Tag Archives: Giroud

Arsenal vs. Red Star Belgrade: A few thoughts on the 0-0 draw

That wasn’t pretty but Arsenal qualified for the knockout phase of the Europa League by splitting the points with Red Star Belgrade on Thursday. The Gunners still top Group H of that competition, 5 points clear of the Serbian side and 6 points ahead of BATE Borisov. Arsenal will secure a first-place finish if Belgrade and Borisov draw in 3 weeks. Otherwise, the Gunners would need a victory in Cologne if Belgrade wins or just a draw if Borisov prevails.

Arsenal vs. Red Star

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

The Premier League remains the top priority for the club, especially with the trip to Manchester City this weekend. Wenger made only one change to the side that won 1-0 in Belgrade with Macey replacing Cech in the starting lineup. Tactically, there was no surprise: the Serbian side sat back to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Belgrade had the better chances and would have found the net with a decent striker.

  1. The 3 Stooges kept a clean sheet

Elneny, Holding and Debuchy have started 3 games together this season. Their record is quite flattering with 2 wins and 1 draw. The weakness of the opposition helps explain why that back three has survived poor performances. Boakye missed the target in the 45th and 80th minutes with just Macey to beat. The Gunners can definitely thank their third-choice goalkeeper for salvaging a point as Macey tipped Srnic’s drive over the bar in the 35th and diverted the Serbian winger’s header onto the bar in the 36th.

I’m assuming Mustafi’s injury is the only reason why the manager keeps playing Elneny as a centerback because that experiment is going nowhere. Elneny lost the only tackle he made and was not involved in any aerial duel. Of the 3 centerbacks, Holding had the best stats. He won 2 of 5 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels and made 4 interceptions while Debuchy won 1 of 3 tackles and 5 of 5 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. Holding recovered the ball in the fifth minute after Macey gave the ball away to Boakye with a poor clearance.

  1. What is Wilshere’s best position?

Wilshere started on the left flank while Coquelin teamed up with Willock in central midfield. Arsenal’s passing game never really clicked because neither Coquelin nor Willock is a pacesetter. Willock had a passing accuracy of 81.6% compared to 82.9% for Coquelin, according to whoscored.com, and both combined to create only 1 chance. That’s below the level of the duo formed by Xhaka and Ramsey. In the 31st minute, Coquelin wasted a counterattack with some poor decision-making. He had 3 passing options with Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud but carried the ball for too long and saw his pass for Giroud intercepted.

In that kind of situation, you kind of wonder whether Wilshere would have made the right choice at the right time. Before the game, Wenger said he considered Wilshere as a candidate for one of the front three positions. It would make sense since Wilshere has the ability to make key passes and score goals. Capitalizing on some pub defending from Belgrade, Wilshere took the ball off Maitland-Niles in the 64th for a chip that Le Tallec cleared off the line.

Wilshere dropped back in central midfield in the 68th when Nketiah replaced Willock. There would be a strong case too for Wilshere as a deep-lying playmaker. His passing accuracy of 91.1% would have improved Arsenal’s efforts to build play from the back. Wilshere led all players with 3 key passes. The only negative from his performance was the 8 turnovers, which tied Boakye for the most by any player, according to whoscored.com. You can’t afford that many turnovers in the middle of the park.

  1. Giroud had some decent service but couldn’t score

The France striker finished the game with 2 of 4 shots on target. Borjan saved Giroud’s low strike in the 10th and denied him again in the 34th. Giroud didn’t miss any sitter but you would expect more from a player involved in international matches. Walcott didn’t impress either. The English forward had a poor game with none of his 2 goal attempts on target. Walcott beat his marker in the 76th to head Wilshere’s cross wide before hitting an air shot in the 79th. Next summer would be the perfect time to sell Walcott and give more playing time to youngsters like Nelson and Nketiah.

  1. Youngsters should be hungry but not greedy

Willock made the right choice in the 34th when he dispossessed Donald to feed Giroud. But then Willock opted for personal glory in the 57th, dragging his shot wide from 25 yards instead of slipping the ball to an unmarked Walcott. Three minutes later, the ball fell into the path of Coquelin, who was about to shoot, but Willock took the ball off the French midfielder and the chance was gone. Youngsters always want to make a strong impression on the manager, but when they try too hard, it usually has the opposite effect.

  1. Maitland-Niles and Nelson are learning the ropes

Finding the right balance between offense and defense can be tricky, especially in the wingback position. Maitland-Niles is a central midfielder by trade and Nelson a winger. Playing out of position will help them improve their reading of the game.

Maitland-Niles finished the game with 2 key passes. He dribbled past a defender to set up Giroud in the 10th and found again the Frenchman in the 65th for a wide effort. For any right-footed player, making crosses from the left flank is not easy. Maitland-Niles only attempted one cross with his weaker left foot in the 38th. Unsurprisingly, the ball went out of play. Maitland-Niles did OK defensively although he failed to stop Srnic’s teasing cross in the 56th.

Nelson had a good game defensively. He won 2 of 3 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 1 block. However, Nelson struggled a bit offensively despite 2 of 4 crosses completed and 2 successful dribbles out of 4, according to Squawka. With 0 shot and 0 key pass, Nelson simply had no end product in the final third. At 17, that’s not embarrassing but it shows there’s still a long way to go for him.

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League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Norwich

That was a narrow escape for the Gunners, who edged Norwich 2-1 in extra time on Tuesday to reach the quarterfinals of the League Cup. The Canaries had a couple of chances in the second half to take a 2-0 lead. Wenger made two desperate substitutions to avoid elimination. The manager replaced Maitland-Niles with Akpom in the 70th minute and Nelson with Nketiah in the 85th, forcing Iwobi and Walcott to play as wingbacks for the end of the game.

Arsenal vs. Norwich

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

Because there was only one full day of rest between the Everton match and Tuesday’s League Cup encounter, Wenger made 11 changes to the side that won at Goodison Park. By contrast, Manchester United and City had 4 or 5 first-choice players in their starting lineups for that competition.

The Arsenal team looked very similar to the one that played in Belgrade with Macey and Iwobi taking the starting spots of Cech and Willock. The manager added more creativity in midfield by using Wilshere in central midfield alongside Coquelin. Despite the presence of Wilshere and Iwobi, the passing was not crisp at all and the tempo was too slow, especially in the first half.

  1. Nketiah had Norwich and the crowd in his pocket

There’s nothing exceptional about beating a Championship side. But when a teenager scores 2 goals in his home debut, you can understand why the crowd got excited and chanted “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” several times. At 18, Nketiah showed more end product than veterans like Giroud and Walcott. With his first touch of the game, he scored the equalizer in the 85th by stabbing home a corner after a flick-on from Coquelin. In the sixth minute of extra time, Nketiah outjumped two Canaries to head in another corner. And 8 minutes from time, Nketiah outpaced two defenders to fire an angled strike that Gunn saved with his legs.

Wenger was right after the game to suggest that fans shouldn’t get carried away too quickly. Youngsters like Merida and Vela also shone in domestic cup competitions but never managed to impress in the Premier League. Playing in the League Cup will help boost Nketiah’s development though. He’ll definitely learn more from that kind of competition than from an Under-23 game. Whatever happens to his career, Nketiah has already done better than Afobe, Aneke and Emmanuel-Thomas, who never scored for the first team despite shining with the academy.

  1. Iwobi is regressing

Iwobi is a good example why we shouldn’t go overboard with Nketiah. Starting in the front three with Giroud and Walcott, the Nigeria international missed a few simple passes, shot from unfavorable positions, carried the ball too much and sometimes had the bad habit of running into traffic. At 21, Iwobi is not the finished product yet, so it’s normal that he doesn’t read the game like Ozil or Sanchez. But he definitely needs to simplify his game. Ironically, it’s only when he shifted to the wingback position that Iwobi made a positive impact. He found Nketiah, who set up Wilshere in the 90th. Three minutes later, Iwobi slipped the ball to Akpom, who fired wide.

  1. Elneny is not a centerback

The summer friendlies showed Elneny’s poor positional play in the centerback position. That weakness was again exposed against Norwich. Elneny was in no man’s land for the Canaries’ goal in the 34th and when Vrancic dragged his shot wide in the 74th. His relative lack of pace also proved a liability in one-on-one duels. In the 56th, Oliveira ran past Elneny, who brought down the Norwich striker. Holding’s nearby presence saved Elneny from a red card as the last defender. Two minutes later, Murphy outpaced Elneny to make a dangerous cross that Macey knocked away.

I’m wondering how long can Arsenal still get away with the 3 Stooges at the back. Debuchy has no pace either. He lost the foot race with Murphy in the 34th. And Holding can sometimes be let down by his decision-making. He made the mistake of helping out Debuchy against Oliveira in the 74th while Vrancic was making a run on the edge of the Arsenal box.

  1. Walcott & Giroud couldn’t find the net

Giroud had very little service. It’s only when Wenger sent the cavalry at the end of the second half that Giroud really had an impact in the final third. Last season, players like Bellerin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Monreal and Gibbs fed Giroud from the wings. On Tuesday, the attacking contribution of Maitland-Niles and Nelson was limited. Giroud headed a free kick over the bar in the 50th and was denied by Gunn in the 11th minute of extra time.

Walcott was able to more seriously test the Norwich goalkeeper with a low strike in the 42nd, a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 45th, and an angled effort in the fifth minute of extra time. Despite the margin of security provided by his speed, Walcott was caught offside at least 3 times, which is too much for a single player.

  1. Can Wilshere perform well as a deep-lying playmaker?

Wilshere played in a deeper position than against Belgrade. Alongside Coquelin, Wilshere didn’t really look like an efficient pace-setter. Arsenal’s passing game depends on a midfielder imposing a high tempo. Cazorla used to perform that job before his injuries. Xhaka is now in charge of that duty but his lack of pace prevents him from reaching Cazorla’s level. Obviously, it didn’t help Wilshere to play in a makeshift team. Could Wilshere perform better if he’s surrounded by the first-choice players?

Red Star Belgrade vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win

The Gunners increased their lead atop Group H of the Europa League to five points with a 1-0 win in Belgrade. Thursday’s result also means that they will qualify for the knockout phase of the competition if they beat the Serbian side in two weeks at the Emirates.

Red Star vs. Arsenal

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

The Premier League still remains the top priority as Wenger made 9 changes to the side that lost 2-1 at Watford with only Cech and Elneny retaining their starting spots. The manager took no risk with his first-choice players by leaving Koscielny, Monreal, Bellerin, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Xhaka, Iwobi, Lacazette, Sanchez and Ozil at home while filling the bench with youngsters from the academy.

Belgrade had the better chances, sitting back to hit the visitors on the fast break. But Arsenal’s enthusiasm made the difference. Despite a hostile crowd in a packed stadium, youngsters like Nelson, Maitland-Niles and Willock rose to the occasion. The Gunners made more interceptions (15 to 9) and won more tacles (14 to 11) than the Serbian side, according to Squawka.

  1. The 3 Stooges

You can’t really complain about a scrappy win when your back three is made up of Elneny, Holding and Debuchy. They were lucky to come away with a clean sheet but at least they didn’t prove as farcical as the 3 Stooges.

Elneny’s performance was a mixed bag. He led the team with 4 interceptions and made a crucial sliding tacle to prevent Srnic from pulling the trigger in the 46th minute. But his positional play can be dodgy. In the 54th, Elneny gave the ball away to Srnic, whose shot was tipped over the bar by Cech.

Holding had a low-key performance. He showed more composure than against Cologne but could have done better to stop Snric’s cross in the 31st. Radonjic controlled the ball only to have his close-range effort parried by Cech.

In his first start of the season, Debuchy relied on his experience and reading of the game to adjust to a new position. Wenger made that gamble in part because Sagna and Monreal successfully made the transition from fullback to centerback. At 5’10, Debuchy is not a tall defender. Yet, he still managed to win 5 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka.

  1. Wilshere as an alternative to Ozil?

Ozil might leave the club in January so it would make sense to have a couple of options in the playmaking role. Iwobi is a possible alternative but he lacks consistency. Against Belgrade, Wilshere was in charge of pulling the strings. In the opening minutes, he fed Walcott, who had an opportunity to shoot but tried to dribble past 2 defenders and lost possession. Then Wilshere made an interception in the 10th but misread Giroud’s run while delivering the final ball. In the closing minutes, Wilshere initiated the play that led to the winning goal. The nifty one-touch passing brought back memories of the goal he scored against Norwich 4 years ago.

Wilshere definitely impressed against Belgrade but the Europa League is not at the same level as the Premier League. Because play is faster in the Premier League, Wilshere would need to take fewer touches than in the Europa League. I noticed that Wilshere has lost a bit of pace over the years because of the repetition of injuries. Wilshere had 4 turnovers against Belgrade, according to whoscored.com. Against stronger opposition, that turnover rate could double.

  1. Call Giroud for improbable goals

In his first years at the club, Giroud could be a frustrating striker to watch because he would miss sitters while scoring difficult goals. The Frenchman has become more efficient as he’s getting older. He can now add an overhead kick to his collection of improbable goals. Walcott headed the ball into the path of Giroud, who catapulted it into the top corner for the winner in the 85th. Until that goal, Giroud’s performance was relatively mediocre. Having no decent service, Giroud sometimes tried to shoot from unfavorable positions. He led the team with 5 turnovers and had only 2 of 5 shots on target.

  1. Nelson is learning fast

The difference between the Borisov game and the one in Belgrade is that Nelson was more focused on his defensive duties. He made a crucial sliding tackle on Radonjic in the 24th and even killed a counterattack with a cynical foul in stoppage time. Nelson finished the game with 3 interceptions and 2 blocks. He also led the team with 77 passes, which is an implicit acknowledgement of his quality by his teammates. However, the 17-year-old player still needs to work on his end product. Nelson had one scoring chance, an angled shot turned around the post by Borjan, but made no key pass.

  1. How to recognize an Arsenal team

Whether it’s the first-choice players or a second-string team, the defensive frailties of the Gunners remain the same. Belgrade led dangerous counterattacks in the 12th, the 20th and the 68th from 2 Arsenal corners and a Wilshere free kick. The Serbian side also created chances from crosses in the 31st and 52nd. The hosts should have opened the scoring in the 26th when Boakye capitalized on some lax marking from Walcott and Elneny to head a corner onto the post. I’m no fan of catenaccio but you still need to get the defensive basics right.

  1. Who should take Xhaka’s starting spot?

Xhaka’s poor performances since the start of the season mean that the manager might give the holding midfielder role to another player. In Wenger’s 3-4-3 system, only Ramsey is safe in central midfield: the Wales international’s work-rate and movement in transition make him too valuable despite his tactical indiscipline.

Coquelin teamed up with Willock in central midfield against Belgrade. Unsurprisingly, the passing quality was low. Coquelin and Willock combined to win 7 of 13 tackles and make 3 interceptions and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. In the 80th, Coquelin was elbowed in the face by Rodic, who received a second yellow. A few minutes later, Coquelin seemed to pick up a leg injury and was replaced by Sheaf.

Willock and Coquelin have pretty much the same profile: both are hard-working midfielders but with limited passing skills. Maybe a more creative player like Wilshere would be a better choice in the holding midfielder role. Wilshere played in that position with England when Hodgson was in charge. The key question then would be whether Wilshere can also contribute defensively.

  1. Walcott did his bit

Walcott’s work-rate and all-around game are not good enough to get a starting spot in the Premier League. But his flair for being in the right place at the right time makes him an interesting option against weaker opposition. Walcott should have found the net in the 15th when the Belgrade defense failed to clear a Wilshere free kick. The loose ball fell to Walcott, whose low strike was stopped by Borjan’s leg.

Most fans would think that Walcott had a poor game because they barely noticed him. But that’s what Walcott does: he disappears from the game for long spells before occasionally re-appearing in the final third. His stats are quite good with 2 of 3 shots on target and 3 key passes, the most for any player.

BATE Borisov vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 4-2 win

Despite a tricky schedule, the Gunners defeated BATE Borisov 4-2 on Thursday to consolidate their lead atop Group H of the Europa League. They had the game under control in the first half but somehow relaxed their grip on the Belarusian club, which finished stronger in the second half with a total of 18 shots and 11 chances compared to 16 shots and 7 chances for Arsenal, according to Squawka.

Borisov vs. Arsenal 2017

Photo credit: Walcott’s Twitter account

Wenger obviously had Sunday’s early kickoff against Brighton in mind as he made 9 changes to the side that downed West Brom with only Mustafi and Elneny retaining their starting spots. The manager fielded a makeshift team with 4 youngsters (Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Willock and Holding), 6 benchwarmers (Ospina, Mertesacker, Elneny, Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud) and just 1 regular starter (Mustafi).

If things had turned ugly, Wenger had no Plan B because he left Cech, Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Bellerin, Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, Iwobi, Sanchez and Lacazette out of the squad, filling instead the bench with youngsters like Macey, Akpom, Dasilva, Dragomir, Gilmour, McGuane and Nketiah. And that audacious gamble paid off.

  1. Never give space to Walcott

Premier League clubs often sit deep when they face Arsenal because they know the damage Walcott can do with his pace. The Belarusian club did not want to adapt its game plan and paid a hefty price as Walcott exploited the space between Scherbitski and the backline to score two goals.

The first warning came in the eighth minute when Walcott played a one-two with Wilshere before striking the base of the post. A minute later, Walcott met a cross from Wilshere for a header that Scherbitski saved, but Walcott pounced on the rebound to tap home. Then Walcott intercepted a sloppy pass from the BATE goalkeeper in the 22nd to double the lead with a low strike. The English forward could have notched a hat trick in the 43rd but Scherbitski tipped his angled shot around the post. I thought Walcott was a bit too greedy in the 50th when he took his chance and missed the target instead of slipping the ball to an unmarked Wilshere.

Walcott definitely produced a good all-around performance. Usually, you just see the goal(s) and nothing else. Besides his 2 goals, Walcott also made 3 key passes and 10 crosses (including 5 corners), had 4 successful dribbles out of 4, won 1 of 2 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels, and made 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. It doesn’t mean that he will start against Brighton, for the simple reason that the Seagulls won’t play like BATE.

  1. The issue with wingbacks in a 3-5-2 system

Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 3-5-2 system against West Brom to give Ramsey more freedom. The manager relied on that 3-5-2 system again basically to accommodate Walcott, who looks more comfortable as a second striker than as an inside forward.

The main problem with the 3-5-2 formation is that the wingbacks can be left on their own defensively. It’s not a coincidence if BATE wingers Gordeychuk and Stasevich made 3 key passes each while fullbacks Rios and Volodko combined to create 3 chances.

In the 3-4-3 system, the inside forwards and the wingbacks respectively mark the fullbacks and the wingers in midfield. When the team sits deep, it is then the wingbacks and the centerbacks who respectively mark the fullbacks and the wingers. In Thursday’s 3-5-2 formation, the wingbacks had no inside forwards to help them out in midfield since Walcott played as a second striker while Wilshere was in the No. 10 role.

Maitland-Niles did better defensively than Nelson, leading all Arsenal players with 5 interceptions. However, Maitland-Niles needs to improve his positional play. He left Holding in a 1v2 situation for BATE’s first goal in the 28th and should have covered Holding when the hosts scored in the 67th.

Nelson had 3 successful dribbles out of 4 and a passing accuracy of 88%, but won 0 of 3 tackles and lacked end product with only 1 key pass. In my eyes, Nelson is still too soft defensively for the wingback position. That’s the main reason why BATE mostly attacked down our right flank.

  1. Wilshere is building up his fitness and confidence

The manager used Wilshere as a central midfielder against Cologne. On Thursday, Wenger moved Wilshere further up the pitch to relieve him of his defensive duties and let him focus on his playmaking role. Wilshere set up Walcott for Arsenal’s first two chances. He also slipped a through ball to Maitland-Niles in the 25th. Unfortunately, Maitland-Niles lacked spontaneity and took two touches instead of feeding Giroud with a first-time pass. Wilshere faded in the second half and moved back into a deeper position when Nketiah replaced Willock in the 89th.

  1. The midfield lost control

The Gunners led 3-0 after 25 minutes but somehow allowed BATE to get back in the game. Elneny was teaming up with Willock for the first time. The duo made no key pass, leaving all the creating burden on Wilshere’s shoulders. Defensively, they had their flaws. Elneny won 0 of 5 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, while Willock won 4 of 5 tackles, but was dispossessed 5 times, according to whoscored.com. Willock looks so much like a mini-Coquelin. I feel that he needs to simplify his game. There are times when Willock is overestimating his abilities and running into trouble instead of releasing the ball more quickly.

  1. The back three looked suspect

Mertesacker won just 1 of 4 aerial duels, Mustafi won 0 of 4 tackles and Holding made a couple of mistakes. Stasevich in the 20th and Gordeichuk in the 71st too easily dribbled past Mustafi. Holding scored from a corner in the 25th and hit the post from another corner in the 44th, but you don’t want him to become the new Vermaelen, i.e. a flawed defender occasionally finding the net.

Holding didn’t look out of his depth like in the Cologne game. He even won more tackles than Mustafi and more aerial duels than Mertesacker. But he needs to get rid of his naivety. Holding was penalized in the 40th for making a rash tackle after giving the ball away. And he was the main culprit on BATE’s second goal. Volodko beat Mertesacker in a foot race to make a cross in the 67th. Holding lost his footing, allowing Ivanic to head the ball. Ospina made the save but Gordeichuk followed up to slam the rebound home.

  1. Giroud scored his 100th goal for Arsenal

The France striker had not scored since the Leicester game on opening day. He ended that bad run of form by converting a penalty in the 49th after Dragun had pulled Mustafi’s shirt inside the area. Giroud didn’t get much service throughout the game. However, he proved a solid target man, winning 4 of 4 aerial duels.

  1. Ospina had a decent game

Some fans complained about Ospina’s performance. Well, there’s not much he could do about BATE’s goals. Ivanic’s header from 8 yards had too much power in the 28th while Ospina could only make a reflex save in the 67th to parry the Montenegro midfielder’s header from 6 yards. To his credit, Ospina palmed away a glancing header from Signevich in the 57th and stopped a low drive from Stasevich in the 75th.

Arsenal vs. West Brom: Lacazette nets twice in 2-0 win

The Gunners had no room for error on Monday after the top teams won over the weekend. Lacazette scored both goals in the 2-0 win over West Brom to help Arsenal move into 7th place in the Premier League, 6 points behind the two Manchester clubs, and 3 points behind Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. West Brom 2017

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

The defensive performance in the first half was so poor that West Brom could have reached halftime with the lead. The Gunners were more focused on their defensive tasks in the second half and prevented the Baggies from creating any chance.

After the game, Pulis complained about a penalty that the referee failed to award in the eighth minute for a poor challenge from Mustafi on Rodriguez. Obviously, it could have been a different match with West Brom taking the lead. But then, the Gunners were also denied a penalty in the 34th when Krychowiak held Sanchez inside the area. Pulis can blame the referee but if he’s honest, he should also blame himself for relying on a very defensive 5-3-2 system and shifting to a 4-3-3 formation only after his team was two goals down. Arsenal finished the game with 16 shots and 8 chances to 7 shots and 2 chances for the visitors, according to Squawka.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that drew with Chelsea more than a week ago with Elneny and Sanchez replacing Welbeck and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The team selection was a bit intriguing because Sanchez and Lacazette started together for the first time. They might only play 9 months together, or just 5 months if Sanchez leaves in January, but their understanding could prove crucial in helping Arsenal secure a Top 4 finish.

Spot-kick specialist

Lacazette had a solid performance with 2 of 4 shots on target, 1 key pass, 4 successful dribbles out of 4 and 2 of 3 aerial duels won. He showed his flair for goals in the 20th by heading in a rebound after Foster had saved a free kick from Sanchez. The France international doubled the lead in the 67th by drilling a penalty into the bottom corner after Nyom had fouled Ramsey. Lacazette earned a strong reputation in the French league for converting spot kicks, so it made sense to have him as our No. 1 penalty taker. He’s definitely more convincing than Sanchez and Ozil in that duty. Lacazette could have notched a hat trick, but Gibbs deflected out his goal attempt in the 51st. Then Lacazette missed the target from a tight angle in the 70th.

Giroud came off the bench to replace Lacazette in the 82nd. In a 10-minute cameo, Giroud made a positive contribution with 2 key passes. He controlled a long ball from Elneny in the 87th to tee up Xhaka. Three minutes later, Giroud, released Ramsey down the right flank for a low drive that Foster saved with his leg.

When Sanchez starts, the game usually revolves around him. On Monday, Sanchez nearly played second fiddle to Lacazette, often dropping back to create chances with 2 accurate crosses and 1 accurate through ball. Sanchez played a one-two with Lacazette in the fourth minute but was shoved by Dawson when Lacazette returned the pass. Pulis claimed it was a dive but TV replays clearly showed Dawson putting an arm across Sanchez’s chest. Then Sanchez hit a ball over the top for Lacazette in the 70th. It was a decent start for that new attacking duo.

Ramsey as a free-roaming midfielder

Anybody having doubts about the Chile striker’s desire should look at his work-rate: Sanchez made 6 tackles and won 5 fouls and 3 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka. He also led all players with 10 turnovers, his péché mignon, compared to 4 for Lacazette and 3 for Ramsey, according to whoscored.com. Wenger yanked Sanchez off in the 83rd to send on Ozil, who has been nursing a knee inflammation. If his knee doesn’t heal properly, that means Arsenal could miss their two most creative players (Ozil and Cazorla) for many games this season.

One alternative to Ozil in midfield is Iwobi. Unfortunately, Iwobi is still inconsistent and can lack end product. Maybe that’s why the manager played Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder on Monday. In fact, it’s Ramsey’s position when he plays with the Wales team. He headed Bellerin’s volleyed pass over the bar in the 11th and dribbled past Foster in the 32nd only to have his cross intercepted by the West Brom goalkeeper. However, it was his run inside the box in the 66th that gave Arsenal a two-goal cushion. Nyom basically bumped Ramsey out of the pitch with his thigh. The referee awarded a penalty for two obvious reasons. First, Nyom was not playing the ball. And second, Ramsey had run past Nyom.

Elneny teamed up with Xhaka in central midfield. They did OK offensively but their defensive performance was unconvincing. Both had a passing accuracy above 92%, which means that Arsenal could apply constant pressure on the West Brom defense. Their passing range also means that the team can quickly find the forwards when play is stretched. Xhaka and Elneny combined to hit 10 accurate long balls out of 10, according to whoscored.com.

Some more gruyere cheese

However, their defensive contribution was not good enough. They combined to make only 2 tackles, 0 interception and 0 block. The Baggies too easily ran through the midfield in the first half. Krychowiak intercepted Ramsey’s sloppy pass for Elneny in the 38th and ran half the length of the pitch to make a cross for Rodriguez, who headed the ball past Cech. It took a clearance from Monreal off the line to prevent West Brom from equalizing.

It’s not the first time this season that the Arsenal midfield looks like the football version of gruyere cheese. As you can see on the screen capture below, Krychowiak ran past Ramsey and Elneny before getting involved in a foot race with Koscielny. The Gunners still seemed to have the situation under control with Monreal and Mustafi keeping an eye on Robson-Kanu while Xhaka was ahead of Rodriguez.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M38a editedXhaka is ahead of Rodriguez as the Gunners deal with a 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

Then the situation became critical because Xhaka failed to track Rodriguez while Mustafi made the mistake of helping Koscielny, leaving Monreal in a 1v2 situation with Rodriguez and Robson-Kanu. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M38b editedXhaka loses the foot race with Rodriguez as Monreal is in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

Three minutes later, Xhaka showed his lack of defensive focus by not being tight enough to Robson-Kanu. See the screen capture below. Monreal and Kolasinac did not cover themselves in glory either as they failed to block Nyom’s cross for Robson-Kanu. The Wales international flicked the ball on for Rodriguez, who couldn’t put the finishing touch.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M41a editedMonreal and Kolasinac fail to stop Nyom’s cross as Xhaka is not tight to Robson-Kanu. (Photo credit: Sky)

Stopping crosses from the left flank was an issue last season as neither Monreal nor Gibbs could do a decent job. Kolasinac had a decent game but that’s definitely one area where he could improve. The Baggies capitalized on another cross to test Cech on the stroke of halftime. Following a corner, the Gunners cleared their lines and played the offside trap, which turned out to be a mistake. Krychowiak found an unmarked Gibbs down our left flank and the former Arsenal fullback hoisted the ball into the box. Bellerin missed his clearance and Barry forced Cech into an acrobatic save with a header.

Monreal’s outstanding performance

Mustafi proved again the weak link at the back. He won only 30% of his duels, compared to 58.3% for Koscielny and 66.7% for Monreal, according to the club’s website. The Germany international still has this bad habit of making reckless challenges. When Barry hit a long ball toward Rodriguez in the eighth minute, Mustafi just had to show Rodriguez down the line and keep him off his right foot. Somehow, Mustafi brought down Rodriguez with an awkward block attempt as he thought the West Brom striker would shoot with his weaker left foot while in fact Rodriguez was checking back. The referee either played advantage or simply didn’t spot the foul. In any case, he didn’t blow the whistle. So Rodriguez quickly got back on his feet and fired a low strike that Cech diverted onto his far post. Livermore followed up only to sweep the rebound wide.

Monreal was arguably our best defender on Monday. The Spaniard led all players with 6 interceptions and all starters with a passing accuracy of 93.8%, according to whoscored.com. He also won 2 of 5 tackles, while Koscielny and Mustafi won none, and 3 of 4 aerial duels. His clearance in the 38th allowed Arsenal to retain the lead at halftime. Monreal has definitely benefited from the shift to a 3-4-3 system. He wasn’t strong enough in the air to play as a centerback in a back four and his inability to stop dangerous crosses made him a liability as a fullback.

The Gunners next face BATE Borisov on Thursday. I expect the manager to rest a lot of regular starters because it’s an exhausting trip to Eastern Europe and those who play won’t have much time to recover for the early kickoff against Brighton on Sunday. Arsenal can afford a draw or even a loss in Belarus whereas they desperately need 3 points against Brighton to make up ground in the standings.

 

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.

 

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.