Tag Archives: Iwobi

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

The Gunners are on the verge of elimination in the Europa League after losing 1-0 to BATE Borisov on Thursday in the first leg of their last-32 encounter. Arsenal will miss Lacazette for the second leg as the French striker received a red card for violent conduct.

BATE vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Getty Images

There will be a lot of second guessing about Emery’s team selection. Why did the Spanish manager not start Aubameyang and Torreira, knowing that the Gunners don’t even play this weekend? Arsenal performed poorly with a lot of stray passes and heavy touches. It was embarrassing to see the number of corner kicks that failed to beat the first defender. The Gunners could have led 3-0 in the first half with better finishing. They became toothless in the second half with a lot of sterile possession against a Belarusian side parking the bus.

  1. Are the Gunners regressing?

Last season, Arsenal won 4-2 in Belarus and 6-0 at the Emirates stadium under Wenger. You’d think that the Gunners would be in safe hands with Emery, who won the Europa League three times with Sevilla. But that wasn’t the case on Thursday.

Here’s a look at Emery’s 3-4-3 formation against BATE Borisov: Cech -Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi- Kolasinac, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Maitland-Niles- Iwobi, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan. If you compare with Wenger’s lineups, you can spot the difference right away. Wenger’s 3-5-2 formation in the 4-2 win: Ospina -Holding, Mertesacker, Mustafi -Maitland-Niles, Willock, Wilshere, Elneny, Nelson -Walcott, Giroud. Wenger’s 4-2-3-1 formation in the 6-0 win: Ospina -Maitland-Niles, Holding, Chambers, Debuchy -Elneny, Coquelin -Welbeck, Wilshere, Walcott -Giroud.

First, Mustafi and Maitland-Niles were the only players who started both Borisov games under Wenger and Emery. And second, Emery was more conservative in his approach than Wenger. The French manager started two goalscorers (Giroud and Walcott) in the away game and three (Giroud, Walcott and Welbeck) in the home game. By contrast, Emery only relied on one striker (Lacazette), probably expecting goals from Mkhitaryan and Iwobi who both have a poor scoring record.

Emery’s tactical changes in the second half proved useless. Aubameyang and Torreira replaced Maitland-Niles and Xhaka in the 68th minute before Emery sent on Suarez for Kolasinac in the 74th. The Gunners shifted to a 3-5-2 system with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi as wingbacks and Suarez in the hole behind Lacazette and Aubameyang.

  1. Lacazette’s nightmarish evening

The French striker could have notched a hat trick. His abject performance will again raise questions about his level. Lacazette should have at least caught the frame in the 22nd. Kolasinac made a pinpoint cross for an unmarked Lacazette who headed over the bar from 6 yards. Five minutes later, Guendouzi hit a ball over the top for Lacazette who tried to control the ball instead of attempting a volley from 16 yards. Lacazette missed his first touch, allowing Scherbitski to collect the ball. In that kind of situation, Van Persie would have opted for a volley.

Lacazette is a second striker, not a centerforward. His weakness in the air was exposed again in the 41st when he couldn’t climb high enough to meet a cross from Mustafi and test Scherbitski from 5 yards. Lacazette thought he had scored the equalizer in the 55th when he converted Kolasinac’s low cross, but he was marginally offside and the goal was disallowed. Out of frustration, Lacazette threw an elbow into Filipovic’s face in the 85th. That was obviously a silly foul because Filipovic was giving away a free kick by holding Lacazette’s shirt. The referee had no choice but to send Lacazette off.

  1. Iwobi’s lack of end product

The Nigeria international often made the penultimate pass for Arsenal’s few chances, especially by releasing Kolasinac down the left flank. The trouble is that Iwobi is not a deep-lying playmaker. He plays in a front three, which implies assists and goals. Iwobi finished the game with 0 key pass and 0 of 4 shots on target. His turnover rate is still an issue: Iwobi led all players with 11 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He was a bit naive in the opening minutes, losing possession twice by waiting for the ball to reach his feet instead of taking a couple of steps toward the ball to shield it with his body.

  1. Mkhitaryan’s first 5 minutes

The Armenia international got off to a good start before quickly fading. Mkhitaryan met Kolasinac’s cross with a sliding effort but was denied by Scherbitski in the second minute. He then made a teasing cross for Monreal, who failed to make contact with the ball in the fifth minute. A flick from Monreal would have been goalbound. The ball also evaded Koscielny to sail wide of the far post. Mkhitaryan made 3 key passes and won 2 of 3 tackles, but Emery should see that his limited goalscoring ability simply puts too much pressure on Lacazette.

  1. Guendouzi didn’t hide

He led all players with 111 passes. Yet, there’s something wrong when a manager gives the keys of the midfield to a teenager still learning the ropes. Yes, Guendouzi has a lot of potential, but he’s nowhere near the level of a Fabregas at the same age. Guendouzi dallied on the ball in the ninth minute and was dispossessed by Skavysh, forcing Xhaka to make a cynical foul. The French midfielder also lost a key duel with Milic on a BATE counterattack in the 13th. For his first season at the top level, Guendouzi has every excuse. But he will need to improve his defensive awareness and release the ball more quickly.

  1. The Gunners have a defensive problem on the left flank

Kolasinac was Arsenal’s most potent threat with 7 key passes. However, the hosts often exploited the space behind Kolasinac. In theory, Monreal was supposed to cover Kolasinac on the left flank, but the Spaniard struggled defensively. Skavysh combined with Milic to beat Monreal and Kolasinac along the touchline in the 28th. The Belarusian forward played the ball back to Milic, who flicked it wide. Then Monreal tripped Skavysh in the 43rd, giving away the free kick that led to BATE’s goal. Dragun beat Kolasinac to the ball to head in Stasevich’s free kick on the stroke of halftime. The Belarusian side nearly doubled the lead in the 61st when Stasevich made a run in behind Monreal to fire a half-volley that Cech parried.

  1. Maitland-Niles couldn’t find the balance between defense and offense

The academy graduate had a good game against Huddersfield last weekend but he failed to have an offensive impact in Belarus. Maitland-Niles won 4 of 6 tackles but made 0 key pass. Arsenal’s attacks became too predictable in the second half because of Maitland-Niles’ inefficiency and the team’s over-reliance on Kolasinac on the opposite flank.

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Huddersfield vs. Arsenal: Gunners win ugly to stay in Top 4 race

   The Gunners held off Huddersfield 2-1 on Saturday to keep pace with Manchester United in the Top 4 race and earn their first away win in the Premier League since November. It wasn’t a pretty game. The Terriers outplayed Arsenal, enjoying 55% of ball possession and having 6 shots on target to 4. Yet, the result could prove crucial mentally. Last season, the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race because of their poor form on the road with 7 losses from January to May 2018.

Huddersfield vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   The injury crisis in defense has led Emery to rely on a back three for away games lately. It’s quite ironic that Emery is revisiting Wenger’s old recipes. The French manager switched to a back three at the end of the 2016-17 season because of 5 straight losses on the road. However, the tactical move came too late as Arsenal finished in fifth place, 1 point behind Liverpool.

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that lost at Manchester City a week ago with Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles replacing Aubameyang and Lichtsteiner in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager had to cope with a depleted squad as Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, and Aubameyang were sidelined either by injury or illness.

   Saturday’s game exposed the lack of quality in some key positions. The Terriers are the worst team in the Premier League but they still managed to have a passing accuracy of 78.6% compared to 71.8% for Arsenal, according to the club’s website. The Gunners compensated for their poor passing game with some great work-rate in the first half.

Flying wings

   There are only 3 attacking players in a 3-4-3 formation compared to 4 in a 4-2-3-1 system. The lack of creativity on the team sheet was quite obvious. Arsenal couldn’t just rely on inconsistent players like Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to create chances. In the end, the supply came from the wingbacks, Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac. The stats don’t lie: the Gunners only made 7 key passes. Maitland-Niles led Arsenal players with 3 key passes, followed by Kolasinac (2), Mkhitaryan (1) and Iwobi (1).

   Maitland-Niles arguably produced his best performance of the season. He set up the winning goal with a low cross that Lacazette converted from close range in the 44th minute. Besides 2 interceptions, Maitland-Niles led all players by winning 4 of 6 tackles, having 4 successful dribbles out of 7 and making 12 recoveries, according to the club’s website. His teammates trusted him as Maitland-Niles led Arsenal players with 51 passes.

   At 21, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player with a lot of room for improvement. Technically, he was among the weakest players with a passing accuracy of 62.8%. Maitland-Niles also had 5 turnovers compared to just 1 for Kolasinac. He especially gave the ball away with poor passes in the 33rd, the 47th and the 54th. That kind of flaw can be corrected on the training ground. Hopefully, Maitland-Niles will take the positives from his performance to claim the starting spot on the right flank while Bellerin recovers from his knee injury.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac created the opening goal in the 16th with a cross for Iwobi, whose volley took a deflection off Kongolo to beat a wrongfooted Hamer. Those 2 Gunners have built a good understanding on the left flank. Kolasinac combined with Iwobi to make another pinpoint cross in the 60th. Lacazette was about to meet the cross but Elneny jumped on the French striker to head the ball wide. What happened to team spirit? I thought Elneny and Lacazette were better educated than Kamara and Mitrovic.

A firefighter surrounded by pyromaniacs

   The trouble with Kolasinac is that his defensive lapses often outweigh his offensive contributions. Kolasinac was pulled out of position in the 80th when the Terriers hit Arsenal on the fast break. An unmarked Smith made a low cross for Depoitre, whose angled strike sailed wide. You can’t fault Kolasinac for his work-rate though. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international won 2 of 2 tackles, and made 3 interceptions and 11 recoveries.

   However, his technical limitations are becoming more and more obvious. Kolasinac completed only 55.6% of his passes, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. In stoppage time, Kolasinac should have cleared the rebound after Leno diverted Diakhaby’s chip, but some poor footwork led to a comical own goal. Monreal’s physical decline means that signing a leftback should be a top priority this summer.

   At the back, Koscielny and Leno were the only reasons why Arsenal nearly kept a clean sheet. Koscielny must have felt like a firefighter surrounded by pyromaniacs. Mustafi was very active on the right side of a back three with 2 tackles won, 5 interceptions and 11 recoveries, but his performance also looked like a catalogue of errors. The German defender put his team in trouble with a poor header in the 22nd. Mustafi was then pulled out of position in the 27th, made a silly foul in the 28th, lost possession on the edge of the area in the 35th and missed his tackle in the 47th. And his weak passing accuracy of 72.3% didn’t help his team retain possession.

   Monreal’s season has been marred by injuries. I don’t think the Spaniard was 100 percent fit on Saturday. His stats were very low with just 1 tackle, 2 blocks, 2 interceptions and 1 recovery. Monreal especially struggled to cope with Diakhaby’s pace. Diakhaby ran past Monreal in the 25th but Koscielny managed to block the cross from the Huddersfield winger. Covering Leno in the 84th, Monreal prevented Grant from scoring with a clearance off the line.

Lack of protection

   Chaperoning an error-prone Mustafi and a sluggish Monreal, Koscielny shone in the sweeper role as he cleaned up mistakes from his teammates. Koscielny headed the ball out after Diakhaby intercepted a poor back pass from Kolasinac in the second minute. The French centerback then cut out a cross from Smith in the 61st after Iwobi failed to track the Huddersfield fullback. Using his experience in the 78th, a smart Koscielny won a free kick after Bacuna outpaced Monreal.

   Koscielny finished the game with 2 tackles won, 2 blocks, 4 interceptions, 7 recoveries and a passing accuracy of 90.2%. Maybe the only blemish in Koscielny’s performance was his decision-making on the Terriers’ consolation goal. Instead of playing a high defensive line, Koscielny should have dropped off to control Diakhaby’s run.

   Leno had a quiet first half with just a routine save in the 19th. However, he definitely helped the Gunners secure the win with a couple of fine saves in the second half. The German goalkeeper saved Diakhaby’s first-time effort in the 50th, parried Diakhaby’s swerving shot in the 72nd, denied Depoitre in the 84th and stopped Bacuna’s long-range strike in stoppage time.

   The Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection after the break. By his own standards, Torreira had a poor game with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception, 10 recoveries and a passing accuracy of 64.3%. Guendouzi couldn’t compensate for Torreira’s relative lack of activity with 1 tackle, 0 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. The French teenager was a bit too casual at times with 6 turnovers, including one that led to a counterattack by Diakhaby in the 25th.

Missing a big chance

   Emery felt that something was not right in midfield and replaced Torreira with Elneny in the 59th. The move didn’t pay off. In fact, the Terriers were even more threatening after Torreira left the pitch. Elneny failed to close down Diakhaby, whose swerving shot tested Leno in the 72nd. Emery then decided to beef up the midfield by sending on Willock for Iwobi in the 88th. Willock failed to press Mooy, who slipped a through ball to Diakhaby for the consolation goal in stoppage time.

   Iwobi can be a frustrating player to watch. Let’s start with the positives. Iwobi opened the scoring and created a couple of half-chances. He fed Lacazette in the eighth minute. Instead of taking a first-time shot, Lacazette controlled the ball only to be dispossessed by Kongolo. Three minutes later, Iwobi made a low cross for Lacazette, who made poor contact with the ball and flicked it wide. Iwobi found the net again in the 36th but the goal was disallowed for an offside position.

   Now the reason why Iwobi drives some fans mad is because his passing and shooting skills can be poor at times. Iwobi led all players with 10 turnovers and completed only 60.6% of his passes, according to whoscored.com. Attacking midfielders at the top clubs have a passing accuracy above 80%. His decision-making can also be questionable. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi opted for an angled strike in the 10th minute instead of setting up Mkhitaryan for a tap-in. The defender might have intercepted Iwobi’s pass but it was still a better option than shooting from a tight angle. In the end, Iwobi embarrassingly fired into the side-netting.

Huddersfield M10edIwobi misses a passing opportunity. (Photo credit: SN1)

   Iwobi was also let down by his technique in the 69th, completely missing the target after cutting inside, and in the 86th, crossing the ball out of play. He could have put the result beyond doubt in the 70th when Mkhitaryan played him clean through on goal. But the Nigeria international wasted that big chance by shooting straight at the goalkeeper.

Pretending to defend vs. actually defending

   Much has been said about Iwobi’s improvement under Emery, but he still doesn’t know how to defend. Iwobi made 1 tackle and 4 recoveries in 88 minutes, while Mkhitaryan made 1 tackle, 1 interception and 7 recoveries in 76 minutes. Iwobi’s work-rate is poor because he lacks aggression like Ozil. Both Ozil and Iwobi track back but they barely perform defensive actions.

   In his return from a foot injury, Mkhitaryan looked incredibly sharp for his first Premier League game since December. From an attacking viewpoint, the right flank became a weakness after Bellerin’s injury. It will be interesting to see whether Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles can strike an understanding on the right flank like the one built by Kolasinac and Iwobi on the left flank.

   Mkhitaryan controlled Maitland-Niles’ cross in the 39th to test Hamer with a low drive. They swapped roles in the 44th as Mkhitaryan released Maitland-Niles for the second goal. Suarez replaced Mkhitaryan in the 76th and didn’t seem up to speed. Right now, Suarez looks like a player in his second week of pre-season training.

   Up front, Lacazette did his best in a position which is not tailored for him because he’s much more a second striker than a pure centerforward. Lacazette won 0 of 5 aerial duels and had 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Those are definitely not the stats of a target man. When Wenger used a 3-4-3 formation, he played Welbeck or Giroud in the centerforward role. To Lacazette’s credit, he scored the winning goal and worked his socks off with 4 fouls committed.  

   Arsenal’s next couple of games are the two legs against BATE Borisov in the Europa League. At this stage of the season, the Gunners can’t prioritize that European competition over the Premier League yet. There are still 8 games to play before reaching the Europa League final while the Gunners are only 1 point behind Manchester United in the standings.

   The main difficulty for Emery will be to manage a tricky schedule. After the second leg against the Belarusian side, Arsenal will play 3 Premier League games in a 7-day span. The only opportunity to rest key players will therefore be the second leg. Only a significant victory in the first leg would enable Emery to rotate in the second leg.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Lichtsteiner showing his age in 3-1 loss

   The Gunners suffered a setback in the Top 4 race as they lost 3-1 at Manchester City on Sunday to slip to 6th place in the Premier League, 3 points behind Chelsea and 1 behind Manchester United.

Manchester City vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Arsenal performed at a decent level in the first half and even had a couple of half-chances to take a 2-1 lead before Aguero scored his second goal in the 44th minute. Maybe it would have been a different story if Arsenal had reached halftime with the score tied. City stepped up a gear in the second half as the Gunners proved toothless with zero goal attempt.

   Sunday’s game showed the gap between the two teams. You could say that the Gunners were 2 or 3 signings away from contending in 2015. But now they have to rebuild their defense and clean up the mess in midfield left by the previous regime.

   Obviously, the generosity of the Abu Dhabi owner has helped Guardiola build a winning team within 2 years. The Citizens completely outplayed Arsenal, having 12 shots on target to 2 and 18 successful dribbles to 10 while winning 13 tackles to 10 and 19 aerial duels to 5, according to whoscored.com.

Lichtsteiner as the weak link

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that edged Cardiff the previous weekend with Iwobi and Koscielny replacing Ozil and Elneny in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager had to cope with a depleted defense as Holding, Sokratis, Bellerin, Maitland-Niles and Xhaka were not available.

   Some fans complained about the lack of creative players in the lineup but I don’t think it was the kind of game where Arsenal needed creativity for the simple reason that the Citizens dominated possession. My only criticism about Emery’s team selection was Iwobi getting the nod over Ramsey. The Wales midfielder will always give you more work-rate and more end product than Iwobi.

   Xhaka’s groin strain limited Emery’s options in midfield. The Gunners started in a 4-4-2 formation with Kolasinac and Iwobi on the wings before shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 66th when Ramsey and Suarez replaced Iwobi and Kolasinac. City bossed the midfield because Fernandinho, De Bruyne and the Silvas outnumbered Torreira and Guendouzi. But it was on Arsenal’s right flank that the damage was done.

   The Citizens identified Lichtsteiner as the weak link in the Arsenal defense and concentrated their attacks on his side. It was no coincidence if all the City goals came from crosses on Lichtsteiner’s flank that Aguero converted from close range. The Arsenal staff definitely made a mistake in recruiting Lichtsteiner. The game is going too fast for the 35-year-old defender, whose work-rate was poor with 2 tackles, 0 block, 0 interception, and 1 recovery, according to the club’s website.

Mustafi’s luck

   Lichtsteiner made the mistake of running toward Gundogan instead of staying with Sterling for Aguero’s second goal in the 44th. Gundogan found Sterling with a clipped pass and the diminutive winger squared the ball back for Aguero, who tapped in at the far post. Sterling outpaced Lichtsteiner for the final goal in the 61st, making a low cross that Leno could only divert into the path of Aguero, who bundled the ball over the line with his midriff and arm.

   Somehow, Lichtsteiner managed to prevent a tap-in from Sterling by clearing a cross from De Bruyne in the 81st. Emery had no alternative on the bench to yank Lichtsteiner off the pitch. Playing an inexperienced Mavropanos out of position would have been a too big gamble.

   Monreal didn’t suffer as much on the opposite flank because Guardiola preferred to play Bernardo Silva in a wide position instead of having Sterling and Sané on both wings. The Citizens confused the Gunners a couple of times by swapping positions. An all-around midfielder for City, De Bruyne cracked the Arsenal defense with his penetrative runs. De Bruyne made a run in behind Monreal to collect Bernardo’s reverse pass only to fire wide on the stroke of halftime. Spotting a gap between Lichtsteiner and Mustafi in the 56th, Sterling played De Bruyne in but the Belgium international was denied by Leno.

   Mustafi didn’t cover himself in glory at centerback. He miraculously avoided a booking and a penalty in the third minute for holding Aguero, who was chasing a through ball from De Bruyne. Mustafi was then in no man’s land when Aguero opened the scoring. His passing was poor with an accuracy dipping to 71.7% compared to 88.9% for Koscielny. The cherry on the cake was his substitution in the 79th for a knock. Something similar happened when Arsenal got thrashed 5-1 at Liverpool. You kind of wonder if he’s the kind of guy who runs away when his team takes a beating.

Guendouzi’s composure

   An aging Koscielny showed more leadership than Mustafi. In the heart of a weak backline, Koscielny won 0 of 1 tackle and 66.7% of his duels and made 2 blocks, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The France international also scored an equalizer by heading home a corner in the 11th. The Gunners have 6 centerbacks with Koscielny, Mustafi, Sokratis, Holding, Mavropanos and Chambers. It would make sense to boost the transfer funds by selling Mustafi and Chambers this summer.  

   The scoreline could have been more embarrassing without a good performance from Leno. The German goalkeeper made 9 saves, denying De Bruyne in the 51st, 53rd and 63rd and palming away efforts from Aguero in the 76th and David Silva in the 82nd. It really was one-way traffic in the second half.

   Torreira and Guendouzi did their best to protect the defense, but they were simply outnumbered by the Citizens in midfield. Basically, they had to multi-task: fighting for the ball in midfield, covering the fullbacks and initiating plays. Torreira cleared a dangerous cross from Bernardo in the 23rd and made a crucial interception inside the Arsenal area in the 39th. He was unlucky to receive a yellow card in the 39th for a collision with De Bruyne.  

   Guendouzi can be proud of his performance. Despite his young age, Guendouzi showed great composure and didn’t hide, leading Arsenal players with 58 passes and a passing accuracy of 91.4%. The French teenager managed to match Torreira’s defensive stats with 1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 9 recoveries compared to 1 tackle, 3 interceptions and 9 recoveries for Torreira, according to the club’s website. Guendouzi set up Kolasinac for a powerful strike that Ederson parried in the 39th. The only blemish in Guendouzi’s performance was his turnover in the 85th that led to a City counterattack, forcing Leno to stop Jesus’ low strike.

Broken wings

   The biggest disappointment in Emery’s tactical approach was the poor performances from Kolasinac and Iwobi on the wings. They made 0 key pass while Sterling and Bernardo Silva made 4 key passes each. Iwobi’s work-rate was decent with 1 tackle, 1 interception and 4 recoveries in 66 minutes. But he had 2 turnovers in the opening minutes that put his team in trouble.

   Iwobi’s decision-making was especially poor in the first minute of the game. Guendouzi slipped the ball to Iwobi as the Gunners cleared their lines. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi only had 2 passing options: a short pass to Lacazette to start a fast break or a back pass to Lichtsteiner. The first option was too risky because Lacazette was surrounded by Laporte, Gundogan and Sterling. Therefore a back pass to Lichtsteiner was the safer option. Lichtsteiner could have then played the ball back to Iwobi along the touchline or hit a long ball toward Aubameyang.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal M1 edited.jpgIwobi has 2 passing options: Lacazette and Lichtsteiner. (Photo credit: Sky)

   In the end, Iwobi chose neither of those 2 options. He decided to take on Laporte on the edge of the Arsenal box. Laporte dispossessed Iwobi and made a cross for Aguero, who headed home to put City ahead. The Arsenal defense was completely disorganized on that play and had almost no chance to stop the final ball. Guardiola’s teams are usually known for their intricate passing but that goal (a one-pass play!) was rather a good example of Klopp’s gegenpressing philosophy. Iwobi had made efforts lately to stop running into traffic but Sunday’s game showed that he still needs to improve his decision-making and keep it simple.

Suarez making his Arsenal debut

   On the opposite wing, Kolasinac looked lost in the role of an attacking midfielder. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 52.6%, the lowest percentage for any starting player. His poor positional play also led to a mediocre work-rate with 1 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. How Emery came up with that tactical surprise is a mystery because Kolasinac has always been a limited player, technically.  

   Some Arsenal fans wondered why Suarez, and not Ozil, replaced Kolasinac in the 66th. The answer is very simple: Emery doesn’t trust Ozil in those away games where attacking midfielders also have to fight for the ball. It was also a show of trust in Suarez. Here are some stats showing how hard creative players have to work in the top teams: De Bruyne made 7 recoveries and 4 fouls, David Silva won 2 tackles and made 4 recoveries and 3 fouls, Sterling won 2 tackles and made 4 recoveries and Bernardo Silva hit the jackpot with 1 tackle won, 1 interception and 10 recoveries. Those are the kind of stats that Emery expects from his attacking midfielders.  

   In his Arsenal debut, Suarez looked a bit sluggish. The Spaniard has only played 257 minutes for Barcelona this season. Suarez had 2 turnovers and seemed weak in duels against City. Obviously, he will need a couple of weeks to fit in the team as the Gunners don’t play like Barcelona. Suarez will also have to work hard if he wants to adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League.

Winning on the road

   Up front, it was a frustrating game for Lacazette and Aubameyang, both deprived of service. They combined to have only 1 goal attempt. Lacazette led a counterattack in the 35th and tried to play Aubameyang clean through on goal, but Ederson perfectly read the play and sprinted outside his area to clear the danger. Arsenal tried again to hit City on the fast break in the 42nd when Lacazette dispossessed De Bruyne. Torreira found Aubameyang, whose shot was deflected out for a corner.

   The Gunners next visit bottom side Huddersfield on Saturday. A victory on the road is necessary to make up ground in the Top 4 race. Dropping points against the Terriers would deal a bad blow to any hope of a Top 4 finish. Then Arsenal would need victories in the home games against Southampton and Bournemouth at the end of February before the decisive games against Tottenham and Manchester United in early March.  

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 3-1 loss to Man United

   The Gunners’ only chance to win some silverware this season is the Europa League after Manchester United knocked them out in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Friday. The Arsenal defense proved too naive against a Manchester side quite clinical on the fast break. Injuries to Sokratis and Koscielny definitely destabilized the back four but Arsenal’s vulnerability on counterattacks also means that the club will need to sign defenders and midfielders this summer.

fa cup 4th roundPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   The Gunners dominated the game with 63% of ball possession and 5 shots on target to 4 for the Red Devils. But they often lacked penetration to trouble a compact Manchester defense. Arsenal attempted 0 through ball compared to 4 for the Red Devils. Emery started with a 4-2-3-1 formation before switching to a 4-2-4 system by replacing Koscielny and Iwobi with Guendouzi and Ozil in the 64th minute. The tactical shift hurt the balance of the team and played into Manchester’s hands as Ozil, Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang are mostly effective in central positions.

  1. Injury crisis at the back (again)

   Sokratis sprained his ankle with an awkward landing in the 16th after challenging Lingard in the air. The Greek defender tried to soldier on but had to be replaced by Mustafi in the 21st. Koscielny joined Sokratis on the sidelines in the 64th after Lukaku inadvertently kicked the French centerback in the head. It initially looked like a minor injury below the ear but Emery in his post-match conference suggested that Koscielny might have fractured his jaw. If Sokratis and Koscielny can’t be fit for Tuesday’s Premier League clash against Cardiff, Mustafi and Monreal would then be the most likely pairing at centerback.  

  1. The Gunners must sign a defensive midfielder (again)

   The Red Devils capitalized on counterattacks in the 33rd and 82nd to create 2v3 situations and score. Shaw ran past Torreira and Xhaka to find Lukaku down our left flank for Manchester’s second goal. Then Pogba outpaced Ozil, Guendouzi and Torreira to sting Cech’s gloves for the last goal.

   The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese on both plays. Xhaka was the weak link in the holding midfielder role. He lacked defensive awareness in the 31st, playing Sanchez onside for the opening goal. Xhaka won 0 of 1 tackle according to whoscored.com, compared to 5 of 7 tackles for Torreira and 2 of 5 tackles for Ramsey.

   The club signed Torreira last summer, but that’s still not enough to protect the back four. The Gunners need a quicker midfielder than Xhaka and Guendouzi and with better defensive awareness. A young version of Fernandinho would the perfect fit for the squad.  

  1. Maitland-Niles is learning the ropes

   Bellerin’s long-term injury means that Maitland-Niles could get a lot of playing time in the second half of the season. Maitland-Niles got off to a bad start with a turnover that led to a scoring chance for Pogba in the 11th. But he grew into the game, winning 4 of 4 tackles, making 2 interceptions and leading all players with 3 key passes, according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles still needs to improve his defensive awareness and cut his turnover rate. He led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers and played Sanchez onside for the opening goal.

  1. Kolasinac is a defensive liability

   The Red Devils targeted Kolasinac because they were aware of his reluctance to track back. Lukaku made a run in behind Kolasinac for Manchester’s second goal. Koscielny took one for the team with a professional foul on Pogba in the 54th because Kolasinac was pulled out of position. Kolasinac was booked in the closing minutes for locking horns with Rashford near the touchline.

   There are only two ways to protect the defense when Kolasinac plays. Either the Gunners rely on a back three so that a centerback can fill in the space behind Kolasinac. Or they use a three-man midfield like in the 2-0 win over Chelsea with a midfielder covering Kolasinac on the left flank.

  1. Lacazette’s work-rate was impressive

   He tirelessly worked for the team, winning 5 of 5 tackles, and making 1 interception and 3 key passes. The France international teed up Iwobi in the 24th and made a cross for Mustafi, who headed wide on the stroke of halftime. Lacazette also tested Romero with mid-range shots in the 45th and 73rd. The only blemish in his good all-around performance was the poor return pass that led to Manchester’s third goal.

  1. Ramsey is Arsenal’s best attacking midfielder

   It’s no coincidence if Ramsey was involved in the Gunners’ two best chances. He rounded the Manchester defense in the 43rd to square the ball back for Lacazette, who made poor contact with the ball. However, Aubameyang pounced on the loose ball to tap in at the far post. Then Ramsey nearly leveled in the 46th when he met a cross from Maitland-Niles, but Romero tipped his header over the bar. Ramsey’s influence diminished after Emery made a double change in the 64th.

   Iwobi doesn’t have Ramsey’s effectiveness. He made 0 key pass, showing poor decision-making and often holding onto the ball too long. The Nigeria international ran into traffic in the 29th instead of making a crossfield pass to Ramsey. He also ignored the overlapping Kolasinac a couple of times. His only positive contribution was an angled shot straight at Romero in the 24th.  

   Ozil came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 64th. He played 36 minutes if we count stoppage time. His cameo was interesting because Ozil won 2 of 2 tackles, which is unusual for him. Is Ozil finally buying into Emery’s method? That would be the only way for Ozil to claim a starting spot again.

West Ham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 hopes dealt a blow in 1-0 loss

   The ghosts of last season are coming back. A year ago, the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race because they were performing poorly on the road. This pattern could be repeating itself. The Gunners lost 1-0 at West Ham on Saturday, earning just 1 point from their last 4 away games to trail fourth-placed Chelsea by 6 points in the Premier League.

West Ham vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal had only 2 shots on target to 3 for the Hammers despite enjoying 58.5% of ball possession. In another example of sterile possession, the players who made the most passes were Koscielny (89) and Sokratis (67). The lack of urgency in the first half was quite disappointing since Arsenal got 6 days of rest after the victory over Blackpool in the FA Cup. West Ham showed more desire, winning 53.5% of the duels and making 17 interceptions to just 10 for the Gunners, according to the club’s website.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that routed the Seasiders with only Sokratis, Kolasinac, Iwobi and Maitland-Niles retaining their starting spots. The lack of quality in the Arsenal midfield showed in the high number of stray passes. It’s no coincidence if Denis Suarez has been linked with a move to the Emirates. Suarez plays as a central midfielder for Barcelona but I suspect that Emery would use him as an attacking midfielder. In the 2015-16 season, Suarez made 12 assists for Villareal in all competitions.

   The lack of creativity in midfield also helps explain why the Gunners struggled to play the ball out from the back. You would expect to find a Ramsey or an Ozil for that kind of tactics. Remember Ramsey’s goal against Fulham or Aubameyang’s goal against Leicester. But Emery left Ozil out of the squad while Ramsey only came off the bench in the second half.

Politics vs. sport

   Knowing that Ramsey will leave the club this year and that Ozil has been frozen out of the team, it’s impossible not to think about the chemistry in the dressing room. What a contrast between the lack of fluency at the London Stadium and the spectacular passing in the first half of the season. Does the mediocre form on the pitch reflect the current mood in the dressing room? Or is the team simply hitting a rough patch?

   Some players signed at Arsenal to play with Ozil. They must feel short-changed to take passes from Iwobi or whoever fills Ozil’s shoes. Likewise, they must certainly question Arsenal’s ambition when the club decides to let Ramsey leave. Is it a coincidence if Emery has harshly treated those 2 players because they’re not part of the club’s long-term plans?

   I think Emery needs more diplomatic tact. Obviously, the board’s emphasis on trimming payroll has led to this situation with Ozil and Ramsey. That’s politics. But the team still needs them because the other attacking midfielders lack consistency. That’s football. In that regard, Sarri has been smarter than Emery. The Chelsea manager froze out Fabregas only after securing a replacement by signing Jorginho and Kovacic last summer.

   Aubameyang and Lacazette scored with half-chances in the first half of the season. They didn’t against West Ham. That’s where chemistry plays a key role. Players felt upbeat in the first few months with a new manager, new methods and new signings. Now the reality is kicking in. The Gunners realize that they are far from the contending teams. They also see problems in the squad. Maybe that’s why the extra confidence needed to convert those half-chances is now gone.

Finding the best offensive setup

   Lacazette had a couple of half-chances in the first quarter. He chested down a long ball from Xhaka before firing a long-range strike wide in the ninth minute. Four minutes later, Lacazette took a pass from Iwobi and drove into the box only to be denied by Fabianski. He faded in the second half with no shot at all.

   Aubameyang started the season as the lone striker before moving to the left wing. Then Emery had a change of heart in the Bournemouth game and used Aubameyang in the centerforward position again. Since January, Emery has deployed Aubameyang on the right wing, letting Lacazette lead the line.

   That’s really mind-boggling that the Spanish manager still doesn’t know what Aubameyang’s best position is, especially if you compare with the situation at Manchester United. Solskjaer was appointed last month and has improved the Red Devils’ fortunes by quickly finding the best offensive setup with Matic, Herrera and Pogba in midfield and Rashford, Martial and Lingard in a front three.

   Deprived of service in the first half, Aubameyang tried to create chances. He made a cross for Lacazette, who headed over the bar in the 15th. The introduction of Ramsey in the second half finally gave Aubameyang some decent ammunition. Aubameyang headed Ramsey’s cross wide in the 63rd. The Gabon striker then met a low cross from Kolasinac in the 64th only to blaze over the bar under Cresswell’s pressure.  

   Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to have only 1 of 7 shots on target. I believe that playing Aubameyang up front and Lacazette as a second striker or in a wide position would be a more natural option. From the right wing, Aubameyang can cross the ball and make those diagonal runs a la Walcott, but he simply doesn’t have the all-around game to make a significant impact in the passing game. Aubameyang only won 14.3% of his duels according to the club’s website, that tells you he’s not optimally used.  

Positive substitutions

   You play with 2 strikers if you have good service. In a 3-4-3 formation, Emery relied on Iwobi, Guendouzi, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles to deliver the final ball. That was a big ask. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player, Guendouzi is not a playmaker and Iwobi can be inconsistent.

   Despite all the talk about his improvement under Emery, Iwobi looked again like the player of last season with a limited end product. At 22, Iwobi still has room for development, but right now he doesn’t have the impact of a Ramsey or an Ozil in the final third. Iwobi had 5 successful dribbles, tied with Anderson for the most by any player, but he also led all players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 59th by sending on Ramsey for Mustafi. In his short cameo, Ramsey made as many key passes (2) as Iwobi in the full 90 minutes. The Wales midfielder set up Iwobi, whose low drive sailed wide in the 67th.

   Although Emery’s substitutions didn’t change the outcome of the game, they were more positive than his previous substitutions. Concerned by Arsenal’s defensive issues, Emery has been reluctant to play with more than 3 attacking players. Replacing Lacazette with Ramsey in the Brighton game was obviously the nadir of that conservative approach.

   Emery seems to highly rate Guendouzi. Yet, it’s hard to understand why. Guendouzi is not a box-to-box player with the end product of a Ramsey or the pace and dribbling skills of an Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s not a defensive midfielder either. The French teenager showed his lack of defensive awareness a couple of times against West Ham. He failed to stay with Noble, who played a one-two with Nasri before producing a tame effort in the sixth minute. Again, neither Guendouzi nor Xhaka tracked Anderson, who took a pass from Nasri but missed the target in the 32nd.

Xhaka’s poor defensive instincts

   When Guendouzi is given plenty of time, he can hit accurate balls over the top. But he’s not a playmaker. At the same age, Fabregas had better passing and shooting skills. Guendouzi overhit his final ball in the 66th and 78th and finished the game with 0 key pass. He also took his chance from the edge of the box, missing the target in the 35th and 54th and lacking power in the 68th. Potentially, Guendouzi could become a deep-lying playmaker. But right now he’s not moving the ball quickly enough. It means that Guendouzi is mostly a utility midfielder at this stage of his career. Guendouzi is definitely an upgrade over Elneny because of his work-rate and his ability to win duels. He won 1 of 1 tackle and 62.5% of his duels and made 1 interception and 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website.    

   Guendouzi played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. That’s a flawed partnership because none of them is a natural ballwinner. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Nasri often managed to find pockets of space in midfield and made 3 key passes in his 70-minute performance.

   Emery’s choice to rely on Xhaka as the holding midfielder is questionable. Xhaka’s passing skills can be helpful to play out from the back but he simply lacks the defensive instincts to play in that position. His poor clearance led to Rice’s goal in the 48th. The safe option on that play would have been to head the ball toward Lacazette on the left flank. Some fans wondered why Torreira didn’t start. The Uruguay midfielder’s stats have gone down since the end of December, so Emery wisely decided to limit his playing time, sending him on for Xhaka in the 59th.

The most important game of the season

   Kolasinac can prove a potent threat down the left flank, but the Hammers managed to limit his offensive impact to just 1 key pass. The fact that Kolasinac was caught offside twice tells you that the Hammers studied his game. I’m not surprised that Arsenal extended Monreal’s contract by a year because Kolasinac is a wingback, not a defender. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international failed to track back a couple of times, forcing Koscielny to cover him in the leftback position. Kolasinac also had his share of responsibility in the goal. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Kolasinac allowed Nasri to run in front of him before setting up Rice. The screen capture also shows Arsenal’s poor defensive organization with Rice completely unmarked near the penalty spot.

west ham vs. arsenal m48edRice left unmarked by the Arsenal defense. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Maitland-Niles was caught napping on that play, too. He failed to react despite seeing Rice in a dangerous position. Maybe the most worrying part is the lack of desire Maitland-Niles showed on Saturday, forcing Aubameyang (yes, the top scorer in the Premier League) to cover him down the right flank a couple of times. Maitland-Niles definitely needs to improve his defensive awareness. Cresswell easily skipped past him to make a teasing cross in the 16th and Nasri ran past him to take a pass and muster a shot in the 26th. Offensively, Maitland-Niles was a liability for the Gunners with 0 key pass and a passing accuracy of 65%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player. In the 69th, Emery replaced Maitland-Niles with Bellerin, who was making his return from injury.  

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis was the most active of the 3 centerbacks, making 3 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Koscielny had a decent game although one stat raises some questions: Koscielny was dribbled past 2 times, compared to 0 for Sokratis and Mustafi. However, it was Mustafi who was deemed the weak link when the Gunners shifted to a back four in the 59th. The German defender received a yellow card in the 46th for a mistimed challenge on Anderson.

   The Gunners will play their most important game of the season when they host Chelsea next Saturday. A defeat would end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes whereas they could pull within 3 points of the Blues with a victory. Emery no longer has time to find his best team.

 

 

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 3-0 win over Blackpool

The Gunners advanced to the fourth round of the FA Cup by routing the Seasiders 3-0 on Saturday. They played in a half-empty stadium because the Blackpool fans boycotted the game to protest against their controversial owner.

fa cup 3rd roundPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Although Arsenal defeated Blackpool in the League Cup a couple of months ago, Emery fielded a relatively strong team with just 2 academy players in the starting lineup (Willock and Nketiah). Emery gave the evening off to Leno, Xhaka and Aubameyang but had Guendouzi, Torreira and Lacazette on the bench in case things went south.

Koscielny was supposed to start the game but Emery had to pull him out of the team because of some back pain during the warm-up. The Spanish manager shifted Lichtsteiner to the centerback position while Jenkinson made a rare start at rightback.

  1. Is Willock having a breakthrough season?

What a difference an eye can make. Willock played as a defensive midfielder under Wenger last season because he had a poor scoring record with just 1 goal in 12 games with the U23 team. Emery saw something else in Willock and turned him into an attacking midfielder. The tactical move paid off as Willock scored twice against the Seasiders.

After Ramsey’s free kick hit the far post, Willock pounced on the rebound to head into an empty net for the opening goal in the 10th minute. Willock showed again his flair for goals in the 37th. A Blackpool defender diverted Jenkinson’s cross toward the far post where an opportunistic Willock side-footed home for a 2-0 lead.

Willock had 2 chances to complete a hat trick. Lacazette fed him in the 66th but the English teenager tried to dribble inside the area instead of shooting with his left foot. Then Kolasinac cut the ball back for Willock, who tapped home in the 80th, but the goal was disallowed because of Kolasinac’s offside position.

At 19, Willock is making big strides and could be knocking on the door of the first team next season. His all-around performance at Blackpool was impressive: Willock had 2 of 2 shots on target, made 2 key passes and 1 interception, and won 4 of 5 tackles, tied with Maitland-Niles for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. The only blemish in Willock’s performance was his 7 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player.

  1. Nketiah should play in a wide position

His hold-up play is average at this stage of his career. Nketiah got bullied off the ball too easily in the 7th, 22nd and 61st. Emery played him in the lone striker role because of his pace but Nketiah still lacks physicality for that position. Nketiah would have a better chance of expressing his potential on the wings.

The academy player had 3 good chances in the first half but failed to convert them. In the third minute, Maitland-Niles picked out Nketiah who fired wide. Then Nketiah met a cross from Maitland-Niles in the seventh minute, but missed the target from 6 yards with a sliding effort. On the stroke of halftime, Nketiah got the better of O’Connor on a punt from Cech only to be denied by Howard.

  1. When Ramsey is all over the pitch

At times, Ramsey played like a holding midfielder, dropping off to take passes from Sokratis and Cech. And at times, he played like an attacking midfielder, making runs into the box to be in scoring positions. Emery loves to have the control of the game, which is in complete contradiction with Ramsey’s tactical indiscipline. Yet, it is Ramsey’s movement and ability to find space which make him such a threat in the final third.

Ramsey was involved in the 3 goals. It was the rebound from his free kick that led to the opening goal in the 10th. Then Ramsey beat 5 Seasiders with his vertical pass to Maitland-Niles while playing the ball out from the back for the second goal in the 37th. And Ramsey made the run to collect Lacazette’s pass in the 81st. Howard palmed Ramsey’s effort into the path of Iwobi, who tapped in to seal the win. Ramsey tried hard to score with another run in the 90th but Howard quickly came off his line to block Ramsey’s shot.

  1. Iwobi must improve his defensive awareness

The Nigeria international is enjoying a good run of form. He scored 1 goal and made 2 key passes against Blackpool. With better finishing, Iwobi could have notched another goal. He chased a ball over the top from Willock in the 85th to be clean through on goal, but slowed down to shift the ball to his right foot. That hesitation gave Daniels enough time to catch up and narrow the angle. Forced to shoot with his left foot, Iwobi was denied by Howard.

The next step for Iwobi is to improve his defensive contribution. Nowadays, attacking midfielders in the top clubs have to work their socks off. Bernardo Silva’s defensive performance in the recent match between Liverpool and Manchester City is one obvious example. Iwobi was caught napping in the 58th, allowing Nottingham to run in front of him and connect with a low cross for a 12-yard shot that sailed over the bar. According to whoscored.com, Iwobi was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player.

  1. The Gunners kept a clean sheet

Sokratis was a rock at the back, taking the sting off Taylor’s shot in the 18th, intercepting a dangerous cross in the 21st, clearing the danger after Delfouneso dribbled past Kolasinac and Elneny in the 63rd and making a timely challenge on Delfouneso in stoppage time.

By contrast, Lichtsteiner produced another shaky performance, backing down to let Gnanduillet shoot in the fifth minute and casually giving the ball way in the 6th, 19th and 35th. On the right flank, Jenkinson showed his technical limitations with a passing accuracy of 68.4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal starters according to whoscored.com. Jenkinson failed to stop a dangerous cross from Feeney in the 24th and failed to block the Blackpool midfielder’s curling shot in the 33rd.

Arsenal vs. Fulham: Gunners stay in Top 4 race with 4-1 win

The Gunners started the new year on a positive note by sinking Fulham 4-1 on Tuesday to stay in the Top 4 race. They were even greeted with a round of applause at halftime for heading back to the dressing room with the lead for just the second time in the Premier League this season.

arsenal vs. fulhamPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery made 3 changes to the side that was demolished at Anfield with Koscielny, Guendouzi and Lacazette replacing Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Ramsey in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also switched to a 3-4-3 formation that aimed to optimize the use of Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles as wingbacks.

Ozil was again left out of the squad. Officially, the German playmaker is recovering from knee pain. But if you read between the lines, there’s no doubt that the club wants to offload Ozil. Cutting costs is a priority for the Arsenal board and Ozil clearly looks like the elephant in the room with his weekly wage of £350,000 a week.

Unsurprisingly, his agent said on Wednesday that Ozil wants to stay at the club until the end of his contract in 2021. Ozil is not the first player to reject a move despite his lack of playing time. Jenkinson is in the same kind of situation. The only thing the club can do is to make the player redundant by signing players in the same position. For instance, Sarri has been able to sideline Fabregas because Chelsea signed Jorginho and Kovacic.

A divisive figure

Xhaka opened the scoring against Fulham and produced a good all-around performance, but his limitations were again exposed. He has been a divisive figure among fans since joining the club. To a certain extent, Xhaka embodies the problem with the current Arsenal squad. Most Gunners perform well against the weak and average sides, but they are simply not good enough against the big teams. Xhaka scored a goal, won 2 of 3 tackles and made 3 key passes, 3 interceptions and 8 recoveries. But he also gave the ball away 3 times in the first half and was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com.

Emery definitely likes Xhaka, otherwise he wouldn’t be his first-choice holding midfielder. Traditionally, the No. 6 shields the back four and is therefore a defensive midfielder. Think of Casemiro at Real Madrid or Dier at Tottenham. But there’s a trend among modern managers to use a deep-lying playmaker as the holding midfielder. Sarri and Emery both like to play out from the back so they use deep-lying playmakers like Jorginho and Xhaka in front of the defense.

Of course, the problem with that approach is that Jorginho and Xhaka can be defensively suspect because they are not natural ballwinners. Guardiola and Klopp have found a compromise by playing defensive midfielders with good passing skills (Fernandinho and Fabinho). Another issue with Xhaka is that playing out from the back requires a lot of movement from the holding midfielder. Xhaka is easy to man-mark because of his relative lack of mobility. Leno was forced to punt the ball a couple of times in the first half because of the lack of passing options.

Guendouzi’s learning process

Last season, Xhaka played alongside Ramsey in a 3-4-3 formation with Ramsey as the box-to-box player and Xhaka as the holding midfielder. On Tuesday, Emery was more conservative than Wenger as he used Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in central midfield. Let’s give some credit to Xhaka for analyzing the situation and understanding that the front three needed more support. In the 25th minute, Xhaka made a late run into the box a la Ramsey and controlled a cross from Iwobi before flicking the ball past Rico to put Arsenal ahead.

Xhaka nearly scored a second goal in the 34th. Kolasinac cut the ball back for Xhaka, who was denied by Rico. With the security provided by the back three in the first half and the introduction of Torreira in the second half, Xhaka did not hesitate to roam forward. He also created two chances, heading the ball into the path of Lacazette in the 42nd and playing the French striker clean through on goal with a ball over the top in the 58th.

Emery used Tuesday’s game as an opportunity for Guendouzi to learn while limiting the risks for the team. Guendouzi showed good work-rate by winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 key pass, 2 interceptions and 5 recoveries. He created a scoring chance for Aubameyang with a through ball in 82nd. At 19, Guendouzi is still a work in progress. He definitely needs to be more tidy in possession. Guendouzi had 4 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 80% compared to 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 86.1% for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The French teenager also has a lot of room to improve his defensive awareness. Guendouzi sat too deep in the 69th and failed to close down Seri, who made a dangerous cross to Mitrovic.

Iwobi as a two-footed player  

Torreira showed signs of fatigue against Liverpool. So Emery rested Torreira by leaving him on the bench in the first half. Torreira replaced the injured Mustafi at halftime although Elneny was also available on the bench. Maybe Emery should have given Torreira the day off because the Uruguay midfielder performed poorly with 3 turnovers, 1 tackle and just 2 recoveries in 45 minutes.

Disappointed by Ozil’s poor work-rate, Emery has given the keys of the game to Iwobi. The move could be paying off as Iwobi has notched 1 goal and 2 assists in his last 4 Premier League games. He made 3 key passes on Tuesday, including the assist for the opening goal.

What made Iwobi’s performance interesting was the accuracy of his left foot. Iwobi is a right-footed player. Yet, he set up Maitland-Niles with a left-footed cross against Liverpool. Iwobi repeated the trick against Fulham, creating chances for Aubameyang with left-footed crosses in the 2nd and the 40th. It’s too soon to conclude that Iwobi is a two-footed player like Cazorla but it’s an interesting technical development.

Iwobi has improved his game by keeping things simple lately instead of running into traffic. Despite his 4 seasons in the Premier League, he’s not the finished product yet. The weight on his passes can be dodgy. Iwobi overhit a through ball for Lacazette in the 15th and missed a simple pass for the overlapping Kolasinac in the 76th.

The Walcott role

The Nigeria international also needs to improve his decision-making. His telegraphed pass for Aubameyang was intercepted in the 27th. And he opted for a tame low drive in the 58th instead of setting up Aubameyang for a first-time effort. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Aubameyang was in a better position for a shot.

arsenal vs. fulham m58edIwobi shoots instead of feeding Aubameyang. (Photo credit: NBC) 

Up front, Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang played the Walcott role on the right wing. I would have swapped their positions for two reasons: Aubameyang has more pace and is stronger in the air than Lacazette. Aubameyang won 4 of 4 aerial duels while Lacazette won 0 of 4 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. Lacazette was also caught offside 3 times compared to just once for Aubameyang. The Gabon striker has more room to time his run because of his electric pace whereas Lacazette must perfectly time his run to beat a defensive line.

Aubameyang was quite wasteful against Fulham. He scored a goal but could have finished the match with a hat trick. His first chance came in the second minute when he met a cross from Iwobi but missed the target from a tight angle. Aubameyang then ghosted past Ream in the 40th only to head the ball wide from 8 yards. His most embarrassing moment occurred in the 79th when he met a low cross from Kolasinac and hit the post from 5 yards. Guendouzi also put Aubameyang in a very good situation with a through ball in the 82nd. Aubameyang held off Bryan but his chip attempt bounced off Rico. A minute later, Aubameyang finally found the net with the most improbable attempt -a powerful strike that took a big deflection off Ream to loop over Rico.

A tactical substitution

Lacazette could have also notched a hat trick if he had been more clinical. He skipped past Le Marchand in the 42nd to fire an angled strike that Rico saved with his leg. However, the France international got his goal in the 55th, taking a pass from Kolasinac to shoot past Rico from 10 yards for a 2-0 lead. Three minutes later, Lacazette failed to convert a big chance. He controlled a ball over the top from Xhaka to bear down on goal but Rico parried his low strike.

I definitely think the referee should have awarded Lacazette a penalty in the 65th after Seri elbowed him in the face. Lacazette could have done better with his link-up play on a counterattack. He wasted a good situation in the 48th by playing the ball between Iwobi and Aubameyang. There were boos from the crowd when Emery decided to replace Lacazette with Ramsey in the 75th. The fans have really liked Lacazette since his first season at the club. Lacazette made clear that it was not about him as he applauded his teammates while leaving the pitch.

After the game, Emery explained that the substitution was aimed at limiting the influence of Seri, who had replaced Cisse in the 61st. Seri quickly made an impact with a cross for Mitrovic in the 69th. In the build-up to Fulham’s goal, Seri was the one who dispossessed Torreira. As an attacking midfielder, Ramsey was in a better position than Lacazette to track Seri.

Ramsey vs. Ozil

Despite the collapse of the contract talks with Arsenal, Ramsey has kept performing well for the club, notching 2 goals and 6 assists in 18 league games this season compared to just 3 goals and 1 assist in 13 league games for Ozil. Ramsey made it 3-1 by pouncing on a rebound to slam the ball into the top corner in the 79th.

I think it was a mistake from the club to compare Ramsey’s contract negotiations with Ozil’s situation last season. Ramsey’s salary demands were in line with the market rate in England while Ozil’s wages were way over what any club would have given him. Another problem with the club’s rigid approach is what will they do when they have a special talent who deserves £250,000 or even £300,000 a week? Should Arsenal sell the next Mbappé because they want to trim their payroll instead of building a strong squad around a top player?

Ramsey could have become the face of the club. His work-rate and attitude are much better than Ozil’s. The Wales midfielder is also a big-game player who scored the winning goal in two FA Cup finals while Ozil tends to disappear when the going gets tough. In the end, the Gunners will get stuck with Ozil while Ramsey will reportedly join Juventus. Most Arsenal fans are grateful that Ramsey won’t be playing for a rival club in the Premier League.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

The performance of the Arsenal defense against the Cottagers wasn’t convincing. Fulham could have led 2-0 in the first half if Sessegnon had been more clinical. The Gunners especially looked vulnerable on crosses.

Kolasinac proved again a potent threat down the left flank, leading all players with 4 key passes. But his defensive lapses nearly cost his team. In the 23rd, Schurrle made a cross for Sessegnon, who miskicked the ball. Kolasinac was caught napping on that play as he failed to mark Sessegnon. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international was again guilty for Fulham’s goal in the 69th. Kolasinac let Kamara run in front of him to tap home Sessegnon’s cross. Mitrovic is not the most mobile striker, yet he managed to peel away from Kolasinac to head a corner straight at Leno in the 47th.

On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles deputized for the injured Bellerin. He led all players with 3 successful dribbles out of 4 but lacked end product with 0 shot and 0 key pass. Maitland-Niles made a good run in behind in the 34th but his cross for Aubameyang was really poor. Defensively, he made no glaring error but failed to stop 2 dangerous crosses in the 23rd and the 69th. Despite his inexperience, Maitland-Niles should leapfrog Lichtsteiner in the pecking order for the fullback position.

The Gunners started with a back three before shifting to a back four at halftime. Mustafi had another poor game with a passing accuracy dipping to 69.2%, compared to 84.1% for Sokratis and 89.1% for Koscielny. The activity of the German centerback was also weak with 0 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries in 45 minutes compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 8 recoveries for Sokratis and 1 tackle, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries for Koscielny, according to the club’s website. Emery took a risk since Mustafi didn’t seem completely fit and was replaced at halftime because of a hamstring problem.

Hangover after the festive period

Koscielny is slowly rebuilding confidence after losing key aerial duels in the 3-2 loss at Southampton. The French veteran won 6 of 6 aerial duels against Fulham, while Sokratis only won 1 of 5 aerial duels. As Koscielny is getting older, he will need to rely more on his positional play to compensate for his loss of pace. Kamara got the better of Koscielny in the 72nd with a run in behind. Koscielny also put Torreira in trouble on Fulham’s goal with a pass that was difficult to control.

Sokratis has a lot of room to improve his positional play. He was pulled out of position in the 15th and left Koscielny and Mustafi in a 2v2 situation with Sessegnon and Mitrovic. The Greek defender made the same mistake for Fulham’s goal in the 69th, leaving Koscielny in a 1v2 situation with Mitrovic and Kamara. The physical Mitrovic proved a handful for Sokratis, who struggled in the air and was at times too tight to the Fulham striker. Sokratis had a surprise for the crowd in the 36th. He showcased his dribbling skills by beating 2 Cottagers to have a shot blocked for a corner.

The Gunners have been the big losers of the festive period. They were level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea on Dec. 22. Now they trail the Blues by 3 points. The comparison with Spurs is even more telling. The Gunners were in fourth place, level on points with Tottenham after the North London derby on Dec. 2. Now Spurs are 7 points clear of Arsenal in the standings.

The Gunners next play Blackpool in the FA Cup on Saturday before visiting West Ham in the Premier League the following weekend. Emery can’t take any risk with a decimated squad. He should rest his key players against Blackpool. The defense has been exposed lately in part because 3 first-choice defenders are currently injured (Bellerin, Holding, and Monreal). Meanwhile, injuries to Welbeck, Mkhitaryan and Ozil have limited Emery’s attacking options. It’s no coincidence if the Spanish manager is relying on a front three now whereas he started the season with a front four.