Tag Archives: Oxlade-Chamberlain

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.

 

Arsenal vs. Manchester United: The Ox shines in 2-0 win as Gunners stay in Top 4 race

The Gunners are not out yet of the race for a Champions League spot after defeating Manchester United 2-0 on Sunday for Wenger’s first victory over Mourinho in 13 Premier League games. However, a Top 4 finish would still require a massive bottle job from either Liverpool or Manchester City. Assuming Arsenal, the Reds and the Citizens win their remaining games, they would finish the season with respectively 75, 76 and 78 points.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United

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

With an eye on the Europa League, Mourinho fielded a makeshift side, resting Valencia, Blind, Bailly and Pogba to start second-choice players like Jones, Tuanzebe, Rooney and Martial. By contrast, Wenger made just two changes to the side that lost 2-0 at White Hart Lane a week ago with Welbeck and Holding replacing Giroud and Paulista in the starting lineup. The Red Devils played with 10 men behind the ball, hoping to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Manchester United proved stronger in the challenges, winning 54.5% of the duels and making 16 interceptions to 5 for the Gunners, who were more efficient in the final third by creating 8 chances to 6 for the visitors.

While Bellerin and Walcott have lost their starting spots in the new 3-4-3 formation, Oxlade-Chamberlain has capitalized on his versatility to shine in the wingback position. The Ox tested De Gea with a long-range strike in the 31st minute before setting up both goals in the second half. Xhaka received a throw-in from the Ox in the 54th and unleashed a speculative shot that took a big deflection off Herrera. The ball looped over De Gea to land into the net for a 1-0 lead. Three minutes later, the Ox made a pinpoint cross for Welbeck, who doubled the lead with a powerful header under the bar.

Ramsey’s work-rate

The Ox was replaced by Bellerin in the 84th and still put up some impressive numbers, winning 2 of 8 tackles and having 2 successful dribbles out of 5. He also made 4 blocks and 5 fouls, the most for any player. For years, the Ox struggled to convert his potential into end product. He is slowly improving this season with 2 goals and 7 assists in 28 Premier League games. His previous best was 2 goals and 2 assists in the 2013-14 season.

On the left flank, Gibbs produced an average performance in the wingback position. The comparison with the Ox really hurts as Gibbs had 0 shot, created 0 chance, lost the only tackle he made, had 2 successful dribbles out of 3 and make 1 interception and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. Gibbs’ passing accuracy also dropped to 73.7%, the lowest percentage for any outfield starter according to whoscored.com. Obviously, Gibbs doesn’t have the Ox’s technical ability but you would still expect from him more work-rate and urgency.

In central midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey did much better against Herrera and Carrick than against Wanyama and Dier at White Hart Lane. That partnership does not give enough protection to a back four but can limit the damage in a 3-4-3 system. Ramsey had a low strike palmed away by De Gea in the ninth minute. His work-rate made the difference as he created 1 chance, had 2 successful dribbles out of 3, won 2 of 5 tackles and made 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to whoscored.com.

Sanchez’s dipping form

The most surprising part in that partnership is that Ramsey ended up doing more defensive work than Xhaka, who created 0 chance, won 0 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception and 0 block. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka won 28.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website, compared to 55.6% for Ramsey, who is a box-to-box player. Since none of them is a natural defensive midfielder, you would expect a more even share of the defensive tasks. Xhaka led the team with 74 passes but he doesn’t inject the same urgency in setting the tempo as Cazorla. The Switzerland international seemed to pick up a calf injury and was replaced by Coquelin in the 76th.

Up front, Welbeck played as a selfless target man. Welbeck is not a false nine and therefore doesn’t drop back like Sanchez. He doesn’t have Giroud’s link-up play abilities either. That’s why Welbeck made just 9 passes despite a passing accuracy of 100%. He made no key pass but converted his only scoring chance to give Arsenal a 2-0 lead.

Welbeck is stepping up at the right time as Sanchez’s form is dipping. Sanchez has scored only 1 goal in his last 7 Premier League games. He was dispossessed 6 times on Sunday, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, and did not have his usual work-rate with no interception, no tackle won and just 2 dribbles made. At times, rookie Tuanzebe even seemed to have Sanchez in his pocket. Sanchez often dropped back to create space, slipping through balls to Ramsey in the ninth and the 30th. He also sent a ball over the top for Welbeck, who was wrongly flagged offside in the 37th.

More than £200,000 a week for a passenger?

The more I hear about the contract negotiations, and the more I think the club would make a big mistake by offering more than £200,000 a week to Ozil. The Red Devils tried to overload our right flank because they saw that Ozil gave no defensive support to the Ox. Ozil gave the ball away in the 48th and made no effort to win it back. He also failed to close down Mata on a short corner in the 24th. Mata whipped in a cross for Rooney, who headed wide.

The Gunners can’t afford to have players who don’t work their socks off. In the other big clubs, creative players have better offensive stats than Ozil despite putting in a defensive shift. In 29 Premier League appearances this season, Ozil has racked up 7 goals and 6 assists for an average of 0.45 goal or assist per game. That’s simply not good enough for a world-class player. Alli has 0.65 goal or assist per Premier League game this season, Hazard 0.63, De Bruyne 0.61, Eriksen 0.59, Coutinho 0.55 and Fabregas 0.54.

Manchester United mostly threatened with crosses in the first half and long-range efforts in the second. Some poor communication between Gibbs and Monreal in the second minute allowed Mata to make a cross for Rooney, who headed over the bar under Holding’s pressure. Cech kept a clean sheet by turning Rooney’s free kick around the post in the 65th.

Holding’s inexperience

Wenger made a gutsy call by giving the nod to Holding over Paulista, who performed poorly against Tottenham. Holding’s inexperience nearly cost his team in the first half. He was drawn out of position in the fifth minute, forcing Koscielny to cover him and be on the wrong side of Martial. Ramsey failed to track Rooney, who slipped a through ball to Martial. But Cech managed to save Martial’s toe poke. Then Holding made a poor decision in the 32nd. Cornered along the touchline by Martial, Holding attempted a risky backpass to Cech. Rooney intercepted the ball but was denied by the Czech goalkeeper.

I believe the club should loan out Holding next season to speed up his development. If we except those 2 mistakes, Holding had a decent game, winning 50% of his duels (compared to 44.4% for Koscielny and 37.5% for Monreal) and 3 of 5 tackles (compared to 0 of 2 for Monreal and 2 of 5 for Koscielny). The English centerback also made 3 blocks and won the ball back on the play that led to the second goal. Monreal’s performance at centerback was a mixed bag. The Spaniard does add a technical touch at the back like Azpilicueta at Chelsea, but his lack of physicality sometimes lets him down and I just feel that he’s more efficient than Gibbs as a wingback.

The Gunners must win their 4 remaining Premier League games to have a shot at a Top 4 finish. That would mean matching their best run of form this season when they won six straight league games from August to October. The difficulty lies in the run-in with very little rest between those games. The Gunners visit Southampton on Wednesday and Stoke on Saturday before hosting Sunderland and Everton the following week.

 

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Gunners to finish behind Spurs for 1st time under Wenger

The Gunners lost 2-0 at White Hart Lane on Sunday to fall 17 points behind Tottenham in the Premier League. The result means that Spurs will finish above Arsenal for the first time since 1995. The gap in the standings is embarrassing but reflects the gulf in class between the two teams.

Tottenham vs. Arsenal

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

Much of the talk before the game was about a power shift in North London. Wenger said it would take Spurs more than a season to undo the 20 consecutive celebrations of St Totteringham’s Day under his tenure. The trouble is that Arsenal’s results in the North London derby have been poor since Pochettino became the Tottenham manager: 2 losses and 4 draws in 6 Premier League games.

What really hurts is that Spurs are getting better results despite having a smaller payroll and spending less money in the transfer market. Pochettino could almost be the poster boy for the football version of Moneyball. By contrast, the Gunners have spent a lot of money in the past couple of years on average players. Tottenham fans were so happy about Arsenal’s bad business that they even sang: “Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay.”

Wenger could still survive when competing against managers like Rodgers, Moyes, Van Gaal, Sherwood, Villas-Boas and Pellegrini. But the situation has dramatically changed. The new generation of managers (Klopp, Pochettino, Conte, Guardiola) are simply better. Wenger has contributed to the success of the Premier League with his rivalry against Ferguson, Mourinho and Benitez. Ironically, this success has led to Wenger’s slow demise by attracting the best managers and turning the Premier League into a world championship of managers.

It’s the players, not the system

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that edged Leicester 1-0 last week with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud replacing Bellerin, Coquelin and Walcott in the starting lineup. The French manager relied again on the 3-4-3 formation that produced wins over Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Leicester.

Sunday’s game showed that whatever system is used, the result still depends on individual performances. Giroud lacked support against Manchester City and the Gunners lacked penetration against Leicester. Both issues became obvious against a Tottenham side that started its second-choice fullbacks in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Spurs outplayed Arsenal with 11 shots on target to 4. They also outran the Gunners with a combined 117 kilometers to 107. And they proved stronger in challenges, winning 52.5% of the duels and making 8 interceptions to 5, according to the club’s website.

Xhaka struggled in midfield, winning only 16.7% of his duels compared to 41.7% for Wanyama and 50% for Ramsey and Dier. Once linked with a move to Arsenal, Wanyama displayed a tremendous work-rate, making as many tackles (6) as Ramsey and Xhaka combined, and more interceptions (3), blocks (3) and dribbles (4) than the two Gunners combined, according to Squawka.

The Gunners’ defending was not good enough as they failed to cut the supply lines to Kane, who had 5 of 7 shots on target. Some fine saves from Cech prevented Tottenham from winning by a bigger margin. The Czech goalkeeper saved an angled strike from Kane in the opening minute, tipped a long-range effort from Wanyama over the bar in the 48th, turned around the post curling shots from Vertonghen in the 45th and 68th, and denied Kane in the 77th.

Struggling to defend set pieces

Both teams struggled to keep hold of the ball in the first half. Arsenal tested Lloris only once with a curling shot from Ramsey in the 38th while Spurs could have reached halftime with a 2-0 lead if they had converted 2 big chances. Tottenham stepped on the accelerator in the beginning of the second half and the Gunners simply couldn’t match their intensity. The opening goal came from a throw-in. Eriksen rounded Koscielny in the 55th but was denied by Cech. Alli beat Gibbs and Xhaka to the rebound to flick into an empty net. Oxlade-Chamberlain could have cleared the ball with his left foot but missed his clearance with his right one.

If you remember the 1-0 win over the Foxes, 3 Leicester chances also came from a throw-in. The Gunners are really bad at defending set pieces, whether it’s corners, free kicks or throw-ins. A lack of defensive awareness combined with an inability to win key duels make them vulnerable in their own area. Arsenal switched off on a short corner in the 49th, allowing Son to make a run in behind Sanchez and fire into the side-netting. Then Alderweireld beat Koscielny to the ball in the 78th to head a corner that Cech parried. Alderweireld also held off Paulista in the seventh minute to head a corner over the bar.

Spurs capitalized on some poor decision-making from Paulista to double the lead in the 57th. Kane was running away from goal, yet Paulista tried to knock the ball away and ended up kicking Kane’s foot. The England striker converted the subsequent penalty to make it 2-0.

Ozil’s poor work-rate

Paulista performed poorly on Sunday, winning none of the 4 tackles he made, compared to 2 of 3 for Koscielny and 3 of 8 for Monreal, according to Squawka. The Brazilian defender’s poor passing skills were also exposed by Tottenham’s pressing game. His passing accuracy dropped to 65% compared to 95% for Koscielny and 89% for Monreal, according to whoscored.com.

A Paulista turnover in the 25th led to a dangerous counterattack. Son dribbled past the Ox to have a shot deflected by Koscielny. Eriksen pounced on the loose ball but somehow clipped the bar from 7 yards. In the 51st, Kane intercepted a sloppy pass from Paulista to hit a diagonal drive that didn’t trouble Cech. Paulista got booked in the 70th for a poor challenge on Alli before Bellerin replaced him in the 75th.

The Ox is usually a threat down the right flank, but Ozil’s poor work-rate gave Davies plenty of room to bomb forward. That forced the Ox to deal with both Davies and Son along the touchline. The Ox created no chance and made only one dribbling attempt because he was too busy defensively, winning 3 of 5 tackles and making 9 blocks, the most for any player according to Squawka. The England international made a good recovery to deflect Davies’ cross into the side-netting in the 18th and then put off Alli, who headed wide with the goal at his mercy in the 22nd. The Ox shifted to a central midfield position when Welbeck replaced Xhaka in the 65th.

A six-pointer against United

Arsenal’s front three proved toothless against the tightest defense in the league. Spurs have only conceded 22 goals from 34 league games compared to 42 goals from 33 games for the Gunners. Sanchez worked harder than Ozil, mustering 4 shots, creating 2 chances, winning 3 of 4 tackles, having 4 successful dribbles out of 6, and making 1 interception while Ozil won just 1 of 2 tackles and had no shot, no key pass, no dribbling attempt and no interception. Does anybody still want to pay Ozil £200,000 a week?

Up front, Giroud proved a liability to put pressure on Tottenham’s high defensive line. His lack of pace means he can’t make runs in behind. The Frenchman is more efficient against a defense sitting deep and when the Gunners dominate possession. Welbeck would have been a better option against mobile opponents.

A Top 4 finish is still possible mathematically but very difficult now that the Gunners trail Manchester City and United by 6 and 5 points respectively. Sunday’s game against the Red Devils is definitely a six-pointer. A loss or even a draw would virtually knock Arsenal out of the race for a Champions League spot. It would also confirm their inability to beat the big teams.

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Manchester City

The Gunners still have a chance of winning some silverware this season as they edged Manchester City 2-1 in the semifinals of the FA Cup on Sunday with a goal from Sanchez in extra time. They will face Chelsea in the final on May 27.

The Citizens were the better side, enjoying 69% of ball possession and having 20 shots compared to just 9 for Arsenal. They had two great chances to take a 2-1 lead in the second half but Cech tipped Toure’s volley onto the post in the 79th minute and Fernandinho’s header crashed against the bar in the 82nd. The Gunners proved the fresher side in extra time and their grit paid off as they won 57.4% of the duels according to the club’s website.

  1. Turnovers can be deadly

In a lot of sports, turnovers can prove the pivotal moment in a game. Turnovers can lead to a touchdown in American football, a try in rugby, a goal in handball, or two points in basketball because the transition from offense to defense is the most delicate situation to handle for a team. Somehow, they are inevitable because you can’t score without taking any risk. The key is to avoid taking excessive risks.

City capitalized on a Ramsey turnover to open the scoring in the 62nd. The Wales midfielder was dispossessed by Toure, who fed Aguero with a long ball. Aguero beat Monreal in a foot race to chip Cech. If you look at the screen capture below, Ramsey made the first mistake on that play.

FA Cup Manchester Aed

Three Gunners were waiting at the far post for a cross from Ramsey. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Ramsey had two obvious options following an Arsenal corner: make a short pass to Giroud in front of him or make a cross for Paulista, Koscielny and Holding at the far post. Instead, he decided to run into traffic and lost possession. Unless you’re Messi, there’s no way you can dribble past so many players in such a tiny space. That was really poor decision-making from Ramsey.

Monreal made the second mistake on that play by poorly positioning himself. He stood at the same level as Aguero, who’s faster than the Spaniard. See the screen capture below.

FA Cup Manchester Bed

Where Monreal should have stood when Arsenal played a corner. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

To compensate for his relative lack of pace, Monreal should have been a couple of yards behind Aguero. Monreal had a decent game, scoring the equalizer and leading all players with 4 successful tackles according to whoscored.com. But that positional mistake definitely cost his team a goal.

  1. Wenger relied again on a back three

The manager stuck with the 3-4-3 formation that helped Arsenal edge Middlesbrough 2-1 in the Premier League a week ago. Holding looked quite comfortable in a back three while Paulista had the best stats among the Arsenal centerbacks, winning 80% of his duels compared to 66.7% for Holding and 45.5% for Koscielny. Paulista was lucky to escape a booking for a cynical foul on Silva in the 13th and poorly marked Silva two minutes later as the Spain midfielder headed Aguero’s cross over the bar.

  1. Oxlade-Chamberlain was brilliant as a wingback

The Ox fully deserved to be named Man of the Match for his outstanding performance. He led Arsenal players with 3 key passes and led all players with 6 successful dribbles according to whoscored.com. The England international also won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage among all the midfielders according to the club’s website.

Giroud connected with a cross from the Ox in the 15th but headed the ball straight at Bravo. The Ox then set up the equalizer in the 72nd with a pinpoint cross that Monreal volleyed home. If you look at the screen capture below, Ramsey creates space for Monreal by distracting Navas with a run inside the area.

FA Cup Manchester Ced

Ramsey’s run prevents Navas from marking Monreal. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

At 23, the Ox is still a young player and I believe that playing in different positions will help improve his positional play and reading of the game. He has also played as a winger and central midfielder this season.

  1. The midfield is the soft spot in the 3-4-3 system

The Gunners were outplayed in midfield. Xhaka and Ramsey combined to win 2 tackles and make 2 interceptions compared to 6 tackles and 4 interceptions for Toure, Fernandinho and De Bruyne. It was quite embarrassing to see an old Toure boss the midfield for City.

The main problem with the 3-4-3 formation is that midfielders are exposed when they try to press high up the pitch. Ramsey did it in the 47th, allowing De Bruyne to enjoy a free run into the final third. It was then Xhaka’s turn to press high up the pitch in the 79th and his run in the City box gave Toure plenty of space to burst forward unchallenged for 50 yards. Toure found Sterling, whose shot was blocked, but the rebound fell to the Ivory Coast international who tested Cech with a long-range volley.

The Gunners have never really managed to implement an efficient pressing game this season, whether in the 4-2-3-1 system or the new 3-4-3 formation. City easily played the ball out from the back in the 21st minute of extra time and Bellerin prevented an equalizer by deflecting Delph’s effort wide.

One possible solution is to have Ozil and Sanchez help Ramsey and Xhaka in midfield. At Chelsea, Pedro and Willian drift inside to help Kante and Matic when the Blues don’t have the ball. Conte’s 3-4-3 system basically turns into a 5-4-1 in a defensive situation. But then, if Ozil and Sanchez help the midfielders, Giroud suddenly gets isolated up front. Sanchez and Giroud argued in the 30th after Sanchez’s pass to the Frenchman was intercepted. Sanchez thought Giroud was standing too high up the pitch. The same problem occurred in the 35th. Giroud won a header but there was no Gunner nearby for the second ball, so the Frenchman asked for more support.

  1. Arsenal benefited from the absence of video assistant referee

City should have taken the lead in the 40th when Aguero converted a cross from Sane. However, the goal was disallowed because the linesman thought the cross went out of play. Video replays showed that the ball did not entirely go behind the by-line. So the goal should have stood. Aguero was poorly marked by Koscielny and Monreal on that play.

  1. The Citizens struggle to defend set pieces

Arsenal and City have one thing in common: their poor defending of set pieces. The Citizens took a leaf out of West Brom’s playbook in the 82nd when Fernandinho made a run from beyond the penalty spot to meet a corner for a header that rattled the bar.

The Gunners should have been awarded a penalty on the stroke of halftime when Navas brought down Sanchez, who tried to connect with a free kick. Arsenal had another chance from a set piece in the sixth minute of extra time. Holding met a corner but missed the target from 5 yards. Five minutes later, the Gunners capitalized on an Ozil free kick to score the winner. Koscielny headed the ball across goal toward Welbeck, who missed his shot. But Sanchez beat Clichy to the loose ball to score from close range.

  1. Welbeck must do better in the final third

Welbeck should have scored that winner in extra time. He came off the bench to replace Giroud in the 83rd. His first chance came from a long ball in the 86th. Welbeck dribbled past Otamendi and fired wide from a tight angle instead of cutting the ball back for an unmarked Sanchez. In the 15th minute of extra time, Welbeck also headed an Ozil cross wide from 5 yards.

  1. Ozil should try to hit with his weaker foot

The Germany playmaker had a decent game with 2 key passes but he wasted a good chance in the 81st by refusing to shoot with his right foot in a good position. Ozil cut inside in an attempt to fire with his left foot and lost possession.

Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal: Gunners make tactical tweak in 2-1 win

Arsenal’s away form has been really poor lately. So Wenger decided to beef up the defense on Monday by relying on a back three. The tactical shift paid off as the Gunners edged Middlesbrough 2-1 for their first away win in the Premier League since Jan. 14 and a 4-0 demolition of Swansea.

Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal

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

In times of crisis, you need leaders. Cech and Koscielny made their return from injury to bring back some calm in the Arsenal team. The manager made 6 changes to the side that was hammered 3-0 at Crystal Palace a week ago with Cech, Koscielny, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud replacing Martinez, Mustafi, Bellerin, Walcott, Elneny and Welbeck in the starting lineup.

The Gunners matched Boro’s commitment, making 11 interceptions compared to 13 for the Smoggies, and winning 19 tackles and 26 aerial duels compared to 17 tackles and 24 aerial duels for the hosts, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal proved the better side in the first half and deservedly took the lead before halftime. But it could have gone either way in the second half. In fact, it was an even contest with each team creating 7 chances and Boro finishing the game with 13 shots compared to 12 for the Gunners.

Cech pulled off a couple of fine saves to prevent Boro from adding a second goal. The Czech goalkeeper stopped Ayala’s header with a reflex save in the 61st minute, parried Negredo’s low strike in the 79th and was lucky to see Gibson muster only a tame effort in the 87th. Arsenal will need to work harder on the training ground as those 3 chances came from set pieces.

In his first season at Arsenal, Wenger frequently played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. Then signing Petit in the summer of 1997 helped the manager switch to the 4-4-2 system he was known for during his time at Monaco.

More room for error

It’s kind of funny that a poor run of form finally led Wenger to use again a 3-4-3 system he has discarded for 20 years. Young managers like Pochettino and Guardiola are more flexible and frequently change formations throughout the season because of injuries or tactical concerns.

Koscielny played as a safety in that back three while Paulista was on the right side and Holding on the left side. On paper, you have more room for error: if Paulista or Holding covers the wingback, you still have two central defenders. In a back four, if Koscielny covers Monreal on the left flank, there’s only one central defender left.

A 3-4-3 system gives you numerical superiority at the back and makes it harder for the opponent to press high up the pitch. That’s why the Gunners enjoyed 65% of ball possession. The problem then is how to avoid sterile possession. Chelsea can play the ball out from the back because Azpilicueta and Luiz are comfortable on the ball. By contrast, Paulista has limited passing skills while Koscielny and Holding are average. Mustafi and Monreal have better passing skills but Mustafi was not in the squad because of an injury while the manager preferred to start Monreal in the wingback position. In the end, Arsenal’s passing game really looked tentative at best and shambolic at worst.

Despite the victory, the performance of the Arsenal defense wasn’t really convincing. Whatever formation used by the manager, you still have to win duels. Koscielny missed his clearance in the 50th, allowing Negredo to volley home Downing’s cross for Boro’s equalizer. The France centerback attempted an acrobatic clearance because he didn’t want to head the ball out of play. Obviously, that was not the safe option.

Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback

Koscielny made no tackle mostly because he was the sweeper. He won 4 of 7 aerial duels and led all players with 4 interceptions. I’m not sure Koscielny enjoys that kind of role. In a back three, the sweeper is usually an organizer too. The best example is Sammer in the Germany team that won the Euro 1996. Sammer had good tackling skills but could also play as a midfielder because of his technical abilities.

The other two centerbacks, Holding and Paulista, combined to win 6 of 11 aerial duels but performed poorly on the ground, winning none of the 6 tackles they made, according to Squawka. Paulista looked the more uncomfortable of the two. The Brazilian defender missed his clearance in the 87th when Gibson had a goal attempt. He also let Friend run past him in the 55th. The Boro substitute fired a diagonal strike that Monreal deflected into the path of Downing, who missed the target from 8 yards.

Oxlade-Chamberlain had a good game as a wingback, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and winning 2 of 5 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. He walked a tightrope after receiving a yellow card for a late tackle on Fabio in the fourth minute but showed enough self-discipline to avoid a second booking. Defensively, the Ox killed a Boro counterattack with a timely challenge as the last defender in the 62nd. Offensively, he tried to feed Giroud from the right wing. In the 28th, Giroud knocked the ball down for Ramsey, whose volley was headed out by a Smoggie. The Ox enjoyed more freedom when Bellerin replaced Ozil in the 89th. He could have scored on a counterattack in stoppage time but was denied by Guzan.

Sanchez as a playmaker

Monreal is a more defensive wingback than the Ox. The Spaniard won 4 of 6 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels and made 2 interceptions and no dribbling attempt. He has been struggling to stop crosses since last season. That flaw led to Boro’s equalizer as Downing had plenty of time and space for a cross. Monreal’s declining pace was also exposed when Traore replaced Ramirez in the 68th. The speedy Boro winger dribbled past Monreal in the 69th but dallied on the ball and lost possession.

In midfield, Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 3 key passes and 3 interceptions and win 3 of 11 tackles and 2 of 6 aerial duels. We’re very far from the standards set by Vieira, Petit and Gilberto when Arsenal could truly boss the midfield. The partnership formed by Kante and Matic at Chelsea or Wanyama and Dembele at Tottenham looks more convincing.

Walcott was the player sacrificed by Wenger in the 3-4-3 system. There are two interesting things that we have learned from Monday’s game. First, Ozil and Sanchez contributed defensively on the wings just like Hazard and Pedro do at Chelsea. Ozil won 3 of 5 tackles compared to 1 of 5 for Sanchez. In the modern game, creative players need to share the defensive burden too. Maybe the Christmas tree or 4-3-2-1 formation is the only system that would require very little defensive work from Ozil and Sanchez.

And second, Ozil played again like a second striker while Sanchez took over the playmaking duties. Sanchez hit 4 accurate long balls out of 5 and 1 accurate through ball out of 2, according to whoscored.com, whereas Ozil did not attempt any and made no key pass. Ozil mostly focused on his runs in the final third and had very little impact on his team’s passing game. In fact, 7 Gunners made more passes than Ozil (46): Xhaka (93), Paulista (73), Ramsey (67), Koscielny (56), Sanchez (50), Holding (49), and the Ox (48).

European football in July or September?

Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead with a dipping free kick in the 40th. He then created the winning goal in the 71st with a cross that Ramsey chested down for Ozil, who buried the ball into the near corner. The Chile striker also had 9 turnovers, including two that led to Boro chances. Ozil could have scored in the 63rd when he collected a through ball from Sanchez but Guzan denied him.

Up front, the misfiring Giroud had none of his 3 shots on target but proved useful as an outlet, winning 6 of 11 aerial duels. In the 29th, Giroud redirected an Ozil corner toward Sanchez, who fluffed his volley straight at Guzan. In the 81st, Sanchez found Giroud, who cut inside to curl his shot wide. Giroud should have been awarded a penalty in the 18th when Ayala held him with both arms on a corner. Arsenal can thank Giroud for the three points as the Frenchman put off Gibson in the 87th.

That victory might be too little too late for the Gunners, who sit in sixth place in the standings, trailing Liverpool, Manchester City and the Red Devils by 9, 7 and 3 points respectively. Arsenal could end up playing in the Europa League for the first time under Wenger. They would participate in the preliminary round in July if they finish sixth in the Premier League. Or they could qualify for the group stage if they win the FA Cup. I don’t think the club will be able to keep Sanchez and Ozil without the prospect of Champions League football.

West Brom vs. Arsenal: Free fall continues with 3-1 loss

Let’s not kid ourselves, Arsenal won’t finish in the Top 4 this season and there will be no St Totteringham’s Day. The Gunners have lost 4 of their last 5 Premier League games after Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at West Brom. They still sit in fifth place in the standings but 5 points behind Liverpool and 6 behind Manchester City and Tottenham.

West Brom vs. Arsenal

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

The Baggies’ game plan was pretty simple: park the bus and capitalize on counterattacks and set pieces to score. Yet, Arsenal couldn’t cope with West Brom’s direct approach. Let’s start with the set pieces. Dawson made a run from the penalty spot in the 12th minute to nod in Chadli’s corner from about 3 yards. We know that the Gunners use zonal marking on corners. One problem with zonal marking is that it’s very static. Dawson was able to outjump Koscielny because he had more momentum. Ramsey made the first mistake on that play by not blocking Dawson, who had a free run inside the box. The second mistake came from the defenders. Cech should be able to claim the ball but Fletcher hampered the goalkeeper’s freedom of movement by standing in front of him. It’s up to the defenders to clean up the 6-yard box for their goalkeeper.

Arsenal tried to adjust to those tactics in the second half but Dawson made it 3-1 by heading home McClean’s corner in the 75th. The plan was to neutralize Dawson and Fletcher. Oxlade-Chamberlain marked Dawson but failed to get in the way of the West Brom fullback when he made his run from the penalty spot. Likewise, Xhaka tried to shield Ospina from Fletcher, but the Colombia goalkeeper, who replaced an injured Cech in the 38th, lost his footing and couldn’t intervene. That goal looked worse than the opening goal because Mustafi and Koscielny both followed McAuley and left a huge gap for Dawson to run into.

Lack of defensive awareness

The Ox and Ramsey are seasoned players. Yet, they showed their lack of defensive awareness on those corners. If Ramsey wants to play in central midfield, he seriously needs to improve his positional play. The Wales midfielder failed to track Fletcher, who took a pass from Livermore to test Cech in the 34th. The Ox had a good work-rate, winning 2 of 3 tackles and making 1 key pass, 1 interception, 2 blocks and 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but it’s the defensive details that are ruining his overall performance.

Ramsey also had a hand in the Baggies’ second goal. Chadli sent a ball over the top to McClean in the 56th but Ospina came off his line to knock the ball into the path of Robson-Kanu, who stabbed the rebound home. The first mistake came from Ramsey, who sat too deep on that play. He was next to Mustafi inside the area while he should have closed down Chadli on the edge of the box. The second mistake came from Mustafi, who played McClean onside. And the third mistake came from some poor coordination between Bellerin and Ospina. The goalkeeper should have dived headfirst to gather the ball instead of going feet first.

At the back, Monreal proved our best defender, winning 80% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 94.6% according to the club’s website. The main disappointment came from the centerbacks. Rondon outjumped Koscielny in the 51st only to head Brunt’s cross wide. Then Robson-Kanu got ahead of Mustafi to take Brunt’s pass in the 67th but was denied by Ospina.

Our defenders were a bit more exposed than usual because our midfield was again too soft. I thought the Baggies too easily reached the final third the few times they led counterattacks. Nyom ran past Xhaka, Bellerin and Mustafi in the fifth minute to square the ball back for Rondon, who couldn’t make contact with the offering for a tap-in. Then Brunt fed McClean, whose angled strike was parried by Cech in the 12th. Chadli also led a fast break in the 31st to pick out Rondon, who dragged his shot wide.

Targeting Sanchez

While we have struggled to keep clean sheets this season, another concern is the team’s lack of ideas. The Gunners enjoyed 77% of ball possession but only produced 2 shots on target compared to 8 for West Brom. A more shocking stat is that the Baggies had 3 accurate through balls compared to just one for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. Ozil was not in the squad because he picked up a knock in training. The quality of his final ball would have maybe made a difference in that kind of game.

Walcott was invisible at the Hawthorns. He had no shot and no key pass, made no dribble and no interception, and won no tackle and no aerial duel. His limited passing and dribbling skills became all the more obvious that the West Brom defense sat deep to give him no space to run into. The manager yanked Walcott off in the 65th to send on Giroud. Welbeck got the nod over Giroud to lead the line but lacked decent service. His only scoring chance came in the 65th when he met a corner from Xhaka for a header that crashed against the bar. Welbeck showed more end product than Walcott by finishing the game with 2 key passes.

Besides Monreal, the only Gunner who performed at a good level was Sanchez. The Chile striker chested down a cross from Xhaka in the 15th to fire into the roof of the net for his 18th league goal this season. Sanchez also slipped a through ball to Ramsey, who forced Foster into a diving save in the 33rd. He was replaced by Iwobi in the 78th because of an ankle injury suffered in the first half.

The Baggies felt Sanchez was the main threat and targeted him. McAuley made a cynical foul on Sanchez in the 19th. Then Livermore pulled Sanchez back and clipped his leg in the 23rd but no foul was given. Rondon killed a counterattack in the 27th by fouling Sanchez and landing on his back with his knee. It could have been a yellow card but the referee only awarded a free kick.

The board’s passivity

If Oliver had been the referee, he would have warned West Brom about repetitive fouling like he did with Manchester United against Chelsea in the FA Cup. Unfortunately, the Gunners had to deal with a referee, Swarbrick, who didn’t seem to care much about the players’ physical integrity. So I wasn’t really surprised when McClean damaged Sanchez’s ankle with a late tackle in the 42nd. The Irish winger received a yellow card but it could have been a sending-off, especially when you compare with Xhaka’s red cards. See the screen capture below.

West Brom vs. Arsenal Sky editedMcClean makes a late studs-up tackle that could have broken Sanchez’s leg. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal’s collective expression was really poor. You have to wonder to what extent the players are affected by those negative banners displayed by the fans in the stands. Putting pressure on the board is fine, but the way it’s done by the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade is completely wrong. Those banners just create a toxic atmosphere for the team, too. There are still 11 league games to play. A free fall won’t help the club sign new players this summer, especially since Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchesters.

Renewing Wenger’s contract would make the atmosphere even more toxic next season. The board must act to protect the club. Wenger is like a punch-drunk boxer who is convinced he can still win the next round. I believe the manager already had his chances and simply failed to take them. Wenger only signed Cech in the summer of 2015 while a couple more signings would have turned Arsenal into a legitimate contender. Last summer, he tried to improve the squad by signing Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez, but the quality of those players has been questionable. It’s unfair for the most successful manager in the club’s history to get so much stick, but the board’s passivity has made the situation worse.

 

Arsenal vs. Lincoln City: A few thoughts on the 5-0 win

The Gunners bounced back from a humiliating Champions League exit by routing Lincoln City 5-0 on Saturday to reach the semifinals of the FA Cup. Wenger did not underestimate the Imps as he made only two changes to the side that was thrashed 5-1 by Bayern Munich on Tuesday, replacing Ospina and Monreal with Cech and Gibbs in the starting lineup. Even the bench looked strong with Ozil, Monreal, Coquelin, Iwobi, Perez, Paulista and Martinez available for substitutions.

Arsenal vs. Lincoln

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

Lincoln City, a club leading the fifth division of English football, put up a good fight for 45 minutes before the gulf in class showed in the second half. Arsenal enjoyed 77% of ball possession and had 23 goal attempts compared to 4 for the visitors. That sounds like a one-sided encounter but it could have been a different story if Walcott had not opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime.

  1. Walcott is still on fire

Just a few days after finding the net against Bayern, Walcott proved a live wire in the first half. He pounced on a clearance from the Lincoln defense in the 14th minute to fire a volley that hit the base of the post. The England international then got ahead of his marker in the 34th to take a pass from Sanchez and unleash a low strike straight at the goalkeeper. The Gunners capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to finally take the lead in the 45th. Gibbs teed up Walcott, who buried the ball into the bottom corner.

  1. Sanchez loves the game

Amid rumors of a departure this summer, Sanchez keeps giving everything on the pitch. Surprisingly, Sanchez’s body language was less negative than usual as he even applauded his teammates when they overhit a pass. The Chile striker was relatively quiet in the first half before coming to life in the second. He finished the game with 1 goal, 3 key passes, 3 tackles won and 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Ozil met a cross from Sanchez in the 68th only to head over the bar. Five minutes later, Sanchez evaded a tackle from Wood and made it 4-0 with a curling shot from the edge of the box. Sanchez set up Ramsey for the fifth goal in the 75th before rattling the bar with a free kick in the 86th.

  1. Giroud could play key role in run-in

In the first half of the season, Wenger played Sanchez as a centerforward while using Giroud as a super-sub. That tactical shift gave more pace to the offense but it also proved a bit one-dimensional since Sanchez is no threat in the air. In the past three games, the manager has switched back to the blueprint of last season by starting Giroud up front while moving Sanchez back to the left wing. Giroud’s performance against Lincoln City was a mixed bag. He converted Bellerin’s cross in the 53rd and also had an angled effort palmed away by Farman in the 50th. However, the Frenchman did not cover himself in glory with a tame chip attempt from 12 yards in the 51st and an air shot in the 53rd.

  1. The midfield is still a work in progress

Like in the Bayern game, Wenger used again an inverted pyramid with Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain playing as all-rounders in front of Xhaka, the holding midfielder. The manager had to change his plans in the 27th when the Ox picked up an injury. Wenger switched to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing the Ox with Ozil. Ramsey teamed up with Xhaka in central midfield for 34 minutes before the manager sent on Coquelin in the 61st for Xhaka, who got booked for a rash challenge on Rhead in the 24th. Was Wenger able to draw any significant conclusion from those three different midfield combinations?

  1. Ramsey is still a bit rusty

This has been a challenging season for Ramsey, who had to deal with a calf injury and two hamstring injuries. Definitely not the best scenario to build self-confidence. The Wales midfielder still made his trademark deep runs on Saturday but had only 1 of 6 shots on target. He met a low cross from Walcott on the stroke of halftime only to blaze over the bar from 15 yards. Ramsey managed to score in the 75th by controlling a cross from Sanchez to dribble past Farman and walk the ball into the net. His hyperactivity in midfield is perfectly tailored for an inverted pyramid. Ramsey doesn’t have Ozil’s passing skills but he makes more tackles and interceptions than the Germany playmaker while still being a goal threat.

  1. The fullbacks did a great job

Gibbs and Bellerin finished the game with two key passes each. They also won 70% and 75% of their duels respectively, according to the club’s website. Gibbs set up Walcott for the opening goal and had his cross diverted into his own net by Waterfall in the 58th for the third. Both Gibbs and Bellerin helped Arsenal stretch the Lincoln defense by making good use of the flanks. Gibbs could have scored in the 50th but headed Walcott’s cross over the bar.

  1. Referees lose credibility when they make inconsistent calls

Taylor is the infamous fourth official who had a beef with Wenger in the 2-1 win over Burnley in January. The row led to a four-game touchline ban for Wenger. The French manager kept his cool on Saturday although some of Taylor’s calls were dodgy. Arnold was not even booked for a stamp from behind on Sanchez in the ninth minute. And Sanchez did not get any free kick despite an obvious obstruction from Wood in the 36th. For a similar obstruction on Muldoon in the 37th, Koscielny received a yellow card. In the end, those poor calls did not affect the outcome because of the gulf in class between the two teams.