Tag Archives: Monreal

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.

 

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth: Sanchez leads Gunners back to winning ways

The Gunners defeated Bournemouth 3-1 on Sunday to keep pace in the Premier League title race. The pressure before the game was huge as Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City had won on Saturday. A fourth straight draw in all competitions would have left Arsenal 5 points behind the Blues and 4 behind the Reds and the Citizens. It would have also meant Arsenal joining Tottenham and Manchester United in the infamous race for fourth place.

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

In an attempt to inject freshness, Wenger made 7 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Paris Saint-Germain last Wednesday with Debuchy, Monreal, Cech, Xhaka, Elneny, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing Jenkinson, Gibbs, Ospina, Coquelin, Ramsey, Giroud and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The most intriguing part in the manager’s tinkering was the reshuffle of the central midfield.

Wenger has used 7 midfield pairings in all competitions this season. The partnership formed by Cazorla and Coquelin has been the manager’s favorite option so far with 5 starts, followed by the Cazorla-Xhaka duo (4 starts), the Coquelin-Elneny duo (4 starts), the Coquelin-Xhaka duo (3 starts), the Xhaka-Elneny duo (2 starts), the Coquelin-Ramsey duo (1 start) and the Elneny-Maitland-Niles duo (1 start).

Of the 5 central midfielders in the squad, Ramsey has been the least used by the manager, in part because he was injured for two months, but also because Wenger prefers to play him on a wing. It’s also interesting to see that the manager has paired Xhaka with every central midfielder except Ramsey. Is it because of Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline or Xhaka’s relative inexperience in the Premier League? Or is it just a matter of circumstances like injuries or the teams that we face?

Cazorla-Coquelin as the gold standard

The pairing formed by Cazorla and Coquelin is the most balanced combination on paper and a proven recipe for success since the 2014-15 season. However, injuries to Cazorla and Coquelin last season showed the need for decent alternatives.

Arsenal won the four games in which Cazorla and Xhaka started in central midfield. That’s definitely a more attacking partnership than the Cazorla-Coquelin duo since Xhaka has better passing and shooting skills than Coquelin. Cazorla and Xhaka were brilliant against Watford and Basel but struggled against Burnley and Swansea. Their complementarity would need to be tested against stronger opposition.

Xhaka and Coquelin started 3 games together. On paper, they are nearly as complementary as the Cazorla-Coquelin duo since Xhaka is a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla. They don’t provide the same attacking threat since Cazorla has better dribbling skills than Xhaka, but they should provide more defensive protection as Xhaka is a more prolific tackler than Cazorla. The Xhaka-Coquelin duo performed well in the draws with Leicester and Tottenham but couldn’t make up for the team’s lack of focus in the opening quarter against Ludogorets.

I’m not really a fan of the pairing formed by Coquelin and Elneny. They lack creativity and put more pressure on Iwobi, Ozil and Sanchez to engineer plays. The goalless draw with Middlesbrough summed up what the Gunners lack when Coquelin and Elneny team up in midfield.

The only time he started in central midfield, Ramsey partnered Coquelin. The manager made a big call last week by starting them against Paris Saint-Germain, the best team we have played so far this season. It’s a partnership perfectly tailored for counterattacks and end-to-end plays but which would lack control against the average sides because Ramsey has weaker passing skills than Cazorla and a higher turnover rate.

Elneny’s limitations

On Sunday, Wenger decided to partner Xhaka with Elneny against Bournemouth. Their fine performance against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup two months ago had very little meaning because of the weakness of the opposition. I thought the game against Bournemouth exposed Elneny’s limitations in that partnership. Elneny won only 28.6% of his duels, the lowest percentage among Arsenal midfielders according to the club’s website. Of the 4 tackles he made, Elneny won just one and committed 3 fouls.

Xhaka had better offensive stats (1 through ball and 1 accurate cross) but also better defensive stats than Elneny. The Switzerland international made 3 interceptions, 2 blocks, and won 7 of 10 tackles, the most for any player according to Squawka. Bournemouth midfielder Gosling made 13 tackles but won just 5 of them. Xhaka’s passing range is definitely an asset when the Gunners transition from defense to attack. He found Sanchez with a ball over the top in the 14th minute. Sanchez had his ankle clipped by Ake on the edge of the box but the referee turned a blind eye. Xhaka also slipped a deep ball to Sanchez down the left flank in the 60th, but the Chile striker then slightly overhit his pass for Ozil.

Sanchez produced an outstanding all-around performance with 2 goals and 5 key passes. He also won 2 of 6 tackles and made 2 successful dribbles out of 3. However, the limits of his hyperactivity were also exposed with 10 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com.

Sanchez’s one-man show

Arsenal opened the scoring in the 12th when Sanchez intercepted a weak back pass from Cook to slip the ball past Federici. Sanchez nearly added a second goal on the stroke of halftime by taking a pass from Ozil to rattle the bar with an angled strike. This almost felt like a one-man show. In fact, Sanchez’s performance (8 goals and 3 assists in the Premier League so far) is optimized by the way the Gunners are playing this season.

On the other hand, I’m wondering whether Sanchez’s shift to the centerforward position has negatively impacted Ozil’s performance. Ozil has racked up 3 goals and 1 assist in 12 Premier League games so far. At the same stage last season, Ozil had already notched 1 goal and 11 assists in 12 league games. There have been moments of brilliance from Ozil with his hat trick in the Champions League and his goal gainst Chelsea, but his start to the season has been quite average by his own standards. The consistency he achieved last season is now a distant memory.

Ozil had a decent game against Bournemouth, making 3 key passes and initiating the last 2 goals. He made a cross in the 53rd that Ake could only deflect into the path of Monreal, whose first-time pass was headed home by Walcott for a 2-1 lead. Ozil then released Giroud down the right flank in stoppage time. Giroud cut the ball back for Sanchez, who tapped in to seal the win. Ozil could have scored in the opening minutes but somehow lacked conviction with a nine-yard shot blocked by Ake. I thought it was weird that Ozil tried to place the ball with his right foot instead of going for power with his stronger left foot.

Solving the left wing issue

Ramsey and Giroud came off the bench to replace Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 75th. The Ox benefited from Iwobi’s poor run of form to start on the left wing. Unfortunately, the Ox showed very little end product with just 1 key pass whereas Ramsey and Giroud managed to make 2 key passes each.

The left wing has become Arsenal’s main weakness this season. Walcott has performed consistently well on the right wing with 6 goals and 2 assists in the Premier League so far. But neither Iwobi (3 league assists and no goal) nor the Ox (1 league goal, 2 assists) has reached a similar level of form on the left wing. Welbeck and Perez would be the obvious alternatives but they are both injured. Another solution could be to move Sanchez back to the left flank and play Giroud up front but the manager has been reluctant to start Sanchez on the wing this season.

The Gunners lost a bit of pace when Giroud finished the match as the centerforward. On the other hand, they gained more directness. Giroud proved a handful for the Bournemouth defense with his physicality. He connected with a cross from Sanchez in the 82nd but missed the target from 6 yards as Ake put him off. Five minutes later, Giroud chested down a pass from Xhaka to set up Ramsey, whose half-volley was deflected out for a corner. In stoppage time, Giroud offered a goal on a plate to Sanchez. The understanding on the pitch between Sanchez and Giroud was really poor last season. So it’s definitely a positive sign to see them improve their chemistry.

Guilty of ball-watching

The Cherries were no threat until an awkward challenge from Monreal in the 22nd gave them a chance to level. It was quite a messy play. The Gunners were under siege after a corner and Bournemouth capitalized on a turnover from Ozil and a missed control from Sanchez to hoist the ball into the box. Wilson drew a foul from Monreal by putting his body across. It was a soft penalty but the golden rule is that you have to win any challenge inside the box. Wilson sent Cech the wrong way to convert the subsequent spot kick.

Somehow, Arsenal lost a bit of confidence after that goal. The Cherries even reached halftime with as many goal attempts as the hosts. The Gunners will have to work on set pieces in training. Bournemouth could have taken the lead in the 25th when Ake redirected a Stanislas free kick toward Smith, who missed the target with a free header from 8 yards. Two Gunners were guilty of ball-watching on that play. Xhaka forgot to track Smith while Paulista poorly marked Ake.

Paulista displayed again his ball-watching skills in the 77th. Francis beat Giroud to the ball to flick a corner toward the far post where Afobe stuck a foot in front of Paulista for a low volley that Cech saved with his leg. Paulista, who replaced the injured Debuchy in the 16th, is not a fullback by trade. However, any good defender can’t afford to lose those 2 key duels inside the area.

Fullbacks as the weak link

The Cherries only created 2 chances from open play. In the 28th, Xhaka failed to close down Arter, who found Wilson on the edge of the box. The Bournemouth striker played Smith in with a backheel flick but Cech was able to turn Smith’s angled effort around the post. Walcott switched off on that play as he should have tracked Smith down the right flank. The Cherries could have equalized in the 90th when Paulista failed to stop a cross from Smith. Mousset beat Monreal to the ball but sent his header wide from 8 yards. What was Monreal thinking by trying to play Mousset offside?

Monreal and Paulista proved the weak link in the Arsenal defense while Koscielny and Mustafi put in a solid shift by combining to make 11 interceptions and win 5 of 8 tackles and 5 of 6 aerial duels.

If any Gunner needs a rest, that has to be against Southampton in the League Cup. I expect the manager to give Cech, Koscielny, Mustafi, Ozil, Sanchez and Walcott a break on Wednesday.

Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Giroud’s equalizer helps Gunners overcome off day

The Gunners can thank Giroud for a late equalizer at Old Trafford as they really looked listless on Saturday. The 1-1 draw is definitely a better result than the 3-2 loss of last season and leaves Arsenal in fourth place just two points behind Liverpool and Manchester City in the Premier League.

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

There were a couple of surprises in the starting lineup with Ramsey on the left wing, Jenkinson at rightback and Sanchez in the lone striker role. Aware of Iwobi’s poor run of form in the last few games, Wenger decided to play Ramsey in an unfamiliar position although Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been a more natural choice on the left flank. At the back, Bellerin’s ankle injury meant that the manager had to either trust Jenkinson or gamble on Holding. Jenkinson is more experienced whereas Holding is stronger in the air and more comfortable on the ball. Holding is a centerback by trade but played a few games at rightback for Bolton last season. Up front, I thought it was risky to start Sanchez after an exhausting trip to South America. Giving the nod to Giroud would have been the wiser option.

Arsenal enjoyed 55% of ball possession but only produced 1 shot on target compared to 5 for some Red Devils still struggling to find their feet. Before I start analyzing the game, I need to mention how badly the Gunners are missing Bellerin and Cazorla. Bellerin will be sidelined for 4 weeks after picking up an ankle injury against Tottenham while Cazorla is dealing with a nagging Achilles injury that could echo Arteta’s last two seasons at the club.

Bellerin is not just a better defender than Jenkinson, he also has more pace and better passing and dribbling skills than the English fullback. Jenkinson had a passing accuracy of 61% at Old Trafford, the lowest among all the starters according to the club’s website. Mourinho obviously targeted Jenkinson by starting Martial, although the French forward is low on confidence this season.

Lack of creativity

Jenkinson did fine on the ground, winning 3 of 5 tackles compared to 0 of 2 for both Mustafi and Monreal according to Squawka. However, Jenkinson struggled in the air, winning only 3 of 6 aerial duels compared to 8 of 10 for Mustafi, 3 of 3 for Koscielny and 1 of 1 for Monreal. Martial was able to bear down on goal in the 49th minute after Jenkinson missed his header but he could only drag a low shot straight at Cech. Rojo then outjumped Jenkinson in the 80th to head wide a cross from Blind.

The Gunners have struggled to build play from the back since Cazorla’s absence. The Manchester game was no exception. Wenger wanted to protect the back four by playing Coquelin and Elneny in midfield. The downside is that you have very little creativity with those two players. Sanchez and Ozil dropped back a few times to give a hand but Arsenal still finished the match with just 3 key passes. In modern football, the through ball is the most lethal weapon to crack a defense. However, the penultimate pass can prove just as important by creating the conditions for that assist. And that’s what Cazorla is very good at.

Ozil and Ramsey should have injected the touch of creativity that was missing but they both had a poor game. They had 7 turnovers each, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Ramsey only won 1 of 7 tackles while Ozil had very little impact on the team’s passing game despite not playing for Germany during the international break.

A good old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system

Darmian was the weak link in the Manchester defense. The Italian fullback was booked in the 25th for fouling Walcott and could have received a second yellow card in the 32nd for planting his studs in Jenkinson’s shin. In the second half, the Gunners failed to test Darmian, who was nevertheless replaced by Blind in the 64th.

Somehow, Sanchez could have opened the scoring by the seventh minute. Walcott redirected a cross from Monreal toward the far post, where Sanchez got ahead of Herrera but headed wide from six yards. Sanchez made 4 successful dribbles out of 4 but it wasn’t a game tailored for him. Giroud has skills that Sanchez doesn’t have and the other way around.

Chasing an equalizer, the manager replaced Elneny with Giroud in the 73rd, Coquelin with Xhaka in the 80th and Jenkinson with Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 84th. The initial 4-2-3-1 formation turned into an old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system with Koscielny and Mustafi at the back, Xhaka as the holding midfielder between Monreal and the Ox as the wingbacks, Ozil and Ramsey as the attacking midfielders, and Sanchez, Giroud and Walcott as the three forwards.

That’s how it looked like on paper. When Arsenal equalized in the 89th, any tactical consideration was thrown out the window. The Ox dribbled past Rashford down the right flank to make a cross for Giroud, who outjumped Jones and Valencia at the far post to head home. There were five Gunners (Walcott, Ramsey, Giroud, Koscielny and Monreal) inside the Manchester box when the Ox crossed the ball while Ozil and Sanchez were standing outside.

Lack of movement

When you watch that Manchester side play under Mourinho, it’s hard to see where are the improvements compared to the Van Gaal era. The Red Devils seemed the better team from the 20th to the 80th only because they showed a bit more desire while Arsenal lacked the movement necessary to destabilize a compact defense.

Mimicking Liverpool and Tottenham, the hosts implemented a high press in the hope of creating chances from turnovers. Valencia intercepted a sloppy pass from Elneny in the 12th but had his cross cut out by Coquelin. Then Coquelin gave the ball away to Rashford, who overhit his cross for Pogba in the 19th. Ramsey also put the Gunners in trouble with a risky pass in the 41st when the ball fell to Martial, whose shot was tipped over the bar by Cech.

Mourinho obviously remembered Arsenal’s loss at Old Trafford last season as he tried to exploit their vulnerability on crosses. Manchester made 30 crosses compared to just 13 for the Gunners. The opening goal came from a low cross from Herrera in the 69th. Mata pounced on the offering to fire a first-time effort into the bottom corner.

A bad chain reaction

You realize it’s a silly goal when you watch the replay. Basically, it’s a terrible chain reaction triggered by Monreal falling to the ground after losing a duel against Pogba. There seems to be no danger when the Red Devils have a throw-in. Valencia’s throw is a bit awkward but Pogba manages to control the ball while Monreal loses his footing in an attempt to head the ball away. Koscielny wants to cover Monreal and leaves a gap in the heart of the defense. Monreal is getting back on his feet but doesn’t track Herrera who is running past him. Pogba releases Herrera down the flank, therefore pulling Mustafi out of position as the Germany international is trying to make up for Monreal’s poor marking. Jenkinson is now dealing with both Rooney and Rashford inside the area. See all the space left by the Arsenal defense in the screen capture below.

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The Red Devils have plenty of space to run into as Herrera ghosts past Monreal (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Coquelin notices the mismatch and tracks Rooney. However, Elneny doesn’t have Coquelin’s defensive awareness and fails to spot Mata’s run inside the box. The first mistake on that play is Koscielny’s decision to cover Monreal. It would have been safer to have a midfielder challenging Pogba with Monreal acting as a cover. The second mistake is Monreal’s failure to track Herrera. And the third mistake is Elneny leaving Mata unmarked.

Elneny is a utility player who does a bit of everything without excelling in any area. He’s not a ballwinner like Coquelin, he’s not a deep-lying playmaker like Xhaka, he doesn’t make deep runs like Ramsey and he doesn’t deliver through balls like Ozil. Elneny is a great asset when you have injuries in midfield, but he also shows his limits in specific situations when you need to score or defend. He gave away a free kick by putting his hand on Herrera’s shoulder in the fourth minute and failed to close down Pogba in the 36th. Pogba had plenty of time to play Mata in. Mustafi was a split second late and missed his interception. It took an outstanding save from Cech to tip Mata’s low strike around the post.

The need for a better game plan

The Manchester match was just the first of nine games in a 30-day span. In what is the most hectic period of the season for Arsenal, the manager must find a way to improve their build-up play otherwise they will struggle against the average sides and drop crucial points.

Wednesday’s game against Paris Saint-Germain could determine Arsenal’s future in the Champions League. In the past seasons, the Gunners often had a tough draw in the knockout phase because they finished second in the group stage. Arsenal and the French club are currently level on points but the Gunners have a better goal difference. Since both teams drew 1-1 in September, Arsenal would top the group with a victory over PSG no matter what happens against Basel in December.

A draw at the Emirates could also be enough if the score is 0-0 or 1-1, assuming the Gunners beat Basel while the Parisians defeat Ludogorets next month. However, PSG would snatch the top spot with a 2-2 draw because of the away goal rule.

Wenger will have to come up with a better game plan because he was badly outfoxed by Emery in September. Aurier enjoyed too much freedom down our left flank, PSG outnumbered Arsenal in midfield, and nobody marked Verratti and Di Maria when they dropped back to make key passes.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Stalemate becoming norm for North London derby

In a tactical game with very few chances, the Gunners drew 1-1 with Tottenham on Sunday to drop to fourth place in the Premier League. It was the same scoreline when Spurs visited the Emirates stadium in the past two seasons. Pochettino found again a way to contain Arsenal’s attacking threat by using Dier as a third centerback, next to Wimmer and Vertonghen, and by shielding his defense with the physical Dembele and Wanyama. The Argentine manager also tweaked his high press to target dangerous players like Ozil and Bellerin, who had 6 turnovers each according to whoscored.com.

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

The weakness in a 3-4-3 formation is the space behind the wingbacks. The Gunners’ two best chances in the first half came from runs in behind Walker and Rose. Ozil led a counterattack in the 32nd minute by finding Sanchez on the edge of the Tottenham box. Sanchez played Iwobi in but the Nigeria international could only muster a tame effort straight at Lloris. My guess is that Iwobi wanted to curl the ball inside the far post. In Iwobi’s position, the more natural option would have been to hit the ball with his left foot. Iwobi is only 20 years old and finishing is obviously the key area he needs to improve. But that’s the price you pay for developing youngsters at the top level. Arsenal put Spurs in trouble with another fast break in the 39th. Xhaka fed Walcott, who rattled the post with a 20-yard piledriver.

Sanchez and Ozil have tortured quite a few teams this season with their vertical movement, Sanchez dropping back to deliver the final ball and Ozil making runs in behind to score. But Pochettino’s team was so well drilled that Sanchez, Ozil and Walcott got caught offside 7 times. The tightness of Tottenham’s defense explains why the Gunners’ final ball was often poor and their shooting accuracy as low as 18% compared to 30% for Spurs. The only time Sanchez and Ozil were able to combine in the final third was in the 31st, when Sanchez made a low cross for Ozil, whose first-time effort sailed wide.

Under-performing Iwobi and Walcott

The difficulty of cracking the Tottenham defense led Sanchez and Ozil to focus on creating chances. Ozil finished the game with 5 key passes and Sanchez with 4. Iwobi, Xhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain also had 1 key pass each. Ozil has played many games as a nine and half this season. But circumstances on Sunday forced him to play in a more traditional No. 10 role. Wimmer, under Koscielny’s pressure, headed Ozil’s free kick into his own net in the 42nd to give Arsenal the lead. Ozil led the team with 50 passes, followed by Monreal with 47 and Xhaka with 44. When the Gunners face weaker sides, the two central midfielders usually make more passes than Ozil, who plays in a more advanced position.

Since Ozil and Sanchez were dealing with the playmaking duties, it meant that Iwobi and Walcott had to take care of the finishing. Unfortunately, Iwobi and Walcott under-performed in the final third. Iwobi wasted a counterattack in the 19th by dallying on the ball and overhitting his cross for Sanchez. He then deprived Bellerin of a passing option in the 29th by not making a run toward the far post. Iwobi still managed to test Lloris in the 61st with a teasing cross that eluded the Tottenham defense. Walcott was doubtful before the game because of a hamstring strain. His defensive partnership with Bellerin on the right flank proved weak as Rose was able to make 4 key passes. Walcott’s limited passing skills were also a liability with a passing accuracy of 50% compared to 77.8% for Iwobi.

Monreal’s great game

We wouldn’t be talking about Arsenal’s struggles in the final third if they had succeeded in protecting their lead. It lasted just nine minutes. What really hurt the Gunners was their sluggish start in the second half. Dembele too easily ran past Coquelin before Koscielny tripped him inside the area in the 50th. Kane converted the subsequent penalty to level the score.

Wenger made all the right moves to try and win the match, sending on Ramsey for Coquelin in the 64th and replacing Iwobi and Walcott with Giroud and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 70th. Sanchez moved back to the left flank and made a cross for Giroud that Vertonghen headed away in the 86th. In the last minute of regulation time, Giroud got ahead of Vertonghen to meet a cross from Sanchez but headed the ball straight at Lloris. Giroud should have done better with a free header from nine yards but at least his understanding with Sanchez is improving. The Ox never managed to get into the game while Ramsey still lacked a bit of match fitness, chesting down a clearance in the 72nd to fire over the bar.

Defensively, our fullbacks performed better than our centerbacks. Monreal had a great game, making 7 interceptions and winning 4 of 7 tackles, the most for any player according to Squawka. The Spaniard especially made a crucial block to deny Kane in the 60th. Koscielny was the main culprit for giving away a penalty with a clumsy challenge on Dembele in the 50th but a quick look at the stats shows that he performed a bit better than Mustafi, winning 3 of 6 tackles, making 4 interceptions and reaching a passing accuracy of 73% compared to 1 of 3 tackles, 8 interceptions and a passing accuracy of 60% for the Germany international.

Similarities with the Ludogorets game

Mustafi looked shaky in the first half. Son too easily rolled away from Mustafi in the fifth minute to feed Kane, who couldn’t connect with the cross. Then Mustafi missed his clearance in the 18th, forcing Cech to beat Kane to the ball. His reading of the game was poor in the 21st when Eriksen made a cross for Kane, who missed the target despite a free header. Since Kane was making a run in behind Koscielny, it was Mustafi’s responsibility to mark the Tottenham striker. It was a play similar to Ludogorets’ second goal last Tuesday.

Koscielny played with confidence in the first half, intercepting a long ball for Son in the 25th. However, his performance after the break was a different story. Koscielny fouled Son in the 47th and was even nutmegged by the South Korea international in the 49th, forcing Bellerin to clear the danger with a sliding tackle inside the area. Wenger claimed Koscielny’s foul on Dembele was a soft penalty, but the golden rule is that you must get the ball when you make a challenge inside the area. And Koscielny didn’t.

Spurs could have scored the winner in the 84th when Eriksen’s free kick eluded the Arsenal defense to bounce off the far post. Dier outjumped Bellerin at the near post but couldn’t make contact with the ball. Eriksen’s delivery was a tricky one but the defenders must find a way to better attack the ball. It was a play that echoed Ludogorets’ opening goal.

Xhaka’s impressive game

I guess the main positive from Sunday’s game was Xhaka’s impressive performance. He outshone Coquelin in midfield, making 4 interceptions and winning 4 of 7 tackles, compared to 3 interceptions and 1 of 3 tackles for the Frenchman. Xhaka’s only positional mistake came in the 21st when Eriksen crossed the ball for Kane. The Switzerland international should have pressed Eriksen on that play instead of sitting inside the Arsenal area. Coquelin was obviously guilty for not stopping Dembele’s run in the 50th. He also poorly tracked Eriksen in the 55th when Mustafi headed away a cross from Kane. Eriksen pounced on the second ball to fire a half-volley that Cech turned around the post.

A draw with Tottenham is not a bad result in itself. The Gunners are still three points above their North London rivals in the standings. The problem is the context. That was arguably the best time of the year to play Spurs, who were missing Alderweireld and Alli through injury while Kane was barely fit. A victory would have also made up for the two points dropped against Middlesbrough.

The manager must hope that Cazorla recovers from his Achilles injury after the international break because the Spaniard definitely adds more creativity in midfield than Elneny, Xhaka or Coquelin. The Gunners will face their most hectic period of the season with nine games from Nov. 19 to Dec. 18. Sanchez and Giroud are the players that Arsenal can’t afford to lose to injury because their backups, Perez and Welbeck, won’t return before January.