Tag Archives: Monreal

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.

 

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Newcastle vs. Arsenal: Gunners boost confidence with 3rd straight win

Arsenal’s best chance to finish in the Top 4 this season is to perform like a flat-track bully. They lost their first 2 Premier League games against Manchester City and Chelsea before defeating West Ham, Cardiff and Newcastle. The Gunners looked far from their best on Saturday but they managed to win 2-1 at St James’ Park to go level on points with Spurs in the standings.

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

Emery made no change to the side that edged Cardiff before the international break. The Gunners created no clear-cut chance in the first half but the most important thing is that they reached halftime without conceding any goal, a first for the club this season. Arsenal looked more solid defensively than against Cardiff and would have kept a clean sheet if the Magpies had not scored in stoppage time.

Despite the positive result, there’s still a lot of work needed to turn Arsenal into a Top 4 team. The Gunners pretty much played in a 4-4-2 formation in the first half because of Ozil’s tendency to drift inside. The lack of balance was obvious with a diamond midfield that failed to stretch the Newcastle defense. On the right flank, Bellerin was again left on his own. In the No. 6 role, Xhaka didn’t offer much protection to the back four but the Magpies’ weakness spared Arsenal’s blushes.

Newcastle lineup

Arsenal’s tactical setup in the first half

Anybody can spot the flaws in that Arsenal team: a goalkeeper uncomfortable on the ball, no ballwinner in the starting lineup, and a right wing completely vacated. Emery seems reluctant to make the tough decisions. Of course, as a manager you have to handle egos in the dressing room. But Emery will have to pull the plug at some stage if he really wants to improve the team.

Experience vs. youth

The team looked more balanced after Torreira replaced Guendouzi at halftime. Guendouzi didn’t have a bad game. He won 1 of 3 tackles, had 1 turnover and a passing accuracy of 97.5%, and made 0 key pass, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries in 45 minutes, according to whoscored.com and the club’s website. Those stats are at least as good as Xhaka’s stats. In 90 minutes, Xhaka won 0 of 1 tackle, had 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 82.5%, and made 1 key pass, 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries.

The only reason why Emery yanked Guendouzi off, and not Xhaka, is experience. Xhaka is in his prime while Guendouzi is still learning the ropes. Experience will help you have more composure in the final third. With several seasons under your belt, you will also recognize certain plays more easily. Guendouzi overhit his cross for Aubameyang in the 18th minute and was caught napping in the 21st, playing Murphy onside. Murphy connected with Yedlin’s ball over the top to force a save from Cech.

By contrast, Xhaka showed great composure in the 49th when he curled a free kick into the top corner for the opening goal. Then Xhaka showed tactical awareness in the 58th with a run toward the corner flag to make a low cross for Lacazette, whose shot was blocked. Ozil pounced on the loose ball to double the lead with a low strike from 16 yards.

Torreira’s presence on the pitch definitely gave Xhaka more freedom. Xhaka led all players with 103 passes, which is an impressive number compared to Ozil’s 38 passes. When the Gunners dominate possession against the weak sides, Xhaka can produce that kind of performance. But Xhaka is nowhere near the level of a Cazorla in his prime. The top Premier League teams have already exposed Xhaka’s limits.

Ramsey’s lack of end product

To a certain extent, Ozil is similar to Xhaka. The former Germany international can go missing in the big games but his skills can make a difference against weak opposition. His first half was a mixed bag. Ozil wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the eighth minute by holding onto the ball too long. He thought more quickly in the 24th and slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who was dispossessed by a timely tackle from Fernandez. Ozil stepped up in the second half, scoring his first goal in the league since December 2017 before setting up Torreira for an effort over the bar in the 71st.

Both Ozil and Ramsey are still adapting to their new manager, who doesn’t know what his best starting lineup is yet. Ramsey hasn’t scored or made any assist for Arsenal this season. Obviously, contract negotiations with the club might distract Ramsey, but it’s up to him to prove on the pitch that he deserves the raise he’s asking for. Ramsey showed good work-rate with 2 key passes, 2 tackles, 0 interception and 10 recoveries, but his impact in the final third was disappointing. Ramsey missed his cross for Aubameyang, who was unmarked at the far post in the 33rd. His cross in the 73rd was more accurate but Mkhitaryan’s effort was blocked by a Magpie. The Wales midfielder picked up an injury and was replaced by Welbeck in the 80th.

Saturday’s game proved frustrating for our two strikers, Lacazette and Aubameyang, who combined to have 0 of 5 shots on target. Lacazette made up for his lack of end product with his work-rate and creativity. The France international created a chance with a first-time pass to Ramsey in the 33rd. He then robbed Kenedy to initiate a counterattack in the 73rd. Lacazette’s best move came in the 89th when he slipped a through ball to Welbeck, who held off a defender only to fire into the side-netting.

Monreal as the weak link

Oscillating between the left wing and the centerforward position, Aubameyang struggled to have an impact in the final third. Aubameyang simply doesn’t have Lacazette’s passing skills to survive in a hybrid position. To his credit, Aubameyang won the free kick that led to the opening goal by beating Fernandez to the ball. However, he should have done much better in the 60th when he took a pass from Lacazette and missed the target from 8 yards.

At the back, Monreal was the weak link in the Arsenal defense. Monreal failed to stop several dangerous crosses. In the 14th, the Spaniard was late to close down Ritchie, who made a cross that Bellerin cleared. Then Monreal was not tight to Perez, whose cross-shot was caught by Cech in the 86th. Having spotted a weakness, the Magpies kept working down our left flank. Monreal gave again too much space to Perez, who found Joselu with a pinpoint cross in the 88th. Cech tipped Joselu’s header over the bar. In stoppage time, Monreal failed to block a cross from Fernandez, and an unmarked Clark beat Cech with a downward header. On that play, Monreal had no reason to give Fernandez so much room. Fernandez is a centerback, so he’s not going to beat Monreal with his pace. Mustafi made the second mistake on that play by failing to look over his shoulder. The German defender kept his eyes on the ball and was never aware of Clark’s run at the far post.

On the right flank, Bellerin left too much space behind him in the opening minutes. Murphy made a run in behind Bellerin to make a teasing cross that Xhaka cleared in the ninth minute. But Bellerin improved his positional play and was more cautious with his runs. Bellerin has often mentioned Alves as a role model, but Atletico Madrid leftback Hernandez would be a better choice. Hernandez smartly selects his runs and despite his cautiousness, he still finished the last World Cup with 2 assists, the same tally as Messi, De Bruyne and Coutinho.

No-nonsense defender

It will be interesting to see who Emery picks at centerback when Koscielny is fit. Mustafi was guilty on Newcastle’s consolation goal and had a couple of poor moments in the game. He misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 21st and slipped. It took a last-ditch clearance from Sokratis to prevent Murphy from pulling the trigger. On the stroke of halftime, Joselu toyed with Mustafi before making a cross that Monreal headed away. Sokratis’ main asset is that he’s a no-nonsense defender. You won’t confuse Sokratis with a world-class centerback like Varane, Ramos or Godin. On the other hand, Sokratis won’t make basic mistakes like Mustafi. Sokratis killed a dangerous fast break in the 41st with a timely challenge on Perez.

The Gunners next host Vorskla in the Europa League on Thursday before playing Everton in the Premier League on Sunday. Emery won’t rotate much because those are two games at home. However, I suspect he will tinker more for the following games because there’s no way Arsenal can physically cope with such a hectic schedule.

 

 

Cardiff vs. Arsenal: Gunners earn first away win this season

Arsenal’s poor record on the road last season was the main reason why they missed out on a Top 4 finish. They had 4 wins, 4 draws and 11 losses from 19 away games while Premier League teams like Manchester City, United, Spurs and Chelsea won at least 10 away games. Sunday’s 3-2 victory at Cardiff City is definitely a step in the right direction. It should have been a comfortable win for the Gunners, who enjoyed 72% of ball possession and mustered 11 shots on target to just 3 for the Bluebirds. But they made life difficult for themselves by blowing the lead twice with some poor defending.

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

Emery made 2 changes to the side that defeated West Ham 3-1 the previous weekend with Ozil and Lacazette replacing Mkhitaryan and Iwobi in the starting lineup. I thought it was a bold approach from Emery, who started Lacazette and Aubameyang together for the first time. Lacazette produced a ‘Man of the Match’ performance with 1 goal and 3 key passes, including 1 assist. With a backheel flick, Lacazette found Aubameyang, who curled a shot into the far corner for a 2-1 lead in the 62nd minute. Then Lacazette took a pass from Torreira in the 81st and, on the turn, beat Etheridge from a tight angle for the winning goal.

Lacazette was involved in most of Arsenal’s scoring chances. He set up Monreal for a low volley in the 54th and met a corner from Xhaka in the 74th for a header that Etheridge saved. Besides the individual performance of the France international, I’m sure Emery must have noticed the understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey, which was one of the few positives from last season.

Adapting to a new manager

In the sixth minute, Ramsey made a cross for Lacazette, who had a penalty shout denied despite an obstruction from Morrison. Three minutes later, Lacazette found Ramsey with a backheel flick and the Wales midfielder tested Etheridge with a low strike. Lacazette nearly made it 2-0 in the 33rd after taking a pass from Ramsey to fire a 20-yard drive that hit the base of the post. In stoppage time, Ramsey picked out Lacazette, whose first-time effort was parried by Etheridge.

I hope Emery will build his team around that duo despite the uncertainty created by Ramsey’s contractual situation. Emery hasn’t found his best starting XI yet, but he still has time to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Although centerforward is Aubameyang’s favorite position, the Gabon international started again on the left wing. Aubameyang netted his first goal of the season and showed some good work-rate with 2 tackles won, 1 interception and 3 recoveries, according to the club’s website.

In the Wenger era, Ramsey played as a central midfielder while Ozil was given a lot of freedom either in the hole or in a front three. In fact, Wenger built his team around the duo formed by Sanchez and Ozil. Now Ramsey and Ozil have to play differently under Emery. Ozil started Sunday’s game on the right wing while Ramsey played again in the role of a free-roaming midfielder. Both players have no goal and no assist so far. The big difference is that Ramsey had an impact at Cardiff with 2 shots on target and 3 key passes while Ozil struggled to fit in Emery’s plans with 0 shot and 1 key pass.

In central midfield, Emery was again reluctant to start Torreira even though the Uruguay international would provide more protection to the back four than Xhaka or Guendouzi. One explanation is that Emery is trying to ease Torreira into the league. But that sounds weird since Guendouzi is younger and has less experience than Torreira.

The Hollywood pass

Guendouzi had an off day. He is considered an upgrade over Elneny but on Sunday he looked pretty much like a pedestrian version of the Egypt international. In the previous league games, Guendouzi had better stats than Xhaka. That trend was inverted at Cardiff as Guendouzi made only 1 tackle, 0 interception, 2 recoveries and 55 passes, compared to 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 9 recoveries and 99 passes for Xhaka, according to the club’s website. Were youth and inconsistency the reasons behind Guendouzi’s below-par performance, or was it the result of some tactical instructions? I noticed Guendouzi was more cautious in his positional play and almost seemed to take a back seat to let Xhaka shine in midfield.

It’s hard to see Xhaka as a leader in this Arsenal team for the simple reason that he’s not effective. As a holding midfielder, he doesn’t protect the back four. As a deep-lying playmaker, he creates very few chances from open play. Xhaka had 3 key passes against Cardiff, but they all came from corner kicks. And as a pacesetter, he doesn’t have the vision, technique and speed of a Cazorla in his prime.

Xhaka has improved his disciplinary record, but he’s still guilty of some poor decision-making. The Gunners should have reached half-time with a 1-0 lead. In injury time of the first half, Xhaka opted for a risky crossfield pass to Bellerin instead of slipping the ball to an unmarked Guendouzi. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Guendouzi is the safest passing option. Hoilett intercepted Xhaka’s pass and the ball traveled to our right flank, where Bennett made the cross that led to Cardiff’s equalizer.

Cardiff vs. Arsenal M45a edited.jpgThere is no Bluebird in a 10-yard radius around Guendouzi. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Switzerland international nearly put his team in trouble again by giving away a cheap free kick with a silly handball in stoppage time of the second half. Emery felt the need for more security in midfield and sent on Torreira for Guendouzi just a few seconds after Cardiff leveled at 2-2 in the 70th. Torreira made an instant impact in his short cameo, winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 interception and 2 recoveries. He also drew fouls from Hoilett and Arter, who both got booked.

When to pull the plug

The Gunners are not yet playing the way Emery wants them to. One reason is that some players are a poor match for his brand of football. Another reason is the bad habits inherited from the Wenger era.

Playing the ball out from the back with Cech in goal has proved challenging so far. Cech was put under pressure in the opening minute and ran out of trouble by dribbling past Reid inside his own area. That’s not the kind of risk you want your goalkeeper to take. It could have been a blunder like the one experienced by Lloris in the World Cup final. Two plays highlighted Cech’s limited passing skills. In the seventh minute, Cech gave the ball away to Arter, who missed the target from 16 yards. Then the Czech goalkeeper made a sloppy pass to Guendouzi in the 46th. Hoilett intercepted the ball but opted for a long-range strike that sailed wide instead of playing Ward through on goal.

At 36, Cech is unlikely to improve his passing skills. Obviously, Cech is an important character in the Arsenal dressing room. He’s also highly respected in the league. But Emery will just embarrass Cech more by persisting with him in goal. The Spanish manager should take advantage of the international break to make a change and play Leno in the Premier League games while starting Cech in the European and domestic cup games.

Ghosts of the Wenger era

The Gunners were less open than against West Ham, but some defensive frailties of the Wenger era re-emerged. The 2 goals scored by Cardiff came from a cross and a set piece. On the stroke of halftime, Bennett hoisted the ball into the Arsenal box where Camarasa beat Monreal to the ball to fire into the roof of the net. On that play, Lacazette failed to track back and left Bellerin in a 1v2 situation down the right flank. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Bennett had acres of space when he took the pass from Arter. That play also showed that the Gunners are not playing like a unit yet. The team was split in two in some kind of 4-2-4 formation.

Cardiff vs. Arsenal M45b edited.jpgBennett has plenty of space and time to make a good cross. (Photo credit: Sky)

There were a couple of warnings before that goal. Sokratis failed to stop a cross from Reid in the 19th, but Ward couldn’t make contact with the ball. Then Ozil failed to track Bennett in the 29th. The Cardiff fullback made a cross for Ward, who miscontrolled the ball. Monreal pounced on the loose ball, only to head it into the path of Reid, whose overhead kick sailed over the bar. And Hoilett put the Arsenal defense under pressure again in the 43rd, but the referee didn’t spot the body check on Ward and Cech easily caught the ball.

Morrison did a lot of damage in the air. The Cardiff centerback led all players with 10 aerial duels won, compared to 5 for Mustafi and 4 for Sokratis, according to whoscored.com. The Gunners are more vulnerable in the air this season because Sokratis doesn’t perform as well as Koscielny in that area. They also lost Giroud, who played an important role defensively on set pieces.

The Bluebirds’ plan on set pieces was quite simple but Arsenal simply had no answer. Morrison outjumped Xhaka and Monreal in the 45th to redirect a free kick toward an unmarked Arter, who volleyed over the bar from 16 yards. The Gunners lost again the second ball in the 70th. At the far post, Morrison outjumped Ramsey to head a free kick toward Ward, who beat Cech with a header inside the post. On that play, Monreal was not tight to Ward. Cardiff also created a favorable matchup by isolating Ramsey with Morrison.

In Sagna’s shoes

In the closing minutes, the Bluebirds nearly salvaged a draw with another set piece. Morrison outjumped Sokratis to knock the ball down for Madine, who slipped the ball to Zohore. Morrison got the better of Xhaka and Mkhitaryan to meet Zohore’s cross but headed over the bar.

Bellerin was more selective in his runs than against West Ham. He still contributed offensively with a low drive in the 11th and a teasing cross in the 77th that Etheridge spilled. A few years ago, Sagna was often left in 1v2 situations because of Walcott’s poor work-rate. The same situation is developing now with Bellerin because whoever plays on the right wing (Ozil, Lacazette or Mkhitaryan) doesn’t make the required effort defensively. On the opposite flank, Monreal missed a golden chance to double the lead in the 15th. He was also shaky defensively, losing 3 key duels inside the Arsenal area.

Sokratis and Mustafi form a relatively complementary duo in the heart of the Arsenal defense because Mustafi is a pro-active defender while Sokratis is a more traditional, passive centerback. Mustafi opened the scoring in the 11th with a powerful header off a corner from Xhaka. The German defender nearly added a second goal in the 54th from another corner but Etheridge palmed away his bouncing header. Last season, Mustafi was let down by a few lapses of concentration. It happened again on Sunday when Ward robbed Mustafi in the 79th to feed Reid, who rounded Sokratis only to shoot straight at Cech.

Emery and his staff must take advantage of the international break to figure out how they can improve Arsenal’s defensive record because there’s no way the Gunners can have a shot at a Top 4 finish if they keep leaking 2 goals per game. When the Premier League resumes, Emery’s managerial skills will be tested by the hectic schedule. With 7 games in all competition from Sept. 15 to Oct. 7, Emery will have to rotate in order to avoid fatigue and injuries.

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Gunners earn 1st win under Emery

When a manager joins a new club, he quickly needs results to win his players’ support and get the fans and journalists off his back. A manager can be a smart tactician and have a stellar resume, but if his team can’t win games, his words will ring hollow in the dressing room. Somehow, Emery managed to buy a bit of time with Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over West Ham on Saturday.

Arsenal vs. West HamPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger was the consummate man-manager, always protecting his players, almost cajoling their ego. You would never see him make a substitution before the 60th minute unless there was an injury. There is no such diplomatic consideration with Emery, who doesn’t mind making early changes if a player is underperforming. The Spanish manager replaced Ramsey in the 54th minute against Manchester City and yanked Xhaka off at halftime against Chelsea.

On Saturday, Emery replaced Iwobi at halftime and Guendouzi in the 56th before pulling Aubameyang out in the 75th. Those moves paid off as two of the substitutes had a major impact on the game: Lacazette initiated the second goal in the 70th while Welbeck put the result beyond doubt in stoppage time.

The Gunners are not yet playing the way Emery wants them to. They still struggle to implement Emery’s pressing game and no longer put a strong emphasis on playing the ball out from the back. Although Arsenal enjoyed more ball possession on Saturday than in their first two games, Cech made only 24 passes against the Hammers compared to 36 against Chelsea and 42 against City.

However, one obvious break from the Wenger era has been the way the Gunners reach the final third. Slow build-ups with a lot of back passes were common under Wenger. Now the team moves the ball forward more quickly under Emery. The aim is to prevent the opponents from parking the bus. That means making more first-time passes, even in midfield. If you see players making a lot of stray passes, it’s because they’re taking more risks.

What kind of front three?

My main impression from the first three games is that Emery still hasn’t found his best starting lineup and is still experimenting. Emery won’t change his back four until Koscielny is back in contention for a starting spot. By contrast, the front three is a mystery, especially Emery’s choice of wide players. So far, Emery has always started with 2 attacking midfielders (Ozil and Mkhitaryan against City, then Iwobi and Mkhitaryan against Chelsea and West Ham), which is strange because he used to play with 3 forwards at Paris Saint-Germain with Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe.

I definitely think that playing with 2 attacking midfielders in the wide positions is the worst option because they tend to drift inside and make the play too narrow. Another problem is the absence of a natural finisher on the wings and the over-reliance on the pass to beat a defense. Arsenal only had 9 successful dribbles to 17 for West Ham, according to whoscored.com. The Gunners need more aggression in the final third. They could play with 3 forwards like Liverpool under Klopp (Mane, Firmino, Salah) or under Rodgers (Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling). There’s also the hybrid solution with an attacking midfielder on one wing and a forward on the other like when Arsenal played with Pires and Ljungberg more than a decade ago.

The midfield is a work in progress, too. Emery made just one change to the side that lost 3-2 at Chelsea with Ramsey replacing Ozil in the starting lineup. Ozil was not even in the squad because of illness. For the third game in a row, Emery kept his faith in the flawed partnership formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi to protect the back four and it completely failed. The Arsenal defense was so open in the first half that the Hammers could have scored 3 or 4 goals.

A soft midfield

West Ham had numerous counterattacking opportunities and found plenty of space in midfield because Arsenal oscillated between a high defensive line and a medium one. The Chelsea game showed that the Gunners were vulnerable to balls over the top. Mustafi and Sokratis therefore played in a slightly deeper position against West Ham. The problem is that it left more space in midfield for the Hammers to run into while Xhaka and Guendouzi drowned because the team was not compact enough.

Emery will face that kind of dilemma for the rest of the season because he has the wrong personnel for his tactics: Sokratis is sluggish, Mustafi poorly reads the game, Monreal has lost a step, Bellerin’s positional play is dodgy, and Xhaka lacks mobility. Either the Gunners press high up the pitch and have to squeeze play by playing a high defensive line, which makes them vulnerable to balls over the top. Or they play a medium defensive line and therefore leave too much space in midfield, forcing Xhaka and Guendouzi to chase shadows.

Playing between the lines, Anderson did a lot of damage in midfield because neither Xhaka nor Guendouzi could catch him. Unchallenged by Xhaka and Bellerin, the Brazilian midfielder ran 50 yards in the 25th to set up Arnautovic, who opened the scoring with a strike into the bottom corner. Then Xhaka failed to close down Anderson, who fed Antonio for a tame effort in the 32nd. The Arsenal midfield looked soft again in the 37th when a West Ham fast break led to a 2v2 situation. Arnautovic beat Cech but the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside.

Anderson also made an interception in the 55th and ran 60 yards before picking out Arnautovic, who shot straight at Cech. Emery didn’t find the tactical answer because Anderson kept creating chances after Torreira had replaced Guendouzi in the 56th. Anderson cut inside Mkhitaryan and Torreira in the 68th to fire a low drive that Cech spilled. The Brazilian midfielder showed no sign of exhaustion as he ran again 50 yards in the 84th to find Perez, who overhit his cross.

4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1?  

Xhaka can’t flourish as a holding midfielder because he lacks the pace to stop counterattacks. That’s why he plays alongside Behrami in the Switzerland team. Xhaka led all players with 5 fouls and was lucky to escape a booking in the 44th for stamping on Snodgrass’ ankle. He tried to stop Anderson in the 51st but ended up giving away a free kick with a late challenge.

Guendouzi didn’t perform at the same level as against Chelsea, but his work-rate on Saturday was decent. He won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 6 ball recoveries in 56 minutes, according to the club’s website. In fact, those stats are better than those of Xhaka and Ramsey, who played the full 90 minutes. Ramsey won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 7 recoveries while Xhaka won 1 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception and 9 recoveries. The French teenager will still need to cut some basic mistakes out of his game. Guendouzi gave the ball away in the 20th and his risky pass in the 55th led to a scoring chance for West Ham.

In the role of a free-roaming midfielder, Ramsey tested Fabianski in the 37th and 83rd and was involved in Arsenal’s second goal by heading a loose ball toward Lacazette. He also created a chance for Aubameyang by rounding a defender in the 72nd. Ramsey has already played in that position with the Wales team but I still think that it negates some of his strengths, especially his late runs in the box. I’d prefer to see Ramsey play on the right side of a three-man midfield, but that would require a switch to a 4-3-3 formation. Emery has preferred to rely on a 4-2-3-1 system so far.

Lacazette’s hunger

Up front, Aubameyang had an off day with just 1 of 3 shots on target, but he worked hard for his teammates, leading all players with 4 key passes, according to whoscored.com. Somehow, Aubameyang survived a nasty tackle from Diop in the 41st. Diop was lucky to get only a yellow card because TV replays showed his studs on Aubameyang’s shin. You can bet that Diop would have been sent off if the Premier League had adopted VAR technology. Welbeck came off the bench to replace Aubameyang in the 75th. The England international sealed the win in stoppage time by controlling a cross from Bellerin to shoot past Fabianski from close range.

The poor performance from the wide players also helps explain why Aubameyang got very little service. Iwobi remained on the periphery of the game with 0 shot, 1 key pass and only 12 passes in the first half. He made one crucial tackle to stop a counterattack in the 17th, but one of his turnovers also led to the Hammers’ goal. Decision-making in the final third is still an issue for Iwobi, who decided to run into traffic in the 25th, taking on 3 players. A few seconds later, Arnautovic opened the scoring for the visitors.

Emery sent on Lacazette for Iwobi at halftime. The France international showed his hunger in the 53rd with a long-range strike straight at Fabianski. Four minutes later, Lacazette took a pass from Torreira and forced a fine save from the Polish goalkeeper with a low shot on the turn. The West Ham defense finally cracked in the 70th when Lacazette chested down a header from Ramsey and attempted a high pass toward Aubameyang. The ball bounced off Diop to beat Fabianski. In his 45-minute cameo, Lacazette had 2 of 2 shots on target as well as 2 key passes. Emery saw Lacazette play for Lyon and is therefore aware of the striker’s versatility. I hope the Spanish manager will also consider playing Lacazette as a false winger or as a second striker to optimize the potential of his squad.

A static Sokratis     

On the right wing, Mkhitaryan had a poor game like Iwobi. The Armenia midfielder led all players with 7 turnovers and made 0 key pass, according to whoscored.com. His only positive contribution was a snapshot from 16 yards that Fabianski parried in the 11th and the pass for Bellerin in the build-up to the equalizer in the 30th.

At the back, Mustafi produced a decent performance. He intercepted Arnautovic’s cross for Sanchez to kill a counterattack in the third minute. The truth is that Mustafi looks average when he plays alongside Koscielny. But when he teams up with Sokratis, the Germany international can almost look good.

Sokratis is the main reason why playing a high defensive line will always be a problem. His lack of pace is a too big liability in any foot race. Saturday’s game also exposed his lack of agility. Sokratis failed to intercept Snodgrass’ through ball for Arnautovic in the 12th. Then he missed his clearance in the 21st but Arnautovic couldn’t connect with Snodgrass’ cross. Sokratis also failed to block Arnautovic’s low drive on the opening goal in the 25th. I believe Koscielny would have made the block in his position. On the stroke of halftime, Sokratis failed again to intercept Antonio’s through ball for Snodgrass. Like Lichtsteiner for City’s second goal, Sokratis looked incredibly static when Arnautovic escaped his marking in the 55th to take a pass from Anderson and test Cech. To cap his mediocre performance, Sokratis earned a yellow card in the 90th for time-wasting.

3 weeks to find a fix

Bellerin’s performance on Saturday divided the fans. No one can deny his huge offensive contribution. Bellerin set up Mkhitaryan in the 11th before making the crosses for Arsenal’s first and third goals. But his defensive contribution is questionable. Bellerin can definitely improve his positional play. He played Arnautovic onside in the 12th, was flagged offside in the 23rd, and let Antonio ghost past him in the 32nd. Antonio also cut inside Bellerin to curl a shot wide in the 39th. If Emery wants Bellerin to play like a wingback, then he needs someone to cover him down the right flank. It can’t be Mkhitaryan because he plays in a too high position. So it has to be one of the midfielders.

On the left flank, Monreal played in a more conservative way than Bellerin but still managed to net the equalizer. The Hammers exposed Monreal’s declining pace twice on the stroke of halftime. First, Arnautovic made a run in behind Monreal to chase a ball over the top from Masuaku. Then, Snodgrass ghosted past Monreal to collect a through ball from Antonio only to shoot straight at Cech.

The Gunners have plenty of work to do on the training ground. They can’t afford to be so open against better sides than West Ham. Emery has three weeks to fix the defensive issues. Once the Europa League starts, Emery won’t have time anymore because Arsenal will play two games per week and the focus will then be on recovering.

 

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: More pressure on Emery after 3-2 loss

It looks like the summer tour has been of no use to Emery because the Spanish manager still has no idea what his best team is. Time is running out after Saturday’s 3-2 loss at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal hired Emery in May while Chelsea only appointed Sarri last month. Yet, Sarri has adapted more quickly to the Premier League than Emery as the Blues have 6 points from their first two games compared to zero for the Gunners.

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

Emery relied on a 4-2-3-1 formation again with Xhaka and Guendouzi in central midfield, Ozil in the hole, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings and Aubameyang up front. I thought the team selection was wrong. That’s the kind of starting lineup you might use in a home game against a weak side but definitely not against the Blues, who enjoyed 62% of ball possession. Although Xhaka and Guendouzi failed to protect the defense against Manchester City, Emery kept persisting with that flawed partnership. And picking 3 attacking midfielders, whose work-rate is questionable, also hurt Emery’s pressing plan.

In the first half, the Arsenal defense was all over the place. There was no coordination in the high press. Chelsea often put the visitors in trouble with balls over the top because the Gunners played a very high defensive line without closing down the ball holder. That’s exactly what happened with the first two goals. Arsenal also struggled again to play the ball out from the back. Like in the summer friendly, the Blues’ high press proved more efficient and they often won the ball back inside Arsenal’s half. What saved the Gunners from a complete disaster was Chelsea’s inability to defend crosses. Arsenal could have led by a couple of goals at halftime but they were let down by some really poor finishing.

The second half was pretty much one-way traffic with the Arsenal defense under siege. The Gunners switched back to the Wenger way with a low defensive line as the first half clearly exposed Sokratis’ lack of pace. Fans sometimes wonder why Arsenal didn’t implement a pressing game under Wenger. Saturday’s game showed why: the French manager had the wrong players for such a tactical ploy.

Better wing play

The Gunners were unlucky to face such a brutal Premier League schedule but at least they learned a lot from those first two games. While Ozil and Mkhitaryan too often drifted inside against City, the Gunners improved their wing play against the Blues as Iwobi and Mkhitaryan stretched the Chelsea defense by staying wide. The Gunners also improved their final ball, which was poor against City. They created some big chances against Chelsea because of the quality of their crossing.

One area that Emery must get right for the next game is the midfield. Jorginho had too much time to release Alonso down our right flank in the ninth minute. Pedro converted Alonso’s cross to open the scoring. If you look at the screen capture below, you will see several mistakes on that play. First, Willian pulled Bellerin out of position, creating space for Alonso to run into. Bellerin shouldn’t be wandering into Chelsea’s half, it should have been Xhaka’s job to track Willian in that part of the pitch. Second, Ozil failed to close down Jorginho when he took Willian’s pass. Third, Mkhitaryan failed to mark Alonso down the right flank. And fourth, the high defensive line exposed Sokratis’ lack of pace. The Greek centerback was 5 yards behind Pedro when Alonso made his cross.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M09ed Willian pulls Bellerin out of position before slipping the ball to Jorginho. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

The second goal looked similar. Azpilicueta hit a ball over the top for Morata, who toyed with Mustafi before beating Cech with a low shot in the 20th. First, Iwobi made no effort to close down Azpilicueta. And second, it made no sense for the Arsenal defense to play an offside trap on the halfway line for the simple reason that a player in his own half is never in an offside position. From the moment Morata walked back into his own half, Sokratis or Mustafi should have decided to drop off.

Ozil’s poor work-rate

Emery must have a serious chat with Ozil because his work-rate is not good enough. Mendy had too much freedom a week ago because Ozil didn’t close down the City leftback. Emery thought he could solve the problem by moving Ozil to the No. 10 position against the Blues but the Spanish manager made the problem worse. Jorginho capitalized on Ozil’s laziness to dictate play and lead all players with 99 passes. Besides the opening goal, Jorginho created chances by sending balls over the top to Barkley in the sixth minute and to Kante in the 13th.

In 67 minutes, Ozil won 0 tackle and made 0 interception and just 2 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website. By contrast, Barkley who played in a similar position with Chelsea won 0 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries in 60 minutes. It’s quite surprising Emery didn’t realize that Ozil is a defensive liability. When he was the PSG manager, Emery could see how Verratti and Di Maria took advantage of Ozil’s poor work-rate to drop back and send balls over the top in the 2016 Champions League games between Arsenal and the French club.

Ozil’s offensive contribution was just as poor as his defensive work. He made 0 key pass and had 0 shot on target. Monreal gave him a chance to shine in the eighth minute but Ozil’s volley sailed wide of the far post. Ozil then failed to anticipate a teasing cross from Aubameyang in the 47th. Emery replaced Ozil with Ramsey in the 67th and the Wales midfielder proved a greater goal threat in his cameo. Ramsey tested Kepa with a low strike in the 77th before firing a half-volley over the bar in the 90th.

Emery has a big problem on the right wing because Ozil couldn’t contain Mendy a week ago and Mkhitaryan struggled badly against Alonso on Saturday. Obviously, you don’t face leftbacks as good as Mendy and Alonso every weekend but you can bet that other Premier League teams have spotted that chink in the Arsenal armor.

The understanding between Mkhitaryan and Iwobi

Mkhitaryan worked harder than Ozil as he made 2 interceptions and 9 recoveries. He was arguably Arsenal’s best player, finishing the game with 1 goal and 1 assist and leading all players with 5 key passes. The Armenia international found the net in the 37th by pouncing on a loose ball to fire into the bottom corner from 18 yards. Then Mkhitaryan set up Iwobi for the equalizer with a low cross in the 41st. Interestingly, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan seemed to strike an understanding in that game. Iwobi cut the ball back for Mkhitaryan, who blazed over the bar from 9 yards in the 32nd. They swapped roles on the stroke of halftime as Iwobi met a low cross from Mkhitaryan only to miss the target from 12 yards. If Emery had to choose between Ozil and Mkhitaryan, the latter made a strong case that it should be him.

Iwobi’s performance was a mixed bag. On the bright side, he showed end product with 1 goal and 2 key passes. Iwobi picked out an unmarked Aubameyang, who shot wide from 8 yards in the 44th. I believe he still needs to improve his work-rate and cut his turnovers to become a solid starter. The Nigeria international won no tackle and made just 1 interception and 4 recoveries. He also led all players with 6 turnovers and had a passing accuracy dipping to 56%, the lowest percentage for any player according to whoscored.com.

In central midfield, Guendouzi performed better than against City. He not only cut some mistakes out of his game but also won 2 of 4 tackles and 82% of his duels, had a passing accuracy of 94%, and made 4 interceptions, 1 block and 8 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Those are much better stats than Xhaka, who won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 interception and 1 recovery in the first half. Guendouzi showed an eye for a pass in the 19th by releasing Bellerin down the right flank. The Spaniard made a low cross for an unmarked Aubameyang, who fired over the bar from 8 yards with the goal at his mercy.

Guendouzi as an all-rounder

Obviously, Guendouzi still has a lot of room for improvement, but I can see why Emery started the French teenager. If you love total football and watch the Liverpool midfield or the City midfield, you would think that Guendouzi could make the cut as an all-rounder. He made a timely tackle on Hazard as the last defender in the 83rd and took his chance in the 43rd with a long-range strike that Kepa easily saved. Like Pires some 18 years ago, Guendouzi will have to toughen up a bit. Jorginho brushed him off the ball in the fourth minute to create a half-chance for Pedro.

It’s just a question of weeks before Emery drops Xhaka from the starting lineup because he is not a good fit for the manager’s tactics. Xhaka simply lacks the mobility and pace to press or show for the ball when the team tries to play out from the back. The Switzerland international gave the ball away in the 13th and was booked in the 27th for a late tackle on Pedro. Xhaka was replaced at halftime by Torreira, who seemed to lack match sharpness. Torreira was dispossessed by Pedro on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 52nd and received a yellow card in the 71st for a foul on Kovacic. The Uruguay midfielder was also guilty on the last goal as he failed to track Alonso in the 81st.

Chelsea’s winning goal started with a turnover from Lacazette, who replaced Iwobi in the 75th. Lacazette attempted a risky back pass toward Torreira. Hazard intercepted the ball and the play developed on our right flank where Hazard dribbled past Lacazette to square the ball back for Alonso,who shot past Cech. Lacazette got some stick for his turnover but Bellerin failed to stop Hazard’s cross and Torreira let Alonso run past him.

If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Lacazette only had one safe passing option: Aubameyang. But Lacazette panicked because he felt Luiz’s presence behind him. Lacazette is simply not comfortable playing with his back to goal. He played as a centerforward for Lyon but he’s still not used to the physicality of the Premier League. I don’t understand why Wenger and Emery both played Aubameyang on the left wing and Lacazette up front when Aubameyang is a more natural choice for the centerforward position. Lacazette should be playing on the right wing or as a second striker.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M80ed Lacazette ignores his best passing option, Aubameyang. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Aubameyang could have notched a hat trick with better finishing. Unmarked, he missed the target from 8 yards in the 19th and 44th. He also chased a long ball from Mustafi in the 17th to fire a low effort straight at Kepa. Despite that poor performance, Aubameyang should still retain his starting spot for the next game because he’s more clinical than Welbeck and has more pace than Lacazette.

Lack of leadership

It’s hard to find any positive at the back. Bellerin made the penultimate pass for the equalizer but he’s still playing too much like a wingback. He needs to improve his positional play and find the right balance between attack and defense. Hazard too easily rounded him in the 70th. Bellerin also let his teammates down in the 78th. The Spaniard casually jogged back, letting Mkhitaryan and Ramsey deal with Pedro and Alonso on the right flank. Pedro made a cross for Kante, who headed over the bar.

Monreal initiated Arsenal’s first goal by dispossessing Willian but Saturday’s game also confirmed that he has lost a step. In the 14th, Monreal failed to stay with Pedro, who chased a ball over the top from Willian. Then Pedro easily turned Monreal in the 55th before Barkley rounded Monreal in the 57th to test Cech with a low strike.

Mustafi led Arsenal players with 3 fouls. He got booked in the 77th for fouling Hazard from behind. Mustafi is not a world-class defender like Koscielny and simply lacks the leadership to marshal the back four. Playing a high defensive line will be an issue for Emery because Sokratis has no recovery pace while Mustafi’s reading of the game can be poor.

The Gunners threw caution to the wind in the closing minutes. Cech saved them from an embarrassing scoreline by making a couple of fine saves, parrying an angled shot from Hazard in the 86th and denying Giroud in the 87th and in stoppage time. Cech occasionally played out from the back, but when he felt that it was too risky, he opted for a long kick.

This is a transition season for Arsenal. But the club can’t afford a poor result against West Ham on Saturday. Even Manchester United under Moyes never lost three straight games in the Premier League. And if the Gunners were to fall in the relegation zone, that would be the start of a crisis. In any club, most fans call for the sack of the manager when their team stays in the drop zone for weeks.

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Europe

The summer tour has been positive overall with 2 wins and 2 draws, but it is still difficult to see Emery’s impact on the Arsenal team. The Gunners drew 1-1 with Chelsea on Wednesday before defeating Lazio 2-0 on Saturday.

2018 European TourPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Both games raised concerns about the Arsenal defense. Chelsea looked sharper and could have put the game to bed in the first half while Lazio played at a slower tempo and couldn’t find the net despite torturing the Gunners with crosses.

  1. Implementing the pressing game

Pressing is a defensive tool to stop counterattacks but it’s also an attacking tool to create chances. Chelsea and Arsenal both tried to press high up the pitch when they lost possession. The Gunners still have a long way to go. The Blues looked better drilled, forcing turnovers in dangerous areas, while Arsenal’s pressing never really troubled Chelsea.

  1. Same old defensive frailties

The last years of Wenger’s tenure were defined by recurrent defensive issues: the Gunners often looked vulnerable on set pieces and crosses as well as on the fast break. The Blues took advantage of some poor defensive organization to open the scoring in the fifth minute. Rudiger lost Smith-Rowe to head in Fabregas’ corner. A rookie shouldn’t be marking one of Chelsea’s main aerial threats. The problem wasn’t fixed at halftime as Rudiger toyed again with Smith-Rowe in the 57th only to head a corner wide.

The Blues also did a lot of damage on the fast break. Fabregas wasted a counterattack in the 10th by slipping the ball to an offside Morata. Then Hudson-Odoi dispossessed Elneny in the 24th to feed Morata, who was denied by Cech. Three days later, the Lazio game exposed Arsenal’s poor job in stopping dangerous crosses. Yet, Caicedo in the 16th, Lulic in the 37th and Parolo in the 35th and 49th all missed the target.

This is not Emery’s team yet. Fans will need to show a bit of patience for what is mostly a transition season. But if those defensive issues are not corrected by the end of the season, then the club may not have hired the right manager.

  1. The back four is a worry

The Gunners have a problem at leftback. Kolasinac picked up a knee injury against Chelsea and will be sidelined for 2 months, while Monreal didn’t play in any summer friendly and currently has a knee problem preventing him from training with the team. Wenger got some stick last season for playing Maitland-Niles in the leftback position but the irony is that Emery did the same thing against Lazio.

At rightback, Hudson-Odoi had Bellerin in his pocket and even won a penalty when the Spaniard tripped him in the 14th. Bellerin is expected to get a bit of competition from Lichtsteiner, who made his Arsenal debut on Saturday and had a more comfortable evening against Lazio veteran Lulic. There are big question marks about Lichtsteiner’s ability to adapt to the pace of English football. Lichtsteiner performed well with Juventus, but Serie A games don’t really match the intensity of the Premier League.

Sokratis and Mustafi started at centerback against Chelsea and looked vulnerable when Arsenal played a high defensive line. The Blues capitalized on Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace to send balls over the top. Hudson-Odoi collected a long ball from Jorginho in the 42nd but had his effort cleared off the line by Mustafi.

If Sokratis and Mustafi perform poorly or get injured, the back-up options are very limited. Koscielny will miss the first half of the season. That means Holding, Chambers or Mavropanos would have to step up. Chambers was so slow in the 26th that Lulic was able to charge down his clearance. Lulic got again the better of Chambers, who made a cynical foul on the Lazio veteran in the 54th. Meanwhile, Holding put himself in trouble with some poor decision-making, attempting a risky pass that was intercepted in the 31st and losing possession after dribbling inside his own half in the 77th.

  1. The Gunners need more creativity

Over the past 12 months, the club has lost a lot of creativity with the departures of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanchez, Cazorla and Wilshere. The responsibility for creating chances now rests on the shoulders of Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. Against Chelsea, Mkhitaryan had an off day. The Gunners played better when Nelson replaced Mkhitaryan in the 72nd. The academy player made a cross that Lacazette converted in stoppage time to force a penalty shootout. Nelson also opened the scoring against Lazio, tapping home a rebound in the 18th after Iwobi struck the post with a low diagonal strike.

At 18, Nelson is a very promising youngster. He can deliver the final ball and dribble past defenders. But he is unlikely to perform consistently in the Premier League. If you add Iwobi’s own inconsistency issues, that means Arsenal can only rely on Ozil and Mkhitaryan for a significant number of assists this season. Maybe the Gunners could sign another creative midfielder this summer if they manage to offload for a good fee the players that Emery does not want.

  1. The Arsenal midfield is too soft

Elneny, Guendouzi and Smith-Rowe started in midfield against Chelsea. That trio would badly struggle against any decent Premier League side. It’s true that Torreira, Xhaka and Ramsey are more likely to be the starters in a three-man midfield. But I can’t help thinking that Wilshere, Cazorla and the Ox were better options than Elneny, Guendouzi and Smith-Rowe.

There’s no doubt that Guendouzi has great potential as a deep-lying playmaker, but the brutal contrast with Jorginho’s flawless performance on Wednesday showed the gap between those 2 players. Guendouzi is simply too casual for such a key position. He put his team in trouble against Atletico by dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area.

You would have thought that Guendouzi learned his lesson, but he didn’t. The French teenager was reckless against Chelsea, attempting again to dribble on the edge of the Arsenal box. Guendouzi was lucky to draw a foul in the 20th, he nearly lost possession in the 28th, and he was dispossessed in the 33rd as the Blues hit Arsenal on the fast break. As long as Guendouzi doesn’t cut those mistakes out of his game, it would be foolish to start him in a Premier League game.

Torreira finally made his Arsenal debut on Saturday. He’s definitely the kind of defensive midfielder that the club has been missing since Gilberto Silva. His strong tactical discipline and his sound positional play make him a better fit for the No. 6 role than Xhaka.

It was quite intriguing to see Torreira play with Xhaka in a 4-4-2 formation against Lazio. Maybe Emery will use that system if Ramsey is still injured or leaves the club. Ramsey picked up a calf strain while warming up for the Chelsea game and was replaced by Smith-Rowe in the starting lineup. Chelsea and Liverpool seem both interested in the Wales midfielder, who only has a year left on his contract. The Blues don’t have that type of player in their squad while Ramsey would be a perfect fit for Liverpool’s football style.

  1. How much gas does Cech still have left in the tank?

At 36, Cech is in the twilight of his career. Past the age of 35, some goalkeepers can still perform at the top level (Zoff, Van der Sar, Buffon), while others tend to decline sharply (Taffarel, Casillas). Cech was the player who made the most errors leading to a goal in the Premier League last season. Can he catch a second wind?

His performance against Chelsea seems to suggest that Cech may still have one season left at the top. He saved Morata’s tame penalty in the 15th and helped Arsenal stay in the game with a couple more outstanding saves. In the penalty shootout, Cech stopped Loftus-Cheek’s spot kick before Iwobi converted the last kick of the game.

Newcastle vs. Arsenal: 2-1 loss sums up worst season in Wenger era

The Gunners are on course to finish the Premier League season with their worst tally in the Wenger era after losing 2-1 at Newcastle on Sunday. With 54 points from 33 games so far, they must win all their remaining games to avoid a tally as low as the 67 points of the 2005-06 season. The reason for such a mediocre season obviously lies in Arsenal’s poor away form. The Gunners are the only Premier League team without a point on the road this year.

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

Wenger made 6 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with CSKA Moscow in the Europa League on Thursday with Chambers, Holding, Xhaka, Willock, Iwobi and Aubameyang replacing Bellerin, Koscielny, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Lacazette and Aubameyang started together for the first time, but the real surprise on the team sheet was Willock playing in the hole.

Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession but created very little with just 3 shots on target to 4 for the Magpies. There was an obvious lack of creativity and penetration as the Gunners played at a too slow tempo to trouble the Newcastle defense.

At the back, Mustafi, Chambers and Monreal produced another horror show after the dodgy performance against Southampton a week ago. Gayle made a run in behind Mustafi in the 29th minute to chase a long ball from Shelvey and find Yedlin on our left flank. The American international made a cross for Perez, who beat Mustafi to the ball at the near post to open the scoring. You would expect a World Cup winner to win those duels at the near post. Mustafi was already at fault for Southampton’s opening goal from a similar cross. Mustafi also showed poor decision-making on that play. He could have played Gayle offside but didn’t. Monreal didn’t cover himself in glory either. The Spaniard was pulled out of position on that play, forcing Xhaka to cover him on the left flank. The trouble is that Xhaka didn’t track Yedlin when Shelvey hit the long ball.

Chambers’ limitations

The Magpies’ second goal came from a throw-in. Mustafi outjumped Slimani to head the ball sideways in the 68th. Monreal pounced on the loose ball only to head it into the path of Slimani, who found Perez inside the area. The Newcastle striker flicked the ball toward Ritchie, who shot past Cech from close range. Monreal made an error on that play and was again pulled out of position but Chambers and Xhaka were guilty too for not tracking Perez, leaving Holding in a 1v2 situation.

Could Mustafi improve under a new manager? I’m not so sure. Keown, who works as a TV pundit nowadays, pointed out what was wrong with Mustafi’s defending. You can bet that Bould, who played alongside Keown in the 1990s, made the same criticisms on the training ground at Colney. Is Mustafi listening? Maybe. But it’s hard to see him marshal the Arsenal defense when Koscielny will be gone. Mustafi was dominant in the air, winning 10 of 11 aerial duels. However, you can’t really be a top centerback if you keep losing key duels. Slimani dribbled past Mustafi in the 77th to cut the ball back for Perez, who fired into the side-netting.

Chambers didn’t make glaring mistakes like Mustafi, but his performance was just as poor. He did OK in the first half but was exposed after the break: the Magpies’ chances in the second half all came from his flank. Chambers led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, compared to 0 for Mustafi, 1 for Monreal and 1 for Holding, according to whoscored.com. As evidence of his technical limitations, Chambers’ passing accuracy dipped to 71.4%, compared to 85.1% for Mustafi, 88.8% for Monreal and 89.6% for Holding.

Chambers was also tortured in one-on-one situations, winning only 2 of 8 tackles according to Squawka. Kenedy turned Chambers in the 16th while Perez easily dribbled past the English defender in the 33rd. Playing as a rightback, Chambers’ lack of recovery pace allowed Kenedy to play a one-two with Slimani in the 75th before having his shot deflected by Mustafi onto the bar. Wenger ended Chambers’ suffering by replacing him with Maitland-Niles in the 78th.

Iwobi’s inconsistency

In the front three, Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang and Iwobi started on the wings. There are two mysteries here. Iwobi had a good game in the No. 10 role against Southampton. Yet, Wenger moved Iwobi to the right wing to play an academy player, Willock, in the hole. The second mystery is Wenger’s conviction that Aubameyang can shine as a winger. Yes, Aubameyang occasionally played as a winger for Saint-Etienne from 2011 to 2013, but he then became a prolific centerforward at Borussia Dortmund.

Arsenal’s opening goal in the 14th might give the impression that the manager made the right choice. Aubameyang controlled a long ball from Mustafi to make a cross for Lacazette, who volleyed home from close range. But that was the only meaningful play in which Lacazette and Aubameyang interacted.

Aubameyang was ineffective from the wing with 0 of 3 shots on target, while Lacazette’s weakness in the air was again exposed with just 1 of 4 aerial duels won, according to Squawka. Besides the goal, Lacazette was no threat in the final third, dragging a shot wide from the edge of the box in the fifth minute and wasting a scoring chance in the 42nd with a poor pass to Willock while he could have taken the shot himself. I still believe that the more natural partnership is to have Lacazette play off Aubameyang and not the other way around. Lacazette has a better all-around game than Aubameyang, who’s stronger in the air than the France international.

Starting on the right wing, Iwobi wasn’t able to repeat the performance he produced against the Saints with just 1 of 3 shots on target and 2 key passes. He also had 5 turnovers and showed poor work-rate again (0 tackle, 0 block, 1 interception). Inconsistency is normal for a 21-year-old player but the poor work-rate is a coaching problem. Ferguson wouldn’t have tolerated that while Wenger seems more lenient in that regard. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 86th, shifting from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a poorly balanced 4-2-4 system.

Willock’s Premier League debut

In midfield, Wenger overestimated Willock’s abilities by playing him behind Lacazette. Willock has made quite a few assists with the U23 team this season, but the gap with the Premier League level is massive. In his Premier League debut, Willock wasn’t really up to speed. He led all players with 3 fouls. In the opening minute, Willock turned over the ball after a poor first touch. He then dallied on the ball in the 35th and lost possession under Ritchie’s pressure.

Willock must certainly realize now that he has less time and space in the Premier League than in the U23 games. His work-rate at St. James’ Park was decent with 2 of 6 tackles won, 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. However, Willock will have to improve his tactical awareness. He failed to close down Shelvey in the 28th. The Newcastle midfielder hit a long ball for Gayle and it took a timely challenge from Mustafi to end the threat. A minute later, Willock was a split second late to close down Shelvey, who initiated the equalizer with another long ball for Gayle. Wenger yanked Willock off in the 68th to send on Welbeck. I tend to see Willock as a utility midfielder with the profile of a Coquelin or Flamini. He clearly doesn’t have the skills to play as a No. 10 or even as a box-to-box midfielder like Ramsey.

The Gunners have one week to recharge their batteries before facing West Ham on Sunday. At this stage of the season, the priority is the Europa League, which means that the two legs against Atletico Madrid on April 26 and May 3 will lead to rotation in Premier League games. I don’t think Wenger will rest key players against West Ham because the three days of rest before the first leg should be enough to recover. However, I’m pretty sure the manager will field a makeshift team against Manchester United to avoid injuries for the second leg.