What do you do when Plan A is not working? Well, you simply switch to Plan B.
Wenger’s main innovation this season has been to play the diminutive Sanchez in the centerforward role. That Plan A has helped Arsenal crack defenses with intricate plays on the ground. The obvious side effect has been Giroud’s relegation to the bench. However, recent losses to Everton and Manchester City have exposed the limits of Plan A. For Monday’s game against West Brom, the manager switched back to last season’s blueprint, Plan B, with Giroud leading the line and Sanchez on the left wing.
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This was Giroud’s first start in the Premier League this season. Yet, his teammates barely noticed him in the first half. Giroud somehow expressed his frustration with the lack of decent service by receiving a yellow card for dissent in the 43rd minute. I guess it took a while for Arsenal to rediscover how to play with Giroud up front. In the 56th, Sanchez finally made one good cross for Giroud, whose header lacked power to trouble Foster. Three minutes later, Giroud took a pass from Ozil and fired a low diagonal strike that Foster saved with his leg.
It looked like the Gunners were about to extend their poor run of form by dropping two points at the Emirates stadium against an average side. But Giroud held off McAuley in the 86th to meet a cross from Ozil and send a looping header into the top corner. That 1-0 victory helped Arsenal stay fourth in the standings, 9 points behind leader Chelsea and 4 points clear of Manchester United.
The Gunners definitely proved more threatening against the Baggies than in their two previous games. They created 21 chances compared to 2 for the visitors, according to Squawka. They also had 11 shots on target compared to just 1 for West Brom.
Injecting pace around Giroud
Arsenal fans often complain about Giroud’s lack of pace. At the Euro 2016, France manager Deschamps found a solution by putting pacy players around Giroud. France reached the final of that tournament by using a 4-4-2 formation with Griezmann and Giroud up front, Payet on the left wing, and Coman or Sissoko on the right wing.
There are similarities between the Gunners and the France team. Sanchez and Griezmann are both strikers although Griezmann plays behind Giroud for France while Sanchez plays on the left wing for Arsenal. Likewise, Ozil and Payet are both creative players but Payet roams on the left wing for France while Ozil pulls the strings behind Giroud. On the right wing, Deschamps alternates between a winger, Coman, and a midfielder, Sissoko, just like Wenger has the choice between Walcott, Ramsey and Iwobi.
Giroud is obviously the difference between Plan A and Plan B. Plan A deliberately puts the emphasis on speed and intricate plays with Sanchez, Walcott and Iwobi/Oxlade-Chamberlain as the 3 forwards, while Plan B is more balanced with Giroud, Sanchez and Walcott/Ramsey as the attacking trident. Plan B offers a threat in the air and a physicality that Plan A doesn’t have. Sanchez would have never been able to score the winner against the Baggies because he doesn’t have Giroud’s power and dominance in the air.
Marginal gain for Sanchez with Plan A
I prefer Plan B to Plan A for the simple reason that Ozil is more efficient in the traditional No. 10 role and Giroud is an easy target to hit. Let’s be honest, no player can deliver a better final ball than Ozil. Last season, Ozil racked up 15 assists and 2 goals after 18 league games. This season, he has notched 5 goals and 4 assists in the Premier League by playing in a slightly more advanced position. That’s a small increase in goals but a dramatic drop in assists.
Sanchez is making more key passes with Plan A, but the gain is marginal if we compare with his stats from the 2014-15 season, when he still played on the left wing (I’m not taking last season into account because he came back exhausted from the Copa America and was sidelined for a few games by a hamstring injury). Plan A is tailored for Sanchez’s tendency to be all over the pitch. The Chile striker has racked up 12 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League this season. That’s pretty similar to his tally from the 2014-15 season when he notched 10 goals and 6 assists after 18 league games.
Of course, there are games where Plan A is the better option to carve open a defense. I’m especially thinking of the 3-0 win over Chelsea. It’s also easier to switch from Plan A to Plan B than the other way around. Once you take Giroud off the pitch, you have nobody else on the bench who can give you his physicality and aerial threat, except maybe Welbeck who won’t return before next year. By contrast, if you yank off Walcott, you still have pacy forwards like Oxlade-Chamberlain and Perez on the bench.
Ozil’s work-rate is still an issue
On Monday, Ozil made 7 key passes, the most for any player. In a deeper position, he played a more important role in the team’s passing game than when Sanchez is the centerforward, finishing the match with 122 passes, second only behind Xhaka’s 141, according to whoscored.com.
Ozil’s work-rate is still an issue though. He won just 20% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Only Chadli had a lower percentage among all the players. There was one moment in the first half when Fletcher ran into the space occupied by the Germany playmaker. Noticing that Ozil did not close Fletcher down, Giroud sprinted past Ozil to press the West Brom midfielder. A similar situation happened against Manchester City when Silva dispossessed Ozil, forcing Sanchez to track back and do Ozil’s defensive job in midfield.
In Plan A, Sanchez plays the role of a false nine, often dropping back to relieve Ozil of his playmaking duties and therefore make more key passes. Back on the left wing in Plan B where he is less involved in the passing game and more focused on finishing, Sanchez saw his number of shot assists drop to 2 against West Brom. However, that did not impact his scoring opportunities as he had 4 of 9 shots on target, compared to 3 of 5 for Giroud.
Sanchez could have opened the scoring in the 50th when a corner led to a goalmouth scramble. The ball fell to Sanchez, who rounded Evans to hit the post from 6 yards. Six minutes later, Sanchez controlled a cross from Iwobi to fire a powerful strike that Foster tipped over the bar.
Positive contribution from Ramsey & Perez
This season is still a learning period for Iwobi, who’s just 20 years old. Performances can be quite inconsistent at that age. Only 1 of his 4 goal attempts was on target. Iwobi pounced on a headed pass from Ozil in the 50th to unleash a low volley that Foster saved. Obviously, Iwobi must focus on showing more end product and improving his composure in front of the net. It’s good news for his development that Nigeria failed to qualify for next year’s African Cup of Nations. That means Iwobi will keep training and playing for Arsenal in January and February instead of traveling to Africa.
Ramsey and Perez came off the bench in the second half and made a positive contribution. They had 2 key passes each despite playing only the last 20 minutes. Perez crossed the ball for Giroud in the 76th but the Frenchman failed to make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Ramsey could have made it 2-0 in the 90th after Sanchez knocked down a Bellerin cross but his half-volley was stopped by Foster. In stoppage time, Ramsey had another scoring opportunity on a counterattack but lacked the confidence for a lob attempt.
The Gunners will definitely need both players in the second half of the season. Ramsey is the key player in midfield when they struggle to break the deadlock while Perez is a great alternative if Walcott and Sanchez get injured or have a poor run of form.
A sterile first half
The Baggies made the game difficult for Arsenal by playing with 10 men behind the ball. They also tried to slow the tempo with time-wasting tactics. That became obvious by Foster’s third goal kick in the 21st. The West Brom goalkeeper was booked in the 83rd but I felt the referee should have done it in the first half when Foster used up a lot of time for 7 goal kicks.
The performance in the first half was unconvincing with a lot of sterile possession. The Gunners especially struggled to play the ball out from the back as Paulista doesn’t have Mustafi’s passing skills and Xhaka doesn’t have Cazorla’s dribbling skills. Cazorla is usually the one injecting a sense of urgency in the team’s passing game. Xhaka somehow lacked the Spaniard’s dynamism in setting the tempo.
Arsenal failed to create any clear-cut chance in the first half. Their few goal attempts were long-range strikes that often missed the target. Sanchez’s low drive in the 33rd was the only one that forced Foster into a save. Reaching half-time with no goal scored against an average side didn’t feel good at all, especially since Chelsea and Manchester United had taken the lead in their respective games.
The Gunners opted for a more direct approach in the second half with crosses that put the West Brom defense in trouble. It’s quite telling that Arsenal finished the game with no accurate through balls from 4 attempts but managed to make 7 accurate crosses out of 18.
Question marks about Cech
Xhaka contributed to that directness with 11 accurate long balls out of 15, the most for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. I believe Xhaka and Coquelin have found the right balance in their partnership with Coquelin making 9 tackles against the Baggies while Xhaka made 3. Coquelin’s aggression in midfield allows Xhaka to focus on his passing.
At the back, the Gunners made two defensive mistakes to gift West Brom chances that could have been costly. Rondon beat the offside trap in the 32nd to meet a Chadli cross for a tame header. I don’t understand why Koscielny decided to set the offside trap on that play since Chadli was already in the final third and Koscielny was in a good position to win the header. Despite that rare instance of poor decision-making, Koscielny was arguably our best defender on Monday, bringing calm in the backline and winning 88.9% of his duels, the most for any starter according to the club’s website.
I have mixed feelings about Cech’s performance level since the start of the season. The scrutiny could have been worse without the change in the laws of the game, otherwise Cech would have been sent off this season against Hull and Sunderland for killing goal-scoring opportunities. When I see the leg saves Foster made on Monday, I’m wondering whether Cech could have denied Sterling the previous weekend by sticking a leg out instead of diving to palm the shot away.
Competition for the leftback spot
Cech didn’t have much to do against the Baggies but he did it poorly. He sent a goal kick straight into touch in the 48th. Then he made a handling mistake while to trying to catch a corner kick in the 70th. The ball fell to Yacob, who fired over the bar from 5 yards. In hindsight, Cech should have punched the ball away. Another issue is why the Gunners struggle so badly to win the second ball.
Guessing how a goalkeeper will age can be tricky. Buffon is still a very good goalie at 38 while Casillas lost a step by the age of 31. At 34, Cech seems past his prime. The number of goals he conceded last season from long-range shots was already a concern. His lack of mobility is becoming obvious this season. On current form, Ospina would have taken Cech’s starting spot if he had a better command of his area.
Wenger made just two changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Manchester City the previous weekend with Gibbs and Giroud replacing Monreal and Walcott in the starting lineup. Gibbs got the nod over Monreal while Walcott’s absence was the result of a calf injury. Gibbs had a decent game with 3 key passes and an effort on target. But a clash of knees with Yacob in the 64th led to Gibbs’ substitution for Monreal. The leftback position has been a weakness this season. It will be interesting to see how the manager can fix it.
The Gunners next face Crystal Palace on Sunday and desperately need three points to stay in the title race and keep Tottenham and Manchester United at bay.