Tag Archives: Mertesacker

Community Shield: Kolasinac stuns Chelsea as Gunners win penalty shootout

The Community Shield doesn’t necessarily show a glimpse into the upcoming Premier League season. Despite thrashing Manchester City 3-0 in the curtain-raiser of the 2014-15 season, Arsenal then got off to a sluggish start, taking only 6 points from their first 4 games to finish third in the league, 12 points behind Chelsea and 4 behind City.

2017 Community Shield

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

FA officials made it clear that the Community Shield wasn’t a major trophy by allowing Koscielny to be available for Sunday’s game. The Gunners kept the bragging rights for a few more weeks by downing Chelsea 4-1 in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in regulation time.

Wenger obviously thought the season opener against Leicester on Friday was more important than the Community Shield as he left Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez and Mustafi out of the squad. Ramsey and Ozil picked up knocks on the training ground while Sanchez and Mustafi still lack match fitness after recovering from the Confederations Cup.

The manager made 4 changes to the side that edged Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final with Lacazette, Iwobi, Elneny and Cech replacing Sanchez, Ozil, Ramsey and Ospina in the starting lineup. Conte also tweaked his lineup by replacing Costa, Hazard and Matic with Batshuayi, Willian and Fabregas.

The Blues might complain that Pedro’s ejection in the 80th minute was harsh, but if you look at the TV replays, his foul on Elneny ticks all the boxes for a straight red card: studs-up challenge from behind; Elneny’s physical integrity in danger with a stamp on his Achilles; and no real intent to play the ball with Pedro’s tackling foot far from the ball.

Chelsea relied on a tight defense and some clinical finishing to win the league last season. The trouble with the Blues’ emphasis on defending is that it can sometimes prove too aggressive: Azpilicueta and Alonso also got booked in the first half for cynical fouls.

Lacazette as a false nine

Arsenal fans probably have a better understanding of Lacazette’s abilities after watching his performance in the Community Shield. When leading the line, Lacazette is a false nine like Sanchez, not a target man like Giroud. The Chelsea defense easily intercepted a long ball for Lacazette in the 19th. Lacazette can’t outmuscle an opponent like Giroud or Welbeck would, but he can contribute in the build-up play with his passing skills.

The former Lyon striker created Arsenal’s best chance in the first half by playing a one-two with Bellerin before swapping passes with Welbeck to curl a shot that struck the post in the 22nd. Those are the flashes of brilliance that Sanchez can typically produce in a game. The big difference is that Sanchez can make those moments happen 2 or 3 times in a game while that was Lacazette’s only touch of magic on Sunday. On the bright side, Lacazette is more tidy than Sanchez, having only 2 turnovers and reaching a passing accuracy of 94.4% according to whoscored.com. Lacazette also showed his willingness to perform defensive tasks by making 3 tackles.

Although Giroud replaced Lacazette in the 66th, I definitely believe the two players can be quite complementary. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger sent on Giroud to add an aerial threat inside the Chelsea box. Giroud had no scoring chance but showed nerves of steel in the penalty shootout. Walcott, Monreal, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud converted their spot kicks while Courtois and Morata both missed the target.

Iwobi’s poor work-rate

Playing on the left flank, Welbeck sometimes swapped positions with Lacazette. His work-rate was quite impressive: Welbeck dispossessed Azpilicueta in the 13th and made a robust tackle on Moses in the 27th. His only scoring chance came in the eighth minute when he met a long ball from Xhaka for a header that lacked power to beat Courtois.

Iwobi showed some poor work-rate compared to Lacazette and Welbeck. The Nigeria international made no effort to win the ball back after Kante dispossessed him in the 24th. He produced some clever footwork on the stroke of halftime to create space for a tame shot straight at Courtois. Yet, that kind of contribution is not enough to justify a lack of effort.

The Gunners finished strong last season because they shifted from a 4-2-3-1 system to a 3-4-3 formation. Tactically, it made the defense less vulnerable by adding a centerback, but what some fans overlook is that it also removed 2 softies among the attacking players. At the end of 2016, Arsenal mostly relied on Walcott, Iwobi, Ozil and Sanchez in the final third. When Wenger made his tactical switch, Walcott and Iwobi were gone while Giroud or Welbeck joined Sanchez and Ozil in a front three. There was still one softie in the attacking line with Ozil, but it was better than having 3 softies in the previous system.

If the club sticks to the 3-4-3 formation, I doubt Iwobi will get much playing time this season. It would be better to loan him out so that he could improve his work-rate.

Conceding on a set piece

At the exception of the goalkeeper, Wenger made no change to the defense that frustrated Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Mertesacker, Holding and Monreal formed the back three while Bellerin and the Ox played as wingbacks. The manager could have used Koscielny on Sunday, but left him out of the squad because he felt that defenders available for the first two league games needed more playing time than Koscielny.

Wenger had to change his plans in the 28th when Mertesacker suffered a head injury after challenging Cahill for a high ball. The German centerback needed several stitches to close the cut above his right eye and was replaced by Kolasinac in the 33rd. Despite the change in personnel, Arsenal managed to limit Chelsea to two half-chances before the break as Cech parried a cross-shot from Moses in the 32nd and punched away an angled strike from Pedro in the 35th.

Unfortunately, Arsenal’s vulnerability on set pieces was exposed in the 46th when Xhaka poorly cleared a corner. Cahill beat Xhaka to the loose high ball and headed it toward Moses, who ghosted past Holding and Bellerin to score from close range. Bellerin was the main culprit on that play. He was initially on the right side of Moses but then failed to stay with him when the Chelsea wingback made a few steps back to beat the offside trap.

Kolasinac’s versatility

If we compare with the FA Cup final, Bellerin and the Ox both under-performed in the Community Shield. The Ox had an average game while Bellerin let his team down with a couple of big mistakes. Bellerin finished the game with a passing accuracy of 70,4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal starters. The Spaniard received a yellow card in the 14th for a late tackle on Alonso, underhit a backpass for Cech in the 25th and nearly gave away a penalty with a poor first touch in the 37th. My guess is that Bellerin still lacks a bit of match fitness after recovering from the European U21 Championship.

At the back, Monreal had a solid game, winning 4 aerial duels and making 3 tackles. Mertesacker’s injury forced Monreal to play as a sweeper for the last 60 minutes. Monreal’s experience, reading of the game and smart positional play made the transition seamless when Kolasinac came off the bench to play as the left centerback.

A leftback by trade, Kolasinac’s versatility made up for the absence of Paulista and Koscielny. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international is definitely a more natural option at centerback than Elneny or Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac won the hearts of many fans by heading home the equalizer in the 82nd off a Xhaka free kick.

Midfield trouble?

Holding proved again the weak link in the back three. His performance was a mixed bag. He showed his commitment by winning 4 aerial duels and making 2 tackles and 2 interceptions. But his naivety also put the Arsenal defense in trouble a couple of times. Holding was dispossessed by Alonso while dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 16th. In stoppage time, he gave away a dangerous free kick by fouling Morata, who was playing with his back to goal. However, I wouldn’t blame Holding for Chelsea’s goal. Holding was not aware of Moses’ presence behind him. Maybe a more experienced defender would have given a quick look behind instead of looking at the ball throughout the entire play like Holding did.

In midfield, Chelsea gave Xhaka plenty of maneuvering room. Conte’s 3-4-3 formation means that only Kante or Fabregas can really press Xhaka. Since Fabregas has lost much of his mobility and Kante can’t both protect the defense and press high up the pitch, Xhaka was therefore able to dictate play for Arsenal. The Switzerland international led all players with 4 key passes, including 2 through balls, and hit 10 accurate long balls out of 14. Xhaka nearly scored in the 76th but Courtois tipped his 35-yard drive around the post.

There are still 3 weeks left before the end of the transfer window. I hope the club will sign a midfielder because Wenger’s 3-4-3 system is very demanding for that position. Basically, the two central midfielders must cover a lot of ground to connect the defense with the front three. Ramsey and Wilshere have a bad injury record and Cazorla won’t return before November. We might be one injury away from trouble in midfield, knowing the limitations of Coquelin and Elneny.

 

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Australia and China

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

Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Pre-Season Friendly

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

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

  1. Omissions aren’t always innocent

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

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

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

  1. Cech, Ramsey and Ozil are already sharp

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Lacazette and Giroud are different players

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

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

  1. The Gunners still miss the complete centerforward

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

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

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

  1. The midfield is weak

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

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

  1. Iwobi must end his sophomore slump

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

  1. Nelson is the most promising youngster

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

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

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

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

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

Gunners save season by downing Chelsea 2-1 in FA Cup final

Sanchez and Ramsey scored on Saturday to give Arsenal a record 13th FA Cup and make Wenger the most successful manager in that competition with a 7th title. The Gunners were complete underdogs before kickoff. I remember reading the Evening Standard on Friday and all their six pundits predicted a Chelsea victory. On the one hand, the Blues had no injured or suspended player and could therefore field a full-strength team. On the other, the Gunners were so badly crippled by injury or suspension that there was no defender on the bench.

FA Cup final

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

Wenger made a gutsy call by giving Mertesacker his first start of the season despite question marks over the match fitness of the German centerback. Koscielny’s suspension, Gibbs’ illness and injuries to Mustafi and Paulista also forced the manager to use Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback on the left flank. The key for Arsenal was to avoid playing a high defensive line that could expose Mertesacker’s lack of pace.

Tactically, the Gunners annihilated Chelsea’s strengths by using the same 3-4-3 system as Conte. They met twice in the Premier League this season. Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates stadium in September when both sides were playing with four defenders at the back. Conte then switched to a back three to beat the Gunners 3-1 in February. At that time, Wenger was still hesitating between his favored 4-2-3-1 formation and a more industrious 4-3-3 system. Those Premier League games became irrelevant on Saturday since the FA Cup final was the first meeting between Conte and Wenger in which both played a back three.

I wasn’t optimistic before the game. I thought Arsenal would be punished for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Holding’s inexperience. My only hope was the 2-1 win over Manchester City in the semifinals. Maybe we could win if the Blues missed their chances and the Gunners converted theirs. In the end, Arsenal showed more desire than Chelsea, making 23 tackles to 20 and 17 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website. The scoreline was quite misleading. The Blues were so badly outplayed that nobody would have complained if the Gunners had won 4-1 or 5-2.

Ramsey’s late runs

Arsenal capitalized on a spell of domination in the opening minutes to open the scoring with a controversial goal. Sanchez charged down a clearance from Kante and the ball hit the Chile striker’s arm before landing at the feet of an offside Ramsey. Luiz and Cahill froze while Ramsey let Sanchez take his chance. Sanchez flicked the ball past Courtois with the outside of his boot to put the Gunners ahead after three minutes.

The controversy was not so much about Ramsey’s offside position, since he didn’t play the ball, but about Sanchez’s handball. You can argue that Sanchez was simply trying to protect his face and that the handball was therefore unintentional. It’s not the first time that a referee has allowed a goal to stand despite a handball in the buildup. Trezeguet scored a similar goal in France’s 2-2 draw with Croatia at the Euro 2004.

Sanchez created the winning goal in the 79th by releasing Giroud down the left wing. Giroud made a cross for Ramsey, who headed the offering into the bottom corner. The understanding between Ramsey and Giroud made the difference on that play. Ramsey’s deep runs are hard to track for any defense. Kante lost track of Ramsey, who was able to find some space between Luiz and Alonso inside the box.

Chelsea struggled to mark Sanchez and Ozil because they have a lot of freedom in Wenger’s 3-4-3 system. As inside forwards, Sanchez and Ozil can find space between the centerbacks and the wingbacks. They can also drop back to exploit the space between the centerbacks and the midfielders. The main drawback of that formation is that Sanchez and Ozil can sometimes be isolated if there’s no support from the wingbacks or midfielders. That explains in great part their high turnover rate. Sanchez had 11 turnovers and Ozil 6, more than any other player according to whoscored.com.

Ozil’s work-rate

The reason why Sanchez and Ozil are considered world-class players is their reading of the game. They can see and make the right pass even under pressure. Sanchez initiated a counterattack in the 55th with a cross-field pass to Bellerin, who failed to find two Gunners at the far post with his cross. The Chile striker also slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was cleared off the line by Cahill in the 16th. It was a good effort since Ozil hit the ball with his weaker right foot. In the closing minutes, Giroud picked out Ozil, who cut inside Azpilicueta only to strike the near post.

Ozil finished the game with 3 key passes and worked harder than usual. The Germany playmaker made 2 tackles compared to none for Pedro and Hazard. He also played a key role in Arsenal’s passing game with 65 passes, second behind Xhaka’s 73. By contrast, Hazard made only 35 passes, fifth behind Azpilicueta, Luiz, Kante and Cahill in the Chelsea team. Sanchez made no tackle but disrupted the Blues’ passing game with 3 interceptions, tied with Monreal and Bellerin for the most by an Arsenal player.

Up front, Welbeck struggled with his finishing. He met a corner in the 19th for a header that crashed against the far post. Then Welbeck took a pass from Bellerin in the 30th and was denied by Courtois from a tight angle while a cross to Ramsey for a tap-in was the better option. On the bright side, Welbeck worked his socks off to cover Sanchez or Ozil when they were stuck high up the pitch. Giroud came off the bench in the 78th to set up Ramsey for the winner.

Moses’ dive

Ramsey has received a lot of stick this season and much of it was not deserved. First, injuries have marred his season. Ramsey never really had a good run of games to find his groove. And second, the few times Ramsey was fit, he had to play in a dysfunctional team. It’s only last month against Middlesbrough that Wenger found the right balance between defense and attack with the 3-4-3 formation.

In my eyes, Ramsey was Arsenal’s best player at Wembley. Ramsey didn’t get off to a good start by collecting a yellow card for pulling back Pedro in the ninth minute. But he grew into the game and was unlucky to chest the rebound against the post after Welbeck hit the woodwork in the 19th. Ramsey finished the game with 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 95.1%, the highest percentage among the starters. He also made 2 interceptions and won 60% of his duels and 2 of 3 tackles for an outstanding overall performance. Kante, Xhaka and Matic had a lower percentage for duels won, according to the club’s website. Xhaka’s focus on the defensive tasks allowed Ramsey to make his trademark late runs in the box. The Switzerland midfielder tested Courtois with a long-range volley in the 32nd.

The Blues were surprisingly lethargic in the first half. Maybe they took their foot off the pedal after celebrating their Premier League title. Chelsea played with more purpose in the second half and equalized after Fabregas replaced Matic in the 61st and Conte sent on Willian for Pedro in the 72nd. Somehow, Moses hurt the Blues’ chances by receiving two yellow cards. The first one was for a cynical foul on Welbeck in the 57th and the second resulted from a blatant dive to win a penalty in the 68th.

Holding as the weak link

Arsenal showed a lot of solidarity at the back to frustrate Chelsea. One defensive play in the 15th set the tone for the game: three Gunners united their efforts to block a shot from Costa. Mertesacker was dominant in the air, winning 5 duels. Only Cahill did better with 6, according to whoscored.com. On the ground, Monreal relied on his reading of the game to win 4 of 4 tackles, the most for any Gunner.

The wingbacks, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin, contributed defensively to keep Pedro and Hazard relatively quiet. Pedro still managed to get two chances by finding some space between Monreal and Mertesacker in the 39th and then between Ramsey and the centerbacks in the 59th. But each time Pedro missed the target.

In his return from injury, the Ox ran out of gas in the second half and was replaced by Coquelin in the 82nd. Bellerin was cautious in the first half and showed more audacity after the break. The Spaniard tested Courtois with a first-time effort from 18 yards in the 65th. Bellerin then led a counterattack in the 84th and dribbled past Luiz to fire a low strike wide of the far post.

Holding proved the weak link at the back. Chelsea’s best chances came from duels Holding lost. As Costa chased a long ball in the 28th, Holding tried to shield the ball for Ospina but was outmuscled by Costa, whose point-blank shot bounced off the Colombia goalkeeper. That was poor decision-making from Holding, who made a similar mistake against Manchester United three weeks ago by attempting a risky backpass instead of clearing the ball into touch. Holding was booked in the 53rd for an obstruction on Costa.

Wenger’s snipe

Chelsea’s equalizer in the 76th was the result of three Arsenal errors. First, Ozil lost possession to Luiz in midfield. Second, the Ox was late to stop Willian’s cross. And third, Holding was wrongfooted and struggled to change direction when Costa chested the ball down before pulling the trigger. TV Commentators claimed Ospina made a mistake because he got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. I thought that was harsh for Ospina because Costa’s 10-yard shot took a deflection.

The Blues nearly leveled in the 86th. Giroud sat too deep and failed to prevent Kante from hitting a ball over the top. Hazard beat Holding to the high ball and redirected it into the path of Costa, who chested the ball down and was denied by Ospina from 7 yards. Costa reacted more quickly than Mertesacker on that play. Ospina made two other key saves, stopping a long-range effort from Kante in the 49th and palming away a low strike from Moses in the 51st.

The Gunners have saved their season with that FA Cup title. Wenger couldn’t help having a snipe at the Arsenal board and the fans before and after the game. The French manager complained about the “lack of respect” and stressed how the “uncertainty” over his future affected the players. It’s now obvious that Wenger wanted some public backing from the board when the results were poor and the fans protested. In any case, that was a no-win situation for the board. If they had backed him, they would have antagonized the fans. By remaining coy, the board put Wenger under more scrutiny, which is what happened with Van Gaal last season at Manchester United. Ironically, both Wenger and Van Gaal finished fifth and won the FA Cup.

Papering over the cracks

Wenger also chastised the fans by stating that “once the game starts and you’re a fan, you stand behind the team.” He also added: “We played some games in a very hostile environment and I will never accept that.” It’s hard to disagree on that point. I think the best way for the fans to protest was to leave a lot of empty seats like they did against Sunderland. Demonstrations outside the stadium were OK but hostile chants and banners inside the stadium were wrong. What kind of player would like to stay in such a club?

The board will meet on Tuesday before announcing Wenger’s future. There’s some obvious tension between the board and the manager. It feels like the FA Cup is papering over the cracks of a disappointing season. The Gunners played 6 games and faced only 2 big teams (Manchester City and Chelsea) to lift the FA Cup, while Chelsea played 38 games and faced 5 big teams twice to win the Premier League. There’s no doubt that the Premier League is the more important competition and the 18-point gap between Chelsea and Arsenal is a reminder that the club needs more than one or two signings to contend next season. Wenger’s failures in the transfer market and in the assessment of the quality of his squad have been obvious in the past two years.

If the board has found a better manager, now is the perfect time to make the transition and maybe offer Wenger the position of sporting director. Otherwise, the board will have to say that it’s Wenger’s last contract in the hope that it could appease the fans with the obvious risk that protests could start again next season if the results are poor.

 

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners miss out on Top 4 despite 3-1 win

The Gunners’ 3-1 win over Everton on Sunday was their fifth straight victory in the Premier League. Unfortunately, they hit top form too late as they finished fifth, one point behind Liverpool. Optimists will point out that Arsenal racked up 4 more points than last season, suggesting that it’s an improvement. Realists will notice the 18-point gap with Chelsea, concluding that the club is regressing, especially since it’s only the second time under Wenger’s tenure that Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League.

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

For most fans, 2016-17 has been a disappointing season. It’s definitely not a bad season, otherwise the Gunners would have wound up in the middle of the table like Chelsea did a year ago. But it can’t be described as a good season for the simple reason that Arsenal finished behind Tottenham and Liverpool. I can accept the fact that Chelsea and Manchester City do better because they are both backed by generous billionaires while Kroenke is treating Arsenal like a cash cow, taking money out of the club. But finishing behind Liverpool and Tottenham is embarrassing because the Gunners have a bigger payroll and spent more money in the transfer market than those two clubs.

A quick look at the table shows where the problem is. Arsenal scored 77 goals in 38 games to claim the fifth best offense in the league and conceded 44 goals to have the sixth best defense. A total of 77 goals is decent compared to Tottenham and Chelsea, which are the top scoring teams with 86 and 85 goals respectively. But conceding 44 goals is too much compared to Spurs and the Red Devils, who have leaked 26 and 29 goals respectively. The last time the Gunners conceded 44 goals or more was during the 2011-12 season, when they finished 19 points behind the two Manchester clubs. Yes, we are back to square one!

Holding’s inexperience

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that defeated Sunderland 2-0 last Tuesday, with Koscielny, Paulista and Welbeck replacing Mustafi, Gibbs and Giroud in the starting lineup. Mustafi and Gibbs were injured while Welbeck’s pace meant that he was a better option against Everton than Giroud. Arsenal showed more commitment than the Toffees, winning 61% of the duels, and making 12 interceptions to 10 and 18 tackles to 9, according to the club’s website.

The Toffees tried to press high up the pitch in the opening minutes but ended up running into the void because the 3-4-3 formation means that the Gunners have an extra man at the back. The system gives more room for error but is not infallible. Holding’s inexperience proved quite costly in the 14th minute. What was he doing 70 yards away from the Arsenal goal? Valencia outpaced Monreal down our left flank and dribbled past Holding before Koscielny took him down with a reckless tackle.

Koscielny’s red card was deserved. The France defender was not in control and missed the ball. That was really poor decision-making. But I can understand his rationale. Holding was out of position, which means that a dangerous 3v2 situation was developing, with Koscielny and Paulista facing Mirallas, Lukaku and Valencia. To a certain extent, that challenge reminded me of Koscielny’s first season at the club when he collected two red cards.

Holding had a poor game, with a passing accuracy dipping to 73.9%, the lowest percentage for any defender. He made 0 interception and 2 blocks and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Ten years ago, Arsenal could start a youngster like Holding on a regular basis and still finish in the Top 4. Nowadays, it’s no longer possible because the level in the Premier League has significantly improved. For instance, Ake is a promising prospect at Chelsea but even Conte sees him as a bench warmer. A loan next season is a necessity both for Holding and Arsenal: Holding needs more playing time while the club needs to speed up his development.

Mertesacker’s 1st game of the season

Everton’s goal in the 58th came from another mistake from Holding, who misjudged the flight of the ball and handled it while trying to chest down a cross from Baines. Lukaku converted the subsequent penalty to cut Arsenal’s lead to 2-1. Everton found more space after Koscielny’s ejection. The shift to a back four also exposed Holding a bit more. In the 62nd, Valencia outmuscled Holding, who was booked for an obstruction on the Everton winger. Then Lukaku ghosted past Holding in the 83rd but headed Barry’s long ball wide.

Maybe the Gunners would have not struggled so badly if the referee had treated Williams with the same severity he showed to Koscielny. The Everton centerback received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 19th and should have been booked again in the 55th for tripping Welbeck. The referee kept the card in his pocket although it was clearly a cynical foul.

Paulista became a second choice after his poor performance against Tottenham. Yet, he stepped up following Koscielny’s sending-off. Paulista cut out a cross for Lukaku in the 30th, made a perfectly timed challenge on Mirallas in the 36th, killed a counterattack with another timely tackle in the 42nd and deflected out Lukaku’s shot on the stroke of halftime. However, his luck ran out in the 49th when he challenged Valencia, twisting his knee in the collision.

In less than 50 minutes, Paulista had a passing accuracy of 95.8%, made 1 interception and 3 blocks, and won 1 of 2 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He also won 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for any starting defender, according to the club’s website. Paulista was stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Mertesacker in the 53rd. The German defender was making his first appearance of the season and caused a bit of panic with a dodgy tackle on Valencia in the 55th. The referee turned down Everton’s penalty shout.

A more confident Bellerin

Cech made a couple of key saves to help Arsenal reach halftime with a 2-0 lead. He stopped a toe poke from Lukaku afer a goalmouth scramble in the 38th, turned around the post a long-range strike from Gueye in the 41st and tipped over the bar a looping header from Lukaku in the 43rd.

Wenger shifted to a back three last month because the midfield was not good enough to protect the defense, but also because the back four was not performing well: Bellerin and Mustafi both had a drop in form while Monreal struggled to stop crosses.

In the 3-4-3 formation, Bellerin proved he could be an attacking threat down the right flank. He doesn’t have Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dribbling skills but his deep runs and movement can create problems for any defense. The Spaniard finished the game with 1 goal, 2 key passes, 2 interceptions and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 1 tackle and 1 of 3 aerial duels. Bellerin has not yet recovered his defensive level from last season, but at least he’s playing with more confidence than 2 months ago. He only won 33% of his duels compared to 71% for Monreal.

Monreal is more comfortable with the new system because his positional play makes a bigger difference. He started Sunday’s game as a wingback before Koscielny’s ejection forced him to turn into a fullback. In a back four, Monreal’s relative lack of pace can be a liability to stop crosses. He was more busy defensively than Bellerin because Valencia proved a bigger threat than Mirallas. Monreal won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 1 block.

Ozil and Sanchez have a lot of freedom in the 3-4-3 system. Offensively, Sanchez enjoys cutting inside from the left flank while Ozil roams across the entire attacking line. Defensively, their lack of tactical discipline can put the wingbacks in trouble. It’s therefore not a surprise that fullbacks Holgate and Baines led Everton players with 3 key passes each.

Awkward in the final third

While his work-rate is still an issue, Ozil’s creativity is definitely an asset in the final third. The Germany playmaker created the opening goal in the eighth minute by squaring the ball back for Welbeck, who missed a tap-in from 3 yards. As the ball rolled under Welbeck’s studs, Bellerin rushed at the far post to score into an empty net. In stoppage time, Ozil produced some slick work on the left wing to set up Ramsey, who quickly turned to curl into the top corner for a 3-1 lead.

Ozil often showed off his dribbling skills when he played for Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen. Nowadays, he doesn’t dribble much, which is a shame, because I think he could still beat defenders. Ozil won a free kick in the 64th by completely wrongfooting Schneiderlin. He finished the game with 3 key passes, but also 0 tackle, 0 interception, and 0 aerial duel won, compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 1 aerial duel won for Sanchez, and 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 aerial duels won for Welbeck.

Despite his involvement in 2 goals, Welbeck was incredibly awkward in the final third. Bellerin combined with Sanchez in the second minute to make a cross for Welbeck, who missed the target with his volley from 4 yards. Somehow, Welbeck was credited with an assist for the opening goal because he slightly diverted Ozil’s cross. He claimed a second assist in the 27th for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A long-range effort from Sanchez hit Welbeck, who was played onside by two Toffees. Welbeck beat Robles to the loose ball to set up Sanchez for a tap-in.

Ramsey’s 1st goal of the season

Early in the second half, Welbeck capitalized on a mazy run from Sanchez to be clean through on goal but was denied by Robles. In stoppage time, Bellerin picked out Welbeck, who shot straight at the Everton goalkeeper. Besides the two assists, Welbeck impressed with a strong hold-up play. He won 83.3% of his duels according to the club’s website and had a passing accuracy of 96.4%. Both stats are quite unusual for a centerforward.

Sanchez has enjoyed his best season in the Premier League with 24 goals and 10 assists. He could have raised his tally to 25 goals but Robles punched away his angled free kick in the 32nd. The bad news is that the Chile striker picked up a hamstring injury later on and was replaced by Iwobi in the 67th. Iwobi had a couple of chances to make a good impression. He chested down a cross from Bellerin in the 85th only to have his shot blocked by Holgate. Three minutes later, Iwobi slalomed through the Everton defense but was denied by Robles.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey were ineffective defensively, combining to win 0 of 5 tackles and make 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. They might be the most complementary midfield pairing by default because of Cazorla’s absence, but that should give the manager some food for thought for next season, especially if Cazorla’s ankle injury doesn’t heal and if the Gunners switch back to a back four. Ramsey struggled in the first half before growing into the game. The Wales midfielder slipped a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Robles in the 75th. He then scored his first goal of the season with a curling shot in stoppage time. It might be a good omen for the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday.

Lack of choice at the back

The Blues are the favorites because they just won the league and have no injured player. On the other hand, the Gunners will miss some key players. Koscielny will serve his suspension, Paulista is unlikely to recover from his knee injury, and Sanchez, Mustafi, Gibbs and the Ox will have late fitness tests.

The back three is clearly the biggest problem for the manager. When everybody is fit, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are the obvious starters. Now Wenger only has the choice between Mertesacker, Holding, Monreal and maybe Mustafi for the three starting spots. Starting Mertesacker would be a huge gamble because he has only played one competitive game this season and his lack of pace would be a liability against Costa, Hazard, Willian and Pedro.

The beauty of football is that anything can happen in a game. The better team doesn’t always win. In the FA Cup semifinals, the Citizens played better than Arsenal but still ended up losing 2-1 in extra time. Winning the FA Cup wouldn’t make up for the disappointing Premier League campaign. But it would definitely bring a smile to the fans and the players after a rough season.

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

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

  1. Perez is such an underrated player

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

fa-cup-southampton

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

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

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

  1. Maitland-Niles is the revelation of the season

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The Ox is a solid option in central midfield

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Sanchez is always hungry

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

  1. Gibbs is not taking his chance

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

  1. The Premier League is still the top priority

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

  1. Wenger started serving his four-game ban

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

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

  1. Mertesacker is back in the squad

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

  1. Improving the chemistry in the dressing room

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

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

 

Sunderland vs. Arsenal: Gunners slip to 4th after lack of penetration exposed in 0-0 draw

Sterile domination. What’s the use of enjoying 70% of ball possession if you can’t even score? There was no glaring miss from the Gunners while Mannone made four good saves that you would expect from a decent goalkeeper. Sunday’s goalless draw at Sunderland means that Arsenal slipped to fourth place in the Premier League and will therefore depend on the points dropped by Manchester City to finish in the Top 3.

Sunderland vs. Arsenal

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

The Gunners had 7 shots on target compared to just 3 for the hosts. However, those numbers are misleading. Sunderland created as many big chances as Arsenal. Credit to the Black Cats for putting in a shift and depriving the Gunners of time on the ball. But I thought Wenger got his team selection wrong by relying on the same starting lineup that defeated West Brom 2-0 on Thursday. Mertesacker and Giroud had a terrible game. Defoe created problems for the Arsenal defense by often isolating himself with the slow-footed Mertesacker. By contrast, the Sunderland centerbacks had Giroud in their pocket. The French striker was caught three times offside and missed the target with his two goal attempts.

When the Gunners were still chasing a winner in the second half, the manager made like-for-like substitutions, replacing Iwobi and Giroud with Walcott and Welbeck in the 71st minute before sending on Wilshere for Ozil in the 84th. The first question is: why did Wenger give Walcott the nod over Campbell? The Costa Rica international made a stronger impression than Walcott when they came off the bench against the Baggies. The second question is: why did the manager not shift from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 in order to put more pressure on the Sunderland defense?

Penalty shouts ignored

Kaboul and Kone had a quiet afternoon because they did not face a centerforward who could run at them. Giroud and Ozil made no dribble while Sanchez and Iwobi respectively had 5 and 4 successful dribbles. The trouble is that those dribbles were against midfielders and a fullback, which means that Kaboul and Kone were never pulled out of position. Welbeck has power and pace, but he doesn’t have the technique of a Van Persie or Henry.

In the end, Sanchez was the Gunner who tested Mannone the most. The Sunderland goalie palmed away a dipping free kick and a low drive from Sanchez in the 34th and 87th respectively. Sanchez nearly scored in the 35th when Giroud redirected a corner toward the far post but the Chile forward’s header was cleared off the line.

Iwobi had two chances, firing a low diagonal drive wide in the fourth minute and pouncing on a pass from Giroud in the 41st to have his effort blocked by Yedlin’s arm. It could have been a spot kick for Arsenal but the referee probably thought it was unintentional and that Yedlin had no time to get his arm out of the way. At least, Dean was consistent in his calls since he also turned down a penalty shout from Sunderland in the 37th when Defoe’s point-blank volley hit Mertesacker’s hand after Bellerin made a poor clearance.

Giroud and Ozil respectively had 4 and 5 shot assists but you would expect more in the final third from those two players. Giroud controlled a ball over the top from Sanchez to have his goal attempt blocked by a defender in the ninth minute. He then connected with a low cross from Monreal to flick the ball wide in the 24th. Ozil fired a long-range strike that took a deflection off a defender but Mannone still managed to make the save in the 31st. Leading the line in the last 20 minutes, Welbeck could only hit a low effort straight at Mannone in the 82nd.

Defoe torturing Mertesacker

Allardyce’s game plan was pretty obvious. The Black Cats targeted Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Arsenal’s poor defending on set pieces. Playing a high defensive line is always an issue when Mertesacker is in the team. Defoe outpaced the German centerback while chasing a long ball in the fifth minute, but Cech came off his line to clear the danger. Defoe beat Mertesacker to another long ball in the 50th and fired a half-volley that Cech parried. M’Vila pounced on the rebound for a long-range effort that Cech turned around the post.

The hosts repeated that same trick two more times. Cattermole played Defoe in with a long ball in the 64th but the Sunderland striker’s lob attempt sailed wide. Four minutes later, Defoe beat Mertesacker in a foot race to take a pass from Khazri but his low cross for an unmarked Borini was cut out by Koscielny. Mertesacker did not cover himself in glory by letting a low drive from Khazri slip through his legs in the 52nd. It took a diving save from Cech to deny Khazri.

Koscielny was Arsenal’s best defender on Sunday. He often made up for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and deflected out a shot from Khazri in the 14th after Ramsey lost possession from a throw-in. However, Koscielny was let down by his impetuosity twice. He gave away a dangerous free kick in the 21st by fouling Defoe on the edge of the box. Van Aanholt struck the woodwork with the subsequent set piece as Cech seemed helpless. In stoppage time, Koscielny was booked for a reckless challenge on Watmore.

Can Wilshere make a difference?

In midfield, Ramsey seemed to run out of gas in his second start since returning from a hamstring injury. The Wales international made no tackle and won only 33% of his duels according to the club’s website, forcing Elneny to contribute a bit more defensively. Elneny won 2 of 3 tackles and 75% of his duels, the best defensive stats for a Gunner.

Wilshere’s return to the first team was the only positive from Sunday’s game. The England midfielder has missed most of the season because of a calf bone injury. He can make a difference in the last three games with his deep runs a la Ramsey, his passing skills similar to Cazorla’s and his ability to score from distance.

I’m not sure what we should expect from the game against Norwich next Saturday. This is a match that Arsenal must win to keep the pressure on the two Manchesters in the race for third place. The Gunners have convincingly beaten Watford and West Brom this month but they have also dropped points against Crystal Palace and Sunderland. They definitely need to rediscover their finishing touch before facing the Citizens in two weeks.

FA Cup: 2-1 loss to Watford sums up why Arsenal’s season is getting ugly

The Gunners only have a Top 4 finish in the Premier League to play for after losing 2-1 to Watford in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup on Sunday. In theory, they still have a shot at the Champions League, but it’s hard to see how Arsenal could win by a two-goal margin in Barcelona with such a poor run of form. The defeat against Watford showed all the issues that have made Arsenal’s season turn sour: a lack of creativity, a failure to exploit Giroud’s skills and poor defending.

Fa Cup quarters

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

The Gunners dominated ball possession in the first half but struggled to produce clear-cut chances. They especially struggled to build play from the back because Watford pressed high up the pitch. Our passing game has looked average since Cazorla’s injury. The Spaniard is usually the one who creates plays by making the penultimate pass. Ozil was so frustrated with his team’s passing game that he dropped back at the end of the first half to bring the ball more quickly in the final third.

Wilshere or Rosicky would have been the most obvious alternative to Cazorla in midfield. The manager assumed that Wilshere and Rosicky would be fit this season despite their injury record. Unfortunately, Wenger made a mistake in his assessment since Rosicky has played only one game so far whereas Wilshere hasn’t made any appearance yet.

The lack of rotation since Cazorla’s injury on Nov. 29 has put a big strain on the other midfielders. Ramsey has picked up a thigh injury against Hull while Ozil is doing a Fabregas. Ozil has enjoyed a stellar first half of the season with 16 assists in the Premier League but his form has dipped in the second half with just two league assists, both from set pieces.

Are Cazorla’s shoes too big to fill?

How can Arsenal fix the problem? As an echo to the duo formed by Arteta and Ramsey in the 2013-14 season, the manager initially relied on Flamini and Ramsey in central midfield. The first results were quite good since the Gunners won four straight games in all competitions after the 1-1 draw with Norwich. But it was a very demanding system for Ramsey, who basically performed three duties by winning the ball, creating plays and helping the team score goals with deep runs.

As you can guess, fatigue kicked in after the Christmas period with a string of poor results against Liverpool, Stoke, Chelsea and Southampton. Coquelin made his league return as a substitute against Southampton before taking Flamini’s starting spot in the 2-1 win over Leicester. Losses to Barcelona, Manchester United and Swansea then showed that Cazorla, and not Coquelin, was the key component in Arsenal’s midfield.

Wenger tried to improve the balance in midfield by partnering Elneny with Coquelin against Tottenham. The Gunners were outplayed at White Hart Lane but the short period in which they had the lead gave the manager some hope that maybe he found a new platform to launch attacks and shield the back four. Unfortunately, the defeat against Watford is leading him back to square one. Elneny does not have the passing skills of Cazorla, Wilshere or Rosicky.

So what are now the alternatives? Having Ozil in the role of a deep-lying playmaker would reinject some creativity in our passing game, but he would also be less likely to deliver the final ball or score. Another option would be to adopt a more direct style of play, a bit like Manchester United under Ferguson.

No decent service for Giroud

As the leading scorer at the club, Giroud is mostly a two-dimensional player. First, his power and the quality of his first touch allow him to hold the ball up and bring his teammates into play. With their deep runs, Ramsey and Wilshere definitely help Giroud play to his strengths. However, Sanchez and Campbell barely combine with Giroud and therefore nullify the Frenchman’s skills.

And second, Giroud is a forward who feasts on crosses because of his smart movement inside the box and his ability to win aerial duels. When you have inverted wingers like Sanchez and Campbell who mostly cut inside to shoot with their stronger foot, that means they are unlikely to feed Giroud with crosses.

Giroud got no decent service in the first half. The Gunners created half-chances through Chambers’ crosses, Elneny’s movement in the final third and Ozil’s technique. Sanchez in the third minute and Giroud in the 23rd couldn’t make contact with teasing crosses from Chambers. The Arsenal fullback pounced on a poor clearance from the Watford defense in the 30th to pick out Elneny, who struggled to control the high pass and fired wide from a tight angle. Elneny then took a pass from Ozil in the 33rd, but his shot lost its sting after deflecting off a defender.

A fresh Ozil, who did not play in the 4-0 rout of Hull, tried to make the difference in the final third. He dribbled past Ake in the 41st to find Campbell, who teed up Elneny but the Egypt midfielder lacked composure and missed the target from 16 yards. That’s the kind of chance that Ramsey or Wilshere would have fancied. A minute later, Ozil slipped a through ball to Campbell, whose flick sailed over the bar. Basically, the Gunners failed to test Pantilimon in the first half despite dominating ball possession.

Welbeck’s good understanding with Ozil

The Watford goalkeeper made his first save in the 53rd, stopping an innocuous long-range strike from Elneny. But it wasn’t until the 62nd that Pantilimon was seriously tested. Giroud met a cross from Campbell for a sliding effort that Pantilimon stopped with his leg. I thought it was quite interesting that Giroud’s only chance came a few minutes after Sanchez and Campbell switched flanks.

Just when Giroud was starting to find his feet, Wenger made a triple substitution in the 67th, sending on Iwobi, Welbeck and Walcott for Elneny, Campbell and Giroud. Obviously, the emphasis was on creativity and pace. I can’t help wondering why the manager did not play with Sanchez on the right wing and Campbell on the left wing in the first half.

Sanchez had a poor game with a lot of turnovers and some sloppy passes. He still managed to make a couple of decent crosses in the closing minutes. Gibbs’ header off a Sanchez cross in the 81st lacked power to trouble Pantilimon. Chambers then connected with a low cross from Sanchez in the 83rd but his first-time effort sailed wide. The Gunners finally found the net in the 88th after Welbeck played a one-two with Ozil to slip the ball past Pantilimon.

Since his return from injury, Welbeck has developed a good understanding with Ozil. As a centerforward, Welbeck is a good compromise between Walcott and Giroud. He has pace to make runs in behind the defense as well as power to hold the ball up and win aerial duels. If Sanchez’s poor run of form continues, Welbeck could prove a key player in the run-in to score goals and help Arsenal secure a Top 4 finish.

Paulista’s two-footed lunge

Welbeck could have forced a replay in the last minute of regulation time. Iwobi hit the post with a low drive and the ball bounced off Pantilimon to fall into Gibbs’ path. The Arsenal fullback slipped the ball to Welbeck, who struggled to control the ball with his left foot and spun to miss the target with his right foot. I wouldn’t blame Welbeck for missing that chance because Gibbs played the ball slightly behind him. A minute later, Welbeck outmuscled Prodl while chasing a long ball but sent his chip attempt over the bar from a tight angle.

Wenger made a triple substitution in the 67th because the Gunners were already trailing by two goals. Our defending has been poor lately as we have conceded at least two goals in five of our last six games. Whether it’s Mertesacker, Koscielny or Paulista, our centerbacks are not good enough.

Actually, I thought Mertesacker performed well against Watford, winning some key tackles and intercepting Ighalo’s pass for Deeney in the 26th. On the other hand, Paulista was the weak link in the Arsenal defense. The Brazilian defender looked naive in his first season at the club but I still gave him the benefit of the doubt. In his second season at Arsenal, I just think he’s dodgy.

Paulista gave away a cheap free kick in the 18th by holding Ighalo. He then escaped a sending-off in the 28th despite a two-footed lunge on Deeney. Watford capitalized on a throw-in to open the scoring in the 50th. Deeney flicked the ball toward Ighalo, who turned Paulista to net from nine yards. The Gunners lost two duels inside the area on that play as Deeney beat Chambers to the ball while Ighalo bullied Paulista.

Running on empty against Everton?

The Hornets repeated that same combination when Nyon made a cross in the 52nd. Deeney headed the ball toward Ighalo, whose effort went over the bar. Chambers and Paulista lost duels again in the 60th as Ake outpaced Chambers to make a cross for Ighalo, who ghosted past Paulista but made poor contact with the ball.

Watford’s second goal in the 63rd resulted from some poor decision-making. Deeney held off Mertesacker to set up Guedioura, who unleashed a thunderstrike into the top corner from 18 yards. Elneny was late for the block while Coquelin and Gibbs made the mistake of both tracking Ighalo. Either Coquelin or Gibbs should have helped Mertesacker deal with Deeney.

The way the Hornets reached our area on the fast break is a big worry before the second leg against Barcelona on Wednesday. If I were the manager, I would rest some key players for the Everton game, which is much more important. Let’s be honest: our chances of knocking out Barcelona are zero. The trip to Spain will be exhausting, the Gunners will spend the entire game running after the ball and will only have two days of rest before visiting Everton. So why would you field your best team against Barcelona knowing the starting players will then be running on empty against Everton?