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Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Gunners show defensive nous in 1-1 draw

Are the Gunners improving under Emery? Well, they salvaged a point in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool and looked more solid defensively than in the losses to Manchester City and Chelsea at the start of the season. Those are definitely small steps in the right direction. The Gunners are no title contenders, but they have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish. They slipped to fifth place in the standings, 1 point behind Tottenham but 3 clear of Manchester United. It’s important for Arsenal to perform well against the big clubs because results against the Citizens, the Red Devils, Liverpool, Spurs and the Blues will determine their chances of a Top 4 spot.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Gunners were switched on defensively, winning 51.6% of the duels and making 10 interceptions to 4 for Liverpool, according to the club’s website. They also showed good discipline by conceding only 7 fouls. But it’s not completely Emery’s team yet. Arsenal enjoyed 62% of Wengeresque sterile possession with Xhaka (97), Holding (82), Mustafi (81) and Torreira (64) finishing the game as the players who made the most passes. The Gunners especially suffered from a lack of penetration in the final third with just 5 successful dribbles to 13 for the Reds, according to whoscored.com. Nelson’s return next season will be a huge bonus since he’s the only natural dribbler in the squad. The English teenager notched his fifth Bundesliga goal in Hoffenheim’s 4-1 rout of Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.

Having a clearer idea of what is the best team

Emery anticipated Liverpool’s high-energy style of football as he injected some freshness in the starting lineup by making 9 changes to the side that edged Blackpool in the League Cup with only Mustafi and Mkhitaryan retaining their starting spots. Maybe the more important figure is the 2 changes he made to the side that drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace the previous weekend with Mkhitaryan and Kolasinac replacing Iwobi and Guendouzi in the starting lineup. Emery seems to have a clearer idea of what his best team is.

In midfield, Emery seems to believe that Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil are his best options. At the start of the season, Emery toyed with the idea of playing Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder, but that experiment bore no fruit. He therefore moved Ozil from the right wing to the No. 10 position. In central midfield, Emery started Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in the first 5 games. However, it proved a flawed tandem because both players were too similar and the team simply lacked a true ballwinner to protect the defense. Emery therefore played Torreira alongside Xhaka in a more complementary partnership.

In the front three, Emery initially trusted Aubameyang to lead the line. But the Spanish manager had a change of heart and Lacazette has become the first choice for the centerforward position since the Cardiff game. Because of his goalscoring abilities, Aubameyang seems to have a small lead over Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck for the wide positions.

At the back, there hasn’t been much stability because of injuries. The only certainty is that Emery prefers Bellerin and Monreal to Lichtsteiner and Kolasinac in the fullback positions. Sokratis and Mustafi were Emery’s favorite centerback pairing at the start of the season, but Holding’s recent performances and Koscielny’s return from injury could change the situation this month.

The importance of positional play

Xhaka and Torreira were the main reason why Arsenal seemed less open than against Manchester City and Chelsea. They combined to win 4 of 7 tackles, have 1 turnover and make 1 block, 2 interceptions and 25 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Torreira led all midfielders by winning 80% of his duels. He made a timely tackle on Salah in the 32nd, cleared a rebound to prevent a tap-in from Gomez in the 45th and outperformed Fabinho in the midfield battle. While Emery showed patience and eased Torreira into a new league, Klopp hasn’t enjoyed much luck with Fabinho, who wasn’t up to speed on Saturday.

Torreira obviously focused on his defensive tasks but he nearly scored in the 63rd minute, playing a one-two with Mhkitaryan before testing Alisson with a powerful strike from 18 yards. The Uruguay international left everything on the pitch and even suffered from cramping in stoppage time. The only blemish in his performance was his positional play in the 18th when Mane’s goal was disallowed for offside. Firmino plays as a false nine, which means that he will often drop off in the space between the defense and the midfielders. Torreira should have tracked Firmino instead of letting Mustafi deal with a 1v2 situation.

A week after Xhaka gave away a penalty with a clumsy challenge on Zaha, there were some jitters in the crowd when the Switzerland international made a sliding tackle in the 22nd. But Xhaka cleanly knocked the ball away from Salah and that duel set the tone for the rest of the evening. Emery will probably show Xhaka the positional mistake he made on the opening goal, failing to patrol the edge of the area as Milner pounced on a rebound in the 61st to fire home from 16 yards. Offensively, Xhaka mustered a tame low drive in the 14th and created a chance in the 39th.

Adapting to Emeryball

Both Xhaka and Torreira had to work their socks off because Ozil and Aubameyang contributed very little defensively. Ozil and Aubameyang combined to make 0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block and just 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website. By contrast, Mkhitaryan still managed to win 1 tackle and make 6 recoveries in 68 minutes.

Ozil led all players with 4 key passes. The German playmaker cut the ball back to Bellerin for what could have been the winner in the 88th, but Bellerin couldn’t catch the frame with his weaker left foot. We all know that Ozil will never dominate a big game like Zidane, so it’s a small consolation that he didn’t disappear from this one.

Mkhitaryan is struggling to adapt to Emeryball. The Armenia international only has 1 goal and 1 assist from 8 league games this season. That’s not good enough for a player of his quality. Mkhitaryan made 2 key passes on Saturday but no defense-splitting pass. He set up Aubameyang in the 31st and Torreira in the 63rd for long-range efforts. Emery made the right call in the 68th by replacing Mkhitaryan with Iwobi. The Nigeria international brought more directness, making a teasing cross that Ozil couldn’t meet in the 76th. Although Iwobi moved to the leftback position in the 81st when Welbeck replaced Kolasinac, he still found a way to have an impact in the final third. Iwobi slipped the through ball that led to Lacazette’s equalizer in the 82nd.

Same situation, different decision

Up front, Lacazette had a disappointing game until that stroke of genius. He connected with a cross from Kolasinac in the fourth minute only to flick the ball straight at Alisson. In the past seasons, you can bet that Giroud would have done better with those flicks at the near post. Lacazette had another chance in the 39th but from a much tighter angle. Ozil diverted a lobbed pass from Xhaka into the path of Lacazette, who fired wide of the far post. A minute later, Mustafi knocked the ball down for Lacazette, who volleyed home from close range, but the goal was disallowed for an offside position from the German defender. Then Lacazette made a decisive run in the 82nd, beating Alisson to the ball. Running toward the corner flag to shield the ball, Lacazette was almost in a situation similar to the play that led to Crystal Palace’s equalizer. But instead of playing the ball back to a Gunner outside the area, Lacazette spun to curl a shot into the far corner.

Emery prefers to use Lacazette as a false nine, coming short to link up play, instead of relying on Aubameyang’s pace to lead the line. To a certain extent, Emery has given Aubameyang the Walcott role: a forward making diagonal runs in behind but with a limited contribution in the build-up play. The big difference is that Walcott could still cross with his stronger foot from the right flank whereas Aubameyang has to play on the left wing because Ozil and Mkhitaryan are more comfortable on the right wing.

Aubameyang had a poor game, winning only 20% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 55.6%, the lowest percentage for any starter. He also led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The Gabon striker had efforts deflected out in the 14th and 31st and mistimed his jump to head a cross from Ozil over the bar in the 39th. Aubameyang’s best contribution was the cross he made for Mkhitaryan in the 16th. Mkhitaryan beat Alisson to the ball but missed the target with his 11-yard header. Emery yanked Aubameyang off to send on Ramsey in the 73rd.

Leno’s mistakes

At the back, Kolasinac struggled in his return from injury, winning 40% of his duels and 0 of 2 tackles while making 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. Salah had Kolasinac in his pocket and the Reds could have caused more damage if they had created more situations isolating Salah with Kolasinac. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international lacked defensive awareness in the 69th, allowing Mane to run in front of him. Fortunately, Salah overhit his cross for Mane. Then Van Dijk lost Kolasinac in the 74th to meet a corner and force a save from Leno.

On the opposite flank, Bellerin was a doubt before the game but managed to play with his right thigh strapped. Bellerin did OK, winning 33% of his duels and 2 of 2 tackles while making 1 block, 1 interception and 3 recoveries. The Spaniard lost a key duel in the 70th when Firmino outjumped him to head a corner wide. Because of his recovering thigh and Mane’s threat down the right flank, Bellerin was more cautious with his forward runs. He still produced a through ball for Mkhitaryan in the 51st but Van Dijk outmuscled the Armenia international.

Leno made a couple of fine saves, denying Van Dijk in the 23rd and saving Robertson’s low strike in the 24th, but he also made 2 high-profile errors. The German goalkeeper was in no man’s land when Van Dijk headed a free kick against the post in the 45th. That was really poor decision-making from Leno to come off his line since Van Dijk was 14 or 15 yards away from goal. Then Leno should have either caught Mane’s cross in the 61st or knocked the ball toward the touchline. Redirecting the cross toward the middle of the box was the worst option as Milner pounced on the rebound to open the scoring. Leno also tried to play out from the back with goal kicks, but Liverpool’s high press forced him to opt for a long kick in the 26th. That was smart decision-making since the Reds were prepared for that kind of situation and you can’t afford any mistake near your area with players like Salah, Mane and Firmino.

Holding stepping up

Sokratis’ injury has given Holding the opportunity to prove himself again after shaky performances under Wenger. On Saturday, Holding and Mustafi made their 6th start together this season. When Sokratis is fit, it will be interesting to see which centerback combination Emery prefers.

Holding had stats as good as Mustafi. The English defender won 70% of his duels and 3 of 4 tackles and made 1 block, 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries, compared to 90% of duels won, 2 of 4 tackles won, and 1 block, 4 interceptions and 2 recoveries for Mustafi. Both had their good and bad moments. Holding headed out Robertson’s cross for Firmino in the fifth minute and blocked Salah’s final ball for Mane in stoppage time. However, Holding also made a sloppy pass in the 34th and lost a key duel against Van Dijk in the 45th.

After his error against Crystal Palace, Mustafi had to try and convince his doubters again. Mustafi made a timely tackle on Firmino in the fifth minute but a couple of plays exposed his weaknesses. He showed poor decision-making in the 18th by playing the offside trap instead of tracking Firmino. Mane’s goal would have stood with VAR technology. Then Van Dijk ghosted past Mustafi to meet a cross from Salah in the 23rd but was denied by Leno. Mustafi was definitely guilty on the Liverpool goal as Mane outpaced the German defender to make his cross.

The Gunners next play Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Wolverhampton in the Premier League on Sunday. Those are both home games so Emery might decide to limit rotation, especially since there’s an international break afterwards. Arsenal would secure qualification for the knockout phase of the Europa League with a victory over the Portuguese side. Such a scenario would allow Emery to play more youngsters for the remaining games against Vorskla and Qarabag.

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

The Gunners edged Blackpool 2-1 on Wednesday to next play Tottenham in the League Cup quarterfinals. They made life difficult for themselves with a silly red card in the second half. The third-division Seasiders proved toothless in the first half, giving Arsenal plenty of time on the ball. After Guendouzi’s ejection in the 56th minute, Blackpool started pressing high up the pitch and could have equalized to force a penalty shootout.

Arsenal vs. BlackpoolPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery made 9 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace on Sunday with only Mustafi and Guendouzi retaining their starting spots. In a 4-3-3 formation, Guendouzi played behind Ramsey and Maitland-Niles in midfield while Smith-Rowe teamed up with Mkhitaryan and Welbeck in the front three. The numerous changes led to a lack of fluency in Arsenal’s passing game. The Gunners also lacked penetration in the final third as they had no natural dribbler in their starting lineup.

  1. Smith-Rowe is making an impact

The English teenager scored the winning goal with an awkward effort in the 50th, volleying a rebound into the ground, but the ball looped over a defender and into the net. I’ve already said that Smith-Rowe reminds me of a young Raul because of his flair for finding good positions in the final third. Some fans have suggested that he could be a replacement for Ramsey in midfield but I think second striker will be Smith-Rowe’s best position.

  1. Guendouzi showed his immaturity

Traditionally, you play a ballwinner as your holding midfielder because you want protection for your defense. But in the modern game, more and more managers like to have a deep-lying playmaker in the No. 6 role to build play from the back. That can become a problem when the deep-lying playmaker has poor defensive instincts.

Knowing that Guendouzi had a history of making silly fouls at Lorient, Emery gambled again by playing him as a holding midfielder. The French teenager was booked in the 21st for a late challenge on Thompson. He then received a second yellow card for pulling back the Blackpool midfielder in the 56th.

Some fans complained that the referee was too harsh. But at least the referee showed consistency by sending O’Connor off in the 84th for a late tackle on Aubameyang. To Guendouzi’s credit, he created the opening goal in the 34th with a cross that Lichtsteiner diverted home.

  1. Cech made another blunder

In his return from injury, Cech had a poor game. He was in no man’s land when O’Connor headed a corner against the bar in the 53rd. Then Cech lost possession while trying to dribble past Spearing inside the area in the 70th. The ball fell to Delfouneso, who scored into an empty net, but the goal was disallowed for an offside position.

The crowd had jitters each time the ball was played back to Cech. It wouldn’t make sense for Emery to start Cech in the Premier League after Leno’s recent string of good performances. Cech was the player who made the most errors leading to a goal in the Premier League last season. Emery could limit the damage by using Cech in the Europa League and the cup competitions.

  1. Jenkinson could be the last of the Mohicans

A few years ago, Jenkinson was part of the British core with Ramsey, Wilshere, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gibbs. Four of them have departed the club and Jenkinson will be the only one left next summer if the Gunners don’t renew Ramsey’s contract. It was a mistake from the staff to extend Jenkinson’s contract because he was arguably the most limited player in that British core. Arsenal must sell him next year otherwise Jenkinson will leave for free in 2020.

In his return from injury, Jenkinson created the second goal with a cross-shot that Howard palmed into the path of Smith-Rowe. Emery will certainly be upset that Jenkinson gave away 3 free kicks with unnecessary fouls from behind in midfield. If the Spanish manager needs an alternative at leftback, he should give a chance to Pleguezuelo, who had a good game at centerback. Pleguezuelo showed good composure and was comfortable on the ball. But at 5’11, he’s unlikely to shine as a centerback, especially in the Premier League.

  1. Maitland-Niles gives Arsenal more options in midfield

After breaking his leg in August, Maitland-Niles made his return from injury last week by playing with the U23 team. On Wednesday, Maitland-Niles played 60 minutes before Emery yanked him off to send on Torreira in an effort to protect the defense. Maitland-Niles made a decent cross for Ramsey in the 44th but the Wales midfielder missed the target from a tight angle. He’s definitely an interesting option on the bench because he doesn’t have the same profile as Xhaka, Guendouzi, Torreira, Ramsey or Elneny.

  1. Mustafi keeps disappointing

He was supposed to become the next leader of the Arsenal defense when the club signed him in 2016. But Mustafi has mixed decent performances with poor ones since then, struggling in his positional play and making reckless challenges. Mustafi lost the key duel that led to Blackpool’s goal in the 66th as O’Connor beat him to the ball to head in a corner.

 

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: 2-2 draw ends Gunners’ winning streak

The Gunners ran out of luck on Sunday as they gave away two penalties to draw 2-2 with Crystal Palace. They trail Chelsea by 2 points in the Premier League but still hold onto fourth place after Manchester City edged Spurs tonight. The target for this season is 76 points (that is, 2.00 points per game), knowing that Liverpool finished fourth in the past two seasons with a minimum of 75 points. The Gunners are on course to at least match that total with 22 points from 10 games so far.

Crystal Palace vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

For 27 minutes, it looked like Arsenal would win ugly again. But the Gunners couldn’t protect their 2-1 lead and conceded the equalizer in the 83rd minute. The draw was a fair result as the Eagles proved the more threatening team with 16 goal attempts compared to just 7 for Arsenal.

Emery made 6 changes to the side that won in Lisbon last Thursday with Aubameyang, Guendouzi, Xhaka, Holding and Leno retaining their starting spots. Despite those changes, the Gunners looked a bit jaded, playing their third game in a 7-day span. They enjoyed 58% of Wengeresque sterile possession because the lack of movement led to a passing speed too slow to destabilize the Palace defense. It was no surprise if the Arsenal centerbacks and central midfielders finished the game as the players who made the most passes: 74 for Mustafi, 74 for Guendouzi, 73 for Holding and 72 for Torreira, according to the club’s website.

Tactically, the Eagles targeted the Arsenal fullbacks as Zaha and Townsend led all players with 3 key passes each. Bellerin coped well with Zaha on the right flank. The Spaniard was obviously more cautious with his forward runs but he still managed to be in a scoring position in the 24th minute. Ozil squared the ball back to Bellerin, who took 2 touches before firing a shot that was blocked. Bellerin lacked spontaneity on that play. A first-time effort with his left foot was the more natural option, but Bellerin preferred to shift the ball to his stronger right foot.

Playing Xhaka out of position

Bellerin suffered a muscle strain and was replaced at halftime by Lichtsteiner, who had a hard time with Zaha. Lichtsteiner fouled Zaha from behind in the 63rd and got booked in the 79th for a mistimed challenge on the Palace winger. In his 45-minute cameo, Lichtsteiner did very little with just 1 tackle won, 0 interception and 1 ball recovery, compared to 1 tackle won, 1 interception and 5 recoveries for Bellerin, according to the club’s website. It’s not the first time this season that the game has looked too quick for the Switzerland international.

On the left flank, Emery’s gamble backfired. Xhaka survived in the previous games against Ghezzal and an aging Nani, but he faced a sterner test against Townsend and Zaha. In the 15th, Townsend toyed with Xhaka before making a cross for an unmarked Zaha, who hit the base of the post. Bellerin was marking McArthur on that play, while Iwobi was late to cover Bellerin at the far post. A minute later, Van Aanholt played a one-two with Zaha before feeding Townsend, who missed the target from close range. Van Aanholt ran past Bellerin on that play while Townsend got ahead of a static Xhaka. A counterattack in the 82nd fatally exposed Xhaka’s lack of mobility. Zaha fooled Xhaka with a couple of stepovers, and instead of backing down, Xhaka stuck out his left leg to trip Zaha. The referee awarded a penalty that Milivojevic converted to salvage a point for the Eagles.

Xhaka deserves some credit for getting the Gunners back in the game by netting a curling free kick inside the far post in the 52nd. But you could tell that Xhaka didn’t feel comfortable in the leftback position with a passing accuracy of 72%, compared to 82% for Bellerin and 81% for Lichtsteiner. Xhaka tried hard, winning 2 of 4 tackles and 57% of his duels and making 1 interception and 5 recoveries. But the unfavorable matchup ultimately proved his undoing. I believe Emery should have started Lichtsteiner or Holding in the leftback position. Holding played as a fullback at Bolton before joining Arsenal and might have reacted more cautiously in a 1v1 situation with Zaha.

Using the weaker foot, or not

The opening goal also came from a defensive error. Leno weakly punched away a corner on the stroke of halftime. The ball fell to Tomkins, who chested it down to have an awkward effort blocked by Bellerin. The loose ball rolled toward Kouyate, who was brought down by Mustafi. The German defender was in a good position to make a block and had no reason to panic and dive in. Milivojevic converted the subsequent spot kick to give Palace the lead. In his third season at Arsenal, Mustafi still can’t refrain from making those reckless tackles. That’s a problem for a club in need of a leader at the back. Koscielny is 33 and past his prime while Sokratis is 30 and lacks the recovery pace to play a high defensive line.

Up front, Lacazette worked his socks off with 5 tackles made, 1 interception and 5 ball recoveries. But he was quite inefficient in the final third. Lacazette failed to catch the frame with an 18-yard strike in the 22nd and crossed the ball out of play in the 38th. His decision-making was incredibly poor in the 82nd. Leading a counterattack, Iwobi found Lacazette inside the Palace area. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Lacazette had 3 good passing options with Welbeck and Ramsey at the near post and Guendouzi at the far post.

Crystal Palace M82edLacazette takes a pass from Iwobi and has 3 passing options. (Photo credit: NBC)

The best option would have been to cut the ball back for Ramsey. But Lacazette refused to cross the ball with his left foot and ran toward the corner flag to check back onto his right foot and make a sloppy cross toward Torreira in midfield. Meyer intercepted the ball and the Eagles hit Arsenal on the fast break with Zaha taking on Xhaka to earn a decisive penalty. Lacazette was also involved in the controversial play that led to Aubameyang’s goal in the 56th. With his hand, the French striker diverted Xhaka’s corner toward the far post where Aubameyang stabbed the ball home. The goal-line technology confirmed that the ball had crossed the line by less than an inch. But there was no VAR technology to cancel the goal for Lacazette’s blatant handball.

Ramsey’s olive branch

Aubameyang is a typical poacher. It doesn’t make sense for him to play on the left wing. Aubameyang should lead the line since he’s stronger in the air and faster than Lacazette. Emery yanked Aubameyang off in the 78th to send on Ramsey. The Wales international played in a three-man midfield as the Gunners switched to a 4-3-3 formation with Welbeck, Lacazette and Iwobi in the front three. Ramsey had an opportunity to score the winner in the 89th but he couldn’t connect with Xhaka’s cross and Hennessey caught the ball.

After the Lisbon game, Ramsey pretty much dangled an olive branch in front of the board by asking why the club withdrew their contract offer. Ramsey also said he had agreed the deal, although he didn’t sign it. The situation is more complex than it seems. Ramsey and the club were negotiating in the summer before the talks broke down at the end of September. The board definitely wanted a quick resolution. They didn’t want a repeat of the Sanchez-Ozil situation with negotiations lasting forever and driving salaries up while creating uncertainty around the squad. On the other hand, it was in Ramsey’s interest to have long negotiations and use offers from other clubs to obtain a significant raise. If Emery and the board want to keep Ramsey, they could test his good faith by asking him to sign the deal that was on the table. Now the big question mark is how much bad blood there was between both parties during the negotiations.

I believe the club should make one last effort to keep Ramsey. The Gunners don’t have any natural replacement for the Wales midfielder in their squad. In fact, that kind of box-to-box player is a rare commodity in the Premier League. Ramsey notched 0.71 goal and assist per Premier League game last season. That’s a much better return than Pogba (0.59), Gundogan (0.17), Milner (0.09) and Wijnaldum (0.09). Of course, you can find midfielders with similar stats (De Bruyne, Silva, Eriksen), but keep in mind that they are playmakers and not box-to-box players like Ramsey.

An anonymous Ozil

The only other British player with a similar potential is Loftus-Cheek. But the big difference here is that Loftus-Cheek is still an unknown quantity at 22 while Ramsey is a proven big-game player -Ramsey scored the winning goal in two FA Cup finals.

Another reason to extend Ramsey’s contract is the issue of leadership. Ramsey is one of the 5 captains named by Emery. The other captains are Cech, Koscielny, Xhaka and Ozil. Both Cech and Koscielny are past their prime, Xhaka is a flawed player and Ozil has never been a leader. That leaves Ramsey as the only decent choice for the armband. As the current longest serving player at the club, Ramsey also has the legitimacy to be Arsenal’s standard-bearer.

If the staff and the owner were British, Ramsey’s contract would have been a no-brainer. Most fans can easily see Ramsey become what Gerrard was for Liverpool or what Scholes was for Manchester United. Unfortunately, Kroenke is American, Sanllehi and Emery are Spanish, Mislintat is German and Gazidis is South African. They may not have the same understanding of the club’s identity as the fans.

A few months ago, the board gave Ozil a new contract (£350,000 a week). Why they were so generous with Ozil and more strict with Ramsey is a big mystery. After his passing masterclass against Leicester, Ozil had a poor game at Selhurst Park with 0 goal attempt and only 1 key pass. Ozil didn’t even play against Sporting Lisbon and was therefore well rested, so he had no excuse for his anonymous performance. Emery replaced Ozil with Welbeck in the 68th. Out of frustration, Ozil threw his gloves on the ground as he left the pitch.

The problem with this Arsenal team is that they have no consistent performer in the creative positions. Iwobi was the alternative to Ozil for creating chances. But the Nigeria international had 0 key pass, and 8 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. He also won only 22% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any Gunner according to the club’s website. I didn’t really understand why Emery left Mkhitaryan on the bench.

Getting the priorities right

In central midfield, Torreira had a decent game, winning 1 of 3 tackles and 71% of his duels and making 3 interceptions and 9 ball recoveries. Torreira didn’t reach the heights of his performance against Leicester (13 recoveries) or Fulham (6 interceptions), but he showed on Sunday that he has adapted to the pace and physicality of the Premier League within a couple of months. Now the Uruguay midfielder wins the 50-50 duels and better uses his body to shield the ball and draw a foul. It’s no coincidence if Torreira was the most fouled player (4) on the Arsenal team.

Alongside Torreira, Guendouzi produced a high-energy performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 50% of his duels and making 1 interception and 11 recoveries. The French teenager also cut his turnover rate (3) but he still needs to release the ball more quickly. In stoppage time, Guendouzi reacted like a seasoned pro by killing a counterattack with a cynical foul on Meyer.

The Gunners next play Blackpool in the League Cup on Wednesday and Liverpool in the Premier League on Saturday. The Blackpool game is the perfect opportunity for Emery to blood some youngsters and rest some first-team players who need a break. The Spanish manager must get his priorities right because the Liverpool game could make or break our season. The Gunners have never led at halftime in the Premier League this season. They will need a much better start to have a chance against the Reds.

Arsenal vs. Leicester: Ozil doing his magic in 3-1 win

The Gunners stretched their winning streak to 10 games in all competitions as they rallied past Leicester 3-1 on Monday to stay fourth in the Premier League, ahead of Spurs on goal difference. When you keep winning, it’s a fantastic boost for your confidence but it can also lead to a bit of complacency. Arsenal clearly lacked intensity in the first 30 minutes. Did they think that they would get 3 points just by showing up? Somehow, they stepped up their game after Leicester took the lead in the 31st minute.

Arsenal vs. Leicester.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Monday’s game was similar to the World Cup semifinal between England and Croatia. The tactical battle was not in midfield but on the flanks. In the first half, the England wingbacks forced the Croatia wingers to defend. In the second half, the Croatia fullbacks charged forward while the Croatia wingers played higher up the pitch, putting the England wingbacks on the back foot.

In a 3-5-2 formation, the Foxes did some damage with their wingbacks in the first half. The visitors especially exploited the space behind the Arsenal fullbacks. Capitalizing on a turnover in the second minute, Ndidi slipped the ball to Iheanacho, who made a run down our left flank before cutting inside to muster a shot deflected out by Holding. Iheanacho then turned Holding in the 10th to feed Vardy, but Leno quickly came off his line to collect the ball. Leicester finally broke the deadlock in the 31st when Ndidi found Chilwell, who outpaced Bellerin to make a cross that the Spaniard diverted into his own net.

Emery only fixed the problem in the second half when he replaced Mkhitaryan and Lichtsteiner with Aubameyang and Guendouzi in the 61st. Iwobi was moved from the left wing to the right wing but the big tactical surprise was Xhaka’s shift to the leftback position. In fact, Xhaka didn’t have to roam forward like Lichtsteiner: Xhaka’s new task was to patrol the left flank in Arsenal’s half while Aubameyang created havoc in Leicester’s half.

Pinning back the wingbacks

Suddenly, Aubameyang and Iwobi created more problems for Pereira and Chilwell. Pereira even earned a yellow card in the 65th for holding Aubameyang on a counterattack. On the right wing, Mkhitaryan’s tendency to drift inside played into the hands of the Leicester defense whereas Iwobi provided more width. On the left wing, Aubameyang was a bigger goal threat than Iwobi.

The Gunners took the lead in the 63rd when Bellerin made a run in behind Chilwell to cross the ball for Aubameyang, who tapped home from close range. It was then Pereira’s turn to be in trouble in the 66th. Pereira started the play more than 20 yards behind Aubameyang and only managed to catch up after the Gabon striker converted Ozil’s pass for a 3-1 lead. That goal forced Puel to switch to a back four in the 69th when Ghezzal replaced Perreira.

Much has been said about Emeryball and the Spanish manager’s decision to play out from the back and press high up the pitch. I think the Gunners still have a lot of room to improve in those 2 areas. Yes, they have scored some spectacular goals while building play from the back. But they’ve also put themselves in some uncomfortable situations because they simply don’t have the same margin for error as Manchester City. Likewise, Arsenal’s pressing game is far from the standards of Liverpool. For instance, the lack of pressing for Leicester’s opening goal was quite embarrassing.

For me, the last goal is really what defines Emeryball so far. Torreira ignited the action by switching play from the left flank to the right. Ozil kept the momentum alive with a backheel flick toward Guendouzi, who released Bellerin down the right wing. Bellerin then found Lacazette, who played Ozil in. Instead of taking his chance, Ozil made a chipped pass for Aubameyang, who flicked home from 4 yards. Of all those players, Bellerin was the only one who took more than one touch.

The value of the first-time pass

There were also goals with some nifty one-touch passing under Wenger -Wilshere’s goal against Norwich being the most obvious example. But the key difference here is Emery’s willingness to take risks inside Arsenal’s half with first-time passes. The Gunners tended to play it safe inside their own half under Wenger with many passes between the centerbacks and the central midfielders. Under Emery, they reach the final third much more quickly.

Some fans expected Emery to use a 4-4-2 formation again after the 5-1 demolition of Fulham. But Emery decided to build his team around Ozil with a 4-2-3-1 system, leaving Ramsey and Aubameyang on the bench. On paper, the starting lineup put a lot of pressure on Ozil to contribute offensively because Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are not prolific scorers. Emery’s choice paid off as Ozil was heavily involved in Arsenal’s 3 goals.

Ozil made deep runs a la Ramsey for the equalizer and the last goal. On the stroke of halftime, Ozil ran 30 yards with the ball before releasing Bellerin down the right flank. The German playmaker kept running to meet Bellerin’s cross and guided the ball inside the far post with a first-time effort from 12 yards. For the last goal, Ozil made a backheel flick inside his own half before running 60 yards to set up Aubameyang. Ozil pretty much played like a No. 8 for those 2 goals.

In a fantasy world, Ozil and Ramsey would play in front of Torreira in central midfield, a bit like De Bruyne and Silva do with Fernandinho at Manchester City. In the real world, Arsenal would probably be in trouble against the big teams because of Ozil’s poor work-rate and Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline.

A passing masterclass

Ozil played in the more traditional No. 10 role for Arsenal’s second goal, slipping a through ball to Bellerin with a perfectly weighted pass. Everybody knows that Ozil is a world-class player. Yet, the Foxes gave him plenty of space and time to make that pinpoint pass. Ozil received a deserved ovation from the crowd when Ramsey replaced him in the 79th. In his passing masterclass, Ozil reached a passing accuracy of 91.2% according to the club’s website and even won 85.7% of his duels, which is an unusually high percentage for him.

Should Emery keep playing Ozil in the hole instead of using him on the right wing where he has often been a peripheral figure this season? The problem with Monday’s starting lineup is that Arsenal lacked Aubameyang’s speed for the first 60 minutes. As Lacazette came short to have the ball played to his feet, the Foxes did not hesitate to play a high defensive line. Lacazette has decent pace but he doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric speed to make lethal runs in behind.

When Aubameyang came off the bench, the Leicester defense dropped off to prevent him from making those runs in behind. The last 2 goals showed that Aubameyang is a pure finisher as he wasn’t involved in the build-up to those goals. It’s very selfless from him to play on the left wing, knowing that he proved himself as a prolific scorer with Borussia Dortmund.

Lacazette had an off day with only 1 of 4 shots on target. He should have scored in the 78th when Ozil laid the ball on a plate for the Frenchman. Watching the replay, I think the angle of Lacazette’s run made it difficult for him to net with his right foot. Which begs the question: do you trust your chocolate leg to score from 3 or 4 yards?

Torreira as the heartbeat of the team

Despite his lack of efficiency, Lacazette kept working hard, intercepting Ndidi’s back pass in the 50th to create a half-chance. He also contributed to the last goal with his link-up play. I still believe that Lacazette would be better used as a second striker than as a centerforward. Lacazette often prefers to escape marking with a run at the far post when a run at the near post would be the more natural option.

On the wings, Mkhitaryan struggled to make an impact. The Armenia international had 0 of 2 shots on target and made 0 key pass. His best chance came in the 50th when he pounced on a rebound for a half-volley that sailed wide. Iwobi showed more end product with 1 shot on target and 2 key passes as well as good work-rate with 4 of 4 tackles won and 5 ball recoveries. The Nigeria international made a smart run to break the offside trap in the 35th but couldn’t trap the long ball from the Arsenal defense. He then took a pass from Ozil in the 42nd to test Schmeichel with an angled effort.

Obviously, Iwobi has improved under Emery but he still needs to work on two issues at least: his turnover rate and his final ball. He led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. One of his sloppy passes led to a dangerous fast break in the 17th, forcing Holding to get booked for a cynical foul on Iheanacho. I felt the quality of Iwobi’s final ball was not good enough in the 49th when his high cross evaded Mkhitaryan.

In central midfield, Torreira was a rock with another outstanding performance. He was the heartbeat of the team, leading all players with 92 passes, a passing accuracy of 91.3% and 13 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Uruguay international also had 0 turnover, compared to 2 for Xhaka and 1 for Guendouzi. Besides his defensive work, Torreira played the role of attacking springboard, too. He made the interception for the equalizer, made a decoy run for Arsenal’s second goal, and initiated the switch of play for the last goal.

Injury crisis at the back

Despite Torreira’s presence, Xhaka had a hard time in midfield. Xhaka gave away a cheap free kick by grabbing Maddison in the 15th, earned a yellow card for a late challenge on the Leicester starlet in the 35th, and nearly got a second booking for vehemently asking for a foul in the 54th. It was quite a gamble from Emery to play Xhaka in the leftback position for the last 30 minutes, especially under the threat of a second yellow card. His lack of mobility will always prevent Xhaka from becoming a true ballwinner. In a contending club, Xhaka wouldn’t be a starter. The question for the Arsenal staff is what kind of midfielder should they sign next summer: another holding midfielder as an upgrade over Xhaka and Elneny, or a box-to-box player if Ramsey leaves the club?

At the back, Emery had to cope with an injury crisis and called up Medley from the academy. Lichtsteiner started in the lefback position because both Monreal and Kolasinac had hamstring issues. The Switzerland defender had a poor game, winning only 20% of his duels and making no tackle, no block and no interception, according to the club’s website. On the opposite flank, Bellerin lost his duel against Chilwell on the opening goal but got his revenge on the equalizer with a cross that Chilwell failed to stop. Bellerin notched a second assist with his low cross for Aubameyang in the 63rd.

Mixing man-marking and zonal marking

Injuries to Koscielny, Sokratis and Mavropanos meant that Holding kept teaming up with Mustafi in the heart of the defense. Mustafi headed away a dangerous cross from Pereira in the 12th and won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage for any Arsenal defender according to the club’s website. Mustafi had a relatively quiet evening as Vardy seemed to suffer from a stomach ache. By contrast, Holding had a harder time with Iheanacho. Holding got away with a handball in the 17th while challenging Ndidi in the air. A penalty would have been harsh since Ndidi prevented Holding from jumping by putting an arm on his shoulder. Holding also hit the risky long ball that led to Leicester’s goal.

Leno was less busy than against Fulham with just 2 saves made. He turned around the post a curling shot from Iheanacho in the sixth minute and pushed away Maguire’s downward header off a free kick in the 20th. The only blemish in Leno’s performance was his failure to beat Ndidi to the ball on a corner in the 58th. Arsenal used a mix of man-marking and zonal marking on that play. Man-marking: Lichtsteiner, Bellerin and Iwobi were in charge of slowing down Maguire, Evans and Ndidi, who started their run-up from beyond the penalty spot. Zonal marking: Holding, Mustafi and Xhaka were standing near the 6-yard line in pockets where the Foxes were most likely to head the ball. Iwobi failed to block Ndidi’s run and the Leicester midfielder got ahead of Holding to head the ball onto the bar. It might have been a different story if the Foxes had led 2-1.

I expect Emery to rotate for the Europa League game against Sporting Lisbon on Thursday. The schedule until the next international break is quite hectic, so it wouldn’t make sense to risk any injury in a competition where the Gunners have very good chances to qualify.

 

 

Fulham vs. Arsenal: Emery makes tactical tweak in 5-1 win

The Gunners snatched 4th place from Spurs in the Premier League by smashing Fulham 5-1 on Sunday for their 9th straight win in all competitions. Cynics will point at the schedule. It’s true that the Gunners haven’t faced any top club during that winning run. But it’s still an improvement compared to last season when Arsenal badly struggled on the road under Wenger, even against the weak sides.

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

Emery had a surprise for the fans at Craven Cottage. The Spanish manager relied on a 4-2-3-1 formation for the first 7 league games. On Sunday, he switched to a flexible 4-4-2 system with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings and Lacazette and Welbeck up front. It morphed into a 4-2-3-1 formation when Welbeck swapped positions with Iwobi on the left wing or when Mkhitaryan drifted inside and Lacazette made runs on the right wing.

Other teams have resorted to that kind of tactical flexibility. During the World Cup, France played in a 4-4-2 formation while attacking. But when the French lost possession, they would shift to a 4-3-3 system with Matuidi moving from the left wing to central midfield and Griezmann drifting wide to defend on the left wing. Likewise, Klopp is known for using a 4-3-3 formation at Liverpool. But when the Reds lost possession in the Champions League last season, they would morph into a 4-4-2 system with Salah staying up front with Firmino while Mane dropped deeper to defend.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M4ed.jpgArsenal’s 4-4-2 formation at Craven Cottage. (Photo credit: BT)

A manager should be able to make tactical changes instead of always sticking to the same formation. It’s about creating problems for the opponents and figuring out what’s the best system for an optimal use of the players. I felt Wenger was too conservative in his last years at the club. That’s why it was such a shock when he switched to a back three in April 2017 for the first time in 20 years. Maybe Arsenal could have finished in the Top 4 that season if Wenger had made that decision earlier. Who knows.

Element of surprise

The main advantage of the 4-4-2 formation is that Lacazette and Aubameyang can play together in their best positions. Aubameyang replaced Welbeck in the 62nd minute to lead the line alongside Lacazette until Emery yanked Lacazette off to send on Guendouzi in the 81st. During that 19-minute spell, the Gunners scored 2 goals.

Another advantage of the 4-4-2 system is that Ramsey is more comfortable on the right flank than in the No. 10 role. Ramsey played on the right wing when he replaced Iwobi in the 67th. Wenger already used Ramsey in that position. Some managers might be tempted to play Ramsey in the hole behind the striker when they check his stats for goals and assists. But they should rather take a look at his position on the pitch at the start of the plays where he scores or makes an assist. Ramsey has enough room to make his late runs from central midfield or from the right wing while there’s no element of surprise when he plays like a second striker.

Emery made 6 changes to the side that started the Europa League game in Azerbaijan with Monreal, Holding, Leno, Iwobi and Welbeck retaining their starting spots. Ozil was not in the squad because of a back strain while Ramsey and Aubameyang were on the bench for different reasons: Aubameyang had just recovered from illness and Ramsey’s wife was expecting twins.

The Gunners showed diversity in their scoring. Arsenal’s first two goals came from long balls, the third and the fourth capped counterattacks and the fifth was the result of playing the ball out from the back. Lacazette gave the lead to the Gunners with a low effort on the turn in the 29th. He made it 2-0 by taking his chance from 25 yards and firing into the bottom corner in the 49th. Lacazette also played a key role in the build-up to the third goal in the 67th, showing a great understanding with Ramsey and Bellerin. His work-rate was quite impressive as he won 2 of 2 tackles and made 7 ball recoveries, tied with Xhaka and Torreira for the most by an Arsenal player, according to the club’s website. The only blemish in Lacazette’s outstanding performance was his 5 turnovers.

Welbeck as a target man

Lacazette and Aubameyang have scored 4 goals each in the Premier League this season. During his 30-minute cameo, Aubameyang showed what he could do in the centerforward position, notching 2 goals and 1 assist. Aubameyang crossed the ball to Ramsey for the third goal. The Gabon striker then controlled a cross from Bellerin and spun to bury the ball into the far corner for a 4-0 lead in the 79th. He sealed the win in stoppage time by collecting a through ball from Ramsey to beat Bettinelli with a 16-yard strike.

Welbeck is not in the same class as Lacazette and Aubameyang. The England international had 0 shot but worked selflessly for his teammates, leading all Gunners with 3 key passes, including an assist for Lacazette’s second goal. At times, Welbeck played the role of target man as he was involved in 8 aerial duels in Fulham’s half, according to whoscored.com. If the Gunners can’t beat the press, then they need an out ball and Welbeck is the most obvious choice because of his physicality, pace and aerial abilities.

On the left wing, Iwobi made the penultimate pass for the opening goal, slipping the ball to an overlapping Monreal. The Nigeria international also made a pinpoint cross for Mkhitaryan, whose effort was blocked in the sixth minute. Iwobi led all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 6 but also had the lowest passing accuracy for an Arsenal player with 65%, according to the club’s website. He still needs to work on his decision-making as he wasted a good situation in the 13th. If you look at the screen capture below, you will see that Iwobi could have picked out an unmarked Mkhitaryan at the far post while the Fulham defense was busy with Welbeck and Lacazette. In the end, Iwobi took on Odoi and lost possession.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M13ed.jpgWelbeck and Lacazette are marked while Mkhitaryan is free. (Photo credit: BT)

Like Iwobi, Mkhitaryan struggled to have an impact in the Fulham area. He should have found the net in the 32nd when he met a cross from Welbeck for a sliding effort that didn’t trouble Bettinelli. Mkhitaryan still contributed to the scoreline by making the penultimate pass for Arsenal’s third and fourth goals, releasing Aubameyang down the left flank in the 67th and switching play with a crossfield pass to Bellerin in the 79th.

Speed of execution

At this stage of the season, Ramsey has a slight edge over Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi in Emery’s mind. The Wales international is more versatile than the other attacking midfielders and has better stats with 1 goal and 3 assists compared to 2 goals for Ozil, 1 goal and 1 assist for Mkhitaryan and also 1 goal and 1 assist for Iwobi.

The Gunners’ third goal summed up what Ramsey is all about and why it doesn’t make sense to play him in the No. 10 role. Bellerin won the ball inside the Arsenal area and found Ramsey near the corner flag. At the start of that play, Ramsey was 20 yards behind Lacazette. But by the time Aubameyang made the cross, Ramsey was more than 10 yards in front of Lacazette to score with a backheel flick inside the far post.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M67The passing chain for Ramsey’s goal. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The choreography of that swift counterattack almost looked like a ballet performance. That play was also a good example of verticality and speed of execution. The goal was the result of 9 passes involving 5 players (Bellerin, Ramsey, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang). There were 5 first-time passes and the other 4 passes only required 2 touches each. Bellerin’s backheel flick slowed down the play a bit, forcing Ramsey to head the ball twice, but it wasn’t enough to kill the momentum of the attack.

That kind of high-energy transition game is the reason why I think Ramsey would be a good fit for Liverpool. Ramsey would be a perfect replacement for an aging Milner although they don’t have the same profile. The Wales midfielder is a bigger goal threat while Milner has better defensive awareness. In his 25-minute cameo, Ramsey also made an assist, taking a pass from Xhaka to play Aubameyang in for the last goal. If you watch the end of the replay, you will only notice his through ball and his position in the No. 10 role. You have to watch the start of the play to understand that Ramsey’s main asset is his movement. Ramsey was on the halfway line when Xhaka got the ball. But then Ramsey ran into a pocket of space between the Fulham defense and the midfield to create danger.

A new song for Torreira

Emery should build the team around Ramsey and Lacazette. The trouble is that Arsenal recently withdrew their offer to Ramsey, which basically means that he will leave the club either in January or next summer. History is just repeating itself, unfortunately. Wenger also tried to build his team around two talented players: Ozil and Sanchez. We all know how the story ended. Sanchez joined Manchester United last January while Ozil stayed at Arsenal but with a fat contract.

The Gunners never managed to press as a unit under Wenger. Their best pressing effort was the 3-0 demolition of Manchester United in October 2015. But that 20-minute blitz against Van Gaal’s Red Devils was the exception that confirmed the rule. Arsenal simply lacked the personnel for a high press. If Wenger had made one key signing in midfield, it could have been a different story. But the French manager had too high hopes for Coquelin. It’s true that Coquelin and Cazorla formed a complementary duo in central midfield. However, Coquelin’s limitations prevented Arsenal from switching to a formation favoring a pressing game.

It’s quite ironic that the Gunners finally have that smart ballwinner now that Wenger is gone. With Torreira, Arsenal could have played a 4-3-3 a la Liverpool. If they had managed to keep Oxlade-Chamberlain last year, they could have deployed a three-man midfield with Torreira, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

On Sunday, many Arsenal fans acknowledged Torreira’s importance in the balance of the team by chanting his name to the tune of the old Vieira song. Torreira produced an outstanding performance, winning 78% of his duels, the most for any starting midfielder according to the club’s website. He also won 0 of 2 tackles, had 7 ball recoveries and made 6 interceptions, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Uruguay international has adapted to the physicality of the Premier League by better using his body to shield the ball and draw fouls. Torreira was fouled 4 times, the most for any Gunner.

Keeping the ball on the ground, or not

Xhaka had a decent game defensively, winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 interception and 7 recoveries. Offensively, the Switzerland international missed almost everything, overhitting a long ball for Welbeck in the eighth minute, sending a pass to nobody in the 51st and missing his pass for Iwobi in the 52nd. At least, Xhaka was able to spot Ramsey’s run for the last goal in stoppage time. It was a bit surprising that when Emery switched to a 4-3-3 system in the 81st to stuff the midfield, he moved Torreira to the right side and played Xhaka in the holding midfielder role. Maybe it was aimed to cover Bellerin on the right flank and contain Sessegnon’s runs.

The Cottagers lacked creativity when they had the ball. So it was no coincidence if their best chances came from Arsenal turnovers. Vietto intercepted a sloppy pass from Bellerin in the third minute and tested Leno with a drive that took a deflection off Holding. Then Holding underhit his pass for Monreal in the 18th, forcing the Spain international to rush and miss his clearance. Seri wasted the subsequent half-chance by overhitting his final ball for Mitrovic. The Gunners played again with fire while attempting to build from the back. Holding made a risky crossfield pass for Bellerin in the 42nd. Sessegnon intercepted the ball to feed Schurrle, who fired wide.

Fulham finally leveled in the 44th when Monreal missed his long ball for Welbeck. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Monreal had no short passing option because of Xhaka’s lack of mobility. His best passing options were Welbeck down the middle or Iwobi along the touchline. Iwobi was the safer option but required a lobbed pass to prevent an interception from Christie. Welbeck was the bolder option but required a ball over the top with a lot of accuracy to prevent the goalkpeeper from catching the ball. Monreal decided to keep the ball on the ground and it proved a costly mistake.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M44ed.jpgMonreal’s two best options to evade Fulham’s press. (Photo credit: BT)

Anguissa intercepted Monreal’s pass and slipped the ball to Vietto, who played Schurrle clean through on goal. The former Chelsea forward chipped Leno to level the game just before halftime. Monreal was out of position after his sloppy pass, forcing Holding to drift wide. Schurrle saw the gap between Holding and Mustafi and made a timely run between the two Arsenal centerbacks. Mustafi showed poor positional play by reacting too late to cover Holding and mark Schurrle.

A title bid?

Monreal made the assist for the opening goal but you still expect a fullback to ruthlessly patrol his flank. The Spaniard won only 38% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal defender. And Fulham wingback Christie had so much freedom that he led all players with 5 key passes. On Bellerin’s flank, Sessegnon only managed to make 2 key passes. Monreal was out of position in the seventh minute, leaving Xhaka in a 1v2 situation with Vietto and Christie. Vietto made a cross for Mitrovic, whose first-time effort was deflected out by Mustafi for a corner. Then Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses in the 24th and 61st.

Bellerin has been among the Arsenal players improving under Emery. He was involved in Ramsey’s goal and made the cross for Aubameyang’s first goal. Bellerin could have scored in the 48th but Bettinelli palmed away his powerful strike. His offensive contribution has never been questioned under Wenger but there were question marks about his defensive performance. It looks like Bellerin has found the right balance between attack and defense under Emery. Bellerin won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 block and 5 recoveries, compared to 2 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 3 recoveries for Monreal, according to the club’s website.

In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mustafi showed better discipline than in the previous games. The German centerback made no silly foul and had no turnover. He also won 71% of his duels, the highest percentage for any Arsenal defender. Besides his slow reaction on the equalizer, his only blemish was a passing accuracy of 68%, while centerbacks usually have a percentage above 80%.

Some fans are already talking about a title bid because the Gunners trail Liverpool, City and Spurs by just 2 points. I think it’s premature at this stage of the season. To have a shot at the title, Arsenal would need to keep winning against the weak and average sides while getting some points against the big clubs. The Gunners lost against City and Chelsea and they haven’t faced United, Spurs and Liverpool yet. By contrast, the Reds defeated Spurs and drew with City and Chelsea while beating clubs outside the Top 6. It will be interesting to see whether Emery sticks to a 4-4-2 formation after the international break.

 

Arsenal vs. Watford: Iwobi makes an impact in 2-0 win

The Gunners rode their luck in a 2-0 victory over Watford on Saturday to stay level on points with fourth-place Spurs in the Premier League. That seventh straight win in all competitions is giving Emery more time to figure out what his best starting lineup is.

Arsenal vs. Watford.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Saturday’s performance was similar to the Everton game a week ago. Nobody would have been shocked if Watford had come away with a draw. In fact, the Hornets outperformed Arsenal in the key stats: 14 goal attempts to 9, 6 big chances to 3, 5 shots on target to 2, 15 interceptions to 7 and 23 tackles to 10, according to the club’s website. The Gunners’ attacking play looked poor but a brief scoring spell in the last 10 minutes and some dreadful finishing from Watford made the difference.

Emery needed 5 league games to understand that the midfield pairing of Xhaka and Guendouzi was a flawed partnership. It’s only since Torreira has started alongside Xhaka that the midfield seems more balanced and that the Gunners have kept clean sheets. Now the question is: how many games Emery needs to realize that the attacking setup is dysfunctional? Here’s how the team looked like at kickoff:

Arsenal formation 4-2-3-1

On paper, it’s a 4-2-3-1 formation, but on the field, it often morphed into a narrow 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 system. The problem with the starting lineup is that Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ozil and Ramsey all prefer to play through the middle. So there’s an obvious lack of width when Ozil drifts inside and when Aubameyang makes diagonal runs to be in scoring positions. Ramsey occasionally moved to the left to make some space for Ozil and fill in the void vacated by Aubameyang, but that positional change impacted Ramsey’s main strength, which is to make penetrative runs.

Another issue with that starting lineup is the poor wing play. Ozil and Aubameyang barely combined with the fullbacks and also often left Monreal and Bellerin in 1v2 situations, allowing Holebas and Navarro to make dangerous crosses.

Can Ozil & Ramsey play together?

The front four is not clicking because Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey and Ozil can’t play together without at least 2 of them sacrificing their qualities. The main loser in that configuration has been Aubameyang because he doesn’t have the all-around game to play on the left wing. Instead of leading the line like in his former club Borussia Dortmund, Aubameyang suddenly becomes a bit player. Can Aubameyang and Lacazette play together? Of course, they can. A 4-4-2 formation would be the most obvious solution:

Arsenal formation 4-4-2

In that 4-4-2 formation, Iwobi or Welbeck would play on the left wing while Ozil or Mkhitaryan would play in the half-space between the right flank and the central area. Emery would also optimize Lacazette’s potential with that system because the France international is more a second striker than a pure centerforward.

Aubameyang and Lacazette could also play together in a traditional 4-3-3 formation:

Arsenal formation 4-3-3

Lacazette has the all-around game to play on the right wing like Salah does at Liverpool. His technique is good enough to make accurate crosses. That positional change shouldn’t affect Lacazette’s scoring record since he gets most of his chances on the right side of the area. To balance the attacking setup, a creative player would have to roam down the left wing. Iwobi seems more comfortable on that side of the pitch than Ozil or Mkhitaryan.

A more risky option would be Emery’s favorite 4-2-3-1 formation:

Arsenal formation 4-2-3-1 bis

Aubameyang and Lacazette could rely on service from Ozil and Iwobi in that system, but it would also make the Arsenal midfield more vulnerable because of Ozil’s poor work-rate and Xhaka’s lack of mobility.

Can Ozil and Ramsey play together? Under Wenger, it wasn’t an issue because Ramsey played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. As a result, the back four got very little protection. The partnership formed by Torreira and Xhaka this season is a bit more solid than the Ramsey-Xhaka duo. Emery might be tempted to pair Ramsey with Torreira, but Ramsey is not a pacesetter like Xhaka and has a higher turnover rate.

The only formation in which Ramsey and Ozil could play together without hurting the balance of the team would be a 4-3-3 system:

Arsenal formation 4-3-3 bis

It would mean that Aubameyang or Lacazette would have to be sacrificed. Lacazette might be willing to play on the left wing, but he would have to drift inside to be in scoring positions and the team would look narrow again.

Emery’s tactical rigidity

Emery doesn’t know what his best team is. He also doesn’t know how to optimally use some of his key players. In the second half, Emery tinkered tactically by asking Aubameyang and Ozil to swap positions. It didn’t really work. So he made two substitutions that finally provided the width his team needed, sending on Iwobi for Ramsey in the 63rd minute and Welbeck for Aubameyang in the 76th.

Maybe the most surprising part of Emery’s tenure at the club so far has been his tactical rigidity. The Spanish manager has used the same 4-2-3-1 formation for all his Premier League games. He could have tried a different formation more suitable for his best players. Managers like Guardiola, Pochettino and Mourinho are more flexible tactically.

At least, Emery is aware of the intensity of the game in England as he made 8 changes to the side that knocked Brentford out of the League Cup on Wednesday with only Monreal, Mustafi and Holding retaining their starting spots.

Although Lacazette finished the game with 0 of 4 shots on target, he was still involved in Arsenal’s best chances. Lacazette should have been awarded a penalty when Kabasele tripped him in the fifth minute, but Lacazette was too honest and stayed on his feet. Ten minutes later, Lacazette created his own chance by robbing Cathcart to be clean through on goal. With just Foster to beat, Lacazette sent his chip wide. He then managed to connect with a cross from Aubameyang in the 54th only to head the ball wide.

Lacazette’s efforts were finally rewarded in the 81st when he got ahead of Cathcart to meet a cross from Iwobi. The Watford defender could not sort out his feet and diverted the cross into his own net. Two minutes later, Lacazette swapped passes with Iwobi before setting up Ozil for the second goal. Besides the assist, Lacazette showed good work-rate, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 1 interception and 2 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website.

The understanding between Iwobi & Lacazette

By contrast, Aubameyang had a miserable afternoon with 0 shot, 0 tackle, 0 interception and 0 recovery. Two plays summed up his performance: he produced an air shot while attempting to volley Bellerin’s cross in the 39th and his ball over the top for Ozil bounced out of play in the 58th.

At 22, Iwobi could be starting to make the kind of impact that his breakthrough season suggested in 2016. He made the cross that led to the opening goal and it would have counted as an assist if Lacazette, and not Cathcart, had touched the ball. The Nigeria international also made the right decision on the second goal by slipping the ball to Lacazette instead of taking on a defender. The main positive from Saturday’s game is that Iwobi showed some good understanding with Lacazette whereas their connection on the pitch was poor last season.

Ozil was again a peripheral figure for most of the game. On paper, it wasn’t a game for him because of the Hornets’ physical approach. Until the 83rd minute, Ozil had 0 shot and 0 key pass. His best move in the first half was a lobbed pass for Monreal, who tried to find Lacazette with a header in the 21st. Surprisingly, Ozil’s technique let him down in the 24th. Aubameyang made a run in behind the Watford defense to be clean through on goal but Ozil overhit his long ball for the Gabon striker. Playing in a more central role after Emery’s substitutions, Ozil scored with his first goal attempt, side-footing Lacazette’s cross into the bottom corner. In stoppage time, Ozil made his first key pass of the game by heading the ball into Lacazette’s path.

Ramsey struggling under Emery

Despite his 2 assists against Everton, Ramsey is clearly struggling in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 system where he’s playing in a more advanced position than under Wenger. It’s true that Ramsey also plays as a free-roaming midfielder for the Wales team, but it’s because they lack quality up front to support Bale. The situation is completely different at Arsenal where Emery has many attacking options. Wenger preferred to play Ramsey in a deeper position because his late runs and his work-rate were more valuable in central midfield.

Ramsey had a poor game, leading all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, and winning only 30% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any midfielder according to the club’s website. His work-rate was average with 1 of 2 tackles won, 0 interception and 0 recovery, compared to 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 8 recoveries for Torreira and 1 of 2 tackles won, 0 interception and 5 recoveries for Xhaka.

Has Ramsey been affected by the breakdown of the contract talks with the club a few days ago? Whatever the outcome, it doesn’t reflect well on the Arsenal board because it creates an atmosphere of uncertainty around the squad. It’s also bad business because both Ramsey and Welbeck could leave for free next summer. It will be very difficult to find 2 players of the same quality with a transfer kitty of £60 million. Some fans want Emery to bench Ramsey because he has not committed to the club. But I have no problem with starting Ramsey if he can make a significant contribution on the pitch. I mean, the club’s priority is to finish in the Top 4. It would make no sense to weaken the team and hurt Arsenal’s bid for a Champions League spot.

Holding’s solid performance

In central midfield, Torreira’s performance was a mixed bag. He led all midfielders by winning 61.5% of duels, but he also had 4 turnovers, compared to just 2 for Xhaka. Torreira got a taste of the physicality of the Premier League when Hugues bullied him off the ball in the 18th. Ozil and Bellerin were also outmuscled by the Hornets. Out of frustration, Torreira tried to reply with a late challenge on Deeney in the 45th only to receive a yellow card. Torreira was credited with an error for giving the ball away in the 88th when Pereyra fired a speculative shot over the bar. However, I thought Torreira’s worst mistake was when he misread a play in the 75th and dived in, allowing Deeney to turn and play Success clean through.

Alongside Torreira, Xhaka had a low-key performance in midfield. Offensively, Xhaka tested Foster with a low drive in the 39th and sent a ball over the top for Monreal, whose sliding volley sailed wide in the 67th. Defensively, Xhaka was no match for the hard-working Capoue and Doucoure in midfield. The Switzerland international lost a key duel in the 36th when Kabasele outjumped him to head a cross from Holebas. But Cech made the save and managed to catch the rebound before Deeney could hit it. Xhaka also switched off defensively in the 17th when Hugues made a reverse pass to Deeney. The Watford striker ran past a static Xhaka to make a dangerous cross for Gray.

At the back, Holding produced a solid performance, winning 75% of his duels, having a passing accuracy of 89% and making 1 block, 3 interceptions and 9 recoveries, while Mustafi only won 45.5% of his duels, had a passing accuracy of 77% and made just 1 block, 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website.

Leno’s distribution

Holding made a crucial block in the 72nd, but two plays exposed his average pace. He lost a foot race with Gray, who chased a through ball from Deeney only to be denied by Leno in the 68th. Then Holding was on the wrong side of Success, whose chip brushed the far post in the 75th. Because Holding doesn’t have the recovery pace of a Koscielny in his prime, he must find a way to improve his reading of the game and his positional play.

The Hornets created many chances in great part because Mustafi had a poor game. Mustafi was caught ball-watching when Deeney knocked the ball toward an unmarked Hugues in the 11th. He also let Deeney run in front of him to meet a free kick from Holebas in the 52nd. His lack of composure led Mustafi to give away silly free kicks in the 23rd, 35th and 73rd.

The Gunners can definitely thank Leno for the clean sheet. He came off the bench to replace Cech on the stroke of halftime. Leno made a couple of outstanding saves, turning Deeney’s volley around the post in the 52nd, and denying Gray in the 68th and Cathcart in the 74th. His only dodgy moment was when he went for a high ball in the 57th and completely missed his catch. Leno will certainly start the next few games as Cech pulled his hamstring with a goal kick. The German goalkeeper had a much better distribution than Cech with a passing accuracy of 67% compared to 39% for the Czech veteran.

I expect Emery to rest his key players against Qarabag in the Europa League on Thursday because the Premier League game against Fulham on Sunday starts at noon. There’s a too big risk of injury with the long trip to Azerbaijan and the short rest between those 2 games.

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners keep 1st clean sheet this season

The Gunners are making baby steps under Emery. They reached halftime without conceding a goal for the first time this season against Newcastle in mid-September. On Sunday, they finally kept their first clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Everton to move 2 points clear of Manchester United in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. EvertonPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Sunday’s game was an interesting contest because on paper the Toffees are supposed to be direct rivals for European spots. It was an even game and Everton could have split the points if they had converted their big chances. But they didn’t because they had Calvert-Lewin and Walcott in their front three instead of more clinical finishers like Lacazette and Aubameyang. Arsenal had just 5 shots on target compared to 6 for the visitors.

The Gunners’ attacking play was poor in the first half even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that defeated Vorskla on Thursday with only Sokratis, Monreal, Torreira and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. There was more movement in the second half but Arsenal didn’t really look more threatening. To a certain extent, it felt like the Wenger team of last season: struggling to create chances before a brief scoring spell saved their day.

At the start of the season, Emery tried to impose his brand of football: playing the ball out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. After 6 Premier League games, it is safe to say that Emery will have to wait another season because right now he doesn’t have the personnel to implement it. Cech’s limited ball-playing abilities and Xhaka’s lack of mobility are liabilities when the Gunners try to break the press. Likewise, the Gunners struggle to press like a unit because only a couple of their midfielders have the work-rate and mobility to close down the ball holder. When you press, you must also squeeze play to prevent your opponents from finding space. That implies a high defensive line which exposes Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace. So my guess is that Emery can only make small adjustments in his first season at the club.

Cech’s outstanding saves

The Toffees had 2 golden opportunities to open the scoring in the first half. Calvert-Lewin beat the offside trap to collect a through ball from Davies in the second minute but he was denied by a tackle from Cech. Calvert-Lewin’s decision-making was poor on that play. If the Everton striker had squared the ball back, it would have been a simple tap-in for an unmarked Richarlison. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Everton M2 edited.jpgCalvert-Lewin should have passed the ball to Richarlison. (Photo credit: NBC)

On that play, there was no pressure on Davies. Was it up to Ramsey to drop off and close Davies down? Or was it Xhaka’s responsibility to charge forward even if it meant leaving a big gap in midfield? It will be Emery’s job to sort out that kind of tactical uncertainty in his post-match analysis. The lack of pressure from Xhaka and Ramsey made Arsenal’s high defensive line completely suicidal. Calvert-Lewin made a run in behind Sokratis and no one could catch him.

Everton’s second big chance in the 38th was quite similar. It all started with a 2v2 situation on the left flank with Sokratis and Monreal dealing with Walcott and Sigurdsson. From the moment Sigurdsson dribbled past Monreal, Sokratis was in deep trouble. Walcott made a run in behind Sokratis to take Sigurdsson’s pass and bear down on goal. Cech somehow stopped Walcott’s low effort with his leg. The difference between this play and Calvert-Lewin’s chance is that Walcott had no decent passing option because Mustafi and Bellerin were tightly marking Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.

Cech definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. The Gunners could have been trailing 2-0 at halftime without his outstanding saves. The Czech goalkeeper also tipped Digne’s free kick over the bar in the 31st, scooped Keane’s header around the post in the 71st, and parried long-range efforts from Richarlison in the 21st and Tosun in the 85th.

Bellerin’s hard time

Mustafi and Bellerin performed poorly at the back. The German centerback made a sloppy pass in the fourth minute, overran the ball and lost possession on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 29th, and gave away a dangerous free kick with a poor challenge on Richarlison in the 89th. There’s no way Mustafi could be the leader of the back four when Koscielny leaves the club. Let’s be honest, Mustafi wouldn’t even start for Manchester City, Liverpool or Tottenham.

Sokratis had to bail Mustafi out with a cynical foul on Walcott in the 29th. The Greek defender also picked up a knee injury and had to be replaced by Holding in the 38th. Holding’s stats were not impressive. He made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website. You kind of wonder whether it was because Holding was too passive or because the midfielders did a good job to shield the defense. Last season, Holding was let down by some poor decision-making as well as lapses of concentration. Those issues re-emerged on Sunday when Holding went on a dribbling run on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 54th.

On the flanks, Bellerin had a harder time than Monreal. Obviously, marking Richarlison is a more difficult task than dealing with Walcott. Digne’s forays down our right wing also left Bellerin in 1v2 situations quite a few times. Bellerin was the culprit for playing Calvert-Lewin onside in the second minute. He then made the mistake of letting Richarlison turn in the 10th. Richarlison also got the better of Bellerin in the 21st, the 44th and the 50th. In the closing minutes, Sigurdsson ghosted past Bellerin to hit the post with a cross-shot. To his credit, Bellerin provided some width down the right flank whenever Ozil drifted inside. The Spaniard created Arsenal’s first chance with a teasing cross in the 12th. Bellerin also tested Pickford with a drive in the 65th.

A complementary partnership

Emery is slowly putting together the pieces of the Arsenal puzzle. Torreira finally made his first Premier League start on Sunday. It’s easy to understand why Emery has been so cautious with Torreira. Because the pace of the game is faster in England than in Italy, Torreira might lose some of the 50-50 challenges that he would normally win in Serie A. Remember how Xhaka got sent off in his first season at the club because of mistimed tackles.

The first league games showed that the partnership formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi was flawed. Neither Xhaka nor Guendouzi is a natural ballwinner. Both are deep-lying playmakers. That’s why Torreira gives more balance to the team: his partnership with Xhaka is more complementary. In fact, that duo is very similar to the midfield combination in the other top clubs.

On Sunday, Arsenal finally played with a ballwinner (Torreira) and a deep-lying playmaker (Xhaka) like the Blues do with Kante and Jorginho, like Spurs do with Dier and Dembele and like the Citizens do with Fernandinho and Silva. The Reds are the exception here as they prefer to play with a holding midfielder (Henderson) in front of two all-rounders (Milner and Wijnaldum) who can both defend and attack.

A partnership between Torreira and Guendouzi might work too. Guendouzi may have more potential than Xhaka as a deep-lying playmaker, but Xhaka is in his prime while Guendouzi is still learning the ropes. In the big games, experience will help you have more composure in the final third. It will also help you recognize certain plays.

Some fans will point out that Arsenal still had a ballwinner a few months ago with Coquelin. However, Coquelin’s technique is more limited and he doesn’t read the game as well as Torreira. I mean there’s a reason why Coquelin never played for the France team while Torreira was a starter for Uruguay at the last World Cup.

Ramsey’s first assists

Torreira won 66.7% of his duels against Everton, the highest percentage for any Gunner according to the club’s website. His stats (1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 7 ball recoveries) may not look impressive, but Torreira’s tactical awareness and his underrated role in Arsenal’s attacking play really made a difference. He received a yellow card for a rash challenge on Sigurdsson in the 15th and Everton tried to get Torreira sent off when he inadvertently stepped on Digne’s hand with his trailing leg on the stroke of halftime.

The Uruguay midfielder created the opening goal by intercepting Davies’ clearance in the 56th. He also helped protect Arsenal’s two-goal lead by deflecting Sigurdsson’s shot in the 83rd and blocking Digne’s cross in the 84th. His only blemish was the ball he gave away in the 73rd but he somehow managed to recover the ball and draw a foul from Davies.

The Gunners maybe lacked a bit of creativity in midfield. They’ve lost Rosicky, Cazorla and Wilshere in the past couple of seasons and haven’t replaced them. While Torreira is an upgrade on Coquelin, Xhaka can’t really reach the level of a Cazorla. Ramsey and Ozil led Arsenal players with 2 key passes each, which is a low figure. By contrast, Sigurdsson led all players with 4 key passes.

At least, Ramsey finally got his first assists this season. He set up Lacazette for the opener in the 56th before teeing up Aubameyang for the second goal with a backheel flick in the 59th. The Wales midfielder also attempted a through ball that was intercepted by Pickford in the 45th and made a cross for Aubameyang that led to a penalty shout in the 55th. Emery yanked Ramsey off to send on Welbeck in the 80th.

Ozil’s work-rate in the 2nd half

Ozil has definitely been one of the players struggling to adapt to Emery’s style of football. While Wenger cajoled Ozil by giving him plenty of freedom first in a 4-2-3-1 formation and then in a 3-4-3 system, Ozil has become an ordinary cog under Emery. Ozil made only 38 passes on Sunday compared to 101 for Xhaka. His influence was limited by Gueye’s crazy work-rate. One of the best ballwinners in the league, Gueye made 10 tackles, 3 interceptions and 7 ball recoveries. That explains why Ozil had 5 turnovers, an unusually high number for him.

The former Germany international was a peripheral figure in the first half. His performance significantly improved after the break. He set up Ramsey for a low volley in the 49th before leading the counterattack for the second goal in the 59th. Ozil had so much time that he missed his pass for Ramsey, who kept the play alive with a backheel flick.

His critics will probably notice Ozil’s improved work-rate in the second half. Ozil won 2 of 4 tackles after the break. Is it the price Ozil must pay to stay in the starting lineup? To a certain extent, that made me think of Arshavin. The Russian forward barely contributed defensively when he arrived at Arsenal. But in his last seasons at the club, Arshavin earned the crowd’s appreciation by tracking back and even making tackles.

Until Koscielny’s return from injury, Emery will stick with Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis and Monreal at the back. In midfield, Torreira has made himself indispensable in the No. 6 role. Emery still has to figure out whether the team is more balanced with a three-man midfield a la Liverpool or with a midfield pyramid. The bigger concern is the attack which lacks fluency despite the goals scored. The Gunners also lack natural width because Ramsey, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette prefer to play through the middle.

Lacazette’s top-class finish

On Sunday, Ramsey occasionally moved to the left wing when Ozil drifted inside and Aubameyang made diagonal runs. One solution would be to play Lacazette on the right wing like Salah at Liverpool while moving Aubameyang to his favorite centerforward position. That still leaves open the question of who plays on the left wing as Aubameyang doesn’t have the all-around game for that.

Lacazette showed good work-rate by winning 2 of 3 tackles, and making 1 interception and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 aerial duels won, according to whoscored.com. The France international wasted a good situation in the 40th by attempting to shift the ball from his left foot to his right one instead of taking a first-time shot from 10 yards. The extra touch allowed Gueye to dispossess Lacazette and the chance was gone. Lacazette made amends in the 56th with a top-class finish, curling a powerful strike into the top corner. He also had a hand in the second goal by releasing Ozil down the right flank.

Boosted by his 2 goals against Vorskla, Aubameyang found again the net against Everton. Aubameyang was in an offside position when he took Ramsey’s pass in the 59th, but the referee let the goal stand because the Premier League is not using VAR technology. The Gabon striker also cut the ball back to Monreal for a close-range effort in the 12th before hitting the bar with a cross-shot in the 42nd. Emery gave Aubameyang some rest by replacing him with Iwobi in the 68th.

I expect some heavy rotation for the League Cup game against Brentford on Wednesday for the simple reason that the Gunners play Watford on Saturday. The Hornets have enjoyed a great start to the season as they are 1 point clear of Arsenal in the standings and could be a direct rival for European spots this season.