Tag Archives: Giroud

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

The Gunners edged Doncaster 1-0 on Wednesday to next play Norwich in the fourth round of the League Cup. Because it is a less important competition than the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Europa League, Wenger fielded a makeshift team that included Sanchez, 4 youngsters (Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Holding and Chambers) and 6 benchwarmers (Ospina, Mertesacker, Elneny, Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud).

Arsenal v Doncaster Rovers - Carabao Cup Third Round

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

The heavy rotation explained Arsenal’s poor passing game. The poor finishing was more embarrassing and more difficult to justify with Sanchez, Giroud and Walcott in the front three. By failing to put the result beyond doubt, the Gunners gave third-division Doncaster plenty of hope in the second half. With a bit of luck, the Rovers could have equalized in the closing minutes to force extra time.

  1. Wilshere could play a big role this season

In his first start of the season, Wilshere teamed up with Elneny in central midfield. I would have preferred to see Willock or Maitland-Niles play alongside Wilshere, but I can understand the manager’s decision to give Wilshere an easy ride by partnering him with a seasoned player like Elneny.

In the role of a deep-lying playmaker, Wilshere had not much defensive work as the Gunners dominated ball possession. He took his chance in the 28th minute with a long-range strike that got deflected out. With Cazorla set to miss most of the season and Coquelin sidelined by a hamstring injury, Wilshere could easily finish the season with more than 20 games under his belt. Ramsey and Xhaka currently form Arsenal’s best duo in midfield, but the 3-4-3 system is very demanding for both of them and will require some rotation to avoid injuries.

  1. Walcott saved the day

He scored the winner in the 25th by making his signature diagonal run to control a long ball from Sanchez before lifting it over Lawlor. Walcott should have added a second goal in the 49th. On a counterattack, Giroud made a perfect cross for Walcott, who missed the target from 15 yards. TV replays seemed to suggest that his shot took a deflection off the goalkeeper.

Our options on the wings are limited this season. Oxlade-Chamberlain was sold to Liverpool this summer, Perez has been loaned out to Deportivo, and Welbeck picked up a groin injury against Chelsea. Walcott doesn’t have the work-rate and all-around game to start in Premier League games when everybody is fit, but he’s a decent option off the bench. Iwobi replaced Walcott in the 76th and wasted two good situations with a poor final ball.

  1. Sanchez is building up his fitness

This has been a complicated summer for Sanchez. He had some time off in July to recover from the Confederations Cup. Then he picked up an abdominal strain in August before being involved in an aborted move to Manchester City. He hasn’t performed at 100 percent of his abilities yet. Sanchez has basically used the games against Cologne and Doncaster to build up his fitness.

The Chile striker hit a cross-shot wide in the fourth minute before testing Lawlor with a bouncing free kick in the 10th. Because there are only 2 central midfielders in the 3-4-3 system, one of the players in the front three is usually a creative player. On Wednesday, Sanchez often dropped back to help create chances. He made the assist for Walcott’s goal and also set up Giroud for a scoring chance in the second half.

  1. Is Giroud going through a scoring drought?

The France striker hasn’t scored since the Leicester game on opening day. His old understanding with Wilshere (remember that Norwich goal?) showed in the sixth minute. The English midfielder made a chipped pass for Giroud, who rattled the bar with a spectacular bicycle kick. That was unfortunately Giroud’s best goal attempt. He headed Elneny’s cross over the bar in the 20th and missed the target with volleys in the 28th and 88th.

His physicality caused problems for the Doncaster defense but Giroud had two penalty shouts turned down. Giroud also had injury scares in the second half. First, Mason made a late challenge on the Frenchman in the 68th. Then Butler trapped Giroud’s left ankle with an awkward sliding clearance three minutes later. I hope Giroud will rediscover his finishing touch because he may start in the next 3 Premier League games against West Brom, Brighton and Watford. You can expect Arsenal to dominate ball possession in those games.

  1. Youngsters always give you the jitters

Nelson and Maitland-Niles are the two most promising prospects in the academy. They were rewarded with starting spots in the League Cup. Yet, it nearly looked like a poisoned gift as they were played out of position. Nelson is usually a winger but played as a wingback because the manager wanted to give Walcott some playing time. And Maitland-Niles is usually a central midfielder but played also as a wingback because Wenger wanted to rest both Kolasinac and Monreal. The positive is that they see the game differently and can hone their defensive game. The negative is that they don’t feel comfortable in those positions.

Maitland-Niles wasted two good situations in the first half with crosses that lacked accuracy. He then gave away the ball to Whiteman by attempting a blind pass to Dasilva in the 79th. However, Maitland-Niles had enough pace to catch Whiteman and win the ball back. Nelson also ran into trouble with a dribbling attempt on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 55th. The U23 winger then let May bear down on goal in the 58th by misreading the bounce of the ball. Fortunately, Maitland-Niles covered him and bullied May off the ball.

By his own standards, Nelson had a poor game. He was dispossessed a couple of times with cheeky dribbles in the opening minutes. Despite a below-par performance, Nelson still managed to test Lawlor with a 20-yard drive in the 45th and an angled shot in the 65th.

 

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

Arsenal took the lead in Group H of the Europa League by defeating Cologne 3-1 on Thursday. Despite what the scoreline might suggest, it wasn’t a walk in the park. The game was delayed for an hour because of safety concerns caused by some 20,000 German supporters around the Emirates stadium. Wenger even said he thought the match would be postponed.

Arsenal vs. Cologne 2017

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

On the pitch, the Gunners made life difficult for themselves by conceding an early goal against the run of play. Some supporters added more pressure on the team by booing back passes. A tactical switch and a substitution at halftime helped Arsenal get back into the game. Kolasinac equalized with a volley in the 49th minute before Sanchez scored in the 67th and Bellerin sealed the win in the 82nd.

  1. Wenger got his priorities right

Sunday’s game at Chelsea is much more important than a Europa League match. That’s why the manager did not hesitate to make 9 changes to the side that routed Bournemouth 3-0 last Saturday with only Bellerin and Monreal retaining their starting spots. Cech, Ramsey, Ozil, Xhaka, Lacazette and Welbeck were not even in the squad while Mustafi and Kolasinac were on the bench at kickoff. And Koscielny was serving a suspension after receiving a red card against Bayern Munich last season.

  1. Don’t play youngsters out of position

Wenger improved the careers of Petit and Henry by moving them to new positions. Petit was a leftback by trade at Monaco before becoming a world-class defensive midfielder at Arsenal while Henry was a winger at Monaco and Juventus before Wenger turned him into a prolific centerforward. Those experiments worked because Petit and Henry both had the skills and tactical intelligence to adapt to those roles.

Maitland-Niles’ best position is central midfielder. Yet, the manager played him at wingback and centerback in the pre-season friendlies. On Thursday, the Gunners lost a source of supply on the left flank by playing Maitland-Niles in the wingback position. Just like Bellerin in the Stoke and Liverpool games, Maitland-Niles didn’t make any cross because he’s a right-footed player.

At halftime, Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-2-3-1 formation by replacing Holding with Kolasinac as Maitland-Niles joined Elneny in central midfield. The move paid off with Maitland-Niles performing better in that role while Kolasinac brought more fluidity down the left flank.

Maitland-Niles nearly found the net with a penetrative run in the 64th but was dispossessed by the goalkeeper in a one-on-one duel. There’s still a lot of polishing to do but the potential is there. Maitland-Niles needs to be more tidy in possession and improve his concentration levels. He was late for a block in the 79th when Jojic tested Ospina with a 25-yard strike.

New signing Kolasinac has quickly become a favorite among fans since his goal in the Community Shield. Barely four minutes after coming off the bench, he volleyed home a loose ball to level the score. Kolasinac initiated the final goal by playing a one-two with Sanchez before cutting the ball back for Walcott, who was denied by Horn. But Bellerin pounced on the rebound to score with a sliding effort. Kolasinac’s movement and reading of the game also helped him strike a better understanding with Sanchez down the left flank.

  1. Iwobi must improve his positional play and work-rate

Last season, Iwobi played as an attacking midfielder either in the hole or on a wing in the old 4-2-3-1 formation. He lost his starting spot when the team shifted to a 3-4-3 system. On Thursday, Wenger played Iwobi in central midfield. Iwobi’s impact on the game proved weak because of his poor work-rate and lack of spatial awareness. The Gunners struggled to find Iwobi because the Nigeria international did not make himself available like Cazorla, Ozil or Ramsey.

In the first half, Iwobi played too high up the pitch. Instead of acting as a deep-lying playmaker, Iwobi pretty much played like a No. 10. Wenger realized that Iwobi did not understand the role of a central midfielder and therefore shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation that was more familiar for Iwobi.

In the second half, Iwobi felt more comfortable in the No. 10 role. His attacking stats are decent with 3 key passes and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to Squawka. But his defensive stats show his poor work-rate with no tackle won, no interception and no block. Iwobi will need to get rid of this habit of running into traffic to cheaply give away the ball.

  1. Midfield is still an issue

The tempo was too slow in the first half because nobody pulled the strings in midfield. When Cazorla is sidelined, Ozil often drops back to help build up play. The lack of creativity was also blatant as Elneny and Iwobi don’t have the passing skills of Cazorla or Ozil. Defensively, Iwobi pretty much left Elneny on his own. Elneny only won 2 of 6 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. That’s OK against an average side like Cologne but it won’t be enough against a good team.

  1. Holding looked out of his depth

The youngster was such a nervous wreck that Wenger yanked him off at halftime. In 45 minutes, Holding won 0 of 3 tackles, and made 3 fouls, 0 interception and 0 block. Holding showed poor decision-making in the third minute when he attempted a risky clearance instead of making a back pass to Ospina. Bittencourt blocked the clearance to be clean through on goal but Holding pulled him back. Surprisingly, the referee did not even book Holding for that cynical foul. A minute later, Holding fouled Bittencourt on the edge of the Arsenal box. He then failed to block Cordoba’s wonder strike in the 10th. Attempting to make amends, Holding gave Cologne a counterattacking opportunity by running into traffic and losing possession in the 40th.

In the summer, the Gunners sold Paulista and kept Mustafi, Chambers and Holding. In hindsight, a smarter policy would have been to sell Chambers, keep Paulista and Mustafi and loan out Holding. The England U21 international is so low on confidence that you wonder what kind of competition would help his development: Europa League? League Cup? Championship?

  1. Sanchez is still hungry

The Chile striker will need great performances in his last season at the club to earn a fat contract next summer. Despite a relative lack of match sharpness, Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead by cutting inside to curl a shot into the far corner. He could have scored another goal in the 89th but his lob attempt sailed wide. Fans could see his desire as he pressed high up the pitch several times.

  1. A high defensive line with Mertesacker is suicidal

Playing a high defensive line can be challenging when you have a centerback with no recovery pace like Mertesacker. Most of Cologne’s chances resulted from Mertesacker’s sluggishness. Zoller initiated the opening goal by making a run between Monreal and Mertesacker. Ospina came off his line because Zoller was clean through on goal.

The German side nearly doubled the lead by using the same ploy in the 16th. Zoller beat the offside trap by making a run between Mertesacker and Holding. However, Zoller struggled to control the ball, which ended up rolling toward Ospina. Cologne exploited again Arsenal’s high defensive line in the 72nd. Cordoba rolled away from Mertesacker and dribbled past Monreal to fire a low strike that Ospina turned around the post.

  1. Arsenal shouldn’t extend Walcott’s contract

Walcott’s limited technique was exposed on Thursday. He was dispossessed 4 times and was flagged offside 4 times, the most for any player in both categories. Despite his clumsiness, Walcott managed to get involved in two goals. It was his blocked cross that led to Kolasinac’s equalizer. Then his lost duel against Horn led to the final goal. Nelson, who replaced Walcott in the 83rd, is already a much better player at the same age. Wenger will carefully give Nelson some playing time this season before integrating him into the first team next year.

  1. Giroud had an off day

The France striker tried hard but couldn’t find the net. Giroud took a pass from Maitland-Niles in the 14th for a close-range effort that Heintz deflected out. He then met a cross from Bellerin in the 20th for a tame header that Horn easily saved. I thought Giroud should have scored in the 39th when he connected with a cross from Sanchez but sent his header wide. Giroud was dominant in the air, winning 4 of 4 aerial duels. I was surprised that the Gunners didn’t try to find him more in the second half. Cologne proved so weak in the air that they only won 20% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

  1. Ospina was rusty

In his first game of the season, Ospina hit a poor clearance that led to the opening goal. The Colombia goalkeeper learned his lesson in the second half as he kicked the ball straight into touch in a similar situation. Ospina made a fine save in the 72nd to prevent Cologne from leveling. His quick legs are definitely an asset when you have Mertesacker in the back three.

  1. Bellerin had a good game

After a couple of disappointing performances, Bellerin finally showed the level that justified his selection in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year. The Spaniard scored a goal, created 2 chances, had a passing accuracy of 92%, made 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 1 of 1 tackle and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 4 interceptions and 1 block. He’s obviously a better player on the right flank than on the left.

  1. Could this be Wilshere’s season?

In his first game of the season with the first team, Wilshere came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 68th. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in the 3-4-3 system, but Cazorla’s injury and our midfield woes give him a big opportunity to get some playing time.

  1. Debuchy and Chambers have no future at the club

Both players were not even included in the Europa League squad. That doesn’t look good when youngsters like Holding and Maitland-Niles start and when Reine-Adelaide, Nelson and Akpom get the nod on the bench. Debuchy can only blame himself for not accepting a salary cut at another club while Chambers must have regrets about his aborted move to Leicester.

 

Stoke vs. Arsenal: 1-0 loss exposes midfield issues

There was this hope that the Gunners had turned a corner by winning 4-1 at the Britannia stadium last season. But Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Stoke reminded Arsenal fans that their club was stuck in a time loop like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The result showed again the importance of Koscielny at the back. Without the France defender, who was serving the last game of his three-match ban, the Gunners have already conceded four goals in their first two Premier League games. The Potters also exposed our midfield problems as they too easily reached the Arsenal box.

Stoke City v Arsenal - Premier League

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

You would think that Arsenal dominated the match with 77% of ball possession and 18 shots to 11, but Stoke proved as threatening as the visitors in the final third with both teams having 9 shots each from inside the box. Obviously, the Potters’ game plan was to park the bus and hit Arsenal on the fast break. They also showed more commitment than the Gunners by winning 55% of the duels and making 10 interceptions to 8 and 19 tackles to 16, according to the club’s website.

Wenger made two changes to the side that edged Leicester 4-3 the previous weekend with Mustafi and Ramsey replacing Holding and Elneny in the starting lineup. Holding was not even on the bench as Mertesacker took his spot in the squad. The manager also left out Sanchez, who’s recovering from an abdominal strain. I thought partnering Xhaka with Ramsey in central midfield was a bold move. Coquelin or Elneny would have been a more defensive option than Ramsey. Knowing Stoke’s game plan, Coquelin’s technical limitations would have been of no help to crack their defense. And Elneny would have not provided the same goal threat as Ramsey.

A dysfunctional midfield

Whatever pairing Wenger chooses, the Arsenal midfield will still be dysfunctional. Stoke only had Fletcher and Allen in central midfield, yet that was enough to trouble the Gunners. We simply have no pairing that can match the level of the duo formed by Vieira and Petit or Vieira and Gilberto. Since the solution does not exist in the squad, that means Arsenal can only find it in the transfer market.

The club has less than two weeks left to sign the top defensive midfielder who can shield the back three and help provide more tactical flexibility. Under Ancelotti, Real Madrid had Xabi Alonso and Modric in central midfield with Di Maria as a playmaker in front of them. Zidane added more security by playing a defensive midfielder, Casemiro, behind Kroos and Modric. If we assume that Xhaka is a pacesetter like Kroos and that Ramsey is a box-to-box player like Modric, that means the Gunners would need a ballwinner with better passing skills and a better reading of the game than Coquelin.

In the current 3-4-3 system, Xhaka is the holding midfielder. Unfortunately, he lacks the pace and positional play to perform that role. That’s why Xhaka needs a ballwinner who can relieve him of his defensive duties. A three-man midfield with an efficient ballwinner would also make the shift to a back four safer.

Xhaka had a poor game with a passing accuracy of 85.3%. He won just 20% of his duels compared to 60% for Ramsey, according to the club’s website. Although Ramsey plays in a more advanced position than Xhaka, the Wales midfielder performed better defensively, winning 4 of 6 tackles while Xhaka lost the only tackle he made, according to Squawka.

Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline

Ramsey had three scoring chances. First, he chased a ball over the top from Lacazette in the 17th minute but could only muster a tame shot under Diouf’s pressure. Then, he connected with a free kick from Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 28th for a volley at the far post that Butland saved. In the 60th, Ramsey met a cross from Mustafi for a toe poke straight at the Stoke goalkeeper. Ramsey has often been compared to Gerrard and Lampard, but those two players were more selective in their runs and gave the priority to their defensive duties. It’s no coincidence if Ramsey plays as a free-roaming midfielder in the Wales team. That position makes up for his lack of tactical discipline.

The Arsenal midfield becomes too porous with Xhaka and Ramsey. They combined to have 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. The Potters’ first scoring chance in the third minute showed that the Arsenal midfield is the football version of gruyere cheese (see the screen captures below). Shawcross initially outjumped Lacazette to head a long ball into the path of Fletcher. Somehow, the 33-year-old Fletcher ran past Ramsey and Xhaka to feed Jese. The Spain international evaded Mustafi’s tackle but was denied by Cech.

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Fletcher making a 20-yard run between Ramsey and Xhaka. (Photo credit: NBC)

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The shift to a back three prevents the Arsenal defense from being outnumbered. (Photo credit: NBC)

Stoke’s winning goal in the 47th showed how dysfunctional the Arsenal midfield is. Cameron intercepted Xhaka’s pass for Ozil and found Jese, who ran unopposed for 25 yards before slipping the ball to Berahino on the edge of the box. Berahino played the ball back to Jese, who beat Cech with a low diagonal shot. Ozil got plenty of stick from Keown on BT Sport but the Germany playmaker was covering Ramsey, who got stuck up front (see the screen capture below).

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Cameron beats two Arsenal midfielders with that short pass to Jese. (Photo credit: NBC)

Xhaka was the main culprit on that play. First, he made a sloppy pass from the halfway line. Then he tried to make up for his mistake and dived in, giving Jese plenty of space to run into. Last season, Wenger switched to a back three because he realized the defense lacked protection from the midfield. The Arsenal defense is rarely outnumbered with three centerbacks but the centerbacks still have to win their duels (see the screen capture below). Monreal hesitated for a split second and was late to block Jese’s shot. I’m pretty sure Koscielny wouldn’t have made that mistake.

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The Arsenal defense left in a 3v3 situation because of a porous midfield. (Photo credit: NBC)

The absence of Cazorla and Sanchez meant that Ozil carried the burden of creating chances as Xhaka and Ramsey combined to make only one shot assist. The Gunners had 18 shots but very few were clear-cut chances. At times, they even seemed to lack penetration. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes, according to Squawka. He also had 3 successful dribbles out of 4. As usual, his work-rate was poor with 0 tackle and 1 interception.

Losing a source of supply

Wenger’s choices for the wingback positions also limited the potential for creating chances. In the FA Cup final, Bellerin started on the right flank while the Ox roamed down the left. On Saturday, Bellerin and the Ox swapped positions. In both cases, the Gunners are losing a source of supply since Bellerin and the Ox can’t accurately cross with their left foot. It would have made more sense to play Kolasinac on the left flank and the Ox on the right with Mustafi, Monreal and Bellerin as the three centerbacks.

The Ox had a good game with 3 key passes, 7 successful dribbles out of 8 and a passing accuracy of 89%. He also displayed some impressive work-rate with 3 interceptions, 3 blocks and 3 tackles made, according to Squawka. His only weakness was the relative lack of end product with none of his 3 shots on target. Some fans often wonder why the manager hardly plays the Ox in midfield. I guess his dribbling skills are more useful on a wing and his reading of the game is not good enough yet. Lacazette lauched a counterattack with a clearance in the 36th. The ball fell to the Ox, who wasted a promising situation by opting for a long-range effort instead of feeding Ozil or Welbeck (see the screen captures blow).

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The Ox could have played Ozil clean through on goal. (Photo credit: NBC)

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The Ox could have crossed to an unmarked Welbeck at the far post. (NBC)

Bellerin struggled on the left flank as he won only 25% of his duels compared to 58.8% for the Ox on the opposite wing. In fact, his stats are much weaker than when he plays on the right flank. Bellerin made 0 cross, created 0 chance and made 0 dribbling attempt. On the bright side, Bellerin won 2 of 5 tackles and had 2 shots. The Spaniard collected a through ball from Ozil in the 58th to fire a low strike that Butland parried. Bellerin should have definitely been awarded a penalty in the 20th when Diouf tripped him inside the area. Taking the lead so early would have forced Stoke to chase the game and free some space.

Not clinical enough

Up front, it was a frustrating day for Lacazette. The France international had 0 shot, made 0 dribble and won 0 aerial duel. I just think he’s not tailored for the centerforward position in the Premier League. Lacazette used to lead the line for Lyon, but the French league is less physical and more technical than the Premier League. He was outjumped by the Stoke defense whenever the Gunners kicked long balls.

In my eyes, Lacazette would be more productive in the Premier League as a second striker. In the first half, his only moment of brilliance occurred in the 17th when he sent a ball over the top for Ramsey. In the second half, he scored an equalizer but the goal was disallowed for a very marginal offside. TV replays showed the tip of Lacazette’s boot was offside. Wenger was quite upset with the referee’s decision. As long as the Premier League doesn’t introduce the video assistant referee, you can’t really blame the linesmen.

If Lacazette is struggling in the air, why is the manager not playing Welbeck in the centerforward position? One obvious answer lies in Welbeck’s performance: he is simply not clinical enough. The Ox picked out Welbeck with a ball over the top in the 19th but Butland saved Welbeck’s volley. I believe Van Persie would have scored in that kind of situation. Then Ozil made a cross for Welbeck, who headed the ball over the bar in the 59th. When you have a free header, you have to catch the frame. A few minutes later, Giroud played Welbeck in with a first-time pass. Surrounded by two Potters, Welbeck had a heavy second touch and could only hit a toe poke straight at Butland.

Giroud came off the bench to replace Kolasinac in the 66th as the Gunners shifted to a back four. He made an immediate impact by setting up Welbeck in the 67th before feeding Lacazette for the disallowed goal with a backheel flick. In hindsight, maybe the manager should have started Giroud up front knowing that Arsenal would dominate possession and that Stoke would park the bus. In stoppage time, Giroud couldn’t live up to his reputation as a super-sub as he headed Monreal’s cross wide from 12 yards.

A six-pointer at Anfield

At the back, Mustafi had a decent performance for his first game of the season. The Germany international won 2 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels. He missed a tackle that could have proved costly in the third minute before sending shivers down the spine of most Arsenal fans with a 50-50 challenge on Pieters in the 84th. Monreal was obviously guilty on Stoke’s goal but Kolasinac is the centerback whose performance raised a few questions. Kolasinac won 0 of 3 tackles and only 37.5% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi and 66.7% for Monreal. I still believe leftback or wingback is a more natural position for Kolasinac.

I can understand why the manager played Monreal in the back three. The Spaniard is a great asset to play the ball out from the back. Monreal had a passing accuracy of 94% compared to 89% for Kolasinac and 87% for Mustafi. However, Stoke exposed Monreal’s weakness in the air. Shawcross beat Monreal and Mustafi to the ball to head Choupo-Moting’s cross over the bar in the 31st. Berahino also got the better of Monreal in the 62nd for a bouncing header that Cech tipped over the bar.

The Gunners are now under massive pressure for Sunday’s game against Liverpool. A defeat at Anfield could leave them six points off the pace. There’s also the possibility that two straight losses would bring back the negativity from last season. The fans fear the prospect of finishing outside the Top 4 again. For a big club like Arsenal, it’s not acceptable to miss Champions League football two seasons in a row. Sanchez and Koscielny are two of the leaders in the team. The Gunners will definitely need them to get a result at Anfield.

 

Arsenal vs. Leicester: Gunners survive poor defending in 4-3 win

Should we be picky or not after Arsenal opened the Premier League season with a 4-3 victory over Leicester? The Gunners didn’t really look like credible title contenders on Friday as their old defensive frailties resurfaced against an average side. Yet, we shouldn’t forget that Arsenal dropped 3 points on opening day in the past two seasons, losing 4-3 to Liverpool a year ago and 2-0 to West Ham in 2015. In mathematical terms, it’s definitely an improvement.

Arsenal vs. Leicester 2017

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

Down 3-2 with about 10 minutes left, the Gunners showed character to grind out a win that was fully deserved. They enjoyed 70% of ball possession and had 27 shots compared to just 6 for the Foxes. Arsenal also showed more commitment than the visitors, winning 61% of the duels, and making 24 tackles and 13 interceptions compared to 17 tackles and 10 interceptions for Leicester, according to the club’s website. It’s a good result if we keep in mind that Koscielny was suspended, Mustafi was on the bench but not really fit, and Sanchez, Mertesacker, Paulista and Cazorla were injured.

Wenger made two changes to the side that defeated Chelsea in the Community Shield a week ago with Ozil and Kolasinac replacing Iwobi and Mertesacker in the starting lineup. Tactically, there was no surprise from the Foxes, who used the blueprint that helped them win the league during the 2015-16 season.

Arsenal relied on the 3-4-3 system that has produced good results since April. Chasing the victory, Wenger shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 67th by sending on Ramsey and Giroud for Elneny and Holding. When the Gunners charged forward, it pretty much looked like the old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system used against Manchester United last season. But whatever system is used, the closing minutes showed that it’s still the quality of the players that makes the difference.

The super-sub strikes again

In his Premier League debut, Lacazette found the net by the second minute. The French international headed in a cross from Elneny to give Arsenal the lead. He could have scored another goal in the 85th but Schmeichel tipped his strike over the bar. Lacazette was tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 90%, which is unusual for a centerforward. He also displayed some great work-rate by making 5 tackles and contributed to the team’s passing game with 3 shot assists. Lacazette made a cross for Ramsey, who headed wide in the 68th, and then set up Xhaka for a volley that Schmeichel saved in the 70th.

I thought Lacazette could have enjoyed better service. His teammates probably need a bit more time to understand his runs and capitalize on his excellent movement. Lacazette’s integration is nevertheless a success if we remember how long it took for Henry to score his first Arsenal goal after his transfer from Juventus. He’s a false nine like Sanchez, but the big difference between the two strikers is that Lacazette doesn’t feel the need to touch the ball as often as the Chile forward. Last season, Sanchez sometimes ended up making more passes than Ozil. That won’t happen with Lacazette.

Giroud does not have Lacazette’s pace but his power and dominance in the air are great assets in a physical league like the Premier League. Wenger had no doubt that Giroud and Lacazette could be complementary as they played together the last 25 minutes of the game. It was in fact Giroud who played the ball back to Lacazette in the 85th. Giroud scored the winning goal a few seconds later by holding off Maguire and Morgan to head Xhaka corner under the bar.

Welbeck’s crucial equalizer

Technically, Welbeck is a compromise between Giroud and Lacazette. The England international has more pace than Giroud and is stronger in the air than Lacazette. He has often been criticized for his relative lack of end product, but his crucial goal on the stroke of halftime allowed the Gunners to head back to the dressing room with the score tied at 2-2. When Ozil found Lacazette inside the box, the French striker could only muster a tame sliding effort. Yet, the ball fell to Kolasinac, who fed Welbeck for a close-range chip.

Starting on the left wing, Welbeck teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain for a long-range strike in the 59th and played Bellerin in for a low shot that Schmeichel saved with his legs in the 62nd. Welbeck can swap positions with Lacazette, which means that the ballholder often has two passing options inside the box. The 3-4-3 system then turns into a 3-5-2 formation when Ozil drops back to get involved in the build-up.

By his own standards, Ozil had an average game. He led all players with 6 key passes but also had 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. One of his turnovers led to a corner and Okazaki’s equalizer in the fifth minute. Ozil finished the game with 81 passes, trailing only Xhaka’s 99. He seemed to lack a bit of sharpness in the final third as he dragged a low drive wide in the 49th and attempted a poor volley in the 74th. Ozil’s only moment of magic was the one-two he played with Welbeck in the 22nd.

The Ox’s work-rate

On the left flank, Oxlade-Chamberlain was among the Gunners who suffered from a bout of nervousness in the first half. Despite a couple of stray passes from the wingback position, the Ox grew into the game to lead all players with 8 successful dribbles out of 9. His work-rate was quite impressive as the Ox won 3 of 4 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions, 2 key passes and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. The only weakness in the Ox’s performance was his lack of accuracy in the final third with just 2 of 6 shots on target. On the opposite wing, Bellerin didn’t shine as much as the Ox for the simple reason that Albrighton gave him a hard time while Mahrez’s poor work-rate played into the Ox’s hands.

In central midfield, the manager partnered Xhaka with Elneny. Cazorla’s long-term absence means that Xhaka is the only player in the squad who can set the tempo, assuming that Ozil can’t play in a deeper position. To build his midfield around Xhaka, Wenger had the choice between Coquelin, Ramsey and Elneny. Coquelin is the most defensive option and is technically limited. Ramsey is a bigger goal threat but lacks tactical discipline. In the end, the manager opted for a compromise by starting Elneny.

Elneny did enough defensive work to help Xhaka pull the strings in midfield. He won 2 of 4 tackles, made 2 blocks and even created 2 chances, including the cross for Lacazette’s opening goal. When Arsenal needed more presence in the final third, Wenger replaced Elneny with Ramsey. The Wales midfielder made it 3-3 in the 83rd by controlling Xhaka’s cross to fire an angled effort past Schmeichel.

Pub defending

Xhaka is usually tidy in possession but made a couple of sloppy passes on Friday. His turnover in the 29th led to Vardy’s goal. Xhaka nearly cost his team another goal in the 52nd when Mahrez intercepted his pass to send a ball over the top for Vardy. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to clear the ball. Despite a passing accuracy of 81%, Xhaka still managed to hit 12 accurate long balls out of 15, the most for any outfield player according to whoscored.com. Xhaka somehow made up for his mistakes by setting up the last two goals.

At the back, the Gunners got plenty of stick for their pub defending. Most of Leicester’s chances came from turnovers or set pieces. The Foxes leveled in the fifth minute from a short corner. Unmarked at the far post, Maguire headed Albrighton’s cross into the path of Okazaki, who outjumped Xhaka to beat Cech. The Gunners committed too many players at the near post and in the middle of the box, leaving the far post exposed. Cech’s decision-making was poor on that play as he ended up in no man’s land.

The Foxes’ third goal in the 56th showed the limits and complexity of zonal marking. Vardy started his run from beyond the penalty spot and jumped unopposed to nod in Mahrez’s corner. The Leicester striker was able to get a free header because he spotted a gap between Monreal, Xhaka and Welbeck. The culprit on that play was Xhaka, who saw Vardy run in front of him but failed to mark him. Zonal marking requires flexibility to be successful and Xhaka clearly failed to adapt to the situation. Still, it’s very tricky to make the right decision in a split second. If you follow a player, you may leave a gap that could be exploited by another player. And if you stay in your zone, you may let an opponent have a free header. Xhaka’s involvement in the 3 Leicester goals tells you that he’s not a defensive midfielder.

Loaning out Holding?

Holding was again the weak link in the back three. The U23 player proved strong in the air, winning 4 of 4 headers, but he’s still a bit too naive for the Premier League. He made a sloppy pass in the 23rd and was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Fuchs in the 33rd and Maguire in the 44th. Holding definitely needs to iron out mistakes from his game. Ten years ago, Arsenal could finish in the Top 4 despite starting youngsters like Denilson, Djourou and Bendtner in league games. But the Premier League has become much more competitive nowadays. If Wenger tries to speed up Holding’s development by playing him in league games, that will cost Arsenal quite a few goals. It would be less dangerous to loan him out.

Monreal took over the sweeper role when Mertesacker got injured in the Community Shield. The manager left Monreal in the middle of the back three on Friday, thinking the Spaniard could cope with Vardy and Okazaki in the air. Monreal won only 3 of 6 headers. He misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 40th and missed his header but Holding covered him and cleared the danger. On the bright side, Monreal’s technique allowed him to have a passing accuracy of 95% and his reading of the game helped him make 5 interceptions, the most for any player according to Squawka.

No gimme

Kolasinac’s performance was a mixed bag. He won 4 of 5 tackles, the most for any player, made an assist and had a volley turned around the post in the 27th. But he should have been tighter to Vardy for Leicester’s second goal. Kolasinac also had a risky pass intercepted by Mahrez on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 55th. If everybody was fit, I’d feel more comfortable with Kolasinac in the wingback position than as a centerback.

Saturday’s results show that there’s no gimme in the Premier League nowadays: Chelsea lost to Burnley and Liverpool drew with Watford. Arsenal’s defensive performance against Leicester was horrible but the three points give the team some time to work on those weaknesses and build confidence. The Gunners will need to show the same team spirit when they visit Stoke on Saturday as Koscielny will still be suspended and Sanchez won’t have recovered yet from his abdominal strain.

A few thoughts on the Emirates Cup

The Gunners retained the Emirates Cup after thrashing Benfica 5-2 on Saturday and losing 2-1 to Sevilla on Sunday. That may sound weird since Sevilla won both games they played but the competition rules state that a point is awarded for each goal scored.

Emirates Cup 2017

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

The level of that tournament proved decent as Benfica and Sevilla both qualified for the Champions League. However, I still felt that I learned more about the squad from the China tour than from the Emirates Cup.

  1. Can Lacazette shine as a centerforward in the Premier League?

Lacazette’s performance in the Emirates Cup was a mixed bag. He scored against Sevilla but several plays showed that he doesn’t have the right mindset yet. As the most expensive player signed by Arsenal, you can bet the fans and pundits will judge Lacazette on his goals. In the first half of the Sevilla game, Lacazette hid twice at the far post while the more natural choice would have been to make a run to the near post when Welbeck crossed the ball.

The French striker will need to develop his killer instinct. Lacazette could have shot from 15 yards in the 16th minute but preferred to slip the ball to Bellerin, who was in a less favorable position. Then, Lacazette could only muster a tame shot in the 58th before finding the net four minutes later by converting an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross.

Obviously, Lacazette is still trying to understand his team’s passing game and will need a bit of time to completely fit in. I just don’t think he’s the right choice for the centerforward position, especially in the Premier League. Many English clubs simply park the bus when they face Arsenal, which means that Lacazette would have very little space to run into. An old-fashioned striker like Giroud, strong in the air and able to outmuscle defenders, would be more useful in those situations.

At 5’9, Lacazette is quite a short forward. Optimists will mention Aguero as the example of a successful centerforward despite his short height, but then they would need to remember that Manchester City had a plan B with the towering Dzeko. I believe Lacazette will do better in the Premier League as a second striker or false winger than as a centerforward.

  1. Arsenal should keep Giroud

Giroud has a low resale value. Therefore it wouldn’t make sense to sell this summer a player who has a unique skill set in the Arsenal squad. Giroud is not just our most dominant forward in the air. Only Welbeck can maybe hold the ball up like Giroud. And only Sanchez can match Giroud’s link-up play. In terms of goals per minute played, Giroud is also more clinical than Welbeck and Walcott.

The Benfica game highlighted those skills. Giroud held off a defender in the 27th to feed Walcott on a counterattack. He then volleyed into the far corner to make it 4-2 in the 64th. The France striker set up the last goal in the 71st by cushioning Kolasinac’s cross into the path of Iwobi, who fired into the roof of the net.

  1. Walcott is learning a new position

As an inside forward, Walcott looked lost on the pitch against Sydney FC. He seemed to have a better understanding of the position against Benfica. Walcott may have no impact in Arsenal’s passing game but he still has some flair for goals. He converted Kolasinac’s cross in the 24th before pouncing on Coquelin’s offering in the 32nd to tap into an empty net.

The more interesting part of the Benfica game is that Walcott had an assist in the 52nd when Lopez diverted his cross into his own net. Walcott also made a pinpoint cross for Giroud in the fourth minute but Julio Cesar saved the Frenchman’s header. During the 2012-13 season, Walcott had 12 assists in the Premier League. For whatever reason, his assist numbers have significantly dropped over the past few years. Walcott would have a better shot at starting games if he could balance more evenly his goals and assists.

  1. Experience is key at the back

It is easier for a youngster to break through as a striker than as a defender for the simple reason that mistakes are less costly up front than at the back. Martial and Mbappe are the obvious names that come to mind while you would struggle to name one teenager who has shone as a centerback. Experience clearly makes a huge difference for a defender.

I found it strange that Wenger played Maitland-Niles at centerback and wingback in the summer friendlies while the team more urgently needs a defensive midfielder, which is Maitland-Niles’ natural position. Maybe the manager wanted to show Maitland-Niles the cost of defensive errors and help him improve his reading of the game.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety cost Arsenal two goals in the Benfica game. First, he hesitated in his positional play and was not tight enough to Cervi, who opened the scoring in the 12th. Then his risky pass was intercepted by Pizzi and the ball fell to Salvio who made it 2-2 in the 39th. You would think that Maitland-Niles learned from his mistakes, but he didn’t. The English teenager attempted another risky pass that was intercepted in the 67th and led to a Benfica counterattack. At 19, Maitland-Niles still has time to develop, but he must learn at a faster pace otherwise he could be discarded like Akpom.

Holding is two years older than Maitland-Niles but only has one Premier League season under his belt. His inexperience showed in the 35th when he made a dribbling attempt as the last defender and lost possession to Pizzi, who was denied by Ospina. If Paulista was not injured, it would have made sense to loan Holding out to a Premier League club.

The Gunners made a good investment this summer by signing Kolasinac on a free transfer. At 24, Kolasinac is a much more experienced defender than Holding with five Bundesliga seasons under his belt. Kolasinac has produced some solid performances in the pre-season friendlies and has adapted to his new team more quickly than Lacazette. He made the cross for Walcott’s first goal in the Benfica game and created Iwobi’s goal by picking out Giroud. With his strong frame, Kolasinac is perfectly tailored for the physical Premier League.

  1. No Premier League starter from the youth team

The current crop of youngsters may be promising with Nelson and Willock, but it’s hard to see how they could claim a starting spot in the Premier League. It’s true that Bellerin became a regular starter during the 2014-15 season and Iwobi walked in the Spaniard’s steps a year later. But now Premier League clubs are massively spending to upgrade their squads. Even average sides have a flurry of internationals. With more competition and more pressure to finish in the Top 4 after a disappointing 2016-17 season, Wenger is more likely to take a gamble on a youngster in a League Cup game than in the Premier League.

In the long term, Nelson would be the most natural replacement for Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing. Nelson made a couple of impressive runs against Benfica. Although he’s right-footed, Nelson managed to make a pinpoint cross with his left foot in the 64th. Giroud pounced on the offering to volley into the bottom corner for a 4-2 lead. At 17, Nelson is far from the finished product. He was brushed off the ball twice against Benfica. Obviously, Nelson must beef up his game to win duels, but his technique and reading of the game are already quite outstanding for a youngster.

  1. Elneny doesn’t make the cut as a centerback

For some reason, Wenger only used Elneny as a centerback during the summer friendlies. That decision didn’t really make sense with Holding and Chambers back in the squad for the Emirates Cup. The manager expects the team to play the ball out from the back and Elneny has better passing skills than your average centerback. But as a defender, you still have to properly execute the offside trap and win duels.

Elneny struggled with the offside trap against Bayern Munich and that weakness was again exposed in the Sevilla game. On the stroke of halftime, Elneny stepped forward and was unable to recover as Nolito was clean through on goal. Fortunately, Koscielny rushed back to block Nolito’s cross for Ben Yedder. Then Elneny failed to stay with Correa, who played a one-two with Ben Yedder to slip the ball past Cech for the opening goal in the 49th. Wenger was pretty straightforward about Elneny’s performance after the game: “I don’t think in the future he will be a centerback.”

  1. The midfield still looks like a gruyere cheese

Throughout the summer friendlies, Wenger only relied on Xhaka, Ramsey, Coquelin and Willock to rotate in midfield. Whatever the pairing was, the midfield often looked porous. The Sevillans ran unopposed quite a few times from their own half to the Arsenal area. Banega broke forward from midfield in the 15th to feed Ben Yedder, who hit the post. In the second half, neither Xhaka nor Ramsey pressed N’Zonzi, who had plenty of time to curl the winner into the top corner. The Gunners desperately need a destroyer in midfield. Can the manager see it?

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Australia and China

The Gunners enjoyed mixed fortunes in the recent summer tour aimed at building up their fitness and increasing their worldwide fan base. Last week, Arsenal faced two Australian teams that would probably sit at the bottom of the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners defeated Sydney FC 2-0 before downing Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1.

Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Pre-Season Friendly

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

The level was much higher this week with games in China against Bayern Munich and Chelsea. The German champions completely outplayed Arsenal but somehow lost 3-2 in a penalty shootout after drawing 1-1 in regulation time. Chelsea proved more clinical than the Bavarian side by thrashing Arsenal 3-0 on Saturday.

  1. Omissions aren’t always innocent

Paulista, Wilshere and Cazorla were not in the squad for the summer tour because of injury. Holding, Chambers, Bellerin, Campbell, Mustafi and Sanchez also missed the pre-season friendlies because they were given some time off to recover from international competitions.

On the other hand, the absence of Szczesny, Debuchy, Gibbs, Jenkinson and Perez had nothing to do with an injury or international competition. Those five players seem to no longer be part of the club’s future plans. In fact, Juventus signed Szczesny a few days ago while Gibbs and Jenkinson have been linked to several English clubs.

Among the youngsters, Akpom and Reine-Adelaide missed out on the tour because their performances stagnated last season. Akpom showed poor attitude during his loan spell at Brighton while Reine-Adelaide failed to impress with the U23 team. Therefore, Wenger preferred to give a chance to Willock, Nelson, Nketiah, Bramall and Malen instead of including Akpom and Reine-Adelaide in the squad.

  1. Cech, Ramsey and Ozil are already sharp

Without Cech’s saves, Arsenal could have lost 5-1 to Bayern again. At 35, Cech is no longer the goalkeeper who led Chelsea to a flurry of titles, but he’s still among the best in the Premier League.

Ramsey’s 2016-17 season was marred by injuries because the manager didn’t give him enough time to recover from the Euros. It was therefore important to gradually build up Ramsey’s fitness this summer. The Wales midfielder made a run in behind to score the second goal against the Wanderers. He also set up Iwobi for the equalizer against Bayern with a left-footed cross.

Although Ozil only has one year left on his contract, it looks like he will play the upcoming season with Arsenal. Ozil sometimes gets criticized for his poor work-rate but the quality of his delivery can make a difference in the tight games, especially when you compare with the relative lack of accuracy from Xhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain on set pieces. The Germany playmaker slipped a through ball to Walcott against the Wanderers and to Lacazette against Bayern. He also volleyed a cross from Welbeck straight at Starke.

  1. Mertesacker’s lack of pace is still an issue

Mertesacker’s performance in the FA Cup final gave the illusion that a back three could make up for his lack of pace. Unfortunately, the pre-season friendlies showed that some situations could put Mertesacker in trouble. Sydney FC created their first scoring chance by isolating Mertesacker with a speedy forward.

In the FA Cup final, Arsenal protected Mertesacker by seating deep. In Beijing, the Gunners were punished for playing a high defensive line. Mertesacker was pulled out of position by chasing Batshuayi in midfield and couldn’t recover as Willian cut inside Monreal to open the scoring. Two minutes later, Mertesacker didn’t want to dive in like on the first goal and gave plenty of space to Batshuayi, who doubled the lead with a curling shot.

  1. Lacazette and Giroud are different players

Lacazette scored the second goal against Sydney FC by converting a low cross from Iwobi. The British news media often portray Lacazette as the back-up for Giroud in the France striker role but that description is inaccurate. In fact, Lacazette is a second striker like Griezmann, not a pure centerforward like Giroud. When France manager Deschamps picks his lineup, he is therefore choosing between Griezmann and Lacazette, and not between Giroud and Lacazette.

Because the French league is more technical but also less physical than the Premier League, Lacazette was able to play as a lone striker for Lyon. However, at 5’9 Lacazette simply can’t play as a target man like Giroud or Welbeck. He couldn’t help Arsenal evade Chelsea’s high press like Welbeck did in the FA Cup final.

  1. The Gunners still miss the complete centerforward

Remember when Henry and Van Persie led the line? They had everything. They could outpace defenders, dribble past them, win headers, hold the ball up, link up play and of course score plenty of goals. Among the six strikers at Arsenal (Sanchez, Giroud, Perez, Lacazette, Welbeck, and Walcott), none of them possesses all those qualities.

There are rumors that Giroud could leave the club this summer although no Gunner has his skill set. Welbeck can win headers and hold the ball up but he’s less prolific than the Frenchman. Giroud scored against the Wanderers with his trademark first-time effort at the near post.

Walcott failed in his attempt to become a centerforward during the 2015-16 season. It’s hard to see where Walcott fits in the 3-4-3 system. He started as an inside forward against Sydney FC and clearly struggled to adjust to that new position as he was caught offside three times in the first half.

  1. The midfield is weak

Wenger paired Xhaka and Coquelin against Bayern and Xhaka and Ramsey against Chelsea. The way Bayern and Chelsea outplayed Arsenal shows that we need a destroyer in midfield. Xhaka is not a natural ballwinner. He fouled Batshuayi and Willian in the opening minutes of the Beijing match. Coquelin may be a better tackler than Xhaka, but his technical limitations really hurt the team: he made a couple of poor passes to Welbeck in the first half of the Shanghai match.

Friendlies are often an opportunity for experiments. A midfielder by trade, Elneny played all four games as a centerback. Does it mean that the manager no longer considers Elneny as a midfield option? Or was it just to make up for the lack of centerbacks on the tour? In any case, Elneny’s stint at centerback was not really convincing. He made a poor backpass to Martinez against Sydney FC and a sloppy pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain against the Wanderers. Then Lewandowski and Willian got the better of Elneny in China. It’s hard to imagine how Elneny could mark physical forwards.

  1. Iwobi must end his sophomore slump

After breaking into the first team during the 2015-16 season, Iwobi struggled with consistency and lost his starting spot when Wenger shifted to a 3-4-3 formation a few months ago. There were mostly two issues last season: Iwobi’s lack of end product and his poor work-rate. Iwobi did well on the first issue by making an assist against Sydney FC and scoring a goal against Bayern. However, his work-rate was questionable against Chelsea. He had a high turnover rate in the first half and became nearly invisible when moved to the wingback position in the second half.

  1. Nelson is the most promising youngster

Nelson showed good technique and movement against Sydney FC. His runs helped create space in the final third. The 17-year-old midfielder set up Walcott and Bramall with accurate crosses. Nelson also produced a decent cameo against Chelsea, dancing around defenders to find Malen, who hit the post. He’s still a bit soft physically, especially in duels. Nelson could either stay at the academy to continue his development or be loaned out to a Championship side to beef up his game.

Despite the obvious needs in midfield, Wenger preferred to use Maitland-Niles as a centerback and wingback during the summer tour. Initially, I had high hopes for Maitland-Niles after his performances with the first team at the end of 2016. But his lack of effort with the youth team in 2017 raised some doubts about his work ethic.

Maitland-Niles was too casual against Sydney FC, losing possession after dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box, as well as against Chelsea, making a sloppy pass to Mertesacker and a poor clearance into the path of Willian. He also showed his defensive naivety against Bayern by allowing Ribery and Bernat to easily dribble past him because of some poor body-positioning along the by-line. To a certain extent, Maitland-Niles reminds me of Song when he joined Arsenal in 2005.

The games against Bayern and Chelsea showed that some youngsters still have a long way to go before joining the first team. Bramall struggled to cope with the level of play against Chelsea, even panicking at times. He cleared the ball straight into touch in the 24th and was dispossessed by Moses in the second minute and Kante in the 42nd on the edge of the Arsenal box. Technically, Bramall also showed some limitations with poor crosses in the sixth minute and the 44th.

Bielik was overwhelmed by the level against Bayern too, giving the ball away in the 18th and allowing a counterattack by diving in on the stroke of halftime. In midfield, Willock often looked like a mini-Coquelin, mixing up snappy tackles with cynical fouls. The best Bielik and Willock can hope for is a loan deal to a Championship side.

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

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

FA Cup final

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

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

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

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

Ramsey’s late runs

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

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

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

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

Ozil’s work-rate

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

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

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

Moses’ dive

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

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

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

Holding as the weak link

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

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

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

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

Wenger’s snipe

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

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

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

Papering over the cracks

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

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

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