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.
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.