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.
Photo 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.
Elneny 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.
Ozil 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.
The 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.