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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.

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

The Champions League tie is dead after the Gunners suffered a humiliating 5-1 defeat in the first leg of their last-16 encounter with Bayern Munich on Wednesday. Arsenal managed to reach halftime with the score tied at 1-1 although the Bavarians were the better team. But the floodgates opened after Koscielny picked up a hamstring injury in the 48th minute.

Bayern vs. Arsenal.jpg

Photo credit: Getty Images

The Gunners conceded 3 goals in a 10-minute span to trail 4-1 by the 63rd. The scoreline and the stats don’t lie: Bayern completely outplayed Arsenal, making 516 more passes, creating 14 more chances and hitting 17 more shots, according to the UEFA stats.

  1. Talent means nothing without hard work

Anybody who watched PSG’s 4-0 thrashing of Barcelona on Tuesday could see two similarities with Bayern’s 5-1 demolition of Arsenal. The Spanish side lost because of some poor work-rate and a soft midfield. A quick look at the last 3 goals shows those flaws. The Parisians capitalized on a turnover to take a 2-0 lead as Rabiot dispossessed Messi while Iniesta failed to close down Verratti. By contrast, PSG played the ball out from the back to score the third and fourth goals. Messi and Gomes failed to track Kurzawa for the third goal and Iniesta failed to challenge Di Maria. Then Cavani was able to make it 4-0 because Meunier easily skipped past Neymar before outpacing Iniesta.

  1. Arsenal’s work-rate is not good enough

The Gunners were not as lazy as Barcelona. According to the UEFA stats, the Bavarians ran 109.5 km compared to 108.1 km for Arsenal, which is better than the 105.1 km covered by Barcelona compared to 113.3 km for PSG. The Gunners raised their intensity, winning 18 tackles of 34 compared to 12 of 33 for Bayern, according to Squawka. But it wasn’t enough because Arsenal didn’t defend as a unit. Bayern did a better job at hunting in packs, making 55 ball recoveries compared to 46 for the English side.

The Bavarians love dominating ball possession. A smart way to unsettle them would have been to press high up the pitch like PSG did against Barcelona. Unfortunately, the Gunners were not able to coordinate their pressing efforts. Sanchez often showed signs of frustration because his teammates didn’t help him harry the Bayern defense.

The poor defensive contribution from the attacking players cost Arsenal two goals. Lahm made a cross for Lewandowski, who headed home for a 2-1 lead in the 53rd. Gibbs had to deal with both Robben and Lahm on that play because Iwobi failed to track Lahm. Iwobi was also late for a block attempt in the 15th but Ospina stopped Robben’s low drive. Then Alcantara easily skipped past Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 56th and slipped the ball to Alonso, who was not closed down by Sanchez. With plenty of time on the ball, Alonso picked out Lewandowski, who played Alcantara in for Bayern’s third goal.

  1. Arsenal’s midfield is too soft

Coquelin, Xhaka and Ozil combined to win just 6 of 14 tackles compared to 9 of 18 for Alcantara, Vidal and Alonso. Surprisingly, Ozil put in a good shift, winning 4 of 6 tackles, more than any other Arsenal player. But Ozil couldn’t prevent Alonso and Vidal from dictating play because Coquelin sat too deep while Sanchez focused his pressing efforts on Martinez and Hummels.

Coquelin was the symbol of Arsenal’s softness. Vidal outmuscled the French midfielder in the eighth minute to fire a long-range strike that Ospina saved. Three minutes later, Robben cut inside Coquelin to open the scoring with a drive into the far corner. Coquelin was too slow to react and make a block on that play. He won none of the 3 tackles he made.

Oxlade-Chamberlain moved into central midfield when Giroud replaced Coquelin in the 77th. The England international showed his naivety by dribbling on the edge of his own box and losing possession to Kimmich in the 88th. The ball fell to Muller, who shot past Ospina to seal the win. The Ox led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, and had a passing accuracy of 61%, the lowest percentage among all the midfielders.

If we except Sanchez’s penalty, the Bavarians kept the Arsenal forwards quiet. Ozil and Xhaka ended up having the best chances from open play. In the 40th, the Ox cut the ball back for Xhaka, who volleyed straight at Neuer from 17 yards. On the stroke of halftime, Sanchez fed Ozil, whose angled strike was saved by Neuer. Ozil finished the game with only 1 key pass because the Gunners were starved of possession. Somehow, Arsenal could have reached halftime with the lead against the run of play.

  1. A change of tactics implies a change of manager

The best way to beat Bayern is to implement a pressing game like PSG did against Barcelona on Tuesday or like Atletico Madrid did against the German side last season. Pochettino at Tottenham and Klopp at Liverpool have been able to impose that style of play in the Premier League. Unfortunately, the Gunners don’t have that defensive culture and it’s hard to see how the club could tactically change under Wenger.

The only time Arsenal recently relied on a pressing game to beat a big team was in the 3-0 win over Manchester United last season. It lasted just one half and was not as impressive as the pressing game used by Liverpool, Atletico Madrid or even PSG. Under Wenger, the Gunners prefer to absorb the pressure and hit the big teams on the fast break like in the 2-0 win over Bayern last season or the victories over Pellegrini’s Manchester City.

Another tactical issue is marking duties on set pieces. Alcantara capitalized on a goalmouth scramble from a corner to give Bayern a 4-1 lead with a low drive in the 63rd. He had plenty of time to control the ball and pull the trigger because no Gunner patrolled the edge of the box.

  1. The Gunners must anticipate life without Koscielny

The Arsenal defense completely disintegrated after Koscielny picked up a hamstring injury in the 48th and was replaced by Paulista. Koscielny had Lewandowski in his pocket and even earned a penalty by drawing a foul from the Poland striker in the 29th. His only mistake came in the 43rd when he was not tight to Lewandowski, who met a cross from Alaba to head over the bar. Koscielny won 3 of 3 tackles before leaving the pitch.

The France centerback will turn 32 this year. The staff will have to carefully monitor his fitness. Vidic led Manchester United to the Premier League title in 2013 but suddenly lost a step the following season at the age of 32. Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Paulista’s dodgy decision-making definitely prevent them from becoming the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense.

On paper, Mustafi could lead the back four, but his performance in Munich was a disappointment. He was booked in the 15th for a rash tackle on Alcantara. Then, Lewandowski outjumped Mustafi for Bayern’s second goal and Mustafi failed to spot Alcantara’s run for the third.

  1. Arsenal will need to look for a leftback this summer

Whether it’s Gibbs or Monreal, the Gunners have been highly vulnerable to crosses from the left flank this season. Ancelotti obviously spotted that weakness as Costa sometimes joined Lahm and Robben on that flank to provide numerical superiority.

Gibbs got the nod over Monreal on Wednesday and struggled to stop crosses from Lahm, who led all players with 4 key passes. The English fullback was very lucky not to get sent off in the 61st when Robben pounced on a rebound to hit an effort that Gibbs deflected out with his hand. It looked worse than Hull midfielder Clucas’ deliberate handball. Basically, it should have been a red card and a penalty.

  1. Ospina has been brilliant this season

The Colombia goalkeeper saved Arsenal from defeat against PSG in the group stage and made 6 saves against Bayern to prevent a more embarrassing loss. Some were routine saves but three were really good saves. He kept out Martinez’s header with a reflex save in the 63rd, tipped Robben’s strike over the bar in the 81st and turned Costa’s curling shot around the post in the 82nd.

  1. Groundhog Day is no surprise

We should have expected that outcome since the Bavarians have better players than Arsenal in almost every position. The German side has also reached at least the semifinals in the past 5 seasons while the Gunners have been knocked out in the last 16 in the past 6 seasons. The tie is dead after the first leg just like in 2013 when Bayern won 3-1 in London and three years ago when the Bavarians won 2-0 at the Emirates stadium.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Now it’s all hands on deck to save season after 3-1 loss

Saturday’s 3-1 loss at Stamford Bridge confirmed that the title race is over for the Gunners as they trail Chelsea by 12 points in the Premier League. The chase for a Champions League spot could quickly turn into a mad scramble if the two Manchester clubs win on Sunday.

chelsea-vs-arsenal

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

Arsenal enjoyed 59% of ball possession because the Blues were happy to sit back and hit the visitors on the fast break. A quick look at a few stats may give the impression that it was an even contest. Chelsea mustered 6 shots on target compared to 5 for the Gunners. According to Squawka, the Blues won 15 of 45 tackles while Arsenal won 19 of 48. And according to the club’s website, the Gunners won 52.8% of their duels compared to 47.2% for Chelsea. So where should we look to understand why Arsenal trailed 3-0 in the second half?

First, we should notice that Chelsea capitalized on turnovers to score 3 goals. The Blues are basically a counterattacking team. To kickstart their transition game, they rely on interceptions. Chelsea made 17 interceptions compared to 10 for the Gunners, which helps explain why the Blues created 10 chances compared to 7 for Arsenal.

Second, Chelsea’s attacking players worked harder than their Arsenal counterparts. Costa, Hazard and Pedro combined to make 13 tackles, 4 interceptions and 3 blocks compared to 11 tackles, 0 interception and 1 block for Sanchez, Ozil, Iwobi and Walcott. That poor defensive contribution from the attacking players is the main reason why Arsenal couldn’t keep a compact shape.

Working as a unit

The stats are telling us that Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t fare too poorly compared to Kante and Matic. Coquelin and the Ox combined to win 5 of 14 tackles and make 1 interception and 9 blocks, while Kante and Matic combined to win 5 of 15 tackles and make 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. So why did we feel like the Gunners were outplayed in midfield?

The explanation is pretty simple. Arsenal didn’t work as a unit. When the Ox had the ball in the 21st minute, he was quickly surrounded by 3 Blues and lost possession as Coquelin and Ozil failed to come to his rescue. Coquelin made 10 tackles but won only 2 of them because he was swamped in midfield.

Many fans blamed Wenger’s team selection for the 2-1 defeat against Watford. The manager made three changes to the side that lost last Tuesday with Bellerin, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott replacing Paulista, Ramsey and Giroud in the starting lineup. The performance at Stamford Bridge showed that it’s really the team’s attitude that is preventing Arsenal from working as a unit. The Gunners have already conceded 28 league goals, 11 more than Chelsea. They are on pace to finish the season with 44 goals allowed, 8 more than in the previous campaign.

Improving defensive awareness

Chelsea’s opening goal in the 13th showed the lack of defensive awareness from the wingers. Some poor allocation of resources led Ozil, Iwobi and the Ox to surround Kante while leaving Moses unmarked on our left flank. In a perfect world, Ozil would have tracked Moses, Monreal would have marked Pedro, Mustafi would have kept an eye on Costa, and Koscielny would have been the sweeper (I initially thought Iwobi was in charge of marking Moses, but it was in fact Ozil for the simple reason that Iwobi was playing in midfield while Ozil started on the left wing). See the screen capture below.

chelsea-01aedWhat should have been the marking duties when Hazard finds Moses. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

Ozil’s lapse of concentration completely changed the marking duties, forcing Monreal to close down Moses, Koscielny to mark Pedro, Mustafi to track Hazard and Bellerin to handle Costa. See the screen capture below. Obviously, Costa vs. Bellerin is a bad matchup in the air.

chelsea-02edOzil’s marking mistake forces 4 Gunners to adjust tactically. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

When Pedro is about to make the cross, Walcott is 15 yards away from Alonso, who potentially has a free volley. See the screen capture below. Pedro picks out Costa, who outjumps Bellerin to send a header crash against the bar. The rebound falls into the path of Alonso, who runs in front of Walcott to beat Bellerin to the ball and head into an empty net.

chelsea-03edWalcott neglecting his defensive duties. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

You have to question Walcott’s professionalism on that play. Walcott lacked the desire to get ahead of Alonso for the rebound. The England international proved casual again in the 32nd when an unmarked Alonso squared the ball back for Pedro, whose first-time effort was spilled around the post by Cech.

Where’s the enforcer?

The second goal in the 53rd showed how Koscielny and Mustafi were badly exposed because of the poor protection provided by the midfielders. Hazard won a second ball and shrugged off Coquelin before toying with Koscielny to shoot past Cech. The way Hazard strolled from the halfway line to the Arsenal box speaks volumes about our soft midfield.

Arsenal used to boss the midfield at Highbury with Petit, Vieira and Gilberto. The Gunners have been missing that kind of enforcer since the move to the Emirates. Xhaka was supposed to be the answer to our midfield woes but he has struggled to curb his instincts, receiving 2 red cards and giving away 2 penalties in the Premier League.

Coquelin left Mustafi and Koscielny exposed a couple of times because he dived in and missed the ball. Mustafi was booked in the 23rd for crashing into Hazard while Koscielny was lucky to escape punishment in the 10th for a challenge from behind on Costa. Coquelin formed a great partnership with Cazorla in the past two seasons but I tend to think that Maitland-Niles is a more complementary option alongside the Ox, who won 68.8% of his duels, the highest percentage among the central midfielders according to the club’s website.

The Blues put the result beyond doubt in the 85th when Fabregas intercepted a sloppy pass from Cech to make it 3-0 with a lob. A clearance was obviously the safer option for Cech on that play.

Sanchez’s poor performance

Ozil often gets a free pass for his poor defensive contribution because of his ability to create chances. That kind of tactical gamble didn’t pay off against Chelsea as Ozil finished the game with only 2 key passes, the same number as the Ox who worked much harder. When Ozil makes no effort to win the ball back after losing possession, it can send a negative signal to his teammates. Why should they press and defend if Ozil, the highest paid player in the squad, is not doing it?

Sanchez is often praised for his work-rate but his performance on Saturday was really poor. He had no shot, no key pass, and was dispossessed 4 times. While Hazard and Pedro rose to the occasion for Chelsea, Ozil and Sanchez were outshone by the Ox, a second-choice player.

The Gunners had opportunities to level in the first half but were not as clinical as Chelsea. Ozil slipped a through ball to Walcott, who was let down by a poor first touch while making a run between Cahill and Luiz in the 35th. Then Paulista met a cross from the Ox for a free header in the 38th, but couldn’t beat Courtois from 8 yards. On the stroke of halftime, Ozil took a pass from Coquelin and cut inside to fire a low strike straight at Courtois.

Let’s get physical

Wenger replaced Coquelin with Giroud in the 65th and Walcott with Welbeck in the 69th. Welbeck headed a cross from Mustafi in the 78th to force a diving save from Courtois. In stoppage time, Giroud scored a consolation goal by heading a cross from Monreal into the bottom corner. The France striker was heavily criticized after his poor performance against Watford, but he got at Stamford Bridge the service he didn’t have last Tuesday.

Arsenal will need a strong performance against Hull next Saturday to prevent the atmosphere at the Emirates stadium from becoming toxic. You can bet the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade will be loudly heard if the Gunners can’t reach halftime with the lead. I think it would hurt the club if those fans call for the manager’s resignation. A wiser approach would be to wait for the last game of the season before staging any protest.

A finish outside the Top 4 would be the only scenario that would really put the board under pressure. Also, let’s remember that Manchester City and United may not finish ahead of Arsenal despite spending more money in the transfer window. Yet, Guardiola and Mourinho will still be in charge of their respective clubs next season.

The Tigers have probably seen how Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford created problems by turning the game into a physical contest. The Gunners should be mentally ready for a lot of duels. They will miss Xhaka through suspension and Ramsey through injury and maybe Bellerin, who suffered a concussion on the opening goal.

 

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Gunners grind out 2-1 win despite Xhaka’s red card

The Gunners scored in the eighth minute of stoppage time to move into second place in the Premier League with a 2-1 victory over Burnley on Sunday. However, I still don’t see them as serious contenders this season. First, they trail Chelsea by 8 points. Of course, there are 16 league games left. That means 48 points up for grabs. But the Blues have been incredibly consistent so far, dropping points in just 4 games. Chelsea lost to Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, and drew with Swansea at the beginning of the season when Conte had not switched to a back three yet. By contrast, the Gunners have conceded 5 draws and 3 defeats. It’s OK to lose to Liverpool and Manchester City and draw with Tottenham and Manchester United, but dropping points against weak or average sides like Leicester, Middlesbrough, Bournemouth and Everton has significantly hurt Arsenal’s title bid. And second, the Gunners have a tougher schedule than some of their rivals. Spurs are 1 point behind Arsenal but they have already played Chelsea and Manchester City in the second half of the season while the Gunners haven’t faced any Top 6 team yet.

arsenal-vs-burnley

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

Moss, the referee, was under the spotlight for a couple of questionable calls. Xhaka’s ejection in the 65th minute was the least controversial one. The Switzerland international definitely deserved a red card for his reckless two-footed lunge on Defour. What really upset Wenger was the penalty that Moss awarded to Burnley in the second minute of stoppage time. Coquelin tripped Barnes while trying to control the ball. It was pretty similar to the play involving Koscielny and Ki a week ago. Coquelin flicked out a leg and withdrew it when he saw Barnes intercept the ball. There was contact, but was it enough to give a penalty? Wenger disagreed with the referee and got sent off after Gray converted the spot kick.

Bournemouth’s playbook

Managers usually rely on consistency to assess a referee’s performance. Wenger probably had in mind the penalty shout ignored by Moss in the 56th when Gray shoved Mustafi from behind while challenging for the ball. Honestly, it was a soft penalty, the kind of call that can go either way. But then, Coquelin’s foul was a soft penalty too. So where’s the consistency?

Then, Sanchez made a cross for Koscielny in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Koscielny met the cross but was kicked in the head by Mee. If Moss thought Coquelin’s foul was a penalty, there’s no way he could not award a penalty to Arsenal for Mee’s dangerous kick. Sanchez scored the winner with a cheeky Panenka and threw his shirt in the crowd after the final whistle.

It looks like the weak and average sides are taking a leaf out of Bournemouth’s playbook by turning the game into a physical contest. After the match, Wenger described Burnley as “a team who made the game very uncomfortable” for Arsenal. The Gunners enjoyed 70% of ball possession but struggled to create clear-cut chances, mustering just 8 shots on target compared to 7 for the visitors.

There was no mid-week game, yet Arsenal played at a too average tempo to really trouble a well-organized Burnley side. The Clarets showed more commitment by winning 18 of 49 tackles, while the Gunners only won 7 of 22 tackles according to Squawka. They also added a touch of cynicism to prevent Arsenal from punishing them on the fast break. Lowton received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 58th and Marney got booked for a cynical foul on Ozil in the 73rd.

Poor service for Giroud

As a sign of Arsenal’s lack of penetration, most of our chances came from crosses or long-range efforts. Ozil had a curling shot tipped around the post by Heaton in the 14th while Sanchez tested the Burnley goalkeeper with a low drive in the 40th. The Gunners struggled with the quality of the final ball but they put the Burnley defense under pressure the few times their delivery proved accurate. Koscielny connected with a cross from Ramsey in the 15th for a header straight at Heaton. Giroud then redirected a cross from Sanchez in the 48th toward Ramsey, whose backheel flick sailed over the bar. Mustafi finally opened the scoring in the 59th by nodding a corner from Ozil into the bottom corner. Arsenal could have doubled the lead in the 89th when the Clarets poorly cleared a cross from Bellerin. The loose ball fell to Coquelin, whose powerful strike was parried by Heaton.

Sanchez showed great composure to convert his penalty but I thought his finishing was poor a couple of times. He headed wide a long ball from Mustafi in the 10th and missed the target with curling shots in the 42nd and 49th. The Chile striker also held onto the ball too long and was dispossessed 5 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Sanchez has made progress in improving his understanding with Giroud, but it still doesn’t come naturally.

Giroud didn’t get much service although he’s a dominant player in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 20th when Ozil found him with a low pass. Giroud made poor contact with the ball for a first-time effort that rolled wide. Sanchez and Iwobi are great options for plays on the ground but crosses from the wings aren’t their forte. Maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been a better choice to feed Giroud. Despite the lack of opportunities, Giroud contributed by making 2 key passes and winning 3 of 5 headers.

A costly lapse of concentration

Xhaka was having a good game until his red card. Besides his 3 key passes, tied with Ozil, Sanchez and Iwobi for the most by any player, Xhaka was the only Arsenal midfielder who won a tackle on Sunday, according to Squawka. He also won 85.7% of his duels, the best percentage for any midfielder according to the club’s website, and helped his team evade Burnley’s high press with his passing range, hitting 8 accurate long balls out of 9.

His ejection resulted from a lapse of concentration and some poor judgment. For a split second, Xhaka lost his focus and failed to realize that the Clarets were cutting his passing options. When Defour intercepted his risky pass for Paulista, Xhaka panicked and made a reckless challenge on the Belgium midfielder although Mustafi and Koscielny were covering him. A similar lapse of concentration from Xhaka cost Arsenal a goal in the 3-2 win over Swansea last October. Can Xhaka quickly learn his lesson like Koscielny did after his first season in England? Koscielny is now the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense but he was just as reckless as Xhaka when he joined the club in 2010.

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka is still a work in progress. I felt Ramsey could have contributed a bit more defensively. The Wales midfielder made no tackle and no interception. Offensively, Ramsey made 2 key passes and had 5 successful dribbles out of 6, but none of his 4 goal attempts was on target. His failure to clear the ball in stoppage time led to the Clarets’ equalizer. Koscielny initially won the header from a Burnley throw-in and the second ball fell to Ramsey, who was reluctant to clear the danger with his left foot. Ramsey put Coquelin in trouble by awkwardly knocking the ball with his right foot. Coquelin couldn’t control the ball with his first touch and ended up tripping Barnes.

Bellerin & Coquelin return

In a strange game of symmetry, the Clarets also relied on crosses and long-range efforts to create chances. Cech turned around the post a diagonal drive from Barnes in the 16th before Marney fired straight at the Czech goalkeeper in the 60th. The Gunners struggled again to stop crosses from their left flank. Lowton capitalized on a Sanchez turnover in the 13th to make a cross for Barnes that Cech intercepted. Burnley could have taken the lead in the 28th when Boyd picked out Gray, who rolled away from Xhaka only to shoot straight at Cech. Boyd made another teasing cross in the 44th but Cech beat Gray to the ball. In the second half, Keane hit a long ball toward Vokes, who outjumped Mustafi to flick the ball on. Barnes beat Paulista to the second ball, but Koscielny managed to block the striker’s close-range attempt.

Within a few months, Koscielny and Mustafi have built a solid partnership at centerback. Koscielny acts like a sweeper, relying on his positional play and sound reading of the game, while Mustafi is a pro-active defender, more mobile and more involved in the team’s passing game. When Mustafi was dispossessed by Gray in the 20th, Koscielny killed the counterattack with a timely tackle. At 24, Mustafi is still a young centerback. He must learn to refrain from making silly fouls like the one in the 71st that allowed Defour to test Cech with a dangerous free kick.

In his return from an ankle injury, Bellerin came off the bench to replace Ozil in the 88th as Wenger was trying to protect his team’s lead. I expect Bellerin to start the next games at rightback since Paulista doesn’t have the Spaniard’s pace and passing skills. Paulista only won 16.7% of his duels, the lowest percentage among all the defenders. His passing accuracy reached 92.5% but it’s a misleading stat because a lot of Paulista’s passes went sideways or backward. He only made 1 cross compared to 3 for Monreal.

Xhaka’s second red card in the Premier League means that he will miss the next 4 games. It also means that the manager will have no room for rotation in midfield since Elneny is still on national duty with Egypt while Cazorla may not return before April. Coquelin, who made his return from a hamstring injury by replacing Iwobi in the 69th, will therefore team up with Ramsey until mid-February.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Resilience makes up for sins of youth in 3-3 draw

Giroud scored in the second minute of stoppage time to salvage a 3-3 draw with Bournemouth on Tuesday as the Gunners slipped to fifth place in the Premier League. Pundits said before the game that Arsenal needed to win at the Vitality stadium to stay in the title race, but I already had my doubts when the Gunners couldn’t beat Middlesbrough in October. Their inability to get a point against Everton and Manchester City last month made me more skeptical. Actually, it’s quite foolish to think about the title now that the Red Devils are just two points behind Arsenal in the standings. The league has become so competitive this season that finishing with 80 points may not even guarantee a Champions League spot.

bournemouth-vs-arsenal

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

The Gunners trailed 3-0 on Tuesday because of some unbelievable naivety at the top level. Daniels cut inside Bellerin in the 16th minute to beat Cech from close range. Instead of diving in, Bellerin should have closed the inside door and forced Daniels to take his chance from a tight angle. Four minutes later, Xhaka gave away a penalty by shoving Fraser from behind. That was a silly foul because Fraser was running toward the corner flag while Bellerin was covering Xhaka. Wilson converted the spot kick by firing down the middle to double the lead.

The game turned into a nightmare for Bellerin in the 58th when Fraser bullied the Spaniard to win the ball and slip it through Cech’s legs for a 3-0 lead. Bellerin tried to be too cute on that play. As the last defender, he should have simply cleared the ball into touch. There was also a moment when Xhaka failed to smell the danger. In the 12th, Xhaka gave too much space to Stanislas, who slipped a through ball to Wilson. Cech quickly came off his line to knock the ball away. If you are reluctant to close down an opponent, at least you have to cut the passing channel and Xhaka didn’t.

Xhaka’s bad instincts

To a certain extent, I am not surprised that Xhaka and Bellerin made those mistakes. Only Iwobi was younger than those two players in Arsenal’s starting lineup. I still think that Bellerin is a world-class player but he really had a poor game by his own standards. Bellerin had clearly not recovered from Sunday’s game as he won none of the 3 tackles he made. The Spaniard was even booked in the 31st for a late challenge on Fraser.

Throughout his career, Xhaka has often struggled to control his temper. The Switzerland international has tried to curb his instincts since his red card against Swansea, but he was let down by some poor self-control in the play that led to Bournemouth’s penalty. Wenger will need to have a word with Xhaka. That’s not a new situation for the manager since his former captain, Vieira, still shares the Premier League record for the most red cards received by a player (8).

It was a complicated game for Xhaka, who had to play in a more defensive role after Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced an injured Coquelin in the 28th. Xhaka only produced 71 passes, which is not much for a deep-lying playmaker, but he made a significant defensive contribution by winning 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He wasted a couple of set pieces in the first half with a poor delivery that failed to beat the first man. That’s when you realize that you really miss Ozil’s quality delivery, especially with a Giroud so dominant in the air. Somehow, Xhaka made amends in the second half by creating Arsenal’s second goal and making the assist for the equalizer.

A Frenchie’s revolt

We can give some credit to the Gunners for not giving up despite a three-goal deficit. As an example of their resilience, they won more tackles than Bournemouth: 13 of 35 tackles for Arsenal compared to 8 of 25 tackles for the Cherries, according to Squawka.

Giroud proved the key player in leading the revolt by making two assists and netting the equalizer. He held off Cook in the 70th to redirect a cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain toward the far post where Sanchez headed home. Five minutes later, Giroud flicked a pass from Xhaka toward Perez, who volleyed into the far corner to make it 3-2. In stoppage time, Giroud outjumped Cook to head Xhaka’s cross into the bottom corner.

The Frenchman’s work-rate was quite impressive. He made 4 tackles and won 5 of 10 headers. Giroud even killed a Bournemouth counterattack with a sliding challenge on King in the 52nd. There was a minor injury scare as King stamped on Giroud’s ankle on that play. Giroud also played in the position of a centerback in the 82nd when Paulista was pulled out of position. Gosling managed to roll away from Giroud but sent his curling shot wide with just Cech to beat. Down 4-2, it would have been game over for the Gunners.

In stoppage time, Cech parried an angled shot from Arter to salvage a point. I thought Cech made some decent saves but nothing outstanding. I can’t help wondering whether De Gea or Courtois would have stopped Fraser’s goal from a tight angle. Cech was lucky to get away with a poor punch in the 56th. The ball fell to Arter, whose long-range strike deflected off Wilson’s hand to go into the net. The goal was disallowed for a handball but quite honestly it was similar to Koscielny’s goal against Burnley.

Lack of rotation

In the end, the draw was a fair result. The Cherries dominated the first half while Arsenal dominated the second half. Bournemouth played at a high tempo in the first half and the Gunners simply couldn’t cope with the intensity because of a lack of freshness. The energy levels of the Cherries dropped after the break while Arsenal somehow caught a second wind in the last 30 minutes.

At kickoff, I felt Wenger didn’t rotate enough. The manager only made 3 changes to the side that defeated Crystal Palace 2-0 on Sunday with Mustafi, Coquelin and Ramsey replacing Paulista, Elneny and Perez in the starting lineup. Wenger is right to complain about the schedule. But then, he has to understand the implications and adapt. Bellerin, Koscielny and Iwobi clearly looked jaded. In hindsight, Holding, Paulista and Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been better starting options.

Koscielny had a decent game, making 2 interceptions and winning 2 of 2 tackles and 3 of 5 headers, until a bout of cramping led to his replacement by Paulista in the 64th. You can bet the manager would have been crucified if it had been a serious injury. In his return from a hamstring injury, Mustafi proved hyperactive with 8 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 blocks. He made a crucial sliding tackle in the 34th when Wilson made a run in behind the defense. However, his decision to set the offside trap in the 82nd was quite dodgy.

Ramsey in search of form and consistency

The situation in midfield is becoming a concern after Coquelin picked up a hamstring injury. Cazorla won’t return before March, Elneny is with the Egypt squad for the African Cup of Nations, and Ozil is still recovering from illness. That means we only have two established midfielders available: Xhaka and Ramsey.

Coquelin’s injury was unexpected since he didn’t even start against Palace and had therefore enough rest. The manager sent on the Ox for Coquelin in the 28th, as Xhaka teamed up with Ramsey in midfield. Ramsey is still struggling to get back on top of his game. His season has been marred by injuries so far.

In midfield, Ramsey will have to find the right balance between defense and attack. He let his team down by not marking Daniels in the 16th. Bellerin took the blame for the opening goal, but if you look at the screen capture below, you can see that the Spaniard was busy tracking Fraser. In fact, each Arsenal defender was marking one player before Stanislas made a cross-field pass to Daniels. That means Ramsey had to show more defensive awareness and cover the space created by Fraser’s movement.

bournemouth-b-edited

Ramsey does not pay attention to Daniels, who has plenty of space to run into (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Ramsey still lacks a bit of sharpness as none of his 4 goal attempts was on target. The Wales midfielder controlled a cross from Sanchez in the 29th for an effort that Ake deflected out. He then connected with another cross from Sanchez in the 86th for a volley that sailed wide. On the bright side, Ramsey had 3 successful dribbles out of 4 and made 79 passes, more than any other player. His passing accuracy also reached 93.7%, the highest percentage for any player according to whoscored.com.

Season on the line at Swansea

The Cherries were down to 10 men after Francis made a two-footed challenge on Ramsey in the 82nd. However, Arsenal had gathered plenty of momentum by then. The turning point was arguably the shift to a 4-4-2 formation with Perez replacing Iwobi in the 63rd. Perez netted his first Premier League goal and could push Walcott out of the starting lineup if he keeps scoring and showing great work-rate. The Ox also made a good cameo appearance with 3 key passes and 3 accurate crosses, the most for any player. He also won 2 of 3 tackles and made 1 interception and 1 block.

The next league game against Swansea on Jan. 14 has suddenly become massive because of the two points dropped at Bournemouth. Our season could slip away if we can’t beat Swansea, Burnley and Watford this month. There’s enough quality in the squad to rest key players on Saturday when the Gunners face lower-league Preston in the FA Cup. We simply have too many players injured (Cazorla, Coquelin, Gibbs, Walcott) or still recovering (Ozil, Mertesacker, Welbeck) right now to make another silly gamble.