Tag Archives: Mkhitaryan

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

The Gunners are on the verge of elimination in the Europa League after losing 1-0 to BATE Borisov on Thursday in the first leg of their last-32 encounter. Arsenal will miss Lacazette for the second leg as the French striker received a red card for violent conduct.

BATE vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Getty Images

There will be a lot of second guessing about Emery’s team selection. Why did the Spanish manager not start Aubameyang and Torreira, knowing that the Gunners don’t even play this weekend? Arsenal performed poorly with a lot of stray passes and heavy touches. It was embarrassing to see the number of corner kicks that failed to beat the first defender. The Gunners could have led 3-0 in the first half with better finishing. They became toothless in the second half with a lot of sterile possession against a Belarusian side parking the bus.

  1. Are the Gunners regressing?

Last season, Arsenal won 4-2 in Belarus and 6-0 at the Emirates stadium under Wenger. You’d think that the Gunners would be in safe hands with Emery, who won the Europa League three times with Sevilla. But that wasn’t the case on Thursday.

Here’s a look at Emery’s 3-4-3 formation against BATE Borisov: Cech -Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi- Kolasinac, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Maitland-Niles- Iwobi, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan. If you compare with Wenger’s lineups, you can spot the difference right away. Wenger’s 3-5-2 formation in the 4-2 win: Ospina -Holding, Mertesacker, Mustafi -Maitland-Niles, Willock, Wilshere, Elneny, Nelson -Walcott, Giroud. Wenger’s 4-2-3-1 formation in the 6-0 win: Ospina -Maitland-Niles, Holding, Chambers, Debuchy -Elneny, Coquelin -Welbeck, Wilshere, Walcott -Giroud.

First, Mustafi and Maitland-Niles were the only players who started both Borisov games under Wenger and Emery. And second, Emery was more conservative in his approach than Wenger. The French manager started two goalscorers (Giroud and Walcott) in the away game and three (Giroud, Walcott and Welbeck) in the home game. By contrast, Emery only relied on one striker (Lacazette), probably expecting goals from Mkhitaryan and Iwobi who both have a poor scoring record.

Emery’s tactical changes in the second half proved useless. Aubameyang and Torreira replaced Maitland-Niles and Xhaka in the 68th minute before Emery sent on Suarez for Kolasinac in the 74th. The Gunners shifted to a 3-5-2 system with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi as wingbacks and Suarez in the hole behind Lacazette and Aubameyang.

  1. Lacazette’s nightmarish evening

The French striker could have notched a hat trick. His abject performance will again raise questions about his level. Lacazette should have at least caught the frame in the 22nd. Kolasinac made a pinpoint cross for an unmarked Lacazette who headed over the bar from 6 yards. Five minutes later, Guendouzi hit a ball over the top for Lacazette who tried to control the ball instead of attempting a volley from 16 yards. Lacazette missed his first touch, allowing Scherbitski to collect the ball. In that kind of situation, Van Persie would have opted for a volley.

Lacazette is a second striker, not a centerforward. His weakness in the air was exposed again in the 41st when he couldn’t climb high enough to meet a cross from Mustafi and test Scherbitski from 5 yards. Lacazette thought he had scored the equalizer in the 55th when he converted Kolasinac’s low cross, but he was marginally offside and the goal was disallowed. Out of frustration, Lacazette threw an elbow into Filipovic’s face in the 85th. That was obviously a silly foul because Filipovic was giving away a free kick by holding Lacazette’s shirt. The referee had no choice but to send Lacazette off.

  1. Iwobi’s lack of end product

The Nigeria international often made the penultimate pass for Arsenal’s few chances, especially by releasing Kolasinac down the left flank. The trouble is that Iwobi is not a deep-lying playmaker. He plays in a front three, which implies assists and goals. Iwobi finished the game with 0 key pass and 0 of 4 shots on target. His turnover rate is still an issue: Iwobi led all players with 11 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He was a bit naive in the opening minutes, losing possession twice by waiting for the ball to reach his feet instead of taking a couple of steps toward the ball to shield it with his body.

  1. Mkhitaryan’s first 5 minutes

The Armenia international got off to a good start before quickly fading. Mkhitaryan met Kolasinac’s cross with a sliding effort but was denied by Scherbitski in the second minute. He then made a teasing cross for Monreal, who failed to make contact with the ball in the fifth minute. A flick from Monreal would have been goalbound. The ball also evaded Koscielny to sail wide of the far post. Mkhitaryan made 3 key passes and won 2 of 3 tackles, but Emery should see that his limited goalscoring ability simply puts too much pressure on Lacazette.

  1. Guendouzi didn’t hide

He led all players with 111 passes. Yet, there’s something wrong when a manager gives the keys of the midfield to a teenager still learning the ropes. Yes, Guendouzi has a lot of potential, but he’s nowhere near the level of a Fabregas at the same age. Guendouzi dallied on the ball in the ninth minute and was dispossessed by Skavysh, forcing Xhaka to make a cynical foul. The French midfielder also lost a key duel with Milic on a BATE counterattack in the 13th. For his first season at the top level, Guendouzi has every excuse. But he will need to improve his defensive awareness and release the ball more quickly.

  1. The Gunners have a defensive problem on the left flank

Kolasinac was Arsenal’s most potent threat with 7 key passes. However, the hosts often exploited the space behind Kolasinac. In theory, Monreal was supposed to cover Kolasinac on the left flank, but the Spaniard struggled defensively. Skavysh combined with Milic to beat Monreal and Kolasinac along the touchline in the 28th. The Belarusian forward played the ball back to Milic, who flicked it wide. Then Monreal tripped Skavysh in the 43rd, giving away the free kick that led to BATE’s goal. Dragun beat Kolasinac to the ball to head in Stasevich’s free kick on the stroke of halftime. The Belarusian side nearly doubled the lead in the 61st when Stasevich made a run in behind Monreal to fire a half-volley that Cech parried.

  1. Maitland-Niles couldn’t find the balance between defense and offense

The academy graduate had a good game against Huddersfield last weekend but he failed to have an offensive impact in Belarus. Maitland-Niles won 4 of 6 tackles but made 0 key pass. Arsenal’s attacks became too predictable in the second half because of Maitland-Niles’ inefficiency and the team’s over-reliance on Kolasinac on the opposite flank.

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Huddersfield vs. Arsenal: Gunners win ugly to stay in Top 4 race

   The Gunners held off Huddersfield 2-1 on Saturday to keep pace with Manchester United in the Top 4 race and earn their first away win in the Premier League since November. It wasn’t a pretty game. The Terriers outplayed Arsenal, enjoying 55% of ball possession and having 6 shots on target to 4. Yet, the result could prove crucial mentally. Last season, the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race because of their poor form on the road with 7 losses from January to May 2018.

Huddersfield vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   The injury crisis in defense has led Emery to rely on a back three for away games lately. It’s quite ironic that Emery is revisiting Wenger’s old recipes. The French manager switched to a back three at the end of the 2016-17 season because of 5 straight losses on the road. However, the tactical move came too late as Arsenal finished in fifth place, 1 point behind Liverpool.

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that lost at Manchester City a week ago with Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles replacing Aubameyang and Lichtsteiner in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager had to cope with a depleted squad as Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, and Aubameyang were sidelined either by injury or illness.

   Saturday’s game exposed the lack of quality in some key positions. The Terriers are the worst team in the Premier League but they still managed to have a passing accuracy of 78.6% compared to 71.8% for Arsenal, according to the club’s website. The Gunners compensated for their poor passing game with some great work-rate in the first half.

Flying wings

   There are only 3 attacking players in a 3-4-3 formation compared to 4 in a 4-2-3-1 system. The lack of creativity on the team sheet was quite obvious. Arsenal couldn’t just rely on inconsistent players like Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to create chances. In the end, the supply came from the wingbacks, Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac. The stats don’t lie: the Gunners only made 7 key passes. Maitland-Niles led Arsenal players with 3 key passes, followed by Kolasinac (2), Mkhitaryan (1) and Iwobi (1).

   Maitland-Niles arguably produced his best performance of the season. He set up the winning goal with a low cross that Lacazette converted from close range in the 44th minute. Besides 2 interceptions, Maitland-Niles led all players by winning 4 of 6 tackles, having 4 successful dribbles out of 7 and making 12 recoveries, according to the club’s website. His teammates trusted him as Maitland-Niles led Arsenal players with 51 passes.

   At 21, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player with a lot of room for improvement. Technically, he was among the weakest players with a passing accuracy of 62.8%. Maitland-Niles also had 5 turnovers compared to just 1 for Kolasinac. He especially gave the ball away with poor passes in the 33rd, the 47th and the 54th. That kind of flaw can be corrected on the training ground. Hopefully, Maitland-Niles will take the positives from his performance to claim the starting spot on the right flank while Bellerin recovers from his knee injury.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac created the opening goal in the 16th with a cross for Iwobi, whose volley took a deflection off Kongolo to beat a wrongfooted Hamer. Those 2 Gunners have built a good understanding on the left flank. Kolasinac combined with Iwobi to make another pinpoint cross in the 60th. Lacazette was about to meet the cross but Elneny jumped on the French striker to head the ball wide. What happened to team spirit? I thought Elneny and Lacazette were better educated than Kamara and Mitrovic.

A firefighter surrounded by pyromaniacs

   The trouble with Kolasinac is that his defensive lapses often outweigh his offensive contributions. Kolasinac was pulled out of position in the 80th when the Terriers hit Arsenal on the fast break. An unmarked Smith made a low cross for Depoitre, whose angled strike sailed wide. You can’t fault Kolasinac for his work-rate though. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international won 2 of 2 tackles, and made 3 interceptions and 11 recoveries.

   However, his technical limitations are becoming more and more obvious. Kolasinac completed only 55.6% of his passes, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. In stoppage time, Kolasinac should have cleared the rebound after Leno diverted Diakhaby’s chip, but some poor footwork led to a comical own goal. Monreal’s physical decline means that signing a leftback should be a top priority this summer.

   At the back, Koscielny and Leno were the only reasons why Arsenal nearly kept a clean sheet. Koscielny must have felt like a firefighter surrounded by pyromaniacs. Mustafi was very active on the right side of a back three with 2 tackles won, 5 interceptions and 11 recoveries, but his performance also looked like a catalogue of errors. The German defender put his team in trouble with a poor header in the 22nd. Mustafi was then pulled out of position in the 27th, made a silly foul in the 28th, lost possession on the edge of the area in the 35th and missed his tackle in the 47th. And his weak passing accuracy of 72.3% didn’t help his team retain possession.

   Monreal’s season has been marred by injuries. I don’t think the Spaniard was 100 percent fit on Saturday. His stats were very low with just 1 tackle, 2 blocks, 2 interceptions and 1 recovery. Monreal especially struggled to cope with Diakhaby’s pace. Diakhaby ran past Monreal in the 25th but Koscielny managed to block the cross from the Huddersfield winger. Covering Leno in the 84th, Monreal prevented Grant from scoring with a clearance off the line.

Lack of protection

   Chaperoning an error-prone Mustafi and a sluggish Monreal, Koscielny shone in the sweeper role as he cleaned up mistakes from his teammates. Koscielny headed the ball out after Diakhaby intercepted a poor back pass from Kolasinac in the second minute. The French centerback then cut out a cross from Smith in the 61st after Iwobi failed to track the Huddersfield fullback. Using his experience in the 78th, a smart Koscielny won a free kick after Bacuna outpaced Monreal.

   Koscielny finished the game with 2 tackles won, 2 blocks, 4 interceptions, 7 recoveries and a passing accuracy of 90.2%. Maybe the only blemish in Koscielny’s performance was his decision-making on the Terriers’ consolation goal. Instead of playing a high defensive line, Koscielny should have dropped off to control Diakhaby’s run.

   Leno had a quiet first half with just a routine save in the 19th. However, he definitely helped the Gunners secure the win with a couple of fine saves in the second half. The German goalkeeper saved Diakhaby’s first-time effort in the 50th, parried Diakhaby’s swerving shot in the 72nd, denied Depoitre in the 84th and stopped Bacuna’s long-range strike in stoppage time.

   The Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection after the break. By his own standards, Torreira had a poor game with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception, 10 recoveries and a passing accuracy of 64.3%. Guendouzi couldn’t compensate for Torreira’s relative lack of activity with 1 tackle, 0 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. The French teenager was a bit too casual at times with 6 turnovers, including one that led to a counterattack by Diakhaby in the 25th.

Missing a big chance

   Emery felt that something was not right in midfield and replaced Torreira with Elneny in the 59th. The move didn’t pay off. In fact, the Terriers were even more threatening after Torreira left the pitch. Elneny failed to close down Diakhaby, whose swerving shot tested Leno in the 72nd. Emery then decided to beef up the midfield by sending on Willock for Iwobi in the 88th. Willock failed to press Mooy, who slipped a through ball to Diakhaby for the consolation goal in stoppage time.

   Iwobi can be a frustrating player to watch. Let’s start with the positives. Iwobi opened the scoring and created a couple of half-chances. He fed Lacazette in the eighth minute. Instead of taking a first-time shot, Lacazette controlled the ball only to be dispossessed by Kongolo. Three minutes later, Iwobi made a low cross for Lacazette, who made poor contact with the ball and flicked it wide. Iwobi found the net again in the 36th but the goal was disallowed for an offside position.

   Now the reason why Iwobi drives some fans mad is because his passing and shooting skills can be poor at times. Iwobi led all players with 10 turnovers and completed only 60.6% of his passes, according to whoscored.com. Attacking midfielders at the top clubs have a passing accuracy above 80%. His decision-making can also be questionable. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi opted for an angled strike in the 10th minute instead of setting up Mkhitaryan for a tap-in. The defender might have intercepted Iwobi’s pass but it was still a better option than shooting from a tight angle. In the end, Iwobi embarrassingly fired into the side-netting.

Huddersfield M10edIwobi misses a passing opportunity. (Photo credit: SN1)

   Iwobi was also let down by his technique in the 69th, completely missing the target after cutting inside, and in the 86th, crossing the ball out of play. He could have put the result beyond doubt in the 70th when Mkhitaryan played him clean through on goal. But the Nigeria international wasted that big chance by shooting straight at the goalkeeper.

Pretending to defend vs. actually defending

   Much has been said about Iwobi’s improvement under Emery, but he still doesn’t know how to defend. Iwobi made 1 tackle and 4 recoveries in 88 minutes, while Mkhitaryan made 1 tackle, 1 interception and 7 recoveries in 76 minutes. Iwobi’s work-rate is poor because he lacks aggression like Ozil. Both Ozil and Iwobi track back but they barely perform defensive actions.

   In his return from a foot injury, Mkhitaryan looked incredibly sharp for his first Premier League game since December. From an attacking viewpoint, the right flank became a weakness after Bellerin’s injury. It will be interesting to see whether Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles can strike an understanding on the right flank like the one built by Kolasinac and Iwobi on the left flank.

   Mkhitaryan controlled Maitland-Niles’ cross in the 39th to test Hamer with a low drive. They swapped roles in the 44th as Mkhitaryan released Maitland-Niles for the second goal. Suarez replaced Mkhitaryan in the 76th and didn’t seem up to speed. Right now, Suarez looks like a player in his second week of pre-season training.

   Up front, Lacazette did his best in a position which is not tailored for him because he’s much more a second striker than a pure centerforward. Lacazette won 0 of 5 aerial duels and had 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Those are definitely not the stats of a target man. When Wenger used a 3-4-3 formation, he played Welbeck or Giroud in the centerforward role. To Lacazette’s credit, he scored the winning goal and worked his socks off with 4 fouls committed.  

   Arsenal’s next couple of games are the two legs against BATE Borisov in the Europa League. At this stage of the season, the Gunners can’t prioritize that European competition over the Premier League yet. There are still 8 games to play before reaching the Europa League final while the Gunners are only 1 point behind Manchester United in the standings.

   The main difficulty for Emery will be to manage a tricky schedule. After the second leg against the Belarusian side, Arsenal will play 3 Premier League games in a 7-day span. The only opportunity to rest key players will therefore be the second leg. Only a significant victory in the first leg would enable Emery to rotate in the second leg.

Southampton vs. Arsenal: Defense a concern in 3-2 loss

   The Gunners were vulnerable on crosses under Wenger. They still haven’t found a fix under Emery. Southampton headed in three crosses to win 3-2 on Sunday and snap Arsenal’s 22-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

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

   A quick look at the standings tells you that the Gunners are doing fine offensively. With 37 goals from 17 games, they have scored as many goals as Liverpool to boast the second best offense in the Premier League behind Manchester City. On the other hand, they have already conceded 23 goals, that is, 16 more than Liverpool, 13 more than City and 9 more than Chelsea. In fact, the Gunners even have a more porous defense than Wolverhampton, Everton, Leicester and Newcastle.

   On Sunday, Arsenal missed Holding through injury and Mustafi and Sokratis through suspension. Emery opted for a 3-4-3 formation with Koscielny playing alongside Xhaka and Lichtsteiner in a back three. What was Emery thinking?

   Understanding and complementarity are crucial for any defense. The starting lineup didn’t really put Koscielny in optimal conditions for his first Premier League game this season. The French defender had never played with Lichtsteiner and Xhaka at centerback. Partnering Koscielny with Monreal in a back four would have been a more rational choice.

   What also made the back three dysfunctional was Emery’s decision to use Koscielny as the sweeper and Lichtsteiner and Xhaka as the wide centerbacks. Xhaka and Lichtsteiner are simply too sluggish to efficiently play as wide centerbacks. The idea behind a back three is that the sweeper covers the wide centerbacks, who must be more pro-active than the sweeper.

Adjusting to the pace of the game

   Koscielny didn’t cover himself in glory on the opening goal. Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Targett and Ings took advantage of Koscielny’s error to give Southampton the lead in the 20th minute. Koscielny showed poor decision-making by trying to intercept the ball with a high boot instead of heading the ball out of play. He misjudged the flight of the ball and missed his interception, basically offering Ings a free header.

Saints M20edKoscielny in a perfect position to head the ball out of play. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The irony is that Koscielny was sharp physically. He made more tackles (3), blocks (2), interceptions (1) and recoveries (8) than Xhaka and Lichtsteiner combined (1 tackle, 0 block, 1 interception, 7 recoveries), according to the club’s website. However, one key stat showed that Koscielny struggled to adjust to the pace of the game: he won 0 tackle. Koscielny will certainly need a couple more games to get back to his best level.

   Playing Xhaka at centerback was the weirdest decision Emery has made this season. Xhaka never really felt comfortable in that position, especially since his matchup with Redmond was an unfavorable one. The Switzerland international missed his challenge on Redmond in the 18th, was dispossessed by Redmond in the 23rd, gave the ball away in the 39th and fouled Long in the 73rd.

Injury crisis at the back

   Xhaka’s lack of pace was exposed in the 85th when the Saints scored the winner. Leading a counterattack, Hojbjerg played Long in and the Southampton substitute made a cross for Austin, who beat Leno to the ball to head home. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka failed to close down Long, giving him plenty of time and space for a pinpoint cross.

Saints M85ed.jpgKoscielny in a 1v1 situation with Austin as Xhaka is not tight to Long. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Leno was credited with an error for that goal, but the reason why he missed his catch by a few inches is because he initially thought Long would shoot. By coming off his line to narrow Long’s angle, Leno missed the couple of steps that would have allowed him to catch Long’s cross. Leno is now tied with Begovic for the most errors (3) leading to a goal in the Premier League. There’s no doubt that Leno’s distribution is better than Cech’s. His passing accuracy reached 92.9% against Southampton. Yet, passing skills are meaningless for a goalkeeper if he can’t do the basics: preventing goals. Leno has been poor at reading crosses this season. He completely missed his punch while coming for Valery’s cross in the 60th. You can bet that other Premier League sides will test Leno again with teasing crosses.

   The Gunners have been hit by an injury crisis at the back. Holding will miss the rest of the season to recover from a torn ligament in his knee while Kolasinac was not in the squad because of a thigh strain. The disabled list got longer at St Mary’s stadium as Bellerin was replaced at halftime by Lacazette because of a calf problem that will sideline him for a couple of weeks. The Spaniard underperformed lately and it was clear that something wasn’t right physically.

Guendouzi’s inexperience

   Lichtsteiner, who moved to the rightback position when Arsenal switched to a back four in the second half, also picked up an injury after a scissor tackle from Armstrong in the 71st. Maitland-Niles came off the bench to replace Lichtsteiner and should likely start at rightback in the next few games. Unless Emery is crazy enough to play Xhaka in that position.

   Xhaka and Lichtsteiner were so worried by the pace of Redmond and Armstrong that they preferred to sit back and left a huge gap between the defense and the midfield. That made the task of Torreira and Guendouzi very difficult in the first half.

   Torreira produced another good performance, leading all players by winning 4 of 5 tackles and making 9 recoveries. The Uruguay midfielder also made 1 key pass, 1 block and 2 interceptions. In the 30th, Guendouzi picked out Torreira, who squared the ball back for Aubameyang. It took a desperate sliding tackle from Bednarek to prevent Aubameyang from tapping in from 5 yards. Torreira will have regrets about the lost duel in the 85th. Ozil turned the ball over to Hojbjerg, who wriggled away from Torreira to slip a through ball to Long for the winner. For a split second, Torreira thought about holding Hojbjerg before letting him go.

   In the partnership formed with Guendouzi in central midfield, Torreira clearly had more defensive responsibilities. Guendouzi still made his defensive contribution by winning 2 of 2 tackles and having 5 recoveries. However, his inexperience cost his team at times. He lacked patience and took speculative shots, with 0 of 3 shots on target, instead of maintaining pressure on the Southampton defense.

Sterile possession

   Guendouzi also held onto the ball too long when he could have moved it faster. And he failed to smell the danger in the 44th when Redmond made a cross for Ings, whose looping header beat Leno for a 2-1 lead. As you can see on the screen capture below, Redmond got plenty of time and space for his cross. It was definitely not Xhaka’s job to chase Redmond that far and Monreal was busy with Valery down the left flank.

Saints M44ed.jpgGuendouzi fails to close down Redmond. (Photo credit: Sky)

   I guess that’s the price you have to pay for starting a teenager in Premier League games. On the bright side, Guendouzi only had 1 turnover, compared to 2 for Torreira, according to whoscored.com. And he created Arsenal’s first scoring chance in the sixth minute with a ball over the top for Aubameyang, whose close-range effort was saved by McCarthy.

   Emery made 10 changes to the side that edged Qarabag in the Europa League, so there was no excuse for Arsenal’s slow passing game and sterile possession. The Gunners only had 4 shots on target to 7 for Southampton despite enjoying 66% of ball possession. Emery tried to shake things up but with no real success. The Spanish manager switched to a 4-4-2 system at halftime when Lacazette replaced an injured Bellerin. Then he gave the keys of the team to Ozil by yanking Iwobi off in the 70th and shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ozil had very little impact in his 25-minute cameo. He had 2 key passes but those stats are misleading: one came from a corner kick and the other was a short pass to set up a long-range effort.

Turnover machine

   It has been quite obvious in the past few games that the Gunners lack creativity. Yes, they score a lot of goals, but it’s because Aubameyang and Lacazette have been clinical. Arsenal lost Cazorla, Sanchez, Rosicky, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the past couple of years. Those are players who could create chances. The Gunners still have Ozil, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi as creative players. But only Ramsey has been relatively consistent this season while Ozil’s poor work-rate has been an issue, Mkhitaryan has a too peripheral role in the team’s passing game and Iwobi lacks end product.  

   Emery has a problem on the left wing because Welbeck’s long-term injury means that there’s no competition for Iwobi. Mkhitaryan and Ozil prefer to play on the right wing while Ramsey and Aubameyang are more effective in a central position. How do you motivate a lazy player if there’s no one to take his spot?

   Iwobi is the most dispossessed player at Arsenal and 15th in the Premier League despite playing fewer minutes than most players on that list. Hazard is 6th, having been dispossessed 38 times in 1,225 minutes and Sterling is 7th with 37 in 1,140 minutes. Iwobi has already been dispossessed 29 times in 789 minutes. The big difference here is that Hazard and Sterling notch a lot of goals and assists while Iwobi only has 1 goal and 2 assists.

   Despite spending only 70 minutes on the pitch, Iwobi led all players with 7 turnovers. His work-rate was average at best with 1 block and 5 recoveries, compared to 4 interceptions and 7 recoveries for Mkhitaryan, according to the club’s website. And his end product was mediocre with 0 shot on target, 0 key pass and 0 accurate cross. Iwobi especially lacked composure in the 54th, missing the target with a 15-yard curling shot.

Aubameyang losing his finishing touch

   Managers can see the potential in Iwobi, but he still lacks the mental toughness and the attitude to reach the next level. To his credit, Iwobi released Monreal down the left flank for the first equalizer in the 28th. He then found Mkhitaryan, who set up Aubameyang for a scoring chance in the 46th. It’s usually the deep-lying playmaker who makes the penultimate pass. There’s no way Iwobi could play in that position because it requires more work than playing as an attacking midfielder.

   Mkhitaryan had a good game with 2 goals and 1 key pass. The Armenia international headed Monreal’s cross into the bottom corner in the 28th and made it 2-2 in the 53rd with a long-range strike that took a big deflection off Vestergaard to beat a wrongfooted McCarthy. His stats look a bit more decent with 4 goals and 1 assist in the Premier League this season, but we’re still far from the consistency of a Sanchez or a Cazorla in their prime.

   Up front, Aubameyang lost his finishing touch. I won’t blame Aubameyang for not scoring in the sixth minute because he was closed down by Yoshida while shooting with his weaker left foot. However, I thought Aubameyang could have done better than a tame toe poke in the 46th and should have hit the target with his sliding volley off a Guendouzi cross in the 81st.

No room for error in the Top 4 race

   Emery decided to play with two strikers after halftime because Aubameyang often looked isolated in the first half. The Gunners had a bit more presence in the final third but it didn’t solve the lack of creativity. Arsenal’s second equalizer in the 53rd came from some defensive work by Lacazette, who dispossessed Romeu to feed Mkhitaryan. Lacazette created another chance by charging down McCarthy’s clearance in the 68th but Aubameyang couldn’t pick a spot to shoot. As an example of the poor service, Lacazette had 0 shot. I’m sure Aubameyang and Lacazette would have shone in Ferguson’s Manchester United. Unfortunately, Emery doesn’t have any Giggs or Beckham to provide them a decent service.  

   The Gunners next play Spurs in the League Cup on Wednesday before hosting Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday. I believe Emery should rotate against Spurs because Arsenal’s situation in the Premier League gives them no room for error. The Gunners are 3 points outside the Top 4 and 5 points behind Tottenham. They could drop out of the Top 4 race by the end of December if they get poor results against Burnley, Brighton and Liverpool.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield: 5-tool Torreira fires Gunners to 1-0 win

This has become the hit of the season at the Emirates: “Torreira woooah, Torreira woooah, he comes from Uruguay, he’s only five foot five.” You can’t blame the fans for chanting Torreira’s name to the tune of the old Vieira song. Where would Arsenal be without Torreira? The Uruguay midfielder scored with a spectacular bicycle kick in a 1-0 win over Huddersfield on Saturday to help the Gunners keep pace with Chelsea and Spurs in the Top 4 race.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery made 3 changes to the side that drew with Manchester United on Wednesday with Lichtsteiner, Xhaka and Lacazette replacing Holding, Ramsey and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also switched from a 3-4-3 system to a more defensive 3-5-2 formation, which was quite strange for a home game. The problem with that lineup was the absence of a creative link player -a midfielder who could link defense and attack, obviously, but also deliver the final ball and be a goal threat.

Ramsey and Ozil usually play that role in the Arsenal team but both were on the disabled list. So Torreira stepped up and made a telling impact. In the 83rd minute, Aubameyang made a cross for Torreira, who catapulted the ball into the net with an overhead kick. For a few seconds, I thought about Cazorla. Both Cazorla and Torreira are tiny players who had to change of position at different stages of their respective careers.

Cazorla spent most of his career playing as an attacking midfielder before Wenger converted him into a deep-lying playmaker during the 2014-15 season. The Spaniard was not a natural ballwinner and therefore had to team up with Coquelin in central midfield. Torreira is a better defensive midfielder than Cazorla could ever be. On the other hand, Cazorla is a better attacking midfielder than Torreira will ever be. Yet, Torreira started his career in Uruguay as a winger. When Torreira moved to Italy, he wasn’t deemed good enough as a winger and was therefore converted into a defensive midfielder.

The most complete midfielder

In a three-man midfield, Torreira performed the role of link player alongside Xhaka and Guendouzi. Torreira doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Cazorla or the pace of wingers like Walcott and Van Persie, but his all-around game made the difference on Saturday. He had 2 of 3 shots on target, won 1 of 2 tackles and 76.9% of his duels, and made 2 key passes and 7 recoveries, according to the club’s website. In fact, Torreira might be the most complete midfielder in the Arsenal squad. Torreira can play in any midfield position while it’s hard to envision Ozil and Ramsey as ballwinners.

Because Torreira doesn’t have Ozil’s technical ability, he overhit his final ball for Bellerin in the 16th and underhit his through ball for Aubameyang in the 30th. At 22, Torreira still has room for improvement, but his reading of the game is already very good. He led a counterattack in stoppage time and slipped a through ball to Guendouzi, who was denied by the Huddersfield goalkeeper. Torreira also nearly opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime, but Lossl turned his long-range strike around the post.

At the start of the season, Emery showed patience with Torreira, easing him into a new league. By October, Torreira became the heartbeat of the team with outstanding performances against Fulham and Leicester. Any pundit could see that Torreira was the rock his teammates could rely on, winning the ball back and building play from the back.

Despite his diminutive frame, Torreira has adapted quickly to the physicality of the Premier League. On Saturday, Torreira was fouled 7 times, the most for any player. He draws a lot of fouls because he has good close control, is quicker than his opponent in 50-50 duels, and smartly uses his body to shield the ball. Torreira could be the cornerstone of a team contending for the title and I believe Arsenal should build the squad in Torreira’s image with a mix of talent, hard work and grit.

Huddersfield’s negative tactics

As a team fighting relegation, the Terriers did their best to frustrate Arsenal. They pressed high up the pitch in the first half. Depoitre even managed to charge down a clearance from Leno in the fifth minute. The visitors also resorted to repetitive fouling to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game. Huddersfield finished the match with 20 fouls, compared to 13 for the Gunners. A couple of times, the Terriers crossed the line and roughed up some players. Williams was booked in the 37th for a tackle from behind on Torreira, while Smith received a yellow card two minutes later for a late challenge on Guendouzi.

Huddersfield’s negative tactics should be no excuse for Arsenal’s lack of urgency in the first half. The Gunners had two potential pacesetters with Xhaka and Guendouzi but played at a too slow tempo to pressure the visitors. It was quite interesting to see Emery play Xhaka as the holding midfielder. I believe it’s a choice by default. Torreira is a better defensive midfielder than Xhaka, but the trouble is that Torreira is also more mobile and has more impact in the final third than Xhaka. In the manager’s mind, Xhaka was more useful in front of the defense than in the final third. We already got a glimpse into Emery’s thinking when he played Torreira in a more advanced position than Xhaka against Spurs.

It was therefore no surprise to see Xhaka have better defensive stats than Torreira and Guendouzi. The Switzerland international won 3 of 5 tackles and 70% of his duels and made 1 interception and 10 recoveries. Despite those glossy stats, Xhaka had a couple of defensive lapses. He gave the ball away in the 44th and was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 49th. Both turnovers led to scoring chances for the Terriers.

Lack of urgency

Guendouzi also had weaker defensive stats than usual (0 tackle, 1 interception, 6 recoveries) because he played in a more advanced position as a deep-lying playmaker. Emery clearly wanted Guendouzi to focus on his passing. Guendouzi led all players with 5 key passes and a passing accuracy of 94.1%. The French teenager created the winner with a ball over the top for Aubameyang in the 83rd. He also created a big chance for Lacazette in the 29th.

The Gunners dominated possession with their three-man midfield but they lacked urgency and penetration. Arsenal’s midfield looked more like Liverpool’s laborious midfield than Manchester City’s creative trio. So Emery decided to switch to a 4-3-3 at halftime by replacing Lichtsteiner and Lacazette with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.

Iwobi and Mkhitaryan had a limited impact in the final third with 1 key pass each. A quick look at the winner tells you what’s wrong with them. Wide players often deliver the final ball but they also need to be a goal threat. In the screen capture below, you can see that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan made no effort to get in behind their markers when Guendouzi picked out Aubameyang. If Aubameyang had made a first-time pass, only Torreira would have been in a decent position to score.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield M83ed.jpgIwobi and Mkhitaryan waiting passively on the edge of the box while Torreira makes a run. (Photo credit: TSN)

Mkhitaryan failed to catch the frame with a a low drive in the 46th, headed a Kolasinac cross over the bar in the 82nd and made a sloppy pass while releasing Bellerin down the right flank in injury time. The Armenia international has been struggling to show end product this season with just 2 goals and 1 assist from 13 Premier League games, but at least you know Mkhitaryan will work hard for the team.

Iwobi under pressure

Iwobi seemed to turn a corner under Emery but now he’s looking more and more like the player of last season, showing poor end product and work-rate. He made 2 recoveries and won 9.1% of his duels compared to 4 recoveries, 1 tackle and 44.4% of duels won for Mkhitaryan.

What frustrated a lot of fans was how Iwobi proved too casual in possession, leading Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Lacazette had just 1 turnover and Mkhitaryan 0 turnover. Iwobi’s passing accuracy of 63.2% was also the lowest among the Gunners. He sent a pass out of play after misreading Kolasinac’s run in the 62nd. Then Iwobi produced an air header in the 76th, confusing Kolasinac who could have connected with Mkhitaryan’s cross. And he showed a lack of composure on a counterattack, losing possession with a heavy touch in the 88th when he could have fed Aubameyang to his left.

If Iwobi keeps underperforming, the fans will get more and more on his back. Dealing with pressure is not fun but it’s the reality of football at the top level. At 22, Iwobi still has time to mature and prove himself, but not much. This is already his fourth season in the Premier League. Youngsters like Nketiah and Nelson will soon be knocking on the door.

I thought yanking Lacazette off at halftime was a risky move by Emery. If Aubameyang had picked up an injury, Emery only had Nketiah on the bench to play in the centerforward position. Lacazette missed a big chance in the 29th. Completely unmarked, Lacazette took a pass from Guendouzi and fired over the bar from 13 yards while losing his footing.

Then Lacazette had a goal disallowed for offside in the 42nd. He was indeed offside when Aubameyang flicked on Leno’s goal kick. But the ball fell to Jorgensen, who made a poor backpass toward his goalkeeper. Lacazette intercepted the ball and dribbled past Lossl to score into an empty net. The controversy here is that the referee let play continue when Jorgensen had the ball but decided to cancel the second phase of play when there was no advantage for the Terriers. That’s a common practice in rugby but very unusual in football.

A show of faith

Lacazette’s substitution looked like a show of faith in Aubameyang. The Gabon striker definitely deserves to be the first-choice striker. He has scored 10 league goals this season compared to 6 for Lacazette. Starved of decent service, Aubameyang had an off day with 0 of 4 shots on target. He pounced on an off-target shot from Xhaka in the 28th only to divert the ball wide from 9 yards. Then Aubameyang missed the target with his close-range header from a Xhaka corner in the 63rd. Despite that poor finishing, Aubameyang kept working hard and played a key role for the winner. He controlled Guendouzi’s ball over the top only to have his effort blocked by Kongolo. As the ball bounced behind him, Aubameyang spun to make a blind cross for Torreira, who jumped in the air for a bicycle kick.

On the flanks, Kolasinac didn’t have the same offensive impact as in the previous league games, making only 1 key pass. The initial 3-5-2 formation deprived Kolasinac of a wide player to combine with. He felt more comfortable in the second half when Iwobi played on the left wing. Kolasinac had solid defensive stats, winning 3 of 4 tackles and making 9 recoveries, but he showed again his technical limitations with 6 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 66.7%. On the right flank, Bellerin was almost anonymous. The Spaniard showed signs of fatigue against Manchester United. I thought Emery could have rested Bellerin while giving a start to Maitland-Niles. Bellerin’s only significant contribution was a teasing cross that Lossl poorly cleared in the 68th.

The Gunners have been hit by an injury crisis at the back. Holding will miss the rest of the season after rupturing his knee ligament against Manchester United. Emery improvised by playing Lichtsteiner on the right side of the back three. Lichtsteiner compensated for his lack of pace with his positional play and reading of the game. However, I doubt Lichtsteiner will be a long-term solution at centerback, especially since Monreal and Koscielny made their return to the squad.

Mustafi caught ball-watching (again)

Of the three centerbacks, Sokratis had the best defensive stats, winning 1 of 3 tackles and 70% of his duels and making 1 block, 5 interceptions and 8 recoveries. He will miss the next league game after receiving his fifth booking of the season for a mistimed challenge on Hogg in the 40th. Although Huddersfield created very little, the Gunners struggled in the air. Sokratis and Mustafi combined to win only 3 of 8 aerial duels, while Depoitre won 10 of 18 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. That’s one area where Holding will be badly missed.

This game won’t convince Mustafi’s critics. The German defender won 1 of 1 tackle and 42.9% of his duels and made just 1 interception and 2 recoveries before pulling his hamstring in the 64th. He led Arsenal players with 3 fouls, including 2 silly fouls in the 27th and 30th, and was booked for diving at the end of the first half.

The biggest concern with Mustafi is that he doesn’t seem to smell danger. The Terriers had their best chance in the 44th. Smith made a cross for Pritchard, who fired over the bar from 12 yards. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka was covering Sokratis but couldn’t stop Smith’s cross. Inside the area, Depoitre was double-teamed by Lichtsteiner and Bellerin. Only Pritchard was left unmarked. Mustafi was again caught ball-watching, focusing on Smith instead of finding out where the goal threat would come from.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield M44ed.jpgMustafi leaves Pritchard unmarked. (Photo credit: TSN)

The Gunners next play Qarabag on Thursday before visiting Southampton on Sunday. Emery will probably rest his key players against Qarabag because the Gunners have already secured the top spot in Group E of the Europa League. However, the Spanish manager might face a tricky decision at the back. Knowing that Mustafi and Sokratis will be suspended for the Southampton game, will Emery play them in the Europa League? Or will he start Koscielny and Mustafi against Qarabag to help them build their fitness? A good compromise could be to play with Koscielny and Monreal in the first half and replace them with Mustafi and Sokratis in the second half.

Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Holding, Ramsey injured in 2-2 draw

In a physical contest, Arsenal drew 2-2 with Manchester United on Wednesday to slip to 5th place in the Premier League, two points behind Spurs. I have mixed feelings over the result. On the one hand, the Gunners extended their unbeaten run to 20 games in all competitions. They’ve also improved against the Big 6, defeating Tottenham and drawing with Liverpool and Manchester United after losing to Chelsea and Manchester City in August. On the other hand, Arsenal missed an opportunity to get three points against a team short on confidence and creating very little from open play. The Red Devils had one more day of rest than Arsenal but that should not be an excuse because Spurs managed to beat the Saints, who drew with United last Saturday.

Manchester United vs. Arsenal

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

Emery made two changes to the side that smashed Spurs last weekend with Ramsey and Guendouzi replacing Mkhitaryan and a suspended Xhaka in the starting lineup. Ramsey sprained his ankle in the 44th minute and was replaced at halftime by Mkhitaryan. That injury puts more pressure on Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to deliver the final ball. It also means that Emery might need Ozil this weekend if Iwobi and Mkhitaryan are still inefficient in the final third.

Iwobi has been trying to fill Ozil’s shoes in the past couple of games. On Wednesday night, those shoes were simply too big for him. Iwobi lacked end product with 0 shot and 0 key pass. He made a poor pass to Kolasinac in the opening minute, overhit his through ball for Bellerin in the 17th, and wasted a counterattack in the 47th by missing a short pass. Obviously, Iwobi doesn’t have Ozil’s technical quality. The Nigeria international led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, despite playing only 64 minutes.

Iwobi’s lack of effort

The main reason why Emery keeps playing Iwobi on the left wing is because the other attacking midfielders feel more comfortable on the right wing. It’s a choice by default. The Spanish manager will have more options on the left wing next season with Nelson’s return from his loan spell at Hoffenheim.

Fans have been talking about Iwobi’s improvement this season, but he keeps showing poor work-rate. Iwobi won 0 of 1 tackle and made 6 recoveries, barely matching Mkhitaryan, who won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 block and 5 recoveries in 45 minutes, according to the club’s website. His lack of effort was blatant on United’s first equalizer. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi was standing next to Herrera when Rojo took his free kick in the 30th.

MU M30a edited.jpgIwobi stands next Herrera behind the Arsenal wall. (Photo credit: BT)  

Leno made a good save by palming Rojo’s effort aside. The trouble is that Herrera reacted quickly to keep the ball in play and cut it back for Martial, who fired home from close range. On the screen capture below, you can see that Herrera built a 6-yard lead over Iwobi in a 15-yard foot race. In the end, Iwobi was just a yard late to intercept Herrera’s pass.

MU M30b edited.jpgIwobi fails to track Herrera. (Photo credit: BT)

On the right wing, Mkhitaryan had more impact than Iwobi in the final third. Mkhitaryan closed down Rojo, who gave the ball away to Lacazette in the 68th. Lacazette swapped passes with Mkhitaryan and was about to pull the trigger when Rojo made a sliding tackle only to knock the ball into his own net. Mkhitaryan could have scored the winner in the 72nd but flicked Kolasinac’s cross over the bar from 3 yards. That’s the kind of chance that Giroud would have converted. In stoppage time, Mkhitaryan set up Torreira, whose powerful strike was parried by De Gea. Mkhitaryan pounced on the rebound and somehow found the net from the most acute angle, but his goal was disallowed for offside.

Torreira’s consistency

In midfield, Guendouzi had a decent game, winning 1 of 2 tackles, making 1 interception and 7 recoveries, and leading all players with 74 passes. He had a rough start though. Guendouzi panicked and turned the ball over in the sixth minute. Then Herrera outmuscled Guendouzi to win the ball in the 11th. His inexperience cost his team in the 29th as Guendouzi mistimed his challenge on Martial to give away the free kick that led to United’s first equalizer.

However, Guendouzi managed to keep his cool when the Red Devils targeted him. Rojo was booked in the 38th for a nasty scissor tackle on Guendouzi before Fellaini pulled the French teenager’s hair in the 87th. For that disgraceful foul, Fellaini did not even receive a yellow card. At 19, Guendouzi is far from the finished product. He needs to release the ball more quickly, not just to cut his turnover rate but also to up the tempo. His partnership with Torreira in central midfield was quite complementary because Guendouzi is a deep-lying playmaker like Xhaka.

Torreira did not reach the heights of his performance against Spurs, but he had another good game and is becoming a key player for Arsenal because of that consistency. The Uruguay midfielder won 1 of 1 tackle, made 2 key passes, 1 interception and 9 recoveries, and had just 1 turnover, compared to 5 for Guendouzi. There was the fear of an injury when Torreira landed awkwardly after colliding with Martial in the 54th. Emery will have to carefully monitor Torreira’s playing time during the Christmas period because he’s not used to a season without a winter break. The club will also have to give Torreira a raise because he’s reportedly only earning £50,000 a week.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

Up front, Aubameyang lacked a bit of sharpness after working his socks off against Spurs. He was quite anonymous in the first half before coming to life in the second half. His pace definitely frightened the Manchester defense as Matic killed a counterattack in the 42nd by holding Aubameyang. The Gabon striker should have scored the winner in the 71st when he met a cross from Kolasinac, but De Gea saved Aubameyang’s 6-yard effort with his leg. Four minutes later, Aubameyang tested De Gea with a curling shot from the edge of the box.

On the left flank, Kolasinac was again Arsenal’s main ammunition provider. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international led all players with 3 key passes, including big chances for Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. However, his offensive contribution can’t erase his defensive lapses. Kolasinac failed to stop a dangerous cross from Dalot in the 14th, did not track Dalot on a Manchester fast break in the 57th and gifted a goal to Lingard with a poor first touch in the 69th. To prevent that equalizer, Kolasinac should have either cleared the danger or made a first-time pass to Leno. Running with the ball inside the area was clearly the wrong option.

On the opposite flank, Bellerin produced a lackluster performance. He won only 28.6% of his duels and made 0 key pass, 0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block and only 2 recoveries, according to the club’s website. I suspect Bellerin suffered from a bit of fatigue. The Spaniard was booked in the 41st as he was late on a 50-50 ball and tripped Darmian.

The Gunners have shown great resilience to come back in the second half this season, but one concern for Emery is that they struggle to protect the lead. It’s a reason why they still haven’t reached halftime in a winning position this season in the Premier League. On Wednesday, Arsenal blew their first lead after 4 minutes and threw away their second lead after 1 minute. That tells you there’s a lack of leadership at the back. This Arsenal team desperately needs a commanding defender who can help the players keep cool heads and focus on the basics.

Mustafi caught ball-watching

Don’t count on Sokratis or Mustafi for that role. Sokratis missed his clearance in the fourth minute, gave the ball away in the 34th and showed poor positional play for the last goal. At the restart in the 69th, Rojo hit a long ball toward Lukaku, who held off Sokratis. As you can see on the screen capture below, Sokratis had no chance to win a header by standing behind Lukaku. The correct defensive play would have been to sandwich Lukaku between Sokratis and Mustafi, with Sokratis trying to win the ball in front of Lukaku, and Mustafi covering his teammate.

MU M69a edited.jpgSokratis should have been in front of Lukaku to win the header. (Photo credit: BT)

Both Lukaku and Sokratis missed the ball, which bounced into the path of Kolasinac. Mustafi was caught ball-watching on that play. While Kolasinac and Sokratis were busy with Lukaku and the ball, Mustafi should have blocked Lingard’s run into the box. See the screen capture below. But Mustafi failed to spot Lingard’s threat and remained passive as the equalizer unfolded in front of him.

MU M69b edited.jpgMustafi fails to block Lingard’s run into the box. (Photo credit: BT)

Mustafi met a corner from Torreira in the 26th to open the scoring with a bouncing header that De Gea fumbled into his own net. Herrera cleared the ball off the line but technology told the referee that the ball had entirely crossed the line. Like for Kolasinac, Mustafi’s offensive contribution can’t make up for his defensive lapses. The German defender received a yellow card for a reckless challenge on Rashford in the 37th. And his passing accuracy of 72.7% was relatively weak for a centerback. By contrast, Sokratis’ passing accuracy reached 91.2%.

Koscielny returning this weekend?

The bad news of the evening was Holding’s knee injury. He held onto the ball too long in the 32nd and seemed to twist his knee after Rashford bumped into him. That injury is coming at the wrong time for Holding, who has been performing better than Mustafi and Sokratis in the last few games.

Things didn’t start well for Holding, who lost possession in the second minute while trying to dribble his way out of trouble. Then he missed his interception for United’s first equalizer. Lichtsteiner replaced Holding in the 36th and produced a lackluster performance with just 1 recovery, while Holding made 1 interception and 2 recoveries. If Emery wants to stick with a back three, he might have to rush Koscielny’s return. The French centerback played two games with the U23 team and was initially tipped to play in the Europa League match against Qarabag next week.

December is always a challenging month for Premier League teams because injuries start piling up and suddenly test the depth and quality of the bench. Sure, Emery has attacking midfielders who can replace Ramsey in the starting lineup, but none has been as efficient as Ramsey in the final third. The Gunners will have a good chance to move back into the Top 4 on Saturday as they host Huddersfield while the Citizens visit Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Aubameyang, Torreira shine in North London derby

Trailing 2-1 at halftime, Emery stamped his authority on the North London derby by replacing Iwobi and Mkhitaryan with Ramsey and Lacazette for the start of the second half. Those substitutions helped turn the match around as the Gunners won 4-2 on Sunday to leapfrog Spurs into fourth place in the Premier League on goal difference.

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

That result could prove crucial in the Top 4 race because Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have dropped very few points against the weak and average sides. As a consequence of that hectic pace, there’s already an eight-point gap between Arsenal and the sixth-placed team, Everton. That basically means that the Champions League spots might be decided by the direct confrontations between the top clubs.

Emery made no change to the side that edged Bournemouth 2-1 a week ago. The only difference was on the bench where Lacazette made his return from a groin injury while Ozil was not even in the squad. Officially, Ozil was suffering from back spasms but it sounded very much like a diplomatic injury.

The Gunners should have reached halftime with the lead but they wasted good situations with inaccurate final balls and some poor finishing. Although Tottenham capitalized on 2 defensive errors to lead 2-1 against the run of play, Arsenal showed resilience in the second half to overturn the deficit and stretch their unbeaten run to 19 games in all competitions. According to the club’s website, the Gunners have earned 11 points from losing positions this season.

Iwobi’s poor game

Playing as inside forwards in a 3-4-3 formation, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi didn’t have the impact that Emery expected. Iwobi had a poor game, showing poor work-rate and lacking end product. In 45 minutes, Mkhitaryan and Ramsey made 2 key passes each compared to 0 for Iwobi. The Nigeria international overhit his pass for Mkhitaryan in the 39th minute and sent his crossfield pass for Bellerin straight into touch in the 41st. Iwobi also made poor choices in the final third by running into traffic in the 12th and 27th to lose possession and give Spurs counterattacking opportunities. His only offensive contribution was a low effort that Lloris saved with his leg in the 19th.

Any player can have an off day, but the poor work-rate in a North London derby is unacceptable. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries, compared to 2 tackles and 4 recoveries for Mkhitaryan and 2 tackles and 3 recoveries for Ramsey, according to the club’s website. At least, work-rate is not an issue with Mkhitaryan, who is struggling this season with just 2 goals and 1 assist in 11 Premier League games. Mkhitaryan created 2 chances with crosses from the right flank. Aubameyang met his cross in the second minute only to head over the bar. Mkhitaryan found again Aubameyang on the stroke of halftime, but the Gabon striker poorly controlled the ball, allowing Vertonghen to clear the danger.

Sending on Ramsey and Lacazette was a no-brainer for Emery. The Tottenham defense only had to worry about Aubameyang in the first half because Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were limited goal threats. Spurs faced a tougher test in the second half with Ramsey and Lacazette, who have a better goalscoring record than Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Emery shifted to a 3-5-2 system with Ramsey playing behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Aubameyang suddenly looked less isolated while Ramsey delivered the final ball that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were unable to provide.

Arsenal’s triple threat

It was quite interesting to see Emery build his team around Ramsey in the second half after having benched the Wales midfielder in the previous league games. Even when Arsenal switched to a 4-4-2 formation in the 71st because Mustafi picked up a hamstring injury and was replaced by Guendouzi, Emery kept playing Ramsey behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Would a front two be the best approach to optimize Ramsey’s potential? There have been games in which Ramsey played with Aubameyang and Lacazette, but each time Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang was on the left flank. Defensively, playing Ramsey in the hole would allow Arsenal to man-mark a deep-lying playmaker.

Off the pitch, Ramsey had his contract offer taken off the table. On the pitch, Ramsey is still more consistent than Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Ramsey currently leads the Premier League with 6 assists, 4 more than Iwobi and 5 more than Mkhitaryan and Ozil. That’s such an awkward situation for the club to reject its best attacking midfielder. Can there be a climbdown?

Ramsey spotted Aubameyang’s run in the 52nd but overhit his through ball. Four minutes later, Ramsey made a run between Foyth and Vertonghen to chase Bellerin’s through ball and feed Aubameyang with a first-time pass. In a 1v1 situation with Aurier, Aubameyang curled a 20-yard shot into the bottom corner to level the game. Ramsey then dispossessed Foyth in the 75th to play Lacazette in. The pass lacked pace, forcing Lacazette to cut inside Vertonghen and shoot with his weaker left foot. Lacazette’s long-range effort took a deflection off Dier to beat Lloris for a 3-2 lead.

Pochettino replaced Alli with Winks in the 79th to contain Ramsey’s influence but it was already too late to repair the damage. The Tottenham defense simply couldn’t cope with that triple threat. Aubameyang dropped off in the 77th to slip a through ball to Torreira. From a tight angle, Torreira drilled the ball into the far corner to seal the win. A frustrated Vertonghen shoved Lacazette from behind to give away a free kick in the 80th. Five minutes later, Vertonghen received a second yellow card for a stamp on Lacazette’s ankle.

Aubameyang’s work-rate

Torreira was named Man of the Match, but I thought Aubameyang was more deserving. Aubameyang finished the game with 2 goals and 1 assist, raising his tally to 10 goals and 2 assists in the Premier League this season. Actually, the Gabon striker is the top scorer in the league with 2 more goals than Aguero and Kane.

The Gunners are a greater threat on the fast break when Aubameyang leads the line than when Lacazette plays as a false nine. Aubameyang gave Arsenal the lead in the 10th minute by converting a penalty after Vertonghen handled the ball to deny Mustafi a clear scoring opportunity. Of course, Aubameyang’s performance was not perfect. He was flagged offside 5 times and led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. But his work-rate was phenomenal. Aubameyang won 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player, according to the club’s website.

In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka formed again a complementary partnership. Torreira won 2 of 3 tackles, made 1 interception and led all players with 12 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The only blemish in his performance was his 5 turnovers. But most fans will only remember Torreira’s wild celebration after the last goal, when he took off his shirt to slide on his knees toward the corner flag. Xhaka was less active than Torreira, winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, but he had 0 turnover and led all midfielders by winning 75% of his duels, according to the club’s website. The Switzerland international will miss the Manchester United clash after picking up his fifth booking of the season in the 49th when he tripped Alli.

Leno’s error

I’m not sure whether Pochettino watched Arsenal’s victory at Bournemouth because Kolasinac enjoyed a lot of freedom down the left flank. Kolasinac led all players with 5 key passes and had decent defensive stats with 1 tackle won and 6 recoveries, compared to 1 tackle won and 8 recoveries for Bellerin on the right flank. Things didn’t start well for Kolasinac, who delivered a poor final ball for Aubameyang in the third minute and lost possession by running into traffic in the seventh. But Kolasinac grew into the game and made another teasing cross in the 13th for Aubameyang, who couldn’t control the ball. Then Kolasinac set up Iwobi in the 19th and Bellerin a few seconds later. In the back three, Holding is the one shifting to the left when Kolasinac roams forward. The move to a 4-4-2 formation in the 71st led to a change of plans with Guendouzi covering Kolasinac.

Maybe opponents are taking their eyes off Kolasinac because of Bellerin’s runs down the opposite flank. Bellerin created Arsenal’s equalizer in the 56th by picking out Ramsey. The Spaniard also had a volley blocked by Davies in the 19th. However, his lapse of concentration nearly cost his team in the 68th. Leno parried a drive from Son after Bellerin gave the ball away.

Leno made 4 saves but he also committed his second error leading to a goal this season. He threw Spurs a lifeline by palming Dier’s header into his own net in the 31st. A couple more mistakes could change the pecking order for goalkeepers. Leno is usually reliable with his distribution but his passing accuracy dipped to 53% because of Tottenham’s high press.

Holding’s inexperience

At the back, Holding’s inexperience cost Arsenal a penalty. Holding seemed to clip Son’s foot in the 33rd with a sliding block attempt. Watching TV replays, it looked like a dive because there was really minimal contact. In hindsight, Holding should have refrained from diving in because Son had nowhere to go and was unlikely to score from such a tight angle. Despite that defensive error, Holding had better defensive stats than Sokratis and Mustafi. The English centerback won 67% of his duels, made 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries compared to 33% of duels won, 1 block, 1 interception and 3 recoveries for Sokratis, and 53% of duels won, 3 interception and 4 recoveries for Mustafi, according to the club’s website.

Using a back three is a tactical ploy to safely cover the wingbacks, but it’s also an implicit acknowledgement that your centerbacks are not good enough. Sokratis got no booking despite leading all players with 4 fouls. The Greek defender struggled to cope with Son’s pace and Kane’s physicality. His foul on Son in the 29th led to the free kick for Spurs’ equalizer. Sokratis also misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 22nd and gave the ball away to Alli in the 41st.

Mustafi was shaky too. Son easily dribbled past Mustafi to test Leno in the 23rd. The German defender was then booked for a studs-up challenge on Son in the 37th and turned the ball over to Davies in the 65th. In a typical case of the Vermaelen syndrome, Mustafi nearly found the net to make up for his poor defending. On the stroke of halftime, Mustafi met a cross from Xhaka for a looping header that Lloris palmed away. Mustafi also had a volley cleared off the line by Alli in the 60th. Emery might have to rush Koscielny’s return as Mustafi seemed to pull his hamstring with an awkward clearance in the 68th.

The Gunners next visit Old Trafford on Wednesday. It’s a fantastic opportunity to knock Manchester United out of the Top 4 race: the Red Devils are short on confidence and would trail Arsenal by 11 points with a loss.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Lucky Gunners get back to winning ways

The Gunners made up ground in the Top 4 race with an ugly 2-1 win at Bournemouth on Sunday. They snapped a 3-game winless streak in the Premier League to move within a point of Chelsea in the standings. Emery had a tactical surprise for the Cherries as he switched from his favorite 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 system. The Spanish manager had already used a back three against Qarabag in the Europa League, mostly to give some playing time to Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner. But it was the first time that Emery relied on such a system in the Premier League.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The tactical shift made sense because it provided cover to Bellerin and Kolasinac down the flanks, where Fraser and Brooks could cause a lot of damage and feed Wilson and King. The downside of that shift is that Emery basically replaced an attacking player, Ozil, with a centerback, Sokratis, in his starting lineup. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners struggled to create clear-cut chances: they never really found any rhythm in their passing game and made no through ball attempt. By contrast, Manchester City and Liverpool made 5 and 3 through ball attempts on Saturday, respectively.

The 3-4-3 formation played to Kolasinac’s strengths because he’s more a wingback than a proper fullback. In fact, Kolasinac turned out to be Arsenal’s main attacking threat at the Vitality stadium. He created the opening goal in the 30th minute with a cross that Lerma catapulted into his own net. Kolasinac then set up the winning goal by squaring the ball back to Aubameyang in the 67th. While the Cherries managed to keep Bellerin quiet, they seemed to underestimate Kolasinac, who also had 2 scoring chances. Kolasinac tested Begovic with a cross-shot in the 22nd. A minute later, Kolasinac met a cross from Aubameyang, only to head the ball wide.

Benching Ozil

Kolasinac played a key role for both goals but his passing accuracy of 63.2%, which is low compared to Bellerin’s 93.8%, betrayed his technical limitations. Likewise, Kolasinac’s stats showed some decent work-rate with 3 tackles won, 2 interceptions and 3 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website, but he was pulled out of position for Bournemouth’s equalizer on the stroke of halftime. I expect Monreal to remain the first choice at leftback when he recovers from his hamstring injury.

Despite netting the winning goal, Aubameyang struggled in the final third with just 1 of 4 shots on target. Aubameyang fired over the bar from 10 yards after Bournemouth failed to clear a corner in the 23rd. To his credit, Aubameyang made numerous runs to stretch the Bournemouth defense. He was also involved in his team’s passing game with 2 shot assists, tied with Kolasinac and Mkhitaryan for the most by an Arsenal player.

Will that performance change Emery’s opinion about what is Aubameyang’s best position? Lacazette was not in the squad because of a groin injury. Emery seems to like using Lacazette as a false nine even though he doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace. On the other hand, Ozil was fit but Emery decided to leave him on the bench, preferring to start Iwobi and Mkhitaryan as inside forwards. It’s easy to understand Emery’s rationale here. The Cherries work their socks off and Ozil tends to struggle in away games. So Mkhitaryan got the nod over Ozil.

Mkhitaryan short on confidence

Mkhitaryan had a poor game with only 1 of 7 shots on target. He also led all players with 9 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. And his 2 key passes somehow hid his lack of creativity as he simply set up Torreira and Aubameyang for long-range efforts in the 10th and 64th. Mkhitaryan definitely has Emery’s backing, otherwise he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup. Yet, he performed like a player short on confidence. One play in the 69th summed up his struggles. Aubameyang led a counterattack by running 50 yards with the ball before slipping the ball to Mkhitaryan. The Armenia international was in a perfect position for a first-time effort but he opted to control the ball. His first touch was so poor that the ball got away from Mkhitaryan, who ended up kicking the ball out of play.

Iwobi has improved under Emery but there are still parts of his game that remain quite frustrating. Let’s start with the positives. Pulling the strings in midfield, Iwobi made the penultimate pass for both goals and had 2 of 3 shots on target. His low drive in the 21st didn’t trouble Begovic while his curling shot in the 34th forced the Bournemouth goalkeeper to palm the ball away.

Let’s talk now about the negatives. We know about Iwobi’s great potential since Wenger played him in the No. 10 role. However, his work-rate and his end product have often been questionable. Iwobi didn’t work hard enough against Bournemouth, making no tackle, no block, no interception and just 3 recoveries. That’s why Emery replaced him with Ramsey in the 82nd to protect Arsenal’s lead. Iwobi only won 16.7% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. That reputation of softie won’t go away until if he puts in a shift like Welbeck does.

Throwing away the lead with 16 seconds left

Another flaw that Iwobi needs to fix is decision-making in the final third. Last season, Iwobi had that tendency to run into traffic even though he doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Neymar or Hazard. It’s true that Iwobi can occasionally nutmeg a defender along the touchline but he needs a lot of room to beat an opponent.

In stoppage time of the first half, the Gunners had an opportunity to double the lead. But Iwobi showed poor decision-making and his turnover led to Bournemouth’s equalizer. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Iwobi had two very good passing options: he could have teed up Bellerin for a mid-range shot or played Torreira in with a reverse pass.

Bournemouth M45a edited Iwobi has 2 good passing options with Torreira and Bellerin. (Photo credit: Sky)

With his back to goal and surrounded by 3 Cherries, Iwobi attempted a dribbling trick. As you can see on the screen capture below, Daniels dispossessed Iwobi and the ball fell to Fraser who initiated a fast break.

Bournemouth M45b edited.jpgSurrounded by 3 defenders, Iwobi loses possession to Daniels. (Photo credit: Sky)

In hindsight, Arsenal would have been better off if Iwobi had fired into the stands. There were only 16 seconds left to play before the end of the first half. Without Iwobi’s error of judgment, the Gunners would have reached halftime with the lead for the first time in the league this season.

Torreira as a box-to-box player

Fraser released Wilson down our right flank, and the Bournemouth striker bought a bit of time before picking out Brooks on the edge of the Arsenal box. Brooks slipped the ball to King, who curled into the far corner to level the game. If you look at the screen capture below, it wasn’t a disastrous situation yet when Fraser fed Wilson.

Bournemouth M45c edited.jpgArsenal in a ‘favorable’ 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

However, the Gunners wasted their numerical superiority with some poor positional play. Fraser sped past Xhaka in midfield after releasing the ball. Xhaka decided to track Fraser instead of passing him on to Sokratis. When Xhaka realized Fraser made a dummy run, it was already too late. As you can see on the screen capture below, there was a huge gap between Holding on the left side of the pitch and Sokratis, Xhaka and Mustafi on the right side.

Bournemouth M45d edited.jpgFraser’s dummy run creates a huge gap between Holding and Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Cherries exploited that disequilibrium by overloading the left side of the Arsenal defense with late runs from Brooks and King. On the screen capture below, you can see that Holding was in an unfavorable 1v2 situation because Kolasinac didn’t track back while Sokratis and Xhaka were too far to help Holding. Xhaka made the key mistake on that play by failing to plug the gap between Sokratis and Holding.

Bournemouth M45e edited.jpgHolding in a 1v2 situation with Brooks and King. (Photo credit: Sky)

You might wonder why Xhaka was the holding midfielder in that game. The Gunners are an attacking player short in a 3-4-3 formation compared to the 4-2-3-1 system. Emery therefore used Torreira as a box-to-box player to provide support to Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. A more natural team selection would have been to play Torreira as the holding midfielder and Ramsey as the box-to-box player.

Still feeling like a Wenger team

Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka mainly because he’s more mobile than the Switzerland international. Emery’s tactical gamble nearly paid off in the ninth minute when Torreira won the ball in midfield and hit the post with a 22-yard drive. Torreira led all midfielders by winning 75% of his duels, according to the club’s website. He was also reliable technically with a passing accuracy of 90.8% compared to 85.1% for Xhaka. Emery yanked Torreira off in the 79th because the Uruguay international felt a bout of fatigue.

As a holding midfielder, Xhaka had decent stats with 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries. But there are always moments in a game when his lack of defensive awareness will let him down. His positional play on the equalizer was poor. Xhaka also put his team in trouble with a poor clearance in the 85th. The ball fell to Lerma, who rattled the post with a 30-yard strike.

Last season, Wenger also relied on a 3-4-3 formation in an effort to stop conceding goals before switching back to a more traditional 4-3-3 system in December. Out of intellectual curiosity, it would have been interesting to know who Wenger would have played in central midfield. Torreira and Ramsey? Or Ramsey and Xhaka just like last season? Or Torreira and Xhaka like Emery did on Sunday?

Emery is the new Arsenal manager but it still feels very much like a Wenger team. Bournemouth exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on counterattacks, a typical trait of Arsenal under Wenger. In other games, the Gunners also struggled to defend crosses. There have been defensive improvements under Emery, but they have been incremental.

Mustafi’s curse

The Spanish manager definitely has a positive influence on Holding and Bellerin. While Holding had lapses of concentration and showed poor decision-making under Wenger, he now looks close to fulfilling his potential. Holding won 62.5% of his duels on Sunday, more than Sokratis (60%) and Mustafi (47.1%) according to the club’s website. Likewise, Bellerin has refound the balance in his game between attack and defense.

Of course, Emery can’t perform miracles. Kolasinac and Mustafi still look as dodgy defensively as they were under Wenger. Mustafi was very active with 3 tackles, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries. The German centerback covered Bellerin in the third minute to kill a counterattack with a timely challenge on Fraser. He also recovered the ball in the 48th after Lerma intercepted Holding’s pass.

But you know that Mustafi will always have an error in him. He completely missed his tackle on King in the eighth minute. The Bournemouth forward fed Brooks, who beat Leno from close range. However, the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside. Looking at TV replays several times, I couldn’t even tell with certainty whether Brooks was offside. Mustafi also showed poor judgment in the 54th by diving in near the Bournemouth area as the Cherries launched a counterattack. The threat came to an end when Brooks overhit his cross. In the last minute of injury time, Mustafi gave away a silly free kick with a reckless challenge on Wilson. Fortunately, Stanislas missed the target with the subsequent free kick.

I’m not sure what was the idea behind signing Sokratis. His decision-making is sound but he lacks the pace to play a high defensive line. Sokratis clearly struggled to cope with King’s movement. King toyed with Sokratis in the 65th before cutting the ball back for Brooks, who shot straight at Leno. To contain King’s speed, Sokratis often tried to put his body between the ball and King -some kind of legal obstruction. But in the 25th King got the better of Sokratis, who received a yellow card for holding the Bournemouth forward.

Emery’s 1st North London derby

Sokratis’ ball-playing abilities are also limited. He’s an old-fashioned centerback and doesn’t help build up play from the back like Stones or Alderweireld. The Greek defender missed his clearance in the 18th and was lucky to see the ball bounce off Wilson and roll out of play. Sokratis nearly scored an own goal with another poor clearance in the 89th but Leno reacted quickly enough to palm the ball away. Is Sokratis the replacement for an aging Koscielny? In his prime, Koscielny was a much better defender than Sokratis. There’s no way Koscielny could have missed his interception like Sokratis did in the 80th when Daniels made a cross for Stanislas, whose toe poke was saved by Leno.

Leno has consolidated his starting spot with another decent performance. The German goalkeeper made 5 routine saves but his passing accuracy dipped to 42.9%, in part because the Cherries pressed high up the pitch to prevent Arsenal from playing out from the back.

The Gunners next visit Vorskla in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Tottenham in the Premier League on Sunday. The North London derby is obviously the most important game of the two because it could decide the Top 4 race whereas Arsenal would still lead Group E with a defeat in Ukraine. Spurs have a slight edge after their impressive performance against Chelsea last Saturday.