Tag Archives: Kolasinac

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners overcome fatigue in 3-2 win

  For only the second time this season, Arsenal won 3 games in a row by edging Everton 3-2 on Sunday. Nobody can deny that the Gunners have improved under Arteta. They scored 1.38 goals and conceded 1.46 goals per Premier League game under Emery while they have scored 1.50 goals and conceded 1.21 goals per Premier League game under Ljungberg and Arteta.

Arsenal vs. Everton 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Despite the improvements, the Gunners are in a worse position than when Emery was dismissed. They earned 1.384 points per Premier League game under Emery to have 18 points from 13 games, 1 point away from 5th place and a European spot and 1 point clear of Spurs and Manchester United. Under Ljungberg and Arteta, they have earned 1.357 points per game to have 37 points from 27 games, 4 points behind Manchester United in 5th place and 3 points behind Spurs.

   The situation in the standings reflects badly on Sanllehi and the Arsenal board, who waited too long to sack Emery. Arteta needed time to implement his ideas. It’s no coincidence if the results have recently improved after the training sessions in Dubai.  

   Arteta has pretty much found his best team after 2 months at the helm of the club. He made only 1 change to the side that thrashed Newcastle a week ago with Kolasinac replacing a knackered Saka in the starting lineup. That’s quite a contrast with Emery, who kept tinkering in the first half of the season.  

   The Gunners were lucky to get 3 points from Sunday’s game because they struggled physically in the last 20 minutes. Everton finished stronger but failed to convert their 2 big chances. The Toffees had 17 shots and 1.79 expected goals compared to 9 shots and 1.35 expected goals for Arsenal, according to understat.com.

Losing the second ball

   Both Everton goals came from set pieces. The Gunners played a high defensive line when Sigurdsson took a free kick in the opening minute. Kolasinac didn’t get the memo as he played everyone onside by chasing Mina inside the area. Luiz got the better of Holgate but redirected Sigurdsson’s free kick into the path of Calvert-Lewin, who opened the scoring with an overhead kick. Xhaka failed to stay with Calvert-Lewin on that play.

   The Toffees made it 2-2 on the stroke of halftime by winning again the second ball on a set piece. Aubameyang cleared a corner into the path of Sigurdsson, who miskicked his volley. Mina outjumped Mustafi to head the loose ball forward. Richarlison reacted more quickly than Leno to win the 50-50 ball, scoring with an acrobatic kick.

   The 4-0 win over Newcastle already showed that Pepe and Saka provide a lot of penetration in the final third. Saka came off the bench to replace an injured Kolasinac in the 18th. The English teenager helped Arsenal level in the 27th with a pinpoint cross for Nketiah, who made a run between Mina and Holgate to side-foot into the bottom corner. Aubameyang’s pace made the difference for the Gunners’ second goal in the 33rd. The Gabon striker made a run in behind Sidibe to collect a through ball from Luiz before beating Pickford with a curling shot into the far corner. The Arsenal captain scored the winner in the 46th by heading Pepe’s cross past Pickford.

A pure finisher

   Aubameyang raised his tally to 17 goals in the Premier League this season. If you look at his stats, you can see that he’s a pure finisher. First, Aubameyang was clinical against Everton with 2 of 2 shots on target. And second, he has only 1 assist this season while top scorers like Vardy, Aguero and Salah have more assists.

   In theory, Aubameyang should have more assists since he has often started on the left wing. The trouble is that his all-around game is not good enough to deliver the final ball. He missed his return pass to Saka in the 29th and overhit his through ball for Ozil in the 50th. The main benefit of playing Aubameyang in a wide position is that he can make that diagonal run into the half-space between the fullback and the centerback.

   Aubameyang wears the armband because he performs consistently on the pitch. He led by example on Sunday with an outstanding work-rate, making 9 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 interception, 5 recoveries), compared to 6 for Pepe and 3 for Nketiah, according to the club’s website. In fact, only Xhaka (11) and Ceballos (10) made more defensive actions than Aubameyang on the Arsenal team.

   In his post-match press conference, Arteta made it clear that he wants to keep Aubameyang, whose contract expires in the summer of 2021. The club has struggled to retain its star players since failing to qualify for the Champions League. First, there was the mess with the contracts of Sanchez and Ozil during the 2017-18 season. Then, there was the Ramsey fiasco last season.

   Assuming that Aubameyang is willing to stay at Arsenal despite the lack of Champions League football, the club would still need to sell some top players in order to fund transfers. Selling Lacazette would be the rational decision since the Gunners already have Nketiah and Martinelli as replacements.

Pepe adapting to English football

   Nketiah showed good movement to find the net in the 27th. He finished the game with 1 of 3 shots on target, firing over the bar with an angled effort in the 24th and hitting the bar with a curling shot in the 87th. His passing accuracy of 77.8% was good compared to 64.3% for Richarlison and 50% for Calvert-Lewin.

   Although Nketiah has more pace than Lacazette, the academy graduate still needs to work on his all-around game, whether it’s his hold-up play or his link-up play. Nketiah was dispossessed in midfield in the 32nd and missed a short pass to Pepe in the final third in the 58th. He made a decent defensive contribution with 1 tackle, 2 recoveries and 3 fouls. However, his defensive stats are still weaker than Lacazette’s because he doesn’t read the game well enough.

   On the right wing, Pepe made 4 key passes, tied with Richarlison for the most by any player. He made the assist for the winning goal in the 46th and slightly overhit his final ball for Ozil in the 29th. I thought Pepe could have done better with a curling shot in the 26th that didn’t trouble Pickford.

   In his first season at Arsenal, Pepe has proved a decent investment with 6 goals and 8 assists in all competitions. On paper, the transition was not easy for Pepe. First, the Premier League is faster and more physical than the French league. And second, Lille’s success relied on a counterattacking style whereas Arteta prefers possession football.

The limitations of the Arsenal midfield

   In midfield, Arteta relied on the trio that started against Newcastle. While Ceballos and Ozil showed a bit of creativity against the Magpies, their limitations were exposed against Everton with 0.03 expected assist for Ozil and 0.00 expected assist for Ceballos compared to 0.64 expected assist for Saka, 0.34 expected assist for Luiz and 0.27 expected assist for Pepe, according to understat.com. There’s no way Arteta could have confused Ozil and Ceballos with De Bruyne and Silva. Signing a creative midfielder should be a top priority for Arsenal this summer.

   Despite 53 passes and a passing accuracy of 90.6%, Ozil could only make 1 key pass. The German playmaker dribbled past Sidibe in the 75th to tee up Ceballos, whose curling shot from 20 yards sailed wide. Ceballos was even less sharp in the final third with 0 key pass despite 55 passes and a passing accuracy of 87.3%. The Spaniard’s best attacking contribution was a through ball for Aubameyang, whose cross was deflected out by Sidibe in the 6th minute.

   Defensively, the Arsenal midfield looked porous at times. Ceballos showed some good work-rate with 10 defensive actions (2 tackles, 4 interceptions, 4 recoveries) in 75 minutes, compared to 11 defensive actions in 95 minutes for Xhaka and 3 defensive actions in 81 minutes for Ozil, according to the club’s website. But the Real Madrid loanee is not a natural ballwinner. Ceballos made 3 fouls, tied with Xhaka and Nketiah for the most fouls by a Gunner. His foul on Richarlison led to the free kick for Everton’s opening goal.

   As the holding midfielder, Xhaka showed a lack of defensive awareness a couple of times. He failed to stay with Calvert-Lewin on the opening goal. Then Xhaka was too slow to close down Bernard while covering Saka in the 72nd. After Bernard made the cross, Xhaka forgot to play Calvert-Lewin offside. The Switzerland midfielder also gave the ball away in the 77th.

Losing key duels

   The Toffees too easily beat Arsenal’s high press in the 9th minute, pulling Xhaka and Ceballos out of position before Richarlison reached the final third with a run from midfield. Richarlison found Iwobi, who fired wide from our left flank. Ancelotti exploited Ozil’s reluctance to press by sending on Gomes for Schneiderlin in 59th. Gomes created a big chance in the 80th by sending a long ball to Richarlison.

   As the Gunners lost the control of the game in the last 20 minutes, Arteta replaced Ceballos with Torreira in the 76th and Ozil with Guendouzi in the 82nd. Somehow, Arsenal more efficiently pressed high up the pitch in the 87th. Torreira recovered the ball to feed Nketiah, who struck the woodwork.

   Despite that key pass, Torreira didn’t impress in his 19-minute cameo. His passing accuracy of 72.7% was the lowest among Arsenal players. The Uruguay international also gave the ball away in the 89th and was dispossessed in stoppage time by Kean, who missed the target with a low drive.

   Playing in a 4-4-2 formation, Everton put a lot of pressure on the Arsenal defense with Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin up front and Iwobi and Sigurdsson in the wide positions. The Toffees were dominant in the air, winning 19 aerial duels compared to just 8 for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. Calvert-Lewin led all players by winning 9 of 11 aerial duels, while Mustafi and Luiz combined to win just 5 of 10 aerial duels.

   Mari hasn’t played yet for the first team but he will definitely get his chance because Luiz and Mustafi keep losing key duels. Luiz was credited with an error for heading the ball into Calvert-Lewin’s path on the opening goal. The Brazilian defender was then late in the 58th when Richarlison got the better of Mustafi to deliver the final ball but Calvert-Lewin failed to make contact with the ball.

Saka’s off day

   Mustafi has received praise from some fans lately, but his performances are still a mixed bag at best. The German defender won 63.6% of his duels compared to 50% for Luiz, according to the club’s website. Mustafi lost a key duel on Everton’s second goal as Mina outjumped him to feed Richarlison. In stoppage time, Mustafi was also beaten in the air by Calvert-Lewin, who headed Bernard’s cross wide. Calvert-Lewin dispossessed Mustafi in the 44th but Nketiah covered Mustafi and fouled the Everton striker on the edge of the box.

   The few times he was isolated with Richarlison, Mustafi didn’t cover himself in glory. Richarlison rounded Mustafi in the 78th to test Leno with a low strike. Two minutes later, Richarlison toyed with Mustafi before slipping a through ball to Calvert-Lewin, who wasted the big chance with an air shot.

   Saka was supposed to get some rest on Sunday. But Kolasinac’s shoulder injury forced Arteta to send on Saka for the Bosnia-Herzegovina international in the 18th. Saka’s lack of freshness was obvious. He won only 22.2% of his duels and led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers. The English teenager hit the wall physically in the second half, losing possession to Bernard in the 64th and Sidibe in the 65th, and giving the ball away in the 66th and 72nd.

   Despite having an off day, Saka still managed to have a passing accuracy of 92.5% while making 2 key passes, including the assist for Nketiah’s goal. Saka raised his tally to 3 goals and 9 assists in all competitions this season. Some pundits mentioned 10 assists. Officially, it’s 9 assists because Saka’s cross for Martinelli’s goal against Sheffield United took a deflection off a defender.

Leno’s big saves

   On the opposite flank, Bellerin is still struggling to get back to his best. He waited too long to play Pepe clean through on goal in the 69th and the Ivory Coast winger was flagged offside. Bellerin lost a key duel in the 72nd as Richarlison outjumped him to create a big chance for Calvert-Lewin.

   Leno played an important role in the victory. He protected Arsenal’s lead with a reflex save in the 72nd, making himself big to deny Calvert-Lewin. The German goalkeeper then made a leg save in the 78th to parry Richarlison’s close-range effort. Leno also took some pressure off the shoulders of the back four by catching Baines’ teasing cross in the 84th before coming off his line to clear the danger in the 89th as Gomes hit a long ball toward Richarlison.  

   The Gunners next host Olympiakos in the Europa League on Thursday before visiting Portmouth in the FA Cup on Monday. Arteta will probably rotate against Portsmouth to avoid injuries.



Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: 10-man Gunners salvage a point

   Aubameyang opened the scoring in the first half and was sent off in the second half as the Gunners drew 1-1 with Crystal Palace on Saturday to lose ground in the race for a European spot. Arsenal stayed in the middle of the Premier League table, 6 points behind Manchester United and 11 points behind Chelsea.

Palace vs. Arsenal 2020.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   The Gunners will have regrets about their lack of ruthlessness. Instead of attempting to finish off the Eagles with a second goal, Arsenal became too passive after taking the lead and allowed the hosts to get back into the game. Despite enjoying 57.6% of ball possession, the Gunners had only 7 goal attempts compared to 6 for Palace. The Eagles showed more aggression after the break and finished the game with 25 tackles to 16 and 11 interceptions to 7, according to the club’s website.

   Arteta made no change to the side that defeated Manchester United. It is safe to say that Arteta won’t be tinkering as much as Emery. However, it doesn’t mean that Arteta knows what his best team is yet. At the back, his options have been limited by injuries to Tierney, Bellerin and Chambers as well as Holding’s lack of match fitness. In midfield, Arteta has relied on Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil because of Guendouzi’s poor defensive awareness, Ceballos’ injury and Willock’s lack of vision. The Spanish manager has more maneuvering room with the front three but he has given the priority to experience so far with Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe getting the nod over Saka, Martinelli and Nelson.

Luiz’s playmaking abilities

   Arsenal dominated the first 20 minutes because Palace failed to press Luiz. Ayew was instructed to press Torreira and therefore gave Luiz plenty of time and space. Luiz showed his playmaking abilities with 15 accurate long balls out of 22, according to whoscored.com.

   When the Eagles reacted to limit Luiz’ offensive influence, it was already too late: the Brazilian defender had already done some damage. Luiz found Kolasinac with a long ball in the third minute but the Bosnia-Herzegovina international miscontrolled the ball. Four minutes later, Luiz hit a long ball toward Aubameyang, who released Kolasinac down the left wing. However, the Palace defense was able to block Kolasinac’s cross.

   Luiz created the opening goal in the 12th with a pinpoint pass to Ozil. As you can see on the screen capture below, that 20-yard pass beat 5 Eagles. Ozil found Lacazette with a first-time pass and the French striker slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who beat Guaita with a low strike.

Palace vs. Arsenal M12 editedLuiz’s pass takes 5 players out of the equation. (Photo credit: BT)

   On that play, Luiz pretty much acted like a deep-lying playmaker. Luiz and Sokratis combined for 34 long balls, much more than under Emery. Here’s the difference between Emery and Arteta: when playing out from the back, long balls are an option for Arteta whereas they are an ultimate resort for Emery.

   Luiz led all players with 88 passes, followed by Sokratis with 73 and Torreira with 52. It’s only in the 22nd that Ayew started to press Luiz, creating problems for the Arsenal defense. The Gunners suddenly struggled to move the ball out of their own half. Luiz could have scored from a corner in the 61st, but his header sailed over the bar.

   The Gunners were aware of Luiz’s offensive impact when he played for Chelsea. They also knew his defensive limitations. Luiz is still the same player. Arteta has tried to minimize Luiz’s weaknesses by providing more protection to the Arsenal centerbacks. You no longer see Luiz in desperate 1v1 situations like in the first half of the season.

The importance of key duels

   The numbers don’t lie. Luiz only made 5 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 3 recoveries) and Sokratis just 4 defensive actions (1 block, 1 interception, 2 recoveries), not because they are lazy, but because they didn’t have much to do. According to understat.com, Palace had 0.31 expected goal compared to 1.02 for Arsenal.

   The problem when you play in the centerback position is that there are always key duels in any game. In his prime, Koscielny was very good at winning those key duels. Luiz can’t be the long-term answer at centerback, not because of his age (32) but because of his relative lack of competitiveness in key duels.

   The equalizer came from a free kick played short to Meyer, who made a cross from our left flank in the 54th. Kouyate beat Luiz to the ball and set up Ayew, whose shot deflected off Luiz to loop over Leno. As you can see on the screen captures below, the Gunners completely switched off. First, Kolasinac forgot to mark Meyer on the left flank. Then, Luiz lost a key duel against Kouyate. Xhaka made the last mistake on that play by not staying with Ayew.

Palace vs. Arsenal M54a edited.jpgKolasinac is not marking Meyer. (Photo credit: BT)

Palace vs. Arsenal M54b edited.jpgXhaka is marking Ayew when Meyer crosses the ball. (Photo credit: BT)

Palace vs. Arsenal M54c edited.jpgXhaka is caught ball-watching, leaving Ayew alone. (Photo credit: BT)

   The defensive setup was also poor on that free kick. Xhaka left Ayew alone because he was covering Luiz, who lost his key duel against Kouyate. Basically, Luiz was pulled out of position because nobody marked Kouyate. Before the free kick was taken, both Aubameyang and Lacazette surrounded Kouyate because they were supposed to challenge the Senegal midfielder in the air.

   By keeping the ball on the ground, the Eagles completely changed the tactical configuration. Aubameyang and Lacazette are not natural defenders and therefore did not get tight to Kouyate inside the area. As soon as the ball was played to Meyer, Guendouzi should have moved into the space between Luiz and Kouyate. Luiz also lost another key duel in the 57th. Ayew got the better of the Brazilian defender to redirect a long ball toward Meyer, whose effort went wide.

The Ozil conundrum

   Under Wenger, Bellerin on the right flank was the more attacking fullback while Monreal on the left flank was the more defending-minded fullback. The situation has changed under Emery and Arteta because of Bellerin’s injury. Kolasinac plays like a wingback on the left flank while Maitland-Niles almost plays like a third centerback, drifting inside to cover the half-space like Zinchenko at Manchester City.

   Kolasinac made a couple of interesting runs but lacked end product with 0 shot, 0 key pass and 0 accurate cross. His work-rate was good with 11 defensive actions like Maitland-Niles, but Kolasinac was too casual with 7 turnovers compared to 4 for Maitland-Niles, according to whoscored.com.

   Defensively, Kolasinac lacked focus on the equalizer, failing to mark Meyer. He also lost a key duel in the 78th. Tomkins outjumped Kolasinac to head Zaha’s cross goalward, but Sokratis cleared the ball off the line. Kolasinac’s decision-making in the 87th was poor: he lost possession while attempting a 360-degree roulette on the edge of the Arsenal box. Arteta might consider starting Saka at leftback in the next game.

   On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles managed to keep Zaha quiet. Zaha had 0 shot and only 1 key pass. Maitland-Niles was still booked in the 51st for a mistimed challenge on Kouyate. His recent performances explain why Arteta won’t rush Bellerin’s return.

   In midfield, Ozil had a poor game with 0 shot and 0 key pass. The German playmaker won only 25% of his duels, the lowest percentage among all midfielders according to the club’s website. His work-rate was also disappointing with just 3 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 recovery) in 69 minutes.

   Ozil’s defensive output against Manchester United (13 defensive actions) was clearly a one-off performance because he made only 3 defensive actions against Chelsea and Bournemouth, too. Arteta will face the same issue that Emery had to deal with: is it worth playing Ozil in the tough games where his work-rate and end product will be low?

Dr Auba & Mr Mayhem

   Arteta replaced Ozil with Martinelli in the 70th because he needed a player on the left wing after Aubameyang’s ejection. In his 24-minute cameo, Martinelli showed more desire than Ozil, making 3 recoveries, creating a scoring chance in the 83rd and winning fouls that led to yellow cards for McCarthy in the 71st and Tomkins in the 85th.

   Xhaka struggled in midfield, making 4 fouls compared to 0 for Torreira and Guendouzi. His work-rate was also mediocre with just 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 7 recoveries) in 97 minutes compared to 7 actions (1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception, 4 recoveries) for Torreira in 45 minutes and 7 actions (1 tackle, 6 recoveries) for Guendouzi in 52 minutes.

   The Gunners won’t be Top 4 material as long as Xhaka is a starter. They need an upgrade in that position for next season with either a better deep-lying playmaker or a true ballwinner. Xhaka often slowed down Arsenal’s passing game by not releasing the ball quickly enough.

   In the front three, Aubameyang proved clinical by converting his only scoring chance of the game. Aubameyang was then sent off in the 67th for a late tackle on Meyer. Initially, Aubameyang only received a yellow card. But a VAR review turned the booking into a straight red card. I thought the referee made the correct call by sending off Aubameyang because it was a dangerous tackle that could have badly hurt Meyer’s ankle.

Lacazette’s mini-drought continues

   Arteta might have to reconsider his choice of playing Aubameyang in a wide position. There’s usually more defensive work for a winger than for a centerforward, so Aubameyang is more likely to make a challenge in a wide position than up front. Another factor to take into account is Aubameyang’s scoring record. Why would you play your most clinical striker on the left wing when he can play in a central position and therefore get more scoring chances?

   The straight red card means that Aubameyang will miss the next 3 games. That will put a lot of pressure on Lacazette, who hasn’t found the net since Dec. 12. Hopefully, his assist for the opening goal will boost Lacazette’s confidence. The French striker showed good end product with 2 key passes and 2 of 2 shots on target. Maybe a Lacazette at the top of his game would have converted the rebound in the 83rd.

   As usual, Lacazette worked hard for the team with 9 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 interception, 5 recoveries) compared to 7 for Pepe and 4 for Aubameyang in 64 minutes. Lacazette received a yellow card in the 90th for repetitive fouling. I thought the referee was inconsistent because Ayew, who made 7 fouls (one more than Lacazette), was not even booked.

   On the right wing, Pepe’s performance was a mixed bag. The Ivory Coast international can be frustrating to watch. His passing accuracy of 57.7% was the lowest among Arsenal starters. At 24, Pepe is not the finished product yet. I hope Arteta will help Pepe improve his decision-making in the final third.

Pepe’s poor reading of the game

   As you can see on the screen capture below, Pepe was nowhere near the 6-yard box when Aubameyang made a cross in the 5th minute. Pepe also failed to anticipate when Ozil tried to play him clean through in the 33rd, waiting for a pass to his feet instead of running into space.

Palace vs. Arsenal M05 editedPepe failing to put pressure on Riedewald. (Photo credit: BT)

   As a winger, you have to provide width in the buildup, but when the final ball is delivered, you must turn into a striker. Compare Pepe’s poor reading of the game in the 5th with Aubameyang’s flair in the 19th when Pepe overhit his cross. As you can see on the screen capture below, Aubameyang was standing in the small gap between the centerback and the rightback, ready to head the ball.

Palace vs. Arsenal M19 edited.jpgAubameyang’s smart movement in the box. (Photo credit: BT)  

   Pepe’s decision-making was again questionable in the 17th. He tried to round Cahill instead of slipping the ball to Lacazette. The play ended with a heavy touch from Pepe, who knocked the ball out of play. If Pepe had made the pass, Lacazette could have taken a first-time shot or played the ball back to Pepe.

Palace vs. Arsenal M17 edited.jpgPepe ignores a good passing option. (Photo credit: BT)

   The magic of football is that a player can look awful for most of the game and yet still be in a position to score the winner. Martinelli made a cross for Lacazette in the 83rd. The French striker controlled the ball before slipping it to Pepe to his left. From a tight angle, Pepe fired a low strike that Guaita tipped onto the far post. The ball bounced off Guaita and into the path of Lacazette, who was denied by the Palace goalkeeper. Pepe’s end product was OK with 1 shot on target and 1 key pass. He also provided penetration, leading all players with 3 succesful dribbles out of 6, compared to 2 out of 5 for Zaha, according to whoscored.com.

Debunking a conspiracy theory

   The Gunners next host Sheffield United on Saturday before visiting Chelsea on Tuesday. Lacazette, Pepe and Martinelli will have to step up since Aubameyang will miss both games. Torreira might also miss the Sheffield United game as he picked up a knock against the Eagles.

   I will finish this post by debunking a conspiracy theory that has been doing the rounds. Some Arsenal fans have claimed that Emery is the one responsible for the Gunners’ poor fitness levels. Remember how the players struggled physically in the second half against Chelsea two weeks ago.

   The truth is that the Gunners were fit under Emery. In fact, Arsenal even led the Premier League last season in distance covered with 4,340 kilometers, followed by Spurs (4,328 km) and Bournemouth (4,324 km), according to Opta. Liverpool and Manchester City were 8th and 9th respectively with 4,270 km and 4,248 km. Obviously, you don’t have to run that much when you dominate ball possession.

   Yes, Emery failed in his job at Arsenal. Yes, Emery is responsible for the poor results in the first half of this season. And yes, the Gunners couldn’t properly defend under Emery. But don’t blame him for the recent drop in fitness levels. Sanllehi and the Arsenal board are the main culprits for the absence of a coaching team between Emery’s dismissal on Nov. 29 and the announcement of Arteta’s staff on Dec. 24. A coach on his own can’t keep an eye on the players’ fitness. That’s why Ljungberg desperately screamed for reinforcements.



Arsenal vs. Man United: Gunners earn 1st win under Arteta

   The Gunners snapped a four-game losing streak at home in all competitions by outclassing Manchester United 2-0 on Wednesday. Despite the victory, Arsenal remained in the middle of the table, 4 points behind the Red Devils and 3 points behind Spurs in the Premier League. That’s not a huge gap but there are quite a few teams to overtake before the Gunners can pretend to be back in the race for a Europa League spot.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Arteta made 4 changes to the side that lost to Chelsea on Sunday with Sokratis, Kolasinac, Xhaka and Pepe replacing Chambers, Saka, Guendouzi and Nelson in the starting lineup. Two of those changes were forced: Saka struggled physically against Chelsea while Chambers picked up a knee injury. The other two changes were deliberate choices by Arteta, who preferred Xhaka to Guendouzi in midfield while Pepe got the nod over Nelson because of the academy graduate’s lack of end product.

   In his short tenure as the Arsenal head coach, Arteta has been able to make some improvements. Arteta has made the team more compact, especially shrinking the space between the centerbacks and the central midfielders.

   The Gunners are also more flexible in their defending, alternating between a high defensive block, a medium defensive block and a low defensive block. Likewise, they don’t systematically play out from the back. If the centerbacks see an opportunity in the opponents’ half, they won’t hesitate to kick a long ball. You can feel Guardiola’s influence here as Manchester City scored some goals by finding Aguero with long balls. Luiz and Sokratis hit a total of 29 long balls on Wednesday while they combined for only 15 long balls in the 1-1 draw with the Red Devils in September.

Pepe le Dude

   Arteta is also a reactive manager. Chelsea equalized on a free kick because of the poor matchup pitting Torreira against Jorginho at the far post. Arteta tweaked the defensive setup against United by having Aubameyang standing at the far post when Fred took a free kick on the stroke of halftime. Maguire bullied Aubameyang to have a free header, but his tame header bounced into Leno’s arms.

   Now, we shouldn’t go overboard. The Red Devils were not at the races. The next opponents won’t produce such a listless performance. And there are still some defensive issues to fix. Matic and Fred had a lot of freedom in midfield. They are not known for their dribbling skills. Yet, Matic and Fred led all players with 7 and 5 successful dribbles respectively, according to whoscored.com. In stoppage time, the lack of pressure in midfield allowed Mata to send a ball over the top for Rashford.  

   I like what Arteta is doing but the fans shouldn’t put him on a pedestal after this game because that’s not helpful. Arteta has a massive rebuilding job on his hands. Let’s not kid ourselves, the team can only be significantly improved through transfers. Even with the best manager in the world, there’s no way you can turn Guendouzi into a Fabregas or Sokratis into a Van Dijk.  

   The Gunners opened the scoring in the 8th minute when Kolasinac took a pass from Aubameyang to make a low cross that deflected off Lindelof. The loose ball fell to Pepe, who shot past De Gea from 10 yards. Arsenal doubled the lead from Pepe’s corner in the 43rd. De Gea palmed Lacazette’s header into the path of Sokratis, who smashed the rebound into the roof of the net.

   The scoreline doesn’t reflect Arsenal’s dominance. Even understat.com is quite stingy with 1.85 expected goals for Arsenal compared to 0.72 for United. Frankly, the Gunners could have won by 5 or 6 goals with better finishing in the 32nd, 33rd, 38th, 61st and 79th, or a better final ball in the 53rd, 75th, 84th and 88th.

Aubameyang sacrificing his ambitions

   Pepe produced a ‘Man of the Match’ performance, opening the scoring and taking the corner that led to the second goal. He nearly found the net again in the 38th but his curling shot from 25 yards hit the base of the post. The Ivory Coast international provided penetration in the final third with 4 successful dribbles out of 6 and 4 key passes, the most for any player.

   His passing accuracy was outstanding, too. Pepe completed 100% of his passes compared to 92.7% for Xhaka and 85.7% for Ozil. Arteta must have been quite happy with Pepe’s work-rate. Pepe made 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 6 recoveries) in 61 minutes compared to 3 for Aubameyang and 4 for Lacazette, according to the club’s website.

   At 24, Pepe still has room for improvement. He can sometimes be too casual and turn into a turnover machine like Sanchez. Pepe led all players with 8 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He can also improve his killing instinct in the final third. When Lacazette made a cross from the left flank in the 25th, a passive Pepe was nowhere near the 6-yard box.

   Pepe was replaced in the 62nd by Nelson, who failed to make an impact. In stoppage time, the Gunners led a counterattack and fed Nelson, who took too much time on the edge of the box to pick his spot and lost possession. Nelson had a promising season on loan at Hoffenheim but now he must work even harder to fulfill his potential because the Premier League is a notch the Bundesliga.

   On the left wing, Aubameyang sacrificed his scoring ambitions, working selflessly for the team. At some stage, Arteta will come to the same conclusion as Ljungberg. It doesn’t make sense to play your best striker in a wide position. Aubameyang’s only scoring chance came in the 10th. Pepe toyed with Shaw before making a cross for Aubameyang, whose acrobatic volley sailed over the bar.

Lacazette low on confidence

   The other problem is Aubameyang’s all-around game, which is average for a winger. It’s almost like watching Walcott again. Aubameyang managed to pick out Kolasinac on the opener in the 8th and set up Lacazette with a short pass in the 61st. But he missed his final ball with poor left-footed crosses in the 53rd and 88th. That’s why Emery preferred to play Aubameyang on the right wing. At least, Aubameyang could use his stronger right foot for crosses.

   I’m not a fan of Lacazette in the centerforward position, especially if Arteta plans to use long balls. Lacazette simply doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace or Giroud’s hold-up play. The French striker is still struggling with the physicality of the Premier League. He was bullied by Maguire in the 48th and dispossessed by Fred in the 57th.  

   Lacazette was involved in the second goal with a header that forced De Gea into an awkward save. But he was let down by his finishing 3 times. Lacazette turned Maguire in the 32nd only to miss the target with the outside of his left boot. Then Lacazette was put off by Maguire and shot wide from 7 yards in the 61st. His last effort was a curling shot from the edge of the box that sailed wide in the 78th. Two minutes later, Lacazette wasted an Arsenal counterattack by leaving the ball behind him. Obviously, Lacazette is very low on confidence. His starting spot will be under threat when Martinelli returns from injury.

Ozil’s tremendous work-rate

   In midfield, Ozil had an outstanding game. If you look at his stats (0 shot, 1 key pass), you may wonder what the buzz is all about. On paper, Ozil played in the No. 10 position, but on the pitch, Ozil played like a No. 8. He’s the one who won the ball in Arsenal’s half to start the play on the opening goal. Ozil then dropped off to hit a ball over the top for Maitland-Niles in the 42nd. Maguire blocked Maitland-Niles cross and the following corner led to the second goal.

   Arteta has managed to get from Ozil what Emery, Wenger and Mourinho couldn’t get: a high work-rate. Ozil finished the game with 13 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 11 recoveries), according to the club’s website. Only Xhaka on the Arsenal team did better with 14 defensive actions (3 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 recoveries). Now the million-dollar question is whether Ozil will work as hard in the next games or if it was just a one-off performance.

   Later in the game, Ozil had 2 opportunities to express his creativity. On a counterattack in the 75th, Ozil thought that Lacazette would run into the space behind the centerbacks. But Lacazette didn’t make the run and United recovered the ball. Ozil led another fast break in the 84th and attempted to slip a through ball to Aubameyang, who expected it on the wrong side. In both situations, the passer and the runner were not on the same page.

   The Arsenal defense got enough protection from the forwards and midfielders, limiting United to just 10 shots. Arteta relied again on the partnership formed by Xhaka and Torreira in central midfield. Xhaka and Torreira had similar stats and produced a relatively solid performance. Torreira nearly scored in the 33rd, turning Fred to fire a low drive that flirted with the post. He lost his focus in the 72nd while trying to play out from the back and gave the ball away. The Uruguay international was so exhausted that he had to eat an energy bar on the pitch.

The dangers of the square pass

   In the rightback position, Maitland-Niles kept Rashford quiet. Maitland-Niles has already improved under Arteta. His positional play was sound and his work-rate was outstanding with 12 defensive actions (3 tackles, 4 interceptions, 5 recoveries). Maybe the weirdest stat was that Maitland-Niles led all players with 73 passes, more than Luiz (62), Sokratis (62) and Xhaka (55). It shows that his teammates trust him.

   However, there’s one major flaw that Maitland-Niles will have to correct in his game. He put his team in danger with square passes in the 5th and 44th. Passes to the centerback and the winger are usually the safe and boring options. So it’s sometimes tempting to try something new like a square pass to Xhaka.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac made his return from injury but wasn’t really match fit. He made only 3 defensive actions (1 interception, 2 recoveries) in 68 minutes and won 33.3% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Kolasinac struggled to cope with James’ pace and received a yellow card by the 3rd minute for a foul on the Wales winger. Despite obvious fitness issues, Kolasinac managed to avoid a second booking before Arteta replaced him with Saka in the 69th. Saka had a scoring chance on a fast break in the 79th but could only muster a tame diagonal shot.

   Luiz almost looks like a decent defender when he gets plenty of protection. He won 75% of his duels compared to 66.7% for Sokratis, according to the club’s website. The Brazilian centerback was only in trouble once during the game and ended up fouling Martial in the 13th because the Gunners played a risky high defensive line.  

Rebuilding the players’ fitness

   The fans will probably remember Sokratis for his goal but his defensive performance was shaky. Sokratis was dribbled past 3 times, tied with Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ozil and Torreira for the most on the Arsenal team, according to whoscored.com. The Greek centerback was pulled out of position in the 59th and caught ball-watching as Pereira fired into the side-netting. In stoppage time, Sokratis failed to clear Mata’s long ball, forcing Leno to save Rashford’s point-blank effort.

   Leno redeemed himself after his blunder against Chelsea by keeping his fourth clean sheet in the Premier League this season. The German goalkeeper stopped Fred’s powerful strike in the 55th and Greenwood’s shot in the 73rd. He will however need to work on his distribution at Colney because he gave the ball away on the stroke of halftime and in the 60th.    

   The Gunners next play Leeds United in the FA Cup on Monday before visiting Crystal Palace in the Premier League five days later. Historically, the FA Cup means a lot for Arsenal but Arteta might have his options limited by the number of injured players. Holding and Ceballos were back in the squad against United but Chambers, Tierney, Bellerin and Martinelli are still sidelined.

   Another factor to take into account is the players’ fitness levels. Torreira and Lacazette struggled physically in the second half. Arteta might have to organize special sessions in order to rebuild the players’ fitness. Remember, Emery was dismissed on Nov. 29 and Arteta officially named his coaching staff on Dec. 24. That means there was only one head coach in charge of the whole training for nearly 4 weeks. It’s not possible to keep an eye on the players’ fitness without a coaching team. Again, Sanllehi and the Arsenal board poorly managed the transition and the players are paying the price for that amateurism.



Arsenal vs. Manchester City: 3-0 loss shows lack of quality in defense & midfield

   The Gunners lost 3-0 to Manchester City on Sunday to stay in the middle of the Premier League table, 4 points behind Spurs and 3 behind Manchester United. The scoreline could have been worse. Leno made some outstanding saves and City also took their foot off the pedal in the second half.

Arsenal vs. City 2019.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   Ljungberg inherited the mess left by Gazidis, Wenger, Mislintat, Sanllehi and Emery. There are a couple of outstanding players in the current squad, but most of the experienced players are simply not good enough while the youngsters are not quite ready for the top level. Ljungberg made 2 changes to the side that won at West Ham with Kolasinac and Guendouzi replacing the injured Tierney and Xhaka in the starting lineup.

   The Arsenal front three that looked so impressive against the Hammers was relatively toothless against the Citizens. And the back four that looked decent at the London stadium was all over the place on Sunday. The difference of level between City and the Gunners was a reminder of the massive rebuilding job required at Arsenal.

   Tactically, it was similar to the defeat at Leicester. Most of the Citizens’ chances came through the middle. City clearly identified Arsenal’s soft center as the main weakness. Imagine the 2 centerbacks and the 2 central midfielders forming a square on the pitch. That square is like a bullseye for the opposition because it is so soft. The Gunners are still paying the price for not signing a world-class centerback and a ballwinner in the summer.

Poor defensive culture

   The Citizens opened the scoring in the second minute. Fernandinho ran 30 yards unchallenged before feeding Jesus, who rounded Chambers to square the ball back for De Bruyne. From 15 yards, De Bruyne smashed the ball into the roof of the net. Arsenal’s poor defensive culture allowed City to move the ball from their own half to the final third with just one pass.

Arsenal vs. City M02a edited.jpgPepe and Guendouzi fail to close down Fernandinho. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. City M02b edited.jpgFernandinho has plenty of time to make the perfect pass for Jesus. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Gunners had numerical superiority in their defensive third. But individual quality made the difference for City. Chambers lost a key duel on that play while Torreira was caught ball-watching.

Arsenal vs. City M02c edited.jpgTorreira doesn’t smell the danger behind him. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. City M02d editedNo Gunner marking or closing down De Bruyne. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Citizens doubled the lead in the 15th by exposing Arsenal’s defensive weakness in the transition game. When Pepe’s pass for Aubameyang was intercepted by Rodri, the Gunners tried to press high up the pitch. Unfortunately, they had the wrong personnel for that task with Ozil and Guendouzi. Rodri beat the press with a short pass to Foden.

Arsenal vs. City M15a edited.jpgOzil and Guendouzi trying to press Rodri and Foden. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. City M15b edited.jpgGuendouzi is out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Foden then found De Bruyne, who played a one-two with Jesus before making a low cross for Sterling. Unmarked at the far post, Sterling tapped the ball home. Chambers lost a key duel again by failing to block De Bruyne’s cross.

Arsenal vs. City M15c edited.jpgKolasinac leaves Sterling unmarked. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Gunners were unlucky to concede the third goal while temporarily down to 10 men because of Kolasinac’s injury. De Bruyne took a short pass from Foden in the 40th and got the better of Guendouzi before firing into the bottom corner from 20 yards.

Poor decision-making

   Guendouzi’s reading of the game was poor on that play. He ended up in the position of the defensive midfielder because Torreira was pulled out of position by pressing Rodri. Guendouzi left a small gap for De Bruyne by running toward the ball instead of getting in De Bruyne’s way. Then Chambers preferred to back off instead of closing down De Bruyne.

Arsenal vs. City M40a edited.jpgGuendouzi should have gotten in De Bruyne’s way. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. City M40b edited.jpgGuendouzi is on the wrong side of De Bruyne. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. City M40c edited.jpgChambers backs off although Maitland-Niles is already marking Sterling. (Photo credit: Sky)

   City should have scored a fourth goal in the 43rd but Leno made an outstanding save. It all started with a turnover from Ozil in midfield. Ozil made no effort to win the ball back, so Torreira pressed Rodri and then Gundogan. Torreira was again pulled out of position as Foden dribbled past Guendouzi to tee up De Bruyne, whose 25-yard strike was tipped onto the post by Leno. De Bruyne was again encouraged to shoot by Chambers’ passivity.

Arsenal vs. City M43a editedTorreira is out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. City M43b editedTorreira follows Rodri instead of marking De Bruyne. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. City M43c edited.jpgChambers is too far to make a block. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Chambers didn’t cover himself in glory in the 62nd, almost giving Ljungberg a heart attack. Sokratis put Chambers in trouble with a poor pass that Sterling nearly intercepted. Chambers dribbled past Sterling and then showed poor decision-making by taking on Jesus instead of passing the ball to Maitland-Niles. Jesus dispossessed Chambers to be clean through on goal but Leno denied the Brazil striker.

Arsenal vs. City M62a edited.jpgChambers and Sterling run toward the ball. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. City M62b edited.jpgChambers should have passed the ball to Maitland-Niles. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. City M62c edited.jpgJesus dispossesses Chambers. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Frankly, it’s an impossible job for Ljungberg or any other manager. The 6 centerbacks in the Arsenal squad (Luiz, Sokratis, Mustafi, Chambers, Holding, Mavropanos) are simply not good enough. As long as Koscielny was still around, the defense looked half-decent. But the 5-1 losses to Bayern Munich and the heavy defeats against Manchester City were obvious signs that something was still missing.

Maitland-Niles’ good performance

   Whoever scouted Chambers made a major mistake. Chambers’ slow first steps mean that he will always lose those key duels against pacy forwards. The English defender was involved in all 3 goals. Jesus beat Chambers to set up the opening goal, then Chambers failed to block De Bruyne’s cross for the second and he failed to close down De Bruyne for the third. Every defender in the Premier League knows that De Bruyne can score from the edge of the box. But Chambers didn’t seem to get the memo as he backed off again in the 43rd instead of charging forward to make a block.

   Chambers won only 37.5% of his duels and had a passing accuracy of 81.1% while Sokratis won 60% of his duels and had a passing accuracy of 89.1%, according to the club’s website. If the Arsenal board is smart enough, they will sell Chambers in the summer and use the money to sign a better defender. Chambers’ disastrous performance almost made Sokratis look good. Sokratis earned his 5th yellow card this season with a stamp on Jesus’ foot in the 72nd.    

   In the rightback position, Maitland-Niles had a good game, winning 66.7% of his duels and making 12 defensive actions (1 tackle, 3 interceptions, 8 recoveries), the most for any player according to the club’s website. His main offensive contribution was a cross for Aubameyang in the 48th. Maitland-Niles’ decision-making in the final third is still a work in progress. He refused to make a cross in the 26th although both Aubameyang and Martinelli were inside the City box.  

   In the leftback position, Ljungberg had to improvise again as Rodri stamped on Kolasinac’s ankle in the 34th while the Bosnia-Herzegovina international was making a dribbling run. The staff and the players will have to watch Formula 1 pit stops because it took 7 minutes to replace Kolasinac with Saka. City took advantage of their numerical superiority to score the third goal. Saka didn’t have the same attacking opportunities that he enjoyed against Standard de Liège but I thought he did OK defensively. Maybe the best model for Saka would be Sessegnon, who is versatile enough to play both as a winger and as a fullback.

Ozil’s petulance

   The porosity of the Arsenal midfield has been a recurrent problem this season. The Gunners were overrun in midfield because De Bruyne, Gundogan and Rodri worked harder than Ozil, Guendouzi and Torreira. The few times Arsenal tried to press high up the pitch, the team was often split in two instead of being compact because the centerbacks were scared of the pace of Sterling and Jesus and therefore preferred to drop off.

   De Bruyne is the team player that Ozil cannot be. The Belgium international made 8 defensive actions (2 tackles, 6 recoveries) while Ozil made only 3 defensive actions (3 recoveries) in 58 minutes, according to the club’s website. Besides his poor work-rate, Ozil had very little impact offensively with 0 shot and 1 key pass, setting up Torreira for a long-range strike over the bar in 50th. By contrast, De Bruyne had 4 of 5 shots on target and made 2 key passes, scoring 2 goals and making 1 assist.

   At Real Madrid, Ozil was a valuable player because he was surrounded by leaders and playing for a winning team. At Arsenal, Ozil has turned into a nuisance because he’s playing for a losing team with no leader. His attitude on the pitch was appalling. From a recycled corner in the 10th, an offside Ozil killed a play by taking the ball off Maitland-Niles’ feet. Ozil then showed a lack of focus in the 46th and 54th, losing possession with poor touches.

   Ljungberg could see that Ozil had a stinker. When the Swedish manager decided to replace Ozil with Smith-Rowe in the 59th, Ozil sulked, strolling slowly off the pitch. In a fit of anger, Ozil even kicked his gloves along the touchline. That kind of behavior is disrespectful toward the fans, the manager and the players. Some fans were angry with Emery for benching Ozil. But Sunday’s game gave Ljungberg no reason to build his team around Ozil.

Poor organization on set pieces

   There’s no way the Arsenal midfield can be fixed this season. Two set pieces summed up the poor organization in midfield. From a City throw-in, De Bruyne managed to run 40 yards from his own half in the 55th before having a shot blocked by Chambers. Torreira and Guendouzi were pulled out of position on that play, forcing Pepe to chase De Bruyne. There was also a huge gap in midfield because the centerbacks preferred to back off instead of supporting Torreira and Guendouzi.

   From another throw-in, the Citizens took advantage of the high position on the pitch of Guendouzi and Willock to threaten again in the 90th. Zinchenko played a long ball toward Jesus, who found De Bruyne. As evidence of the poor organization, Smith-Rowe was playing in a deeper position than Willock and Guendouzi and ended up marking De Bruyne on that play. De Bruyne fed Sterling, who fired wide.

   The Citizens made tactical fouls whenever they felt that Arsenal could create a dangerous situation. City finished the game with 24 fouls compared to just 9 for the Gunners. By contrast, the defensive culture at Arsenal is poor. Guendouzi failed to close down Fernandinho on the opening goal, was pulled out of position by Foden for the second, and was on the wrong side of De Bruyne for the third. Foden also dribbled past Guendouzi too easily in the 43rd.

   Torreira performed slightly better than Guendouzi, winning 76.9% of his duels and making 10 defensive actions (4 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 recoveries) in 80 minutes, compared to 40% of duels won and 7 defensive actions (2 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 recoveries) in 94 minutes for Guendouzi, according to the club’s website. Guendouzi had 3 turnovers and was dribbled past twice while Torreira had 1 turnover and was dribbled past once, according to whoscored.com.

Martinelli’s increasing market value

   The Uruguay international has better defensive skills than Guendouzi but I don’t think that Torreira should be Arsenal’s ballwinner next season. Torreira is more a deep-lying playmaker who can do some defensive work. On Sunday, his lack of defensive awareness was sometimes painful to watch. Torreira didn’t smell the danger on the opening goal, failing to spot De Bruyne’s run. He made the same mistake in the 43rd when De Bruyne hit the post. His decision to press on the third goal was poor because the Gunners were temporarily down to 10 men and couldn’t afford to leave a gap on the edge of the box.

   The Citizens were so dominant that Arsenal had only 1 shot on target compared to 7 for the visitors. It was a frustrating game for Aubameyang, who had to feed off crumbs. The Gabon striker met a cross from Maitland-Niles in the 48th only to head the ball wide. He then chased a long ball from Torreira in the 73rd for a difficult half-volley that sailed wide. Aubameyang was still inside the City box in the 90th but Saka overhit his cross for the Arsenal captain.

   On the left wing, Martinelli showed that he has the level to play in the Premier League. His work-rate was outstanding for a forward. Martinelli made 10 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries) and had 2 successful dribbles out of 6. The Brazilian teenager taught Ozil a lesson in humility by shamelessly dispossessing Sterling in the 25th and Otamendi in the 50th.

Time on the training ground

   Arsenal only spent £6 million to sign Martinelli a few months ago. His market value has already reached £16 million, according to Transfermarkt. It will be difficult for the Gunners to keep him if they perform so badly every week. Martinelli will simply become too good to stay at a mid-table club. He chased a long ball from Torreira in the opening minute and toyed with Otamendi and Fernandinho before testing Ederson with an angled strike. Then Martinelli rounded Walker in the 8th minute to fire another angled effort that Ederson palmed away.

   On the right wing, Pepe provided penetration with 3 successful dribbles out of 6, tied with Walker for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. However, his work-rate was average with just 4 defensive actions (1 tackle, 3 recoveries). Pepe also lacked end product. He missed the target in the 8th and his through ball for Aubameyang in the 84th was intercepted.

   Ljungberg has a bit of time to work on the training ground this week as the Gunners don’t play until Saturday when they visit Everton. Transition plays are the obvious problem that Arsenal must fix. Then Ljungberg must make a decision on two phases of play that deteriorated in Emery’s second season: playing out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. Playing out from the back is very difficult when you have defenders with limited ball-playing abilities like Chambers, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac. Likewise, pressing high up the pitch is a non-sense with sluggish or lazy players like Xhaka, Guendouzi and Ozil.



West Ham vs. Arsenal: Gunners stop rot with 3-1 win

   Arsenal snapped a nine-game winless streak in all competitions by defeating West Ham 3-1 on Monday. It was their first victory in the Premier League since Oct. 6. The Gunners are still too far behind in the Top 4 race as they trail Chelsea by 7 points. But they kept pace with Manchester United and Tottenham in the race for a Europa League spot.

West Ham vs. Arsenal 2019.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   Although they enjoyed 64% of ball possession, the Gunners created very little. They had just 10 shots to 11 for the Hammers. What made the difference was Arsenal’s clinical finish in the final third. The Gunners converted all their shots on target while West Ham converted only 1 of 4 shots on target. The result should boost Arsenal’s morale, but there are still some issues that need to be fixed.

   The Hammers were happy to let Arsenal have the ball, hoping to hit the visitors on the fast break. The Gunners made a lot of sideways passes and simply lacked urgency to destabilize the West Ham defense in the first half. That’s the main reason why Chambers led all players with 105 passes. Trailing 1-0 at halftime, Arsenal had more verticality in their game and reached the final third more quickly in the second half.

   Ljungberg deserves some credit for his team selection. Martinelli, Aubameyang and Pepe never started together under Emery in any competition. Emery came close to finding the solution by starting Saka, Aubameyang and Pepe against Aston Villa, Manchester United, Bournemouth and Sheffield. Ljungberg made a small tweak by replacing Saka with Martinelli on the left wing. As evidence of Ljungberg’s flair, all 3 forwards found the net on Monday.

   The Hammers lost the game in 9 minutes. Martinelli equalized in the 60th by guiding the ball into the bottom corner. Pepe made it 2-1 in the 66th by taking a pass from Aubameyang to curl into the top corner. Aubameyang sealed the win in the 69th, volleying home a deflected cross from Pepe.

The new understanding between Pepe and Aubameyang

   Martinelli got the nod over Saka because he’s a better finisher. And he got the nod over Lacazette because Ljungberg wanted to play Aubameyang in a central position instead of using him on a wing. Martinelli scored his first goal in the Premier League. Before Monday’s game, Martinelli had only scored in the Europa League and the League Cup. That 8th goal in all competitions is definitely a positive step in Martinelli’s development.

   Besides the equalizer, Martinelli also made a key pass for Torreira, whose shot was blocked by Balbuena in the 75th. As usual, the Brazilian teenager’s work-rate was outstanding. Martinelli was tied with Chambers and Maitland-Niles for the most defensive actions (12) on the Arsenal team, winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 block and 8 recoveries according to the club’s website.

   On the right wing, Pepe finally scored his first goal from open play. Pepe arguably produced his best performance in the Premier League. Last season, Arsenal heavily relied on the good understanding between Lacazette and Aubameyang. With the tactical configuration chosen by Ljungberg, the key to the Gunners’ season could be the new understanding struck between Pepe and Aubameyang. That understanding came to life too late to save Emery’s job.

   Surprisingly, Pepe and Aubameyang had never interacted on any goal before Monday’s game. Aubameyang made his first assist of the season by setting up Pepe for Arsenal’s second goal. Pepe fed Aubameyang for the last goal but it didn’t count as an assist because his cross took a deflection off Masuaku. The Ivory Coast international previously made assists for Lacazette and Luiz in the Premier League and for Saka and Mustafi in the Europa League.

Pepe’s decision-making

   Pepe provided penetration in the final third by leading all players with 3 successful dribbles out of 8, according to whoscored.com. West Ham leftback Cresswell struggled against Pepe and was lucky to avoid a booking in the 34th for a dangerous scissor tackle on Pepe. In fact, the referee did not even award a foul. However, Cresswell did receive a yellow card in the 49th for another reckless challenge on Pepe.

   I think Pepe still has room for improvement in his decision-making. He especially needs to be more selective in his dribbling runs. According to whoscored.com, Pepe led all players with 7 turnovers. Pepe used to have more space in the French league when he played at Lille, but opponents close down more quickly in the Premier League. For instance, it doesn’t make sense to take on 2 defenders like Pepe did in the 8th and the 24th. Pepe was dispossessed in both cases.  

   The first half was quite frustrating for Aubameyang, who got no decent service. Aubameyang created Arsenal’s first real chance in the 33rd by making a cross for Ozil, who headed over the bar from close range. Out of frustration, Aubameyang went on a solo run only to miss the target with a long-range effort on the stroke of halftime. Aubameyang showed why he deserved the captaincy by finishing the game with 1 goal and 1 assist. He could have added another goal in stoppage time, but Fredericks diverted his shot over the bar.    

   The front three will have to work harder on aerial duels at Colney. When the Arsenal defense tried to bypass the midfield with long balls, the West Ham defense often won the aerial duels. Aubameyang, Pepe and Martinelli combined to win only 1 of 6 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. The Gunners were lucky that West Ham didn’t press high up the pitch.

Ozil as a No. 8

   In midfield, Ljungberg relied on what was done under Emery. Last season, Emery protected the Arsenal defense with the duo formed by Xhaka and Torreira. For some reason, Emery decided to sideline Torreira, preferring to partner Xhaka with Guendouzi this season. Ljungberg went back to basics by playing Torreira alongside Xhaka both against Brighton and West Ham.

   The major change made by Ljungberg in midfield was to play Ozil in the hole. Initially, the Swedish manager played Ozil in a front three against Norwich and Brighton. But Ozil’s lack of impact in the final third and the need for a link player in midfield led Ljungberg to use Ozil in a more familiar role against the Hammers. On paper, Ozil played in the No. 10 position. On the pitch, Ozil played more like a No. 8.

   Ozil acted like a water carrier for the last 2 goals, a bit like Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi used to when they played in the Arsenal midfield. As you can see on the screen captures below, Ozil took a pass from Torreira in the 66th and ran about 20 yards before finding Aubameyang on the edge of the West Ham box. Ozil did not make the assist on that play, it was Aubameyang who set up Pepe for Arsenal’s second goal.

West Ham vs. Arsenal M66a edited.jpgOzil receives a pass near the halfway line. (Photo credit: Sky)

West Ham vs. Arsenal M66b editedOzil picks out Aubameyang on the edge of the West Ham area. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The last goal also showed Ozil’s ability to find pockets of space in order to receive the ball. Again,Torreira found Ozil near the halfway line. Ozil ran about 20 yards before making a pinpoint pass for Aubameyang. Willock was the one who played in the hole against Norwich and Brighton. I’m not sure Willock could have made such an accurate crossfield pass between Masuaku and Ogbonna. Aubameyang managed to hold the ball up before feeding Pepe with a backheel flick.

West Ham vs. Arsenal M69a edited.jpg Torreira finds Ozil in midfield. (Photo credit: Sky)

West Ham vs. Arsenal M69b edited.jpgThe accuracy of Ozil’s passing in the final third. (Photo credit: Sky)

   I have no problem with Ozil playing as a No. 8. Attacking midfielders like Iniesta, Cazorla and David Silva also played in a deeper position as they got older. But that means Ozil will have to improve his ball retention skills and win more duels. Ozil was dispossessed 3 times according to whoscored.com. Only Pepe did worse as the Hammers robbed him 4 times. And Ozil won only 28.6% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal starter according to the club’s website. Surprisingly, Ozil’s work-rate was good. He made 7 recoveries, as many as Xhaka.

Torreira’s progressive passing

   A bit like De Bruyne and Silva at Manchester City, Ozil alternated between the No. 10 role and the No. 8 position during the game. I thought Ozil was more effective as a No. 8. But there were a couple of times when Ozil could have made the difference as a No. 10. He made a good run in the 33rd only to head Aubameyang’s cross over the bar. Ozil finished the game with 2 key passes. The first one was a short pass to Xhaka, whose 40-yard speculative shot was blocked in the 63rd. The second looked more like a final ball. In the last minute of injury time, Ozil found Martinelli inside the area, but the Brazilian striker’s shot was also blocked.

   Torreira built his reputation in Serie A as a defensive midfielder. But the more I watch him, and the more I think deep-lying playmaker is Torreira’s best position. I already compared him last season to Cazorla. Torreira’s progressive passing seems quite underrated. He played an important role on the equalizer by releasing Kolasinac down the left wing.

West Ham vs. Arsenal M60a edited.jpg Torreira finds a pocket of space to take a pass. (Photo credit: Sky)

West Ham vs. Arsenal M60b edited.jpgTorreira spots Kolasinac’s run down the left. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Uruguay international was also involved in the other 2 goals as he made the first forward pass in West Ham’s half, each time by picking out Ozil. Xhaka and Torreira both made 8 defensive actions each, but Torreira performed better than his teammate. Torreira made 1 key pass, won 83.3% of his duels and no Hammer dribbled past him, while Xhaka made 0 key pass, won only 45.5% of his duels and was dribbled past once. The club should sign a top ballwinner this summer to replace Xhaka in the role of the holding midfielder.

Improvising at the back  

   Guendouzi and Xhaka both lack defensive awareness but Xhaka got the nod because he’s more experienced than the French youngster. Xhaka was very frustrating to watch, giving the ball away in the 30th, 37th, 48th, 55th, 81st and 83rd. He also fouled Ogbonna in the 64th and nearly gave away a penalty in the 22nd. The Switzerland midfielder was replaced by Guendouzi in the 86th after picking up a concussion.

   Ljungberg should be innovative enough to try and convert Willock into a defensive midfielder. Remember, Coquelin also started his career as an attacking midfielder before Wenger pointed out his limitations, leading Coquelin to consider a change of position.

   Defensively, I don’t think the Gunners can learn much from this game. They won’t often face an offense as toothless as West Ham’s. Ljungberg had to improvise at the back. He made 3 changes to the back four that lost to Brighton, replacing Bellerin, Kolasinac and Luiz with Maitland-Niles, Tierney and Chambers. Bellerin picked up an injury during the warm-up, Kolasinac was nursing a groin strain and Luiz was left on the bench after his poor performance against Brighton. Ljungberg had to change his plans again in the 26th when Tierney picked up a shoulder injury after colliding with Antonio. Kolasinac came off the bench to replace the Scottish leftback in the 29th.  

   On the right flank, Maitland-Niles made his first start in the Premier League since his red card against Aston Villa in September. His work-rate was good but Maitland-Niles still needs to prove that he’s no longer a naive player who makes costly mistakes. He also needs to improve his efficiency in the final third. The academy graduate made a poor cross for Martinelli and Aubameyang in the 44th. And his decision-making in the 62nd was poor. Maitland-Niles had the opportunity to cross the ball but he preferred to take on Rice and was dispossessed.  

Losing the second ball

   In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Chambers performed better than Sokratis. The English defender won 80% of his duels and made 12 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries) while Sokratis won 70% of his duels and made only 4 defensive actions (1 block, 1 interception, 2 recoveries), according to the club’s website.

   There were a couple of times when the 2 centerbacks looked shaky. Chambers fluffed his clearance in the 34th. The ball bounced off Maitland-Niles and fell to Antonio, whose angled effort was saved by Leno. On the stroke of halftime, Chambers was scared of Antonio’s pace and held the West Ham striker. Sokratis doesn’t seem to be aware of his limited ball-playing abilities. Trying to play out from the back in the 48th, Sokratis started a dribbling run from his defensive third only to clear the ball into touch.

   The second ball has been an issue for the Gunners lately. Arsenal conceded a goal from a second ball against Frankfurt and Brighton. West Ham’s opening goal also came from a second ball. The Gunners cleared a corner in the 38th. The ball fell into the path of Noble, left unmarked by Ozil. Noble had his shot blocked by Martinelli. But Rice won the second ball and found Fornals on our left flank. The Spanish midfielder made a cross for Ogbonna, who showed more desire than Xhaka and Chambers to win the header. Ogbonna’s bullet header bounced off Maitland-Niles’ back to beat Leno.  

   There was already a warning in the 26th when Chambers cleared a free kick. The ball fell to Fornals, whose fluffed shot was easily saved by Leno. The second ball is all about desire and focus. Ogbonna wanted it more than Xhaka and Chambers on the opener while Ozil didn’t pay attention to what was on the edge of the box.

   The Gunners next visit Standard de Liège in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Manchester City in the Premier League on Sunday. Unless there’s a disastrous performance in Belgium, Arsenal should qualify for the knockout phase of the second-tier European competition. Expectations are low for the game against City. The Gunners lost to the Citizens in the past 2 seasons.


Arsenal vs. Brighton: Gunners fighting relegation after 2-1 loss?

   Arsenal could be fighting relegation the entire season after losing 2-1 to Brighton on Thursday. They haven’t won in the Premier League since Oct. 6. In their last 7 league games, they have racked up a ridiculous total of 4 points. Even teams in the relegation zone like Everton, Norwich and Watford have done better than that. The Gunners now sit in the middle of the table because of their decent start to the season, but they are only 5 points above the relegation zone.

Arsenal vs. Brighton 2019.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   The chemistry in the dressing room can’t be good when you see players like Aubameyang, Ozil and Luiz shouting at their teammates. What happened in the closing minutes of Thursday’s game could be the metaphor for this dreadful season. As the Gunners were desperately chasing an equalizer, Aubameyang sprinted off the pitch for an urgent bathroom break. The Arsenal captain came back on the pitch before the final whistle, but that made no difference to the result.

   The Gunners have made struggling teams look good this season. Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Norwich was bad publicity for the Arsenal defense because opponents now realize that the Gunners are scared of players running at them. The Seagulls had lost their 3 previous league games. Yet, they were the more threatening side on Thursday, enjoying 50.8% of ball possession and having 20 shots to only 12 for the Gunners.

   The Emirates stadium used to be a fortress, but now the visiting teams are no longer intimidated. Last season, Arsenal had 14 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses in 19 league games at home. This season, the Gunners have already dropped points in 5 home games before even reaching the halfway stage.

Weak in the air

   Ljungberg made 3 changes to the side that drew at Norwich with Torreira, Sokratis and Bellerin replacing Guendouzi, Mustafi and Chambers in the starting lineup. Nothing really clicked. Offensively, Arsenal’s passing game was too slow to crack the Brighton defense. The Seagulls had plenty of time to get back into position. In fact, the Gunners were so predictable that they were caught offside 7 times. Defensively, Brighton exposed the Gunners’ weakness in the air. The Seagulls won 66% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

   Brighton opened the scoring from a corner in the 36th minute. Burn outjumped Lacazette to head the corner across goal. Connolly chested the ball down only to have his fluffed shot blocked by Luiz. Webster got ahead of Willock to pounce on the rebound and fire past Leno. The Gunners have conceded quite a few goals this season by losing the second ball.

   Arsenal also equalized from a corner. Lacazette made a run to the near post in the 50th to meet Ozil’s corner and send a looping header into the far corner. Brighton capitalized on some poor defending from the Gunners to score the winning goal in the 80th. Burn redirected a long ball toward Trossard on our right flank. Trossard held off Sokratis before slipping the ball to Mooy, who cut inside Bellerin to make a cross for Maupay. The diminutive French striker took a step back to head the ball into the far corner.

A chain reaction of mistakes

   Sokratis made the first mistake on that play. Trossard pulled the Greek defender out of position. There was no danger yet in the Arsenal area as Torreira compensated for the team by covering Sokratis at centerback.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M80a editedTrossard pulls Sokratis out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Xhaka made the second mistake by standing in no man’s land. The Switzerland international didn’t smell the danger and hesitated between keeping an eye on the ball and marking Stephens. With better decision-making, Xhaka would have anticipated Mooy’s run and got in his way.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M80b editedXhaka fails to block Mooy’s run. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Gunners were in deep trouble from the moment Mooy checked back on his right foot to make a cross. As you can see on the screen capture below, the Seagulls had a favorable 4v3 situation in the final third. Both Sokratis and Xhaka became useless on that play. Sokratis was too far away from the area while Xhaka was not marking anybody. Surprisingly, Bellerin didn’t get the memo that Mooy was right-footed because he left him too much space inside.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M80c edited.jpgThe Seagulls have a favorable 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Torreira made the last mistake on that play by anticipating a pass to Propper, leaving Luiz in a 1v2 situation. Of course, it’s a chain reaction. Torreira wouldn’t have made that gamble if Sokratis was not out of position and if Xhaka had challenged Mooy.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M80d edited.jpgTorreira leaves Luiz in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Ljungberg played the same front three that started against Norwich with Lacazette leading the line while Ozil and Aubameyang had the freedom to drift from the wings. Again, the Gunners lacked penetration in the final third whether through dribbling or passing. Lacazette, Aubameyang and Ozil combined to have 0 successful dribble. And they were each caught offside twice.

The Ozil issue

   Ozil finished the game with 2 key passes but none came from open play. Some fans didn’t like Ljungberg’s decision to play Ozil in a wide position, even though Wenger also used Ozil on the right wing when he switched to a 3-4-3 formation. At halftime, Ljungberg moved Ozil into the No. 10 position. Despite the tactical change, the German playmaker was still inefficient in the final third. Ozil was dispossessed by Mooy in the Brighton area in the 49th, made a poor pass that led to a counterattack by the Seagulls in the 52nd, and missed the target from 15 yards in the 69th.

   At 31, Ozil is aging badly. He’s nowhere near the level of a Zidane at the same age. Some fans thought that Emery was responsible for Ozil’s poor performances, even claiming that Emery killed Ozil’s creativity and forced him to play cross-field passes to Kolasinac. The reality is that Ozil and Kolasinac are good buddies in real life. On the pitch, Kolasinac will always be an obvious option for Ozil when he checks back on his left foot. Gazidis and Wenger clearly made a mistake by extending Ozil’s contract. Ozil will be a massive headache for any Arsenal manager until his contract ends in 2021.

   Lacazette scored 1 goal and made 2 key passes but really struggled in the centerforward position, leading all players with 5 turnovers according to whoscored.com. On the stroke of halftime, Torreira teed up Lacazette. Instead of attempting a first-time shot, Lacazette made a poor first touch and lost possession. Somehow, Lacazette was saved by his all-around game, setting up Aubameyang for a shot that sailed wide in the 28th and making a cross for Ozil in the 69th. In the physical Premier League, I still believe that Lacazette would feel more comfortable in the role of a second striker or even on a wing.

What about a 4-4-2?

   Aubameyang is the best scorer in the squad. Yet, Wenger, Emery and Ljungberg have all felt the need to play him in a wide position. It’s like Pochettino or Mourinho telling Kane to play on the right wing, that doesn’t really make any sense. Aubameyang sacrificed himself for the team by trying to create chances. His cross for Lacazette in the 39th was cleared by the Brighton defense. The Gabon striker then rounded Burn in the 41st to make a cross for Willock, who headed the ball straight at Ryan. Aubameyang’s only scoring chance of the game came in the 67th. Pepe slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, whose shot was blocked for a corner. If Ljungberg absolutely wants to play both Lacazette and Aubameyang, then a 4-4-2 formation should be his first choice.

   Lacazette, Aubameyang and Ozil started in the front three at kickoff. Ljungberg finished the game with Aubameyang, Martinelli and Pepe in the front three, replacing Willock with Pepe at halftime and Lacazette with Martinelli in the 77th. Pepe had an impact in the final third, feeding Aubameyang in the 67th and testing Ryan in the 83rd. Hopes were high when Pepe took a free kick in the 90th but his effort was deflected wide by the wall. Pepe added more penetration with his pace and dribbling kills. But he’s still too predictable as defenders know that Pepe prefers to check back on his left foot. Pepe had only 2 successful dribbles out of 6, according to whoscored.com.

   Martinelli didn’t get much playing time but he made a significant contribution in the 87th, connecting with a cross from Tierney for a bouncing header that Ryan saved. You have to feel sorry for Martinelli. That mustn’t be easy for a teenager to hone his skills in a new country and a new club in crisis.

Willock learning the hard way

   In midfield, Ljungberg made choices that Emery could have made. Torreira and Xhaka protected the back four while Willock played in a more advanced position. I guess the idea was to use Willock’s mobility and stamina to press Brighton high up the pitch. Of course, the problem was how Willock would then use the ball. The game seemed to go a bit too fast for Willock, whose passing accuracy of 46.2% was the lowest among Arsenal starters. Willock made 0 key pass and had 3 turnovers in 45 minutes. The academy graduate nearly proved Ljungberg right with Arsenal’s best chance from open play in the 41st. Unfortunately, Willock couldn’t guide his header toward the corners of the goal.

   Willock learned the hard way by losing Webster for a split second on the opening goal in the 36th. He also got an idea of Aubameyang’s high expectations in the 45th when he made the wrong pass for the Gabon striker. Out of frustration, Aubameyang yelled at Willock. I think Willock needs to play in a deeper position at this stage of his career. Actually, there’s an audition for the position of ballwinner at Arsenal.

   Surprisingly, Xhaka played as the holding midfielder while Torreira had more freedom to roam forward. That is similar to what Emery did last season. Again, Xhaka is not a defensive midfielder. Brighton’s second goal showed that Xhaka’s defensive instinct is poor. Xhaka was dribbled past twice, the most for any Gunner, while no Seagull skipped past Torreira.

   The Switzerland international tried his best, intercepting Connolly’s pass for Maupay in the 43rd and blocking Maupay’s shot in the 79th. But there were a couple of times when Xhaka put his team in danger by dallying on the ball. Xhaka tried to win a foul in the 38th and grabbed the ball after falling on the ground. The referee penalized Xhaka for handling the ball. In stoppage time, Trossard dispossessed Xhaka and toyed with Sokratis and Luiz before firing over the bar.

Disappointing fullbacks

   Torreira was seen a lot in the final third. From a recycled corner in the 10th, Torreira picked out Luiz, whose diagonal shot was stopped by Ryan. On the stroke of halftime, Torreira teed up Lacazette, who wasted an opportunity by not taking a first-time shot. Torreira also had a scoring chance in the 48th but lost possession with a heavy touch.

   You can understand why Emery was reluctant to play Torreira as a holding midfielder. The Uruguay international missed his headed clearance in the 26th. The ball fell to Maupay, whose angled strike flirted with the far post. Liverpool and Manchester City have holding midfielders (Fabinho, Fernandinho) who could play as centerbacks. Likewise, former Arsenal midfielders Petit, Gilberto and Song could also play as centerbacks. By contrast, Xhaka, Guendouzi and Torreira would be unable to play as decent centerbacks.

   Kolasinac and Bellerin were both disappointing on the flanks. They combined to make 0 key pass. Bellerin probably needs a couple of games to get back to his best. He only won 21.4% of his duels against Brighton. The Spaniard nearly conceded a penalty by holding back Connolly in the 20th. Mooy even managed to dispossess Bellerin in the 30th and the 40th. Bellerin’s only moment of brilliance came in the 55th when he knocked the ball past 2 Seagulls and won the ball back with a sliding tackle in the Brighton area before making an inaccurate cross for Aubameyang.

   Bellerin still worked hard with 10 defensive actions in 96 minutes while Kolasinac’s work-rate was poor with only 4 defensive actions in 70 minutes, according to the club’s website. Kolasinac also had 4 turnovers. Following a high press from the Gunners in the 56th, Kolasinac made a teasing cross for Aubameyang, who couldn’t make contact with the ball. Ljungberg replaced Kolasinac with Tierney in the 72nd. The Scottish fullback created the scoring chance for Martinelli.

Rock-solid Leno

   In the heart of the defense, Luiz and Sokratis both had a poor game. Luiz lost key duels on both Brighton goals and his passing accuracy of 81.4% was poor compared to Sokratis’ passing accuracy of 94.7%. The Brazilian centerback especially struggled in the air, winning only 25% of his aerial duels compared to 67% for Sokratis, 60% for Webster and 67% for Dunk, according to whoscored.com.

   Things didn’t start well for Luiz, who nearly cost his team a goal in the opening minute because of a misunderstanding with Leno. Luiz received a yellow card in the 68th for a cynical foul on Connolly, who was leading a counterattack. Sokratis was also booked for a silly challenge on Connolly near the corner flag on the stroke of halftime. The Greek defender was late for a block in the 33rd and was caught ball-watching in the 61st. Only saves from Leno prevented Sokratis from looking as bad as Luiz.

   If a new manager were to rebuild the Arsenal squad, Leno would probably be the first name on his teamsheet. Leno saved Arsenal from a more humiliating defeat by making 7 saves. The German goalkeeper especially stopped Maupay’s low drive in the 33rd and denied the Brighton striker in the 61st. In the last few months, Leno was arguably the only Gunner who didn’t perform poorly, didn’t behave badly and didn’t spread transfer rumors.

   The season could quickly turn ugly for Arsenal. The club lost leaders during the summer: Cech, Koscielny, Ramsey and Monreal. You need leaders to ride any storm. Unfortunately, the so-called leaders now are Aubameyang, Xhaka, Ozil and Bellerin. Not really the best Sherpas to survive in the Everest region. The Gunners next visit West Ham in the Premier League on Monday before playing Standard de Liège in the Europa League on Thursday. Then it’s a tough schedule with games against the two Manchesters, Everton, Bournemouth and Chelsea. On current form, Arsenal may not even get 3 points from those 6 league games.  


Norwich vs. Arsenal: Gunners let down by poor defending in 2-2 draw

   In the first game of the post-Emery era, the Gunners drew 2-2 with Norwich on Sunday to stay 8th in the Premier League, 7 points out of fourth place. Spurs took advantage of Arsenal’s worst start to the season since 1975 to overtake their North London rivals in the standings.

Norwich vs. Arsenal 2019.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   The Arsenal board waited too long to make a change. They had the opportunity to sack Emery during the international break of November but decided to back the Spanish manager despite the Gunners’ poor run of form. As a result of that hesitation, Arsenal dropped more points and had no time to interview high-profile managers after firing Emery last Friday. Out of despair, the club promoted Ljungberg to the position of caretaker. Ljungberg obviously knows what are the problems on and off the pitch since he has been Emery’s assistant this season. But he has no experience at the top level as a manager.

   By contrast, Tottenham acted more decisively by dismissing Pochettino during the international break. That quick thinking allowed Spurs to hire a top manager and possibly get back in the Top 4 race. I’m not saying that the Gunners should have signed Mourinho, but they shouldn’t have put themselves in such an awkward position where their hopes of a Europa League spot rest on the shoulders of a novice.  

   Ljungberg lost some credit with his team selection at Carrow Road. In a 4-3-3 formation, the Swedish interim manager relied on the 3 players who have been responsible for Arsenal’s decline in the past couple of seasons: Mustafi, Xhaka and Ozil.

   There were 4 changes to the side that drew with Southampton a week ago with Mustafi, Kolasinac, Xhaka and Willock replacing Sokratis, Tierney, Torreira and Bellerin in the starting lineup. Bellerin and Ceballos were not in the squad because of injury. Ljungberg doesn’t seem to rate Torreira while preferring Kolasinac’s experience to Tierney’s youth. He also thinks that Ozil’s presence is important to create chances for Aubameyang and Lacazette.

Vulnerable on counterattacks

   The Gunners played with a bit more urgency than usual but they still looked like a mid-table team, defending poorly and even lacking creativity. Arsenal’s best chances came from set pieces. Mustafi met a corner in the 10th minute for a header that Hernandez cleared off the line. Then Chambers tested Krul by also heading a corner in the 19th.

   Arsenal won a penalty in the 24th when Zimmermann handled a free kick while challenging Luiz in the air. Krul stopped Aubameyang’s spot kick. But a VAR review ruled that the penalty had to be retaken because of encroachment. Aarons, who cleared the rebound, entered the area before Aubameyang kicked the ball. Aubameyang chose the same side for his second attempt, burying the penalty into the bottom corner to make it 1-1. The Gabon striker leveled again in the 57th. Mustafi connected with a corner from Ozil for a volley that Byram blocked. But Aubameyang pounced on the rebound to fire into the far corner.

   Ljungberg tried to win the game by shifting to a 4-2-3-1 system in the 78th when Saka replaced Guendouzi. In the closing minutes, Ljungberg certainly overestimated his luck with another roll of the dice. He sent on Martinelli for Ozil in the 89th as the Gunners switched to a more daring 4-4-2 formation.

   The fans probably expect Arsenal to play attacking football under Ljungberg. But the Swedish manager’s top priority in the short term will be to shore up the defense. Norwich capitalized on two counterattacks to take the lead twice. In the 21st, the Canaries just needed 2 passes to move the ball from their defensive third to the Arsenal area. Hernandez dispossessed Willock and found McLean in midfield. The Scottish midfielder fed Pukki, whose 18-yard shot took a deflection off Mustafi to beat Leno for the opening goal.

A porous midfield

   The Arsenal midfielders and centerbacks did a poor job on that goal. First, Xhaka and Guendouzi failed to close down McLean, giving him too much time and space to pick the perfect pass.

Norwich vs. Arsenal M21a edited.jpgXhaka and Guendouzi fail to close down McLean. (Photo credit: Sky)

Norwich vs. Arsenal M21b editedMcLean has plenty of time to pick the perfect pass for Pukki. (Photo credit: Sky)

Then Mustafi and Luiz were too passive in a 2v1 situation. One of them should have pressed Pukki but they both backed off, giving the Norwich striker plenty of time and space to pick his spot.

Norwich vs. Arsenal M21c edited.jpgMustafi misses an opportunity to challenge Pukki. (Photo credit: Sky)

Norwich vs. Arsenal M21d edited.jpgBoth Mustafi and Luiz back down. (Photo credit: Sky)

Xhaka rushed back and could have challenged Pukki, but the Switzerland midfielder inexplicably ran past him as if there was a threat on the right flank.

Norwich vs. Arsenal M21e edited.jpgXhaka also has an opportunity to challenge Pukki. (Photo credit: Sky)

Norwich vs. Arsenal M21f editedXhaka chasing a ghost. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Arsenal’s porous midfield was exposed on both Norwich goals. Cantwell’s goal on the stroke of halftime also showed the lack of defensive awareness from Xhaka and Chambers. Playing out from the back, McLean released Hernandez down our right flank. Hernandez squared the ball back to Cantwell, who beat Leno with a curling shot. Chambers failed to mark Hernandez on that play while Xhaka failed to track Cantwell.

Norwich vs. Arsenal M45a edited.jpgChambers is marking Hernandez while Xhaka and Guendouzi are on the same line. (Photo credit: Sky)

Norwich vs. Arsenal M45b edited.jpgHernandez escapes Chambers’ marking, Xhaka makes a half-hearted effort to cover Chambers. (Photo credit: Sky)

Norwich vs. Arsenal M45c edited.jpgXhaka is pulled out of position, Chambers can’t catch Hernandez. (Photo credit: Sky)

Norwich vs. Arsenal M45d editedGuendouzi tracks back to mark McLean, Xhaka fails to mark Cantwell. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Aubameyang and Leno were the best Gunners on Sunday. Leno salvaged a point for his team by making 6 saves. The German goalkeeper tipped McLean’s shot onto the post in the 59th, denied Pukki with a leg save in the 63rd, and parried Aarons’ effort after it took a deflection off Torreira in stoppage time. Of all the signings made under Emery, Leno is the only one who could be considered Top 4 material right now.

Chambers as the weak link

   Sokratis has performed so poorly in recent games that Ljungberg gave Mustafi his first start in the Premier League this season. There was no miracle at Carrow Road. Under any manager, Mustafi will still be a mediocre defender. He lost too many key duels against a team fighting relegation. His passivity on the opening goal was criminal. Mustafi was also pulled out of position when the Canaries played a long ball to McLean in the 14th. Hernandez in the 39th and McLean in the 59th skipped past Mustafi too easily. Pukki got the better of Mustafi before testing Leno in the 63rd. Mustafi was again beaten by Pukki in the 67th and in stoppage time.

   Luiz almost looked like a decent defender compared to Mustafi. No Canary managed to dribble past Luiz. The Brazilian centerback still felt a bit too confident in the 11th and lost possession while dribbling in midfield. The sad truth is that the Gunners have no Van Dijk in their squad. Luiz, Mustafi, Sokratis, Holding, Chambers and Mavropanos are miles away from Van Dijk’s level. Koscielny in his prime was the last world-class centerback at the club.

   In the rightback position, Chambers proved the weak link at the back. He led all players with 3 fouls and his poor technique was reflected in his low passing accuracy of 70.7%, much lower than Kolasinac’s 91.1%, Luiz’s 92.6% and Mustafi’s 87%. All the teams are aware of Chambers’ lack of pace, so it was no coincidence if the Canaries targeted the space behind the English defender. Chambers was pulled out of position for the opening goal and then failed to track Hernandez for Norwich’s second goal. He was also late to block McLean’s drive in the 17th, was beaten by Hernandez in the 55th and was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Hernandez in the 84th.

What was Ljungberg thinking?

   The offensive contribution of the Arsenal fullbacks was poor. Chambers and Kolasinac combined to make 0 accurate cross out of 7, according to whoscored.com. Kolasinac still managed to make 1 key pass compared to 0 for Chambers. Defensively, Kolasinac had a decent game. When Norwich played a long ball to McLean in the 14th, Kolasinac ran across the field to cover Mustafi and Chambers and made an important ball recovery. Kolasinac is one of the few players who improved under Emery.

   In midfield, Ljungberg relied on Xhaka and Guendouzi to protect the back four. What was Ljungberg thinking? That idea was a failure under Emery and it was a failure at Carrow Road, too. Both Norwich goals showed the lack of defensive awareness from Xhaka and Guendouzi. They are also among the most sluggish midfielders in the Arsenal squad, so it shouldn’t surprise anybody if Xhaka and Guendouzi struggle so badly to stop counterattacks.  

   Xhaka showed good work-rate with 14 defensive actions (3 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 recoveries) in the full 90 minutes, compared to just 5 defensive actions each for Guendouzi in 78 minutes and Willock in 70 minutes according to the club’s website. But Xhaka is not a defensive midfielder who can protect the back four. He was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Canaries hit Arsenal on the fast break in the 33rd when Xhaka lost a 50-50 ball to Hernandez. Norwich also had a scoring chance in the 59th when Xhaka dallied on the ball and was dispossessed by Amadou. Xhaka made his best defensive contribution in the 39th, covering Mustafi to clear the danger.

   Guendouzi and Xhaka are kind of similar. Both are utility midfielders who do a bit of everything without excelling at anything in particular. They barely create chances and are not good at defending. Guendouzi made 1 key pass compared to 0 for Xhaka. Cantwell skipped past Guendouzi too easily on a counterattack in the 63rd. And Guendouzi failed to stay with Cantwell in the 72nd when the Norwich midfielder played a one-two with Trybull.

Torreira’s grit

   Playing alongside Xhaka and Guendouzi in a three-man midfield, Willock looked at times lost. Xhaka is an experienced player but I don’t think that Willock will learn anything from the Switzerland midfielder. Willock will have regrets about losing possession to Hernandez on the opening goal. He definitely needs to improve his decision-making in the final third. The academy graduate could have fed Lacazette in the 56th but preferred to dribble and was dispossessed by Amadou.

   Torreira replaced Willock in the 70th and showed his grit by making 5 defensive actions in 24 minutes. The Uruguay international prevented Norwich from scoring in stoppage time by blocking Pukki’s pass for McLean. In the last minute of injury time, Torreira could have scored the winner but Amadou blocked his 17-yard shot.

   The Arsenal midfield is currently a mess for 3 reasons. First, the Gunners lost in the summer their only world-class midfielder. Ramsey brought balance to the team by linking defense and attack. Second, Emery made the mistake of building the midfield around Xhaka, a flawed player. The Gunners desperately need Torreira in front of the back four. Torreira has more pace and defensive awareness than Xhaka or Guendouzi. And third, the club failed to sign a defensive midfielder last summer, preferring to splash the cash on Pepe, who was sitting on the bench against Norwich.

   Some fans were surprised to see Ozil play in a front three alongside Aubameyang and Lacazette. But I thought it was a sensible decision because Ozil’s poor work-rate is a liability in midfield. When Wenger used a 3-4-3 formation, he also played Ozil in a front three. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes, but they all came from set pieces. The German playmaker had very little impact from open play. His best attacking contributions were a backheel flick cleared by a defender in the 80th and a tame effort straight at Krul in the 82nd.

The players can no longer hide

   The Canaries matched Arsenal in terms of end product with 8 shots on target to 7 for the visitors. Despite enjoying 60% of ball possession, the Gunners lacked penetration both through passing and dribbling. It was quite ironic that Chambers led all players with 3 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com.

   In a fluid front three, Lacazette led the line while Ozil and Aubameyang often swapped positions. Lacazette had a poor game, winning only 21.4% of his duels according to the club’s website. The French striker wasted a scoring chance in the fifth minute, fluffing a close-range shot that Krul palmed wide.

   Aubameyang had less service than Lacazette but made the most of his chances by finding the net twice. The Gabon striker showed nerves of steel to convert his second penalty attempt after Krul saved the first attempt in the 26th. Aubameyang then lived up to his reputation as a fox in the box by pouncing on a second ball for the equalizer in the 57th. Despite a weaker all-around game than Lacazette, Aubameyang tried to help his team from the flanks, setting up Chambers in the ninth minute and Ozil in the 80th.

   Emery took the blame for Arsenal’s poor results. But now that the Spanish manager is gone, the players can no longer hide behind his tactics. The Gunners next host Brighton on Thursday in the Premier League before visiting West Ham on Monday. Emery couldn’t find his best team this season. The challenge for Ljungberg will be to find his best team within a couple of weeks in order to save Arsenal’s season.