Tag Archives: Europa League

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

The Gunners started their Europa League campaign with a 4-2 victory over Vorskla to top Group E on Thurday, level on points with Sporting Lisbon. It was a more one-sided contest than the scoreline might suggest. The Gunners earned a fourth straight win in all competitions but they still haven’t kept any clean sheet this season.

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

Emery lifted the Europa League trophy 3 times with Sevilla. Of course, he’d like to lead Arsenal to glory in that competition but he’s also aware that the Premier League remains the top priority for the club. The Spanish manager therefore made 8 changes to the side that defeated Newcastle last weekend with only Monreal, Sokratis and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots.

  1. Aubameyang is more comfortable in the centerforward role

The Gabon striker has been less efficient under Emery than when he played under Wenger on the left wing. On Thursday, Emery played Aubameyang up front and the positional change worked wonders. Aubameyang met a cross from Iwobi to open the scoring with a sliding effort in the 32nd minute. That goal boosted Aubameyang’s confidence as he killed a counterattack with a sliding tackle on Kobakhidze in the 46th before creating a chance for Welbeck with a low cross in the 50th.

Aubameyang made it 3-0 in the 56th by taking a pass from Mkhitaryan to fire into the bottom corner from 20 yards. With a bit of luck, Aubameyang could have notched a hat trick. He cut inside 2 defenders on the stroke of halftime to curl a shot that hit the base of the post. Then he missed the target from 8 yards with an off-balance volley in the 53rd. Managers are usually reluctant to yank off a player on a hat trick. But Emery clearly had the Premier League game against Everton in mind as he replaced Aubameyang with Ozil in the 57th.

  1. Torreira shielded the back four

Vorskla had no scoring chance as long as Torreira was on the pitch. Despite his diminutive stature, Torreira was not afraid of playing physical. He even took a knock when Kulach made a late tackle in the fourth minute. In a solid all-around performance, Torreira made 2 key passes and took a free kick in the 38th that flirted with the post. His only blemish was a missed interception in the 12th but the Arsenal defense managed to clear the danger. Guendouzi replaced Torreira in the 57th and was late to make the block in stoppage time when Sharpar scored with the last kick of the game.

  1. Can Emery improve Iwobi?

Iwobi’s development stalled under Wenger. The poor decision-making and the lack of end product were the obvious weaknesses in his game. At 22, Iwobi still has room for improvement, but he will soon reach an age at which he should fulfill his potential. On Thursday, Iwobi led all players with 4 key passes, including an assist for the opening goal. It could have been 5 key passes if Elneny had not wasted a scoring chance with a poor first touch in the 22nd.

The Nigeria international is not the finished product yet. He still needs to work on his technique. Iwobi led all players with 9 turnovers, 4 more than any other Gunner according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy also dipped to 76%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal player. To his credit, Iwobi provided some width on the left wing while neither Mkhitaryan nor Welbeck stretched the Vorskla defense on the right wing.

  1. Mkhitaryan’s creativity made a difference

The Armenia international was involved in the first 3 goals. He led the counterattack for the opening goal, made the cross for Welbeck’s header in the 48th and found Aubameyang on the edge of the area for the third. A live wire in the final third, Mkhitaryan didn’t enjoy much success with his finishing. He was denied by Shust in the 45th and 58th, missed the target in the 47th and was let down by a poor first touch on the stroke of halftime, allowing the Vorskla goalkeeper to collect the ball.

  1. European football fits Sokratis

While Sokratis’ average pace can be exposed in the Premier League, the less frenetic pace of the Europa League plays to his strengths. Sokratis had a good game, leading Arsenal defenders with 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 1 block, according to whoscored.com. He covered Lichtsteiner in the 54th by making a timely tackle on Rebenok. The Greece centerback also created the fourth goal by sending a ball over the top in the 74th.

  1. Lichtsteiner is the second choice at right back

Arsenal fans sometimes complain about Bellerin, but there’s no way Lichtsteiner can dislodge him. Lichtsteiner was involved in the 2 goals scored by the weak Ukrainian side. He struggled to control a loose ball in the 77th and was dispossessed by Chesnakov who fired into the top corner. In injury time, Lichtsteiner failed to stop Rebenok’s cross for Sharpar, who cut the deficit to 4-2 with another powerful strike. On the bright side, Lichtsteiner found Ozil with a lobbed pass for the fourth goal.

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Atletico Madrid vs. Arsenal: A few toughts on the 1-0 loss

Wenger’s last season at Arsenal will definitely leave a bitter taste. The Gunners got knocked out of the Europa League after losing 1-0 to Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their semifinal tie on Thursday. The Colchoneros gave Arsenal a lesson in defending by limiting the visitors to just one shot on target. Now the Gunners have nothing to play for: they have been eliminated from every cup competition and can no longer finish in the Top 4 of the Premier League.

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

The French manager fielded the same team that started in the first leg. There was no surprise for Simeone, who has turned the Wanda Metropolitano stadium into a fortress: the Colchoneros haven’t conceded any goal at home since January. Arsenal never really looked threatening. They lacked penetration to crack a disciplined and compact Atletico defense. Oblak only had one save to make as he turned Xhaka’s long-range strike around the post in the 63rd minute. Defensively, the Gunners struggled to cope with Costa’s physicality and Griezmann’s movement.

  1. Dealing with long balls

Simeone was obviously aware that defending long balls was an Arsenal weakness. That’s how Griezmann scored the equalizer in the first leg. On Thursday, the Colchoneros repeated the trick in the opening minutes. Koscielny relied on his reading of the game to intercept a long ball for Costa in the fourth minute. But two minutes later, Costa ridiculed the Arsenal defense by controlling Oblak’s clearance and bullying Koscielny and Monreal to be clean through on goal. Fortunately, Ospina spread himself to force an off-target effort from Costa.

On the stroke of halftime, the Arsenal defense was all over the place when Oblak hit another long ball. Chambers outjumped Griezmann only to head the ball into the path of Partey, who found Griezmann with a first-time pass. Costa made a run in behind Bellerin to collect Griezmann’s pass and fire past Ospina for the winning goal. Chambers’ header was poor but he also made the mistake of not staying tight to Griezmann afterwards. Bellerin’s positional play was also questionable. Costa had a 5-yard lead over Bellerin when Partey made the pass. By playing in a too advanced position, Bellerin left Mustafi with a too large area to patrol.

  1. The stain on Wenger’s resume

Wenger is the most successful manager in the history of the club but you wouldn’t put him in the same class as Guardiola, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Ferguson, Benitez, Heynckes or even Simeone because he has never won any European trophy. The French manager had his best chances against Galatasaray in the 2000 UEFA Cup final and against Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final. There’s no shame in losing to a Spanish side that won the Europa League twice and reached the Champions League final twice in the past few years. But the comparison between Atletico’s budget and Arsenal’s resources tells you that Simeone has overachieved while Wenger has underachieved.

  1. The missing ingredient

Why did Arsenal struggle so badly to create chances? One reason was the poor quality of the final ball. Lacazette and Welbeck were deprived of service as they finished the game with 0 shot taken. The Gunners only made 2 accurate crosses out of 20, according to whoscored.com. And they didn’t produce any through ball whereas the Colchoneros had 2 accurate through balls out of 3. Starting on the right wing in a 4-3-3 system, Ozil had a poor game with only 1 key pass.

Here are a few plays that could have made the difference with a better final ball: Monreal made a poor cross for an unmarked Lacazette in the 15th; Bellerin overhit his cross for Welbeck in the 19th; and Ozil missed his cross for Welbeck in the 61st.

In a three-man midfield, Ramsey worked hard, leading all players with 7 tackles won according to whoscored.com. Ramsey even created the two best half-chances, picking out Lacazette and Monreal inside the Atletico area in the 27th and 32nd, respectively. Unfortunately, Lacazette and Monreal were both let down by a poor first touch.

  1. Arsenal shouldn’t count on Koscielny next season

Koscielny collapsed to the ground in the seventh minute because of a torn Achilles tendon and was replaced by Chambers in the 12th. It would be foolish from the staff to bet on a fit Koscielny for next season. The France centerback still has two years left on his contract but it could look like the last seasons at the club of Arteta, Rosicky and Cazorla. Mertesacker’s retirement, Koscielny’s nagging injuries and Chambers’ limitations mean that the club should sign 2 centerbacks this summer.

  1. Chambers is not good enough for Arsenal

At 23, Chambers may still have room for improvement, but two flaws in his game can’t be fixed: his lack of recovery pace and his inability to quickly turn. Costa dribbled past Chambers in the 67th to feed Griezmann, whose shot was deflected high in the air. Then Griezmann skipped past a diving Chambers in the 76th only to be dispossessed inside the area by Xhaka. Chambers was guilty on Costa’s goal and he gave away another chance in the 88th with a risky pass for Welbeck that Saul Niguez blocked. The loose ball fell to Torres, whose shot was parried by Ospina.

Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid: A few thoughts on the 1-1 draw

The Gunners threw away the lead with a defensive blunder in the closing minutes to draw 1-1 with Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their semifinal tie in the Europa League. Arsenal will have a lot of regrets after Thursday’s game: the Colchoneros aren’t that often outplayed.

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

The Spanish side was vulnerable on crosses and spent the second half under siege. Simeone was apparently happy to trail by just one goal as he made defensive substitutions after Lacazette’s opening goal, replacing Gameiro with Gabi in the 65th and Correa with Savic in the 75th. The lack of attacking options on the Arsenal bench was a relief for the Atletico defense. Mkhitaryan is still recovering from a knee injury while Aubameyang is not eligible. Wenger made no substitution, thinking that Nketiah and Iwobi could not bring anything to the team.

What can we expect for the second leg in Madrid? Obviously, there’s no way the Gunners can be as dominant as they were at the Emirates stadium where they enjoyed 76% of ball possession and had 28 shots to just 6 for Atletico. Scoring a goal would be quite a feat: the Colchoneros have kept a lot of clean sheets at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium this season. On the bright side, the Gunners have a good record in the knockout phase with a 2-2 draw in Moscow, a 2-0 win in Milan and a 3-0 win in Ostersund.

  1. Vrsaljko’s ejection was justified

The Atletico rightback earned a booking in the second minute after killing a counterattack with a cynical foul on Wilshere. Then Vrsaljko received a second yellow card for a nasty stamp on Lacazette’s ankle in the 10th. That was just his second foul of the game, but each foul definitely deserved a yellow card.

Simeone was infuriated when Bellerin got no booking in the 13th for sticking a foot between a player’s legs to flick the ball. That was an awkward challenge from Bellerin but nothing as cynical or violent as Vrsaljko’s fouls. In a show of petulance, Simeone punched the air with his fists. The referee interpreted that behavior as dissent and sent Simeone off. In that kind of situation, maybe a verbal warning to the Argentine manager would have been enough.

  1. The Gunners proved incredibly wasteful

Arsenal should have scored more goals on Thursday. Oblak is a world-class goalkeeper but he only made 2 outstanding saves. He palmed away a close-range header from Lacazette in the seventh minute and tipped around the post another header from Ramsey in the 87th. The rest was just routine saves. Arsenal’s shooting accuracy was poor: of their 28 shots, 13 were off target, 7 got blocked and only 8 were on target, according to whoscored.com. The main culprits were Lacazette (2 of 8 shots on target), Ramsey (3 of 8), Xhaka (0 of 4) and Ozil (0 of 2).

Lacazette should have opened the scoring in the sixth minute when he met a cross from Welbeck for a bouncing volley that clipped the post. He also headed a cross over the bar in the 16th and glanced a corner wide in the 69th. Other chances included a low strike from Welbeck that Oblak saved with his foot in the 18th, a miskicked effort from Koscielny in the 21st, a volley from Monreal that sailed wide in the 31st and a header from Ramsey straight at Oblak in stoppage time.

  1. Lacazette is a different beast in European games

Knowing that the Europa League final will be played in Lyon, his hometown, Lacazette was highly motivated against Atletico. Lacazette opened the scoring in the 61st by outjumping Godin and Hernandez to head a cross from Wilshere into the far corner. He led all players with 5 aerial duels won and showed some great work-rate by winning 3 tackles and making 5 key passes. Thursday’s game confirmed that Lacazette is better tailored for European football because it is less physical than the Premier League and there isn’t such a strong emphasis on aerial duels. You would never see Lacazette win so many aerial duels in the Premier League.

  1. A defensive cock-up every week

The Colchoneros’ equalizer reminded the fans why Arsenal won’t finish in the Top 4 of the Premier League: the Gunners can’t defend. There’s a cock-up every week. Last week it was Mustafi, the week before it was Cech, and last night it was Koscielny. In the 82nd, Griezmann chased a long ball from the Atletico defense, got the better of Koscielny, was denied by Ospina but fired the rebound into the roof of the net.

At the start of the play, Welbeck made the mistake of isolating himself. The nearest teammate, Ramsey, was 30 yards behind Welbeck. Instead of taking on 2 defenders, Welbeck should have waited for more support and played a simple pass to Ramsey. When Welbeck lost possession, it was a comfortable 3v1 situation for the Arsenal defense. Because Monreal and Mustafi played Griezmann onside, that quickly turned into a 1v1 situation. Koscielny had an opportunity to kick the ball out of play but he gambled and tried to chip the ball over Griezmann. That was poor decision-making. The ball bounced off Griezmann’s head and into the path of the Atletico striker, sudddenly clean through on goal.

Down to 10 men for 80 minutes, the Colchoneros gave Arsenal a lesson in defending. The Gunners struggled to find space in a compact Atletico defense. In fact, they couldn’t even produce any through ball. The Spanish side’s only glaring weakness seemed to be in the air.

  1. Questions for the Arsenal midfield

The Arsenal midfield will need to work harder in the second leg. The Colchoneros exposed our midfielders a couple of times. Griezmann was able to test Ospina with a half-volley in the 33rd because no one patrolled the edge of the box. Then Partey easily dribbled past Ramsey, Xhaka and Wilshere in the 37th to feed Griezmann, whose snapshot was parried by Ospina.

Ramsey will have to cut his turnover rate for the second leg. He led all players with 7 turnovers, compared to 1 for Xhaka and 0 for Wilshere, according to whoscored.com. Another concern is the midfield’s poor interception skills. Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka combined to make 0 interception compared to 14 for Partey, Koke and Saul Niguez. The Gunners have been obviously missing Elneny’s mobility. They will have to find a solution for the second leg.

 

CSKA Moscow vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 2-2 draw

Arsenal survived a scare on Thursday to qualify for the last 4 of the Europa League. Despite a three-goal advantage in the first leg, the Gunners were one goal away from elimination in the second leg of their quarterfinal tie. It took great passing skills from Elneny and cool finishing from Welbeck and Ramsey to draw 2-2 with CSKA Moscow.

CSKA Moscow vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

The Gunners will play in the semifinals of a European competition for the first time since 2009, when they got knocked out by Manchester United in the Champions League. It will also be their first semifinal in the Europa League since 2000, when they lost to Galatasaray in the final. The second-tier competition was then known as the UEFA Cup.

  1. How a few percent can make the difference

Subconsciously, teams lose a few percent in their level of intensity when they take a three-goal advantage into the second leg. That’s what happened to Barcelona against AS Roma in the Champions League on Tuesday. The Gunners nearly fell into the same trap. They lost duels in their own half and lacked movement in the final third. The opening goal in the 39th minute summed up the difference between the two sides. Elneny was left in a 1v2 situation and couldn’t block Kuchaev’s cross. At the far post, Nababkin outjumped Monreal for a header that Cech saved. And Chalov reacted more quickly than Mustafi to tuck the rebound home.

  1. Tactical moves can backfire

Down 1-0 at halftime, Wenger tried to protect Arsenal’s aggregate lead by shifting to a back three after the break with Elneny playing alongside Koscielny and Mustafi. The Gunners clearly lacked Elneny’s mobility in midfield on the second goal as neither Wilshere nor Ramsey closed down Golovin in the 50th. Cech palmed Golovin’s long-range strike into the path of Nababkin, who reacted more quickly than Monreal to pounce on the rebound and fire past Cech for a 2-0 lead. Wenger made up for his mistake by replacing Wilshere with Chambers in the 68th. Chambers played in the back three while Elneny teamed up with Ramsey in central midfield.

  1. Elneny had his best game of the season

The Egypt international was the only Gunner who rose to the occasion. Arsenal fans know Elneny as a utility midfielder, but not as a playmaker. On Thursday, Elneny won 2 tackles, made 1 interception, had 0 turnover and led all players with a passing accuracy of 94.3%, according to whoscored.com. But what really stood out was the 2 assists Elneny made. He slipped a through ball to Welbeck in the 75th and repeated the feat for Ramsey’s goal in stoppage time. Both assists were good examples of verticality and looked pretty similar: 15-yard forward passes. On current form, Elneny should be ahead of Wilshere in the pecking order.

  1. Wilshere and Lacazette performed poorly

There was no surprise with Wenger’s substitutions. The French manager yanked off the 2 worst Gunners on the pitch. Wilshere had no impact on the game. Defensively, Wilshere won 0 tackle and made 0 interception. Offensively, Wilshere made just 1 key pass although he played in a more advanced position than Elneny. By contrast, Ramsey made 3 interceptions and scored a goal. The more irritating part in Wilshere’s performance was his inability to cut turnovers. Vitinho dispossessed Wilshere in the 45th, 61st and 64th.

What was Lacazette thinking? The France international played in Moscow as if it was a friendly. Lacazette lacked end product (0 shot on target, 0 key pass) and showed poor work-rate (0 tackle won, 0 interception, 0 block). Lacazette preferred to jog quite a few times instead of closing down CSKA players. The quality of his runs in the final third was also questionable. In the closing minutes of the game against Southampton last weekend, I already noticed that Lacazette made it more difficult for Iwobi to find him by making runs at the far post. Wenger replaced an ineffective Lacazette with Iwobi in the 77th. Ozil fed Iwobi, who missed the target in the 88th with just the goalkeeper to beat. Iwobi will need to take some advice from Ramsey to improve his composure.

  1. Welbeck’s on fire

The England international has scored 5 goals in his last 5 games in all competitions. Welbeck has definitely increased his chances of participating in the World Cup this summer with those recent performances. His work-rate, his versatility and his efficiency are arguments that Southgate can’t ignore. I think Welbeck is a better option up front than on a wing because his passing skills are average. Welbeck wasted a counterattack with a cross slightly ahead of Ramsey in the 35th. He then overhit a through ball for the Wales midfielder in the 49th. But let’s give Welbeck some credit for initiating the goal that shattered the morale of the Russian side. Welbeck turned Nababkin and played a one-two with Elneny before shooting past Akinfeev in the 75th. He could have scored another goal in stoppage time, but the CSKA goalkeeper palmed away his shot.

 

Arsenal vs. CSKA Moscow: A few thoughts on the 4-1 win

The Gunners put themselves in a very good position to qualify for the last 4 of the Europa League by smashing CSKA Moscow 4-1 in the first leg of their quarterfinal tie. Ramsey and Lacazette scored 2 goals each on Thursday while Ozil was involved in every Arsenal goal.

Arsenal vs. CSKA

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

Because the Europa League has become more important than the Premier League, Wenger fielded his strongest team for that leg. There was no room on the bench for Nelson, Maitland-Niles and Willock. Arsenal found plenty of space against a Russian side that took the risk of playing a high defensive line. The scoreline was a bit flattering for the Gunners, who struggled to cope with Musa’s pace. CSKA Moscow could have scored 3 goals in the first half with some decent finishing.

  1. Ramsey’s golden touch

Almost everything Ramsey touched in the first half turned into gold. His deep runs are always a headache for any defense. Ramsey tucked home a low cross from Ozil in the seventh minute but his goal was disallowed for an offside position from Ozil. CSKA Moscow had been warned about the quality of Ramsey’s movement, yet they completely forgot to mark him two minutes later. Bellerin picked out Ramsey, who opened the scoring by guiding the ball past Akinfeev from 10 yards. Ramsey then beat the offside trap to make it 3-1 in the 28th. The Wales midfielder connected with a cross from Ozil to volley the ball over Akinfeev with an acrobatic backheel flick.

Paradoxically, Ramsey had easier chances afterwards but couldn’t convert them to notch a hat trick. He met a cross from Monreal in the 33rd for a header that lacked power to beat Akinfeev. In the 56th, Ramsey pounced on a rebound only to fire over the bar from close range. In the 77th, he took a pass from Iwobi to curl a shot that hit the post. And in the 85th, Iwobi fed again Ramsey, who missed the target with a low strike. Ramsey took 7 shots, 3 more than any other player. The only negative in his performance was his 6 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. If the Gunners want to win the Europa League, Ramsey will have to stay fit and avoid any suspension because he has become the heartbeat of this team.

  1. Ozil’s passing masterclass

The Germany playmaker can do a lot of damage if you give him space and time because he can see every passing option and execute properly. Ozil led all players with 5 key passes. He created the opening goal by releasing Bellerin down the right flank in the ninth minute. Then Ozil won the penalty for the second goal with a run inside the box in the 22nd. He played a one-two with Ramsey before Schennikov brought him down. Ozil also spotted Ramsey’s run for the third goal in the 28th and set up Lacazette for the last goal in the 35th.

The quality of Ozil’s delivery is not his only asset. He can create problems for a defense with his runs in the final third, too. In the season Sanchez played as a false nine at the club, Ozil often morphed into a second striker. Ozil met a cross from Xhaka in the 44th for a half-volley that sailed wide. And he took a pass from Iwobi in the 73rd for a low curling shot that Akinfeev saved.

  1. Lacazette is better tailored for European football

The Europa League is a familiar competition for Lacazette, who led French club Lyon to the semifinals last season. Lacazette gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead by converting a penalty in the 23rd. The France international then controlled Ozil’s cross in the 35th to bury the ball into the bottom corner with his weaker left foot. Wenger sent on Welbeck for Lacazette in the 74th and Welbeck nearly found the net in the 84th by diverting Ramsey’s cross with his shin, forcing a reflex save from Akinfeev. I believe Lacazette will perform better as a centerforward in the Europa League than in the Premier League because the Europa League is less physical and there isn’t such a strong emphasis on aerial duels.

  1. It wasn’t Mkhitaryan’s day

Mkhitaryan missed the target from good positions in the 4th and 47th minutes. His best effort was a low drive that Akinfeev parried in the 56th. Then Mkhitaryan picked up a knee injury after a poor challenge from Schennikov in the 58th and was replaced by Iwobi in the 61st. It might just be a knock but if it’s a serious injury, that would definitely be a blow for Arsenal’s chances in the Europa League because they have very few creative players left in the squad: Sanchez is gone while Cazorla has been ruled out for the rest of the season.

  1. Silly fouls can prove costly

In the previous round, the Gunners got away with a lot of cheap free kicks on the edge of box against AC Milan. They had no such luck against CSKA Moscow. In the 15th, Koscielny barged into Golovin, who was trying to control a high ball. The Russian midfielder curled the ensuing free kick into the top corner to level the game. In the end, that equalizer didn’t matter, but it would have been a different story against a team like Atletico Madrid.

  1. Wilshere must change his game

He proved the weak link in midfield with a lack of end product (0 shot, 0 key pass) and a passing accuracy of 73%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal outfield player according to whoscored.com. Wilshere must realize that he doesn’t have the pace or skills to dribble past several opponents. He wasted a counterattack in the 37th by carrying too much the ball instead of releasing an unmarked Ozil down the right flank. Wilshere was again dispossessed in the 40th and 53rd while making dribbling runs. If he sticks to that stubborn approach, Wilshere won’t survive in the Premier League.

Wenger sent on Elneny for Wilshere in the 74th to protect the lead. Wilshere’s average performances mean that Iwobi could get back in contention for a starting spot. Iwobi and Wilshere don’t play in the same position but the manager could still tweak his formation. In his 30-minute cameo, Iwobi managed to make 2 key passes. The Nigeria international had a golden chance to score in the 67th but he seemed to hesitate between a shot and a pass. The ball fell to Lacazette at the far post, who fired across goal.

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

Who would have thought that Europa League games could be more exciting to watch than the Premier League? The Emirates stadium was packed on Thursday night when Arsenal defeated AC Milan 3-1 in the second leg of their last 16 encounter to reach the quarterfinals of the second-tier European competition. There were fewer empty seats than in the domestic games against Manchester City and Watford.

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

Wenger and Ramsey have recently complained about the poor attendance for Premier League games, but it just reflects the cold reality of the club’s season. After 29 games, the Gunners were trailing fourth-place Spurs by 13 points. There had never been such a massive gap between Arsenal and the Top 4 under Wenger. The previous low after 29 games was a 4-point gap during the 2012-13 season. The fans have realized that there’s nothing to play for in the Premier League. By contrast, the Europa League is the club’s only chance left to lift some silverware and even qualify for the Champions League next season.

  1. Welbeck put an end to his goal drought

Southgate gave Welbeck some good news a few hours before the Milan game by including him in the England squad for the friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy later this month. That clearly boosted Welbeck’s confidence as he found the net for the first time since Jan. 7.

Welbeck was arguably Arsenal’s best player with 3 of 3 shots on target, 2 key passes and only 1 turnover, according to whoscored.com. He tested Donnarumma with an angled strike in the 25th minute before winning a penalty in the 38th. Rodriguez put his arm across Welbeck’s chest and the England international fell to the ground. It was a soft penalty since Welbeck could have stayed on his feet. But you can also argue that Rodriguez put him off his stride, preventing Welbeck from squaring the ball back. Welbeck coolly converted the spot kick to level the game. In the closing minutes, Welbeck headed in a rebound to make it 3-1.

  1. Koscielny picked up a back injury

The France defender collided with 2 Rossoneri while heading a corner over the bar in the fifth minute. Koscielny could no longer properly run and had to be replaced by Chambers in the 11th. Silva ghosted past Chambers in the 59th to make a cross for Cutrone, who volleyed wide. Then Chambers was not tight to Silva, whose header took a deflection off Mustafi and got tipped over the bar by Ospina in the 77th. In his post-match news conference, Wenger said it wasn’t a serious injury. But it’s still a reminder that the Gunners need to sign at least one centerback this summer to make up for Mertesacker’s retirement, Koscielny’s fitness issues and the weak level of Chambers and Holding.

  1. Xhaka is not a holding midfielder

A quick look at the stat sheet would give you the impression that Xhaka had a good game while in fact his performance was a mixed bag. Xhaka made it 2-1 in the 71st with a long-range strike that Donnarumma palmed into his own net. He also led all players with 82 passes and had a passing accuracy of 93.9%, according to whoscored.com. The real problem here is Xhaka’s defensive contribution: he won 0 tackle, was late to block Calhanoglu’s dipping drive in the 35th and allowed Kalinic to ghost past him and head Bonucci’s cross in the 68th. If Xhaka plays in a three-man midfield, he needs to have a defensive midfielder behind him otherwise the Arsenal defense will have no protection.

  1. Monreal had a rough night

In his return from injury, Monreal struggled in the first half. Borini made a run in behind Monreal to make a cross for Silva, who fired into the side-netting in the opening minute. Then Suso skipped past Monreal in the seventh minute but his cross sailed out of bounds. Monreal led all players with 5 fouls and got booked on the stroke of halftime for a poor challenge on Suso.

  1. Ozil shines against the weak and average teams

The Germany playmaker led all players with 6 key passes. He set up Ramsey in the 37th for a low strike that Donnarumma palmed away. Then Ozil found Mkhitaryan in the 50th for a first-time effort that the Milan keeper turned around the post. Wenger yanked Ozil off in the 79th to send on Kolasinac and switch to a back three. Ozil seemed upset by his substitution but the priority after Xhaka’s goal was to shut up shop. He will have more occasions to shine in the Europa League this season. I still think his work-rate is not good enough for a contending team, especially when you compare his stats with Eriksen, De Bruyne, and D. Silva. But the quality of his final ball definitely makes a difference against the weak and average teams.

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

The Gunners made a big step toward qualifying for the quarterfinals of the Europa League by defeating AC Milan 2-0 in the first leg of their last 16 encounter. Obviously, we shouldn’t take qualification for granted after the 2-1 loss in the previous round against Ostersund. Thursday’s result also shows that Wenger hasn’t lost the dressing room yet as Arsenal produced a good performance to snap a four-game losing streak in all competitions.

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

It was weird to see the Gunners play AC Milan because there are a couple of parallels between those two clubs. AC Milan used to contend each season for the Serie A title but their fall from grace was so brutal that Champions League football is no longer a gimme. In fact, the Rossoneri haven’t qualified for the top European competition since the 2012-13 season. AC Milan also used to play some spectacular football under Sacchi, Capello and Ancelotti. Now the Rosseneri are a technically average team, struggling to convert spells of domination into goals. AC Milan had 16 shots to 8 for Arsenal, but the Gunners tested Donnarumma 4 times while the Rossoneri caught the frame only once.

  1. Ramsey has become the heartbeat of the team

Last season, Arsenal depended on Sanchez to score goals and create plays. Now Ramsey has become the key to unlock the team’s offensive potential since the Chile striker’s departure. Ramsey initiated the opening goal with an interception in the 15th minute. The Wales midfielder then made it 2-0 on the stroke of halftime with a perfectly timed run, rounding Donnarumma to slot the ball into an empty net. His movement, work-rate and composure definitely make a difference in the final third. The only blemish in Ramsey’s performance was the fouls he made on the edge of the Arsenal box. The Gunners could have paid a hefty price with a free-kick specialist like Calhanoglu. Ramsey was also harshly booked for a high foot in the 71st.

  1. Ozil and Mkhitaryan can play together

Smart players are always able to strike an understanding. Mkhitaryan set up Ozil for the third goal against Ostersund last month. Ozil returned the favor on Thursday by finding Mkhitaryan with a first-time pass in the 15th. Mkhitaryan cut inside and beat Donnarumma with a shot that took a deflection off Bonucci. The Armenia international could have added another goal in the 45th but his curling shot hit the bar. Ozil had 2 assists as he also played Ramsey clean through for the second goal. The manager shifted to a back three in the 80th by yanking off Ozil to send on Holding.

  1. Chambers is a liability

I still don’t understand why Wenger is so fond of Chambers. The English defender was turned like a roasted chicken against Ostersund and Manchester City. Izquierdo also had Chambers in his pocket at Brighton. Yet, the manager rewarded Chambers with another start. Calhanoglu has average pace but he still managed to make several runs in behind Chambers. With a passing accuracy of 65%, Chambers had the lowest percentage of all the Arsenal players. Chambers gave the ball away to Calhanoglu with a poor clearance in the 10th but Cutrone wasted the chance with an off-target effort. His slow first steps help explain why Chambers couldn’t block Bonaventura’s curling shot in the 37th and 12-yard strike in the 52nd. Chambers seemed to have a bout of cramping in the 84th and was replaced by Elneny.

  1. Arsenal might be facing a fullback crisis

Monreal and Bellerin were not available for the Milan game because of a sore back and a knee inflammation respectively. Kolasinac had to come off the field in the 62nd as Maitland-Niles took over at leftback. It might just be a knock, but it could also be a recurrence of Kolasinac’s hip injury.

  1. Wilshere’s turnover rate is an issue

In his dreams, Wilshere must be some kind of English Maradona. But on the field, his overconfidence in his dribbling skills leads to many turnovers. Wilshere was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. It’s time for him to realize that he has lost a bit of pace after recovering from injuries. Wilshere must tweak his game otherwise he’ll go nowhere if he keeps playing like the 18-year-old Wilshere. That also explains why the club is playing hardball in the negotiations over his contract, which is expiring this year.

  1. Ospina’s quick legs saved the day

The Arsenal defense will have to deal better with through balls in the second leg. The Rossoneri played Cutrone and Kalinic clean through in the 41st and 83rd, but each time Ospina beat the Milan forwards to the ball. There was also a 50-50 ball in the 12th when Calhanoglu made a run in behind Chambers. Ospina couldn’t win the ball but he was smart enough to keep his hands to himself and avoid a penalty. The only blemish in Ospina’s performance was his failure to command the 6-yard box in the 44th when Bonucci met a Calhanoglu corner but couldn’t guide his header goalward.

  1. Welbeck still can’t score

It’s not as bad as Cech’s elusive 200th clean sheet in the Premier League, but it’s still a concern. Welbeck hasn’t found the net since the Nottingham Forest game in early January. Welbeck didn’t miss any sitter. In fact, he didn’t get much service and had to create his own chances. Welbeck made an interception in the 42nd and swapped passes with Mkhitaryan before testing Donnarumma with an angled effort. Then Welbeck smelt blood in the 49th when Kessie made a risky backpass. Welbeck beat Donnarumma to the ball but had his effort blocked by the Milan goalkeeper with the ball bouncing wide of the goal.

However, you can never fault Welbeck for his work-rate. The English forward was selfless, setting up Chambers for a long-range strike in the 42nd and picking out Mkhitaryan with a crossfield pass in the 45th. He even covered Ozil in the 73rd when Calabria made a cross that sailed out of bounds.