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Chelsea vs. Arsenal: More pressure on Emery after 3-2 loss

It looks like the summer tour has been of no use to Emery because the Spanish manager still has no idea what his best team is. Time is running out after Saturday’s 3-2 loss at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal hired Emery in May while Chelsea only appointed Sarri last month. Yet, Sarri has adapted more quickly to the Premier League than Emery as the Blues have 6 points from their first two games compared to zero for the Gunners.

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

Emery relied on a 4-2-3-1 formation again with Xhaka and Guendouzi in central midfield, Ozil in the hole, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings and Aubameyang up front. I thought the team selection was wrong. That’s the kind of starting lineup you might use in a home game against a weak side but definitely not against the Blues, who enjoyed 62% of ball possession. Although Xhaka and Guendouzi failed to protect the defense against Manchester City, Emery kept persisting with that flawed partnership. And picking 3 attacking midfielders, whose work-rate is questionable, also hurt Emery’s pressing plan.

In the first half, the Arsenal defense was all over the place. There was no coordination in the high press. Chelsea often put the visitors in trouble with balls over the top because the Gunners played a very high defensive line without closing down the ball holder. That’s exactly what happened with the first two goals. Arsenal also struggled again to play the ball out from the back. Like in the summer friendly, the Blues’ high press proved more efficient and they often won the ball back inside Arsenal’s half. What saved the Gunners from a complete disaster was Chelsea’s inability to defend crosses. Arsenal could have led by a couple of goals at halftime but they were let down by some really poor finishing.

The second half was pretty much one-way traffic with the Arsenal defense under siege. The Gunners switched back to the Wenger way with a low defensive line as the first half clearly exposed Sokratis’ lack of pace. Fans sometimes wonder why Arsenal didn’t implement a pressing game under Wenger. Saturday’s game showed why: the French manager had the wrong players for such a tactical ploy.

Better wing play

The Gunners were unlucky to face such a brutal Premier League schedule but at least they learned a lot from those first two games. While Ozil and Mkhitaryan too often drifted inside against City, the Gunners improved their wing play against the Blues as Iwobi and Mkhitaryan stretched the Chelsea defense by staying wide. The Gunners also improved their final ball, which was poor against City. They created some big chances against Chelsea because of the quality of their crossing.

One area that Emery must get right for the next game is the midfield. Jorginho had too much time to release Alonso down our right flank in the ninth minute. Pedro converted Alonso’s cross to open the scoring. If you look at the screen capture below, you will see several mistakes on that play. First, Willian pulled Bellerin out of position, creating space for Alonso to run into. Bellerin shouldn’t be wandering into Chelsea’s half, it should have been Xhaka’s job to track Willian in that part of the pitch. Second, Ozil failed to close down Jorginho when he took Willian’s pass. Third, Mkhitaryan failed to mark Alonso down the right flank. And fourth, the high defensive line exposed Sokratis’ lack of pace. The Greek centerback was 5 yards behind Pedro when Alonso made his cross.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M09ed Willian pulls Bellerin out of position before slipping the ball to Jorginho. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

The second goal looked similar. Azpilicueta hit a ball over the top for Morata, who toyed with Mustafi before beating Cech with a low shot in the 20th. First, Iwobi made no effort to close down Azpilicueta. And second, it made no sense for the Arsenal defense to play an offside trap on the halfway line for the simple reason that a player in his own half is never in an offside position. From the moment Morata walked back into his own half, Sokratis or Mustafi should have decided to drop off.

Ozil’s poor work-rate

Emery must have a serious chat with Ozil because his work-rate is not good enough. Mendy had too much freedom a week ago because Ozil didn’t close down the City leftback. Emery thought he could solve the problem by moving Ozil to the No. 10 position against the Blues but the Spanish manager made the problem worse. Jorginho capitalized on Ozil’s laziness to dictate play and lead all players with 99 passes. Besides the opening goal, Jorginho created chances by sending balls over the top to Barkley in the sixth minute and to Kante in the 13th.

In 67 minutes, Ozil won 0 tackle and made 0 interception and just 2 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website. By contrast, Barkley who played in a similar position with Chelsea won 0 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries in 60 minutes. It’s quite surprising Emery didn’t realize that Ozil is a defensive liability. When he was the PSG manager, Emery could see how Verratti and Di Maria took advantage of Ozil’s poor work-rate to drop back and send balls over the top in the 2016 Champions League games between Arsenal and the French club.

Ozil’s offensive contribution was just as poor as his defensive work. He made 0 key pass and had 0 shot on target. Monreal gave him a chance to shine in the eighth minute but Ozil’s volley sailed wide of the far post. Ozil then failed to anticipate a teasing cross from Aubameyang in the 47th. Emery replaced Ozil with Ramsey in the 67th and the Wales midfielder proved a greater goal threat in his cameo. Ramsey tested Kepa with a low strike in the 77th before firing a half-volley over the bar in the 90th.

Emery has a big problem on the right wing because Ozil couldn’t contain Mendy a week ago and Mkhitaryan struggled badly against Alonso on Saturday. Obviously, you don’t face leftbacks as good as Mendy and Alonso every weekend but you can bet that other Premier League teams have spotted that chink in the Arsenal armor.

The understanding between Mkhitaryan and Iwobi

Mkhitaryan worked harder than Ozil as he made 2 interceptions and 9 recoveries. He was arguably Arsenal’s best player, finishing the game with 1 goal and 1 assist and leading all players with 5 key passes. The Armenia international found the net in the 37th by pouncing on a loose ball to fire into the bottom corner from 18 yards. Then Mkhitaryan set up Iwobi for the equalizer with a low cross in the 41st. Interestingly, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan seemed to strike an understanding in that game. Iwobi cut the ball back for Mkhitaryan, who blazed over the bar from 9 yards in the 32nd. They swapped roles on the stroke of halftime as Iwobi met a low cross from Mkhitaryan only to miss the target from 12 yards. If Emery had to choose between Ozil and Mkhitaryan, the latter made a strong case that it should be him.

Iwobi’s performance was a mixed bag. On the bright side, he showed end product with 1 goal and 2 key passes. Iwobi picked out an unmarked Aubameyang, who shot wide from 8 yards in the 44th. I believe he still needs to improve his work-rate and cut his turnovers to become a solid starter. The Nigeria international won no tackle and made just 1 interception and 4 recoveries. He also led all players with 6 turnovers and had a passing accuracy dipping to 56%, the lowest percentage for any player according to whoscored.com.

In central midfield, Guendouzi performed better than against City. He not only cut some mistakes out of his game but also won 2 of 4 tackles and 82% of his duels, had a passing accuracy of 94%, and made 4 interceptions, 1 block and 8 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Those are much better stats than Xhaka, who won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 interception and 1 recovery in the first half. Guendouzi showed an eye for a pass in the 19th by releasing Bellerin down the right flank. The Spaniard made a low cross for an unmarked Aubameyang, who fired over the bar from 8 yards with the goal at his mercy.

Guendouzi as an all-rounder

Obviously, Guendouzi still has a lot of room for improvement, but I can see why Emery started the French teenager. If you love total football and watch the Liverpool midfield or the City midfield, you would think that Guendouzi could make the cut as an all-rounder. He made a timely tackle on Hazard as the last defender in the 83rd and took his chance in the 43rd with a long-range strike that Kepa easily saved. Like Pires some 18 years ago, Guendouzi will have to toughen up a bit. Jorginho brushed him off the ball in the fourth minute to create a half-chance for Pedro.

It’s just a question of weeks before Emery drops Xhaka from the starting lineup because he is not a good fit for the manager’s tactics. Xhaka simply lacks the mobility and pace to press or show for the ball when the team tries to play out from the back. The Switzerland international gave the ball away in the 13th and was booked in the 27th for a late tackle on Pedro. Xhaka was replaced at halftime by Torreira, who seemed to lack match sharpness. Torreira was dispossessed by Pedro on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 52nd and received a yellow card in the 71st for a foul on Kovacic. The Uruguay midfielder was also guilty on the last goal as he failed to track Alonso in the 81st.

Chelsea’s winning goal started with a turnover from Lacazette, who replaced Iwobi in the 75th. Lacazette attempted a risky back pass toward Torreira. Hazard intercepted the ball and the play developed on our right flank where Hazard dribbled past Lacazette to square the ball back for Alonso,who shot past Cech. Lacazette got some stick for his turnover but Bellerin failed to stop Hazard’s cross and Torreira let Alonso run past him.

If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Lacazette only had one safe passing option: Aubameyang. But Lacazette panicked because he felt Luiz’s presence behind him. Lacazette is simply not comfortable playing with his back to goal. He played as a centerforward for Lyon but he’s still not used to the physicality of the Premier League. I don’t understand why Wenger and Emery both played Aubameyang on the left wing and Lacazette up front when Aubameyang is a more natural choice for the centerforward position. Lacazette should be playing on the right wing or as a second striker.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M80ed Lacazette ignores his best passing option, Aubameyang. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Aubameyang could have notched a hat trick with better finishing. Unmarked, he missed the target from 8 yards in the 19th and 44th. He also chased a long ball from Mustafi in the 17th to fire a low effort straight at Kepa. Despite that poor performance, Aubameyang should still retain his starting spot for the next game because he’s more clinical than Welbeck and has more pace than Lacazette.

Lack of leadership

It’s hard to find any positive at the back. Bellerin made the penultimate pass for the equalizer but he’s still playing too much like a wingback. He needs to improve his positional play and find the right balance between attack and defense. Hazard too easily rounded him in the 70th. Bellerin also let his teammates down in the 78th. The Spaniard casually jogged back, letting Mkhitaryan and Ramsey deal with Pedro and Alonso on the right flank. Pedro made a cross for Kante, who headed over the bar.

Monreal initiated Arsenal’s first goal by dispossessing Willian but Saturday’s game also confirmed that he has lost a step. In the 14th, Monreal failed to stay with Pedro, who chased a ball over the top from Willian. Then Pedro easily turned Monreal in the 55th before Barkley rounded Monreal in the 57th to test Cech with a low strike.

Mustafi led Arsenal players with 3 fouls. He got booked in the 77th for fouling Hazard from behind. Mustafi is not a world-class defender like Koscielny and simply lacks the leadership to marshal the back four. Playing a high defensive line will be an issue for Emery because Sokratis has no recovery pace while Mustafi’s reading of the game can be poor.

The Gunners threw caution to the wind in the closing minutes. Cech saved them from an embarrassing scoreline by making a couple of fine saves, parrying an angled shot from Hazard in the 86th and denying Giroud in the 87th and in stoppage time. Cech occasionally played out from the back, but when he felt that it was too risky, he opted for a long kick.

This is a transition season for Arsenal. But the club can’t afford a poor result against West Ham on Saturday. Even Manchester United under Moyes never lost three straight games in the Premier League. And if the Gunners were to fall in the relegation zone, that would be the start of a crisis. In any club, most fans call for the sack of the manager when their team stays in the drop zone for weeks.

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A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Europe

The summer tour has been positive overall with 2 wins and 2 draws, but it is still difficult to see Emery’s impact on the Arsenal team. The Gunners drew 1-1 with Chelsea on Wednesday before defeating Lazio 2-0 on Saturday.

2018 European TourPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Both games raised concerns about the Arsenal defense. Chelsea looked sharper and could have put the game to bed in the first half while Lazio played at a slower tempo and couldn’t find the net despite torturing the Gunners with crosses.

  1. Implementing the pressing game

Pressing is a defensive tool to stop counterattacks but it’s also an attacking tool to create chances. Chelsea and Arsenal both tried to press high up the pitch when they lost possession. The Gunners still have a long way to go. The Blues looked better drilled, forcing turnovers in dangerous areas, while Arsenal’s pressing never really troubled Chelsea.

  1. Same old defensive frailties

The last years of Wenger’s tenure were defined by recurrent defensive issues: the Gunners often looked vulnerable on set pieces and crosses as well as on the fast break. The Blues took advantage of some poor defensive organization to open the scoring in the fifth minute. Rudiger lost Smith-Rowe to head in Fabregas’ corner. A rookie shouldn’t be marking one of Chelsea’s main aerial threats. The problem wasn’t fixed at halftime as Rudiger toyed again with Smith-Rowe in the 57th only to head a corner wide.

The Blues also did a lot of damage on the fast break. Fabregas wasted a counterattack in the 10th by slipping the ball to an offside Morata. Then Hudson-Odoi dispossessed Elneny in the 24th to feed Morata, who was denied by Cech. Three days later, the Lazio game exposed Arsenal’s poor job in stopping dangerous crosses. Yet, Caicedo in the 16th, Lulic in the 37th and Parolo in the 35th and 49th all missed the target.

This is not Emery’s team yet. Fans will need to show a bit of patience for what is mostly a transition season. But if those defensive issues are not corrected by the end of the season, then the club may not have hired the right manager.

  1. The back four is a worry

The Gunners have a problem at leftback. Kolasinac picked up a knee injury against Chelsea and will be sidelined for 2 months, while Monreal didn’t play in any summer friendly and currently has a knee problem preventing him from training with the team. Wenger got some stick last season for playing Maitland-Niles in the leftback position but the irony is that Emery did the same thing against Lazio.

At rightback, Hudson-Odoi had Bellerin in his pocket and even won a penalty when the Spaniard tripped him in the 14th. Bellerin is expected to get a bit of competition from Lichtsteiner, who made his Arsenal debut on Saturday and had a more comfortable evening against Lazio veteran Lulic. There are big question marks about Lichtsteiner’s ability to adapt to the pace of English football. Lichtsteiner performed well with Juventus, but Serie A games don’t really match the intensity of the Premier League.

Sokratis and Mustafi started at centerback against Chelsea and looked vulnerable when Arsenal played a high defensive line. The Blues capitalized on Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace to send balls over the top. Hudson-Odoi collected a long ball from Jorginho in the 42nd but had his effort cleared off the line by Mustafi.

If Sokratis and Mustafi perform poorly or get injured, the back-up options are very limited. Koscielny will miss the first half of the season. That means Holding, Chambers or Mavropanos would have to step up. Chambers was so slow in the 26th that Lulic was able to charge down his clearance. Lulic got again the better of Chambers, who made a cynical foul on the Lazio veteran in the 54th. Meanwhile, Holding put himself in trouble with some poor decision-making, attempting a risky pass that was intercepted in the 31st and losing possession after dribbling inside his own half in the 77th.

  1. The Gunners need more creativity

Over the past 12 months, the club has lost a lot of creativity with the departures of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanchez, Cazorla and Wilshere. The responsibility for creating chances now rests on the shoulders of Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. Against Chelsea, Mkhitaryan had an off day. The Gunners played better when Nelson replaced Mkhitaryan in the 72nd. The academy player made a cross that Lacazette converted in stoppage time to force a penalty shootout. Nelson also opened the scoring against Lazio, tapping home a rebound in the 18th after Iwobi struck the post with a low diagonal strike.

At 18, Nelson is a very promising youngster. He can deliver the final ball and dribble past defenders. But he is unlikely to perform consistently in the Premier League. If you add Iwobi’s own inconsistency issues, that means Arsenal can only rely on Ozil and Mkhitaryan for a significant number of assists this season. Maybe the Gunners could sign another creative midfielder this summer if they manage to offload for a good fee the players that Emery does not want.

  1. The Arsenal midfield is too soft

Elneny, Guendouzi and Smith-Rowe started in midfield against Chelsea. That trio would badly struggle against any decent Premier League side. It’s true that Torreira, Xhaka and Ramsey are more likely to be the starters in a three-man midfield. But I can’t help thinking that Wilshere, Cazorla and the Ox were better options than Elneny, Guendouzi and Smith-Rowe.

There’s no doubt that Guendouzi has great potential as a deep-lying playmaker, but the brutal contrast with Jorginho’s flawless performance on Wednesday showed the gap between those 2 players. Guendouzi is simply too casual for such a key position. He put his team in trouble against Atletico by dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area.

You would have thought that Guendouzi learned his lesson, but he didn’t. The French teenager was reckless against Chelsea, attempting again to dribble on the edge of the Arsenal box. Guendouzi was lucky to draw a foul in the 20th, he nearly lost possession in the 28th, and he was dispossessed in the 33rd as the Blues hit Arsenal on the fast break. As long as Guendouzi doesn’t cut those mistakes out of his game, it would be foolish to start him in a Premier League game.

Torreira finally made his Arsenal debut on Saturday. He’s definitely the kind of defensive midfielder that the club has been missing since Gilberto Silva. His strong tactical discipline and his sound positional play make him a better fit for the No. 6 role than Xhaka.

It was quite intriguing to see Torreira play with Xhaka in a 4-4-2 formation against Lazio. Maybe Emery will use that system if Ramsey is still injured or leaves the club. Ramsey picked up a calf strain while warming up for the Chelsea game and was replaced by Smith-Rowe in the starting lineup. Chelsea and Liverpool seem both interested in the Wales midfielder, who only has a year left on his contract. The Blues don’t have that type of player in their squad while Ramsey would be a perfect fit for Liverpool’s football style.

  1. How much gas does Cech still have left in the tank?

At 36, Cech is in the twilight of his career. Past the age of 35, some goalkeepers can still perform at the top level (Zoff, Van der Sar, Buffon), while others tend to decline sharply (Taffarel, Casillas). Cech was the player who made the most errors leading to a goal in the Premier League last season. Can he catch a second wind?

His performance against Chelsea seems to suggest that Cech may still have one season left at the top. He saved Morata’s tame penalty in the 15th and helped Arsenal stay in the game with a couple more outstanding saves. In the penalty shootout, Cech stopped Loftus-Cheek’s spot kick before Iwobi converted the last kick of the game.

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Singapore

For his first weeks at the club, Emery was able to work with the bulk of the Arsenal squad as only Welbeck, Ospina, Torreira, Xhaka, Lichtsteiner, and Monreal missed out on the summer tour in Singapore. The Gunners drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid on Thursday before routing Paris Saint-Germain 5-1 on Saturday.

2018 Arsenal TourPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The first game showed Simeone’s organizational skills. Despite missing Griezmann, Lemar, Hernandez, Vrsaljko, Godin, Gimenez, Felipe Luis, Costa, Koke, Saul Niguez, and Savic, the Colchoneros managed to prevent Arsenal from creating clear-cut chances. The second game exposed PSG’s lack of a deep bench. The absences of Mbappe, Kimpembe, Meunier, Cavani, Neymar, Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Dani Alves, and Di Maria meant that unknown youngsters got the nod from Tuchel.

  1. Rethinking the partnership between Aubameyang and Lacazette

When Aubameyang and Lacazette played together against Atletico and PSG, Emery used the same configuration devised by Wenger last season with Lacazette through the middle and Aubameyang on the left wing. I don’t think it’s the most efficient configuration. A 4-4-2 system with Lacazette playing behind Aubameyang or a 4-3-3 system with Aubameyang up front and Lacazette on the right wing would optimize their impact in the final third.

Aubameyang should lead the line because he has more pace and is more clinical than Lacazette, while Lacazette has better passing and dribbling skills than Aubameyang. Playing as a second striker or as a false winger shouldn’t prevent Lacazette from finding the net often: Mbappe and Salah are examples of prolific forwards playing in a wide position.

Emery started Aubameyang as a lone striker on Saturday. The Gabon striker often cracked the PSG defense with his penetrative runs. He set up the opening goal with a sprint down the right flank in the 13th minute before collecting long balls in the 29th and 44th only to be denied by Buffon. Former Arsenal midfielder Diarra struggled so badly to cope with Aubameyang’s electric pace that he made cynical fouls in the 16th and 51st.

Lacazette has a lot to prove this season after failing to make the France squad for the World Cup. He was sharp and motivated in both friendlies, notching 2 goals against PSG and testing Atletico goalkeeper Oblak a couple of times.

  1. Can Emery improve the Arsenal defense?

The Gunners conceded 51 goals in the Premier League last season. That’s too much to have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish. Emery can definitely improve the team’s defensive organization. However, preventing goals also depends on the players’ decision-making and individual skills. The 2 games in Singapore raised again question marks about the defenders’ quality. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick against PSG in the 19th and caught Weah with a high arm in the 28th after diving in. And Kolasinac was the main culprit for PSG’s equalizer as he missed his tackle and brought down Weah in the 59th. Holding and Chambers didn’t cover themselves in glory either against Atletico. Correa turned Holding to set up the opener in the 41st while Chambers received a yellow card in the 80th for a cynical foul.

  1. Academy players are knocking on the door

Nelson and Nketiah shone last season in the League Cup and the Europa League. The summer friendlies confirmed their strong potential. Nelson made 2 assists against PSG, taking the corner for Holding’s looping header in the 87th and slipping a through ball to Nketiah for the last goal. Named Premier League 2 Player of the Season, Nelson could have also scored in the 87th but Cibois saved his low strike.

There’s a bit of Ian Wright in Nketiah. The 19-year-old striker came off the bench in the second half and cut inside 2 defenders to test Cibois with a curling shot in the 81st. In stoppage time, Nketiah perfectly timed his run to beat the offside trap and score with a diagonal strike. Nketiah and Nelson should definitely play in the League Cup and the Europa League this year. Emery has shown his willingness to trust youngsters at PSG, so he should be able to develop Nketiah and Nelson this season.

While most Arsenal fans already know Nelson and Nketiah, the emergence of Smith-Rowe has been the biggest surprise of the summer tour. Smith-Rowe, who just turned 18 on Saturday, had never played with the first team before this season. The teenager was not really impressed by the crowd: Smith-Rowe notched a goal against Atletico and an assist against PSG. He ran past Partey in the 47th to beat Oblak with a curling shot from the edge of the box. Two days later, he picked out Lacazette, who made it 2-1 in the 67th. If Smith-Rowe can maintain that level of performance, you can bet that Emery will give him some playing time in the League Cup and the Europa League.

  1. A make-or-break season for Iwobi

Iwobi already has 3 Premier League seasons under his belt. Yet, his decision-making and end product are still poor. Nelson and Nketiah could leapfrog him in the pecking order if he keeps stagnating. Starting on the left wing against PSG, Iwobi was denied by Buffon in the 23rd and was replaced by Lacazette at halftime.

  1. Can Emery improve Ozil’s work-rate?

You often hear pundits say that his teammates should do the dirty work for Ozil. But if you look at the big clubs, playmakers like Eriksen and De Bruyne have better stats than Ozil and also work harder. Ozil’s poor work-rate could become a problem if Emery implements a pressing game. When PSG faced Arsenal in the 2016-17 Champions League, Emery took advantage of Ozil’s laziness to have Verratti and Di Maria drop back and send balls over the top. On Saturday, Ozil opened the scoring by converting Aubameyang’s cross in the 13th. Then the Germany playmaker made no effort to win the ball back after losing possession in the 34th, forcing Leno to palm away a powerful drive from Weah.

  1. Investing in youth

The Gunners haven’t enjoyed much luck in the past few years when they signed foreign youngsters. Sanogo, Reine-Adelaide, Bielik, Miyaichi, Eisfeld and Zelalem are examples of gambles in the transfer market that proved unsuccessful. Arsenal might have experienced a change of fortune by signing Guendouzi from French club Lorient for about £7 million. Fans can only hope that the scouting department did a thorough job to pay such a fee.

At 19, Guendouzi looked comfortable on the ball against Atletico. Despite his youth, Emery played him as a holding midfielder sitting behind Ramsey and Smith-Rowe. A couple of times, an overconfident Guendouzi tried to dribble on the edge of the Arsenal area. One of his turnovers led to a scoring chance for the Colchoneros in the 58th. Emery was more cautious for the PSG game as he played Guendouzi alongside the more defensive Elneny. Guendouzi displayed his ball-playing abilities with a pinpoint ball over the top for Aubameyang, whose low strike was palmed away by Buffon in the 29th.

Guendouzi definitely has the profile of a deep-lying playmaker. He’s more mobile than Xhaka and his passing range looks similar to the Switzerland international’s. However, Guendouzi’s inexperience means that Emery will probably use him as a utility midfielder this season. To survive in the Premier League, Guendouzi will need to toughen up. He was brushed off the ball a couple of times against Atletico.

  1. The contracts of Ramsey and Nelson should be the club’s top priority

Ramsey and Nelson only have a year left on their contracts. Voted Arsenal’s Player of the Season, Ramsey is the present of this club. He’s the only Arsenal midfielder who’s on the shopping list of several big clubs. If the board doesn’t want to give Ramsey a salary close to £200,000 a week, then the fans could see the team bleed like when Fabregas, Nasri, Song and Van Persie left in 2011-12. Last season, the Gunners already lost Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez to Liverpool and Manchester United, respectively. They are now just one transfer away from becoming a feeder club again and they won’t be able to blame Wenger for that mess.

Those who have watched Nelson in the Premier League 2 last season know that the teenager is the future of the club. Nelson can carve open a defense with his dribbling skills. Big clubs are willing to pay a fortune for that kind of skill set because smart dribblers can make a difference against teams parking the bus. That’s why Manchester City signed Sane and Sterling while Liverpool recruited Mane and Salah.

 

Huddersfield vs. Arsenal: Gunners play for Wenger in 1-0 win

The last game of the season was about earning at least an away point in the Premier League this year. The Gunners made Wenger proud by edging Huddersfield Town 1-0 on Sunday. The crowd at the John Smith’s stadium even gave the French manager a standing ovation after 22 minutes as an acknowledgement for his 22 years at the helm of Arsenal.

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

Ironically, the scoreline was the complete opposite of Arsenal’s season. The Gunners finished in 6th place with 63 points, the lowest total in the Wenger era. They also conceded 51 goals, 24 more than Manchester City, for the worst defensive record under Wenger. The only consolation was the number of goals scored (74), which was the same as Spurs’ tally and more than Manchester United (68) and Chelsea (62).

The Terriers were the more threatening team with 18 shots to 9 for Arsenal, but they simply lacked a Mahrez or a Vardy to convert their chances. Huddersfield did a lot of damage in the air, winning 10 more aerial duels than the Gunners. The Terriers also disrupted Arsenal’s passing game by pressing high up the pitch, making 24 interceptions to 7 for the visitors, according to the club’s website. The Gunners will need to sign a ballwinner this summer if they want to improve those stats.

Aubameyang scored the winning goal in the 38th minute by sliding home a pass from Ramsey. Credit must also be given to Lacazette, who played a one-two with Mkhitaryan before finding Ramsey inside the area. Lacazette could have doubled the lead in the 80th. The France striker took a pass from Mkhitaryan only to have his chip attempt well read by Lossl. A minute later, Welbeck, who had replaced Aubameyang in the 67th, dribbled past 2 Terriers but was denied by Lossl.

Turnover machines

Without Ozil, the Gunners’ passing game was poor. Huddersfield forward Pritchard made as many key passes (5) as the entire Arsenal team. The awkwardness of Ramsey and Mkhitaryan didn’t help. Ramsey and Mkhitaryan led all players with 7 and 6 turnovers, respectively, and their passing accuracy dipped to 71 and 73%, according to whoscored.com.

Like in the Leicester game, the Gunners wasted some good situations with a poor final ball. Ramsey missed his through ball for Lacazette in the 17th and for Welbeck in the 74th, Aubameyang’s pass for Kolasinac in the 52nd ran out of play, and the Huddersfield defense intercepted Welbeck’s final ball for Lacazette in the 77th. Before Aubameyang’s goal, Arsenal’s only scoring chance came from a set piece in the 27th when Mustafi redirected a corner toward Kolasinac, who flicked wide from 6 yards.

In the No. 10 role, Iwobi produced another disappointing performance. He made only 1 key pass and showed some poor work-rate with 0 tackle and 0 interception. By contrast, Ramsey won 3 tackles, according to whoscored.com. You don’t expect Iwobi to read the game like Ozil, but there are some basics that a player should master in his third Premier League season. Why does he keep running into traffic even though he doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Salah or a Sane? Iwobi foolishly took on 3 Terriers in the 53rd and lost possession. The turnover led to a Huddersfield counterattack and ultimately a corner.

Not learning from mistakes

Mounie gave the Arsenal defense a hard time in the air. The Huddersfield striker led all players with 9 aerial duels won, according to whoscored.com. He met a cross from Hadergjonaj in the third minute for a header that Ospina saved. Two minutes later, he headed a corner goalward but Xhaka knocked the ball off the line. Mkhitaryan made the mistake of not blocking Mounie’s run while Holding lost the key duel in the air. With some clinical finishing, Mounie could have notched a hat trick in the first half. Pritchard beat the offside trap to collect a long ball in the 11th. He slipped a reverse pass to an unmarked Mounie, who blazed over the bar. Xhaka failed to track Mounie on that play.

The pair of Arsenal centerbacks didn’t produce a convincing performance. Mounie often got the better of Mustafi in the air. Ince also skipped past Mustafi in the 60th to fire a diagonal strike that Ospina palmed behind. Holding made some glaring mistakes as bad as Mavropanos a few days ago. The English defender was dispossessed by Mounie on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 48th. Then Holding was a split second late in the 65th and fouled Mounie almost as the last defender.

Trying to protect his team’s lead, Wenger sent on Maitland-Niles for Iwobi in the 72nd. That move nearly backfired. Matiland-Niles forgot to track Mooy inside the area in the 88th and the Huddersfield midfielder rattled the bar with a volley on the turn. In stoppage time, Maitland-Niles gave away a dangerous free kick by fouling Lowe. Depoitre connected with Mooy’s free kick for a downward header that Ospina kept out. Ospina couldn’t make a clean catch but reacted quickly enough to gather the ball at his second attempt.

A new manager by the end of May?

The next Arsenal manager can definitely rely on Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ramsey to score goals. If he intends to use a 4-3-3 formation, Lacazette would have to play as a false winger like Salah at Liverpool. But if he opts for a 4-4-2 system with Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front two, then signing a ballwinner this summer should be a top priority to protect the back four.

I haven’t mentioned Mkhitaryan and Ozil for different reasons. Mkhitaryan has struck a good understanding with Ramsey and Aubameyang within a few months, but he has a high turnover rate, he is still adapting to a new club, and his stats are not as good as Ramsey’s or Lacazette’s. Meanwhile, Ozil is a world-class player but he’s unreliable, especially since he got a pay rise. Some of his injuries or illnesses are a complete mystery for the fans.

Here are the stats for Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey, Ozil and Mkhitaryan in the Premier League this season: Aubameyang 10 goals and 4 assists in 13 games for an average of 1.08 goal or assist per game; Lacazette 14 goals and 4 assists in 32 games (0.56); Ramsey 7 goals and 8 assists in 24 games (0.63); Ozil 4 goals and 8 assists in 26 games (0.46); Mkhitaryan 3 goals and 9 assists in 26 games (0.46).

At the back, the next manager will have a massive rebuilding job. There is no solution from within. Even with better coaching, there’s no way that Chambers, Holding and Mavropanos could become as good as Koscielny in his prime. That means finding the solution in the transfer market. And that’s why the board must appoint a new manager by the end of May. If they wait until June, it will be too late to act in the transfer market.

Leicester vs. Arsenal: Mavropanos learns the hard way in 3-1 loss

At some stage, it had to happen. Mavropanos performed well against Manchester United and Burnley, but on Wednesday he paid a hefty price for his first glaring mistake in an Arsenal shirt. The 3-1 loss at Leicester City was a reminder that the 20-year-old defender still has a lot to learn.

Leicester vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made 4 changes to the side that routed Burnley 5-0 last weekend with Holding, Maitland-Niles, Ramsey and Welbeck replacing Chambers, Bellerin, Wilshere and Lacazette in the starting lineup. Because it was the third game in a 7-day span, it made sense to rotate and inject some freshness into the team. Bellerin, Monreal, Chambers, Wilshere and Lacazette were given the day off while the manager kept experimenting at the back by leaving Mustafi on the bench and starting Mavropanos alongside Holding in the heart of the defense.

Despite Mavropanos’ red card in the 15th minute, the Gunners still finished with 60% of ball possession in a 4-4-1 system with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi on the wings and Aubameyang on his own up front. Leicester capitalized on its numerical superiority to find more space on the fast break and could have won by a bigger margin if Cech had not pulled off some fine saves.

Mavropanos showed good composure and smart decision-making in his 2 previous appearances, but there were already signs that he could struggle in key duels: Fellaini outjumped Mavropanos to head the ball onto the post at Old Trafford while Vokes also got the better of the Greek youngster to head a cross straight at Cech in the Burnley game.

The Foxes’ opening goal in the 14th came from a corner that Mavropanos poorly cleared. The ball fell to Fuchs, who hoisted it into the box. At the far post, Diabate beat Maitland-Niles to the ball to knock it down for Iheanacho, who volleyed home. Mavropanos was also guilty of ball-watching on that play as he left Iheanacho unmarked.

An error-prone defense

A minute later, Mavropanos took a pass from Maitland-Niles and dallied on the ball instead of passing it to Holding. By the time Mavropanos made up his mind, it was already too late as Iheanacho charged down his clearance. Realizing that Iheanacho would be clean through on goal, Mavropanos brought down the Leicester forward and got sent off.

Wenger complained about the call after the game but Mavropanos was the last defender and Holding, positioned on the right flank, would have been unlikely to catch Iheanacho. An aggravating factor for the referee was Mavropanos’ cynical body-check. From the moment Iheanacho sprinted toward him, the alarm bell should have been ringing loudly in Mavropanos’ head. Now Mavropanos knows that he has less time on the ball in England than in the Greek league.

Spectators will only remember Mavropanos’ ejection, but Mustafi and Holding made the same mistakes as Mavropanos. As the last defender, Holding poorly controlled a backpass from Maitland-Niles in the 61st and was dispossessed by Iheanacho. Holding was more lucky than Mavropanos as the loose ball fell into the path of Vardy, giving the Arsenal defense enough time to regroup.

Mustafi came off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 19th. He’s definitely more experienced than Mavropanos or Holding. Yet, he panicked inside the Arsenal area in the 74th. Instead of clearing a teasing cross high into the air, Mustafi played the ball back to Gray, who won a penalty after Mkhitaryan seemed to trip him. Vardy converted the spot kick to make it 2-1. I’ve watched several replays and it’s hard to know whether there was enough contact for Gray to fall down. But Mkhitaryan’s decision-making was poor. He was on the wrong side of Gray, who still had to beat Maitland-Niles.

Walking in Flamini’s steps

The next Arsenal manager may have no power over individual mistakes but he should be able to make tactical adjustments when the team is dealing with long balls. Holding was pulled out of position in the 48th when Morgan punted the ball toward Iheanacho. Holding missed his interception and the ball bounced toward Vardy. In a 2v2 situation, Vardy fed Diabate, whose shot took a deflection off Cech before Mustafi cleared the ball off the line. In stoppage time, Mahrez beat the offside trap to chase a long ball from Choudhury. The Leicester winger, who was played onside by Mustafi, gave Holding the slip before shooting past Cech to seal the win.

   Cech will finish the season with the most errors (6) leading to a goal in the Premier League. However, the Gunners could thank him on Wednesday for preventing the scoreline from looking unflattering. Cech parried an angled effort from Vardy in the 13th, tipped over the bar a volley from Maguire in the 17th, saved a curling free kick from Silva in the 39th and stopped a low strike from Iheanacho in the 41st.

While Mavropanos, Mustafi and Holding struggled to cope with the pace and movement of Vardy and Iheanacho, fullbacks Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles enjoyed mixed fortunes. Maitland-Niles had a decent game, leading all players with 4 successful dribbles and leading Arsenal players with 2 key passes, according to whoscored.com. He also showed some good work-rate by winning 3 tackles and set up the equalizer in the 53rd with a pinpoint cross for Aubameyang.

At 20, Maitland-Niles is proving relatively strong in challenges, but he still needs to improve in those that matter. He lost a key duel on the opening goal and gave away a dangerous free kick in the 37th by shoving Vardy from behind. Maitland-Niles could definitely be used like Flamini in his first seasons at Arsenal, learning the ropes at rightback before moving to central midfield when more mature tactically.

A poor final ball

On the left flank, Kolasinac led all players with 5 successful tackles and led Arsenal players with a passing accuracy of 91.1%, which is unusually high for him. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international nearly scored in the 47th with an angled strike that hit the base of the post. In his first season at the club, Kolasinac has looked more like a wingback than a fullback. His defensive awareness can be dodgy. He left Maguire unmarked in the 17th and forgot to track Mahrez on the last goal.

In midfield, Ramsey had a poor game and led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Because the Foxes are a team feasting on turnovers, the Gunners needed a Ramsey more tidy in possession to control the game. The next Arsenal manager will have to decide which formation can optimize Ramsey’s strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

The Gunners often wasted good situations with a poor final ball. Iwobi overhit his pass for Ramsey in the 10th and 44th, Kolasinac made a cross that sailed beyond every Gunner in the 12th, and Mkhitaryan completely missed his final ball for Aubameyang in the 26th and for Ramsey in the 71st.

Iwobi raised the fans’ level of expectations after his good performance against Burnley. But on Wednesday he reverted back to the awkward player that we all know. There were glimpses of hope in the first half when Iwobi tested Jakupovic with a snapshot in the seventh minute or when he set up Mkhitaryan for a low strike that the Leicester goalkeeper turned around the post in the 34th. But it all went downhill in the second half. Iwobi showed poor decision-making in the 54th by failing to pick out Ramsey, who was ready to pull the trigger. See the screen capture below. Iwobi gave the ball away with a sloppy pass to Kolasinac, who was in a worse position than Ramsey.

Leicester vs. Arsenal M54edIwobi can’t make a 5-yard pass to Ramsey. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Two minutes later, Iwobi ignored the overlapping run of Kolasinac and went for personal glory by firing a 25-yard strike into the stands. Oops! Wenger had seen enough and replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 84th. Iwobi is as inconsistent as Oxlade-Chamberlain at the same age. But the big difference is that you could never fault the Ox for his work-rate. Iwobi made 0 tackle and 1 interception, while Mkhitaryan won 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.

Earning an away point?

Up front, it was a lonely evening for Aubameyang, who was often crowded out inside the Leicester area. But Aubameyang didn’t give up and was rewarded for his perseverance in the 53rd. He met a cross from Maitland-Niles for a first-time effort that Jakupovic parried. However, Aubameyang pounced on the rebound to fire into the roof of the net. Although Wenger has often played him out of position, Aubameyang has quickly adapted to the Premier League with 9 goals and 4 assists in 12 appearances. That average of 1.08 goal or assist per game is much better than Morata’s average of 0.57.

For the last game of the season, the Gunners will need a draw at Huddersfield to get at least a point away from home this year. All the other Premier League teams have managed that ‘feat’. After the Leicester game, Wenger claimed that the squad was good enough to contend for the title next season if the Gunners could improve their away form. Such statements show why the club had to replace him.

Wenger is a great manager but he has become delusional in the past couple of years. Arsenal had no such problem in away games last season, yet they were far from contending. A quick look at the team this year tells you that there are holes in at least 5 positions (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, ballwinner, deep-lying playmaker). Wenger has been unable to improve the squad despite obvious weaknesses. The next manager will have to do a better job.

 

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Lacazette, Ramsey fire Gunners to 4-1 win

The announcement of Wenger’s resignation at the end of the season had little impact on Sunday as there were still many empty seats at the Emirates stadium. The Gunners smashed West Ham 4-1 to move 4 points clear of Burnley in the Premier League standings. I guess we will have to wait until the final home game of the season to see a packed stadium again.

Arsenal vs. West HamPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger made 5 changes to the side that lost at Newcastle the previous weekend with Ospina, Bellerin, Koscielny, Ramsey and Welbeck replacing Cech, Chambers, Holding, Willock and Aubameyang in the starting lineup. Considering the absences due to illness (Ozil) or injury (Cech, Kolasinac, Wilshere and Mkhitaryan), the manager fielded his best team.

The Europa League has become the top priority because it is Arsenal’s only chance to qualify for next season’s Champions League, but the Gunners have enough time to recover before Thursday’s game against Atletico Madrid. If Wenger had rested his key players on Sunday, those who haven’t played since the Moscow game could have been rusty for the Europa League tie.

   The first half against West Ham looked quite familiar with a sluggish passing game as well as a lack of creativity and penetration. Arsenal’s few chances came from set pieces and long-range strikes. They played with more intensity in the second half but what really turned around the game was the substitution made in the 70th minute. By replacing an ineffective Iwobi with Aubameyang, the manager finally made the attack click and the Gunners scored 3 goals in the last 10 minutes of regulation time.

The absences of Ozil and Mkhitaryan meant that Iwobi was in charge of pulling the strings. Unfortunately, Iwobi looked like the clumsy player we all know instead of the pass master who shone against Southampton 2 weeks ago. Iwobi lacked end product with 0 shot on target and only 1 key pass. He also made poor passes to Lacazette in the 17th and Welbeck in the 40th and overhit a cross in the 53rd despite the presence of 4 Gunners inside the box. The cherry on the cake was the 2 times Iwobi ran the ball out of the play in the 30th and 45th.

Lacazette as a second striker

Iwobi’s poor performance meant that someone else had to deliver the final ball. Ramsey rose to the challenge by showing off his passing skills. The Wales midfielder is mostly known for his late runs in the box but he’s more versatile than most people think. Ramsey initiated a counterattack in the 50th by picking out Welbeck, who was brought down by Zabaleta. Then Ramsey made a cross for Aubameyang in the 82nd. Instead of heading the ball away, Rice ducked and the ball sailed past Hart for a 2-1 lead. Ramsey was not done yet. Aubameyang released him down the left wing in the 89th and Ramsey skipped past Zabaleta with some impressive footwork to cut the ball back for Lacazette, who fired a low strike past Hart to seal the win.

In the role of a free-roaming midfielder, Ramsey stepped up when the team needed him. He led all players with 4 successful dribbles and 3 key passes, according to whoscored.com. The only negative in his performance was his 5 turnovers and the 2 times he failed to catch the frame with mid-range shots in the 45th and 57th. The staff must make sure to extend Ramsey’s contract this summer in order to avoid the uncertainty created this season by the situations of Sanchez and Ozil.

Aubameyang’s involvement in the last 20 minutes was really the catalyst for change because it helped Lacazette express himself as a second striker. Lacazette had no success as a centerforward in the first 70 minutes. He took a pass from Elneny in the 20th, dallied on the ball inside the West Ham area and lost possession. Three minutes later, Lacazette overhit his final ball for Ramsey.

I have said many times on this blog that Lacazette is not tailored for the centerforward position in the Premier League. It’s true that Lacazette played in that role for Lyon, but the French league is less physical than the Premiership and there is not the same emphasis on aerial duels. Lacazette feels more comfortable playing off a centerforward than being the spearhead of the attack.

Elneny’s ankle injury

Arsenal’s second and third goals clearly show what is more natural for Aubameyang and Lacazette. If you look at the screen capture below for Ramsey’s goal in the 82nd, you can see that Aubameyang plays as a centerforward while Lacazette acts as a false winger.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M82ed Aubameyang in the centerforward role, Lacazette as a false winger. (Photo credit: Sky)

Lacazette’s goal in the 85th confirms that positional preference. Welbeck found Aubameyang inside the area and the Gabon striker spun to slip the ball to Lacazette, who beat Hart with an angled shot.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M85ed Aubameyang in the centerforward role, Lacazette as a false winger. (Photo credit: Sky)

To a certain extent, Lacazette is a bit like Sanchez. The Chile forward often cuts inside from the left wing to be in scoring positions. Lacazette can do the same from either wing. Messi and Salah have shown that playing as a false winger is no obstacle to finding the net. For the last goal, Aubameyang and Lacazette swapped positions. Aubameyang dropped off to take a pass from Maitland-Niles while Lacazette ran into the space created by the Gabon international. I hope the next Arsenal manager will figure out what are the best positions for Aubameyang and Lacazette because using Aubameyang as a winger and Lacazette as a centerforward makes no sense at all.

Starting on the left wing, Welbeck had no goal or assist. He tested Hart with a curling shot in the 79th but also missed the target 3 times from decent positions. To his credit, Welbeck worked hard for his teammates by creating 3 chances, teeing up Bellerin in the 23rd, Monreal in the 48th and Xhaka in the 72nd.

In midfield, Xhaka and Elneny were supposed to protect the Arsenal defense and give Ramsey more freedom to break forward. Elneny rolled his ankle while challenging Noble in the 41st and was replaced by Maitland-Niles on the stroke of halftime. Xhaka, Elneny and Maitland-Niles combined to win only 1 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels compared to 4 of 7 tackles and 5 of 10 aerial duels for Noble and Kouyate, according to Squawka. Always keen to display his shooting skills, Xhaka had a curling free kick and a low drive saved by Hart in the 34th and 72nd. Xhaka also set up the opening goal in the 51st with a pinpoint corner that Monreal volleyed into the bottom corner.

Losing key duels

At the back, Mustafi produced another horror show. The alarm bell started ringing in the 11th. Arnautovic pulled Koscielny out of position before slipping the ball to Mario, who slightly overhit his through ball for Fernandes, allowing Ospina to gather the ball. As you can see on the screen capture below, there were 2 mistakes on that play. First, Elneny was attracted to the ball and failed to mark Mario. And second, Mustafi failed to adjust his position and left a big gap with Monreal. The Spaniard was already keeping an eye on both Zabaleta and Fernandes, so it was Mustafi’s responsibility to move closer to Monreal.

Arsenal vs. West Ham M11ed Elneny is not marking Mario while Mustafi fails to move closer to Monreal. (Photo credit: Sky)

In a shaky performance, Mustafi lost too many key duels. Mario dribbled past Mustafi in the 12th for a tame shot straight at Ospina. A minute later, Arnautovic made a run in behind Mustafi to chase a clearance from Hart. It took a last-ditch block from Mustafi to thwart the West Ham striker. Then Mustafi missed an interception in the 14th, allowing Arnautovic to collect a punt from Creswell and be clean through on goal. Ospina saved Arnautovic’s curling shot to prevent the Hammers from opening the scoring.

West Ham’s equalizer in the 64th resulted from a chain reaction. Kouyate had a goal attempt blocked by Koscielny. The rebound went back to Kouyate, who fed Lanzini. With a first-time pass, Lanzini found Arnautovic inside the area. Despite the tight angle, Arnautovic managed to fire into the far corner.

It’s the kind of goal that Arsenal should never concede because they outnumbered the Hammers on that play. That numerical superiority proved useless because the Gunners behaved like headless chickens. A ball-watching Maitland-Niles was not tight enough to Lanzini. This led Bellerin to run toward Lanzini instead of staying with Arnautovic. When Mustafi became aware of Arnautovic’s presence, it was too late to make a block.

Playing on the back foot

The second half showed that the Gunners perform poorly when they try to protect the lead. Between the 15th and the 60th, Arsenal had the game under control. But when Moyes sent on Lanzini and Hernandez for Fernandes and Mario in the 60th, the Gunners played on the back foot and struggled to cope with the Hammers’ pressure.

The left side of the Arsenal defense (Koscielny and Monreal) did OK on Sunday while the right side (Mustafi and Bellerin) was often in trouble. Bellerin lost 2 key duels against Hernandez. The Mexico striker evaded Bellerin’s marking to head a free kick over the bar in the 61st. Two minutes later, Hernandez outjumped Bellerin to flick the ball on for Arnautovic, who volleyed over the bar.

The Gunners will have to defend much better on Thursday because Atletico Madrid will be more ruthless than West Ham. The Spanish club has world-class strikers with Costa and Griezmann as well as top midfielders with Koke and Saul Niguez. Another dodgy performance from Mustafi and the Europa League tie is over before the second leg.

 

Newcastle vs. Arsenal: 2-1 loss sums up worst season in Wenger era

The Gunners are on course to finish the Premier League season with their worst tally in the Wenger era after losing 2-1 at Newcastle on Sunday. With 54 points from 33 games so far, they must win all their remaining games to avoid a tally as low as the 67 points of the 2005-06 season. The reason for such a mediocre season obviously lies in Arsenal’s poor away form. The Gunners are the only Premier League team without a point on the road this year.

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

Wenger made 6 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with CSKA Moscow in the Europa League on Thursday with Chambers, Holding, Xhaka, Willock, Iwobi and Aubameyang replacing Bellerin, Koscielny, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Lacazette and Aubameyang started together for the first time, but the real surprise on the team sheet was Willock playing in the hole.

Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession but created very little with just 3 shots on target to 4 for the Magpies. There was an obvious lack of creativity and penetration as the Gunners played at a too slow tempo to trouble the Newcastle defense.

At the back, Mustafi, Chambers and Monreal produced another horror show after the dodgy performance against Southampton a week ago. Gayle made a run in behind Mustafi in the 29th minute to chase a long ball from Shelvey and find Yedlin on our left flank. The American international made a cross for Perez, who beat Mustafi to the ball at the near post to open the scoring. You would expect a World Cup winner to win those duels at the near post. Mustafi was already at fault for Southampton’s opening goal from a similar cross. Mustafi also showed poor decision-making on that play. He could have played Gayle offside but didn’t. Monreal didn’t cover himself in glory either. The Spaniard was pulled out of position on that play, forcing Xhaka to cover him on the left flank. The trouble is that Xhaka didn’t track Yedlin when Shelvey hit the long ball.

Chambers’ limitations

The Magpies’ second goal came from a throw-in. Mustafi outjumped Slimani to head the ball sideways in the 68th. Monreal pounced on the loose ball only to head it into the path of Slimani, who found Perez inside the area. The Newcastle striker flicked the ball toward Ritchie, who shot past Cech from close range. Monreal made an error on that play and was again pulled out of position but Chambers and Xhaka were guilty too for not tracking Perez, leaving Holding in a 1v2 situation.

Could Mustafi improve under a new manager? I’m not so sure. Keown, who works as a TV pundit nowadays, pointed out what was wrong with Mustafi’s defending. You can bet that Bould, who played alongside Keown in the 1990s, made the same criticisms on the training ground at Colney. Is Mustafi listening? Maybe. But it’s hard to see him marshal the Arsenal defense when Koscielny will be gone. Mustafi was dominant in the air, winning 10 of 11 aerial duels. However, you can’t really be a top centerback if you keep losing key duels. Slimani dribbled past Mustafi in the 77th to cut the ball back for Perez, who fired into the side-netting.

Chambers didn’t make glaring mistakes like Mustafi, but his performance was just as poor. He did OK in the first half but was exposed after the break: the Magpies’ chances in the second half all came from his flank. Chambers led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, compared to 0 for Mustafi, 1 for Monreal and 1 for Holding, according to whoscored.com. As evidence of his technical limitations, Chambers’ passing accuracy dipped to 71.4%, compared to 85.1% for Mustafi, 88.8% for Monreal and 89.6% for Holding.

Chambers was also tortured in one-on-one situations, winning only 2 of 8 tackles according to Squawka. Kenedy turned Chambers in the 16th while Perez easily dribbled past the English defender in the 33rd. Playing as a rightback, Chambers’ lack of recovery pace allowed Kenedy to play a one-two with Slimani in the 75th before having his shot deflected by Mustafi onto the bar. Wenger ended Chambers’ suffering by replacing him with Maitland-Niles in the 78th.

Iwobi’s inconsistency

In the front three, Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang and Iwobi started on the wings. There are two mysteries here. Iwobi had a good game in the No. 10 role against Southampton. Yet, Wenger moved Iwobi to the right wing to play an academy player, Willock, in the hole. The second mystery is Wenger’s conviction that Aubameyang can shine as a winger. Yes, Aubameyang occasionally played as a winger for Saint-Etienne from 2011 to 2013, but he then became a prolific centerforward at Borussia Dortmund.

Arsenal’s opening goal in the 14th might give the impression that the manager made the right choice. Aubameyang controlled a long ball from Mustafi to make a cross for Lacazette, who volleyed home from close range. But that was the only meaningful play in which Lacazette and Aubameyang interacted.

Aubameyang was ineffective from the wing with 0 of 3 shots on target, while Lacazette’s weakness in the air was again exposed with just 1 of 4 aerial duels won, according to Squawka. Besides the goal, Lacazette was no threat in the final third, dragging a shot wide from the edge of the box in the fifth minute and wasting a scoring chance in the 42nd with a poor pass to Willock while he could have taken the shot himself. I still believe that the more natural partnership is to have Lacazette play off Aubameyang and not the other way around. Lacazette has a better all-around game than Aubameyang, who’s stronger in the air than the France international.

Starting on the right wing, Iwobi wasn’t able to repeat the performance he produced against the Saints with just 1 of 3 shots on target and 2 key passes. He also had 5 turnovers and showed poor work-rate again (0 tackle, 0 block, 1 interception). Inconsistency is normal for a 21-year-old player but the poor work-rate is a coaching problem. Ferguson wouldn’t have tolerated that while Wenger seems more lenient in that regard. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 86th, shifting from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a poorly balanced 4-2-4 system.

Willock’s Premier League debut

In midfield, Wenger overestimated Willock’s abilities by playing him behind Lacazette. Willock has made quite a few assists with the U23 team this season, but the gap with the Premier League level is massive. In his Premier League debut, Willock wasn’t really up to speed. He led all players with 3 fouls. In the opening minute, Willock turned over the ball after a poor first touch. He then dallied on the ball in the 35th and lost possession under Ritchie’s pressure.

Willock must certainly realize now that he has less time and space in the Premier League than in the U23 games. His work-rate at St. James’ Park was decent with 2 of 6 tackles won, 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. However, Willock will have to improve his tactical awareness. He failed to close down Shelvey in the 28th. The Newcastle midfielder hit a long ball for Gayle and it took a timely challenge from Mustafi to end the threat. A minute later, Willock was a split second late to close down Shelvey, who initiated the equalizer with another long ball for Gayle. Wenger yanked Willock off in the 68th to send on Welbeck. I tend to see Willock as a utility midfielder with the profile of a Coquelin or Flamini. He clearly doesn’t have the skills to play as a No. 10 or even as a box-to-box midfielder like Ramsey.

The Gunners have one week to recharge their batteries before facing West Ham on Sunday. At this stage of the season, the priority is the Europa League, which means that the two legs against Atletico Madrid on April 26 and May 3 will lead to rotation in Premier League games. I don’t think Wenger will rest key players against West Ham because the three days of rest before the first leg should be enough to recover. However, I’m pretty sure the manager will field a makeshift team against Manchester United to avoid injuries for the second leg.