Giroud scored in the closing minutes to salvage a 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday as the Gunners stayed 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. This weekend’s results clearly show that Manchester City is running away with the title, while 5 clubs (Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham) will fight for the 3 remaining Champions League spots. Last season, Arsenal missed out on Europe’s elite competition with 75 points from 38 games, 1 point behind the Reds. The cut line this season could be 76 points again. So far, the Gunners are 1 victory short of the cruising speed required for Champions League football with 29 points from 16 games.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The Gunners hurt their chances of getting 3 points at St Mary’s stadium with another poor start. They conceded a goal by the third minute with some pub defending. Cech was not happy after the game as he bluntly said that Arsenal “could have been 3-0 down after 10 minutes again.” The Czech goalkeeper was referring to the disastrous start against Manchester United the previous weekend. While the Gunners had one day less of rest than United after a mid-week game, there was no such excuse for the Southampton game: the 11 starters did not even play in the Europa League on Thursday. An early goal was obviously the best scenario for the Saints, who parked the bus and proved hard to break down.
Wenger made just one change to the side that lost to United the previous weekend with Mertesacker replacing an injured Mustafi. The FA Cup final provided the blueprint for playing Mertesacker in a back three: Arsenal left very little space between the goalkeeper and the backline against Chelsea even if it meant a lot of distance to cover for the midfielders. Yet, the Gunners decided to play a high defensive line against Southampton. Mertesacker’s lack of pace made such a plan completely suicidal.
Mertesacker and Koscielny struggling at the back
Mertesacker didn’t cover himself in glory in the third minute. The German defender gave the ball away to Austin, who found Tadic on the edge of the box. Taking advantage of Mertesacker’s comical fall, Tadic had plenty of time to play Austin in. The Southampton striker took a touch before beating Cech from close range. Monreal was slow to react on that play as he let Austin run past him.
Playing on the shoulder of Mertesacker near the center circle, Austin beat again the offside trap in the fifth minute to collect a pass from Tadic but was denied by Cech. The Gunners did not learn their lesson as Austin made another run in behind in the 43rd to chase a through ball from Romeu. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to beat Austin to the ball and clear the danger. A static Mertesacker also failed to close down Romeu, who clipped the bar with a long-range strike in the 62nd.
A week after his poor performance against United, Koscielny had another miserable moment. Koscielny gave the ball away to Redmond in the 66th and the Southampton forward hit a long ball toward Bertrand. Koscielny intercepted the ball with a header but only to knock it into the path of Tadic. Attempting to make up for his mistakes, Koscielny missed his tackle on Tadic and let Bertrand run past him to take Tadic’s pass. With just Cech to beat, Bertrand somehow missed the target. You don’t often see a player make 4 mistakes on the same play.
We know Mertesacker and Koscielny have lost a step. It’s a different story with Bellerin who is only 22. The Spaniard has produced a lot of average performances this season, well below the level that helped him get named in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year.
A more direct approach
Bellerin had a hard time on Sunday with Bertrand and Redmond roaming down his flank. He won only 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage for an Arsenal midfielder according to the club’s website. Bertrand outpaced Bellerin in the eighth minute to make a cross for Austin, who hit the post but was flagged offside anyway. Then Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Ward in the 29th. An unmarked Austin knocked the ball down for Van Dijk, whose flick bounced off Xhaka to gently roll toward Cech. Bellerin lost another duel in the 53rd, allowing Redmond to test Cech with a long-range effort, before receiving a yellow card in the 78th for pulling back Boufal.
After Southampton took the lead, the Gunners enjoyed plenty of ball possession but lacked penetration in the final third. As a symbol of Arsenal’s sterile possession, Koscielny (102), Xhaka (95) and Monreal (93) led the team in passes, according to whoscored.com. If you can’t beat with the pass, then running at defenders is the obvious alternative. Unfortunately, our dribbling options are limited since Oxlade-Chamberlain joined Liverpool. Arsenal finished the game with fewer successful dribbles than the Saints.
So the manager opted for more directness by replacing Mertesacker with Welbeck in the 64th and Lacazette with Giroud in the 72nd. With those 2 substitutions, the Gunners suddenly became more threatening in the air. Yet, it took them 16 minutes to finally feed Giroud. The France striker converted his only scoring chance of the game by outjumping Yoshida in the 88th to head Sanchez’s cross into the bottom corner. Let’s give some credit to Giroud for isolating himself with Yoshida and therefore creating a bad matchup for the Southampton defense.
Very good or world class?
Arsenal had to rely on Giroud’s physicality because Lacazette’s pace was of no use against a compact defense. Receiving the ball in tight spots, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, which is not his forte. Xhaka redirected a high ball from Sanchez toward Lacazette, who held off Yoshida only to fire a low shot straight at Forster in the 16th. A minute later, Lacazette wasted a better chance on a counterattack. See the screen capture below. In a 3v1 situation, Lacazette controlled Bellerin’s pass with a poor first touch, allowing Hojbjerg to clear the ball to safety. In hindsight, Lacazette should have made a first-time pass to Ozil to his right. Easy to say, but very difficult to do at full throttle.
Lacazette wasting a 3v1 situation on a counterattack. (Photo credit: BT)
Then Bellerin made a low cross for Lacazette, who fired over the bar from 12 yards in the 41st. The France international should have caught the frame in that kind of situation. If Lacazette doesn’t become more clinical, football fans will keep thinking he’s a very good player but not a world-class striker, i.e. the difference between Lukaku and Aguero.
Sanchez and Ozil didn’t shine either on Sunday. Sanchez had an average game while Ozil was pretty much anonymous. Ozil finished the game with 0 key pass and had 6 turnovers, trailing only Sanchez (7) for the most by any player. By contrast, Tadic led Southampton with just 4 turnovers. Ozil’s lack of end product meant that the creative burden rested on the shoulders of Sanchez, who led Arsenal with 3 key passes. Besides the assist for the equalizer, Sanchez also had a curling free kick punched away by Forster in the 84th.
Questions about Sanchez and Ozil
Any time Sanchez and Ozil don’t perform well, Arsenal supporters can’t help wondering whether they are still playing for the club or preparing their transfers. You can only blame the manager and the board for having created this situation. It feels very much like a transition season because of all that uncertainty.
In hindsight, most supporters wouldn’t have been mad at the club for letting Sanchez and Ozil go this summer if they had been properly replaced. There was a dressing room revolt in 2011 because Fabregas and Nasri had not been replaced. Oxlade-Chamberlain was just a prospect then. By contrast, Van Persie’s departure generated no such drama in 2012 because the club had signed Podolski and Giroud for goals as well as Cazorla to finally fill the hole left by Fabregas.
It was also in 2011 that the Gunners signed Arteta. The Spaniard proved a leader in the dressing room but his time with Mertesacker became the symbol of Arsenal’s porous defense, especially during the 2013-14 season. Their lack of pace made the team vulnerable on counterattacks. The same issue is repeating itself with the gradual decline of Koscielny and Monreal at the back and Xhaka’s lack of mobility in midfield.
There were suggestions before Sunday’s game that Arsenal might start with a back four like in the 6-0 win over BATE Borisov. In the end, the manager was too much aware of the lack of protection provided by the midfield and stuck with the 3-4-3 formation. The third centerback is basically making up for the lack of a decent defensive midfielder. In theory, Xhaka is the holding midfielder but you never know what you are going to get with him. He made a reckless challenge on Bertrand to give away a cheap free kick in the 26th. But he also made a clean tackle on Redmond to kill a Southampton counterattack in the 35th. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger finally switched to a back four in the 64th even though it exposed Monreal and Koscielny, who had to cope with 2v2 situations a couple of times.
Ramsey’s hamstring injury
Ramsey was the only Arsenal player who really tested Forster in the first half. He met a low cross from Sanchez in the 32nd for a first-time effort that the Southampton goalkeeper saved. In the closing minutes, Ramsey seemed to pick up a hamstring injury. He stayed on the pitch because Wenger had already used up his substitutions. On one leg, Ramsey still managed to connect with a cross from Kolasinac in stoppage time but his shot had no power.
The Wales midfielder has been Arsenal’s most valuable player this season in terms of goals and assists. His injury is coming at a bad time because of the hectic schedule. Knowing Ramsey’s injury record, the staff definitely needs to be careful and not rush him in his return. Wilshere would seem the most suitable replacement for Ramsey in midfield even though they have 2 different profiles.
The Gunners need 2 wins from their next 2 games to make up for the points dropped against Stoke, Watford and Manchester United. I don’t expect too much rotation against West Ham on Wednesday but some tinkering against Newcastle on Saturday might be necessary to inject some freshness and avoid injuries.