Tag Archives: Lacazette

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

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

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

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

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

Failing to stop crosses

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

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

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

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

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

Questionable tactics

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

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

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

The Chamakh syndrome

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

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

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

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

An awkward left foot 

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

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

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

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

Inability to win duels

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

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

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

Son in Bellerin’s pocket

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

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

Still no clean sheet

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

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

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Swansea vs. Arsenal: Poor away form continues with 3-1 loss

The Gunners are now 8 points outside the Top 4 in the Premier League after losing 3-1 to Swansea on Tuesday. Their poor away form this season has seriously hurt their chances of finishing in the Top 4. They only have 3 victories on the road while Manchester City, United, Chelsea and Liverpool have won at least 7 away games.

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

It was an embarrassing performance. Arsenal lacked desire and played at a too slow tempo to trouble the hosts, who were well organized and kept a compact shape. The Gunners enjoyed 74% of ball possession but had the same number of shots on target as Swansea (4). The Swans showed more commitment, winning 12 tackles to 10, making 18 interceptions to 8 and winning 52.9% of the duels, according to the club’s website.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that knocked Chelsea out of the League Cup a week ago with Ramsey and Cech replacing Wilshere and Ospina in the starting lineup. Tactically, Arsenal fluctuated between a 4-3-3 formation and a 3-4-3 system with Elneny playing as a centerback when the team lost possession.

Chasing a winner, the manager replaced Elneny with Mkhitaryan in the 60th minute. The Swans capitalized on that substitution to press high up the pitch and take a 2-1 lead a minute later. It’s not the first time this season that the Gunners have struggled to adjust to a tactical change. A couple of weeks ago, Bournemouth also scored the winning goal a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four.

Wenger threw caution to the wind in the 76th by sending on Giroud for Iwobi and therefore shifting to a 4-4-2 formation. The move backfired as the Gunners conceded a third goal in the closing minutes. The defending has been shambolic this season. And the fact that Arsenal couldn’t keep the lead for more than a minute shows their mental weakness.

Monreal’s poor defensive performance 

Monreal opened the scoring in the 33rd by stabbing home Ozil’s cross to the far post. Because of that goal, Monreal got the best grade among Arsenal players on whoscored.com, but his defensive performance was a disaster. The Gunners signed Kolasinac because neither Gibbs nor Monreal could stop dangerous crosses on the left flank last season. However, the struggles of Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles in the leftback position created the illusion that Monreal had rediscovered his youth. Tuesday’s game was a reminder that Monreal has lost a step.

   Dyer got the better of Monreal in the eighth minute to make a low cross for Mawson at the far post. It took a challenge from Ramsey to prevent a tap-in from the Swansea defender. Dyer also dribbled past Monreal in the 57th but his cross was then intercepted by Cech. Monreal will turn 32 in a few weeks and his declining pace no longer allows him to recover from positional mistakes. The Spaniard was out of position in the 27th when the Swans hit Arsenal on the fast break. It took a clearance from Elneny to prevent Clucas from scoring. Monreal then killed a counterattack with a cynical foul on Naughton in the 67th.

To make matters worse, Monreal was involved in Swansea’s last two goals. Cech was credited with an error for his poor clearance that led to Ayew’s goal in the 61st. But Monreal was just as guilty for letting the ball roll out of play. That was really poor decision-making from Monreal. Why would you invite pressure near the Arsenal goal? As you can see on the screen capture below, Monreal had plenty of time to slip the ball to Cech.

Swansea M61a editedMonreal could have played a safe back pass to Cech. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Once Ayew was in a position to intercept Monreal’s pass to Cech, the Spaniard could have picked out Xhaka instead. See the screen capture below. Then the throw-in was a complete mess. Monreal made a poor throw toward Mustafi, who was under pressure and played the ball back to Cech with his first touch. Surrounded by 3 Swans, Cech panicked and missed his clearance. The ball rolled toward Ayew, who swept it into the net for a 2-1 lead.

Swansea M61b editedXhaka was a safe passing option that Monreal ignored. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

For the last goal, Monreal gave away the ball with a botched clearance in the 86th. Carroll got hold of the ball to feed Ayew, who rounded Mustafi to square the ball back for Clucas. The Swansea winger beat Bellerin and Koscielny to the ball to shoot past Cech from close range.

Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness

   Mustafi’s performance was a mixed bag. He cleared a dangerous cross from Clucas in the fourth minute and made a crucial block to deflect Ayew’s goal attempt in the seventh. But he’s not a commanding presence at the back. Mustafi won 0 of 6 tackles, according to Squawka. He also offered a scoring chance to Dyer with a poor header in the 70th. Dyer had just Cech to beat but somehow missed the target from 12 yards.

Again, the Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfield. Ramsey and Xhaka won 0 tackle. Ramsey lacked a bit of sharpness and had 3 turnovers, while Xhaka showed his lack of defensive awareness. Both were caught up front in the 15th as Fer slipped a through ball to Clucas. The Swansea winger was bearing down on goal but was dispossessed by Elneny’s sliding tackle.

The passivity of the Arsenal midfield played a key role in Swansea’s equalizer. Ozil put himself in trouble with a poor first touch before having his pass for Bellerin intercepted by Mawson, who played Clucas in. Making a run between Xhaka and Koscielny, Clucas beat Cech with a low strike. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Elneny failed to close down Mawson, giving the Swansea defender plenty of time to deliver a perfect final ball.

Swansea M34a editedElneny fails to press Mawson while Xhaka is on the right side of Clucas. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Xhaka was smart enough to cover Bellerin but his poor defensive awareness let him down on that play. He was initially on the right side of Clucas when Mawson had the ball. But he ended up on the wrong side of the Swansea winger when Mawson made the pass. By allowing Clucas to make that inside run, Xhaka also left Koscielny in a 1v2 situation. See the screen capture below.

Swansea M34b editedXhaka is on the wrong side of Clucas. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   Up front, Lacazette struggled again in the centerforward role. The Swansea backline exposed his poor hold-up play. Lacazette took 0 shot and led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The France international clearly lacks the physicality to deal with a compact defense. He doesn’t have Giroud’s power to hold players off. And Lacazette’s weakness in the air also means his teammates are reluctant to feed him with crosses or long balls. Bellerin still made a cross in the 53rd but Van der Hoorn got ahead of Lacazette to clear the ball. Fernandez then beat Lacazette to the ball in the 73rd to head out Monreal’s cross.

Lacazette as a false nine?

   Some football fans will point at Aguero or Firmino as centerforwards who don’t have the physicality of a Giroud, Lukaku or Kane. But Aguero and Firmino both play in the false nine role while Lacazette is used as a traditional striker at Arsenal. Since his signing, I’ve kept saying that Lacazette is mostly a second striker who would struggle to lead the line in the Premier League. I’m not surprised that Lacazette led all players with 3 key passes because that’s what second strikers do: they are involved in the build-up besides scoring goals.

Ozil did his bit by providing the assist for Monreal. With a decent defense, it would have been enough to claim the 3 points. Ozil finished the game with 2 key passes and led all players with 121 passes. I still thought he lacked a bit of support in sharing the creative burden. Mkhitaryan’s cameo injected more creativity in the team but also made it slightly more vulnerable defensively. The Armenia international made a clever cross in the 79th but Giroud failed to anticipate and missed a tap-in opportunity.

Starting on the left wing, Iwobi showed some poor work-rate after his good performance against Chelsea in the League Cup. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 0 interception and just 1 block, according to Squawka. That’s not good enough at the top level. On the other hand, Iwobi’s offensive contribution was decent. He tested Fabianski with an angled strike in the 30th and created 2 chances. The Nigeria international still has this tendency to go for personal glory instead of feeding teammates in a better position. He opted for a long-range strike in the 65th while he could have picked out Monreal or Ramsey to his left.

Missing a dribbler

In the end, the Gunners missed one key weapon to crack the Swansea defense: dribbling. They only had 5 successful dribbles on Tuesday. The Citizens can rely Sane and Sterling to run at defenders when the passing game can’t make the difference. Likewise, the Blues have Hazard while the Reds have Salah and Mane. The Gunners lost their best dribbler by selling Oxlade-Chamberlain last summer. We no longer have that kind of profile in the current squad. Nketiah and Nelson have great dribbling skills, but they are just prospects at this stage of their career and therefore unlikely to have an immediate impact in the Premier League.

The January transfer window closed on Wednesday night as the Gunners were more busy than usual in the transfer market. They signed Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund for £56 million (a club record fee), extended Ozil’s contract, sold Giroud to Chelsea, and let Debuchy join Saint-Etienne on a free transfer.

If we analyze the transfer window from a tactical viewpoint, Aubameyang and Lacazette are replacing Giroud and Sanchez for goals while Mkhitaryan is replacing Cazorla for creativity. It’s a step in the right direction but not enough to turn Arsenal into a contender or even improve the club’s chances of a Top 4 finish.

The attacking stats are OK: the Gunners have scored more goals than Chelsea and only 3 fewer than Spurs and Manchester United. On the other hand, the defensive stats are a disaster: the Gunners have conceded 34 goals from 25 league games, the same total as Brighton and West Brom, which are both fighting relegation. By contrast, Manchester City and United have only conceded 18 goals each. Tuesday’s loss showed that Arsenal must sign at least a defensive midfielder, a centerback and a leftback to have a shot at a Top 4 finish next season. Elneny and Xhaka can’t protect the defense, Koscielny and Monreal are past their prime, and Kolasinac has disappointed in the fullback position.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Chelsea

The Gunners are just one victory away from lifting a trophy this season after edging Chelsea 2-1 in the second leg of their League Cup semifinal on Wednesday. Wenger took that game seriously as he made only one change to the side that smashed Crystal Palace 4-1 last weekend with Ospina replacing Cech in goal.

League Cup Semi 02

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

Arsenal showed great team spirit to rally from a goal down. Starting in a 4-3-3 formation, the Gunners were quickly in trouble because of the pace and movement of Pedro, Willian and Hazard. The manager switched to a back three in the second half with Elneny playing in a deeper position.

After Xhaka made it 2-1 in the 60th minute, Chelsea never managed to threaten again, except on a set piece. The Blues had limited options on the bench because of injuries to Fabregas and Morata. They also lacked the tactical flexibility to shift to a back four in order to put more pressure on Arsenal.

  1. Iwobi is a different player

The Nigeria international showed some great work-rate with 5 tackles won, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, and 2 interceptions. Iwobi is now challenging for the ball instead of just tracking back without closing down anybody. That makes a huge difference both defensively and offensively. When you close down the ballholder, he is less likely to make a good pass. And if the ballholder loses possession, then it becomes a counterattacking opportunity.

Iwobi could have finished the game with a goal and an assist. He slipped a through ball to Wilshere, who took a heavy first touch and was denied by Caballero in the ninth minute. Then Ozil led a counterattack in the 76th and fed Iwobi, whose low strike was saved by Caballero. Iwobi still has this tendency to shoot toward the middle of the net instead of aiming at the corners. He’s only 21 but finishing is definitely one part of his game that needs improvement.

  1. Monreal can be quite a goal threat

The Spaniard showed his flair on corners against Crystal Palace. The Blues were aware of the threat but couldn’t prevent Monreal from connecting with an Ozil corner in the 12th for a header that ricocheted off Alonso and Rudiger to beat a wrongfooted Caballero. Monreal nearly repeated the trick in the 40th when he met an Ozil free kick for a tame header straight at Caballero. In the second half, Monreal focused on his defensive duties, receiving a yellow card for bringing down Hazard in the 66th and preventing Zappacosta from tapping home Alonso’s low cross in the 77th.

  1. Lacazette had a night to forget

The France international took 0 shot and led all players with 5 offside calls against him. He even put the Gunners in trouble with a poor crossfield pass for Iwobi in the 80th. But what I like with Lacazette is that he always works hard for the team whether it’s a good day or a bad day. Lacazette somehow created the winning goal with a pass for Iwobi that took a deflection off Rudiger to fall into the path of Xhaka, who beat Azpilicueta to the loose ball to flick it past Caballero from 6 yards. Conte must have been furious to concede a goal on such a play because it was a 7v3 situation inside the Chelsea area.

  1. Mustafi produced a shaky performance

A poor clearance from Mustafi in the fifth minute led to Chelsea’s first scoring chance but Pedro’s goal was disallowed for offside. Two minutes later, Mustafi made a mistake in his positional play. Kante picked out Pedro, who played Hazard in and the Belgium star beat Ospina to open the scoring. As you can see on the screen capture below, Wilshere and Elneny failed to close down Kante, who had plenty of time to find Pedro. Before Pedro got the ball, Mustafi failed to mark Hazard and was too far from Koscielny. Hazard just had to make a run in the gap between Mustafi and Koscielny to take Pedro’s pass and be clean through on goal.

League Cup Semi M07ed Elneny and Wilshere fail to close down Kante while Mustafi is not marking Hazard. (Photo credit: Sky)

It could have been worse for Mustafi in the second half. Mustafi seemed to clip Hazard’s leg in the 53rd as the Chelsea striker was bearing down on goal but no foul was given. Then Mustafi was beaten to the ball by Rudiger, who headed a corner over the bar in the 82nd with Ospina in no man’s land. In the closing minutes, Mustafi gave away a dangerous free kick with a silly foul on Barkley, who had his back to goal.

  1. Wilshere is no Maradona

The England international led all players with 6 successful dribbles, but he lost possession at least three times while dallying on the ball instead of releasing it. Wilshere received a yellow card in the 31st for a late challenge on Barkley after turning the ball over. He was also dispossessed by Rudiger in the 46th and Bakayoko in the 81st. You are venturing into Maradona territory when you take 6 or 7 consecutive touches. In modern football, most players don’t have the time to take more than 3 or 4 touches because they get quickly surrounded. Wilshere doesn’t have the pace and dribbling skills of a Messi to take so many touches. Hopefully, he will play more soberly in the future.

  1. Mkhitaryan was not in the squad

The swap deal between Sanchez and Mkhitaryan was completed on Monday. However, Mkhitaryan can no longer participate in the League Cup this season for the simple reason that he has played a few minutes for Manchester United in this competition and is therefore cup-tied.

Arsenal limited the damage in the Sanchez saga by finding a replacement for the Chile striker. Mkhitaryan won’t score as many goals as Sanchez but he will add more creativity and hopefully help provide better service for Lacazette. Signing Lemar and selling Sanchez last summer would have been a better scenario because the uncertainty surrounding Sanchez’s contractual situation destabilized the dressing room and because Lemar is only 22 while Mkhitaryan is already 29.

If we look at the bigger picture, the summer and winter transfers don’t reflect well on Arsenal’s ambitions. The Gunners are one of the few Premier League clubs to have made a profit in the transfer market (some £45 million according to transfermarkt.co.uk). Clubs usually take a loss in the transfer market because they still have the money from the commercial deals, broadcasting rights and match day sales to recover financially.

Within a few months, Arsenal signed Lacazette, Kolasinac, Mavropanos and Mkhitaryan and sold Szczesny, Gibbs, Paulista, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Coquelin and Sanchez. In my eyes, the squad is definitely weaker. The Gunners got a top striker with Lacazette but lost a match-winner with Sanchez. In midfield, they added Mkhitaryan but lost the younger and more versatile Oxlade-Chamberlain. At the back, they decided to rely on the shaky Chambers and Holding to compensate for the departure of the more experienced Paulista.

On the bright side, the club cleared some dead wood by selling Szczesny, Gibbs, Walcott and Coquelin. Szczesny and Gibbs had their path blocked by Ospina and Monreal, respectively, while Walcott and Coquelin were too limited technically. The trouble is that the transfer money hasn’t been properly re-invested in the squad yet. Mavropanos is just a prospect while Kolasinac has been a disappointment defensively.

 

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

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

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace

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

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

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

End of Lacazette’s goal drought

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

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

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

Nelson’s Premier League debut

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

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

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

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace Iwobi edited

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

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

Wilshere’s high turnover rate

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

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

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

Koscielny’s reading of the game

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

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

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

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Gunners pay price for poor transfer policy

   The Arsenal board must act quickly to clean up the mess created by the uncertainty about Sanchez’s situation at the club. Sanchez was not even on the bench Sunday when the Gunners lost 2-1 to Bournemouth in the Premier League. That tells you the club did not want to take any risk of injury before a possible transfer. Ironically, Bordeaux had no scruples about starting Malcom in the French league on Saturday even though the Brazilian forward has been tipped as the replacement for Sanchez. Guess what? Bordeaux won at Troyes.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

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

Last August, the Gunners performed poorly in losses to Stoke and Liverpool. The contractual situations of Sanchez, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly created doubt in the dressing room. The Ox is gone but Sanchez and Ozil are still at the club and the Arsenal squad could get destabilized again by all the transfer rumors. Sanchez could have joined Manchester City a few months ago for £60 million but Arsenal wasted too much time to meet Monaco’s asking price for Lemar, offering £31 million in June, then £40 million in July and finally £92 million at the end of August. By the time Monaco accepted the Gunners’ bid, Lemar had already started his season with the French side and was no longer willing to move, forcing Arsenal to call off the Sanchez deal.

   Will the Arsenal board learn from its mistakes and quickly sell Sanchez while signing his replacement? Or will it be another debacle with Sanchez leaving on a free transfer and his replacement coming only in the summer? If the Gunners want to know how to do some proper business, they just need to look at Liverpool. The Reds sold Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million and signed Van Dijk from Southampton for £75 million. The impact on the dressing room has been quite positive since Liverpool edged Manchester City 4-3 on Sunday.

A mid-table team

The Gunners face a massive rebuilding task this summer. Sunday’s game at the Vitality stadium gave them a foretaste of what the team could look like next season if they don’t improve the squad. Wenger fielded pretty much a mid-table team with 6 high-profile players (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Sanchez and Ozil) missing in the starting lineup. The club has already lost a year in the rebuilding process by refusing to sell Sanchez and Ozil last summer. And I don’t think the Arsenal board understands the financial implications of a massive overhaul.

Before the start of the season, I said Arsenal should have sold Chambers, loaned out Holding and signed an experienced centerback. The club chose the worst solution by selling Paulista while keeping Chambers and Holding as back-up options for the aging Mertesacker, Monreal and Koscielny. We saw the result of that poor transfer policy against Bournemouth as Chambers and Holding were involved in the two goals conceded.

The Cherries equalized in the 70th minute when Wilson converted a cross from Fraser. That’s the kind of goal that doesn’t make sense. Wilson was double-teamed by Chambers and Bellerin while Fraser and Mousset were surrounded by 4 Gunners along the touchline. Arsenal had numerical superiority on that play but lost two key duels. First, Maitland-Niles allowed Fraser to ghost past him. And second, Chambers failed to intercept the cross because of his lack of pace. To make things worse, Mustafi was pulled out of position by Mousset and couldn’t act as a safety. Cech was credited with an error by whoscored.com, but I don’t think that the Czech goalkeeper made a mistake for the simple reason that Wilson beat Chambers to the ball and had a free shot from 11 yards.

A flawed back three

Bournemouth scored the winner in the 74th, just a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four. As you can see on the screen capture below, the backline was not ready: Holding played Wilson onside by staying 4 yards behind Mustafi. With his back to goal, Wilson controlled a ball over the top from Cook and set up Ibe, who rifled a half-volley past Cech.

Bournemouth M72a editedHolding is 4 yards behind Mustafi while Xhaka keeps an eye on Ibe. (Photo credit: Sky)

Holding should have stood on the same line as Mustafi and Maitland-Niles. Xhaka also made a mistake on that play by not tracking Ibe, who beat everybody to the second ball. It’s not the first time this season that Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness has cost his team a goal.

Bournemouth M72b edited Xhaka forgets to track Ibe, who scores the winning goal. (Photo credit: Sky)

   While a back three of Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi can perform at a good level, Sunday’s back three of Mustafi, Holding and Chambers is deeply flawed. As the sweeper, Mustafi should be cautious but he’s sometimes too easily pulled out of position. That rashness can be deadly with 2 youngsters at the back. Holding is a pro-active defender like Mustafi but tends to dive in too often, winning only 2 of 7 tackles according to Squawka. By contrast, Chambers is way too passive: he made no tackle at all.

On the left wing, Maitland-Niles had a poor game. He had some lapses of concentration that are not acceptable at the top level. As the last defender on a corner in the 13th, Maitland-Niles gave the ball away to Ibe, who initiated a counterattack. He then fouled Smith in the 39th after losing possession with a poor touch on the edge of the Arsenal box. A few seconds later, Maitland-Niles had a pass intercepted by Smith, whose tame effort didn’t trouble Cech. Besides the cross for Bournemouth’s equalizer in the 70th, Maitland-Niles also failed to stop dangerous crosses from Ibe in the 40th and Francis in the 65th. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress, but he will have to quickly get rid of his naivety. The academy player was dribbled past 3 times.

Lacazette deprived of service

On the opposite wing, Bellerin was arguably Arsenal’s best player. The Spaniard scored a goal, won 5 of 6 tackles and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. He opened the scoring in the 52nd by firing a low strike that Begovic could only divert into his own net. After an average start to the season, Bellerin is getting close to the level of performance that led to his inclusion in the 2015-16 PFA Team of the Year, striking the right balance between attack and defense.

In midfield, Xhaka and Wilshere struggled defensively. Xhaka was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, while Wilshere led all players with 7 turnovers. They received yellow cards and combined to win only 1 of 11 tackles. Ramsey made his return from injury by replacing Chambers in the 74th. The Wales midfielder didn’t look sharp, making some inaccurate passes. It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks whether the manager switches to a back four to have Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield, or if he sticks to a back three and therefore benches one of the three midfielders.

In the front three, Lacazette was deprived of service. Sanchez and Ozil are two world-class players who can see and execute plays. The less talented Welbeck and Iwobi couldn’t make up for their absence. Lacazette was so frustrated that he dropped back to create chances for his teammates. He took 0 shot but attempted 4 through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles met a cross from Lacazette in the eighth minute and created space to fire a shot that clipped the bar. Then Lacazette slipped a through ball to Welbeck, who was denied by Begovic in the 35th. In the second half, Lacazette sent a ball over the top for Iwobi, who was dispossessed by Cook, and slightly overhit a through ball for Welbeck.

No Top 4 finish?

I’m worried about Lacazette’s confidence. He hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game. The France international worked hard on Sunday, winning 1 of 2 tackles, and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, but he struggled again in the centerforward role with 7 turnovers and only 1 of 10 aerial duels won. Welbeck and Iwobi didn’t do much to feed him. They combined to make only one cross. Iwobi wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 12th by ignoring Lacazette twice on the same play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi ended up running into traffic before playing a backpass to Wilshere and the chance was gone.

Bournemouth M12b edited Lacazette shows Iwobi where to play the ball. (Photo credit: Sky) 

Bournemouth M12c edited A second later, Lacazette points again where the ball should be played. (Photo credit: Sky)

Iwobi made the assist for Bellerin’s goal but his creative contribution was limited. In fact, that was Iwobi’s only key pass of the game. Somehow, it put more pressure on Wilshere and Xhaka to create plays even though they were busy defensively (Xhaka and Wilshere combined to make 6 key passes). Iwobi tested Begovic with a 20-yard drive in the 10th but missed his cross for Welbeck in the 28th in a situation that was similar to Bournemouth’s equalizer. The Nigeria international was lucky not to get penalized in the 39th for a silly handball inside the Arsenal area.

Arsenal’s record on the road has been poor this season with just 3 away wins while Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have won 6 away games at least. We shouldn’t look elsewhere if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4.

The Gunners trail fourth-place Chelsea by 8 points in the standings with 15 games left. Mathematically, Arsenal can still finish in the Top 4. But that would imply a winning run from Arsenal and an implosion from Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea. If we’re honest, winning the Europa League is the club’s most realistic chance to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Gunners salvage 2-2 draw despite erratic defending

In Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea, the Gunners got a foretaste of what their defense could look like next season. Injuries to Monreal and Koscielny led Wenger to start Mustafi, Chambers and Holding in the back three. And the result on the pitch wasn’t pretty. The Blues could have won by a big margin if Cech had not pulled off a couple of outstanding saves and if Morata had not missed some big chances.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 1-1 at the Hawthorns on Sunday with Holding, Maitland-Niles and Ozil replacing Koscielny, Kolasinac and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Both teams used 3-5-2 formations which favored a lot of end-to-end plays. The Blues were the better team, creating 14 chances to just 6 for the Gunners, according to Squawka.

Defensively, Arsenal’s back three was all over the place. Mustafi is not an organizer like Mertesacker and he doesn’t absorb pressure like Koscielny. In the role of the sweeper, Mustafi failed to chaperone Chambers and Holding. There have been some cases of pub defending this season because of poor focus or poor decision-making, but the level of panic and disorganization reached on Wednesday was a first.

Chambers was again the weak link at the back, winning only 23% of his duels according to the club’s website. He’s a decent player for an average club but not good enough to start for Arsenal or any team chasing a Champions League spot. Chambers got off to a bad start with a poor challenge on Alonso in the second minute. He was then dispossessed in dangerous areas in the 13th and 79th and gave the ball away in the 28th.

His lack of pace was also exposed a couple of times. Morata made a run in behind Chambers in the 14th to be clean through on goal but missed the target from 12 yards. Then Hazard outpaced Chambers in the 50th to fire a diagonal strike that Cech saved with his leg. Chambers was again tortured by Morata in the 70th. Chasing a through ball from Fabregas, Morata bullied and held off Chambers but his chip attempt sailed wide.

Chambers’ passivity

I don’t think Chambers understands the difference between a back four and a back three. While Koscielny and Monreal are pro-active wide centerbacks, Chambers is too passive for such a position. Chambers made 0 interception and 0 block whereas Holding and Mustafi made 5 interceptions and 2 blocks each, according to Squawka.

It was quite telling that Mustafi and Chambers had a heated argument in the 14th after Chambers stopped chasing Morata, hoping that Mustafi would cover him. Mustafi was so frustrated by Chambers’ passivity that he tried to compensate and too often dived in. That’s why Mustafi was out of position when Chelsea had chances in the 50th and 70th.

The Blues exploited the mess in the Arsenal defense by sending long balls. Morata received a long ball from Cahill in the 76th to feed Hazard, who played the ball back to Morata. Holding was out of position on that play while Mustafi was outpaced by Morata, whose cross was intercepted by Cech. Chelsea nearly scored the winner in stoppage time. Morata made a run in behind Mustafi to bear down on goal but was denied by Cech. Zappacosta pounced on the rebound only to rattle the bar.

When Koscielny retires, I’m not sure Mustafi will be the right person to marshal the defense. Mustafi gave away some cheap free kicks with silly fouls on Morata in the eighth minute and Hazard in the 57th. He also lost two key duels inside the area. Morata got ahead of Mustafi in the 15th but couldn’t convert Moses’ cross. Then Alonso ghosted past Mustafi in the 84th to tap in Zappacosta’s cross for a 2-1 lead.

Lack of protection from the midfield

Of the 3 centerbacks, only Holding did OK. He won 71% of his duels, compared to 50% for Mustafi. At 22, Holding will need to learn faster because he’s still too raw. He was lucky not to get a yellow card in the 48th for a cynical foul on Morata. Five minutes later, Holding finally got booked for a late challenge on Fabregas. Holding will have to get rid of his naivety. He was pulled out of position by Hazard in the 27th when Bakayoko tested Cech with a high shot. His reading of the game is also a concern. Bakayoko made runs in behind Holding in the 34th and 69th while chasing long balls from Fabregas.

The Gunners are paying the price for their failure to sign good centerbacks in the past few years. Paulista never really convinced and was therefore sold to Valencia last summer. Holding is a work in progress while Chambers will never be a top centerback because of his lack of pace and poor ability to win duels. Mustafi is still a big question mark and hasn’t performed yet at the level of a Koscielny in his prime.

Arsenal’s defensive frailties are made more obvious by the lack of protection provided by the midfield. Fabregas had so much freedom on Wednesday that he racked up 6 key passes before Drinkwater replaced him in the 71st. Fabregas often dropped back to escape marking and deliver pinpoint long balls. In that kind of situation, a midfielder or a forward must mark him. But neither the manager nor the players could find the solution.

Fabregas’ performance showed how much the Gunners missed Ramsey in midfield. Xhaka and Wilshere simply can’t match Ramsey’s mobility and work-rate. Wilshere opened the scoring in the 63rd with a powerful strike into the top corner, but his defensive contribution was poor: he won 0 tackle, made 0 interception and 0 block. In fact, Chelsea completely outplayed Arsenal in midfield. Kante, Bakayoko and Fabregas combined to win 7 of 16 tackles and make 10 interceptions and 7 blocks, according to Squawka. By contrast, Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil combined to win 2 of 9 tackles and make 2 interceptions and 3 blocks.

A soft penalty

In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 3 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. Ozil fired a long-range strike that Courtois turned around the post in the 39th. He also added more fluency in the team’s passing game and was able to find pockets of space in a compact Chelsea defense. But the comparison with Fabregas showed again Ozil’s main weakness in those tight games. The Germany playmaker won’t fight for the ball like Fabregas. He will also struggle offensively when under pressure. Kante dispossessed Ozil on the stroke of halftime to launch a counterattack.

On the wings, Bellerin and Maitland-Niles were among Arsenal’s best performers with Cech, although they will probably be remembered for their involvement in Chelsea’s goals. Bellerin showed poor decision-making in the 66th when Hazard’s cross was blocked. The Spaniard thought he could beat Hazard to the loose ball but ended up kicking his boot. It was a soft foul and Hazard definitely exaggerated contact. But the golden rule is that when you make a challenge inside the box, you have to win the ball. And Bellerin didn’t. Hazard sent Cech the wrong way to level the game. Wenger called the penalty a “farcical” decision. I can understand the manager’s frustration. Bellerin has been denied two penalties that they were more obvious this season. The Spaniard made amends in stoppage time by pouncing on a poor clearance from the Chelsea defense to volley into the far corner.

Besides that late goal, Bellerin had 2 successful dribbles out of 3, made 1 interception, and won 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels, according to Squawka. At 20, Maitland-Niles looked very mature against Chelsea. He led Arsenal players with 4 blocks and 3 successful dribbles out of 4. Maitland-Niles also created a chance, won 75% of his duels and 3 of 6 tackles, according to the club’s website.

Poor final ball

Some fans keep complaining about Maitland-Niles being played out of position, but the problem is that he looks more solid at left wingback than Kolasinac. When Bakayoko controlled a long ball from Fabregas in the 69th, Maitland-Niles covered Holding and dispossessed the Chelsea midfielder just before he could pull the trigger. Does anybody seriously think that Kolasinac would have covered Holding on that play? Maitland-Niles’ only blemish in the first half came in the 15th when he failed to stop a cross from Moses. Morata got ahead of Mustafi but couldn’t make contact with the ball, allowing Cech to gather it. Conte acknowledged Moses’ ineffectiveness and replaced him with Zappacosta in the 56th. With a sharp turn in the 84th, Zappacosta created a bit of space for a cross that Alonso converted for a 2-1 lead. What could Maitland-Niles have done better on that play? Maybe guess that Zappacosta’s initial move to cut inside was just a bluff.

Chelsea played 3 games in a 9-day span while Arsenal played 3 games in a 7-day span, so I wasn’t surprised that the Blues created more chances. A relative lack of freshness could help explain the poor quality of the Gunners’ final ball: Sanchez overhit his cross for Ozil in the 10th, Maitland-Niles missed his cross in the 13th, and Wilshere overhit his pass for Ozil in the 27th.

Up front, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, leading all players with 9 turnovers, while Morata had just 5 turnovers according to whoscored.com. However, Lacazette worked hard, making 1 interception and winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. Despite skipping a winter break for the first time in his career, Lacazette still managed to have 3 of 3 shots on target. The France international took a pass from Ozil in the 23rd and rolled away from Cahill to hit a low strike that Courtois palmed away. Lacazette then benefited from a lucky bounce in the 52nd but couldn’t get the ball out of his feet quickly enough and was denied by the Chelsea goalkeeper. His last chance came in the 64th. Sanchez found Lacazette, whose angled shot deflected off Azpilicueta before being tipped around the post by Courtois. No big miss like Morata but a golden chance that should have found the net in the 52nd.

Bleak Top 4 chances

How do you recognize great players? Even when they have an off day, they can still be able of one moment of magic. Sanchez wasn’t sharp on Wednesday, having 1 of 4 shots on target and winning only 22% of his duels and 0 of 3 tackles. But he nearly opened the scoring in the 16th with a snapshot that Courtois diverted onto his near post. The ball ricocheted off the far post before gently rolling back toward Courtois. In the second half, Sanchez could only head wide a cross from Maitland-Niles.

I have mixed feelings after this game. It’s a decent result if we consider the number of injuries (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Giroud) and the unfavorable schedule. But a quick look at the standings shows that Arsenal’s Top 4 chances are weak. The Gunners trail Chelsea by 7 points and Liverpool by 5. It basically means that Arsenal must put together a winning run while hoping for a slip from Chelsea or Liverpool. I expect the manager to rest his key players when the Gunners face Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup on Sunday. Then he might field a makeshift team for the League Cup game against Chelsea on Wednesday.

West Brom vs. Arsenal: Ref blunder shows why VAR a necessity

The Gunners dropped two points on Sunday by conceding a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns. The penalty that gave West Brom a point was highly controversial because the referee made the wrong call. Gibbs chased a long ball from Barry in the 88th minute and hit Chambers’ arm with his cross. Both Gibbs and Chambers expected a corner. At least that’s what their body language said. But Dean stole the limelight from the players by awarding a spot kick to the hosts. Such an officiating mistake would have never been made with a video assistant referee. The German and Italian leagues already use VAR technology. And the Spanish and French leagues will introduce it next season. So why can’t the Premier League keep up with the other European leagues, which have less money?

West Brom vs. Arsenal

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

The Laws of the Game are pretty clear about what is a handball. Law 12 says that it “involves a DELIBERATE act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm”. Law 12 also says that “the movement of the hand TOWARD THE BALL (not the ball toward the hand) and the DISTANCE between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)” must be considered by the referee when deciding if the handball is intentional.

Chambers was only 1 yard away from Gibbs, so he had no time to get his arm out of the way. His arms were also in a natural position. Both Gibbs and Chambers were running after the ball and their arms had similar movements. Dean could have had an excuse if Chambers’ arms were outstretched but they were across his torso. The referee was standing some 20 yards from the ball and thought Chambers’ arm had moved toward the ball. Viewing the play from a better angle, a video assistant referee could have told Dean that Chambers only tried to raise his arm in an instinctive gesture to protect his face.

Even without VAR technology, Chambers only met 1 of 3 criteria for a handball. But instead of giving Chambers the benefit of the doubt, Dean overlooked the 2 other criteria and awarded a penalty that Rodriguez converted. What makes Dean’s decision so infuriating is that he ignored a more obvious penalty shout in the 62nd when Evans shoved Lacazette from behind. Lacazette was chasing a through ball from Sanchez and the push was enough to prevent him from controlling the ball.

Lack of creativity

A few days ago, Arsenal came away with the victory at Selhurst Park despite inviting pressure in the closing minutes. The Gunners played again with fire against West Brom and got punished this time. The penalty was controversial but how did Arsenal allow Gibbs to venture inside the box? It all started with Lacazette dropping back instead of closing down Barry. The veteran midfielder had plenty of time to spot Gibbs’ run and hit a pinpoint long ball. The second mistake came from Mertesacker, who had replaced an injured Koscielny in the 72nd. Gibbs made a run in behind Mertesacker and had his cross blocked by Chambers’ hand. The Gunners broke the deadlock in the 83rd but couldn’t even protect their lead for 10 minutes against one of the weakest sides in the league.

Wenger made only 1 change to the side that edged Crystal Palace 3-2 on Thursday with Iwobi replacing an injured Ozil in the starting lineup. Iwobi doesn’t have Ozil’s passing skills and doesn’t make smart runs like the Germany playmaker. There were other problems with that lineup. Wilshere is no goal-scoring threat like Ramsey while Chambers doesn’t play the ball out from the back like Monreal. Both Ramsey and Monreal were not available because of injury. It might just be tiny details but put together they make a difference in Arsenal’s ability to crack a defense.

Arsenal enjoyed 65% of ball possession but created very few chances with just 4 shots on target to 3 for the Baggies. Obviously, the scheduling didn’t help as West Brom had 2 more days of rest than Arsenal. England is the only major European nation with no winter break. Yet, Premier League executives couldn’t even avoid a congested schedule for the Christmas period. Because Iwobi couldn’t fill Ozil’s shoes, Sanchez often dropped back to make up for the lack of creativity. Sanchez led all players with 3 key passes. But it was too taxing for Sanchez to both create and finish. The Chile striker had 0 of 6 shots on target.

Lacazette’s poor hold-up play

Ozil is the kind of player that you need against teams playing with 10 men behind the ball because he has an eye for a pass. On Sunday, the Gunners too often lacked accuracy with the final ball. Sanchez played a one-two with Lacazette in the fourth minute but the France international’s return pass was deflected out for a corner. Then Bellerin overhit his through ball for Lacazette in the 40th while Iwobi played a short pass behind Sanchez in the 69th. In stoppage time, Lacazette sent a cross straight into Foster’s gloves instead of pulling the ball back for Bellerin. Ozil’s absence was also noticeable on set pieces with several corners poorly taken.

When you can’t beat with the pass, then the alternatives are running at defenders and playing more direct. The Gunners lost their best dribbling asset by selling Oxlade-Chamberlain to Liverpool last summer. Walcott is not as skillful in tight spaces while Nelson is still unproven and inconsistent. Sanchez has decent dribbling stats, but he doesn’t make penetrative dribbles: it’s mostly lateral dribbles to cut inside and then pass or shoot with his right foot. The Citizens have Sane and Sterling, the Red Devils have Martial and Rashford, and Liverpool can rely on Mane and Salah. Dribbling is no longer an option at Arsenal. A direct approach (i.e. long balls, crosses) could have been possible with Welbeck up front, but the manager preferred to start Lacazette.

Lacazette struggled again in the centerforward role. His hold-up play was poor. He led all players with 6 turnovers, compared to just 2 for Sanchez, according to whoscored.com. Lacazette didn’t feel comfortable each time he received the ball with his back to goal, winning only 33.3% of his duels, compared to 90% for Sanchez and 66.7% for Iwobi, according to the club’s website. Despite a poor performance, Lacazette still managed to create the best chance in the 60th by swapping passes with Iwobi before testing Foster with an angled strike. In the manager’s shoes, I would have rested Lacazette and started Welbeck up front. I still believe second striker is the best position for Lacazette in the Premier League whereas leading the line is not an issue in European games.

Sanchez taking the blame for the club’s poor transfer policy

Sanchez got some stick from Arsenal fans lately. It’s true that he under-performed in the first three months of the season because of an injury and the disappointment over an aborted move to Manchester City. But let’s be honest, it’s the club that mismanaged the summer transfer window. You let a player run down his contract only if he has a low resale value or if he’s past his prime. By failing to sign a replacement for Sanchez in the summer, the club created that tension around his contractual situation.

Yet, Sanchez has performed at a decent level in November and December. He helped Arsenal rack up points in the last three games by starting the rally against Liverpool, scoring twice against Crystal Palace and taking the free kick that led to McClean’s own goal in the 83rd. Whatever the club does in January (sell or keep Sanchez), it can only be a no-win situation because there’s no replacement of that quality available on the market.

It was quite optimistic to think that Iwobi could deputize for Ozil. The Nigeria international simply doesn’t have Ozil’s selflessness. How he ended up with 2 key passes is still a mystery. Iwobi was more interested in personal glory than in creating chances for his teammates. To his credit, Iwobi tested Foster with a long-range strike in the 30th. Welbeck replaced Iwobi in the 74th and had no impact on the game.

West Brom’s main threat in the first half came from Phillips, who made Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles look really bad. Phillips nutmegged Kolasinac in the sixth minute to make a cross for Rodriguez, who outjumped Mustafi for a tame header that Cech caught. The West Brom winger beat again Kolasinac in the 20th but overhit his cross. Two minutes later, Kolasinac was too far from Phillips to prevent another cross that Mustafi headed out. Kolasinac seemed to pick up a knock and was replaced in the 37th by Maitland-Niles, who also failed to stop crosses from Phillips in the 40th and 41st. The situation at leftback is worrying. Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress but Kolasinac is supposed to be the finished product and an upgrade over Monreal.

Top 4 race could be over this week for Arsenal

Chambers was unlucky with the penalty call but he still proved the weak link in the back three. Robson-Kanu beat Chambers in the 46th to make a low cross for Rodriguez, whose goal attempt was blocked. Then Chambers was too slow to react in the 77th, allowing Rodriguez to shoot from the edge of the box. The Baggies were aware of Chambers’ technical limitations and let him have the ball. Chambers made 91 passes compared to 48 for Koscielny and 50 for Mustafi. While Koscielny and Mustafi had a passing accuracy above 91%, Chambers’ passing accuracy dipped to 81.3%, according to whoscored.com. A more telling stat is Chambers’ success rate for long balls: he hit only 7 of 13 accurate long balls compared to 5 of 6 for Mustafi and Koscielny.

Koscielny performed better than against Palace while Mustafi made a couple of silly challenges on Robson-Kanu in the 26th and 58th. I’m guessing it’s a recurrence of his Achilles problem that led to Koscielny’s substitution in the 72nd. Basically, we could miss Koscielny, Monreal, Ozil and Ramsey for Wednesday’s clash against Chelsea. The stakes are pretty high. If the Gunners lose that London derby, they could trail fourth-place Liverpool by 9 points at the end of this week. The Top 4 race would then be virtually over for Arsenal and the only way to qualify for the Champions League next season would be to win the Europa League.