Tag Archives: Nelson

Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Youngsters impress in 2-1 loss

   A few years ago, there would have been a lot at stake in a Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester United. On Sunday, there was no such tension in the air because the Red Devils had secured a Top 4 finish while the Gunners had already dropped out of the Top 4 race a few weeks ago. In fact, both clubs have set their sights on different competitions: Mourinho wants to win the FA Cup whereas Wenger is still chasing his first European trophy.

Manchester United vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger made 8 changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid on Thursday with only Ospina, Bellerin and Xhaka retaining their starting spots. The manager obviously wanted to give a break to some key players before the second leg in Madrid. You can’t blame Wenger for such a pragmatic approach. Last season, Mourinho also heavily rotated in a game against Arsenal that was sandwiched between the two legs of a Europa League tie.

At kickoff, the Gunners looked like a makeshift team with 3 academy players (Mavropanos, Maitland-Niles and Nelson), 4 benchwarmers (Ospina, Chambers, Kolasinac and Iwobi) and 4 regular starters (Bellerin, Xhaka, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang). The heavy rotation helps explain why they struggled to create chances. Xhaka led Arsenal players with just 2 key passes while Bellerin, Maitland-Niles, Mkhitaryan, Nelson and Aubameyang had 1 key pass each.

Up front, Aubameyang got very little service. His only scoring chance came in the 36th minute when he met a cross from Bellerin for a tame header straight at De Gea. Iwobi was supposed to pull the strings in the No. 10 role but he showed again a lack of end product with 0 shot, 0 key pass, and 0 cross. The Nigeria international can be very frustrating to watch. He can produce one great performance and then look completely anonymous in the next five games. Iwobi will be turning 22 in a couple of days. It’s time for him to show more consistency and maturity in his game.

Vulnerable on crosses

Starting on the left wing, Nelson played with more confidence than against Southampton. The academy starlet had 2 goal attempts and made 1 key pass. In the 15th, Nelson cut inside only to hit a tame effort that didn’t trouble De Gea. And in the 44th, he headed wide a cross from Aubameyang. Nelson is more clinical with the U23 team but there’s no shame for a youngster to lack a bit of composure at the top level. There’s obviously less time and less space in the Premier League. I believe Nelson needs more exposure to such games in order to adjust to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. Wenger yanked Nelson off in the 64th to send on Welbeck, who tested De Gea with a long-range strike in the 69th.

Arsenal’s consolation goal came from Mkhitaryan, who was making his return from a knee injury. Mkhitaryan didn’t look 100 percent fit but he managed to beat De Gea with a low drive in the 51st. Xhaka capitalized on some poor communication between Matic and Herrera to win the ball back and feed Mkhitaryan, who fired through the legs of Lindelof. Mkhitaryan was less fortunate with his other goal attempts: he missed the target in the 20th and curled a shot wide in the 55th.

The Red Devils didn’t look impressive on Sunday but they exposed Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses. Pogba led a counterattack in the 16th and picked out Lukaku, who made a cross for Sanchez. The Chile forward struck the post with his header but the rebound fell into the path of Pogba, who tapped in to open the scoring. Xhaka made the first mistake on that play by diving in, Bellerin made the second by not marking Sanchez, and Maitland-Niles made the third by not tracking Pogba’s run inside the box. Young nearly doubled the lead in the 41st with a cross-shot that hit the woodwork.

Mavropanos’ Premier League debut

Spotting Arsenal’s weakness on crosses, Mourinho replaced Lingard in the 64th with Fellaini, who played as a second striker and proved an aerial threat inside the box. The first warning came in the 88th when Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Martial. Fellaini got ahead of Mavropanos only to head the ball onto the post. Three minutes later, Fellaini outjumped Xhaka to head a cross from Young into the top corner. Arsenal’s defensive organization was poor on that play. The nearest Gunner was 20 yards away from Young.

Xhaka was involved in both United goals. Maybe no Gunner could have done anything to prevent Fellaini from scoring in stoppage time, but Xhaka’s decision-making on the opener was poor. Xhaka also gifted the Red Devils a scoring chance in the fourth minute with a sloppy pass to Chambers. And he was booked in the 24th for pulling back Lingard.

In his Premier League debut, Mavropanos had a decent game. He looked comfortable on the ball and showed good composure. Mavropanos had 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 91.9% compared to 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 75% for Chambers, according to whoscored.com. His only moment of madness was a risky pass in a congested midfield that was intercepted in the 36th.

The staff definitely has some food for thought this summer. Should they sell Chambers to get some cash that will be used in the transfer market? The club has spent 4 years trying to develop Chambers only to see his obvious limitations. Mavropanos has more potential than Chambers. It would make more sense for the staff to invest their time in the Greek defender.

That defeat was a useful rehearsal before the Madrid game. You can bet that Costa will play in the second leg. And the former Chelsea striker is a bigger threat in the air than Gameiro. If the Gunners fail to stop dangerous crosses again, Costa and Griezmann could do a lot of damage. Mkhitaryan’s return from injury also gives Wenger more options for his starting lineup. Ramsey, Xhaka, Ozil and Lacazette will probably start on Thursday, which means that Mkhitaryan, Wilshere and Welbeck should compete for the two remaining spots behind the striker.

Advertisements

Arsenal vs. Southampton: Iwobi pulls the strings in 3-2 win

The Gunners showed great character to edge Southampton 3-2 in the Premier League after conceding the opening goal in the first half and squandering a 2-1 lead in the second. In a match between two leaky defenses, Wenger fielded a makeshift team, leaving Koscielny, Ramsey and Mkhitaryan out of the squad while Monreal, Wilshere, Ozil and Lacazette were on the bench at kickoff. Arsenal’s hectic schedule basically means that the French manager has to rotate like Mourinho did last season with Manchester United.

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

Welbeck received most of the plaudits for his two goals and his assist, but I really thought that Iwobi was the Gunner who produced an outstanding performance on Sunday. Iwobi was smarter in his decision-making and less selfish than usual. He didn’t get off to a good start, missing a 5-yard pass for Welbeck in the fifth minute and wasting a counterattacking opportunity with a poor cross in the 15th. But Iwobi managed to grow into the game. Surrounded by 4 Saints in the 29th, Iwobi needed just two touches to control Aubameyang’s pass and slip the ball to Welbeck, who flicked it toward Aubameyang. In a fine example of triangular play, Aubameyang beat Soares to the ball to poke it past McCarthy and level the game.

The understanding between Iwobi and Welbeck played a key role in that equalizer as well as in the other two goals scored by Arsenal. Iwobi released Welbeck down the left flank in the 38th and the England international cut inside Stephens to beat McCarthy with a shot that took a deflection off Yoshida for a 2-1 lead. Then Iwobi worked some space in the 81st to make a cross for Welbeck, who netted the winner with a downward header at the far post. It’s interesting to see such a partnership blossom because Iwobi never really struck a good understanding with Giroud last season while Lacazette has mostly relied on service from Ozil and Ramsey so far.

Welbeck’s contract

Iwobi created two other chances in the second half. He picked out Aubameyang, whose angled strike was parried by McCarthy in the 47th. The Nigeria international also made a cross for Wilshere, who redirected the ball toward Welbeck in the 78th. With the goal at his mercy, Welbeck somehow flicked the ball over the bar from 3 yards. The bounce was a bit high and Welbeck couldn’t adjust his legs quickly enough to keep the ball down. That game showed Iwobi’s potential. But his poor performance against Watford last month is also a reminder that consistency remains an issue for most 21-year-old players.

A few weeks ago, Iwobi would have probably taken his chance from a tight angle instead of making those crosses. His only goal attempt on Sunday was a snapshot from the edge of the box that McCarthy turned around the post in the 52nd. Being more selective with your shots is a sign of tactical intelligence: it’s about seeing the difference between a good spot and a bad one. Iwobi also did a better job of recognizing dribbling opportunities. He had 1 successful dribble out of 1. In the first half of the season, Iwobi too often lost possession by running into traffic. The only blemish in Iwobi’s performance was his poor work-rate. He made 0 interception and 0 block and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 1 aerial duel, according to Squawka. In the eighth minute, Iwobi poorly closed down Stephens, who put the Arsenal defense in trouble with a long ball.

Welbeck is definitely giving the staff some food for thought with his two goals and his assist. His contract expires next year and there has been no loud call yet for an extension. Honestly, it’s a tough choice for the club. On the one hand, Welbeck is a versatile forward who will always provide you some good work-rate: he made 2 blocks and won 1 of 3 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels against Southampton. On the other, he’s an injury-prone player who will never hit the heights of a Henry or Sanchez. Would the staff be happy to keep Welbeck as an interesting bench option? Or do they think that the new crop of forwards (Nelson, Nketiah) has more to offer?

Nelson’s 1st Premier League start

A superstar in the Arsenal academy, Nelson finally made his first Premier League start on Sunday. I thought he was a bit too shy. Nelson showed some good work-rate with 1 interception, 3 blocks and 1 tackle won, but he lacked end product with 0 shot, 0 key pass, 0 cross and 0 dribble. Maybe Tadic’s nasty challenge in the second minute played a role in Nelson’s cautiousness. The Serbian midfielder should have received a yellow card for stamping on Nelson’s ankle. Tactically, Nelson too often drifted inside instead of staying wide to stretch the Southampton defense. Physically, Nelson will need to be stronger in duels because he got too easily brushed off the ball a couple of times. Nelson flashed a glimpse of his talent by releasing Aubameyang down the left flank in the 30th. Unfortunately, Aubameyang overhit his through ball for Welbeck, allowing McCarthy to collect the ball.

Wilshere replaced Nelson in the 64th and showed why the club won’t offer him better contract terms. He started one of his dribbling runs in the 65th and lost possession by falling over the ball. By sending on Wilshere, the manager simply wanted his team to retain the ball. But the opposite happened. In his 30-minute cameo, Wilshere led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers according to whoscored.com. He also proved a defensive liability as Soares played a one-two with Tadic in the 73rd before setting-up Austin for a tap-in to make it 2-2. Wilshere failed to track Soares on that play. In stoppage time, Wilshere lost possession again with a poor pass for Welbeck. Trying to make up for that error, Wilshere chased Stephens and ripped his shirt. Stephens retaliated by throwing Wilshere to the ground.

Ten years ago, Wilshere was making his Premier League debut. He is now a league veteran. But on Sunday Wilshere behaved like a petulant brat. His supporters will say that he got Stephens sent off. But they are missing the point: Wilshere gave away the ball as well as a dangerous free kick and the Gunners lost control of the situation. Kolasinac could have been booked for shoving Stephens while Elneny received a straight red card for pushing Soares and knocking the ball off Ward-Prowse’s hands. It was a harsh call but I can understand the referee’s rationale. The Saints were taking their free kick, so Elneny had no right to touch the ball. His behavior threatened to trigger another brawl and the referee probably considered that Elneny brought the game into disrepute.

Poor performance from the centerbacks

   That was a sad conclusion for Elneny, who had a decent game in midfield alongside Xhaka. The duo might lack creativity and defensive nous against the top teams but they are quite complementary against the weaker sides. They were at the heart of Arsenal’s passing game with 125 passes for Xhaka, the most for any player, and 116 passes for Elneny. The Egypt international contributed to his team’s fluency with a passing accuracy of 95.7%, the highest percentage for any player. Xhaka proved strong in duels, winning 3 of 4 tackles and 6 of 9 aerial duels, while Elneny compensated for his teammate’s lack of mobility by making 3 interceptions and 1 block, according to Squawka.

At the back, poor performances from Mustafi and Chambers showed the need for signing a centerback this summer.The pair’s horror show started with Southampton’s first scoring chance in the eighth minute. Chambers failed to intercept Stephens’ long ball and could only redirect it into the path of Tadic, who fed Ward-Prowse. The English midfielder outpaced Mustafi only to have his shot cleared off the line by Bellerin.

Chambers’ lack of pace has become legendary. Long outpaced Chambers in the 11th but wasted a good situation with a poor pass to Tadic. Arsenal can’t really play a high defensive line with Chambers because they face the same problems they had with Mertesacker a couple of years ago. That’s why I think Chambers would be a decent fit for a team parking the bus because there’s not much space behind the backline. By contrast, the Gunners dominate ball possession against 70% of the teams, which means that they have to push forward and leave plenty of space behind the centerbacks.

Another issue with Chambers is his inability to turn quickly, especially inside the area. Chambers couldn’t adjust his feet quickly enough to block Soares’ cross for Southampton’s equalizer in the 73rd. And he was not tight enough to block Tadic’s volley in the 86th. Chambers finished the game with 3 turnovers, which is too much for a centerback. Mustafi and Chambers combined to win 0 of 4 tackles, 5 of 14 aerial duels, while making just 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka.

Cech’s saves

The Gunners spent about £35 million to sign Mustafi two years ago. Such an investment hasn’t been justified so far. Mustafi was the main culprit for the opening goal in the 17th. Kolasinac failed to cut out a cross from Soares and Long got ahead of a static Mustafi to flick home the cross. Mustafi tried to blame Cech for the goal but Cech had no chance to beat Long to the ball since it was an outswinging cross.

If you believe Mustafi is Koscielny’s successor, then you’d better think twice because Mustafi can switch off at the most unexpected time like in the League Cup final for Aguero’s goal or when he shouted at Bellerin while Alcantara ran past him to score in Munich a year ago. Mustafi lost another duel in the 56th when Hoedt headed a corner goalward but Elneny cleared the ball off the line. The Germany international was lucky not to get penalized for body-checking Tadic in the 67th.

At fullback, Kolasinac won 6 of 9 aerial duels but also showed his limitations with a passing accuracy of 75%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters. Bellerin didn’t completely recover from the game against CSKA Moscow as he made fewer runs than usual down the right flank. The Spaniard even received a yellow card in the 50th for pulling back Long. Wenger replaced Bellerin with Holding in the 75th as Chambers shifted to the rightback position. Holding lost a foot race against Austin in the 79th but he also made a crucial block in the 87th.

In the end, the Gunners can definitely thank Cech for the win. The Czech goalkeeper made 5 saves, stopping long-range strikes from Hojbjerg in the 54th and Hoedt in the 68th, palming away a header from Long in the 62nd, and tipping Tadic’s volley over the bar in the 86th.

There are just 6 Premier League games left this season. The manager will probably use them to build confidence for the Europa League and give some playing time to second-choice players. I hope Nelson, Nketiah and maybe Maitland-Niles will features in those games. They will get a better idea of the efforts required to compete in the Premier League, while the staff could decide whether those youngsters already have the level to be loaned out to a Championship side.

The art of squad building and how Wenger lost the plot

Poor recruitment is the main reason why the Gunners are no longer in the Top 4 of the Premier League. Last season, they finished in fifth place, 11 points behind Spurs. Arsenal will again miss out on the Top 4 this season as they currently sit in sixth place, 13 points behind Spurs after 30 games.

Squad buildingPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

You may think that money is the issue. It’s true that the Red Devils generate more revenue than any other football club, while Manchester City and Chelsea are backed by billionaires. But you also have to remember that Liverpool and Tottenham have a smaller budget than the Gunners and spend less money in the transfer market.

On paper, building a squad looks pretty simple: you spot the weaknesses in the team, you clear the dead wood, and you sign the players who will make the team stronger. To understand how that process works, I will compare the job done by Pochettino, Klopp and Wenger. I have chosen Tottenham and Liverpool as case studies because Arsenal can match them financially.

The 2013-14 season proved an unstable period for Spurs, who replaced Villas-Boas with Sherwood in December. Despite the managerial change, Tottenham finished in sixth place, 10 points behind Arsenal. I have used startingeleven.co.uk to provide a picture below of Sherwood’s favorite lineup.

2014 Spurs

The 2014 Spurs lineup under Sherwood

Here’s the Tottenham squad under Sherwood:

Goalkeepers: Lloris as the starter (Friedel as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Walker, Rose (Naughton, Fryers). Centerbacks: Vertonghen, Dawson (Kaboul, Chiriches). Central midfielders: Dembele, Paulinho (Sandro, Capoue, Bentaleb). Playmakers: Eriksen (Sigurdsson). Wingers: Chadli, Lennon (Townsend, Lamela). Centerforwards: Adebayor (Soldado, Kane, Defoe).

When Pochettino took over in May 2014, he quickly spotted the weaknesses in the Spurs lineup. First, the team lacked a commanding centerback. Dawson was a decent fit for an average side but not good enough for a club aiming at a Top 4 finish. So Pochettino signed Fazio in August 2014 and Wimmer and Alderweireld in the summer of 2015. Fazio was a flop while Wimmer turned out to be a benchwarmer. However, Alderweireld proved a key signing as he helped stabilize the Tottenham defense.

Becoming a contender within 2 years

Pochettino inherited good players at fullback with Rose and Walker, but he wasn’t happy with the back-up options. So the club signed Davies in July 2014 and Trippier in June 2015. The development of Trippier and Davies helped Spurs cope with Walker’s departure last summer and Rose’s injuries. The Argentine manager also strengthened the bench for the goalkeeping position by replacing an aging Friedel with Vorm.

In midfield, Pochettino realized that Spurs lacked a good holding midfielder. Capoue, Sandro and Bentaleb were not good enough, Dembele played as a deep-lying playmaker and Paulinho was mostly a utility midfielder. So Pochettino recalled Mason to the squad and signed Dier and Stambouli in the summer of 2014. Stambouli struggled in the Premier League but Dier proved a good investment as he efficiently shielded the Tottenham defense.

On the wings, Pochettino noticed the lack of end product. So he signed Alli and Son in 2015 while putting more pressure on Lamela. Up front, he spotted Kane’s potential and gave him the nod over an aging and more limited Adebayor. Pochettino also shook up the bench by releasing Soldado in 2015 and signing N’Jie, who didn’t manage to make the cut.

Within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino turned Tottenham into a title contender. If you look at the picture below, you will notice 5 changes between Sherwood’s lineup and Pochettino’s team. Spurs ran out of steam at the end of the 2015-16 season, but they were the only real threat to Leicester’s title bid.

2016 Spurs

The 2016 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

Instead of resting on his laurels, Pochettino stayed busy in the transfer market to make Spurs more competitive, in part because some of his signings didn’t deliver, but also because other rivals were spending lavishly. So within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino made 4 changes to a team that was in contention until April 2016.

2018 Spurs

The 2018 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

At the back, Pochettino promoted Walker-Peters and signed Aurier to make up for Walker’s departure last summer. He also hired Sanchez and Foyth as cover for Vertonghen and Alderweireld. In his first season at the club, Sanchez impressively stepped up when Alderweireld picked up a hamstring injury last November.

Seeing the weaknesses and the potential

In midfield, Pochettino was a bit conservative but he still promoted Winks and added more power by signing Wanyama and Sissoko in 2016. On the wings, the Argentine manager clearly wanted more pace as he signed N’Koudou in 2016 and Moura this year. N’Koudou is still a raw player and has been loaned out to Burnley while Moura is close to the finished product with 5 seasons under his belt at French club PSG.

Up front, Pochettino signed Janssen in 2016 and Llorente in 2017 as cover for Kane. Janssen failed to impress and was loaned out to Turkish club Fenerbahce, while expectations were low for Llorente, an aging striker who was willing to deputize for Kane.

Over a four-year period, Pochettino has cleared the dead wood and strengthened both the lineup and the bench. He has also lost some gambles in the transfer market, but at least they didn’t cost the club a fortune. So there is no doubt that Spurs have a good squad builder with Pochettino.

Klopp’s appointment at Liverpool in October 2015 also provides a good example of squad building. Despite coming in the middle of the season, Klopp still managed to lead the Reds to the League Cup final and a runner-up finish in the Europa League.

Liverpool famously challenged for the Premier League title during the 2013-14 season, but it all went downhill for Rodgers after the departures of Suarez in 2014 and Sterling in 2015. Rodgers also struggled to replace leaders like Gerrard and Toure. In the summer of 2015, Rodgers signed Ings, Firmino and Benteke to add more firepower up front, but the team didn’t really gel. Stuck in 10th place after 8 Premier League games, the club lost patience and sacked Rodgers in October.

2015 Liverpool

The 2015 Liverpool lineup under Rodgers

Here’s the Liverpool squad under Rodgers:

Goalkeepers: Mignolet as the starter (Bogdan as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Clyne, Moreno (Flanagan, Gomez). Centerbacks: Skrtel, Lovren (Sakho, Toure). Midfielders: Henderson, Milner, Can (Allen, Leiva). Playmaker: Coutinho. Wingers: Lallana (Origi, Ibe). Centerforwards: Benteke (Sturridge, Firmino, Ings).

When Klopp took over, he could only make tactical adjustments because he had to wait eight months for the next summer transfer window. The Reds finished eighth in the Premier League at the end of the 2015-16 season. But Klopp got plenty of time to see the weaknesses as well as the potential of the squad he inherited.

Rebuilding an entire defense

Liverpool conceded a lot of goals under Rodgers, so Klopp decided to completely rebuild the defense. Klopp had doubts about Mignolet in goal and therefore signed Karius in 2016. Karius hasn’t been really convincing yet, even playing fewer games than Mignolet. That might explain why Roma goalkeeper Alisson has recently been linked with a move to Anfield. At centerback, Klopp shipped out Toure, Sakho and Skrtel while signing Matip and Klavan in 2016 and Van Dijk a couple of months ago. Klopp also signed Robertson in 2017 to take the leftback spot from Moreno. At rightback, Clyne’s long-term injury obliged Klopp to hand Gomez a starting spot.

By contrast, Klopp has been relatively conservative in midfield. The German manager sold Allen and Leiva, who were second-choice midfielders, and hired Grujic and Wijnaldum in 2016 and Oxlade-Chamberlain last year. Henderson and Can are still regular starters under Klopp while Milner gets plenty of playing time, too. In fact, the biggest change in midfield is Klopp’s rotation policy to keep fresh legs for his gegenpressing tactics.

The Reds struggled to score in Rodgers’ last season at the club. Klopp realized that Benteke and Ibe were not good enough for a Top 4 club and let them go. He also noticed a lack of penetration in the final third and therefore signed Mane in 2016 and Salah in 2017. Both Mane and Salah have a lot of pace and great dribbling skills.

However, Klopp’s really smart decision was to play Firmino as a false nine. Rodgers didn’t know how to use Firmino and made the mistake of believing that Benteke could deliver at the top level. Klopp also took a gamble on a youngster by signing Solanke last summer. This season, only Manchester City can claim a front three (Aguero, Sane, Sterling) as threatening as Liverpool’s.

2018 Liverpool

The 2018 Liverpool lineup under Klopp

The only blemish in Liverpool’s transfer policy was the sale of Coutinho to Barcelona in January. The Reds lost a versatile playmaker who could play either as a false winger or in a three-man midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain is versatile too but he doesn’t have Coutinho’s creativity. Plus Coutinho was a free-kick specialist who could make the difference in any tight game.

Having a coherent plan

Within two years and a half, Klopp has turned Liverpool into a Top 4 team by making 9 changes to Rodgers’ lineup. You can see the similarities between Klopp and Pochettino: they both have a coherent plan to build their respective squads and they only need a couple of years to implement it.

We have analyzed what Pochettino has achieved at Tottenham since the summer of 2014 and how Klopp has transformed Liverpool since the end of 2015. Now let’s compare with what Wenger has done at Arsenal since 2015. I’ve chosen 2015 because the club had not much cash to spend in the transfer market before 2013 (remember, the Gunners signed Ozil in 2013 and Sanchez in 2014). It’s also similar to the amount of time that Pochettino and Klopp had to change their clubs’ fortunes. You can see below Wenger’s favorite lineup at the end of the 2014-15 season.

2015 Arsenal

The 2015 Arsenal lineup   

Here’s the Arsenal squad during that season:

Goalkeepers: Ospina as the starter (Szczesny as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Bellerin, Monreal (Debuchy, Gibbs). Centerbacks: Koscielny, Mertesacker (Paulista, Chambers). Midfielders: Cazorla, Coquelin, Ramsey (Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere). Playmakers: Ozil (Rosicky). Wingers: Sanchez, Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski). Centerforwards: Giroud (Welbeck, Sanogo).

If you were a neutral manager, you could see that Ospina and Szczesny were not good enough in goal for a Top 4 team. Ospina struggled to command his area while Szczesny was error-prone and had discipline issues off the pitch. At the back, Mertesacker was an obvious target for strikers because of his lack of pace, while Wenger also had a problem at leftback where Gibbs and Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses. In midfield, Coquelin was too limited in his all-around game and was not smart enough in his positional play to shield the defense. On the right wing, Ramsey was a starter by default simply because Oxlade-Chamberlain lacked end product while Walcott had limited passing skills. Up front, Giroud lacked the pace to stretch a defense while Welbeck lacked end product.

Failing to fix 6 positions

Did Wenger spot those weaknesses in the Arsenal squad? The answer must be yes since he made moves in the transfer market for those positions. The Gunners signed Cech in 2015, Holding and Mustafi in 2016, Kolasinac in 2017 and Mavropanos a couple of months ago. In midfield, the club added Elneny and Xhaka in 2016. On the wings, Sanchez’s contractual situation led to a swap deal with Manchester United as Mkhitaryan joined Arsenal in January. Up front, pace was clearly the priority as the Gunners signed Perez in 2016, Lacazette in 2017 and Aubameyang a couple of months ago. Wenger also relied on the academy to strengthen the first team by promoting Iwobi and Maitland-Niles.

Over the past three years, Wenger was less active than Pochettino in the transfer market and less successful than Klopp in getting the right targets for the club. Let’s be honest, the majority of the signings have been flops. And the manager hasn’t fixed the 6 positions that were weaknesses during the 2014-15 season (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, holding midfielder, right winger, centerforward). You can see below Arsenal’s best lineup for this year.

2018 Arsenal

The 2018 Arsenal lineup

Lacazette’s injury means that Aubameyang is the natural choice up front. In midfield, you may argue that Iwobi or Welbeck could replace Wilshere if the team plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But that tactical difference doesn’t change my analysis. Cech used to be the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, but at 35 he’s already past his prime. In fact, Cech has the most errors leading to a goal (6) this season. At centerback, Mustafi is not the player who will marshal the defense. And Koscielny’s nagging Achilles injury also means that the club will need to sign an experienced centerback this summer. At leftback, Kolasinac’s defensive performances have been disappointing. In central midfield, Elneny doesn’t win duels while Xhaka lacks mobility and defensive awareness. On the wings, Iwobi lacks end product while Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck don’t have the dribbling skills to crack a defense. Up front, Aubameyang and Lacazette both struggle in the air. And Aubameyang has a limited all-around game while Lacazette’s hold-up play is weaker than Giroud’s.

Another issue with Wenger’s squad management is the time wasted to clear the dead wood. Walcott and Coquelin should have been shipped out way before January. And there’s no reason to hang onto Chambers and Elneny, especially since the Gunners also have Holding and Mavropanos at centerback as well as Wilshere and Maitland-Niles in midfield. Chambers lacks pace and struggles to turn, while Elneny may be more mobile than Xhaka but the Egypt international is not a decisive player defensively or offensively.

No challenge before 2021?

Because Wenger failed to improve the team in the past 3 years and took too much time to clear the dead wood, it doesn’t make sense to rely on the French manager for an overhaul of the squad this summer. The next manager will have a lot of work to bring Arsenal back into the Top 4.

2019 Arsenal

How a competitive Arsenal team could look like

It will take more than a season to rebuild the squad. And the way the Citizens are dominating the Premier League, Arsenal might not be able to challenge for the title before 2021. Look at Liverpool: Klopp has done a good job within 3 years, but the Reds are still miles behind City.

The board and the staff will obviously have to set the priorities in terms of transfers. If a centerback and a holding midfielder are the top priorities, it means that Arsenal might have to stick with Cech or Ospina next season. I’ve chosen a 4-3-3 formation because that’s the best system to implement a pressing game. I don’t think the Gunners could finish in the Top 4 without pressing high up the pitch. That implies signing a more dynamic midfielder than Wilshere or Xhaka to harry opponents. I believe only Ramsey would have the pace, stamina and skills to play in Liverpool’s three-man midfield. Ozil’s poor work-rate means that he can only play in the front three.

For next season, assuming that Arsenal can only sign one attacking player because of financial constraints, a winger with great dribbling skills should also be at the top of the list. Liverpool, City and Chelsea respectively have Salah, Sane and Hazard to make the difference against compact defenses.

If the club runs out of cash, the Gunners could either play Lacazette or Perez on the right wing, or fast-track Nelson a bit like Sterling at Liverpool. Mkhitaryan and Ozil would have to fight for the spot on the left wing. Of course, Arsenal could switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation and play both Ozil and Mkhitaryan against the weak sides, but that would still depend on the hiring of a defensive midfielder. Up front, the Gunners would have the choice between Lacazette, a false nine coming to the ball, and Aubameyang, a striker stretching a defense.

The board and the staff have no room for error this summer because they have poorly performed in the previous transfer windows. By the end of August, we will know whether the Gunners have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish for next season.

 

Arsenal vs. Watford: 3-0 win highlights youth dilemma

There were a lot of empty seats at the Emirates stadium on Sunday when the Gunners smashed Watford 3-0 in the Premier League. It wasn’t as bad as in the league game against Manchester City, but it showed some fans’ disillusion with Arsenal’s performances in the Premier League this year. You can’t really blame the fans: the Gunners had never been out of the Top 4 race so early in the season under Wenger. For some, it was also a means to protest against the Arsenal board and put pressure on them to hire a new manager this summer. In that regard, leaving empty seats is better than creating a toxic atmosphere with hostile chants and banners. And it’s definitely smarter than what the West Ham fans did against Burnley by invading the pitch.

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

The Europa League is the only option left to win a trophy this season. Wenger clearly prioritized that competition by making 6 changes to the side that won in Milan on Thursday with Cech, Holding, Maitland-Niles, Elneny, Iwobi and Aubameyang replacing Ospina, Koscielny, Chambers, Ramsey, Wilshere and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Monreal, Bellerin and Lacazette were still sidelined by injuries and were therefore not available. The manager took no risk with Ramsey and Koscielny and kept them out of the squad, while Welbeck, Wilshere and Chambers came off the bench in the second half.

Fielding an under-strength team was a smart move from the manager since there is nothing at stake in the Premier League now. To a certain extent, the club must also give some playing time to the most promising youngsters, otherwise they will leave. Willock joined Benfica last summer while Barcelona signed McGuane two months ago. According to the Evening Standard, Nelson threw his bib to the ground on Sunday when he found out that he wouldn’t play the last minutes against Watford. That’s a tricky situation for the staff. Nelson’s contract expires next year and it’s easy to understand his frustration about the lack of opportunities when you see Iwobi’s mediocre performances.

Holding’s ups and downs

There’s a massive gap between the Premier League and the level of U23 games. At this stage of his career, Nelson won’t improve by playing with the academy team. He needs a loan to a Championship side or even a League One team to develop at a faster pace. It was fine to keep him at the club in the first half of the season because there were opportunities with the League Cup and the Europa League. But I think the staff made a mistake by not loaning out Nelson and Nketiah in the second half of the season. A successful loan spell would have made the Arsenal squad stronger for next season.

At 22, Holding is not a rookie anymore. He had his ups and downs since joining the club two years ago. Low confidence combined with some poor performances have seen Holding drop behind Chambers in the pecking order. Holding was given a second chance on Sunday as he started alongside Mustafi at centerback. To be honest, Holding’s performance was a mixed bag. He led all players with 4 interceptions but won no tackle. On the bright side, Holding blocked Femenia’s volley in the 48th minute and forced Richarlison wide in the sixth minute after Mustafi was pulled out of position.

But there are at least 3 key areas Holding needs to work on: 1. Winning duels inside the box. Doucoure dribbled past Holding in the ninth minute and only a heavy touch from the Watford midfielder enabled Mustafi to clear the danger; 2. His positional play. Holding was on the wrong side of Richarlison a few times. He was nowhere near Richarlison when the Hornets played a ball over the top in the 12th. Richarlison teed up Doucoure, whose shot was parried by Cech; 3. Smelling danger. Holding gave the ball away with sloppy passes in the 24th and 89th. He also lost possession with a dribbling attempt in the 70th. Those are the kind of mistakes that Holding could make in a Championship club but which are not acceptable at Arsenal. That’s why I said last summer that Holding should have been loaned out to iron out mistakes from his game.

Iwobi’s regression

Maitland-Niles is only two years older than Nelson. Yet he has already played 23 games with the first team this season, including 10 in the Premier League. Obviously, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress at 20. He showed his naivety in the 61st when Pereyra cut inside the Arsenal rightback and crashed into his trailing leg to win a penalty. An experienced player would have gotten out of the way, guessing that Pereyra was looking for contact. Maitland-Niles needs to improve his focus and be more tidy in possession. He led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

On a more positive note, Maitland-Niles has more pace than Chambers and did a good job to stop crosses. He also performed better than Kolasinac, having 2 successful dribbles out of 3, winning 2 of 5 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels, and making 1 interception and 3 blocks, compared to 0 successful dribble, 1 of 3 tackles won, 2 of 5 aerial duels won, and no interception or block made by the Bosnia-Herzegovina international. Maitland-Niles is right-footed and has played as a right midfielder, so rightback is a more natural position for him than leftback. Although Maitland-Niles prefers to play as a central midfielder, he still lacks the tactical maturity to play in such a key position at the top level.

While Maitland-Niles is learning the ropes, Iwobi seems to be regressing. Iwobi showed a poor work-rate and a lack of end product, creating 0 chance, winning 0 tackle, and making 0 interception and 0 block. His decision-making in the final third was questionable, too. He tried to score from a tight angle in the 19th instead of crossing the ball for the 3 Gunners inside the box. Then he ran into traffic in the 37th and lost possession, allowing Watford to launch a counterattack. Wenger replaced Iwobi with Welbeck in the 66th and the England international took a pass from Wilshere to test Karnezis with a powerful strike in the 86th.

The Dortmund connection

Before Sunday’s match, there was much talk about Deeney’s infamous comments in October. Deeney basically said that the Gunners didn’t like the physical side of the game. It was no coincidence if the Hornets tried to rough up Arsenal at the Emirates stadium. And each time, the referee failed to spot the foul. First, Prodl stamped on Ozil’s heel in the 31st. Then Mariappa stamped on Mkhitaryan’s ankle inside the area in the 64th and no penalty was given. And finally, Deeney got away with a stamp on Xhaka in the 79th. Despite the poor officiating, the Gunners didn’t lose their temper and proved the better side, having 7 shots on target to 4, and winning 54.2% of the duels and 61.9% of the tackles, according to the club’s website.

The understanding between two players can make a difference at the top level. For the passer, it’s about knowing what kind of run the striker will make and where he wants to have the ball. For the runner, it’s about knowing when the pass will be made and if the passer can execute the play. The Gunners can thank the Dortmund connection for the last two goals. Mkhitaryan slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who rounded Karnezis to slot into an empty net for a 2-0 lead in the 59th. Then Aubameyang pounced on a rebound to tee up Mkhitaryan for the third goal in the 77th.

Things didn’t get off to a good start for the former Borussia Dortmund players though. Mkhitaryan made a cross beyond Aubameyang in the fifth minute. The Armenia international showed more accuracy with his through ball for Aubameyang in the 11th but Prodl brushed the Arsenal striker off the ball. The Watford defense also blocked a pass from Mkhitaryan in the 35th but the ball somehow fell into the path of Aubameyang, who was put off by Mariappa while taking his chance.

Mkhitaryan is a gambler

Aubameyang hasn’t ajusted to the physicality of the Premier League yet. He needs to be stronger in duels. The Gabon striker will also have to improve in the air. He won 0 of 3 aerial duels in midfield. That’s not good enough if the team wants to use him as a target man. By contrast, Mkhitaryan had a good all-around performance. He won 2 of 6 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. The only blemish was his passing accuracy of 71.7%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters. Mkhitaryan is a gambler in the final third and often goes for the killer pass. The real issue is Mkhitaryan’s approach in his own half where he is not cautious enough. Wilshere came off the bench to replace Mkhitaryan in the 78th.

Playing in the hole, Ozil led all players with 3 key passes. Ozil set up the opening goal in the eighth minute with a pinpoint free kick that Mustafi headed into the bottom corner. Watford’s marking was poor on that play but you have to credit the complicity between Ozil and Mustafi, who both play for the Germany team. Ozil was also involved in the third goal as he made the cross that Karnezis palmed into the path of Aubameyang. With better finishing, Ozil could have claimed 2 assists and 1 goal. In the third minute, Ozil slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who shot straight at Karnezis from 15 yards. In the 27th, Ozil took a pass from Elneny and skipped past Mariappa only to be denied by Karnezis.

Season on the line

In goal, Cech finally earned his 200th clean sheet in the Premier League. The fact that it was the first clean sheet in the league since a 1-0 win over Newcastle in mid-December tells you how poorly the Gunners have defended in the past couple of months. Cech protected Arsenal’s lead by turning around the post a header from Richarlison on the stroke of halftime. Iwobi made a poor clearance on that play while Mustafi was not tight enough to Richarlison. Cech forced Deeney to eat some humble pie in the 62nd by stopping a penalty from the Watford striker. It was a moment to cheer about but some fans won’t forget some poor goalkeeping in the 26th when Cech, instead of pushing the ball to safety, palmed a low free kick into the path of Pereyra, who missed the target from 7 yards. Cech also sent a goal kick straight into touch in the 74th.

Arsenal’s season will be on the line when they host AC Milan on Thursday for the second leg of their last 16 encounter in the Europa League. Lose, and there’s nothing to play for. Win, and there’s still the hope of lifting some silverware in May.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Monreal fires Gunners to 1st win of the year

Monreal’s attacking verve and Ozil’s creativity made the difference in Saturday’s 4-1 rout of Crystal Palace as Arsenal snapped a five-game winless streak in all competitions to remain sixth in the Premier League. The Gunners quickly put the result beyond doubt by taking a 3-0 lead after 13 minutes, finishing the match with 10 shots on target to 5 for the Eagles and 13 chances to 5, according to Squawka.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace

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

Wenger fielded a stronger side than the one that lost 2-1 at Bournemouth a week ago with Ozil, Koscielny, Monreal and Elneny replacing Welbeck, Chambers, Maitland-Niles and Holding in the starting lineup. The manager also switched to a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny playing as a holding midfielder behind Xhaka and Wilshere. The Gunners outnumbered Palace in midfield with that tactical setup as Ozil often dropped back to be the fourth midfielder.

   Playing Elneny in that position is OK against the weak teams. Elneny’s mobility compensates for Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness to a certain extent. However, Elneny’s inability to win duels would become an issue against the strong teams. Signing a ballwinner in the summer could allow Arsenal to use an inverted pyramid midfield that would protect the back four while making up for the defensive flaws of Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere. When Zidane succeeded Benitez at Real Madrid, he made a key change in midfield by playing Casemiro behind Kroos and Modric. As long as the Gunners don’t have a solid No. 6, they will still be vulnerable on counterattacks.

End of Lacazette’s goal drought

In his return from injury, Monreal scored a goal and made two assists. Monreal lost his marker at the far post to head in Xhaka’s corner in the sixth minute. The Spaniard then set up Iwobi for a 2-0 lead in the 10th. He got the better of McArthur again in the 13th to meet Xhaka’s corner and cut the ball back to Koscielny, who bundled it over the line. The visitors’ defending was terrible, but Monreal definitely made his runs inside the Palace box count. Monreal led all players with 3 key passes despite staying on the pitch for just 33 minutes. He picked up a knock and was replaced by Maitland-Niles, who suffered from lapses of concentration again.

Maitland-Niles made a sloppy pass to Elneny in the 43rd and the ball fell to Zaha, whose shot was deflected out for a corner. The academy player also lost possession with a poor touch in the 76th. You may recover from poor focus in U23 games but not in the Premier League where every mistake can get punished. Maitland-Niles impressed against Chelsea but didn’t show the same focus against Bournemouth and Palace. His reluctance to cross with his weaker left foot also deprived Arsenal of a source of supply on the left flank.

Up front, Lacazette ended his goal drought by giving the Gunners a 4-0 lead with a low strike in the 22nd. He had not scored since the beginning of December. Lacazette could have also found the net in the 79th when Wilshere played him clean through on goal, but Hennessey denied him. In stoppage time, Lacazette should have been awarded a penalty for an awkward challenge from Tomkins. As usual, the France international worked hard for the team, making 2 key passes and 1 block and winning 2 of 3 tackles, according to Squawka.

Nelson’s Premier League debut

It was no coincidence if Ozil was the one who helped put an end to Lacazette’s goal drought. Lacazette is a striker who depends on decent service. He couldn’t get any from Welbeck, Iwobi and Sanchez in the past few games. Ozil played the role of architect for Arsenal’s fourth goal by playing a one-two with Wilshere before feeding Lacazette with a backheel flick. In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 2 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 2. His contractual situation hasn’t been as much publicized as Sanchez’s but the Gunners will have to sign a creative midfielder if Ozil leaves this summer, otherwise the creative burden will rest on the shoulders of Wilshere and Mkhitaryan -assuming the swap deal for Sanchez does materialize.

   Wenger yanked Ozil off in the 72nd to send on Nelson, who made his Premier League debut at just 18. He showed some really great work-rate in his short cameo by winning 2 of 4 tackles. The game also made obvious that Nelson must beef up his game. In his only dribbling attempt, Nelson was too easily brushed off the ball.

The more I watch Iwobi, and the more I am convinced he is a second striker and not an attacking midfielder like Rosicky or Pires. Iwobi had 4 of 4 shots on target but made just 1 key pass. Only Lacazette took more shots than Iwobi. If Iwobi wants to become a striker, he will need to work harder on his finishing. His 4 goal attempts were all in the middle of the net. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace Iwobi edited

Iwobi’s 4 goal attempts against Palace. (Photo credit: Squawka)

Iwobi will also have to improve his reading of the game. Sanchez can often be selfish but you can bet the Chile striker would have fed Lacazette in the 56th when Iwobi chased a long ball from Ozil and preferred to take his chance from a tight angle instead of squaring the ball back to Lacazette for a tap-in. As a consequence of Iwobi’s lust for goals, the Nigeria international sometimes drifted inside and ended up in the centerforward position, forcing Lacazette to move to the left wing. On the bright side, Iwobi improved his work-rate by making 4 tackles, 1 interception and 2 blocks. That’s the kind of attitude Iwobi needs to show more often on the pitch.

Wilshere’s high turnover rate

In midfield, Elneny acted as a facilitator by leading Arsenal starters with 97 passes and a passing acuracy of 95.9%, according to whoscored.com. Elneny was a holding midfielder by default: he won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, but his mobility helped him make 1 block and 1 interception. We are still very far from the stats of a Kante, Matic or Fernandinho. The manager played Elneny behind Wilshere and Xhaka because those two midfielders are more creative than Elneny. Wilshere and Xhaka had 2 and 1 key passes respectively compared to none for Elneny.

   Wilshere played as a holding midfielder for England under Hodgson but I just think he’s not good enough defensively for that position. He won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 block and 0 interception. Another issue is Wilshere’s high turnover rate, which was obvious in the Europa League games. Although Wilshere is now fitter than a couple of months ago, he still had 5 turnovers against Palace, according to whoscored.com. Only Bellerin had more turnovers (6) among Arsenal players. Losing possession in suck a key position might be OK against the weak sides but it’s simply too dangerous against top teams that thrive on counterattacks.

Xhaka lacks mobility so it made sense to play him alongside Elneny since Wilshere has lost a bit of speed after recovering from a string of injuries. The Switzerland international set up the first and third goals with accurate corner kicks. However, his delivery took a hit in the second half with a poor corner in the 76th and a free kick that beat every Gunner in stoppage time.

Koscielny’s reading of the game

At the back, Koscielny proved the best defender and defused dangerous situations with his outstanding reading of the game. He killed a counterattack with a timely challenge on Zaha in the 19th, blocked McArthur’s effort in the 36th, robbed Zaha in the 38th and intercepted Milivojevic’s through ball for Van Aanholt in the 87th. The France centerback scored the third goal and led all Arsenal players with 3 interceptions and 3 blocks. Mustafi will have big shoes to fill when Koscielny retires. The Germany international had a couple of dodgy moments, heading the ball past Cech for a corner in the 55th and allowing Benteke to be clean through on goal by missing an interception in the 60th.

From open play, the Eagles mostly threatened with crosses, especially with Van Aanholt who took advantage of Ozil’s poor marking. Mustafi headed out the Dutch leftback’s cross in the third minute while Zaha failed to make contact with the ball in the 52nd. In the end, Palace scored from a set piece. Benteke outjumped Iwobi and Mustafi in the 78th to redirect a corner toward Milivojevic, who chested the ball down to shoot past Cech. There had been already a warning in the 49th when Kelly pounced on a second ball from a corner to muster a tame effort straight at Cech.

The Gunners will be the underdogs for the second leg of the League Cup semifinal against Chelsea on Wednesday. Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac and Ozil made their return from injury against Palace while Sanchez, Ramsey, Giroud and Welbeck were not even in the squad. Wenger will definitely field a stronger team than the one that started the first leg but it might not be a full-strength team. Even if Mkhitaryan joins the Gunners before Wednesday, he’s unlikely to have the same impact as Sanchez right away.

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 4-2 loss to Nottingham Forest

The Gunners suffered their earliest exit in the FA Cup since 1996 by losing 4-2 to Nottingham Forest in the third round. The two penalties awarded to the hosts should be no excuse for Arsenal’s poor performance on Sunday. The Reds were the better team, having 9 shots on target to 4 for Arsenal, making 15 interceptions to 12 and winning 25 tackles to 17, according to whoscored.com. Now the Gunners only have the League Cup and the Europa League left to save their season.

FA Cup 3rd round

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

Wenger made 9 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Chelsea on Wednesday with Maitland-Niles and Holding retaining their starting spots. Last season, the FA Cup final showed that Mertesacker could only play in a back three sitting deep. Yet, the manager switched to a back four against Forest and it proved a tactical mistake. Mertesacker, Holding and Debuchy struggled to cope with the pace of the 18-year-old Brereton.

  1. Was the team selection wrong?

Some fans complained about the team selection after the game. I thought the starting XI was good enough to beat a Championship side or at least get a replay. Mertesacker is a World Cup winner; Elneny, Iwobi and Ospina will play in the World Cup this summer; Walcott, Welbeck, and Debuchy are Premier League veterans; Holding lifted the FA Cup less than a year ago; only Willock, Maitland-Niles and Nelson are still academy players. On paper, it was a decent mix of youth and experience. In fact, Forest even had a younger starting lineup than Arsenal.

Because the regular starters needed a break to recover from the festive period and because the manager couldn’t afford to have more players on the disabled list, the team selection made sense to me. On the other hand, I thought Wenger should have opted for a stronger bench. When the Gunners had to chase the game, there was no Sanchez, Ozil or Lacazette on the bench, only youngsters like Akpom, Nketiah and Reine-Adelaide.

  1. The defending was shambolic

Lichaj opened the scoring with a free header from a set piece because no Gunner marked him in the 20th minute. It was maybe a communication issue, but you wouldn’t expect that kind of schoolboy defending from experienced players like Mertesacker, Debuchy and Ospina.

Playing a high defensive line proved suicidal as it exposed Mertesacker’s lack of pace. Brereton cut inside Mertesacker in the 32nd to fire a low shot that Ospina saved. The Forest striker then made a run in behind Mertesacker to control a ball over the top in the 41st but was denied again by Ospina. In the closing minutes, Traore skipped past Mertesacker and won a penalty after Debuchy brought him down. Maybe Debuchy got a touch on the ball, but it was poor decision-making. From such a tight angle, it would have been unlikely for Traore to beat Ospina. Dowell converted the spot kick to seal the win.

Mertesacker equalized in the 23rd by converting a rebound after Holding’s header hit the post. However, you don’t want defenders to have Vermaelen syndrome, i.e. making up for poor defending by scoring goals. It’s now obvious why the manager is reluctant to play Mertesacker in Premier League games: his lack of pace is simply a too big liability. Debuchy didn’t cover himself in glory either. He won only 31% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any defender according to the club’s website, and had a passing accuracy of 81%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal starter.

  1. Holding should be loaned out

At 22, Holding needs playing time to continue his development. I’m not sure his season at the club is helping him. He doesn’t play regularly, which makes it difficult to build consistency. And because he plays for Arsenal, his mistakes are magnified and therefore hurt his confidence. In my eyes, a loan to a Premier League club would have been more helpful.

Holding had a decent game compared to Mertesacker and Debuchy. He won 3 of 4 tackles while Mertesacker made none and Debuchy won only 1 tackle, according to the club’s website. Of course, the fans will remember the challenge that led to a penalty in the 64th. Holding was a bit unlucky on that play. He intercepted Dowell’s backheel flick for Brereton but failed to see Cash and inadvertently tripped the Forest winger. Brereton converted the subsequent penalty to make it 3-1. Holding was also pulled out of position in the 32nd and was too easily beaten by Dowell in the 74th.

  1. The back four got no protection from the midfield

A couple of minutes before halftime, the Arsenal defense cleared a cross from Cash into the path of Lichaj, who had plenty of time to chest the ball down and volley into the top corner for a 2-1 lead. As you can see on the screen capture below, the midfielders failed to perform their defensive duties on that play.

FA Cup editedElneny, Willock and Iwobi giving Lichaj acres of space. (Photo credit: BT)

Elneny won 1 tackle and made 4 interceptions, according to whoscored.com, while Willock won 1 tackle and made 0 interception. That’s not good enough for a midfield pairing. We already know that Elneny is not a natural ballwinner while Willock looked too soft against Forest, winning only 33% of his duels. Willock seemed to overestimate his dribbling abilities in the first half as he lost possession 3 times while attempting to dribble past an opponent.

  1. Walcott and Iwobi performed poorly

Walcott and Iwobi wouldn’t be good enough to play in the Championship. They finished the game with 0 of 3 shots on target each. Brereton outshone Walcott while Dowell showed more end product and desire than Iwobi. I don’t understand why the manager wants to keep Walcott. At 28, Walcott won’t improve his all-around game. He’s also blocking the development of youngsters like Nketiah and Nelson, who could play in the front three. Walcott had a golden opportunity in the seventh minute but completely miskicked his shot.

Iwobi is regressing and his poor work-rate is becoming a problem. He was dispossessed 5 times, tied with Brereton for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. Iwobi also put Mertesacker in trouble by overhitting a back pass in the sixth minute. The Nigeria international made 0 interception and won just 1 of 1 tackle whereas Nelson made 2 interceptions and won 3 of 4 tackles.

Although Arsenal enjoyed 69% of ball possession, Iwobi had no impact on the game in the No. 10 role. Iwobi made only 1 key pass compared to 4 for Nelson and 2 for Walcott. That begs the question: Where can Iwobi play? He lacks the end product to play as a second striker. Playing on a wing would be an issue because Iwobi made 0 cross on Sunday while Walcott made 4 accurate crosses out of 9. And playing in central midfield would require a much better work-rate from Iwobi.

Welbeck had an average game in the lone striker role. But at least he found the net in the 79th after Smith fumbled the ball. Welbeck also had a penalty shout in the 83rd when Mancienne seemed to shove him from behind while he met a cross from Maitland-Niles.

  1. Nelson is Arsenal’s future

The only bright spark in the Arsenal offense came from Nelson, whose clever footwork won the free kick that led to the equalizer in the 23rd. Nelson led all players with 6 successful dribbles. He faded in the second half as the Reds roughed him up a bit. At 18, Nelson is very gifted technically, but he will need to beef up his game in order to survive in the Premier League. Nketiah came off the bench to replace Willock in the 65th and nearly produced another moment of magic after his two goals against Norwich in the League Cup. Welbeck fed Nketiah, who dribbled past Lichaj only to be denied by Smith in the 70th.

  1. Ospina still can’t command the area

The Colombia goalkeeper pulled off some outstanding saves in the 18th, 32nd and 41st. But his lack of authority in the box showed in the 20th when Lichaj headed home Dowell’s free kick from a yard. You would expect a good goalkeeper to beat his opponent to the ball in that kind of situation. Ospina is a great shot-stopper but his weakness in the air has always been his Achilles’ heel in England.

Cologne vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 loss

   Arsenal secured a first-place finish in Group H of the Europa League despite a 1-0 defeat at Cologne on Thursday. Their four-point lead in the standings means that neither Cologne nor Red Star Belgrade can win the group even if the Gunners lose to BATE Borisov in two weeks.

Cologne vs. Arsenal.jpg

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

Wenger made 11 changes to the side that won the North London Derby last weekend. The manager injected a bit more experience than usual as Willock and Nelson were on the bench even though they started both Belgrade games. The Gunners played at a slow tempo but still dominated Thursday’s match with 16 shots compared to just 4 for the hosts, who haven’t won any game in the Bundesliga this season. Somehow, Cologne managed to score against the run of play in the second half. In hindsight, maybe Wenger should have started more youngsters instead of keeping some senior players happy.

  1. Ospina, Welbeck and Chambers returned from injury

If we except Cazorla, the Gunners have no player on the disabled list now. That’s good news when you look at the busy schedule for the next two months. Ospina was not much tested in Germany. He palmed away an angled strike from Cordoba in the sixth minute and could do nothing about Guirassy’s penalty in the 62nd. The manager was cautious with Welbeck, who only played the first half and was replaced by Iwobi at halftime. Welbeck seemed fit, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and curling a shot wide of the far post in the 33rd.

On the other hand, the sluggish Chambers didn’t prove a convincing choice at wingback. Debuchy played most of his career as a fullback and would have been a better option on the right flank. Chambers made no cross in the first half. The only chance he created came in the 67th with a cross that Wilshere headed over the bar. Chambers was guilty on the play that led to the penalty by failing to stay with Guirassy, who played a one-two with Jojic.

  1. There are too many average players in the squad

Thursday’s game showed the gap between the regular starters and the second-choice players. It’s hard to see what players like Chambers, Debuchy, Elneny, Coquelin, Giroud and even Wilshere could bring to the side that defeated Spurs. Elneny sent long balls out of play in the 15th and 39th and couldn’t beat the first defender with a couple of corner kicks. Only 2 of his 11 crosses were accurate, according to whoscored.com.

Hopefully, hiring Mislintat as the head of recruitment at Arsenal will help improve the squad. The scouting department has performed poorly in the past few years under Rowley. A change was long overdue. France used to be a gold mine for Arsenal but the club has missed out on the best players from the French league lately (Kante, Pogba, Martial, Mbappe, Varane, Kondogbia).

While Arsenal made mistakes in signing Park, Chamakh and Gervinho from French clubs, Mislintat helped Borussia Dortmund sign Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro. Here’s the difference between those two groups of players: Park, Chamakh and Gervinho shone in the French league but failed to adapt to the Premier League whereas Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro carried their success from France to the Bundesliga. A smart scout will spot the skills that can be imported to any league while an average scout will focus on the less important skills.

It’s OK to gamble once in a while on young players like Sanogo, Reine-Adelaide, Bielik and Holding. But when you spend £16 million on Chambers, £13 million on Paulista and £7 million on Elneny, you expect to get regular starters and not benchwarmers.

  1. Debuchy was the weak link in the back three

The French defender led all players with 5 fouls. He clearly struggled with Guirassy’s pace and was booked for a cynical foul on the Cologne forward in the 49th. A poor clearance from Debuchy led to a scoring chance for the German side in the 60th: Guirassy took a pass from Jojic but could only hit a tame effort straight at Ospina. A minute later, the referee awarded the hosts a penalty for some minimal contact between Debuchy and Guirassy. It was a play similar to Bellerin’s challenge on Richarlison in the Watford game.

  1. Mertesacker had a decent game

The German defender led Arsenal players with 5 interceptions and was dominant in the air with 9 headers won. He made up for his lack of pace with his smart positional play. In fact, Mertesacker was the only Arsenal centerback who won a tackle. He won 1 of 2 tackles compared to 0 of 2 for Holding and 0 of 6 for Debuchy, according to Squawka. Mertesacker nearly leveled from a corner in the 64th, but his header was cleared off the line by Horn.

On the left side of the back three, Holding lacked focus a couple of times. Cologne capitalized on a Holding turnover in the 12th to launch a counterattack but Mertesacker intercepted Cordoba’s final ball. Mertesacker had Holding’s back again in the 28th. Cordoba rolled away from Holding only to have his pass for Osako intercepted by Mertesacker. In the closing minutes, Holding was pulled out of position and Mertesacker had to kill a counterattack by blocking a cross.

  1. Maitland-Niles rose to the occasion

The contrast with Chambers’ performance on the opposite flank was glaring. Although Maitland-Niles is a right-footed player, he still managed to make 3 key passes from the left wing. He also had a passing accuracy of 95%, won 2 of 4 tackles and had 5 successful dribbles out of 7, while Chambers had a passing accuracy of 77%, won 0 of 1 tackle and had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, according to Squawka. Maitland-Niles is not playing in his favorite position (central midfield) but at least he’s honing his skills by getting some experience in competitive European games.

  1. Wilshere’s performance raised more question marks

Wenger said before the international break that Wilshere was ready for the England team. However, Wilshere’s performance against a weak German side was a mixed bag. Wilshere tested Horn with a downward header in the 21st and long-range strikes in the 66th and stoppage time. He also had 8 successful dribbles out of 11. But his defensive contribution was limited and he only made 2 key passes despite 69% of ball possession for the Gunners. The most frustrating part was his poor ball-retention skills that led to 5 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in Southgate’s plans. The England manager seems to build his squad around the pressing game implemented at Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City.

  1. Arsenal didn’t play to Giroud’s strengths

Giroud is an old-fashioned centerforward. He won’t create a chance out of nothing like Van Persie. That means Giroud needs decent service in the box. Unfortunately, the Gunners didn’t feed him with crosses. Giroud was involved in only 1 aerial duel and that was in midfield. That’s criminal when you know the France striker’s dominance in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 76th. Giroud chased a ball over the top from Wilshere but had a heavy second touch which allowed Horn to tackle the ball out of play. Deprived of service, Giroud tried to work for his teammates. He drifted to the left wing in the 30th to make a cross for Coquelin, who hit the near post.

  1. When a senior player is blocking a youngster’s path

Nelson is the most promising prospect in the academy. Walcott’s presence in the squad has forced Wenger to play Nelson in the wingback position. Nelson initially struggled in that role before improving his understanding of the position and his defensive skills. The manager could have started Nelson against Cologne but he preferred to give some playing time to Chambers and Debuchy, who both had a poor game.

When Nelson came off the bench to replace Chambers in the 67th, the Gunners suddenly looked more threatening down the right wing. Nelson could have won a penalty for an obstruction from Sorensen in the 83rd. He also showed off his dribbling skills in the 89th by slaloming through the Cologne defense to sting Horn’s gloves with a toe poke. The teenager got bonus points in the 71st for his defensive awareness. Guirassy outpaced Debuchy but Nelson rushed back to recover the ball.