Tag Archives: Law

Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal: Gunners make tactical tweak in 2-1 win

Arsenal’s away form has been really poor lately. So Wenger decided to beef up the defense on Monday by relying on a back three. The tactical shift paid off as the Gunners edged Middlesbrough 2-1 for their first away win in the Premier League since Jan. 14 and a 4-0 demolition of Swansea.

Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal

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

In times of crisis, you need leaders. Cech and Koscielny made their return from injury to bring back some calm in the Arsenal team. The manager made 6 changes to the side that was hammered 3-0 at Crystal Palace a week ago with Cech, Koscielny, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud replacing Martinez, Mustafi, Bellerin, Walcott, Elneny and Welbeck in the starting lineup.

The Gunners matched Boro’s commitment, making 11 interceptions compared to 13 for the Smoggies, and winning 19 tackles and 26 aerial duels compared to 17 tackles and 24 aerial duels for the hosts, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal proved the better side in the first half and deservedly took the lead before halftime. But it could have gone either way in the second half. In fact, it was an even contest with each team creating 7 chances and Boro finishing the game with 13 shots compared to 12 for the Gunners.

Cech pulled off a couple of fine saves to prevent Boro from adding a second goal. The Czech goalkeeper stopped Ayala’s header with a reflex save in the 61st minute, parried Negredo’s low strike in the 79th and was lucky to see Gibson muster only a tame effort in the 87th. Arsenal will need to work harder on the training ground as those 3 chances came from set pieces.

In his first season at Arsenal, Wenger frequently played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. Then signing Petit in the summer of 1997 helped the manager switch to the 4-4-2 system he was known for during his time at Monaco.

More room for error

It’s kind of funny that a poor run of form finally led Wenger to use again a 3-4-3 system he has discarded for 20 years. Young managers like Pochettino and Guardiola are more flexible and frequently change formations throughout the season because of injuries or tactical concerns.

Koscielny played as a safety in that back three while Paulista was on the right side and Holding on the left side. On paper, you have more room for error: if Paulista or Holding covers the wingback, you still have two central defenders. In a back four, if Koscielny covers Monreal on the left flank, there’s only one central defender left.

A 3-4-3 system gives you numerical superiority at the back and makes it harder for the opponent to press high up the pitch. That’s why the Gunners enjoyed 65% of ball possession. The problem then is how to avoid sterile possession. Chelsea can play the ball out from the back because Azpilicueta and Luiz are comfortable on the ball. By contrast, Paulista has limited passing skills while Koscielny and Holding are average. Mustafi and Monreal have better passing skills but Mustafi was not in the squad because of an injury while the manager preferred to start Monreal in the wingback position. In the end, Arsenal’s passing game really looked tentative at best and shambolic at worst.

Despite the victory, the performance of the Arsenal defense wasn’t really convincing. Whatever formation used by the manager, you still have to win duels. Koscielny missed his clearance in the 50th, allowing Negredo to volley home Downing’s cross for Boro’s equalizer. The France centerback attempted an acrobatic clearance because he didn’t want to head the ball out of play. Obviously, that was not the safe option.

Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback

Koscielny made no tackle mostly because he was the sweeper. He won 4 of 7 aerial duels and led all players with 4 interceptions. I’m not sure Koscielny enjoys that kind of role. In a back three, the sweeper is usually an organizer too. The best example is Sammer in the Germany team that won the Euro 1996. Sammer had good tackling skills but could also play as a midfielder because of his technical abilities.

The other two centerbacks, Holding and Paulista, combined to win 6 of 11 aerial duels but performed poorly on the ground, winning none of the 6 tackles they made, according to Squawka. Paulista looked the more uncomfortable of the two. The Brazilian defender missed his clearance in the 87th when Gibson had a goal attempt. He also let Friend run past him in the 55th. The Boro substitute fired a diagonal strike that Monreal deflected into the path of Downing, who missed the target from 8 yards.

Oxlade-Chamberlain had a good game as a wingback, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and winning 2 of 5 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. He walked a tightrope after receiving a yellow card for a late tackle on Fabio in the fourth minute but showed enough self-discipline to avoid a second booking. Defensively, the Ox killed a Boro counterattack with a timely challenge as the last defender in the 62nd. Offensively, he tried to feed Giroud from the right wing. In the 28th, Giroud knocked the ball down for Ramsey, whose volley was headed out by a Smoggie. The Ox enjoyed more freedom when Bellerin replaced Ozil in the 89th. He could have scored on a counterattack in stoppage time but was denied by Guzan.

Sanchez as a playmaker

Monreal is a more defensive wingback than the Ox. The Spaniard won 4 of 6 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels and made 2 interceptions and no dribbling attempt. He has been struggling to stop crosses since last season. That flaw led to Boro’s equalizer as Downing had plenty of time and space for a cross. Monreal’s declining pace was also exposed when Traore replaced Ramirez in the 68th. The speedy Boro winger dribbled past Monreal in the 69th but dallied on the ball and lost possession.

In midfield, Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 3 key passes and 3 interceptions and win 3 of 11 tackles and 2 of 6 aerial duels. We’re very far from the standards set by Vieira, Petit and Gilberto when Arsenal could truly boss the midfield. The partnership formed by Kante and Matic at Chelsea or Wanyama and Dembele at Tottenham looks more convincing.

Walcott was the player sacrificed by Wenger in the 3-4-3 system. There are two interesting things that we have learned from Monday’s game. First, Ozil and Sanchez contributed defensively on the wings just like Hazard and Pedro do at Chelsea. Ozil won 3 of 5 tackles compared to 1 of 5 for Sanchez. In the modern game, creative players need to share the defensive burden too. Maybe the Christmas tree or 4-3-2-1 formation is the only system that would require very little defensive work from Ozil and Sanchez.

And second, Ozil played again like a second striker while Sanchez took over the playmaking duties. Sanchez hit 4 accurate long balls out of 5 and 1 accurate through ball out of 2, according to whoscored.com, whereas Ozil did not attempt any and made no key pass. Ozil mostly focused on his runs in the final third and had very little impact on his team’s passing game. In fact, 7 Gunners made more passes than Ozil (46): Xhaka (93), Paulista (73), Ramsey (67), Koscielny (56), Sanchez (50), Holding (49), and the Ox (48).

European football in July or September?

Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead with a dipping free kick in the 40th. He then created the winning goal in the 71st with a cross that Ramsey chested down for Ozil, who buried the ball into the near corner. The Chile striker also had 9 turnovers, including two that led to Boro chances. Ozil could have scored in the 63rd when he collected a through ball from Sanchez but Guzan denied him.

Up front, the misfiring Giroud had none of his 3 shots on target but proved useful as an outlet, winning 6 of 11 aerial duels. In the 29th, Giroud redirected an Ozil corner toward Sanchez, who fluffed his volley straight at Guzan. In the 81st, Sanchez found Giroud, who cut inside to curl his shot wide. Giroud should have been awarded a penalty in the 18th when Ayala held him with both arms on a corner. Arsenal can thank Giroud for the three points as the Frenchman put off Gibson in the 87th.

That victory might be too little too late for the Gunners, who sit in sixth place in the standings, trailing Liverpool, Manchester City and the Red Devils by 9, 7 and 3 points respectively. Arsenal could end up playing in the Europa League for the first time under Wenger. They would participate in the preliminary round in July if they finish sixth in the Premier League. Or they could qualify for the group stage if they win the FA Cup. I don’t think the club will be able to keep Sanchez and Ozil without the prospect of Champions League football.


Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Do the Gunners really want to contend?

“Where do we go? Where do we go now?” would sing Guns N’ Roses after Arsenal’s 4-3 loss to Liverpool in the Premier League on Sunday. The Gunners also lost their opening games in 2013 and 2015, but that was mostly a matter of complacency against Aston Villa and West Ham, whereas they were focused and motivated against the Reds.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool

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

A quick look at the starting lineups showed how both clubs fared in the transfer market this summer. Liverpool started the game with three new signings (Klavan, Wijnaldum and Mane) while Arsenal only had one (Holding) at kick-off. Wenger’s defensive options were limited by Koscielny’s lack of match fitness as well as long-term injuries to Mertesacker and Paulista. I think it was a wise move to leave Koscielny out of the squad since he had not played in any summer friendly.

The manager made more questionable choices in midfield. Wenger was obviously wary of the Reds’ attacking threat and tried to protect the back four by stuffing the midfield with a ballwinner (Coquelin) and two all-rounders (Elneny and Ramsey). That ploy worked in the first half but Klopp adjusted in the second half by attacking down the flanks. I think the manager could have shown more ambition at the Emirates stadium by starting Coquelin, Xhaka and Cazorla in midfield. That’s how the Gunners finished the match.

Losing Ramsey & Iwobi

Up front, Wenger had the choice between Sanchez, Walcott and Akpom. Walcott proved inefficient in the lone striker role last season as well as in the summer friendlies. Akpom is stronger in the air and more physical than Sanchez and Walcott, but lacks experience in the Premier League. In the end, the manager gave the nod to Sanchez, who felt as uncomfortable as Walcott while playing back to goal. The Chile striker’s work-rate could not make up for his weakness in the air and his inability to hold the ball up.

Arsenal lost three points on Sunday but also two players. Iwobi picked up a thigh injury and was replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 59th minute before a hamstring injury forced Ramsey to let Cazorla take over the playmaking duties in the 62nd. Both Ramsey and Iwobi will be sidelined for three to four weeks.

Iwobi’s injury was unfortunate since he had a normal pre-season training. On the other hand, I think starting Ramsey was a big gamble. Some fans will say that Kante and Payet played for Chelsea and West Ham respectively last weekend despite reaching the Euro 2016 final with the France team. That’s true. But Kante and Payet don’t have Ramsey’s injury history. I believe Ramsey is like a diesel engine and therefore needs a lot of time to hit match fitness. In my eyes, the fact that Ramsey only played in the last summer friendly against Manchester City was a red flag.

Holding’s inexperience

Chambers’ limitations and Holding’s inexperience really hurt us at the back. If you add Monreal’s poor performance, Arsenal had very little chance of containing Liverpool’s firepower. Holding only made small mistakes, but as you know, it’s all about small margins at the top level. He will need time to adjust to the pace of the Premier League where the game is faster than in the Championship. Holding has decent pace but he really needs to think more quickly. His passing accuracy of 74.1% was too low for a centerback, especially in a club traditionally building play from the back.

Holding only made one foul in Sunday’s game but it gave the Reds an opportunity to level in the closing seconds of the first half. He shoved Coutinho from behind although the Brazil midfielder was back to goal. It was a soft foul, but Holding gave the referee an excuse to blow the whistle by putting his hand on Coutinho’s shoulder. Coutinho curled the subsequent free kick into the top corner to tie the game.

Coutinho created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense by often drifting inside from our right flank. He pulled Holding out of position in the 49th and played Wijnaldum in with a clever flick. Wijnaldum ghosted past Bellerin and made a cross for Lallana, who chested the ball down to fire through Cech’s legs for a 2-1 lead. All the defenders made a mistake on that play. Bellerin was on the wrong side of Wijnaldum, Holding should have let a midfielder press Coutinho, Chambers was not tight enough to Mane, and Monreal left too much space for Lallana by attempting to compensate for Chambers’ lax marking.

Too slow to turn

Liverpool took a 3-1 lead in the 56th when Coutinho connected with a cross from Clyne for a close-range volley. Monreal failed to stop the cross while Holding was beaten to the ball by Coutinho. Again, football is about winning duels. Monreal only won 54.5% of his duels according to the club’s official website, which is less than Holding (66.7%), Bellerin (75%) and Chambers (80%). Monreal performed well last season but what happened on Sunday is a reminder that he’s already 30 and that the staff will soon have to find an alternative.

Monreal lost possession on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 23rd, forcing Bellerin to take the ball away from Firminho with a last-ditch tackle. Two minutes later, Firminho ghosted past Monreal to take a pass from Lallana but had his shot blocked by Chambers. On paper, Gibbs is the logical replacement at leftback. He’s younger and faster than Monreal. Unfortunately, Gibbs often performed poorly when he was given a chance because of lapses of concentration.

Chambers headed home Cazorla’s free kick in the 75th to cut the deficit to 4-3 but his inability to turn quickly was badly exposed against the Reds. Firminho toyed with Chambers in the 58th before making a low cross for Coutinho, whose first-time effort was saved by Cech. Coutinho lost Holding inside the box on that play. Then Mane outpaced Chambers down our left flank in the 63rd and cut inside Monreal to beat Cech with a curling shot into the top corner for a 4-1 lead. Chambers also had a couple of silly turnovers, sending a long ball to Bellerin straight into touch in the 27th and having a sloppy pass intercepted by Firminho in the 40th. Firminho’s interception led to a tame low strike from Wijnaldum that Cech easily saved.

Sanchez struggling up front

The Gunners pressed high up the pitch in the first half to dominate possession. Somehow, they lost their compact shape in the second half as Liverpool proved more aggressive in midfield and capitalized on the poor defensive contribution from Iwobi and Walcott to make the difference on the wings.

Wenger used Ramsey as a free-floating midfielder like Wales did in the Euros. Ramsey took a reverse pass from Sanchez in the seventh minute to poke the ball straight at Mignolet. He was about to pull the trigger in the 14th but was denied by a last-ditch tackle from Moreno. The Wales midfielder played a role in the opening goal by making a decoy run to create space for Walcott. Still, Ramsey’s activity in midfield couldn’t make up for the lack of a playmaker who could feed Sanchez. It’s quite telling that Cazorla had more key passes than any other Arsenal player despite playing just the last 30 minutes.

Up front, Sanchez struggled in an unfamiliar role, winning only 28.6% of his duels and getting caught offside 4 times. His weakness in the air prevented the Arsenal defense from relying on a target man to evade Liverpool’s pressing game. Lovren easily outjumped Sanchez whenever there was a long ball. In the end, a lack of service combined with a poor reading of the plays explain why Sanchez could only muster one shot off target. I just think that Sanchez’s qualities are better used when he plays on a wing.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s solo goal

The manager seemed to give up on his idea of turning Walcott into a centerforward as the England international started on the right flank. Walcott did his bit in the first half, winning a penalty in the 29th that he failed to convert before opening the scoring with a diagonal shot in the 31st. The trouble is that Walcott completely disappeared in the second half. In the closing minutes, Walcott took a pass from Bellerin but the ball stayed under his feet and the chance was gone.

Iwobi started on the left wing and didn’t do much besides his assist for Walcott. The challenge for the Nigeria international will be to be more consistent in his performances this season. The Ox came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 59th and scored a solo goal by dribbling past Clyne, Lallana and Henderson to fire past Mignolet in the 64th. He just turned 23 this week and I believe it’s the perfect age for him to show more composure in the final third and have a breakthrough season like Ramsey did in 2013.

The defeat against Liverpool is not just three points dropped. It also reflects Arsenal’s poor performance in the transfer market this summer. There are four persons who can be blamed for that disaster: Kroenke, Gazidis, Law and Wenger.

Laughing stock in the transfer market

Kroenke and Gazidis are responsible for the transfer budget. Liverpool and Chelsea did not even qualify for any European competition, yet they’ve spent at least 20 million pounds more than Arsenal in the transfer market this summer. That’s a joke knowing that the Gunners topped the list for Premier League prize money last season with 100 million pounds and will get at least 20 million pounds for playing in the Champions League group stage this year. The club has more maneuvering room financially since Ozil’s signing but it looks like it only wants to spend 50 to 60 million pounds per year in average on transfers despite increasing revenues.

Law is another culprit. Arsenal shouldn’t be waiting for key signings at the end of August. That’s unprofessional. The two Manchesters acted quickly enough in the offseason to have their squads ready for opening day. It just shows that the Gunners are completely inefficient in the transfer market. As the club’s chief negotiator, Law is responsible for the transfer policy. He doesn’t have great ties with agents and is known for being difficult to deal with.

Starting from scratch again?

The club’s bid for Lyon striker Lacazette clearly hints at Law’s poor understanding of the market. The bid matched Lacazette’s official market value, which is about 29 million pounds. French clubs expect more money from English clubs than from other European clubs. Wenger is aware of that financial reality and would have never made such a low bid. Arsenal’s only chance to convince Lyon of releasing Lacazette would have been to offer at least 40 million pounds. That sounds like a crazy amount of money, but you have to remember that Manchester United paid a fee of 38.5 million pounds to sign Martial (with bonuses possibly inflating that fee to 61.6 million) and that Chelsea spent 33 million pounds this summer to get Batshuayi, who’s not as prolific as Lacazette.

Kroenke, Gazidis and Law are making Wenger’s job much harder. But the manager must also take responsibility for taking too long to realize that the scouting staff has done a poor job over the past few years. Arsenal signed Wrigglesworth, Leicester’s head of technical scouting, in February. However, it will take more than one scout to improve the detection of transfer targets. Which means that the club’s only option this summer is to spend if it wants to contend this season. Otherwise, it will lose its best players next summer and will have to start from scratch again with a project a la Dortmund.