Tag Archives: Maitland-Niles

Arsenal vs. Manchester City: Gunners suffer rough start to the season

Emery has become Arsenal’s new manager but this is not his team yet. Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Manchester City looked pretty much like the embarrassing defeats of last season under Wenger. Obviously, it will take more than a season for the Gunners to play the way Emery wants them to.

Arsenal vs. Manchester CityPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

As a rule of thumb, I consider that a manager is entirely responsible for his team only when he has changed more than half of the players in his predecessor’s favorite starting lineup. See Liverpool’s starting XI under Rodgers and how it looks now under Klopp. Assuming every player was fit, Wenger would usually start Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette. On Sunday, Emery opened the season with Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Aubameyang. That’s 3 changes to Wenger’s best starting lineup. We can safely assume that Emery would have made only 1 change if Monreal and Koscielny had been available.

Fans already got a glimpse in the summer friendlies of what Emery wanted to change at the club: playing the ball out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. Against City, Cech took more passes than he did under Wenger because Emery tends to see the goalkeeper as a sweeper too. Unfortunately, Cech didn’t really feel comfortable in that role.

Cech nearly scored an own goal in the 22nd minute while attempting a first-time pass to Mustafi. Then he made a risky pass to Guendouzi that was nearly intercepted in the 39th. Tired of the drama, Cech finally opted for a long punt in the 42nd, drawing cheers from the crowd. I’m afraid Cech is not the right goalie to play out from the back. If Emery wants to stick with that idea, then he should replace Cech with Leno just like Pep ditched Hart to sign Ederson.

Choosing the right players for a high press

Implementing a pressing game is still a work in progress. Arsenal enjoyed mixed results against the Citizens. It wasn’t a systematic high press like the one performed by Liverpool under Klopp. The Gunners seemed to choose their moments and often preferred to wait inside their own half. The first high press attempt in the 10th minute led to nothing. Two attempts led to dangerous fast breaks for City, but Aguero’s final ball was blocked in the 18th while Xhaka cleared Sterling’s cross in the 36th. On the bright side, two other attempts led to half-chances for Arsenal but Ramsey received the ball in an offside position in the 45th and Mkhitaryan shot wide on the stroke of halftime after Mendy put him off.

Emery must ask himself if he chose the right players to implement a successful pressing game. You need players who are smart enough to read the game, mobile enough to cut the passing channels, strong enough to make interceptions or win duels, and industrious enough to repeat such a tiring task.

The Citizens love dominating ball possession. It was therefore no surprise to see them enjoy 58% of possession. The real surprise was Emery’s tactical setup with Xhaka, Guendouzi and Ramsey in midfield. You usually play with 2 deep-lying playmakers like Xhaka and Guendouzi when you intend to control the game. That was obviously the wrong option because City dictated play while Xhaka and Guendouzi failed to protect the defense. Emery implicitly acknowledged his mistake by yanking off Xhaka in the 70th to send on Torreira.

The opening goal in the 14th highlighted the poor defensive work from Xhaka and Guendouzi. Sterling cut inside Bellerin and Guendouzi to curl into the the far corner. Xhaka was late to make the block on that play. Guendouzi’s overall performance was a mixed bag. He won 4 tackles and made 4 interceptions, compared to 1 tackle and 0 interception for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The French teenager also led Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, compared to 1 for Xhaka.

Coordinating a recruitment strategy

Guendouzi didn’t look out of his depth, but his inexperience means that he will make mistakes this season. He gave the ball away in the 29th, dived in and fouled Sterling in the 55th, and allowed Aguero to be clean through on goal after misjudging the flight of the ball in the 63rd.

On the other hand, Xhaka had no excuse for his errors. Despite starting his third season in the Premier League, Xhaka keeps playing like a rookie. He made a sloppy pass in the seventh minute, was dispossessed by Gundogan in the 27th, and made a cynical foul on Aguero after being pulled out of position in the 52nd. Xhaka is definitely not a good fit for Emery’s pressing game.

Playing in the role of a free-roaming midfielder like he does for Wales, Ramsey was ineffective in great part because his strength mostly lies in the late runs he makes inside the box when the Gunners dominate possession. Running after the ball, Ramsey seemed in charge of leading the high press and there were times when he wasn’t on the same wavelength as his teammates. In the transition game, Ramsey tried to create space with his runs or acted as a water-carrier by finding Ozil in the 33rd and Mkhitaryan on the stroke of halftime.

At the back, Mustafi and Bellerin had a decent game. Mustafi won 4 tackles and made 3 interceptions, compared to 1 tackle and 0 interception for Sokratis, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis is an old-fashioned centerback with limited ball-playing abilities. You kind of wonder whether there was any coordination between Emery, Mislintat, Sanllehi and Gazidis in the recruiting process because Sokratis does not have the profile of a centerback playing Emery’s brand of football. His sluggishness is also a concern. Sokratis was booked in the 27th for a late tackle on Aguero.

A too predictable offense

The Gunners have an injury crisis at leftback. Maitland, who deputized for Monreal and Kolasinac, had a rough time down the left flank. Mahrez in the 13th and Sterling in the 25th got the better of Maitland-Niles. The academy player was so busy defensively that he rarely charged forward. One of his few offensive contributions was a crossfield pass for Bellerin, who beat Mendy only to shoot straight at Ederson in the 21st. Maitland-Niles’ day was cut short by a leg tangle with Walker and an awkward fall in the 30th. He got back on his feet after a couple of minutes but had to be replaced by Lichtsteiner in the 35th.

In his Premier League debut, Lichtsteiner used his experience to cope with Mahrez’s trickery. Lichtsteiner fouled Mahrez in the 39th and then backed down in a 1v1 situation in the 42nd when the Algeria international curled a shot wide of the far post. However, one lapse of concentration cost his team a goal in the 64th. Lichtsteiner failed to track Bernardo, who connected with Mendy’s low cross to fire into the top corner.

The quality of Arsenal’s passing game deteriorated in Wenger’s last season at the club. One reason was the poor recruitment, another was the tactical answers found by the other Premier League sides. Emery started Ozil and Mkhitaryan as wide players. Unfortunately, his plan was too predictable and City easily coped with Arsenal’s attacking threat. The Gunners produced no through ball and were forced by City’s compact shape to resort to long balls.

Aubameyang was deprived of service because the final ball was often poor. Xhaka in the 16th, Mkhitaryan in the 24th and Ozil in the 69th all overhit their final ball for the Gabon striker. Aubameyang finally collected a decent ball over the top from Torreira to chip Ederson in the 79th but his goal was disallowed for an offside position.

Finding the best lineup for the Chelsea game

Both Ozil and Mkhitaryan had a poor game. Ozil finished the game with 5 turnovers and wasted 2 scoring chances with a miskick in the 80th and a heavy touch in the 84th. Mkhitaryan dallied on the ball and couldn’t get his shot away in the 33rd. In stoppage time, Mkhitaryan intercepted a sloppy pass from Ederson, but his final ball for Lacazette was so poor that the France international couldn’t even catch the frame.

The offense looked a bit more lively when Lacazette replaced Ramsey in the 54th. Lacazette added more directness and aggression to the team. His best chance came in the 56th when he took a pass from Aubameyang and lifted the ball to set up a half-volley that sailed wide. Emery will have to think about the work-rate of his wide players. Walker and Mendy did a lot of damage down the flanks. In the eighth minute, Mkhitaryan failed to track a run from Walker, whose cross was cut out by Cech. In the 64th, Bellerin was left in a 1v2 situation with Mendy and Sterling because neither Ozil nor Mkhitaryan tracked the City leftback.

Emery does not have much time to find his best starting XI because the Gunners visit Chelsea on Saturday. If the Spanish manager wants to continue with a high press, then he must switch to an inverted pyramid midfield with Torreira in the No. 6 role, Ramsey on the right and a third player on the left. Guendouzi, Xhaka, Elneny and Maitland-Niles are the candidates for that third spot in midfield and they all have flaws: Maitland-Niles and Guendouzi are inexperienced, Xhaka lacks the mobility for a high press, and Elneny struggles in duels.

Passing vs. dribbling

More aggression and penetration will also be needed in the front three. The Gunners are too predictable with Ozil and Mkhitaryan as wide players. Under Wenger, both would drift inside and the fullbacks would roam forward like wingbacks to provide the width. That configuration is not possible under Emery because of the flatter back four. So it has to be either Ozil or Mkhitaryan, but not both.

Lacazette, Nelson or Welbeck should play on one of the wings because they could stretch play, dribble past defenders and work their socks off to win the ball back. Although De Bruyne and Sane started on the bench, it was quite telling that City finished the game with 11 successful dribbles to 6 for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. When teams are too well organized, you can’t always crack a defense with a pass, you also need some dribbling skills. That’s why the Reds have Salah and Mane while the Blues can rely on Hazard and Willian. Will Emery be more pragmatic than Wenger?

 

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A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Europe

The summer tour has been positive overall with 2 wins and 2 draws, but it is still difficult to see Emery’s impact on the Arsenal team. The Gunners drew 1-1 with Chelsea on Wednesday before defeating Lazio 2-0 on Saturday.

2018 European TourPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Both games raised concerns about the Arsenal defense. Chelsea looked sharper and could have put the game to bed in the first half while Lazio played at a slower tempo and couldn’t find the net despite torturing the Gunners with crosses.

  1. Implementing the pressing game

Pressing is a defensive tool to stop counterattacks but it’s also an attacking tool to create chances. Chelsea and Arsenal both tried to press high up the pitch when they lost possession. The Gunners still have a long way to go. The Blues looked better drilled, forcing turnovers in dangerous areas, while Arsenal’s pressing never really troubled Chelsea.

  1. Same old defensive frailties

The last years of Wenger’s tenure were defined by recurrent defensive issues: the Gunners often looked vulnerable on set pieces and crosses as well as on the fast break. The Blues took advantage of some poor defensive organization to open the scoring in the fifth minute. Rudiger lost Smith-Rowe to head in Fabregas’ corner. A rookie shouldn’t be marking one of Chelsea’s main aerial threats. The problem wasn’t fixed at halftime as Rudiger toyed again with Smith-Rowe in the 57th only to head a corner wide.

The Blues also did a lot of damage on the fast break. Fabregas wasted a counterattack in the 10th by slipping the ball to an offside Morata. Then Hudson-Odoi dispossessed Elneny in the 24th to feed Morata, who was denied by Cech. Three days later, the Lazio game exposed Arsenal’s poor job in stopping dangerous crosses. Yet, Caicedo in the 16th, Lulic in the 37th and Parolo in the 35th and 49th all missed the target.

This is not Emery’s team yet. Fans will need to show a bit of patience for what is mostly a transition season. But if those defensive issues are not corrected by the end of the season, then the club may not have hired the right manager.

  1. The back four is a worry

The Gunners have a problem at leftback. Kolasinac picked up a knee injury against Chelsea and will be sidelined for 2 months, while Monreal didn’t play in any summer friendly and currently has a knee problem preventing him from training with the team. Wenger got some stick last season for playing Maitland-Niles in the leftback position but the irony is that Emery did the same thing against Lazio.

At rightback, Hudson-Odoi had Bellerin in his pocket and even won a penalty when the Spaniard tripped him in the 14th. Bellerin is expected to get a bit of competition from Lichtsteiner, who made his Arsenal debut on Saturday and had a more comfortable evening against Lazio veteran Lulic. There are big question marks about Lichtsteiner’s ability to adapt to the pace of English football. Lichtsteiner performed well with Juventus, but Serie A games don’t really match the intensity of the Premier League.

Sokratis and Mustafi started at centerback against Chelsea and looked vulnerable when Arsenal played a high defensive line. The Blues capitalized on Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace to send balls over the top. Hudson-Odoi collected a long ball from Jorginho in the 42nd but had his effort cleared off the line by Mustafi.

If Sokratis and Mustafi perform poorly or get injured, the back-up options are very limited. Koscielny will miss the first half of the season. That means Holding, Chambers or Mavropanos would have to step up. Chambers was so slow in the 26th that Lulic was able to charge down his clearance. Lulic got again the better of Chambers, who made a cynical foul on the Lazio veteran in the 54th. Meanwhile, Holding put himself in trouble with some poor decision-making, attempting a risky pass that was intercepted in the 31st and losing possession after dribbling inside his own half in the 77th.

  1. The Gunners need more creativity

Over the past 12 months, the club has lost a lot of creativity with the departures of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanchez, Cazorla and Wilshere. The responsibility for creating chances now rests on the shoulders of Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. Against Chelsea, Mkhitaryan had an off day. The Gunners played better when Nelson replaced Mkhitaryan in the 72nd. The academy player made a cross that Lacazette converted in stoppage time to force a penalty shootout. Nelson also opened the scoring against Lazio, tapping home a rebound in the 18th after Iwobi struck the post with a low diagonal strike.

At 18, Nelson is a very promising youngster. He can deliver the final ball and dribble past defenders. But he is unlikely to perform consistently in the Premier League. If you add Iwobi’s own inconsistency issues, that means Arsenal can only rely on Ozil and Mkhitaryan for a significant number of assists this season. Maybe the Gunners could sign another creative midfielder this summer if they manage to offload for a good fee the players that Emery does not want.

  1. The Arsenal midfield is too soft

Elneny, Guendouzi and Smith-Rowe started in midfield against Chelsea. That trio would badly struggle against any decent Premier League side. It’s true that Torreira, Xhaka and Ramsey are more likely to be the starters in a three-man midfield. But I can’t help thinking that Wilshere, Cazorla and the Ox were better options than Elneny, Guendouzi and Smith-Rowe.

There’s no doubt that Guendouzi has great potential as a deep-lying playmaker, but the brutal contrast with Jorginho’s flawless performance on Wednesday showed the gap between those 2 players. Guendouzi is simply too casual for such a key position. He put his team in trouble against Atletico by dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area.

You would have thought that Guendouzi learned his lesson, but he didn’t. The French teenager was reckless against Chelsea, attempting again to dribble on the edge of the Arsenal box. Guendouzi was lucky to draw a foul in the 20th, he nearly lost possession in the 28th, and he was dispossessed in the 33rd as the Blues hit Arsenal on the fast break. As long as Guendouzi doesn’t cut those mistakes out of his game, it would be foolish to start him in a Premier League game.

Torreira finally made his Arsenal debut on Saturday. He’s definitely the kind of defensive midfielder that the club has been missing since Gilberto Silva. His strong tactical discipline and his sound positional play make him a better fit for the No. 6 role than Xhaka.

It was quite intriguing to see Torreira play with Xhaka in a 4-4-2 formation against Lazio. Maybe Emery will use that system if Ramsey is still injured or leaves the club. Ramsey picked up a calf strain while warming up for the Chelsea game and was replaced by Smith-Rowe in the starting lineup. Chelsea and Liverpool seem both interested in the Wales midfielder, who only has a year left on his contract. The Blues don’t have that type of player in their squad while Ramsey would be a perfect fit for Liverpool’s football style.

  1. How much gas does Cech still have left in the tank?

At 36, Cech is in the twilight of his career. Past the age of 35, some goalkeepers can still perform at the top level (Zoff, Van der Sar, Buffon), while others tend to decline sharply (Taffarel, Casillas). Cech was the player who made the most errors leading to a goal in the Premier League last season. Can he catch a second wind?

His performance against Chelsea seems to suggest that Cech may still have one season left at the top. He saved Morata’s tame penalty in the 15th and helped Arsenal stay in the game with a couple more outstanding saves. In the penalty shootout, Cech stopped Loftus-Cheek’s spot kick before Iwobi converted the last kick of the game.

Huddersfield vs. Arsenal: Gunners play for Wenger in 1-0 win

The last game of the season was about earning at least an away point in the Premier League this year. The Gunners made Wenger proud by edging Huddersfield Town 1-0 on Sunday. The crowd at the John Smith’s stadium even gave the French manager a standing ovation after 22 minutes as an acknowledgement for his 22 years at the helm of Arsenal.

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

Ironically, the scoreline was the complete opposite of Arsenal’s season. The Gunners finished in 6th place with 63 points, the lowest total in the Wenger era. They also conceded 51 goals, 24 more than Manchester City, for the worst defensive record under Wenger. The only consolation was the number of goals scored (74), which was the same as Spurs’ tally and more than Manchester United (68) and Chelsea (62).

The Terriers were the more threatening team with 18 shots to 9 for Arsenal, but they simply lacked a Mahrez or a Vardy to convert their chances. Huddersfield did a lot of damage in the air, winning 10 more aerial duels than the Gunners. The Terriers also disrupted Arsenal’s passing game by pressing high up the pitch, making 24 interceptions to 7 for the visitors, according to the club’s website. The Gunners will need to sign a ballwinner this summer if they want to improve those stats.

Aubameyang scored the winning goal in the 38th minute by sliding home a pass from Ramsey. Credit must also be given to Lacazette, who played a one-two with Mkhitaryan before finding Ramsey inside the area. Lacazette could have doubled the lead in the 80th. The France striker took a pass from Mkhitaryan only to have his chip attempt well read by Lossl. A minute later, Welbeck, who had replaced Aubameyang in the 67th, dribbled past 2 Terriers but was denied by Lossl.

Turnover machines

Without Ozil, the Gunners’ passing game was poor. Huddersfield forward Pritchard made as many key passes (5) as the entire Arsenal team. The awkwardness of Ramsey and Mkhitaryan didn’t help. Ramsey and Mkhitaryan led all players with 7 and 6 turnovers, respectively, and their passing accuracy dipped to 71 and 73%, according to whoscored.com.

Like in the Leicester game, the Gunners wasted some good situations with a poor final ball. Ramsey missed his through ball for Lacazette in the 17th and for Welbeck in the 74th, Aubameyang’s pass for Kolasinac in the 52nd ran out of play, and the Huddersfield defense intercepted Welbeck’s final ball for Lacazette in the 77th. Before Aubameyang’s goal, Arsenal’s only scoring chance came from a set piece in the 27th when Mustafi redirected a corner toward Kolasinac, who flicked wide from 6 yards.

In the No. 10 role, Iwobi produced another disappointing performance. He made only 1 key pass and showed some poor work-rate with 0 tackle and 0 interception. By contrast, Ramsey won 3 tackles, according to whoscored.com. You don’t expect Iwobi to read the game like Ozil, but there are some basics that a player should master in his third Premier League season. Why does he keep running into traffic even though he doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Salah or a Sane? Iwobi foolishly took on 3 Terriers in the 53rd and lost possession. The turnover led to a Huddersfield counterattack and ultimately a corner.

Not learning from mistakes

Mounie gave the Arsenal defense a hard time in the air. The Huddersfield striker led all players with 9 aerial duels won, according to whoscored.com. He met a cross from Hadergjonaj in the third minute for a header that Ospina saved. Two minutes later, he headed a corner goalward but Xhaka knocked the ball off the line. Mkhitaryan made the mistake of not blocking Mounie’s run while Holding lost the key duel in the air. With some clinical finishing, Mounie could have notched a hat trick in the first half. Pritchard beat the offside trap to collect a long ball in the 11th. He slipped a reverse pass to an unmarked Mounie, who blazed over the bar. Xhaka failed to track Mounie on that play.

The pair of Arsenal centerbacks didn’t produce a convincing performance. Mounie often got the better of Mustafi in the air. Ince also skipped past Mustafi in the 60th to fire a diagonal strike that Ospina palmed behind. Holding made some glaring mistakes as bad as Mavropanos a few days ago. The English defender was dispossessed by Mounie on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 48th. Then Holding was a split second late in the 65th and fouled Mounie almost as the last defender.

Trying to protect his team’s lead, Wenger sent on Maitland-Niles for Iwobi in the 72nd. That move nearly backfired. Matiland-Niles forgot to track Mooy inside the area in the 88th and the Huddersfield midfielder rattled the bar with a volley on the turn. In stoppage time, Maitland-Niles gave away a dangerous free kick by fouling Lowe. Depoitre connected with Mooy’s free kick for a downward header that Ospina kept out. Ospina couldn’t make a clean catch but reacted quickly enough to gather the ball at his second attempt.

A new manager by the end of May?

The next Arsenal manager can definitely rely on Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ramsey to score goals. If he intends to use a 4-3-3 formation, Lacazette would have to play as a false winger like Salah at Liverpool. But if he opts for a 4-4-2 system with Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front two, then signing a ballwinner this summer should be a top priority to protect the back four.

I haven’t mentioned Mkhitaryan and Ozil for different reasons. Mkhitaryan has struck a good understanding with Ramsey and Aubameyang within a few months, but he has a high turnover rate, he is still adapting to a new club, and his stats are not as good as Ramsey’s or Lacazette’s. Meanwhile, Ozil is a world-class player but he’s unreliable, especially since he got a pay rise. Some of his injuries or illnesses are a complete mystery for the fans.

Here are the stats for Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey, Ozil and Mkhitaryan in the Premier League this season: Aubameyang 10 goals and 4 assists in 13 games for an average of 1.08 goal or assist per game; Lacazette 14 goals and 4 assists in 32 games (0.56); Ramsey 7 goals and 8 assists in 24 games (0.63); Ozil 4 goals and 8 assists in 26 games (0.46); Mkhitaryan 3 goals and 9 assists in 26 games (0.46).

At the back, the next manager will have a massive rebuilding job. There is no solution from within. Even with better coaching, there’s no way that Chambers, Holding and Mavropanos could become as good as Koscielny in his prime. That means finding the solution in the transfer market. And that’s why the board must appoint a new manager by the end of May. If they wait until June, it will be too late to act in the transfer market.

Leicester vs. Arsenal: Mavropanos learns the hard way in 3-1 loss

At some stage, it had to happen. Mavropanos performed well against Manchester United and Burnley, but on Wednesday he paid a hefty price for his first glaring mistake in an Arsenal shirt. The 3-1 loss at Leicester City was a reminder that the 20-year-old defender still has a lot to learn.

Leicester vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made 4 changes to the side that routed Burnley 5-0 last weekend with Holding, Maitland-Niles, Ramsey and Welbeck replacing Chambers, Bellerin, Wilshere and Lacazette in the starting lineup. Because it was the third game in a 7-day span, it made sense to rotate and inject some freshness into the team. Bellerin, Monreal, Chambers, Wilshere and Lacazette were given the day off while the manager kept experimenting at the back by leaving Mustafi on the bench and starting Mavropanos alongside Holding in the heart of the defense.

Despite Mavropanos’ red card in the 15th minute, the Gunners still finished with 60% of ball possession in a 4-4-1 system with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi on the wings and Aubameyang on his own up front. Leicester capitalized on its numerical superiority to find more space on the fast break and could have won by a bigger margin if Cech had not pulled off some fine saves.

Mavropanos showed good composure and smart decision-making in his 2 previous appearances, but there were already signs that he could struggle in key duels: Fellaini outjumped Mavropanos to head the ball onto the post at Old Trafford while Vokes also got the better of the Greek youngster to head a cross straight at Cech in the Burnley game.

The Foxes’ opening goal in the 14th came from a corner that Mavropanos poorly cleared. The ball fell to Fuchs, who hoisted it into the box. At the far post, Diabate beat Maitland-Niles to the ball to knock it down for Iheanacho, who volleyed home. Mavropanos was also guilty of ball-watching on that play as he left Iheanacho unmarked.

An error-prone defense

A minute later, Mavropanos took a pass from Maitland-Niles and dallied on the ball instead of passing it to Holding. By the time Mavropanos made up his mind, it was already too late as Iheanacho charged down his clearance. Realizing that Iheanacho would be clean through on goal, Mavropanos brought down the Leicester forward and got sent off.

Wenger complained about the call after the game but Mavropanos was the last defender and Holding, positioned on the right flank, would have been unlikely to catch Iheanacho. An aggravating factor for the referee was Mavropanos’ cynical body-check. From the moment Iheanacho sprinted toward him, the alarm bell should have been ringing loudly in Mavropanos’ head. Now Mavropanos knows that he has less time on the ball in England than in the Greek league.

Spectators will only remember Mavropanos’ ejection, but Mustafi and Holding made the same mistakes as Mavropanos. As the last defender, Holding poorly controlled a backpass from Maitland-Niles in the 61st and was dispossessed by Iheanacho. Holding was more lucky than Mavropanos as the loose ball fell into the path of Vardy, giving the Arsenal defense enough time to regroup.

Mustafi came off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 19th. He’s definitely more experienced than Mavropanos or Holding. Yet, he panicked inside the Arsenal area in the 74th. Instead of clearing a teasing cross high into the air, Mustafi played the ball back to Gray, who won a penalty after Mkhitaryan seemed to trip him. Vardy converted the spot kick to make it 2-1. I’ve watched several replays and it’s hard to know whether there was enough contact for Gray to fall down. But Mkhitaryan’s decision-making was poor. He was on the wrong side of Gray, who still had to beat Maitland-Niles.

Walking in Flamini’s steps

The next Arsenal manager may have no power over individual mistakes but he should be able to make tactical adjustments when the team is dealing with long balls. Holding was pulled out of position in the 48th when Morgan punted the ball toward Iheanacho. Holding missed his interception and the ball bounced toward Vardy. In a 2v2 situation, Vardy fed Diabate, whose shot took a deflection off Cech before Mustafi cleared the ball off the line. In stoppage time, Mahrez beat the offside trap to chase a long ball from Choudhury. The Leicester winger, who was played onside by Mustafi, gave Holding the slip before shooting past Cech to seal the win.

   Cech will finish the season with the most errors (6) leading to a goal in the Premier League. However, the Gunners could thank him on Wednesday for preventing the scoreline from looking unflattering. Cech parried an angled effort from Vardy in the 13th, tipped over the bar a volley from Maguire in the 17th, saved a curling free kick from Silva in the 39th and stopped a low strike from Iheanacho in the 41st.

While Mavropanos, Mustafi and Holding struggled to cope with the pace and movement of Vardy and Iheanacho, fullbacks Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles enjoyed mixed fortunes. Maitland-Niles had a decent game, leading all players with 4 successful dribbles and leading Arsenal players with 2 key passes, according to whoscored.com. He also showed some good work-rate by winning 3 tackles and set up the equalizer in the 53rd with a pinpoint cross for Aubameyang.

At 20, Maitland-Niles is proving relatively strong in challenges, but he still needs to improve in those that matter. He lost a key duel on the opening goal and gave away a dangerous free kick in the 37th by shoving Vardy from behind. Maitland-Niles could definitely be used like Flamini in his first seasons at Arsenal, learning the ropes at rightback before moving to central midfield when more mature tactically.

A poor final ball

On the left flank, Kolasinac led all players with 5 successful tackles and led Arsenal players with a passing accuracy of 91.1%, which is unusually high for him. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international nearly scored in the 47th with an angled strike that hit the base of the post. In his first season at the club, Kolasinac has looked more like a wingback than a fullback. His defensive awareness can be dodgy. He left Maguire unmarked in the 17th and forgot to track Mahrez on the last goal.

In midfield, Ramsey had a poor game and led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Because the Foxes are a team feasting on turnovers, the Gunners needed a Ramsey more tidy in possession to control the game. The next Arsenal manager will have to decide which formation can optimize Ramsey’s strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

The Gunners often wasted good situations with a poor final ball. Iwobi overhit his pass for Ramsey in the 10th and 44th, Kolasinac made a cross that sailed beyond every Gunner in the 12th, and Mkhitaryan completely missed his final ball for Aubameyang in the 26th and for Ramsey in the 71st.

Iwobi raised the fans’ level of expectations after his good performance against Burnley. But on Wednesday he reverted back to the awkward player that we all know. There were glimpses of hope in the first half when Iwobi tested Jakupovic with a snapshot in the seventh minute or when he set up Mkhitaryan for a low strike that the Leicester goalkeeper turned around the post in the 34th. But it all went downhill in the second half. Iwobi showed poor decision-making in the 54th by failing to pick out Ramsey, who was ready to pull the trigger. See the screen capture below. Iwobi gave the ball away with a sloppy pass to Kolasinac, who was in a worse position than Ramsey.

Leicester vs. Arsenal M54edIwobi can’t make a 5-yard pass to Ramsey. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Two minutes later, Iwobi ignored the overlapping run of Kolasinac and went for personal glory by firing a 25-yard strike into the stands. Oops! Wenger had seen enough and replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 84th. Iwobi is as inconsistent as Oxlade-Chamberlain at the same age. But the big difference is that you could never fault the Ox for his work-rate. Iwobi made 0 tackle and 1 interception, while Mkhitaryan won 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.

Earning an away point?

Up front, it was a lonely evening for Aubameyang, who was often crowded out inside the Leicester area. But Aubameyang didn’t give up and was rewarded for his perseverance in the 53rd. He met a cross from Maitland-Niles for a first-time effort that Jakupovic parried. However, Aubameyang pounced on the rebound to fire into the roof of the net. Although Wenger has often played him out of position, Aubameyang has quickly adapted to the Premier League with 9 goals and 4 assists in 12 appearances. That average of 1.08 goal or assist per game is much better than Morata’s average of 0.57.

For the last game of the season, the Gunners will need a draw at Huddersfield to get at least a point away from home this year. All the other Premier League teams have managed that ‘feat’. After the Leicester game, Wenger claimed that the squad was good enough to contend for the title next season if the Gunners could improve their away form. Such statements show why the club had to replace him.

Wenger is a great manager but he has become delusional in the past couple of years. Arsenal had no such problem in away games last season, yet they were far from contending. A quick look at the team this year tells you that there are holes in at least 5 positions (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, ballwinner, deep-lying playmaker). Wenger has been unable to improve the squad despite obvious weaknesses. The next manager will have to do a better job.

 

The art of squad building and how Wenger lost the plot

Poor recruitment is the main reason why the Gunners are no longer in the Top 4 of the Premier League. Last season, they finished in fifth place, 11 points behind Spurs. Arsenal will again miss out on the Top 4 this season as they currently sit in sixth place, 13 points behind Spurs after 30 games.

Squad buildingPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

You may think that money is the issue. It’s true that the Red Devils generate more revenue than any other football club, while Manchester City and Chelsea are backed by billionaires. But you also have to remember that Liverpool and Tottenham have a smaller budget than the Gunners and spend less money in the transfer market.

On paper, building a squad looks pretty simple: you spot the weaknesses in the team, you clear the dead wood, and you sign the players who will make the team stronger. To understand how that process works, I will compare the job done by Pochettino, Klopp and Wenger. I have chosen Tottenham and Liverpool as case studies because Arsenal can match them financially.

The 2013-14 season proved an unstable period for Spurs, who replaced Villas-Boas with Sherwood in December. Despite the managerial change, Tottenham finished in sixth place, 10 points behind Arsenal. I have used startingeleven.co.uk to provide a picture below of Sherwood’s favorite lineup.

2014 Spurs

The 2014 Spurs lineup under Sherwood

Here’s the Tottenham squad under Sherwood:

Goalkeepers: Lloris as the starter (Friedel as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Walker, Rose (Naughton, Fryers). Centerbacks: Vertonghen, Dawson (Kaboul, Chiriches). Central midfielders: Dembele, Paulinho (Sandro, Capoue, Bentaleb). Playmakers: Eriksen (Sigurdsson). Wingers: Chadli, Lennon (Townsend, Lamela). Centerforwards: Adebayor (Soldado, Kane, Defoe).

When Pochettino took over in May 2014, he quickly spotted the weaknesses in the Spurs lineup. First, the team lacked a commanding centerback. Dawson was a decent fit for an average side but not good enough for a club aiming at a Top 4 finish. So Pochettino signed Fazio in August 2014 and Wimmer and Alderweireld in the summer of 2015. Fazio was a flop while Wimmer turned out to be a benchwarmer. However, Alderweireld proved a key signing as he helped stabilize the Tottenham defense.

Becoming a contender within 2 years

Pochettino inherited good players at fullback with Rose and Walker, but he wasn’t happy with the back-up options. So the club signed Davies in July 2014 and Trippier in June 2015. The development of Trippier and Davies helped Spurs cope with Walker’s departure last summer and Rose’s injuries. The Argentine manager also strengthened the bench for the goalkeeping position by replacing an aging Friedel with Vorm.

In midfield, Pochettino realized that Spurs lacked a good holding midfielder. Capoue, Sandro and Bentaleb were not good enough, Dembele played as a deep-lying playmaker and Paulinho was mostly a utility midfielder. So Pochettino recalled Mason to the squad and signed Dier and Stambouli in the summer of 2014. Stambouli struggled in the Premier League but Dier proved a good investment as he efficiently shielded the Tottenham defense.

On the wings, Pochettino noticed the lack of end product. So he signed Alli and Son in 2015 while putting more pressure on Lamela. Up front, he spotted Kane’s potential and gave him the nod over an aging and more limited Adebayor. Pochettino also shook up the bench by releasing Soldado in 2015 and signing N’Jie, who didn’t manage to make the cut.

Within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino turned Tottenham into a title contender. If you look at the picture below, you will notice 5 changes between Sherwood’s lineup and Pochettino’s team. Spurs ran out of steam at the end of the 2015-16 season, but they were the only real threat to Leicester’s title bid.

2016 Spurs

The 2016 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

Instead of resting on his laurels, Pochettino stayed busy in the transfer market to make Spurs more competitive, in part because some of his signings didn’t deliver, but also because other rivals were spending lavishly. So within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino made 4 changes to a team that was in contention until April 2016.

2018 Spurs

The 2018 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

At the back, Pochettino promoted Walker-Peters and signed Aurier to make up for Walker’s departure last summer. He also hired Sanchez and Foyth as cover for Vertonghen and Alderweireld. In his first season at the club, Sanchez impressively stepped up when Alderweireld picked up a hamstring injury last November.

Seeing the weaknesses and the potential

In midfield, Pochettino was a bit conservative but he still promoted Winks and added more power by signing Wanyama and Sissoko in 2016. On the wings, the Argentine manager clearly wanted more pace as he signed N’Koudou in 2016 and Moura this year. N’Koudou is still a raw player and has been loaned out to Burnley while Moura is close to the finished product with 5 seasons under his belt at French club PSG.

Up front, Pochettino signed Janssen in 2016 and Llorente in 2017 as cover for Kane. Janssen failed to impress and was loaned out to Turkish club Fenerbahce, while expectations were low for Llorente, an aging striker who was willing to deputize for Kane.

Over a four-year period, Pochettino has cleared the dead wood and strengthened both the lineup and the bench. He has also lost some gambles in the transfer market, but at least they didn’t cost the club a fortune. So there is no doubt that Spurs have a good squad builder with Pochettino.

Klopp’s appointment at Liverpool in October 2015 also provides a good example of squad building. Despite coming in the middle of the season, Klopp still managed to lead the Reds to the League Cup final and a runner-up finish in the Europa League.

Liverpool famously challenged for the Premier League title during the 2013-14 season, but it all went downhill for Rodgers after the departures of Suarez in 2014 and Sterling in 2015. Rodgers also struggled to replace leaders like Gerrard and Toure. In the summer of 2015, Rodgers signed Ings, Firmino and Benteke to add more firepower up front, but the team didn’t really gel. Stuck in 10th place after 8 Premier League games, the club lost patience and sacked Rodgers in October.

2015 Liverpool

The 2015 Liverpool lineup under Rodgers

Here’s the Liverpool squad under Rodgers:

Goalkeepers: Mignolet as the starter (Bogdan as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Clyne, Moreno (Flanagan, Gomez). Centerbacks: Skrtel, Lovren (Sakho, Toure). Midfielders: Henderson, Milner, Can (Allen, Leiva). Playmaker: Coutinho. Wingers: Lallana (Origi, Ibe). Centerforwards: Benteke (Sturridge, Firmino, Ings).

When Klopp took over, he could only make tactical adjustments because he had to wait eight months for the next summer transfer window. The Reds finished eighth in the Premier League at the end of the 2015-16 season. But Klopp got plenty of time to see the weaknesses as well as the potential of the squad he inherited.

Rebuilding an entire defense

Liverpool conceded a lot of goals under Rodgers, so Klopp decided to completely rebuild the defense. Klopp had doubts about Mignolet in goal and therefore signed Karius in 2016. Karius hasn’t been really convincing yet, even playing fewer games than Mignolet. That might explain why Roma goalkeeper Alisson has recently been linked with a move to Anfield. At centerback, Klopp shipped out Toure, Sakho and Skrtel while signing Matip and Klavan in 2016 and Van Dijk a couple of months ago. Klopp also signed Robertson in 2017 to take the leftback spot from Moreno. At rightback, Clyne’s long-term injury obliged Klopp to hand Gomez a starting spot.

By contrast, Klopp has been relatively conservative in midfield. The German manager sold Allen and Leiva, who were second-choice midfielders, and hired Grujic and Wijnaldum in 2016 and Oxlade-Chamberlain last year. Henderson and Can are still regular starters under Klopp while Milner gets plenty of playing time, too. In fact, the biggest change in midfield is Klopp’s rotation policy to keep fresh legs for his gegenpressing tactics.

The Reds struggled to score in Rodgers’ last season at the club. Klopp realized that Benteke and Ibe were not good enough for a Top 4 club and let them go. He also noticed a lack of penetration in the final third and therefore signed Mane in 2016 and Salah in 2017. Both Mane and Salah have a lot of pace and great dribbling skills.

However, Klopp’s really smart decision was to play Firmino as a false nine. Rodgers didn’t know how to use Firmino and made the mistake of believing that Benteke could deliver at the top level. Klopp also took a gamble on a youngster by signing Solanke last summer. This season, only Manchester City can claim a front three (Aguero, Sane, Sterling) as threatening as Liverpool’s.

2018 Liverpool

The 2018 Liverpool lineup under Klopp

The only blemish in Liverpool’s transfer policy was the sale of Coutinho to Barcelona in January. The Reds lost a versatile playmaker who could play either as a false winger or in a three-man midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain is versatile too but he doesn’t have Coutinho’s creativity. Plus Coutinho was a free-kick specialist who could make the difference in any tight game.

Having a coherent plan

Within two years and a half, Klopp has turned Liverpool into a Top 4 team by making 9 changes to Rodgers’ lineup. You can see the similarities between Klopp and Pochettino: they both have a coherent plan to build their respective squads and they only need a couple of years to implement it.

We have analyzed what Pochettino has achieved at Tottenham since the summer of 2014 and how Klopp has transformed Liverpool since the end of 2015. Now let’s compare with what Wenger has done at Arsenal since 2015. I’ve chosen 2015 because the club had not much cash to spend in the transfer market before 2013 (remember, the Gunners signed Ozil in 2013 and Sanchez in 2014). It’s also similar to the amount of time that Pochettino and Klopp had to change their clubs’ fortunes. You can see below Wenger’s favorite lineup at the end of the 2014-15 season.

2015 Arsenal

The 2015 Arsenal lineup   

Here’s the Arsenal squad during that season:

Goalkeepers: Ospina as the starter (Szczesny as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Bellerin, Monreal (Debuchy, Gibbs). Centerbacks: Koscielny, Mertesacker (Paulista, Chambers). Midfielders: Cazorla, Coquelin, Ramsey (Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere). Playmakers: Ozil (Rosicky). Wingers: Sanchez, Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski). Centerforwards: Giroud (Welbeck, Sanogo).

If you were a neutral manager, you could see that Ospina and Szczesny were not good enough in goal for a Top 4 team. Ospina struggled to command his area while Szczesny was error-prone and had discipline issues off the pitch. At the back, Mertesacker was an obvious target for strikers because of his lack of pace, while Wenger also had a problem at leftback where Gibbs and Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses. In midfield, Coquelin was too limited in his all-around game and was not smart enough in his positional play to shield the defense. On the right wing, Ramsey was a starter by default simply because Oxlade-Chamberlain lacked end product while Walcott had limited passing skills. Up front, Giroud lacked the pace to stretch a defense while Welbeck lacked end product.

Failing to fix 6 positions

Did Wenger spot those weaknesses in the Arsenal squad? The answer must be yes since he made moves in the transfer market for those positions. The Gunners signed Cech in 2015, Holding and Mustafi in 2016, Kolasinac in 2017 and Mavropanos a couple of months ago. In midfield, the club added Elneny and Xhaka in 2016. On the wings, Sanchez’s contractual situation led to a swap deal with Manchester United as Mkhitaryan joined Arsenal in January. Up front, pace was clearly the priority as the Gunners signed Perez in 2016, Lacazette in 2017 and Aubameyang a couple of months ago. Wenger also relied on the academy to strengthen the first team by promoting Iwobi and Maitland-Niles.

Over the past three years, Wenger was less active than Pochettino in the transfer market and less successful than Klopp in getting the right targets for the club. Let’s be honest, the majority of the signings have been flops. And the manager hasn’t fixed the 6 positions that were weaknesses during the 2014-15 season (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, holding midfielder, right winger, centerforward). You can see below Arsenal’s best lineup for this year.

2018 Arsenal

The 2018 Arsenal lineup

Lacazette’s injury means that Aubameyang is the natural choice up front. In midfield, you may argue that Iwobi or Welbeck could replace Wilshere if the team plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But that tactical difference doesn’t change my analysis. Cech used to be the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, but at 35 he’s already past his prime. In fact, Cech has the most errors leading to a goal (6) this season. At centerback, Mustafi is not the player who will marshal the defense. And Koscielny’s nagging Achilles injury also means that the club will need to sign an experienced centerback this summer. At leftback, Kolasinac’s defensive performances have been disappointing. In central midfield, Elneny doesn’t win duels while Xhaka lacks mobility and defensive awareness. On the wings, Iwobi lacks end product while Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck don’t have the dribbling skills to crack a defense. Up front, Aubameyang and Lacazette both struggle in the air. And Aubameyang has a limited all-around game while Lacazette’s hold-up play is weaker than Giroud’s.

Another issue with Wenger’s squad management is the time wasted to clear the dead wood. Walcott and Coquelin should have been shipped out way before January. And there’s no reason to hang onto Chambers and Elneny, especially since the Gunners also have Holding and Mavropanos at centerback as well as Wilshere and Maitland-Niles in midfield. Chambers lacks pace and struggles to turn, while Elneny may be more mobile than Xhaka but the Egypt international is not a decisive player defensively or offensively.

No challenge before 2021?

Because Wenger failed to improve the team in the past 3 years and took too much time to clear the dead wood, it doesn’t make sense to rely on the French manager for an overhaul of the squad this summer. The next manager will have a lot of work to bring Arsenal back into the Top 4.

2019 Arsenal

How a competitive Arsenal team could look like

It will take more than a season to rebuild the squad. And the way the Citizens are dominating the Premier League, Arsenal might not be able to challenge for the title before 2021. Look at Liverpool: Klopp has done a good job within 3 years, but the Reds are still miles behind City.

The board and the staff will obviously have to set the priorities in terms of transfers. If a centerback and a holding midfielder are the top priorities, it means that Arsenal might have to stick with Cech or Ospina next season. I’ve chosen a 4-3-3 formation because that’s the best system to implement a pressing game. I don’t think the Gunners could finish in the Top 4 without pressing high up the pitch. That implies signing a more dynamic midfielder than Wilshere or Xhaka to harry opponents. I believe only Ramsey would have the pace, stamina and skills to play in Liverpool’s three-man midfield. Ozil’s poor work-rate means that he can only play in the front three.

For next season, assuming that Arsenal can only sign one attacking player because of financial constraints, a winger with great dribbling skills should also be at the top of the list. Liverpool, City and Chelsea respectively have Salah, Sane and Hazard to make the difference against compact defenses.

If the club runs out of cash, the Gunners could either play Lacazette or Perez on the right wing, or fast-track Nelson a bit like Sterling at Liverpool. Mkhitaryan and Ozil would have to fight for the spot on the left wing. Of course, Arsenal could switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation and play both Ozil and Mkhitaryan against the weak sides, but that would still depend on the hiring of a defensive midfielder. Up front, the Gunners would have the choice between Lacazette, a false nine coming to the ball, and Aubameyang, a striker stretching a defense.

The board and the staff have no room for error this summer because they have poorly performed in the previous transfer windows. By the end of August, we will know whether the Gunners have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish for next season.

 

Arsenal vs. Watford: 3-0 win highlights youth dilemma

There were a lot of empty seats at the Emirates stadium on Sunday when the Gunners smashed Watford 3-0 in the Premier League. It wasn’t as bad as in the league game against Manchester City, but it showed some fans’ disillusion with Arsenal’s performances in the Premier League this year. You can’t really blame the fans: the Gunners had never been out of the Top 4 race so early in the season under Wenger. For some, it was also a means to protest against the Arsenal board and put pressure on them to hire a new manager this summer. In that regard, leaving empty seats is better than creating a toxic atmosphere with hostile chants and banners. And it’s definitely smarter than what the West Ham fans did against Burnley by invading the pitch.

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

The Europa League is the only option left to win a trophy this season. Wenger clearly prioritized that competition by making 6 changes to the side that won in Milan on Thursday with Cech, Holding, Maitland-Niles, Elneny, Iwobi and Aubameyang replacing Ospina, Koscielny, Chambers, Ramsey, Wilshere and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Monreal, Bellerin and Lacazette were still sidelined by injuries and were therefore not available. The manager took no risk with Ramsey and Koscielny and kept them out of the squad, while Welbeck, Wilshere and Chambers came off the bench in the second half.

Fielding an under-strength team was a smart move from the manager since there is nothing at stake in the Premier League now. To a certain extent, the club must also give some playing time to the most promising youngsters, otherwise they will leave. Willock joined Benfica last summer while Barcelona signed McGuane two months ago. According to the Evening Standard, Nelson threw his bib to the ground on Sunday when he found out that he wouldn’t play the last minutes against Watford. That’s a tricky situation for the staff. Nelson’s contract expires next year and it’s easy to understand his frustration about the lack of opportunities when you see Iwobi’s mediocre performances.

Holding’s ups and downs

There’s a massive gap between the Premier League and the level of U23 games. At this stage of his career, Nelson won’t improve by playing with the academy team. He needs a loan to a Championship side or even a League One team to develop at a faster pace. It was fine to keep him at the club in the first half of the season because there were opportunities with the League Cup and the Europa League. But I think the staff made a mistake by not loaning out Nelson and Nketiah in the second half of the season. A successful loan spell would have made the Arsenal squad stronger for next season.

At 22, Holding is not a rookie anymore. He had his ups and downs since joining the club two years ago. Low confidence combined with some poor performances have seen Holding drop behind Chambers in the pecking order. Holding was given a second chance on Sunday as he started alongside Mustafi at centerback. To be honest, Holding’s performance was a mixed bag. He led all players with 4 interceptions but won no tackle. On the bright side, Holding blocked Femenia’s volley in the 48th minute and forced Richarlison wide in the sixth minute after Mustafi was pulled out of position.

But there are at least 3 key areas Holding needs to work on: 1. Winning duels inside the box. Doucoure dribbled past Holding in the ninth minute and only a heavy touch from the Watford midfielder enabled Mustafi to clear the danger; 2. His positional play. Holding was on the wrong side of Richarlison a few times. He was nowhere near Richarlison when the Hornets played a ball over the top in the 12th. Richarlison teed up Doucoure, whose shot was parried by Cech; 3. Smelling danger. Holding gave the ball away with sloppy passes in the 24th and 89th. He also lost possession with a dribbling attempt in the 70th. Those are the kind of mistakes that Holding could make in a Championship club but which are not acceptable at Arsenal. That’s why I said last summer that Holding should have been loaned out to iron out mistakes from his game.

Iwobi’s regression

Maitland-Niles is only two years older than Nelson. Yet he has already played 23 games with the first team this season, including 10 in the Premier League. Obviously, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress at 20. He showed his naivety in the 61st when Pereyra cut inside the Arsenal rightback and crashed into his trailing leg to win a penalty. An experienced player would have gotten out of the way, guessing that Pereyra was looking for contact. Maitland-Niles needs to improve his focus and be more tidy in possession. He led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

On a more positive note, Maitland-Niles has more pace than Chambers and did a good job to stop crosses. He also performed better than Kolasinac, having 2 successful dribbles out of 3, winning 2 of 5 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels, and making 1 interception and 3 blocks, compared to 0 successful dribble, 1 of 3 tackles won, 2 of 5 aerial duels won, and no interception or block made by the Bosnia-Herzegovina international. Maitland-Niles is right-footed and has played as a right midfielder, so rightback is a more natural position for him than leftback. Although Maitland-Niles prefers to play as a central midfielder, he still lacks the tactical maturity to play in such a key position at the top level.

While Maitland-Niles is learning the ropes, Iwobi seems to be regressing. Iwobi showed a poor work-rate and a lack of end product, creating 0 chance, winning 0 tackle, and making 0 interception and 0 block. His decision-making in the final third was questionable, too. He tried to score from a tight angle in the 19th instead of crossing the ball for the 3 Gunners inside the box. Then he ran into traffic in the 37th and lost possession, allowing Watford to launch a counterattack. Wenger replaced Iwobi with Welbeck in the 66th and the England international took a pass from Wilshere to test Karnezis with a powerful strike in the 86th.

The Dortmund connection

Before Sunday’s match, there was much talk about Deeney’s infamous comments in October. Deeney basically said that the Gunners didn’t like the physical side of the game. It was no coincidence if the Hornets tried to rough up Arsenal at the Emirates stadium. And each time, the referee failed to spot the foul. First, Prodl stamped on Ozil’s heel in the 31st. Then Mariappa stamped on Mkhitaryan’s ankle inside the area in the 64th and no penalty was given. And finally, Deeney got away with a stamp on Xhaka in the 79th. Despite the poor officiating, the Gunners didn’t lose their temper and proved the better side, having 7 shots on target to 4, and winning 54.2% of the duels and 61.9% of the tackles, according to the club’s website.

The understanding between two players can make a difference at the top level. For the passer, it’s about knowing what kind of run the striker will make and where he wants to have the ball. For the runner, it’s about knowing when the pass will be made and if the passer can execute the play. The Gunners can thank the Dortmund connection for the last two goals. Mkhitaryan slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who rounded Karnezis to slot into an empty net for a 2-0 lead in the 59th. Then Aubameyang pounced on a rebound to tee up Mkhitaryan for the third goal in the 77th.

Things didn’t get off to a good start for the former Borussia Dortmund players though. Mkhitaryan made a cross beyond Aubameyang in the fifth minute. The Armenia international showed more accuracy with his through ball for Aubameyang in the 11th but Prodl brushed the Arsenal striker off the ball. The Watford defense also blocked a pass from Mkhitaryan in the 35th but the ball somehow fell into the path of Aubameyang, who was put off by Mariappa while taking his chance.

Mkhitaryan is a gambler

Aubameyang hasn’t ajusted to the physicality of the Premier League yet. He needs to be stronger in duels. The Gabon striker will also have to improve in the air. He won 0 of 3 aerial duels in midfield. That’s not good enough if the team wants to use him as a target man. By contrast, Mkhitaryan had a good all-around performance. He won 2 of 6 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. The only blemish was his passing accuracy of 71.7%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters. Mkhitaryan is a gambler in the final third and often goes for the killer pass. The real issue is Mkhitaryan’s approach in his own half where he is not cautious enough. Wilshere came off the bench to replace Mkhitaryan in the 78th.

Playing in the hole, Ozil led all players with 3 key passes. Ozil set up the opening goal in the eighth minute with a pinpoint free kick that Mustafi headed into the bottom corner. Watford’s marking was poor on that play but you have to credit the complicity between Ozil and Mustafi, who both play for the Germany team. Ozil was also involved in the third goal as he made the cross that Karnezis palmed into the path of Aubameyang. With better finishing, Ozil could have claimed 2 assists and 1 goal. In the third minute, Ozil slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who shot straight at Karnezis from 15 yards. In the 27th, Ozil took a pass from Elneny and skipped past Mariappa only to be denied by Karnezis.

Season on the line

In goal, Cech finally earned his 200th clean sheet in the Premier League. The fact that it was the first clean sheet in the league since a 1-0 win over Newcastle in mid-December tells you how poorly the Gunners have defended in the past couple of months. Cech protected Arsenal’s lead by turning around the post a header from Richarlison on the stroke of halftime. Iwobi made a poor clearance on that play while Mustafi was not tight enough to Richarlison. Cech forced Deeney to eat some humble pie in the 62nd by stopping a penalty from the Watford striker. It was a moment to cheer about but some fans won’t forget some poor goalkeeping in the 26th when Cech, instead of pushing the ball to safety, palmed a low free kick into the path of Pereyra, who missed the target from 7 yards. Cech also sent a goal kick straight into touch in the 74th.

Arsenal’s season will be on the line when they host AC Milan on Thursday for the second leg of their last 16 encounter in the Europa League. Lose, and there’s nothing to play for. Win, and there’s still the hope of lifting some silverware in May.

Arsenal vs. Ostersund: A few thoughts on the 2-1 loss

   The Gunners qualified for the last 16 of the Europa League despite losing 2-1 to Ostersund in Thursday’s second leg. Arsenal had a comfortable cushion after winning 3-0 in the first leg a week ago. But the Gunners’ complacency, combined with Ostersund’s fearless approach, produced a surprise in the first half: the Swedish team took a 2-0 lead and was just one goal away from forcing extra time. Disappointed by Arsenal’s lack of effort, the crowd at the Emirates stadium booed the hosts at halftime. Two minutes after the restart, a goal from Kolasinac restored a bit of confidence while making Ostersund’s task more difficult.

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

The obvious reason for the lack of urgency in the first half was the League Cup final this Sunday. Wenger fielded an under-strength side with 6 players unlikely to start against Manchester City at Wembley: Welbeck, Elneny, Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac, Chambers and Holding. Key players like Mustafi, Monreal and Xhaka were on the bench while Ramsey, Ozil and Koscielny were not even in the squad. Bellerin, Wilshere and Iwobi have a good chance of starting on Sunday but they didn’t really make a good impression.

  1. Chambers and Holding are not the future

The two English centerbacks are just a year younger than Stones, but you have to wonder whether they will ever reach the level of the Manchester City defender. Holding is the most pro-active of the two while Chambers is too passive for a team like Arsenal.

You can see why scouts spotted the potential in Holding. The former Bolton player made timely tackles in the 18th and 67th minutes, but there are still too many mistakes in his game. He led Arsenal players with 3 interceptions and 3 fouls. Holding can be let down by his decision-making and his poor focus. He gave the ball away in the opening minute, was pulled out of position for Ostersund’s first goal in the 22nd, and lost track of Mukiibi on a short corner in the 54th.

Chambers is aware of his lack of pace and is therefore more cautious than Holding. That still doesn’t prevent him from making errors. Chambers dived in and ended up fouling Tekie in the 64th. He was also at fault for Ostersund’s second goal in the 24th as Sema rolled away from Chambers to fire a low strike past Ospina. His slow first steps will always be an issue in the final third, especially since all the Premier League sides have a speedy forward nowadays.

  1. Is Kolasinac the new Vermaelen?

   Arsenal fans remember Vermaelen as a flawed defender who would occasionally find the net. Kolasinac has already scored 3 goals for the club this season but I don’t think those goals can make up for his poor defending. Aiesh made a run in behind Kolasinac to open the scoring in the 22nd. Kolasinac pulled one back in the 47th by capitalizing on a missed clearance from Mukiibi to shoot into the top corner. It’s kind of funny that one of his nicknames is ‘tank’ because Kolasinac can drive straight but struggles to turn. Hopcutt dribbled past Kolasinac in the 55th and the Bosnia-Herzegovina international then failed to prevent a dangerous cross from Ghoddos in the 84th.

  1. Arsenal’s midfield is porous

The Gunners never had the control of the game in the first half despite the midfield trio formed by Elneny, Maitland-Niles and Wilshere. They especially looked vulnerable on the fast break. Wilshere wore the captain’s armband but didn’t show the leadership necessary to steady the ship. His defensive contribution was weak (0 of 1 tackle won, 0 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka) and he missed a good chance to score in the 42nd with a half-volley over the bar. Maitland-Niles’ performance was also poor with 0 key pass, 0 tackle, 0 interception and 0 block. The academy player was replaced by Xhaka at halftime. Xhaka injected a bit more urgency in the second half, creating 2 chances and winning 2 of 2 tackles.

  1. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan had their flaws exposed

Mkhitaryan had a passing accuracy of 63%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal outfield player according to whoscored.com. Manchester City could do a lot of damage on the fast break if Mkhitaryan keeps making so many misplaced passes (Update: Mkhitaryan is ineligible for the League Cup final because he has played a few minutes for Manchester United in that competition). Mkhitaryan needs to adapt more quickly to his new team otherwise his turnover rate will become an issue.

Running into traffic is Iwobi’s main bad habit. He wasted a good situation in the 14th by taking his chance from a tight angle instead of making a cross for the 3 Gunners waiting inside the box. Although one of his turnovers led to Ostersund’s second goal, Iwobi didn’t learn his lesson and kept dribbling in midfield and losing possession like in the 33rd and 56th. Iwobi finished the game with only 1 key pass, compared to 2 for Wilshere, Mkhitaryan and Xhaka.

  1. Welbeck can’t score

In the first leg, Welbeck had 0 of 3 shots on target. He did better in the second leg with 4 of 4 shots on target. The bad news is that Welbeck should have scored at least a goal. Welbeck met a Mkhitaryan free kick in the 35th for a header straight at Keita. He then dispossessed a defender in the 49th but lacked conviction with his chip attempt. He shot again straight at the Ostersund goalkeeper in the 68th and 91st. I doubt Welbeck will get so many chances against the best Premier League teams. That’s why he needs to improve his finishing.