Tag Archives: Kolasinac

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Singapore

For his first weeks at the club, Emery was able to work with the bulk of the Arsenal squad as only Welbeck, Ospina, Torreira, Xhaka, Lichtsteiner, and Monreal missed out on the summer tour in Singapore. The Gunners drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid on Thursday before routing Paris Saint-Germain 5-1 on Saturday.

2018 Arsenal TourPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The first game showed Simeone’s organizational skills. Despite missing Griezmann, Lemar, Hernandez, Vrsaljko, Godin, Gimenez, Felipe Luis, Costa, Koke, Saul Niguez, and Savic, the Colchoneros managed to prevent Arsenal from creating clear-cut chances. The second game exposed PSG’s lack of a deep bench. The absences of Mbappe, Kimpembe, Meunier, Cavani, Neymar, Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Dani Alves, and Di Maria meant that unknown youngsters got the nod from Tuchel.

  1. Rethinking the partnership between Aubameyang and Lacazette

When Aubameyang and Lacazette played together against Atletico and PSG, Emery used the same configuration devised by Wenger last season with Lacazette through the middle and Aubameyang on the left wing. I don’t think it’s the most efficient configuration. A 4-4-2 system with Lacazette playing behind Aubameyang or a 4-3-3 system with Aubameyang up front and Lacazette on the right wing would optimize their impact in the final third.

Aubameyang should lead the line because he has more pace and is more clinical than Lacazette, while Lacazette has better passing and dribbling skills than Aubameyang. Playing as a second striker or as a false winger shouldn’t prevent Lacazette from finding the net often: Mbappe and Salah are examples of prolific forwards playing in a wide position.

Emery started Aubameyang as a lone striker on Saturday. The Gabon striker often cracked the PSG defense with his penetrative runs. He set up the opening goal with a sprint down the right flank in the 13th minute before collecting long balls in the 29th and 44th only to be denied by Buffon. Former Arsenal midfielder Diarra struggled so badly to cope with Aubameyang’s electric pace that he made cynical fouls in the 16th and 51st.

Lacazette has a lot to prove this season after failing to make the France squad for the World Cup. He was sharp and motivated in both friendlies, notching 2 goals against PSG and testing Atletico goalkeeper Oblak a couple of times.

  1. Can Emery improve the Arsenal defense?

The Gunners conceded 51 goals in the Premier League last season. That’s too much to have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish. Emery can definitely improve the team’s defensive organization. However, preventing goals also depends on the players’ decision-making and individual skills. The 2 games in Singapore raised again question marks about the defenders’ quality. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick against PSG in the 19th and caught Weah with a high arm in the 28th after diving in. And Kolasinac was the main culprit for PSG’s equalizer as he missed his tackle and brought down Weah in the 59th. Holding and Chambers didn’t cover themselves in glory either against Atletico. Correa turned Holding to set up the opener in the 41st while Chambers received a yellow card in the 80th for a cynical foul.

  1. Academy players are knocking on the door

Nelson and Nketiah shone last season in the League Cup and the Europa League. The summer friendlies confirmed their strong potential. Nelson made 2 assists against PSG, taking the corner for Holding’s looping header in the 87th and slipping a through ball to Nketiah for the last goal. Named Premier League 2 Player of the Season, Nelson could have also scored in the 87th but Cibois saved his low strike.

There’s a bit of Ian Wright in Nketiah. The 19-year-old striker came off the bench in the second half and cut inside 2 defenders to test Cibois with a curling shot in the 81st. In stoppage time, Nketiah perfectly timed his run to beat the offside trap and score with a diagonal strike. Nketiah and Nelson should definitely play in the League Cup and the Europa League this year. Emery has shown his willingness to trust youngsters at PSG, so he should be able to develop Nketiah and Nelson this season.

While most Arsenal fans already know Nelson and Nketiah, the emergence of Smith-Rowe has been the biggest surprise of the summer tour. Smith-Rowe, who just turned 18 on Saturday, had never played with the first team before this season. The teenager was not really impressed by the crowd: Smith-Rowe notched a goal against Atletico and an assist against PSG. He ran past Partey in the 47th to beat Oblak with a curling shot from the edge of the box. Two days later, he picked out Lacazette, who made it 2-1 in the 67th. If Smith-Rowe can maintain that level of performance, you can bet that Emery will give him some playing time in the League Cup and the Europa League.

  1. A make-or-break season for Iwobi

Iwobi already has 3 Premier League seasons under his belt. Yet, his decision-making and end product are still poor. Nelson and Nketiah could leapfrog him in the pecking order if he keeps stagnating. Starting on the left wing against PSG, Iwobi was denied by Buffon in the 23rd and was replaced by Lacazette at halftime.

  1. Can Emery improve Ozil’s work-rate?

You often hear pundits say that his teammates should do the dirty work for Ozil. But if you look at the big clubs, playmakers like Eriksen and De Bruyne have better stats than Ozil and also work harder. Ozil’s poor work-rate could become a problem if Emery implements a pressing game. When PSG faced Arsenal in the 2016-17 Champions League, Emery took advantage of Ozil’s laziness to have Verratti and Di Maria drop back and send balls over the top. On Saturday, Ozil opened the scoring by converting Aubameyang’s cross in the 13th. Then the Germany playmaker made no effort to win the ball back after losing possession in the 34th, forcing Leno to palm away a powerful drive from Weah.

  1. Investing in youth

The Gunners haven’t enjoyed much luck in the past few years when they signed foreign youngsters. Sanogo, Reine-Adelaide, Bielik, Miyaichi, Eisfeld and Zelalem are examples of gambles in the transfer market that proved unsuccessful. Arsenal might have experienced a change of fortune by signing Guendouzi from French club Lorient for about £7 million. Fans can only hope that the scouting department did a thorough job to pay such a fee.

At 19, Guendouzi looked comfortable on the ball against Atletico. Despite his youth, Emery played him as a holding midfielder sitting behind Ramsey and Smith-Rowe. A couple of times, an overconfident Guendouzi tried to dribble on the edge of the Arsenal area. One of his turnovers led to a scoring chance for the Colchoneros in the 58th. Emery was more cautious for the PSG game as he played Guendouzi alongside the more defensive Elneny. Guendouzi displayed his ball-playing abilities with a pinpoint ball over the top for Aubameyang, whose low strike was palmed away by Buffon in the 29th.

Guendouzi definitely has the profile of a deep-lying playmaker. He’s more mobile than Xhaka and his passing range looks similar to the Switzerland international’s. However, Guendouzi’s inexperience means that Emery will probably use him as a utility midfielder this season. To survive in the Premier League, Guendouzi will need to toughen up. He was brushed off the ball a couple of times against Atletico.

  1. The contracts of Ramsey and Nelson should be the club’s top priority

Ramsey and Nelson only have a year left on their contracts. Voted Arsenal’s Player of the Season, Ramsey is the present of this club. He’s the only Arsenal midfielder who’s on the shopping list of several big clubs. If the board doesn’t want to give Ramsey a salary close to £200,000 a week, then the fans could see the team bleed like when Fabregas, Nasri, Song and Van Persie left in 2011-12. Last season, the Gunners already lost Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez to Liverpool and Manchester United, respectively. They are now just one transfer away from becoming a feeder club again and they won’t be able to blame Wenger for that mess.

Those who have watched Nelson in the Premier League 2 last season know that the teenager is the future of the club. Nelson can carve open a defense with his dribbling skills. Big clubs are willing to pay a fortune for that kind of skill set because smart dribblers can make a difference against teams parking the bus. That’s why Manchester City signed Sane and Sterling while Liverpool recruited Mane and Salah.

 

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Huddersfield vs. Arsenal: Gunners play for Wenger in 1-0 win

The last game of the season was about earning at least an away point in the Premier League this year. The Gunners made Wenger proud by edging Huddersfield Town 1-0 on Sunday. The crowd at the John Smith’s stadium even gave the French manager a standing ovation after 22 minutes as an acknowledgement for his 22 years at the helm of Arsenal.

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

Ironically, the scoreline was the complete opposite of Arsenal’s season. The Gunners finished in 6th place with 63 points, the lowest total in the Wenger era. They also conceded 51 goals, 24 more than Manchester City, for the worst defensive record under Wenger. The only consolation was the number of goals scored (74), which was the same as Spurs’ tally and more than Manchester United (68) and Chelsea (62).

The Terriers were the more threatening team with 18 shots to 9 for Arsenal, but they simply lacked a Mahrez or a Vardy to convert their chances. Huddersfield did a lot of damage in the air, winning 10 more aerial duels than the Gunners. The Terriers also disrupted Arsenal’s passing game by pressing high up the pitch, making 24 interceptions to 7 for the visitors, according to the club’s website. The Gunners will need to sign a ballwinner this summer if they want to improve those stats.

Aubameyang scored the winning goal in the 38th minute by sliding home a pass from Ramsey. Credit must also be given to Lacazette, who played a one-two with Mkhitaryan before finding Ramsey inside the area. Lacazette could have doubled the lead in the 80th. The France striker took a pass from Mkhitaryan only to have his chip attempt well read by Lossl. A minute later, Welbeck, who had replaced Aubameyang in the 67th, dribbled past 2 Terriers but was denied by Lossl.

Turnover machines

Without Ozil, the Gunners’ passing game was poor. Huddersfield forward Pritchard made as many key passes (5) as the entire Arsenal team. The awkwardness of Ramsey and Mkhitaryan didn’t help. Ramsey and Mkhitaryan led all players with 7 and 6 turnovers, respectively, and their passing accuracy dipped to 71 and 73%, according to whoscored.com.

Like in the Leicester game, the Gunners wasted some good situations with a poor final ball. Ramsey missed his through ball for Lacazette in the 17th and for Welbeck in the 74th, Aubameyang’s pass for Kolasinac in the 52nd ran out of play, and the Huddersfield defense intercepted Welbeck’s final ball for Lacazette in the 77th. Before Aubameyang’s goal, Arsenal’s only scoring chance came from a set piece in the 27th when Mustafi redirected a corner toward Kolasinac, who flicked wide from 6 yards.

In the No. 10 role, Iwobi produced another disappointing performance. He made only 1 key pass and showed some poor work-rate with 0 tackle and 0 interception. By contrast, Ramsey won 3 tackles, according to whoscored.com. You don’t expect Iwobi to read the game like Ozil, but there are some basics that a player should master in his third Premier League season. Why does he keep running into traffic even though he doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Salah or a Sane? Iwobi foolishly took on 3 Terriers in the 53rd and lost possession. The turnover led to a Huddersfield counterattack and ultimately a corner.

Not learning from mistakes

Mounie gave the Arsenal defense a hard time in the air. The Huddersfield striker led all players with 9 aerial duels won, according to whoscored.com. He met a cross from Hadergjonaj in the third minute for a header that Ospina saved. Two minutes later, he headed a corner goalward but Xhaka knocked the ball off the line. Mkhitaryan made the mistake of not blocking Mounie’s run while Holding lost the key duel in the air. With some clinical finishing, Mounie could have notched a hat trick in the first half. Pritchard beat the offside trap to collect a long ball in the 11th. He slipped a reverse pass to an unmarked Mounie, who blazed over the bar. Xhaka failed to track Mounie on that play.

The pair of Arsenal centerbacks didn’t produce a convincing performance. Mounie often got the better of Mustafi in the air. Ince also skipped past Mustafi in the 60th to fire a diagonal strike that Ospina palmed behind. Holding made some glaring mistakes as bad as Mavropanos a few days ago. The English defender was dispossessed by Mounie on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 48th. Then Holding was a split second late in the 65th and fouled Mounie almost as the last defender.

Trying to protect his team’s lead, Wenger sent on Maitland-Niles for Iwobi in the 72nd. That move nearly backfired. Matiland-Niles forgot to track Mooy inside the area in the 88th and the Huddersfield midfielder rattled the bar with a volley on the turn. In stoppage time, Maitland-Niles gave away a dangerous free kick by fouling Lowe. Depoitre connected with Mooy’s free kick for a downward header that Ospina kept out. Ospina couldn’t make a clean catch but reacted quickly enough to gather the ball at his second attempt.

A new manager by the end of May?

The next Arsenal manager can definitely rely on Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ramsey to score goals. If he intends to use a 4-3-3 formation, Lacazette would have to play as a false winger like Salah at Liverpool. But if he opts for a 4-4-2 system with Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front two, then signing a ballwinner this summer should be a top priority to protect the back four.

I haven’t mentioned Mkhitaryan and Ozil for different reasons. Mkhitaryan has struck a good understanding with Ramsey and Aubameyang within a few months, but he has a high turnover rate, he is still adapting to a new club, and his stats are not as good as Ramsey’s or Lacazette’s. Meanwhile, Ozil is a world-class player but he’s unreliable, especially since he got a pay rise. Some of his injuries or illnesses are a complete mystery for the fans.

Here are the stats for Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey, Ozil and Mkhitaryan in the Premier League this season: Aubameyang 10 goals and 4 assists in 13 games for an average of 1.08 goal or assist per game; Lacazette 14 goals and 4 assists in 32 games (0.56); Ramsey 7 goals and 8 assists in 24 games (0.63); Ozil 4 goals and 8 assists in 26 games (0.46); Mkhitaryan 3 goals and 9 assists in 26 games (0.46).

At the back, the next manager will have a massive rebuilding job. There is no solution from within. Even with better coaching, there’s no way that Chambers, Holding and Mavropanos could become as good as Koscielny in his prime. That means finding the solution in the transfer market. And that’s why the board must appoint a new manager by the end of May. If they wait until June, it will be too late to act in the transfer market.

Leicester vs. Arsenal: Mavropanos learns the hard way in 3-1 loss

At some stage, it had to happen. Mavropanos performed well against Manchester United and Burnley, but on Wednesday he paid a hefty price for his first glaring mistake in an Arsenal shirt. The 3-1 loss at Leicester City was a reminder that the 20-year-old defender still has a lot to learn.

Leicester vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made 4 changes to the side that routed Burnley 5-0 last weekend with Holding, Maitland-Niles, Ramsey and Welbeck replacing Chambers, Bellerin, Wilshere and Lacazette in the starting lineup. Because it was the third game in a 7-day span, it made sense to rotate and inject some freshness into the team. Bellerin, Monreal, Chambers, Wilshere and Lacazette were given the day off while the manager kept experimenting at the back by leaving Mustafi on the bench and starting Mavropanos alongside Holding in the heart of the defense.

Despite Mavropanos’ red card in the 15th minute, the Gunners still finished with 60% of ball possession in a 4-4-1 system with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi on the wings and Aubameyang on his own up front. Leicester capitalized on its numerical superiority to find more space on the fast break and could have won by a bigger margin if Cech had not pulled off some fine saves.

Mavropanos showed good composure and smart decision-making in his 2 previous appearances, but there were already signs that he could struggle in key duels: Fellaini outjumped Mavropanos to head the ball onto the post at Old Trafford while Vokes also got the better of the Greek youngster to head a cross straight at Cech in the Burnley game.

The Foxes’ opening goal in the 14th came from a corner that Mavropanos poorly cleared. The ball fell to Fuchs, who hoisted it into the box. At the far post, Diabate beat Maitland-Niles to the ball to knock it down for Iheanacho, who volleyed home. Mavropanos was also guilty of ball-watching on that play as he left Iheanacho unmarked.

An error-prone defense

A minute later, Mavropanos took a pass from Maitland-Niles and dallied on the ball instead of passing it to Holding. By the time Mavropanos made up his mind, it was already too late as Iheanacho charged down his clearance. Realizing that Iheanacho would be clean through on goal, Mavropanos brought down the Leicester forward and got sent off.

Wenger complained about the call after the game but Mavropanos was the last defender and Holding, positioned on the right flank, would have been unlikely to catch Iheanacho. An aggravating factor for the referee was Mavropanos’ cynical body-check. From the moment Iheanacho sprinted toward him, the alarm bell should have been ringing loudly in Mavropanos’ head. Now Mavropanos knows that he has less time on the ball in England than in the Greek league.

Spectators will only remember Mavropanos’ ejection, but Mustafi and Holding made the same mistakes as Mavropanos. As the last defender, Holding poorly controlled a backpass from Maitland-Niles in the 61st and was dispossessed by Iheanacho. Holding was more lucky than Mavropanos as the loose ball fell into the path of Vardy, giving the Arsenal defense enough time to regroup.

Mustafi came off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 19th. He’s definitely more experienced than Mavropanos or Holding. Yet, he panicked inside the Arsenal area in the 74th. Instead of clearing a teasing cross high into the air, Mustafi played the ball back to Gray, who won a penalty after Mkhitaryan seemed to trip him. Vardy converted the spot kick to make it 2-1. I’ve watched several replays and it’s hard to know whether there was enough contact for Gray to fall down. But Mkhitaryan’s decision-making was poor. He was on the wrong side of Gray, who still had to beat Maitland-Niles.

Walking in Flamini’s steps

The next Arsenal manager may have no power over individual mistakes but he should be able to make tactical adjustments when the team is dealing with long balls. Holding was pulled out of position in the 48th when Morgan punted the ball toward Iheanacho. Holding missed his interception and the ball bounced toward Vardy. In a 2v2 situation, Vardy fed Diabate, whose shot took a deflection off Cech before Mustafi cleared the ball off the line. In stoppage time, Mahrez beat the offside trap to chase a long ball from Choudhury. The Leicester winger, who was played onside by Mustafi, gave Holding the slip before shooting past Cech to seal the win.

   Cech will finish the season with the most errors (6) leading to a goal in the Premier League. However, the Gunners could thank him on Wednesday for preventing the scoreline from looking unflattering. Cech parried an angled effort from Vardy in the 13th, tipped over the bar a volley from Maguire in the 17th, saved a curling free kick from Silva in the 39th and stopped a low strike from Iheanacho in the 41st.

While Mavropanos, Mustafi and Holding struggled to cope with the pace and movement of Vardy and Iheanacho, fullbacks Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles enjoyed mixed fortunes. Maitland-Niles had a decent game, leading all players with 4 successful dribbles and leading Arsenal players with 2 key passes, according to whoscored.com. He also showed some good work-rate by winning 3 tackles and set up the equalizer in the 53rd with a pinpoint cross for Aubameyang.

At 20, Maitland-Niles is proving relatively strong in challenges, but he still needs to improve in those that matter. He lost a key duel on the opening goal and gave away a dangerous free kick in the 37th by shoving Vardy from behind. Maitland-Niles could definitely be used like Flamini in his first seasons at Arsenal, learning the ropes at rightback before moving to central midfield when more mature tactically.

A poor final ball

On the left flank, Kolasinac led all players with 5 successful tackles and led Arsenal players with a passing accuracy of 91.1%, which is unusually high for him. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international nearly scored in the 47th with an angled strike that hit the base of the post. In his first season at the club, Kolasinac has looked more like a wingback than a fullback. His defensive awareness can be dodgy. He left Maguire unmarked in the 17th and forgot to track Mahrez on the last goal.

In midfield, Ramsey had a poor game and led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Because the Foxes are a team feasting on turnovers, the Gunners needed a Ramsey more tidy in possession to control the game. The next Arsenal manager will have to decide which formation can optimize Ramsey’s strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

The Gunners often wasted good situations with a poor final ball. Iwobi overhit his pass for Ramsey in the 10th and 44th, Kolasinac made a cross that sailed beyond every Gunner in the 12th, and Mkhitaryan completely missed his final ball for Aubameyang in the 26th and for Ramsey in the 71st.

Iwobi raised the fans’ level of expectations after his good performance against Burnley. But on Wednesday he reverted back to the awkward player that we all know. There were glimpses of hope in the first half when Iwobi tested Jakupovic with a snapshot in the seventh minute or when he set up Mkhitaryan for a low strike that the Leicester goalkeeper turned around the post in the 34th. But it all went downhill in the second half. Iwobi showed poor decision-making in the 54th by failing to pick out Ramsey, who was ready to pull the trigger. See the screen capture below. Iwobi gave the ball away with a sloppy pass to Kolasinac, who was in a worse position than Ramsey.

Leicester vs. Arsenal M54edIwobi can’t make a 5-yard pass to Ramsey. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Two minutes later, Iwobi ignored the overlapping run of Kolasinac and went for personal glory by firing a 25-yard strike into the stands. Oops! Wenger had seen enough and replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 84th. Iwobi is as inconsistent as Oxlade-Chamberlain at the same age. But the big difference is that you could never fault the Ox for his work-rate. Iwobi made 0 tackle and 1 interception, while Mkhitaryan won 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.

Earning an away point?

Up front, it was a lonely evening for Aubameyang, who was often crowded out inside the Leicester area. But Aubameyang didn’t give up and was rewarded for his perseverance in the 53rd. He met a cross from Maitland-Niles for a first-time effort that Jakupovic parried. However, Aubameyang pounced on the rebound to fire into the roof of the net. Although Wenger has often played him out of position, Aubameyang has quickly adapted to the Premier League with 9 goals and 4 assists in 12 appearances. That average of 1.08 goal or assist per game is much better than Morata’s average of 0.57.

For the last game of the season, the Gunners will need a draw at Huddersfield to get at least a point away from home this year. All the other Premier League teams have managed that ‘feat’. After the Leicester game, Wenger claimed that the squad was good enough to contend for the title next season if the Gunners could improve their away form. Such statements show why the club had to replace him.

Wenger is a great manager but he has become delusional in the past couple of years. Arsenal had no such problem in away games last season, yet they were far from contending. A quick look at the team this year tells you that there are holes in at least 5 positions (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, ballwinner, deep-lying playmaker). Wenger has been unable to improve the squad despite obvious weaknesses. The next manager will have to do a better job.

 

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Gunners win 5-0 for Wenger’s last home game

It had to be a beautiful day for Wenger’s last game at the Emirates stadium. Burnley and Arsenal both formed a guard of honor to welcome Wenger onto the warm pitch before kickoff. Even Kroenke acknowledged the importance of the French manager in the history of the club by attending what looked like a meaningless game.

Arsenal vs. Burnley

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

Wenger still took Sunday’s match seriously enough to leave Nelson, Willock and Nketiah out of the squad. As a glorious send-off for their manager, the Gunners routed Burnley 5-0 to secure 6th place in the Premier League and avoid playing in some preliminary round of the Europa League this summer. Wenger made 7 changes to the side that lost 1-0 to Atletico Madrid on Thursday with Cech, Kolasinac, Mavropanos, Chambers, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang replacing Ospina, Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi, Ramsey, Ozil and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Dyche has built a disciplined, solid defense at Burnley but once you have faced a wall like Atletico Madrid, I guess all the other teams seem porous.

I hope the next Arsenal manager will use Aubameyang in the centerforward role because it really doesn’t make sense to play him on the left wing. Aubameyang is a pure fox in the box while Lacazette is a second striker. The opening goal in the 14th minute summed up their strengths. Lacazette played a one-two with Iwobi before firing an off-target shot that Aubameyang diverted in. On that play, Aubameyang behaved like a poacher while Lacazette showed off his all-around game. The Gabon striker also scored the last goal by stabbing home a cross from Bellerin in the 75th.

Optimizing the potential of a duo

Aubameyang has performed decently on the left wing. He could have had an assist in the 46th when he squared the ball back to Wilshere, who blazed over the bar from 6 yards. But too often his all-around game is not good enough to deliver a quality final ball. Aubameyang outpaced Tarkowski in the 78th only to overhit his cross for Welbeck. He then wasted a counterattack in the 86th by playing a pass behind Ramsey.

I believe that putting Aubameyang in the centerforward role would optimize the potential of the duo formed by Aubameyang and Lacazette. Aubameyang has electric pace and is more likely to stretch a defense than Lacazette, who doesn’t enjoy playing as a target man, especially in the physical Premier League. The referee should have given a yellow card to Long for a cynical foul on Aubameyang in the 45th. Nowadays, referees are so lenient that Pope could even hold the ball for 15 seconds without being penalized in the 48th. For those who don’t know the rule, an indirect free kick should be awarded when the goalkeeper controls the ball with his hands for more than 6 seconds.

There was a touch of Sanchez in Lacazette’s performance on Sunday. Lacazette scored a goal and led all players with 4 key passes and 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The France international doubled the lead by volleying home a cross from Bellerin on the stroke of halftime. Obviously, Lacazette has developed a good understanding with Bellerin. If the next manager wants to rely on a 4-3-3 system, Lacazette could efficiently play on the right wing. Another tactical option would be a 4-4-2 formation with Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front two, a bit like Henry and Bergkamp in the old days.

Iwobi’s impact in the final third

Mkhitaryan only joined Arsenal at the end of January but he has already struck a good understanding with Lacazette. The Armenia playmaker’s through ball for Lacazette was intercepted by Tarkowski in the fifth minute. They swapped roles later on. Lacazette made a cross for Mkhitaryan, whose first-time effort sailed over the bar in the 33rd. Then Mkhitaryan played a one-two with Lacazette in the 43rd before firing a deflected shot that Pope kept out with a reflex save. Mkhitaryan had no goal or assist, but his movement and creativity gave the Burnley defense some food for thought. He cut inside Westwood in the 55th to curl a shot wide of the far post. In the closing minutes, Mkhitaryan also teed up Welbeck for a long-range strike that rattled the post.

Ozil’s absence because of a back injury meant that the onus for creating chances was on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. You never know what you will get with Iwobi because of his inconsistency. But on Sunday, Iwobi showed good work-rate and end product. The Nigeria international, who turned 22 last week, scored 1 goal, won 1 tackle, and made 2 interceptions and 2 key passes.

I hope the next manager will show as much patience as Wenger because Iwobi is not the finished product yet. Iwobi made poor passes in the final third for Bellerin in the 18th and Lacazette in the 45th. He also cheaply gave the ball away in the 62nd and showed poor decision-making in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had 3 decent passing options with Wilshere, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, but he opted for a speculative shot that Ward easily blocked.

Arsenal vs. Burnley M34ed Iwobi ignoring 3 passing options. (Photo credit: SN360)

However, the main positive from Sunday’s game is that Iwobi didn’t shy away from his responsibilities and definitely had an impact. He led all players with 93 passes, according to whoscored.com, while Xhaka is usually the one with the most passes. Iwobi is slowly improving his understanding with Lacazette. He found Lacazette inside the box in the fourth minute but the France forward was crowded out and dispossessed. Then Iwobi made the return pass to Lacazette for the opening goal in the 14th. On the stroke of halftime, it was also Iwobi who released Bellerin down the right flank for the second goal.

Where does Wilshere fit?

In previous posts, I compared Iwobi to Bergkamp and Anelka. At this stage of his career, Bergkamp would be a better model for Iwobi, who can both make assists and be a goal threat when he plays in midfield. He still needs to work on his finishing obviously. Iwobi has a tendency to either miss the target or shoot in the middle of the net. On Sunday, Iwobi managed to fire into the top corner for a 4-0 lead in the 64th. He showed better composure than in the eighth minute when he rushed and hit a tame shot straight at Pope instead of controlling Mkhitaryan’s pass with his first touch.

Wenger has also played Iwobi on the wings, but his dribbling skills and crossing ability are average. Iwobi has decent pace but he simply doesn’t provide the penetration needed for a winger. So I guess the Anelka comparison no longer works. Especially since Nelson is knocking on the door and could become the Arsenal version of Sterling at Liverpool.

If Wilshere leaves the club this summer, Iwobi would be his natural replacement in midfield. Honestly, it’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in a team trying to contend in the Top 4 race. His defensive contribution is not good enough. Wilshere made 0 tackle and 0 interception. Even the sluggish Xhaka managed to win 2 tackles, according to whoscored.com. Wilshere produced a mazy run in the 54th to set up Kolasinac for the third goal, but we already have Ozil and Mkhitaryan to pull the strings in midfield and there’s no way that Wilshere can match their numbers for goals and assists.

A rare Mertesacker appearance

What do you need to quench your thirst on a hot day? A Kola! The Burnley defense was all over the place in the 54th when Kolasinac took a pass from Wilshere to smash a low drive into the far corner. Kolasinac raised his tally to 5 goals in all competitions this season, but there are still big question marks about his ability to defend. He won only 12.5% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. On the opposite flank, Bellerin struggled defensively, winning only 25% of his duels, but he contributed offensively with 2 assists, making the cross for Lacazette on the stroke of halftime and picking out Aubameyang for the last goal.

Chambers and Mavropanos did OK at Old Trafford. Therefore Wenger gave another start to the young pair of centerbacks. The Clarets were a good matchup for Chambers because Barnes, Hendrick and Vokes are physical forwards with average pace. Chambers tends to struggle against fast players with tricky footwork. The tactical setup also helped Chambers as the Arsenal defense dropped off when Burnley had the ball. A high defensive line would have exposed Chambers’ lack of pace. The obvious drawback with Chambers as a centerback is that the Gunners can’t squeeze the play and the midfielders also have more distance to cover.

In a classy gesture, Wenger yanked Chambers off in the 77th to send on Mertesacker. The German defender was offered the opportunity to say goodbye to the fans in the last home game of the season. As a sign of respect, Cech acknowledged the moment by giving the armband to Mertesacker. Although Mertesacker is not the longest-serving player at the club (Ramsey is), he is a leader in the dressing room and he helped steady the ship after the infamous 8-2 loss at Old Trafford in 2011. The fans showed their affection for Mertesacker by cheering each of his touches.

Winning key duels

At 20, Mavropanos looks more mature than his age. The Greek defender seems to like the physicality of the Premier League. He coped well with Lukaku a week ago and went toe to toe with Vokes on Sunday. The Gunners definitely need that kind of imposing centerback. In the past seasons, they have been too often bullied by Costa, Deeney and other intimidating strikers. The crowd encouraged Mavropanos by applauding him every time he had the ball.

Mavropanos showed good composure against Manchester United. On Sunday, Mavropanos also showed that he could read the game well. He led Arsenal players with 4 interceptions. The only negative in his performance was the 46.2% of duels that he won, compared to 71.4% for Chambers, according to the club’s website. Mavropanos will quickly find out that the Premier League is about winning duels, especially key duels. Burnley’s only scoring chance of the game came in the 49th when Hendrick rounded Bellerin to make a cross for Vokes, who got the better of Mavropanos for a header straight at Cech.

For the last two games of the season, the Gunners will visit Leicester on Wednesday and Huddersfield on Sunday. The challenge for the team is to finally earn a point on the road this year. I still hope that youngsters like Nelson and Nketiah will get some playing time even if the U23 team will face Porto in the International Cup on Tuesday.

In the meantime, the board will have to speed up the interview process in their search for the next Arsenal manager. I assume the board won’t make any accouncement before the official end of the season out of respect for Wenger. But it is crucial for the club to know by the end of May who is the next manager. The summer transfer window is shorter this year and the Gunners have no room for error in the transfer market.

Arsenal vs. Southampton: Iwobi pulls the strings in 3-2 win

The Gunners showed great character to edge Southampton 3-2 in the Premier League after conceding the opening goal in the first half and squandering a 2-1 lead in the second. In a match between two leaky defenses, Wenger fielded a makeshift team, leaving Koscielny, Ramsey and Mkhitaryan out of the squad while Monreal, Wilshere, Ozil and Lacazette were on the bench at kickoff. Arsenal’s hectic schedule basically means that the French manager has to rotate like Mourinho did last season with Manchester United.

Arsenal vs. SouthamptonPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Welbeck received most of the plaudits for his two goals and his assist, but I really thought that Iwobi was the Gunner who produced an outstanding performance on Sunday. Iwobi was smarter in his decision-making and less selfish than usual. He didn’t get off to a good start, missing a 5-yard pass for Welbeck in the fifth minute and wasting a counterattacking opportunity with a poor cross in the 15th. But Iwobi managed to grow into the game. Surrounded by 4 Saints in the 29th, Iwobi needed just two touches to control Aubameyang’s pass and slip the ball to Welbeck, who flicked it toward Aubameyang. In a fine example of triangular play, Aubameyang beat Soares to the ball to poke it past McCarthy and level the game.

The understanding between Iwobi and Welbeck played a key role in that equalizer as well as in the other two goals scored by Arsenal. Iwobi released Welbeck down the left flank in the 38th and the England international cut inside Stephens to beat McCarthy with a shot that took a deflection off Yoshida for a 2-1 lead. Then Iwobi worked some space in the 81st to make a cross for Welbeck, who netted the winner with a downward header at the far post. It’s interesting to see such a partnership blossom because Iwobi never really struck a good understanding with Giroud last season while Lacazette has mostly relied on service from Ozil and Ramsey so far.

Welbeck’s contract

Iwobi created two other chances in the second half. He picked out Aubameyang, whose angled strike was parried by McCarthy in the 47th. The Nigeria international also made a cross for Wilshere, who redirected the ball toward Welbeck in the 78th. With the goal at his mercy, Welbeck somehow flicked the ball over the bar from 3 yards. The bounce was a bit high and Welbeck couldn’t adjust his legs quickly enough to keep the ball down. That game showed Iwobi’s potential. But his poor performance against Watford last month is also a reminder that consistency remains an issue for most 21-year-old players.

A few weeks ago, Iwobi would have probably taken his chance from a tight angle instead of making those crosses. His only goal attempt on Sunday was a snapshot from the edge of the box that McCarthy turned around the post in the 52nd. Being more selective with your shots is a sign of tactical intelligence: it’s about seeing the difference between a good spot and a bad one. Iwobi also did a better job of recognizing dribbling opportunities. He had 1 successful dribble out of 1. In the first half of the season, Iwobi too often lost possession by running into traffic. The only blemish in Iwobi’s performance was his poor work-rate. He made 0 interception and 0 block and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 1 aerial duel, according to Squawka. In the eighth minute, Iwobi poorly closed down Stephens, who put the Arsenal defense in trouble with a long ball.

Welbeck is definitely giving the staff some food for thought with his two goals and his assist. His contract expires next year and there has been no loud call yet for an extension. Honestly, it’s a tough choice for the club. On the one hand, Welbeck is a versatile forward who will always provide you some good work-rate: he made 2 blocks and won 1 of 3 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels against Southampton. On the other, he’s an injury-prone player who will never hit the heights of a Henry or Sanchez. Would the staff be happy to keep Welbeck as an interesting bench option? Or do they think that the new crop of forwards (Nelson, Nketiah) has more to offer?

Nelson’s 1st Premier League start

A superstar in the Arsenal academy, Nelson finally made his first Premier League start on Sunday. I thought he was a bit too shy. Nelson showed some good work-rate with 1 interception, 3 blocks and 1 tackle won, but he lacked end product with 0 shot, 0 key pass, 0 cross and 0 dribble. Maybe Tadic’s nasty challenge in the second minute played a role in Nelson’s cautiousness. The Serbian midfielder should have received a yellow card for stamping on Nelson’s ankle. Tactically, Nelson too often drifted inside instead of staying wide to stretch the Southampton defense. Physically, Nelson will need to be stronger in duels because he got too easily brushed off the ball a couple of times. Nelson flashed a glimpse of his talent by releasing Aubameyang down the left flank in the 30th. Unfortunately, Aubameyang overhit his through ball for Welbeck, allowing McCarthy to collect the ball.

Wilshere replaced Nelson in the 64th and showed why the club won’t offer him better contract terms. He started one of his dribbling runs in the 65th and lost possession by falling over the ball. By sending on Wilshere, the manager simply wanted his team to retain the ball. But the opposite happened. In his 30-minute cameo, Wilshere led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers according to whoscored.com. He also proved a defensive liability as Soares played a one-two with Tadic in the 73rd before setting-up Austin for a tap-in to make it 2-2. Wilshere failed to track Soares on that play. In stoppage time, Wilshere lost possession again with a poor pass for Welbeck. Trying to make up for that error, Wilshere chased Stephens and ripped his shirt. Stephens retaliated by throwing Wilshere to the ground.

Ten years ago, Wilshere was making his Premier League debut. He is now a league veteran. But on Sunday Wilshere behaved like a petulant brat. His supporters will say that he got Stephens sent off. But they are missing the point: Wilshere gave away the ball as well as a dangerous free kick and the Gunners lost control of the situation. Kolasinac could have been booked for shoving Stephens while Elneny received a straight red card for pushing Soares and knocking the ball off Ward-Prowse’s hands. It was a harsh call but I can understand the referee’s rationale. The Saints were taking their free kick, so Elneny had no right to touch the ball. His behavior threatened to trigger another brawl and the referee probably considered that Elneny brought the game into disrepute.

Poor performance from the centerbacks

   That was a sad conclusion for Elneny, who had a decent game in midfield alongside Xhaka. The duo might lack creativity and defensive nous against the top teams but they are quite complementary against the weaker sides. They were at the heart of Arsenal’s passing game with 125 passes for Xhaka, the most for any player, and 116 passes for Elneny. The Egypt international contributed to his team’s fluency with a passing accuracy of 95.7%, the highest percentage for any player. Xhaka proved strong in duels, winning 3 of 4 tackles and 6 of 9 aerial duels, while Elneny compensated for his teammate’s lack of mobility by making 3 interceptions and 1 block, according to Squawka.

At the back, poor performances from Mustafi and Chambers showed the need for signing a centerback this summer.The pair’s horror show started with Southampton’s first scoring chance in the eighth minute. Chambers failed to intercept Stephens’ long ball and could only redirect it into the path of Tadic, who fed Ward-Prowse. The English midfielder outpaced Mustafi only to have his shot cleared off the line by Bellerin.

Chambers’ lack of pace has become legendary. Long outpaced Chambers in the 11th but wasted a good situation with a poor pass to Tadic. Arsenal can’t really play a high defensive line with Chambers because they face the same problems they had with Mertesacker a couple of years ago. That’s why I think Chambers would be a decent fit for a team parking the bus because there’s not much space behind the backline. By contrast, the Gunners dominate ball possession against 70% of the teams, which means that they have to push forward and leave plenty of space behind the centerbacks.

Another issue with Chambers is his inability to turn quickly, especially inside the area. Chambers couldn’t adjust his feet quickly enough to block Soares’ cross for Southampton’s equalizer in the 73rd. And he was not tight enough to block Tadic’s volley in the 86th. Chambers finished the game with 3 turnovers, which is too much for a centerback. Mustafi and Chambers combined to win 0 of 4 tackles, 5 of 14 aerial duels, while making just 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka.

Cech’s saves

The Gunners spent about £35 million to sign Mustafi two years ago. Such an investment hasn’t been justified so far. Mustafi was the main culprit for the opening goal in the 17th. Kolasinac failed to cut out a cross from Soares and Long got ahead of a static Mustafi to flick home the cross. Mustafi tried to blame Cech for the goal but Cech had no chance to beat Long to the ball since it was an outswinging cross.

If you believe Mustafi is Koscielny’s successor, then you’d better think twice because Mustafi can switch off at the most unexpected time like in the League Cup final for Aguero’s goal or when he shouted at Bellerin while Alcantara ran past him to score in Munich a year ago. Mustafi lost another duel in the 56th when Hoedt headed a corner goalward but Elneny cleared the ball off the line. The Germany international was lucky not to get penalized for body-checking Tadic in the 67th.

At fullback, Kolasinac won 6 of 9 aerial duels but also showed his limitations with a passing accuracy of 75%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters. Bellerin didn’t completely recover from the game against CSKA Moscow as he made fewer runs than usual down the right flank. The Spaniard even received a yellow card in the 50th for pulling back Long. Wenger replaced Bellerin with Holding in the 75th as Chambers shifted to the rightback position. Holding lost a foot race against Austin in the 79th but he also made a crucial block in the 87th.

In the end, the Gunners can definitely thank Cech for the win. The Czech goalkeeper made 5 saves, stopping long-range strikes from Hojbjerg in the 54th and Hoedt in the 68th, palming away a header from Long in the 62nd, and tipping Tadic’s volley over the bar in the 86th.

There are just 6 Premier League games left this season. The manager will probably use them to build confidence for the Europa League and give some playing time to second-choice players. I hope Nelson, Nketiah and maybe Maitland-Niles will features in those games. They will get a better idea of the efforts required to compete in the Premier League, while the staff could decide whether those youngsters already have the level to be loaned out to a Championship side.

The art of squad building and how Wenger lost the plot

Poor recruitment is the main reason why the Gunners are no longer in the Top 4 of the Premier League. Last season, they finished in fifth place, 11 points behind Spurs. Arsenal will again miss out on the Top 4 this season as they currently sit in sixth place, 13 points behind Spurs after 30 games.

Squad buildingPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

You may think that money is the issue. It’s true that the Red Devils generate more revenue than any other football club, while Manchester City and Chelsea are backed by billionaires. But you also have to remember that Liverpool and Tottenham have a smaller budget than the Gunners and spend less money in the transfer market.

On paper, building a squad looks pretty simple: you spot the weaknesses in the team, you clear the dead wood, and you sign the players who will make the team stronger. To understand how that process works, I will compare the job done by Pochettino, Klopp and Wenger. I have chosen Tottenham and Liverpool as case studies because Arsenal can match them financially.

The 2013-14 season proved an unstable period for Spurs, who replaced Villas-Boas with Sherwood in December. Despite the managerial change, Tottenham finished in sixth place, 10 points behind Arsenal. I have used startingeleven.co.uk to provide a picture below of Sherwood’s favorite lineup.

2014 Spurs

The 2014 Spurs lineup under Sherwood

Here’s the Tottenham squad under Sherwood:

Goalkeepers: Lloris as the starter (Friedel as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Walker, Rose (Naughton, Fryers). Centerbacks: Vertonghen, Dawson (Kaboul, Chiriches). Central midfielders: Dembele, Paulinho (Sandro, Capoue, Bentaleb). Playmakers: Eriksen (Sigurdsson). Wingers: Chadli, Lennon (Townsend, Lamela). Centerforwards: Adebayor (Soldado, Kane, Defoe).

When Pochettino took over in May 2014, he quickly spotted the weaknesses in the Spurs lineup. First, the team lacked a commanding centerback. Dawson was a decent fit for an average side but not good enough for a club aiming at a Top 4 finish. So Pochettino signed Fazio in August 2014 and Wimmer and Alderweireld in the summer of 2015. Fazio was a flop while Wimmer turned out to be a benchwarmer. However, Alderweireld proved a key signing as he helped stabilize the Tottenham defense.

Becoming a contender within 2 years

Pochettino inherited good players at fullback with Rose and Walker, but he wasn’t happy with the back-up options. So the club signed Davies in July 2014 and Trippier in June 2015. The development of Trippier and Davies helped Spurs cope with Walker’s departure last summer and Rose’s injuries. The Argentine manager also strengthened the bench for the goalkeeping position by replacing an aging Friedel with Vorm.

In midfield, Pochettino realized that Spurs lacked a good holding midfielder. Capoue, Sandro and Bentaleb were not good enough, Dembele played as a deep-lying playmaker and Paulinho was mostly a utility midfielder. So Pochettino recalled Mason to the squad and signed Dier and Stambouli in the summer of 2014. Stambouli struggled in the Premier League but Dier proved a good investment as he efficiently shielded the Tottenham defense.

On the wings, Pochettino noticed the lack of end product. So he signed Alli and Son in 2015 while putting more pressure on Lamela. Up front, he spotted Kane’s potential and gave him the nod over an aging and more limited Adebayor. Pochettino also shook up the bench by releasing Soldado in 2015 and signing N’Jie, who didn’t manage to make the cut.

Within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino turned Tottenham into a title contender. If you look at the picture below, you will notice 5 changes between Sherwood’s lineup and Pochettino’s team. Spurs ran out of steam at the end of the 2015-16 season, but they were the only real threat to Leicester’s title bid.

2016 Spurs

The 2016 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

Instead of resting on his laurels, Pochettino stayed busy in the transfer market to make Spurs more competitive, in part because some of his signings didn’t deliver, but also because other rivals were spending lavishly. So within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino made 4 changes to a team that was in contention until April 2016.

2018 Spurs

The 2018 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

At the back, Pochettino promoted Walker-Peters and signed Aurier to make up for Walker’s departure last summer. He also hired Sanchez and Foyth as cover for Vertonghen and Alderweireld. In his first season at the club, Sanchez impressively stepped up when Alderweireld picked up a hamstring injury last November.

Seeing the weaknesses and the potential

In midfield, Pochettino was a bit conservative but he still promoted Winks and added more power by signing Wanyama and Sissoko in 2016. On the wings, the Argentine manager clearly wanted more pace as he signed N’Koudou in 2016 and Moura this year. N’Koudou is still a raw player and has been loaned out to Burnley while Moura is close to the finished product with 5 seasons under his belt at French club PSG.

Up front, Pochettino signed Janssen in 2016 and Llorente in 2017 as cover for Kane. Janssen failed to impress and was loaned out to Turkish club Fenerbahce, while expectations were low for Llorente, an aging striker who was willing to deputize for Kane.

Over a four-year period, Pochettino has cleared the dead wood and strengthened both the lineup and the bench. He has also lost some gambles in the transfer market, but at least they didn’t cost the club a fortune. So there is no doubt that Spurs have a good squad builder with Pochettino.

Klopp’s appointment at Liverpool in October 2015 also provides a good example of squad building. Despite coming in the middle of the season, Klopp still managed to lead the Reds to the League Cup final and a runner-up finish in the Europa League.

Liverpool famously challenged for the Premier League title during the 2013-14 season, but it all went downhill for Rodgers after the departures of Suarez in 2014 and Sterling in 2015. Rodgers also struggled to replace leaders like Gerrard and Toure. In the summer of 2015, Rodgers signed Ings, Firmino and Benteke to add more firepower up front, but the team didn’t really gel. Stuck in 10th place after 8 Premier League games, the club lost patience and sacked Rodgers in October.

2015 Liverpool

The 2015 Liverpool lineup under Rodgers

Here’s the Liverpool squad under Rodgers:

Goalkeepers: Mignolet as the starter (Bogdan as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Clyne, Moreno (Flanagan, Gomez). Centerbacks: Skrtel, Lovren (Sakho, Toure). Midfielders: Henderson, Milner, Can (Allen, Leiva). Playmaker: Coutinho. Wingers: Lallana (Origi, Ibe). Centerforwards: Benteke (Sturridge, Firmino, Ings).

When Klopp took over, he could only make tactical adjustments because he had to wait eight months for the next summer transfer window. The Reds finished eighth in the Premier League at the end of the 2015-16 season. But Klopp got plenty of time to see the weaknesses as well as the potential of the squad he inherited.

Rebuilding an entire defense

Liverpool conceded a lot of goals under Rodgers, so Klopp decided to completely rebuild the defense. Klopp had doubts about Mignolet in goal and therefore signed Karius in 2016. Karius hasn’t been really convincing yet, even playing fewer games than Mignolet. That might explain why Roma goalkeeper Alisson has recently been linked with a move to Anfield. At centerback, Klopp shipped out Toure, Sakho and Skrtel while signing Matip and Klavan in 2016 and Van Dijk a couple of months ago. Klopp also signed Robertson in 2017 to take the leftback spot from Moreno. At rightback, Clyne’s long-term injury obliged Klopp to hand Gomez a starting spot.

By contrast, Klopp has been relatively conservative in midfield. The German manager sold Allen and Leiva, who were second-choice midfielders, and hired Grujic and Wijnaldum in 2016 and Oxlade-Chamberlain last year. Henderson and Can are still regular starters under Klopp while Milner gets plenty of playing time, too. In fact, the biggest change in midfield is Klopp’s rotation policy to keep fresh legs for his gegenpressing tactics.

The Reds struggled to score in Rodgers’ last season at the club. Klopp realized that Benteke and Ibe were not good enough for a Top 4 club and let them go. He also noticed a lack of penetration in the final third and therefore signed Mane in 2016 and Salah in 2017. Both Mane and Salah have a lot of pace and great dribbling skills.

However, Klopp’s really smart decision was to play Firmino as a false nine. Rodgers didn’t know how to use Firmino and made the mistake of believing that Benteke could deliver at the top level. Klopp also took a gamble on a youngster by signing Solanke last summer. This season, only Manchester City can claim a front three (Aguero, Sane, Sterling) as threatening as Liverpool’s.

2018 Liverpool

The 2018 Liverpool lineup under Klopp

The only blemish in Liverpool’s transfer policy was the sale of Coutinho to Barcelona in January. The Reds lost a versatile playmaker who could play either as a false winger or in a three-man midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain is versatile too but he doesn’t have Coutinho’s creativity. Plus Coutinho was a free-kick specialist who could make the difference in any tight game.

Having a coherent plan

Within two years and a half, Klopp has turned Liverpool into a Top 4 team by making 9 changes to Rodgers’ lineup. You can see the similarities between Klopp and Pochettino: they both have a coherent plan to build their respective squads and they only need a couple of years to implement it.

We have analyzed what Pochettino has achieved at Tottenham since the summer of 2014 and how Klopp has transformed Liverpool since the end of 2015. Now let’s compare with what Wenger has done at Arsenal since 2015. I’ve chosen 2015 because the club had not much cash to spend in the transfer market before 2013 (remember, the Gunners signed Ozil in 2013 and Sanchez in 2014). It’s also similar to the amount of time that Pochettino and Klopp had to change their clubs’ fortunes. You can see below Wenger’s favorite lineup at the end of the 2014-15 season.

2015 Arsenal

The 2015 Arsenal lineup   

Here’s the Arsenal squad during that season:

Goalkeepers: Ospina as the starter (Szczesny as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Bellerin, Monreal (Debuchy, Gibbs). Centerbacks: Koscielny, Mertesacker (Paulista, Chambers). Midfielders: Cazorla, Coquelin, Ramsey (Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere). Playmakers: Ozil (Rosicky). Wingers: Sanchez, Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski). Centerforwards: Giroud (Welbeck, Sanogo).

If you were a neutral manager, you could see that Ospina and Szczesny were not good enough in goal for a Top 4 team. Ospina struggled to command his area while Szczesny was error-prone and had discipline issues off the pitch. At the back, Mertesacker was an obvious target for strikers because of his lack of pace, while Wenger also had a problem at leftback where Gibbs and Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses. In midfield, Coquelin was too limited in his all-around game and was not smart enough in his positional play to shield the defense. On the right wing, Ramsey was a starter by default simply because Oxlade-Chamberlain lacked end product while Walcott had limited passing skills. Up front, Giroud lacked the pace to stretch a defense while Welbeck lacked end product.

Failing to fix 6 positions

Did Wenger spot those weaknesses in the Arsenal squad? The answer must be yes since he made moves in the transfer market for those positions. The Gunners signed Cech in 2015, Holding and Mustafi in 2016, Kolasinac in 2017 and Mavropanos a couple of months ago. In midfield, the club added Elneny and Xhaka in 2016. On the wings, Sanchez’s contractual situation led to a swap deal with Manchester United as Mkhitaryan joined Arsenal in January. Up front, pace was clearly the priority as the Gunners signed Perez in 2016, Lacazette in 2017 and Aubameyang a couple of months ago. Wenger also relied on the academy to strengthen the first team by promoting Iwobi and Maitland-Niles.

Over the past three years, Wenger was less active than Pochettino in the transfer market and less successful than Klopp in getting the right targets for the club. Let’s be honest, the majority of the signings have been flops. And the manager hasn’t fixed the 6 positions that were weaknesses during the 2014-15 season (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, holding midfielder, right winger, centerforward). You can see below Arsenal’s best lineup for this year.

2018 Arsenal

The 2018 Arsenal lineup

Lacazette’s injury means that Aubameyang is the natural choice up front. In midfield, you may argue that Iwobi or Welbeck could replace Wilshere if the team plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But that tactical difference doesn’t change my analysis. Cech used to be the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, but at 35 he’s already past his prime. In fact, Cech has the most errors leading to a goal (6) this season. At centerback, Mustafi is not the player who will marshal the defense. And Koscielny’s nagging Achilles injury also means that the club will need to sign an experienced centerback this summer. At leftback, Kolasinac’s defensive performances have been disappointing. In central midfield, Elneny doesn’t win duels while Xhaka lacks mobility and defensive awareness. On the wings, Iwobi lacks end product while Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck don’t have the dribbling skills to crack a defense. Up front, Aubameyang and Lacazette both struggle in the air. And Aubameyang has a limited all-around game while Lacazette’s hold-up play is weaker than Giroud’s.

Another issue with Wenger’s squad management is the time wasted to clear the dead wood. Walcott and Coquelin should have been shipped out way before January. And there’s no reason to hang onto Chambers and Elneny, especially since the Gunners also have Holding and Mavropanos at centerback as well as Wilshere and Maitland-Niles in midfield. Chambers lacks pace and struggles to turn, while Elneny may be more mobile than Xhaka but the Egypt international is not a decisive player defensively or offensively.

No challenge before 2021?

Because Wenger failed to improve the team in the past 3 years and took too much time to clear the dead wood, it doesn’t make sense to rely on the French manager for an overhaul of the squad this summer. The next manager will have a lot of work to bring Arsenal back into the Top 4.

2019 Arsenal

How a competitive Arsenal team could look like

It will take more than a season to rebuild the squad. And the way the Citizens are dominating the Premier League, Arsenal might not be able to challenge for the title before 2021. Look at Liverpool: Klopp has done a good job within 3 years, but the Reds are still miles behind City.

The board and the staff will obviously have to set the priorities in terms of transfers. If a centerback and a holding midfielder are the top priorities, it means that Arsenal might have to stick with Cech or Ospina next season. I’ve chosen a 4-3-3 formation because that’s the best system to implement a pressing game. I don’t think the Gunners could finish in the Top 4 without pressing high up the pitch. That implies signing a more dynamic midfielder than Wilshere or Xhaka to harry opponents. I believe only Ramsey would have the pace, stamina and skills to play in Liverpool’s three-man midfield. Ozil’s poor work-rate means that he can only play in the front three.

For next season, assuming that Arsenal can only sign one attacking player because of financial constraints, a winger with great dribbling skills should also be at the top of the list. Liverpool, City and Chelsea respectively have Salah, Sane and Hazard to make the difference against compact defenses.

If the club runs out of cash, the Gunners could either play Lacazette or Perez on the right wing, or fast-track Nelson a bit like Sterling at Liverpool. Mkhitaryan and Ozil would have to fight for the spot on the left wing. Of course, Arsenal could switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation and play both Ozil and Mkhitaryan against the weak sides, but that would still depend on the hiring of a defensive midfielder. Up front, the Gunners would have the choice between Lacazette, a false nine coming to the ball, and Aubameyang, a striker stretching a defense.

The board and the staff have no room for error this summer because they have poorly performed in the previous transfer windows. By the end of August, we will know whether the Gunners have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish for next season.

 

Milan vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 2-0 win

The Gunners made a big step toward qualifying for the quarterfinals of the Europa League by defeating AC Milan 2-0 in the first leg of their last 16 encounter. Obviously, we shouldn’t take qualification for granted after the 2-1 loss in the previous round against Ostersund. Thursday’s result also shows that Wenger hasn’t lost the dressing room yet as Arsenal produced a good performance to snap a four-game losing streak in all competitions.

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

It was weird to see the Gunners play AC Milan because there are a couple of parallels between those two clubs. AC Milan used to contend each season for the Serie A title but their fall from grace was so brutal that Champions League football is no longer a gimme. In fact, the Rossoneri haven’t qualified for the top European competition since the 2012-13 season. AC Milan also used to play some spectacular football under Sacchi, Capello and Ancelotti. Now the Rosseneri are a technically average team, struggling to convert spells of domination into goals. AC Milan had 16 shots to 8 for Arsenal, but the Gunners tested Donnarumma 4 times while the Rossoneri caught the frame only once.

  1. Ramsey has become the heartbeat of the team

Last season, Arsenal depended on Sanchez to score goals and create plays. Now Ramsey has become the key to unlock the team’s offensive potential since the Chile striker’s departure. Ramsey initiated the opening goal with an interception in the 15th minute. The Wales midfielder then made it 2-0 on the stroke of halftime with a perfectly timed run, rounding Donnarumma to slot the ball into an empty net. His movement, work-rate and composure definitely make a difference in the final third. The only blemish in Ramsey’s performance was the fouls he made on the edge of the Arsenal box. The Gunners could have paid a hefty price with a free-kick specialist like Calhanoglu. Ramsey was also harshly booked for a high foot in the 71st.

  1. Ozil and Mkhitaryan can play together

Smart players are always able to strike an understanding. Mkhitaryan set up Ozil for the third goal against Ostersund last month. Ozil returned the favor on Thursday by finding Mkhitaryan with a first-time pass in the 15th. Mkhitaryan cut inside and beat Donnarumma with a shot that took a deflection off Bonucci. The Armenia international could have added another goal in the 45th but his curling shot hit the bar. Ozil had 2 assists as he also played Ramsey clean through for the second goal. The manager shifted to a back three in the 80th by yanking off Ozil to send on Holding.

  1. Chambers is a liability

I still don’t understand why Wenger is so fond of Chambers. The English defender was turned like a roasted chicken against Ostersund and Manchester City. Izquierdo also had Chambers in his pocket at Brighton. Yet, the manager rewarded Chambers with another start. Calhanoglu has average pace but he still managed to make several runs in behind Chambers. With a passing accuracy of 65%, Chambers had the lowest percentage of all the Arsenal players. Chambers gave the ball away to Calhanoglu with a poor clearance in the 10th but Cutrone wasted the chance with an off-target effort. His slow first steps help explain why Chambers couldn’t block Bonaventura’s curling shot in the 37th and 12-yard strike in the 52nd. Chambers seemed to have a bout of cramping in the 84th and was replaced by Elneny.

  1. Arsenal might be facing a fullback crisis

Monreal and Bellerin were not available for the Milan game because of a sore back and a knee inflammation respectively. Kolasinac had to come off the field in the 62nd as Maitland-Niles took over at leftback. It might just be a knock, but it could also be a recurrence of Kolasinac’s hip injury.

  1. Wilshere’s turnover rate is an issue

In his dreams, Wilshere must be some kind of English Maradona. But on the field, his overconfidence in his dribbling skills leads to many turnovers. Wilshere was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. It’s time for him to realize that he has lost a bit of pace after recovering from injuries. Wilshere must tweak his game otherwise he’ll go nowhere if he keeps playing like the 18-year-old Wilshere. That also explains why the club is playing hardball in the negotiations over his contract, which is expiring this year.

  1. Ospina’s quick legs saved the day

The Arsenal defense will have to deal better with through balls in the second leg. The Rossoneri played Cutrone and Kalinic clean through in the 41st and 83rd, but each time Ospina beat the Milan forwards to the ball. There was also a 50-50 ball in the 12th when Calhanoglu made a run in behind Chambers. Ospina couldn’t win the ball but he was smart enough to keep his hands to himself and avoid a penalty. The only blemish in Ospina’s performance was his failure to command the 6-yard box in the 44th when Bonucci met a Calhanoglu corner but couldn’t guide his header goalward.

  1. Welbeck still can’t score

It’s not as bad as Cech’s elusive 200th clean sheet in the Premier League, but it’s still a concern. Welbeck hasn’t found the net since the Nottingham Forest game in early January. Welbeck didn’t miss any sitter. In fact, he didn’t get much service and had to create his own chances. Welbeck made an interception in the 42nd and swapped passes with Mkhitaryan before testing Donnarumma with an angled effort. Then Welbeck smelt blood in the 49th when Kessie made a risky backpass. Welbeck beat Donnarumma to the ball but had his effort blocked by the Milan goalkeeper with the ball bouncing wide of the goal.

However, you can never fault Welbeck for his work-rate. The English forward was selfless, setting up Chambers for a long-range strike in the 42nd and picking out Mkhitaryan with a crossfield pass in the 45th. He even covered Ozil in the 73rd when Calabria made a cross that sailed out of bounds.