Tag Archives: Mertesacker

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Gunners win 5-0 for Wenger’s last home game

It had to be a beautiful day for Wenger’s last game at the Emirates stadium. Burnley and Arsenal both formed a guard of honor to welcome Wenger onto the warm pitch before kickoff. Even Kroenke acknowledged the importance of the French manager in the history of the club by attending what looked like a meaningless game.

Arsenal vs. Burnley

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

Wenger still took Sunday’s match seriously enough to leave Nelson, Willock and Nketiah out of the squad. As a glorious send-off for their manager, the Gunners routed Burnley 5-0 to secure 6th place in the Premier League and avoid playing in some preliminary round of the Europa League this summer. Wenger made 7 changes to the side that lost 1-0 to Atletico Madrid on Thursday with Cech, Kolasinac, Mavropanos, Chambers, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang replacing Ospina, Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi, Ramsey, Ozil and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Dyche has built a disciplined, solid defense at Burnley but once you have faced a wall like Atletico Madrid, I guess all the other teams seem porous.

I hope the next Arsenal manager will use Aubameyang in the centerforward role because it really doesn’t make sense to play him on the left wing. Aubameyang is a pure fox in the box while Lacazette is a second striker. The opening goal in the 14th minute summed up their strengths. Lacazette played a one-two with Iwobi before firing an off-target shot that Aubameyang diverted in. On that play, Aubameyang behaved like a poacher while Lacazette showed off his all-around game. The Gabon striker also scored the last goal by stabbing home a cross from Bellerin in the 75th.

Optimizing the potential of a duo

Aubameyang has performed decently on the left wing. He could have had an assist in the 46th when he squared the ball back to Wilshere, who blazed over the bar from 6 yards. But too often his all-around game is not good enough to deliver a quality final ball. Aubameyang outpaced Tarkowski in the 78th only to overhit his cross for Welbeck. He then wasted a counterattack in the 86th by playing a pass behind Ramsey.

I believe that putting Aubameyang in the centerforward role would optimize the potential of the duo formed by Aubameyang and Lacazette. Aubameyang has electric pace and is more likely to stretch a defense than Lacazette, who doesn’t enjoy playing as a target man, especially in the physical Premier League. The referee should have given a yellow card to Long for a cynical foul on Aubameyang in the 45th. Nowadays, referees are so lenient that Pope could even hold the ball for 15 seconds without being penalized in the 48th. For those who don’t know the rule, an indirect free kick should be awarded when the goalkeeper controls the ball with his hands for more than 6 seconds.

There was a touch of Sanchez in Lacazette’s performance on Sunday. Lacazette scored a goal and led all players with 4 key passes and 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The France international doubled the lead by volleying home a cross from Bellerin on the stroke of halftime. Obviously, Lacazette has developed a good understanding with Bellerin. If the next manager wants to rely on a 4-3-3 system, Lacazette could efficiently play on the right wing. Another tactical option would be a 4-4-2 formation with Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front two, a bit like Henry and Bergkamp in the old days.

Iwobi’s impact in the final third

Mkhitaryan only joined Arsenal at the end of January but he has already struck a good understanding with Lacazette. The Armenia playmaker’s through ball for Lacazette was intercepted by Tarkowski in the fifth minute. They swapped roles later on. Lacazette made a cross for Mkhitaryan, whose first-time effort sailed over the bar in the 33rd. Then Mkhitaryan played a one-two with Lacazette in the 43rd before firing a deflected shot that Pope kept out with a reflex save. Mkhitaryan had no goal or assist, but his movement and creativity gave the Burnley defense some food for thought. He cut inside Westwood in the 55th to curl a shot wide of the far post. In the closing minutes, Mkhitaryan also teed up Welbeck for a long-range strike that rattled the post.

Ozil’s absence because of a back injury meant that the onus for creating chances was on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. You never know what you will get with Iwobi because of his inconsistency. But on Sunday, Iwobi showed good work-rate and end product. The Nigeria international, who turned 22 last week, scored 1 goal, won 1 tackle, and made 2 interceptions and 2 key passes.

I hope the next manager will show as much patience as Wenger because Iwobi is not the finished product yet. Iwobi made poor passes in the final third for Bellerin in the 18th and Lacazette in the 45th. He also cheaply gave the ball away in the 62nd and showed poor decision-making in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had 3 decent passing options with Wilshere, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, but he opted for a speculative shot that Ward easily blocked.

Arsenal vs. Burnley M34ed Iwobi ignoring 3 passing options. (Photo credit: SN360)

However, the main positive from Sunday’s game is that Iwobi didn’t shy away from his responsibilities and definitely had an impact. He led all players with 93 passes, according to whoscored.com, while Xhaka is usually the one with the most passes. Iwobi is slowly improving his understanding with Lacazette. He found Lacazette inside the box in the fourth minute but the France forward was crowded out and dispossessed. Then Iwobi made the return pass to Lacazette for the opening goal in the 14th. On the stroke of halftime, it was also Iwobi who released Bellerin down the right flank for the second goal.

Where does Wilshere fit?

In previous posts, I compared Iwobi to Bergkamp and Anelka. At this stage of his career, Bergkamp would be a better model for Iwobi, who can both make assists and be a goal threat when he plays in midfield. He still needs to work on his finishing obviously. Iwobi has a tendency to either miss the target or shoot in the middle of the net. On Sunday, Iwobi managed to fire into the top corner for a 4-0 lead in the 64th. He showed better composure than in the eighth minute when he rushed and hit a tame shot straight at Pope instead of controlling Mkhitaryan’s pass with his first touch.

Wenger has also played Iwobi on the wings, but his dribbling skills and crossing ability are average. Iwobi has decent pace but he simply doesn’t provide the penetration needed for a winger. So I guess the Anelka comparison no longer works. Especially since Nelson is knocking on the door and could become the Arsenal version of Sterling at Liverpool.

If Wilshere leaves the club this summer, Iwobi would be his natural replacement in midfield. Honestly, it’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in a team trying to contend in the Top 4 race. His defensive contribution is not good enough. Wilshere made 0 tackle and 0 interception. Even the sluggish Xhaka managed to win 2 tackles, according to whoscored.com. Wilshere produced a mazy run in the 54th to set up Kolasinac for the third goal, but we already have Ozil and Mkhitaryan to pull the strings in midfield and there’s no way that Wilshere can match their numbers for goals and assists.

A rare Mertesacker appearance

What do you need to quench your thirst on a hot day? A Kola! The Burnley defense was all over the place in the 54th when Kolasinac took a pass from Wilshere to smash a low drive into the far corner. Kolasinac raised his tally to 5 goals in all competitions this season, but there are still big question marks about his ability to defend. He won only 12.5% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. On the opposite flank, Bellerin struggled defensively, winning only 25% of his duels, but he contributed offensively with 2 assists, making the cross for Lacazette on the stroke of halftime and picking out Aubameyang for the last goal.

Chambers and Mavropanos did OK at Old Trafford. Therefore Wenger gave another start to the young pair of centerbacks. The Clarets were a good matchup for Chambers because Barnes, Hendrick and Vokes are physical forwards with average pace. Chambers tends to struggle against fast players with tricky footwork. The tactical setup also helped Chambers as the Arsenal defense dropped off when Burnley had the ball. A high defensive line would have exposed Chambers’ lack of pace. The obvious drawback with Chambers as a centerback is that the Gunners can’t squeeze the play and the midfielders also have more distance to cover.

In a classy gesture, Wenger yanked Chambers off in the 77th to send on Mertesacker. The German defender was offered the opportunity to say goodbye to the fans in the last home game of the season. As a sign of respect, Cech acknowledged the moment by giving the armband to Mertesacker. Although Mertesacker is not the longest-serving player at the club (Ramsey is), he is a leader in the dressing room and he helped steady the ship after the infamous 8-2 loss at Old Trafford in 2011. The fans showed their affection for Mertesacker by cheering each of his touches.

Winning key duels

At 20, Mavropanos looks more mature than his age. The Greek defender seems to like the physicality of the Premier League. He coped well with Lukaku a week ago and went toe to toe with Vokes on Sunday. The Gunners definitely need that kind of imposing centerback. In the past seasons, they have been too often bullied by Costa, Deeney and other intimidating strikers. The crowd encouraged Mavropanos by applauding him every time he had the ball.

Mavropanos showed good composure against Manchester United. On Sunday, Mavropanos also showed that he could read the game well. He led Arsenal players with 4 interceptions. The only negative in his performance was the 46.2% of duels that he won, compared to 71.4% for Chambers, according to the club’s website. Mavropanos will quickly find out that the Premier League is about winning duels, especially key duels. Burnley’s only scoring chance of the game came in the 49th when Hendrick rounded Bellerin to make a cross for Vokes, who got the better of Mavropanos for a header straight at Cech.

For the last two games of the season, the Gunners will visit Leicester on Wednesday and Huddersfield on Sunday. The challenge for the team is to finally earn a point on the road this year. I still hope that youngsters like Nelson and Nketiah will get some playing time even if the U23 team will face Porto in the International Cup on Tuesday.

In the meantime, the board will have to speed up the interview process in their search for the next Arsenal manager. I assume the board won’t make any accouncement before the official end of the season out of respect for Wenger. But it is crucial for the club to know by the end of May who is the next manager. The summer transfer window is shorter this year and the Gunners have no room for error in the transfer market.

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FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 4-2 loss to Nottingham Forest

The Gunners suffered their earliest exit in the FA Cup since 1996 by losing 4-2 to Nottingham Forest in the third round. The two penalties awarded to the hosts should be no excuse for Arsenal’s poor performance on Sunday. The Reds were the better team, having 9 shots on target to 4 for Arsenal, making 15 interceptions to 12 and winning 25 tackles to 17, according to whoscored.com. Now the Gunners only have the League Cup and the Europa League left to save their season.

FA Cup 3rd round

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

Wenger made 9 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Chelsea on Wednesday with Maitland-Niles and Holding retaining their starting spots. Last season, the FA Cup final showed that Mertesacker could only play in a back three sitting deep. Yet, the manager switched to a back four against Forest and it proved a tactical mistake. Mertesacker, Holding and Debuchy struggled to cope with the pace of the 18-year-old Brereton.

  1. Was the team selection wrong?

Some fans complained about the team selection after the game. I thought the starting XI was good enough to beat a Championship side or at least get a replay. Mertesacker is a World Cup winner; Elneny, Iwobi and Ospina will play in the World Cup this summer; Walcott, Welbeck, and Debuchy are Premier League veterans; Holding lifted the FA Cup less than a year ago; only Willock, Maitland-Niles and Nelson are still academy players. On paper, it was a decent mix of youth and experience. In fact, Forest even had a younger starting lineup than Arsenal.

Because the regular starters needed a break to recover from the festive period and because the manager couldn’t afford to have more players on the disabled list, the team selection made sense to me. On the other hand, I thought Wenger should have opted for a stronger bench. When the Gunners had to chase the game, there was no Sanchez, Ozil or Lacazette on the bench, only youngsters like Akpom, Nketiah and Reine-Adelaide.

  1. The defending was shambolic

Lichaj opened the scoring with a free header from a set piece because no Gunner marked him in the 20th minute. It was maybe a communication issue, but you wouldn’t expect that kind of schoolboy defending from experienced players like Mertesacker, Debuchy and Ospina.

Playing a high defensive line proved suicidal as it exposed Mertesacker’s lack of pace. Brereton cut inside Mertesacker in the 32nd to fire a low shot that Ospina saved. The Forest striker then made a run in behind Mertesacker to control a ball over the top in the 41st but was denied again by Ospina. In the closing minutes, Traore skipped past Mertesacker and won a penalty after Debuchy brought him down. Maybe Debuchy got a touch on the ball, but it was poor decision-making. From such a tight angle, it would have been unlikely for Traore to beat Ospina. Dowell converted the spot kick to seal the win.

Mertesacker equalized in the 23rd by converting a rebound after Holding’s header hit the post. However, you don’t want defenders to have Vermaelen syndrome, i.e. making up for poor defending by scoring goals. It’s now obvious why the manager is reluctant to play Mertesacker in Premier League games: his lack of pace is simply a too big liability. Debuchy didn’t cover himself in glory either. He won only 31% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any defender according to the club’s website, and had a passing accuracy of 81%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal starter.

  1. Holding should be loaned out

At 22, Holding needs playing time to continue his development. I’m not sure his season at the club is helping him. He doesn’t play regularly, which makes it difficult to build consistency. And because he plays for Arsenal, his mistakes are magnified and therefore hurt his confidence. In my eyes, a loan to a Premier League club would have been more helpful.

Holding had a decent game compared to Mertesacker and Debuchy. He won 3 of 4 tackles while Mertesacker made none and Debuchy won only 1 tackle, according to the club’s website. Of course, the fans will remember the challenge that led to a penalty in the 64th. Holding was a bit unlucky on that play. He intercepted Dowell’s backheel flick for Brereton but failed to see Cash and inadvertently tripped the Forest winger. Brereton converted the subsequent penalty to make it 3-1. Holding was also pulled out of position in the 32nd and was too easily beaten by Dowell in the 74th.

  1. The back four got no protection from the midfield

A couple of minutes before halftime, the Arsenal defense cleared a cross from Cash into the path of Lichaj, who had plenty of time to chest the ball down and volley into the top corner for a 2-1 lead. As you can see on the screen capture below, the midfielders failed to perform their defensive duties on that play.

FA Cup editedElneny, Willock and Iwobi giving Lichaj acres of space. (Photo credit: BT)

Elneny won 1 tackle and made 4 interceptions, according to whoscored.com, while Willock won 1 tackle and made 0 interception. That’s not good enough for a midfield pairing. We already know that Elneny is not a natural ballwinner while Willock looked too soft against Forest, winning only 33% of his duels. Willock seemed to overestimate his dribbling abilities in the first half as he lost possession 3 times while attempting to dribble past an opponent.

  1. Walcott and Iwobi performed poorly

Walcott and Iwobi wouldn’t be good enough to play in the Championship. They finished the game with 0 of 3 shots on target each. Brereton outshone Walcott while Dowell showed more end product and desire than Iwobi. I don’t understand why the manager wants to keep Walcott. At 28, Walcott won’t improve his all-around game. He’s also blocking the development of youngsters like Nketiah and Nelson, who could play in the front three. Walcott had a golden opportunity in the seventh minute but completely miskicked his shot.

Iwobi is regressing and his poor work-rate is becoming a problem. He was dispossessed 5 times, tied with Brereton for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. Iwobi also put Mertesacker in trouble by overhitting a back pass in the sixth minute. The Nigeria international made 0 interception and won just 1 of 1 tackle whereas Nelson made 2 interceptions and won 3 of 4 tackles.

Although Arsenal enjoyed 69% of ball possession, Iwobi had no impact on the game in the No. 10 role. Iwobi made only 1 key pass compared to 4 for Nelson and 2 for Walcott. That begs the question: Where can Iwobi play? He lacks the end product to play as a second striker. Playing on a wing would be an issue because Iwobi made 0 cross on Sunday while Walcott made 4 accurate crosses out of 9. And playing in central midfield would require a much better work-rate from Iwobi.

Welbeck had an average game in the lone striker role. But at least he found the net in the 79th after Smith fumbled the ball. Welbeck also had a penalty shout in the 83rd when Mancienne seemed to shove him from behind while he met a cross from Maitland-Niles.

  1. Nelson is Arsenal’s future

The only bright spark in the Arsenal offense came from Nelson, whose clever footwork won the free kick that led to the equalizer in the 23rd. Nelson led all players with 6 successful dribbles. He faded in the second half as the Reds roughed him up a bit. At 18, Nelson is very gifted technically, but he will need to beef up his game in order to survive in the Premier League. Nketiah came off the bench to replace Willock in the 65th and nearly produced another moment of magic after his two goals against Norwich in the League Cup. Welbeck fed Nketiah, who dribbled past Lichaj only to be denied by Smith in the 70th.

  1. Ospina still can’t command the area

The Colombia goalkeeper pulled off some outstanding saves in the 18th, 32nd and 41st. But his lack of authority in the box showed in the 20th when Lichaj headed home Dowell’s free kick from a yard. You would expect a good goalkeeper to beat his opponent to the ball in that kind of situation. Ospina is a great shot-stopper but his weakness in the air has always been his Achilles’ heel in England.

Southampton vs. Arsenal: More pub defending in 1-1 draw

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.

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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.

Southampton M17edLacazette 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.

 

 

Cologne vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 loss

   Arsenal secured a first-place finish in Group H of the Europa League despite a 1-0 defeat at Cologne on Thursday. Their four-point lead in the standings means that neither Cologne nor Red Star Belgrade can win the group even if the Gunners lose to BATE Borisov in two weeks.

Cologne vs. Arsenal.jpg

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

Wenger made 11 changes to the side that won the North London Derby last weekend. The manager injected a bit more experience than usual as Willock and Nelson were on the bench even though they started both Belgrade games. The Gunners played at a slow tempo but still dominated Thursday’s match with 16 shots compared to just 4 for the hosts, who haven’t won any game in the Bundesliga this season. Somehow, Cologne managed to score against the run of play in the second half. In hindsight, maybe Wenger should have started more youngsters instead of keeping some senior players happy.

  1. Ospina, Welbeck and Chambers returned from injury

If we except Cazorla, the Gunners have no player on the disabled list now. That’s good news when you look at the busy schedule for the next two months. Ospina was not much tested in Germany. He palmed away an angled strike from Cordoba in the sixth minute and could do nothing about Guirassy’s penalty in the 62nd. The manager was cautious with Welbeck, who only played the first half and was replaced by Iwobi at halftime. Welbeck seemed fit, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and curling a shot wide of the far post in the 33rd.

On the other hand, the sluggish Chambers didn’t prove a convincing choice at wingback. Debuchy played most of his career as a fullback and would have been a better option on the right flank. Chambers made no cross in the first half. The only chance he created came in the 67th with a cross that Wilshere headed over the bar. Chambers was guilty on the play that led to the penalty by failing to stay with Guirassy, who played a one-two with Jojic.

  1. There are too many average players in the squad

Thursday’s game showed the gap between the regular starters and the second-choice players. It’s hard to see what players like Chambers, Debuchy, Elneny, Coquelin, Giroud and even Wilshere could bring to the side that defeated Spurs. Elneny sent long balls out of play in the 15th and 39th and couldn’t beat the first defender with a couple of corner kicks. Only 2 of his 11 crosses were accurate, according to whoscored.com.

Hopefully, hiring Mislintat as the head of recruitment at Arsenal will help improve the squad. The scouting department has performed poorly in the past few years under Rowley. A change was long overdue. France used to be a gold mine for Arsenal but the club has missed out on the best players from the French league lately (Kante, Pogba, Martial, Mbappe, Varane, Kondogbia).

While Arsenal made mistakes in signing Park, Chamakh and Gervinho from French clubs, Mislintat helped Borussia Dortmund sign Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro. Here’s the difference between those two groups of players: Park, Chamakh and Gervinho shone in the French league but failed to adapt to the Premier League whereas Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro carried their success from France to the Bundesliga. A smart scout will spot the skills that can be imported to any league while an average scout will focus on the less important skills.

It’s OK to gamble once in a while on young players like Sanogo, Reine-Adelaide, Bielik and Holding. But when you spend £16 million on Chambers, £13 million on Paulista and £7 million on Elneny, you expect to get regular starters and not benchwarmers.

  1. Debuchy was the weak link in the back three

The French defender led all players with 5 fouls. He clearly struggled with Guirassy’s pace and was booked for a cynical foul on the Cologne forward in the 49th. A poor clearance from Debuchy led to a scoring chance for the German side in the 60th: Guirassy took a pass from Jojic but could only hit a tame effort straight at Ospina. A minute later, the referee awarded the hosts a penalty for some minimal contact between Debuchy and Guirassy. It was a play similar to Bellerin’s challenge on Richarlison in the Watford game.

  1. Mertesacker had a decent game

The German defender led Arsenal players with 5 interceptions and was dominant in the air with 9 headers won. He made up for his lack of pace with his smart positional play. In fact, Mertesacker was the only Arsenal centerback who won a tackle. He won 1 of 2 tackles compared to 0 of 2 for Holding and 0 of 6 for Debuchy, according to Squawka. Mertesacker nearly leveled from a corner in the 64th, but his header was cleared off the line by Horn.

On the left side of the back three, Holding lacked focus a couple of times. Cologne capitalized on a Holding turnover in the 12th to launch a counterattack but Mertesacker intercepted Cordoba’s final ball. Mertesacker had Holding’s back again in the 28th. Cordoba rolled away from Holding only to have his pass for Osako intercepted by Mertesacker. In the closing minutes, Holding was pulled out of position and Mertesacker had to kill a counterattack by blocking a cross.

  1. Maitland-Niles rose to the occasion

The contrast with Chambers’ performance on the opposite flank was glaring. Although Maitland-Niles is a right-footed player, he still managed to make 3 key passes from the left wing. He also had a passing accuracy of 95%, won 2 of 4 tackles and had 5 successful dribbles out of 7, while Chambers had a passing accuracy of 77%, won 0 of 1 tackle and had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, according to Squawka. Maitland-Niles is not playing in his favorite position (central midfield) but at least he’s honing his skills by getting some experience in competitive European games.

  1. Wilshere’s performance raised more question marks

Wenger said before the international break that Wilshere was ready for the England team. However, Wilshere’s performance against a weak German side was a mixed bag. Wilshere tested Horn with a downward header in the 21st and long-range strikes in the 66th and stoppage time. He also had 8 successful dribbles out of 11. But his defensive contribution was limited and he only made 2 key passes despite 69% of ball possession for the Gunners. The most frustrating part was his poor ball-retention skills that led to 5 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in Southgate’s plans. The England manager seems to build his squad around the pressing game implemented at Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City.

  1. Arsenal didn’t play to Giroud’s strengths

Giroud is an old-fashioned centerforward. He won’t create a chance out of nothing like Van Persie. That means Giroud needs decent service in the box. Unfortunately, the Gunners didn’t feed him with crosses. Giroud was involved in only 1 aerial duel and that was in midfield. That’s criminal when you know the France striker’s dominance in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 76th. Giroud chased a ball over the top from Wilshere but had a heavy second touch which allowed Horn to tackle the ball out of play. Deprived of service, Giroud tried to work for his teammates. He drifted to the left wing in the 30th to make a cross for Coquelin, who hit the near post.

  1. When a senior player is blocking a youngster’s path

Nelson is the most promising prospect in the academy. Walcott’s presence in the squad has forced Wenger to play Nelson in the wingback position. Nelson initially struggled in that role before improving his understanding of the position and his defensive skills. The manager could have started Nelson against Cologne but he preferred to give some playing time to Chambers and Debuchy, who both had a poor game.

When Nelson came off the bench to replace Chambers in the 67th, the Gunners suddenly looked more threatening down the right wing. Nelson could have won a penalty for an obstruction from Sorensen in the 83rd. He also showed off his dribbling skills in the 89th by slaloming through the Cologne defense to sting Horn’s gloves with a toe poke. The teenager got bonus points in the 71st for his defensive awareness. Guirassy outpaced Debuchy but Nelson rushed back to recover the ball.

Arsenal vs. Swansea: Kolasinac & Ramsey save the day in 2-1 win

Kolasinac’s attacking verve and Ramsey’s dynamism fired Arsenal to a 2-1 win over Swansea on Saturday as the Gunners pulled within a point of third-place Tottenham in the Premier League. Wenger made no change to the side that routed Everton 5-2 a week ago. The big difference is that Swansea didn’t give as much space as the Toffees. In a 3-5-2 formation, Clement somehow managed to contain the threat from Sanchez, Ozil and Lacazette.

Arsenal vs. Swansea

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

The visitors could have come away with three points but Naughton proved a weak link at the back. The Swansea wingback left Kolasinac unmarked for both goals. Lacazette set up Ozil with a backheel flick in the 51st minute. Van der Hoorn blocked Ozil’s shot but the ball fell into the path of Kolasinac, who fired past Fabianski to level the game. As you can see in the screen capture below, Naughton didn’t want to leave Van der Hoorn in a 1v1 situation with Sanchez.

Arsenal vs. Swansea M51 editedKolasinac, circled, is unmarked while Naughton and Van der Hoorn are double-teaming Sanchez. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

In a fluid 3-5-2 system, Fer should have dropped back to cover Naughton on that play. Quite a few English clubs have adopted a back three since Conte’s success with Chelsea last season. However, the tactical cogs are complex, especially for the wingback position and for the players who have to cover the wingbacks defensively and offensively.

Seven minutes later, Xhaka switched play from the right flank to the left with a long ball toward Kolasinac, who chested the ball down to feed an onrushing Ramsey. With a first-time effort, Ramsey guided the ball into the bottom corner for a 2-1 lead. As you can see in the screen capture below, Naughton made the mistake of following Sanchez in midfield and left Kolasinac unmarked. Then Fer failed to track Ramsey inside the area.

Arsenal vs. Swansea M58 editedNaughton gives Kolasinac plenty of time to control the ball. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The slim lead made for a nervy finish. The Gunners simply don’t have that ruthless streak to finish off their opponents like Manchester City. Arsenal had 73% of ball possession and 17 shots to 4 for the Swans, who parked the bus and waited for counterattacking opportunities. Swansea made 25 interceptions compared to just 8 for the hosts, according to Squawka.

Defensive sloppiness

A week ago, Everton exposed Arsenal’s defensive sloppiness by taking advantage of blunders to score twice. The Gunners put themselves in trouble again with some poor defending. Koscielny slipped while missing an interception in the 22nd and gave Abraham plenty of time to play Clucas in. The Swansea wingback ghosted past Bellerin to beat Cech with a low strike. Clucas perfectly timed his run but Bellerin should have never lost that duel. Then Bellerin lost possession with a poor first touch in the 40th and Clucas pounced on the loose ball to miss the target from the edge of the Arsenal box. On the stroke of halftime, Mertesacker dallied on the ball and was robbed by Ayew, who was denied by Cech.

The Swans came close to doubling the lead in the 52nd as the Arsenal defense was all over the place. Mertesacker blocked Clucas’ shot and Abraham converted the rebound but the goal was disallowed for offside. The back three looked nervous a couple of times while playing a high defensive line. Last season, the Gunners defeated Chelsea in the FA Cup final with Mertesacker in the starting lineup but I wouldn’t feel so confident for the next league game against Manchester City.

Mertesacker proved dominant in the air by winning 5 of 5 aerial duels while Monreal was the most creative centerback with 3 key passes. The Spaniard also led all players with 114 passes, according to whoscored.com. Koscielny was the most proactive of the back three with 3 interceptions but his missed interception in the 22nd led to the opener.

Kolasinac’s hip injury

On the left wing, Kolasinac produced a Man of the Match performance with a goal and an assist. Kolasinac also won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 1 aerial duel, according to Squawka. He was replaced by Holding in the 78th because of a hip problem. I just hope that Kolasinac will be able to fully recover during the next international break. Bellerin had more defensive work than Kolasinac on the opposite flank. The Spaniard was guilty on the opener and also failed to stop a cross from Clucas in the 77th. Abraham connected with the cross for a spinning shot that sailed wide. Bellerin nearly redeemed himself in the 66th with a volley that hit the crossbar.

A lot of fans keep asking who’s the best partner for Xhaka in midfield. Maybe the more appropriate question is: who’s the best partner for Ramsey in midfield. Both players can’t protect the defense. However, Ramsey is a more valuable player than Xhaka because he’s more mobile and versatile. Ramsey produced a good all-around performance by making 2 key passes and 1 interception and winning 2 of 5 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, while Xhaka made 0 key pass, 1 interception and 1 block and won 0 of 3 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels.

In a 10-minute span, Ramsey caused problems for the Swansea defense. First, Ozil cushioned a long ball into the path of Ramsey, whose goal attempt was blocked in the 56th. Two minutes later, Ramsey found the net from Kolasinac’s pass. The Wales midfielder proved a bit greedy in the 61st, firing over the bar with his left foot as he took the ball off Sanchez, who was about to pull the trigger with his right foot. Finally, Ramsey created a chance for Bellerin in the 66th.

One-dimensional attack

Xhaka showed his value last season with his accurate long balls that helped evade a high press. However, English teams are giving him less time on the ball this season. That explains the dip in his passing accuracy as well as the team’s difficulty to set a high tempo. Under pressure, Cazorla could dribble his way out of trouble. Xhaka doesn’t have Cazorla’s mobility or dribbling skills. Against Swansea, Ozil occasionally dropped back to help the team build up plays.

The front three couldn’t replicate the brilliance of their performance at Goodison Park. Arsenal’s attack looked one-dimensional: Lacazette, Ozil and Sanchez were not involved in any aerial duel. That’s the problem when you don’t have a complete centerforward. Henry and Van Persie had pace and could win headers. Giroud has no pace while Lacazette is not dominant in the air.

The Gunners struggled to find Lacazette because of Swansea’s compact defense. Lacazette doesn’t have Giroud’s physicality but he still proved tidy in possession with 0 turnover. His only scoring chance came in the 64th when he took a pass from Bellerin for a spinning shot that Fabianski saved. Since the start of the season, I keep thinking that Lacazette would be more comfortable in the role of a second striker than as a centerforward, especially in the Premier League which is more physical than the French league where Lacazette used to play.

Ozil had a decent game with 5 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 2. The Germany playmaker also won 2 of 3 tackles. In the front three, Sanchez acts like an equalizer because he can both create and finish while Lacazette is mostly a finisher and Ozil mostly a passer. The Chile striker had 3 shots and 3 key passes. That kind of profile will be hard to find when Sanchez leaves the club.

The accuracy of Sanchez’s delivery nearly made a difference on set pieces. Mertesacker nodded a Sanchez free kick straight at Fabianski in the eighth minute while Koscielny missed the target with his header from a Sanchez free kick in the 55th. Fabianski caught a cross-shot from Sanchez in the sixth minute and parried his angled strike in the 41st. Sanchez didn’t score but the fear he instilled in defenders created gaps for his teammates.

Challenging the board

The Gunners next host Red Star Belgrade on Thursday before visiting Manchester City on Sunday. I expect the manager to rest his key players against the Serbian side because the game at the Etihad stadium is much more important. A defeat would leave Arsenal 12 points behind the Citizens. Such a gap would imply the end of any title bid for the Gunners.

Of course, I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the Annual General Meeting of the club. Thursday’s meeting showed the disconnect between the board and the supporters. Most small shareholders were against the re-election to the Arsenal board of Keswick and Josh Kroenke and forced a vote with a show of hands from the floor. Stan Kroenke saved their seats because he owns 67% of the shares and his vote had therefore more weight.

Gazidis tried to quell the supporters’ dissatisfaction with the governance of the club. Citing metrics comparing points with transfer expenditure, Gazidis claimed that the Gunners were overperforming. Rational supporters thought that it was a joke. Spurs spent less than Arsenal and still finished 11 points ahead of their North London rivals last season.

Over the past few years, Wenger has received the biggest share of the criticism. There’s no doubt that Wenger’s powers are waning. The Gunners finished outside the Top 4 last season for the first time under his tenure. But the owner is the one really holding back the club. Finishing fifth in the league and winning the FA Cup is seen as a success at Arsenal while it would be considered an average season at other big clubs.

Kroenke is only interested in the financial aspect of the club. He has no vision for Arsenal for the simple reason that his passion for sport is diluted in other U.S. teams. The club needs a completely focused owner who can provide some guidance and leadership. The best scenario for the supporters would be Usmanov selling his shares to an investor knowing the club and showing more ambition than Kroenke, someone who could challenge the American billionaire and the board.

 

Watford vs. Arsenal: Gunners show mental weakness in 2-1 loss

The Gunners conceded two late goals in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Vicarage Road to slip to 6th place in the Premier League, 9 points behind Manchester City. The turning point of the game was the penalty awarded to the Hornets in the 71st minute. Bellerin and Richarlison were both chasing a ball rolling toward the by-line when the Watford forward fell to the ground. TV replays showed there was no shove, no shirt-pulling and no leg tangle, just minimal contact between two players running side by side. To put it bluntly, it was clearly a dive from Richarlison. Deeney converted the spot kick to level the game.

Watford vs. Arsenal

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

Until that penalty, Arsenal had the game under control, limiting the Hornets to just one half-chance in the 19th. It became a completely different story after the equalizer as all the scoring opportunities in the last 20 minutes were for the hosts. If you’re a good team, you find a way to salvage a point despite that officiating mistake. But the Gunners lacked the mental strength to react and spent the closing minutes inside their own half, waiting for the final blow.

Tactically, the hosts mirrored Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation. The Hornets switched to a back four in the second half when Carrillo and Deeney replaced Mariappa and Gray in the 62nd. Both teams had 8 chances each. What really made the difference was Watford’s desire. The Hornets won 64% of their tackles and made 19 interceptions compared to 43% of tackles won and 10 interceptions for Arsenal, according to Squawka.

Saturday’s game also raised questions about injury management at the club. The staff wisely let Ramsey and Sanchez recover from international duty and did not include them in the squad. However, Welbeck and Koscielny both started the game despite returning from injury. It proved a risky gamble as Welbeck picked up a hamstring injury in the 59th while Koscielny had a calf problem in the 85th. Ozil also made his return from injury but was eased back into the team by coming off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 61st. Why such a difference of treatment? In hindsight, Walcott or Giroud could have started in the front three alongside Iwobi and Lacazette. And Holding could have played alongside Mertesacker and Monreal in the back three.

A foretaste of life without Ozil and Sanchez

In a news conference before the game, Wenger mentioned that the club could sell Sanchez and Ozil in January. The first 60 minutes gave us a foretaste of how life without those stars could look like. The Gunners had no clear-cut chances from open play because of a lack of creativity and penetration. They only had 2 successful dribbles compared to 6 for Watford, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal also wasted some good situations with inaccurate final balls. Bellerin made a cross that was too high for Lacazette in the 12th. A minute later, Kolasinac sent the ball behind Welbeck. Then Iwobi overhit crosses for Lacazette in the 35th and for Welbeck in the 41st.

Despite all the hype surrounding Iwobi, the Nigeria international doesn’t read the game as well as Ozil yet. No one doubts Iwobi’s potential but it’s all about translating it into end product. Iwobi only made 1 key pass compared to 3 for Welbeck and 2 for Ozil. At 21, Iwobi still has time to improve. He especially needs to work on his composure. Iwobi lacked lucidity twice in the final third on Saturday. He missed a five-yard pass to Bellerin in the 33rd and opted for a tame curling shot instead of feeding Lacazette in the 36th.

From a financial perspective, it would make sense to sell Sanchez and Ozil in January. However, the consequences on the pitch could be devastating in terms of assists and goals. If the plan is to replace Ozil with Iwobi for assists and Sanchez with Welbeck for goals, then fans should expect a significant drop in end product. Welbeck worked his socks off, setting up Xhaka for a long-range strike that Gomes parried in the 43rd and picking out Bellerin who missed the target a few seconds later.

Lacazette’s poor game

When Ozil replaced Welbeck in the 61st, anybody could see the difference in the final third. Ozil played a perfectly weighted pass to Iwobi, whose angled effort was tipped around the far post by Gomes in the 63rd. Iwobi returned the favor in the 70th, slipping a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Gomes. If he had scored, Ozil would have been hailed a hero for doubling the lead. Unfortunately, Ozil missed that chance and mentally disappeared from the game. That’s not an issue when the Gunners dominate ball possession. But when they have to fight for the ball and are put on the back foot, then Ozil becomes a liability. Arsenal definitely missed Welbeck’s work-rate after the equalizer.

Lacazette still hasn’t scored away from home yet and produced his worst performance in an Arsenal shirt on Saturday. The France international had 0 shot, made 0 key pass and had a passing accuracy as low as 60% compared to 90% for Welbeck and 87.7% for Iwobi. The lack of understanding between Lacazette and Iwobi didn’t help obviously. It was at least the second game in which Iwobi chose personal glory instead of feeding Lacazette, who was in a better position to score. I just hope this poor game won’t affect Lacazette’s confidence. Giroud replaced Lacazette in the 67th and proved inefficient in retaining the ball, leading the team with 5 turnovers and winning only 2 of 5 aerial duels.

There was a small surprise in the team selection with Mertesacker making his first Premier League start in more than a year. Since Mustafi picked up a hamstring injury on international duty, Wenger only had the choice between Holding and Mertesacker for the third centerback playing alongside Koscielny and Monreal. The manager gave the nod to the more experienced Mertesacker, who had a good game.

Some more gruyere cheese

The German centerback opened the scoring in the 39th by heading home a corner from Xhaka. Despite his lack of pace, Mertesacker proved quite solid at the back by winning 1 of 1 tackle and 12 of 14 aerial duels and making 2 interceptions and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. In fact, Mertesacker outperformed Koscielny (0 of 3 tackles won, 7 of 13 aerial duels won, 2 interceptions, 1 block) and Monreal (2 of 7 tackles won, 0 of 5 headers won, 1 interception, 1 block). Koscielny lacked sharpness in his return from injury while Monreal seemed a bit jaded after playing for Spain during the international break.

On the wings, Bellerin had a decent game despite failing to stop Doucoure’s cross for Pereyra, who headed wide in the 19th. I thought Kolasinac could have done more on the opposite flank. The former Schalke 04 player created no chance and lost the only tackle he made.

If the wingbacks and the centerbacks did OK defensively, how come Arsenal conceded two goals? You have to look at the midfield to find the answer. Gruyere cheese has been a recurrent theme since the start of the season. As long as the Gunners don’t sign a world-class ballwinner, there’s no way they will ever be able to contend.

Elneny teamed up with Xhaka in midfield. The duo matched Cleverley and Doucoure in the first half before fading in the second half. Xhaka and Elneny played with their national teams during the international break. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to start Coquelin and Wilshere in midfield. Xhaka and Elneny combined to create 1 chance, win 3 of 5 tackles and make 1 interception and 1 block while Cleverley and Doucoure created 4 chances, won 5 of 7 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.

Can’t smell the danger

As the holding midfielder, Xhaka had a poor game. His passing accuracy dipped to 76% on Saturday while it was around 90% last season. Xhaka has no competition inside the squad. Does that explain his increasing sloppiness this season? A bigger concern is Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness: he simply can’t smell the danger.

In the 83rd, Deeney cut the ball back for Capoue, whose effort deflected off Mertesacker’s chest to hit the post. As you can see in the screen capture below, there was no Gunner near Capoue in a 10-meter radius. Both Xhaka and Elneny sat too deep and did not spot Capoue’s presence on the edge of the box.

Watford vs. Arsenal M83ed

Xhaka and Elneny leave Capoue unmarked. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

That play should have acted as a warning for Xhaka. But the Switzerland international made the same mistake in stoppage time. A long-range strike from Holebas led to a goalmouth scramble in which Watford won the second ball twice. Mertesacker blocked Deeney’s shot before Cleverley pounced on the rebound to slam the ball into the back of the net. Elneny was pulled out of position because he made up for Ozil’s laziness and tried to block Holebas’ effort. Therefore only Xhaka was available to track Cleverley’s movement inside the Arsenal box. As you can see in the screen capture below, there was no Gunner near Cleverley in a 5-meter radius.

Watford vs. Arsenal M92ed

Xhaka fails to mark Cleverley. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Among the top teams, the Gunners are the only ones still winless on the road. They have already suffered 3 defeats from 8 Premier League games and are on pace to finish the season with 14 defeats, which would be a record under Wenger. They next play Red Star Belgrade on Thursday before travelling to Goodison Park on Sunday. The Europa League game is meaningless because the Gunners top their group and can afford to drop points. By contrast, a second straight loss in the Premier League could trigger a crisis. Remember all the negativity around the club after they lost to Stoke and Liverpool in August.

Arsenal vs. Cologne: A few thoughts on the 3-1 win

Arsenal took the lead in Group H of the Europa League by defeating Cologne 3-1 on Thursday. Despite what the scoreline might suggest, it wasn’t a walk in the park. The game was delayed for an hour because of safety concerns caused by some 20,000 German supporters around the Emirates stadium. Wenger even said he thought the match would be postponed.

Arsenal vs. Cologne 2017

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

On the pitch, the Gunners made life difficult for themselves by conceding an early goal against the run of play. Some supporters added more pressure on the team by booing back passes. A tactical switch and a substitution at halftime helped Arsenal get back into the game. Kolasinac equalized with a volley in the 49th minute before Sanchez scored in the 67th and Bellerin sealed the win in the 82nd.

  1. Wenger got his priorities right

Sunday’s game at Chelsea is much more important than a Europa League match. That’s why the manager did not hesitate to make 9 changes to the side that routed Bournemouth 3-0 last Saturday with only Bellerin and Monreal retaining their starting spots. Cech, Ramsey, Ozil, Xhaka, Lacazette and Welbeck were not even in the squad while Mustafi and Kolasinac were on the bench at kickoff. And Koscielny was serving a suspension after receiving a red card against Bayern Munich last season.

  1. Don’t play youngsters out of position

Wenger improved the careers of Petit and Henry by moving them to new positions. Petit was a leftback by trade at Monaco before becoming a world-class defensive midfielder at Arsenal while Henry was a winger at Monaco and Juventus before Wenger turned him into a prolific centerforward. Those experiments worked because Petit and Henry both had the skills and tactical intelligence to adapt to those roles.

Maitland-Niles’ best position is central midfielder. Yet, the manager played him at wingback and centerback in the pre-season friendlies. On Thursday, the Gunners lost a source of supply on the left flank by playing Maitland-Niles in the wingback position. Just like Bellerin in the Stoke and Liverpool games, Maitland-Niles didn’t make any cross because he’s a right-footed player.

At halftime, Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-2-3-1 formation by replacing Holding with Kolasinac as Maitland-Niles joined Elneny in central midfield. The move paid off with Maitland-Niles performing better in that role while Kolasinac brought more fluidity down the left flank.

Maitland-Niles nearly found the net with a penetrative run in the 64th but was dispossessed by the goalkeeper in a one-on-one duel. There’s still a lot of polishing to do but the potential is there. Maitland-Niles needs to be more tidy in possession and improve his concentration levels. He was late for a block in the 79th when Jojic tested Ospina with a 25-yard strike.

New signing Kolasinac has quickly become a favorite among fans since his goal in the Community Shield. Barely four minutes after coming off the bench, he volleyed home a loose ball to level the score. Kolasinac initiated the final goal by playing a one-two with Sanchez before cutting the ball back for Walcott, who was denied by Horn. But Bellerin pounced on the rebound to score with a sliding effort. Kolasinac’s movement and reading of the game also helped him strike a better understanding with Sanchez down the left flank.

  1. Iwobi must improve his positional play and work-rate

Last season, Iwobi played as an attacking midfielder either in the hole or on a wing in the old 4-2-3-1 formation. He lost his starting spot when the team shifted to a 3-4-3 system. On Thursday, Wenger played Iwobi in central midfield. Iwobi’s impact on the game proved weak because of his poor work-rate and lack of spatial awareness. The Gunners struggled to find Iwobi because the Nigeria international did not make himself available like Cazorla, Ozil or Ramsey.

In the first half, Iwobi played too high up the pitch. Instead of acting as a deep-lying playmaker, Iwobi pretty much played like a No. 10. Wenger realized that Iwobi did not understand the role of a central midfielder and therefore shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation that was more familiar for Iwobi.

In the second half, Iwobi felt more comfortable in the No. 10 role. His attacking stats are decent with 3 key passes and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to Squawka. But his defensive stats show his poor work-rate with no tackle won, no interception and no block. Iwobi will need to get rid of this habit of running into traffic to cheaply give away the ball.

  1. Midfield is still an issue

The tempo was too slow in the first half because nobody pulled the strings in midfield. When Cazorla is sidelined, Ozil often drops back to help build up play. The lack of creativity was also blatant as Elneny and Iwobi don’t have the passing skills of Cazorla or Ozil. Defensively, Iwobi pretty much left Elneny on his own. Elneny only won 2 of 6 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. That’s OK against an average side like Cologne but it won’t be enough against a good team.

  1. Holding looked out of his depth

The youngster was such a nervous wreck that Wenger yanked him off at halftime. In 45 minutes, Holding won 0 of 3 tackles, and made 3 fouls, 0 interception and 0 block. Holding showed poor decision-making in the third minute when he attempted a risky clearance instead of making a back pass to Ospina. Bittencourt blocked the clearance to be clean through on goal but Holding pulled him back. Surprisingly, the referee did not even book Holding for that cynical foul. A minute later, Holding fouled Bittencourt on the edge of the Arsenal box. He then failed to block Cordoba’s wonder strike in the 10th. Attempting to make amends, Holding gave Cologne a counterattacking opportunity by running into traffic and losing possession in the 40th.

In the summer, the Gunners sold Paulista and kept Mustafi, Chambers and Holding. In hindsight, a smarter policy would have been to sell Chambers, keep Paulista and Mustafi and loan out Holding. The England U21 international is so low on confidence that you wonder what kind of competition would help his development: Europa League? League Cup? Championship?

  1. Sanchez is still hungry

The Chile striker will need great performances in his last season at the club to earn a fat contract next summer. Despite a relative lack of match sharpness, Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead by cutting inside to curl a shot into the far corner. He could have scored another goal in the 89th but his lob attempt sailed wide. Fans could see his desire as he pressed high up the pitch several times.

  1. A high defensive line with Mertesacker is suicidal

Playing a high defensive line can be challenging when you have a centerback with no recovery pace like Mertesacker. Most of Cologne’s chances resulted from Mertesacker’s sluggishness. Zoller initiated the opening goal by making a run between Monreal and Mertesacker. Ospina came off his line because Zoller was clean through on goal.

The German side nearly doubled the lead by using the same ploy in the 16th. Zoller beat the offside trap by making a run between Mertesacker and Holding. However, Zoller struggled to control the ball, which ended up rolling toward Ospina. Cologne exploited again Arsenal’s high defensive line in the 72nd. Cordoba rolled away from Mertesacker and dribbled past Monreal to fire a low strike that Ospina turned around the post.

  1. Arsenal shouldn’t extend Walcott’s contract

Walcott’s limited technique was exposed on Thursday. He was dispossessed 4 times and was flagged offside 4 times, the most for any player in both categories. Despite his clumsiness, Walcott managed to get involved in two goals. It was his blocked cross that led to Kolasinac’s equalizer. Then his lost duel against Horn led to the final goal. Nelson, who replaced Walcott in the 83rd, is already a much better player at the same age. Wenger will carefully give Nelson some playing time this season before integrating him into the first team next year.

  1. Giroud had an off day

The France striker tried hard but couldn’t find the net. Giroud took a pass from Maitland-Niles in the 14th for a close-range effort that Heintz deflected out. He then met a cross from Bellerin in the 20th for a tame header that Horn easily saved. I thought Giroud should have scored in the 39th when he connected with a cross from Sanchez but sent his header wide. Giroud was dominant in the air, winning 4 of 4 aerial duels. I was surprised that the Gunners didn’t try to find him more in the second half. Cologne proved so weak in the air that they only won 20% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

  1. Ospina was rusty

In his first game of the season, Ospina hit a poor clearance that led to the opening goal. The Colombia goalkeeper learned his lesson in the second half as he kicked the ball straight into touch in a similar situation. Ospina made a fine save in the 72nd to prevent Cologne from leveling. His quick legs are definitely an asset when you have Mertesacker in the back three.

  1. Bellerin had a good game

After a couple of disappointing performances, Bellerin finally showed the level that justified his selection in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year. The Spaniard scored a goal, created 2 chances, had a passing accuracy of 92%, made 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 1 of 1 tackle and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 4 interceptions and 1 block. He’s obviously a better player on the right flank than on the left.

  1. Could this be Wilshere’s season?

In his first game of the season with the first team, Wilshere came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 68th. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in the 3-4-3 system, but Cazorla’s injury and our midfield woes give him a big opportunity to get some playing time.

  1. Debuchy and Chambers have no future at the club

Both players were not even included in the Europa League squad. That doesn’t look good when youngsters like Holding and Maitland-Niles start and when Reine-Adelaide, Nelson and Akpom get the nod on the bench. Debuchy can only blame himself for not accepting a salary cut at another club while Chambers must have regrets about his aborted move to Leicester.