Tag Archives: Lacazette

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield: 5-tool Torreira fires Gunners to 1-0 win

This has become the hit of the season at the Emirates: “Torreira woooah, Torreira woooah, he comes from Uruguay, he’s only five foot five.” You can’t blame the fans for chanting Torreira’s name to the tune of the old Vieira song. Where would Arsenal be without Torreira? The Uruguay midfielder scored with a spectacular bicycle kick in a 1-0 win over Huddersfield on Saturday to help the Gunners keep pace with Chelsea and Spurs in the Top 4 race.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery made 3 changes to the side that drew with Manchester United on Wednesday with Lichtsteiner, Xhaka and Lacazette replacing Holding, Ramsey and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also switched from a 3-4-3 system to a more defensive 3-5-2 formation, which was quite strange for a home game. The problem with that lineup was the absence of a creative link player -a midfielder who could link defense and attack, obviously, but also deliver the final ball and be a goal threat.

Ramsey and Ozil usually play that role in the Arsenal team but both were on the disabled list. So Torreira stepped up and made a telling impact. In the 83rd minute, Aubameyang made a cross for Torreira, who catapulted the ball into the net with an overhead kick. For a few seconds, I thought about Cazorla. Both Cazorla and Torreira are tiny players who had to change of position at different stages of their respective careers.

Cazorla spent most of his career playing as an attacking midfielder before Wenger converted him into a deep-lying playmaker during the 2014-15 season. The Spaniard was not a natural ballwinner and therefore had to team up with Coquelin in central midfield. Torreira is a better defensive midfielder than Cazorla could ever be. On the other hand, Cazorla is a better attacking midfielder than Torreira will ever be. Yet, Torreira started his career in Uruguay as a winger. When Torreira moved to Italy, he wasn’t deemed good enough as a winger and was therefore converted into a defensive midfielder.

The most complete midfielder

In a three-man midfield, Torreira performed the role of link player alongside Xhaka and Guendouzi. Torreira doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Cazorla or the pace of wingers like Walcott and Van Persie, but his all-around game made the difference on Saturday. He had 2 of 3 shots on target, won 1 of 2 tackles and 76.9% of his duels, and made 2 key passes and 7 recoveries, according to the club’s website. In fact, Torreira might be the most complete midfielder in the Arsenal squad. Torreira can play in any midfield position while it’s hard to envision Ozil and Ramsey as ballwinners.

Because Torreira doesn’t have Ozil’s technical ability, he overhit his final ball for Bellerin in the 16th and underhit his through ball for Aubameyang in the 30th. At 22, Torreira still has room for improvement, but his reading of the game is already very good. He led a counterattack in stoppage time and slipped a through ball to Guendouzi, who was denied by the Huddersfield goalkeeper. Torreira also nearly opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime, but Lossl turned his long-range strike around the post.

At the start of the season, Emery showed patience with Torreira, easing him into a new league. By October, Torreira became the heartbeat of the team with outstanding performances against Fulham and Leicester. Any pundit could see that Torreira was the rock his teammates could rely on, winning the ball back and building play from the back.

Despite his diminutive frame, Torreira has adapted quickly to the physicality of the Premier League. On Saturday, Torreira was fouled 7 times, the most for any player. He draws a lot of fouls because he has good close control, is quicker than his opponent in 50-50 duels, and smartly uses his body to shield the ball. Torreira could be the cornerstone of a team contending for the title and I believe Arsenal should build the squad in Torreira’s image with a mix of talent, hard work and grit.

Huddersfield’s negative tactics

As a team fighting relegation, the Terriers did their best to frustrate Arsenal. They pressed high up the pitch in the first half. Depoitre even managed to charge down a clearance from Leno in the fifth minute. The visitors also resorted to repetitive fouling to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game. Huddersfield finished the match with 20 fouls, compared to 13 for the Gunners. A couple of times, the Terriers crossed the line and roughed up some players. Williams was booked in the 37th for a tackle from behind on Torreira, while Smith received a yellow card two minutes later for a late challenge on Guendouzi.

Huddersfield’s negative tactics should be no excuse for Arsenal’s lack of urgency in the first half. The Gunners had two potential pacesetters with Xhaka and Guendouzi but played at a too slow tempo to pressure the visitors. It was quite interesting to see Emery play Xhaka as the holding midfielder. I believe it’s a choice by default. Torreira is a better defensive midfielder than Xhaka, but the trouble is that Torreira is also more mobile and has more impact in the final third than Xhaka. In the manager’s mind, Xhaka was more useful in front of the defense than in the final third. We already got a glimpse into Emery’s thinking when he played Torreira in a more advanced position than Xhaka against Spurs.

It was therefore no surprise to see Xhaka have better defensive stats than Torreira and Guendouzi. The Switzerland international won 3 of 5 tackles and 70% of his duels and made 1 interception and 10 recoveries. Despite those glossy stats, Xhaka had a couple of defensive lapses. He gave the ball away in the 44th and was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 49th. Both turnovers led to scoring chances for the Terriers.

Lack of urgency

Guendouzi also had weaker defensive stats than usual (0 tackle, 1 interception, 6 recoveries) because he played in a more advanced position as a deep-lying playmaker. Emery clearly wanted Guendouzi to focus on his passing. Guendouzi led all players with 5 key passes and a passing accuracy of 94.1%. The French teenager created the winner with a ball over the top for Aubameyang in the 83rd. He also created a big chance for Lacazette in the 29th.

The Gunners dominated possession with their three-man midfield but they lacked urgency and penetration. Arsenal’s midfield looked more like Liverpool’s laborious midfield than Manchester City’s creative trio. So Emery decided to switch to a 4-3-3 at halftime by replacing Lichtsteiner and Lacazette with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.

Iwobi and Mkhitaryan had a limited impact in the final third with 1 key pass each. A quick look at the winner tells you what’s wrong with them. Wide players often deliver the final ball but they also need to be a goal threat. In the screen capture below, you can see that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan made no effort to get in behind their markers when Guendouzi picked out Aubameyang. If Aubameyang had made a first-time pass, only Torreira would have been in a decent position to score.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield M83ed.jpgIwobi and Mkhitaryan waiting passively on the edge of the box while Torreira makes a run. (Photo credit: TSN)

Mkhitaryan failed to catch the frame with a a low drive in the 46th, headed a Kolasinac cross over the bar in the 82nd and made a sloppy pass while releasing Bellerin down the right flank in injury time. The Armenia international has been struggling to show end product this season with just 2 goals and 1 assist from 13 Premier League games, but at least you know Mkhitaryan will work hard for the team.

Iwobi under pressure

Iwobi seemed to turn a corner under Emery but now he’s looking more and more like the player of last season, showing poor end product and work-rate. He made 2 recoveries and won 9.1% of his duels compared to 4 recoveries, 1 tackle and 44.4% of duels won for Mkhitaryan.

What frustrated a lot of fans was how Iwobi proved too casual in possession, leading Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Lacazette had just 1 turnover and Mkhitaryan 0 turnover. Iwobi’s passing accuracy of 63.2% was also the lowest among the Gunners. He sent a pass out of play after misreading Kolasinac’s run in the 62nd. Then Iwobi produced an air header in the 76th, confusing Kolasinac who could have connected with Mkhitaryan’s cross. And he showed a lack of composure on a counterattack, losing possession with a heavy touch in the 88th when he could have fed Aubameyang to his left.

If Iwobi keeps underperforming, the fans will get more and more on his back. Dealing with pressure is not fun but it’s the reality of football at the top level. At 22, Iwobi still has time to mature and prove himself, but not much. This is already his fourth season in the Premier League. Youngsters like Nketiah and Nelson will soon be knocking on the door.

I thought yanking Lacazette off at halftime was a risky move by Emery. If Aubameyang had picked up an injury, Emery only had Nketiah on the bench to play in the centerforward position. Lacazette missed a big chance in the 29th. Completely unmarked, Lacazette took a pass from Guendouzi and fired over the bar from 13 yards while losing his footing.

Then Lacazette had a goal disallowed for offside in the 42nd. He was indeed offside when Aubameyang flicked on Leno’s goal kick. But the ball fell to Jorgensen, who made a poor backpass toward his goalkeeper. Lacazette intercepted the ball and dribbled past Lossl to score into an empty net. The controversy here is that the referee let play continue when Jorgensen had the ball but decided to cancel the second phase of play when there was no advantage for the Terriers. That’s a common practice in rugby but very unusual in football.

A show of faith

Lacazette’s substitution looked like a show of faith in Aubameyang. The Gabon striker definitely deserves to be the first-choice striker. He has scored 10 league goals this season compared to 6 for Lacazette. Starved of decent service, Aubameyang had an off day with 0 of 4 shots on target. He pounced on an off-target shot from Xhaka in the 28th only to divert the ball wide from 9 yards. Then Aubameyang missed the target with his close-range header from a Xhaka corner in the 63rd. Despite that poor finishing, Aubameyang kept working hard and played a key role for the winner. He controlled Guendouzi’s ball over the top only to have his effort blocked by Kongolo. As the ball bounced behind him, Aubameyang spun to make a blind cross for Torreira, who jumped in the air for a bicycle kick.

On the flanks, Kolasinac didn’t have the same offensive impact as in the previous league games, making only 1 key pass. The initial 3-5-2 formation deprived Kolasinac of a wide player to combine with. He felt more comfortable in the second half when Iwobi played on the left wing. Kolasinac had solid defensive stats, winning 3 of 4 tackles and making 9 recoveries, but he showed again his technical limitations with 6 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 66.7%. On the right flank, Bellerin was almost anonymous. The Spaniard showed signs of fatigue against Manchester United. I thought Emery could have rested Bellerin while giving a start to Maitland-Niles. Bellerin’s only significant contribution was a teasing cross that Lossl poorly cleared in the 68th.

The Gunners have been hit by an injury crisis at the back. Holding will miss the rest of the season after rupturing his knee ligament against Manchester United. Emery improvised by playing Lichtsteiner on the right side of the back three. Lichtsteiner compensated for his lack of pace with his positional play and reading of the game. However, I doubt Lichtsteiner will be a long-term solution at centerback, especially since Monreal and Koscielny made their return to the squad.

Mustafi caught ball-watching (again)

Of the three centerbacks, Sokratis had the best defensive stats, winning 1 of 3 tackles and 70% of his duels and making 1 block, 5 interceptions and 8 recoveries. He will miss the next league game after receiving his fifth booking of the season for a mistimed challenge on Hogg in the 40th. Although Huddersfield created very little, the Gunners struggled in the air. Sokratis and Mustafi combined to win only 3 of 8 aerial duels, while Depoitre won 10 of 18 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. That’s one area where Holding will be badly missed.

This game won’t convince Mustafi’s critics. The German defender won 1 of 1 tackle and 42.9% of his duels and made just 1 interception and 2 recoveries before pulling his hamstring in the 64th. He led Arsenal players with 3 fouls, including 2 silly fouls in the 27th and 30th, and was booked for diving at the end of the first half.

The biggest concern with Mustafi is that he doesn’t seem to smell danger. The Terriers had their best chance in the 44th. Smith made a cross for Pritchard, who fired over the bar from 12 yards. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka was covering Sokratis but couldn’t stop Smith’s cross. Inside the area, Depoitre was double-teamed by Lichtsteiner and Bellerin. Only Pritchard was left unmarked. Mustafi was again caught ball-watching, focusing on Smith instead of finding out where the goal threat would come from.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield M44ed.jpgMustafi leaves Pritchard unmarked. (Photo credit: TSN)

The Gunners next play Qarabag on Thursday before visiting Southampton on Sunday. Emery will probably rest his key players against Qarabag because the Gunners have already secured the top spot in Group E of the Europa League. However, the Spanish manager might face a tricky decision at the back. Knowing that Mustafi and Sokratis will be suspended for the Southampton game, will Emery play them in the Europa League? Or will he start Koscielny and Mustafi against Qarabag to help them build their fitness? A good compromise could be to play with Koscielny and Monreal in the first half and replace them with Mustafi and Sokratis in the second half.

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Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Aubameyang, Torreira shine in North London derby

Trailing 2-1 at halftime, Emery stamped his authority on the North London derby by replacing Iwobi and Mkhitaryan with Ramsey and Lacazette for the start of the second half. Those substitutions helped turn the match around as the Gunners won 4-2 on Sunday to leapfrog Spurs into fourth place in the Premier League on goal difference.

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

That result could prove crucial in the Top 4 race because Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have dropped very few points against the weak and average sides. As a consequence of that hectic pace, there’s already an eight-point gap between Arsenal and the sixth-placed team, Everton. That basically means that the Champions League spots might be decided by the direct confrontations between the top clubs.

Emery made no change to the side that edged Bournemouth 2-1 a week ago. The only difference was on the bench where Lacazette made his return from a groin injury while Ozil was not even in the squad. Officially, Ozil was suffering from back spasms but it sounded very much like a diplomatic injury.

The Gunners should have reached halftime with the lead but they wasted good situations with inaccurate final balls and some poor finishing. Although Tottenham capitalized on 2 defensive errors to lead 2-1 against the run of play, Arsenal showed resilience in the second half to overturn the deficit and stretch their unbeaten run to 19 games in all competitions. According to the club’s website, the Gunners have earned 11 points from losing positions this season.

Iwobi’s poor game

Playing as inside forwards in a 3-4-3 formation, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi didn’t have the impact that Emery expected. Iwobi had a poor game, showing poor work-rate and lacking end product. In 45 minutes, Mkhitaryan and Ramsey made 2 key passes each compared to 0 for Iwobi. The Nigeria international overhit his pass for Mkhitaryan in the 39th minute and sent his crossfield pass for Bellerin straight into touch in the 41st. Iwobi also made poor choices in the final third by running into traffic in the 12th and 27th to lose possession and give Spurs counterattacking opportunities. His only offensive contribution was a low effort that Lloris saved with his leg in the 19th.

Any player can have an off day, but the poor work-rate in a North London derby is unacceptable. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries, compared to 2 tackles and 4 recoveries for Mkhitaryan and 2 tackles and 3 recoveries for Ramsey, according to the club’s website. At least, work-rate is not an issue with Mkhitaryan, who is struggling this season with just 2 goals and 1 assist in 11 Premier League games. Mkhitaryan created 2 chances with crosses from the right flank. Aubameyang met his cross in the second minute only to head over the bar. Mkhitaryan found again Aubameyang on the stroke of halftime, but the Gabon striker poorly controlled the ball, allowing Vertonghen to clear the danger.

Sending on Ramsey and Lacazette was a no-brainer for Emery. The Tottenham defense only had to worry about Aubameyang in the first half because Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were limited goal threats. Spurs faced a tougher test in the second half with Ramsey and Lacazette, who have a better goalscoring record than Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Emery shifted to a 3-5-2 system with Ramsey playing behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Aubameyang suddenly looked less isolated while Ramsey delivered the final ball that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were unable to provide.

Arsenal’s triple threat

It was quite interesting to see Emery build his team around Ramsey in the second half after having benched the Wales midfielder in the previous league games. Even when Arsenal switched to a 4-4-2 formation in the 71st because Mustafi picked up a hamstring injury and was replaced by Guendouzi, Emery kept playing Ramsey behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Would a front two be the best approach to optimize Ramsey’s potential? There have been games in which Ramsey played with Aubameyang and Lacazette, but each time Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang was on the left flank. Defensively, playing Ramsey in the hole would allow Arsenal to man-mark a deep-lying playmaker.

Off the pitch, Ramsey had his contract offer taken off the table. On the pitch, Ramsey is still more consistent than Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Ramsey currently leads the Premier League with 6 assists, 4 more than Iwobi and 5 more than Mkhitaryan and Ozil. That’s such an awkward situation for the club to reject its best attacking midfielder. Can there be a climbdown?

Ramsey spotted Aubameyang’s run in the 52nd but overhit his through ball. Four minutes later, Ramsey made a run between Foyth and Vertonghen to chase Bellerin’s through ball and feed Aubameyang with a first-time pass. In a 1v1 situation with Aurier, Aubameyang curled a 20-yard shot into the bottom corner to level the game. Ramsey then dispossessed Foyth in the 75th to play Lacazette in. The pass lacked pace, forcing Lacazette to cut inside Vertonghen and shoot with his weaker left foot. Lacazette’s long-range effort took a deflection off Dier to beat Lloris for a 3-2 lead.

Pochettino replaced Alli with Winks in the 79th to contain Ramsey’s influence but it was already too late to repair the damage. The Tottenham defense simply couldn’t cope with that triple threat. Aubameyang dropped off in the 77th to slip a through ball to Torreira. From a tight angle, Torreira drilled the ball into the far corner to seal the win. A frustrated Vertonghen shoved Lacazette from behind to give away a free kick in the 80th. Five minutes later, Vertonghen received a second yellow card for a stamp on Lacazette’s ankle.

Aubameyang’s work-rate

Torreira was named Man of the Match, but I thought Aubameyang was more deserving. Aubameyang finished the game with 2 goals and 1 assist, raising his tally to 10 goals and 2 assists in the Premier League this season. Actually, the Gabon striker is the top scorer in the league with 2 more goals than Aguero and Kane.

The Gunners are a greater threat on the fast break when Aubameyang leads the line than when Lacazette plays as a false nine. Aubameyang gave Arsenal the lead in the 10th minute by converting a penalty after Vertonghen handled the ball to deny Mustafi a clear scoring opportunity. Of course, Aubameyang’s performance was not perfect. He was flagged offside 5 times and led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. But his work-rate was phenomenal. Aubameyang won 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player, according to the club’s website.

In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka formed again a complementary partnership. Torreira won 2 of 3 tackles, made 1 interception and led all players with 12 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The only blemish in his performance was his 5 turnovers. But most fans will only remember Torreira’s wild celebration after the last goal, when he took off his shirt to slide on his knees toward the corner flag. Xhaka was less active than Torreira, winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, but he had 0 turnover and led all midfielders by winning 75% of his duels, according to the club’s website. The Switzerland international will miss the Manchester United clash after picking up his fifth booking of the season in the 49th when he tripped Alli.

Leno’s error

I’m not sure whether Pochettino watched Arsenal’s victory at Bournemouth because Kolasinac enjoyed a lot of freedom down the left flank. Kolasinac led all players with 5 key passes and had decent defensive stats with 1 tackle won and 6 recoveries, compared to 1 tackle won and 8 recoveries for Bellerin on the right flank. Things didn’t start well for Kolasinac, who delivered a poor final ball for Aubameyang in the third minute and lost possession by running into traffic in the seventh. But Kolasinac grew into the game and made another teasing cross in the 13th for Aubameyang, who couldn’t control the ball. Then Kolasinac set up Iwobi in the 19th and Bellerin a few seconds later. In the back three, Holding is the one shifting to the left when Kolasinac roams forward. The move to a 4-4-2 formation in the 71st led to a change of plans with Guendouzi covering Kolasinac.

Maybe opponents are taking their eyes off Kolasinac because of Bellerin’s runs down the opposite flank. Bellerin created Arsenal’s equalizer in the 56th by picking out Ramsey. The Spaniard also had a volley blocked by Davies in the 19th. However, his lapse of concentration nearly cost his team in the 68th. Leno parried a drive from Son after Bellerin gave the ball away.

Leno made 4 saves but he also committed his second error leading to a goal this season. He threw Spurs a lifeline by palming Dier’s header into his own net in the 31st. A couple more mistakes could change the pecking order for goalkeepers. Leno is usually reliable with his distribution but his passing accuracy dipped to 53% because of Tottenham’s high press.

Holding’s inexperience

At the back, Holding’s inexperience cost Arsenal a penalty. Holding seemed to clip Son’s foot in the 33rd with a sliding block attempt. Watching TV replays, it looked like a dive because there was really minimal contact. In hindsight, Holding should have refrained from diving in because Son had nowhere to go and was unlikely to score from such a tight angle. Despite that defensive error, Holding had better defensive stats than Sokratis and Mustafi. The English centerback won 67% of his duels, made 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries compared to 33% of duels won, 1 block, 1 interception and 3 recoveries for Sokratis, and 53% of duels won, 3 interception and 4 recoveries for Mustafi, according to the club’s website.

Using a back three is a tactical ploy to safely cover the wingbacks, but it’s also an implicit acknowledgement that your centerbacks are not good enough. Sokratis got no booking despite leading all players with 4 fouls. The Greek defender struggled to cope with Son’s pace and Kane’s physicality. His foul on Son in the 29th led to the free kick for Spurs’ equalizer. Sokratis also misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 22nd and gave the ball away to Alli in the 41st.

Mustafi was shaky too. Son easily dribbled past Mustafi to test Leno in the 23rd. The German defender was then booked for a studs-up challenge on Son in the 37th and turned the ball over to Davies in the 65th. In a typical case of the Vermaelen syndrome, Mustafi nearly found the net to make up for his poor defending. On the stroke of halftime, Mustafi met a cross from Xhaka for a looping header that Lloris palmed away. Mustafi also had a volley cleared off the line by Alli in the 60th. Emery might have to rush Koscielny’s return as Mustafi seemed to pull his hamstring with an awkward clearance in the 68th.

The Gunners next visit Old Trafford on Wednesday. It’s a fantastic opportunity to knock Manchester United out of the Top 4 race: the Red Devils are short on confidence and would trail Arsenal by 11 points with a loss.

Arsenal vs. Wolverhampton: Leno’s heroics salvage a point

The international break is coming at the right time for the Gunners who are running out of steam. Arsenal salvaged a 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton on Sunday for their third straight draw in all competitions to stay fifth in the Premier League.

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

It looks like the Gunners are hitting the wall after their 11-game winning streak was snapped at Crystal Palace. Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession against the Wolves but simply lacked the passing speed and the movement to destabilize a compact defense. In fact, the Gunners struggled so badly to create clear-cut chances that they had 0 shot on target in the first half.

On paper, Arsenal should have earned 3 points because the Wolves had lost their 3 previous games in the league. On the pitch, the Gunners were lucky to split the points because Wolverhampton proved the better team, winning 53% of the duels and having 5 shots on target to just 3 for Arsenal, according to the club’s website.

Emery did his best to inject some freshness by making 9 changes to the side that drew with Sporting Lisbon on Thursday with only Holding and Iwobi retaining their starting spots. Unfortunately, Sunday’s game showed that the Gunners are almost back to square one. Emery still doesn’t know what his best team is after 4 months of competition.

I thought the Spanish manager got his starting lineup wrong by not including Ramsey, whose runs can make a difference against teams parking the bus. At the start of the season, Emery built his team around Ramsey. Of course, the trouble is that Emery played Ramsey in the hole, which is not his best position. Then Emery changed his mind and decided to build the team around Ozil, who’s a better fit for the No. 10 position. Ozil shone in the 3-1 win over Leicester, but it turned out to be a false dawn because Ozil simply lacks the consistency to become the cornerstone of a team. Wenger also tried and failed. The French manager played Ozil behind the striker before moving him to the right flank.

Starved of service

Some fans say that Ozil should get the nod over Ramsey because Ozil is tied to the club until 2021 whereas Ramsey’s contract will end next summer. Contract talks between Ramsey and the club collapsed at the end of September. Is it a coincidence if Ramsey hasn’t started a Premier League game since the 2-0 win over Watford?

Making a team selection based on politics doesn’t make sense because it would be against the interests of the club. How do you finish in the Top 4 if you’re not starting your best player? Last season, Arsenal had no certainty over the future of Ozil and Sanchez at the club. Yet, Wenger kept starting them because he thought the Gunners had a better chance of winning games with Ozil and Sanchez on the pitch.

Despite Ozil’s presence in the starting lineup, Lacazette and Aubameyang were starved of service on Sunday. They only mustered one shot each. Lacazette had Arsenal’s only chance of the first half. Ozil made a pass across the area to Lacazette, whose close-range effort was blocked by Coady in the 22nd minute. Aubameyang was in a better situation in the 73rd when Bellerin made a low cross. But the Gabon striker hit the post from 7 yards. It was a big miss that hurt the Gunners’ chances of winning the match.

Arsenal’s tactical options were limited because Aubameyang and Lacazette don’t have the physicality and aerial threat of a Giroud to blow up a congested area. Unsurprisingly, the Wolves won 65% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. You might say that the Citizens don’t have strikers who can dominate in the air. However, the big difference between Arsenal and Manchester City is that Guardiola can rely on dribblers like Sterling, Mahrez and Sane to penetrate in the final third. Some Arsenal fans will mention Iwobi, but the Nigeria international doesn’t have the ability to dribble in tight spaces like an Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The need for more creativity

The Gunners couldn’t challenge in the air or dribble past defenders. So the only option left was the passing game. Arsenal’s main problem this season has been the inconsistency of the creative players. Starting on the right wing, Iwobi had a poor game with 0 key pass and was replaced at halftime by Guendouzi. In the No. 10 position, Ozil managed to make just 2 key passes.

Emery shifted from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-1-2 system at halftime in the hope of giving Ozil better passing options. The idea was to use Ozil like a quarterback with Lacazette and Aubameyang as receivers. It didn’t really work. Ozil overhit his cross for Aubameyang in the 66th. Out of frustration, Ozil slammed the ball against the ground three minutes later and got booked by the referee.

When your attacking midfielders have an off day, the alternative is to create chances from a deeper position. Unfortunately, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the passing and dribbling skills of a Cazorla. It’s no coincidence if the club’s struggles to finish in the Top 4 started with Cazorla’s long-term injuries. In the past two seasons, the Gunners have lost a lot of creativity in midfield with the departures of Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Signing an upgrade over Xhaka should be a priority next summer.

The lack of movement in the final third also contributed to Arsenal’s poor passing game. In fact, the poor work-rate of some players was shocking. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 1 recovery in the first half. By contrast, Wolverhampton forward Costa made 1 interception, 7 recoveries and 4 fouls.

Looking like a Wenger team

Realizing that Ozil had no impact on the game, Emery replaced Ozil and Kolasinac with Ramsey and Mkhitaryan in the 75th. Xhaka was moved to the leftback position while the team played in some kind of 4-2-4 formation. Ramsey nearly made the difference with one of his runs in the 86th, trapping a ball over the top from Guendouzi and spinning away from a defender only to be denied by Patricio. The equalizer came from the subsequent corner, quickly taken by Xhaka. The ball fell to Ramsey, who set up Mkhitaryan for a cross. Aubameyang couldn’t climb high enough to head the ball, which sailed past Patricio and into the far corner.

Besides the equalizer, the Gunners were also lucky to concede just one goal. They looked so much like a Wenger team on Sunday, vulnerable on at least 5 counterattacks from the Wolves. The visitors took advantage of some poor decision-making from Xhaka to open the scoring in the 13th. Kolasinac made a routine pass to Xhaka, who thought there was a teammate behind him and let the ball roll past him. Cavaleiro pounced on the loose ball and found Jimenez, who played the ball back to Cavaleiro. Poorly tracked by Xhaka inside the area, Cavaleiro beat Leno with a first-time effort.

To put it bluntly, a midfield trio of Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil is not good enough to protect the defense. Torreira and Xhaka had an outstanding game against Liverpool but it’s unlikely that they will be able to repeat that kind of performance on a regular basis. Xhaka still lacks defensive awareness and is simply too error-prone.

Torreira had a decent game, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Uruguay midfielder contributed offensively with a dipping drive that Patricio turned aside in the 60th. Defensively, Torreira should have been more cautious in his positional play in the 84th. Leading a counterattack, Traore rolled away from Torreira to pick out Jimenez, who made a cross for Jota. Leno prevented Wolverhampton from doubling the lead by saving Jota’s close-range effort. In stoppage time, Leno was rescued by luck as Gibbs-White struck the post from 25 yards.

Kolasinac’s limitations

At the back, Kolasinac showed his technical limitations again. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 76.9%, much weaker than Bellerin’s 88.2% on the opposite flank. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international whipped his cross beyond Lacazette in the 17th and made a sloppy pass in the 72nd. Whoscored.com even credited Kolasinac with 2 errors. Kolasinac missed his clearance in the 36th and the ball fell to Doherty, who set up Jimenez for a low drive. Then, his first touch was so poor in the 62nd that the ball bounced 5 yards away from him and led to a turnover.

The Wolves knew Kolasinac was a limited threat and focused instead on Bellerin, who leads Arsenal with 4 assists so far this season. The visitors clearly did their homework as they intercepted Iwobi’s passes to Bellerin in the 27th and 31st. Despite Wolverhampton’s close scrutiny, Bellerin still managed to make 1 key pass and have 1 scoring chance. Xhaka cut the ball back for Bellerin, who missed the target with his weaker left foot in the 70th. Three minutes later, Bellerin created a golden chance for Aubameyang who hit the post. The Spaniard showed his more cynical side in the 78th by holding back Traore to kill a counterattack.

Holding has been one of the young players improving under Emery. His performance on Sunday was a mixed bag. Holding made 11 recoveries, tied with Torreira for the most by a Gunner. He intercepted Neves’ through ball for Jimenez in the 11th and outmuscled Jimenez inside the box in the 50th. However, the Wolves capitalized on Holding’s average pace twice. Costa beat Holding to a 50-50 ball on a fast break in the 23rd. The Wolverhampton forward was denied by Leno, who reacted quickly enough to beat Jimenez to the rebound. In stoppage time, Traore won a foot race with Holding on a counterattack. The pacy substitute struggled to control the ball, allowing Holding to make up ground. Holding slid for a desperate block attempt, forcing Traore to cut inside. Leno quickly came off his line to save Traore’s close-range effort.

Leno’s Man of the Match performance

Mustafi looked more shaky than Holding. The German defender read the game well enough to clear dangerous crosses in the 28th and 63rd. But his technique let him down a couple of times. Mustafi’s passes for Bellerin rolled out of play in the 67th and 76th. Then his poor first touch led to a dangerous turnover in the 83rd. Arsenal also had to deal with an unfavorable 2v3 situation in the 84th because Mustafi was stranded up the pitch, forcing Bellerin to cover him.

In goal, Leno produced a Man of the Match performance. He pulled off a couple of outstanding saves to prevent Wolverhampton from winning the game. Cech’s hamstring injury was a blessing in disguise for Emery. Cech is one of the leaders in the dressing room, so it could have been tricky to justify the change of goalkeeper in the starting lineup. Leno proved himself during Cech’s absence and gave Emery no reason to drop him after Cech’s return from injury. From the moment Leno can match Cech’s shot-stopping skills, he will have the edge over Cech because of his better distribution and his ability to play out from the back.

The Gunners have no maneuvering room in the Top 4 race after dropping points against Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton. They will play Bournemouth, Tottenham and Manchester United after the international break. That run of games could decide Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes as they trail Spurs by 3 points and are 4 points clear of the Cherries and the Red Devils. A string of poor results could mean the end of the honeymoon period for Emery.

 

Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Gunners show defensive nous in 1-1 draw

Are the Gunners improving under Emery? Well, they salvaged a point in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool and looked more solid defensively than in the losses to Manchester City and Chelsea at the start of the season. Those are definitely small steps in the right direction. The Gunners are no title contenders, but they have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish. They slipped to fifth place in the standings, 1 point behind Tottenham but 3 clear of Manchester United. It’s important for Arsenal to perform well against the big clubs because results against the Citizens, the Red Devils, Liverpool, Spurs and the Blues will determine their chances of a Top 4 spot.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Gunners were switched on defensively, winning 51.6% of the duels and making 10 interceptions to 4 for Liverpool, according to the club’s website. They also showed good discipline by conceding only 7 fouls. But it’s not completely Emery’s team yet. Arsenal enjoyed 62% of Wengeresque sterile possession with Xhaka (97), Holding (82), Mustafi (81) and Torreira (64) finishing the game as the players who made the most passes. The Gunners especially suffered from a lack of penetration in the final third with just 5 successful dribbles to 13 for the Reds, according to whoscored.com. Nelson’s return next season will be a huge bonus since he’s the only natural dribbler in the squad. The English teenager notched his fifth Bundesliga goal in Hoffenheim’s 4-1 rout of Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.

Having a clearer idea of what is the best team

Emery anticipated Liverpool’s high-energy style of football as he injected some freshness in the starting lineup by making 9 changes to the side that edged Blackpool in the League Cup with only Mustafi and Mkhitaryan retaining their starting spots. Maybe the more important figure is the 2 changes he made to the side that drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace the previous weekend with Mkhitaryan and Kolasinac replacing Iwobi and Guendouzi in the starting lineup. Emery seems to have a clearer idea of what his best team is.

In midfield, Emery seems to believe that Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil are his best options. At the start of the season, Emery toyed with the idea of playing Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder, but that experiment bore no fruit. He therefore moved Ozil from the right wing to the No. 10 position. In central midfield, Emery started Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in the first 5 games. However, it proved a flawed tandem because both players were too similar and the team simply lacked a true ballwinner to protect the defense. Emery therefore played Torreira alongside Xhaka in a more complementary partnership.

In the front three, Emery initially trusted Aubameyang to lead the line. But the Spanish manager had a change of heart and Lacazette has become the first choice for the centerforward position since the Cardiff game. Because of his goalscoring abilities, Aubameyang seems to have a small lead over Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck for the wide positions.

At the back, there hasn’t been much stability because of injuries. The only certainty is that Emery prefers Bellerin and Monreal to Lichtsteiner and Kolasinac in the fullback positions. Sokratis and Mustafi were Emery’s favorite centerback pairing at the start of the season, but Holding’s recent performances and Koscielny’s return from injury could change the situation this month.

The importance of positional play

Xhaka and Torreira were the main reason why Arsenal seemed less open than against Manchester City and Chelsea. They combined to win 4 of 7 tackles, have 1 turnover and make 1 block, 2 interceptions and 25 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Torreira led all midfielders by winning 80% of his duels. He made a timely tackle on Salah in the 32nd, cleared a rebound to prevent a tap-in from Gomez in the 45th and outperformed Fabinho in the midfield battle. While Emery showed patience and eased Torreira into a new league, Klopp hasn’t enjoyed much luck with Fabinho, who wasn’t up to speed on Saturday.

Torreira obviously focused on his defensive tasks but he nearly scored in the 63rd minute, playing a one-two with Mhkitaryan before testing Alisson with a powerful strike from 18 yards. The Uruguay international left everything on the pitch and even suffered from cramping in stoppage time. The only blemish in his performance was his positional play in the 18th when Mane’s goal was disallowed for offside. Firmino plays as a false nine, which means that he will often drop off in the space between the defense and the midfielders. Torreira should have tracked Firmino instead of letting Mustafi deal with a 1v2 situation.

A week after Xhaka gave away a penalty with a clumsy challenge on Zaha, there were some jitters in the crowd when the Switzerland international made a sliding tackle in the 22nd. But Xhaka cleanly knocked the ball away from Salah and that duel set the tone for the rest of the evening. Emery will probably show Xhaka the positional mistake he made on the opening goal, failing to patrol the edge of the area as Milner pounced on a rebound in the 61st to fire home from 16 yards. Offensively, Xhaka mustered a tame low drive in the 14th and created a chance in the 39th.

Adapting to Emeryball

Both Xhaka and Torreira had to work their socks off because Ozil and Aubameyang contributed very little defensively. Ozil and Aubameyang combined to make 0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block and just 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website. By contrast, Mkhitaryan still managed to win 1 tackle and make 6 recoveries in 68 minutes.

Ozil led all players with 4 key passes. The German playmaker cut the ball back to Bellerin for what could have been the winner in the 88th, but Bellerin couldn’t catch the frame with his weaker left foot. We all know that Ozil will never dominate a big game like Zidane, so it’s a small consolation that he didn’t disappear from this one.

Mkhitaryan is struggling to adapt to Emeryball. The Armenia international only has 1 goal and 1 assist from 8 league games this season. That’s not good enough for a player of his quality. Mkhitaryan made 2 key passes on Saturday but no defense-splitting pass. He set up Aubameyang in the 31st and Torreira in the 63rd for long-range efforts. Emery made the right call in the 68th by replacing Mkhitaryan with Iwobi. The Nigeria international brought more directness, making a teasing cross that Ozil couldn’t meet in the 76th. Although Iwobi moved to the leftback position in the 81st when Welbeck replaced Kolasinac, he still found a way to have an impact in the final third. Iwobi slipped the through ball that led to Lacazette’s equalizer in the 82nd.

Same situation, different decision

Up front, Lacazette had a disappointing game until that stroke of genius. He connected with a cross from Kolasinac in the fourth minute only to flick the ball straight at Alisson. In the past seasons, you can bet that Giroud would have done better with those flicks at the near post. Lacazette had another chance in the 39th but from a much tighter angle. Ozil diverted a lobbed pass from Xhaka into the path of Lacazette, who fired wide of the far post. A minute later, Mustafi knocked the ball down for Lacazette, who volleyed home from close range, but the goal was disallowed for an offside position from the German defender. Then Lacazette made a decisive run in the 82nd, beating Alisson to the ball. Running toward the corner flag to shield the ball, Lacazette was almost in a situation similar to the play that led to Crystal Palace’s equalizer. But instead of playing the ball back to a Gunner outside the area, Lacazette spun to curl a shot into the far corner.

Emery prefers to use Lacazette as a false nine, coming short to link up play, instead of relying on Aubameyang’s pace to lead the line. To a certain extent, Emery has given Aubameyang the Walcott role: a forward making diagonal runs in behind but with a limited contribution in the build-up play. The big difference is that Walcott could still cross with his stronger foot from the right flank whereas Aubameyang has to play on the left wing because Ozil and Mkhitaryan are more comfortable on the right wing.

Aubameyang had a poor game, winning only 20% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 55.6%, the lowest percentage for any starter. He also led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The Gabon striker had efforts deflected out in the 14th and 31st and mistimed his jump to head a cross from Ozil over the bar in the 39th. Aubameyang’s best contribution was the cross he made for Mkhitaryan in the 16th. Mkhitaryan beat Alisson to the ball but missed the target with his 11-yard header. Emery yanked Aubameyang off to send on Ramsey in the 73rd.

Leno’s mistakes

At the back, Kolasinac struggled in his return from injury, winning 40% of his duels and 0 of 2 tackles while making 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. Salah had Kolasinac in his pocket and the Reds could have caused more damage if they had created more situations isolating Salah with Kolasinac. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international lacked defensive awareness in the 69th, allowing Mane to run in front of him. Fortunately, Salah overhit his cross for Mane. Then Van Dijk lost Kolasinac in the 74th to meet a corner and force a save from Leno.

On the opposite flank, Bellerin was a doubt before the game but managed to play with his right thigh strapped. Bellerin did OK, winning 33% of his duels and 2 of 2 tackles while making 1 block, 1 interception and 3 recoveries. The Spaniard lost a key duel in the 70th when Firmino outjumped him to head a corner wide. Because of his recovering thigh and Mane’s threat down the right flank, Bellerin was more cautious with his forward runs. He still produced a through ball for Mkhitaryan in the 51st but Van Dijk outmuscled the Armenia international.

Leno made a couple of fine saves, denying Van Dijk in the 23rd and saving Robertson’s low strike in the 24th, but he also made 2 high-profile errors. The German goalkeeper was in no man’s land when Van Dijk headed a free kick against the post in the 45th. That was really poor decision-making from Leno to come off his line since Van Dijk was 14 or 15 yards away from goal. Then Leno should have either caught Mane’s cross in the 61st or knocked the ball toward the touchline. Redirecting the cross toward the middle of the box was the worst option as Milner pounced on the rebound to open the scoring. Leno also tried to play out from the back with goal kicks, but Liverpool’s high press forced him to opt for a long kick in the 26th. That was smart decision-making since the Reds were prepared for that kind of situation and you can’t afford any mistake near your area with players like Salah, Mane and Firmino.

Holding stepping up

Sokratis’ injury has given Holding the opportunity to prove himself again after shaky performances under Wenger. On Saturday, Holding and Mustafi made their 6th start together this season. When Sokratis is fit, it will be interesting to see which centerback combination Emery prefers.

Holding had stats as good as Mustafi. The English defender won 70% of his duels and 3 of 4 tackles and made 1 block, 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries, compared to 90% of duels won, 2 of 4 tackles won, and 1 block, 4 interceptions and 2 recoveries for Mustafi. Both had their good and bad moments. Holding headed out Robertson’s cross for Firmino in the fifth minute and blocked Salah’s final ball for Mane in stoppage time. However, Holding also made a sloppy pass in the 34th and lost a key duel against Van Dijk in the 45th.

After his error against Crystal Palace, Mustafi had to try and convince his doubters again. Mustafi made a timely tackle on Firmino in the fifth minute but a couple of plays exposed his weaknesses. He showed poor decision-making in the 18th by playing the offside trap instead of tracking Firmino. Mane’s goal would have stood with VAR technology. Then Van Dijk ghosted past Mustafi to meet a cross from Salah in the 23rd but was denied by Leno. Mustafi was definitely guilty on the Liverpool goal as Mane outpaced the German defender to make his cross.

The Gunners next play Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Wolverhampton in the Premier League on Sunday. Those are both home games so Emery might decide to limit rotation, especially since there’s an international break afterwards. Arsenal would secure qualification for the knockout phase of the Europa League with a victory over the Portuguese side. Such a scenario would allow Emery to play more youngsters for the remaining games against Vorskla and Qarabag.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: 2-2 draw ends Gunners’ winning streak

The Gunners ran out of luck on Sunday as they gave away two penalties to draw 2-2 with Crystal Palace. They trail Chelsea by 2 points in the Premier League but still hold onto fourth place after Manchester City edged Spurs tonight. The target for this season is 76 points (that is, 2.00 points per game), knowing that Liverpool finished fourth in the past two seasons with a minimum of 75 points. The Gunners are on course to at least match that total with 22 points from 10 games so far.

Crystal Palace vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

For 27 minutes, it looked like Arsenal would win ugly again. But the Gunners couldn’t protect their 2-1 lead and conceded the equalizer in the 83rd minute. The draw was a fair result as the Eagles proved the more threatening team with 16 goal attempts compared to just 7 for Arsenal.

Emery made 6 changes to the side that won in Lisbon last Thursday with Aubameyang, Guendouzi, Xhaka, Holding and Leno retaining their starting spots. Despite those changes, the Gunners looked a bit jaded, playing their third game in a 7-day span. They enjoyed 58% of Wengeresque sterile possession because the lack of movement led to a passing speed too slow to destabilize the Palace defense. It was no surprise if the Arsenal centerbacks and central midfielders finished the game as the players who made the most passes: 74 for Mustafi, 74 for Guendouzi, 73 for Holding and 72 for Torreira, according to the club’s website.

Tactically, the Eagles targeted the Arsenal fullbacks as Zaha and Townsend led all players with 3 key passes each. Bellerin coped well with Zaha on the right flank. The Spaniard was obviously more cautious with his forward runs but he still managed to be in a scoring position in the 24th minute. Ozil squared the ball back to Bellerin, who took 2 touches before firing a shot that was blocked. Bellerin lacked spontaneity on that play. A first-time effort with his left foot was the more natural option, but Bellerin preferred to shift the ball to his stronger right foot.

Playing Xhaka out of position

Bellerin suffered a muscle strain and was replaced at halftime by Lichtsteiner, who had a hard time with Zaha. Lichtsteiner fouled Zaha from behind in the 63rd and got booked in the 79th for a mistimed challenge on the Palace winger. In his 45-minute cameo, Lichtsteiner did very little with just 1 tackle won, 0 interception and 1 ball recovery, compared to 1 tackle won, 1 interception and 5 recoveries for Bellerin, according to the club’s website. It’s not the first time this season that the game has looked too quick for the Switzerland international.

On the left flank, Emery’s gamble backfired. Xhaka survived in the previous games against Ghezzal and an aging Nani, but he faced a sterner test against Townsend and Zaha. In the 15th, Townsend toyed with Xhaka before making a cross for an unmarked Zaha, who hit the base of the post. Bellerin was marking McArthur on that play, while Iwobi was late to cover Bellerin at the far post. A minute later, Van Aanholt played a one-two with Zaha before feeding Townsend, who missed the target from close range. Van Aanholt ran past Bellerin on that play while Townsend got ahead of a static Xhaka. A counterattack in the 82nd fatally exposed Xhaka’s lack of mobility. Zaha fooled Xhaka with a couple of stepovers, and instead of backing down, Xhaka stuck out his left leg to trip Zaha. The referee awarded a penalty that Milivojevic converted to salvage a point for the Eagles.

Xhaka deserves some credit for getting the Gunners back in the game by netting a curling free kick inside the far post in the 52nd. But you could tell that Xhaka didn’t feel comfortable in the leftback position with a passing accuracy of 72%, compared to 82% for Bellerin and 81% for Lichtsteiner. Xhaka tried hard, winning 2 of 4 tackles and 57% of his duels and making 1 interception and 5 recoveries. But the unfavorable matchup ultimately proved his undoing. I believe Emery should have started Lichtsteiner or Holding in the leftback position. Holding played as a fullback at Bolton before joining Arsenal and might have reacted more cautiously in a 1v1 situation with Zaha.

Using the weaker foot, or not

The opening goal also came from a defensive error. Leno weakly punched away a corner on the stroke of halftime. The ball fell to Tomkins, who chested it down to have an awkward effort blocked by Bellerin. The loose ball rolled toward Kouyate, who was brought down by Mustafi. The German defender was in a good position to make a block and had no reason to panic and dive in. Milivojevic converted the subsequent spot kick to give Palace the lead. In his third season at Arsenal, Mustafi still can’t refrain from making those reckless tackles. That’s a problem for a club in need of a leader at the back. Koscielny is 33 and past his prime while Sokratis is 30 and lacks the recovery pace to play a high defensive line.

Up front, Lacazette worked his socks off with 5 tackles made, 1 interception and 5 ball recoveries. But he was quite inefficient in the final third. Lacazette failed to catch the frame with an 18-yard strike in the 22nd and crossed the ball out of play in the 38th. His decision-making was incredibly poor in the 82nd. Leading a counterattack, Iwobi found Lacazette inside the Palace area. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Lacazette had 3 good passing options with Welbeck and Ramsey at the near post and Guendouzi at the far post.

Crystal Palace M82edLacazette takes a pass from Iwobi and has 3 passing options. (Photo credit: NBC)

The best option would have been to cut the ball back for Ramsey. But Lacazette refused to cross the ball with his left foot and ran toward the corner flag to check back onto his right foot and make a sloppy cross toward Torreira in midfield. Meyer intercepted the ball and the Eagles hit Arsenal on the fast break with Zaha taking on Xhaka to earn a decisive penalty. Lacazette was also involved in the controversial play that led to Aubameyang’s goal in the 56th. With his hand, the French striker diverted Xhaka’s corner toward the far post where Aubameyang stabbed the ball home. The goal-line technology confirmed that the ball had crossed the line by less than an inch. But there was no VAR technology to cancel the goal for Lacazette’s blatant handball.

Ramsey’s olive branch

Aubameyang is a typical poacher. It doesn’t make sense for him to play on the left wing. Aubameyang should lead the line since he’s stronger in the air and faster than Lacazette. Emery yanked Aubameyang off in the 78th to send on Ramsey. The Wales international played in a three-man midfield as the Gunners switched to a 4-3-3 formation with Welbeck, Lacazette and Iwobi in the front three. Ramsey had an opportunity to score the winner in the 89th but he couldn’t connect with Xhaka’s cross and Hennessey caught the ball.

After the Lisbon game, Ramsey pretty much dangled an olive branch in front of the board by asking why the club withdrew their contract offer. Ramsey also said he had agreed the deal, although he didn’t sign it. The situation is more complex than it seems. Ramsey and the club were negotiating in the summer before the talks broke down at the end of September. The board definitely wanted a quick resolution. They didn’t want a repeat of the Sanchez-Ozil situation with negotiations lasting forever and driving salaries up while creating uncertainty around the squad. On the other hand, it was in Ramsey’s interest to have long negotiations and use offers from other clubs to obtain a significant raise. If Emery and the board want to keep Ramsey, they could test his good faith by asking him to sign the deal that was on the table. Now the big question mark is how much bad blood there was between both parties during the negotiations.

I believe the club should make one last effort to keep Ramsey. The Gunners don’t have any natural replacement for the Wales midfielder in their squad. In fact, that kind of box-to-box player is a rare commodity in the Premier League. Ramsey notched 0.71 goal and assist per Premier League game last season. That’s a much better return than Pogba (0.59), Gundogan (0.17), Milner (0.09) and Wijnaldum (0.09). Of course, you can find midfielders with similar stats (De Bruyne, Silva, Eriksen), but keep in mind that they are playmakers and not box-to-box players like Ramsey.

An anonymous Ozil

The only other British player with a similar potential is Loftus-Cheek. But the big difference here is that Loftus-Cheek is still an unknown quantity at 22 while Ramsey is a proven big-game player -Ramsey scored the winning goal in two FA Cup finals.

Another reason to extend Ramsey’s contract is the issue of leadership. Ramsey is one of the 5 captains named by Emery. The other captains are Cech, Koscielny, Xhaka and Ozil. Both Cech and Koscielny are past their prime, Xhaka is a flawed player and Ozil has never been a leader. That leaves Ramsey as the only decent choice for the armband. As the current longest serving player at the club, Ramsey also has the legitimacy to be Arsenal’s standard-bearer.

If the staff and the owner were British, Ramsey’s contract would have been a no-brainer. Most fans can easily see Ramsey become what Gerrard was for Liverpool or what Scholes was for Manchester United. Unfortunately, Kroenke is American, Sanllehi and Emery are Spanish, Mislintat is German and Gazidis is South African. They may not have the same understanding of the club’s identity as the fans.

A few months ago, the board gave Ozil a new contract (£350,000 a week). Why they were so generous with Ozil and more strict with Ramsey is a big mystery. After his passing masterclass against Leicester, Ozil had a poor game at Selhurst Park with 0 goal attempt and only 1 key pass. Ozil didn’t even play against Sporting Lisbon and was therefore well rested, so he had no excuse for his anonymous performance. Emery replaced Ozil with Welbeck in the 68th. Out of frustration, Ozil threw his gloves on the ground as he left the pitch.

The problem with this Arsenal team is that they have no consistent performer in the creative positions. Iwobi was the alternative to Ozil for creating chances. But the Nigeria international had 0 key pass, and 8 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. He also won only 22% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any Gunner according to the club’s website. I didn’t really understand why Emery left Mkhitaryan on the bench.

Getting the priorities right

In central midfield, Torreira had a decent game, winning 1 of 3 tackles and 71% of his duels and making 3 interceptions and 9 ball recoveries. Torreira didn’t reach the heights of his performance against Leicester (13 recoveries) or Fulham (6 interceptions), but he showed on Sunday that he has adapted to the pace and physicality of the Premier League within a couple of months. Now the Uruguay midfielder wins the 50-50 duels and better uses his body to shield the ball and draw a foul. It’s no coincidence if Torreira was the most fouled player (4) on the Arsenal team.

Alongside Torreira, Guendouzi produced a high-energy performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 50% of his duels and making 1 interception and 11 recoveries. The French teenager also cut his turnover rate (3) but he still needs to release the ball more quickly. In stoppage time, Guendouzi reacted like a seasoned pro by killing a counterattack with a cynical foul on Meyer.

The Gunners next play Blackpool in the League Cup on Wednesday and Liverpool in the Premier League on Saturday. The Blackpool game is the perfect opportunity for Emery to blood some youngsters and rest some first-team players who need a break. The Spanish manager must get his priorities right because the Liverpool game could make or break our season. The Gunners have never led at halftime in the Premier League this season. They will need a much better start to have a chance against the Reds.

Arsenal vs. Leicester: Ozil doing his magic in 3-1 win

The Gunners stretched their winning streak to 10 games in all competitions as they rallied past Leicester 3-1 on Monday to stay fourth in the Premier League, ahead of Spurs on goal difference. When you keep winning, it’s a fantastic boost for your confidence but it can also lead to a bit of complacency. Arsenal clearly lacked intensity in the first 30 minutes. Did they think that they would get 3 points just by showing up? Somehow, they stepped up their game after Leicester took the lead in the 31st minute.

Arsenal vs. Leicester.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Monday’s game was similar to the World Cup semifinal between England and Croatia. The tactical battle was not in midfield but on the flanks. In the first half, the England wingbacks forced the Croatia wingers to defend. In the second half, the Croatia fullbacks charged forward while the Croatia wingers played higher up the pitch, putting the England wingbacks on the back foot.

In a 3-5-2 formation, the Foxes did some damage with their wingbacks in the first half. The visitors especially exploited the space behind the Arsenal fullbacks. Capitalizing on a turnover in the second minute, Ndidi slipped the ball to Iheanacho, who made a run down our left flank before cutting inside to muster a shot deflected out by Holding. Iheanacho then turned Holding in the 10th to feed Vardy, but Leno quickly came off his line to collect the ball. Leicester finally broke the deadlock in the 31st when Ndidi found Chilwell, who outpaced Bellerin to make a cross that the Spaniard diverted into his own net.

Emery only fixed the problem in the second half when he replaced Mkhitaryan and Lichtsteiner with Aubameyang and Guendouzi in the 61st. Iwobi was moved from the left wing to the right wing but the big tactical surprise was Xhaka’s shift to the leftback position. In fact, Xhaka didn’t have to roam forward like Lichtsteiner: Xhaka’s new task was to patrol the left flank in Arsenal’s half while Aubameyang created havoc in Leicester’s half.

Pinning back the wingbacks

Suddenly, Aubameyang and Iwobi created more problems for Pereira and Chilwell. Pereira even earned a yellow card in the 65th for holding Aubameyang on a counterattack. On the right wing, Mkhitaryan’s tendency to drift inside played into the hands of the Leicester defense whereas Iwobi provided more width. On the left wing, Aubameyang was a bigger goal threat than Iwobi.

The Gunners took the lead in the 63rd when Bellerin made a run in behind Chilwell to cross the ball for Aubameyang, who tapped home from close range. It was then Pereira’s turn to be in trouble in the 66th. Pereira started the play more than 20 yards behind Aubameyang and only managed to catch up after the Gabon striker converted Ozil’s pass for a 3-1 lead. That goal forced Puel to switch to a back four in the 69th when Ghezzal replaced Perreira.

Much has been said about Emeryball and the Spanish manager’s decision to play out from the back and press high up the pitch. I think the Gunners still have a lot of room to improve in those 2 areas. Yes, they have scored some spectacular goals while building play from the back. But they’ve also put themselves in some uncomfortable situations because they simply don’t have the same margin for error as Manchester City. Likewise, Arsenal’s pressing game is far from the standards of Liverpool. For instance, the lack of pressing for Leicester’s opening goal was quite embarrassing.

For me, the last goal is really what defines Emeryball so far. Torreira ignited the action by switching play from the left flank to the right. Ozil kept the momentum alive with a backheel flick toward Guendouzi, who released Bellerin down the right wing. Bellerin then found Lacazette, who played Ozil in. Instead of taking his chance, Ozil made a chipped pass for Aubameyang, who flicked home from 4 yards. Of all those players, Bellerin was the only one who took more than one touch.

The value of the first-time pass

There were also goals with some nifty one-touch passing under Wenger -Wilshere’s goal against Norwich being the most obvious example. But the key difference here is Emery’s willingness to take risks inside Arsenal’s half with first-time passes. The Gunners tended to play it safe inside their own half under Wenger with many passes between the centerbacks and the central midfielders. Under Emery, they reach the final third much more quickly.

Some fans expected Emery to use a 4-4-2 formation again after the 5-1 demolition of Fulham. But Emery decided to build his team around Ozil with a 4-2-3-1 system, leaving Ramsey and Aubameyang on the bench. On paper, the starting lineup put a lot of pressure on Ozil to contribute offensively because Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are not prolific scorers. Emery’s choice paid off as Ozil was heavily involved in Arsenal’s 3 goals.

Ozil made deep runs a la Ramsey for the equalizer and the last goal. On the stroke of halftime, Ozil ran 30 yards with the ball before releasing Bellerin down the right flank. The German playmaker kept running to meet Bellerin’s cross and guided the ball inside the far post with a first-time effort from 12 yards. For the last goal, Ozil made a backheel flick inside his own half before running 60 yards to set up Aubameyang. Ozil pretty much played like a No. 8 for those 2 goals.

In a fantasy world, Ozil and Ramsey would play in front of Torreira in central midfield, a bit like De Bruyne and Silva do with Fernandinho at Manchester City. In the real world, Arsenal would probably be in trouble against the big teams because of Ozil’s poor work-rate and Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline.

A passing masterclass

Ozil played in the more traditional No. 10 role for Arsenal’s second goal, slipping a through ball to Bellerin with a perfectly weighted pass. Everybody knows that Ozil is a world-class player. Yet, the Foxes gave him plenty of space and time to make that pinpoint pass. Ozil received a deserved ovation from the crowd when Ramsey replaced him in the 79th. In his passing masterclass, Ozil reached a passing accuracy of 91.2% according to the club’s website and even won 85.7% of his duels, which is an unusually high percentage for him.

Should Emery keep playing Ozil in the hole instead of using him on the right wing where he has often been a peripheral figure this season? The problem with Monday’s starting lineup is that Arsenal lacked Aubameyang’s speed for the first 60 minutes. As Lacazette came short to have the ball played to his feet, the Foxes did not hesitate to play a high defensive line. Lacazette has decent pace but he doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric speed to make lethal runs in behind.

When Aubameyang came off the bench, the Leicester defense dropped off to prevent him from making those runs in behind. The last 2 goals showed that Aubameyang is a pure finisher as he wasn’t involved in the build-up to those goals. It’s very selfless from him to play on the left wing, knowing that he proved himself as a prolific scorer with Borussia Dortmund.

Lacazette had an off day with only 1 of 4 shots on target. He should have scored in the 78th when Ozil laid the ball on a plate for the Frenchman. Watching the replay, I think the angle of Lacazette’s run made it difficult for him to net with his right foot. Which begs the question: do you trust your chocolate leg to score from 3 or 4 yards?

Torreira as the heartbeat of the team

Despite his lack of efficiency, Lacazette kept working hard, intercepting Ndidi’s back pass in the 50th to create a half-chance. He also contributed to the last goal with his link-up play. I still believe that Lacazette would be better used as a second striker than as a centerforward. Lacazette often prefers to escape marking with a run at the far post when a run at the near post would be the more natural option.

On the wings, Mkhitaryan struggled to make an impact. The Armenia international had 0 of 2 shots on target and made 0 key pass. His best chance came in the 50th when he pounced on a rebound for a half-volley that sailed wide. Iwobi showed more end product with 1 shot on target and 2 key passes as well as good work-rate with 4 of 4 tackles won and 5 ball recoveries. The Nigeria international made a smart run to break the offside trap in the 35th but couldn’t trap the long ball from the Arsenal defense. He then took a pass from Ozil in the 42nd to test Schmeichel with an angled effort.

Obviously, Iwobi has improved under Emery but he still needs to work on two issues at least: his turnover rate and his final ball. He led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. One of his sloppy passes led to a dangerous fast break in the 17th, forcing Holding to get booked for a cynical foul on Iheanacho. I felt the quality of Iwobi’s final ball was not good enough in the 49th when his high cross evaded Mkhitaryan.

In central midfield, Torreira was a rock with another outstanding performance. He was the heartbeat of the team, leading all players with 92 passes, a passing accuracy of 91.3% and 13 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Uruguay international also had 0 turnover, compared to 2 for Xhaka and 1 for Guendouzi. Besides his defensive work, Torreira played the role of attacking springboard, too. He made the interception for the equalizer, made a decoy run for Arsenal’s second goal, and initiated the switch of play for the last goal.

Injury crisis at the back

Despite Torreira’s presence, Xhaka had a hard time in midfield. Xhaka gave away a cheap free kick by grabbing Maddison in the 15th, earned a yellow card for a late challenge on the Leicester starlet in the 35th, and nearly got a second booking for vehemently asking for a foul in the 54th. It was quite a gamble from Emery to play Xhaka in the leftback position for the last 30 minutes, especially under the threat of a second yellow card. His lack of mobility will always prevent Xhaka from becoming a true ballwinner. In a contending club, Xhaka wouldn’t be a starter. The question for the Arsenal staff is what kind of midfielder should they sign next summer: another holding midfielder as an upgrade over Xhaka and Elneny, or a box-to-box player if Ramsey leaves the club?

At the back, Emery had to cope with an injury crisis and called up Medley from the academy. Lichtsteiner started in the lefback position because both Monreal and Kolasinac had hamstring issues. The Switzerland defender had a poor game, winning only 20% of his duels and making no tackle, no block and no interception, according to the club’s website. On the opposite flank, Bellerin lost his duel against Chilwell on the opening goal but got his revenge on the equalizer with a cross that Chilwell failed to stop. Bellerin notched a second assist with his low cross for Aubameyang in the 63rd.

Mixing man-marking and zonal marking

Injuries to Koscielny, Sokratis and Mavropanos meant that Holding kept teaming up with Mustafi in the heart of the defense. Mustafi headed away a dangerous cross from Pereira in the 12th and won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage for any Arsenal defender according to the club’s website. Mustafi had a relatively quiet evening as Vardy seemed to suffer from a stomach ache. By contrast, Holding had a harder time with Iheanacho. Holding got away with a handball in the 17th while challenging Ndidi in the air. A penalty would have been harsh since Ndidi prevented Holding from jumping by putting an arm on his shoulder. Holding also hit the risky long ball that led to Leicester’s goal.

Leno was less busy than against Fulham with just 2 saves made. He turned around the post a curling shot from Iheanacho in the sixth minute and pushed away Maguire’s downward header off a free kick in the 20th. The only blemish in Leno’s performance was his failure to beat Ndidi to the ball on a corner in the 58th. Arsenal used a mix of man-marking and zonal marking on that play. Man-marking: Lichtsteiner, Bellerin and Iwobi were in charge of slowing down Maguire, Evans and Ndidi, who started their run-up from beyond the penalty spot. Zonal marking: Holding, Mustafi and Xhaka were standing near the 6-yard line in pockets where the Foxes were most likely to head the ball. Iwobi failed to block Ndidi’s run and the Leicester midfielder got ahead of Holding to head the ball onto the bar. It might have been a different story if the Foxes had led 2-1.

I expect Emery to rotate for the Europa League game against Sporting Lisbon on Thursday. The schedule until the next international break is quite hectic, so it wouldn’t make sense to risk any injury in a competition where the Gunners have very good chances to qualify.

 

 

Fulham vs. Arsenal: Emery makes tactical tweak in 5-1 win

The Gunners snatched 4th place from Spurs in the Premier League by smashing Fulham 5-1 on Sunday for their 9th straight win in all competitions. Cynics will point at the schedule. It’s true that the Gunners haven’t faced any top club during that winning run. But it’s still an improvement compared to last season when Arsenal badly struggled on the road under Wenger, even against the weak sides.

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

Emery had a surprise for the fans at Craven Cottage. The Spanish manager relied on a 4-2-3-1 formation for the first 7 league games. On Sunday, he switched to a flexible 4-4-2 system with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings and Lacazette and Welbeck up front. It morphed into a 4-2-3-1 formation when Welbeck swapped positions with Iwobi on the left wing or when Mkhitaryan drifted inside and Lacazette made runs on the right wing.

Other teams have resorted to that kind of tactical flexibility. During the World Cup, France played in a 4-4-2 formation while attacking. But when the French lost possession, they would shift to a 4-3-3 system with Matuidi moving from the left wing to central midfield and Griezmann drifting wide to defend on the left wing. Likewise, Klopp is known for using a 4-3-3 formation at Liverpool. But when the Reds lost possession in the Champions League last season, they would morph into a 4-4-2 system with Salah staying up front with Firmino while Mane dropped deeper to defend.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M4ed.jpgArsenal’s 4-4-2 formation at Craven Cottage. (Photo credit: BT)

A manager should be able to make tactical changes instead of always sticking to the same formation. It’s about creating problems for the opponents and figuring out what’s the best system for an optimal use of the players. I felt Wenger was too conservative in his last years at the club. That’s why it was such a shock when he switched to a back three in April 2017 for the first time in 20 years. Maybe Arsenal could have finished in the Top 4 that season if Wenger had made that decision earlier. Who knows.

Element of surprise

The main advantage of the 4-4-2 formation is that Lacazette and Aubameyang can play together in their best positions. Aubameyang replaced Welbeck in the 62nd minute to lead the line alongside Lacazette until Emery yanked Lacazette off to send on Guendouzi in the 81st. During that 19-minute spell, the Gunners scored 2 goals.

Another advantage of the 4-4-2 system is that Ramsey is more comfortable on the right flank than in the No. 10 role. Ramsey played on the right wing when he replaced Iwobi in the 67th. Wenger already used Ramsey in that position. Some managers might be tempted to play Ramsey in the hole behind the striker when they check his stats for goals and assists. But they should rather take a look at his position on the pitch at the start of the plays where he scores or makes an assist. Ramsey has enough room to make his late runs from central midfield or from the right wing while there’s no element of surprise when he plays like a second striker.

Emery made 6 changes to the side that started the Europa League game in Azerbaijan with Monreal, Holding, Leno, Iwobi and Welbeck retaining their starting spots. Ozil was not in the squad because of a back strain while Ramsey and Aubameyang were on the bench for different reasons: Aubameyang had just recovered from illness and Ramsey’s wife was expecting twins.

The Gunners showed diversity in their scoring. Arsenal’s first two goals came from long balls, the third and the fourth capped counterattacks and the fifth was the result of playing the ball out from the back. Lacazette gave the lead to the Gunners with a low effort on the turn in the 29th. He made it 2-0 by taking his chance from 25 yards and firing into the bottom corner in the 49th. Lacazette also played a key role in the build-up to the third goal in the 67th, showing a great understanding with Ramsey and Bellerin. His work-rate was quite impressive as he won 2 of 2 tackles and made 7 ball recoveries, tied with Xhaka and Torreira for the most by an Arsenal player, according to the club’s website. The only blemish in Lacazette’s outstanding performance was his 5 turnovers.

Welbeck as a target man

Lacazette and Aubameyang have scored 4 goals each in the Premier League this season. During his 30-minute cameo, Aubameyang showed what he could do in the centerforward position, notching 2 goals and 1 assist. Aubameyang crossed the ball to Ramsey for the third goal. The Gabon striker then controlled a cross from Bellerin and spun to bury the ball into the far corner for a 4-0 lead in the 79th. He sealed the win in stoppage time by collecting a through ball from Ramsey to beat Bettinelli with a 16-yard strike.

Welbeck is not in the same class as Lacazette and Aubameyang. The England international had 0 shot but worked selflessly for his teammates, leading all Gunners with 3 key passes, including an assist for Lacazette’s second goal. At times, Welbeck played the role of target man as he was involved in 8 aerial duels in Fulham’s half, according to whoscored.com. If the Gunners can’t beat the press, then they need an out ball and Welbeck is the most obvious choice because of his physicality, pace and aerial abilities.

On the left wing, Iwobi made the penultimate pass for the opening goal, slipping the ball to an overlapping Monreal. The Nigeria international also made a pinpoint cross for Mkhitaryan, whose effort was blocked in the sixth minute. Iwobi led all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 6 but also had the lowest passing accuracy for an Arsenal player with 65%, according to the club’s website. He still needs to work on his decision-making as he wasted a good situation in the 13th. If you look at the screen capture below, you will see that Iwobi could have picked out an unmarked Mkhitaryan at the far post while the Fulham defense was busy with Welbeck and Lacazette. In the end, Iwobi took on Odoi and lost possession.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M13ed.jpgWelbeck and Lacazette are marked while Mkhitaryan is free. (Photo credit: BT)

Like Iwobi, Mkhitaryan struggled to have an impact in the Fulham area. He should have found the net in the 32nd when he met a cross from Welbeck for a sliding effort that didn’t trouble Bettinelli. Mkhitaryan still contributed to the scoreline by making the penultimate pass for Arsenal’s third and fourth goals, releasing Aubameyang down the left flank in the 67th and switching play with a crossfield pass to Bellerin in the 79th.

Speed of execution

At this stage of the season, Ramsey has a slight edge over Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi in Emery’s mind. The Wales international is more versatile than the other attacking midfielders and has better stats with 1 goal and 3 assists compared to 2 goals for Ozil, 1 goal and 1 assist for Mkhitaryan and also 1 goal and 1 assist for Iwobi.

The Gunners’ third goal summed up what Ramsey is all about and why it doesn’t make sense to play him in the No. 10 role. Bellerin won the ball inside the Arsenal area and found Ramsey near the corner flag. At the start of that play, Ramsey was 20 yards behind Lacazette. But by the time Aubameyang made the cross, Ramsey was more than 10 yards in front of Lacazette to score with a backheel flick inside the far post.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M67The passing chain for Ramsey’s goal. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The choreography of that swift counterattack almost looked like a ballet performance. That play was also a good example of verticality and speed of execution. The goal was the result of 9 passes involving 5 players (Bellerin, Ramsey, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang). There were 5 first-time passes and the other 4 passes only required 2 touches each. Bellerin’s backheel flick slowed down the play a bit, forcing Ramsey to head the ball twice, but it wasn’t enough to kill the momentum of the attack.

That kind of high-energy transition game is the reason why I think Ramsey would be a good fit for Liverpool. Ramsey would be a perfect replacement for an aging Milner although they don’t have the same profile. The Wales midfielder is a bigger goal threat while Milner has better defensive awareness. In his 25-minute cameo, Ramsey also made an assist, taking a pass from Xhaka to play Aubameyang in for the last goal. If you watch the end of the replay, you will only notice his through ball and his position in the No. 10 role. You have to watch the start of the play to understand that Ramsey’s main asset is his movement. Ramsey was on the halfway line when Xhaka got the ball. But then Ramsey ran into a pocket of space between the Fulham defense and the midfield to create danger.

A new song for Torreira

Emery should build the team around Ramsey and Lacazette. The trouble is that Arsenal recently withdrew their offer to Ramsey, which basically means that he will leave the club either in January or next summer. History is just repeating itself, unfortunately. Wenger also tried to build his team around two talented players: Ozil and Sanchez. We all know how the story ended. Sanchez joined Manchester United last January while Ozil stayed at Arsenal but with a fat contract.

The Gunners never managed to press as a unit under Wenger. Their best pressing effort was the 3-0 demolition of Manchester United in October 2015. But that 20-minute blitz against Van Gaal’s Red Devils was the exception that confirmed the rule. Arsenal simply lacked the personnel for a high press. If Wenger had made one key signing in midfield, it could have been a different story. But the French manager had too high hopes for Coquelin. It’s true that Coquelin and Cazorla formed a complementary duo in central midfield. However, Coquelin’s limitations prevented Arsenal from switching to a formation favoring a pressing game.

It’s quite ironic that the Gunners finally have that smart ballwinner now that Wenger is gone. With Torreira, Arsenal could have played a 4-3-3 a la Liverpool. If they had managed to keep Oxlade-Chamberlain last year, they could have deployed a three-man midfield with Torreira, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

On Sunday, many Arsenal fans acknowledged Torreira’s importance in the balance of the team by chanting his name to the tune of the old Vieira song. Torreira produced an outstanding performance, winning 78% of his duels, the most for any starting midfielder according to the club’s website. He also won 0 of 2 tackles, had 7 ball recoveries and made 6 interceptions, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Uruguay international has adapted to the physicality of the Premier League by better using his body to shield the ball and draw fouls. Torreira was fouled 4 times, the most for any Gunner.

Keeping the ball on the ground, or not

Xhaka had a decent game defensively, winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 interception and 7 recoveries. Offensively, the Switzerland international missed almost everything, overhitting a long ball for Welbeck in the eighth minute, sending a pass to nobody in the 51st and missing his pass for Iwobi in the 52nd. At least, Xhaka was able to spot Ramsey’s run for the last goal in stoppage time. It was a bit surprising that when Emery switched to a 4-3-3 system in the 81st to stuff the midfield, he moved Torreira to the right side and played Xhaka in the holding midfielder role. Maybe it was aimed to cover Bellerin on the right flank and contain Sessegnon’s runs.

The Cottagers lacked creativity when they had the ball. So it was no coincidence if their best chances came from Arsenal turnovers. Vietto intercepted a sloppy pass from Bellerin in the third minute and tested Leno with a drive that took a deflection off Holding. Then Holding underhit his pass for Monreal in the 18th, forcing the Spain international to rush and miss his clearance. Seri wasted the subsequent half-chance by overhitting his final ball for Mitrovic. The Gunners played again with fire while attempting to build from the back. Holding made a risky crossfield pass for Bellerin in the 42nd. Sessegnon intercepted the ball to feed Schurrle, who fired wide.

Fulham finally leveled in the 44th when Monreal missed his long ball for Welbeck. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Monreal had no short passing option because of Xhaka’s lack of mobility. His best passing options were Welbeck down the middle or Iwobi along the touchline. Iwobi was the safer option but required a lobbed pass to prevent an interception from Christie. Welbeck was the bolder option but required a ball over the top with a lot of accuracy to prevent the goalkpeeper from catching the ball. Monreal decided to keep the ball on the ground and it proved a costly mistake.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M44ed.jpgMonreal’s two best options to evade Fulham’s press. (Photo credit: BT)

Anguissa intercepted Monreal’s pass and slipped the ball to Vietto, who played Schurrle clean through on goal. The former Chelsea forward chipped Leno to level the game just before halftime. Monreal was out of position after his sloppy pass, forcing Holding to drift wide. Schurrle saw the gap between Holding and Mustafi and made a timely run between the two Arsenal centerbacks. Mustafi showed poor positional play by reacting too late to cover Holding and mark Schurrle.

A title bid?

Monreal made the assist for the opening goal but you still expect a fullback to ruthlessly patrol his flank. The Spaniard won only 38% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal defender. And Fulham wingback Christie had so much freedom that he led all players with 5 key passes. On Bellerin’s flank, Sessegnon only managed to make 2 key passes. Monreal was out of position in the seventh minute, leaving Xhaka in a 1v2 situation with Vietto and Christie. Vietto made a cross for Mitrovic, whose first-time effort was deflected out by Mustafi for a corner. Then Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses in the 24th and 61st.

Bellerin has been among the Arsenal players improving under Emery. He was involved in Ramsey’s goal and made the cross for Aubameyang’s first goal. Bellerin could have scored in the 48th but Bettinelli palmed away his powerful strike. His offensive contribution has never been questioned under Wenger but there were question marks about his defensive performance. It looks like Bellerin has found the right balance between attack and defense under Emery. Bellerin won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 block and 5 recoveries, compared to 2 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 3 recoveries for Monreal, according to the club’s website.

In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mustafi showed better discipline than in the previous games. The German centerback made no silly foul and had no turnover. He also won 71% of his duels, the highest percentage for any Arsenal defender. Besides his slow reaction on the equalizer, his only blemish was a passing accuracy of 68%, while centerbacks usually have a percentage above 80%.

Some fans are already talking about a title bid because the Gunners trail Liverpool, City and Spurs by just 2 points. I think it’s premature at this stage of the season. To have a shot at the title, Arsenal would need to keep winning against the weak and average sides while getting some points against the big clubs. The Gunners lost against City and Chelsea and they haven’t faced United, Spurs and Liverpool yet. By contrast, the Reds defeated Spurs and drew with City and Chelsea while beating clubs outside the Top 6. It will be interesting to see whether Emery sticks to a 4-4-2 formation after the international break.