Tag Archives: Koscielny

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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Burnley vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang on fire in 3-1 win

Too little, too late.

   The Gunners defeated Burnley 3-1 on Sunday to finish 5th in the Premier League, one point behind Spurs and two behind Chelsea. The loss to Crystal Palace and the draw with Brighton, both at the Emirates stadium, were the turning points in Arsenal’s season. A victory against either of these teams would have been enough to secure a Top 4 spot.

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

   Now the only way to qualify for next season’s Champions League is to win the Europa League. Emery was aware of the priorities as he made 9 changes to the side that knocked Valencia out of the European competition with only Monreal and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. Koscielny, Kolasinac, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka and Lacazette were on the bench while Sokratis, Torreira and Ozil were not even in the squad.

The Gunners enjoyed 60% of ball possession and had 6 shots on target to 5 for the hosts. They wasted some good situations with a poor final ball, in part because the numerous changes had a negative impact on the fluency of the team’s passing game. For instance, Aubameyang overhit his cross for Nketiah in the 78th minute, and Iwobi played the ball behind an unmarked Mkhitaryan in stoppage time.  

   Aubameyang could have been left on the bench to avoid any injury before the Europa League final, but finishing as the top scorer in the Premier League was one of his ambitions, so Emery let him lead the line. He nearly opened the scoring in the fourth minute. Aubameyang made a run to the near post to meet Mkhitaryan’s free kick but his header hit the woodwork. Three minutes later, Aubameyang chased a long ball from Mustafi to fire an angled strike that Heaton parried.

Aubameyang’s 31 goals

   The opener came from a mistake by the Clarets in the 52nd. Cork missed his backpass to Mee and the ball fell to Aubameyang, who beat Heaton with a low strike. Aubameyang doubled the lead in the 63rd by volleying Iwobi’s cross into the far corner. The Gabon striker then had a few opportunities to notch a hat trick. Iwobi made a teasing cross in the 72nd but Aubameyang didn’t anticipate and failed to make contact with the ball. A minute later, Mkhitaryan made another offering. From 4 yards, Aubameyang missed the target with a sliding effort.

   The Gunners really tried hard to give him a hat trick but Aubameyang failed to connect with a cross from Elneny in the 79th. In stoppage time, Aubameyang took a pass from Iwobi and worked some space only to shoot over the bar from 12 yards. Despite those misses, Aubameyang still finished the Premier League season as the joint top scorer with 22 goals, tied with Salah and Mane. Aubameyang is also the fourth Gunner to score at least 30 goals in all competitions in a single season since the move to the Emirates stadium. Adebayor, Van Persie and Sanchez achieved that feat before Aubameyang.

   This season confirmed Aubameyang’s successful adaptation to the Premier League. He sometimes gets criticized for missing some big chances, but his electric pace and movement inside the box are a headache for most defenders. Emery can only hope that Aubameyang will maintain that level of form until the Europa League final.  

The inconsistency of the attacking midfielders

   Mkhitaryan has been inconsistent this season and it really showed in his performance on Sunday. Playing on the right wing, Mkhitaryan finished the game with 2 key passes and 2 of 4 shots on target, but no goal and no assist. His delivery on set pieces was especially poor. Mkhitaryan couldn’t beat the first defender with a free kick on the stroke of halftime. He then sent a cross straight into Heaton’s arms in the 49th.

   Assuming Emery relies on a 3-5-2 formation for the Europa League final, that means only one attacking midfielder will start for Arsenal against Chelsea. Because of Ramsey’s hamstring injury, Emery will only have the choice between Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi, who have all lacked consistency in the final third this season. Mkhitaryan and Ozil are a slightly bigger goal threat than Iwobi. However, if Emery’s priority is to mark Jorginho out of the match, then Mkhitaryan is the more natural choice because of his work-rate. Mkhitaryan won 1 of 2 tackles, and made 3 interceptions and 4 recoveries against Burnley, compared 2 of 3 tackles won, 0 interception and 1 recovery for Iwobi, according to the club’s website.

   Iwobi led all players with 5 key passes. Despite 2 assists against Burnley, the overall impression this season is that Iwobi has stagnated under Emery. His finishing is still poor and his reading of the game is not good enough. It’s no coincidence if Iwobi was not involved in the best team goals scored by Arsenal. His work-rate is also far from the level required for a Top 4 club. Iwobi’s failure to close down Lowton led to a couple of chances for Burnley.

Loaning out Willock and Nketiah?

   Benefiting from the rest given to Ozil and Lacazette, academy player Willock made his second start in the Premier League. Willock impressed against Blackpool in the FA Cup, but there’s quite a gap between facing a third-division team and playing in the Premier League. Obviously, Willock is not the finished product yet. He will need to work on his close control because youngsters have more time and space in the Premier League 2 and often show too much of the ball. Willock led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He will also have to play more with his head up. The English teenager often needed too much time on the ball before finding a decent pass. At the same age, Fabregas already knew what were his passing options before even receiving the ball.

   Willock showed his potential on a couple of plays. His shot on the turn was blocked for a corner in the 10th and his low curling shot sailed wide on the stroke of halftime. However, the lack of end product was a real issue. Willock had 0 shot on target, 0 key pass and 0 successful dribble out of 2. His work-rate was also disappointing with just 1 tackle and 1 recovery. I don’t think Willock was lazy but he clearly struggled with his positional play. If you’re not in the right spot, you’re unlikely to win the ball or make a challenge.

   Emery replaced Willock with Nketiah in the 62nd. The young striker made an impact by scoring the last goal in stoppage time. His cross-shot took a deflection off Lowton before rolling through Heaton’s legs. The staff should consider loaning both Willock and Nketiah to a Championship side next season because they are too good for the Premier League 2 and need to develop.  

Vulnerable on crosses (again)

   In central midfield, Guendouzi played alongside Elneny. Surprisingly, Elneny had more influence in the final third with 3 key passes, compared to 0 key pass for Guendouzi. However, they had relatively similar defensive stats with Guendouzi making 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 9 recoveries, compared to 0 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries for Elneny, according to the club’s website.

   So far, Guendouzi is the same type of player as Elneny. Both are utility midfielders because they don’t have the same defensive impact as ballwinners and can’t match the offensive impact of deep-lying playmakers or box-to-box players. The only difference between Elneny and Guendouzi is that Elneny is more conservative in his passing while Guendouzi wins slightly more duels. This has been a positive season for Guendouzi, who has managed to make the leap from the French second division to the much tougher Premier League. Next season, Guendouzi will have to be less casual. He gave the ball away in the 17th and 29th and was lucky to win a foul after recklessly dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 75th.

   The Clarets mostly threatened on crosses and set pieces. Their consolation goal came from a cross in the 65th. Leno initially palmed away a deflected shot from Gudmundsson, but the rebound fell to Hendrick, who made a cross for Wood. The Burnley forward could only head the ball toward the far post, where Gudmundsson got hold of the ball and picked out Barnes who headed in. The Gunners lost 4 duels on that play: Monreal failed to block Hendrick’s cross, Koscielny lost his aerial duel with Wood, Gudmundsson reacted more quickly than Lichtsteiner, and Barnes beat Mustafi to the ball.

Mavropanos looking out of his depth

   Some fans sweated a lot when they saw Mavropanos starting alongside Mustafi at centerback. Mustafi produced a solid performance, leading all players by winning 8 of 11 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. The German defender also won 2 of 2 tackles and 76.9% of his duels and made 2 blocks, 1 interception and 5 recoveries. Mustafi made a timely challenge after Guendouzi gave the ball away in the 29th. A minute later, Mustafi prevented Burnley from opening the scoring by blocking Lowton’s close-range effort. The only blemish in Mustafi’s performance was his passing accuracy of 74.2%, much lower than Koscielny’s 97.1%.

   It has been a rough season for Mavropanos, who has played only 4 games after needing several months to recover from a groin injury. To be honest, Mavropanos looked out of his depth. When Taylor made a cross in the fifth minute, Mavropanos completely missed his header, allowing Barnes to have a free header. Fortunately, the Burnley striker missed the target. Mavropanos made the same mistake again in the ninth minute as Barnes connected with a cross from Lowton for a half-volley that Leno palmed away.

   The Clarets had a penalty shout in the 20th when Mavropanos wrestled with Barnes inside the area. Burnley nearly took the lead in the 28th. Wood made a run in behind Mavropanos to chase a long ball from Lowton and hit the base of the post. Burnley then capitalized on a Mavropanos turnover in the 30th to launch a counterattack. Mavropanos’ injury in the 31st was almost a blessing in disguise because there seemed more troubles coming his way. The Greek defender is not yet ready for the Premier League. In his 30-minute performance, Mavropanos made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 0 recovery. There are big question marks about his reading of the game. The club should loan him out in the summer.

Singing the blues in Baku

   Emery replaced Mavropanos with Koscielny in the 34th. The French veteran struggled again in the air, winning only 2 of 7 duels. Koscielny had an injury scare in the 50th when Wood shoved him into the advertising hoardings. That was similar to Arnautovic’s dangerous shove that led to Debuchy’s shoulder injury. Yet, the referee didn’t award any foul. There were other examples of leniency from the referee, who ignored Westwood’s shove on Guendouzi in the eighth minute even though the ball was already gone. And Hendrick was not even booked for pulling back Willock in the 61st.  

   The Gunners only have one game left to play this season: a Europa League final against Chelsea in Azerbaijan. It would definitely be a successful season if they manage to lift the trophy. The Gunners are in good hands since Emery is the most successful manager in that competition. I assume Emery will plan the training sessions so that the players hit peak form on May 29.

 

 

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. Manchester United: Gunners ride their luck in 2-0 win

   The Gunners showed a lot of steel and resilience in their 2-0 win over Manchester United to move into fourth place in the Premier League on Sunday. While Manchester City and Liverpool are contending for the title, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United are fighting for the two remaining Champions League spots. The Gunners are 1 point behind Spurs, but 2 points clear of the Red Devils and 3 points ahead of the Blues, who have a game in hand.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   With 60 points from 30 games, the Gunners have 12 more points than last season. There are two main reasons for that difference. Under Wenger, Arsenal had mediocre results against the Top 6 clubs and suffered from a poor away form. The Gunners have won 12 points against the Big Six under Emery (4 points vs. Spurs, 4 points vs. Manchester United, 3 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City), whereas they only earned 6 points last season (3 points vs. Spurs, 0 point vs. Manchester United, 2 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City).

   The Gunners are on course to finish the season with 76 points. I believe Arsenal must reach that target to have a good shot at a Top 4 finish. Liverpool secured fourth place with 76 points in 2017 and 75 points in 2018. You may point out that Manchester City finished fourth with only 66 points under Pellegrini in 2016, but that was a different era. The arrivals of Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have made the Premier League much more competitive.

Emery trusting Ramsey in central midfield

   If you take a look at the graph below, you can see that Arsenal lost some momentum in December after dropping points against Southampton, Brighton and Liverpool. By collecting 13 points from their last 5 league games, the Gunners have managed to increase their cruising speed to 2.0 points per game, which is the required average to finish with 76 points.

Arsenal tally comparison 2019Comparing Arsenal’s 2017-18 season and the current season

 

   Arsenal won’t face any Top 6 club in their run-in but their schedule is no gimme. They have home games against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Brighton and away games against Wolverhampton, Everton, Watford, Leicester and Burnley. If we assume that the Gunners will win their home games and draw their away games, they would still be 2 points short of the 76-point target. It means that one away win would be necessary to reach 76 points.

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that was defeated in Rennes with Lacazette, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac and Leno replacing Iwobi, Torreira, Mkhitaryan, Mustafi and Cech in the starting lineup. Torreira was serving a three-match ban while Mkhitaryan was sidelined by a back injury. Most fans were not surprised that Emery left Mustafi and Guendouzi on the bench. Mustafi gave away a silly penalty against Spurs while Guendouzi showed a blatant lack of effort against Rennes.

   The only real surprise was to see both Ozil and Ramsey playing in a fluid 3-4-3 formation. It was the first time since the 2-0 win over Watford in September that Ramsey and Ozil started together. Ozil reads the game better than Iwobi, so I guess the plan was to have the German playmaker deliver the final ball to Aubameyang and Lacazette. To a certain extent, the starting lineup had a Wengerian feel with Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield. Emery prefers to deploy Ramsey as a false 10 or as a second striker. But on Sunday the Spanish manager played Ramsey in central midfield for the first time this season.

United’s tactical ploy

   Xhaka opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a swerving shot from 29 yards. Then Aubameyang converted a soft penalty in the 69th after Fred shoved Lacazette from behind. The Gunners really rode their luck because the Red Devils created 5 big chances compared to none for Arsenal if we except the penalty. Emery got a lot of credit from TV pundits after the game but I thought the Arsenal defense looked shaky at times.

   Two of those 5 big chances came from crosses. Shaw played a one-two with Pogba in the ninth minute before making a cross for Lukaku, who hit the bar from close range with a bouncing volley. Maitland-Niles failed to stay with Shaw on that play while Monreal lost his duel with Lukaku at the far post. In stoppage time, Young made a cross for Rashford, who had a free header from 9 yards but sent the ball straight into Leno’s arms. Iwobi failed to close down Young on that play while Maitland-Niles left Rashford unmarked. That vulnerability on crosses is a legacy of the Wenger era that Emery hasn’t fixed yet.

   The Gunners also failed to adjust to the tactical ploy used for the other 3 big chances. Lukaku and Rashford often dropped off to find space between the defense and the midfield. Lukaku hit a ball over the top for Rashford, who shot wide in the 28th. Monreal should have been tight to Lukaku on that play, while Koscielny missed his clearance by attempting a stupid high kick instead of heading the ball away. Lukaku and Rashford swapped roles in the 36th. Rashford slipped a through ball to Lukaku, who was denied by Leno. Sokratis gave Rashford too much time on the ball while Lukaku took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line to make a run between Koscielny and Monreal.

   You would expect the wide centerbacks (Sokratis and Monreal) to understand at halftime the need for pressing Lukaku and Rashford when they drop off. But the same situation happened again in the 51st. Sokratis failed to close down Rashford, who played Lukaku clean through on goal. Leno somehow managed to divert Lukaku’s 9-yard shot over the bar. Monreal made the mistake of trying to play Lukaku offside instead of tracking him.

A streetwise Leno

   Leno was the main reason why Arsenal kept a clean sheet. The German goalkeeper definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. Besides his 4 saves, Leno also sprinted outside the box to intercept a ball over the top for Lukaku in the 47th and quickly came off his line to catch Pogba’s through ball for Rashford in the 65th.

   There were some question marks when Leno joined the club. Why was he not part of Germany’s World Cup squad, knowing that a flawed goalkeeper like Trapp still managed to make the cut? The doubts grew louder when Leno made a couple of errors leading to a goal in the first half of the season. But Leno worked hard to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League. He is now more streetwise in aerial duels.  

   Emery relied on an experienced back three to cope with the threat of Lukaku and Rashford. But Koscielny, Monreal and Sokratis nearly made a mess of it. Despite the fresh memory of his red card against Rennes in the Europa League, Sokratis dived in again and got booked in the 37th for a mistimed challenge on Pogba. Some fans had the jitters when Monreal made a sliding challenge on Lukaku in the 36th. Monreal didn’t win the ball but at least he didn’t bring Lukaku down inside the area either.

   Playing as a sweeper, Koscielny blocked Fred’s shot with his ribs in the 51st. Koscielny was the captain of the team but he didn’t have the leadership skills to sort out the tactical problem created by Lukaku and Rashford when they dropped off to deliver the final ball. Because Arsenal played a relatively high defensive line, it was crucial that Sokratis and Monreal press the United strikers. The Gunners definitely need an organizer at the back who can spot and correct tactical issues without waiting for the manager’s instructions.

Maitland-Niles’ inexperience and desire

   In the wingback position, Emery gave Maitland-Niles the nod over Mustafi. Maitland-Niles’ performance was a mixed bag. I thought he was too easily beaten down the right flank in the first half. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and made some decisive contributions, intercepting Lukaku’s ball over the top in the 17th, breaking up play with a sliding tackle in the 63rd, winning a foot race with Rashford to win the ball back in the 89th, and dispossessing Martial inside the area in the 90th.

   Maitland-Niles still showed his inexperience on the 2 crosses that led to big chances for the Red Devils. Despite those blemishes, Emery might be tempted to trust Maitland-Niles in that position for the rest of the season, especially if he shows the same desire. Maitland-Niles won 2 of 4 tackles and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 interceptions, according to the club’s website.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac was able to attack in the opening minutes, making a teasing cross for Lacazette, who couldn’t make contact with the ball at the near post. But Solskjaer’s tactical tweak in the first half, shifting from a flat 4-4-2 formation to a 3-5-2 system, put Arsenal on the back foot and forced Kolasinac to defend. Kolasinac finished the game with 11 recoveries. Only Fred had more with 12.

   The Gunners bossed the midfield in the opening minutes with Xhaka, Ramsey and Ozil outmuscling Matic and Fred. This led to Solskjaer’s tactical tweak, moving Pogba from a wide position to the No. 10 role to match Arsenal in midfield. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries and led all players with 64 passes, while Ramsey was the more mobile of the 2 central midfielders and showed outstanding work-rate, making 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries and leading all players by winning 3 of 7 tackles, according to the club’s website. The Wales midfielder had even better stats on whoscored.com, winning 7 of 8 tackles. I tend to prefer stats from the Arsenal website, which are more conservative and safer to use.

Limiting Pogba’s influence  

   Wenger always relied on Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield last season. I was wondering why Emery was reluctant to use Ramsey alongside Xhaka and preferred to play him in a more advanced position. That must have been because of Ramsey’s end product in the final third but on Sunday Ramsey showed that he could defend, too. The duo needed to step up because Ozil’s work-rate was poor with just 1 interception and 3 recoveries. Xhaka made a crucial sliding clearance on the stroke of halftime to protect Arsenal’s lead while Ramsey was so focused on his defensive duties that he only had 1 scoring chance. Maitland-Niles cut the ball back for Ramsey, who blazed over the bar in the 22nd.

   The duo did a good job to limit Pogba’s influence. Apparently frustrated, Pogba caught Ramsey’s neck with a high arm in the 54th before getting booked in the 76th for fouling Xhaka. The only time Pogba managed to really pull the strings was in the 65th when Fred dispossessed Ramsey to find Pogba. Free of his minders, Pogba slipped a through ball to Rashford, who lost his duel with Leno. Because Xhaka lacks mobility and Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder, the Gunners allowed some dangerous long-range strikes. Fred hit the post with a 25-yard drive in the 19th while Pogba fired a 30-yard effort straight at Leno in the 26th. Maybe the more mobile Torreira would have been able to block those shots.  

   It wasn’t a game for attacking players. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes but couldn’t create any clear-cut chance. His technical quality still helped Arsenal retain ball possession. Ozil led all starters with a passing accuracy of 91.2%, according to whoscored.com. He also made smart runs to be an easy passing option for his teammates and was unlucky to be flagged offside twice despite being level with the last defender.

Aubameyang’s risky technique for penalties

   Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to have only 1 of 9 shots on target because most of those shots were taken from unfavorable positions. Lacazette had the best half-chance in the 24th, bullying Lindelof to fire a strike from 18 yards that deflected off Smalling for a corner. The French forward lacked a bit of composure in the 71st when Lindelof misjudged the bounce of the ball following a header from Sokratis. Lacazette pounced on the loose ball only to drag his shot wide from 15 yards.

   To his credit, Lacazette won the penalty for the second goal with a penetrative run in the 68th. Lacazette outpaced Fred, who shoved him from behind. Aubameyang was gutsy enough to take the spot kick just a week after missing one against Spurs. The Gabon striker waited for De Gea to dive before rolling the ball into the middle of the net. I’m not a fan of that kind of technique and definitely prefer when the penalty taker hits the corners of the net.  

   Emery’s narrow formation gave Shaw and Young a lot of freedom when Solskjaer shifted to a 4-3-3 system in the 70th with Martial replacing Dalot and then to a 4-4-2 system in the 81st with Greenwood replacing Matic. So the Spanish manager decided to shut up shop by shifting to a 5-4-1 formation with Iwobi replacing Ozil in the 76th and Suarez taking Aubameyang’s spot in the 80th. Iwobi didn’t really help with 5 turnovers in his short cameo. Only Lacazette had more with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Likewise, Suarez was too easily brushed off the ball at times. The Spaniard was dribbled past twice, tied with Xhaka and Maitland-Niles for the most by any Gunner. Suarez has two months and a half to prove his worth, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to sign him.  

   The Gunners next face Rennes in the second leg of their Europa League encounter. They need a victory by at least 2 goals on Thursday to qualify for the quarterfinals. Emery should field his best team since it will be the last game before the international break. He will miss Lacazette and Sokratis through suspension, but the squad is strong enough to cope without those two players.

 

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Gunners let down by strikers in 1-1 draw

  The Gunners drew 1-1 with Tottenham on Saturday to slip to fifth place in the Premier League, 4 points behind their North London rivals and 1 behind Manchester United. There was a lot of talk about some officiating decisions, but those poor calls will still be made as long as the Premier League doesn’t have the VAR system. The harsh reality is that Arsenal could have won the game if Lacazette and Aubameyang had converted some big chances. On the bright side, the Gunners won more points in North London derbies than Pochettino’s Spurs for the very first time. Under Emery, Arsenal earned 4 points out of 6 this season. Under Wenger, the Gunners only collected 1 point in the 2014-15 season, 2 points in 2015-16, 1 point in 2016-17 and 3 points last season.

Spurs vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that smashed Bournemouth on Wednesday with Lacazette, Ramsey, Iwobi, Xhaka and Mustafi replacing Aubameyang, Ozil, Kolasinac, Torreira and Jenkinson in the starting lineup. I thought the Spanish manager got his team selection and his game plan right. The bastardized 4-4-2 formation was a bit of a surprise because Emery relied on a back three in the previous away games.

   Up front, Lacazette got the nod over Aubameyang because of his better all-around game. In midfield, Ramsey played as a second striker when Arsenal had the ball. When the Gunners lost possession, Ramsey helped Xhaka and Guendouzi to match the work-rate of Sissoko, Wanyama and Eriksen. On the flanks, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan provided width while tracking the runs of Trippier and Rose. At the back, Monreal and Mustafi kept an eye on Son and Kane whenever they tried to run in the channels.

   Emery clearly adopted a cautious approach. Instead of pressing high up the pitch, the Gunners waited near the halfway line to prevent Tottenham from finding space for runs in behind the defense. Spurs were toothless until the 44th minute when they finally had their first scoring chance.

Ramsey’s love story with Wembley

   Surprisingly, Pochettino started the game with a conservative 3-5-2 formation. Forced to chase an equalizer in the second half, Pochettino switched to a 3-4-3 system in the 59th when Lamela replaced Wanyama. The Argentine manager made another tactical change in the 70th by moving Rose to a central midfield position in a 4-3-3 formation. Those moves paid off as Tottenham leveled in the 74th.

   Emboldened by Kane’s goal, Pochettino tried to put more pressure on the Arsenal defense by replacing Son with Llorente in the 79th, switching to an improvised 4-4-2 system with Llorente and Kane up front and Eriksen and Lamela in the wide positions. Pochettino spotted Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses, but that emphasis on aerial duels came at the expense of Spurs’ passing game.  

   The Gunners will definitely miss Ramsey next season. As a link player, Ramsey can link defense and attack by winning the ball in midfield, delivering the final ball and being a goal threat. We have no player in the squad with that kind of profile. Three years ago, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain could have played in that role. Now an aging Cazorla is finishing his career at Villarreal while Oxlade-Chamberlain has improved under Klopp at Liverpool. Signing a link player should be a priority for the club this summer.

   Ramsey scored the opening goal with a dash from his own half in the 16th. Sanchez initially misjudged the flight of a clearance from Xhaka and missed his header. The ball fell to Lacazette, who played Ramsey clean through on goal with a first-time pass. Ramsey faked a curling shot by opening his body up and rounded Lloris to knock the ball into an empty net.

The power of anticipation

   As you can see on the screen capture below, Tottenham played an incredibly high defensive line. As the last defender, Sanchez was more than 70 yards away from his goal. When Ramsey started his run, Vertonghen and Alderweireld were already out of position. And Wanyama was on the same line as Ramsey when Sanchez was about to head the ball. Ramsey’s genius here was to anticipate and believe that Lacazette would somehow win the ball and start a counterattack.

Spur vs. Arsenal M16a edited.jpgVertonghen and Alderweireld are out of position while Ramsey runs past them. (Photo credit: NBC)

   As you can see on the next screen capture, there was no offside since Ramsey was still in his own half when Lacazette made the pass. Ramsey built a four-yard lead over Wanyama because the Spurs midfielder slowed down for a split second, thinking that Sanchez would head the ball.

Spur vs. Arsenal M16b edited.jpgTottenham’s back three can’t catch Ramsey, clean through on goal. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Besides his goal, Ramsey worked hard for the team, winning 1 of 1 tackle, and making 1 block, 3 fouls, and 7 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Ramsey also put off Alderweireld, who fired into the side-netting in the 55th after Mustafi poorly cleared a free kick. Emery replaced a tiring Ramsey with Ozil in the 72nd. It didn’t prove a good omen as Kane won the penalty for the equalizer a minute later.

   Ramsey converted the only scoring chance that he had. It was a lot of hard work because Ramsey ran 80 yards from Xhaka’s clearance to the moment the ball rolled into the back of the net. Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t have to run that hard for the big chances that they missed.

   Lacazette could have opened the scoring by the second minute when Iwobi’s pass took a heavy deflection off Wanyama and fell into his path. From 8 yards, Lacazette attempted a volley with his weaker left foot, but he completely miscued his shot and the ball lazily bounced wide. Lacazette had a better chance when Monreal overlapped with Iwobi to cut the ball back in the 53rd. From 8 yards, an unmarked Lacazette missed the target with his right foot. Emery felt that it wasn’t Lacazette’s day and replaced the French striker with Aubameyang in the 56th.

The need to be clinical in the big games

   Mkhitaryan won the ball in the 72nd and fed Aubameyang, who was dispossessed by Sissoko inside area before he could even pull the trigger. The Borussia Dortmund connection worked again in the 89th when Mkhitaryan beat Vertonghen along the touchline with some great footwork. Leading a counterattack, Mkhitaryan picked out Aubameyang, who made a run in behind Sanchez. There was minimal contact between Aubameyang and Sanchez when the Gabon striker fell inside the area. But the referee still awarded the Gunners a penalty. From the moment the referee gave Spurs a penalty for Mustafi’s shove on Kane, it was very likely that he would try to compensate in a similar situation for Arsenal.  

   Aubameyang had the opportunity to be the hero by converting that spot kick. He usually waits for the goalkeeper to dive before kicking the ball in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, Lloris proved even more patient. Instead of anticipating, Lloris decided to react to the shot. With no giveaway from Lloris, Aubameyang hit a tame shot that was poorly placed and that Lloris palmed away. The rebound fell to Iwobi ,who squared the ball back to Aubameyang. It should have been a simple tap-in. But Vertonghen, who was encroaching into the area, made the block and deflected Aubameyang’s shot over the bar.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M91 edited.jpgAubameyang’s poor shot placement. (Photo credit: NBC)

   If you’re the manager, you probably tell Aubameyang to change his penalty routine because other goalkeepers will wait like Lloris did. It’s time for Aubameyang to hit the corners at Colney. Aubameyang could have redeemed himself in stoppage time. Torreira spread the ball to the right wing, where Aubameyang could have set up Ozil for a 9-yard shot. But Aubameyang played the ball behind Ozil, allowing Sanchez to clear the danger. In the big games, strikers need to be clinical because they won’t have many chances. I couldn’t help myself and think that Henry or Van Persie would have converted one of those big chances. But here’s the difference: Henry and Van Persie were world-class players while Lacazette and Aubameyang are just very good strikers.  

Iwobi’s decision-making

   In the wide positions, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi provided the creative touch. They led all players with 3 successful dribbles each, according to whoscored.com. Iwobi made 2 key passes while Mkhitaryan led all players with 2 accurate through balls. Pochettino’s pressing game limited the Gunners’ passing accuracy to 63.5%, compared to 77.6% for Spurs. Mkhitaryan proved highly valuable in the transition game as he led Arsenal starters with a passing accuracy of 75%, compared to 72% for Ramsey and 66.7% for Iwobi.

   Trippier had Iwobi in his pocket, winning 6 of 6 tackles. Yet, Iwobi had two occasions to shine. In the second minute, Iwobi made a pass that took a heavy deflection off Wanyama and accidentally led to Lacazette’s first scoring chance. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had in fact a better option with Ramsey making a run in the big gap between Sanchez and Alderweireld.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M2a edited.jpgIwobi fails to slip a through ball to Ramsey. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Iwobi held onto the ball too long, forcing Ramsey and Lacazette to check their runs. As you can see on the next screen capture, Iwobi killed the momentum of the play as there was less space for a pass. When Iwobi finally decided to feed Lacazette, both Sanchez and Wanyama were in a good position to intercept the pass. But Wanyama put the Tottenham defense in trouble by inadvertently redirecting the ball into Lacazette’s path.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M2b edited.jpgSanchez and Wanyama are ready to intercept Iwobi’s pass to Lacazette. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Poor decision-making has held Iwobi’s development back. Emery can show him thousands of videos, but in the end Iwobi is the one making the decisions on the pitch. Is Iwobi overthinking in those situations? Or is he simply unable to see the best passing option? You put Ozil in the same situation and I bet you he plays Ramsey clean through on goal.  

   Another issue has been Iwobi’s poor finishing. Iwobi has a tendency to aim at the middle of the net. As a result, Lloris had no trouble to save Iwobi’s 15-yard curling shot in the 41st. Hopefully, Iwobi will have more competition on the left wing next season when Nelson returns from his loan spell at Hoffenheim.  

Torreira’s ejection

   Defensively, Iwobi put in a shift and even had better stats than Mkhitaryan, which is unusual. Iwobi won 1 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries, while Mkhitaryan won 1 of 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Nigeria international still needs to improve his defensive awareness. He forgot to track Trippier a couple of times.

   In midfield, Guendouzi got the nod over Torreira, who has suffered a dip of form since the end of December. Guendouzi had a decent game, making 3 recoveries and winning 2 of 2 tackles and 66.7% of his duels. He was charged with an error for giving the ball away to Vertonghen in the 39th.

   At halftime, Emery was worried about Eriksen’s impact and therefore sent on Torreira for Guendouzi in the 46th. As a natural ballwinner, Torreira was more suited to mark Eriksen than Guendouzi. The Uruguay international made a crucial clearance as the last defender to kill a counterattack in the 62nd. In the last minute of stoppage time, Torreira won the ball with a sliding tackle but planted his studs into Rose’s shin with his follow-through. The referee thought the challenge was dangerous and sent Torreira off. I thought it was a fair call because Torreira was not in control. Of course, some fans will point out the referee’s inconsistency. Why did he not give Rose a straight red card for banging Leno’s belly with his studs in the 68th?

   In the holding midfielder role, Xhaka showed good work-rate by making 1 tackle, 1 interception and 10 recoveries. The trouble is that Xhaka is not a natural defensive midfielder because of his lack of mobility. He made 3 fouls and was dribbled past 3 times, tied with Trippier for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. The Switzerland international was very lucky not to receive a red card in the 13th for a tackle from behind on Kane.

Thinking about the transfer market

   At the back, Monreal produced an outstanding performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 92.3% of his duels and leading all players with 4 interceptions and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Monreal especially won a crucial challenge to stop Son’s mazy run in the 27th. The Spaniard was very selective in his forward runs but he still managed to make an important contribution by setting up Lacazette in the 53rd.

   On the opposite flank, Mustafi didn’t work as hard as Monreal, winning 2 of 4 tackles and 50% of his duels and making just 2 interceptions and 1 recovery. Mustafi struggled to cope with Tottenham’s high press as his passing accuracy dipped to 43.3%, the lowest percentage for any Gunner. The German defender showed in the 73rd that he will always have an error in him. On a set piece, Mustafi shoved Kane from behind to give away a cheap penalty. TV replays showed that Kane was offside. Would Kane have been flagged offside if Mustafi had not made the foul? Kane sent Leno the wrong way to level the game. In stoppage time, Mustafi gave away a free kick with another silly foul on Kane.  

   There’s no way Mustafi can be in the starting lineup if the Gunners want to contend for the title in the next few years. Mustafi’s only asset is that he’s younger than Koscielny and Sokratis and more experienced than Holding. But otherwise, Mustafi is weaker than those 3 centerbacks. The club has a big decision to make this summer. They must sell Mustafi, Chambers and Jenkinson to fund transfers. Then they must decide where is the recruitment priority at the back. Should they sign a leftback because Monreal has lost a step and Kolasinac lacks defensive awareness? Or a centerback because Koscielny is getting old, Mavropanos is still raw and Holding will miss the start of the season? Or a rightback because Lichtsteiner is too slow, Maitland-Niles is still raw and Bellerin will miss a few months?

Leno’s double save

   Koscielny and Sokratis did a good job to keep Kane and Son quiet. The French veteran got the better of Kane in the 16th to start the play for the opening goal, while Sokratis blocked a dangerous cross from Son in the 33rd. The only weakness of the pair of centerbacks was in the air: Koscielny and Sokratis won only 60% and 40% of their aerial duels, respectively, according to whoscored.com. I thought Dixon’s comment on NBC was quite telling. The Arsenal legend claimed that Mustafi fouled Kane for the penalty because he didn’t trust Koscielny to win the header.

   I was a bit surprised by the praise Sokratis received after the match. Koscielny looked more solid than Sokratis, who made a couple of mistakes. Sokratis gave the ball away to Son in the 11th, was caught ball-watching when Eriksen tested Leno in the 44th, and fouled Lamela in the 73rd for the free kick that led to the penalty.

   There’s not much Leno could do to save Kane’s penalty. The German goalkeeper did his homework and dived in the corner where Kane usually dispatches most of his spot kicks. To Leno’s credit, he protected Arsenal’s lead with a spectacular double save before halftime. Iwobi failed to track Trippier, who found Kane on the edge of the box in the 44th. The England striker made a clipped pass for Eriksen, who ghosted past Sokratis for a 7-yard effort that Leno stopped wth his leg. The rebound fell to Sissoko, whose powerful strike was parried by Leno with a firm hand. Leno also reacted quickly enough when Mkhitaryan missed his clearance in the 68th. Rose chested the ball down, but Leno came off his line to deny the English fullback.

   The Gunners next visit Rennes in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday. The priority is to get 3 points against the Red Devils, who are direct rivals for a Top 4 finish. Torreira’s suspension will make Emery’s job more difficult. Arsenal will need to stop Pogba and Pereira in midfield. Ramsey is the obvious choice to mark those players when they drop off. When they charge forward, Emery will have to find an alternative to Torreira. Xhaka and Guendouzi are not defensive midfielders and don’t have the pace to track Pogba. Playing Maitland-Niles in central midfield could be an interesting gamble although his turnover rate would be an obvious concern.