Tag Archives: Ozil

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.

 

Advertisements

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.

 

Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Gunners show defensive nous in 1-1 draw

Are the Gunners improving under Emery? Well, they salvaged a point in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool and looked more solid defensively than in the losses to Manchester City and Chelsea at the start of the season. Those are definitely small steps in the right direction. The Gunners are no title contenders, but they have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish. They slipped to fifth place in the standings, 1 point behind Tottenham but 3 clear of Manchester United. It’s important for Arsenal to perform well against the big clubs because results against the Citizens, the Red Devils, Liverpool, Spurs and the Blues will determine their chances of a Top 4 spot.

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

The Gunners were switched on defensively, winning 51.6% of the duels and making 10 interceptions to 4 for Liverpool, according to the club’s website. They also showed good discipline by conceding only 7 fouls. But it’s not completely Emery’s team yet. Arsenal enjoyed 62% of Wengeresque sterile possession with Xhaka (97), Holding (82), Mustafi (81) and Torreira (64) finishing the game as the players who made the most passes. The Gunners especially suffered from a lack of penetration in the final third with just 5 successful dribbles to 13 for the Reds, according to whoscored.com. Nelson’s return next season will be a huge bonus since he’s the only natural dribbler in the squad. The English teenager notched his fifth Bundesliga goal in Hoffenheim’s 4-1 rout of Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.

Having a clearer idea of what is the best team

Emery anticipated Liverpool’s high-energy style of football as he injected some freshness in the starting lineup by making 9 changes to the side that edged Blackpool in the League Cup with only Mustafi and Mkhitaryan retaining their starting spots. Maybe the more important figure is the 2 changes he made to the side that drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace the previous weekend with Mkhitaryan and Kolasinac replacing Iwobi and Guendouzi in the starting lineup. Emery seems to have a clearer idea of what his best team is.

In midfield, Emery seems to believe that Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil are his best options. At the start of the season, Emery toyed with the idea of playing Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder, but that experiment bore no fruit. He therefore moved Ozil from the right wing to the No. 10 position. In central midfield, Emery started Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in the first 5 games. However, it proved a flawed tandem because both players were too similar and the team simply lacked a true ballwinner to protect the defense. Emery therefore played Torreira alongside Xhaka in a more complementary partnership.

In the front three, Emery initially trusted Aubameyang to lead the line. But the Spanish manager had a change of heart and Lacazette has become the first choice for the centerforward position since the Cardiff game. Because of his goalscoring abilities, Aubameyang seems to have a small lead over Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck for the wide positions.

At the back, there hasn’t been much stability because of injuries. The only certainty is that Emery prefers Bellerin and Monreal to Lichtsteiner and Kolasinac in the fullback positions. Sokratis and Mustafi were Emery’s favorite centerback pairing at the start of the season, but Holding’s recent performances and Koscielny’s return from injury could change the situation this month.

The importance of positional play

Xhaka and Torreira were the main reason why Arsenal seemed less open than against Manchester City and Chelsea. They combined to win 4 of 7 tackles, have 1 turnover and make 1 block, 2 interceptions and 25 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Torreira led all midfielders by winning 80% of his duels. He made a timely tackle on Salah in the 32nd, cleared a rebound to prevent a tap-in from Gomez in the 45th and outperformed Fabinho in the midfield battle. While Emery showed patience and eased Torreira into a new league, Klopp hasn’t enjoyed much luck with Fabinho, who wasn’t up to speed on Saturday.

Torreira obviously focused on his defensive tasks but he nearly scored in the 63rd minute, playing a one-two with Mhkitaryan before testing Alisson with a powerful strike from 18 yards. The Uruguay international left everything on the pitch and even suffered from cramping in stoppage time. The only blemish in his performance was his positional play in the 18th when Mane’s goal was disallowed for offside. Firmino plays as a false nine, which means that he will often drop off in the space between the defense and the midfielders. Torreira should have tracked Firmino instead of letting Mustafi deal with a 1v2 situation.

A week after Xhaka gave away a penalty with a clumsy challenge on Zaha, there were some jitters in the crowd when the Switzerland international made a sliding tackle in the 22nd. But Xhaka cleanly knocked the ball away from Salah and that duel set the tone for the rest of the evening. Emery will probably show Xhaka the positional mistake he made on the opening goal, failing to patrol the edge of the area as Milner pounced on a rebound in the 61st to fire home from 16 yards. Offensively, Xhaka mustered a tame low drive in the 14th and created a chance in the 39th.

Adapting to Emeryball

Both Xhaka and Torreira had to work their socks off because Ozil and Aubameyang contributed very little defensively. Ozil and Aubameyang combined to make 0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block and just 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website. By contrast, Mkhitaryan still managed to win 1 tackle and make 6 recoveries in 68 minutes.

Ozil led all players with 4 key passes. The German playmaker cut the ball back to Bellerin for what could have been the winner in the 88th, but Bellerin couldn’t catch the frame with his weaker left foot. We all know that Ozil will never dominate a big game like Zidane, so it’s a small consolation that he didn’t disappear from this one.

Mkhitaryan is struggling to adapt to Emeryball. The Armenia international only has 1 goal and 1 assist from 8 league games this season. That’s not good enough for a player of his quality. Mkhitaryan made 2 key passes on Saturday but no defense-splitting pass. He set up Aubameyang in the 31st and Torreira in the 63rd for long-range efforts. Emery made the right call in the 68th by replacing Mkhitaryan with Iwobi. The Nigeria international brought more directness, making a teasing cross that Ozil couldn’t meet in the 76th. Although Iwobi moved to the leftback position in the 81st when Welbeck replaced Kolasinac, he still found a way to have an impact in the final third. Iwobi slipped the through ball that led to Lacazette’s equalizer in the 82nd.

Same situation, different decision

Up front, Lacazette had a disappointing game until that stroke of genius. He connected with a cross from Kolasinac in the fourth minute only to flick the ball straight at Alisson. In the past seasons, you can bet that Giroud would have done better with those flicks at the near post. Lacazette had another chance in the 39th but from a much tighter angle. Ozil diverted a lobbed pass from Xhaka into the path of Lacazette, who fired wide of the far post. A minute later, Mustafi knocked the ball down for Lacazette, who volleyed home from close range, but the goal was disallowed for an offside position from the German defender. Then Lacazette made a decisive run in the 82nd, beating Alisson to the ball. Running toward the corner flag to shield the ball, Lacazette was almost in a situation similar to the play that led to Crystal Palace’s equalizer. But instead of playing the ball back to a Gunner outside the area, Lacazette spun to curl a shot into the far corner.

Emery prefers to use Lacazette as a false nine, coming short to link up play, instead of relying on Aubameyang’s pace to lead the line. To a certain extent, Emery has given Aubameyang the Walcott role: a forward making diagonal runs in behind but with a limited contribution in the build-up play. The big difference is that Walcott could still cross with his stronger foot from the right flank whereas Aubameyang has to play on the left wing because Ozil and Mkhitaryan are more comfortable on the right wing.

Aubameyang had a poor game, winning only 20% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 55.6%, the lowest percentage for any starter. He also led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The Gabon striker had efforts deflected out in the 14th and 31st and mistimed his jump to head a cross from Ozil over the bar in the 39th. Aubameyang’s best contribution was the cross he made for Mkhitaryan in the 16th. Mkhitaryan beat Alisson to the ball but missed the target with his 11-yard header. Emery yanked Aubameyang off to send on Ramsey in the 73rd.

Leno’s mistakes

At the back, Kolasinac struggled in his return from injury, winning 40% of his duels and 0 of 2 tackles while making 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. Salah had Kolasinac in his pocket and the Reds could have caused more damage if they had created more situations isolating Salah with Kolasinac. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international lacked defensive awareness in the 69th, allowing Mane to run in front of him. Fortunately, Salah overhit his cross for Mane. Then Van Dijk lost Kolasinac in the 74th to meet a corner and force a save from Leno.

On the opposite flank, Bellerin was a doubt before the game but managed to play with his right thigh strapped. Bellerin did OK, winning 33% of his duels and 2 of 2 tackles while making 1 block, 1 interception and 3 recoveries. The Spaniard lost a key duel in the 70th when Firmino outjumped him to head a corner wide. Because of his recovering thigh and Mane’s threat down the right flank, Bellerin was more cautious with his forward runs. He still produced a through ball for Mkhitaryan in the 51st but Van Dijk outmuscled the Armenia international.

Leno made a couple of fine saves, denying Van Dijk in the 23rd and saving Robertson’s low strike in the 24th, but he also made 2 high-profile errors. The German goalkeeper was in no man’s land when Van Dijk headed a free kick against the post in the 45th. That was really poor decision-making from Leno to come off his line since Van Dijk was 14 or 15 yards away from goal. Then Leno should have either caught Mane’s cross in the 61st or knocked the ball toward the touchline. Redirecting the cross toward the middle of the box was the worst option as Milner pounced on the rebound to open the scoring. Leno also tried to play out from the back with goal kicks, but Liverpool’s high press forced him to opt for a long kick in the 26th. That was smart decision-making since the Reds were prepared for that kind of situation and you can’t afford any mistake near your area with players like Salah, Mane and Firmino.

Holding stepping up

Sokratis’ injury has given Holding the opportunity to prove himself again after shaky performances under Wenger. On Saturday, Holding and Mustafi made their 6th start together this season. When Sokratis is fit, it will be interesting to see which centerback combination Emery prefers.

Holding had stats as good as Mustafi. The English defender won 70% of his duels and 3 of 4 tackles and made 1 block, 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries, compared to 90% of duels won, 2 of 4 tackles won, and 1 block, 4 interceptions and 2 recoveries for Mustafi. Both had their good and bad moments. Holding headed out Robertson’s cross for Firmino in the fifth minute and blocked Salah’s final ball for Mane in stoppage time. However, Holding also made a sloppy pass in the 34th and lost a key duel against Van Dijk in the 45th.

After his error against Crystal Palace, Mustafi had to try and convince his doubters again. Mustafi made a timely tackle on Firmino in the fifth minute but a couple of plays exposed his weaknesses. He showed poor decision-making in the 18th by playing the offside trap instead of tracking Firmino. Mane’s goal would have stood with VAR technology. Then Van Dijk ghosted past Mustafi to meet a cross from Salah in the 23rd but was denied by Leno. Mustafi was definitely guilty on the Liverpool goal as Mane outpaced the German defender to make his cross.

The Gunners next play Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Wolverhampton in the Premier League on Sunday. Those are both home games so Emery might decide to limit rotation, especially since there’s an international break afterwards. Arsenal would secure qualification for the knockout phase of the Europa League with a victory over the Portuguese side. Such a scenario would allow Emery to play more youngsters for the remaining games against Vorskla and Qarabag.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: 2-2 draw ends Gunners’ winning streak

The Gunners ran out of luck on Sunday as they gave away two penalties to draw 2-2 with Crystal Palace. They trail Chelsea by 2 points in the Premier League but still hold onto fourth place after Manchester City edged Spurs tonight. The target for this season is 76 points (that is, 2.00 points per game), knowing that Liverpool finished fourth in the past two seasons with a minimum of 75 points. The Gunners are on course to at least match that total with 22 points from 10 games so far.

Crystal Palace vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

For 27 minutes, it looked like Arsenal would win ugly again. But the Gunners couldn’t protect their 2-1 lead and conceded the equalizer in the 83rd minute. The draw was a fair result as the Eagles proved the more threatening team with 16 goal attempts compared to just 7 for Arsenal.

Emery made 6 changes to the side that won in Lisbon last Thursday with Aubameyang, Guendouzi, Xhaka, Holding and Leno retaining their starting spots. Despite those changes, the Gunners looked a bit jaded, playing their third game in a 7-day span. They enjoyed 58% of Wengeresque sterile possession because the lack of movement led to a passing speed too slow to destabilize the Palace defense. It was no surprise if the Arsenal centerbacks and central midfielders finished the game as the players who made the most passes: 74 for Mustafi, 74 for Guendouzi, 73 for Holding and 72 for Torreira, according to the club’s website.

Tactically, the Eagles targeted the Arsenal fullbacks as Zaha and Townsend led all players with 3 key passes each. Bellerin coped well with Zaha on the right flank. The Spaniard was obviously more cautious with his forward runs but he still managed to be in a scoring position in the 24th minute. Ozil squared the ball back to Bellerin, who took 2 touches before firing a shot that was blocked. Bellerin lacked spontaneity on that play. A first-time effort with his left foot was the more natural option, but Bellerin preferred to shift the ball to his stronger right foot.

Playing Xhaka out of position

Bellerin suffered a muscle strain and was replaced at halftime by Lichtsteiner, who had a hard time with Zaha. Lichtsteiner fouled Zaha from behind in the 63rd and got booked in the 79th for a mistimed challenge on the Palace winger. In his 45-minute cameo, Lichtsteiner did very little with just 1 tackle won, 0 interception and 1 ball recovery, compared to 1 tackle won, 1 interception and 5 recoveries for Bellerin, according to the club’s website. It’s not the first time this season that the game has looked too quick for the Switzerland international.

On the left flank, Emery’s gamble backfired. Xhaka survived in the previous games against Ghezzal and an aging Nani, but he faced a sterner test against Townsend and Zaha. In the 15th, Townsend toyed with Xhaka before making a cross for an unmarked Zaha, who hit the base of the post. Bellerin was marking McArthur on that play, while Iwobi was late to cover Bellerin at the far post. A minute later, Van Aanholt played a one-two with Zaha before feeding Townsend, who missed the target from close range. Van Aanholt ran past Bellerin on that play while Townsend got ahead of a static Xhaka. A counterattack in the 82nd fatally exposed Xhaka’s lack of mobility. Zaha fooled Xhaka with a couple of stepovers, and instead of backing down, Xhaka stuck out his left leg to trip Zaha. The referee awarded a penalty that Milivojevic converted to salvage a point for the Eagles.

Xhaka deserves some credit for getting the Gunners back in the game by netting a curling free kick inside the far post in the 52nd. But you could tell that Xhaka didn’t feel comfortable in the leftback position with a passing accuracy of 72%, compared to 82% for Bellerin and 81% for Lichtsteiner. Xhaka tried hard, winning 2 of 4 tackles and 57% of his duels and making 1 interception and 5 recoveries. But the unfavorable matchup ultimately proved his undoing. I believe Emery should have started Lichtsteiner or Holding in the leftback position. Holding played as a fullback at Bolton before joining Arsenal and might have reacted more cautiously in a 1v1 situation with Zaha.

Using the weaker foot, or not

The opening goal also came from a defensive error. Leno weakly punched away a corner on the stroke of halftime. The ball fell to Tomkins, who chested it down to have an awkward effort blocked by Bellerin. The loose ball rolled toward Kouyate, who was brought down by Mustafi. The German defender was in a good position to make a block and had no reason to panic and dive in. Milivojevic converted the subsequent spot kick to give Palace the lead. In his third season at Arsenal, Mustafi still can’t refrain from making those reckless tackles. That’s a problem for a club in need of a leader at the back. Koscielny is 33 and past his prime while Sokratis is 30 and lacks the recovery pace to play a high defensive line.

Up front, Lacazette worked his socks off with 5 tackles made, 1 interception and 5 ball recoveries. But he was quite inefficient in the final third. Lacazette failed to catch the frame with an 18-yard strike in the 22nd and crossed the ball out of play in the 38th. His decision-making was incredibly poor in the 82nd. Leading a counterattack, Iwobi found Lacazette inside the Palace area. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Lacazette had 3 good passing options with Welbeck and Ramsey at the near post and Guendouzi at the far post.

Crystal Palace M82edLacazette takes a pass from Iwobi and has 3 passing options. (Photo credit: NBC)

The best option would have been to cut the ball back for Ramsey. But Lacazette refused to cross the ball with his left foot and ran toward the corner flag to check back onto his right foot and make a sloppy cross toward Torreira in midfield. Meyer intercepted the ball and the Eagles hit Arsenal on the fast break with Zaha taking on Xhaka to earn a decisive penalty. Lacazette was also involved in the controversial play that led to Aubameyang’s goal in the 56th. With his hand, the French striker diverted Xhaka’s corner toward the far post where Aubameyang stabbed the ball home. The goal-line technology confirmed that the ball had crossed the line by less than an inch. But there was no VAR technology to cancel the goal for Lacazette’s blatant handball.

Ramsey’s olive branch

Aubameyang is a typical poacher. It doesn’t make sense for him to play on the left wing. Aubameyang should lead the line since he’s stronger in the air and faster than Lacazette. Emery yanked Aubameyang off in the 78th to send on Ramsey. The Wales international played in a three-man midfield as the Gunners switched to a 4-3-3 formation with Welbeck, Lacazette and Iwobi in the front three. Ramsey had an opportunity to score the winner in the 89th but he couldn’t connect with Xhaka’s cross and Hennessey caught the ball.

After the Lisbon game, Ramsey pretty much dangled an olive branch in front of the board by asking why the club withdrew their contract offer. Ramsey also said he had agreed the deal, although he didn’t sign it. The situation is more complex than it seems. Ramsey and the club were negotiating in the summer before the talks broke down at the end of September. The board definitely wanted a quick resolution. They didn’t want a repeat of the Sanchez-Ozil situation with negotiations lasting forever and driving salaries up while creating uncertainty around the squad. On the other hand, it was in Ramsey’s interest to have long negotiations and use offers from other clubs to obtain a significant raise. If Emery and the board want to keep Ramsey, they could test his good faith by asking him to sign the deal that was on the table. Now the big question mark is how much bad blood there was between both parties during the negotiations.

I believe the club should make one last effort to keep Ramsey. The Gunners don’t have any natural replacement for the Wales midfielder in their squad. In fact, that kind of box-to-box player is a rare commodity in the Premier League. Ramsey notched 0.71 goal and assist per Premier League game last season. That’s a much better return than Pogba (0.59), Gundogan (0.17), Milner (0.09) and Wijnaldum (0.09). Of course, you can find midfielders with similar stats (De Bruyne, Silva, Eriksen), but keep in mind that they are playmakers and not box-to-box players like Ramsey.

An anonymous Ozil

The only other British player with a similar potential is Loftus-Cheek. But the big difference here is that Loftus-Cheek is still an unknown quantity at 22 while Ramsey is a proven big-game player -Ramsey scored the winning goal in two FA Cup finals.

Another reason to extend Ramsey’s contract is the issue of leadership. Ramsey is one of the 5 captains named by Emery. The other captains are Cech, Koscielny, Xhaka and Ozil. Both Cech and Koscielny are past their prime, Xhaka is a flawed player and Ozil has never been a leader. That leaves Ramsey as the only decent choice for the armband. As the current longest serving player at the club, Ramsey also has the legitimacy to be Arsenal’s standard-bearer.

If the staff and the owner were British, Ramsey’s contract would have been a no-brainer. Most fans can easily see Ramsey become what Gerrard was for Liverpool or what Scholes was for Manchester United. Unfortunately, Kroenke is American, Sanllehi and Emery are Spanish, Mislintat is German and Gazidis is South African. They may not have the same understanding of the club’s identity as the fans.

A few months ago, the board gave Ozil a new contract (£350,000 a week). Why they were so generous with Ozil and more strict with Ramsey is a big mystery. After his passing masterclass against Leicester, Ozil had a poor game at Selhurst Park with 0 goal attempt and only 1 key pass. Ozil didn’t even play against Sporting Lisbon and was therefore well rested, so he had no excuse for his anonymous performance. Emery replaced Ozil with Welbeck in the 68th. Out of frustration, Ozil threw his gloves on the ground as he left the pitch.

The problem with this Arsenal team is that they have no consistent performer in the creative positions. Iwobi was the alternative to Ozil for creating chances. But the Nigeria international had 0 key pass, and 8 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. He also won only 22% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any Gunner according to the club’s website. I didn’t really understand why Emery left Mkhitaryan on the bench.

Getting the priorities right

In central midfield, Torreira had a decent game, winning 1 of 3 tackles and 71% of his duels and making 3 interceptions and 9 ball recoveries. Torreira didn’t reach the heights of his performance against Leicester (13 recoveries) or Fulham (6 interceptions), but he showed on Sunday that he has adapted to the pace and physicality of the Premier League within a couple of months. Now the Uruguay midfielder wins the 50-50 duels and better uses his body to shield the ball and draw a foul. It’s no coincidence if Torreira was the most fouled player (4) on the Arsenal team.

Alongside Torreira, Guendouzi produced a high-energy performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 50% of his duels and making 1 interception and 11 recoveries. The French teenager also cut his turnover rate (3) but he still needs to release the ball more quickly. In stoppage time, Guendouzi reacted like a seasoned pro by killing a counterattack with a cynical foul on Meyer.

The Gunners next play Blackpool in the League Cup on Wednesday and Liverpool in the Premier League on Saturday. The Blackpool game is the perfect opportunity for Emery to blood some youngsters and rest some first-team players who need a break. The Spanish manager must get his priorities right because the Liverpool game could make or break our season. The Gunners have never led at halftime in the Premier League this season. They will need a much better start to have a chance against the Reds.

Arsenal vs. Leicester: Ozil doing his magic in 3-1 win

The Gunners stretched their winning streak to 10 games in all competitions as they rallied past Leicester 3-1 on Monday to stay fourth in the Premier League, ahead of Spurs on goal difference. When you keep winning, it’s a fantastic boost for your confidence but it can also lead to a bit of complacency. Arsenal clearly lacked intensity in the first 30 minutes. Did they think that they would get 3 points just by showing up? Somehow, they stepped up their game after Leicester took the lead in the 31st minute.

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

Monday’s game was similar to the World Cup semifinal between England and Croatia. The tactical battle was not in midfield but on the flanks. In the first half, the England wingbacks forced the Croatia wingers to defend. In the second half, the Croatia fullbacks charged forward while the Croatia wingers played higher up the pitch, putting the England wingbacks on the back foot.

In a 3-5-2 formation, the Foxes did some damage with their wingbacks in the first half. The visitors especially exploited the space behind the Arsenal fullbacks. Capitalizing on a turnover in the second minute, Ndidi slipped the ball to Iheanacho, who made a run down our left flank before cutting inside to muster a shot deflected out by Holding. Iheanacho then turned Holding in the 10th to feed Vardy, but Leno quickly came off his line to collect the ball. Leicester finally broke the deadlock in the 31st when Ndidi found Chilwell, who outpaced Bellerin to make a cross that the Spaniard diverted into his own net.

Emery only fixed the problem in the second half when he replaced Mkhitaryan and Lichtsteiner with Aubameyang and Guendouzi in the 61st. Iwobi was moved from the left wing to the right wing but the big tactical surprise was Xhaka’s shift to the leftback position. In fact, Xhaka didn’t have to roam forward like Lichtsteiner: Xhaka’s new task was to patrol the left flank in Arsenal’s half while Aubameyang created havoc in Leicester’s half.

Pinning back the wingbacks

Suddenly, Aubameyang and Iwobi created more problems for Pereira and Chilwell. Pereira even earned a yellow card in the 65th for holding Aubameyang on a counterattack. On the right wing, Mkhitaryan’s tendency to drift inside played into the hands of the Leicester defense whereas Iwobi provided more width. On the left wing, Aubameyang was a bigger goal threat than Iwobi.

The Gunners took the lead in the 63rd when Bellerin made a run in behind Chilwell to cross the ball for Aubameyang, who tapped home from close range. It was then Pereira’s turn to be in trouble in the 66th. Pereira started the play more than 20 yards behind Aubameyang and only managed to catch up after the Gabon striker converted Ozil’s pass for a 3-1 lead. That goal forced Puel to switch to a back four in the 69th when Ghezzal replaced Perreira.

Much has been said about Emeryball and the Spanish manager’s decision to play out from the back and press high up the pitch. I think the Gunners still have a lot of room to improve in those 2 areas. Yes, they have scored some spectacular goals while building play from the back. But they’ve also put themselves in some uncomfortable situations because they simply don’t have the same margin for error as Manchester City. Likewise, Arsenal’s pressing game is far from the standards of Liverpool. For instance, the lack of pressing for Leicester’s opening goal was quite embarrassing.

For me, the last goal is really what defines Emeryball so far. Torreira ignited the action by switching play from the left flank to the right. Ozil kept the momentum alive with a backheel flick toward Guendouzi, who released Bellerin down the right wing. Bellerin then found Lacazette, who played Ozil in. Instead of taking his chance, Ozil made a chipped pass for Aubameyang, who flicked home from 4 yards. Of all those players, Bellerin was the only one who took more than one touch.

The value of the first-time pass

There were also goals with some nifty one-touch passing under Wenger -Wilshere’s goal against Norwich being the most obvious example. But the key difference here is Emery’s willingness to take risks inside Arsenal’s half with first-time passes. The Gunners tended to play it safe inside their own half under Wenger with many passes between the centerbacks and the central midfielders. Under Emery, they reach the final third much more quickly.

Some fans expected Emery to use a 4-4-2 formation again after the 5-1 demolition of Fulham. But Emery decided to build his team around Ozil with a 4-2-3-1 system, leaving Ramsey and Aubameyang on the bench. On paper, the starting lineup put a lot of pressure on Ozil to contribute offensively because Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are not prolific scorers. Emery’s choice paid off as Ozil was heavily involved in Arsenal’s 3 goals.

Ozil made deep runs a la Ramsey for the equalizer and the last goal. On the stroke of halftime, Ozil ran 30 yards with the ball before releasing Bellerin down the right flank. The German playmaker kept running to meet Bellerin’s cross and guided the ball inside the far post with a first-time effort from 12 yards. For the last goal, Ozil made a backheel flick inside his own half before running 60 yards to set up Aubameyang. Ozil pretty much played like a No. 8 for those 2 goals.

In a fantasy world, Ozil and Ramsey would play in front of Torreira in central midfield, a bit like De Bruyne and Silva do with Fernandinho at Manchester City. In the real world, Arsenal would probably be in trouble against the big teams because of Ozil’s poor work-rate and Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline.

A passing masterclass

Ozil played in the more traditional No. 10 role for Arsenal’s second goal, slipping a through ball to Bellerin with a perfectly weighted pass. Everybody knows that Ozil is a world-class player. Yet, the Foxes gave him plenty of space and time to make that pinpoint pass. Ozil received a deserved ovation from the crowd when Ramsey replaced him in the 79th. In his passing masterclass, Ozil reached a passing accuracy of 91.2% according to the club’s website and even won 85.7% of his duels, which is an unusually high percentage for him.

Should Emery keep playing Ozil in the hole instead of using him on the right wing where he has often been a peripheral figure this season? The problem with Monday’s starting lineup is that Arsenal lacked Aubameyang’s speed for the first 60 minutes. As Lacazette came short to have the ball played to his feet, the Foxes did not hesitate to play a high defensive line. Lacazette has decent pace but he doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric speed to make lethal runs in behind.

When Aubameyang came off the bench, the Leicester defense dropped off to prevent him from making those runs in behind. The last 2 goals showed that Aubameyang is a pure finisher as he wasn’t involved in the build-up to those goals. It’s very selfless from him to play on the left wing, knowing that he proved himself as a prolific scorer with Borussia Dortmund.

Lacazette had an off day with only 1 of 4 shots on target. He should have scored in the 78th when Ozil laid the ball on a plate for the Frenchman. Watching the replay, I think the angle of Lacazette’s run made it difficult for him to net with his right foot. Which begs the question: do you trust your chocolate leg to score from 3 or 4 yards?

Torreira as the heartbeat of the team

Despite his lack of efficiency, Lacazette kept working hard, intercepting Ndidi’s back pass in the 50th to create a half-chance. He also contributed to the last goal with his link-up play. I still believe that Lacazette would be better used as a second striker than as a centerforward. Lacazette often prefers to escape marking with a run at the far post when a run at the near post would be the more natural option.

On the wings, Mkhitaryan struggled to make an impact. The Armenia international had 0 of 2 shots on target and made 0 key pass. His best chance came in the 50th when he pounced on a rebound for a half-volley that sailed wide. Iwobi showed more end product with 1 shot on target and 2 key passes as well as good work-rate with 4 of 4 tackles won and 5 ball recoveries. The Nigeria international made a smart run to break the offside trap in the 35th but couldn’t trap the long ball from the Arsenal defense. He then took a pass from Ozil in the 42nd to test Schmeichel with an angled effort.

Obviously, Iwobi has improved under Emery but he still needs to work on two issues at least: his turnover rate and his final ball. He led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. One of his sloppy passes led to a dangerous fast break in the 17th, forcing Holding to get booked for a cynical foul on Iheanacho. I felt the quality of Iwobi’s final ball was not good enough in the 49th when his high cross evaded Mkhitaryan.

In central midfield, Torreira was a rock with another outstanding performance. He was the heartbeat of the team, leading all players with 92 passes, a passing accuracy of 91.3% and 13 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Uruguay international also had 0 turnover, compared to 2 for Xhaka and 1 for Guendouzi. Besides his defensive work, Torreira played the role of attacking springboard, too. He made the interception for the equalizer, made a decoy run for Arsenal’s second goal, and initiated the switch of play for the last goal.

Injury crisis at the back

Despite Torreira’s presence, Xhaka had a hard time in midfield. Xhaka gave away a cheap free kick by grabbing Maddison in the 15th, earned a yellow card for a late challenge on the Leicester starlet in the 35th, and nearly got a second booking for vehemently asking for a foul in the 54th. It was quite a gamble from Emery to play Xhaka in the leftback position for the last 30 minutes, especially under the threat of a second yellow card. His lack of mobility will always prevent Xhaka from becoming a true ballwinner. In a contending club, Xhaka wouldn’t be a starter. The question for the Arsenal staff is what kind of midfielder should they sign next summer: another holding midfielder as an upgrade over Xhaka and Elneny, or a box-to-box player if Ramsey leaves the club?

At the back, Emery had to cope with an injury crisis and called up Medley from the academy. Lichtsteiner started in the lefback position because both Monreal and Kolasinac had hamstring issues. The Switzerland defender had a poor game, winning only 20% of his duels and making no tackle, no block and no interception, according to the club’s website. On the opposite flank, Bellerin lost his duel against Chilwell on the opening goal but got his revenge on the equalizer with a cross that Chilwell failed to stop. Bellerin notched a second assist with his low cross for Aubameyang in the 63rd.

Mixing man-marking and zonal marking

Injuries to Koscielny, Sokratis and Mavropanos meant that Holding kept teaming up with Mustafi in the heart of the defense. Mustafi headed away a dangerous cross from Pereira in the 12th and won 72.7% of his duels, the highest percentage for any Arsenal defender according to the club’s website. Mustafi had a relatively quiet evening as Vardy seemed to suffer from a stomach ache. By contrast, Holding had a harder time with Iheanacho. Holding got away with a handball in the 17th while challenging Ndidi in the air. A penalty would have been harsh since Ndidi prevented Holding from jumping by putting an arm on his shoulder. Holding also hit the risky long ball that led to Leicester’s goal.

Leno was less busy than against Fulham with just 2 saves made. He turned around the post a curling shot from Iheanacho in the sixth minute and pushed away Maguire’s downward header off a free kick in the 20th. The only blemish in Leno’s performance was his failure to beat Ndidi to the ball on a corner in the 58th. Arsenal used a mix of man-marking and zonal marking on that play. Man-marking: Lichtsteiner, Bellerin and Iwobi were in charge of slowing down Maguire, Evans and Ndidi, who started their run-up from beyond the penalty spot. Zonal marking: Holding, Mustafi and Xhaka were standing near the 6-yard line in pockets where the Foxes were most likely to head the ball. Iwobi failed to block Ndidi’s run and the Leicester midfielder got ahead of Holding to head the ball onto the bar. It might have been a different story if the Foxes had led 2-1.

I expect Emery to rotate for the Europa League game against Sporting Lisbon on Thursday. The schedule until the next international break is quite hectic, so it wouldn’t make sense to risk any injury in a competition where the Gunners have very good chances to qualify.

 

 

Arsenal vs. Watford: Iwobi makes an impact in 2-0 win

The Gunners rode their luck in a 2-0 victory over Watford on Saturday to stay level on points with fourth-place Spurs in the Premier League. That seventh straight win in all competitions is giving Emery more time to figure out what his best starting lineup is.

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

Saturday’s performance was similar to the Everton game a week ago. Nobody would have been shocked if Watford had come away with a draw. In fact, the Hornets outperformed Arsenal in the key stats: 14 goal attempts to 9, 6 big chances to 3, 5 shots on target to 2, 15 interceptions to 7 and 23 tackles to 10, according to the club’s website. The Gunners’ attacking play looked poor but a brief scoring spell in the last 10 minutes and some dreadful finishing from Watford made the difference.

Emery needed 5 league games to understand that the midfield pairing of Xhaka and Guendouzi was a flawed partnership. It’s only since Torreira has started alongside Xhaka that the midfield seems more balanced and that the Gunners have kept clean sheets. Now the question is: how many games Emery needs to realize that the attacking setup is dysfunctional? Here’s how the team looked like at kickoff:

Arsenal formation 4-2-3-1

On paper, it’s a 4-2-3-1 formation, but on the field, it often morphed into a narrow 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 system. The problem with the starting lineup is that Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ozil and Ramsey all prefer to play through the middle. So there’s an obvious lack of width when Ozil drifts inside and when Aubameyang makes diagonal runs to be in scoring positions. Ramsey occasionally moved to the left to make some space for Ozil and fill in the void vacated by Aubameyang, but that positional change impacted Ramsey’s main strength, which is to make penetrative runs.

Another issue with that starting lineup is the poor wing play. Ozil and Aubameyang barely combined with the fullbacks and also often left Monreal and Bellerin in 1v2 situations, allowing Holebas and Navarro to make dangerous crosses.

Can Ozil & Ramsey play together?

The front four is not clicking because Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey and Ozil can’t play together without at least 2 of them sacrificing their qualities. The main loser in that configuration has been Aubameyang because he doesn’t have the all-around game to play on the left wing. Instead of leading the line like in his former club Borussia Dortmund, Aubameyang suddenly becomes a bit player. Can Aubameyang and Lacazette play together? Of course, they can. A 4-4-2 formation would be the most obvious solution:

Arsenal formation 4-4-2

In that 4-4-2 formation, Iwobi or Welbeck would play on the left wing while Ozil or Mkhitaryan would play in the half-space between the right flank and the central area. Emery would also optimize Lacazette’s potential with that system because the France international is more a second striker than a pure centerforward.

Aubameyang and Lacazette could also play together in a traditional 4-3-3 formation:

Arsenal formation 4-3-3

Lacazette has the all-around game to play on the right wing like Salah does at Liverpool. His technique is good enough to make accurate crosses. That positional change shouldn’t affect Lacazette’s scoring record since he gets most of his chances on the right side of the area. To balance the attacking setup, a creative player would have to roam down the left wing. Iwobi seems more comfortable on that side of the pitch than Ozil or Mkhitaryan.

A more risky option would be Emery’s favorite 4-2-3-1 formation:

Arsenal formation 4-2-3-1 bis

Aubameyang and Lacazette could rely on service from Ozil and Iwobi in that system, but it would also make the Arsenal midfield more vulnerable because of Ozil’s poor work-rate and Xhaka’s lack of mobility.

Can Ozil and Ramsey play together? Under Wenger, it wasn’t an issue because Ramsey played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. As a result, the back four got very little protection. The partnership formed by Torreira and Xhaka this season is a bit more solid than the Ramsey-Xhaka duo. Emery might be tempted to pair Ramsey with Torreira, but Ramsey is not a pacesetter like Xhaka and has a higher turnover rate.

The only formation in which Ramsey and Ozil could play together without hurting the balance of the team would be a 4-3-3 system:

Arsenal formation 4-3-3 bis

It would mean that Aubameyang or Lacazette would have to be sacrificed. Lacazette might be willing to play on the left wing, but he would have to drift inside to be in scoring positions and the team would look narrow again.

Emery’s tactical rigidity

Emery doesn’t know what his best team is. He also doesn’t know how to optimally use some of his key players. In the second half, Emery tinkered tactically by asking Aubameyang and Ozil to swap positions. It didn’t really work. So he made two substitutions that finally provided the width his team needed, sending on Iwobi for Ramsey in the 63rd minute and Welbeck for Aubameyang in the 76th.

Maybe the most surprising part of Emery’s tenure at the club so far has been his tactical rigidity. The Spanish manager has used the same 4-2-3-1 formation for all his Premier League games. He could have tried a different formation more suitable for his best players. Managers like Guardiola, Pochettino and Mourinho are more flexible tactically.

At least, Emery is aware of the intensity of the game in England as he made 8 changes to the side that knocked Brentford out of the League Cup on Wednesday with only Monreal, Mustafi and Holding retaining their starting spots.

Although Lacazette finished the game with 0 of 4 shots on target, he was still involved in Arsenal’s best chances. Lacazette should have been awarded a penalty when Kabasele tripped him in the fifth minute, but Lacazette was too honest and stayed on his feet. Ten minutes later, Lacazette created his own chance by robbing Cathcart to be clean through on goal. With just Foster to beat, Lacazette sent his chip wide. He then managed to connect with a cross from Aubameyang in the 54th only to head the ball wide.

Lacazette’s efforts were finally rewarded in the 81st when he got ahead of Cathcart to meet a cross from Iwobi. The Watford defender could not sort out his feet and diverted the cross into his own net. Two minutes later, Lacazette swapped passes with Iwobi before setting up Ozil for the second goal. Besides the assist, Lacazette showed good work-rate, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 1 interception and 2 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website.

The understanding between Iwobi & Lacazette

By contrast, Aubameyang had a miserable afternoon with 0 shot, 0 tackle, 0 interception and 0 recovery. Two plays summed up his performance: he produced an air shot while attempting to volley Bellerin’s cross in the 39th and his ball over the top for Ozil bounced out of play in the 58th.

At 22, Iwobi could be starting to make the kind of impact that his breakthrough season suggested in 2016. He made the cross that led to the opening goal and it would have counted as an assist if Lacazette, and not Cathcart, had touched the ball. The Nigeria international also made the right decision on the second goal by slipping the ball to Lacazette instead of taking on a defender. The main positive from Saturday’s game is that Iwobi showed some good understanding with Lacazette whereas their connection on the pitch was poor last season.

Ozil was again a peripheral figure for most of the game. On paper, it wasn’t a game for him because of the Hornets’ physical approach. Until the 83rd minute, Ozil had 0 shot and 0 key pass. His best move in the first half was a lobbed pass for Monreal, who tried to find Lacazette with a header in the 21st. Surprisingly, Ozil’s technique let him down in the 24th. Aubameyang made a run in behind the Watford defense to be clean through on goal but Ozil overhit his long ball for the Gabon striker. Playing in a more central role after Emery’s substitutions, Ozil scored with his first goal attempt, side-footing Lacazette’s cross into the bottom corner. In stoppage time, Ozil made his first key pass of the game by heading the ball into Lacazette’s path.

Ramsey struggling under Emery

Despite his 2 assists against Everton, Ramsey is clearly struggling in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 system where he’s playing in a more advanced position than under Wenger. It’s true that Ramsey also plays as a free-roaming midfielder for the Wales team, but it’s because they lack quality up front to support Bale. The situation is completely different at Arsenal where Emery has many attacking options. Wenger preferred to play Ramsey in a deeper position because his late runs and his work-rate were more valuable in central midfield.

Ramsey had a poor game, leading all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, and winning only 30% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any midfielder according to the club’s website. His work-rate was average with 1 of 2 tackles won, 0 interception and 0 recovery, compared to 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 8 recoveries for Torreira and 1 of 2 tackles won, 0 interception and 5 recoveries for Xhaka.

Has Ramsey been affected by the breakdown of the contract talks with the club a few days ago? Whatever the outcome, it doesn’t reflect well on the Arsenal board because it creates an atmosphere of uncertainty around the squad. It’s also bad business because both Ramsey and Welbeck could leave for free next summer. It will be very difficult to find 2 players of the same quality with a transfer kitty of £60 million. Some fans want Emery to bench Ramsey because he has not committed to the club. But I have no problem with starting Ramsey if he can make a significant contribution on the pitch. I mean, the club’s priority is to finish in the Top 4. It would make no sense to weaken the team and hurt Arsenal’s bid for a Champions League spot.

Holding’s solid performance

In central midfield, Torreira’s performance was a mixed bag. He led all midfielders by winning 61.5% of duels, but he also had 4 turnovers, compared to just 2 for Xhaka. Torreira got a taste of the physicality of the Premier League when Hugues bullied him off the ball in the 18th. Ozil and Bellerin were also outmuscled by the Hornets. Out of frustration, Torreira tried to reply with a late challenge on Deeney in the 45th only to receive a yellow card. Torreira was credited with an error for giving the ball away in the 88th when Pereyra fired a speculative shot over the bar. However, I thought Torreira’s worst mistake was when he misread a play in the 75th and dived in, allowing Deeney to turn and play Success clean through.

Alongside Torreira, Xhaka had a low-key performance in midfield. Offensively, Xhaka tested Foster with a low drive in the 39th and sent a ball over the top for Monreal, whose sliding volley sailed wide in the 67th. Defensively, Xhaka was no match for the hard-working Capoue and Doucoure in midfield. The Switzerland international lost a key duel in the 36th when Kabasele outjumped him to head a cross from Holebas. But Cech made the save and managed to catch the rebound before Deeney could hit it. Xhaka also switched off defensively in the 17th when Hugues made a reverse pass to Deeney. The Watford striker ran past a static Xhaka to make a dangerous cross for Gray.

At the back, Holding produced a solid performance, winning 75% of his duels, having a passing accuracy of 89% and making 1 block, 3 interceptions and 9 recoveries, while Mustafi only won 45.5% of his duels, had a passing accuracy of 77% and made just 1 block, 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website.

Leno’s distribution

Holding made a crucial block in the 72nd, but two plays exposed his average pace. He lost a foot race with Gray, who chased a through ball from Deeney only to be denied by Leno in the 68th. Then Holding was on the wrong side of Success, whose chip brushed the far post in the 75th. Because Holding doesn’t have the recovery pace of a Koscielny in his prime, he must find a way to improve his reading of the game and his positional play.

The Hornets created many chances in great part because Mustafi had a poor game. Mustafi was caught ball-watching when Deeney knocked the ball toward an unmarked Hugues in the 11th. He also let Deeney run in front of him to meet a free kick from Holebas in the 52nd. His lack of composure led Mustafi to give away silly free kicks in the 23rd, 35th and 73rd.

The Gunners can definitely thank Leno for the clean sheet. He came off the bench to replace Cech on the stroke of halftime. Leno made a couple of outstanding saves, turning Deeney’s volley around the post in the 52nd, and denying Gray in the 68th and Cathcart in the 74th. His only dodgy moment was when he went for a high ball in the 57th and completely missed his catch. Leno will certainly start the next few games as Cech pulled his hamstring with a goal kick. The German goalkeeper had a much better distribution than Cech with a passing accuracy of 67% compared to 39% for the Czech veteran.

I expect Emery to rest his key players against Qarabag in the Europa League on Thursday because the Premier League game against Fulham on Sunday starts at noon. There’s a too big risk of injury with the long trip to Azerbaijan and the short rest between those 2 games.