Tag Archives: Mkhitaryan

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.

Advertisements

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.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Gunners show defensive nous in 1-1 draw

Are the Gunners improving under Emery? Well, they salvaged a point in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool and looked more solid defensively than in the losses to Manchester City and Chelsea at the start of the season. Those are definitely small steps in the right direction. The Gunners are no title contenders, but they have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish. They slipped to fifth place in the standings, 1 point behind Tottenham but 3 clear of Manchester United. It’s important for Arsenal to perform well against the big clubs because results against the Citizens, the Red Devils, Liverpool, Spurs and the Blues will determine their chances of a Top 4 spot.

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

The Gunners were switched on defensively, winning 51.6% of the duels and making 10 interceptions to 4 for Liverpool, according to the club’s website. They also showed good discipline by conceding only 7 fouls. But it’s not completely Emery’s team yet. Arsenal enjoyed 62% of Wengeresque sterile possession with Xhaka (97), Holding (82), Mustafi (81) and Torreira (64) finishing the game as the players who made the most passes. The Gunners especially suffered from a lack of penetration in the final third with just 5 successful dribbles to 13 for the Reds, according to whoscored.com. Nelson’s return next season will be a huge bonus since he’s the only natural dribbler in the squad. The English teenager notched his fifth Bundesliga goal in Hoffenheim’s 4-1 rout of Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.

Having a clearer idea of what is the best team

Emery anticipated Liverpool’s high-energy style of football as he injected some freshness in the starting lineup by making 9 changes to the side that edged Blackpool in the League Cup with only Mustafi and Mkhitaryan retaining their starting spots. Maybe the more important figure is the 2 changes he made to the side that drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace the previous weekend with Mkhitaryan and Kolasinac replacing Iwobi and Guendouzi in the starting lineup. Emery seems to have a clearer idea of what his best team is.

In midfield, Emery seems to believe that Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil are his best options. At the start of the season, Emery toyed with the idea of playing Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder, but that experiment bore no fruit. He therefore moved Ozil from the right wing to the No. 10 position. In central midfield, Emery started Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in the first 5 games. However, it proved a flawed tandem because both players were too similar and the team simply lacked a true ballwinner to protect the defense. Emery therefore played Torreira alongside Xhaka in a more complementary partnership.

In the front three, Emery initially trusted Aubameyang to lead the line. But the Spanish manager had a change of heart and Lacazette has become the first choice for the centerforward position since the Cardiff game. Because of his goalscoring abilities, Aubameyang seems to have a small lead over Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck for the wide positions.

At the back, there hasn’t been much stability because of injuries. The only certainty is that Emery prefers Bellerin and Monreal to Lichtsteiner and Kolasinac in the fullback positions. Sokratis and Mustafi were Emery’s favorite centerback pairing at the start of the season, but Holding’s recent performances and Koscielny’s return from injury could change the situation this month.

The importance of positional play

Xhaka and Torreira were the main reason why Arsenal seemed less open than against Manchester City and Chelsea. They combined to win 4 of 7 tackles, have 1 turnover and make 1 block, 2 interceptions and 25 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Torreira led all midfielders by winning 80% of his duels. He made a timely tackle on Salah in the 32nd, cleared a rebound to prevent a tap-in from Gomez in the 45th and outperformed Fabinho in the midfield battle. While Emery showed patience and eased Torreira into a new league, Klopp hasn’t enjoyed much luck with Fabinho, who wasn’t up to speed on Saturday.

Torreira obviously focused on his defensive tasks but he nearly scored in the 63rd minute, playing a one-two with Mhkitaryan before testing Alisson with a powerful strike from 18 yards. The Uruguay international left everything on the pitch and even suffered from cramping in stoppage time. The only blemish in his performance was his positional play in the 18th when Mane’s goal was disallowed for offside. Firmino plays as a false nine, which means that he will often drop off in the space between the defense and the midfielders. Torreira should have tracked Firmino instead of letting Mustafi deal with a 1v2 situation.

A week after Xhaka gave away a penalty with a clumsy challenge on Zaha, there were some jitters in the crowd when the Switzerland international made a sliding tackle in the 22nd. But Xhaka cleanly knocked the ball away from Salah and that duel set the tone for the rest of the evening. Emery will probably show Xhaka the positional mistake he made on the opening goal, failing to patrol the edge of the area as Milner pounced on a rebound in the 61st to fire home from 16 yards. Offensively, Xhaka mustered a tame low drive in the 14th and created a chance in the 39th.

Adapting to Emeryball

Both Xhaka and Torreira had to work their socks off because Ozil and Aubameyang contributed very little defensively. Ozil and Aubameyang combined to make 0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block and just 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website. By contrast, Mkhitaryan still managed to win 1 tackle and make 6 recoveries in 68 minutes.

Ozil led all players with 4 key passes. The German playmaker cut the ball back to Bellerin for what could have been the winner in the 88th, but Bellerin couldn’t catch the frame with his weaker left foot. We all know that Ozil will never dominate a big game like Zidane, so it’s a small consolation that he didn’t disappear from this one.

Mkhitaryan is struggling to adapt to Emeryball. The Armenia international only has 1 goal and 1 assist from 8 league games this season. That’s not good enough for a player of his quality. Mkhitaryan made 2 key passes on Saturday but no defense-splitting pass. He set up Aubameyang in the 31st and Torreira in the 63rd for long-range efforts. Emery made the right call in the 68th by replacing Mkhitaryan with Iwobi. The Nigeria international brought more directness, making a teasing cross that Ozil couldn’t meet in the 76th. Although Iwobi moved to the leftback position in the 81st when Welbeck replaced Kolasinac, he still found a way to have an impact in the final third. Iwobi slipped the through ball that led to Lacazette’s equalizer in the 82nd.

Same situation, different decision

Up front, Lacazette had a disappointing game until that stroke of genius. He connected with a cross from Kolasinac in the fourth minute only to flick the ball straight at Alisson. In the past seasons, you can bet that Giroud would have done better with those flicks at the near post. Lacazette had another chance in the 39th but from a much tighter angle. Ozil diverted a lobbed pass from Xhaka into the path of Lacazette, who fired wide of the far post. A minute later, Mustafi knocked the ball down for Lacazette, who volleyed home from close range, but the goal was disallowed for an offside position from the German defender. Then Lacazette made a decisive run in the 82nd, beating Alisson to the ball. Running toward the corner flag to shield the ball, Lacazette was almost in a situation similar to the play that led to Crystal Palace’s equalizer. But instead of playing the ball back to a Gunner outside the area, Lacazette spun to curl a shot into the far corner.

Emery prefers to use Lacazette as a false nine, coming short to link up play, instead of relying on Aubameyang’s pace to lead the line. To a certain extent, Emery has given Aubameyang the Walcott role: a forward making diagonal runs in behind but with a limited contribution in the build-up play. The big difference is that Walcott could still cross with his stronger foot from the right flank whereas Aubameyang has to play on the left wing because Ozil and Mkhitaryan are more comfortable on the right wing.

Aubameyang had a poor game, winning only 20% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 55.6%, the lowest percentage for any starter. He also led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The Gabon striker had efforts deflected out in the 14th and 31st and mistimed his jump to head a cross from Ozil over the bar in the 39th. Aubameyang’s best contribution was the cross he made for Mkhitaryan in the 16th. Mkhitaryan beat Alisson to the ball but missed the target with his 11-yard header. Emery yanked Aubameyang off to send on Ramsey in the 73rd.

Leno’s mistakes

At the back, Kolasinac struggled in his return from injury, winning 40% of his duels and 0 of 2 tackles while making 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. Salah had Kolasinac in his pocket and the Reds could have caused more damage if they had created more situations isolating Salah with Kolasinac. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international lacked defensive awareness in the 69th, allowing Mane to run in front of him. Fortunately, Salah overhit his cross for Mane. Then Van Dijk lost Kolasinac in the 74th to meet a corner and force a save from Leno.

On the opposite flank, Bellerin was a doubt before the game but managed to play with his right thigh strapped. Bellerin did OK, winning 33% of his duels and 2 of 2 tackles while making 1 block, 1 interception and 3 recoveries. The Spaniard lost a key duel in the 70th when Firmino outjumped him to head a corner wide. Because of his recovering thigh and Mane’s threat down the right flank, Bellerin was more cautious with his forward runs. He still produced a through ball for Mkhitaryan in the 51st but Van Dijk outmuscled the Armenia international.

Leno made a couple of fine saves, denying Van Dijk in the 23rd and saving Robertson’s low strike in the 24th, but he also made 2 high-profile errors. The German goalkeeper was in no man’s land when Van Dijk headed a free kick against the post in the 45th. That was really poor decision-making from Leno to come off his line since Van Dijk was 14 or 15 yards away from goal. Then Leno should have either caught Mane’s cross in the 61st or knocked the ball toward the touchline. Redirecting the cross toward the middle of the box was the worst option as Milner pounced on the rebound to open the scoring. Leno also tried to play out from the back with goal kicks, but Liverpool’s high press forced him to opt for a long kick in the 26th. That was smart decision-making since the Reds were prepared for that kind of situation and you can’t afford any mistake near your area with players like Salah, Mane and Firmino.

Holding stepping up

Sokratis’ injury has given Holding the opportunity to prove himself again after shaky performances under Wenger. On Saturday, Holding and Mustafi made their 6th start together this season. When Sokratis is fit, it will be interesting to see which centerback combination Emery prefers.

Holding had stats as good as Mustafi. The English defender won 70% of his duels and 3 of 4 tackles and made 1 block, 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries, compared to 90% of duels won, 2 of 4 tackles won, and 1 block, 4 interceptions and 2 recoveries for Mustafi. Both had their good and bad moments. Holding headed out Robertson’s cross for Firmino in the fifth minute and blocked Salah’s final ball for Mane in stoppage time. However, Holding also made a sloppy pass in the 34th and lost a key duel against Van Dijk in the 45th.

After his error against Crystal Palace, Mustafi had to try and convince his doubters again. Mustafi made a timely tackle on Firmino in the fifth minute but a couple of plays exposed his weaknesses. He showed poor decision-making in the 18th by playing the offside trap instead of tracking Firmino. Mane’s goal would have stood with VAR technology. Then Van Dijk ghosted past Mustafi to meet a cross from Salah in the 23rd but was denied by Leno. Mustafi was definitely guilty on the Liverpool goal as Mane outpaced the German defender to make his cross.

The Gunners next play Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Wolverhampton in the Premier League on Sunday. Those are both home games so Emery might decide to limit rotation, especially since there’s an international break afterwards. Arsenal would secure qualification for the knockout phase of the Europa League with a victory over the Portuguese side. Such a scenario would allow Emery to play more youngsters for the remaining games against Vorskla and Qarabag.

Arsenal vs. Leicester: Ozil doing his magic in 3-1 win

The Gunners stretched their winning streak to 10 games in all competitions as they rallied past Leicester 3-1 on Monday to stay fourth in the Premier League, ahead of Spurs on goal difference. When you keep winning, it’s a fantastic boost for your confidence but it can also lead to a bit of complacency. Arsenal clearly lacked intensity in the first 30 minutes. Did they think that they would get 3 points just by showing up? Somehow, they stepped up their game after Leicester took the lead in the 31st minute.

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

Monday’s game was similar to the World Cup semifinal between England and Croatia. The tactical battle was not in midfield but on the flanks. In the first half, the England wingbacks forced the Croatia wingers to defend. In the second half, the Croatia fullbacks charged forward while the Croatia wingers played higher up the pitch, putting the England wingbacks on the back foot.

In a 3-5-2 formation, the Foxes did some damage with their wingbacks in the first half. The visitors especially exploited the space behind the Arsenal fullbacks. Capitalizing on a turnover in the second minute, Ndidi slipped the ball to Iheanacho, who made a run down our left flank before cutting inside to muster a shot deflected out by Holding. Iheanacho then turned Holding in the 10th to feed Vardy, but Leno quickly came off his line to collect the ball. Leicester finally broke the deadlock in the 31st when Ndidi found Chilwell, who outpaced Bellerin to make a cross that the Spaniard diverted into his own net.

Emery only fixed the problem in the second half when he replaced Mkhitaryan and Lichtsteiner with Aubameyang and Guendouzi in the 61st. Iwobi was moved from the left wing to the right wing but the big tactical surprise was Xhaka’s shift to the leftback position. In fact, Xhaka didn’t have to roam forward like Lichtsteiner: Xhaka’s new task was to patrol the left flank in Arsenal’s half while Aubameyang created havoc in Leicester’s half.

Pinning back the wingbacks

Suddenly, Aubameyang and Iwobi created more problems for Pereira and Chilwell. Pereira even earned a yellow card in the 65th for holding Aubameyang on a counterattack. On the right wing, Mkhitaryan’s tendency to drift inside played into the hands of the Leicester defense whereas Iwobi provided more width. On the left wing, Aubameyang was a bigger goal threat than Iwobi.

The Gunners took the lead in the 63rd when Bellerin made a run in behind Chilwell to cross the ball for Aubameyang, who tapped home from close range. It was then Pereira’s turn to be in trouble in the 66th. Pereira started the play more than 20 yards behind Aubameyang and only managed to catch up after the Gabon striker converted Ozil’s pass for a 3-1 lead. That goal forced Puel to switch to a back four in the 69th when Ghezzal replaced Perreira.

Much has been said about Emeryball and the Spanish manager’s decision to play out from the back and press high up the pitch. I think the Gunners still have a lot of room to improve in those 2 areas. Yes, they have scored some spectacular goals while building play from the back. But they’ve also put themselves in some uncomfortable situations because they simply don’t have the same margin for error as Manchester City. Likewise, Arsenal’s pressing game is far from the standards of Liverpool. For instance, the lack of pressing for Leicester’s opening goal was quite embarrassing.

For me, the last goal is really what defines Emeryball so far. Torreira ignited the action by switching play from the left flank to the right. Ozil kept the momentum alive with a backheel flick toward Guendouzi, who released Bellerin down the right wing. Bellerin then found Lacazette, who played Ozil in. Instead of taking his chance, Ozil made a chipped pass for Aubameyang, who flicked home from 4 yards. Of all those players, Bellerin was the only one who took more than one touch.

The value of the first-time pass

There were also goals with some nifty one-touch passing under Wenger -Wilshere’s goal against Norwich being the most obvious example. But the key difference here is Emery’s willingness to take risks inside Arsenal’s half with first-time passes. The Gunners tended to play it safe inside their own half under Wenger with many passes between the centerbacks and the central midfielders. Under Emery, they reach the final third much more quickly.

Some fans expected Emery to use a 4-4-2 formation again after the 5-1 demolition of Fulham. But Emery decided to build his team around Ozil with a 4-2-3-1 system, leaving Ramsey and Aubameyang on the bench. On paper, the starting lineup put a lot of pressure on Ozil to contribute offensively because Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are not prolific scorers. Emery’s choice paid off as Ozil was heavily involved in Arsenal’s 3 goals.

Ozil made deep runs a la Ramsey for the equalizer and the last goal. On the stroke of halftime, Ozil ran 30 yards with the ball before releasing Bellerin down the right flank. The German playmaker kept running to meet Bellerin’s cross and guided the ball inside the far post with a first-time effort from 12 yards. For the last goal, Ozil made a backheel flick inside his own half before running 60 yards to set up Aubameyang. Ozil pretty much played like a No. 8 for those 2 goals.

In a fantasy world, Ozil and Ramsey would play in front of Torreira in central midfield, a bit like De Bruyne and Silva do with Fernandinho at Manchester City. In the real world, Arsenal would probably be in trouble against the big teams because of Ozil’s poor work-rate and Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline.

A passing masterclass

Ozil played in the more traditional No. 10 role for Arsenal’s second goal, slipping a through ball to Bellerin with a perfectly weighted pass. Everybody knows that Ozil is a world-class player. Yet, the Foxes gave him plenty of space and time to make that pinpoint pass. Ozil received a deserved ovation from the crowd when Ramsey replaced him in the 79th. In his passing masterclass, Ozil reached a passing accuracy of 91.2% according to the club’s website and even won 85.7% of his duels, which is an unusually high percentage for him.

Should Emery keep playing Ozil in the hole instead of using him on the right wing where he has often been a peripheral figure this season? The problem with Monday’s starting lineup is that Arsenal lacked Aubameyang’s speed for the first 60 minutes. As Lacazette came short to have the ball played to his feet, the Foxes did not hesitate to play a high defensive line. Lacazette has decent pace but he doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric speed to make lethal runs in behind.

When Aubameyang came off the bench, the Leicester defense dropped off to prevent him from making those runs in behind. The last 2 goals showed that Aubameyang is a pure finisher as he wasn’t involved in the build-up to those goals. It’s very selfless from him to play on the left wing, knowing that he proved himself as a prolific scorer with Borussia Dortmund.

Lacazette had an off day with only 1 of 4 shots on target. He should have scored in the 78th when Ozil laid the ball on a plate for the Frenchman. Watching the replay, I think the angle of Lacazette’s run made it difficult for him to net with his right foot. Which begs the question: do you trust your chocolate leg to score from 3 or 4 yards?

Torreira as the heartbeat of the team

Despite his lack of efficiency, Lacazette kept working hard, intercepting Ndidi’s back pass in the 50th to create a half-chance. He also contributed to the last goal with his link-up play. I still believe that Lacazette would be better used as a second striker than as a centerforward. Lacazette often prefers to escape marking with a run at the far post when a run at the near post would be the more natural option.

On the wings, Mkhitaryan struggled to make an impact. The Armenia international had 0 of 2 shots on target and made 0 key pass. His best chance came in the 50th when he pounced on a rebound for a half-volley that sailed wide. Iwobi showed more end product with 1 shot on target and 2 key passes as well as good work-rate with 4 of 4 tackles won and 5 ball recoveries. The Nigeria international made a smart run to break the offside trap in the 35th but couldn’t trap the long ball from the Arsenal defense. He then took a pass from Ozil in the 42nd to test Schmeichel with an angled effort.

Obviously, Iwobi has improved under Emery but he still needs to work on two issues at least: his turnover rate and his final ball. He led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. One of his sloppy passes led to a dangerous fast break in the 17th, forcing Holding to get booked for a cynical foul on Iheanacho. I felt the quality of Iwobi’s final ball was not good enough in the 49th when his high cross evaded Mkhitaryan.

In central midfield, Torreira was a rock with another outstanding performance. He was the heartbeat of the team, leading all players with 92 passes, a passing accuracy of 91.3% and 13 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Uruguay international also had 0 turnover, compared to 2 for Xhaka and 1 for Guendouzi. Besides his defensive work, Torreira played the role of attacking springboard, too. He made the interception for the equalizer, made a decoy run for Arsenal’s second goal, and initiated the switch of play for the last goal.

Injury crisis at the back

Despite Torreira’s presence, Xhaka had a hard time in midfield. Xhaka gave away a cheap free kick by grabbing Maddison in the 15th, earned a yellow card for a late challenge on the Leicester starlet in the 35th, and nearly got a second booking for vehemently asking for a foul in the 54th. It was quite a gamble from Emery to play Xhaka in the leftback position for the last 30 minutes, especially under the threat of a second yellow card. His lack of mobility will always prevent Xhaka from becoming a true ballwinner. In a contending club, Xhaka wouldn’t be a starter. The question for the Arsenal staff is what kind of midfielder should they sign next summer: another holding midfielder as an upgrade over Xhaka and Elneny, or a box-to-box player if Ramsey leaves the club?

At the back, Emery had to cope with an injury crisis and called up Medley from the academy. Lichtsteiner started in the lefback position because both Monreal and Kolasinac had hamstring issues. The Switzerland defender had a poor game, winning only 20% of his duels and making no tackle, no block and no interception, according to the club’s website. On the opposite flank, Bellerin lost his duel against Chilwell on the opening goal but got his revenge on the equalizer with a cross that Chilwell failed to stop. Bellerin notched a second assist with his low cross for Aubameyang in the 63rd.

Mixing man-marking and zonal marking

Injuries to Koscielny, Sokratis and Mavropanos meant that Holding kept teaming up with Mustafi in the heart of the defense. Mustafi headed away a dangerous cross from Pereira in the 12th and won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage for any Arsenal defender according to the club’s website. Mustafi had a relatively quiet evening as Vardy seemed to suffer from a stomach ache. By contrast, Holding had a harder time with Iheanacho. Holding got away with a handball in the 17th while challenging Ndidi in the air. A penalty would have been harsh since Ndidi prevented Holding from jumping by putting an arm on his shoulder. Holding also hit the risky long ball that led to Leicester’s goal.

Leno was less busy than against Fulham with just 2 saves made. He turned around the post a curling shot from Iheanacho in the sixth minute and pushed away Maguire’s downward header off a free kick in the 20th. The only blemish in Leno’s performance was his failure to beat Ndidi to the ball on a corner in the 58th. Arsenal used a mix of man-marking and zonal marking on that play. Man-marking: Lichtsteiner, Bellerin and Iwobi were in charge of slowing down Maguire, Evans and Ndidi, who started their run-up from beyond the penalty spot. Zonal marking: Holding, Mustafi and Xhaka were standing near the 6-yard line in pockets where the Foxes were most likely to head the ball. Iwobi failed to block Ndidi’s run and the Leicester midfielder got ahead of Holding to head the ball onto the bar. It might have been a different story if the Foxes had led 2-1.

I expect Emery to rotate for the Europa League game against Sporting Lisbon on Thursday. The schedule until the next international break is quite hectic, so it wouldn’t make sense to risk any injury in a competition where the Gunners have very good chances to qualify.

 

 

Fulham vs. Arsenal: Emery makes tactical tweak in 5-1 win

The Gunners snatched 4th place from Spurs in the Premier League by smashing Fulham 5-1 on Sunday for their 9th straight win in all competitions. Cynics will point at the schedule. It’s true that the Gunners haven’t faced any top club during that winning run. But it’s still an improvement compared to last season when Arsenal badly struggled on the road under Wenger, even against the weak sides.

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

Emery had a surprise for the fans at Craven Cottage. The Spanish manager relied on a 4-2-3-1 formation for the first 7 league games. On Sunday, he switched to a flexible 4-4-2 system with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings and Lacazette and Welbeck up front. It morphed into a 4-2-3-1 formation when Welbeck swapped positions with Iwobi on the left wing or when Mkhitaryan drifted inside and Lacazette made runs on the right wing.

Other teams have resorted to that kind of tactical flexibility. During the World Cup, France played in a 4-4-2 formation while attacking. But when the French lost possession, they would shift to a 4-3-3 system with Matuidi moving from the left wing to central midfield and Griezmann drifting wide to defend on the left wing. Likewise, Klopp is known for using a 4-3-3 formation at Liverpool. But when the Reds lost possession in the Champions League last season, they would morph into a 4-4-2 system with Salah staying up front with Firmino while Mane dropped deeper to defend.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M4ed.jpgArsenal’s 4-4-2 formation at Craven Cottage. (Photo credit: BT)

A manager should be able to make tactical changes instead of always sticking to the same formation. It’s about creating problems for the opponents and figuring out what’s the best system for an optimal use of the players. I felt Wenger was too conservative in his last years at the club. That’s why it was such a shock when he switched to a back three in April 2017 for the first time in 20 years. Maybe Arsenal could have finished in the Top 4 that season if Wenger had made that decision earlier. Who knows.

Element of surprise

The main advantage of the 4-4-2 formation is that Lacazette and Aubameyang can play together in their best positions. Aubameyang replaced Welbeck in the 62nd minute to lead the line alongside Lacazette until Emery yanked Lacazette off to send on Guendouzi in the 81st. During that 19-minute spell, the Gunners scored 2 goals.

Another advantage of the 4-4-2 system is that Ramsey is more comfortable on the right flank than in the No. 10 role. Ramsey played on the right wing when he replaced Iwobi in the 67th. Wenger already used Ramsey in that position. Some managers might be tempted to play Ramsey in the hole behind the striker when they check his stats for goals and assists. But they should rather take a look at his position on the pitch at the start of the plays where he scores or makes an assist. Ramsey has enough room to make his late runs from central midfield or from the right wing while there’s no element of surprise when he plays like a second striker.

Emery made 6 changes to the side that started the Europa League game in Azerbaijan with Monreal, Holding, Leno, Iwobi and Welbeck retaining their starting spots. Ozil was not in the squad because of a back strain while Ramsey and Aubameyang were on the bench for different reasons: Aubameyang had just recovered from illness and Ramsey’s wife was expecting twins.

The Gunners showed diversity in their scoring. Arsenal’s first two goals came from long balls, the third and the fourth capped counterattacks and the fifth was the result of playing the ball out from the back. Lacazette gave the lead to the Gunners with a low effort on the turn in the 29th. He made it 2-0 by taking his chance from 25 yards and firing into the bottom corner in the 49th. Lacazette also played a key role in the build-up to the third goal in the 67th, showing a great understanding with Ramsey and Bellerin. His work-rate was quite impressive as he won 2 of 2 tackles and made 7 ball recoveries, tied with Xhaka and Torreira for the most by an Arsenal player, according to the club’s website. The only blemish in Lacazette’s outstanding performance was his 5 turnovers.

Welbeck as a target man

Lacazette and Aubameyang have scored 4 goals each in the Premier League this season. During his 30-minute cameo, Aubameyang showed what he could do in the centerforward position, notching 2 goals and 1 assist. Aubameyang crossed the ball to Ramsey for the third goal. The Gabon striker then controlled a cross from Bellerin and spun to bury the ball into the far corner for a 4-0 lead in the 79th. He sealed the win in stoppage time by collecting a through ball from Ramsey to beat Bettinelli with a 16-yard strike.

Welbeck is not in the same class as Lacazette and Aubameyang. The England international had 0 shot but worked selflessly for his teammates, leading all Gunners with 3 key passes, including an assist for Lacazette’s second goal. At times, Welbeck played the role of target man as he was involved in 8 aerial duels in Fulham’s half, according to whoscored.com. If the Gunners can’t beat the press, then they need an out ball and Welbeck is the most obvious choice because of his physicality, pace and aerial abilities.

On the left wing, Iwobi made the penultimate pass for the opening goal, slipping the ball to an overlapping Monreal. The Nigeria international also made a pinpoint cross for Mkhitaryan, whose effort was blocked in the sixth minute. Iwobi led all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 6 but also had the lowest passing accuracy for an Arsenal player with 65%, according to the club’s website. He still needs to work on his decision-making as he wasted a good situation in the 13th. If you look at the screen capture below, you will see that Iwobi could have picked out an unmarked Mkhitaryan at the far post while the Fulham defense was busy with Welbeck and Lacazette. In the end, Iwobi took on Odoi and lost possession.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M13ed.jpgWelbeck and Lacazette are marked while Mkhitaryan is free. (Photo credit: BT)

Like Iwobi, Mkhitaryan struggled to have an impact in the Fulham area. He should have found the net in the 32nd when he met a cross from Welbeck for a sliding effort that didn’t trouble Bettinelli. Mkhitaryan still contributed to the scoreline by making the penultimate pass for Arsenal’s third and fourth goals, releasing Aubameyang down the left flank in the 67th and switching play with a crossfield pass to Bellerin in the 79th.

Speed of execution

At this stage of the season, Ramsey has a slight edge over Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi in Emery’s mind. The Wales international is more versatile than the other attacking midfielders and has better stats with 1 goal and 3 assists compared to 2 goals for Ozil, 1 goal and 1 assist for Mkhitaryan and also 1 goal and 1 assist for Iwobi.

The Gunners’ third goal summed up what Ramsey is all about and why it doesn’t make sense to play him in the No. 10 role. Bellerin won the ball inside the Arsenal area and found Ramsey near the corner flag. At the start of that play, Ramsey was 20 yards behind Lacazette. But by the time Aubameyang made the cross, Ramsey was more than 10 yards in front of Lacazette to score with a backheel flick inside the far post.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M67The passing chain for Ramsey’s goal. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The choreography of that swift counterattack almost looked like a ballet performance. That play was also a good example of verticality and speed of execution. The goal was the result of 9 passes involving 5 players (Bellerin, Ramsey, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang). There were 5 first-time passes and the other 4 passes only required 2 touches each. Bellerin’s backheel flick slowed down the play a bit, forcing Ramsey to head the ball twice, but it wasn’t enough to kill the momentum of the attack.

That kind of high-energy transition game is the reason why I think Ramsey would be a good fit for Liverpool. Ramsey would be a perfect replacement for an aging Milner although they don’t have the same profile. The Wales midfielder is a bigger goal threat while Milner has better defensive awareness. In his 25-minute cameo, Ramsey also made an assist, taking a pass from Xhaka to play Aubameyang in for the last goal. If you watch the end of the replay, you will only notice his through ball and his position in the No. 10 role. You have to watch the start of the play to understand that Ramsey’s main asset is his movement. Ramsey was on the halfway line when Xhaka got the ball. But then Ramsey ran into a pocket of space between the Fulham defense and the midfield to create danger.

A new song for Torreira

Emery should build the team around Ramsey and Lacazette. The trouble is that Arsenal recently withdrew their offer to Ramsey, which basically means that he will leave the club either in January or next summer. History is just repeating itself, unfortunately. Wenger also tried to build his team around two talented players: Ozil and Sanchez. We all know how the story ended. Sanchez joined Manchester United last January while Ozil stayed at Arsenal but with a fat contract.

The Gunners never managed to press as a unit under Wenger. Their best pressing effort was the 3-0 demolition of Manchester United in October 2015. But that 20-minute blitz against Van Gaal’s Red Devils was the exception that confirmed the rule. Arsenal simply lacked the personnel for a high press. If Wenger had made one key signing in midfield, it could have been a different story. But the French manager had too high hopes for Coquelin. It’s true that Coquelin and Cazorla formed a complementary duo in central midfield. However, Coquelin’s limitations prevented Arsenal from switching to a formation favoring a pressing game.

It’s quite ironic that the Gunners finally have that smart ballwinner now that Wenger is gone. With Torreira, Arsenal could have played a 4-3-3 a la Liverpool. If they had managed to keep Oxlade-Chamberlain last year, they could have deployed a three-man midfield with Torreira, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

On Sunday, many Arsenal fans acknowledged Torreira’s importance in the balance of the team by chanting his name to the tune of the old Vieira song. Torreira produced an outstanding performance, winning 78% of his duels, the most for any starting midfielder according to the club’s website. He also won 0 of 2 tackles, had 7 ball recoveries and made 6 interceptions, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Uruguay international has adapted to the physicality of the Premier League by better using his body to shield the ball and draw fouls. Torreira was fouled 4 times, the most for any Gunner.

Keeping the ball on the ground, or not

Xhaka had a decent game defensively, winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 interception and 7 recoveries. Offensively, the Switzerland international missed almost everything, overhitting a long ball for Welbeck in the eighth minute, sending a pass to nobody in the 51st and missing his pass for Iwobi in the 52nd. At least, Xhaka was able to spot Ramsey’s run for the last goal in stoppage time. It was a bit surprising that when Emery switched to a 4-3-3 system in the 81st to stuff the midfield, he moved Torreira to the right side and played Xhaka in the holding midfielder role. Maybe it was aimed to cover Bellerin on the right flank and contain Sessegnon’s runs.

The Cottagers lacked creativity when they had the ball. So it was no coincidence if their best chances came from Arsenal turnovers. Vietto intercepted a sloppy pass from Bellerin in the third minute and tested Leno with a drive that took a deflection off Holding. Then Holding underhit his pass for Monreal in the 18th, forcing the Spain international to rush and miss his clearance. Seri wasted the subsequent half-chance by overhitting his final ball for Mitrovic. The Gunners played again with fire while attempting to build from the back. Holding made a risky crossfield pass for Bellerin in the 42nd. Sessegnon intercepted the ball to feed Schurrle, who fired wide.

Fulham finally leveled in the 44th when Monreal missed his long ball for Welbeck. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Monreal had no short passing option because of Xhaka’s lack of mobility. His best passing options were Welbeck down the middle or Iwobi along the touchline. Iwobi was the safer option but required a lobbed pass to prevent an interception from Christie. Welbeck was the bolder option but required a ball over the top with a lot of accuracy to prevent the goalkpeeper from catching the ball. Monreal decided to keep the ball on the ground and it proved a costly mistake.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M44ed.jpgMonreal’s two best options to evade Fulham’s press. (Photo credit: BT)

Anguissa intercepted Monreal’s pass and slipped the ball to Vietto, who played Schurrle clean through on goal. The former Chelsea forward chipped Leno to level the game just before halftime. Monreal was out of position after his sloppy pass, forcing Holding to drift wide. Schurrle saw the gap between Holding and Mustafi and made a timely run between the two Arsenal centerbacks. Mustafi showed poor positional play by reacting too late to cover Holding and mark Schurrle.

A title bid?

Monreal made the assist for the opening goal but you still expect a fullback to ruthlessly patrol his flank. The Spaniard won only 38% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal defender. And Fulham wingback Christie had so much freedom that he led all players with 5 key passes. On Bellerin’s flank, Sessegnon only managed to make 2 key passes. Monreal was out of position in the seventh minute, leaving Xhaka in a 1v2 situation with Vietto and Christie. Vietto made a cross for Mitrovic, whose first-time effort was deflected out by Mustafi for a corner. Then Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses in the 24th and 61st.

Bellerin has been among the Arsenal players improving under Emery. He was involved in Ramsey’s goal and made the cross for Aubameyang’s first goal. Bellerin could have scored in the 48th but Bettinelli palmed away his powerful strike. His offensive contribution has never been questioned under Wenger but there were question marks about his defensive performance. It looks like Bellerin has found the right balance between attack and defense under Emery. Bellerin won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 block and 5 recoveries, compared to 2 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 3 recoveries for Monreal, according to the club’s website.

In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mustafi showed better discipline than in the previous games. The German centerback made no silly foul and had no turnover. He also won 71% of his duels, the highest percentage for any Arsenal defender. Besides his slow reaction on the equalizer, his only blemish was a passing accuracy of 68%, while centerbacks usually have a percentage above 80%.

Some fans are already talking about a title bid because the Gunners trail Liverpool, City and Spurs by just 2 points. I think it’s premature at this stage of the season. To have a shot at the title, Arsenal would need to keep winning against the weak and average sides while getting some points against the big clubs. The Gunners lost against City and Chelsea and they haven’t faced United, Spurs and Liverpool yet. By contrast, the Reds defeated Spurs and drew with City and Chelsea while beating clubs outside the Top 6. It will be interesting to see whether Emery sticks to a 4-4-2 formation after the international break.