It’s time to get really worried. The Gunners are on pace to finish the Premier League season with more than 100 goals conceded after an embarrassing 4-0 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday. They have already let 8 goals in. Only the Hammers have a more porous defense in the league with 10 goals conceded.
Photo credit: Alexis Sanchez’s Instagram account
The Reds completely outplayed Arsenal with 10 shots on target to 0. The scoreline could have been more humiliating if Cech had not made 6 saves. Liverpool showed more desire, winning 59% of the duels and 22 tackles to 12, according to the club’s website. By contrast, the Gunners were not at the races. Their performance was so listless that some fans even sang: “you’re not fit to wear the shirt.”
A lot of fans are frustrated because the same old defensive frailties resurfaced at Anfield: Arsenal couldn’t handle crosses, turnovers and counterattacks. What made the loss more bitter is that the Reds looked like a slick machine with a great work-rate while the Gunners couldn’t press as a unit and didn’t seem to pull for each other.
There are obvious signs that this Arsenal squad is regressing. Sunday’s result brought back memories of the 2013-14 season when Arsenal suffered heavy losses at Manchester City (6-3), Liverpool (5-1) and Chelsea (6-0). The players definitely deserve some stick but in the end Wenger can’t escape the fact that he’s the one who hired them.
Three months ago, the manager said the club was one or two signings away from contending in the league. Well, the Liverpool game showed that the Gunners will need more than Lacazette and Kolasinac just to have a decent shot at finishing in the Top 4.
Wenger made 3 changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Stoke the previous weekend with Koscielny, Holding and Sanchez replacing Mustafi, Kolasinac and Lacazette in the starting lineup. I thought the team selection was weird. Why would you give the nod to Holding over the more experienced Mustafi? Then why would you play a right-footed player like Bellerin in the left wingback position instead of Kolasinac or Monreal? It’s no surprise if Arsenal only made 1 accurate cross compared to 8 for Liverpool, according to whoscored.com.
Up front, the manager picked Welbeck for his pace and physicality. Giroud and Lacazette are more clinical than Welbeck, but Giroud lacks pace while Lacazette is still adjusting to the physical side of the Premier League. The only positive from the team selection was the return of Koscielny and Sanchez, respectively from suspension and injury.
Defending crosses was an issue last season. Sadly, the staff still hasn’t found the cure. Liverpool midfielder Can outjumped the Arsenal defense to head Moreno’s cross wide in the sixth minute. You can see the organizational mess in the screen capture below.
Moreno and Henderson, circled, are unmarked while 6 Gunners deal with 3 Reds inside the box. (Photo credit: Sky)
The Gunners were so scared of the danger that there were too many of them inside the area while Moreno and Henderson were left unmarked. The irony is that while the Gunners had numerical superiority inside the box, they committed too many players at the near post and left Bellerin in a 1v2 situation with Salah and Can at the far post. What’s the point of having 3 defenders at the near post if they don’t mark anybody?
Some more gruyere cheese?
Liverpool capitalized on some nifty one-touch passing to torment the Arsenal defense with another cross in the 10th. Ramsey failed to track Can, who made a cross for Salah at the far post. Salah beat Bellerin to the ball for a low effort but was denied by Cech.
The Reds finally opened the scoring in the 17th when Xhaka’s risky pass for Bellerin was intercepted by Gomez. Bellerin barely attempted to stop Gomez’s cross while Firmino took advantage of Arsenal’s poor marking to find the net from 6 yards with a free header. You have to give credit to Firmino for his smart movement and his ability to play between the lines. But there was a too big gap between Holding and Koscielny and I thought Holding should have put off Firmino when the Brazilian striker ghosted past Koscielny.
The second goal came from a counterattack starting from the Liverpool box in the 40th. Gomez made an interception and found Wijnaldum, who beat Xhaka with a pass to Can. See the screen capture below.
Ramsey and Xhaka are stuck high up the pitch as the Reds counterattack. (Photo credit: Sky)
The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese as the ball travelled to Mane, who cut inside Holding to curl a shot into the far corner. The shift to a back three means that the Gunners don’t have numerical inferiority if the midfield is overrun. Of course, the trouble is that defenders still have to win duels. See the screen capture below.
The Gunners have numerical superiority but Holding loses his duel. (Photo credit: Sky)
The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka in central midfield struggled against Stoke. So it was no surprise to see them completely outplayed by Henderson, Wijnaldum and Can. Ramsey’s tactical indiscipline definitely cost his team. The Wales midfielder was dispossessed 3 times, tied with Ozil for the most by any player. The irony is that Ramsey still performed better than Xhaka, winning 41.7% of his duels and 2 of 6 tackles compared to 20% and 0 of 3 tackles for the Switzerland international, according to Squawka and the club’s website.
Xhaka’s poor positional play
Xhaka has performed poorly in the first 3 games of the season. His weak positional play has often been exposed when opponents hit Arsenal on the fast break. That’s a big concern when you are supposed to be the holding midfielder. Arteta also lacked pace but his positional play wasn’t as dodgy as Xhaka’s. What made Xhaka’s performance look bad was his passing accuracy of 86.8%, well below his usual standards and lower than Ramsey’s 95.8%.
The most depressing part for Arsenal fans is that whoever the manager picks, the midfield is flawed. Wenger replaced Ramsey with Coquelin at halftime, shifting from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Bellerin and Monreal as fullbacks and Oxlade-Chamberlain as a winger. In 45 minutes, Coquelin won 0 tackle and 0 aerial duel and made just 1 interception.
The final goal from a counterattack in the 77th showed again the ineptitude of our midfielders. Coquelin was in a too advanced position as Firmino found Can in midfield. Firmino was already surrounded by Monreal and Xhaka, so there was no reason for Coquelin to come forward. See the screen capture below.
Firmino beats Monreal, Xhaka and Coquelin with a pass to Can. (Photo credit: Sky)
Trying to make up for Coquelin’s mistake, Holding sprinted forward to press Can. It proved a losing gamble as Can held off Holding to feed Salah on our right flank. Bellerin failed to block Salah’s cross for an unmarked Sturridge, who headed home from two yards. See the screen capture below.
Koscielny left in a 1v2 situation as Monreal and Holding are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)
It was not a game tailored for Ozil, who still led Arsenal players with 2 key passes. The Germany playmaker also won 1 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions. Some poor communication allowed Henderson to dispossess Ozil in the 19th. Henderson played a one-two with Firmino before missing the target. Koscielny hesitated for a split second, probably thinking about the offside trap, and failed to stay with Henderson.
Rushing Holding’s development
Some Gunners seemed incredibly casual on Sunday as if they were playing some kind of friendly. Monreal made a dribbling attempt in midfield and lost possession to Salah, whose low strike was parried by Cech in the 54th. Three minutes later, Liverpool cleared a corner into the path of Bellerin. As the last defender, Bellerin should have kicked the ball back into the box with his first touch. But the Spaniard tried to control the ball with a poor first touch and was dispossessed by Salah, who sprinted 70 yards to slip the ball past Cech for a 3-0 lead. That goal mentally killed the team as a dejected Sanchez sank to his knees.
Bellerin looked like a shadow of the fullback who was voted in the PFA Team of the Year during the 2015-16 season. He won only 22.2% of his duels and 1 of 4 dribbles. The Ox had a poor game too, winning just 28.6% of his duels while making no tackle, but at least he wasn’t involved in a high-profile blunder. It was quite obvious that the Ox had his mind elsewhere.
It might not be the best time for a youngster to play in such a dysfunctional club. I can only sympathize with Holding, whose development is being recklessly rushed. Holding looked average in a back three. The shift to a back four made him look pedestrian in the second half. Holding gave the ball away to Mane in the 70th but Cech took the sting out of Mane’s effort before Bellerin cleared the ball off the line. Three minutes later, Holding was let down by another poor touch and got booked for crashing into Henderson.
Koscielny’s decent performance
Holding was obviously the weak link in the Arsenal defense, leading all players with 4 turnovers. You can’t afford that many turnovers in such a key position. Liverpool’s pressing game clearly put Holding under pressure as he hit only 2 accurate long balls out of 12 and had a passing accuracy of 71.9%, the lowest percentage of all the defenders. On the bright side, Holding won 4 of 4 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions. I still believe Holding should be loaned out to develop at a reasonable pace.
Monreal also underperformed at the back, winning only 1 of 9 tackles and 28.6% of his duels compared to 70% for Koscielny and 55.6% for Holding. The Spaniard was guilty on the last goal and struggled with the pace of the Liverpool wingers. Salah cut inside Monreal in the 25th to fire a low strike that Cech palmed away.
In his first game of the season, Koscielny was one of the few Gunners who performed at a decent level, winning 2 of 2 tackles and 5 of 7 aerial duels and making 4 interceptions and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. Koscielny is a quiet man but he must raise his voice to prevent the ship from sinking, especially since Mertesacker, the natural leader in the squad, is no longer a starter.
Up front, it was a rough day for strikers deprived of service. Welbeck worked his socks off, winning 2 of 4 tackles. He nearly dispossessed Karius twice. His only scoring chance came in the seventh minute when Sanchez led a counterattack. Wrestling with Gomez, Welbeck could only send an off-balance shot over the bar.
Sanchez still lacked a bit of match sharpness in his first game of the season. I guess the manager opted for Welbeck in the lone striker role because Sanchez is more familiar with Welbeck’s game than with Lacazette’s runs. Wenger yanked Sanchez off in the 62nd to send on Giroud, who proved dominant in the air, knocking a high ball down for Lacazette in the 69th and heading Ozil’s free kick over the bar in the 89th.
Just a few days left to save the season
The Gunners now sit in 16th place, 6 points behind Manchester United and 4 points behind Liverpool and City. The manager and the team will be under heavy scrutiny for the next game against Bournemouth on Sept. 9. The atmosphere at the Emirates stadium could quickly become suffocating if the Cherries take the lead or if the Gunners struggle to find the net.
The board members were aware of such a risk when they extended Wenger’s contract. They can only blame themselves for the club’s messy dressing room and shambolic start to the season. Wenger is a very good manager, but the Premier League has become much more competitive in the past couple of years.
During the 2006-07 season, the league had Ferguson, Mourinho and Benitez as top managers. Now Wenger has to compete with Mourinho, Guardiola, Benitez, Conte, Klopp and Pochettino. Some of them belong to a new generation of hands-on manager while Wenger has a more hands-off approach. In the era of micro-managing, some players need more guidance and want answers quickly because their careers are short. I’m not sure Wenger is the kind of person they need.
I still think it’s non-sensical to talk of firing Wenger for the simple reason that no decent manager is available at this stage of the season. If the board wanted a new manager, they had to make a move in the summer.
Now the staff has the international break to sort out the dressing room. And the club has until August 31 to save this season by signing the players it desperately needs. Wenger mentioned Lemar and Mbappe in his news conferences. But Sunday’s humiliating defeat made it clear that the Gunners need defensive leaders, not attacking players.