Call it the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. When they play at the Emirates stadium, the Gunners are a completely different team from the one struggling so badly on the road. Arsenal smashed Everton 5-1 on Saturday just a few days after losing 3-1 at Swansea. The Gunners have the joint second best home record in the Premier League whereas they are a mid-table side if we look only at their away record.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The quality of Mkhitaryan’s final ball combined with Ramsey’s movement and finishing turned Saturday’s game into a goalfest. Aubameyang released Mkhitaryan down the right wing in the sixth minute and the Armenia international made a low cross for Ramsey who opened the scoring by beating Pickford from close range. Ramsey made it 3-0 in the 19th with a 24-yard drive that took a deflection off Mangala. The Dortmund connection played a role in the first and fourth goals as Mkhitaryan played Aubameyang in before the Gabon international chipped Pickford for a 4-0 lead in the 37th. Ramsey completed his hat trick in the 74th by pouncing on a cross from Mkhitaryan to bury the ball into the bottom corner.
Wenger made 2 changes to the side that lost to Swansea with Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan replacing Lacazette and Elneny in the starting lineup. Arsenal played in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Aubameyang up front, Ozil in the hole and Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings. The Gunners have no natural dribbler in the squad if we except the youngsters Nelson and Nketiah. The Toffees finished the game with 19 dribbling attempts compared to just 10 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. That basically means the Gunners rely on their passing game to crack a defense. And you need movement to find gaps and create passing options.
Ramsey’s clinical finishing
Ramsey’s deep runs provide the movement necessary for pass masters like Ozil and Mkhitaryan to express their creativity. The Wales midfielder proved clinical on Saturday by converting all his goal attempts. He could have added an assist in the 13th when Iwobi found him with a long ball. Ramsey squared the ball back for Aubameyang, whose strike was deflected out by Williams. With 6 goals and 6 assists from 18 Premier League games, Ramsey has been the most productive Gunner this season. It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s poor run of form happened during Ramsey’s injury period.
Some fans complain about Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline. But Ramsey is not a defensive midfielder. He plays as a free-roaming midfielder for Wales. His potential is optimized when there’s a holding midfielder who gives him the freedom to play between the lines. Ramsey is often compared to box-to-box players like Lampard and Gerrard. Lampard had Makelele and Essien to cover him at Chelsea while Gerrard could rely on Xabi Alonso and Mascherano to do the dirty work at Liverpool. The Gunners will need a better midfielder than Elneny or Xhaka next season to cover Ramsey and protect the defense.
The partnership between Xhaka and Ramsey only works when Xhaka understands that he must take care of the defensive duties and let Ramsey play in a more advanced position. Xhaka won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, while Ramsey won 1 of 2 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 1 block, according to Squawka. There were a couple of times when the Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese again. Xhaka had to make a cynical foul on Walcott to kill a counterattack in the 18th. Five minutes later, Walcott easily skipped past 2 Gunners to feed Niasse, who was then fouled by Koscielny. The Arsenal midfield also went missing in the 27th. It took a desperate block from Mustafi to prevent Walcott from scoring.
Mkhitaryan’s creativity and work-rate
Surprisingly, Mkhitaryan has already struck a good understanding with Ramsey in their second game together. Mkhitaryan is a smart player who is aware of the movement around him. He spotted Ramsey’s runs for the opener and the last goal. Since Cazorla’s injury, Ozil has been a bit isolated to create chances. Sanchez could occasionally step up and make assists but he’s not a natural passer like Mkhitaryan. Signing Mkhitaryan has definitely removed some of the creative burden off Ozil’s shoulders. The Gunners also play more free-flowing football with Mkhitaryan because Sanchez often gave the opponents time to regroup by taking too many touches.
The manager used Mkhitaryan in a wide position a bit like Pires and Rosicky before. Obviously, Mkhitaryan is an attacking midfielder, not a winger, but he’s smart enough to know when to drift inside and when to stretch a defense by staying wide. I don’t quite understand why Mourinho didn’t like him at Manchester United. Besides his 3 assists, Mkhitaryan also showed some great work-rate by making 3 interceptions and winning 3 of 9 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. In fact, Mkhitaryan made more interceptions and tackles than any Arsenal defender. The only blemish in his performance was his average shooting accuracy. Mkhitaryan’s long-range effort sailed wide in the 10th and his tame effort in the 56th didn’t trouble Pickford. Hopefully, it was just a consequence of his rustiness at Old Trafford.
Ramsey and Mkhitaryan stole the limelight, but Ozil still led all players with 4 key passes. Ozil created the second goal with a pinpoint delivery in the 14th. Mustafi made a run at the near post to redirect Ozil’s corner toward Koscielny, who headed in from close range. Playing on the left wing, Iwobi lacked end product compared to Ozil and Mkhitaryan. Iwobi finished the game with 0 shot and only 1 key pass (his assist for Ramsey’s long-range strike). He also had 4 turnovers, the most for any Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. I thought his work-rate was average with only 1 tackle, 1 interception and 1 block. My guess is that Iwobi and Lacazette will compete for the spot on the left flank, assuming Aubameyang, Ozil and Mkhitaryan are safe starters. Lacazette is a bigger goal threat while Iwobi provides more control in the passing game.
Aubameyang’s electric pace
In his Arsenal debut, Aubameyang found the net in the 37th. TV replays showed Aubameyang was a yard offside but that’s the price to pay when the league doesn’t adopt VAR technology. Arsenal fans got a glimpse of his electric pace in the 32nd when he outpaced Williams and Schneiderlin to collect a through ball from Ozil. From a tight angle, Aubameyang was denied by Pickford.
I have mixed feelings on the signing of Aubameyang. He has more pace than Giroud and is 3 years younger than the France striker. But the reason why Arsenal hired Mislintat was to replicate Borussia Dortmund’s scouting and recruitment model, that is, sign players at a cheap price just before they enter their prime. That’s what Arsenal did with Fabregas and Van Persie in the previous decade. With Aubameyang, the Gunners paid a premium price for a player who will turn 29 this year and has therefore a low resale value.
The best years of a football player are usually between the age of 25 and 30. You can stretch that to 32 or 33 if the player has great fitness levels. Which means that Aubameyang has 3 or 4 years left at the top. That’s a relatively weak return for £56 million. Van Persie was only 20 and Henry 21 when the club signed them for much less. They both gave 8 years to Arsenal. Also, Aubameyang is a pure centerforward. He scores most of his goals inside the box and therefore needs good service to find the net. He won’t create goals out of nothing like Van Persie or Henry.
Kolasinac’s defensive frailties
At the back, the partnership between Koscielny and Mertesacker is looking more and more like the previous partnership between Mertesacker and Koscielny. The France centerback is the more cautious of the two, acting almost like a sweeper, whereas Mustafi is the more aggressive defender. Mustafi won 5 of 6 tackles and 8 of 11 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 2 blocks. Those are very good stats but they don’t tell the whole story.
Mustafi still needs to improve his decision-making and positional play. In the opening minute, Mustafi was too casual and nearly lost possession as the last defender. He also gave away a dangerous free kick in the 49th with a mistimed tackle on Niasse. Mustafi was then pulled out of position in the 81st by challenging Calvin-Lewin in the air. Calvin-Lewin knocked the ball down for Davies, who evaded Bellerin’s challenge and played the ball back to Calvin-Lewin. As you can see on the screen capture below, Arsenal ended up in a 2v4 situation because Mustafi and Bellerin dived in. Somehow, Calvin-Lewin failed to catch the frame from 13 yards.
Everton wasting a 4v2 situation. (Photo credit: BT)
The Toffees could have done more damage if they had been more accurate with their final ball or finishing. They made 24 crosses compared to just 10 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. The leftback position is still a concern for the Gunners. Monreal met Xhaka’s corner in the 40th for a bouncing header that hit the post. The Spaniard played sick according to the manager and was replaced at halftime by Kolasinac, whose defensive frailties were again exposed. Kolasinac gave the ball away in the 51st and 83rd. He was also involved in the messy play that led to a turnover and a scoring chance for Everton in the 52nd. Walcott made a cross for Niasse, who hit the post while colliding with Cech.
Back four or back three?
Everton’s consolation goal in the 64th came from some poor defending by Kolasinac. Martina made a cross for Calvert-Lewin, who outjumped Kolasinac to head home. Kolasinac did not even jump on that play. Even if he wasn’t aware of Calvert-Lewin’s presence behind him, Kolasinac still had to head the ball away. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 57%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. He also won 0 of 4 aerial duels. Kolasinac is looking more and more like a recruitment mistake. That’s another embarrassment for the scouting department, which has recommended a lot of average players in the past few years (Xhaka, Elneny, Chambers, Paulista) but no real jewel.
The Gunners play the North London derby next Saturday. Cech is doubtful after picking up a calf injury in his collision with Niasse. Ospina replaced the Czech goalkeeper in the 70th and showed his poor command of the area on a corner kick three minutes later. A victory at Wembley would keep alive Arsenal’s slim hopes of a Top 4 finish as they trail Spurs by 4 points and Liverpool by 6. Wenger will have to choose between sticking with a back four or switching to a back three.