Tag Archives: Giroud

The art of squad building and how Wenger lost the plot

Poor recruitment is the main reason why the Gunners are no longer in the Top 4 of the Premier League. Last season, they finished in fifth place, 11 points behind Spurs. Arsenal will again miss out on the Top 4 this season as they currently sit in sixth place, 13 points behind Spurs after 30 games.

Squad buildingPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

You may think that money is the issue. It’s true that the Red Devils generate more revenue than any other football club, while Manchester City and Chelsea are backed by billionaires. But you also have to remember that Liverpool and Tottenham have a smaller budget than the Gunners and spend less money in the transfer market.

On paper, building a squad looks pretty simple: you spot the weaknesses in the team, you clear the dead wood, and you sign the players who will make the team stronger. To understand how that process works, I will compare the job done by Pochettino, Klopp and Wenger. I have chosen Tottenham and Liverpool as case studies because Arsenal can match them financially.

The 2013-14 season proved an unstable period for Spurs, who replaced Villas-Boas with Sherwood in December. Despite the managerial change, Tottenham finished in sixth place, 10 points behind Arsenal. I have used startingeleven.co.uk to provide a picture below of Sherwood’s favorite lineup.

2014 Spurs

The 2014 Spurs lineup under Sherwood

Here’s the Tottenham squad under Sherwood:

Goalkeepers: Lloris as the starter (Friedel as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Walker, Rose (Naughton, Fryers). Centerbacks: Vertonghen, Dawson (Kaboul, Chiriches). Central midfielders: Dembele, Paulinho (Sandro, Capoue, Bentaleb). Playmakers: Eriksen (Sigurdsson). Wingers: Chadli, Lennon (Townsend, Lamela). Centerforwards: Adebayor (Soldado, Kane, Defoe).

When Pochettino took over in May 2014, he quickly spotted the weaknesses in the Spurs lineup. First, the team lacked a commanding centerback. Dawson was a decent fit for an average side but not good enough for a club aiming at a Top 4 finish. So Pochettino signed Fazio in August 2014 and Wimmer and Alderweireld in the summer of 2015. Fazio was a flop while Wimmer turned out to be a benchwarmer. However, Alderweireld proved a key signing as he helped stabilize the Tottenham defense.

Becoming a contender within 2 years

Pochettino inherited good players at fullback with Rose and Walker, but he wasn’t happy with the back-up options. So the club signed Davies in July 2014 and Trippier in June 2015. The development of Trippier and Davies helped Spurs cope with Walker’s departure last summer and Rose’s injuries. The Argentine manager also strengthened the bench for the goalkeeping position by replacing an aging Friedel with Vorm.

In midfield, Pochettino realized that Spurs lacked a good holding midfielder. Capoue, Sandro and Bentaleb were not good enough, Dembele played as a deep-lying playmaker and Paulinho was mostly a utility midfielder. So Pochettino recalled Mason to the squad and signed Dier and Stambouli in the summer of 2014. Stambouli struggled in the Premier League but Dier proved a good investment as he efficiently shielded the Tottenham defense.

On the wings, Pochettino noticed the lack of end product. So he signed Alli and Son in 2015 while putting more pressure on Lamela. Up front, he spotted Kane’s potential and gave him the nod over an aging and more limited Adebayor. Pochettino also shook up the bench by releasing Soldado in 2015 and signing N’Jie, who didn’t manage to make the cut.

Within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino turned Tottenham into a title contender. If you look at the picture below, you will notice 5 changes between Sherwood’s lineup and Pochettino’s team. Spurs ran out of steam at the end of the 2015-16 season, but they were the only real threat to Leicester’s title bid.

2016 Spurs

The 2016 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

Instead of resting on his laurels, Pochettino stayed busy in the transfer market to make Spurs more competitive, in part because some of his signings didn’t deliver, but also because other rivals were spending lavishly. So within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino made 4 changes to a team that was in contention until April 2016.

2018 Spurs

The 2018 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

At the back, Pochettino promoted Walker-Peters and signed Aurier to make up for Walker’s departure last summer. He also hired Sanchez and Foyth as cover for Vertonghen and Alderweireld. In his first season at the club, Sanchez impressively stepped up when Alderweireld picked up a hamstring injury last November.

Seeing the weaknesses and the potential

In midfield, Pochettino was a bit conservative but he still promoted Winks and added more power by signing Wanyama and Sissoko in 2016. On the wings, the Argentine manager clearly wanted more pace as he signed N’Koudou in 2016 and Moura this year. N’Koudou is still a raw player and has been loaned out to Burnley while Moura is close to the finished product with 5 seasons under his belt at French club PSG.

Up front, Pochettino signed Janssen in 2016 and Llorente in 2017 as cover for Kane. Janssen failed to impress and was loaned out to Turkish club Fenerbahce, while expectations were low for Llorente, an aging striker who was willing to deputize for Kane.

Over a four-year period, Pochettino has cleared the dead wood and strengthened both the lineup and the bench. He has also lost some gambles in the transfer market, but at least they didn’t cost the club a fortune. So there is no doubt that Spurs have a good squad builder with Pochettino.

Klopp’s appointment at Liverpool in October 2015 also provides a good example of squad building. Despite coming in the middle of the season, Klopp still managed to lead the Reds to the League Cup final and a runner-up finish in the Europa League.

Liverpool famously challenged for the Premier League title during the 2013-14 season, but it all went downhill for Rodgers after the departures of Suarez in 2014 and Sterling in 2015. Rodgers also struggled to replace leaders like Gerrard and Toure. In the summer of 2015, Rodgers signed Ings, Firmino and Benteke to add more firepower up front, but the team didn’t really gel. Stuck in 10th place after 8 Premier League games, the club lost patience and sacked Rodgers in October.

2015 Liverpool

The 2015 Liverpool lineup under Rodgers

Here’s the Liverpool squad under Rodgers:

Goalkeepers: Mignolet as the starter (Bogdan as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Clyne, Moreno (Flanagan, Gomez). Centerbacks: Skrtel, Lovren (Sakho, Toure). Midfielders: Henderson, Milner, Can (Allen, Leiva). Playmaker: Coutinho. Wingers: Lallana (Origi, Ibe). Centerforwards: Benteke (Sturridge, Firmino, Ings).

When Klopp took over, he could only make tactical adjustments because he had to wait eight months for the next summer transfer window. The Reds finished eighth in the Premier League at the end of the 2015-16 season. But Klopp got plenty of time to see the weaknesses as well as the potential of the squad he inherited.

Rebuilding an entire defense

Liverpool conceded a lot of goals under Rodgers, so Klopp decided to completely rebuild the defense. Klopp had doubts about Mignolet in goal and therefore signed Karius in 2016. Karius hasn’t been really convincing yet, even playing fewer games than Mignolet. That might explain why Roma goalkeeper Alisson has recently been linked with a move to Anfield. At centerback, Klopp shipped out Toure, Sakho and Skrtel while signing Matip and Klavan in 2016 and Van Dijk a couple of months ago. Klopp also signed Robertson in 2017 to take the leftback spot from Moreno. At rightback, Clyne’s long-term injury obliged Klopp to hand Gomez a starting spot.

By contrast, Klopp has been relatively conservative in midfield. The German manager sold Allen and Leiva, who were second-choice midfielders, and hired Grujic and Wijnaldum in 2016 and Oxlade-Chamberlain last year. Henderson and Can are still regular starters under Klopp while Milner gets plenty of playing time, too. In fact, the biggest change in midfield is Klopp’s rotation policy to keep fresh legs for his gegenpressing tactics.

The Reds struggled to score in Rodgers’ last season at the club. Klopp realized that Benteke and Ibe were not good enough for a Top 4 club and let them go. He also noticed a lack of penetration in the final third and therefore signed Mane in 2016 and Salah in 2017. Both Mane and Salah have a lot of pace and great dribbling skills.

However, Klopp’s really smart decision was to play Firmino as a false nine. Rodgers didn’t know how to use Firmino and made the mistake of believing that Benteke could deliver at the top level. Klopp also took a gamble on a youngster by signing Solanke last summer. This season, only Manchester City can claim a front three (Aguero, Sane, Sterling) as threatening as Liverpool’s.

2018 Liverpool

The 2018 Liverpool lineup under Klopp

The only blemish in Liverpool’s transfer policy was the sale of Coutinho to Barcelona in January. The Reds lost a versatile playmaker who could play either as a false winger or in a three-man midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain is versatile too but he doesn’t have Coutinho’s creativity. Plus Coutinho was a free-kick specialist who could make the difference in any tight game.

Having a coherent plan

Within two years and a half, Klopp has turned Liverpool into a Top 4 team by making 9 changes to Rodgers’ lineup. You can see the similarities between Klopp and Pochettino: they both have a coherent plan to build their respective squads and they only need a couple of years to implement it.

We have analyzed what Pochettino has achieved at Tottenham since the summer of 2014 and how Klopp has transformed Liverpool since the end of 2015. Now let’s compare with what Wenger has done at Arsenal since 2015. I’ve chosen 2015 because the club had not much cash to spend in the transfer market before 2013 (remember, the Gunners signed Ozil in 2013 and Sanchez in 2014). It’s also similar to the amount of time that Pochettino and Klopp had to change their clubs’ fortunes. You can see below Wenger’s favorite lineup at the end of the 2014-15 season.

2015 Arsenal

The 2015 Arsenal lineup   

Here’s the Arsenal squad during that season:

Goalkeepers: Ospina as the starter (Szczesny as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Bellerin, Monreal (Debuchy, Gibbs). Centerbacks: Koscielny, Mertesacker (Paulista, Chambers). Midfielders: Cazorla, Coquelin, Ramsey (Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere). Playmakers: Ozil (Rosicky). Wingers: Sanchez, Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski). Centerforwards: Giroud (Welbeck, Sanogo).

If you were a neutral manager, you could see that Ospina and Szczesny were not good enough in goal for a Top 4 team. Ospina struggled to command his area while Szczesny was error-prone and had discipline issues off the pitch. At the back, Mertesacker was an obvious target for strikers because of his lack of pace, while Wenger also had a problem at leftback where Gibbs and Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses. In midfield, Coquelin was too limited in his all-around game and was not smart enough in his positional play to shield the defense. On the right wing, Ramsey was a starter by default simply because Oxlade-Chamberlain lacked end product while Walcott had limited passing skills. Up front, Giroud lacked the pace to stretch a defense while Welbeck lacked end product.

Failing to fix 6 positions

Did Wenger spot those weaknesses in the Arsenal squad? The answer must be yes since he made moves in the transfer market for those positions. The Gunners signed Cech in 2015, Holding and Mustafi in 2016, Kolasinac in 2017 and Mavropanos a couple of months ago. In midfield, the club added Elneny and Xhaka in 2016. On the wings, Sanchez’s contractual situation led to a swap deal with Manchester United as Mkhitaryan joined Arsenal in January. Up front, pace was clearly the priority as the Gunners signed Perez in 2016, Lacazette in 2017 and Aubameyang a couple of months ago. Wenger also relied on the academy to strengthen the first team by promoting Iwobi and Maitland-Niles.

Over the past three years, Wenger was less active than Pochettino in the transfer market and less successful than Klopp in getting the right targets for the club. Let’s be honest, the majority of the signings have been flops. And the manager hasn’t fixed the 6 positions that were weaknesses during the 2014-15 season (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, holding midfielder, right winger, centerforward). You can see below Arsenal’s best lineup for this year.

2018 Arsenal

The 2018 Arsenal lineup

Lacazette’s injury means that Aubameyang is the natural choice up front. In midfield, you may argue that Iwobi or Welbeck could replace Wilshere if the team plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But that tactical difference doesn’t change my analysis. Cech used to be the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, but at 35 he’s already past his prime. In fact, Cech has the most errors leading to a goal (6) this season. At centerback, Mustafi is not the player who will marshal the defense. And Koscielny’s nagging Achilles injury also means that the club will need to sign an experienced centerback this summer. At leftback, Kolasinac’s defensive performances have been disappointing. In central midfield, Elneny doesn’t win duels while Xhaka lacks mobility and defensive awareness. On the wings, Iwobi lacks end product while Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck don’t have the dribbling skills to crack a defense. Up front, Aubameyang and Lacazette both struggle in the air. And Aubameyang has a limited all-around game while Lacazette’s hold-up play is weaker than Giroud’s.

Another issue with Wenger’s squad management is the time wasted to clear the dead wood. Walcott and Coquelin should have been shipped out way before January. And there’s no reason to hang onto Chambers and Elneny, especially since the Gunners also have Holding and Mavropanos at centerback as well as Wilshere and Maitland-Niles in midfield. Chambers lacks pace and struggles to turn, while Elneny may be more mobile than Xhaka but the Egypt international is not a decisive player defensively or offensively.

No challenge before 2021?

Because Wenger failed to improve the team in the past 3 years and took too much time to clear the dead wood, it doesn’t make sense to rely on the French manager for an overhaul of the squad this summer. The next manager will have a lot of work to bring Arsenal back into the Top 4.

2019 Arsenal

How a competitive Arsenal team could look like

It will take more than a season to rebuild the squad. And the way the Citizens are dominating the Premier League, Arsenal might not be able to challenge for the title before 2021. Look at Liverpool: Klopp has done a good job within 3 years, but the Reds are still miles behind City.

The board and the staff will obviously have to set the priorities in terms of transfers. If a centerback and a holding midfielder are the top priorities, it means that Arsenal might have to stick with Cech or Ospina next season. I’ve chosen a 4-3-3 formation because that’s the best system to implement a pressing game. I don’t think the Gunners could finish in the Top 4 without pressing high up the pitch. That implies signing a more dynamic midfielder than Wilshere or Xhaka to harry opponents. I believe only Ramsey would have the pace, stamina and skills to play in Liverpool’s three-man midfield. Ozil’s poor work-rate means that he can only play in the front three.

For next season, assuming that Arsenal can only sign one attacking player because of financial constraints, a winger with great dribbling skills should also be at the top of the list. Liverpool, City and Chelsea respectively have Salah, Sane and Hazard to make the difference against compact defenses.

If the club runs out of cash, the Gunners could either play Lacazette or Perez on the right wing, or fast-track Nelson a bit like Sterling at Liverpool. Mkhitaryan and Ozil would have to fight for the spot on the left wing. Of course, Arsenal could switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation and play both Ozil and Mkhitaryan against the weak sides, but that would still depend on the hiring of a defensive midfielder. Up front, the Gunners would have the choice between Lacazette, a false nine coming to the ball, and Aubameyang, a striker stretching a defense.

The board and the staff have no room for error this summer because they have poorly performed in the previous transfer windows. By the end of August, we will know whether the Gunners have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish for next season.

 

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League Cup: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win over West Ham

The Gunners reached the semifinals of the League Cup with a 1-0 victory over West Ham on Tuesday. The game was duller than when both teams met a week ago in the Premier League. Arsenal enjoyed 67% of ball possession, but had just 8 goal attempts compared to 1 for the visitors. Welbeck scored the winner with the only shot on target of the match.

League Cup quarters

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

The Premier League is still the priority for both teams. Wenger made 11 changes to the side that defeated Newcastle last weekend to rest his key players before Friday’s game against Liverpool. Likewise, Moyes did not include Zabaleta, Noble, Arnautovic and Antonio in his starting lineup.

  1. The fullbacks were Arsenal’s main threat

The fullbacks made the most passes according to whoscored.com with 90 for Kolasinac and 87 for Debuchy, which is quite unusual. Kolasinac also led all players with 2 key passes. In the 39th minute, Kolasinac made a cross for an unmarked Walcott, who headed wide from 10 yards. Three minutes later, Coquelin picked out Debuchy, who headed the ball across goal. Welbeck outjumped Collins to connect with the ball, but missed his header. Somehow, Welbeck reacted quickly enough to bundle the loose ball into the net.

  1. December can be a lethal month

It proved a costly win as Giroud and Coquelin picked up injuries. Giroud pulled his hamstring and was replaced by Nelson in the 78th while Coquelin seemed to suffer a groin strain and was replaced by Dasilva in the 90th. Those injuries don’t make sense since the manager has heavily rotated in the League Cup and the Europa League. Plus Giroud and Coquelin didn’t even start against Newcastle. They’ll be joining Cazrola, Mustafi and Ramsey on the disabled list. Mustafi and Ramsey picked up injuries against Manchester United and Southampton earlier this month.

  1. The audition for the front three was uninspiring

Against a compact West Ham side playing in a 5-2-3 formation, Welbeck, Walcott and Giroud didn’t really shine. Welbeck scored a goal but he also led all players with 10 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Walcott had 6 turnovers, made a poor cross in the 21st and should have volleyed Kolasinac’s cross with his left foot in the 39th instead of attempting a diving header. Giroud got no decent service and was flagged offside 3 times. His injury means that the Gunners only have Welbeck as a potential aerial threat up front.

  1. Coquelin had a great game

The technical quality of the game was poor in part because Arsenal played with 3 defensive midfielders (Coquelin, Willock and Elneny). Elneny had a poor game, sending a free kick straight to a Hammer in the 72nd while Holding, Giroud and Welbeck were waiting inside the area to head the ball. And his passing accuracy dipped to 84% while it’s usually above 90%. Willock didn’t look out of his depth with a passing accuracy of 92% and 4 successful dribbles. But the academy player also had 3 turnovers, which is too much for a central midfielder, and sometimes lacked lucidity in the final third.

Coquelin was the bright spark in midfield, winning 3 tackles and having 4 successful dribbles, the most for an Arsenal player. He also hit 8 accurate long balls out of 11. Stats can sometimes be misleading. Elneny and Willock had 1 key pass each compared to none for Coquelin, but it was Coquelin who created two of Arsenal’s best chances. Coquelin created the play that led to Welbeck’s goal. He also hit a long ball for Welbeck in the 71st. Hart came off his line but missed his tackle and fouled Welbeck on the edge of the box. The Gunners could miss Coquelin for a couple of games.

  1. The defense had a quiet evening

The manager played a back four like in the last two Premier League games. Holding and Chambers led all players by winning 6 and 5 headers respectively. West Ham made their job easier by sending long balls to Hernandez, who’s no threat in the air. On the flanks, Debuchy might be a decent option at wingback but I fear that his lack of pace would be a problem for the fullback position, especially to cover the right-sided centerback. Debuchy gifted a dangerous free kick by fouling Masuaku in the 63rd. Cresswell curled the subsequent set piece wide. In the leftback position, I felt that Kolasinac played with the handbrake on. Kolasinac had the opportunity to charge down his flank a few times but opted for sideways passes instead.

 

Arsenal vs. Newcastle: The volley heard ’round the world

The Gunners got back to winning ways on Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Newcastle to leapfrog Burnley and Spurs in the Premier League standings. The performance was average but it was unrealistic to expect much from Arsenal’s third game in a 7-day span. If we look at the bigger picture, the Gunners restored some order at the back by keeping a second straight clean sheet after the poor defensive display against Manchester United and Southampton.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle

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

Wenger made only one change to the side that drew with West Ham on Wednesday with Lacazette replacing Giroud in the starting lineup. Arsenal enjoyed 71% of ball possession but struggled again to create clear-cut chances with just 5 shots on target, which was slightly better than the 3 shots on target at the London stadium. Decision-making and the final ball were the main issues. Iwobi could have set up Sanchez in the 61st minute but preferred to attempt an improbable overhead kick which went nowhere. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M61edIwobi could have teed up Sanchez instead of going for personal glory. (Photo credit: Movistar)

Iwobi was less selfish in the 34th. He had 3 decent passing options with Lacazette, Sanchez and Ozil. However, he killed the momentum of the counterattack by playing the ball behind Sanchez. Ozil also lacked accuracy in the 70th by overhitting his final ball for Lacazette. Football sometimes looks like a choreographed ballet: one wrong move is enough to make the whole play fail. In the role of the playmaker in the 68th, Lacazette could have slipped the ball to Ozil at the near post or Sanchez at the far post. He played the ball between his two teammates, allowing the Magpies to make an interception. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M68edLacazette could have fed Sanchez or Ozil. (Photo credit: Movistar)

The few times the Gunners had decent chances, they simply lacked the finishing touch. Lacazette and Sanchez combined to have only 1 of 8 shots on target, which is a poor return for top strikers. In the 12th, Lacazette teed up Sanchez, who fired over the bar from 16 yards. At least, Bellerin had the excuse in the 27th of attempting a volley with his weaker left foot. The best chance of the game came in the 75th when Giroud headed a cross from Sanchez into the path of Wilshere, who shot straight at Elliot from 9 yards. From the ensuing corner, Koscielny missed the target with his header.

Capitalizing on second balls

Surprisingly, some of Arsenal’s chances came from second balls. Newcastle cleared a deflected shot from Lacazette into the path of Bellerin, whose goal attempt got blocked by 3 Magpies in the eighth minute. Sanchez also pounced on another poor clearance on the stroke of halftime to hit a snapshot wide. The Gunners score the winner by capitalizing on a second ball in the 23rd. The ball flew high in the air when Yedlin blocked Sanchez’s first-time effort. Lejeune outjumped Sanchez to head the ball into the path of Ozil, who volleyed high past Elliot from 16 yards. It wasn’t as spectacular as Ramsey’s long-range volley against Galatasaray, but you have to give Ozil some credit for anticipating the clearance. Ozil took a few steps back while Sanchez and Lejeune were challenging for the ball. That’s why he was perfectly positioned for the volley.

After an average performance against West Ham and a mediocre one against Southampton, Ozil finally lived up to his world-class billing. Ozil was arguably the best Gunner on Saturday, having 2 of 2 shots on target and making 8 key passes, the most for any player. He could have doubled the lead in the 38th when he played a one-two with Lacazette to chip Elliot from a tight angle, but Lejeune cleared the ball to safety.

Ozil is clearly benefiting from the switch to a back four against the weak teams, shining in the heart of a 4-3-3 formation. The Germany playmaker led all players with 106 passes, according to whoscored.com. In the more defensive-minded 3-4-3 formation, Xhaka and the centerbacks are usually the players making the most passes while Ozil’s weak defensive contribution is compensated by the addition of a third centerback. I don’t think the manager has completely dropped the back three. The Arsenal defense would be too exposed with a 4-3-3 formation against the top teams because we don’t have any top holding midfielder.

Lacazette’s confidence

Up front, Lacazette struggled against a team parking the bus just like Giroud did against West Ham. We know Giroud’s limitations: he lacks the pace to make runs in behind or dribble past defenders. Lacazette also has his own limitations: he’s not strong in the air and can’t hold defenders off. Basically, the Gunners are still missing the complete centerforward that Henry or Van Persie could be: a fast striker with lethal finishing and great dribbling skills, strong in the air, who can hold the ball up and link up play. The Citizens don’t have the complete centerforward either but they have found a way to become the most irresistible attack in the league with Aguero, Jesus, Sterling and Sane.

Lacazette hasn’t scored since the loss to Manchester United. That must feel like an eternity for any top striker. At times, Lacazette seemed short on confidence. He tested Elliot with a low drive from 25 yards in the third minute. But then his shooting boots let him down. Lacazette controlled a long ball in the 54th and created space against Lascelles only to fire over the bar. He had a better chance in the 59th. Monreal won a header in midfield and the ball fell to Iwobi who played Lacazette in. The France international could have fired past Elliot but opted for a lob attempt from 14 yards that sailed over the bar. Seeking a more comfortable cushion, Wenger sent on Giroud for Lacazette, who looked upset while leaving the pitch in the 72nd.

Sanchez had a worse day than Lacazette with 0 shot on target and 6 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The manager wants Sanchez to play higher up the pitch because the Gunners need goals. In fact, there is no need for Sanchez to drop back since the 4-3-3 formation makes room for 3 passers with Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil. What the team definitely needs is receivers. Sanchez was replaced by Coquelin in the 89th as Arsenal aimed to shut up shop.

Iwobi’s directness

On the right wing, Iwobi had a decent game with 4 key passes including 1 through ball. In the manager’s plans, Iwobi’s role is clearly to inject more directness. He won 63.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website, and had 5 successful dribbles, tied with Wilshere for the most by any player. Dribbling is one alternative when you can’t break down a defense with passing. Iwobi slalomed through the Newcastle defense with some clever footwork in the 66th to muster a tame shot straight at Elliot.

I hope Iwobi will be more selective in his dribbling attempts. Sometimes it works, but too often it ends with a turnover that gives the opponents a breather. If you’re in a 1v1 situation, fair enough, take your chance. But a couple of times Iwobi ran into traffic and lost possession. Iwobi picked up an injury in the 71st and was replaced by Welbeck, who had no real impact.

The Gunners controlled the game with the midfield trio of Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil. That’s not as impressive as Fernandinho, Silva and De Bruyne, but the technical level is good enough to dominate possession and create chances against the weak sides. Xhaka proved the weak link in midfield by winning only 26.1% of his duels (compared to 46.7% for Wilshere and 55.6% for Ozil) and having a passing accuracy of 81.4% (compared to 89.6% for Ozil and 91.4% for Wilshere). He also led all players with 3 fouls, including an obstruction on Perez which cost him a yellow card in the 87th. I was shocked to see Xhaka play in a more advanced position than Wilshere quite a few times. Xhaka has weaker dribbling skills and less pace than Wilshere, so it doesn’t make any sense.

Maitland-Niles taking Kolasinac’s spot

At the back, the defensive performance was acceptable if we except the lapse of concentration in the fifth minute. Nobody marked Lascelles, who met a free kick from Merino for a header that Cech turned around the post. See the screen capture below. In that kind of situation, it’s up to Cech and Koscielny to have a quick look around and make sure that every Magpie near the 18-yard line is marked.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M5ed.jpgLascelles, circled, is left unmarked at the far post. (Photo credit: Movistar)

Arsenal’s energy levels dropped in the last 15 minutes, giving the Magpies some hope that they could score a late equalizer. Joselu’s low strike deflected off Xhaka for a corner in the 80th. Then Perez outjumped Bellerin to head wide a cross from Ritchie in the 83rd. Monreal got in trouble in the 86th by diving in and ended up holding Joselu to prevent a dangerous situation from developing.

For his second straight start, Maitland-Niles had a good game. The academy player intercepted the ball in the 13th to run past 2 Magpies and fire a low drive wide. Kolasinac was on the bench Saturday, so it was a deliberate choice from the manager to give the nod to Maitland-Niles. I guess the main reason is Kolasinac’s average defensive awareness. Kolasinac sometimes fails to cover the left-sided centerback. Maitland-Niles showed defensive awareness in the 34th by covering Monreal, who was out of position, and intercepting Murphy’s cross for Joselu.

The most important game of the season

If Maitland-Niles were to unseat Kolasinac as the regular starter at leftback, that would be another blow for the scouting department. There’s still a long way to go for Maitland-Niles though. At 20, he’s not the finished product yet. He must also show consistency week in, week out. Before joining Newcastle, Hayden was an Arsenal player too, but he never made it to the first team. His performance on Saturday showed why the Gunners let him go last year. Hayden was booked in the 40th for repetitive fouling. He is a decent fit for a Championship team or a weak side in the Premier League, but he’s not a top ballwinner.

It’s too bad that the Gunners don’t have a player who can compete with Bellerin for the starting spot at rightback. Debuchy is past his prime while Chambers lacks pace and has limited passing skills. Ritchie capitalized on a Bellerin turnover in the 55th to curl a shot over the bar. A minute later, Murphy cut inside Bellerin and Wilshere to test Cech with a low strike.

The Gunners next play West Ham in the League Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday before hosting Liverpool in a Premier League game on Friday. I expect the manager to rest his key players on Tuesday because the Liverpool game could decide the Top 4 race. Last season, Arsenal lost both league games to Liverpool to finish 1 point behind the Reds and miss out on Champions League football. A loss combined with a draw would have been enough to leapfrog Liverpool into 4th place. After 18 league games this season, the Gunners sit in 5th place, 1 point behind Liverpool. A victory on Friday would give Arsenal the edge over the Reds in the Top 4 race. While a defeat would create doubt in the squad after the losses to Manchester City and United.

 

West Ham vs. Arsenal: Gunners struggle in 0-0 draw to slip to 7th

The Gunners have collected only 2 points from their last 3 Premier League games to drop to 7th place in the standings, 19 points behind Manchester City. The most embarrassing part is that we haven’t reached the halfway stage yet.

West Ham vs. Arsenal

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

Arsenal split the points with West Ham in a goalless draw on Wednesday just three days after drawing 1-1 with Southampton. You would expect 6 points from away games against a mid-table team, Southampton, and a side fighting relegation, West Ham. Everton and City only had two days of rest like Arsenal, yet they managed to win on the road on Wednesday. If the Gunners don’t improve their away form, they are unlikely to finish in the Top 4. According to Opta, 8 clubs have racked up more points on the road than Arsenal this season.

Wenger injected a bit of freshness by making 4 changes to the side that drew at St Mary’s stadium with Maitland-Niles, Wilshere, Iwobi and Giroud replacing Mertesacker, Kolasinac, Ramsey and Lacazette in the starting lineup. The manager also started a Premier League game with a back four for the first time this season, switching from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-3-3 formation.

Tactically, Arsenal’s lack of width played into the hands of the West Ham defense. Sanchez and Iwobi often cut inside, which means that the final third was too congested. The Gunners also failed to play to Giroud’s strengths. In the France team, Giroud has pacy strikers like Griezmann and Mbappe making runs off him. Sanchez and Iwobi don’t make those runs. Giroud is an old-fashioned centerforward with a limited mobility, but he can dominate in the air, hold the ball up, and link up play. The France striker only had one decent service throughout the game. In the 53rd minute, Maitland-Niles made a cross for Giroud, who headed the ball wide.

Lack of penetration

Like in the Southampton game, Arsenal dominated ball possession but lacked penetration in the final third. There was a lack of urgency in the first half and when the Gunners upped the tempo in the second half, they seemed devoid of ideas. Arsenal mustered only 3 shots on target at the London stadium compared to 15 in the 3-1 loss to Manchester United. Adrian had a relatively quiet evening. The Gunners created 3 decent chances but never really troubled the West Ham goalkeeper.

The first scoring chance came in the 29th when Sanchez found Iwobi inside the area. Iwobi took a touch before striking the post with his weaker left foot from 12 yards. Then Sanchez had a shot blocked in the 56th. The ball fell to Ozil, who controlled it in his stride but poked wide. Wilshere also had an opportunity to break the deadlock in the 70th when Maitland-Niles made a cross for Giroud, who knocked the ball down for Wilshere. From 10 yards, Wilshere controlled the ball with his thigh only to fire over the bar. The Gunners must find a solution to create more chances because weak and average sides will park the bus like the Saints and the Hammers.

When I saw the starting lineup, I had my doubts about the midfield, which looked a bit soft defensively with Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil. But Wilshere helped balance the midfield with his technical quality and commitment. Wilshere led all starters with a passing accuracy of 91.8% according to whoscored.com. He also won 91.7% of his duels, according to the club’s website. For his first Premier League start this season, it was definitely a positive performance from Wilshere, who was the target of a couple of rough challenges but held his nerve.

Running into traffic

I guess the main surprise in the starting lineup was the inclusion of Maitland-Niles at leftback. A midfielder by trade, the academy player did not look out of his depth and produced a decent performance for his first Premier League start. Maitland-Niles made 2 key passes and led all players with 4 accurate crosses. In fact, he was one of the few Gunners who tried to feed Giroud. On the opposite flank, Bellerin had a poor game. The Spaniard made no accurate cross and even failed to stop a dangerous cross from Masuaku in the 14th. Arnautovic headed in Masuaku’s offering but the goal was disallowed for offside.

It can only be positive to have some competition within the squad. Hopefully, Maitland-Niles will push Kolasinac to perform better. Maybe the lack of competition down the right flank is the reason for Bellerin’s average performances this season. Debuchy and Chambers don’t have the pace to play at the top level as fullbacks. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player obviously. He won only 15.4% of his duels, according to the club’s website. A couple of times, Maitland-Niles also showed his naivety, diving in to let Arnautovic dribble past him in the 31st and giving away a cheap free kick in the 37th while Noble had nowhere to go.

Iwobi is just a year older than Maitland-Niles. The Nigeria international has been in the first team since the 2015-16 season but is far from the finished product. He showed his potential by rattling the post in the 29th. However, there are parts of his game that are still frustrating to watch. Playing on the right flank, Iwobi made no cross at all. How is Giroud supposed to score if Bellerin and Iwobi don’t feed him? Iwobi also led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He definitely needs to get rid of this habit of running into traffic, thinking he’s the new Messi or the ghost of Garrincha. And his work-rate is not good enough. Iwobi failed to close down Cresswell, who made a cross for Noble in the 46th. The West Ham captain redirected the ball toward Arnautovic, whose first-time effort sailed over the bar. Iwobi also made no effort to win the ball back after losing possession in the 66th.

Pub defending again

Against a compact defense, you would expect Ozil to produce some magic. But the Germany playmaker had no answer. He led all players with 104 passes, including 3 key passes, but none of those key passes led to Arsenal’s best chances. Sanchez had an off day, too. The Chile striker made 4 key passes but none of his crosses was accurate. I waited for a repeat of his cross that helped salvage a point at St Mary’s stadium, but that moment never came. Sanchez still tested Adrian with a curling free kick in the 73rd before being replaced by Lacazette in the 82nd.

The Gunners made no big blunder in the opening minutes, but they nearly threw away a point with some pub defending in the last minute of regulation time. Stuck along the touchline, Koscielny only had one decent option: a long ball toward Giroud or Welbeck. Yet, the Arsenal captain made a risky crossfield pass similar to the one that led to Manchester United’s opening goal earlier this month. The ball was intercepted, then Monreal poorly cleared the ball into the path of Noble, who played Hernandez in. The defending was so shambolic that Koscielny and Xhaka both rushed toward Noble while Bellerin let Hernandez run past him. With just Cech to beat, Hernandez curled a shot that hit the underside of the bar and bounced in front of the goal line.

There’s a lot of doubt in that Arsenal team since the 3-1 defeat against the Red Devils. They will need to show more mental toughness against Newcastle on Saturday, otherwise the Top 4 race could be over by December for the club. And all the negativity from last season could come back.

 

Southampton vs. Arsenal: More pub defending in 1-1 draw

Giroud scored in the closing minutes to salvage a 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday as the Gunners stayed 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. This weekend’s results clearly show that Manchester City is running away with the title, while 5 clubs (Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham) will fight for the 3 remaining Champions League spots. Last season, Arsenal missed out on Europe’s elite competition with 75 points from 38 games, 1 point behind the Reds. The cut line this season could be 76 points again. So far, the Gunners are 1 victory short of the cruising speed required for Champions League football with 29 points from 16 games.

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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

The Gunners hurt their chances of getting 3 points at St Mary’s stadium with another poor start. They conceded a goal by the third minute with some pub defending. Cech was not happy after the game as he bluntly said that Arsenal “could have been 3-0 down after 10 minutes again.” The Czech goalkeeper was referring to the disastrous start against Manchester United the previous weekend. While the Gunners had one day less of rest than United after a mid-week game, there was no such excuse for the Southampton game: the 11 starters did not even play in the Europa League on Thursday. An early goal was obviously the best scenario for the Saints, who parked the bus and proved hard to break down.

   Wenger made just one change to the side that lost to United the previous weekend with Mertesacker replacing an injured Mustafi. The FA Cup final provided the blueprint for playing Mertesacker in a back three: Arsenal left very little space between the goalkeeper and the backline against Chelsea even if it meant a lot of distance to cover for the midfielders. Yet, the Gunners decided to play a high defensive line against Southampton. Mertesacker’s lack of pace made such a plan completely suicidal.

Mertesacker and Koscielny struggling at the back

   Mertesacker didn’t cover himself in glory in the third minute. The German defender gave the ball away to Austin, who found Tadic on the edge of the box. Taking advantage of Mertesacker’s comical fall, Tadic had plenty of time to play Austin in. The Southampton striker took a touch before beating Cech from close range. Monreal was slow to react on that play as he let Austin run past him.

Playing on the shoulder of Mertesacker near the center circle, Austin beat again the offside trap in the fifth minute to collect a pass from Tadic but was denied by Cech. The Gunners did not learn their lesson as Austin made another run in behind in the 43rd to chase a through ball from Romeu. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to beat Austin to the ball and clear the danger. A static Mertesacker also failed to close down Romeu, who clipped the bar with a long-range strike in the 62nd.

A week after his poor performance against United, Koscielny had another miserable moment. Koscielny gave the ball away to Redmond in the 66th and the Southampton forward hit a long ball toward Bertrand. Koscielny intercepted the ball with a header but only to knock it into the path of Tadic. Attempting to make up for his mistakes, Koscielny missed his tackle on Tadic and let Bertrand run past him to take Tadic’s pass. With just Cech to beat, Bertrand somehow missed the target. You don’t often see a player make 4 mistakes on the same play.

We know Mertesacker and Koscielny have lost a step. It’s a different story with Bellerin who is only 22. The Spaniard has produced a lot of average performances this season, well below the level that helped him get named in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year.

A more direct approach

Bellerin had a hard time on Sunday with Bertrand and Redmond roaming down his flank. He won only 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage for an Arsenal midfielder according to the club’s website. Bertrand outpaced Bellerin in the eighth minute to make a cross for Austin, who hit the post but was flagged offside anyway. Then Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Ward in the 29th. An unmarked Austin knocked the ball down for Van Dijk, whose flick bounced off Xhaka to gently roll toward Cech. Bellerin lost another duel in the 53rd, allowing Redmond to test Cech with a long-range effort, before receiving a yellow card in the 78th for pulling back Boufal.

After Southampton took the lead, the Gunners enjoyed plenty of ball possession but lacked penetration in the final third. As a symbol of Arsenal’s sterile possession, Koscielny (102), Xhaka (95) and Monreal (93) led the team in passes, according to whoscored.com. If you can’t beat with the pass, then running at defenders is the obvious alternative. Unfortunately, our dribbling options are limited since Oxlade-Chamberlain joined Liverpool. Arsenal finished the game with fewer successful dribbles than the Saints.

So the manager opted for more directness by replacing Mertesacker with Welbeck in the 64th and Lacazette with Giroud in the 72nd. With those 2 substitutions, the Gunners suddenly became more threatening in the air. Yet, it took them 16 minutes to finally feed Giroud. The France striker converted his only scoring chance of the game by outjumping Yoshida in the 88th to head Sanchez’s cross into the bottom corner. Let’s give some credit to Giroud for isolating himself with Yoshida and therefore creating a bad matchup for the Southampton defense.

Very good or world class?

Arsenal had to rely on Giroud’s physicality because Lacazette’s pace was of no use against a compact defense. Receiving the ball in tight spots, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, which is not his forte. Xhaka redirected a high ball from Sanchez toward Lacazette, who held off Yoshida only to fire a low shot straight at Forster in the 16th. A minute later, Lacazette wasted a better chance on a counterattack. See the screen capture below. In a 3v1 situation, Lacazette controlled Bellerin’s pass with a poor first touch, allowing Hojbjerg to clear the ball to safety. In hindsight, Lacazette should have made a first-time pass to Ozil to his right. Easy to say, but very difficult to do at full throttle.

Southampton M17edLacazette wasting a 3v1 situation on a counterattack. (Photo credit: BT)

Then Bellerin made a low cross for Lacazette, who fired over the bar from 12 yards in the 41st. The France international should have caught the frame in that kind of situation. If Lacazette doesn’t become more clinical, football fans will keep thinking he’s a very good player but not a world-class striker, i.e. the difference between Lukaku and Aguero.

Sanchez and Ozil didn’t shine either on Sunday. Sanchez had an average game while Ozil was pretty much anonymous. Ozil finished the game with 0 key pass and had 6 turnovers, trailing only Sanchez (7) for the most by any player. By contrast, Tadic led Southampton with just 4 turnovers. Ozil’s lack of end product meant that the creative burden rested on the shoulders of Sanchez, who led Arsenal with 3 key passes. Besides the assist for the equalizer, Sanchez also had a curling free kick punched away by Forster in the 84th.

Questions about Sanchez and Ozil

Any time Sanchez and Ozil don’t perform well, Arsenal supporters can’t help wondering whether they are still playing for the club or preparing their transfers. You can only blame the manager and the board for having created this situation. It feels very much like a transition season because of all that uncertainty.

In hindsight, most supporters wouldn’t have been mad at the club for letting Sanchez and Ozil go this summer if they had been properly replaced. There was a dressing room revolt in 2011 because Fabregas and Nasri had not been replaced. Oxlade-Chamberlain was just a prospect then. By contrast, Van Persie’s departure generated no such drama in 2012 because the club had signed Podolski and Giroud for goals as well as Cazorla to finally fill the hole left by Fabregas.

It was also in 2011 that the Gunners signed Arteta. The Spaniard proved a leader in the dressing room but his time with Mertesacker became the symbol of Arsenal’s porous defense, especially during the 2013-14 season. Their lack of pace made the team vulnerable on counterattacks. The same issue is repeating itself with the gradual decline of Koscielny and Monreal at the back and Xhaka’s lack of mobility in midfield.

There were suggestions before Sunday’s game that Arsenal might start with a back four like in the 6-0 win over BATE Borisov. In the end, the manager was too much aware of the lack of protection provided by the midfield and stuck with the 3-4-3 formation. The third centerback is basically making up for the lack of a decent defensive midfielder. In theory, Xhaka is the holding midfielder but you never know what you are going to get with him. He made a reckless challenge on Bertrand to give away a cheap free kick in the 26th. But he also made a clean tackle on Redmond to kill a Southampton counterattack in the 35th. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger finally switched to a back four in the 64th even though it exposed Monreal and Koscielny, who had to cope with 2v2 situations a couple of times.

Ramsey’s hamstring injury

Ramsey was the only Arsenal player who really tested Forster in the first half. He met a low cross from Sanchez in the 32nd for a first-time effort that the Southampton goalkeeper saved. In the closing minutes, Ramsey seemed to pick up a hamstring injury. He stayed on the pitch because Wenger had already used up his substitutions. On one leg, Ramsey still managed to connect with a cross from Kolasinac in stoppage time but his shot had no power.

The Wales midfielder has been Arsenal’s most valuable player this season in terms of goals and assists. His injury is coming at a bad time because of the hectic schedule. Knowing Ramsey’s injury record, the staff definitely needs to be careful and not rush him in his return. Wilshere would seem the most suitable replacement for Ramsey in midfield even though they have 2 different profiles.

The Gunners need 2 wins from their next 2 games to make up for the points dropped against Stoke, Watford and Manchester United. I don’t expect too much rotation against West Ham on Wednesday but some tinkering against Newcastle on Saturday might be necessary to inject some freshness and avoid injuries.

 

 

Arsenal vs. BATE Borisov: A few thoughts on the 6-0 win

The Gunners finished the group stage of the Europa League on a high note with a 6-0 demolition of BATE Borisov on Thursday. Arsenal played in a half-empty stadium because they had secured the top spot in the previous round and the game was therefore a dead rubber.

Arsenal vs. Borisov

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

Wenger made 11 changes to the side that lost 3-1 to Manchester United a few days ago. Against the weakest club of Group H, the manager also shifted to a back four with Chambers and Holding as centerbacks and Debuchy and Maitland-Niles as fullbacks. Although the Gunners won 4-2 in Belarus, Wenger fielded an experienced lineup with just one player from the academy. Youngsters like Nelson, Willock and Nketiah only came off the bench in the second half.

  1. The World Cup is coming

For some players, the World Cup is the most important competition in their careers. They only have a few months left to convince their national managers that they should go to Russia. Welbeck played in the 2014 World Cup and is facing some tough competition for the England squad this season. He knows goals will definitely impress Southgate.

On Thursday, Welbeck had 2 shots saved by Scherbitski and proved selfish at least twice. Wilshere released Welbeck down the left flank in the 22nd minute. Instead of making a low cross for an unmarked Giroud, Welbeck attempted an angled effort that Scherbitski blocked outside his area. Welbeck was again obsessed with scoring on his own in the 37th. The Englishman tried to dribble past 2 defenders but lost possession with a heavy touch. Milunovic knocked the loose ball into the path of Walcott, who fired past Scherbitski for a 2-0 lead.

Giroud also tried too hard with just 2 of 7 shots on target. He took his chance from tough positions a couple of times. His hold-up play was also poor but at least he found the net and worked hard for his teammates. Giroud beat Scherbitski with a spot kick into the top corner in the 63rd but was forced to re-take the penalty because of an encroachment. The Frenchman chose the same side but fired low the second time to make it 5-0.

As a selfless player, Giroud set up Elneny for a strike that hit the base of the post in the third minute. He also redirected a cross from Wilshere into the path of Walcott, whose half-volley was saved in the 26th. And he won the ball in midfield for the second goal. Playing time might be a less important issue for Giroud to earn a World Cup spot because his unique profile in the France squad makes him more valuable.

Few football fans would bet on Walcott making the England squad, but he still has an outside chance. The Belarusian side played to his strengths by leaving a lot of space between the goalkeeper and the backline. Walcott notched 1 goal and 2 assists in a good all-around performance. He could have added another goal in the 40th but Milunovic cleared his low effort off the line. Poliakov was less lucky in the 51st as he sent Walcott’s cross into his own net. Walcott then won the penalty in the 63rd by poorly controlling Welbeck’s pass. Milunovic tried to win the ball but Walcott was quicker and got fouled by the BATE defender.

  1. Holding is slightly ahead of Chambers

The football website whoscored.com gave a better grade to Chambers but I thought Holding performed better. They didn’t have much work to do, but at least they didn’t make any cock-up like Koscielny and Mustafi. The case for Holding: He had a passing accuracy of 94%, made 4 interceptions and 2 blocks, hit 3 accurate long balls out of 3, and had 0 turnover, while Chambers had a passing accuracy of 84%, made 1 interception and 1 block, hit 5 accurate long balls out of 12, and was dispossessed twice. The case for Chambers: He won 1 of 1 tackle and 5 of 5 aerial duels, while Holding won 0 of 2 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. It doesn’t show in the stats but Stasevich rolled away from Chambers in the 68th to shoot straight at Ospina.

  1. What is the best system for Wilshere?

It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in a 3-4-3 system. His limited defensive contribution prevents him from playing as the holding midfielder even if Xhaka is a choice by default. Wilshere doesn’t have Ramsey’s all-around game to play in the demanding position of a box-to-box midfielder. And he doesn’t have the pace of Sanchez or Ozil to play in the front three. On Thursday, the switch to a back four made clear that Wilshere is more comfortable in a 4-2-3-1 formation. As he is aging, Wilshere looks more and more like Fabregas in his game. Wilshere can slip those through balls from midfield while proving a serious goal threat from mid-range.

Wilshere finished the game with 1 goal and 1 assist and led all players with 5 key passes. He also had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, according to Squawka. Wilshere curled a shot from the edge of the box that Scherbitski tipped over the bar in the 42nd. A minute later, Wilshere took a pass from Walcott and created some space to smash the ball into the corner for a 3-0 lead. In a similar situation in the 74th, Wilshere drew two defenders before setting up Elneny, who curled into the far corner to seal the win. It was a great performance but the weakness of the opposition definitely helped Wilshere.

  1. Debuchy scored his first goal since 2014

Debuchy broke the deadlock in the 11th minute by pouncing on a loose ball to rifle into the far corner. Milunovic initially brought down Walcott inside the area but the referee didn’t blow the whistle, so Debuchy took his chance from 16 yards. Debuchy looked a better fit at rightback than Chambers against Cologne. Most Arsenal attacks came from the right flank although Debuchy didn’t create any chance. BATE forwards also never really tested Debuchy’s relative lack of pace. Debuchy seems to have come to terms with the end of his international career as he hasn’t been vocal about his playing time this season.

  1. Coquelin and Elneny bossed the midfield

The opposition was so weak that Coquelin and Elneny only combined for 1 tackle. The more surprising stat is the 3 key passes they each made. Only Wilshere had more key passes. Elneny led all starters with a passing accuracy of 96% while Coquelin’s technical limitations showed with 6 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player.

 

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield: Ozil shows his class in 5-0 win

   In a five-minute span, Ozil made 2 assists and scored 1 goal to lead Arsenal to a 5-0 rout of Huddersfield on Wednesday. The Gunners needed that victory to stay fourth in the Premier League and keep pace with the top teams as Manchester City, the Red Devils, Chelsea and Liverpool also won their games.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield

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

Wenger made just one change to the side that edged Burnley 1-0 on Sunday with Ozil replacing Iwobi in the starting lineup. That move made a huge difference on the pitch. At 21, Iwobi has great potential but he’s not the finished product yet. He only managed 1 key pass against a compact Burnley defense because his reading of the game is not good enough. By contrast, Ozil is at the top of his game at 29. Ozil may go missing against the big teams but the quality of his runs and final ball proves so valuable against the weak and average sides.

Ozil led all players with 5 key passes. The Germany playmaker was relatively quiet in the first half. But his performance after halftime was a different story. In the 3-4-3 formation, Ozil has a lot of freedom. He can drop back to create plays. He can also drift to the right flank to escape marking. And he can play as a second striker by making runs in behind.

Sanchez caught the attention of three Terriers in the 47th minute to set up Ozil, unmarked at the far post. Ozil controlled the ball and curled a 12-yard shot that Cranie blocked. Maybe a first-time effort was the better option. Then the Ozil show started. Ozil played a one-two with Sanchez in the 68th before squaring the ball back to Giroud, who made it 2-0 with a low strike. In that kind of situation, I have too often seen Iwobi run into traffic this season only to lose possession. Ozil has a perfect picture of the situation before he gets the ball, which means that he knows exactly what are his passing options when he makes his first touch.

The understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey

Another difference between Ozil and Iwobi is that Ozil is smarter in his runs off the ball because he can visualize how a play will unfold and what his role in that play will be. As soon as Mustafi won a header in midfield in the 70th, Ozil made a run along the touchline. The ball fell to Giroud, who played it back to Ramsey. With a first-time pass, Ramsey released Ozil down the right wing. By the time Lowe saw the danger, it was already too late. Ozil got a head start over the Huddersfield wingback and had therefore plenty of time to make a pinpoint cross with his weaker foot for Sanchez, who volleyed high past Lossl for a 3-0 lead.

Ozil swapped positions with Giroud in the 72nd and perfectly timed his run to beat the offside trap. Collecting a through ball from Ramsey, Ozil added a fourth goal by chipping Lossl. In the closing minutes, Ozil nearly got a third assist with a ball over the top for Welbeck, but the England international couldn’t trap the ball and Lossl was able to gather it. Ozil is simply one of the best playmakers in the world and Iwobi needs to work harder to get near his level.

While Ozil stole the show in the second half, the Gunners owed their first-half lead to Lacazette. In the third minute, Ramsey played Lacazette in with a backheel flick and the France striker slipped the ball past Lossl to open the scoring. While the understanding between Ozil and Sanchez proved instrumental in the second and third goals, it was the understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey that cracked the Huddersfield defense in the opening minutes. It’s kind of ironic because Ozil and Sanchez may no longer be at the club next season whereas the duo formed by Lacazette and Ramsey could define Arsenal’s future.

Giroud’s hunger

Lacazette came close to doubling the lead in the 31st. Xhaka initially overhit his pass for an offside Kolasinac, but Lacazette sprinted to keep the ball in play and attempted a cheeky lob from the by-line. Cranie somehow cleared the ball off the line with an overhead kick. Unfortunately, Lacazette picked up a groin injury and was replaced by Giroud at halftime. That injury is coming at the worst time for the Gunners because they have a busy schedule until mid-January.

Giroud showed his hunger by taking 6 shots and reaching a passing accuracy of 100%, according to Squawka. His first scoring chance came from a counterattack in the 51st. Bellerin made a low cross for Giroud, whose shot was blocked by Schindler. Then Ramsey slipped a through ball to Giroud, who rounded Lossl in the 59th only to hit the near post. Giroud made amends by converting Ozil’s pass in the 68th for his first goal in the Premier League since the opening game against Leicester in August. As a boost to his confidence, Giroud took the ball off Kolasinac to seal the win from close range in the 87th. Hopefully, Giroud’s rediscovered form will help compensate for Lacazette’s absence.

Sanchez didn’t have a great game, but he still managed to find the net with a clinical volley in the 70th. His previous goal attempts were unimpressive to say the least. Sanchez took a pass from Ozil in the 27th only to produce an air shot. Then Kolasinac found Sanchez inside the area in the 62nd and the Chile striker curled a shot wide of the far post. The manager clearly had the United game in mind as he yanked Sanchez off in the 73rd to send on Welbeck.

In midfield, Ramsey shared the creative burden with Ozil by making 3 key passes, including 2 accurate through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Sanchez is usually the one helping Ozil to create chances, but Sanchez had an off day with only 1 key pass so Ramsey had to step up in that area.

Complacency after the opener

At times, the team morphed into a bastardized 4-4-2 formation with Xhaka, Mustafi, Koscielny and Monreal at the back, Ramsey, Ozil, Bellerin and Kolasinac in midfield, and Sanchez and Lacazette up front. Xhaka helped Ramsey have an impact in the final third by focusing on his defensive duties. The Switzerland international won 3 of 6 tackles compared to 0 of 3 tackles for Ramsey, according to Squawka.

On the wings, Kolasinac and Bellerin contributed offensively with 3 and 2 key passes, respectively. Kolasinac was involved in the second and fifth goals but his passing accuracy of 68% was the lowest of any Arsenal player. Obviously, Kolasinac is taking risks in the final third, so you shouldn’t expect him to have Bellerin’s passing accuracy of 91%. But Kolasinac’s technique is decent enough to expect a passing accuracy around 80%. Hopefully, the Arsenal staff can sort out what is the issue.

Besides Lacazette’s injury, the only negative from Wednesday’s game is the complacency that hit the team after the opening goal. The Gunners basically took their foot off the pedal. They put themselves in trouble by playing at 90 or 95% of their potential between the third minute and the 68th. Mustafi in the 29th, Xhaka in the 35th and Koscielny in the 63rd cheaply gave the ball away. In the final third, Bellerin crossed the ball out of play in the 33rd, and Xhaka’s long-range strike veered toward the corner flag in the 42nd.

The Gunners lost their minds in the 37th by trying to dribble their way out of trouble from their own area. A poor clearance from Koscielny led to an Arsenal turnover and a penalty shout for Huddersfield as Mustafi lost an aerial duel and collided with Mounie. A minute later, a string of misplaced passes led to a dangerous Huddersfield counterattack. Quaner dribbled past Xhaka to find Mounie, who played the ball back to Quaner. A poor first touch from Quaner gave Koscielny enough time to rush back and block the shot from the German forward.

The best and worst of Cech

There was also a lack of focus that could have cost the Gunners dearly. Mustafi misread the flight of a long ball in the 21st and missed his header, forcing Cech to come off his line. The Czech goalkeeper beat Mounie to the ball to clear the danger. Then the Arsenal defense was completely disorganized in the 51st. As Monreal was pulled out of position, Kolasinac forgot to cover the Spaniard and gave Quaner a boulevard to the area. Mustafi hesitated for a split second and came too late to make the block. It took a leg save from Cech to prevent Quaner from equalizing. Two minutes later, Cech nearly scored an own goal by panicking in his own area. Monreal diverted Mounie’s shot high in the air. Cech could have caught the loose ball but he preferred to punch it to safety off the crossbar.

If we except those chances gifted by Arsenal’s complacency, the Terriers created very little. Lowe skipped past Bellerin in the 12th only to have his cross intercepted by Cech. Jorgensen then connected with a free kick from Lowe in the 22nd but Koscielny did enough to put off the Huddersfield centerback, who headed over the bar. After the break, Hadergjonaj made a dangerous cross from Kolasinac’s flank but Mounie missed his header in the 65th. Mustafi produced the most decent performance at the back by making 7 interceptions and winning 3 of 4 tackles and 4 of 12 headers while Koscielny and Monreal combined to win only 1 of 8 tackles, according to Squawka.

A perfect record on the line

The Gunners have turned the Emirates stadium into a fortress this season with 7 wins from 7 Premier League games. That perfect record could be in danger against Manchester United on Saturday. Lacazette’s injury means that either Giroud or Welbeck will lead the line. Giroud is a good choice when the team dominates ball possession while Welbeck is a better option when the team has to run after the ball. Welbeck also has more pace but the Frenchman has scored more goals recently.

Wenger was again asked about Ozil’s future in his news conference before the United game. It could prove a tricky match for Ozil, who has been linked with a move to the Red Devils. The more we look at it, and the more it’s obvious that the club completely mismanaged the summer transfer window. Scenario 1: the manager and the board win their gamble if both Sanchez and Ozil extend their contracts at Arsenal. Scenario 2: if both players leave next summer while the Gunners finish in the Top 4, the club will limit the damage on the pitch but lose £50-90 million of transfer fees. Scenario 3: if both players leave next summer while the Gunners miss out on a Champions League spot, the club will lose on the pitch and financially. Scenario 4: Ozil and/or Sanchez leave in January but there’s no replacement. The club will limit the damage financially but the squad will be significantly weakened. Scenario 5: Ozil and/or Sanchez leave in January and are replaced by top signings. The club will limit the damage financially but only a Top 4 finish will tell whether it is a smart move.