Tag Archives: Holding

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Gunners pay price for poor transfer policy

   The Arsenal board must act quickly to clean up the mess created by the uncertainty about Sanchez’s situation at the club. Sanchez was not even on the bench Sunday when the Gunners lost 2-1 to Bournemouth in the Premier League. That tells you the club did not want to take any risk of injury before a possible transfer. Ironically, Bordeaux had no scruples about starting Malcom in the French league on Saturday even though the Brazilian forward has been tipped as the replacement for Sanchez. Guess what? Bordeaux won at Troyes.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

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

Last August, the Gunners performed poorly in losses to Stoke and Liverpool. The contractual situations of Sanchez, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly created doubt in the dressing room. The Ox is gone but Sanchez and Ozil are still at the club and the Arsenal squad could get destabilized again by all the transfer rumors. Sanchez could have joined Manchester City a few months ago for £60 million but Arsenal wasted too much time to meet Monaco’s asking price for Lemar, offering £31 million in June, then £40 million in July and finally £92 million at the end of August. By the time Monaco accepted the Gunners’ bid, Lemar had already started his season with the French side and was no longer willing to move, forcing Arsenal to call off the Sanchez deal.

   Will the Arsenal board learn from its mistakes and quickly sell Sanchez while signing his replacement? Or will it be another debacle with Sanchez leaving on a free transfer and his replacement coming only in the summer? If the Gunners want to know how to do some proper business, they just need to look at Liverpool. The Reds sold Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million and signed Van Dijk from Southampton for £75 million. The impact on the dressing room has been quite positive since Liverpool edged Manchester City 4-3 on Sunday.

A mid-table team

The Gunners face a massive rebuilding task this summer. Sunday’s game at the Vitality stadium gave them a foretaste of what the team could look like next season if they don’t improve the squad. Wenger fielded pretty much a mid-table team with 6 high-profile players (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Sanchez and Ozil) missing in the starting lineup. The club has already lost a year in the rebuilding process by refusing to sell Sanchez and Ozil last summer. And I don’t think the Arsenal board understands the financial implications of a massive overhaul.

Before the start of the season, I said Arsenal should have sold Chambers, loaned out Holding and signed an experienced centerback. The club chose the worst solution by selling Paulista while keeping Chambers and Holding as back-up options for the aging Mertesacker, Monreal and Koscielny. We saw the result of that poor transfer policy against Bournemouth as Chambers and Holding were involved in the two goals conceded.

The Cherries equalized in the 70th minute when Wilson converted a cross from Fraser. That’s the kind of goal that doesn’t make sense. Wilson was double-teamed by Chambers and Bellerin while Fraser and Mousset were surrounded by 4 Gunners along the touchline. Arsenal had numerical superiority on that play but lost two key duels. First, Maitland-Niles allowed Fraser to ghost past him. And second, Chambers failed to intercept the cross because of his lack of pace. To make things worse, Mustafi was pulled out of position by Mousset and couldn’t act as a safety. Cech was credited with an error by whoscored.com, but I don’t think that the Czech goalkeeper made a mistake for the simple reason that Wilson beat Chambers to the ball and had a free shot from 11 yards.

A flawed back three

Bournemouth scored the winner in the 74th, just a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four. As you can see on the screen capture below, the backline was not ready: Holding played Wilson onside by staying 4 yards behind Mustafi. With his back to goal, Wilson controlled a ball over the top from Cook and set up Ibe, who rifled a half-volley past Cech.

Bournemouth M72a editedHolding is 4 yards behind Mustafi while Xhaka keeps an eye on Ibe. (Photo credit: Sky)

Holding should have stood on the same line as Mustafi and Maitland-Niles. Xhaka also made a mistake on that play by not tracking Ibe, who beat everybody to the second ball. It’s not the first time this season that Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness has cost his team a goal.

Bournemouth M72b edited Xhaka forgets to track Ibe, who scores the winning goal. (Photo credit: Sky)

   While a back three of Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi can perform at a good level, Sunday’s back three of Mustafi, Holding and Chambers is deeply flawed. As the sweeper, Mustafi should be cautious but he’s sometimes too easily pulled out of position. That rashness can be deadly with 2 youngsters at the back. Holding is a pro-active defender like Mustafi but tends to dive in too often, winning only 2 of 7 tackles according to Squawka. By contrast, Chambers is way too passive: he made no tackle at all.

On the left wing, Maitland-Niles had a poor game. He had some lapses of concentration that are not acceptable at the top level. As the last defender on a corner in the 13th, Maitland-Niles gave the ball away to Ibe, who initiated a counterattack. He then fouled Smith in the 39th after losing possession with a poor touch on the edge of the Arsenal box. A few seconds later, Maitland-Niles had a pass intercepted by Smith, whose tame effort didn’t trouble Cech. Besides the cross for Bournemouth’s equalizer in the 70th, Maitland-Niles also failed to stop dangerous crosses from Ibe in the 40th and Francis in the 65th. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress, but he will have to quickly get rid of his naivety. The academy player was dribbled past 3 times.

Lacazette deprived of service

On the opposite wing, Bellerin was arguably Arsenal’s best player. The Spaniard scored a goal, won 5 of 6 tackles and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. He opened the scoring in the 52nd by firing a low strike that Begovic could only divert into his own net. After an average start to the season, Bellerin is getting close to the level of performance that led to his inclusion in the 2015-16 PFA Team of the Year, striking the right balance between attack and defense.

In midfield, Xhaka and Wilshere struggled defensively. Xhaka was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, while Wilshere led all players with 7 turnovers. They received yellow cards and combined to win only 1 of 11 tackles. Ramsey made his return from injury by replacing Chambers in the 74th. The Wales midfielder didn’t look sharp, making some inaccurate passes. It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks whether the manager switches to a back four to have Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield, or if he sticks to a back three and therefore benches one of the three midfielders.

In the front three, Lacazette was deprived of service. Sanchez and Ozil are two world-class players who can see and execute plays. The less talented Welbeck and Iwobi couldn’t make up for their absence. Lacazette was so frustrated that he dropped back to create chances for his teammates. He took 0 shot but attempted 4 through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles met a cross from Lacazette in the eighth minute and created space to fire a shot that clipped the bar. Then Lacazette slipped a through ball to Welbeck, who was denied by Begovic in the 35th. In the second half, Lacazette sent a ball over the top for Iwobi, who was dispossessed by Cook, and slightly overhit a through ball for Welbeck.

No Top 4 finish?

I’m worried about Lacazette’s confidence. He hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game. The France international worked hard on Sunday, winning 1 of 2 tackles, and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, but he struggled again in the centerforward role with 7 turnovers and only 1 of 10 aerial duels won. Welbeck and Iwobi didn’t do much to feed him. They combined to make only one cross. Iwobi wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 12th by ignoring Lacazette twice on the same play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi ended up running into traffic before playing a backpass to Wilshere and the chance was gone.

Bournemouth M12b edited Lacazette shows Iwobi where to play the ball. (Photo credit: Sky) 

Bournemouth M12c edited A second later, Lacazette points again where the ball should be played. (Photo credit: Sky)

Iwobi made the assist for Bellerin’s goal but his creative contribution was limited. In fact, that was Iwobi’s only key pass of the game. Somehow, it put more pressure on Wilshere and Xhaka to create plays even though they were busy defensively (Xhaka and Wilshere combined to make 6 key passes). Iwobi tested Begovic with a 20-yard drive in the 10th but missed his cross for Welbeck in the 28th in a situation that was similar to Bournemouth’s equalizer. The Nigeria international was lucky not to get penalized in the 39th for a silly handball inside the Arsenal area.

Arsenal’s record on the road has been poor this season with just 3 away wins while Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have won 6 away games at least. We shouldn’t look elsewhere if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4.

The Gunners trail fourth-place Chelsea by 8 points in the standings with 15 games left. Mathematically, Arsenal can still finish in the Top 4. But that would imply a winning run from Arsenal and an implosion from Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea. If we’re honest, winning the Europa League is the club’s most realistic chance to qualify for the Champions League next season.

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FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 4-2 loss to Nottingham Forest

The Gunners suffered their earliest exit in the FA Cup since 1996 by losing 4-2 to Nottingham Forest in the third round. The two penalties awarded to the hosts should be no excuse for Arsenal’s poor performance on Sunday. The Reds were the better team, having 9 shots on target to 4 for Arsenal, making 15 interceptions to 12 and winning 25 tackles to 17, according to whoscored.com. Now the Gunners only have the League Cup and the Europa League left to save their season.

FA Cup 3rd round

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

Wenger made 9 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Chelsea on Wednesday with Maitland-Niles and Holding retaining their starting spots. Last season, the FA Cup final showed that Mertesacker could only play in a back three sitting deep. Yet, the manager switched to a back four against Forest and it proved a tactical mistake. Mertesacker, Holding and Debuchy struggled to cope with the pace of the 18-year-old Brereton.

  1. Was the team selection wrong?

Some fans complained about the team selection after the game. I thought the starting XI was good enough to beat a Championship side or at least get a replay. Mertesacker is a World Cup winner; Elneny, Iwobi and Ospina will play in the World Cup this summer; Walcott, Welbeck, and Debuchy are Premier League veterans; Holding lifted the FA Cup less than a year ago; only Willock, Maitland-Niles and Nelson are still academy players. On paper, it was a decent mix of youth and experience. In fact, Forest even had a younger starting lineup than Arsenal.

Because the regular starters needed a break to recover from the festive period and because the manager couldn’t afford to have more players on the disabled list, the team selection made sense to me. On the other hand, I thought Wenger should have opted for a stronger bench. When the Gunners had to chase the game, there was no Sanchez, Ozil or Lacazette on the bench, only youngsters like Akpom, Nketiah and Reine-Adelaide.

  1. The defending was shambolic

Lichaj opened the scoring with a free header from a set piece because no Gunner marked him in the 20th minute. It was maybe a communication issue, but you wouldn’t expect that kind of schoolboy defending from experienced players like Mertesacker, Debuchy and Ospina.

Playing a high defensive line proved suicidal as it exposed Mertesacker’s lack of pace. Brereton cut inside Mertesacker in the 32nd to fire a low shot that Ospina saved. The Forest striker then made a run in behind Mertesacker to control a ball over the top in the 41st but was denied again by Ospina. In the closing minutes, Traore skipped past Mertesacker and won a penalty after Debuchy brought him down. Maybe Debuchy got a touch on the ball, but it was poor decision-making. From such a tight angle, it would have been unlikely for Traore to beat Ospina. Dowell converted the spot kick to seal the win.

Mertesacker equalized in the 23rd by converting a rebound after Holding’s header hit the post. However, you don’t want defenders to have Vermaelen syndrome, i.e. making up for poor defending by scoring goals. It’s now obvious why the manager is reluctant to play Mertesacker in Premier League games: his lack of pace is simply a too big liability. Debuchy didn’t cover himself in glory either. He won only 31% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any defender according to the club’s website, and had a passing accuracy of 81%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal starter.

  1. Holding should be loaned out

At 22, Holding needs playing time to continue his development. I’m not sure his season at the club is helping him. He doesn’t play regularly, which makes it difficult to build consistency. And because he plays for Arsenal, his mistakes are magnified and therefore hurt his confidence. In my eyes, a loan to a Premier League club would have been more helpful.

Holding had a decent game compared to Mertesacker and Debuchy. He won 3 of 4 tackles while Mertesacker made none and Debuchy won only 1 tackle, according to the club’s website. Of course, the fans will remember the challenge that led to a penalty in the 64th. Holding was a bit unlucky on that play. He intercepted Dowell’s backheel flick for Brereton but failed to see Cash and inadvertently tripped the Forest winger. Brereton converted the subsequent penalty to make it 3-1. Holding was also pulled out of position in the 32nd and was too easily beaten by Dowell in the 74th.

  1. The back four got no protection from the midfield

A couple of minutes before halftime, the Arsenal defense cleared a cross from Cash into the path of Lichaj, who had plenty of time to chest the ball down and volley into the top corner for a 2-1 lead. As you can see on the screen capture below, the midfielders failed to perform their defensive duties on that play.

FA Cup editedElneny, Willock and Iwobi giving Lichaj acres of space. (Photo credit: BT)

Elneny won 1 tackle and made 4 interceptions, according to whoscored.com, while Willock won 1 tackle and made 0 interception. That’s not good enough for a midfield pairing. We already know that Elneny is not a natural ballwinner while Willock looked too soft against Forest, winning only 33% of his duels. Willock seemed to overestimate his dribbling abilities in the first half as he lost possession 3 times while attempting to dribble past an opponent.

  1. Walcott and Iwobi performed poorly

Walcott and Iwobi wouldn’t be good enough to play in the Championship. They finished the game with 0 of 3 shots on target each. Brereton outshone Walcott while Dowell showed more end product and desire than Iwobi. I don’t understand why the manager wants to keep Walcott. At 28, Walcott won’t improve his all-around game. He’s also blocking the development of youngsters like Nketiah and Nelson, who could play in the front three. Walcott had a golden opportunity in the seventh minute but completely miskicked his shot.

Iwobi is regressing and his poor work-rate is becoming a problem. He was dispossessed 5 times, tied with Brereton for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. Iwobi also put Mertesacker in trouble by overhitting a back pass in the sixth minute. The Nigeria international made 0 interception and won just 1 of 1 tackle whereas Nelson made 2 interceptions and won 3 of 4 tackles.

Although Arsenal enjoyed 69% of ball possession, Iwobi had no impact on the game in the No. 10 role. Iwobi made only 1 key pass compared to 4 for Nelson and 2 for Walcott. That begs the question: Where can Iwobi play? He lacks the end product to play as a second striker. Playing on a wing would be an issue because Iwobi made 0 cross on Sunday while Walcott made 4 accurate crosses out of 9. And playing in central midfield would require a much better work-rate from Iwobi.

Welbeck had an average game in the lone striker role. But at least he found the net in the 79th after Smith fumbled the ball. Welbeck also had a penalty shout in the 83rd when Mancienne seemed to shove him from behind while he met a cross from Maitland-Niles.

  1. Nelson is Arsenal’s future

The only bright spark in the Arsenal offense came from Nelson, whose clever footwork won the free kick that led to the equalizer in the 23rd. Nelson led all players with 6 successful dribbles. He faded in the second half as the Reds roughed him up a bit. At 18, Nelson is very gifted technically, but he will need to beef up his game in order to survive in the Premier League. Nketiah came off the bench to replace Willock in the 65th and nearly produced another moment of magic after his two goals against Norwich in the League Cup. Welbeck fed Nketiah, who dribbled past Lichaj only to be denied by Smith in the 70th.

  1. Ospina still can’t command the area

The Colombia goalkeeper pulled off some outstanding saves in the 18th, 32nd and 41st. But his lack of authority in the box showed in the 20th when Lichaj headed home Dowell’s free kick from a yard. You would expect a good goalkeeper to beat his opponent to the ball in that kind of situation. Ospina is a great shot-stopper but his weakness in the air has always been his Achilles’ heel in England.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Gunners salvage 2-2 draw despite erratic defending

In Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea, the Gunners got a foretaste of what their defense could look like next season. Injuries to Monreal and Koscielny led Wenger to start Mustafi, Chambers and Holding in the back three. And the result on the pitch wasn’t pretty. The Blues could have won by a big margin if Cech had not pulled off a couple of outstanding saves and if Morata had not missed some big chances.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 1-1 at the Hawthorns on Sunday with Holding, Maitland-Niles and Ozil replacing Koscielny, Kolasinac and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Both teams used 3-5-2 formations which favored a lot of end-to-end plays. The Blues were the better team, creating 14 chances to just 6 for the Gunners, according to Squawka.

Defensively, Arsenal’s back three was all over the place. Mustafi is not an organizer like Mertesacker and he doesn’t absorb pressure like Koscielny. In the role of the sweeper, Mustafi failed to chaperone Chambers and Holding. There have been some cases of pub defending this season because of poor focus or poor decision-making, but the level of panic and disorganization reached on Wednesday was a first.

Chambers was again the weak link at the back, winning only 23% of his duels according to the club’s website. He’s a decent player for an average club but not good enough to start for Arsenal or any team chasing a Champions League spot. Chambers got off to a bad start with a poor challenge on Alonso in the second minute. He was then dispossessed in dangerous areas in the 13th and 79th and gave the ball away in the 28th.

His lack of pace was also exposed a couple of times. Morata made a run in behind Chambers in the 14th to be clean through on goal but missed the target from 12 yards. Then Hazard outpaced Chambers in the 50th to fire a diagonal strike that Cech saved with his leg. Chambers was again tortured by Morata in the 70th. Chasing a through ball from Fabregas, Morata bullied and held off Chambers but his chip attempt sailed wide.

Chambers’ passivity

I don’t think Chambers understands the difference between a back four and a back three. While Koscielny and Monreal are pro-active wide centerbacks, Chambers is too passive for such a position. Chambers made 0 interception and 0 block whereas Holding and Mustafi made 5 interceptions and 2 blocks each, according to Squawka.

It was quite telling that Mustafi and Chambers had a heated argument in the 14th after Chambers stopped chasing Morata, hoping that Mustafi would cover him. Mustafi was so frustrated by Chambers’ passivity that he tried to compensate and too often dived in. That’s why Mustafi was out of position when Chelsea had chances in the 50th and 70th.

The Blues exploited the mess in the Arsenal defense by sending long balls. Morata received a long ball from Cahill in the 76th to feed Hazard, who played the ball back to Morata. Holding was out of position on that play while Mustafi was outpaced by Morata, whose cross was intercepted by Cech. Chelsea nearly scored the winner in stoppage time. Morata made a run in behind Mustafi to bear down on goal but was denied by Cech. Zappacosta pounced on the rebound only to rattle the bar.

When Koscielny retires, I’m not sure Mustafi will be the right person to marshal the defense. Mustafi gave away some cheap free kicks with silly fouls on Morata in the eighth minute and Hazard in the 57th. He also lost two key duels inside the area. Morata got ahead of Mustafi in the 15th but couldn’t convert Moses’ cross. Then Alonso ghosted past Mustafi in the 84th to tap in Zappacosta’s cross for a 2-1 lead.

Lack of protection from the midfield

Of the 3 centerbacks, only Holding did OK. He won 71% of his duels, compared to 50% for Mustafi. At 22, Holding will need to learn faster because he’s still too raw. He was lucky not to get a yellow card in the 48th for a cynical foul on Morata. Five minutes later, Holding finally got booked for a late challenge on Fabregas. Holding will have to get rid of his naivety. He was pulled out of position by Hazard in the 27th when Bakayoko tested Cech with a high shot. His reading of the game is also a concern. Bakayoko made runs in behind Holding in the 34th and 69th while chasing long balls from Fabregas.

The Gunners are paying the price for their failure to sign good centerbacks in the past few years. Paulista never really convinced and was therefore sold to Valencia last summer. Holding is a work in progress while Chambers will never be a top centerback because of his lack of pace and poor ability to win duels. Mustafi is still a big question mark and hasn’t performed yet at the level of a Koscielny in his prime.

Arsenal’s defensive frailties are made more obvious by the lack of protection provided by the midfield. Fabregas had so much freedom on Wednesday that he racked up 6 key passes before Drinkwater replaced him in the 71st. Fabregas often dropped back to escape marking and deliver pinpoint long balls. In that kind of situation, a midfielder or a forward must mark him. But neither the manager nor the players could find the solution.

Fabregas’ performance showed how much the Gunners missed Ramsey in midfield. Xhaka and Wilshere simply can’t match Ramsey’s mobility and work-rate. Wilshere opened the scoring in the 63rd with a powerful strike into the top corner, but his defensive contribution was poor: he won 0 tackle, made 0 interception and 0 block. In fact, Chelsea completely outplayed Arsenal in midfield. Kante, Bakayoko and Fabregas combined to win 7 of 16 tackles and make 10 interceptions and 7 blocks, according to Squawka. By contrast, Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil combined to win 2 of 9 tackles and make 2 interceptions and 3 blocks.

A soft penalty

In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 3 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. Ozil fired a long-range strike that Courtois turned around the post in the 39th. He also added more fluency in the team’s passing game and was able to find pockets of space in a compact Chelsea defense. But the comparison with Fabregas showed again Ozil’s main weakness in those tight games. The Germany playmaker won’t fight for the ball like Fabregas. He will also struggle offensively when under pressure. Kante dispossessed Ozil on the stroke of halftime to launch a counterattack.

On the wings, Bellerin and Maitland-Niles were among Arsenal’s best performers with Cech, although they will probably be remembered for their involvement in Chelsea’s goals. Bellerin showed poor decision-making in the 66th when Hazard’s cross was blocked. The Spaniard thought he could beat Hazard to the loose ball but ended up kicking his boot. It was a soft foul and Hazard definitely exaggerated contact. But the golden rule is that when you make a challenge inside the box, you have to win the ball. And Bellerin didn’t. Hazard sent Cech the wrong way to level the game. Wenger called the penalty a “farcical” decision. I can understand the manager’s frustration. Bellerin has been denied two penalties that they were more obvious this season. The Spaniard made amends in stoppage time by pouncing on a poor clearance from the Chelsea defense to volley into the far corner.

Besides that late goal, Bellerin had 2 successful dribbles out of 3, made 1 interception, and won 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels, according to Squawka. At 20, Maitland-Niles looked very mature against Chelsea. He led Arsenal players with 4 blocks and 3 successful dribbles out of 4. Maitland-Niles also created a chance, won 75% of his duels and 3 of 6 tackles, according to the club’s website.

Poor final ball

Some fans keep complaining about Maitland-Niles being played out of position, but the problem is that he looks more solid at left wingback than Kolasinac. When Bakayoko controlled a long ball from Fabregas in the 69th, Maitland-Niles covered Holding and dispossessed the Chelsea midfielder just before he could pull the trigger. Does anybody seriously think that Kolasinac would have covered Holding on that play? Maitland-Niles’ only blemish in the first half came in the 15th when he failed to stop a cross from Moses. Morata got ahead of Mustafi but couldn’t make contact with the ball, allowing Cech to gather it. Conte acknowledged Moses’ ineffectiveness and replaced him with Zappacosta in the 56th. With a sharp turn in the 84th, Zappacosta created a bit of space for a cross that Alonso converted for a 2-1 lead. What could Maitland-Niles have done better on that play? Maybe guess that Zappacosta’s initial move to cut inside was just a bluff.

Chelsea played 3 games in a 9-day span while Arsenal played 3 games in a 7-day span, so I wasn’t surprised that the Blues created more chances. A relative lack of freshness could help explain the poor quality of the Gunners’ final ball: Sanchez overhit his cross for Ozil in the 10th, Maitland-Niles missed his cross in the 13th, and Wilshere overhit his pass for Ozil in the 27th.

Up front, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, leading all players with 9 turnovers, while Morata had just 5 turnovers according to whoscored.com. However, Lacazette worked hard, making 1 interception and winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. Despite skipping a winter break for the first time in his career, Lacazette still managed to have 3 of 3 shots on target. The France international took a pass from Ozil in the 23rd and rolled away from Cahill to hit a low strike that Courtois palmed away. Lacazette then benefited from a lucky bounce in the 52nd but couldn’t get the ball out of his feet quickly enough and was denied by the Chelsea goalkeeper. His last chance came in the 64th. Sanchez found Lacazette, whose angled shot deflected off Azpilicueta before being tipped around the post by Courtois. No big miss like Morata but a golden chance that should have found the net in the 52nd.

Bleak Top 4 chances

How do you recognize great players? Even when they have an off day, they can still be able of one moment of magic. Sanchez wasn’t sharp on Wednesday, having 1 of 4 shots on target and winning only 22% of his duels and 0 of 3 tackles. But he nearly opened the scoring in the 16th with a snapshot that Courtois diverted onto his near post. The ball ricocheted off the far post before gently rolling back toward Courtois. In the second half, Sanchez could only head wide a cross from Maitland-Niles.

I have mixed feelings after this game. It’s a decent result if we consider the number of injuries (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Giroud) and the unfavorable schedule. But a quick look at the standings shows that Arsenal’s Top 4 chances are weak. The Gunners trail Chelsea by 7 points and Liverpool by 5. It basically means that Arsenal must put together a winning run while hoping for a slip from Chelsea or Liverpool. I expect the manager to rest his key players when the Gunners face Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup on Sunday. Then he might field a makeshift team for the League Cup game against Chelsea on Wednesday.

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

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

Arsenal vs. Borisov

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

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

  1. The World Cup is coming

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Holding is slightly ahead of Chambers

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

  1. What is the best system for Wilshere?

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

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

  1. Debuchy scored his first goal since 2014

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

  1. Coquelin and Elneny bossed the midfield

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

 

Cologne vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 loss

   Arsenal secured a first-place finish in Group H of the Europa League despite a 1-0 defeat at Cologne on Thursday. Their four-point lead in the standings means that neither Cologne nor Red Star Belgrade can win the group even if the Gunners lose to BATE Borisov in two weeks.

Cologne vs. Arsenal.jpg

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

Wenger made 11 changes to the side that won the North London Derby last weekend. The manager injected a bit more experience than usual as Willock and Nelson were on the bench even though they started both Belgrade games. The Gunners played at a slow tempo but still dominated Thursday’s match with 16 shots compared to just 4 for the hosts, who haven’t won any game in the Bundesliga this season. Somehow, Cologne managed to score against the run of play in the second half. In hindsight, maybe Wenger should have started more youngsters instead of keeping some senior players happy.

  1. Ospina, Welbeck and Chambers returned from injury

If we except Cazorla, the Gunners have no player on the disabled list now. That’s good news when you look at the busy schedule for the next two months. Ospina was not much tested in Germany. He palmed away an angled strike from Cordoba in the sixth minute and could do nothing about Guirassy’s penalty in the 62nd. The manager was cautious with Welbeck, who only played the first half and was replaced by Iwobi at halftime. Welbeck seemed fit, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and curling a shot wide of the far post in the 33rd.

On the other hand, the sluggish Chambers didn’t prove a convincing choice at wingback. Debuchy played most of his career as a fullback and would have been a better option on the right flank. Chambers made no cross in the first half. The only chance he created came in the 67th with a cross that Wilshere headed over the bar. Chambers was guilty on the play that led to the penalty by failing to stay with Guirassy, who played a one-two with Jojic.

  1. There are too many average players in the squad

Thursday’s game showed the gap between the regular starters and the second-choice players. It’s hard to see what players like Chambers, Debuchy, Elneny, Coquelin, Giroud and even Wilshere could bring to the side that defeated Spurs. Elneny sent long balls out of play in the 15th and 39th and couldn’t beat the first defender with a couple of corner kicks. Only 2 of his 11 crosses were accurate, according to whoscored.com.

Hopefully, hiring Mislintat as the head of recruitment at Arsenal will help improve the squad. The scouting department has performed poorly in the past few years under Rowley. A change was long overdue. France used to be a gold mine for Arsenal but the club has missed out on the best players from the French league lately (Kante, Pogba, Martial, Mbappe, Varane, Kondogbia).

While Arsenal made mistakes in signing Park, Chamakh and Gervinho from French clubs, Mislintat helped Borussia Dortmund sign Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro. Here’s the difference between those two groups of players: Park, Chamakh and Gervinho shone in the French league but failed to adapt to the Premier League whereas Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro carried their success from France to the Bundesliga. A smart scout will spot the skills that can be imported to any league while an average scout will focus on the less important skills.

It’s OK to gamble once in a while on young players like Sanogo, Reine-Adelaide, Bielik and Holding. But when you spend £16 million on Chambers, £13 million on Paulista and £7 million on Elneny, you expect to get regular starters and not benchwarmers.

  1. Debuchy was the weak link in the back three

The French defender led all players with 5 fouls. He clearly struggled with Guirassy’s pace and was booked for a cynical foul on the Cologne forward in the 49th. A poor clearance from Debuchy led to a scoring chance for the German side in the 60th: Guirassy took a pass from Jojic but could only hit a tame effort straight at Ospina. A minute later, the referee awarded the hosts a penalty for some minimal contact between Debuchy and Guirassy. It was a play similar to Bellerin’s challenge on Richarlison in the Watford game.

  1. Mertesacker had a decent game

The German defender led Arsenal players with 5 interceptions and was dominant in the air with 9 headers won. He made up for his lack of pace with his smart positional play. In fact, Mertesacker was the only Arsenal centerback who won a tackle. He won 1 of 2 tackles compared to 0 of 2 for Holding and 0 of 6 for Debuchy, according to Squawka. Mertesacker nearly leveled from a corner in the 64th, but his header was cleared off the line by Horn.

On the left side of the back three, Holding lacked focus a couple of times. Cologne capitalized on a Holding turnover in the 12th to launch a counterattack but Mertesacker intercepted Cordoba’s final ball. Mertesacker had Holding’s back again in the 28th. Cordoba rolled away from Holding only to have his pass for Osako intercepted by Mertesacker. In the closing minutes, Holding was pulled out of position and Mertesacker had to kill a counterattack by blocking a cross.

  1. Maitland-Niles rose to the occasion

The contrast with Chambers’ performance on the opposite flank was glaring. Although Maitland-Niles is a right-footed player, he still managed to make 3 key passes from the left wing. He also had a passing accuracy of 95%, won 2 of 4 tackles and had 5 successful dribbles out of 7, while Chambers had a passing accuracy of 77%, won 0 of 1 tackle and had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, according to Squawka. Maitland-Niles is not playing in his favorite position (central midfield) but at least he’s honing his skills by getting some experience in competitive European games.

  1. Wilshere’s performance raised more question marks

Wenger said before the international break that Wilshere was ready for the England team. However, Wilshere’s performance against a weak German side was a mixed bag. Wilshere tested Horn with a downward header in the 21st and long-range strikes in the 66th and stoppage time. He also had 8 successful dribbles out of 11. But his defensive contribution was limited and he only made 2 key passes despite 69% of ball possession for the Gunners. The most frustrating part was his poor ball-retention skills that led to 5 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in Southgate’s plans. The England manager seems to build his squad around the pressing game implemented at Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City.

  1. Arsenal didn’t play to Giroud’s strengths

Giroud is an old-fashioned centerforward. He won’t create a chance out of nothing like Van Persie. That means Giroud needs decent service in the box. Unfortunately, the Gunners didn’t feed him with crosses. Giroud was involved in only 1 aerial duel and that was in midfield. That’s criminal when you know the France striker’s dominance in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 76th. Giroud chased a ball over the top from Wilshere but had a heavy second touch which allowed Horn to tackle the ball out of play. Deprived of service, Giroud tried to work for his teammates. He drifted to the left wing in the 30th to make a cross for Coquelin, who hit the near post.

  1. When a senior player is blocking a youngster’s path

Nelson is the most promising prospect in the academy. Walcott’s presence in the squad has forced Wenger to play Nelson in the wingback position. Nelson initially struggled in that role before improving his understanding of the position and his defensive skills. The manager could have started Nelson against Cologne but he preferred to give some playing time to Chambers and Debuchy, who both had a poor game.

When Nelson came off the bench to replace Chambers in the 67th, the Gunners suddenly looked more threatening down the right wing. Nelson could have won a penalty for an obstruction from Sorensen in the 83rd. He also showed off his dribbling skills in the 89th by slaloming through the Cologne defense to sting Horn’s gloves with a toe poke. The teenager got bonus points in the 71st for his defensive awareness. Guirassy outpaced Debuchy but Nelson rushed back to recover the ball.

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.

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?