Tag Archives: Ozil

Arsenal vs. Cardiff: Gunners grind out 2-1 win to move into 4th

   Any win will do. Aubameyang and Lacazette scored in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Cardiff as Arsenal went level on points with Chelsea in the Premier League while moving two points clear of Manchester United.

arsenal vs. cardiffPhoto credit: Premier League

   The Gunners performed poorly in the first half, lacking urgency, width and penetration. When they managed to have some good situations, their final ball was not accurate enough. Cardiff had a couple of half-chances and could have reached halftime with the lead. But the absence of a decent finisher penalized the visitors. The Bluebirds finished the game with 19 shots to 15 for Arsenal but just two of their goal attempts were on target.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that got knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United with only Kolasinac, Torreira, Lacazette and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. The Spanish manager had to improvise at the back because of injuries to Maitland-Niles, Koscielny, Sokratis, Bellerin and Holding. Monreal played in the centerback position alongside Mustafi while Lichtsteiner made a rare start at rightback.

   The Arsenal team was built around Ozil in a narrow 4-4-2 formation with Elneny, Torreira and Guendouzi shielding the defense. Ozil was making his first start since Dec. 26 when he was replaced at halftime in a 1-1 draw with Brighton. It’s no secret that the Arsenal board and staff want to offload Ozil. Off the pitch, his wages put a strain on the club’s financial resources. On the pitch, his performances are not good enough for £350,000 a week. Ozil notched 3 goals and 1 assist in 14 Premier League games this season for an average of 0.29 goal or assist per game. Those are pedestrian stats for one of the best playmakers in the world. Iwobi has the same average with 2 goals and 4 assists in 21 league games.

The Ozil conundrum

   Managing Ozil has turned into a tough balancing act for Emery. On the one hand, you want to implement your ideas and you need results. On the other, you don’t want to hurt Ozil’s resale value or worsen the mood in the dressing room. Emery opted for the best compromise by starting Ozil in a home game against a weak side. Ozil can be ineffective when he comes off the bench. Most fans still remember his dreadful cameo in the 3-2 loss to Southampton. It’s therefore less risky to start Ozil and take him off if he underperforms.

   Ozil was not influential in his 76-minute performance against Cardiff. He made 66 passes, the third most behind Monreal (68) and Guendouzi (83), but only one was a key pass from open play. On the bright side, there are signs that Ozil might finally buy into Emery’s method. Ozil made 3 recoveries and won 2 of 3 tackles, according to the club’s website. Only Mustafi won more tackles on the Arsenal team. However, I doubt that Emery would use Ozil for a pressing job like the one done by the Gunners against Chelsea. Ozil was dribbled past 3 times by the Bluebirds, the most for any Arsenal player. He was also easily bullied off the ball by Peltier in the 43rd.

   Emery broke the deadlock by shifting to a 4-2-3-1 system at halftime with Iwobi replacing Elneny to provide more width and inject more directness. Iwobi created the opening goal in the 65th by playing Kolasinac in. Ecuele Manga tripped Kolasinac, forcing the referee to award a penalty that Aubameyang converted. Three minutes later, Iwobi played a one-two with Ozil and nearly doubled the lead but Etheridge denied the Nigeria international. In stoppage time, Iwobi was a bit naive as he dived in and allowed Mendez-Laing to cut inside and curl a shot into the far corner. Iwobi has built a good understanding with Kolasinac this season. Yet, that’s not enough to claim a starting spot because of his inconsistency.

An effective one-two punch

   The Gunners are still in the Top 4 race because of Aubameyang and Lacazette. They are the second best one-two punch in the Premier League behind Liverpool’s Salah and Mane. While Wenger used Aubameyang on the left wing, Emery prefers to play him on the right wing or in a front two. By scoring from the penalty spot, Aubameyang raised his tally to 15 goals in the league this season. Aubameyang nearly notched a second goal in stoppage time but Etheridge parried his first-time effort from 11 yards. Surprisingly, Aubameyang led Arsenal players with 3 key passes, all from open play.

   You often hear about competition between strikers in the same squad. Giroud and Morata barely played together at Chelsea just like Aguero and Jesus hardly start together at Manchester City. But Aubameyang and Lacazette look more like the complementary duo formed by Yorke and Cole at Manchester United. Aubameyang can stretch any defense with his electric pace while Lacazette has the all-around game to bring teammates into play.

   Lacazette scored the winning goal with a rampaging run in the 83rd. Tripped by Bamba along the touchline, Lacazette quickly got back on his feet and drove into the box to bury the ball into the far corner. Lacazette then set up Ramsey for a scoring chance in the 85th but the Wales midfielder headed wide.

   Until his goal, Lacazette struggled in the final third. He pounced on a loose ball in the second minute after Etheridge diverted Kolasinac’s cross, but his first touch was average and only allowed him to produce a tame flick with his second touch. Lacazette then missed his final ball for Aubameyang on the stroke of halftime and failed to catch the frame with a curling effort in the 73rd.

A too conservative approach

   The referee let Lacazette know that they wouldn’t go on holiday together by denying him an obvious penalty in the 44th and by booking him for exaggerating contact in the 81st. Things didn’t go Lacazette’s way but the France international kept fighting and Emery showed patience. Lacazette finished the game with 2 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 3. He also contributed defensively by making 4 fouls in Cardiff’s half.

   I suspect Emery had Sunday’s game at Manchester City in mind as he used Ramsey only for the last 20 minutes. The tired Bluebirds couldn’t cope with Ramsey’s movement. The Wales midfielder made the key pass for Aubameyang’s chance in injury time. Ramsey also had an opportunity to score in the last minute of the game but Peltier blocked his shot.

   Emery relied on Elneny, Guendouzi and Torreira to make up for any defensive lapse from Ozil. It proved a too conservative approach against Cardiff. In the holding midfielder role, Elneny had 0 turnover and showed a decent work-rate by winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 2 blocks and 2 recoveries. But his missed interception led to a scoring chance for Reid in the 12th. And the main reason why Emery yanked Elneny off at halftime was his poor contribution in Arsenal’s buildup play.

Killing the momentum of a play

   If you look at the screen captures below, you can see how Elneny wasted an opportunity to hit Cardiff on the fast break in the 37th. Lichtsteiner made a run down the right flank and could have found Lacazette in the final third with a first-time pass. But Elneny dallied on the ball, giving Cardiff more time to regroup.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37a edited.jpgElneny spots Lichtsteiner’s run but fails to pass the ball. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Because Elneny slowed down the momentum, you can see on the next screen capture that Lacazette and Aubameyang stopped running. However, Elneny still had an opportunity to move the ball forward by making a pass to Ozil.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37b edited.jpgOzil runs in front of Elneny, who fails to pass the ball again. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Elneny completely killed the momentum of the play by ignoring two good passing options (Lichtsteiner and Ozil). Surrounded by 3 Bluebirds, Elneny finally made a backpass to Torreira. On the next screen capture, you can see that Elneny’s poor decision-making allowed all the Bluebirds to get behind the ball, even Niasse who was 20 yards behind Elneny at the start of the play.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37c edited.jpgThe Gunners have to start from scratch again after Elneny’s backpass to Torreira. (Photo credit: TSN)    

   On the left side of the midfield, Guendouzi was much more positive than Elneny in his passing. Guendouzi made 2 key passes, 1 interception and 1 block and led all players with 8 recoveries. His reading of the game helped Guendouzi win 50-50 balls as Arter and Ralls received yellow cards for poor challenges on the French teenager. Guendouzi also showed his character with a booking for dissent at halftime, complaining about the missed penalty on Lacazette.

A rusty Monreal

   On the right side of the midfield, Torreira survived another game. He won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 7 recoveries. Those are decent stats for most midfielders but well below the level Torreira showed in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder played a lot of games last year and it’s no surprise to see his form dip since the end of December. Emery could leave him out of the squad for easy Europa League games while hoping that Torreira can catch a second wind by March.

   The Gunners nearly kept a clean sheet despite a makeshift back four. In his return from a hamstring injury, Monreal looked a bit rusty. The Spaniard received a yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Reid in the 29th. Monreal only won 28.6% of his duels, compared to 57.1% for Mustafi according to the club’s website. Cardiff mostly threatened with crosses and managed to expose Monreal’s weakness in the air in stoppage time. Zohore outjumped Monreal at the far post to flick on a cross from Harris. The ball fell to Mendez-Laing who cut the deficit to 2-1. Monreal only won 2 of 6 aerial duels compared to 5 of 9 for Mustafi.

   Often maligned for his reckless challenges, Mustafi lived up to his reputation with a silly foul on Reid in the 40th. Mustafi also gave away the ball with a poor header in the 82nd, forcing Leno to stop a curling effort from Zohore. Besides those two blemishes, Mustafi had a decent game, winning 3 of 3 tackles and 57.1% of his duels and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 1 recovery.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

   On the flanks, Lichtsteiner showed his age with a weak offensive contribution and a passive defensive performance. The Swiss veteran roamed forward a few times but made 0 key pass. His defensive stats were just as bad with 0 tackle, 0 interception, 1 block, 0 recovery and only 12.5% of duels won. Emery had seen enough and replaced Lichtsteiner with Jenkinson in the 60th. Kolasinac was more active with 1 key pass, 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries and 50% of duels won. He won the penalty for the opening goal but his defensive lapses nearly cost his team. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international was not tight to Paterson, who made a cross for Reid in the 15th. Despite that warning, Kolasinac left Paterson unmarked a couple more times. The Cardiff midfielder hit Kolasinac in the chest with a volleyed pass in the 42nd, before missing the target with long-range efforts in the 50th and 56th.

   The Gunners have reportedly signed Denis Suarez on loan to boost their chances of finishing in the Top 4. That move makes sense because they desperately need more creativity in midfield to feed Aubameyang and Lacazette. Arsenal can’t simply rely on Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Ozil, who have been too inconsistent this season. There’s no guarantee that Suarez will adapt quickly to the Premier League but it’s a low-risk gamble. If it doesn’t work out, Suarez will return to Barcelona at the end of the season.

   The Gunners visit Manchester City on Sunday. They have nothing to lose in that game. A defeat would be considered normal, especially with the injury crisis at the back, whereas any point would be deemed a bonus in the Top 4 race.

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FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 3-1 loss to Man United

   The Gunners’ only chance to win some silverware this season is the Europa League after Manchester United knocked them out in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Friday. The Arsenal defense proved too naive against a Manchester side quite clinical on the fast break. Injuries to Sokratis and Koscielny definitely destabilized the back four but Arsenal’s vulnerability on counterattacks also means that the club will need to sign defenders and midfielders this summer.

fa cup 4th roundPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   The Gunners dominated the game with 63% of ball possession and 5 shots on target to 4 for the Red Devils. But they often lacked penetration to trouble a compact Manchester defense. Arsenal attempted 0 through ball compared to 4 for the Red Devils. Emery started with a 4-2-3-1 formation before switching to a 4-2-4 system by replacing Koscielny and Iwobi with Guendouzi and Ozil in the 64th minute. The tactical shift hurt the balance of the team and played into Manchester’s hands as Ozil, Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang are mostly effective in central positions.

  1. Injury crisis at the back (again)

   Sokratis sprained his ankle with an awkward landing in the 16th after challenging Lingard in the air. The Greek defender tried to soldier on but had to be replaced by Mustafi in the 21st. Koscielny joined Sokratis on the sidelines in the 64th after Lukaku inadvertently kicked the French centerback in the head. It initially looked like a minor injury below the ear but Emery in his post-match conference suggested that Koscielny might have fractured his jaw. If Sokratis and Koscielny can’t be fit for Tuesday’s Premier League clash against Cardiff, Mustafi and Monreal would then be the most likely pairing at centerback.  

  1. The Gunners must sign a defensive midfielder (again)

   The Red Devils capitalized on counterattacks in the 33rd and 82nd to create 2v3 situations and score. Shaw ran past Torreira and Xhaka to find Lukaku down our left flank for Manchester’s second goal. Then Pogba outpaced Ozil, Guendouzi and Torreira to sting Cech’s gloves for the last goal.

   The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese on both plays. Xhaka was the weak link in the holding midfielder role. He lacked defensive awareness in the 31st, playing Sanchez onside for the opening goal. Xhaka won 0 of 1 tackle according to whoscored.com, compared to 5 of 7 tackles for Torreira and 2 of 5 tackles for Ramsey.

   The club signed Torreira last summer, but that’s still not enough to protect the back four. The Gunners need a quicker midfielder than Xhaka and Guendouzi and with better defensive awareness. A young version of Fernandinho would the perfect fit for the squad.  

  1. Maitland-Niles is learning the ropes

   Bellerin’s long-term injury means that Maitland-Niles could get a lot of playing time in the second half of the season. Maitland-Niles got off to a bad start with a turnover that led to a scoring chance for Pogba in the 11th. But he grew into the game, winning 4 of 4 tackles, making 2 interceptions and leading all players with 3 key passes, according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles still needs to improve his defensive awareness and cut his turnover rate. He led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers and played Sanchez onside for the opening goal.

  1. Kolasinac is a defensive liability

   The Red Devils targeted Kolasinac because they were aware of his reluctance to track back. Lukaku made a run in behind Kolasinac for Manchester’s second goal. Koscielny took one for the team with a professional foul on Pogba in the 54th because Kolasinac was pulled out of position. Kolasinac was booked in the closing minutes for locking horns with Rashford near the touchline.

   There are only two ways to protect the defense when Kolasinac plays. Either the Gunners rely on a back three so that a centerback can fill in the space behind Kolasinac. Or they use a three-man midfield like in the 2-0 win over Chelsea with a midfielder covering Kolasinac on the left flank.

  1. Lacazette’s work-rate was impressive

   He tirelessly worked for the team, winning 5 of 5 tackles, and making 1 interception and 3 key passes. The France international teed up Iwobi in the 24th and made a cross for Mustafi, who headed wide on the stroke of halftime. Lacazette also tested Romero with mid-range shots in the 45th and 73rd. The only blemish in his good all-around performance was the poor return pass that led to Manchester’s third goal.

  1. Ramsey is Arsenal’s best attacking midfielder

   It’s no coincidence if Ramsey was involved in the Gunners’ two best chances. He rounded the Manchester defense in the 43rd to square the ball back for Lacazette, who made poor contact with the ball. However, Aubameyang pounced on the loose ball to tap in at the far post. Then Ramsey nearly leveled in the 46th when he met a cross from Maitland-Niles, but Romero tipped his header over the bar. Ramsey’s influence diminished after Emery made a double change in the 64th.

   Iwobi doesn’t have Ramsey’s effectiveness. He made 0 key pass, showing poor decision-making and often holding onto the ball too long. The Nigeria international ran into traffic in the 29th instead of making a crossfield pass to Ramsey. He also ignored the overlapping Kolasinac a couple of times. His only positive contribution was an angled shot straight at Romero in the 24th.  

   Ozil came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 64th. He played 36 minutes if we count stoppage time. His cameo was interesting because Ozil won 2 of 2 tackles, which is unusual for him. Is Ozil finally buying into Emery’s method? That would be the only way for Ozil to claim a starting spot again.

West Ham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 hopes dealt a blow in 1-0 loss

   The ghosts of last season are coming back. A year ago, the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race because they were performing poorly on the road. This pattern could be repeating itself. The Gunners lost 1-0 at West Ham on Saturday, earning just 1 point from their last 4 away games to trail fourth-placed Chelsea by 6 points in the Premier League.

West Ham vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal had only 2 shots on target to 3 for the Hammers despite enjoying 58.5% of ball possession. In another example of sterile possession, the players who made the most passes were Koscielny (89) and Sokratis (67). The lack of urgency in the first half was quite disappointing since Arsenal got 6 days of rest after the victory over Blackpool in the FA Cup. West Ham showed more desire, winning 53.5% of the duels and making 17 interceptions to just 10 for the Gunners, according to the club’s website.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that routed the Seasiders with only Sokratis, Kolasinac, Iwobi and Maitland-Niles retaining their starting spots. The lack of quality in the Arsenal midfield showed in the high number of stray passes. It’s no coincidence if Denis Suarez has been linked with a move to the Emirates. Suarez plays as a central midfielder for Barcelona but I suspect that Emery would use him as an attacking midfielder. In the 2015-16 season, Suarez made 12 assists for Villareal in all competitions.

   The lack of creativity in midfield also helps explain why the Gunners struggled to play the ball out from the back. You would expect to find a Ramsey or an Ozil for that kind of tactics. Remember Ramsey’s goal against Fulham or Aubameyang’s goal against Leicester. But Emery left Ozil out of the squad while Ramsey only came off the bench in the second half.

Politics vs. sport

   Knowing that Ramsey will leave the club this year and that Ozil has been frozen out of the team, it’s impossible not to think about the chemistry in the dressing room. What a contrast between the lack of fluency at the London Stadium and the spectacular passing in the first half of the season. Does the mediocre form on the pitch reflect the current mood in the dressing room? Or is the team simply hitting a rough patch?

   Some players signed at Arsenal to play with Ozil. They must feel short-changed to take passes from Iwobi or whoever fills Ozil’s shoes. Likewise, they must certainly question Arsenal’s ambition when the club decides to let Ramsey leave. Is it a coincidence if Emery has harshly treated those 2 players because they’re not part of the club’s long-term plans?

   I think Emery needs more diplomatic tact. Obviously, the board’s emphasis on trimming payroll has led to this situation with Ozil and Ramsey. That’s politics. But the team still needs them because the other attacking midfielders lack consistency. That’s football. In that regard, Sarri has been smarter than Emery. The Chelsea manager froze out Fabregas only after securing a replacement by signing Jorginho and Kovacic last summer.

   Aubameyang and Lacazette scored with half-chances in the first half of the season. They didn’t against West Ham. That’s where chemistry plays a key role. Players felt upbeat in the first few months with a new manager, new methods and new signings. Now the reality is kicking in. The Gunners realize that they are far from the contending teams. They also see problems in the squad. Maybe that’s why the extra confidence needed to convert those half-chances is now gone.

Finding the best offensive setup

   Lacazette had a couple of half-chances in the first quarter. He chested down a long ball from Xhaka before firing a long-range strike wide in the ninth minute. Four minutes later, Lacazette took a pass from Iwobi and drove into the box only to be denied by Fabianski. He faded in the second half with no shot at all.

   Aubameyang started the season as the lone striker before moving to the left wing. Then Emery had a change of heart in the Bournemouth game and used Aubameyang in the centerforward position again. Since January, Emery has deployed Aubameyang on the right wing, letting Lacazette lead the line.

   That’s really mind-boggling that the Spanish manager still doesn’t know what Aubameyang’s best position is, especially if you compare with the situation at Manchester United. Solskjaer was appointed last month and has improved the Red Devils’ fortunes by quickly finding the best offensive setup with Matic, Herrera and Pogba in midfield and Rashford, Martial and Lingard in a front three.

   Deprived of service in the first half, Aubameyang tried to create chances. He made a cross for Lacazette, who headed over the bar in the 15th. The introduction of Ramsey in the second half finally gave Aubameyang some decent ammunition. Aubameyang headed Ramsey’s cross wide in the 63rd. The Gabon striker then met a low cross from Kolasinac in the 64th only to blaze over the bar under Cresswell’s pressure.  

   Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to have only 1 of 7 shots on target. I believe that playing Aubameyang up front and Lacazette as a second striker or in a wide position would be a more natural option. From the right wing, Aubameyang can cross the ball and make those diagonal runs a la Walcott, but he simply doesn’t have the all-around game to make a significant impact in the passing game. Aubameyang only won 14.3% of his duels according to the club’s website, that tells you he’s not optimally used.  

Positive substitutions

   You play with 2 strikers if you have good service. In a 3-4-3 formation, Emery relied on Iwobi, Guendouzi, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles to deliver the final ball. That was a big ask. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player, Guendouzi is not a playmaker and Iwobi can be inconsistent.

   Despite all the talk about his improvement under Emery, Iwobi looked again like the player of last season with a limited end product. At 22, Iwobi still has room for development, but right now he doesn’t have the impact of a Ramsey or an Ozil in the final third. Iwobi had 5 successful dribbles, tied with Anderson for the most by any player, but he also led all players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 59th by sending on Ramsey for Mustafi. In his short cameo, Ramsey made as many key passes (2) as Iwobi in the full 90 minutes. The Wales midfielder set up Iwobi, whose low drive sailed wide in the 67th.

   Although Emery’s substitutions didn’t change the outcome of the game, they were more positive than his previous substitutions. Concerned by Arsenal’s defensive issues, Emery has been reluctant to play with more than 3 attacking players. Replacing Lacazette with Ramsey in the Brighton game was obviously the nadir of that conservative approach.

   Emery seems to highly rate Guendouzi. Yet, it’s hard to understand why. Guendouzi is not a box-to-box player with the end product of a Ramsey or the pace and dribbling skills of an Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s not a defensive midfielder either. The French teenager showed his lack of defensive awareness a couple of times against West Ham. He failed to stay with Noble, who played a one-two with Nasri before producing a tame effort in the sixth minute. Again, neither Guendouzi nor Xhaka tracked Anderson, who took a pass from Nasri but missed the target in the 32nd.

Xhaka’s poor defensive instincts

   When Guendouzi is given plenty of time, he can hit accurate balls over the top. But he’s not a playmaker. At the same age, Fabregas had better passing and shooting skills. Guendouzi overhit his final ball in the 66th and 78th and finished the game with 0 key pass. He also took his chance from the edge of the box, missing the target in the 35th and 54th and lacking power in the 68th. Potentially, Guendouzi could become a deep-lying playmaker. But right now he’s not moving the ball quickly enough. It means that Guendouzi is mostly a utility midfielder at this stage of his career. Guendouzi is definitely an upgrade over Elneny because of his work-rate and his ability to win duels. He won 1 of 1 tackle and 62.5% of his duels and made 1 interception and 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website.    

   Guendouzi played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. That’s a flawed partnership because none of them is a natural ballwinner. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Nasri often managed to find pockets of space in midfield and made 3 key passes in his 70-minute performance.

   Emery’s choice to rely on Xhaka as the holding midfielder is questionable. Xhaka’s passing skills can be helpful to play out from the back but he simply lacks the defensive instincts to play in that position. His poor clearance led to Rice’s goal in the 48th. The safe option on that play would have been to head the ball toward Lacazette on the left flank. Some fans wondered why Torreira didn’t start. The Uruguay midfielder’s stats have gone down since the end of December, so Emery wisely decided to limit his playing time, sending him on for Xhaka in the 59th.

The most important game of the season

   Kolasinac can prove a potent threat down the left flank, but the Hammers managed to limit his offensive impact to just 1 key pass. The fact that Kolasinac was caught offside twice tells you that the Hammers studied his game. I’m not surprised that Arsenal extended Monreal’s contract by a year because Kolasinac is a wingback, not a defender. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international failed to track back a couple of times, forcing Koscielny to cover him in the leftback position. Kolasinac also had his share of responsibility in the goal. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Kolasinac allowed Nasri to run in front of him before setting up Rice. The screen capture also shows Arsenal’s poor defensive organization with Rice completely unmarked near the penalty spot.

west ham vs. arsenal m48edRice left unmarked by the Arsenal defense. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Maitland-Niles was caught napping on that play, too. He failed to react despite seeing Rice in a dangerous position. Maybe the most worrying part is the lack of desire Maitland-Niles showed on Saturday, forcing Aubameyang (yes, the top scorer in the Premier League) to cover him down the right flank a couple of times. Maitland-Niles definitely needs to improve his defensive awareness. Cresswell easily skipped past him to make a teasing cross in the 16th and Nasri ran past him to take a pass and muster a shot in the 26th. Offensively, Maitland-Niles was a liability for the Gunners with 0 key pass and a passing accuracy of 65%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player. In the 69th, Emery replaced Maitland-Niles with Bellerin, who was making his return from injury.  

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis was the most active of the 3 centerbacks, making 3 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Koscielny had a decent game although one stat raises some questions: Koscielny was dribbled past 2 times, compared to 0 for Sokratis and Mustafi. However, it was Mustafi who was deemed the weak link when the Gunners shifted to a back four in the 59th. The German defender received a yellow card in the 46th for a mistimed challenge on Anderson.

   The Gunners will play their most important game of the season when they host Chelsea next Saturday. A defeat would end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes whereas they could pull within 3 points of the Blues with a victory. Emery no longer has time to find his best team.

 

 

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Aubameyang fires Gunners to 3-1 win

Aubameyang has a good shot at becoming Arsenal’s Player of the Season. He scored twice in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Burnley as the Gunners bounced back from two straight losses in all competitions to go level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Burnley.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Gabon striker put Arsenal ahead in the 14th minute by stabbing Kolasinac’s offering into the bottom corner. He then concluded a counterattack with a powerful strike to double the lead in the 48th. Aubameyang is the top scorer in the league with 12 goals so far this season. If you add his 3 assists from 18 league games, that’s 0.83 goal or assist per game. Only Hazard (8 goals, 9 assists) and Salah (11 goals, 5 assists) have made a bigger offensive impact.

Is Aubameyang a world-class player? I don’t know, it’s a really close call. He doesn’t have the physicality and hold-up play of a Henry or the technique of a Van Persie, but he’s definitely an upgrade over Giroud, whose lack of pace was a liability on the fast break.

Lacazette led the line under Wenger, forcing Aubameyang to play on the left wing. Emery has a different opinion as Aubameyang has become the first choice for the centerforward position. I think that decision makes sense because Lacazette doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace to stretch a defense. On the other hand, Lacazette has a better all-around game than Aubameyang to play as a second striker or as a false winger.

Giving the keys to Ozil

Despite falling behind in the pecking order, Lacazette has managed to make a significant contribution with 6 goals and 4 assists in 17 league games, for an average of 0.59 goal or assist per game. Lacazette didn’t score against Burnley, but he made 2 key passes, including the assist for Aubameyang’s goal in the second half. Elneny connected with Lacazette’s cross in the eighth minute but his header was blocked by Mee.

Lacazette could have added 2 more key passes but either lacked accuracy or vision. On the stroke of halftime, Lacazette made a run into the box. He first dribbled past Tarkowski and then tried to take on Long instead of setting up Ozil for a 10-yard shot. Long dispossessed Lacazette and the chance was gone. Lacazette also wasted a counterattack in the 62nd by overhitting his return pass for Ozil.

Emery made 5 changes to the side that got knocked out of the League Cup by Spurs with Lacazette, Ozil, Elneny, Kolasinac and Leno replacing Mkhitaryan, Iwobi, Ramsey, Torreira and Cech in the starting lineup. In a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield, Emery gave the keys of the game to Ozil, who had 2 targets with Aubameyang and Lacazette and 3 midfielders (Xhaka, Elneny and Guendouzi) to do the defensive work for him.

That tactical choice paid off as Arsenal reached halftime with the lead for the first time in the Premier League this season. Ozil’s passing skills and reading of the game can make a difference against teams parking the bus. His perfectly weighted cross for Kolasinac in the 14th was a technical wonder. Ozil also created the last goal in stoppage time. He skipped past Long and Mee only to have his shot blocked by Tarkowski. The rebound fell into the path of Iwobi, who beat Hart from close range.

Burnley’s thuggery

That game doesn’t solve the Ozil conundrum, though. Despite his involvement in the first and last goals, Ozil finished the game with 0 key pass. And his work-rate was poor again with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 3 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Because of the hectic schedule and the inconsistency of other attacking midfielders, Emery will definitely play Ozil again. But Ozil has no guarantee of a starting spot.

Iwobi came off the bench to replace Lacazette in the 78th. His goal in stoppage time shouldn’t hide his lack of end product this season. In fact, Iwobi is the most inefficient of our attacking midfielders with 2 goals and 2 assists in 15 league games for an average of 0.26 goal or assist per game. Ramsey has 1 goal and 6 assist in 15 games (0.47), followed by Mkhitaryan with 4 goals and 1 assist in 14 games (0.36) and Ozil with 3 goals and 1 assist in 12 games (0.33). Fans and pundits often mention how Iwobi has improved under Emery, but he’s simply on course to match his stats from last season, when he notched 3 goals and 5 assists in 26 games (0.31) under Wenger.

If you’re a neutral spectator, you don’t want to see Burnley in the Premier League. The Clarets play a boring, outdated brand of football, relying on long balls, second balls and borderline physicality. Dyche complained after the game about some Gunners going to the ground easily. That was a poor attempt to distract attention from the Clarets’ thuggery.

Barnes was booked for holding Sokratis in a headlock while the ball was out of play in the 35th. The Burnley forward got away with the benefit of the doubt for kneeing Guendouzi in the back in the 50th. But I thought Barnes should have been sent off in the 57th for a deliberate stamp on Guendouzi’s chest. Dyche can be thankful that Guendouzi didn’t play act to draw the referee’s attention.

Guendouzi’s composure

Surprisingly, Arsenal matched Burnley’s aggression in a good way by winning 17 of 23 tackles compared to 16 of 23 tackles for the visitors, according to whoscored.com. Despite his young age, Guendouzi kept his cool when Cork in the 60th and Wood in the 75th stamped on him. Guendouzi started alongside Elneny and Xhaka in midfield. The French teenager still has a tendency to take too many touches. He killed the momentum of a counterattack in the seventh minute by failing to see Aubameyang’s run and holding onto the ball. Defensively, he showed his naivety in the second minute by failing to stay with Westwood on a counterattack. Barnes fed Westwood, who fired wide. On the bright side, Guendouzi started the fast break that led to the second goal by finding Kolasinac with a ball over the top.

Elneny made his first start in the league under Emery. It’s easy to understand why the Spanish manager doesn’t rate him. Elneny struggles to win duels and lacks end product in the final third. The Egypt international led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He wasted an interesting situation in the 20th by having a shot blocked instead of feeding Ozil.

Emery yanked Elneny off to send on Torreira in the 59th. Guendouzi and Elneny were no match for Torreira’s work-rate. In his short cameo, Torreira won 2 of 3 tackles and made 1 interception and 2 recoveries, compared to 1 of 1 tackle and 2 recoveries for Guendouzi and 1 of 3 tackles and 2 recoveries for Elneny, according to the club’s website. Torreira was unlucky to have his clearance charged down for Burnley’s goal in the 63rd. In hindsight, maybe Xhaka could have cleared the danger himself instead of making a risky pass to Torreira.

Maitland-Niles learning the hard way

Xhaka started as the holding midfielder before moving to the centerback position in the 37th when Lichtsteiner replaced an injured Monreal. The Switzerland midfielder gave the ball away in dangerous situations in the 9th and the 80th. He also failed to challenge for a long ball in the 18th, letting Burnley have a scoring chance but Westwood missed the target. Signing a centerback in January might be an option for the club because there’s no way Arsenal can continue to rely on Xhaka and Lichtsteiner as makeshift centerbacks.

Maitland-Niles deputized for Bellerin at rightback. Saturday’s game against a weak side was a good opportunity for him to shine. But Maitland-Niles showed that he’s still a raw player who needs to improve his reading of the game. He never made the kind of dangerous runs that Kolasinac and Bellerin usually make. Maitland-Niles started brightly, testing Hart in the second and the 20th minutes, before fading in the second half. The Clarets targeting him on long balls by creating unfavorable matchups in the air. Maitland-Niles lost his aerial duel against Mee in the 63rd when Burnley capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to score. Tarkowski also beat Maitland-Niles in the air to set up Taylor, whose low strike sailed wide in the 81st. Maitland-Niles will have to work on his jump and find ways to put off taller opponents. He will also have to be more tidy in possession as the Clarets robbed him 3 times.

On the opposite flank, Kolasinac was a constant threat for the Burnley defense. He made the assist for Aubameyang’s opener and made the penultimate pass for the second goal by picking out Lacazette. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also created chances for Elneny in the 20th and for Lacazette in the 66th. Aubameyang certainly lacked flair in the 88th when he decided to stay back instead of jumping into the six-yard box to meet Kolasinac’s teasing cross. Technically, Kolasinac had one of his best games with a passing accuracy of 92.1% while it’s usually below 80%.

A busy Christmas period

Sokratis marshalled the defense at the back, winning 5 of 5 aerial duels and having 0 turnover, according to whoscored.com. Holding’s long-term injury, Koscielny’s poor form and Mustafi’s absence mean that Sokratis is Emery’s most reliable option at centerback right now. Sokratis was unfazed by Burnley’s physical approach. In fact, he even seemed to enjoy it. Sokratis won 2 of 2 tackles, and made 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries. He also led all players by winning 72.7% of his duels, according to the club’s website. His only blemish of the game was the yellow card he received in the 41st for holding Barnes. Sokratis was too tight to Barnes and ended up on the wrong side of the Burnley striker.

Monreal’s relapse is depriving Emery of options because the Spanish defender can play at fullback and centerback. At 32, Monreal’s best years are behind him. The club will need to sign a leftback next summer to make up for Kolasinac’s defensive lapses and Monreal’s physical decline. Monreal was pulled out of position for Burnley’s first scoring chance in the second minute. His replacement, Lichtsteiner, left Barnes unmarked for the visitors’ lone goal in the 63rd. Seven minutes later, Lichtsteiner switched off again by failing to close down Cork, who fired wide.

In his first season in England, Emery is already aware of the busy Christmas period. The Spanish manager rested Koscielny, Ramsey and Torreira. Koscielny was left out of the squad, Ramsey stayed on the bench and Torreira only played 35 minutes in the second half. The Gunners visit Brighton on Wednesday and Liverpool on Saturday. Arsenal must stay within a couple of points of fourth place after those 2 away games, otherwise a Top 4 finish might become too difficult.

Arsenal vs. Qarabag: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win

In Thursday’s dead rubber, the Gunners edged Qarabag 1-0 in the Europa League to extend their unbeaten run to 22 games in all competitions. Despite what the scoreline might suggest, it was a one-sided encounter with Arsenal enjoying 67% of ball possession and having 11 goal attempts to just 1 for the Azerbaijani side.

Arsenal vs. Qarabag.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Gunners had already secured a first-place finish in Group E before this game. Therefore Emery took no risk by leaving 9 first-team players out of the squad (Cech, Leno, Bellerin, Lichtsteiner, Kolasinac, Torreira, Xhaka, Iwobi and Aubameyang). The Spanish manager still fielded an experienced side with only 3 academy players in the starting lineup (Willock, Nketiah and Saka). In case of trouble, Emery had Monreal, Mkhitaryan and Guendouzi on the bench. Monreal came off the bench in the second half while Mkhitaryan and Guendouzi were not even used.

  1. The captain is back

Koscielny finally made his first appearance this season after tearing his Achilles tendon in May. There were some concerns over his fitness because he had only played a couple of games with the U23 team, but the French centerback looked sharp with a passing accuracy of 100%. The small crowd at the Emirates stadium warmly applauded Koscielny when Monreal replaced him in the 72nd minute. Koscielny produced a low-key performance, winning 1 tackle and 1 of 2 aerial duels and making 0 interception, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis had slightly better stats, winning 1 tackle and 2 of 3 aerial duels and making 2 interceptions.

  1. Saka showed personality

For his first Arsenal start, Saka wasn’t impressed by the big stage. The 17-year-old winger had 3 of 4 shots on target, 1 key pass, and led all players with 8 successful dribbles out of 10, according to whoscored.com. Saka tested Vagner with a curling shot in the ninth minute for Arsenal’s first scoring chance. He should have found the net in the 89th but fired straight at the goalkeeper from 8 yards. While youngsters like Nketiah and Smith-Rowe sometimes struggle with the physicality of the game, Saka is surprisingly quite strong in challenges for a teenager. Saka might prove a fantastic asset in the next few years as Mkhitaryan and Iwobi lack efficiency in the wide positions while Welbeck’s future at the club is uncertain.

  1. Nketiah is still a work in progress

Since his heroics in the League Cup against Norwich last year, Nketiah has struggled to have an impact with the first team. Nketiah keeps shining with the U23 side but the gap with the top leagues is massive. At 19, Nketiah still has time on his side though. He showed good work-rate against Qarabag by winning 5 tackles, tied with Willock for the most by any player. His defensive work in the 16th forced the turnover that led to the winning goal. However, his end product was a bit disappointing with 0 of 1 shot on target and 1 key pass. Nketiah headed a corner over the bar in the 37th and created the golden chance for Saka in the 89th. He headed home a cross from Saka in the 76th but the goal was disallowed for offside. Nketiah also needs to be more tidy in possession. He had 6 turnovers compared to 4 for Saka.

  1. Ozil made his return from a back injury

The quality of his passing was badly missed against Huddersfield last weekend. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes before Emery yanked him off in the 83rd to send on Gilmour. The German playmaker created the winner in the 16th by finding Lacazette inside the area. Lacazette rounded Huseynov to shoot past Vagner from a tight angle. The key question this season is whether Ozil will follow Emery’s tactical instructions. Pressing is a team effort. The whole chain can be broken if one player fails to close down an opponent. If Ozil improves his work-rate, he will be a regular starter. Otherwise, he will only be an impact player coming off the bench.

  1. Elneny should be sold next summer

The Egypt international is not decisive enough. Defensively, Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi win more tackles than Elneny. Offensively, Torreira and Guendouzi are more creative than Elneny while Xhaka is more useful for set pieces. On Thursday, Elneny won 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 1 key pass, compared to 5 tackles won, 1 interception and 1 key pass for Willock. Elneny’s main asset is that he’s more experienced and more tidy in possession than Willock. He had 2 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 95.9% compared to 4 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 88.5% for Willock.

 

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Lucky Gunners get back to winning ways

The Gunners made up ground in the Top 4 race with an ugly 2-1 win at Bournemouth on Sunday. They snapped a 3-game winless streak in the Premier League to move within a point of Chelsea in the standings. Emery had a tactical surprise for the Cherries as he switched from his favorite 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 system. The Spanish manager had already used a back three against Qarabag in the Europa League, mostly to give some playing time to Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner. But it was the first time that Emery relied on such a system in the Premier League.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The tactical shift made sense because it provided cover to Bellerin and Kolasinac down the flanks, where Fraser and Brooks could cause a lot of damage and feed Wilson and King. The downside of that shift is that Emery basically replaced an attacking player, Ozil, with a centerback, Sokratis, in his starting lineup. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners struggled to create clear-cut chances: they never really found any rhythm in their passing game and made no through ball attempt. By contrast, Manchester City and Liverpool made 5 and 3 through ball attempts on Saturday, respectively.

The 3-4-3 formation played to Kolasinac’s strengths because he’s more a wingback than a proper fullback. In fact, Kolasinac turned out to be Arsenal’s main attacking threat at the Vitality stadium. He created the opening goal in the 30th minute with a cross that Lerma catapulted into his own net. Kolasinac then set up the winning goal by squaring the ball back to Aubameyang in the 67th. While the Cherries managed to keep Bellerin quiet, they seemed to underestimate Kolasinac, who also had 2 scoring chances. Kolasinac tested Begovic with a cross-shot in the 22nd. A minute later, Kolasinac met a cross from Aubameyang, only to head the ball wide.

Benching Ozil

Kolasinac played a key role for both goals but his passing accuracy of 63.2%, which is low compared to Bellerin’s 93.8%, betrayed his technical limitations. Likewise, Kolasinac’s stats showed some decent work-rate with 3 tackles won, 2 interceptions and 3 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website, but he was pulled out of position for Bournemouth’s equalizer on the stroke of halftime. I expect Monreal to remain the first choice at leftback when he recovers from his hamstring injury.

Despite netting the winning goal, Aubameyang struggled in the final third with just 1 of 4 shots on target. Aubameyang fired over the bar from 10 yards after Bournemouth failed to clear a corner in the 23rd. To his credit, Aubameyang made numerous runs to stretch the Bournemouth defense. He was also involved in his team’s passing game with 2 shot assists, tied with Kolasinac and Mkhitaryan for the most by an Arsenal player.

Will that performance change Emery’s opinion about what is Aubameyang’s best position? Lacazette was not in the squad because of a groin injury. Emery seems to like using Lacazette as a false nine even though he doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace. On the other hand, Ozil was fit but Emery decided to leave him on the bench, preferring to start Iwobi and Mkhitaryan as inside forwards. It’s easy to understand Emery’s rationale here. The Cherries work their socks off and Ozil tends to struggle in away games. So Mkhitaryan got the nod over Ozil.

Mkhitaryan short on confidence

Mkhitaryan had a poor game with only 1 of 7 shots on target. He also led all players with 9 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. And his 2 key passes somehow hid his lack of creativity as he simply set up Torreira and Aubameyang for long-range efforts in the 10th and 64th. Mkhitaryan definitely has Emery’s backing, otherwise he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup. Yet, he performed like a player short on confidence. One play in the 69th summed up his struggles. Aubameyang led a counterattack by running 50 yards with the ball before slipping the ball to Mkhitaryan. The Armenia international was in a perfect position for a first-time effort but he opted to control the ball. His first touch was so poor that the ball got away from Mkhitaryan, who ended up kicking the ball out of play.

Iwobi has improved under Emery but there are still parts of his game that remain quite frustrating. Let’s start with the positives. Pulling the strings in midfield, Iwobi made the penultimate pass for both goals and had 2 of 3 shots on target. His low drive in the 21st didn’t trouble Begovic while his curling shot in the 34th forced the Bournemouth goalkeeper to palm the ball away.

Let’s talk now about the negatives. We know about Iwobi’s great potential since Wenger played him in the No. 10 role. However, his work-rate and his end product have often been questionable. Iwobi didn’t work hard enough against Bournemouth, making no tackle, no block, no interception and just 3 recoveries. That’s why Emery replaced him with Ramsey in the 82nd to protect Arsenal’s lead. Iwobi only won 16.7% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. That reputation of softie won’t go away until if he puts in a shift like Welbeck does.

Throwing away the lead with 16 seconds left

Another flaw that Iwobi needs to fix is decision-making in the final third. Last season, Iwobi had that tendency to run into traffic even though he doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Neymar or Hazard. It’s true that Iwobi can occasionally nutmeg a defender along the touchline but he needs a lot of room to beat an opponent.

In stoppage time of the first half, the Gunners had an opportunity to double the lead. But Iwobi showed poor decision-making and his turnover led to Bournemouth’s equalizer. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Iwobi had two very good passing options: he could have teed up Bellerin for a mid-range shot or played Torreira in with a reverse pass.

Bournemouth M45a edited Iwobi has 2 good passing options with Torreira and Bellerin. (Photo credit: Sky)

With his back to goal and surrounded by 3 Cherries, Iwobi attempted a dribbling trick. As you can see on the screen capture below, Daniels dispossessed Iwobi and the ball fell to Fraser who initiated a fast break.

Bournemouth M45b edited.jpgSurrounded by 3 defenders, Iwobi loses possession to Daniels. (Photo credit: Sky)

In hindsight, Arsenal would have been better off if Iwobi had fired into the stands. There were only 16 seconds left to play before the end of the first half. Without Iwobi’s error of judgment, the Gunners would have reached halftime with the lead for the first time in the league this season.

Torreira as a box-to-box player

Fraser released Wilson down our right flank, and the Bournemouth striker bought a bit of time before picking out Brooks on the edge of the Arsenal box. Brooks slipped the ball to King, who curled into the far corner to level the game. If you look at the screen capture below, it wasn’t a disastrous situation yet when Fraser fed Wilson.

Bournemouth M45c edited.jpgArsenal in a ‘favorable’ 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

However, the Gunners wasted their numerical superiority with some poor positional play. Fraser sped past Xhaka in midfield after releasing the ball. Xhaka decided to track Fraser instead of passing him on to Sokratis. When Xhaka realized Fraser made a dummy run, it was already too late. As you can see on the screen capture below, there was a huge gap between Holding on the left side of the pitch and Sokratis, Xhaka and Mustafi on the right side.

Bournemouth M45d edited.jpgFraser’s dummy run creates a huge gap between Holding and Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Cherries exploited that disequilibrium by overloading the left side of the Arsenal defense with late runs from Brooks and King. On the screen capture below, you can see that Holding was in an unfavorable 1v2 situation because Kolasinac didn’t track back while Sokratis and Xhaka were too far to help Holding. Xhaka made the key mistake on that play by failing to plug the gap between Sokratis and Holding.

Bournemouth M45e edited.jpgHolding in a 1v2 situation with Brooks and King. (Photo credit: Sky)

You might wonder why Xhaka was the holding midfielder in that game. The Gunners are an attacking player short in a 3-4-3 formation compared to the 4-2-3-1 system. Emery therefore used Torreira as a box-to-box player to provide support to Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. A more natural team selection would have been to play Torreira as the holding midfielder and Ramsey as the box-to-box player.

Still feeling like a Wenger team

Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka mainly because he’s more mobile than the Switzerland international. Emery’s tactical gamble nearly paid off in the ninth minute when Torreira won the ball in midfield and hit the post with a 22-yard drive. Torreira led all midfielders by winning 75% of his duels, according to the club’s website. He was also reliable technically with a passing accuracy of 90.8% compared to 85.1% for Xhaka. Emery yanked Torreira off in the 79th because the Uruguay international felt a bout of fatigue.

As a holding midfielder, Xhaka had decent stats with 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries. But there are always moments in a game when his lack of defensive awareness will let him down. His positional play on the equalizer was poor. Xhaka also put his team in trouble with a poor clearance in the 85th. The ball fell to Lerma, who rattled the post with a 30-yard strike.

Last season, Wenger also relied on a 3-4-3 formation in an effort to stop conceding goals before switching back to a more traditional 4-3-3 system in December. Out of intellectual curiosity, it would have been interesting to know who Wenger would have played in central midfield. Torreira and Ramsey? Or Ramsey and Xhaka just like last season? Or Torreira and Xhaka like Emery did on Sunday?

Emery is the new Arsenal manager but it still feels very much like a Wenger team. Bournemouth exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on counterattacks, a typical trait of Arsenal under Wenger. In other games, the Gunners also struggled to defend crosses. There have been defensive improvements under Emery, but they have been incremental.

Mustafi’s curse

The Spanish manager definitely has a positive influence on Holding and Bellerin. While Holding had lapses of concentration and showed poor decision-making under Wenger, he now looks close to fulfilling his potential. Holding won 62.5% of his duels on Sunday, more than Sokratis (60%) and Mustafi (47.1%) according to the club’s website. Likewise, Bellerin has refound the balance in his game between attack and defense.

Of course, Emery can’t perform miracles. Kolasinac and Mustafi still look as dodgy defensively as they were under Wenger. Mustafi was very active with 3 tackles, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries. The German centerback covered Bellerin in the third minute to kill a counterattack with a timely challenge on Fraser. He also recovered the ball in the 48th after Lerma intercepted Holding’s pass.

But you know that Mustafi will always have an error in him. He completely missed his tackle on King in the eighth minute. The Bournemouth forward fed Brooks, who beat Leno from close range. However, the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside. Looking at TV replays several times, I couldn’t even tell with certainty whether Brooks was offside. Mustafi also showed poor judgment in the 54th by diving in near the Bournemouth area as the Cherries launched a counterattack. The threat came to an end when Brooks overhit his cross. In the last minute of injury time, Mustafi gave away a silly free kick with a reckless challenge on Wilson. Fortunately, Stanislas missed the target with the subsequent free kick.

I’m not sure what was the idea behind signing Sokratis. His decision-making is sound but he lacks the pace to play a high defensive line. Sokratis clearly struggled to cope with King’s movement. King toyed with Sokratis in the 65th before cutting the ball back for Brooks, who shot straight at Leno. To contain King’s speed, Sokratis often tried to put his body between the ball and King -some kind of legal obstruction. But in the 25th King got the better of Sokratis, who received a yellow card for holding the Bournemouth forward.

Emery’s 1st North London derby

Sokratis’ ball-playing abilities are also limited. He’s an old-fashioned centerback and doesn’t help build up play from the back like Stones or Alderweireld. The Greek defender missed his clearance in the 18th and was lucky to see the ball bounce off Wilson and roll out of play. Sokratis nearly scored an own goal with another poor clearance in the 89th but Leno reacted quickly enough to palm the ball away. Is Sokratis the replacement for an aging Koscielny? In his prime, Koscielny was a much better defender than Sokratis. There’s no way Koscielny could have missed his interception like Sokratis did in the 80th when Daniels made a cross for Stanislas, whose toe poke was saved by Leno.

Leno has consolidated his starting spot with another decent performance. The German goalkeeper made 5 routine saves but his passing accuracy dipped to 42.9%, in part because the Cherries pressed high up the pitch to prevent Arsenal from playing out from the back.

The Gunners next visit Vorskla in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Tottenham in the Premier League on Sunday. The North London derby is obviously the most important game of the two because it could decide the Top 4 race whereas Arsenal would still lead Group E with a defeat in Ukraine. Spurs have a slight edge after their impressive performance against Chelsea last Saturday.

Arsenal vs. Wolverhampton: Leno’s heroics salvage a point

The international break is coming at the right time for the Gunners who are running out of steam. Arsenal salvaged a 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton on Sunday for their third straight draw in all competitions to stay fifth in the Premier League.

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

It looks like the Gunners are hitting the wall after their 11-game winning streak was snapped at Crystal Palace. Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession against the Wolves but simply lacked the passing speed and the movement to destabilize a compact defense. In fact, the Gunners struggled so badly to create clear-cut chances that they had 0 shot on target in the first half.

On paper, Arsenal should have earned 3 points because the Wolves had lost their 3 previous games in the league. On the pitch, the Gunners were lucky to split the points because Wolverhampton proved the better team, winning 53% of the duels and having 5 shots on target to just 3 for Arsenal, according to the club’s website.

Emery did his best to inject some freshness by making 9 changes to the side that drew with Sporting Lisbon on Thursday with only Holding and Iwobi retaining their starting spots. Unfortunately, Sunday’s game showed that the Gunners are almost back to square one. Emery still doesn’t know what his best team is after 4 months of competition.

I thought the Spanish manager got his starting lineup wrong by not including Ramsey, whose runs can make a difference against teams parking the bus. At the start of the season, Emery built his team around Ramsey. Of course, the trouble is that Emery played Ramsey in the hole, which is not his best position. Then Emery changed his mind and decided to build the team around Ozil, who’s a better fit for the No. 10 position. Ozil shone in the 3-1 win over Leicester, but it turned out to be a false dawn because Ozil simply lacks the consistency to become the cornerstone of a team. Wenger also tried and failed. The French manager played Ozil behind the striker before moving him to the right flank.

Starved of service

Some fans say that Ozil should get the nod over Ramsey because Ozil is tied to the club until 2021 whereas Ramsey’s contract will end next summer. Contract talks between Ramsey and the club collapsed at the end of September. Is it a coincidence if Ramsey hasn’t started a Premier League game since the 2-0 win over Watford?

Making a team selection based on politics doesn’t make sense because it would be against the interests of the club. How do you finish in the Top 4 if you’re not starting your best player? Last season, Arsenal had no certainty over the future of Ozil and Sanchez at the club. Yet, Wenger kept starting them because he thought the Gunners had a better chance of winning games with Ozil and Sanchez on the pitch.

Despite Ozil’s presence in the starting lineup, Lacazette and Aubameyang were starved of service on Sunday. They only mustered one shot each. Lacazette had Arsenal’s only chance of the first half. Ozil made a pass across the area to Lacazette, whose close-range effort was blocked by Coady in the 22nd minute. Aubameyang was in a better situation in the 73rd when Bellerin made a low cross. But the Gabon striker hit the post from 7 yards. It was a big miss that hurt the Gunners’ chances of winning the match.

Arsenal’s tactical options were limited because Aubameyang and Lacazette don’t have the physicality and aerial threat of a Giroud to blow up a congested area. Unsurprisingly, the Wolves won 65% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. You might say that the Citizens don’t have strikers who can dominate in the air. However, the big difference between Arsenal and Manchester City is that Guardiola can rely on dribblers like Sterling, Mahrez and Sane to penetrate in the final third. Some Arsenal fans will mention Iwobi, but the Nigeria international doesn’t have the ability to dribble in tight spaces like an Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The need for more creativity

The Gunners couldn’t challenge in the air or dribble past defenders. So the only option left was the passing game. Arsenal’s main problem this season has been the inconsistency of the creative players. Starting on the right wing, Iwobi had a poor game with 0 key pass and was replaced at halftime by Guendouzi. In the No. 10 position, Ozil managed to make just 2 key passes.

Emery shifted from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-1-2 system at halftime in the hope of giving Ozil better passing options. The idea was to use Ozil like a quarterback with Lacazette and Aubameyang as receivers. It didn’t really work. Ozil overhit his cross for Aubameyang in the 66th. Out of frustration, Ozil slammed the ball against the ground three minutes later and got booked by the referee.

When your attacking midfielders have an off day, the alternative is to create chances from a deeper position. Unfortunately, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the passing and dribbling skills of a Cazorla. It’s no coincidence if the club’s struggles to finish in the Top 4 started with Cazorla’s long-term injuries. In the past two seasons, the Gunners have lost a lot of creativity in midfield with the departures of Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Signing an upgrade over Xhaka should be a priority next summer.

The lack of movement in the final third also contributed to Arsenal’s poor passing game. In fact, the poor work-rate of some players was shocking. Iwobi made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 1 recovery in the first half. By contrast, Wolverhampton forward Costa made 1 interception, 7 recoveries and 4 fouls.

Looking like a Wenger team

Realizing that Ozil had no impact on the game, Emery replaced Ozil and Kolasinac with Ramsey and Mkhitaryan in the 75th. Xhaka was moved to the leftback position while the team played in some kind of 4-2-4 formation. Ramsey nearly made the difference with one of his runs in the 86th, trapping a ball over the top from Guendouzi and spinning away from a defender only to be denied by Patricio. The equalizer came from the subsequent corner, quickly taken by Xhaka. The ball fell to Ramsey, who set up Mkhitaryan for a cross. Aubameyang couldn’t climb high enough to head the ball, which sailed past Patricio and into the far corner.

Besides the equalizer, the Gunners were also lucky to concede just one goal. They looked so much like a Wenger team on Sunday, vulnerable on at least 5 counterattacks from the Wolves. The visitors took advantage of some poor decision-making from Xhaka to open the scoring in the 13th. Kolasinac made a routine pass to Xhaka, who thought there was a teammate behind him and let the ball roll past him. Cavaleiro pounced on the loose ball and found Jimenez, who played the ball back to Cavaleiro. Poorly tracked by Xhaka inside the area, Cavaleiro beat Leno with a first-time effort.

To put it bluntly, a midfield trio of Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil is not good enough to protect the defense. Torreira and Xhaka had an outstanding game against Liverpool but it’s unlikely that they will be able to repeat that kind of performance on a regular basis. Xhaka still lacks defensive awareness and is simply too error-prone.

Torreira had a decent game, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Uruguay midfielder contributed offensively with a dipping drive that Patricio turned aside in the 60th. Defensively, Torreira should have been more cautious in his positional play in the 84th. Leading a counterattack, Traore rolled away from Torreira to pick out Jimenez, who made a cross for Jota. Leno prevented Wolverhampton from doubling the lead by saving Jota’s close-range effort. In stoppage time, Leno was rescued by luck as Gibbs-White struck the post from 25 yards.

Kolasinac’s limitations

At the back, Kolasinac showed his technical limitations again. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 76.9%, much weaker than Bellerin’s 88.2% on the opposite flank. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international whipped his cross beyond Lacazette in the 17th and made a sloppy pass in the 72nd. Whoscored.com even credited Kolasinac with 2 errors. Kolasinac missed his clearance in the 36th and the ball fell to Doherty, who set up Jimenez for a low drive. Then, his first touch was so poor in the 62nd that the ball bounced 5 yards away from him and led to a turnover.

The Wolves knew Kolasinac was a limited threat and focused instead on Bellerin, who leads Arsenal with 4 assists so far this season. The visitors clearly did their homework as they intercepted Iwobi’s passes to Bellerin in the 27th and 31st. Despite Wolverhampton’s close scrutiny, Bellerin still managed to make 1 key pass and have 1 scoring chance. Xhaka cut the ball back for Bellerin, who missed the target with his weaker left foot in the 70th. Three minutes later, Bellerin created a golden chance for Aubameyang who hit the post. The Spaniard showed his more cynical side in the 78th by holding back Traore to kill a counterattack.

Holding has been one of the young players improving under Emery. His performance on Sunday was a mixed bag. Holding made 11 recoveries, tied with Torreira for the most by a Gunner. He intercepted Neves’ through ball for Jimenez in the 11th and outmuscled Jimenez inside the box in the 50th. However, the Wolves capitalized on Holding’s average pace twice. Costa beat Holding to a 50-50 ball on a fast break in the 23rd. The Wolverhampton forward was denied by Leno, who reacted quickly enough to beat Jimenez to the rebound. In stoppage time, Traore won a foot race with Holding on a counterattack. The pacy substitute struggled to control the ball, allowing Holding to make up ground. Holding slid for a desperate block attempt, forcing Traore to cut inside. Leno quickly came off his line to save Traore’s close-range effort.

Leno’s Man of the Match performance

Mustafi looked more shaky than Holding. The German defender read the game well enough to clear dangerous crosses in the 28th and 63rd. But his technique let him down a couple of times. Mustafi’s passes for Bellerin rolled out of play in the 67th and 76th. Then his poor first touch led to a dangerous turnover in the 83rd. Arsenal also had to deal with an unfavorable 2v3 situation in the 84th because Mustafi was stranded up the pitch, forcing Bellerin to cover him.

In goal, Leno produced a Man of the Match performance. He pulled off a couple of outstanding saves to prevent Wolverhampton from winning the game. Cech’s hamstring injury was a blessing in disguise for Emery. Cech is one of the leaders in the dressing room, so it could have been tricky to justify the change of goalkeeper in the starting lineup. Leno proved himself during Cech’s absence and gave Emery no reason to drop him after Cech’s return from injury. From the moment Leno can match Cech’s shot-stopping skills, he will have the edge over Cech because of his better distribution and his ability to play out from the back.

The Gunners have no maneuvering room in the Top 4 race after dropping points against Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton. They will play Bournemouth, Tottenham and Manchester United after the international break. That run of games could decide Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes as they trail Spurs by 3 points and are 4 points clear of the Cherries and the Red Devils. A string of poor results could mean the end of the honeymoon period for Emery.