ll get his share of playing time.

In midfield, Elneny showed more aggression than usual, which is a good thing when you remember how he was brushed off the ball in his first Arsenal games. Elneny won 2 of 4 tackles and 75% of his duels, the highest percentage among the starting midfielders according to the club’s website. He made no key pass but his passing accuracy reached 90.6%.

Xhaka asserting himself

Elneny’s defensive contribution was enough to help Xhaka perform his playmaking duties. Xhaka made 111 passes, 49 more than any other player. He showed his passing range by hitting 13 accurate long balls out of 17, according to whoscored.com. Those long balls can be useful to switch play, evade a high press or start a fast break. Xhaka did not neglect his defensive duties as he won 3 of 5 tackles and 1 of 2 headers. Recent Arsenal teams have often been criticized for their lack of leadership and character, but I believe Xhaka could provide the steel and fight we’ve been missing in midfield since Vieira’s departure. I definitely look forward to Xhaka’s second season at the club when he’ll play with more confidence.

At the back, Koscielny and Paulista had very little work. They committed no foul, made one tackle each and were mostly tested in the air, with Koscielny winning 3 of 8 headers and Paulista 3 of 12, according to Squawka. In fact, the Eagles focused most of their efforts on the flanks to feed Benteke. But Bellerin and Monreal did a fine job, combining to win 6 of 9 tackles.

Palace proved more threatening in the second half, coming close to scoring on a fast break and a corner. With Monreal out of position in the 47th, Townsend was able to make a cross for Benteke at the far post. The Belgium striker outjumped Bellerin but his downward header sailed wide. I thought the Gunners made a decent retreat on that play and Bellerin did enough to prevent Benteke from having a free header.

Unprofessional league executives

The Arsenal defense looked more shaky in the 60th when the Eagles put pressure with corner kicks. Benteke outjumped Paulista near the penalty spot for a header that Cech palmed away. A few seconds later, the ball fell to Flamini, who hoisted the ball into the box. Cech punched the ball into the path of Cabaye, who forced Cech into another save with a long-range volley. The following corner led to a goalmouth scramble and a Townsend drive that Cech parried. The Eagles were unable to create a single chance after Wenger decided to shut up the shop by replacing Elneny and Perez with Coquelin and Ramsey in the 72nd and Iwobi with the Ox in the 77th.

The Gunners only have one full day of rest before visiting Bournemouth on Tuesday. That’s completely unprofessional from the Premier League executives to give so little rest between two games. The players don’t have enough time to recover physically, which means that they are unlikely to perform well and that there’s a high risk of injury. Such nonsensical scheduling doesn’t happen in the other top European leagues. Spain, Germany, Italy and France have broadcasting constraints too, but they always make sure that teams have at least two full days of rest. If a club plays on Sunday, then its next game will be on Wednesday and not Tuesday.

I assume key players like Sanchez and Koscielny won’t start against Bournemouth. On the other hand, Ramsey, Coquelin, Mustafi and the Ox were on the bench against Palace and might start against the Cherries. The Gunners desperately need three points after both Manchester clubs won on Monday.