Tag Archives: Monreal

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Gunners out of title race after 3-1 loss

   Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Manchester City made clear that the Gunners are not contenders in the Premier League this season. They dropped to 6th place in the standings, 12 points behind the Citizens. If we look at the bigger picture, we can also see that Guardiola has nearly completed his house while Wenger’s house is still missing an entire floor and a roof. It’s true that Guardiola has spent more money than the French manager but Wenger has had more time to build his squad. The Citizens have spent £416 million since the summer of 2016, according to transfermarkt.co.uk, compared to £319 million since the summer of 2013 for Arsenal. Basically, Guardiola has completed his project within a year and a half while there are still holes in the Gunners’ squad more than 4 years after Ozil joined the club.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal

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

There were two surprises in the starting lineup: Iwobi started in the front three and Coquelin played alongside Monreal and Koscielny in the back three. Holding would have been a more natural choice than Coquelin at centerback, but the U23 player had a thigh strain according to Wenger. In the center of the back three, Coquelin had a role similar to Dier at Tottenham. Up front, Sanchez played in the lone striker role with Iwobi and Ozil as inside forwards. I don’t really understand why the manager was reluctant to start Lacazette. Trailing 2-0 in the second half, Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Coquelin with Lacazette in the 57th minute. Lacazette played 20 minutes as a centerforward before moving to the right wing in the 78th when Giroud and Wilshere came on for Iwobi and Xhaka.

In the end, the formation didn’t really matter. What made the difference was the capacity to capitalize on turnovers. The Gunners showed a bit of naivety at times by trying to play the ball out from the back. At least they had an excuse: Arsenal had no natural outlet for high balls with Sanchez as the lone striker.

A tactical surprise that backfired

I guess the biggest disappointment from the game was the average performance in the first half. All of the Citizens’ chances in the first 45 minutes came from turnovers (Sanchez in the 2nd, 42nd and 44th, Coquelin in the 11th, Iwobi in the 18th, Ozil in the 33rd, Ramsey in the 35th, and Xhaka in the 38th).

The Gunners should have performed better for the simple reason that Wenger made 10 changes to the side that drew with Red Star Belgrade on Thursday. By contrast, City could not claim the same freshness. Guardiola made just 2 changes to the side that won 4-2 in Italy on Wednesday with Walker and Silva replacing Danilo and Gundogan in the starting lineup. Yet, the Citizens won 55.1% of their duels, according to the club’s website. It might have been a different story if the quality of the final ball had been better in the first half: Bellerin put too much weight on his pass for Ozil in the 7th while Sanchez overhit his through ball for the Germany playmaker in the 25th.

Wenger prepared a tactical surprise for Guardiola by starting Sanchez as a centerforward for the first time this season. The move backfired as Sanchez led all players with 11 turnovers, 6 more than Ramsey who had the second worst turnover rate in the Arsenal team, according to whoscored.com. The Chile striker was also caught offside 3 times.

In the second half, Sanchez forgot his defensive duties. Silva flicked on a corner toward the far post, where Jesus took advantage of the passivity of Sanchez and Xhaka to test Cech in the 68th. Then a Kolasinac turnover led to a dangerous situation in the 74th. Kolasinac was pulled out of position after chasing Sterling and Silva. Sanchez could have covered Kolasinac by closing down Fernandinho. But Sanchez preferred to stand back, giving Fernandinho plenty of time to pick out Silva. See the screen capture below. The Spain international cut the ball back for Jesus, who tapped home for a 3-1 lead. TV replays showed Silva was offside. Still, Bellerin should have played to the whistle instead of freezing and leaving Fernandinho unmarked.

City M74 edited Kolasinac is drawn out of position as Sanchez is not closing down Fernandinho, circled. (Photo credit: Sky)

It’s easy to second-guess Sanchez after such a defeat. But stats show Sanchez wasn’t the worst softie in the front three. Sanchez made 2 key passes, 5 tackles, 0 interception and 0 block, compared to 0 key pass, 5 tackles, 1 interception and 0 block for Ozil and 0 key pass, 2 tackles, 0 interception and 1 block for Iwobi, according to Squawka.

The reality of total football

When the team has to fight for ball possession, you know it’s not a game for Ozil. It was quite telling that De Bruyne dispossessed Ozil in the 63rd. You often hear football pundits say that Ozil is a creative player who needs teammates around him to do the defensive work. But players like Fernandinho and De Bruyne show that it’s possible for talented players to both attack and defend. In the early 1970’s, Cruyff’s Ajax team became the symbol of total football. It’s no coincidence if Guardiola, who had Cruyff as manager at Barcelona in the 1990’s, shares a similar vision of football. De Bruyne scored a goal, had 5 successful dribbles out of 5, and made 9 tackles, 4 blocks and 3 interceptions, according to Squawka.

While Ozil performed poorly compared to De Bruyne, Iwobi is the one who should be ashamed of his work-rate. Some fans will only remember Iwobi’s long-range strike that Ederson spilled in the 55th or the 50-50 challenge that Iwobi won inside the Arsenal area in the 44th. But they will forget that Iwobi had the opportunity to close down Walker a couple of times in the first half but preferred to stay 4 or 5 yards away from the City rightback.

The draw at Stamford Bridge is sometimes mentioned as a blueprint for a hard-working front three without Sanchez and Ozil. But it was Welbeck’s work-rate that really made a difference against Chelsea, not Iwobi’s presence. In my eyes, Iwobi doesn’t read the game well enough yet to deserve a starting spot, especially in a big game against City. Iwobi had two good passing options in the 76th, but preferred to run into traffic and was dispossessed. See the screen capture below. There’s no doubt that Iwobi has great potential. But at 21, he’s simply not developing as quickly as Alli at Tottenham.

City M76 editedIwobi ignores Lacazette and Ozil to run into traffic. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Arsenal midfield has been a running gag this season. Guardiola exploited the lack of pressure in the hole behind Sanchez for the first two goals. It’s mind-boggling when you know that Wenger played as a central midfielder in his youth and that he developed very good defensive midfielders like Puel and Petit at Monaco. Yet, for years now, Wenger hasn’t been able to find the missing component in midfield.

Xhaka’s lack of mobility

The pairing of Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield is a flawed partnership because they can’t properly defend. Silva intercepted a sloppy pass from Iwobi in the 18th to release Aguero down our left flank. The Argentina striker made a cross that the Arsenal defense cleared into the path of De Bruyne, whose half-volley was parried by Cech. As you can see on the screen capture below, Ramsey is patrolling the edge of the box but is not marking De Bruyne, while Xhaka is sitting too deep, interfering with Coquelin’s defensive duties. In fact, both Xhaka and Coquelin collided on that play.

City M18a edited.jpgXhaka is in no man’s land while Ramsey can’t prevent De Bruyne from winning the second ball. (Photo credit: Sky)

On the same play, a couple of seconds after Cech’s save, the ball was played back to De Bruyne, who exchanged passes with Fernandinho to open the scoring with a low diagonal strike. Xhaka was too far to pressure Fernandinho, while Ramsey failed to stay with De Bruyne. See the screen capture below. Inside the area, Koscielny couldn’t block De Bruyne’s goal attempt.

City M18b edited.jpgRamsey fails to stay with De Bruyne, who plays a one-two with Fernandinho, left unmarked by Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

City’s second goal in the 49th exposed the same issue. Following a long spell of domination from the Citizens, Fernandinho hit a long ball toward Sterling, who beat the offside trap and won a penalty from a Monreal challenge. Wenger called it a dive. I thought it was a slightly more legitimate penalty than the one awarded to Watford for the Bellerin challenge. Sterling definitely went down easily but what swayed the referee was that Monreal did not make a genuine attempt to play the ball. Because Sterling was smart enough to shield the ball with his body, Monreal basically tried to bully him off the ball.

But focusing on the penalty, converted by Aguero for a 2-0 lead, distracts from the real problem. Xhaka failed to close down Fernandinho, giving him plenty of time to hit a perfect ball over the top for Sterling. Then Kolasinac failed to keep an eye on his teammates’ position and played Sterling onside. See the screen capture below. Things can change quickly in football. Kolasinac was the hero against Swansea the previous weekend. A week later, Kolasinac nearly turned into a villain by getting involved in City’s last two goals.

City M49 editedKolasinac is two yards behind the potential offside line as Xhaka fails to close down Fernandinho. (Photo credit: Sky)

City’s passing game and the movement of their players exposed Xhaka’s lack of mobility. While Fernandinho and De Bruyne made a difference defensively and offensively, Xhaka had no positive impact at all. Xhaka won 1 of 1 tackle, made 1 interception and 1 block, and had 0 key pass and a passing accuracy of 83%. Those are weaker stats than Ramsey, who won 2 of 9 tackles, made 1 interception and 0 block, and had 2 key passes and a passing accuracy of 90%.

The Ramsey-Lacazette understanding

Ramsey’s work-rate means that he’s Arsenal’s most valuable player in midfield. But his poor tactical discipline also means that he shouldn’t play as a central midfielder. I believe Ramsey’s best position is on the right side of a three-man midfield or in the hole as a free-roaming midfielder. On the stroke of halftime, Ramsey took a pass from Sanchez to test Ederson with a low strike. Then Lacazette fed Ramsey, who was denied by Ederson in the 59th. In tough circumstances, Ramsey and Lacazette somehow managed to strike an understanding within a few minutes as Ramsey picked out Lacazette, who fired through Ederson’s legs in the 65th to cut the deficit to 2-1. If I were in the manager’s shoes, I would build the team around that partnership because it’s very hard to know what the club can expect from Sanchez and Ozil these days.

On the wings, Bellerin and Kolasinac were so overwhelmed with their defensive duties that Arsenal’s back three often looked like a back five. Both wingbacks made no dribble and had no key pass. Kolasinac was very lucky to get away with a shove from behind on Sterling, who failed to convert Sane’s cross in the 11th. City also did a good job to cut the supply lines between Kolasinac and Sanchez on the left flank and between Bellerin and Ozil on the right.

At the back, Koscielny limited the damage with some smart defending. In a 1v2 situation, Koscielny backed down and forced Sterling to make a poor cross for an unmarked Sane in the 35th. Three minutes later, Koscielny got ahead of Aguero to divert Walker’s teasing cross and force a point-blank save from Cech. The France centerback also killed a counterattack with a cynical foul in the 67th and intercepted De Bruyne’s final ball for Jesus in the 88th.

A North London derby with a Top 4 spot at stake

Koscielny had the best stats of the back three, having a passing accuracy of 88%, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels, and making 5 interceptions and 0 block. By contrast, City’s pressing game exposed Coquelin’s technical limits. Coquelin had a passing accuracy of 65.2%, the lowest percentage of all the starters. On the bright side, Coquelin won 3 of 4 tackles, including one that killed a dangerous counterattack in the 42nd. Monreal’s relative lack of pace proved a liability against the speed of Aguero, Sterling, Sane and Jesus. The Spaniard won none of the 3 tackles he made. At 32, Koscielny is still the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense despite his recurrent Achilles problem. Mustafi would be his natural successor in the squad if Koscielny’s legs let him down, but the Germany international hasn’t proved as reliable yet.

The next game could be crucial in the Top 4 race. The Gunners host Tottenham after the international break. A defeat in the North London derby could leave Arsenal 6 points behind Chelsea, currently in 4th place. The Gunners have shown some serious defensive frailties against City. There’s no way they can win or even get a point against Spurs with another dodgy defensive performance. The result could set the tone for the toughest stretch of the season with 2 games a week until mid-January if the Gunners are still involved in the League Cup.

 

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

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

Arsenal vs. Swansea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive sloppiness

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

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

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

Kolasinac’s hip injury

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

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

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

One-dimensional attack

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

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

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

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

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

Challenging the board

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

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

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

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

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

 

Arsenal vs. Brighton: Gunners get back in Top 4 race with 2-0 win

The Gunners earned a fourth straight win in all competitions and a fourth straight clean sheet in the Premier League by defeating Brighton 2-0 on Sunday. They also got back in the race for a Champions League spot by going level on points with fourth-place Chelsea in the standings.

Arsenal vs. Brighton

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

Wenger made 9 changes to the side that played in the Europa League on Thursday with only Mustafi and Holding retaining their starting spots. Despite the team’s freshness, Arsenal played at an average tempo and needed a second goal in the 56th minute to start feeling comfortable. A lot of fans were frustrated by the number of passes made to reach the final third. Xhaka and the 3 centerbacks combined to make 390 passes, 34 more than the entire Brighton team according to whoscored.com.

Maybe we are too demanding as fans. When a Mourinho team wins ugly, pundits say it’s how champions lift silverware. In August, the Gunners dominated Stoke but ended up losing 1-0. And two weeks ago, they produced their best performance of the season against Chelsea but could only collect one point. On Sunday, Arsenal led in most key categories. They had 25 shots and 16 chances to 9 shots and 6 chances for the Seagulls, according to Squawka. The Gunners also won 11 of 27 tackles compared to 6 of 25 tackles for Brighton. However, the visitors’ tactical approach allowed them to make 8 more interceptions than Arsenal.

Monreal capitalized on a goalmouth scramble in the 16th to open the scoring with a low strike. Credit should be given to Lacazette for keeping the ball in play. The France international headed Xhaka’s overhit free kick toward Mustafi, whose effort got cleared off the line by Duffy. Bellerin pounced on the rebound but had his shot blocked. The ball fell to Monreal, who fired home from 11yards.

Sanchez’s flash of brilliance

Lacazette could have found the net in the opening minutes. He took a pass from Iwobi and unleashed a 25-yard piledriver that rattled the post. Lacazette is often described in the English press as a fox in the box but he also has this ability to score from outside the area and from any angle. From his 4 goal attempts on Sunday, 2 were blocked, 1 was saved and 1 hit the woodwork. Lacazette dispossessed Dunk in the 34th but could only muster a tame shot straight at Ryan.

In their second start together, Lacazette and Sanchez kept working on their understanding. Sanchez made 2 key passes for Lacazette. The Chile striker is now fully fit as stats reflected his trademark hyperactivity: he won 1 of 2 tackles, had 3 of 8 shots on target, 7 turnovers, 6 key passes, and 4 successful dribbles out of 5.

His flash of brilliance in the 56th led to Iwobi’s goal. Sanchez slipped the ball to Lacazette before penetrating in the heart of the Brighton defense. Ramsey played the ball back to Sanchez, who created space for Iwobi by attracting 3 defenders. With his back to goal, Sanchez played Iwobi in with an outrageous backheel flick. Unmarked, Iwobi shot high past Ryan to double the lead.

Iwobi and his reading of the game

Sanchez took on the playmaking duties because Iwobi didn’t create much. Iwobi had a good game with 3 of 3 shots on target, 2 key passes, 1 interception, 2 successful dribbles out of 3, and 2 tackles made, but he’s not as smart as Ozil in his movement and reading of the game. The Nigeria international mustered a tame effort from a tight angle in the 13th instead of feeding Lacazette. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M13 editedIwobi attempts to curl a shot instead of feeding Lacazette. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Obviously, Iwobi tried to curl a shot inside the far post like Thierry Henry. But he doesn’t master that technique yet and Lacazette, a better finisher, was in a better position to score. Iwobi wasted another good situation in the 28th. He ran 40 yards while leading a counterattack. Reaching the edge of the Brighton box, Iwobi had 3 good passing options but opted for a low effort that didn’t trouble Ryan. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M28 editedIwobi could have passed the ball to Lacazette to his right, to Kolasinac to his left or to Sanchez on the left wing. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Iwobi is only 21, so he still has time to improve. But those situations show the gap between a youngster like Iwobi and world-class players like Ozil and Sanchez, who perfectly read the play and make the right decision at the right time.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey had very similar stats. Although Arsenal dominated ball possession, both midfielders still contributed defensively by winning 3 of 8 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels, while making 3 interceptions and 4 blocks. Ramsey had an off day with 6 turnovers and 0 key pass, but he nearly scored from a counterattack in the 42nd. Kolasinac cut the ball back for Ramsey, whose goal-bound effort was stopped by Ryan’s leg.

Lack of coordination

The Seagulls never managed to crack the Arsenal defense. Their plan was to sit deep and wait for counterattacking opportunities. Yet, their few chances came from set pieces and crosses. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick in the fifth minute by fouling Brown. The Brighton striker headed wide the subsequent set piece. The turning point of the game was probably March’s indirect free kick in the 23rd. March struck the post from 25 yards as no Arsenal defender could block his shot.

Brighton decided to throw the kitchen sink in the last 15 minutes by replacing Izquierdo and Brown with Knockaert and Murray, but it proved too little too late. Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Gross in the 84th. Murray got ahead of Mustafi to meet the cross but headed wide. Three minutes later, Mustafi nearly headed into his own net another teasing cross from Gross.

In the first half, Kolasinac was in trouble because of March’s runs in behind. A lack of coordination left Monreal in a 1v2 situation in the 19th. March got the better of Monreal to make a cross that Mustafi cleared. Three minutes later, Kolasinac made a stupid foul on Propper and the subsequent set piece led to March’s scoring chance. Kolasinac was more solid defensively after halftime. He finished the game with 3 key passes, 1 of 2 tackles won, 4 of 4 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 1 block. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also had a header cleared off the line by March in the 62nd. On the opposite wing, Bellerin had a decent game defensively but failed to create any chance.

Holding’s calm performance

At the back, Holding produced a sober and calm performance, miles away from what we see in the Europa League. He showed his self-control by not making any foul. His stats were as good as Mustafi’s. I still wouldn’t trust Holding for big games against the two Manchester clubs, but he’s good enough against weak sides like Brighton. In the continuity of his performance against West Brom, Monreal scored the opener, made 2 key passes, and led all starters with a passing accuracy of 97%. His passing skills and reading of the game are an asset against teams parking the bus.

Koscielny, Ozil, Welbeck and Coquelin should return from injury after the international break. Those injuries show the need for a smart rotation policy throughout the season. The quality of the bench could make the difference in the race for a Top 4 finish. The next game is a trip to Watford on Oct. 14. The Gunners still haven’t won on the road in the Premier League while Manchester United, City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool have already won away from home. Arsenal will need 3 points at Vicarage Road to prove that they can match their rivals.

Arsenal vs. West Brom: Lacazette nets twice in 2-0 win

The Gunners had no room for error on Monday after the top teams won over the weekend. Lacazette scored both goals in the 2-0 win over West Brom to help Arsenal move into 7th place in the Premier League, 6 points behind the two Manchester clubs, and 3 points behind Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. West Brom 2017

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

The defensive performance in the first half was so poor that West Brom could have reached halftime with the lead. The Gunners were more focused on their defensive tasks in the second half and prevented the Baggies from creating any chance.

After the game, Pulis complained about a penalty that the referee failed to award in the eighth minute for a poor challenge from Mustafi on Rodriguez. Obviously, it could have been a different match with West Brom taking the lead. But then, the Gunners were also denied a penalty in the 34th when Krychowiak held Sanchez inside the area. Pulis can blame the referee but if he’s honest, he should also blame himself for relying on a very defensive 5-3-2 system and shifting to a 4-3-3 formation only after his team was two goals down. Arsenal finished the game with 16 shots and 8 chances to 7 shots and 2 chances for the visitors, according to Squawka.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that drew with Chelsea more than a week ago with Elneny and Sanchez replacing Welbeck and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The team selection was a bit intriguing because Sanchez and Lacazette started together for the first time. They might only play 9 months together, or just 5 months if Sanchez leaves in January, but their understanding could prove crucial in helping Arsenal secure a Top 4 finish.

Spot-kick specialist

Lacazette had a solid performance with 2 of 4 shots on target, 1 key pass, 4 successful dribbles out of 4 and 2 of 3 aerial duels won. He showed his flair for goals in the 20th by heading in a rebound after Foster had saved a free kick from Sanchez. The France international doubled the lead in the 67th by drilling a penalty into the bottom corner after Nyom had fouled Ramsey. Lacazette earned a strong reputation in the French league for converting spot kicks, so it made sense to have him as our No. 1 penalty taker. He’s definitely more convincing than Sanchez and Ozil in that duty. Lacazette could have notched a hat trick, but Gibbs deflected out his goal attempt in the 51st. Then Lacazette missed the target from a tight angle in the 70th.

Giroud came off the bench to replace Lacazette in the 82nd. In a 10-minute cameo, Giroud made a positive contribution with 2 key passes. He controlled a long ball from Elneny in the 87th to tee up Xhaka. Three minutes later, Giroud, released Ramsey down the right flank for a low drive that Foster saved with his leg.

When Sanchez starts, the game usually revolves around him. On Monday, Sanchez nearly played second fiddle to Lacazette, often dropping back to create chances with 2 accurate crosses and 1 accurate through ball. Sanchez played a one-two with Lacazette in the fourth minute but was shoved by Dawson when Lacazette returned the pass. Pulis claimed it was a dive but TV replays clearly showed Dawson putting an arm across Sanchez’s chest. Then Sanchez hit a ball over the top for Lacazette in the 70th. It was a decent start for that new attacking duo.

Ramsey as a free-roaming midfielder

Anybody having doubts about the Chile striker’s desire should look at his work-rate: Sanchez made 6 tackles and won 5 fouls and 3 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka. He also led all players with 10 turnovers, his péché mignon, compared to 4 for Lacazette and 3 for Ramsey, according to whoscored.com. Wenger yanked Sanchez off in the 83rd to send on Ozil, who has been nursing a knee inflammation. If his knee doesn’t heal properly, that means Arsenal could miss their two most creative players (Ozil and Cazorla) for many games this season.

One alternative to Ozil in midfield is Iwobi. Unfortunately, Iwobi is still inconsistent and can lack end product. Maybe that’s why the manager played Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder on Monday. In fact, it’s Ramsey’s position when he plays with the Wales team. He headed Bellerin’s volleyed pass over the bar in the 11th and dribbled past Foster in the 32nd only to have his cross intercepted by the West Brom goalkeeper. However, it was his run inside the box in the 66th that gave Arsenal a two-goal cushion. Nyom basically bumped Ramsey out of the pitch with his thigh. The referee awarded a penalty for two obvious reasons. First, Nyom was not playing the ball. And second, Ramsey had run past Nyom.

Elneny teamed up with Xhaka in central midfield. They did OK offensively but their defensive performance was unconvincing. Both had a passing accuracy above 92%, which means that Arsenal could apply constant pressure on the West Brom defense. Their passing range also means that the team can quickly find the forwards when play is stretched. Xhaka and Elneny combined to hit 10 accurate long balls out of 10, according to whoscored.com.

Some more gruyere cheese

However, their defensive contribution was not good enough. They combined to make only 2 tackles, 0 interception and 0 block. The Baggies too easily ran through the midfield in the first half. Krychowiak intercepted Ramsey’s sloppy pass for Elneny in the 38th and ran half the length of the pitch to make a cross for Rodriguez, who headed the ball past Cech. It took a clearance from Monreal off the line to prevent West Brom from equalizing.

It’s not the first time this season that the Arsenal midfield looks like the football version of gruyere cheese. As you can see on the screen capture below, Krychowiak ran past Ramsey and Elneny before getting involved in a foot race with Koscielny. The Gunners still seemed to have the situation under control with Monreal and Mustafi keeping an eye on Robson-Kanu while Xhaka was ahead of Rodriguez.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M38a editedXhaka is ahead of Rodriguez as the Gunners deal with a 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

Then the situation became critical because Xhaka failed to track Rodriguez while Mustafi made the mistake of helping Koscielny, leaving Monreal in a 1v2 situation with Rodriguez and Robson-Kanu. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M38b editedXhaka loses the foot race with Rodriguez as Monreal is in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

Three minutes later, Xhaka showed his lack of defensive focus by not being tight enough to Robson-Kanu. See the screen capture below. Monreal and Kolasinac did not cover themselves in glory either as they failed to block Nyom’s cross for Robson-Kanu. The Wales international flicked the ball on for Rodriguez, who couldn’t put the finishing touch.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M41a editedMonreal and Kolasinac fail to stop Nyom’s cross as Xhaka is not tight to Robson-Kanu. (Photo credit: Sky)

Stopping crosses from the left flank was an issue last season as neither Monreal nor Gibbs could do a decent job. Kolasinac had a decent game but that’s definitely one area where he could improve. The Baggies capitalized on another cross to test Cech on the stroke of halftime. Following a corner, the Gunners cleared their lines and played the offside trap, which turned out to be a mistake. Krychowiak found an unmarked Gibbs down our left flank and the former Arsenal fullback hoisted the ball into the box. Bellerin missed his clearance and Barry forced Cech into an acrobatic save with a header.

Monreal’s outstanding performance

Mustafi proved again the weak link at the back. He won only 30% of his duels, compared to 58.3% for Koscielny and 66.7% for Monreal, according to the club’s website. The Germany international still has this bad habit of making reckless challenges. When Barry hit a long ball toward Rodriguez in the eighth minute, Mustafi just had to show Rodriguez down the line and keep him off his right foot. Somehow, Mustafi brought down Rodriguez with an awkward block attempt as he thought the West Brom striker would shoot with his weaker left foot while in fact Rodriguez was checking back. The referee either played advantage or simply didn’t spot the foul. In any case, he didn’t blow the whistle. So Rodriguez quickly got back on his feet and fired a low strike that Cech diverted onto his far post. Livermore followed up only to sweep the rebound wide.

Monreal was arguably our best defender on Monday. The Spaniard led all players with 6 interceptions and all starters with a passing accuracy of 93.8%, according to whoscored.com. He also won 2 of 5 tackles, while Koscielny and Mustafi won none, and 3 of 4 aerial duels. His clearance in the 38th allowed Arsenal to retain the lead at halftime. Monreal has definitely benefited from the shift to a 3-4-3 system. He wasn’t strong enough in the air to play as a centerback in a back four and his inability to stop dangerous crosses made him a liability as a fullback.

The Gunners next face BATE Borisov on Thursday. I expect the manager to rest a lot of regular starters because it’s an exhausting trip to Eastern Europe and those who play won’t have much time to recover for the early kickoff against Brighton on Sunday. Arsenal can afford a draw or even a loss in Belarus whereas they desperately need 3 points against Brighton to make up ground in the standings.

 

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Defensive shambles exposed in 4-0 loss

It’s time to get really worried. The Gunners are on pace to finish the Premier League season with more than 100 goals conceded after an embarrassing 4-0 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday. They have already let 8 goals in. Only the Hammers have a more porous defense in the league with 10 goals conceded.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal 2017

Photo credit: Alexis Sanchez’s Instagram account

The Reds completely outplayed Arsenal with 10 shots on target to 0. The scoreline could have been more humiliating if Cech had not made 6 saves. Liverpool showed more desire, winning 59% of the duels and 22 tackles to 12, according to the club’s website. By contrast, the Gunners were not at the races. Their performance was so listless that some fans even sang: “you’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

A lot of fans are frustrated because the same old defensive frailties resurfaced at Anfield: Arsenal couldn’t handle crosses, turnovers and counterattacks. What made the loss more bitter is that the Reds looked like a slick machine with a great work-rate while the Gunners couldn’t press as a unit and didn’t seem to pull for each other.

There are obvious signs that this Arsenal squad is regressing. Sunday’s result brought back memories of the 2013-14 season when Arsenal suffered heavy losses at Manchester City (6-3), Liverpool (5-1) and Chelsea (6-0). The players definitely deserve some stick but in the end Wenger can’t escape the fact that he’s the one who hired them.

Three months ago, the manager said the club was one or two signings away from contending in the league. Well, the Liverpool game showed that the Gunners will need more than Lacazette and Kolasinac just to have a decent shot at finishing in the Top 4.

Organizational mess

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Stoke the previous weekend with Koscielny, Holding and Sanchez replacing Mustafi, Kolasinac and Lacazette in the starting lineup. I thought the team selection was weird. Why would you give the nod to Holding over the more experienced Mustafi? Then why would you play a right-footed player like Bellerin in the left wingback position instead of Kolasinac or Monreal? It’s no surprise if Arsenal only made 1 accurate cross compared to 8 for Liverpool, according to whoscored.com.

Up front, the manager picked Welbeck for his pace and physicality. Giroud and Lacazette are more clinical than Welbeck, but Giroud lacks pace while Lacazette is still adjusting to the physical side of the Premier League. The only positive from the team selection was the return of Koscielny and Sanchez, respectively from suspension and injury.

Defending crosses was an issue last season. Sadly, the staff still hasn’t found the cure. Liverpool midfielder Can outjumped the Arsenal defense to head Moreno’s cross wide in the sixth minute. You can see the organizational mess in the screen capture below.

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Moreno and Henderson, circled, are unmarked while 6 Gunners deal with 3 Reds inside the box. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Gunners were so scared of the danger that there were too many of them inside the area while Moreno and Henderson were left unmarked. The irony is that while the Gunners had numerical superiority inside the box, they committed too many players at the near post and left Bellerin in a 1v2 situation with Salah and Can at the far post. What’s the point of having 3 defenders at the near post if they don’t mark anybody?

Some more gruyere cheese?

Liverpool capitalized on some nifty one-touch passing to torment the Arsenal defense with another cross in the 10th. Ramsey failed to track Can, who made a cross for Salah at the far post. Salah beat Bellerin to the ball for a low effort but was denied by Cech.

The Reds finally opened the scoring in the 17th when Xhaka’s risky pass for Bellerin was intercepted by Gomez. Bellerin barely attempted to stop Gomez’s cross while Firmino took advantage of Arsenal’s poor marking to find the net from 6 yards with a free header. You have to give credit to Firmino for his smart movement and his ability to play between the lines. But there was a too big gap between Holding and Koscielny and I thought Holding should have put off Firmino when the Brazilian striker ghosted past Koscielny.

The second goal came from a counterattack starting from the Liverpool box in the 40th. Gomez made an interception and found Wijnaldum, who beat Xhaka with a pass to Can. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M40a editedRamsey and Xhaka are stuck high up the pitch as the Reds counterattack. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese as the ball travelled to Mane, who cut inside Holding to curl a shot into the far corner. The shift to a back three means that the Gunners don’t have numerical inferiority if the midfield is overrun. Of course, the trouble is that defenders still have to win duels. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M40b ed.jpg

The Gunners have numerical superiority but Holding loses his duel. (Photo credit: Sky)

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka in central midfield struggled against Stoke. So it was no surprise to see them completely outplayed by Henderson, Wijnaldum and Can. Ramsey’s tactical indiscipline definitely cost his team. The Wales midfielder was dispossessed 3 times, tied with Ozil for the most by any player. The irony is that Ramsey still performed better than Xhaka, winning 41.7% of his duels and 2 of 6 tackles compared to 20% and 0 of 3 tackles for the Switzerland international, according to Squawka and the club’s website.

Xhaka’s poor positional play

Xhaka has performed poorly in the first 3 games of the season. His weak positional play has often been exposed when opponents hit Arsenal on the fast break. That’s a big concern when you are supposed to be the holding midfielder. Arteta also lacked pace but his positional play wasn’t as dodgy as Xhaka’s. What made Xhaka’s performance look bad was his passing accuracy of 86.8%, well below his usual standards and lower than Ramsey’s 95.8%.

The most depressing part for Arsenal fans is that whoever the manager picks, the midfield is flawed. Wenger replaced Ramsey with Coquelin at halftime, shifting from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Bellerin and Monreal as fullbacks and Oxlade-Chamberlain as a winger. In 45 minutes, Coquelin won 0 tackle and 0 aerial duel and made just 1 interception.

The final goal from a counterattack in the 77th showed again the ineptitude of our midfielders. Coquelin was in a too advanced position as Firmino found Can in midfield. Firmino was already surrounded by Monreal and Xhaka, so there was no reason for Coquelin to come forward. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M77a edited

Firmino beats Monreal, Xhaka and Coquelin with a pass to Can. (Photo credit: Sky)

Trying to make up for Coquelin’s mistake, Holding sprinted forward to press Can. It proved a losing gamble as Can held off Holding to feed Salah on our right flank. Bellerin failed to block Salah’s cross for an unmarked Sturridge, who headed home from two yards. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M77b edited

Koscielny left in a 1v2 situation as Monreal and Holding are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

It was not a game tailored for Ozil, who still led Arsenal players with 2 key passes. The Germany playmaker also won 1 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions. Some poor communication allowed Henderson to dispossess Ozil in the 19th. Henderson played a one-two with Firmino before missing the target. Koscielny hesitated for a split second, probably thinking about the offside trap, and failed to stay with Henderson.

Rushing Holding’s development

Some Gunners seemed incredibly casual on Sunday as if they were playing some kind of friendly. Monreal made a dribbling attempt in midfield and lost possession to Salah, whose low strike was parried by Cech in the 54th. Three minutes later, Liverpool cleared a corner into the path of Bellerin. As the last defender, Bellerin should have kicked the ball back into the box with his first touch. But the Spaniard tried to control the ball with a poor first touch and was dispossessed by Salah, who sprinted 70 yards to slip the ball past Cech for a 3-0 lead. That goal mentally killed the team as a dejected Sanchez sank to his knees.

Bellerin looked like a shadow of the fullback who was voted in the PFA Team of the Year during the 2015-16 season. He won only 22.2% of his duels and 1 of 4 dribbles. The Ox had a poor game too, winning just 28.6% of his duels while making no tackle, but at least he wasn’t involved in a high-profile blunder. It was quite obvious that the Ox had his mind elsewhere.

It might not be the best time for a youngster to play in such a dysfunctional club. I can only sympathize with Holding, whose development is being recklessly rushed. Holding looked average in a back three. The shift to a back four made him look pedestrian in the second half. Holding gave the ball away to Mane in the 70th but Cech took the sting out of Mane’s effort before Bellerin cleared the ball off the line. Three minutes later, Holding was let down by another poor touch and got booked for crashing into Henderson.

Koscielny’s decent performance

Holding was obviously the weak link in the Arsenal defense, leading all players with 4 turnovers. You can’t afford that many turnovers in such a key position. Liverpool’s pressing game clearly put Holding under pressure as he hit only 2 accurate long balls out of 12 and had a passing accuracy of 71.9%, the lowest percentage of all the defenders. On the bright side, Holding won 4 of 4 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions. I still believe Holding should be loaned out to develop at a reasonable pace.

Monreal also underperformed at the back, winning only 1 of 9 tackles and 28.6% of his duels compared to 70% for Koscielny and 55.6% for Holding. The Spaniard was guilty on the last goal and struggled with the pace of the Liverpool wingers. Salah cut inside Monreal in the 25th to fire a low strike that Cech palmed away.

In his first game of the season, Koscielny was one of the few Gunners who performed at a decent level, winning 2 of 2 tackles and 5 of 7 aerial duels and making 4 interceptions and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. Koscielny is a quiet man but he must raise his voice to prevent the ship from sinking, especially since Mertesacker, the natural leader in the squad, is no longer a starter.

Up front, it was a rough day for strikers deprived of service. Welbeck worked his socks off, winning 2 of 4 tackles. He nearly dispossessed Karius twice. His only scoring chance came in the seventh minute when Sanchez led a counterattack. Wrestling with Gomez, Welbeck could only send an off-balance shot over the bar.

Sanchez still lacked a bit of match sharpness in his first game of the season. I guess the manager opted for Welbeck in the lone striker role because Sanchez is more familiar with Welbeck’s game than with Lacazette’s runs. Wenger yanked Sanchez off in the 62nd to send on Giroud, who proved dominant in the air, knocking a high ball down for Lacazette in the 69th and heading Ozil’s free kick over the bar in the 89th.

Just a few days left to save the season

The Gunners now sit in 16th place, 6 points behind Manchester United and 4 points behind Liverpool and City. The manager and the team will be under heavy scrutiny for the next game against Bournemouth on Sept. 9. The atmosphere at the Emirates stadium could quickly become suffocating if the Cherries take the lead or if the Gunners struggle to find the net.

The board members were aware of such a risk when they extended Wenger’s contract. They can only blame themselves for the club’s messy dressing room and shambolic start to the season. Wenger is a very good manager, but the Premier League has become much more competitive in the past couple of years.

During the 2006-07 season, the league had Ferguson, Mourinho and Benitez as top managers. Now Wenger has to compete with Mourinho, Guardiola, Benitez, Conte, Klopp and Pochettino. Some of them belong to a new generation of hands-on manager while Wenger has a more hands-off approach. In the era of micro-managing, some players need more guidance and want answers quickly because their careers are short. I’m not sure Wenger is the kind of person they need.

I still think it’s non-sensical to talk of firing Wenger for the simple reason that no decent manager is available at this stage of the season. If the board wanted a new manager, they had to make a move in the summer.

Now the staff has the international break to sort out the dressing room. And the club has until August 31 to save this season by signing the players it desperately needs. Wenger mentioned Lemar and Mbappe in his news conferences. But Sunday’s humiliating defeat made it clear that the Gunners need defensive leaders, not attacking players.

 

Stoke vs. Arsenal: 1-0 loss exposes midfield issues

There was this hope that the Gunners had turned a corner by winning 4-1 at the Britannia stadium last season. But Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Stoke reminded Arsenal fans that their club was stuck in a time loop like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The result showed again the importance of Koscielny at the back. Without the France defender, who was serving the last game of his three-match ban, the Gunners have already conceded four goals in their first two Premier League games. The Potters also exposed our midfield problems as they too easily reached the Arsenal box.

Stoke City v Arsenal - Premier League

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

You would think that Arsenal dominated the match with 77% of ball possession and 18 shots to 11, but Stoke proved as threatening as the visitors in the final third with both teams having 9 shots each from inside the box. Obviously, the Potters’ game plan was to park the bus and hit Arsenal on the fast break. They also showed more commitment than the Gunners by winning 55% of the duels and making 10 interceptions to 8 and 19 tackles to 16, according to the club’s website.

Wenger made two changes to the side that edged Leicester 4-3 the previous weekend with Mustafi and Ramsey replacing Holding and Elneny in the starting lineup. Holding was not even on the bench as Mertesacker took his spot in the squad. The manager also left out Sanchez, who’s recovering from an abdominal strain. I thought partnering Xhaka with Ramsey in central midfield was a bold move. Coquelin or Elneny would have been a more defensive option than Ramsey. Knowing Stoke’s game plan, Coquelin’s technical limitations would have been of no help to crack their defense. And Elneny would have not provided the same goal threat as Ramsey.

A dysfunctional midfield

Whatever pairing Wenger chooses, the Arsenal midfield will still be dysfunctional. Stoke only had Fletcher and Allen in central midfield, yet that was enough to trouble the Gunners. We simply have no pairing that can match the level of the duo formed by Vieira and Petit or Vieira and Gilberto. Since the solution does not exist in the squad, that means Arsenal can only find it in the transfer market.

The club has less than two weeks left to sign the top defensive midfielder who can shield the back three and help provide more tactical flexibility. Under Ancelotti, Real Madrid had Xabi Alonso and Modric in central midfield with Di Maria as a playmaker in front of them. Zidane added more security by playing a defensive midfielder, Casemiro, behind Kroos and Modric. If we assume that Xhaka is a pacesetter like Kroos and that Ramsey is a box-to-box player like Modric, that means the Gunners would need a ballwinner with better passing skills and a better reading of the game than Coquelin.

In the current 3-4-3 system, Xhaka is the holding midfielder. Unfortunately, he lacks the pace and positional play to perform that role. That’s why Xhaka needs a ballwinner who can relieve him of his defensive duties. A three-man midfield with an efficient ballwinner would also make the shift to a back four safer.

Xhaka had a poor game with a passing accuracy of 85.3%. He won just 20% of his duels compared to 60% for Ramsey, according to the club’s website. Although Ramsey plays in a more advanced position than Xhaka, the Wales midfielder performed better defensively, winning 4 of 6 tackles while Xhaka lost the only tackle he made, according to Squawka.

Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline

Ramsey had three scoring chances. First, he chased a ball over the top from Lacazette in the 17th minute but could only muster a tame shot under Diouf’s pressure. Then, he connected with a free kick from Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 28th for a volley at the far post that Butland saved. In the 60th, Ramsey met a cross from Mustafi for a toe poke straight at the Stoke goalkeeper. Ramsey has often been compared to Gerrard and Lampard, but those two players were more selective in their runs and gave the priority to their defensive duties. It’s no coincidence if Ramsey plays as a free-roaming midfielder in the Wales team. That position makes up for his lack of tactical discipline.

The Arsenal midfield becomes too porous with Xhaka and Ramsey. They combined to have 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. The Potters’ first scoring chance in the third minute showed that the Arsenal midfield is the football version of gruyere cheese (see the screen captures below). Shawcross initially outjumped Lacazette to head a long ball into the path of Fletcher. Somehow, the 33-year-old Fletcher ran past Ramsey and Xhaka to feed Jese. The Spain international evaded Mustafi’s tackle but was denied by Cech.

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Fletcher making a 20-yard run between Ramsey and Xhaka. (Photo credit: NBC)

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The shift to a back three prevents the Arsenal defense from being outnumbered. (Photo credit: NBC)

Stoke’s winning goal in the 47th showed how dysfunctional the Arsenal midfield is. Cameron intercepted Xhaka’s pass for Ozil and found Jese, who ran unopposed for 25 yards before slipping the ball to Berahino on the edge of the box. Berahino played the ball back to Jese, who beat Cech with a low diagonal shot. Ozil got plenty of stick from Keown on BT Sport but the Germany playmaker was covering Ramsey, who got stuck up front (see the screen capture below).

Stoke M47aa edited

Cameron beats two Arsenal midfielders with that short pass to Jese. (Photo credit: NBC)

Xhaka was the main culprit on that play. First, he made a sloppy pass from the halfway line. Then he tried to make up for his mistake and dived in, giving Jese plenty of space to run into. Last season, Wenger switched to a back three because he realized the defense lacked protection from the midfield. The Arsenal defense is rarely outnumbered with three centerbacks but the centerbacks still have to win their duels (see the screen capture below). Monreal hesitated for a split second and was late to block Jese’s shot. I’m pretty sure Koscielny wouldn’t have made that mistake.

Stoke M47bb edited

The Arsenal defense left in a 3v3 situation because of a porous midfield. (Photo credit: NBC)

The absence of Cazorla and Sanchez meant that Ozil carried the burden of creating chances as Xhaka and Ramsey combined to make only one shot assist. The Gunners had 18 shots but very few were clear-cut chances. At times, they even seemed to lack penetration. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes, according to Squawka. He also had 3 successful dribbles out of 4. As usual, his work-rate was poor with 0 tackle and 1 interception.

Losing a source of supply

Wenger’s choices for the wingback positions also limited the potential for creating chances. In the FA Cup final, Bellerin started on the right flank while the Ox roamed down the left. On Saturday, Bellerin and the Ox swapped positions. In both cases, the Gunners are losing a source of supply since Bellerin and the Ox can’t accurately cross with their left foot. It would have made more sense to play Kolasinac on the left flank and the Ox on the right with Mustafi, Monreal and Bellerin as the three centerbacks.

The Ox had a good game with 3 key passes, 7 successful dribbles out of 8 and a passing accuracy of 89%. He also displayed some impressive work-rate with 3 interceptions, 3 blocks and 3 tackles made, according to Squawka. His only weakness was the relative lack of end product with none of his 3 shots on target. Some fans often wonder why the manager hardly plays the Ox in midfield. I guess his dribbling skills are more useful on a wing and his reading of the game is not good enough yet. Lacazette lauched a counterattack with a clearance in the 36th. The ball fell to the Ox, who wasted a promising situation by opting for a long-range effort instead of feeding Ozil or Welbeck (see the screen captures blow).

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The Ox could have played Ozil clean through on goal. (Photo credit: NBC)

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The Ox could have crossed to an unmarked Welbeck at the far post. (NBC)

Bellerin struggled on the left flank as he won only 25% of his duels compared to 58.8% for the Ox on the opposite wing. In fact, his stats are much weaker than when he plays on the right flank. Bellerin made 0 cross, created 0 chance and made 0 dribbling attempt. On the bright side, Bellerin won 2 of 5 tackles and had 2 shots. The Spaniard collected a through ball from Ozil in the 58th to fire a low strike that Butland parried. Bellerin should have definitely been awarded a penalty in the 20th when Diouf tripped him inside the area. Taking the lead so early would have forced Stoke to chase the game and free some space.

Not clinical enough

Up front, it was a frustrating day for Lacazette. The France international had 0 shot, made 0 dribble and won 0 aerial duel. I just think he’s not tailored for the centerforward position in the Premier League. Lacazette used to lead the line for Lyon, but the French league is less physical and more technical than the Premier League. He was outjumped by the Stoke defense whenever the Gunners kicked long balls.

In my eyes, Lacazette would be more productive in the Premier League as a second striker. In the first half, his only moment of brilliance occurred in the 17th when he sent a ball over the top for Ramsey. In the second half, he scored an equalizer but the goal was disallowed for a very marginal offside. TV replays showed the tip of Lacazette’s boot was offside. Wenger was quite upset with the referee’s decision. As long as the Premier League doesn’t introduce the video assistant referee, you can’t really blame the linesmen.

If Lacazette is struggling in the air, why is the manager not playing Welbeck in the centerforward position? One obvious answer lies in Welbeck’s performance: he is simply not clinical enough. The Ox picked out Welbeck with a ball over the top in the 19th but Butland saved Welbeck’s volley. I believe Van Persie would have scored in that kind of situation. Then Ozil made a cross for Welbeck, who headed the ball over the bar in the 59th. When you have a free header, you have to catch the frame. A few minutes later, Giroud played Welbeck in with a first-time pass. Surrounded by two Potters, Welbeck had a heavy second touch and could only hit a toe poke straight at Butland.

Giroud came off the bench to replace Kolasinac in the 66th as the Gunners shifted to a back four. He made an immediate impact by setting up Welbeck in the 67th before feeding Lacazette for the disallowed goal with a backheel flick. In hindsight, maybe the manager should have started Giroud up front knowing that Arsenal would dominate possession and that Stoke would park the bus. In stoppage time, Giroud couldn’t live up to his reputation as a super-sub as he headed Monreal’s cross wide from 12 yards.

A six-pointer at Anfield

At the back, Mustafi had a decent performance for his first game of the season. The Germany international won 2 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels. He missed a tackle that could have proved costly in the third minute before sending shivers down the spine of most Arsenal fans with a 50-50 challenge on Pieters in the 84th. Monreal was obviously guilty on Stoke’s goal but Kolasinac is the centerback whose performance raised a few questions. Kolasinac won 0 of 3 tackles and only 37.5% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi and 66.7% for Monreal. I still believe leftback or wingback is a more natural position for Kolasinac.

I can understand why the manager played Monreal in the back three. The Spaniard is a great asset to play the ball out from the back. Monreal had a passing accuracy of 94% compared to 89% for Kolasinac and 87% for Mustafi. However, Stoke exposed Monreal’s weakness in the air. Shawcross beat Monreal and Mustafi to the ball to head Choupo-Moting’s cross over the bar in the 31st. Berahino also got the better of Monreal in the 62nd for a bouncing header that Cech tipped over the bar.

The Gunners are now under massive pressure for Sunday’s game against Liverpool. A defeat at Anfield could leave them six points off the pace. There’s also the possibility that two straight losses would bring back the negativity from last season. The fans fear the prospect of finishing outside the Top 4 again. For a big club like Arsenal, it’s not acceptable to miss Champions League football two seasons in a row. Sanchez and Koscielny are two of the leaders in the team. The Gunners will definitely need them to get a result at Anfield.

 

Arsenal vs. Leicester: Gunners survive poor defending in 4-3 win

Should we be picky or not after Arsenal opened the Premier League season with a 4-3 victory over Leicester? The Gunners didn’t really look like credible title contenders on Friday as their old defensive frailties resurfaced against an average side. Yet, we shouldn’t forget that Arsenal dropped 3 points on opening day in the past two seasons, losing 4-3 to Liverpool a year ago and 2-0 to West Ham in 2015. In mathematical terms, it’s definitely an improvement.

Arsenal vs. Leicester 2017

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

Down 3-2 with about 10 minutes left, the Gunners showed character to grind out a win that was fully deserved. They enjoyed 70% of ball possession and had 27 shots compared to just 6 for the Foxes. Arsenal also showed more commitment than the visitors, winning 61% of the duels, and making 24 tackles and 13 interceptions compared to 17 tackles and 10 interceptions for Leicester, according to the club’s website. It’s a good result if we keep in mind that Koscielny was suspended, Mustafi was on the bench but not really fit, and Sanchez, Mertesacker, Paulista and Cazorla were injured.

Wenger made two changes to the side that defeated Chelsea in the Community Shield a week ago with Ozil and Kolasinac replacing Iwobi and Mertesacker in the starting lineup. Tactically, there was no surprise from the Foxes, who used the blueprint that helped them win the league during the 2015-16 season.

Arsenal relied on the 3-4-3 system that has produced good results since April. Chasing the victory, Wenger shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 67th by sending on Ramsey and Giroud for Elneny and Holding. When the Gunners charged forward, it pretty much looked like the old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system used against Manchester United last season. But whatever system is used, the closing minutes showed that it’s still the quality of the players that makes the difference.

The super-sub strikes again

In his Premier League debut, Lacazette found the net by the second minute. The French international headed in a cross from Elneny to give Arsenal the lead. He could have scored another goal in the 85th but Schmeichel tipped his strike over the bar. Lacazette was tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 90%, which is unusual for a centerforward. He also displayed some great work-rate by making 5 tackles and contributed to the team’s passing game with 3 shot assists. Lacazette made a cross for Ramsey, who headed wide in the 68th, and then set up Xhaka for a volley that Schmeichel saved in the 70th.

I thought Lacazette could have enjoyed better service. His teammates probably need a bit more time to understand his runs and capitalize on his excellent movement. Lacazette’s integration is nevertheless a success if we remember how long it took for Henry to score his first Arsenal goal after his transfer from Juventus. He’s a false nine like Sanchez, but the big difference between the two strikers is that Lacazette doesn’t feel the need to touch the ball as often as the Chile forward. Last season, Sanchez sometimes ended up making more passes than Ozil. That won’t happen with Lacazette.

Giroud does not have Lacazette’s pace but his power and dominance in the air are great assets in a physical league like the Premier League. Wenger had no doubt that Giroud and Lacazette could be complementary as they played together the last 25 minutes of the game. It was in fact Giroud who played the ball back to Lacazette in the 85th. Giroud scored the winning goal a few seconds later by holding off Maguire and Morgan to head Xhaka corner under the bar.

Welbeck’s crucial equalizer

Technically, Welbeck is a compromise between Giroud and Lacazette. The England international has more pace than Giroud and is stronger in the air than Lacazette. He has often been criticized for his relative lack of end product, but his crucial goal on the stroke of halftime allowed the Gunners to head back to the dressing room with the score tied at 2-2. When Ozil found Lacazette inside the box, the French striker could only muster a tame sliding effort. Yet, the ball fell to Kolasinac, who fed Welbeck for a close-range chip.

Starting on the left wing, Welbeck teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain for a long-range strike in the 59th and played Bellerin in for a low shot that Schmeichel saved with his legs in the 62nd. Welbeck can swap positions with Lacazette, which means that the ballholder often has two passing options inside the box. The 3-4-3 system then turns into a 3-5-2 formation when Ozil drops back to get involved in the build-up.

By his own standards, Ozil had an average game. He led all players with 6 key passes but also had 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. One of his turnovers led to a corner and Okazaki’s equalizer in the fifth minute. Ozil finished the game with 81 passes, trailing only Xhaka’s 99. He seemed to lack a bit of sharpness in the final third as he dragged a low drive wide in the 49th and attempted a poor volley in the 74th. Ozil’s only moment of magic was the one-two he played with Welbeck in the 22nd.

The Ox’s work-rate

On the left flank, Oxlade-Chamberlain was among the Gunners who suffered from a bout of nervousness in the first half. Despite a couple of stray passes from the wingback position, the Ox grew into the game to lead all players with 8 successful dribbles out of 9. His work-rate was quite impressive as the Ox won 3 of 4 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions, 2 key passes and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. The only weakness in the Ox’s performance was his lack of accuracy in the final third with just 2 of 6 shots on target. On the opposite wing, Bellerin didn’t shine as much as the Ox for the simple reason that Albrighton gave him a hard time while Mahrez’s poor work-rate played into the Ox’s hands.

In central midfield, the manager partnered Xhaka with Elneny. Cazorla’s long-term absence means that Xhaka is the only player in the squad who can set the tempo, assuming that Ozil can’t play in a deeper position. To build his midfield around Xhaka, Wenger had the choice between Coquelin, Ramsey and Elneny. Coquelin is the most defensive option and is technically limited. Ramsey is a bigger goal threat but lacks tactical discipline. In the end, the manager opted for a compromise by starting Elneny.

Elneny did enough defensive work to help Xhaka pull the strings in midfield. He won 2 of 4 tackles, made 2 blocks and even created 2 chances, including the cross for Lacazette’s opening goal. When Arsenal needed more presence in the final third, Wenger replaced Elneny with Ramsey. The Wales midfielder made it 3-3 in the 83rd by controlling Xhaka’s cross to fire an angled effort past Schmeichel.

Pub defending

Xhaka is usually tidy in possession but made a couple of sloppy passes on Friday. His turnover in the 29th led to Vardy’s goal. Xhaka nearly cost his team another goal in the 52nd when Mahrez intercepted his pass to send a ball over the top for Vardy. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to clear the ball. Despite a passing accuracy of 81%, Xhaka still managed to hit 12 accurate long balls out of 15, the most for any outfield player according to whoscored.com. Xhaka somehow made up for his mistakes by setting up the last two goals.

At the back, the Gunners got plenty of stick for their pub defending. Most of Leicester’s chances came from turnovers or set pieces. The Foxes leveled in the fifth minute from a short corner. Unmarked at the far post, Maguire headed Albrighton’s cross into the path of Okazaki, who outjumped Xhaka to beat Cech. The Gunners committed too many players at the near post and in the middle of the box, leaving the far post exposed. Cech’s decision-making was poor on that play as he ended up in no man’s land.

The Foxes’ third goal in the 56th showed the limits and complexity of zonal marking. Vardy started his run from beyond the penalty spot and jumped unopposed to nod in Mahrez’s corner. The Leicester striker was able to get a free header because he spotted a gap between Monreal, Xhaka and Welbeck. The culprit on that play was Xhaka, who saw Vardy run in front of him but failed to mark him. Zonal marking requires flexibility to be successful and Xhaka clearly failed to adapt to the situation. Still, it’s very tricky to make the right decision in a split second. If you follow a player, you may leave a gap that could be exploited by another player. And if you stay in your zone, you may let an opponent have a free header. Xhaka’s involvement in the 3 Leicester goals tells you that he’s not a defensive midfielder.

Loaning out Holding?

Holding was again the weak link in the back three. The U23 player proved strong in the air, winning 4 of 4 headers, but he’s still a bit too naive for the Premier League. He made a sloppy pass in the 23rd and was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Fuchs in the 33rd and Maguire in the 44th. Holding definitely needs to iron out mistakes from his game. Ten years ago, Arsenal could finish in the Top 4 despite starting youngsters like Denilson, Djourou and Bendtner in league games. But the Premier League has become much more competitive nowadays. If Wenger tries to speed up Holding’s development by playing him in league games, that will cost Arsenal quite a few goals. It would be less dangerous to loan him out.

Monreal took over the sweeper role when Mertesacker got injured in the Community Shield. The manager left Monreal in the middle of the back three on Friday, thinking the Spaniard could cope with Vardy and Okazaki in the air. Monreal won only 3 of 6 headers. He misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 40th and missed his header but Holding covered him and cleared the danger. On the bright side, Monreal’s technique allowed him to have a passing accuracy of 95% and his reading of the game helped him make 5 interceptions, the most for any player according to Squawka.

No gimme

Kolasinac’s performance was a mixed bag. He won 4 of 5 tackles, the most for any player, made an assist and had a volley turned around the post in the 27th. But he should have been tighter to Vardy for Leicester’s second goal. Kolasinac also had a risky pass intercepted by Mahrez on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 55th. If everybody was fit, I’d feel more comfortable with Kolasinac in the wingback position than as a centerback.

Saturday’s results show that there’s no gimme in the Premier League nowadays: Chelsea lost to Burnley and Liverpool drew with Watford. Arsenal’s defensive performance against Leicester was horrible but the three points give the team some time to work on those weaknesses and build confidence. The Gunners will need to show the same team spirit when they visit Stoke on Saturday as Koscielny will still be suspended and Sanchez won’t have recovered yet from his abdominal strain.