Tag Archives: Europa League

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.    

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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.

Arsenal vs. Napoli: A few thoughts on the 2-0 win

   The Gunners took control of their Europa League tie on Thursday by sinking Napoli 2-0 in the first leg of the quarterfinals. Ramsey opened the scoring with a low strike in the 14th minute before Torreira doubled the lead with a shot that took a big deflection off Koulibaly in the 25th.

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

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Everton last weekend with Aubameyang, Ramsey, Torreira, Koscielny and Cech replacing Mkhitaryan, Guendouzi, Elneny, Mustafi and Leno in the starting lineup. Koscielny was making his return from a foot injury while Xhaka was left out of the squad because of a groin injury.

   Napoli enjoyed 58% of ball possession but Arsenal proved the more threatening team with 17 shots compared to 8 for the visitors. The Gunners pressed high up the pitch in the first half to prevent the Gli Azzurri from finding their rhythm. Arsenal couldn’t press as hard in the second half, giving Napoli more time on the ball. The best chances for the Italian side came from the same type of play: no pressure from the Gunners on the ballholder, who hits a ball over the top.  

  1. Ramsey is enjoying his peak years

   Playing alongside Torreira in central midfield, Ramsey created a lot of problems for the Napoli defense with his movement and late runs into the box. The Wales midfielder had a shot blocked by Koulibaly in the seventh minute before finding the net with a first-time effort into the bottom corner a few minutes later. Ramsey also tested Meret with an angled strike in the 37th, an awkward volley in the 45th, and a powerful drive in the 59th. There were only 2 blemishes in Ramsey’s performance: the stray pass that led to Mario Rui’s long-range effort in the 42nd; and the big chance that Ramsey missed from 9 yards in the 81st.

   In his first years at the club, Ramsey was often criticized for neglecting his defensive duties to chase personal glory. That kind of criticism was harsh because Ramsey didn’t read the game as well as he does now. For instance, he had a tendency to hold onto the ball too long whereas nowadays he’s more economical with his touches and moves the ball more quickly. Wenger also didn’t use Ramsey in the most optimal way. I am convinced Ramsey would have definitely flourished in a three-man midfield alongside Torreira and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Besides his goal, Ramsey put in a shift on Thursday, winning 1 of 2 tackles and making 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.

  1. Torreira was hungry

   Because of a three-game ban in the Premier League, Torreira had not played with Arsenal since the 3-0 win over Rennes four weeks ago. The Uruguay midfielder produced a solid performance, winning 2 of 2 tackles, making 2 key passes and 2 interceptions and having only 1 turnover. Torreira was a key component of Arsenal’s pressing game. He created the second goal by dispossessing Ruiz in midfield and bursting forward. His energy levels dipped in the second half, forcing Emery to replace him with Elneny in the 77th.  

  1. Arsenal’s left flank is vulnerable

   The Napoli staff must have spotted that weakness since the Gli Azzurri targeted the left side of the Arsenal defense. Monreal and Kolasinac combined to have 5 turnovers compared to just 2 for Sokratis and Maitland-Niles, according to whoscored.com. Kolasinac’s offensive contribution can’t be denied: he led all players with 3 key passes. But his poor defensive awareness and positional play have put the Gunners in trouble. It’s no coincidence that Wenger preferred to use Oxlade-Chamberlain in the left wingback position.

   Callejon made a run in behind Kolasinac to collect a long ball from Allan on the stroke of halftime. The Spanish winger cut the ball back for Insigne, who fired over the bar from 12 yards. Then Monreal misjudged a long ball in the 48th as Insigne made a run in behind. But Koscielny was able to drift to his left to cut out Insigne’s final ball. Napoli’s best chance came in the 72nd when Kolasinac failed to close down Callejon, who hit a ball over the top for Insigne. The diminutive Italian forward made a run in behind Monreal to square the ball back for Zielinski, who missed the target from 6 yards. The Gunners will need to work harder on the training ground if they want to fix that defensive problem before the second leg.

  1. Maitland-Niles loves the Europa League

   The academy graduate shone again on the European stage four weeks after his outstanding performance against Rennes. Maitland-Niles won 2 of 2 tackles, had 1 of 2 shots on target and made 2 key passes and 2 interceptions. He initially struggled in the opening minutes, letting Zielinski run past him in the 11th and sending a crossfield pass into touch in the 14th. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and teed up Ramsey for the opening goal in the 14th. He also nearly scored in the 69th with a bouncing volley that Meret tipped over the bar. The only blemish in Maitland-Niles’ performance was his passing accuracy of 66.7%, the lowest percentage for any outfield starter, and well below Kolasinac’s passing accuracy of 76.6%.  

  1. The Arsenal strikers struggled again

   Lacazette and Aubameyang were anonymous against Everton and barely did better against Napoli. The French striker performed poorly, having 0 shot on target and leading all players with 7 turnovers according to whoscored.com. His most embarrassing moment came in the 33rd when Aubameyang set him up. With his weaker left foot, Lacazette produced an air shot.

   At least, Aubameyang limited the damage with 3 turnovers and 3 of 5 shots on target. But he was far from clinical. His first-time effort in the 26th was too tame to trouble Meret. Aubameyang then attempted a lob in the 41st when a cross would have been a better option. On a counterattack in the 88th, Mkhitaryan fed Aubameyang who fired wide from 15 yards. Aubameyang’s most decent effort was a long-range strike that Meret spilled before gathering the rebound in the 39th.  

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

   The Gunners qualified for the quarterfinals of the Europa League by thrashing Rennes 3-0 in the second leg on Thursday. Arsenal, Chelsea, Napoli and Valencia are among the favorites left in the draw. Relying on the team that defeated Manchester United last weekend, Emery made only 2 changes with Mustafi replacing a suspended Sokratis while Cech got the nod over Leno. It was a physical game with a lot of duels and challenges. There were 29 fouls committed and that total could have been higher with a stricter referee.

Arsenal vs. RennesPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal got off to a flying start. Maitland-Niles picked out Ramsey, who made a blind cross for Aubameyang in the fifth minute. From 3 yards, Aubameyang converted the cross to open the scoring. Aubameyang then improvised a one-two with Ramsey before making a cross toward the far post where Maitland-Niles doubled the lead with a downward header in the 15th. TV replays showed Aubameyang was in an offside position. The goal stood because the VAR system will only be used for the Europa League final. The Gunners sealed the win in the 72nd when Mkhitaryan swapped passes with Ramsey and Aubameyang before releasing Kolasinac down the left flank. Kolasinac made a pinpoint low cross that Aubameyang tapped home.

   Rennes had a spell of domination in the beginning of the second half and nearly cut the lead to 2-1 when Niang’s low drive hit the post in the 47th. The French side threw the kitchen sink at Arsenal in the closing minutes with dangerous runs from Ben Arfa but offside calls saved the Gunners.

  1. Ramsey aging like fine wine

   The Wales midfielder showed his creative side, leading all players with 3 key passes. Ramsey set up Aubameyang for the opening goal and would have made a second assist if the Gabon striker had not missed a big chance in the 83rd. Spectators could see Ramsey’s passing range and vision through two half-chances. Lacazette chased a long ball from Ramsey in the fourth minute but Koubek beat the French striker by a split second to clear the danger. Ramsey then played the ball to Aubameyang along the touchline in the 50th. Aubameyang rounded Koubek but his cross for Lacazette was caught by the Rennes goalkeeper.  

   A few years ago, Ramsey lacked discipline in the role of a central midfielder. Now, he’s smarter in his reading of the game and more selective with his forward runs. His only scoring chance came in the 39th when Lacazette teed him up for a shot straight at Koubek. Defensively, Ramsey was tidy in possession with only 1 turnover compared to 3 for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The workload was more evenly distributed than against Manchester United. Ramsey won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception, Xhaka won 3 of 3 tackles and made 2 interceptions and Ozil won 2 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception.  

  1. Lacazette’s short fuse

   The French striker had an off day with 0 of 3 shots on target. One play in the 36th summed up his struggles on the pitch. The Gunners were hitting Rennes on the fast break and Lacazette should have delivered the final ball to his right. But Lacazette looked to his left and picked out Kolasinac in an offside position.

   Lacazette was allowed to play against Rennes because UEFA reduced his three-match ban to two games. You would think that Lacazette would be more careful after his ejection in Belarus. But he wasn’t. Lacazette got booked in the 31st for a rash tackle on Andre. And he nearly received a second yellow card in the 55th for a block attempt on Bensebaini, catching the defender’s foot with his follow-through. It was quite a relief when Emery replaced Lacazette with Iwobi in the 69th.  

  1. Aubameyang should have notched a hat trick

   The Gabon striker finished the game with 2 goals and 1 assist. But he also missed two big chances in the closing minutes. Aubameyang poked the ball wide in the 82nd after Iwobi had played him in. A minute later, Ramsey fed Aubameyang, who missed the target again by miskicking the ball from 8 yards. Aubameyang received a yellow card in the 73rd for wearing a Black Panther mask to celebrate his goal. He won’t be suspended for the next round but will need to be careful because yellow cards only expire on completion of the quarterfinals.      

  1. The wingbacks were on fire

   Maitland-Niles made the penultimate pass for the opening goal and netted the second goal while Kolasinac made the assist for the third goal. The Gunners have maybe found the balance on the flanks that has been missing since Bellerin’s injury. Jenkinson is a limited player while Lichtsteiner and Mustafi contribute very little offensively. It’s a big challenge for Maitland-Niles because he’s only 21 and consistency is still an issue at that age. Maitland-Niles showed outstanding work-rate, making 2 interceptions and leading all players by winning 5 of 6 tackles, according to whoscored.com. Among the highlights, Maitland-Niles made a sliding tackle on Ben Arfa in the 22nd while Kolasinac blocked Sarr’s close-range effort in the 61st.  

  1. Mustafi was the weak link at the back

   The German defender was caught in possession on the edge of the box in the 47th, offering Rennes their best scoring chance of the game. He also gave the ball away in the 67th but the French side couldn’t capitalize on that blunder. Technically, Mustafi was very poor with a passing accuracy of 62%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters according to whoscored.com. Assuming Holding’s rehab goes according to plan, the Gunners should sell Mustafi this summer to boost their transfer kitty.