Tag Archives: Ozil

Valencia vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 4-2 win

   The Gunners will play a European final for the first time since 2006 after sinking Valencia 4-2 in the second leg of the Europa League semifinals on Thursday. The Spanish side enjoyed 58% of ball possession and had 18 goal attempts to 10, but Arsenal proved more clinical with 6 shots on target to 3, according to the UEFA statistics.

Valencia vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that won the first leg 3-1 with Torreira and Monreal replacing Guendouzi and Mustafi in the starting lineup. The 3-5-2 formation gave no real protection to the wingbacks, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Occasionally, Aubameyang and Lacazette tracked back the Valencia fullbacks when Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles were busy with the wingers, Guedes and Wass.

   The Gunners had a sluggish start like in the first leg. Quite a few Arsenal fans became nervous when Valencia opened the scoring in the 11th minute because the Spanish side could have qualified with a 2-0 victory. But Aubameyang’s equalizer in the 17th calmed the nerves. Lacazette virtually put an end to Valencia’s hopes by making it 2-1 in the 50th. Because of the away-goal rule, the Bats needed to win by a three-goal margin to qualify.

  1. A telepathic understanding

   Signing Aubameyang has been the best legacy of Wenger’s last season at the club. His understanding with Lacazette has played a key role in Arsenal’s scoring form. There were flashes of their telepathic understanding in the first half. The equalizer came from a goal kick by Cech in the 17th. Paulista, a former Gunner, headed the ball up in the air. Lacazette outjumped Paulista to win the second ball and knock it down. Aubameyang anticipated the bounce and ran past Lacazette to chest the ball forward before drilling a snapshot into the bottom corner. The duo swapped roles in the 39th. Aubameyang charged down the right flank to set up Lacazette, whose curling shot clipped the near post.  

  1. Aubameyang rose to the occasion

   On Thursday, Aubameyang arguably produced his most complete performance in an Arsenal shirt. He notched a hat trick, had 3 successful dribbles out of 6, made 1 interception, and won 4 of 8 aerial duels and 1 of 2 tackles, according to whoscored.com. The Gabon striker also had a hand in Lacazette’s goal, making a sliding tackle to dispossess Gaya in the 50th before Torreira found Lacazette on the edge of the box.

   Aubameyang gave the Gunners a 3-2 lead in the 69th by making a run to the near post to convert Maitland-Niles’ low cross. In the closing minutes, Aubameyang swapped passes with Guendouzi before letting the ball run past him and into the path of Mkhitaryan, who played Aubameyang in with a first-time pass. From a tight angle, Aubameyang fired into the roof of the net to seal the win. The Valencia defense struggled to cope with Aubameyang’s movement. Aubameyang lost his marker in the 25th but headed Xhaka’s corner over the bar. Then Aubameyang took a pass from Ozil in the 32nd only to hit a tame drive straight at Neto.    

  1. Lacazette was motivated

   Before joining Arsenal, Lacazette played many Europa League games with Lyon but never managed to reach the final. In his last season at the French club, Lacazette was knocked out by Ajax Amsterdam in the semifinals. Lacazette scored Arsenal’s second goal in the 50th, dancing around 2 defenders before burying the ball into the far corner on the turn. He produced an outstanding all-around performance like Aubameyang, making 1 interception, having 4 successful dribbles out of 6, and winning 3 of 8 aerial duels and 1 of 1 tackle. In the last minute of stoppage time, Lacazette received a yellow card for his involvement in a brawl with Paulista.      

  1. Why did Ozil start in an away game?

   Ozil was anonymous at the Mestalla stadium. He was not involved in any of the four goals. It was a strange choice by Emery to start Ozil, knowing his poor performances on the road. Ozil’s work-rate was so weak that Parejo had plenty of time and space to pull the strings in midfield. The German playmaker looked unhappy when Emery replaced him with Mkhitaryan in the 62nd, but Mkhitaryan did more in his 30-minute cameo than Ozil in his 61-minute performance.

   Mkhitaryan won 1 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 1 assist, while Ozil won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 interception and 0 assist. In the final against Chelsea, it would be suicidal to give so much freedom to Jorginho. Arsenal defeated the Blues 2-0 in the Premier League because Ramsey marked Jorginho out of the match. In Baku, Mkhitaryan would be a better choice than Ozil to press the Chelsea midfielder.  

  1. What happened to Torreira?

   Torreira is not performing at the same level as in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder was involved in both goals scored by Valencia. As you can see on the screen capture below, Torreira failed to cover Maitland-Niles on the right flank when Neto released the ball to start a counterattack. Instead of marking Guedes to his right, Torreira made the wrong decision and ran toward Rodrigo, who was already marked by Koscielny in the center circle. Rodrigo spread the ball wide to an unmarked Guedes, who bought a bit of time before playing the ball back to Rodrigo. The Valencia striker then made a cross for Gameiro, who opened the scoring with a sliding effort at the far post. The Gunners initially had a favorable 3v2 situation, but Torreira’s poor decision-making forced Sokratis to close down Guedes and led to a 2v2 situation.

Valencia M11ed.jpgTorreira should have marked Guedes on the right flank. (Photo credit: BT)

   Parejo took advantage of Torreira’s passivity to feed Wass in the 58th. The Denmark international cut the ball back for Rodrigo, whose shot hit Gameiro. Benefiting from a lucky bounce, Gameiro bundled the ball over the goal line to level the game at 2-2. To his credit, Torreira made the assist for Lacazette’s goal, but his defensive work was unconvincing. Torreira was dribbled past twice, tied with Maitland-Niles for the most by an Arsenal player, and won just 1 of 3 tackles, compared to 2 of 3 tackles for Valencia ballwinner Coquelin. I believe the club will need to sign another defensive midfielder this summer because Torreira and Xhaka don’t give enough protection to the defense.  

  1. Maitland-Niles grew into the game

   The academy graduate has often felt intimidated or inhibited in away games this season. It was no surprise to see Valencia target him. Maitland-Niles gave the ball away twice in the fourth minute. His missed interception in the 14th led to a scoring chance for Rodrigo, whose shot was inadvertently blocked by Gameiro. In the 43rd, Gaya even tried to win a penalty by knocking the ball forward before initiating contact with Maitland-Niles’ leg. But the referee was not conned and booked Gaya for diving. Maitland-Niles felt more confident in the second half and outpaced Guedes down the right flank in the 69th to set up Aubameyang for Arsenal’s third goal. Still, Maitland-Niles will have to work on his passing accuracy because he finished the game with a percentage of 63.6%, the lowest among outfield starters.    

  1. Monreal is looking his age

   At 33, Monreal is past his prime, unfortunately. He lost the key duel against Gameiro for Valencia’s opener in the 11th and he played Gameiro onside for the French striker’s second goal in the 58th. Other defenders were also guilty. Koscielny failed to block Rodrigo’s cross for the first goal while Kolasinac failed to track Wass for the second. Monreal worked hard, leading all players with 5 interceptions, but the club definitely needs younger and better options at leftback.

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Arsenal vs. Brighton: Gunners throw away lead to finish outside Top 4

  The Gunners showed mental weakness in the clutch. Their Top 4 hopes came to an end after they drew 1-1 with Brighton on Sunday. Theoretically, Arsenal could still finish level on points with Spurs in the Premier League, but there’s no way that the Gunners could overturn a goal difference of eight. Now the only question left is: Who will finish sixth between Arsenal and Manchester United?

Arsenal vs. Brighton.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   A month ago, the Gunners still had the Top 4 race in their hands after they defeated Newcastle to move into third place. But they have blown their best chance of qualifying for the Champions League by having a poor run of form at the worst moment of the season, earning only a point from their last 4 league games.

   It is quite ironic that Arsenal paid tribute to the departing Ramsey with a guard of honor at the Emirates stadium. Ramsey is the longest-serving Gunner in the current squad. He will join Juventus this summer after 11 years at Arsenal. It requires a lot of mental toughness to return from a double leg fracture and score the winning goal in two FA Cup finals despite several hamstring injuries. Ramsey is exactly the kind of player that the Gunners need: mentally tough and performing in the clutch. At 28, Ramsey still has at least 4 years left at the top. Yet, the Arsenal board decided to withdraw his contract offer.

   Calling for Emery’s sacking would be a knee-jerk reaction to this disappointing run of form. I don’t think it would help the club. First, because the Gunners have done slightly better than last season. Emery kept Arsenal in the chase for Champions League spots until May while the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race by March under Wenger. And the Gunners can still reach the Europa League final whereas they got knocked out in the semifinals a year ago. We are very far from Moyes’ poor tenure at Old Trafford where the defending champions finished seventh in 2014.

Slow transition

   Second, what kind of signal would Arsenal send to future candidates by firing Emery after a decent season? Arsenal would be seen as an unstable club where managers must succeed in their very first season. Even Guardiola won nothing in his first season at Manchester City.

   And third, the main culprit for the slow transition and lack of competitiveness is the Arsenal board. Financially, Emery had limited ressources to rebuild the squad last summer. Liverpool and Manchester City spent more than £50 million to sign top centerbacks like Van Dijk and Laporte and more than £40 million to sign top midfielders like Fabinho and Bernardo Silva. Quality has a price but the club wasn’t willing to match the investments made by City, Liverpool or even Chelsea. So the Gunners spent £17 million for Sokratis and £26 million for Torreira. What’s the point of changing of manager after a year if the transfer kitty will limit the scope of the rebuilding effort?

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that defeated Valencia last Thursday with Leno, Monreal, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Mkhitaryan replacing Cech, Koscielny, Kolasinac, Guendouzi and Maitland-Niles in the starting lineup. On paper, it looked like a 4-2-2-2 formation, but it often morphed into a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield because Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka while Mkhitaryan filled the hole on the left.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M44ed.jpgArsenal’s diamond midfield. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Seagulls preferred to sit deep instead of pressing high up the pitch. The advantage of that plan is that you have a solid defensive shape. The drawback is that you invite pressure. Brighton winger Jahanbakhsh gave away a penalty with an awkward challenge on Monreal in the eighth minute. There was minimal contact and even the referee had a doubt for a split second. Aubameyang converted the penalty by firing into the bottom corner to give Arsenal the lead.

Xhaka’s silly challenge

   I mentioned the issue of mental weakness because the Gunners were too passive after the opener. They created no scoring chance between the 9th and the 36th and allowed the Seagulls to get back into the game. Arsenal had a couple of chances before halftime but Ryan pulled some fine saves. At the restart, the Gunners were again very quiet in the final third with no scoring chance between the 46th and the 68th.

   Some teams are ruthless and just pile on the pressure. But this Arsenal team lost its intensity and got punished in the 60th. Brighton capitalized on a poor pass from Mkhitaryan to launch a counterattack. Bernardo’s clearance fell to March, who sprinted down our right flank before rounding Xhaka. The Switzerland midfielder panicked and pulled March back. March lost his balance and fell to the ground. The referee awarded a penalty to the Seagulls and gave a yellow card to Xhaka for that cynical foul. Murray equalized by sending Leno the wrong way.  

   It was a silly challenge from Xhaka because March could only cut the ball back and Mustafi was in a very good position to block the pass. Looking at the big picture, Brighton’s chances of scoring on that play were low because Sokratis was marking Murray, who was the only Seagull inside the Arsenal area, while Monreal had an eye on Knockaert on the edge of the box. Again, some Gunners simply lack mental toughness and keep making blunders under pressure. The Gunners won’t have a solid spine as long as they rely on error-prone players like Xhaka and Mustafi.

   I thought Emery’s substitutions came really late. And they looked pretty much like a punishment for the three players involved in the Brighton equalizer. Kolasinac, Iwobi and Guendouzi came off the bench to replace Lichtsteiner, Mkhitaryan and Xhaka in the 77th.

Aubameyang’s tally

   Mkhitaryan got some stick from the fans for missing a short pass to Lichtsteiner on the play that led to the equalizer. But I thought Mkhitaryan had more impact in the final third than Ozil. The Armenia international nearly opened the scoring in the second minute with a 19-yard strike that hit the base of the post. Then he tested Ryan with a long-range effort on the stroke of halftime. Just before his replacement, Mkhitaryan set up Aubameyang for a big chance in the 74th and fed Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Ryan in the 75th. As usual, Mkhitaryan’s work-rate was better than Ozil’s with 1 interception and 5 recoveries compared to 1 interception and 3 recoveries for the German playmaker, according to the club’s website.

   Although Arsenal enjoyed 71% of ball possession, Ozil didn’t have the influence that fans can expect from him. He led all players with 3 key passes, but one was from a corner and another was a short pass for a long-range strike. Ozil’s best contribution of the game was a cross for Aubameyang, whose 10-yard shot was turned around the post by Ryan in the 39th. Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi have lacked consistency this season, but Mkhitaryan has one advantage over the other two attacking midfielders: his work-rate. Mkhitaryan can press high up the pitch like Ramsey but you wouldn’t trust Ozil and Iwobi to do that job.

   Aubameyang raised his tally to 20 goals in the Premier League this season, trailing only Salah who has 22 goals. He had opportunities to score the winner, first volleying Xhaka’s corner over the bar in the 68th, and then meeting a cross from Mkhitaryan in the 74th only to miss the target from 8 yards. In the closing minutes, Kolasinac also made a pinpoint cross but Aubameyang failed to make any contact for a close-range header.  

Emery making the same mistake as Wenger

   Arsenal’s offense struggled in the air again. Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to win only 2 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. It was so bad that Lacazette even managed to head Aubameyang’s cross into touch in the 87th. Lacazette’s best chance came on the stroke of halftime when he pounced on a rebound and had his 18-yard effort headed out by Dunk. He also forced a comfortable save from Ryan with a strike on the turn in the 90th. Although Lacazette didn’t find the net, he showed outstanding work-rate with 2 tackles and 6 recoveries.

   In midfield, Xhaka cost his team the win with his blunder in the 60th. He also gave the ball away twice in the opening minutes. It’s quite puzzling that both Wenger and Emery have relied on Xhaka to be Arsenal’s holding midfielder. His passing range and his delivery can sometimes make the difference. Xhaka finished the game with 3 key passes, including 2 from corners. Mustafi met a corner from Xhaka in the 36th for a diving header that Ryan saved at the near post. But in the end, Xhaka’s lack of mobility and poor decision-making far outweigh his positive contributions.

   Playing on the right side of a diamond midfield, Torreira had a decent game but his performance didn’t match the high standards he set in the first half of the season. Torreira won 2 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. He was also dribbled past 3 times, tied with Brighton midfielder Stephens for the most by any player. Torreira may have not any proper rest this summer if the Uruguay team goes deep in the Copa America.

Sokratis’ 12 yellow cards

   The main problem with a diamond midfield is that it can make the attack too narrow unless the fullbacks roam forward to provide the width. Lichtsteiner and Monreal were no threat on the flanks as they combined to have 0 key pass and 0 accurate cross. Brighton midfielder March exposed Lichtsteiner’s lack of pace a couple of times. In the 26th, Lichtsteiner failed to close down March, who created a scoring chance with a cross for Murray. Then March rounded Lichtsteiner in the 30th only to shoot into the side-netting. At least, Lichtsteiner didn’t make a silly foul on that play like Xhaka. Lichtesteiner also received a yellow card for dissent in the 64th.

   In the heart of the defense, Mustafi refrained from making any high-profile blunder while Sokratis lost a couple of key duels. Murray beat Sokratis to the ball in the 26th for a downward header that Leno saved. Then March rounded Sokratis to fire an angled strike in the 51st. Sokratis broke a record in the 14th by diving and earning his 12th yellow card in the Premier League, the most for an Arsenal player in a single season.

   Leno salvaged a point for the Gunners by saving March’s header in the 85th. Iwobi left March unmarked at the far post on that play. Leno’s distribution is usually reliable but on Sunday the German goalkeeper had two poor moments, having a pass intercepted by Jahanbakhsh in the 26th and kicking the ball straight to Bissouma in the 33rd.

   The Gunners next visit Valencia on Thursday before facing Burnley on Sunday for their last Premier League game of the season. There’s no doubt that Emery will field his best team against the Spanish side because the Europa League has become the only way for Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League. If Emery is bold enough, he will play a few youngsters against Burnley because players like Nketiah, Willock and Saka will certainly show more desire than the regular starters.

 

 

 

Wolverhampton vs. Arsenal: Top 4 finish out of Gunners’ hands after 3-1 loss

  The Gunners produced their worst performance of the season on Wednesday, conceding 3 goals in the first half of a 3-1 defeat at Wolverhampton. After the embarrassing loss to Crystal Palace last weekend, Arsenal found a way to sink even further as a Top 4 finish is now out of their hands. The Gunners trail Tottenham by 4 points and Chelsea by 1 point with just 3 rounds left in the Premier League.

Wolves vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   The clean sheets against Napoli and Watford gave the impression that Arsenal had fixed their defensive problems. But the 6 goals conceded in the last two games show that the Gunners have been struggling for consistency since December and the end of their 22-game unbeaten run.

   In his post-match news conference, Emery made one telling admission. He said: “We didn’t do the game plan like I wanted.” At the start of the season, Emery wanted his team to play out from the back and press high up the pitch. That style of football requires a lot of movement and energy. I think Emery is just finding out how physically demanding the Premier League can be.

   Klopp also learned his lesson in his first season at Liverpool. Because the Reds were inconsistent at that time, Klopp understood that he couldn’t implement gegenpressing in every game and therefore needed to play in a more economical way when his players were jaded. The Reds are not pressing frantically in every game this season because they can rely on Salah, Mane and Firmino to score goals and they have improved their defense by signing Van Dijk and Alisson.

Poor final ball

   At Molineux stadium, the Gunners seemed to be running out of gas even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that lost to Crystal Palace with only Lacazette, Ozil, Koscielny and Leno retaining their starting spots. Were the players unconsciously prioritizing the Europa League over a Top 4 spot in the Premier League?

   Offensively, Arsenal enjoyed 70% of sterile possession with only 1 shot on target compared to 3 for the hosts. In fact, Rui Patricio had no save to make until the last 15 minutes. Ramsey’s absence was badly felt in the final third where the lack of movement played into the hands of the Wolverhampton defense. It’s hard to see how Arsenal could win on the road without Ramsey. The Gunners also lacked penetration because they have no dribbler who can slalom past defenders in a tiny space. Liverpool and Manchester City can beat teams parking the bus because they have dribblers like Salah, Mane, Sterling, Sane and Bernardo Silva.

   Arsenal tried to stretch the Wolverhampton defense with combination play on the wings but it didn’t really click between Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles on the right flank. The Gunners managed to find an opening on the left flank in the 17th minute when Monreal played a one-two with Iwobi but Doherty cynically pulled the Spaniard back on the edge of the box.

   The few times Arsenal had some good situations, the final ball simply lacked accuracy. Mkhitaryan delivered a poor final ball in the eighth minute, Ozil’s cross for Monreal went out of play in the 39th, Iwobi played the ball behind Mkhitaryan in the 40th, and Ozil missed his pass to Lacazette in the 70th.

Wengerian frailties

   Wolves showed more commitment, winning 15 of 25 tackles and making 20 interceptions while Arsenal only won 6 of 13 tackles and made 4 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. The hosts also exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on set pieces and counterattacks -defensive frailties belonging to the Wenger era.

   The first warning came in the 25th. An unmarked Boly redirected Bennett’s throw toward Jimenez, who flicked the ball over the bar. Three minutes later, Monreal gave away a dangerous free kick with a cynical foul on Jonny. Neves curled the subsequent set piece into the bottom corner to give Wolves the lead. The players in the wall failed to do their job: they turned their backs instead of attempting to block the shot.

   Wolverhampton’s second goal was even more comical. Playing a short corner in the 37th, Moutinho swapped passes with Jonny as only Torreira tried to close them down. When Ozil finally decided to run toward Jonny, it was already too late. Doherty met Jonny’s cross to head home for a 2-0 lead. Leno was harshly credited with an error for trying to claim the ball. Because Doherty had a free header from 7 yards, Leno had almost no chance of making a save by staying on his line. That’s how Benteke scored for Crystal Palace a few days ago. In my eyes, it would have been an error if an Arsenal defender still had a chance to beat Doherty in the air, but that wasn’t the case. The real issue on that play was Sokratis’ decision-making. The Greek centerback stood 2 yards behind his teammates and played Doherty onside.

   The hosts also caused damage on the counterattack. Jota outpaced Xhaka in the 26th to feed Jonny, whose leg was clipped by Monreal. Four minutes later, Xhaka failed to close down Jonny, who played Jimenez in. From a tight angle, the Wolves striker fired over the bar. On those two plays, Xhaka was too sluggish to break the counterattack while Torreira was stranded up the pitch. Xhaka made the blunder that led to the third goal on the stroke of halftime. He gave the ball away to Jota, who treated Sokratis like a vulgar training cone before firing a low diagonal strike past Leno. Sokratis should have either made a tackle ot stayed with Jota.

Overrun in midfield

   The Arsenal defense was again carved wide open in the second half. Dendoncker blocked Xhaka’s pass and ran past the Switzerland international to take Doherty’s return pass before releasing Jimenez down our left flank in the 55th. Jimenez wasted the scoring chance by overhitting his cross for Jota. In the hope of stopping Wolverhampton’s counterattacking threat, Emery shifted to a back three in the 58th by replacing Torreira and Mkhitaryan with Guendouzi and Kolasinac. That did not prevent Wolves from hitting Arsenal on the fast break in the 68th. Jonny picked out an unmarked Jimenez, who missed the target.

   All these counterattacks clearly show that the Gunners were overrun in midfield. First, the work-rate of the Arsenal midfielders was not good enough. Neves, Moutinho and Dendoncker combined for 32 defensive actions while Xhaka, Torreira, Guendouzi and Ozil only combined for 21 defensive actions. Wolverhampton basically played with one extra man in midfield. Here are the stats for each midfielder according to the club’s website:

  • Neves: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Moutinho: won 4 of 4 tackles, 3 blocks, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Dendoncker: made 1 interception, 8 recoveries.
  • Xhaka: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 block, 3 recoveries.
  • Torreira (57 minutes): made 1 interception, 7 recoveries.
  • Guendouzi (37 minutes): made 3 recoveries.
  • Ozil: made 4 recoveries.

   The second reason for the Gunners’ inability to stop counterattacks was Emery’s tactical configuration in midfield. Xhaka played as the holding midfielder while Torreira was in a more advanced position as a box-to-box player. It’s just as flawed as Sarri’s decision to play Jorginho behind Kante at Chelsea. If you are a rational manager, you want your best defensive midfielder to shield the defense and break up plays, not a sluggish deep-lying playmaker.

Mental block on the road

   Xhaka lacks defensive awareness. He was completely out of position in the 21st when Dendoncker controlled a long ball from Neves to find Doherty on our left flank. Doherty set up Moutinho, who curled a shot wide. And more importantly, Xhaka simply lacks the mobility necessary for the No. 6 role. Jota too easily ran past Xhaka in the 31st before Koscielny blocked his run on the edge of the box. We saw how vulnerable the Arsenal defense was when Arteta played as the holding midfielder. Emery shouldn’t be making the same mistake by relying on Xhaka for defensive duties.  

   Torreira has struggled for form since December. On Wednesday, he lost 50-50 balls that he would have won in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder made a late challenge on Moutinho in the second minute, received a yellow card in the 45th for a two-footed lunge on Neves, and led all players with 3 fouls. At 23, Torreira is still a young player who can improve his reading of the game. He should have played in a deeper position to help out Xhaka in midfield.  

   Emery trusted Ozil in an away game and the move backfired. Ozil was ineffective in the final third and untidy in possession, leading all players with 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. Pundits and fans often talk about Arsenal’s mental block on the road, and Ozil is the player who embodies that issue. Emery also relied on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi to feed Lacazette. Their work-rate was even poorer that Ozil’s. Mkhitaryan only made 1 recovery in 57 minutes and Iwobi barely did better with 2 recoveries in 70 minutes. Looking at the big picture, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi have one thing in common: they have been inconsistent this season, very far from the standards set by attacking midfielders like Silva and Eriksen. Emery replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 71st. The academy player showed more desire and end product than the anonymous Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.    

Don’t leave Lacazette on his own

   Up front, Lacazette showed again why he’s not a centerforward, but a second striker. The France international feels much more comfortable when he can make runs off Aubameyang, who was not in the squad because of a sinus procedure. On Wednesday, Lacazette led the line on his own and spent most of his time dropping back and running away from goal. That obviously made Ozil’s job more difficult because the German playmaker loves having a target in front of him like a quarterback with a receiver.

   Sokratis hit a long ball for Lacazette in the 14th, but Lacazette doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace and the ball bounced out of play. Lacazette doesn’t have Giroud’s strong hold-up play either. Back to goal, Lacazette took passes in the 22nd and 48th and lost possession. Lacazette’s performance improved when Emery sent on Nketiah in the 71st. Nketiah got the better of Boly in the 73rd and made a cross for Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Bennett. Then Guendouzi won possession in the 79th and fed Lacazette, who had another effort blocked. In the end, Arsenal’s consolation goal came from a set piece in the 80th. Sokratis outjumped Neves and Jonny at the far post to head in a corner.  

   The Gunners next visit Leicester on Sunday. They should expect the same kind of treatment since the Foxes perform well against the top clubs and capitalize on counterattacking opportunities. A defeat could virtually end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes if the Blues win at Old Trafford.

 

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Top 4 hopes dealt a blow in 3-2 loss

   Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Crystal Palace was a bad result for Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the Top 4. The Gunners slipped to fifth place in the Premier League and you have to keep in mind that the home game against the Eagles was one of the easiest fixtures in their run-in, at least on paper. The defeat against Hodgson’s team was all the more disappointing that it came after 3 straight clean sheets in all competitions. Somehow, the result simply confirmed that the Arsenal squad is not good enough to cope with a heavy schedule.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery got a lot of stick for making 7 changes to the side that edged Napoli 1-0 last Thursday with only Kolasinac, Koscielny, Aubameyang and Lacazette retaining their starting spots. Obviously, the midfield looked very soft with Elneny and Guendouzi. Ramsey and Xhaka were left out of the squad because of injuries while Emery was careful with Torreira, who picked up a knock against Napoli. The options at the back were also limited: Sokratis was completing his two-game ban while Emery wanted to rest Monreal and Maitland-Niles. Quite a few fans must have felt nervous at kickoff with a backline including Mavropanos, Jenkinson, Mustafi and Kolasinac.

   I thought Emery’s team selection for a home game was too conservative with only 3 attacking players (Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette) in the starting lineup. The Gunners enjoyed a lot of sterile possession in the first half with very few chances. The team looked a bit more balanced after Emery shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Jenkinson and Mavropanos with Maitland-Niles and Iwobi at halftime. Nevertheless, the final stats showed Emery’s tactical approach was still a failure with only 12 shots to 16 for the Eagles despite 73% of ball possession.

The importance of decision-making

   The goals scored by Palace all came from set pieces. You would think that it’s a legacy of the Wenger era. But a closer inspection reveals that it was a matter of individual errors and not poor defensive organization. Arsenal perfectly executed the offside trap against Napoli. So the Gunners tried that ploy again when the Eagles had a free kick in the 17th. Unfortunately, Benteke connected with Milivojevic’s set piece to beat Leno with a free header from 8 yards.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M17ed.jpgJenkinson fails to play Benteke offside. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   As you can see on the screen capture above, the Arsenal defense played the offside trap. But Jenkinson didn’t get the memo and played Benteke onside. Jenkinson was 100 percent guilty on that play because Benteke and the other Gunners stood right in front of him, so there’s no way he couldn’t see what was going on. Jenkinson furiously gesticulated after Benteke scored, probably thinking that Mustafi poorly marked Benteke. But Jenkinson was the one who undermined the offside trap by standing one yard behind Mustafi and Mavropanos.

   That was definitely poor decision-making from Jenkinson. I mean, Emery can show his players tons and tons of videos to improve their performance, but at the end of the day, it’s the players on the pitch who make the decisions.

   Mustafi is famous for his brain farts. On Sunday, the German defender lived up to his reputation as an error-prone player by costing 2 goals. The Eagles won a free kick in their own half in the 61st. They punted the ball toward Benteke, who flicked it on. The second ball fell to Mustafi, who shielded the ball, expecting Leno to come off his line. Zaha stole the ball to beat Leno with a low strike for a 2-1 lead.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M61ed.jpgMustafi expects Leno to beat Zaha to the ball. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   Let’s make things clear: the goal was 100 percent Mustafi’s fault. When the ball bounced in front of Mustafi 25 yards from goal, Leno was standing just outside his 6-yard box. Because the ball had very little pace and Mustafi seemed in control of the situation, Leno decided to stay inside his area. As you can see on the screen capture above, Leno had no chance to beat Zaha to the ball when Mustafi started to shield it with his body. Leno made the right decision while Mustafi made the wrong one. In that kind of situation, Mustafi should have simply cleared the danger.

Owning a mistake (or not)

   The worst part is that Mustafi tried to blame Leno for that goal just like he tried to blame Cech a year ago for a goal scored by Southampton in a 3-2 win. Making a blunder is already bad, but not owning your mistakes can be a morale killer in any team. Mustafi showed again poor decision-making for Palace’s third goal in the 69th. McArthur redirected a corner toward Dann, who nodded in from close range.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M69aed.jpgMustafi initially marking Dann on the corner. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   As you can see on the screen capture above, Mustafi was in charge of marking Dann at the far post. But for some strange reason, Mustafi started running away from Dann when McArthur was about to flick the ball on. At first, I thought maybe Mustafi was trying to play Dann offside. But it’s unlikely for a team to play the offside trap on a corner before the ball is even headed. As you can see on the screen capture below, Guendouzi, Aubameyang and Kolasinac played Dann onside, which means that there was no plan to execute the offside trap on that corner.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace M69bed.jpgMustafi running away from Dann. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

   It’s only after watching several TV replays that I finally came to the conclusion that Mustafi was trying to meet the corner. From his initial position, Mustafi had no chance to win the first header. It’s not just poor decision-making, it’s also poor tactical discipline. Mustafi could have prevented that goal by staying with Dann and winning the second ball. Both Mustafi and Jenkinson are 27. They won’t improve their reading of the game or their decision-making at that age. The club should offload them this summer to improve the defense.

Koscielny’s aerial struggles

   The visitors’ goals were just the tip of the iceberg. Mustafi could have cost more goals on Sunday. He failed to mark Benteke on the stroke of halftime. The Palace striker took a pass from Zaha only to miss the target from 12 yards. Then Mustafi missed his header in the 56th while attempting to intercept McArthur’s ball over the top for Zaha. Fortunately, Maitland-Niles covered Mustafi and prevented Zaha from pulling the trigger. Besides his blunders, Mustafi showed poor discipline, leading all players with 4 fouls. He even embarrassed himself by earning a booking for diving in the 85th. And his work-rate was poor with just 1 tackle, 2 interceptions and 1 recovery, compared to 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries for Koscielny, according to the club’s website.    

   Koscielny made no glaring mistake like Mustafi, but he lost the key duels with Benteke and McArthur for Palace’s second and third goals. The French defender performed poorly in the air, winning only 1 of 5 aerial duels, while Mustafi won 5 of 8 headers according to whoscored.com. At 33, playing a fourth game in an 11-day span was always going to be a tough ask. His 5 turnovers, a high number for a centerback, clearly reflected his fatigue.

   Playing in a back three alongside Koscielny and Mustafi, Mavropanos looked a bit less hesitant than against Watford. He showed again his naivety in the 16th when he dived in and received a yellow card for holding Benteke. That foul led to the free kick for the opening goal. Emery yanked Mavropanos off at halftime to switch to a back four. At 21, Mavropanos needs playing time in order to learn and develop. A loan in the Championship next season would be a good opportunity.

Jenkinson’s poor work-rate

   On the right flank, Jenkinson’s limited technique was exposed. He contributed very little offensively, sending a cross out of play in the third minute and guiding the ball into touch after miscontrolling a crossfield pass in the 35th. There’s something wrong when a player still looks raw at 27. I’m puzzled that Wenger extended Jenkinson’s contract. What did Wenger see in him? Jenkinson is known as a boyhood Arsenal fan, but his work-rate was incredibly poor with 0 tackle, 1 block, 0 interception and 2 recoveries in the first half.

   At halftime, Emery replaced Jenkinson with Maitland-Niles, who put in a shift with 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 5 recoveries in the second half, according to the club’s website. Maitland-Niles saved the Arsenal defense twice, making a crucial clearance in the 56th and a last-ditch block in the 65th. Frankly, I don’t understand the transfer rumors linking Wan-Bissaka to Arsenal because Maitland-Niles can deputize for Bellerin and the money should be spent on the centerback and central midfield positions.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac’s performance was a mixed bag. He should have been awarded a penalty in the 38th for a cross that Wan-Bissaka blocked with his arm. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also tested Guaita with a half-volley in the 59th. Unfortunately, Kolasinac’s defensive lapses outweighed his offensive contributions. He gave away cheap free kicks with 3 fouls. And his lack of defensive awareness was exposed a couple of times. Kolasinac failed to track Kouyate in the 43rd as the Palace midfielder forced Leno into a spectacular double save. Then Kolasinac left Dann unmarked in the 63rd. The Palace centerback met a free kick from Milivojevic only to volley straight at Leno.

How standards have declined in midfield

   In midfield, Guendouzi and Elneny were responsible for the lack of urgency in the first half. The Gunners used to have deep-lying playmakers like Fabregas and Cazorla who could dictate the tempo and create chances. But neither Guendouzi nor Elneny is a pacesetter. The sterile possession forced Ozil to drop back in the first half to build up plays.

   Guendouzi led all players with 86 passes but he still has that tendency to take too many touches instead of quickly releasing the ball. The French midfielder is simply not decisive enough at both ends of the pitch. His work-rate against the Eagles was good with 2 tackles and 9 recoveries, the most for an Arsenal player. But Guendouzi can’t shield the back four like a Fernandinho, Kante or Torreira. He was dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com. The more Guendouzi plays, and the more he looks like a utility midfielder. He’s an upgrade over Elneny but he’s still below Xhaka in the pecking order.

   Elneny played in a slightly more advanced position than Guendouzi. Emery wanted to use Elneny as a box-to-box player, which is kind of funny because Wenger tried to play him in the centerback position. The Egypt international was too conservative in his passing. And the few times Elneny tried to play the ball forward, his passing lacked accuracy. His only offensive contribution was a volley over the bar in the 11th. If Emery really wanted a box-to-box player, he should have given a chance to Willock.

   Defensively, Elneny made a blunder by failing to play to the whistle in the 65th. Kouyate led a Palace counterattack and collided with Guendouzi along the touchline. Elneny could have kicked the loose ball out of play. But expecting the referee to make a call in Arsenal’s favor, Elneny stopped playing and let Zaha run past him to continue the fast break. Emery had seen enough and replaced Elneny with Torreira in the 68th. Elneny and Mustafi are examples of the poor job done by the scouting department under Wenger.    

3 wins out of 4 games?

   The only positive of Sunday’s match was the attacking players, who scored 2 goals. In a normal game, that should be enough to get 3 points. Ozil was a bit isolated in the first half. Iwobi’s appearance after halftime helped Ozil have more impact in the final third. Ozil could have put the Gunners ahead in the opening minute but his curling shot from the edge of the box lacked power to trouble Guaita. The German playmaker equalized in the 47th with his trademark chip. Lacazette fed Ozil with a reverse pass. From a tight angle, Ozil knocked the ball into the ground to produce an awkward bounce that fooled Guaita. Ozil nearly leveled again in the 87th with a cross that evaded everybody, except Guaita who tipped the ball away. Two minutes later, Iwobi could have also salvaged a point, but his tame effort from 14 yards was not good enough to beat Guaita. The only blemish in Ozil’s performance was his 10 turnovers, which is unusual for a player with good ball retention skills.  

   Lacazette and Aubameyang are having a good run of form. The French striker scored the winner against Napoli and made the assist for Ozil’s goal on Sunday, while Aubameyang scored the winner against Watford and found the net against Palace. Starting a dribbling run from the right flank in the 77th, Aubameyang slalomed past 3 Eagles before attempting to play Lacazette in. A defender blocked the pass but Aubameyang pounced on the loose ball to fire into the bottom corner. Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t get much service. Lacazette’s only chance was an off-balance shot from 20 yards that sailed over the bar in the 42nd.

   One month before the end of the season, the board and the staff can already draw their own conclusions about last summer’s transfers. Leno and Torreira have proved successful signings while Lichtsteiner has been a failure, too slow for the Premier League. Sokratis and Guendouzi has been upgrades over Mustafi and Elneny, respectively, but are not at the level of Koscielny and Cazorla in their prime.

   To finish in the Top 4, Arsenal will probably need 3 wins from their last 4 games. The Gunners visit Wolverhampton on Wednesday and Leicester on Sunday. The game at Molineux stadium is more tricky because the Gunners only have 2 days of rest compared to 3 for the Leicester game. Ramsey’s absence is a huge blow because he’s the kind of player whose work-rate makes a difference in away games. I expect Ozil to be on the bench and Mkhitaryan to start for both games.

Everton vs. Arsenal: Gunners show lack of fight in 1-0 loss

   The Gunners have a massive mountain to climb in the Top 4 race. They lost 1-0 at Everton on Sunday to slip to 4th place, level on points with Chelsea in the Premier League. A quick look at the schedule tells you that securing a Champions League spot won’t be easy. Arsenal will play 2 home games against Crystal Palace and Brighton and 4 away games against Watford, Wolverhampton, Leicester and Burnley. The Hornets, the Wanderers and the Foxes are stuck between 7th and 10th like the Toffees. Even the Burnley game will be no gimme, knowing that the Gunners still haven’t kept a clean sheet on the road this season.

Everton vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that defeated Newcastle 2-0 a week ago with Elneny and Mkhitaryan replacing Ramsey and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Iwobi performed poorly against the Magpies while Emery was simply cautious with Ramsey, who was recovering from a minor groin injury. The problem with the team selection was the obvious lack of leadership and aggression. The Gunners were still missing their most experienced centerback (Koscielny) as well as their two most reliable central midfielders (Torreira and Xhaka).

   Arsenal lost 3 duels on the play that led to Everton’s goal in the 10th minute. Jagielka beat Mustafi and Elneny to the ball to flick on Digne’s throw-in. Then Calvert-Lewin ghosted past Mkhitaryan to win the second ball. Calvert-Lewin’s header ricocheted off Kolasinac’s foot and into the path of Jagielka, who reacted more quickly than Mustafi to tap the loose ball home. It looked like a lucky goal for the Toffees but the Gunners were really outplayed at Goodison Park. Everton had 23 shots and 4 big chances to 7 shots and 0 big chance for Arsenal.

A team losing its balance

   In the first half, the Gunners had 2 good situations but lacked accuracy with the final ball. Mkhitaryan released Lacazette down the left flank in the second minute. Under pressure from Zouma and Coleman, the French striker overhit his low cross for Ozil at the far post. Then Maitland-Niles failed to put enough bend on his cross for Elneny in the 37th. Left completely unmarked inside the area, Elneny would have had a free header from 8 yards.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery switched from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system at halftime by replacing Elneny and Kolasinac with Ramsey and Aubameyang. Despite enjoying more ball possession, the Arsenal team lost its balance in the second half. The Gunners created a couple of half-chances but they also looked more open. In the 48th, Aubameyang whipped in a cross for Ramsey, whose looping header was awkwardly punched away by Pickford. The ball fell to Ramsey, who volleyed over the bar from 12 yards. In the 59th, Mustafi hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, whose tame header gently bounced into Pickford’s arms. Mkhitaryan also took his chance in the 71st with a curling shot that sailed wide of the far post. Emery switched to a 4-4-2 formation by replacing Ozil with Iwobi in the 74th, but that last tactical change didn’t trouble the Everton defense.

   Sunday was not a good day to be an Arsenal striker. Aubameyang had 0 shot while Lacazette could only muster 1 goal attempt. That game summed up why Lacazette is not a centerforward but a second striker. The Gunners had no natural out ball when Lacazette was on his own up front because the France international is not a target man like Giroud or Henry. At 5’9, Lacazette will never be dominant in the air. He won 2 of 6 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com, while Calvert-Lewin won 8 of 17 aerial duels. Lacazette has decent speed but not electric pace like Aubameyang. That explains why Lacazette has less maneuvering room to beat the offside trap. In the 22nd, Ozil hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, who was flagged offside.

Ozil struggling on the road

   Ozil certainly impressed Emery with his work-rate against Newcastle. But at Goodison Park, Ozil reverted back to the gutless player struggling so badly in away games. Ozil had no impact in the final third with 0 shot and 0 key pass. Even Ramsey, who only played in the second half, managed to do better with 1 of 3 shots on target and 1 key pass. When a player struggles offensively, he can still show his value to the team with his defensive work. But Ozil had the poorest work-rate of the attacking midfielders who started the game. In his 73-minute performance, Ozil only made 2 recoveries compared to 11 for Mkhitaryan, who led all players according to the club’s website.

   I believe Emery should leave Ozil out of the starting lineup for the remaining away games. Ozil simply doesn’t have the required aggression for those games. The German playmaker was too easily bullied by the Toffees. He was dispossessed 3 times and led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   The work-rate of the Arsenal midfield was not good enough to destabilize the Toffees. The Everton midfield won 7 of 8 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 24 recoveries for a total of 35 defensive actions, while the Arsenal midfield won 3 of 4 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 10 recoveries for a total of 16 defensive actions, according to the club’s website. Here are the stats for each midfielder:

  • Guendouzi: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 3 recoveries.
  • Elneny (45 minutes): made 0 tackle, 1 interception, 2 recoveries.
  • Ramsey (50 minutes): won 2 of 2 tackles, 0 interception, 3 recoveries.
  • Ozil (73 minutes): made 0 tackle, 0 interception, 2 recoveries.
  • Gueye: won 4 of 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 recoveries.
  • Gomes: won 1 of 2 tackles, 8 recoveries.
  • Sigurdsson (90 minutes): won 2 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Davies (5 minutes): made 0 tackle, 1 recovery.

Where’s the enforcer?

   Elneny’s work-rate was really poor while Guendouzi’s numbers were average for a holding midfielder. Emery can’t be blamed for starting Elneny and Guendouzi in central midfield since Torreira was suspended, Xhaka was injured and Ramsey was recovering from a groin injury. But Sunday’s midfield issues show that the Gunners need to offload Elneny in the summer and sign an enforcer with the right mix of physicality and technique. The club needs an intimidating factor like Vieira and Gilberto Silva in their prime.

   Right now, the Gunners are still too soft in the middle of the park. Elneny was too easily brushed off the ball in the 21st and his passing was so conservative that Ozil had to drop back in order to move the ball forward. Arsenal got away with starting Guendouzi in the holding midfielder role against Newcastle. There was no such luck against Everton. Guendouzi is not a natural defensive midfielder and his inexperience cost him a yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Digne in the fifth minute. The French teenager was also casual at times, giving the ball away in the 38th and 45th. Emery’s switch to a back four in the second half was very risky because it wrongly assumed that Guendouzi could shield the Arsenal defense. If the Gunners want to have a chance of winning on the road, they will have to start Torreira, Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield.

   On the flanks, the wingbacks proved ineffective with 0 key pass for Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac was let down by his technique with a passing accuracy of 53.9%, the lowest percentage for any starting outfielder. He even managed to send a cross out of play in the 31st. Knowing Kolasinac’s reluctance to track back, the Toffees targeted the space behind him in the first half. When Arsenal switched to a back four in the second half, Everton targeted Monreal with Richarlison making runs in behind. The Gunners have been quite vulnerable down the left flank this season. Signing a leftback should be a top priority this summer.

Maitland-Niles’ lack of diligence

   On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles performed poorly too. He won only 33.3% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Bernard too easily skipped past Maitland-Niles in the 10th to make a low cross that Sokratis cleared. His inexperience nearly cost his team. Maitland-Niles lost possession while dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 54th. That turnover led to a scoring chance for Sigurdsson, who blazed a long-range strike over the bar. Five minutes later, Maitland-Niles was too casual, heading a loose ball toward Leno instead of simply knocking it into touch. Bernard intercepted the header but was denied by Leno.

   The worst part in Maitland-Niles’ performance was his lack of diligence. He sent a throw-in out of play in the 63rd and was so slow to track back in the 77th that Ramsey ended up covering him at rightback. Maitland-Niles was mediocre in the 1-0 loss to West Ham just like he was brilliant in the 3-0 win over Rennes. Inconsistency is not unusual for a 21-year-old player. But Emery should make it clear that Maitland-Niles needs to show more desire. Maybe Maitland-Niles would prefer to play in central midfield, but his inconsistency and casualness make that option unlikely right now. Rightback is the best position for him to learn the ropes. Maitland-Niles should follow the example of Flamini, who was humble enough to deputize at fullback when he arrived at the club.

   Mustafi had the best stats of the 3 centerbacks but he was also the main culprit for Everton’s goal. The German defender won 4 of 4 tackles and 8 of 12 aerial duels and made 2 blocks and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. It’s better than the numbers produced by Sokratis (who won 2 of 3 tackles and 3 of 7 aerial duels and made 4 blocks, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries) or Monreal (who won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 block, 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries). Mustafi was booked in the 82nd for a cynical foul on Calvert-Lewin along the touchline.

Not prioritizing (yet)

   Signing Sokratis was a quick fix to replace an aging Koscielny but I don’t think he’s the answer to Arsenal’s defensive problems. The Greek defender will miss the next 2 league games after collecting his 10th yellow card in the Premier League for blocking Calvert-Lewin’s run in the 24th. Sokratis is definitely not as good as Koscielny in his prime, otherwise he wouldn’t need to make so many fouls. In each of the past 6 Premier League seasons, Koscielny never had more than 4 yellow cards. Koscielny’s worst tally came in the 2011-12 season when he received 9 yellow cards. In terms of discipline, Van Dijk has even better stats than Koscielny. So yes, the Gunners still need to sign a top centerback this summer, especially since Koscielny will turn 34 this year. And please, don’t mention Chambers as a possible solution because he’s miles away from the level of a Koscielny or Van Dijk.      

   While Torreira proved the best signing in the first half of the season, Leno has turned out to be our best signing in the second half. Leno prevented Arsenal from suffering a heavier loss by making 5 saves. The final score is important because goal difference could play a crucial role at the end of the season for the Champions League spots. Leno especially saved 2 big chances, denying Bernard after Maitland-Niles’ blunder in the 59th and stopping Sigurdsson’s 12-yard strike in the 72nd. The German goalkeeper also parried Bernard’s angled strike in the 81st and acted like a magnet to attract Sigurdsson’s curling shot in the 38th and Calvert-Lewin’s tame header in the 70th.

   The Gunners next host Napoli in the Europa League on Thursday before visiting Watford in the Premier League on Monday. That’s a tough schedule but at least they have 3 days of rest before each game. At this stage of the season, Arsenal can’t afford to prioritize a competition because the Europa League is their only chance to win a trophy while they still have a good shot at finishing in the Top 4. But a poor result in the first leg of their quarterfinal tie against Napoli could change their approach.  

 

 

Arsenal vs. Newcastle: Ramsey, Lacazette help Gunners move into 3rd

   The Gunners have never been this close to a Top 4 finish this season. They defeated Newcastle 2-0 on Monday to leapfrog Tottenham into third place in the Premier League.

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

   Deprived of Koscielny, Xhaka and Torreira either through injury or suspension, Emery relied on a 3-4-3 system to get the better of some well-drilled Magpies. Emery has put the emphasis on improving Arsenal’s defensive record lately. From the moment Guendouzi started in the holding midfielder role, playing a back three was the only reasonable option. Some fans were surprised to see Aubameyang on the bench, but the Magpies’ 5-4-1 formation meant that the Gunners had to stretch the Newcastle defense by using the whole width of the pitch. Iwobi got the nod on the left flank because of his understanding with Kolasinac. If Emery had played Ozil in the No. 10 role behind Lacazette and Aubameyang, it would have been a narrow formation playing into the hands of Benitez’s negative approach.

   Despite enjoying 71% of ball possession, Arsenal created very few chances with only 7 goal attempts. But you just need one moment of magic to find the net. That’s why individual quality will always matter in the final third. As Lacazette went on a dribbling run in the 30th minute, the ball ricocheted off a defender to fall into the path of Ramsey, who fired a low drive inside the far post with a first-time effort from 16 yards. Ramsey only had a split second to make a decision. He could have made a pass to Kolasinac to his left or Ozil to his right. But Ramsey recognized a good opportunity and shot with his weaker left foot. Most players would have shifted the ball to their stronger foot, and the chance would have been gone.

Ramsey’s work-rate

   Ramsey should have opened the scoring in the 13th when he side-footed home a corner flicked on by Kolasinac. But his goal was disallowed for a foul from Sokratis on Lejeune. The Wales midfielder felt cramps in the second half and was replaced by Elneny. It won’t be easy to find a replacement for Ramsey next season. He has notched 4 goals and 6 assists in 26 Premier League games this season. There aren’t many central midfielders with that kind of impact in the final third. The Gunners will also miss his work-rate and his team spirit. Although Ramsey only played 66 minutes on Monday, he still led all players with 12 recoveries. The only blemish in his performance was his 6 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com.

   The Gunners doubled the lead in the 83rd when Lacazette combined with Aubameyang to lob Dubravka. Lacazette already has 13 goals and 7 assists in 30 league games this season, an improvement on his stats from last season when he notched 14 goals and 4 assists in 32 league games. He could have scored on the stroke of halftime, but Ritchie cleared Lacazette’s strike off the line. The referee also disallowed a goal in the 86th as Lacazette made contact with Dubravka’s arm to head in a corner. Lacazette produced an outstanding performance with 2 of 2 shots on target and 2 key passes, tied with Ozil for the most by any player.

   Although Emery trusted Lacazette to lead the line, I still feel that he’s more a second striker than a centerforward. To make up for his average pace and lack of physicality, Lacazette plays like a false nine. Obviously, Lacazette is not a target man like Giroud. He only won 1 of 4 aerial duels against Newcastle. But Lacazette doesn’t make the penetrative runs of a Henry or Van Persie either. One play in the 21st summed up my reservations about Lacazette as a centerforward. Lacazette preferred to stay near the penalty spot instead of making a run toward the near post where he could have met Ramsey’s low cross. That’s the kind of run that Giroud would have definitely made. I believe Lacazette is more efficient when he plays alongside another striker. It’s no coincidence that Lacazette scored after Aubameyang came off the bench in the 61st. 

A transformed Ozil

   Ozil and Iwobi started alongside Lacazette in the front three. Talent has never been an issue for Ozil, who was named ‘Man of the Match’. We all know that Ozil is the most gifted player in the Arsenal squad. The German playmaker showed glimpses of his brilliance on 3 plays. He swapped passes with Iwobi to create a half-chance in the 40th, let a pass from Kolasinac reach Lacazette with a dummy in the 55th, and slipped a through ball to Aubameyang for a scoring chance in the 73rd. Yet, the most stunning part of Ozil’s performance was his 11 recoveries, according to the club’s website. By improving Ozil’s work-rate, Emery could be succeeding where Wenger failed. Can Ozil be consistent in his defensive contributions like a Silva and an Eriksen are?

   By contrast, Iwobi had a poor game with no end product (0 shot, 0 key pass) and a mediocre work-rate (0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block, 1 recovery). Improving options on the left wing should be a priority for the club next season. At 22, Iwobi still has room for development. However, his reading of the game is not good enough to deserve a starting spot in a Top 4 team. Assuming Welbeck leaves the club in the summer, Emery should let Nelson compete with Iwobi for the starting spot on the left wing since Mkhitaryan and Ozil both prefer to play on the right wing.

   Aubameyang replaced Iwobi in the 61st as the Gunners switched to a 3-5-2 formation with Ozil in the hole behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. The Gabon striker made a telling impact in his 30-minute cameo with 1 assist and 1 of 1 shot on target. Lacazette combined with Aubameyang down the middle for the final goal in what looked like a narrow play. Yet, Lacazette and Aubameyang are smart enough in their positional play to exploit the width of the pitch. They can make runs into the half-space or one of them can turn into a winger. Aubameyang charged down the right flank in the 68th to make a low cross for Lacazette that Dubravka intercepted.

A shaky Mustafi

   Emery has put so much trust in Guendouzi that Elneny has only made 5 Premier League appearances this season compared to 26 for the French teenager. There are mainly two reasons why Guendouzi got the nod over the more experienced Elneny against Newcastle: he wins more duels and is more creative than Elneny. Defensively, Guendouzi won 1 of 1 tackle and made 9 recoveries. Offensively, he had a passing accuracy of 92.6% and led all players with 94 passes, according to whoscored.com. Guendouzi is still far from the finished product. He had 5 turnovers, which is too much for a holding midfielder, and could have released the ball more quickly quite a few times. It would make sense to sell Elneny this summer in order to sign a box-to-box player.

   On the left flank, Kolasinac lacked accuracy in his final ball for Ozil in the 40th and Ramsey in the 45th. Kolasinac somehow made amends by creating that golden chance for Lacazette on the stroke of halftime. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international picked up a silly yellow card in the 72nd for dissent. On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles was mostly focused on his defensive duties. He made 2 tackles, 1 interception and 6 recoveries compared to just 4 recoveries for Kolasinac, according to the club’s website. Maitland-Niles’ only significant offensive contribution came in the 86th when he made a teasing cross for Aubameyang, who couldn’t make contact with the ball.  

   At the back, Sokratis acted like a sweeper while Mustafi and Monreal had more pro-active roles. Sokratis lost a key duel in the 31st as Rondon bullied the Greek defender to win a long ball before testing Leno with a low strike. The Arsenal defense lacked protection in the 42nd when the Magpies created a 2v2 situation on the fast break. Sokratis ended the threat by blocking Almiron’s pass to Rondon. Monreal was reliable defensively despite receiving a yellow card in the 59th for a studs-up challenge. The Spaniard won 2 of 3 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 9 recoveries. Mustafi worked hard too, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 5 interceptions and 6 recoveries, but he was more shaky than Monreal, giving the ball away a couple of times and attempting risky passes on the edge of the area. Leno had to rush off his line in the 47th to gather the ball after Mustafi was caught in possession.  

   The Gunners next visit Everton on Sunday. They will need to show good defensive discipline if they want to get a result at Goodison Park. Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes will depend on their away form. Their run-in includes 5 away games (Everton, Watford, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Burnley), more than any of the Top 4 contenders.

 

 

Arsenal vs. Manchester United: Gunners ride their luck in 2-0 win

   The Gunners showed a lot of steel and resilience in their 2-0 win over Manchester United to move into fourth place in the Premier League on Sunday. While Manchester City and Liverpool are contending for the title, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United are fighting for the two remaining Champions League spots. The Gunners are 1 point behind Spurs, but 2 points clear of the Red Devils and 3 points ahead of the Blues, who have a game in hand.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   With 60 points from 30 games, the Gunners have 12 more points than last season. There are two main reasons for that difference. Under Wenger, Arsenal had mediocre results against the Top 6 clubs and suffered from a poor away form. The Gunners have won 12 points against the Big Six under Emery (4 points vs. Spurs, 4 points vs. Manchester United, 3 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City), whereas they only earned 6 points last season (3 points vs. Spurs, 0 point vs. Manchester United, 2 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City).

   The Gunners are on course to finish the season with 76 points. I believe Arsenal must reach that target to have a good shot at a Top 4 finish. Liverpool secured fourth place with 76 points in 2017 and 75 points in 2018. You may point out that Manchester City finished fourth with only 66 points under Pellegrini in 2016, but that was a different era. The arrivals of Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have made the Premier League much more competitive.

Emery trusting Ramsey in central midfield

   If you take a look at the graph below, you can see that Arsenal lost some momentum in December after dropping points against Southampton, Brighton and Liverpool. By collecting 13 points from their last 5 league games, the Gunners have managed to increase their cruising speed to 2.0 points per game, which is the required average to finish with 76 points.

Arsenal tally comparison 2019Comparing Arsenal’s 2017-18 season and the current season

 

   Arsenal won’t face any Top 6 club in their run-in but their schedule is no gimme. They have home games against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Brighton and away games against Wolverhampton, Everton, Watford, Leicester and Burnley. If we assume that the Gunners will win their home games and draw their away games, they would still be 2 points short of the 76-point target. It means that one away win would be necessary to reach 76 points.

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that was defeated in Rennes with Lacazette, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac and Leno replacing Iwobi, Torreira, Mkhitaryan, Mustafi and Cech in the starting lineup. Torreira was serving a three-match ban while Mkhitaryan was sidelined by a back injury. Most fans were not surprised that Emery left Mustafi and Guendouzi on the bench. Mustafi gave away a silly penalty against Spurs while Guendouzi showed a blatant lack of effort against Rennes.

   The only real surprise was to see both Ozil and Ramsey playing in a fluid 3-4-3 formation. It was the first time since the 2-0 win over Watford in September that Ramsey and Ozil started together. Ozil reads the game better than Iwobi, so I guess the plan was to have the German playmaker deliver the final ball to Aubameyang and Lacazette. To a certain extent, the starting lineup had a Wengerian feel with Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield. Emery prefers to deploy Ramsey as a false 10 or as a second striker. But on Sunday the Spanish manager played Ramsey in central midfield for the first time this season.

United’s tactical ploy

   Xhaka opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a swerving shot from 29 yards. Then Aubameyang converted a soft penalty in the 69th after Fred shoved Lacazette from behind. The Gunners really rode their luck because the Red Devils created 5 big chances compared to none for Arsenal if we except the penalty. Emery got a lot of credit from TV pundits after the game but I thought the Arsenal defense looked shaky at times.

   Two of those 5 big chances came from crosses. Shaw played a one-two with Pogba in the ninth minute before making a cross for Lukaku, who hit the bar from close range with a bouncing volley. Maitland-Niles failed to stay with Shaw on that play while Monreal lost his duel with Lukaku at the far post. In stoppage time, Young made a cross for Rashford, who had a free header from 9 yards but sent the ball straight into Leno’s arms. Iwobi failed to close down Young on that play while Maitland-Niles left Rashford unmarked. That vulnerability on crosses is a legacy of the Wenger era that Emery hasn’t fixed yet.

   The Gunners also failed to adjust to the tactical ploy used for the other 3 big chances. Lukaku and Rashford often dropped off to find space between the defense and the midfield. Lukaku hit a ball over the top for Rashford, who shot wide in the 28th. Monreal should have been tight to Lukaku on that play, while Koscielny missed his clearance by attempting a stupid high kick instead of heading the ball away. Lukaku and Rashford swapped roles in the 36th. Rashford slipped a through ball to Lukaku, who was denied by Leno. Sokratis gave Rashford too much time on the ball while Lukaku took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line to make a run between Koscielny and Monreal.

   You would expect the wide centerbacks (Sokratis and Monreal) to understand at halftime the need for pressing Lukaku and Rashford when they drop off. But the same situation happened again in the 51st. Sokratis failed to close down Rashford, who played Lukaku clean through on goal. Leno somehow managed to divert Lukaku’s 9-yard shot over the bar. Monreal made the mistake of trying to play Lukaku offside instead of tracking him.

A streetwise Leno

   Leno was the main reason why Arsenal kept a clean sheet. The German goalkeeper definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. Besides his 4 saves, Leno also sprinted outside the box to intercept a ball over the top for Lukaku in the 47th and quickly came off his line to catch Pogba’s through ball for Rashford in the 65th.

   There were some question marks when Leno joined the club. Why was he not part of Germany’s World Cup squad, knowing that a flawed goalkeeper like Trapp still managed to make the cut? The doubts grew louder when Leno made a couple of errors leading to a goal in the first half of the season. But Leno worked hard to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League. He is now more streetwise in aerial duels.  

   Emery relied on an experienced back three to cope with the threat of Lukaku and Rashford. But Koscielny, Monreal and Sokratis nearly made a mess of it. Despite the fresh memory of his red card against Rennes in the Europa League, Sokratis dived in again and got booked in the 37th for a mistimed challenge on Pogba. Some fans had the jitters when Monreal made a sliding challenge on Lukaku in the 36th. Monreal didn’t win the ball but at least he didn’t bring Lukaku down inside the area either.

   Playing as a sweeper, Koscielny blocked Fred’s shot with his ribs in the 51st. Koscielny was the captain of the team but he didn’t have the leadership skills to sort out the tactical problem created by Lukaku and Rashford when they dropped off to deliver the final ball. Because Arsenal played a relatively high defensive line, it was crucial that Sokratis and Monreal press the United strikers. The Gunners definitely need an organizer at the back who can spot and correct tactical issues without waiting for the manager’s instructions.

Maitland-Niles’ inexperience and desire

   In the wingback position, Emery gave Maitland-Niles the nod over Mustafi. Maitland-Niles’ performance was a mixed bag. I thought he was too easily beaten down the right flank in the first half. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and made some decisive contributions, intercepting Lukaku’s ball over the top in the 17th, breaking up play with a sliding tackle in the 63rd, winning a foot race with Rashford to win the ball back in the 89th, and dispossessing Martial inside the area in the 90th.

   Maitland-Niles still showed his inexperience on the 2 crosses that led to big chances for the Red Devils. Despite those blemishes, Emery might be tempted to trust Maitland-Niles in that position for the rest of the season, especially if he shows the same desire. Maitland-Niles won 2 of 4 tackles and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 interceptions, according to the club’s website.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac was able to attack in the opening minutes, making a teasing cross for Lacazette, who couldn’t make contact with the ball at the near post. But Solskjaer’s tactical tweak in the first half, shifting from a flat 4-4-2 formation to a 3-5-2 system, put Arsenal on the back foot and forced Kolasinac to defend. Kolasinac finished the game with 11 recoveries. Only Fred had more with 12.

   The Gunners bossed the midfield in the opening minutes with Xhaka, Ramsey and Ozil outmuscling Matic and Fred. This led to Solskjaer’s tactical tweak, moving Pogba from a wide position to the No. 10 role to match Arsenal in midfield. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries and led all players with 64 passes, while Ramsey was the more mobile of the 2 central midfielders and showed outstanding work-rate, making 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries and leading all players by winning 3 of 7 tackles, according to the club’s website. The Wales midfielder had even better stats on whoscored.com, winning 7 of 8 tackles. I tend to prefer stats from the Arsenal website, which are more conservative and safer to use.

Limiting Pogba’s influence  

   Wenger always relied on Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield last season. I was wondering why Emery was reluctant to use Ramsey alongside Xhaka and preferred to play him in a more advanced position. That must have been because of Ramsey’s end product in the final third but on Sunday Ramsey showed that he could defend, too. The duo needed to step up because Ozil’s work-rate was poor with just 1 interception and 3 recoveries. Xhaka made a crucial sliding clearance on the stroke of halftime to protect Arsenal’s lead while Ramsey was so focused on his defensive duties that he only had 1 scoring chance. Maitland-Niles cut the ball back for Ramsey, who blazed over the bar in the 22nd.

   The duo did a good job to limit Pogba’s influence. Apparently frustrated, Pogba caught Ramsey’s neck with a high arm in the 54th before getting booked in the 76th for fouling Xhaka. The only time Pogba managed to really pull the strings was in the 65th when Fred dispossessed Ramsey to find Pogba. Free of his minders, Pogba slipped a through ball to Rashford, who lost his duel with Leno. Because Xhaka lacks mobility and Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder, the Gunners allowed some dangerous long-range strikes. Fred hit the post with a 25-yard drive in the 19th while Pogba fired a 30-yard effort straight at Leno in the 26th. Maybe the more mobile Torreira would have been able to block those shots.  

   It wasn’t a game for attacking players. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes but couldn’t create any clear-cut chance. His technical quality still helped Arsenal retain ball possession. Ozil led all starters with a passing accuracy of 91.2%, according to whoscored.com. He also made smart runs to be an easy passing option for his teammates and was unlucky to be flagged offside twice despite being level with the last defender.

Aubameyang’s risky technique for penalties

   Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to have only 1 of 9 shots on target because most of those shots were taken from unfavorable positions. Lacazette had the best half-chance in the 24th, bullying Lindelof to fire a strike from 18 yards that deflected off Smalling for a corner. The French forward lacked a bit of composure in the 71st when Lindelof misjudged the bounce of the ball following a header from Sokratis. Lacazette pounced on the loose ball only to drag his shot wide from 15 yards.

   To his credit, Lacazette won the penalty for the second goal with a penetrative run in the 68th. Lacazette outpaced Fred, who shoved him from behind. Aubameyang was gutsy enough to take the spot kick just a week after missing one against Spurs. The Gabon striker waited for De Gea to dive before rolling the ball into the middle of the net. I’m not a fan of that kind of technique and definitely prefer when the penalty taker hits the corners of the net.  

   Emery’s narrow formation gave Shaw and Young a lot of freedom when Solskjaer shifted to a 4-3-3 system in the 70th with Martial replacing Dalot and then to a 4-4-2 system in the 81st with Greenwood replacing Matic. So the Spanish manager decided to shut up shop by shifting to a 5-4-1 formation with Iwobi replacing Ozil in the 76th and Suarez taking Aubameyang’s spot in the 80th. Iwobi didn’t really help with 5 turnovers in his short cameo. Only Lacazette had more with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Likewise, Suarez was too easily brushed off the ball at times. The Spaniard was dribbled past twice, tied with Xhaka and Maitland-Niles for the most by any Gunner. Suarez has two months and a half to prove his worth, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to sign him.  

   The Gunners next face Rennes in the second leg of their Europa League encounter. They need a victory by at least 2 goals on Thursday to qualify for the quarterfinals. Emery should field his best team since it will be the last game before the international break. He will miss Lacazette and Sokratis through suspension, but the squad is strong enough to cope without those two players.