Tag Archives: Gibbs

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.

 

Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 5-1 disaster

The Champions League tie is dead after the Gunners suffered a humiliating 5-1 defeat in the first leg of their last-16 encounter with Bayern Munich on Wednesday. Arsenal managed to reach halftime with the score tied at 1-1 although the Bavarians were the better team. But the floodgates opened after Koscielny picked up a hamstring injury in the 48th minute.

Bayern vs. Arsenal.jpg

Photo credit: Getty Images

The Gunners conceded 3 goals in a 10-minute span to trail 4-1 by the 63rd. The scoreline and the stats don’t lie: Bayern completely outplayed Arsenal, making 516 more passes, creating 14 more chances and hitting 17 more shots, according to the UEFA stats.

  1. Talent means nothing without hard work

Anybody who watched PSG’s 4-0 thrashing of Barcelona on Tuesday could see two similarities with Bayern’s 5-1 demolition of Arsenal. The Spanish side lost because of some poor work-rate and a soft midfield. A quick look at the last 3 goals shows those flaws. The Parisians capitalized on a turnover to take a 2-0 lead as Rabiot dispossessed Messi while Iniesta failed to close down Verratti. By contrast, PSG played the ball out from the back to score the third and fourth goals. Messi and Gomes failed to track Kurzawa for the third goal and Iniesta failed to challenge Di Maria. Then Cavani was able to make it 4-0 because Meunier easily skipped past Neymar before outpacing Iniesta.

  1. Arsenal’s work-rate is not good enough

The Gunners were not as lazy as Barcelona. According to the UEFA stats, the Bavarians ran 109.5 km compared to 108.1 km for Arsenal, which is better than the 105.1 km covered by Barcelona compared to 113.3 km for PSG. The Gunners raised their intensity, winning 18 tackles of 34 compared to 12 of 33 for Bayern, according to Squawka. But it wasn’t enough because Arsenal didn’t defend as a unit. Bayern did a better job at hunting in packs, making 55 ball recoveries compared to 46 for the English side.

The Bavarians love dominating ball possession. A smart way to unsettle them would have been to press high up the pitch like PSG did against Barcelona. Unfortunately, the Gunners were not able to coordinate their pressing efforts. Sanchez often showed signs of frustration because his teammates didn’t help him harry the Bayern defense.

The poor defensive contribution from the attacking players cost Arsenal two goals. Lahm made a cross for Lewandowski, who headed home for a 2-1 lead in the 53rd. Gibbs had to deal with both Robben and Lahm on that play because Iwobi failed to track Lahm. Iwobi was also late for a block attempt in the 15th but Ospina stopped Robben’s low drive. Then Alcantara easily skipped past Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 56th and slipped the ball to Alonso, who was not closed down by Sanchez. With plenty of time on the ball, Alonso picked out Lewandowski, who played Alcantara in for Bayern’s third goal.

  1. Arsenal’s midfield is too soft

Coquelin, Xhaka and Ozil combined to win just 6 of 14 tackles compared to 9 of 18 for Alcantara, Vidal and Alonso. Surprisingly, Ozil put in a good shift, winning 4 of 6 tackles, more than any other Arsenal player. But Ozil couldn’t prevent Alonso and Vidal from dictating play because Coquelin sat too deep while Sanchez focused his pressing efforts on Martinez and Hummels.

Coquelin was the symbol of Arsenal’s softness. Vidal outmuscled the French midfielder in the eighth minute to fire a long-range strike that Ospina saved. Three minutes later, Robben cut inside Coquelin to open the scoring with a drive into the far corner. Coquelin was too slow to react and make a block on that play. He won none of the 3 tackles he made.

Oxlade-Chamberlain moved into central midfield when Giroud replaced Coquelin in the 77th. The England international showed his naivety by dribbling on the edge of his own box and losing possession to Kimmich in the 88th. The ball fell to Muller, who shot past Ospina to seal the win. The Ox led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, and had a passing accuracy of 61%, the lowest percentage among all the midfielders.

If we except Sanchez’s penalty, the Bavarians kept the Arsenal forwards quiet. Ozil and Xhaka ended up having the best chances from open play. In the 40th, the Ox cut the ball back for Xhaka, who volleyed straight at Neuer from 17 yards. On the stroke of halftime, Sanchez fed Ozil, whose angled strike was saved by Neuer. Ozil finished the game with only 1 key pass because the Gunners were starved of possession. Somehow, Arsenal could have reached halftime with the lead against the run of play.

  1. A change of tactics implies a change of manager

The best way to beat Bayern is to implement a pressing game like PSG did against Barcelona on Tuesday or like Atletico Madrid did against the German side last season. Pochettino at Tottenham and Klopp at Liverpool have been able to impose that style of play in the Premier League. Unfortunately, the Gunners don’t have that defensive culture and it’s hard to see how the club could tactically change under Wenger.

The only time Arsenal recently relied on a pressing game to beat a big team was in the 3-0 win over Manchester United last season. It lasted just one half and was not as impressive as the pressing game used by Liverpool, Atletico Madrid or even PSG. Under Wenger, the Gunners prefer to absorb the pressure and hit the big teams on the fast break like in the 2-0 win over Bayern last season or the victories over Pellegrini’s Manchester City.

Another tactical issue is marking duties on set pieces. Alcantara capitalized on a goalmouth scramble from a corner to give Bayern a 4-1 lead with a low drive in the 63rd. He had plenty of time to control the ball and pull the trigger because no Gunner patrolled the edge of the box.

  1. The Gunners must anticipate life without Koscielny

The Arsenal defense completely disintegrated after Koscielny picked up a hamstring injury in the 48th and was replaced by Paulista. Koscielny had Lewandowski in his pocket and even earned a penalty by drawing a foul from the Poland striker in the 29th. His only mistake came in the 43rd when he was not tight to Lewandowski, who met a cross from Alaba to head over the bar. Koscielny won 3 of 3 tackles before leaving the pitch.

The France centerback will turn 32 this year. The staff will have to carefully monitor his fitness. Vidic led Manchester United to the Premier League title in 2013 but suddenly lost a step the following season at the age of 32. Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Paulista’s dodgy decision-making definitely prevent them from becoming the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense.

On paper, Mustafi could lead the back four, but his performance in Munich was a disappointment. He was booked in the 15th for a rash tackle on Alcantara. Then, Lewandowski outjumped Mustafi for Bayern’s second goal and Mustafi failed to spot Alcantara’s run for the third.

  1. Arsenal will need to look for a leftback this summer

Whether it’s Gibbs or Monreal, the Gunners have been highly vulnerable to crosses from the left flank this season. Ancelotti obviously spotted that weakness as Costa sometimes joined Lahm and Robben on that flank to provide numerical superiority.

Gibbs got the nod over Monreal on Wednesday and struggled to stop crosses from Lahm, who led all players with 4 key passes. The English fullback was very lucky not to get sent off in the 61st when Robben pounced on a rebound to hit an effort that Gibbs deflected out with his hand. It looked worse than Hull midfielder Clucas’ deliberate handball. Basically, it should have been a red card and a penalty.

  1. Ospina has been brilliant this season

The Colombia goalkeeper saved Arsenal from defeat against PSG in the group stage and made 6 saves against Bayern to prevent a more embarrassing loss. Some were routine saves but three were really good saves. He kept out Martinez’s header with a reflex save in the 63rd, tipped Robben’s strike over the bar in the 81st and turned Costa’s curling shot around the post in the 82nd.

  1. Groundhog Day is no surprise

We should have expected that outcome since the Bavarians have better players than Arsenal in almost every position. The German side has also reached at least the semifinals in the past 5 seasons while the Gunners have been knocked out in the last 16 in the past 6 seasons. The tie is dead after the first leg just like in 2013 when Bayern won 3-1 in London and three years ago when the Bavarians won 2-0 at the Emirates stadium.

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.

 

Arsenal vs. West Brom: Giroud shows he still has big role to play this season

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.

arsenal-vs-west-brom

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

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.

 

Ludogorets vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 3-2 win

Ozil showed great composure in the closing minutes to lead Arsenal to a 3-2 victory over Ludogorets on Tuesday. The Gunners kept the top spot in Group A of the Champions League as they qualified for the knockout phase of the lucrative European competition for the 14th straight season.

ludogorets-vs-arsenal-edited

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

The club’s website claimed it was the 17th straight season, but a quick look in the archives shows that Arsenal did not reach the knockout phase in the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons after finishing third in the second group stage when the competition had a different format.

  1. The Gunners can win their group

Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain are level on points but the Gunners have a better goal difference. Since both teams drew 1-1 in September, it means Arsenal would finish first with a victory over the French club in three weeks. A draw at the Emirates could also be enough if the score is 0-0 or 1-1 (assuming the Gunners beat Basel while the Parisians defeat Ludogorets in December). However, PSG would snatch the top spot with a 2-2 draw because of the away goal rule.

  1. You need 100% in the Champions League

The Gunners probably thought they had a lot of maneuvering room in Bulgaria after thrashing Ludogorets 6-0 two weeks ago. Unfortunately, they were punished for missing 5% of focus and commitment by conceding two goals in the first 15 minutes. They should have remembered the 2-1 loss to Dinamo Zagreb last season.

  1. What the fans pay for

If you are a neutral football fan, you usually go to the stadium to watch great players and beautiful goals. Ozil’s overall performance on Tuesday was definitely worth the admission price. His winning goal was pure class. Ozil beat the offside trap in the 88th minute to collect a long ball from Elneny. Clean through on goal, Ozil froze time by lifting the ball over the goalkeeper and cutting inside two defenders before slotting into an empty net.

Ozil could have opened the scoring in the eighth minute when Coquelin played him in, but the Germany playmaker could only muster a tame shot straight at Borjan. He also led the team with 4 key passes, setting up Xhaka for Arsenal’s first goal in the 20th and finding the Ox in the 84th for a first-time effort that could have been the winner but missed the target.

  1. Sanchez’s off day

The Chile forward started on the left wing for the first time this season. Sanchez had made all his starts in the centerforward position before Tuesday’s game, but Giroud’s inclusion in the starting lineup meant that Sanchez had to shift back to the position where he played in his first two seasons at the club.

It was a night to forget for Sanchez, who missed the target with his two goal attempts and had 5 turnovers according to whoscored.com. His worst moment was when he chased a through ball from Xhaka in the 73rd. Sanchez’s poor first touch allowed Borjan to gather the ball. Somehow, Sanchez still managed to make 3 key passes despite a poor game by his standards.

  1. Wenger has a lot of faith in Ramsey

Ramsey looked so rusty in his short cameo against Sunderland last weekend that I never assumed the manager would start him in a Champions League game. Yet, Ramsey got the nod over Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi, who are both sharper physically than the Wales midfielder.

Let’s give Ramsey some credit for making the cross for Giroud’s equalizer in the 42nd and having 3 successful dribbles out of 5 according to Squawka. However, I thought Ramsey was a liability in the team’s passing game. Before the Ox replaced him in the 75th, Ramsey made 74 passes (trailing only Mustafi) but only one was a key pass. I believe Ramsey is a bigger threat with his runs than when he carries the ball. His lack of match fitness showed as none of his three goal attempts was on target.

  1. Mustafi’s poor performance

The Germany international had his first poor game at the club. Winning duels inside the area is the top priority for any centerback. Unfortunately, Mustafi lost two key duels that led to goals for Ludogorets. Cafu beat Mustafi to the ball to volley home a free kick in the 12th. Three minutes later, Mustafi was not tight enough to Keseru, who made a run in behind Koscielny to convert a cross from Cafu. Mustafi won only 1 of 5 tackles according to Squawka and 28.6% of his duels, the lowest percentage among the defenders according to the club’s website.

  1. Ospina must improve his command of the area

The Colombia goalkeeper prevented Ludogorets from taking the lead in the second half by stopping Wanderson’s low drive in the 64th and denying him in the 66th. But he also proved shaky on two corners in the first half. Did Ospina’s lack of authority make his teammates nervous on set pieces? Ludogorets could have equalized from a corner in stoppage time, but Marcelinho got in the way of Palomino’s downward header.

  1. There’s a reason why Gibbs and Jenkinson are second choices

Jenkinson finished the game with 6 fouls, more than any other player. He especially struggled against Wanderson, who made 3 key passes. Jenkinson was out of position in the 15th when Wanderson led a counterattack for Ludogorets’ second goal. Wanderson picked out Cafu on the opposite flank and the Brazilian forward dribbled past Gibbs to feed Keseru for a tap-in.

Both Arsenal fullbacks were again in trouble in the 66th. Gibbs failed to close down Marcelinho, who had plenty of time to send a ball over the top for Wanderson. Jenkinson failed to cover Mustafi on that play as Wanderson beat the offside trap but was denied by Ospina. Gibbs only won 1 of 4 tackles according to Squawka.

  1. Wenger has the North London derby on his mind

Bellerin, Monreal, Walcott and Cazorla were left out of the squad. Bellerin, Monreal and Walcott could have played in Bulgaria despite nursing muscle strains. But the manager preferred to look at the bigger picture and did not want to risk any injury so early in the season. In the end, Wenger’s choices paid off with a win over Ludogorets and three players fully fit for Sunday’s North London derby.

Sunderland vs. Arsenal: Giroud makes difference in 4-1 win

It looked like the Gunners were about to drop two points at Sunderland until Giroud came off the bench to score twice in five minutes. Saturday’s 4-1 victory helped Arsenal stay level on points with Manchester City and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League.

sunderland-vs-arsenal

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

The scoreline seemed a bit flattering for a team that lacked creativity in midfield. It wasn’t as bad as against Middlesbrough but Elneny and Coquelin, who deputized for the injured Cazorla and the suspended Xhaka, struggled to build up plays despite enjoying 65% of ball possession. Elneny made 97 passes, 28 more than any other Gunner, but only one was a key pass. Since both Elneny and Coquelin have limited passing skills, Ozil often dropped back to give a hand.

The Black Cats also made Arsenal’s job more difficult by committing many cynical fouls. Pienaar was not even booked in the 28th minute for killing a counterattack by tripping Sanchez. Two minutes later, the referee finally handed out the first yellow card of the game when Khazri pulled Ozil down. The punishment did not deter Sunderland from playing rough as Ndong, Pienaar and Djilobodji were also booked for either late tackles or challenges from behind.

Moyes was highly rated a few years ago. That’s why he was appointed manager of Manchester United in 2013. Now, when you see how poorly the Black Cats played on Saturday, it’s easy to understand why his stock has fallen so sharply. Sunderland looked like a Pulis or Allardyce team, playing with a lot of commitment but devoid of ideas.

More directness with Giroud

Sanchez carried the scoring burden on his shoulders in the first half as Walcott was sidelined by a hamstring strain. He got ahead of Kone in the 19th to head home a cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain for the opening goal. In what could have been a dramatic call, Sanchez then had a penalty appeal ignored by the referee in the 62nd when Kone clearly pulled him back. Sanchez capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to seal the win in the 78th. He spun away from Djilobodji with some quick footwork and flicked the ball past Pickford with the outside of his boot.

The Chile striker definitely benefited from a long summer break as he raised his tally to eight goals in all competitions this season. He occasionally dropped back against Sunderland to share the creative duties with Ozil, Iwobi and the Ox. Sanchez found Ozil inside the area in the 13th but the Germany playmaker’s curling shot did not trouble Pickford. A minute later, Coquelin collected a through ball from Sanchez but was robbed by Kone before he could shoot.

The Gunners found space in the first half because Sunderland played a high defensive line. The hosts limited Arsenal’s runs in behind by adopting a more compact shape after the break. Wenger opted for more directness in the 69th by replacing Iwobi with Giroud. The move paid off as Giroud converted his two goal attempts. Sanchez released Gibbs down the left flank in the 71st and the England international made a cross for Giroud, who volleyed into the bottom corner with his first touch of the game for a 2-1 lead. Five minutes later, Giroud made a run toward the near post to head home a corner from Ozil.

The Ox’s end product and work-rate

Giroud’s physicality and dominance in the air could have made the difference against Middlesbrough a week ago. He has skills that Sanchez doesn’t have and the other way around. While Perez is the logical back-up for Sanchez with his pace and technique, only Welbeck can match Giroud’s attributes. The manager will have to find a way to improve the understanding between Sanchez and Giroud because they are not on the same wavelength on the pitch. Giroud controlled a long ball in the 88th and tried to feed Sanchez, who had stopped his run because he expected to collect that ball.

I previously mentioned Iwobi’s poor run of form in the last few games. Saturday was no exception. Iwobi made no key pass and his two goal attempts were long-range strikes that missed the target. Besides the lack of end product, a greater concern is Iwobi’s poor work-rate. The Nigeria international only won 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage among the midfielders according to the club’s website. Iwobi needs to improve his defensive awareness. He was dispossessed by Ndong in the 51st and made no effort to win the ball back. He also exposed the Arsenal defense a couple of times by not tracking Jones, the Sunderland rightback.

If Walcott had been fit, it would have been interesting to see Wenger’s choice for the starting spot on the left wing. The Ox deputized for Walcott on the right wing and showed more end product and work-rate than Iwobi. The England international won 67% of his duels and 4 of 4 tackles, the most for any player. He set up the opener in the 19th by outpacing Watmore to make a pinpoint cross for Sanchez. The Ox could have claimed a second assist with a ball over the top for Ozil in the 38th but the Germany playmaker slightly underhit his lob attempt.

Mustafi’s learning process

The only negative for the Ox on Saturday was his finishing. He lacked the composure he showed against Reading in the League Cup. The Ox dispossessed Khazri in the 35th and cut inside only to shoot straight at the keeper. He developed an interesting understanding with Ozil in the second half. Ozil sent him clean through on goal in the 59th but the Ox rushed his effort and dragged his shot wide. The Ox then took a pass from Ozil in the 69th and fired a cross-shot that ran across goal. On the bright side, the Ox is finally making those runs that put him in a good position to score. He just needs to improve his composure in the final third like Ramsey did in the 2013-14 season.

The Black Cats are such a weak side that their only clear-cut chance came from a mistake by Mustafi, who poorly read the flight of a long ball from Ndong in the 64th. Watmore took advantage of the bounce to cut inside Mustafi and dribble past Cech, who brought him down with his shoulder. Defoe converted the subsequent penalty to level the score. If Ospina had been in goal, his quick legs would have given him a better chance against Watmore.

The Gunners can only be grateful that the new laws of the game only require a yellow card for the keeper if he makes a genuine attempt to play the ball. Mustafi has been a great signing for the club, but he needs to erase those basic mistakes from his game. At 24, he’s still relatively young for the centerback position.

Ramsey’s return from injury

At leftback, Gibbs made a significant offensive contribution with 3 key passes, tied with Ozil for the most by any player. He set up Giroud’s volley in the 71st and struck the post in the goalmouth scramble that led to the last goal. Gibbs also picked out Ozil, whose effort deflected off a defender for a corner in the 73rd. He would need games against stronger opposition to compare his defensive performance with Monreal’s level.

Ramsey made his return from a hamstring injury by replacing the Ox in the 77th. The manager thought it was safe to give Ramsey some playing time with a two-goal lead. Ramsey really looked rusty on the play that produced the final goal. His poor touch turned into a pass for Gibbs, who hit the woodwork. From the rebound, Ramsey’s poor first-time effort turned into a pass for Sanchez, who scored from close range. On current form, there’s no way Ramsey could start the next two games before the international break in November.

What I liked the most about Saturday’s game is that the manager took no risk with the fitness of Monreal, Cazorla and Walcott. Wenger left them out of the squad even though they could have played if needed. Monreal has a muscle strain while Walcott picked up a hamstring strain. The biggest concern is probably Cazorla’s Achilles injury. That could be a recurring problem this season. A long period of rest is the only cure for that kind of injury. Hopefully, Wenger won’t risk any key player against Ludogorets on Tuesday. The North London Derby next Sunday is a much more important game. The Gunners have a squad deep enough to rotate against the Bulgarian side.

 

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-0 win over Reading

Oxlade-Chamberlain scored both goals in the 2-0 win over Reading on Tuesday to send Arsenal into the quarterfinals of the League Cup. The Premier League is definitely a much more important competition as the manager made nine changes to the side that drew with Middlesbrough last weekend.

  1. Ox deserves a starting spot

On current form, the Ox should be the one starting on the left wing against Sunderland on Saturday. He capitalized on a Reading turnover in the 33rd minute to open the scoring from a tight angle despite two defenders attempting to make a block. The Ox then pounced on a pass from Giroud to beat Al-Habsi in the 78th with a first-time effort that deflected off a defender. Besides his finishing, the Ox also created chances. He slipped a through ball to Perez, who wasted the chance with some questionable decision-making in the 22nd. The only negative was the two corners poorly taken by the Ox.

arsenal-vs-reading

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

Iwobi performed better than the Ox last season but that’s no reason to turn Iwobi into an automatic starter in the Premier League. Despite a recent dip in form, Iwobi had a decent game against Reading. He released the Ox down the right flank in the eighth minute and the England international dragged a low shot wide of the far post. A minute later, Iwobi sent Reine-Adelaide clean through on goal, but a poor first touch from the French teenager enabled Al-Habsi to gather the ball. Iwobi also had a couple of cheap turnovers in the first half before testing the Reading goalkeeper with a long-range drive in the 77th.

  1. Giroud returns from injury

The France striker replaced Reine-Adelaide in the 65th and quickly showed what Arsenal missed against Middlesbrough with his physical presence inside the box. Giroud met a free kick from Elneny in the 70th for a powerful header that Al-Habsi parried. He then fed the Ox, who had his 15-yard effort saved by Al-Habsi in the 74th. Four minutes later, Giroud set up the Ox for the second goal. Giroud doesn’t have Sanchez’s pace, but he’s stronger in the air and can bring teammates into play while back to goal.

Giroud’s return is coming at the right time as Perez seemed to pick up a nasty injury. Gravenberch stamped on Perez’s ankle in the 69th, forcing the Spaniard to be replaced by Willow in the 71st. Perez had a relatively quiet game. He could have scored in the 22nd by rounding the goalkeeper or curling a shot but he preferred to set up Reine-Adelaide for a tap-in. The Royals killed the chance by intercepting Perez’s pass, which was slightly behind Reine-Adelaide anyway.

  1. Debuchy has no future at Arsenal

The League Cup could have been an opportunity for Debuchy to get some playing time but the manager decided to start Jenkinson on the right flank. You can’t blame Wenger for such a choice. On the one hand, you have an aging player who performed poorly last season and bad-mouthed the manager. On the other, you have a young player recovering from a knee injury and accepting to deputize for Bellerin. A mid-season loan would be the best option for Debuchy to revive his career.

Jenkinson’s technical limitations were quite obvious against Reading. The English fullback doesn’t have Bellerin’s dribbling skills but he still managed to test Al-Habsi in the sixth minute. Jenkinson failed to close down Obita in the 61st. Kermorgant connected with Obita’s cross for a header that Martinez saved.

  1. Paulista is still a dodgy defender

The Brazilian centerback made 4 of the 7 fouls committed by Arsenal. It’s still a mystery how he finished the game with no yellow card despite tripping Harriott in the 10th and fouling Samuel on the edge of the box in the 88th. Paulista looked so reckless that Holding could be a better second choice if Koscielny or Mustafi gets injured.

  1. What could have been for Gibbs

Gibbs wore the armband for that game because he was the most senior player on the pitch. At 27, he should be challenging Monreal for a starting spot. Gibbs has more pace than the Spaniard. He made a fantastic recovery tackle in the 24th after Maitland-Niles underhit a back pass. Unfortunately, Gibbs also showed why he’s not an England starter and why Monreal is still ahead in the pecking order despite average performances this season. As the last defender in the 52nd, Gibbs had a lapse of concentration and lost possession to McCleary. Bearing down on goal, McCleary had his pass for Samuel intercepted by Gibbs.

  1. The Gunners still lack creativity in midfield

Elneny teamed up with Maitland-Niles in midfield and struggled to engineer the build-up play. The Egypt international doesn’t have the passing skills of Cazorla or Xhaka, he’s mostly a utility midfielder. It’s only when the Ox drifted inside or when Iwobi dropped back that the Gunners were able to put Reading on the back foot. Elneny took a pass from Jenkinson in the 30th to fire an angled strike that Al-Habsi stopped.

  1. Martinez would be a better No. 3 than Szczesny

Could you imagine Szczesny accepting to be the No. 3 goalkeeper behind Cech and Ospina? Not really. That’s why it would make more sense to retain Martinez and sell Szczesny for the sake of team chemistry. Martinez produced a fine performance, saving Kermorgant’s header in the 61st and palming away the Reading susbtitute’s free kick in the 89th.

  1. No academy player is close to the regular starters’ level

The only academy players who started the game were Reine-Adelaide and Maitland-Niles. Reine-Adelaide showed flashes of brilliance, like the backheel flick that played Jenkinson in after five minutes, but he’s still a raw player. The French teenager was too slow in his decision-making and took too much time to release the ball. He needs to play more often with his head up and improve his reading of the game.

Maitland-Niles made some timely interceptions but he lacked accuracy in the final third, overhitting two final balls in the second half. Willock and Zelalem came off the bench in the last 20 minutes and didn’t show much. I guess Reine-Adelaide, Maitland-Niles, Willock and Zelalem will still need to hone their skills with the under-23 team.