Tag Archives: Iwobi

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Gunners out of title race after 3-1 loss

   Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Manchester City made clear that the Gunners are not contenders in the Premier League this season. They dropped to 6th place in the standings, 12 points behind the Citizens. If we look at the bigger picture, we can also see that Guardiola has nearly completed his house while Wenger’s house is still missing an entire floor and a roof. It’s true that Guardiola has spent more money than the French manager but Wenger has had more time to build his squad. The Citizens have spent £416 million since the summer of 2016, according to transfermarkt.co.uk, compared to £319 million since the summer of 2013 for Arsenal. Basically, Guardiola has completed his project within a year and a half while there are still holes in the Gunners’ squad more than 4 years after Ozil joined the club.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal

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

There were two surprises in the starting lineup: Iwobi started in the front three and Coquelin played alongside Monreal and Koscielny in the back three. Holding would have been a more natural choice than Coquelin at centerback, but the U23 player had a thigh strain according to Wenger. In the center of the back three, Coquelin had a role similar to Dier at Tottenham. Up front, Sanchez played in the lone striker role with Iwobi and Ozil as inside forwards. I don’t really understand why the manager was reluctant to start Lacazette. Trailing 2-0 in the second half, Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Coquelin with Lacazette in the 57th minute. Lacazette played 20 minutes as a centerforward before moving to the right wing in the 78th when Giroud and Wilshere came on for Iwobi and Xhaka.

In the end, the formation didn’t really matter. What made the difference was the capacity to capitalize on turnovers. The Gunners showed a bit of naivety at times by trying to play the ball out from the back. At least they had an excuse: Arsenal had no natural outlet for high balls with Sanchez as the lone striker.

A tactical surprise that backfired

I guess the biggest disappointment from the game was the average performance in the first half. All of the Citizens’ chances in the first 45 minutes came from turnovers (Sanchez in the 2nd, 42nd and 44th, Coquelin in the 11th, Iwobi in the 18th, Ozil in the 33rd, Ramsey in the 35th, and Xhaka in the 38th).

The Gunners should have performed better for the simple reason that Wenger made 10 changes to the side that drew with Red Star Belgrade on Thursday. By contrast, City could not claim the same freshness. Guardiola made just 2 changes to the side that won 4-2 in Italy on Wednesday with Walker and Silva replacing Danilo and Gundogan in the starting lineup. Yet, the Citizens won 55.1% of their duels, according to the club’s website. It might have been a different story if the quality of the final ball had been better in the first half: Bellerin put too much weight on his pass for Ozil in the 7th while Sanchez overhit his through ball for the Germany playmaker in the 25th.

Wenger prepared a tactical surprise for Guardiola by starting Sanchez as a centerforward for the first time this season. The move backfired as Sanchez led all players with 11 turnovers, 6 more than Ramsey who had the second worst turnover rate in the Arsenal team, according to whoscored.com. The Chile striker was also caught offside 3 times.

In the second half, Sanchez forgot his defensive duties. Silva flicked on a corner toward the far post, where Jesus took advantage of the passivity of Sanchez and Xhaka to test Cech in the 68th. Then a Kolasinac turnover led to a dangerous situation in the 74th. Kolasinac was pulled out of position after chasing Sterling and Silva. Sanchez could have covered Kolasinac by closing down Fernandinho. But Sanchez preferred to stand back, giving Fernandinho plenty of time to pick out Silva. See the screen capture below. The Spain international cut the ball back for Jesus, who tapped home for a 3-1 lead. TV replays showed Silva was offside. Still, Bellerin should have played to the whistle instead of freezing and leaving Fernandinho unmarked.

City M74 edited Kolasinac is drawn out of position as Sanchez is not closing down Fernandinho, circled. (Photo credit: Sky)

It’s easy to second-guess Sanchez after such a defeat. But stats show Sanchez wasn’t the worst softie in the front three. Sanchez made 2 key passes, 5 tackles, 0 interception and 0 block, compared to 0 key pass, 5 tackles, 1 interception and 0 block for Ozil and 0 key pass, 2 tackles, 0 interception and 1 block for Iwobi, according to Squawka.

The reality of total football

When the team has to fight for ball possession, you know it’s not a game for Ozil. It was quite telling that De Bruyne dispossessed Ozil in the 63rd. You often hear football pundits say that Ozil is a creative player who needs teammates around him to do the defensive work. But players like Fernandinho and De Bruyne show that it’s possible for talented players to both attack and defend. In the early 1970’s, Cruyff’s Ajax team became the symbol of total football. It’s no coincidence if Guardiola, who had Cruyff as manager at Barcelona in the 1990’s, shares a similar vision of football. De Bruyne scored a goal, had 5 successful dribbles out of 5, and made 9 tackles, 4 blocks and 3 interceptions, according to Squawka.

While Ozil performed poorly compared to De Bruyne, Iwobi is the one who should be ashamed of his work-rate. Some fans will only remember Iwobi’s long-range strike that Ederson spilled in the 55th or the 50-50 challenge that Iwobi won inside the Arsenal area in the 44th. But they will forget that Iwobi had the opportunity to close down Walker a couple of times in the first half but preferred to stay 4 or 5 yards away from the City rightback.

The draw at Stamford Bridge is sometimes mentioned as a blueprint for a hard-working front three without Sanchez and Ozil. But it was Welbeck’s work-rate that really made a difference against Chelsea, not Iwobi’s presence. In my eyes, Iwobi doesn’t read the game well enough yet to deserve a starting spot, especially in a big game against City. Iwobi had two good passing options in the 76th, but preferred to run into traffic and was dispossessed. See the screen capture below. There’s no doubt that Iwobi has great potential. But at 21, he’s simply not developing as quickly as Alli at Tottenham.

City M76 editedIwobi ignores Lacazette and Ozil to run into traffic. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Arsenal midfield has been a running gag this season. Guardiola exploited the lack of pressure in the hole behind Sanchez for the first two goals. It’s mind-boggling when you know that Wenger played as a central midfielder in his youth and that he developed very good defensive midfielders like Puel and Petit at Monaco. Yet, for years now, Wenger hasn’t been able to find the missing component in midfield.

Xhaka’s lack of mobility

The pairing of Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield is a flawed partnership because they can’t properly defend. Silva intercepted a sloppy pass from Iwobi in the 18th to release Aguero down our left flank. The Argentina striker made a cross that the Arsenal defense cleared into the path of De Bruyne, whose half-volley was parried by Cech. As you can see on the screen capture below, Ramsey is patrolling the edge of the box but is not marking De Bruyne, while Xhaka is sitting too deep, interfering with Coquelin’s defensive duties. In fact, both Xhaka and Coquelin collided on that play.

City M18a edited.jpgXhaka is in no man’s land while Ramsey can’t prevent De Bruyne from winning the second ball. (Photo credit: Sky)

On the same play, a couple of seconds after Cech’s save, the ball was played back to De Bruyne, who exchanged passes with Fernandinho to open the scoring with a low diagonal strike. Xhaka was too far to pressure Fernandinho, while Ramsey failed to stay with De Bruyne. See the screen capture below. Inside the area, Koscielny couldn’t block De Bruyne’s goal attempt.

City M18b edited.jpgRamsey fails to stay with De Bruyne, who plays a one-two with Fernandinho, left unmarked by Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

City’s second goal in the 49th exposed the same issue. Following a long spell of domination from the Citizens, Fernandinho hit a long ball toward Sterling, who beat the offside trap and won a penalty from a Monreal challenge. Wenger called it a dive. I thought it was a slightly more legitimate penalty than the one awarded to Watford for the Bellerin challenge. Sterling definitely went down easily but what swayed the referee was that Monreal did not make a genuine attempt to play the ball. Because Sterling was smart enough to shield the ball with his body, Monreal basically tried to bully him off the ball.

But focusing on the penalty, converted by Aguero for a 2-0 lead, distracts from the real problem. Xhaka failed to close down Fernandinho, giving him plenty of time to hit a perfect ball over the top for Sterling. Then Kolasinac failed to keep an eye on his teammates’ position and played Sterling onside. See the screen capture below. Things can change quickly in football. Kolasinac was the hero against Swansea the previous weekend. A week later, Kolasinac nearly turned into a villain by getting involved in City’s last two goals.

City M49 editedKolasinac is two yards behind the potential offside line as Xhaka fails to close down Fernandinho. (Photo credit: Sky)

City’s passing game and the movement of their players exposed Xhaka’s lack of mobility. While Fernandinho and De Bruyne made a difference defensively and offensively, Xhaka had no positive impact at all. Xhaka won 1 of 1 tackle, made 1 interception and 1 block, and had 0 key pass and a passing accuracy of 83%. Those are weaker stats than Ramsey, who won 2 of 9 tackles, made 1 interception and 0 block, and had 2 key passes and a passing accuracy of 90%.

The Ramsey-Lacazette understanding

Ramsey’s work-rate means that he’s Arsenal’s most valuable player in midfield. But his poor tactical discipline also means that he shouldn’t play as a central midfielder. I believe Ramsey’s best position is on the right side of a three-man midfield or in the hole as a free-roaming midfielder. On the stroke of halftime, Ramsey took a pass from Sanchez to test Ederson with a low strike. Then Lacazette fed Ramsey, who was denied by Ederson in the 59th. In tough circumstances, Ramsey and Lacazette somehow managed to strike an understanding within a few minutes as Ramsey picked out Lacazette, who fired through Ederson’s legs in the 65th to cut the deficit to 2-1. If I were in the manager’s shoes, I would build the team around that partnership because it’s very hard to know what the club can expect from Sanchez and Ozil these days.

On the wings, Bellerin and Kolasinac were so overwhelmed with their defensive duties that Arsenal’s back three often looked like a back five. Both wingbacks made no dribble and had no key pass. Kolasinac was very lucky to get away with a shove from behind on Sterling, who failed to convert Sane’s cross in the 11th. City also did a good job to cut the supply lines between Kolasinac and Sanchez on the left flank and between Bellerin and Ozil on the right.

At the back, Koscielny limited the damage with some smart defending. In a 1v2 situation, Koscielny backed down and forced Sterling to make a poor cross for an unmarked Sane in the 35th. Three minutes later, Koscielny got ahead of Aguero to divert Walker’s teasing cross and force a point-blank save from Cech. The France centerback also killed a counterattack with a cynical foul in the 67th and intercepted De Bruyne’s final ball for Jesus in the 88th.

A North London derby with a Top 4 spot at stake

Koscielny had the best stats of the back three, having a passing accuracy of 88%, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels, and making 5 interceptions and 0 block. By contrast, City’s pressing game exposed Coquelin’s technical limits. Coquelin had a passing accuracy of 65.2%, the lowest percentage of all the starters. On the bright side, Coquelin won 3 of 4 tackles, including one that killed a dangerous counterattack in the 42nd. Monreal’s relative lack of pace proved a liability against the speed of Aguero, Sterling, Sane and Jesus. The Spaniard won none of the 3 tackles he made. At 32, Koscielny is still the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense despite his recurrent Achilles problem. Mustafi would be his natural successor in the squad if Koscielny’s legs let him down, but the Germany international hasn’t proved as reliable yet.

The next game could be crucial in the Top 4 race. The Gunners host Tottenham after the international break. A defeat in the North London derby could leave Arsenal 6 points behind Chelsea, currently in 4th place. The Gunners have shown some serious defensive frailties against City. There’s no way they can win or even get a point against Spurs with another dodgy defensive performance. The result could set the tone for the toughest stretch of the season with 2 games a week until mid-January if the Gunners are still involved in the League Cup.

 

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

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

Arsenal vs. Norwich

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

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

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

  1. Nketiah had Norwich and the crowd in his pocket

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

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

  1. Iwobi is regressing

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

  1. Elneny is not a centerback

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

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

  1. Walcott & Giroud couldn’t find the net

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

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

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

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

Watford vs. Arsenal: Gunners show mental weakness in 2-1 loss

The Gunners conceded two late goals in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Vicarage Road to slip to 6th place in the Premier League, 9 points behind Manchester City. The turning point of the game was the penalty awarded to the Hornets in the 71st minute. Bellerin and Richarlison were both chasing a ball rolling toward the by-line when the Watford forward fell to the ground. TV replays showed there was no shove, no shirt-pulling and no leg tangle, just minimal contact between two players running side by side. To put it bluntly, it was clearly a dive from Richarlison. Deeney converted the spot kick to level the game.

Watford vs. Arsenal

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

Until that penalty, Arsenal had the game under control, limiting the Hornets to just one half-chance in the 19th. It became a completely different story after the equalizer as all the scoring opportunities in the last 20 minutes were for the hosts. If you’re a good team, you find a way to salvage a point despite that officiating mistake. But the Gunners lacked the mental strength to react and spent the closing minutes inside their own half, waiting for the final blow.

Tactically, the hosts mirrored Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation. The Hornets switched to a back four in the second half when Carrillo and Deeney replaced Mariappa and Gray in the 62nd. Both teams had 8 chances each. What really made the difference was Watford’s desire. The Hornets won 64% of their tackles and made 19 interceptions compared to 43% of tackles won and 10 interceptions for Arsenal, according to Squawka.

Saturday’s game also raised questions about injury management at the club. The staff wisely let Ramsey and Sanchez recover from international duty and did not include them in the squad. However, Welbeck and Koscielny both started the game despite returning from injury. It proved a risky gamble as Welbeck picked up a hamstring injury in the 59th while Koscielny had a calf problem in the 85th. Ozil also made his return from injury but was eased back into the team by coming off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 61st. Why such a difference of treatment? In hindsight, Walcott or Giroud could have started in the front three alongside Iwobi and Lacazette. And Holding could have played alongside Mertesacker and Monreal in the back three.

A foretaste of life without Ozil and Sanchez

In a news conference before the game, Wenger mentioned that the club could sell Sanchez and Ozil in January. The first 60 minutes gave us a foretaste of how life without those stars could look like. The Gunners had no clear-cut chances from open play because of a lack of creativity and penetration. They only had 2 successful dribbles compared to 6 for Watford, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal also wasted some good situations with inaccurate final balls. Bellerin made a cross that was too high for Lacazette in the 12th. A minute later, Kolasinac sent the ball behind Welbeck. Then Iwobi overhit crosses for Lacazette in the 35th and for Welbeck in the 41st.

Despite all the hype surrounding Iwobi, the Nigeria international doesn’t read the game as well as Ozil yet. No one doubts Iwobi’s potential but it’s all about translating it into end product. Iwobi only made 1 key pass compared to 3 for Welbeck and 2 for Ozil. At 21, Iwobi still has time to improve. He especially needs to work on his composure. Iwobi lacked lucidity twice in the final third on Saturday. He missed a five-yard pass to Bellerin in the 33rd and opted for a tame curling shot instead of feeding Lacazette in the 36th.

From a financial perspective, it would make sense to sell Sanchez and Ozil in January. However, the consequences on the pitch could be devastating in terms of assists and goals. If the plan is to replace Ozil with Iwobi for assists and Sanchez with Welbeck for goals, then fans should expect a significant drop in end product. Welbeck worked his socks off, setting up Xhaka for a long-range strike that Gomes parried in the 43rd and picking out Bellerin who missed the target a few seconds later.

Lacazette’s poor game

When Ozil replaced Welbeck in the 61st, anybody could see the difference in the final third. Ozil played a perfectly weighted pass to Iwobi, whose angled effort was tipped around the far post by Gomes in the 63rd. Iwobi returned the favor in the 70th, slipping a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Gomes. If he had scored, Ozil would have been hailed a hero for doubling the lead. Unfortunately, Ozil missed that chance and mentally disappeared from the game. That’s not an issue when the Gunners dominate ball possession. But when they have to fight for the ball and are put on the back foot, then Ozil becomes a liability. Arsenal definitely missed Welbeck’s work-rate after the equalizer.

Lacazette still hasn’t scored away from home yet and produced his worst performance in an Arsenal shirt on Saturday. The France international had 0 shot, made 0 key pass and had a passing accuracy as low as 60% compared to 90% for Welbeck and 87.7% for Iwobi. The lack of understanding between Lacazette and Iwobi didn’t help obviously. It was at least the second game in which Iwobi chose personal glory instead of feeding Lacazette, who was in a better position to score. I just hope this poor game won’t affect Lacazette’s confidence. Giroud replaced Lacazette in the 67th and proved inefficient in retaining the ball, leading the team with 5 turnovers and winning only 2 of 5 aerial duels.

There was a small surprise in the team selection with Mertesacker making his first Premier League start in more than a year. Since Mustafi picked up a hamstring injury on international duty, Wenger only had the choice between Holding and Mertesacker for the third centerback playing alongside Koscielny and Monreal. The manager gave the nod to the more experienced Mertesacker, who had a good game.

Some more gruyere cheese

The German centerback opened the scoring in the 39th by heading home a corner from Xhaka. Despite his lack of pace, Mertesacker proved quite solid at the back by winning 1 of 1 tackle and 12 of 14 aerial duels and making 2 interceptions and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. In fact, Mertesacker outperformed Koscielny (0 of 3 tackles won, 7 of 13 aerial duels won, 2 interceptions, 1 block) and Monreal (2 of 7 tackles won, 0 of 5 headers won, 1 interception, 1 block). Koscielny lacked sharpness in his return from injury while Monreal seemed a bit jaded after playing for Spain during the international break.

On the wings, Bellerin had a decent game despite failing to stop Doucoure’s cross for Pereyra, who headed wide in the 19th. I thought Kolasinac could have done more on the opposite flank. The former Schalke 04 player created no chance and lost the only tackle he made.

If the wingbacks and the centerbacks did OK defensively, how come Arsenal conceded two goals? You have to look at the midfield to find the answer. Gruyere cheese has been a recurrent theme since the start of the season. As long as the Gunners don’t sign a world-class ballwinner, there’s no way they will ever be able to contend.

Elneny teamed up with Xhaka in midfield. The duo matched Cleverley and Doucoure in the first half before fading in the second half. Xhaka and Elneny played with their national teams during the international break. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to start Coquelin and Wilshere in midfield. Xhaka and Elneny combined to create 1 chance, win 3 of 5 tackles and make 1 interception and 1 block while Cleverley and Doucoure created 4 chances, won 5 of 7 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.

Can’t smell the danger

As the holding midfielder, Xhaka had a poor game. His passing accuracy dipped to 76% on Saturday while it was around 90% last season. Xhaka has no competition inside the squad. Does that explain his increasing sloppiness this season? A bigger concern is Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness: he simply can’t smell the danger.

In the 83rd, Deeney cut the ball back for Capoue, whose effort deflected off Mertesacker’s chest to hit the post. As you can see in the screen capture below, there was no Gunner near Capoue in a 10-meter radius. Both Xhaka and Elneny sat too deep and did not spot Capoue’s presence on the edge of the box.

Watford vs. Arsenal M83ed

Xhaka and Elneny leave Capoue unmarked. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

That play should have acted as a warning for Xhaka. But the Switzerland international made the same mistake in stoppage time. A long-range strike from Holebas led to a goalmouth scramble in which Watford won the second ball twice. Mertesacker blocked Deeney’s shot before Cleverley pounced on the rebound to slam the ball into the back of the net. Elneny was pulled out of position because he made up for Ozil’s laziness and tried to block Holebas’ effort. Therefore only Xhaka was available to track Cleverley’s movement inside the Arsenal box. As you can see in the screen capture below, there was no Gunner near Cleverley in a 5-meter radius.

Watford vs. Arsenal M92ed

Xhaka fails to mark Cleverley. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Among the top teams, the Gunners are the only ones still winless on the road. They have already suffered 3 defeats from 8 Premier League games and are on pace to finish the season with 14 defeats, which would be a record under Wenger. They next play Red Star Belgrade on Thursday before travelling to Goodison Park on Sunday. The Europa League game is meaningless because the Gunners top their group and can afford to drop points. By contrast, a second straight loss in the Premier League could trigger a crisis. Remember all the negativity around the club after they lost to Stoke and Liverpool in August.

Arsenal vs. Brighton: Gunners get back in Top 4 race with 2-0 win

The Gunners earned a fourth straight win in all competitions and a fourth straight clean sheet in the Premier League by defeating Brighton 2-0 on Sunday. They also got back in the race for a Champions League spot by going level on points with fourth-place Chelsea in the standings.

Arsenal vs. Brighton

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

Wenger made 9 changes to the side that played in the Europa League on Thursday with only Mustafi and Holding retaining their starting spots. Despite the team’s freshness, Arsenal played at an average tempo and needed a second goal in the 56th minute to start feeling comfortable. A lot of fans were frustrated by the number of passes made to reach the final third. Xhaka and the 3 centerbacks combined to make 390 passes, 34 more than the entire Brighton team according to whoscored.com.

Maybe we are too demanding as fans. When a Mourinho team wins ugly, pundits say it’s how champions lift silverware. In August, the Gunners dominated Stoke but ended up losing 1-0. And two weeks ago, they produced their best performance of the season against Chelsea but could only collect one point. On Sunday, Arsenal led in most key categories. They had 25 shots and 16 chances to 9 shots and 6 chances for the Seagulls, according to Squawka. The Gunners also won 11 of 27 tackles compared to 6 of 25 tackles for Brighton. However, the visitors’ tactical approach allowed them to make 8 more interceptions than Arsenal.

Monreal capitalized on a goalmouth scramble in the 16th to open the scoring with a low strike. Credit should be given to Lacazette for keeping the ball in play. The France international headed Xhaka’s overhit free kick toward Mustafi, whose effort got cleared off the line by Duffy. Bellerin pounced on the rebound but had his shot blocked. The ball fell to Monreal, who fired home from 11yards.

Sanchez’s flash of brilliance

Lacazette could have found the net in the opening minutes. He took a pass from Iwobi and unleashed a 25-yard piledriver that rattled the post. Lacazette is often described in the English press as a fox in the box but he also has this ability to score from outside the area and from any angle. From his 4 goal attempts on Sunday, 2 were blocked, 1 was saved and 1 hit the woodwork. Lacazette dispossessed Dunk in the 34th but could only muster a tame shot straight at Ryan.

In their second start together, Lacazette and Sanchez kept working on their understanding. Sanchez made 2 key passes for Lacazette. The Chile striker is now fully fit as stats reflected his trademark hyperactivity: he won 1 of 2 tackles, had 3 of 8 shots on target, 7 turnovers, 6 key passes, and 4 successful dribbles out of 5.

His flash of brilliance in the 56th led to Iwobi’s goal. Sanchez slipped the ball to Lacazette before penetrating in the heart of the Brighton defense. Ramsey played the ball back to Sanchez, who created space for Iwobi by attracting 3 defenders. With his back to goal, Sanchez played Iwobi in with an outrageous backheel flick. Unmarked, Iwobi shot high past Ryan to double the lead.

Iwobi and his reading of the game

Sanchez took on the playmaking duties because Iwobi didn’t create much. Iwobi had a good game with 3 of 3 shots on target, 2 key passes, 1 interception, 2 successful dribbles out of 3, and 2 tackles made, but he’s not as smart as Ozil in his movement and reading of the game. The Nigeria international mustered a tame effort from a tight angle in the 13th instead of feeding Lacazette. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M13 editedIwobi attempts to curl a shot instead of feeding Lacazette. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Obviously, Iwobi tried to curl a shot inside the far post like Thierry Henry. But he doesn’t master that technique yet and Lacazette, a better finisher, was in a better position to score. Iwobi wasted another good situation in the 28th. He ran 40 yards while leading a counterattack. Reaching the edge of the Brighton box, Iwobi had 3 good passing options but opted for a low effort that didn’t trouble Ryan. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M28 editedIwobi could have passed the ball to Lacazette to his right, to Kolasinac to his left or to Sanchez on the left wing. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Iwobi is only 21, so he still has time to improve. But those situations show the gap between a youngster like Iwobi and world-class players like Ozil and Sanchez, who perfectly read the play and make the right decision at the right time.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey had very similar stats. Although Arsenal dominated ball possession, both midfielders still contributed defensively by winning 3 of 8 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels, while making 3 interceptions and 4 blocks. Ramsey had an off day with 6 turnovers and 0 key pass, but he nearly scored from a counterattack in the 42nd. Kolasinac cut the ball back for Ramsey, whose goal-bound effort was stopped by Ryan’s leg.

Lack of coordination

The Seagulls never managed to crack the Arsenal defense. Their plan was to sit deep and wait for counterattacking opportunities. Yet, their few chances came from set pieces and crosses. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick in the fifth minute by fouling Brown. The Brighton striker headed wide the subsequent set piece. The turning point of the game was probably March’s indirect free kick in the 23rd. March struck the post from 25 yards as no Arsenal defender could block his shot.

Brighton decided to throw the kitchen sink in the last 15 minutes by replacing Izquierdo and Brown with Knockaert and Murray, but it proved too little too late. Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Gross in the 84th. Murray got ahead of Mustafi to meet the cross but headed wide. Three minutes later, Mustafi nearly headed into his own net another teasing cross from Gross.

In the first half, Kolasinac was in trouble because of March’s runs in behind. A lack of coordination left Monreal in a 1v2 situation in the 19th. March got the better of Monreal to make a cross that Mustafi cleared. Three minutes later, Kolasinac made a stupid foul on Propper and the subsequent set piece led to March’s scoring chance. Kolasinac was more solid defensively after halftime. He finished the game with 3 key passes, 1 of 2 tackles won, 4 of 4 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 1 block. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also had a header cleared off the line by March in the 62nd. On the opposite wing, Bellerin had a decent game defensively but failed to create any chance.

Holding’s calm performance

At the back, Holding produced a sober and calm performance, miles away from what we see in the Europa League. He showed his self-control by not making any foul. His stats were as good as Mustafi’s. I still wouldn’t trust Holding for big games against the two Manchester clubs, but he’s good enough against weak sides like Brighton. In the continuity of his performance against West Brom, Monreal scored the opener, made 2 key passes, and led all starters with a passing accuracy of 97%. His passing skills and reading of the game are an asset against teams parking the bus.

Koscielny, Ozil, Welbeck and Coquelin should return from injury after the international break. Those injuries show the need for a smart rotation policy throughout the season. The quality of the bench could make the difference in the race for a Top 4 finish. The next game is a trip to Watford on Oct. 14. The Gunners still haven’t won on the road in the Premier League while Manchester United, City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool have already won away from home. Arsenal will need 3 points at Vicarage Road to prove that they can match their rivals.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Gunners show desire & discipline to earn a point

The Gunners produced their best performance of the season on Sunday to split the points with Chelsea in a goalless draw. Given Arsenal’s poor record at Stamford Bridge in the past few seasons, it’s definitely a good point. Very little separated both teams in a highly tactical match. Chelsea and Arsenal had 8 chances each. The Blues enjoyed 51% of ball possession and mustered 13 shots to 11 for the visitors. But the Gunners showed a bit more commitment by winning 20 tackles to 13 and making 20 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal 2017

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

Wenger has often been maligned for his poor record against Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager. Yet, he slightly outfoxed Conte in Sunday’s encounter. Both teams started with a 3-4-3 formation. But the duo formed by Ramsey and Xhaka got the better of Kante and Fabregas in midfield. At halftime, Conte decided to beef up his midfield by replacing Pedro with Bakayoko, switching to a 3-5-2 system.

Conte has a more defensive approach to the 3-4-3 formation than Wenger. The Italian manager mostly uses it as a counterattacking device. The Blues pounced on a sloppy pass from Bellerin in the third minute to hit Arsenal on the fast break. However, the Gunners quickly retreated and Pedro could only fire a 25-yard drive straight at Cech.

Making the most of a disequilibrium

The problem with Conte’s approach is that it puts a strong emphasis on defensive discipline. Chelsea coped well with such an austere system last season. But we can see the limits of this demanding approach as the Blues have already received 3 red cards in 5 league games this season. Luiz got booked in the 52nd for hitting Koscielny’s head with an overhead kick in a crowded area. In the closing minutes, Luiz overran the ball and fouled Kolasinac with a studs-up challenge. The referee made the right call by giving Luiz a straight red card. As you can see on the screen capture below, the Brazilian defender’s block attempt was a potential leg-breaker.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M87ed Luiz’s studs land on Kolasinac’s shin. (Photo credit: Sky)

By contrast, Wenger’s approach is more messy. His switch to the 3-4-3 formation was not a deliberate choice but a decision by default. He realized his midfield could not control the game. Because his midfield had become a weakness, Wenger tacitly accepted the lack of balance in his team by adopting a system that made the most of such a disequilibrium. You therefore often see the team split in two because the 3-4-3 formation optimizes what happens at both ends of the pitch. Defensively, the Gunners are never outnumbered. Offensively, they are at least 4 or 5 on a counterattack.

Wenger made just one change to the side that routed Bournemouth 3-0 the previous weekend with Iwobi replacing an injured Ozil in the starting lineup. However, there were 8 changes to the team that defeated Cologne 3-1 on Thursday with only Bellerin, Monreal and Iwobi retaining their starting spots. That rotation was crucial to have enough freshness against Chelsea.

Mustafi as the weak link

The Gunners earned their second straight clean sheet in the Premier League. Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi seem our best options for the back three. Chambers and Holding are still too naive while Mertesacker’s lack of pace is a liability for a high defensive line. Mustafi proved the weak link at the back on Sunday. The Germany international had 3 turnovers, made 2 interceptions and 0 block and won only 46.7% of his duels, compared to 1 turnover, 4 interceptions, 2 blocks and 88.9% duels won for Koscielny and 0 turnover, 4 interceptions, 2 blocks and 70% duels won for Monreal, according to Squawka and the club’s website.

Chelsea’s only clear-cut chance came from Mustafi’s poor positional play in the 21st. Monreal and Koscielny both played a high defensive line but Mustafi was caught napping four yards behind them, playing Pedro and Morata onside. See the screen capture below. Fabregas slipped a through ball to Pedro, who was clean through on goal but was denied by Cech.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M21ed Mustafi, circled, is 4 yards behind the potential offside line as Pedro makes a run in behind. (Photo credit: Sky)

Mustafi also misjudged the flight of Cahill’s long ball for Morata on the stroke of halftime. Morata was about to bear down on goal but Monreal rushed back to beat Morata to the ball and divert it into Cech’s path. Mustafi could have been the hero by heading in Xhaka’s free kick in the 75th but his goal was disallowed for offside.

Ramsey’s mazy run

In midfield, Ramsey ran the show with 3 interceptions, 2 blocks, 3 of 6 tackles won and 4 successful dribbles out of 4. Arsenal’s best scoring chance came from Ramsey’s mazy run in the 41st. Ramsey slalomed through the Chelsea defense only to hit the far post with a toe poke. Sanchez was so excited in the stands that he slapped Ospina’s back a couple of times. The Blues simply couldn’t cope with Ramsey’s movement.

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka outperformed the duo formed by Kante and Fabregas. Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 14 tackles, 5 interceptions and 4 blocks, compared to 10 tackles, 3 interceptions and 4 blocks for Kante and Fabregas, according to Squawka. In the first half, Ramsey and Xhaka got the better of Kante and Fabregas with a mix of zonal marking and man-marking. They had more defensive work in the second half when Bakayoko joined Kante and Fabregas in midfield. Wenger tried to steady the midfield by sending on Elneny for Iwobi in the 80th.

On the wings, Kolasinac was more busy defensively than Bellerin. Kolasinac won 4 of 6 tackles, had 5 turnovers and made 2 interceptions, 2 blocks and 0 key pass while Bellerin won 1 of 1 tackle, had 1 turnover and made 0 interception, 5 blocks and 2 key passes. Kolasinac was signed as an upgrade over Gibbs and Monreal at leftback. Yet, the Gunners still struggle to stop crosses from their left flank. In the 23rd, Kolasinac couldn’t block Moses’ cross for Morata, who headed wide.

Welbeck’s groin injury

Despite his defensive workload, Kolasinac managed to test Courtois with a long-range strike in the 20th and had a shot blocked by Azpilicueta in the 62nd. Bellerin proved an attacking threat down the right wing in the first half but faded after the break. The Spaniard was one of the three Gunners who also started in the Europa League game against Cologne.

Wenger can have regrets about the front three, which underperformed compared to the rest of the team. Iwobi started on the right wing because Ozil had not recovered from a minor injury. The Nigeria international led Arsenal with 3 key passes but also 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. I thought Iwobi’s work-rate was not good enough. He made no tackle, no interception and no block while Welbeck made 2 interceptions and 1 block and Lacazette made 3 tackles and 1 block. Iwobi also needs to improve his spatial awareness. He is not as good as Ozil in finding pockets of space, which explains why his movement is not good enough.

While Welbeck played as a centerforward in the FA Cup final, the manager decided to play him on the left wing on Sunday. Welbeck should have caught the frame from 7 yards in the 16th but he inexplicably headed Bellerin’s cross wide. He also wasted a good situation in the 57th by overhitting his final ball for Ramsey. Welbeck suffered more bad luck by picking up a groin injury in the 72nd. His injury could become an issue because he’s the only forward in the squad who is both pacey and strong in the air.

Worst start since 2011

Lacazette struggled in the centerforward role. His passing accuracy dropped to 53.3% while his teammates preferred to rely on Welbeck as an outlet for high balls. He had two chances in the first half. Bellerin cut the ball back for Lacazette in the 17th. Tightly marked by Luiz, the France international could only hit a first-time effort straight at Courtois. Then Lacazette had a better opportunity in the 41st when Ramsey’s toe poke hit the post. The rebound fell to Lacazette, who volleyed wide from 6 yards with his weaker left foot. Sanchez replaced Lacazette in the 66th but had no real impact in the final third.

The Gunners produced a great performance but I still don’t see them as serious contenders for the simple reason that their options at centerback and in midfield are limited. If Koscielny gets injured, would you trust Mertesacker and Holding to step up? Likewise, if Ramsey is sidelined for a few weeks, which midfielder could be an attacking force while performing defensive duties? Cazorla and Wilshere are the only players matching that profile, but Cazorla is out for most of the season while Wilshere has a dreadful injury record.

With just 7 points from the first 5 league games, the Gunners are having their worst start to the season since 2011 when they collected only 4 points. In the past two seasons, Arsenal enjoyed a decent start with 10 points. Those results mean that the Gunners desperately need a victory over West Brom next weekend. I therefore expect the manager to rest key players in Wednesday’s League Cup game against Doncaster Rovers.

Arsenal vs. Cologne: A few thoughts on the 3-1 win

Arsenal took the lead in Group H of the Europa League by defeating Cologne 3-1 on Thursday. Despite what the scoreline might suggest, it wasn’t a walk in the park. The game was delayed for an hour because of safety concerns caused by some 20,000 German supporters around the Emirates stadium. Wenger even said he thought the match would be postponed.

Arsenal vs. Cologne 2017

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

On the pitch, the Gunners made life difficult for themselves by conceding an early goal against the run of play. Some supporters added more pressure on the team by booing back passes. A tactical switch and a substitution at halftime helped Arsenal get back into the game. Kolasinac equalized with a volley in the 49th minute before Sanchez scored in the 67th and Bellerin sealed the win in the 82nd.

  1. Wenger got his priorities right

Sunday’s game at Chelsea is much more important than a Europa League match. That’s why the manager did not hesitate to make 9 changes to the side that routed Bournemouth 3-0 last Saturday with only Bellerin and Monreal retaining their starting spots. Cech, Ramsey, Ozil, Xhaka, Lacazette and Welbeck were not even in the squad while Mustafi and Kolasinac were on the bench at kickoff. And Koscielny was serving a suspension after receiving a red card against Bayern Munich last season.

  1. Don’t play youngsters out of position

Wenger improved the careers of Petit and Henry by moving them to new positions. Petit was a leftback by trade at Monaco before becoming a world-class defensive midfielder at Arsenal while Henry was a winger at Monaco and Juventus before Wenger turned him into a prolific centerforward. Those experiments worked because Petit and Henry both had the skills and tactical intelligence to adapt to those roles.

Maitland-Niles’ best position is central midfielder. Yet, the manager played him at wingback and centerback in the pre-season friendlies. On Thursday, the Gunners lost a source of supply on the left flank by playing Maitland-Niles in the wingback position. Just like Bellerin in the Stoke and Liverpool games, Maitland-Niles didn’t make any cross because he’s a right-footed player.

At halftime, Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-2-3-1 formation by replacing Holding with Kolasinac as Maitland-Niles joined Elneny in central midfield. The move paid off with Maitland-Niles performing better in that role while Kolasinac brought more fluidity down the left flank.

Maitland-Niles nearly found the net with a penetrative run in the 64th but was dispossessed by the goalkeeper in a one-on-one duel. There’s still a lot of polishing to do but the potential is there. Maitland-Niles needs to be more tidy in possession and improve his concentration levels. He was late for a block in the 79th when Jojic tested Ospina with a 25-yard strike.

New signing Kolasinac has quickly become a favorite among fans since his goal in the Community Shield. Barely four minutes after coming off the bench, he volleyed home a loose ball to level the score. Kolasinac initiated the final goal by playing a one-two with Sanchez before cutting the ball back for Walcott, who was denied by Horn. But Bellerin pounced on the rebound to score with a sliding effort. Kolasinac’s movement and reading of the game also helped him strike a better understanding with Sanchez down the left flank.

  1. Iwobi must improve his positional play and work-rate

Last season, Iwobi played as an attacking midfielder either in the hole or on a wing in the old 4-2-3-1 formation. He lost his starting spot when the team shifted to a 3-4-3 system. On Thursday, Wenger played Iwobi in central midfield. Iwobi’s impact on the game proved weak because of his poor work-rate and lack of spatial awareness. The Gunners struggled to find Iwobi because the Nigeria international did not make himself available like Cazorla, Ozil or Ramsey.

In the first half, Iwobi played too high up the pitch. Instead of acting as a deep-lying playmaker, Iwobi pretty much played like a No. 10. Wenger realized that Iwobi did not understand the role of a central midfielder and therefore shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation that was more familiar for Iwobi.

In the second half, Iwobi felt more comfortable in the No. 10 role. His attacking stats are decent with 3 key passes and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to Squawka. But his defensive stats show his poor work-rate with no tackle won, no interception and no block. Iwobi will need to get rid of this habit of running into traffic to cheaply give away the ball.

  1. Midfield is still an issue

The tempo was too slow in the first half because nobody pulled the strings in midfield. When Cazorla is sidelined, Ozil often drops back to help build up play. The lack of creativity was also blatant as Elneny and Iwobi don’t have the passing skills of Cazorla or Ozil. Defensively, Iwobi pretty much left Elneny on his own. Elneny only won 2 of 6 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. That’s OK against an average side like Cologne but it won’t be enough against a good team.

  1. Holding looked out of his depth

The youngster was such a nervous wreck that Wenger yanked him off at halftime. In 45 minutes, Holding won 0 of 3 tackles, and made 3 fouls, 0 interception and 0 block. Holding showed poor decision-making in the third minute when he attempted a risky clearance instead of making a back pass to Ospina. Bittencourt blocked the clearance to be clean through on goal but Holding pulled him back. Surprisingly, the referee did not even book Holding for that cynical foul. A minute later, Holding fouled Bittencourt on the edge of the Arsenal box. He then failed to block Cordoba’s wonder strike in the 10th. Attempting to make amends, Holding gave Cologne a counterattacking opportunity by running into traffic and losing possession in the 40th.

In the summer, the Gunners sold Paulista and kept Mustafi, Chambers and Holding. In hindsight, a smarter policy would have been to sell Chambers, keep Paulista and Mustafi and loan out Holding. The England U21 international is so low on confidence that you wonder what kind of competition would help his development: Europa League? League Cup? Championship?

  1. Sanchez is still hungry

The Chile striker will need great performances in his last season at the club to earn a fat contract next summer. Despite a relative lack of match sharpness, Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead by cutting inside to curl a shot into the far corner. He could have scored another goal in the 89th but his lob attempt sailed wide. Fans could see his desire as he pressed high up the pitch several times.

  1. A high defensive line with Mertesacker is suicidal

Playing a high defensive line can be challenging when you have a centerback with no recovery pace like Mertesacker. Most of Cologne’s chances resulted from Mertesacker’s sluggishness. Zoller initiated the opening goal by making a run between Monreal and Mertesacker. Ospina came off his line because Zoller was clean through on goal.

The German side nearly doubled the lead by using the same ploy in the 16th. Zoller beat the offside trap by making a run between Mertesacker and Holding. However, Zoller struggled to control the ball, which ended up rolling toward Ospina. Cologne exploited again Arsenal’s high defensive line in the 72nd. Cordoba rolled away from Mertesacker and dribbled past Monreal to fire a low strike that Ospina turned around the post.

  1. Arsenal shouldn’t extend Walcott’s contract

Walcott’s limited technique was exposed on Thursday. He was dispossessed 4 times and was flagged offside 4 times, the most for any player in both categories. Despite his clumsiness, Walcott managed to get involved in two goals. It was his blocked cross that led to Kolasinac’s equalizer. Then his lost duel against Horn led to the final goal. Nelson, who replaced Walcott in the 83rd, is already a much better player at the same age. Wenger will carefully give Nelson some playing time this season before integrating him into the first team next year.

  1. Giroud had an off day

The France striker tried hard but couldn’t find the net. Giroud took a pass from Maitland-Niles in the 14th for a close-range effort that Heintz deflected out. He then met a cross from Bellerin in the 20th for a tame header that Horn easily saved. I thought Giroud should have scored in the 39th when he connected with a cross from Sanchez but sent his header wide. Giroud was dominant in the air, winning 4 of 4 aerial duels. I was surprised that the Gunners didn’t try to find him more in the second half. Cologne proved so weak in the air that they only won 20% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

  1. Ospina was rusty

In his first game of the season, Ospina hit a poor clearance that led to the opening goal. The Colombia goalkeeper learned his lesson in the second half as he kicked the ball straight into touch in a similar situation. Ospina made a fine save in the 72nd to prevent Cologne from leveling. His quick legs are definitely an asset when you have Mertesacker in the back three.

  1. Bellerin had a good game

After a couple of disappointing performances, Bellerin finally showed the level that justified his selection in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year. The Spaniard scored a goal, created 2 chances, had a passing accuracy of 92%, made 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 1 of 1 tackle and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 4 interceptions and 1 block. He’s obviously a better player on the right flank than on the left.

  1. Could this be Wilshere’s season?

In his first game of the season with the first team, Wilshere came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 68th. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in the 3-4-3 system, but Cazorla’s injury and our midfield woes give him a big opportunity to get some playing time.

  1. Debuchy and Chambers have no future at the club

Both players were not even included in the Europa League squad. That doesn’t look good when youngsters like Holding and Maitland-Niles start and when Reine-Adelaide, Nelson and Akpom get the nod on the bench. Debuchy can only blame himself for not accepting a salary cut at another club while Chambers must have regrets about his aborted move to Leicester.

 

Community Shield: Kolasinac stuns Chelsea as Gunners win penalty shootout

The Community Shield doesn’t necessarily show a glimpse into the upcoming Premier League season. Despite thrashing Manchester City 3-0 in the curtain-raiser of the 2014-15 season, Arsenal then got off to a sluggish start, taking only 6 points from their first 4 games to finish third in the league, 12 points behind Chelsea and 4 behind City.

2017 Community Shield

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

FA officials made it clear that the Community Shield wasn’t a major trophy by allowing Koscielny to be available for Sunday’s game. The Gunners kept the bragging rights for a few more weeks by downing Chelsea 4-1 in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in regulation time.

Wenger obviously thought the season opener against Leicester on Friday was more important than the Community Shield as he left Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez and Mustafi out of the squad. Ramsey and Ozil picked up knocks on the training ground while Sanchez and Mustafi still lack match fitness after recovering from the Confederations Cup.

The manager made 4 changes to the side that edged Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final with Lacazette, Iwobi, Elneny and Cech replacing Sanchez, Ozil, Ramsey and Ospina in the starting lineup. Conte also tweaked his lineup by replacing Costa, Hazard and Matic with Batshuayi, Willian and Fabregas.

The Blues might complain that Pedro’s ejection in the 80th minute was harsh, but if you look at the TV replays, his foul on Elneny ticks all the boxes for a straight red card: studs-up challenge from behind; Elneny’s physical integrity in danger with a stamp on his Achilles; and no real intent to play the ball with Pedro’s tackling foot far from the ball.

Chelsea relied on a tight defense and some clinical finishing to win the league last season. The trouble with the Blues’ emphasis on defending is that it can sometimes prove too aggressive: Azpilicueta and Alonso also got booked in the first half for cynical fouls.

Lacazette as a false nine

Arsenal fans probably have a better understanding of Lacazette’s abilities after watching his performance in the Community Shield. When leading the line, Lacazette is a false nine like Sanchez, not a target man like Giroud. The Chelsea defense easily intercepted a long ball for Lacazette in the 19th. Lacazette can’t outmuscle an opponent like Giroud or Welbeck would, but he can contribute in the build-up play with his passing skills.

The former Lyon striker created Arsenal’s best chance in the first half by playing a one-two with Bellerin before swapping passes with Welbeck to curl a shot that struck the post in the 22nd. Those are the flashes of brilliance that Sanchez can typically produce in a game. The big difference is that Sanchez can make those moments happen 2 or 3 times in a game while that was Lacazette’s only touch of magic on Sunday. On the bright side, Lacazette is more tidy than Sanchez, having only 2 turnovers and reaching a passing accuracy of 94.4% according to whoscored.com. Lacazette also showed his willingness to perform defensive tasks by making 3 tackles.

Although Giroud replaced Lacazette in the 66th, I definitely believe the two players can be quite complementary. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger sent on Giroud to add an aerial threat inside the Chelsea box. Giroud had no scoring chance but showed nerves of steel in the penalty shootout. Walcott, Monreal, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud converted their spot kicks while Courtois and Morata both missed the target.

Iwobi’s poor work-rate

Playing on the left flank, Welbeck sometimes swapped positions with Lacazette. His work-rate was quite impressive: Welbeck dispossessed Azpilicueta in the 13th and made a robust tackle on Moses in the 27th. His only scoring chance came in the eighth minute when he met a long ball from Xhaka for a header that lacked power to beat Courtois.

Iwobi showed some poor work-rate compared to Lacazette and Welbeck. The Nigeria international made no effort to win the ball back after Kante dispossessed him in the 24th. He produced some clever footwork on the stroke of halftime to create space for a tame shot straight at Courtois. Yet, that kind of contribution is not enough to justify a lack of effort.

The Gunners finished strong last season because they shifted from a 4-2-3-1 system to a 3-4-3 formation. Tactically, it made the defense less vulnerable by adding a centerback, but what some fans overlook is that it also removed 2 softies among the attacking players. At the end of 2016, Arsenal mostly relied on Walcott, Iwobi, Ozil and Sanchez in the final third. When Wenger made his tactical switch, Walcott and Iwobi were gone while Giroud or Welbeck joined Sanchez and Ozil in a front three. There was still one softie in the attacking line with Ozil, but it was better than having 3 softies in the previous system.

If the club sticks to the 3-4-3 formation, I doubt Iwobi will get much playing time this season. It would be better to loan him out so that he could improve his work-rate.

Conceding on a set piece

At the exception of the goalkeeper, Wenger made no change to the defense that frustrated Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Mertesacker, Holding and Monreal formed the back three while Bellerin and the Ox played as wingbacks. The manager could have used Koscielny on Sunday, but left him out of the squad because he felt that defenders available for the first two league games needed more playing time than Koscielny.

Wenger had to change his plans in the 28th when Mertesacker suffered a head injury after challenging Cahill for a high ball. The German centerback needed several stitches to close the cut above his right eye and was replaced by Kolasinac in the 33rd. Despite the change in personnel, Arsenal managed to limit Chelsea to two half-chances before the break as Cech parried a cross-shot from Moses in the 32nd and punched away an angled strike from Pedro in the 35th.

Unfortunately, Arsenal’s vulnerability on set pieces was exposed in the 46th when Xhaka poorly cleared a corner. Cahill beat Xhaka to the loose high ball and headed it toward Moses, who ghosted past Holding and Bellerin to score from close range. Bellerin was the main culprit on that play. He was initially on the right side of Moses but then failed to stay with him when the Chelsea wingback made a few steps back to beat the offside trap.

Kolasinac’s versatility

If we compare with the FA Cup final, Bellerin and the Ox both under-performed in the Community Shield. The Ox had an average game while Bellerin let his team down with a couple of big mistakes. Bellerin finished the game with a passing accuracy of 70,4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal starters. The Spaniard received a yellow card in the 14th for a late tackle on Alonso, underhit a backpass for Cech in the 25th and nearly gave away a penalty with a poor first touch in the 37th. My guess is that Bellerin still lacks a bit of match fitness after recovering from the European U21 Championship.

At the back, Monreal had a solid game, winning 4 aerial duels and making 3 tackles. Mertesacker’s injury forced Monreal to play as a sweeper for the last 60 minutes. Monreal’s experience, reading of the game and smart positional play made the transition seamless when Kolasinac came off the bench to play as the left centerback.

A leftback by trade, Kolasinac’s versatility made up for the absence of Paulista and Koscielny. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international is definitely a more natural option at centerback than Elneny or Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac won the hearts of many fans by heading home the equalizer in the 82nd off a Xhaka free kick.

Midfield trouble?

Holding proved again the weak link in the back three. His performance was a mixed bag. He showed his commitment by winning 4 aerial duels and making 2 tackles and 2 interceptions. But his naivety also put the Arsenal defense in trouble a couple of times. Holding was dispossessed by Alonso while dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 16th. In stoppage time, he gave away a dangerous free kick by fouling Morata, who was playing with his back to goal. However, I wouldn’t blame Holding for Chelsea’s goal. Holding was not aware of Moses’ presence behind him. Maybe a more experienced defender would have given a quick look behind instead of looking at the ball throughout the entire play like Holding did.

In midfield, Chelsea gave Xhaka plenty of maneuvering room. Conte’s 3-4-3 formation means that only Kante or Fabregas can really press Xhaka. Since Fabregas has lost much of his mobility and Kante can’t both protect the defense and press high up the pitch, Xhaka was therefore able to dictate play for Arsenal. The Switzerland international led all players with 4 key passes, including 2 through balls, and hit 10 accurate long balls out of 14. Xhaka nearly scored in the 76th but Courtois tipped his 35-yard drive around the post.

There are still 3 weeks left before the end of the transfer window. I hope the club will sign a midfielder because Wenger’s 3-4-3 system is very demanding for that position. Basically, the two central midfielders must cover a lot of ground to connect the defense with the front three. Ramsey and Wilshere have a bad injury record and Cazorla won’t return before November. We might be one injury away from trouble in midfield, knowing the limitations of Coquelin and Elneny.