Tag Archives: Maitland-Niles

Arsenal vs. Standard de Liège: A few thoughts on the 4-0 win

   The Gunners took control of Group F in the Europa League by thrashing Standard de Liège 4-0 on Thursday to move 3 points clear of the Belgian side and Frankfurt. They also earned their second straight clean sheet in that European competition, allowing just 12 shots compared to 24 against Frankfurt.

Arsenal vs. Standard.jpgPhoto credit: Getty images

   Emery made 10 changes to the side that drew 1-1 at Old Trafford on Monday with only Torreira retaining his starting spot. The makeshift team looked a lot like the one that knocked Nottingham Forest out of the League Cup.

   Emery clearly emphasized youth in his team selection. At the exception of Mustafi and Martinez, both 27, all the players were 24 or younger: Bellerin 24, Holding 24, Torreira 23, Ceballos 23, Tierney 22, Maitland-Niles 22, Willock 20, Nelson 19, Martinelli 18. According to the club’s website, it was the second youngest starting lineup fielded by Arsenal in European football.

   There are two advantages in playing youngsters. First, they are still learning the ropes and will more easily follow a manager’s instructions than veteran players. And second, they have plenty of energy to press high up the pitch. Liverpool’s gegenpressing game is all about work-rate. Likewise, Manchester City’s high-intensity football also requires a significant work-rate.

  1. Martinelli stole the show

   He scored 2 goals and made 1 assist on Thursday. Emery has cautiously handled Martinelli’s development so far, giving him his first start in the League Cup where he netted twice against Nottingham Forest. The Spanish manager waited for another home game to give him his second start. Les Rouges are a better side than Forest, so it was a calculated risk from Emery to see whether Martinelli could perform at a slightly higher level.

   Martinelli opened the scoring in the 13th minute with a glancing header into the far corner. He then doubled the lead in the 16th by taking a pass from Nelson before firing into the bottom corner. The Brazilian teenager had many chances in the second half to notch a hat trick but his finishing touch deserted him. He curled a shot wide in the 48th, slipped before pulling the trigger in the 50th, missed the target with a sliding effort in the 53rd, had a header saved by Milinkovic-Savic in the 64th and headed Aubameyang’s cross wide in stoppage time.

   Maybe the most impressive part in Martinelli’s performance was his work-rate. He had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 3 of 5 tackles and led all players with 5 key passes, including an assist for Ceballos in the 57th. His flair for goals is obvious but Martinelli is more a second striker than a pure centerforward because of his passing ability and his tendency to play between the lines. To a certain extent, Martinelli reminds me of Bebeto.

  1. The Ozil conundrum

   You would think that the Europa League was the perfect opportunity to give Ozil some playing time. But Emery decided to leave him out of the squad. I’m not shocked by Emery’s choice. We know that the board already wanted to get rid of Ozil last season. Ozil will turn 31 this month. His stats started declining under Wenger. The German playmaker is not the future of this club and not even the present. He’s part of the dead wood that the Gunners must clear to rebuild a competitive team.

   What are the pros and cons? The pros: 1. Youngsters like Willock, Saka, Nelson and Martinelli get more playing time at Ozil’s expense; 2. Emery can implement his brand of football. Ceballos made 5 tackles against Standard, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal simply can’t press high up the pitch with Ozil’s poor work-rate. Now, the cons: 1. That’s bad publicity for the club; 2. Emery loses a tactical option. The Gunners only have 2 playmakers: Ceballos and Ozil. If Ceballos gets injured, there’s no playmaker left. The creative spark would then have to come from Lacazette, Saka or Nelson.

  1. Tierney showed his quality

   The Scottish fullback had 2 successful dribbles out of 2 and made 4 key passes, including the assist for the opening goal. Tierney showed a good balance between attack and defense. His defensive output matched his offensive contribution as he won 3 of 4 tackles, made 2 interceptions and had only 1 turnover.  

   The big difference between Tierney and Kolasinac is the quality of the crossing. Kolasinac feels more comfortable on the ground and therefore prefers to cut the ball back whereas Tierney has a better technique for high crosses. Tierney led all players with 4 accurate crosses out of 7, according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy also reached 92.9% compared to 80.9% for Bellerin, who is still a few games away from his best level.  

  1. Nelson is making progress

   At this stage of his career, Nelson is still struggling to show end product in the Premier League but he can make a significant impact in the Europa League. The English teenager has no goal or assist in 4 Premier League games this season but he set up Martinelli for the second goal against Les Rouges.

   Nelson produced a decent all-around performance, having 2 successful dribbles out of 6, making 3 key passes and 1 interception and winning 1 of 1 tackle in 78 minutes. Any positive experience in the Europa League can only boost his confidence and accelerate his development.

   The manager must have noticed the good understanding between Nelson and Martinelli. Besides the second goal, Nelson also created chances for the Brazilian striker in the 25th, the 53rd and the 64th. Martinelli returned the favor in the 43rd by sending Nelson clean through on goal but Milinkovic-Savic denied Nelson.

   Nelson has huge potential but he’s not the finished product yet. Defenders know that Nelson loves to check back on his right foot when he plays on the left wing. To avoid being too predictable, Nelson is learning to cross with his weaker left foot. One attempt sailed out of play in the 30th. But Nelson was not discouraged and he set up Ceballos with another left-footed cross in the 77th.

  1. Torreira did not convince in the No. 6 role

   Emery left Xhaka on the bench and let Torreira play in front of the back four. Torreira’s performance was a mixed bag because he’s still not playing at the level he showed a year ago. Torreira had only 1 turnover and no Standard player managed to dribble past him. But he made 3 fouls that could have been avoided. Torreira also showed poor decision-making in the 39th when he dived in for a 50-50 ball. Laifis won the ball and Les Rouges created a chance because Torreira left a huge gap in midfield. The Uruguay midfielder could have been more tidy in possession too. Torreira lost possession with a poor first touch in the ninth minute and gave the ball away in the 28th. The Gunners definitely need to sign a defensive midfielder next summer.  

  1. Willock is becoming an important player

   Ramsey was the link player connecting defense and attack last season. Willock is now playing that role for the Gunners following Ramsey’s departure to Juventus. The academy graduate scored his 3rd goal in 9 games this season, pouncing on a rebound to beat Milinkovic-Savic with a low strike in the 22nd. Willock could have also scored in the 17th but he volleyed Tierney’s cross over the bar.

   The crowd at the Emirates stadium got a glimpse of his generosity on the pitch when Willock led a counterattack by running 50 yards in the 41st. Holding onto the ball too long can sometimes be Willock’s péché mignon. He dallied on the ball in the 62nd and sent his final ball for Bellerin out of play. Willock still had a passing accuracy of 94.6% compared to 93.9% for Ceballos and 90.8% for Torreira, according to whoscored.com.

  1. Maitland-Niles’ limits were exposed

   A midfielder by trade in the academy, Maitland-Niles became a wingback under Wenger before Emery used him as a fullback. Some fans wanted to see Maitland-Niles play in midfield, thinking that he would perform better. Unfortunately, his technical limits were exposed against an average Belgian side.

   Maitland-Niles made 0 key pass, won 2 of 3 tackles and had 4 turnovers and 0 shot on target. His passing accuracy of 63.2% was the lowest percentage among outfield starters, according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles’ poor footwork led to a dangerous turnover in the 60th, forcing Martinez to parry Mpoku’s strike.

   I believe Maitland-Niles is too limited technically to play as a midfielder for a Top 4 club. If he desperately wants to play in midfield, then a move to a weaker club would be the logical outcome. For instance, Lansbury plays at Aston Villa and Hayden joined Newcastle. But at this stage of his career, wingback is Maitland-Niles’ best position.


Arsenal vs. Aston Villa: 10-man Gunners save Emery’s skin in 3-2 win

   Trailing 2-1 and down to 10 men, the Gunners found the mental resources to rally in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Aston Villa. That miraculous comeback helped Arsenal move into 4th place in the Premier League, level on points with Leicester and West Ham.

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa 2019Photo credit: Premier League

   Let’s be honest, Arsenal’s performance in the first half was embarrassing. The Gunners lacked urgency against a mediocre Villa team that will be fighting relegation this season. The crowd at the Emirates stadium had to wait until the 16th minute for Arsenal’s first chance of the game whereas the Villans had already tested Leno twice in the opening minutes. The boos at halftime were fully deserved.

   The positive result should not paper over the cracks. The Gunners have conceded 10 goals in their first 6 Premier League games. Only Chelsea, Norwich, Wolves and Watford have a worse defensive record than Arsenal. Although the Gunners allowed just 14 shots on Sunday compared to 31 against Watford and 24 against Frankfurt, the Arsenal midfield looked incredibly porous again as the Villans turned defense into attack too easily.  

   Emery doesn’t seem to have the answers in midfield. In fact, he has never started the same midfield in the Premier League this season. Guendouzi has made the most starts (6), followed by Xhaka (5), Ceballos (4), Willock (3), Torreira (1) and Ozil (1). All those changes tell us that Emery is still experimenting, which is a problem because that’s what the summer friendlies are for. When the season starts, a manager should have a clear idea of what his best options are.  

Benching a captain

   The Spanish manager must find a way to better protect the back four because Arsenal won’t be able to score 3 goals in every game. The first step should be to drop Xhaka from the starting lineup. Xhaka is simply not good enough as a holding midfielder. Emery gave him the armband but he shouldn’t be afraid of benching him. His predecessor, Wenger, was ruthless with Vermaelen and Mertesacker even though they were his captains.

   The Gunners had no excuse for their sluggish start. Emery made 6 changes to the side that won 3-0 in Germany on Thursday with Leno, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles, Guendouzi, Ceballos and Pepe replacing Martinez, Mustafi, Chambers, Torreira, Willock and Smith-Rowe in the starting lineup. The opening goal came from a cross in the 20th. Maitland-Niles failed to close down El Ghazi, whose cross was flicked home by McGinn at the far post. Guendouzi failed to track McGinn’s run inside the box.

   Guendouzi led the comeback in the second half. He held off Trezeguet before dribbling inside the area where Engels tripped him. Pepe converted the subsequent penalty by firing down the middle to level the game in the 59th. Unfortunately, Arsenal leaked another goal a minute later with some casual defending. Grealish ran 40 yards unchallenged to square the ball back for Wesley, who beat Leno from close range. Guendouzi and Xhaka made Grealish look like Maradona while Sokratis failed to block Grealish’s pass and Luiz lost his duel with Wesley. Guendouzi created the second equalizer with a crossfield pass for Chambers in the 81st. Mings poorly cleared Chambers’ volleyed pass for Aubameyang. Reacting more quickly than Taylor, Chambers pounced on the loose ball to stab it past Heaton. Aubameyang scored the winning goal by drawing a foul from Engels in the 83rd. From 20 yards, Aubameyang curled the subsequent free kick into the bottom corner.

A generous team player

   Aubameyang is the kind of player who would deserve to wear the armband. He performs week in week out. Scoring 7 goals from 7 games in all competitions so far is the very definition of consistency. And you can’t question his mentality. I guess Emery will give Aubameyang the evening off for the League Cup game against Nottingham Forest because there were some signs of fatigue against Villa.

   The Gabon striker completely missed his control with just the keeper to beat in the 16th. Then he dragged a low shot straight at Heaton in the 19th. Aubameyang also blazed over the bar after Sokratis flicked on a corner in the 71st. But he converted the free kick that made the difference in the 84th. As a true leader, Aubameyang took one for the team by making a cynical foul to kill a dangerous counterattack in stoppage time.

   Strikers are often selfish. But Aubameyang behaved like a generous team player by letting Pepe take the penalty in the 59th. Pepe finally scored his first Arsenal goal but his overall performance was a mixed bag. The Ivory Coast winger had 2 of 5 shots on target, was tied with Grealish for the most key passes (4) and led all players with 3 successful dribbles out of 5, according to whoscored.com.

   There were a couple of times when I thought Pepe could have done better. He ran into traffic in the fifth minute and his turnover led to a fast break for Villa. Pepe is smarter in his decision-making than Iwobi and usually knows when the situation is favorable for taking on a defender. He also wasted a scoring chance by overhitting his final ball for Saka in the 17th.

Pepe’s poor work-rate

   Yet, what really bothered me was Pepe’s poor work-rate. He only made 1 interception and 1 recovery in 95 minutes while Saka made 1 tackle, 1 block and 1 recovery in 45 minutes. McGinn toyed with Pepe in the 11th before unleashing a powerful long-range strike that Leno parried. Pepe also failed to close down McGinn in the 38th as the Scottish midfielder made a dangerous cross. That poor work-rate is a problem if Emery wants to implement a high press. Even a forward like Lacazette works harder than Pepe.

   On the left flank, Saka was rewarded for his outstanding performance in Germany with his first Premier League start. In the second minute, Saka made a pinpoint cross for Maitland-Niles, who missed the target from 9 yards. Then Saka took his chance in the 26th with a 25-yard drive that flirted with the bar. Despite those 2 brilliant moments, I thought Saka was a bit shy. The academy player had only 1 key pass in the first half with weaker stats than against Frankfurt even though the German side is arguably stronger than Villa. Hopefully, Saka will be more daring in his next starts.  

   Now, let’s talk about the midfield. That area of the pitch has been the main problem for Arsenal since the start of the season. Teams turn defense into attack too easily against the Gunners because the Arsenal midfield is too porous. Our midfielders either don’t work hard enough. Ceballos and Xhaka only made 5 defensive actions each in 71 minutes compared to 12 defensive actions for Guendouzi in 95 minutes. Or they are not good enough defensively. Ceballos was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, while Xhaka and Guendouzi were dribbled past twice each.

Lack of complementarity

   The Gunners had a bit more control when Torreira and Willock replaced Xhaka and Ceballos in the 72nd. That wasn’t surprising. Torreira and Willock are more mobile than Xhaka and also have more defensive awareness. You just have to look at the Liverpool midfield to understand why Torreira and Willock would be a perfect fit for Klopp’s gegenpressing tactics: Torreira and Willock have a similar profile to Milner, Wijnaldum, Henderson and Keita, all-rounders who can both defend and attack.

   Last season, Emery relied on the duo formed by Xhaka and Torreira to protect the back four. Their best defensive performance was the 1-1 draw with Liverpool. It all went south when Torreira’s form dipped and when Emery preferred to use Torreira as a box-to-box player in a more advanced position than Xhaka.

   This season, Emery has relied on the duo formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi to shield the defense. Xhaka and Guendouzi have started 5 Premier League games together. That partnership has proved a disaster because none of them is a ballwinner. Xhaka and Guendouzi are not even complementary as they are both deep-lying playmakers. At 20, Guendouzi is inconsistent but he can still improve while Xhaka has already reached his ceiling.

   The Villans capitalized on a poor crossfield pass from Xhaka in the third minute to create their first chance of the game. Trezeguet cut the ball back for McGinn, who shot straight at Leno. The visitors then exposed Xhaka’s lack of mobility. Trezeguet toyed with Xhaka in the 33rd before finding Wesley, whose tame effort didn’t trouble Leno. Xhaka lost his cool in the 35th when Grealish shielded the ball with his body. Unable to win the ball, Xhaka pulled Grealish back and received a yellow card. Xhaka also gave away a free kick on the edge of the Arsenal box with a silly tackle on Grealish in the 46th.

Ceballos’ disappointing performance

   Guendouzi bounced back from his dreadful performance against Watford by initiating the two equalizers against Villa. Offensively, Guendouzi was a magnet for his teammates, leading all players with 83 passes. He finished the game with 3 key passes and only 1 turnover. Guendouzi nearly scored in the 69th but Heaton turned his low drive around the post.

   Maybe the most interesting part in Guendouzi’s performance was his reaction after the Gunners conceded a second goal. Guendouzi didn’t give in. Instead, he showed character and led the team forward. Emery understood it was Guendouzi’s moment and took off Xhaka in the 72nd to let Guendouzi shine.

   Defensively, Guendouzi was guilty for both Villa goals. Emery must definitely play Guendouzi alongside a defensive midfielder to preserve the balance of the team. In the current squad, only Torreira and an aging Luiz can play that role.

   In the hole, Ceballos had a disappointing game. He was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Real Madrid loanee couldn’t even beat the first man with 2 corners in a row. His passing accuracy of 100% with 43 passes was misleading: Ceballos had no impact in the final third, making only 1 key pass. Last season, Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were inconsistent attacking midfielders. Ceballos is pretty much walking in their steps.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety

   At the back, Maitland-Niles showed his naivety again. His ejection was similar to what happened against Leicester last season. Maitland-Niles received a yellow card in the 11th for a cynical foul on El Ghazi. Instead of avoiding risky challenges until halftime, Maitland-Niles made a sliding tackle on Taylor in the 38th, taking the Villa fullback down with his follow-through. The referee made the right call by showing a second yellow card to Maitland-Niles.

   Xhaka deputized for a few minutes in the rightback position before Chambers came off the bench in the 46th to replace Saka and take over Maitland-Niles’ spot in a 4-3-2 formation. Nothing went Maitland-Niles’ way on Sunday. He missed the target from 9 yards in the second minute and ran the ball out of play in the 25th.

   It’s hard to have any sympathy for Maitland-Niles when you look at his stats. He only made 1 interception and 1 recovery in his 38-minute stint, according to the club’s website (the sliding tackle was counted as a foul). By contrast, Chambers made 1 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries in the second half besides finding the net. On the opposite flank, Kolasinac worked even harder, making 11 defensive actions (4 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries). The only blemish in Kolasinac’s performance was a poor clearance that led to an 18-yard effort by McGinn in the 60th.    

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis and Luiz looked like clowns on Villa’s second goal. In his prime, Koscielny would have won that key duel with Wesley. Luiz showed off his distribution skills with a passing accuracy of 92.6% compared to 79.6% for Sokratis. He also tested Heaton with a dipping free kick in the 66th. Physically, Luiz struggled to recover from the Frankfurt game as he only made 4 defensive actions (2 tackles, 2 recoveries) while Sokratis made 10 defensive actions (1 block, 2 interceptions, 7 recoveries).

A criminal scheduling

   Sokratis was pulled out of position on the play that led to Maitland-Niles’ first yellow card. The Greek centerback did a bit of play-acting in the 43rd while trying to get Wesley sent off. Hanging onto Wesley’s leg, Sokratis tried to engineer a collision between his head and the Villa striker’s knee. The acting was so comical that the referee and the VAR official were having none of it. Sokratis had 2 dodgy moments in the second half. First, he nearly scored an own goal by deflecting Mings’ shot in the 52nd. Then he blocked Hourihane’s strike with his shoulder in the 89th. The Villans had their penalty shout turned down.

   Frankly, I can’t wait for Holding to start again in the Premier League. There’s no way he could do worse in duels than Luiz and Sokratis. I assume Emery will play Holding in the League Cup game against Nottingham Forest to help him regain his fitness. I also expect Emery to rest his best players because the scheduling was criminal with only one day of rest between the Villa game and the League Cup fixture. The risk of an injury is too high with so little rest.

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

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

Watford vs. Arsenal 2019.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

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

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

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

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

Crushed in midfield

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

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

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

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

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

Poorly suited for playing out from the back

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

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

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

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

Pepe’s frustration

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

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

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

Ceballos’ work-rate

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

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

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

Guendouzi ain’t no Fabregas

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

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

Xhaka’s poor positional play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maitland-Niles’ torrid afternoon

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

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

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

Finding his best team

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal vs. Tottenham 2019Photo credit: Premier League

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

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

Attacking through the middle

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

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

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

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

Pepe too eager to score    

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

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

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

Lacazette’s outstanding work-rate

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

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

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

Xhaka snafu

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

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

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

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

Linking defense and attack

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

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

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

Instability at the back

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

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

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

Caught in two minds

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

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

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

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

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Lack of quality exposed in 3-1 loss

   Did anyone seriously expect the Gunners to win at Anfield on Saturday? The 3-1 loss to Liverpool simply showed the gap between a team that just won the Champions League and an Arsenal side that finished outside the Top 4 in the Premier League. On the bright side, the Gunners are still 2 points clear of Chelsea and Manchester United in the standings.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal 2019.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   The Reds were obviously a much tougher test than Burnley. Their pressing game exposed the weaknesses in Arsenal’s midfield and backline. Liverpool outplayed the Gunners, winning 24 tackles to 15 and making 9 interceptions to 7, according to whoscored.com. There’s not a huge difference if you only look at shots on target. The Reds caught the frame 5 times compared to 3 for Arsenal. But the more telling stat is key passes. The Gunners only made 5 key passes compared to 19 for Liverpool.

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that defeated Burnley a week ago with Pepe and Xhaka replacing Nelson and Lacazette in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also shifted from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-4-2 system with a midfield diamond. By removing a forward and adding a midfielder, the idea was to stuff the midfield and prevent Liverpool from doing some damage through the middle. That kind of approach worked against Spurs last season, but the Reds are simply better equipped.

   To understand Emery’s tactical gamble, you have to go back to the 5-1 defeat at Anfield last season. Emery relied on a 4-2-3-1 formation with Iwobi and Maitland-Niles on the wings, Xhaka, Torreira and Ramsey in midfield, and Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner in the fullback positions. Last December, Emery tried to block the Liverpool fullbacks while hoping that Xhaka, Torreira and Ramsey could control the middle of the park. It didn’t work. The Reds scored their first 3 goals from open play through the middle. Their last 2 goals came from penalties conceded by Sokratis and Kolasinac.

Sacrificing the flanks

   On Saturday, Emery decided to sacrifice the flanks in order to concentrate on the center. He could have used Nelson and Mkhitaryan to mark Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, but that wasn’t his plan. Going toe-to-toe was too risky and would have given too much space to Salah, Mane and Firmino.

   So Emery let Liverpool dominate wing play. The Reds made 27 crosses to 12 for Arsenal. Of those 27 crosses, 13 came from Alexander-Arnold and 10 from Robertson. Likewise, of the 19 key passes made by Liverpool, 7 came from the left flank (3 by Robertson, 4 by Mane) and 7 came from the right flank (6 by Alexander-Arnold, 1 by Salah).

   That tactical approach rested on 2 reasonable assumptions: 1. that Luiz and Sokratis could beat Firmino, Mane and Salah in the air; 2. that a compact Arsenal defense could block or clear dangerous crosses. The reward for sacrificing the flanks was the possibility to hit Liverpool on the fast break with Aubameyang and Pepe.

   Emery’s plan worked to a certain extent. The Reds had no clear-cut chance until the opening goal from a set piece, five minutes before halftime. By contrast, the Gunners had the best chances from open play in the first half and could have led 2-0 with some clinical finishing. Three of those chances came from counterattacks and one was the result of a bold attempt to play out from the back.

   Xhaka dispossessed Mane in the 11th minute to find Aubameyang in midfield. Aubameyang overhit his through ball for Pepe, but Adrian had a mix-up with Van Dijk and made a poor clearance that fell to Aubameyang. From 25 yards, Aubameyang missed an open goal with his half-volley. Willock initiated the second counterattack with a 40-yard run in the 19th. The academy graduate fed Pepe, whose 30-yard curling shot did not trouble Adrian.

A learning experience

   Arsenal’s third chance came from a short spell of possession in the 31st. Trying to play out from the back, Monreal slipped the ball to Willock along the touchline. An audacious Willock turned Fabinho and dribbled past Alexander-Arnold to pick out Aubameyang on the edge of the Liverpool box. Aubameyang slipped the ball to Pepe, whose curling shot sailed wide of the far post. Pepe created on his own the Gunners’ last chance before halftime. As the Reds were recycling a corner in the 34th, Pepe robbed Henderson and dribbled past Robertson to be clean through on goal. From 18 yards, Pepe could only muster a tame effort straight at Adrian.

   Emery’s team selection looked pretty much like an experiment. Starting Willock, Ceballos and Pepe in a big game at Anfield was a gutsy call. I guess the safe or familiar choice would have been to start Torreira, Mkhitaryan and Lacazette. It proved a positive experience for Pepe, a negative one for Ceballos, while Willock’s performance was a mixed bag. In any case, Emery has learned a lot about those 3 players.

   You just have to watch Pepe’s performance to understand why he got the nod over Lacazette. Pepe has better dribbling skills and more pace than the French striker. The summer signing led all players with 7 successful dribbles out of 10, according to whoscored.com. Robertson is one of the best leftbacks in Europe. Yet, Robertson struggled badly against Pepe and was dribbled past 6 times, the most for any player. Pepe has outstanding footwork to escape tight spots. Cornered by two Reds in the sixth minute, an unfazed Pepe showed off his ball retention skills. His passing skills are also impressive for a forward. Pepe had a passing accuracy of 91.7% in a high-pressure environment. Among Arsenal starters, only Sokratis did better with a passing accuracy of 95.1%.

More penetration

   At 24, Pepe is still a rough diamond. Eager to impress, Pepe wasted a good situation in the 21st by losing sight of the ball. The big chance in the 34th also showed that he’s not the finished product yet. Pepe had a better angle with his weaker right foot but preferred to shoot with his stronger left foot. A more seasoned striker would have taken his chance with the right foot.

   While Pepe gave the Gunners more penetration, Emery’s team selection also meant that they were deprived of the good understanding between Lacazette and Aubameyang. Obviously, the partnership between Pepe and Aubameyang is still a work in progress. Pepe managed to slip a through ball to Aubameyang in the 52nd but his cross for the Gabon striker in the 61st flew out of play. Aubameyang was often isolated but still managed to have an impact in the final third with 2 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player.

   Emery stuck to his plan until the 81st minute when he replaced Willock with Lacazette, shifting to a 4-3-3 formation with Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi in midfield and Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang up front. The Spanish manager started the game with 1 attacking midfielder and 2 forwards in a 4-4-2 system. He finished it with 1 attacking midfielder and 3 forwards in a 4-2-3-1 formation by sending on Mkhitaryan for Guendouzi in the 85th.

   Playing in the hole, Ceballos struggled to exist. The Real Madrid loanee only made 29 passes in 60 minutes whereas he led all players against Burnley with 70 passes in 82 minutes. By contrast, Xhaka managed to make 76 passes at Anfield. Even if Ceballos had played the full 90 minutes against Liverpool, he would have made only 45 passes.

Managing Torreira’s fitness

   Ceballos felt comfortable against Burnley because the Gunners were dominating possession. Against a top pressing team like Liverpool, Ceballos often looked short of time as if the game was going too fast for him. Ceballos was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. One of his turnovers led to a half-chance for Liverpool in the second minute. To beat the press, Ceballos sometimes rushed his passes. This led to 2 dangerous situations. In the 21st, Ceballos sent a crossfield pass straight to Mane, who forced Leno into a save. Ceballos failed to learn his lesson and gave away the ball to Robertson with another missed crossfield pass in the 27th.

   There’s a reason why Ceballos wasn’t a regular starter at Real Madrid last season. He’s simply not at the level of a Modric yet. But what the games against Burnley and Liverpool have told us is that Ceballos can perform well against the average sides while he will struggle against the top teams. Sounds familiar?

   Emery replaced Ceballos with Torreira in the 61st. Willock moved in a more central position behind Aubameyang and Pepe while Torreira and Guendouzi patrolled the flanks. Torreira didn’t start probably because Emery didn’t want to rush him back into the team after his involvement in the Copa America. In his 33-minute cameo, Torreira made an impact in the final third with 1 key pass and 1 goal. Torreira initially miskicked the ball when Aubameyang teed him up in the 85th, but he quickly sorted out his feet to fire into the bottom corner for a consolation goal.

Poor coordination between Monreal & Willock

   Starting on the left side of a midfield diamond, Willock showed his potential as a box-to-box player with impressive runs that led to scoring chances in the 19th and 31st. At 20, Willock still has a lot to learn. I’m sure the staff will show him what he could have done better in his defensive game at Anfield. Willock had 4 turnovers compared to 3 for Xhaka and 2 for Guendouzi. That high turnover rate is not unusual for teams dealing with Klopp’s gegenpressing tactics. However, the key is to minimize the damage of those turnovers. Unfortunately, 2 of Willock’s turnovers led to scoring chances for the Reds. Leno was tested by Fabinho in the 46th and Firmino in the 62nd after Willock gave the ball away.  

   I felt that Emery asked too much of Willock defensively. Willock was dribbled past twice while no Red dribbled past Xhaka or Guendouzi, according to whoscored.com. Liverpool’s second and third goals resulted from some poor coordination between Monreal and Willock on the left flank. In the 48th, Alexander-Arnold had plenty of time to pick out Firmino in the Arsenal box. Firmino fed Salah with a first-time pass before Luiz conceded a penalty by pulling Salah’s shirt. Salah sent Leno the wrong way to make it 2-0.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal M48ed.jpgMonreal and Willock both mark Henderson, leaving Alexander-Arnold free. (Photo credit: Sky)

   As you can see on the screen capture above, Monreal and Willock were both marking Henderson near the touchline, giving plenty of time to Alexander-Arnold for his pinpoint pass. Instead of sitting too deep, Willock should have closed down Alexander-Arnold and let Monreal take care of Henderson.

Guendouzi’s average work-rate

   On the right side of the midfield diamond, Guendouzi also struggled defensively. Guendouzi simply lacked the pace to match Robertson’s runs. The big difference between Willock and Guendouzi is that none of Robertson’s crosses or passes led to a goal. Guendouzi was too casual in the 66th, losing possession to Firmino while dribbling inside the Arsenal area.

   The main flaw in Emery’s plan is that neither Willock nor Guendouzi is good at defending. If you look at the best teams that played with a midfield diamond, they had outstanding midfielders on both flanks. The 1998 France team had Vieira, Petit and Karembeu while the Juventus of the late 1990’s had Di Livio, Conte and Davids.

   The most disappointing part in Guendouzi’s performance was his average work-rate in such a big game. Guendouzi only made 9 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception, 4 recoveries) in 84 minutes while Willock made 11 defensive actions (2 tackles, 9 recoveries) in 80 minutes and Xhaka led all players with 20 defensive actions (1 tackle, 3 blocks, 0 interception, 16 recoveries), according to the club’s website. Guendouzi seems a nice kid, but at the end of the day, it’s all about performing on the pitch.

   Xhaka had a decent game in front of the back four. He showed his desire with an impressive work-rate but couldn’t refrain from giving away dangerous free kicks with a late tackle on Fabinho in the third minute and a foul on Mane in the 37th. I still think that Xhaka lacks mobility to be an efficient holding midfielder against the top teams. Salah too easily held off Xhaka in the 40th to spin and shoot wide. Xhaka was also a bit guilty for Liverpool’s third goal with a half-hearted effort to close down Fabinho.

Untidy in possession

   The Reds took a three-goal lead in the 59th by playing out from the back. Under pressure from Aubameyang, Alexander-Arnold managed to slip the ball to Fabinho, who made a first-time pass to Salah. The Egypt international rounded Luiz to beat Leno with a low strike. As you can see on the screen capture below, Monreal made the mistake of following Henderson, who was already marked by Willock. When Fabinho played the ball to Salah, Monreal realized his mistake but it was already too late because Salah had a 10-yard head start.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal M59ed.jpgMonreal is pulled out of position, leaving the Arsenal defense in a 3v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Monreal only won 20% of his duels, the lowest percentage among Arsenal players according to the club’s website. The Spaniard has never been good at blocking crosses and Alexander-Arnold clearly took advantage of that weakness.

   On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles had a poor game. Defensively, he lacked focus a couple of times. Mane lost Maitland-Niles on the stroke of halftime to have a free header from a corner. Then the academy graduate failed to close down Robertson, whose cross was headed over the bar by Salah in the 56th. Maitland-Niles also put his team in trouble with a poor clearance in the 53rd and a long ball charged down by Firmino in the 64th.

   Offensively, Maitland-Niles was untidy in possession with 5 turnovers, tied with Ceballos and Pepe for the most by an Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. The Reds’ high press especially exposed Maitland-Niles’ average technique. The Gunners were attacking on the edge of the Liverpool area in the 55th, but a poor pass from Maitland-Niles forced them to play the ball back to Leno. In stoppage time, Maitland-Niles drove the ball out of play with some poor footwork. Maitland-Niles is not as limited as Jenkinson, but he’s nowhere near the technical level of a Bellerin.    

A six-pointer

   In the heart of the defense, Luiz showed that he’s not the leader that this club needs. Luiz only won 33.3% of his duels compared to 83.3% for Sokratis. The Brazilian defender made some important clearances, but he also made two big mistakes that turned a 1-0 deficit into a 3-0 embarrassment. Luiz conceded a penalty in the 48th because he was on the wrong side of Salah. Then Luiz should have dropped off instead of being too tight to Salah for Liverpool’s third goal in the 59th.

   The club wants to sell Mustafi because of his brain farts, but Luiz showed on Saturday that he can have lapses of concentration too. That’s definitely not a good sign when a defender makes Sokratis look good. Sokratis lost a key duel on the opening goal. Matip outjumped the Greek defender in the 41st to head home Alexander-Arnold’s corner. Two minutes later, Firmino dribbled past Sokratis but Leno quickly came off his line to snatch the ball.  

   The Gunners host Tottenham next Sunday in a potential six-pointer. Arsenal could move 5 points clear of their rivals if they win the North London derby. Ironically, both teams have a lot in common: they are rebuilding their midfield and have defensive issues. Again, Emery will have big calls to make before kickoff.


Newcastle vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang saves the day in 1-0 win

   The Gunners kicked off their season with a 1-0 victory at Newcastle on Sunday. It was an underwhelming performance but an important result for their hopes of a Top 4 finish in the Premier League. Last season, the Gunners only won 7 of their 19 away games while Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham managed to win at least 11 games on the road. That poor away record explains why Arsenal missed out on a Champions League spot. Arsenal finished 3rd in the home table but only 8th in the away table.

Newcastle vs. Arsenal 2019.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   A football season is a marathon, not a sprint. Emery was therefore cautious in his team selection. There was no new signing in the starting lineup. Luiz, Pepe, Ceballos and Martinelli were on the bench while Tierney was on the disabled list because of a groin injury. Pepe, Ceballos and Martinelli had never played in England before, so it was a wise move to help them get familiar with the intensity and physicality of the Premier League by giving them some playing time in the second half. Luiz could have made a start, but his relative lack of understanding with his new team was a too big risk.

   Lacazette and Torreira were also on the bench for different reasons. Lacazette had just recovered from an ankle injury whereas Torreira lacked match fitness after competing in the Copa America with the Uruguay team in June.

   Meanwhile, Emery was forced to leave Ozil and Kolasinac out of the squad because of security concerns. Ozil and Kolasinac were the victims of a carjacking attempt a couple of weeks ago. According to British newspapers, it wasn’t a one-off as London gangs are still targeting the two players. All these constraints led Emery to inject more youth than usual in his starting lineup. Willock started in the hole behind Aubameyang while Nelson took over the spot on the left wing.

Aubameyang’s moment of magic

   The Gunners struggled to break down the Newcastle defense. In an austere 3-5-2 formation, the Magpies used a high block to prevent Arsenal from playing out from the back. When the Gunners reached the halfway line, Newcastle switched to a low block, basically parking the bus. Arsenal enjoyed 62% of relatively sterile possession with just 2 shots on target to 2 for the hosts.

   To play out from the back, you need players with great technique and mobility and a sound reading of the game. In the heart of the defense, Sokratis and Chambers simply don’t have the ball-playing abilities of a Laporte, Alderweireld or Van Dijk. In midfield, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the passing and dribbling skills of a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla, who could help create space by setting a high tempo. The few times the Gunners reached the final third, they were let down by a lack of creativity.

   The winning goal came from a mistake by the Magpies in the 58th minute. Maitland-Niles intercepted Dummett’s pass for Willems and charged down the right flank before finding an unmarked Aubameyang with a cross. The Gabon striker controlled the ball and chipped Dubravka with a cool finish.

   Aubameyang didn’t get much service but his pace and finishing put Newcastle defenders on their toes. He wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 15th with a heavy touch. Then he tested Dubravka with a powerful angled strike in the 31st. The Magpies saw his burst of speed in the 52nd when Aubameyang made a run in behind to collect a through ball from Xhaka. However, Dummett reacted quickly enough to block Aubameyang’s shot for a corner.

Showing faith in Nelson

   Offensive support was an issue last season because Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi lacked consistency. Emery is relying on Nelson, Ceballos and Pepe this season to provide more ammunition to Aubameyang and Lacazette. In his return from a loan spell at Hoffenheim, Nelson showed some decent work-rate with 6 defensive actions (1 block, 5 recoveries) in 70 minutes, but lacked a bit of audacity in the final third. His best moment was a dribbling run in the 34th.

   I believe the staff made the right choice by cashing in on Iwobi to let Nelson grow. The English teenager has better dribbling and finishing skills. On Sunday, Nelson had 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy of 86.4% was also better than Mhkitaryan’s 73.3%. With more time and confidence, Nelson will find a way to have a greater impact in the final third.  

   Mkhitaryan showed his creativity with a ball over the top for Aubameyang in the 31st. Those two players know each other well since they’ve played together at Borussia Dortmund between 2013 and 2016. However, a lot of fans were frustrated with Mkhitaryan’s inconsistency. Mkhitaryan wasted Arsenal’s first scoring chance in the 23rd by firing over the bar from 15 yards. He then led a counterattack with an impressive dribbling run in the 50th only to miss his final ball for Nelson. I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back was Mkhitaryan’s crossfield pass for Monreal that sailed straight into touch in the 63rd.

Untidy in possession

   In midfield, Willock was given a rare start mostly because of Ceballos’ lack of match fitness and Ozil’s off-the-pitch issues. At times, Willock struggled with his positional play, not knowing when to drop off and when to play higher up the pitch. It’s not as easy as it seems. Think of Ramsey helping the defenders build play from the back and then making a late run in the box to shoot. It takes years of practice to read the game that well and be in the right place at the right time.

   Willock won 60% of his duels, the highest percentage among Arsenal midfielders according to the club’s website, but he also lacked end product with 0 key pass and 0 shot on target. The English teenager will need to be more tidy in possession too. He led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers according to whoscored.com despite playing only 63 minutes. Willock’s fitness levels quickly dropped in the second half, showing the huge gap between the Premier League and U23 games.

   Emery replaced Willock with Ceballos in the 64th. The Spanish manager nearly regretted that substitution. Ceballos put his team in trouble a couple of times with some casual passing. The Real Madrid loanee gave the ball away with a careless backheel flick in the 65th, a risky crossfield pass on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 69th and a stray pass in the 78th. Arsenal fans just hope that Ceballos will perform better than Barcelona loanee Suarez, who proved a flop last season.

A porous midfield

   The Arsenal midfield was porous at times. Guendouzi and Xhaka were both dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com. Only Newcastle wingback Ritchie did worse as the Gunners dribbled past him three times. Arsenal got away with a soft midfield against Newcastle but they will get punished against the stronger sides. Saint-Maximin cut inside Guendouzi in the 84th only to drag an effort that Leno easily saved. Offensively, Xhaka and Guendouzi can’t dictate the tempo like a Cazorla in his prime, or like Eriksen at Tottenham and David Silva at Manchester City.

   Xhaka had a horrible start with 3 stray passes in the first 20 minutes. But he grew into the game and led all players with 84 passes, including 2 key passes. Xhaka also had a scoring chance in the 53rd when he glanced Nelson’s corner wide. The Switzerland international finished the game with 11 defensive actions (3 tackles, 8 recoveries), doing slightly better than Guendouzi, who made 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 block, 2 interceptions, 4 recoveries), according to the club’s website.  

   The Arsenal back four didn’t need much protection on Sunday because Bruce fielded a very defensive lineup. Sokratis and Chambers had so little work that they made no tackle. However, the Magpies still had a couple of good opportunities to open the scoring, exposing Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses. In the 16th, Monreal failed to close down Manquillo, who made a cross for Joelinton. The Brazilian striker couldn’t climb high enough to head the ball. A minute later, Joelinton met a cross from Ritchie only to head wide. Xhaka and Sokratis looked like training cones in the 26th when Joelinton dribbled past them to shoot straight at Leno.

Maitland-Niles’ work-rate

   The Gunners will need to improve their aerial performance because stats clearly showed their weakness in the air. Joelinton won 8 of 11 aerial duels while Aubameyang won 0 of 5, according to whoscored.com. Likewise, Newcastle centerback Lascelles won 7 of 10 aerial duels compared to 0 of 3 for Chambers and 4 of 6 for Sokratis.

   In the rightback position, Maitland-Niles produced an outstanding performance, leading Arsenal players with 12 defensive actions (4 tackles, 3 interceptions, 5 recoveries). He cleared a dangerous cross after Saint-Maximin got the better of Monreal in the 67th. Besides his assist, Maitland-Niles also provided more penetration, leading all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 6. The only blemish in his performance was his 4 turnovers. On the opposite flank, Monreal put in a shift, making 9 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 7 recoveries) and setting up Mkhitaryan for a scoring chance in the 23rd.

   In his post-match news conference, Emery said that the Gunners controlled the game. Well, I felt a bit nervous because of the inconsistent officiating. I thought the referee was right to book Nelson in the 25th, Mkhitaryan in the 36th and Xhaka in the 80th for late challenges. However, the referee became very lenient when the Magpies made similar fouls. He kept his cards in his pocket as Hayden made a late challenge on Mkhitaryan in the 61st, Saint-Maximin stamped on Xhaka’s ankle in the 70th, and Schar in the 13th and Lascelles in the 29th made cynical fouls on Willock. At least, the referee got one crucial call right when he booked Almiron for diving in the 18th. The Paraguay international was trying to win a penalty by looking for contact with Monreal.

   The Gunners next host Burnley on Saturday before visiting Liverpool the following weekend. Emery knows what to expect from the Clarets. It will be a physical contest with a lot of crosses and long balls. Luiz will probably replace Chambers in the starting lineup while Torreira and Lacazette should start even if they lack a bit of match fitness.

Humiliating 4-1 loss in Europa League final shows lack of quality in Arsenal team

   The Gunners will miss out on the Champions League for the third season in a row after losing 4-1 to Chelsea in the Europa League final on Wednesday. They were badly outplayed in the second half and will keep struggling against the top teams if there is no significant investment in the squad this summer.

Europa League finalPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   In the first half, the Gunners did a decent job defensively but failed to capitalize on some good situations offensively. The double threat of Lacazette and Aubameyang forced Azpilicueta and Emerson to drift inside and play in a narrow back four, giving more space to Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Unfortunately, the Arsenal wingbacks lacked accuracy with their final ball, depriving Lacazette and Aubameyang of good service.

   When Chelsea took the lead early in the second half, it became a different story. The Blues had more counterattacking opportunities and the Arsenal defense looked much more vulnerable. The Gunners also showed their mental weakness by conceding 3 goals in a 16-minute span. It’s not the first time this season that they have collapsed after conceding the opening goal. The Wolverhampton game was another recent example.

   Down 3-0, Emery threw caution to the wind and shifted from a 3-5-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Monreal and Torreira with Guendouzi and Iwobi in the 66th minute. Iwobi played on the left wing while Aubameyang moved to the right wing. In the end, what made the difference was that Chelsea had a matchwinner with Hazard while Lacazette and Aubameyang couldn’t even find the net. The Blues also wanted it more as they ran 101.59 kilometers compared to 95.94 for Arsenal, according to the UEFA statistics.

Losing a step

   I have no issue with the team selection. On paper, this was the best starting lineup, knowing that Ramsey was injured while UEFA couldn’t guarantee Mkhitaryan’s safety in Azerbaijan. For his last game, Cech produced a decent performance. The Czech goalkeeper prevented Chelsea from taking the lead in the first half by parrying Emerson’s diagonal shot in the 34th and palming away Giroud’s low strike in the 39th. He limited the damage in the second half by saving Hazard’s curling shot in the 75th and turning Willian’s low strike around the post in the 78th.

   On the other hand, Wednesday’s game made clear that Koscielny and Monreal have lost a step. Giroud is often mocked for his lack of pace but he still beat Koscielny to the ball to head in Emerson’s cross for the opening goal in the 49th. Monreal also lost a key duel in the 60th. Pedro escaped Monreal’s marking to double the lead with a first-time effort. Sokratis performed better than Monreal and Koscielny but he was guilty on the last goal. Hazard ran past Sokratis in the 72nd to volley Giroud’s cross past Cech.

   Sokratis won 3 of 3 tackles and led all players by winning 6 of 7 aerial duels and blocking 3 shots, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Koscielny won 1 of 3 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels and made 1 block while Monreal won 1 of 1 aerial duel and made 0 tackle and 1 block. The alternatives at centerback were unappealing with the error-prone Mustafi and the sluggish Lichtsteiner.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety

   The Gunners struggled to cope with Chelsea’s high press. Turnovers from Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang led to goals in the 60th and 72nd, respectively. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player. He definitely needs to work on his technique. A couple of times, his first touch was shockingly poor. The academy graduate was involved in the first 3 goals. Maitland-Niles failed to close down Emerson for the opener in the 49th. He then tried to dribble his way out of trouble in the 60th only to lose possession. Hazard recovered the loose ball to set up Pedro for the second goal. Finally, Maitland-Niles lost his composure in the 64th and gave away a silly penalty by shoving Giroud from behind. Hazard converted the subsequent spot kick to make it 3-0.

   Kolasinac had less defensive work than Maitland-Niles, in great part because Pedro was less threatening than Hazard. However, Kolasinac’s offensive contribution was disappointing. Despite 2 key passes, Kolasinac’s technique often let him down in the final third. He finished the game with a passing accuracy of 72.1%, the lowest percentage for any player.

   In midfield, it could only be an uphill battle from the moment Ramsey and Mkhitaryan were not available because Ozil and Iwobi don’t have their work-rate. Emery trusted Ozil to mark Jorginho out of the game like Ramsey did in the 2-0 win some four months ago. There were two problems with that idea. First, Ozil followed Jorginho and tried to cut the supply lines but he simply doesn’t have Ramsey’s impact. Defensively, Ozil made 0 tackle and 1 interception. Offensively, Ozil had 0 shot and 1 key pass. The German playmaker also led Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. And second, Chelsea had a Plan B. Because of the focus on Jorginho, Kovacic enjoyed more freedom and led Chelsea players with 64 passes despite playing only 75 minutes.

Iwobi’s cameo

   Ozil lived up to his reputation as a talented player going missing in the big games. You just have to compare with Hazard’s performance to understand what a clutch player is. Hazard scored twice and made an assist. In hindsight, maybe Iwobi would have been a better option than Ozil in the playmaking role. In his 27-minute cameo, Iwobi scored a goal and made 3 key passes. Iwobi pounced on a Chelsea clearance in the 69th to volley into the far corner from 25 yards. Ozil was replaced by Willock in the 77th. The academy midfielder played in the Ramsey role, making penetrative runs instead of pulling the strings like Ozil. Willock should have scored in the 84th when he played a one-two with Lacazette but his curling shot sailed wide of the far post.

   Playing in front of the back three, Torreira and Xhaka had contrasting fortunes. Torreira produced a disappointing performance, making 2 interceptions and winning only 2 of 7 tackles, whereas Jorginho made 1 interception and won 7 of 10 tackles. It was a difficult game for Torreira because he had to help Xhaka in midfield while also marking Hazard when the Belgium international dropped back.

   Xhaka almost had a decent game compared to Ozil and Torreira. He led all players with 68 passes and hit 12 of 14 accurate long balls, according to whoscored.com. His long-range effort flirted with the bar in the 28th. However, Xhaka’s work-rate wasn’t good enough to help Arsenal match Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic in midfield. Xhaka made 0 interception and won 2 of 2 tackles.

Aubameyang’s off day

   Lacazette and Aubameyang have carried the Gunners in this competition but they really lacked support on Wednesday. The Chelsea defense had a relatively quiet evening. Would Ramsey’s presence have made a difference in the final third?

   After walking on water against Valencia, Aubameyang had an off day in Azerbaijan with 0 of 4 shots on target and 0 key pass. Aubameyang sent a 15-yard volley wide in the ninth minute, hit a cross beyond Lacazette in the 52nd, had a turnover that led to the final goal in the 72nd, and completely fluffed his shot in stoppage time.

   It was quite ironic that Arsenal sold Coquelin, Walcott and Giroud last year to finance the signing of Aubameyang because Giroud played a key role in Chelsea’s victorious campaign. Giroud finished the season as the top scorer in the Europa League with 11 goals. In Azerbaijan, Giroud crucified his former team by scoring a goal, making an assist and winning a penalty. The Gunners got more speed with Aubameyang but they also lost a dominant player in the air. The Blues sometimes used Giroud as a target man to evade Arsenal’s high press. Giroud won 3 of 7 aerial duels, while Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win only 1 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

A deep-rooted problem

Lacazette performed a bit better than Aubameyang with 3 key passes and 1 of 3 shots on target. The French striker had 2 good situations in the first half. Aubameyang fed Lacazette, who dribbled past Kepa in the 18th. Kepa was a split second late and clipped Lacazette’s foot. Despite a VAR review, no penalty was given. Four minutes later, Torreira hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, who held off Azpilicueta but couldn’t control the ball. Lacazette finally tested Kepa in the 83rd but the Spanish goalkeeper made the save.

   As a knee-jerk reaction, some fans wanted Emery to leave the club after this embarrassing defeat. I think it would be unfair for Emery, who did better than Wenger both in the Premier League and the Europa League. It would also make things worse for the club because that kind of instability would put off prospective managers and players.

   Anyway, Emery’s departure this summer wouldn’t help the club because the real issue is the board. Dismissing Emery won’t solve a deep-rooted problem, which is the owner’s lack of ambition and his failure to invest in the squad. An average manager with a great squad can win titles. Think of Di Matteo with Chelsea in 2012. But a great manager with an average squad won’t win anything. Think of Benitez at Newcastle.