Tag Archives: Maitland-Niles

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

The Gunners made a big step toward qualifying for the next round of the Europa League by defeating Ostersund 3-0 in the first leg of their last 32 encounter. Thursday’s game was a bit tighter than what the scoreline might suggest. Arsenal created 14 chances to 7 for the Swedish side but had just 6 shots on target to 5 for the hosts.

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

As a sign that the club is taking this competition seriously, Wenger fielded a relatively strong lineup. The manager left Koscielny and Wilshere out of the squad because of concerns about the artificial pitch. Chambers started alongside Mustafi in the heart of the defense. The only real surprise was Xhaka’s presence on the bench as Maitland-Niles teamed up with Elneny in central midfield.

  1. Playing out from the back can be risky

A lot of teams park the bus when they face Arsenal. That’s what Ostersund did in the opening minutes. Then came the unexpected: Ostersund tried to play the ball out from the back. Manchester City and Tottenham often lure their opponents into enemy territory but they take calculated risks. The Swedish side paid a heavy price for being careless twice. Keita played a short goal kick in the 12th and Welbeck intercepted an underhit backpass only to be denied by the Ostersund goalkeeper. The rebound fell to Mkhitaryan, whose low strike was deflected out by Papagiannopoulos. From the subsequent corner, Keita spilled Iwobi’s low effort into the path of Monreal, who sweeped the loose ball into an open net. The play that led to Arsenal’s second goal in the 24th was even worse. Pettersson made a sloppy pass from his 6-yard box. Mkhitaryan accepted the offering and doubled the lead with a cross-shot that took a deflection off Papagiannopoulos. Those goals reminded me of some of our poor attempts to play out from the back like in the 3-1 loss at Swansea a couple of weeks ago.

  1. Mkhitaryan was motivated

In a 4-2-3-1 system, Mkhitaryan often swapped positions with Ozil and Iwobi to confuse the Ostersund defense. Mkhitaryan had 6 goal attempts, more than any other player. He had a long-range strike parried by Keita in the 16th and an angled effort that didn’t trouble the Swedish goalkeeper in the 27th. The one mystery in Mkhitaryan’s game is his relatively low passing accuracy, 82% against Ostersund compared to 89% for Iwobi and 90% for Ozil. It’s a mystery because Mkhitaryan is technically one of the most gifted players in the squad. He set up Ozil with a pinpoint pass for the third goal in the 58th. Maybe Mkhitaryan needs a bit more time to adapt to his new team.

  1. An unconvincing performance from Welbeck

Welbeck had a great opportunity to shine in the centerforward role because Aubameyang is cup-tied while Lacazette is sidelined by a knee injury for 4 to 6 weeks. As usual, Welbeck worked hard, winning 1 of 4 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels, according to Squawka. But he lacked end product with none of his 3 shots on target. At times, I thought Welbeck tried too hard with a curling shot over the bar in the 34th and a long-range strike wide of the far post in the 81st. He also wasted a good situation in the 40th by dallying on the ball and losing possession despite 3 decent passing options.

  1. The Mustafi-Chambers partnership was shaky

If you look at their stats, you would think that they had a good game. Mustafi won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 3 blocks, while Chambers won 3 of 4 tackles and made 4 interceptions and 1 block, according to Squawka. But Mustafi made two dodgy challenges that could have cost a penalty in the second half. And Chambers made 2 errors that led to half-chances for Ostersund. Widgren intercepted Chambers’ pass for Bellerin in the 29th and made a cross for Ghoddos, whose half-volley was tipped over the bar by Ospina. The hosts capitalized on another sloppy pass from Chambers in the 88th to launch a counterattack which ended with an off-target shot.

  1. Maitland-Niles is still learning the ropes

Finding the right type of game to start a youngster can be tricky. PSG manager Emery made a mistake by playing Lo Celso against Real Madrid on Wednesday. The Argentine midfielder looked out of his depth in the first half, giving away a cheap penalty. The risk was much smaller to start Maitland-Niles against Ostersund. The academy player showed his potential with better defensive stats than Elneny. Maitland-Niles won 3 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 4 blocks while Elneny won 0 of 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 2 blocks. However, Thursday’s game also showed where Maitland-Niles needs to improve. He was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. One of his turnovers led to Ostersund’s penalty as Bellerin brought down Tekie in stoppage time. Ospina still kept a clean sheet by saving Pettersson’s spot kick.

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Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Monreal fires Gunners to 1st win of the year

Monreal’s attacking verve and Ozil’s creativity made the difference in Saturday’s 4-1 rout of Crystal Palace as Arsenal snapped a five-game winless streak in all competitions to remain sixth in the Premier League. The Gunners quickly put the result beyond doubt by taking a 3-0 lead after 13 minutes, finishing the match with 10 shots on target to 5 for the Eagles and 13 chances to 5, according to Squawka.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace

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

Wenger fielded a stronger side than the one that lost 2-1 at Bournemouth a week ago with Ozil, Koscielny, Monreal and Elneny replacing Welbeck, Chambers, Maitland-Niles and Holding in the starting lineup. The manager also switched to a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny playing as a holding midfielder behind Xhaka and Wilshere. The Gunners outnumbered Palace in midfield with that tactical setup as Ozil often dropped back to be the fourth midfielder.

   Playing Elneny in that position is OK against the weak teams. Elneny’s mobility compensates for Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness to a certain extent. However, Elneny’s inability to win duels would become an issue against the strong teams. Signing a ballwinner in the summer could allow Arsenal to use an inverted pyramid midfield that would protect the back four while making up for the defensive flaws of Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere. When Zidane succeeded Benitez at Real Madrid, he made a key change in midfield by playing Casemiro behind Kroos and Modric. As long as the Gunners don’t have a solid No. 6, they will still be vulnerable on counterattacks.

End of Lacazette’s goal drought

In his return from injury, Monreal scored a goal and made two assists. Monreal lost his marker at the far post to head in Xhaka’s corner in the sixth minute. The Spaniard then set up Iwobi for a 2-0 lead in the 10th. He got the better of McArthur again in the 13th to meet Xhaka’s corner and cut the ball back to Koscielny, who bundled it over the line. The visitors’ defending was terrible, but Monreal definitely made his runs inside the Palace box count. Monreal led all players with 3 key passes despite staying on the pitch for just 33 minutes. He picked up a knock and was replaced by Maitland-Niles, who suffered from lapses of concentration again.

Maitland-Niles made a sloppy pass to Elneny in the 43rd and the ball fell to Zaha, whose shot was deflected out for a corner. The academy player also lost possession with a poor touch in the 76th. You may recover from poor focus in U23 games but not in the Premier League where every mistake can get punished. Maitland-Niles impressed against Chelsea but didn’t show the same focus against Bournemouth and Palace. His reluctance to cross with his weaker left foot also deprived Arsenal of a source of supply on the left flank.

Up front, Lacazette ended his goal drought by giving the Gunners a 4-0 lead with a low strike in the 22nd. He had not scored since the beginning of December. Lacazette could have also found the net in the 79th when Wilshere played him clean through on goal, but Hennessey denied him. In stoppage time, Lacazette should have been awarded a penalty for an awkward challenge from Tomkins. As usual, the France international worked hard for the team, making 2 key passes and 1 block and winning 2 of 3 tackles, according to Squawka.

Nelson’s Premier League debut

It was no coincidence if Ozil was the one who helped put an end to Lacazette’s goal drought. Lacazette is a striker who depends on decent service. He couldn’t get any from Welbeck, Iwobi and Sanchez in the past few games. Ozil played the role of architect for Arsenal’s fourth goal by playing a one-two with Wilshere before feeding Lacazette with a backheel flick. In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 2 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 2. His contractual situation hasn’t been as much publicized as Sanchez’s but the Gunners will have to sign a creative midfielder if Ozil leaves this summer, otherwise the creative burden will rest on the shoulders of Wilshere and Mkhitaryan -assuming the swap deal for Sanchez does materialize.

   Wenger yanked Ozil off in the 72nd to send on Nelson, who made his Premier League debut at just 18. He showed some really great work-rate in his short cameo by winning 2 of 4 tackles. The game also made obvious that Nelson must beef up his game. In his only dribbling attempt, Nelson was too easily brushed off the ball.

The more I watch Iwobi, and the more I am convinced he is a second striker and not an attacking midfielder like Rosicky or Pires. Iwobi had 4 of 4 shots on target but made just 1 key pass. Only Lacazette took more shots than Iwobi. If Iwobi wants to become a striker, he will need to work harder on his finishing. His 4 goal attempts were all in the middle of the net. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace Iwobi edited

Iwobi’s 4 goal attempts against Palace. (Photo credit: Squawka)

Iwobi will also have to improve his reading of the game. Sanchez can often be selfish but you can bet the Chile striker would have fed Lacazette in the 56th when Iwobi chased a long ball from Ozil and preferred to take his chance from a tight angle instead of squaring the ball back to Lacazette for a tap-in. As a consequence of Iwobi’s lust for goals, the Nigeria international sometimes drifted inside and ended up in the centerforward position, forcing Lacazette to move to the left wing. On the bright side, Iwobi improved his work-rate by making 4 tackles, 1 interception and 2 blocks. That’s the kind of attitude Iwobi needs to show more often on the pitch.

Wilshere’s high turnover rate

In midfield, Elneny acted as a facilitator by leading Arsenal starters with 97 passes and a passing acuracy of 95.9%, according to whoscored.com. Elneny was a holding midfielder by default: he won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, but his mobility helped him make 1 block and 1 interception. We are still very far from the stats of a Kante, Matic or Fernandinho. The manager played Elneny behind Wilshere and Xhaka because those two midfielders are more creative than Elneny. Wilshere and Xhaka had 2 and 1 key passes respectively compared to none for Elneny.

   Wilshere played as a holding midfielder for England under Hodgson but I just think he’s not good enough defensively for that position. He won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 block and 0 interception. Another issue is Wilshere’s high turnover rate, which was obvious in the Europa League games. Although Wilshere is now fitter than a couple of months ago, he still had 5 turnovers against Palace, according to whoscored.com. Only Bellerin had more turnovers (6) among Arsenal players. Losing possession in suck a key position might be OK against the weak sides but it’s simply too dangerous against top teams that thrive on counterattacks.

Xhaka lacks mobility so it made sense to play him alongside Elneny since Wilshere has lost a bit of speed after recovering from a string of injuries. The Switzerland international set up the first and third goals with accurate corner kicks. However, his delivery took a hit in the second half with a poor corner in the 76th and a free kick that beat every Gunner in stoppage time.

Koscielny’s reading of the game

At the back, Koscielny proved the best defender and defused dangerous situations with his outstanding reading of the game. He killed a counterattack with a timely challenge on Zaha in the 19th, blocked McArthur’s effort in the 36th, robbed Zaha in the 38th and intercepted Milivojevic’s through ball for Van Aanholt in the 87th. The France centerback scored the third goal and led all Arsenal players with 3 interceptions and 3 blocks. Mustafi will have big shoes to fill when Koscielny retires. The Germany international had a couple of dodgy moments, heading the ball past Cech for a corner in the 55th and allowing Benteke to be clean through on goal by missing an interception in the 60th.

From open play, the Eagles mostly threatened with crosses, especially with Van Aanholt who took advantage of Ozil’s poor marking. Mustafi headed out the Dutch leftback’s cross in the third minute while Zaha failed to make contact with the ball in the 52nd. In the end, Palace scored from a set piece. Benteke outjumped Iwobi and Mustafi in the 78th to redirect a corner toward Milivojevic, who chested the ball down to shoot past Cech. There had been already a warning in the 49th when Kelly pounced on a second ball from a corner to muster a tame effort straight at Cech.

The Gunners will be the underdogs for the second leg of the League Cup semifinal against Chelsea on Wednesday. Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac and Ozil made their return from injury against Palace while Sanchez, Ramsey, Giroud and Welbeck were not even in the squad. Wenger will definitely field a stronger team than the one that started the first leg but it might not be a full-strength team. Even if Mkhitaryan joins the Gunners before Wednesday, he’s unlikely to have the same impact as Sanchez right away.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Gunners pay price for poor transfer policy

   The Arsenal board must act quickly to clean up the mess created by the uncertainty about Sanchez’s situation at the club. Sanchez was not even on the bench Sunday when the Gunners lost 2-1 to Bournemouth in the Premier League. That tells you the club did not want to take any risk of injury before a possible transfer. Ironically, Bordeaux had no scruples about starting Malcom in the French league on Saturday even though the Brazilian forward has been tipped as the replacement for Sanchez. Guess what? Bordeaux won at Troyes.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

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

Last August, the Gunners performed poorly in losses to Stoke and Liverpool. The contractual situations of Sanchez, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly created doubt in the dressing room. The Ox is gone but Sanchez and Ozil are still at the club and the Arsenal squad could get destabilized again by all the transfer rumors. Sanchez could have joined Manchester City a few months ago for £60 million but Arsenal wasted too much time to meet Monaco’s asking price for Lemar, offering £31 million in June, then £40 million in July and finally £92 million at the end of August. By the time Monaco accepted the Gunners’ bid, Lemar had already started his season with the French side and was no longer willing to move, forcing Arsenal to call off the Sanchez deal.

   Will the Arsenal board learn from its mistakes and quickly sell Sanchez while signing his replacement? Or will it be another debacle with Sanchez leaving on a free transfer and his replacement coming only in the summer? If the Gunners want to know how to do some proper business, they just need to look at Liverpool. The Reds sold Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million and signed Van Dijk from Southampton for £75 million. The impact on the dressing room has been quite positive since Liverpool edged Manchester City 4-3 on Sunday.

A mid-table team

The Gunners face a massive rebuilding task this summer. Sunday’s game at the Vitality stadium gave them a foretaste of what the team could look like next season if they don’t improve the squad. Wenger fielded pretty much a mid-table team with 6 high-profile players (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Sanchez and Ozil) missing in the starting lineup. The club has already lost a year in the rebuilding process by refusing to sell Sanchez and Ozil last summer. And I don’t think the Arsenal board understands the financial implications of a massive overhaul.

Before the start of the season, I said Arsenal should have sold Chambers, loaned out Holding and signed an experienced centerback. The club chose the worst solution by selling Paulista while keeping Chambers and Holding as back-up options for the aging Mertesacker, Monreal and Koscielny. We saw the result of that poor transfer policy against Bournemouth as Chambers and Holding were involved in the two goals conceded.

The Cherries equalized in the 70th minute when Wilson converted a cross from Fraser. That’s the kind of goal that doesn’t make sense. Wilson was double-teamed by Chambers and Bellerin while Fraser and Mousset were surrounded by 4 Gunners along the touchline. Arsenal had numerical superiority on that play but lost two key duels. First, Maitland-Niles allowed Fraser to ghost past him. And second, Chambers failed to intercept the cross because of his lack of pace. To make things worse, Mustafi was pulled out of position by Mousset and couldn’t act as a safety. Cech was credited with an error by whoscored.com, but I don’t think that the Czech goalkeeper made a mistake for the simple reason that Wilson beat Chambers to the ball and had a free shot from 11 yards.

A flawed back three

Bournemouth scored the winner in the 74th, just a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four. As you can see on the screen capture below, the backline was not ready: Holding played Wilson onside by staying 4 yards behind Mustafi. With his back to goal, Wilson controlled a ball over the top from Cook and set up Ibe, who rifled a half-volley past Cech.

Bournemouth M72a editedHolding is 4 yards behind Mustafi while Xhaka keeps an eye on Ibe. (Photo credit: Sky)

Holding should have stood on the same line as Mustafi and Maitland-Niles. Xhaka also made a mistake on that play by not tracking Ibe, who beat everybody to the second ball. It’s not the first time this season that Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness has cost his team a goal.

Bournemouth M72b edited Xhaka forgets to track Ibe, who scores the winning goal. (Photo credit: Sky)

   While a back three of Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi can perform at a good level, Sunday’s back three of Mustafi, Holding and Chambers is deeply flawed. As the sweeper, Mustafi should be cautious but he’s sometimes too easily pulled out of position. That rashness can be deadly with 2 youngsters at the back. Holding is a pro-active defender like Mustafi but tends to dive in too often, winning only 2 of 7 tackles according to Squawka. By contrast, Chambers is way too passive: he made no tackle at all.

On the left wing, Maitland-Niles had a poor game. He had some lapses of concentration that are not acceptable at the top level. As the last defender on a corner in the 13th, Maitland-Niles gave the ball away to Ibe, who initiated a counterattack. He then fouled Smith in the 39th after losing possession with a poor touch on the edge of the Arsenal box. A few seconds later, Maitland-Niles had a pass intercepted by Smith, whose tame effort didn’t trouble Cech. Besides the cross for Bournemouth’s equalizer in the 70th, Maitland-Niles also failed to stop dangerous crosses from Ibe in the 40th and Francis in the 65th. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress, but he will have to quickly get rid of his naivety. The academy player was dribbled past 3 times.

Lacazette deprived of service

On the opposite wing, Bellerin was arguably Arsenal’s best player. The Spaniard scored a goal, won 5 of 6 tackles and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. He opened the scoring in the 52nd by firing a low strike that Begovic could only divert into his own net. After an average start to the season, Bellerin is getting close to the level of performance that led to his inclusion in the 2015-16 PFA Team of the Year, striking the right balance between attack and defense.

In midfield, Xhaka and Wilshere struggled defensively. Xhaka was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, while Wilshere led all players with 7 turnovers. They received yellow cards and combined to win only 1 of 11 tackles. Ramsey made his return from injury by replacing Chambers in the 74th. The Wales midfielder didn’t look sharp, making some inaccurate passes. It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks whether the manager switches to a back four to have Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield, or if he sticks to a back three and therefore benches one of the three midfielders.

In the front three, Lacazette was deprived of service. Sanchez and Ozil are two world-class players who can see and execute plays. The less talented Welbeck and Iwobi couldn’t make up for their absence. Lacazette was so frustrated that he dropped back to create chances for his teammates. He took 0 shot but attempted 4 through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles met a cross from Lacazette in the eighth minute and created space to fire a shot that clipped the bar. Then Lacazette slipped a through ball to Welbeck, who was denied by Begovic in the 35th. In the second half, Lacazette sent a ball over the top for Iwobi, who was dispossessed by Cook, and slightly overhit a through ball for Welbeck.

No Top 4 finish?

I’m worried about Lacazette’s confidence. He hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game. The France international worked hard on Sunday, winning 1 of 2 tackles, and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, but he struggled again in the centerforward role with 7 turnovers and only 1 of 10 aerial duels won. Welbeck and Iwobi didn’t do much to feed him. They combined to make only one cross. Iwobi wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 12th by ignoring Lacazette twice on the same play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi ended up running into traffic before playing a backpass to Wilshere and the chance was gone.

Bournemouth M12b edited Lacazette shows Iwobi where to play the ball. (Photo credit: Sky) 

Bournemouth M12c edited A second later, Lacazette points again where the ball should be played. (Photo credit: Sky)

Iwobi made the assist for Bellerin’s goal but his creative contribution was limited. In fact, that was Iwobi’s only key pass of the game. Somehow, it put more pressure on Wilshere and Xhaka to create plays even though they were busy defensively (Xhaka and Wilshere combined to make 6 key passes). Iwobi tested Begovic with a 20-yard drive in the 10th but missed his cross for Welbeck in the 28th in a situation that was similar to Bournemouth’s equalizer. The Nigeria international was lucky not to get penalized in the 39th for a silly handball inside the Arsenal area.

Arsenal’s record on the road has been poor this season with just 3 away wins while Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have won 6 away games at least. We shouldn’t look elsewhere if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4.

The Gunners trail fourth-place Chelsea by 8 points in the standings with 15 games left. Mathematically, Arsenal can still finish in the Top 4. But that would imply a winning run from Arsenal and an implosion from Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea. If we’re honest, winning the Europa League is the club’s most realistic chance to qualify for the Champions League next season.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 0-0 draw at Chelsea

Arsenal and Chelsea staked everything on the second leg of their League Cup semifinal as they both seemed happy with a goalless draw in Wednesday’s first leg. The Gunners were depleted by injuries with Ozil joining Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Cazorla and Giroud on the disabled list. By contrast, the Blues fielded a much stronger lineup but played at a too slow tempo to trouble the Arsenal defense. Maybe Chelsea had an eye on Saturday’s Premier League game against Leicester.

League Cup Semi 01

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

Like in the 2-2 draw a week ago, the Blues were the better team with 6 shots on target to 3 and 18 successful tackles to 13, according to whoscored.com, but proved wasteful again, especially on set pieces. We’ll have to wait until Jan. 24 to know which team will play the final at Wembley.

  1. Arsenal played like a Mourinho team

The Gunners played like a side that was only interested in getting a clean sheet, which is understandable after the shocking defending in the two previous games. The Arsenal defense was prepared for long balls and did not allow dangerous runs in behind like in the 2-2 draw. Welbeck and Iwobi also tried to limit Fabregas’ influence with some zonal marking although the Spaniard still finished the game with 6 key passes, the most for any player.

  1. Defending set pieces still an issue

Most of Chelsea’s chances came from set pieces. On the stroke of halftime, Azpilicueta sent a ball over the top for Fabregas, whose tame header didn’t trouble Ospina. Then Kante capitalized on a short corner in the 47th minute to make a cross that Alonso redirected toward an unmarked Christensen, who headed wide. Alonso also made a run toward the near post to meet a corner from Fabregas in the 54th but missed his header. A recycled free kick in the 66th led to another opportunity for Moses, whose low strike was diverted out by Mustafi. A minute later, Christensen headed a corner wide although Ospina was in no man’s land. Defending set pieces has been a recurrent problem in the past few years. The Gunners will need better focus for the second leg.

  1. The Sanchez saga

The presence of Sanchez on the Arsenal bench was a hot topic after the match. Why would you bench your best player for such a big game? The League Cup is the best chance for the club to lift a trophy this season. Sanchez didn’t play against Nottingham Forest and would have been fresh enough for the Bournemouth game on Sunday. The Chile striker replaced Lacazette in the 66th but couldn’t test Courtois.

Anything can happen until Jan. 31. Manchester City made a £20 million bid while Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich may also be interested. Fans can only hope that the transfer rumors won’t destabilize the club like they did in August. Even if the Gunners find a replacement for Sanchez this month, it won’t make up for the disastrous summer transfer window. And even if Wenger wants to let Sanchez run down his contract, Kroenke and the board will still have the last word.

  1. Iwobi should be loaned out

How do you know Welbeck used to be a Ferguson player? By his great work-rate. And how do you know Iwobi is a Wenger player? By his poor work-rate. Welbeck won 4 tackles, the most for an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com, while Iwobi won no tackle. Iwobi was dispossessed 6 times, the most for any player, while Welbeck lost possession only twice. Iwobi had a 17-yard effort palmed away by Courtois in the 39th but he also wasted a counterattack in the 72nd by opting for personal glory with a tame shot instead of feeding Sanchez, Welbeck or Bellerin.

There’s simply too much comfort for Iwobi at Arsenal. He needs a loan at another club to understand what playing football at the top level really means. Iwobi clearly has an attitude issue. He’s the most fined player at Arsenal because he’s often late. And British tabloids found out a couple of days ago that Iwobi attended a drug-fuelled party some 36 hours before the Forest game. Iwobi is only 21 but you kind of wonder whether he’ll become the next Bendtner.

  1. The Gunners badly missed Ramsey in midfield

Wilshere created Arsenal’s best chance in the 22nd with a ball over the top for Lacazette, whose half-volley sailed over the bar. However, Wilshere’s weak defensive contribution put the team in trouble. Xhaka tried to compensate and led all players with 4 fouls. The Switzerland international got booked in the 51st after Wilshere turned over the ball. Wilshere picked up an ankle sprain in the 54th and was replaced by Elneny, who also received a yellow card in the 86th for a cynical foul on Morata. Wilshere simply doesn’t have Ramsey’s mobility whereas Elneny doesn’t have Ramsey’s ability to win duels.

  1. Maitland-Niles is still learning the ropes

The academy player got Moses in his pocket a week ago, but the Chelsea wingback had different plans this time. Moses cut inside Maitland-Niles in the 24th to fire a low strike that Ospina saved with difficulty. Four minutes later, Moses took advantage of a slip from Maitland-Niles to test Ospina with another low effort. Somehow, Maitland-Niles grew into the game and made two crucial contributions, holding off Hazard, who ghosted past Mustafi in the 43rd, and intercepting Hazard’s pass for Moses in the 69th. Maitland-Niles is younger than Iwobi, but the Nigeria international would have a lot to learn from the academy player in terms of attitude and work-rate.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Gunners salvage 2-2 draw despite erratic defending

In Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea, the Gunners got a foretaste of what their defense could look like next season. Injuries to Monreal and Koscielny led Wenger to start Mustafi, Chambers and Holding in the back three. And the result on the pitch wasn’t pretty. The Blues could have won by a big margin if Cech had not pulled off a couple of outstanding saves and if Morata had not missed some big chances.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 1-1 at the Hawthorns on Sunday with Holding, Maitland-Niles and Ozil replacing Koscielny, Kolasinac and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Both teams used 3-5-2 formations which favored a lot of end-to-end plays. The Blues were the better team, creating 14 chances to just 6 for the Gunners, according to Squawka.

Defensively, Arsenal’s back three was all over the place. Mustafi is not an organizer like Mertesacker and he doesn’t absorb pressure like Koscielny. In the role of the sweeper, Mustafi failed to chaperone Chambers and Holding. There have been some cases of pub defending this season because of poor focus or poor decision-making, but the level of panic and disorganization reached on Wednesday was a first.

Chambers was again the weak link at the back, winning only 23% of his duels according to the club’s website. He’s a decent player for an average club but not good enough to start for Arsenal or any team chasing a Champions League spot. Chambers got off to a bad start with a poor challenge on Alonso in the second minute. He was then dispossessed in dangerous areas in the 13th and 79th and gave the ball away in the 28th.

His lack of pace was also exposed a couple of times. Morata made a run in behind Chambers in the 14th to be clean through on goal but missed the target from 12 yards. Then Hazard outpaced Chambers in the 50th to fire a diagonal strike that Cech saved with his leg. Chambers was again tortured by Morata in the 70th. Chasing a through ball from Fabregas, Morata bullied and held off Chambers but his chip attempt sailed wide.

Chambers’ passivity

I don’t think Chambers understands the difference between a back four and a back three. While Koscielny and Monreal are pro-active wide centerbacks, Chambers is too passive for such a position. Chambers made 0 interception and 0 block whereas Holding and Mustafi made 5 interceptions and 2 blocks each, according to Squawka.

It was quite telling that Mustafi and Chambers had a heated argument in the 14th after Chambers stopped chasing Morata, hoping that Mustafi would cover him. Mustafi was so frustrated by Chambers’ passivity that he tried to compensate and too often dived in. That’s why Mustafi was out of position when Chelsea had chances in the 50th and 70th.

The Blues exploited the mess in the Arsenal defense by sending long balls. Morata received a long ball from Cahill in the 76th to feed Hazard, who played the ball back to Morata. Holding was out of position on that play while Mustafi was outpaced by Morata, whose cross was intercepted by Cech. Chelsea nearly scored the winner in stoppage time. Morata made a run in behind Mustafi to bear down on goal but was denied by Cech. Zappacosta pounced on the rebound only to rattle the bar.

When Koscielny retires, I’m not sure Mustafi will be the right person to marshal the defense. Mustafi gave away some cheap free kicks with silly fouls on Morata in the eighth minute and Hazard in the 57th. He also lost two key duels inside the area. Morata got ahead of Mustafi in the 15th but couldn’t convert Moses’ cross. Then Alonso ghosted past Mustafi in the 84th to tap in Zappacosta’s cross for a 2-1 lead.

Lack of protection from the midfield

Of the 3 centerbacks, only Holding did OK. He won 71% of his duels, compared to 50% for Mustafi. At 22, Holding will need to learn faster because he’s still too raw. He was lucky not to get a yellow card in the 48th for a cynical foul on Morata. Five minutes later, Holding finally got booked for a late challenge on Fabregas. Holding will have to get rid of his naivety. He was pulled out of position by Hazard in the 27th when Bakayoko tested Cech with a high shot. His reading of the game is also a concern. Bakayoko made runs in behind Holding in the 34th and 69th while chasing long balls from Fabregas.

The Gunners are paying the price for their failure to sign good centerbacks in the past few years. Paulista never really convinced and was therefore sold to Valencia last summer. Holding is a work in progress while Chambers will never be a top centerback because of his lack of pace and poor ability to win duels. Mustafi is still a big question mark and hasn’t performed yet at the level of a Koscielny in his prime.

Arsenal’s defensive frailties are made more obvious by the lack of protection provided by the midfield. Fabregas had so much freedom on Wednesday that he racked up 6 key passes before Drinkwater replaced him in the 71st. Fabregas often dropped back to escape marking and deliver pinpoint long balls. In that kind of situation, a midfielder or a forward must mark him. But neither the manager nor the players could find the solution.

Fabregas’ performance showed how much the Gunners missed Ramsey in midfield. Xhaka and Wilshere simply can’t match Ramsey’s mobility and work-rate. Wilshere opened the scoring in the 63rd with a powerful strike into the top corner, but his defensive contribution was poor: he won 0 tackle, made 0 interception and 0 block. In fact, Chelsea completely outplayed Arsenal in midfield. Kante, Bakayoko and Fabregas combined to win 7 of 16 tackles and make 10 interceptions and 7 blocks, according to Squawka. By contrast, Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil combined to win 2 of 9 tackles and make 2 interceptions and 3 blocks.

A soft penalty

In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 3 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. Ozil fired a long-range strike that Courtois turned around the post in the 39th. He also added more fluency in the team’s passing game and was able to find pockets of space in a compact Chelsea defense. But the comparison with Fabregas showed again Ozil’s main weakness in those tight games. The Germany playmaker won’t fight for the ball like Fabregas. He will also struggle offensively when under pressure. Kante dispossessed Ozil on the stroke of halftime to launch a counterattack.

On the wings, Bellerin and Maitland-Niles were among Arsenal’s best performers with Cech, although they will probably be remembered for their involvement in Chelsea’s goals. Bellerin showed poor decision-making in the 66th when Hazard’s cross was blocked. The Spaniard thought he could beat Hazard to the loose ball but ended up kicking his boot. It was a soft foul and Hazard definitely exaggerated contact. But the golden rule is that when you make a challenge inside the box, you have to win the ball. And Bellerin didn’t. Hazard sent Cech the wrong way to level the game. Wenger called the penalty a “farcical” decision. I can understand the manager’s frustration. Bellerin has been denied two penalties that they were more obvious this season. The Spaniard made amends in stoppage time by pouncing on a poor clearance from the Chelsea defense to volley into the far corner.

Besides that late goal, Bellerin had 2 successful dribbles out of 3, made 1 interception, and won 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels, according to Squawka. At 20, Maitland-Niles looked very mature against Chelsea. He led Arsenal players with 4 blocks and 3 successful dribbles out of 4. Maitland-Niles also created a chance, won 75% of his duels and 3 of 6 tackles, according to the club’s website.

Poor final ball

Some fans keep complaining about Maitland-Niles being played out of position, but the problem is that he looks more solid at left wingback than Kolasinac. When Bakayoko controlled a long ball from Fabregas in the 69th, Maitland-Niles covered Holding and dispossessed the Chelsea midfielder just before he could pull the trigger. Does anybody seriously think that Kolasinac would have covered Holding on that play? Maitland-Niles’ only blemish in the first half came in the 15th when he failed to stop a cross from Moses. Morata got ahead of Mustafi but couldn’t make contact with the ball, allowing Cech to gather it. Conte acknowledged Moses’ ineffectiveness and replaced him with Zappacosta in the 56th. With a sharp turn in the 84th, Zappacosta created a bit of space for a cross that Alonso converted for a 2-1 lead. What could Maitland-Niles have done better on that play? Maybe guess that Zappacosta’s initial move to cut inside was just a bluff.

Chelsea played 3 games in a 9-day span while Arsenal played 3 games in a 7-day span, so I wasn’t surprised that the Blues created more chances. A relative lack of freshness could help explain the poor quality of the Gunners’ final ball: Sanchez overhit his cross for Ozil in the 10th, Maitland-Niles missed his cross in the 13th, and Wilshere overhit his pass for Ozil in the 27th.

Up front, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, leading all players with 9 turnovers, while Morata had just 5 turnovers according to whoscored.com. However, Lacazette worked hard, making 1 interception and winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. Despite skipping a winter break for the first time in his career, Lacazette still managed to have 3 of 3 shots on target. The France international took a pass from Ozil in the 23rd and rolled away from Cahill to hit a low strike that Courtois palmed away. Lacazette then benefited from a lucky bounce in the 52nd but couldn’t get the ball out of his feet quickly enough and was denied by the Chelsea goalkeeper. His last chance came in the 64th. Sanchez found Lacazette, whose angled shot deflected off Azpilicueta before being tipped around the post by Courtois. No big miss like Morata but a golden chance that should have found the net in the 52nd.

Bleak Top 4 chances

How do you recognize great players? Even when they have an off day, they can still be able of one moment of magic. Sanchez wasn’t sharp on Wednesday, having 1 of 4 shots on target and winning only 22% of his duels and 0 of 3 tackles. But he nearly opened the scoring in the 16th with a snapshot that Courtois diverted onto his near post. The ball ricocheted off the far post before gently rolling back toward Courtois. In the second half, Sanchez could only head wide a cross from Maitland-Niles.

I have mixed feelings after this game. It’s a decent result if we consider the number of injuries (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Giroud) and the unfavorable schedule. But a quick look at the standings shows that Arsenal’s Top 4 chances are weak. The Gunners trail Chelsea by 7 points and Liverpool by 5. It basically means that Arsenal must put together a winning run while hoping for a slip from Chelsea or Liverpool. I expect the manager to rest his key players when the Gunners face Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup on Sunday. Then he might field a makeshift team for the League Cup game against Chelsea on Wednesday.

West Brom vs. Arsenal: Ref blunder shows why VAR a necessity

The Gunners dropped two points on Sunday by conceding a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns. The penalty that gave West Brom a point was highly controversial because the referee made the wrong call. Gibbs chased a long ball from Barry in the 88th minute and hit Chambers’ arm with his cross. Both Gibbs and Chambers expected a corner. At least that’s what their body language said. But Dean stole the limelight from the players by awarding a spot kick to the hosts. Such an officiating mistake would have never been made with a video assistant referee. The German and Italian leagues already use VAR technology. And the Spanish and French leagues will introduce it next season. So why can’t the Premier League keep up with the other European leagues, which have less money?

West Brom vs. Arsenal

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

The Laws of the Game are pretty clear about what is a handball. Law 12 says that it “involves a DELIBERATE act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm”. Law 12 also says that “the movement of the hand TOWARD THE BALL (not the ball toward the hand) and the DISTANCE between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)” must be considered by the referee when deciding if the handball is intentional.

Chambers was only 1 yard away from Gibbs, so he had no time to get his arm out of the way. His arms were also in a natural position. Both Gibbs and Chambers were running after the ball and their arms had similar movements. Dean could have had an excuse if Chambers’ arms were outstretched but they were across his torso. The referee was standing some 20 yards from the ball and thought Chambers’ arm had moved toward the ball. Viewing the play from a better angle, a video assistant referee could have told Dean that Chambers only tried to raise his arm in an instinctive gesture to protect his face.

Even without VAR technology, Chambers only met 1 of 3 criteria for a handball. But instead of giving Chambers the benefit of the doubt, Dean overlooked the 2 other criteria and awarded a penalty that Rodriguez converted. What makes Dean’s decision so infuriating is that he ignored a more obvious penalty shout in the 62nd when Evans shoved Lacazette from behind. Lacazette was chasing a through ball from Sanchez and the push was enough to prevent him from controlling the ball.

Lack of creativity

A few days ago, Arsenal came away with the victory at Selhurst Park despite inviting pressure in the closing minutes. The Gunners played again with fire against West Brom and got punished this time. The penalty was controversial but how did Arsenal allow Gibbs to venture inside the box? It all started with Lacazette dropping back instead of closing down Barry. The veteran midfielder had plenty of time to spot Gibbs’ run and hit a pinpoint long ball. The second mistake came from Mertesacker, who had replaced an injured Koscielny in the 72nd. Gibbs made a run in behind Mertesacker and had his cross blocked by Chambers’ hand. The Gunners broke the deadlock in the 83rd but couldn’t even protect their lead for 10 minutes against one of the weakest sides in the league.

Wenger made only 1 change to the side that edged Crystal Palace 3-2 on Thursday with Iwobi replacing an injured Ozil in the starting lineup. Iwobi doesn’t have Ozil’s passing skills and doesn’t make smart runs like the Germany playmaker. There were other problems with that lineup. Wilshere is no goal-scoring threat like Ramsey while Chambers doesn’t play the ball out from the back like Monreal. Both Ramsey and Monreal were not available because of injury. It might just be tiny details but put together they make a difference in Arsenal’s ability to crack a defense.

Arsenal enjoyed 65% of ball possession but created very few chances with just 4 shots on target to 3 for the Baggies. Obviously, the scheduling didn’t help as West Brom had 2 more days of rest than Arsenal. England is the only major European nation with no winter break. Yet, Premier League executives couldn’t even avoid a congested schedule for the Christmas period. Because Iwobi couldn’t fill Ozil’s shoes, Sanchez often dropped back to make up for the lack of creativity. Sanchez led all players with 3 key passes. But it was too taxing for Sanchez to both create and finish. The Chile striker had 0 of 6 shots on target.

Lacazette’s poor hold-up play

Ozil is the kind of player that you need against teams playing with 10 men behind the ball because he has an eye for a pass. On Sunday, the Gunners too often lacked accuracy with the final ball. Sanchez played a one-two with Lacazette in the fourth minute but the France international’s return pass was deflected out for a corner. Then Bellerin overhit his through ball for Lacazette in the 40th while Iwobi played a short pass behind Sanchez in the 69th. In stoppage time, Lacazette sent a cross straight into Foster’s gloves instead of pulling the ball back for Bellerin. Ozil’s absence was also noticeable on set pieces with several corners poorly taken.

When you can’t beat with the pass, then the alternatives are running at defenders and playing more direct. The Gunners lost their best dribbling asset by selling Oxlade-Chamberlain to Liverpool last summer. Walcott is not as skillful in tight spaces while Nelson is still unproven and inconsistent. Sanchez has decent dribbling stats, but he doesn’t make penetrative dribbles: it’s mostly lateral dribbles to cut inside and then pass or shoot with his right foot. The Citizens have Sane and Sterling, the Red Devils have Martial and Rashford, and Liverpool can rely on Mane and Salah. Dribbling is no longer an option at Arsenal. A direct approach (i.e. long balls, crosses) could have been possible with Welbeck up front, but the manager preferred to start Lacazette.

Lacazette struggled again in the centerforward role. His hold-up play was poor. He led all players with 6 turnovers, compared to just 2 for Sanchez, according to whoscored.com. Lacazette didn’t feel comfortable each time he received the ball with his back to goal, winning only 33.3% of his duels, compared to 90% for Sanchez and 66.7% for Iwobi, according to the club’s website. Despite a poor performance, Lacazette still managed to create the best chance in the 60th by swapping passes with Iwobi before testing Foster with an angled strike. In the manager’s shoes, I would have rested Lacazette and started Welbeck up front. I still believe second striker is the best position for Lacazette in the Premier League whereas leading the line is not an issue in European games.

Sanchez taking the blame for the club’s poor transfer policy

Sanchez got some stick from Arsenal fans lately. It’s true that he under-performed in the first three months of the season because of an injury and the disappointment over an aborted move to Manchester City. But let’s be honest, it’s the club that mismanaged the summer transfer window. You let a player run down his contract only if he has a low resale value or if he’s past his prime. By failing to sign a replacement for Sanchez in the summer, the club created that tension around his contractual situation.

Yet, Sanchez has performed at a decent level in November and December. He helped Arsenal rack up points in the last three games by starting the rally against Liverpool, scoring twice against Crystal Palace and taking the free kick that led to McClean’s own goal in the 83rd. Whatever the club does in January (sell or keep Sanchez), it can only be a no-win situation because there’s no replacement of that quality available on the market.

It was quite optimistic to think that Iwobi could deputize for Ozil. The Nigeria international simply doesn’t have Ozil’s selflessness. How he ended up with 2 key passes is still a mystery. Iwobi was more interested in personal glory than in creating chances for his teammates. To his credit, Iwobi tested Foster with a long-range strike in the 30th. Welbeck replaced Iwobi in the 74th and had no impact on the game.

West Brom’s main threat in the first half came from Phillips, who made Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles look really bad. Phillips nutmegged Kolasinac in the sixth minute to make a cross for Rodriguez, who outjumped Mustafi for a tame header that Cech caught. The West Brom winger beat again Kolasinac in the 20th but overhit his cross. Two minutes later, Kolasinac was too far from Phillips to prevent another cross that Mustafi headed out. Kolasinac seemed to pick up a knock and was replaced in the 37th by Maitland-Niles, who also failed to stop crosses from Phillips in the 40th and 41st. The situation at leftback is worrying. Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress but Kolasinac is supposed to be the finished product and an upgrade over Monreal.

Top 4 race could be over this week for Arsenal

Chambers was unlucky with the penalty call but he still proved the weak link in the back three. Robson-Kanu beat Chambers in the 46th to make a low cross for Rodriguez, whose goal attempt was blocked. Then Chambers was too slow to react in the 77th, allowing Rodriguez to shoot from the edge of the box. The Baggies were aware of Chambers’ technical limitations and let him have the ball. Chambers made 91 passes compared to 48 for Koscielny and 50 for Mustafi. While Koscielny and Mustafi had a passing accuracy above 91%, Chambers’ passing accuracy dipped to 81.3%, according to whoscored.com. A more telling stat is Chambers’ success rate for long balls: he hit only 7 of 13 accurate long balls compared to 5 of 6 for Mustafi and Koscielny.

Koscielny performed better than against Palace while Mustafi made a couple of silly challenges on Robson-Kanu in the 26th and 58th. I’m guessing it’s a recurrence of his Achilles problem that led to Koscielny’s substitution in the 72nd. Basically, we could miss Koscielny, Monreal, Ozil and Ramsey for Wednesday’s clash against Chelsea. The stakes are pretty high. If the Gunners lose that London derby, they could trail fourth-place Liverpool by 9 points at the end of this week. The Top 4 race would then be virtually over for Arsenal and the only way to qualify for the Champions League next season would be to win the Europa League.

 

Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Gunners overcome 2-goal deficit in 3-3 draw

The Gunners scored 3 goals in a five-minute span to draw 3-3 on Friday and stay 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. In a thrilling game, the poor defending from both teams also showed why they are not contending for the title. With 9 shots on target to 4, the Reds were the better team, making more interceptions, winning more tackles, and having more successful dribbles. The Gunners were so badly outplayed in the first half that they could have trailed 3-0 at halftime. But Arsenal capitalized on Liverpool’s drop in intensity after the second goal to take the lead against the run of play with some clinical finishing.

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

Wenger made no change to the side that edged Newcastle 1-0 a week ago. The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese again because there was no natural ballwinner in the trio formed by Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil to stop the Reds’ counterattacks. A poor corner kick from Sanchez in the 48th minute led to one of these fast breaks but Cech saved Salah’s low effort. Four minutes later, Maitland-Niles was dispossessed by Gomez near the Liverpool corner flag. Gomez slipped the ball to Milner, who found Salah. The Egypt forward ran 40 yards unchallenged and swapped passes with Firminho before curling a shot past Cech to make it 2-0. In the closing minutes, Wijnaldum also led a counterattack and fed Salah, who fired into the side-netting.

Friday’s game showed why the manager switched to a back three at the end of last season. The Arsenal defense simply doesn’t get any protection from the midfielders, who get bypassed too easily. With 3 centerbacks, you have some room for error if one of the centerbacks is pulled out of position. With a back four, if one the centerbacks is drawn out of position, the holding midfielder must cover him.

Liverpool used Firminho as a bait for the opening goal from a throw in the 26th. Milner sent a long ball toward Salah, whose cross deflected off Koscielny. The ball fell into the path of Coutinho, who beat Cech with a looping header. The Reds had a bit of luck for the first 2 goals since Salah’s curling shot also took a deflection off Mustafi. Still, that doesn’t excuse the Gunners’ defensive naivety.

Pulled out of position

For the opening goal, Monreal made the mistake of following Firminho deep into Liverpool’s territory. That left a huge space at the back with Koscielny and Bellerin in a 2v2 situation with Mane and Salah. See the screen capture below. In hindsight, either Wilshere or Xhaka should have marked Firminho on the throw-in. Maitland-Niles also had a lapse of concentration, looking at the ball and failing to spot Salah’s run in behind. Coutinho finished off the play by running into the space created by Firminho. Wilshere and Xhaka were on the same line as Coutinho when Milner hit the long ball but they lost the foot race with the Brazil midfielder. With a back three, the third centerback could have covered Maitland-Niles or won the header against Coutinho.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M26ed Bellerin and Koscielny in a 2v2 situation as Maitland-Niles and Monreal are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Reds pulled the same trick again in the 62nd. You have to question the Gunners’ lack of commitment since it started with a basic goal kick played short by Mignolet. The ball travelled down our right flank where Coutinho made a crossfield pass for an unmarked Mane, whose volley was parried by Cech. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Salah dropped back to pull Koscielny out of position. Mustafi was also drawn out of position as he covered Bellerin by marking Coutinho. That forced Maitland-Niles to drift inside and mark Firminho, leaving Mane completely free on the left flank. In hindsight, Xhaka or Wilshere should have closed down Salah on that play. When you have a forward playing between the lines, your holding midfielder must be able to play like a third centerback and mark that forward. I just don’t think that Xhaka or Wilshere can be that holding midfielder.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M62edMane, circled, is unmarked while Koscielny and Mustafi are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

While the opening goal resulted from the poor defensive contribution of the Arsenal midfielders, the last goal was pub defending at its best. Liverpool had a corner in the 71st and implemented gegenpressing after losing the ball. Salah dispossessed Sanchez and slipped the ball to Can, who had plenty of time to play Firminho in. From 16 yards, Firminho shot past Cech, who could only divert the powerful strike into his own net. As you can see on the screen capture below, no one closed down Can. When Wilshere reacted, it was already too late. But the worst part was the space given to Firminho. He was in front of goal and no one seemed to realize that he was the main danger. What were Koscielny and Mustafi doing?

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M71ed Firminho, circled, given acres of space by the Gunners. (Photo credit: Sky)

Monreal had a poor game. He won no tackle and made no interception in the first half. The Spaniard showed his limits as a centerback in a back four. His qualities are better suited for a back three because of his relative lack of pace and weakness in the air. He picked up a knock in the 34th and was replaced by Mustafi at halftime.

Bellerin’s good performance

For his return from injury, Mustafi produced a decent performance, winning 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for an Arsenal defender according to the club’s website. However, there are still question marks over his partnership with Koscielny. The France defender had 2 dodgy moments on Friday. He was unlucky for the opening goal. But his slip in the 44th nearly cost his team a second goal. Koscielny attempted to intercept Milner’s through ball for Mane and ended up diverting it into the path of Salah, who was denied by Cech. The rebound fell to Mane, who wasted the chance with a useless bicycle kick instead of controlling the ball to have a better shot. Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal are clearly past their prime, which means that 2 centerbacks should be signed next summer.

On the right flank, I thought Bellerin produced one of his best performances this season. He found the right balance between defense and offense, winning 4 tackles, keeping Mane quiet, and making 1 assist. The Spaniard could have scored the winner in the 78th but Mignolet tipped his angled strike over the bar. If we want to be really picky, maybe Bellerin could have done better on 2 plays. He failed to stop a cross from Coutinho in the 24th and Firminho outjumped Maitland-Niles at the far post to head wide. Then Firminho cut inside Bellerin in the 32nd to curl a shot inches over the bar.

On the left flank, Maitland-Niles did OK. Although he showed his inexperience on the opening goal, I thought he didn’t look ridiculous against Salah. Some supporters keep asking why is he played out of position. Maybe Maitland-Niles is a safer option at leftback than Kolasinac right now. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Wenger has converted a midfielder into a fullback with Lauren and Bellerin as successful examples.

Iwobi’s poor work-rate

In midfield, the Gunners can be outplayed by the big clubs because they have no world-class ballwinner. The Blues have Kante while Manchester City can rely on Fernandinho. We used to have Petit and Gilberto, two World Cup winners, but nowadays we must make do with Coquelin, Xhaka and Elneny. Not quite the same category.

Xhaka made it 2-2 with a 30-yard drive in the 56th, but you expect your holding midfielder to protect the defense first. His poor positional play showed on the counterattack that led to Liverpool’s second goal. Wilshere shone in the Europa League games and against Newcastle, but he had less time on the ball against Liverpool, which explains his 5 turnovers. I think deep-lying playmaker is his best position because he has less pace than Ozil, which is crucial in the final third. Ozil had no influence in the first half because the Reds were so dominant. The Germany playmaker showed his class in the second half by netting Arsenal’s third goal with a chip in the 58th. He could have scored the winner in stoppage time but Mignolet palmed his cross-shot over the bar.

In the front three, I was very frustrated by Iwobi’s poor work-rate. Robertson had so much freedom that he finished the game with 47 passes, the second most for a Liverpool player behind Milner according to whoscored.com. In the 15th, Iwobi completely forgot to close down Robertson, who made a dangerous cross that Koscielny eventually cleared. You would think that Iwobi understood the threat coming from Robertson’s delivery. But he didn’t. The Scottish leftback made a few more dangerous crosses, one that Cech caught in the 20th and another that led to a scoring chance for Firminho in the 22nd.

Rough evening for Lacazette

A few years ago, Waddle accused Walcott of having no football brain. How would you call a player who needs to see several dangerous crosses before understanding that he should close down his opponent? Iwobi also showed a lack of lucidity in the final third, sending passes straight into touch in the 21st, 25th and 33rd, and giving the ball away to Can in the 31st despite having 2 decent passing options. Iwobi got an assist for his sideways pass to Xhaka in the 56th but his end product was really poor. The Gunners can only afford to have one softie against the top teams, and that’s Ozil. Starting two softies like Ozil and Iwobi puts a big strain on the Arsenal defense. If Wenger wants to stick to a back four, playing Ozil or Ramsey on the right wing would make more sense.

On the left wing, Sanchez had an anonymous first half before coming to life in the second. Sanchez cut the deficit to 2-1 by heading home Bellerin’s cross in the 53rd. He also set up Xhaka for a shot that missed the target in the 61st and almost scored the winner with a low strike that lacked power to beat Mignolet in the 83rd. The Chile striker led all players with 3 key passes but also had 5 turnovers, including one that led to Liverpool’s equalizer. Even at 90% of his potential, Sanchez will still give you more end product than Welbeck or Iwobi.

Up front, it was a rough evening for Lacazette. Since the start of the season, I’ve always said that Lacazette would be more comfortable in the role of a second striker than as a centerforward because the Premier League is more physical than the French league where he used to play. Lacazette looked isolated in the first half and got no service because his teammates didn’t see his runs or had not enough time to make the pass.

Poor away form

Hitting long balls is the easiest way to evade a high press. Unfortunately, Lacazette is not Giroud. Liverpool centerbacks Lovren and Klavan exposed Lacazette’s weakness in the air. Lacazette is usually tidy in possession but he was dispossessed 5 times on Friday because of Liverpool’s pressing game. Despite the lack of support and opportunities, Lacazette worked hard for the team and played Ozil in with a clever backheel flick for Arsenal’s third goal.

Lacazette’s lack of physicality might not be an obstacle to lead the line. But he will have to tweak his game a bit. If you look at the top teams, you basically see two types of centerforwards. Morata, Lukaku, Ibrahimovic and Kane are strong in the air and can hold the ball up, while Firmino and Aguero play more like false nines, dropping back to create space and link up play. The Gunners haven’t optimally used Lacazette’s potential yet.

A draw is a decent result knowing that Arsenal lost both league games against Liverpool last season. The Gunners will next visit Crystal Palace on Thursday and West Brom on Sunday before hosting Chelsea on Jan. 3. They will need to improve their away form if they want to finish in the Top 4. The Gunners have only won 2 away games this season while Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have won at least 5 away games. Even Leicester and Watford have a better record on the road than Arsenal.