Tag Archives: Holding

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

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

FA Cup final

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

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

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

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

Ramsey’s late runs

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

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

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

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

Ozil’s work-rate

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

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

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

Moses’ dive

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

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

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

Holding as the weak link

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

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

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

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

Wenger’s snipe

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

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

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

Papering over the cracks

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

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

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

 

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners miss out on Top 4 despite 3-1 win

The Gunners’ 3-1 win over Everton on Sunday was their fifth straight victory in the Premier League. Unfortunately, they hit top form too late as they finished fifth, one point behind Liverpool. Optimists will point out that Arsenal racked up 4 more points than last season, suggesting that it’s an improvement. Realists will notice the 18-point gap with Chelsea, concluding that the club is regressing, especially since it’s only the second time under Wenger’s tenure that Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League.

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

For most fans, 2016-17 has been a disappointing season. It’s definitely not a bad season, otherwise the Gunners would have wound up in the middle of the table like Chelsea did a year ago. But it can’t be described as a good season for the simple reason that Arsenal finished behind Tottenham and Liverpool. I can accept the fact that Chelsea and Manchester City do better because they are both backed by generous billionaires while Kroenke is treating Arsenal like a cash cow, taking money out of the club. But finishing behind Liverpool and Tottenham is embarrassing because the Gunners have a bigger payroll and spent more money in the transfer market than those two clubs.

A quick look at the table shows where the problem is. Arsenal scored 77 goals in 38 games to claim the fifth best offense in the league and conceded 44 goals to have the sixth best defense. A total of 77 goals is decent compared to Tottenham and Chelsea, which are the top scoring teams with 86 and 85 goals respectively. But conceding 44 goals is too much compared to Spurs and the Red Devils, who have leaked 26 and 29 goals respectively. The last time the Gunners conceded 44 goals or more was during the 2011-12 season, when they finished 19 points behind the two Manchester clubs. Yes, we are back to square one!

Holding’s inexperience

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that defeated Sunderland 2-0 last Tuesday, with Koscielny, Paulista and Welbeck replacing Mustafi, Gibbs and Giroud in the starting lineup. Mustafi and Gibbs were injured while Welbeck’s pace meant that he was a better option against Everton than Giroud. Arsenal showed more commitment than the Toffees, winning 61% of the duels, and making 12 interceptions to 10 and 18 tackles to 9, according to the club’s website.

The Toffees tried to press high up the pitch in the opening minutes but ended up running into the void because the 3-4-3 formation means that the Gunners have an extra man at the back. The system gives more room for error but is not infallible. Holding’s inexperience proved quite costly in the 14th minute. What was he doing 70 yards away from the Arsenal goal? Valencia outpaced Monreal down our left flank and dribbled past Holding before Koscielny took him down with a reckless tackle.

Koscielny’s red card was deserved. The France defender was not in control and missed the ball. That was really poor decision-making. But I can understand his rationale. Holding was out of position, which means that a dangerous 3v2 situation was developing, with Koscielny and Paulista facing Mirallas, Lukaku and Valencia. To a certain extent, that challenge reminded me of Koscielny’s first season at the club when he collected two red cards.

Holding had a poor game, with a passing accuracy dipping to 73.9%, the lowest percentage for any defender. He made 0 interception and 2 blocks and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Ten years ago, Arsenal could start a youngster like Holding on a regular basis and still finish in the Top 4. Nowadays, it’s no longer possible because the level in the Premier League has significantly improved. For instance, Ake is a promising prospect at Chelsea but even Conte sees him as a bench warmer. A loan next season is a necessity both for Holding and Arsenal: Holding needs more playing time while the club needs to speed up his development.

Mertesacker’s 1st game of the season

Everton’s goal in the 58th came from another mistake from Holding, who misjudged the flight of the ball and handled it while trying to chest down a cross from Baines. Lukaku converted the subsequent penalty to cut Arsenal’s lead to 2-1. Everton found more space after Koscielny’s ejection. The shift to a back four also exposed Holding a bit more. In the 62nd, Valencia outmuscled Holding, who was booked for an obstruction on the Everton winger. Then Lukaku ghosted past Holding in the 83rd but headed Barry’s long ball wide.

Maybe the Gunners would have not struggled so badly if the referee had treated Williams with the same severity he showed to Koscielny. The Everton centerback received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 19th and should have been booked again in the 55th for tripping Welbeck. The referee kept the card in his pocket although it was clearly a cynical foul.

Paulista became a second choice after his poor performance against Tottenham. Yet, he stepped up following Koscielny’s sending-off. Paulista cut out a cross for Lukaku in the 30th, made a perfectly timed challenge on Mirallas in the 36th, killed a counterattack with another timely tackle in the 42nd and deflected out Lukaku’s shot on the stroke of halftime. However, his luck ran out in the 49th when he challenged Valencia, twisting his knee in the collision.

In less than 50 minutes, Paulista had a passing accuracy of 95.8%, made 1 interception and 3 blocks, and won 1 of 2 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He also won 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for any starting defender, according to the club’s website. Paulista was stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Mertesacker in the 53rd. The German defender was making his first appearance of the season and caused a bit of panic with a dodgy tackle on Valencia in the 55th. The referee turned down Everton’s penalty shout.

A more confident Bellerin

Cech made a couple of key saves to help Arsenal reach halftime with a 2-0 lead. He stopped a toe poke from Lukaku afer a goalmouth scramble in the 38th, turned around the post a long-range strike from Gueye in the 41st and tipped over the bar a looping header from Lukaku in the 43rd.

Wenger shifted to a back three last month because the midfield was not good enough to protect the defense, but also because the back four was not performing well: Bellerin and Mustafi both had a drop in form while Monreal struggled to stop crosses.

In the 3-4-3 formation, Bellerin proved he could be an attacking threat down the right flank. He doesn’t have Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dribbling skills but his deep runs and movement can create problems for any defense. The Spaniard finished the game with 1 goal, 2 key passes, 2 interceptions and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 1 tackle and 1 of 3 aerial duels. Bellerin has not yet recovered his defensive level from last season, but at least he’s playing with more confidence than 2 months ago. He only won 33% of his duels compared to 71% for Monreal.

Monreal is more comfortable with the new system because his positional play makes a bigger difference. He started Sunday’s game as a wingback before Koscielny’s ejection forced him to turn into a fullback. In a back four, Monreal’s relative lack of pace can be a liability to stop crosses. He was more busy defensively than Bellerin because Valencia proved a bigger threat than Mirallas. Monreal won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 1 block.

Ozil and Sanchez have a lot of freedom in the 3-4-3 system. Offensively, Sanchez enjoys cutting inside from the left flank while Ozil roams across the entire attacking line. Defensively, their lack of tactical discipline can put the wingbacks in trouble. It’s therefore not a surprise that fullbacks Holgate and Baines led Everton players with 3 key passes each.

Awkward in the final third

While his work-rate is still an issue, Ozil’s creativity is definitely an asset in the final third. The Germany playmaker created the opening goal in the eighth minute by squaring the ball back for Welbeck, who missed a tap-in from 3 yards. As the ball rolled under Welbeck’s studs, Bellerin rushed at the far post to score into an empty net. In stoppage time, Ozil produced some slick work on the left wing to set up Ramsey, who quickly turned to curl into the top corner for a 3-1 lead.

Ozil often showed off his dribbling skills when he played for Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen. Nowadays, he doesn’t dribble much, which is a shame, because I think he could still beat defenders. Ozil won a free kick in the 64th by completely wrongfooting Schneiderlin. He finished the game with 3 key passes, but also 0 tackle, 0 interception, and 0 aerial duel won, compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 1 aerial duel won for Sanchez, and 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 aerial duels won for Welbeck.

Despite his involvement in 2 goals, Welbeck was incredibly awkward in the final third. Bellerin combined with Sanchez in the second minute to make a cross for Welbeck, who missed the target with his volley from 4 yards. Somehow, Welbeck was credited with an assist for the opening goal because he slightly diverted Ozil’s cross. He claimed a second assist in the 27th for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A long-range effort from Sanchez hit Welbeck, who was played onside by two Toffees. Welbeck beat Robles to the loose ball to set up Sanchez for a tap-in.

Ramsey’s 1st goal of the season

Early in the second half, Welbeck capitalized on a mazy run from Sanchez to be clean through on goal but was denied by Robles. In stoppage time, Bellerin picked out Welbeck, who shot straight at the Everton goalkeeper. Besides the two assists, Welbeck impressed with a strong hold-up play. He won 83.3% of his duels according to the club’s website and had a passing accuracy of 96.4%. Both stats are quite unusual for a centerforward.

Sanchez has enjoyed his best season in the Premier League with 24 goals and 10 assists. He could have raised his tally to 25 goals but Robles punched away his angled free kick in the 32nd. The bad news is that the Chile striker picked up a hamstring injury later on and was replaced by Iwobi in the 67th. Iwobi had a couple of chances to make a good impression. He chested down a cross from Bellerin in the 85th only to have his shot blocked by Holgate. Three minutes later, Iwobi slalomed through the Everton defense but was denied by Robles.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey were ineffective defensively, combining to win 0 of 5 tackles and make 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. They might be the most complementary midfield pairing by default because of Cazorla’s absence, but that should give the manager some food for thought for next season, especially if Cazorla’s ankle injury doesn’t heal and if the Gunners switch back to a back four. Ramsey struggled in the first half before growing into the game. The Wales midfielder slipped a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Robles in the 75th. He then scored his first goal of the season with a curling shot in stoppage time. It might be a good omen for the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday.

Lack of choice at the back

The Blues are the favorites because they just won the league and have no injured player. On the other hand, the Gunners will miss some key players. Koscielny will serve his suspension, Paulista is unlikely to recover from his knee injury, and Sanchez, Mustafi, Gibbs and the Ox will have late fitness tests.

The back three is clearly the biggest problem for the manager. When everybody is fit, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are the obvious starters. Now Wenger only has the choice between Mertesacker, Holding, Monreal and maybe Mustafi for the three starting spots. Starting Mertesacker would be a huge gamble because he has only played one competitive game this season and his lack of pace would be a liability against Costa, Hazard, Willian and Pedro.

The beauty of football is that anything can happen in a game. The better team doesn’t always win. In the FA Cup semifinals, the Citizens played better than Arsenal but still ended up losing 2-1 in extra time. Winning the FA Cup wouldn’t make up for the disappointing Premier League campaign. But it would definitely bring a smile to the fans and the players after a rough season.

Stoke vs. Arsenal: Sanchez, Giroud lead Gunners to 4-1 win

It took Wenger a lot of time to fix the flaws in his team. Cazorla’s recurrent injury forced the French manager to try several midfield pairings in the first half of the season. But none of those pairings could protect the defense efficiently. So Wenger tweaked the system a bit by sporadically using an inverted pyramid midfield in February and March. However, the losses to Chelsea, Bayern Munich and West Brom showed the team needed a stronger remedy.

Stoke vs. Arsenal

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

The Arsenal manager came to the conclusion that the solution was not in midfield but at the back. He finally switched to a 3-4-3 system against Middlesbrough on April 17. Guardiola at Manchester City and Pochettino at Tottenham have played a back three quite a few times this season while this was the first time in 20 years that Wenger relied on three centerbacks. Since that tactical shift, the Gunners have won six games and conceded one loss in all competitions.

There was a time when Wenger could find answers more quickly. During the 2014-15 season, Arsenal struggled in midfield because of injuries. Stuck in sixth place at the end of November, the Gunners were losing ground in the race for a Champions League spot. By December, the manager decided to recall Coquelin from his loan spell at Charlton. The partnership formed by Coquelin and Cazorla in midfield proved instrumental in Arsenal’s third-place finish.

When the going gets tough, the skills of a manager can be tested by the speed of his reaction. Wenger needed 9 months to stop the bleeding. At the top level, that’s too slow for a manager. Chelsea leaked a lot of goals when Conte took over. The Italian manager needed just two months to turn the Blues into champions. Ironically, Conte switched to a back three after an embarrassing 3-0 loss at the Emirates in September.

Fewer softies

On Saturday, Wenger made 4 changes to the side that won 2-0 at Southampton on Wednesday with Koscielny, Bellerin, Coquelin and Giroud replacing Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Gibbs and the Ox were sidelined by injuries while Ramsey and Welbeck started on the bench.

Stoke and Arsenal had 8 chances and 10 shots each, but the Gunners proved more clinical. The Britannia stadium is usually a hostile ground. Yet, Arsenal managed to match the Potters’ commitment by winning 55.2% of the duels and making as many interceptions as the hosts, according to the club’s website.

The 3-4-3 formation is the main reason for the number of duels won. Basically, there are fewer softies in the team. Walcott and Iwobi were starters in the first half of the season. In the new system, Walcott has been replaced by the Ox or Bellerin on the right flank while Iwobi has lost his spot to the third centerback. It’s no surprise to see Holding and Bellerin win more duels than Iwobi and Walcott.

The key to a lot of goals is the understanding between the players involved. Giroud opened the scoring in the 42nd minute by converting a cross from Bellerin. The France striker then made it 4-1 in the 80th by sliding home a cross from Ramsey. Bellerin is spending his third season with the first team and has a good idea of the kind of service Giroud needs. Likewise, Ramsey has struck a good understanding with Giroud, especially since the 2013-14 season when Giroud’s link-up play helped Ramsey score a lot of goals.

Scoring while being injured

Giroud got the nod up front because his lack of pace is less relevant against teams sitting deep and letting Arsenal enjoy a lot of possession. His outstanding movement inside the box definitely made a difference as he converted his only two goal attempts. He also created two chances before Walcott replaced him in the 84th.

It’s no secret that Sanchez and Ozil love finding each other on the pitch. Yet, the Potters seemed to have no clue in the 55th when Ozil played a one-two with Sanchez before chipping Butland for a 2-0 lead. Whelan and Johnson failed to track Ozil on that play while Sanchez had plenty of time to make a perfectly weighted pass. Sanchez made it 3-1 in the 76th by taking a pass from Bellerin to bury the ball into the bottom corner. He was not even supposed to be on the pitch anymore: Sanchez picked up a hamstring injury after Martins Indi fouled him in the 64th. Somehow, Sanchez tried to carry on before gesturing toward the bench in the 73rd for a substitution. Ramsey finally replaced Sanchez just a minute after the Chile striker scored Arsenal’s third goal.

Sanchez produced an amazing performance with 1 goal and 1 assist but also 4 tackles and 1 interception. He had 5 successful dribbles and was fouled 6 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Ozil had a poor work-rate despite 1 goal and 2 key passes. The Germany playmaker made 1 dribble, 0 tackle, 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. Ozil was nowhere near Pieters when the Stoke leftback made a dangerous cross that Monreal headed out in the 63rd. I’m not sure Ozil would get a free pass for defensive duties with other managers.

Xhaka overestimating his abilities

In his 15-minute cameo, Ramsey made a strong impression with an assist and a shot on target. He sent Shawcross to the floor by faking a shot before testing Butland with a low strike in the 78th. Two minutes later, Ramsey made a crossfield run to chase Ozil’s long ball and held off Johnson to set up Giroud for the final goal. It’s a pity that Ramsey’s season had been marred by injuries because he has never really been able to find his groove.

In midfield, Xhaka and Coquelin proved relatively inefficient. They combined to create 0 chance, make 1 interception and win 1 of 8 tackles, according to Squawka. Xhaka set a too slow tempo to create space in the Stoke defense. The Switzerland international also has a tendency to overestimate his pace and dribbling skills. He was dispossessed by Diouf in the 12th and Cameron in the 75th because he dallied on the ball. It was weird to see Coquelin in the role of a box-to-box player. Coquelin was often in the final third and did not seem aware of his own limitations as he made 3 dribbling attempts. I guess the manager’s rationale for starting Xhaka and Coquelin was to win duels in midfield.

On the wings, Bellerin finished the game with 2 assists. The Spaniard can be a threat with his crossing ability, but he needs to get back to basics in his defensive game. Bellerin led all players with 8 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Right now, I’d choose the Ox over Bellerin for the wingback position because the England international is more focused on his defensive tasks than Bellerin.

Crouch’s handball

On the opposite wing, Monreal had a solid game, making 4 blocks and winning 3 of 4 tackles. He took advantage of the Potters’ lax marking to make dangerous runs in behind. Monreal met a cross from Ozil in the 13th but was let down by a poor first touch. Four minutes later, he connected with a cross from Bellerin only to hit the post with his header.

At the back, Holding produced an energetic display a la Sanchez. It was quite a mixed bag. Holding had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 5 of 7 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions and 5 blocks. But he also lost 3 of 4 tackles. Allen too easily ran past Holding in the 31st and Arnautovic too easily got the better of him twice in the second half. The Stoke winger peeled away from Holding in the 60th to make a cross for Diouf who headed wide from 3 yards. Then Arnautovic outpaced Holding in the 67th to make a cross for Crouch, who scored to cut Arsenal’s lead. With the naked eye, it seemed that Crouch headed the ball in. But video replays showed that Crouch scored with a handball. The goal should have been disallowed but the Premier League has no video assistant referee, which means that the referee and the linesmen have to make the call on their own.

Frustrated by Arnautovic’s skills, Holding received a yellow card in the 78th for a cynical foul on the Austria international. Chambers’ career at Arsenal has been doomed by his slow first steps and inability to turn quickly. I hope Holding does not have those flaws and can adjust his positional play. In any case, Holding needs a loan next season to speed up his development.

Out of Arsenal’s hands

Koscielny and Mustafi were playing together for the first time in a back three. It was weird to see Mustafi as the sweeper and Koscielny as the left centerback. In his return from injury, Koscielny produced a low-key performance, winning 1 of 1 aerial duel and losing the 2 tackles he made. The France defender cleared the danger in the 31st when Allen ran past Holding. Mustafi was a bit more active than Koscielny, winning 1 of 5 tackles and 5 of 8 aerial duels. The Germany international was booked for a reckless tackle on Shaqiri in the 28th. Mustafi nearly scored in the ninth minute but Butland tipped his looping header over the bar.

Stoke mostly threatened on set pieces and long-range attempts. The Arsenal defense failed to clear a corner in the 63rd and Cameron beat Coquelin to the second ball to nod it back toward Martins Indi, whose header was tipped over the bar by Cech. The Czech goalkeeper also stopped a low drive from Berahino in the 71st and palmed away a volley from Cameron in the 85th.

The Gunners must beat Sunderland on Tuesday to still have a chance of finishing in the Top 4 when they host Everton on Sunday for their final Premier League game. Their fate is still out of their hands as they also need Liverpool or Manchester City to drop points.

 

Arsenal vs. Manchester United: The Ox shines in 2-0 win as Gunners stay in Top 4 race

The Gunners are not out yet of the race for a Champions League spot after defeating Manchester United 2-0 on Sunday for Wenger’s first victory over Mourinho in 13 Premier League games. However, a Top 4 finish would still require a massive bottle job from either Liverpool or Manchester City. Assuming Arsenal, the Reds and the Citizens win their remaining games, they would finish the season with respectively 75, 76 and 78 points.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United

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

With an eye on the Europa League, Mourinho fielded a makeshift side, resting Valencia, Blind, Bailly and Pogba to start second-choice players like Jones, Tuanzebe, Rooney and Martial. By contrast, Wenger made just two changes to the side that lost 2-0 at White Hart Lane a week ago with Welbeck and Holding replacing Giroud and Paulista in the starting lineup. The Red Devils played with 10 men behind the ball, hoping to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Manchester United proved stronger in the challenges, winning 54.5% of the duels and making 16 interceptions to 5 for the Gunners, who were more efficient in the final third by creating 8 chances to 6 for the visitors.

While Bellerin and Walcott have lost their starting spots in the new 3-4-3 formation, Oxlade-Chamberlain has capitalized on his versatility to shine in the wingback position. The Ox tested De Gea with a long-range strike in the 31st minute before setting up both goals in the second half. Xhaka received a throw-in from the Ox in the 54th and unleashed a speculative shot that took a big deflection off Herrera. The ball looped over De Gea to land into the net for a 1-0 lead. Three minutes later, the Ox made a pinpoint cross for Welbeck, who doubled the lead with a powerful header under the bar.

Ramsey’s work-rate

The Ox was replaced by Bellerin in the 84th and still put up some impressive numbers, winning 2 of 8 tackles and having 2 successful dribbles out of 5. He also made 4 blocks and 5 fouls, the most for any player. For years, the Ox struggled to convert his potential into end product. He is slowly improving this season with 2 goals and 7 assists in 28 Premier League games. His previous best was 2 goals and 2 assists in the 2013-14 season.

On the left flank, Gibbs produced an average performance in the wingback position. The comparison with the Ox really hurts as Gibbs had 0 shot, created 0 chance, lost the only tackle he made, had 2 successful dribbles out of 3 and make 1 interception and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. Gibbs’ passing accuracy also dropped to 73.7%, the lowest percentage for any outfield starter according to whoscored.com. Obviously, Gibbs doesn’t have the Ox’s technical ability but you would still expect from him more work-rate and urgency.

In central midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey did much better against Herrera and Carrick than against Wanyama and Dier at White Hart Lane. That partnership does not give enough protection to a back four but can limit the damage in a 3-4-3 system. Ramsey had a low strike palmed away by De Gea in the ninth minute. His work-rate made the difference as he created 1 chance, had 2 successful dribbles out of 3, won 2 of 5 tackles and made 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to whoscored.com.

Sanchez’s dipping form

The most surprising part in that partnership is that Ramsey ended up doing more defensive work than Xhaka, who created 0 chance, won 0 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception and 0 block. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka won 28.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website, compared to 55.6% for Ramsey, who is a box-to-box player. Since none of them is a natural defensive midfielder, you would expect a more even share of the defensive tasks. Xhaka led the team with 74 passes but he doesn’t inject the same urgency in setting the tempo as Cazorla. The Switzerland international seemed to pick up a calf injury and was replaced by Coquelin in the 76th.

Up front, Welbeck played as a selfless target man. Welbeck is not a false nine and therefore doesn’t drop back like Sanchez. He doesn’t have Giroud’s link-up play abilities either. That’s why Welbeck made just 9 passes despite a passing accuracy of 100%. He made no key pass but converted his only scoring chance to give Arsenal a 2-0 lead.

Welbeck is stepping up at the right time as Sanchez’s form is dipping. Sanchez has scored only 1 goal in his last 7 Premier League games. He was dispossessed 6 times on Sunday, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, and did not have his usual work-rate with no interception, no tackle won and just 2 dribbles made. At times, rookie Tuanzebe even seemed to have Sanchez in his pocket. Sanchez often dropped back to create space, slipping through balls to Ramsey in the ninth and the 30th. He also sent a ball over the top for Welbeck, who was wrongly flagged offside in the 37th.

More than £200,000 a week for a passenger?

The more I hear about the contract negotiations, and the more I think the club would make a big mistake by offering more than £200,000 a week to Ozil. The Red Devils tried to overload our right flank because they saw that Ozil gave no defensive support to the Ox. Ozil gave the ball away in the 48th and made no effort to win it back. He also failed to close down Mata on a short corner in the 24th. Mata whipped in a cross for Rooney, who headed wide.

The Gunners can’t afford to have players who don’t work their socks off. In the other big clubs, creative players have better offensive stats than Ozil despite putting in a defensive shift. In 29 Premier League appearances this season, Ozil has racked up 7 goals and 6 assists for an average of 0.45 goal or assist per game. That’s simply not good enough for a world-class player. Alli has 0.65 goal or assist per Premier League game this season, Hazard 0.63, De Bruyne 0.61, Eriksen 0.59, Coutinho 0.55 and Fabregas 0.54.

Manchester United mostly threatened with crosses in the first half and long-range efforts in the second. Some poor communication between Gibbs and Monreal in the second minute allowed Mata to make a cross for Rooney, who headed over the bar under Holding’s pressure. Cech kept a clean sheet by turning Rooney’s free kick around the post in the 65th.

Holding’s inexperience

Wenger made a gutsy call by giving the nod to Holding over Paulista, who performed poorly against Tottenham. Holding’s inexperience nearly cost his team in the first half. He was drawn out of position in the fifth minute, forcing Koscielny to cover him and be on the wrong side of Martial. Ramsey failed to track Rooney, who slipped a through ball to Martial. But Cech managed to save Martial’s toe poke. Then Holding made a poor decision in the 32nd. Cornered along the touchline by Martial, Holding attempted a risky backpass to Cech. Rooney intercepted the ball but was denied by the Czech goalkeeper.

I believe the club should loan out Holding next season to speed up his development. If we except those 2 mistakes, Holding had a decent game, winning 50% of his duels (compared to 44.4% for Koscielny and 37.5% for Monreal) and 3 of 5 tackles (compared to 0 of 2 for Monreal and 2 of 5 for Koscielny). The English centerback also made 3 blocks and won the ball back on the play that led to the second goal. Monreal’s performance at centerback was a mixed bag. The Spaniard does add a technical touch at the back like Azpilicueta at Chelsea, but his lack of physicality sometimes lets him down and I just feel that he’s more efficient than Gibbs as a wingback.

The Gunners must win their 4 remaining Premier League games to have a shot at a Top 4 finish. That would mean matching their best run of form this season when they won six straight league games from August to October. The difficulty lies in the run-in with very little rest between those games. The Gunners visit Southampton on Wednesday and Stoke on Saturday before hosting Sunderland and Everton the following week.

 

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 5-0 win over Southampton

Walcott notched a hat trick on Saturday and Welbeck opened his account this season with two goals as the Gunners thrashed Southampton 5-0 in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Last November, Arsenal lost 2-0 to the Saints in the League Cup after fielding a weakened team. The Gunners learned their lesson and picked a stronger starting lineup while Southampton preferred to rest some key players.

  1. Perez is such an underrated player

Arsenal signed Perez last summer because of his goalscoring abilities. But the Spaniard has tremendous passing skills too. He hit 3 accurate through balls out of 4, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. He also displayed a fantastic work-rate by winning 4 tackles.

fa-cup-southampton

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

In the role of a false nine, Perez helped create two goals with some nifty link-up play. He fed Welbeck for the opening goal in the 15th minute. Initially, the play didn’t look dangerous when Maitland-Niles found Perez back to goal. But Perez created some space behind the Saints’ backline by dropping back and he gave them no time to regroup by making a first-time pass. You can see Perez’s intelligence on the pitch as he spots Welbeck’s run before receiving the ball from Maitland-Niles. Welbeck then played a one-two with Perez before setting up Walcott for the third goal in the 35th.

Perez struck a good understanding with Welbeck at St Mary’s stadium just like he was on the same wavelength with Ozil against Ludogorets and with Giroud against Preston and Bournemouth. He made a teasing cross for Welbeck in the fifth minute but the England international couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Perez also teed up Bellerin, who shot straight at the goalkeeper in the 53rd.

  1. Maitland-Niles is the revelation of the season

Much like Bellerin enjoyed a breakthrough season two years ago and Iwobi broke into the first team last season, Maitland-Niles is the youngster who is knocking on the door of the manager with a string of good performances.

At 19, Maitland-Niles is already showing some smart positional play. He helped set a good tempo on Saturday by taking very few touches. His sober and clean performance as a holding midfielder allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain to focus on his playmaking duties. Maitland-Niles won 6 tackles and made 3 interceptions, the most for any player in both categories according to whoscored.com. He also made 79 passes, the most for any player, an obvious sign that his teammates trust him on the pitch.

If Maitland-Niles keeps performing at this level, he could leapfrog Elneny in the pecking order just like Bellerin got ahead of Debuchy and Jenkinson. Maitland-Niles stood on his feet to win a tackle inside the Arsenal area in the 44th. Knowing that Xhaka got sent off for some reckless challenges, it must be good news for the manager to see that Maitland-Niles does not dive in.

His reading of the game also saved the Gunners a couple of times. Long in the 51st and Sims in the 74th got the better of Mustafi, but each time Maitland-Niles covered the Germany international to either clear the danger or make a crucial block. He also came to Bellerin’s rescue when the Spaniard lost possession in the 56th.

Maitland-Niles seems more ready than Holding or Reine-Adelaide to join the first team. Holding still needs to iron out basic mistakes like taking unnecessary risks in his own half while Reine-Adelaide is a bit too soft for the Premier League despite showing his class with some stunning dribbling moves. The French teenager was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any Arsenal player.

  1. The Ox is a solid option in central midfield

Oxlade-Chamberlain really looked comfortable in the deep-lying playmaker role. He made 3 key passes, more than any other player, and slipped 2 accurate through balls out of 3. His passing range also helped the Ox hit 7 accurate long balls out of 8.

The former Southampton player created the second goal in the 22nd with a ball over the top for Welbeck, who ghosted past Stephens to beat Lewis. The Ox also played Perez clean through on goal with a long ball in the 89th, but the Spaniard was denied by Lewis. His delivery on set pieces was a mixed bag. The Ox wasted a free kick and a corner by overhitting the ball. On a more positive note, Mustafi met an Ox free kick in the 29th to head wide from six yards.

Some fans may wonder why the Ox is not playing more often in midfield. Competition with Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka is one obvious explanation. But another reason is the time it took for the Ox to mature as a player. In the past seasons, inconsistency combined with a high turnover rate and an average decision-making have prevented the Ox from claiming a starting spot in midfield.

The Southampton game was pretty much an audition for central midfielders since Coquelin and Ramsey are the only two players available now. Xhaka is serving a four-game suspension, Elneny is on national duty with Egypt and Cazorla may not return before April.

The Ox and Maitland-Niles formed a complementary duo. However, we shouldn’t get our hopes high too quickly. The Southampton midfield was poor. Also, there’s no guarantee that Maitland-Niles or the Ox will perform as well with a different partner in central midfield. For the next FA Cup game, Wenger could test again the tandem formed by the Ox and Maitland-Niles or experiment with a Ramsey-Maitland duo or an Ox-Coquelin duo.

  1. Sanchez is always hungry

Somehow, the manager couldn’t keep Sanchez on the bench for the entire match. The Chile striker replaced Welbeck in the 64th and showed his hunger by making two assists. He capitalized on a mazy run from the Ox in the 69th to cut the ball back for Walcott, who made it 4-0 with a low strike into the far corner. Sanchez then collected a long ball from Perez in the 84th and kept two defenders busy before picking out Walcott, who sealed the game with a first-time finish.

  1. Gibbs is not taking his chance

Monreal has had his ups and downs this season. Yet, Gibbs has not been able to snatch the starting spot at leftback. Monreal has made 20 starts in the Premier League compared to just 2 for Gibbs. Saturday’s game showed why. Gibbs gave away a cheap free kick on the edge of the box by tripping Long in the 32nd. The Saints then capitalized on silly turnovers from Gibbs in the 45th and 76th to start counterattacks.

  1. The Premier League is still the top priority

Wenger clearly had Tuesday’s game against Watford on his mind as he left regular starters like Cech, Koscielny, Coquelin, Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud out of the squad while giving some playing time to youngsters like Reine-Adelaide and Maitland-Niles and to second-choice players like Ospina, Holding, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Perez and Welbeck. The Gunners need a victory over Watford to stay in the title race.

  1. Wenger started serving his four-game ban

The manager watched the match from the stands and it made no real difference since Wenger is not a control freak like Conte or Guardiola. Bould proved just as quiet on the bench as the French manager usually is. On paper, Wenger mostly makes an impact on the game with the starting lineup, tactical adjustments at halftime and substitutions in the second half. The touchline ban did not affect Wenger’s influence on the team, especially since the Gunners were leading 3-0 at the end of the first half.

I thought the 10-game ban suggested by some pundits was simply ridiculous. Pardew was hit with a two-game suspension for pushing a linesman in 2012. A four-game ban looked like standard punishment for the small shove on Taylor in the 2-1 win over Burnley combined with the red card for dissent. It wouldn’t have made sense to punish Wenger with a 10-game ban knowing that Pardew was suspended for 7 games in 2014 for headbutting a player. In fact, it would have made the FA look bad to hit Wenger with the same 10-game ban Suarez got for biting Ivanovic in 2013. Comparing a shove with a bite, really?

  1. Mertesacker is back in the squad

Mertesacker sat on the bench at St Mary’s stadium after recovering from a knee injury he picked up last summer. The German centerback is a leader in the dressing room but I’m not sure he should be on the bench for a Premier League game. Mertesacker’s lack of pace makes the Gunners vulnerable on the fast break and prevents them from playing a high defensive line efficiently. Paulista’s decision-making can be dodgy, but I still think he would be a more valuable centerback as long as he plays alongside Koscielny. Putting Mertesacker on the bench would also mean slowing down Holding’s development.

  1. Improving the chemistry in the dressing room

There are a couple of days left before the end of the winter transfer window. It’s unlikely that the club will sign a new player this month. However, the Gunners should take advantage of that window to make some adjustments in the squad and get rid of grumpy players who want more playing time.

Debuchy is the big thorn in Arsenal’s side. A loan seems the most realistic option given his age and wages. Jenkinson is of no use either for the team as he has slipped behind Bellerin, Paulista and Maitland-Niles in the pecking order at rightback. Crystal Palace and Arsenal have agreed a deal but the move has stalled because of Jenkinson’s salary demands. The club might also consider loaning out Akpom and Reine-Adelaide to speed up their development.

 

Basel vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 4-1 win

Perez notched a hat trick in a 4-1 rout of Basel on Tuesday to help Arsenal finish first in Group A of the Champions League after Paris Saint-Germain surrendered the top spot by drawing at home against Ludogorets. This is the first time since 2011 that the Gunners won their group. There’s no guarantee that they will get an easy draw for the last 16 but at least they will host the second leg of their tie.

  1. First start for the Xhaka-Ramsey duo

The manager was not scared of experimenting in a Champions League match as he partnered Xhaka with Ramsey for the first time in central midfield. They got off to a shaky start, especially with Basel pressing high up the pitch to force turnovers. Xhaka in the 11th minute and Ramsey in the 14th cheaply gave the ball away on the edge of the Arsenal box. Ramsey played in a too high position in the opening minutes, leaving Xhaka a bit isolated in midfield.

basel-vs-arsenal

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Ramsey made the necessary tactical adjustment by playing in a deeper position. The key for Ramsey is really to figure out when to defend and when to roam forward. He killed a counterattack in the 63rd by blocking Lang’s cross. One game is obviously a small sample but the Xhaka-Ramsey duo looks quite complementary, definitely more than the Coquelin-Elneny tandem. On the other hand, the Xhaka-Coquelin partnership seems to provide more protection to the back four than the Xhaka-Ramsey duo.

Xhaka acted like a deep-lying playmaker, making 111 passes compared to 63 for Ozil and 60 for Ramsey, and reaching a passing accuracy of 93.7%, the highest percentage among the starting midfielders, according to whoscored.com. However, Xhaka’s defensive performance was questionable as he won none of the 8 tackles he made, while Ramsey won 3 of 4 tackles. Maybe it had something to do with his brother’s presence in the Basel team.

  1. Perez can be clinical

Starting on the right wing, Perez had 3 shots and scored 3 goals. You can’t be more clinical than that. Perez capitalized on a missed clearance from Balanta to control Gibbs’ underhit cross and score from close range in the eighth minute. He then smashed home a rebound in the 16th after Vaclik had saved Gibbs’ low strike. The Spaniard made it 3-0 in the 47th when Sanchez inadvertently diverted Gibbs’ high pass with a poor touch. The ball fell to Perez, who fired into the bottom corner from a tight angle.

Perez tried to contribute defensively but won none of the 5 tackles he made, according to Squawka. In the 18th, he failed to track Traore, whose low drive sailed wide of the far post. Perez showed smart movement inside the box with his first two goals as well as electric pace with his third. His understanding with Gibbs in the Basel game and with Ozil in the 6-0 win over Ludogorets is the sign of a good integration in the team. That means Perez can step up if Walcott suffers from a dip in form.

  1. Holding is learning the ropes with Koscielny

In their third start together, Holding and Koscielny produced a mixed performance. They did fine in the first half but made a couple of mistakes after the break. Koscielny won only 1 of 4 tackles compared to 1 of 3 tackles for Holding. The good news for Holding is that he won 70% of his duels, the highest percentage among Arsenal defenders according to the club’s website, and reached a passing accuracy of 92.8%, much better than when he started playing for the club.

The bad news for Holding is that he needs to improve his focus. Holding was guilty of ball-watching when Delgado headed Lang’s cross over the bar in the 43rd. Then his risky pass in the 78th was intercepted by Calla and led to Basel’s goal. Doumbia played a one-two with Janko before flicking the ball over Ospina. Holding, Koscielny and Gibbs were all guilty on that play. Holding showed poor judgment, Koscielny was ridiculed by Doumbia’s roulette, and Gibbs played Janko onside.

Wenger could have rested Koscielny to start Mustafi at the back. However, the manager preferred to partner Holding with a more seasoned centerback. Koscielny made a crucial block in the 10th and won the ball back after Ramsey had lost possession to Die in the 14th, but he also failed to challenge Janko in the air in the 51st when the Basel striker headed wide Delgado’s cross.

  1. Could the Sanchez-Ozil duo cost more than half a million pounds per week?

Wenger is aware of their importance to the team as he yanked them off in the second half. Ozil and Sanchez combined in the build-up to the first two goals. Then Sanchez sent a ball over the top for Ozil, who set up Iwobi for the fourth goal in the 54th. Sanchez didn’t score but he made 2 key passes and produced 4 through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Chile striker also rattled the bar with a swerving free kick in the 67th. Ozil made 3 key passes, tied with two Basel players for the most. In the 73rd, he made a perfectly weighted pass for Giroud, who missed the target with a flick at the near post.

As both are negotiating a contract extension, there are rumors that they could seek to earn as much as Pogba’s 290,000 pounds per week. Sanchez and Ozil are respectively getting 130,000 and 140,000 pounds per week from the club. Offering 200,000 pounds per week would be a significant effort from Arsenal since Manchester United’s revenues dwarf any club in England. I wouldn’t be upset if the club refuses to offer more than 200,000 pounds. Any payroll increase has an impact on the transfer policy.

Also keep in mind that both Sanchez and Ozil will turn 29 next year. How many years at the top do they still have and is it worth taking such a financial risk knowing that any injury could make the contract extension backfire? Arsenal sold Van Persie when he was 29. The Dutch striker had only one great season at Manchester United before declining.

  1. Arsenal can thank Ospina for the first-place finish

In hindsight, we now know that the two points earned against PSG were crucial to top the group. Ospina made some great saves in those two games. The Colombia goalkeeper pulled off 4 saves against Basel, including one that helped Arsenal protect a 2-0 lead. Steffen cut inside Gibbs in the 40th to unleash a low strike that Ospina stopped. Ospina reacted quickly enough to collect the rebound before Janko could tap it home.

 

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-0 loss to Southampton

In their first defeat since August, the Gunners lost 2-0 to Southampton in the fifth round of the League Cup on Wednesday. I couldn’t care less about the League Cup. Spain, Germany and Italy only have one cup competition while England is stupid enough to exhaust its clubs with two cup competitions. Therefore, I completely agree with Wenger’s decision to rest his key players in the League Cup. However, Wednesday’s game showed some significant weaknesses that could hurt Arsenal in the Premier League.

  1. Our bench is not good enough

Wenger made 10 changes to the side that defeated Bournemouth 3-1 on Sunday. The Saints also heavily rotated as Puel dropped eight players who started in the 1-0 victory over Everton last weekend. Basically, the Southampton bench proved stronger than the Arsenal bench. Experienced players like Jenkinson and Elneny showed their limitations while Ramsey and Gibbs under-performed.

league-cup-southampton

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

The 18-year-old Reine-Adelaide got the nod on the right wing but is nowhere near the level of Manchester United forward Rashford, who made his breakthrough at the same age last season. I believe Reine-Adelaide still needs more time with the U23 team to hone his skills and learn from his mistakes.

Iwobi was arguably our best player. He burst from midfield in the 49th minute to release Jenkinson down the right flank. The Arsenal rightback made a cross for Ramsey, who shot straight at Forster with a sliding effort. Iwobi then cut inside in the 83rd to test Forster from the edge of the box.

In his return from an ankle injury, Perez struggled in the lone striker role. The Spaniard made quite a few misplaced passes and had very little support from his teammates. Perez finished the game with just one shot on target, a tame strike from a tight angle in the 47th. He obviously lacks match fitness but could be an interesting option on the left wing.

  1. The rightback position is a concern

Bellerin won’t be back before mid-December while Debuchy picked up a hamstring injury against Bournemouth. That means Jenkinson is the only rightback left in the squad. Jenkinson performed poorly against Southampton as both goals came from his flank. He failed to close down Bertrand in the 13th. Boufal connected with Bertrand’s cross but had his shot blocked by Holding. The rebound fell into the path of Clasie, who fired home from 16 yards. Then Jenkinson lost possession to Bertrand in the 38th and walked back toward the Arsenal box instead of tracking Boufal, who teed up Bertrand for a low strike into the bottom corner.

The Saints nearly scored a third goal in the 51st when Jenkinson gave away the ball with a poor pass but Martinez palmed away Long’s drive. When Maitland-Niles replaced Jenkinson in the 64th, the pessimist in me thought Wenger wanted to rest Jenkinson before Saturday’s match against West Ham while the optimist in me hoped the manager tried to find an alternative at rightback.

Jenkinson had a passing accuracy of 69%, the lowest percentage among all the defenders according to the club’s website. I’d be pretty scared if Jenkinson starts in our next Premier League games because Payet, Arnautovic, Bolasie and Sterling could create a lot of problems down our right flank. If it was up to me, I’d give a chance to Maitland-Niles or Holding. In the 80th, Maitland-Niles made a cross for Gibbs, whose header was cleared off the line by Yoshida. In the closing minutes, Maitland-Niles made a crucial block to prevent McQueen from tapping home.

  1. The Gunners must improve their defensive awareness

They concede a lot of chances because of ball-watching. When the Saints opened the scoring, Elneny saw the play unfold but had no clue that Clasie was just a few yards behind him to smash the rebound home. It was a lack of defensive awareness similar to the goal netted by Mata at Old Trafford. The second goal showed the same flaw with Ramsey and Coquelin jogging toward the ball and leaving plenty of space for Bertrand to run into. Can Wenger find a trick in his training sessions to improve his team’s defensive awareness?

Very often young players focus on creating chances and forget their defensive duties. It happened at least twice with Iwobi on Wednesday. Iwobi gave Martina plenty of space in the 50th for a cross that Long headed over the bar. Then Iwobi failed to track Martina on a counterattack in the 55th, but Holding managed to clear Martina’s cross for Long.

McQueen was also left unmarked after Martinez punched away a corner in the 56th but the Southampton winger had his shot deflected wide. Then Davis took advantage of some poor marking from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xhaka to volley McQueen’s cross over the bar in the 77th.

  1. The manager must ditch the Elneny-Coquelin duo

Arsenal badly lacked creativity with Coquelin and Elneny in midfield. They struggled to build play from the back, making a lot of lateral passes but providing no penetration in their passing game. Elneny made no tackle and won only 25% of his duels, the lowest percentage among the starting midfielders. He picked up a yellow card for pulling back Bertrand in the 29th and was replaced by Xhaka in the 43rd.

Xhaka tested Forster with a 35-yard free kick in the 54th and fed Oxlade-Chamberlain for Arsenal’s best chance in the 79th but the Ox missed the target from 13 yards. The Switzerland international made 4 shot assists while Elneny made none in the first half. That’s the big difference between Xhaka and Elneny: Xhaka makes more forward passes.

Knowing that Cazorla will be sidelined for 3 months because of a nagging ankle injury, I believe Wenger should build his midfield around Xhaka. Cazorla provided defensive stability to the team via his partnership with Coquelin as well as attacking fluidity via his understanding with Ozil.

Elneny would be a weak link in a partnership with Xhaka because he has worse defensive and offensive stats than Xhaka. By contrast, Coquelin is a better tackler than Xhaka while Ramsey is a bigger goal threat than the Switzerland international. It’s up to the manager to find out whether Coquelin or Ramsey is the best partner for Xhaka.

  1. The Gunners are too vulnerable on the flanks

Most of Southampton’s chances came from the flanks. Gibbs and Jenkinson won only 20% and 30% of their duels respectively, whereas Bertrand and Martina won more than 85% of their duels. The only time the Saints managed to carve open the heart of the Arsenal defense was in the 78th. Hojbjerg won a duel against Coquelin and the ball fell to Davis, who slipped a through ball to Long. The Southampton striker had just Martinez to beat but shot wide. Paulista was not tight enough to Davis on that play while Holding was on the wrong side of Long.

  1. Modern football is about penetration, not possession

The Gunners enjoyed 62.7% of ball possession but produced very few chances, with just 5 shots on target compared to 4 for the Saints. Of those 5 Arsenal shots, 3 were long-range strikes. The Gunners could have lost by a bigger margin if Martinez had not made two fine saves, tipping Sims’ shot around the far post in the 84th and diving to save Hojbjerg’s powerful strike in stoppage time. Martinez is a solid No. 3 goalkeeper and it’s great news that the club extended his contract last month.