Tag Archives: Maitland-Niles

A few thoughts on the Emirates Cup

The Gunners retained the Emirates Cup after thrashing Benfica 5-2 on Saturday and losing 2-1 to Sevilla on Sunday. That may sound weird since Sevilla won both games they played but the competition rules state that a point is awarded for each goal scored.

Emirates Cup 2017

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

The level of that tournament proved decent as Benfica and Sevilla both qualified for the Champions League. However, I still felt that I learned more about the squad from the China tour than from the Emirates Cup.

  1. Can Lacazette shine as a centerforward in the Premier League?

Lacazette’s performance in the Emirates Cup was a mixed bag. He scored against Sevilla but several plays showed that he doesn’t have the right mindset yet. As the most expensive player signed by Arsenal, you can bet the fans and pundits will judge Lacazette on his goals. In the first half of the Sevilla game, Lacazette hid twice at the far post while the more natural choice would have been to make a run to the near post when Welbeck crossed the ball.

The French striker will need to develop his killer instinct. Lacazette could have shot from 15 yards in the 16th minute but preferred to slip the ball to Bellerin, who was in a less favorable position. Then, Lacazette could only muster a tame shot in the 58th before finding the net four minutes later by converting an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross.

Obviously, Lacazette is still trying to understand his team’s passing game and will need a bit of time to completely fit in. I just don’t think he’s the right choice for the centerforward position, especially in the Premier League. Many English clubs simply park the bus when they face Arsenal, which means that Lacazette would have very little space to run into. An old-fashioned striker like Giroud, strong in the air and able to outmuscle defenders, would be more useful in those situations.

At 5’9, Lacazette is quite a short forward. Optimists will mention Aguero as the example of a successful centerforward despite his short height, but then they would need to remember that Manchester City had a plan B with the towering Dzeko. I believe Lacazette will do better in the Premier League as a second striker or false winger than as a centerforward.

  1. Arsenal should keep Giroud

Giroud has a low resale value. Therefore it wouldn’t make sense to sell this summer a player who has a unique skill set in the Arsenal squad. Giroud is not just our most dominant forward in the air. Only Welbeck can maybe hold the ball up like Giroud. And only Sanchez can match Giroud’s link-up play. In terms of goals per minute played, Giroud is also more clinical than Welbeck and Walcott.

The Benfica game highlighted those skills. Giroud held off a defender in the 27th to feed Walcott on a counterattack. He then volleyed into the far corner to make it 4-2 in the 64th. The France striker set up the last goal in the 71st by cushioning Kolasinac’s cross into the path of Iwobi, who fired into the roof of the net.

  1. Walcott is learning a new position

As an inside forward, Walcott looked lost on the pitch against Sydney FC. He seemed to have a better understanding of the position against Benfica. Walcott may have no impact in Arsenal’s passing game but he still has some flair for goals. He converted Kolasinac’s cross in the 24th before pouncing on Coquelin’s offering in the 32nd to tap into an empty net.

The more interesting part of the Benfica game is that Walcott had an assist in the 52nd when Lopez diverted his cross into his own net. Walcott also made a pinpoint cross for Giroud in the fourth minute but Julio Cesar saved the Frenchman’s header. During the 2012-13 season, Walcott had 12 assists in the Premier League. For whatever reason, his assist numbers have significantly dropped over the past few years. Walcott would have a better shot at starting games if he could balance more evenly his goals and assists.

  1. Experience is key at the back

It is easier for a youngster to break through as a striker than as a defender for the simple reason that mistakes are less costly up front than at the back. Martial and Mbappe are the obvious names that come to mind while you would struggle to name one teenager who has shone as a centerback. Experience clearly makes a huge difference for a defender.

I found it strange that Wenger played Maitland-Niles at centerback and wingback in the summer friendlies while the team more urgently needs a defensive midfielder, which is Maitland-Niles’ natural position. Maybe the manager wanted to show Maitland-Niles the cost of defensive errors and help him improve his reading of the game.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety cost Arsenal two goals in the Benfica game. First, he hesitated in his positional play and was not tight enough to Cervi, who opened the scoring in the 12th. Then his risky pass was intercepted by Pizzi and the ball fell to Salvio who made it 2-2 in the 39th. You would think that Maitland-Niles learned from his mistakes, but he didn’t. The English teenager attempted another risky pass that was intercepted in the 67th and led to a Benfica counterattack. At 19, Maitland-Niles still has time to develop, but he must learn at a faster pace otherwise he could be discarded like Akpom.

Holding is two years older than Maitland-Niles but only has one Premier League season under his belt. His inexperience showed in the 35th when he made a dribbling attempt as the last defender and lost possession to Pizzi, who was denied by Ospina. If Paulista was not injured, it would have made sense to loan Holding out to a Premier League club.

The Gunners made a good investment this summer by signing Kolasinac on a free transfer. At 24, Kolasinac is a much more experienced defender than Holding with five Bundesliga seasons under his belt. Kolasinac has produced some solid performances in the pre-season friendlies and has adapted to his new team more quickly than Lacazette. He made the cross for Walcott’s first goal in the Benfica game and created Iwobi’s goal by picking out Giroud. With his strong frame, Kolasinac is perfectly tailored for the physical Premier League.

  1. No Premier League starter from the youth team

The current crop of youngsters may be promising with Nelson and Willock, but it’s hard to see how they could claim a starting spot in the Premier League. It’s true that Bellerin became a regular starter during the 2014-15 season and Iwobi walked in the Spaniard’s steps a year later. But now Premier League clubs are massively spending to upgrade their squads. Even average sides have a flurry of internationals. With more competition and more pressure to finish in the Top 4 after a disappointing 2016-17 season, Wenger is more likely to take a gamble on a youngster in a League Cup game than in the Premier League.

In the long term, Nelson would be the most natural replacement for Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing. Nelson made a couple of impressive runs against Benfica. Although he’s right-footed, Nelson managed to make a pinpoint cross with his left foot in the 64th. Giroud pounced on the offering to volley into the bottom corner for a 4-2 lead. At 17, Nelson is far from the finished product. He was brushed off the ball twice against Benfica. Obviously, Nelson must beef up his game to win duels, but his technique and reading of the game are already quite outstanding for a youngster.

  1. Elneny doesn’t make the cut as a centerback

For some reason, Wenger only used Elneny as a centerback during the summer friendlies. That decision didn’t really make sense with Holding and Chambers back in the squad for the Emirates Cup. The manager expects the team to play the ball out from the back and Elneny has better passing skills than your average centerback. But as a defender, you still have to properly execute the offside trap and win duels.

Elneny struggled with the offside trap against Bayern Munich and that weakness was again exposed in the Sevilla game. On the stroke of halftime, Elneny stepped forward and was unable to recover as Nolito was clean through on goal. Fortunately, Koscielny rushed back to block Nolito’s cross for Ben Yedder. Then Elneny failed to stay with Correa, who played a one-two with Ben Yedder to slip the ball past Cech for the opening goal in the 49th. Wenger was pretty straightforward about Elneny’s performance after the game: “I don’t think in the future he will be a centerback.”

  1. The midfield still looks like a gruyere cheese

Throughout the summer friendlies, Wenger only relied on Xhaka, Ramsey, Coquelin and Willock to rotate in midfield. Whatever the pairing was, the midfield often looked porous. The Sevillans ran unopposed quite a few times from their own half to the Arsenal area. Banega broke forward from midfield in the 15th to feed Ben Yedder, who hit the post. In the second half, neither Xhaka nor Ramsey pressed N’Zonzi, who had plenty of time to curl the winner into the top corner. The Gunners desperately need a destroyer in midfield. Can the manager see it?

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Australia and China

The Gunners enjoyed mixed fortunes in the recent summer tour aimed at building up their fitness and increasing their worldwide fan base. Last week, Arsenal faced two Australian teams that would probably sit at the bottom of the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners defeated Sydney FC 2-0 before downing Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1.

Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Pre-Season Friendly

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

The level was much higher this week with games in China against Bayern Munich and Chelsea. The German champions completely outplayed Arsenal but somehow lost 3-2 in a penalty shootout after drawing 1-1 in regulation time. Chelsea proved more clinical than the Bavarian side by thrashing Arsenal 3-0 on Saturday.

  1. Omissions aren’t always innocent

Paulista, Wilshere and Cazorla were not in the squad for the summer tour because of injury. Holding, Chambers, Bellerin, Campbell, Mustafi and Sanchez also missed the pre-season friendlies because they were given some time off to recover from international competitions.

On the other hand, the absence of Szczesny, Debuchy, Gibbs, Jenkinson and Perez had nothing to do with an injury or international competition. Those five players seem to no longer be part of the club’s future plans. In fact, Juventus signed Szczesny a few days ago while Gibbs and Jenkinson have been linked to several English clubs.

Among the youngsters, Akpom and Reine-Adelaide missed out on the tour because their performances stagnated last season. Akpom showed poor attitude during his loan spell at Brighton while Reine-Adelaide failed to impress with the U23 team. Therefore, Wenger preferred to give a chance to Willock, Nelson, Nketiah, Bramall and Malen instead of including Akpom and Reine-Adelaide in the squad.

  1. Cech, Ramsey and Ozil are already sharp

Without Cech’s saves, Arsenal could have lost 5-1 to Bayern again. At 35, Cech is no longer the goalkeeper who led Chelsea to a flurry of titles, but he’s still among the best in the Premier League.

Ramsey’s 2016-17 season was marred by injuries because the manager didn’t give him enough time to recover from the Euros. It was therefore important to gradually build up Ramsey’s fitness this summer. The Wales midfielder made a run in behind to score the second goal against the Wanderers. He also set up Iwobi for the equalizer against Bayern with a left-footed cross.

Although Ozil only has one year left on his contract, it looks like he will play the upcoming season with Arsenal. Ozil sometimes gets criticized for his poor work-rate but the quality of his delivery can make a difference in the tight games, especially when you compare with the relative lack of accuracy from Xhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain on set pieces. The Germany playmaker slipped a through ball to Walcott against the Wanderers and to Lacazette against Bayern. He also volleyed a cross from Welbeck straight at Starke.

  1. Mertesacker’s lack of pace is still an issue

Mertesacker’s performance in the FA Cup final gave the illusion that a back three could make up for his lack of pace. Unfortunately, the pre-season friendlies showed that some situations could put Mertesacker in trouble. Sydney FC created their first scoring chance by isolating Mertesacker with a speedy forward.

In the FA Cup final, Arsenal protected Mertesacker by seating deep. In Beijing, the Gunners were punished for playing a high defensive line. Mertesacker was pulled out of position by chasing Batshuayi in midfield and couldn’t recover as Willian cut inside Monreal to open the scoring. Two minutes later, Mertesacker didn’t want to dive in like on the first goal and gave plenty of space to Batshuayi, who doubled the lead with a curling shot.

  1. Lacazette and Giroud are different players

Lacazette scored the second goal against Sydney FC by converting a low cross from Iwobi. The British news media often portray Lacazette as the back-up for Giroud in the France striker role but that description is inaccurate. In fact, Lacazette is a second striker like Griezmann, not a pure centerforward like Giroud. When France manager Deschamps picks his lineup, he is therefore choosing between Griezmann and Lacazette, and not between Giroud and Lacazette.

Because the French league is more technical but also less physical than the Premier League, Lacazette was able to play as a lone striker for Lyon. However, at 5’9 Lacazette simply can’t play as a target man like Giroud or Welbeck. He couldn’t help Arsenal evade Chelsea’s high press like Welbeck did in the FA Cup final.

  1. The Gunners still miss the complete centerforward

Remember when Henry and Van Persie led the line? They had everything. They could outpace defenders, dribble past them, win headers, hold the ball up, link up play and of course score plenty of goals. Among the six strikers at Arsenal (Sanchez, Giroud, Perez, Lacazette, Welbeck, and Walcott), none of them possesses all those qualities.

There are rumors that Giroud could leave the club this summer although no Gunner has his skill set. Welbeck can win headers and hold the ball up but he’s less prolific than the Frenchman. Giroud scored against the Wanderers with his trademark first-time effort at the near post.

Walcott failed in his attempt to become a centerforward during the 2015-16 season. It’s hard to see where Walcott fits in the 3-4-3 system. He started as an inside forward against Sydney FC and clearly struggled to adjust to that new position as he was caught offside three times in the first half.

  1. The midfield is weak

Wenger paired Xhaka and Coquelin against Bayern and Xhaka and Ramsey against Chelsea. The way Bayern and Chelsea outplayed Arsenal shows that we need a destroyer in midfield. Xhaka is not a natural ballwinner. He fouled Batshuayi and Willian in the opening minutes of the Beijing match. Coquelin may be a better tackler than Xhaka, but his technical limitations really hurt the team: he made a couple of poor passes to Welbeck in the first half of the Shanghai match.

Friendlies are often an opportunity for experiments. A midfielder by trade, Elneny played all four games as a centerback. Does it mean that the manager no longer considers Elneny as a midfield option? Or was it just to make up for the lack of centerbacks on the tour? In any case, Elneny’s stint at centerback was not really convincing. He made a poor backpass to Martinez against Sydney FC and a sloppy pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain against the Wanderers. Then Lewandowski and Willian got the better of Elneny in China. It’s hard to imagine how Elneny could mark physical forwards.

  1. Iwobi must end his sophomore slump

After breaking into the first team during the 2015-16 season, Iwobi struggled with consistency and lost his starting spot when Wenger shifted to a 3-4-3 formation a few months ago. There were mostly two issues last season: Iwobi’s lack of end product and his poor work-rate. Iwobi did well on the first issue by making an assist against Sydney FC and scoring a goal against Bayern. However, his work-rate was questionable against Chelsea. He had a high turnover rate in the first half and became nearly invisible when moved to the wingback position in the second half.

  1. Nelson is the most promising youngster

Nelson showed good technique and movement against Sydney FC. His runs helped create space in the final third. The 17-year-old midfielder set up Walcott and Bramall with accurate crosses. Nelson also produced a decent cameo against Chelsea, dancing around defenders to find Malen, who hit the post. He’s still a bit soft physically, especially in duels. Nelson could either stay at the academy to continue his development or be loaned out to a Championship side to beef up his game.

Despite the obvious needs in midfield, Wenger preferred to use Maitland-Niles as a centerback and wingback during the summer tour. Initially, I had high hopes for Maitland-Niles after his performances with the first team at the end of 2016. But his lack of effort with the youth team in 2017 raised some doubts about his work ethic.

Maitland-Niles was too casual against Sydney FC, losing possession after dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box, as well as against Chelsea, making a sloppy pass to Mertesacker and a poor clearance into the path of Willian. He also showed his defensive naivety against Bayern by allowing Ribery and Bernat to easily dribble past him because of some poor body-positioning along the by-line. To a certain extent, Maitland-Niles reminds me of Song when he joined Arsenal in 2005.

The games against Bayern and Chelsea showed that some youngsters still have a long way to go before joining the first team. Bramall struggled to cope with the level of play against Chelsea, even panicking at times. He cleared the ball straight into touch in the 24th and was dispossessed by Moses in the second minute and Kante in the 42nd on the edge of the Arsenal box. Technically, Bramall also showed some limitations with poor crosses in the sixth minute and the 44th.

Bielik was overwhelmed by the level against Bayern too, giving the ball away in the 18th and allowing a counterattack by diving in on the stroke of halftime. In midfield, Willock often looked like a mini-Coquelin, mixing up snappy tackles with cynical fouls. The best Bielik and Willock can hope for is a loan deal to a Championship side.

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 5-0 win over Southampton

Walcott notched a hat trick on Saturday and Welbeck opened his account this season with two goals as the Gunners thrashed Southampton 5-0 in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Last November, Arsenal lost 2-0 to the Saints in the League Cup after fielding a weakened team. The Gunners learned their lesson and picked a stronger starting lineup while Southampton preferred to rest some key players.

  1. Perez is such an underrated player

Arsenal signed Perez last summer because of his goalscoring abilities. But the Spaniard has tremendous passing skills too. He hit 3 accurate through balls out of 4, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. He also displayed a fantastic work-rate by winning 4 tackles.

fa-cup-southampton

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

In the role of a false nine, Perez helped create two goals with some nifty link-up play. He fed Welbeck for the opening goal in the 15th minute. Initially, the play didn’t look dangerous when Maitland-Niles found Perez back to goal. But Perez created some space behind the Saints’ backline by dropping back and he gave them no time to regroup by making a first-time pass. You can see Perez’s intelligence on the pitch as he spots Welbeck’s run before receiving the ball from Maitland-Niles. Welbeck then played a one-two with Perez before setting up Walcott for the third goal in the 35th.

Perez struck a good understanding with Welbeck at St Mary’s stadium just like he was on the same wavelength with Ozil against Ludogorets and with Giroud against Preston and Bournemouth. He made a teasing cross for Welbeck in the fifth minute but the England international couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Perez also teed up Bellerin, who shot straight at the goalkeeper in the 53rd.

  1. Maitland-Niles is the revelation of the season

Much like Bellerin enjoyed a breakthrough season two years ago and Iwobi broke into the first team last season, Maitland-Niles is the youngster who is knocking on the door of the manager with a string of good performances.

At 19, Maitland-Niles is already showing some smart positional play. He helped set a good tempo on Saturday by taking very few touches. His sober and clean performance as a holding midfielder allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain to focus on his playmaking duties. Maitland-Niles won 6 tackles and made 3 interceptions, the most for any player in both categories according to whoscored.com. He also made 79 passes, the most for any player, an obvious sign that his teammates trust him on the pitch.

If Maitland-Niles keeps performing at this level, he could leapfrog Elneny in the pecking order just like Bellerin got ahead of Debuchy and Jenkinson. Maitland-Niles stood on his feet to win a tackle inside the Arsenal area in the 44th. Knowing that Xhaka got sent off for some reckless challenges, it must be good news for the manager to see that Maitland-Niles does not dive in.

His reading of the game also saved the Gunners a couple of times. Long in the 51st and Sims in the 74th got the better of Mustafi, but each time Maitland-Niles covered the Germany international to either clear the danger or make a crucial block. He also came to Bellerin’s rescue when the Spaniard lost possession in the 56th.

Maitland-Niles seems more ready than Holding or Reine-Adelaide to join the first team. Holding still needs to iron out basic mistakes like taking unnecessary risks in his own half while Reine-Adelaide is a bit too soft for the Premier League despite showing his class with some stunning dribbling moves. The French teenager was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any Arsenal player.

  1. The Ox is a solid option in central midfield

Oxlade-Chamberlain really looked comfortable in the deep-lying playmaker role. He made 3 key passes, more than any other player, and slipped 2 accurate through balls out of 3. His passing range also helped the Ox hit 7 accurate long balls out of 8.

The former Southampton player created the second goal in the 22nd with a ball over the top for Welbeck, who ghosted past Stephens to beat Lewis. The Ox also played Perez clean through on goal with a long ball in the 89th, but the Spaniard was denied by Lewis. His delivery on set pieces was a mixed bag. The Ox wasted a free kick and a corner by overhitting the ball. On a more positive note, Mustafi met an Ox free kick in the 29th to head wide from six yards.

Some fans may wonder why the Ox is not playing more often in midfield. Competition with Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka is one obvious explanation. But another reason is the time it took for the Ox to mature as a player. In the past seasons, inconsistency combined with a high turnover rate and an average decision-making have prevented the Ox from claiming a starting spot in midfield.

The Southampton game was pretty much an audition for central midfielders since Coquelin and Ramsey are the only two players available now. Xhaka is serving a four-game suspension, Elneny is on national duty with Egypt and Cazorla may not return before April.

The Ox and Maitland-Niles formed a complementary duo. However, we shouldn’t get our hopes high too quickly. The Southampton midfield was poor. Also, there’s no guarantee that Maitland-Niles or the Ox will perform as well with a different partner in central midfield. For the next FA Cup game, Wenger could test again the tandem formed by the Ox and Maitland-Niles or experiment with a Ramsey-Maitland duo or an Ox-Coquelin duo.

  1. Sanchez is always hungry

Somehow, the manager couldn’t keep Sanchez on the bench for the entire match. The Chile striker replaced Welbeck in the 64th and showed his hunger by making two assists. He capitalized on a mazy run from the Ox in the 69th to cut the ball back for Walcott, who made it 4-0 with a low strike into the far corner. Sanchez then collected a long ball from Perez in the 84th and kept two defenders busy before picking out Walcott, who sealed the game with a first-time finish.

  1. Gibbs is not taking his chance

Monreal has had his ups and downs this season. Yet, Gibbs has not been able to snatch the starting spot at leftback. Monreal has made 20 starts in the Premier League compared to just 2 for Gibbs. Saturday’s game showed why. Gibbs gave away a cheap free kick on the edge of the box by tripping Long in the 32nd. The Saints then capitalized on silly turnovers from Gibbs in the 45th and 76th to start counterattacks.

  1. The Premier League is still the top priority

Wenger clearly had Tuesday’s game against Watford on his mind as he left regular starters like Cech, Koscielny, Coquelin, Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud out of the squad while giving some playing time to youngsters like Reine-Adelaide and Maitland-Niles and to second-choice players like Ospina, Holding, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Perez and Welbeck. The Gunners need a victory over Watford to stay in the title race.

  1. Wenger started serving his four-game ban

The manager watched the match from the stands and it made no real difference since Wenger is not a control freak like Conte or Guardiola. Bould proved just as quiet on the bench as the French manager usually is. On paper, Wenger mostly makes an impact on the game with the starting lineup, tactical adjustments at halftime and substitutions in the second half. The touchline ban did not affect Wenger’s influence on the team, especially since the Gunners were leading 3-0 at the end of the first half.

I thought the 10-game ban suggested by some pundits was simply ridiculous. Pardew was hit with a two-game suspension for pushing a linesman in 2012. A four-game ban looked like standard punishment for the small shove on Taylor in the 2-1 win over Burnley combined with the red card for dissent. It wouldn’t have made sense to punish Wenger with a 10-game ban knowing that Pardew was suspended for 7 games in 2014 for headbutting a player. In fact, it would have made the FA look bad to hit Wenger with the same 10-game ban Suarez got for biting Ivanovic in 2013. Comparing a shove with a bite, really?

  1. Mertesacker is back in the squad

Mertesacker sat on the bench at St Mary’s stadium after recovering from a knee injury he picked up last summer. The German centerback is a leader in the dressing room but I’m not sure he should be on the bench for a Premier League game. Mertesacker’s lack of pace makes the Gunners vulnerable on the fast break and prevents them from playing a high defensive line efficiently. Paulista’s decision-making can be dodgy, but I still think he would be a more valuable centerback as long as he plays alongside Koscielny. Putting Mertesacker on the bench would also mean slowing down Holding’s development.

  1. Improving the chemistry in the dressing room

There are a couple of days left before the end of the winter transfer window. It’s unlikely that the club will sign a new player this month. However, the Gunners should take advantage of that window to make some adjustments in the squad and get rid of grumpy players who want more playing time.

Debuchy is the big thorn in Arsenal’s side. A loan seems the most realistic option given his age and wages. Jenkinson is of no use either for the team as he has slipped behind Bellerin, Paulista and Maitland-Niles in the pecking order at rightback. Crystal Palace and Arsenal have agreed a deal but the move has stalled because of Jenkinson’s salary demands. The club might also consider loaning out Akpom and Reine-Adelaide to speed up their development.

 

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Preston

The Gunners overcame an embarrassing first-half performance on Saturday to edge Preston 2-1 in the third round of the FA Cup. The Lilywhites may ply their trade in the Championship, the second division of English football, they still managed to outplay Arsenal for 45 minutes. It was as bad as the 1-1 draw with Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

  1. An FA Cup game is about work-rate and desire

Preston took a leaf out of Bournemouth’s playbook by giving everything in the first half. The Lilywhites played at a high tempo and showed more commitment than Arsenal, whose lack of intensity was blatant. The Gunners looked like they were playing some kind of pre-season friendly. The poor defensive contribution from the attacking players allowed Preston to easily reach the Arsenal box on counterattacks.

fa-cup-preston

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

It’s only after the halftime break that the Gunners fixed those issues. In the old days, Vieira, Petit or Gilberto Silva would have screamed at their teammates for their poor work-rate. I felt Xhaka and Ramsey should have said in the first half that they needed more defensive support. If there’s a lack of leadership on the pitch, then it becomes a liability because the best teams have players who can quickly spot problems and make adjustments without waiting for the manager to intervene. The Lilywhites parked the bus in the second half as they started tiring while Arsenal played with more purpose.

The Gunners’ first-half performance was so pathetic that Preston could have led 3-0. Hugill made a run in behind Monreal to collect a through ball from McGeady in the seventh minute. The Preston striker fed Robinson, who beat Ospina with a low strike. Arsenal lost three duels on that play as Monreal failed to intercept McGeady’s pass, Paulista missed his clearance and Mustafi was beaten to the ball by Robinson.

The Lilywhites nearly doubled the lead on a counterattack in the 22nd but Mustafi blocked Robinson’s header. Two minutes later, Paulista gifted Preston another chance with a poor offside trap. Robinson got away from Paulista to cross the ball for Hugill, who couldn’t make contact for a tap-in. Ospina kept the Gunners in the game by turning around the post a dipping drive from Pearson in the 25th. Mustafi then lost possession on the edge of the box with a poor first touch in the 36th but Gallagher’s lob attempt was cleared off the line by Monreal.

Fatigue played a role in Tuesday’s 3-3 draw with Bournemouth. That was not the case for Saturday’s game at Deepdale stadium since Arsenal had 3 full days of rest and Wenger made 5 changes to the side that played in Bournemouth with Ospina, Paulista, Maitland-Niles, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Perez replacing Cech, Koscielny, Bellerin, Coquelin and Sanchez in the starting lineup.

  1. Perez is a good value signing

The Gunners signed him for 20 million euros last summer. Perez has shown great work-rate as well as consistency in his performances after needing a couple of months to recover from an ankle injury and adapt to English football. He set up Giroud with a backheel flick for the winning goal in the 89th. What I like about Perez is that he’s technically more gifted than Walcott but also works harder. His attitude is spot on. He’s also more consistent than the Ox.

Perez has struck a good understanding with Giroud. He played a one-two with the France striker in the 16th before firing straight at Maxwell from the edge of the box. Giroud then volleyed home the Spaniard’s cross in the 77th but the goal was disallowed for offside. That kind of understanding is important for the team because Giroud heavily depends on good service to find the net.

  1. Giroud scores important goals

His late goal against Preston sent Arsenal into the next round of the FA Cup. Giroud has scored 9 goals in all competitions this season. Seven were game-changing goals. In the Premier League, he scored twice in the 4-1 win over Sunderland on Oct. 29. His first goal gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead and his second made it 3-1. Giroud also scored the equalizer in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United on Nov. 19. He then netted the winner in the 1-0 victory over West Brom on Dec. 26 and opened the scoring in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on Jan. 1 before salvaging a point in the 3-3 draw with Bournemouth. In the Champions League, Giroud made it 2-2 at Ludogorets before Ozil scored the winner. He also made it 1-1 in the 2-2 draw with Paris Saint-Germain. Basically, only his second goal against Sunderland and his equalizer against PSG did not directly yield points.

  1. Ramsey opened his account

In a season marred by injuries, Ramsey finally scored his first goal in the 46th. Iwobi held off three Lilywhites to buy time for Ramsey, who equalized from 18 yards. The shot was at a good height for Maxwell but simply had too much power.

Ramsey finished the game with 102 passes. Only Xhaka made more passes with 112. Ramsey is definitely a box-to-box player, not a playmaker. He made just 1 key pass, less than five other Gunners (Maitland, Mustafi, Perez, Iwobi and the Ox). His main strength is to make those deep runs and be in a good position to score. He played a one-two with Giroud in the 33rd but was reluctant to shoot with his weaker foot. See the screen capture below. Ramsey checked back before slipping the ball to Perez and the chance was gone.

preston-a-edited

Ramsey’s shooting options with his left foot from 16 yards (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Wales midfielder also met a cross from Maitland in the 36th for a header that Maxwell saved. The Gunners need Ramsey to be close to his performance level of the 2013-14 season if they want to finish in the Top 4, especially since Cazorla won’t return before March. In modern football, midfielders who can both attack and defend are a hot commodity because they can make a big difference in transition plays.

  1. Welbeck is back

In his return from a knee injury, Welbeck came off the bench to replace the Ox in the 83rd. Welbeck nearly scored in stoppage time with a curling shot that Maxwell tipped over the bar. Although Welbeck played on the left wing, he’s a more interesting option up front because he’s the only forward in the Arsenal squad who can win headers and hold the ball up like Giroud.

  1. Maitland-Niles’ future is in midfield

The manager is looking for alternatives at rightback because Jenkinson and Debuchy are poor options if Bellerin gets injured. Maitland-Niles’ performance as a fullback was a mixed bag. He made 2 key passes and 8 tackles, more than any other Gunner, but he also failed to stop some dangerous crosses from McGeady. Maitland-Niles especially struggled to hit the brakes and turn quickly. It wasn’t as bad as Chambers but Maitland-Niles doesn’t look like a natural fullback. I believe ballwinner is his best position. Since Coquelin is sidelined by a hamstring injury, it would make sense to play Maitland-Niles as a defensive midfielder in the next FA Cup game.

  1. Some attacking players forget their defensive duties

Iwobi and the Ox made 2 key passes each but contributed little defensively. They made no tackle and were not tidy in possession with 7 turnovers each, according to whoscored.com. They must improve their work-rate if they want to become regular starters. Offensively, Iwobi had a decent game as he made the assist for Ramsey’s goal and fed Giroud in the 34th for a chip that sailed wide. The Nigeria international also tested Maxwell with a low strike in the 86th. By contrast, the Ox had a rough day as he tried to overcomplicate things instead of keeping it simple.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-0 loss to Southampton

In their first defeat since August, the Gunners lost 2-0 to Southampton in the fifth round of the League Cup on Wednesday. I couldn’t care less about the League Cup. Spain, Germany and Italy only have one cup competition while England is stupid enough to exhaust its clubs with two cup competitions. Therefore, I completely agree with Wenger’s decision to rest his key players in the League Cup. However, Wednesday’s game showed some significant weaknesses that could hurt Arsenal in the Premier League.

  1. Our bench is not good enough

Wenger made 10 changes to the side that defeated Bournemouth 3-1 on Sunday. The Saints also heavily rotated as Puel dropped eight players who started in the 1-0 victory over Everton last weekend. Basically, the Southampton bench proved stronger than the Arsenal bench. Experienced players like Jenkinson and Elneny showed their limitations while Ramsey and Gibbs under-performed.

league-cup-southampton

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

The 18-year-old Reine-Adelaide got the nod on the right wing but is nowhere near the level of Manchester United forward Rashford, who made his breakthrough at the same age last season. I believe Reine-Adelaide still needs more time with the U23 team to hone his skills and learn from his mistakes.

Iwobi was arguably our best player. He burst from midfield in the 49th minute to release Jenkinson down the right flank. The Arsenal rightback made a cross for Ramsey, who shot straight at Forster with a sliding effort. Iwobi then cut inside in the 83rd to test Forster from the edge of the box.

In his return from an ankle injury, Perez struggled in the lone striker role. The Spaniard made quite a few misplaced passes and had very little support from his teammates. Perez finished the game with just one shot on target, a tame strike from a tight angle in the 47th. He obviously lacks match fitness but could be an interesting option on the left wing.

  1. The rightback position is a concern

Bellerin won’t be back before mid-December while Debuchy picked up a hamstring injury against Bournemouth. That means Jenkinson is the only rightback left in the squad. Jenkinson performed poorly against Southampton as both goals came from his flank. He failed to close down Bertrand in the 13th. Boufal connected with Bertrand’s cross but had his shot blocked by Holding. The rebound fell into the path of Clasie, who fired home from 16 yards. Then Jenkinson lost possession to Bertrand in the 38th and walked back toward the Arsenal box instead of tracking Boufal, who teed up Bertrand for a low strike into the bottom corner.

The Saints nearly scored a third goal in the 51st when Jenkinson gave away the ball with a poor pass but Martinez palmed away Long’s drive. When Maitland-Niles replaced Jenkinson in the 64th, the pessimist in me thought Wenger wanted to rest Jenkinson before Saturday’s match against West Ham while the optimist in me hoped the manager tried to find an alternative at rightback.

Jenkinson had a passing accuracy of 69%, the lowest percentage among all the defenders according to the club’s website. I’d be pretty scared if Jenkinson starts in our next Premier League games because Payet, Arnautovic, Bolasie and Sterling could create a lot of problems down our right flank. If it was up to me, I’d give a chance to Maitland-Niles or Holding. In the 80th, Maitland-Niles made a cross for Gibbs, whose header was cleared off the line by Yoshida. In the closing minutes, Maitland-Niles made a crucial block to prevent McQueen from tapping home.

  1. The Gunners must improve their defensive awareness

They concede a lot of chances because of ball-watching. When the Saints opened the scoring, Elneny saw the play unfold but had no clue that Clasie was just a few yards behind him to smash the rebound home. It was a lack of defensive awareness similar to the goal netted by Mata at Old Trafford. The second goal showed the same flaw with Ramsey and Coquelin jogging toward the ball and leaving plenty of space for Bertrand to run into. Can Wenger find a trick in his training sessions to improve his team’s defensive awareness?

Very often young players focus on creating chances and forget their defensive duties. It happened at least twice with Iwobi on Wednesday. Iwobi gave Martina plenty of space in the 50th for a cross that Long headed over the bar. Then Iwobi failed to track Martina on a counterattack in the 55th, but Holding managed to clear Martina’s cross for Long.

McQueen was also left unmarked after Martinez punched away a corner in the 56th but the Southampton winger had his shot deflected wide. Then Davis took advantage of some poor marking from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xhaka to volley McQueen’s cross over the bar in the 77th.

  1. The manager must ditch the Elneny-Coquelin duo

Arsenal badly lacked creativity with Coquelin and Elneny in midfield. They struggled to build play from the back, making a lot of lateral passes but providing no penetration in their passing game. Elneny made no tackle and won only 25% of his duels, the lowest percentage among the starting midfielders. He picked up a yellow card for pulling back Bertrand in the 29th and was replaced by Xhaka in the 43rd.

Xhaka tested Forster with a 35-yard free kick in the 54th and fed Oxlade-Chamberlain for Arsenal’s best chance in the 79th but the Ox missed the target from 13 yards. The Switzerland international made 4 shot assists while Elneny made none in the first half. That’s the big difference between Xhaka and Elneny: Xhaka makes more forward passes.

Knowing that Cazorla will be sidelined for 3 months because of a nagging ankle injury, I believe Wenger should build his midfield around Xhaka. Cazorla provided defensive stability to the team via his partnership with Coquelin as well as attacking fluidity via his understanding with Ozil.

Elneny would be a weak link in a partnership with Xhaka because he has worse defensive and offensive stats than Xhaka. By contrast, Coquelin is a better tackler than Xhaka while Ramsey is a bigger goal threat than the Switzerland international. It’s up to the manager to find out whether Coquelin or Ramsey is the best partner for Xhaka.

  1. The Gunners are too vulnerable on the flanks

Most of Southampton’s chances came from the flanks. Gibbs and Jenkinson won only 20% and 30% of their duels respectively, whereas Bertrand and Martina won more than 85% of their duels. The only time the Saints managed to carve open the heart of the Arsenal defense was in the 78th. Hojbjerg won a duel against Coquelin and the ball fell to Davis, who slipped a through ball to Long. The Southampton striker had just Martinez to beat but shot wide. Paulista was not tight enough to Davis on that play while Holding was on the wrong side of Long.

  1. Modern football is about penetration, not possession

The Gunners enjoyed 62.7% of ball possession but produced very few chances, with just 5 shots on target compared to 4 for the Saints. Of those 5 Arsenal shots, 3 were long-range strikes. The Gunners could have lost by a bigger margin if Martinez had not made two fine saves, tipping Sims’ shot around the far post in the 84th and diving to save Hojbjerg’s powerful strike in stoppage time. Martinez is a solid No. 3 goalkeeper and it’s great news that the club extended his contract last month.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-0 win over Reading

Oxlade-Chamberlain scored both goals in the 2-0 win over Reading on Tuesday to send Arsenal into the quarterfinals of the League Cup. The Premier League is definitely a much more important competition as the manager made nine changes to the side that drew with Middlesbrough last weekend.

  1. Ox deserves a starting spot

On current form, the Ox should be the one starting on the left wing against Sunderland on Saturday. He capitalized on a Reading turnover in the 33rd minute to open the scoring from a tight angle despite two defenders attempting to make a block. The Ox then pounced on a pass from Giroud to beat Al-Habsi in the 78th with a first-time effort that deflected off a defender. Besides his finishing, the Ox also created chances. He slipped a through ball to Perez, who wasted the chance with some questionable decision-making in the 22nd. The only negative was the two corners poorly taken by the Ox.

arsenal-vs-reading

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

Iwobi performed better than the Ox last season but that’s no reason to turn Iwobi into an automatic starter in the Premier League. Despite a recent dip in form, Iwobi had a decent game against Reading. He released the Ox down the right flank in the eighth minute and the England international dragged a low shot wide of the far post. A minute later, Iwobi sent Reine-Adelaide clean through on goal, but a poor first touch from the French teenager enabled Al-Habsi to gather the ball. Iwobi also had a couple of cheap turnovers in the first half before testing the Reading goalkeeper with a long-range drive in the 77th.

  1. Giroud returns from injury

The France striker replaced Reine-Adelaide in the 65th and quickly showed what Arsenal missed against Middlesbrough with his physical presence inside the box. Giroud met a free kick from Elneny in the 70th for a powerful header that Al-Habsi parried. He then fed the Ox, who had his 15-yard effort saved by Al-Habsi in the 74th. Four minutes later, Giroud set up the Ox for the second goal. Giroud doesn’t have Sanchez’s pace, but he’s stronger in the air and can bring teammates into play while back to goal.

Giroud’s return is coming at the right time as Perez seemed to pick up a nasty injury. Gravenberch stamped on Perez’s ankle in the 69th, forcing the Spaniard to be replaced by Willow in the 71st. Perez had a relatively quiet game. He could have scored in the 22nd by rounding the goalkeeper or curling a shot but he preferred to set up Reine-Adelaide for a tap-in. The Royals killed the chance by intercepting Perez’s pass, which was slightly behind Reine-Adelaide anyway.

  1. Debuchy has no future at Arsenal

The League Cup could have been an opportunity for Debuchy to get some playing time but the manager decided to start Jenkinson on the right flank. You can’t blame Wenger for such a choice. On the one hand, you have an aging player who performed poorly last season and bad-mouthed the manager. On the other, you have a young player recovering from a knee injury and accepting to deputize for Bellerin. A mid-season loan would be the best option for Debuchy to revive his career.

Jenkinson’s technical limitations were quite obvious against Reading. The English fullback doesn’t have Bellerin’s dribbling skills but he still managed to test Al-Habsi in the sixth minute. Jenkinson failed to close down Obita in the 61st. Kermorgant connected with Obita’s cross for a header that Martinez saved.

  1. Paulista is still a dodgy defender

The Brazilian centerback made 4 of the 7 fouls committed by Arsenal. It’s still a mystery how he finished the game with no yellow card despite tripping Harriott in the 10th and fouling Samuel on the edge of the box in the 88th. Paulista looked so reckless that Holding could be a better second choice if Koscielny or Mustafi gets injured.

  1. What could have been for Gibbs

Gibbs wore the armband for that game because he was the most senior player on the pitch. At 27, he should be challenging Monreal for a starting spot. Gibbs has more pace than the Spaniard. He made a fantastic recovery tackle in the 24th after Maitland-Niles underhit a back pass. Unfortunately, Gibbs also showed why he’s not an England starter and why Monreal is still ahead in the pecking order despite average performances this season. As the last defender in the 52nd, Gibbs had a lapse of concentration and lost possession to McCleary. Bearing down on goal, McCleary had his pass for Samuel intercepted by Gibbs.

  1. The Gunners still lack creativity in midfield

Elneny teamed up with Maitland-Niles in midfield and struggled to engineer the build-up play. The Egypt international doesn’t have the passing skills of Cazorla or Xhaka, he’s mostly a utility midfielder. It’s only when the Ox drifted inside or when Iwobi dropped back that the Gunners were able to put Reading on the back foot. Elneny took a pass from Jenkinson in the 30th to fire an angled strike that Al-Habsi stopped.

  1. Martinez would be a better No. 3 than Szczesny

Could you imagine Szczesny accepting to be the No. 3 goalkeeper behind Cech and Ospina? Not really. That’s why it would make more sense to retain Martinez and sell Szczesny for the sake of team chemistry. Martinez produced a fine performance, saving Kermorgant’s header in the 61st and palming away the Reading susbtitute’s free kick in the 89th.

  1. No academy player is close to the regular starters’ level

The only academy players who started the game were Reine-Adelaide and Maitland-Niles. Reine-Adelaide showed flashes of brilliance, like the backheel flick that played Jenkinson in after five minutes, but he’s still a raw player. The French teenager was too slow in his decision-making and took too much time to release the ball. He needs to play more often with his head up and improve his reading of the game.

Maitland-Niles made some timely interceptions but he lacked accuracy in the final third, overhitting two final balls in the second half. Willock and Zelalem came off the bench in the last 20 minutes and didn’t show much. I guess Reine-Adelaide, Maitland-Niles, Willock and Zelalem will still need to hone their skills with the under-23 team.

 

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 4-0 win over Nottingham Forest

Perez opened his Arsenal account by scoring twice in the 4-0 rout of Nottingham Forest in the third round of the League Cup on Tuesday. What made the result even more sweet after last year’s shambolic performance against Sheffield Wednesday is that those who started in the 4-1 win over Hull on Saturday were left out of the squad.

  1. The League Cup is the least important competition for the big clubs

The Premier League has become so competitive and the Champions League burns so much energy that the top English clubs can no longer take the risk of fielding their best players in the League Cup.

league-cup-notts

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

To compensate for the relative inexperience of Martinez, Holding, Maitland-Niles, Reine-Adelaide and Akpom, the Arsenal manager also relied on four internationals (Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Xhaka and Elneny) and two players familiar with top-level football (Paulista and Perez). Chelsea adopted a similar approach against Leicester by heavily rotating. Courtois, Ivanovic, Kante, Oscar, and Willian were rested while Hazard and Costa only came off the bench in the second half.

  1. Only Xhaka and Perez are close to the regular starters’ level

Xhaka opened the scoring in the 23rd minute with a long-range strike into the top corner similar to the goal he netted against Hull on Saturday. At least the Swiss international is giving Wenger some food for thought for the upcoming game against Chelsea.

Perez didn’t show much in his first Arsenal start against Southampton. It’s true that he got no decent service that day. Perez finally made a good impression in his second start by scoring two goals and making an assist.

The Spanish striker was pretty quiet in the first half. He won a ball in the 12th to lead a counterattack but his cross was intercepted. Perez became more confident in the second half. He first tested Stojkovic with a curling free kick in the 50th. Then he slipped a through ball to Akpom, who was shoved from behind by Mancienne in the 59th. Perez converted the subsequent penalty to make it 2-0. Stojkovic guessed right, but Perez’s spot kick had enough power to beat the Forest goalkeeper. If Perez were a regular starter, there’s no doubt he would be ahead of Sanchez and Ozil on the list of penalty takers.

Perez has been compared to Vardy for his pace and work-rate. The Spaniard showed that gritty part of his game in the 71st when Mancienne intercepted a pass from Akpom. Perez dispossessed Mancienne, dribbled past Stojkovic and held off a defender to slot into an empty net for a 3-0 lead. He could have notched a hat trick but sent his first-time effort straight at Stojkovic in the 74th. In stoppage time, Perez played Oxlade-Chamberlain in for the fourth goal.

I believe Perez would definitely be a better centerforward than Sanchez. His link-up play is good and he feels more comfortable than Sanchez playing back to goal. The only question mark is the level of understanding Perez has been able to strike in training with Ozil, Walcott, Sanchez, Cazorla and the other regular starters.

  1. Can the Ox finally have that breakthrough season?

At 23, the Ox still has a bit of time to prove himself. But if he can’t get more goals and assists in his sixth Premier League season, the staff will have to analyze why his development has stalled. On Tuesday, Wenger played the Ox as a No. 10. Four years ago, the Ox shone in that role against AC Milan in the Champions League. Surprisingly, the Ox struggled to have an impact against Forest. Reine-Adelaide played on the right wing but seemed more creative than the Ox when drifting inside.

The Ox sent a corner straight into touch in the 20th and wasted a free kick easily cleared by Bendtner in the 76th. It’s only when the manager replaced Reine-Adelaide and Akpom with Zelalem and Willock in the 82nd that the Ox performed at a good level. Back on the right wing, the Ox had a low strike saved by Stojkovic in the 86th. Three minutes later, the Ox set up Perez for a shot blocked by the Forest defense. In stoppage time, the Ox took a pass from Perez to beat Stojkovic with a low finish.

  1. Speeding up the development of Holding and Reine-Adelaide

Holding had a good game but he needs to get rid of lapses of concentration. He gave away the ball with a poor first touch in the ninth minute. Kasami pounced on the offering but missed the target. There’s not much Holding could have done about his yellow card in the 37th. Elneny put him in a tough spot with a risky back pass and Holding ended up fouling Kasami with a studs-up challenge. The next logical step for Holding’s development would be to loan him out to a Premier League side in January, assuming Mertesacker recovers from his knee injury by then.

Reine-Adelaide was frustrating to watch in the pre-season friendlies because he took too many touches and often lost possession. On Tuesday, the teenager released the ball more quickly and cut his turnover rate. His efficiency in the final third is still a weakness but at least he’s making a step in the right direction. Reine-Adelaide slipped a through ball to Akpom, who was denied by Stojkovic in the 13th. On the stroke of halftime, the Frenchman controlled a high pass from Akpom only to shoot wide of the far post. The manager might contemplate loaning him out to a Championship side in January.

  1. What does the manager see in Akpom and Maitland-Niles?

Perez’s presence up front led Wenger to play Akpom on the left wing. Akpom was involved in the second and third goals. He also diverted a pass from Xhaka into the path of Perez, whose shot deflected off a defender in the 79th. However, I’m not sure Akpom has any future as a winger. He doesn’t seem to have great crossing or dribbling skills and he had a tendency to slow down play in the first half. His work-rate is still an issue. Pereira was able to make a couple of dangerous runs because Akpom didn’t track him. Akpom was also dispossessed by the Forest fullback in the 56th. My guess is that centerforward is the most suited position for Akpom. A loan to a Championship side would be the most likely scenario since Giroud, Sanchez and Perez are ahead of him in the pecking order.

Maitland-Niles has mostly played as a midfielder in his short Arsenal career. The manager converted him into a fullback for the Forest game. That’s how Bellerin redefined his career and enjoyed a breakthrough in the first team. Obviously, there’s still a long way to go for Maitland-Niles. He made a couple of teasing crosses and was on the wrong side of Osborn for Forest’s best chance in the 81st. I guess he’ll stay at the academy this season to continue his development.

  1. No regrets about Bendtner and Lansbury

Bendtner has decent stats with the Denmark team but he has never really been convincing at club level. His spells at Juventus and Wolfsburg show that Wenger was right to let him go. He received a yellow card in the 16th for a late tackle on Xhaka and his only shot on target was a tame low drive at the end of the first half.

Lansbury was the typical academy player with great work-rate but limited talents. He has enjoyed a decent career at Nottingham Forest since his departure from Arsenal. He managed to make three nasty fouls on Tuesday before getting booked in the 66th for a relatively benign challenge on Perez. Lansbury and Bendtner are a reminder that not every academy prospect makes the step up.