Tag Archives: Koscielny

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 race over after 1-0 loss in North London derby

The Top 4 race is virtually over for Arsenal after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Tottenham. The Gunners trail their North London rivals by 7 points and Liverpool by 9 in the Premier League. Even if we assume a miraculous improvement in Arsenal’s poor away form, it’s hard to see how they could make up so much ground with just 11 league games left. To match their total from last season (75), they would need to win 10 of those games.

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

The scoreline doesn’t reflect how Tottenham outplayed the Gunners in the second half. With some decent finishing, Spurs could have won by a four-goal margin. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves but the hosts also wasted some big chances by simply missing the target. If we except interceptions, Tottenham had the edge in all the key categories: 6 shots on target to 1 for Arsenal, 13 chances to 4, 15 key passes to 4, 13 successful tackles to 12, 14 successful dribbles to 8, 34 crosses to 13, and 52.6% of duels won, according to the club’s website and Squawka.

From those stats, we can see that dribbling is a weakness in the current Arsenal squad. The staff will have to address that issue in the summer transfer window unless they think Nelson and Nketiah are ready to start in the Premier League. That weakness means that the Gunners rely heavily on their passing game to crack a defense. By denying space and pressing the ballholder, Spurs managed to limit Arsenal to just 4 key passes. Arsenal had a couple of promising situations in the first half but failed to turn them into clear-cut chances because of a poor final ball. At the end of the second half, the Gunners improved the quality of their final ball but were let down by their finishing.

Failing to stop crosses

Tottenham did most of the damage from crosses. Last season, the leftback position was identified by opponents as the weak link in the Arsenal defense. Pochettino took a more sophisticated approach by exploiting the poor defensive contribution from Ozil and Mkhitaryan as Trippier and Davies charged down the flanks to hoist the ball into the box. In the 25th minute, Mkhitaryan failed to close down Trippier. The Tottenham rightback made a cross for Eriksen, whose looping header didn’t trouble Cech.

On the opposite flank, Davies was given plenty of time and space by Ozil in the 49th and the Wales leftback made a cross for Kane, who outjumped Koscielny to head the ball into the bottom corner. The timing of Kane’s jump was perfect. The only thing Koscielny could have done better was to try and put Kane off by colliding into the Spurs striker while pretending to jump.

Making crosses was a simple ploy but it worked wonders for Spurs. In the 54th, Monreal was caught out of position and Mkhitaryan failed to track Trippier, who set up Kane for a volley that Cech parried. As you can see on the screen capture below, Wilshere covered Monreal on the left flank and somehow managed to slow down the counterattack, but Xhaka left Kane unmarked on the edge of the Arsenal box.

Tottenham M54ed Xhaka showing his lack of defensive awareness by leaving Kane unmarked. (Photo credit: BT)

Tottenham even had a Plan B if Ozil or Mkhitaryan made the effort to close down Davies or Trippier. In the 52nd, Trippier lured Mkhitaryan down our left flank, creating space for Dier, who whipped a cross into the box. Kane made a run between Koscielny and Mustafi only to head the cross wide. Wilshere sat too deep on that play, failing to press Dier, while Koscielny was not tight enough to Kane.

Questionable tactics

In the battle of playmakers, Eriksen got the better of Ozil with 4 key passes compared to just 2 for the Germany international. Eriksen created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense by playing between the lines and finding pockets of space to pull the strings. Dier in the 14th and Kane in the 27th met his crosses but missed the target. Then Bellerin failed to stop another cross from Eriksen in the 76th. Unmarked at the far post, Trippier connected with the ball for a volley that Cech saved.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that smashed Everton 5-1 a week ago with Elneny and Wilshere replacing Iwobi and an injured Ramsey in the starting lineup. I would have played a back three like in the 2-0 win at the Emirates in November. To the manager’s credit, the team did OK in the first half in a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny, Xhaka and Wilshere in midfield.

Chasing an equalizer, Wenger made some substitutions that were questionable. He replaced Elneny and Mkhitaryan with Iwobi and Lacazette in the 65th, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ozil in the hole, Aubameyang on the left wing, Iwobi on the right and Lacazette up front. Aubameyang has never been known for his crossing ability or all-around game, so I don’t quite understand what Wenger had in mind. It would have been more rational to play Lacazette on the right wing, Iwobi on the left and keep Aubameyang in the centerforward role. Another tactical option would have been to use a 4-4-2 formation with Ozil and Iwobi as the wide players and Lacazette as a second striker playing behind Aubameyang.

The Chamakh syndrome

The manager switched back to a 4-3-3 formation in the 86th by sending on Welbeck for Xhaka. Iwobi teamed up with Ozil and Wilshere in midfield while Welbeck joined Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front three. The move nearly paid off as Spurs started tiring in the closing minutes and invited pressure by sitting deeper and deeper. Bellerin made a pinpoint cross for an unmarked Lacazette in stoppage time, but the France international sent his volley over the bar from 12 yards. Two minutes later, Iwobi slipped a through ball to Lacazette, who lacked composure and dragged his shot wide instead of attempting a chip.

Besides those 2 golden chances, Lacazette led all players with 3 offside calls in his 25-minute cameo. When he signed for Arsenal, there was some uncertainty about his level. Was Lacazette a world-class player like Henry and Van Persie or just a good striker like Lukaku? We don’t have the answer yet, but now the danger for Lacazette is the Chamakh syndrome.

Don’t get me wrong, Lacazette is a much better player than Chamakh. But if he doesn’t show more mental strength, his spell at Arsenal could end next year. Chamakh joined Arsenal in 2010 and scored 7 goals in his first 15 Premier League games. But then the Morocco international couldn’t find the net in the league for the rest of the season. The similarities with Lacazette’s new career in England are quite obvious. Lacazette scored 8 goals in his first 15 league games but has netted only once in the following 11 league games.

There have been many comparisons made between Aubameyang and Henry. I think those comparisons make no sense at all because Aubameyang and Henry are 2 completely different players. Yes, both Aubameyang and Henry have electric pace. But Henry was not a fox in the box like Aubameyang, and the former Borussia Dortmund player doesn’t have Henry’s dribbling and passing skills. Aubameyang is a pure centerforward who depends on good service. He won’t create a goal out of nothing like Henry.

An awkward left foot 

On Saturday, Aubameyang took 0 shot and made 2 crosses that went nowhere. Although Aubameyang is 5 inches taller than Lacazette, Spurs exposed his relative weakness in the air by winning 1 of 8 aerial duels against him, according to Squawka. Despite Tottenham’s high defensive line, the Gunners never managed to capitalize on Aubameyang’s speed. Wilshere played Aubameyang clean through on goal in the 12th but the Gabon striker was flagged offside. Then Xhaka overhit his through ball for Aubameyang in the 60th before Aubameyang was again caught offside in the 82nd while collecting a through ball from Ozil. It will take a bit of time to develop a good understanding between Aubameyang and his teammates. Aubameyang scored in his first Arsenal game but we should remember that Mkhitaryan, who made the assist, previously played with him in Germany.

Starting on the left wing, Mkhitaryan had a much weaker impact than against Everton. Let’s be honest, Mkhitaryan seems more comfortable on the right wing than on the left for the simple reason that his left foot is a mess. The Armenia international couldn’t find anybody with his cross in the 22nd and he wasted a golden chance with a poor final ball in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Mkhitaryan just had to make a basic pass to set up Aubameyang for what would have looked like a spot kick. Somehow, Mkhitaryan catapulted the ball straight into touch.

Tottenham M34edWhere Mkhitaryan should have played the ball. (Photo credit: BT)

Mkhitaryan’s technical struggles meant that Arsenal had to rely on Ozil or Wilshere for the final ball. Spurs limited Ozil’s impact to 2 key passes, 2 crosses and 3 successful dribbles. Ozil has always struggled in games where players have to fight for the ball. Saturday’s North London derby was not a game for him. In stoppage time, Ozil had the opportunity to salvage a point with a dead ball but his free kick crashed into the wall. That was quite a contrast with the quality of Eriksen’s free kick that Cech tipped over the bar in the 57th.

Inability to win duels

The Gunners never had the control of the match because Tottenham outplayed them in midfield. Elneny is more mobile than Xhaka but his defensive contribution is poor. The scouting department made a mistake in failing to spot Elneny’s inability to win duels. The Egypt international was not involved in any aerial duel and made 0 tackle, 0 interception and 2 blocks. Those are weak stats for a holding midfielder. By contrast, Dier made 3 interceptions and 0 block and won 2 of 4 tackles and 5 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Taking over Elneny’s spot in the 65th, Iwobi initially struggled to adjust to the intensity of the game. Iwobi was dispossessed twice before creating Arsenal’s best chance in stoppage time.

Among the 3 starting midfielders, Xhaka had the best defensive stats. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 1 block and won 2 of 3 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels. For a No. 8, that would be a decent defensive contribution. Unfortunately, Xhaka’s offensive stats are too weak. Xhaka created 0 chance and never proved a goal threat like Ramsey.

It was quite the opposite with Wilshere, who had decent offensive stats but weak defensive stats. Wilshere was not involved in any aerial duel, won 1 of 5 tackles, and made 0 interception and 0 block. He also led all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Dier and Dembele were much more tidy in possession with 0 and 1 turnover, respectively. To Wilshere’s credit, he tested Lloris with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 68th. Wilshere also fed Welbeck in the 87th but the rusty substitute had a heavy first touch which allowed Lloris to gather the ball.

Son in Bellerin’s pocket

The Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. As the goal showed, Koscielny struggled badly in the air against Kane, winning only 3 of 6 aerial duels. The France defender had an unusual lapse of concentration in the 71st, giving the ball away to Lamela, who sent a ball over the top for Alli. Clean through on goal, Alli flicked the ball wide. Koscielny won only 44.4% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi, according to the club’s website. Mustafi was again the most pro-active of the 2 centerbacks, leading all players with 5 interceptions but winning just 1 of 4 tackles. Koscielny and Mustafi didn’t cover themselves in glory in the 90th when Lamela beat the offside trap to chase a long free kick and fire wide.

On the flanks, Bellerin and Monreal were mostly focused on their defensive tasks. Monreal remained anonymous throughout the game (passing accuracy of 75%, 0 chance created, 2 crosses, 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 of 3 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 2 blocks) while Bellerin had Son in his pocket and contributed offensively (passing accuracy of 85%, 1 chance created, 4 crosses, 2 of 4 tackles won, 1 of 2 aerial duels won, 0 interception and 6 blocks). Bellerin took a pass from Ozil in the 40th only to miss the target from 20 yards.

Still no clean sheet

Cech’s quest for a 200th clean sheet in the Premier League has become a running gag. The Gunners haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last 9 league games. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves on Saturday but his error rate is a concern. The Czech goalkeeper had a pass blocked by Alli in the 71st and he nearly lost possession with a dribbling attempt in the 48th. According to the Premier League’s website, Cech tops all players for the number of errors leading to a goal this season (4). At 35, Cech is clearly past his prime but I guess the staff will let Cech run down his contract instead of signing a new goalkeeper this summer.

The Gunners next play Ostersund in the Europa League on Feb. 15 before hosting the Swedish side a week later. The staff has two options: 1. Either leave their key players out of the squad for the first leg in Sweden and play their best team in the second leg; 2. Or leave their key players out of the squad for the second leg to give them a break before the League Cup final on Feb. 25. In any case, I hope youngsters like Nelson, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock will get some playing time against Ostersund.

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Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Monreal fires Gunners to 1st win of the year

Monreal’s attacking verve and Ozil’s creativity made the difference in Saturday’s 4-1 rout of Crystal Palace as Arsenal snapped a five-game winless streak in all competitions to remain sixth in the Premier League. The Gunners quickly put the result beyond doubt by taking a 3-0 lead after 13 minutes, finishing the match with 10 shots on target to 5 for the Eagles and 13 chances to 5, according to Squawka.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace

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

Wenger fielded a stronger side than the one that lost 2-1 at Bournemouth a week ago with Ozil, Koscielny, Monreal and Elneny replacing Welbeck, Chambers, Maitland-Niles and Holding in the starting lineup. The manager also switched to a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny playing as a holding midfielder behind Xhaka and Wilshere. The Gunners outnumbered Palace in midfield with that tactical setup as Ozil often dropped back to be the fourth midfielder.

   Playing Elneny in that position is OK against the weak teams. Elneny’s mobility compensates for Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness to a certain extent. However, Elneny’s inability to win duels would become an issue against the strong teams. Signing a ballwinner in the summer could allow Arsenal to use an inverted pyramid midfield that would protect the back four while making up for the defensive flaws of Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere. When Zidane succeeded Benitez at Real Madrid, he made a key change in midfield by playing Casemiro behind Kroos and Modric. As long as the Gunners don’t have a solid No. 6, they will still be vulnerable on counterattacks.

End of Lacazette’s goal drought

In his return from injury, Monreal scored a goal and made two assists. Monreal lost his marker at the far post to head in Xhaka’s corner in the sixth minute. The Spaniard then set up Iwobi for a 2-0 lead in the 10th. He got the better of McArthur again in the 13th to meet Xhaka’s corner and cut the ball back to Koscielny, who bundled it over the line. The visitors’ defending was terrible, but Monreal definitely made his runs inside the Palace box count. Monreal led all players with 3 key passes despite staying on the pitch for just 33 minutes. He picked up a knock and was replaced by Maitland-Niles, who suffered from lapses of concentration again.

Maitland-Niles made a sloppy pass to Elneny in the 43rd and the ball fell to Zaha, whose shot was deflected out for a corner. The academy player also lost possession with a poor touch in the 76th. You may recover from poor focus in U23 games but not in the Premier League where every mistake can get punished. Maitland-Niles impressed against Chelsea but didn’t show the same focus against Bournemouth and Palace. His reluctance to cross with his weaker left foot also deprived Arsenal of a source of supply on the left flank.

Up front, Lacazette ended his goal drought by giving the Gunners a 4-0 lead with a low strike in the 22nd. He had not scored since the beginning of December. Lacazette could have also found the net in the 79th when Wilshere played him clean through on goal, but Hennessey denied him. In stoppage time, Lacazette should have been awarded a penalty for an awkward challenge from Tomkins. As usual, the France international worked hard for the team, making 2 key passes and 1 block and winning 2 of 3 tackles, according to Squawka.

Nelson’s Premier League debut

It was no coincidence if Ozil was the one who helped put an end to Lacazette’s goal drought. Lacazette is a striker who depends on decent service. He couldn’t get any from Welbeck, Iwobi and Sanchez in the past few games. Ozil played the role of architect for Arsenal’s fourth goal by playing a one-two with Wilshere before feeding Lacazette with a backheel flick. In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 2 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 2. His contractual situation hasn’t been as much publicized as Sanchez’s but the Gunners will have to sign a creative midfielder if Ozil leaves this summer, otherwise the creative burden will rest on the shoulders of Wilshere and Mkhitaryan -assuming the swap deal for Sanchez does materialize.

   Wenger yanked Ozil off in the 72nd to send on Nelson, who made his Premier League debut at just 18. He showed some really great work-rate in his short cameo by winning 2 of 4 tackles. The game also made obvious that Nelson must beef up his game. In his only dribbling attempt, Nelson was too easily brushed off the ball.

The more I watch Iwobi, and the more I am convinced he is a second striker and not an attacking midfielder like Rosicky or Pires. Iwobi had 4 of 4 shots on target but made just 1 key pass. Only Lacazette took more shots than Iwobi. If Iwobi wants to become a striker, he will need to work harder on his finishing. His 4 goal attempts were all in the middle of the net. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace Iwobi edited

Iwobi’s 4 goal attempts against Palace. (Photo credit: Squawka)

Iwobi will also have to improve his reading of the game. Sanchez can often be selfish but you can bet the Chile striker would have fed Lacazette in the 56th when Iwobi chased a long ball from Ozil and preferred to take his chance from a tight angle instead of squaring the ball back to Lacazette for a tap-in. As a consequence of Iwobi’s lust for goals, the Nigeria international sometimes drifted inside and ended up in the centerforward position, forcing Lacazette to move to the left wing. On the bright side, Iwobi improved his work-rate by making 4 tackles, 1 interception and 2 blocks. That’s the kind of attitude Iwobi needs to show more often on the pitch.

Wilshere’s high turnover rate

In midfield, Elneny acted as a facilitator by leading Arsenal starters with 97 passes and a passing acuracy of 95.9%, according to whoscored.com. Elneny was a holding midfielder by default: he won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, but his mobility helped him make 1 block and 1 interception. We are still very far from the stats of a Kante, Matic or Fernandinho. The manager played Elneny behind Wilshere and Xhaka because those two midfielders are more creative than Elneny. Wilshere and Xhaka had 2 and 1 key passes respectively compared to none for Elneny.

   Wilshere played as a holding midfielder for England under Hodgson but I just think he’s not good enough defensively for that position. He won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 block and 0 interception. Another issue is Wilshere’s high turnover rate, which was obvious in the Europa League games. Although Wilshere is now fitter than a couple of months ago, he still had 5 turnovers against Palace, according to whoscored.com. Only Bellerin had more turnovers (6) among Arsenal players. Losing possession in suck a key position might be OK against the weak sides but it’s simply too dangerous against top teams that thrive on counterattacks.

Xhaka lacks mobility so it made sense to play him alongside Elneny since Wilshere has lost a bit of speed after recovering from a string of injuries. The Switzerland international set up the first and third goals with accurate corner kicks. However, his delivery took a hit in the second half with a poor corner in the 76th and a free kick that beat every Gunner in stoppage time.

Koscielny’s reading of the game

At the back, Koscielny proved the best defender and defused dangerous situations with his outstanding reading of the game. He killed a counterattack with a timely challenge on Zaha in the 19th, blocked McArthur’s effort in the 36th, robbed Zaha in the 38th and intercepted Milivojevic’s through ball for Van Aanholt in the 87th. The France centerback scored the third goal and led all Arsenal players with 3 interceptions and 3 blocks. Mustafi will have big shoes to fill when Koscielny retires. The Germany international had a couple of dodgy moments, heading the ball past Cech for a corner in the 55th and allowing Benteke to be clean through on goal by missing an interception in the 60th.

From open play, the Eagles mostly threatened with crosses, especially with Van Aanholt who took advantage of Ozil’s poor marking. Mustafi headed out the Dutch leftback’s cross in the third minute while Zaha failed to make contact with the ball in the 52nd. In the end, Palace scored from a set piece. Benteke outjumped Iwobi and Mustafi in the 78th to redirect a corner toward Milivojevic, who chested the ball down to shoot past Cech. There had been already a warning in the 49th when Kelly pounced on a second ball from a corner to muster a tame effort straight at Cech.

The Gunners will be the underdogs for the second leg of the League Cup semifinal against Chelsea on Wednesday. Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac and Ozil made their return from injury against Palace while Sanchez, Ramsey, Giroud and Welbeck were not even in the squad. Wenger will definitely field a stronger team than the one that started the first leg but it might not be a full-strength team. Even if Mkhitaryan joins the Gunners before Wednesday, he’s unlikely to have the same impact as Sanchez right away.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: Sanchez nets twice in 3-2 win

Sanchez might leave the club next month but he made a significant contribution on Thursday by scoring two goals in the 3-2 win over Crystal Palace as the Gunners stayed in the Top 4 race, 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 3-3 with Liverpool a week ago with Kolasinac, Mustafi and Chambers replacing Maitland-Niles, Monreal and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The manager also made a tactical change with a switch from the 4-3-3 formation to a 3-4-3 system. Palace played with 10 men behind the ball in the first half and the game looked similar to recent encounters with Newcastle, West Ham and Southampton. The Eagles then showed more aggression and ambition in the second half and came close to earning a draw.

Zaha was the main source of trouble for the Arsenal defense. He started as a second striker and caused more damage when Hodgson moved him to the left wing by sending on Sako for the ineffective Loftus-Cheek in the 70th minute. Wenger also put his team in trouble by replacing Lacazette with Coquelin in the 75th. The move basically invited pressure since the Gunners no longer had an outlet up front. Welbeck would have been a better option because he’s stronger in the air than Lacazette and works his socks off to press high up the pitch.

Sanchez gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead in the 63rd by pouncing on a pass from Lacazette to fire an angled strike into the bottom corner. Speroni was well positioned at the near post, but the shot simply had too much power for the Palace goalkeeper. Three minutes later, Sanchez beat the offside trap to control a ball over the top from Wilshere with his thigh before flicking the ball past Speroni for a 3-1 lead.

Lacazette’s goal drought

The Chile striker produced a good all-around performance. He led all players with 5 successful dribbles and created several plays despite making only 2 key passes. Sanchez slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was saved by Speroni in the 30th. He fed Ozil again in the 39th but the Germany playmaker preferred to pick out Lacazette on the right wing instead of taking his chance. Bellerin then met a cross from Sanchez in the 47th, but a heavy first touch allowed Speroni to gather the ball. Sanchez’s hyperactivity also generated 12 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, but the return was worth the risk in the end.

Lacazette didn’t score but he was involved in 2 goals. The France international capitalized on a recycled free kick in the 25th to fire an angled strike that Speroni palmed into the path of Mustafi, who converted the rebound with a first-time effort to open the scoring. Then Lacazette took advantage of a recycled corner in the 63rd to tee up Sanchez for Arsenal’s second goal. Decent service is still an issue for Lacazette, especially against teams parking the bus. He managed to create space against 3 defenders in the 35th only to drag his shot wide. Ramsey is the Gunner who understands really well Lacazette’s game. The absence of the Wales midfielder is indirectly impacting the productivity of Lacazette, who hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game.

Starting on the right wing, Ozil had 4 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. In the 3-4-3 formation, Ozil doesn’t shine as much as in the 4-3-3 system for the simple reason that the team sometimes needs him to finish off plays as a second striker. Ozil was denied by Speroni in the 30th and shot over the bar in the 70th after an average final ball from Kolasinac. To his credit, Ozil showed decent work-rate by making 2 tackles and even closing down Zaha on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 45th.

Bambi on ice

In midfield, Wilshere showed his technical quality with a spectacular assist for Sanchez, who acknowledged the gift by pointing at the England international after scoring. Wilshere led all starters with a passing accuracy of 93.8%, according to whoscored.com. As he is maturing, Wilshere looks like the natural replacement for Cazorla in the deep-lying playmaker role. Ozil’s probable departure means that it is crucial for the club to extend Wilshere’s contract: Wilshere is one of the few creative midfielders in the squad with Ozil and Cazorla. As a bonus, he’s also a homegrown player.

The partnership formed by Xhaka and Wilshere is OK against average sides but it doesn’t provide much protection to the defense against the top teams. Neither Xhaka nor Wilshere is a natural ballwinner. Xhaka’s lack of mobility is obviously an issue. With a sharp turn, Milivojevic made Xhaka look like Bambi on ice in the 82nd. Xhaka was also late in the 15th to block Cabaye’s low drive, which sailed wide.

Arsenal and Palace had 16 shots each. What made the difference was the Gunners’ shooting accuracy with 9 shots on target to just 2 for the Eagles. In the wingback position, Bellerin’s performance was a mixed bag. Bellerin led all players by winning 5 tackles but his passing accuracy also dipped to 74.5%, the lowest percentage for any outfield players, according to whoscored.com. The Spaniard proved a threat in the final third but was let down by his final ball. He sent a cross straight to Speroni in the 18th and had a pass blocked inside the area in the 33rd. On a more positive note, Bellerin tested Speroni with a half-volley in the 81st.

Kolasinac & Chambers having a poor game

Zaha’s shift to the left wing in the second half exposed the poor coordination between Bellerin and Chambers. Zaha outmuscled Bellerin to head Sako’s cross wide in the 83rd. The Palace winger then ghosted past Bellerin in the 85th to pull the ball back for Benteke but Mustafi cleared the danger. A poor clearance from Bellerin in the 88th gave the Eagles another scoring chance. Schlupp squared the ball back to Sako, whose effort got blocked by Koscielny.

On the opposite wing, Kolasinac had a poor game. He won only 22.2% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international gave away a dangerous free kick by holding Townsend in the 41st. And he failed to stop a dangerous cross from Sako in the 83rd.

The Gunners signed Kolasinac because Monreal and Gibbs dealt poorly with crosses. If Kolasinac can’t do better, then it makes complete sense to give Maitland-Niles a chance at leftback. Kolasinac’s poor defensive awareness is indeed becoming a growing concern. He failed to identify the danger when Palace equalized in the 49th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Koscielny and Kolasinac were left in a 2v2 situation with Benteke and Townsend because Mustafi was protecting the near post. While Koscielny was marking Benteke, Kolasinac gave Townsend too much space at the far post.

Crystal Palace M49aedKolasinac not marking Townsend before Zaha’s cross. (Photo credit: Sky)

When Townsend met Zaha’s cross, Kolasinac was too far to make a decent block. See the screen capture below. From 14 yards, Townsend guided the ball into the bottom corner to make it 1-1.

Crystal Palace M49bed Kolasinac too far to block Townsend’s goal attempt. (Photo credit: Sky)

Kolasinac’s performance really makes the scouting department look bad. Chambers is another player recommended by the scouting department. The English defender also had a poor game. He was guilty on Tomsend’s equalizer as he failed to stop Zaha’s cross. Zaha, who led all players with 5 key passes, exposed Chambers’ lack of pace. Chambers even received a yellow card in the 29th for pulling back Zaha. The Ivory Coast dribbled past Chambers in the 13th but Bellerin covered his teammate and flicked the ball to safety. Chambers can thank his teammates for having his back. Zaha rounded Chambers in the 39th to make a cross but Koscielny cut it out. Mustafi then made a timely tackle on Zaha after a sloppy pass from Chambers led to a Palace counterattack in the 51st. And Kolasinac cleared a cross from Zaha, who had evaded Chambers’ marking in the 85th.

Doing better in away games

   I’m definitely not a fan of Chambers and I still don’t understand what the scouting department saw in him. I guess Chambers got the nod over Holding because he’s more conservative in his game while Holding sometimes dives in. The presence of a sweeper in a back three gives the right-sided and left-sided centerbacks more room for initiative whereas the two centerbacks in a back four have no room for error. In the end, Chambers played like a centerback in a back four, making only 1 interception compared to 3 for the more pro-active Koscielny. In the manager’s shoes, I would have played Bellerin in the back three with Maitland-Niles in the wingback position.

Mustafi was the only Arsenal defender who didn’t perform below par on Thursday. He won 2 of 4 tackles, blocked 2 shots, and broke the deadlock in the 25th by converting a rebound from a tight angle. His only blemish was a sloppy pass that led to a Palace counterattack in the 80th. By contrast, Koscielny looked his age, winning only 30.8% of his duels and allowing Tomkins to outjump him for the Eagles’ second goal.

The Gunners improved their record on the road with a third victory from 10 away games, but they will have to do much better if they want to finish in the Top 4. Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have already won at least 5 away games this season. Even Burnley, Watford and Leicester have racked up more points on the road than Arsenal.

I expect the manager to rotate and inject a bit of freshness in the starting lineup for the trip to West Brom on Sunday. Last season, the Gunners lost 3-1 at the Hawthorns, conceding two goals from set pieces, so they know where the threat will come from. Welbeck and Holding are stronger in the air than Lacazette and Chambers while Maitland-Niles could do better than Kolasinac to stop crosses. A victory is a necessity if the Gunners want to make up ground and preserve their chances of reaching the 76-point target.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Gunners overcome 2-goal deficit in 3-3 draw

The Gunners scored 3 goals in a five-minute span to draw 3-3 on Friday and stay 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. In a thrilling game, the poor defending from both teams also showed why they are not contending for the title. With 9 shots on target to 4, the Reds were the better team, making more interceptions, winning more tackles, and having more successful dribbles. The Gunners were so badly outplayed in the first half that they could have trailed 3-0 at halftime. But Arsenal capitalized on Liverpool’s drop in intensity after the second goal to take the lead against the run of play with some clinical finishing.

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

Wenger made no change to the side that edged Newcastle 1-0 a week ago. The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese again because there was no natural ballwinner in the trio formed by Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil to stop the Reds’ counterattacks. A poor corner kick from Sanchez in the 48th minute led to one of these fast breaks but Cech saved Salah’s low effort. Four minutes later, Maitland-Niles was dispossessed by Gomez near the Liverpool corner flag. Gomez slipped the ball to Milner, who found Salah. The Egypt forward ran 40 yards unchallenged and swapped passes with Firminho before curling a shot past Cech to make it 2-0. In the closing minutes, Wijnaldum also led a counterattack and fed Salah, who fired into the side-netting.

Friday’s game showed why the manager switched to a back three at the end of last season. The Arsenal defense simply doesn’t get any protection from the midfielders, who get bypassed too easily. With 3 centerbacks, you have some room for error if one of the centerbacks is pulled out of position. With a back four, if one the centerbacks is drawn out of position, the holding midfielder must cover him.

Liverpool used Firminho as a bait for the opening goal from a throw in the 26th. Milner sent a long ball toward Salah, whose cross deflected off Koscielny. The ball fell into the path of Coutinho, who beat Cech with a looping header. The Reds had a bit of luck for the first 2 goals since Salah’s curling shot also took a deflection off Mustafi. Still, that doesn’t excuse the Gunners’ defensive naivety.

Pulled out of position

For the opening goal, Monreal made the mistake of following Firminho deep into Liverpool’s territory. That left a huge space at the back with Koscielny and Bellerin in a 2v2 situation with Mane and Salah. See the screen capture below. In hindsight, either Wilshere or Xhaka should have marked Firminho on the throw-in. Maitland-Niles also had a lapse of concentration, looking at the ball and failing to spot Salah’s run in behind. Coutinho finished off the play by running into the space created by Firminho. Wilshere and Xhaka were on the same line as Coutinho when Milner hit the long ball but they lost the foot race with the Brazil midfielder. With a back three, the third centerback could have covered Maitland-Niles or won the header against Coutinho.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M26ed Bellerin and Koscielny in a 2v2 situation as Maitland-Niles and Monreal are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Reds pulled the same trick again in the 62nd. You have to question the Gunners’ lack of commitment since it started with a basic goal kick played short by Mignolet. The ball travelled down our right flank where Coutinho made a crossfield pass for an unmarked Mane, whose volley was parried by Cech. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Salah dropped back to pull Koscielny out of position. Mustafi was also drawn out of position as he covered Bellerin by marking Coutinho. That forced Maitland-Niles to drift inside and mark Firminho, leaving Mane completely free on the left flank. In hindsight, Xhaka or Wilshere should have closed down Salah on that play. When you have a forward playing between the lines, your holding midfielder must be able to play like a third centerback and mark that forward. I just don’t think that Xhaka or Wilshere can be that holding midfielder.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M62edMane, circled, is unmarked while Koscielny and Mustafi are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

While the opening goal resulted from the poor defensive contribution of the Arsenal midfielders, the last goal was pub defending at its best. Liverpool had a corner in the 71st and implemented gegenpressing after losing the ball. Salah dispossessed Sanchez and slipped the ball to Can, who had plenty of time to play Firminho in. From 16 yards, Firminho shot past Cech, who could only divert the powerful strike into his own net. As you can see on the screen capture below, no one closed down Can. When Wilshere reacted, it was already too late. But the worst part was the space given to Firminho. He was in front of goal and no one seemed to realize that he was the main danger. What were Koscielny and Mustafi doing?

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M71ed Firminho, circled, given acres of space by the Gunners. (Photo credit: Sky)

Monreal had a poor game. He won no tackle and made no interception in the first half. The Spaniard showed his limits as a centerback in a back four. His qualities are better suited for a back three because of his relative lack of pace and weakness in the air. He picked up a knock in the 34th and was replaced by Mustafi at halftime.

Bellerin’s good performance

For his return from injury, Mustafi produced a decent performance, winning 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for an Arsenal defender according to the club’s website. However, there are still question marks over his partnership with Koscielny. The France defender had 2 dodgy moments on Friday. He was unlucky for the opening goal. But his slip in the 44th nearly cost his team a second goal. Koscielny attempted to intercept Milner’s through ball for Mane and ended up diverting it into the path of Salah, who was denied by Cech. The rebound fell to Mane, who wasted the chance with a useless bicycle kick instead of controlling the ball to have a better shot. Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal are clearly past their prime, which means that 2 centerbacks should be signed next summer.

On the right flank, I thought Bellerin produced one of his best performances this season. He found the right balance between defense and offense, winning 4 tackles, keeping Mane quiet, and making 1 assist. The Spaniard could have scored the winner in the 78th but Mignolet tipped his angled strike over the bar. If we want to be really picky, maybe Bellerin could have done better on 2 plays. He failed to stop a cross from Coutinho in the 24th and Firminho outjumped Maitland-Niles at the far post to head wide. Then Firminho cut inside Bellerin in the 32nd to curl a shot inches over the bar.

On the left flank, Maitland-Niles did OK. Although he showed his inexperience on the opening goal, I thought he didn’t look ridiculous against Salah. Some supporters keep asking why is he played out of position. Maybe Maitland-Niles is a safer option at leftback than Kolasinac right now. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Wenger has converted a midfielder into a fullback with Lauren and Bellerin as successful examples.

Iwobi’s poor work-rate

In midfield, the Gunners can be outplayed by the big clubs because they have no world-class ballwinner. The Blues have Kante while Manchester City can rely on Fernandinho. We used to have Petit and Gilberto, two World Cup winners, but nowadays we must make do with Coquelin, Xhaka and Elneny. Not quite the same category.

Xhaka made it 2-2 with a 30-yard drive in the 56th, but you expect your holding midfielder to protect the defense first. His poor positional play showed on the counterattack that led to Liverpool’s second goal. Wilshere shone in the Europa League games and against Newcastle, but he had less time on the ball against Liverpool, which explains his 5 turnovers. I think deep-lying playmaker is his best position because he has less pace than Ozil, which is crucial in the final third. Ozil had no influence in the first half because the Reds were so dominant. The Germany playmaker showed his class in the second half by netting Arsenal’s third goal with a chip in the 58th. He could have scored the winner in stoppage time but Mignolet palmed his cross-shot over the bar.

In the front three, I was very frustrated by Iwobi’s poor work-rate. Robertson had so much freedom that he finished the game with 47 passes, the second most for a Liverpool player behind Milner according to whoscored.com. In the 15th, Iwobi completely forgot to close down Robertson, who made a dangerous cross that Koscielny eventually cleared. You would think that Iwobi understood the threat coming from Robertson’s delivery. But he didn’t. The Scottish leftback made a few more dangerous crosses, one that Cech caught in the 20th and another that led to a scoring chance for Firminho in the 22nd.

Rough evening for Lacazette

A few years ago, Waddle accused Walcott of having no football brain. How would you call a player who needs to see several dangerous crosses before understanding that he should close down his opponent? Iwobi also showed a lack of lucidity in the final third, sending passes straight into touch in the 21st, 25th and 33rd, and giving the ball away to Can in the 31st despite having 2 decent passing options. Iwobi got an assist for his sideways pass to Xhaka in the 56th but his end product was really poor. The Gunners can only afford to have one softie against the top teams, and that’s Ozil. Starting two softies like Ozil and Iwobi puts a big strain on the Arsenal defense. If Wenger wants to stick to a back four, playing Ozil or Ramsey on the right wing would make more sense.

On the left wing, Sanchez had an anonymous first half before coming to life in the second. Sanchez cut the deficit to 2-1 by heading home Bellerin’s cross in the 53rd. He also set up Xhaka for a shot that missed the target in the 61st and almost scored the winner with a low strike that lacked power to beat Mignolet in the 83rd. The Chile striker led all players with 3 key passes but also had 5 turnovers, including one that led to Liverpool’s equalizer. Even at 90% of his potential, Sanchez will still give you more end product than Welbeck or Iwobi.

Up front, it was a rough evening for Lacazette. Since the start of the season, I’ve always said that Lacazette would be more comfortable in the role of a second striker than as a centerforward because the Premier League is more physical than the French league where he used to play. Lacazette looked isolated in the first half and got no service because his teammates didn’t see his runs or had not enough time to make the pass.

Poor away form

Hitting long balls is the easiest way to evade a high press. Unfortunately, Lacazette is not Giroud. Liverpool centerbacks Lovren and Klavan exposed Lacazette’s weakness in the air. Lacazette is usually tidy in possession but he was dispossessed 5 times on Friday because of Liverpool’s pressing game. Despite the lack of support and opportunities, Lacazette worked hard for the team and played Ozil in with a clever backheel flick for Arsenal’s third goal.

Lacazette’s lack of physicality might not be an obstacle to lead the line. But he will have to tweak his game a bit. If you look at the top teams, you basically see two types of centerforwards. Morata, Lukaku, Ibrahimovic and Kane are strong in the air and can hold the ball up, while Firmino and Aguero play more like false nines, dropping back to create space and link up play. The Gunners haven’t optimally used Lacazette’s potential yet.

A draw is a decent result knowing that Arsenal lost both league games against Liverpool last season. The Gunners will next visit Crystal Palace on Thursday and West Brom on Sunday before hosting Chelsea on Jan. 3. They will need to improve their away form if they want to finish in the Top 4. The Gunners have only won 2 away games this season while Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have won at least 5 away games. Even Leicester and Watford have a better record on the road than Arsenal.

 

  

West Ham vs. Arsenal: Gunners struggle in 0-0 draw to slip to 7th

The Gunners have collected only 2 points from their last 3 Premier League games to drop to 7th place in the standings, 19 points behind Manchester City. The most embarrassing part is that we haven’t reached the halfway stage yet.

West Ham vs. Arsenal

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

Arsenal split the points with West Ham in a goalless draw on Wednesday just three days after drawing 1-1 with Southampton. You would expect 6 points from away games against a mid-table team, Southampton, and a side fighting relegation, West Ham. Everton and City only had two days of rest like Arsenal, yet they managed to win on the road on Wednesday. If the Gunners don’t improve their away form, they are unlikely to finish in the Top 4. According to Opta, 8 clubs have racked up more points on the road than Arsenal this season.

Wenger injected a bit of freshness by making 4 changes to the side that drew at St Mary’s stadium with Maitland-Niles, Wilshere, Iwobi and Giroud replacing Mertesacker, Kolasinac, Ramsey and Lacazette in the starting lineup. The manager also started a Premier League game with a back four for the first time this season, switching from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-3-3 formation.

Tactically, Arsenal’s lack of width played into the hands of the West Ham defense. Sanchez and Iwobi often cut inside, which means that the final third was too congested. The Gunners also failed to play to Giroud’s strengths. In the France team, Giroud has pacy strikers like Griezmann and Mbappe making runs off him. Sanchez and Iwobi don’t make those runs. Giroud is an old-fashioned centerforward with a limited mobility, but he can dominate in the air, hold the ball up, and link up play. The France striker only had one decent service throughout the game. In the 53rd minute, Maitland-Niles made a cross for Giroud, who headed the ball wide.

Lack of penetration

Like in the Southampton game, Arsenal dominated ball possession but lacked penetration in the final third. There was a lack of urgency in the first half and when the Gunners upped the tempo in the second half, they seemed devoid of ideas. Arsenal mustered only 3 shots on target at the London stadium compared to 15 in the 3-1 loss to Manchester United. Adrian had a relatively quiet evening. The Gunners created 3 decent chances but never really troubled the West Ham goalkeeper.

The first scoring chance came in the 29th when Sanchez found Iwobi inside the area. Iwobi took a touch before striking the post with his weaker left foot from 12 yards. Then Sanchez had a shot blocked in the 56th. The ball fell to Ozil, who controlled it in his stride but poked wide. Wilshere also had an opportunity to break the deadlock in the 70th when Maitland-Niles made a cross for Giroud, who knocked the ball down for Wilshere. From 10 yards, Wilshere controlled the ball with his thigh only to fire over the bar. The Gunners must find a solution to create more chances because weak and average sides will park the bus like the Saints and the Hammers.

When I saw the starting lineup, I had my doubts about the midfield, which looked a bit soft defensively with Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil. But Wilshere helped balance the midfield with his technical quality and commitment. Wilshere led all starters with a passing accuracy of 91.8% according to whoscored.com. He also won 91.7% of his duels, according to the club’s website. For his first Premier League start this season, it was definitely a positive performance from Wilshere, who was the target of a couple of rough challenges but held his nerve.

Running into traffic

I guess the main surprise in the starting lineup was the inclusion of Maitland-Niles at leftback. A midfielder by trade, the academy player did not look out of his depth and produced a decent performance for his first Premier League start. Maitland-Niles made 2 key passes and led all players with 4 accurate crosses. In fact, he was one of the few Gunners who tried to feed Giroud. On the opposite flank, Bellerin had a poor game. The Spaniard made no accurate cross and even failed to stop a dangerous cross from Masuaku in the 14th. Arnautovic headed in Masuaku’s offering but the goal was disallowed for offside.

It can only be positive to have some competition within the squad. Hopefully, Maitland-Niles will push Kolasinac to perform better. Maybe the lack of competition down the right flank is the reason for Bellerin’s average performances this season. Debuchy and Chambers don’t have the pace to play at the top level as fullbacks. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player obviously. He won only 15.4% of his duels, according to the club’s website. A couple of times, Maitland-Niles also showed his naivety, diving in to let Arnautovic dribble past him in the 31st and giving away a cheap free kick in the 37th while Noble had nowhere to go.

Iwobi is just a year older than Maitland-Niles. The Nigeria international has been in the first team since the 2015-16 season but is far from the finished product. He showed his potential by rattling the post in the 29th. However, there are parts of his game that are still frustrating to watch. Playing on the right flank, Iwobi made no cross at all. How is Giroud supposed to score if Bellerin and Iwobi don’t feed him? Iwobi also led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He definitely needs to get rid of this habit of running into traffic, thinking he’s the new Messi or the ghost of Garrincha. And his work-rate is not good enough. Iwobi failed to close down Cresswell, who made a cross for Noble in the 46th. The West Ham captain redirected the ball toward Arnautovic, whose first-time effort sailed over the bar. Iwobi also made no effort to win the ball back after losing possession in the 66th.

Pub defending again

Against a compact defense, you would expect Ozil to produce some magic. But the Germany playmaker had no answer. He led all players with 104 passes, including 3 key passes, but none of those key passes led to Arsenal’s best chances. Sanchez had an off day, too. The Chile striker made 4 key passes but none of his crosses was accurate. I waited for a repeat of his cross that helped salvage a point at St Mary’s stadium, but that moment never came. Sanchez still tested Adrian with a curling free kick in the 73rd before being replaced by Lacazette in the 82nd.

The Gunners made no big blunder in the opening minutes, but they nearly threw away a point with some pub defending in the last minute of regulation time. Stuck along the touchline, Koscielny only had one decent option: a long ball toward Giroud or Welbeck. Yet, the Arsenal captain made a risky crossfield pass similar to the one that led to Manchester United’s opening goal earlier this month. The ball was intercepted, then Monreal poorly cleared the ball into the path of Noble, who played Hernandez in. The defending was so shambolic that Koscielny and Xhaka both rushed toward Noble while Bellerin let Hernandez run past him. With just Cech to beat, Hernandez curled a shot that hit the underside of the bar and bounced in front of the goal line.

There’s a lot of doubt in that Arsenal team since the 3-1 defeat against the Red Devils. They will need to show more mental toughness against Newcastle on Saturday, otherwise the Top 4 race could be over by December for the club. And all the negativity from last season could come back.

 

Southampton vs. Arsenal: More pub defending in 1-1 draw

Giroud scored in the closing minutes to salvage a 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday as the Gunners stayed 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. This weekend’s results clearly show that Manchester City is running away with the title, while 5 clubs (Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham) will fight for the 3 remaining Champions League spots. Last season, Arsenal missed out on Europe’s elite competition with 75 points from 38 games, 1 point behind the Reds. The cut line this season could be 76 points again. So far, the Gunners are 1 victory short of the cruising speed required for Champions League football with 29 points from 16 games.

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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

The Gunners hurt their chances of getting 3 points at St Mary’s stadium with another poor start. They conceded a goal by the third minute with some pub defending. Cech was not happy after the game as he bluntly said that Arsenal “could have been 3-0 down after 10 minutes again.” The Czech goalkeeper was referring to the disastrous start against Manchester United the previous weekend. While the Gunners had one day less of rest than United after a mid-week game, there was no such excuse for the Southampton game: the 11 starters did not even play in the Europa League on Thursday. An early goal was obviously the best scenario for the Saints, who parked the bus and proved hard to break down.

   Wenger made just one change to the side that lost to United the previous weekend with Mertesacker replacing an injured Mustafi. The FA Cup final provided the blueprint for playing Mertesacker in a back three: Arsenal left very little space between the goalkeeper and the backline against Chelsea even if it meant a lot of distance to cover for the midfielders. Yet, the Gunners decided to play a high defensive line against Southampton. Mertesacker’s lack of pace made such a plan completely suicidal.

Mertesacker and Koscielny struggling at the back

   Mertesacker didn’t cover himself in glory in the third minute. The German defender gave the ball away to Austin, who found Tadic on the edge of the box. Taking advantage of Mertesacker’s comical fall, Tadic had plenty of time to play Austin in. The Southampton striker took a touch before beating Cech from close range. Monreal was slow to react on that play as he let Austin run past him.

Playing on the shoulder of Mertesacker near the center circle, Austin beat again the offside trap in the fifth minute to collect a pass from Tadic but was denied by Cech. The Gunners did not learn their lesson as Austin made another run in behind in the 43rd to chase a through ball from Romeu. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to beat Austin to the ball and clear the danger. A static Mertesacker also failed to close down Romeu, who clipped the bar with a long-range strike in the 62nd.

A week after his poor performance against United, Koscielny had another miserable moment. Koscielny gave the ball away to Redmond in the 66th and the Southampton forward hit a long ball toward Bertrand. Koscielny intercepted the ball with a header but only to knock it into the path of Tadic. Attempting to make up for his mistakes, Koscielny missed his tackle on Tadic and let Bertrand run past him to take Tadic’s pass. With just Cech to beat, Bertrand somehow missed the target. You don’t often see a player make 4 mistakes on the same play.

We know Mertesacker and Koscielny have lost a step. It’s a different story with Bellerin who is only 22. The Spaniard has produced a lot of average performances this season, well below the level that helped him get named in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year.

A more direct approach

Bellerin had a hard time on Sunday with Bertrand and Redmond roaming down his flank. He won only 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage for an Arsenal midfielder according to the club’s website. Bertrand outpaced Bellerin in the eighth minute to make a cross for Austin, who hit the post but was flagged offside anyway. Then Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Ward in the 29th. An unmarked Austin knocked the ball down for Van Dijk, whose flick bounced off Xhaka to gently roll toward Cech. Bellerin lost another duel in the 53rd, allowing Redmond to test Cech with a long-range effort, before receiving a yellow card in the 78th for pulling back Boufal.

After Southampton took the lead, the Gunners enjoyed plenty of ball possession but lacked penetration in the final third. As a symbol of Arsenal’s sterile possession, Koscielny (102), Xhaka (95) and Monreal (93) led the team in passes, according to whoscored.com. If you can’t beat with the pass, then running at defenders is the obvious alternative. Unfortunately, our dribbling options are limited since Oxlade-Chamberlain joined Liverpool. Arsenal finished the game with fewer successful dribbles than the Saints.

So the manager opted for more directness by replacing Mertesacker with Welbeck in the 64th and Lacazette with Giroud in the 72nd. With those 2 substitutions, the Gunners suddenly became more threatening in the air. Yet, it took them 16 minutes to finally feed Giroud. The France striker converted his only scoring chance of the game by outjumping Yoshida in the 88th to head Sanchez’s cross into the bottom corner. Let’s give some credit to Giroud for isolating himself with Yoshida and therefore creating a bad matchup for the Southampton defense.

Very good or world class?

Arsenal had to rely on Giroud’s physicality because Lacazette’s pace was of no use against a compact defense. Receiving the ball in tight spots, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, which is not his forte. Xhaka redirected a high ball from Sanchez toward Lacazette, who held off Yoshida only to fire a low shot straight at Forster in the 16th. A minute later, Lacazette wasted a better chance on a counterattack. See the screen capture below. In a 3v1 situation, Lacazette controlled Bellerin’s pass with a poor first touch, allowing Hojbjerg to clear the ball to safety. In hindsight, Lacazette should have made a first-time pass to Ozil to his right. Easy to say, but very difficult to do at full throttle.

Southampton M17edLacazette wasting a 3v1 situation on a counterattack. (Photo credit: BT)

Then Bellerin made a low cross for Lacazette, who fired over the bar from 12 yards in the 41st. The France international should have caught the frame in that kind of situation. If Lacazette doesn’t become more clinical, football fans will keep thinking he’s a very good player but not a world-class striker, i.e. the difference between Lukaku and Aguero.

Sanchez and Ozil didn’t shine either on Sunday. Sanchez had an average game while Ozil was pretty much anonymous. Ozil finished the game with 0 key pass and had 6 turnovers, trailing only Sanchez (7) for the most by any player. By contrast, Tadic led Southampton with just 4 turnovers. Ozil’s lack of end product meant that the creative burden rested on the shoulders of Sanchez, who led Arsenal with 3 key passes. Besides the assist for the equalizer, Sanchez also had a curling free kick punched away by Forster in the 84th.

Questions about Sanchez and Ozil

Any time Sanchez and Ozil don’t perform well, Arsenal supporters can’t help wondering whether they are still playing for the club or preparing their transfers. You can only blame the manager and the board for having created this situation. It feels very much like a transition season because of all that uncertainty.

In hindsight, most supporters wouldn’t have been mad at the club for letting Sanchez and Ozil go this summer if they had been properly replaced. There was a dressing room revolt in 2011 because Fabregas and Nasri had not been replaced. Oxlade-Chamberlain was just a prospect then. By contrast, Van Persie’s departure generated no such drama in 2012 because the club had signed Podolski and Giroud for goals as well as Cazorla to finally fill the hole left by Fabregas.

It was also in 2011 that the Gunners signed Arteta. The Spaniard proved a leader in the dressing room but his time with Mertesacker became the symbol of Arsenal’s porous defense, especially during the 2013-14 season. Their lack of pace made the team vulnerable on counterattacks. The same issue is repeating itself with the gradual decline of Koscielny and Monreal at the back and Xhaka’s lack of mobility in midfield.

There were suggestions before Sunday’s game that Arsenal might start with a back four like in the 6-0 win over BATE Borisov. In the end, the manager was too much aware of the lack of protection provided by the midfield and stuck with the 3-4-3 formation. The third centerback is basically making up for the lack of a decent defensive midfielder. In theory, Xhaka is the holding midfielder but you never know what you are going to get with him. He made a reckless challenge on Bertrand to give away a cheap free kick in the 26th. But he also made a clean tackle on Redmond to kill a Southampton counterattack in the 35th. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger finally switched to a back four in the 64th even though it exposed Monreal and Koscielny, who had to cope with 2v2 situations a couple of times.

Ramsey’s hamstring injury

Ramsey was the only Arsenal player who really tested Forster in the first half. He met a low cross from Sanchez in the 32nd for a first-time effort that the Southampton goalkeeper saved. In the closing minutes, Ramsey seemed to pick up a hamstring injury. He stayed on the pitch because Wenger had already used up his substitutions. On one leg, Ramsey still managed to connect with a cross from Kolasinac in stoppage time but his shot had no power.

The Wales midfielder has been Arsenal’s most valuable player this season in terms of goals and assists. His injury is coming at a bad time because of the hectic schedule. Knowing Ramsey’s injury record, the staff definitely needs to be careful and not rush him in his return. Wilshere would seem the most suitable replacement for Ramsey in midfield even though they have 2 different profiles.

The Gunners need 2 wins from their next 2 games to make up for the points dropped against Stoke, Watford and Manchester United. I don’t expect too much rotation against West Ham on Wednesday but some tinkering against Newcastle on Saturday might be necessary to inject some freshness and avoid injuries.

 

 

Arsenal vs. Manchester United: Gunners pay for defensive errors in 3-1 loss

The Gunners threw their perfect home record out the window with some pub defending from the centerbacks, losing 3-1 to Manchester United on Saturday to slip to fifth place in the Premier League, 1 point behind Liverpool and 4 points behind Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Paradoxically, Arsenal produced a good performance with 15 shots on target to just 4 for the visitors. The trouble is that the Gunners proved wasteful in the final third. Sure, De Gea was at his shot-stopping best with 14 saves, but only a couple of those saves were really outstanding. By contrast, the Red Devils were more efficient at both ends of the pitch, sound defensively and clinical offensively, pretty much like the Inter Milan side managed by Mourinho from 2008 to 2010.

United created very little: all their goals came from Arsenal turnovers. The Gunners made Mourinho’s job much easier by conceding 2 goals in the first 11 minutes. United then just had to sit back and hit Arsenal on the fast break. The Arsenal centerbacks and Xhaka usually lead the team in passes. But on Saturday, it was Ozil (107), Ramsey (77) and Sanchez (67) who made the most passes according to whoscored.com, which clearly shows that the Red Devils were happy to let Arsenal enjoy 75% of ball possession.

Wenger made no change to the side that thrashed Huddersfield Town 5-0 on Wednesday. I thought the Gunners’ approach in the opening minutes was wrong. United had one day more of recovery and therefore tried to put Arsenal on the back foot early in the game. Instead of absorbing the pressure, the Gunners tried to match United’s intensity. Unfortunately, United’s fresher legs made the difference in the opening minutes. If Arsenal had played their previous league game on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, maybe it would have been a good idea to go tit for tat.

When a simple pass is the best option

Besides the final scoreline, the losses to Manchester City and United have one thing in common: both teams created chances by forcing Arsenal turnovers. The Red Devils made 14 interceptions compared to 8 for the Gunners, according to Squawka. Koscielny put his team in danger with a risky crossfield pass for Kolasinac in the fourth minute. Valencia intercepted the pass and played a one-two with Pogba before firing through Cech’s legs to give United the lead.

As you can see on the screen capture below, Pogba, Lukaku and Valencia were positioned to cut two of Koscielny’s passing options (Sanchez and Kolasinac). The static Xhaka was standing in front of Koscielny, preventing the France centerback from spotting Ozil and Lacazette. In hindsight, Ramsey to his left was Koscielny’s best passing option. It was a simple pass and maybe an overambitious Koscielny thought it didn’t help Arsenal move forward. On that play, Monreal made the mistake of rushing toward Pogba instead of staying with Valencia.

Arsenal vs. United M4editedPogba, Lukaku and Valencia cutting Koscielny’s passing options. (Photo credit: BT)

The second goal also resulted from United’s work in cutting the passing channels. Lingard pressured Mustafi into making a mistake in the 11th. Looking for a solution, Mustafi dallied on the ball and was robbed by Lingard, who slipped the ball to Lukaku. The Belgium striker dribbled past Mustafi to find Martial, who played Lingard in with some clever footwork. Lingard doubled the lead by beating Cech with a low strike off the post. Cech was Mustafi’s best passing option on that play. As you can see on the screen capture below, Monreal was even showing Mustafi where to play the ball.

Arsenal vs. United M11editedMartial, Lingard and Lukaku cutting Mustafi’s passing options. (Photo credit: BT)

The Gunners didn’t cover themselves in glory with the last goal either. The Red Devils capitalized on a Sanchez turnover to launch a counterattack from their own half in the 63rd. Lingard ran past Xhaka to release Pogba down our left flank. Instead of showing Pogba the corner, Koscielny dived in and missed his challenge, allowing Pogba to cut the ball back for Lingard, who tapped in for a 3-1 lead.

Fixing 2 key positions 

This defeat shows that the Gunners have weak defensive foundations. A world-class centerback and a top defensive midfielder should be signed next summer. As long as the club doesn’t fix those 2 positions, Arsenal will never be able to contend. Mustafi’s leadership skills were seriously questioned with his blunder that led to the second goal. Losing possession as the last defender is a no-no at the top level. Meanwhile, Koscielny is losing a step at 32 and his nagging Achilles problem means that playing 3 games in a 7-day span could prove a too big challenge for him. Koscielny only won 23% of his duels compared to 58% for Monreal, according to the club’s website.

Lingard beat the offside trap in the 52nd to collect a through ball from Martial. After Cech diverted Lingard’s shot onto the far post, Martial pounced on the rebound only to have his close-range effort blocked by Monreal. With no pressure on Martial, Koscielny should have dropped off on that play instead of playing a high defensive line. In the closing minutes, Koscielny was booked for bringing down Lukaku. Bellerin’s nearby presence somehow prevented Koscielny from getting a red card.

On the flanks, Bellerin had a poor game. The Spaniard made no interception and no block and won 0 of 4 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Kolasinac did a bit better by making 1 interception and winning 1 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels. Both tested De Gea with long-range strikes in the 44th. The switch to a back four in the 15th because of Mustafi’s injury did not benefit Bellerin, whose game is better tailored for the wingback position. Bellerin received a yellow card for a poor challenge on Young in the 72nd. Two minutes later, Bellerin had an injury scare as Pogba stamped on the back of his knee. The Manchester midfielder was sent off for that dangerous play.

Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness

In midfield, Ramsey and Xhaka performed well against Huddersfield but the duo showed again their limits against top opposition (first Liverpool, then Manchester City and now United). Ramsey is obviously the attacking spear of the duo because of his deep runs. He won 1 of 4 tackles and made 3 key passes and 2 interceptions. The Wales midfielder set up Lacazette for the consolation goal in the 49th, raising his tally to 6 assists this season. Only De Bruyne and Silva have more assists in the league with 8 each. Ramsey could have scored in stoppage time but sent his half-volley over the bar.

Xhaka is supposed to be the shield in the midfield partnership. His stats look decent with a passing accuracy of 93%, 2 chances created, 5 of 7 tackles won, 1 of 2 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 2 blocks. No one can deny that Xhaka put in a shift. The issue is Xhaka’s lack of mobility and his poor defensive awareness.

When Xhaka is well positioned, he can make clean tackles like the one on Martial in the 40th. But when he’s a yard off, the challenge turns into a foul because of his lack of mobility. Xhaka made an obstruction on Rojo in the third minute, missed his tackle on Lingard in the 52nd and made another mistimed challenge on Lingard in the 62nd. Despite this flaw, Xhaka has shown enough self-discipline to avoid penalties and red cards this season.

A too big hole to climb out of

However, the real problem is Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness. Xhaka doesn’t smell the danger. On the opening goal, Xhaka was on the same line as Valencia when the interception was made. Yet, Xhaka didn’t rush back. In fact, he only entered the Arsenal area when Valencia pulled the trigger. The last goal showed how clueless Xhaka was. Sanchez gave away the ball with a backheel flick. Matic launched the counterattack by finding Lukaku in midfield. As you can see on the screen capture below, 7 Gunners were ahead of Xhaka when Matic made the pass. Xhaka should have realized that Koscielny and Monreal were badly exposed. He was also in a good position to spot Lingard’s run. As the holding midfielder, Xhaka should have dropped off to mark Lingard or even block his run.

Arsenal vs. United M63aeditedXhaka should have dropped off as Lingard made his run. (Photo credit: BT)

Xhaka only reacted once Lingard took Lukaku’s pass. Because Lukaku pulled Monreal out of position, Xhaka’s passivity basically meant that Lingard was in a 1v1 situation with Koscielny within a couple of seconds. See the screen capture below. Xhaka got some stick for not marking Lingard when Pogba cut the ball back, but I don’t blame Xhaka for not spotting Lingard’s movement behind his back. On the other hand, Xhaka could have killed the counterattack if he had smelt the danger in midfield.

Arsenal vs. United M63bedited Lingard running past Xhaka to be in a 1v1 situation with Koscielny. (Photo credit: BT)

We can give Arsenal some credit for reacting after a disastrous start. But the Gunners really digged a hole that was too big to climb out of. The manager shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation when Iwobi replaced Mustafi in the 15th with Ozil playing in the hole. Arsenal looked vulnerable on the Red Devils’ counterattacks because the back four didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. On a weird play in the 33rd, Ozil even ended up in the centerback position because Ramsey and Xhaka got stuck high up the pitch while Monreal was again pulled out of position.

Lacazette deprived of a hat trick by De Gea

Trailing by two goals, Wenger threw the kitchen sink at United by replacing Xhaka with Welbeck in the 70th with Iwobi joining Ramsey in midfield while Welbeck played on the right wing. Pogba’s ejection in the 74th led to another tactical change with a switch back to a 3-4-3 system. The manager sent on Giroud for Kolasinac in the 76th with Iwobi and Welbeck playing as wingbacks while Ozil and Ramsey pulled the strings in midfield. The team lacked balance especially since Giroud had no source of supply from the left wing.

Lacazette was arguably the best Gunner on Saturday with a good all-around game. He scored a goal, created 2 chances, had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, made 2 blocks and won 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. My only criticism is the 7 turnovers he had, tied with Sanchez for the most by an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Lacazette is usually tidy in possession but the density of the Manchester defense deprived him of any space.

Without De Gea’s outstanding saves, Lacazette could have notched a hat trick. The Manchester defense failed to clear a corner in the 20th and Xhaka headed the loose ball toward Lacazette, who could only flick the ball with the tip of his boot while wrestling with Rojo. De Gea was lucky to see the ball bounce off his leg as he had no idea of what was going on.

A deflected pass from Sanchez led to another goalmouth scramble in the 32nd. Lacazette took the loose ball and got the better of Rojo before rounding De Gea to fire a shot that the goalkeeper, crawling on the ground, diverted onto the bar. The France striker finally found the net in the 49th, blasting the ball past De Gea from 5 yards. Lacazette was then denied the equalizer in the 56th as De Gea dived to parry his 10-yard strike.

Iwobi finally connecting with Lacazette

Coming off the bench, Welbeck had more impact than Giroud. De Gea tipped Welbeck’s deflected shot over the bar in the 83rd. Two minutes later, Welbeck headed Ramsey’s cross over the bar. He was also involved in a small controversy in the 88th. Welbeck should have been awarded a penalty after Darmian tripped him inside the area. But Welbeck quickly got back on his feet and the referee refrained from blowing the whistle. I felt that the referee bottled it. After giving a red card to Pogba, he probably didn’t want to seem too harsh with United. In his post-match news conference, a cynical Mourinho suggested that it was a dive. Well, we all know what Mourinho would have said if it had happened to his team.

There was a lot of pressure on Iwobi when he replaced Mustafi in the 15th. Substitutes sometimes want to do too much when their team trails by two goals. But Iwobi kept things simple and showed more end product than usual with 3 shots on target and 3 key passes. He also made 2 blocks and won 1 of 1 tackle. The main positive from the game for Iwobi is the improvement of his relationship with Lacazette. In the 52nd, the Frenchman picked out Iwobi, who lifted the ball for himself to test De Gea with a 13-yard snapshot. Four minutes later, Iwobi set up Lacazette for a scoring chance. Iwobi definitely needs to work on his finishing, which is mediocre. While Lacazette naturally aims for the corners, too many of Iwobi’s goal attempts are either off target or near the middle of the net.

3 must-win games

Although Arsenal dominated ball possession, Ozil and Sanchez didn’t really shine. Sanchez led the team with 5 key passes, followed by Ozil with 4. The Chile striker produced an average performance by his own standards. He had no successful dribble and made no tackle, no interception and no block. It was very similar to his performance against Huddersfield, except that he didn’t score on Saturday. Sanchez still made the penultimate pass for Lacazette’s goal with a pinpoint cross for Ramsey. He also found Iwobi with another cross in the 55th but the Nigeria international could only hit a tame header.

I thought Sanchez should have done better when De Gea parried Lacazette’s shot in the 56th. Sanchez pounced on the rebound and had his effort saved by De Gea’s foot. After watching several TV replays, maybe a chip or a strike into the roof of the net would have been the better option. Or maybe De Gea would have still made the save. That was definitely the turning point of the game. Who knows how United would have reacted to an equalizer. Sanchez also tested De Gea with a shot from the edge of the box in the 65th.

Amid all the talk about his contract, Ozil did his bit but nothing more. Ozil managed to beat De Gea with a free kick in the 30th but Young cleared the ball off the line. Then Ozil fired a low volley straight at De Gea in the 36th. When your team is struggling, you want a player who can take the game by the scruff of the neck. Unfortunately, Ozil is not that kind of player.

I expect the manager to heavily rotate against BATE Borisov on Thursday. The Gunners have already secured a first-place finish in the group stage of the Europa League, so there’s no need to start any key player and risk a stupid injury. The priority is still the Premier League, where Arsenal will need to win their next 3 games against Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle to make up ground in the Top 4 race.