Tag Archives: Oxlade-Chamberlain

What Wenger’s new contract means for Arsenal

The 2016-17 season proved the most challenging period for Wenger in his Arsenal career because the fans turned against him while the board was reluctant to back him. Despite the criticism in the news media, the uncertainty around the squad and a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Premier League, Wenger has been handed a two-year contract extension. Let’s see what that means for the Gunners.

  1. The club structure is still an issue

The board missed an opportunity to fix structural flaws at the club. The timing would have been perfect this summer to prepare the transition and create the position of sporting director. You wouldn’t expect a manager to simultaneously supervise the squad, the youth teams, the recruitment and the scouting. That’s too much work for one person, especially in a big club. Yet, that’s pretty much what Wenger does at Arsenal. And I think it’s counterproductive.

Arsenal Pre-Season Tour

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

Big clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG and Manchester City have a sporting director helping the manager. It’s important to understand that the manager should not be accountable to the sporting director. Both are like teammates. The sporting director should remove some workload off the manager’s shoulders so that the manager can focus on the game and the squad.

It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s most successful era occurred when Dein was a vice-chairman on the board. Dein had a great knowledge of football and basically acted as a de facto sporting director by facilitating transfers and keeping an eye on the youth teams. It was the complementarity between Dein and Wenger that propelled the club to success. Nowadays, nobody on the board is knowledgeable enough to challenge Wenger’s views and provide a different perspective.

  1. Recruitment and scouting are still erratic departments

The recruitment and scouting departments have underperformed in the past few years. It might be a consequence of the flaws in the club structure. The Gunners haven’t signed any hidden gem lately. Don’t start mentioning Holding because at this stage of his career he’s just a prospect who wouldn’t be in the starting lineup if everybody was fit. When I say hidden gem, I mean players like Kante and Alli who had a major impact in their first Premier League season.

There have been at least two scouting mistakes since 2014. Signing Chambers from Southampton for about 17 million pounds was quite puzzling. That’s the kind of fee you would pay for a starter, but not for a prospect. To put things in context, Chambers cost more than Koscielny and Paulista. At 22, Chambers still has room to improve, but three flaws won’t change: his slow first steps, his inability to quickly turn and his weakness in the air. In my eyes, Chambers is a decent fit for an average team but not good enough for a club chasing a Champions League spot.

Another weird signing was Elneny, hired from Basel for about 10.5 million pounds. Arsenal needed a ballwinner at that time. Instead, the Gunners signed a utility midfielder. It might be OK to get the profile wrong if the player has great skills. Unfortunately, Elneny is not a decisive player. Defensively, he doesn’t win many tackles or duels. And offensively, he doesn’t make assists or score goals. Elneny’s main asset is his passing accuracy, which can prove useful to keep a high tempo against the weak sides but is not enough against the big teams.

An underwhelming recruitment has been the main reason for Arsenal’s inability to contend in the Premier League. Everybody knows the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. It’s the same with transfers. You need to act quickly to sign the best players who are available. You also need a decent number of players to fill the holes in the squad. And finally, the quality of those new signings must be good enough to improve the team.

Let’s analyse the last 4 transfer windows. In the summer of 2013, the Gunners signed Sanogo on July 1, Flamini on Aug. 29 and Ozil on Sept. 2. The timing was poor since Flamini and Ozil were not even available on opening day. As a prospect, Sanogo could not be the answer in the centerforward position. And of the three players, only Ozil was top quality.

The summer of 2014 was arguably the club’s best transfer window over the past four years. Arsenal signed Sanchez on July 10, Debuchy on July 17, Ospina on July 27, Chambers on July 28 and Welbeck on Sept. 2. The timing and the quantity were fine. The only question mark was about the quality with Sanchez as the only top signing on paper.

The summer of 2015 was undoubtedly the worst transfer window. the Gunners signed Cech on June 29 and that was it. The squad was not competitive enough because there were too many holes in it. That poor recruitment campaign allowed Leicester to win the league against all the odds.

Last year, the club signed Xhaka on May 25, Holding on July 22, and Perez and Mustafi on Aug. 30. The quality was decent and the quantity right, but the timing was poor as Perez and Mustafi could only make their Arsenal debut in September. Maybe the Gunners would have not dropped five points in the first two games of the season if Perez and Mustafi had joined in July.

The comparison with Manchester United and City really hurts as Mourinho and Guardiola acted much faster than Wenger. United signed Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Bailly and Pogba before opening day while Stones, Sane, Gundogan and Nolito joined City before the first game of the season.

  1. The Gunners won’t be contenders

Arsenal signed Schalke leftback Kolasinac on June 6 and Lyon striker Lacazette on July 5, but it will take more than two signings for Arsenal to have a shot at the Premier League title. Wenger tends to be too optimistic in the assessment of his squad. As a result, he fails to identify all the weaknesses in the squad and becomes reluctant to clear the dead wood.

First, the Gunners need a defensive midfielder. They currently don’t have a destroyer like Petit or Gilberto to effectively shield the defense. In his first season at the club, Wenger played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. It’s only after signing Petit in the summer of 1997 that the manager was able to switch to a back four.

And second, the Gunners should sign a creative midfielder to make up for Cazorla’s long-term absence. The Spaniard could be sidelined until November. At 32, there’s no guarantee that Cazorla will rediscover his form. The end of his Arsenal career could echo Arteta’s last couple of seasons at the club. On paper, Wilshere would look like a natural replacement but he doesn’t have Cazorla’s defensive awareness and his fitness could be a concern too.

  1. A perfect storm for players’ contracts

Quite a few Gunners haven’t signed any extension yet although their contracts end in 2018. The most obvious cases are Sanchez and Ozil, whose wage demands exceed 250,000 pounds a week. It is not just a matter of money. Sanchez and Ozil both feel that the club is lacking ambition. They could ask for a move if they think that the squad is not strong enough to contend for the title. And we would end up with a situation very similar to what happened in 2011 when Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy left the club before Van Persie and Song also jumped off the ship the following year.

If Sanchez and Ozil can’t be tied to the club beyond 2018, then it might be better to sell them this summer. If it was up to me, I would sell Walcott and Sanchez but keep Perez and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are among the clubs interested in Sanchez, who’s got the highest resale value of all the squad members. Obviously, it would be better to sell Sanchez to a German club so that it doesn’t backfire on Arsenal. But Bayern Munich seemed to have balked at the player’s wage demands.

Lacazette and Perez would be natural replacements for Sanchez as both are strikers who score a lot of goals and make a lot of assists. They also have plenty of pace and good dribbling and passing skills. However, Perez has been unhappy about the lack of opportunities last season, especially when Giroud and Welbeck were injured, as Wenger preferred to give the nod to Walcott or Iwobi. His omission from the squad touring Australia and China could hint at his departure this summer.

Selling Ozil would be more tricky. First, he has a lower resale value than Sanchez. And second, there’s no natural replacement in the squad for the Germany playmaker: Cazorla plays in a deeper position while Wilshere is not as prolific for assists as Ozil. Of course, that would become a different story if the Gunners sign Lemar from Monaco.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, Gibbs and Ramsey also have their contracts ending next year. Money is not really the issue here. The key factor is their playing time. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs need to play regularly in order to shine and catch the attention of the England manager. Another factor is Wenger’s declining aura after a disappointing season. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs must be frustrated when they see other players improve under Klopp, Pochettino and Guardiola and snatch starting spots in the England team. They might think that they would perform better under a different manager. Arsenal will let Gibbs go after signing Kolasinac last month.

  1. Arsenal will stick to the 3-4-3 formation

The Gunners conceded a lot of goals last season because their midfield was not strong enough to protect the defense and because the back four was flawed: Bellerin lacked consistency because of injury and transfer rumors, Monreal and Gibbs struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank, and Mustafi performed poorly in the second half of the season. It took a shift to a back three to stop the bleeding. Unless the club signs a world-class ballwinner, Arsenal would still be too vulnerable with a back four against strong and even average teams.

  1. Tension with some fans won’t go away

Some fans turned against the team when Arsenal had a poor run of form in the winter. The ‘Wenger Out’ brigade seemed to make it personal by deliberately hurting the club with hostile chants and banners to get Wenger sacked. In my eyes, that attitude was completely wrong. Chelsea and Leicester were flirting with relegation when Mourinho and Ranieri were dismissed. Yet, neither Mourinho nor Ranieri suffered such abuse from the Chelsea and Leicester fans. By contrast, the Gunners were always in the Top 6 last season.

The main problem with such a hostile behavior is that it puts off a lot of players by instilling fear and anxiety in them. Nobody wants to play in that kind of atmosphere. And players may think twice before signing a contract at the Emirates.

Now that the board has made its choice clear, the fans have to stand by the team, which means no protest for this upcoming season unless the Gunners are stuck in a relegation battle. In the final year of Wenger’s contract, if the fans want to put some pressure on the board to hire a new manager, then empty seats at the Emirates and protests outside the stadium would be the only decent options. Displaying hostile banners and shouting hostile chants inside the stadium would be like scoring an own goal.

I have no doubt that the Wenger issue will come back in the 2018-19 season. The board had no serious replacement for Wenger this year and therefore extended his contract. They will have to anticipate and act more decisively in a year and half. Finding the right successor is a long process and should leave no room to improvisation as Moyes’ failure at Manchester United showed.

Gunners save season by downing Chelsea 2-1 in FA Cup final

Sanchez and Ramsey scored on Saturday to give Arsenal a record 13th FA Cup and make Wenger the most successful manager in that competition with a 7th title. The Gunners were complete underdogs before kickoff. I remember reading the Evening Standard on Friday and all their six pundits predicted a Chelsea victory. On the one hand, the Blues had no injured or suspended player and could therefore field a full-strength team. On the other, the Gunners were so badly crippled by injury or suspension that there was no defender on the bench.

FA Cup final

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

Wenger made a gutsy call by giving Mertesacker his first start of the season despite question marks over the match fitness of the German centerback. Koscielny’s suspension, Gibbs’ illness and injuries to Mustafi and Paulista also forced the manager to use Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback on the left flank. The key for Arsenal was to avoid playing a high defensive line that could expose Mertesacker’s lack of pace.

Tactically, the Gunners annihilated Chelsea’s strengths by using the same 3-4-3 system as Conte. They met twice in the Premier League this season. Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates stadium in September when both sides were playing with four defenders at the back. Conte then switched to a back three to beat the Gunners 3-1 in February. At that time, Wenger was still hesitating between his favored 4-2-3-1 formation and a more industrious 4-3-3 system. Those Premier League games became irrelevant on Saturday since the FA Cup final was the first meeting between Conte and Wenger in which both played a back three.

I wasn’t optimistic before the game. I thought Arsenal would be punished for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Holding’s inexperience. My only hope was the 2-1 win over Manchester City in the semifinals. Maybe we could win if the Blues missed their chances and the Gunners converted theirs. In the end, Arsenal showed more desire than Chelsea, making 23 tackles to 20 and 17 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website. The scoreline was quite misleading. The Blues were so badly outplayed that nobody would have complained if the Gunners had won 4-1 or 5-2.

Ramsey’s late runs

Arsenal capitalized on a spell of domination in the opening minutes to open the scoring with a controversial goal. Sanchez charged down a clearance from Kante and the ball hit the Chile striker’s arm before landing at the feet of an offside Ramsey. Luiz and Cahill froze while Ramsey let Sanchez take his chance. Sanchez flicked the ball past Courtois with the outside of his boot to put the Gunners ahead after three minutes.

The controversy was not so much about Ramsey’s offside position, since he didn’t play the ball, but about Sanchez’s handball. You can argue that Sanchez was simply trying to protect his face and that the handball was therefore unintentional. It’s not the first time that a referee has allowed a goal to stand despite a handball in the buildup. Trezeguet scored a similar goal in France’s 2-2 draw with Croatia at the Euro 2004.

Sanchez created the winning goal in the 79th by releasing Giroud down the left wing. Giroud made a cross for Ramsey, who headed the offering into the bottom corner. The understanding between Ramsey and Giroud made the difference on that play. Ramsey’s deep runs are hard to track for any defense. Kante lost track of Ramsey, who was able to find some space between Luiz and Alonso inside the box.

Chelsea struggled to mark Sanchez and Ozil because they have a lot of freedom in Wenger’s 3-4-3 system. As inside forwards, Sanchez and Ozil can find space between the centerbacks and the wingbacks. They can also drop back to exploit the space between the centerbacks and the midfielders. The main drawback of that formation is that Sanchez and Ozil can sometimes be isolated if there’s no support from the wingbacks or midfielders. That explains in great part their high turnover rate. Sanchez had 11 turnovers and Ozil 6, more than any other player according to whoscored.com.

Ozil’s work-rate

The reason why Sanchez and Ozil are considered world-class players is their reading of the game. They can see and make the right pass even under pressure. Sanchez initiated a counterattack in the 55th with a cross-field pass to Bellerin, who failed to find two Gunners at the far post with his cross. The Chile striker also slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was cleared off the line by Cahill in the 16th. It was a good effort since Ozil hit the ball with his weaker right foot. In the closing minutes, Giroud picked out Ozil, who cut inside Azpilicueta only to strike the near post.

Ozil finished the game with 3 key passes and worked harder than usual. The Germany playmaker made 2 tackles compared to none for Pedro and Hazard. He also played a key role in Arsenal’s passing game with 65 passes, second behind Xhaka’s 73. By contrast, Hazard made only 35 passes, fifth behind Azpilicueta, Luiz, Kante and Cahill in the Chelsea team. Sanchez made no tackle but disrupted the Blues’ passing game with 3 interceptions, tied with Monreal and Bellerin for the most by an Arsenal player.

Up front, Welbeck struggled with his finishing. He met a corner in the 19th for a header that crashed against the far post. Then Welbeck took a pass from Bellerin in the 30th and was denied by Courtois from a tight angle while a cross to Ramsey for a tap-in was the better option. On the bright side, Welbeck worked his socks off to cover Sanchez or Ozil when they were stuck high up the pitch. Giroud came off the bench in the 78th to set up Ramsey for the winner.

Moses’ dive

Ramsey has received a lot of stick this season and much of it was not deserved. First, injuries have marred his season. Ramsey never really had a good run of games to find his groove. And second, the few times Ramsey was fit, he had to play in a dysfunctional team. It’s only last month against Middlesbrough that Wenger found the right balance between defense and attack with the 3-4-3 formation.

In my eyes, Ramsey was Arsenal’s best player at Wembley. Ramsey didn’t get off to a good start by collecting a yellow card for pulling back Pedro in the ninth minute. But he grew into the game and was unlucky to chest the rebound against the post after Welbeck hit the woodwork in the 19th. Ramsey finished the game with 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 95.1%, the highest percentage among the starters. He also made 2 interceptions and won 60% of his duels and 2 of 3 tackles for an outstanding overall performance. Kante, Xhaka and Matic had a lower percentage for duels won, according to the club’s website. Xhaka’s focus on the defensive tasks allowed Ramsey to make his trademark late runs in the box. The Switzerland midfielder tested Courtois with a long-range volley in the 32nd.

The Blues were surprisingly lethargic in the first half. Maybe they took their foot off the pedal after celebrating their Premier League title. Chelsea played with more purpose in the second half and equalized after Fabregas replaced Matic in the 61st and Conte sent on Willian for Pedro in the 72nd. Somehow, Moses hurt the Blues’ chances by receiving two yellow cards. The first one was for a cynical foul on Welbeck in the 57th and the second resulted from a blatant dive to win a penalty in the 68th.

Holding as the weak link

Arsenal showed a lot of solidarity at the back to frustrate Chelsea. One defensive play in the 15th set the tone for the game: three Gunners united their efforts to block a shot from Costa. Mertesacker was dominant in the air, winning 5 duels. Only Cahill did better with 6, according to whoscored.com. On the ground, Monreal relied on his reading of the game to win 4 of 4 tackles, the most for any Gunner.

The wingbacks, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin, contributed defensively to keep Pedro and Hazard relatively quiet. Pedro still managed to get two chances by finding some space between Monreal and Mertesacker in the 39th and then between Ramsey and the centerbacks in the 59th. But each time Pedro missed the target.

In his return from injury, the Ox ran out of gas in the second half and was replaced by Coquelin in the 82nd. Bellerin was cautious in the first half and showed more audacity after the break. The Spaniard tested Courtois with a first-time effort from 18 yards in the 65th. Bellerin then led a counterattack in the 84th and dribbled past Luiz to fire a low strike wide of the far post.

Holding proved the weak link at the back. Chelsea’s best chances came from duels Holding lost. As Costa chased a long ball in the 28th, Holding tried to shield the ball for Ospina but was outmuscled by Costa, whose point-blank shot bounced off the Colombia goalkeeper. That was poor decision-making from Holding, who made a similar mistake against Manchester United three weeks ago by attempting a risky backpass instead of clearing the ball into touch. Holding was booked in the 53rd for an obstruction on Costa.

Wenger’s snipe

Chelsea’s equalizer in the 76th was the result of three Arsenal errors. First, Ozil lost possession to Luiz in midfield. Second, the Ox was late to stop Willian’s cross. And third, Holding was wrongfooted and struggled to change direction when Costa chested the ball down before pulling the trigger. TV Commentators claimed Ospina made a mistake because he got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. I thought that was harsh for Ospina because Costa’s 10-yard shot took a deflection.

The Blues nearly leveled in the 86th. Giroud sat too deep and failed to prevent Kante from hitting a ball over the top. Hazard beat Holding to the high ball and redirected it into the path of Costa, who chested the ball down and was denied by Ospina from 7 yards. Costa reacted more quickly than Mertesacker on that play. Ospina made two other key saves, stopping a long-range effort from Kante in the 49th and palming away a low strike from Moses in the 51st.

The Gunners have saved their season with that FA Cup title. Wenger couldn’t help having a snipe at the Arsenal board and the fans before and after the game. The French manager complained about the “lack of respect” and stressed how the “uncertainty” over his future affected the players. It’s now obvious that Wenger wanted some public backing from the board when the results were poor and the fans protested. In any case, that was a no-win situation for the board. If they had backed him, they would have antagonized the fans. By remaining coy, the board put Wenger under more scrutiny, which is what happened with Van Gaal last season at Manchester United. Ironically, both Wenger and Van Gaal finished fifth and won the FA Cup.

Papering over the cracks

Wenger also chastised the fans by stating that “once the game starts and you’re a fan, you stand behind the team.” He also added: “We played some games in a very hostile environment and I will never accept that.” It’s hard to disagree on that point. I think the best way for the fans to protest was to leave a lot of empty seats like they did against Sunderland. Demonstrations outside the stadium were OK but hostile chants and banners inside the stadium were wrong. What kind of player would like to stay in such a club?

The board will meet on Tuesday before announcing Wenger’s future. There’s some obvious tension between the board and the manager. It feels like the FA Cup is papering over the cracks of a disappointing season. The Gunners played 6 games and faced only 2 big teams (Manchester City and Chelsea) to lift the FA Cup, while Chelsea played 38 games and faced 5 big teams twice to win the Premier League. There’s no doubt that the Premier League is the more important competition and the 18-point gap between Chelsea and Arsenal is a reminder that the club needs more than one or two signings to contend next season. Wenger’s failures in the transfer market and in the assessment of the quality of his squad have been obvious in the past two years.

If the board has found a better manager, now is the perfect time to make the transition and maybe offer Wenger the position of sporting director. Otherwise, the board will have to say that it’s Wenger’s last contract in the hope that it could appease the fans with the obvious risk that protests could start again next season if the results are poor.

 

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.