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Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 race over after 1-0 loss in North London derby

The Top 4 race is virtually over for Arsenal after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Tottenham. The Gunners trail their North London rivals by 7 points and Liverpool by 9 in the Premier League. Even if we assume a miraculous improvement in Arsenal’s poor away form, it’s hard to see how they could make up so much ground with just 11 league games left. To match their total from last season (75), they would need to win 10 of those games.

Tottenham vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The scoreline doesn’t reflect how Tottenham outplayed the Gunners in the second half. With some decent finishing, Spurs could have won by a four-goal margin. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves but the hosts also wasted some big chances by simply missing the target. If we except interceptions, Tottenham had the edge in all the key categories: 6 shots on target to 1 for Arsenal, 13 chances to 4, 15 key passes to 4, 13 successful tackles to 12, 14 successful dribbles to 8, 34 crosses to 13, and 52.6% of duels won, according to the club’s website and Squawka.

From those stats, we can see that dribbling is a weakness in the current Arsenal squad. The staff will have to address that issue in the summer transfer window unless they think Nelson and Nketiah are ready to start in the Premier League. That weakness means that the Gunners rely heavily on their passing game to crack a defense. By denying space and pressing the ballholder, Spurs managed to limit Arsenal to just 4 key passes. Arsenal had a couple of promising situations in the first half but failed to turn them into clear-cut chances because of a poor final ball. At the end of the second half, the Gunners improved the quality of their final ball but were let down by their finishing.

Failing to stop crosses

Tottenham did most of the damage from crosses. Last season, the leftback position was identified by opponents as the weak link in the Arsenal defense. Pochettino took a more sophisticated approach by exploiting the poor defensive contribution from Ozil and Mkhitaryan as Trippier and Davies charged down the flanks to hoist the ball into the box. In the 25th minute, Mkhitaryan failed to close down Trippier. The Tottenham rightback made a cross for Eriksen, whose looping header didn’t trouble Cech.

On the opposite flank, Davies was given plenty of time and space by Ozil in the 49th and the Wales leftback made a cross for Kane, who outjumped Koscielny to head the ball into the bottom corner. The timing of Kane’s jump was perfect. The only thing Koscielny could have done better was to try and put Kane off by colliding into the Spurs striker while pretending to jump.

Making crosses was a simple ploy but it worked wonders for Spurs. In the 54th, Monreal was caught out of position and Mkhitaryan failed to track Trippier, who set up Kane for a volley that Cech parried. As you can see on the screen capture below, Wilshere covered Monreal on the left flank and somehow managed to slow down the counterattack, but Xhaka left Kane unmarked on the edge of the Arsenal box.

Tottenham M54ed Xhaka showing his lack of defensive awareness by leaving Kane unmarked. (Photo credit: BT)

Tottenham even had a Plan B if Ozil or Mkhitaryan made the effort to close down Davies or Trippier. In the 52nd, Trippier lured Mkhitaryan down our left flank, creating space for Dier, who whipped a cross into the box. Kane made a run between Koscielny and Mustafi only to head the cross wide. Wilshere sat too deep on that play, failing to press Dier, while Koscielny was not tight enough to Kane.

Questionable tactics

In the battle of playmakers, Eriksen got the better of Ozil with 4 key passes compared to just 2 for the Germany international. Eriksen created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense by playing between the lines and finding pockets of space to pull the strings. Dier in the 14th and Kane in the 27th met his crosses but missed the target. Then Bellerin failed to stop another cross from Eriksen in the 76th. Unmarked at the far post, Trippier connected with the ball for a volley that Cech saved.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that smashed Everton 5-1 a week ago with Elneny and Wilshere replacing Iwobi and an injured Ramsey in the starting lineup. I would have played a back three like in the 2-0 win at the Emirates in November. To the manager’s credit, the team did OK in the first half in a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny, Xhaka and Wilshere in midfield.

Chasing an equalizer, Wenger made some substitutions that were questionable. He replaced Elneny and Mkhitaryan with Iwobi and Lacazette in the 65th, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ozil in the hole, Aubameyang on the left wing, Iwobi on the right and Lacazette up front. Aubameyang has never been known for his crossing ability or all-around game, so I don’t quite understand what Wenger had in mind. It would have been more rational to play Lacazette on the right wing, Iwobi on the left and keep Aubameyang in the centerforward role. Another tactical option would have been to use a 4-4-2 formation with Ozil and Iwobi as the wide players and Lacazette as a second striker playing behind Aubameyang.

The Chamakh syndrome

The manager switched back to a 4-3-3 formation in the 86th by sending on Welbeck for Xhaka. Iwobi teamed up with Ozil and Wilshere in midfield while Welbeck joined Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front three. The move nearly paid off as Spurs started tiring in the closing minutes and invited pressure by sitting deeper and deeper. Bellerin made a pinpoint cross for an unmarked Lacazette in stoppage time, but the France international sent his volley over the bar from 12 yards. Two minutes later, Iwobi slipped a through ball to Lacazette, who lacked composure and dragged his shot wide instead of attempting a chip.

Besides those 2 golden chances, Lacazette led all players with 3 offside calls in his 25-minute cameo. When he signed for Arsenal, there was some uncertainty about his level. Was Lacazette a world-class player like Henry and Van Persie or just a good striker like Lukaku? We don’t have the answer yet, but now the danger for Lacazette is the Chamakh syndrome.

Don’t get me wrong, Lacazette is a much better player than Chamakh. But if he doesn’t show more mental strength, his spell at Arsenal could end next year. Chamakh joined Arsenal in 2010 and scored 7 goals in his first 15 Premier League games. But then the Morocco international couldn’t find the net in the league for the rest of the season. The similarities with Lacazette’s new career in England are quite obvious. Lacazette scored 8 goals in his first 15 league games but has netted only once in the following 11 league games.

There have been many comparisons made between Aubameyang and Henry. I think those comparisons make no sense at all because Aubameyang and Henry are 2 completely different players. Yes, both Aubameyang and Henry have electric pace. But Henry was not a fox in the box like Aubameyang, and the former Borussia Dortmund player doesn’t have Henry’s dribbling and passing skills. Aubameyang is a pure centerforward who depends on good service. He won’t create a goal out of nothing like Henry.

An awkward left foot 

On Saturday, Aubameyang took 0 shot and made 2 crosses that went nowhere. Although Aubameyang is 5 inches taller than Lacazette, Spurs exposed his relative weakness in the air by winning 1 of 8 aerial duels against him, according to Squawka. Despite Tottenham’s high defensive line, the Gunners never managed to capitalize on Aubameyang’s speed. Wilshere played Aubameyang clean through on goal in the 12th but the Gabon striker was flagged offside. Then Xhaka overhit his through ball for Aubameyang in the 60th before Aubameyang was again caught offside in the 82nd while collecting a through ball from Ozil. It will take a bit of time to develop a good understanding between Aubameyang and his teammates. Aubameyang scored in his first Arsenal game but we should remember that Mkhitaryan, who made the assist, previously played with him in Germany.

Starting on the left wing, Mkhitaryan had a much weaker impact than against Everton. Let’s be honest, Mkhitaryan seems more comfortable on the right wing than on the left for the simple reason that his left foot is a mess. The Armenia international couldn’t find anybody with his cross in the 22nd and he wasted a golden chance with a poor final ball in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Mkhitaryan just had to make a basic pass to set up Aubameyang for what would have looked like a spot kick. Somehow, Mkhitaryan catapulted the ball straight into touch.

Tottenham M34edWhere Mkhitaryan should have played the ball. (Photo credit: BT)

Mkhitaryan’s technical struggles meant that Arsenal had to rely on Ozil or Wilshere for the final ball. Spurs limited Ozil’s impact to 2 key passes, 2 crosses and 3 successful dribbles. Ozil has always struggled in games where players have to fight for the ball. Saturday’s North London derby was not a game for him. In stoppage time, Ozil had the opportunity to salvage a point with a dead ball but his free kick crashed into the wall. That was quite a contrast with the quality of Eriksen’s free kick that Cech tipped over the bar in the 57th.

Inability to win duels

The Gunners never had the control of the match because Tottenham outplayed them in midfield. Elneny is more mobile than Xhaka but his defensive contribution is poor. The scouting department made a mistake in failing to spot Elneny’s inability to win duels. The Egypt international was not involved in any aerial duel and made 0 tackle, 0 interception and 2 blocks. Those are weak stats for a holding midfielder. By contrast, Dier made 3 interceptions and 0 block and won 2 of 4 tackles and 5 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Taking over Elneny’s spot in the 65th, Iwobi initially struggled to adjust to the intensity of the game. Iwobi was dispossessed twice before creating Arsenal’s best chance in stoppage time.

Among the 3 starting midfielders, Xhaka had the best defensive stats. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 1 block and won 2 of 3 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels. For a No. 8, that would be a decent defensive contribution. Unfortunately, Xhaka’s offensive stats are too weak. Xhaka created 0 chance and never proved a goal threat like Ramsey.

It was quite the opposite with Wilshere, who had decent offensive stats but weak defensive stats. Wilshere was not involved in any aerial duel, won 1 of 5 tackles, and made 0 interception and 0 block. He also led all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Dier and Dembele were much more tidy in possession with 0 and 1 turnover, respectively. To Wilshere’s credit, he tested Lloris with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 68th. Wilshere also fed Welbeck in the 87th but the rusty substitute had a heavy first touch which allowed Lloris to gather the ball.

Son in Bellerin’s pocket

The Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. As the goal showed, Koscielny struggled badly in the air against Kane, winning only 3 of 6 aerial duels. The France defender had an unusual lapse of concentration in the 71st, giving the ball away to Lamela, who sent a ball over the top for Alli. Clean through on goal, Alli flicked the ball wide. Koscielny won only 44.4% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi, according to the club’s website. Mustafi was again the most pro-active of the 2 centerbacks, leading all players with 5 interceptions but winning just 1 of 4 tackles. Koscielny and Mustafi didn’t cover themselves in glory in the 90th when Lamela beat the offside trap to chase a long free kick and fire wide.

On the flanks, Bellerin and Monreal were mostly focused on their defensive tasks. Monreal remained anonymous throughout the game (passing accuracy of 75%, 0 chance created, 2 crosses, 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 of 3 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 2 blocks) while Bellerin had Son in his pocket and contributed offensively (passing accuracy of 85%, 1 chance created, 4 crosses, 2 of 4 tackles won, 1 of 2 aerial duels won, 0 interception and 6 blocks). Bellerin took a pass from Ozil in the 40th only to miss the target from 20 yards.

Still no clean sheet

Cech’s quest for a 200th clean sheet in the Premier League has become a running gag. The Gunners haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last 9 league games. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves on Saturday but his error rate is a concern. The Czech goalkeeper had a pass blocked by Alli in the 71st and he nearly lost possession with a dribbling attempt in the 48th. According to the Premier League’s website, Cech tops all players for the number of errors leading to a goal this season (4). At 35, Cech is clearly past his prime but I guess the staff will let Cech run down his contract instead of signing a new goalkeeper this summer.

The Gunners next play Ostersund in the Europa League on Feb. 15 before hosting the Swedish side a week later. The staff has two options: 1. Either leave their key players out of the squad for the first leg in Sweden and play their best team in the second leg; 2. Or leave their key players out of the squad for the second leg to give them a break before the League Cup final on Feb. 25. In any case, I hope youngsters like Nelson, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock will get some playing time against Ostersund.

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Arsenal vs. Everton: Ramsey notches hat trick in 5-1 win, Aubameyang scores in PL debut

Call it the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. When they play at the Emirates stadium, the Gunners are a completely different team from the one struggling so badly on the road. Arsenal smashed Everton 5-1 on Saturday just a few days after losing 3-1 at Swansea. The Gunners have the joint second best home record in the Premier League whereas they are a mid-table side if we look only at their away record.

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

The quality of Mkhitaryan’s final ball combined with Ramsey’s movement and finishing turned Saturday’s game into a goalfest. Aubameyang released Mkhitaryan down the right wing in the sixth minute and the Armenia international made a low cross for Ramsey who opened the scoring by beating Pickford from close range. Ramsey made it 3-0 in the 19th with a 24-yard drive that took a deflection off Mangala. The Dortmund connection played a role in the first and fourth goals as Mkhitaryan played Aubameyang in before the Gabon international chipped Pickford for a 4-0 lead in the 37th. Ramsey completed his hat trick in the 74th by pouncing on a cross from Mkhitaryan to bury the ball into the bottom corner.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that lost to Swansea with Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan replacing Lacazette and Elneny in the starting lineup. Arsenal played in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Aubameyang up front, Ozil in the hole and Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings. The Gunners have no natural dribbler in the squad if we except the youngsters Nelson and Nketiah. The Toffees finished the game with 19 dribbling attempts compared to just 10 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. That basically means the Gunners rely on their passing game to crack a defense. And you need movement to find gaps and create passing options.

Ramsey’s clinical finishing

Ramsey’s deep runs provide the movement necessary for pass masters like Ozil and Mkhitaryan to express their creativity. The Wales midfielder proved clinical on Saturday by converting all his goal attempts. He could have added an assist in the 13th when Iwobi found him with a long ball. Ramsey squared the ball back for Aubameyang, whose strike was deflected out by Williams. With 6 goals and 6 assists from 18 Premier League games, Ramsey has been the most productive Gunner this season. It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s poor run of form happened during Ramsey’s injury period.

Some fans complain about Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline. But Ramsey is not a defensive midfielder. He plays as a free-roaming midfielder for Wales. His potential is optimized when there’s a holding midfielder who gives him the freedom to play between the lines. Ramsey is often compared to box-to-box players like Lampard and Gerrard. Lampard had Makelele and Essien to cover him at Chelsea while Gerrard could rely on Xabi Alonso and Mascherano to do the dirty work at Liverpool. The Gunners will need a better midfielder than Elneny or Xhaka next season to cover Ramsey and protect the defense.

The partnership between Xhaka and Ramsey only works when Xhaka understands that he must take care of the defensive duties and let Ramsey play in a more advanced position. Xhaka won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, while Ramsey won 1 of 2 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 1 block, according to Squawka. There were a couple of times when the Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese again. Xhaka had to make a cynical foul on Walcott to kill a counterattack in the 18th. Five minutes later, Walcott easily skipped past 2 Gunners to feed Niasse, who was then fouled by Koscielny. The Arsenal midfield also went missing in the 27th. It took a desperate block from Mustafi to prevent Walcott from scoring.

Mkhitaryan’s creativity and work-rate

Surprisingly, Mkhitaryan has already struck a good understanding with Ramsey in their second game together. Mkhitaryan is a smart player who is aware of the movement around him. He spotted Ramsey’s runs for the opener and the last goal. Since Cazorla’s injury, Ozil has been a bit isolated to create chances. Sanchez could occasionally step up and make assists but he’s not a natural passer like Mkhitaryan. Signing Mkhitaryan has definitely removed some of the creative burden off Ozil’s shoulders. The Gunners also play more free-flowing football with Mkhitaryan because Sanchez often gave the opponents time to regroup by taking too many touches.

The manager used Mkhitaryan in a wide position a bit like Pires and Rosicky before. Obviously, Mkhitaryan is an attacking midfielder, not a winger, but he’s smart enough to know when to drift inside and when to stretch a defense by staying wide. I don’t quite understand why Mourinho didn’t like him at Manchester United. Besides his 3 assists, Mkhitaryan also showed some great work-rate by making 3 interceptions and winning 3 of 9 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. In fact, Mkhitaryan made more interceptions and tackles than any Arsenal defender. The only blemish in his performance was his average shooting accuracy. Mkhitaryan’s long-range effort sailed wide in the 10th and his tame effort in the 56th didn’t trouble Pickford. Hopefully, it was just a consequence of his rustiness at Old Trafford.

Ramsey and Mkhitaryan stole the limelight, but Ozil still led all players with 4 key passes. Ozil created the second goal with a pinpoint delivery in the 14th. Mustafi made a run at the near post to redirect Ozil’s corner toward Koscielny, who headed in from close range. Playing on the left wing, Iwobi lacked end product compared to Ozil and Mkhitaryan. Iwobi finished the game with 0 shot and only 1 key pass (his assist for Ramsey’s long-range strike). He also had 4 turnovers, the most for any Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. I thought his work-rate was average with only 1 tackle, 1 interception and 1 block. My guess is that Iwobi and Lacazette will compete for the spot on the left flank, assuming Aubameyang, Ozil and Mkhitaryan are safe starters. Lacazette is a bigger goal threat while Iwobi provides more control in the passing game.

Aubameyang’s electric pace

In his Arsenal debut, Aubameyang found the net in the 37th. TV replays showed Aubameyang was a yard offside but that’s the price to pay when the league doesn’t adopt VAR technology. Arsenal fans got a glimpse of his electric pace in the 32nd when he outpaced Williams and Schneiderlin to collect a through ball from Ozil. From a tight angle, Aubameyang was denied by Pickford.

I have mixed feelings on the signing of Aubameyang. He has more pace than Giroud and is 3 years younger than the France striker. But the reason why Arsenal hired Mislintat was to replicate Borussia Dortmund’s scouting and recruitment model, that is, sign players at a cheap price just before they enter their prime. That’s what Arsenal did with Fabregas and Van Persie in the previous decade. With Aubameyang, the Gunners paid a premium price for a player who will turn 29 this year and has therefore a low resale value.

The best years of a football player are usually between the age of 25 and 30. You can stretch that to 32 or 33 if the player has great fitness levels. Which means that Aubameyang has 3 or 4 years left at the top. That’s a relatively weak return for £56 million. Van Persie was only 20 and Henry 21 when the club signed them for much less. They both gave 8 years to Arsenal. Also, Aubameyang is a pure centerforward. He scores most of his goals inside the box and therefore needs good service to find the net. He won’t create goals out of nothing like Van Persie or Henry.

Kolasinac’s defensive frailties

At the back, the partnership between Koscielny and Mertesacker is looking more and more like the previous partnership between Mertesacker and Koscielny. The France centerback is the more cautious of the two, acting almost like a sweeper, whereas Mustafi is the more aggressive defender. Mustafi won 5 of 6 tackles and 8 of 11 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 2 blocks. Those are very good stats but they don’t tell the whole story.

   Mustafi still needs to improve his decision-making and positional play. In the opening minute, Mustafi was too casual and nearly lost possession as the last defender. He also gave away a dangerous free kick in the 49th with a mistimed tackle on Niasse. Mustafi was then pulled out of position in the 81st by challenging Calvin-Lewin in the air. Calvin-Lewin knocked the ball down for Davies, who evaded Bellerin’s challenge and played the ball back to Calvin-Lewin. As you can see on the screen capture below, Arsenal ended up in a 2v4 situation because Mustafi and Bellerin dived in. Somehow, Calvin-Lewin failed to catch the frame from 13 yards.

Arsenal vs. Everton M81 edited Everton wasting a 4v2 situation. (Photo credit: BT)

The Toffees could have done more damage if they had been more accurate with their final ball or finishing. They made 24 crosses compared to just 10 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. The leftback position is still a concern for the Gunners. Monreal met Xhaka’s corner in the 40th for a bouncing header that hit the post. The Spaniard played sick according to the manager and was replaced at halftime by Kolasinac, whose defensive frailties were again exposed. Kolasinac gave the ball away in the 51st and 83rd. He was also involved in the messy play that led to a turnover and a scoring chance for Everton in the 52nd. Walcott made a cross for Niasse, who hit the post while colliding with Cech.

Back four or back three?

Everton’s consolation goal in the 64th came from some poor defending by Kolasinac. Martina made a cross for Calvert-Lewin, who outjumped Kolasinac to head home. Kolasinac did not even jump on that play. Even if he wasn’t aware of Calvert-Lewin’s presence behind him, Kolasinac still had to head the ball away. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 57%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. He also won 0 of 4 aerial duels. Kolasinac is looking more and more like a recruitment mistake. That’s another embarrassment for the scouting department, which has recommended a lot of average players in the past few years (Xhaka, Elneny, Chambers, Paulista) but no real jewel.

The Gunners play the North London derby next Saturday. Cech is doubtful after picking up a calf injury in his collision with Niasse. Ospina replaced the Czech goalkeeper in the 70th and showed his poor command of the area on a corner kick three minutes later. A victory at Wembley would keep alive Arsenal’s slim hopes of a Top 4 finish as they trail Spurs by 4 points and Liverpool by 6. Wenger will have to choose between sticking with a back four or switching to a back three.

Swansea vs. Arsenal: Poor away form continues with 3-1 loss

The Gunners are now 8 points outside the Top 4 in the Premier League after losing 3-1 to Swansea on Tuesday. Their poor away form this season has seriously hurt their chances of finishing in the Top 4. They only have 3 victories on the road while Manchester City, United, Chelsea and Liverpool have won at least 7 away games.

Swansea vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

It was an embarrassing performance. Arsenal lacked desire and played at a too slow tempo to trouble the hosts, who were well organized and kept a compact shape. The Gunners enjoyed 74% of ball possession but had the same number of shots on target as Swansea (4). The Swans showed more commitment, winning 12 tackles to 10, making 18 interceptions to 8 and winning 52.9% of the duels, according to the club’s website.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that knocked Chelsea out of the League Cup a week ago with Ramsey and Cech replacing Wilshere and Ospina in the starting lineup. Tactically, Arsenal fluctuated between a 4-3-3 formation and a 3-4-3 system with Elneny playing as a centerback when the team lost possession.

Chasing a winner, the manager replaced Elneny with Mkhitaryan in the 60th minute. The Swans capitalized on that substitution to press high up the pitch and take a 2-1 lead a minute later. It’s not the first time this season that the Gunners have struggled to adjust to a tactical change. A couple of weeks ago, Bournemouth also scored the winning goal a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four.

Wenger threw caution to the wind in the 76th by sending on Giroud for Iwobi and therefore shifting to a 4-4-2 formation. The move backfired as the Gunners conceded a third goal in the closing minutes. The defending has been shambolic this season. And the fact that Arsenal couldn’t keep the lead for more than a minute shows their mental weakness.

Monreal’s poor defensive performance 

Monreal opened the scoring in the 33rd by stabbing home Ozil’s cross to the far post. Because of that goal, Monreal got the best grade among Arsenal players on whoscored.com, but his defensive performance was a disaster. The Gunners signed Kolasinac because neither Gibbs nor Monreal could stop dangerous crosses on the left flank last season. However, the struggles of Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles in the leftback position created the illusion that Monreal had rediscovered his youth. Tuesday’s game was a reminder that Monreal has lost a step.

   Dyer got the better of Monreal in the eighth minute to make a low cross for Mawson at the far post. It took a challenge from Ramsey to prevent a tap-in from the Swansea defender. Dyer also dribbled past Monreal in the 57th but his cross was then intercepted by Cech. Monreal will turn 32 in a few weeks and his declining pace no longer allows him to recover from positional mistakes. The Spaniard was out of position in the 27th when the Swans hit Arsenal on the fast break. It took a clearance from Elneny to prevent Clucas from scoring. Monreal then killed a counterattack with a cynical foul on Naughton in the 67th.

To make matters worse, Monreal was involved in Swansea’s last two goals. Cech was credited with an error for his poor clearance that led to Ayew’s goal in the 61st. But Monreal was just as guilty for letting the ball roll out of play. That was really poor decision-making from Monreal. Why would you invite pressure near the Arsenal goal? As you can see on the screen capture below, Monreal had plenty of time to slip the ball to Cech.

Swansea M61a editedMonreal could have played a safe back pass to Cech. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Once Ayew was in a position to intercept Monreal’s pass to Cech, the Spaniard could have picked out Xhaka instead. See the screen capture below. Then the throw-in was a complete mess. Monreal made a poor throw toward Mustafi, who was under pressure and played the ball back to Cech with his first touch. Surrounded by 3 Swans, Cech panicked and missed his clearance. The ball rolled toward Ayew, who swept it into the net for a 2-1 lead.

Swansea M61b editedXhaka was a safe passing option that Monreal ignored. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

For the last goal, Monreal gave away the ball with a botched clearance in the 86th. Carroll got hold of the ball to feed Ayew, who rounded Mustafi to square the ball back for Clucas. The Swansea winger beat Bellerin and Koscielny to the ball to shoot past Cech from close range.

Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness

   Mustafi’s performance was a mixed bag. He cleared a dangerous cross from Clucas in the fourth minute and made a crucial block to deflect Ayew’s goal attempt in the seventh. But he’s not a commanding presence at the back. Mustafi won 0 of 6 tackles, according to Squawka. He also offered a scoring chance to Dyer with a poor header in the 70th. Dyer had just Cech to beat but somehow missed the target from 12 yards.

Again, the Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfield. Ramsey and Xhaka won 0 tackle. Ramsey lacked a bit of sharpness and had 3 turnovers, while Xhaka showed his lack of defensive awareness. Both were caught up front in the 15th as Fer slipped a through ball to Clucas. The Swansea winger was bearing down on goal but was dispossessed by Elneny’s sliding tackle.

The passivity of the Arsenal midfield played a key role in Swansea’s equalizer. Ozil put himself in trouble with a poor first touch before having his pass for Bellerin intercepted by Mawson, who played Clucas in. Making a run between Xhaka and Koscielny, Clucas beat Cech with a low strike. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Elneny failed to close down Mawson, giving the Swansea defender plenty of time to deliver a perfect final ball.

Swansea M34a editedElneny fails to press Mawson while Xhaka is on the right side of Clucas. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Xhaka was smart enough to cover Bellerin but his poor defensive awareness let him down on that play. He was initially on the right side of Clucas when Mawson had the ball. But he ended up on the wrong side of the Swansea winger when Mawson made the pass. By allowing Clucas to make that inside run, Xhaka also left Koscielny in a 1v2 situation. See the screen capture below.

Swansea M34b editedXhaka is on the wrong side of Clucas. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   Up front, Lacazette struggled again in the centerforward role. The Swansea backline exposed his poor hold-up play. Lacazette took 0 shot and led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The France international clearly lacks the physicality to deal with a compact defense. He doesn’t have Giroud’s power to hold players off. And Lacazette’s weakness in the air also means his teammates are reluctant to feed him with crosses or long balls. Bellerin still made a cross in the 53rd but Van der Hoorn got ahead of Lacazette to clear the ball. Fernandez then beat Lacazette to the ball in the 73rd to head out Monreal’s cross.

Lacazette as a false nine?

   Some football fans will point at Aguero or Firmino as centerforwards who don’t have the physicality of a Giroud, Lukaku or Kane. But Aguero and Firmino both play in the false nine role while Lacazette is used as a traditional striker at Arsenal. Since his signing, I’ve kept saying that Lacazette is mostly a second striker who would struggle to lead the line in the Premier League. I’m not surprised that Lacazette led all players with 3 key passes because that’s what second strikers do: they are involved in the build-up besides scoring goals.

Ozil did his bit by providing the assist for Monreal. With a decent defense, it would have been enough to claim the 3 points. Ozil finished the game with 2 key passes and led all players with 121 passes. I still thought he lacked a bit of support in sharing the creative burden. Mkhitaryan’s cameo injected more creativity in the team but also made it slightly more vulnerable defensively. The Armenia international made a clever cross in the 79th but Giroud failed to anticipate and missed a tap-in opportunity.

Starting on the left wing, Iwobi showed some poor work-rate after his good performance against Chelsea in the League Cup. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 0 interception and just 1 block, according to Squawka. That’s not good enough at the top level. On the other hand, Iwobi’s offensive contribution was decent. He tested Fabianski with an angled strike in the 30th and created 2 chances. The Nigeria international still has this tendency to go for personal glory instead of feeding teammates in a better position. He opted for a long-range strike in the 65th while he could have picked out Monreal or Ramsey to his left.

Missing a dribbler

In the end, the Gunners missed one key weapon to crack the Swansea defense: dribbling. They only had 5 successful dribbles on Tuesday. The Citizens can rely Sane and Sterling to run at defenders when the passing game can’t make the difference. Likewise, the Blues have Hazard while the Reds have Salah and Mane. The Gunners lost their best dribbler by selling Oxlade-Chamberlain last summer. We no longer have that kind of profile in the current squad. Nketiah and Nelson have great dribbling skills, but they are just prospects at this stage of their career and therefore unlikely to have an immediate impact in the Premier League.

The January transfer window closed on Wednesday night as the Gunners were more busy than usual in the transfer market. They signed Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund for £56 million (a club record fee), extended Ozil’s contract, sold Giroud to Chelsea, and let Debuchy join Saint-Etienne on a free transfer.

If we analyze the transfer window from a tactical viewpoint, Aubameyang and Lacazette are replacing Giroud and Sanchez for goals while Mkhitaryan is replacing Cazorla for creativity. It’s a step in the right direction but not enough to turn Arsenal into a contender or even improve the club’s chances of a Top 4 finish.

The attacking stats are OK: the Gunners have scored more goals than Chelsea and only 3 fewer than Spurs and Manchester United. On the other hand, the defensive stats are a disaster: the Gunners have conceded 34 goals from 25 league games, the same total as Brighton and West Brom, which are both fighting relegation. By contrast, Manchester City and United have only conceded 18 goals each. Tuesday’s loss showed that Arsenal must sign at least a defensive midfielder, a centerback and a leftback to have a shot at a Top 4 finish next season. Elneny and Xhaka can’t protect the defense, Koscielny and Monreal are past their prime, and Kolasinac has disappointed in the fullback position.

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

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

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace

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

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

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

End of Lacazette’s goal drought

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

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

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

Nelson’s Premier League debut

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

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

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

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace Iwobi edited

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

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

Wilshere’s high turnover rate

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

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

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

Koscielny’s reading of the game

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

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

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

Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Gunners salvage 2-2 draw despite erratic defending

In Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea, the Gunners got a foretaste of what their defense could look like next season. Injuries to Monreal and Koscielny led Wenger to start Mustafi, Chambers and Holding in the back three. And the result on the pitch wasn’t pretty. The Blues could have won by a big margin if Cech had not pulled off a couple of outstanding saves and if Morata had not missed some big chances.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 1-1 at the Hawthorns on Sunday with Holding, Maitland-Niles and Ozil replacing Koscielny, Kolasinac and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Both teams used 3-5-2 formations which favored a lot of end-to-end plays. The Blues were the better team, creating 14 chances to just 6 for the Gunners, according to Squawka.

Defensively, Arsenal’s back three was all over the place. Mustafi is not an organizer like Mertesacker and he doesn’t absorb pressure like Koscielny. In the role of the sweeper, Mustafi failed to chaperone Chambers and Holding. There have been some cases of pub defending this season because of poor focus or poor decision-making, but the level of panic and disorganization reached on Wednesday was a first.

Chambers was again the weak link at the back, winning only 23% of his duels according to the club’s website. He’s a decent player for an average club but not good enough to start for Arsenal or any team chasing a Champions League spot. Chambers got off to a bad start with a poor challenge on Alonso in the second minute. He was then dispossessed in dangerous areas in the 13th and 79th and gave the ball away in the 28th.

His lack of pace was also exposed a couple of times. Morata made a run in behind Chambers in the 14th to be clean through on goal but missed the target from 12 yards. Then Hazard outpaced Chambers in the 50th to fire a diagonal strike that Cech saved with his leg. Chambers was again tortured by Morata in the 70th. Chasing a through ball from Fabregas, Morata bullied and held off Chambers but his chip attempt sailed wide.

Chambers’ passivity

I don’t think Chambers understands the difference between a back four and a back three. While Koscielny and Monreal are pro-active wide centerbacks, Chambers is too passive for such a position. Chambers made 0 interception and 0 block whereas Holding and Mustafi made 5 interceptions and 2 blocks each, according to Squawka.

It was quite telling that Mustafi and Chambers had a heated argument in the 14th after Chambers stopped chasing Morata, hoping that Mustafi would cover him. Mustafi was so frustrated by Chambers’ passivity that he tried to compensate and too often dived in. That’s why Mustafi was out of position when Chelsea had chances in the 50th and 70th.

The Blues exploited the mess in the Arsenal defense by sending long balls. Morata received a long ball from Cahill in the 76th to feed Hazard, who played the ball back to Morata. Holding was out of position on that play while Mustafi was outpaced by Morata, whose cross was intercepted by Cech. Chelsea nearly scored the winner in stoppage time. Morata made a run in behind Mustafi to bear down on goal but was denied by Cech. Zappacosta pounced on the rebound only to rattle the bar.

When Koscielny retires, I’m not sure Mustafi will be the right person to marshal the defense. Mustafi gave away some cheap free kicks with silly fouls on Morata in the eighth minute and Hazard in the 57th. He also lost two key duels inside the area. Morata got ahead of Mustafi in the 15th but couldn’t convert Moses’ cross. Then Alonso ghosted past Mustafi in the 84th to tap in Zappacosta’s cross for a 2-1 lead.

Lack of protection from the midfield

Of the 3 centerbacks, only Holding did OK. He won 71% of his duels, compared to 50% for Mustafi. At 22, Holding will need to learn faster because he’s still too raw. He was lucky not to get a yellow card in the 48th for a cynical foul on Morata. Five minutes later, Holding finally got booked for a late challenge on Fabregas. Holding will have to get rid of his naivety. He was pulled out of position by Hazard in the 27th when Bakayoko tested Cech with a high shot. His reading of the game is also a concern. Bakayoko made runs in behind Holding in the 34th and 69th while chasing long balls from Fabregas.

The Gunners are paying the price for their failure to sign good centerbacks in the past few years. Paulista never really convinced and was therefore sold to Valencia last summer. Holding is a work in progress while Chambers will never be a top centerback because of his lack of pace and poor ability to win duels. Mustafi is still a big question mark and hasn’t performed yet at the level of a Koscielny in his prime.

Arsenal’s defensive frailties are made more obvious by the lack of protection provided by the midfield. Fabregas had so much freedom on Wednesday that he racked up 6 key passes before Drinkwater replaced him in the 71st. Fabregas often dropped back to escape marking and deliver pinpoint long balls. In that kind of situation, a midfielder or a forward must mark him. But neither the manager nor the players could find the solution.

Fabregas’ performance showed how much the Gunners missed Ramsey in midfield. Xhaka and Wilshere simply can’t match Ramsey’s mobility and work-rate. Wilshere opened the scoring in the 63rd with a powerful strike into the top corner, but his defensive contribution was poor: he won 0 tackle, made 0 interception and 0 block. In fact, Chelsea completely outplayed Arsenal in midfield. Kante, Bakayoko and Fabregas combined to win 7 of 16 tackles and make 10 interceptions and 7 blocks, according to Squawka. By contrast, Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil combined to win 2 of 9 tackles and make 2 interceptions and 3 blocks.

A soft penalty

In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 3 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. Ozil fired a long-range strike that Courtois turned around the post in the 39th. He also added more fluency in the team’s passing game and was able to find pockets of space in a compact Chelsea defense. But the comparison with Fabregas showed again Ozil’s main weakness in those tight games. The Germany playmaker won’t fight for the ball like Fabregas. He will also struggle offensively when under pressure. Kante dispossessed Ozil on the stroke of halftime to launch a counterattack.

On the wings, Bellerin and Maitland-Niles were among Arsenal’s best performers with Cech, although they will probably be remembered for their involvement in Chelsea’s goals. Bellerin showed poor decision-making in the 66th when Hazard’s cross was blocked. The Spaniard thought he could beat Hazard to the loose ball but ended up kicking his boot. It was a soft foul and Hazard definitely exaggerated contact. But the golden rule is that when you make a challenge inside the box, you have to win the ball. And Bellerin didn’t. Hazard sent Cech the wrong way to level the game. Wenger called the penalty a “farcical” decision. I can understand the manager’s frustration. Bellerin has been denied two penalties that they were more obvious this season. The Spaniard made amends in stoppage time by pouncing on a poor clearance from the Chelsea defense to volley into the far corner.

Besides that late goal, Bellerin had 2 successful dribbles out of 3, made 1 interception, and won 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels, according to Squawka. At 20, Maitland-Niles looked very mature against Chelsea. He led Arsenal players with 4 blocks and 3 successful dribbles out of 4. Maitland-Niles also created a chance, won 75% of his duels and 3 of 6 tackles, according to the club’s website.

Poor final ball

Some fans keep complaining about Maitland-Niles being played out of position, but the problem is that he looks more solid at left wingback than Kolasinac. When Bakayoko controlled a long ball from Fabregas in the 69th, Maitland-Niles covered Holding and dispossessed the Chelsea midfielder just before he could pull the trigger. Does anybody seriously think that Kolasinac would have covered Holding on that play? Maitland-Niles’ only blemish in the first half came in the 15th when he failed to stop a cross from Moses. Morata got ahead of Mustafi but couldn’t make contact with the ball, allowing Cech to gather it. Conte acknowledged Moses’ ineffectiveness and replaced him with Zappacosta in the 56th. With a sharp turn in the 84th, Zappacosta created a bit of space for a cross that Alonso converted for a 2-1 lead. What could Maitland-Niles have done better on that play? Maybe guess that Zappacosta’s initial move to cut inside was just a bluff.

Chelsea played 3 games in a 9-day span while Arsenal played 3 games in a 7-day span, so I wasn’t surprised that the Blues created more chances. A relative lack of freshness could help explain the poor quality of the Gunners’ final ball: Sanchez overhit his cross for Ozil in the 10th, Maitland-Niles missed his cross in the 13th, and Wilshere overhit his pass for Ozil in the 27th.

Up front, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, leading all players with 9 turnovers, while Morata had just 5 turnovers according to whoscored.com. However, Lacazette worked hard, making 1 interception and winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. Despite skipping a winter break for the first time in his career, Lacazette still managed to have 3 of 3 shots on target. The France international took a pass from Ozil in the 23rd and rolled away from Cahill to hit a low strike that Courtois palmed away. Lacazette then benefited from a lucky bounce in the 52nd but couldn’t get the ball out of his feet quickly enough and was denied by the Chelsea goalkeeper. His last chance came in the 64th. Sanchez found Lacazette, whose angled shot deflected off Azpilicueta before being tipped around the post by Courtois. No big miss like Morata but a golden chance that should have found the net in the 52nd.

Bleak Top 4 chances

How do you recognize great players? Even when they have an off day, they can still be able of one moment of magic. Sanchez wasn’t sharp on Wednesday, having 1 of 4 shots on target and winning only 22% of his duels and 0 of 3 tackles. But he nearly opened the scoring in the 16th with a snapshot that Courtois diverted onto his near post. The ball ricocheted off the far post before gently rolling back toward Courtois. In the second half, Sanchez could only head wide a cross from Maitland-Niles.

I have mixed feelings after this game. It’s a decent result if we consider the number of injuries (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Giroud) and the unfavorable schedule. But a quick look at the standings shows that Arsenal’s Top 4 chances are weak. The Gunners trail Chelsea by 7 points and Liverpool by 5. It basically means that Arsenal must put together a winning run while hoping for a slip from Chelsea or Liverpool. I expect the manager to rest his key players when the Gunners face Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup on Sunday. Then he might field a makeshift team for the League Cup game against Chelsea on Wednesday.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: Sanchez nets twice in 3-2 win

Sanchez might leave the club next month but he made a significant contribution on Thursday by scoring two goals in the 3-2 win over Crystal Palace as the Gunners stayed in the Top 4 race, 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 3-3 with Liverpool a week ago with Kolasinac, Mustafi and Chambers replacing Maitland-Niles, Monreal and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The manager also made a tactical change with a switch from the 4-3-3 formation to a 3-4-3 system. Palace played with 10 men behind the ball in the first half and the game looked similar to recent encounters with Newcastle, West Ham and Southampton. The Eagles then showed more aggression and ambition in the second half and came close to earning a draw.

Zaha was the main source of trouble for the Arsenal defense. He started as a second striker and caused more damage when Hodgson moved him to the left wing by sending on Sako for the ineffective Loftus-Cheek in the 70th minute. Wenger also put his team in trouble by replacing Lacazette with Coquelin in the 75th. The move basically invited pressure since the Gunners no longer had an outlet up front. Welbeck would have been a better option because he’s stronger in the air than Lacazette and works his socks off to press high up the pitch.

Sanchez gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead in the 63rd by pouncing on a pass from Lacazette to fire an angled strike into the bottom corner. Speroni was well positioned at the near post, but the shot simply had too much power for the Palace goalkeeper. Three minutes later, Sanchez beat the offside trap to control a ball over the top from Wilshere with his thigh before flicking the ball past Speroni for a 3-1 lead.

Lacazette’s goal drought

The Chile striker produced a good all-around performance. He led all players with 5 successful dribbles and created several plays despite making only 2 key passes. Sanchez slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was saved by Speroni in the 30th. He fed Ozil again in the 39th but the Germany playmaker preferred to pick out Lacazette on the right wing instead of taking his chance. Bellerin then met a cross from Sanchez in the 47th, but a heavy first touch allowed Speroni to gather the ball. Sanchez’s hyperactivity also generated 12 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, but the return was worth the risk in the end.

Lacazette didn’t score but he was involved in 2 goals. The France international capitalized on a recycled free kick in the 25th to fire an angled strike that Speroni palmed into the path of Mustafi, who converted the rebound with a first-time effort to open the scoring. Then Lacazette took advantage of a recycled corner in the 63rd to tee up Sanchez for Arsenal’s second goal. Decent service is still an issue for Lacazette, especially against teams parking the bus. He managed to create space against 3 defenders in the 35th only to drag his shot wide. Ramsey is the Gunner who understands really well Lacazette’s game. The absence of the Wales midfielder is indirectly impacting the productivity of Lacazette, who hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game.

Starting on the right wing, Ozil had 4 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. In the 3-4-3 formation, Ozil doesn’t shine as much as in the 4-3-3 system for the simple reason that the team sometimes needs him to finish off plays as a second striker. Ozil was denied by Speroni in the 30th and shot over the bar in the 70th after an average final ball from Kolasinac. To his credit, Ozil showed decent work-rate by making 2 tackles and even closing down Zaha on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 45th.

Bambi on ice

In midfield, Wilshere showed his technical quality with a spectacular assist for Sanchez, who acknowledged the gift by pointing at the England international after scoring. Wilshere led all starters with a passing accuracy of 93.8%, according to whoscored.com. As he is maturing, Wilshere looks like the natural replacement for Cazorla in the deep-lying playmaker role. Ozil’s probable departure means that it is crucial for the club to extend Wilshere’s contract: Wilshere is one of the few creative midfielders in the squad with Ozil and Cazorla. As a bonus, he’s also a homegrown player.

The partnership formed by Xhaka and Wilshere is OK against average sides but it doesn’t provide much protection to the defense against the top teams. Neither Xhaka nor Wilshere is a natural ballwinner. Xhaka’s lack of mobility is obviously an issue. With a sharp turn, Milivojevic made Xhaka look like Bambi on ice in the 82nd. Xhaka was also late in the 15th to block Cabaye’s low drive, which sailed wide.

Arsenal and Palace had 16 shots each. What made the difference was the Gunners’ shooting accuracy with 9 shots on target to just 2 for the Eagles. In the wingback position, Bellerin’s performance was a mixed bag. Bellerin led all players by winning 5 tackles but his passing accuracy also dipped to 74.5%, the lowest percentage for any outfield players, according to whoscored.com. The Spaniard proved a threat in the final third but was let down by his final ball. He sent a cross straight to Speroni in the 18th and had a pass blocked inside the area in the 33rd. On a more positive note, Bellerin tested Speroni with a half-volley in the 81st.

Kolasinac & Chambers having a poor game

Zaha’s shift to the left wing in the second half exposed the poor coordination between Bellerin and Chambers. Zaha outmuscled Bellerin to head Sako’s cross wide in the 83rd. The Palace winger then ghosted past Bellerin in the 85th to pull the ball back for Benteke but Mustafi cleared the danger. A poor clearance from Bellerin in the 88th gave the Eagles another scoring chance. Schlupp squared the ball back to Sako, whose effort got blocked by Koscielny.

On the opposite wing, Kolasinac had a poor game. He won only 22.2% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international gave away a dangerous free kick by holding Townsend in the 41st. And he failed to stop a dangerous cross from Sako in the 83rd.

The Gunners signed Kolasinac because Monreal and Gibbs dealt poorly with crosses. If Kolasinac can’t do better, then it makes complete sense to give Maitland-Niles a chance at leftback. Kolasinac’s poor defensive awareness is indeed becoming a growing concern. He failed to identify the danger when Palace equalized in the 49th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Koscielny and Kolasinac were left in a 2v2 situation with Benteke and Townsend because Mustafi was protecting the near post. While Koscielny was marking Benteke, Kolasinac gave Townsend too much space at the far post.

Crystal Palace M49aedKolasinac not marking Townsend before Zaha’s cross. (Photo credit: Sky)

When Townsend met Zaha’s cross, Kolasinac was too far to make a decent block. See the screen capture below. From 14 yards, Townsend guided the ball into the bottom corner to make it 1-1.

Crystal Palace M49bed Kolasinac too far to block Townsend’s goal attempt. (Photo credit: Sky)

Kolasinac’s performance really makes the scouting department look bad. Chambers is another player recommended by the scouting department. The English defender also had a poor game. He was guilty on Tomsend’s equalizer as he failed to stop Zaha’s cross. Zaha, who led all players with 5 key passes, exposed Chambers’ lack of pace. Chambers even received a yellow card in the 29th for pulling back Zaha. The Ivory Coast dribbled past Chambers in the 13th but Bellerin covered his teammate and flicked the ball to safety. Chambers can thank his teammates for having his back. Zaha rounded Chambers in the 39th to make a cross but Koscielny cut it out. Mustafi then made a timely tackle on Zaha after a sloppy pass from Chambers led to a Palace counterattack in the 51st. And Kolasinac cleared a cross from Zaha, who had evaded Chambers’ marking in the 85th.

Doing better in away games

   I’m definitely not a fan of Chambers and I still don’t understand what the scouting department saw in him. I guess Chambers got the nod over Holding because he’s more conservative in his game while Holding sometimes dives in. The presence of a sweeper in a back three gives the right-sided and left-sided centerbacks more room for initiative whereas the two centerbacks in a back four have no room for error. In the end, Chambers played like a centerback in a back four, making only 1 interception compared to 3 for the more pro-active Koscielny. In the manager’s shoes, I would have played Bellerin in the back three with Maitland-Niles in the wingback position.

Mustafi was the only Arsenal defender who didn’t perform below par on Thursday. He won 2 of 4 tackles, blocked 2 shots, and broke the deadlock in the 25th by converting a rebound from a tight angle. His only blemish was a sloppy pass that led to a Palace counterattack in the 80th. By contrast, Koscielny looked his age, winning only 30.8% of his duels and allowing Tomkins to outjump him for the Eagles’ second goal.

The Gunners improved their record on the road with a third victory from 10 away games, but they will have to do much better if they want to finish in the Top 4. Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have already won at least 5 away games this season. Even Burnley, Watford and Leicester have racked up more points on the road than Arsenal.

I expect the manager to rotate and inject a bit of freshness in the starting lineup for the trip to West Brom on Sunday. Last season, the Gunners lost 3-1 at the Hawthorns, conceding two goals from set pieces, so they know where the threat will come from. Welbeck and Holding are stronger in the air than Lacazette and Chambers while Maitland-Niles could do better than Kolasinac to stop crosses. A victory is a necessity if the Gunners want to make up ground and preserve their chances of reaching the 76-point target.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Gunners overcome 2-goal deficit in 3-3 draw

The Gunners scored 3 goals in a five-minute span to draw 3-3 on Friday and stay 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. In a thrilling game, the poor defending from both teams also showed why they are not contending for the title. With 9 shots on target to 4, the Reds were the better team, making more interceptions, winning more tackles, and having more successful dribbles. The Gunners were so badly outplayed in the first half that they could have trailed 3-0 at halftime. But Arsenal capitalized on Liverpool’s drop in intensity after the second goal to take the lead against the run of play with some clinical finishing.

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

Wenger made no change to the side that edged Newcastle 1-0 a week ago. The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese again because there was no natural ballwinner in the trio formed by Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil to stop the Reds’ counterattacks. A poor corner kick from Sanchez in the 48th minute led to one of these fast breaks but Cech saved Salah’s low effort. Four minutes later, Maitland-Niles was dispossessed by Gomez near the Liverpool corner flag. Gomez slipped the ball to Milner, who found Salah. The Egypt forward ran 40 yards unchallenged and swapped passes with Firminho before curling a shot past Cech to make it 2-0. In the closing minutes, Wijnaldum also led a counterattack and fed Salah, who fired into the side-netting.

Friday’s game showed why the manager switched to a back three at the end of last season. The Arsenal defense simply doesn’t get any protection from the midfielders, who get bypassed too easily. With 3 centerbacks, you have some room for error if one of the centerbacks is pulled out of position. With a back four, if one the centerbacks is drawn out of position, the holding midfielder must cover him.

Liverpool used Firminho as a bait for the opening goal from a throw in the 26th. Milner sent a long ball toward Salah, whose cross deflected off Koscielny. The ball fell into the path of Coutinho, who beat Cech with a looping header. The Reds had a bit of luck for the first 2 goals since Salah’s curling shot also took a deflection off Mustafi. Still, that doesn’t excuse the Gunners’ defensive naivety.

Pulled out of position

For the opening goal, Monreal made the mistake of following Firminho deep into Liverpool’s territory. That left a huge space at the back with Koscielny and Bellerin in a 2v2 situation with Mane and Salah. See the screen capture below. In hindsight, either Wilshere or Xhaka should have marked Firminho on the throw-in. Maitland-Niles also had a lapse of concentration, looking at the ball and failing to spot Salah’s run in behind. Coutinho finished off the play by running into the space created by Firminho. Wilshere and Xhaka were on the same line as Coutinho when Milner hit the long ball but they lost the foot race with the Brazil midfielder. With a back three, the third centerback could have covered Maitland-Niles or won the header against Coutinho.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M26ed Bellerin and Koscielny in a 2v2 situation as Maitland-Niles and Monreal are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Reds pulled the same trick again in the 62nd. You have to question the Gunners’ lack of commitment since it started with a basic goal kick played short by Mignolet. The ball travelled down our right flank where Coutinho made a crossfield pass for an unmarked Mane, whose volley was parried by Cech. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Salah dropped back to pull Koscielny out of position. Mustafi was also drawn out of position as he covered Bellerin by marking Coutinho. That forced Maitland-Niles to drift inside and mark Firminho, leaving Mane completely free on the left flank. In hindsight, Xhaka or Wilshere should have closed down Salah on that play. When you have a forward playing between the lines, your holding midfielder must be able to play like a third centerback and mark that forward. I just don’t think that Xhaka or Wilshere can be that holding midfielder.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M62edMane, circled, is unmarked while Koscielny and Mustafi are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

While the opening goal resulted from the poor defensive contribution of the Arsenal midfielders, the last goal was pub defending at its best. Liverpool had a corner in the 71st and implemented gegenpressing after losing the ball. Salah dispossessed Sanchez and slipped the ball to Can, who had plenty of time to play Firminho in. From 16 yards, Firminho shot past Cech, who could only divert the powerful strike into his own net. As you can see on the screen capture below, no one closed down Can. When Wilshere reacted, it was already too late. But the worst part was the space given to Firminho. He was in front of goal and no one seemed to realize that he was the main danger. What were Koscielny and Mustafi doing?

Arsenal vs. Liverpool M71ed Firminho, circled, given acres of space by the Gunners. (Photo credit: Sky)

Monreal had a poor game. He won no tackle and made no interception in the first half. The Spaniard showed his limits as a centerback in a back four. His qualities are better suited for a back three because of his relative lack of pace and weakness in the air. He picked up a knock in the 34th and was replaced by Mustafi at halftime.

Bellerin’s good performance

For his return from injury, Mustafi produced a decent performance, winning 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for an Arsenal defender according to the club’s website. However, there are still question marks over his partnership with Koscielny. The France defender had 2 dodgy moments on Friday. He was unlucky for the opening goal. But his slip in the 44th nearly cost his team a second goal. Koscielny attempted to intercept Milner’s through ball for Mane and ended up diverting it into the path of Salah, who was denied by Cech. The rebound fell to Mane, who wasted the chance with a useless bicycle kick instead of controlling the ball to have a better shot. Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal are clearly past their prime, which means that 2 centerbacks should be signed next summer.

On the right flank, I thought Bellerin produced one of his best performances this season. He found the right balance between defense and offense, winning 4 tackles, keeping Mane quiet, and making 1 assist. The Spaniard could have scored the winner in the 78th but Mignolet tipped his angled strike over the bar. If we want to be really picky, maybe Bellerin could have done better on 2 plays. He failed to stop a cross from Coutinho in the 24th and Firminho outjumped Maitland-Niles at the far post to head wide. Then Firminho cut inside Bellerin in the 32nd to curl a shot inches over the bar.

On the left flank, Maitland-Niles did OK. Although he showed his inexperience on the opening goal, I thought he didn’t look ridiculous against Salah. Some supporters keep asking why is he played out of position. Maybe Maitland-Niles is a safer option at leftback than Kolasinac right now. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Wenger has converted a midfielder into a fullback with Lauren and Bellerin as successful examples.

Iwobi’s poor work-rate

In midfield, the Gunners can be outplayed by the big clubs because they have no world-class ballwinner. The Blues have Kante while Manchester City can rely on Fernandinho. We used to have Petit and Gilberto, two World Cup winners, but nowadays we must make do with Coquelin, Xhaka and Elneny. Not quite the same category.

Xhaka made it 2-2 with a 30-yard drive in the 56th, but you expect your holding midfielder to protect the defense first. His poor positional play showed on the counterattack that led to Liverpool’s second goal. Wilshere shone in the Europa League games and against Newcastle, but he had less time on the ball against Liverpool, which explains his 5 turnovers. I think deep-lying playmaker is his best position because he has less pace than Ozil, which is crucial in the final third. Ozil had no influence in the first half because the Reds were so dominant. The Germany playmaker showed his class in the second half by netting Arsenal’s third goal with a chip in the 58th. He could have scored the winner in stoppage time but Mignolet palmed his cross-shot over the bar.

In the front three, I was very frustrated by Iwobi’s poor work-rate. Robertson had so much freedom that he finished the game with 47 passes, the second most for a Liverpool player behind Milner according to whoscored.com. In the 15th, Iwobi completely forgot to close down Robertson, who made a dangerous cross that Koscielny eventually cleared. You would think that Iwobi understood the threat coming from Robertson’s delivery. But he didn’t. The Scottish leftback made a few more dangerous crosses, one that Cech caught in the 20th and another that led to a scoring chance for Firminho in the 22nd.

Rough evening for Lacazette

A few years ago, Waddle accused Walcott of having no football brain. How would you call a player who needs to see several dangerous crosses before understanding that he should close down his opponent? Iwobi also showed a lack of lucidity in the final third, sending passes straight into touch in the 21st, 25th and 33rd, and giving the ball away to Can in the 31st despite having 2 decent passing options. Iwobi got an assist for his sideways pass to Xhaka in the 56th but his end product was really poor. The Gunners can only afford to have one softie against the top teams, and that’s Ozil. Starting two softies like Ozil and Iwobi puts a big strain on the Arsenal defense. If Wenger wants to stick to a back four, playing Ozil or Ramsey on the right wing would make more sense.

On the left wing, Sanchez had an anonymous first half before coming to life in the second. Sanchez cut the deficit to 2-1 by heading home Bellerin’s cross in the 53rd. He also set up Xhaka for a shot that missed the target in the 61st and almost scored the winner with a low strike that lacked power to beat Mignolet in the 83rd. The Chile striker led all players with 3 key passes but also had 5 turnovers, including one that led to Liverpool’s equalizer. Even at 90% of his potential, Sanchez will still give you more end product than Welbeck or Iwobi.

Up front, it was a rough evening for Lacazette. Since the start of the season, I’ve always said that Lacazette would be more comfortable in the role of a second striker than as a centerforward because the Premier League is more physical than the French league where he used to play. Lacazette looked isolated in the first half and got no service because his teammates didn’t see his runs or had not enough time to make the pass.

Poor away form

Hitting long balls is the easiest way to evade a high press. Unfortunately, Lacazette is not Giroud. Liverpool centerbacks Lovren and Klavan exposed Lacazette’s weakness in the air. Lacazette is usually tidy in possession but he was dispossessed 5 times on Friday because of Liverpool’s pressing game. Despite the lack of support and opportunities, Lacazette worked hard for the team and played Ozil in with a clever backheel flick for Arsenal’s third goal.

Lacazette’s lack of physicality might not be an obstacle to lead the line. But he will have to tweak his game a bit. If you look at the top teams, you basically see two types of centerforwards. Morata, Lukaku, Ibrahimovic and Kane are strong in the air and can hold the ball up, while Firmino and Aguero play more like false nines, dropping back to create space and link up play. The Gunners haven’t optimally used Lacazette’s potential yet.

A draw is a decent result knowing that Arsenal lost both league games against Liverpool last season. The Gunners will next visit Crystal Palace on Thursday and West Brom on Sunday before hosting Chelsea on Jan. 3. They will need to improve their away form if they want to finish in the Top 4. The Gunners have only won 2 away games this season while Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have won at least 5 away games. Even Leicester and Watford have a better record on the road than Arsenal.