Tag Archives: Lacazette

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Lacazette deliVARs in 1-0 win

   The Gunners earned a third straight victory in the Premier League by edging West Ham 1-0 on Saturday to pull within 3 points of Wolverhampton and Sheffield United in the race for a European spot.

Arsenal vs. West Ham 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Despite enjoying 69% of ball possession, Arsenal created very few chances and looked shaky defensively. West Ham had 14 shots and 1.61 expected goals compared to 9 shots and 1.56 expected goals for the Gunners, according to understat.com. Those xG metrics did not even include 2 big chances for the Hammers. Antonio wasted a 2v1 situation in the 11th minute by missing his final ball for Haller. Then Leno won a 1v1 against Haller in the 19th. Because there was no shot in both situations, understat.com did not count them as chances. Obviously, you can’t score if you don’t shoot.

   Arteta made 6 changes to the side that knocked Portsmouth out of the FA Cup last Monday with only Saka, Mari, Luiz, Sokratis and Nketiah retaining their starting spots. At the back, Arteta didn’t have much choice since Mustafi, Chambers, Tierney, Kolasinac and Soares are injured while Holding and Bellerin have been struggling for form this season.

   In midfield, Arteta believes that the combination of Xhaka, Ceballos and Ozil provides the best balance for his playing style. So it’s no surprise that they have started the last 3 Premier League games. The front three is where there might be some controversy. Aubameyang is arguably Arsenal’s best striker. Yet, Arteta keeps using him on the left wing even though Martinelli or Nelson would be a better fit in that position.  

Using the wrong software

   Aubameyang had only 1 goal attempt but he made it count. The Gabon striker drifted inside to take a pass from Saka in the 78th. From the edge of the box, Aubameyang took his chance. Rice blocked the shot and the loose ball looped into the path of Ozil. The German playmaker headed the ball toward Lacazette, who slotted into the bottom corner from 6 yards.

   The goal was initially disallowed for an offside position. However, the VAR review showed that Ogbonna played Ozil onside, forcing the referee to reverse his decision and let the goal stand. There was a lapse of 2 minutes and 12 seconds between the moment the goal was disallowed and the moment the decision was overturned in Arsenal’s favor. That’s way too long. Premier League officials are clearly using an inefficient software because UEFA referees are much faster in Champions League games.

   Besides his involvement in the goal, Aubameyang also made 2 key passes. He crossed the ball for Sokratis, whose header bounced off the bar in the 22nd. Then Aubameyang found Pepe, whose volley was blocked by Cresswell in the 66th. Aubameyang’s contract expires in the summer of 2021. Why should he stay at the club if there’s no Champions League football and if Arteta keeps playing him on the left wing?

   Arteta trusted again Nketiah to lead the line. Nketiah had a penalty shout turned down on the stroke of halftime. He beat Ngakia to a second ball but the referee didn’t think that the Gunners deserved a penalty for the awkward challenge from the West Ham defender. Nketiah’s best chance came in the 52nd when Saka played him in. However, Fabianski came off his line to deny Nketiah. Three minutes later, Nketiah chased a through ball from Ozil, but Fabianski was quicker and collected the ball.

Nketiah’s poor work-rate

   Nketiah’s overall performance was poor. He definitely needs to work on his link-up play. His pass for Pepe rolled out of play in the 4th minute. Then Nketiah headed a long ball from Luiz toward a Hammer in the 20th. His hold-up play also has plenty of room for improvement. Nketiah was dispossessed by Diop in the 19th and lost again possession in the 54th by waiting for the ball to reach his feet.

   Arteta replaced Nketiah with Lacazette in the 59th. The French striker showed more desire, making 3 defensive actions (3 recoveries) in 36 minutes compared to 0 for Nketiah in 58 minutes, according to the club’s website. On merit, Lacazette would deserve to start the next Premier League game.

   Just like Lacazette is competing with Nketiah for a starting spot up front, Pepe is competing with Nelson for a starting spot on the right wing. Pepe lacked end product with 0 key pass and 0 of 2 shots on target. Even Nketiah and Lacazette managed to make at least 1 key pass. Pepe’s best contribution came in the 38th when he dribbled past 3 Hammers but was denied a shot by an offside Nketiah, who shamelessly stole the ball.

   The Ivory Coast international had only 1 successful dribble out of 4, according to whoscored.com. Pepe must be more selective in his dribbling attempts because Premier League sides are now aware of his skills and sometimes double-team him. Arteta was not convinced by Pepe’s performance and replaced him with Nelson in the 69th. Nelson made 3 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 recovery) in 26 minutes compared to 2 (1 tackle, 1 recovery) for Pepe in 68 minutes.

The midfield problem

   Saturday’s game made clear that Arteta has a massive rebuilding job in midfield. In every position, the Gunners are weaker than during the Wenger era. Xhaka and Torreira are weaker defensive midfielders than Petit, Gilberto, Song or even Coquelin. Arsenal’s only box-to-box player is Willock, who is nowhere near the level of Vieira or Ramsey. Xhaka and Guendouzi struggle so badly to set a high tempo that Arteta has used Ceballos as a deep-lying playmaker lately, but the Real Madrid loanee is still a notch below the level of Fabregas or Cazorla.

   The Gunners struggled to create chances against West Ham because they rely heavily on Ozil, who is past his prime. There was a time when the Gunners could have up to 4 creative midfielders on the pitch. Think of Fabregas, Rosicky, Nasri and Wilshere during the 2010-11 season. Or Cazorla, Ozil, Rosicky and Wilshere during the 2013-14 season. Those days are gone because the current Arsenal squad badly lacks creativity.

   At 31, Ozil’s moments of magic are rare. But the Gunners definitely needed one to break the deadlock. His headed pass for Lacazette was perfectly placed and was more difficult than it looked. Ozil was at the heart of some of Arsenal’s best situations. He had a shot blocked by Cresswell in the 13th after Nketiah chested the ball down for him. Then Ozil attempted an audacious through ball for Nketiah in the 55th. The German playmaker was tidy in the final third with just 1 turnover compared to 4 for Pepe, 3 for Aubameyang, 3 for Nketiah and 2 for Lacazette, according to whoscored.com.

   Arteta’s support has helped Ozil express himself on the pitch. But the Spanish manager must also realize that Ozil will never reach again the heights of the 2015-16 season when he had 19 assists in the Premier League while averaging 4.2 key passes per game. A younger Ozil would have not missed his final ball for Lacazette in the 75th.

Ceballos’ outstanding performance

   Ozil made only 1 key pass against West Ham and raised his tally to just 2 assists in the Premier League this season. Pepe leads the Gunners with 6 assists, followed by Lacazette (3) and Saka (3). Arteta will have to improve the understanding between Ozil and Pepe. They were not on the same wavelength in the 20th: Ozil made a pass in one direction while Pepe ran in another direction.

   Ceballos has become the heartbeat of the Arsenal midfield, leading all players with 98 passes, compared to 77 for Xhaka, 82 for Mari, 79 for Luiz and 49 for Ozil. The Spaniard also showed some outstanding work-rate, leading all players with 25 defensive actions (5 tackles, 6 interceptions, 14 recoveries), while Xhaka and Ozil only made 8 and 4 defensive actions respectively, according to the club’s website. In fact, Ceballos made more tackles, more interceptions and more ball recoveries than any other player. His percentage of duels won was quite impressive, too. Ceballos won 72.7% of his duels, compared to 50% for Ozil and 28.6% for Xhaka.

   It’s easy to understand why Emery signed Ceballos. As a hard-working midfielder, Ceballos was the perfect fit for Emery’s version of Liverpool lite. Unfortunately, Ceballos never showed the consistency required to carry the team. Ceballos is slightly more creative than Xhaka and Guendouzi, but he’s still far from the high standards of Cazorla or Fabregas.

   Another issue is that Ceballos is not a natural defensive midfielder. Ceballos initially marked Antonio in the 40th when the Hammers had their best scoring chance on a corner. The Spaniard failed to stay with Antonio when Diop outjumped Aubameyang to redirect Noble’s corner. Somehow, Antonio missed the target from 3 yards. Then Bowen easily turned Ceballos to set up Haller in the 83rd.

   The double pivot formed by Ceballos and Xhaka did not provide much protection to the Arsenal defense. The Gunners looked like an Emery team on Saturday as they were highly vulnerable on transitions because the midfield was too porous.

Saka’s consistency

   Wenger, Emery and Arteta have been using Xhaka as the main defensive midfielder but he’s simply not good enough. Under Arteta, Xhaka is in charge of patrolling the left flank when Saka roams forward. When the Hammers hit Arsenal on the fast break in the 75th, Xhaka covered Saka and blocked Bowen’s shot. However, Xhaka failed to close down Ngakia in the 86th. Haller met Ngakia’s cross for a tame effort that did not trouble Leno.  

   Xhaka plays as a deep-lying playmaker for the Switzerland team. But his skills are simply too limited in that position for Arsenal. Xhaka’s lack of mobility is a liability when the Gunners play out from the back. He gave the ball away in the 2nd minute, allowing Bowen to hit the post with a low drive. In the last minute of stoppage time, Xhaka had a great opportunity to play Nelson clean through on goal. But he refused to deliver the final ball. Instead, Xhaka made a lazy pass to Aubameyang, who wasted time by running toward the corner flag.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96a editedXhaka can already see his best passing option. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96b editedXhaka runs forward while keeping his options open. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96c editedThis is the best moment for Xhaka to feed Nelson. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M96d editedNelson must check his run not to be offside. (Photo credit: NBC)

   In the leftback position, Saka produced another solid performance. That kind of consistency is rare for any 18-year-old player. Saka provided a lot of penetration with 2 successful dribbles out of 3, according to whoscored.com. He created a big chance for Nketiah in the 52nd with an impressive dribbling run. In a team lacking creativity, the quality of his final ball can make a huge difference. Saka made 3 key passes, tied with Noble for the most by any player. His defensive awareness is still a work in progress. Saka failed to mark Antonio when Cresswell made a cross in the 56th.

Mari’s baptism of fire

   While Saka played pretty much like a wingback in the leftback position, Sokratis played like a centerback in the rightback position. Sokratis made only 1 cross compared to 5 for Saka. In the FA Cup game against Portsmouth, Sokratis already showed his limitations as a fullback. Antonio liked the matchup as he often got the better of Sokratis, who got booked in the 63rd for a cynical foul on the West Ham forward. Sokratis made 3 fouls, tied with Aubameyang for the most by any player.

   In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mari had less flattering stats than against Portsmouth. Mari won only 50% of his aerial duels, compared to 67% for Luiz, 80% for Ogbonna and 100% for Diop, according to whoscored.com. And the Spanish centerback hit just 8 accurate long balls out of 16, compared to 5 out of 8 for Luiz and 5 out of 7 for Sokratis.

   For his first Premier League game, Mari had to adapt to the fast pace of English football. He made the wrong decision in the 11th, attempting to intercept Fornals’ pass for Antonio. Mari dived in and missed the ball, allowing the Hammers to have a 2v1 situation. As you can see on the screen captures below, Luiz saved Arsenal with his smart positional play.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11a editedLuiz has to deal with Antonio and Haller in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11b editedLuiz has a quick look to spot Haller’s run. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11c editedLuiz encourages Antonio to either take an angled shot or make a difficult cross. (Photo credit: NBC)

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11d editedAntonio can no longer play the ball between Luiz and Leno and plays the ball behind Haller. (Photo credit: NBC)

   That was the only mistake Mari made on Saturday. What saved Mari was his good reading of the game. He made 10 defensive actions (1 tackle, 9 recoveries) compared to 3 for Luiz (1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 recovery). Mari will need a flawless positional play to survive in the Premier League. He’s not as sluggish as Mertesacker but he doesn’t have the recovery pace of a Koscielny in his prime.

Tough run-in

   Arsenal can thank Leno for the clean sheet. Besides winning a 1v1 against Haller in the 19th, Leno made 6 saves. The German goalkeeper stopped Antonio’s close-range header in the 56th, parried Bowen’s low strike in the 66th, and palmed away Haller’s sliding effort in the 83rd. To protect Arsenal’s slim lead, Arteta switched to a 3-4-3 formation in the 88th by replacing Bellerin with Ozil.  

   The Gunners next visit Manchester City in the Premier League on Wednesday before facing Brighton on Saturday. They have no maneuvering room with just 10 games left to finish 5th or better. Their run-in is not easy. Arsenal will play 3 teams in the Top 4 (Manchester City, Leicester, Liverpool), 2 teams also chasing a European spot (Wolves, Spurs) and 4 teams fighting relegation (Brighton, Norwich, Aston Villa, Watford). Only Southampton will have nothing to play for.


Olympiakos vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win

   The Gunners are in a good position to qualify for the last 16 of the Europa League after edging Olympiakos 1-0 in the first leg on Thursday. Arsenal enjoyed 51% of ball possession and had 12 shots to 11 for the Greek side, according to the UEFA stats. Arteta fielded a strong team because Arsenal could earn a Champions League spot by winning this second-tier competition.

FBL-EUR-C3-OLYMPIAKOS-ARSENALPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   The Spanish manager made 5 changes to the side that thrashed Newcastle in the Premier League last weekend with Lacazette, Martinelli, Willock, Guendouzi and Sokratis replacing Nketiah, Pepe, Ozil, Ceballos and Bellerin in the starting lineup. Ozil, Bellerin and Torreira were left out of the squad to rest while Ceballos and Pepe sat on the bench.

  1. Saka’s value is increasing every week

   Good luck negotiating with his agent! Saka made an underlapping run in the 81st minute to take a pass from Aubameyang before setting up Lacazette for a tap-in with a pinpoint cross. So far, Saka has already notched 3 goals and 8 assists in all competitions this season. That’s better than Chelsea winger Hudson-Odoi, who put himself in a position to earn £120,000 a week by having 5 goals and 5 assists in all competitions last season.  

   The Gunners tend to lack penetration without Pepe. Saka was therefore the key to crack the Olympiakos defense. The English teenager led all players with 3 successful dribbles and 3 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. Saka created panic with a dribbling run in the 33rd, but a misunderstanding with Willock ended the promising situation. Two minutes later, Saka made a cross for Willock, who was beaten to the ball by Ba. Saka made another good run in the 49th to swap passes with Lacazette, who fell in the area under a challenge from Ba, but the referee turned down the penalty shout from the French striker.

  1. Lacazette could have notched a hat trick

   You’d better find the net when you are offered outstanding service. Lacazette showed good movement inside the box for the winning goal but he should have scored more. He missed a big chance in the 20th. Martinelli cut the ball back for Lacazette, who fired wide from 8 yards. Then Aubameyang made an acrobatic pass for Lacazette in the 85th. The French striker controlled the ball before unleashing a powerful strike from 16 yards that Sa parried.

   There were 2 chances where I thought Aubameyang might have done better than Lacazette because he has more pace and is stronger in the air. Aubameyang made a decent low cross in the eighth minute but Lacazette couldn’t make contact with the ball despite throwing himself to the ground. Xhaka made another cross in the 63rd. Lacazette got the better of Ba but again failed to make contact with the ball for a header.

   Lacazette finished the game with 2 of 5 shots on target while Aubameyang sacrificed himself on the right wing and had only 1 goal attempt. I still think that Lacazette would be more comfortable and more efficient in the role of a second striker playing off a centerforward like Aubameyang. Lacazette has a better all-around game while Aubameyang has more speed to make runs in behind the defense.  

  1. Arteta has a massive rebuilding job in midfield

   It’s no secret that the Gunners lack creativity in midfield. Their passing against Olympiakos was too slow to create space. Since Cazorla’s departure, they’ve missed a technical midfielder who can set a high tempo. Xhaka and Guendouzi are simply not good enough as deep-lying playmakers. Arteta’s short-term fix has been to use Ceballos in that role against Newcastle.

   In Greece, Arsenal struggled to play the ball out from the back with Xhaka, Guendouzi and Willock in midfield. Olympiakos had their best scoring chance in the third minute when Guendouzi gave the ball away. The Greek side capitalized on another turnover from Guendouzi in the 80th but Lovera missed the target with his long-range strike.

   Defensively, Arteta still doesn’t seem to realize that he doesn’t have the personnel for an efficient high press. He showed signs of frustration in the 36th as the midfielders failed to help the forwards press Olympiakos. Xhaka, Guendouzi and Willock combined to have 12 turnovers, make 3 interceptions, and win 1 of 5 tackles, according to whoscored.com. They were also dribbled past 4 times.

  1. The Gunners earned a third straight clean sheet

   Leno deserves most of the credit for that clean sheet because Sokratis, Mustafi and Luiz were shaky at times. The Gunners were not at the races in the opening minutes and could have conceded the opening goal when Sokratis failed to mark Valbuena, who met a cross from El Arabi for a volley that Leno palmed away. Arteta played Sokratis in the rightback position like he did for the FA Cup tie against Leeds. The German goalkeeper then made a reflex save in the 26th when Luiz nearly scored an own goal while attempting to clear Masouras’ cross. Leno also stopped a dipping free kick from Valbuena in the 74th, collecting the ball at the second attempt.

   Mustafi performed better than Luiz, winning 3 of 3 tackles and 6 of 8 aerial duels, making 2 interceptions and having 0 turnover while the Brazilian defender made 0 tackle and 1 interception, won 1 of 2 aerial duels and had 2 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Of course, Mustafi had some dodgy moments. He made a risky pass from inside his own area that led to a dangerous situation in the 52nd before receiving a yellow card in the 71st for a mistimed tackle on El Arabi. Luiz and Mustafi seem to be Arteta’s first-choice centerback pairing. Holding has been struggling for form this season while Mari is still building up fitness.      

  1. Willock needs to improve his reading of the game

   At 20, Willock still has time to develop. But Saka’s meteoric rise shows that age is not an issue while Iwobi’s failure to fulfill his potential is a reminder that time is limited. Willock wasted 2 good situations because of his poor reading of the game. As you can see on the screen captures below, Willock could have slipped a through ball to Martinelli in the 22nd, but he lacked spontaneity. When Martinelli was in an offside position, Willock could have made a cross to Aubameyang at the far post or teed up Xhaka on the edge of the box. But Willock balked again, and made the wrong decision by rounding Semedo to make a cross that sailed out of play.

Olympiakos vs. Arsenal M22a editedWillock fails to slip a through ball to Martinelli. (Photo credit: BT)

Olympiakos vs. Arsenal M22b editedWillock fails to set up Martinelli for a cutback. (Photo credit: BT)

Olympiakos vs. Arsenal M22c editedWillock ignores 2 more passing options. (Photo credit: BT)

   You put Ozil in the same situation and you know that he will deliver the final ball. Aubameyang made a run between Ba and Semedo in the 44th in the hope that Willock would play him clean through on goal. But Willock dallied on the ball and had only one passing option left, Martinelli on the right wing. The Brazilian forward made a cross that went out of play and the chance was gone.

Olympiakos vs. Arsenal M44a editedWillock fails to play Aubameyang clean through on goal. (Photo credit: BT)


Olympiakos vs. Arsenal M44b editedWillock’s only option left is Martinelli because Aubameyang is offside and Lacazette is marked. (Photo credit: BT)

   Offensively, Willock lacked end product with 0 key pass, 0 shot and only 1 successful dribble out of 4. Defensively, he badly struggled, winning only 1 of 3 tackles, leading all players with 4 fouls and leading the Gunners with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Arteta replaced Willock with Pepe in the 75th.  

Arsenal vs. Newcastle: Pepe steals the show in 4-0 win

   It’s not easy to live up to a £72 million price tag. Was there a moment this season that justified such a transfer fee for Pepe? Maybe when he came off the bench to score 2 late goals in the 3-2 win over Vitoria in the Europa League. Otherwise, most of his appearances in the Premier League have been underwhelming. Until his stellar performance in the 4-0 demolition of Newcastle on Sunday.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Arteta also had his doubts about Pepe. The Ivory Coast international had only started 4 of the 7 previous games in the Premier League. But Pepe seemed to have convinced Arteta of his qualities during the training sessions in Dubai. Things didn’t start well for Pepe, who couldn’t beat the first man with a corner kick in the third minute. Then Pepe showed poor decision-making in the 32nd, losing possession by running into 3 Magpies. But Pepe regained some confidence in the 41st with a free kick that Dubravka tipped over the bar.

   The second half suddenly looked promising in the 50th when Pepe rounded Clark to cut the ball back for Nketiah, who struck the bar from 7 yards. Pepe then capitalized on Rose’s passivity in the 54th to make a pinpoint cross for Aubameyang, who beat Dubravka with a downward header for the opening goal. The Gunners doubled the lead in the 57th when Saka nutmegged Lazaro to set up Pepe for a first-time effort into the bottom corner. Pepe was also involved in the third goal. He fed Lacazette, who acrobatically spun to find an unmarked Ozil in the 90th. From 7 yards, the German playmaker shot past Dubravka for a 3-0 lead. In stoppage time, Pepe teed up Lacazette for the last goal.

Pepe tops attacking and defending stats

   Pepe finished the game with 1 goal and 2 assists. Yet, those stats don’t even tell the tremendous impact that Pepe had on the game. He was the most creative player on the Arsenal team with 1.52 expected assists compared to 0.61 for Lacazette, 0.51 for Saka, 0.19 for Ozil and 0.14 for Ceballos, according to understat.com. Pepe and Ozil were tied with 4 key passes each, but Pepe created 3 big chances while Ozil created 0 big chance. The more outrageous stat is that Pepe led all players with 13 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 interception, 10 recoveries), according to the club’s website.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle Pepe edited

Pepe’s tackles, interceptions and ball recoveries against Newcastle. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)  

   Despite this emphatic victory, the Gunners still sit in the middle of the table, 6 points behind Spurs in the race for a European spot. Arteta made some big calls with his team selection. Because Arteta had 2 full weeks to implement his ideas on the training ground, a lot of fans were curious about the team sheet on Sunday.

   Arteta made 3 changes to the side that drew at Burnley with Ceballos, Pepe and Nketiah replacing Guendouzi, Martinelli and Lacazette in the starting lineup. It’s now obvious that Arteta sees the backline as a springboard for attacking play. Luiz and Mustafi got again the nod over Sokratis and Holding because they have better ball-playing abilities. Likewise, Saka and Bellerin got the nod over Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles because they contribute more in the final third.

   In midfield, Arteta injected a bit more creativity by giving Ceballos his first Premier League start since November. Torreira sat on the bench while Guendouzi was not even in the matchday squad. However, the biggest surprise was in the front three where Arteta preferred Pepe and Nketiah to Martinelli and Lacazette. Initially, Arteta kept starting Lacazette in the Premier League despite his poor run of form. But at the end of the day, the Gunners need goals so Arteta had to give Nketiah a chance.

Manchester City lite

   The fans have a better idea now of Arteta’s football philosophy. While Emery tried to turn Arsenal into Liverpool lite with a counterattacking style and a strong emphasis on the transition game, the Gunners have looked like Manchester City lite under Arteta with the focus on possession football and a more elaborate passing game. Arsenal starters all had a passing accuracy above 75% against the Magpies.

   The Gunners lacked penetration in the first half because of a lack of movement and a passing game not quick enough to destabilize a compact Newcastle side playing in a 5-4-1 formation. In the second half, Arsenal played with more intensity and had more presence in the final third.

   I’ve made the comparison with Manchester City because the Citizens balance passing with dribbling to achieve penetration. Guardiola always includes 1 or 2 dribblers (Sane, Sterling, Mahrez) in the front three because City can’t just rely on the passing skills of De Bruyne or Silva to beat defenders in the final third.

   Pepe’s presence in the front three was crucial in that regard. Aubameyang, Lacazette, Nketiah and Martinelli simply don’t have his dribbling skills. Pepe and Saka combined to have 8 successful dribbles out of 13, according to whoscored.com. Nketiah’s big chance in the 50th came from Pepe’s dribble past Clark. Likewise, Saka created the second goal in the 57th with a nutmeg.

   Arsenal achieved penetration for the last 2 goals with runs. Ozil created a 4v4 situation for the 3rd goal with a run in midfield while Pepe created a 3v2 situation for the 4th goal with a run in behind Schar as you can see on the screen captures below. Ironically, only the opening goal didn’t require any penetration: Rose failed to close down Pepe while Lazaro failed to challenge Aubameyang in the air.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M95a editedThe Gunners have a 3v3 on the right flank and a 2v2 on the edge of the box. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M95b editedPepe creates a 3v2 after his run in behind Schar. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The training sessions in Dubai had a positive effect on Pepe’s game. He seems to be more selective in his dribbling attempts. Pepe only made 3 dribbles against the Magpies whereas he made 5 against Chelsea, 7 against Sheffield United and 6 against Crystal Palace.

Nketiah’s first Premier League start

   To a certain extent, Pepe is a disrupter like Sanchez. Under Wenger, the Gunners often played with very few touches in order to move the ball quickly. Of course, Sanchez was the exception, ending a succession of passes with numerous turns and dribbles. Just like Wenger found a way to make Sanchez fit in Arsenal’s passing game, Arteta must find a way to optimize Pepe’s potential. Sunday’s game showed that Pepe doesn’t need to dribble a lot to score or make an assist.

   The two weeks of training have also contributed to improving the understanding between Pepe and Lacazette. They had combined on a goal only once before Sunday’s game. Their relative lack of chemistry was plain to see against Sheffield United. The last 10 minutes of Sunday’s game changed that perception. Pepe took a pass from Ozil in the 90th and could have cut inside to curl a shot. But Pepe preferred to slip the ball to Lacazette, who took a touch before spinning to set up Ozil for the 3rd goal. In stoppage time, Pepe made the assist for the last goal, helping Lacazette end a two-month goal drought.

   I don’t have any problem with Lacazette playing the role of a super sub, but I don’t think Nketiah has shown enough to start the next Premier League game. The academy graduate was let down by his finishing. From 15 yards, Nketiah curled a shot straight at Dubravka in the 37th instead of aiming at the corners. Then he failed to convert a big chance in the 50th. Nketiah also missed an opportunity to shoot in the 59th when Pepe collided with Clark. The English striker could have pulled the trigger from 15 yards but preferred to take on Lascelles and lost possession.

   At 20, Nketiah is not the finished product yet. But he has a lot of work to do before becoming a Premier League starter. His work-rate was poor with just 2 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 recovery). By contrast, Lacazette had 5 defensive actions against Burnley, 10 against Chelsea, 3 against Sheffield, and 9 against Palace. Nketiah’s all-around game was also poor. He led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Arteta waited until the 85th to replace Nketiah with Lacazette.

A captain leading by example

   Aubameyang is the most prolific and most clinical striker in the Arsenal squad. Yet, Arteta started him on the left wing again. Aubameyang didn’t have much to feed off in the first half. He had an angled effort that Dubravka easily saved in the 32nd. Then Aubameyang fired a long-range strike that Clark deflected out in the 39th. Playing on the left wing exposed Aubameyang’s average link-up play. His left-footed cross sailed out of play in the 6th minute. He also missed a short pass to Saka in the 8th and overhit his return pass to Nketiah on the stroke of halftime.

   The most frustrating part was to watch Aubameyang track Lazaro down the left flank. Why would your top scorer waste so much energy with those defensive tasks? But there’s a reason why Aubameyang is the Arsenal captain. Leading by example, Aubameyang showed some good work-rate with 6 defensive actions (2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 recoveries).

   Arteta did the sensible thing at halftime by asking Aubameyang to play in a more central position while Saka played higher up the pitch to take Aubameyang’s spot on the left wing. The Gabon striker suddenly got better chances. He chased a ball over the top from Ceballos in the 47th for a half-volley that went wide. Aubameyang’s smart movement inside the box made the difference in the 54th. He found a small gap between Lazaro and Fernandez and met Pepe’s cross for the opening goal. Aubameyang nearly found the net again in the 67th when his cross-shot bounced off the bar.

Ceballos’ influence in midfield

   The Arsenal defense has improved under Arteta but the offense has often looked toothless with 13 shots against Burnley, 7 shots against Bournemouth, 2 shots against Chelsea, 11 shots against Sheffield and 7 shots against Palace. Arteta tweaked the midfield against Newcastle to create more chances. Instead of having 2 defensive players (Xhaka, Guendouzi) and 1 offensive player (Ozil), Arteta added more creativity by starting with 2 offensive players (Ozil, Ceballos) and just 1 defensive player (Xhaka). The move paid off as the Gunners had 15 shots to 10 for the Magpies.

   Playing alongside Xhaka, Ceballos proved influential in midfield with 89 passes and a passing accuracy of 95.5%. Only Xhaka made more passes (105) and only Ozil and Luiz had a higher passing accuracy (both 95.9%) among the starters. Arteta used Ceballos in the role of a deep-lying playmaker. In 81 minutes, the Real Madrid loanee made 3 key passes and 11 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 9 recoveries), which is better than Xhaka, who made 0 key pass and just 8 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception, 4 recoveries) in 96 minutes.

   The problem with playing Ceballos, Xhaka and Ozil is that the Arsenal midfield looks porous and the defense becomes vulnerable on transitions, especially if the team does not have a compact shape. Ozil and Ceballos were dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Ceballos is not a natural ballwinner and led all players with 3 fouls. The Spaniard also had 5 turnovers. Ozil’s work-rate was decent with 6 defensive actions (1 tackle, 5 recoveries), but nowhere near Ceballos’ level. Ceballos, Xhaka and Ozil only won 26.3%, 33.3% and 40% of their duels respectively, according to the club’s website.

   Ceballos’ presence in midfield definitely made Ozil’s job easier. The third goal, a 35-pass spell of possession, showed Ozil’s ability to play between the lines. The German playmaker played a one-two with Xhaka to beat 2 Magpies before running some 30 yards to create a 4v4 situation as you can see on the screen captures below.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M90a editedOzil has 2 Magpies in front of him when he gives the ball to Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M90b editedOzil runs past the 2 Magpies to take Xhaka’s return pass. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal vs. Newcastle M90c editedOzil’s run creates a 4v4 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Arteta clearly built his team around Ozil for this game. Ozil’s contribution showed Emery’s stupidity in alienating the German playmaker. Sure, Ozil will go missing in the tough away games, but he can still make a difference at home against the average sides.

Sanllehi’s poor job with Saka’s contract

   It’s hard to believe that Saka is only 18. The academy player is not shy on the pitch and sometimes looks more mature in his game than his age might suggest. Defensively, Saka was not much tested by Almiron, while Bellerin had to cope with Saint-Maximin on the opposite flank. Saka won 64.3% of his duels, compared to 33.3% for Bellerin.

   The second goal showed a glimpse of Saka’s dribbling skills. The English teenager had 6 successful dribbles out of 10, tied with Saint-Maximin for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. Showing his personality, as Emery would say, Saka had Arsenal’s first goal attempt in the 21st, a curling shot from the edge of the box. Saka also created panic in the Newcastle defense with runs in the 80th and 86th.

   In his breathrough season, Saka has already notched 3 goals and 7 assists in all competitions. The fact that the club hasn’t extended Saka’s contract yet shows the poor job done by Sanllehi. As an academy player, Saka currently earns £3,000 a week. Frankly, Saka is entitled to ask for at least £60,000 a week. To put things in context, Kolasinac earns £100,000 a week and Mustafi £90,000 a week. At Chelsea, Hudson-Odoi earns £120,000 a week. Sanllehi and the board would be making a huge mistake if they were to offer Saka £35,000 a week -that’s what Maitland-Niles earns. While Maitland-Niles is just a squad player, Saka has the potential for becoming a world-class player. Clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United would definitely offer Saka £60,000 a week.

   There aren’t many wingers who can match Bellerin’s pace but Saint-Maximin is one of them. Bellerin struggled defensively and was dribbled past 3 times. Saint-Maximin sped past Bellerin to fire wide in the 43rd. The Magpies had their best chance in the 75th when St-Maximin outpaced Bellerin to hit the post. Bellerin was so busy defensively that he made 0 key pass and only 2 crosses.

Relying on an old spine

   In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mustafi was dominant in the air, winning 7 of 8 aerial duels while Luiz won 0 of 2 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. However, Mustafi lost a couple of key duels. Joelinton rounded Mustafi in the 5th minute to make a cross for Lazaro, whose shot was deflected out. Then Joelinton beat Mustafi to the ball to meet Saint-Maximin’s cutback in the 15th but missed the target from close range. Saint-Maximin put the Arsenal defense under pressure with another cross in the 63rd. Clark beat both Mustafi and Luiz to the ball but Luiz managed to divert Clark’s shot.

   Luiz won only 33.3% of his duels compared to 77.8% for Mustafi. However, Luiz made 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 2 blocks, 1 interception, 4 recoveries) compared to just 2 defensive actions for Mustafi (2 recoveries). The Brazilian centerback also showed better composure, making just 1 clearance compared to 9 for Mustafi. Leno didn’t have much work but kept a clean sheet by saving Longstaff’s deflected volley in the 14th, catching Bentaleb’s cross-shot in the 24th and collecting Lascelles’ tame header in the 86th.

   Despite the emphatic win, Arteta’s team selection has raised some questions. Any fan can notice that Arteta has relied on the old spine responsible for Arsenal’s decline under Wenger: Mustafi, Xhaka and Ozil. Will Arteta rebuild the team around those 3 players? Or is it just a short-term approach justified by the necessity to win games? Any manager needs results on the pitch to be credible. Maybe Arteta is waiting for the summer to start a proper rebuild.  

   The Gunners next visit Olympiakos in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Everton in the Premier League on Sunday. Arsenal’s collapse at the end of last season is a reminder that Arteta will need to rotate because the Gunners are still involved in 3 competitions.

Burnley vs. Arsenal: Gunners’ season fizzling away with another draw

   Maybe it’s time for the Gunners to prioritize the FA Cup and the Europa League because they are having a mediocre Premier League season. Arsenal split the points with Burnley in a goalless draw on Sunday to stay in the middle of the table, 6 points behind Spurs in the race for a European spot and 10 points outside the Top 4.

Burnley vs. Arsenal 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   The Gunners have suffered just 6 losses in 25 games like Manchester City and Leicester, but what is hurting them is the number of draws conceded. The Gunners lead the Premier League with 13 draws. They haven’t won a Premier League game since Jan. 1 and they have earned only 2 wins since the international break of October. There’s no way you can be in the Top 4 race with just 6 wins from 25 games. Even teams fighting relegation like Aston Villa and Bournemouth have won more games than Arsenal.

   Arteta made 2 changes to the side that drew at Chelsea last month with Aubameyang and Guendouzi replacing Pepe and Torreira in the starting lineup. I thought Arteta’s team selection was wrong.

   In the front three, Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang played on the left wing and Martinelli moved to the right wing. Why would you isolate your most prolific striker in a wide position and give the centerforward role to a player having a poor run of form? In his short tenure, Ljungberg had found a good balance by playing Aubameyang up front while keeping Martinelli on the left wing and Pepe on the right wing.

   In midfield, Arteta partnered Xhaka with Guendouzi despite their lack of complementarity. Again, Ljungberg made the right decision by dropping Guendouzi to play Torreira alongside Xhaka. That duo proved relatively reliable in Emery’s first season at the club. Why would Arteta prefer a pairing that was unconvincing in Emery’s second season? Arteta also played Ozil in the hole despite his struggles on the road and his aversion to face physical sides.

Vulnerable on crosses and set pieces

   The Gunners were lucky to leave Turf Moor with 1 point because the Clarets couldn’t convert any of their 4 big chances. According to understat.com, Burnley had 2.25 expected goals compared to 1.89 for Arsenal.

   There was no tactical surprise on Sunday. The Clarets relied on crosses and set pieces to create chances. The Arsenal defense has always been vulnerable on those phases of play under Wenger and Emery. Arteta couldn’t fix that problem in a month and a half.

   On the stroke of halftime, Hendrick made a cross for Mee, who headed the ball straight at Leno. Then Tarkowski met a free kick in the 55th minute but missed the target with a free header. Mee also headed a free kick wide in the 58th. Two minutes later, Hendrick headed McNeil’s cross wide. Burnley’s best chance came in the 78th when McNeil redirected Westwood’s cross toward Rodriguez, who hit the bar from 4 yards.    

   Ironically, the Gunners got off to a good start, dominating possession in the opening minutes. Arsenal should have even reached halftime with the lead if Lacazette or Aubameyang had been clinical. Aubameyang made a cross for Lacazette, who missed the target from 9 yards with a free header in the 2nd minute. Then Aubameyang chased a ball over the top from Luiz to be clean through on goal in the 14th but completely miskicked the ball from 10 yards. The Gabon striker had another opportunity in the 36th. He made a run in behind Lowton to control a ball over the top from Xhaka but Pope saved his chip. The Gunners could have scored the winner in the 76th. Unfortunately, Aubameyang headed Lacazette’s cross wide.

A rusty Aubameyang

   The Arsenal offense has been struggling lately. The Gunners had only 13 shots on Sunday to 15 for Burnley. Lacazette’s goal drought is a major reason for Arsenal’s low number of wins. The French striker hasn’t found the net since Dec. 12 and has only scored 5 goals in the Premier League this season. While Ljungberg was ruthless in his short tenure and dropped Lacazette to play Aubameyang up front, Arteta has been more patient, hoping that Lacazette would rediscover his form.

   Another factor to take into account is the good understanding between Lacazette and Aubameyang. They were one of the most lethal 1-2 punches in the Premier League last season. Aubameyang made the cross for Lacazette’s big chance in the 2nd minute while Lacazette set up Aubameyang for another big chance in the 76th. Aubameyang and Lacazette can definitely play together, but I don’t think Arteta is using them in the most optimal way even though Wenger also played Aubameyang on the left wing and Lacazette in the centerforward role.

   Lacazette successfully led the line in his former club, Lyon, but the Premier League is faster and more physical than the French league. Giroud has a better hold-up play than Lacazette because he can cope with rough challenges whereas Lacazette doesn’t enjoy contact. This may sound like anathema but Emery found the best solution last season by playing them in a front two. In my eyes, Lacazette would be more comfortable and more productive in the role of a second striker.

   In his return from a 3-game suspension, Aubameyang looked a bit rusty. A sharper Aubameyang would have converted 1 of his 3 chances. He played the Walcott role in the first half, making diagonal runs to crack the Burnley defense, but his finishing let him down in the 14th and 36th. Arteta made a tactical switch in the 70th with Aubameyang and Martinelli swapping positions.

Lack of penetration

   Martinelli has mostly shone while playing on the left wing. For some reason, Arteta decided to play the Brazilian teenager on the right wing at Turf Moor. The move backfired as Martinelli looked anonymous and got no real scoring chance. It didn’t make sense to unsettle Martinelli by moving him to the right wing, especially since he has built a good understanding with Saka on the left wing.

   As usual, Martinelli’s work-rate was very good. He made 5 tackles, more than any other Gunner according to the club’s website. However, he will have to be more tidy in possession. Martinelli led all players with 10 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   Arsenal lacked penetration against the Clarets. Emery and Ljungberg often played Pepe because the Ivory Coast forward can trouble any defense with his dribbling skills. Lacazette, Aubameyang and Martinelli simply don’t have Pepe’s trickery. Martinelli and Aubameyang combined to have only 2 successful dribbles out of 8 against Burnley while Lacazette did better with 2 successful dribbles out of 2, according to whoscored.com.

   It’s a tough call for Arteta. Should he drop Lacazette from the front three because of his poor run of form? I wouldn’t have a problem with such a choice. Arteta could still use Lacazette as a super sub like Wenger did with Giroud. Or should Arteta drop Martinelli even though he’s the most natural fit on the left wing? Arteta could also deploy a 4-4-2 formation to make Aubameyang, Lacazette, Martinelli and Pepe play together. But Arteta would then have to drop Ozil from the starting lineup.

Lack of creativity

   You usually get penetration through dribbling and passing. On Sunday, Arteta left Pepe on the bench and relied on Ozil to make the difference in the final third. Unfortunately, Ozil had a limited impact with just 2 key passes: a corner kick that Mustafi headed over the bar in the 23rd and a short pass to Martinelli, whose shot was blocked in the 54th. Aubameyang and Torreira also had 2 key passes while Burnley winger McNeil led all players with 5 key passes.

   Ozil compensated a disappointing offensive output with an outstanding work-rate. The German playmaker led Arsenal players with 9 defensive actions (1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries) in 62 minutes, according to the club’s website. Ozil still struggled with Burnley’s physical approach as he won only 20% of his duels. The Clarets’ attacking threat in the second half led Arteta to replace Ozil with Willock in the 63rd.

   The club will have to think about a replacement for Ozil in the summer, not just because Ozil is past his prime, but also because the Gunners really lack creativity. Arsenal wasted some good situations because of a poor final ball. Crosses from Saka in the 7th and Bellerin in the 86th lacked accuracy. Sometimes, it was a matter of decision-making. For instance, Willock had 2 good passing options in the 68th but opted for a speculative shot that sailed wide. As you can see on the screen capture below, Aubameyang on the left wing was the safe passing option while Lacazette down the middle was the more difficult passing option because of the risk of interception.

Burnley vs. Arsenal M68edWillock ignores 2 good passing options. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Likewise, Bellerin probably remembered his equalizer against Chelsea and chose personal glory in the 75th instead of feeding Lacazette, completely unmarked near the penalty spot. Despite 3 Clarets in front of him, Bellerin opted for a curling shot that went wide of the far post.

Burnley vs. Arsenal M75edBellerin ignores an unmarked Lacazette. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Why Emery and Arteta like Guendouzi so much is a complete mystery. Guendouzi looks more and more like the 2.0 version of Elneny. Defensively, Guendouzi was a liability. He made only 5 defensive actions (1 interception, 4 recoveries) in 94 minutes, compared to 8 defensive actions (2 tackles, 6 recoveries) in 94 minutes for Xhaka and 6 defensive actions (1 interception, 5 recoveries) in 49 minutes for Torreira.

Guendouzi’s stagnation

   Xhaka and Torreira won 66.7% of their duels, compared to just 33.3% for Guendouzi, according to the club’s website. Guendouzi had 3 turnovers and was dribbled past twice, while no Claret dribbled past Torreira and Xhaka, who combined to have only 1 turnover, according to whoscored.com. The French midfielder also lacked defensive awareness in the 38th, failing to close down McNeil, who made a dangerous cross for Hendrick. Guendouzi again failed to block Hendrick’s cross in the 45th when Mee tested Leno with a tame header.

   Maybe the most frustrating part in Guendouzi’s game is that he hasn’t improved in a year and a half at the club. He still has that tendency to slow down Arsenal’s passing game by not releasing the ball quickly enough. Guendouzi dallied on the ball in the 9th and was nearly dispossessed inside the Arsenal area. He then took 8 touches before making a short lateral pass to Saka in the 25th. Guendouzi also gave the ball away in the 29th, 48th and 55th.

   Offensively, Guendouzi’s only contribution was a long-range strike that was deflected out in the 23rd. He finished the game with 0 key pass compared to 1 key pass for Xhaka and 2 key passes for Torreira. Of course, Guendouzi still has time to develop but he’s unlikely to become a deep-lying playmaker, a ballwinner or a box-to-box player. At this stage of his career, Guendouzi is a utility midfielder like Elneny.

Integrating Mari and Soares

   The Clarets targeted Arsenal in the air, making 38 crosses compared to 21 for the Gunners. The Arsenal defense did OK, winning 45% of the aerial duels according to the club’s website. Mustafi won 7 of 10 aerial duels compared to 3 of 7 aerial duels for Luiz, according to whoscored.com. The German defender was beaten in the air by Mee, who headed the ball straight at Leno in the 45th. Luiz lost a key duel in the 78th, failing to mark Rodriguez who struck the bar from close range.

   Both centerbacks had their shaky moments. Mustafi dallied on the ball and had his pass blocked by Rodriguez in the 29th while Luiz gave away a cheap free kick in the 43rd. I guess Arteta started Mustafi and Luiz because they have better ball-playing abilities than Sokratis and Holding. However, their passing stats were disappointing. Mustafi had a passing accuracy of 73.8% and 6 of his 13 long balls were accurate, while Luiz’s passing accuracy dipped to 71.7% and only 4 of his 12 long balls were accurate.

   On the flanks, Bellerin’s offensive contribution was limited with 0 key pass and 2 crosses, none of them accurate. Defensively, Bellerin failed to mark McNeil for Burnley’s big chances in the 60th and 78th. However, the Spaniard won a key duel in the 34th, deflecting a dangerous cross for Wood.

   Arteta started again Saka in the leftback position because of injuries to Tierney and Kolasinac. Unfortunately, the academy player picked up an injury in a clash of knees with Lowton in the 4th minute. Saka kept playing before collapsing on the ground in the 25th because of the pain. Somehow, Saka managed to stay on the pitch until halftime when Arteta replaced him with Torreira. Xhaka was forced to play in the leftback position after the break because Arteta had no fullback on the bench and left Maitland-Niles out of the squad.  

   The Gunners have a winter break until Feb. 16 when they host Newcastle in the Premier League. The training camp in Dubai will be an opportunity to integrate Mari and Soares and work on defensive issues while improving the offense. Hopefully, Mari and Soares will prove better signings than the last 2 loans: Suarez was a flop while Ceballos’ season had been underwhelming so far.

   On paper, Mari is an interesting signing. At 26, Mari has just entered his peak years whereas Luiz and Sokratis are both on the wrong side of 30. On the other hand, I don’t think Arsenal needed to sign Soares, who is currently injured. The Gunners already have Bellerin and Maitland-Niles in the rightback position. At least, Arsenal limited the risks by signing both players on loan, basically keeping their powder dry for the summer.



Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Gunners show character to overcome Mustafi’s errors

   Martinelli and Bellerin helped 10-man Arsenal draw 2-2 with Chelsea on Tuesday as the Gunners stayed in the middle of the Premier League table, 10 points outside the Top 4 and 7 points above the relegation zone.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal 2020Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   The Gunners were lucky to salvage a point at Stamford Bridge because it was one-way traffic after Luiz’s ejection in the 26th minute. Chelsea finished the game with 19 shots to just 2 for Arsenal. According to understat.com, the Blues had 3.27 expected goals compared to 0.57 for the Gunners.

   Arteta made only 1 change to the side that drew with Sheffield United last weekend with Bellerin replacing Maitland-Niles in the starting lineup. Kolasinac and Sokratis were still unavailable while Aubameyang was serving the second of a 3-match ban.

   I thought Arteta’s team selection was questionable. Emery did not play Mustafi in the Premier League this season. Ljungberg gave Mustafi 1 start before leaving him out of the starting lineup. Why Arteta started Mustafi after his shaky performance against the Blades is a complete mystery. Holding could have played alongside Luiz in the heart of the defense.

   It would be a mistake to persevere with Mustafi because that could kill the team’s morale in the long term. Arsenal fans know that Mustafi always has a mistake in him. You can bet that his teammates know it, too. Maybe Mustafi can revive his career, but he would need a change of scenery. The German defender looks like a haunted man every time he screws up.

Slow to react

   Chelsea capitalized on a blunder from Mustafi to take the lead. Chasing a long ball from Kovacic in the 26th, Mustafi underhit his back pass to Leno. Abraham intercepted the ball and dribbled past Leno before Luiz brought him down. The referee gave Luiz a straight red card because the Brazilian defender killed a scoring chance and made no genuine attempt to play the ball.

   It was a bit naive from Luiz to believe that he could get away with it. The VAR review confirmed the referee’s initial call and Jorginho opened the scoring by converting the subsequent spot kick. Mustafi also lost a key duel on Chelsea’s second goal. Azpilicueta got ahead of Mustafi to meet Hudson-Odoi’s cross in the 84th and side-footed it past Leno for a 2-1 lead.

   Arteta’s game management was poor. As a young manager, the Spaniard is still learning the ropes. Whereas Emery sometimes jumped the gun too quickly with his half-time substitutions, Arteta has been slow to react to changing circumstances.

   When Sheffield United switched to a more attacking formation a few days ago by replacing Lundstram with Robinson in the 67th and Basham with Besic in the 76th, Arteta waited until the 82nd before calling Guendouzi to replace Ozil. Unfortunately, Fleck equalized for the Blades in the 83rd, forcing Arteta to cancel the planned substitution.  

   When the Gunners were down to 10 men at Stamford Bridge, Arteta moved Xhaka into the centerback position, leaving Torreira completely isolated in midfield. It was no wonder that Torreira started cramping in the 74th. The Uruguay international basically had to run for two. It was only in the 55th that Arteta took Ozil off to send Guendouzi on. Xhaka did OK at centerback but the more natural move would have been to replace Ozil with Holding by the 26th.

The future face of the club?

   Arsenal played with a low defensive block in the second half, hoping for counterattacking opportunities. Martinelli seized his chance in the 63rd when Mustafi cleared a corner. The Brazilian teenager sprinted some 80 yards from his own area to skip past Kante and beat Kepa with a low strike.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M63a editedMartinelli sprints past Emerson and Kovacic to chase the ball. (Photo credit: Sky)

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M63b editedMartinelli scores from 17 yards. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Martinelli became the first teenager since Anelka to score at least 10 goals in all competitions for the Gunners in a single season. Nowadays, Emery has become a hated figure among a lot of Arsenal fans but he definitely deserves some credit for speeding up Martinelli’s development by starting him in the Europa League and the League Cup while giving him some playing time in the Premier League.

   The Arsenal board should extend Martinelli’s contract and give him a raise because he’s performing better than some of his overpaid teammates. You can bet that Martinelli’s agent will get some tempting offers from the big clubs this summer. Frankly, Martinelli’s potential is so great that he could become the face of the club like Henry 2 decades ago.

   Chasing a winner, Lampard switched from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 system by replacing Kante with Mount in the 69th and Willian with Batshuayi in the 79th. Arteta reacted quickly by sending Holding on for Pepe in the 81st. The Gunners’ switch to a back five did not prevent Chelsea from taking a 2-1 lead in the 84th. But Bellerin saved Arsenal from defeat with a left-footed shot into the far corner in the 87th.  

Luiz conceding a 3rd penalty

   Arsenal can thank Leno for keeping them in the game. The German goalkeeper made 6 saves, parrying Hudson-Odoi’s snapshot in the 32nd, palming away Willian’s effort in the 73rd, stopping Abraham’s header in the 77th and turning Barkley’s header around the post in the 80th. Leno may not be at the level of Alisson or Ederson, but he’s definitely better than Kepa, the Chelsea goalkeeper.

   In the heart of the defense, Mustafi was at fault for both goals. His work-rate was good but he simply has too many mistakes in his game. Mustafi failed to mark Abraham in the 77th and gave the ball away in the 12th and 52nd. The Arsenal board must find a way to offload him this summer. The obvious problem is that no club will want to match Mustafi’s weekly wage of £90,000.

   Playing alongside Mustafi, Luiz didn’t cover himself in glory either. Luiz has already conceded 3 penalties this season. The Brazilian defender was struggling before his ejection. He gave away a cheap free kick by shoving Abraham from behind in the 3rd and lost a key duel against the Chelsea striker, who headed the ball straight at Leno in the 15th. Known for his ball-playing abilities, Luiz’s passing accuracy dipped to 61.1% at Stamford Bridge. Signing a centerback will be a top priority this summer. Luiz, Mustafi, Sokratis, Chambers, Holding and Mavropanos are nowhere near the level of Koscielny in his prime.

Bellerin’s impact in the final third

   In his return from injury, Bellerin was also given the armband. The Spaniard had a hard time on the right flank with Willian. The Chelsea winger rounded Bellerin in the 63rd to make a cross that was cleared by Guendouzi. Ten minutes later, Willian cut inside Bellerin to test Leno. Bellerin was dribbled past 3 times, tied with Martinelli and Kovacic for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. His marking on set pieces was poor, too. Christensen beat Bellerin to the ball in the 10th to head a corner wide. Then Bellerin was not tight to Rudiger in the 15th when the Chelsea defender redirected a corner toward Abraham.

   Despite the relative lack of sharpness, Bellerin still managed to win 44.4% of his duels and made 7 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions, 2 recoveries), according to the club’s website. Arteta thought about replacing Bellerin with Maitland-Niles in the closing minutes, but he changed his mind and let Bellerin finish the game. With his weaker left foot, Bellerin scored the equalizer in the 87th with a curling shot from 20 yards. That kind of offensive contribution is the reason why Bellerin is ahead of Maitland-Niles in the pecking order when both players are fit. Maitland-Niles can match Bellerin defensively, but offensively Maitland-Niles doesn’t have Bellerin’s impact in the final third.

   In the leftback position, Saka had a decent game. He led Arsenal players with 11 defensive actions (5 tackles, 6 recoveries) and won 73.3% of his duels. The matchup with Hudson-Odoi was a tricky one. The Blues deliberately targeted Saka because he’s not a defender by trade. In the 3rd minute, Hudson-Odoi ran past Saka, who misjudged the flight of a crossfield pass. Then Saka failed to stay with Hudson-Odoi, who played a one-two in the 7th. The academy player was also not tight to Hudson-Odoi in the 89th as the Chelsea winger created a scoring chance for Batshuayi.

Ozil’s lack of desire

   Arteta has mostly used Saka as a wingback lately, but Luiz’s ejection meant that Saka had very few opportunities to roam forward. Saka combined with Martinelli in the 2nd only to send a cross-shot wide. In the next games, Saka will have to cut his turnover rate. He led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   Tuesday’s game was not made for Ozil. His lack of desire in the 5th was outrageous. Pepe made a pass to Ozil, who lost possession by waiting for the ball to reach his feet. When the Gunners were down to 10 men in the 26th, Arteta decided to keep Ozil on the pitch even though his team was a man short in midfield and needed more work-rate. Ozil had 0 key pass and 0 shot before Arteta took him off in the 55th. Arteta seems to believe a lot in Ozil, but the German playmaker’s level has dipped in the last couple of years. Arsenal simply can’t rely on a 31-year-old player to create chances. The club needs a Plan B this summer.

   I felt bad for Torreira because Arteta’s reluctance to make a substitution in the first half meant that Torreira was isolated in midfield. Torreira only made 7 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception, 4 recoveries), not because he was lazy, but because he was outnumbered. The Uruguay international finally received some support in midfield when Guendouzi came off the bench in the 55th.

   Xhaka started in central midfield but Luiz’s ejection led to a change of position for the Switzerland international, who played the last 65 minutes as a centerback. The Gunners made up for Xhaka’s lack of pace by playing with a low defensive block, depriving the Blues of space in the final third. Xhaka showed good work-rate with 10 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception, 6 recoveries).

Martinelli’s composure

   It was a frustrating game for the forwards, who had to work their socks off. Martinelli, Lacazette and Pep combined for 1 shot and 0 key pass. You can rely on Lacazette for putting in a shift. Lacazette made 10 defensive actions (3 tackles, 7 recoveries). On the right wing, Pepe initially created a lot of problems for the Chelsea defense with his pace and dribbling skills. Emerson was booked in the 21st for a cynical foul on Pepe, who led all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 6, according to whoscored.com. Pepe played Lacazette clean through on goal in the 72nd. The French striker shot past Kepa but his goal was disallowed because he was in an offside position. Pepe became less relevant from the moment Arsenal had to defend. With only 4 defensive actions (1 tackle, 3 recoveries) in 80 minutes, Pepe’s work-rate was much lower than Lacazette’s and Martinelli’s.

   Besides the solo goal, Martinelli also made 9 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 interception, 5 recoveries). He’s the perfect example of a player who can both defend and attack. His composure to beat Kepa after an 80-yard sprint was exceptional. It’s a quality that Iwobi and other promising players missed. The only blemish in Martinelli’s performance was his passing accuracy of 57.1%, the lowest percentage among outfield players. Arteta replaced Martinelli with Willock in stoppage time as the Gunners needed fresh legs to prevent Chelsea from scoring.  

   The Gunners next face Bournemouth in the FA Cup on Monday before visiting Burnley in the Premier League six days later. Holding might start against the Cherries since Luiz will be suspended for a game. Both Aubameyang and Luiz will be available again for the Burnley game. The Gunners still have a slim chance of qualifying for the Europa League by finishing 5th or even 6th in the Premier League, but they would need to get back to winning ways quickly as there are only 14 league games left.



Arsenal vs. Sheffield United: Gunners concede late equalizer

   For the second straight game, the Gunners couldn’t finish off their opponents. Arsenal drew 1-1 with Sheffield United on Saturday to stay in the middle of the Premier League table, 10 points outside the Top 4 and 7 points above the relegation zone.

Arsenal vs. Sheffield 2020Photo credit: Premier League

   Arteta made 3 changes to the side that drew with Crystal Palace a week ago with Martinelli, Saka and Mustafi replacing Aubameyang, Kolasinac and Sokratis in the starting lineup. Aubameyang was serving a 3-game ban, Kolasinac had a thigh injury and Sokratis was ill.

   Despite enjoying 61% of ball possession, Arsenal created very few chances and finished the game with only 11 goal attempts to 12 for Sheffield United. It wasn’t really a surprise. The Blades had the second best defense in the league before this weekend.

   For the first time in his tenure, Arteta had 6 days on the training ground to prepare for a game. Whatever the Gunners rehearsed at Colney, the result on the pitch was disappointing. Arsenal wasted some good situations with poor passes in the final third. Lacazette missed his return pass for Xhaka in the 3rd minute, Ozil overhit his final ball for Martinelli in the 46th and 62nd, Lacazette’s link-up play let him down in the 11th, and Martinelli missed his return pass for Ozil in the 32nd.

   Two plays involving Pepe and Lacazette reflected the relative lack of chemistry on the pitch. Lacazette led a counterattack in the 40th and expected a run from Pepe down the right wing. But Pepe ran down the middle in the hope of taking on the last defender. In the end, Lacazette ignored Pepe’s run and made a back pass to Xhaka. The 2 forwards clearly had different ideas. Lacazette thought the Gunners didn’t have the numbers and therefore felt the need for more support whereas Pepe wanted more directness.

Liverpool lite

   Lacazette and Pepe wasted another counterattacking opportunity in the 58th. Pepe played the ball into space whereas Lacazette wanted the ball played to his feet. As a result of that misunderstanding, Pepe’s pass rolled out of play. Lacazette had a great understanding with Ramsey last season. Now that Ramsey is gone, Lacazette must rebuild a partnership with his new teammates, Pepe and Martinelli. Lacazette and Pepe have combined on a goal only once this season. That was in September when Pepe made the assist for Lacazette’s goal in the 2-2 draw with Spurs.

   The Gunners created their best chances when they played like Liverpool lite. In the role of a false nine, Lacazette released Pepe down the right flank in the 13th. The Ivory Coast international made a cross for Martinelli, whose angled volley sailed wide. On the stroke of halftime, Lacazette found Saka on the left flank. The academy player made a cross that took a deflection off Baldock. The ball fell into the path of Martinelli, who tapped home at the far post.  

   Just like in the Crystal Palace game, Arsenal took the lead in the first half and became too passive in the second half, allowing their opponents to get back into the game. The Blades had 8 shots in the second half compared to just 4 in the first half.

   Sheffield’s plan was to target the Gunners in the air. They were involved in 37 offensive aerial duels compared to just 9 for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. The Blades could have scored from 3 corners but Mousset missed the target in the 9th, Xhaka cleared McBurnie’s header off the line in the 56th and McBurnie’s header in the 81st lacked power to trouble Leno.

   The equalizer came from an aerial duel in the 83rd. Torreira’s clearance fell to Stevens, who found Besic in midfield. The Sheffield substitute slipped the ball to Robinson, who hoisted the ball into the box. Maitland-Niles beat Sharp in the air, but an unmarked Fleck pounced on the second ball for a half-volley that deflected off Maitland-Niles to beat Leno.

A chain reaction of small mistakes

   The Arsenal defense has improved under Arteta. According to understat.com, the Blades had 0.92 expected goal compared to 1.23 for the Gunners. Football is a team sport but individual quality will always make a difference. As you can see on the screen captures below, a chain reaction of small mistakes led to the goal.

   When Torreira rushed forward to close down Stevens, Xhaka made the mistake of following Torreira instead of marking Besic.

Arsenal vs. Sheffield M83a editedXhaka leaves Besic unmarked. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Because Xhaka failed to mark Besic and left a huge gap in midfield, Saka left his position to press Besic.

Arsenal vs. Sheffield M83b editedSaka is pulled out of position. (Photo credit: NBC)

   What was initially a back four quickly turned into a back three. Besic dribbled past a naive Saka to feed Robinson on the edge of the box. Saka shouldn’t have dived in. By pulling Saka out of position, Sheffield created an overload on Maitland-Niles’ flank.

Arsenal vs. Sheffield M83c editedMaitland-Niles is in a 1v2 situation while Luiz and Mustafi are already busy. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Then Luiz failed to block Robinson’s cross. Because Mustafi did not stay tight to Sharp, Maitland-Niles had to cover the German defender and challenge Sharp in the air, leaving Fleck unmarked at the far post.

Arsenal vs. Sheffield M83d editedFleck is unmarked because Maitland-Niles is covering Mustafi. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Saka and Maitland-Niles were pulled out of position because Xhaka and Mustafi failed to properly mark Besic and Sharp, respectively. When Fleck hit his half-volley, there were 7 Blades in the final third facing 7 Arsenal players (the back four, Xhaka, Torreira, Martinelli). Pepe failed to help Maitland-Niles on that play. While Martinelli made the effort to track Baldock, the right wingback, Pepe failed to mark Stevens, the left wingback, even though both Martinelli and Pepe were in Sheffield’s half when Stevens drove forward. With more defensive awareness, Pepe could have covered Maitland-Niles on that right flank.

Arsenal vs. Sheffield M83e editedMartinelli tracks Baldock while Pepe leaves Stevens unmarked. (Photo credit: NBC)  

   Martinelli’s first season at the club has been impressive. If the Arsenal board decides to sell Lacazette to fund transfers, Martinelli would be his natural replacement. Martinelli has already scored 9 goals from 20 games in all competitions, compared to 6 goals from 20 games for Lacazette this season. The comparison per minute is even more flattering for Martinelli, who has played only 1,030 minutes compared to 1,383 for Lacazette.

A penalty shout turned down

   At 18, Martinelli is still a raw player. Fans mostly see the goals and assists. But if you’re a scout or a manager, you also notice the parts of Martinelli’s game that can be improved. The Brazilian teenager was caught offside 3 times, the most for any player, and won only 11.1% of his duels, the lowest percentage for an Arsenal starter according to the club’s website. His passing accuracy of 60% was also the lowest among Arsenal starters. Even Lacazette and Pepe had a passing accuracy above 75%. Martinelli must definitely be more selective in his dribbling runs. According to whoscored.com, he only had 1 successful dribble out of 5, which is a poor return.

   Martinelli and Pepe have struck a decent understanding on the pitch. Pepe set up Martinelli for his first scoring chance in the 13th. Then Pepe danced around Stevens and Fleck in the 21st before feeding Martinelli, who missed the target from 12 yards. Pepe provides a lot of penetration with his pace and dribbling skills. He had 3 successful dribbles out of 7 and finished the game with 1 of 3 shots on target and 2 key passes. His decision-making could have been better in the 78th. Pepe opted for an angled effort that was blocked instead of feeding Nketiah or Martinelli.

The Gunners had a penalty shout turned down in the 69th. Pepe dribbled past Stevens and was then tripped by O’Connell. The VAR review concluded that the referee made the right call. My guess is that the penalty would have been awarded if Stevens had not recovered the ball when O’Connell tripped Pepe. Because Stevens won the ball, there was probably a suspicion that Pepe initiated contact to draw a foul.

   Pepe made an impact in the final third but the defensive coordination with Maitland-Niles on the right flank was poor. Stevens, the Sheffield left wingback, made 2 key passes and had 4 successful dribbles out of 4. Pepe could have covered Maitland-Niles on the equalizer if he had made the effort to track Stevens.

Lacazette’s poor form

   Lacazette couldn’t step up to compensate for Aubameyang’s absence. The French striker simply doesn’t have Aubameyang’s presence in front of goal. He had 0 of 1 shot on target, 0 successful dribble and 1 key pass in 73 minutes before Arteta replaced him with Nketiah. Lacazette played a key role in the opener by spreading the ball to Saka on the left flank but his overall performance was disappointing. He missed his final ball for Xhaka in the 3rd and Martinelli in the 11th.

   Some fans will say that Lacazette works hard for the team and that he’s a false nine, not an out-and-out centerforward. No matter how you look at it, his offensive contribution in this Premier League campaign (5 goals and 2 assists in 16 league games) is simply not good enough. That’s why Ljungberg preferred to have Aubameyang in the centerforward role and Martinelli and Pepe on the wings.

   In midfield, Ozil led all players with 4 key passes but didn’t show much creativity. Of those 4 key passes, 1 was a corner kick and 2 led to speculative shots. The only key pass that looked out of the ordinary was his backheel flick for Pepe, whose bouncing volley didn’t trouble Henderson in the 4th. Surprisingly, Ozil’s touch let him down when he tried to play Martinelli clean through on goal in the 46th and 62nd. On the bright side, Ozil’s work-rate was much better than against Crystal Palace. The German playmaker won 50% of his duels and made 9 defensive actions (2 tackles, 7 recoveries), according to the club’s website.

   The Gunners struggled to crack the Sheffield defense because they didn’t move the ball quickly enough. Xhaka, Torreira and Guendouzi are simply not at the level of a Fabregas or Cazorla. It might feel like a luxury now, but signing a top deep-lying playmaker would signicantly improve this team.

Saka’s outstanding work-rate

   Xhaka prevented a goal by clearing McBurnie’s header off the line in the 56th, but his weaknesses were again exposed. His failure to mark Besic led to the equalizer in the 83rd. Xhaka also gave the ball away in the 55th and made late tackles in the 52nd and in stoppage time. The Switzerland midfielder made 12 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception, 9 recoveries) and won 40% of his duels compared to 15 defensive actions (2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 11 recoveries) and 72.6% of duels won for Torreira, according to the club’s website. Torreira had a minor scare in the 32nd when the ball was accidentally kicked into his head. The Uruguay international had a bloodied nose and was forced to change his stained shorts behind the touchline.

   There’s a reason why the Blades are 4 points ahead of Arsenal in the standings. They lack creativity but are a well-drilled team with a high work-rate. Sheffield won 52% of the duels and made 18 interceptions to 12 and 20 tackles to 14, according to the club’s website.

   Arteta has tried to protect Saka and Maitland-Niles by repeating in press conferences that they are not fullbacks. Yet, the academy graduates have done a decent job in that position. Saka’s work-rate was outstanding with 14 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 interception,11 recoveries). His inexperience led him to dive in when Besic drove forward in the 83rd but I wouldn’t blame Saka for the equalizer. Saka was pulled out of position because Xhaka didn’t do his job.

   On a more positive note, Saka made the decisive cross for Martinelli’s goal. He wasn’t credited with an assist because his cross took a deflection off Baldock. Saka and Martinelli have already struck a good understanding this season. Martinelli set up Saka for a goal in the Europa League while Saka made an assist for Martinelli in the League Cup. Baldock clearly struggled to cope with Saka’s pace, making a cynical foul in the 50th before receiving a yellow card in the 51st for shoving Saka in a foot race.

Centerbacks under pressure

   Under Arteta, Maitland-Niles has become a more consistent player, making 13 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions, 8 recoveries) and winning 53.8% of his duels. Some fans will only remember his deflection on the equalizer but again Maitland-Niles shouldn’t be blamed: he covered Mustafi on that play and lacked defensive support Pepe. Offensively, Maitland-Niles showed his limitations. He gave the ball away in the 8th and sent a cross out of play in the 60th.      

   To a certain extent, Maitland-Niles and Saka performed better than Luiz and Mustafi. The Arsenal centerbacks were more busy than usual. Luiz and Mustafi combined for 20 defensive actions against Sheffield while Luiz and Sokratis only combined for 9 defensive actions against Crystal Palace. That increase in activity was a consequence of the Blades’ strategy of aerial bombardment. McBurnie led all players by winning 11 of 18 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. Luiz struggled in the air, winning 4 of 7 aerial duels, while Mustafi looked more comfortable, winning 7 of 8 aerial duels.

   Both Luiz and Mustafi lost their key duels on the equalizer. Luiz failed to block Robinson’s cross while Mustafi was not tight to Sharp inside the area. Mousset beat Luiz and Mustafi to the ball in the 8th but headed Stevens’ cross over the bar. McBurnie also outjumped Luiz in the 81st only to head a corner straight at Leno. Luiz gave away a free kick in the 85th by losing another aerial duel against McBurnie. The Brazilian defender was more efficient when the ball was on the ground. He bullied Mousset inside the area in the 3rd and won a 50-50 ball in the 29th.

What’s the priority?

   The Gunners were reluctant to hit long balls when playing out from the back because of the Blades’ superiority in the air. Mustafi and Luiz only combined for 19 long balls on Saturday whereas Sokratis and Luiz combined for 34 long balls against Palace.

   Arteta gave Mustafi his second start in the Premier League this season. Under any manager, Mustafi will always have a mistake in him. He was dispossessed by McBurnie in the 6th, made a silly foul in the 57th, and gave the ball away in the 90th, forcing Maitland-Niles to make a desperate block inside the area. McBurnie also outjumped Mustafi to head a corner goalward in the 56th but Xhaka cleared the ball off the line.

   The Gunners next visit Chelsea on Tuesday before playing Bournemouth in the FA Cup a few days later. They need a good result at Stamford Bridge to keep alive their slim hopes of a European spot. A defeat would force Arsenal to focus on the FA Cup and the Europa League.    





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

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

Palace vs. Arsenal 2020.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

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

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

Luiz’s playmaking abilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of key duels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ozil conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Auba & Mr Mayhem

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

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

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

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

Lacazette’s mini-drought continues

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

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

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

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

Pepe’s poor reading of the game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debunking a conspiracy theory

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

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

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

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