Tag Archives: Emery

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth: Gunners win ugly to move into 3rd

   One-nil to the Arsenal! It was a popular chant in the early 1990’s when the Gunners played boring football under Graham but still found a way to win. On Sunday, Luiz scored the winning goal from a corner as the 1-0 victory over Bournemouth lifted Arsenal into third place in the Premier League, one point behind Manchester City.

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth 2019.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   The standings don’t mean much at this stage of the season because some teams will improve while some will fade away. Another factor to keep in mind is that the Gunners still haven’t played Manchester City, Chelsea and Leicester, which are more likely to finish in the Top 4 than Tottenham and Manchester United on current form. Nevertheless, Sunday’s win is a massive result for the club because it gives Emery more time to find his best team.

   Some fans regretted that Arsenal played quite defensively for a game at the Emirates stadium. You can’t accuse Emery of not doing his homework. With 3 strikers in the starting lineup (Wilson, Solanke, King), that Bournemouth team was set up to hit the Gunners on the fast break.

   The Cherries were so inhibited in the first half that Emery’s approach seemed way too cautious. But Bournemouth took control of the game in the second half, dominating ball possession and creating some decent chances. Any time the Gunners felt in danger, they dropped into a solid defensive shape so that there was no disorganization like in the Watford game.

   In the end, that defensive focus paid off as Arsenal limited the Cherries to 10 shots compared to 31 shots for Watford. The obvious criticism against Emery is that the Gunners only managed to have 12 shots. Emery must find a better balance between defense and attack, especially at home where fans expect the team to grab games by the scruff of the neck.

Both ends of the pitch

   Arsenal lost the control of the game in a nervy second half because they couldn’t boss the midfield. Emery tried to fix those midfield issues by replacing Ceballos with Willock in the 74th and Saka with Torreira in the 82nd. But Bournemouth kept threatening until the closing minutes.

   To a certain extent, Emeryball is the opposite of Wengerball. In the last few seasons of Wenger’s reign, the Gunners used to dominate ball possession and boss the midfield because of their technical superiority. But they were often found out at both ends of the pitch, missing big chances in the final third and making mistakes in the defensive third.

   Emery is not so much obsessed with ball possession and controlling the midfield. Instead, the Spanish manager emphasizes the transition game and efficiency at both ends of the pitch. When the transition game works, you get goals like the one scored by Ramsey against Fulham or the one scored by Aubameyang against Leicester. When the transition game fails, you get end-to-end plays like in a cheap basketball game.

   The conversion rate of Aubameyang and Lacazette definitely shows Arsenal’s improved efficiency in the final third. It’s a different story in the defensive third. Emery has taken Mustafi out of the back four in the Premier League but the Gunners still make a lot of mistakes. Rebuilding the team was always going to be a long process. You just have to look at Manchester United to understand the scale of the task at Arsenal.

Making choices after the international break

   Emery made 10 changes to the side that thrashed Standard de Liège on Thursday with only Ceballos retaining his starting spot. You could almost think that Emery has one lineup for Europa League games and another for the Premier League since there was just 1 change to the side that drew at Old Trafford a week ago with Ceballos replacing Torreira in the starting lineup. My guess is that Emery was simply managing the fitness of his players, hoping that everyone will be available after the international break to make the important choices.

   Aubameyang didn’t get any decent service. He curled a shot wide of the far post in the sixth minute. Then he pounced on a poor clearance from the Bournemouth defense in the 23rd for a tame effort that Solanke cleared. On paper, Pepe, Saka and Ceballos were in charge of providing ammunitions to Aubameyang, but they didn’t create any big chance.

   Despite making the assist for the winner with a pinpoint corner kick, Pepe didn’t make any key pass from open play. His only goal attempt was a mid-range curling shot that missed the target in the 19th. When Lacazette is fit again, Pepe could lose his starting spot because of his lack of end product. One play in the 47th summarized Pepe’s struggles: he dribbled past 3 Cherries only to leave the ball behind.

   Defensively, Pepe also needs to step up. Bournemouth leftback Rico made 12 of his team’s 16 crosses because Pepe gave him too much freedom. Saka even had better stats than Pepe. The academy player made 3 tackles and 3 recoveries and had 2 key passes and a passing accuracy of 76.2% compared to 1 tackle, 3 recoveries, 1 key pass, and a passing accuracy of 66.7% for Pepe, according to whoscored.com. For an 18-year-old player, Saka didn’t look out of his depth. He tested Ramsdale with an angled strike in the 35th and made a crucial recovery in the 46th when the Cherries were creating chaos inside the Arsenal area.

Lack of creativity

   The midfield has been an issue for the Gunners since the start of the season. The club spent £72 million on Pepe this summer to boost their firepower. At the time, that transfer decision made sense because Nketiah was the only back-up option if Aubameyang or Lacazette got injured. In hindsight, maybe the £72 million could have been better spent on signing a couple of midfielders.

   Arsenal dominated the first half but couldn’t create clear-cut chances. Ceballos had a good game, leading all players with 3 key passes and 11 recoveries in 73 minutes. There was a touch of Cazorla when he made a crossfield pass to Saka in the sixth minute or when he set up Chambers for a volley in the 36th. Ceballos also showed off his dribbling skills with a nutmeg in the 41st. However, his delivery from corners was poor. The Real Madrid loanee failed to beat the first man in the fifth minute and overhit his corner in the 22nd.

   The trouble is that Ceballos was the only creative player in the starting lineup. Some fans would love to see Ceballos and Ozil play together, but that scenario is unlikely because Ozil’s poor work-rate prevents Arsenal from implementing a high press. Would anybody seriously think that Ozil can make more than 10 recoveries in a game?

   During the summer transfer window, the club definitely got the balance of the squad wrong. The Gunners lost 3 attacking midfielders (Ramsey, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan) but only signed Ceballos as a temporary replacement. That’s quite a contrast with the Arsenal of 2015 when Wenger had the choice between Cazorla, Ozil, Rosicky, Ramsey, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

   Some pundits may mention Liverpool as the example of a team playing without any creative midfielder. In Liverpool’s case, the creativity comes from Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Firmino. While Lacazette can play like a false nine and create chances, Saka and Pepe don’t have the end product of a Salah, just like Kolasinac and Chambers don’t have the skills of a Robertson or Alexander-Arnold.

Where’s the ballwinner?

   Ceballos had an impact when the Gunners dominated the first half but he became useless when his team had to chase the ball in the second half. Arsenal lost the control of the game because neither Guendouzi nor Xhaka is a ballwinner. That’s another position that was overlooked by the club during the summer transfer window.

   Xhaka led all players with 3 fouls. His work-rate was decent with 2 tackles and 8 recoveries, but his poor positional play and lack of mobility will always make him a defensive liability. Guendouzi made one important clearance in the 89th, preventing King from tapping home Danjuma’s pass, but he still had a weaker work-rate than Xhaka with 2 tackles and 4 recoveries.

   Since last season, I’ve said that Xhaka and Guendouzi are not complementary because they have the same profile: they are both deep-lying playmakers with a lack of end product. Xhaka led all players with 61 passes but made 0 key pass compared to 1 key pass for Guendouzi. The Gunners could have put more pressure on Bournemouth in the first half, but they played at an average pace because Xhaka and Guendouzi are not as good as Cazorla or Fabregas at setting a high tempo.

   At the back, Chambers and Kolasinac focused on their defensive duties, contributing very little offensively. Chambers made 4 tackles, 1 interception and 6 recoveries while Kolasinac made 3 tackles and 7 recoveries. By contrast, their impact in the final third was poor. Kolasinac and Chambers combined to make only 1 key pass and had 0 accurate cross out of 7 attempts, according to whoscored.com.

   Kolasinac’s technique was especially shocking. He overhit his cross for Pepe in the 42nd and then made a lazy cross that led to a Bournemouth counterattack in the 84th. Chambers had a scoring chance in the 36th but sent his 13-yard volley wide. The Cherries exposed Chambers’ lack of pace, dribbling past him 3 times. But Chambers’ experience made the difference inside the Arsenal area. He prevented tap-ins by clearing Wilson’s cutback in the 51st and King’s cross in the 64th.

Luiz, a casual jogger

   In the heart of the defense, Luiz and Sokratis had some poor moments. Luiz scored the winner but he also lost quite a few key duels. Bournemouth’s best chance came in the 51st. Luiz was pulled out of position by Wilson, who held the ball up before finding Solanke. The former Chelsea starlet outpaced Kolasinac to play the ball back to Wilson, who dribbled past Sokratis and rounded Leno to square the ball back to King, but Chambers read the play and cleared the danger. Luiz failed to stay with Wilson on that play. By casually jogging back toward the area, Luiz left Sokratis in a 1v1 situation with Wilson. A minute later, Luiz missed a clearance but Wilson could not make contact with Rico’s dangerous cross. In the closing minutes, Cook beat Luiz to the ball only to head a corner over the bar. In stoppage time, Wilson held off the Brazilian centerback but shot straight at Leno.

   Sokratis didn’t cover himself in glory either. Solanke got ahead of Sokratis to meet Rico’s free kick in the 17th but missed the target with a free header. It was Wilson’s turn to get the better of Sokratis in the 47th but Luiz managed to block Wilson’s pass to Solanke. Sokratis also stupidly lost possession in the 74th by dallying on the ball. I expect Holding to start at centerback after the international break. He should be 100 percent match fit by then.

   It’s definitely a bonus for the Gunners to be third in the Premier League despite missing Holding, Bellerin, Tierney and Lacazette through injury. Lacazette hasn’t played since the North London derby on Sept. 1 while the other three players haven’t featured in the league yet.

Hitting the nuclear button?

   Despite this good start to the season, the knives are already out for Emery. Some Arsenal fans wanted his dismissal after the 2-2 draw at Watford. Can you imagine Manchester City fans calling for Guardiola’s sacking after the 2-0 loss to Wolverhampton at home? That wouldn’t make any sense, right? Some fans even hoped that the Gunners will miss out on a Top 4 finish to have Emery kicked out even though it would be more difficult for the club to attract a top manager and world-class players without the lure of Champions League football.  

   As long as the Gunners are in the Top 4 race, I believe that Emery has the right to stay at the club. Then the board will draw it own conclusions about Emery’s performance at the end of the season. Frankly, it’s madness to fire a manager after one season and a couple of months, especially when every reasonable person knew that rebuilding the squad would take several transfer windows. Can you imagine the kind of message it would send to prospective managers? Third place for a club in transition is not good enough!

   I don’t want Arsenal to turn into a drama club like Chelsea or Manchester United. For some fans, it might be fun to hit the nuclear button, but then what next? Is it the beginning of a cycle of instability and player power?

   Some fans don’t like Emery because the football played by the Gunners is boring. Fair enough. But I don’t think many managers would do much better with the current squad. The entire 5-6-10 spine is flawed. When Guardiola joined Manchester City, he already had a solid spine with Kompany, Fernandinho, Silva, De Bruyne and Aguero. By contrast, Klopp had to rebuild the entire spine at Liverpool by heavily spending on Alisson, Van Dijk, Fabinho, Salah and Mané.

   Emery is not in the same class as Guardiola and Klopp. But he’s still among the 30 best active managers in the world. Some abusive fans call him a fraud even though Arsenal defeated Napoli twice in the Europa League last season. Yet, Liverpool lost to Napoli in the Champions League last month.

   Some criticisms against Emery are fair. But when some fans don’t want to give him credit for anything and jump on any result to discredit him, that’s a hateful vendetta. And then you have crazy conspiracy theories like the one claiming that Ljungberg is the one managing the team in the Europa League. The danger with the Emery haters is that they could bring back the toxic atmosphere in the stands. That’s the last thing that the club needs in the middle of a rebuilding process.

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Arsenal vs. Standard de Liège: A few thoughts on the 4-0 win

   The Gunners took control of Group F in the Europa League by thrashing Standard de Liège 4-0 on Thursday to move 3 points clear of the Belgian side and Frankfurt. They also earned their second straight clean sheet in that European competition, allowing just 12 shots compared to 24 against Frankfurt.

Arsenal vs. Standard.jpgPhoto credit: Getty images

   Emery made 10 changes to the side that drew 1-1 at Old Trafford on Monday with only Torreira retaining his starting spot. The makeshift team looked a lot like the one that knocked Nottingham Forest out of the League Cup.

   Emery clearly emphasized youth in his team selection. At the exception of Mustafi and Martinez, both 27, all the players were 24 or younger: Bellerin 24, Holding 24, Torreira 23, Ceballos 23, Tierney 22, Maitland-Niles 22, Willock 20, Nelson 19, Martinelli 18. According to the club’s website, it was the second youngest starting lineup fielded by Arsenal in European football.

   There are two advantages in playing youngsters. First, they are still learning the ropes and will more easily follow a manager’s instructions than veteran players. And second, they have plenty of energy to press high up the pitch. Liverpool’s gegenpressing game is all about work-rate. Likewise, Manchester City’s high-intensity football also requires a significant work-rate.

  1. Martinelli stole the show

   He scored 2 goals and made 1 assist on Thursday. Emery has cautiously handled Martinelli’s development so far, giving him his first start in the League Cup where he netted twice against Nottingham Forest. The Spanish manager waited for another home game to give him his second start. Les Rouges are a better side than Forest, so it was a calculated risk from Emery to see whether Martinelli could perform at a slightly higher level.

   Martinelli opened the scoring in the 13th minute with a glancing header into the far corner. He then doubled the lead in the 16th by taking a pass from Nelson before firing into the bottom corner. The Brazilian teenager had many chances in the second half to notch a hat trick but his finishing touch deserted him. He curled a shot wide in the 48th, slipped before pulling the trigger in the 50th, missed the target with a sliding effort in the 53rd, had a header saved by Milinkovic-Savic in the 64th and headed Aubameyang’s cross wide in stoppage time.

   Maybe the most impressive part in Martinelli’s performance was his work-rate. He had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 3 of 5 tackles and led all players with 5 key passes, including an assist for Ceballos in the 57th. His flair for goals is obvious but Martinelli is more a second striker than a pure centerforward because of his passing ability and his tendency to play between the lines. To a certain extent, Martinelli reminds me of Bebeto.

  1. The Ozil conundrum

   You would think that the Europa League was the perfect opportunity to give Ozil some playing time. But Emery decided to leave him out of the squad. I’m not shocked by Emery’s choice. We know that the board already wanted to get rid of Ozil last season. Ozil will turn 31 this month. His stats started declining under Wenger. The German playmaker is not the future of this club and not even the present. He’s part of the dead wood that the Gunners must clear to rebuild a competitive team.

   What are the pros and cons? The pros: 1. Youngsters like Willock, Saka, Nelson and Martinelli get more playing time at Ozil’s expense; 2. Emery can implement his brand of football. Ceballos made 5 tackles against Standard, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal simply can’t press high up the pitch with Ozil’s poor work-rate. Now, the cons: 1. That’s bad publicity for the club; 2. Emery loses a tactical option. The Gunners only have 2 playmakers: Ceballos and Ozil. If Ceballos gets injured, there’s no playmaker left. The creative spark would then have to come from Lacazette, Saka or Nelson.

  1. Tierney showed his quality

   The Scottish fullback had 2 successful dribbles out of 2 and made 4 key passes, including the assist for the opening goal. Tierney showed a good balance between attack and defense. His defensive output matched his offensive contribution as he won 3 of 4 tackles, made 2 interceptions and had only 1 turnover.  

   The big difference between Tierney and Kolasinac is the quality of the crossing. Kolasinac feels more comfortable on the ground and therefore prefers to cut the ball back whereas Tierney has a better technique for high crosses. Tierney led all players with 4 accurate crosses out of 7, according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy also reached 92.9% compared to 80.9% for Bellerin, who is still a few games away from his best level.  

  1. Nelson is making progress

   At this stage of his career, Nelson is still struggling to show end product in the Premier League but he can make a significant impact in the Europa League. The English teenager has no goal or assist in 4 Premier League games this season but he set up Martinelli for the second goal against Les Rouges.

   Nelson produced a decent all-around performance, having 2 successful dribbles out of 6, making 3 key passes and 1 interception and winning 1 of 1 tackle in 78 minutes. Any positive experience in the Europa League can only boost his confidence and accelerate his development.

   The manager must have noticed the good understanding between Nelson and Martinelli. Besides the second goal, Nelson also created chances for the Brazilian striker in the 25th, the 53rd and the 64th. Martinelli returned the favor in the 43rd by sending Nelson clean through on goal but Milinkovic-Savic denied Nelson.

   Nelson has huge potential but he’s not the finished product yet. Defenders know that Nelson loves to check back on his right foot when he plays on the left wing. To avoid being too predictable, Nelson is learning to cross with his weaker left foot. One attempt sailed out of play in the 30th. But Nelson was not discouraged and he set up Ceballos with another left-footed cross in the 77th.

  1. Torreira did not convince in the No. 6 role

   Emery left Xhaka on the bench and let Torreira play in front of the back four. Torreira’s performance was a mixed bag because he’s still not playing at the level he showed a year ago. Torreira had only 1 turnover and no Standard player managed to dribble past him. But he made 3 fouls that could have been avoided. Torreira also showed poor decision-making in the 39th when he dived in for a 50-50 ball. Laifis won the ball and Les Rouges created a chance because Torreira left a huge gap in midfield. The Uruguay midfielder could have been more tidy in possession too. Torreira lost possession with a poor first touch in the ninth minute and gave the ball away in the 28th. The Gunners definitely need to sign a defensive midfielder next summer.  

  1. Willock is becoming an important player

   Ramsey was the link player connecting defense and attack last season. Willock is now playing that role for the Gunners following Ramsey’s departure to Juventus. The academy graduate scored his 3rd goal in 9 games this season, pouncing on a rebound to beat Milinkovic-Savic with a low strike in the 22nd. Willock could have also scored in the 17th but he volleyed Tierney’s cross over the bar.

   The crowd at the Emirates stadium got a glimpse of his generosity on the pitch when Willock led a counterattack by running 50 yards in the 41st. Holding onto the ball too long can sometimes be Willock’s péché mignon. He dallied on the ball in the 62nd and sent his final ball for Bellerin out of play. Willock still had a passing accuracy of 94.6% compared to 93.9% for Ceballos and 90.8% for Torreira, according to whoscored.com.

  1. Maitland-Niles’ limits were exposed

   A midfielder by trade in the academy, Maitland-Niles became a wingback under Wenger before Emery used him as a fullback. Some fans wanted to see Maitland-Niles play in midfield, thinking that he would perform better. Unfortunately, his technical limits were exposed against an average Belgian side.

   Maitland-Niles made 0 key pass, won 2 of 3 tackles and had 4 turnovers and 0 shot on target. His passing accuracy of 63.2% was the lowest percentage among outfield starters, according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles’ poor footwork led to a dangerous turnover in the 60th, forcing Martinez to parry Mpoku’s strike.

   I believe Maitland-Niles is too limited technically to play as a midfielder for a Top 4 club. If he desperately wants to play in midfield, then a move to a weaker club would be the logical outcome. For instance, Lansbury plays at Aston Villa and Hayden joined Newcastle. But at this stage of his career, wingback is Maitland-Niles’ best position.

Man United vs. Arsenal: Gunners saved by clinical Aubameyang

   Aubameyang had only 1 shot on Monday night but it proved enough to score the equalizer in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United. By salvaging a point at Old Trafford, the Gunners retained 4th place in the Premier League, 1 point clear of Spurs and Chelsea.

MU vs. Arsenal 2019.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   Under a pouring rain, the lackluster game showed the lack of quality from 2 teams very far from the level they reached when they were contending for the title some 2 decades ago. The Red Devils took advantage of Arsenal’s poor defensive setup on set pieces to open the scoring on the stroke of halftime. United cleared an Arsenal corner and won the second ball to launch a counterattack. James outpaced Guendouzi but overhit his cross for Rashford, who managed to keep the ball in play. The England striker squared the ball back for McTominay, who fired into the top corner with a 20-yard drive that deflected off Sokratis.

   Why is Guendouzi the last defender on Arsenal corners? Guendouzi has average pace, so he never had any chance to match James in a foot race. A lot of fans were angry when they saw Xhaka apparently duck McTominay’s shot. In the post-match news conference, Emery tried to defend Xhaka by saying that the Switzerland midfielder “ran back”. But if you look at the screen capture below, you realize that Xhaka could have been sent off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity by taking out Lingard off the ball.

MU vs. Arsenal M45a edited.jpgXhaka pulls back Lingard. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Another problem with the opening goal is why Sokratis was on his knees to block McTominay’s shot? Sokratis had a better chance to prevent McTominay from scoring by standing tall.

MU vs. Arsenal M45b edited.jpgSokratis makes an awkward block attempt. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Red Devils could have scored 2 more goals from set pieces. Unmarked at the far post, McTominay headed a corner over the bar in the 70th minute. Two minutes later, Guendouzi ended up marking Maguire on a free kick. That’s a poor matchup in the air for Guendouzi. Fortunately, the delivery was too low, forcing Maguire to cut the ball back.  

The benefits of a high press

   The Gunners had some good situations but often wasted them with a poor final ball. Kolasinac led Arsenal’s first attack in the 14th but missed his low cross for Aubameyang. Then Luiz overhit his cross in the 21st and Aubameyang ruined a fast break in the 35th with a pass rolling out of play.

   The equalizer came from a high press in the 58th. Under pressure from Pepe, United fullback Tuanzebe missed his pass for Lindelof. Saka pounced on the loose ball and found Aubameyang with a first-time pass. Aubameyang controlled the ball and chipped De Gea. The goal was initially disallowed for offside. But the referee had to let the goal stand after the VAR review showed that Aubameyang was played onside by Maguire. As you can see on the screen capture below, the linesman made a really poor call because Aubameyang was at least 2 yards onside.

MU vs. Arsenal M58 edited.jpgMaguire plays Aubameyang onside. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Emery made 9 changes to the side that knocked Nottingham Forest out of the League Cup with only Torreira and Chambers retaining their starting spots. In a 4-3-3 formation, Guendouzi and Torreira played alongside Xhaka in midfield while Saka and Pepe joined Aubameyang in the front three.

   Despite the lack of service, Aubameyang notched his 7th goal in the Premier League, just one unit behind top scorer Aguero. When Aubameyang couldn’t be in scoring position, he selflessly worked for the team, making 2 key passes. In the 36th, Aubameyang made a cross for Pepe, whose low strike didn’t trouble De Gea. Then Aubameyang picked out Torreira for a better chance in the 52nd but the Uruguay midfielder’s half-volley bounced into the ground, allowing De Gea to safely collect the ball.

Saka’s breakthrough season?

   While Aubameyang has showed his consistency since the start of the season, Saka was undoubtedly the revelation of Monday’s game. Football fans got a glimpse of his tremendous potential when Saka notched 1 goal and 2 assists against Frankfurt in the Europa League. The academy prodigy showed it was no fluke by making his first assist in the Premier League. Saka could have also scored but De Gea parried his low effort in the 44th and Lindelof deflected his shot over the bar in the 60th. At 18, Saka is already more incisive in the final third than Pepe.

   It could become impossible for Emery to keep Saka out of the starting lineup. Saka provides both penetration and end product. The Red Devils struggled with his pace and dribbling skills as Saka drew fouls from Lingard in the 20th, Young in the 23rd and McTominay in the 54th. The Arsenal staff deserves some credit for selling Iwobi in the summer to make room for Saka’s development. Now the club needs to tie Saka to a long-term contract.

   This looks like Saka’s breakthrough season. The English teenager could have the same kind of impact as Hudson-Odoi at Chelsea last season. Saka had better stats than Pepe at Old Trafford. Offensively, Saka made 2 key passes and had 2 successful dribbles out of 4, compared to 0 key pass and 1 successful dribble out of 2 for Pepe. Defensively, Saka won 2 of 5 tackles, made 6 recoveries and had 3 turnovers in 78 minutes while Pepe only won 1 of 1 tackle, made 5 recoveries and had 6 turnovers in 74 minutes, according to whoscored.com.

Is Pepe the new Gervinho?

   After a promising performance against Liverpool, Pepe still hasn’t lived up to his billing. His confidence seemed to take a hit at Old Trafford with some poor touches and passes. He sent crosses out of play in the 24th and 45th, sliced his shot over the bar in the 30th, and gave the ball away on a great counterattacking opportunity for the Gunners in the 73rd.

   Is Pepe the new Gervinho? Technical and physical abilities are extensively analyzed by scouts and managers, but the mental aspect of the game can sometimes be overlooked or underestimated in the recruitment process. Is Pepe crumbling under the weight of expectations and his £72 million price tag? Pepe still has time to adapt to English football and prove his worth. But the way he reacts in the next few weeks to this poor run of form will be crucial for his future at the club.  

   Emery has interesting options on the bench. The Spanish manager replaced Pepe with Nelson in the 75th and Saka with Willock in the 79th. Both youngsters made an impact in the closing minutes. Willock made 2 key passes, setting up Ceballos for a fluffed shot in the 88th and teeing up Nelson in stoppage time. Nelson could have scored the winner, but his low strike lacked power to beat De Gea.

   At this stage of the season, the starting spot on the right wing is still up for grabs. Emery has the choice between Pepe, an inverted winger, and Nelson, a more traditional winger. Nelson enjoys playing on the left wing but Wenger gave him his chance on the right wing. In theory, Aubameyang would get better service with Nelson while Pepe is supposed to be a greater goal threat than Nelson.

No balance in midfield

   Emery still hasn’t found the right balance in midfield. Some fans were angry that Ozil wasn’t even in the squad. But I think that Emery was right to omit Ozil simply because the German playmaker notoriously struggles in tough away games. For instance, the Gunners wouldn’t have been able to implement a high press with Ozil’s poor work-rate. I guess Emery will mostly use Ozil in home games and cup competitions.

   The bigger concern is how Emery builds his midfield. In my eyes, playing Xhaka as a holding midfielder is a mistake because he lacks pace and his positional play is poor. Likewise, using Torreira as a box-to-box player is nonsensical because he’s more efficient as a defensive midfielder.

   Let’s have a look at how Klopp and Guardiola build their midfields. The Reds play with a defensive midfielder (Fabinho) sitting behind two box-to-box players (Wijnaldum and Henderson) while the Citizens play with a defensive midfielder (Fernandinho) alongside a playmaker (De Bruyne) and a deep-lying playmaker (David Silva) or a box-to-box player (Gundogan).

   On paper, a balanced Arsenal midfield would have Torreira as the ballwinner playing alongside a deep-lying playmaker (Guendouzi) and a box-to-box player (Willock). In a more attacking version, Ceballos would replace Guendouzi or Willock.

   Xhaka provides no protection to the back four. Emery might be reluctant to bench his captain but he should remember that Wenger was ruthless with Vermaelen and Mertesacker even though they were his captains. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning games and doing what is best for the team. Putting too much faith in Xhaka will only bring Emery’s demise because the Gunners are unlikely to finish in the Top 4 with Xhaka in the No. 6 role.  

Sacrificing Torreira’s strengths

   Xhaka was dribbled past twice while Torreira didn’t let any ballholder run past him, according to whoscored.com. To compensate for his lack of pace, Xhaka simply gave away dangerous free kicks, fouling McTominay in the 71st and Greenwood in the 76th. Xhaka’s work-rate was also unconvincing with just 1 tackle and 5 recoveries compared to 4 tackles and 7 recoveries for Guendouzi, according to the club’s website. Even as a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka didn’t cover himself in glory with a passing accuracy dipping to 82%, compared to 89% for Torreira and 90% for Guendouzi.

Guendouzi had a good game but he still has that tendency to hold onto the ball too long. He was quick enough or smartly used his body to win 6 fouls. But sometimes he was caught in possession and put his team in danger. Pogba dispossessed Guendouzi in the 43rd to slip a through ball to Rashford, whose tame effort was blocked by Sokratis. Guendouzi finished the game with 3 turnovers compared to none for Xhaka. Defensively, Guendouzi made a crucial clearance in the 56th, heading out a cross from Pereira for Rashford. Offensively, he sprinted his lungs out in the 44th to pounce on a rebound and test De Gea with an angled strike.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery shifted from a 4-3-3 formation to 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Torreira with Ceballos in the 55th. On the right side of the Arsenal midfield, Torreira man-marked Pogba when the Red Devils had the ball. But when the Gunners won possession, Torreira became a box-to-box player. That’s so frustrating to see Torreira used as a utility midfielder while he should be the cornerstone of the Arsenal midfield. In his 40-minute cameo, Ceballos showed no end product with 0 key pass and 0 shot on target. The Real Madrid loanee is becoming as inconsistent as the Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi of last season.

   The Gunners were criticized for stubbornly trying to play out from the back against Watford. They proved more flexible against Manchester United. After Luiz was caught in possession in the 11th, Leno simply resorted to long kicks. Obviously, the flaw with that alternative plan was the weakness in the air of the Arsenal forwards. Aubameyang, Pepe and Saka combined to win 0 of 5 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

A lesson in self-control

   The Arsenal staff thought Holding and Tierney were not yet ready for starting a Premier League game. Emery therefore left Holding on the bench while Tierney was not even in the squad. The Spanish manager had a surprise at rightback where he gave Chambers the nod over Maitland-Niles. Chambers struggled to cope with James’ pace, showing why both Wenger and Emery preferred to pick Maitland-Niles over Chambers.

   However, Chambers’ performance was quite a lesson in self-control for Maitland-Niles, who was watching from the bench. James outpaced Chambers in the 8th minute to make a cross that Luiz blocked. Two minutes later, Chambers got booked for a cynical foul on James, who was winning another foot race with the Arsenal defender. You’d think Chambers was a foul away from a second yellow card like Maitland-Niles against Aston Villa. But Chambers showed self-restraint when James ran at him in the 17th: using his experience, Chambers held off James to let the ball run out of play.

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis was at fault for the opening goal with his awkward block attempt. His work-rate was also poor with just 2 defensive actions (2 blocks) while Luiz made 11 defensive actions (3 blocks, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries), according to the club’s website. Some fans had their hearts in their mouths when Pereira started a dribbling run in the 29th. For a split second, it looked like Luiz was about to trip Pereira and give away a penalty like in the Watford game. But Luiz refrained from making a challenge, letting Pereira face Leno. And the German goalkeeper saved Pereira’s low strike. In the closing minutes, Luiz gave away a dangerous free kick with an obstruction on McTominay. Leno salvaged a point by saving Rashford’s subsequent free kick.

   The Gunners next play Standard de Liège in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Bournemouth in the Premier League on Sunday. I expect Emery to field a weakened side against the Belgian club because of the lack of rest and because the Gunners can’t afford to drop points in the Top 4 race.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 5-0 win over Forest

   The Gunners thrashed Nottingham Forest 5-0 on Tuesday to move into the fourth round of the League Cup. Emery changed the entire team that edged Aston Villa on Sunday. Some fans remembered that Forest knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup in January 2018. But the League Cup fixture proved a one-sided contest because Forest seemed happy to let the Gunners dominate possession. The Championship team had only 1 goal attempt in the first 45 minutes and finished the game with 5 shots to 27 for Arsenal.

League Cup ForestPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Nelson created the opening goal by releasing Chambers down the right flank in the 31st minute. From 8 yards, Martinelli headed Chambers’ volleyed pass into the top corner. Arsenal exposed again the weakness of the Forest defense in the air to double the lead. Holding met a corner from Nelson in the 71st to score with a downward header. Bellerin came off the bench in the second half to set up Willock for the third goal in the 78th. Nelson made it 4-0 in the 84th by pouncing on a low cross from Chambers to beat Muric with a first-time effort. In stoppage time, Martinelli took a pass from Chambers in midfield and evaded a tackle from Silva before picking his spot from 25 yards to fire into the top corner.

  1. Chambers, the unsung hero

   We all know about Chambers’ weaknesses. His lack of pace and his inability to turn quickly prevent him from becoming a regular starter. But Chambers is the consummate professional. You will never see him sulk. And every team needs that kind of squad player who can perform when called upon.

   On Tuesday, Chambers arguably produced his best performance in an Arsenal shirt. Starting in the rightback position, Chambers made 3 assists and could have scored in the 87th but Muric parried his mid-range shot. Chambers found the right balance between attack and defense as he won 4 of 5 tackles and led all players with 5 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. He happily moved to the leftback position when Bellerin replaced Tierney in the 76th.  

  1. Holding’s return from injury

   Sidelined by a knee injury since December 2018, Holding finally played with the first team after building up his fitness with the U23 side. His defensive performance was a mixed bag. Holding made no major mistake but he had weaker stats than Mustafi. The English centerback won 1 of 2 tackles, was dribbled past once, had 1 turnover, and made 2 fouls and 0 interception while Mustafi won 1 of 1 tackle, was not dribbled past, had 0 turnover, and made 0 foul and 1 interception, according to whoscored.com. Despite the lack of competitive games, Holding could be in contention for a start at Old Trafford on Monday.

  1. Martinelli showed his flair for goals

   The Brazilian teenager made his first start for Arsenal after playing just a few minutes in the Premier League opener against Newcastle. Besides his 2 goals, Martinelli showed his versatility by winning 2 of 3 tackles and having 2 successful dribbles out of 3. The club could loan him out in the second half of the season to accelerate his development. You can bet that Martinelli has caught the eye of quite a few Championship clubs with his performance.

  1. Tierney made his Arsenal debut

   The Scottish leftback was recovering from a groin injury when the club signed him. Tierney looked incredibly sharp for his first competitive game of the season as he made 2 key passes, delivered 8 crosses, had 3 successful dribbles out of 3, and won 2 of 3 tackles. There’s no doubt that Tierney is an upgrade on Kolasinac in the leftback position, both defensively and offensively. Tierney has a better technique and a better defensive awareness than Kolasinac. Just like Holding, Tierney could be in contention for a start against Manchester United. Emery sent on Bellerin for Tierney in the 76th and the Spanish rightback marked his return from a knee injury with an assist. However, Bellerin is unlikely to start against the Red Devils as he still lacks match fitness.    

  1. Nelson showed end product

   When you are a forward, fans and pundits look at your number of goals and assists to assess your performance. Nelson had been ineffective this season with no goal or assist in 3 Premier League games. On Tuesday, Nelson definitely had an impact in the final third with 1 goal and 1 assist. He finished the game with 4 key passes and could have claimed another goal with a free kick that clipped the post in the ninth minute.

   Nelson started on the left wing before shifting to the right wing in the 45th when Saka replaced Smith-Rowe, who was stretchered off because of a head injury. At this stage of his career, I prefer to see Nelson on the right flank because he’s too predictable on the left flank. Aubameyang would also feast on Nelson’s crosses from the right wing.    

  1. Willock is slowly but surely becoming a regular starter

   Playing alongside Torreira in central midfield, Willock shone in the role of a box-to-box player with 1 goal and 1 key pass. Willock could have scored 2 more goals. He met a cross from Ozil on the stroke of halftime for a header that Cash cleared off the line. Then Willock connected with a cross from Saka in the 67th but missed the target from 6 yards.

   Defensively, his work-rate was outstanding. Willock won 3 of 4 tackles and made 4 interceptions while Torreira as the holding midfielder won 3 of 3 tackles and made 2 interceptions. The only blemish in Willock’s performance was his 5 turnovers, compared to 2 for Torreira, according to whoscored.com. If Arsenal had a true defensive midfielder playing behind Willock and Torreira, I could almost see the Gunners press like Liverpool.

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa: 10-man Gunners save Emery’s skin in 3-2 win

   Trailing 2-1 and down to 10 men, the Gunners found the mental resources to rally in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Aston Villa. That miraculous comeback helped Arsenal move into 4th place in the Premier League, level on points with Leicester and West Ham.

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa 2019Photo credit: Premier League

   Let’s be honest, Arsenal’s performance in the first half was embarrassing. The Gunners lacked urgency against a mediocre Villa team that will be fighting relegation this season. The crowd at the Emirates stadium had to wait until the 16th minute for Arsenal’s first chance of the game whereas the Villans had already tested Leno twice in the opening minutes. The boos at halftime were fully deserved.

   The positive result should not paper over the cracks. The Gunners have conceded 10 goals in their first 6 Premier League games. Only Chelsea, Norwich, Wolves and Watford have a worse defensive record than Arsenal. Although the Gunners allowed just 14 shots on Sunday compared to 31 against Watford and 24 against Frankfurt, the Arsenal midfield looked incredibly porous again as the Villans turned defense into attack too easily.  

   Emery doesn’t seem to have the answers in midfield. In fact, he has never started the same midfield in the Premier League this season. Guendouzi has made the most starts (6), followed by Xhaka (5), Ceballos (4), Willock (3), Torreira (1) and Ozil (1). All those changes tell us that Emery is still experimenting, which is a problem because that’s what the summer friendlies are for. When the season starts, a manager should have a clear idea of what his best options are.  

Benching a captain

   The Spanish manager must find a way to better protect the back four because Arsenal won’t be able to score 3 goals in every game. The first step should be to drop Xhaka from the starting lineup. Xhaka is simply not good enough as a holding midfielder. Emery gave him the armband but he shouldn’t be afraid of benching him. His predecessor, Wenger, was ruthless with Vermaelen and Mertesacker even though they were his captains.

   The Gunners had no excuse for their sluggish start. Emery made 6 changes to the side that won 3-0 in Germany on Thursday with Leno, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles, Guendouzi, Ceballos and Pepe replacing Martinez, Mustafi, Chambers, Torreira, Willock and Smith-Rowe in the starting lineup. The opening goal came from a cross in the 20th. Maitland-Niles failed to close down El Ghazi, whose cross was flicked home by McGinn at the far post. Guendouzi failed to track McGinn’s run inside the box.

   Guendouzi led the comeback in the second half. He held off Trezeguet before dribbling inside the area where Engels tripped him. Pepe converted the subsequent penalty by firing down the middle to level the game in the 59th. Unfortunately, Arsenal leaked another goal a minute later with some casual defending. Grealish ran 40 yards unchallenged to square the ball back for Wesley, who beat Leno from close range. Guendouzi and Xhaka made Grealish look like Maradona while Sokratis failed to block Grealish’s pass and Luiz lost his duel with Wesley. Guendouzi created the second equalizer with a crossfield pass for Chambers in the 81st. Mings poorly cleared Chambers’ volleyed pass for Aubameyang. Reacting more quickly than Taylor, Chambers pounced on the loose ball to stab it past Heaton. Aubameyang scored the winning goal by drawing a foul from Engels in the 83rd. From 20 yards, Aubameyang curled the subsequent free kick into the bottom corner.

A generous team player

   Aubameyang is the kind of player who would deserve to wear the armband. He performs week in week out. Scoring 7 goals from 7 games in all competitions so far is the very definition of consistency. And you can’t question his mentality. I guess Emery will give Aubameyang the evening off for the League Cup game against Nottingham Forest because there were some signs of fatigue against Villa.

   The Gabon striker completely missed his control with just the keeper to beat in the 16th. Then he dragged a low shot straight at Heaton in the 19th. Aubameyang also blazed over the bar after Sokratis flicked on a corner in the 71st. But he converted the free kick that made the difference in the 84th. As a true leader, Aubameyang took one for the team by making a cynical foul to kill a dangerous counterattack in stoppage time.

   Strikers are often selfish. But Aubameyang behaved like a generous team player by letting Pepe take the penalty in the 59th. Pepe finally scored his first Arsenal goal but his overall performance was a mixed bag. The Ivory Coast winger had 2 of 5 shots on target, was tied with Grealish for the most key passes (4) and led all players with 3 successful dribbles out of 5, according to whoscored.com.

   There were a couple of times when I thought Pepe could have done better. He ran into traffic in the fifth minute and his turnover led to a fast break for Villa. Pepe is smarter in his decision-making than Iwobi and usually knows when the situation is favorable for taking on a defender. He also wasted a scoring chance by overhitting his final ball for Saka in the 17th.

Pepe’s poor work-rate

   Yet, what really bothered me was Pepe’s poor work-rate. He only made 1 interception and 1 recovery in 95 minutes while Saka made 1 tackle, 1 block and 1 recovery in 45 minutes. McGinn toyed with Pepe in the 11th before unleashing a powerful long-range strike that Leno parried. Pepe also failed to close down McGinn in the 38th as the Scottish midfielder made a dangerous cross. That poor work-rate is a problem if Emery wants to implement a high press. Even a forward like Lacazette works harder than Pepe.

   On the left flank, Saka was rewarded for his outstanding performance in Germany with his first Premier League start. In the second minute, Saka made a pinpoint cross for Maitland-Niles, who missed the target from 9 yards. Then Saka took his chance in the 26th with a 25-yard drive that flirted with the bar. Despite those 2 brilliant moments, I thought Saka was a bit shy. The academy player had only 1 key pass in the first half with weaker stats than against Frankfurt even though the German side is arguably stronger than Villa. Hopefully, Saka will be more daring in his next starts.  

   Now, let’s talk about the midfield. That area of the pitch has been the main problem for Arsenal since the start of the season. Teams turn defense into attack too easily against the Gunners because the Arsenal midfield is too porous. Our midfielders either don’t work hard enough. Ceballos and Xhaka only made 5 defensive actions each in 71 minutes compared to 12 defensive actions for Guendouzi in 95 minutes. Or they are not good enough defensively. Ceballos was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, while Xhaka and Guendouzi were dribbled past twice each.

Lack of complementarity

   The Gunners had a bit more control when Torreira and Willock replaced Xhaka and Ceballos in the 72nd. That wasn’t surprising. Torreira and Willock are more mobile than Xhaka and also have more defensive awareness. You just have to look at the Liverpool midfield to understand why Torreira and Willock would be a perfect fit for Klopp’s gegenpressing tactics: Torreira and Willock have a similar profile to Milner, Wijnaldum, Henderson and Keita, all-rounders who can both defend and attack.

   Last season, Emery relied on the duo formed by Xhaka and Torreira to protect the back four. Their best defensive performance was the 1-1 draw with Liverpool. It all went south when Torreira’s form dipped and when Emery preferred to use Torreira as a box-to-box player in a more advanced position than Xhaka.

   This season, Emery has relied on the duo formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi to shield the defense. Xhaka and Guendouzi have started 5 Premier League games together. That partnership has proved a disaster because none of them is a ballwinner. Xhaka and Guendouzi are not even complementary as they are both deep-lying playmakers. At 20, Guendouzi is inconsistent but he can still improve while Xhaka has already reached his ceiling.

   The Villans capitalized on a poor crossfield pass from Xhaka in the third minute to create their first chance of the game. Trezeguet cut the ball back for McGinn, who shot straight at Leno. The visitors then exposed Xhaka’s lack of mobility. Trezeguet toyed with Xhaka in the 33rd before finding Wesley, whose tame effort didn’t trouble Leno. Xhaka lost his cool in the 35th when Grealish shielded the ball with his body. Unable to win the ball, Xhaka pulled Grealish back and received a yellow card. Xhaka also gave away a free kick on the edge of the Arsenal box with a silly tackle on Grealish in the 46th.

Ceballos’ disappointing performance

   Guendouzi bounced back from his dreadful performance against Watford by initiating the two equalizers against Villa. Offensively, Guendouzi was a magnet for his teammates, leading all players with 83 passes. He finished the game with 3 key passes and only 1 turnover. Guendouzi nearly scored in the 69th but Heaton turned his low drive around the post.

   Maybe the most interesting part in Guendouzi’s performance was his reaction after the Gunners conceded a second goal. Guendouzi didn’t give in. Instead, he showed character and led the team forward. Emery understood it was Guendouzi’s moment and took off Xhaka in the 72nd to let Guendouzi shine.

   Defensively, Guendouzi was guilty for both Villa goals. Emery must definitely play Guendouzi alongside a defensive midfielder to preserve the balance of the team. In the current squad, only Torreira and an aging Luiz can play that role.

   In the hole, Ceballos had a disappointing game. He was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Real Madrid loanee couldn’t even beat the first man with 2 corners in a row. His passing accuracy of 100% with 43 passes was misleading: Ceballos had no impact in the final third, making only 1 key pass. Last season, Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were inconsistent attacking midfielders. Ceballos is pretty much walking in their steps.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety

   At the back, Maitland-Niles showed his naivety again. His ejection was similar to what happened against Leicester last season. Maitland-Niles received a yellow card in the 11th for a cynical foul on El Ghazi. Instead of avoiding risky challenges until halftime, Maitland-Niles made a sliding tackle on Taylor in the 38th, taking the Villa fullback down with his follow-through. The referee made the right call by showing a second yellow card to Maitland-Niles.

   Xhaka deputized for a few minutes in the rightback position before Chambers came off the bench in the 46th to replace Saka and take over Maitland-Niles’ spot in a 4-3-2 formation. Nothing went Maitland-Niles’ way on Sunday. He missed the target from 9 yards in the second minute and ran the ball out of play in the 25th.

   It’s hard to have any sympathy for Maitland-Niles when you look at his stats. He only made 1 interception and 1 recovery in his 38-minute stint, according to the club’s website (the sliding tackle was counted as a foul). By contrast, Chambers made 1 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries in the second half besides finding the net. On the opposite flank, Kolasinac worked even harder, making 11 defensive actions (4 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries). The only blemish in Kolasinac’s performance was a poor clearance that led to an 18-yard effort by McGinn in the 60th.    

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis and Luiz looked like clowns on Villa’s second goal. In his prime, Koscielny would have won that key duel with Wesley. Luiz showed off his distribution skills with a passing accuracy of 92.6% compared to 79.6% for Sokratis. He also tested Heaton with a dipping free kick in the 66th. Physically, Luiz struggled to recover from the Frankfurt game as he only made 4 defensive actions (2 tackles, 2 recoveries) while Sokratis made 10 defensive actions (1 block, 2 interceptions, 7 recoveries).

A criminal scheduling

   Sokratis was pulled out of position on the play that led to Maitland-Niles’ first yellow card. The Greek centerback did a bit of play-acting in the 43rd while trying to get Wesley sent off. Hanging onto Wesley’s leg, Sokratis tried to engineer a collision between his head and the Villa striker’s knee. The acting was so comical that the referee and the VAR official were having none of it. Sokratis had 2 dodgy moments in the second half. First, he nearly scored an own goal by deflecting Mings’ shot in the 52nd. Then he blocked Hourihane’s strike with his shoulder in the 89th. The Villans had their penalty shout turned down.

   Frankly, I can’t wait for Holding to start again in the Premier League. There’s no way he could do worse in duels than Luiz and Sokratis. I assume Emery will play Holding in the League Cup game against Nottingham Forest to help him regain his fitness. I also expect Emery to rest his best players because the scheduling was criminal with only one day of rest between the Villa game and the League Cup fixture. The risk of an injury is too high with so little rest.

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

   The Gunners kicked off their Europa League campaign with a 3-0 victory in Germany to top Group F on Thursday, level on points with Standard de Liège. The clean sheet should boost the team’s confidence ahead of their Premier League game against Aston Villa on Sunday.

Frankfurt vs. Arsenal 2019.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that drew 2-2 at Watford with only Aubameyang, Xhaka, Luiz and Kolasinac retaining their starting spots. The Spanish manager gave some playing time to benchwarmers like Martinez, Mustafi and Chambers while also trusting youngsters like Saka, Willock and Smith-Rowe.

  1. Saka is knocking hard on the door

   On the big stage, Saka definitely seized his opportunity with 1 goal and 2 assists in a ‘Man of the Match’ performance. At 18, his potential is off the charts. Saka is the most precocious talent graduating from the academy since Wilshere. He’s the reason why the Arsenal staff decided to let Iwobi and Welbeck go in the summer: they had to make room for his development.

   Technically, Saka produced a mature performance with 2 of 2 shots on target, 5 key passes, 2 accurate crosses out of 3, 1 accurate through ball out of 2, 3 successful dribbles out of 6, and 1 tackle won, according to whoscored.com. Tactically, Saka provides more width than Nelson on the left flank because Nelson prefers to check back on his right foot while Saka is a left-footed player. Somehow, Emery will have to protect Saka’s fitness because the obvious danger would be to overwork him at such a young age.

   Saka dribbled past Abraham to find Willock for the opening goal in the 38th minute. He then got his first scoring chance in the 78th when a blocked shot from Aubameyang looped into his path. The slow pace of the loose ball allowed Trapp to come off his line and deny Saka. A minute later, Saka’s pace and dribbling skills put the Frankfurt defense in trouble. The German side was down to 10 men after Kohr received a second yellow card for fouling Saka on a counterattack.

   You’d think that Saka’s energy levels would dip in the closing minutes but the teenager still had enough left in the tank. He picked his spot from 25 yards out to make it 2-0 in the 85th with a curling shot into the bottom corner. Two minutes later, Saka dispossessed Abraham to feed Aubameyang for the third goal.

  1. Aubameyang can still score on an off night

   The Gabon striker had only 1 of 7 shots on target. He especially failed to convert a pinpoint cross from Chambers in the 83rd with the goal at his mercy. But Aubameyang showed his class in a one-on-one duel by slipping the ball past Trapp to seal the win in the 87th. Despite his erratic finishing, Aubameyang worked hard for the team, creating chances for Willock in the 29th and Torreira in stoppage time.    

  1. This could be Willock’s breakthrough season

   Willock definitely had an impact in the final third with 1 goal, 3 key passes and 3 successful dribbles out of 3. He fluffed a scoring chance in the 29th by attempting a half-volley with his right foot instead of shooting with his left foot. However, Willock redeemed himself with a bit of luck in the 38th when his shot took a big deflection to beat Trapp for the opener. He nearly doubled the lead in the 67th but Trapp parried his angled effort.

   At 20, Willock looks pretty much like Ramsey at the same age in his development. They both have the same generosity and that tendency to run all over the pitch. But just like Ramsey was not yet the finished product at 20, Willock still has a lot of room for improvement, whether it’s his technique or his reading of the game.

  1. The Gunners badly need a defensive midfielder

   Arsenal had no control of the game until Kohr’s ejection in the 79th. The Gunners allowed 31 shots at Watford and 24 shots at Frankfurt. That tells you there’s something wrong with the midfield. The most worrying part is that Emery played his most defensive midfield with Xhaka, Torreira and Willock.

   All of them had poor moments. Xhaka gave the ball away while playing out from the back in the fourth minute and he was late to block Silva’s close-range attempt on the stroke of halftime. Torreira failed to mark Kamada, who had a free shot in the 25th. The Uruguay midfielder also lost possession in midfield while foolishly taking on two players in the 54th. And Frankfurt intercepted a telegraphed pass from Willock in the 28th to start a counterattack.

   Unfortunately, there is no quick fix since the club didn’t want to sign a defensive midfielder in the summer. The Gunners will have to wait until the next transfer window for a potential solution.

  1. Martinez proved a solid back-up for Leno

   At 27, the Argentine goalkeeper is no longer a rookie. The Arsenal staff must have been convinced by his performances at Reading last season to let Ospina go in the summer. Martinez made 7 saves in Germany, including 2 outstanding saves to protect Arsenal’s 1-0 lead. On the stroke of halftime, he stopped Silva’s close-range effort. Then Martinez dived to save Paciencia’s deflected shot in the 69th. He also showed good decision-making by claiming a couple of dangerous crosses.

  1. Chambers was the weak link at the back

   Most of Frankfurt’s chances came from Chambers’ flank. Serbia international Kostic managed to make 16 crosses, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Da Costa only made 4 crosses from Kolasinac’s flank. Chambers worked hard, leading Arsenal players with 4 interceptions. But his lack of pace and poor positional play let him down. In the 21st, Chambers failed to close down Kostic, whose teasing cross led to a dangerous goalmouth scramble. Kostic then ran past Chambers in the 23rd to test Martinez with a low drive. The Frankfurt wingback had another free run in the 59th to set up Silva, who missed the target from 10 yards. Chambers lost again the foot race with Kostic in the 63rd, forcing Willock to make a cynical foul and receive a yellow card. It was Chambers’ turn to get booked in the 83rd for holding Kostic.

  1. Smith-Rowe starting from scratch again

   Injury is the No. 1 enemy of any player. Smith-Rowe shone in the first half of last season but the second half was marred by injuries which hampered his progress. The English teenager must be 100 percent fit again to continue his development. The playing time he earned on Thursday was the first step in that direction.

   Smith-Rowe performed poorly against Frankfurt but the season is young and what really matters is how many games he will play from now until May. The academy graduate was dispossessed 6 times, the most for any player. Despite a relative lack of sharpness, Smith-Rowe still managed to have a scoring chance in the 32nd. Xhaka won the ball in midfield and sent Smith-Rowe clean through on goal. From 15 yards, Smith-Rowe hit a low strike that Trapp saved with his leg.    

Watford vs. Arsenal: Mistakes by Sokratis, Luiz cost Gunners win

   It’s hard to see how the Gunners could finish in the Top 4 after they surrendered a two-goal lead with some shambolic defending on Sunday to draw 2-2 with Watford and slip to 7th place in the Premier League.

Watford vs. Arsenal 2019.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   To a certain extent, the Gunners were lucky to come away with a point because Watford badly outplayed them. The Hornets had 31 shots to just 7 for Arsenal. In the first half, Watford played with 10 men behind the ball, hoping to hit Arsenal on the fast break. In the second half, the Hornets gained confidence and started dominating possession as the Gunners lost control of the game with a lot of end-to-end plays.

   Xhaka admitted after the game that the Gunners “were scared in the second half”. The issue of mental weakness already existed under Wenger. It worsened in the past few months with the departures of Cech, Koscielny, Ramsey and Monreal. The Gunners simply have no leader to steady the ship when the going gets tough.

   Arsenal clearly failed to address that leadership issue in the last transfer window. The club got its priorities wrong because Sanllehi ended up making the key decisions. Sanllehi has a business background and doesn’t have any clue about the balance of the team. All the money spent on Pepe and Martinelli could have been used to sign a top centerback and a defensive midfielder.

   Emery must also take his share of the blame for the poor tactical setup. The Gunners were lucky to lead 2-0 at halftime because Watford created 3 chances before the opening goal. Emery was often conservative in his team selection last season, so it was a bit surprising to see a 4-4-2 formation for an away game. The Spanish manager used a midfield diamond with Xhaka as the holding midfielder, Ceballos and Guendouzi on the flanks, and Ozil in the hole behind Aubameyang and Pepe.

Crushed in midfield

   The Liverpool game showed the tactical problems with a midfield diamond. Yet, Emery couldn’t find a fix at Vicarage Road. Just like Guendouzi and Willock gave a lot of freedom to Robertson and Alexander-Arnold at Anfield, Ceballos and Guendouzi failed to mark the Watford fullbacks. If you need some midfielders to do a defensive job, it would have been more logical to put Torreira and Willock in your starting lineup. Guendouzi was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Hornets also dribbled past Ceballos 3 times.

   The Arsenal midfield proved too porous to contain the Hornets in the second half. Emery replaced Ceballos with Willock in the 60th minute and Guendouzi with Torreira in the 67th. The substitutions had little impact as Watford kept creating chances. So Emery implicitly acknowledged Watford’s superiority in midfield by replacing Ozil with Nelson in the 71st while shifting to a 4-3-3 formation.

   The Gunners also put themselves in trouble by poorly playing out from the back. The first warning came in the 35th. Guendouzi dallied on the ball and lost possession while foolishly trying to take on 2 Hornets. Deulofeu won the ball and shot straight at Leno. If Guendouzi wanted to move the ball forward, Kolasinac was his safest option as you can see on the screen capture below.

Watford vs. Arsenal M35edGuendouzi fails to pass the ball to Kolasinac. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Playing long balls could have been an alternative to beat Watford’s high press. Unfortunately, Pepe and Aubameyang performed poorly in the air, combining to win 0 of 4 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Gray won 2 of 4 aerial duels for the Hornets. So the Gunners continued to make risky passes at the back. Guendouzi could have played a one-two with Maitland-Niles to beat Watford’s high press in the 46th, but the French midfielder ignored Maitland-Niles and took a couple more touches before missing his pass for Xhaka. The stray pass fell to Gray, whose lob attempt was blocked by Xhaka.

Poorly suited for playing out from the back

   The Gunners ran out of luck in the 54th. Leno slipped the ball to Sokratis, whose telegraphed pass for Guendouzi was blocked by Deulofeu. The ball fell to Cleverley, who fired past Leno from 16 yards. Sokratis showed poor decision-making on that play. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka was a safer passing option. It’s also quite telling that neither Ozil nor Ceballos appears on the picture. Last season, Ramsey was an additional passing option when the Gunners played out from the back.

Watford vs. Arsenal M54ed.jpgSokratis fails to spot Xhaka in acres of space. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Sunday’s Arsenal team was poorly suited for playing out from the back. I mean, you need players with great technique and mobility and a sound reading of the game. In the back four, Sokratis doesn’t have the ball-playing abilities of a Laporte, Alderweireld or Van Dijk. And no disrespect to Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac, but they are more limited technically than Bellerin and Tierney. In midfield, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the mobility, vision and passing skills of a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla.

   Of the 5 captains Emery named last season, only Xhaka and Ozil are still at the club. The trouble with the armband is that you need to perform week in and week out, otherwise you have no natural authority if you can’t earn your teammates’ respect. Right now, there are only 2 players who can look at themselves in the mirror and claim that they deliver on the pitch: Aubameyang and Lacazette. All the other Gunners are either inconsistent, error-prone or not good enough.

Pepe’s frustration

   Aubameyang proved clinical on Sunday with 2 goals from 3 shots. He opened the scoring in the 21st by controlling a pass from Kolasinac before firing on the turn into the bottom corner. The Gabon striker then met a cross from Maitland-Niles in the 32nd to double the lead with a tap-in. With a bit of luck, Aubameyang could have notched a hat trick. He was about to connect with a cross from Ozil in the 25th, but the cross took a deflection and Aubameyang couldn’t make contact with the ball. Besides raising his tally to 5 goals this season, Aubameyang was quite tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 88% and just 2 turnovers.

   We know how lethal Aubameyang and Lacazette can be when they play in a front two. Lacazette was not in the squad on Sunday and won’t be available until October because of an ankle injury. So Emery gave another start to Pepe, who arguably produced his worst performance in an Arsenal shirt. Pepe had 0 shot on target and only 1 key pass. His passing accuracy of 61.8% was also the lowest among Arsenal players. Pepe missed his through ball for Aubameyang in the third minute. He then put his team in trouble in the 88th when a clearance from the Watford defense fell into his path. Pepe missed a simple pass to Kolasinac and the turnover led to a dangerous counterattack. The Ivory Coast forward led all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   There were some signs of Pepe’s frustration on the pitch. He took a speculative shot that went nowhere in the 20th. On the stroke of halftime, Pepe was unhappy with a challenge from Holebas and nearly tried to kick out at the Watford fullback. The ensuing brawl forced the referee to book both Guendouzi and Holebas. Pepe’s only positive contribution of the game was the key pass he made for Nelson in the 72nd. Obviously, Pepe still needs time to adapt to the Premier League. However, the Gunners need results quickly and Emery could be tempted to pick another forward, especially since Pepe seems more comfortable in a front three than in a front two.

Ceballos’ work-rate

   In midfield, I was shocked to see Ozil start at Vicarage Road. We all know about Ozil’s struggles in away games. The way Deulofeu dispossessed Ozil in the 18th summarized his lack of combativity. Ozil only made 3 recoveries in 70 minutes compared to 7 recoveries for Ceballos in 59 minutes, according to the club’s website. It’s impossible to win the midfield battle or press high up the pitch with Ozil’s poor work-rate. If Emery had stayed true to his ideas, he would have left Ozil on the bench. Ozil’s apologists often mention how he can turn around a game with a moment of magic. Unfortunately, those moments are becoming scarcer and scarcer. Ozil had 1 key pass and 0 shot, compared to 8 key passes and 4 shots on target for Deulofeu.  

   Nelson came off the bench to replace Ozil in the 71st. A minute later, the academy graduate tested Foster with a curling shot. At 19, Nelson is still learning his trade. He could become a regular starter on the left flank after the departures of Iwobi and Welbeck this summer. However, he will have to be less predictable. Opponents know Nelson’s tendency to check back on his right foot. That’s how Doucoure robbed Nelson in stoppage time to hit Arsenal on the fast break.

   On the left side of a midfield diamond, Ceballos didn’t really have the opportunity to express his creativity as he had to keep an eye on Femenia’s runs down the flank. Ceballos had 0 key pass and 0 shot. But the Real Madrid loanee put in a shift and played an important role in the opener by winning the ball in midfield to feed Kolasinac. Because of that work-rate, Ceballos should get the nod over Ozil in midfield. However, Ceballos will have to adjust to the physicality of the Premier League. The Spain international only won 20% of his duels, the lowest percentage among all the midfielders according to the club’s website.

Guendouzi ain’t no Fabregas

   Playing on the right side of the midfield diamond, Guendouzi showed poor work-rate with just 1 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries in 66 minutes. His lack of pace was badly exposed when he had to cover Maitland-Niles and close down Deulofeu. Guendouzi has potential but he’s nowhere near the level of a Fabregas at the same age. Fabregas knew what his passing options were before receiving the ball whereas Guendouzi needs a couple of touches before releasing the ball. That’s why Guendouzi often lost possession when the Gunners played out from the back: the Hornets didn’t give him the time to analyze his passing options. Arsenal could build play from the back with Fabregas and Cazorla. It’s much more difficult with Xhaka and Guendouzi, who don’t have their predecessors’ vision and technique.

   If you just look at the stats, you’d think Xhaka had a good game. He won 66.7% of his duels and had just 1 turnover compared to 4 for Guendouzi. Xhaka also led Arsenal players with 13 defensive actions, winning 4 of 4 tackles, and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. However, it’s a different story when you add the qualitative analysis. Xhaka’s positional play was poor. In the 11th, Xhaka failed to close down Cleverley, whose long-range strike was tipped over the bar by Leno.

Xhaka’s poor positional play

   Fans remember Luiz’s mistake for Watford’s equalizer, but it was Xhaka’s poor positional play that gave the Arsenal defense no protection on the counterattack that led to the penalty. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka made the poor decision of charging forward to close down Deulofeu even though Maitland-Niles was already marking the Spanish winger. By vacating his position, Xhaka allowed Cleverley and Doucoure to run past him. Deulofeu kept the fast break alive by playing the ball to Cleverley, who flicked it to Doucoure.

Watford vs. Arsenal M79aed.jpgCleverley and Doucoure run past Xhaka, who is pulled out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The worst part on that play was Xhaka’s lack of effort to track back. Torreira and Willock were in the Watford area when Arsenal lost possession while Xhaka was still in midfield. But after Doucoure picked out Pereyra, Xhaka slowly jogged back while Willock and Torreira sprinted at full throttle to fill the huge gap left by Xhaka. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka is not even in the picture. Xhaka’s inability to kill the counterattack left Luiz and Kolasinac in a 2v2 situation with Pereyra and Janmaat. In that kind of situation, Xhaka should have dropped off and Arsenal would have been dealing with a favorable 3v2 situation instead.

Watford vs. Arsenal M79bed.jpgTorreira and Willock rush back to fill the gap left by Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Gunners nearly lost the game because of Xhaka’s poor positional play in stoppage time. Doucoure robbed Nelson and played a one-two with Cleverley before running 30 yards unchallenged. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka was in a more advanced position than Willock and Torreira even though he’s supposed to be the holding midfielder.

Watford vs. Arsenal M92ed.jpgXhaka caught out of position again. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Arsenal defense will have no protection as long as Emery relies on Xhaka as the holding midfielder. Xhaka lacks mobility and can’t smell the danger. If Emery can’t see that Torreira is a much better option in that role, then it’s hopeless.

Maitland-Niles’ torrid afternoon

   As Arsenal lost the control of the game, Emery made defensive substitutions, replacing Ceballos with Willock in the 60th and Guendouzi with Torreira in the 67th. Willock and Torreira didn’t shine defensively but they had scoring chances. Torreira pounced on a loose ball in the 79th to fire a half-volley straight at Foster. In stoppage time, Willock led a counterattack by running 40 yards but failed to deliver the final ball to Aubameyang, ignoring him twice.

   On the flanks, Maitland-Niles had a hard time with Deulofeu, one of the best dribblers in the league. Maitland-Niles often lacked lucidity, losing possession by dribbling in his defensive third. The academy graduate finished the game with 5 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 76.6%, compared to 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 90.5% for Kolasinac, according to whoscored.com. Some fans wonder why Maitland-Niles doesn’t play in central midfield. Sorry but with that high turnover rate, Maitland-Niles would put the team in danger. At least, Maitland-Niles made an important offensive contribution with a pinpoint cross for the second goal. Kolasinac had very little trouble with Hughes on the left flank despite collecting a yellow card for a poor challenge in the 43rd. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international led Arsenal players with 2 key passes, including the assist for the opening goal.

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis and Luiz showed their limits again. Sokratis’ work-rate was poor with just 3 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block) compared to 9 defensive actions for Luiz (1 block, 3 interceptions, 5 recoveries). The Greek centerback made a sloppy pass for Watford’s first goal and was beaten to the ball by Doucoure for the Hornets’ last chance of the game.

Finding his best team

   Despite a decent work-rate, Luiz had a poor game too. The Brazilian defender gave the ball away in the fifth minute, was beaten to the ball by Hughes who missed the target in the 35th, and was turned by Sarr who dragged his effort wide in the 65th. Luiz was wise enough to back down and let Deulofeu run the ball out of play in the 45th. But he showed poor judgement in the 79th by dangling a leg out to trip Pereyra and give away a cheap penalty that the Watford substitute converted. Luiz and Sokratis aren’t as good as Koscielny in his prime. Their poor performances might put pressure on Emery to rush Holding’s return. It’s also a reminder that Arsenal will need to sign a centerback next summer.

   Arsenal can thank Leno for salvaging a point with 8 saves. The German goalkeeper prevented Watford from scoring in stoppage time by catching Doucoure’s 12-yard strike. The Hornets were so dominant in the second half that Leno even felt the need to waste time and was booked by the referee in the 76th.          

   The Gunners visit Frankfurt in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Aston Villa in the Premier League on Sunday. Emery doesn’t have time on his side. He must quickly find his best team otherwise Arsenal will keep dropping points before ultimately dropping out of the Top 4 race.