Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Crystal Palace was a bad result for Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the Top 4. The Gunners slipped to fifth place in the Premier League and you have to keep in mind that the home game against the Eagles was one of the easiest fixtures in their run-in, at least on paper. The defeat against Hodgson’s team was all the more disappointing that it came after 3 straight clean sheets in all competitions. Somehow, the result simply confirmed that the Arsenal squad is not good enough to cope with a heavy schedule.
Photo credit: Premier League
Emery got a lot of stick for making 7 changes to the side that edged Napoli 1-0 last Thursday with only Kolasinac, Koscielny, Aubameyang and Lacazette retaining their starting spots. Obviously, the midfield looked very soft with Elneny and Guendouzi. Ramsey and Xhaka were left out of the squad because of injuries while Emery was careful with Torreira, who picked up a knock against Napoli. The options at the back were also limited: Sokratis was completing his two-game ban while Emery wanted to rest Monreal and Maitland-Niles. Quite a few fans must have felt nervous at kickoff with a backline including Mavropanos, Jenkinson, Mustafi and Kolasinac.
I thought Emery’s team selection for a home game was too conservative with only 3 attacking players (Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette) in the starting lineup. The Gunners enjoyed a lot of sterile possession in the first half with very few chances. The team looked a bit more balanced after Emery shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Jenkinson and Mavropanos with Maitland-Niles and Iwobi at halftime. Nevertheless, the final stats showed Emery’s tactical approach was still a failure with only 12 shots to 16 for the Eagles despite 73% of ball possession.
The importance of decision-making
The goals scored by Palace all came from set pieces. You would think that it’s a legacy of the Wenger era. But a closer inspection reveals that it was a matter of individual errors and not poor defensive organization. Arsenal perfectly executed the offside trap against Napoli. So the Gunners tried that ploy again when the Eagles had a free kick in the 17th. Unfortunately, Benteke connected with Milivojevic’s set piece to beat Leno with a free header from 8 yards.
Jenkinson fails to play Benteke offside. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
As you can see on the screen capture above, the Arsenal defense played the offside trap. But Jenkinson didn’t get the memo and played Benteke onside. Jenkinson was 100 percent guilty on that play because Benteke and the other Gunners stood right in front of him, so there’s no way he couldn’t see what was going on. Jenkinson furiously gesticulated after Benteke scored, probably thinking that Mustafi poorly marked Benteke. But Jenkinson was the one who undermined the offside trap by standing one yard behind Mustafi and Mavropanos.
That was definitely poor decision-making from Jenkinson. I mean, Emery can show his players tons and tons of videos to improve their performance, but at the end of the day, it’s the players on the pitch who make the decisions.
Mustafi is famous for his brain farts. On Sunday, the German defender lived up to his reputation as an error-prone player by costing 2 goals. The Eagles won a free kick in their own half in the 61st. They punted the ball toward Benteke, who flicked it on. The second ball fell to Mustafi, who shielded the ball, expecting Leno to come off his line. Zaha stole the ball to beat Leno with a low strike for a 2-1 lead.
Mustafi expects Leno to beat Zaha to the ball. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
Let’s make things clear: the goal was 100 percent Mustafi’s fault. When the ball bounced in front of Mustafi 25 yards from goal, Leno was standing just outside his 6-yard box. Because the ball had very little pace and Mustafi seemed in control of the situation, Leno decided to stay inside his area. As you can see on the screen capture above, Leno had no chance to beat Zaha to the ball when Mustafi started to shield it with his body. Leno made the right decision while Mustafi made the wrong one. In that kind of situation, Mustafi should have simply cleared the danger.
Owning a mistake (or not)
The worst part is that Mustafi tried to blame Leno for that goal just like he tried to blame Cech a year ago for a goal scored by Southampton in a 3-2 win. Making a blunder is already bad, but not owning your mistakes can be a morale killer in any team. Mustafi showed again poor decision-making for Palace’s third goal in the 69th. McArthur redirected a corner toward Dann, who nodded in from close range.
Mustafi initially marking Dann on the corner. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
As you can see on the screen capture above, Mustafi was in charge of marking Dann at the far post. But for some strange reason, Mustafi started running away from Dann when McArthur was about to flick the ball on. At first, I thought maybe Mustafi was trying to play Dann offside. But it’s unlikely for a team to play the offside trap on a corner before the ball is even headed. As you can see on the screen capture below, Guendouzi, Aubameyang and Kolasinac played Dann onside, which means that there was no plan to execute the offside trap on that corner.
Mustafi running away from Dann. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
It’s only after watching several TV replays that I finally came to the conclusion that Mustafi was trying to meet the corner. From his initial position, Mustafi had no chance to win the first header. It’s not just poor decision-making, it’s also poor tactical discipline. Mustafi could have prevented that goal by staying with Dann and winning the second ball. Both Mustafi and Jenkinson are 27. They won’t improve their reading of the game or their decision-making at that age. The club should offload them this summer to improve the defense.
Koscielny’s aerial struggles
The visitors’ goals were just the tip of the iceberg. Mustafi could have cost more goals on Sunday. He failed to mark Benteke on the stroke of halftime. The Palace striker took a pass from Zaha only to miss the target from 12 yards. Then Mustafi missed his header in the 56th while attempting to intercept McArthur’s ball over the top for Zaha. Fortunately, Maitland-Niles covered Mustafi and prevented Zaha from pulling the trigger. Besides his blunders, Mustafi showed poor discipline, leading all players with 4 fouls. He even embarrassed himself by earning a booking for diving in the 85th. And his work-rate was poor with just 1 tackle, 2 interceptions and 1 recovery, compared to 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries for Koscielny, according to the club’s website.
Koscielny made no glaring mistake like Mustafi, but he lost the key duels with Benteke and McArthur for Palace’s second and third goals. The French defender performed poorly in the air, winning only 1 of 5 aerial duels, while Mustafi won 5 of 8 headers according to whoscored.com. At 33, playing a fourth game in an 11-day span was always going to be a tough ask. His 5 turnovers, a high number for a centerback, clearly reflected his fatigue.
Playing in a back three alongside Koscielny and Mustafi, Mavropanos looked a bit less hesitant than against Watford. He showed again his naivety in the 16th when he dived in and received a yellow card for holding Benteke. That foul led to the free kick for the opening goal. Emery yanked Mavropanos off at halftime to switch to a back four. At 21, Mavropanos needs playing time in order to learn and develop. A loan in the Championship next season would be a good opportunity.
Jenkinson’s poor work-rate
On the right flank, Jenkinson’s limited technique was exposed. He contributed very little offensively, sending a cross out of play in the third minute and guiding the ball into touch after miscontrolling a crossfield pass in the 35th. There’s something wrong when a player still looks raw at 27. I’m puzzled that Wenger extended Jenkinson’s contract. What did Wenger see in him? Jenkinson is known as a boyhood Arsenal fan, but his work-rate was incredibly poor with 0 tackle, 1 block, 0 interception and 2 recoveries in the first half.
At halftime, Emery replaced Jenkinson with Maitland-Niles, who put in a shift with 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 5 recoveries in the second half, according to the club’s website. Maitland-Niles saved the Arsenal defense twice, making a crucial clearance in the 56th and a last-ditch block in the 65th. Frankly, I don’t understand the transfer rumors linking Wan-Bissaka to Arsenal because Maitland-Niles can deputize for Bellerin and the money should be spent on the centerback and central midfield positions.
On the opposite flank, Kolasinac’s performance was a mixed bag. He should have been awarded a penalty in the 38th for a cross that Wan-Bissaka blocked with his arm. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also tested Guaita with a half-volley in the 59th. Unfortunately, Kolasinac’s defensive lapses outweighed his offensive contributions. He gave away cheap free kicks with 3 fouls. And his lack of defensive awareness was exposed a couple of times. Kolasinac failed to track Kouyate in the 43rd as the Palace midfielder forced Leno into a spectacular double save. Then Kolasinac left Dann unmarked in the 63rd. The Palace centerback met a free kick from Milivojevic only to volley straight at Leno.
How standards have declined in midfield
In midfield, Guendouzi and Elneny were responsible for the lack of urgency in the first half. The Gunners used to have deep-lying playmakers like Fabregas and Cazorla who could dictate the tempo and create chances. But neither Guendouzi nor Elneny is a pacesetter. The sterile possession forced Ozil to drop back in the first half to build up plays.
Guendouzi led all players with 86 passes but he still has that tendency to take too many touches instead of quickly releasing the ball. The French midfielder is simply not decisive enough at both ends of the pitch. His work-rate against the Eagles was good with 2 tackles and 9 recoveries, the most for an Arsenal player. But Guendouzi can’t shield the back four like a Fernandinho, Kante or Torreira. He was dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com. The more Guendouzi plays, and the more he looks like a utility midfielder. He’s an upgrade over Elneny but he’s still below Xhaka in the pecking order.
Elneny played in a slightly more advanced position than Guendouzi. Emery wanted to use Elneny as a box-to-box player, which is kind of funny because Wenger tried to play him in the centerback position. The Egypt international was too conservative in his passing. And the few times Elneny tried to play the ball forward, his passing lacked accuracy. His only offensive contribution was a volley over the bar in the 11th. If Emery really wanted a box-to-box player, he should have given a chance to Willock.
Defensively, Elneny made a blunder by failing to play to the whistle in the 65th. Kouyate led a Palace counterattack and collided with Guendouzi along the touchline. Elneny could have kicked the loose ball out of play. But expecting the referee to make a call in Arsenal’s favor, Elneny stopped playing and let Zaha run past him to continue the fast break. Emery had seen enough and replaced Elneny with Torreira in the 68th. Elneny and Mustafi are examples of the poor job done by the scouting department under Wenger.
3 wins out of 4 games?
The only positive of Sunday’s match was the attacking players, who scored 2 goals. In a normal game, that should be enough to get 3 points. Ozil was a bit isolated in the first half. Iwobi’s appearance after halftime helped Ozil have more impact in the final third. Ozil could have put the Gunners ahead in the opening minute but his curling shot from the edge of the box lacked power to trouble Guaita. The German playmaker equalized in the 47th with his trademark chip. Lacazette fed Ozil with a reverse pass. From a tight angle, Ozil knocked the ball into the ground to produce an awkward bounce that fooled Guaita. Ozil nearly leveled again in the 87th with a cross that evaded everybody, except Guaita who tipped the ball away. Two minutes later, Iwobi could have also salvaged a point, but his tame effort from 14 yards was not good enough to beat Guaita. The only blemish in Ozil’s performance was his 10 turnovers, which is unusual for a player with good ball retention skills.
Lacazette and Aubameyang are having a good run of form. The French striker scored the winner against Napoli and made the assist for Ozil’s goal on Sunday, while Aubameyang scored the winner against Watford and found the net against Palace. Starting a dribbling run from the right flank in the 77th, Aubameyang slalomed past 3 Eagles before attempting to play Lacazette in. A defender blocked the pass but Aubameyang pounced on the loose ball to fire into the bottom corner. Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t get much service. Lacazette’s only chance was an off-balance shot from 20 yards that sailed over the bar in the 42nd.
One month before the end of the season, the board and the staff can already draw their own conclusions about last summer’s transfers. Leno and Torreira have proved successful signings while Lichtsteiner has been a failure, too slow for the Premier League. Sokratis and Guendouzi has been upgrades over Mustafi and Elneny, respectively, but are not at the level of Koscielny and Cazorla in their prime.
To finish in the Top 4, Arsenal will probably need 3 wins from their last 4 games. The Gunners visit Wolverhampton on Wednesday and Leicester on Sunday. The game at Molineux stadium is more tricky because the Gunners only have 2 days of rest compared to 3 for the Leicester game. Ramsey’s absence is a huge blow because he’s the kind of player whose work-rate makes a difference in away games. I expect Ozil to be on the bench and Mkhitaryan to start for both games.