Tag Archives: Kolasinac

Humiliating 4-1 loss in Europa League final shows lack of quality in Arsenal team

   The Gunners will miss out on the Champions League for the third season in a row after losing 4-1 to Chelsea in the Europa League final on Wednesday. They were badly outplayed in the second half and will keep struggling against the top teams if there is no significant investment in the squad this summer.

Europa League finalPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   In the first half, the Gunners did a decent job defensively but failed to capitalize on some good situations offensively. The double threat of Lacazette and Aubameyang forced Azpilicueta and Emerson to drift inside and play in a narrow back four, giving more space to Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Unfortunately, the Arsenal wingbacks lacked accuracy with their final ball, depriving Lacazette and Aubameyang of good service.

   When Chelsea took the lead early in the second half, it became a different story. The Blues had more counterattacking opportunities and the Arsenal defense looked much more vulnerable. The Gunners also showed their mental weakness by conceding 3 goals in a 16-minute span. It’s not the first time this season that they have collapsed after conceding the opening goal. The Wolverhampton game was another recent example.

   Down 3-0, Emery threw caution to the wind and shifted from a 3-5-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Monreal and Torreira with Guendouzi and Iwobi in the 66th minute. Iwobi played on the left wing while Aubameyang moved to the right wing. In the end, what made the difference was that Chelsea had a matchwinner with Hazard while Lacazette and Aubameyang couldn’t even find the net. The Blues also wanted it more as they ran 101.59 kilometers compared to 95.94 for Arsenal, according to the UEFA statistics.

Losing a step

   I have no issue with the team selection. On paper, this was the best starting lineup, knowing that Ramsey was injured while UEFA couldn’t guarantee Mkhitaryan’s safety in Azerbaijan. For his last game, Cech produced a decent performance. The Czech goalkeeper prevented Chelsea from taking the lead in the first half by parrying Emerson’s diagonal shot in the 34th and palming away Giroud’s low strike in the 39th. He limited the damage in the second half by saving Hazard’s curling shot in the 75th and turning Willian’s low strike around the post in the 78th.

   On the other hand, Wednesday’s game made clear that Koscielny and Monreal have lost a step. Giroud is often mocked for his lack of pace but he still beat Koscielny to the ball to head in Emerson’s cross for the opening goal in the 49th. Monreal also lost a key duel in the 60th. Pedro escaped Monreal’s marking to double the lead with a first-time effort. Sokratis performed better than Monreal and Koscielny but he was guilty on the last goal. Hazard ran past Sokratis in the 72nd to volley Giroud’s cross past Cech.

   Sokratis won 3 of 3 tackles and led all players by winning 6 of 7 aerial duels and blocking 3 shots, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Koscielny won 1 of 3 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels and made 1 block while Monreal won 1 of 1 aerial duel and made 0 tackle and 1 block. The alternatives at centerback were unappealing with the error-prone Mustafi and the sluggish Lichtsteiner.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety

   The Gunners struggled to cope with Chelsea’s high press. Turnovers from Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang led to goals in the 60th and 72nd, respectively. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player. He definitely needs to work on his technique. A couple of times, his first touch was shockingly poor. The academy graduate was involved in the first 3 goals. Maitland-Niles failed to close down Emerson for the opener in the 49th. He then tried to dribble his way out of trouble in the 60th only to lose possession. Hazard recovered the loose ball to set up Pedro for the second goal. Finally, Maitland-Niles lost his composure in the 64th and gave away a silly penalty by shoving Giroud from behind. Hazard converted the subsequent spot kick to make it 3-0.

   Kolasinac had less defensive work than Maitland-Niles, in great part because Pedro was less threatening than Hazard. However, Kolasinac’s offensive contribution was disappointing. Despite 2 key passes, Kolasinac’s technique often let him down in the final third. He finished the game with a passing accuracy of 72.1%, the lowest percentage for any player.

   In midfield, it could only be an uphill battle from the moment Ramsey and Mkhitaryan were not available because Ozil and Iwobi don’t have their work-rate. Emery trusted Ozil to mark Jorginho out of the game like Ramsey did in the 2-0 win some four months ago. There were two problems with that idea. First, Ozil followed Jorginho and tried to cut the supply lines but he simply doesn’t have Ramsey’s impact. Defensively, Ozil made 0 tackle and 1 interception. Offensively, Ozil had 0 shot and 1 key pass. The German playmaker also led Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. And second, Chelsea had a Plan B. Because of the focus on Jorginho, Kovacic enjoyed more freedom and led Chelsea players with 64 passes despite playing only 75 minutes.

Iwobi’s cameo

   Ozil lived up to his reputation as a talented player going missing in the big games. You just have to compare with Hazard’s performance to understand what a clutch player is. Hazard scored twice and made an assist. In hindsight, maybe Iwobi would have been a better option than Ozil in the playmaking role. In his 27-minute cameo, Iwobi scored a goal and made 3 key passes. Iwobi pounced on a Chelsea clearance in the 69th to volley into the far corner from 25 yards. Ozil was replaced by Willock in the 77th. The academy midfielder played in the Ramsey role, making penetrative runs instead of pulling the strings like Ozil. Willock should have scored in the 84th when he played a one-two with Lacazette but his curling shot sailed wide of the far post.

   Playing in front of the back three, Torreira and Xhaka had contrasting fortunes. Torreira produced a disappointing performance, making 2 interceptions and winning only 2 of 7 tackles, whereas Jorginho made 1 interception and won 7 of 10 tackles. It was a difficult game for Torreira because he had to help Xhaka in midfield while also marking Hazard when the Belgium international dropped back.

   Xhaka almost had a decent game compared to Ozil and Torreira. He led all players with 68 passes and hit 12 of 14 accurate long balls, according to whoscored.com. His long-range effort flirted with the bar in the 28th. However, Xhaka’s work-rate wasn’t good enough to help Arsenal match Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic in midfield. Xhaka made 0 interception and won 2 of 2 tackles.

Aubameyang’s off day

   Lacazette and Aubameyang have carried the Gunners in this competition but they really lacked support on Wednesday. The Chelsea defense had a relatively quiet evening. Would Ramsey’s presence have made a difference in the final third?

   After walking on water against Valencia, Aubameyang had an off day in Azerbaijan with 0 of 4 shots on target and 0 key pass. Aubameyang sent a 15-yard volley wide in the ninth minute, hit a cross beyond Lacazette in the 52nd, had a turnover that led to the final goal in the 72nd, and completely fluffed his shot in stoppage time.

   It was quite ironic that Arsenal sold Coquelin, Walcott and Giroud last year to finance the signing of Aubameyang because Giroud played a key role in Chelsea’s victorious campaign. Giroud finished the season as the top scorer in the Europa League with 11 goals. In Azerbaijan, Giroud crucified his former team by scoring a goal, making an assist and winning a penalty. The Gunners got more speed with Aubameyang but they also lost a dominant player in the air. The Blues sometimes used Giroud as a target man to evade Arsenal’s high press. Giroud won 3 of 7 aerial duels, while Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win only 1 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

A deep-rooted problem

Lacazette performed a bit better than Aubameyang with 3 key passes and 1 of 3 shots on target. The French striker had 2 good situations in the first half. Aubameyang fed Lacazette, who dribbled past Kepa in the 18th. Kepa was a split second late and clipped Lacazette’s foot. Despite a VAR review, no penalty was given. Four minutes later, Torreira hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, who held off Azpilicueta but couldn’t control the ball. Lacazette finally tested Kepa in the 83rd but the Spanish goalkeeper made the save.

   As a knee-jerk reaction, some fans wanted Emery to leave the club after this embarrassing defeat. I think it would be unfair for Emery, who did better than Wenger both in the Premier League and the Europa League. It would also make things worse for the club because that kind of instability would put off prospective managers and players.

   Anyway, Emery’s departure this summer wouldn’t help the club because the real issue is the board. Dismissing Emery won’t solve a deep-rooted problem, which is the owner’s lack of ambition and his failure to invest in the squad. An average manager with a great squad can win titles. Think of Di Matteo with Chelsea in 2012. But a great manager with an average squad won’t win anything. Think of Benitez at Newcastle.    

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Arsenal vs. Valencia: A few thoughts on the 3-1 win

   The Gunners took a big step toward qualifying for the Europa League final by defeating Valencia 3-1 in the first leg of the semifinals on Thursday. They showed more desire than against Leicester and had a bit of luck as the Spanish side could have led 2-0 after 15 minutes.

Arsenal vs. ValenciaPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   Emery relied on a 3-5-2 formation with Ozil playing behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Lacazette initiated the equalizer in the 18th minute by playing Aubameyang in. The Gabon striker cut inside Roncaglia before slipping the ball to Lacazette, who scored into an empty net from 17 yards. Then Lacazette lost Roncaglia inside the box to head Xhaka’s cross for a 2-1 lead in the 25th. Neto diverted Lacazette’s bouncing header onto the post and palmed the ball out after it entirely crossed the line. In the last minute of regulation time, Aubameyang met Kolasinac’s cross to seal the win with a volley from a very tight angle.

  1. Arsenal’s version of Cole & Yorke

   The telepathic understanding between Lacazette and Aubameyang reminds me of Manchester United’s strike partnership of the late 1990s. They both produced a good all-around performance, making 2 key passes each and winning 1 of 2 tackles each, according to whoscored.com.

   Lacazette definitely feels more comfortable with continental football, which is less physical than the Premier League. He could have notched a hat trick with better finishing in the second half. Aubameyang rounded Paulista in the 63rd to make a cross for Lacazette, who produced an air shot from 6 yards. Four minutes later, a long-range strike from Kolasinac fell into the path of Lacazette, whose 5-yard effort was saved by Nieto.

   Aubameyang didn’t get off to a great start. He missed the target with an awkward shot in the 23rd when a pass to an unmarked Maitland-Niles was the better option. Then Aubameyang connected with a cross from Xhaka in the 33rd for a volley that bounced over the bar. But Aubameyang grew into the game, worked his socks off and was rewarded with the last goal.

  1. The Gunners struggled to defend set pieces (again)

   Arsenal will need to train harder on set pieces for the second leg because Valencia created 2 chances from corners and 1 chance from free kicks. The Spanish side should have opened the scoring in the eighth minute when an unmarked Rodrigo redirected Parejo’s free kick into the path of Garay, who fired over the bar from close range. Maitland-Niles failed to track Rodrigo’s run on that play. Three minutes later, Valencia finally found the net. An unmarked Rodrigo headed a corner toward Diakhaby, who nodded in. Sokratis lost the first duel with Rodrigo while Xhaka lost the second duel with Diakhaby. Cech is a keeper who can command his area, yet he proved powerless against Diakhaby, who beat him to a corner in the 69th. Fortunately, Diakhaby could only flick the ball on and Mustafi cleared the danger.    

  1. The Arsenal defense was shaky but survived

   Every Arsenal defender had a poor moment. Sokratis was lucky not to get booked for a late challenge on Diakhaby in the sixth minute. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick with a clumsy challenge on Soler in the 35th. Koscielny lacked focus in the 73rd when Gameiro made a run in behind to collect Parejo’s through ball and be denied by Cech. But Maitland-Niles arguably made the worst blunder in the 15th after Cech parried Parejo’s long-range strike. The rebound fell to Maitland-Niles, who headed the ball toward Cech. Guedes pounced on the tame backpass only to flick the ball over the bar.

  1. Kolasinac was let down by his technique

   The Bosnia-Herzegovina international had a passing accuracy of 71.4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters according to whoscored.com. He gave the ball away twice in the opening minutes and wasted good situations with a poor delivery. Out of the 6 crosses Kolasinac made, only one was accurate, but it proved the assist for Aubameyang’s goal.  

  1. A flawed midfield

   Emery played Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in central midfield. I think it’s a less complementary partnership than the duo formed by Xhaka and Torreira because Xhaka is not a natural defensive midfielder and therefore needs a ballwinner to cover him. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times and led all players with 4 fouls. Despite those flaws, Xhaka was still able to pull the strings in midfield and led all players with 3 key passes and 5 accurate crosses, including those for Lacazette’s goal in the 25th and Aubameyang’s chance in the 33rd.

   I expect Emery to start Torreira alongside Xhaka for the second leg because Guendouzi’s work-rate on Thursday was not good enough. Guendouzi won 0 of 1 tackle compared to 2 of 5 tackles for Xhaka and 2 of 2 tackles for Ozil, according to whoscored.com. Emery must probably be managing Torreira’s playing time because he sent on the Uruguay midfielder for Guendouzi in the 58th.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down to 10 men

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

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

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

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

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

Koscielny’s twilight

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

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

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

The offside trap that didn’t work

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

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

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

The card collector

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

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

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

Iwobi missing a big chance

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

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

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

Walking a tightrope

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

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

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

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

 

 

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Top 4 hopes dealt a blow in 3-2 loss

   Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Crystal Palace was a bad result for Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the Top 4. The Gunners slipped to fifth place in the Premier League and you have to keep in mind that the home game against the Eagles was one of the easiest fixtures in their run-in, at least on paper. The defeat against Hodgson’s team was all the more disappointing that it came after 3 straight clean sheets in all competitions. Somehow, the result simply confirmed that the Arsenal squad is not good enough to cope with a heavy schedule.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery got a lot of stick for making 7 changes to the side that edged Napoli 1-0 last Thursday with only Kolasinac, Koscielny, Aubameyang and Lacazette retaining their starting spots. Obviously, the midfield looked very soft with Elneny and Guendouzi. Ramsey and Xhaka were left out of the squad because of injuries while Emery was careful with Torreira, who picked up a knock against Napoli. The options at the back were also limited: Sokratis was completing his two-game ban while Emery wanted to rest Monreal and Maitland-Niles. Quite a few fans must have felt nervous at kickoff with a backline including Mavropanos, Jenkinson, Mustafi and Kolasinac.

   I thought Emery’s team selection for a home game was too conservative with only 3 attacking players (Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette) in the starting lineup. The Gunners enjoyed a lot of sterile possession in the first half with very few chances. The team looked a bit more balanced after Emery shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Jenkinson and Mavropanos with Maitland-Niles and Iwobi at halftime. Nevertheless, the final stats showed Emery’s tactical approach was still a failure with only 12 shots to 16 for the Eagles despite 73% of ball possession.

The importance of decision-making

   The goals scored by Palace all came from set pieces. You would think that it’s a legacy of the Wenger era. But a closer inspection reveals that it was a matter of individual errors and not poor defensive organization. Arsenal perfectly executed the offside trap against Napoli. So the Gunners tried that ploy again when the Eagles had a free kick in the 17th. Unfortunately, Benteke connected with Milivojevic’s set piece to beat Leno with a free header from 8 yards.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M17ed.jpgJenkinson fails to play Benteke offside. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   As you can see on the screen capture above, the Arsenal defense played the offside trap. But Jenkinson didn’t get the memo and played Benteke onside. Jenkinson was 100 percent guilty on that play because Benteke and the other Gunners stood right in front of him, so there’s no way he couldn’t see what was going on. Jenkinson furiously gesticulated after Benteke scored, probably thinking that Mustafi poorly marked Benteke. But Jenkinson was the one who undermined the offside trap by standing one yard behind Mustafi and Mavropanos.

   That was definitely poor decision-making from Jenkinson. I mean, Emery can show his players tons and tons of videos to improve their performance, but at the end of the day, it’s the players on the pitch who make the decisions.

   Mustafi is famous for his brain farts. On Sunday, the German defender lived up to his reputation as an error-prone player by costing 2 goals. The Eagles won a free kick in their own half in the 61st. They punted the ball toward Benteke, who flicked it on. The second ball fell to Mustafi, who shielded the ball, expecting Leno to come off his line. Zaha stole the ball to beat Leno with a low strike for a 2-1 lead.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M61ed.jpgMustafi expects Leno to beat Zaha to the ball. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   Let’s make things clear: the goal was 100 percent Mustafi’s fault. When the ball bounced in front of Mustafi 25 yards from goal, Leno was standing just outside his 6-yard box. Because the ball had very little pace and Mustafi seemed in control of the situation, Leno decided to stay inside his area. As you can see on the screen capture above, Leno had no chance to beat Zaha to the ball when Mustafi started to shield it with his body. Leno made the right decision while Mustafi made the wrong one. In that kind of situation, Mustafi should have simply cleared the danger.

Owning a mistake (or not)

   The worst part is that Mustafi tried to blame Leno for that goal just like he tried to blame Cech a year ago for a goal scored by Southampton in a 3-2 win. Making a blunder is already bad, but not owning your mistakes can be a morale killer in any team. Mustafi showed again poor decision-making for Palace’s third goal in the 69th. McArthur redirected a corner toward Dann, who nodded in from close range.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M69aed.jpgMustafi initially marking Dann on the corner. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   As you can see on the screen capture above, Mustafi was in charge of marking Dann at the far post. But for some strange reason, Mustafi started running away from Dann when McArthur was about to flick the ball on. At first, I thought maybe Mustafi was trying to play Dann offside. But it’s unlikely for a team to play the offside trap on a corner before the ball is even headed. As you can see on the screen capture below, Guendouzi, Aubameyang and Kolasinac played Dann onside, which means that there was no plan to execute the offside trap on that corner.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M69bed.jpgMustafi running away from Dann. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   It’s only after watching several TV replays that I finally came to the conclusion that Mustafi was trying to meet the corner. From his initial position, Mustafi had no chance to win the first header. It’s not just poor decision-making, it’s also poor tactical discipline. Mustafi could have prevented that goal by staying with Dann and winning the second ball. Both Mustafi and Jenkinson are 27. They won’t improve their reading of the game or their decision-making at that age. The club should offload them this summer to improve the defense.

Koscielny’s aerial struggles

   The visitors’ goals were just the tip of the iceberg. Mustafi could have cost more goals on Sunday. He failed to mark Benteke on the stroke of halftime. The Palace striker took a pass from Zaha only to miss the target from 12 yards. Then Mustafi missed his header in the 56th while attempting to intercept McArthur’s ball over the top for Zaha. Fortunately, Maitland-Niles covered Mustafi and prevented Zaha from pulling the trigger. Besides his blunders, Mustafi showed poor discipline, leading all players with 4 fouls. He even embarrassed himself by earning a booking for diving in the 85th. And his work-rate was poor with just 1 tackle, 2 interceptions and 1 recovery, compared to 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries for Koscielny, according to the club’s website.    

   Koscielny made no glaring mistake like Mustafi, but he lost the key duels with Benteke and McArthur for Palace’s second and third goals. The French defender performed poorly in the air, winning only 1 of 5 aerial duels, while Mustafi won 5 of 8 headers according to whoscored.com. At 33, playing a fourth game in an 11-day span was always going to be a tough ask. His 5 turnovers, a high number for a centerback, clearly reflected his fatigue.

   Playing in a back three alongside Koscielny and Mustafi, Mavropanos looked a bit less hesitant than against Watford. He showed again his naivety in the 16th when he dived in and received a yellow card for holding Benteke. That foul led to the free kick for the opening goal. Emery yanked Mavropanos off at halftime to switch to a back four. At 21, Mavropanos needs playing time in order to learn and develop. A loan in the Championship next season would be a good opportunity.

Jenkinson’s poor work-rate

   On the right flank, Jenkinson’s limited technique was exposed. He contributed very little offensively, sending a cross out of play in the third minute and guiding the ball into touch after miscontrolling a crossfield pass in the 35th. There’s something wrong when a player still looks raw at 27. I’m puzzled that Wenger extended Jenkinson’s contract. What did Wenger see in him? Jenkinson is known as a boyhood Arsenal fan, but his work-rate was incredibly poor with 0 tackle, 1 block, 0 interception and 2 recoveries in the first half.

   At halftime, Emery replaced Jenkinson with Maitland-Niles, who put in a shift with 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 5 recoveries in the second half, according to the club’s website. Maitland-Niles saved the Arsenal defense twice, making a crucial clearance in the 56th and a last-ditch block in the 65th. Frankly, I don’t understand the transfer rumors linking Wan-Bissaka to Arsenal because Maitland-Niles can deputize for Bellerin and the money should be spent on the centerback and central midfield positions.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac’s performance was a mixed bag. He should have been awarded a penalty in the 38th for a cross that Wan-Bissaka blocked with his arm. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also tested Guaita with a half-volley in the 59th. Unfortunately, Kolasinac’s defensive lapses outweighed his offensive contributions. He gave away cheap free kicks with 3 fouls. And his lack of defensive awareness was exposed a couple of times. Kolasinac failed to track Kouyate in the 43rd as the Palace midfielder forced Leno into a spectacular double save. Then Kolasinac left Dann unmarked in the 63rd. The Palace centerback met a free kick from Milivojevic only to volley straight at Leno.

How standards have declined in midfield

   In midfield, Guendouzi and Elneny were responsible for the lack of urgency in the first half. The Gunners used to have deep-lying playmakers like Fabregas and Cazorla who could dictate the tempo and create chances. But neither Guendouzi nor Elneny is a pacesetter. The sterile possession forced Ozil to drop back in the first half to build up plays.

   Guendouzi led all players with 86 passes but he still has that tendency to take too many touches instead of quickly releasing the ball. The French midfielder is simply not decisive enough at both ends of the pitch. His work-rate against the Eagles was good with 2 tackles and 9 recoveries, the most for an Arsenal player. But Guendouzi can’t shield the back four like a Fernandinho, Kante or Torreira. He was dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com. The more Guendouzi plays, and the more he looks like a utility midfielder. He’s an upgrade over Elneny but he’s still below Xhaka in the pecking order.

   Elneny played in a slightly more advanced position than Guendouzi. Emery wanted to use Elneny as a box-to-box player, which is kind of funny because Wenger tried to play him in the centerback position. The Egypt international was too conservative in his passing. And the few times Elneny tried to play the ball forward, his passing lacked accuracy. His only offensive contribution was a volley over the bar in the 11th. If Emery really wanted a box-to-box player, he should have given a chance to Willock.

   Defensively, Elneny made a blunder by failing to play to the whistle in the 65th. Kouyate led a Palace counterattack and collided with Guendouzi along the touchline. Elneny could have kicked the loose ball out of play. But expecting the referee to make a call in Arsenal’s favor, Elneny stopped playing and let Zaha run past him to continue the fast break. Emery had seen enough and replaced Elneny with Torreira in the 68th. Elneny and Mustafi are examples of the poor job done by the scouting department under Wenger.    

3 wins out of 4 games?

   The only positive of Sunday’s match was the attacking players, who scored 2 goals. In a normal game, that should be enough to get 3 points. Ozil was a bit isolated in the first half. Iwobi’s appearance after halftime helped Ozil have more impact in the final third. Ozil could have put the Gunners ahead in the opening minute but his curling shot from the edge of the box lacked power to trouble Guaita. The German playmaker equalized in the 47th with his trademark chip. Lacazette fed Ozil with a reverse pass. From a tight angle, Ozil knocked the ball into the ground to produce an awkward bounce that fooled Guaita. Ozil nearly leveled again in the 87th with a cross that evaded everybody, except Guaita who tipped the ball away. Two minutes later, Iwobi could have also salvaged a point, but his tame effort from 14 yards was not good enough to beat Guaita. The only blemish in Ozil’s performance was his 10 turnovers, which is unusual for a player with good ball retention skills.  

   Lacazette and Aubameyang are having a good run of form. The French striker scored the winner against Napoli and made the assist for Ozil’s goal on Sunday, while Aubameyang scored the winner against Watford and found the net against Palace. Starting a dribbling run from the right flank in the 77th, Aubameyang slalomed past 3 Eagles before attempting to play Lacazette in. A defender blocked the pass but Aubameyang pounced on the loose ball to fire into the bottom corner. Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t get much service. Lacazette’s only chance was an off-balance shot from 20 yards that sailed over the bar in the 42nd.

   One month before the end of the season, the board and the staff can already draw their own conclusions about last summer’s transfers. Leno and Torreira have proved successful signings while Lichtsteiner has been a failure, too slow for the Premier League. Sokratis and Guendouzi has been upgrades over Mustafi and Elneny, respectively, but are not at the level of Koscielny and Cazorla in their prime.

   To finish in the Top 4, Arsenal will probably need 3 wins from their last 4 games. The Gunners visit Wolverhampton on Wednesday and Leicester on Sunday. The game at Molineux stadium is more tricky because the Gunners only have 2 days of rest compared to 3 for the Leicester game. Ramsey’s absence is a huge blow because he’s the kind of player whose work-rate makes a difference in away games. I expect Ozil to be on the bench and Mkhitaryan to start for both games.

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

   The Gunners took control of their Europa League tie on Thursday by sinking Napoli 2-0 in the first leg of the quarterfinals. Ramsey opened the scoring with a low strike in the 14th minute before Torreira doubled the lead with a shot that took a big deflection off Koulibaly in the 25th.

Arsenal vs. NapoliPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Everton last weekend with Aubameyang, Ramsey, Torreira, Koscielny and Cech replacing Mkhitaryan, Guendouzi, Elneny, Mustafi and Leno in the starting lineup. Koscielny was making his return from a foot injury while Xhaka was left out of the squad because of a groin injury.

   Napoli enjoyed 58% of ball possession but Arsenal proved the more threatening team with 17 shots compared to 8 for the visitors. The Gunners pressed high up the pitch in the first half to prevent the Gli Azzurri from finding their rhythm. Arsenal couldn’t press as hard in the second half, giving Napoli more time on the ball. The best chances for the Italian side came from the same type of play: no pressure from the Gunners on the ballholder, who hits a ball over the top.  

  1. Ramsey is enjoying his peak years

   Playing alongside Torreira in central midfield, Ramsey created a lot of problems for the Napoli defense with his movement and late runs into the box. The Wales midfielder had a shot blocked by Koulibaly in the seventh minute before finding the net with a first-time effort into the bottom corner a few minutes later. Ramsey also tested Meret with an angled strike in the 37th, an awkward volley in the 45th, and a powerful drive in the 59th. There were only 2 blemishes in Ramsey’s performance: the stray pass that led to Mario Rui’s long-range effort in the 42nd; and the big chance that Ramsey missed from 9 yards in the 81st.

   In his first years at the club, Ramsey was often criticized for neglecting his defensive duties to chase personal glory. That kind of criticism was harsh because Ramsey didn’t read the game as well as he does now. For instance, he had a tendency to hold onto the ball too long whereas nowadays he’s more economical with his touches and moves the ball more quickly. Wenger also didn’t use Ramsey in the most optimal way. I am convinced Ramsey would have definitely flourished in a three-man midfield alongside Torreira and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Besides his goal, Ramsey put in a shift on Thursday, winning 1 of 2 tackles and making 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.

  1. Torreira was hungry

   Because of a three-game ban in the Premier League, Torreira had not played with Arsenal since the 3-0 win over Rennes four weeks ago. The Uruguay midfielder produced a solid performance, winning 2 of 2 tackles, making 2 key passes and 2 interceptions and having only 1 turnover. Torreira was a key component of Arsenal’s pressing game. He created the second goal by dispossessing Ruiz in midfield and bursting forward. His energy levels dipped in the second half, forcing Emery to replace him with Elneny in the 77th.  

  1. Arsenal’s left flank is vulnerable

   The Napoli staff must have spotted that weakness since the Gli Azzurri targeted the left side of the Arsenal defense. Monreal and Kolasinac combined to have 5 turnovers compared to just 2 for Sokratis and Maitland-Niles, according to whoscored.com. Kolasinac’s offensive contribution can’t be denied: he led all players with 3 key passes. But his poor defensive awareness and positional play have put the Gunners in trouble. It’s no coincidence that Wenger preferred to use Oxlade-Chamberlain in the left wingback position.

   Callejon made a run in behind Kolasinac to collect a long ball from Allan on the stroke of halftime. The Spanish winger cut the ball back for Insigne, who fired over the bar from 12 yards. Then Monreal misjudged a long ball in the 48th as Insigne made a run in behind. But Koscielny was able to drift to his left to cut out Insigne’s final ball. Napoli’s best chance came in the 72nd when Kolasinac failed to close down Callejon, who hit a ball over the top for Insigne. The diminutive Italian forward made a run in behind Monreal to square the ball back for Zielinski, who missed the target from 6 yards. The Gunners will need to work harder on the training ground if they want to fix that defensive problem before the second leg.

  1. Maitland-Niles loves the Europa League

   The academy graduate shone again on the European stage four weeks after his outstanding performance against Rennes. Maitland-Niles won 2 of 2 tackles, had 1 of 2 shots on target and made 2 key passes and 2 interceptions. He initially struggled in the opening minutes, letting Zielinski run past him in the 11th and sending a crossfield pass into touch in the 14th. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and teed up Ramsey for the opening goal in the 14th. He also nearly scored in the 69th with a bouncing volley that Meret tipped over the bar. The only blemish in Maitland-Niles’ performance was his passing accuracy of 66.7%, the lowest percentage for any outfield starter, and well below Kolasinac’s passing accuracy of 76.6%.  

  1. The Arsenal strikers struggled again

   Lacazette and Aubameyang were anonymous against Everton and barely did better against Napoli. The French striker performed poorly, having 0 shot on target and leading all players with 7 turnovers according to whoscored.com. His most embarrassing moment came in the 33rd when Aubameyang set him up. With his weaker left foot, Lacazette produced an air shot.

   At least, Aubameyang limited the damage with 3 turnovers and 3 of 5 shots on target. But he was far from clinical. His first-time effort in the 26th was too tame to trouble Meret. Aubameyang then attempted a lob in the 41st when a cross would have been a better option. On a counterattack in the 88th, Mkhitaryan fed Aubameyang who fired wide from 15 yards. Aubameyang’s most decent effort was a long-range strike that Meret spilled before gathering the rebound in the 39th.  

Everton vs. Arsenal: Gunners show lack of fight in 1-0 loss

   The Gunners have a massive mountain to climb in the Top 4 race. They lost 1-0 at Everton on Sunday to slip to 4th place, level on points with Chelsea in the Premier League. A quick look at the schedule tells you that securing a Champions League spot won’t be easy. Arsenal will play 2 home games against Crystal Palace and Brighton and 4 away games against Watford, Wolverhampton, Leicester and Burnley. The Hornets, the Wanderers and the Foxes are stuck between 7th and 10th like the Toffees. Even the Burnley game will be no gimme, knowing that the Gunners still haven’t kept a clean sheet on the road this season.

Everton vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that defeated Newcastle 2-0 a week ago with Elneny and Mkhitaryan replacing Ramsey and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Iwobi performed poorly against the Magpies while Emery was simply cautious with Ramsey, who was recovering from a minor groin injury. The problem with the team selection was the obvious lack of leadership and aggression. The Gunners were still missing their most experienced centerback (Koscielny) as well as their two most reliable central midfielders (Torreira and Xhaka).

   Arsenal lost 3 duels on the play that led to Everton’s goal in the 10th minute. Jagielka beat Mustafi and Elneny to the ball to flick on Digne’s throw-in. Then Calvert-Lewin ghosted past Mkhitaryan to win the second ball. Calvert-Lewin’s header ricocheted off Kolasinac’s foot and into the path of Jagielka, who reacted more quickly than Mustafi to tap the loose ball home. It looked like a lucky goal for the Toffees but the Gunners were really outplayed at Goodison Park. Everton had 23 shots and 4 big chances to 7 shots and 0 big chance for Arsenal.

A team losing its balance

   In the first half, the Gunners had 2 good situations but lacked accuracy with the final ball. Mkhitaryan released Lacazette down the left flank in the second minute. Under pressure from Zouma and Coleman, the French striker overhit his low cross for Ozil at the far post. Then Maitland-Niles failed to put enough bend on his cross for Elneny in the 37th. Left completely unmarked inside the area, Elneny would have had a free header from 8 yards.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery switched from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system at halftime by replacing Elneny and Kolasinac with Ramsey and Aubameyang. Despite enjoying more ball possession, the Arsenal team lost its balance in the second half. The Gunners created a couple of half-chances but they also looked more open. In the 48th, Aubameyang whipped in a cross for Ramsey, whose looping header was awkwardly punched away by Pickford. The ball fell to Ramsey, who volleyed over the bar from 12 yards. In the 59th, Mustafi hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, whose tame header gently bounced into Pickford’s arms. Mkhitaryan also took his chance in the 71st with a curling shot that sailed wide of the far post. Emery switched to a 4-4-2 formation by replacing Ozil with Iwobi in the 74th, but that last tactical change didn’t trouble the Everton defense.

   Sunday was not a good day to be an Arsenal striker. Aubameyang had 0 shot while Lacazette could only muster 1 goal attempt. That game summed up why Lacazette is not a centerforward but a second striker. The Gunners had no natural out ball when Lacazette was on his own up front because the France international is not a target man like Giroud or Henry. At 5’9, Lacazette will never be dominant in the air. He won 2 of 6 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com, while Calvert-Lewin won 8 of 17 aerial duels. Lacazette has decent speed but not electric pace like Aubameyang. That explains why Lacazette has less maneuvering room to beat the offside trap. In the 22nd, Ozil hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, who was flagged offside.

Ozil struggling on the road

   Ozil certainly impressed Emery with his work-rate against Newcastle. But at Goodison Park, Ozil reverted back to the gutless player struggling so badly in away games. Ozil had no impact in the final third with 0 shot and 0 key pass. Even Ramsey, who only played in the second half, managed to do better with 1 of 3 shots on target and 1 key pass. When a player struggles offensively, he can still show his value to the team with his defensive work. But Ozil had the poorest work-rate of the attacking midfielders who started the game. In his 73-minute performance, Ozil only made 2 recoveries compared to 11 for Mkhitaryan, who led all players according to the club’s website.

   I believe Emery should leave Ozil out of the starting lineup for the remaining away games. Ozil simply doesn’t have the required aggression for those games. The German playmaker was too easily bullied by the Toffees. He was dispossessed 3 times and led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   The work-rate of the Arsenal midfield was not good enough to destabilize the Toffees. The Everton midfield won 7 of 8 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 24 recoveries for a total of 35 defensive actions, while the Arsenal midfield won 3 of 4 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 10 recoveries for a total of 16 defensive actions, according to the club’s website. Here are the stats for each midfielder:

  • Guendouzi: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 3 recoveries.
  • Elneny (45 minutes): made 0 tackle, 1 interception, 2 recoveries.
  • Ramsey (50 minutes): won 2 of 2 tackles, 0 interception, 3 recoveries.
  • Ozil (73 minutes): made 0 tackle, 0 interception, 2 recoveries.
  • Gueye: won 4 of 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 recoveries.
  • Gomes: won 1 of 2 tackles, 8 recoveries.
  • Sigurdsson (90 minutes): won 2 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Davies (5 minutes): made 0 tackle, 1 recovery.

Where’s the enforcer?

   Elneny’s work-rate was really poor while Guendouzi’s numbers were average for a holding midfielder. Emery can’t be blamed for starting Elneny and Guendouzi in central midfield since Torreira was suspended, Xhaka was injured and Ramsey was recovering from a groin injury. But Sunday’s midfield issues show that the Gunners need to offload Elneny in the summer and sign an enforcer with the right mix of physicality and technique. The club needs an intimidating factor like Vieira and Gilberto Silva in their prime.

   Right now, the Gunners are still too soft in the middle of the park. Elneny was too easily brushed off the ball in the 21st and his passing was so conservative that Ozil had to drop back in order to move the ball forward. Arsenal got away with starting Guendouzi in the holding midfielder role against Newcastle. There was no such luck against Everton. Guendouzi is not a natural defensive midfielder and his inexperience cost him a yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Digne in the fifth minute. The French teenager was also casual at times, giving the ball away in the 38th and 45th. Emery’s switch to a back four in the second half was very risky because it wrongly assumed that Guendouzi could shield the Arsenal defense. If the Gunners want to have a chance of winning on the road, they will have to start Torreira, Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield.

   On the flanks, the wingbacks proved ineffective with 0 key pass for Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac was let down by his technique with a passing accuracy of 53.9%, the lowest percentage for any starting outfielder. He even managed to send a cross out of play in the 31st. Knowing Kolasinac’s reluctance to track back, the Toffees targeted the space behind him in the first half. When Arsenal switched to a back four in the second half, Everton targeted Monreal with Richarlison making runs in behind. The Gunners have been quite vulnerable down the left flank this season. Signing a leftback should be a top priority this summer.

Maitland-Niles’ lack of diligence

   On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles performed poorly too. He won only 33.3% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Bernard too easily skipped past Maitland-Niles in the 10th to make a low cross that Sokratis cleared. His inexperience nearly cost his team. Maitland-Niles lost possession while dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 54th. That turnover led to a scoring chance for Sigurdsson, who blazed a long-range strike over the bar. Five minutes later, Maitland-Niles was too casual, heading a loose ball toward Leno instead of simply knocking it into touch. Bernard intercepted the header but was denied by Leno.

   The worst part in Maitland-Niles’ performance was his lack of diligence. He sent a throw-in out of play in the 63rd and was so slow to track back in the 77th that Ramsey ended up covering him at rightback. Maitland-Niles was mediocre in the 1-0 loss to West Ham just like he was brilliant in the 3-0 win over Rennes. Inconsistency is not unusual for a 21-year-old player. But Emery should make it clear that Maitland-Niles needs to show more desire. Maybe Maitland-Niles would prefer to play in central midfield, but his inconsistency and casualness make that option unlikely right now. Rightback is the best position for him to learn the ropes. Maitland-Niles should follow the example of Flamini, who was humble enough to deputize at fullback when he arrived at the club.

   Mustafi had the best stats of the 3 centerbacks but he was also the main culprit for Everton’s goal. The German defender won 4 of 4 tackles and 8 of 12 aerial duels and made 2 blocks and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. It’s better than the numbers produced by Sokratis (who won 2 of 3 tackles and 3 of 7 aerial duels and made 4 blocks, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries) or Monreal (who won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 block, 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries). Mustafi was booked in the 82nd for a cynical foul on Calvert-Lewin along the touchline.

Not prioritizing (yet)

   Signing Sokratis was a quick fix to replace an aging Koscielny but I don’t think he’s the answer to Arsenal’s defensive problems. The Greek defender will miss the next 2 league games after collecting his 10th yellow card in the Premier League for blocking Calvert-Lewin’s run in the 24th. Sokratis is definitely not as good as Koscielny in his prime, otherwise he wouldn’t need to make so many fouls. In each of the past 6 Premier League seasons, Koscielny never had more than 4 yellow cards. Koscielny’s worst tally came in the 2011-12 season when he received 9 yellow cards. In terms of discipline, Van Dijk has even better stats than Koscielny. So yes, the Gunners still need to sign a top centerback this summer, especially since Koscielny will turn 34 this year. And please, don’t mention Chambers as a possible solution because he’s miles away from the level of a Koscielny or Van Dijk.      

   While Torreira proved the best signing in the first half of the season, Leno has turned out to be our best signing in the second half. Leno prevented Arsenal from suffering a heavier loss by making 5 saves. The final score is important because goal difference could play a crucial role at the end of the season for the Champions League spots. Leno especially saved 2 big chances, denying Bernard after Maitland-Niles’ blunder in the 59th and stopping Sigurdsson’s 12-yard strike in the 72nd. The German goalkeeper also parried Bernard’s angled strike in the 81st and acted like a magnet to attract Sigurdsson’s curling shot in the 38th and Calvert-Lewin’s tame header in the 70th.

   The Gunners next host Napoli in the Europa League on Thursday before visiting Watford in the Premier League on Monday. That’s a tough schedule but at least they have 3 days of rest before each game. At this stage of the season, Arsenal can’t afford to prioritize a competition because the Europa League is their only chance to win a trophy while they still have a good shot at finishing in the Top 4. But a poor result in the first leg of their quarterfinal tie against Napoli could change their approach.  

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Ramsey’s work-rate

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

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

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

A transformed Ozil

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

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

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

A shaky Mustafi

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

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

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

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