Tag Archives: Monreal

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 race over after 1-0 loss in North London derby

The Top 4 race is virtually over for Arsenal after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Tottenham. The Gunners trail their North London rivals by 7 points and Liverpool by 9 in the Premier League. Even if we assume a miraculous improvement in Arsenal’s poor away form, it’s hard to see how they could make up so much ground with just 11 league games left. To match their total from last season (75), they would need to win 10 of those games.

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

The scoreline doesn’t reflect how Tottenham outplayed the Gunners in the second half. With some decent finishing, Spurs could have won by a four-goal margin. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves but the hosts also wasted some big chances by simply missing the target. If we except interceptions, Tottenham had the edge in all the key categories: 6 shots on target to 1 for Arsenal, 13 chances to 4, 15 key passes to 4, 13 successful tackles to 12, 14 successful dribbles to 8, 34 crosses to 13, and 52.6% of duels won, according to the club’s website and Squawka.

From those stats, we can see that dribbling is a weakness in the current Arsenal squad. The staff will have to address that issue in the summer transfer window unless they think Nelson and Nketiah are ready to start in the Premier League. That weakness means that the Gunners rely heavily on their passing game to crack a defense. By denying space and pressing the ballholder, Spurs managed to limit Arsenal to just 4 key passes. Arsenal had a couple of promising situations in the first half but failed to turn them into clear-cut chances because of a poor final ball. At the end of the second half, the Gunners improved the quality of their final ball but were let down by their finishing.

Failing to stop crosses

Tottenham did most of the damage from crosses. Last season, the leftback position was identified by opponents as the weak link in the Arsenal defense. Pochettino took a more sophisticated approach by exploiting the poor defensive contribution from Ozil and Mkhitaryan as Trippier and Davies charged down the flanks to hoist the ball into the box. In the 25th minute, Mkhitaryan failed to close down Trippier. The Tottenham rightback made a cross for Eriksen, whose looping header didn’t trouble Cech.

On the opposite flank, Davies was given plenty of time and space by Ozil in the 49th and the Wales leftback made a cross for Kane, who outjumped Koscielny to head the ball into the bottom corner. The timing of Kane’s jump was perfect. The only thing Koscielny could have done better was to try and put Kane off by colliding into the Spurs striker while pretending to jump.

Making crosses was a simple ploy but it worked wonders for Spurs. In the 54th, Monreal was caught out of position and Mkhitaryan failed to track Trippier, who set up Kane for a volley that Cech parried. As you can see on the screen capture below, Wilshere covered Monreal on the left flank and somehow managed to slow down the counterattack, but Xhaka left Kane unmarked on the edge of the Arsenal box.

Tottenham M54ed Xhaka showing his lack of defensive awareness by leaving Kane unmarked. (Photo credit: BT)

Tottenham even had a Plan B if Ozil or Mkhitaryan made the effort to close down Davies or Trippier. In the 52nd, Trippier lured Mkhitaryan down our left flank, creating space for Dier, who whipped a cross into the box. Kane made a run between Koscielny and Mustafi only to head the cross wide. Wilshere sat too deep on that play, failing to press Dier, while Koscielny was not tight enough to Kane.

Questionable tactics

In the battle of playmakers, Eriksen got the better of Ozil with 4 key passes compared to just 2 for the Germany international. Eriksen created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense by playing between the lines and finding pockets of space to pull the strings. Dier in the 14th and Kane in the 27th met his crosses but missed the target. Then Bellerin failed to stop another cross from Eriksen in the 76th. Unmarked at the far post, Trippier connected with the ball for a volley that Cech saved.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that smashed Everton 5-1 a week ago with Elneny and Wilshere replacing Iwobi and an injured Ramsey in the starting lineup. I would have played a back three like in the 2-0 win at the Emirates in November. To the manager’s credit, the team did OK in the first half in a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny, Xhaka and Wilshere in midfield.

Chasing an equalizer, Wenger made some substitutions that were questionable. He replaced Elneny and Mkhitaryan with Iwobi and Lacazette in the 65th, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ozil in the hole, Aubameyang on the left wing, Iwobi on the right and Lacazette up front. Aubameyang has never been known for his crossing ability or all-around game, so I don’t quite understand what Wenger had in mind. It would have been more rational to play Lacazette on the right wing, Iwobi on the left and keep Aubameyang in the centerforward role. Another tactical option would have been to use a 4-4-2 formation with Ozil and Iwobi as the wide players and Lacazette as a second striker playing behind Aubameyang.

The Chamakh syndrome

The manager switched back to a 4-3-3 formation in the 86th by sending on Welbeck for Xhaka. Iwobi teamed up with Ozil and Wilshere in midfield while Welbeck joined Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front three. The move nearly paid off as Spurs started tiring in the closing minutes and invited pressure by sitting deeper and deeper. Bellerin made a pinpoint cross for an unmarked Lacazette in stoppage time, but the France international sent his volley over the bar from 12 yards. Two minutes later, Iwobi slipped a through ball to Lacazette, who lacked composure and dragged his shot wide instead of attempting a chip.

Besides those 2 golden chances, Lacazette led all players with 3 offside calls in his 25-minute cameo. When he signed for Arsenal, there was some uncertainty about his level. Was Lacazette a world-class player like Henry and Van Persie or just a good striker like Lukaku? We don’t have the answer yet, but now the danger for Lacazette is the Chamakh syndrome.

Don’t get me wrong, Lacazette is a much better player than Chamakh. But if he doesn’t show more mental strength, his spell at Arsenal could end next year. Chamakh joined Arsenal in 2010 and scored 7 goals in his first 15 Premier League games. But then the Morocco international couldn’t find the net in the league for the rest of the season. The similarities with Lacazette’s new career in England are quite obvious. Lacazette scored 8 goals in his first 15 league games but has netted only once in the following 11 league games.

There have been many comparisons made between Aubameyang and Henry. I think those comparisons make no sense at all because Aubameyang and Henry are 2 completely different players. Yes, both Aubameyang and Henry have electric pace. But Henry was not a fox in the box like Aubameyang, and the former Borussia Dortmund player doesn’t have Henry’s dribbling and passing skills. Aubameyang is a pure centerforward who depends on good service. He won’t create a goal out of nothing like Henry.

An awkward left foot 

On Saturday, Aubameyang took 0 shot and made 2 crosses that went nowhere. Although Aubameyang is 5 inches taller than Lacazette, Spurs exposed his relative weakness in the air by winning 1 of 8 aerial duels against him, according to Squawka. Despite Tottenham’s high defensive line, the Gunners never managed to capitalize on Aubameyang’s speed. Wilshere played Aubameyang clean through on goal in the 12th but the Gabon striker was flagged offside. Then Xhaka overhit his through ball for Aubameyang in the 60th before Aubameyang was again caught offside in the 82nd while collecting a through ball from Ozil. It will take a bit of time to develop a good understanding between Aubameyang and his teammates. Aubameyang scored in his first Arsenal game but we should remember that Mkhitaryan, who made the assist, previously played with him in Germany.

Starting on the left wing, Mkhitaryan had a much weaker impact than against Everton. Let’s be honest, Mkhitaryan seems more comfortable on the right wing than on the left for the simple reason that his left foot is a mess. The Armenia international couldn’t find anybody with his cross in the 22nd and he wasted a golden chance with a poor final ball in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Mkhitaryan just had to make a basic pass to set up Aubameyang for what would have looked like a spot kick. Somehow, Mkhitaryan catapulted the ball straight into touch.

Tottenham M34edWhere Mkhitaryan should have played the ball. (Photo credit: BT)

Mkhitaryan’s technical struggles meant that Arsenal had to rely on Ozil or Wilshere for the final ball. Spurs limited Ozil’s impact to 2 key passes, 2 crosses and 3 successful dribbles. Ozil has always struggled in games where players have to fight for the ball. Saturday’s North London derby was not a game for him. In stoppage time, Ozil had the opportunity to salvage a point with a dead ball but his free kick crashed into the wall. That was quite a contrast with the quality of Eriksen’s free kick that Cech tipped over the bar in the 57th.

Inability to win duels

The Gunners never had the control of the match because Tottenham outplayed them in midfield. Elneny is more mobile than Xhaka but his defensive contribution is poor. The scouting department made a mistake in failing to spot Elneny’s inability to win duels. The Egypt international was not involved in any aerial duel and made 0 tackle, 0 interception and 2 blocks. Those are weak stats for a holding midfielder. By contrast, Dier made 3 interceptions and 0 block and won 2 of 4 tackles and 5 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Taking over Elneny’s spot in the 65th, Iwobi initially struggled to adjust to the intensity of the game. Iwobi was dispossessed twice before creating Arsenal’s best chance in stoppage time.

Among the 3 starting midfielders, Xhaka had the best defensive stats. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 1 block and won 2 of 3 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels. For a No. 8, that would be a decent defensive contribution. Unfortunately, Xhaka’s offensive stats are too weak. Xhaka created 0 chance and never proved a goal threat like Ramsey.

It was quite the opposite with Wilshere, who had decent offensive stats but weak defensive stats. Wilshere was not involved in any aerial duel, won 1 of 5 tackles, and made 0 interception and 0 block. He also led all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Dier and Dembele were much more tidy in possession with 0 and 1 turnover, respectively. To Wilshere’s credit, he tested Lloris with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 68th. Wilshere also fed Welbeck in the 87th but the rusty substitute had a heavy first touch which allowed Lloris to gather the ball.

Son in Bellerin’s pocket

The Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. As the goal showed, Koscielny struggled badly in the air against Kane, winning only 3 of 6 aerial duels. The France defender had an unusual lapse of concentration in the 71st, giving the ball away to Lamela, who sent a ball over the top for Alli. Clean through on goal, Alli flicked the ball wide. Koscielny won only 44.4% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi, according to the club’s website. Mustafi was again the most pro-active of the 2 centerbacks, leading all players with 5 interceptions but winning just 1 of 4 tackles. Koscielny and Mustafi didn’t cover themselves in glory in the 90th when Lamela beat the offside trap to chase a long free kick and fire wide.

On the flanks, Bellerin and Monreal were mostly focused on their defensive tasks. Monreal remained anonymous throughout the game (passing accuracy of 75%, 0 chance created, 2 crosses, 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 of 3 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 2 blocks) while Bellerin had Son in his pocket and contributed offensively (passing accuracy of 85%, 1 chance created, 4 crosses, 2 of 4 tackles won, 1 of 2 aerial duels won, 0 interception and 6 blocks). Bellerin took a pass from Ozil in the 40th only to miss the target from 20 yards.

Still no clean sheet

Cech’s quest for a 200th clean sheet in the Premier League has become a running gag. The Gunners haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last 9 league games. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves on Saturday but his error rate is a concern. The Czech goalkeeper had a pass blocked by Alli in the 71st and he nearly lost possession with a dribbling attempt in the 48th. According to the Premier League’s website, Cech tops all players for the number of errors leading to a goal this season (4). At 35, Cech is clearly past his prime but I guess the staff will let Cech run down his contract instead of signing a new goalkeeper this summer.

The Gunners next play Ostersund in the Europa League on Feb. 15 before hosting the Swedish side a week later. The staff has two options: 1. Either leave their key players out of the squad for the first leg in Sweden and play their best team in the second leg; 2. Or leave their key players out of the squad for the second leg to give them a break before the League Cup final on Feb. 25. In any case, I hope youngsters like Nelson, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock will get some playing time against Ostersund.

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Swansea vs. Arsenal: Poor away form continues with 3-1 loss

The Gunners are now 8 points outside the Top 4 in the Premier League after losing 3-1 to Swansea on Tuesday. Their poor away form this season has seriously hurt their chances of finishing in the Top 4. They only have 3 victories on the road while Manchester City, United, Chelsea and Liverpool have won at least 7 away games.

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

It was an embarrassing performance. Arsenal lacked desire and played at a too slow tempo to trouble the hosts, who were well organized and kept a compact shape. The Gunners enjoyed 74% of ball possession but had the same number of shots on target as Swansea (4). The Swans showed more commitment, winning 12 tackles to 10, making 18 interceptions to 8 and winning 52.9% of the duels, according to the club’s website.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that knocked Chelsea out of the League Cup a week ago with Ramsey and Cech replacing Wilshere and Ospina in the starting lineup. Tactically, Arsenal fluctuated between a 4-3-3 formation and a 3-4-3 system with Elneny playing as a centerback when the team lost possession.

Chasing a winner, the manager replaced Elneny with Mkhitaryan in the 60th minute. The Swans capitalized on that substitution to press high up the pitch and take a 2-1 lead a minute later. It’s not the first time this season that the Gunners have struggled to adjust to a tactical change. A couple of weeks ago, Bournemouth also scored the winning goal a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four.

Wenger threw caution to the wind in the 76th by sending on Giroud for Iwobi and therefore shifting to a 4-4-2 formation. The move backfired as the Gunners conceded a third goal in the closing minutes. The defending has been shambolic this season. And the fact that Arsenal couldn’t keep the lead for more than a minute shows their mental weakness.

Monreal’s poor defensive performance 

Monreal opened the scoring in the 33rd by stabbing home Ozil’s cross to the far post. Because of that goal, Monreal got the best grade among Arsenal players on whoscored.com, but his defensive performance was a disaster. The Gunners signed Kolasinac because neither Gibbs nor Monreal could stop dangerous crosses on the left flank last season. However, the struggles of Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles in the leftback position created the illusion that Monreal had rediscovered his youth. Tuesday’s game was a reminder that Monreal has lost a step.

   Dyer got the better of Monreal in the eighth minute to make a low cross for Mawson at the far post. It took a challenge from Ramsey to prevent a tap-in from the Swansea defender. Dyer also dribbled past Monreal in the 57th but his cross was then intercepted by Cech. Monreal will turn 32 in a few weeks and his declining pace no longer allows him to recover from positional mistakes. The Spaniard was out of position in the 27th when the Swans hit Arsenal on the fast break. It took a clearance from Elneny to prevent Clucas from scoring. Monreal then killed a counterattack with a cynical foul on Naughton in the 67th.

To make matters worse, Monreal was involved in Swansea’s last two goals. Cech was credited with an error for his poor clearance that led to Ayew’s goal in the 61st. But Monreal was just as guilty for letting the ball roll out of play. That was really poor decision-making from Monreal. Why would you invite pressure near the Arsenal goal? As you can see on the screen capture below, Monreal had plenty of time to slip the ball to Cech.

Swansea M61a editedMonreal could have played a safe back pass to Cech. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Once Ayew was in a position to intercept Monreal’s pass to Cech, the Spaniard could have picked out Xhaka instead. See the screen capture below. Then the throw-in was a complete mess. Monreal made a poor throw toward Mustafi, who was under pressure and played the ball back to Cech with his first touch. Surrounded by 3 Swans, Cech panicked and missed his clearance. The ball rolled toward Ayew, who swept it into the net for a 2-1 lead.

Swansea M61b editedXhaka was a safe passing option that Monreal ignored. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

For the last goal, Monreal gave away the ball with a botched clearance in the 86th. Carroll got hold of the ball to feed Ayew, who rounded Mustafi to square the ball back for Clucas. The Swansea winger beat Bellerin and Koscielny to the ball to shoot past Cech from close range.

Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness

   Mustafi’s performance was a mixed bag. He cleared a dangerous cross from Clucas in the fourth minute and made a crucial block to deflect Ayew’s goal attempt in the seventh. But he’s not a commanding presence at the back. Mustafi won 0 of 6 tackles, according to Squawka. He also offered a scoring chance to Dyer with a poor header in the 70th. Dyer had just Cech to beat but somehow missed the target from 12 yards.

Again, the Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfield. Ramsey and Xhaka won 0 tackle. Ramsey lacked a bit of sharpness and had 3 turnovers, while Xhaka showed his lack of defensive awareness. Both were caught up front in the 15th as Fer slipped a through ball to Clucas. The Swansea winger was bearing down on goal but was dispossessed by Elneny’s sliding tackle.

The passivity of the Arsenal midfield played a key role in Swansea’s equalizer. Ozil put himself in trouble with a poor first touch before having his pass for Bellerin intercepted by Mawson, who played Clucas in. Making a run between Xhaka and Koscielny, Clucas beat Cech with a low strike. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Elneny failed to close down Mawson, giving the Swansea defender plenty of time to deliver a perfect final ball.

Swansea M34a editedElneny fails to press Mawson while Xhaka is on the right side of Clucas. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Xhaka was smart enough to cover Bellerin but his poor defensive awareness let him down on that play. He was initially on the right side of Clucas when Mawson had the ball. But he ended up on the wrong side of the Swansea winger when Mawson made the pass. By allowing Clucas to make that inside run, Xhaka also left Koscielny in a 1v2 situation. See the screen capture below.

Swansea M34b editedXhaka is on the wrong side of Clucas. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   Up front, Lacazette struggled again in the centerforward role. The Swansea backline exposed his poor hold-up play. Lacazette took 0 shot and led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The France international clearly lacks the physicality to deal with a compact defense. He doesn’t have Giroud’s power to hold players off. And Lacazette’s weakness in the air also means his teammates are reluctant to feed him with crosses or long balls. Bellerin still made a cross in the 53rd but Van der Hoorn got ahead of Lacazette to clear the ball. Fernandez then beat Lacazette to the ball in the 73rd to head out Monreal’s cross.

Lacazette as a false nine?

   Some football fans will point at Aguero or Firmino as centerforwards who don’t have the physicality of a Giroud, Lukaku or Kane. But Aguero and Firmino both play in the false nine role while Lacazette is used as a traditional striker at Arsenal. Since his signing, I’ve kept saying that Lacazette is mostly a second striker who would struggle to lead the line in the Premier League. I’m not surprised that Lacazette led all players with 3 key passes because that’s what second strikers do: they are involved in the build-up besides scoring goals.

Ozil did his bit by providing the assist for Monreal. With a decent defense, it would have been enough to claim the 3 points. Ozil finished the game with 2 key passes and led all players with 121 passes. I still thought he lacked a bit of support in sharing the creative burden. Mkhitaryan’s cameo injected more creativity in the team but also made it slightly more vulnerable defensively. The Armenia international made a clever cross in the 79th but Giroud failed to anticipate and missed a tap-in opportunity.

Starting on the left wing, Iwobi showed some poor work-rate after his good performance against Chelsea in the League Cup. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 0 interception and just 1 block, according to Squawka. That’s not good enough at the top level. On the other hand, Iwobi’s offensive contribution was decent. He tested Fabianski with an angled strike in the 30th and created 2 chances. The Nigeria international still has this tendency to go for personal glory instead of feeding teammates in a better position. He opted for a long-range strike in the 65th while he could have picked out Monreal or Ramsey to his left.

Missing a dribbler

In the end, the Gunners missed one key weapon to crack the Swansea defense: dribbling. They only had 5 successful dribbles on Tuesday. The Citizens can rely Sane and Sterling to run at defenders when the passing game can’t make the difference. Likewise, the Blues have Hazard while the Reds have Salah and Mane. The Gunners lost their best dribbler by selling Oxlade-Chamberlain last summer. We no longer have that kind of profile in the current squad. Nketiah and Nelson have great dribbling skills, but they are just prospects at this stage of their career and therefore unlikely to have an immediate impact in the Premier League.

The January transfer window closed on Wednesday night as the Gunners were more busy than usual in the transfer market. They signed Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund for £56 million (a club record fee), extended Ozil’s contract, sold Giroud to Chelsea, and let Debuchy join Saint-Etienne on a free transfer.

If we analyze the transfer window from a tactical viewpoint, Aubameyang and Lacazette are replacing Giroud and Sanchez for goals while Mkhitaryan is replacing Cazorla for creativity. It’s a step in the right direction but not enough to turn Arsenal into a contender or even improve the club’s chances of a Top 4 finish.

The attacking stats are OK: the Gunners have scored more goals than Chelsea and only 3 fewer than Spurs and Manchester United. On the other hand, the defensive stats are a disaster: the Gunners have conceded 34 goals from 25 league games, the same total as Brighton and West Brom, which are both fighting relegation. By contrast, Manchester City and United have only conceded 18 goals each. Tuesday’s loss showed that Arsenal must sign at least a defensive midfielder, a centerback and a leftback to have a shot at a Top 4 finish next season. Elneny and Xhaka can’t protect the defense, Koscielny and Monreal are past their prime, and Kolasinac has disappointed in the fullback position.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Chelsea

The Gunners are just one victory away from lifting a trophy this season after edging Chelsea 2-1 in the second leg of their League Cup semifinal on Wednesday. Wenger took that game seriously as he made only one change to the side that smashed Crystal Palace 4-1 last weekend with Ospina replacing Cech in goal.

League Cup Semi 02

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

Arsenal showed great team spirit to rally from a goal down. Starting in a 4-3-3 formation, the Gunners were quickly in trouble because of the pace and movement of Pedro, Willian and Hazard. The manager switched to a back three in the second half with Elneny playing in a deeper position.

After Xhaka made it 2-1 in the 60th minute, Chelsea never managed to threaten again, except on a set piece. The Blues had limited options on the bench because of injuries to Fabregas and Morata. They also lacked the tactical flexibility to shift to a back four in order to put more pressure on Arsenal.

  1. Iwobi is a different player

The Nigeria international showed some great work-rate with 5 tackles won, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, and 2 interceptions. Iwobi is now challenging for the ball instead of just tracking back without closing down anybody. That makes a huge difference both defensively and offensively. When you close down the ballholder, he is less likely to make a good pass. And if the ballholder loses possession, then it becomes a counterattacking opportunity.

Iwobi could have finished the game with a goal and an assist. He slipped a through ball to Wilshere, who took a heavy first touch and was denied by Caballero in the ninth minute. Then Ozil led a counterattack in the 76th and fed Iwobi, whose low strike was saved by Caballero. Iwobi still has this tendency to shoot toward the middle of the net instead of aiming at the corners. He’s only 21 but finishing is definitely one part of his game that needs improvement.

  1. Monreal can be quite a goal threat

The Spaniard showed his flair on corners against Crystal Palace. The Blues were aware of the threat but couldn’t prevent Monreal from connecting with an Ozil corner in the 12th for a header that ricocheted off Alonso and Rudiger to beat a wrongfooted Caballero. Monreal nearly repeated the trick in the 40th when he met an Ozil free kick for a tame header straight at Caballero. In the second half, Monreal focused on his defensive duties, receiving a yellow card for bringing down Hazard in the 66th and preventing Zappacosta from tapping home Alonso’s low cross in the 77th.

  1. Lacazette had a night to forget

The France international took 0 shot and led all players with 5 offside calls against him. He even put the Gunners in trouble with a poor crossfield pass for Iwobi in the 80th. But what I like with Lacazette is that he always works hard for the team whether it’s a good day or a bad day. Lacazette somehow created the winning goal with a pass for Iwobi that took a deflection off Rudiger to fall into the path of Xhaka, who beat Azpilicueta to the loose ball to flick it past Caballero from 6 yards. Conte must have been furious to concede a goal on such a play because it was a 7v3 situation inside the Chelsea area.

  1. Mustafi produced a shaky performance

A poor clearance from Mustafi in the fifth minute led to Chelsea’s first scoring chance but Pedro’s goal was disallowed for offside. Two minutes later, Mustafi made a mistake in his positional play. Kante picked out Pedro, who played Hazard in and the Belgium star beat Ospina to open the scoring. As you can see on the screen capture below, Wilshere and Elneny failed to close down Kante, who had plenty of time to find Pedro. Before Pedro got the ball, Mustafi failed to mark Hazard and was too far from Koscielny. Hazard just had to make a run in the gap between Mustafi and Koscielny to take Pedro’s pass and be clean through on goal.

League Cup Semi M07ed Elneny and Wilshere fail to close down Kante while Mustafi is not marking Hazard. (Photo credit: Sky)

It could have been worse for Mustafi in the second half. Mustafi seemed to clip Hazard’s leg in the 53rd as the Chelsea striker was bearing down on goal but no foul was given. Then Mustafi was beaten to the ball by Rudiger, who headed a corner over the bar in the 82nd with Ospina in no man’s land. In the closing minutes, Mustafi gave away a dangerous free kick with a silly foul on Barkley, who had his back to goal.

  1. Wilshere is no Maradona

The England international led all players with 6 successful dribbles, but he lost possession at least three times while dallying on the ball instead of releasing it. Wilshere received a yellow card in the 31st for a late challenge on Barkley after turning the ball over. He was also dispossessed by Rudiger in the 46th and Bakayoko in the 81st. You are venturing into Maradona territory when you take 6 or 7 consecutive touches. In modern football, most players don’t have the time to take more than 3 or 4 touches because they get quickly surrounded. Wilshere doesn’t have the pace and dribbling skills of a Messi to take so many touches. Hopefully, he will play more soberly in the future.

  1. Mkhitaryan was not in the squad

The swap deal between Sanchez and Mkhitaryan was completed on Monday. However, Mkhitaryan can no longer participate in the League Cup this season for the simple reason that he has played a few minutes for Manchester United in this competition and is therefore cup-tied.

Arsenal limited the damage in the Sanchez saga by finding a replacement for the Chile striker. Mkhitaryan won’t score as many goals as Sanchez but he will add more creativity and hopefully help provide better service for Lacazette. Signing Lemar and selling Sanchez last summer would have been a better scenario because the uncertainty surrounding Sanchez’s contractual situation destabilized the dressing room and because Lemar is only 22 while Mkhitaryan is already 29.

If we look at the bigger picture, the summer and winter transfers don’t reflect well on Arsenal’s ambitions. The Gunners are one of the few Premier League clubs to have made a profit in the transfer market (some £45 million according to transfermarkt.co.uk). Clubs usually take a loss in the transfer market because they still have the money from the commercial deals, broadcasting rights and match day sales to recover financially.

Within a few months, Arsenal signed Lacazette, Kolasinac, Mavropanos and Mkhitaryan and sold Szczesny, Gibbs, Paulista, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Coquelin and Sanchez. In my eyes, the squad is definitely weaker. The Gunners got a top striker with Lacazette but lost a match-winner with Sanchez. In midfield, they added Mkhitaryan but lost the younger and more versatile Oxlade-Chamberlain. At the back, they decided to rely on the shaky Chambers and Holding to compensate for the departure of the more experienced Paulista.

On the bright side, the club cleared some dead wood by selling Szczesny, Gibbs, Walcott and Coquelin. Szczesny and Gibbs had their path blocked by Ospina and Monreal, respectively, while Walcott and Coquelin were too limited technically. The trouble is that the transfer money hasn’t been properly re-invested in the squad yet. Mavropanos is just a prospect while Kolasinac has been a disappointment defensively.

 

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Monreal fires Gunners to 1st win of the year

Monreal’s attacking verve and Ozil’s creativity made the difference in Saturday’s 4-1 rout of Crystal Palace as Arsenal snapped a five-game winless streak in all competitions to remain sixth in the Premier League. The Gunners quickly put the result beyond doubt by taking a 3-0 lead after 13 minutes, finishing the match with 10 shots on target to 5 for the Eagles and 13 chances to 5, according to Squawka.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace

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

Wenger fielded a stronger side than the one that lost 2-1 at Bournemouth a week ago with Ozil, Koscielny, Monreal and Elneny replacing Welbeck, Chambers, Maitland-Niles and Holding in the starting lineup. The manager also switched to a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny playing as a holding midfielder behind Xhaka and Wilshere. The Gunners outnumbered Palace in midfield with that tactical setup as Ozil often dropped back to be the fourth midfielder.

   Playing Elneny in that position is OK against the weak teams. Elneny’s mobility compensates for Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness to a certain extent. However, Elneny’s inability to win duels would become an issue against the strong teams. Signing a ballwinner in the summer could allow Arsenal to use an inverted pyramid midfield that would protect the back four while making up for the defensive flaws of Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere. When Zidane succeeded Benitez at Real Madrid, he made a key change in midfield by playing Casemiro behind Kroos and Modric. As long as the Gunners don’t have a solid No. 6, they will still be vulnerable on counterattacks.

End of Lacazette’s goal drought

In his return from injury, Monreal scored a goal and made two assists. Monreal lost his marker at the far post to head in Xhaka’s corner in the sixth minute. The Spaniard then set up Iwobi for a 2-0 lead in the 10th. He got the better of McArthur again in the 13th to meet Xhaka’s corner and cut the ball back to Koscielny, who bundled it over the line. The visitors’ defending was terrible, but Monreal definitely made his runs inside the Palace box count. Monreal led all players with 3 key passes despite staying on the pitch for just 33 minutes. He picked up a knock and was replaced by Maitland-Niles, who suffered from lapses of concentration again.

Maitland-Niles made a sloppy pass to Elneny in the 43rd and the ball fell to Zaha, whose shot was deflected out for a corner. The academy player also lost possession with a poor touch in the 76th. You may recover from poor focus in U23 games but not in the Premier League where every mistake can get punished. Maitland-Niles impressed against Chelsea but didn’t show the same focus against Bournemouth and Palace. His reluctance to cross with his weaker left foot also deprived Arsenal of a source of supply on the left flank.

Up front, Lacazette ended his goal drought by giving the Gunners a 4-0 lead with a low strike in the 22nd. He had not scored since the beginning of December. Lacazette could have also found the net in the 79th when Wilshere played him clean through on goal, but Hennessey denied him. In stoppage time, Lacazette should have been awarded a penalty for an awkward challenge from Tomkins. As usual, the France international worked hard for the team, making 2 key passes and 1 block and winning 2 of 3 tackles, according to Squawka.

Nelson’s Premier League debut

It was no coincidence if Ozil was the one who helped put an end to Lacazette’s goal drought. Lacazette is a striker who depends on decent service. He couldn’t get any from Welbeck, Iwobi and Sanchez in the past few games. Ozil played the role of architect for Arsenal’s fourth goal by playing a one-two with Wilshere before feeding Lacazette with a backheel flick. In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 2 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 2. His contractual situation hasn’t been as much publicized as Sanchez’s but the Gunners will have to sign a creative midfielder if Ozil leaves this summer, otherwise the creative burden will rest on the shoulders of Wilshere and Mkhitaryan -assuming the swap deal for Sanchez does materialize.

   Wenger yanked Ozil off in the 72nd to send on Nelson, who made his Premier League debut at just 18. He showed some really great work-rate in his short cameo by winning 2 of 4 tackles. The game also made obvious that Nelson must beef up his game. In his only dribbling attempt, Nelson was too easily brushed off the ball.

The more I watch Iwobi, and the more I am convinced he is a second striker and not an attacking midfielder like Rosicky or Pires. Iwobi had 4 of 4 shots on target but made just 1 key pass. Only Lacazette took more shots than Iwobi. If Iwobi wants to become a striker, he will need to work harder on his finishing. His 4 goal attempts were all in the middle of the net. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace Iwobi edited

Iwobi’s 4 goal attempts against Palace. (Photo credit: Squawka)

Iwobi will also have to improve his reading of the game. Sanchez can often be selfish but you can bet the Chile striker would have fed Lacazette in the 56th when Iwobi chased a long ball from Ozil and preferred to take his chance from a tight angle instead of squaring the ball back to Lacazette for a tap-in. As a consequence of Iwobi’s lust for goals, the Nigeria international sometimes drifted inside and ended up in the centerforward position, forcing Lacazette to move to the left wing. On the bright side, Iwobi improved his work-rate by making 4 tackles, 1 interception and 2 blocks. That’s the kind of attitude Iwobi needs to show more often on the pitch.

Wilshere’s high turnover rate

In midfield, Elneny acted as a facilitator by leading Arsenal starters with 97 passes and a passing acuracy of 95.9%, according to whoscored.com. Elneny was a holding midfielder by default: he won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, but his mobility helped him make 1 block and 1 interception. We are still very far from the stats of a Kante, Matic or Fernandinho. The manager played Elneny behind Wilshere and Xhaka because those two midfielders are more creative than Elneny. Wilshere and Xhaka had 2 and 1 key passes respectively compared to none for Elneny.

   Wilshere played as a holding midfielder for England under Hodgson but I just think he’s not good enough defensively for that position. He won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 block and 0 interception. Another issue is Wilshere’s high turnover rate, which was obvious in the Europa League games. Although Wilshere is now fitter than a couple of months ago, he still had 5 turnovers against Palace, according to whoscored.com. Only Bellerin had more turnovers (6) among Arsenal players. Losing possession in suck a key position might be OK against the weak sides but it’s simply too dangerous against top teams that thrive on counterattacks.

Xhaka lacks mobility so it made sense to play him alongside Elneny since Wilshere has lost a bit of speed after recovering from a string of injuries. The Switzerland international set up the first and third goals with accurate corner kicks. However, his delivery took a hit in the second half with a poor corner in the 76th and a free kick that beat every Gunner in stoppage time.

Koscielny’s reading of the game

At the back, Koscielny proved the best defender and defused dangerous situations with his outstanding reading of the game. He killed a counterattack with a timely challenge on Zaha in the 19th, blocked McArthur’s effort in the 36th, robbed Zaha in the 38th and intercepted Milivojevic’s through ball for Van Aanholt in the 87th. The France centerback scored the third goal and led all Arsenal players with 3 interceptions and 3 blocks. Mustafi will have big shoes to fill when Koscielny retires. The Germany international had a couple of dodgy moments, heading the ball past Cech for a corner in the 55th and allowing Benteke to be clean through on goal by missing an interception in the 60th.

From open play, the Eagles mostly threatened with crosses, especially with Van Aanholt who took advantage of Ozil’s poor marking. Mustafi headed out the Dutch leftback’s cross in the third minute while Zaha failed to make contact with the ball in the 52nd. In the end, Palace scored from a set piece. Benteke outjumped Iwobi and Mustafi in the 78th to redirect a corner toward Milivojevic, who chested the ball down to shoot past Cech. There had been already a warning in the 49th when Kelly pounced on a second ball from a corner to muster a tame effort straight at Cech.

The Gunners will be the underdogs for the second leg of the League Cup semifinal against Chelsea on Wednesday. Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac and Ozil made their return from injury against Palace while Sanchez, Ramsey, Giroud and Welbeck were not even in the squad. Wenger will definitely field a stronger team than the one that started the first leg but it might not be a full-strength team. Even if Mkhitaryan joins the Gunners before Wednesday, he’s unlikely to have the same impact as Sanchez right away.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Gunners overcome 2-goal deficit in 3-3 draw

The Gunners scored 3 goals in a five-minute span to draw 3-3 on Friday and stay 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. In a thrilling game, the poor defending from both teams also showed why they are not contending for the title. With 9 shots on target to 4, the Reds were the better team, making more interceptions, winning more tackles, and having more successful dribbles. The Gunners were so badly outplayed in the first half that they could have trailed 3-0 at halftime. But Arsenal capitalized on Liverpool’s drop in intensity after the second goal to take the lead against the run of play with some clinical finishing.

Arsenal vs. LiverpoolPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger made no change to the side that edged Newcastle 1-0 a week ago. The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese again because there was no natural ballwinner in the trio formed by Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil to stop the Reds’ counterattacks. A poor corner kick from Sanchez in the 48th minute led to one of these fast breaks but Cech saved Salah’s low effort. Four minutes later, Maitland-Niles was dispossessed by Gomez near the Liverpool corner flag. Gomez slipped the ball to Milner, who found Salah. The Egypt forward ran 40 yards unchallenged and swapped passes with Firminho before curling a shot past Cech to make it 2-0. In the closing minutes, Wijnaldum also led a counterattack and fed Salah, who fired into the side-netting.

Friday’s game showed why the manager switched to a back three at the end of last season. The Arsenal defense simply doesn’t get any protection from the midfielders, who get bypassed too easily. With 3 centerbacks, you have some room for error if one of the centerbacks is pulled out of position. With a back four, if one the centerbacks is drawn out of position, the holding midfielder must cover him.

Liverpool used Firminho as a bait for the opening goal from a throw in the 26th. Milner sent a long ball toward Salah, whose cross deflected off Koscielny. The ball fell into the path of Coutinho, who beat Cech with a looping header. The Reds had a bit of luck for the first 2 goals since Salah’s curling shot also took a deflection off Mustafi. Still, that doesn’t excuse the Gunners’ defensive naivety.

Pulled out of position

For the opening goal, Monreal made the mistake of following Firminho deep into Liverpool’s territory. That left a huge space at the back with Koscielny and Bellerin in a 2v2 situation with Mane and Salah. See the screen capture below. In hindsight, either Wilshere or Xhaka should have marked Firminho on the throw-in. Maitland-Niles also had a lapse of concentration, looking at the ball and failing to spot Salah’s run in behind. Coutinho finished off the play by running into the space created by Firminho. Wilshere and Xhaka were on the same line as Coutinho when Milner hit the long ball but they lost the foot race with the Brazil midfielder. With a back three, the third centerback could have covered Maitland-Niles or won the header against Coutinho.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M26ed Bellerin and Koscielny in a 2v2 situation as Maitland-Niles and Monreal are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Reds pulled the same trick again in the 62nd. You have to question the Gunners’ lack of commitment since it started with a basic goal kick played short by Mignolet. The ball travelled down our right flank where Coutinho made a crossfield pass for an unmarked Mane, whose volley was parried by Cech. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Salah dropped back to pull Koscielny out of position. Mustafi was also drawn out of position as he covered Bellerin by marking Coutinho. That forced Maitland-Niles to drift inside and mark Firminho, leaving Mane completely free on the left flank. In hindsight, Xhaka or Wilshere should have closed down Salah on that play. When you have a forward playing between the lines, your holding midfielder must be able to play like a third centerback and mark that forward. I just don’t think that Xhaka or Wilshere can be that holding midfielder.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M62edMane, circled, is unmarked while Koscielny and Mustafi are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

While the opening goal resulted from the poor defensive contribution of the Arsenal midfielders, the last goal was pub defending at its best. Liverpool had a corner in the 71st and implemented gegenpressing after losing the ball. Salah dispossessed Sanchez and slipped the ball to Can, who had plenty of time to play Firminho in. From 16 yards, Firminho shot past Cech, who could only divert the powerful strike into his own net. As you can see on the screen capture below, no one closed down Can. When Wilshere reacted, it was already too late. But the worst part was the space given to Firminho. He was in front of goal and no one seemed to realize that he was the main danger. What were Koscielny and Mustafi doing?

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M71ed Firminho, circled, given acres of space by the Gunners. (Photo credit: Sky)

Monreal had a poor game. He won no tackle and made no interception in the first half. The Spaniard showed his limits as a centerback in a back four. His qualities are better suited for a back three because of his relative lack of pace and weakness in the air. He picked up a knock in the 34th and was replaced by Mustafi at halftime.

Bellerin’s good performance

For his return from injury, Mustafi produced a decent performance, winning 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for an Arsenal defender according to the club’s website. However, there are still question marks over his partnership with Koscielny. The France defender had 2 dodgy moments on Friday. He was unlucky for the opening goal. But his slip in the 44th nearly cost his team a second goal. Koscielny attempted to intercept Milner’s through ball for Mane and ended up diverting it into the path of Salah, who was denied by Cech. The rebound fell to Mane, who wasted the chance with a useless bicycle kick instead of controlling the ball to have a better shot. Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal are clearly past their prime, which means that 2 centerbacks should be signed next summer.

On the right flank, I thought Bellerin produced one of his best performances this season. He found the right balance between defense and offense, winning 4 tackles, keeping Mane quiet, and making 1 assist. The Spaniard could have scored the winner in the 78th but Mignolet tipped his angled strike over the bar. If we want to be really picky, maybe Bellerin could have done better on 2 plays. He failed to stop a cross from Coutinho in the 24th and Firminho outjumped Maitland-Niles at the far post to head wide. Then Firminho cut inside Bellerin in the 32nd to curl a shot inches over the bar.

On the left flank, Maitland-Niles did OK. Although he showed his inexperience on the opening goal, I thought he didn’t look ridiculous against Salah. Some supporters keep asking why is he played out of position. Maybe Maitland-Niles is a safer option at leftback than Kolasinac right now. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Wenger has converted a midfielder into a fullback with Lauren and Bellerin as successful examples.

Iwobi’s poor work-rate

In midfield, the Gunners can be outplayed by the big clubs because they have no world-class ballwinner. The Blues have Kante while Manchester City can rely on Fernandinho. We used to have Petit and Gilberto, two World Cup winners, but nowadays we must make do with Coquelin, Xhaka and Elneny. Not quite the same category.

Xhaka made it 2-2 with a 30-yard drive in the 56th, but you expect your holding midfielder to protect the defense first. His poor positional play showed on the counterattack that led to Liverpool’s second goal. Wilshere shone in the Europa League games and against Newcastle, but he had less time on the ball against Liverpool, which explains his 5 turnovers. I think deep-lying playmaker is his best position because he has less pace than Ozil, which is crucial in the final third. Ozil had no influence in the first half because the Reds were so dominant. The Germany playmaker showed his class in the second half by netting Arsenal’s third goal with a chip in the 58th. He could have scored the winner in stoppage time but Mignolet palmed his cross-shot over the bar.

In the front three, I was very frustrated by Iwobi’s poor work-rate. Robertson had so much freedom that he finished the game with 47 passes, the second most for a Liverpool player behind Milner according to whoscored.com. In the 15th, Iwobi completely forgot to close down Robertson, who made a dangerous cross that Koscielny eventually cleared. You would think that Iwobi understood the threat coming from Robertson’s delivery. But he didn’t. The Scottish leftback made a few more dangerous crosses, one that Cech caught in the 20th and another that led to a scoring chance for Firminho in the 22nd.

Rough evening for Lacazette

A few years ago, Waddle accused Walcott of having no football brain. How would you call a player who needs to see several dangerous crosses before understanding that he should close down his opponent? Iwobi also showed a lack of lucidity in the final third, sending passes straight into touch in the 21st, 25th and 33rd, and giving the ball away to Can in the 31st despite having 2 decent passing options. Iwobi got an assist for his sideways pass to Xhaka in the 56th but his end product was really poor. The Gunners can only afford to have one softie against the top teams, and that’s Ozil. Starting two softies like Ozil and Iwobi puts a big strain on the Arsenal defense. If Wenger wants to stick to a back four, playing Ozil or Ramsey on the right wing would make more sense.

On the left wing, Sanchez had an anonymous first half before coming to life in the second. Sanchez cut the deficit to 2-1 by heading home Bellerin’s cross in the 53rd. He also set up Xhaka for a shot that missed the target in the 61st and almost scored the winner with a low strike that lacked power to beat Mignolet in the 83rd. The Chile striker led all players with 3 key passes but also had 5 turnovers, including one that led to Liverpool’s equalizer. Even at 90% of his potential, Sanchez will still give you more end product than Welbeck or Iwobi.

Up front, it was a rough evening for Lacazette. Since the start of the season, I’ve always said that Lacazette would be more comfortable in the role of a second striker than as a centerforward because the Premier League is more physical than the French league where he used to play. Lacazette looked isolated in the first half and got no service because his teammates didn’t see his runs or had not enough time to make the pass.

Poor away form

Hitting long balls is the easiest way to evade a high press. Unfortunately, Lacazette is not Giroud. Liverpool centerbacks Lovren and Klavan exposed Lacazette’s weakness in the air. Lacazette is usually tidy in possession but he was dispossessed 5 times on Friday because of Liverpool’s pressing game. Despite the lack of support and opportunities, Lacazette worked hard for the team and played Ozil in with a clever backheel flick for Arsenal’s third goal.

Lacazette’s lack of physicality might not be an obstacle to lead the line. But he will have to tweak his game a bit. If you look at the top teams, you basically see two types of centerforwards. Morata, Lukaku, Ibrahimovic and Kane are strong in the air and can hold the ball up, while Firmino and Aguero play more like false nines, dropping back to create space and link up play. The Gunners haven’t optimally used Lacazette’s potential yet.

A draw is a decent result knowing that Arsenal lost both league games against Liverpool last season. The Gunners will next visit Crystal Palace on Thursday and West Brom on Sunday before hosting Chelsea on Jan. 3. They will need to improve their away form if they want to finish in the Top 4. The Gunners have only won 2 away games this season while Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have won at least 5 away games. Even Leicester and Watford have a better record on the road than Arsenal.

 

  

Southampton vs. Arsenal: More pub defending in 1-1 draw

Giroud scored in the closing minutes to salvage a 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday as the Gunners stayed 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. This weekend’s results clearly show that Manchester City is running away with the title, while 5 clubs (Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham) will fight for the 3 remaining Champions League spots. Last season, Arsenal missed out on Europe’s elite competition with 75 points from 38 games, 1 point behind the Reds. The cut line this season could be 76 points again. So far, the Gunners are 1 victory short of the cruising speed required for Champions League football with 29 points from 16 games.

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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

The Gunners hurt their chances of getting 3 points at St Mary’s stadium with another poor start. They conceded a goal by the third minute with some pub defending. Cech was not happy after the game as he bluntly said that Arsenal “could have been 3-0 down after 10 minutes again.” The Czech goalkeeper was referring to the disastrous start against Manchester United the previous weekend. While the Gunners had one day less of rest than United after a mid-week game, there was no such excuse for the Southampton game: the 11 starters did not even play in the Europa League on Thursday. An early goal was obviously the best scenario for the Saints, who parked the bus and proved hard to break down.

   Wenger made just one change to the side that lost to United the previous weekend with Mertesacker replacing an injured Mustafi. The FA Cup final provided the blueprint for playing Mertesacker in a back three: Arsenal left very little space between the goalkeeper and the backline against Chelsea even if it meant a lot of distance to cover for the midfielders. Yet, the Gunners decided to play a high defensive line against Southampton. Mertesacker’s lack of pace made such a plan completely suicidal.

Mertesacker and Koscielny struggling at the back

   Mertesacker didn’t cover himself in glory in the third minute. The German defender gave the ball away to Austin, who found Tadic on the edge of the box. Taking advantage of Mertesacker’s comical fall, Tadic had plenty of time to play Austin in. The Southampton striker took a touch before beating Cech from close range. Monreal was slow to react on that play as he let Austin run past him.

Playing on the shoulder of Mertesacker near the center circle, Austin beat again the offside trap in the fifth minute to collect a pass from Tadic but was denied by Cech. The Gunners did not learn their lesson as Austin made another run in behind in the 43rd to chase a through ball from Romeu. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to beat Austin to the ball and clear the danger. A static Mertesacker also failed to close down Romeu, who clipped the bar with a long-range strike in the 62nd.

A week after his poor performance against United, Koscielny had another miserable moment. Koscielny gave the ball away to Redmond in the 66th and the Southampton forward hit a long ball toward Bertrand. Koscielny intercepted the ball with a header but only to knock it into the path of Tadic. Attempting to make up for his mistakes, Koscielny missed his tackle on Tadic and let Bertrand run past him to take Tadic’s pass. With just Cech to beat, Bertrand somehow missed the target. You don’t often see a player make 4 mistakes on the same play.

We know Mertesacker and Koscielny have lost a step. It’s a different story with Bellerin who is only 22. The Spaniard has produced a lot of average performances this season, well below the level that helped him get named in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year.

A more direct approach

Bellerin had a hard time on Sunday with Bertrand and Redmond roaming down his flank. He won only 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage for an Arsenal midfielder according to the club’s website. Bertrand outpaced Bellerin in the eighth minute to make a cross for Austin, who hit the post but was flagged offside anyway. Then Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Ward in the 29th. An unmarked Austin knocked the ball down for Van Dijk, whose flick bounced off Xhaka to gently roll toward Cech. Bellerin lost another duel in the 53rd, allowing Redmond to test Cech with a long-range effort, before receiving a yellow card in the 78th for pulling back Boufal.

After Southampton took the lead, the Gunners enjoyed plenty of ball possession but lacked penetration in the final third. As a symbol of Arsenal’s sterile possession, Koscielny (102), Xhaka (95) and Monreal (93) led the team in passes, according to whoscored.com. If you can’t beat with the pass, then running at defenders is the obvious alternative. Unfortunately, our dribbling options are limited since Oxlade-Chamberlain joined Liverpool. Arsenal finished the game with fewer successful dribbles than the Saints.

So the manager opted for more directness by replacing Mertesacker with Welbeck in the 64th and Lacazette with Giroud in the 72nd. With those 2 substitutions, the Gunners suddenly became more threatening in the air. Yet, it took them 16 minutes to finally feed Giroud. The France striker converted his only scoring chance of the game by outjumping Yoshida in the 88th to head Sanchez’s cross into the bottom corner. Let’s give some credit to Giroud for isolating himself with Yoshida and therefore creating a bad matchup for the Southampton defense.

Very good or world class?

Arsenal had to rely on Giroud’s physicality because Lacazette’s pace was of no use against a compact defense. Receiving the ball in tight spots, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, which is not his forte. Xhaka redirected a high ball from Sanchez toward Lacazette, who held off Yoshida only to fire a low shot straight at Forster in the 16th. A minute later, Lacazette wasted a better chance on a counterattack. See the screen capture below. In a 3v1 situation, Lacazette controlled Bellerin’s pass with a poor first touch, allowing Hojbjerg to clear the ball to safety. In hindsight, Lacazette should have made a first-time pass to Ozil to his right. Easy to say, but very difficult to do at full throttle.

Southampton M17edLacazette wasting a 3v1 situation on a counterattack. (Photo credit: BT)

Then Bellerin made a low cross for Lacazette, who fired over the bar from 12 yards in the 41st. The France international should have caught the frame in that kind of situation. If Lacazette doesn’t become more clinical, football fans will keep thinking he’s a very good player but not a world-class striker, i.e. the difference between Lukaku and Aguero.

Sanchez and Ozil didn’t shine either on Sunday. Sanchez had an average game while Ozil was pretty much anonymous. Ozil finished the game with 0 key pass and had 6 turnovers, trailing only Sanchez (7) for the most by any player. By contrast, Tadic led Southampton with just 4 turnovers. Ozil’s lack of end product meant that the creative burden rested on the shoulders of Sanchez, who led Arsenal with 3 key passes. Besides the assist for the equalizer, Sanchez also had a curling free kick punched away by Forster in the 84th.

Questions about Sanchez and Ozil

Any time Sanchez and Ozil don’t perform well, Arsenal supporters can’t help wondering whether they are still playing for the club or preparing their transfers. You can only blame the manager and the board for having created this situation. It feels very much like a transition season because of all that uncertainty.

In hindsight, most supporters wouldn’t have been mad at the club for letting Sanchez and Ozil go this summer if they had been properly replaced. There was a dressing room revolt in 2011 because Fabregas and Nasri had not been replaced. Oxlade-Chamberlain was just a prospect then. By contrast, Van Persie’s departure generated no such drama in 2012 because the club had signed Podolski and Giroud for goals as well as Cazorla to finally fill the hole left by Fabregas.

It was also in 2011 that the Gunners signed Arteta. The Spaniard proved a leader in the dressing room but his time with Mertesacker became the symbol of Arsenal’s porous defense, especially during the 2013-14 season. Their lack of pace made the team vulnerable on counterattacks. The same issue is repeating itself with the gradual decline of Koscielny and Monreal at the back and Xhaka’s lack of mobility in midfield.

There were suggestions before Sunday’s game that Arsenal might start with a back four like in the 6-0 win over BATE Borisov. In the end, the manager was too much aware of the lack of protection provided by the midfield and stuck with the 3-4-3 formation. The third centerback is basically making up for the lack of a decent defensive midfielder. In theory, Xhaka is the holding midfielder but you never know what you are going to get with him. He made a reckless challenge on Bertrand to give away a cheap free kick in the 26th. But he also made a clean tackle on Redmond to kill a Southampton counterattack in the 35th. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger finally switched to a back four in the 64th even though it exposed Monreal and Koscielny, who had to cope with 2v2 situations a couple of times.

Ramsey’s hamstring injury

Ramsey was the only Arsenal player who really tested Forster in the first half. He met a low cross from Sanchez in the 32nd for a first-time effort that the Southampton goalkeeper saved. In the closing minutes, Ramsey seemed to pick up a hamstring injury. He stayed on the pitch because Wenger had already used up his substitutions. On one leg, Ramsey still managed to connect with a cross from Kolasinac in stoppage time but his shot had no power.

The Wales midfielder has been Arsenal’s most valuable player this season in terms of goals and assists. His injury is coming at a bad time because of the hectic schedule. Knowing Ramsey’s injury record, the staff definitely needs to be careful and not rush him in his return. Wilshere would seem the most suitable replacement for Ramsey in midfield even though they have 2 different profiles.

The Gunners need 2 wins from their next 2 games to make up for the points dropped against Stoke, Watford and Manchester United. I don’t expect too much rotation against West Ham on Wednesday but some tinkering against Newcastle on Saturday might be necessary to inject some freshness and avoid injuries.

 

 

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

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

Manchester City vs. Arsenal

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

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

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

A tactical surprise that backfired

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reality of total football

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

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

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

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

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

Xhaka’s lack of mobility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ramsey-Lacazette understanding

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

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

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

A North London derby with a Top 4 spot at stake

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

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