Tag Archives: Lacazette

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

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

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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

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

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

Mertesacker and Koscielny struggling at the back

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

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

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

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

A more direct approach

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

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

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

Very good or world class?

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

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

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

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

Questions about Sanchez and Ozil

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

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

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

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

Ramsey’s hamstring injury

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

When a simple pass is the best option

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing 2 key positions 

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

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

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

Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness

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

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

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

A too big hole to climb out of

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

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

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

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

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

Lacazette deprived of a hat trick by De Gea

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

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

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

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

Iwobi finally connecting with Lacazette

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

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

3 must-win games

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

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

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

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

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield: Ozil shows his class in 5-0 win

   In a five-minute span, Ozil made 2 assists and scored 1 goal to lead Arsenal to a 5-0 rout of Huddersfield on Wednesday. The Gunners needed that victory to stay fourth in the Premier League and keep pace with the top teams as Manchester City, the Red Devils, Chelsea and Liverpool also won their games.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield

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

Wenger made just one change to the side that edged Burnley 1-0 on Sunday with Ozil replacing Iwobi in the starting lineup. That move made a huge difference on the pitch. At 21, Iwobi has great potential but he’s not the finished product yet. He only managed 1 key pass against a compact Burnley defense because his reading of the game is not good enough. By contrast, Ozil is at the top of his game at 29. Ozil may go missing against the big teams but the quality of his runs and final ball proves so valuable against the weak and average sides.

Ozil led all players with 5 key passes. The Germany playmaker was relatively quiet in the first half. But his performance after halftime was a different story. In the 3-4-3 formation, Ozil has a lot of freedom. He can drop back to create plays. He can also drift to the right flank to escape marking. And he can play as a second striker by making runs in behind.

Sanchez caught the attention of three Terriers in the 47th minute to set up Ozil, unmarked at the far post. Ozil controlled the ball and curled a 12-yard shot that Cranie blocked. Maybe a first-time effort was the better option. Then the Ozil show started. Ozil played a one-two with Sanchez in the 68th before squaring the ball back to Giroud, who made it 2-0 with a low strike. In that kind of situation, I have too often seen Iwobi run into traffic this season only to lose possession. Ozil has a perfect picture of the situation before he gets the ball, which means that he knows exactly what are his passing options when he makes his first touch.

The understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey

Another difference between Ozil and Iwobi is that Ozil is smarter in his runs off the ball because he can visualize how a play will unfold and what his role in that play will be. As soon as Mustafi won a header in midfield in the 70th, Ozil made a run along the touchline. The ball fell to Giroud, who played it back to Ramsey. With a first-time pass, Ramsey released Ozil down the right wing. By the time Lowe saw the danger, it was already too late. Ozil got a head start over the Huddersfield wingback and had therefore plenty of time to make a pinpoint cross with his weaker foot for Sanchez, who volleyed high past Lossl for a 3-0 lead.

Ozil swapped positions with Giroud in the 72nd and perfectly timed his run to beat the offside trap. Collecting a through ball from Ramsey, Ozil added a fourth goal by chipping Lossl. In the closing minutes, Ozil nearly got a third assist with a ball over the top for Welbeck, but the England international couldn’t trap the ball and Lossl was able to gather it. Ozil is simply one of the best playmakers in the world and Iwobi needs to work harder to get near his level.

While Ozil stole the show in the second half, the Gunners owed their first-half lead to Lacazette. In the third minute, Ramsey played Lacazette in with a backheel flick and the France striker slipped the ball past Lossl to open the scoring. While the understanding between Ozil and Sanchez proved instrumental in the second and third goals, it was the understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey that cracked the Huddersfield defense in the opening minutes. It’s kind of ironic because Ozil and Sanchez may no longer be at the club next season whereas the duo formed by Lacazette and Ramsey could define Arsenal’s future.

Giroud’s hunger

Lacazette came close to doubling the lead in the 31st. Xhaka initially overhit his pass for an offside Kolasinac, but Lacazette sprinted to keep the ball in play and attempted a cheeky lob from the by-line. Cranie somehow cleared the ball off the line with an overhead kick. Unfortunately, Lacazette picked up a groin injury and was replaced by Giroud at halftime. That injury is coming at the worst time for the Gunners because they have a busy schedule until mid-January.

Giroud showed his hunger by taking 6 shots and reaching a passing accuracy of 100%, according to Squawka. His first scoring chance came from a counterattack in the 51st. Bellerin made a low cross for Giroud, whose shot was blocked by Schindler. Then Ramsey slipped a through ball to Giroud, who rounded Lossl in the 59th only to hit the near post. Giroud made amends by converting Ozil’s pass in the 68th for his first goal in the Premier League since the opening game against Leicester in August. As a boost to his confidence, Giroud took the ball off Kolasinac to seal the win from close range in the 87th. Hopefully, Giroud’s rediscovered form will help compensate for Lacazette’s absence.

Sanchez didn’t have a great game, but he still managed to find the net with a clinical volley in the 70th. His previous goal attempts were unimpressive to say the least. Sanchez took a pass from Ozil in the 27th only to produce an air shot. Then Kolasinac found Sanchez inside the area in the 62nd and the Chile striker curled a shot wide of the far post. The manager clearly had the United game in mind as he yanked Sanchez off in the 73rd to send on Welbeck.

In midfield, Ramsey shared the creative burden with Ozil by making 3 key passes, including 2 accurate through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Sanchez is usually the one helping Ozil to create chances, but Sanchez had an off day with only 1 key pass so Ramsey had to step up in that area.

Complacency after the opener

At times, the team morphed into a bastardized 4-4-2 formation with Xhaka, Mustafi, Koscielny and Monreal at the back, Ramsey, Ozil, Bellerin and Kolasinac in midfield, and Sanchez and Lacazette up front. Xhaka helped Ramsey have an impact in the final third by focusing on his defensive duties. The Switzerland international won 3 of 6 tackles compared to 0 of 3 tackles for Ramsey, according to Squawka.

On the wings, Kolasinac and Bellerin contributed offensively with 3 and 2 key passes, respectively. Kolasinac was involved in the second and fifth goals but his passing accuracy of 68% was the lowest of any Arsenal player. Obviously, Kolasinac is taking risks in the final third, so you shouldn’t expect him to have Bellerin’s passing accuracy of 91%. But Kolasinac’s technique is decent enough to expect a passing accuracy around 80%. Hopefully, the Arsenal staff can sort out what is the issue.

Besides Lacazette’s injury, the only negative from Wednesday’s game is the complacency that hit the team after the opening goal. The Gunners basically took their foot off the pedal. They put themselves in trouble by playing at 90 or 95% of their potential between the third minute and the 68th. Mustafi in the 29th, Xhaka in the 35th and Koscielny in the 63rd cheaply gave the ball away. In the final third, Bellerin crossed the ball out of play in the 33rd, and Xhaka’s long-range strike veered toward the corner flag in the 42nd.

The Gunners lost their minds in the 37th by trying to dribble their way out of trouble from their own area. A poor clearance from Koscielny led to an Arsenal turnover and a penalty shout for Huddersfield as Mustafi lost an aerial duel and collided with Mounie. A minute later, a string of misplaced passes led to a dangerous Huddersfield counterattack. Quaner dribbled past Xhaka to find Mounie, who played the ball back to Quaner. A poor first touch from Quaner gave Koscielny enough time to rush back and block the shot from the German forward.

The best and worst of Cech

There was also a lack of focus that could have cost the Gunners dearly. Mustafi misread the flight of a long ball in the 21st and missed his header, forcing Cech to come off his line. The Czech goalkeeper beat Mounie to the ball to clear the danger. Then the Arsenal defense was completely disorganized in the 51st. As Monreal was pulled out of position, Kolasinac forgot to cover the Spaniard and gave Quaner a boulevard to the area. Mustafi hesitated for a split second and came too late to make the block. It took a leg save from Cech to prevent Quaner from equalizing. Two minutes later, Cech nearly scored an own goal by panicking in his own area. Monreal diverted Mounie’s shot high in the air. Cech could have caught the loose ball but he preferred to punch it to safety off the crossbar.

If we except those chances gifted by Arsenal’s complacency, the Terriers created very little. Lowe skipped past Bellerin in the 12th only to have his cross intercepted by Cech. Jorgensen then connected with a free kick from Lowe in the 22nd but Koscielny did enough to put off the Huddersfield centerback, who headed over the bar. After the break, Hadergjonaj made a dangerous cross from Kolasinac’s flank but Mounie missed his header in the 65th. Mustafi produced the most decent performance at the back by making 7 interceptions and winning 3 of 4 tackles and 4 of 12 headers while Koscielny and Monreal combined to win only 1 of 8 tackles, according to Squawka.

A perfect record on the line

The Gunners have turned the Emirates stadium into a fortress this season with 7 wins from 7 Premier League games. That perfect record could be in danger against Manchester United on Saturday. Lacazette’s injury means that either Giroud or Welbeck will lead the line. Giroud is a good choice when the team dominates ball possession while Welbeck is a better option when the team has to run after the ball. Welbeck also has more pace but the Frenchman has scored more goals recently.

Wenger was again asked about Ozil’s future in his news conference before the United game. It could prove a tricky match for Ozil, who has been linked with a move to the Red Devils. The more we look at it, and the more it’s obvious that the club completely mismanaged the summer transfer window. Scenario 1: the manager and the board win their gamble if both Sanchez and Ozil extend their contracts at Arsenal. Scenario 2: if both players leave next summer while the Gunners finish in the Top 4, the club will limit the damage on the pitch but lose £50-90 million of transfer fees. Scenario 3: if both players leave next summer while the Gunners miss out on a Champions League spot, the club will lose on the pitch and financially. Scenario 4: Ozil and/or Sanchez leave in January but there’s no replacement. The club will limit the damage financially but the squad will be significantly weakened. Scenario 5: Ozil and/or Sanchez leave in January and are replaced by top signings. The club will limit the damage financially but only a Top 4 finish will tell whether it is a smart move.

Burnley vs. Arsenal: Gunners leapfrog Spurs into 4th place after 1-0 win

   Sanchez converted a penalty in the last minute of stoppage time to lead Arsenal to a 1-0 victory over Burnley on Sunday. The scrappy win propelled the Gunners to fourth place in the Premier League, 1 point behind Chelsea and 1 point clear of Spurs.

Burnley vs. Arsenal.jpg

Photo credit: Getty

Wenger made only one change to the side that defeated Tottenham the previous weekend with Iwobi replacing a sick Ozil in the starting lineup. Dyche is like the new Pulis: his Burnley side played with a lot of commitment, relying on crosses and long balls to test the Arsenal defense and parking the bus in a 4-5-1 formation when the Gunners had the ball. I thought Arsenal didn’t work hard enough in the first half. They were miles away from the level displayed against Spurs. Somehow, the Gunners could have opened the scoring before halftime but were let down by some poor finishing. They played with more intensity in the second half and wasted good situations with some poor decision-making or a final ball lacking accuracy. On the bright side, the Clarets had no clear-cut chances after forcing Cech into a couple of fine saves in the first half.

Dyche complained about the penalty in his post-match news conference, saying the big clubs get those big decisions, but not small clubs like Burnley. It’s basically a manager trying to protect one of his players, Tarkowski, by deflecting the blame on the officiating. If Dyche is honest, he should acknowledge that the Clarets could have been down to 10 men in the first half and that Arsenal could have been awarded another penalty in the second half. Brady was not even booked for a reckless studs-up tackle on Monreal in the 17th, which means that the Burnley winger should have received a second yellow card instead of his first one for his poor challenge on Iwobi in the 25th. Then Brady brought down Bellerin inside the area in the 67th. The Burnley winger completely missed the ball while making a sliding tackle. I guess the only reason why the referee didn’t spot the foul is because Bellerin tried to chip the ball over Brady and the ball bounced off the winger’s chest, leading the referee to assume that Brady cleanly got the ball.

Ramsey’s movement

The last-minute penalty shouldn’t be controversial for the simple reason that Burnley earned free kicks for less obvious shoves from Lacazette and Mustafi. The referee was therefore consistent in his decisions when he saw Tarkowski deny Arsenal a scoring chance by shoving Ramsey from behind in stoppage time. Tarkowski was on the wrong side of Ramsey and simply panicked. To a certain extent, that foul reminded me of Rosicky’s shove in the infamous 4-4 draw between Newcastle and Arsenal a few years ago.

When you face a compact defense, you need a lot of movement and creativity to find and exploit a gap. The Gunners’ few chances came from Ramsey’s movement in the final third. Lacazette skipped past Tarkowski in the 19th to make a cross for Ramsey, whose half-volley sailed wide. Then Ramsey picked out Kolasinac, who missed the target with a free header from 12 yards in the 43rd. The Wales midfielder also took a pass from Sanchez in the 64th for an angled effort that went wide. Ramsey finished the game with 0 of 4 shots on target. But it was his late foray in the area that led to the penalty.

Ozil’s absence meant that the creative burden rested on the shoulders of Sanchez. The Chile striker led all players with 4 key passes. He was also more tidy in possession than usual with just 3 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Sanchez may not be our best penalty taker, but he showed nerves of steel to fire his spot kick low past the goalkeeper.

Up front, Lacazette didn’t get much service. Out of frustration, Lacazette unleashed a low drive in the 51st that didn’t really trouble Pope. The France international also struggled in the air, winning only 1 of 4 headers. To put more pressure in the air, Wenger replaced Lacazette with Welbeck in the 79th.

Within a few months, Lacazette has built a decent understanding with Sanchez and Ramsey, but his interaction with Iwobi is still poor mostly because Iwobi doesn’t read the game well enough. Ozil’s shoes were too big for Iwobi to fill on Sunday. Iwobi doesn’t make smart runs off the ball like Ozil and his end product was limited to only 1 key pass at Turf Moor.

The balance between attacking and defending

The manager tried to inject more creativity in the final third by sending on Wilshere for Iwobi in the 66th. The positives and negatives Wilshere showed in Europa League games were summarized in two plays. Defour capitalized on a Wilshere turnover in the 70th to take his chance from the edge of the box. Wilshere must make an effort to cut his turnover rate otherwise he’ll hurt his team. Ten minutes later, Wilshere played a one-two with Sanchez before mustering a shot that deflected off Tarkowski for a corner. Wilshere can provide more penetration with his ability to play in tiny spaces.

On the wings, Kolasinac created the best chances despite a passing accuracy of 61.4%, the lowest percentage for an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. His decision-making was questionable on a couple of plays. Kolasinac dribbled past Tarkowski in the 49th only to have his shot blocked by Mee. The Bosnia-Herzegovina wingback produced another mazy run in the 68th and completely miscued his shot across goal instead of feeding Lacazette or Ramsey, who both were in a better position. See the screen capture below.

Burnley M68ed Kolasinac could have passed the ball to Ramsey or Lacazette. (Photo credit: CNBC)

In stoppage time, Xhaka sent a long ball toward Kolasinac, who headed it across goal. Ramsey was fouled by Tarkowski before he could even flick it on. Amid all the controversy about the penalty, Wilshere was a better passing option than Ramsey, sandwiched between 2 defenders. See the screen capture below.

Burnley M91ed Kolasinac could have knocked the ball down for an unmarked Wilshere. (Photo credit: CNBC)

In the last few games, I felt Bellerin didn’t find the right balance between attacking and defending. The Spaniard made no interception and no block and won only 1 of 5 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Burnley’s main chances came from his flank in the first half. Bellerin failed to stop a Brady cross for Barnes, who was flagged offside in the 10th. Five minutes later, Bellerin was dispossessed by Brady and the ball fell to Gudmunsson, who rounded Monreal to rattle the near post. Hendrick then met a cross from our right flank in the 22nd but Cech parried the close-range header from the Irish midfielder.

Team selection dilemma

It’s obviously easier to deal with crosses when you have 3 centerbacks. Mustafi was the most active of the trio as he made 2 interceptions and 2 blocks and won 3 of 5 tackles and 7 of 12 headers. He also led all players with 4 fouls, including a silly one that led to a dangerous free kick on the edge of the box in the 59th. In the closing minutes, Wenger could have shifted to a back four to send on Giroud but he preferred to stick with the back three.

I only expect a couple of changes for Wednesday’s game against Huddersfield Town. Then the Gunners will have just 2 days of rest before hosting Manchester United on Saturday. That game could prove tricky since Arsenal will have one day less to recover than the Red Devils. Can Ramsey start 3 Premier League games in a 7-day span or is that a too big risk?

 

Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Gunners get back in Top 4 race with 2-0 win

The Gunners won the North London Derby on Saturday to pull within a point of fourth-place Tottenham in the standings. Wenger fielded his best lineup to earn his first victory over Pochettino’s Spurs in the Premier League: Mustafi returned from a hamstring injury to play alongside Koscielny and Monreal in the back three while Lacazette led the line with Sanchez and Ozil in the front three.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham

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

Pochettino chose to mirror Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation despite winning with a back four at White Hart Lane in April. In a tense tactical match, the Gunners pressed high up the pitch in the first half before sitting back in the second half to hit Tottenham on the fast break. The game was tighter than what the scoreline might suggest. Both teams had 14 shots each and won 50% of the duels, according to the club’s website. Spurs also made 19 interceptions compared to 18 for Arsenal. So what made the difference? Pochettino took the risk of playing a high defensive line. The Gunners were caught offside 8 times compared to just once for Tottenham. But Spurs paid dearly for the 2 times Arsenal beat the offside trap. The Gunners also had more penetration in the final third with 3 accurate through balls compared to none for Tottenham, according to whoscored.com.

Saturday’s result showed the importance of Sanchez and Ozil in the team. Ozil made the assist for the opening goal while Sanchez netted the second goal. The club has struggled since the start of the season because of their lacklustre performances. Before the North London Derby, Ozil only had 1 goal and 2 assists from 9 Premier League games for an average of 0.33 goal or assist per game. Sanchez barely fared better with an average of 0.38 goal or assist per game. In fact, Ozil and Sanchez were only the 5th and 6th most efficient Gunners behind Kolasinac (0.4), Lacazette (0.55), Ramsey (0.6) and Welbeck (0.66).

What can we expect from Ozil and Sanchez?

Sanchez and Ozil are world-class players. You would expect from them an average above 0.6. To put things in context, Ozil had an average of 0.41 goal or assist in his worst season at the club (2014-15) and 0.71 in his best (2015-16). Sanchez enjoyed an average of 0.89 goal or assist last season and still claimed an average of 0.57 in his worst season at Arsenal (2015-16). Some fans may say that we’ve only reached Matchweek 12 and that the sample is quite small. But top players in the other clubs are already firing on all cylinders. Here are the averages for some top performers before the international break: Aguero 1.38, Sane 1.00, Morata 1.00, Lukaku 0.91, Kane 0.9, Salah 0.82, Jesus 0.8, D. Silva 0.73, De Bruyne 0.73, Mkhitaryan 0.55.

If Sanchez and Ozil keep performing like they did against Tottenham, then the Gunners have a decent chance of finishing in the Top 4. But if they go missing in too many games, then the club should build the team around other players and try to get transfer fees for Sanchez and Ozil in January. France internationals Fekir and Lemar have been mentioned as potential replacements, but it’s unlikely that they would move in the middle of the season with World Cup spots at stake.

Ozil led all players with 4 key passes. He displayed some fine work-rate by winning 2 of 2 tackles, according to Squawka. His movement in the final third also gave his teammates an extra passing option. The Germany playmaker set up Mustafi for the opener in the 36th minute with a pinpoint free kick. Mustafi outjumped Dier and Vertonghen to head Ozil’s offering into the top corner. Pochettino complained after the game about an offside position. Mustafi was maybe marginally offside, but unless you have a video assistant referee, it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it’s a matter of inches.

What’s wrong with a toe poke?

Sanchez produced a good all-around performance with 1 goal, 3 key passes, 5 tackles, and 5 successful dribbles out of 6. It was impossible not to notice his hyperactivity with also 7 turnovers and 5 offside calls, the most for any player in both categories according to whoscored.com. Somehow, Sanchez played a role in the opening goal by drawing a foul from Davinson in the 35th. Ramsey initiated a counterattack by sending a long ball toward Sanchez. Marking the Chile striker, Davinson put his arm across Sanchez’s body before tackling the ball. It was a soft foul just like Monreal’s challenge on Sterling in the City game. But the referee thought it was enough to award Arsenal a free kick, which led to Mustafi’s goal.

The Gunners doubled the lead in the 42nd when Bellerin released Lacazette down the right flank. The France striker cut the ball back for Sanchez, who controlled the ball before firing into the roof of the net from a tight angle. Dier was the culprit for both goals. He’s not a natural centerback and you kind of wonder whether Alderweireld would have prevented those goals. Sanchez was twice in a similar situation in the second half. He took a pass from Ozil in the 76th and dribbled past Dier but was denied by Lloris. The difference with his first-half goal is that Sanchez was on the left side of the area. Instead of shooting with his weaker left foot, Sanchez preferred to open up his body and use his right foot. In that kind of 1v1 situation, you can bet that Romario would have attempted a toe poke. In stoppage time, Sanchez chased a long ball from Coquelin and stayed on his feet despite a poor challenge from Davinson only to be denied by Lloris again.

Lack of lucidity

Lacazette got an assist but he wasted two good chances in the opening minutes. He charged down a clearance from Dier in the fifth minute and the loose ball fell to Sanchez, who played it back to Lacazette. The France striker cut inside only to fire over the bar from 15 yards. The better option was to pick out an unmarked Ozil at the far post. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal Spurs M05ed The pass that Lacazette should have made to Ozil. (Photo credit: Sky)

You would expect better from a player who scored twice in the 2-2 draw between France and Germany during the international break. Lacazette lacked again lucidity in the 19th when Ramsey released Bellerin down the right flank. Instead of keeping pace with Bellerin, Lacazette slowed his run and couldn’t connect with the Spaniard’s low cross for a tap-in. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Lacazette is two yards ahead Dier and Davinson when Bellerin takes the pass from Ramsey.

Arsenal Spurs M19aed Lacazette, circled, is behind the potential offside line. (Photo credit: Sky)

When Bellerin cuts the ball back, Lacazette has lost so much ground that he is sandwiched between Davinson and Dier. By staying too far behind the potential offside line, Lacazette basically put himself in a more difficult position to finish the play. See the screen capture below. If Lacazette had kept pace with Bellerin, he would have had a tap-in from 4 yards.

Arsenal Spurs M19ced Lacazette, circled, is surrounded by Dier and Davinson. (Photo credit: Sky)

On the wings, Kolasinac played a more defensive role than Bellerin. Kolasinac struggled offensively with a passing accuracy of 58%, the lowest percentage among the outfield players, but he kept Trippier quiet. By contrast, Bellerin created that chance for Lacazette but sometimes gave too much room to Davies, who led Spurs with 3 key passes.

Ramsey’s tackling frenzy

In midfield, Ramsey put in a tremendous shift by winning 4 of 11 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. The fact that Ramsey had no goal attempt tells you that he was completely focused on his defensive duties. Xhaka also contributed defensively by making 2 blocks and winning 1 of 7 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels. At times, Xhaka looked like the weak link in midfield. He made a cynical foul on Sissoko to kill a counterattack in the 24th and was booked in the 32nd for an obstruction on Alli. At least, Xhaka controlled his nerves to avoid a second yellow card.

A couple of chances exposed the absence of a natural defensive midfielder in that duo. Eriksen cut inside Xhaka to hit the base of the post in the 33rd. Then Kolasinac and Monreal failed to stop a cross from Sissoko in the 34th as an unmarked Kane tested Cech with a header. As you can see on the screen capture below, both Kane and Eriksen were unmarked on the edge of the box while Ramsey and Xhaka were in no man’s land.

Arsenal Spurs M34edRamsey and Xhaka leave Kane and Eriksen unmarked on the edge of the box. (Photo credit: Sky)

At the back, Koscielny was arguably the best defender, winning 75% of his duels compared to 50% for Monreal and 40% for Mustafi, according to the club’s website. The Arsenal captain also made 4 interceptions and 3 blocks and won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels. Some poor communication between Koscielny and Mustafi nearly cost Arsenal a goal in the sixth minute. Kane cut inside Mustafi only to shoot straight at Cech. Mustafi made amends by netting the opener and blocking a strike from Kane in the 56th.

Hectic schedule

Kane and Alli seemed to lack sharpness and were replaced by Llorente and Son in the 75th. Meanwhile, Wenger tried to protect the lead by sending on Coquelin for Lacazette in the 73rd and Iwobi for Ozil in the 84th. Throwing the kitchen sink at the Arsenal defense, Spurs played more direct in the closing minutes. Dier outjumped Monreal at the far post to meet a cross from Davies for a header that Cech palmed away in the 81st. Then Tottenham capitalized on an Iwobi turnover to launch a counterattack in the 85th. Llorente outjumped Mustafi to knock a long ball down for Son, who volleyed over the bar from 15 yards.

The Gunners next play Cologne in the Europa League on Thursday. They will need to rotate because the Tottenham game was just the first of 15 games in a 50-day span. With such a hectic schedule, there’s a too big risk of injury for players like Ramsey, Welbeck and Koscielny. Another reason for resting key players is the Premier League game against Burnley next weekend. The Clarets are level on points with Arsenal in the standings. The Gunners could lose at Turf Moor if they don’t match Burnley’s desire and commitment. They have turned the Emirates stadium into a fortress with 6 wins from 6 Premier League games. But it’s a different story on the road with just 1 win from 6 away games. The Gunners definitely need a better record if they want to finish in the Top 4.

 

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Gunners out of title race after 3-1 loss

   Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Manchester City made clear that the Gunners are not contenders in the Premier League this season. They dropped to 6th place in the standings, 12 points behind the Citizens. If we look at the bigger picture, we can also see that Guardiola has nearly completed his house while Wenger’s house is still missing an entire floor and a roof. It’s true that Guardiola has spent more money than the French manager but Wenger has had more time to build his squad. The Citizens have spent £416 million since the summer of 2016, according to transfermarkt.co.uk, compared to £319 million since the summer of 2013 for Arsenal. Basically, Guardiola has completed his project within a year and a half while there are still holes in the Gunners’ squad more than 4 years after Ozil joined the club.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal

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

There were two surprises in the starting lineup: Iwobi started in the front three and Coquelin played alongside Monreal and Koscielny in the back three. Holding would have been a more natural choice than Coquelin at centerback, but the U23 player had a thigh strain according to Wenger. In the center of the back three, Coquelin had a role similar to Dier at Tottenham. Up front, Sanchez played in the lone striker role with Iwobi and Ozil as inside forwards. I don’t really understand why the manager was reluctant to start Lacazette. Trailing 2-0 in the second half, Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Coquelin with Lacazette in the 57th minute. Lacazette played 20 minutes as a centerforward before moving to the right wing in the 78th when Giroud and Wilshere came on for Iwobi and Xhaka.

In the end, the formation didn’t really matter. What made the difference was the capacity to capitalize on turnovers. The Gunners showed a bit of naivety at times by trying to play the ball out from the back. At least they had an excuse: Arsenal had no natural outlet for high balls with Sanchez as the lone striker.

A tactical surprise that backfired

I guess the biggest disappointment from the game was the average performance in the first half. All of the Citizens’ chances in the first 45 minutes came from turnovers (Sanchez in the 2nd, 42nd and 44th, Coquelin in the 11th, Iwobi in the 18th, Ozil in the 33rd, Ramsey in the 35th, and Xhaka in the 38th).

The Gunners should have performed better for the simple reason that Wenger made 10 changes to the side that drew with Red Star Belgrade on Thursday. By contrast, City could not claim the same freshness. Guardiola made just 2 changes to the side that won 4-2 in Italy on Wednesday with Walker and Silva replacing Danilo and Gundogan in the starting lineup. Yet, the Citizens won 55.1% of their duels, according to the club’s website. It might have been a different story if the quality of the final ball had been better in the first half: Bellerin put too much weight on his pass for Ozil in the 7th while Sanchez overhit his through ball for the Germany playmaker in the 25th.

Wenger prepared a tactical surprise for Guardiola by starting Sanchez as a centerforward for the first time this season. The move backfired as Sanchez led all players with 11 turnovers, 6 more than Ramsey who had the second worst turnover rate in the Arsenal team, according to whoscored.com. The Chile striker was also caught offside 3 times.

In the second half, Sanchez forgot his defensive duties. Silva flicked on a corner toward the far post, where Jesus took advantage of the passivity of Sanchez and Xhaka to test Cech in the 68th. Then a Kolasinac turnover led to a dangerous situation in the 74th. Kolasinac was pulled out of position after chasing Sterling and Silva. Sanchez could have covered Kolasinac by closing down Fernandinho. But Sanchez preferred to stand back, giving Fernandinho plenty of time to pick out Silva. See the screen capture below. The Spain international cut the ball back for Jesus, who tapped home for a 3-1 lead. TV replays showed Silva was offside. Still, Bellerin should have played to the whistle instead of freezing and leaving Fernandinho unmarked.

City M74 edited Kolasinac is drawn out of position as Sanchez is not closing down Fernandinho, circled. (Photo credit: Sky)

It’s easy to second-guess Sanchez after such a defeat. But stats show Sanchez wasn’t the worst softie in the front three. Sanchez made 2 key passes, 5 tackles, 0 interception and 0 block, compared to 0 key pass, 5 tackles, 1 interception and 0 block for Ozil and 0 key pass, 2 tackles, 0 interception and 1 block for Iwobi, according to Squawka.

The reality of total football

When the team has to fight for ball possession, you know it’s not a game for Ozil. It was quite telling that De Bruyne dispossessed Ozil in the 63rd. You often hear football pundits say that Ozil is a creative player who needs teammates around him to do the defensive work. But players like Fernandinho and De Bruyne show that it’s possible for talented players to both attack and defend. In the early 1970’s, Cruyff’s Ajax team became the symbol of total football. It’s no coincidence if Guardiola, who had Cruyff as manager at Barcelona in the 1990’s, shares a similar vision of football. De Bruyne scored a goal, had 5 successful dribbles out of 5, and made 9 tackles, 4 blocks and 3 interceptions, according to Squawka.

While Ozil performed poorly compared to De Bruyne, Iwobi is the one who should be ashamed of his work-rate. Some fans will only remember Iwobi’s long-range strike that Ederson spilled in the 55th or the 50-50 challenge that Iwobi won inside the Arsenal area in the 44th. But they will forget that Iwobi had the opportunity to close down Walker a couple of times in the first half but preferred to stay 4 or 5 yards away from the City rightback.

The draw at Stamford Bridge is sometimes mentioned as a blueprint for a hard-working front three without Sanchez and Ozil. But it was Welbeck’s work-rate that really made a difference against Chelsea, not Iwobi’s presence. In my eyes, Iwobi doesn’t read the game well enough yet to deserve a starting spot, especially in a big game against City. Iwobi had two good passing options in the 76th, but preferred to run into traffic and was dispossessed. See the screen capture below. There’s no doubt that Iwobi has great potential. But at 21, he’s simply not developing as quickly as Alli at Tottenham.

City M76 editedIwobi ignores Lacazette and Ozil to run into traffic. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Arsenal midfield has been a running gag this season. Guardiola exploited the lack of pressure in the hole behind Sanchez for the first two goals. It’s mind-boggling when you know that Wenger played as a central midfielder in his youth and that he developed very good defensive midfielders like Puel and Petit at Monaco. Yet, for years now, Wenger hasn’t been able to find the missing component in midfield.

Xhaka’s lack of mobility

The pairing of Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield is a flawed partnership because they can’t properly defend. Silva intercepted a sloppy pass from Iwobi in the 18th to release Aguero down our left flank. The Argentina striker made a cross that the Arsenal defense cleared into the path of De Bruyne, whose half-volley was parried by Cech. As you can see on the screen capture below, Ramsey is patrolling the edge of the box but is not marking De Bruyne, while Xhaka is sitting too deep, interfering with Coquelin’s defensive duties. In fact, both Xhaka and Coquelin collided on that play.

City M18a edited.jpgXhaka is in no man’s land while Ramsey can’t prevent De Bruyne from winning the second ball. (Photo credit: Sky)

On the same play, a couple of seconds after Cech’s save, the ball was played back to De Bruyne, who exchanged passes with Fernandinho to open the scoring with a low diagonal strike. Xhaka was too far to pressure Fernandinho, while Ramsey failed to stay with De Bruyne. See the screen capture below. Inside the area, Koscielny couldn’t block De Bruyne’s goal attempt.

City M18b edited.jpgRamsey fails to stay with De Bruyne, who plays a one-two with Fernandinho, left unmarked by Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

City’s second goal in the 49th exposed the same issue. Following a long spell of domination from the Citizens, Fernandinho hit a long ball toward Sterling, who beat the offside trap and won a penalty from a Monreal challenge. Wenger called it a dive. I thought it was a slightly more legitimate penalty than the one awarded to Watford for the Bellerin challenge. Sterling definitely went down easily but what swayed the referee was that Monreal did not make a genuine attempt to play the ball. Because Sterling was smart enough to shield the ball with his body, Monreal basically tried to bully him off the ball.

But focusing on the penalty, converted by Aguero for a 2-0 lead, distracts from the real problem. Xhaka failed to close down Fernandinho, giving him plenty of time to hit a perfect ball over the top for Sterling. Then Kolasinac failed to keep an eye on his teammates’ position and played Sterling onside. See the screen capture below. Things can change quickly in football. Kolasinac was the hero against Swansea the previous weekend. A week later, Kolasinac nearly turned into a villain by getting involved in City’s last two goals.

City M49 editedKolasinac is two yards behind the potential offside line as Xhaka fails to close down Fernandinho. (Photo credit: Sky)

City’s passing game and the movement of their players exposed Xhaka’s lack of mobility. While Fernandinho and De Bruyne made a difference defensively and offensively, Xhaka had no positive impact at all. Xhaka won 1 of 1 tackle, made 1 interception and 1 block, and had 0 key pass and a passing accuracy of 83%. Those are weaker stats than Ramsey, who won 2 of 9 tackles, made 1 interception and 0 block, and had 2 key passes and a passing accuracy of 90%.

The Ramsey-Lacazette understanding

Ramsey’s work-rate means that he’s Arsenal’s most valuable player in midfield. But his poor tactical discipline also means that he shouldn’t play as a central midfielder. I believe Ramsey’s best position is on the right side of a three-man midfield or in the hole as a free-roaming midfielder. On the stroke of halftime, Ramsey took a pass from Sanchez to test Ederson with a low strike. Then Lacazette fed Ramsey, who was denied by Ederson in the 59th. In tough circumstances, Ramsey and Lacazette somehow managed to strike an understanding within a few minutes as Ramsey picked out Lacazette, who fired through Ederson’s legs in the 65th to cut the deficit to 2-1. If I were in the manager’s shoes, I would build the team around that partnership because it’s very hard to know what the club can expect from Sanchez and Ozil these days.

On the wings, Bellerin and Kolasinac were so overwhelmed with their defensive duties that Arsenal’s back three often looked like a back five. Both wingbacks made no dribble and had no key pass. Kolasinac was very lucky to get away with a shove from behind on Sterling, who failed to convert Sane’s cross in the 11th. City also did a good job to cut the supply lines between Kolasinac and Sanchez on the left flank and between Bellerin and Ozil on the right.

At the back, Koscielny limited the damage with some smart defending. In a 1v2 situation, Koscielny backed down and forced Sterling to make a poor cross for an unmarked Sane in the 35th. Three minutes later, Koscielny got ahead of Aguero to divert Walker’s teasing cross and force a point-blank save from Cech. The France centerback also killed a counterattack with a cynical foul in the 67th and intercepted De Bruyne’s final ball for Jesus in the 88th.

A North London derby with a Top 4 spot at stake

Koscielny had the best stats of the back three, having a passing accuracy of 88%, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels, and making 5 interceptions and 0 block. By contrast, City’s pressing game exposed Coquelin’s technical limits. Coquelin had a passing accuracy of 65.2%, the lowest percentage of all the starters. On the bright side, Coquelin won 3 of 4 tackles, including one that killed a dangerous counterattack in the 42nd. Monreal’s relative lack of pace proved a liability against the speed of Aguero, Sterling, Sane and Jesus. The Spaniard won none of the 3 tackles he made. At 32, Koscielny is still the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense despite his recurrent Achilles problem. Mustafi would be his natural successor in the squad if Koscielny’s legs let him down, but the Germany international hasn’t proved as reliable yet.

The next game could be crucial in the Top 4 race. The Gunners host Tottenham after the international break. A defeat in the North London derby could leave Arsenal 6 points behind Chelsea, currently in 4th place. The Gunners have shown some serious defensive frailties against City. There’s no way they can win or even get a point against Spurs with another dodgy defensive performance. The result could set the tone for the toughest stretch of the season with 2 games a week until mid-January if the Gunners are still involved in the League Cup.

 

Arsenal vs. Swansea: Kolasinac & Ramsey save the day in 2-1 win

Kolasinac’s attacking verve and Ramsey’s dynamism fired Arsenal to a 2-1 win over Swansea on Saturday as the Gunners pulled within a point of third-place Tottenham in the Premier League. Wenger made no change to the side that routed Everton 5-2 a week ago. The big difference is that Swansea didn’t give as much space as the Toffees. In a 3-5-2 formation, Clement somehow managed to contain the threat from Sanchez, Ozil and Lacazette.

Arsenal vs. Swansea

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

The visitors could have come away with three points but Naughton proved a weak link at the back. The Swansea wingback left Kolasinac unmarked for both goals. Lacazette set up Ozil with a backheel flick in the 51st minute. Van der Hoorn blocked Ozil’s shot but the ball fell into the path of Kolasinac, who fired past Fabianski to level the game. As you can see in the screen capture below, Naughton didn’t want to leave Van der Hoorn in a 1v1 situation with Sanchez.

Arsenal vs. Swansea M51 editedKolasinac, circled, is unmarked while Naughton and Van der Hoorn are double-teaming Sanchez. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

In a fluid 3-5-2 system, Fer should have dropped back to cover Naughton on that play. Quite a few English clubs have adopted a back three since Conte’s success with Chelsea last season. However, the tactical cogs are complex, especially for the wingback position and for the players who have to cover the wingbacks defensively and offensively.

Seven minutes later, Xhaka switched play from the right flank to the left with a long ball toward Kolasinac, who chested the ball down to feed an onrushing Ramsey. With a first-time effort, Ramsey guided the ball into the bottom corner for a 2-1 lead. As you can see in the screen capture below, Naughton made the mistake of following Sanchez in midfield and left Kolasinac unmarked. Then Fer failed to track Ramsey inside the area.

Arsenal vs. Swansea M58 editedNaughton gives Kolasinac plenty of time to control the ball. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The slim lead made for a nervy finish. The Gunners simply don’t have that ruthless streak to finish off their opponents like Manchester City. Arsenal had 73% of ball possession and 17 shots to 4 for the Swans, who parked the bus and waited for counterattacking opportunities. Swansea made 25 interceptions compared to just 8 for the hosts, according to Squawka.

Defensive sloppiness

A week ago, Everton exposed Arsenal’s defensive sloppiness by taking advantage of blunders to score twice. The Gunners put themselves in trouble again with some poor defending. Koscielny slipped while missing an interception in the 22nd and gave Abraham plenty of time to play Clucas in. The Swansea wingback ghosted past Bellerin to beat Cech with a low strike. Clucas perfectly timed his run but Bellerin should have never lost that duel. Then Bellerin lost possession with a poor first touch in the 40th and Clucas pounced on the loose ball to miss the target from the edge of the Arsenal box. On the stroke of halftime, Mertesacker dallied on the ball and was robbed by Ayew, who was denied by Cech.

The Swans came close to doubling the lead in the 52nd as the Arsenal defense was all over the place. Mertesacker blocked Clucas’ shot and Abraham converted the rebound but the goal was disallowed for offside. The back three looked nervous a couple of times while playing a high defensive line. Last season, the Gunners defeated Chelsea in the FA Cup final with Mertesacker in the starting lineup but I wouldn’t feel so confident for the next league game against Manchester City.

Mertesacker proved dominant in the air by winning 5 of 5 aerial duels while Monreal was the most creative centerback with 3 key passes. The Spaniard also led all players with 114 passes, according to whoscored.com. Koscielny was the most proactive of the back three with 3 interceptions but his missed interception in the 22nd led to the opener.

Kolasinac’s hip injury

On the left wing, Kolasinac produced a Man of the Match performance with a goal and an assist. Kolasinac also won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 1 aerial duel, according to Squawka. He was replaced by Holding in the 78th because of a hip problem. I just hope that Kolasinac will be able to fully recover during the next international break. Bellerin had more defensive work than Kolasinac on the opposite flank. The Spaniard was guilty on the opener and also failed to stop a cross from Clucas in the 77th. Abraham connected with the cross for a spinning shot that sailed wide. Bellerin nearly redeemed himself in the 66th with a volley that hit the crossbar.

A lot of fans keep asking who’s the best partner for Xhaka in midfield. Maybe the more appropriate question is: who’s the best partner for Ramsey in midfield. Both players can’t protect the defense. However, Ramsey is a more valuable player than Xhaka because he’s more mobile and versatile. Ramsey produced a good all-around performance by making 2 key passes and 1 interception and winning 2 of 5 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, while Xhaka made 0 key pass, 1 interception and 1 block and won 0 of 3 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels.

In a 10-minute span, Ramsey caused problems for the Swansea defense. First, Ozil cushioned a long ball into the path of Ramsey, whose goal attempt was blocked in the 56th. Two minutes later, Ramsey found the net from Kolasinac’s pass. The Wales midfielder proved a bit greedy in the 61st, firing over the bar with his left foot as he took the ball off Sanchez, who was about to pull the trigger with his right foot. Finally, Ramsey created a chance for Bellerin in the 66th.

One-dimensional attack

Xhaka showed his value last season with his accurate long balls that helped evade a high press. However, English teams are giving him less time on the ball this season. That explains the dip in his passing accuracy as well as the team’s difficulty to set a high tempo. Under pressure, Cazorla could dribble his way out of trouble. Xhaka doesn’t have Cazorla’s mobility or dribbling skills. Against Swansea, Ozil occasionally dropped back to help the team build up plays.

The front three couldn’t replicate the brilliance of their performance at Goodison Park. Arsenal’s attack looked one-dimensional: Lacazette, Ozil and Sanchez were not involved in any aerial duel. That’s the problem when you don’t have a complete centerforward. Henry and Van Persie had pace and could win headers. Giroud has no pace while Lacazette is not dominant in the air.

The Gunners struggled to find Lacazette because of Swansea’s compact defense. Lacazette doesn’t have Giroud’s physicality but he still proved tidy in possession with 0 turnover. His only scoring chance came in the 64th when he took a pass from Bellerin for a spinning shot that Fabianski saved. Since the start of the season, I keep thinking that Lacazette would be more comfortable in the role of a second striker than as a centerforward, especially in the Premier League which is more physical than the French league where Lacazette used to play.

Ozil had a decent game with 5 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 2. The Germany playmaker also won 2 of 3 tackles. In the front three, Sanchez acts like an equalizer because he can both create and finish while Lacazette is mostly a finisher and Ozil mostly a passer. The Chile striker had 3 shots and 3 key passes. That kind of profile will be hard to find when Sanchez leaves the club.

The accuracy of Sanchez’s delivery nearly made a difference on set pieces. Mertesacker nodded a Sanchez free kick straight at Fabianski in the eighth minute while Koscielny missed the target with his header from a Sanchez free kick in the 55th. Fabianski caught a cross-shot from Sanchez in the sixth minute and parried his angled strike in the 41st. Sanchez didn’t score but the fear he instilled in defenders created gaps for his teammates.

Challenging the board

The Gunners next host Red Star Belgrade on Thursday before visiting Manchester City on Sunday. I expect the manager to rest his key players against the Serbian side because the game at the Etihad stadium is much more important. A defeat would leave Arsenal 12 points behind the Citizens. Such a gap would imply the end of any title bid for the Gunners.

Of course, I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the Annual General Meeting of the club. Thursday’s meeting showed the disconnect between the board and the supporters. Most small shareholders were against the re-election to the Arsenal board of Keswick and Josh Kroenke and forced a vote with a show of hands from the floor. Stan Kroenke saved their seats because he owns 67% of the shares and his vote had therefore more weight.

Gazidis tried to quell the supporters’ dissatisfaction with the governance of the club. Citing metrics comparing points with transfer expenditure, Gazidis claimed that the Gunners were overperforming. Rational supporters thought that it was a joke. Spurs spent less than Arsenal and still finished 11 points ahead of their North London rivals last season.

Over the past few years, Wenger has received the biggest share of the criticism. There’s no doubt that Wenger’s powers are waning. The Gunners finished outside the Top 4 last season for the first time under his tenure. But the owner is the one really holding back the club. Finishing fifth in the league and winning the FA Cup is seen as a success at Arsenal while it would be considered an average season at other big clubs.

Kroenke is only interested in the financial aspect of the club. He has no vision for Arsenal for the simple reason that his passion for sport is diluted in other U.S. teams. The club needs a completely focused owner who can provide some guidance and leadership. The best scenario for the supporters would be Usmanov selling his shares to an investor knowing the club and showing more ambition than Kroenke, someone who could challenge the American billionaire and the board.