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

The Gunners made a big step toward qualifying for the next round of the Europa League by defeating Ostersund 3-0 in the first leg of their last 32 encounter. Thursday’s game was a bit tighter than what the scoreline might suggest. Arsenal created 14 chances to 7 for the Swedish side but had just 6 shots on target to 5 for the hosts.

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

As a sign that the club is taking this competition seriously, Wenger fielded a relatively strong lineup. The manager left Koscielny and Wilshere out of the squad because of concerns about the artificial pitch. Chambers started alongside Mustafi in the heart of the defense. The only real surprise was Xhaka’s presence on the bench as Maitland-Niles teamed up with Elneny in central midfield.

  1. Playing out from the back can be risky

A lot of teams park the bus when they face Arsenal. That’s what Ostersund did in the opening minutes. Then came the unexpected: Ostersund tried to play the ball out from the back. Manchester City and Tottenham often lure their opponents into enemy territory but they take calculated risks. The Swedish side paid a heavy price for being careless twice. Keita played a short goal kick in the 12th and Welbeck intercepted an underhit backpass only to be denied by the Ostersund goalkeeper. The rebound fell to Mkhitaryan, whose low strike was deflected out by Papagiannopoulos. From the subsequent corner, Keita spilled Iwobi’s low effort into the path of Monreal, who sweeped the loose ball into an open net. The play that led to Arsenal’s second goal in the 24th was even worse. Pettersson made a sloppy pass from his 6-yard box. Mkhitaryan accepted the offering and doubled the lead with a cross-shot that took a deflection off Papagiannopoulos. Those goals reminded me of some of our poor attempts to play out from the back like in the 3-1 loss at Swansea a couple of weeks ago.

  1. Mkhitaryan was motivated

In a 4-2-3-1 system, Mkhitaryan often swapped positions with Ozil and Iwobi to confuse the Ostersund defense. Mkhitaryan had 6 goal attempts, more than any other player. He had a long-range strike parried by Keita in the 16th and an angled effort that didn’t trouble the Swedish goalkeeper in the 27th. The one mystery in Mkhitaryan’s game is his relatively low passing accuracy, 82% against Ostersund compared to 89% for Iwobi and 90% for Ozil. It’s a mystery because Mkhitaryan is technically one of the most gifted players in the squad. He set up Ozil with a pinpoint pass for the third goal in the 58th. Maybe Mkhitaryan needs a bit more time to adapt to his new team.

  1. An unconvincing performance from Welbeck

Welbeck had a great opportunity to shine in the centerforward role because Aubameyang is cup-tied while Lacazette is sidelined by a knee injury for 4 to 6 weeks. As usual, Welbeck worked hard, winning 1 of 4 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels, according to Squawka. But he lacked end product with none of his 3 shots on target. At times, I thought Welbeck tried too hard with a curling shot over the bar in the 34th and a long-range strike wide of the far post in the 81st. He also wasted a good situation in the 40th by dallying on the ball and losing possession despite 3 decent passing options.

  1. The Mustafi-Chambers partnership was shaky

If you look at their stats, you would think that they had a good game. Mustafi won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 3 blocks, while Chambers won 3 of 4 tackles and made 4 interceptions and 1 block, according to Squawka. But Mustafi made two dodgy challenges that could have cost a penalty in the second half. And Chambers made 2 errors that led to half-chances for Ostersund. Widgren intercepted Chambers’ pass for Bellerin in the 29th and made a cross for Ghoddos, whose half-volley was tipped over the bar by Ospina. The hosts capitalized on another sloppy pass from Chambers in the 88th to launch a counterattack which ended with an off-target shot.

  1. Maitland-Niles is still learning the ropes

Finding the right type of game to start a youngster can be tricky. PSG manager Emery made a mistake by playing Lo Celso against Real Madrid on Wednesday. The Argentine midfielder looked out of his depth in the first half, giving away a cheap penalty. The risk was much smaller to start Maitland-Niles against Ostersund. The academy player showed his potential with better defensive stats than Elneny. Maitland-Niles won 3 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 4 blocks while Elneny won 0 of 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 2 blocks. However, Thursday’s game also showed where Maitland-Niles needs to improve. He was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. One of his turnovers led to Ostersund’s penalty as Bellerin brought down Tekie in stoppage time. Ospina still kept a clean sheet by saving Pettersson’s spot kick.

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

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

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

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

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

Failing to stop crosses

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

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

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

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

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

Questionable tactics

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

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

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

The Chamakh syndrome

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

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

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

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

An awkward left foot 

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

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

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

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

Inability to win duels

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

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

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

Son in Bellerin’s pocket

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

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

Still no clean sheet

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

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

Arsenal vs. Everton: Ramsey notches hat trick in 5-1 win, Aubameyang scores in PL debut

Call it the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. When they play at the Emirates stadium, the Gunners are a completely different team from the one struggling so badly on the road. Arsenal smashed Everton 5-1 on Saturday just a few days after losing 3-1 at Swansea. The Gunners have the joint second best home record in the Premier League whereas they are a mid-table side if we look only at their away record.

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

The quality of Mkhitaryan’s final ball combined with Ramsey’s movement and finishing turned Saturday’s game into a goalfest. Aubameyang released Mkhitaryan down the right wing in the sixth minute and the Armenia international made a low cross for Ramsey who opened the scoring by beating Pickford from close range. Ramsey made it 3-0 in the 19th with a 24-yard drive that took a deflection off Mangala. The Dortmund connection played a role in the first and fourth goals as Mkhitaryan played Aubameyang in before the Gabon international chipped Pickford for a 4-0 lead in the 37th. Ramsey completed his hat trick in the 74th by pouncing on a cross from Mkhitaryan to bury the ball into the bottom corner.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that lost to Swansea with Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan replacing Lacazette and Elneny in the starting lineup. Arsenal played in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Aubameyang up front, Ozil in the hole and Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings. The Gunners have no natural dribbler in the squad if we except the youngsters Nelson and Nketiah. The Toffees finished the game with 19 dribbling attempts compared to just 10 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. That basically means the Gunners rely on their passing game to crack a defense. And you need movement to find gaps and create passing options.

Ramsey’s clinical finishing

Ramsey’s deep runs provide the movement necessary for pass masters like Ozil and Mkhitaryan to express their creativity. The Wales midfielder proved clinical on Saturday by converting all his goal attempts. He could have added an assist in the 13th when Iwobi found him with a long ball. Ramsey squared the ball back for Aubameyang, whose strike was deflected out by Williams. With 6 goals and 6 assists from 18 Premier League games, Ramsey has been the most productive Gunner this season. It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s poor run of form happened during Ramsey’s injury period.

Some fans complain about Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline. But Ramsey is not a defensive midfielder. He plays as a free-roaming midfielder for Wales. His potential is optimized when there’s a holding midfielder who gives him the freedom to play between the lines. Ramsey is often compared to box-to-box players like Lampard and Gerrard. Lampard had Makelele and Essien to cover him at Chelsea while Gerrard could rely on Xabi Alonso and Mascherano to do the dirty work at Liverpool. The Gunners will need a better midfielder than Elneny or Xhaka next season to cover Ramsey and protect the defense.

The partnership between Xhaka and Ramsey only works when Xhaka understands that he must take care of the defensive duties and let Ramsey play in a more advanced position. Xhaka won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, while Ramsey won 1 of 2 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 1 block, according to Squawka. There were a couple of times when the Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese again. Xhaka had to make a cynical foul on Walcott to kill a counterattack in the 18th. Five minutes later, Walcott easily skipped past 2 Gunners to feed Niasse, who was then fouled by Koscielny. The Arsenal midfield also went missing in the 27th. It took a desperate block from Mustafi to prevent Walcott from scoring.

Mkhitaryan’s creativity and work-rate

Surprisingly, Mkhitaryan has already struck a good understanding with Ramsey in their second game together. Mkhitaryan is a smart player who is aware of the movement around him. He spotted Ramsey’s runs for the opener and the last goal. Since Cazorla’s injury, Ozil has been a bit isolated to create chances. Sanchez could occasionally step up and make assists but he’s not a natural passer like Mkhitaryan. Signing Mkhitaryan has definitely removed some of the creative burden off Ozil’s shoulders. The Gunners also play more free-flowing football with Mkhitaryan because Sanchez often gave the opponents time to regroup by taking too many touches.

The manager used Mkhitaryan in a wide position a bit like Pires and Rosicky before. Obviously, Mkhitaryan is an attacking midfielder, not a winger, but he’s smart enough to know when to drift inside and when to stretch a defense by staying wide. I don’t quite understand why Mourinho didn’t like him at Manchester United. Besides his 3 assists, Mkhitaryan also showed some great work-rate by making 3 interceptions and winning 3 of 9 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. In fact, Mkhitaryan made more interceptions and tackles than any Arsenal defender. The only blemish in his performance was his average shooting accuracy. Mkhitaryan’s long-range effort sailed wide in the 10th and his tame effort in the 56th didn’t trouble Pickford. Hopefully, it was just a consequence of his rustiness at Old Trafford.

Ramsey and Mkhitaryan stole the limelight, but Ozil still led all players with 4 key passes. Ozil created the second goal with a pinpoint delivery in the 14th. Mustafi made a run at the near post to redirect Ozil’s corner toward Koscielny, who headed in from close range. Playing on the left wing, Iwobi lacked end product compared to Ozil and Mkhitaryan. Iwobi finished the game with 0 shot and only 1 key pass (his assist for Ramsey’s long-range strike). He also had 4 turnovers, the most for any Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. I thought his work-rate was average with only 1 tackle, 1 interception and 1 block. My guess is that Iwobi and Lacazette will compete for the spot on the left flank, assuming Aubameyang, Ozil and Mkhitaryan are safe starters. Lacazette is a bigger goal threat while Iwobi provides more control in the passing game.

Aubameyang’s electric pace

In his Arsenal debut, Aubameyang found the net in the 37th. TV replays showed Aubameyang was a yard offside but that’s the price to pay when the league doesn’t adopt VAR technology. Arsenal fans got a glimpse of his electric pace in the 32nd when he outpaced Williams and Schneiderlin to collect a through ball from Ozil. From a tight angle, Aubameyang was denied by Pickford.

I have mixed feelings on the signing of Aubameyang. He has more pace than Giroud and is 3 years younger than the France striker. But the reason why Arsenal hired Mislintat was to replicate Borussia Dortmund’s scouting and recruitment model, that is, sign players at a cheap price just before they enter their prime. That’s what Arsenal did with Fabregas and Van Persie in the previous decade. With Aubameyang, the Gunners paid a premium price for a player who will turn 29 this year and has therefore a low resale value.

The best years of a football player are usually between the age of 25 and 30. You can stretch that to 32 or 33 if the player has great fitness levels. Which means that Aubameyang has 3 or 4 years left at the top. That’s a relatively weak return for £56 million. Van Persie was only 20 and Henry 21 when the club signed them for much less. They both gave 8 years to Arsenal. Also, Aubameyang is a pure centerforward. He scores most of his goals inside the box and therefore needs good service to find the net. He won’t create goals out of nothing like Van Persie or Henry.

Kolasinac’s defensive frailties

At the back, the partnership between Koscielny and Mertesacker is looking more and more like the previous partnership between Mertesacker and Koscielny. The France centerback is the more cautious of the two, acting almost like a sweeper, whereas Mustafi is the more aggressive defender. Mustafi won 5 of 6 tackles and 8 of 11 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 2 blocks. Those are very good stats but they don’t tell the whole story.

   Mustafi still needs to improve his decision-making and positional play. In the opening minute, Mustafi was too casual and nearly lost possession as the last defender. He also gave away a dangerous free kick in the 49th with a mistimed tackle on Niasse. Mustafi was then pulled out of position in the 81st by challenging Calvin-Lewin in the air. Calvin-Lewin knocked the ball down for Davies, who evaded Bellerin’s challenge and played the ball back to Calvin-Lewin. As you can see on the screen capture below, Arsenal ended up in a 2v4 situation because Mustafi and Bellerin dived in. Somehow, Calvin-Lewin failed to catch the frame from 13 yards.

Arsenal vs. Everton M81 edited Everton wasting a 4v2 situation. (Photo credit: BT)

The Toffees could have done more damage if they had been more accurate with their final ball or finishing. They made 24 crosses compared to just 10 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. The leftback position is still a concern for the Gunners. Monreal met Xhaka’s corner in the 40th for a bouncing header that hit the post. The Spaniard played sick according to the manager and was replaced at halftime by Kolasinac, whose defensive frailties were again exposed. Kolasinac gave the ball away in the 51st and 83rd. He was also involved in the messy play that led to a turnover and a scoring chance for Everton in the 52nd. Walcott made a cross for Niasse, who hit the post while colliding with Cech.

Back four or back three?

Everton’s consolation goal in the 64th came from some poor defending by Kolasinac. Martina made a cross for Calvert-Lewin, who outjumped Kolasinac to head home. Kolasinac did not even jump on that play. Even if he wasn’t aware of Calvert-Lewin’s presence behind him, Kolasinac still had to head the ball away. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 57%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. He also won 0 of 4 aerial duels. Kolasinac is looking more and more like a recruitment mistake. That’s another embarrassment for the scouting department, which has recommended a lot of average players in the past few years (Xhaka, Elneny, Chambers, Paulista) but no real jewel.

The Gunners play the North London derby next Saturday. Cech is doubtful after picking up a calf injury in his collision with Niasse. Ospina replaced the Czech goalkeeper in the 70th and showed his poor command of the area on a corner kick three minutes later. A victory at Wembley would keep alive Arsenal’s slim hopes of a Top 4 finish as they trail Spurs by 4 points and Liverpool by 6. Wenger will have to choose between sticking with a back four or switching to a back three.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monreal’s poor defensive performance 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lacazette as a false nine?

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

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

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

Missing a dribbler

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

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

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

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

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

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

League Cup Semi 02

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

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

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

  1. Iwobi is a different player

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

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

  1. Monreal can be quite a goal threat

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

  1. Lacazette had a night to forget

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

  1. Mustafi produced a shaky performance

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

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

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

  1. Wilshere is no Maradona

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

  1. Mkhitaryan was not in the squad

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace

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

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

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

End of Lacazette’s goal drought

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

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

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

Nelson’s Premier League debut

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

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

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

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace Iwobi edited

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

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

Wilshere’s high turnover rate

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

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

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

Koscielny’s reading of the game

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

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

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

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Gunners pay price for poor transfer policy

   The Arsenal board must act quickly to clean up the mess created by the uncertainty about Sanchez’s situation at the club. Sanchez was not even on the bench Sunday when the Gunners lost 2-1 to Bournemouth in the Premier League. That tells you the club did not want to take any risk of injury before a possible transfer. Ironically, Bordeaux had no scruples about starting Malcom in the French league on Saturday even though the Brazilian forward has been tipped as the replacement for Sanchez. Guess what? Bordeaux won at Troyes.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

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

Last August, the Gunners performed poorly in losses to Stoke and Liverpool. The contractual situations of Sanchez, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly created doubt in the dressing room. The Ox is gone but Sanchez and Ozil are still at the club and the Arsenal squad could get destabilized again by all the transfer rumors. Sanchez could have joined Manchester City a few months ago for £60 million but Arsenal wasted too much time to meet Monaco’s asking price for Lemar, offering £31 million in June, then £40 million in July and finally £92 million at the end of August. By the time Monaco accepted the Gunners’ bid, Lemar had already started his season with the French side and was no longer willing to move, forcing Arsenal to call off the Sanchez deal.

   Will the Arsenal board learn from its mistakes and quickly sell Sanchez while signing his replacement? Or will it be another debacle with Sanchez leaving on a free transfer and his replacement coming only in the summer? If the Gunners want to know how to do some proper business, they just need to look at Liverpool. The Reds sold Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million and signed Van Dijk from Southampton for £75 million. The impact on the dressing room has been quite positive since Liverpool edged Manchester City 4-3 on Sunday.

A mid-table team

The Gunners face a massive rebuilding task this summer. Sunday’s game at the Vitality stadium gave them a foretaste of what the team could look like next season if they don’t improve the squad. Wenger fielded pretty much a mid-table team with 6 high-profile players (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Sanchez and Ozil) missing in the starting lineup. The club has already lost a year in the rebuilding process by refusing to sell Sanchez and Ozil last summer. And I don’t think the Arsenal board understands the financial implications of a massive overhaul.

Before the start of the season, I said Arsenal should have sold Chambers, loaned out Holding and signed an experienced centerback. The club chose the worst solution by selling Paulista while keeping Chambers and Holding as back-up options for the aging Mertesacker, Monreal and Koscielny. We saw the result of that poor transfer policy against Bournemouth as Chambers and Holding were involved in the two goals conceded.

The Cherries equalized in the 70th minute when Wilson converted a cross from Fraser. That’s the kind of goal that doesn’t make sense. Wilson was double-teamed by Chambers and Bellerin while Fraser and Mousset were surrounded by 4 Gunners along the touchline. Arsenal had numerical superiority on that play but lost two key duels. First, Maitland-Niles allowed Fraser to ghost past him. And second, Chambers failed to intercept the cross because of his lack of pace. To make things worse, Mustafi was pulled out of position by Mousset and couldn’t act as a safety. Cech was credited with an error by whoscored.com, but I don’t think that the Czech goalkeeper made a mistake for the simple reason that Wilson beat Chambers to the ball and had a free shot from 11 yards.

A flawed back three

Bournemouth scored the winner in the 74th, just a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four. As you can see on the screen capture below, the backline was not ready: Holding played Wilson onside by staying 4 yards behind Mustafi. With his back to goal, Wilson controlled a ball over the top from Cook and set up Ibe, who rifled a half-volley past Cech.

Bournemouth M72a editedHolding is 4 yards behind Mustafi while Xhaka keeps an eye on Ibe. (Photo credit: Sky)

Holding should have stood on the same line as Mustafi and Maitland-Niles. Xhaka also made a mistake on that play by not tracking Ibe, who beat everybody to the second ball. It’s not the first time this season that Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness has cost his team a goal.

Bournemouth M72b edited Xhaka forgets to track Ibe, who scores the winning goal. (Photo credit: Sky)

   While a back three of Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi can perform at a good level, Sunday’s back three of Mustafi, Holding and Chambers is deeply flawed. As the sweeper, Mustafi should be cautious but he’s sometimes too easily pulled out of position. That rashness can be deadly with 2 youngsters at the back. Holding is a pro-active defender like Mustafi but tends to dive in too often, winning only 2 of 7 tackles according to Squawka. By contrast, Chambers is way too passive: he made no tackle at all.

On the left wing, Maitland-Niles had a poor game. He had some lapses of concentration that are not acceptable at the top level. As the last defender on a corner in the 13th, Maitland-Niles gave the ball away to Ibe, who initiated a counterattack. He then fouled Smith in the 39th after losing possession with a poor touch on the edge of the Arsenal box. A few seconds later, Maitland-Niles had a pass intercepted by Smith, whose tame effort didn’t trouble Cech. Besides the cross for Bournemouth’s equalizer in the 70th, Maitland-Niles also failed to stop dangerous crosses from Ibe in the 40th and Francis in the 65th. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress, but he will have to quickly get rid of his naivety. The academy player was dribbled past 3 times.

Lacazette deprived of service

On the opposite wing, Bellerin was arguably Arsenal’s best player. The Spaniard scored a goal, won 5 of 6 tackles and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. He opened the scoring in the 52nd by firing a low strike that Begovic could only divert into his own net. After an average start to the season, Bellerin is getting close to the level of performance that led to his inclusion in the 2015-16 PFA Team of the Year, striking the right balance between attack and defense.

In midfield, Xhaka and Wilshere struggled defensively. Xhaka was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, while Wilshere led all players with 7 turnovers. They received yellow cards and combined to win only 1 of 11 tackles. Ramsey made his return from injury by replacing Chambers in the 74th. The Wales midfielder didn’t look sharp, making some inaccurate passes. It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks whether the manager switches to a back four to have Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield, or if he sticks to a back three and therefore benches one of the three midfielders.

In the front three, Lacazette was deprived of service. Sanchez and Ozil are two world-class players who can see and execute plays. The less talented Welbeck and Iwobi couldn’t make up for their absence. Lacazette was so frustrated that he dropped back to create chances for his teammates. He took 0 shot but attempted 4 through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles met a cross from Lacazette in the eighth minute and created space to fire a shot that clipped the bar. Then Lacazette slipped a through ball to Welbeck, who was denied by Begovic in the 35th. In the second half, Lacazette sent a ball over the top for Iwobi, who was dispossessed by Cook, and slightly overhit a through ball for Welbeck.

No Top 4 finish?

I’m worried about Lacazette’s confidence. He hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game. The France international worked hard on Sunday, winning 1 of 2 tackles, and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, but he struggled again in the centerforward role with 7 turnovers and only 1 of 10 aerial duels won. Welbeck and Iwobi didn’t do much to feed him. They combined to make only one cross. Iwobi wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 12th by ignoring Lacazette twice on the same play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi ended up running into traffic before playing a backpass to Wilshere and the chance was gone.

Bournemouth M12b edited Lacazette shows Iwobi where to play the ball. (Photo credit: Sky) 

Bournemouth M12c edited A second later, Lacazette points again where the ball should be played. (Photo credit: Sky)

Iwobi made the assist for Bellerin’s goal but his creative contribution was limited. In fact, that was Iwobi’s only key pass of the game. Somehow, it put more pressure on Wilshere and Xhaka to create plays even though they were busy defensively (Xhaka and Wilshere combined to make 6 key passes). Iwobi tested Begovic with a 20-yard drive in the 10th but missed his cross for Welbeck in the 28th in a situation that was similar to Bournemouth’s equalizer. The Nigeria international was lucky not to get penalized in the 39th for a silly handball inside the Arsenal area.

Arsenal’s record on the road has been poor this season with just 3 away wins while Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have won 6 away games at least. We shouldn’t look elsewhere if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4.

The Gunners trail fourth-place Chelsea by 8 points in the standings with 15 games left. Mathematically, Arsenal can still finish in the Top 4. But that would imply a winning run from Arsenal and an implosion from Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea. If we’re honest, winning the Europa League is the club’s most realistic chance to qualify for the Champions League next season.