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Arsenal vs. Sunderland: Gunners still have a shot at Top 4 after 2-0 win

The Gunners still have something to play for on the final matchday of the Premier League as they defeated Sunderland 2-0 on Tuesday to narrow the gap with Liverpool to one point. Let’s not kid ourselves, Arsenal would need another lasagne-gate to leapfrog Liverpool into fourth place. The Reds host relegated Middlesbrough on Sunday while the Gunners play Everton at the Emirates stadium. A victory over the Toffees would be enough as long as the Reds drop points at Anfield. There’s also the possibility that Arsenal could overtake Manchester City on goal difference but that’s even more unlikely since the Citizens have three more points and a better goal difference by five.

Arsenal vs. Sunderland

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

Wenger made just two changes to the side that routed Stoke 4-1 on Saturday with Gibbs and Ramsey replacing Koscielny and Coquelin in the starting lineup. The atmosphere was pretty dull in the first half with a lot of empty seats in the stadium because some fans boycotted the game as a protest against Wenger and the owner. Arsenal outplayed Sunderland with 36 shots to 6 and 28 chances to 4, according to Squawka. Yet, the Gunners only found the net in the last 20 minutes because of some poor final balls and average finishing. Sunderland goalkeeper Pickford also made some great saves.

Arsenal didn’t get much help from the referee either. The Gunners had three penalty shouts turned down. Giroud played Ramsey in with a backheel flick in the 21st minute but the Wales midfielder couldn’t pull the trigger because he was tugged back by Kone. Then Giroud collided with O’Shea while chasing a ball over the top from Sanchez in the 78th. A minute later, Sanchez was shoved from behind by Ndong. I couldn’t help second-guessing the referee’s decisions because of his troubling resemblance with Spurs chairman Levy.

Ozil’s Premier League record

Arsenal finally opened the scoring just three minutes after switching from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-3-3 system when Iwobi replaced the ineffective Gibbs in the 69th. Ozil chased a long ball from Xhaka and cut it back for Sanchez, who tapped home. The Germany playmaker finished the game with 12 key passes, setting a new Premier League record. Ozil can go missing in the big games but he’s an asset against the weak sides because his poor work-rate becomes less relevant and his creativity more important. It could have been a passing masterclass if Ozil had not overhit a through ball for Ramsey in the 53rd and if he had beaten the first defender with his corner kick in the 62nd.

Ozil and Sanchez have often confused defenders by swapping roles throughout the season with Ozil turning into a second striker and Sanchez creating chances. That ploy worked to a certain extent in the first half of the season but the second half showed that they are not completely interchangeable, in great part because Ozil does not have that killer instinct in front of the net and because Sanchez does not enjoy playing with his back to goal.

On Tuesday, Ozil was a pure passer with 0 shot and 12 key passes, while Sanchez was a pure striker with 9 shots and 0 key pass. Again, Sanchez produced an energetic display with 5 dribbles, 3 tackles and 8 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He doubled the lead by converting a rebound in the 81st after Pickford saved Giroud’s close-range volley. The Chile striker nearly opened the scoring in the eighth minute with a long-range strike but his goal was disallowed because the ball hit Giroud’s arm. I thought Sanchez should have done better when Mustafi headed a corner across goal in the 22nd. From four yards, Sanchez miskicked his volley.

Vieira or Arteta?

Giroud did not score but had a decent game with 2 of 3 shots on target and 4 key passes. He also won 3 of 4 aerial duels and made 2 interceptions. His physicality and link-up play helped Giroud cope in a packed Sunderland box. Giroud took a pass from Ramsey in the 10th for a 12-yard shot that Pickford palmed away. He then redirected an Ozil corner toward Mustafi, whose half-volley was deflected out. The France striker missed the target with a header from a Holding cross in the 66th. He was involved in the second goal before Walcott replaced him in the 85th.

In midfield, Xhaka pulled the strings with 96 passes, the most for any player, and 16 accurate long balls out of 18. If fans had any doubt, Tuesday’s game showed that Xhaka’s best position is deep-lying playmaker. The Switzerland international created 5 chances and his passing range definitely helped unsettle the Sunderland defense. He also tested Pickford with low strikes in the 17th and 78th.

However, Xhaka will have to quickly acknowledge his own limitations. The Stoke game showed that he has a tendency to overestimate his pace and dribbling skills. Xhaka made the same mistake against the Black Cats and was dispossessed by Cattermole in the 63rd and Ndong in the sixth and 67th because he dallied on the ball. Sometimes, Xhaka is running with the ball as if he were as fast as Vieira in his prime, while in fact he must be as sluggish as Arteta. English clubs are now aware of Xhaka’s ability to spray long balls and won’t give him the time to hit his target. Xhaka must be more careful and release the ball more quickly.

Mustafi’s struggles with the offside trap

The 2016-17 season is turning into a nightmare for Ramsey, who picked up his fourth injury since August and was replaced by Welbeck in the 69th. Ramsey had a decent game with 2 of 3 shots on target, 2 key passes and a passing accuracy of 93.3%, the highest percentage among the starters according to whoscored.com. He played in a higher position than Xhaka, and provided support to Giroud, Ozil and Sanchez with his deep runs. Pickford turned Ramsey’s volley around the post in the 45th and saved his low effort in the 57th.

Welbeck and Iwobi came off the bench in the second half and somehow made an impact. Iwobi tested Pickford with an angled effort in the 79th while Welbeck was denied by Pickford in the 83rd and saw his diagonal drive palmed out in the 72nd. Iwobi is unlikely to start in the last two games of the season against Everton and Chelsea as the 3-4-3 system requires significant end product from the 3 attacking players. On the other hand, Welbeck could be an option up front because of his pace and physicality.

The Gunners have leaked fewer goals since the shift to the 3-4-3 formation, mostly because they have numerical superiority on defensive plays. However, Mustafi’s poor decision-making put them in trouble a couple of times against Sunderland. The Germany international struggled with the execution of the offside trap against Southampton. The same problem resurfaced on Tuesday. Mustafi seemed to hesitate between stepping forward and marking Borini in the 10th. He did neither and Borini ran away to square the ball back for Defoe but Cech intercepted the offering. Mustafi had again the choice between the offside trap and tracking Defoe in the 37th. His passivity allowed Ndong to slip a through ball to Defoe, whose low strike was palmed away by Cech.

Gibbs’ lack of end product

Sunderland’s other chances came from lapses of concentration from Holding and Monreal. The Black Cats capitalized on a sloppy pass from Holding in the second minute to lead a counterattack but Ndong could only produce an air shot. Then Monreal nearly scored an own goal by making a backpass in the 47th without looking at Cech’s position. The ball was rolling toward an empty goal as Cech stood on the left side, ready to make a clearance. The Czech goalkeeper rushed back to push the ball out of play before it could cross the goal line.

Mustafi, Holding and Monreal were dominant in the air as they combined to win 12 of 13 aerial duels. Monreal was the most active of the three centerbacks, winning 3 of 9 tackles and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. Holding grew into the game and even had 2 shots on target. The English defender played a one-two with Giroud in the 15th and had his shot blocked. On the stroke of halftime, Holding had a free header from a corner but could only muster a tame effort straight at Pickford.

On the left wing, Gibbs had a poor game. He showed a complete lack of end product with 0 key pass while Holding, Mustafi, Monreal and Bellerin had at least 1 key pass each. Gibbs was let down by his crossing a couple of times, with one that sailed behind Sanchez in the 25th and another that went yards away from Giroud in the 33rd. His poor reading of the game didn’t help as he dallied on the ball in the 54th with Ozil unmarked on the left wing. After several touches, Gibbs ended up making a sideways pass to Xhaka.

Points tally vs. place

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s hamstring injury meant that Bellerin got another start on the right wing. The Spaniard received a yellow card in the 22nd for a cynical handball that killed a Sunderland counterattack. He then failed to track Ndong in the 34th when the Gabon midfielder charged down our right flank to unleash an angled strike that Cech turned around the post. His decision-making was questionable in the 43rd. He opted for an effort from a tight angle instead of a low cross to Sanchez at the far post. On that play, O’Shea should have been booked for fouling Giroud off the ball, but the referee failed to spot the cynical foul.

In his post-match interview, Wenger mentioned that Arsenal could miss out on a Top 4 finish despite a possible total of 75 points, 4 more than last season when the Gunners were runners-up. That was obviously some spin from the French manager to suggest that the team was doing better. From a more objective viewpoint, the difference in points simply shows that the Premier League was exceptionally weak last season and that Arsenal missed a massive opportunity to contend for the title by only signing Cech.

Southampton vs. Arsenal: Sanchez, Giroud keep Top 4 hopes alive

Arsenal defeated Southampton 2-0 on Wednesday to make up ground in the race for a Champions League spot. They still trail Manchester City and Liverpool by 3 and 4 points respectively, but if we take form into account, they could pip the Citizens or the Reds to the post. Since the shift to a 3-4-3 system, the Gunners have won 4 of their last 5 Premier League games, which is as good as Chelsea and Tottenham and better than Liverpool and Manchester City.

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made just one change to the side that defeated Manchester United 2-0 on Sunday with Mustafi replacing an injured Koscielny in the starting lineup. The Gunners proved toothless in the first half as they failed to test Forster. On the other hand, Southampton had two great chances to open the scoring. Both came from a poor execution of the offside trap. Tadic chested down a ball over the top in the 31st minute and was about to pull the trigger when Mustafi dispossessed him with a sliding tackle. The loose ball fell to Gabbiadini, who was denied by Cech. Then Gabbiadini beat the offside trap in the 37th to chase a long ball but could only muster a tame volley that did not trouble Cech. I think Mustafi’s first game in a back three is the main reason for that poor defensive coordination. Koscielny was the sweeper in the other games played with the 3-4-3 formation.

It took a moment of magic from Sanchez to give Arsenal the lead in the 60th. Sanchez took a pass from Ozil and sent two Saints to the floor with a quick turn before shooting past Forster with his weaker left foot. The Chile striker was pretty quiet in the first half and things didn’t look good in the second half when he was penalized in the 52nd for a foul throw. In fact, Sanchez didn’t produce his usual energetic performance: he made no key pass and no tackle. But his class was enough to break the deadlock.

The supersub strikes again

In his best season at the club, Sanchez has already racked up 20 goals and 9 assists in 35 Premier League appearances for an average of 0.83 goal or assist per game. Among the top scorers in the league, only Kane (1.00) and Lukaku (0.86) have a better average whereas Costa (0.79), Ibrahimovic (0.79) and Aguero (0.68) are a notch below Sanchez.

While Welbeck was clinical against Manchester United a few days ago, he proved inefficient at St Mary’s stadium with none of his 2 goal attempts on target. The England international was leading a promising counterattack in the 44th but was pulled back by Ward-Prowse, who got booked. I thought Welbeck should have done better on the stroke of halftime when Bellerin made a pinpoint cross. Welbeck made a good run toward the near post but completely missed his header.

Welbeck was replaced by Giroud in the 80th and the France striker lived up to his supersub status by doubling the lead four minutes later. Ramsey headed a Sanchez cross into the path of Giroud, who beat Forster with a downward header. The Saints’ defending was quite lax on that play as neither Ramsey nor Giroud was marked. Over the years, Ramsey and Giroud have developed a good understanding, which nearly paid off again in stoppage time. Sanchez found Giroud, who flicked the ball into Ramsey’s path but the Wales midfielder couldn’t control the ball with his first touch.

Overloading Arsenal’s right flank

In midfield, Xhaka acted as the stabilizer while Ramsey provided support to the forwards with his deep runs. Xhaka nearly scored with a long-range strike that Forster palmed away in the 67th. The Switzerland international led all players with 71 passes and won 50% of his duels compared to 12.5% for Ramsey, who had none of his 3 goal attempts on target. The Gunners showed plenty of commitment as they won 57.8% of their duels and made 6 more tackles than Southampton, according to the club’s website.

Tottenham and Manchester United identified the right flank as Arsenal’s main weakness because Ozil doesn’t really help Oxlade-Chamberlain. Unsurprisingly, the Saints tried the same trick by overloading our right flank. In the opening minutes, Tadic even left his wing to join Redmond and Bertrand in pressuring the Ox. Redmond created the first chance for the hosts in the third minute by setting up Davis, who fired over the bar from the edge of the box. The Southampton winger then cut inside the Ox in the eighth minute but had his shot deflected out. On a counterattack in the 18th, Gabbiadini drifted to our right flank and made a cross for Tadic that Cech intercepted.

Ozil led all players with 6 key passes, but his poor work-rate also explains why Bertrand led Southampton with 4 key passes. Ward-Prowse met a cross from Bertrand in the 69th but missed the target from 5 yards as Gibbs put him off. Ozil’s poor defensive contribution means that Ramsey sometimes had to help out the Ox or Bellerin along the touchline. In the closing minutes, the manager yanked off Ozil to send on Coquelin.

The Ox’s hamstring injury

The Ox had a busy time down the right flank. He got off to a good start by squaring the ball back to Ramsey, whose 12-yard volley sailed wide in the 15th. Defensively, the Ox put off Redmond, who couldn’t properly connect with a cross from Ward-Prowse in the 30th. Unfortunately, he picked up a hamstring injury in the 35th and was replaced by Bellerin. That’s really bad luck for the Ox, who is enjoying his best season at the club.

Bellerin had a decent game with 2 key passes, including a cross for Ramsey, whose volley hit Welbeck before bouncing out of play in the 51st. The Spaniard is still not performing at his level of last season though. He cheaply gave the ball away in the 46th but Davis missed the target with his long-range effort. Is it a lack of confidence because of the team’s results and his demotion? Or is it a lack of focus because of transfer rumors?

At the back, Cech prevented Southampton from taking the lead with a couple of fine saves in the first half. He tipped a 30-yard strike from Redmond over the bar in the 42nd. In his return from injury, Mustafi looked sharp if we except the offside issues. He led Arsenal defenders by winning 81.8% of his duels and 4 of 5 tackles according to the club’s website. The Germany international was especially dominant in the air against Gabbiadini.

I didn’t expect the Gunners to come away with three points since they have a poor record at St Mary’s stadium. That could be a good omen for the run-in as they have to travel to Stoke on Saturday. Arsenal last won at the Britannia stadium in 2010. A loss or even a draw would end any hope of a Top 4 finish.

 

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: Time for board to find a new manager for next season

Managers know they are in trouble when they make Big Sam look like a genius. That’s what happened on Monday night as Crystal Palace smashed Arsenal 3-0 in the Premier League. In the old days, Wenger could still inject confidence into his squad after a humiliating defeat. The Gunners opened the 2013-14 season with an embarrassing 3-1 loss to Aston Villa but then went on to earn 7 straight victories in all competitions. Two years ago, they bounced back from a 3-1 loss to Monaco by winning the next 9 games in all competitions. Now, Wenger’s powers are clearly waning. There’s something broken in the relationship between the manager and the players. If the board decides to give Wenger a new contract, the situation at the club could worsen next season. Imagine Wenger completely losing the dressing room and Arsenal fighting off relegation like Chelsea a year ago or Leicester this year. Yeah, that would be quite a mess…

Crystal Palace Abised

Xhaka caught ball-watching as he fails to track Cabaye’s run. (Photo credit: NBC)

The players deserved as much blame as their manager for producing their worst performance of the season at Selhurst Park. Even the 5-1 losses to Bayern Munich didn’t look as pathetic in comparison. Crystal Palace won 63.6% of the tackles compared to 30% for the Gunners, according to the club’s website. The Eagles also made 19 interceptions compared to 10 for Arsenal. The lack of desire was so blatant that some supporters couldn’t help singing “You’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

The 3-0 win over West Ham last week gave the illusion that the Gunners had rediscovered their self-confidence. Wenger therefore named an unchanged side for the Palace game. Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession but created only 9 chances compared to 14 for the Eagles, according to Squawka. Palace also had 6 of 17 shots on target compared to 3 of 11 for the misfiring Gunners.

A dysfunctional team

Allardyce’s game plan was pretty simple: press high up the pitch when Arsenal tried to play the ball out from the back, then play with 10 men behind the ball when the Gunners reached the halfway line. The Gunners proved toothless throughout the game as if Wenger had no tactical answer to break down the Palace defense. Hennessey made 3 routine saves in the first half, turning Elneny’s longe-range effort around the post in the ninth minute, stopping Sanchez’s low strike in the 21st and catching Paulista’s tame header on the stroke of halftime. The Palace goalie was not even tested in the second half as Arsenal shamelessly capitulated.

The defensive performance showed how dysfunctional the Gunners were as a team. There’s no surprise when you’re facing an Allardyce team. It’s all about directness, duels and commitment. Yet, Arsenal seemed to have no clue. The way they conceded the opener from a goal kick in the 17th was a joke. Benteke bullied Paulista to win a header, then Townsend beat Elneny to the second ball and swapped passes with Cabaye, who was not tracked by Xhaka. Cabaye released Zaha down our left flank and the Palace winger squared the ball back to Townsend, who got ahead of Mustafi to sweep the ball home.

The Gunners lost all their duels on that play. That’s not good enough for a team pretending to chase a Champions League spot. The first mistake came from Paulista, who was drawn out of position by challenging Benteke in the air. If you’re a manager and want to play it safe tactically, then you ask Xhaka to mark Benteke when he drops back on goal kicks. Arsenal made a similar mistake against Manchester City 10 days ago: Sane opened the scoring because Mustafi was pulled out of position by Aguero on a goal kick. You kind of wonder what kind of defensive drills do they practice on the training ground. The second mistake came from Xhaka, who made no effort to track Cabaye. See the screen capture at the top of this post. Xhaka’s passivity left Monreal in 1v2 situation, giving the Spaniard no chance to stop Zaha’s cross.

What’s on Bellerin’s mind?

Mustafi performed poorly. He won just 4 of 9 aerial duels and none of the 6 tackles he made, according to Squawka. Paulista struggled in the air too and lost the only tackle he made. Obviously, the Arsenal defense is weakened by Koscielny’s absence. The France centerback is turning 32 this year and if he loses a step next season, no fan can seriously think that Mustafi or Paulista would be able to marshall the defense.

The fullbacks were quite busy on Monday as Palace relied on wing play to crack the Arsenal defense. Bellerin and Monreal combined to win 6 of 16 tackles and 3 of 4 aerial duels. Monreal had a decent game although the first two goals came from his flank. On the other hand, Bellerin is really having a poor run of form. He was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Two of Bellerin’s turnovers led to dangerous counterattacks in the opening minute and the 41st. He also misjudged the flight of a long ball in the third minute, allowing Sakho to feed Cabaye for an off-target effort.

On paper, Bellerin is one of the most gifted fullbacks in the league. But his performance on Monday was full of technical errors. He underhit a backpass that was nearly intercepted by Benteke in the 36th, gave away a free kick because of a poor touch in the 39th, fluffed a volley wide in the 58th, and sent a pass intended for Walcott straight into touch in the 65th. There can only be two possible explanations. Either the team’s poor results are affecting his confidence, or his mind is distracted by the idea of a move.

Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness    

Martinez made a couple of fine saves to keep Arsenal in the game, parrying an angled strike from Benteke in the 41st, palming away a low effort from Townsend in the 50th and stopping Puncheon’s header in the 54th. But he showed his inexperience in the 67th by fouling Townsend to give away a cheap penalty. Milivojevic converted the spot kick to make it 3-0. That was poor decision-making from Martinez, who didn’t need to charge out, first because Townsend still had to beat Bellerin, and second because Townsend was running away from goal.

Xhaka and Elneny performed well against West Ham but their limits were exposed by Palace. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka had decent stats with 4 key passes, tied with Zaha and Townsend for the most by any player. He also won 2 of 3 tackles and 4 of 4 aerial duels. However, Xhaka is less effective than Cazorla against compact teams because he can’t dribble like the Spaniard. And his lack of defensive awareness is a problem. He didn’t spot Cabaye’s run on the opening goal and didn’t care at all on the second goal.

Sometimes I wonder what the scouts saw in Elneny when they recommended him. Elneny is not a decisive player. Offensively, he made no key pass. And defensively, he won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 air duels. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger replaced Elneny with Ramsey in the 59th. The move backfired as Ramsey failed to spot Cabaye’s run for the second goal in the 63rd. It all started from a throw-in. Surrounded by Monreal and Ramsey, Benteke still won the header and found Townsend, who released Zaha down our left flank. Zaha cut the ball back to Cabaye, who beat Martinez with a looping effort into the far corner. Ramsey’s lack of effort on that play was shocking. See the screen capture below.

Crystal Palace Bbised

Ramsey caught ball-watching as Cabaye runs in front of him. (Photo credit: NBC)

Maybe the failure of the Ozil project is what will define Wenger’s last seasons at the club. Ozil notched 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 Premier League games last season for an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. That was definitely his best season at the club. However, his work-rate was an issue. Ozil didn’t work in midfield as hard as Silva at City or Lallana at Liverpool. So the manager thought about playing Ozil in a slightly more advanced position, almost like a second striker (Ozil had 42 through balls in the Premier League last season compared to 15 this term).

What a waste, Mesut

We were told Ozil scored a lot of goals on the training ground. Unfortunately, he rarely showed any killer instinct in competitive games this season. As a result, his number of assists significantly dipped while his number of goals didn’t really soar. With 6 goals and 6 assists from 25 Premier League appearances so far, Ozil is averaging 0.48 goal or assist per game.

At 28, Ozil should be at the top of his game. But the sad reality is that Alli at Tottenham is having the kind of impact that Wenger expected from Ozil. With 16 goals and 5 assists from 30 Premier League appearances, Alli is averaging 0.7 goal or assist per game. At 21, Alli is already a better player than Ozil in his prime. Of Alli’s 16 goals, 4 were headers, 8 were scored with the right foot, 4 with the left foot and only 1 was a penalty.

Ozil enjoys more being a playmaker than a finisher. Wenger has implicitly acknowledged his failure to turn Ozil into a nine and half like Bergkamp or Baggio by moving him back into his former position. At Selhurst Park, Ozil played like someone who didn’t seem to care about his future at the club. He had no goal attempt, won no tackle, and made no key pass, interception or block. His technique also let him down a couple of times. Ozil couldn’t beat the first defender with a corner in the 15th and sent a pass straight into touch in the 62nd. His performances this season have confirmed that he’s not a leader on the pitch and can’t carry the team in times of trouble.

Only the FA Cup to play for

Sanchez tried a bit harder than Ozil with 4 shots, 1 key pass and 2 interceptions, but it’s difficult to see him stay at the club. The Chile striker is an ambitious and demanding player, who knows that he won’t win the Premier League with Arsenal. The club could face in a couple of months its most unstable summer since 2011. Even if the British core (Gibbs, Holding, Ramsey, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Welbeck) remains at the club, a lot of them have either regressed or stagnated this season. Walcott couldn’t find any space behind the Palace defense for his trademark runs while Welbeck got no decent service up front. Welbeck chased a long ball from Xhaka in the 44th only to fire an angled volley wide.

The end of the season could turn ugly for Arsenal. They have no realistic hope of finishing in the Top 4. If the target is 75 points, that would imply 7 wins from the final 8 games in the Premier League, which is very unlikely since the Gunners have won just 1 of their last 5 games. Basically, they only have the FA Cup to play for. Will the squad throw away the next league games to focus on the Cup?

 

Arsenal vs. Manchester City: Gunners still in 6th place after 2-2 draw

The Gunners showed character by rallying twice in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City. However, the result makes a Top 4 finish in the Premier League even more unlikely. Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool are projected to finish the season with 90, 81, 76 and 75 points respectively. The Gunners have 51 points from 28 games so far and would therefore need 24 points from the last 10 games to match Liverpool’s projected total. That would mean 8 wins and 2 losses or an unbeaten run with 7 wins and 3 draws. It’s mission impossible given Arsenal’s current form and tough run-in.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City

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

Wenger hasn’t lost the dressing room yet. His players showed enough desire and commitment by winning 51.2% of the duels compared to 48.8% for City, according to the club’s website, and by making 20 interceptions compared to 21 for the visitors, according to Squawka. The Citizens still looked the better team because they created 11 chances compared to 6 for Arsenal. What really hurt the Gunners was their shaky defense and their lack of options in midfield because of injuries to Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Mustafi saved the day with a goal and an assist. He pounced on a poor clearance from the City defense to head the ball into the path of Walcott in the 40th minute. Walcott controlled the ball and got the better of Clichy in a weird dance of legs to beat Caballero from close range. Mustafi then made a run from beyond the penalty spot in the 53rd to nod in Ozil’s corner for the equalizer. He took advantage of City’s zonal marking to gather momentum and outjump a static Otamendi waiting on the 6-yard line. Quite ironically, that goal was similar to the ones scored by Dawson in the 3-1 loss to West Brom.

Is Mustafi the new Vermaelen?

Mustafi had a decent game, but you don’t want him to make up for defensive errors with goals like Vermaelen. I thought he shouldn’t have been drawn out of position for City’s opener in the fifth minute. When Caballero kicked the ball, Mustafi followed Aguero in City’s half to head the ball into the path of De Bruyne, who fed Sane with a first-time pass. Mustafi had no time to recover while Sane outpaced Bellerin to round Ospina and shoot into an empty net. Aguero often drops back to create space for his teammates to run into. It could make sense to track Aguero if he’s 30 yards from the Arsenal goal but not when he’s inside his own half.

Decision-making is one area where Mustafi must improve. He lost possession in the 50th after trying to dribble his way out of trouble. The Germany international got booked in the 61st for a cynical challenge on Sane. Mustafi made 1 interception and won 3 of 6 tackles and 3 of 4 aerial duels, but he also finished the game with a passing accuracy of 66%, which is too low for a centerback. Koscielny had a passing accuracy of 82.6% compared to 88.9% for Stones and 87.2% for Otamendi.

Monreal proved Arsenal’s best defender while Bellerin had a poor game. Bellerin was on the wrong side of Sane for the opener, made no interception and won no tackle or aerial duel. By contrast, Monreal made 6 interceptions, the most for any player, and won 2 of 6 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Monreal took advantage of Navas’ inexperience at fullback to cause havoc by overlapping with Sanchez down the left flank. Navas was very lucky to stay on the pitch after planting his studs into Monreal’s shinpad in the eighth minute.

Ozil’s average season

Down 2-1 at halftime, a lot of fans were worried when they saw Paulista replace an injured Koscielny for the start of the second half. It was Koscielny’s replacement that led to the 5-1 disaster in the first leg of the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich. Somehow, Paulista did a decent job.

In midfield, City outperformed Arsenal again. Fernandinho, De Bruyne and Silva combined to make 7 interceptions and win 8 of 25 tackles while Coquelin, Xhaka and Ozil combined to make 4 interceptions and win 7 of 16 tackles. Ozil had decent attacking stats with 2 successful dribbles out of 2 and 3 key passes (tied with Navas and Silva for the most by any player), but his work-rate was poor. He made 1 interception and 2 tackles. De Bruyne and Silva are creative players too but they contributed more defensively. Silva made 2 interceptions and 9 tackles while De Bruyne made 1 interception and 7 tackles.

Ozil was guilty on City’s second goal in the 42nd as he gave the ball away to Silva, who found De Bruyne on the edge of the Arsenal box. The Belgium international attempted a one-two with Sterling but Koscielny knocked the return pass away with a sliding tackle. The loose ball fell to Silva, who fed Aguero and the Argentina striker made it 2-1 with an angled effort into the bottom corner.

Wenger’s decision to turn Ozil into a second striker or nine and a half has backfired. Ozil is not clinical enough in front of the net. He took a pass from Sanchez in the 21st and rolled away from Stones only to muster a tame shot that did not trouble Caballero. Ozil notched 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 Premier League appearances last season, that is, an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. His number are down this season with just 5 assists and 5 goals from 23 Premier League appearances, that is, an average of 0.43 goal or assist per game.

Xhaka & Coquelin caught ball-watching

Xhaka and Coquelin didn’t cover themselves in glory either. Both were caught ball-watching on City’s second goal. Coquelin failed to mark De Bruyne when he played a one-two with Sterling while Xhaka made no real effort to track back when Ozil lost possession. Monreal ended up dealing with both Aguero and Silva because of Xhaka’s passivity.

Petit, Vieira and Gilberto were enforcers who could boss the midfield. I don’t think Xhaka and Coquelin are anywhere near their level. Xhaka gifted the Citizens their first chance by slipping in the fourth minute. Fernandinho played Sterling clean through on goal, but Ospina quickly rushed outside his area to clear the danger. The ball bounced off Sterling and out of bounds. Then Xhaka was late for a block when Silva teed up De Bruyne for a long-range strike that hit the post in the 10th. The Switzerland international received a yellow card in the 32nd for a poorly timed challenge on Otamendi. Coquelin also got booked for a late tackle on Silva in the 14th and escaped a second yellow card in the 81st for a cynical foul on De Bruyne.

Back from a trip to South America for World Cup qualifiers, Sanchez produced an energetic display with 2 key passes, 5 interceptions and 7 successful dribbles out of 11. He also won 2 of 6 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels and had 11 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Turnovers are OK when you’re in the final third. But they should be avoided when you’re on the edge of your own area because you can put your team in danger. Navas intercepted a Sanchez backheel flick in the 66th to make a cross for Aguero, whose header lacked power to beat Ospina. The Colombia goalkeeper made two fine saves to keep Arsenal in the game, palming away a low strike from Silva in the 10th and parrying a long-range effort from Fernandinho in the 58th.

The next 3 games

Up front, Welbeck got no decent service. He had a passing accuracy of 100%, won 2 of 2 tackles and lost the 4 aerial duels in which he was involved. His only chance came from a missed clearance from Otamendi in the fourth minute. Welbeck pounced on the loose ball for a sliding effort that sailed wide.

On the right wing, Walcott scored a goal but did very little compared to Sanchez. With a bit of luck, Walcott could have added a second goal on the stroke of halftime. He controlled a cross from Sanchez for an acrobatic effort that went over the bar.

Arsenal would need a miracle to finish in the Top 4. They could make up ground by winning their next three Premier League games against West Ham, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough while hoping that Liverpool and the two Manchesters drop points. Then they would need outstanding performances in the run-in against Leicester, Tottenham, Manchester United, Stoke, Everton, Southampton and Sunderland. In any case, the Gunners will have to tighten up at the back because they looked incredibly open against City.

 

West Brom vs. Arsenal: Free fall continues with 3-1 loss

Let’s not kid ourselves, Arsenal won’t finish in the Top 4 this season and there will be no St Totteringham’s Day. The Gunners have lost 4 of their last 5 Premier League games after Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at West Brom. They still sit in fifth place in the standings but 5 points behind Liverpool and 6 behind Manchester City and Tottenham.

West Brom vs. Arsenal

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

The Baggies’ game plan was pretty simple: park the bus and capitalize on counterattacks and set pieces to score. Yet, Arsenal couldn’t cope with West Brom’s direct approach. Let’s start with the set pieces. Dawson made a run from the penalty spot in the 12th minute to nod in Chadli’s corner from about 3 yards. We know that the Gunners use zonal marking on corners. One problem with zonal marking is that it’s very static. Dawson was able to outjump Koscielny because he had more momentum. Ramsey made the first mistake on that play by not blocking Dawson, who had a free run inside the box. The second mistake came from the defenders. Cech should be able to claim the ball but Fletcher hampered the goalkeeper’s freedom of movement by standing in front of him. It’s up to the defenders to clean up the 6-yard box for their goalkeeper.

Arsenal tried to adjust to those tactics in the second half but Dawson made it 3-1 by heading home McClean’s corner in the 75th. The plan was to neutralize Dawson and Fletcher. Oxlade-Chamberlain marked Dawson but failed to get in the way of the West Brom fullback when he made his run from the penalty spot. Likewise, Xhaka tried to shield Ospina from Fletcher, but the Colombia goalkeeper, who replaced an injured Cech in the 38th, lost his footing and couldn’t intervene. That goal looked worse than the opening goal because Mustafi and Koscielny both followed McAuley and left a huge gap for Dawson to run into.

Lack of defensive awareness

The Ox and Ramsey are seasoned players. Yet, they showed their lack of defensive awareness on those corners. If Ramsey wants to play in central midfield, he seriously needs to improve his positional play. The Wales midfielder failed to track Fletcher, who took a pass from Livermore to test Cech in the 34th. The Ox had a good work-rate, winning 2 of 3 tackles and making 1 key pass, 1 interception, 2 blocks and 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but it’s the defensive details that are ruining his overall performance.

Ramsey also had a hand in the Baggies’ second goal. Chadli sent a ball over the top to McClean in the 56th but Ospina came off his line to knock the ball into the path of Robson-Kanu, who stabbed the rebound home. The first mistake came from Ramsey, who sat too deep on that play. He was next to Mustafi inside the area while he should have closed down Chadli on the edge of the box. The second mistake came from Mustafi, who played McClean onside. And the third mistake came from some poor coordination between Bellerin and Ospina. The goalkeeper should have dived headfirst to gather the ball instead of going feet first.

At the back, Monreal proved our best defender, winning 80% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 94.6% according to the club’s website. The main disappointment came from the centerbacks. Rondon outjumped Koscielny in the 51st only to head Brunt’s cross wide. Then Robson-Kanu got ahead of Mustafi to take Brunt’s pass in the 67th but was denied by Ospina.

Our defenders were a bit more exposed than usual because our midfield was again too soft. I thought the Baggies too easily reached the final third the few times they led counterattacks. Nyom ran past Xhaka, Bellerin and Mustafi in the fifth minute to square the ball back for Rondon, who couldn’t make contact with the offering for a tap-in. Then Brunt fed McClean, whose angled strike was parried by Cech in the 12th. Chadli also led a fast break in the 31st to pick out Rondon, who dragged his shot wide.

Targeting Sanchez

While we have struggled to keep clean sheets this season, another concern is the team’s lack of ideas. The Gunners enjoyed 77% of ball possession but only produced 2 shots on target compared to 8 for West Brom. A more shocking stat is that the Baggies had 3 accurate through balls compared to just one for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. Ozil was not in the squad because he picked up a knock in training. The quality of his final ball would have maybe made a difference in that kind of game.

Walcott was invisible at the Hawthorns. He had no shot and no key pass, made no dribble and no interception, and won no tackle and no aerial duel. His limited passing and dribbling skills became all the more obvious that the West Brom defense sat deep to give him no space to run into. The manager yanked Walcott off in the 65th to send on Giroud. Welbeck got the nod over Giroud to lead the line but lacked decent service. His only scoring chance came in the 65th when he met a corner from Xhaka for a header that crashed against the bar. Welbeck showed more end product than Walcott by finishing the game with 2 key passes.

Besides Monreal, the only Gunner who performed at a good level was Sanchez. The Chile striker chested down a cross from Xhaka in the 15th to fire into the roof of the net for his 18th league goal this season. Sanchez also slipped a through ball to Ramsey, who forced Foster into a diving save in the 33rd. He was replaced by Iwobi in the 78th because of an ankle injury suffered in the first half.

The Baggies felt Sanchez was the main threat and targeted him. McAuley made a cynical foul on Sanchez in the 19th. Then Livermore pulled Sanchez back and clipped his leg in the 23rd but no foul was given. Rondon killed a counterattack in the 27th by fouling Sanchez and landing on his back with his knee. It could have been a yellow card but the referee only awarded a free kick.

The board’s passivity

If Oliver had been the referee, he would have warned West Brom about repetitive fouling like he did with Manchester United against Chelsea in the FA Cup. Unfortunately, the Gunners had to deal with a referee, Swarbrick, who didn’t seem to care much about the players’ physical integrity. So I wasn’t really surprised when McClean damaged Sanchez’s ankle with a late tackle in the 42nd. The Irish winger received a yellow card but it could have been a sending-off, especially when you compare with Xhaka’s red cards. See the screen capture below.

West Brom vs. Arsenal Sky editedMcClean makes a late studs-up tackle that could have broken Sanchez’s leg. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal’s collective expression was really poor. You have to wonder to what extent the players are affected by those negative banners displayed by the fans in the stands. Putting pressure on the board is fine, but the way it’s done by the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade is completely wrong. Those banners just create a toxic atmosphere for the team, too. There are still 11 league games to play. A free fall won’t help the club sign new players this summer, especially since Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchesters.

Renewing Wenger’s contract would make the atmosphere even more toxic next season. The board must act to protect the club. Wenger is like a punch-drunk boxer who is convinced he can still win the next round. I believe the manager already had his chances and simply failed to take them. Wenger only signed Cech in the summer of 2015 while a couple more signings would have turned Arsenal into a legitimate contender. Last summer, he tried to improve the squad by signing Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez, but the quality of those players has been questionable. It’s unfair for the most successful manager in the club’s history to get so much stick, but the board’s passivity has made the situation worse.

 

Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich: A few thoughts on the 5-1 defeat

Things are getting ugly both for the manager and the club after Arsenal suffered another 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich on Tuesday. The 10-2 aggregate defeat is the worst result by an English club in the history of the Champions League. The Bavarians are definitely a good side, but they still lost to Atletico Madrid and Rostov in the group stage. So there was room for the Gunners to salvage some pride and maybe get a draw in the second leg just like when Bayern knocked them out three years ago.

Arsenal FC v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg

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

The Gunners have been eliminated in the last 16 of the Champions League for the seventh straight season. In that seven-year span, smaller clubs like Shaktar Donetsk, APOEL, Galatasaray, Malaga and Wolfsburg managed to reach the quarterfinals. There’s this feeling among the fans that Wenger has carried Arsenal as far as he could and that someone else needs to take over. Many supporters left the Emirates stadium before the final whistle and some displayed banners in the second half calling for an end to the French manager’s tenure.

To be honest, the Gunners produced a decent performance until Koscielny’s controversial ejection in the 53rd minute. Bayern created 12 chances compared to 8 for Arsenal. Just like in the first leg, the Bavarians did a better job at defending as a unit, making 52 ball recoveries compared to 40 for Arsenal according to the UEFA statistics, and making 24 interceptions compared to 13 for the hosts according to Squawka.

  1. Should Arsenal use an inverted pyramid?

The Gunners have leaked a lot of goals lately. One explanation is that Coquelin is winning fewer tackles than when he was paired with Cazorla. Another reason is that the Gunners are often outplayed in midfield because of Ozil’s poor work-rate. Wenger tried to provide more protection to the back four against Bayern by switching to a 4-3-3 system instead of his favored 4-2-3-1 formation. In a 4-2-3-1 system, the midfield looks like a pyramid with a playmaker on top of it. In a 4-3-3 formation, there is no playmaker and the midfield looks like an inverted pyramid.

The manager used that inverted pyramid at Stamford Bridge with Coquelin, Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield but it didn’t work out as Arsenal lost 3-1. Against Bayern, Wenger played Ramsey and the Ox as all-rounders in front of Xhaka, the holding midfielder. A more defensive alternative would be to play Maitland-Niles as the sweeper in front of the back four. Maitland-Niles doesn’t have Xhaka’s passing skills but he has more pace and wins more tackles.

Obviously, Ramsey and the Ox don’t play like Ozil. Therefore, the team has to adapt and play differently. Ramsey and the Ox still led the team with 2 key passes each. In his return from injury, Ramsey was a bit rusty with a passing accuracy as low as 68.2% but he managed to win 2 of 3 tackles before Coquelin replaced him in the 72nd. The Ox shone in midfield and proved his importance in the transition game by having 10 successful dribbles out of 10.

  1. Walcott was on fire

The England international showed a lot of desire and proved a bigger threat in the final third than Sanchez. Walcott put in a shift, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 4 interceptions and 2 blocks, but he also had 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. His first chance came from a Sanchez crossfield pass in the 11th. Walcott was clean through on goal but his poor first touch allowed Neuer to kick the ball into touch. He then met a cross from the Ox in the 17th for a header that bounced off Martinez for a corner. Three minutes later, Walcott benefited from a lucky bounce to open the scoring with an angled strike into the roof of the net. In a similar situation in the 34th, Walcott fired into the side-netting instead of cutting the ball back for Giroud. Walcott faded in the second half after Koscielny’s ejection.

  1. The additional assistant referee screwed up

Also known as the goal-line official, he denied Walcott a penalty in the 33rd. Walcott shifted the ball from his left foot to his right when a clumsy challenge from Alonso brought him down. It’s pretty clear with TV replays that Alonso was a split second late and tripped Walcott. If the referee makes the right call, it could have been 2-0 for Arsenal.

The turning point of the game was Koscielny’s red card in the 53rd. Initially, the referee awarded a penalty and gave Koscielny a yellow card for a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge on Lewandowski, who went down easily. But the goal-line official claimed it was a deliberate foul and therefore a red card. In the end, the referee followed his assistant’s advice and sent Koscielny off. To me, Koscielny’s foul was even less obvious than Alonso’s foul. Lewandowski converted the penalty to level. Down to 10 men, winning the match became mission impossible for Arsenal.

  1. Giroud can be incredibly wasteful

The France striker could have almost notched a hat trick with some clinical finishing. He beat Hummels to a loose ball in the 13th for a header that bounced off the base of the post. Then Giroud couldn’t make solid contact with Monreal’s headed pass in the 37th and sliced his effort wide. But the one chance he should have converted was his free header in the 48th. An unmarked Giroud mistimed his jump and sent Ramsey’s cross over the bar from 6 yards.

  1. Has the bust-up controversy affected Sanchez?

Sanchez did very little if we except his long ball for Walcott in the 11th. That’s so unusual from the Chile striker that fans may wonder whether the controversy over the row on the training ground has worn him down mentally. In the 68th, Sanchez was robbed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Robben, who shot past Ospina to make it 2-1. Playing on the left flank, Sanchez made no key pass and was replaced by Ozil in the 72nd.

  1. The Gunners lack defensive awareness

Twice Bayern quickly played a free kick, and twice Arsenal switched off. Lewandowski beat the offside trap to control a ball over the top in the 25th but was denied by Ospina. Then Hummels flicked home a free kick from Alonso in the 49th but the goal was disallowed for offside.

  1. Mustafi looks bad without Koscielny

It was like in the first leg when Mustafi suddenly became clueless after an injury forced Koscielny off the pitch. There were signs in the first half that Mustafi’s decision-making was dodgy. Twice he dived in, and twice he missed the ball and left the defense exposed. Mustafi only won 1 of 7 tackles according to Squawka.

Koscielny’s red card forced Mustafi to team up with Xhaka at the back. Mustafi was pulled out of position on the play that led to Lewandowski’s penalty. The last 15 minutes were a nightmare for the Germany international. Costa dribbled past Mustafi in the 76th to make a cross for Lewandowski, who struck the post with a first-time effort. Two minutes later, Costa cut inside Mustafi to curl a low shot inside the far post for a 3-1 lead. Mustafi then gave the ball away to Alonso, who fed Vidal and the Chile midfielder chipped Ospina for a 4-1 lead in the 80th. Bayern capitalized on an ill-advised offside trap set by Mustafi to seal the win in the 85th. Costa teed up Vidal, who fired past the helpless Ospina. There was no pressure on Sanches, the ballholder, and Mustafi had very little understanding with Coquelin, who had taken Xhaka’s spot at centerback.

  1. Why did Xhaka play as a defender?

I was surprised by Wenger’s decision to play Xhaka as a centerback after Koscielny’s ejection. It was a risky gamble that backfired. I expected the manager to limit the damage by sending on Paulista for Giroud.

Xhaka’s lack of pace is a greater liability at the back than in midfield. For some reason, he ventured high up the pitch in the 78th and lost possession to Rafinha. Pulled out of position, Xhaka fouled Rafinha with a mistimed tackle, but the referee played advantage and Costa got hold of the loose ball to score Bayern’s third goal.

  1. Ospina needs to work on his distribution

The Colombia goalkeeper made two good saves, keeping out Vidal’s header with a reflex save in the 24th and parrying Lewandowski’s powerful strike in the 64th. But his poor distribution led to Bayern’s second goal.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Old defensive frailties resurfacing in 3-1 loss

What was he thinking? That was the reaction from a lot of fans on Saturday when Wenger benched Sanchez in the first half of the 3-1 loss to Liverpool. In a crucial game against a rival for a Top 4 finish, you would assume that the manager would start his best player. But Wenger didn’t, and the move backfired as the Gunners dropped to fifth place in the Premier League, 2 points behind Liverpool and 5 behind Manchester City.

liverpool-vs-arsenal

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

The manager claimed after the game that he benched Sanchez to have more directness with Giroud and Welbeck. That explanation still doesn’t justify why Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain got the nod over Sanchez. In a 4-2-3-1 system, Giroud would have led the line, Sanchez and Welbeck would have started on the wings, and either Iwobi or the Ox would have played in the hole.

I guess Wenger’s game plan was to evade Liverpool’s high press by using Giroud and Welbeck as targets for long balls. That plan had mixed success with Giroud and Welbeck combining to win 4 of 6 aerial duels outside the area, according to Squawka. When Arsenal had the ball, the plan was either to hit Liverpool on the fast break with the pace of Welbeck, Iwobi and the Ox or feed Giroud if the Reds had already retreated in their own half. Unfortunately, the Gunners couldn’t create any chance in the first half because Liverpool quickly closed down to kill any counterattack while Giroud had no decent service. Set pieces are potential scoring opportunities for a player who is strong in the air like Giroud, but neither Xhaka nor the Ox could beat the first man with their corner kicks.

Men vs. boys

Down 2-0 at halftime, Wenger had no choice but to replace the ineffective Coquelin with Sanchez while shifting the Ox from the right wing to central midfield. The team suddenly looked more dynamic. Giroud met a cross from Monreal in the 48th minute for a header that Mignolet palmed onto the bar. Then Sanchez capitalized on a counterattack in the 57th to slip a through ball to Welbeck, who cut the deficit to 2-1 by chipping Mignolet. But in the end, it was too little too late.

The scoreline could have been more humiliating if Cech had not made a couple of fine saves and if the Reds had produced better finishing. The stats don’t lie: Liverpool completely outplayed Arsenal with 14 chances to 6 according to Squawka. It almost looked like men vs. boys in the first half. Wenger claimed after the game that the Gunners lacked rhythm because of the 11-day break between the FA Cup tie against Sutton and the Anfield match. That’s quite a surprising statement from such a seasoned manager. Most clubs play against their own academy teams to stay sharp. The Arsenal U23 side also had a gap in its schedule and was therefore available for a friendly with the first team.

What really hurts in the 3-1 loss is that some old defensive frailties are resurfacing. The opening goal came from a Liverpool goal kick in the ninth minute. Koscielny challenged Firmino in the air but both missed the ball, which was redirected by Coutinho into the path of Lallana. The England international released Mane down our left flank while Firmino sprinted into the box. Unmarked at the far post, Firmino controlled Mane’s cross-shot before blasting the ball into the roof of the net.

Struggling to defend set-pieces

Let’s analyze that goal. The first mistake comes from Koscielny’s decision to go for the ball. Firmino plays like a false nine, often dropping back to be involved in the passing game and create space for his teammates. In that kind of situation, I believe Coquelin or Xhaka should have challenged Firmino in the air. If Koscielny gets pulled out of position, he must be sure to win the header otherwise he’s leaving a big gap at the back. As you can see on the screen capture below, Koscielny’s decision to go for the ball makes the Arsenal defense more vulnerable with a dangerous 3v3 situation developing.

liverpool-a1edKoscielny’s missed header leads to a 3v3 situation. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The second mistake comes from the way the Gunners are retreating. They are all focused on Mane and nobody is paying attention to Firmino. As a result, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are running toward the near post while Bellerin is alone at the far post dealing with three Reds (Coutinho, Lallana and Firmino). If you look at the screen capture below, the poor distribution of resources becomes obvious with the red line that I’ve drawn. This has been a recurrent issue for Arsenal this season: they tend to commit too many defenders at the near post and therefore leave the far post exposed.

liverpool-a2edBellerin alone at the far post vs. 3 Reds. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

This goal is also symptomatic of our struggles in defending set-pieces. Liverpool nearly scored from a Coutinho free kick in the 76th. Matip beat Mustafi to the ball for a tame header that Cech saved. Seven minutes later, Origi got the better of Bellerin to head a free kick against the post. Why was Bellerin marking Origi? Koscielny was marking Matip and Mustafi was busy with Klavan, but Xhaka and Perez, who are stronger in the air than Bellerin, could have dealt with Origi instead.

A soft midfield

Mustafi and Koscielny did not get much protection from the midfielders on Saturday. They had a low passing accuracy of 70.8% and 72.2% respectively because of Liverpool’s high press. Koscielny won 0 of 2 tackles and 10 of 12 aerial duels and made 5 interceptions and 3 blocks, while Mustafi won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels and made just 1 interception and 1 block.

In that centerback partnership, Koscielny is the key component. The Frenchman is the one who made Mustafi look good in the first half of the season. Partner Mustafi with another defender and his weaknesses become obvious like in the second half of the Bayern Munich game. Koscielny was at fault for the opening goal but Mustafi could have also cost his team a goal or two. Mustafi fouled Wijnaldum on the edge of the box in the 29th but the referee played advantage and Coutinho fired a strike that Cech tipped over the bar. On the stroke of halftime, Coutinho ghosted past Mustafi to collect Lallana’s deflected ball over the top and shoot straight at Cech.

Liverpool’s second goal in the 40th really showed how soft is the Arsenal midfield. The ball travelled from our right flank to the left flank, where an unmarked Mane fired a low diagonal strike past Cech. Our midfielders lacked defensive awareness on that play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi failed to track Wijnaldum, who had plenty of time to take Milner’s pass. Then Xhaka was a split second late to close down Firmino, who slipped the ball to Mane. And Coquelin failed to mark Lallana, forcing Monreal to cover him and leave Mane free.

liverpool-b1edIwobi, Xhaka and Coquelin fail to close down Wijnaldum, Firmino and Lallana. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

If one of those three Arsenal midfielders had done his defensive duty, Mane would have not enjoyed a free shot. In the end, Koscielny tried to close down Firmino while Monreal marked Lallana, who made a decoy run to pull the Spaniard out of position and free some space for Mane. See the screen capture below.

liverpool-b2edKoscielny and Monreal trying to make up for the midfielders’ mistakes while Mane is free. (Photo credit: ww.Arsenal.com)

The work-rate from our midfielders is simply not good enough. Coquelin, Xhaka, Iwobi and the Ox made no interception while Can, Lallana, Wijnaldum and Coutinho combined to make 5 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. Lallana rushed back inside the Liverpool area in the 84th to put off Perez, who headed Bellerin’s cross wide. Can anybody imagine Ozil or Iwobi doing that?

Searching for a complementary duo

Cazorla has made Coquelin look good in central midfield but the Spaniard’s absence has exposed Coquelin’s limitations and especially his average positional play. Lallana dispossessed Coquelin to start a counterattack in the 32nd. Two minutes later, Coquelin was booked for a cynical foul on Lallana, who had intercepted a sloppy pass from the Frenchman.

Iwobi finished the game with a passing accuracy of 97.1%, the highest percentage among all the starters. He also won 2 of 3 tackles, more than any other Arsenal midfielder according to Squawka. There’s no doubt that Iwobi has great potential, but at 20 and with a poor run of form, he shouldn’t be in the starting lineup. He still needs to work on his defensive awareness.

Partnering Xhaka in central midfield after the break, the Ox led Arsenal players with 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com. He also led the team with 5 turnovers, which is a bad stat in such a key position.

It’s obvious that Wenger hasn’t found a decent alternative to the Coquelin-Cazorla tandem in central midfield. Injuries and suspensions have not helped the manager in his search. Since the beginning of this year, Wenger has started 6 different partnerships: Coquelin-Xhaka (3), Xhaka-Ramsey (3), Xhaka-Elneny (2), Coquelin-Ox (2), Coquelin-Ramsey (1), and Ox-Maitland-Niles (1).

The manager seems to believe that Xhaka should be the cornerstone of his midfield. But none of the combinations involving Xhaka has really been impressive. Xhaka & Coquelin were terrible against Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Bournemouth. Xhaka & Ramsey produced wins against Burnley, Swansea and Preston but did not provide much solidity. And Xhaka & Elneny did OK against weak sides like Sutton and Crystal Palace. Surprisingly, the Ox-Maitland-Niles tandem has been the most complementary one this year but it’s also the youngest pairing.

Vulnerable to the fast break

Liverpool’s third goal in stoppage time exposed Arsenal’s inability to kill counterattacks. Lallana toyed with Xhaka in midfield and pulled Mustafi out of position with a quick turn before releasing Origi down our left flank. Origi cut the ball back for Wijnaldum, who slotted into the bottom corner to put the result beyond doubt. Origi was marginally offside on that play, but what really matters is how Xhaka was unable to stop the fast break and how Xhaka, Mustafi and Bellerin lacked defensive awareness by letting Wijnaldum run past them.

Xhaka’s relative lack of pace becomes an issue in games played at a high tempo. The Switzerland international won none of the four tackles he made. To a certain extent, he reminds me a bit of Arteta, whose sluggishness prevented him from stopping counterattacks. The Gunners have worked hard to fix that problem since the 6-0 loss to Chelsea and 5-1 loss to Liverpool during the 2013-14 season. But it looks like that vulnerability to the fast break is coming back to haunt them again. You might think that Arsenal threw the kitchen sink in the closing minutes to level and therefore didn’t care about defending, but quite a few times during the game the Gunners were split in two when Liverpool initiated a counterattack.

As I’m wrapping up this analysis, reports have emerged that Wenger benched Sanchez because of a bust-up on the training ground. That makes more sense than the tactical explanation given by the manager in his post-game press conference. It’s not a surprise since Sanchez’s body language has been quite negative lately. The Chile striker has probably realized that he won’t win the league with Arsenal. At 28, Sanchez won’t have many opportunities left to lift a trophy and a departure this summer becomes therefore more likely. Sanchez might be upset but he’s a top professional. He gave everything on the pitch against Liverpool, whereas some Chelsea players hurt their club last season by performing poorly on purpose. Cynics will say that Sanchez is marketing himself to get a raise at his next club. Fair enough.

Injecting competition within the squad

That bust-up also shows that the chemistry in the dressing room is not great. Consecutive losses to Watford and Chelsea must have dealt a significant blow to the team’s morale. But the lack of competition within the squad could be a factor, too. Coquelin, Iwobi, Walcott and Ozil have been automatic starters lately despite a poor run of form. I think the manager needs to give more weight to merit in his team selection if he wants to save Arsenal’s season. That means starting players who really show hunger and are willing to work their socks off.

Tuesday’s Champions League game against Bayern Munich is coming at a tricky time. On the one hand, another spanking would further damage the team’s confidence. On the other hand, it could be a good opportunity to make experiments against top opposition. In any case, the Gunners need to fix their defensive frailties quickly, otherwise they have no chance of finishing in the Top 4.