Aubameyang had only 1 shot on Monday night but it proved enough to score the equalizer in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United. By salvaging a point at Old Trafford, the Gunners retained 4th place in the Premier League, 1 point clear of Spurs and Chelsea.
Photo credit: Premier League
Under a pouring rain, the lackluster game showed the lack of quality from 2 teams very far from the level they reached when they were contending for the title some 2 decades ago. The Red Devils took advantage of Arsenal’s poor defensive setup on set pieces to open the scoring on the stroke of halftime. United cleared an Arsenal corner and won the second ball to launch a counterattack. James outpaced Guendouzi but overhit his cross for Rashford, who managed to keep the ball in play. The England striker squared the ball back for McTominay, who fired into the top corner with a 20-yard drive that deflected off Sokratis.
Why is Guendouzi the last defender on Arsenal corners? Guendouzi has average pace, so he never had any chance to match James in a foot race. A lot of fans were angry when they saw Xhaka apparently duck McTominay’s shot. In the post-match news conference, Emery tried to defend Xhaka by saying that the Switzerland midfielder “ran back”. But if you look at the screen capture below, you realize that Xhaka could have been sent off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity by taking out Lingard off the ball.
Xhaka pulls back Lingard. (Photo credit: Sky)
Another problem with the opening goal is why Sokratis was on his knees to block McTominay’s shot? Sokratis had a better chance to prevent McTominay from scoring by standing tall.
Sokratis makes an awkward block attempt. (Photo credit: Sky)
The Red Devils could have scored 2 more goals from set pieces. Unmarked at the far post, McTominay headed a corner over the bar in the 70th minute. Two minutes later, Guendouzi ended up marking Maguire on a free kick. That’s a poor matchup in the air for Guendouzi. Fortunately, the delivery was too low, forcing Maguire to cut the ball back.
The benefits of a high press
The Gunners had some good situations but often wasted them with a poor final ball. Kolasinac led Arsenal’s first attack in the 14th but missed his low cross for Aubameyang. Then Luiz overhit his cross in the 21st and Aubameyang ruined a fast break in the 35th with a pass rolling out of play.
The equalizer came from a high press in the 58th. Under pressure from Pepe, United fullback Tuanzebe missed his pass for Lindelof. Saka pounced on the loose ball and found Aubameyang with a first-time pass. Aubameyang controlled the ball and chipped De Gea. The goal was initially disallowed for offside. But the referee had to let the goal stand after the VAR review showed that Aubameyang was played onside by Maguire. As you can see on the screen capture below, the linesman made a really poor call because Aubameyang was at least 2 yards onside.
Maguire plays Aubameyang onside. (Photo credit: Sky)
Emery made 9 changes to the side that knocked Nottingham Forest out of the League Cup with only Torreira and Chambers retaining their starting spots. In a 4-3-3 formation, Guendouzi and Torreira played alongside Xhaka in midfield while Saka and Pepe joined Aubameyang in the front three.
Despite the lack of service, Aubameyang notched his 7th goal in the Premier League, just one unit behind top scorer Aguero. When Aubameyang couldn’t be in scoring position, he selflessly worked for the team, making 2 key passes. In the 36th, Aubameyang made a cross for Pepe, whose low strike didn’t trouble De Gea. Then Aubameyang picked out Torreira for a better chance in the 52nd but the Uruguay midfielder’s half-volley bounced into the ground, allowing De Gea to safely collect the ball.
Saka’s breakthrough season?
While Aubameyang has showed his consistency since the start of the season, Saka was undoubtedly the revelation of Monday’s game. Football fans got a glimpse of his tremendous potential when Saka notched 1 goal and 2 assists against Frankfurt in the Europa League. The academy prodigy showed it was no fluke by making his first assist in the Premier League. Saka could have also scored but De Gea parried his low effort in the 44th and Lindelof deflected his shot over the bar in the 60th. At 18, Saka is already more incisive in the final third than Pepe.
It could become impossible for Emery to keep Saka out of the starting lineup. Saka provides both penetration and end product. The Red Devils struggled with his pace and dribbling skills as Saka drew fouls from Lingard in the 20th, Young in the 23rd and McTominay in the 54th. The Arsenal staff deserves some credit for selling Iwobi in the summer to make room for Saka’s development. Now the club needs to tie Saka to a long-term contract.
This looks like Saka’s breakthrough season. The English teenager could have the same kind of impact as Hudson-Odoi at Chelsea last season. Saka had better stats than Pepe at Old Trafford. Offensively, Saka made 2 key passes and had 2 successful dribbles out of 4, compared to 0 key pass and 1 successful dribble out of 2 for Pepe. Defensively, Saka won 2 of 5 tackles, made 6 recoveries and had 3 turnovers in 78 minutes while Pepe only won 1 of 1 tackle, made 5 recoveries and had 6 turnovers in 74 minutes, according to whoscored.com.
Is Pepe the new Gervinho?
After a promising performance against Liverpool, Pepe still hasn’t lived up to his billing. His confidence seemed to take a hit at Old Trafford with some poor touches and passes. He sent crosses out of play in the 24th and 45th, sliced his shot over the bar in the 30th, and gave the ball away on a great counterattacking opportunity for the Gunners in the 73rd.
Is Pepe the new Gervinho? Technical and physical abilities are extensively analyzed by scouts and managers, but the mental aspect of the game can sometimes be overlooked or underestimated in the recruitment process. Is Pepe crumbling under the weight of expectations and his £72 million price tag? Pepe still has time to adapt to English football and prove his worth. But the way he reacts in the next few weeks to this poor run of form will be crucial for his future at the club.
Emery has interesting options on the bench. The Spanish manager replaced Pepe with Nelson in the 75th and Saka with Willock in the 79th. Both youngsters made an impact in the closing minutes. Willock made 2 key passes, setting up Ceballos for a fluffed shot in the 88th and teeing up Nelson in stoppage time. Nelson could have scored the winner, but his low strike lacked power to beat De Gea.
At this stage of the season, the starting spot on the right wing is still up for grabs. Emery has the choice between Pepe, an inverted winger, and Nelson, a more traditional winger. Nelson enjoys playing on the left wing but Wenger gave him his chance on the right wing. In theory, Aubameyang would get better service with Nelson while Pepe is supposed to be a greater goal threat than Nelson.
No balance in midfield
Emery still hasn’t found the right balance in midfield. Some fans were angry that Ozil wasn’t even in the squad. But I think that Emery was right to omit Ozil simply because the German playmaker notoriously struggles in tough away games. For instance, the Gunners wouldn’t have been able to implement a high press with Ozil’s poor work-rate. I guess Emery will mostly use Ozil in home games and cup competitions.
The bigger concern is how Emery builds his midfield. In my eyes, playing Xhaka as a holding midfielder is a mistake because he lacks pace and his positional play is poor. Likewise, using Torreira as a box-to-box player is nonsensical because he’s more efficient as a defensive midfielder.
Let’s have a look at how Klopp and Guardiola build their midfields. The Reds play with a defensive midfielder (Fabinho) sitting behind two box-to-box players (Wijnaldum and Henderson) while the Citizens play with a defensive midfielder (Fernandinho) alongside a playmaker (De Bruyne) and a deep-lying playmaker (David Silva) or a box-to-box player (Gundogan).
On paper, a balanced Arsenal midfield would have Torreira as the ballwinner playing alongside a deep-lying playmaker (Guendouzi) and a box-to-box player (Willock). In a more attacking version, Ceballos would replace Guendouzi or Willock.
Xhaka provides no protection to the back four. Emery might be reluctant to bench his captain but he should remember that Wenger was ruthless with Vermaelen and Mertesacker even though they were his captains. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning games and doing what is best for the team. Putting too much faith in Xhaka will only bring Emery’s demise because the Gunners are unlikely to finish in the Top 4 with Xhaka in the No. 6 role.
Sacrificing Torreira’s strengths
Xhaka was dribbled past twice while Torreira didn’t let any ballholder run past him, according to whoscored.com. To compensate for his lack of pace, Xhaka simply gave away dangerous free kicks, fouling McTominay in the 71st and Greenwood in the 76th. Xhaka’s work-rate was also unconvincing with just 1 tackle and 5 recoveries compared to 4 tackles and 7 recoveries for Guendouzi, according to the club’s website. Even as a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka didn’t cover himself in glory with a passing accuracy dipping to 82%, compared to 89% for Torreira and 90% for Guendouzi.
Guendouzi had a good game but he still has that tendency to hold onto the ball too long. He was quick enough or smartly used his body to win 6 fouls. But sometimes he was caught in possession and put his team in danger. Pogba dispossessed Guendouzi in the 43rd to slip a through ball to Rashford, whose tame effort was blocked by Sokratis. Guendouzi finished the game with 3 turnovers compared to none for Xhaka. Defensively, Guendouzi made a crucial clearance in the 56th, heading out a cross from Pereira for Rashford. Offensively, he sprinted his lungs out in the 44th to pounce on a rebound and test De Gea with an angled strike.
Chasing an equalizer, Emery shifted from a 4-3-3 formation to 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Torreira with Ceballos in the 55th. On the right side of the Arsenal midfield, Torreira man-marked Pogba when the Red Devils had the ball. But when the Gunners won possession, Torreira became a box-to-box player. That’s so frustrating to see Torreira used as a utility midfielder while he should be the cornerstone of the Arsenal midfield. In his 40-minute cameo, Ceballos showed no end product with 0 key pass and 0 shot on target. The Real Madrid loanee is becoming as inconsistent as the Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi of last season.
The Gunners were criticized for stubbornly trying to play out from the back against Watford. They proved more flexible against Manchester United. After Luiz was caught in possession in the 11th, Leno simply resorted to long kicks. Obviously, the flaw with that alternative plan was the weakness in the air of the Arsenal forwards. Aubameyang, Pepe and Saka combined to win 0 of 5 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.
A lesson in self-control
The Arsenal staff thought Holding and Tierney were not yet ready for starting a Premier League game. Emery therefore left Holding on the bench while Tierney was not even in the squad. The Spanish manager had a surprise at rightback where he gave Chambers the nod over Maitland-Niles. Chambers struggled to cope with James’ pace, showing why both Wenger and Emery preferred to pick Maitland-Niles over Chambers.
However, Chambers’ performance was quite a lesson in self-control for Maitland-Niles, who was watching from the bench. James outpaced Chambers in the 8th minute to make a cross that Luiz blocked. Two minutes later, Chambers got booked for a cynical foul on James, who was winning another foot race with the Arsenal defender. You’d think Chambers was a foul away from a second yellow card like Maitland-Niles against Aston Villa. But Chambers showed self-restraint when James ran at him in the 17th: using his experience, Chambers held off James to let the ball run out of play.
In the heart of the defense, Sokratis was at fault for the opening goal with his awkward block attempt. His work-rate was also poor with just 2 defensive actions (2 blocks) while Luiz made 11 defensive actions (3 blocks, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries), according to the club’s website. Some fans had their hearts in their mouths when Pereira started a dribbling run in the 29th. For a split second, it looked like Luiz was about to trip Pereira and give away a penalty like in the Watford game. But Luiz refrained from making a challenge, letting Pereira face Leno. And the German goalkeeper saved Pereira’s low strike. In the closing minutes, Luiz gave away a dangerous free kick with an obstruction on McTominay. Leno salvaged a point by saving Rashford’s subsequent free kick.
The Gunners next play Standard de Liège in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Bournemouth in the Premier League on Sunday. I expect Emery to field a weakened side against the Belgian club because of the lack of rest and because the Gunners can’t afford to drop points in the Top 4 race.