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Arsenal vs. Rennes: A few thoughts on the 3-0 win

   The Gunners qualified for the quarterfinals of the Europa League by thrashing Rennes 3-0 in the second leg on Thursday. Arsenal, Chelsea, Napoli and Valencia are among the favorites left in the draw. Relying on the team that defeated Manchester United last weekend, Emery made only 2 changes with Mustafi replacing a suspended Sokratis while Cech got the nod over Leno. It was a physical game with a lot of duels and challenges. There were 29 fouls committed and that total could have been higher with a stricter referee.

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

   Arsenal got off to a flying start. Maitland-Niles picked out Ramsey, who made a blind cross for Aubameyang in the fifth minute. From 3 yards, Aubameyang converted the cross to open the scoring. Aubameyang then improvised a one-two with Ramsey before making a cross toward the far post where Maitland-Niles doubled the lead with a downward header in the 15th. TV replays showed Aubameyang was in an offside position. The goal stood because the VAR system will only be used for the Europa League final. The Gunners sealed the win in the 72nd when Mkhitaryan swapped passes with Ramsey and Aubameyang before releasing Kolasinac down the left flank. Kolasinac made a pinpoint low cross that Aubameyang tapped home.

   Rennes had a spell of domination in the beginning of the second half and nearly cut the lead to 2-1 when Niang’s low drive hit the post in the 47th. The French side threw the kitchen sink at Arsenal in the closing minutes with dangerous runs from Ben Arfa but offside calls saved the Gunners.

  1. Ramsey aging like fine wine

   The Wales midfielder showed his creative side, leading all players with 3 key passes. Ramsey set up Aubameyang for the opening goal and would have made a second assist if the Gabon striker had not missed a big chance in the 83rd. Spectators could see Ramsey’s passing range and vision through two half-chances. Lacazette chased a long ball from Ramsey in the fourth minute but Koubek beat the French striker by a split second to clear the danger. Ramsey then played the ball to Aubameyang along the touchline in the 50th. Aubameyang rounded Koubek but his cross for Lacazette was caught by the Rennes goalkeeper.  

   A few years ago, Ramsey lacked discipline in the role of a central midfielder. Now, he’s smarter in his reading of the game and more selective with his forward runs. His only scoring chance came in the 39th when Lacazette teed him up for a shot straight at Koubek. Defensively, Ramsey was tidy in possession with only 1 turnover compared to 3 for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The workload was more evenly distributed than against Manchester United. Ramsey won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception, Xhaka won 3 of 3 tackles and made 2 interceptions and Ozil won 2 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception.  

  1. Lacazette’s short fuse

   The French striker had an off day with 0 of 3 shots on target. One play in the 36th summed up his struggles on the pitch. The Gunners were hitting Rennes on the fast break and Lacazette should have delivered the final ball to his right. But Lacazette looked to his left and picked out Kolasinac in an offside position.

   Lacazette was allowed to play against Rennes because UEFA reduced his three-match ban to two games. You would think that Lacazette would be more careful after his ejection in Belarus. But he wasn’t. Lacazette got booked in the 31st for a rash tackle on Andre. And he nearly received a second yellow card in the 55th for a block attempt on Bensebaini, catching the defender’s foot with his follow-through. It was quite a relief when Emery replaced Lacazette with Iwobi in the 69th.  

  1. Aubameyang should have notched a hat trick

   The Gabon striker finished the game with 2 goals and 1 assist. But he also missed two big chances in the closing minutes. Aubameyang poked the ball wide in the 82nd after Iwobi had played him in. A minute later, Ramsey fed Aubameyang, who missed the target again by miskicking the ball from 8 yards. Aubameyang received a yellow card in the 73rd for wearing a Black Panther mask to celebrate his goal. He won’t be suspended for the next round but will need to be careful because yellow cards only expire on completion of the quarterfinals.      

  1. The wingbacks were on fire

   Maitland-Niles made the penultimate pass for the opening goal and netted the second goal while Kolasinac made the assist for the third goal. The Gunners have maybe found the balance on the flanks that has been missing since Bellerin’s injury. Jenkinson is a limited player while Lichtsteiner and Mustafi contribute very little offensively. It’s a big challenge for Maitland-Niles because he’s only 21 and consistency is still an issue at that age. Maitland-Niles showed outstanding work-rate, making 2 interceptions and leading all players by winning 5 of 6 tackles, according to whoscored.com. Among the highlights, Maitland-Niles made a sliding tackle on Ben Arfa in the 22nd while Kolasinac blocked Sarr’s close-range effort in the 61st.  

  1. Mustafi was the weak link at the back

   The German defender was caught in possession on the edge of the box in the 47th, offering Rennes their best scoring chance of the game. He also gave the ball away in the 67th but the French side couldn’t capitalize on that blunder. Technically, Mustafi was very poor with a passing accuracy of 62%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters according to whoscored.com. Assuming Holding’s rehab goes according to plan, the Gunners should sell Mustafi this summer to boost their transfer kitty.

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Rennes vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 3-1 loss

   The Gunners are on the verge of elimination in the Europa League after losing 3-1 to Rennes on Thursday in the first leg of their last-16 encounter. They will miss Sokratis and Lacazette for the second leg next week. The Greek defender picked up two yellow cards while Lacazette is still serving a three-game ban.

FBL-EUR-C3-RENNES-ARSENALPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal opened the scoring with a cross-shot from Iwobi in the fourth minute. They had a couple of chances to lead 2-0 before Sokratis’ ejection in the 41st. Iwobi found Torreira, whose 12-yard effort was parried by Koubek in the 12th. Then Torreira teed up Mustafi, who rifled wide from a good position in the 30th. Under siege in the second half, the Gunners could have snatched a 2-2 draw against the run of play in the 68th but Ozil shot straight at the goalkeeper from 10 yards.

  1. Arsenal should focus on recruiting in France

Wenger led Arsenal to 3 Premier League titles by signing some of the best French players (Henry, Vieira, Pires, Petit, Anelka, Wiltord). Nowadays, the Gunners are no longer contenders because their scouting department is doing a poor job in the French league. It’s no coincidence if the club has missed out on the top prospects in the past few years, whether it’s French players (Mbappe, Pogba, Martial, Kante, Dembele, Varane, Umtiti, Lemar, Mendy, Ndombele) or non-French players (Hazard, Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, Pjanic, Azpilicueta).

   Rennes used 13 players last night. Nine of them (Zeffane, Da Silva, Bourigeaud, Grenier, Andre, Hunou, Ben Arfa, Lea-Siliki, Gelin) grew up in French football academies. The other four players (Bensebaini, Sarr, Mexer, Koubek) learned their trade in Algeria, Senegal, Mozambique and the Czech Republic. France arguably has the best football academies in the world because they provide a smart mix of technique and physicality.

   The Arsenal board has big calls to make in the scouting department. Mislintat, Arsenal’s head of recruitment, left last month, while Grimandi, Arsenal’s chief scout in France, joined French club Nice as technical director this week. Overmars and Monchi are among the favorites for the position of sporting director at the club. Could they improve Arsenal’s recruitment on a limited budget?

  1. Emery’s tactical choices were puzzling

   When the referee sent Sokratis off in the 41st, the logical move would have been to replace Ozil with Maitland-Niles and switch to a 4-4-1 formation. But Emery made a bolder decision by shifting Mkhitaryan to the rightback position in an improvised 4-2-3 system. That gamble worked to a certain extent since Mkhitaryan won 4 of 6 tackles and made 1 interception, according to whoscored.com.

   Noticing that the Gunners were struggling in midfield and on the left flank, Emery sent on Guendouzi for Iwobi in the 53rd, switching to a 4-3-2 formation with Aubameyang and Ozil playing in the front two. Rennes’ second goal led to a like-for-like substitution with Ramsey replacing Ozil in the 70th. That substitution came too late as Ozil’s poor work-rate definitely helped Rennes dominate the game.

   Emery’s final substitution was probably the weirdest one. The Spanish manager yanked Aubameyang off to send on Kolasinac. On paper, it could have been a 4-4-1 system with Kolasinac on the left wing. But on the pitch, Kolasinac played like a free roaming midfielder alongside Ramsey in a 4-3-2 formation. Nketiah would have been a better choice if Emery wanted a player to combine with Ramsey up front.  

  1. Sokratis is not a dominant centerback

   The Greek defender is an upgrade on Mustafi but he’s not a world-class centerback like Koscielny in his prime. I was surprised by the praise Sokratis received after the North London derby. Many fans seemed to forget about his mistakes in the first half of the season. On Thursday, Sokratis panicked against a team sitting in 10th place in the French league. Sokratis gave away a free kick in the 27th with a challenge from behind on Hunou. He was then booked in the 33rd for blocking Ben Arfa’s run. Sokratis received a second yellow card in the 41st for killing a Rennes counterattack by tripping Sarr. It was a silly foul because Koscielny was covering Sokratis and because Rennes capitalized on the free kick to equalize. The Gunners will need to make fewer fouls in the second leg because Grenier, Ben Arfa and Bourigeaud are free-kick specialists.  

  1. Monreal has lost a step

   It’s not the first time this season that Monreal makes an opponent look like Usain Bolt. Monreal simply couldn’t cope with Sarr’s pace. He performed well against Tottenham, but at 33 you kind of wonder if Monreal can still play two games a week at 100 percent. Monreal was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy also dipped to 65.6%, the lowest percentage for any outfield starter. Monreal was unlucky to turn Zeffane’s cross into his own net in the 65th, but he was guilty of switching off defensively on that play, hoping for an offside call against Hunou instead of chasing the ball down the left flank. The Spaniard struggled defensively but his work-rate was not an issue: he led all players by winning 7 of 10 tackles and making 5 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.    

  1. Mustafi’s desire was questionable

   Does Mustafi enjoy playing at rightback? After fouling Ben Arfa in the 12th, Mustafi stayed on the ground, complaining about his leg. The German defender collapsed to the ground again in the 21st as if he had not recovered from that knock. That’s how a player would behave to get substituted. But when Mustafi moved back to the centerback position in the 41st, he stopped hobbling around. Mustafi’s work-rate was poor: he won 1 tackle and made 0 interception, compared to 1 tackle won and 2 interceptions for Koscielny and 4 tackles won and 1 interception for Mkhitaryan. He also lived up to his reputation as an error-prone player by giving the ball away in the 69th, forcing Cech to turn Ben Arfa’s shot around the post.  

  1. The midfield was shambolic

   Down to 10 men, the Gunners could not rely on their midfielders to shield the defense. Xhaka’s lack of mobility was badly exposed in the holding midfielder role. The Switzerland international won 0 tackle and made 0 interception, compared to 1 tackle won and 3 interceptions for Torreira. Sokratis earned his first booking in the 33rd because he tried to make up for Xhaka’s turnover. Xhaka couldn’t cope with Ben Arfa’s movement and received a yellow card in the 61st for pulling back the Rennes playmaker. Ben Arfa led all players with 3 key passes and 7 successful dribbles out of 12, according to whoscored.com.  

   Emery tried to beef up the midfield by replacing Iwobi with Guendouzi in the 53rd, but the French teenager was too casual with 3 turnovers in 40 minutes compared to 0 turnover for Torreira and 2 for Xhaka. Guendouzi also showed a lack of defensive awareness in the 88th. After Monreal’s pass was intercepted on the edge of the Rennes box, Guendouzi let Sarr run past him instead of covering Monreal in the leftback position. An unmarked Sarr headed home Lea-Siliki’s cross for a 3-1 lead.      

  1. Iwobi lacks spontaneity

   To his credit, Iwobi scored the away goal that gives Arsenal a bit of hope for the second leg. But he wasted a couple of good situations because of a lack of spontaneity. When Ozil released Iwobi on the left flank in the 23rd, the Nigeria international could have made a quick cross. But he preferred to take his time, shifting the ball to his right foot for a telegraphed cross that Koubek punched away. When Monreal cut the ball back in the 25th, Iwobi could have taken a first-time shot, but he tried to control the ball and lost possession with a poor first touch. And when the Gunners launched a counterattack in the 48th, Iwobi failed to release the ball quickly enough. He dallied on the ball and his pass for Torreira was intercepted.

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Gunners let down by strikers in 1-1 draw

  The Gunners drew 1-1 with Tottenham on Saturday to slip to fifth place in the Premier League, 4 points behind their North London rivals and 1 behind Manchester United. There was a lot of talk about some officiating decisions, but those poor calls will still be made as long as the Premier League doesn’t have the VAR system. The harsh reality is that Arsenal could have won the game if Lacazette and Aubameyang had converted some big chances. On the bright side, the Gunners won more points in North London derbies than Pochettino’s Spurs for the very first time. Under Emery, Arsenal earned 4 points out of 6 this season. Under Wenger, the Gunners only collected 1 point in the 2014-15 season, 2 points in 2015-16, 1 point in 2016-17 and 3 points last season.

Spurs vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that smashed Bournemouth on Wednesday with Lacazette, Ramsey, Iwobi, Xhaka and Mustafi replacing Aubameyang, Ozil, Kolasinac, Torreira and Jenkinson in the starting lineup. I thought the Spanish manager got his team selection and his game plan right. The bastardized 4-4-2 formation was a bit of a surprise because Emery relied on a back three in the previous away games.

   Up front, Lacazette got the nod over Aubameyang because of his better all-around game. In midfield, Ramsey played as a second striker when Arsenal had the ball. When the Gunners lost possession, Ramsey helped Xhaka and Guendouzi to match the work-rate of Sissoko, Wanyama and Eriksen. On the flanks, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan provided width while tracking the runs of Trippier and Rose. At the back, Monreal and Mustafi kept an eye on Son and Kane whenever they tried to run in the channels.

   Emery clearly adopted a cautious approach. Instead of pressing high up the pitch, the Gunners waited near the halfway line to prevent Tottenham from finding space for runs in behind the defense. Spurs were toothless until the 44th minute when they finally had their first scoring chance.

Ramsey’s love story with Wembley

   Surprisingly, Pochettino started the game with a conservative 3-5-2 formation. Forced to chase an equalizer in the second half, Pochettino switched to a 3-4-3 system in the 59th when Lamela replaced Wanyama. The Argentine manager made another tactical change in the 70th by moving Rose to a central midfield position in a 4-3-3 formation. Those moves paid off as Tottenham leveled in the 74th.

   Emboldened by Kane’s goal, Pochettino tried to put more pressure on the Arsenal defense by replacing Son with Llorente in the 79th, switching to an improvised 4-4-2 system with Llorente and Kane up front and Eriksen and Lamela in the wide positions. Pochettino spotted Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses, but that emphasis on aerial duels came at the expense of Spurs’ passing game.  

   The Gunners will definitely miss Ramsey next season. As a link player, Ramsey can link defense and attack by winning the ball in midfield, delivering the final ball and being a goal threat. We have no player in the squad with that kind of profile. Three years ago, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain could have played in that role. Now an aging Cazorla is finishing his career at Villarreal while Oxlade-Chamberlain has improved under Klopp at Liverpool. Signing a link player should be a priority for the club this summer.

   Ramsey scored the opening goal with a dash from his own half in the 16th. Sanchez initially misjudged the flight of a clearance from Xhaka and missed his header. The ball fell to Lacazette, who played Ramsey clean through on goal with a first-time pass. Ramsey faked a curling shot by opening his body up and rounded Lloris to knock the ball into an empty net.

The power of anticipation

   As you can see on the screen capture below, Tottenham played an incredibly high defensive line. As the last defender, Sanchez was more than 70 yards away from his goal. When Ramsey started his run, Vertonghen and Alderweireld were already out of position. And Wanyama was on the same line as Ramsey when Sanchez was about to head the ball. Ramsey’s genius here was to anticipate and believe that Lacazette would somehow win the ball and start a counterattack.

Spur vs. Arsenal M16a edited.jpgVertonghen and Alderweireld are out of position while Ramsey runs past them. (Photo credit: NBC)

   As you can see on the next screen capture, there was no offside since Ramsey was still in his own half when Lacazette made the pass. Ramsey built a four-yard lead over Wanyama because the Spurs midfielder slowed down for a split second, thinking that Sanchez would head the ball.

Spur vs. Arsenal M16b edited.jpgTottenham’s back three can’t catch Ramsey, clean through on goal. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Besides his goal, Ramsey worked hard for the team, winning 1 of 1 tackle, and making 1 block, 3 fouls, and 7 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Ramsey also put off Alderweireld, who fired into the side-netting in the 55th after Mustafi poorly cleared a free kick. Emery replaced a tiring Ramsey with Ozil in the 72nd. It didn’t prove a good omen as Kane won the penalty for the equalizer a minute later.

   Ramsey converted the only scoring chance that he had. It was a lot of hard work because Ramsey ran 80 yards from Xhaka’s clearance to the moment the ball rolled into the back of the net. Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t have to run that hard for the big chances that they missed.

   Lacazette could have opened the scoring by the second minute when Iwobi’s pass took a heavy deflection off Wanyama and fell into his path. From 8 yards, Lacazette attempted a volley with his weaker left foot, but he completely miscued his shot and the ball lazily bounced wide. Lacazette had a better chance when Monreal overlapped with Iwobi to cut the ball back in the 53rd. From 8 yards, an unmarked Lacazette missed the target with his right foot. Emery felt that it wasn’t Lacazette’s day and replaced the French striker with Aubameyang in the 56th.

The need to be clinical in the big games

   Mkhitaryan won the ball in the 72nd and fed Aubameyang, who was dispossessed by Sissoko inside area before he could even pull the trigger. The Borussia Dortmund connection worked again in the 89th when Mkhitaryan beat Vertonghen along the touchline with some great footwork. Leading a counterattack, Mkhitaryan picked out Aubameyang, who made a run in behind Sanchez. There was minimal contact between Aubameyang and Sanchez when the Gabon striker fell inside the area. But the referee still awarded the Gunners a penalty. From the moment the referee gave Spurs a penalty for Mustafi’s shove on Kane, it was very likely that he would try to compensate in a similar situation for Arsenal.  

   Aubameyang had the opportunity to be the hero by converting that spot kick. He usually waits for the goalkeeper to dive before kicking the ball in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, Lloris proved even more patient. Instead of anticipating, Lloris decided to react to the shot. With no giveaway from Lloris, Aubameyang hit a tame shot that was poorly placed and that Lloris palmed away. The rebound fell to Iwobi ,who squared the ball back to Aubameyang. It should have been a simple tap-in. But Vertonghen, who was encroaching into the area, made the block and deflected Aubameyang’s shot over the bar.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M91 edited.jpgAubameyang’s poor shot placement. (Photo credit: NBC)

   If you’re the manager, you probably tell Aubameyang to change his penalty routine because other goalkeepers will wait like Lloris did. It’s time for Aubameyang to hit the corners at Colney. Aubameyang could have redeemed himself in stoppage time. Torreira spread the ball to the right wing, where Aubameyang could have set up Ozil for a 9-yard shot. But Aubameyang played the ball behind Ozil, allowing Sanchez to clear the danger. In the big games, strikers need to be clinical because they won’t have many chances. I couldn’t help myself and think that Henry or Van Persie would have converted one of those big chances. But here’s the difference: Henry and Van Persie were world-class players while Lacazette and Aubameyang are just very good strikers.  

Iwobi’s decision-making

   In the wide positions, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi provided the creative touch. They led all players with 3 successful dribbles each, according to whoscored.com. Iwobi made 2 key passes while Mkhitaryan led all players with 2 accurate through balls. Pochettino’s pressing game limited the Gunners’ passing accuracy to 63.5%, compared to 77.6% for Spurs. Mkhitaryan proved highly valuable in the transition game as he led Arsenal starters with a passing accuracy of 75%, compared to 72% for Ramsey and 66.7% for Iwobi.

   Trippier had Iwobi in his pocket, winning 6 of 6 tackles. Yet, Iwobi had two occasions to shine. In the second minute, Iwobi made a pass that took a heavy deflection off Wanyama and accidentally led to Lacazette’s first scoring chance. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had in fact a better option with Ramsey making a run in the big gap between Sanchez and Alderweireld.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M2a edited.jpgIwobi fails to slip a through ball to Ramsey. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Iwobi held onto the ball too long, forcing Ramsey and Lacazette to check their runs. As you can see on the next screen capture, Iwobi killed the momentum of the play as there was less space for a pass. When Iwobi finally decided to feed Lacazette, both Sanchez and Wanyama were in a good position to intercept the pass. But Wanyama put the Tottenham defense in trouble by inadvertently redirecting the ball into Lacazette’s path.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M2b edited.jpgSanchez and Wanyama are ready to intercept Iwobi’s pass to Lacazette. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Poor decision-making has held Iwobi’s development back. Emery can show him thousands of videos, but in the end Iwobi is the one making the decisions on the pitch. Is Iwobi overthinking in those situations? Or is he simply unable to see the best passing option? You put Ozil in the same situation and I bet you he plays Ramsey clean through on goal.  

   Another issue has been Iwobi’s poor finishing. Iwobi has a tendency to aim at the middle of the net. As a result, Lloris had no trouble to save Iwobi’s 15-yard curling shot in the 41st. Hopefully, Iwobi will have more competition on the left wing next season when Nelson returns from his loan spell at Hoffenheim.  

Torreira’s ejection

   Defensively, Iwobi put in a shift and even had better stats than Mkhitaryan, which is unusual. Iwobi won 1 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries, while Mkhitaryan won 1 of 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Nigeria international still needs to improve his defensive awareness. He forgot to track Trippier a couple of times.

   In midfield, Guendouzi got the nod over Torreira, who has suffered a dip of form since the end of December. Guendouzi had a decent game, making 3 recoveries and winning 2 of 2 tackles and 66.7% of his duels. He was charged with an error for giving the ball away to Vertonghen in the 39th.

   At halftime, Emery was worried about Eriksen’s impact and therefore sent on Torreira for Guendouzi in the 46th. As a natural ballwinner, Torreira was more suited to mark Eriksen than Guendouzi. The Uruguay international made a crucial clearance as the last defender to kill a counterattack in the 62nd. In the last minute of stoppage time, Torreira won the ball with a sliding tackle but planted his studs into Rose’s shin with his follow-through. The referee thought the challenge was dangerous and sent Torreira off. I thought it was a fair call because Torreira was not in control. Of course, some fans will point out the referee’s inconsistency. Why did he not give Rose a straight red card for banging Leno’s belly with his studs in the 68th?

   In the holding midfielder role, Xhaka showed good work-rate by making 1 tackle, 1 interception and 10 recoveries. The trouble is that Xhaka is not a natural defensive midfielder because of his lack of mobility. He made 3 fouls and was dribbled past 3 times, tied with Trippier for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. The Switzerland international was very lucky not to receive a red card in the 13th for a tackle from behind on Kane.

Thinking about the transfer market

   At the back, Monreal produced an outstanding performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 92.3% of his duels and leading all players with 4 interceptions and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Monreal especially won a crucial challenge to stop Son’s mazy run in the 27th. The Spaniard was very selective in his forward runs but he still managed to make an important contribution by setting up Lacazette in the 53rd.

   On the opposite flank, Mustafi didn’t work as hard as Monreal, winning 2 of 4 tackles and 50% of his duels and making just 2 interceptions and 1 recovery. Mustafi struggled to cope with Tottenham’s high press as his passing accuracy dipped to 43.3%, the lowest percentage for any Gunner. The German defender showed in the 73rd that he will always have an error in him. On a set piece, Mustafi shoved Kane from behind to give away a cheap penalty. TV replays showed that Kane was offside. Would Kane have been flagged offside if Mustafi had not made the foul? Kane sent Leno the wrong way to level the game. In stoppage time, Mustafi gave away a free kick with another silly foul on Kane.  

   There’s no way Mustafi can be in the starting lineup if the Gunners want to contend for the title in the next few years. Mustafi’s only asset is that he’s younger than Koscielny and Sokratis and more experienced than Holding. But otherwise, Mustafi is weaker than those 3 centerbacks. The club has a big decision to make this summer. They must sell Mustafi, Chambers and Jenkinson to fund transfers. Then they must decide where is the recruitment priority at the back. Should they sign a leftback because Monreal has lost a step and Kolasinac lacks defensive awareness? Or a centerback because Koscielny is getting old, Mavropanos is still raw and Holding will miss the start of the season? Or a rightback because Lichtsteiner is too slow, Maitland-Niles is still raw and Bellerin will miss a few months?

Leno’s double save

   Koscielny and Sokratis did a good job to keep Kane and Son quiet. The French veteran got the better of Kane in the 16th to start the play for the opening goal, while Sokratis blocked a dangerous cross from Son in the 33rd. The only weakness of the pair of centerbacks was in the air: Koscielny and Sokratis won only 60% and 40% of their aerial duels, respectively, according to whoscored.com. I thought Dixon’s comment on NBC was quite telling. The Arsenal legend claimed that Mustafi fouled Kane for the penalty because he didn’t trust Koscielny to win the header.

   I was a bit surprised by the praise Sokratis received after the match. Koscielny looked more solid than Sokratis, who made a couple of mistakes. Sokratis gave the ball away to Son in the 11th, was caught ball-watching when Eriksen tested Leno in the 44th, and fouled Lamela in the 73rd for the free kick that led to the penalty.

   There’s not much Leno could do to save Kane’s penalty. The German goalkeeper did his homework and dived in the corner where Kane usually dispatches most of his spot kicks. To Leno’s credit, he protected Arsenal’s lead with a spectacular double save before halftime. Iwobi failed to track Trippier, who found Kane on the edge of the box in the 44th. The England striker made a clipped pass for Eriksen, who ghosted past Sokratis for a 7-yard effort that Leno stopped wth his leg. The rebound fell to Sissoko, whose powerful strike was parried by Leno with a firm hand. Leno also reacted quickly enough when Mkhitaryan missed his clearance in the 68th. Rose chested the ball down, but Leno came off his line to deny the English fullback.

   The Gunners next visit Rennes in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday. The priority is to get 3 points against the Red Devils, who are direct rivals for a Top 4 finish. Torreira’s suspension will make Emery’s job more difficult. Arsenal will need to stop Pogba and Pereira in midfield. Ramsey is the obvious choice to mark those players when they drop off. When they charge forward, Emery will have to find an alternative to Torreira. Xhaka and Guendouzi are not defensive midfielders and don’t have the pace to track Pogba. Playing Maitland-Niles in central midfield could be an interesting gamble although his turnover rate would be an obvious concern.

 

Huddersfield vs. Arsenal: Gunners win ugly to stay in Top 4 race

   The Gunners held off Huddersfield 2-1 on Saturday to keep pace with Manchester United in the Top 4 race and earn their first away win in the Premier League since November. It wasn’t a pretty game. The Terriers outplayed Arsenal, enjoying 55% of ball possession and having 6 shots on target to 4. Yet, the result could prove crucial mentally. Last season, the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race because of their poor form on the road with 7 losses from January to May 2018.

Huddersfield vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   The injury crisis in defense has led Emery to rely on a back three for away games lately. It’s quite ironic that Emery is revisiting Wenger’s old recipes. The French manager switched to a back three at the end of the 2016-17 season because of 5 straight losses on the road. However, the tactical move came too late as Arsenal finished in fifth place, 1 point behind Liverpool.

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that lost at Manchester City a week ago with Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles replacing Aubameyang and Lichtsteiner in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager had to cope with a depleted squad as Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, and Aubameyang were sidelined either by injury or illness.

   Saturday’s game exposed the lack of quality in some key positions. The Terriers are the worst team in the Premier League but they still managed to have a passing accuracy of 78.6% compared to 71.8% for Arsenal, according to the club’s website. The Gunners compensated for their poor passing game with some great work-rate in the first half.

Flying wings

   There are only 3 attacking players in a 3-4-3 formation compared to 4 in a 4-2-3-1 system. The lack of creativity on the team sheet was quite obvious. Arsenal couldn’t just rely on inconsistent players like Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to create chances. In the end, the supply came from the wingbacks, Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac. The stats don’t lie: the Gunners only made 7 key passes. Maitland-Niles led Arsenal players with 3 key passes, followed by Kolasinac (2), Mkhitaryan (1) and Iwobi (1).

   Maitland-Niles arguably produced his best performance of the season. He set up the winning goal with a low cross that Lacazette converted from close range in the 44th minute. Besides 2 interceptions, Maitland-Niles led all players by winning 4 of 6 tackles, having 4 successful dribbles out of 7 and making 12 recoveries, according to the club’s website. His teammates trusted him as Maitland-Niles led Arsenal players with 51 passes.

   At 21, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player with a lot of room for improvement. Technically, he was among the weakest players with a passing accuracy of 62.8%. Maitland-Niles also had 5 turnovers compared to just 1 for Kolasinac. He especially gave the ball away with poor passes in the 33rd, the 47th and the 54th. That kind of flaw can be corrected on the training ground. Hopefully, Maitland-Niles will take the positives from his performance to claim the starting spot on the right flank while Bellerin recovers from his knee injury.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac created the opening goal in the 16th with a cross for Iwobi, whose volley took a deflection off Kongolo to beat a wrongfooted Hamer. Those 2 Gunners have built a good understanding on the left flank. Kolasinac combined with Iwobi to make another pinpoint cross in the 60th. Lacazette was about to meet the cross but Elneny jumped on the French striker to head the ball wide. What happened to team spirit? I thought Elneny and Lacazette were better educated than Kamara and Mitrovic.

A firefighter surrounded by pyromaniacs

   The trouble with Kolasinac is that his defensive lapses often outweigh his offensive contributions. Kolasinac was pulled out of position in the 80th when the Terriers hit Arsenal on the fast break. An unmarked Smith made a low cross for Depoitre, whose angled strike sailed wide. You can’t fault Kolasinac for his work-rate though. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international won 2 of 2 tackles, and made 3 interceptions and 11 recoveries.

   However, his technical limitations are becoming more and more obvious. Kolasinac completed only 55.6% of his passes, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. In stoppage time, Kolasinac should have cleared the rebound after Leno diverted Diakhaby’s chip, but some poor footwork led to a comical own goal. Monreal’s physical decline means that signing a leftback should be a top priority this summer.

   At the back, Koscielny and Leno were the only reasons why Arsenal nearly kept a clean sheet. Koscielny must have felt like a firefighter surrounded by pyromaniacs. Mustafi was very active on the right side of a back three with 2 tackles won, 5 interceptions and 11 recoveries, but his performance also looked like a catalogue of errors. The German defender put his team in trouble with a poor header in the 22nd. Mustafi was then pulled out of position in the 27th, made a silly foul in the 28th, lost possession on the edge of the area in the 35th and missed his tackle in the 47th. And his weak passing accuracy of 72.3% didn’t help his team retain possession.

   Monreal’s season has been marred by injuries. I don’t think the Spaniard was 100 percent fit on Saturday. His stats were very low with just 1 tackle, 2 blocks, 2 interceptions and 1 recovery. Monreal especially struggled to cope with Diakhaby’s pace. Diakhaby ran past Monreal in the 25th but Koscielny managed to block the cross from the Huddersfield winger. Covering Leno in the 84th, Monreal prevented Grant from scoring with a clearance off the line.

Lack of protection

   Chaperoning an error-prone Mustafi and a sluggish Monreal, Koscielny shone in the sweeper role as he cleaned up mistakes from his teammates. Koscielny headed the ball out after Diakhaby intercepted a poor back pass from Kolasinac in the second minute. The French centerback then cut out a cross from Smith in the 61st after Iwobi failed to track the Huddersfield fullback. Using his experience in the 78th, a smart Koscielny won a free kick after Bacuna outpaced Monreal.

   Koscielny finished the game with 2 tackles won, 2 blocks, 4 interceptions, 7 recoveries and a passing accuracy of 90.2%. Maybe the only blemish in Koscielny’s performance was his decision-making on the Terriers’ consolation goal. Instead of playing a high defensive line, Koscielny should have dropped off to control Diakhaby’s run.

   Leno had a quiet first half with just a routine save in the 19th. However, he definitely helped the Gunners secure the win with a couple of fine saves in the second half. The German goalkeeper saved Diakhaby’s first-time effort in the 50th, parried Diakhaby’s swerving shot in the 72nd, denied Depoitre in the 84th and stopped Bacuna’s long-range strike in stoppage time.

   The Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection after the break. By his own standards, Torreira had a poor game with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception, 10 recoveries and a passing accuracy of 64.3%. Guendouzi couldn’t compensate for Torreira’s relative lack of activity with 1 tackle, 0 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. The French teenager was a bit too casual at times with 6 turnovers, including one that led to a counterattack by Diakhaby in the 25th.

Missing a big chance

   Emery felt that something was not right in midfield and replaced Torreira with Elneny in the 59th. The move didn’t pay off. In fact, the Terriers were even more threatening after Torreira left the pitch. Elneny failed to close down Diakhaby, whose swerving shot tested Leno in the 72nd. Emery then decided to beef up the midfield by sending on Willock for Iwobi in the 88th. Willock failed to press Mooy, who slipped a through ball to Diakhaby for the consolation goal in stoppage time.

   Iwobi can be a frustrating player to watch. Let’s start with the positives. Iwobi opened the scoring and created a couple of half-chances. He fed Lacazette in the eighth minute. Instead of taking a first-time shot, Lacazette controlled the ball only to be dispossessed by Kongolo. Three minutes later, Iwobi made a low cross for Lacazette, who made poor contact with the ball and flicked it wide. Iwobi found the net again in the 36th but the goal was disallowed for an offside position.

   Now the reason why Iwobi drives some fans mad is because his passing and shooting skills can be poor at times. Iwobi led all players with 10 turnovers and completed only 60.6% of his passes, according to whoscored.com. Attacking midfielders at the top clubs have a passing accuracy above 80%. His decision-making can also be questionable. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi opted for an angled strike in the 10th minute instead of setting up Mkhitaryan for a tap-in. The defender might have intercepted Iwobi’s pass but it was still a better option than shooting from a tight angle. In the end, Iwobi embarrassingly fired into the side-netting.

Huddersfield M10edIwobi misses a passing opportunity. (Photo credit: SN1)

   Iwobi was also let down by his technique in the 69th, completely missing the target after cutting inside, and in the 86th, crossing the ball out of play. He could have put the result beyond doubt in the 70th when Mkhitaryan played him clean through on goal. But the Nigeria international wasted that big chance by shooting straight at the goalkeeper.

Pretending to defend vs. actually defending

   Much has been said about Iwobi’s improvement under Emery, but he still doesn’t know how to defend. Iwobi made 1 tackle and 4 recoveries in 88 minutes, while Mkhitaryan made 1 tackle, 1 interception and 7 recoveries in 76 minutes. Iwobi’s work-rate is poor because he lacks aggression like Ozil. Both Ozil and Iwobi track back but they barely perform defensive actions.

   In his return from a foot injury, Mkhitaryan looked incredibly sharp for his first Premier League game since December. From an attacking viewpoint, the right flank became a weakness after Bellerin’s injury. It will be interesting to see whether Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles can strike an understanding on the right flank like the one built by Kolasinac and Iwobi on the left flank.

   Mkhitaryan controlled Maitland-Niles’ cross in the 39th to test Hamer with a low drive. They swapped roles in the 44th as Mkhitaryan released Maitland-Niles for the second goal. Suarez replaced Mkhitaryan in the 76th and didn’t seem up to speed. Right now, Suarez looks like a player in his second week of pre-season training.

   Up front, Lacazette did his best in a position which is not tailored for him because he’s much more a second striker than a pure centerforward. Lacazette won 0 of 5 aerial duels and had 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Those are definitely not the stats of a target man. When Wenger used a 3-4-3 formation, he played Welbeck or Giroud in the centerforward role. To Lacazette’s credit, he scored the winning goal and worked his socks off with 4 fouls committed.  

   Arsenal’s next couple of games are the two legs against BATE Borisov in the Europa League. At this stage of the season, the Gunners can’t prioritize that European competition over the Premier League yet. There are still 8 games to play before reaching the Europa League final while the Gunners are only 1 point behind Manchester United in the standings.

   The main difficulty for Emery will be to manage a tricky schedule. After the second leg against the Belarusian side, Arsenal will play 3 Premier League games in a 7-day span. The only opportunity to rest key players will therefore be the second leg. Only a significant victory in the first leg would enable Emery to rotate in the second leg.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Lichtsteiner showing his age in 3-1 loss

   The Gunners suffered a setback in the Top 4 race as they lost 3-1 at Manchester City on Sunday to slip to 6th place in the Premier League, 3 points behind Chelsea and 1 behind Manchester United.

Manchester City vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Arsenal performed at a decent level in the first half and even had a couple of half-chances to take a 2-1 lead before Aguero scored his second goal in the 44th minute. Maybe it would have been a different story if Arsenal had reached halftime with the score tied. City stepped up a gear in the second half as the Gunners proved toothless with zero goal attempt.

   Sunday’s game showed the gap between the two teams. You could say that the Gunners were 2 or 3 signings away from contending in 2015. But now they have to rebuild their defense and clean up the mess in midfield left by the previous regime.

   Obviously, the generosity of the Abu Dhabi owner has helped Guardiola build a winning team within 2 years. The Citizens completely outplayed Arsenal, having 12 shots on target to 2 and 18 successful dribbles to 10 while winning 13 tackles to 10 and 19 aerial duels to 5, according to whoscored.com.

Lichtsteiner as the weak link

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that edged Cardiff the previous weekend with Iwobi and Koscielny replacing Ozil and Elneny in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager had to cope with a depleted defense as Holding, Sokratis, Bellerin, Maitland-Niles and Xhaka were not available.

   Some fans complained about the lack of creative players in the lineup but I don’t think it was the kind of game where Arsenal needed creativity for the simple reason that the Citizens dominated possession. My only criticism about Emery’s team selection was Iwobi getting the nod over Ramsey. The Wales midfielder will always give you more work-rate and more end product than Iwobi.

   Xhaka’s groin strain limited Emery’s options in midfield. The Gunners started in a 4-4-2 formation with Kolasinac and Iwobi on the wings before shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 66th when Ramsey and Suarez replaced Iwobi and Kolasinac. City bossed the midfield because Fernandinho, De Bruyne and the Silvas outnumbered Torreira and Guendouzi. But it was on Arsenal’s right flank that the damage was done.

   The Citizens identified Lichtsteiner as the weak link in the Arsenal defense and concentrated their attacks on his side. It was no coincidence if all the City goals came from crosses on Lichtsteiner’s flank that Aguero converted from close range. The Arsenal staff definitely made a mistake in recruiting Lichtsteiner. The game is going too fast for the 35-year-old defender, whose work-rate was poor with 2 tackles, 0 block, 0 interception, and 1 recovery, according to the club’s website.

Mustafi’s luck

   Lichtsteiner made the mistake of running toward Gundogan instead of staying with Sterling for Aguero’s second goal in the 44th. Gundogan found Sterling with a clipped pass and the diminutive winger squared the ball back for Aguero, who tapped in at the far post. Sterling outpaced Lichtsteiner for the final goal in the 61st, making a low cross that Leno could only divert into the path of Aguero, who bundled the ball over the line with his midriff and arm.

   Somehow, Lichtsteiner managed to prevent a tap-in from Sterling by clearing a cross from De Bruyne in the 81st. Emery had no alternative on the bench to yank Lichtsteiner off the pitch. Playing an inexperienced Mavropanos out of position would have been a too big gamble.

   Monreal didn’t suffer as much on the opposite flank because Guardiola preferred to play Bernardo Silva in a wide position instead of having Sterling and Sané on both wings. The Citizens confused the Gunners a couple of times by swapping positions. An all-around midfielder for City, De Bruyne cracked the Arsenal defense with his penetrative runs. De Bruyne made a run in behind Monreal to collect Bernardo’s reverse pass only to fire wide on the stroke of halftime. Spotting a gap between Lichtsteiner and Mustafi in the 56th, Sterling played De Bruyne in but the Belgium international was denied by Leno.

   Mustafi didn’t cover himself in glory at centerback. He miraculously avoided a booking and a penalty in the third minute for holding Aguero, who was chasing a through ball from De Bruyne. Mustafi was then in no man’s land when Aguero opened the scoring. His passing was poor with an accuracy dipping to 71.7% compared to 88.9% for Koscielny. The cherry on the cake was his substitution in the 79th for a knock. Something similar happened when Arsenal got thrashed 5-1 at Liverpool. You kind of wonder if he’s the kind of guy who runs away when his team takes a beating.

Guendouzi’s composure

   An aging Koscielny showed more leadership than Mustafi. In the heart of a weak backline, Koscielny won 0 of 1 tackle and 66.7% of his duels and made 2 blocks, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The France international also scored an equalizer by heading home a corner in the 11th. The Gunners have 6 centerbacks with Koscielny, Mustafi, Sokratis, Holding, Mavropanos and Chambers. It would make sense to boost the transfer funds by selling Mustafi and Chambers this summer.  

   The scoreline could have been more embarrassing without a good performance from Leno. The German goalkeeper made 9 saves, denying De Bruyne in the 51st, 53rd and 63rd and palming away efforts from Aguero in the 76th and David Silva in the 82nd. It really was one-way traffic in the second half.

   Torreira and Guendouzi did their best to protect the defense, but they were simply outnumbered by the Citizens in midfield. Basically, they had to multi-task: fighting for the ball in midfield, covering the fullbacks and initiating plays. Torreira cleared a dangerous cross from Bernardo in the 23rd and made a crucial interception inside the Arsenal area in the 39th. He was unlucky to receive a yellow card in the 39th for a collision with De Bruyne.  

   Guendouzi can be proud of his performance. Despite his young age, Guendouzi showed great composure and didn’t hide, leading Arsenal players with 58 passes and a passing accuracy of 91.4%. The French teenager managed to match Torreira’s defensive stats with 1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 9 recoveries compared to 1 tackle, 3 interceptions and 9 recoveries for Torreira, according to the club’s website. Guendouzi set up Kolasinac for a powerful strike that Ederson parried in the 39th. The only blemish in Guendouzi’s performance was his turnover in the 85th that led to a City counterattack, forcing Leno to stop Jesus’ low strike.

Broken wings

   The biggest disappointment in Emery’s tactical approach was the poor performances from Kolasinac and Iwobi on the wings. They made 0 key pass while Sterling and Bernardo Silva made 4 key passes each. Iwobi’s work-rate was decent with 1 tackle, 1 interception and 4 recoveries in 66 minutes. But he had 2 turnovers in the opening minutes that put his team in trouble.

   Iwobi’s decision-making was especially poor in the first minute of the game. Guendouzi slipped the ball to Iwobi as the Gunners cleared their lines. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi only had 2 passing options: a short pass to Lacazette to start a fast break or a back pass to Lichtsteiner. The first option was too risky because Lacazette was surrounded by Laporte, Gundogan and Sterling. Therefore a back pass to Lichtsteiner was the safer option. Lichtsteiner could have then played the ball back to Iwobi along the touchline or hit a long ball toward Aubameyang.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal M1 edited.jpgIwobi has 2 passing options: Lacazette and Lichtsteiner. (Photo credit: Sky)

   In the end, Iwobi chose neither of those 2 options. He decided to take on Laporte on the edge of the Arsenal box. Laporte dispossessed Iwobi and made a cross for Aguero, who headed home to put City ahead. The Arsenal defense was completely disorganized on that play and had almost no chance to stop the final ball. Guardiola’s teams are usually known for their intricate passing but that goal (a one-pass play!) was rather a good example of Klopp’s gegenpressing philosophy. Iwobi had made efforts lately to stop running into traffic but Sunday’s game showed that he still needs to improve his decision-making and keep it simple.

Suarez making his Arsenal debut

   On the opposite wing, Kolasinac looked lost in the role of an attacking midfielder. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 52.6%, the lowest percentage for any starting player. His poor positional play also led to a mediocre work-rate with 1 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. How Emery came up with that tactical surprise is a mystery because Kolasinac has always been a limited player, technically.  

   Some Arsenal fans wondered why Suarez, and not Ozil, replaced Kolasinac in the 66th. The answer is very simple: Emery doesn’t trust Ozil in those away games where attacking midfielders also have to fight for the ball. It was also a show of trust in Suarez. Here are some stats showing how hard creative players have to work in the top teams: De Bruyne made 7 recoveries and 4 fouls, David Silva won 2 tackles and made 4 recoveries and 3 fouls, Sterling won 2 tackles and made 4 recoveries and Bernardo Silva hit the jackpot with 1 tackle won, 1 interception and 10 recoveries. Those are the kind of stats that Emery expects from his attacking midfielders.  

   In his Arsenal debut, Suarez looked a bit sluggish. The Spaniard has only played 257 minutes for Barcelona this season. Suarez had 2 turnovers and seemed weak in duels against City. Obviously, he will need a couple of weeks to fit in the team as the Gunners don’t play like Barcelona. Suarez will also have to work hard if he wants to adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League.

Winning on the road

   Up front, it was a frustrating game for Lacazette and Aubameyang, both deprived of service. They combined to have only 1 goal attempt. Lacazette led a counterattack in the 35th and tried to play Aubameyang clean through on goal, but Ederson perfectly read the play and sprinted outside his area to clear the danger. Arsenal tried again to hit City on the fast break in the 42nd when Lacazette dispossessed De Bruyne. Torreira found Aubameyang, whose shot was deflected out for a corner.

   The Gunners next visit bottom side Huddersfield on Saturday. A victory on the road is necessary to make up ground in the Top 4 race. Dropping points against the Terriers would deal a bad blow to any hope of a Top 4 finish. Then Arsenal would need victories in the home games against Southampton and Bournemouth at the end of February before the decisive games against Tottenham and Manchester United in early March.  

Arsenal vs. Cardiff: Gunners grind out 2-1 win to move into 4th

   Any win will do. Aubameyang and Lacazette scored in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Cardiff as Arsenal went level on points with Chelsea in the Premier League while moving two points clear of Manchester United.

arsenal vs. cardiffPhoto credit: Premier League

   The Gunners performed poorly in the first half, lacking urgency, width and penetration. When they managed to have some good situations, their final ball was not accurate enough. Cardiff had a couple of half-chances and could have reached halftime with the lead. But the absence of a decent finisher penalized the visitors. The Bluebirds finished the game with 19 shots to 15 for Arsenal but just two of their goal attempts were on target.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that got knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United with only Kolasinac, Torreira, Lacazette and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. The Spanish manager had to improvise at the back because of injuries to Maitland-Niles, Koscielny, Sokratis, Bellerin and Holding. Monreal played in the centerback position alongside Mustafi while Lichtsteiner made a rare start at rightback.

   The Arsenal team was built around Ozil in a narrow 4-4-2 formation with Elneny, Torreira and Guendouzi shielding the defense. Ozil was making his first start since Dec. 26 when he was replaced at halftime in a 1-1 draw with Brighton. It’s no secret that the Arsenal board and staff want to offload Ozil. Off the pitch, his wages put a strain on the club’s financial resources. On the pitch, his performances are not good enough for £350,000 a week. Ozil notched 3 goals and 1 assist in 14 Premier League games this season for an average of 0.29 goal or assist per game. Those are pedestrian stats for one of the best playmakers in the world. Iwobi has the same average with 2 goals and 4 assists in 21 league games.

The Ozil conundrum

   Managing Ozil has turned into a tough balancing act for Emery. On the one hand, you want to implement your ideas and you need results. On the other, you don’t want to hurt Ozil’s resale value or worsen the mood in the dressing room. Emery opted for the best compromise by starting Ozil in a home game against a weak side. Ozil can be ineffective when he comes off the bench. Most fans still remember his dreadful cameo in the 3-2 loss to Southampton. It’s therefore less risky to start Ozil and take him off if he underperforms.

   Ozil was not influential in his 76-minute performance against Cardiff. He made 66 passes, the third most behind Monreal (68) and Guendouzi (83), but only one was a key pass from open play. On the bright side, there are signs that Ozil might finally buy into Emery’s method. Ozil made 3 recoveries and won 2 of 3 tackles, according to the club’s website. Only Mustafi won more tackles on the Arsenal team. However, I doubt that Emery would use Ozil for a pressing job like the one done by the Gunners against Chelsea. Ozil was dribbled past 3 times by the Bluebirds, the most for any Arsenal player. He was also easily bullied off the ball by Peltier in the 43rd.

   Emery broke the deadlock by shifting to a 4-2-3-1 system at halftime with Iwobi replacing Elneny to provide more width and inject more directness. Iwobi created the opening goal in the 65th by playing Kolasinac in. Ecuele Manga tripped Kolasinac, forcing the referee to award a penalty that Aubameyang converted. Three minutes later, Iwobi played a one-two with Ozil and nearly doubled the lead but Etheridge denied the Nigeria international. In stoppage time, Iwobi was a bit naive as he dived in and allowed Mendez-Laing to cut inside and curl a shot into the far corner. Iwobi has built a good understanding with Kolasinac this season. Yet, that’s not enough to claim a starting spot because of his inconsistency.

An effective one-two punch

   The Gunners are still in the Top 4 race because of Aubameyang and Lacazette. They are the second best one-two punch in the Premier League behind Liverpool’s Salah and Mane. While Wenger used Aubameyang on the left wing, Emery prefers to play him on the right wing or in a front two. By scoring from the penalty spot, Aubameyang raised his tally to 15 goals in the league this season. Aubameyang nearly notched a second goal in stoppage time but Etheridge parried his first-time effort from 11 yards. Surprisingly, Aubameyang led Arsenal players with 3 key passes, all from open play.

   You often hear about competition between strikers in the same squad. Giroud and Morata barely played together at Chelsea just like Aguero and Jesus hardly start together at Manchester City. But Aubameyang and Lacazette look more like the complementary duo formed by Yorke and Cole at Manchester United. Aubameyang can stretch any defense with his electric pace while Lacazette has the all-around game to bring teammates into play.

   Lacazette scored the winning goal with a rampaging run in the 83rd. Tripped by Bamba along the touchline, Lacazette quickly got back on his feet and drove into the box to bury the ball into the far corner. Lacazette then set up Ramsey for a scoring chance in the 85th but the Wales midfielder headed wide.

   Until his goal, Lacazette struggled in the final third. He pounced on a loose ball in the second minute after Etheridge diverted Kolasinac’s cross, but his first touch was average and only allowed him to produce a tame flick with his second touch. Lacazette then missed his final ball for Aubameyang on the stroke of halftime and failed to catch the frame with a curling effort in the 73rd.

A too conservative approach

   The referee let Lacazette know that they wouldn’t go on holiday together by denying him an obvious penalty in the 44th and by booking him for exaggerating contact in the 81st. Things didn’t go Lacazette’s way but the France international kept fighting and Emery showed patience. Lacazette finished the game with 2 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 3. He also contributed defensively by making 4 fouls in Cardiff’s half.

   I suspect Emery had Sunday’s game at Manchester City in mind as he used Ramsey only for the last 20 minutes. The tired Bluebirds couldn’t cope with Ramsey’s movement. The Wales midfielder made the key pass for Aubameyang’s chance in injury time. Ramsey also had an opportunity to score in the last minute of the game but Peltier blocked his shot.

   Emery relied on Elneny, Guendouzi and Torreira to make up for any defensive lapse from Ozil. It proved a too conservative approach against Cardiff. In the holding midfielder role, Elneny had 0 turnover and showed a decent work-rate by winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 2 blocks and 2 recoveries. But his missed interception led to a scoring chance for Reid in the 12th. And the main reason why Emery yanked Elneny off at halftime was his poor contribution in Arsenal’s buildup play.

Killing the momentum of a play

   If you look at the screen captures below, you can see how Elneny wasted an opportunity to hit Cardiff on the fast break in the 37th. Lichtsteiner made a run down the right flank and could have found Lacazette in the final third with a first-time pass. But Elneny dallied on the ball, giving Cardiff more time to regroup.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37a edited.jpgElneny spots Lichtsteiner’s run but fails to pass the ball. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Because Elneny slowed down the momentum, you can see on the next screen capture that Lacazette and Aubameyang stopped running. However, Elneny still had an opportunity to move the ball forward by making a pass to Ozil.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37b edited.jpgOzil runs in front of Elneny, who fails to pass the ball again. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Elneny completely killed the momentum of the play by ignoring two good passing options (Lichtsteiner and Ozil). Surrounded by 3 Bluebirds, Elneny finally made a backpass to Torreira. On the next screen capture, you can see that Elneny’s poor decision-making allowed all the Bluebirds to get behind the ball, even Niasse who was 20 yards behind Elneny at the start of the play.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37c edited.jpgThe Gunners have to start from scratch again after Elneny’s backpass to Torreira. (Photo credit: TSN)    

   On the left side of the midfield, Guendouzi was much more positive than Elneny in his passing. Guendouzi made 2 key passes, 1 interception and 1 block and led all players with 8 recoveries. His reading of the game helped Guendouzi win 50-50 balls as Arter and Ralls received yellow cards for poor challenges on the French teenager. Guendouzi also showed his character with a booking for dissent at halftime, complaining about the missed penalty on Lacazette.

A rusty Monreal

   On the right side of the midfield, Torreira survived another game. He won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 7 recoveries. Those are decent stats for most midfielders but well below the level Torreira showed in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder played a lot of games last year and it’s no surprise to see his form dip since the end of December. Emery could leave him out of the squad for easy Europa League games while hoping that Torreira can catch a second wind by March.

   The Gunners nearly kept a clean sheet despite a makeshift back four. In his return from a hamstring injury, Monreal looked a bit rusty. The Spaniard received a yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Reid in the 29th. Monreal only won 28.6% of his duels, compared to 57.1% for Mustafi according to the club’s website. Cardiff mostly threatened with crosses and managed to expose Monreal’s weakness in the air in stoppage time. Zohore outjumped Monreal at the far post to flick on a cross from Harris. The ball fell to Mendez-Laing who cut the deficit to 2-1. Monreal only won 2 of 6 aerial duels compared to 5 of 9 for Mustafi.

   Often maligned for his reckless challenges, Mustafi lived up to his reputation with a silly foul on Reid in the 40th. Mustafi also gave away the ball with a poor header in the 82nd, forcing Leno to stop a curling effort from Zohore. Besides those two blemishes, Mustafi had a decent game, winning 3 of 3 tackles and 57.1% of his duels and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 1 recovery.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

   On the flanks, Lichtsteiner showed his age with a weak offensive contribution and a passive defensive performance. The Swiss veteran roamed forward a few times but made 0 key pass. His defensive stats were just as bad with 0 tackle, 0 interception, 1 block, 0 recovery and only 12.5% of duels won. Emery had seen enough and replaced Lichtsteiner with Jenkinson in the 60th. Kolasinac was more active with 1 key pass, 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries and 50% of duels won. He won the penalty for the opening goal but his defensive lapses nearly cost his team. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international was not tight to Paterson, who made a cross for Reid in the 15th. Despite that warning, Kolasinac left Paterson unmarked a couple more times. The Cardiff midfielder hit Kolasinac in the chest with a volleyed pass in the 42nd, before missing the target with long-range efforts in the 50th and 56th.

   The Gunners have reportedly signed Denis Suarez on loan to boost their chances of finishing in the Top 4. That move makes sense because they desperately need more creativity in midfield to feed Aubameyang and Lacazette. Arsenal can’t simply rely on Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Ozil, who have been too inconsistent this season. There’s no guarantee that Suarez will adapt quickly to the Premier League but it’s a low-risk gamble. If it doesn’t work out, Suarez will return to Barcelona at the end of the season.

   The Gunners visit Manchester City on Sunday. They have nothing to lose in that game. A defeat would be considered normal, especially with the injury crisis at the back, whereas any point would be deemed a bonus in the Top 4 race.

West Ham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 hopes dealt a blow in 1-0 loss

   The ghosts of last season are coming back. A year ago, the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race because they were performing poorly on the road. This pattern could be repeating itself. The Gunners lost 1-0 at West Ham on Saturday, earning just 1 point from their last 4 away games to trail fourth-placed Chelsea by 6 points in the Premier League.

West Ham vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal had only 2 shots on target to 3 for the Hammers despite enjoying 58.5% of ball possession. In another example of sterile possession, the players who made the most passes were Koscielny (89) and Sokratis (67). The lack of urgency in the first half was quite disappointing since Arsenal got 6 days of rest after the victory over Blackpool in the FA Cup. West Ham showed more desire, winning 53.5% of the duels and making 17 interceptions to just 10 for the Gunners, according to the club’s website.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that routed the Seasiders with only Sokratis, Kolasinac, Iwobi and Maitland-Niles retaining their starting spots. The lack of quality in the Arsenal midfield showed in the high number of stray passes. It’s no coincidence if Denis Suarez has been linked with a move to the Emirates. Suarez plays as a central midfielder for Barcelona but I suspect that Emery would use him as an attacking midfielder. In the 2015-16 season, Suarez made 12 assists for Villareal in all competitions.

   The lack of creativity in midfield also helps explain why the Gunners struggled to play the ball out from the back. You would expect to find a Ramsey or an Ozil for that kind of tactics. Remember Ramsey’s goal against Fulham or Aubameyang’s goal against Leicester. But Emery left Ozil out of the squad while Ramsey only came off the bench in the second half.

Politics vs. sport

   Knowing that Ramsey will leave the club this year and that Ozil has been frozen out of the team, it’s impossible not to think about the chemistry in the dressing room. What a contrast between the lack of fluency at the London Stadium and the spectacular passing in the first half of the season. Does the mediocre form on the pitch reflect the current mood in the dressing room? Or is the team simply hitting a rough patch?

   Some players signed at Arsenal to play with Ozil. They must feel short-changed to take passes from Iwobi or whoever fills Ozil’s shoes. Likewise, they must certainly question Arsenal’s ambition when the club decides to let Ramsey leave. Is it a coincidence if Emery has harshly treated those 2 players because they’re not part of the club’s long-term plans?

   I think Emery needs more diplomatic tact. Obviously, the board’s emphasis on trimming payroll has led to this situation with Ozil and Ramsey. That’s politics. But the team still needs them because the other attacking midfielders lack consistency. That’s football. In that regard, Sarri has been smarter than Emery. The Chelsea manager froze out Fabregas only after securing a replacement by signing Jorginho and Kovacic last summer.

   Aubameyang and Lacazette scored with half-chances in the first half of the season. They didn’t against West Ham. That’s where chemistry plays a key role. Players felt upbeat in the first few months with a new manager, new methods and new signings. Now the reality is kicking in. The Gunners realize that they are far from the contending teams. They also see problems in the squad. Maybe that’s why the extra confidence needed to convert those half-chances is now gone.

Finding the best offensive setup

   Lacazette had a couple of half-chances in the first quarter. He chested down a long ball from Xhaka before firing a long-range strike wide in the ninth minute. Four minutes later, Lacazette took a pass from Iwobi and drove into the box only to be denied by Fabianski. He faded in the second half with no shot at all.

   Aubameyang started the season as the lone striker before moving to the left wing. Then Emery had a change of heart in the Bournemouth game and used Aubameyang in the centerforward position again. Since January, Emery has deployed Aubameyang on the right wing, letting Lacazette lead the line.

   That’s really mind-boggling that the Spanish manager still doesn’t know what Aubameyang’s best position is, especially if you compare with the situation at Manchester United. Solskjaer was appointed last month and has improved the Red Devils’ fortunes by quickly finding the best offensive setup with Matic, Herrera and Pogba in midfield and Rashford, Martial and Lingard in a front three.

   Deprived of service in the first half, Aubameyang tried to create chances. He made a cross for Lacazette, who headed over the bar in the 15th. The introduction of Ramsey in the second half finally gave Aubameyang some decent ammunition. Aubameyang headed Ramsey’s cross wide in the 63rd. The Gabon striker then met a low cross from Kolasinac in the 64th only to blaze over the bar under Cresswell’s pressure.  

   Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to have only 1 of 7 shots on target. I believe that playing Aubameyang up front and Lacazette as a second striker or in a wide position would be a more natural option. From the right wing, Aubameyang can cross the ball and make those diagonal runs a la Walcott, but he simply doesn’t have the all-around game to make a significant impact in the passing game. Aubameyang only won 14.3% of his duels according to the club’s website, that tells you he’s not optimally used.  

Positive substitutions

   You play with 2 strikers if you have good service. In a 3-4-3 formation, Emery relied on Iwobi, Guendouzi, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles to deliver the final ball. That was a big ask. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player, Guendouzi is not a playmaker and Iwobi can be inconsistent.

   Despite all the talk about his improvement under Emery, Iwobi looked again like the player of last season with a limited end product. At 22, Iwobi still has room for development, but right now he doesn’t have the impact of a Ramsey or an Ozil in the final third. Iwobi had 5 successful dribbles, tied with Anderson for the most by any player, but he also led all players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 59th by sending on Ramsey for Mustafi. In his short cameo, Ramsey made as many key passes (2) as Iwobi in the full 90 minutes. The Wales midfielder set up Iwobi, whose low drive sailed wide in the 67th.

   Although Emery’s substitutions didn’t change the outcome of the game, they were more positive than his previous substitutions. Concerned by Arsenal’s defensive issues, Emery has been reluctant to play with more than 3 attacking players. Replacing Lacazette with Ramsey in the Brighton game was obviously the nadir of that conservative approach.

   Emery seems to highly rate Guendouzi. Yet, it’s hard to understand why. Guendouzi is not a box-to-box player with the end product of a Ramsey or the pace and dribbling skills of an Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s not a defensive midfielder either. The French teenager showed his lack of defensive awareness a couple of times against West Ham. He failed to stay with Noble, who played a one-two with Nasri before producing a tame effort in the sixth minute. Again, neither Guendouzi nor Xhaka tracked Anderson, who took a pass from Nasri but missed the target in the 32nd.

Xhaka’s poor defensive instincts

   When Guendouzi is given plenty of time, he can hit accurate balls over the top. But he’s not a playmaker. At the same age, Fabregas had better passing and shooting skills. Guendouzi overhit his final ball in the 66th and 78th and finished the game with 0 key pass. He also took his chance from the edge of the box, missing the target in the 35th and 54th and lacking power in the 68th. Potentially, Guendouzi could become a deep-lying playmaker. But right now he’s not moving the ball quickly enough. It means that Guendouzi is mostly a utility midfielder at this stage of his career. Guendouzi is definitely an upgrade over Elneny because of his work-rate and his ability to win duels. He won 1 of 1 tackle and 62.5% of his duels and made 1 interception and 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website.    

   Guendouzi played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. That’s a flawed partnership because none of them is a natural ballwinner. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Nasri often managed to find pockets of space in midfield and made 3 key passes in his 70-minute performance.

   Emery’s choice to rely on Xhaka as the holding midfielder is questionable. Xhaka’s passing skills can be helpful to play out from the back but he simply lacks the defensive instincts to play in that position. His poor clearance led to Rice’s goal in the 48th. The safe option on that play would have been to head the ball toward Lacazette on the left flank. Some fans wondered why Torreira didn’t start. The Uruguay midfielder’s stats have gone down since the end of December, so Emery wisely decided to limit his playing time, sending him on for Xhaka in the 59th.

The most important game of the season

   Kolasinac can prove a potent threat down the left flank, but the Hammers managed to limit his offensive impact to just 1 key pass. The fact that Kolasinac was caught offside twice tells you that the Hammers studied his game. I’m not surprised that Arsenal extended Monreal’s contract by a year because Kolasinac is a wingback, not a defender. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international failed to track back a couple of times, forcing Koscielny to cover him in the leftback position. Kolasinac also had his share of responsibility in the goal. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Kolasinac allowed Nasri to run in front of him before setting up Rice. The screen capture also shows Arsenal’s poor defensive organization with Rice completely unmarked near the penalty spot.

west ham vs. arsenal m48edRice left unmarked by the Arsenal defense. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Maitland-Niles was caught napping on that play, too. He failed to react despite seeing Rice in a dangerous position. Maybe the most worrying part is the lack of desire Maitland-Niles showed on Saturday, forcing Aubameyang (yes, the top scorer in the Premier League) to cover him down the right flank a couple of times. Maitland-Niles definitely needs to improve his defensive awareness. Cresswell easily skipped past him to make a teasing cross in the 16th and Nasri ran past him to take a pass and muster a shot in the 26th. Offensively, Maitland-Niles was a liability for the Gunners with 0 key pass and a passing accuracy of 65%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player. In the 69th, Emery replaced Maitland-Niles with Bellerin, who was making his return from injury.  

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis was the most active of the 3 centerbacks, making 3 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Koscielny had a decent game although one stat raises some questions: Koscielny was dribbled past 2 times, compared to 0 for Sokratis and Mustafi. However, it was Mustafi who was deemed the weak link when the Gunners shifted to a back four in the 59th. The German defender received a yellow card in the 46th for a mistimed challenge on Anderson.

   The Gunners will play their most important game of the season when they host Chelsea next Saturday. A defeat would end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes whereas they could pull within 3 points of the Blues with a victory. Emery no longer has time to find his best team.