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West Ham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 hopes dealt a blow in 1-0 loss

   The ghosts of last season are coming back. A year ago, the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race because they were performing poorly on the road. This pattern could be repeating itself. The Gunners lost 1-0 at West Ham on Saturday, earning just 1 point from their last 4 away games to trail fourth-placed Chelsea by 6 points in the Premier League.

West Ham vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal had only 2 shots on target to 3 for the Hammers despite enjoying 58.5% of ball possession. In another example of sterile possession, the players who made the most passes were Koscielny (89) and Sokratis (67). The lack of urgency in the first half was quite disappointing since Arsenal got 6 days of rest after the victory over Blackpool in the FA Cup. West Ham showed more desire, winning 53.5% of the duels and making 17 interceptions to just 10 for the Gunners, according to the club’s website.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that routed the Seasiders with only Sokratis, Kolasinac, Iwobi and Maitland-Niles retaining their starting spots. The lack of quality in the Arsenal midfield showed in the high number of stray passes. It’s no coincidence if Denis Suarez has been linked with a move to the Emirates. Suarez plays as a central midfielder for Barcelona but I suspect that Emery would use him as an attacking midfielder. In the 2015-16 season, Suarez made 12 assists for Villareal in all competitions.

   The lack of creativity in midfield also helps explain why the Gunners struggled to play the ball out from the back. You would expect to find a Ramsey or an Ozil for that kind of tactics. Remember Ramsey’s goal against Fulham or Aubameyang’s goal against Leicester. But Emery left Ozil out of the squad while Ramsey only came off the bench in the second half.

Politics vs. sport

   Knowing that Ramsey will leave the club this year and that Ozil has been frozen out of the team, it’s impossible not to think about the chemistry in the dressing room. What a contrast between the lack of fluency at the London Stadium and the spectacular passing in the first half of the season. Does the mediocre form on the pitch reflect the current mood in the dressing room? Or is the team simply hitting a rough patch?

   Some players signed at Arsenal to play with Ozil. They must feel short-changed to take passes from Iwobi or whoever fills Ozil’s shoes. Likewise, they must certainly question Arsenal’s ambition when the club decides to let Ramsey leave. Is it a coincidence if Emery has harshly treated those 2 players because they’re not part of the club’s long-term plans?

   I think Emery needs more diplomatic tact. Obviously, the board’s emphasis on trimming payroll has led to this situation with Ozil and Ramsey. That’s politics. But the team still needs them because the other attacking midfielders lack consistency. That’s football. In that regard, Sarri has been smarter than Emery. The Chelsea manager froze out Fabregas only after securing a replacement by signing Jorginho and Kovacic last summer.

   Aubameyang and Lacazette scored with half-chances in the first half of the season. They didn’t against West Ham. That’s where chemistry plays a key role. Players felt upbeat in the first few months with a new manager, new methods and new signings. Now the reality is kicking in. The Gunners realize that they are far from the contending teams. They also see problems in the squad. Maybe that’s why the extra confidence needed to convert those half-chances is now gone.

Finding the best offensive setup

   Lacazette had a couple of half-chances in the first quarter. He chested down a long ball from Xhaka before firing a long-range strike wide in the ninth minute. Four minutes later, Lacazette took a pass from Iwobi and drove into the box only to be denied by Fabianski. He faded in the second half with no shot at all.

   Aubameyang started the season as the lone striker before moving to the left wing. Then Emery had a change of heart in the Bournemouth game and used Aubameyang in the centerforward position again. Since January, Emery has deployed Aubameyang on the right wing, letting Lacazette lead the line.

   That’s really mind-boggling that the Spanish manager still doesn’t know what Aubameyang’s best position is, especially if you compare with the situation at Manchester United. Solskjaer was appointed last month and has improved the Red Devils’ fortunes by quickly finding the best offensive setup with Matic, Herrera and Pogba in midfield and Rashford, Martial and Lingard in a front three.

   Deprived of service in the first half, Aubameyang tried to create chances. He made a cross for Lacazette, who headed over the bar in the 15th. The introduction of Ramsey in the second half finally gave Aubameyang some decent ammunition. Aubameyang headed Ramsey’s cross wide in the 63rd. The Gabon striker then met a low cross from Kolasinac in the 64th only to blaze over the bar under Cresswell’s pressure.  

   Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to have only 1 of 7 shots on target. I believe that playing Aubameyang up front and Lacazette as a second striker or in a wide position would be a more natural option. From the right wing, Aubameyang can cross the ball and make those diagonal runs a la Walcott, but he simply doesn’t have the all-around game to make a significant impact in the passing game. Aubameyang only won 14.3% of his duels according to the club’s website, that tells you he’s not optimally used.  

Positive substitutions

   You play with 2 strikers if you have good service. In a 3-4-3 formation, Emery relied on Iwobi, Guendouzi, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles to deliver the final ball. That was a big ask. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player, Guendouzi is not a playmaker and Iwobi can be inconsistent.

   Despite all the talk about his improvement under Emery, Iwobi looked again like the player of last season with a limited end product. At 22, Iwobi still has room for development, but right now he doesn’t have the impact of a Ramsey or an Ozil in the final third. Iwobi had 5 successful dribbles, tied with Anderson for the most by any player, but he also led all players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 59th by sending on Ramsey for Mustafi. In his short cameo, Ramsey made as many key passes (2) as Iwobi in the full 90 minutes. The Wales midfielder set up Iwobi, whose low drive sailed wide in the 67th.

   Although Emery’s substitutions didn’t change the outcome of the game, they were more positive than his previous substitutions. Concerned by Arsenal’s defensive issues, Emery has been reluctant to play with more than 3 attacking players. Replacing Lacazette with Ramsey in the Brighton game was obviously the nadir of that conservative approach.

   Emery seems to highly rate Guendouzi. Yet, it’s hard to understand why. Guendouzi is not a box-to-box player with the end product of a Ramsey or the pace and dribbling skills of an Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s not a defensive midfielder either. The French teenager showed his lack of defensive awareness a couple of times against West Ham. He failed to stay with Noble, who played a one-two with Nasri before producing a tame effort in the sixth minute. Again, neither Guendouzi nor Xhaka tracked Anderson, who took a pass from Nasri but missed the target in the 32nd.

Xhaka’s poor defensive instincts

   When Guendouzi is given plenty of time, he can hit accurate balls over the top. But he’s not a playmaker. At the same age, Fabregas had better passing and shooting skills. Guendouzi overhit his final ball in the 66th and 78th and finished the game with 0 key pass. He also took his chance from the edge of the box, missing the target in the 35th and 54th and lacking power in the 68th. Potentially, Guendouzi could become a deep-lying playmaker. But right now he’s not moving the ball quickly enough. It means that Guendouzi is mostly a utility midfielder at this stage of his career. Guendouzi is definitely an upgrade over Elneny because of his work-rate and his ability to win duels. He won 1 of 1 tackle and 62.5% of his duels and made 1 interception and 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website.    

   Guendouzi played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. That’s a flawed partnership because none of them is a natural ballwinner. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Nasri often managed to find pockets of space in midfield and made 3 key passes in his 70-minute performance.

   Emery’s choice to rely on Xhaka as the holding midfielder is questionable. Xhaka’s passing skills can be helpful to play out from the back but he simply lacks the defensive instincts to play in that position. His poor clearance led to Rice’s goal in the 48th. The safe option on that play would have been to head the ball toward Lacazette on the left flank. Some fans wondered why Torreira didn’t start. The Uruguay midfielder’s stats have gone down since the end of December, so Emery wisely decided to limit his playing time, sending him on for Xhaka in the 59th.

The most important game of the season

   Kolasinac can prove a potent threat down the left flank, but the Hammers managed to limit his offensive impact to just 1 key pass. The fact that Kolasinac was caught offside twice tells you that the Hammers studied his game. I’m not surprised that Arsenal extended Monreal’s contract by a year because Kolasinac is a wingback, not a defender. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international failed to track back a couple of times, forcing Koscielny to cover him in the leftback position. Kolasinac also had his share of responsibility in the goal. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Kolasinac allowed Nasri to run in front of him before setting up Rice. The screen capture also shows Arsenal’s poor defensive organization with Rice completely unmarked near the penalty spot.

west ham vs. arsenal m48edRice left unmarked by the Arsenal defense. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Maitland-Niles was caught napping on that play, too. He failed to react despite seeing Rice in a dangerous position. Maybe the most worrying part is the lack of desire Maitland-Niles showed on Saturday, forcing Aubameyang (yes, the top scorer in the Premier League) to cover him down the right flank a couple of times. Maitland-Niles definitely needs to improve his defensive awareness. Cresswell easily skipped past him to make a teasing cross in the 16th and Nasri ran past him to take a pass and muster a shot in the 26th. Offensively, Maitland-Niles was a liability for the Gunners with 0 key pass and a passing accuracy of 65%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player. In the 69th, Emery replaced Maitland-Niles with Bellerin, who was making his return from injury.  

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis was the most active of the 3 centerbacks, making 3 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Koscielny had a decent game although one stat raises some questions: Koscielny was dribbled past 2 times, compared to 0 for Sokratis and Mustafi. However, it was Mustafi who was deemed the weak link when the Gunners shifted to a back four in the 59th. The German defender received a yellow card in the 46th for a mistimed challenge on Anderson.

   The Gunners will play their most important game of the season when they host Chelsea next Saturday. A defeat would end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes whereas they could pull within 3 points of the Blues with a victory. Emery no longer has time to find his best team.




Arsenal vs. Fulham: Gunners stay in Top 4 race with 4-1 win

The Gunners started the new year on a positive note by sinking Fulham 4-1 on Tuesday to stay in the Top 4 race. They were even greeted with a round of applause at halftime for heading back to the dressing room with the lead for just the second time in the Premier League this season.

arsenal vs. fulhamPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery made 3 changes to the side that was demolished at Anfield with Koscielny, Guendouzi and Lacazette replacing Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Ramsey in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also switched to a 3-4-3 formation that aimed to optimize the use of Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles as wingbacks.

Ozil was again left out of the squad. Officially, the German playmaker is recovering from knee pain. But if you read between the lines, there’s no doubt that the club wants to offload Ozil. Cutting costs is a priority for the Arsenal board and Ozil clearly looks like the elephant in the room with his weekly wage of £350,000 a week.

Unsurprisingly, his agent said on Wednesday that Ozil wants to stay at the club until the end of his contract in 2021. Ozil is not the first player to reject a move despite his lack of playing time. Jenkinson is in the same kind of situation. The only thing the club can do is to make the player redundant by signing players in the same position. For instance, Sarri has been able to sideline Fabregas because Chelsea signed Jorginho and Kovacic.

A divisive figure

Xhaka opened the scoring against Fulham and produced a good all-around performance, but his limitations were again exposed. He has been a divisive figure among fans since joining the club. To a certain extent, Xhaka embodies the problem with the current Arsenal squad. Most Gunners perform well against the weak and average sides, but they are simply not good enough against the big teams. Xhaka scored a goal, won 2 of 3 tackles and made 3 key passes, 3 interceptions and 8 recoveries. But he also gave the ball away 3 times in the first half and was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com.

Emery definitely likes Xhaka, otherwise he wouldn’t be his first-choice holding midfielder. Traditionally, the No. 6 shields the back four and is therefore a defensive midfielder. Think of Casemiro at Real Madrid or Dier at Tottenham. But there’s a trend among modern managers to use a deep-lying playmaker as the holding midfielder. Sarri and Emery both like to play out from the back so they use deep-lying playmakers like Jorginho and Xhaka in front of the defense.

Of course, the problem with that approach is that Jorginho and Xhaka can be defensively suspect because they are not natural ballwinners. Guardiola and Klopp have found a compromise by playing defensive midfielders with good passing skills (Fernandinho and Fabinho). Another issue with Xhaka is that playing out from the back requires a lot of movement from the holding midfielder. Xhaka is easy to man-mark because of his relative lack of mobility. Leno was forced to punt the ball a couple of times in the first half because of the lack of passing options.

Guendouzi’s learning process

Last season, Xhaka played alongside Ramsey in a 3-4-3 formation with Ramsey as the box-to-box player and Xhaka as the holding midfielder. On Tuesday, Emery was more conservative than Wenger as he used Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in central midfield. Let’s give some credit to Xhaka for analyzing the situation and understanding that the front three needed more support. In the 25th minute, Xhaka made a late run into the box a la Ramsey and controlled a cross from Iwobi before flicking the ball past Rico to put Arsenal ahead.

Xhaka nearly scored a second goal in the 34th. Kolasinac cut the ball back for Xhaka, who was denied by Rico. With the security provided by the back three in the first half and the introduction of Torreira in the second half, Xhaka did not hesitate to roam forward. He also created two chances, heading the ball into the path of Lacazette in the 42nd and playing the French striker clean through on goal with a ball over the top in the 58th.

Emery used Tuesday’s game as an opportunity for Guendouzi to learn while limiting the risks for the team. Guendouzi showed good work-rate by winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 key pass, 2 interceptions and 5 recoveries. He created a scoring chance for Aubameyang with a through ball in 82nd. At 19, Guendouzi is still a work in progress. He definitely needs to be more tidy in possession. Guendouzi had 4 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 80% compared to 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 86.1% for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The French teenager also has a lot of room to improve his defensive awareness. Guendouzi sat too deep in the 69th and failed to close down Seri, who made a dangerous cross to Mitrovic.

Iwobi as a two-footed player  

Torreira showed signs of fatigue against Liverpool. So Emery rested Torreira by leaving him on the bench in the first half. Torreira replaced the injured Mustafi at halftime although Elneny was also available on the bench. Maybe Emery should have given Torreira the day off because the Uruguay midfielder performed poorly with 3 turnovers, 1 tackle and just 2 recoveries in 45 minutes.

Disappointed by Ozil’s poor work-rate, Emery has given the keys of the game to Iwobi. The move could be paying off as Iwobi has notched 1 goal and 2 assists in his last 4 Premier League games. He made 3 key passes on Tuesday, including the assist for the opening goal.

What made Iwobi’s performance interesting was the accuracy of his left foot. Iwobi is a right-footed player. Yet, he set up Maitland-Niles with a left-footed cross against Liverpool. Iwobi repeated the trick against Fulham, creating chances for Aubameyang with left-footed crosses in the 2nd and the 40th. It’s too soon to conclude that Iwobi is a two-footed player like Cazorla but it’s an interesting technical development.

Iwobi has improved his game by keeping things simple lately instead of running into traffic. Despite his 4 seasons in the Premier League, he’s not the finished product yet. The weight on his passes can be dodgy. Iwobi overhit a through ball for Lacazette in the 15th and missed a simple pass for the overlapping Kolasinac in the 76th.

The Walcott role

The Nigeria international also needs to improve his decision-making. His telegraphed pass for Aubameyang was intercepted in the 27th. And he opted for a tame low drive in the 58th instead of setting up Aubameyang for a first-time effort. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Aubameyang was in a better position for a shot.

arsenal vs. fulham m58edIwobi shoots instead of feeding Aubameyang. (Photo credit: NBC) 

Up front, Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang played the Walcott role on the right wing. I would have swapped their positions for two reasons: Aubameyang has more pace and is stronger in the air than Lacazette. Aubameyang won 4 of 4 aerial duels while Lacazette won 0 of 4 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. Lacazette was also caught offside 3 times compared to just once for Aubameyang. The Gabon striker has more room to time his run because of his electric pace whereas Lacazette must perfectly time his run to beat a defensive line.

Aubameyang was quite wasteful against Fulham. He scored a goal but could have finished the match with a hat trick. His first chance came in the second minute when he met a cross from Iwobi but missed the target from a tight angle. Aubameyang then ghosted past Ream in the 40th only to head the ball wide from 8 yards. His most embarrassing moment occurred in the 79th when he met a low cross from Kolasinac and hit the post from 5 yards. Guendouzi also put Aubameyang in a very good situation with a through ball in the 82nd. Aubameyang held off Bryan but his chip attempt bounced off Rico. A minute later, Aubameyang finally found the net with the most improbable attempt -a powerful strike that took a big deflection off Ream to loop over Rico.

A tactical substitution

Lacazette could have also notched a hat trick if he had been more clinical. He skipped past Le Marchand in the 42nd to fire an angled strike that Rico saved with his leg. However, the France international got his goal in the 55th, taking a pass from Kolasinac to shoot past Rico from 10 yards for a 2-0 lead. Three minutes later, Lacazette failed to convert a big chance. He controlled a ball over the top from Xhaka to bear down on goal but Rico parried his low strike.

I definitely think the referee should have awarded Lacazette a penalty in the 65th after Seri elbowed him in the face. Lacazette could have done better with his link-up play on a counterattack. He wasted a good situation in the 48th by playing the ball between Iwobi and Aubameyang. There were boos from the crowd when Emery decided to replace Lacazette with Ramsey in the 75th. The fans have really liked Lacazette since his first season at the club. Lacazette made clear that it was not about him as he applauded his teammates while leaving the pitch.

After the game, Emery explained that the substitution was aimed at limiting the influence of Seri, who had replaced Cisse in the 61st. Seri quickly made an impact with a cross for Mitrovic in the 69th. In the build-up to Fulham’s goal, Seri was the one who dispossessed Torreira. As an attacking midfielder, Ramsey was in a better position than Lacazette to track Seri.

Ramsey vs. Ozil

Despite the collapse of the contract talks with Arsenal, Ramsey has kept performing well for the club, notching 2 goals and 6 assists in 18 league games this season compared to just 3 goals and 1 assist in 13 league games for Ozil. Ramsey made it 3-1 by pouncing on a rebound to slam the ball into the top corner in the 79th.

I think it was a mistake from the club to compare Ramsey’s contract negotiations with Ozil’s situation last season. Ramsey’s salary demands were in line with the market rate in England while Ozil’s wages were way over what any club would have given him. Another problem with the club’s rigid approach is what will they do when they have a special talent who deserves £250,000 or even £300,000 a week? Should Arsenal sell the next Mbappé because they want to trim their payroll instead of building a strong squad around a top player?

Ramsey could have become the face of the club. His work-rate and attitude are much better than Ozil’s. The Wales midfielder is also a big-game player who scored the winning goal in two FA Cup finals while Ozil tends to disappear when the going gets tough. In the end, the Gunners will get stuck with Ozil while Ramsey will reportedly join Juventus. Most Arsenal fans are grateful that Ramsey won’t be playing for a rival club in the Premier League.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

The performance of the Arsenal defense against the Cottagers wasn’t convincing. Fulham could have led 2-0 in the first half if Sessegnon had been more clinical. The Gunners especially looked vulnerable on crosses.

Kolasinac proved again a potent threat down the left flank, leading all players with 4 key passes. But his defensive lapses nearly cost his team. In the 23rd, Schurrle made a cross for Sessegnon, who miskicked the ball. Kolasinac was caught napping on that play as he failed to mark Sessegnon. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international was again guilty for Fulham’s goal in the 69th. Kolasinac let Kamara run in front of him to tap home Sessegnon’s cross. Mitrovic is not the most mobile striker, yet he managed to peel away from Kolasinac to head a corner straight at Leno in the 47th.

On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles deputized for the injured Bellerin. He led all players with 3 successful dribbles out of 4 but lacked end product with 0 shot and 0 key pass. Maitland-Niles made a good run in behind in the 34th but his cross for Aubameyang was really poor. Defensively, he made no glaring error but failed to stop 2 dangerous crosses in the 23rd and the 69th. Despite his inexperience, Maitland-Niles should leapfrog Lichtsteiner in the pecking order for the fullback position.

The Gunners started with a back three before shifting to a back four at halftime. Mustafi had another poor game with a passing accuracy dipping to 69.2%, compared to 84.1% for Sokratis and 89.1% for Koscielny. The activity of the German centerback was also weak with 0 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries in 45 minutes compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 8 recoveries for Sokratis and 1 tackle, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries for Koscielny, according to the club’s website. Emery took a risk since Mustafi didn’t seem completely fit and was replaced at halftime because of a hamstring problem.

Hangover after the festive period

Koscielny is slowly rebuilding confidence after losing key aerial duels in the 3-2 loss at Southampton. The French veteran won 6 of 6 aerial duels against Fulham, while Sokratis only won 1 of 5 aerial duels. As Koscielny is getting older, he will need to rely more on his positional play to compensate for his loss of pace. Kamara got the better of Koscielny in the 72nd with a run in behind. Koscielny also put Torreira in trouble on Fulham’s goal with a pass that was difficult to control.

Sokratis has a lot of room to improve his positional play. He was pulled out of position in the 15th and left Koscielny and Mustafi in a 2v2 situation with Sessegnon and Mitrovic. The Greek defender made the same mistake for Fulham’s goal in the 69th, leaving Koscielny in a 1v2 situation with Mitrovic and Kamara. The physical Mitrovic proved a handful for Sokratis, who struggled in the air and was at times too tight to the Fulham striker. Sokratis had a surprise for the crowd in the 36th. He showcased his dribbling skills by beating 2 Cottagers to have a shot blocked for a corner.

The Gunners have been the big losers of the festive period. They were level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea on Dec. 22. Now they trail the Blues by 3 points. The comparison with Spurs is even more telling. The Gunners were in fourth place, level on points with Tottenham after the North London derby on Dec. 2. Now Spurs are 7 points clear of Arsenal in the standings.

The Gunners next play Blackpool in the FA Cup on Saturday before visiting West Ham in the Premier League the following weekend. Emery can’t take any risk with a decimated squad. He should rest his key players against Blackpool. The defense has been exposed lately in part because 3 first-choice defenders are currently injured (Bellerin, Holding, and Monreal). Meanwhile, injuries to Welbeck, Mkhitaryan and Ozil have limited Emery’s attacking options. It’s no coincidence if the Spanish manager is relying on a front three now whereas he started the season with a front four.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Gunners need massive rebuilding after 5-1 loss

   The humiliating 5-1 loss at Anfield showed that the Gunners are miles behind Liverpool in the rebuilding process. Emery’s priority in the summer was to overhaul the defense by signing Leno, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Guendouzi. Saturday’s disastrous performance made clear that Arsenal will need more defensive reinforcements.

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

   Maybe the most disappointing part is that the Reds scored only one goal from a counterattack. Torreira’s turnover in the 16th minute led to a 2v2 situation for Liverpool’s second goal. On the other hand, the Reds netted 4 goals from situations where the Arsenal defense was supposed to be well organized. Their third and fifth goals came from Liverpool corners while Alisson initiated the first and fourth goals with a throw and a kick, respectively.

   The sudden shift in momentum also suggests a mental weakness at the back. Liverpool equalized just 3 minutes after the Gunners opened the scoring. Arsenal surrendered the lead in recent games, too. For instance, Manchester United leveled just a minute after the Gunners took a 2-1 lead, and Brighton capitalized on a blunder from Lichtsteiner to equalize before halftime.

   Emery will also have to rebuild the offense. Arsenal will certainly lose Ramsey and Welbeck this summer. And the Gunners have struggled to create chances this season because Mkhitaryan, Iwobi and Ozil have been inconsistent.  

   Arsenal only had 2 shots on target to 10 for the hosts despite enjoying 52% of ball possession. That failure to convert possession into chances is due to a lack of penetration. Liverpool had 14 successful dribbles compared to 8 for the Gunners, according to whoscored.com. Penetration can be achieved through dribbling but also passing. Arsenal made no through ball attempt while the Reds had 2 accurate through balls out of 4.

The blueprint for rebuilding

   Klopp has provided the blueprint to rebuild a squad. The Reds are a good example because they make less money than the Gunners (I doubt the Arsenal board would follow Manchester City’s spending strategy). Klopp joined Liverpool in October 2015 and used the exact same squad as Rodgers. The Reds failed to finish in the Top 4 but the first sign of improvement was the runner-up finishes in the League Cup and the Europa League. During Rodgers’ three-year tenure, Liverpool never reached the final of any competition.

   In his second season at the club, Klopp led Liverpool to a Top 4 finish in 2017. The Reds’ progress under Klopp was confirmed by another Top 4 finish and a Champions League final in 2018. The cynics will say that the Reds still haven’t won any silverware under Klopp. But even during Wenger’s best years, Arsenal reached the Champions League final only once. And now in Klopp’s fourth season at Anfield, the Reds are in a strong position to win the league title for the first time since 1990.

Emery may not have 3 years to rebuild the Arsenal squad because some players could move to bigger clubs to win trophies if they don’t see any sign of progress. Talented players like Bellerin, Torreira and Lacazette are the obvious examples, but promising youngsters like Nelson, Smith-Rowe and Saka might be tempted to leave, too. That would be the nightmare scenario because Arsenal would become a feeder club again.

A conservative team selection

   The Spanish manager made 4 changes to the side that drew at Brighton with Iwobi, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles and Mustafi replacing Lacazette, Ozil, Guendouzi and Koscielny in the starting lineup. Emery also switched from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-5-1 system that often left Aubameyang isolated. The main tactical surprise was Maitland-Niles’ position on the right wing which aimed at nullifying the threat of Robertson’s crosses.

   Obviously, Emery was wary of Liverpool’s offense. His team selection was quite conservative if we compare with the starting lineup that drew 1-1 with the Reds in November. On Saturday, only 3 attacking players (Aubameyang, Ramsey and Iwobi) started at Anfield whereas 4 attacking players (Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ozil and Mkhitaryan) started at the Emirates. The contrast is more blatant if we compare with the Arsenal team that lost 4-0 a year ago: Wenger started 4 attacking players (Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez and Welbeck) in a 3-4-3 formation. You could even claim that Wenger used in fact 5 attacking players since Oxlade-Chamberlain played as a wingback in that game.

   Very few fans expected a clean sheet when they saw a back four made up of Lichtsteiner, Mustafi, Sokratis and Kolasinac. Some Emery apologists may argue that the defense looked better in the 1-1 draw with Bellerin, Mustafi, Holding and Kolasinac. But here’s a shocking stat: the Gunners are the team that conceded the most goals at Anfield this season. How do you justify that? Manchester City kept a clean sheet and teams like Brighton and Everton only conceded one goal.

A comedy of errors

   Saturday’s game showed the lack of quality at the back. Sokratis and Mustafi are not good enough to marshal the defense. They both made Firmino look like Maradona with their comical defending for Liverpool’s second goal in the 16th. Mustafi dangled a leg in a sheepish attempt to stop Firmino before pulling it out. From the moment Mustafi dived in, he had to take one for the team.

   Mustafi was also poor technically with a passing accuracy dipping to 71.4%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal outfield player, according to whoscored.com. He was replaced at halftime by Koscielny, who produced slightly better stats than Mustafi by making 1 more block and 2 more recoveries than the German defender, according to the club’s website. There was one embarrassing moment for Koscielny in the 48th when Salah sprinted past him and made him look like a retiree.

   Usually, the ‘error-prone’ tag belongs to Mustafi, but Sokratis, Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner really competed hard to earn it. Sokratis should have stayed on his feet and waited for an opportunity to make a block in the 16th instead of attempting a useless challenge on the 18-yard line. The Greek defender was also caught ball-watching for Liverpool’s third goal in the 32nd as Mane reacted more quickly to meet Salah’s cross. On the stroke of halftime, Sokratis completely lost his mind by kicking Salah twice from behind while trying to nick the ball away. The referee awarded a penalty that Salah converted for a 4-1 lead.  

   The alternatives at centerback are not mouthwatering. Mavropanos is still a raw player, Koscielny is past his prime and struggling to get back to his best level, and Holding won’t play before next season.

The Mertesacker role

   The picture at fullback is almost as gloomy. On the right flank, Bellerin has performed well this season until a calf injury caught up with him. In my eyes, the Spaniard is the only Arsenal defender who would be good enough for a contending team. His replacement, Lichtsteiner, has struggled to cope with the pace of the game in England. Lichtsteiner showed his age at Anfield and was involved in two goals. Mane rounded Lichtesteiner to create a chance in the sixth minute and got the better of the Switzerland international again for an angled effort straight at Leno in the 23rd.

   Lichtsteiner is supposed to be an experienced player but he made a rookie mistake for Liverpool’s equalizer. A loose ball fell to Lichtsteiner after Xhaka dispossessed Salah. Instead of clearing the danger, Lichtsteiner tried to be too clever and made what looked like a pass toward Kolasinac. The ball bounced off Mustafi and fell into the path of Firmino, who tapped in. Then Lichtsteiner played Salah onside for Liverpool’s third goal. You kind of wonder what did Lichtsteiner learn about tactics at Juventus. Lichtsteiner is basically playing the Mertesacker role this season: a liability on the pitch but useful for advice in the dressing room.

   On the left flank, Kolasinac showed again that he’s a wingback at heart, not a defender. Kolasinac had a hand in Liverpool’s third goal by making the heavy backpass that led to the corner. He then gave away a penalty by shoving Lovren from behind in the 64th. Emery hasn’t been able to improve Kolasinac’s positional play. Kolasinac was out of position when Alisson kicked the ball toward Firmino for Liverpool’s fourth goal. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also failed to close down Shaqiri, who played Salah clean through on goal in the 48th. A poor first touch from Salah allowed Leno to collect the ball. Another defensive lapse from Kolasinac in the 55th left Sokratis in a 1v2 situation with Shaqiri and Salah. Kolasinac won only 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any defender according to the club’s website. If he was fit, Monreal would probably get the nod over Kolasinac. But Monreal is past his prime and has struggled to stop dangerous crosses in the past few years.

The midfield battle

   Those defensive performances can only raise questions about Arsenal’s recruitment strategy.Whether it’s before or after the hiring of Mislintat, the club seems unwilling to spend big on a defender. Mustafi was Arsenal’s most expensive defender in a £35 million deal. Sokratis, Chambers, Paulista and Holding cost much less than that. By contrast, Liverpool spent £75 million to sign Van Dijk while Manchester City signed Laporte for £57 million. Either the Gunners want a defender who is ready now and they will have to loosen the strings of their purse. Or they can only afford to gamble on a hidden gem and that will mean years of patience to develop a promising youngster.

   The Arsenal defense was badly exposed at Liverpool because it wasn’t well protected by the midfield. The Reds won the midfield battle by outnumbering Arsenal in that area. There was especially a too big gap between the central midfielders (Torreira and Xhaka) and the attacking players (Ramsey, Iwobi, Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang), giving Liverpool too much space to maneuver.

   The Gunners did well in the 1-1 draw at the Emirates because Torreira and Xhaka combined to make 25 recoveries. It was a different story at Anfield as the midfield pairing only managed to make 14 recoveries. Torreira and Xhaka won respectively just 38.5% and 50% of their duels, while they had won 80% and 66.7% of their duels in the November encounter, according to the club’s website. It was quite the opposite for Fabinho and Wijnaldum, who won respectively 60% and 71.4% of their duels at Anfield compared to 33% and 50% at the Emirates.

An exhausted Torreira

   By his own standards, Torreira had a poor game. I believe Torreira is hitting the wall physically as his legs looked really heavy. Torreira is not used to playing during the Christmas period. He had a winter break with Sampdoria in Serie A before joining Arsenal. Mane easily turned Torreira in the sixth minute and Firmino nearly looked like Usain Bolt while running past the Uruguay midfielder for the equalizer in the 14th.

   Torreira only had 1 turnover, compared to 4 for Xhaka according to whoscored.com, but it proved a costly one. He took a pass from Ramsey in the 16th and tried to dribble past Mane with his second touch only to lose possession. In hindsight, his best option was a first-time pass to Maitland-Niles. Torreira was too naive on that play but you have to give credit to Mane and Firmino for quickly jumping on Torreira. Can anyone seriously imagine Ozil press like Mane or Firmino?

   Despite Torreira’s drop in performance, Xhaka managed to have some respectable stats, winning 2 of 4 tackles and making 2 interceptions and 10 recoveries. Xhaka was lucky to escape a second yellow card in the 33rd for kicking the ball away just before the Reds could take their free kick.

   Up front, an isolated Aubameyang only had 13 touches because of the lack of service. He was replaced in the 71st by Lacazette, who was unlucky to have a penalty shout turned down after Clyne kicked his toe in the 84th.

Why work-rate matters

   Iwobi was arguably Arsenal’s most threatening player with 1 of 1 shot on target, 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com. The Nigeria international was more selective than usual in his dribbling attempts and had just 3 turnovers. He tested Alisson with an angled drive in the 10th and made the assist for Maitland-Niles’ goal with a pinpoint cross in the 11th. The homegrown duo nearly repeated the trick in the 19th but Iwobi’s cross sailed beyond Maitland-Niles. Iwobi created another chance in the 73rd with a cross that Ramsey diverted with a backheel flick but Alisson beat Maitland-Niles to the ball.

   Can Iwobi reproduce that kind of performance week in, week out? His inconsistency has frustrated the fans lately. At 22, Iwobi is no longer a rookie. This is already his fourth season in the Premier League. Another issue that Emery needs to address is Iwobi’s poor work-rate. Iwobi finished the game with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Other attacking midfielders worked harder than him. Ramsey won 1 of 4 tackles, and made 1 interception and 6 recoveries, while Shaqiri won 1 of 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 9 recoveries. Iwobi also needs to be stronger in duels. He only won 25% of his duels.

   Nowadays, attacking players in the top teams have to work their socks off because the gap with the small teams has become narrower. Emery is reluctant to use Ozil in the games that are physically demanding because the high press can’t work if one player does not follow the tactical instructions. Shaqiri, Mane, Firmino and Salah helped Liverpool boss the midfield by combining for 21 recoveries compared to 15 recoveries for Iwobi, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang.  

Momentum is everything

   On the right wing, Maitland-Niles did a good job defensively since Robertson made 0 key pass. Robertson initially skipped past Maitland-Niles to make a teasing cross in the second minute. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and got the better of the Liverpool leftback. Robertson was booked in the 26th for holding Maitland-Niles. Can anybody seriously imagine Ozil running up and down the right flank to track Robertson? Offensively, Maitland-Niles had enough flair to make a run at the far post for the opening goal. He also took his chance with a curling shot that sailed over the bar in the 42nd and made a cross for Ramsey, who missed the target in the 43rd. Maitland-Niles moved to the leftback position in the 81st when Guendouzi replaced Kolasinac.  

   Like Aubameyang, Ramsey struggled to have an impact in the final third. Ramsey made a run into the box to chase a probing pass from Xhaka in the 54th but was then caught in two minds with a cross-shot when he should have chipped Alisson. The Wales midfielder still worked hard for the team and led Arsenal players by winning 63.6% of his duels. When Ramsey leaves, the club will not just miss his goals and assists but also his work-rate.

   Arsenal will play a massive game against Fulham on Tuesday. Momentum is everything in a football season. If the Gunners lose, they could trail Chelsea by 8 points. It would then become very difficult for Arsenal to catch the fourth-placed team. Liverpool finished 4th in the past two seasons with 76 points in 2017 and 75 points this year.

A target of 76 points

   To have a shot at a Top 4 finish, the target for Arsenal is to collect at least 76 points at the end of the season. Chelsea and Tottenham are currently on pace to finish with 82 and 85 points respectively. With 38 points from 20 games so far, the Gunners are projected to collect only 72 points. They definitely need to reach again a cruising speed above 2.0 points per game.

Arsenal tally comparisonComparing Arsenal’s 2017-18 season and the current season

   If you take a look at the graph above, you can see that the Gunners were below that cruising speed only twice this season: in August and September after losing to Manchester City and Chelsea; and in late December after losing at Anfield. Arsenal lost a lot of momentum with only 1 win in their last 4 league games. They would be above that cruising speed if they had drawn at Southampton and won at Brighton.

   What is more worrying is that the curve for this season is nearly catching up with the curve for the 2017-18 season when the Gunners had 37 points from 20 games under Wenger. Last season, Arsenal only reached that cruising speed of 2.0 points per game on Matchday 14 after three consecutive wins over Spurs, Burnley and Huddersfield. The Gunners completely lost their momentum after losing to Manchester United on Matchday 15.  

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield: 5-tool Torreira fires Gunners to 1-0 win

This has become the hit of the season at the Emirates: “Torreira woooah, Torreira woooah, he comes from Uruguay, he’s only five foot five.” You can’t blame the fans for chanting Torreira’s name to the tune of the old Vieira song. Where would Arsenal be without Torreira? The Uruguay midfielder scored with a spectacular bicycle kick in a 1-0 win over Huddersfield on Saturday to help the Gunners keep pace with Chelsea and Spurs in the Top 4 race.

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

Emery made 3 changes to the side that drew with Manchester United on Wednesday with Lichtsteiner, Xhaka and Lacazette replacing Holding, Ramsey and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also switched from a 3-4-3 system to a more defensive 3-5-2 formation, which was quite strange for a home game. The problem with that lineup was the absence of a creative link player -a midfielder who could link defense and attack, obviously, but also deliver the final ball and be a goal threat.

Ramsey and Ozil usually play that role in the Arsenal team but both were on the disabled list. So Torreira stepped up and made a telling impact. In the 83rd minute, Aubameyang made a cross for Torreira, who catapulted the ball into the net with an overhead kick. For a few seconds, I thought about Cazorla. Both Cazorla and Torreira are tiny players who had to change of position at different stages of their respective careers.

Cazorla spent most of his career playing as an attacking midfielder before Wenger converted him into a deep-lying playmaker during the 2014-15 season. The Spaniard was not a natural ballwinner and therefore had to team up with Coquelin in central midfield. Torreira is a better defensive midfielder than Cazorla could ever be. On the other hand, Cazorla is a better attacking midfielder than Torreira will ever be. Yet, Torreira started his career in Uruguay as a winger. When Torreira moved to Italy, he wasn’t deemed good enough as a winger and was therefore converted into a defensive midfielder.

The most complete midfielder

In a three-man midfield, Torreira performed the role of link player alongside Xhaka and Guendouzi. Torreira doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Cazorla or the pace of wingers like Walcott and Van Persie, but his all-around game made the difference on Saturday. He had 2 of 3 shots on target, won 1 of 2 tackles and 76.9% of his duels, and made 2 key passes and 7 recoveries, according to the club’s website. In fact, Torreira might be the most complete midfielder in the Arsenal squad. Torreira can play in any midfield position while it’s hard to envision Ozil and Ramsey as ballwinners.

Because Torreira doesn’t have Ozil’s technical ability, he overhit his final ball for Bellerin in the 16th and underhit his through ball for Aubameyang in the 30th. At 22, Torreira still has room for improvement, but his reading of the game is already very good. He led a counterattack in stoppage time and slipped a through ball to Guendouzi, who was denied by the Huddersfield goalkeeper. Torreira also nearly opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime, but Lossl turned his long-range strike around the post.

At the start of the season, Emery showed patience with Torreira, easing him into a new league. By October, Torreira became the heartbeat of the team with outstanding performances against Fulham and Leicester. Any pundit could see that Torreira was the rock his teammates could rely on, winning the ball back and building play from the back.

Despite his diminutive frame, Torreira has adapted quickly to the physicality of the Premier League. On Saturday, Torreira was fouled 7 times, the most for any player. He draws a lot of fouls because he has good close control, is quicker than his opponent in 50-50 duels, and smartly uses his body to shield the ball. Torreira could be the cornerstone of a team contending for the title and I believe Arsenal should build the squad in Torreira’s image with a mix of talent, hard work and grit.

Huddersfield’s negative tactics

As a team fighting relegation, the Terriers did their best to frustrate Arsenal. They pressed high up the pitch in the first half. Depoitre even managed to charge down a clearance from Leno in the fifth minute. The visitors also resorted to repetitive fouling to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game. Huddersfield finished the match with 20 fouls, compared to 13 for the Gunners. A couple of times, the Terriers crossed the line and roughed up some players. Williams was booked in the 37th for a tackle from behind on Torreira, while Smith received a yellow card two minutes later for a late challenge on Guendouzi.

Huddersfield’s negative tactics should be no excuse for Arsenal’s lack of urgency in the first half. The Gunners had two potential pacesetters with Xhaka and Guendouzi but played at a too slow tempo to pressure the visitors. It was quite interesting to see Emery play Xhaka as the holding midfielder. I believe it’s a choice by default. Torreira is a better defensive midfielder than Xhaka, but the trouble is that Torreira is also more mobile and has more impact in the final third than Xhaka. In the manager’s mind, Xhaka was more useful in front of the defense than in the final third. We already got a glimpse into Emery’s thinking when he played Torreira in a more advanced position than Xhaka against Spurs.

It was therefore no surprise to see Xhaka have better defensive stats than Torreira and Guendouzi. The Switzerland international won 3 of 5 tackles and 70% of his duels and made 1 interception and 10 recoveries. Despite those glossy stats, Xhaka had a couple of defensive lapses. He gave the ball away in the 44th and was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 49th. Both turnovers led to scoring chances for the Terriers.

Lack of urgency

Guendouzi also had weaker defensive stats than usual (0 tackle, 1 interception, 6 recoveries) because he played in a more advanced position as a deep-lying playmaker. Emery clearly wanted Guendouzi to focus on his passing. Guendouzi led all players with 5 key passes and a passing accuracy of 94.1%. The French teenager created the winner with a ball over the top for Aubameyang in the 83rd. He also created a big chance for Lacazette in the 29th.

The Gunners dominated possession with their three-man midfield but they lacked urgency and penetration. Arsenal’s midfield looked more like Liverpool’s laborious midfield than Manchester City’s creative trio. So Emery decided to switch to a 4-3-3 at halftime by replacing Lichtsteiner and Lacazette with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.

Iwobi and Mkhitaryan had a limited impact in the final third with 1 key pass each. A quick look at the winner tells you what’s wrong with them. Wide players often deliver the final ball but they also need to be a goal threat. In the screen capture below, you can see that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan made no effort to get in behind their markers when Guendouzi picked out Aubameyang. If Aubameyang had made a first-time pass, only Torreira would have been in a decent position to score.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield M83ed.jpgIwobi and Mkhitaryan waiting passively on the edge of the box while Torreira makes a run. (Photo credit: TSN)

Mkhitaryan failed to catch the frame with a a low drive in the 46th, headed a Kolasinac cross over the bar in the 82nd and made a sloppy pass while releasing Bellerin down the right flank in injury time. The Armenia international has been struggling to show end product this season with just 2 goals and 1 assist from 13 Premier League games, but at least you know Mkhitaryan will work hard for the team.

Iwobi under pressure

Iwobi seemed to turn a corner under Emery but now he’s looking more and more like the player of last season, showing poor end product and work-rate. He made 2 recoveries and won 9.1% of his duels compared to 4 recoveries, 1 tackle and 44.4% of duels won for Mkhitaryan.

What frustrated a lot of fans was how Iwobi proved too casual in possession, leading Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Lacazette had just 1 turnover and Mkhitaryan 0 turnover. Iwobi’s passing accuracy of 63.2% was also the lowest among the Gunners. He sent a pass out of play after misreading Kolasinac’s run in the 62nd. Then Iwobi produced an air header in the 76th, confusing Kolasinac who could have connected with Mkhitaryan’s cross. And he showed a lack of composure on a counterattack, losing possession with a heavy touch in the 88th when he could have fed Aubameyang to his left.

If Iwobi keeps underperforming, the fans will get more and more on his back. Dealing with pressure is not fun but it’s the reality of football at the top level. At 22, Iwobi still has time to mature and prove himself, but not much. This is already his fourth season in the Premier League. Youngsters like Nketiah and Nelson will soon be knocking on the door.

I thought yanking Lacazette off at halftime was a risky move by Emery. If Aubameyang had picked up an injury, Emery only had Nketiah on the bench to play in the centerforward position. Lacazette missed a big chance in the 29th. Completely unmarked, Lacazette took a pass from Guendouzi and fired over the bar from 13 yards while losing his footing.

Then Lacazette had a goal disallowed for offside in the 42nd. He was indeed offside when Aubameyang flicked on Leno’s goal kick. But the ball fell to Jorgensen, who made a poor backpass toward his goalkeeper. Lacazette intercepted the ball and dribbled past Lossl to score into an empty net. The controversy here is that the referee let play continue when Jorgensen had the ball but decided to cancel the second phase of play when there was no advantage for the Terriers. That’s a common practice in rugby but very unusual in football.

A show of faith

Lacazette’s substitution looked like a show of faith in Aubameyang. The Gabon striker definitely deserves to be the first-choice striker. He has scored 10 league goals this season compared to 6 for Lacazette. Starved of decent service, Aubameyang had an off day with 0 of 4 shots on target. He pounced on an off-target shot from Xhaka in the 28th only to divert the ball wide from 9 yards. Then Aubameyang missed the target with his close-range header from a Xhaka corner in the 63rd. Despite that poor finishing, Aubameyang kept working hard and played a key role for the winner. He controlled Guendouzi’s ball over the top only to have his effort blocked by Kongolo. As the ball bounced behind him, Aubameyang spun to make a blind cross for Torreira, who jumped in the air for a bicycle kick.

On the flanks, Kolasinac didn’t have the same offensive impact as in the previous league games, making only 1 key pass. The initial 3-5-2 formation deprived Kolasinac of a wide player to combine with. He felt more comfortable in the second half when Iwobi played on the left wing. Kolasinac had solid defensive stats, winning 3 of 4 tackles and making 9 recoveries, but he showed again his technical limitations with 6 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 66.7%. On the right flank, Bellerin was almost anonymous. The Spaniard showed signs of fatigue against Manchester United. I thought Emery could have rested Bellerin while giving a start to Maitland-Niles. Bellerin’s only significant contribution was a teasing cross that Lossl poorly cleared in the 68th.

The Gunners have been hit by an injury crisis at the back. Holding will miss the rest of the season after rupturing his knee ligament against Manchester United. Emery improvised by playing Lichtsteiner on the right side of the back three. Lichtsteiner compensated for his lack of pace with his positional play and reading of the game. However, I doubt Lichtsteiner will be a long-term solution at centerback, especially since Monreal and Koscielny made their return to the squad.

Mustafi caught ball-watching (again)

Of the three centerbacks, Sokratis had the best defensive stats, winning 1 of 3 tackles and 70% of his duels and making 1 block, 5 interceptions and 8 recoveries. He will miss the next league game after receiving his fifth booking of the season for a mistimed challenge on Hogg in the 40th. Although Huddersfield created very little, the Gunners struggled in the air. Sokratis and Mustafi combined to win only 3 of 8 aerial duels, while Depoitre won 10 of 18 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. That’s one area where Holding will be badly missed.

This game won’t convince Mustafi’s critics. The German defender won 1 of 1 tackle and 42.9% of his duels and made just 1 interception and 2 recoveries before pulling his hamstring in the 64th. He led Arsenal players with 3 fouls, including 2 silly fouls in the 27th and 30th, and was booked for diving at the end of the first half.

The biggest concern with Mustafi is that he doesn’t seem to smell danger. The Terriers had their best chance in the 44th. Smith made a cross for Pritchard, who fired over the bar from 12 yards. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka was covering Sokratis but couldn’t stop Smith’s cross. Inside the area, Depoitre was double-teamed by Lichtsteiner and Bellerin. Only Pritchard was left unmarked. Mustafi was again caught ball-watching, focusing on Smith instead of finding out where the goal threat would come from.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield M44ed.jpgMustafi leaves Pritchard unmarked. (Photo credit: TSN)

The Gunners next play Qarabag on Thursday before visiting Southampton on Sunday. Emery will probably rest his key players against Qarabag because the Gunners have already secured the top spot in Group E of the Europa League. However, the Spanish manager might face a tricky decision at the back. Knowing that Mustafi and Sokratis will be suspended for the Southampton game, will Emery play them in the Europa League? Or will he start Koscielny and Mustafi against Qarabag to help them build their fitness? A good compromise could be to play with Koscielny and Monreal in the first half and replace them with Mustafi and Sokratis in the second half.

Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Holding, Ramsey injured in 2-2 draw

In a physical contest, Arsenal drew 2-2 with Manchester United on Wednesday to slip to 5th place in the Premier League, two points behind Spurs. I have mixed feelings over the result. On the one hand, the Gunners extended their unbeaten run to 20 games in all competitions. They’ve also improved against the Big 6, defeating Tottenham and drawing with Liverpool and Manchester United after losing to Chelsea and Manchester City in August. On the other hand, Arsenal missed an opportunity to get three points against a team short on confidence and creating very little from open play. The Red Devils had one more day of rest than Arsenal but that should not be an excuse because Spurs managed to beat the Saints, who drew with United last Saturday.

Manchester United vs. Arsenal

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

Emery made two changes to the side that smashed Spurs last weekend with Ramsey and Guendouzi replacing Mkhitaryan and a suspended Xhaka in the starting lineup. Ramsey sprained his ankle in the 44th minute and was replaced at halftime by Mkhitaryan. That injury puts more pressure on Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to deliver the final ball. It also means that Emery might need Ozil this weekend if Iwobi and Mkhitaryan are still inefficient in the final third.

Iwobi has been trying to fill Ozil’s shoes in the past couple of games. On Wednesday night, those shoes were simply too big for him. Iwobi lacked end product with 0 shot and 0 key pass. He made a poor pass to Kolasinac in the opening minute, overhit his through ball for Bellerin in the 17th, and wasted a counterattack in the 47th by missing a short pass. Obviously, Iwobi doesn’t have Ozil’s technical quality. The Nigeria international led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, despite playing only 64 minutes.

Iwobi’s lack of effort

The main reason why Emery keeps playing Iwobi on the left wing is because the other attacking midfielders feel more comfortable on the right wing. It’s a choice by default. The Spanish manager will have more options on the left wing next season with Nelson’s return from his loan spell at Hoffenheim.

Fans have been talking about Iwobi’s improvement this season, but he keeps showing poor work-rate. Iwobi won 0 of 1 tackle and made 6 recoveries, barely matching Mkhitaryan, who won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 block and 5 recoveries in 45 minutes, according to the club’s website. His lack of effort was blatant on United’s first equalizer. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi was standing next to Herrera when Rojo took his free kick in the 30th.

MU M30a edited.jpgIwobi stands next Herrera behind the Arsenal wall. (Photo credit: BT)  

Leno made a good save by palming Rojo’s effort aside. The trouble is that Herrera reacted quickly to keep the ball in play and cut it back for Martial, who fired home from close range. On the screen capture below, you can see that Herrera built a 6-yard lead over Iwobi in a 15-yard foot race. In the end, Iwobi was just a yard late to intercept Herrera’s pass.

MU M30b edited.jpgIwobi fails to track Herrera. (Photo credit: BT)

On the right wing, Mkhitaryan had more impact than Iwobi in the final third. Mkhitaryan closed down Rojo, who gave the ball away to Lacazette in the 68th. Lacazette swapped passes with Mkhitaryan and was about to pull the trigger when Rojo made a sliding tackle only to knock the ball into his own net. Mkhitaryan could have scored the winner in the 72nd but flicked Kolasinac’s cross over the bar from 3 yards. That’s the kind of chance that Giroud would have converted. In stoppage time, Mkhitaryan set up Torreira, whose powerful strike was parried by De Gea. Mkhitaryan pounced on the rebound and somehow found the net from the most acute angle, but his goal was disallowed for offside.

Torreira’s consistency

In midfield, Guendouzi had a decent game, winning 1 of 2 tackles, making 1 interception and 7 recoveries, and leading all players with 74 passes. He had a rough start though. Guendouzi panicked and turned the ball over in the sixth minute. Then Herrera outmuscled Guendouzi to win the ball in the 11th. His inexperience cost his team in the 29th as Guendouzi mistimed his challenge on Martial to give away the free kick that led to United’s first equalizer.

However, Guendouzi managed to keep his cool when the Red Devils targeted him. Rojo was booked in the 38th for a nasty scissor tackle on Guendouzi before Fellaini pulled the French teenager’s hair in the 87th. For that disgraceful foul, Fellaini did not even receive a yellow card. At 19, Guendouzi is far from the finished product. He needs to release the ball more quickly, not just to cut his turnover rate but also to up the tempo. His partnership with Torreira in central midfield was quite complementary because Guendouzi is a deep-lying playmaker like Xhaka.

Torreira did not reach the heights of his performance against Spurs, but he had another good game and is becoming a key player for Arsenal because of that consistency. The Uruguay midfielder won 1 of 1 tackle, made 2 key passes, 1 interception and 9 recoveries, and had just 1 turnover, compared to 5 for Guendouzi. There was the fear of an injury when Torreira landed awkwardly after colliding with Martial in the 54th. Emery will have to carefully monitor Torreira’s playing time during the Christmas period because he’s not used to a season without a winter break. The club will also have to give Torreira a raise because he’s reportedly only earning £50,000 a week.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

Up front, Aubameyang lacked a bit of sharpness after working his socks off against Spurs. He was quite anonymous in the first half before coming to life in the second half. His pace definitely frightened the Manchester defense as Matic killed a counterattack in the 42nd by holding Aubameyang. The Gabon striker should have scored the winner in the 71st when he met a cross from Kolasinac, but De Gea saved Aubameyang’s 6-yard effort with his leg. Four minutes later, Aubameyang tested De Gea with a curling shot from the edge of the box.

On the left flank, Kolasinac was again Arsenal’s main ammunition provider. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international led all players with 3 key passes, including big chances for Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. However, his offensive contribution can’t erase his defensive lapses. Kolasinac failed to stop a dangerous cross from Dalot in the 14th, did not track Dalot on a Manchester fast break in the 57th and gifted a goal to Lingard with a poor first touch in the 69th. To prevent that equalizer, Kolasinac should have either cleared the danger or made a first-time pass to Leno. Running with the ball inside the area was clearly the wrong option.

On the opposite flank, Bellerin produced a lackluster performance. He won only 28.6% of his duels and made 0 key pass, 0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block and only 2 recoveries, according to the club’s website. I suspect Bellerin suffered from a bit of fatigue. The Spaniard was booked in the 41st as he was late on a 50-50 ball and tripped Darmian.

The Gunners have shown great resilience to come back in the second half this season, but one concern for Emery is that they struggle to protect the lead. It’s a reason why they still haven’t reached halftime in a winning position this season in the Premier League. On Wednesday, Arsenal blew their first lead after 4 minutes and threw away their second lead after 1 minute. That tells you there’s a lack of leadership at the back. This Arsenal team desperately needs a commanding defender who can help the players keep cool heads and focus on the basics.

Mustafi caught ball-watching

Don’t count on Sokratis or Mustafi for that role. Sokratis missed his clearance in the fourth minute, gave the ball away in the 34th and showed poor positional play for the last goal. At the restart in the 69th, Rojo hit a long ball toward Lukaku, who held off Sokratis. As you can see on the screen capture below, Sokratis had no chance to win a header by standing behind Lukaku. The correct defensive play would have been to sandwich Lukaku between Sokratis and Mustafi, with Sokratis trying to win the ball in front of Lukaku, and Mustafi covering his teammate.

MU M69a edited.jpgSokratis should have been in front of Lukaku to win the header. (Photo credit: BT)

Both Lukaku and Sokratis missed the ball, which bounced into the path of Kolasinac. Mustafi was caught ball-watching on that play. While Kolasinac and Sokratis were busy with Lukaku and the ball, Mustafi should have blocked Lingard’s run into the box. See the screen capture below. But Mustafi failed to spot Lingard’s threat and remained passive as the equalizer unfolded in front of him.

MU M69b edited.jpgMustafi fails to block Lingard’s run into the box. (Photo credit: BT)

Mustafi met a corner from Torreira in the 26th to open the scoring with a bouncing header that De Gea fumbled into his own net. Herrera cleared the ball off the line but technology told the referee that the ball had entirely crossed the line. Like for Kolasinac, Mustafi’s offensive contribution can’t make up for his defensive lapses. The German defender received a yellow card for a reckless challenge on Rashford in the 37th. And his passing accuracy of 72.7% was relatively weak for a centerback. By contrast, Sokratis’ passing accuracy reached 91.2%.

Koscielny returning this weekend?

The bad news of the evening was Holding’s knee injury. He held onto the ball too long in the 32nd and seemed to twist his knee after Rashford bumped into him. That injury is coming at the wrong time for Holding, who has been performing better than Mustafi and Sokratis in the last few games.

Things didn’t start well for Holding, who lost possession in the second minute while trying to dribble his way out of trouble. Then he missed his interception for United’s first equalizer. Lichtsteiner replaced Holding in the 36th and produced a lackluster performance with just 1 recovery, while Holding made 1 interception and 2 recoveries. If Emery wants to stick with a back three, he might have to rush Koscielny’s return. The French centerback played two games with the U23 team and was initially tipped to play in the Europa League match against Qarabag next week.

December is always a challenging month for Premier League teams because injuries start piling up and suddenly test the depth and quality of the bench. Sure, Emery has attacking midfielders who can replace Ramsey in the starting lineup, but none has been as efficient as Ramsey in the final third. The Gunners will have a good chance to move back into the Top 4 on Saturday as they host Huddersfield while the Citizens visit Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Aubameyang, Torreira shine in North London derby

Trailing 2-1 at halftime, Emery stamped his authority on the North London derby by replacing Iwobi and Mkhitaryan with Ramsey and Lacazette for the start of the second half. Those substitutions helped turn the match around as the Gunners won 4-2 on Sunday to leapfrog Spurs into fourth place in the Premier League on goal difference.

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

That result could prove crucial in the Top 4 race because Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have dropped very few points against the weak and average sides. As a consequence of that hectic pace, there’s already an eight-point gap between Arsenal and the sixth-placed team, Everton. That basically means that the Champions League spots might be decided by the direct confrontations between the top clubs.

Emery made no change to the side that edged Bournemouth 2-1 a week ago. The only difference was on the bench where Lacazette made his return from a groin injury while Ozil was not even in the squad. Officially, Ozil was suffering from back spasms but it sounded very much like a diplomatic injury.

The Gunners should have reached halftime with the lead but they wasted good situations with inaccurate final balls and some poor finishing. Although Tottenham capitalized on 2 defensive errors to lead 2-1 against the run of play, Arsenal showed resilience in the second half to overturn the deficit and stretch their unbeaten run to 19 games in all competitions. According to the club’s website, the Gunners have earned 11 points from losing positions this season.

Iwobi’s poor game

Playing as inside forwards in a 3-4-3 formation, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi didn’t have the impact that Emery expected. Iwobi had a poor game, showing poor work-rate and lacking end product. In 45 minutes, Mkhitaryan and Ramsey made 2 key passes each compared to 0 for Iwobi. The Nigeria international overhit his pass for Mkhitaryan in the 39th minute and sent his crossfield pass for Bellerin straight into touch in the 41st. Iwobi also made poor choices in the final third by running into traffic in the 12th and 27th to lose possession and give Spurs counterattacking opportunities. His only offensive contribution was a low effort that Lloris saved with his leg in the 19th.

Any player can have an off day, but the poor work-rate in a North London derby is unacceptable. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries, compared to 2 tackles and 4 recoveries for Mkhitaryan and 2 tackles and 3 recoveries for Ramsey, according to the club’s website. At least, work-rate is not an issue with Mkhitaryan, who is struggling this season with just 2 goals and 1 assist in 11 Premier League games. Mkhitaryan created 2 chances with crosses from the right flank. Aubameyang met his cross in the second minute only to head over the bar. Mkhitaryan found again Aubameyang on the stroke of halftime, but the Gabon striker poorly controlled the ball, allowing Vertonghen to clear the danger.

Sending on Ramsey and Lacazette was a no-brainer for Emery. The Tottenham defense only had to worry about Aubameyang in the first half because Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were limited goal threats. Spurs faced a tougher test in the second half with Ramsey and Lacazette, who have a better goalscoring record than Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Emery shifted to a 3-5-2 system with Ramsey playing behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Aubameyang suddenly looked less isolated while Ramsey delivered the final ball that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were unable to provide.

Arsenal’s triple threat

It was quite interesting to see Emery build his team around Ramsey in the second half after having benched the Wales midfielder in the previous league games. Even when Arsenal switched to a 4-4-2 formation in the 71st because Mustafi picked up a hamstring injury and was replaced by Guendouzi, Emery kept playing Ramsey behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Would a front two be the best approach to optimize Ramsey’s potential? There have been games in which Ramsey played with Aubameyang and Lacazette, but each time Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang was on the left flank. Defensively, playing Ramsey in the hole would allow Arsenal to man-mark a deep-lying playmaker.

Off the pitch, Ramsey had his contract offer taken off the table. On the pitch, Ramsey is still more consistent than Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Ramsey currently leads the Premier League with 6 assists, 4 more than Iwobi and 5 more than Mkhitaryan and Ozil. That’s such an awkward situation for the club to reject its best attacking midfielder. Can there be a climbdown?

Ramsey spotted Aubameyang’s run in the 52nd but overhit his through ball. Four minutes later, Ramsey made a run between Foyth and Vertonghen to chase Bellerin’s through ball and feed Aubameyang with a first-time pass. In a 1v1 situation with Aurier, Aubameyang curled a 20-yard shot into the bottom corner to level the game. Ramsey then dispossessed Foyth in the 75th to play Lacazette in. The pass lacked pace, forcing Lacazette to cut inside Vertonghen and shoot with his weaker left foot. Lacazette’s long-range effort took a deflection off Dier to beat Lloris for a 3-2 lead.

Pochettino replaced Alli with Winks in the 79th to contain Ramsey’s influence but it was already too late to repair the damage. The Tottenham defense simply couldn’t cope with that triple threat. Aubameyang dropped off in the 77th to slip a through ball to Torreira. From a tight angle, Torreira drilled the ball into the far corner to seal the win. A frustrated Vertonghen shoved Lacazette from behind to give away a free kick in the 80th. Five minutes later, Vertonghen received a second yellow card for a stamp on Lacazette’s ankle.

Aubameyang’s work-rate

Torreira was named Man of the Match, but I thought Aubameyang was more deserving. Aubameyang finished the game with 2 goals and 1 assist, raising his tally to 10 goals and 2 assists in the Premier League this season. Actually, the Gabon striker is the top scorer in the league with 2 more goals than Aguero and Kane.

The Gunners are a greater threat on the fast break when Aubameyang leads the line than when Lacazette plays as a false nine. Aubameyang gave Arsenal the lead in the 10th minute by converting a penalty after Vertonghen handled the ball to deny Mustafi a clear scoring opportunity. Of course, Aubameyang’s performance was not perfect. He was flagged offside 5 times and led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. But his work-rate was phenomenal. Aubameyang won 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player, according to the club’s website.

In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka formed again a complementary partnership. Torreira won 2 of 3 tackles, made 1 interception and led all players with 12 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The only blemish in his performance was his 5 turnovers. But most fans will only remember Torreira’s wild celebration after the last goal, when he took off his shirt to slide on his knees toward the corner flag. Xhaka was less active than Torreira, winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, but he had 0 turnover and led all midfielders by winning 75% of his duels, according to the club’s website. The Switzerland international will miss the Manchester United clash after picking up his fifth booking of the season in the 49th when he tripped Alli.

Leno’s error

I’m not sure whether Pochettino watched Arsenal’s victory at Bournemouth because Kolasinac enjoyed a lot of freedom down the left flank. Kolasinac led all players with 5 key passes and had decent defensive stats with 1 tackle won and 6 recoveries, compared to 1 tackle won and 8 recoveries for Bellerin on the right flank. Things didn’t start well for Kolasinac, who delivered a poor final ball for Aubameyang in the third minute and lost possession by running into traffic in the seventh. But Kolasinac grew into the game and made another teasing cross in the 13th for Aubameyang, who couldn’t control the ball. Then Kolasinac set up Iwobi in the 19th and Bellerin a few seconds later. In the back three, Holding is the one shifting to the left when Kolasinac roams forward. The move to a 4-4-2 formation in the 71st led to a change of plans with Guendouzi covering Kolasinac.

Maybe opponents are taking their eyes off Kolasinac because of Bellerin’s runs down the opposite flank. Bellerin created Arsenal’s equalizer in the 56th by picking out Ramsey. The Spaniard also had a volley blocked by Davies in the 19th. However, his lapse of concentration nearly cost his team in the 68th. Leno parried a drive from Son after Bellerin gave the ball away.

Leno made 4 saves but he also committed his second error leading to a goal this season. He threw Spurs a lifeline by palming Dier’s header into his own net in the 31st. A couple more mistakes could change the pecking order for goalkeepers. Leno is usually reliable with his distribution but his passing accuracy dipped to 53% because of Tottenham’s high press.

Holding’s inexperience

At the back, Holding’s inexperience cost Arsenal a penalty. Holding seemed to clip Son’s foot in the 33rd with a sliding block attempt. Watching TV replays, it looked like a dive because there was really minimal contact. In hindsight, Holding should have refrained from diving in because Son had nowhere to go and was unlikely to score from such a tight angle. Despite that defensive error, Holding had better defensive stats than Sokratis and Mustafi. The English centerback won 67% of his duels, made 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries compared to 33% of duels won, 1 block, 1 interception and 3 recoveries for Sokratis, and 53% of duels won, 3 interception and 4 recoveries for Mustafi, according to the club’s website.

Using a back three is a tactical ploy to safely cover the wingbacks, but it’s also an implicit acknowledgement that your centerbacks are not good enough. Sokratis got no booking despite leading all players with 4 fouls. The Greek defender struggled to cope with Son’s pace and Kane’s physicality. His foul on Son in the 29th led to the free kick for Spurs’ equalizer. Sokratis also misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 22nd and gave the ball away to Alli in the 41st.

Mustafi was shaky too. Son easily dribbled past Mustafi to test Leno in the 23rd. The German defender was then booked for a studs-up challenge on Son in the 37th and turned the ball over to Davies in the 65th. In a typical case of the Vermaelen syndrome, Mustafi nearly found the net to make up for his poor defending. On the stroke of halftime, Mustafi met a cross from Xhaka for a looping header that Lloris palmed away. Mustafi also had a volley cleared off the line by Alli in the 60th. Emery might have to rush Koscielny’s return as Mustafi seemed to pull his hamstring with an awkward clearance in the 68th.

The Gunners next visit Old Trafford on Wednesday. It’s a fantastic opportunity to knock Manchester United out of the Top 4 race: the Red Devils are short on confidence and would trail Arsenal by 11 points with a loss.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Lucky Gunners get back to winning ways

The Gunners made up ground in the Top 4 race with an ugly 2-1 win at Bournemouth on Sunday. They snapped a 3-game winless streak in the Premier League to move within a point of Chelsea in the standings. Emery had a tactical surprise for the Cherries as he switched from his favorite 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 system. The Spanish manager had already used a back three against Qarabag in the Europa League, mostly to give some playing time to Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner. But it was the first time that Emery relied on such a system in the Premier League.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The tactical shift made sense because it provided cover to Bellerin and Kolasinac down the flanks, where Fraser and Brooks could cause a lot of damage and feed Wilson and King. The downside of that shift is that Emery basically replaced an attacking player, Ozil, with a centerback, Sokratis, in his starting lineup. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners struggled to create clear-cut chances: they never really found any rhythm in their passing game and made no through ball attempt. By contrast, Manchester City and Liverpool made 5 and 3 through ball attempts on Saturday, respectively.

The 3-4-3 formation played to Kolasinac’s strengths because he’s more a wingback than a proper fullback. In fact, Kolasinac turned out to be Arsenal’s main attacking threat at the Vitality stadium. He created the opening goal in the 30th minute with a cross that Lerma catapulted into his own net. Kolasinac then set up the winning goal by squaring the ball back to Aubameyang in the 67th. While the Cherries managed to keep Bellerin quiet, they seemed to underestimate Kolasinac, who also had 2 scoring chances. Kolasinac tested Begovic with a cross-shot in the 22nd. A minute later, Kolasinac met a cross from Aubameyang, only to head the ball wide.

Benching Ozil

Kolasinac played a key role for both goals but his passing accuracy of 63.2%, which is low compared to Bellerin’s 93.8%, betrayed his technical limitations. Likewise, Kolasinac’s stats showed some decent work-rate with 3 tackles won, 2 interceptions and 3 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website, but he was pulled out of position for Bournemouth’s equalizer on the stroke of halftime. I expect Monreal to remain the first choice at leftback when he recovers from his hamstring injury.

Despite netting the winning goal, Aubameyang struggled in the final third with just 1 of 4 shots on target. Aubameyang fired over the bar from 10 yards after Bournemouth failed to clear a corner in the 23rd. To his credit, Aubameyang made numerous runs to stretch the Bournemouth defense. He was also involved in his team’s passing game with 2 shot assists, tied with Kolasinac and Mkhitaryan for the most by an Arsenal player.

Will that performance change Emery’s opinion about what is Aubameyang’s best position? Lacazette was not in the squad because of a groin injury. Emery seems to like using Lacazette as a false nine even though he doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace. On the other hand, Ozil was fit but Emery decided to leave him on the bench, preferring to start Iwobi and Mkhitaryan as inside forwards. It’s easy to understand Emery’s rationale here. The Cherries work their socks off and Ozil tends to struggle in away games. So Mkhitaryan got the nod over Ozil.

Mkhitaryan short on confidence

Mkhitaryan had a poor game with only 1 of 7 shots on target. He also led all players with 9 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. And his 2 key passes somehow hid his lack of creativity as he simply set up Torreira and Aubameyang for long-range efforts in the 10th and 64th. Mkhitaryan definitely has Emery’s backing, otherwise he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup. Yet, he performed like a player short on confidence. One play in the 69th summed up his struggles. Aubameyang led a counterattack by running 50 yards with the ball before slipping the ball to Mkhitaryan. The Armenia international was in a perfect position for a first-time effort but he opted to control the ball. His first touch was so poor that the ball got away from Mkhitaryan, who ended up kicking the ball out of play.

Iwobi has improved under Emery but there are still parts of his game that remain quite frustrating. Let’s start with the positives. Pulling the strings in midfield, Iwobi made the penultimate pass for both goals and had 2 of 3 shots on target. His low drive in the 21st didn’t trouble Begovic while his curling shot in the 34th forced the Bournemouth goalkeeper to palm the ball away.

Let’s talk now about the negatives. We know about Iwobi’s great potential since Wenger played him in the No. 10 role. However, his work-rate and his end product have often been questionable. Iwobi didn’t work hard enough against Bournemouth, making no tackle, no block, no interception and just 3 recoveries. That’s why Emery replaced him with Ramsey in the 82nd to protect Arsenal’s lead. Iwobi only won 16.7% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. That reputation of softie won’t go away until if he puts in a shift like Welbeck does.

Throwing away the lead with 16 seconds left

Another flaw that Iwobi needs to fix is decision-making in the final third. Last season, Iwobi had that tendency to run into traffic even though he doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Neymar or Hazard. It’s true that Iwobi can occasionally nutmeg a defender along the touchline but he needs a lot of room to beat an opponent.

In stoppage time of the first half, the Gunners had an opportunity to double the lead. But Iwobi showed poor decision-making and his turnover led to Bournemouth’s equalizer. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Iwobi had two very good passing options: he could have teed up Bellerin for a mid-range shot or played Torreira in with a reverse pass.

Bournemouth M45a edited Iwobi has 2 good passing options with Torreira and Bellerin. (Photo credit: Sky)

With his back to goal and surrounded by 3 Cherries, Iwobi attempted a dribbling trick. As you can see on the screen capture below, Daniels dispossessed Iwobi and the ball fell to Fraser who initiated a fast break.

Bournemouth M45b edited.jpgSurrounded by 3 defenders, Iwobi loses possession to Daniels. (Photo credit: Sky)

In hindsight, Arsenal would have been better off if Iwobi had fired into the stands. There were only 16 seconds left to play before the end of the first half. Without Iwobi’s error of judgment, the Gunners would have reached halftime with the lead for the first time in the league this season.

Torreira as a box-to-box player

Fraser released Wilson down our right flank, and the Bournemouth striker bought a bit of time before picking out Brooks on the edge of the Arsenal box. Brooks slipped the ball to King, who curled into the far corner to level the game. If you look at the screen capture below, it wasn’t a disastrous situation yet when Fraser fed Wilson.

Bournemouth M45c edited.jpgArsenal in a ‘favorable’ 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

However, the Gunners wasted their numerical superiority with some poor positional play. Fraser sped past Xhaka in midfield after releasing the ball. Xhaka decided to track Fraser instead of passing him on to Sokratis. When Xhaka realized Fraser made a dummy run, it was already too late. As you can see on the screen capture below, there was a huge gap between Holding on the left side of the pitch and Sokratis, Xhaka and Mustafi on the right side.

Bournemouth M45d edited.jpgFraser’s dummy run creates a huge gap between Holding and Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Cherries exploited that disequilibrium by overloading the left side of the Arsenal defense with late runs from Brooks and King. On the screen capture below, you can see that Holding was in an unfavorable 1v2 situation because Kolasinac didn’t track back while Sokratis and Xhaka were too far to help Holding. Xhaka made the key mistake on that play by failing to plug the gap between Sokratis and Holding.

Bournemouth M45e edited.jpgHolding in a 1v2 situation with Brooks and King. (Photo credit: Sky)

You might wonder why Xhaka was the holding midfielder in that game. The Gunners are an attacking player short in a 3-4-3 formation compared to the 4-2-3-1 system. Emery therefore used Torreira as a box-to-box player to provide support to Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. A more natural team selection would have been to play Torreira as the holding midfielder and Ramsey as the box-to-box player.

Still feeling like a Wenger team

Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka mainly because he’s more mobile than the Switzerland international. Emery’s tactical gamble nearly paid off in the ninth minute when Torreira won the ball in midfield and hit the post with a 22-yard drive. Torreira led all midfielders by winning 75% of his duels, according to the club’s website. He was also reliable technically with a passing accuracy of 90.8% compared to 85.1% for Xhaka. Emery yanked Torreira off in the 79th because the Uruguay international felt a bout of fatigue.

As a holding midfielder, Xhaka had decent stats with 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries. But there are always moments in a game when his lack of defensive awareness will let him down. His positional play on the equalizer was poor. Xhaka also put his team in trouble with a poor clearance in the 85th. The ball fell to Lerma, who rattled the post with a 30-yard strike.

Last season, Wenger also relied on a 3-4-3 formation in an effort to stop conceding goals before switching back to a more traditional 4-3-3 system in December. Out of intellectual curiosity, it would have been interesting to know who Wenger would have played in central midfield. Torreira and Ramsey? Or Ramsey and Xhaka just like last season? Or Torreira and Xhaka like Emery did on Sunday?

Emery is the new Arsenal manager but it still feels very much like a Wenger team. Bournemouth exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on counterattacks, a typical trait of Arsenal under Wenger. In other games, the Gunners also struggled to defend crosses. There have been defensive improvements under Emery, but they have been incremental.

Mustafi’s curse

The Spanish manager definitely has a positive influence on Holding and Bellerin. While Holding had lapses of concentration and showed poor decision-making under Wenger, he now looks close to fulfilling his potential. Holding won 62.5% of his duels on Sunday, more than Sokratis (60%) and Mustafi (47.1%) according to the club’s website. Likewise, Bellerin has refound the balance in his game between attack and defense.

Of course, Emery can’t perform miracles. Kolasinac and Mustafi still look as dodgy defensively as they were under Wenger. Mustafi was very active with 3 tackles, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries. The German centerback covered Bellerin in the third minute to kill a counterattack with a timely challenge on Fraser. He also recovered the ball in the 48th after Lerma intercepted Holding’s pass.

But you know that Mustafi will always have an error in him. He completely missed his tackle on King in the eighth minute. The Bournemouth forward fed Brooks, who beat Leno from close range. However, the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside. Looking at TV replays several times, I couldn’t even tell with certainty whether Brooks was offside. Mustafi also showed poor judgment in the 54th by diving in near the Bournemouth area as the Cherries launched a counterattack. The threat came to an end when Brooks overhit his cross. In the last minute of injury time, Mustafi gave away a silly free kick with a reckless challenge on Wilson. Fortunately, Stanislas missed the target with the subsequent free kick.

I’m not sure what was the idea behind signing Sokratis. His decision-making is sound but he lacks the pace to play a high defensive line. Sokratis clearly struggled to cope with King’s movement. King toyed with Sokratis in the 65th before cutting the ball back for Brooks, who shot straight at Leno. To contain King’s speed, Sokratis often tried to put his body between the ball and King -some kind of legal obstruction. But in the 25th King got the better of Sokratis, who received a yellow card for holding the Bournemouth forward.

Emery’s 1st North London derby

Sokratis’ ball-playing abilities are also limited. He’s an old-fashioned centerback and doesn’t help build up play from the back like Stones or Alderweireld. The Greek defender missed his clearance in the 18th and was lucky to see the ball bounce off Wilson and roll out of play. Sokratis nearly scored an own goal with another poor clearance in the 89th but Leno reacted quickly enough to palm the ball away. Is Sokratis the replacement for an aging Koscielny? In his prime, Koscielny was a much better defender than Sokratis. There’s no way Koscielny could have missed his interception like Sokratis did in the 80th when Daniels made a cross for Stanislas, whose toe poke was saved by Leno.

Leno has consolidated his starting spot with another decent performance. The German goalkeeper made 5 routine saves but his passing accuracy dipped to 42.9%, in part because the Cherries pressed high up the pitch to prevent Arsenal from playing out from the back.

The Gunners next visit Vorskla in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Tottenham in the Premier League on Sunday. The North London derby is obviously the most important game of the two because it could decide the Top 4 race whereas Arsenal would still lead Group E with a defeat in Ukraine. Spurs have a slight edge after their impressive performance against Chelsea last Saturday.