Tag Archives: Ozil

What Wenger’s new contract means for Arsenal

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

  1. The club structure is still an issue

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

Arsenal Pre-Season Tour

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

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

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

  1. Recruitment and scouting are still erratic departments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The Gunners won’t be contenders

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

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

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

  1. A perfect storm for players’ contracts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Tension with some fans won’t go away

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

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

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

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

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

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

FA Cup final

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

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

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

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

Ramsey’s late runs

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

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

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

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

Ozil’s work-rate

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

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

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

Moses’ dive

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

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

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

Holding as the weak link

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

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

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

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

Wenger’s snipe

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

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

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

Papering over the cracks

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

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

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

 

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners miss out on Top 4 despite 3-1 win

The Gunners’ 3-1 win over Everton on Sunday was their fifth straight victory in the Premier League. Unfortunately, they hit top form too late as they finished fifth, one point behind Liverpool. Optimists will point out that Arsenal racked up 4 more points than last season, suggesting that it’s an improvement. Realists will notice the 18-point gap with Chelsea, concluding that the club is regressing, especially since it’s only the second time under Wenger’s tenure that Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League.

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

For most fans, 2016-17 has been a disappointing season. It’s definitely not a bad season, otherwise the Gunners would have wound up in the middle of the table like Chelsea did a year ago. But it can’t be described as a good season for the simple reason that Arsenal finished behind Tottenham and Liverpool. I can accept the fact that Chelsea and Manchester City do better because they are both backed by generous billionaires while Kroenke is treating Arsenal like a cash cow, taking money out of the club. But finishing behind Liverpool and Tottenham is embarrassing because the Gunners have a bigger payroll and spent more money in the transfer market than those two clubs.

A quick look at the table shows where the problem is. Arsenal scored 77 goals in 38 games to claim the fifth best offense in the league and conceded 44 goals to have the sixth best defense. A total of 77 goals is decent compared to Tottenham and Chelsea, which are the top scoring teams with 86 and 85 goals respectively. But conceding 44 goals is too much compared to Spurs and the Red Devils, who have leaked 26 and 29 goals respectively. The last time the Gunners conceded 44 goals or more was during the 2011-12 season, when they finished 19 points behind the two Manchester clubs. Yes, we are back to square one!

Holding’s inexperience

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that defeated Sunderland 2-0 last Tuesday, with Koscielny, Paulista and Welbeck replacing Mustafi, Gibbs and Giroud in the starting lineup. Mustafi and Gibbs were injured while Welbeck’s pace meant that he was a better option against Everton than Giroud. Arsenal showed more commitment than the Toffees, winning 61% of the duels, and making 12 interceptions to 10 and 18 tackles to 9, according to the club’s website.

The Toffees tried to press high up the pitch in the opening minutes but ended up running into the void because the 3-4-3 formation means that the Gunners have an extra man at the back. The system gives more room for error but is not infallible. Holding’s inexperience proved quite costly in the 14th minute. What was he doing 70 yards away from the Arsenal goal? Valencia outpaced Monreal down our left flank and dribbled past Holding before Koscielny took him down with a reckless tackle.

Koscielny’s red card was deserved. The France defender was not in control and missed the ball. That was really poor decision-making. But I can understand his rationale. Holding was out of position, which means that a dangerous 3v2 situation was developing, with Koscielny and Paulista facing Mirallas, Lukaku and Valencia. To a certain extent, that challenge reminded me of Koscielny’s first season at the club when he collected two red cards.

Holding had a poor game, with a passing accuracy dipping to 73.9%, the lowest percentage for any defender. He made 0 interception and 2 blocks and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Ten years ago, Arsenal could start a youngster like Holding on a regular basis and still finish in the Top 4. Nowadays, it’s no longer possible because the level in the Premier League has significantly improved. For instance, Ake is a promising prospect at Chelsea but even Conte sees him as a bench warmer. A loan next season is a necessity both for Holding and Arsenal: Holding needs more playing time while the club needs to speed up his development.

Mertesacker’s 1st game of the season

Everton’s goal in the 58th came from another mistake from Holding, who misjudged the flight of the ball and handled it while trying to chest down a cross from Baines. Lukaku converted the subsequent penalty to cut Arsenal’s lead to 2-1. Everton found more space after Koscielny’s ejection. The shift to a back four also exposed Holding a bit more. In the 62nd, Valencia outmuscled Holding, who was booked for an obstruction on the Everton winger. Then Lukaku ghosted past Holding in the 83rd but headed Barry’s long ball wide.

Maybe the Gunners would have not struggled so badly if the referee had treated Williams with the same severity he showed to Koscielny. The Everton centerback received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 19th and should have been booked again in the 55th for tripping Welbeck. The referee kept the card in his pocket although it was clearly a cynical foul.

Paulista became a second choice after his poor performance against Tottenham. Yet, he stepped up following Koscielny’s sending-off. Paulista cut out a cross for Lukaku in the 30th, made a perfectly timed challenge on Mirallas in the 36th, killed a counterattack with another timely tackle in the 42nd and deflected out Lukaku’s shot on the stroke of halftime. However, his luck ran out in the 49th when he challenged Valencia, twisting his knee in the collision.

In less than 50 minutes, Paulista had a passing accuracy of 95.8%, made 1 interception and 3 blocks, and won 1 of 2 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He also won 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for any starting defender, according to the club’s website. Paulista was stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Mertesacker in the 53rd. The German defender was making his first appearance of the season and caused a bit of panic with a dodgy tackle on Valencia in the 55th. The referee turned down Everton’s penalty shout.

A more confident Bellerin

Cech made a couple of key saves to help Arsenal reach halftime with a 2-0 lead. He stopped a toe poke from Lukaku afer a goalmouth scramble in the 38th, turned around the post a long-range strike from Gueye in the 41st and tipped over the bar a looping header from Lukaku in the 43rd.

Wenger shifted to a back three last month because the midfield was not good enough to protect the defense, but also because the back four was not performing well: Bellerin and Mustafi both had a drop in form while Monreal struggled to stop crosses.

In the 3-4-3 formation, Bellerin proved he could be an attacking threat down the right flank. He doesn’t have Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dribbling skills but his deep runs and movement can create problems for any defense. The Spaniard finished the game with 1 goal, 2 key passes, 2 interceptions and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 1 tackle and 1 of 3 aerial duels. Bellerin has not yet recovered his defensive level from last season, but at least he’s playing with more confidence than 2 months ago. He only won 33% of his duels compared to 71% for Monreal.

Monreal is more comfortable with the new system because his positional play makes a bigger difference. He started Sunday’s game as a wingback before Koscielny’s ejection forced him to turn into a fullback. In a back four, Monreal’s relative lack of pace can be a liability to stop crosses. He was more busy defensively than Bellerin because Valencia proved a bigger threat than Mirallas. Monreal won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 1 block.

Ozil and Sanchez have a lot of freedom in the 3-4-3 system. Offensively, Sanchez enjoys cutting inside from the left flank while Ozil roams across the entire attacking line. Defensively, their lack of tactical discipline can put the wingbacks in trouble. It’s therefore not a surprise that fullbacks Holgate and Baines led Everton players with 3 key passes each.

Awkward in the final third

While his work-rate is still an issue, Ozil’s creativity is definitely an asset in the final third. The Germany playmaker created the opening goal in the eighth minute by squaring the ball back for Welbeck, who missed a tap-in from 3 yards. As the ball rolled under Welbeck’s studs, Bellerin rushed at the far post to score into an empty net. In stoppage time, Ozil produced some slick work on the left wing to set up Ramsey, who quickly turned to curl into the top corner for a 3-1 lead.

Ozil often showed off his dribbling skills when he played for Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen. Nowadays, he doesn’t dribble much, which is a shame, because I think he could still beat defenders. Ozil won a free kick in the 64th by completely wrongfooting Schneiderlin. He finished the game with 3 key passes, but also 0 tackle, 0 interception, and 0 aerial duel won, compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 1 aerial duel won for Sanchez, and 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 aerial duels won for Welbeck.

Despite his involvement in 2 goals, Welbeck was incredibly awkward in the final third. Bellerin combined with Sanchez in the second minute to make a cross for Welbeck, who missed the target with his volley from 4 yards. Somehow, Welbeck was credited with an assist for the opening goal because he slightly diverted Ozil’s cross. He claimed a second assist in the 27th for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A long-range effort from Sanchez hit Welbeck, who was played onside by two Toffees. Welbeck beat Robles to the loose ball to set up Sanchez for a tap-in.

Ramsey’s 1st goal of the season

Early in the second half, Welbeck capitalized on a mazy run from Sanchez to be clean through on goal but was denied by Robles. In stoppage time, Bellerin picked out Welbeck, who shot straight at the Everton goalkeeper. Besides the two assists, Welbeck impressed with a strong hold-up play. He won 83.3% of his duels according to the club’s website and had a passing accuracy of 96.4%. Both stats are quite unusual for a centerforward.

Sanchez has enjoyed his best season in the Premier League with 24 goals and 10 assists. He could have raised his tally to 25 goals but Robles punched away his angled free kick in the 32nd. The bad news is that the Chile striker picked up a hamstring injury later on and was replaced by Iwobi in the 67th. Iwobi had a couple of chances to make a good impression. He chested down a cross from Bellerin in the 85th only to have his shot blocked by Holgate. Three minutes later, Iwobi slalomed through the Everton defense but was denied by Robles.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey were ineffective defensively, combining to win 0 of 5 tackles and make 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. They might be the most complementary midfield pairing by default because of Cazorla’s absence, but that should give the manager some food for thought for next season, especially if Cazorla’s ankle injury doesn’t heal and if the Gunners switch back to a back four. Ramsey struggled in the first half before growing into the game. The Wales midfielder slipped a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Robles in the 75th. He then scored his first goal of the season with a curling shot in stoppage time. It might be a good omen for the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday.

Lack of choice at the back

The Blues are the favorites because they just won the league and have no injured player. On the other hand, the Gunners will miss some key players. Koscielny will serve his suspension, Paulista is unlikely to recover from his knee injury, and Sanchez, Mustafi, Gibbs and the Ox will have late fitness tests.

The back three is clearly the biggest problem for the manager. When everybody is fit, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are the obvious starters. Now Wenger only has the choice between Mertesacker, Holding, Monreal and maybe Mustafi for the three starting spots. Starting Mertesacker would be a huge gamble because he has only played one competitive game this season and his lack of pace would be a liability against Costa, Hazard, Willian and Pedro.

The beauty of football is that anything can happen in a game. The better team doesn’t always win. In the FA Cup semifinals, the Citizens played better than Arsenal but still ended up losing 2-1 in extra time. Winning the FA Cup wouldn’t make up for the disappointing Premier League campaign. But it would definitely bring a smile to the fans and the players after a rough season.

Arsenal vs. Sunderland: Gunners still have a shot at Top 4 after 2-0 win

The Gunners still have something to play for on the final matchday of the Premier League as they defeated Sunderland 2-0 on Tuesday to narrow the gap with Liverpool to one point. Let’s not kid ourselves, Arsenal would need another lasagne-gate to leapfrog Liverpool into fourth place. The Reds host relegated Middlesbrough on Sunday while the Gunners play Everton at the Emirates stadium. A victory over the Toffees would be enough as long as the Reds drop points at Anfield. There’s also the possibility that Arsenal could overtake Manchester City on goal difference but that’s even more unlikely since the Citizens have three more points and a better goal difference by five.

Arsenal vs. Sunderland

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

Wenger made just two changes to the side that routed Stoke 4-1 on Saturday with Gibbs and Ramsey replacing Koscielny and Coquelin in the starting lineup. The atmosphere was pretty dull in the first half with a lot of empty seats in the stadium because some fans boycotted the game as a protest against Wenger and the owner. Arsenal outplayed Sunderland with 36 shots to 6 and 28 chances to 4, according to Squawka. Yet, the Gunners only found the net in the last 20 minutes because of some poor final balls and average finishing. Sunderland goalkeeper Pickford also made some great saves.

Arsenal didn’t get much help from the referee either. The Gunners had three penalty shouts turned down. Giroud played Ramsey in with a backheel flick in the 21st minute but the Wales midfielder couldn’t pull the trigger because he was tugged back by Kone. Then Giroud collided with O’Shea while chasing a ball over the top from Sanchez in the 78th. A minute later, Sanchez was shoved from behind by Ndong. I couldn’t help second-guessing the referee’s decisions because of his troubling resemblance with Spurs chairman Levy.

Ozil’s Premier League record

Arsenal finally opened the scoring just three minutes after switching from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-3-3 system when Iwobi replaced the ineffective Gibbs in the 69th. Ozil chased a long ball from Xhaka and cut it back for Sanchez, who tapped home. The Germany playmaker finished the game with 12 key passes, setting a new Premier League record. Ozil can go missing in the big games but he’s an asset against the weak sides because his poor work-rate becomes less relevant and his creativity more important. It could have been a passing masterclass if Ozil had not overhit a through ball for Ramsey in the 53rd and if he had beaten the first defender with his corner kick in the 62nd.

Ozil and Sanchez have often confused defenders by swapping roles throughout the season with Ozil turning into a second striker and Sanchez creating chances. That ploy worked to a certain extent in the first half of the season but the second half showed that they are not completely interchangeable, in great part because Ozil does not have that killer instinct in front of the net and because Sanchez does not enjoy playing with his back to goal.

On Tuesday, Ozil was a pure passer with 0 shot and 12 key passes, while Sanchez was a pure striker with 9 shots and 0 key pass. Again, Sanchez produced an energetic display with 5 dribbles, 3 tackles and 8 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He doubled the lead by converting a rebound in the 81st after Pickford saved Giroud’s close-range volley. The Chile striker nearly opened the scoring in the eighth minute with a long-range strike but his goal was disallowed because the ball hit Giroud’s arm. I thought Sanchez should have done better when Mustafi headed a corner across goal in the 22nd. From four yards, Sanchez miskicked his volley.

Vieira or Arteta?

Giroud did not score but had a decent game with 2 of 3 shots on target and 4 key passes. He also won 3 of 4 aerial duels and made 2 interceptions. His physicality and link-up play helped Giroud cope in a packed Sunderland box. Giroud took a pass from Ramsey in the 10th for a 12-yard shot that Pickford palmed away. He then redirected an Ozil corner toward Mustafi, whose half-volley was deflected out. The France striker missed the target with a header from a Holding cross in the 66th. He was involved in the second goal before Walcott replaced him in the 85th.

In midfield, Xhaka pulled the strings with 96 passes, the most for any player, and 16 accurate long balls out of 18. If fans had any doubt, Tuesday’s game showed that Xhaka’s best position is deep-lying playmaker. The Switzerland international created 5 chances and his passing range definitely helped unsettle the Sunderland defense. He also tested Pickford with low strikes in the 17th and 78th.

However, Xhaka will have to quickly acknowledge his own limitations. The Stoke game showed that he has a tendency to overestimate his pace and dribbling skills. Xhaka made the same mistake against the Black Cats and was dispossessed by Cattermole in the 63rd and Ndong in the sixth and 67th because he dallied on the ball. Sometimes, Xhaka is running with the ball as if he were as fast as Vieira in his prime, while in fact he must be as sluggish as Arteta. English clubs are now aware of Xhaka’s ability to spray long balls and won’t give him the time to hit his target. Xhaka must be more careful and release the ball more quickly.

Mustafi’s struggles with the offside trap

The 2016-17 season is turning into a nightmare for Ramsey, who picked up his fourth injury since August and was replaced by Welbeck in the 69th. Ramsey had a decent game with 2 of 3 shots on target, 2 key passes and a passing accuracy of 93.3%, the highest percentage among the starters according to whoscored.com. He played in a higher position than Xhaka, and provided support to Giroud, Ozil and Sanchez with his deep runs. Pickford turned Ramsey’s volley around the post in the 45th and saved his low effort in the 57th.

Welbeck and Iwobi came off the bench in the second half and somehow made an impact. Iwobi tested Pickford with an angled effort in the 79th while Welbeck was denied by Pickford in the 83rd and saw his diagonal drive palmed out in the 72nd. Iwobi is unlikely to start in the last two games of the season against Everton and Chelsea as the 3-4-3 system requires significant end product from the 3 attacking players. On the other hand, Welbeck could be an option up front because of his pace and physicality.

The Gunners have leaked fewer goals since the shift to the 3-4-3 formation, mostly because they have numerical superiority on defensive plays. However, Mustafi’s poor decision-making put them in trouble a couple of times against Sunderland. The Germany international struggled with the execution of the offside trap against Southampton. The same problem resurfaced on Tuesday. Mustafi seemed to hesitate between stepping forward and marking Borini in the 10th. He did neither and Borini ran away to square the ball back for Defoe but Cech intercepted the offering. Mustafi had again the choice between the offside trap and tracking Defoe in the 37th. His passivity allowed Ndong to slip a through ball to Defoe, whose low strike was palmed away by Cech.

Gibbs’ lack of end product

Sunderland’s other chances came from lapses of concentration from Holding and Monreal. The Black Cats capitalized on a sloppy pass from Holding in the second minute to lead a counterattack but Ndong could only produce an air shot. Then Monreal nearly scored an own goal by making a backpass in the 47th without looking at Cech’s position. The ball was rolling toward an empty goal as Cech stood on the left side, ready to make a clearance. The Czech goalkeeper rushed back to push the ball out of play before it could cross the goal line.

Mustafi, Holding and Monreal were dominant in the air as they combined to win 12 of 13 aerial duels. Monreal was the most active of the three centerbacks, winning 3 of 9 tackles and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. Holding grew into the game and even had 2 shots on target. The English defender played a one-two with Giroud in the 15th and had his shot blocked. On the stroke of halftime, Holding had a free header from a corner but could only muster a tame effort straight at Pickford.

On the left wing, Gibbs had a poor game. He showed a complete lack of end product with 0 key pass while Holding, Mustafi, Monreal and Bellerin had at least 1 key pass each. Gibbs was let down by his crossing a couple of times, with one that sailed behind Sanchez in the 25th and another that went yards away from Giroud in the 33rd. His poor reading of the game didn’t help as he dallied on the ball in the 54th with Ozil unmarked on the left wing. After several touches, Gibbs ended up making a sideways pass to Xhaka.

Points tally vs. place

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s hamstring injury meant that Bellerin got another start on the right wing. The Spaniard received a yellow card in the 22nd for a cynical handball that killed a Sunderland counterattack. He then failed to track Ndong in the 34th when the Gabon midfielder charged down our right flank to unleash an angled strike that Cech turned around the post. His decision-making was questionable in the 43rd. He opted for an effort from a tight angle instead of a low cross to Sanchez at the far post. On that play, O’Shea should have been booked for fouling Giroud off the ball, but the referee failed to spot the cynical foul.

In his post-match interview, Wenger mentioned that Arsenal could miss out on a Top 4 finish despite a possible total of 75 points, 4 more than last season when the Gunners were runners-up. That was obviously some spin from the French manager to suggest that the team was doing better. From a more objective viewpoint, the difference in points simply shows that the Premier League was exceptionally weak last season and that Arsenal missed a massive opportunity to contend for the title by only signing Cech.

Stoke vs. Arsenal: Sanchez, Giroud lead Gunners to 4-1 win

It took Wenger a lot of time to fix the flaws in his team. Cazorla’s recurrent injury forced the French manager to try several midfield pairings in the first half of the season. But none of those pairings could protect the defense efficiently. So Wenger tweaked the system a bit by sporadically using an inverted pyramid midfield in February and March. However, the losses to Chelsea, Bayern Munich and West Brom showed the team needed a stronger remedy.

Stoke vs. Arsenal

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

The Arsenal manager came to the conclusion that the solution was not in midfield but at the back. He finally switched to a 3-4-3 system against Middlesbrough on April 17. Guardiola at Manchester City and Pochettino at Tottenham have played a back three quite a few times this season while this was the first time in 20 years that Wenger relied on three centerbacks. Since that tactical shift, the Gunners have won six games and conceded one loss in all competitions.

There was a time when Wenger could find answers more quickly. During the 2014-15 season, Arsenal struggled in midfield because of injuries. Stuck in sixth place at the end of November, the Gunners were losing ground in the race for a Champions League spot. By December, the manager decided to recall Coquelin from his loan spell at Charlton. The partnership formed by Coquelin and Cazorla in midfield proved instrumental in Arsenal’s third-place finish.

When the going gets tough, the skills of a manager can be tested by the speed of his reaction. Wenger needed 9 months to stop the bleeding. At the top level, that’s too slow for a manager. Chelsea leaked a lot of goals when Conte took over. The Italian manager needed just two months to turn the Blues into champions. Ironically, Conte switched to a back three after an embarrassing 3-0 loss at the Emirates in September.

Fewer softies

On Saturday, Wenger made 4 changes to the side that won 2-0 at Southampton on Wednesday with Koscielny, Bellerin, Coquelin and Giroud replacing Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Gibbs and the Ox were sidelined by injuries while Ramsey and Welbeck started on the bench.

Stoke and Arsenal had 8 chances and 10 shots each, but the Gunners proved more clinical. The Britannia stadium is usually a hostile ground. Yet, Arsenal managed to match the Potters’ commitment by winning 55.2% of the duels and making as many interceptions as the hosts, according to the club’s website.

The 3-4-3 formation is the main reason for the number of duels won. Basically, there are fewer softies in the team. Walcott and Iwobi were starters in the first half of the season. In the new system, Walcott has been replaced by the Ox or Bellerin on the right flank while Iwobi has lost his spot to the third centerback. It’s no surprise to see Holding and Bellerin win more duels than Iwobi and Walcott.

The key to a lot of goals is the understanding between the players involved. Giroud opened the scoring in the 42nd minute by converting a cross from Bellerin. The France striker then made it 4-1 in the 80th by sliding home a cross from Ramsey. Bellerin is spending his third season with the first team and has a good idea of the kind of service Giroud needs. Likewise, Ramsey has struck a good understanding with Giroud, especially since the 2013-14 season when Giroud’s link-up play helped Ramsey score a lot of goals.

Scoring while being injured

Giroud got the nod up front because his lack of pace is less relevant against teams sitting deep and letting Arsenal enjoy a lot of possession. His outstanding movement inside the box definitely made a difference as he converted his only two goal attempts. He also created two chances before Walcott replaced him in the 84th.

It’s no secret that Sanchez and Ozil love finding each other on the pitch. Yet, the Potters seemed to have no clue in the 55th when Ozil played a one-two with Sanchez before chipping Butland for a 2-0 lead. Whelan and Johnson failed to track Ozil on that play while Sanchez had plenty of time to make a perfectly weighted pass. Sanchez made it 3-1 in the 76th by taking a pass from Bellerin to bury the ball into the bottom corner. He was not even supposed to be on the pitch anymore: Sanchez picked up a hamstring injury after Martins Indi fouled him in the 64th. Somehow, Sanchez tried to carry on before gesturing toward the bench in the 73rd for a substitution. Ramsey finally replaced Sanchez just a minute after the Chile striker scored Arsenal’s third goal.

Sanchez produced an amazing performance with 1 goal and 1 assist but also 4 tackles and 1 interception. He had 5 successful dribbles and was fouled 6 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Ozil had a poor work-rate despite 1 goal and 2 key passes. The Germany playmaker made 1 dribble, 0 tackle, 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. Ozil was nowhere near Pieters when the Stoke leftback made a dangerous cross that Monreal headed out in the 63rd. I’m not sure Ozil would get a free pass for defensive duties with other managers.

Xhaka overestimating his abilities

In his 15-minute cameo, Ramsey made a strong impression with an assist and a shot on target. He sent Shawcross to the floor by faking a shot before testing Butland with a low strike in the 78th. Two minutes later, Ramsey made a crossfield run to chase Ozil’s long ball and held off Johnson to set up Giroud for the final goal. It’s a pity that Ramsey’s season had been marred by injuries because he has never really been able to find his groove.

In midfield, Xhaka and Coquelin proved relatively inefficient. They combined to create 0 chance, make 1 interception and win 1 of 8 tackles, according to Squawka. Xhaka set a too slow tempo to create space in the Stoke defense. The Switzerland international also has a tendency to overestimate his pace and dribbling skills. He was dispossessed by Diouf in the 12th and Cameron in the 75th because he dallied on the ball. It was weird to see Coquelin in the role of a box-to-box player. Coquelin was often in the final third and did not seem aware of his own limitations as he made 3 dribbling attempts. I guess the manager’s rationale for starting Xhaka and Coquelin was to win duels in midfield.

On the wings, Bellerin finished the game with 2 assists. The Spaniard can be a threat with his crossing ability, but he needs to get back to basics in his defensive game. Bellerin led all players with 8 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Right now, I’d choose the Ox over Bellerin for the wingback position because the England international is more focused on his defensive tasks than Bellerin.

Crouch’s handball

On the opposite wing, Monreal had a solid game, making 4 blocks and winning 3 of 4 tackles. He took advantage of the Potters’ lax marking to make dangerous runs in behind. Monreal met a cross from Ozil in the 13th but was let down by a poor first touch. Four minutes later, he connected with a cross from Bellerin only to hit the post with his header.

At the back, Holding produced an energetic display a la Sanchez. It was quite a mixed bag. Holding had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 5 of 7 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions and 5 blocks. But he also lost 3 of 4 tackles. Allen too easily ran past Holding in the 31st and Arnautovic too easily got the better of him twice in the second half. The Stoke winger peeled away from Holding in the 60th to make a cross for Diouf who headed wide from 3 yards. Then Arnautovic outpaced Holding in the 67th to make a cross for Crouch, who scored to cut Arsenal’s lead. With the naked eye, it seemed that Crouch headed the ball in. But video replays showed that Crouch scored with a handball. The goal should have been disallowed but the Premier League has no video assistant referee, which means that the referee and the linesmen have to make the call on their own.

Frustrated by Arnautovic’s skills, Holding received a yellow card in the 78th for a cynical foul on the Austria international. Chambers’ career at Arsenal has been doomed by his slow first steps and inability to turn quickly. I hope Holding does not have those flaws and can adjust his positional play. In any case, Holding needs a loan next season to speed up his development.

Out of Arsenal’s hands

Koscielny and Mustafi were playing together for the first time in a back three. It was weird to see Mustafi as the sweeper and Koscielny as the left centerback. In his return from injury, Koscielny produced a low-key performance, winning 1 of 1 aerial duel and losing the 2 tackles he made. The France defender cleared the danger in the 31st when Allen ran past Holding. Mustafi was a bit more active than Koscielny, winning 1 of 5 tackles and 5 of 8 aerial duels. The Germany international was booked for a reckless tackle on Shaqiri in the 28th. Mustafi nearly scored in the ninth minute but Butland tipped his looping header over the bar.

Stoke mostly threatened on set pieces and long-range attempts. The Arsenal defense failed to clear a corner in the 63rd and Cameron beat Coquelin to the second ball to nod it back toward Martins Indi, whose header was tipped over the bar by Cech. The Czech goalkeeper also stopped a low drive from Berahino in the 71st and palmed away a volley from Cameron in the 85th.

The Gunners must beat Sunderland on Tuesday to still have a chance of finishing in the Top 4 when they host Everton on Sunday for their final Premier League game. Their fate is still out of their hands as they also need Liverpool or Manchester City to drop points.

 

Southampton vs. Arsenal: Sanchez, Giroud keep Top 4 hopes alive

Arsenal defeated Southampton 2-0 on Wednesday to make up ground in the race for a Champions League spot. They still trail Manchester City and Liverpool by 3 and 4 points respectively, but if we take form into account, they could pip the Citizens or the Reds to the post. Since the shift to a 3-4-3 system, the Gunners have won 4 of their last 5 Premier League games, which is as good as Chelsea and Tottenham and better than Liverpool and Manchester City.

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made just one change to the side that defeated Manchester United 2-0 on Sunday with Mustafi replacing an injured Koscielny in the starting lineup. The Gunners proved toothless in the first half as they failed to test Forster. On the other hand, Southampton had two great chances to open the scoring. Both came from a poor execution of the offside trap. Tadic chested down a ball over the top in the 31st minute and was about to pull the trigger when Mustafi dispossessed him with a sliding tackle. The loose ball fell to Gabbiadini, who was denied by Cech. Then Gabbiadini beat the offside trap in the 37th to chase a long ball but could only muster a tame volley that did not trouble Cech. I think Mustafi’s first game in a back three is the main reason for that poor defensive coordination. Koscielny was the sweeper in the other games played with the 3-4-3 formation.

It took a moment of magic from Sanchez to give Arsenal the lead in the 60th. Sanchez took a pass from Ozil and sent two Saints to the floor with a quick turn before shooting past Forster with his weaker left foot. The Chile striker was pretty quiet in the first half and things didn’t look good in the second half when he was penalized in the 52nd for a foul throw. In fact, Sanchez didn’t produce his usual energetic performance: he made no key pass and no tackle. But his class was enough to break the deadlock.

The supersub strikes again

In his best season at the club, Sanchez has already racked up 20 goals and 9 assists in 35 Premier League appearances for an average of 0.83 goal or assist per game. Among the top scorers in the league, only Kane (1.00) and Lukaku (0.86) have a better average whereas Costa (0.79), Ibrahimovic (0.79) and Aguero (0.68) are a notch below Sanchez.

While Welbeck was clinical against Manchester United a few days ago, he proved inefficient at St Mary’s stadium with none of his 2 goal attempts on target. The England international was leading a promising counterattack in the 44th but was pulled back by Ward-Prowse, who got booked. I thought Welbeck should have done better on the stroke of halftime when Bellerin made a pinpoint cross. Welbeck made a good run toward the near post but completely missed his header.

Welbeck was replaced by Giroud in the 80th and the France striker lived up to his supersub status by doubling the lead four minutes later. Ramsey headed a Sanchez cross into the path of Giroud, who beat Forster with a downward header. The Saints’ defending was quite lax on that play as neither Ramsey nor Giroud was marked. Over the years, Ramsey and Giroud have developed a good understanding, which nearly paid off again in stoppage time. Sanchez found Giroud, who flicked the ball into Ramsey’s path but the Wales midfielder couldn’t control the ball with his first touch.

Overloading Arsenal’s right flank

In midfield, Xhaka acted as the stabilizer while Ramsey provided support to the forwards with his deep runs. Xhaka nearly scored with a long-range strike that Forster palmed away in the 67th. The Switzerland international led all players with 71 passes and won 50% of his duels compared to 12.5% for Ramsey, who had none of his 3 goal attempts on target. The Gunners showed plenty of commitment as they won 57.8% of their duels and made 6 more tackles than Southampton, according to the club’s website.

Tottenham and Manchester United identified the right flank as Arsenal’s main weakness because Ozil doesn’t really help Oxlade-Chamberlain. Unsurprisingly, the Saints tried the same trick by overloading our right flank. In the opening minutes, Tadic even left his wing to join Redmond and Bertrand in pressuring the Ox. Redmond created the first chance for the hosts in the third minute by setting up Davis, who fired over the bar from the edge of the box. The Southampton winger then cut inside the Ox in the eighth minute but had his shot deflected out. On a counterattack in the 18th, Gabbiadini drifted to our right flank and made a cross for Tadic that Cech intercepted.

Ozil led all players with 6 key passes, but his poor work-rate also explains why Bertrand led Southampton with 4 key passes. Ward-Prowse met a cross from Bertrand in the 69th but missed the target from 5 yards as Gibbs put him off. Ozil’s poor defensive contribution means that Ramsey sometimes had to help out the Ox or Bellerin along the touchline. In the closing minutes, the manager yanked off Ozil to send on Coquelin.

The Ox’s hamstring injury

The Ox had a busy time down the right flank. He got off to a good start by squaring the ball back to Ramsey, whose 12-yard volley sailed wide in the 15th. Defensively, the Ox put off Redmond, who couldn’t properly connect with a cross from Ward-Prowse in the 30th. Unfortunately, he picked up a hamstring injury in the 35th and was replaced by Bellerin. That’s really bad luck for the Ox, who is enjoying his best season at the club.

Bellerin had a decent game with 2 key passes, including a cross for Ramsey, whose volley hit Welbeck before bouncing out of play in the 51st. The Spaniard is still not performing at his level of last season though. He cheaply gave the ball away in the 46th but Davis missed the target with his long-range effort. Is it a lack of confidence because of the team’s results and his demotion? Or is it a lack of focus because of transfer rumors?

At the back, Cech prevented Southampton from taking the lead with a couple of fine saves in the first half. He tipped a 30-yard strike from Redmond over the bar in the 42nd. In his return from injury, Mustafi looked sharp if we except the offside issues. He led Arsenal defenders by winning 81.8% of his duels and 4 of 5 tackles according to the club’s website. The Germany international was especially dominant in the air against Gabbiadini.

I didn’t expect the Gunners to come away with three points since they have a poor record at St Mary’s stadium. That could be a good omen for the run-in as they have to travel to Stoke on Saturday. Arsenal last won at the Britannia stadium in 2010. A loss or even a draw would end any hope of a Top 4 finish.

 

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

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

Arsenal vs. Manchester United

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

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

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

Ramsey’s work-rate

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

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

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

Sanchez’s dipping form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding’s inexperience

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

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

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