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Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Gunners get back in Top 4 race with 2-0 win

The Gunners won the North London Derby on Saturday to pull within a point of fourth-place Tottenham in the standings. Wenger fielded his best lineup to earn his first victory over Pochettino’s Spurs in the Premier League: Mustafi returned from a hamstring injury to play alongside Koscielny and Monreal in the back three while Lacazette led the line with Sanchez and Ozil in the front three.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham

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

Pochettino chose to mirror Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation despite winning with a back four at White Hart Lane in April. In a tense tactical match, the Gunners pressed high up the pitch in the first half before sitting back in the second half to hit Tottenham on the fast break. The game was tighter than what the scoreline might suggest. Both teams had 14 shots each and won 50% of the duels, according to the club’s website. Spurs also made 19 interceptions compared to 18 for Arsenal. So what made the difference? Pochettino took the risk of playing a high defensive line. The Gunners were caught offside 8 times compared to just once for Tottenham. But Spurs paid dearly for the 2 times Arsenal beat the offside trap. The Gunners also had more penetration in the final third with 3 accurate through balls compared to none for Tottenham, according to whoscored.com.

Saturday’s result showed the importance of Sanchez and Ozil in the team. Ozil made the assist for the opening goal while Sanchez netted the second goal. The club has struggled since the start of the season because of their lacklustre performances. Before the North London Derby, Ozil only had 1 goal and 2 assists from 9 Premier League games for an average of 0.33 goal or assist per game. Sanchez barely fared better with an average of 0.38 goal or assist per game. In fact, Ozil and Sanchez were only the 5th and 6th most efficient Gunners behind Kolasinac (0.4), Lacazette (0.55), Ramsey (0.6) and Welbeck (0.66).

What can we expect from Ozil and Sanchez?

Sanchez and Ozil are world-class players. You would expect from them an average above 0.6. To put things in context, Ozil had an average of 0.41 goal or assist in his worst season at the club (2014-15) and 0.71 in his best (2015-16). Sanchez enjoyed an average of 0.89 goal or assist last season and still claimed an average of 0.57 in his worst season at Arsenal (2015-16). Some fans may say that we’ve only reached Matchweek 12 and that the sample is quite small. But top players in the other clubs are already firing on all cylinders. Here are the averages for some top performers before the international break: Aguero 1.38, Sane 1.00, Morata 1.00, Lukaku 0.91, Kane 0.9, Salah 0.82, Jesus 0.8, D. Silva 0.73, De Bruyne 0.73, Mkhitaryan 0.55.

If Sanchez and Ozil keep performing like they did against Tottenham, then the Gunners have a decent chance of finishing in the Top 4. But if they go missing in too many games, then the club should build the team around other players and try to get transfer fees for Sanchez and Ozil in January. France internationals Fekir and Lemar have been mentioned as potential replacements, but it’s unlikely that they would move in the middle of the season with World Cup spots at stake.

Ozil led all players with 4 key passes. He displayed some fine work-rate by winning 2 of 2 tackles, according to Squawka. His movement in the final third also gave his teammates an extra passing option. The Germany playmaker set up Mustafi for the opener in the 36th minute with a pinpoint free kick. Mustafi outjumped Dier and Vertonghen to head Ozil’s offering into the top corner. Pochettino complained after the game about an offside position. Mustafi was maybe marginally offside, but unless you have a video assistant referee, it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it’s a matter of inches.

What’s wrong with a toe poke?

Sanchez produced a good all-around performance with 1 goal, 3 key passes, 5 tackles, and 5 successful dribbles out of 6. It was impossible not to notice his hyperactivity with also 7 turnovers and 5 offside calls, the most for any player in both categories according to whoscored.com. Somehow, Sanchez played a role in the opening goal by drawing a foul from Davinson in the 35th. Ramsey initiated a counterattack by sending a long ball toward Sanchez. Marking the Chile striker, Davinson put his arm across Sanchez’s body before tackling the ball. It was a soft foul just like Monreal’s challenge on Sterling in the City game. But the referee thought it was enough to award Arsenal a free kick, which led to Mustafi’s goal.

The Gunners doubled the lead in the 42nd when Bellerin released Lacazette down the right flank. The France striker cut the ball back for Sanchez, who controlled the ball before firing into the roof of the net from a tight angle. Dier was the culprit for both goals. He’s not a natural centerback and you kind of wonder whether Alderweireld would have prevented those goals. Sanchez was twice in a similar situation in the second half. He took a pass from Ozil in the 76th and dribbled past Dier but was denied by Lloris. The difference with his first-half goal is that Sanchez was on the left side of the area. Instead of shooting with his weaker left foot, Sanchez preferred to open up his body and use his right foot. In that kind of 1v1 situation, you can bet that Romario would have attempted a toe poke. In stoppage time, Sanchez chased a long ball from Coquelin and stayed on his feet despite a poor challenge from Davinson only to be denied by Lloris again.

Lack of lucidity

Lacazette got an assist but he wasted two good chances in the opening minutes. He charged down a clearance from Dier in the fifth minute and the loose ball fell to Sanchez, who played it back to Lacazette. The France striker cut inside only to fire over the bar from 15 yards. The better option was to pick out an unmarked Ozil at the far post. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal Spurs M05ed The pass that Lacazette should have made to Ozil. (Photo credit: Sky)

You would expect better from a player who scored twice in the 2-2 draw between France and Germany during the international break. Lacazette lacked again lucidity in the 19th when Ramsey released Bellerin down the right flank. Instead of keeping pace with Bellerin, Lacazette slowed his run and couldn’t connect with the Spaniard’s low cross for a tap-in. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Lacazette is two yards ahead Dier and Davinson when Bellerin takes the pass from Ramsey.

Arsenal Spurs M19aed Lacazette, circled, is behind the potential offside line. (Photo credit: Sky)

When Bellerin cuts the ball back, Lacazette has lost so much ground that he is sandwiched between Davinson and Dier. By staying too far behind the potential offside line, Lacazette basically put himself in a more difficult position to finish the play. See the screen capture below. If Lacazette had kept pace with Bellerin, he would have had a tap-in from 4 yards.

Arsenal Spurs M19ced Lacazette, circled, is surrounded by Dier and Davinson. (Photo credit: Sky)

On the wings, Kolasinac played a more defensive role than Bellerin. Kolasinac struggled offensively with a passing accuracy of 58%, the lowest percentage among the outfield players, but he kept Trippier quiet. By contrast, Bellerin created that chance for Lacazette but sometimes gave too much room to Davies, who led Spurs with 3 key passes.

Ramsey’s tackling frenzy

In midfield, Ramsey put in a tremendous shift by winning 4 of 11 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. The fact that Ramsey had no goal attempt tells you that he was completely focused on his defensive duties. Xhaka also contributed defensively by making 2 blocks and winning 1 of 7 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels. At times, Xhaka looked like the weak link in midfield. He made a cynical foul on Sissoko to kill a counterattack in the 24th and was booked in the 32nd for an obstruction on Alli. At least, Xhaka controlled his nerves to avoid a second yellow card.

A couple of chances exposed the absence of a natural defensive midfielder in that duo. Eriksen cut inside Xhaka to hit the base of the post in the 33rd. Then Kolasinac and Monreal failed to stop a cross from Sissoko in the 34th as an unmarked Kane tested Cech with a header. As you can see on the screen capture below, both Kane and Eriksen were unmarked on the edge of the box while Ramsey and Xhaka were in no man’s land.

Arsenal Spurs M34edRamsey and Xhaka leave Kane and Eriksen unmarked on the edge of the box. (Photo credit: Sky)

At the back, Koscielny was arguably the best defender, winning 75% of his duels compared to 50% for Monreal and 40% for Mustafi, according to the club’s website. The Arsenal captain also made 4 interceptions and 3 blocks and won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels. Some poor communication between Koscielny and Mustafi nearly cost Arsenal a goal in the sixth minute. Kane cut inside Mustafi only to shoot straight at Cech. Mustafi made amends by netting the opener and blocking a strike from Kane in the 56th.

Hectic schedule

Kane and Alli seemed to lack sharpness and were replaced by Llorente and Son in the 75th. Meanwhile, Wenger tried to protect the lead by sending on Coquelin for Lacazette in the 73rd and Iwobi for Ozil in the 84th. Throwing the kitchen sink at the Arsenal defense, Spurs played more direct in the closing minutes. Dier outjumped Monreal at the far post to meet a cross from Davies for a header that Cech palmed away in the 81st. Then Tottenham capitalized on an Iwobi turnover to launch a counterattack in the 85th. Llorente outjumped Mustafi to knock a long ball down for Son, who volleyed over the bar from 15 yards.

The Gunners next play Cologne in the Europa League on Thursday. They will need to rotate because the Tottenham game was just the first of 15 games in a 50-day span. With such a hectic schedule, there’s a too big risk of injury for players like Ramsey, Welbeck and Koscielny. Another reason for resting key players is the Premier League game against Burnley next weekend. The Clarets are level on points with Arsenal in the standings. The Gunners could lose at Turf Moor if they don’t match Burnley’s desire and commitment. They have turned the Emirates stadium into a fortress with 6 wins from 6 Premier League games. But it’s a different story on the road with just 1 win from 6 away games. The Gunners definitely need a better record if they want to finish in the Top 4.

 

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Arsenal vs. West Brom: Lacazette nets twice in 2-0 win

The Gunners had no room for error on Monday after the top teams won over the weekend. Lacazette scored both goals in the 2-0 win over West Brom to help Arsenal move into 7th place in the Premier League, 6 points behind the two Manchester clubs, and 3 points behind Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. West Brom 2017

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

The defensive performance in the first half was so poor that West Brom could have reached halftime with the lead. The Gunners were more focused on their defensive tasks in the second half and prevented the Baggies from creating any chance.

After the game, Pulis complained about a penalty that the referee failed to award in the eighth minute for a poor challenge from Mustafi on Rodriguez. Obviously, it could have been a different match with West Brom taking the lead. But then, the Gunners were also denied a penalty in the 34th when Krychowiak held Sanchez inside the area. Pulis can blame the referee but if he’s honest, he should also blame himself for relying on a very defensive 5-3-2 system and shifting to a 4-3-3 formation only after his team was two goals down. Arsenal finished the game with 16 shots and 8 chances to 7 shots and 2 chances for the visitors, according to Squawka.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that drew with Chelsea more than a week ago with Elneny and Sanchez replacing Welbeck and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The team selection was a bit intriguing because Sanchez and Lacazette started together for the first time. They might only play 9 months together, or just 5 months if Sanchez leaves in January, but their understanding could prove crucial in helping Arsenal secure a Top 4 finish.

Spot-kick specialist

Lacazette had a solid performance with 2 of 4 shots on target, 1 key pass, 4 successful dribbles out of 4 and 2 of 3 aerial duels won. He showed his flair for goals in the 20th by heading in a rebound after Foster had saved a free kick from Sanchez. The France international doubled the lead in the 67th by drilling a penalty into the bottom corner after Nyom had fouled Ramsey. Lacazette earned a strong reputation in the French league for converting spot kicks, so it made sense to have him as our No. 1 penalty taker. He’s definitely more convincing than Sanchez and Ozil in that duty. Lacazette could have notched a hat trick, but Gibbs deflected out his goal attempt in the 51st. Then Lacazette missed the target from a tight angle in the 70th.

Giroud came off the bench to replace Lacazette in the 82nd. In a 10-minute cameo, Giroud made a positive contribution with 2 key passes. He controlled a long ball from Elneny in the 87th to tee up Xhaka. Three minutes later, Giroud, released Ramsey down the right flank for a low drive that Foster saved with his leg.

When Sanchez starts, the game usually revolves around him. On Monday, Sanchez nearly played second fiddle to Lacazette, often dropping back to create chances with 2 accurate crosses and 1 accurate through ball. Sanchez played a one-two with Lacazette in the fourth minute but was shoved by Dawson when Lacazette returned the pass. Pulis claimed it was a dive but TV replays clearly showed Dawson putting an arm across Sanchez’s chest. Then Sanchez hit a ball over the top for Lacazette in the 70th. It was a decent start for that new attacking duo.

Ramsey as a free-roaming midfielder

Anybody having doubts about the Chile striker’s desire should look at his work-rate: Sanchez made 6 tackles and won 5 fouls and 3 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka. He also led all players with 10 turnovers, his péché mignon, compared to 4 for Lacazette and 3 for Ramsey, according to whoscored.com. Wenger yanked Sanchez off in the 83rd to send on Ozil, who has been nursing a knee inflammation. If his knee doesn’t heal properly, that means Arsenal could miss their two most creative players (Ozil and Cazorla) for many games this season.

One alternative to Ozil in midfield is Iwobi. Unfortunately, Iwobi is still inconsistent and can lack end product. Maybe that’s why the manager played Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder on Monday. In fact, it’s Ramsey’s position when he plays with the Wales team. He headed Bellerin’s volleyed pass over the bar in the 11th and dribbled past Foster in the 32nd only to have his cross intercepted by the West Brom goalkeeper. However, it was his run inside the box in the 66th that gave Arsenal a two-goal cushion. Nyom basically bumped Ramsey out of the pitch with his thigh. The referee awarded a penalty for two obvious reasons. First, Nyom was not playing the ball. And second, Ramsey had run past Nyom.

Elneny teamed up with Xhaka in central midfield. They did OK offensively but their defensive performance was unconvincing. Both had a passing accuracy above 92%, which means that Arsenal could apply constant pressure on the West Brom defense. Their passing range also means that the team can quickly find the forwards when play is stretched. Xhaka and Elneny combined to hit 10 accurate long balls out of 10, according to whoscored.com.

Some more gruyere cheese

However, their defensive contribution was not good enough. They combined to make only 2 tackles, 0 interception and 0 block. The Baggies too easily ran through the midfield in the first half. Krychowiak intercepted Ramsey’s sloppy pass for Elneny in the 38th and ran half the length of the pitch to make a cross for Rodriguez, who headed the ball past Cech. It took a clearance from Monreal off the line to prevent West Brom from equalizing.

It’s not the first time this season that the Arsenal midfield looks like the football version of gruyere cheese. As you can see on the screen capture below, Krychowiak ran past Ramsey and Elneny before getting involved in a foot race with Koscielny. The Gunners still seemed to have the situation under control with Monreal and Mustafi keeping an eye on Robson-Kanu while Xhaka was ahead of Rodriguez.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M38a editedXhaka is ahead of Rodriguez as the Gunners deal with a 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

Then the situation became critical because Xhaka failed to track Rodriguez while Mustafi made the mistake of helping Koscielny, leaving Monreal in a 1v2 situation with Rodriguez and Robson-Kanu. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M38b editedXhaka loses the foot race with Rodriguez as Monreal is in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

Three minutes later, Xhaka showed his lack of defensive focus by not being tight enough to Robson-Kanu. See the screen capture below. Monreal and Kolasinac did not cover themselves in glory either as they failed to block Nyom’s cross for Robson-Kanu. The Wales international flicked the ball on for Rodriguez, who couldn’t put the finishing touch.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M41a editedMonreal and Kolasinac fail to stop Nyom’s cross as Xhaka is not tight to Robson-Kanu. (Photo credit: Sky)

Stopping crosses from the left flank was an issue last season as neither Monreal nor Gibbs could do a decent job. Kolasinac had a decent game but that’s definitely one area where he could improve. The Baggies capitalized on another cross to test Cech on the stroke of halftime. Following a corner, the Gunners cleared their lines and played the offside trap, which turned out to be a mistake. Krychowiak found an unmarked Gibbs down our left flank and the former Arsenal fullback hoisted the ball into the box. Bellerin missed his clearance and Barry forced Cech into an acrobatic save with a header.

Monreal’s outstanding performance

Mustafi proved again the weak link at the back. He won only 30% of his duels, compared to 58.3% for Koscielny and 66.7% for Monreal, according to the club’s website. The Germany international still has this bad habit of making reckless challenges. When Barry hit a long ball toward Rodriguez in the eighth minute, Mustafi just had to show Rodriguez down the line and keep him off his right foot. Somehow, Mustafi brought down Rodriguez with an awkward block attempt as he thought the West Brom striker would shoot with his weaker left foot while in fact Rodriguez was checking back. The referee either played advantage or simply didn’t spot the foul. In any case, he didn’t blow the whistle. So Rodriguez quickly got back on his feet and fired a low strike that Cech diverted onto his far post. Livermore followed up only to sweep the rebound wide.

Monreal was arguably our best defender on Monday. The Spaniard led all players with 6 interceptions and all starters with a passing accuracy of 93.8%, according to whoscored.com. He also won 2 of 5 tackles, while Koscielny and Mustafi won none, and 3 of 4 aerial duels. His clearance in the 38th allowed Arsenal to retain the lead at halftime. Monreal has definitely benefited from the shift to a 3-4-3 system. He wasn’t strong enough in the air to play as a centerback in a back four and his inability to stop dangerous crosses made him a liability as a fullback.

The Gunners next face BATE Borisov on Thursday. I expect the manager to rest a lot of regular starters because it’s an exhausting trip to Eastern Europe and those who play won’t have much time to recover for the early kickoff against Brighton on Sunday. Arsenal can afford a draw or even a loss in Belarus whereas they desperately need 3 points against Brighton to make up ground in the standings.

 

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Gunners show desire & discipline to earn a point

The Gunners produced their best performance of the season on Sunday to split the points with Chelsea in a goalless draw. Given Arsenal’s poor record at Stamford Bridge in the past few seasons, it’s definitely a good point. Very little separated both teams in a highly tactical match. Chelsea and Arsenal had 8 chances each. The Blues enjoyed 51% of ball possession and mustered 13 shots to 11 for the visitors. But the Gunners showed a bit more commitment by winning 20 tackles to 13 and making 20 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal 2017

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

Wenger has often been maligned for his poor record against Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager. Yet, he slightly outfoxed Conte in Sunday’s encounter. Both teams started with a 3-4-3 formation. But the duo formed by Ramsey and Xhaka got the better of Kante and Fabregas in midfield. At halftime, Conte decided to beef up his midfield by replacing Pedro with Bakayoko, switching to a 3-5-2 system.

Conte has a more defensive approach to the 3-4-3 formation than Wenger. The Italian manager mostly uses it as a counterattacking device. The Blues pounced on a sloppy pass from Bellerin in the third minute to hit Arsenal on the fast break. However, the Gunners quickly retreated and Pedro could only fire a 25-yard drive straight at Cech.

Making the most of a disequilibrium

The problem with Conte’s approach is that it puts a strong emphasis on defensive discipline. Chelsea coped well with such an austere system last season. But we can see the limits of this demanding approach as the Blues have already received 3 red cards in 5 league games this season. Luiz got booked in the 52nd for hitting Koscielny’s head with an overhead kick in a crowded area. In the closing minutes, Luiz overran the ball and fouled Kolasinac with a studs-up challenge. The referee made the right call by giving Luiz a straight red card. As you can see on the screen capture below, the Brazilian defender’s block attempt was a potential leg-breaker.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M87ed Luiz’s studs land on Kolasinac’s shin. (Photo credit: Sky)

By contrast, Wenger’s approach is more messy. His switch to the 3-4-3 formation was not a deliberate choice but a decision by default. He realized his midfield could not control the game. Because his midfield had become a weakness, Wenger tacitly accepted the lack of balance in his team by adopting a system that made the most of such a disequilibrium. You therefore often see the team split in two because the 3-4-3 formation optimizes what happens at both ends of the pitch. Defensively, the Gunners are never outnumbered. Offensively, they are at least 4 or 5 on a counterattack.

Wenger made just one change to the side that routed Bournemouth 3-0 the previous weekend with Iwobi replacing an injured Ozil in the starting lineup. However, there were 8 changes to the team that defeated Cologne 3-1 on Thursday with only Bellerin, Monreal and Iwobi retaining their starting spots. That rotation was crucial to have enough freshness against Chelsea.

Mustafi as the weak link

The Gunners earned their second straight clean sheet in the Premier League. Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi seem our best options for the back three. Chambers and Holding are still too naive while Mertesacker’s lack of pace is a liability for a high defensive line. Mustafi proved the weak link at the back on Sunday. The Germany international had 3 turnovers, made 2 interceptions and 0 block and won only 46.7% of his duels, compared to 1 turnover, 4 interceptions, 2 blocks and 88.9% duels won for Koscielny and 0 turnover, 4 interceptions, 2 blocks and 70% duels won for Monreal, according to Squawka and the club’s website.

Chelsea’s only clear-cut chance came from Mustafi’s poor positional play in the 21st. Monreal and Koscielny both played a high defensive line but Mustafi was caught napping four yards behind them, playing Pedro and Morata onside. See the screen capture below. Fabregas slipped a through ball to Pedro, who was clean through on goal but was denied by Cech.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M21ed Mustafi, circled, is 4 yards behind the potential offside line as Pedro makes a run in behind. (Photo credit: Sky)

Mustafi also misjudged the flight of Cahill’s long ball for Morata on the stroke of halftime. Morata was about to bear down on goal but Monreal rushed back to beat Morata to the ball and divert it into Cech’s path. Mustafi could have been the hero by heading in Xhaka’s free kick in the 75th but his goal was disallowed for offside.

Ramsey’s mazy run

In midfield, Ramsey ran the show with 3 interceptions, 2 blocks, 3 of 6 tackles won and 4 successful dribbles out of 4. Arsenal’s best scoring chance came from Ramsey’s mazy run in the 41st. Ramsey slalomed through the Chelsea defense only to hit the far post with a toe poke. Sanchez was so excited in the stands that he slapped Ospina’s back a couple of times. The Blues simply couldn’t cope with Ramsey’s movement.

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka outperformed the duo formed by Kante and Fabregas. Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 14 tackles, 5 interceptions and 4 blocks, compared to 10 tackles, 3 interceptions and 4 blocks for Kante and Fabregas, according to Squawka. In the first half, Ramsey and Xhaka got the better of Kante and Fabregas with a mix of zonal marking and man-marking. They had more defensive work in the second half when Bakayoko joined Kante and Fabregas in midfield. Wenger tried to steady the midfield by sending on Elneny for Iwobi in the 80th.

On the wings, Kolasinac was more busy defensively than Bellerin. Kolasinac won 4 of 6 tackles, had 5 turnovers and made 2 interceptions, 2 blocks and 0 key pass while Bellerin won 1 of 1 tackle, had 1 turnover and made 0 interception, 5 blocks and 2 key passes. Kolasinac was signed as an upgrade over Gibbs and Monreal at leftback. Yet, the Gunners still struggle to stop crosses from their left flank. In the 23rd, Kolasinac couldn’t block Moses’ cross for Morata, who headed wide.

Welbeck’s groin injury

Despite his defensive workload, Kolasinac managed to test Courtois with a long-range strike in the 20th and had a shot blocked by Azpilicueta in the 62nd. Bellerin proved an attacking threat down the right wing in the first half but faded after the break. The Spaniard was one of the three Gunners who also started in the Europa League game against Cologne.

Wenger can have regrets about the front three, which underperformed compared to the rest of the team. Iwobi started on the right wing because Ozil had not recovered from a minor injury. The Nigeria international led Arsenal with 3 key passes but also 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. I thought Iwobi’s work-rate was not good enough. He made no tackle, no interception and no block while Welbeck made 2 interceptions and 1 block and Lacazette made 3 tackles and 1 block. Iwobi also needs to improve his spatial awareness. He is not as good as Ozil in finding pockets of space, which explains why his movement is not good enough.

While Welbeck played as a centerforward in the FA Cup final, the manager decided to play him on the left wing on Sunday. Welbeck should have caught the frame from 7 yards in the 16th but he inexplicably headed Bellerin’s cross wide. He also wasted a good situation in the 57th by overhitting his final ball for Ramsey. Welbeck suffered more bad luck by picking up a groin injury in the 72nd. His injury could become an issue because he’s the only forward in the squad who is both pacey and strong in the air.

Worst start since 2011

Lacazette struggled in the centerforward role. His passing accuracy dropped to 53.3% while his teammates preferred to rely on Welbeck as an outlet for high balls. He had two chances in the first half. Bellerin cut the ball back for Lacazette in the 17th. Tightly marked by Luiz, the France international could only hit a first-time effort straight at Courtois. Then Lacazette had a better opportunity in the 41st when Ramsey’s toe poke hit the post. The rebound fell to Lacazette, who volleyed wide from 6 yards with his weaker left foot. Sanchez replaced Lacazette in the 66th but had no real impact in the final third.

The Gunners produced a great performance but I still don’t see them as serious contenders for the simple reason that their options at centerback and in midfield are limited. If Koscielny gets injured, would you trust Mertesacker and Holding to step up? Likewise, if Ramsey is sidelined for a few weeks, which midfielder could be an attacking force while performing defensive duties? Cazorla and Wilshere are the only players matching that profile, but Cazorla is out for most of the season while Wilshere has a dreadful injury record.

With just 7 points from the first 5 league games, the Gunners are having their worst start to the season since 2011 when they collected only 4 points. In the past two seasons, Arsenal enjoyed a decent start with 10 points. Those results mean that the Gunners desperately need a victory over West Brom next weekend. I therefore expect the manager to rest key players in Wednesday’s League Cup game against Doncaster Rovers.

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth: Gunners restore a bit of order with 3-0 win

Welbeck always catches your attention with his work-rate. The only question mark is about the end product. Manchester United fans liked his attitude and performance but lamented his finishing. So it was not a surprise when Van Gaal let Welbeck join Arsenal in 2014. On Saturday, Welbeck reminded Manchester United fans what could have been by scoring two goals and making an assist in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth 2017

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

The England international opened the scoring in the sixth minute by heading Kolasinac’s cross into the bottom corner. He set up the second goal in the 28th by feeding Lacazette, who fired into the top corner from 20 yards. Welbeck made it 3-0 by taking a pass from Ramsey in the 50th to beat Begovic with a low diagonal strike. He could have notched a hat trick after dribbling past Cook but his chip sailed wide of the far post in the 60th.

Welbeck worked so hard that he led all players with 3 fouls. On a more positive note, he also won 1 of 3 tackles and 2 of 5 aerial duels while making 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. Although he mostly played on the left flank, Welbeck proved a valuable outlet to help the Arsenal defense evade Bournemouth’s high press. The only blemish on Welbeck’s outstanding performance was his 4 turnovers due to poor touches, according to whoscored.com.

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that was thrashed 4-0 at Anfield with Lacazette, Kolasinac and Mustafi replacing Sanchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Holding in the starting lineup. There was a lot of pressure before the game because the Gunners had lost their 2 previous league games.

A walk in the park

Late business in the transfer window completely destabilized the team. The manager did not field his best lineup at Liverpool because he tried to convince the Ox to stay while Mustafi was linked with a move to Inter Milan. Things nearly went back to normal on Saturday as Wenger benched an unfit Sanchez and played Kolasinac on the left flank and Bellerin on the right.

In the end, it proved a walk in the park. Arsenal created 14 chances to just 4 for the Cherries. The Gunners also showed more commitment by winning 16 of 23 tackles compared to 9 of 17 for the visitors. The scoreline could have been more embarrassing for Bournemouth if the quality of the final ball had been better. Ramsey overhit a long ball for Lacazette in the 26th while Bellerin put too much weight on a pass to the French striker in the 62nd.

Lacazette proved tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 94.1%. His 100 goals in the French league have made his flair for goals pretty obvious. He showed on Saturday that he can score from anywhere in the final third. Welbeck gave him another opportunity to find the net in the 37th by charging down Begovic’s clearance. Lacazette pounced on the loose ball but was denied by the Bournemouth goalkeeper. In hindsight, maybe dribbling past Begovic was a better option than a first-time effort.

Cheers and boos for Sanchez

Welbeck and Lacazette were replaced by Sanchez and Giroud in the 74th. Sanchez performed poorly for Chile during the international break and had to overcome the disappointment of an aborted move to Manchester City. The majority of the fans cheered him when he came onto the pitch but a minority booed him. Sanchez may need two more weeks to be at the top of his game again. In his 16-minute cameo, Sanchez set up Giroud for an angled shot in the 79th and tested Begovic with a low strike in stoppage time.

Both Sanchez and Ozil have decided to run down their contracts. At the age of 28, they know they have one last opportunity to cash in their talent. They will have to perform well in their last season at the club if they want to convince potential suitors that they are worth the cash. Ozil led the team with 3 key passes but had very little impact in the final third. His work-rate was decent with 1 interception, 1 block and 2 tackles made.

Ozil often swapped positions with Lacazette, oscillating between the role of a second striker and the instincts of a playmaker. Looking for space between the lines, Ozil was caught offside twice. He forced a one-handed save from Begovic with a curling free kick in the 16th. Then he sent a half-volley wide with his weaker foot in the 56th.

Coquelin’s hamstring injury

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey didn’t have much work to do for the simple reason that the Cherries were all over the place. Howe tried to mimic Arsenal’s 3-4-3 system but his team didn’t really master the subtleties of such a formation. Xhaka and Ramsey combined to make 3 interceptions and win 1 of 3 tackles, the kind of stats that Kante can get in 45 minutes. Xhaka won 71.4% of his duels, compared to 33.3% for Ramsey according to the club’s website, but had a passing accuracy of only 72.6%.

Offensively, Xhaka tested Begovic with a long-range strike in the 12th. Defensively, he was too static in the 48th when the Cherries created their first scoring chance. Xhaka left Kolasinac in a 1v2 situation with Francis and Ibe, which explains why Kolasinac couldn’t stop Ibe’s cross for Defoe, whose glancing header hit the near post.

Ramsey made the penultimate pass for the opening goal and fed Welbeck for the third. He could have scored in the 57th but failed to make solid contact with the ball while meeting a cross from Ozil. The Gunners enjoyed 59% of ball possession, so it’s not in those games that Ramsey’s positional play can be seriously tested. A lapse of concentration still led Ramsey to give the ball away in a dangerous area in the 32nd.

Coquelin came off the bench to replace Ramsey in the 67th as the manager wanted to protect Arsenal’s three-goal lead. Did Coquelin fail to properly warm up? The French midfielder pulled his hamstring in the 81st and could not be replaced because Wenger had already made his 3 substitutions. Despite their numerical inferiority, the Gunners managed to keep a clean sheet.

Stopping dangerous crosses

Common sense dictates to have a left-footed player in the leftback position. Yet, Wenger decided to play Bellerin on the left wing against Stoke and Liverpool to accommodate Oxlade-Chamberlain on the opposite wing. The logical outcome was a lack of cross from the left flank. On Saturday, Wenger finally did what most rational managers would do by starting Bellerin on the right and Kolasinac on the left. That move paid off as Kolasinac made the assist for the opening goal.

Bellerin and Kolasinac finished the game with 2 key passes each. Arsenal fans were relieved when Bellerin volleyed the ball into touch as the Cherries cleared their lines from a corner. Obviously, Bellerin remembered the blunder he made when Salah scored for Liverpool. Using a back three makes sense since Arsenal’s fullbacks almost play like wingers. In the 40th, Bellerin made a cross for Kolasinac, whose volley was blocked by Smith.

The main challenge for Kolasinac this season will be stop dangerous crosses. Both Monreal and Gibbs failed in the previous seasons. Kolasinac lost a duel against Ibe, who crossed the ball for King in the 89th. The Bournemouth forward beat Bellerin to the ball for a looping header that Cech tipped over the bar. Kolasinac will also need to be more tidy in possession. He only had a passing accuracy of 73% compared to 84% for Bellerin.

Blooding youngsters

At the back, Koscielny led all players with 4 interceptions and 5 aerial duels won out of 7. The France centerback wasn’t completely sharp yet as he won none of the 2 tackles he made. There was an injury scare in the 46th when King stamped on Koscielny’s leg. The referee assumed it was unintentional otherwise it would have been a red card. Mustafi was a bit shaky as he missed a tackle on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 61st and was nearly dispossessed while dribbling in his own half in the 66th. His relative weakness in the air led to Bournemouth’s scoring chance in the 48th. Mustafi only won 1 aerial duel out of 3.

I still felt Arsenal made the right choice this summer by selling Paulista and keeping Mustafi. The Germany international can have poor games but he’s less dodgy in his decision-making than Paulista, whose poor command of English hampered his integration.

Saturday’s game was just the first of 7 games in a 23-day span. I hope the manager will play a makeshift team for the Europa League game against Cologne on Thursday because the Gunners don’t have a squad strong enough to seriously compete in four competitions. The Europa League should be a great opportunity to introduce more competition within the squad and blood youngsters like Holding, Nelson, Willock, Maitland-Niles and Chambers while giving some playing time to benchwarmers like Mertesacker, Elneny, Walcott, Iwobi and Ospina.

If the Gunners reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League, maybe Wenger should start fielding his best lineup, but until then it doesn’t make sense to ruin our Premier League season by chasing glory in a cheap European competition. The Chelsea game next Sunday is much more important than getting a good result against Cologne.

Stoke vs. Arsenal: 1-0 loss exposes midfield issues

There was this hope that the Gunners had turned a corner by winning 4-1 at the Britannia stadium last season. But Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Stoke reminded Arsenal fans that their club was stuck in a time loop like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The result showed again the importance of Koscielny at the back. Without the France defender, who was serving the last game of his three-match ban, the Gunners have already conceded four goals in their first two Premier League games. The Potters also exposed our midfield problems as they too easily reached the Arsenal box.

Stoke City v Arsenal - Premier League

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

You would think that Arsenal dominated the match with 77% of ball possession and 18 shots to 11, but Stoke proved as threatening as the visitors in the final third with both teams having 9 shots each from inside the box. Obviously, the Potters’ game plan was to park the bus and hit Arsenal on the fast break. They also showed more commitment than the Gunners by winning 55% of the duels and making 10 interceptions to 8 and 19 tackles to 16, according to the club’s website.

Wenger made two changes to the side that edged Leicester 4-3 the previous weekend with Mustafi and Ramsey replacing Holding and Elneny in the starting lineup. Holding was not even on the bench as Mertesacker took his spot in the squad. The manager also left out Sanchez, who’s recovering from an abdominal strain. I thought partnering Xhaka with Ramsey in central midfield was a bold move. Coquelin or Elneny would have been a more defensive option than Ramsey. Knowing Stoke’s game plan, Coquelin’s technical limitations would have been of no help to crack their defense. And Elneny would have not provided the same goal threat as Ramsey.

A dysfunctional midfield

Whatever pairing Wenger chooses, the Arsenal midfield will still be dysfunctional. Stoke only had Fletcher and Allen in central midfield, yet that was enough to trouble the Gunners. We simply have no pairing that can match the level of the duo formed by Vieira and Petit or Vieira and Gilberto. Since the solution does not exist in the squad, that means Arsenal can only find it in the transfer market.

The club has less than two weeks left to sign the top defensive midfielder who can shield the back three and help provide more tactical flexibility. Under Ancelotti, Real Madrid had Xabi Alonso and Modric in central midfield with Di Maria as a playmaker in front of them. Zidane added more security by playing a defensive midfielder, Casemiro, behind Kroos and Modric. If we assume that Xhaka is a pacesetter like Kroos and that Ramsey is a box-to-box player like Modric, that means the Gunners would need a ballwinner with better passing skills and a better reading of the game than Coquelin.

In the current 3-4-3 system, Xhaka is the holding midfielder. Unfortunately, he lacks the pace and positional play to perform that role. That’s why Xhaka needs a ballwinner who can relieve him of his defensive duties. A three-man midfield with an efficient ballwinner would also make the shift to a back four safer.

Xhaka had a poor game with a passing accuracy of 85.3%. He won just 20% of his duels compared to 60% for Ramsey, according to the club’s website. Although Ramsey plays in a more advanced position than Xhaka, the Wales midfielder performed better defensively, winning 4 of 6 tackles while Xhaka lost the only tackle he made, according to Squawka.

Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline

Ramsey had three scoring chances. First, he chased a ball over the top from Lacazette in the 17th minute but could only muster a tame shot under Diouf’s pressure. Then, he connected with a free kick from Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 28th for a volley at the far post that Butland saved. In the 60th, Ramsey met a cross from Mustafi for a toe poke straight at the Stoke goalkeeper. Ramsey has often been compared to Gerrard and Lampard, but those two players were more selective in their runs and gave the priority to their defensive duties. It’s no coincidence if Ramsey plays as a free-roaming midfielder in the Wales team. That position makes up for his lack of tactical discipline.

The Arsenal midfield becomes too porous with Xhaka and Ramsey. They combined to have 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. The Potters’ first scoring chance in the third minute showed that the Arsenal midfield is the football version of gruyere cheese (see the screen captures below). Shawcross initially outjumped Lacazette to head a long ball into the path of Fletcher. Somehow, the 33-year-old Fletcher ran past Ramsey and Xhaka to feed Jese. The Spain international evaded Mustafi’s tackle but was denied by Cech.

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Fletcher making a 20-yard run between Ramsey and Xhaka. (Photo credit: NBC)

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The shift to a back three prevents the Arsenal defense from being outnumbered. (Photo credit: NBC)

Stoke’s winning goal in the 47th showed how dysfunctional the Arsenal midfield is. Cameron intercepted Xhaka’s pass for Ozil and found Jese, who ran unopposed for 25 yards before slipping the ball to Berahino on the edge of the box. Berahino played the ball back to Jese, who beat Cech with a low diagonal shot. Ozil got plenty of stick from Keown on BT Sport but the Germany playmaker was covering Ramsey, who got stuck up front (see the screen capture below).

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Cameron beats two Arsenal midfielders with that short pass to Jese. (Photo credit: NBC)

Xhaka was the main culprit on that play. First, he made a sloppy pass from the halfway line. Then he tried to make up for his mistake and dived in, giving Jese plenty of space to run into. Last season, Wenger switched to a back three because he realized the defense lacked protection from the midfield. The Arsenal defense is rarely outnumbered with three centerbacks but the centerbacks still have to win their duels (see the screen capture below). Monreal hesitated for a split second and was late to block Jese’s shot. I’m pretty sure Koscielny wouldn’t have made that mistake.

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The Arsenal defense left in a 3v3 situation because of a porous midfield. (Photo credit: NBC)

The absence of Cazorla and Sanchez meant that Ozil carried the burden of creating chances as Xhaka and Ramsey combined to make only one shot assist. The Gunners had 18 shots but very few were clear-cut chances. At times, they even seemed to lack penetration. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes, according to Squawka. He also had 3 successful dribbles out of 4. As usual, his work-rate was poor with 0 tackle and 1 interception.

Losing a source of supply

Wenger’s choices for the wingback positions also limited the potential for creating chances. In the FA Cup final, Bellerin started on the right flank while the Ox roamed down the left. On Saturday, Bellerin and the Ox swapped positions. In both cases, the Gunners are losing a source of supply since Bellerin and the Ox can’t accurately cross with their left foot. It would have made more sense to play Kolasinac on the left flank and the Ox on the right with Mustafi, Monreal and Bellerin as the three centerbacks.

The Ox had a good game with 3 key passes, 7 successful dribbles out of 8 and a passing accuracy of 89%. He also displayed some impressive work-rate with 3 interceptions, 3 blocks and 3 tackles made, according to Squawka. His only weakness was the relative lack of end product with none of his 3 shots on target. Some fans often wonder why the manager hardly plays the Ox in midfield. I guess his dribbling skills are more useful on a wing and his reading of the game is not good enough yet. Lacazette lauched a counterattack with a clearance in the 36th. The ball fell to the Ox, who wasted a promising situation by opting for a long-range effort instead of feeding Ozil or Welbeck (see the screen captures blow).

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The Ox could have played Ozil clean through on goal. (Photo credit: NBC)

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The Ox could have crossed to an unmarked Welbeck at the far post. (NBC)

Bellerin struggled on the left flank as he won only 25% of his duels compared to 58.8% for the Ox on the opposite wing. In fact, his stats are much weaker than when he plays on the right flank. Bellerin made 0 cross, created 0 chance and made 0 dribbling attempt. On the bright side, Bellerin won 2 of 5 tackles and had 2 shots. The Spaniard collected a through ball from Ozil in the 58th to fire a low strike that Butland parried. Bellerin should have definitely been awarded a penalty in the 20th when Diouf tripped him inside the area. Taking the lead so early would have forced Stoke to chase the game and free some space.

Not clinical enough

Up front, it was a frustrating day for Lacazette. The France international had 0 shot, made 0 dribble and won 0 aerial duel. I just think he’s not tailored for the centerforward position in the Premier League. Lacazette used to lead the line for Lyon, but the French league is less physical and more technical than the Premier League. He was outjumped by the Stoke defense whenever the Gunners kicked long balls.

In my eyes, Lacazette would be more productive in the Premier League as a second striker. In the first half, his only moment of brilliance occurred in the 17th when he sent a ball over the top for Ramsey. In the second half, he scored an equalizer but the goal was disallowed for a very marginal offside. TV replays showed the tip of Lacazette’s boot was offside. Wenger was quite upset with the referee’s decision. As long as the Premier League doesn’t introduce the video assistant referee, you can’t really blame the linesmen.

If Lacazette is struggling in the air, why is the manager not playing Welbeck in the centerforward position? One obvious answer lies in Welbeck’s performance: he is simply not clinical enough. The Ox picked out Welbeck with a ball over the top in the 19th but Butland saved Welbeck’s volley. I believe Van Persie would have scored in that kind of situation. Then Ozil made a cross for Welbeck, who headed the ball over the bar in the 59th. When you have a free header, you have to catch the frame. A few minutes later, Giroud played Welbeck in with a first-time pass. Surrounded by two Potters, Welbeck had a heavy second touch and could only hit a toe poke straight at Butland.

Giroud came off the bench to replace Kolasinac in the 66th as the Gunners shifted to a back four. He made an immediate impact by setting up Welbeck in the 67th before feeding Lacazette for the disallowed goal with a backheel flick. In hindsight, maybe the manager should have started Giroud up front knowing that Arsenal would dominate possession and that Stoke would park the bus. In stoppage time, Giroud couldn’t live up to his reputation as a super-sub as he headed Monreal’s cross wide from 12 yards.

A six-pointer at Anfield

At the back, Mustafi had a decent performance for his first game of the season. The Germany international won 2 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels. He missed a tackle that could have proved costly in the third minute before sending shivers down the spine of most Arsenal fans with a 50-50 challenge on Pieters in the 84th. Monreal was obviously guilty on Stoke’s goal but Kolasinac is the centerback whose performance raised a few questions. Kolasinac won 0 of 3 tackles and only 37.5% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi and 66.7% for Monreal. I still believe leftback or wingback is a more natural position for Kolasinac.

I can understand why the manager played Monreal in the back three. The Spaniard is a great asset to play the ball out from the back. Monreal had a passing accuracy of 94% compared to 89% for Kolasinac and 87% for Mustafi. However, Stoke exposed Monreal’s weakness in the air. Shawcross beat Monreal and Mustafi to the ball to head Choupo-Moting’s cross over the bar in the 31st. Berahino also got the better of Monreal in the 62nd for a bouncing header that Cech tipped over the bar.

The Gunners are now under massive pressure for Sunday’s game against Liverpool. A defeat at Anfield could leave them six points off the pace. There’s also the possibility that two straight losses would bring back the negativity from last season. The fans fear the prospect of finishing outside the Top 4 again. For a big club like Arsenal, it’s not acceptable to miss Champions League football two seasons in a row. Sanchez and Koscielny are two of the leaders in the team. The Gunners will definitely need them to get a result at Anfield.

 

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

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

Arsenal vs. Sunderland

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

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

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

Ozil’s Premier League record

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

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

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

Vieira or Arteta?

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

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

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

Mustafi’s struggles with the offside trap

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

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

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

Gibbs’ lack of end product

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

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

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

Points tally vs. place

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

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

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

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

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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

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

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

The supersub strikes again

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

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

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

Overloading Arsenal’s right flank

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

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

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

The Ox’s hamstring injury

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

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

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

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