Tag Archives: Iwobi

Burnley vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang on fire in 3-1 win

Too little, too late.

   The Gunners defeated Burnley 3-1 on Sunday to finish 5th in the Premier League, one point behind Spurs and two behind Chelsea. The loss to Crystal Palace and the draw with Brighton, both at the Emirates stadium, were the turning points in Arsenal’s season. A victory against either of these teams would have been enough to secure a Top 4 spot.

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

   Now the only way to qualify for next season’s Champions League is to win the Europa League. Emery was aware of the priorities as he made 9 changes to the side that knocked Valencia out of the European competition with only Monreal and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. Koscielny, Kolasinac, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka and Lacazette were on the bench while Sokratis, Torreira and Ozil were not even in the squad.

The Gunners enjoyed 60% of ball possession and had 6 shots on target to 5 for the hosts. They wasted some good situations with a poor final ball, in part because the numerous changes had a negative impact on the fluency of the team’s passing game. For instance, Aubameyang overhit his cross for Nketiah in the 78th minute, and Iwobi played the ball behind an unmarked Mkhitaryan in stoppage time.  

   Aubameyang could have been left on the bench to avoid any injury before the Europa League final, but finishing as the top scorer in the Premier League was one of his ambitions, so Emery let him lead the line. He nearly opened the scoring in the fourth minute. Aubameyang made a run to the near post to meet Mkhitaryan’s free kick but his header hit the woodwork. Three minutes later, Aubameyang chased a long ball from Mustafi to fire an angled strike that Heaton parried.

Aubameyang’s 31 goals

   The opener came from a mistake by the Clarets in the 52nd. Cork missed his backpass to Mee and the ball fell to Aubameyang, who beat Heaton with a low strike. Aubameyang doubled the lead in the 63rd by volleying Iwobi’s cross into the far corner. The Gabon striker then had a few opportunities to notch a hat trick. Iwobi made a teasing cross in the 72nd but Aubameyang didn’t anticipate and failed to make contact with the ball. A minute later, Mkhitaryan made another offering. From 4 yards, Aubameyang missed the target with a sliding effort.

   The Gunners really tried hard to give him a hat trick but Aubameyang failed to connect with a cross from Elneny in the 79th. In stoppage time, Aubameyang took a pass from Iwobi and worked some space only to shoot over the bar from 12 yards. Despite those misses, Aubameyang still finished the Premier League season as the joint top scorer with 22 goals, tied with Salah and Mane. Aubameyang is also the fourth Gunner to score at least 30 goals in all competitions in a single season since the move to the Emirates stadium. Adebayor, Van Persie and Sanchez achieved that feat before Aubameyang.

   This season confirmed Aubameyang’s successful adaptation to the Premier League. He sometimes gets criticized for missing some big chances, but his electric pace and movement inside the box are a headache for most defenders. Emery can only hope that Aubameyang will maintain that level of form until the Europa League final.  

The inconsistency of the attacking midfielders

   Mkhitaryan has been inconsistent this season and it really showed in his performance on Sunday. Playing on the right wing, Mkhitaryan finished the game with 2 key passes and 2 of 4 shots on target, but no goal and no assist. His delivery on set pieces was especially poor. Mkhitaryan couldn’t beat the first defender with a free kick on the stroke of halftime. He then sent a cross straight into Heaton’s arms in the 49th.

   Assuming Emery relies on a 3-5-2 formation for the Europa League final, that means only one attacking midfielder will start for Arsenal against Chelsea. Because of Ramsey’s hamstring injury, Emery will only have the choice between Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi, who have all lacked consistency in the final third this season. Mkhitaryan and Ozil are a slightly bigger goal threat than Iwobi. However, if Emery’s priority is to mark Jorginho out of the match, then Mkhitaryan is the more natural choice because of his work-rate. Mkhitaryan won 1 of 2 tackles, and made 3 interceptions and 4 recoveries against Burnley, compared 2 of 3 tackles won, 0 interception and 1 recovery for Iwobi, according to the club’s website.

   Iwobi led all players with 5 key passes. Despite 2 assists against Burnley, the overall impression this season is that Iwobi has stagnated under Emery. His finishing is still poor and his reading of the game is not good enough. It’s no coincidence if Iwobi was not involved in the best team goals scored by Arsenal. His work-rate is also far from the level required for a Top 4 club. Iwobi’s failure to close down Lowton led to a couple of chances for Burnley.

Loaning out Willock and Nketiah?

   Benefiting from the rest given to Ozil and Lacazette, academy player Willock made his second start in the Premier League. Willock impressed against Blackpool in the FA Cup, but there’s quite a gap between facing a third-division team and playing in the Premier League. Obviously, Willock is not the finished product yet. He will need to work on his close control because youngsters have more time and space in the Premier League 2 and often show too much of the ball. Willock led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He will also have to play more with his head up. The English teenager often needed too much time on the ball before finding a decent pass. At the same age, Fabregas already knew what were his passing options before even receiving the ball.

   Willock showed his potential on a couple of plays. His shot on the turn was blocked for a corner in the 10th and his low curling shot sailed wide on the stroke of halftime. However, the lack of end product was a real issue. Willock had 0 shot on target, 0 key pass and 0 successful dribble out of 2. His work-rate was also disappointing with just 1 tackle and 1 recovery. I don’t think Willock was lazy but he clearly struggled with his positional play. If you’re not in the right spot, you’re unlikely to win the ball or make a challenge.

   Emery replaced Willock with Nketiah in the 62nd. The young striker made an impact by scoring the last goal in stoppage time. His cross-shot took a deflection off Lowton before rolling through Heaton’s legs. The staff should consider loaning both Willock and Nketiah to a Championship side next season because they are too good for the Premier League 2 and need to develop.  

Vulnerable on crosses (again)

   In central midfield, Guendouzi played alongside Elneny. Surprisingly, Elneny had more influence in the final third with 3 key passes, compared to 0 key pass for Guendouzi. However, they had relatively similar defensive stats with Guendouzi making 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 9 recoveries, compared to 0 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries for Elneny, according to the club’s website.

   So far, Guendouzi is the same type of player as Elneny. Both are utility midfielders because they don’t have the same defensive impact as ballwinners and can’t match the offensive impact of deep-lying playmakers or box-to-box players. The only difference between Elneny and Guendouzi is that Elneny is more conservative in his passing while Guendouzi wins slightly more duels. This has been a positive season for Guendouzi, who has managed to make the leap from the French second division to the much tougher Premier League. Next season, Guendouzi will have to be less casual. He gave the ball away in the 17th and 29th and was lucky to win a foul after recklessly dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 75th.

   The Clarets mostly threatened on crosses and set pieces. Their consolation goal came from a cross in the 65th. Leno initially palmed away a deflected shot from Gudmundsson, but the rebound fell to Hendrick, who made a cross for Wood. The Burnley forward could only head the ball toward the far post, where Gudmundsson got hold of the ball and picked out Barnes who headed in. The Gunners lost 4 duels on that play: Monreal failed to block Hendrick’s cross, Koscielny lost his aerial duel with Wood, Gudmundsson reacted more quickly than Lichtsteiner, and Barnes beat Mustafi to the ball.

Mavropanos looking out of his depth

   Some fans sweated a lot when they saw Mavropanos starting alongside Mustafi at centerback. Mustafi produced a solid performance, leading all players by winning 8 of 11 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. The German defender also won 2 of 2 tackles and 76.9% of his duels and made 2 blocks, 1 interception and 5 recoveries. Mustafi made a timely challenge after Guendouzi gave the ball away in the 29th. A minute later, Mustafi prevented Burnley from opening the scoring by blocking Lowton’s close-range effort. The only blemish in Mustafi’s performance was his passing accuracy of 74.2%, much lower than Koscielny’s 97.1%.

   It has been a rough season for Mavropanos, who has played only 4 games after needing several months to recover from a groin injury. To be honest, Mavropanos looked out of his depth. When Taylor made a cross in the fifth minute, Mavropanos completely missed his header, allowing Barnes to have a free header. Fortunately, the Burnley striker missed the target. Mavropanos made the same mistake again in the ninth minute as Barnes connected with a cross from Lowton for a half-volley that Leno palmed away.

   The Clarets had a penalty shout in the 20th when Mavropanos wrestled with Barnes inside the area. Burnley nearly took the lead in the 28th. Wood made a run in behind Mavropanos to chase a long ball from Lowton and hit the base of the post. Burnley then capitalized on a Mavropanos turnover in the 30th to launch a counterattack. Mavropanos’ injury in the 31st was almost a blessing in disguise because there seemed more troubles coming his way. The Greek defender is not yet ready for the Premier League. In his 30-minute performance, Mavropanos made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 0 recovery. There are big question marks about his reading of the game. The club should loan him out in the summer.

Singing the blues in Baku

   Emery replaced Mavropanos with Koscielny in the 34th. The French veteran struggled again in the air, winning only 2 of 7 duels. Koscielny had an injury scare in the 50th when Wood shoved him into the advertising hoardings. That was similar to Arnautovic’s dangerous shove that led to Debuchy’s shoulder injury. Yet, the referee didn’t award any foul. There were other examples of leniency from the referee, who ignored Westwood’s shove on Guendouzi in the eighth minute even though the ball was already gone. And Hendrick was not even booked for pulling back Willock in the 61st.  

   The Gunners only have one game left to play this season: a Europa League final against Chelsea in Azerbaijan. It would definitely be a successful season if they manage to lift the trophy. The Gunners are in good hands since Emery is the most successful manager in that competition. I assume Emery will plan the training sessions so that the players hit peak form on May 29.

 

 

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Leicester vs. Arsenal: Top 4 hopes in tatters as Gunners self-destruct

   The Top 4 race is virtually over for the Gunners after they suffered a third straight defeat on Sunday, losing 3-0 at Leicester. In hindsight, the home loss to Crystal Palace has been the turning point in Arsenal’s Premier League campaign. The Gunners would still have their fate in their hands if they had beaten the Eagles.

Leicester vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal Women have been the only ray of light at the club this season. The ladies clinched the Super League title on Sunday by winning 4-0 at Brighton. That’s quite a contrast with the lads, who are miles away from contending. The Gunners trail Manchester City by 26 points and Liverpool by 25 points. There’s a massive rebuilding job required this summer, not even to turn Arsenal into a contender, but simply to have a shot at a Top 4 finish next season.

   A quick look at the standings tells you where the priority should be. The Gunners have scored 69 goals and conceded 49 goals in 36 Premier League games under Emery. The most depressing part is that they are actually overperforming, both defensively and offensively. Arsenal should have scored only 59.56 goals and conceded 53.66 goals, according to understat.com.

   Those are worse stats than under Wenger. The Gunners scored 74 goals and conceded 51 goals in 38 Premier League games last season. The irony is that they were slightly underperforming then, according to understat.com, calculating that Arsenal should have scored 72.27 goals and conceded 48.75 goals. As long as the club doesn’t fix those defensive issues, the Gunners will still be closer to 6th place than 2nd.

Down to 10 men

   Emery made 3 changes to the side that lost at Wolverhampton with Kolasinac, Mustafi and Aubameyang replacing Monreal, Koscielny and Ozil in the starting lineup. Surprisingly, the Spanish manager opted for an attacking 4-4-2 formation with Aubameyang and Lacazette up front, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings, and Xhaka and Torreira in central midfield.  

   Leicester outplayed the Gunners with 67% of ball possession and 12 shots on target to 1 for the visitors. If you think the scoreline was harsh, keep in mind that Leno was Arsenal’s best player and made 9 saves. The Arsenal midfield looked completely spineless without Ramsey. Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi are not link players like Ramsey and don’t have his impact in the final third.

   The Foxes dominated the game because they had an extra man in midfield. So it was up to Lacazette or Aubameyang to drop off and help Xhaka and Torreira. Or maybe Emery should have tweaked his system by playing Mkhitaryan in the hole and Aubameyang on the right wing.

   The Gunners had reasonable hopes of earning a point until Maitland-Niles’ sending off for a second yellow card in the 36th minute. I thought the first yellow card in the eighth minute was a bit harsh. Maitland-Niles definitely made a foul when he collided with Chilwell. The problem was the referee’s interpretation. The referee certainly thought that the Arsenal rightback made no genuine attempt to play the ball and only wanted to kill a dangerous counterattack. If we give Maitland-Niles the benefit of the doubt, maybe he miscalculated the angle of his run.

   The second yellow card was not controversial in itself. Maitland-Niles lost his footing after his first touch and made a late challenge on Maddison while trying to win the ball back. That’s a booking in any game. The referee showed his consistency by booking Ndidi in the 13th and Pereira in the 63rd for similar fouls. Maitland-Niles thought his ejection was harsh because he only made 2 fouls. Somehow, his inexperience cost his team on Sunday, because a Sagna or a Monreal would have been more careful.

Koscielny’s twilight

After Maitland-Niles’ ejection, Mkhitaryan played as a rightback until halftime. Emery replaced Iwobi with Koscielny before the start of the second half, moving Mustafi to the rightback position. Leicester finally opened the scoring in the 59th when Tielemans made a deep run to nod Maddison’s cross into the bottom corner. Torreira failed to close down Maddison on that play while Koscielny couldn’t climb high enough to clear the cross. That goal forced Emery to add more density in midfield by sending on Guendouzi for Mkhitaryan in the 73rd.

The Foxes doubled the lead with a direct ball from Schmeichel to Vardy in the 86th. Koscielny missed his interception while Sokratis lost the foot race with Vardy, who hit the bar with his lob. However, Vardy pounced on the rebound to head home. The Gunners gave up in the last minute of stoppage time, making Pereira look like Maradona. The Leicester rightback ran past Guendouzi, Kolasinac and Koscielny to set up Vardy for a tap-in.

Koscielny was the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense in the past few seasons, but he has lost a step physically. There were moments on Sunday when Koscielny really looked sluggish. He was dribbled past twice, tied with Lacazette and Guendouzi for the most by an Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. So Koscielny is relying on his reading of the game to compensate. The French centerback won a crucial tackle to prevent Vardy from shooting in the 57th and intercepted a through ball for Vardy in the 61st. In his 50-minute cameo, Koscielny even managed to make more interceptions (2) and recoveries (7) than Sokratis and Mustafi combined (2 interceptions and 6 recoveries), according to the club’s website. The desire is still there but the physical ability is waning.

The offside trap that didn’t work

The Arsenal defense was wary of Vardy’s pace, especially since Emery wanted to play a high defensive line. The first warning came in the seventh minute when the Gunners struggled to defend a set piece. Evans met Chilwell’s free kick for a header that Leno saved. On that play, Mustafi played Evans onside while Sokratis failed to mark the Leicester centerback. Mustafi played Vardy onside again in the 27th. Maddison took Vardy’s pass to test Leno with an angled strike. Five minutes later, Vardy beat the offside trap with a run in behind Sokratis. The England international chased a long ball from Albrighton to send a lob over the bar. What worked so well against Napoli failed against Leicester. Vardy also beat the offside trap in the 42nd, running past Mustafi to fire a shot that Leno turned around the post.

Mustafi didn’t produce a disastrous performance like against Crystal Palace but he looked shaky at times. He dived in and gave away a cheap free kick in the second minute. Then Mustafi collided with Leno in the 14th for what should have been a routine catch for the German goalkeeper. Under pressure, Mustafi’s passing accuracy dipped to 50%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis barely did better with a passing accuracy of 53.9%. Koscielny, who only played in the second half when the Gunners were down to 10 men, showed his cool with a passing accuracy of 82.6%.

Sokratis lost a couple of key duels that led to scoring chances for Leicester. The Greek defender was pulled out of position by Vardy in the 24th and missed his tackle. The ball fell to Maddison who hit a tame shot straight at Leno. Four minutes later, Ndidi outjumped Sokratis to meet a corner for a header that Leno palmed away. In stoppage time, Barnes evaded a tackle from Sokratis to bear down on goal but was denied by Leno.

The card collector

The icing on the cake was Sokratis’ 11th yellow card in the Premier League for an obstruction on Maddison in the 64th. Only two players have collected more yellow cards in the league this season than Sokratis: Capoue (13) and Holebas (12), who both play for Watford. That may not sound like a lot but Sokratis has only made 24 Premier League appearances compared to 32 for Capoue. Obviously, Sokratis leads Arsenal players for yellow cards, followed by Xhaka (9) and Mustafi (8). To put those numbers in context, Fabinho leads Liverpool players with 6 yellow cards while the Manchester City player with the most yellow cards is Fernandinho with 5.

On the flanks, Kolasinac worked hard, leading Arsenal players with 9 recoveries while also winning 1 of 4 tackles and making 1 interception, according to the club’s website. However, Kolasinac let Albrighton have too much influence on the game as the Leicester midfielder made 5 crosses and had 3 key passes. Signing a leftback should be a priority this summer since the Gunners have struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank in the past few seasons. On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles paid for his inexperience. Some fans don’t like him at rightback but I’d rather play him in that position next season than extend Lichtsteiner’s contract or hire a new rightback.

In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka looked pedestrians. They worked their socks off but were no match for the Foxes. Xhaka made 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries while Torreira made 3 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. Leicester ballwinner Ndidi beat those stats with 5 tackles, 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries in the first 45 minutes before Rodgers replaced him with the more attacking Barnes at halftime.

Iwobi missing a big chance

Torreira is nowhere near the level he showed in the first half of the season. Is Torreira playing hurt or is it a case of physical burnout? Signing a defensive midfielder should be a priority for the club this summer. Xhaka lacks the mobility for the job. He gave away a free kick by holding Maddison in the seventh minute and fouled Ndidi to stop a counterattack on the stroke of halftime. The Switzerland international was also late a couple of times to block shots from the edge of the box.

Emery relied on Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to feed Lacazette and Aubameyang. The two attacking midfielders were in search of redemption after their poor performance against Wolverhampton. Yet, Mkhitaryan made 0 key pass and showed some poor work-rate with 0 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 4 recoveries in 72 minutes. He failed to close down Chilwell in the 14th as the Leicester leftback made a dangerous cross. Chilwell had enough freedom to finish the game with 3 crosses and 3 key passes. Iwobi’s work-rate was even worse than Mkhitaryan’s with only 1 interception and 1 recovery in his 45-minute cameo. At least, Iwobi had an impact in the final third with 1 key pass and 1 shot on target.

It could have been a different story if Iwobi had converted Arsenal’s only big chance of the game in the 35th. Hitting Leicester on the fast break, Aubameyang played Iwobi clean through on goal. From 10 yards, Iwobi mustered a tame effort straight at Schmeichel. In that kind of situation, you can bet that Ramsey would have scored. Iwobi clearly hasn’t worked on his finishing. He still has that tendency to shoot toward the middle of the net instead of aiming at the corners. Emery should introduce more competition for the winger positions next season, especially since Nelson, Nketiah, Saka and Smith-Rowe have better finishing skills than Iwobi.

Walking a tightrope

That wasn’t a game for Arsenal strikers. Starved of service, Aubameyang took 0 shot despite contributing offensively with 2 key passes. Lacazette led the line but missed the target with his 3 goal attempts. His best chance came in the 23rd when Iwobi made a cross from the left flank. From 12 yards, Lacazette volleyed wide with his right foot. He would have had a better chance of catching the frame with his weaker left foot.

Sunday’s game also highlighted the main weakness of the Arsenal frontline: they don’t have a target man. Leicester centerbacks were dominant in the air with Maguire winning 5 of 6 aerial duels and Evans winning 5 of 8, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win only 2 of 11 headers. Lacazette also led all players with 5 turnovers. The few times the Gunners tried to relieve the pressure with long balls, Aubameyang and Lacazette simply couldn’t beat Maguire and Evans in the air.

Mathematically, the Gunners are still in the Top 4 race. But on current form, it’s hard to see how Arsenal could get more than 4 points from their last two games against Brighton and Burnley. Even if we assume that the Gunners finish the season with 70 points, Chelsea would just need a win against either Watford or Leicester to pip them to the post. And Manchester United could also leapfrog Arsenal with 6 points from their last two games against Huddersfield and Cardiff.

The Leicester game gave the impression that the players have prioritized the Europa League over a Top 4 finish. It wouldn’t be something new. Arsenal did the same last season under Wenger. The Gunners will next play Valencia in the Europa League on Thursday and Brighton in the Premier League on Sunday. The players are walking a tightrope. Another defeat could bring back the toxic atmosphere under Wenger. Are they still fit to wear the shirt?

 

 

Wolverhampton vs. Arsenal: Top 4 finish out of Gunners’ hands after 3-1 loss

  The Gunners produced their worst performance of the season on Wednesday, conceding 3 goals in the first half of a 3-1 defeat at Wolverhampton. After the embarrassing loss to Crystal Palace last weekend, Arsenal found a way to sink even further as a Top 4 finish is now out of their hands. The Gunners trail Tottenham by 4 points and Chelsea by 1 point with just 3 rounds left in the Premier League.

Wolves vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   The clean sheets against Napoli and Watford gave the impression that Arsenal had fixed their defensive problems. But the 6 goals conceded in the last two games show that the Gunners have been struggling for consistency since December and the end of their 22-game unbeaten run.

   In his post-match news conference, Emery made one telling admission. He said: “We didn’t do the game plan like I wanted.” At the start of the season, Emery wanted his team to play out from the back and press high up the pitch. That style of football requires a lot of movement and energy. I think Emery is just finding out how physically demanding the Premier League can be.

   Klopp also learned his lesson in his first season at Liverpool. Because the Reds were inconsistent at that time, Klopp understood that he couldn’t implement gegenpressing in every game and therefore needed to play in a more economical way when his players were jaded. The Reds are not pressing frantically in every game this season because they can rely on Salah, Mane and Firmino to score goals and they have improved their defense by signing Van Dijk and Alisson.

Poor final ball

   At Molineux stadium, the Gunners seemed to be running out of gas even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that lost to Crystal Palace with only Lacazette, Ozil, Koscielny and Leno retaining their starting spots. Were the players unconsciously prioritizing the Europa League over a Top 4 spot in the Premier League?

   Offensively, Arsenal enjoyed 70% of sterile possession with only 1 shot on target compared to 3 for the hosts. In fact, Rui Patricio had no save to make until the last 15 minutes. Ramsey’s absence was badly felt in the final third where the lack of movement played into the hands of the Wolverhampton defense. It’s hard to see how Arsenal could win on the road without Ramsey. The Gunners also lacked penetration because they have no dribbler who can slalom past defenders in a tiny space. Liverpool and Manchester City can beat teams parking the bus because they have dribblers like Salah, Mane, Sterling, Sane and Bernardo Silva.

   Arsenal tried to stretch the Wolverhampton defense with combination play on the wings but it didn’t really click between Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles on the right flank. The Gunners managed to find an opening on the left flank in the 17th minute when Monreal played a one-two with Iwobi but Doherty cynically pulled the Spaniard back on the edge of the box.

   The few times Arsenal had some good situations, the final ball simply lacked accuracy. Mkhitaryan delivered a poor final ball in the eighth minute, Ozil’s cross for Monreal went out of play in the 39th, Iwobi played the ball behind Mkhitaryan in the 40th, and Ozil missed his pass to Lacazette in the 70th.

Wengerian frailties

   Wolves showed more commitment, winning 15 of 25 tackles and making 20 interceptions while Arsenal only won 6 of 13 tackles and made 4 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. The hosts also exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on set pieces and counterattacks -defensive frailties belonging to the Wenger era.

   The first warning came in the 25th. An unmarked Boly redirected Bennett’s throw toward Jimenez, who flicked the ball over the bar. Three minutes later, Monreal gave away a dangerous free kick with a cynical foul on Jonny. Neves curled the subsequent set piece into the bottom corner to give Wolves the lead. The players in the wall failed to do their job: they turned their backs instead of attempting to block the shot.

   Wolverhampton’s second goal was even more comical. Playing a short corner in the 37th, Moutinho swapped passes with Jonny as only Torreira tried to close them down. When Ozil finally decided to run toward Jonny, it was already too late. Doherty met Jonny’s cross to head home for a 2-0 lead. Leno was harshly credited with an error for trying to claim the ball. Because Doherty had a free header from 7 yards, Leno had almost no chance of making a save by staying on his line. That’s how Benteke scored for Crystal Palace a few days ago. In my eyes, it would have been an error if an Arsenal defender still had a chance to beat Doherty in the air, but that wasn’t the case. The real issue on that play was Sokratis’ decision-making. The Greek centerback stood 2 yards behind his teammates and played Doherty onside.

   The hosts also caused damage on the counterattack. Jota outpaced Xhaka in the 26th to feed Jonny, whose leg was clipped by Monreal. Four minutes later, Xhaka failed to close down Jonny, who played Jimenez in. From a tight angle, the Wolves striker fired over the bar. On those two plays, Xhaka was too sluggish to break the counterattack while Torreira was stranded up the pitch. Xhaka made the blunder that led to the third goal on the stroke of halftime. He gave the ball away to Jota, who treated Sokratis like a vulgar training cone before firing a low diagonal strike past Leno. Sokratis should have either made a tackle ot stayed with Jota.

Overrun in midfield

   The Arsenal defense was again carved wide open in the second half. Dendoncker blocked Xhaka’s pass and ran past the Switzerland international to take Doherty’s return pass before releasing Jimenez down our left flank in the 55th. Jimenez wasted the scoring chance by overhitting his cross for Jota. In the hope of stopping Wolverhampton’s counterattacking threat, Emery shifted to a back three in the 58th by replacing Torreira and Mkhitaryan with Guendouzi and Kolasinac. That did not prevent Wolves from hitting Arsenal on the fast break in the 68th. Jonny picked out an unmarked Jimenez, who missed the target.

   All these counterattacks clearly show that the Gunners were overrun in midfield. First, the work-rate of the Arsenal midfielders was not good enough. Neves, Moutinho and Dendoncker combined for 32 defensive actions while Xhaka, Torreira, Guendouzi and Ozil only combined for 21 defensive actions. Wolverhampton basically played with one extra man in midfield. Here are the stats for each midfielder according to the club’s website:

  • Neves: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Moutinho: won 4 of 4 tackles, 3 blocks, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Dendoncker: made 1 interception, 8 recoveries.
  • Xhaka: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 block, 3 recoveries.
  • Torreira (57 minutes): made 1 interception, 7 recoveries.
  • Guendouzi (37 minutes): made 3 recoveries.
  • Ozil: made 4 recoveries.

   The second reason for the Gunners’ inability to stop counterattacks was Emery’s tactical configuration in midfield. Xhaka played as the holding midfielder while Torreira was in a more advanced position as a box-to-box player. It’s just as flawed as Sarri’s decision to play Jorginho behind Kante at Chelsea. If you are a rational manager, you want your best defensive midfielder to shield the defense and break up plays, not a sluggish deep-lying playmaker.

Mental block on the road

   Xhaka lacks defensive awareness. He was completely out of position in the 21st when Dendoncker controlled a long ball from Neves to find Doherty on our left flank. Doherty set up Moutinho, who curled a shot wide. And more importantly, Xhaka simply lacks the mobility necessary for the No. 6 role. Jota too easily ran past Xhaka in the 31st before Koscielny blocked his run on the edge of the box. We saw how vulnerable the Arsenal defense was when Arteta played as the holding midfielder. Emery shouldn’t be making the same mistake by relying on Xhaka for defensive duties.  

   Torreira has struggled for form since December. On Wednesday, he lost 50-50 balls that he would have won in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder made a late challenge on Moutinho in the second minute, received a yellow card in the 45th for a two-footed lunge on Neves, and led all players with 3 fouls. At 23, Torreira is still a young player who can improve his reading of the game. He should have played in a deeper position to help out Xhaka in midfield.  

   Emery trusted Ozil in an away game and the move backfired. Ozil was ineffective in the final third and untidy in possession, leading all players with 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. Pundits and fans often talk about Arsenal’s mental block on the road, and Ozil is the player who embodies that issue. Emery also relied on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi to feed Lacazette. Their work-rate was even poorer that Ozil’s. Mkhitaryan only made 1 recovery in 57 minutes and Iwobi barely did better with 2 recoveries in 70 minutes. Looking at the big picture, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi have one thing in common: they have been inconsistent this season, very far from the standards set by attacking midfielders like Silva and Eriksen. Emery replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 71st. The academy player showed more desire and end product than the anonymous Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.    

Don’t leave Lacazette on his own

   Up front, Lacazette showed again why he’s not a centerforward, but a second striker. The France international feels much more comfortable when he can make runs off Aubameyang, who was not in the squad because of a sinus procedure. On Wednesday, Lacazette led the line on his own and spent most of his time dropping back and running away from goal. That obviously made Ozil’s job more difficult because the German playmaker loves having a target in front of him like a quarterback with a receiver.

   Sokratis hit a long ball for Lacazette in the 14th, but Lacazette doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace and the ball bounced out of play. Lacazette doesn’t have Giroud’s strong hold-up play either. Back to goal, Lacazette took passes in the 22nd and 48th and lost possession. Lacazette’s performance improved when Emery sent on Nketiah in the 71st. Nketiah got the better of Boly in the 73rd and made a cross for Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Bennett. Then Guendouzi won possession in the 79th and fed Lacazette, who had another effort blocked. In the end, Arsenal’s consolation goal came from a set piece in the 80th. Sokratis outjumped Neves and Jonny at the far post to head in a corner.  

   The Gunners next visit Leicester on Sunday. They should expect the same kind of treatment since the Foxes perform well against the top clubs and capitalize on counterattacking opportunities. A defeat could virtually end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes if the Blues win at Old Trafford.

 

Watford vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang leads Gunners into 4th

   The Gunners earned their first clean sheet in a Premier League away game this season by edging Watford 1-0 on Monday. They moved into 4th place, one point behind Spurs in the standings. Despite enjoying 66% of ball possession and having 19 shots to 11 for the hosts, it was an ugly win for Arsenal. The Hornets had the best chances even though they were down to 10 men by the 11th minute.

Watford vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Sometimes, a manager has to make unpopular choices. Some fans didn’t like Emery’s team selection or his substitutions at Vicarage Road. But Emery simply gave the priority to his players’ fitness by managing their playing time. The Watford match was the first of 4 games in a 10-day span, which means that the Gunners will only have 2 days of rest before each of the next 3 games. Basically, it’s just as bad as the congested list of fixtures during the Christmas period.  

   Emery rested some of his key players. Kolasinac and Lacazette stayed on the bench, Torreira and Ramsey were replaced in the second half, and Maitland-Niles only played the last 25 minutes. The Spanish manager also took a gamble by starting Mavropanos at centerback while moving Mustafi to the rightback position.

   Two moments decided the game. Janmaat made a backpass toward Foster in the 10th. The Watford goalkeeper controlled the ball with his first touch before attempting a clearance with his second touch. But Aubameyang sprinted like a black panther to make the block. The ball ricocheted off Aubameyang’s leg to bounce into the net. And just a minute after Aubameyang opened the scoring, Deeney was sent off for swinging an elbow into Torreira’s face. The referee initially failed to spot the foul, but the linesman had a good view of the incident and told the referee.

Losing control of the midfield

   Down to 10 men, the Hornets had to change their plans. Watford started the game by pressing high up the pitch to force turnovers. Under Gray’s pressure, Leno even had to kick the ball into touch by the second minute. But Deeney’s ejection made that high press impossible. It also deprived the Hornets of a tactical option. Deeney can be a handful in the air. His absence meant that Watford no longer had a physical striker to attack crosses. Mavropanos and Koscielny were involved in only one aerial duel.

   In the first half, the Hornets could only threaten on long balls and set pieces. Arsenal somehow lost control of the midfield in the second half and Watford became more dangerous with short passes. Emery’s substitutions obviously contributed to that loss of momentum. At halftime, Emery sent on Ozil for Torreira while moving Ramsey to a deeper position alongside Xhaka. The Spanish manager certainly wanted to inject more creativity into his team. On paper, that move made sense since the Hornets were playing with 9 men behind the ball. On the pitch, the Gunners lost Torreira’s work-rate in midfield.

   To take back control of the midfield, Emery replaced Mavropanos with Guendouzi in the 59th, shifting from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 system with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan in the wingback positions while Ramsey and Ozil played behind Aubameyang in the front three. However, the Hornets targeted Mkhitaryan, forcing Emery to revert to a back four by replacing Ramsey with Maitland-Niles in the 68th. That last change wasn’t enough to stifle the hosts, who had 2 chances in the closing minutes to level.

Aubameyang’s 18th league goal this season

   Aubameyang worked his socks off to notch his 18th league goal this season, just one unit behind Aguero and Salah. The Gabon striker made 2 sprints within a few seconds to close down Janmaat and Foster in the 10th. He could have doubled the lead in the second half but lacked that bit of luck. In the 53rd, Iwobi crossed the ball to the far post where Aubameyang couldn’t make contact with the ball despite a desperate slide. Then Aubameyang managed to meet a teasing cross from Mkhitaryan in the 74th but his sliding effort sailed wide. In the closing minutes, Aubameyang took a pass from Iwobi and ran into the box only to miss the target from a tight angle.

There’s more pressure on Aubameyang to score when he plays alongside Iwobi and Mkhitaryan because their scoring ability is average. Mkhitaryan and Iwobi have found the net only 6 and 3 times respectively in the Premier League this season. On the bright side, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan participate more in the build-up than Lacazette. Iwobi led all players with 7 key passes, including a smart cross for Mhkitaryan, whose close-range volley was saved by Foster in the 57th. The Nigeria international also had a shot tipped over the bar in the 26th. I felt Iwobi didn’t make the best choice on that play by ignoring Ramsey’s run in behind. Defensive awareness is still an issue for Iwobi, who failed to track Janmaat a couple of times. Janmaat had plenty of time to make a pinpoint cross for Hugues in the 83rd. Hugues headed the ball over the bar only because Mkhitaryan put him off.  

   Playing behind Aubameyang, Ramsey had very little impact on the game despite 2 key passes. The Wales midfielder started the second half in a deeper position, letting Ozil take over the playmaking duties. I thought it was a wise decision from Emery to rest Ramsey by yanking him off in the 68th. Ramsey has a poor injury record when playing too many games. If the club wants to finish in the Top 4 or win the Europa League, they simply can’t afford to lose Ramsey at this stage of the season.

Mavropanos’ 1st start of the season

   In midfield, Xhaka made his return from a groin injury. The Switzerland international was not yet up to speed. He won only 28.6% of his duels and made 0 tackle, 0 interception and just 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Despite his relative lack of match fitness, Xhaka played the full 90 minutes, teaming up with Torreira in the first half and then Ramsey and Guendouzi in the second half. That tells you how important Xhaka is in Emery’s plans. I still think it’s too risky to rely on Xhaka as a holding midfielder because he lacks mobility and is not a natural ballwinner. He was dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com, and his missed header in the 20th led to Watford’s best scoring chance.

   Torreira’s form has dipped since the end of December but there are signs that he could finish the season strong. The Uruguay midfielder made 1 block, 1 interception and 10 recoveries despite playing just 45 minutes. In fact, only Capoue managed to make more recoveries than Torreira during the whole game. When Torreira is at the top of his game, you usually see him win the 50-50 balls. That’s what happened in the 22nd when Doucoure was a split second late and ended up fouling Torreira. However, a lapse of concentration nearly cost his team in the 30th. Torreira gifted a dangerous free kick after giving the ball away to Hugues.    

   At the back, Mavropanos sometimes looked out of his depth. He showed his naivety in the 24th by diving in. Gray bullied Mavropanos to chase a ball over the top and cut it back for Doucoure. It took a clearance from Monreal to prevent a tap-in from Doucoure. The Greek defender also misread a long ball in the 55th, allowing Hugues to skip past him and cut inside. At 21, Mavropanos is still a raw player, quite hesitant in his positioning and decision-making. He definitely needs more playing time to develop. A loan to a Championship side next season would make sense.

Season on the line

   The more seasoned Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi showed more calmness than Mavropanos. Monreal had the best work-rate of the Arsenal defenders with 2 tackles, 1 interception and 9 recoveries, compared to 1 tackle, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 5 recoveries for Koscielny and 2 tackles, 4 interceptions and 3 recoveries for Mustafi.

   Starting in the rightback position, Mustafi produced a mixed performance. He led all players by winning 7 aerial duels, but his passing accuracy of 77.6% was relatively low compared to the other defenders (96.5% for Koscielny, 95.8% for Mavropanos, and 85.3% for Monreal). Mustafi also made a couple of mistakes that put his team in trouble. The German defender dallied on the ball and lost possession in the 34th, then missed his interception in the 64th and shoved Success from behind for a silly free kick in the 79th.

   Maitland-Niles took over the rightback spot in the 68th and made a crucial sliding block in the 80th to prevent Gray from scoring into an empty net. Leno forced Gray to round him on that play. The German goalkeeper protected Arsenal’s lead in the first half with two big saves, denying Cathcart in the 20th and turning Capoue’s free kick around the post in the 32nd. When Masina unleashed a long-range strike in the 62nd, Leno seemed beaten but the bar saved him.

   The Gunners next visit Napoli in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Sunday. Arsenal can afford a loss against the Italian side while a victory over the Eagles is a necessity to finish in the Top 4. I expect some heavy rotation between the two games since Napoli will probably dominate possession and therefore force the Gunners to run after the ball.

 

Arsenal vs. Newcastle: Ramsey, Lacazette help Gunners move into 3rd

   The Gunners have never been this close to a Top 4 finish this season. They defeated Newcastle 2-0 on Monday to leapfrog Tottenham into third place in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Deprived of Koscielny, Xhaka and Torreira either through injury or suspension, Emery relied on a 3-4-3 system to get the better of some well-drilled Magpies. Emery has put the emphasis on improving Arsenal’s defensive record lately. From the moment Guendouzi started in the holding midfielder role, playing a back three was the only reasonable option. Some fans were surprised to see Aubameyang on the bench, but the Magpies’ 5-4-1 formation meant that the Gunners had to stretch the Newcastle defense by using the whole width of the pitch. Iwobi got the nod on the left flank because of his understanding with Kolasinac. If Emery had played Ozil in the No. 10 role behind Lacazette and Aubameyang, it would have been a narrow formation playing into the hands of Benitez’s negative approach.

   Despite enjoying 71% of ball possession, Arsenal created very few chances with only 7 goal attempts. But you just need one moment of magic to find the net. That’s why individual quality will always matter in the final third. As Lacazette went on a dribbling run in the 30th minute, the ball ricocheted off a defender to fall into the path of Ramsey, who fired a low drive inside the far post with a first-time effort from 16 yards. Ramsey only had a split second to make a decision. He could have made a pass to Kolasinac to his left or Ozil to his right. But Ramsey recognized a good opportunity and shot with his weaker left foot. Most players would have shifted the ball to their stronger foot, and the chance would have been gone.

Ramsey’s work-rate

   Ramsey should have opened the scoring in the 13th when he side-footed home a corner flicked on by Kolasinac. But his goal was disallowed for a foul from Sokratis on Lejeune. The Wales midfielder felt cramps in the second half and was replaced by Elneny. It won’t be easy to find a replacement for Ramsey next season. He has notched 4 goals and 6 assists in 26 Premier League games this season. There aren’t many central midfielders with that kind of impact in the final third. The Gunners will also miss his work-rate and his team spirit. Although Ramsey only played 66 minutes on Monday, he still led all players with 12 recoveries. The only blemish in his performance was his 6 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com.

   The Gunners doubled the lead in the 83rd when Lacazette combined with Aubameyang to lob Dubravka. Lacazette already has 13 goals and 7 assists in 30 league games this season, an improvement on his stats from last season when he notched 14 goals and 4 assists in 32 league games. He could have scored on the stroke of halftime, but Ritchie cleared Lacazette’s strike off the line. The referee also disallowed a goal in the 86th as Lacazette made contact with Dubravka’s arm to head in a corner. Lacazette produced an outstanding performance with 2 of 2 shots on target and 2 key passes, tied with Ozil for the most by any player.

   Although Emery trusted Lacazette to lead the line, I still feel that he’s more a second striker than a centerforward. To make up for his average pace and lack of physicality, Lacazette plays like a false nine. Obviously, Lacazette is not a target man like Giroud. He only won 1 of 4 aerial duels against Newcastle. But Lacazette doesn’t make the penetrative runs of a Henry or Van Persie either. One play in the 21st summed up my reservations about Lacazette as a centerforward. Lacazette preferred to stay near the penalty spot instead of making a run toward the near post where he could have met Ramsey’s low cross. That’s the kind of run that Giroud would have definitely made. I believe Lacazette is more efficient when he plays alongside another striker. It’s no coincidence that Lacazette scored after Aubameyang came off the bench in the 61st. 

A transformed Ozil

   Ozil and Iwobi started alongside Lacazette in the front three. Talent has never been an issue for Ozil, who was named ‘Man of the Match’. We all know that Ozil is the most gifted player in the Arsenal squad. The German playmaker showed glimpses of his brilliance on 3 plays. He swapped passes with Iwobi to create a half-chance in the 40th, let a pass from Kolasinac reach Lacazette with a dummy in the 55th, and slipped a through ball to Aubameyang for a scoring chance in the 73rd. Yet, the most stunning part of Ozil’s performance was his 11 recoveries, according to the club’s website. By improving Ozil’s work-rate, Emery could be succeeding where Wenger failed. Can Ozil be consistent in his defensive contributions like a Silva and an Eriksen are?

   By contrast, Iwobi had a poor game with no end product (0 shot, 0 key pass) and a mediocre work-rate (0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block, 1 recovery). Improving options on the left wing should be a priority for the club next season. At 22, Iwobi still has room for development. However, his reading of the game is not good enough to deserve a starting spot in a Top 4 team. Assuming Welbeck leaves the club in the summer, Emery should let Nelson compete with Iwobi for the starting spot on the left wing since Mkhitaryan and Ozil both prefer to play on the right wing.

   Aubameyang replaced Iwobi in the 61st as the Gunners switched to a 3-5-2 formation with Ozil in the hole behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. The Gabon striker made a telling impact in his 30-minute cameo with 1 assist and 1 of 1 shot on target. Lacazette combined with Aubameyang down the middle for the final goal in what looked like a narrow play. Yet, Lacazette and Aubameyang are smart enough in their positional play to exploit the width of the pitch. They can make runs into the half-space or one of them can turn into a winger. Aubameyang charged down the right flank in the 68th to make a low cross for Lacazette that Dubravka intercepted.

A shaky Mustafi

   Emery has put so much trust in Guendouzi that Elneny has only made 5 Premier League appearances this season compared to 26 for the French teenager. There are mainly two reasons why Guendouzi got the nod over the more experienced Elneny against Newcastle: he wins more duels and is more creative than Elneny. Defensively, Guendouzi won 1 of 1 tackle and made 9 recoveries. Offensively, he had a passing accuracy of 92.6% and led all players with 94 passes, according to whoscored.com. Guendouzi is still far from the finished product. He had 5 turnovers, which is too much for a holding midfielder, and could have released the ball more quickly quite a few times. It would make sense to sell Elneny this summer in order to sign a box-to-box player.

   On the left flank, Kolasinac lacked accuracy in his final ball for Ozil in the 40th and Ramsey in the 45th. Kolasinac somehow made amends by creating that golden chance for Lacazette on the stroke of halftime. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international picked up a silly yellow card in the 72nd for dissent. On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles was mostly focused on his defensive duties. He made 2 tackles, 1 interception and 6 recoveries compared to just 4 recoveries for Kolasinac, according to the club’s website. Maitland-Niles’ only significant offensive contribution came in the 86th when he made a teasing cross for Aubameyang, who couldn’t make contact with the ball.  

   At the back, Sokratis acted like a sweeper while Mustafi and Monreal had more pro-active roles. Sokratis lost a key duel in the 31st as Rondon bullied the Greek defender to win a long ball before testing Leno with a low strike. The Arsenal defense lacked protection in the 42nd when the Magpies created a 2v2 situation on the fast break. Sokratis ended the threat by blocking Almiron’s pass to Rondon. Monreal was reliable defensively despite receiving a yellow card in the 59th for a studs-up challenge. The Spaniard won 2 of 3 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 9 recoveries. Mustafi worked hard too, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 5 interceptions and 6 recoveries, but he was more shaky than Monreal, giving the ball away a couple of times and attempting risky passes on the edge of the area. Leno had to rush off his line in the 47th to gather the ball after Mustafi was caught in possession.  

   The Gunners next visit Everton on Sunday. They will need to show good defensive discipline if they want to get a result at Goodison Park. Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes will depend on their away form. Their run-in includes 5 away games (Everton, Watford, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Burnley), more than any of the Top 4 contenders.

 

 

Arsenal vs. Manchester United: Gunners ride their luck in 2-0 win

   The Gunners showed a lot of steel and resilience in their 2-0 win over Manchester United to move into fourth place in the Premier League on Sunday. While Manchester City and Liverpool are contending for the title, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United are fighting for the two remaining Champions League spots. The Gunners are 1 point behind Spurs, but 2 points clear of the Red Devils and 3 points ahead of the Blues, who have a game in hand.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   With 60 points from 30 games, the Gunners have 12 more points than last season. There are two main reasons for that difference. Under Wenger, Arsenal had mediocre results against the Top 6 clubs and suffered from a poor away form. The Gunners have won 12 points against the Big Six under Emery (4 points vs. Spurs, 4 points vs. Manchester United, 3 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City), whereas they only earned 6 points last season (3 points vs. Spurs, 0 point vs. Manchester United, 2 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City).

   The Gunners are on course to finish the season with 76 points. I believe Arsenal must reach that target to have a good shot at a Top 4 finish. Liverpool secured fourth place with 76 points in 2017 and 75 points in 2018. You may point out that Manchester City finished fourth with only 66 points under Pellegrini in 2016, but that was a different era. The arrivals of Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have made the Premier League much more competitive.

Emery trusting Ramsey in central midfield

   If you take a look at the graph below, you can see that Arsenal lost some momentum in December after dropping points against Southampton, Brighton and Liverpool. By collecting 13 points from their last 5 league games, the Gunners have managed to increase their cruising speed to 2.0 points per game, which is the required average to finish with 76 points.

Arsenal tally comparison 2019Comparing Arsenal’s 2017-18 season and the current season

 

   Arsenal won’t face any Top 6 club in their run-in but their schedule is no gimme. They have home games against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Brighton and away games against Wolverhampton, Everton, Watford, Leicester and Burnley. If we assume that the Gunners will win their home games and draw their away games, they would still be 2 points short of the 76-point target. It means that one away win would be necessary to reach 76 points.

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that was defeated in Rennes with Lacazette, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac and Leno replacing Iwobi, Torreira, Mkhitaryan, Mustafi and Cech in the starting lineup. Torreira was serving a three-match ban while Mkhitaryan was sidelined by a back injury. Most fans were not surprised that Emery left Mustafi and Guendouzi on the bench. Mustafi gave away a silly penalty against Spurs while Guendouzi showed a blatant lack of effort against Rennes.

   The only real surprise was to see both Ozil and Ramsey playing in a fluid 3-4-3 formation. It was the first time since the 2-0 win over Watford in September that Ramsey and Ozil started together. Ozil reads the game better than Iwobi, so I guess the plan was to have the German playmaker deliver the final ball to Aubameyang and Lacazette. To a certain extent, the starting lineup had a Wengerian feel with Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield. Emery prefers to deploy Ramsey as a false 10 or as a second striker. But on Sunday the Spanish manager played Ramsey in central midfield for the first time this season.

United’s tactical ploy

   Xhaka opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a swerving shot from 29 yards. Then Aubameyang converted a soft penalty in the 69th after Fred shoved Lacazette from behind. The Gunners really rode their luck because the Red Devils created 5 big chances compared to none for Arsenal if we except the penalty. Emery got a lot of credit from TV pundits after the game but I thought the Arsenal defense looked shaky at times.

   Two of those 5 big chances came from crosses. Shaw played a one-two with Pogba in the ninth minute before making a cross for Lukaku, who hit the bar from close range with a bouncing volley. Maitland-Niles failed to stay with Shaw on that play while Monreal lost his duel with Lukaku at the far post. In stoppage time, Young made a cross for Rashford, who had a free header from 9 yards but sent the ball straight into Leno’s arms. Iwobi failed to close down Young on that play while Maitland-Niles left Rashford unmarked. That vulnerability on crosses is a legacy of the Wenger era that Emery hasn’t fixed yet.

   The Gunners also failed to adjust to the tactical ploy used for the other 3 big chances. Lukaku and Rashford often dropped off to find space between the defense and the midfield. Lukaku hit a ball over the top for Rashford, who shot wide in the 28th. Monreal should have been tight to Lukaku on that play, while Koscielny missed his clearance by attempting a stupid high kick instead of heading the ball away. Lukaku and Rashford swapped roles in the 36th. Rashford slipped a through ball to Lukaku, who was denied by Leno. Sokratis gave Rashford too much time on the ball while Lukaku took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line to make a run between Koscielny and Monreal.

   You would expect the wide centerbacks (Sokratis and Monreal) to understand at halftime the need for pressing Lukaku and Rashford when they drop off. But the same situation happened again in the 51st. Sokratis failed to close down Rashford, who played Lukaku clean through on goal. Leno somehow managed to divert Lukaku’s 9-yard shot over the bar. Monreal made the mistake of trying to play Lukaku offside instead of tracking him.

A streetwise Leno

   Leno was the main reason why Arsenal kept a clean sheet. The German goalkeeper definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. Besides his 4 saves, Leno also sprinted outside the box to intercept a ball over the top for Lukaku in the 47th and quickly came off his line to catch Pogba’s through ball for Rashford in the 65th.

   There were some question marks when Leno joined the club. Why was he not part of Germany’s World Cup squad, knowing that a flawed goalkeeper like Trapp still managed to make the cut? The doubts grew louder when Leno made a couple of errors leading to a goal in the first half of the season. But Leno worked hard to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League. He is now more streetwise in aerial duels.  

   Emery relied on an experienced back three to cope with the threat of Lukaku and Rashford. But Koscielny, Monreal and Sokratis nearly made a mess of it. Despite the fresh memory of his red card against Rennes in the Europa League, Sokratis dived in again and got booked in the 37th for a mistimed challenge on Pogba. Some fans had the jitters when Monreal made a sliding challenge on Lukaku in the 36th. Monreal didn’t win the ball but at least he didn’t bring Lukaku down inside the area either.

   Playing as a sweeper, Koscielny blocked Fred’s shot with his ribs in the 51st. Koscielny was the captain of the team but he didn’t have the leadership skills to sort out the tactical problem created by Lukaku and Rashford when they dropped off to deliver the final ball. Because Arsenal played a relatively high defensive line, it was crucial that Sokratis and Monreal press the United strikers. The Gunners definitely need an organizer at the back who can spot and correct tactical issues without waiting for the manager’s instructions.

Maitland-Niles’ inexperience and desire

   In the wingback position, Emery gave Maitland-Niles the nod over Mustafi. Maitland-Niles’ performance was a mixed bag. I thought he was too easily beaten down the right flank in the first half. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and made some decisive contributions, intercepting Lukaku’s ball over the top in the 17th, breaking up play with a sliding tackle in the 63rd, winning a foot race with Rashford to win the ball back in the 89th, and dispossessing Martial inside the area in the 90th.

   Maitland-Niles still showed his inexperience on the 2 crosses that led to big chances for the Red Devils. Despite those blemishes, Emery might be tempted to trust Maitland-Niles in that position for the rest of the season, especially if he shows the same desire. Maitland-Niles won 2 of 4 tackles and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 interceptions, according to the club’s website.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac was able to attack in the opening minutes, making a teasing cross for Lacazette, who couldn’t make contact with the ball at the near post. But Solskjaer’s tactical tweak in the first half, shifting from a flat 4-4-2 formation to a 3-5-2 system, put Arsenal on the back foot and forced Kolasinac to defend. Kolasinac finished the game with 11 recoveries. Only Fred had more with 12.

   The Gunners bossed the midfield in the opening minutes with Xhaka, Ramsey and Ozil outmuscling Matic and Fred. This led to Solskjaer’s tactical tweak, moving Pogba from a wide position to the No. 10 role to match Arsenal in midfield. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries and led all players with 64 passes, while Ramsey was the more mobile of the 2 central midfielders and showed outstanding work-rate, making 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries and leading all players by winning 3 of 7 tackles, according to the club’s website. The Wales midfielder had even better stats on whoscored.com, winning 7 of 8 tackles. I tend to prefer stats from the Arsenal website, which are more conservative and safer to use.

Limiting Pogba’s influence  

   Wenger always relied on Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield last season. I was wondering why Emery was reluctant to use Ramsey alongside Xhaka and preferred to play him in a more advanced position. That must have been because of Ramsey’s end product in the final third but on Sunday Ramsey showed that he could defend, too. The duo needed to step up because Ozil’s work-rate was poor with just 1 interception and 3 recoveries. Xhaka made a crucial sliding clearance on the stroke of halftime to protect Arsenal’s lead while Ramsey was so focused on his defensive duties that he only had 1 scoring chance. Maitland-Niles cut the ball back for Ramsey, who blazed over the bar in the 22nd.

   The duo did a good job to limit Pogba’s influence. Apparently frustrated, Pogba caught Ramsey’s neck with a high arm in the 54th before getting booked in the 76th for fouling Xhaka. The only time Pogba managed to really pull the strings was in the 65th when Fred dispossessed Ramsey to find Pogba. Free of his minders, Pogba slipped a through ball to Rashford, who lost his duel with Leno. Because Xhaka lacks mobility and Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder, the Gunners allowed some dangerous long-range strikes. Fred hit the post with a 25-yard drive in the 19th while Pogba fired a 30-yard effort straight at Leno in the 26th. Maybe the more mobile Torreira would have been able to block those shots.  

   It wasn’t a game for attacking players. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes but couldn’t create any clear-cut chance. His technical quality still helped Arsenal retain ball possession. Ozil led all starters with a passing accuracy of 91.2%, according to whoscored.com. He also made smart runs to be an easy passing option for his teammates and was unlucky to be flagged offside twice despite being level with the last defender.

Aubameyang’s risky technique for penalties

   Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to have only 1 of 9 shots on target because most of those shots were taken from unfavorable positions. Lacazette had the best half-chance in the 24th, bullying Lindelof to fire a strike from 18 yards that deflected off Smalling for a corner. The French forward lacked a bit of composure in the 71st when Lindelof misjudged the bounce of the ball following a header from Sokratis. Lacazette pounced on the loose ball only to drag his shot wide from 15 yards.

   To his credit, Lacazette won the penalty for the second goal with a penetrative run in the 68th. Lacazette outpaced Fred, who shoved him from behind. Aubameyang was gutsy enough to take the spot kick just a week after missing one against Spurs. The Gabon striker waited for De Gea to dive before rolling the ball into the middle of the net. I’m not a fan of that kind of technique and definitely prefer when the penalty taker hits the corners of the net.  

   Emery’s narrow formation gave Shaw and Young a lot of freedom when Solskjaer shifted to a 4-3-3 system in the 70th with Martial replacing Dalot and then to a 4-4-2 system in the 81st with Greenwood replacing Matic. So the Spanish manager decided to shut up shop by shifting to a 5-4-1 formation with Iwobi replacing Ozil in the 76th and Suarez taking Aubameyang’s spot in the 80th. Iwobi didn’t really help with 5 turnovers in his short cameo. Only Lacazette had more with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Likewise, Suarez was too easily brushed off the ball at times. The Spaniard was dribbled past twice, tied with Xhaka and Maitland-Niles for the most by any Gunner. Suarez has two months and a half to prove his worth, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to sign him.  

   The Gunners next face Rennes in the second leg of their Europa League encounter. They need a victory by at least 2 goals on Thursday to qualify for the quarterfinals. Emery should field his best team since it will be the last game before the international break. He will miss Lacazette and Sokratis through suspension, but the squad is strong enough to cope without those two players.

 

Rennes vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 3-1 loss

   The Gunners are on the verge of elimination in the Europa League after losing 3-1 to Rennes on Thursday in the first leg of their last-16 encounter. They will miss Sokratis and Lacazette for the second leg next week. The Greek defender picked up two yellow cards while Lacazette is still serving a three-game ban.

FBL-EUR-C3-RENNES-ARSENALPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal opened the scoring with a cross-shot from Iwobi in the fourth minute. They had a couple of chances to lead 2-0 before Sokratis’ ejection in the 41st. Iwobi found Torreira, whose 12-yard effort was parried by Koubek in the 12th. Then Torreira teed up Mustafi, who rifled wide from a good position in the 30th. Under siege in the second half, the Gunners could have snatched a 2-2 draw against the run of play in the 68th but Ozil shot straight at the goalkeeper from 10 yards.

  1. Arsenal should focus on recruiting in France

Wenger led Arsenal to 3 Premier League titles by signing some of the best French players (Henry, Vieira, Pires, Petit, Anelka, Wiltord). Nowadays, the Gunners are no longer contenders because their scouting department is doing a poor job in the French league. It’s no coincidence if the club has missed out on the top prospects in the past few years, whether it’s French players (Mbappe, Pogba, Martial, Kante, Dembele, Varane, Umtiti, Lemar, Mendy, Ndombele) or non-French players (Hazard, Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, Pjanic, Azpilicueta).

   Rennes used 13 players last night. Nine of them (Zeffane, Da Silva, Bourigeaud, Grenier, Andre, Hunou, Ben Arfa, Lea-Siliki, Gelin) grew up in French football academies. The other four players (Bensebaini, Sarr, Mexer, Koubek) learned their trade in Algeria, Senegal, Mozambique and the Czech Republic. France arguably has the best football academies in the world because they provide a smart mix of technique and physicality.

   The Arsenal board has big calls to make in the scouting department. Mislintat, Arsenal’s head of recruitment, left last month, while Grimandi, Arsenal’s chief scout in France, joined French club Nice as technical director this week. Overmars and Monchi are among the favorites for the position of sporting director at the club. Could they improve Arsenal’s recruitment on a limited budget?

  1. Emery’s tactical choices were puzzling

   When the referee sent Sokratis off in the 41st, the logical move would have been to replace Ozil with Maitland-Niles and switch to a 4-4-1 formation. But Emery made a bolder decision by shifting Mkhitaryan to the rightback position in an improvised 4-2-3 system. That gamble worked to a certain extent since Mkhitaryan won 4 of 6 tackles and made 1 interception, according to whoscored.com.

   Noticing that the Gunners were struggling in midfield and on the left flank, Emery sent on Guendouzi for Iwobi in the 53rd, switching to a 4-3-2 formation with Aubameyang and Ozil playing in the front two. Rennes’ second goal led to a like-for-like substitution with Ramsey replacing Ozil in the 70th. That substitution came too late as Ozil’s poor work-rate definitely helped Rennes dominate the game.

   Emery’s final substitution was probably the weirdest one. The Spanish manager yanked Aubameyang off to send on Kolasinac. On paper, it could have been a 4-4-1 system with Kolasinac on the left wing. But on the pitch, Kolasinac played like a free roaming midfielder alongside Ramsey in a 4-3-2 formation. Nketiah would have been a better choice if Emery wanted a player to combine with Ramsey up front.  

  1. Sokratis is not a dominant centerback

   The Greek defender is an upgrade on Mustafi but he’s not a world-class centerback like Koscielny in his prime. I was surprised by the praise Sokratis received after the North London derby. Many fans seemed to forget about his mistakes in the first half of the season. On Thursday, Sokratis panicked against a team sitting in 10th place in the French league. Sokratis gave away a free kick in the 27th with a challenge from behind on Hunou. He was then booked in the 33rd for blocking Ben Arfa’s run. Sokratis received a second yellow card in the 41st for killing a Rennes counterattack by tripping Sarr. It was a silly foul because Koscielny was covering Sokratis and because Rennes capitalized on the free kick to equalize. The Gunners will need to make fewer fouls in the second leg because Grenier, Ben Arfa and Bourigeaud are free-kick specialists.  

  1. Monreal has lost a step

   It’s not the first time this season that Monreal makes an opponent look like Usain Bolt. Monreal simply couldn’t cope with Sarr’s pace. He performed well against Tottenham, but at 33 you kind of wonder if Monreal can still play two games a week at 100 percent. Monreal was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy also dipped to 65.6%, the lowest percentage for any outfield starter. Monreal was unlucky to turn Zeffane’s cross into his own net in the 65th, but he was guilty of switching off defensively on that play, hoping for an offside call against Hunou instead of chasing the ball down the left flank. The Spaniard struggled defensively but his work-rate was not an issue: he led all players by winning 7 of 10 tackles and making 5 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.    

  1. Mustafi’s desire was questionable

   Does Mustafi enjoy playing at rightback? After fouling Ben Arfa in the 12th, Mustafi stayed on the ground, complaining about his leg. The German defender collapsed to the ground again in the 21st as if he had not recovered from that knock. That’s how a player would behave to get substituted. But when Mustafi moved back to the centerback position in the 41st, he stopped hobbling around. Mustafi’s work-rate was poor: he won 1 tackle and made 0 interception, compared to 1 tackle won and 2 interceptions for Koscielny and 4 tackles won and 1 interception for Mkhitaryan. He also lived up to his reputation as an error-prone player by giving the ball away in the 69th, forcing Cech to turn Ben Arfa’s shot around the post.  

  1. The midfield was shambolic

   Down to 10 men, the Gunners could not rely on their midfielders to shield the defense. Xhaka’s lack of mobility was badly exposed in the holding midfielder role. The Switzerland international won 0 tackle and made 0 interception, compared to 1 tackle won and 3 interceptions for Torreira. Sokratis earned his first booking in the 33rd because he tried to make up for Xhaka’s turnover. Xhaka couldn’t cope with Ben Arfa’s movement and received a yellow card in the 61st for pulling back the Rennes playmaker. Ben Arfa led all players with 3 key passes and 7 successful dribbles out of 12, according to whoscored.com.  

   Emery tried to beef up the midfield by replacing Iwobi with Guendouzi in the 53rd, but the French teenager was too casual with 3 turnovers in 40 minutes compared to 0 turnover for Torreira and 2 for Xhaka. Guendouzi also showed a lack of defensive awareness in the 88th. After Monreal’s pass was intercepted on the edge of the Rennes box, Guendouzi let Sarr run past him instead of covering Monreal in the leftback position. An unmarked Sarr headed home Lea-Siliki’s cross for a 3-1 lead.      

  1. Iwobi lacks spontaneity

   To his credit, Iwobi scored the away goal that gives Arsenal a bit of hope for the second leg. But he wasted a couple of good situations because of a lack of spontaneity. When Ozil released Iwobi on the left flank in the 23rd, the Nigeria international could have made a quick cross. But he preferred to take his time, shifting the ball to his right foot for a telegraphed cross that Koubek punched away. When Monreal cut the ball back in the 25th, Iwobi could have taken a first-time shot, but he tried to control the ball and lost possession with a poor first touch. And when the Gunners launched a counterattack in the 48th, Iwobi failed to release the ball quickly enough. He dallied on the ball and his pass for Torreira was intercepted.