Tag Archives: Ozil

Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 5-1 disaster

The Champions League tie is dead after the Gunners suffered a humiliating 5-1 defeat in the first leg of their last-16 encounter with Bayern Munich on Wednesday. Arsenal managed to reach halftime with the score tied at 1-1 although the Bavarians were the better team. But the floodgates opened after Koscielny picked up a hamstring injury in the 48th minute.

Bayern vs. Arsenal.jpg

Photo credit: Getty Images

The Gunners conceded 3 goals in a 10-minute span to trail 4-1 by the 63rd. The scoreline and the stats don’t lie: Bayern completely outplayed Arsenal, making 516 more passes, creating 14 more chances and hitting 17 more shots, according to the UEFA stats.

  1. Talent means nothing without hard work

Anybody who watched PSG’s 4-0 thrashing of Barcelona on Tuesday could see two similarities with Bayern’s 5-1 demolition of Arsenal. The Spanish side lost because of some poor work-rate and a soft midfield. A quick look at the last 3 goals shows those flaws. The Parisians capitalized on a turnover to take a 2-0 lead as Rabiot dispossessed Messi while Iniesta failed to close down Verratti. By contrast, PSG played the ball out from the back to score the third and fourth goals. Messi and Gomes failed to track Kurzawa for the third goal and Iniesta failed to challenge Di Maria. Then Cavani was able to make it 4-0 because Meunier easily skipped past Neymar before outpacing Iniesta.

  1. Arsenal’s work-rate is not good enough

The Gunners were not as lazy as Barcelona. According to the UEFA stats, the Bavarians ran 109.5 km compared to 108.1 km for Arsenal, which is better than the 105.1 km covered by Barcelona compared to 113.3 km for PSG. The Gunners raised their intensity, winning 18 tackles of 34 compared to 12 of 33 for Bayern, according to Squawka. But it wasn’t enough because Arsenal didn’t defend as a unit. Bayern did a better job at hunting in packs, making 55 ball recoveries compared to 46 for the English side.

The Bavarians love dominating ball possession. A smart way to unsettle them would have been to press high up the pitch like PSG did against Barcelona. Unfortunately, the Gunners were not able to coordinate their pressing efforts. Sanchez often showed signs of frustration because his teammates didn’t help him harry the Bayern defense.

The poor defensive contribution from the attacking players cost Arsenal two goals. Lahm made a cross for Lewandowski, who headed home for a 2-1 lead in the 53rd. Gibbs had to deal with both Robben and Lahm on that play because Iwobi failed to track Lahm. Iwobi was also late for a block attempt in the 15th but Ospina stopped Robben’s low drive. Then Alcantara easily skipped past Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 56th and slipped the ball to Alonso, who was not closed down by Sanchez. With plenty of time on the ball, Alonso picked out Lewandowski, who played Alcantara in for Bayern’s third goal.

  1. Arsenal’s midfield is too soft

Coquelin, Xhaka and Ozil combined to win just 6 of 14 tackles compared to 9 of 18 for Alcantara, Vidal and Alonso. Surprisingly, Ozil put in a good shift, winning 4 of 6 tackles, more than any other Arsenal player. But Ozil couldn’t prevent Alonso and Vidal from dictating play because Coquelin sat too deep while Sanchez focused his pressing efforts on Martinez and Hummels.

Coquelin was the symbol of Arsenal’s softness. Vidal outmuscled the French midfielder in the eighth minute to fire a long-range strike that Ospina saved. Three minutes later, Robben cut inside Coquelin to open the scoring with a drive into the far corner. Coquelin was too slow to react and make a block on that play. He won none of the 3 tackles he made.

Oxlade-Chamberlain moved into central midfield when Giroud replaced Coquelin in the 77th. The England international showed his naivety by dribbling on the edge of his own box and losing possession to Kimmich in the 88th. The ball fell to Muller, who shot past Ospina to seal the win. The Ox led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, and had a passing accuracy of 61%, the lowest percentage among all the midfielders.

If we except Sanchez’s penalty, the Bavarians kept the Arsenal forwards quiet. Ozil and Xhaka ended up having the best chances from open play. In the 40th, the Ox cut the ball back for Xhaka, who volleyed straight at Neuer from 17 yards. On the stroke of halftime, Sanchez fed Ozil, whose angled strike was saved by Neuer. Ozil finished the game with only 1 key pass because the Gunners were starved of possession. Somehow, Arsenal could have reached halftime with the lead against the run of play.

  1. A change of tactics implies a change of manager

The best way to beat Bayern is to implement a pressing game like PSG did against Barcelona on Tuesday or like Atletico Madrid did against the German side last season. Pochettino at Tottenham and Klopp at Liverpool have been able to impose that style of play in the Premier League. Unfortunately, the Gunners don’t have that defensive culture and it’s hard to see how the club could tactically change under Wenger.

The only time Arsenal recently relied on a pressing game to beat a big team was in the 3-0 win over Manchester United last season. It lasted just one half and was not as impressive as the pressing game used by Liverpool, Atletico Madrid or even PSG. Under Wenger, the Gunners prefer to absorb the pressure and hit the big teams on the fast break like in the 2-0 win over Bayern last season or the victories over Pellegrini’s Manchester City.

Another tactical issue is marking duties on set pieces. Alcantara capitalized on a goalmouth scramble from a corner to give Bayern a 4-1 lead with a low drive in the 63rd. He had plenty of time to control the ball and pull the trigger because no Gunner patrolled the edge of the box.

  1. The Gunners must anticipate life without Koscielny

The Arsenal defense completely disintegrated after Koscielny picked up a hamstring injury in the 48th and was replaced by Paulista. Koscielny had Lewandowski in his pocket and even earned a penalty by drawing a foul from the Poland striker in the 29th. His only mistake came in the 43rd when he was not tight to Lewandowski, who met a cross from Alaba to head over the bar. Koscielny won 3 of 3 tackles before leaving the pitch.

The France centerback will turn 32 this year. The staff will have to carefully monitor his fitness. Vidic led Manchester United to the Premier League title in 2013 but suddenly lost a step the following season at the age of 32. Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Paulista’s dodgy decision-making definitely prevent them from becoming the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense.

On paper, Mustafi could lead the back four, but his performance in Munich was a disappointment. He was booked in the 15th for a rash tackle on Alcantara. Then, Lewandowski outjumped Mustafi for Bayern’s second goal and Mustafi failed to spot Alcantara’s run for the third.

  1. Arsenal will need to look for a leftback this summer

Whether it’s Gibbs or Monreal, the Gunners have been highly vulnerable to crosses from the left flank this season. Ancelotti obviously spotted that weakness as Costa sometimes joined Lahm and Robben on that flank to provide numerical superiority.

Gibbs got the nod over Monreal on Wednesday and struggled to stop crosses from Lahm, who led all players with 4 key passes. The English fullback was very lucky not to get sent off in the 61st when Robben pounced on a rebound to hit an effort that Gibbs deflected out with his hand. It looked worse than Hull midfielder Clucas’ deliberate handball. Basically, it should have been a red card and a penalty.

  1. Ospina has been brilliant this season

The Colombia goalkeeper saved Arsenal from defeat against PSG in the group stage and made 6 saves against Bayern to prevent a more embarrassing loss. Some were routine saves but three were really good saves. He kept out Martinez’s header with a reflex save in the 63rd, tipped Robben’s strike over the bar in the 81st and turned Costa’s curling shot around the post in the 82nd.

  1. Groundhog Day is no surprise

We should have expected that outcome since the Bavarians have better players than Arsenal in almost every position. The German side has also reached at least the semifinals in the past 5 seasons while the Gunners have been knocked out in the last 16 in the past 6 seasons. The tie is dead after the first leg just like in 2013 when Bayern won 3-1 in London and three years ago when the Bavarians won 2-0 at the Emirates stadium.

Arsenal vs. Hull: Gunners restore confidence with 2-0 win

The Gunners stopped the bleeding by defeating Hull 2-0 on Saturday to stay in the Top 4 of the Premier League. It was an average performance but restoring a bit of confidence was crucial after the recent losses to Watford and Chelsea.

arsenal-vs-hull

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

Arsenal created very little as Hull goalkeeper Jakupovic only made 3 saves compared to 4 for Cech. In fact, the Tigers were so well organized defensively that the Gunners couldn’t produce any through ball. Last month, Arsenal’s desire against weak sides like Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford was questionable. The Gunners showed a bit more commitment this time as they won more duels and more tackles than the visitors (15 tackles to 12 according to Squawka and 53.8% of the duels to 46.2% according to the club’s website).

However, what really made the difference was Sanchez and two handballs. Sanchez opened the scoring in the 34th minute by pouncing on a rebound for a close-range effort that Jakupovic deflected onto the Chile striker’s hand and the ball trickled into the net. Obviously, it was an unintentional handball since Sanchez had no time to react. But the Tigers were clearly frustrated by the referee’s decision to let the goal stand because the ball would have not found the net without Sanchez’s hand.

In stoppage time, Sanchez sealed the win by converting a penalty after Clucas received a red card for handling Perez’s goalbound header. Sanchez initially capitalized on a counterattack to round Jakupovic and cross the ball for Perez at the far post. It was interesting to see Jakupovic stay in the middle of the net when Sanchez took his penalty kick. I guess the Hull goalkeeper expected a Panenka from Sanchez.

One-man show

Sanchez is now the top scorer in the Premier League with 17 goals. If you add his 8 league assists, there’s no doubt that the team heavily depends on one player this season. Not as badly as when Van Persie scored 30 league goals in the 2011-12 season, but not far. The game sometimes looks like a one-man show. Sanchez had 4 of 6 shots on target, 3 key passes, 6 turnovers, and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 3 tackles and had 4 successful dribbles out of 5.

Wenger has tweaked Arsenal’s style of play this season to optimize Sanchez’s performance. Honestly, I’m not a big fan. Shifting Sanchez to the centerforward position creates space for Walcott and Ozil to run into. But it can also slow down play as Sanchez sometimes takes too many touches before releasing the ball and his hold-up play is poor. Sanchez dragged a 12-yard shot wide in the 16th and wasted another chance in the 27th by releasing Ozil down the left wing instead of feeding the onrushing Bellerin. He was harshly booked for diving in the 76th as TV replays showed Ranocchia seemed to clip his leg.

I was a bit surprised that the manager only made one change to the side that lost 3-1 to Chelsea a week ago with Gibbs replacing Monreal in the starting lineup. Walcott, Ozil and Iwobi had a poor work-rate at Stamford Bridge. Yet, Wenger did not give a chance to Perez, Welbeck or Giroud to start on Saturday.

The Watford ghost

Welbeck and Perez came off the bench to replace Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 82nd while Giroud was an unused substitute. Walcott and Iwobi did very little to justify the manager’s choices. Walcott and Iwobi had no key pass and no interception. Iwobi made 2 blocks and no tackle while Walcott made 1 block and won just 1 of 4 tackles. Their defensive awareness is still an issue. Markovic dispossessed Iwobi in the ninth minute to make a teasing cross for Niasse, who couldn’t connect with the ball. Four minutes later, in a play similar to Chelsea’s opening goal, Walcott failed to track Grosicki as Bellerin was pulled out of position by a run from Clucas. Grosicki crossed the ball for Niasse, whose header was tipped over the bar by Cech. Hull could have led 2-0 after 13 minutes just like Watford did.

In terms of end product, Walcott could only muster a tame low strike in the 63rd while Iwobi curled a shot over the bar in the 60th. Iwobi is only 20 years old, so it’s normal for him to struggle with consistency. Right now, Iwobi really looks like the youngster who hit a poor run of form in the first half of the season. What really puzzles me is why Perez hasn’t enjoyed more playing time. The Spaniard has great passing skills and a tremendous work-rate for a forward.

Ozil proved the biggest disappointment at the Emirates stadium. He made no tackle, no interception, no block, and had 6 turnovers, tied with Sanchez for the most by an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy is usually close to 90% but it dropped to 75.6% against Hull, a lower percentage than Iwobi, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott.

A younger version of Cazorla

The Germany playmaker is considered an automatic starter by Wenger but his current performances don’t justify that status. Ozil volleyed over the bar a cross from Sanchez in the 25th and wasted another chance with a poor touch in the 85th. He last scored in the league against Stoke in mid-October and his last assist came from a set-piece against Burnley on Jan. 22.

If the manager keeps his faith in Ozil for the Champions League match against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, he will have to take into account the poor defensive contribution from his highest paid player. In the No. 10 role, Ozil would give a lot of maneuvering room to Xabi Alonso. On a wing, Ozil wouldn’t track Lahm’s dangerous runs.

Besides Sanchez’s two goals, the main positive from Saturday’s game was the Ox’s solid performance in central midfield. At 23, the Ox is finally fulfilling his potential, almost looking like a younger version of Cazorla. He had no turnover and won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage of all the starting midfielders according to the club’s website. The Ox also had 1 key pass, 5 successful dribbles out of 5, and a decent distribution with 4 accurate long balls out of 10. Obviously, the Ox still has room to improve his defensive reading of the game as he made no interception and won only 1 of 5 tackles, according to Squawka. He was alert enough to cover Bellerin in the 30th and block a dangerous cross from Grosicki. The England international moved to the right wing when Elneny replaced Walcott in the 69th.

Hull targeting the fullbacks

Coquelin did most of the heavy lifting in midfield, winning 5 of 7 tackles and making 3 interceptions. There was a minor scare in the second minute when Coquelin allowed a Hull counterattack by diving in and missing the ball. It took a timely tackle from Koscielny on Grosicki to end the threat. Coquelin still has a tendency to give away cheap free kicks like when he fouled Markovic in the 40th. Those silly fouls could cost dearly against Bayern Munich.

At the back, the defenders still bore the scars of the losses to Watford and Chelsea as they seemed shaky at times. Koscielny had a poor game by his own standards, winning only 3 of 5 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels, compared to 4 of 4 tackles and 5 of 7 aerial duels for Mustafi. Markovic capitalized on an Iwobi turnover in the 51st to outpace Koscielny and make a cross for Niasse, who escaped Mustafi’s marking and chested the ball down to test Cech with a powerful strike. Three minutes later, Mustafi collided with Koscielny as Niasse headed the ball toward Markovic, who was fouled by Gibbs. Koscielny should have let Mustafi challenge for the ball on that play, while Gibbs was lucky to only get a yellow card as the last defender. I assume the referee thought Gibbs made a genuine attempt to play the ball.

The Tigers tested the Arsenal defense by making numerous crosses. They especially seemed to target the fullbacks. Markovic outjumped Gibbs in the 77th to meet a cross from Maguire, but Cech easily saved the tame header. Then Diomande got the better of Bellerin in the 86th but headed a corner over the bar. I was a bit surprised to see Bellerin in the starting lineup after the concussion he suffered against Chelsea. Hopefully, the medical staff took all the precautions. Bellerin played a one-two with the Ox in the 15th only to fire into the side-netting.

Filling Wenger’s shoes

There has been a lot of speculation about the manager’s future after the defeat at Stamford Bridge. I think the picture is pretty clear. The board won’t give Wenger a new contract if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4 because it would be the obvious sign that the club is regressing. Keeping Wenger at the club would create so much negativity among the fans that it could spill into the next season. Finding a younger manager with more energy and a new approach would be a wiser choice.

If the Gunners finish in the Top 4, the board has two options. The first option is based on the assumption that the board has already found a replacement. Wenger would step down at the end of this season and stay at the club either as a special advisor or sporting director to guide the new manager. I felt it was a mistake from Manchester United not to keep Ferguson involved when Moyes took over at Old Trafford. Ferguson didn’t want to be seen as interfering in Moyes’ work, but in the end the transition proved too brutal.

The second option is based on the assumption that the board hasn’t found the right match yet. In that case, the board could extend Wenger’s contract by a year or two to get more time in the search for his successor. It’s about doing the right thing and not having a new manager just for the sake of changing. There are very few managers who can fill Wenger’s shoes. His successor must be good at developing youngsters, must have some significant experience of European football, and must have a shrewd transfer policy because Arsenal can’t compete financially with the two Manchesters.

I disagree with what the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade is doing. It doesn’t make sense to bring negative banners inside the stadium when there are still 3 months of competition left. Making the atmosphere toxic and putting more pressure on the squad is like scoring an own goal. If the Gunners do their best and still finish outside the Top 4, then fair enough, Wenger should go. But the fans shouldn’t impact the outcome of games by instilling fear and anxiety in the players. Wenger’s departure should be a fair process decided on the pitch and not from the stands.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Now it’s all hands on deck to save season after 3-1 loss

Saturday’s 3-1 loss at Stamford Bridge confirmed that the title race is over for the Gunners as they trail Chelsea by 12 points in the Premier League. The chase for a Champions League spot could quickly turn into a mad scramble if the two Manchester clubs win on Sunday.

chelsea-vs-arsenal

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

Arsenal enjoyed 59% of ball possession because the Blues were happy to sit back and hit the visitors on the fast break. A quick look at a few stats may give the impression that it was an even contest. Chelsea mustered 6 shots on target compared to 5 for the Gunners. According to Squawka, the Blues won 15 of 45 tackles while Arsenal won 19 of 48. And according to the club’s website, the Gunners won 52.8% of their duels compared to 47.2% for Chelsea. So where should we look to understand why Arsenal trailed 3-0 in the second half?

First, we should notice that Chelsea capitalized on turnovers to score 3 goals. The Blues are basically a counterattacking team. To kickstart their transition game, they rely on interceptions. Chelsea made 17 interceptions compared to 10 for the Gunners, which helps explain why the Blues created 10 chances compared to 7 for Arsenal.

Second, Chelsea’s attacking players worked harder than their Arsenal counterparts. Costa, Hazard and Pedro combined to make 13 tackles, 4 interceptions and 3 blocks compared to 11 tackles, 0 interception and 1 block for Sanchez, Ozil, Iwobi and Walcott. That poor defensive contribution from the attacking players is the main reason why Arsenal couldn’t keep a compact shape.

Working as a unit

The stats are telling us that Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t fare too poorly compared to Kante and Matic. Coquelin and the Ox combined to win 5 of 14 tackles and make 1 interception and 9 blocks, while Kante and Matic combined to win 5 of 15 tackles and make 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. So why did we feel like the Gunners were outplayed in midfield?

The explanation is pretty simple. Arsenal didn’t work as a unit. When the Ox had the ball in the 21st minute, he was quickly surrounded by 3 Blues and lost possession as Coquelin and Ozil failed to come to his rescue. Coquelin made 10 tackles but won only 2 of them because he was swamped in midfield.

Many fans blamed Wenger’s team selection for the 2-1 defeat against Watford. The manager made three changes to the side that lost last Tuesday with Bellerin, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott replacing Paulista, Ramsey and Giroud in the starting lineup. The performance at Stamford Bridge showed that it’s really the team’s attitude that is preventing Arsenal from working as a unit. The Gunners have already conceded 28 league goals, 11 more than Chelsea. They are on pace to finish the season with 44 goals allowed, 8 more than in the previous campaign.

Improving defensive awareness

Chelsea’s opening goal in the 13th showed the lack of defensive awareness from the wingers. Some poor allocation of resources led Ozil, Iwobi and the Ox to surround Kante while leaving Moses unmarked on our left flank. In a perfect world, Ozil would have tracked Moses, Monreal would have marked Pedro, Mustafi would have kept an eye on Costa, and Koscielny would have been the sweeper (I initially thought Iwobi was in charge of marking Moses, but it was in fact Ozil for the simple reason that Iwobi was playing in midfield while Ozil started on the left wing). See the screen capture below.

chelsea-01aedWhat should have been the marking duties when Hazard finds Moses. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

Ozil’s lapse of concentration completely changed the marking duties, forcing Monreal to close down Moses, Koscielny to mark Pedro, Mustafi to track Hazard and Bellerin to handle Costa. See the screen capture below. Obviously, Costa vs. Bellerin is a bad matchup in the air.

chelsea-02edOzil’s marking mistake forces 4 Gunners to adjust tactically. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

When Pedro is about to make the cross, Walcott is 15 yards away from Alonso, who potentially has a free volley. See the screen capture below. Pedro picks out Costa, who outjumps Bellerin to send a header crash against the bar. The rebound falls into the path of Alonso, who runs in front of Walcott to beat Bellerin to the ball and head into an empty net.

chelsea-03edWalcott neglecting his defensive duties. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)

You have to question Walcott’s professionalism on that play. Walcott lacked the desire to get ahead of Alonso for the rebound. The England international proved casual again in the 32nd when an unmarked Alonso squared the ball back for Pedro, whose first-time effort was spilled around the post by Cech.

Where’s the enforcer?

The second goal in the 53rd showed how Koscielny and Mustafi were badly exposed because of the poor protection provided by the midfielders. Hazard won a second ball and shrugged off Coquelin before toying with Koscielny to shoot past Cech. The way Hazard strolled from the halfway line to the Arsenal box speaks volumes about our soft midfield.

Arsenal used to boss the midfield at Highbury with Petit, Vieira and Gilberto. The Gunners have been missing that kind of enforcer since the move to the Emirates. Xhaka was supposed to be the answer to our midfield woes but he has struggled to curb his instincts, receiving 2 red cards and giving away 2 penalties in the Premier League.

Coquelin left Mustafi and Koscielny exposed a couple of times because he dived in and missed the ball. Mustafi was booked in the 23rd for crashing into Hazard while Koscielny was lucky to escape punishment in the 10th for a challenge from behind on Costa. Coquelin formed a great partnership with Cazorla in the past two seasons but I tend to think that Maitland-Niles is a more complementary option alongside the Ox, who won 68.8% of his duels, the highest percentage among the central midfielders according to the club’s website.

The Blues put the result beyond doubt in the 85th when Fabregas intercepted a sloppy pass from Cech to make it 3-0 with a lob. A clearance was obviously the safer option for Cech on that play.

Sanchez’s poor performance

Ozil often gets a free pass for his poor defensive contribution because of his ability to create chances. That kind of tactical gamble didn’t pay off against Chelsea as Ozil finished the game with only 2 key passes, the same number as the Ox who worked much harder. When Ozil makes no effort to win the ball back after losing possession, it can send a negative signal to his teammates. Why should they press and defend if Ozil, the highest paid player in the squad, is not doing it?

Sanchez is often praised for his work-rate but his performance on Saturday was really poor. He had no shot, no key pass, and was dispossessed 4 times. While Hazard and Pedro rose to the occasion for Chelsea, Ozil and Sanchez were outshone by the Ox, a second-choice player.

The Gunners had opportunities to level in the first half but were not as clinical as Chelsea. Ozil slipped a through ball to Walcott, who was let down by a poor first touch while making a run between Cahill and Luiz in the 35th. Then Paulista met a cross from the Ox for a free header in the 38th, but couldn’t beat Courtois from 8 yards. On the stroke of halftime, Ozil took a pass from Coquelin and cut inside to fire a low strike straight at Courtois.

Let’s get physical

Wenger replaced Coquelin with Giroud in the 65th and Walcott with Welbeck in the 69th. Welbeck headed a cross from Mustafi in the 78th to force a diving save from Courtois. In stoppage time, Giroud scored a consolation goal by heading a cross from Monreal into the bottom corner. The France striker was heavily criticized after his poor performance against Watford, but he got at Stamford Bridge the service he didn’t have last Tuesday.

Arsenal will need a strong performance against Hull next Saturday to prevent the atmosphere at the Emirates stadium from becoming toxic. You can bet the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade will be loudly heard if the Gunners can’t reach halftime with the lead. I think it would hurt the club if those fans call for the manager’s resignation. A wiser approach would be to wait for the last game of the season before staging any protest.

A finish outside the Top 4 would be the only scenario that would really put the board under pressure. Also, let’s remember that Manchester City and United may not finish ahead of Arsenal despite spending more money in the transfer window. Yet, Guardiola and Mourinho will still be in charge of their respective clubs next season.

The Tigers have probably seen how Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford created problems by turning the game into a physical contest. The Gunners should be mentally ready for a lot of duels. They will miss Xhaka through suspension and Ramsey through injury and maybe Bellerin, who suffered a concussion on the opening goal.

 

Arsenal vs. Watford: Title bid over after pathetic 2-1 loss

The Gunners had a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday to get back in the Premier League title race. A victory over Watford combined with Chelsea’s 1-1 draw at Liverpool would have narrowed the gap to 6 points. This was the perfect moment to make a statement. But Arsenal bottled it with an abject performance at the Emirates stadium, losing 2-1 to the Hornets to trail the Blues by 9 points in the standings. Even if the Gunners win at Stamford Bridge this Saturday, Chelsea will still have a six-point lead atop the league. That’s a massive gap knowing that Arsenal will have to face Liverpool, Tottenham and the two Manchesters in the next couple of months while the Blues are already done with two of those clubs.

arsenal-vs-watford

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

In the first half, Arsenal never looked like a team contending for the title. They didn’t create any chance and had no shot on target in what was arguably their worst performance of the season. It wasn’t a fitness issue since only Mustafi had started the FA Cup game against Southampton last Saturday. It’s just that the Hornets showed more hunger, making more interceptions (19 vs. 8) and more tackles (53 vs. 37) than Arsenal, according to Squawka. Anybody could see that the Gunners were not at the races with a flurry of stray passes and turnovers.

Arsenal gave away cheap free kicks in the first 10 minutes of the match. The third free kick led to the opening goal with a long-range strike from Kaboul that deflected off Ramsey to beat Cech in the 10th. Three minutes later, a poor throw-in from Paulista led to a Watford counterattack. Capoue intercepted the ball, ran past Coquelin and rounded Mustafi to be denied by Cech. However, the rebound fell into the path of Deeney who doubled the lead from close range. It was a basic 3v2 situation that got out of control because Coquelin and Mustafi failed to challenge Capoue. Did Coquelin and Mustafi defend too passively because they still had in mind Xhaka’s red card against Burnley?

Nobody to steer the ship

The fans punished the Gunners for their complacency by booing them at halftime. The scoreline could have been worse if Cech had not made a couple of decent saves, tipping Prodl’s header over the bar in the 34th and parrying Janmaat’s powerful strike in the 36th. The manager made a tactical adjustment during the break by yanking off Giroud to send on Walcott. Giroud was inefficient in his hold-up play as he was dispossessed 4 times. But he never really got any decent service from Ozil, Sanchez or Iwobi.

The club still hasn’t reached any agreement with Sanchez and Ozil in their contract negotiations. If they ask for more than £200,000 per week, I believe it wouldn’t be worth it to keep them. Sanchez and Ozil are the technical leaders of the team but they completely went missing in the first half. In fact, no player was able to steer the ship in the right direction after the Gunners got off to a poor start.

Sanchez finished the game with only 1 key pass, 0 of 5 shots on target, and was dispossessed 8 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. A risky dribbling attempt by Sanchez on the edge of the Arsenal box led to a turnover in the 26th but Capoue’s low drive did not trouble Cech.

Ozil made 6 key passes, the most for any player, but no through ball. He was let down by his nerves in the 43rd with a cross that sailed beyond Giroud and Sanchez. The Germany playmaker also had a decent goalscoring chance in the 55th but could only muster a tame half-volley straight at Gomes.

Iwobi leading the revolt

Iwobi and Perez were two players who showed more desire than Sanchez and Ozil. Iwobi had very little impact on the right flank in the first half, but his switch to the left wing in the second half led to Arsenal’s revolt. He held off a defender in the 50th to find Ozil, who slipped the ball to Walcott. The England international finally tested Gomes with a low strike. Five minutes later, Iwobi played a one-two with Oxlade-Chamberlain only to be denied by a diving save from Gomes. Iwobi then met a cross from Sanchez in the 57th for an awkward volley that trickled into the far corner to cut the Hornets’ lead.

Desperately chasing an equalizer, Wenger switched to a 4-2-4 formation by replacing Coquelin with Perez in the 67th. The Gunners had more presence in the box but still couldn’t crack the Watford defense. Perez proved our most dynamic player in the closing minutes. He cut the ball back for Paulista, who fired over the bar in the 76th. The Spaniard then rattled the bar with a powerful drive in the 85th. In stoppage time, Perez took a pass from Ozil to hit a tame effort straight at Gomes.

The manager started Coquelin and Ramsey in central midfield. Ramsey is mostly a box-to-box player and couldn’t really perform the role of a deep-plying playmaker that the Gunners need against average sides like Watford to set the tempo. He had to leave the pitch in the 18th after picking up a calf injury. Oxlade-Chamberlain, who replaced the Wales midfielder, worked his socks off, winning 2 of 7 tackles and having 2 successful dribbles out of 3. His partnership with Coquelin didn’t look as complementary as the duo he formed with Maitland-Niles against Southampton.

Rethinking the Ox’s position

Ramsey is having a nightmarish season with already three injuries so far. I believe the staff should use the Ox as a central midfielder until the end of the season to make up for the lack of options in that area. Cazorla may not return before April, Ramsey is now doubtful for the next couple of games, and Xhaka is still serving a four-game ban.

At the back, Paulista had the best stats amongst Arsenal defenders, winning 4 of 8 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels, and making 3 key passes, 3 interceptions and 1 block. Wenger would have probably started Bellerin at rightback if the Spaniard had not been sidelined by an ankle injury last month.

In the first half, I really felt that Arsenal’s season was unraveling. This is not the first time that the Gunners are dropping points against weak or average teams. The draws with Leicester, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth and the loss to Watford all point to the same pattern: the Gunners aren’t ruthless enough. That’s why they aren’t serious contenders this season. Will those results cost them a Top 4 finish, too?

Swansea vs. Arsenal: Gunners make up ground with 4-0 win

Arsenal thrashed Swansea 4-0 on Saturday to move into fourth place, one point behind Liverpool and Tottenham. The scoreline was quite flattering since two goals resulted from deflected shots and the other two came from poor clearances. However, what really matters is the clean sheet, only their seventh in the Premier League this season.

swansea-vs-arsenal

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

One big reason why the Gunners have struggled to mount a serious title challenge is their defensive record. They have conceded 22 goals so far, 7 more than Chelsea and 8 more than Tottenham. The draw with Bournemouth and the losses to Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool are obvious examples of points dropped because of some poor defending. By contrast, the Gunners have an outstanding offensive record with 48 goals scored. Only Liverpool can match that tally. The goalless draws with Middlesbrough and Leicester are the only two league games in which Arsenal failed to find the net.

At the Liberty stadium, the Gunners produced a lethargic display in the first half with a slow tempo and no penetration. Somehow, they took the lead in the 37th minute thanks to Giroud, the man who scores important goals. The France striker didn’t cover himself in glory on that play though. Ramsey squared the ball back to Giroud, who couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Sanchez kept the ball in play and made a cross for Ozil, whose header was blocked by Mawson. The ball fell into the path of Giroud, who slammed it into the top corner.

Giroud usually loves celebrating his goals, but an ankle injury he picked up while missing the tap-in led him to ask for a substitution. He managed to stay on the pitch until the 60th when Oxlade-Chamberlain finally came off the bench. By winning 4 of 6 aerial duels, Giroud proved a valuable outlet for long balls when Arsenal tried to evade the Swans’ high press.

The bigger picture

Sanchez sealed the win by scoring from close range in the 73rd. The Ox initially made a poor cross that sailed behind Sanchez. Routledge beat Ramsey to the loose ball only to knock it back into the path of Sanchez, who volleyed home. Sanchez could have made it 5-0 in the 78th but he was dispossessed by Mawson after an awkward first touch.

The Chile striker had 2 key passes, 2 successful dribbles out of 2, and tested Fabianski with a low strike in the 28th. He showed a tremendous work-rate by winning 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player according to Squawka. As a result of his hyperactivity, Sanchez was also dispossessed 4 times.

Much was said about Sanchez’s reaction when Welbeck replaced him in the 79th. Sanchez clearly looked upset. However, it shouldn’t be a big deal. It simply shows that Sanchez wants to give his all. Players like Aguero and Cristiano Ronaldo also look frustrated when they are yanked off the pitch. The bigger picture is that Wenger needed to give some playing time to Welbeck, who is the only forward with a skillset similar to Giroud’s.

On the right wing, Iwobi gave Arsenal a 3-0 lead with two deflected shots. He capitalized on a good spell of domination in the 54th to fire a shot that took a deflection off Cork to loop over Fabianski. Then, Iwobi’s cross was diverted by Naughton into his own net in the 67th. Those were lucky goals, but you have to give Iwobi some credit for his desire. The Nigeria international also improved his defensive contribution by winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels.

A work in progress

In his return from illness, Ozil didn’t show much although he managed to make 3 key passes, the most for any player. His work-rate is still questionable. Ramsey ended up pressing a Swan in the space occupied by Ozil because the Germany playmaker was reluctant to do it. It’s not the first time that Ozil has ignored his defensive duties. Giroud against West Brom and Sanchez against Manchester City also had to close down opponents in Ozil’s zone.

The tandem formed by Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield is still a work in progress. When Coquelin starts alongside Cazorla or Xhaka, it’s pretty clear that Coquelin will do most of the defensive work while Cazorla or Xhaka will focus on building plays. The distribution is more even when Xhaka teams up with Ramsey because Xhaka doesn’t have Coquelin’s mobility while Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder. Offensively, Xhaka is the one connecting the defense with the forwards while Ramsey is the one making the runs in the final third. Defensively, Xhaka is the one protecting the back four while Ramsey is the one pressing high up the pitch.

Xhaka had two passes intercepted in the first 10 minutes before growing into the game. The Switzerland international finished the match with a passing accuracy of 93.5%, the highest percentage for any starting player. He also hit 5 accurate long balls out of 6. Among the outfield players, only Ki had more accurate long balls according to whoscored.com. At 24, Xhaka still has room for improvement, especially in his reading of the game. He dropped back in a too deep position in the 11th instead of staying with Naughton, who took a pass from Dyer for a low drive that Cech turned around the post. In the closing minutes, Xhaka tested Fabianski twice with long-range efforts.

Ball-watching

Ramsey and Xhaka combined to win only 2 of 8 tackles. Xhaka made 4 interceptions compared to just 1 for Ramsey. That’s an area in which Ramsey could improve. Aware of his defensive duties, Ramsey was also more frugal with his runs in the final third. His only goal attempt was a low strike that Fabianski saved in the 53rd.

The Swans were not as shabby as the scoreline would suggest. They created 7 chances compared to 9 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. Their best chances came from turnovers and ball-watching by the Gunners. Wenger really needs to do something about ball-watching in training because that could become a serious problem for his team.

Managers often talk about fitness, technique, mental toughness and reading of the game as key factors in the success of a player, but focus is just as important. One short lapse of concentration is enough to prevent a player from spotting a dangerous situation or a goalscoring opportunity.

Swansea could have equalized in the 43rd when Llorente held off Koscielny to feed Ki. The South Korea international took a heavy first touch and the ball got away from him. Koscielny flicked out a leg but removed it to avoid a penalty. Ki went down while the loose ball fell to Routledge, who got ahead of Paulista to fire a low strike that Cech parried with his legs. The referee booked Ki for diving although there seemed to be contact between Ki and Koscielny. However, the main defensive mistake on that play was Xhaka’s failure to track Ki’s run inside the area. See the screen captures below.

swansea-aedXhaka caught ball-watching as Ki makes a dangerous run in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Gunners were guilty of another ball-watching moment in the 65th when Kingsley’s half-volley hit Llorente, who teed up Fernandez for an off-target shot. The main defensive mistake on that play was the Ox’s failure to properly mark Fernandez. See the screen captures below.

swansea-bedOxlade-Chamberlain caught ball-watching as Fernandez gets a free shot in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Swans also capitalized on turnovers to have a crack at goal. Dyer intercepted Paulista’s poor pass to Koscielny on the stroke of halftime but wasted a good situation with a long-range effort instead of choosing one of his three passing options. Paulista put his team in trouble again in the 62nd by chesting the ball down instead of heading it away. Kingsley dispossessed Paulista to feed Routledge, whose low strike was parried by Cech. Mustafi also cheaply gave the ball away in the 86th, but Sigurdsson could only drag his shot straight at Cech.

Looking beyond Cazorla

Koscielny was a dominant force in the air, winning 7 of 7 aerial duels. His only blemish was an underhit header that Sygurdsson nearly intercepted in the 16th. Paulista got the nod over Holding at rightback but proved the weak link in the back four with some dodgy decision-making. By contrast, Monreal had a solid performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and making 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.

January is a key month for Arsenal. First, because they have an easy schedule on paper and can therefore make up ground before visiting Chelsea in February. And second, because they have no mid-week game for three consecutive weeks, which means more time available on the training ground to work on tactical issues. Knowing that Cazorla underwent a second surgery and may not return before April, the Gunners should wisely use that time to make their team more compact in order to improve their defensive record.

Cazorla’s contract expires this summer. That’s a tricky issue for Arsenal because the Spaniard has become a key component in midfield. At 32, his best days are obviously behind him. A one-year extension would seem the most reasonable outcome for both parties as Cazorla’s past two years at the club have been marred by injuries and strangely echo the end of Arteta’s career.

From a long-term perspective, the manager will need to sign a specific type of midfielder this summer. We can divide our midfielders into three categories: those who mostly defend (Coquelin, Elneny, Xhaka), those who mostly attack (Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain), and those who can both defend and attack (Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere). The problem is that Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey are injury-prone players. We therefore need cover for that kind of profile, whether it’s a box-to-box player like Ramsey or a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Closer to a Top 4 dogfight than a title race after 19 games

Arsenal defeated Crystal Palace 2-0 on Sunday to reach the halfway stage with 40 points in the Premier League. That’s one more point than last season when the Gunners were topping the table after 19 games. The big difference is that the league has become more competitive this season as the Gunners only sit in third place, 9 points behind Chelsea and 3 behind Liverpool.

arsenal-vs-crystal-palace

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

The title is a distant dream for Arsenal right now because the Blues are on pace to finish the season with 98 points and break the record for the highest points total (95 points by the Chelsea team of 2004-05). There’s still a long way to go but the Blues seem to enjoy the luck that Leicester had last season. The Foxes did not need to rotate because they played no European game and suffered no big injury. Similar circumstances have enabled Conte to rely pretty much on the same 14 players.

The reality for the Gunners is that they should not take a Top 4 finish for granted. They are just one point clear of Tottenham and Manchester City and 4 points ahead of Manchester United after 19 games. Basically, it means that two big teams will bite the dust at the end of the season.

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that edged West Brom 1-0 a week ago with Monreal, Elneny and Perez replacing Gibbs, Coquelin and Ozil in the starting lineup. The manager had no choice with Ozil and Gibbs. The Germany playmaker was ill while Gibbs is recovering from a knee injury.

On the other hand, Wenger started Elneny to give Coquelin some rest. That move made sense since Elneny will join the Egypt squad for the African Cup of Nations and will therefore not be at the club for a couple of weeks at least. Tactically, there was also no need to have a ballwinner like Coquelin against a weak Palace side. The Gunners lost a bit of defensive security without Coquelin but gained a bit more fluency in their passing game with Elneny.

The forwards’ work-rate

What really struck me in Sunday’s game was the work-rate of the Arsenal forwards. You can see a major difference when Giroud and Perez take the spots occupied by Ozil and Walcott. The Gunners won more tackles than Palace, 19 out of 38 tackles for Arsenal compared to 12 out of 33 for the visitors, according to Squawka. The Gunners lost a bit of pace and fluency in their passing game without Ozil, but they gained more aggression and physicality with Giroud, who won 3 of 5 tackles and made 1 interception.

Giroud deservedly grabbed the headlines with his sensational scorpion kick in the 17th minute. Sanchez capitalized on a counterattack to make a poor cross for Giroud, who reacted quickly enough to attempt an acrobatic backheel flick. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar before bouncing behind the goal line. Sanchez tried again to set up Giroud in the 79th but the Frenchman couldn’t climb high enough to connect with the cross.

It’s positive for the club to see Sanchez improve his relationship on the pitch with Giroud. Last season, their poor understanding played an important role in Arsenal’s offensive problems: Sanchez and Giroud only interacted once to score a league goal. That was when Giroud set up Sanchez in the 2-2 draw with Manchester City. They have already interacted twice this season in the league with Giroud also making an assist for Sanchez against Bournemouth.

Can Arsenal be ruthless?

Some fans get frustrated with Giroud because he can score the most difficult goals and miss the easy ones. Giroud lived up to to his reputation in the sixth minute as he failed to connect with a bouncing cross from Monreal for a tap-in. Surprisingly, the stat sheet says Giroud scored with his only shot of the game. To some extent, that speaks volumes about the relative lack of service Giroud got.

That leads me to the second thing that caught my attention. The Gunners completely outplayed Palace, finishing the match with 15 chances compared to 5 for the visitors. The Eagles were so toothless in the first half that Arsenal should have reached halftime with a 3-goal lead. Unfortunately, the Gunners don’t have that capacity to kill off games. Sanchez should have doubled the lead on the stroke of halftime when some poor defending by Palace gifted Arsenal a golden opportunity. The Chile striker pounced on a loose ball but had his 10-yard effort saved by Hennessey.

Sanchez lacked his finishing touch on Sunday with only 2 of his 8 goal attempts on target. I thought he was also a bit selfish and could have released the ball more quickly instead of holding onto it. That’s the difference with Ozil, who’s a selfless player in the final third. Sanchez was dispossessed 6 times, tied with Zaha for the most by any player, according to whoscored.com.

Perez’s strong performance

When he plays on the left wing, Sanchez becomes a bit predictable because he often cuts inside to shoot with his right foot. That did not prevent him from having 4 successful dribbles out of 6. On the other hand, Sanchez’s limited ability to win headers becomes a problem when he plays in a central position. Giroud is a better option at centerforward to hold the ball up. The Frenchman won 4 of 5 aerial duels against Palace and 4 of those duels were in midfield.

Perez made a strong impression on Sunday. He made 2 key passes, 5 tackles, 1 block and 1 interception. With a better scoring record, Perez could take Walcott’s spot on the right wing. The Spaniard has scored in the Champions League and the League Cup, but not yet in the Premier League. His work-rate against Palace was outstanding. Perez initiated the first goal by making an interception on the edge of the Arsenal box. He then showed his stamina in the 24th by running the length of the pitch to lead a counterattack and tracking back 50 yards after losing possession. His best chance to score came in the 27th when Iwobi sent a ball over the top. Unfortunately, Perez missed his first touch and Hennessey was able to gather the ball. In the second half, Perez made a run in behind Flamini to take a pass from Sanchez for an angled strike that Dann deflected out.

Ozil’s illness meant that Wenger had the choice between starting Iwobi in the No. 10 role and playing Sanchez as a second striker. The manager opted for the first solution, which made sense since Iwobi is more spontaneous in his passing game than Sanchez. Iwobi made 5 key passes, tied with Sanchez for the most by any player.

Iwobi’s finishing

After the game, Wenger said that Iwobi had worked hard in training to improve his finishing and it showed as the Nigeria international caught the frame with 2 of his 3 shots. Iwobi did not really trouble Hennessey with a tame effort in the 16th. But he was much more clinical in the 56th when Dann deflected a cross from Monreal high into the air. Iwobi headed the loose ball past Hennessey and two Palace defenders. Ward tried to head the ball out but his clearance bounced off the bar and back into the net.

Iwobi had a poor run of form in October and November. He has rediscovered his form lately with 3 goals in all competitions since December. Expectations should be kept low for a player who’s only 20 years old. But if he wants to set the bar high, then he should try to match Alli’s performance level at Tottenham.

In his return from a hamstring injury, Oxlade-Chamberlain made an interesting cameo appearance with 1 key pass, 1 shot on target and 3 successful dribbles in the last 15 minutes. The Ox set up Ramsey, who missed the target in the 88th. He then controlled a pass from Sanchez for a low strike that Hennessey saved in stoppage time. As long as the Ox shows some end product, he’ll get his share of playing time.

In midfield, Elneny showed more aggression than usual, which is a good thing when you remember how he was brushed off the ball in his first Arsenal games. Elneny won 2 of 4 tackles and 75% of his duels, the highest percentage among the starting midfielders according to the club’s website. He made no key pass but his passing accuracy reached 90.6%.

Xhaka asserting himself

Elneny’s defensive contribution was enough to help Xhaka perform his playmaking duties. Xhaka made 111 passes, 49 more than any other player. He showed his passing range by hitting 13 accurate long balls out of 17, according to whoscored.com. Those long balls can be useful to switch play, evade a high press or start a fast break. Xhaka did not neglect his defensive duties as he won 3 of 5 tackles and 1 of 2 headers. Recent Arsenal teams have often been criticized for their lack of leadership and character, but I believe Xhaka could provide the steel and fight we’ve been missing in midfield since Vieira’s departure. I definitely look forward to Xhaka’s second season at the club when he’ll play with more confidence.

At the back, Koscielny and Paulista had very little work. They committed no foul, made one tackle each and were mostly tested in the air, with Koscielny winning 3 of 8 headers and Paulista 3 of 12, according to Squawka. In fact, the Eagles focused most of their efforts on the flanks to feed Benteke. But Bellerin and Monreal did a fine job, combining to win 6 of 9 tackles.

Palace proved more threatening in the second half, coming close to scoring on a fast break and a corner. With Monreal out of position in the 47th, Townsend was able to make a cross for Benteke at the far post. The Belgium striker outjumped Bellerin but his downward header sailed wide. I thought the Gunners made a decent retreat on that play and Bellerin did enough to prevent Benteke from having a free header.

Unprofessional league executives

The Arsenal defense looked more shaky in the 60th when the Eagles put pressure with corner kicks. Benteke outjumped Paulista near the penalty spot for a header that Cech palmed away. A few seconds later, the ball fell to Flamini, who hoisted the ball into the box. Cech punched the ball into the path of Cabaye, who forced Cech into another save with a long-range volley. The following corner led to a goalmouth scramble and a Townsend drive that Cech parried. The Eagles were unable to create a single chance after Wenger decided to shut up the shop by replacing Elneny and Perez with Coquelin and Ramsey in the 72nd and Iwobi with the Ox in the 77th.

The Gunners only have one full day of rest before visiting Bournemouth on Tuesday. That’s completely unprofessional from the Premier League executives to give so little rest between two games. The players don’t have enough time to recover physically, which means that they are unlikely to perform well and that there’s a high risk of injury. Such nonsensical scheduling doesn’t happen in the other top European leagues. Spain, Germany, Italy and France have broadcasting constraints too, but they always make sure that teams have at least two full days of rest. If a club plays on Sunday, then its next game will be on Wednesday and not Tuesday.

I assume key players like Sanchez and Koscielny won’t start against Bournemouth. On the other hand, Ramsey, Coquelin, Mustafi and the Ox were on the bench against Palace and might start against the Cherries. The Gunners desperately need three points after both Manchester clubs won on Monday.

Arsenal vs. West Brom: Giroud shows he still has big role to play this season

What do you do when Plan A is not working? Well, you simply switch to Plan B.

Wenger’s main innovation this season has been to play the diminutive Sanchez in the centerforward role. That Plan A has helped Arsenal crack defenses with intricate plays on the ground. The obvious side effect has been Giroud’s relegation to the bench. However, recent losses to Everton and Manchester City have exposed the limits of Plan A. For Monday’s game against West Brom, the manager switched back to last season’s blueprint, Plan B, with Giroud leading the line and Sanchez on the left wing.

arsenal-vs-west-brom

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

This was Giroud’s first start in the Premier League this season. Yet, his teammates barely noticed him in the first half. Giroud somehow expressed his frustration with the lack of decent service by receiving a yellow card for dissent in the 43rd minute. I guess it took a while for Arsenal to rediscover how to play with Giroud up front. In the 56th, Sanchez finally made one good cross for Giroud, whose header lacked power to trouble Foster. Three minutes later, Giroud took a pass from Ozil and fired a low diagonal strike that Foster saved with his leg.

It looked like the Gunners were about to extend their poor run of form by dropping two points at the Emirates stadium against an average side. But Giroud held off McAuley in the 86th to meet a cross from Ozil and send a looping header into the top corner. That 1-0 victory helped Arsenal stay fourth in the standings, 9 points behind leader Chelsea and 4 points clear of Manchester United.

The Gunners definitely proved more threatening against the Baggies than in their two previous games. They created 21 chances compared to 2 for the visitors, according to Squawka. They also had 11 shots on target compared to just 1 for West Brom.

Injecting pace around Giroud

Arsenal fans often complain about Giroud’s lack of pace. At the Euro 2016, France manager Deschamps found a solution by putting pacy players around Giroud. France reached the final of that tournament by using a 4-4-2 formation with Griezmann and Giroud up front, Payet on the left wing, and Coman or Sissoko on the right wing.

There are similarities between the Gunners and the France team. Sanchez and Griezmann are both strikers although Griezmann plays behind Giroud for France while Sanchez plays on the left wing for Arsenal. Likewise, Ozil and Payet are both creative players but Payet roams on the left wing for France while Ozil pulls the strings behind Giroud. On the right wing, Deschamps alternates between a winger, Coman, and a midfielder, Sissoko, just like Wenger has the choice between Walcott, Ramsey and Iwobi.

Giroud is obviously the difference between Plan A and Plan B. Plan A deliberately puts the emphasis on speed and intricate plays with Sanchez, Walcott and Iwobi/Oxlade-Chamberlain as the 3 forwards, while Plan B is more balanced with Giroud, Sanchez and Walcott/Ramsey as the attacking trident. Plan B offers a threat in the air and a physicality that Plan A doesn’t have. Sanchez would have never been able to score the winner against the Baggies because he doesn’t have Giroud’s power and dominance in the air.

Marginal gain for Sanchez with Plan A

I prefer Plan B to Plan A for the simple reason that Ozil is more efficient in the traditional No. 10 role and Giroud is an easy target to hit. Let’s be honest, no player can deliver a better final ball than Ozil. Last season, Ozil racked up 15 assists and 2 goals after 18 league games. This season, he has notched 5 goals and 4 assists in the Premier League by playing in a slightly more advanced position. That’s a small increase in goals but a dramatic drop in assists.

Sanchez is making more key passes with Plan A, but the gain is marginal if we compare with his stats from the 2014-15 season, when he still played on the left wing (I’m not taking last season into account because he came back exhausted from the Copa America and was sidelined for a few games by a hamstring injury). Plan A is tailored for Sanchez’s tendency to be all over the pitch. The Chile striker has racked up 12 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League this season. That’s pretty similar to his tally from the 2014-15 season when he notched 10 goals and 6 assists after 18 league games.

Of course, there are games where Plan A is the better option to carve open a defense. I’m especially thinking of the 3-0 win over Chelsea. It’s also easier to switch from Plan A to Plan B than the other way around. Once you take Giroud off the pitch, you have nobody else on the bench who can give you his physicality and aerial threat, except maybe Welbeck who won’t return before next year. By contrast, if you yank off Walcott, you still have pacy forwards like Oxlade-Chamberlain and Perez on the bench.

Ozil’s work-rate is still an issue

On Monday, Ozil made 7 key passes, the most for any player. In a deeper position, he played a more important role in the team’s passing game than when Sanchez is the centerforward, finishing the match with 122 passes, second only behind Xhaka’s 141, according to whoscored.com.

Ozil’s work-rate is still an issue though. He won just 20% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Only Chadli had a lower percentage among all the players. There was one moment in the first half when Fletcher ran into the space occupied by the Germany playmaker. Noticing that Ozil did not close Fletcher down, Giroud sprinted past Ozil to press the West Brom midfielder. A similar situation happened against Manchester City when Silva dispossessed Ozil, forcing Sanchez to track back and do Ozil’s defensive job in midfield.

In Plan A, Sanchez plays the role of a false nine, often dropping back to relieve Ozil of his playmaking duties and therefore make more key passes. Back on the left wing in Plan B where he is less involved in the passing game and more focused on finishing, Sanchez saw his number of shot assists drop to 2 against West Brom. However, that did not impact his scoring opportunities as he had 4 of 9 shots on target, compared to 3 of 5 for Giroud.

Sanchez could have opened the scoring in the 50th when a corner led to a goalmouth scramble. The ball fell to Sanchez, who rounded Evans to hit the post from 6 yards. Six minutes later, Sanchez controlled a cross from Iwobi to fire a powerful strike that Foster tipped over the bar.

Positive contribution from Ramsey & Perez

This season is still a learning period for Iwobi, who’s just 20 years old. Performances can be quite inconsistent at that age. Only 1 of his 4 goal attempts was on target. Iwobi pounced on a headed pass from Ozil in the 50th to unleash a low volley that Foster saved. Obviously, Iwobi must focus on showing more end product and improving his composure in front of the net. It’s good news for his development that Nigeria failed to qualify for next year’s African Cup of Nations. That means Iwobi will keep training and playing for Arsenal in January and February instead of traveling to Africa.

Ramsey and Perez came off the bench in the second half and made a positive contribution. They had 2 key passes each despite playing only the last 20 minutes. Perez crossed the ball for Giroud in the 76th but the Frenchman failed to make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Ramsey could have made it 2-0 in the 90th after Sanchez knocked down a Bellerin cross but his half-volley was stopped by Foster. In stoppage time, Ramsey had another scoring opportunity on a counterattack but lacked the confidence for a lob attempt.

The Gunners will definitely need both players in the second half of the season. Ramsey is the key player in midfield when they struggle to break the deadlock while Perez is a great alternative if Walcott and Sanchez get injured or have a poor run of form.

A sterile first half

The Baggies made the game difficult for Arsenal by playing with 10 men behind the ball. They also tried to slow the tempo with time-wasting tactics. That became obvious by Foster’s third goal kick in the 21st. The West Brom goalkeeper was booked in the 83rd but I felt the referee should have done it in the first half when Foster used up a lot of time for 7 goal kicks.

The performance in the first half was unconvincing with a lot of sterile possession. The Gunners especially struggled to play the ball out from the back as Paulista doesn’t have Mustafi’s passing skills and Xhaka doesn’t have Cazorla’s dribbling skills. Cazorla is usually the one injecting a sense of urgency in the team’s passing game. Xhaka somehow lacked the Spaniard’s dynamism in setting the tempo.

Arsenal failed to create any clear-cut chance in the first half. Their few goal attempts were long-range strikes that often missed the target. Sanchez’s low drive in the 33rd was the only one that forced Foster into a save. Reaching half-time with no goal scored against an average side didn’t feel good at all, especially since Chelsea and Manchester United had taken the lead in their respective games.

The Gunners opted for a more direct approach in the second half with crosses that put the West Brom defense in trouble. It’s quite telling that Arsenal finished the game with no accurate through balls from 4 attempts but managed to make 7 accurate crosses out of 18.

Question marks about Cech

Xhaka contributed to that directness with 11 accurate long balls out of 15, the most for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. I believe Xhaka and Coquelin have found the right balance in their partnership with Coquelin making 9 tackles against the Baggies while Xhaka made 3. Coquelin’s aggression in midfield allows Xhaka to focus on his passing.

At the back, the Gunners made two defensive mistakes to gift West Brom chances that could have been costly. Rondon beat the offside trap in the 32nd to meet a Chadli cross for a tame header. I don’t understand why Koscielny decided to set the offside trap on that play since Chadli was already in the final third and Koscielny was in a good position to win the header. Despite that rare instance of poor decision-making, Koscielny was arguably our best defender on Monday, bringing calm in the backline and winning 88.9% of his duels, the most for any starter according to the club’s website.

I have mixed feelings about Cech’s performance level since the start of the season. The scrutiny could have been worse without the change in the laws of the game, otherwise Cech would have been sent off this season against Hull and Sunderland for killing goal-scoring opportunities. When I see the leg saves Foster made on Monday, I’m wondering whether Cech could have denied Sterling the previous weekend by sticking a leg out instead of diving to palm the shot away.

Competition for the leftback spot

Cech didn’t have much to do against the Baggies but he did it poorly. He sent a goal kick straight into touch in the 48th. Then he made a handling mistake while to trying to catch a corner kick in the 70th. The ball fell to Yacob, who fired over the bar from 5 yards. In hindsight, Cech should have punched the ball away. Another issue is why the Gunners struggle so badly to win the second ball.

Guessing how a goalkeeper will age can be tricky. Buffon is still a very good goalie at 38 while Casillas lost a step by the age of 31. At 34, Cech seems past his prime. The number of goals he conceded last season from long-range shots was already a concern. His lack of mobility is becoming obvious this season. On current form, Ospina would have taken Cech’s starting spot if he had a better command of his area.

Wenger made just two changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Manchester City the previous weekend with Gibbs and Giroud replacing Monreal and Walcott in the starting lineup. Gibbs got the nod over Monreal while Walcott’s absence was the result of a calf injury. Gibbs had a decent game with 3 key passes and an effort on target. But a clash of knees with Yacob in the 64th led to Gibbs’ substitution for Monreal. The leftback position has been a weakness this season. It will be interesting to see how the manager can fix it.

The Gunners next face Crystal Palace on Sunday and desperately need three points to stay in the title race and keep Tottenham and Manchester United at bay.