Tag Archives: Holding

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners keep 1st clean sheet this season

The Gunners are making baby steps under Emery. They reached halftime without conceding a goal for the first time this season against Newcastle in mid-September. On Sunday, they finally kept their first clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Everton to move 2 points clear of Manchester United in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. EvertonPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Sunday’s game was an interesting contest because on paper the Toffees are supposed to be direct rivals for European spots. It was an even game and Everton could have split the points if they had converted their big chances. But they didn’t because they had Calvert-Lewin and Walcott in their front three instead of more clinical finishers like Lacazette and Aubameyang. Arsenal had just 5 shots on target compared to 6 for the visitors.

The Gunners’ attacking play was poor in the first half even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that defeated Vorskla on Thursday with only Sokratis, Monreal, Torreira and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. There was more movement in the second half but Arsenal didn’t really look more threatening. To a certain extent, it felt like the Wenger team of last season: struggling to create chances before a brief scoring spell saved their day.

At the start of the season, Emery tried to impose his brand of football: playing the ball out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. After 6 Premier League games, it is safe to say that Emery will have to wait another season because right now he doesn’t have the personnel to implement it. Cech’s limited ball-playing abilities and Xhaka’s lack of mobility are liabilities when the Gunners try to break the press. Likewise, the Gunners struggle to press like a unit because only a couple of their midfielders have the work-rate and mobility to close down the ball holder. When you press, you must also squeeze play to prevent your opponents from finding space. That implies a high defensive line which exposes Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace. So my guess is that Emery can only make small adjustments in his first season at the club.

Cech’s outstanding saves

The Toffees had 2 golden opportunities to open the scoring in the first half. Calvert-Lewin beat the offside trap to collect a through ball from Davies in the second minute but he was denied by a tackle from Cech. Calvert-Lewin’s decision-making was poor on that play. If the Everton striker had squared the ball back, it would have been a simple tap-in for an unmarked Richarlison. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Everton M2 edited.jpgCalvert-Lewin should have passed the ball to Richarlison. (Photo credit: NBC)

On that play, there was no pressure on Davies. Was it up to Ramsey to drop off and close Davies down? Or was it Xhaka’s responsibility to charge forward even if it meant leaving a big gap in midfield? It will be Emery’s job to sort out that kind of tactical uncertainty in his post-match analysis. The lack of pressure from Xhaka and Ramsey made Arsenal’s high defensive line completely suicidal. Calvert-Lewin made a run in behind Sokratis and no one could catch him.

Everton’s second big chance in the 38th was quite similar. It all started with a 2v2 situation on the left flank with Sokratis and Monreal dealing with Walcott and Sigurdsson. From the moment Sigurdsson dribbled past Monreal, Sokratis was in deep trouble. Walcott made a run in behind Sokratis to take Sigurdsson’s pass and bear down on goal. Cech somehow stopped Walcott’s low effort with his leg. The difference between this play and Calvert-Lewin’s chance is that Walcott had no decent passing option because Mustafi and Bellerin were tightly marking Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.

Cech definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. The Gunners could have been trailing 2-0 at halftime without his outstanding saves. The Czech goalkeeper also tipped Digne’s free kick over the bar in the 31st, scooped Keane’s header around the post in the 71st, and parried long-range efforts from Richarlison in the 21st and Tosun in the 85th.

Bellerin’s hard time

Mustafi and Bellerin performed poorly at the back. The German centerback made a sloppy pass in the fourth minute, overran the ball and lost possession on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 29th, and gave away a dangerous free kick with a poor challenge on Richarlison in the 89th. There’s no way Mustafi could be the leader of the back four when Koscielny leaves the club. Let’s be honest, Mustafi wouldn’t even start for Manchester City, Liverpool or Tottenham.

Sokratis had to bail Mustafi out with a cynical foul on Walcott in the 29th. The Greek defender also picked up a knee injury and had to be replaced by Holding in the 38th. Holding’s stats were not impressive. He made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website. You kind of wonder whether it was because Holding was too passive or because the midfielders did a good job to shield the defense. Last season, Holding was let down by some poor decision-making as well as lapses of concentration. Those issues re-emerged on Sunday when Holding went on a dribbling run on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 54th.

On the flanks, Bellerin had a harder time than Monreal. Obviously, marking Richarlison is a more difficult task than dealing with Walcott. Digne’s forays down our right wing also left Bellerin in 1v2 situations quite a few times. Bellerin was the culprit for playing Calvert-Lewin onside in the second minute. He then made the mistake of letting Richarlison turn in the 10th. Richarlison also got the better of Bellerin in the 21st, the 44th and the 50th. In the closing minutes, Sigurdsson ghosted past Bellerin to hit the post with a cross-shot. To his credit, Bellerin provided some width down the right flank whenever Ozil drifted inside. The Spaniard created Arsenal’s first chance with a teasing cross in the 12th. Bellerin also tested Pickford with a drive in the 65th.

A complementary partnership

Emery is slowly putting together the pieces of the Arsenal puzzle. Torreira finally made his first Premier League start on Sunday. It’s easy to understand why Emery has been so cautious with Torreira. Because the pace of the game is faster in England than in Italy, Torreira might lose some of the 50-50 challenges that he would normally win in Serie A. Remember how Xhaka got sent off in his first season at the club because of mistimed tackles.

The first league games showed that the partnership formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi was flawed. Neither Xhaka nor Guendouzi is a natural ballwinner. Both are deep-lying playmakers. That’s why Torreira gives more balance to the team: his partnership with Xhaka is more complementary. In fact, that duo is very similar to the midfield combination in the other top clubs.

On Sunday, Arsenal finally played with a ballwinner (Torreira) and a deep-lying playmaker (Xhaka) like the Blues do with Kante and Jorginho, like Spurs do with Dier and Dembele and like the Citizens do with Fernandinho and Silva. The Reds are the exception here as they prefer to play with a holding midfielder (Henderson) in front of two all-rounders (Milner and Wijnaldum) who can both defend and attack.

A partnership between Torreira and Guendouzi might work too. Guendouzi may have more potential than Xhaka as a deep-lying playmaker, but Xhaka is in his prime while Guendouzi is still learning the ropes. In the big games, experience will help you have more composure in the final third. It will also help you recognize certain plays.

Some fans will point out that Arsenal still had a ballwinner a few months ago with Coquelin. However, Coquelin’s technique is more limited and he doesn’t read the game as well as Torreira. I mean there’s a reason why Coquelin never played for the France team while Torreira was a starter for Uruguay at the last World Cup.

Ramsey’s first assists

Torreira won 66.7% of his duels against Everton, the highest percentage for any Gunner according to the club’s website. His stats (1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 7 ball recoveries) may not look impressive, but Torreira’s tactical awareness and his underrated role in Arsenal’s attacking play really made a difference. He received a yellow card for a rash challenge on Sigurdsson in the 15th and Everton tried to get Torreira sent off when he inadvertently stepped on Digne’s hand with his trailing leg on the stroke of halftime.

The Uruguay midfielder created the opening goal by intercepting Davies’ clearance in the 56th. He also helped protect Arsenal’s two-goal lead by deflecting Sigurdsson’s shot in the 83rd and blocking Digne’s cross in the 84th. His only blemish was the ball he gave away in the 73rd but he somehow managed to recover the ball and draw a foul from Davies.

The Gunners maybe lacked a bit of creativity in midfield. They’ve lost Rosicky, Cazorla and Wilshere in the past couple of seasons and haven’t replaced them. While Torreira is an upgrade on Coquelin, Xhaka can’t really reach the level of a Cazorla. Ramsey and Ozil led Arsenal players with 2 key passes each, which is a low figure. By contrast, Sigurdsson led all players with 4 key passes.

At least, Ramsey finally got his first assists this season. He set up Lacazette for the opener in the 56th before teeing up Aubameyang for the second goal with a backheel flick in the 59th. The Wales midfielder also attempted a through ball that was intercepted by Pickford in the 45th and made a cross for Aubameyang that led to a penalty shout in the 55th. Emery yanked Ramsey off to send on Welbeck in the 80th.

Ozil’s work-rate in the 2nd half

Ozil has definitely been one of the players struggling to adapt to Emery’s style of football. While Wenger cajoled Ozil by giving him plenty of freedom first in a 4-2-3-1 formation and then in a 3-4-3 system, Ozil has become an ordinary cog under Emery. Ozil made only 38 passes on Sunday compared to 101 for Xhaka. His influence was limited by Gueye’s crazy work-rate. One of the best ballwinners in the league, Gueye made 10 tackles, 3 interceptions and 7 ball recoveries. That explains why Ozil had 5 turnovers, an usually high number for him.

The former Germany international was a peripheral figure in the first half. His performance significantly improved after the break. He set up Ramsey for a low volley in the 49th before leading the counterattack for the second goal in the 59th. Ozil had so much time that he missed his pass for Ramsey, who kept the play alive with a backheel flick.

His critics will probably notice Ozil’s improved work-rate in the second half. Ozil won 2 of 4 tackles after the break. Is it the price Ozil must pay to stay in the starting lineup? To a certain extent, that made me think of Arshavin. The Russian forward barely contributed defensively when he arrived at Arsenal. But in his last seasons at the club, Arshavin earned the crowd’s appreciation by tracking back and even making tackles.

Until Koscielny’s return from injury, Emery will stick with Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis and Monreal at the back. In midfield, Torreira has made himself indispensable in the No. 6 role. Emery still has to figure out whether the team is more balanced with a three-man midfield a la Liverpool or with a midfield pyramid. The bigger concern is the attack which lacks fluency despite the goals scored. The Gunners also lack natural width because Ramsey, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette prefer to play through the middle.

Lacazette’s top-class finish

On Sunday, Ramsey occasionally moved to the left wing when Ozil drifted inside and Aubameyang made diagonal runs. One solution would be to play Lacazette on the right wing like Salah at Liverpool while moving Aubameyang to his favorite centerforward position. That still leaves open the question of who plays on the left wing as Aubameyang doesn’t have the all-around game for that.

Lacazette showed good work-rate by winning 2 of 3 tackles, and making 1 interception and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 aerial duels won, according to whoscored.com. The France international wasted a good situation in the 40th by attempting to shift the ball from his left foot to his right one instead of taking a first-time shot from 10 yards. The extra touch allowed Gueye to dispossess Lacazette and the chance was gone. Lacazette made amends in the 56th with a top-class finish, curling a powerful strike into the top corner. He also had a hand in the second goal by releasing Ozil down the right flank.

Boosted by his 2 goals against Vorskla, Aubameyang found again the net against Everton. Aubameyang was in an offside position when he took Ramsey’s pass in the 59th, but the referee let the goal stand because the Premier League is not using VAR technology. The Gabon striker also cut the ball back to Monreal for a close-range effort in the 12th before hitting the bar with a cross-shot in the 42nd. Emery gave Aubameyang some rest by replacing him with Iwobi in the 68th.

I expect some heavy rotation for the League Cup game against Brentford on Wednesday for the simple reason that the Gunners play Watford on Saturday. The Hornets have enjoyed a great start to the season as they are 1 point clear of Arsenal in the standings and could be a direct rival for European spots this season.

 

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A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Europe

The summer tour has been positive overall with 2 wins and 2 draws, but it is still difficult to see Emery’s impact on the Arsenal team. The Gunners drew 1-1 with Chelsea on Wednesday before defeating Lazio 2-0 on Saturday.

2018 European TourPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Both games raised concerns about the Arsenal defense. Chelsea looked sharper and could have put the game to bed in the first half while Lazio played at a slower tempo and couldn’t find the net despite torturing the Gunners with crosses.

  1. Implementing the pressing game

Pressing is a defensive tool to stop counterattacks but it’s also an attacking tool to create chances. Chelsea and Arsenal both tried to press high up the pitch when they lost possession. The Gunners still have a long way to go. The Blues looked better drilled, forcing turnovers in dangerous areas, while Arsenal’s pressing never really troubled Chelsea.

  1. Same old defensive frailties

The last years of Wenger’s tenure were defined by recurrent defensive issues: the Gunners often looked vulnerable on set pieces and crosses as well as on the fast break. The Blues took advantage of some poor defensive organization to open the scoring in the fifth minute. Rudiger lost Smith-Rowe to head in Fabregas’ corner. A rookie shouldn’t be marking one of Chelsea’s main aerial threats. The problem wasn’t fixed at halftime as Rudiger toyed again with Smith-Rowe in the 57th only to head a corner wide.

The Blues also did a lot of damage on the fast break. Fabregas wasted a counterattack in the 10th by slipping the ball to an offside Morata. Then Hudson-Odoi dispossessed Elneny in the 24th to feed Morata, who was denied by Cech. Three days later, the Lazio game exposed Arsenal’s poor job in stopping dangerous crosses. Yet, Caicedo in the 16th, Lulic in the 37th and Parolo in the 35th and 49th all missed the target.

This is not Emery’s team yet. Fans will need to show a bit of patience for what is mostly a transition season. But if those defensive issues are not corrected by the end of the season, then the club may not have hired the right manager.

  1. The back four is a worry

The Gunners have a problem at leftback. Kolasinac picked up a knee injury against Chelsea and will be sidelined for 2 months, while Monreal didn’t play in any summer friendly and currently has a knee problem preventing him from training with the team. Wenger got some stick last season for playing Maitland-Niles in the leftback position but the irony is that Emery did the same thing against Lazio.

At rightback, Hudson-Odoi had Bellerin in his pocket and even won a penalty when the Spaniard tripped him in the 14th. Bellerin is expected to get a bit of competition from Lichtsteiner, who made his Arsenal debut on Saturday and had a more comfortable evening against Lazio veteran Lulic. There are big question marks about Lichtsteiner’s ability to adapt to the pace of English football. Lichtsteiner performed well with Juventus, but Serie A games don’t really match the intensity of the Premier League.

Sokratis and Mustafi started at centerback against Chelsea and looked vulnerable when Arsenal played a high defensive line. The Blues capitalized on Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace to send balls over the top. Hudson-Odoi collected a long ball from Jorginho in the 42nd but had his effort cleared off the line by Mustafi.

If Sokratis and Mustafi perform poorly or get injured, the back-up options are very limited. Koscielny will miss the first half of the season. That means Holding, Chambers or Mavropanos would have to step up. Chambers was so slow in the 26th that Lulic was able to charge down his clearance. Lulic got again the better of Chambers, who made a cynical foul on the Lazio veteran in the 54th. Meanwhile, Holding put himself in trouble with some poor decision-making, attempting a risky pass that was intercepted in the 31st and losing possession after dribbling inside his own half in the 77th.

  1. The Gunners need more creativity

Over the past 12 months, the club has lost a lot of creativity with the departures of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanchez, Cazorla and Wilshere. The responsibility for creating chances now rests on the shoulders of Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. Against Chelsea, Mkhitaryan had an off day. The Gunners played better when Nelson replaced Mkhitaryan in the 72nd. The academy player made a cross that Lacazette converted in stoppage time to force a penalty shootout. Nelson also opened the scoring against Lazio, tapping home a rebound in the 18th after Iwobi struck the post with a low diagonal strike.

At 18, Nelson is a very promising youngster. He can deliver the final ball and dribble past defenders. But he is unlikely to perform consistently in the Premier League. If you add Iwobi’s own inconsistency issues, that means Arsenal can only rely on Ozil and Mkhitaryan for a significant number of assists this season. Maybe the Gunners could sign another creative midfielder this summer if they manage to offload for a good fee the players that Emery does not want.

  1. The Arsenal midfield is too soft

Elneny, Guendouzi and Smith-Rowe started in midfield against Chelsea. That trio would badly struggle against any decent Premier League side. It’s true that Torreira, Xhaka and Ramsey are more likely to be the starters in a three-man midfield. But I can’t help thinking that Wilshere, Cazorla and the Ox were better options than Elneny, Guendouzi and Smith-Rowe.

There’s no doubt that Guendouzi has great potential as a deep-lying playmaker, but the brutal contrast with Jorginho’s flawless performance on Wednesday showed the gap between those 2 players. Guendouzi is simply too casual for such a key position. He put his team in trouble against Atletico by dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area.

You would have thought that Guendouzi learned his lesson, but he didn’t. The French teenager was reckless against Chelsea, attempting again to dribble on the edge of the Arsenal box. Guendouzi was lucky to draw a foul in the 20th, he nearly lost possession in the 28th, and he was dispossessed in the 33rd as the Blues hit Arsenal on the fast break. As long as Guendouzi doesn’t cut those mistakes out of his game, it would be foolish to start him in a Premier League game.

Torreira finally made his Arsenal debut on Saturday. He’s definitely the kind of defensive midfielder that the club has been missing since Gilberto Silva. His strong tactical discipline and his sound positional play make him a better fit for the No. 6 role than Xhaka.

It was quite intriguing to see Torreira play with Xhaka in a 4-4-2 formation against Lazio. Maybe Emery will use that system if Ramsey is still injured or leaves the club. Ramsey picked up a calf strain while warming up for the Chelsea game and was replaced by Smith-Rowe in the starting lineup. Chelsea and Liverpool seem both interested in the Wales midfielder, who only has a year left on his contract. The Blues don’t have that type of player in their squad while Ramsey would be a perfect fit for Liverpool’s football style.

  1. How much gas does Cech still have left in the tank?

At 36, Cech is in the twilight of his career. Past the age of 35, some goalkeepers can still perform at the top level (Zoff, Van der Sar, Buffon), while others tend to decline sharply (Taffarel, Casillas). Cech was the player who made the most errors leading to a goal in the Premier League last season. Can he catch a second wind?

His performance against Chelsea seems to suggest that Cech may still have one season left at the top. He saved Morata’s tame penalty in the 15th and helped Arsenal stay in the game with a couple more outstanding saves. In the penalty shootout, Cech stopped Loftus-Cheek’s spot kick before Iwobi converted the last kick of the game.

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Singapore

For his first weeks at the club, Emery was able to work with the bulk of the Arsenal squad as only Welbeck, Ospina, Torreira, Xhaka, Lichtsteiner, and Monreal missed out on the summer tour in Singapore. The Gunners drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid on Thursday before routing Paris Saint-Germain 5-1 on Saturday.

2018 Arsenal TourPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The first game showed Simeone’s organizational skills. Despite missing Griezmann, Lemar, Hernandez, Vrsaljko, Godin, Gimenez, Felipe Luis, Costa, Koke, Saul Niguez, and Savic, the Colchoneros managed to prevent Arsenal from creating clear-cut chances. The second game exposed PSG’s lack of a deep bench. The absences of Mbappe, Kimpembe, Meunier, Cavani, Neymar, Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Dani Alves, and Di Maria meant that unknown youngsters got the nod from Tuchel.

  1. Rethinking the partnership between Aubameyang and Lacazette

When Aubameyang and Lacazette played together against Atletico and PSG, Emery used the same configuration devised by Wenger last season with Lacazette through the middle and Aubameyang on the left wing. I don’t think it’s the most efficient configuration. A 4-4-2 system with Lacazette playing behind Aubameyang or a 4-3-3 system with Aubameyang up front and Lacazette on the right wing would optimize their impact in the final third.

Aubameyang should lead the line because he has more pace and is more clinical than Lacazette, while Lacazette has better passing and dribbling skills than Aubameyang. Playing as a second striker or as a false winger shouldn’t prevent Lacazette from finding the net often: Mbappe and Salah are examples of prolific forwards playing in a wide position.

Emery started Aubameyang as a lone striker on Saturday. The Gabon striker often cracked the PSG defense with his penetrative runs. He set up the opening goal with a sprint down the right flank in the 13th minute before collecting long balls in the 29th and 44th only to be denied by Buffon. Former Arsenal midfielder Diarra struggled so badly to cope with Aubameyang’s electric pace that he made cynical fouls in the 16th and 51st.

Lacazette has a lot to prove this season after failing to make the France squad for the World Cup. He was sharp and motivated in both friendlies, notching 2 goals against PSG and testing Atletico goalkeeper Oblak a couple of times.

  1. Can Emery improve the Arsenal defense?

The Gunners conceded 51 goals in the Premier League last season. That’s too much to have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish. Emery can definitely improve the team’s defensive organization. However, preventing goals also depends on the players’ decision-making and individual skills. The 2 games in Singapore raised again question marks about the defenders’ quality. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick against PSG in the 19th and caught Weah with a high arm in the 28th after diving in. And Kolasinac was the main culprit for PSG’s equalizer as he missed his tackle and brought down Weah in the 59th. Holding and Chambers didn’t cover themselves in glory either against Atletico. Correa turned Holding to set up the opener in the 41st while Chambers received a yellow card in the 80th for a cynical foul.

  1. Academy players are knocking on the door

Nelson and Nketiah shone last season in the League Cup and the Europa League. The summer friendlies confirmed their strong potential. Nelson made 2 assists against PSG, taking the corner for Holding’s looping header in the 87th and slipping a through ball to Nketiah for the last goal. Named Premier League 2 Player of the Season, Nelson could have also scored in the 87th but Cibois saved his low strike.

There’s a bit of Ian Wright in Nketiah. The 19-year-old striker came off the bench in the second half and cut inside 2 defenders to test Cibois with a curling shot in the 81st. In stoppage time, Nketiah perfectly timed his run to beat the offside trap and score with a diagonal strike. Nketiah and Nelson should definitely play in the League Cup and the Europa League this year. Emery has shown his willingness to trust youngsters at PSG, so he should be able to develop Nketiah and Nelson this season.

While most Arsenal fans already know Nelson and Nketiah, the emergence of Smith-Rowe has been the biggest surprise of the summer tour. Smith-Rowe, who just turned 18 on Saturday, had never played with the first team before this season. The teenager was not really impressed by the crowd: Smith-Rowe notched a goal against Atletico and an assist against PSG. He ran past Partey in the 47th to beat Oblak with a curling shot from the edge of the box. Two days later, he picked out Lacazette, who made it 2-1 in the 67th. If Smith-Rowe can maintain that level of performance, you can bet that Emery will give him some playing time in the League Cup and the Europa League.

  1. A make-or-break season for Iwobi

Iwobi already has 3 Premier League seasons under his belt. Yet, his decision-making and end product are still poor. Nelson and Nketiah could leapfrog him in the pecking order if he keeps stagnating. Starting on the left wing against PSG, Iwobi was denied by Buffon in the 23rd and was replaced by Lacazette at halftime.

  1. Can Emery improve Ozil’s work-rate?

You often hear pundits say that his teammates should do the dirty work for Ozil. But if you look at the big clubs, playmakers like Eriksen and De Bruyne have better stats than Ozil and also work harder. Ozil’s poor work-rate could become a problem if Emery implements a pressing game. When PSG faced Arsenal in the 2016-17 Champions League, Emery took advantage of Ozil’s laziness to have Verratti and Di Maria drop back and send balls over the top. On Saturday, Ozil opened the scoring by converting Aubameyang’s cross in the 13th. Then the Germany playmaker made no effort to win the ball back after losing possession in the 34th, forcing Leno to palm away a powerful drive from Weah.

  1. Investing in youth

The Gunners haven’t enjoyed much luck in the past few years when they signed foreign youngsters. Sanogo, Reine-Adelaide, Bielik, Miyaichi, Eisfeld and Zelalem are examples of gambles in the transfer market that proved unsuccessful. Arsenal might have experienced a change of fortune by signing Guendouzi from French club Lorient for about £7 million. Fans can only hope that the scouting department did a thorough job to pay such a fee.

At 19, Guendouzi looked comfortable on the ball against Atletico. Despite his youth, Emery played him as a holding midfielder sitting behind Ramsey and Smith-Rowe. A couple of times, an overconfident Guendouzi tried to dribble on the edge of the Arsenal area. One of his turnovers led to a scoring chance for the Colchoneros in the 58th. Emery was more cautious for the PSG game as he played Guendouzi alongside the more defensive Elneny. Guendouzi displayed his ball-playing abilities with a pinpoint ball over the top for Aubameyang, whose low strike was palmed away by Buffon in the 29th.

Guendouzi definitely has the profile of a deep-lying playmaker. He’s more mobile than Xhaka and his passing range looks similar to the Switzerland international’s. However, Guendouzi’s inexperience means that Emery will probably use him as a utility midfielder this season. To survive in the Premier League, Guendouzi will need to toughen up. He was brushed off the ball a couple of times against Atletico.

  1. The contracts of Ramsey and Nelson should be the club’s top priority

Ramsey and Nelson only have a year left on their contracts. Voted Arsenal’s Player of the Season, Ramsey is the present of this club. He’s the only Arsenal midfielder who’s on the shopping list of several big clubs. If the board doesn’t want to give Ramsey a salary close to £200,000 a week, then the fans could see the team bleed like when Fabregas, Nasri, Song and Van Persie left in 2011-12. Last season, the Gunners already lost Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez to Liverpool and Manchester United, respectively. They are now just one transfer away from becoming a feeder club again and they won’t be able to blame Wenger for that mess.

Those who have watched Nelson in the Premier League 2 last season know that the teenager is the future of the club. Nelson can carve open a defense with his dribbling skills. Big clubs are willing to pay a fortune for that kind of skill set because smart dribblers can make a difference against teams parking the bus. That’s why Manchester City signed Sane and Sterling while Liverpool recruited Mane and Salah.

 

Huddersfield vs. Arsenal: Gunners play for Wenger in 1-0 win

The last game of the season was about earning at least an away point in the Premier League this year. The Gunners made Wenger proud by edging Huddersfield Town 1-0 on Sunday. The crowd at the John Smith’s stadium even gave the French manager a standing ovation after 22 minutes as an acknowledgement for his 22 years at the helm of Arsenal.

Huddersfield vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Ironically, the scoreline was the complete opposite of Arsenal’s season. The Gunners finished in 6th place with 63 points, the lowest total in the Wenger era. They also conceded 51 goals, 24 more than Manchester City, for the worst defensive record under Wenger. The only consolation was the number of goals scored (74), which was the same as Spurs’ tally and more than Manchester United (68) and Chelsea (62).

The Terriers were the more threatening team with 18 shots to 9 for Arsenal, but they simply lacked a Mahrez or a Vardy to convert their chances. Huddersfield did a lot of damage in the air, winning 10 more aerial duels than the Gunners. The Terriers also disrupted Arsenal’s passing game by pressing high up the pitch, making 24 interceptions to 7 for the visitors, according to the club’s website. The Gunners will need to sign a ballwinner this summer if they want to improve those stats.

Aubameyang scored the winning goal in the 38th minute by sliding home a pass from Ramsey. Credit must also be given to Lacazette, who played a one-two with Mkhitaryan before finding Ramsey inside the area. Lacazette could have doubled the lead in the 80th. The France striker took a pass from Mkhitaryan only to have his chip attempt well read by Lossl. A minute later, Welbeck, who had replaced Aubameyang in the 67th, dribbled past 2 Terriers but was denied by Lossl.

Turnover machines

Without Ozil, the Gunners’ passing game was poor. Huddersfield forward Pritchard made as many key passes (5) as the entire Arsenal team. The awkwardness of Ramsey and Mkhitaryan didn’t help. Ramsey and Mkhitaryan led all players with 7 and 6 turnovers, respectively, and their passing accuracy dipped to 71 and 73%, according to whoscored.com.

Like in the Leicester game, the Gunners wasted some good situations with a poor final ball. Ramsey missed his through ball for Lacazette in the 17th and for Welbeck in the 74th, Aubameyang’s pass for Kolasinac in the 52nd ran out of play, and the Huddersfield defense intercepted Welbeck’s final ball for Lacazette in the 77th. Before Aubameyang’s goal, Arsenal’s only scoring chance came from a set piece in the 27th when Mustafi redirected a corner toward Kolasinac, who flicked wide from 6 yards.

In the No. 10 role, Iwobi produced another disappointing performance. He made only 1 key pass and showed some poor work-rate with 0 tackle and 0 interception. By contrast, Ramsey won 3 tackles, according to whoscored.com. You don’t expect Iwobi to read the game like Ozil, but there are some basics that a player should master in his third Premier League season. Why does he keep running into traffic even though he doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Salah or a Sane? Iwobi foolishly took on 3 Terriers in the 53rd and lost possession. The turnover led to a Huddersfield counterattack and ultimately a corner.

Not learning from mistakes

Mounie gave the Arsenal defense a hard time in the air. The Huddersfield striker led all players with 9 aerial duels won, according to whoscored.com. He met a cross from Hadergjonaj in the third minute for a header that Ospina saved. Two minutes later, he headed a corner goalward but Xhaka knocked the ball off the line. Mkhitaryan made the mistake of not blocking Mounie’s run while Holding lost the key duel in the air. With some clinical finishing, Mounie could have notched a hat trick in the first half. Pritchard beat the offside trap to collect a long ball in the 11th. He slipped a reverse pass to an unmarked Mounie, who blazed over the bar. Xhaka failed to track Mounie on that play.

The pair of Arsenal centerbacks didn’t produce a convincing performance. Mounie often got the better of Mustafi in the air. Ince also skipped past Mustafi in the 60th to fire a diagonal strike that Ospina palmed behind. Holding made some glaring mistakes as bad as Mavropanos a few days ago. The English defender was dispossessed by Mounie on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 48th. Then Holding was a split second late in the 65th and fouled Mounie almost as the last defender.

Trying to protect his team’s lead, Wenger sent on Maitland-Niles for Iwobi in the 72nd. That move nearly backfired. Matiland-Niles forgot to track Mooy inside the area in the 88th and the Huddersfield midfielder rattled the bar with a volley on the turn. In stoppage time, Maitland-Niles gave away a dangerous free kick by fouling Lowe. Depoitre connected with Mooy’s free kick for a downward header that Ospina kept out. Ospina couldn’t make a clean catch but reacted quickly enough to gather the ball at his second attempt.

A new manager by the end of May?

The next Arsenal manager can definitely rely on Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ramsey to score goals. If he intends to use a 4-3-3 formation, Lacazette would have to play as a false winger like Salah at Liverpool. But if he opts for a 4-4-2 system with Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front two, then signing a ballwinner this summer should be a top priority to protect the back four.

I haven’t mentioned Mkhitaryan and Ozil for different reasons. Mkhitaryan has struck a good understanding with Ramsey and Aubameyang within a few months, but he has a high turnover rate, he is still adapting to a new club, and his stats are not as good as Ramsey’s or Lacazette’s. Meanwhile, Ozil is a world-class player but he’s unreliable, especially since he got a pay rise. Some of his injuries or illnesses are a complete mystery for the fans.

Here are the stats for Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey, Ozil and Mkhitaryan in the Premier League this season: Aubameyang 10 goals and 4 assists in 13 games for an average of 1.08 goal or assist per game; Lacazette 14 goals and 4 assists in 32 games (0.56); Ramsey 7 goals and 8 assists in 24 games (0.63); Ozil 4 goals and 8 assists in 26 games (0.46); Mkhitaryan 3 goals and 9 assists in 26 games (0.46).

At the back, the next manager will have a massive rebuilding job. There is no solution from within. Even with better coaching, there’s no way that Chambers, Holding and Mavropanos could become as good as Koscielny in his prime. That means finding the solution in the transfer market. And that’s why the board must appoint a new manager by the end of May. If they wait until June, it will be too late to act in the transfer market.

Leicester vs. Arsenal: Mavropanos learns the hard way in 3-1 loss

At some stage, it had to happen. Mavropanos performed well against Manchester United and Burnley, but on Wednesday he paid a hefty price for his first glaring mistake in an Arsenal shirt. The 3-1 loss at Leicester City was a reminder that the 20-year-old defender still has a lot to learn.

Leicester vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made 4 changes to the side that routed Burnley 5-0 last weekend with Holding, Maitland-Niles, Ramsey and Welbeck replacing Chambers, Bellerin, Wilshere and Lacazette in the starting lineup. Because it was the third game in a 7-day span, it made sense to rotate and inject some freshness into the team. Bellerin, Monreal, Chambers, Wilshere and Lacazette were given the day off while the manager kept experimenting at the back by leaving Mustafi on the bench and starting Mavropanos alongside Holding in the heart of the defense.

Despite Mavropanos’ red card in the 15th minute, the Gunners still finished with 60% of ball possession in a 4-4-1 system with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi on the wings and Aubameyang on his own up front. Leicester capitalized on its numerical superiority to find more space on the fast break and could have won by a bigger margin if Cech had not pulled off some fine saves.

Mavropanos showed good composure and smart decision-making in his 2 previous appearances, but there were already signs that he could struggle in key duels: Fellaini outjumped Mavropanos to head the ball onto the post at Old Trafford while Vokes also got the better of the Greek youngster to head a cross straight at Cech in the Burnley game.

The Foxes’ opening goal in the 14th came from a corner that Mavropanos poorly cleared. The ball fell to Fuchs, who hoisted it into the box. At the far post, Diabate beat Maitland-Niles to the ball to knock it down for Iheanacho, who volleyed home. Mavropanos was also guilty of ball-watching on that play as he left Iheanacho unmarked.

An error-prone defense

A minute later, Mavropanos took a pass from Maitland-Niles and dallied on the ball instead of passing it to Holding. By the time Mavropanos made up his mind, it was already too late as Iheanacho charged down his clearance. Realizing that Iheanacho would be clean through on goal, Mavropanos brought down the Leicester forward and got sent off.

Wenger complained about the call after the game but Mavropanos was the last defender and Holding, positioned on the right flank, would have been unlikely to catch Iheanacho. An aggravating factor for the referee was Mavropanos’ cynical body-check. From the moment Iheanacho sprinted toward him, the alarm bell should have been ringing loudly in Mavropanos’ head. Now Mavropanos knows that he has less time on the ball in England than in the Greek league.

Spectators will only remember Mavropanos’ ejection, but Mustafi and Holding made the same mistakes as Mavropanos. As the last defender, Holding poorly controlled a backpass from Maitland-Niles in the 61st and was dispossessed by Iheanacho. Holding was more lucky than Mavropanos as the loose ball fell into the path of Vardy, giving the Arsenal defense enough time to regroup.

Mustafi came off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 19th. He’s definitely more experienced than Mavropanos or Holding. Yet, he panicked inside the Arsenal area in the 74th. Instead of clearing a teasing cross high into the air, Mustafi played the ball back to Gray, who won a penalty after Mkhitaryan seemed to trip him. Vardy converted the spot kick to make it 2-1. I’ve watched several replays and it’s hard to know whether there was enough contact for Gray to fall down. But Mkhitaryan’s decision-making was poor. He was on the wrong side of Gray, who still had to beat Maitland-Niles.

Walking in Flamini’s steps

The next Arsenal manager may have no power over individual mistakes but he should be able to make tactical adjustments when the team is dealing with long balls. Holding was pulled out of position in the 48th when Morgan punted the ball toward Iheanacho. Holding missed his interception and the ball bounced toward Vardy. In a 2v2 situation, Vardy fed Diabate, whose shot took a deflection off Cech before Mustafi cleared the ball off the line. In stoppage time, Mahrez beat the offside trap to chase a long ball from Choudhury. The Leicester winger, who was played onside by Mustafi, gave Holding the slip before shooting past Cech to seal the win.

   Cech will finish the season with the most errors (6) leading to a goal in the Premier League. However, the Gunners could thank him on Wednesday for preventing the scoreline from looking unflattering. Cech parried an angled effort from Vardy in the 13th, tipped over the bar a volley from Maguire in the 17th, saved a curling free kick from Silva in the 39th and stopped a low strike from Iheanacho in the 41st.

While Mavropanos, Mustafi and Holding struggled to cope with the pace and movement of Vardy and Iheanacho, fullbacks Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles enjoyed mixed fortunes. Maitland-Niles had a decent game, leading all players with 4 successful dribbles and leading Arsenal players with 2 key passes, according to whoscored.com. He also showed some good work-rate by winning 3 tackles and set up the equalizer in the 53rd with a pinpoint cross for Aubameyang.

At 20, Maitland-Niles is proving relatively strong in challenges, but he still needs to improve in those that matter. He lost a key duel on the opening goal and gave away a dangerous free kick in the 37th by shoving Vardy from behind. Maitland-Niles could definitely be used like Flamini in his first seasons at Arsenal, learning the ropes at rightback before moving to central midfield when more mature tactically.

A poor final ball

On the left flank, Kolasinac led all players with 5 successful tackles and led Arsenal players with a passing accuracy of 91.1%, which is unusually high for him. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international nearly scored in the 47th with an angled strike that hit the base of the post. In his first season at the club, Kolasinac has looked more like a wingback than a fullback. His defensive awareness can be dodgy. He left Maguire unmarked in the 17th and forgot to track Mahrez on the last goal.

In midfield, Ramsey had a poor game and led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Because the Foxes are a team feasting on turnovers, the Gunners needed a Ramsey more tidy in possession to control the game. The next Arsenal manager will have to decide which formation can optimize Ramsey’s strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

The Gunners often wasted good situations with a poor final ball. Iwobi overhit his pass for Ramsey in the 10th and 44th, Kolasinac made a cross that sailed beyond every Gunner in the 12th, and Mkhitaryan completely missed his final ball for Aubameyang in the 26th and for Ramsey in the 71st.

Iwobi raised the fans’ level of expectations after his good performance against Burnley. But on Wednesday he reverted back to the awkward player that we all know. There were glimpses of hope in the first half when Iwobi tested Jakupovic with a snapshot in the seventh minute or when he set up Mkhitaryan for a low strike that the Leicester goalkeeper turned around the post in the 34th. But it all went downhill in the second half. Iwobi showed poor decision-making in the 54th by failing to pick out Ramsey, who was ready to pull the trigger. See the screen capture below. Iwobi gave the ball away with a sloppy pass to Kolasinac, who was in a worse position than Ramsey.

Leicester vs. Arsenal M54edIwobi can’t make a 5-yard pass to Ramsey. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Two minutes later, Iwobi ignored the overlapping run of Kolasinac and went for personal glory by firing a 25-yard strike into the stands. Oops! Wenger had seen enough and replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 84th. Iwobi is as inconsistent as Oxlade-Chamberlain at the same age. But the big difference is that you could never fault the Ox for his work-rate. Iwobi made 0 tackle and 1 interception, while Mkhitaryan won 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.

Earning an away point?

Up front, it was a lonely evening for Aubameyang, who was often crowded out inside the Leicester area. But Aubameyang didn’t give up and was rewarded for his perseverance in the 53rd. He met a cross from Maitland-Niles for a first-time effort that Jakupovic parried. However, Aubameyang pounced on the rebound to fire into the roof of the net. Although Wenger has often played him out of position, Aubameyang has quickly adapted to the Premier League with 9 goals and 4 assists in 12 appearances. That average of 1.08 goal or assist per game is much better than Morata’s average of 0.57.

For the last game of the season, the Gunners will need a draw at Huddersfield to get at least a point away from home this year. All the other Premier League teams have managed that ‘feat’. After the Leicester game, Wenger claimed that the squad was good enough to contend for the title next season if the Gunners could improve their away form. Such statements show why the club had to replace him.

Wenger is a great manager but he has become delusional in the past couple of years. Arsenal had no such problem in away games last season, yet they were far from contending. A quick look at the team this year tells you that there are holes in at least 5 positions (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, ballwinner, deep-lying playmaker). Wenger has been unable to improve the squad despite obvious weaknesses. The next manager will have to do a better job.

 

The art of squad building and how Wenger lost the plot

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

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

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

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

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

2014 Spurs

The 2014 Spurs lineup under Sherwood

Here’s the Tottenham squad under Sherwood:

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

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

Becoming a contender within 2 years

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

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

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

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

2016 Spurs

The 2016 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

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

2018 Spurs

The 2018 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

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

Seeing the weaknesses and the potential

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Liverpool

The 2015 Liverpool lineup under Rodgers

Here’s the Liverpool squad under Rodgers:

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

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

Rebuilding an entire defense

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

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

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

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

2018 Liverpool

The 2018 Liverpool lineup under Klopp

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

Having a coherent plan

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

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

2015 Arsenal

The 2015 Arsenal lineup   

Here’s the Arsenal squad during that season:

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

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

Failing to fix 6 positions

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

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

2018 Arsenal

The 2018 Arsenal lineup

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

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

No challenge before 2021?

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

2019 Arsenal

How a competitive Arsenal team could look like

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

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

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

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

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

 

Arsenal vs. Watford: 3-0 win highlights youth dilemma

There were a lot of empty seats at the Emirates stadium on Sunday when the Gunners smashed Watford 3-0 in the Premier League. It wasn’t as bad as in the league game against Manchester City, but it showed some fans’ disillusion with Arsenal’s performances in the Premier League this year. You can’t really blame the fans: the Gunners had never been out of the Top 4 race so early in the season under Wenger. For some, it was also a means to protest against the Arsenal board and put pressure on them to hire a new manager this summer. In that regard, leaving empty seats is better than creating a toxic atmosphere with hostile chants and banners. And it’s definitely smarter than what the West Ham fans did against Burnley by invading the pitch.

Arsenal vs. WatfordPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Europa League is the only option left to win a trophy this season. Wenger clearly prioritized that competition by making 6 changes to the side that won in Milan on Thursday with Cech, Holding, Maitland-Niles, Elneny, Iwobi and Aubameyang replacing Ospina, Koscielny, Chambers, Ramsey, Wilshere and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Monreal, Bellerin and Lacazette were still sidelined by injuries and were therefore not available. The manager took no risk with Ramsey and Koscielny and kept them out of the squad, while Welbeck, Wilshere and Chambers came off the bench in the second half.

Fielding an under-strength team was a smart move from the manager since there is nothing at stake in the Premier League now. To a certain extent, the club must also give some playing time to the most promising youngsters, otherwise they will leave. Willock joined Benfica last summer while Barcelona signed McGuane two months ago. According to the Evening Standard, Nelson threw his bib to the ground on Sunday when he found out that he wouldn’t play the last minutes against Watford. That’s a tricky situation for the staff. Nelson’s contract expires next year and it’s easy to understand his frustration about the lack of opportunities when you see Iwobi’s mediocre performances.

Holding’s ups and downs

There’s a massive gap between the Premier League and the level of U23 games. At this stage of his career, Nelson won’t improve by playing with the academy team. He needs a loan to a Championship side or even a League One team to develop at a faster pace. It was fine to keep him at the club in the first half of the season because there were opportunities with the League Cup and the Europa League. But I think the staff made a mistake by not loaning out Nelson and Nketiah in the second half of the season. A successful loan spell would have made the Arsenal squad stronger for next season.

At 22, Holding is not a rookie anymore. He had his ups and downs since joining the club two years ago. Low confidence combined with some poor performances have seen Holding drop behind Chambers in the pecking order. Holding was given a second chance on Sunday as he started alongside Mustafi at centerback. To be honest, Holding’s performance was a mixed bag. He led all players with 4 interceptions but won no tackle. On the bright side, Holding blocked Femenia’s volley in the 48th minute and forced Richarlison wide in the sixth minute after Mustafi was pulled out of position.

But there are at least 3 key areas Holding needs to work on: 1. Winning duels inside the box. Doucoure dribbled past Holding in the ninth minute and only a heavy touch from the Watford midfielder enabled Mustafi to clear the danger; 2. His positional play. Holding was on the wrong side of Richarlison a few times. He was nowhere near Richarlison when the Hornets played a ball over the top in the 12th. Richarlison teed up Doucoure, whose shot was parried by Cech; 3. Smelling danger. Holding gave the ball away with sloppy passes in the 24th and 89th. He also lost possession with a dribbling attempt in the 70th. Those are the kind of mistakes that Holding could make in a Championship club but which are not acceptable at Arsenal. That’s why I said last summer that Holding should have been loaned out to iron out mistakes from his game.

Iwobi’s regression

Maitland-Niles is only two years older than Nelson. Yet he has already played 23 games with the first team this season, including 10 in the Premier League. Obviously, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress at 20. He showed his naivety in the 61st when Pereyra cut inside the Arsenal rightback and crashed into his trailing leg to win a penalty. An experienced player would have gotten out of the way, guessing that Pereyra was looking for contact. Maitland-Niles needs to improve his focus and be more tidy in possession. He led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

On a more positive note, Maitland-Niles has more pace than Chambers and did a good job to stop crosses. He also performed better than Kolasinac, having 2 successful dribbles out of 3, winning 2 of 5 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels, and making 1 interception and 3 blocks, compared to 0 successful dribble, 1 of 3 tackles won, 2 of 5 aerial duels won, and no interception or block made by the Bosnia-Herzegovina international. Maitland-Niles is right-footed and has played as a right midfielder, so rightback is a more natural position for him than leftback. Although Maitland-Niles prefers to play as a central midfielder, he still lacks the tactical maturity to play in such a key position at the top level.

While Maitland-Niles is learning the ropes, Iwobi seems to be regressing. Iwobi showed a poor work-rate and a lack of end product, creating 0 chance, winning 0 tackle, and making 0 interception and 0 block. His decision-making in the final third was questionable, too. He tried to score from a tight angle in the 19th instead of crossing the ball for the 3 Gunners inside the box. Then he ran into traffic in the 37th and lost possession, allowing Watford to launch a counterattack. Wenger replaced Iwobi with Welbeck in the 66th and the England international took a pass from Wilshere to test Karnezis with a powerful strike in the 86th.

The Dortmund connection

Before Sunday’s match, there was much talk about Deeney’s infamous comments in October. Deeney basically said that the Gunners didn’t like the physical side of the game. It was no coincidence if the Hornets tried to rough up Arsenal at the Emirates stadium. And each time, the referee failed to spot the foul. First, Prodl stamped on Ozil’s heel in the 31st. Then Mariappa stamped on Mkhitaryan’s ankle inside the area in the 64th and no penalty was given. And finally, Deeney got away with a stamp on Xhaka in the 79th. Despite the poor officiating, the Gunners didn’t lose their temper and proved the better side, having 7 shots on target to 4, and winning 54.2% of the duels and 61.9% of the tackles, according to the club’s website.

The understanding between two players can make a difference at the top level. For the passer, it’s about knowing what kind of run the striker will make and where he wants to have the ball. For the runner, it’s about knowing when the pass will be made and if the passer can execute the play. The Gunners can thank the Dortmund connection for the last two goals. Mkhitaryan slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who rounded Karnezis to slot into an empty net for a 2-0 lead in the 59th. Then Aubameyang pounced on a rebound to tee up Mkhitaryan for the third goal in the 77th.

Things didn’t get off to a good start for the former Borussia Dortmund players though. Mkhitaryan made a cross beyond Aubameyang in the fifth minute. The Armenia international showed more accuracy with his through ball for Aubameyang in the 11th but Prodl brushed the Arsenal striker off the ball. The Watford defense also blocked a pass from Mkhitaryan in the 35th but the ball somehow fell into the path of Aubameyang, who was put off by Mariappa while taking his chance.

Mkhitaryan is a gambler

Aubameyang hasn’t ajusted to the physicality of the Premier League yet. He needs to be stronger in duels. The Gabon striker will also have to improve in the air. He won 0 of 3 aerial duels in midfield. That’s not good enough if the team wants to use him as a target man. By contrast, Mkhitaryan had a good all-around performance. He won 2 of 6 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. The only blemish was his passing accuracy of 71.7%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters. Mkhitaryan is a gambler in the final third and often goes for the killer pass. The real issue is Mkhitaryan’s approach in his own half where he is not cautious enough. Wilshere came off the bench to replace Mkhitaryan in the 78th.

Playing in the hole, Ozil led all players with 3 key passes. Ozil set up the opening goal in the eighth minute with a pinpoint free kick that Mustafi headed into the bottom corner. Watford’s marking was poor on that play but you have to credit the complicity between Ozil and Mustafi, who both play for the Germany team. Ozil was also involved in the third goal as he made the cross that Karnezis palmed into the path of Aubameyang. With better finishing, Ozil could have claimed 2 assists and 1 goal. In the third minute, Ozil slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who shot straight at Karnezis from 15 yards. In the 27th, Ozil took a pass from Elneny and skipped past Mariappa only to be denied by Karnezis.

Season on the line

In goal, Cech finally earned his 200th clean sheet in the Premier League. The fact that it was the first clean sheet in the league since a 1-0 win over Newcastle in mid-December tells you how poorly the Gunners have defended in the past couple of months. Cech protected Arsenal’s lead by turning around the post a header from Richarlison on the stroke of halftime. Iwobi made a poor clearance on that play while Mustafi was not tight enough to Richarlison. Cech forced Deeney to eat some humble pie in the 62nd by stopping a penalty from the Watford striker. It was a moment to cheer about but some fans won’t forget some poor goalkeeping in the 26th when Cech, instead of pushing the ball to safety, palmed a low free kick into the path of Pereyra, who missed the target from 7 yards. Cech also sent a goal kick straight into touch in the 74th.

Arsenal’s season will be on the line when they host AC Milan on Thursday for the second leg of their last 16 encounter in the Europa League. Lose, and there’s nothing to play for. Win, and there’s still the hope of lifting some silverware in May.