Tag Archives: Leno

Man United vs. Arsenal: Gunners saved by clinical Aubameyang

   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.

MU vs. Arsenal 2019.JPGPhoto 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.

MU vs. Arsenal M45a edited.jpgXhaka 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.

MU vs. Arsenal M45b edited.jpgSokratis 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.

MU vs. Arsenal M58 edited.jpgMaguire 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.


Watford vs. Arsenal: Mistakes by Sokratis, Luiz cost Gunners win

   It’s hard to see how the Gunners could finish in the Top 4 after they surrendered a two-goal lead with some shambolic defending on Sunday to draw 2-2 with Watford and slip to 7th place in the Premier League.

Watford vs. Arsenal 2019.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   To a certain extent, the Gunners were lucky to come away with a point because Watford badly outplayed them. The Hornets had 31 shots to just 7 for Arsenal. In the first half, Watford played with 10 men behind the ball, hoping to hit Arsenal on the fast break. In the second half, the Hornets gained confidence and started dominating possession as the Gunners lost control of the game with a lot of end-to-end plays.

   Xhaka admitted after the game that the Gunners “were scared in the second half”. The issue of mental weakness already existed under Wenger. It worsened in the past few months with the departures of Cech, Koscielny, Ramsey and Monreal. The Gunners simply have no leader to steady the ship when the going gets tough.

   Arsenal clearly failed to address that leadership issue in the last transfer window. The club got its priorities wrong because Sanllehi ended up making the key decisions. Sanllehi has a business background and doesn’t have any clue about the balance of the team. All the money spent on Pepe and Martinelli could have been used to sign a top centerback and a defensive midfielder.

   Emery must also take his share of the blame for the poor tactical setup. The Gunners were lucky to lead 2-0 at halftime because Watford created 3 chances before the opening goal. Emery was often conservative in his team selection last season, so it was a bit surprising to see a 4-4-2 formation for an away game. The Spanish manager used a midfield diamond with Xhaka as the holding midfielder, Ceballos and Guendouzi on the flanks, and Ozil in the hole behind Aubameyang and Pepe.

Crushed in midfield

   The Liverpool game showed the tactical problems with a midfield diamond. Yet, Emery couldn’t find a fix at Vicarage Road. Just like Guendouzi and Willock gave a lot of freedom to Robertson and Alexander-Arnold at Anfield, Ceballos and Guendouzi failed to mark the Watford fullbacks. If you need some midfielders to do a defensive job, it would have been more logical to put Torreira and Willock in your starting lineup. Guendouzi was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Hornets also dribbled past Ceballos 3 times.

   The Arsenal midfield proved too porous to contain the Hornets in the second half. Emery replaced Ceballos with Willock in the 60th minute and Guendouzi with Torreira in the 67th. The substitutions had little impact as Watford kept creating chances. So Emery implicitly acknowledged Watford’s superiority in midfield by replacing Ozil with Nelson in the 71st while shifting to a 4-3-3 formation.

   The Gunners also put themselves in trouble by poorly playing out from the back. The first warning came in the 35th. Guendouzi dallied on the ball and lost possession while foolishly trying to take on 2 Hornets. Deulofeu won the ball and shot straight at Leno. If Guendouzi wanted to move the ball forward, Kolasinac was his safest option as you can see on the screen capture below.

Watford vs. Arsenal M35edGuendouzi fails to pass the ball to Kolasinac. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Playing long balls could have been an alternative to beat Watford’s high press. Unfortunately, Pepe and Aubameyang performed poorly in the air, combining to win 0 of 4 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Gray won 2 of 4 aerial duels for the Hornets. So the Gunners continued to make risky passes at the back. Guendouzi could have played a one-two with Maitland-Niles to beat Watford’s high press in the 46th, but the French midfielder ignored Maitland-Niles and took a couple more touches before missing his pass for Xhaka. The stray pass fell to Gray, whose lob attempt was blocked by Xhaka.

Poorly suited for playing out from the back

   The Gunners ran out of luck in the 54th. Leno slipped the ball to Sokratis, whose telegraphed pass for Guendouzi was blocked by Deulofeu. The ball fell to Cleverley, who fired past Leno from 16 yards. Sokratis showed poor decision-making on that play. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka was a safer passing option. It’s also quite telling that neither Ozil nor Ceballos appears on the picture. Last season, Ramsey was an additional passing option when the Gunners played out from the back.

Watford vs. Arsenal M54ed.jpgSokratis fails to spot Xhaka in acres of space. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Sunday’s Arsenal team was poorly suited for playing out from the back. I mean, you need players with great technique and mobility and a sound reading of the game. In the back four, Sokratis doesn’t have the ball-playing abilities of a Laporte, Alderweireld or Van Dijk. And no disrespect to Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac, but they are more limited technically than Bellerin and Tierney. In midfield, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the mobility, vision and passing skills of a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla.

   Of the 5 captains Emery named last season, only Xhaka and Ozil are still at the club. The trouble with the armband is that you need to perform week in and week out, otherwise you have no natural authority if you can’t earn your teammates’ respect. Right now, there are only 2 players who can look at themselves in the mirror and claim that they deliver on the pitch: Aubameyang and Lacazette. All the other Gunners are either inconsistent, error-prone or not good enough.

Pepe’s frustration

   Aubameyang proved clinical on Sunday with 2 goals from 3 shots. He opened the scoring in the 21st by controlling a pass from Kolasinac before firing on the turn into the bottom corner. The Gabon striker then met a cross from Maitland-Niles in the 32nd to double the lead with a tap-in. With a bit of luck, Aubameyang could have notched a hat trick. He was about to connect with a cross from Ozil in the 25th, but the cross took a deflection and Aubameyang couldn’t make contact with the ball. Besides raising his tally to 5 goals this season, Aubameyang was quite tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 88% and just 2 turnovers.

   We know how lethal Aubameyang and Lacazette can be when they play in a front two. Lacazette was not in the squad on Sunday and won’t be available until October because of an ankle injury. So Emery gave another start to Pepe, who arguably produced his worst performance in an Arsenal shirt. Pepe had 0 shot on target and only 1 key pass. His passing accuracy of 61.8% was also the lowest among Arsenal players. Pepe missed his through ball for Aubameyang in the third minute. He then put his team in trouble in the 88th when a clearance from the Watford defense fell into his path. Pepe missed a simple pass to Kolasinac and the turnover led to a dangerous counterattack. The Ivory Coast forward led all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   There were some signs of Pepe’s frustration on the pitch. He took a speculative shot that went nowhere in the 20th. On the stroke of halftime, Pepe was unhappy with a challenge from Holebas and nearly tried to kick out at the Watford fullback. The ensuing brawl forced the referee to book both Guendouzi and Holebas. Pepe’s only positive contribution of the game was the key pass he made for Nelson in the 72nd. Obviously, Pepe still needs time to adapt to the Premier League. However, the Gunners need results quickly and Emery could be tempted to pick another forward, especially since Pepe seems more comfortable in a front three than in a front two.

Ceballos’ work-rate

   In midfield, I was shocked to see Ozil start at Vicarage Road. We all know about Ozil’s struggles in away games. The way Deulofeu dispossessed Ozil in the 18th summarized his lack of combativity. Ozil only made 3 recoveries in 70 minutes compared to 7 recoveries for Ceballos in 59 minutes, according to the club’s website. It’s impossible to win the midfield battle or press high up the pitch with Ozil’s poor work-rate. If Emery had stayed true to his ideas, he would have left Ozil on the bench. Ozil’s apologists often mention how he can turn around a game with a moment of magic. Unfortunately, those moments are becoming scarcer and scarcer. Ozil had 1 key pass and 0 shot, compared to 8 key passes and 4 shots on target for Deulofeu.  

   Nelson came off the bench to replace Ozil in the 71st. A minute later, the academy graduate tested Foster with a curling shot. At 19, Nelson is still learning his trade. He could become a regular starter on the left flank after the departures of Iwobi and Welbeck this summer. However, he will have to be less predictable. Opponents know Nelson’s tendency to check back on his right foot. That’s how Doucoure robbed Nelson in stoppage time to hit Arsenal on the fast break.

   On the left side of a midfield diamond, Ceballos didn’t really have the opportunity to express his creativity as he had to keep an eye on Femenia’s runs down the flank. Ceballos had 0 key pass and 0 shot. But the Real Madrid loanee put in a shift and played an important role in the opener by winning the ball in midfield to feed Kolasinac. Because of that work-rate, Ceballos should get the nod over Ozil in midfield. However, Ceballos will have to adjust to the physicality of the Premier League. The Spain international only won 20% of his duels, the lowest percentage among all the midfielders according to the club’s website.

Guendouzi ain’t no Fabregas

   Playing on the right side of the midfield diamond, Guendouzi showed poor work-rate with just 1 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries in 66 minutes. His lack of pace was badly exposed when he had to cover Maitland-Niles and close down Deulofeu. Guendouzi has potential but he’s nowhere near the level of a Fabregas at the same age. Fabregas knew what his passing options were before receiving the ball whereas Guendouzi needs a couple of touches before releasing the ball. That’s why Guendouzi often lost possession when the Gunners played out from the back: the Hornets didn’t give him the time to analyze his passing options. Arsenal could build play from the back with Fabregas and Cazorla. It’s much more difficult with Xhaka and Guendouzi, who don’t have their predecessors’ vision and technique.

   If you just look at the stats, you’d think Xhaka had a good game. He won 66.7% of his duels and had just 1 turnover compared to 4 for Guendouzi. Xhaka also led Arsenal players with 13 defensive actions, winning 4 of 4 tackles, and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. However, it’s a different story when you add the qualitative analysis. Xhaka’s positional play was poor. In the 11th, Xhaka failed to close down Cleverley, whose long-range strike was tipped over the bar by Leno.

Xhaka’s poor positional play

   Fans remember Luiz’s mistake for Watford’s equalizer, but it was Xhaka’s poor positional play that gave the Arsenal defense no protection on the counterattack that led to the penalty. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka made the poor decision of charging forward to close down Deulofeu even though Maitland-Niles was already marking the Spanish winger. By vacating his position, Xhaka allowed Cleverley and Doucoure to run past him. Deulofeu kept the fast break alive by playing the ball to Cleverley, who flicked it to Doucoure.

Watford vs. Arsenal M79aed.jpgCleverley and Doucoure run past Xhaka, who is pulled out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The worst part on that play was Xhaka’s lack of effort to track back. Torreira and Willock were in the Watford area when Arsenal lost possession while Xhaka was still in midfield. But after Doucoure picked out Pereyra, Xhaka slowly jogged back while Willock and Torreira sprinted at full throttle to fill the huge gap left by Xhaka. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka is not even in the picture. Xhaka’s inability to kill the counterattack left Luiz and Kolasinac in a 2v2 situation with Pereyra and Janmaat. In that kind of situation, Xhaka should have dropped off and Arsenal would have been dealing with a favorable 3v2 situation instead.

Watford vs. Arsenal M79bed.jpgTorreira and Willock rush back to fill the gap left by Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Gunners nearly lost the game because of Xhaka’s poor positional play in stoppage time. Doucoure robbed Nelson and played a one-two with Cleverley before running 30 yards unchallenged. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka was in a more advanced position than Willock and Torreira even though he’s supposed to be the holding midfielder.

Watford vs. Arsenal M92ed.jpgXhaka caught out of position again. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Arsenal defense will have no protection as long as Emery relies on Xhaka as the holding midfielder. Xhaka lacks mobility and can’t smell the danger. If Emery can’t see that Torreira is a much better option in that role, then it’s hopeless.

Maitland-Niles’ torrid afternoon

   As Arsenal lost the control of the game, Emery made defensive substitutions, replacing Ceballos with Willock in the 60th and Guendouzi with Torreira in the 67th. Willock and Torreira didn’t shine defensively but they had scoring chances. Torreira pounced on a loose ball in the 79th to fire a half-volley straight at Foster. In stoppage time, Willock led a counterattack by running 40 yards but failed to deliver the final ball to Aubameyang, ignoring him twice.

   On the flanks, Maitland-Niles had a hard time with Deulofeu, one of the best dribblers in the league. Maitland-Niles often lacked lucidity, losing possession by dribbling in his defensive third. The academy graduate finished the game with 5 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 76.6%, compared to 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 90.5% for Kolasinac, according to whoscored.com. Some fans wonder why Maitland-Niles doesn’t play in central midfield. Sorry but with that high turnover rate, Maitland-Niles would put the team in danger. At least, Maitland-Niles made an important offensive contribution with a pinpoint cross for the second goal. Kolasinac had very little trouble with Hughes on the left flank despite collecting a yellow card for a poor challenge in the 43rd. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international led Arsenal players with 2 key passes, including the assist for the opening goal.

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis and Luiz showed their limits again. Sokratis’ work-rate was poor with just 3 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block) compared to 9 defensive actions for Luiz (1 block, 3 interceptions, 5 recoveries). The Greek centerback made a sloppy pass for Watford’s first goal and was beaten to the ball by Doucoure for the Hornets’ last chance of the game.

Finding his best team

   Despite a decent work-rate, Luiz had a poor game too. The Brazilian defender gave the ball away in the fifth minute, was beaten to the ball by Hughes who missed the target in the 35th, and was turned by Sarr who dragged his effort wide in the 65th. Luiz was wise enough to back down and let Deulofeu run the ball out of play in the 45th. But he showed poor judgement in the 79th by dangling a leg out to trip Pereyra and give away a cheap penalty that the Watford substitute converted. Luiz and Sokratis aren’t as good as Koscielny in his prime. Their poor performances might put pressure on Emery to rush Holding’s return. It’s also a reminder that Arsenal will need to sign a centerback next summer.

   Arsenal can thank Leno for salvaging a point with 8 saves. The German goalkeeper prevented Watford from scoring in stoppage time by catching Doucoure’s 12-yard strike. The Hornets were so dominant in the second half that Leno even felt the need to waste time and was booked by the referee in the 76th.          

   The Gunners visit Frankfurt in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Aston Villa in the Premier League on Sunday. Emery doesn’t have time on his side. He must quickly find his best team otherwise Arsenal will keep dropping points before ultimately dropping out of the Top 4 race.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Gunners make up for 2 errors in 2-2 draw

   The Gunners were the better team in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Spurs. Unfortunately, they dug a hole for themselves with two defensive blunders in the first half to trail 2-0. It’s only when Aubameyang equalized in the 71st minute that they put themselves in position to win the game. But Arsenal couldn’t score a third goal and had to drop 2 points against their North London rivals. Despite the disappointing result, the Gunners are still 2 points clear of Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham 2019Photo credit: Premier League

   Spurs opened the scoring against the run of play in the 10th. Kane flicked on a long ball from Lloris toward Son, who fed Lamela. Leno palmed Lamela’s low strike into the path of Eriksen, who tapped the rebound home. The Arsenal defense was all over the place on that play. First, Sokratis made the poor decision of challenging Kane in the air while Xhaka was already marking the England striker. Sokratis was initially marking Son and would have won that second ball. Then Luiz was pulled out of position by Son, Kolasinac forgot to track Lamela and Maitland-Niles played Lamela onside. Obviously, the fans and pundits focused on Leno’s handling mistake, but Sokratis was beaten to the ball by Eriksen because he never looked over his shoulder to see the run of the Denmark midfielder. Kane made it 2-0 in the 40th by sending Leno the wrong way after Xhaka gave away a penalty with a reckless tackle on Son.

   Guendouzi started the comeback with a ball recovery on the stroke of halftime. He found Pepe, who picked out Lacazette with the outside of his boot. Lacazette skipped past Vertonghen with some slick footwork before shooting past Lloris with his weaker left foot from a tight angle. Guendouzi was again involved in the equalizer. He slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who flicked the offering into the bottom corner. Winks failed to close down Guendouzi on that play while Aubameyang’s run in behind Vertonghen made the difference.

Attacking through the middle

   Arsenal won 60.7% of the duels, and made 10 interceptions to 5 and 24 tackles to 14, according to the club’s website. What ruined their dominant performance was their lack of accuracy in the final third. The Gunners had only 8 of 26 shots on target while Spurs caught the frame with 9 of their 13 goal attempts.

   Emery made 3 changes to the side that lost at Anfield the previous weekend with Lacazette, Torreira and Kolasinac replacing Ceballos, Willock and Monreal in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also shifted from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-3 system with Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang starting together for the first time.

   On paper, Arsenal’s front three looked fearsome. On the pitch, the Gunners’ tendency to attack through the middle played into the hands of the Tottenham defense. Spurs kept a compact shape and capitalized on turnovers to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Down 2-1, Emery shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ceballos replacing Torreira in the 63rd.

   Lacazette’s hamstring injury forced Emery to change his plans with a bizarre substitution, sending on Mkhitaryan for the French striker in the 67th. Aubameyang moved into a more central position while Mkhitaryan took over his spot on the left wing. Mkhitaryan is more comfortable on the right wing. If Emery needed a player on the left wing, Nelson would have been a more natural choice. Surprisingly, Emery didn’t make a third substitution. He didn’t think that Nelson or Ozil could bring more than a relatively inefficient Pepe.

Pepe too eager to score    

   Pepe is a young player still adapting to a new league. On Sunday, he was too eager to score and often put too much power in his shots instead of placing the ball. Pepe had only 1 of 7 shots on target. His best effort was a curling effort that Lloris saved in the 43rd. On the bright side, Pepe led again all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 5, according to whoscored.com. He also made 2 key passes, including the assist for Lacazette. And a lot of forwards would be jealous of his passing accuracy of 82.4%.

   The summer signing still has plenty of time to prove himself. Even a legend like Henry, the best striker in the club’s history, failed to score in his first 7 Premier League games. At 24, Pepe is not the finished product yet. He still has room to improve. Despite his impressive ball retention skills, Pepe had 6 turnovers. In a couple of situations, his decision-making could have been better. Pepe ran into traffic in the last minute of injury time and his turnover led to a dangerous counterattack that ended with an off-target shot from Sissoko.

   You can definitely see why Emery is so keen to start Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang in a home game. Lacazette’s work-rate and the terrific pace of Pepe and Aubameyang are great assets for a high press. Under Pepe’s pressure, Lloris’ pass to Alderweireld was nearly intercepted by Aubameyang in the 48th. However, it will take time to build an understanding between Pepe and his new teammates. In the 23rd, Aubameyang made a cross for Pepe, whose header was blocked by Rose. Pepe couldn’t return the favor in the 88th as his final ball for Aubameyang sailed out of play.

Lacazette’s outstanding work-rate

   Starting on the left wing, Aubameyang struggled to have an impact in the first half. The Gabon striker made his presence felt when Emery moved him into a more central position. Aubameyang headed Kolasinac’s cross wide in the 68th. Three minutes later, Aubameyang scored the equalizer. Both Emery and Wenger have used Aubameyang on the left wing but I still think that he’s more productive as a centerforward.

   In the front three, Lacazette was the one who stole the show. His work-rate was outstanding for a striker with 9 defensive actions (2 tackles, 7 recoveries) made in 66 minutes, according to the club’s website. He also had 2 successful dribbles out of 2 and led all players by winning 5 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. To put this stat in context, Kane only won 2 of 7 aerial duels and Xhaka was second on the Arsenal team with 3 aerial duels won. The only blemish in Lacazette’s performance was his 8 turnovers, the most for any player.

   Lacazette didn’t get off to a great start though. He dragged a low drive wide after a poor clearance from Lloris in the 10th. The French striker also wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 34th by sending a pass straight into touch. It’s only at the end of the first half that Lacazette managed to use his powder, stinging Lloris’ gloves with a free kick. A few seconds later, Lacazette finally beat Lloris from close range. Lacazette was also involved in 2 scoring chances after the break. He met a cross from Maitland-Niles in the 46th for a downward header that lacked power to beat Lloris. His last telling contribution was a flick-on from a corner in the 56th. At the far post, Kolasinac somehow missed a tap-in from a couple of yards.

Xhaka snafu

   Someone must explain to me why both Wenger and Emery were so smitten with Xhaka that they built their midfield around him. The past seasons have shown that Xhaka is an error-prone player and no manager can change that. As long as Xhaka is the first-choice holding midfielder, the back four won’t get enough protection.

   Xhaka led all players with 7 fouls, 5 more than any other Gunner. Xhaka just doesn’t have the mindset of a defensive midfielder. And his lack of mobility is a too big weakness for that position anyway. Eriksen toyed with Xhaka before testing Leno with a curling shot in the 15th. The Gunners were trying to build pressure in the closing minutes, but Xhaka gave Spurs a breather with 4 silly fouls in a 12-minute span. Besides his repetitive fouling, Xhaka showed poor work-rate with only 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 5 recoveries) while Torreira made 10 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries) in 62 minutes, according to the club’s website.

   Playing alongside Xhaka in a three-man midfield, Guendouzi produced one of his best performances in an Arsenal shirt. End product has been an issue for the youngster last season. On Sunday, Guendouzi made the penultimate pass for Lacazette’s goal and the assist for Aubameyang’s equalizer. Guendouzi nearly scored in the 56th but Lloris parried his low strike.

   Guendouzi’s defensive awareness is also improving. The Arsenal defense left Kane completely unmarked inside the area in the 36th, but Guendouzi saw the danger and rushed to prevent Kane from pulling the trigger. As an all-around midfielder, Guendouzi made 11 defensive actions (3 tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries) and had 0 turnover. Even if Guendouzi develops quickly, the Gunners will still need to sign a central midfielder next season to replace Xhaka and Elneny.

Linking defense and attack

   On the right side of the midfield, Torreira performed well in the first half before fading in the second half. He pounced on a clearance from the Tottenham defense to fire a volley that sailed wide in the 24th. Torreira then controlled a cross from Maitland-Niles to tee up Guendouzi for a scoring chance in the 56th. Chasing an equalizer, Emery sent on Ceballos for the Uruguay international in the 63rd. I guess Emery killed two birds with one stone by adding more punch in midfield while managing Torreira’s fitness.

   In his 33-minute cameo, Ceballos had an impact in the final third with 2 key passes and 1 shot on target. Lloris tipped Ceballos’ long-range strike over the bar in the 65th. It got a bit physical in the 78th as Sanchez received a yellow card for throwing an elbow in Ceballos’ face. Ceballos is the kind of player that the Gunners were missing in the first half, a midfielder who can link defense and attack. The Reds have box-to-box players like Wijnaldum, Henderson, Keita, and Oxlade-Chamberlain for that role while the Citizens prefer to rely on playmakers like De Bruyne and Silva. Ceballos’ exclusion from the starting lineup was not a complete surprise after his disappointing performance at Anfield.

   At fullback, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles had a decent game for second-choice players. You look at their stats, and there’s really nothing wrong. Maitland-Niles made 10 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block, 3 interceptions, 4 recoveries) and had 3 key passes, 1 turnover, and a passing accuracy of 88.9% while Kolasinac made 8 defensive actions (2 tackles, 6 recoveries) and had 2 key passes, 2 turnovers, and a passing accuracy of 92%.

Instability at the back

   I guess the devil is in the details. Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles didn’t make an obvious error like Leno but their positional play on the opening goal was poor. Maitland-Niles was too casual when the Gunners had a corner in the 63rd. His turnover led to a dangerous counterattack for Spurs, forcing Lacazette to make a cynical foul. Kolasinac can be a frustrating player to watch, especially when he lacks accuracy in the final third. He wasted a chance in the 13th by stumbling just before squaring the ball back. Then Kolasinac overhit a cross that evaded everyone in the 46th. The Gunners thought they had scored the winner in the 79th when Kolasinac cut the ball back for Sokratis, who tapped in. But the goal was disallowed for an offside position of Kolasinac, who could see the virtual offside line but failed to correctly time his run.

   This must be a difficult situation for Emery with so much instability at the back. Last season, Monreal, Bellerin, Koscielny and Holding would have been his first-choice defenders. Koscielny and Monreal are now gone while Bellerin and Holding are recovering from long-term injuries. The club signed Tierney as a replacement for Monreal but the Scottish leftback is still sidelined by a groin injury. Basically, Emery won’t be able to play his best back four before October.

   In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Luiz performed slightly better than Sokratis. The Brazilian centerback made 12 defensive actions (4 tackles, 1 interception, 7 recoveries) compared to 8 defensive actions (3 tackles, 5 recoveries) for Sokratis. Luiz has won many trophies with Chelsea but he’s not a world-class defender like Koscielny in his prime. He failed to close down Lamela in the 52nd. The Spurs forward picked out Son, whose curling shot was tipped around the post by Leno. Luiz redeemed himself by deflecting out Kane’s cross in the 88th to kill a dangerous Spurs fast break.

Caught in two minds

   Sokratis displayed poor defensive awareness on the opening goal. He also failed to track Kane when the England striker played a one-two with Eriksen before hitting the far post in the 59th. I believe the club signed the wrong player when Arsenal had the choice between Evans and Sokratis in the summer of 2018. The Gunners will need a better player than Luiz or Sokratis to organize the defense.

   It always hurts when a goalkeeper makes a high-profile mistake because the fans forget about the saves made before and after the blunder. Leno made 7 saves, including 2 difficult ones. The German goalkeeper turned Son’s curling shot around the post in the 18th and palmed away Eriksen’s curling effort in the 38th.

   Leno had a split second to make a decision on the opening goal: either catch the ball or push it out of play. It looked like he was caught in two minds, tamely shoving the ball toward the middle of his six-yard box. The weird part is that Leno nearly repeated that mistake in the 36th when Kane hit a 25-yard low drive straight at Leno. Son pounced on the rebound, but instead of making a first-time cross, the South Korea international preferred to check back on his right foot and found Kane, who was crowded out and lost possession.

   The Gunners will play 2 games a week after the international break. That will be a true test for Emery’s belief in youth. There’s no secret: promising youngsters can improve only if you give them playing time. The Europa League and the League Cup are great opportunities to blood them. Emery should also be careful about not burning out some key players. Pressing high up the pitch and playing out from the back both require a lot of energy. If you use the same players for that style of football, they won’t last the distance.

Arsenal vs. Brighton: Gunners throw away lead to finish outside Top 4

  The Gunners showed mental weakness in the clutch. Their Top 4 hopes came to an end after they drew 1-1 with Brighton on Sunday. Theoretically, Arsenal could still finish level on points with Spurs in the Premier League, but there’s no way that the Gunners could overturn a goal difference of eight. Now the only question left is: Who will finish sixth between Arsenal and Manchester United?

Arsenal vs. Brighton.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   A month ago, the Gunners still had the Top 4 race in their hands after they defeated Newcastle to move into third place. But they have blown their best chance of qualifying for the Champions League by having a poor run of form at the worst moment of the season, earning only a point from their last 4 league games.

   It is quite ironic that Arsenal paid tribute to the departing Ramsey with a guard of honor at the Emirates stadium. Ramsey is the longest-serving Gunner in the current squad. He will join Juventus this summer after 11 years at Arsenal. It requires a lot of mental toughness to return from a double leg fracture and score the winning goal in two FA Cup finals despite several hamstring injuries. Ramsey is exactly the kind of player that the Gunners need: mentally tough and performing in the clutch. At 28, Ramsey still has at least 4 years left at the top. Yet, the Arsenal board decided to withdraw his contract offer.

   Calling for Emery’s sacking would be a knee-jerk reaction to this disappointing run of form. I don’t think it would help the club. First, because the Gunners have done slightly better than last season. Emery kept Arsenal in the chase for Champions League spots until May while the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race by March under Wenger. And the Gunners can still reach the Europa League final whereas they got knocked out in the semifinals a year ago. We are very far from Moyes’ poor tenure at Old Trafford where the defending champions finished seventh in 2014.

Slow transition

   Second, what kind of signal would Arsenal send to future candidates by firing Emery after a decent season? Arsenal would be seen as an unstable club where managers must succeed in their very first season. Even Guardiola won nothing in his first season at Manchester City.

   And third, the main culprit for the slow transition and lack of competitiveness is the Arsenal board. Financially, Emery had limited ressources to rebuild the squad last summer. Liverpool and Manchester City spent more than £50 million to sign top centerbacks like Van Dijk and Laporte and more than £40 million to sign top midfielders like Fabinho and Bernardo Silva. Quality has a price but the club wasn’t willing to match the investments made by City, Liverpool or even Chelsea. So the Gunners spent £17 million for Sokratis and £26 million for Torreira. What’s the point of changing of manager after a year if the transfer kitty will limit the scope of the rebuilding effort?

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that defeated Valencia last Thursday with Leno, Monreal, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Mkhitaryan replacing Cech, Koscielny, Kolasinac, Guendouzi and Maitland-Niles in the starting lineup. On paper, it looked like a 4-2-2-2 formation, but it often morphed into a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield because Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka while Mkhitaryan filled the hole on the left.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M44ed.jpgArsenal’s diamond midfield. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Seagulls preferred to sit deep instead of pressing high up the pitch. The advantage of that plan is that you have a solid defensive shape. The drawback is that you invite pressure. Brighton winger Jahanbakhsh gave away a penalty with an awkward challenge on Monreal in the eighth minute. There was minimal contact and even the referee had a doubt for a split second. Aubameyang converted the penalty by firing into the bottom corner to give Arsenal the lead.

Xhaka’s silly challenge

   I mentioned the issue of mental weakness because the Gunners were too passive after the opener. They created no scoring chance between the 9th and the 36th and allowed the Seagulls to get back into the game. Arsenal had a couple of chances before halftime but Ryan pulled some fine saves. At the restart, the Gunners were again very quiet in the final third with no scoring chance between the 46th and the 68th.

   Some teams are ruthless and just pile on the pressure. But this Arsenal team lost its intensity and got punished in the 60th. Brighton capitalized on a poor pass from Mkhitaryan to launch a counterattack. Bernardo’s clearance fell to March, who sprinted down our right flank before rounding Xhaka. The Switzerland midfielder panicked and pulled March back. March lost his balance and fell to the ground. The referee awarded a penalty to the Seagulls and gave a yellow card to Xhaka for that cynical foul. Murray equalized by sending Leno the wrong way.  

   It was a silly challenge from Xhaka because March could only cut the ball back and Mustafi was in a very good position to block the pass. Looking at the big picture, Brighton’s chances of scoring on that play were low because Sokratis was marking Murray, who was the only Seagull inside the Arsenal area, while Monreal had an eye on Knockaert on the edge of the box. Again, some Gunners simply lack mental toughness and keep making blunders under pressure. The Gunners won’t have a solid spine as long as they rely on error-prone players like Xhaka and Mustafi.

   I thought Emery’s substitutions came really late. And they looked pretty much like a punishment for the three players involved in the Brighton equalizer. Kolasinac, Iwobi and Guendouzi came off the bench to replace Lichtsteiner, Mkhitaryan and Xhaka in the 77th.

Aubameyang’s tally

   Mkhitaryan got some stick from the fans for missing a short pass to Lichtsteiner on the play that led to the equalizer. But I thought Mkhitaryan had more impact in the final third than Ozil. The Armenia international nearly opened the scoring in the second minute with a 19-yard strike that hit the base of the post. Then he tested Ryan with a long-range effort on the stroke of halftime. Just before his replacement, Mkhitaryan set up Aubameyang for a big chance in the 74th and fed Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Ryan in the 75th. As usual, Mkhitaryan’s work-rate was better than Ozil’s with 1 interception and 5 recoveries compared to 1 interception and 3 recoveries for the German playmaker, according to the club’s website.

   Although Arsenal enjoyed 71% of ball possession, Ozil didn’t have the influence that fans can expect from him. He led all players with 3 key passes, but one was from a corner and another was a short pass for a long-range strike. Ozil’s best contribution of the game was a cross for Aubameyang, whose 10-yard shot was turned around the post by Ryan in the 39th. Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi have lacked consistency this season, but Mkhitaryan has one advantage over the other two attacking midfielders: his work-rate. Mkhitaryan can press high up the pitch like Ramsey but you wouldn’t trust Ozil and Iwobi to do that job.

   Aubameyang raised his tally to 20 goals in the Premier League this season, trailing only Salah who has 22 goals. He had opportunities to score the winner, first volleying Xhaka’s corner over the bar in the 68th, and then meeting a cross from Mkhitaryan in the 74th only to miss the target from 8 yards. In the closing minutes, Kolasinac also made a pinpoint cross but Aubameyang failed to make any contact for a close-range header.  

Emery making the same mistake as Wenger

   Arsenal’s offense struggled in the air again. Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to win only 2 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. It was so bad that Lacazette even managed to head Aubameyang’s cross into touch in the 87th. Lacazette’s best chance came on the stroke of halftime when he pounced on a rebound and had his 18-yard effort headed out by Dunk. He also forced a comfortable save from Ryan with a strike on the turn in the 90th. Although Lacazette didn’t find the net, he showed outstanding work-rate with 2 tackles and 6 recoveries.

   In midfield, Xhaka cost his team the win with his blunder in the 60th. He also gave the ball away twice in the opening minutes. It’s quite puzzling that both Wenger and Emery have relied on Xhaka to be Arsenal’s holding midfielder. His passing range and his delivery can sometimes make the difference. Xhaka finished the game with 3 key passes, including 2 from corners. Mustafi met a corner from Xhaka in the 36th for a diving header that Ryan saved at the near post. But in the end, Xhaka’s lack of mobility and poor decision-making far outweigh his positive contributions.

   Playing on the right side of a diamond midfield, Torreira had a decent game but his performance didn’t match the high standards he set in the first half of the season. Torreira won 2 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. He was also dribbled past 3 times, tied with Brighton midfielder Stephens for the most by any player. Torreira may have not any proper rest this summer if the Uruguay team goes deep in the Copa America.

Sokratis’ 12 yellow cards

   The main problem with a diamond midfield is that it can make the attack too narrow unless the fullbacks roam forward to provide the width. Lichtsteiner and Monreal were no threat on the flanks as they combined to have 0 key pass and 0 accurate cross. Brighton midfielder March exposed Lichtsteiner’s lack of pace a couple of times. In the 26th, Lichtsteiner failed to close down March, who created a scoring chance with a cross for Murray. Then March rounded Lichtsteiner in the 30th only to shoot into the side-netting. At least, Lichtsteiner didn’t make a silly foul on that play like Xhaka. Lichtesteiner also received a yellow card for dissent in the 64th.

   In the heart of the defense, Mustafi refrained from making any high-profile blunder while Sokratis lost a couple of key duels. Murray beat Sokratis to the ball in the 26th for a downward header that Leno saved. Then March rounded Sokratis to fire an angled strike in the 51st. Sokratis broke a record in the 14th by diving and earning his 12th yellow card in the Premier League, the most for an Arsenal player in a single season.

   Leno salvaged a point for the Gunners by saving March’s header in the 85th. Iwobi left March unmarked at the far post on that play. Leno’s distribution is usually reliable but on Sunday the German goalkeeper had two poor moments, having a pass intercepted by Jahanbakhsh in the 26th and kicking the ball straight to Bissouma in the 33rd.

   The Gunners next visit Valencia on Thursday before facing Burnley on Sunday for their last Premier League game of the season. There’s no doubt that Emery will field his best team against the Spanish side because the Europa League has become the only way for Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League. If Emery is bold enough, he will play a few youngsters against Burnley because players like Nketiah, Willock and Saka will certainly show more desire than the regular starters.




Leicester vs. Arsenal: Top 4 hopes in tatters as Gunners self-destruct

   The Top 4 race is virtually over for the Gunners after they suffered a third straight defeat on Sunday, losing 3-0 at Leicester. In hindsight, the home loss to Crystal Palace has been the turning point in Arsenal’s Premier League campaign. The Gunners would still have their fate in their hands if they had beaten the Eagles.

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

   Arsenal Women have been the only ray of light at the club this season. The ladies clinched the Super League title on Sunday by winning 4-0 at Brighton. That’s quite a contrast with the lads, who are miles away from contending. The Gunners trail Manchester City by 26 points and Liverpool by 25 points. There’s a massive rebuilding job required this summer, not even to turn Arsenal into a contender, but simply to have a shot at a Top 4 finish next season.

   A quick look at the standings tells you where the priority should be. The Gunners have scored 69 goals and conceded 49 goals in 36 Premier League games under Emery. The most depressing part is that they are actually overperforming, both defensively and offensively. Arsenal should have scored only 59.56 goals and conceded 53.66 goals, according to understat.com.

   Those are worse stats than under Wenger. The Gunners scored 74 goals and conceded 51 goals in 38 Premier League games last season. The irony is that they were slightly underperforming then, according to understat.com, calculating that Arsenal should have scored 72.27 goals and conceded 48.75 goals. As long as the club doesn’t fix those defensive issues, the Gunners will still be closer to 6th place than 2nd.

Down to 10 men

   Emery made 3 changes to the side that lost at Wolverhampton with Kolasinac, Mustafi and Aubameyang replacing Monreal, Koscielny and Ozil in the starting lineup. Surprisingly, the Spanish manager opted for an attacking 4-4-2 formation with Aubameyang and Lacazette up front, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings, and Xhaka and Torreira in central midfield.  

   Leicester outplayed the Gunners with 67% of ball possession and 12 shots on target to 1 for the visitors. If you think the scoreline was harsh, keep in mind that Leno was Arsenal’s best player and made 9 saves. The Arsenal midfield looked completely spineless without Ramsey. Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi are not link players like Ramsey and don’t have his impact in the final third.

   The Foxes dominated the game because they had an extra man in midfield. So it was up to Lacazette or Aubameyang to drop off and help Xhaka and Torreira. Or maybe Emery should have tweaked his system by playing Mkhitaryan in the hole and Aubameyang on the right wing.

   The Gunners had reasonable hopes of earning a point until Maitland-Niles’ sending off for a second yellow card in the 36th minute. I thought the first yellow card in the eighth minute was a bit harsh. Maitland-Niles definitely made a foul when he collided with Chilwell. The problem was the referee’s interpretation. The referee certainly thought that the Arsenal rightback made no genuine attempt to play the ball and only wanted to kill a dangerous counterattack. If we give Maitland-Niles the benefit of the doubt, maybe he miscalculated the angle of his run.

   The second yellow card was not controversial in itself. Maitland-Niles lost his footing after his first touch and made a late challenge on Maddison while trying to win the ball back. That’s a booking in any game. The referee showed his consistency by booking Ndidi in the 13th and Pereira in the 63rd for similar fouls. Maitland-Niles thought his ejection was harsh because he only made 2 fouls. Somehow, his inexperience cost his team on Sunday, because a Sagna or a Monreal would have been more careful.

Koscielny’s twilight

After Maitland-Niles’ ejection, Mkhitaryan played as a rightback until halftime. Emery replaced Iwobi with Koscielny before the start of the second half, moving Mustafi to the rightback position. Leicester finally opened the scoring in the 59th when Tielemans made a deep run to nod Maddison’s cross into the bottom corner. Torreira failed to close down Maddison on that play while Koscielny couldn’t climb high enough to clear the cross. That goal forced Emery to add more density in midfield by sending on Guendouzi for Mkhitaryan in the 73rd.

The Foxes doubled the lead with a direct ball from Schmeichel to Vardy in the 86th. Koscielny missed his interception while Sokratis lost the foot race with Vardy, who hit the bar with his lob. However, Vardy pounced on the rebound to head home. The Gunners gave up in the last minute of stoppage time, making Pereira look like Maradona. The Leicester rightback ran past Guendouzi, Kolasinac and Koscielny to set up Vardy for a tap-in.

Koscielny was the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense in the past few seasons, but he has lost a step physically. There were moments on Sunday when Koscielny really looked sluggish. He was dribbled past twice, tied with Lacazette and Guendouzi for the most by an Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. So Koscielny is relying on his reading of the game to compensate. The French centerback won a crucial tackle to prevent Vardy from shooting in the 57th and intercepted a through ball for Vardy in the 61st. In his 50-minute cameo, Koscielny even managed to make more interceptions (2) and recoveries (7) than Sokratis and Mustafi combined (2 interceptions and 6 recoveries), according to the club’s website. The desire is still there but the physical ability is waning.

The offside trap that didn’t work

The Arsenal defense was wary of Vardy’s pace, especially since Emery wanted to play a high defensive line. The first warning came in the seventh minute when the Gunners struggled to defend a set piece. Evans met Chilwell’s free kick for a header that Leno saved. On that play, Mustafi played Evans onside while Sokratis failed to mark the Leicester centerback. Mustafi played Vardy onside again in the 27th. Maddison took Vardy’s pass to test Leno with an angled strike. Five minutes later, Vardy beat the offside trap with a run in behind Sokratis. The England international chased a long ball from Albrighton to send a lob over the bar. What worked so well against Napoli failed against Leicester. Vardy also beat the offside trap in the 42nd, running past Mustafi to fire a shot that Leno turned around the post.

Mustafi didn’t produce a disastrous performance like against Crystal Palace but he looked shaky at times. He dived in and gave away a cheap free kick in the second minute. Then Mustafi collided with Leno in the 14th for what should have been a routine catch for the German goalkeeper. Under pressure, Mustafi’s passing accuracy dipped to 50%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis barely did better with a passing accuracy of 53.9%. Koscielny, who only played in the second half when the Gunners were down to 10 men, showed his cool with a passing accuracy of 82.6%.

Sokratis lost a couple of key duels that led to scoring chances for Leicester. The Greek defender was pulled out of position by Vardy in the 24th and missed his tackle. The ball fell to Maddison who hit a tame shot straight at Leno. Four minutes later, Ndidi outjumped Sokratis to meet a corner for a header that Leno palmed away. In stoppage time, Barnes evaded a tackle from Sokratis to bear down on goal but was denied by Leno.

The card collector

The icing on the cake was Sokratis’ 11th yellow card in the Premier League for an obstruction on Maddison in the 64th. Only two players have collected more yellow cards in the league this season than Sokratis: Capoue (13) and Holebas (12), who both play for Watford. That may not sound like a lot but Sokratis has only made 24 Premier League appearances compared to 32 for Capoue. Obviously, Sokratis leads Arsenal players for yellow cards, followed by Xhaka (9) and Mustafi (8). To put those numbers in context, Fabinho leads Liverpool players with 6 yellow cards while the Manchester City player with the most yellow cards is Fernandinho with 5.

On the flanks, Kolasinac worked hard, leading Arsenal players with 9 recoveries while also winning 1 of 4 tackles and making 1 interception, according to the club’s website. However, Kolasinac let Albrighton have too much influence on the game as the Leicester midfielder made 5 crosses and had 3 key passes. Signing a leftback should be a priority this summer since the Gunners have struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank in the past few seasons. On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles paid for his inexperience. Some fans don’t like him at rightback but I’d rather play him in that position next season than extend Lichtsteiner’s contract or hire a new rightback.

In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka looked pedestrians. They worked their socks off but were no match for the Foxes. Xhaka made 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries while Torreira made 3 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. Leicester ballwinner Ndidi beat those stats with 5 tackles, 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries in the first 45 minutes before Rodgers replaced him with the more attacking Barnes at halftime.

Iwobi missing a big chance

Torreira is nowhere near the level he showed in the first half of the season. Is Torreira playing hurt or is it a case of physical burnout? Signing a defensive midfielder should be a priority for the club this summer. Xhaka lacks the mobility for the job. He gave away a free kick by holding Maddison in the seventh minute and fouled Ndidi to stop a counterattack on the stroke of halftime. The Switzerland international was also late a couple of times to block shots from the edge of the box.

Emery relied on Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to feed Lacazette and Aubameyang. The two attacking midfielders were in search of redemption after their poor performance against Wolverhampton. Yet, Mkhitaryan made 0 key pass and showed some poor work-rate with 0 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 4 recoveries in 72 minutes. He failed to close down Chilwell in the 14th as the Leicester leftback made a dangerous cross. Chilwell had enough freedom to finish the game with 3 crosses and 3 key passes. Iwobi’s work-rate was even worse than Mkhitaryan’s with only 1 interception and 1 recovery in his 45-minute cameo. At least, Iwobi had an impact in the final third with 1 key pass and 1 shot on target.

It could have been a different story if Iwobi had converted Arsenal’s only big chance of the game in the 35th. Hitting Leicester on the fast break, Aubameyang played Iwobi clean through on goal. From 10 yards, Iwobi mustered a tame effort straight at Schmeichel. In that kind of situation, you can bet that Ramsey would have scored. Iwobi clearly hasn’t worked on his finishing. He still has that tendency to shoot toward the middle of the net instead of aiming at the corners. Emery should introduce more competition for the winger positions next season, especially since Nelson, Nketiah, Saka and Smith-Rowe have better finishing skills than Iwobi.

Walking a tightrope

That wasn’t a game for Arsenal strikers. Starved of service, Aubameyang took 0 shot despite contributing offensively with 2 key passes. Lacazette led the line but missed the target with his 3 goal attempts. His best chance came in the 23rd when Iwobi made a cross from the left flank. From 12 yards, Lacazette volleyed wide with his right foot. He would have had a better chance of catching the frame with his weaker left foot.

Sunday’s game also highlighted the main weakness of the Arsenal frontline: they don’t have a target man. Leicester centerbacks were dominant in the air with Maguire winning 5 of 6 aerial duels and Evans winning 5 of 8, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win only 2 of 11 headers. Lacazette also led all players with 5 turnovers. The few times the Gunners tried to relieve the pressure with long balls, Aubameyang and Lacazette simply couldn’t beat Maguire and Evans in the air.

Mathematically, the Gunners are still in the Top 4 race. But on current form, it’s hard to see how Arsenal could get more than 4 points from their last two games against Brighton and Burnley. Even if we assume that the Gunners finish the season with 70 points, Chelsea would just need a win against either Watford or Leicester to pip them to the post. And Manchester United could also leapfrog Arsenal with 6 points from their last two games against Huddersfield and Cardiff.

The Leicester game gave the impression that the players have prioritized the Europa League over a Top 4 finish. It wouldn’t be something new. Arsenal did the same last season under Wenger. The Gunners will next play Valencia in the Europa League on Thursday and Brighton in the Premier League on Sunday. The players are walking a tightrope. Another defeat could bring back the toxic atmosphere under Wenger. Are they still fit to wear the shirt?



Wolverhampton vs. Arsenal: Top 4 finish out of Gunners’ hands after 3-1 loss

  The Gunners produced their worst performance of the season on Wednesday, conceding 3 goals in the first half of a 3-1 defeat at Wolverhampton. After the embarrassing loss to Crystal Palace last weekend, Arsenal found a way to sink even further as a Top 4 finish is now out of their hands. The Gunners trail Tottenham by 4 points and Chelsea by 1 point with just 3 rounds left in the Premier League.

Wolves vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   The clean sheets against Napoli and Watford gave the impression that Arsenal had fixed their defensive problems. But the 6 goals conceded in the last two games show that the Gunners have been struggling for consistency since December and the end of their 22-game unbeaten run.

   In his post-match news conference, Emery made one telling admission. He said: “We didn’t do the game plan like I wanted.” At the start of the season, Emery wanted his team to play out from the back and press high up the pitch. That style of football requires a lot of movement and energy. I think Emery is just finding out how physically demanding the Premier League can be.

   Klopp also learned his lesson in his first season at Liverpool. Because the Reds were inconsistent at that time, Klopp understood that he couldn’t implement gegenpressing in every game and therefore needed to play in a more economical way when his players were jaded. The Reds are not pressing frantically in every game this season because they can rely on Salah, Mane and Firmino to score goals and they have improved their defense by signing Van Dijk and Alisson.

Poor final ball

   At Molineux stadium, the Gunners seemed to be running out of gas even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that lost to Crystal Palace with only Lacazette, Ozil, Koscielny and Leno retaining their starting spots. Were the players unconsciously prioritizing the Europa League over a Top 4 spot in the Premier League?

   Offensively, Arsenal enjoyed 70% of sterile possession with only 1 shot on target compared to 3 for the hosts. In fact, Rui Patricio had no save to make until the last 15 minutes. Ramsey’s absence was badly felt in the final third where the lack of movement played into the hands of the Wolverhampton defense. It’s hard to see how Arsenal could win on the road without Ramsey. The Gunners also lacked penetration because they have no dribbler who can slalom past defenders in a tiny space. Liverpool and Manchester City can beat teams parking the bus because they have dribblers like Salah, Mane, Sterling, Sane and Bernardo Silva.

   Arsenal tried to stretch the Wolverhampton defense with combination play on the wings but it didn’t really click between Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles on the right flank. The Gunners managed to find an opening on the left flank in the 17th minute when Monreal played a one-two with Iwobi but Doherty cynically pulled the Spaniard back on the edge of the box.

   The few times Arsenal had some good situations, the final ball simply lacked accuracy. Mkhitaryan delivered a poor final ball in the eighth minute, Ozil’s cross for Monreal went out of play in the 39th, Iwobi played the ball behind Mkhitaryan in the 40th, and Ozil missed his pass to Lacazette in the 70th.

Wengerian frailties

   Wolves showed more commitment, winning 15 of 25 tackles and making 20 interceptions while Arsenal only won 6 of 13 tackles and made 4 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. The hosts also exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on set pieces and counterattacks -defensive frailties belonging to the Wenger era.

   The first warning came in the 25th. An unmarked Boly redirected Bennett’s throw toward Jimenez, who flicked the ball over the bar. Three minutes later, Monreal gave away a dangerous free kick with a cynical foul on Jonny. Neves curled the subsequent set piece into the bottom corner to give Wolves the lead. The players in the wall failed to do their job: they turned their backs instead of attempting to block the shot.

   Wolverhampton’s second goal was even more comical. Playing a short corner in the 37th, Moutinho swapped passes with Jonny as only Torreira tried to close them down. When Ozil finally decided to run toward Jonny, it was already too late. Doherty met Jonny’s cross to head home for a 2-0 lead. Leno was harshly credited with an error for trying to claim the ball. Because Doherty had a free header from 7 yards, Leno had almost no chance of making a save by staying on his line. That’s how Benteke scored for Crystal Palace a few days ago. In my eyes, it would have been an error if an Arsenal defender still had a chance to beat Doherty in the air, but that wasn’t the case. The real issue on that play was Sokratis’ decision-making. The Greek centerback stood 2 yards behind his teammates and played Doherty onside.

   The hosts also caused damage on the counterattack. Jota outpaced Xhaka in the 26th to feed Jonny, whose leg was clipped by Monreal. Four minutes later, Xhaka failed to close down Jonny, who played Jimenez in. From a tight angle, the Wolves striker fired over the bar. On those two plays, Xhaka was too sluggish to break the counterattack while Torreira was stranded up the pitch. Xhaka made the blunder that led to the third goal on the stroke of halftime. He gave the ball away to Jota, who treated Sokratis like a vulgar training cone before firing a low diagonal strike past Leno. Sokratis should have either made a tackle ot stayed with Jota.

Overrun in midfield

   The Arsenal defense was again carved wide open in the second half. Dendoncker blocked Xhaka’s pass and ran past the Switzerland international to take Doherty’s return pass before releasing Jimenez down our left flank in the 55th. Jimenez wasted the scoring chance by overhitting his cross for Jota. In the hope of stopping Wolverhampton’s counterattacking threat, Emery shifted to a back three in the 58th by replacing Torreira and Mkhitaryan with Guendouzi and Kolasinac. That did not prevent Wolves from hitting Arsenal on the fast break in the 68th. Jonny picked out an unmarked Jimenez, who missed the target.

   All these counterattacks clearly show that the Gunners were overrun in midfield. First, the work-rate of the Arsenal midfielders was not good enough. Neves, Moutinho and Dendoncker combined for 32 defensive actions while Xhaka, Torreira, Guendouzi and Ozil only combined for 21 defensive actions. Wolverhampton basically played with one extra man in midfield. Here are the stats for each midfielder according to the club’s website:

  • Neves: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Moutinho: won 4 of 4 tackles, 3 blocks, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Dendoncker: made 1 interception, 8 recoveries.
  • Xhaka: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 block, 3 recoveries.
  • Torreira (57 minutes): made 1 interception, 7 recoveries.
  • Guendouzi (37 minutes): made 3 recoveries.
  • Ozil: made 4 recoveries.

   The second reason for the Gunners’ inability to stop counterattacks was Emery’s tactical configuration in midfield. Xhaka played as the holding midfielder while Torreira was in a more advanced position as a box-to-box player. It’s just as flawed as Sarri’s decision to play Jorginho behind Kante at Chelsea. If you are a rational manager, you want your best defensive midfielder to shield the defense and break up plays, not a sluggish deep-lying playmaker.

Mental block on the road

   Xhaka lacks defensive awareness. He was completely out of position in the 21st when Dendoncker controlled a long ball from Neves to find Doherty on our left flank. Doherty set up Moutinho, who curled a shot wide. And more importantly, Xhaka simply lacks the mobility necessary for the No. 6 role. Jota too easily ran past Xhaka in the 31st before Koscielny blocked his run on the edge of the box. We saw how vulnerable the Arsenal defense was when Arteta played as the holding midfielder. Emery shouldn’t be making the same mistake by relying on Xhaka for defensive duties.  

   Torreira has struggled for form since December. On Wednesday, he lost 50-50 balls that he would have won in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder made a late challenge on Moutinho in the second minute, received a yellow card in the 45th for a two-footed lunge on Neves, and led all players with 3 fouls. At 23, Torreira is still a young player who can improve his reading of the game. He should have played in a deeper position to help out Xhaka in midfield.  

   Emery trusted Ozil in an away game and the move backfired. Ozil was ineffective in the final third and untidy in possession, leading all players with 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. Pundits and fans often talk about Arsenal’s mental block on the road, and Ozil is the player who embodies that issue. Emery also relied on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi to feed Lacazette. Their work-rate was even poorer that Ozil’s. Mkhitaryan only made 1 recovery in 57 minutes and Iwobi barely did better with 2 recoveries in 70 minutes. Looking at the big picture, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi have one thing in common: they have been inconsistent this season, very far from the standards set by attacking midfielders like Silva and Eriksen. Emery replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 71st. The academy player showed more desire and end product than the anonymous Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.    

Don’t leave Lacazette on his own

   Up front, Lacazette showed again why he’s not a centerforward, but a second striker. The France international feels much more comfortable when he can make runs off Aubameyang, who was not in the squad because of a sinus procedure. On Wednesday, Lacazette led the line on his own and spent most of his time dropping back and running away from goal. That obviously made Ozil’s job more difficult because the German playmaker loves having a target in front of him like a quarterback with a receiver.

   Sokratis hit a long ball for Lacazette in the 14th, but Lacazette doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace and the ball bounced out of play. Lacazette doesn’t have Giroud’s strong hold-up play either. Back to goal, Lacazette took passes in the 22nd and 48th and lost possession. Lacazette’s performance improved when Emery sent on Nketiah in the 71st. Nketiah got the better of Boly in the 73rd and made a cross for Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Bennett. Then Guendouzi won possession in the 79th and fed Lacazette, who had another effort blocked. In the end, Arsenal’s consolation goal came from a set piece in the 80th. Sokratis outjumped Neves and Jonny at the far post to head in a corner.  

   The Gunners next visit Leicester on Sunday. They should expect the same kind of treatment since the Foxes perform well against the top clubs and capitalize on counterattacking opportunities. A defeat could virtually end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes if the Blues win at Old Trafford.


Watford vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang leads Gunners into 4th

   The Gunners earned their first clean sheet in a Premier League away game this season by edging Watford 1-0 on Monday. They moved into 4th place, one point behind Spurs in the standings. Despite enjoying 66% of ball possession and having 19 shots to 11 for the hosts, it was an ugly win for Arsenal. The Hornets had the best chances even though they were down to 10 men by the 11th minute.

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

   Sometimes, a manager has to make unpopular choices. Some fans didn’t like Emery’s team selection or his substitutions at Vicarage Road. But Emery simply gave the priority to his players’ fitness by managing their playing time. The Watford match was the first of 4 games in a 10-day span, which means that the Gunners will only have 2 days of rest before each of the next 3 games. Basically, it’s just as bad as the congested list of fixtures during the Christmas period.  

   Emery rested some of his key players. Kolasinac and Lacazette stayed on the bench, Torreira and Ramsey were replaced in the second half, and Maitland-Niles only played the last 25 minutes. The Spanish manager also took a gamble by starting Mavropanos at centerback while moving Mustafi to the rightback position.

   Two moments decided the game. Janmaat made a backpass toward Foster in the 10th. The Watford goalkeeper controlled the ball with his first touch before attempting a clearance with his second touch. But Aubameyang sprinted like a black panther to make the block. The ball ricocheted off Aubameyang’s leg to bounce into the net. And just a minute after Aubameyang opened the scoring, Deeney was sent off for swinging an elbow into Torreira’s face. The referee initially failed to spot the foul, but the linesman had a good view of the incident and told the referee.

Losing control of the midfield

   Down to 10 men, the Hornets had to change their plans. Watford started the game by pressing high up the pitch to force turnovers. Under Gray’s pressure, Leno even had to kick the ball into touch by the second minute. But Deeney’s ejection made that high press impossible. It also deprived the Hornets of a tactical option. Deeney can be a handful in the air. His absence meant that Watford no longer had a physical striker to attack crosses. Mavropanos and Koscielny were involved in only one aerial duel.

   In the first half, the Hornets could only threaten on long balls and set pieces. Arsenal somehow lost control of the midfield in the second half and Watford became more dangerous with short passes. Emery’s substitutions obviously contributed to that loss of momentum. At halftime, Emery sent on Ozil for Torreira while moving Ramsey to a deeper position alongside Xhaka. The Spanish manager certainly wanted to inject more creativity into his team. On paper, that move made sense since the Hornets were playing with 9 men behind the ball. On the pitch, the Gunners lost Torreira’s work-rate in midfield.

   To take back control of the midfield, Emery replaced Mavropanos with Guendouzi in the 59th, shifting from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 system with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan in the wingback positions while Ramsey and Ozil played behind Aubameyang in the front three. However, the Hornets targeted Mkhitaryan, forcing Emery to revert to a back four by replacing Ramsey with Maitland-Niles in the 68th. That last change wasn’t enough to stifle the hosts, who had 2 chances in the closing minutes to level.

Aubameyang’s 18th league goal this season

   Aubameyang worked his socks off to notch his 18th league goal this season, just one unit behind Aguero and Salah. The Gabon striker made 2 sprints within a few seconds to close down Janmaat and Foster in the 10th. He could have doubled the lead in the second half but lacked that bit of luck. In the 53rd, Iwobi crossed the ball to the far post where Aubameyang couldn’t make contact with the ball despite a desperate slide. Then Aubameyang managed to meet a teasing cross from Mkhitaryan in the 74th but his sliding effort sailed wide. In the closing minutes, Aubameyang took a pass from Iwobi and ran into the box only to miss the target from a tight angle.

There’s more pressure on Aubameyang to score when he plays alongside Iwobi and Mkhitaryan because their scoring ability is average. Mkhitaryan and Iwobi have found the net only 6 and 3 times respectively in the Premier League this season. On the bright side, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan participate more in the build-up than Lacazette. Iwobi led all players with 7 key passes, including a smart cross for Mhkitaryan, whose close-range volley was saved by Foster in the 57th. The Nigeria international also had a shot tipped over the bar in the 26th. I felt Iwobi didn’t make the best choice on that play by ignoring Ramsey’s run in behind. Defensive awareness is still an issue for Iwobi, who failed to track Janmaat a couple of times. Janmaat had plenty of time to make a pinpoint cross for Hugues in the 83rd. Hugues headed the ball over the bar only because Mkhitaryan put him off.  

   Playing behind Aubameyang, Ramsey had very little impact on the game despite 2 key passes. The Wales midfielder started the second half in a deeper position, letting Ozil take over the playmaking duties. I thought it was a wise decision from Emery to rest Ramsey by yanking him off in the 68th. Ramsey has a poor injury record when playing too many games. If the club wants to finish in the Top 4 or win the Europa League, they simply can’t afford to lose Ramsey at this stage of the season.

Mavropanos’ 1st start of the season

   In midfield, Xhaka made his return from a groin injury. The Switzerland international was not yet up to speed. He won only 28.6% of his duels and made 0 tackle, 0 interception and just 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Despite his relative lack of match fitness, Xhaka played the full 90 minutes, teaming up with Torreira in the first half and then Ramsey and Guendouzi in the second half. That tells you how important Xhaka is in Emery’s plans. I still think it’s too risky to rely on Xhaka as a holding midfielder because he lacks mobility and is not a natural ballwinner. He was dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com, and his missed header in the 20th led to Watford’s best scoring chance.

   Torreira’s form has dipped since the end of December but there are signs that he could finish the season strong. The Uruguay midfielder made 1 block, 1 interception and 10 recoveries despite playing just 45 minutes. In fact, only Capoue managed to make more recoveries than Torreira during the whole game. When Torreira is at the top of his game, you usually see him win the 50-50 balls. That’s what happened in the 22nd when Doucoure was a split second late and ended up fouling Torreira. However, a lapse of concentration nearly cost his team in the 30th. Torreira gifted a dangerous free kick after giving the ball away to Hugues.    

   At the back, Mavropanos sometimes looked out of his depth. He showed his naivety in the 24th by diving in. Gray bullied Mavropanos to chase a ball over the top and cut it back for Doucoure. It took a clearance from Monreal to prevent a tap-in from Doucoure. The Greek defender also misread a long ball in the 55th, allowing Hugues to skip past him and cut inside. At 21, Mavropanos is still a raw player, quite hesitant in his positioning and decision-making. He definitely needs more playing time to develop. A loan to a Championship side next season would make sense.

Season on the line

   The more seasoned Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi showed more calmness than Mavropanos. Monreal had the best work-rate of the Arsenal defenders with 2 tackles, 1 interception and 9 recoveries, compared to 1 tackle, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 5 recoveries for Koscielny and 2 tackles, 4 interceptions and 3 recoveries for Mustafi.

   Starting in the rightback position, Mustafi produced a mixed performance. He led all players by winning 7 aerial duels, but his passing accuracy of 77.6% was relatively low compared to the other defenders (96.5% for Koscielny, 95.8% for Mavropanos, and 85.3% for Monreal). Mustafi also made a couple of mistakes that put his team in trouble. The German defender dallied on the ball and lost possession in the 34th, then missed his interception in the 64th and shoved Success from behind for a silly free kick in the 79th.

   Maitland-Niles took over the rightback spot in the 68th and made a crucial sliding block in the 80th to prevent Gray from scoring into an empty net. Leno forced Gray to round him on that play. The German goalkeeper protected Arsenal’s lead in the first half with two big saves, denying Cathcart in the 20th and turning Capoue’s free kick around the post in the 32nd. When Masina unleashed a long-range strike in the 62nd, Leno seemed beaten but the bar saved him.

   The Gunners next visit Napoli in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Sunday. Arsenal can afford a loss against the Italian side while a victory over the Eagles is a necessity to finish in the Top 4. I expect some heavy rotation between the two games since Napoli will probably dominate possession and therefore force the Gunners to run after the ball.