Tag Archives: Monreal

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

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

Liverpool vs. Arsenal 2017

Photo credit: Alexis Sanchez’s Instagram account

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

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

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

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

Organizational mess

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

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

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

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

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

Some more gruyere cheese?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xhaka’s poor positional play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rushing Holding’s development

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

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

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

Koscielny’s decent performance

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

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

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

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

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

Just a few days left to save the season

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Stoke City v Arsenal - Premier League

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

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

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

A dysfunctional midfield

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

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

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

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

Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losing a source of supply

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

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

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

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

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

Not clinical enough

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

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

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

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

A six-pointer at Anfield

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

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

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

 

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

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

Arsenal vs. Leicester 2017

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

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

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

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

The super-sub strikes again

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

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

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

Welbeck’s crucial equalizer

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

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

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

The Ox’s work-rate

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

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

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

Pub defending

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

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

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

Loaning out Holding?

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

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

No gimme

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

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

Community Shield: Kolasinac stuns Chelsea as Gunners win penalty shootout

The Community Shield doesn’t necessarily show a glimpse into the upcoming Premier League season. Despite thrashing Manchester City 3-0 in the curtain-raiser of the 2014-15 season, Arsenal then got off to a sluggish start, taking only 6 points from their first 4 games to finish third in the league, 12 points behind Chelsea and 4 behind City.

2017 Community Shield

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

FA officials made it clear that the Community Shield wasn’t a major trophy by allowing Koscielny to be available for Sunday’s game. The Gunners kept the bragging rights for a few more weeks by downing Chelsea 4-1 in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in regulation time.

Wenger obviously thought the season opener against Leicester on Friday was more important than the Community Shield as he left Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez and Mustafi out of the squad. Ramsey and Ozil picked up knocks on the training ground while Sanchez and Mustafi still lack match fitness after recovering from the Confederations Cup.

The manager made 4 changes to the side that edged Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final with Lacazette, Iwobi, Elneny and Cech replacing Sanchez, Ozil, Ramsey and Ospina in the starting lineup. Conte also tweaked his lineup by replacing Costa, Hazard and Matic with Batshuayi, Willian and Fabregas.

The Blues might complain that Pedro’s ejection in the 80th minute was harsh, but if you look at the TV replays, his foul on Elneny ticks all the boxes for a straight red card: studs-up challenge from behind; Elneny’s physical integrity in danger with a stamp on his Achilles; and no real intent to play the ball with Pedro’s tackling foot far from the ball.

Chelsea relied on a tight defense and some clinical finishing to win the league last season. The trouble with the Blues’ emphasis on defending is that it can sometimes prove too aggressive: Azpilicueta and Alonso also got booked in the first half for cynical fouls.

Lacazette as a false nine

Arsenal fans probably have a better understanding of Lacazette’s abilities after watching his performance in the Community Shield. When leading the line, Lacazette is a false nine like Sanchez, not a target man like Giroud. The Chelsea defense easily intercepted a long ball for Lacazette in the 19th. Lacazette can’t outmuscle an opponent like Giroud or Welbeck would, but he can contribute in the build-up play with his passing skills.

The former Lyon striker created Arsenal’s best chance in the first half by playing a one-two with Bellerin before swapping passes with Welbeck to curl a shot that struck the post in the 22nd. Those are the flashes of brilliance that Sanchez can typically produce in a game. The big difference is that Sanchez can make those moments happen 2 or 3 times in a game while that was Lacazette’s only touch of magic on Sunday. On the bright side, Lacazette is more tidy than Sanchez, having only 2 turnovers and reaching a passing accuracy of 94.4% according to whoscored.com. Lacazette also showed his willingness to perform defensive tasks by making 3 tackles.

Although Giroud replaced Lacazette in the 66th, I definitely believe the two players can be quite complementary. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger sent on Giroud to add an aerial threat inside the Chelsea box. Giroud had no scoring chance but showed nerves of steel in the penalty shootout. Walcott, Monreal, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud converted their spot kicks while Courtois and Morata both missed the target.

Iwobi’s poor work-rate

Playing on the left flank, Welbeck sometimes swapped positions with Lacazette. His work-rate was quite impressive: Welbeck dispossessed Azpilicueta in the 13th and made a robust tackle on Moses in the 27th. His only scoring chance came in the eighth minute when he met a long ball from Xhaka for a header that lacked power to beat Courtois.

Iwobi showed some poor work-rate compared to Lacazette and Welbeck. The Nigeria international made no effort to win the ball back after Kante dispossessed him in the 24th. He produced some clever footwork on the stroke of halftime to create space for a tame shot straight at Courtois. Yet, that kind of contribution is not enough to justify a lack of effort.

The Gunners finished strong last season because they shifted from a 4-2-3-1 system to a 3-4-3 formation. Tactically, it made the defense less vulnerable by adding a centerback, but what some fans overlook is that it also removed 2 softies among the attacking players. At the end of 2016, Arsenal mostly relied on Walcott, Iwobi, Ozil and Sanchez in the final third. When Wenger made his tactical switch, Walcott and Iwobi were gone while Giroud or Welbeck joined Sanchez and Ozil in a front three. There was still one softie in the attacking line with Ozil, but it was better than having 3 softies in the previous system.

If the club sticks to the 3-4-3 formation, I doubt Iwobi will get much playing time this season. It would be better to loan him out so that he could improve his work-rate.

Conceding on a set piece

At the exception of the goalkeeper, Wenger made no change to the defense that frustrated Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Mertesacker, Holding and Monreal formed the back three while Bellerin and the Ox played as wingbacks. The manager could have used Koscielny on Sunday, but left him out of the squad because he felt that defenders available for the first two league games needed more playing time than Koscielny.

Wenger had to change his plans in the 28th when Mertesacker suffered a head injury after challenging Cahill for a high ball. The German centerback needed several stitches to close the cut above his right eye and was replaced by Kolasinac in the 33rd. Despite the change in personnel, Arsenal managed to limit Chelsea to two half-chances before the break as Cech parried a cross-shot from Moses in the 32nd and punched away an angled strike from Pedro in the 35th.

Unfortunately, Arsenal’s vulnerability on set pieces was exposed in the 46th when Xhaka poorly cleared a corner. Cahill beat Xhaka to the loose high ball and headed it toward Moses, who ghosted past Holding and Bellerin to score from close range. Bellerin was the main culprit on that play. He was initially on the right side of Moses but then failed to stay with him when the Chelsea wingback made a few steps back to beat the offside trap.

Kolasinac’s versatility

If we compare with the FA Cup final, Bellerin and the Ox both under-performed in the Community Shield. The Ox had an average game while Bellerin let his team down with a couple of big mistakes. Bellerin finished the game with a passing accuracy of 70,4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal starters. The Spaniard received a yellow card in the 14th for a late tackle on Alonso, underhit a backpass for Cech in the 25th and nearly gave away a penalty with a poor first touch in the 37th. My guess is that Bellerin still lacks a bit of match fitness after recovering from the European U21 Championship.

At the back, Monreal had a solid game, winning 4 aerial duels and making 3 tackles. Mertesacker’s injury forced Monreal to play as a sweeper for the last 60 minutes. Monreal’s experience, reading of the game and smart positional play made the transition seamless when Kolasinac came off the bench to play as the left centerback.

A leftback by trade, Kolasinac’s versatility made up for the absence of Paulista and Koscielny. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international is definitely a more natural option at centerback than Elneny or Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac won the hearts of many fans by heading home the equalizer in the 82nd off a Xhaka free kick.

Midfield trouble?

Holding proved again the weak link in the back three. His performance was a mixed bag. He showed his commitment by winning 4 aerial duels and making 2 tackles and 2 interceptions. But his naivety also put the Arsenal defense in trouble a couple of times. Holding was dispossessed by Alonso while dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 16th. In stoppage time, he gave away a dangerous free kick by fouling Morata, who was playing with his back to goal. However, I wouldn’t blame Holding for Chelsea’s goal. Holding was not aware of Moses’ presence behind him. Maybe a more experienced defender would have given a quick look behind instead of looking at the ball throughout the entire play like Holding did.

In midfield, Chelsea gave Xhaka plenty of maneuvering room. Conte’s 3-4-3 formation means that only Kante or Fabregas can really press Xhaka. Since Fabregas has lost much of his mobility and Kante can’t both protect the defense and press high up the pitch, Xhaka was therefore able to dictate play for Arsenal. The Switzerland international led all players with 4 key passes, including 2 through balls, and hit 10 accurate long balls out of 14. Xhaka nearly scored in the 76th but Courtois tipped his 35-yard drive around the post.

There are still 3 weeks left before the end of the transfer window. I hope the club will sign a midfielder because Wenger’s 3-4-3 system is very demanding for that position. Basically, the two central midfielders must cover a lot of ground to connect the defense with the front three. Ramsey and Wilshere have a bad injury record and Cazorla won’t return before November. We might be one injury away from trouble in midfield, knowing the limitations of Coquelin and Elneny.

 

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

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

FA Cup final

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

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

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

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

Ramsey’s late runs

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

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

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

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

Ozil’s work-rate

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

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

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

Moses’ dive

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

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

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

Holding as the weak link

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

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

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

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

Wenger’s snipe

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

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

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

Papering over the cracks

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

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

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

 

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

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

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

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

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

Holding’s inexperience

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

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

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

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

Mertesacker’s 1st game of the season

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

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

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

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

A more confident Bellerin

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

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

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

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

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

Awkward in the final third

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

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

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

Ramsey’s 1st goal of the season

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

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

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

Lack of choice at the back

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

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

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

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

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

Stoke vs. Arsenal

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

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

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

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

Fewer softies

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

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

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

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

Scoring while being injured

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

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

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

Xhaka overestimating his abilities

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

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

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

Crouch’s handball

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

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

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

Out of Arsenal’s hands

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

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

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