Tag Archives: Monreal

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.

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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.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City: Gunners still in 6th place after 2-2 draw

The Gunners showed character by rallying twice in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City. However, the result makes a Top 4 finish in the Premier League even more unlikely. Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool are projected to finish the season with 90, 81, 76 and 75 points respectively. The Gunners have 51 points from 28 games so far and would therefore need 24 points from the last 10 games to match Liverpool’s projected total. That would mean 8 wins and 2 losses or an unbeaten run with 7 wins and 3 draws. It’s mission impossible given Arsenal’s current form and tough run-in.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City

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

Wenger hasn’t lost the dressing room yet. His players showed enough desire and commitment by winning 51.2% of the duels compared to 48.8% for City, according to the club’s website, and by making 20 interceptions compared to 21 for the visitors, according to Squawka. The Citizens still looked the better team because they created 11 chances compared to 6 for Arsenal. What really hurt the Gunners was their shaky defense and their lack of options in midfield because of injuries to Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Mustafi saved the day with a goal and an assist. He pounced on a poor clearance from the City defense to head the ball into the path of Walcott in the 40th minute. Walcott controlled the ball and got the better of Clichy in a weird dance of legs to beat Caballero from close range. Mustafi then made a run from beyond the penalty spot in the 53rd to nod in Ozil’s corner for the equalizer. He took advantage of City’s zonal marking to gather momentum and outjump a static Otamendi waiting on the 6-yard line. Quite ironically, that goal was similar to the ones scored by Dawson in the 3-1 loss to West Brom.

Is Mustafi the new Vermaelen?

Mustafi had a decent game, but you don’t want him to make up for defensive errors with goals like Vermaelen. I thought he shouldn’t have been drawn out of position for City’s opener in the fifth minute. When Caballero kicked the ball, Mustafi followed Aguero in City’s half to head the ball into the path of De Bruyne, who fed Sane with a first-time pass. Mustafi had no time to recover while Sane outpaced Bellerin to round Ospina and shoot into an empty net. Aguero often drops back to create space for his teammates to run into. It could make sense to track Aguero if he’s 30 yards from the Arsenal goal but not when he’s inside his own half.

Decision-making is one area where Mustafi must improve. He lost possession in the 50th after trying to dribble his way out of trouble. The Germany international got booked in the 61st for a cynical challenge on Sane. Mustafi made 1 interception and won 3 of 6 tackles and 3 of 4 aerial duels, but he also finished the game with a passing accuracy of 66%, which is too low for a centerback. Koscielny had a passing accuracy of 82.6% compared to 88.9% for Stones and 87.2% for Otamendi.

Monreal proved Arsenal’s best defender while Bellerin had a poor game. Bellerin was on the wrong side of Sane for the opener, made no interception and won no tackle or aerial duel. By contrast, Monreal made 6 interceptions, the most for any player, and won 2 of 6 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Monreal took advantage of Navas’ inexperience at fullback to cause havoc by overlapping with Sanchez down the left flank. Navas was very lucky to stay on the pitch after planting his studs into Monreal’s shinpad in the eighth minute.

Ozil’s average season

Down 2-1 at halftime, a lot of fans were worried when they saw Paulista replace an injured Koscielny for the start of the second half. It was Koscielny’s replacement that led to the 5-1 disaster in the first leg of the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich. Somehow, Paulista did a decent job.

In midfield, City outperformed Arsenal again. Fernandinho, De Bruyne and Silva combined to make 7 interceptions and win 8 of 25 tackles while Coquelin, Xhaka and Ozil combined to make 4 interceptions and win 7 of 16 tackles. Ozil had decent attacking stats with 2 successful dribbles out of 2 and 3 key passes (tied with Navas and Silva for the most by any player), but his work-rate was poor. He made 1 interception and 2 tackles. De Bruyne and Silva are creative players too but they contributed more defensively. Silva made 2 interceptions and 9 tackles while De Bruyne made 1 interception and 7 tackles.

Ozil was guilty on City’s second goal in the 42nd as he gave the ball away to Silva, who found De Bruyne on the edge of the Arsenal box. The Belgium international attempted a one-two with Sterling but Koscielny knocked the return pass away with a sliding tackle. The loose ball fell to Silva, who fed Aguero and the Argentina striker made it 2-1 with an angled effort into the bottom corner.

Wenger’s decision to turn Ozil into a second striker or nine and a half has backfired. Ozil is not clinical enough in front of the net. He took a pass from Sanchez in the 21st and rolled away from Stones only to muster a tame shot that did not trouble Caballero. Ozil notched 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 Premier League appearances last season, that is, an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. His number are down this season with just 5 assists and 5 goals from 23 Premier League appearances, that is, an average of 0.43 goal or assist per game.

Xhaka & Coquelin caught ball-watching

Xhaka and Coquelin didn’t cover themselves in glory either. Both were caught ball-watching on City’s second goal. Coquelin failed to mark De Bruyne when he played a one-two with Sterling while Xhaka made no real effort to track back when Ozil lost possession. Monreal ended up dealing with both Aguero and Silva because of Xhaka’s passivity.

Petit, Vieira and Gilberto were enforcers who could boss the midfield. I don’t think Xhaka and Coquelin are anywhere near their level. Xhaka gifted the Citizens their first chance by slipping in the fourth minute. Fernandinho played Sterling clean through on goal, but Ospina quickly rushed outside his area to clear the danger. The ball bounced off Sterling and out of bounds. Then Xhaka was late for a block when Silva teed up De Bruyne for a long-range strike that hit the post in the 10th. The Switzerland international received a yellow card in the 32nd for a poorly timed challenge on Otamendi. Coquelin also got booked for a late tackle on Silva in the 14th and escaped a second yellow card in the 81st for a cynical foul on De Bruyne.

Back from a trip to South America for World Cup qualifiers, Sanchez produced an energetic display with 2 key passes, 5 interceptions and 7 successful dribbles out of 11. He also won 2 of 6 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels and had 11 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Turnovers are OK when you’re in the final third. But they should be avoided when you’re on the edge of your own area because you can put your team in danger. Navas intercepted a Sanchez backheel flick in the 66th to make a cross for Aguero, whose header lacked power to beat Ospina. The Colombia goalkeeper made two fine saves to keep Arsenal in the game, palming away a low strike from Silva in the 10th and parrying a long-range effort from Fernandinho in the 58th.

The next 3 games

Up front, Welbeck got no decent service. He had a passing accuracy of 100%, won 2 of 2 tackles and lost the 4 aerial duels in which he was involved. His only chance came from a missed clearance from Otamendi in the fourth minute. Welbeck pounced on the loose ball for a sliding effort that sailed wide.

On the right wing, Walcott scored a goal but did very little compared to Sanchez. With a bit of luck, Walcott could have added a second goal on the stroke of halftime. He controlled a cross from Sanchez for an acrobatic effort that went over the bar.

Arsenal would need a miracle to finish in the Top 4. They could make up ground by winning their next three Premier League games against West Ham, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough while hoping that Liverpool and the two Manchesters drop points. Then they would need outstanding performances in the run-in against Leicester, Tottenham, Manchester United, Stoke, Everton, Southampton and Sunderland. In any case, the Gunners will have to tighten up at the back because they looked incredibly open against City.

 

West Brom vs. Arsenal: Free fall continues with 3-1 loss

Let’s not kid ourselves, Arsenal won’t finish in the Top 4 this season and there will be no St Totteringham’s Day. The Gunners have lost 4 of their last 5 Premier League games after Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at West Brom. They still sit in fifth place in the standings but 5 points behind Liverpool and 6 behind Manchester City and Tottenham.

West Brom vs. Arsenal

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

The Baggies’ game plan was pretty simple: park the bus and capitalize on counterattacks and set pieces to score. Yet, Arsenal couldn’t cope with West Brom’s direct approach. Let’s start with the set pieces. Dawson made a run from the penalty spot in the 12th minute to nod in Chadli’s corner from about 3 yards. We know that the Gunners use zonal marking on corners. One problem with zonal marking is that it’s very static. Dawson was able to outjump Koscielny because he had more momentum. Ramsey made the first mistake on that play by not blocking Dawson, who had a free run inside the box. The second mistake came from the defenders. Cech should be able to claim the ball but Fletcher hampered the goalkeeper’s freedom of movement by standing in front of him. It’s up to the defenders to clean up the 6-yard box for their goalkeeper.

Arsenal tried to adjust to those tactics in the second half but Dawson made it 3-1 by heading home McClean’s corner in the 75th. The plan was to neutralize Dawson and Fletcher. Oxlade-Chamberlain marked Dawson but failed to get in the way of the West Brom fullback when he made his run from the penalty spot. Likewise, Xhaka tried to shield Ospina from Fletcher, but the Colombia goalkeeper, who replaced an injured Cech in the 38th, lost his footing and couldn’t intervene. That goal looked worse than the opening goal because Mustafi and Koscielny both followed McAuley and left a huge gap for Dawson to run into.

Lack of defensive awareness

The Ox and Ramsey are seasoned players. Yet, they showed their lack of defensive awareness on those corners. If Ramsey wants to play in central midfield, he seriously needs to improve his positional play. The Wales midfielder failed to track Fletcher, who took a pass from Livermore to test Cech in the 34th. The Ox had a good work-rate, winning 2 of 3 tackles and making 1 key pass, 1 interception, 2 blocks and 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but it’s the defensive details that are ruining his overall performance.

Ramsey also had a hand in the Baggies’ second goal. Chadli sent a ball over the top to McClean in the 56th but Ospina came off his line to knock the ball into the path of Robson-Kanu, who stabbed the rebound home. The first mistake came from Ramsey, who sat too deep on that play. He was next to Mustafi inside the area while he should have closed down Chadli on the edge of the box. The second mistake came from Mustafi, who played McClean onside. And the third mistake came from some poor coordination between Bellerin and Ospina. The goalkeeper should have dived headfirst to gather the ball instead of going feet first.

At the back, Monreal proved our best defender, winning 80% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 94.6% according to the club’s website. The main disappointment came from the centerbacks. Rondon outjumped Koscielny in the 51st only to head Brunt’s cross wide. Then Robson-Kanu got ahead of Mustafi to take Brunt’s pass in the 67th but was denied by Ospina.

Our defenders were a bit more exposed than usual because our midfield was again too soft. I thought the Baggies too easily reached the final third the few times they led counterattacks. Nyom ran past Xhaka, Bellerin and Mustafi in the fifth minute to square the ball back for Rondon, who couldn’t make contact with the offering for a tap-in. Then Brunt fed McClean, whose angled strike was parried by Cech in the 12th. Chadli also led a fast break in the 31st to pick out Rondon, who dragged his shot wide.

Targeting Sanchez

While we have struggled to keep clean sheets this season, another concern is the team’s lack of ideas. The Gunners enjoyed 77% of ball possession but only produced 2 shots on target compared to 8 for West Brom. A more shocking stat is that the Baggies had 3 accurate through balls compared to just one for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. Ozil was not in the squad because he picked up a knock in training. The quality of his final ball would have maybe made a difference in that kind of game.

Walcott was invisible at the Hawthorns. He had no shot and no key pass, made no dribble and no interception, and won no tackle and no aerial duel. His limited passing and dribbling skills became all the more obvious that the West Brom defense sat deep to give him no space to run into. The manager yanked Walcott off in the 65th to send on Giroud. Welbeck got the nod over Giroud to lead the line but lacked decent service. His only scoring chance came in the 65th when he met a corner from Xhaka for a header that crashed against the bar. Welbeck showed more end product than Walcott by finishing the game with 2 key passes.

Besides Monreal, the only Gunner who performed at a good level was Sanchez. The Chile striker chested down a cross from Xhaka in the 15th to fire into the roof of the net for his 18th league goal this season. Sanchez also slipped a through ball to Ramsey, who forced Foster into a diving save in the 33rd. He was replaced by Iwobi in the 78th because of an ankle injury suffered in the first half.

The Baggies felt Sanchez was the main threat and targeted him. McAuley made a cynical foul on Sanchez in the 19th. Then Livermore pulled Sanchez back and clipped his leg in the 23rd but no foul was given. Rondon killed a counterattack in the 27th by fouling Sanchez and landing on his back with his knee. It could have been a yellow card but the referee only awarded a free kick.

The board’s passivity

If Oliver had been the referee, he would have warned West Brom about repetitive fouling like he did with Manchester United against Chelsea in the FA Cup. Unfortunately, the Gunners had to deal with a referee, Swarbrick, who didn’t seem to care much about the players’ physical integrity. So I wasn’t really surprised when McClean damaged Sanchez’s ankle with a late tackle in the 42nd. The Irish winger received a yellow card but it could have been a sending-off, especially when you compare with Xhaka’s red cards. See the screen capture below.

West Brom vs. Arsenal Sky editedMcClean makes a late studs-up tackle that could have broken Sanchez’s leg. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal’s collective expression was really poor. You have to wonder to what extent the players are affected by those negative banners displayed by the fans in the stands. Putting pressure on the board is fine, but the way it’s done by the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade is completely wrong. Those banners just create a toxic atmosphere for the team, too. There are still 11 league games to play. A free fall won’t help the club sign new players this summer, especially since Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchesters.

Renewing Wenger’s contract would make the atmosphere even more toxic next season. The board must act to protect the club. Wenger is like a punch-drunk boxer who is convinced he can still win the next round. I believe the manager already had his chances and simply failed to take them. Wenger only signed Cech in the summer of 2015 while a couple more signings would have turned Arsenal into a legitimate contender. Last summer, he tried to improve the squad by signing Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez, but the quality of those players has been questionable. It’s unfair for the most successful manager in the club’s history to get so much stick, but the board’s passivity has made the situation worse.

 

Swansea vs. Arsenal: Gunners make up ground with 4-0 win

Arsenal thrashed Swansea 4-0 on Saturday to move into fourth place, one point behind Liverpool and Tottenham. The scoreline was quite flattering since two goals resulted from deflected shots and the other two came from poor clearances. However, what really matters is the clean sheet, only their seventh in the Premier League this season.

swansea-vs-arsenal

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

One big reason why the Gunners have struggled to mount a serious title challenge is their defensive record. They have conceded 22 goals so far, 7 more than Chelsea and 8 more than Tottenham. The draw with Bournemouth and the losses to Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool are obvious examples of points dropped because of some poor defending. By contrast, the Gunners have an outstanding offensive record with 48 goals scored. Only Liverpool can match that tally. The goalless draws with Middlesbrough and Leicester are the only two league games in which Arsenal failed to find the net.

At the Liberty stadium, the Gunners produced a lethargic display in the first half with a slow tempo and no penetration. Somehow, they took the lead in the 37th minute thanks to Giroud, the man who scores important goals. The France striker didn’t cover himself in glory on that play though. Ramsey squared the ball back to Giroud, who couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Sanchez kept the ball in play and made a cross for Ozil, whose header was blocked by Mawson. The ball fell into the path of Giroud, who slammed it into the top corner.

Giroud usually loves celebrating his goals, but an ankle injury he picked up while missing the tap-in led him to ask for a substitution. He managed to stay on the pitch until the 60th when Oxlade-Chamberlain finally came off the bench. By winning 4 of 6 aerial duels, Giroud proved a valuable outlet for long balls when Arsenal tried to evade the Swans’ high press.

The bigger picture

Sanchez sealed the win by scoring from close range in the 73rd. The Ox initially made a poor cross that sailed behind Sanchez. Routledge beat Ramsey to the loose ball only to knock it back into the path of Sanchez, who volleyed home. Sanchez could have made it 5-0 in the 78th but he was dispossessed by Mawson after an awkward first touch.

The Chile striker had 2 key passes, 2 successful dribbles out of 2, and tested Fabianski with a low strike in the 28th. He showed a tremendous work-rate by winning 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player according to Squawka. As a result of his hyperactivity, Sanchez was also dispossessed 4 times.

Much was said about Sanchez’s reaction when Welbeck replaced him in the 79th. Sanchez clearly looked upset. However, it shouldn’t be a big deal. It simply shows that Sanchez wants to give his all. Players like Aguero and Cristiano Ronaldo also look frustrated when they are yanked off the pitch. The bigger picture is that Wenger needed to give some playing time to Welbeck, who is the only forward with a skillset similar to Giroud’s.

On the right wing, Iwobi gave Arsenal a 3-0 lead with two deflected shots. He capitalized on a good spell of domination in the 54th to fire a shot that took a deflection off Cork to loop over Fabianski. Then, Iwobi’s cross was diverted by Naughton into his own net in the 67th. Those were lucky goals, but you have to give Iwobi some credit for his desire. The Nigeria international also improved his defensive contribution by winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels.

A work in progress

In his return from illness, Ozil didn’t show much although he managed to make 3 key passes, the most for any player. His work-rate is still questionable. Ramsey ended up pressing a Swan in the space occupied by Ozil because the Germany playmaker was reluctant to do it. It’s not the first time that Ozil has ignored his defensive duties. Giroud against West Brom and Sanchez against Manchester City also had to close down opponents in Ozil’s zone.

The tandem formed by Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield is still a work in progress. When Coquelin starts alongside Cazorla or Xhaka, it’s pretty clear that Coquelin will do most of the defensive work while Cazorla or Xhaka will focus on building plays. The distribution is more even when Xhaka teams up with Ramsey because Xhaka doesn’t have Coquelin’s mobility while Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder. Offensively, Xhaka is the one connecting the defense with the forwards while Ramsey is the one making the runs in the final third. Defensively, Xhaka is the one protecting the back four while Ramsey is the one pressing high up the pitch.

Xhaka had two passes intercepted in the first 10 minutes before growing into the game. The Switzerland international finished the match with a passing accuracy of 93.5%, the highest percentage for any starting player. He also hit 5 accurate long balls out of 6. Among the outfield players, only Ki had more accurate long balls according to whoscored.com. At 24, Xhaka still has room for improvement, especially in his reading of the game. He dropped back in a too deep position in the 11th instead of staying with Naughton, who took a pass from Dyer for a low drive that Cech turned around the post. In the closing minutes, Xhaka tested Fabianski twice with long-range efforts.

Ball-watching

Ramsey and Xhaka combined to win only 2 of 8 tackles. Xhaka made 4 interceptions compared to just 1 for Ramsey. That’s an area in which Ramsey could improve. Aware of his defensive duties, Ramsey was also more frugal with his runs in the final third. His only goal attempt was a low strike that Fabianski saved in the 53rd.

The Swans were not as shabby as the scoreline would suggest. They created 7 chances compared to 9 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. Their best chances came from turnovers and ball-watching by the Gunners. Wenger really needs to do something about ball-watching in training because that could become a serious problem for his team.

Managers often talk about fitness, technique, mental toughness and reading of the game as key factors in the success of a player, but focus is just as important. One short lapse of concentration is enough to prevent a player from spotting a dangerous situation or a goalscoring opportunity.

Swansea could have equalized in the 43rd when Llorente held off Koscielny to feed Ki. The South Korea international took a heavy first touch and the ball got away from him. Koscielny flicked out a leg but removed it to avoid a penalty. Ki went down while the loose ball fell to Routledge, who got ahead of Paulista to fire a low strike that Cech parried with his legs. The referee booked Ki for diving although there seemed to be contact between Ki and Koscielny. However, the main defensive mistake on that play was Xhaka’s failure to track Ki’s run inside the area. See the screen captures below.

swansea-aedXhaka caught ball-watching as Ki makes a dangerous run in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Gunners were guilty of another ball-watching moment in the 65th when Kingsley’s half-volley hit Llorente, who teed up Fernandez for an off-target shot. The main defensive mistake on that play was the Ox’s failure to properly mark Fernandez. See the screen captures below.

swansea-bedOxlade-Chamberlain caught ball-watching as Fernandez gets a free shot in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Swans also capitalized on turnovers to have a crack at goal. Dyer intercepted Paulista’s poor pass to Koscielny on the stroke of halftime but wasted a good situation with a long-range effort instead of choosing one of his three passing options. Paulista put his team in trouble again in the 62nd by chesting the ball down instead of heading it away. Kingsley dispossessed Paulista to feed Routledge, whose low strike was parried by Cech. Mustafi also cheaply gave the ball away in the 86th, but Sigurdsson could only drag his shot straight at Cech.

Looking beyond Cazorla

Koscielny was a dominant force in the air, winning 7 of 7 aerial duels. His only blemish was an underhit header that Sygurdsson nearly intercepted in the 16th. Paulista got the nod over Holding at rightback but proved the weak link in the back four with some dodgy decision-making. By contrast, Monreal had a solid performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and making 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.

January is a key month for Arsenal. First, because they have an easy schedule on paper and can therefore make up ground before visiting Chelsea in February. And second, because they have no mid-week game for three consecutive weeks, which means more time available on the training ground to work on tactical issues. Knowing that Cazorla underwent a second surgery and may not return before April, the Gunners should wisely use that time to make their team more compact in order to improve their defensive record.

Cazorla’s contract expires this summer. That’s a tricky issue for Arsenal because the Spaniard has become a key component in midfield. At 32, his best days are obviously behind him. A one-year extension would seem the most reasonable outcome for both parties as Cazorla’s past two years at the club have been marred by injuries and strangely echo the end of Arteta’s career.

From a long-term perspective, the manager will need to sign a specific type of midfielder this summer. We can divide our midfielders into three categories: those who mostly defend (Coquelin, Elneny, Xhaka), those who mostly attack (Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain), and those who can both defend and attack (Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere). The problem is that Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey are injury-prone players. We therefore need cover for that kind of profile, whether it’s a box-to-box player like Ramsey or a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Gunners show lack of fight in 2-1 loss

For the first time this season, the Gunners have lost two games in a row. That could be the beginning of a crisis. A 2-1 defeat at Manchester City is not embarrassing in itself. The real issue is the poor performance in Sunday’s match and the lack of character displayed in the second half. Questions about Arsenal’s mental weakness will inevitably be raised if the squad doesn’t bounce back quickly.

manchester-city-vs-arsenal

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

Let’s not kid ourselves, this was the best moment to play Manchester City. They were missing their best centerback, Kompany, their best central midfielders, Gundogan and Fernandinho, and their best striker, Aguero, either through suspension or injury. So how did the Gunners lose that game after reaching halftime with the lead?

There were many similarities between that game and the 2-1 loss at Everton. Arsenal struggled so badly to create clear-cut chances that neither Everton goalkeeper Stekelenburg nor City keeper Bravo made any save. In fact, both the Toffees and the Citizens deserved to win because they had many more chances than the Gunners: 11 chances for Everton compared to 6 for Arsenal and 12 chances for City compared to 4 for Wenger’s team, according to Squawka.

Another similarity was Arsenal’s poor performance in the duels. The Toffees won more duels than the Gunners by showing more commitment. The Citizens did not turn the game into a physical battle like Everton but still showed more desire, winning 61 duels compared to 49 for Arsenal, according to the club’s website. No matter how talented you are, it becomes very difficult to win a game when you don’t want the ball more than your opponent.

Guardiola did not use Everton’s direct approach as there were fewer aerial duels at the Etihad stadium than at Goodison Park, but he definitely took a leaf out of Koeman’s playbook. The Everton game exposed Arsenal’s main defensive frailties: crosses, set pieces and the coverage of the area between the striker and the central midfielders.

Ozil’s poor performance

The Citizens could have opened the scoring by the fourth minute when Sane made a cross for Sterling. Koscielny missed his clearance but Cech was alert enough to gather the loose ball. Two minutes later, Sterling made a run in behind Koscielny to head wide De Bruyne’s cross. It was a play similar to Everton’s first goal against Arsenal. Sane then dribbled past Monreal in the 42nd but had his cross cleared by Paulista. On the stroke of halftime, Toure made a run from the edge of the box to meet a corner for a 13-yard header straight at Cech. It was a play similar to Everton’s second goal against Arsenal. No Gunner hampered Toure’s run but at least Paulista and Koscielny challenged for the ball.

City pressed high up the pitch to force Arsenal turnovers or long balls. The Gunners were often cornered in their own half as Guardiola’s team enjoyed 61% of ball possession. That was not the type of game tailored for Ozil, who performed poorly with only 1 key pass compared to 7 for De Bruyne. Ozil won only 28.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website, had 4 turnovers, made no interception, completed no cross, had no successful dribbling attempt and won 0 of 2 tackles.

Ozil’s only significant contribution was a high pass for Walcott who volleyed over the bar in the 32nd. The Germany playmaker can produce outstanding performances when his team dominates, but when the going gets tough he can also become a passenger who disappears from the game. Ozil was dispossessed by Silva in the 62nd but made no effort to win the ball back. After a midfield scramble, the ball fell to Sane, who was denied by Cech. Ozil showed poor teamwork again in the 77th by not tracking Silva. That laziness left Monreal in a 1v2 situation as Silva skipped past Monreal to feed Navas, whose deflected cross hit the post.

Limited midfield options

Silva and De Bruyne are creative players like Ozil, yet they worked hard for their team by making 5 tackles each. Ozil’s reluctance to defend means that the area between Sanchez and the two central midfielders, Coquelin and Xhaka, becomes a playground for the opposition. Toure and Fernando combined to hit 6 accurate long balls out of 10.

Coquelin and Xhaka often looked swamped in midfield. They combined to win only 2 of 9 tackles. The few times they managed to get hold of the ball, they had no solid outlet for a pass. In that type of game, what you need is a midfielder who can both defend and attack. Cazorla fits that profile, unfortunately he won’t be back before next year because of an ankle injury. Ramsey might have bridged the gap between the defense and the attack but he’s still recovering from a toe injury. In hindsight, loaning out Wilshere to Bournemouth this season has really hurt the club in terms of midfield options.

At the back, Monreal proved again the weak link. He won only 45.5% of his duels, the lowest percentage among Arsenal defenders. Sterling cut inside Monreal in the 71st to fire the winning goal into the bottom corner. Cech could have done a better job at his near post but Monreal should have also pushed Sterling against the touchline instead of letting him enter the area.

Monreal doesn’t dive in like Gibbs but the drawback is that the Spaniard often gives too much space to his opponent, which explains why he struggles to stop crosses. He’s had a great 2014-15 season but there have been signs last season that he’s losing a step. I hope the club will sign a leftback next summer. The holding midfielder and centerback positions used to be Arsenal’s main defensive weakness. Now it’s the leftback and playmaker positions that make the Gunners vulnerable.

An ill-advised offside trap

To be fair, Monreal wasn’t the only defender who had a hard time on Sunday. Bellerin is usually reliable at rightback but Guardiola clearly spotted a weakness as the Citizens attempted to crack the Arsenal defense by making runs between Bellerin and Paulista. That’s what happened in the 47th when Silva sent a ball over the top for Sane, who slipped the ball past Cech for the equalizer. Sane was marginally offside but Bellerin made the wrong decision by not staying with Sane.

You also have to question why Arsenal played a high defensive line on the equalizer, especially with nobody pressing Silva while De Bruyne and Sane made dangerous runs. The Gunners defended deep in the first half and seemed to absorb well the pressure. So why did they not retreat?

Koscielny was unlucky not to get the offside call on the equalizer. He was our best defender, winning 85.7% of his duels and making timely tackles and interceptions. His calm contrasted with Paulista’s shakiness. Paulista had a risky pass intercepted in the third minute and forced Cech to come off his line by underhitting a backpass in the 70th. The Brazilian centerback nearly scored an own goal in the 31st when his clearance bounced off Bellerin’s head but Cech made the save.

The only positive from Sunday’s game was our finishing. The Gunners took the lead in the fifth minute with their only shot on target. Bellerin ran 50 yards to find Sanchez, who played Walcott in. The England international needed two touches to control the ball before beating Bravo with a low strike.

Arsenal’s season depending on Ramsey’s fitness

Walcott didn’t do much besides that goal. He won only 1 of 6 aerial duels and 0 of 2 tackles, made 1 interception and 1 block, and his three other shots were off target. When the Gunners dominate ball possession, Walcott is a constant threat with his runs. But when they are deprived of the ball, his limited passing skills become a glaring weakness.

Iwobi also quickly faded and was replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 65th. The Ox had no time to make an impact as he picked up a hamstring injury. Wenger pulled him out to send on Elneny in the 78th. That was obviously an attempt from the manager to balance the team after Giroud had replaced Coquelin in the 75th. Giroud headed wide Bellerin’s cross in the 83rd. The France striker could have been a starting option to evade City’s high press. Unable to play the ball out from the back, Arsenal often hit long balls. Unfortunately, Sanchez did not win any aerial duel.

The Gunners have slipped to fourth place in the Premier League, 9 points behind Chelsea and just 1 point ahead of Tottenham. The title race could be over for Arsenal if they don’t win their next few games. They host West Brom on Boxing Day and then play Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Swansea, Burnley and Watford in January. Any point dropped against those weak or average teams could put the Gunners in a difficult situation.

Cazorla won’t be back before March. That means our season pretty much depends on Ramsey’s fitness. The Wales midfielder is one of the few players in our squad who can provide a smooth transition from defense to attack and the other way around. If Ramsey can’t be fit, then the manager might have to tweak the team’s passing game and opt for a more direct approach.

West Ham vs. Arsenal: Sanchez show goes on with hat trick in 5-1 win

Sanchez notched a hat trick and made an assist in Saturday’s 5-1 rout of West Ham to propel Arsenal to second place in the Premier League, three points behind leader Chelsea. The Chile striker became the joint top scorer in the league with 11 goals this season and also raised his tally to 4 assists.

west-ham-vs-arsenal

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

The Gunners created most of their chances down the left wing in the first half and capitalized on a West Ham turnover to take the lead in the 24th minute. Walcott had a couple of chances to put the game to bed early in the second half but failed to convert them. It took two substitutions to trigger a goal-fest in the last 20 minutes. Ramsey replaced Walcott in the 66th and brought more energy in the Arsenal midfield while Noble’s replacement by Carroll in the 73rd made the Hammers lose their shape.

Sanchez produced an outstanding all-around performance similar to the one against Bournemouth a week ago. He finished the game at the Olympic stadium with 3 goals, 1 assist, 5 key passes, 3 successful dribbles out of 4, but also 7 turnovers and no tackle. His hyperactivity was a bit more obvious against Bournemouth with 2 goals, 5 key passes, 2 successful dribbles out of 3, 10 turnovers, and 2 tackles won out of 6.

The opening goal came from a sloppy pass from Ogbonna blocked by Coquelin in the 24th. Sanchez beat Reid to the loose ball and set up Ozil for a tap-in. The Gunners doubled the lead in the 72nd when Sanchez collected a deep pass from Mustafi. Sanchez rolled away from Masuaku and rounded Ogbonna to beat Randolph with a low strike in the far corner. Reid somehow contributed to the third goal in the 80th as the West Ham centerback deflected Xhaka’s pass for Ozil into the path of Sanchez, who fired home a half-volley from the edge of the box. Carroll pulled one back in the 83rd by heading in a rebound after Payet’s free kick had struck the bar. A minute later, Oxlade-Chamberlain made it 4-1 with a curling shot from 25 yards. Sanchez sealed the win in the 86th by chasing a through ball from the Ox to chip the ball over the goalkeeper.

The manager’s leap of faith

Wenger’s previous attempt to play a diminutive centerforward didn’t work. Most fans still remember how ineffective Arshavin was in the lone striker role while Van Persie was injured. It took quite a leap of faith from the manager to trust Sanchez in that position especially since Sanchez performed well as a winger in the past two seasons at the club.

To a certain extent, Sanchez reminds me a bit of Romario, the Brazilian striker who lifted the World Cup in 1994. They nearly have the same height. Romario has better dribbling skills while Sanchez has more power. Obviously, the drawback with that kind of striker is that you will develop most of your plays on the ground and will struggle to hurt opponents in the air.

Offensively, Sanchez is not a target man like Giroud, who can win headers from crosses and is perfectly tailored for a more direct approach. Sanchez struggled as a lone striker in the goalless draw with Middlesbrough and the lucky win over Burnley. Giroud, who was not available for both games, could have made a difference with his physicality against those compact teams. Defensively, Giroud can help Arsenal evade a high press by knocking down long balls while Sanchez can only run after those clearances.

The Ox shining on the left wing

Since the start of the season, Walcott on the right wing has been a greater goal threat than Iwobi or the Ox on the left wing. The dynamic changed on Saturday as Walcott had a poor game with none of his 3 goal attempts on target. Walcott met a free kick from Ozil in the 49th but missed the target with a header from six yards. He then took a pass from Sanchez in the 52nd only to miskick wide from a good position. Sanchez fed Walcott again in the 65th but Ogbonna blocked the England international’s shot.

On the other hand, the Ox showed more end product than against Bournemouth with 1 goal, 1 assist, 4 key passes, 2 through balls (more than any other player according to whoscored.com), 6 successful dribbles out of 8, 1 of 2 tackles won, 3 blocks, 1 interception and only 1 turnover.

The Ox and Sanchez displayed a good understanding in the first half. By the ninth minute, Sanchez picked out the Ox, who overhit his final ball for Ozil. The Ox was then released down the left wing by Sanchez in the 30th, but showed poor decision-making by opting for an off-balance effort instead of crossing the ball to Walcott, free at the far post. They swapped roles in the 35th when the Ox played Sanchez in. Clean through on goal, Sanchez dribbled past Randolph but lost possession with a heavy touch. The Ox finally found the net in the 84th and could have scored another goal in the 90th if Randolph had not made a leg save.

Ramsey’s value in the squad

Ozil had a good game offensively with 1 goal, 1 assist, 4 key passes and 3 accurate crosses. However, his defensive contribution was pretty weak with 2 interceptions, no tackle and no block. West Ham took advantage of Ozil’s leniency as Noble and Obiang hit 4 accurate long balls each. That poor defensive coverage of the area between the central midfielders and the striker did not hurt the Gunners on Saturday but it could cost them dearly against stronger teams.

Ramsey came off the bench in the 66th to help Arsenal take control of the game. He connected with a low cross from Monreal in the 69th but had his first-time effort saved by Randolph. Ozil pounced on the rebound for an acrobatic volley that the Ireland goalkeeper stopped with a reflex save. In stoppage time, Sanchez fed Ramsey, who was denied by Randolph again.

Knowing that Cazorla will be sidelined for three months and that Wilshere has been loaned out to Bournemouth, Ramsey’s value in the squad has become more important just like injuries to Welbeck and Giroud have made Sanchez’s fitness a top priority. Ramsey hasn’t found the net yet, but after a hamstring injury ruined his start to the season, it’s all about having some playing time to get back to the top of his game.

Xhaka’s low-key performance

The Gunners have lost a bit of their attacking fluency because of injuries to Cazorla and Bellerin, who both add a technical touch to the team’s passing game. Bellerin is arguably our most skillful defender while Cazorla is the only midfielder as gifted technically as Ozil. So there was some concern before kickoff about the manager’s choices for the midfield pairing and the rightback starter.

In the end, Wenger took the safe options. In midfield, Wenger partnered a ballwinner, Coquelin, with a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka. At rightback, he dropped Jenkinson, who has performed poorly lately and is low on confidence, and started the more experienced Paulista while leaving Holding on the bench.

Xhaka was a bit shy in his pacesetting duties, making only 58 passes, compared to 57 for Ozil and 53 for Coquelin. By contrast, Cazorla often makes 80 plus passes per game. Xhaka seemed to focus on his positional play and defensive duties. He sometimes struggled to cope with the pace of Payet, when the West Ham winger cut inside, but still managed to hit 5 accurate long balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com.

In their fourth start together, Coquelin had better defensive stats than Xhaka (4 of 6 tackles won vs. 2 of 6 for Xhaka, 84.6% of duels won vs. 44.4% for Xhaka, and 6 interceptions vs. 3 for Xhaka) but surprisingly also better offensive stats than the Switzerland international (1 chance created and 3 successful dribbles out of 3 vs. none for Xhaka). Coquelin’s only blemish was his 5 turnovers, including one that led Ayew’s goal attempt in the 75th. I expect Xhaka to play more confidently in the next few games if he gets the nod.

Scouting leftbacks?

While Monreal and Bellerin play pretty much like wingbacks, Paulista was so reluctant to roam forward that he looked like an old-fashioned fullback. Actually, I don’t mind a bit of cautiousness. But it also means less support for Walcott down the right wing.

West Ham’s through balls came from Paulista’s flank while their dangerous crosses were made from Monreal’s flank. In the 19th, Payet slipped a through ball to Lanzini, who was forced wide by Monreal and then Koscielny. Lanzini still managed to test Cech with an angled shot. On that play, Paulista failed to close down Payet. In the 54th, Lanzini collected another through ball from Payet but his low cross for Fletcher was cleared by Koscielny. On that play, Mustafi came out too late to press Payet while Paulista was a bit slow to turn and track Lanzini.

Monreal took advantage of the poor understanding between Arbeloa and Fernandes to roam forward in the first half. The Spaniard made a poor cross for the Ox, who was free at the near post in the seventh minute. He then had two cutbacks cleared by the Hammers in the 13th.

Failing to stop dangerous crosses has been a big issue for Monreal since last season. In the 44th, Monreal gave too much space to Fletcher, whose cross was headed over the bar by Obiang. In the 62nd, Arbeloa took advantage of some poor coordination between Monreal and Walcott to cross the ball for Fletcher, who sent his tame header straight into Cech’s gloves. Ayew also dribbled past Monreal in the 79th but Koscielny blocked the strike from the West Ham substitute. Monreal won none of the 5 tackles he made. I hope the staff is scouting leftbacks since Monreal is apparently losing a step.

Leading by example

Koscielny produced an outstanding performance, winning 83.3% of his duels, 3 of 3 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels according to Squawka and the club’s website, compared to Mustafi’s 63.6% of duels won, 1 of 2 tackles won and 7 of 8 aerial duels won. Koscielny pounced on Mustafi’s off-target header from a corner but couldn’t make contact to divert the ball home in the 17th. In a very short time, Mustafi has proved a more solid partner than Mertesacker or Paulista. Koscielny will turn 32 next year and we can only hope that Mustafi will be ready to marshall the defense when Koscielny steps down.

The title race is so tight this season that the Gunners have no maneuvering room. That’s why I think the Champions League game at Basel on Tuesday is less important than the Premier League game against Stoke next Saturday. Arsenal would top their group only if Paris Saint-Germain were to drop points at home against Ludogorets, which is very unlikely. Wenger won’t rotate much against Basel but I expect him to take off his key players in the second half.