Tag Archives: FA Cup

Gunners save season by downing Chelsea 2-1 in FA Cup final

Sanchez and Ramsey scored on Saturday to give Arsenal a record 13th FA Cup and make Wenger the most successful manager in that competition with a 7th title. The Gunners were complete underdogs before kickoff. I remember reading the Evening Standard on Friday and all their six pundits predicted a Chelsea victory. On the one hand, the Blues had no injured or suspended player and could therefore field a full-strength team. On the other, the Gunners were so badly crippled by injury or suspension that there was no defender on the bench.

FA Cup final

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

Wenger made a gutsy call by giving Mertesacker his first start of the season despite question marks over the match fitness of the German centerback. Koscielny’s suspension, Gibbs’ illness and injuries to Mustafi and Paulista also forced the manager to use Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback on the left flank. The key for Arsenal was to avoid playing a high defensive line that could expose Mertesacker’s lack of pace.

Tactically, the Gunners annihilated Chelsea’s strengths by using the same 3-4-3 system as Conte. They met twice in the Premier League this season. Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates stadium in September when both sides were playing with four defenders at the back. Conte then switched to a back three to beat the Gunners 3-1 in February. At that time, Wenger was still hesitating between his favored 4-2-3-1 formation and a more industrious 4-3-3 system. Those Premier League games became irrelevant on Saturday since the FA Cup final was the first meeting between Conte and Wenger in which both played a back three.

I wasn’t optimistic before the game. I thought Arsenal would be punished for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Holding’s inexperience. My only hope was the 2-1 win over Manchester City in the semifinals. Maybe we could win if the Blues missed their chances and the Gunners converted theirs. In the end, Arsenal showed more desire than Chelsea, making 23 tackles to 20 and 17 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website. The scoreline was quite misleading. The Blues were so badly outplayed that nobody would have complained if the Gunners had won 4-1 or 5-2.

Ramsey’s late runs

Arsenal capitalized on a spell of domination in the opening minutes to open the scoring with a controversial goal. Sanchez charged down a clearance from Kante and the ball hit the Chile striker’s arm before landing at the feet of an offside Ramsey. Luiz and Cahill froze while Ramsey let Sanchez take his chance. Sanchez flicked the ball past Courtois with the outside of his boot to put the Gunners ahead after three minutes.

The controversy was not so much about Ramsey’s offside position, since he didn’t play the ball, but about Sanchez’s handball. You can argue that Sanchez was simply trying to protect his face and that the handball was therefore unintentional. It’s not the first time that a referee has allowed a goal to stand despite a handball in the buildup. Trezeguet scored a similar goal in France’s 2-2 draw with Croatia at the Euro 2004.

Sanchez created the winning goal in the 79th by releasing Giroud down the left wing. Giroud made a cross for Ramsey, who headed the offering into the bottom corner. The understanding between Ramsey and Giroud made the difference on that play. Ramsey’s deep runs are hard to track for any defense. Kante lost track of Ramsey, who was able to find some space between Luiz and Alonso inside the box.

Chelsea struggled to mark Sanchez and Ozil because they have a lot of freedom in Wenger’s 3-4-3 system. As inside forwards, Sanchez and Ozil can find space between the centerbacks and the wingbacks. They can also drop back to exploit the space between the centerbacks and the midfielders. The main drawback of that formation is that Sanchez and Ozil can sometimes be isolated if there’s no support from the wingbacks or midfielders. That explains in great part their high turnover rate. Sanchez had 11 turnovers and Ozil 6, more than any other player according to whoscored.com.

Ozil’s work-rate

The reason why Sanchez and Ozil are considered world-class players is their reading of the game. They can see and make the right pass even under pressure. Sanchez initiated a counterattack in the 55th with a cross-field pass to Bellerin, who failed to find two Gunners at the far post with his cross. The Chile striker also slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was cleared off the line by Cahill in the 16th. It was a good effort since Ozil hit the ball with his weaker right foot. In the closing minutes, Giroud picked out Ozil, who cut inside Azpilicueta only to strike the near post.

Ozil finished the game with 3 key passes and worked harder than usual. The Germany playmaker made 2 tackles compared to none for Pedro and Hazard. He also played a key role in Arsenal’s passing game with 65 passes, second behind Xhaka’s 73. By contrast, Hazard made only 35 passes, fifth behind Azpilicueta, Luiz, Kante and Cahill in the Chelsea team. Sanchez made no tackle but disrupted the Blues’ passing game with 3 interceptions, tied with Monreal and Bellerin for the most by an Arsenal player.

Up front, Welbeck struggled with his finishing. He met a corner in the 19th for a header that crashed against the far post. Then Welbeck took a pass from Bellerin in the 30th and was denied by Courtois from a tight angle while a cross to Ramsey for a tap-in was the better option. On the bright side, Welbeck worked his socks off to cover Sanchez or Ozil when they were stuck high up the pitch. Giroud came off the bench in the 78th to set up Ramsey for the winner.

Moses’ dive

Ramsey has received a lot of stick this season and much of it was not deserved. First, injuries have marred his season. Ramsey never really had a good run of games to find his groove. And second, the few times Ramsey was fit, he had to play in a dysfunctional team. It’s only last month against Middlesbrough that Wenger found the right balance between defense and attack with the 3-4-3 formation.

In my eyes, Ramsey was Arsenal’s best player at Wembley. Ramsey didn’t get off to a good start by collecting a yellow card for pulling back Pedro in the ninth minute. But he grew into the game and was unlucky to chest the rebound against the post after Welbeck hit the woodwork in the 19th. Ramsey finished the game with 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 95.1%, the highest percentage among the starters. He also made 2 interceptions and won 60% of his duels and 2 of 3 tackles for an outstanding overall performance. Kante, Xhaka and Matic had a lower percentage for duels won, according to the club’s website. Xhaka’s focus on the defensive tasks allowed Ramsey to make his trademark late runs in the box. The Switzerland midfielder tested Courtois with a long-range volley in the 32nd.

The Blues were surprisingly lethargic in the first half. Maybe they took their foot off the pedal after celebrating their Premier League title. Chelsea played with more purpose in the second half and equalized after Fabregas replaced Matic in the 61st and Conte sent on Willian for Pedro in the 72nd. Somehow, Moses hurt the Blues’ chances by receiving two yellow cards. The first one was for a cynical foul on Welbeck in the 57th and the second resulted from a blatant dive to win a penalty in the 68th.

Holding as the weak link

Arsenal showed a lot of solidarity at the back to frustrate Chelsea. One defensive play in the 15th set the tone for the game: three Gunners united their efforts to block a shot from Costa. Mertesacker was dominant in the air, winning 5 duels. Only Cahill did better with 6, according to whoscored.com. On the ground, Monreal relied on his reading of the game to win 4 of 4 tackles, the most for any Gunner.

The wingbacks, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin, contributed defensively to keep Pedro and Hazard relatively quiet. Pedro still managed to get two chances by finding some space between Monreal and Mertesacker in the 39th and then between Ramsey and the centerbacks in the 59th. But each time Pedro missed the target.

In his return from injury, the Ox ran out of gas in the second half and was replaced by Coquelin in the 82nd. Bellerin was cautious in the first half and showed more audacity after the break. The Spaniard tested Courtois with a first-time effort from 18 yards in the 65th. Bellerin then led a counterattack in the 84th and dribbled past Luiz to fire a low strike wide of the far post.

Holding proved the weak link at the back. Chelsea’s best chances came from duels Holding lost. As Costa chased a long ball in the 28th, Holding tried to shield the ball for Ospina but was outmuscled by Costa, whose point-blank shot bounced off the Colombia goalkeeper. That was poor decision-making from Holding, who made a similar mistake against Manchester United three weeks ago by attempting a risky backpass instead of clearing the ball into touch. Holding was booked in the 53rd for an obstruction on Costa.

Wenger’s snipe

Chelsea’s equalizer in the 76th was the result of three Arsenal errors. First, Ozil lost possession to Luiz in midfield. Second, the Ox was late to stop Willian’s cross. And third, Holding was wrongfooted and struggled to change direction when Costa chested the ball down before pulling the trigger. TV Commentators claimed Ospina made a mistake because he got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. I thought that was harsh for Ospina because Costa’s 10-yard shot took a deflection.

The Blues nearly leveled in the 86th. Giroud sat too deep and failed to prevent Kante from hitting a ball over the top. Hazard beat Holding to the high ball and redirected it into the path of Costa, who chested the ball down and was denied by Ospina from 7 yards. Costa reacted more quickly than Mertesacker on that play. Ospina made two other key saves, stopping a long-range effort from Kante in the 49th and palming away a low strike from Moses in the 51st.

The Gunners have saved their season with that FA Cup title. Wenger couldn’t help having a snipe at the Arsenal board and the fans before and after the game. The French manager complained about the “lack of respect” and stressed how the “uncertainty” over his future affected the players. It’s now obvious that Wenger wanted some public backing from the board when the results were poor and the fans protested. In any case, that was a no-win situation for the board. If they had backed him, they would have antagonized the fans. By remaining coy, the board put Wenger under more scrutiny, which is what happened with Van Gaal last season at Manchester United. Ironically, both Wenger and Van Gaal finished fifth and won the FA Cup.

Papering over the cracks

Wenger also chastised the fans by stating that “once the game starts and you’re a fan, you stand behind the team.” He also added: “We played some games in a very hostile environment and I will never accept that.” It’s hard to disagree on that point. I think the best way for the fans to protest was to leave a lot of empty seats like they did against Sunderland. Demonstrations outside the stadium were OK but hostile chants and banners inside the stadium were wrong. What kind of player would like to stay in such a club?

The board will meet on Tuesday before announcing Wenger’s future. There’s some obvious tension between the board and the manager. It feels like the FA Cup is papering over the cracks of a disappointing season. The Gunners played 6 games and faced only 2 big teams (Manchester City and Chelsea) to lift the FA Cup, while Chelsea played 38 games and faced 5 big teams twice to win the Premier League. There’s no doubt that the Premier League is the more important competition and the 18-point gap between Chelsea and Arsenal is a reminder that the club needs more than one or two signings to contend next season. Wenger’s failures in the transfer market and in the assessment of the quality of his squad have been obvious in the past two years.

If the board has found a better manager, now is the perfect time to make the transition and maybe offer Wenger the position of sporting director. Otherwise, the board will have to say that it’s Wenger’s last contract in the hope that it could appease the fans with the obvious risk that protests could start again next season if the results are poor.

 

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FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Manchester City

The Gunners still have a chance of winning some silverware this season as they edged Manchester City 2-1 in the semifinals of the FA Cup on Sunday with a goal from Sanchez in extra time. They will face Chelsea in the final on May 27.

The Citizens were the better side, enjoying 69% of ball possession and having 20 shots compared to just 9 for Arsenal. They had two great chances to take a 2-1 lead in the second half but Cech tipped Toure’s volley onto the post in the 79th minute and Fernandinho’s header crashed against the bar in the 82nd. The Gunners proved the fresher side in extra time and their grit paid off as they won 57.4% of the duels according to the club’s website.

  1. Turnovers can be deadly

In a lot of sports, turnovers can prove the pivotal moment in a game. Turnovers can lead to a touchdown in American football, a try in rugby, a goal in handball, or two points in basketball because the transition from offense to defense is the most delicate situation to handle for a team. Somehow, they are inevitable because you can’t score without taking any risk. The key is to avoid taking excessive risks.

City capitalized on a Ramsey turnover to open the scoring in the 62nd. The Wales midfielder was dispossessed by Toure, who fed Aguero with a long ball. Aguero beat Monreal in a foot race to chip Cech. If you look at the screen capture below, Ramsey made the first mistake on that play.

FA Cup Manchester Aed

Three Gunners were waiting at the far post for a cross from Ramsey. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Ramsey had two obvious options following an Arsenal corner: make a short pass to Giroud in front of him or make a cross for Paulista, Koscielny and Holding at the far post. Instead, he decided to run into traffic and lost possession. Unless you’re Messi, there’s no way you can dribble past so many players in such a tiny space. That was really poor decision-making from Ramsey.

Monreal made the second mistake on that play by poorly positioning himself. He stood at the same level as Aguero, who’s faster than the Spaniard. See the screen capture below.

FA Cup Manchester Bed

Where Monreal should have stood when Arsenal played a corner. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

To compensate for his relative lack of pace, Monreal should have been a couple of yards behind Aguero. Monreal had a decent game, scoring the equalizer and leading all players with 4 successful tackles according to whoscored.com. But that positional mistake definitely cost his team a goal.

  1. Wenger relied again on a back three

The manager stuck with the 3-4-3 formation that helped Arsenal edge Middlesbrough 2-1 in the Premier League a week ago. Holding looked quite comfortable in a back three while Paulista had the best stats among the Arsenal centerbacks, winning 80% of his duels compared to 66.7% for Holding and 45.5% for Koscielny. Paulista was lucky to escape a booking for a cynical foul on Silva in the 13th and poorly marked Silva two minutes later as the Spain midfielder headed Aguero’s cross over the bar.

  1. Oxlade-Chamberlain was brilliant as a wingback

The Ox fully deserved to be named Man of the Match for his outstanding performance. He led Arsenal players with 3 key passes and led all players with 6 successful dribbles according to whoscored.com. The England international also won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage among all the midfielders according to the club’s website.

Giroud connected with a cross from the Ox in the 15th but headed the ball straight at Bravo. The Ox then set up the equalizer in the 72nd with a pinpoint cross that Monreal volleyed home. If you look at the screen capture below, Ramsey creates space for Monreal by distracting Navas with a run inside the area.

FA Cup Manchester Ced

Ramsey’s run prevents Navas from marking Monreal. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

At 23, the Ox is still a young player and I believe that playing in different positions will help improve his positional play and reading of the game. He has also played as a winger and central midfielder this season.

  1. The midfield is the soft spot in the 3-4-3 system

The Gunners were outplayed in midfield. Xhaka and Ramsey combined to win 2 tackles and make 2 interceptions compared to 6 tackles and 4 interceptions for Toure, Fernandinho and De Bruyne. It was quite embarrassing to see an old Toure boss the midfield for City.

The main problem with the 3-4-3 formation is that midfielders are exposed when they try to press high up the pitch. Ramsey did it in the 47th, allowing De Bruyne to enjoy a free run into the final third. It was then Xhaka’s turn to press high up the pitch in the 79th and his run in the City box gave Toure plenty of space to burst forward unchallenged for 50 yards. Toure found Sterling, whose shot was blocked, but the rebound fell to the Ivory Coast international who tested Cech with a long-range volley.

The Gunners have never really managed to implement an efficient pressing game this season, whether in the 4-2-3-1 system or the new 3-4-3 formation. City easily played the ball out from the back in the 21st minute of extra time and Bellerin prevented an equalizer by deflecting Delph’s effort wide.

One possible solution is to have Ozil and Sanchez help Ramsey and Xhaka in midfield. At Chelsea, Pedro and Willian drift inside to help Kante and Matic when the Blues don’t have the ball. Conte’s 3-4-3 system basically turns into a 5-4-1 in a defensive situation. But then, if Ozil and Sanchez help the midfielders, Giroud suddenly gets isolated up front. Sanchez and Giroud argued in the 30th after Sanchez’s pass to the Frenchman was intercepted. Sanchez thought Giroud was standing too high up the pitch. The same problem occurred in the 35th. Giroud won a header but there was no Gunner nearby for the second ball, so the Frenchman asked for more support.

  1. Arsenal benefited from the absence of video assistant referee

City should have taken the lead in the 40th when Aguero converted a cross from Sane. However, the goal was disallowed because the linesman thought the cross went out of play. Video replays showed that the ball did not entirely go behind the by-line. So the goal should have stood. Aguero was poorly marked by Koscielny and Monreal on that play.

  1. The Citizens struggle to defend set pieces

Arsenal and City have one thing in common: their poor defending of set pieces. The Citizens took a leaf out of West Brom’s playbook in the 82nd when Fernandinho made a run from beyond the penalty spot to meet a corner for a header that rattled the bar.

The Gunners should have been awarded a penalty on the stroke of halftime when Navas brought down Sanchez, who tried to connect with a free kick. Arsenal had another chance from a set piece in the sixth minute of extra time. Holding met a corner but missed the target from 5 yards. Five minutes later, the Gunners capitalized on an Ozil free kick to score the winner. Koscielny headed the ball across goal toward Welbeck, who missed his shot. But Sanchez beat Clichy to the loose ball to score from close range.

  1. Welbeck must do better in the final third

Welbeck should have scored that winner in extra time. He came off the bench to replace Giroud in the 83rd. His first chance came from a long ball in the 86th. Welbeck dribbled past Otamendi and fired wide from a tight angle instead of cutting the ball back for an unmarked Sanchez. In the 15th minute of extra time, Welbeck also headed an Ozil cross wide from 5 yards.

  1. Ozil should try to hit with his weaker foot

The Germany playmaker had a decent game with 2 key passes but he wasted a good chance in the 81st by refusing to shoot with his right foot in a good position. Ozil cut inside in an attempt to fire with his left foot and lost possession.

Arsenal vs. Lincoln City: A few thoughts on the 5-0 win

The Gunners bounced back from a humiliating Champions League exit by routing Lincoln City 5-0 on Saturday to reach the semifinals of the FA Cup. Wenger did not underestimate the Imps as he made only two changes to the side that was thrashed 5-1 by Bayern Munich on Tuesday, replacing Ospina and Monreal with Cech and Gibbs in the starting lineup. Even the bench looked strong with Ozil, Monreal, Coquelin, Iwobi, Perez, Paulista and Martinez available for substitutions.

Arsenal vs. Lincoln

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

Lincoln City, a club leading the fifth division of English football, put up a good fight for 45 minutes before the gulf in class showed in the second half. Arsenal enjoyed 77% of ball possession and had 23 goal attempts compared to 4 for the visitors. That sounds like a one-sided encounter but it could have been a different story if Walcott had not opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime.

  1. Walcott is still on fire

Just a few days after finding the net against Bayern, Walcott proved a live wire in the first half. He pounced on a clearance from the Lincoln defense in the 14th minute to fire a volley that hit the base of the post. The England international then got ahead of his marker in the 34th to take a pass from Sanchez and unleash a low strike straight at the goalkeeper. The Gunners capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to finally take the lead in the 45th. Gibbs teed up Walcott, who buried the ball into the bottom corner.

  1. Sanchez loves the game

Amid rumors of a departure this summer, Sanchez keeps giving everything on the pitch. Surprisingly, Sanchez’s body language was less negative than usual as he even applauded his teammates when they overhit a pass. The Chile striker was relatively quiet in the first half before coming to life in the second. He finished the game with 1 goal, 3 key passes, 3 tackles won and 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Ozil met a cross from Sanchez in the 68th only to head over the bar. Five minutes later, Sanchez evaded a tackle from Wood and made it 4-0 with a curling shot from the edge of the box. Sanchez set up Ramsey for the fifth goal in the 75th before rattling the bar with a free kick in the 86th.

  1. Giroud could play key role in run-in

In the first half of the season, Wenger played Sanchez as a centerforward while using Giroud as a super-sub. That tactical shift gave more pace to the offense but it also proved a bit one-dimensional since Sanchez is no threat in the air. In the past three games, the manager has switched back to the blueprint of last season by starting Giroud up front while moving Sanchez back to the left wing. Giroud’s performance against Lincoln City was a mixed bag. He converted Bellerin’s cross in the 53rd and also had an angled effort palmed away by Farman in the 50th. However, the Frenchman did not cover himself in glory with a tame chip attempt from 12 yards in the 51st and an air shot in the 53rd.

  1. The midfield is still a work in progress

Like in the Bayern game, Wenger used again an inverted pyramid with Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain playing as all-rounders in front of Xhaka, the holding midfielder. The manager had to change his plans in the 27th when the Ox picked up an injury. Wenger switched to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing the Ox with Ozil. Ramsey teamed up with Xhaka in central midfield for 34 minutes before the manager sent on Coquelin in the 61st for Xhaka, who got booked for a rash challenge on Rhead in the 24th. Was Wenger able to draw any significant conclusion from those three different midfield combinations?

  1. Ramsey is still a bit rusty

This has been a challenging season for Ramsey, who had to deal with a calf injury and two hamstring injuries. Definitely not the best scenario to build self-confidence. The Wales midfielder still made his trademark deep runs on Saturday but had only 1 of 6 shots on target. He met a low cross from Walcott on the stroke of halftime only to blaze over the bar from 15 yards. Ramsey managed to score in the 75th by controlling a cross from Sanchez to dribble past Farman and walk the ball into the net. His hyperactivity in midfield is perfectly tailored for an inverted pyramid. Ramsey doesn’t have Ozil’s passing skills but he makes more tackles and interceptions than the Germany playmaker while still being a goal threat.

  1. The fullbacks did a great job

Gibbs and Bellerin finished the game with two key passes each. They also won 70% and 75% of their duels respectively, according to the club’s website. Gibbs set up Walcott for the opening goal and had his cross diverted into his own net by Waterfall in the 58th for the third. Both Gibbs and Bellerin helped Arsenal stretch the Lincoln defense by making good use of the flanks. Gibbs could have scored in the 50th but headed Walcott’s cross over the bar.

  1. Referees lose credibility when they make inconsistent calls

Taylor is the infamous fourth official who had a beef with Wenger in the 2-1 win over Burnley in January. The row led to a four-game touchline ban for Wenger. The French manager kept his cool on Saturday although some of Taylor’s calls were dodgy. Arnold was not even booked for a stamp from behind on Sanchez in the ninth minute. And Sanchez did not get any free kick despite an obvious obstruction from Wood in the 36th. For a similar obstruction on Muldoon in the 37th, Koscielny received a yellow card. In the end, those poor calls did not affect the outcome because of the gulf in class between the two teams.

 

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-0 win over Sutton

Arsenal defeated Sutton United 2-0 on Monday to next face Lincoln City in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. It doesn’t make up for the humiliating 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League but it shows that the players still care about the club and their manager.

  1. The Gunners overcame nerves

The club was under heavy scrutiny after the defeat in Germany last week. The FA Cup tie at Gander Green Lane looked like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was a great opportunity to bounce back and restore a bit of confidence. On the other, a poor result would have made the atmosphere around the club even more toxic. Neutral fans and pundits were obviously rooting for the Yellows, who play in the fifth division of English football.

Sutton vs. Arsenal.jpg

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

It could have been a tricky match on Sutton’s artificial pitch, where the ball doesn’t bounce like it does on the grass. The game almost had a goofy feel with balloons rolling on the pitch and a streaker interrupting play after 11 minutes. The Yellows showed a lot of commitment, winning 60.5% of the duels according to Arsenal’s website. Two misplaced passes from Monreal to Iwobi in the opening minutes betrayed the visitors’ nervosity. With 10 men behind the ball, Sutton kept a compact shape until the 27th minute when the Gunners converted their first chance of the game.

  1. Perez deserves more playing time

The Spanish striker capitalized on a counterattack to break the deadlock with a low curling shot. He displayed a tremendous work-rate by making 3 tackles and winning 63.6% of his duels. In my eyes, Perez should be ahead of Walcott in the pecking order not just because he contributes more defensively but also because he has better passing skills.

  1. Walcott reached the 100-goal mark

The England international scored his 100th goal for Arsenal by stabbing home a low cross from Monreal in the 55th. That’s a lot if you compare with Aaron Lennon’s tally. And it’s not much when you know that he has been at the club since 2006. Pundits sometimes say that as a winger Walcott doesn’t get as many chances as a centerforward. But then Sanchez notched 25 goals from the left wing in his first season at Arsenal.

To a certain extent, Walcott embodies the limits of this club. He can produce a moment of magic with his trademark diagonal run. But he can also go missing from an entire game. Walcott has shown consistency at the top level only once in his career: that was in the 2012-13 season when he scored 21 goals for the club. He has a good shot at beating that total with 15 goals so far this season.

  1. Oxlade-Chamberlain must learn from his mistakes

The Ox gifted a goal to Bayern Munich by dribbling on the edge of his own area. He obviously failed to learn his lesson on Monday when he came off the bench to replace Elneny at halftime. Gomis initiated a fast break by dispossessing the Ox in the 77th. It took a clearance from Holding to end the threat.

At 23 and in his 6th season at Arsenal, the Ox is no longer a rookie. He definitely has the skills to play in central midfield but first he needs to cut his turnover rate and improve his passing accuracy. The Ox showed a glimpse of his talent by dribbling past two players in the 69th to make a teasing cross for Walcott who couldn’t make contact with the ball. Then the Ox forced a diving save from Worner with a curling shot in the 81st.

  1. Our goalkeepers are flawed

Cech struggled to stop long-range strikes last season and has already cost two penalties this season. That should be the perfect opportunity for Ospina to claim the starting spot in goal. Unfortunately, Ospina still can’t command his area. The Colombia goalkeeper was outmuscled by Bailey in the 6-yard box and beaten to the ball by Collins, who headed a corner over the bar in the 60th. And just like Cech gifted Chelsea a goal with a sloppy pass, Ospina had a poor pass intercepted by May, who fired wide on the stroke of halftime. For those who think that Szczesny is the answer, just remember his blunders and his attitude issues on and off the pitch.

  1. Reine-Adelaide shouldn’t be in the first team

The French teenager has a lot of potential but is really too soft. He was dispossessed 7 times, more than any other player according to whoscored.com, and won only 11% of his duels. Reine-Adelaide clearly doesn’t have the level to play in the Premier League. And after watching his performance against Sutton, you kind of wonder whether he would be strong enough to play in the fifth division of English football.

Arsenal should definitely loan him out to a lower-league club so that he can toughen up and add some physicality to his game. Otherwise we’ll keep having those “men vs. boys” comments that pundits made after the losses to Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Reine-Adelaide was replaced by Maitland-Niles in the 74th.

I have high hopes for Maitland-Niles and was disappointed not to see him in the starting lineup. He’s pretty much a holding midfielder a la Makelele and has more potential than Coquelin, who doesn’t have the tactical discipline for that role. In fact, I tend to see Coquelin more like a utility midfielder, a cheap version of Matuidi, who has limited skills like Coquelin but provides more end product.

  1. More sobriety needed for Holding

The English centerback must get rid of that habit of taking unnecessary risks. He thought he was Beckenbauer in the 85th and ran past Sutton’s attacking line to give away the ball with a poor pass. Holding was out of position when the Yellows hit Arsenal on the fast break. The ball fell to Hudson-Odoi, whose shot was deflected out by Mustafi. Holding was also late for a block attempt when Deacon smashed the bar with a 25-yard drive in the 65th.

  1. The Premier League is still the priority

The manager left Cech, Bellerin, Coquelin, Ozil, Giroud and Welbeck out of the squad while the injured Koscielny, Ramsey and Cazorla were not available. It won’t hurt to have 11 days of rest before the trip to Anfield Road. The Gunners need at least a draw against Liverpool, a direct rival for a Champions League berth, for the simple reason that the Reds have an easier run-in. A Top 4 finish is crucial to keep our best players and sign top talents this summer.

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 5-0 win over Southampton

Walcott notched a hat trick on Saturday and Welbeck opened his account this season with two goals as the Gunners thrashed Southampton 5-0 in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Last November, Arsenal lost 2-0 to the Saints in the League Cup after fielding a weakened team. The Gunners learned their lesson and picked a stronger starting lineup while Southampton preferred to rest some key players.

  1. Perez is such an underrated player

Arsenal signed Perez last summer because of his goalscoring abilities. But the Spaniard has tremendous passing skills too. He hit 3 accurate through balls out of 4, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. He also displayed a fantastic work-rate by winning 4 tackles.

fa-cup-southampton

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

In the role of a false nine, Perez helped create two goals with some nifty link-up play. He fed Welbeck for the opening goal in the 15th minute. Initially, the play didn’t look dangerous when Maitland-Niles found Perez back to goal. But Perez created some space behind the Saints’ backline by dropping back and he gave them no time to regroup by making a first-time pass. You can see Perez’s intelligence on the pitch as he spots Welbeck’s run before receiving the ball from Maitland-Niles. Welbeck then played a one-two with Perez before setting up Walcott for the third goal in the 35th.

Perez struck a good understanding with Welbeck at St Mary’s stadium just like he was on the same wavelength with Ozil against Ludogorets and with Giroud against Preston and Bournemouth. He made a teasing cross for Welbeck in the fifth minute but the England international couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Perez also teed up Bellerin, who shot straight at the goalkeeper in the 53rd.

  1. Maitland-Niles is the revelation of the season

Much like Bellerin enjoyed a breakthrough season two years ago and Iwobi broke into the first team last season, Maitland-Niles is the youngster who is knocking on the door of the manager with a string of good performances.

At 19, Maitland-Niles is already showing some smart positional play. He helped set a good tempo on Saturday by taking very few touches. His sober and clean performance as a holding midfielder allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain to focus on his playmaking duties. Maitland-Niles won 6 tackles and made 3 interceptions, the most for any player in both categories according to whoscored.com. He also made 79 passes, the most for any player, an obvious sign that his teammates trust him on the pitch.

If Maitland-Niles keeps performing at this level, he could leapfrog Elneny in the pecking order just like Bellerin got ahead of Debuchy and Jenkinson. Maitland-Niles stood on his feet to win a tackle inside the Arsenal area in the 44th. Knowing that Xhaka got sent off for some reckless challenges, it must be good news for the manager to see that Maitland-Niles does not dive in.

His reading of the game also saved the Gunners a couple of times. Long in the 51st and Sims in the 74th got the better of Mustafi, but each time Maitland-Niles covered the Germany international to either clear the danger or make a crucial block. He also came to Bellerin’s rescue when the Spaniard lost possession in the 56th.

Maitland-Niles seems more ready than Holding or Reine-Adelaide to join the first team. Holding still needs to iron out basic mistakes like taking unnecessary risks in his own half while Reine-Adelaide is a bit too soft for the Premier League despite showing his class with some stunning dribbling moves. The French teenager was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any Arsenal player.

  1. The Ox is a solid option in central midfield

Oxlade-Chamberlain really looked comfortable in the deep-lying playmaker role. He made 3 key passes, more than any other player, and slipped 2 accurate through balls out of 3. His passing range also helped the Ox hit 7 accurate long balls out of 8.

The former Southampton player created the second goal in the 22nd with a ball over the top for Welbeck, who ghosted past Stephens to beat Lewis. The Ox also played Perez clean through on goal with a long ball in the 89th, but the Spaniard was denied by Lewis. His delivery on set pieces was a mixed bag. The Ox wasted a free kick and a corner by overhitting the ball. On a more positive note, Mustafi met an Ox free kick in the 29th to head wide from six yards.

Some fans may wonder why the Ox is not playing more often in midfield. Competition with Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka is one obvious explanation. But another reason is the time it took for the Ox to mature as a player. In the past seasons, inconsistency combined with a high turnover rate and an average decision-making have prevented the Ox from claiming a starting spot in midfield.

The Southampton game was pretty much an audition for central midfielders since Coquelin and Ramsey are the only two players available now. Xhaka is serving a four-game suspension, Elneny is on national duty with Egypt and Cazorla may not return before April.

The Ox and Maitland-Niles formed a complementary duo. However, we shouldn’t get our hopes high too quickly. The Southampton midfield was poor. Also, there’s no guarantee that Maitland-Niles or the Ox will perform as well with a different partner in central midfield. For the next FA Cup game, Wenger could test again the tandem formed by the Ox and Maitland-Niles or experiment with a Ramsey-Maitland duo or an Ox-Coquelin duo.

  1. Sanchez is always hungry

Somehow, the manager couldn’t keep Sanchez on the bench for the entire match. The Chile striker replaced Welbeck in the 64th and showed his hunger by making two assists. He capitalized on a mazy run from the Ox in the 69th to cut the ball back for Walcott, who made it 4-0 with a low strike into the far corner. Sanchez then collected a long ball from Perez in the 84th and kept two defenders busy before picking out Walcott, who sealed the game with a first-time finish.

  1. Gibbs is not taking his chance

Monreal has had his ups and downs this season. Yet, Gibbs has not been able to snatch the starting spot at leftback. Monreal has made 20 starts in the Premier League compared to just 2 for Gibbs. Saturday’s game showed why. Gibbs gave away a cheap free kick on the edge of the box by tripping Long in the 32nd. The Saints then capitalized on silly turnovers from Gibbs in the 45th and 76th to start counterattacks.

  1. The Premier League is still the top priority

Wenger clearly had Tuesday’s game against Watford on his mind as he left regular starters like Cech, Koscielny, Coquelin, Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud out of the squad while giving some playing time to youngsters like Reine-Adelaide and Maitland-Niles and to second-choice players like Ospina, Holding, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Perez and Welbeck. The Gunners need a victory over Watford to stay in the title race.

  1. Wenger started serving his four-game ban

The manager watched the match from the stands and it made no real difference since Wenger is not a control freak like Conte or Guardiola. Bould proved just as quiet on the bench as the French manager usually is. On paper, Wenger mostly makes an impact on the game with the starting lineup, tactical adjustments at halftime and substitutions in the second half. The touchline ban did not affect Wenger’s influence on the team, especially since the Gunners were leading 3-0 at the end of the first half.

I thought the 10-game ban suggested by some pundits was simply ridiculous. Pardew was hit with a two-game suspension for pushing a linesman in 2012. A four-game ban looked like standard punishment for the small shove on Taylor in the 2-1 win over Burnley combined with the red card for dissent. It wouldn’t have made sense to punish Wenger with a 10-game ban knowing that Pardew was suspended for 7 games in 2014 for headbutting a player. In fact, it would have made the FA look bad to hit Wenger with the same 10-game ban Suarez got for biting Ivanovic in 2013. Comparing a shove with a bite, really?

  1. Mertesacker is back in the squad

Mertesacker sat on the bench at St Mary’s stadium after recovering from a knee injury he picked up last summer. The German centerback is a leader in the dressing room but I’m not sure he should be on the bench for a Premier League game. Mertesacker’s lack of pace makes the Gunners vulnerable on the fast break and prevents them from playing a high defensive line efficiently. Paulista’s decision-making can be dodgy, but I still think he would be a more valuable centerback as long as he plays alongside Koscielny. Putting Mertesacker on the bench would also mean slowing down Holding’s development.

  1. Improving the chemistry in the dressing room

There are a couple of days left before the end of the winter transfer window. It’s unlikely that the club will sign a new player this month. However, the Gunners should take advantage of that window to make some adjustments in the squad and get rid of grumpy players who want more playing time.

Debuchy is the big thorn in Arsenal’s side. A loan seems the most realistic option given his age and wages. Jenkinson is of no use either for the team as he has slipped behind Bellerin, Paulista and Maitland-Niles in the pecking order at rightback. Crystal Palace and Arsenal have agreed a deal but the move has stalled because of Jenkinson’s salary demands. The club might also consider loaning out Akpom and Reine-Adelaide to speed up their development.

 

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Preston

The Gunners overcame an embarrassing first-half performance on Saturday to edge Preston 2-1 in the third round of the FA Cup. The Lilywhites may ply their trade in the Championship, the second division of English football, they still managed to outplay Arsenal for 45 minutes. It was as bad as the 1-1 draw with Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

  1. An FA Cup game is about work-rate and desire

Preston took a leaf out of Bournemouth’s playbook by giving everything in the first half. The Lilywhites played at a high tempo and showed more commitment than Arsenal, whose lack of intensity was blatant. The Gunners looked like they were playing some kind of pre-season friendly. The poor defensive contribution from the attacking players allowed Preston to easily reach the Arsenal box on counterattacks.

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

It’s only after the halftime break that the Gunners fixed those issues. In the old days, Vieira, Petit or Gilberto Silva would have screamed at their teammates for their poor work-rate. I felt Xhaka and Ramsey should have said in the first half that they needed more defensive support. If there’s a lack of leadership on the pitch, then it becomes a liability because the best teams have players who can quickly spot problems and make adjustments without waiting for the manager to intervene. The Lilywhites parked the bus in the second half as they started tiring while Arsenal played with more purpose.

The Gunners’ first-half performance was so pathetic that Preston could have led 3-0. Hugill made a run in behind Monreal to collect a through ball from McGeady in the seventh minute. The Preston striker fed Robinson, who beat Ospina with a low strike. Arsenal lost three duels on that play as Monreal failed to intercept McGeady’s pass, Paulista missed his clearance and Mustafi was beaten to the ball by Robinson.

The Lilywhites nearly doubled the lead on a counterattack in the 22nd but Mustafi blocked Robinson’s header. Two minutes later, Paulista gifted Preston another chance with a poor offside trap. Robinson got away from Paulista to cross the ball for Hugill, who couldn’t make contact for a tap-in. Ospina kept the Gunners in the game by turning around the post a dipping drive from Pearson in the 25th. Mustafi then lost possession on the edge of the box with a poor first touch in the 36th but Gallagher’s lob attempt was cleared off the line by Monreal.

Fatigue played a role in Tuesday’s 3-3 draw with Bournemouth. That was not the case for Saturday’s game at Deepdale stadium since Arsenal had 3 full days of rest and Wenger made 5 changes to the side that played in Bournemouth with Ospina, Paulista, Maitland-Niles, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Perez replacing Cech, Koscielny, Bellerin, Coquelin and Sanchez in the starting lineup.

  1. Perez is a good value signing

The Gunners signed him for 20 million euros last summer. Perez has shown great work-rate as well as consistency in his performances after needing a couple of months to recover from an ankle injury and adapt to English football. He set up Giroud with a backheel flick for the winning goal in the 89th. What I like about Perez is that he’s technically more gifted than Walcott but also works harder. His attitude is spot on. He’s also more consistent than the Ox.

Perez has struck a good understanding with Giroud. He played a one-two with the France striker in the 16th before firing straight at Maxwell from the edge of the box. Giroud then volleyed home the Spaniard’s cross in the 77th but the goal was disallowed for offside. That kind of understanding is important for the team because Giroud heavily depends on good service to find the net.

  1. Giroud scores important goals

His late goal against Preston sent Arsenal into the next round of the FA Cup. Giroud has scored 9 goals in all competitions this season. Seven were game-changing goals. In the Premier League, he scored twice in the 4-1 win over Sunderland on Oct. 29. His first goal gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead and his second made it 3-1. Giroud also scored the equalizer in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United on Nov. 19. He then netted the winner in the 1-0 victory over West Brom on Dec. 26 and opened the scoring in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on Jan. 1 before salvaging a point in the 3-3 draw with Bournemouth. In the Champions League, Giroud made it 2-2 at Ludogorets before Ozil scored the winner. He also made it 1-1 in the 2-2 draw with Paris Saint-Germain. Basically, only his second goal against Sunderland and his equalizer against PSG did not directly yield points.

  1. Ramsey opened his account

In a season marred by injuries, Ramsey finally scored his first goal in the 46th. Iwobi held off three Lilywhites to buy time for Ramsey, who equalized from 18 yards. The shot was at a good height for Maxwell but simply had too much power.

Ramsey finished the game with 102 passes. Only Xhaka made more passes with 112. Ramsey is definitely a box-to-box player, not a playmaker. He made just 1 key pass, less than five other Gunners (Maitland, Mustafi, Perez, Iwobi and the Ox). His main strength is to make those deep runs and be in a good position to score. He played a one-two with Giroud in the 33rd but was reluctant to shoot with his weaker foot. See the screen capture below. Ramsey checked back before slipping the ball to Perez and the chance was gone.

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Ramsey’s shooting options with his left foot from 16 yards (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Wales midfielder also met a cross from Maitland in the 36th for a header that Maxwell saved. The Gunners need Ramsey to be close to his performance level of the 2013-14 season if they want to finish in the Top 4, especially since Cazorla won’t return before March. In modern football, midfielders who can both attack and defend are a hot commodity because they can make a big difference in transition plays.

  1. Welbeck is back

In his return from a knee injury, Welbeck came off the bench to replace the Ox in the 83rd. Welbeck nearly scored in stoppage time with a curling shot that Maxwell tipped over the bar. Although Welbeck played on the left wing, he’s a more interesting option up front because he’s the only forward in the Arsenal squad who can win headers and hold the ball up like Giroud.

  1. Maitland-Niles’ future is in midfield

The manager is looking for alternatives at rightback because Jenkinson and Debuchy are poor options if Bellerin gets injured. Maitland-Niles’ performance as a fullback was a mixed bag. He made 2 key passes and 8 tackles, more than any other Gunner, but he also failed to stop some dangerous crosses from McGeady. Maitland-Niles especially struggled to hit the brakes and turn quickly. It wasn’t as bad as Chambers but Maitland-Niles doesn’t look like a natural fullback. I believe ballwinner is his best position. Since Coquelin is sidelined by a hamstring injury, it would make sense to play Maitland-Niles as a defensive midfielder in the next FA Cup game.

  1. Some attacking players forget their defensive duties

Iwobi and the Ox made 2 key passes each but contributed little defensively. They made no tackle and were not tidy in possession with 7 turnovers each, according to whoscored.com. They must improve their work-rate if they want to become regular starters. Offensively, Iwobi had a decent game as he made the assist for Ramsey’s goal and fed Giroud in the 34th for a chip that sailed wide. The Nigeria international also tested Maxwell with a low strike in the 86th. By contrast, the Ox had a rough day as he tried to overcomplicate things instead of keeping it simple.