Tag Archives: Lichtsteiner

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.

 

 

 

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Arsenal vs. Southampton: Gunners move into 4th with 2-0 win

   The Gunners leapfrogged Manchester United into fourth place in the Premier League by downing Southampton 2-0 on Sunday. They did the hard work in the first half before dropping their intensity in the second half. The positive is that Arsenal scored quickly while at the beginning of the season they struggled to reach halftime with the lead. The negative is that they could have scored more goals. The Top 4 race is so tight that it could be decided by goal difference.

Arsenal vs. SouthamptonPhoto credit: Premier League

   Most of the Gunners’ chances came from the left flank. Iwobi and Kolasinac combined to make 5 key passes while Mkhitaryan and Lichtsteiner only had 1 key pass. That’s ironic because Arsenal’s passing game tilted to the right side in the first half of the season. Bellerin’s knee injury last month was obviously the factor that led the Gunners to rely more heavily on Kolasinac and Iwobi to create chances from the left flank.

   Iwobi made a cross for Torreira, who was shoved from behind by Stephens in the seventh minute. The ball fell to Mkhitaryan, whose half-volley was diverted home by Lacazette with a backheel flick. One basic rule in football is to play to the whistle. When Torreira fell inside the area, some Southampton defenders stopped playing and looked at the referee, waiting for his reaction. But Mkhitaryan and Lacazette kept their focus, continued to play and were rewarded with the opening goal. We will never know whether the referee would have awarded a penalty even though TV replays suggested Torreira had been fouled.

Rotation policy

   Lacazette initiated the second goal in the 17th by pressing Stephens, who made a clumsy back pass to his goalkeeper. Gunn’s off-balance clearance fell into the path of Iwobi, who made a cross that took a deflection off Bednarek. Somehow, the ball landed at the feet of Mkhitaryan, who side-footed into the bottom corner from 12 yards. You sometimes need a bit of luck to score in football. The goals came from an off-target shot by Mkhitaryan and an inaccurate cross from Iwobi. That’s funny because Arsenal built better plays which did not end up with a goal because of some poor finishing or a poor final ball.

   Emery made 6 changes to the side that thrashed BATE Borisov on Thursday with Leno, Kolasinac, Sokratis, Torreira, Ramsey and Lacazette replacing Cech, Monreal, Koscielny, Guendouzi, Ozil and Aubameyang in the starting lineup. That kind of rotation is necessary because the Gunners play two games a week until mid-March. Such a hectic schedule can lead to injuries if some players are not rested. Changing the team selection is also a means to inject some freshness. It’s no coincidence if Arsenal won 60.8% of the duels, according to the club’s website.

   Those are the reasons that Emery gave in his post-match conference: “I think we can use these moments and different players to get good paces and fresh players with energy and quality. We need the mix to reserve some players for some matches, because we are going to play a lot of matches.” And you can trust Emery on that issue because Sevilla had to play a lot of games to win the Europa League.

The new Wiltord

   Up front, Lacazette got some decent service and could have notched a hat trick with better finishing. Lacazette surprisingly lacked composure in the 40th when Kolasinac pounced on a poor clearance from Bednarek to feed the French striker. Somehow, Lacazette found a way to blaze over the bar from 6 yards. Two minutes later, Kolasinac ran through the Southampton defense to tee up Lacazette, who fired straight at Gunn from 16 yards. Lacazette forced Gunn to make a save but his shot placement was poor. Those are the kind of chances you would expect a world-class striker to bury. After one season and a half at Arsenal, Lacazette seems closer to the level of a Wiltord than the heights of a Henry.

   Lacazette had two more scoring chances, which were more difficult to convert than his miss in the 40th. He chased a long ball from Xhaka in the 26th and cut inside Stephens only to have his shot blocked by Bednarek. Then Lacazette met a corner from Xhaka for a tame header that Gunn caught in the 38th. On the bright side, Lacazette led all players by having 5 successful dribbles out of 5, according to whoscored.com.  

   Iwobi was the creative force behind Arsenal’s attack, making crosses with his weaker left foot for both goals. He led all players with 3 key passes. You would still expect a bit more from Iwobi. In terms of end product, Mkhitaryan had 1 goal and 1 assist while Iwobi had no goal or assist because his cross for the second goal took a deflection off Bednarek. In terms of work-rate, Mkhitaryan made 7 ball recoveries and led all players by winning 4 of 4 tackles, according to the club’s website, while Iwobi won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 interception and 1 recovery.

Iwobi’s decision-making

   Are we expecting too much from Iwobi? Or his relatively young age should not be an excuse for his lack of productivity in the final third? Despite all the talk about his improvement under Emery, Iwobi has only notched 3 goals and 4 assists in 24 Premier League games this season, about the same stats as last season under Wenger when he had 3 goals and 5 assists in 26 league games.

   Both Alli and Iwobi are 22 and have 4 Premier League seasons under their belt, but Alli is already the finished product whereas Iwobi is still a work in progress. Iwobi will certainly need time to improve his composure in front of goal, but Emery should find a way to quickly improve his decision-making because that has been the main stumbling block in his development so far.

   Here’s an example of a good situation wasted because of Iwobi’s poor decision-making. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had two good passing options with Lacazette to his left and Ramsey to his right. In the end, Iwobi opted for a 20-yard curler that was blocked by Vestergaard. You can bet that Ozil would have delivered the final ball in that kind of situation.

Arsenal vs. Southampton M38 editedIwobi ignores 2 good passing options. (Photo credit: Sportsnet)

   Playing in the hole, Ramsey had an off day with 0 key pass and 0 shot. He also led all players with 8 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. To his credit, Ramsey helped create overloads by drifting to the left flank. The Wales international was also involved in a couple of good situations, combining with Kolasinac for Lacazette’s chance in the 42nd and making teasing crosses in the 6-yard box that no one anticipated in the 60th and 61st.

A quiet afternoon for the midfield

   Emery replaced Ramsey with Ozil in the 63rd and Iwobi with Aubameyang in the 74th. Ozil and Aubameyang combined twice in the closing minutes. First, Ozil fed Aubameyang, whose cross took a deflection off Vestergaard, forcing Gunn to make a reflex save with his foot in the 86th. Then Aubameyang took a pass from Ozil in the 87th only to have his shot blocked by Bednarek. In stoppage time, Aubameyang swapped passes with Xhaka before missing his final ball for Lacazette.  

   In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka had a quiet afternoon as the Gunners enjoyed 62% of ball possession. They combined to win 1 of 2 tackles and make 1 block, 3 interceptions and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Saints gave Xhaka a lot of time on the ball. Yet, the Switzerland midfielder still managed to make a blunder in the 52nd with a risky pass that Ward-Prowse intercepted to shoot wide from 19 yards.  

   Arsenal struggled at St Mary’s stadium in December, conceding 3 goals from headers. They did their homework as Sokratis, Mustafi and Lacazette led all players on Sunday by winning 4 aerial duels each, according to whoscored.com. In fact, Southampton’s best chance came from a long ball in the sixth minute. Redmond beat the offside trap to bear down on goal, but Leno made himself big to deny the English forward. Mustafi and Sokratis probably felt the need to squeeze play. But why did they stand a couple of yards from the halfway line when there was no pressure on the ballholder?

Kolasinac’s outstanding performance

   The fullback positions were a concern before the game but Lichtsteiner and Kolasinac showed good tactical discipline. Kolasinac had arguably his best game of the season, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 9 recoveries. When you add his offensive contribution with 2 key passes and his tidiness with a passing accuracy of 86.3% and only 1 turnover, there might still be hope to turn Kolasinac into a good leftback. Kolasinac saved Arsenal twice, blocking Armstrong’s header in the 14th and blocking Ward-Prowse’s close-range shot in the 76th.

   By contrast, Lichtsteiner looked again like the lethargic player that most fans know. He won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 key pass, 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. Lichtsteiner also had 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy dipping to 71.4%. Emery replaced Lichtsteiner with Koscielny in the 55th as the Switzerland defender picked up a knock.

   At centerback, Sokratis had a solid performance, winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 3 interceptions and 4 recoveries. He also led all players by winning 87.5% of his duels, according to the club’s website. His only blemish was the ball he gave away in the 71st, forcing Mustafi to make a professional foul.  

   Leno kept a rare clean sheet by making 4 saves. The most important one was obviously the chance Redmond had to open the scoring in the sixth minute. The other 3 could be considered routine saves. The German goalkeeper pushed away Armstrong’s mid-range strike in the 14th, caught Austin’s looping header in the 72nd and parried Targett’s volley in the 89th.

   The Gunners will again need 3 points to stay in the Top 4 race when they host Bournemouth on Wednesday. This could prove a tricky match for Arsenal because the Cherries have enjoyed one more day of rest and are known for running a lot. Hopefully, Emery’s rotation policy will bear fruits this week.

 

Arsenal vs. BATE Borisov: A few thoughts on the 3-0 win

   The Gunners qualified for the last 16 of the Europa League by sinking BATE Borisov 3-0 in the second leg on Thursday. In a rather unspectacular game, Arsenal had 22 shots to just 4 for the visitors. Despite missing Lacazette through suspension and Maitland-Niles through illness, the gulf in class between the two sides showed. Emery could even afford to leave Ramsey, Torreira and Sokratis on the bench at kickoff.

Arsenal vs. Borisov.jpgPhoto credit: Getty Images

   Arsenal opened the scoring in the fourth minute when Volkov diverted Aubameyang’s cross into his own net. Mustafi then bullied Baga to meet Xhaka’s corner and doubled the lead with a downward header. Sokratis sealed the win in the 60th by heading in Xhaka’s corner after Scherbitski missed his punch.

  1. Ozil was rusty in his return

   In his first game since Jan. 29, Ozil underperformed in the No. 10 role. He made 3 key passes, compared to 3 for Iwobi and 4 for Mkhitaryan, but had 0 accurate cross and 0 through ball, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Mkhitaryan made 1 accurate cross out of 2 and had 1 accurate through ball out of 2. However, Ozil showed better ball retention skills with a passing accuracy of 89%, compared to 80% for Mkhitaryan and 75% for Iwobi.

   Ozil made his best pass in the eighth minute when he pulled the ball back for Mkhitaryan, who blazed over the bar from 17 yards. His technique let him down in the 32nd when he miskicked the ball from 10 yards. Emery won’t be happy about Ozil’s work-rate. Ozil made 0 tackle while Iwobi won 2 of 3 tackles and Mkhitaryan won 1 of 2 tackles. In Emery’s shoes, I would only play Ozil in the home games where the Gunners dominate possession.  

  1. Lichtsteiner had his best game of the season

   The Switzerland veteran made 2 key passes and led all players with 3 accurate crosses out of 7, according to whoscored.com. Lichtsteiner has been guilty of a couple of high-profile blunders this season. But on Thursday, he was incredibly sound defensively, making a crucial clearance off the line in the ninth minute after Dragun had beaten Cech with a low strike. At 1-1, it could have been a different story for the Gunners.

  1. Iwobi must work on his finishing

   The Nigeria international had 2 of 3 shots on target, which is better than Ozil and Mkhitaryan, who combined to have 0 of 5 shots on target. But those 2 efforts were mostly down the middle of the net. Iwobi controlled a cross from Lichtsteiner in the second minute only to shoot straight at Scherbitski from 13 yards. He then curled a shot that the Belarusian goalkeeper parried in the 54th. At Colney, Iwobi will have to aim at the corners in order to be more prolific in front of goal.  

  1. Aubameyang had an off day

   Of his 6 shots, at least 2 should have found the net. Aubameyang controlled a cross from Lichtsteiner in the 29th only to produce a tame effort straight at Scherbitski. He had a better chance when Arsenal hit BATE on the fast break in the 71st: Aubameyang took a pass from Mkhitaryan only to send his chip wide.

   When Aubameyang plays in a front three with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan, there’s simply too much pressure on Aubameyang to score because Iwobi and Mkhitaryan have poor scoring records. Aubameyang definitely feels more comfortable when he plays alongside Lacazette, but the issue then becomes the formation and the relative lack of width.    

  1. Koscielny picked up a calf injury

   At 33, Koscielny knows his best days are behind him. So he tries to compensate for the relative loss of pace with his experience while hoping that injuries won’t put an end to his career. There were concerns that it was again the Achilles tendon that troubled Koscielny when Sokratis replaced him in the 56th.

   Koscielny’s performance was a mixed bag. On the one hand, Koscielny won 6 of 7 aerial duels and killed a counterattack with a timely tackle on Skavysh in the 21st. On the other, Baga was able to make a run in behind Koscielny to create the chance for Dragun in the ninth minute. And both Koscielny and Monreal failed to clear the danger in the 49th when Skavysh capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to test Cech.  

 

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Lichtsteiner showing his age in 3-1 loss

   The Gunners suffered a setback in the Top 4 race as they lost 3-1 at Manchester City on Sunday to slip to 6th place in the Premier League, 3 points behind Chelsea and 1 behind Manchester United.

Manchester City vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Arsenal performed at a decent level in the first half and even had a couple of half-chances to take a 2-1 lead before Aguero scored his second goal in the 44th minute. Maybe it would have been a different story if Arsenal had reached halftime with the score tied. City stepped up a gear in the second half as the Gunners proved toothless with zero goal attempt.

   Sunday’s game showed the gap between the two teams. You could say that the Gunners were 2 or 3 signings away from contending in 2015. But now they have to rebuild their defense and clean up the mess in midfield left by the previous regime.

   Obviously, the generosity of the Abu Dhabi owner has helped Guardiola build a winning team within 2 years. The Citizens completely outplayed Arsenal, having 12 shots on target to 2 and 18 successful dribbles to 10 while winning 13 tackles to 10 and 19 aerial duels to 5, according to whoscored.com.

Lichtsteiner as the weak link

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that edged Cardiff the previous weekend with Iwobi and Koscielny replacing Ozil and Elneny in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager had to cope with a depleted defense as Holding, Sokratis, Bellerin, Maitland-Niles and Xhaka were not available.

   Some fans complained about the lack of creative players in the lineup but I don’t think it was the kind of game where Arsenal needed creativity for the simple reason that the Citizens dominated possession. My only criticism about Emery’s team selection was Iwobi getting the nod over Ramsey. The Wales midfielder will always give you more work-rate and more end product than Iwobi.

   Xhaka’s groin strain limited Emery’s options in midfield. The Gunners started in a 4-4-2 formation with Kolasinac and Iwobi on the wings before shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 66th when Ramsey and Suarez replaced Iwobi and Kolasinac. City bossed the midfield because Fernandinho, De Bruyne and the Silvas outnumbered Torreira and Guendouzi. But it was on Arsenal’s right flank that the damage was done.

   The Citizens identified Lichtsteiner as the weak link in the Arsenal defense and concentrated their attacks on his side. It was no coincidence if all the City goals came from crosses on Lichtsteiner’s flank that Aguero converted from close range. The Arsenal staff definitely made a mistake in recruiting Lichtsteiner. The game is going too fast for the 35-year-old defender, whose work-rate was poor with 2 tackles, 0 block, 0 interception, and 1 recovery, according to the club’s website.

Mustafi’s luck

   Lichtsteiner made the mistake of running toward Gundogan instead of staying with Sterling for Aguero’s second goal in the 44th. Gundogan found Sterling with a clipped pass and the diminutive winger squared the ball back for Aguero, who tapped in at the far post. Sterling outpaced Lichtsteiner for the final goal in the 61st, making a low cross that Leno could only divert into the path of Aguero, who bundled the ball over the line with his midriff and arm.

   Somehow, Lichtsteiner managed to prevent a tap-in from Sterling by clearing a cross from De Bruyne in the 81st. Emery had no alternative on the bench to yank Lichtsteiner off the pitch. Playing an inexperienced Mavropanos out of position would have been a too big gamble.

   Monreal didn’t suffer as much on the opposite flank because Guardiola preferred to play Bernardo Silva in a wide position instead of having Sterling and Sané on both wings. The Citizens confused the Gunners a couple of times by swapping positions. An all-around midfielder for City, De Bruyne cracked the Arsenal defense with his penetrative runs. De Bruyne made a run in behind Monreal to collect Bernardo’s reverse pass only to fire wide on the stroke of halftime. Spotting a gap between Lichtsteiner and Mustafi in the 56th, Sterling played De Bruyne in but the Belgium international was denied by Leno.

   Mustafi didn’t cover himself in glory at centerback. He miraculously avoided a booking and a penalty in the third minute for holding Aguero, who was chasing a through ball from De Bruyne. Mustafi was then in no man’s land when Aguero opened the scoring. His passing was poor with an accuracy dipping to 71.7% compared to 88.9% for Koscielny. The cherry on the cake was his substitution in the 79th for a knock. Something similar happened when Arsenal got thrashed 5-1 at Liverpool. You kind of wonder if he’s the kind of guy who runs away when his team takes a beating.

Guendouzi’s composure

   An aging Koscielny showed more leadership than Mustafi. In the heart of a weak backline, Koscielny won 0 of 1 tackle and 66.7% of his duels and made 2 blocks, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The France international also scored an equalizer by heading home a corner in the 11th. The Gunners have 6 centerbacks with Koscielny, Mustafi, Sokratis, Holding, Mavropanos and Chambers. It would make sense to boost the transfer funds by selling Mustafi and Chambers this summer.  

   The scoreline could have been more embarrassing without a good performance from Leno. The German goalkeeper made 9 saves, denying De Bruyne in the 51st, 53rd and 63rd and palming away efforts from Aguero in the 76th and David Silva in the 82nd. It really was one-way traffic in the second half.

   Torreira and Guendouzi did their best to protect the defense, but they were simply outnumbered by the Citizens in midfield. Basically, they had to multi-task: fighting for the ball in midfield, covering the fullbacks and initiating plays. Torreira cleared a dangerous cross from Bernardo in the 23rd and made a crucial interception inside the Arsenal area in the 39th. He was unlucky to receive a yellow card in the 39th for a collision with De Bruyne.  

   Guendouzi can be proud of his performance. Despite his young age, Guendouzi showed great composure and didn’t hide, leading Arsenal players with 58 passes and a passing accuracy of 91.4%. The French teenager managed to match Torreira’s defensive stats with 1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 9 recoveries compared to 1 tackle, 3 interceptions and 9 recoveries for Torreira, according to the club’s website. Guendouzi set up Kolasinac for a powerful strike that Ederson parried in the 39th. The only blemish in Guendouzi’s performance was his turnover in the 85th that led to a City counterattack, forcing Leno to stop Jesus’ low strike.

Broken wings

   The biggest disappointment in Emery’s tactical approach was the poor performances from Kolasinac and Iwobi on the wings. They made 0 key pass while Sterling and Bernardo Silva made 4 key passes each. Iwobi’s work-rate was decent with 1 tackle, 1 interception and 4 recoveries in 66 minutes. But he had 2 turnovers in the opening minutes that put his team in trouble.

   Iwobi’s decision-making was especially poor in the first minute of the game. Guendouzi slipped the ball to Iwobi as the Gunners cleared their lines. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi only had 2 passing options: a short pass to Lacazette to start a fast break or a back pass to Lichtsteiner. The first option was too risky because Lacazette was surrounded by Laporte, Gundogan and Sterling. Therefore a back pass to Lichtsteiner was the safer option. Lichtsteiner could have then played the ball back to Iwobi along the touchline or hit a long ball toward Aubameyang.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal M1 edited.jpgIwobi has 2 passing options: Lacazette and Lichtsteiner. (Photo credit: Sky)

   In the end, Iwobi chose neither of those 2 options. He decided to take on Laporte on the edge of the Arsenal box. Laporte dispossessed Iwobi and made a cross for Aguero, who headed home to put City ahead. The Arsenal defense was completely disorganized on that play and had almost no chance to stop the final ball. Guardiola’s teams are usually known for their intricate passing but that goal (a one-pass play!) was rather a good example of Klopp’s gegenpressing philosophy. Iwobi had made efforts lately to stop running into traffic but Sunday’s game showed that he still needs to improve his decision-making and keep it simple.

Suarez making his Arsenal debut

   On the opposite wing, Kolasinac looked lost in the role of an attacking midfielder. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 52.6%, the lowest percentage for any starting player. His poor positional play also led to a mediocre work-rate with 1 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. How Emery came up with that tactical surprise is a mystery because Kolasinac has always been a limited player, technically.  

   Some Arsenal fans wondered why Suarez, and not Ozil, replaced Kolasinac in the 66th. The answer is very simple: Emery doesn’t trust Ozil in those away games where attacking midfielders also have to fight for the ball. It was also a show of trust in Suarez. Here are some stats showing how hard creative players have to work in the top teams: De Bruyne made 7 recoveries and 4 fouls, David Silva won 2 tackles and made 4 recoveries and 3 fouls, Sterling won 2 tackles and made 4 recoveries and Bernardo Silva hit the jackpot with 1 tackle won, 1 interception and 10 recoveries. Those are the kind of stats that Emery expects from his attacking midfielders.  

   In his Arsenal debut, Suarez looked a bit sluggish. The Spaniard has only played 257 minutes for Barcelona this season. Suarez had 2 turnovers and seemed weak in duels against City. Obviously, he will need a couple of weeks to fit in the team as the Gunners don’t play like Barcelona. Suarez will also have to work hard if he wants to adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League.

Winning on the road

   Up front, it was a frustrating game for Lacazette and Aubameyang, both deprived of service. They combined to have only 1 goal attempt. Lacazette led a counterattack in the 35th and tried to play Aubameyang clean through on goal, but Ederson perfectly read the play and sprinted outside his area to clear the danger. Arsenal tried again to hit City on the fast break in the 42nd when Lacazette dispossessed De Bruyne. Torreira found Aubameyang, whose shot was deflected out for a corner.

   The Gunners next visit bottom side Huddersfield on Saturday. A victory on the road is necessary to make up ground in the Top 4 race. Dropping points against the Terriers would deal a bad blow to any hope of a Top 4 finish. Then Arsenal would need victories in the home games against Southampton and Bournemouth at the end of February before the decisive games against Tottenham and Manchester United in early March.  

Arsenal vs. Cardiff: Gunners grind out 2-1 win to move into 4th

   Any win will do. Aubameyang and Lacazette scored in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Cardiff as Arsenal went level on points with Chelsea in the Premier League while moving two points clear of Manchester United.

arsenal vs. cardiffPhoto credit: Premier League

   The Gunners performed poorly in the first half, lacking urgency, width and penetration. When they managed to have some good situations, their final ball was not accurate enough. Cardiff had a couple of half-chances and could have reached halftime with the lead. But the absence of a decent finisher penalized the visitors. The Bluebirds finished the game with 19 shots to 15 for Arsenal but just two of their goal attempts were on target.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that got knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United with only Kolasinac, Torreira, Lacazette and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. The Spanish manager had to improvise at the back because of injuries to Maitland-Niles, Koscielny, Sokratis, Bellerin and Holding. Monreal played in the centerback position alongside Mustafi while Lichtsteiner made a rare start at rightback.

   The Arsenal team was built around Ozil in a narrow 4-4-2 formation with Elneny, Torreira and Guendouzi shielding the defense. Ozil was making his first start since Dec. 26 when he was replaced at halftime in a 1-1 draw with Brighton. It’s no secret that the Arsenal board and staff want to offload Ozil. Off the pitch, his wages put a strain on the club’s financial resources. On the pitch, his performances are not good enough for £350,000 a week. Ozil notched 3 goals and 1 assist in 14 Premier League games this season for an average of 0.29 goal or assist per game. Those are pedestrian stats for one of the best playmakers in the world. Iwobi has the same average with 2 goals and 4 assists in 21 league games.

The Ozil conundrum

   Managing Ozil has turned into a tough balancing act for Emery. On the one hand, you want to implement your ideas and you need results. On the other, you don’t want to hurt Ozil’s resale value or worsen the mood in the dressing room. Emery opted for the best compromise by starting Ozil in a home game against a weak side. Ozil can be ineffective when he comes off the bench. Most fans still remember his dreadful cameo in the 3-2 loss to Southampton. It’s therefore less risky to start Ozil and take him off if he underperforms.

   Ozil was not influential in his 76-minute performance against Cardiff. He made 66 passes, the third most behind Monreal (68) and Guendouzi (83), but only one was a key pass from open play. On the bright side, there are signs that Ozil might finally buy into Emery’s method. Ozil made 3 recoveries and won 2 of 3 tackles, according to the club’s website. Only Mustafi won more tackles on the Arsenal team. However, I doubt that Emery would use Ozil for a pressing job like the one done by the Gunners against Chelsea. Ozil was dribbled past 3 times by the Bluebirds, the most for any Arsenal player. He was also easily bullied off the ball by Peltier in the 43rd.

   Emery broke the deadlock by shifting to a 4-2-3-1 system at halftime with Iwobi replacing Elneny to provide more width and inject more directness. Iwobi created the opening goal in the 65th by playing Kolasinac in. Ecuele Manga tripped Kolasinac, forcing the referee to award a penalty that Aubameyang converted. Three minutes later, Iwobi played a one-two with Ozil and nearly doubled the lead but Etheridge denied the Nigeria international. In stoppage time, Iwobi was a bit naive as he dived in and allowed Mendez-Laing to cut inside and curl a shot into the far corner. Iwobi has built a good understanding with Kolasinac this season. Yet, that’s not enough to claim a starting spot because of his inconsistency.

An effective one-two punch

   The Gunners are still in the Top 4 race because of Aubameyang and Lacazette. They are the second best one-two punch in the Premier League behind Liverpool’s Salah and Mane. While Wenger used Aubameyang on the left wing, Emery prefers to play him on the right wing or in a front two. By scoring from the penalty spot, Aubameyang raised his tally to 15 goals in the league this season. Aubameyang nearly notched a second goal in stoppage time but Etheridge parried his first-time effort from 11 yards. Surprisingly, Aubameyang led Arsenal players with 3 key passes, all from open play.

   You often hear about competition between strikers in the same squad. Giroud and Morata barely played together at Chelsea just like Aguero and Jesus hardly start together at Manchester City. But Aubameyang and Lacazette look more like the complementary duo formed by Yorke and Cole at Manchester United. Aubameyang can stretch any defense with his electric pace while Lacazette has the all-around game to bring teammates into play.

   Lacazette scored the winning goal with a rampaging run in the 83rd. Tripped by Bamba along the touchline, Lacazette quickly got back on his feet and drove into the box to bury the ball into the far corner. Lacazette then set up Ramsey for a scoring chance in the 85th but the Wales midfielder headed wide.

   Until his goal, Lacazette struggled in the final third. He pounced on a loose ball in the second minute after Etheridge diverted Kolasinac’s cross, but his first touch was average and only allowed him to produce a tame flick with his second touch. Lacazette then missed his final ball for Aubameyang on the stroke of halftime and failed to catch the frame with a curling effort in the 73rd.

A too conservative approach

   The referee let Lacazette know that they wouldn’t go on holiday together by denying him an obvious penalty in the 44th and by booking him for exaggerating contact in the 81st. Things didn’t go Lacazette’s way but the France international kept fighting and Emery showed patience. Lacazette finished the game with 2 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 3. He also contributed defensively by making 4 fouls in Cardiff’s half.

   I suspect Emery had Sunday’s game at Manchester City in mind as he used Ramsey only for the last 20 minutes. The tired Bluebirds couldn’t cope with Ramsey’s movement. The Wales midfielder made the key pass for Aubameyang’s chance in injury time. Ramsey also had an opportunity to score in the last minute of the game but Peltier blocked his shot.

   Emery relied on Elneny, Guendouzi and Torreira to make up for any defensive lapse from Ozil. It proved a too conservative approach against Cardiff. In the holding midfielder role, Elneny had 0 turnover and showed a decent work-rate by winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 2 blocks and 2 recoveries. But his missed interception led to a scoring chance for Reid in the 12th. And the main reason why Emery yanked Elneny off at halftime was his poor contribution in Arsenal’s buildup play.

Killing the momentum of a play

   If you look at the screen captures below, you can see how Elneny wasted an opportunity to hit Cardiff on the fast break in the 37th. Lichtsteiner made a run down the right flank and could have found Lacazette in the final third with a first-time pass. But Elneny dallied on the ball, giving Cardiff more time to regroup.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37a edited.jpgElneny spots Lichtsteiner’s run but fails to pass the ball. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Because Elneny slowed down the momentum, you can see on the next screen capture that Lacazette and Aubameyang stopped running. However, Elneny still had an opportunity to move the ball forward by making a pass to Ozil.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37b edited.jpgOzil runs in front of Elneny, who fails to pass the ball again. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Elneny completely killed the momentum of the play by ignoring two good passing options (Lichtsteiner and Ozil). Surrounded by 3 Bluebirds, Elneny finally made a backpass to Torreira. On the next screen capture, you can see that Elneny’s poor decision-making allowed all the Bluebirds to get behind the ball, even Niasse who was 20 yards behind Elneny at the start of the play.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37c edited.jpgThe Gunners have to start from scratch again after Elneny’s backpass to Torreira. (Photo credit: TSN)    

   On the left side of the midfield, Guendouzi was much more positive than Elneny in his passing. Guendouzi made 2 key passes, 1 interception and 1 block and led all players with 8 recoveries. His reading of the game helped Guendouzi win 50-50 balls as Arter and Ralls received yellow cards for poor challenges on the French teenager. Guendouzi also showed his character with a booking for dissent at halftime, complaining about the missed penalty on Lacazette.

A rusty Monreal

   On the right side of the midfield, Torreira survived another game. He won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 7 recoveries. Those are decent stats for most midfielders but well below the level Torreira showed in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder played a lot of games last year and it’s no surprise to see his form dip since the end of December. Emery could leave him out of the squad for easy Europa League games while hoping that Torreira can catch a second wind by March.

   The Gunners nearly kept a clean sheet despite a makeshift back four. In his return from a hamstring injury, Monreal looked a bit rusty. The Spaniard received a yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Reid in the 29th. Monreal only won 28.6% of his duels, compared to 57.1% for Mustafi according to the club’s website. Cardiff mostly threatened with crosses and managed to expose Monreal’s weakness in the air in stoppage time. Zohore outjumped Monreal at the far post to flick on a cross from Harris. The ball fell to Mendez-Laing who cut the deficit to 2-1. Monreal only won 2 of 6 aerial duels compared to 5 of 9 for Mustafi.

   Often maligned for his reckless challenges, Mustafi lived up to his reputation with a silly foul on Reid in the 40th. Mustafi also gave away the ball with a poor header in the 82nd, forcing Leno to stop a curling effort from Zohore. Besides those two blemishes, Mustafi had a decent game, winning 3 of 3 tackles and 57.1% of his duels and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 1 recovery.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

   On the flanks, Lichtsteiner showed his age with a weak offensive contribution and a passive defensive performance. The Swiss veteran roamed forward a few times but made 0 key pass. His defensive stats were just as bad with 0 tackle, 0 interception, 1 block, 0 recovery and only 12.5% of duels won. Emery had seen enough and replaced Lichtsteiner with Jenkinson in the 60th. Kolasinac was more active with 1 key pass, 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries and 50% of duels won. He won the penalty for the opening goal but his defensive lapses nearly cost his team. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international was not tight to Paterson, who made a cross for Reid in the 15th. Despite that warning, Kolasinac left Paterson unmarked a couple more times. The Cardiff midfielder hit Kolasinac in the chest with a volleyed pass in the 42nd, before missing the target with long-range efforts in the 50th and 56th.

   The Gunners have reportedly signed Denis Suarez on loan to boost their chances of finishing in the Top 4. That move makes sense because they desperately need more creativity in midfield to feed Aubameyang and Lacazette. Arsenal can’t simply rely on Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Ozil, who have been too inconsistent this season. There’s no guarantee that Suarez will adapt quickly to the Premier League but it’s a low-risk gamble. If it doesn’t work out, Suarez will return to Barcelona at the end of the season.

   The Gunners visit Manchester City on Sunday. They have nothing to lose in that game. A defeat would be considered normal, especially with the injury crisis at the back, whereas any point would be deemed a bonus in the Top 4 race.

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 3-0 win over Blackpool

The Gunners advanced to the fourth round of the FA Cup by routing the Seasiders 3-0 on Saturday. They played in a half-empty stadium because the Blackpool fans boycotted the game to protest against their controversial owner.

fa cup 3rd roundPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Although Arsenal defeated Blackpool in the League Cup a couple of months ago, Emery fielded a relatively strong team with just 2 academy players in the starting lineup (Willock and Nketiah). Emery gave the evening off to Leno, Xhaka and Aubameyang but had Guendouzi, Torreira and Lacazette on the bench in case things went south.

Koscielny was supposed to start the game but Emery had to pull him out of the team because of some back pain during the warm-up. The Spanish manager shifted Lichtsteiner to the centerback position while Jenkinson made a rare start at rightback.

  1. Is Willock having a breakthrough season?

What a difference an eye can make. Willock played as a defensive midfielder under Wenger last season because he had a poor scoring record with just 1 goal in 12 games with the U23 team. Emery saw something else in Willock and turned him into an attacking midfielder. The tactical move paid off as Willock scored twice against the Seasiders.

After Ramsey’s free kick hit the far post, Willock pounced on the rebound to head into an empty net for the opening goal in the 10th minute. Willock showed again his flair for goals in the 37th. A Blackpool defender diverted Jenkinson’s cross toward the far post where an opportunistic Willock side-footed home for a 2-0 lead.

Willock had 2 chances to complete a hat trick. Lacazette fed him in the 66th but the English teenager tried to dribble inside the area instead of shooting with his left foot. Then Kolasinac cut the ball back for Willock, who tapped home in the 80th, but the goal was disallowed because of Kolasinac’s offside position.

At 19, Willock is making big strides and could be knocking on the door of the first team next season. His all-around performance at Blackpool was impressive: Willock had 2 of 2 shots on target, made 2 key passes and 1 interception, and won 4 of 5 tackles, tied with Maitland-Niles for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. The only blemish in Willock’s performance was his 7 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player.

  1. Nketiah should play in a wide position

His hold-up play is average at this stage of his career. Nketiah got bullied off the ball too easily in the 7th, 22nd and 61st. Emery played him in the lone striker role because of his pace but Nketiah still lacks physicality for that position. Nketiah would have a better chance of expressing his potential on the wings.

The academy player had 3 good chances in the first half but failed to convert them. In the third minute, Maitland-Niles picked out Nketiah who fired wide. Then Nketiah met a cross from Maitland-Niles in the seventh minute, but missed the target from 6 yards with a sliding effort. On the stroke of halftime, Nketiah got the better of O’Connor on a punt from Cech only to be denied by Howard.

  1. When Ramsey is all over the pitch

At times, Ramsey played like a holding midfielder, dropping off to take passes from Sokratis and Cech. And at times, he played like an attacking midfielder, making runs into the box to be in scoring positions. Emery loves to have the control of the game, which is in complete contradiction with Ramsey’s tactical indiscipline. Yet, it is Ramsey’s movement and ability to find space which make him such a threat in the final third.

Ramsey was involved in the 3 goals. It was the rebound from his free kick that led to the opening goal in the 10th. Then Ramsey beat 5 Seasiders with his vertical pass to Maitland-Niles while playing the ball out from the back for the second goal in the 37th. And Ramsey made the run to collect Lacazette’s pass in the 81st. Howard palmed Ramsey’s effort into the path of Iwobi, who tapped in to seal the win. Ramsey tried hard to score with another run in the 90th but Howard quickly came off his line to block Ramsey’s shot.

  1. Iwobi must improve his defensive awareness

The Nigeria international is enjoying a good run of form. He scored 1 goal and made 2 key passes against Blackpool. With better finishing, Iwobi could have notched another goal. He chased a ball over the top from Willock in the 85th to be clean through on goal, but slowed down to shift the ball to his right foot. That hesitation gave Daniels enough time to catch up and narrow the angle. Forced to shoot with his left foot, Iwobi was denied by Howard.

The next step for Iwobi is to improve his defensive contribution. Nowadays, attacking midfielders in the top clubs have to work their socks off. Bernardo Silva’s defensive performance in the recent match between Liverpool and Manchester City is one obvious example. Iwobi was caught napping in the 58th, allowing Nottingham to run in front of him and connect with a low cross for a 12-yard shot that sailed over the bar. According to whoscored.com, Iwobi was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player.

  1. The Gunners kept a clean sheet

Sokratis was a rock at the back, taking the sting off Taylor’s shot in the 18th, intercepting a dangerous cross in the 21st, clearing the danger after Delfouneso dribbled past Kolasinac and Elneny in the 63rd and making a timely challenge on Delfouneso in stoppage time.

By contrast, Lichtsteiner produced another shaky performance, backing down to let Gnanduillet shoot in the fifth minute and casually giving the ball way in the 6th, 19th and 35th. On the right flank, Jenkinson showed his technical limitations with a passing accuracy of 68.4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal starters according to whoscored.com. Jenkinson failed to stop a dangerous cross from Feeney in the 24th and failed to block the Blackpool midfielder’s curling shot in the 33rd.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Gunners need massive rebuilding after 5-1 loss

   The humiliating 5-1 loss at Anfield showed that the Gunners are miles behind Liverpool in the rebuilding process. Emery’s priority in the summer was to overhaul the defense by signing Leno, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Guendouzi. Saturday’s disastrous performance made clear that Arsenal will need more defensive reinforcements.

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

   Maybe the most disappointing part is that the Reds scored only one goal from a counterattack. Torreira’s turnover in the 16th minute led to a 2v2 situation for Liverpool’s second goal. On the other hand, the Reds netted 4 goals from situations where the Arsenal defense was supposed to be well organized. Their third and fifth goals came from Liverpool corners while Alisson initiated the first and fourth goals with a throw and a kick, respectively.

   The sudden shift in momentum also suggests a mental weakness at the back. Liverpool equalized just 3 minutes after the Gunners opened the scoring. Arsenal surrendered the lead in recent games, too. For instance, Manchester United leveled just a minute after the Gunners took a 2-1 lead, and Brighton capitalized on a blunder from Lichtsteiner to equalize before halftime.

   Emery will also have to rebuild the offense. Arsenal will certainly lose Ramsey and Welbeck this summer. And the Gunners have struggled to create chances this season because Mkhitaryan, Iwobi and Ozil have been inconsistent.  

   Arsenal only had 2 shots on target to 10 for the hosts despite enjoying 52% of ball possession. That failure to convert possession into chances is due to a lack of penetration. Liverpool had 14 successful dribbles compared to 8 for the Gunners, according to whoscored.com. Penetration can be achieved through dribbling but also passing. Arsenal made no through ball attempt while the Reds had 2 accurate through balls out of 4.

The blueprint for rebuilding

   Klopp has provided the blueprint to rebuild a squad. The Reds are a good example because they make less money than the Gunners (I doubt the Arsenal board would follow Manchester City’s spending strategy). Klopp joined Liverpool in October 2015 and used the exact same squad as Rodgers. The Reds failed to finish in the Top 4 but the first sign of improvement was the runner-up finishes in the League Cup and the Europa League. During Rodgers’ three-year tenure, Liverpool never reached the final of any competition.

   In his second season at the club, Klopp led Liverpool to a Top 4 finish in 2017. The Reds’ progress under Klopp was confirmed by another Top 4 finish and a Champions League final in 2018. The cynics will say that the Reds still haven’t won any silverware under Klopp. But even during Wenger’s best years, Arsenal reached the Champions League final only once. And now in Klopp’s fourth season at Anfield, the Reds are in a strong position to win the league title for the first time since 1990.

Emery may not have 3 years to rebuild the Arsenal squad because some players could move to bigger clubs to win trophies if they don’t see any sign of progress. Talented players like Bellerin, Torreira and Lacazette are the obvious examples, but promising youngsters like Nelson, Smith-Rowe and Saka might be tempted to leave, too. That would be the nightmare scenario because Arsenal would become a feeder club again.

A conservative team selection

   The Spanish manager made 4 changes to the side that drew at Brighton with Iwobi, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles and Mustafi replacing Lacazette, Ozil, Guendouzi and Koscielny in the starting lineup. Emery also switched from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-5-1 system that often left Aubameyang isolated. The main tactical surprise was Maitland-Niles’ position on the right wing which aimed at nullifying the threat of Robertson’s crosses.

   Obviously, Emery was wary of Liverpool’s offense. His team selection was quite conservative if we compare with the starting lineup that drew 1-1 with the Reds in November. On Saturday, only 3 attacking players (Aubameyang, Ramsey and Iwobi) started at Anfield whereas 4 attacking players (Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ozil and Mkhitaryan) started at the Emirates. The contrast is more blatant if we compare with the Arsenal team that lost 4-0 a year ago: Wenger started 4 attacking players (Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez and Welbeck) in a 3-4-3 formation. You could even claim that Wenger used in fact 5 attacking players since Oxlade-Chamberlain played as a wingback in that game.

   Very few fans expected a clean sheet when they saw a back four made up of Lichtsteiner, Mustafi, Sokratis and Kolasinac. Some Emery apologists may argue that the defense looked better in the 1-1 draw with Bellerin, Mustafi, Holding and Kolasinac. But here’s a shocking stat: the Gunners are the team that conceded the most goals at Anfield this season. How do you justify that? Manchester City kept a clean sheet and teams like Brighton and Everton only conceded one goal.

A comedy of errors

   Saturday’s game showed the lack of quality at the back. Sokratis and Mustafi are not good enough to marshal the defense. They both made Firmino look like Maradona with their comical defending for Liverpool’s second goal in the 16th. Mustafi dangled a leg in a sheepish attempt to stop Firmino before pulling it out. From the moment Mustafi dived in, he had to take one for the team.

   Mustafi was also poor technically with a passing accuracy dipping to 71.4%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal outfield player, according to whoscored.com. He was replaced at halftime by Koscielny, who produced slightly better stats than Mustafi by making 1 more block and 2 more recoveries than the German defender, according to the club’s website. There was one embarrassing moment for Koscielny in the 48th when Salah sprinted past him and made him look like a retiree.

   Usually, the ‘error-prone’ tag belongs to Mustafi, but Sokratis, Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner really competed hard to earn it. Sokratis should have stayed on his feet and waited for an opportunity to make a block in the 16th instead of attempting a useless challenge on the 18-yard line. The Greek defender was also caught ball-watching for Liverpool’s third goal in the 32nd as Mane reacted more quickly to meet Salah’s cross. On the stroke of halftime, Sokratis completely lost his mind by kicking Salah twice from behind while trying to nick the ball away. The referee awarded a penalty that Salah converted for a 4-1 lead.  

   The alternatives at centerback are not mouthwatering. Mavropanos is still a raw player, Koscielny is past his prime and struggling to get back to his best level, and Holding won’t play before next season.

The Mertesacker role

   The picture at fullback is almost as gloomy. On the right flank, Bellerin has performed well this season until a calf injury caught up with him. In my eyes, the Spaniard is the only Arsenal defender who would be good enough for a contending team. His replacement, Lichtsteiner, has struggled to cope with the pace of the game in England. Lichtsteiner showed his age at Anfield and was involved in two goals. Mane rounded Lichtesteiner to create a chance in the sixth minute and got the better of the Switzerland international again for an angled effort straight at Leno in the 23rd.

   Lichtsteiner is supposed to be an experienced player but he made a rookie mistake for Liverpool’s equalizer. A loose ball fell to Lichtsteiner after Xhaka dispossessed Salah. Instead of clearing the danger, Lichtsteiner tried to be too clever and made what looked like a pass toward Kolasinac. The ball bounced off Mustafi and fell into the path of Firmino, who tapped in. Then Lichtsteiner played Salah onside for Liverpool’s third goal. You kind of wonder what did Lichtsteiner learn about tactics at Juventus. Lichtsteiner is basically playing the Mertesacker role this season: a liability on the pitch but useful for advice in the dressing room.

   On the left flank, Kolasinac showed again that he’s a wingback at heart, not a defender. Kolasinac had a hand in Liverpool’s third goal by making the heavy backpass that led to the corner. He then gave away a penalty by shoving Lovren from behind in the 64th. Emery hasn’t been able to improve Kolasinac’s positional play. Kolasinac was out of position when Alisson kicked the ball toward Firmino for Liverpool’s fourth goal. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also failed to close down Shaqiri, who played Salah clean through on goal in the 48th. A poor first touch from Salah allowed Leno to collect the ball. Another defensive lapse from Kolasinac in the 55th left Sokratis in a 1v2 situation with Shaqiri and Salah. Kolasinac won only 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any defender according to the club’s website. If he was fit, Monreal would probably get the nod over Kolasinac. But Monreal is past his prime and has struggled to stop dangerous crosses in the past few years.

The midfield battle

   Those defensive performances can only raise questions about Arsenal’s recruitment strategy.Whether it’s before or after the hiring of Mislintat, the club seems unwilling to spend big on a defender. Mustafi was Arsenal’s most expensive defender in a £35 million deal. Sokratis, Chambers, Paulista and Holding cost much less than that. By contrast, Liverpool spent £75 million to sign Van Dijk while Manchester City signed Laporte for £57 million. Either the Gunners want a defender who is ready now and they will have to loosen the strings of their purse. Or they can only afford to gamble on a hidden gem and that will mean years of patience to develop a promising youngster.

   The Arsenal defense was badly exposed at Liverpool because it wasn’t well protected by the midfield. The Reds won the midfield battle by outnumbering Arsenal in that area. There was especially a too big gap between the central midfielders (Torreira and Xhaka) and the attacking players (Ramsey, Iwobi, Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang), giving Liverpool too much space to maneuver.

   The Gunners did well in the 1-1 draw at the Emirates because Torreira and Xhaka combined to make 25 recoveries. It was a different story at Anfield as the midfield pairing only managed to make 14 recoveries. Torreira and Xhaka won respectively just 38.5% and 50% of their duels, while they had won 80% and 66.7% of their duels in the November encounter, according to the club’s website. It was quite the opposite for Fabinho and Wijnaldum, who won respectively 60% and 71.4% of their duels at Anfield compared to 33% and 50% at the Emirates.

An exhausted Torreira

   By his own standards, Torreira had a poor game. I believe Torreira is hitting the wall physically as his legs looked really heavy. Torreira is not used to playing during the Christmas period. He had a winter break with Sampdoria in Serie A before joining Arsenal. Mane easily turned Torreira in the sixth minute and Firmino nearly looked like Usain Bolt while running past the Uruguay midfielder for the equalizer in the 14th.

   Torreira only had 1 turnover, compared to 4 for Xhaka according to whoscored.com, but it proved a costly one. He took a pass from Ramsey in the 16th and tried to dribble past Mane with his second touch only to lose possession. In hindsight, his best option was a first-time pass to Maitland-Niles. Torreira was too naive on that play but you have to give credit to Mane and Firmino for quickly jumping on Torreira. Can anyone seriously imagine Ozil press like Mane or Firmino?

   Despite Torreira’s drop in performance, Xhaka managed to have some respectable stats, winning 2 of 4 tackles and making 2 interceptions and 10 recoveries. Xhaka was lucky to escape a second yellow card in the 33rd for kicking the ball away just before the Reds could take their free kick.

   Up front, an isolated Aubameyang only had 13 touches because of the lack of service. He was replaced in the 71st by Lacazette, who was unlucky to have a penalty shout turned down after Clyne kicked his toe in the 84th.

Why work-rate matters

   Iwobi was arguably Arsenal’s most threatening player with 1 of 1 shot on target, 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com. The Nigeria international was more selective than usual in his dribbling attempts and had just 3 turnovers. He tested Alisson with an angled drive in the 10th and made the assist for Maitland-Niles’ goal with a pinpoint cross in the 11th. The homegrown duo nearly repeated the trick in the 19th but Iwobi’s cross sailed beyond Maitland-Niles. Iwobi created another chance in the 73rd with a cross that Ramsey diverted with a backheel flick but Alisson beat Maitland-Niles to the ball.

   Can Iwobi reproduce that kind of performance week in, week out? His inconsistency has frustrated the fans lately. At 22, Iwobi is no longer a rookie. This is already his fourth season in the Premier League. Another issue that Emery needs to address is Iwobi’s poor work-rate. Iwobi finished the game with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Other attacking midfielders worked harder than him. Ramsey won 1 of 4 tackles, and made 1 interception and 6 recoveries, while Shaqiri won 1 of 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 9 recoveries. Iwobi also needs to be stronger in duels. He only won 25% of his duels.

   Nowadays, attacking players in the top teams have to work their socks off because the gap with the small teams has become narrower. Emery is reluctant to use Ozil in the games that are physically demanding because the high press can’t work if one player does not follow the tactical instructions. Shaqiri, Mane, Firmino and Salah helped Liverpool boss the midfield by combining for 21 recoveries compared to 15 recoveries for Iwobi, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang.  

Momentum is everything

   On the right wing, Maitland-Niles did a good job defensively since Robertson made 0 key pass. Robertson initially skipped past Maitland-Niles to make a teasing cross in the second minute. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and got the better of the Liverpool leftback. Robertson was booked in the 26th for holding Maitland-Niles. Can anybody seriously imagine Ozil running up and down the right flank to track Robertson? Offensively, Maitland-Niles had enough flair to make a run at the far post for the opening goal. He also took his chance with a curling shot that sailed over the bar in the 42nd and made a cross for Ramsey, who missed the target in the 43rd. Maitland-Niles moved to the leftback position in the 81st when Guendouzi replaced Kolasinac.  

   Like Aubameyang, Ramsey struggled to have an impact in the final third. Ramsey made a run into the box to chase a probing pass from Xhaka in the 54th but was then caught in two minds with a cross-shot when he should have chipped Alisson. The Wales midfielder still worked hard for the team and led Arsenal players by winning 63.6% of his duels. When Ramsey leaves, the club will not just miss his goals and assists but also his work-rate.

   Arsenal will play a massive game against Fulham on Tuesday. Momentum is everything in a football season. If the Gunners lose, they could trail Chelsea by 8 points. It would then become very difficult for Arsenal to catch the fourth-placed team. Liverpool finished 4th in the past two seasons with 76 points in 2017 and 75 points this year.

A target of 76 points

   To have a shot at a Top 4 finish, the target for Arsenal is to collect at least 76 points at the end of the season. Chelsea and Tottenham are currently on pace to finish with 82 and 85 points respectively. With 38 points from 20 games so far, the Gunners are projected to collect only 72 points. They definitely need to reach again a cruising speed above 2.0 points per game.

Arsenal tally comparisonComparing Arsenal’s 2017-18 season and the current season

   If you take a look at the graph above, you can see that the Gunners were below that cruising speed only twice this season: in August and September after losing to Manchester City and Chelsea; and in late December after losing at Anfield. Arsenal lost a lot of momentum with only 1 win in their last 4 league games. They would be above that cruising speed if they had drawn at Southampton and won at Brighton.

   What is more worrying is that the curve for this season is nearly catching up with the curve for the 2017-18 season when the Gunners had 37 points from 20 games under Wenger. Last season, Arsenal only reached that cruising speed of 2.0 points per game on Matchday 14 after three consecutive wins over Spurs, Burnley and Huddersfield. The Gunners completely lost their momentum after losing to Manchester United on Matchday 15.