Tag Archives: Europa League

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.

Advertisements

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.    

Humiliating 4-1 loss in Europa League final shows lack of quality in Arsenal team

   The Gunners will miss out on the Champions League for the third season in a row after losing 4-1 to Chelsea in the Europa League final on Wednesday. They were badly outplayed in the second half and will keep struggling against the top teams if there is no significant investment in the squad this summer.

Europa League finalPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   In the first half, the Gunners did a decent job defensively but failed to capitalize on some good situations offensively. The double threat of Lacazette and Aubameyang forced Azpilicueta and Emerson to drift inside and play in a narrow back four, giving more space to Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Unfortunately, the Arsenal wingbacks lacked accuracy with their final ball, depriving Lacazette and Aubameyang of good service.

   When Chelsea took the lead early in the second half, it became a different story. The Blues had more counterattacking opportunities and the Arsenal defense looked much more vulnerable. The Gunners also showed their mental weakness by conceding 3 goals in a 16-minute span. It’s not the first time this season that they have collapsed after conceding the opening goal. The Wolverhampton game was another recent example.

   Down 3-0, Emery threw caution to the wind and shifted from a 3-5-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Monreal and Torreira with Guendouzi and Iwobi in the 66th minute. Iwobi played on the left wing while Aubameyang moved to the right wing. In the end, what made the difference was that Chelsea had a matchwinner with Hazard while Lacazette and Aubameyang couldn’t even find the net. The Blues also wanted it more as they ran 101.59 kilometers compared to 95.94 for Arsenal, according to the UEFA statistics.

Losing a step

   I have no issue with the team selection. On paper, this was the best starting lineup, knowing that Ramsey was injured while UEFA couldn’t guarantee Mkhitaryan’s safety in Azerbaijan. For his last game, Cech produced a decent performance. The Czech goalkeeper prevented Chelsea from taking the lead in the first half by parrying Emerson’s diagonal shot in the 34th and palming away Giroud’s low strike in the 39th. He limited the damage in the second half by saving Hazard’s curling shot in the 75th and turning Willian’s low strike around the post in the 78th.

   On the other hand, Wednesday’s game made clear that Koscielny and Monreal have lost a step. Giroud is often mocked for his lack of pace but he still beat Koscielny to the ball to head in Emerson’s cross for the opening goal in the 49th. Monreal also lost a key duel in the 60th. Pedro escaped Monreal’s marking to double the lead with a first-time effort. Sokratis performed better than Monreal and Koscielny but he was guilty on the last goal. Hazard ran past Sokratis in the 72nd to volley Giroud’s cross past Cech.

   Sokratis won 3 of 3 tackles and led all players by winning 6 of 7 aerial duels and blocking 3 shots, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Koscielny won 1 of 3 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels and made 1 block while Monreal won 1 of 1 aerial duel and made 0 tackle and 1 block. The alternatives at centerback were unappealing with the error-prone Mustafi and the sluggish Lichtsteiner.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety

   The Gunners struggled to cope with Chelsea’s high press. Turnovers from Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang led to goals in the 60th and 72nd, respectively. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player. He definitely needs to work on his technique. A couple of times, his first touch was shockingly poor. The academy graduate was involved in the first 3 goals. Maitland-Niles failed to close down Emerson for the opener in the 49th. He then tried to dribble his way out of trouble in the 60th only to lose possession. Hazard recovered the loose ball to set up Pedro for the second goal. Finally, Maitland-Niles lost his composure in the 64th and gave away a silly penalty by shoving Giroud from behind. Hazard converted the subsequent spot kick to make it 3-0.

   Kolasinac had less defensive work than Maitland-Niles, in great part because Pedro was less threatening than Hazard. However, Kolasinac’s offensive contribution was disappointing. Despite 2 key passes, Kolasinac’s technique often let him down in the final third. He finished the game with a passing accuracy of 72.1%, the lowest percentage for any player.

   In midfield, it could only be an uphill battle from the moment Ramsey and Mkhitaryan were not available because Ozil and Iwobi don’t have their work-rate. Emery trusted Ozil to mark Jorginho out of the game like Ramsey did in the 2-0 win some four months ago. There were two problems with that idea. First, Ozil followed Jorginho and tried to cut the supply lines but he simply doesn’t have Ramsey’s impact. Defensively, Ozil made 0 tackle and 1 interception. Offensively, Ozil had 0 shot and 1 key pass. The German playmaker also led Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. And second, Chelsea had a Plan B. Because of the focus on Jorginho, Kovacic enjoyed more freedom and led Chelsea players with 64 passes despite playing only 75 minutes.

Iwobi’s cameo

   Ozil lived up to his reputation as a talented player going missing in the big games. You just have to compare with Hazard’s performance to understand what a clutch player is. Hazard scored twice and made an assist. In hindsight, maybe Iwobi would have been a better option than Ozil in the playmaking role. In his 27-minute cameo, Iwobi scored a goal and made 3 key passes. Iwobi pounced on a Chelsea clearance in the 69th to volley into the far corner from 25 yards. Ozil was replaced by Willock in the 77th. The academy midfielder played in the Ramsey role, making penetrative runs instead of pulling the strings like Ozil. Willock should have scored in the 84th when he played a one-two with Lacazette but his curling shot sailed wide of the far post.

   Playing in front of the back three, Torreira and Xhaka had contrasting fortunes. Torreira produced a disappointing performance, making 2 interceptions and winning only 2 of 7 tackles, whereas Jorginho made 1 interception and won 7 of 10 tackles. It was a difficult game for Torreira because he had to help Xhaka in midfield while also marking Hazard when the Belgium international dropped back.

   Xhaka almost had a decent game compared to Ozil and Torreira. He led all players with 68 passes and hit 12 of 14 accurate long balls, according to whoscored.com. His long-range effort flirted with the bar in the 28th. However, Xhaka’s work-rate wasn’t good enough to help Arsenal match Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic in midfield. Xhaka made 0 interception and won 2 of 2 tackles.

Aubameyang’s off day

   Lacazette and Aubameyang have carried the Gunners in this competition but they really lacked support on Wednesday. The Chelsea defense had a relatively quiet evening. Would Ramsey’s presence have made a difference in the final third?

   After walking on water against Valencia, Aubameyang had an off day in Azerbaijan with 0 of 4 shots on target and 0 key pass. Aubameyang sent a 15-yard volley wide in the ninth minute, hit a cross beyond Lacazette in the 52nd, had a turnover that led to the final goal in the 72nd, and completely fluffed his shot in stoppage time.

   It was quite ironic that Arsenal sold Coquelin, Walcott and Giroud last year to finance the signing of Aubameyang because Giroud played a key role in Chelsea’s victorious campaign. Giroud finished the season as the top scorer in the Europa League with 11 goals. In Azerbaijan, Giroud crucified his former team by scoring a goal, making an assist and winning a penalty. The Gunners got more speed with Aubameyang but they also lost a dominant player in the air. The Blues sometimes used Giroud as a target man to evade Arsenal’s high press. Giroud won 3 of 7 aerial duels, while Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win only 1 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

A deep-rooted problem

Lacazette performed a bit better than Aubameyang with 3 key passes and 1 of 3 shots on target. The French striker had 2 good situations in the first half. Aubameyang fed Lacazette, who dribbled past Kepa in the 18th. Kepa was a split second late and clipped Lacazette’s foot. Despite a VAR review, no penalty was given. Four minutes later, Torreira hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, who held off Azpilicueta but couldn’t control the ball. Lacazette finally tested Kepa in the 83rd but the Spanish goalkeeper made the save.

   As a knee-jerk reaction, some fans wanted Emery to leave the club after this embarrassing defeat. I think it would be unfair for Emery, who did better than Wenger both in the Premier League and the Europa League. It would also make things worse for the club because that kind of instability would put off prospective managers and players.

   Anyway, Emery’s departure this summer wouldn’t help the club because the real issue is the board. Dismissing Emery won’t solve a deep-rooted problem, which is the owner’s lack of ambition and his failure to invest in the squad. An average manager with a great squad can win titles. Think of Di Matteo with Chelsea in 2012. But a great manager with an average squad won’t win anything. Think of Benitez at Newcastle.    

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

Too little, too late.

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

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

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

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

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

Aubameyang’s 31 goals

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

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

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

The inconsistency of the attacking midfielders

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

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

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

Loaning out Willock and Nketiah?

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

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

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

Vulnerable on crosses (again)

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

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

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

Mavropanos looking out of his depth

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

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

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

Singing the blues in Baku

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

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

 

 

Valencia vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 4-2 win

   The Gunners will play a European final for the first time since 2006 after sinking Valencia 4-2 in the second leg of the Europa League semifinals on Thursday. The Spanish side enjoyed 58% of ball possession and had 18 goal attempts to 10, but Arsenal proved more clinical with 6 shots on target to 3, according to the UEFA statistics.

Valencia vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that won the first leg 3-1 with Torreira and Monreal replacing Guendouzi and Mustafi in the starting lineup. The 3-5-2 formation gave no real protection to the wingbacks, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Occasionally, Aubameyang and Lacazette tracked back the Valencia fullbacks when Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles were busy with the wingers, Guedes and Wass.

   The Gunners had a sluggish start like in the first leg. Quite a few Arsenal fans became nervous when Valencia opened the scoring in the 11th minute because the Spanish side could have qualified with a 2-0 victory. But Aubameyang’s equalizer in the 17th calmed the nerves. Lacazette virtually put an end to Valencia’s hopes by making it 2-1 in the 50th. Because of the away-goal rule, the Bats needed to win by a three-goal margin to qualify.

  1. A telepathic understanding

   Signing Aubameyang has been the best legacy of Wenger’s last season at the club. His understanding with Lacazette has played a key role in Arsenal’s scoring form. There were flashes of their telepathic understanding in the first half. The equalizer came from a goal kick by Cech in the 17th. Paulista, a former Gunner, headed the ball up in the air. Lacazette outjumped Paulista to win the second ball and knock it down. Aubameyang anticipated the bounce and ran past Lacazette to chest the ball forward before drilling a snapshot into the bottom corner. The duo swapped roles in the 39th. Aubameyang charged down the right flank to set up Lacazette, whose curling shot clipped the near post.  

  1. Aubameyang rose to the occasion

   On Thursday, Aubameyang arguably produced his most complete performance in an Arsenal shirt. He notched a hat trick, had 3 successful dribbles out of 6, made 1 interception, and won 4 of 8 aerial duels and 1 of 2 tackles, according to whoscored.com. The Gabon striker also had a hand in Lacazette’s goal, making a sliding tackle to dispossess Gaya in the 50th before Torreira found Lacazette on the edge of the box.

   Aubameyang gave the Gunners a 3-2 lead in the 69th by making a run to the near post to convert Maitland-Niles’ low cross. In the closing minutes, Aubameyang swapped passes with Guendouzi before letting the ball run past him and into the path of Mkhitaryan, who played Aubameyang in with a first-time pass. From a tight angle, Aubameyang fired into the roof of the net to seal the win. The Valencia defense struggled to cope with Aubameyang’s movement. Aubameyang lost his marker in the 25th but headed Xhaka’s corner over the bar. Then Aubameyang took a pass from Ozil in the 32nd only to hit a tame drive straight at Neto.    

  1. Lacazette was motivated

   Before joining Arsenal, Lacazette played many Europa League games with Lyon but never managed to reach the final. In his last season at the French club, Lacazette was knocked out by Ajax Amsterdam in the semifinals. Lacazette scored Arsenal’s second goal in the 50th, dancing around 2 defenders before burying the ball into the far corner on the turn. He produced an outstanding all-around performance like Aubameyang, making 1 interception, having 4 successful dribbles out of 6, and winning 3 of 8 aerial duels and 1 of 1 tackle. In the last minute of stoppage time, Lacazette received a yellow card for his involvement in a brawl with Paulista.      

  1. Why did Ozil start in an away game?

   Ozil was anonymous at the Mestalla stadium. He was not involved in any of the four goals. It was a strange choice by Emery to start Ozil, knowing his poor performances on the road. Ozil’s work-rate was so weak that Parejo had plenty of time and space to pull the strings in midfield. The German playmaker looked unhappy when Emery replaced him with Mkhitaryan in the 62nd, but Mkhitaryan did more in his 30-minute cameo than Ozil in his 61-minute performance.

   Mkhitaryan won 1 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 1 assist, while Ozil won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 interception and 0 assist. In the final against Chelsea, it would be suicidal to give so much freedom to Jorginho. Arsenal defeated the Blues 2-0 in the Premier League because Ramsey marked Jorginho out of the match. In Baku, Mkhitaryan would be a better choice than Ozil to press the Chelsea midfielder.  

  1. What happened to Torreira?

   Torreira is not performing at the same level as in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder was involved in both goals scored by Valencia. As you can see on the screen capture below, Torreira failed to cover Maitland-Niles on the right flank when Neto released the ball to start a counterattack. Instead of marking Guedes to his right, Torreira made the wrong decision and ran toward Rodrigo, who was already marked by Koscielny in the center circle. Rodrigo spread the ball wide to an unmarked Guedes, who bought a bit of time before playing the ball back to Rodrigo. The Valencia striker then made a cross for Gameiro, who opened the scoring with a sliding effort at the far post. The Gunners initially had a favorable 3v2 situation, but Torreira’s poor decision-making forced Sokratis to close down Guedes and led to a 2v2 situation.

Valencia M11ed.jpgTorreira should have marked Guedes on the right flank. (Photo credit: BT)

   Parejo took advantage of Torreira’s passivity to feed Wass in the 58th. The Denmark international cut the ball back for Rodrigo, whose shot hit Gameiro. Benefiting from a lucky bounce, Gameiro bundled the ball over the goal line to level the game at 2-2. To his credit, Torreira made the assist for Lacazette’s goal, but his defensive work was unconvincing. Torreira was dribbled past twice, tied with Maitland-Niles for the most by an Arsenal player, and won just 1 of 3 tackles, compared to 2 of 3 tackles for Valencia ballwinner Coquelin. I believe the club will need to sign another defensive midfielder this summer because Torreira and Xhaka don’t give enough protection to the defense.  

  1. Maitland-Niles grew into the game

   The academy graduate has often felt intimidated or inhibited in away games this season. It was no surprise to see Valencia target him. Maitland-Niles gave the ball away twice in the fourth minute. His missed interception in the 14th led to a scoring chance for Rodrigo, whose shot was inadvertently blocked by Gameiro. In the 43rd, Gaya even tried to win a penalty by knocking the ball forward before initiating contact with Maitland-Niles’ leg. But the referee was not conned and booked Gaya for diving. Maitland-Niles felt more confident in the second half and outpaced Guedes down the right flank in the 69th to set up Aubameyang for Arsenal’s third goal. Still, Maitland-Niles will have to work on his passing accuracy because he finished the game with a percentage of 63.6%, the lowest among outfield starters.    

  1. Monreal is looking his age

   At 33, Monreal is past his prime, unfortunately. He lost the key duel against Gameiro for Valencia’s opener in the 11th and he played Gameiro onside for the French striker’s second goal in the 58th. Other defenders were also guilty. Koscielny failed to block Rodrigo’s cross for the first goal while Kolasinac failed to track Wass for the second. Monreal worked hard, leading all players with 5 interceptions, but the club definitely needs younger and better options at leftback.

Arsenal vs. Valencia: A few thoughts on the 3-1 win

   The Gunners took a big step toward qualifying for the Europa League final by defeating Valencia 3-1 in the first leg of the semifinals on Thursday. They showed more desire than against Leicester and had a bit of luck as the Spanish side could have led 2-0 after 15 minutes.

Arsenal vs. ValenciaPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   Emery relied on a 3-5-2 formation with Ozil playing behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Lacazette initiated the equalizer in the 18th minute by playing Aubameyang in. The Gabon striker cut inside Roncaglia before slipping the ball to Lacazette, who scored into an empty net from 17 yards. Then Lacazette lost Roncaglia inside the box to head Xhaka’s cross for a 2-1 lead in the 25th. Neto diverted Lacazette’s bouncing header onto the post and palmed the ball out after it entirely crossed the line. In the last minute of regulation time, Aubameyang met Kolasinac’s cross to seal the win with a volley from a very tight angle.

  1. Arsenal’s version of Cole & Yorke

   The telepathic understanding between Lacazette and Aubameyang reminds me of Manchester United’s strike partnership of the late 1990s. They both produced a good all-around performance, making 2 key passes each and winning 1 of 2 tackles each, according to whoscored.com.

   Lacazette definitely feels more comfortable with continental football, which is less physical than the Premier League. He could have notched a hat trick with better finishing in the second half. Aubameyang rounded Paulista in the 63rd to make a cross for Lacazette, who produced an air shot from 6 yards. Four minutes later, a long-range strike from Kolasinac fell into the path of Lacazette, whose 5-yard effort was saved by Nieto.

   Aubameyang didn’t get off to a great start. He missed the target with an awkward shot in the 23rd when a pass to an unmarked Maitland-Niles was the better option. Then Aubameyang connected with a cross from Xhaka in the 33rd for a volley that bounced over the bar. But Aubameyang grew into the game, worked his socks off and was rewarded with the last goal.

  1. The Gunners struggled to defend set pieces (again)

   Arsenal will need to train harder on set pieces for the second leg because Valencia created 2 chances from corners and 1 chance from free kicks. The Spanish side should have opened the scoring in the eighth minute when an unmarked Rodrigo redirected Parejo’s free kick into the path of Garay, who fired over the bar from close range. Maitland-Niles failed to track Rodrigo’s run on that play. Three minutes later, Valencia finally found the net. An unmarked Rodrigo headed a corner toward Diakhaby, who nodded in. Sokratis lost the first duel with Rodrigo while Xhaka lost the second duel with Diakhaby. Cech is a keeper who can command his area, yet he proved powerless against Diakhaby, who beat him to a corner in the 69th. Fortunately, Diakhaby could only flick the ball on and Mustafi cleared the danger.    

  1. The Arsenal defense was shaky but survived

   Every Arsenal defender had a poor moment. Sokratis was lucky not to get booked for a late challenge on Diakhaby in the sixth minute. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick with a clumsy challenge on Soler in the 35th. Koscielny lacked focus in the 73rd when Gameiro made a run in behind to collect Parejo’s through ball and be denied by Cech. But Maitland-Niles arguably made the worst blunder in the 15th after Cech parried Parejo’s long-range strike. The rebound fell to Maitland-Niles, who headed the ball toward Cech. Guedes pounced on the tame backpass only to flick the ball over the bar.

  1. Kolasinac was let down by his technique

   The Bosnia-Herzegovina international had a passing accuracy of 71.4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters according to whoscored.com. He gave the ball away twice in the opening minutes and wasted good situations with a poor delivery. Out of the 6 crosses Kolasinac made, only one was accurate, but it proved the assist for Aubameyang’s goal.  

  1. A flawed midfield

   Emery played Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in central midfield. I think it’s a less complementary partnership than the duo formed by Xhaka and Torreira because Xhaka is not a natural defensive midfielder and therefore needs a ballwinner to cover him. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times and led all players with 4 fouls. Despite those flaws, Xhaka was still able to pull the strings in midfield and led all players with 3 key passes and 5 accurate crosses, including those for Lacazette’s goal in the 25th and Aubameyang’s chance in the 33rd.

   I expect Emery to start Torreira alongside Xhaka for the second leg because Guendouzi’s work-rate on Thursday was not good enough. Guendouzi won 0 of 1 tackle compared to 2 of 5 tackles for Xhaka and 2 of 2 tackles for Ozil, according to whoscored.com. Emery must probably be managing Torreira’s playing time because he sent on the Uruguay midfielder for Guendouzi in the 58th.

 

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

   The Gunners qualified for the semifinals of the Europa League by edging Napoli 1-0 in the second leg on Thursday. Only Juventus had previously managed to win at the San Paolo stadium this season.

Napoli vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Getty Images

   Emery made one change to the side that defeated the Italian side 2-0 a week ago with Xhaka replacing Ozil in the starting lineup. Both teams adopted the same tactical approach as in the first leg. Arsenal pressed high up the pitch to force turnovers. Their high defensive line worked well as the Gli Azzurri were caught offside 5 times in the first half. The Gunners were under siege in the second half because their fitness levels dipped. Napoli mostly relied on balls over the top to crack the Arsenal defense in the first half. After the break, the Gli Azzurri resorted more to crosses because the Gunners switched to a low defensive line.

   It’s quite ironic that Ancelotti was among the candidates to replace Wenger last summer. Napoli’s performance on Thursday was very Wengerian: the hosts enjoyed 67% of ball possession and had 20 shots to just 7 for the Gunners. One typical flaw of the late Arsenal teams was their inefficiency at both ends of the pitch. The Gli Azzurri proved wasteful in front of goal while the Gunners had very few chances but scored on a set piece. Maybe the board will see this result as vindication for choosing Emery over Ancelotti.

  1. Emery’s gamble paid off

   The Spanish manager helped Lacazette recharge his batteries by leaving him on the bench against Watford. Three days later, a fresh Lacazette scored the winning goal against Napoli by curling home a free kick in the 36th minute. The French striker also showed good work-rate, winning 2 of 2 tackles according to whoscored.com. The only blemish in Lacazette’s performance was his weakness in the air as he won only 1 of 6 aerial duels. Seeking to protect Arsenal’s lead, Emery replaced Lacazette with Iwobi in the 68th.    

  1. Ramsey’s race against the clock

   The Wales midfielder was replaced by Mkhitaryan in the 34th after pulling his hamstring. If it’s a strain, Ramsey might be fit for the final, assuming the Gunners knock out Valencia in the next round. But if it’s a tear, this could have been Ramsey’s last game with Arsenal.

   That injury is a blow for Emery because of Ramsey’s unique profile in the squad. Ramsey is a versatile player who can play both in central midfield and in the hole. Emery will therefore have fewer tactical options in midfield since Xhaka, Torreira and Iwobi don’t have Ramsey’s flair for goals while Ozil and Mkhitaryan don’t play in central midfield. Mkhitaryan is the most likely alternative for the No. 10 role in away games. Emery might also have to rely more on Guendouzi and Elneny in central midfield to rest Xhaka and Torreira.  

  1. Monreal was the weak link at the back

   Like in the first leg, Napoli targeted the left side of the Arsenal defense. Insigne made a run in behind Monreal to chase a ball over the top in the 26th but could only produce an air shot. Then Milik ghosted past Monreal to head Zielinski’s chipped pass wide in the 28th. The Spanish defender nearly scored an own goal by diverting a cross from Mario Rui in the 80th.

  1. Maitland-Niles had a rough game

   Napoli focused on the left side of the Arsenal defense in the first half before testing Maitland-Niles in the second half. Insigne rounded the academy graduate in the 47th to cut the ball back for Ruiz, who fired over the bar. Then Insigne made a run in behind Maitland-Niles in the 60th to control a long ball, but his tame effort didn’t trouble Cech. Mario Rui also got the better of Maitland-Niles in the 73rd to make a low cross for Milik. Fortunately, the Napoli forward could only connect with his thigh.

   Maitland-Niles worked hard, winning 2 of 4 tackles and making 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. He also led Arsenal starters with a passing accuracy of 85.7%, compared to 79.4% for Kolasinac, 60% for Torreira and 77.4% for Xhaka. But at the top level, winning key duels at both ends of the pitch is what really matters.

  1. It wasn’t Aubameyang’s night

   Aubameyang scored the winner against Watford but lacked a bit of freshness in Italy despite having 3 of 3 shots on target. The Gabon striker tried to be too clever in the 17th and was dispossessed by Koulibaly who launched a counterattack and created Napoli’s first scoring chance. Aubameyang finally had Arsenal’s first shot on target in the 30th with a tame volley from 20 yards. He should have doubled the lead in the 48th when Mkhitaryan squared the ball back. Completely unmarked, Aubameyang took his chance from 9 yards only to be denied by Meret. He escaped marking again to meet a corner at the far post in the 58th but his tame volley was easily saved by Meret. Emery might rest Aubameyang against Crystal Palace this weekend after starting him in the last 3 games in all competitions.  

  1. Cech’s experience made a difference

   The Czech goalkeeper made 2 big saves to keep a clean sheet. He stopped Callejon’s shot with his leg in the 17th and made a reflex save in the 80th to prevent an own goal by Monreal. As a former Chelsea player, Cech remembered a few lessons from Mourinho and was booked in the 74th for time wasting. For the next round, Cech will have to work on his distribution. His passing accuracy dipped to 34.2% against Napoli. Obviously, Cech doesn’t fit Emery’s style of play but he’s the only player in the squad who has won the Europa League.