Tag Archives: Monreal

Gunners save season by downing Chelsea 2-1 in FA Cup final

Sanchez and Ramsey scored on Saturday to give Arsenal a record 13th FA Cup and make Wenger the most successful manager in that competition with a 7th title. The Gunners were complete underdogs before kickoff. I remember reading the Evening Standard on Friday and all their six pundits predicted a Chelsea victory. On the one hand, the Blues had no injured or suspended player and could therefore field a full-strength team. On the other, the Gunners were so badly crippled by injury or suspension that there was no defender on the bench.

FA Cup final

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

Wenger made a gutsy call by giving Mertesacker his first start of the season despite question marks over the match fitness of the German centerback. Koscielny’s suspension, Gibbs’ illness and injuries to Mustafi and Paulista also forced the manager to use Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback on the left flank. The key for Arsenal was to avoid playing a high defensive line that could expose Mertesacker’s lack of pace.

Tactically, the Gunners annihilated Chelsea’s strengths by using the same 3-4-3 system as Conte. They met twice in the Premier League this season. Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates stadium in September when both sides were playing with four defenders at the back. Conte then switched to a back three to beat the Gunners 3-1 in February. At that time, Wenger was still hesitating between his favored 4-2-3-1 formation and a more industrious 4-3-3 system. Those Premier League games became irrelevant on Saturday since the FA Cup final was the first meeting between Conte and Wenger in which both played a back three.

I wasn’t optimistic before the game. I thought Arsenal would be punished for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Holding’s inexperience. My only hope was the 2-1 win over Manchester City in the semifinals. Maybe we could win if the Blues missed their chances and the Gunners converted theirs. In the end, Arsenal showed more desire than Chelsea, making 23 tackles to 20 and 17 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website. The scoreline was quite misleading. The Blues were so badly outplayed that nobody would have complained if the Gunners had won 4-1 or 5-2.

Ramsey’s late runs

Arsenal capitalized on a spell of domination in the opening minutes to open the scoring with a controversial goal. Sanchez charged down a clearance from Kante and the ball hit the Chile striker’s arm before landing at the feet of an offside Ramsey. Luiz and Cahill froze while Ramsey let Sanchez take his chance. Sanchez flicked the ball past Courtois with the outside of his boot to put the Gunners ahead after three minutes.

The controversy was not so much about Ramsey’s offside position, since he didn’t play the ball, but about Sanchez’s handball. You can argue that Sanchez was simply trying to protect his face and that the handball was therefore unintentional. It’s not the first time that a referee has allowed a goal to stand despite a handball in the buildup. Trezeguet scored a similar goal in France’s 2-2 draw with Croatia at the Euro 2004.

Sanchez created the winning goal in the 79th by releasing Giroud down the left wing. Giroud made a cross for Ramsey, who headed the offering into the bottom corner. The understanding between Ramsey and Giroud made the difference on that play. Ramsey’s deep runs are hard to track for any defense. Kante lost track of Ramsey, who was able to find some space between Luiz and Alonso inside the box.

Chelsea struggled to mark Sanchez and Ozil because they have a lot of freedom in Wenger’s 3-4-3 system. As inside forwards, Sanchez and Ozil can find space between the centerbacks and the wingbacks. They can also drop back to exploit the space between the centerbacks and the midfielders. The main drawback of that formation is that Sanchez and Ozil can sometimes be isolated if there’s no support from the wingbacks or midfielders. That explains in great part their high turnover rate. Sanchez had 11 turnovers and Ozil 6, more than any other player according to whoscored.com.

Ozil’s work-rate

The reason why Sanchez and Ozil are considered world-class players is their reading of the game. They can see and make the right pass even under pressure. Sanchez initiated a counterattack in the 55th with a cross-field pass to Bellerin, who failed to find two Gunners at the far post with his cross. The Chile striker also slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was cleared off the line by Cahill in the 16th. It was a good effort since Ozil hit the ball with his weaker right foot. In the closing minutes, Giroud picked out Ozil, who cut inside Azpilicueta only to strike the near post.

Ozil finished the game with 3 key passes and worked harder than usual. The Germany playmaker made 2 tackles compared to none for Pedro and Hazard. He also played a key role in Arsenal’s passing game with 65 passes, second behind Xhaka’s 73. By contrast, Hazard made only 35 passes, fifth behind Azpilicueta, Luiz, Kante and Cahill in the Chelsea team. Sanchez made no tackle but disrupted the Blues’ passing game with 3 interceptions, tied with Monreal and Bellerin for the most by an Arsenal player.

Up front, Welbeck struggled with his finishing. He met a corner in the 19th for a header that crashed against the far post. Then Welbeck took a pass from Bellerin in the 30th and was denied by Courtois from a tight angle while a cross to Ramsey for a tap-in was the better option. On the bright side, Welbeck worked his socks off to cover Sanchez or Ozil when they were stuck high up the pitch. Giroud came off the bench in the 78th to set up Ramsey for the winner.

Moses’ dive

Ramsey has received a lot of stick this season and much of it was not deserved. First, injuries have marred his season. Ramsey never really had a good run of games to find his groove. And second, the few times Ramsey was fit, he had to play in a dysfunctional team. It’s only last month against Middlesbrough that Wenger found the right balance between defense and attack with the 3-4-3 formation.

In my eyes, Ramsey was Arsenal’s best player at Wembley. Ramsey didn’t get off to a good start by collecting a yellow card for pulling back Pedro in the ninth minute. But he grew into the game and was unlucky to chest the rebound against the post after Welbeck hit the woodwork in the 19th. Ramsey finished the game with 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 95.1%, the highest percentage among the starters. He also made 2 interceptions and won 60% of his duels and 2 of 3 tackles for an outstanding overall performance. Kante, Xhaka and Matic had a lower percentage for duels won, according to the club’s website. Xhaka’s focus on the defensive tasks allowed Ramsey to make his trademark late runs in the box. The Switzerland midfielder tested Courtois with a long-range volley in the 32nd.

The Blues were surprisingly lethargic in the first half. Maybe they took their foot off the pedal after celebrating their Premier League title. Chelsea played with more purpose in the second half and equalized after Fabregas replaced Matic in the 61st and Conte sent on Willian for Pedro in the 72nd. Somehow, Moses hurt the Blues’ chances by receiving two yellow cards. The first one was for a cynical foul on Welbeck in the 57th and the second resulted from a blatant dive to win a penalty in the 68th.

Holding as the weak link

Arsenal showed a lot of solidarity at the back to frustrate Chelsea. One defensive play in the 15th set the tone for the game: three Gunners united their efforts to block a shot from Costa. Mertesacker was dominant in the air, winning 5 duels. Only Cahill did better with 6, according to whoscored.com. On the ground, Monreal relied on his reading of the game to win 4 of 4 tackles, the most for any Gunner.

The wingbacks, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin, contributed defensively to keep Pedro and Hazard relatively quiet. Pedro still managed to get two chances by finding some space between Monreal and Mertesacker in the 39th and then between Ramsey and the centerbacks in the 59th. But each time Pedro missed the target.

In his return from injury, the Ox ran out of gas in the second half and was replaced by Coquelin in the 82nd. Bellerin was cautious in the first half and showed more audacity after the break. The Spaniard tested Courtois with a first-time effort from 18 yards in the 65th. Bellerin then led a counterattack in the 84th and dribbled past Luiz to fire a low strike wide of the far post.

Holding proved the weak link at the back. Chelsea’s best chances came from duels Holding lost. As Costa chased a long ball in the 28th, Holding tried to shield the ball for Ospina but was outmuscled by Costa, whose point-blank shot bounced off the Colombia goalkeeper. That was poor decision-making from Holding, who made a similar mistake against Manchester United three weeks ago by attempting a risky backpass instead of clearing the ball into touch. Holding was booked in the 53rd for an obstruction on Costa.

Wenger’s snipe

Chelsea’s equalizer in the 76th was the result of three Arsenal errors. First, Ozil lost possession to Luiz in midfield. Second, the Ox was late to stop Willian’s cross. And third, Holding was wrongfooted and struggled to change direction when Costa chested the ball down before pulling the trigger. TV Commentators claimed Ospina made a mistake because he got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. I thought that was harsh for Ospina because Costa’s 10-yard shot took a deflection.

The Blues nearly leveled in the 86th. Giroud sat too deep and failed to prevent Kante from hitting a ball over the top. Hazard beat Holding to the high ball and redirected it into the path of Costa, who chested the ball down and was denied by Ospina from 7 yards. Costa reacted more quickly than Mertesacker on that play. Ospina made two other key saves, stopping a long-range effort from Kante in the 49th and palming away a low strike from Moses in the 51st.

The Gunners have saved their season with that FA Cup title. Wenger couldn’t help having a snipe at the Arsenal board and the fans before and after the game. The French manager complained about the “lack of respect” and stressed how the “uncertainty” over his future affected the players. It’s now obvious that Wenger wanted some public backing from the board when the results were poor and the fans protested. In any case, that was a no-win situation for the board. If they had backed him, they would have antagonized the fans. By remaining coy, the board put Wenger under more scrutiny, which is what happened with Van Gaal last season at Manchester United. Ironically, both Wenger and Van Gaal finished fifth and won the FA Cup.

Papering over the cracks

Wenger also chastised the fans by stating that “once the game starts and you’re a fan, you stand behind the team.” He also added: “We played some games in a very hostile environment and I will never accept that.” It’s hard to disagree on that point. I think the best way for the fans to protest was to leave a lot of empty seats like they did against Sunderland. Demonstrations outside the stadium were OK but hostile chants and banners inside the stadium were wrong. What kind of player would like to stay in such a club?

The board will meet on Tuesday before announcing Wenger’s future. There’s some obvious tension between the board and the manager. It feels like the FA Cup is papering over the cracks of a disappointing season. The Gunners played 6 games and faced only 2 big teams (Manchester City and Chelsea) to lift the FA Cup, while Chelsea played 38 games and faced 5 big teams twice to win the Premier League. There’s no doubt that the Premier League is the more important competition and the 18-point gap between Chelsea and Arsenal is a reminder that the club needs more than one or two signings to contend next season. Wenger’s failures in the transfer market and in the assessment of the quality of his squad have been obvious in the past two years.

If the board has found a better manager, now is the perfect time to make the transition and maybe offer Wenger the position of sporting director. Otherwise, the board will have to say that it’s Wenger’s last contract in the hope that it could appease the fans with the obvious risk that protests could start again next season if the results are poor.

 

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners miss out on Top 4 despite 3-1 win

The Gunners’ 3-1 win over Everton on Sunday was their fifth straight victory in the Premier League. Unfortunately, they hit top form too late as they finished fifth, one point behind Liverpool. Optimists will point out that Arsenal racked up 4 more points than last season, suggesting that it’s an improvement. Realists will notice the 18-point gap with Chelsea, concluding that the club is regressing, especially since it’s only the second time under Wenger’s tenure that Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League.

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

For most fans, 2016-17 has been a disappointing season. It’s definitely not a bad season, otherwise the Gunners would have wound up in the middle of the table like Chelsea did a year ago. But it can’t be described as a good season for the simple reason that Arsenal finished behind Tottenham and Liverpool. I can accept the fact that Chelsea and Manchester City do better because they are both backed by generous billionaires while Kroenke is treating Arsenal like a cash cow, taking money out of the club. But finishing behind Liverpool and Tottenham is embarrassing because the Gunners have a bigger payroll and spent more money in the transfer market than those two clubs.

A quick look at the table shows where the problem is. Arsenal scored 77 goals in 38 games to claim the fifth best offense in the league and conceded 44 goals to have the sixth best defense. A total of 77 goals is decent compared to Tottenham and Chelsea, which are the top scoring teams with 86 and 85 goals respectively. But conceding 44 goals is too much compared to Spurs and the Red Devils, who have leaked 26 and 29 goals respectively. The last time the Gunners conceded 44 goals or more was during the 2011-12 season, when they finished 19 points behind the two Manchester clubs. Yes, we are back to square one!

Holding’s inexperience

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that defeated Sunderland 2-0 last Tuesday, with Koscielny, Paulista and Welbeck replacing Mustafi, Gibbs and Giroud in the starting lineup. Mustafi and Gibbs were injured while Welbeck’s pace meant that he was a better option against Everton than Giroud. Arsenal showed more commitment than the Toffees, winning 61% of the duels, and making 12 interceptions to 10 and 18 tackles to 9, according to the club’s website.

The Toffees tried to press high up the pitch in the opening minutes but ended up running into the void because the 3-4-3 formation means that the Gunners have an extra man at the back. The system gives more room for error but is not infallible. Holding’s inexperience proved quite costly in the 14th minute. What was he doing 70 yards away from the Arsenal goal? Valencia outpaced Monreal down our left flank and dribbled past Holding before Koscielny took him down with a reckless tackle.

Koscielny’s red card was deserved. The France defender was not in control and missed the ball. That was really poor decision-making. But I can understand his rationale. Holding was out of position, which means that a dangerous 3v2 situation was developing, with Koscielny and Paulista facing Mirallas, Lukaku and Valencia. To a certain extent, that challenge reminded me of Koscielny’s first season at the club when he collected two red cards.

Holding had a poor game, with a passing accuracy dipping to 73.9%, the lowest percentage for any defender. He made 0 interception and 2 blocks and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Ten years ago, Arsenal could start a youngster like Holding on a regular basis and still finish in the Top 4. Nowadays, it’s no longer possible because the level in the Premier League has significantly improved. For instance, Ake is a promising prospect at Chelsea but even Conte sees him as a bench warmer. A loan next season is a necessity both for Holding and Arsenal: Holding needs more playing time while the club needs to speed up his development.

Mertesacker’s 1st game of the season

Everton’s goal in the 58th came from another mistake from Holding, who misjudged the flight of the ball and handled it while trying to chest down a cross from Baines. Lukaku converted the subsequent penalty to cut Arsenal’s lead to 2-1. Everton found more space after Koscielny’s ejection. The shift to a back four also exposed Holding a bit more. In the 62nd, Valencia outmuscled Holding, who was booked for an obstruction on the Everton winger. Then Lukaku ghosted past Holding in the 83rd but headed Barry’s long ball wide.

Maybe the Gunners would have not struggled so badly if the referee had treated Williams with the same severity he showed to Koscielny. The Everton centerback received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 19th and should have been booked again in the 55th for tripping Welbeck. The referee kept the card in his pocket although it was clearly a cynical foul.

Paulista became a second choice after his poor performance against Tottenham. Yet, he stepped up following Koscielny’s sending-off. Paulista cut out a cross for Lukaku in the 30th, made a perfectly timed challenge on Mirallas in the 36th, killed a counterattack with another timely tackle in the 42nd and deflected out Lukaku’s shot on the stroke of halftime. However, his luck ran out in the 49th when he challenged Valencia, twisting his knee in the collision.

In less than 50 minutes, Paulista had a passing accuracy of 95.8%, made 1 interception and 3 blocks, and won 1 of 2 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He also won 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for any starting defender, according to the club’s website. Paulista was stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Mertesacker in the 53rd. The German defender was making his first appearance of the season and caused a bit of panic with a dodgy tackle on Valencia in the 55th. The referee turned down Everton’s penalty shout.

A more confident Bellerin

Cech made a couple of key saves to help Arsenal reach halftime with a 2-0 lead. He stopped a toe poke from Lukaku afer a goalmouth scramble in the 38th, turned around the post a long-range strike from Gueye in the 41st and tipped over the bar a looping header from Lukaku in the 43rd.

Wenger shifted to a back three last month because the midfield was not good enough to protect the defense, but also because the back four was not performing well: Bellerin and Mustafi both had a drop in form while Monreal struggled to stop crosses.

In the 3-4-3 formation, Bellerin proved he could be an attacking threat down the right flank. He doesn’t have Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dribbling skills but his deep runs and movement can create problems for any defense. The Spaniard finished the game with 1 goal, 2 key passes, 2 interceptions and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 1 tackle and 1 of 3 aerial duels. Bellerin has not yet recovered his defensive level from last season, but at least he’s playing with more confidence than 2 months ago. He only won 33% of his duels compared to 71% for Monreal.

Monreal is more comfortable with the new system because his positional play makes a bigger difference. He started Sunday’s game as a wingback before Koscielny’s ejection forced him to turn into a fullback. In a back four, Monreal’s relative lack of pace can be a liability to stop crosses. He was more busy defensively than Bellerin because Valencia proved a bigger threat than Mirallas. Monreal won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 1 block.

Ozil and Sanchez have a lot of freedom in the 3-4-3 system. Offensively, Sanchez enjoys cutting inside from the left flank while Ozil roams across the entire attacking line. Defensively, their lack of tactical discipline can put the wingbacks in trouble. It’s therefore not a surprise that fullbacks Holgate and Baines led Everton players with 3 key passes each.

Awkward in the final third

While his work-rate is still an issue, Ozil’s creativity is definitely an asset in the final third. The Germany playmaker created the opening goal in the eighth minute by squaring the ball back for Welbeck, who missed a tap-in from 3 yards. As the ball rolled under Welbeck’s studs, Bellerin rushed at the far post to score into an empty net. In stoppage time, Ozil produced some slick work on the left wing to set up Ramsey, who quickly turned to curl into the top corner for a 3-1 lead.

Ozil often showed off his dribbling skills when he played for Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen. Nowadays, he doesn’t dribble much, which is a shame, because I think he could still beat defenders. Ozil won a free kick in the 64th by completely wrongfooting Schneiderlin. He finished the game with 3 key passes, but also 0 tackle, 0 interception, and 0 aerial duel won, compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 1 aerial duel won for Sanchez, and 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 aerial duels won for Welbeck.

Despite his involvement in 2 goals, Welbeck was incredibly awkward in the final third. Bellerin combined with Sanchez in the second minute to make a cross for Welbeck, who missed the target with his volley from 4 yards. Somehow, Welbeck was credited with an assist for the opening goal because he slightly diverted Ozil’s cross. He claimed a second assist in the 27th for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A long-range effort from Sanchez hit Welbeck, who was played onside by two Toffees. Welbeck beat Robles to the loose ball to set up Sanchez for a tap-in.

Ramsey’s 1st goal of the season

Early in the second half, Welbeck capitalized on a mazy run from Sanchez to be clean through on goal but was denied by Robles. In stoppage time, Bellerin picked out Welbeck, who shot straight at the Everton goalkeeper. Besides the two assists, Welbeck impressed with a strong hold-up play. He won 83.3% of his duels according to the club’s website and had a passing accuracy of 96.4%. Both stats are quite unusual for a centerforward.

Sanchez has enjoyed his best season in the Premier League with 24 goals and 10 assists. He could have raised his tally to 25 goals but Robles punched away his angled free kick in the 32nd. The bad news is that the Chile striker picked up a hamstring injury later on and was replaced by Iwobi in the 67th. Iwobi had a couple of chances to make a good impression. He chested down a cross from Bellerin in the 85th only to have his shot blocked by Holgate. Three minutes later, Iwobi slalomed through the Everton defense but was denied by Robles.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey were ineffective defensively, combining to win 0 of 5 tackles and make 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. They might be the most complementary midfield pairing by default because of Cazorla’s absence, but that should give the manager some food for thought for next season, especially if Cazorla’s ankle injury doesn’t heal and if the Gunners switch back to a back four. Ramsey struggled in the first half before growing into the game. The Wales midfielder slipped a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Robles in the 75th. He then scored his first goal of the season with a curling shot in stoppage time. It might be a good omen for the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday.

Lack of choice at the back

The Blues are the favorites because they just won the league and have no injured player. On the other hand, the Gunners will miss some key players. Koscielny will serve his suspension, Paulista is unlikely to recover from his knee injury, and Sanchez, Mustafi, Gibbs and the Ox will have late fitness tests.

The back three is clearly the biggest problem for the manager. When everybody is fit, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are the obvious starters. Now Wenger only has the choice between Mertesacker, Holding, Monreal and maybe Mustafi for the three starting spots. Starting Mertesacker would be a huge gamble because he has only played one competitive game this season and his lack of pace would be a liability against Costa, Hazard, Willian and Pedro.

The beauty of football is that anything can happen in a game. The better team doesn’t always win. In the FA Cup semifinals, the Citizens played better than Arsenal but still ended up losing 2-1 in extra time. Winning the FA Cup wouldn’t make up for the disappointing Premier League campaign. But it would definitely bring a smile to the fans and the players after a rough season.

Stoke vs. Arsenal: Sanchez, Giroud lead Gunners to 4-1 win

It took Wenger a lot of time to fix the flaws in his team. Cazorla’s recurrent injury forced the French manager to try several midfield pairings in the first half of the season. But none of those pairings could protect the defense efficiently. So Wenger tweaked the system a bit by sporadically using an inverted pyramid midfield in February and March. However, the losses to Chelsea, Bayern Munich and West Brom showed the team needed a stronger remedy.

Stoke vs. Arsenal

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

The Arsenal manager came to the conclusion that the solution was not in midfield but at the back. He finally switched to a 3-4-3 system against Middlesbrough on April 17. Guardiola at Manchester City and Pochettino at Tottenham have played a back three quite a few times this season while this was the first time in 20 years that Wenger relied on three centerbacks. Since that tactical shift, the Gunners have won six games and conceded one loss in all competitions.

There was a time when Wenger could find answers more quickly. During the 2014-15 season, Arsenal struggled in midfield because of injuries. Stuck in sixth place at the end of November, the Gunners were losing ground in the race for a Champions League spot. By December, the manager decided to recall Coquelin from his loan spell at Charlton. The partnership formed by Coquelin and Cazorla in midfield proved instrumental in Arsenal’s third-place finish.

When the going gets tough, the skills of a manager can be tested by the speed of his reaction. Wenger needed 9 months to stop the bleeding. At the top level, that’s too slow for a manager. Chelsea leaked a lot of goals when Conte took over. The Italian manager needed just two months to turn the Blues into champions. Ironically, Conte switched to a back three after an embarrassing 3-0 loss at the Emirates in September.

Fewer softies

On Saturday, Wenger made 4 changes to the side that won 2-0 at Southampton on Wednesday with Koscielny, Bellerin, Coquelin and Giroud replacing Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Gibbs and the Ox were sidelined by injuries while Ramsey and Welbeck started on the bench.

Stoke and Arsenal had 8 chances and 10 shots each, but the Gunners proved more clinical. The Britannia stadium is usually a hostile ground. Yet, Arsenal managed to match the Potters’ commitment by winning 55.2% of the duels and making as many interceptions as the hosts, according to the club’s website.

The 3-4-3 formation is the main reason for the number of duels won. Basically, there are fewer softies in the team. Walcott and Iwobi were starters in the first half of the season. In the new system, Walcott has been replaced by the Ox or Bellerin on the right flank while Iwobi has lost his spot to the third centerback. It’s no surprise to see Holding and Bellerin win more duels than Iwobi and Walcott.

The key to a lot of goals is the understanding between the players involved. Giroud opened the scoring in the 42nd minute by converting a cross from Bellerin. The France striker then made it 4-1 in the 80th by sliding home a cross from Ramsey. Bellerin is spending his third season with the first team and has a good idea of the kind of service Giroud needs. Likewise, Ramsey has struck a good understanding with Giroud, especially since the 2013-14 season when Giroud’s link-up play helped Ramsey score a lot of goals.

Scoring while being injured

Giroud got the nod up front because his lack of pace is less relevant against teams sitting deep and letting Arsenal enjoy a lot of possession. His outstanding movement inside the box definitely made a difference as he converted his only two goal attempts. He also created two chances before Walcott replaced him in the 84th.

It’s no secret that Sanchez and Ozil love finding each other on the pitch. Yet, the Potters seemed to have no clue in the 55th when Ozil played a one-two with Sanchez before chipping Butland for a 2-0 lead. Whelan and Johnson failed to track Ozil on that play while Sanchez had plenty of time to make a perfectly weighted pass. Sanchez made it 3-1 in the 76th by taking a pass from Bellerin to bury the ball into the bottom corner. He was not even supposed to be on the pitch anymore: Sanchez picked up a hamstring injury after Martins Indi fouled him in the 64th. Somehow, Sanchez tried to carry on before gesturing toward the bench in the 73rd for a substitution. Ramsey finally replaced Sanchez just a minute after the Chile striker scored Arsenal’s third goal.

Sanchez produced an amazing performance with 1 goal and 1 assist but also 4 tackles and 1 interception. He had 5 successful dribbles and was fouled 6 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Ozil had a poor work-rate despite 1 goal and 2 key passes. The Germany playmaker made 1 dribble, 0 tackle, 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. Ozil was nowhere near Pieters when the Stoke leftback made a dangerous cross that Monreal headed out in the 63rd. I’m not sure Ozil would get a free pass for defensive duties with other managers.

Xhaka overestimating his abilities

In his 15-minute cameo, Ramsey made a strong impression with an assist and a shot on target. He sent Shawcross to the floor by faking a shot before testing Butland with a low strike in the 78th. Two minutes later, Ramsey made a crossfield run to chase Ozil’s long ball and held off Johnson to set up Giroud for the final goal. It’s a pity that Ramsey’s season had been marred by injuries because he has never really been able to find his groove.

In midfield, Xhaka and Coquelin proved relatively inefficient. They combined to create 0 chance, make 1 interception and win 1 of 8 tackles, according to Squawka. Xhaka set a too slow tempo to create space in the Stoke defense. The Switzerland international also has a tendency to overestimate his pace and dribbling skills. He was dispossessed by Diouf in the 12th and Cameron in the 75th because he dallied on the ball. It was weird to see Coquelin in the role of a box-to-box player. Coquelin was often in the final third and did not seem aware of his own limitations as he made 3 dribbling attempts. I guess the manager’s rationale for starting Xhaka and Coquelin was to win duels in midfield.

On the wings, Bellerin finished the game with 2 assists. The Spaniard can be a threat with his crossing ability, but he needs to get back to basics in his defensive game. Bellerin led all players with 8 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Right now, I’d choose the Ox over Bellerin for the wingback position because the England international is more focused on his defensive tasks than Bellerin.

Crouch’s handball

On the opposite wing, Monreal had a solid game, making 4 blocks and winning 3 of 4 tackles. He took advantage of the Potters’ lax marking to make dangerous runs in behind. Monreal met a cross from Ozil in the 13th but was let down by a poor first touch. Four minutes later, he connected with a cross from Bellerin only to hit the post with his header.

At the back, Holding produced an energetic display a la Sanchez. It was quite a mixed bag. Holding had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 5 of 7 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions and 5 blocks. But he also lost 3 of 4 tackles. Allen too easily ran past Holding in the 31st and Arnautovic too easily got the better of him twice in the second half. The Stoke winger peeled away from Holding in the 60th to make a cross for Diouf who headed wide from 3 yards. Then Arnautovic outpaced Holding in the 67th to make a cross for Crouch, who scored to cut Arsenal’s lead. With the naked eye, it seemed that Crouch headed the ball in. But video replays showed that Crouch scored with a handball. The goal should have been disallowed but the Premier League has no video assistant referee, which means that the referee and the linesmen have to make the call on their own.

Frustrated by Arnautovic’s skills, Holding received a yellow card in the 78th for a cynical foul on the Austria international. Chambers’ career at Arsenal has been doomed by his slow first steps and inability to turn quickly. I hope Holding does not have those flaws and can adjust his positional play. In any case, Holding needs a loan next season to speed up his development.

Out of Arsenal’s hands

Koscielny and Mustafi were playing together for the first time in a back three. It was weird to see Mustafi as the sweeper and Koscielny as the left centerback. In his return from injury, Koscielny produced a low-key performance, winning 1 of 1 aerial duel and losing the 2 tackles he made. The France defender cleared the danger in the 31st when Allen ran past Holding. Mustafi was a bit more active than Koscielny, winning 1 of 5 tackles and 5 of 8 aerial duels. The Germany international was booked for a reckless tackle on Shaqiri in the 28th. Mustafi nearly scored in the ninth minute but Butland tipped his looping header over the bar.

Stoke mostly threatened on set pieces and long-range attempts. The Arsenal defense failed to clear a corner in the 63rd and Cameron beat Coquelin to the second ball to nod it back toward Martins Indi, whose header was tipped over the bar by Cech. The Czech goalkeeper also stopped a low drive from Berahino in the 71st and palmed away a volley from Cameron in the 85th.

The Gunners must beat Sunderland on Tuesday to still have a chance of finishing in the Top 4 when they host Everton on Sunday for their final Premier League game. Their fate is still out of their hands as they also need Liverpool or Manchester City to drop points.

 

Arsenal vs. Manchester United: The Ox shines in 2-0 win as Gunners stay in Top 4 race

The Gunners are not out yet of the race for a Champions League spot after defeating Manchester United 2-0 on Sunday for Wenger’s first victory over Mourinho in 13 Premier League games. However, a Top 4 finish would still require a massive bottle job from either Liverpool or Manchester City. Assuming Arsenal, the Reds and the Citizens win their remaining games, they would finish the season with respectively 75, 76 and 78 points.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United

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

With an eye on the Europa League, Mourinho fielded a makeshift side, resting Valencia, Blind, Bailly and Pogba to start second-choice players like Jones, Tuanzebe, Rooney and Martial. By contrast, Wenger made just two changes to the side that lost 2-0 at White Hart Lane a week ago with Welbeck and Holding replacing Giroud and Paulista in the starting lineup. The Red Devils played with 10 men behind the ball, hoping to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Manchester United proved stronger in the challenges, winning 54.5% of the duels and making 16 interceptions to 5 for the Gunners, who were more efficient in the final third by creating 8 chances to 6 for the visitors.

While Bellerin and Walcott have lost their starting spots in the new 3-4-3 formation, Oxlade-Chamberlain has capitalized on his versatility to shine in the wingback position. The Ox tested De Gea with a long-range strike in the 31st minute before setting up both goals in the second half. Xhaka received a throw-in from the Ox in the 54th and unleashed a speculative shot that took a big deflection off Herrera. The ball looped over De Gea to land into the net for a 1-0 lead. Three minutes later, the Ox made a pinpoint cross for Welbeck, who doubled the lead with a powerful header under the bar.

Ramsey’s work-rate

The Ox was replaced by Bellerin in the 84th and still put up some impressive numbers, winning 2 of 8 tackles and having 2 successful dribbles out of 5. He also made 4 blocks and 5 fouls, the most for any player. For years, the Ox struggled to convert his potential into end product. He is slowly improving this season with 2 goals and 7 assists in 28 Premier League games. His previous best was 2 goals and 2 assists in the 2013-14 season.

On the left flank, Gibbs produced an average performance in the wingback position. The comparison with the Ox really hurts as Gibbs had 0 shot, created 0 chance, lost the only tackle he made, had 2 successful dribbles out of 3 and make 1 interception and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. Gibbs’ passing accuracy also dropped to 73.7%, the lowest percentage for any outfield starter according to whoscored.com. Obviously, Gibbs doesn’t have the Ox’s technical ability but you would still expect from him more work-rate and urgency.

In central midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey did much better against Herrera and Carrick than against Wanyama and Dier at White Hart Lane. That partnership does not give enough protection to a back four but can limit the damage in a 3-4-3 system. Ramsey had a low strike palmed away by De Gea in the ninth minute. His work-rate made the difference as he created 1 chance, had 2 successful dribbles out of 3, won 2 of 5 tackles and made 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to whoscored.com.

Sanchez’s dipping form

The most surprising part in that partnership is that Ramsey ended up doing more defensive work than Xhaka, who created 0 chance, won 0 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception and 0 block. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka won 28.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website, compared to 55.6% for Ramsey, who is a box-to-box player. Since none of them is a natural defensive midfielder, you would expect a more even share of the defensive tasks. Xhaka led the team with 74 passes but he doesn’t inject the same urgency in setting the tempo as Cazorla. The Switzerland international seemed to pick up a calf injury and was replaced by Coquelin in the 76th.

Up front, Welbeck played as a selfless target man. Welbeck is not a false nine and therefore doesn’t drop back like Sanchez. He doesn’t have Giroud’s link-up play abilities either. That’s why Welbeck made just 9 passes despite a passing accuracy of 100%. He made no key pass but converted his only scoring chance to give Arsenal a 2-0 lead.

Welbeck is stepping up at the right time as Sanchez’s form is dipping. Sanchez has scored only 1 goal in his last 7 Premier League games. He was dispossessed 6 times on Sunday, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, and did not have his usual work-rate with no interception, no tackle won and just 2 dribbles made. At times, rookie Tuanzebe even seemed to have Sanchez in his pocket. Sanchez often dropped back to create space, slipping through balls to Ramsey in the ninth and the 30th. He also sent a ball over the top for Welbeck, who was wrongly flagged offside in the 37th.

More than £200,000 a week for a passenger?

The more I hear about the contract negotiations, and the more I think the club would make a big mistake by offering more than £200,000 a week to Ozil. The Red Devils tried to overload our right flank because they saw that Ozil gave no defensive support to the Ox. Ozil gave the ball away in the 48th and made no effort to win it back. He also failed to close down Mata on a short corner in the 24th. Mata whipped in a cross for Rooney, who headed wide.

The Gunners can’t afford to have players who don’t work their socks off. In the other big clubs, creative players have better offensive stats than Ozil despite putting in a defensive shift. In 29 Premier League appearances this season, Ozil has racked up 7 goals and 6 assists for an average of 0.45 goal or assist per game. That’s simply not good enough for a world-class player. Alli has 0.65 goal or assist per Premier League game this season, Hazard 0.63, De Bruyne 0.61, Eriksen 0.59, Coutinho 0.55 and Fabregas 0.54.

Manchester United mostly threatened with crosses in the first half and long-range efforts in the second. Some poor communication between Gibbs and Monreal in the second minute allowed Mata to make a cross for Rooney, who headed over the bar under Holding’s pressure. Cech kept a clean sheet by turning Rooney’s free kick around the post in the 65th.

Holding’s inexperience

Wenger made a gutsy call by giving the nod to Holding over Paulista, who performed poorly against Tottenham. Holding’s inexperience nearly cost his team in the first half. He was drawn out of position in the fifth minute, forcing Koscielny to cover him and be on the wrong side of Martial. Ramsey failed to track Rooney, who slipped a through ball to Martial. But Cech managed to save Martial’s toe poke. Then Holding made a poor decision in the 32nd. Cornered along the touchline by Martial, Holding attempted a risky backpass to Cech. Rooney intercepted the ball but was denied by the Czech goalkeeper.

I believe the club should loan out Holding next season to speed up his development. If we except those 2 mistakes, Holding had a decent game, winning 50% of his duels (compared to 44.4% for Koscielny and 37.5% for Monreal) and 3 of 5 tackles (compared to 0 of 2 for Monreal and 2 of 5 for Koscielny). The English centerback also made 3 blocks and won the ball back on the play that led to the second goal. Monreal’s performance at centerback was a mixed bag. The Spaniard does add a technical touch at the back like Azpilicueta at Chelsea, but his lack of physicality sometimes lets him down and I just feel that he’s more efficient than Gibbs as a wingback.

The Gunners must win their 4 remaining Premier League games to have a shot at a Top 4 finish. That would mean matching their best run of form this season when they won six straight league games from August to October. The difficulty lies in the run-in with very little rest between those games. The Gunners visit Southampton on Wednesday and Stoke on Saturday before hosting Sunderland and Everton the following week.

 

Arsenal vs. Leicester: Gunners keep slim Top 4 hopes alive with ugly win

On the pitch, players only care about winning, especially when they are exhausted. Three days after the 2-1 victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup, Sanchez had no energy, losing possession quite a few times in the centerforward position. When Bellerin played him clean through on goal in the 55th minute, a tired Sanchez was let down by a poor first touch, allowing Huth to clear the danger with a sliding tackle. Sanchez even put his team in danger in the seventh minute, attempting a reckless backheel flick on the edge of the Arsenal box that Mahrez intercepted. The ball fell to Vardy, who missed the target from 12 yards.

Arsenal vs. Leicester

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

Despite the lack of rest, Sanchez nearly scored on the stroke of halftime, cutting inside Simpson to rattle the bar from 25 yards. However, the Chile striker’s best contribution on Wednesday came in stoppage time. Fuchs wanted to put the Gunners under pressure with a long throw-in. In an attempt to thwart Fuchs’ plan, Sanchez stood in front of the Leicester leftback, who got so annoyed that he threw the ball straight at Sanchez. The ball bounced off Sanchez’s shoulder, who paused for a second before collapsing to the ground as if it had hit him in the head. That was the worst bit of play-acting that I saw this season! The referee booked Sanchez for not standing two yards inside.

In the end, the Gunners held on to their 1-0 lead for their third consecutive win in all competitions for the first time since January. They have also kept alive their slim hopes of finishing in the Top 4 of the Premier League. With a game in hand, they still sit in sixth place and need Manchester United or City to drop points.

A questionable team selection

Wenger tried to inject some freshness in his team by making 4 changes to the side that edged City with Gibbs, Bellerin, Coquelin and Walcott replacing Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud in the starting lineup. The manager played a back three again to provide some defensive stability before switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 68th by sending on Welbeck for Gibbs.

I thought Wenger got his team selection wrong. First, he could have started Iwobi to rest Ozil or Sanchez. And second, playing Sanchez in the centerforward position made the Arsenal attack quite one-dimensional. The Gunners had a lot of pace in the 3 attacking positions but no physical player, which means that the Foxes just had to sit deep to prevent runs in behind from Sanchez, Walcott or Ozil.

The manager changed of approach in the 75th by replacing Walcott with Giroud. Whereas Sanchez often dropped back to escape the marking of the 2 Leicester centerbacks, Giroud didn’t mind physical duels with Benalouane or Huth and was also a better target for crosses in the box. Benalouane should have been sent off in the 80th by planting his studs into Giroud’s back. It was almost as bad as De Jong’s kung-fu kick into Alonso’s chest in the 2010 World Cup final. Giroud then rolled away from Huth in stoppage time to fire over the bar.

Sterile domination

The Gunners were definitely the better team, enjoying 69% of ball possession, having 13 shots to 7 for Leicester and creating 10 chances to 5 for the visitors, according to Squawka. Arsenal also showed enough commitment by winning 57% of the tackles and 60% of the aerial duels. But it often looked like sterile domination as the Gunners probed around the Leicester area with no real penetration.

Arsenal mostly relied on long-range efforts to test Schmeichel, who turned around the post drives from Coquelin and Xhaka respectively in the 16th and 58th. Our best chance came in the 27th when Walcott forced his way past Fuchs for an angled effort that Schmeichel saved. That play should have given Walcott some confidence, yet it did the opposite.

Walcott was in a good position to shoot in the 42nd but preferred to play the ball back to Xhaka. Then, Walcott failed to make a run toward goal in the 71st when Welbeck charged down the left flank to make a teasing cross. Walcott displayed a decent work-rate, making 1 interception and winning 1 of 2 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels, but he lacked an edge in the final third. The main problem with the 3-4-3 formation is that it requires a lot of sharpness from the attacking players.

Lack of creativity

The winning goal came from Monreal, who started as a centerback before shifting to the fullback position in the 68th. Ozil won a second ball in the 86th and Monreal fired a half-volley that ricocheted off Huth’s chest to beat Schmeichel. That was a lucky goal but Monreal’s goal attempt was no coincidence. The Spaniard made his presence felt in the Leicester box by flicking a corner in the 17th. Simpson cleared the ball off the line. It was then Paulista’s turn to flick on a corner in the 29th. Fuchs made a timely clearance to prevent a Monreal tap-in. Monreal’s pace is declining but he has compensated with his reading of the game.

I was a bit disappointed by Gibbs’ performance as a wingback. I expected more end product. Gibbs only created 1 chance compared to 3 for Bellerin. Oxlade-Chamberlain has shone in the wingback role, but the manager didn’t want to take any risk after the Ox picked up a knock against City.

In midfield, Ozil didn’t have the legs to play as a second striker. He therefore dropped back in the playmaker role. That wasn’t enough to improve Arsenal’s passing game, which was too slow to unsettle the Foxes. Xhaka made 98 passes, the most for any player, but couldn’t dictate the tempo like Cazorla would. The Switzerland international had a decent game though, making 1 interception and 1 block and winning 3 of 4 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. His partnership with Coquelin in central midfield lacked creativity to create gaps in the Leicester defense. Coquelin’s limited passing skills especially showed in the final third.

Bragging rights at stake

We knew the Gunners were vulnerable on corners. The Foxes exposed another weakness on Wednesday by creating 3 chances from throw-ins. Koscielny won the header from Fuchs’ long throw in the 22nd, but Mahrez pounced on the second ball to hit a half-volley that Cech palmed over the bar. Ndidi met another long throw in the 54th but could only muster a tame header straight at Cech. In stoppage time, Fuchs’ long throw led to a goalmouth scramble after Ozil failed to clear the danger.

At the back, Koscielny was dominant in the air, winning 8 of 10 aerial duels. He could miss Sunday’s North London derby after landing awkwardly in the 78th. The France defender seemed to twist his knee but was able to play the last minutes of the game. The main advantage of playing a back three is that it’s more difficult for the other team to press high up the pitch in the hope of forcing a turnover. Paulista, Monreal and Koscielny respectively made 79, 75 and 73 passes, according to whoscored.com. Only Xhaka and Ozil made more passes. Paulista too easily let Mahrez run past him in the 39th. The Leicester midfielder missed the target as Bellerin forced him wide. Somehow, Paulista redeemed himself in the 78th by blocking Okazaki’s shot as Koscielny lay on the ground in pain.

Spurs will be the heavy favorites in the North London derby. They have won their last 8 games in the Premier League. There’s no way Arsenal can celebrate St Totteringham’s Day this year. Sunday’s game will be about preventing Tottenham from securing a better finish than the Gunners. If Spurs win the derby, they will finish above Arsenal even if they lose all their remaining games. It would be embarrassing to see such a change of fortunes at White Hart Lane. Under Wenger’s tenure, the Gunners never finished behind Tottenham.

 

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Manchester City

The Gunners still have a chance of winning some silverware this season as they edged Manchester City 2-1 in the semifinals of the FA Cup on Sunday with a goal from Sanchez in extra time. They will face Chelsea in the final on May 27.

The Citizens were the better side, enjoying 69% of ball possession and having 20 shots compared to just 9 for Arsenal. They had two great chances to take a 2-1 lead in the second half but Cech tipped Toure’s volley onto the post in the 79th minute and Fernandinho’s header crashed against the bar in the 82nd. The Gunners proved the fresher side in extra time and their grit paid off as they won 57.4% of the duels according to the club’s website.

  1. Turnovers can be deadly

In a lot of sports, turnovers can prove the pivotal moment in a game. Turnovers can lead to a touchdown in American football, a try in rugby, a goal in handball, or two points in basketball because the transition from offense to defense is the most delicate situation to handle for a team. Somehow, they are inevitable because you can’t score without taking any risk. The key is to avoid taking excessive risks.

City capitalized on a Ramsey turnover to open the scoring in the 62nd. The Wales midfielder was dispossessed by Toure, who fed Aguero with a long ball. Aguero beat Monreal in a foot race to chip Cech. If you look at the screen capture below, Ramsey made the first mistake on that play.

FA Cup Manchester Aed

Three Gunners were waiting at the far post for a cross from Ramsey. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Ramsey had two obvious options following an Arsenal corner: make a short pass to Giroud in front of him or make a cross for Paulista, Koscielny and Holding at the far post. Instead, he decided to run into traffic and lost possession. Unless you’re Messi, there’s no way you can dribble past so many players in such a tiny space. That was really poor decision-making from Ramsey.

Monreal made the second mistake on that play by poorly positioning himself. He stood at the same level as Aguero, who’s faster than the Spaniard. See the screen capture below.

FA Cup Manchester Bed

Where Monreal should have stood when Arsenal played a corner. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

To compensate for his relative lack of pace, Monreal should have been a couple of yards behind Aguero. Monreal had a decent game, scoring the equalizer and leading all players with 4 successful tackles according to whoscored.com. But that positional mistake definitely cost his team a goal.

  1. Wenger relied again on a back three

The manager stuck with the 3-4-3 formation that helped Arsenal edge Middlesbrough 2-1 in the Premier League a week ago. Holding looked quite comfortable in a back three while Paulista had the best stats among the Arsenal centerbacks, winning 80% of his duels compared to 66.7% for Holding and 45.5% for Koscielny. Paulista was lucky to escape a booking for a cynical foul on Silva in the 13th and poorly marked Silva two minutes later as the Spain midfielder headed Aguero’s cross over the bar.

  1. Oxlade-Chamberlain was brilliant as a wingback

The Ox fully deserved to be named Man of the Match for his outstanding performance. He led Arsenal players with 3 key passes and led all players with 6 successful dribbles according to whoscored.com. The England international also won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage among all the midfielders according to the club’s website.

Giroud connected with a cross from the Ox in the 15th but headed the ball straight at Bravo. The Ox then set up the equalizer in the 72nd with a pinpoint cross that Monreal volleyed home. If you look at the screen capture below, Ramsey creates space for Monreal by distracting Navas with a run inside the area.

FA Cup Manchester Ced

Ramsey’s run prevents Navas from marking Monreal. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

At 23, the Ox is still a young player and I believe that playing in different positions will help improve his positional play and reading of the game. He has also played as a winger and central midfielder this season.

  1. The midfield is the soft spot in the 3-4-3 system

The Gunners were outplayed in midfield. Xhaka and Ramsey combined to win 2 tackles and make 2 interceptions compared to 6 tackles and 4 interceptions for Toure, Fernandinho and De Bruyne. It was quite embarrassing to see an old Toure boss the midfield for City.

The main problem with the 3-4-3 formation is that midfielders are exposed when they try to press high up the pitch. Ramsey did it in the 47th, allowing De Bruyne to enjoy a free run into the final third. It was then Xhaka’s turn to press high up the pitch in the 79th and his run in the City box gave Toure plenty of space to burst forward unchallenged for 50 yards. Toure found Sterling, whose shot was blocked, but the rebound fell to the Ivory Coast international who tested Cech with a long-range volley.

The Gunners have never really managed to implement an efficient pressing game this season, whether in the 4-2-3-1 system or the new 3-4-3 formation. City easily played the ball out from the back in the 21st minute of extra time and Bellerin prevented an equalizer by deflecting Delph’s effort wide.

One possible solution is to have Ozil and Sanchez help Ramsey and Xhaka in midfield. At Chelsea, Pedro and Willian drift inside to help Kante and Matic when the Blues don’t have the ball. Conte’s 3-4-3 system basically turns into a 5-4-1 in a defensive situation. But then, if Ozil and Sanchez help the midfielders, Giroud suddenly gets isolated up front. Sanchez and Giroud argued in the 30th after Sanchez’s pass to the Frenchman was intercepted. Sanchez thought Giroud was standing too high up the pitch. The same problem occurred in the 35th. Giroud won a header but there was no Gunner nearby for the second ball, so the Frenchman asked for more support.

  1. Arsenal benefited from the absence of video assistant referee

City should have taken the lead in the 40th when Aguero converted a cross from Sane. However, the goal was disallowed because the linesman thought the cross went out of play. Video replays showed that the ball did not entirely go behind the by-line. So the goal should have stood. Aguero was poorly marked by Koscielny and Monreal on that play.

  1. The Citizens struggle to defend set pieces

Arsenal and City have one thing in common: their poor defending of set pieces. The Citizens took a leaf out of West Brom’s playbook in the 82nd when Fernandinho made a run from beyond the penalty spot to meet a corner for a header that rattled the bar.

The Gunners should have been awarded a penalty on the stroke of halftime when Navas brought down Sanchez, who tried to connect with a free kick. Arsenal had another chance from a set piece in the sixth minute of extra time. Holding met a corner but missed the target from 5 yards. Five minutes later, the Gunners capitalized on an Ozil free kick to score the winner. Koscielny headed the ball across goal toward Welbeck, who missed his shot. But Sanchez beat Clichy to the loose ball to score from close range.

  1. Welbeck must do better in the final third

Welbeck should have scored that winner in extra time. He came off the bench to replace Giroud in the 83rd. His first chance came from a long ball in the 86th. Welbeck dribbled past Otamendi and fired wide from a tight angle instead of cutting the ball back for an unmarked Sanchez. In the 15th minute of extra time, Welbeck also headed an Ozil cross wide from 5 yards.

  1. Ozil should try to hit with his weaker foot

The Germany playmaker had a decent game with 2 key passes but he wasted a good chance in the 81st by refusing to shoot with his right foot in a good position. Ozil cut inside in an attempt to fire with his left foot and lost possession.

Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal: Gunners make tactical tweak in 2-1 win

Arsenal’s away form has been really poor lately. So Wenger decided to beef up the defense on Monday by relying on a back three. The tactical shift paid off as the Gunners edged Middlesbrough 2-1 for their first away win in the Premier League since Jan. 14 and a 4-0 demolition of Swansea.

Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal

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

In times of crisis, you need leaders. Cech and Koscielny made their return from injury to bring back some calm in the Arsenal team. The manager made 6 changes to the side that was hammered 3-0 at Crystal Palace a week ago with Cech, Koscielny, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud replacing Martinez, Mustafi, Bellerin, Walcott, Elneny and Welbeck in the starting lineup.

The Gunners matched Boro’s commitment, making 11 interceptions compared to 13 for the Smoggies, and winning 19 tackles and 26 aerial duels compared to 17 tackles and 24 aerial duels for the hosts, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal proved the better side in the first half and deservedly took the lead before halftime. But it could have gone either way in the second half. In fact, it was an even contest with each team creating 7 chances and Boro finishing the game with 13 shots compared to 12 for the Gunners.

Cech pulled off a couple of fine saves to prevent Boro from adding a second goal. The Czech goalkeeper stopped Ayala’s header with a reflex save in the 61st minute, parried Negredo’s low strike in the 79th and was lucky to see Gibson muster only a tame effort in the 87th. Arsenal will need to work harder on the training ground as those 3 chances came from set pieces.

In his first season at Arsenal, Wenger frequently played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. Then signing Petit in the summer of 1997 helped the manager switch to the 4-4-2 system he was known for during his time at Monaco.

More room for error

It’s kind of funny that a poor run of form finally led Wenger to use again a 3-4-3 system he has discarded for 20 years. Young managers like Pochettino and Guardiola are more flexible and frequently change formations throughout the season because of injuries or tactical concerns.

Koscielny played as a safety in that back three while Paulista was on the right side and Holding on the left side. On paper, you have more room for error: if Paulista or Holding covers the wingback, you still have two central defenders. In a back four, if Koscielny covers Monreal on the left flank, there’s only one central defender left.

A 3-4-3 system gives you numerical superiority at the back and makes it harder for the opponent to press high up the pitch. That’s why the Gunners enjoyed 65% of ball possession. The problem then is how to avoid sterile possession. Chelsea can play the ball out from the back because Azpilicueta and Luiz are comfortable on the ball. By contrast, Paulista has limited passing skills while Koscielny and Holding are average. Mustafi and Monreal have better passing skills but Mustafi was not in the squad because of an injury while the manager preferred to start Monreal in the wingback position. In the end, Arsenal’s passing game really looked tentative at best and shambolic at worst.

Despite the victory, the performance of the Arsenal defense wasn’t really convincing. Whatever formation used by the manager, you still have to win duels. Koscielny missed his clearance in the 50th, allowing Negredo to volley home Downing’s cross for Boro’s equalizer. The France centerback attempted an acrobatic clearance because he didn’t want to head the ball out of play. Obviously, that was not the safe option.

Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback

Koscielny made no tackle mostly because he was the sweeper. He won 4 of 7 aerial duels and led all players with 4 interceptions. I’m not sure Koscielny enjoys that kind of role. In a back three, the sweeper is usually an organizer too. The best example is Sammer in the Germany team that won the Euro 1996. Sammer had good tackling skills but could also play as a midfielder because of his technical abilities.

The other two centerbacks, Holding and Paulista, combined to win 6 of 11 aerial duels but performed poorly on the ground, winning none of the 6 tackles they made, according to Squawka. Paulista looked the more uncomfortable of the two. The Brazilian defender missed his clearance in the 87th when Gibson had a goal attempt. He also let Friend run past him in the 55th. The Boro substitute fired a diagonal strike that Monreal deflected into the path of Downing, who missed the target from 8 yards.

Oxlade-Chamberlain had a good game as a wingback, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and winning 2 of 5 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. He walked a tightrope after receiving a yellow card for a late tackle on Fabio in the fourth minute but showed enough self-discipline to avoid a second booking. Defensively, the Ox killed a Boro counterattack with a timely challenge as the last defender in the 62nd. Offensively, he tried to feed Giroud from the right wing. In the 28th, Giroud knocked the ball down for Ramsey, whose volley was headed out by a Smoggie. The Ox enjoyed more freedom when Bellerin replaced Ozil in the 89th. He could have scored on a counterattack in stoppage time but was denied by Guzan.

Sanchez as a playmaker

Monreal is a more defensive wingback than the Ox. The Spaniard won 4 of 6 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels and made 2 interceptions and no dribbling attempt. He has been struggling to stop crosses since last season. That flaw led to Boro’s equalizer as Downing had plenty of time and space for a cross. Monreal’s declining pace was also exposed when Traore replaced Ramirez in the 68th. The speedy Boro winger dribbled past Monreal in the 69th but dallied on the ball and lost possession.

In midfield, Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 3 key passes and 3 interceptions and win 3 of 11 tackles and 2 of 6 aerial duels. We’re very far from the standards set by Vieira, Petit and Gilberto when Arsenal could truly boss the midfield. The partnership formed by Kante and Matic at Chelsea or Wanyama and Dembele at Tottenham looks more convincing.

Walcott was the player sacrificed by Wenger in the 3-4-3 system. There are two interesting things that we have learned from Monday’s game. First, Ozil and Sanchez contributed defensively on the wings just like Hazard and Pedro do at Chelsea. Ozil won 3 of 5 tackles compared to 1 of 5 for Sanchez. In the modern game, creative players need to share the defensive burden too. Maybe the Christmas tree or 4-3-2-1 formation is the only system that would require very little defensive work from Ozil and Sanchez.

And second, Ozil played again like a second striker while Sanchez took over the playmaking duties. Sanchez hit 4 accurate long balls out of 5 and 1 accurate through ball out of 2, according to whoscored.com, whereas Ozil did not attempt any and made no key pass. Ozil mostly focused on his runs in the final third and had very little impact on his team’s passing game. In fact, 7 Gunners made more passes than Ozil (46): Xhaka (93), Paulista (73), Ramsey (67), Koscielny (56), Sanchez (50), Holding (49), and the Ox (48).

European football in July or September?

Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead with a dipping free kick in the 40th. He then created the winning goal in the 71st with a cross that Ramsey chested down for Ozil, who buried the ball into the near corner. The Chile striker also had 9 turnovers, including two that led to Boro chances. Ozil could have scored in the 63rd when he collected a through ball from Sanchez but Guzan denied him.

Up front, the misfiring Giroud had none of his 3 shots on target but proved useful as an outlet, winning 6 of 11 aerial duels. In the 29th, Giroud redirected an Ozil corner toward Sanchez, who fluffed his volley straight at Guzan. In the 81st, Sanchez found Giroud, who cut inside to curl his shot wide. Giroud should have been awarded a penalty in the 18th when Ayala held him with both arms on a corner. Arsenal can thank Giroud for the three points as the Frenchman put off Gibson in the 87th.

That victory might be too little too late for the Gunners, who sit in sixth place in the standings, trailing Liverpool, Manchester City and the Red Devils by 9, 7 and 3 points respectively. Arsenal could end up playing in the Europa League for the first time under Wenger. They would participate in the preliminary round in July if they finish sixth in the Premier League. Or they could qualify for the group stage if they win the FA Cup. I don’t think the club will be able to keep Sanchez and Ozil without the prospect of Champions League football.