Tag Archives: Premier League

BATE Borisov vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 loss

The Gunners are on the verge of elimination in the Europa League after losing 1-0 to BATE Borisov on Thursday in the first leg of their last-32 encounter. Arsenal will miss Lacazette for the second leg as the French striker received a red card for violent conduct.

BATE vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Getty Images

There will be a lot of second guessing about Emery’s team selection. Why did the Spanish manager not start Aubameyang and Torreira, knowing that the Gunners don’t even play this weekend? Arsenal performed poorly with a lot of stray passes and heavy touches. It was embarrassing to see the number of corner kicks that failed to beat the first defender. The Gunners could have led 3-0 in the first half with better finishing. They became toothless in the second half with a lot of sterile possession against a Belarusian side parking the bus.

  1. Are the Gunners regressing?

Last season, Arsenal won 4-2 in Belarus and 6-0 at the Emirates stadium under Wenger. You’d think that the Gunners would be in safe hands with Emery, who won the Europa League three times with Sevilla. But that wasn’t the case on Thursday.

Here’s a look at Emery’s 3-4-3 formation against BATE Borisov: Cech -Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi- Kolasinac, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Maitland-Niles- Iwobi, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan. If you compare with Wenger’s lineups, you can spot the difference right away. Wenger’s 3-5-2 formation in the 4-2 win: Ospina -Holding, Mertesacker, Mustafi -Maitland-Niles, Willock, Wilshere, Elneny, Nelson -Walcott, Giroud. Wenger’s 4-2-3-1 formation in the 6-0 win: Ospina -Maitland-Niles, Holding, Chambers, Debuchy -Elneny, Coquelin -Welbeck, Wilshere, Walcott -Giroud.

First, Mustafi and Maitland-Niles were the only players who started both Borisov games under Wenger and Emery. And second, Emery was more conservative in his approach than Wenger. The French manager started two goalscorers (Giroud and Walcott) in the away game and three (Giroud, Walcott and Welbeck) in the home game. By contrast, Emery only relied on one striker (Lacazette), probably expecting goals from Mkhitaryan and Iwobi who both have a poor scoring record.

Emery’s tactical changes in the second half proved useless. Aubameyang and Torreira replaced Maitland-Niles and Xhaka in the 68th minute before Emery sent on Suarez for Kolasinac in the 74th. The Gunners shifted to a 3-5-2 system with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi as wingbacks and Suarez in the hole behind Lacazette and Aubameyang.

  1. Lacazette’s nightmarish evening

The French striker could have notched a hat trick. His abject performance will again raise questions about his level. Lacazette should have at least caught the frame in the 22nd. Kolasinac made a pinpoint cross for an unmarked Lacazette who headed over the bar from 6 yards. Five minutes later, Guendouzi hit a ball over the top for Lacazette who tried to control the ball instead of attempting a volley from 16 yards. Lacazette missed his first touch, allowing Scherbitski to collect the ball. In that kind of situation, Van Persie would have opted for a volley.

Lacazette is a second striker, not a centerforward. His weakness in the air was exposed again in the 41st when he couldn’t climb high enough to meet a cross from Mustafi and test Scherbitski from 5 yards. Lacazette thought he had scored the equalizer in the 55th when he converted Kolasinac’s low cross, but he was marginally offside and the goal was disallowed. Out of frustration, Lacazette threw an elbow into Filipovic’s face in the 85th. That was obviously a silly foul because Filipovic was giving away a free kick by holding Lacazette’s shirt. The referee had no choice but to send Lacazette off.

  1. Iwobi’s lack of end product

The Nigeria international often made the penultimate pass for Arsenal’s few chances, especially by releasing Kolasinac down the left flank. The trouble is that Iwobi is not a deep-lying playmaker. He plays in a front three, which implies assists and goals. Iwobi finished the game with 0 key pass and 0 of 4 shots on target. His turnover rate is still an issue: Iwobi led all players with 11 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He was a bit naive in the opening minutes, losing possession twice by waiting for the ball to reach his feet instead of taking a couple of steps toward the ball to shield it with his body.

  1. Mkhitaryan’s first 5 minutes

The Armenia international got off to a good start before quickly fading. Mkhitaryan met Kolasinac’s cross with a sliding effort but was denied by Scherbitski in the second minute. He then made a teasing cross for Monreal, who failed to make contact with the ball in the fifth minute. A flick from Monreal would have been goalbound. The ball also evaded Koscielny to sail wide of the far post. Mkhitaryan made 3 key passes and won 2 of 3 tackles, but Emery should see that his limited goalscoring ability simply puts too much pressure on Lacazette.

  1. Guendouzi didn’t hide

He led all players with 111 passes. Yet, there’s something wrong when a manager gives the keys of the midfield to a teenager still learning the ropes. Yes, Guendouzi has a lot of potential, but he’s nowhere near the level of a Fabregas at the same age. Guendouzi dallied on the ball in the ninth minute and was dispossessed by Skavysh, forcing Xhaka to make a cynical foul. The French midfielder also lost a key duel with Milic on a BATE counterattack in the 13th. For his first season at the top level, Guendouzi has every excuse. But he will need to improve his defensive awareness and release the ball more quickly.

  1. The Gunners have a defensive problem on the left flank

Kolasinac was Arsenal’s most potent threat with 7 key passes. However, the hosts often exploited the space behind Kolasinac. In theory, Monreal was supposed to cover Kolasinac on the left flank, but the Spaniard struggled defensively. Skavysh combined with Milic to beat Monreal and Kolasinac along the touchline in the 28th. The Belarusian forward played the ball back to Milic, who flicked it wide. Then Monreal tripped Skavysh in the 43rd, giving away the free kick that led to BATE’s goal. Dragun beat Kolasinac to the ball to head in Stasevich’s free kick on the stroke of halftime. The Belarusian side nearly doubled the lead in the 61st when Stasevich made a run in behind Monreal to fire a half-volley that Cech parried.

  1. Maitland-Niles couldn’t find the balance between defense and offense

The academy graduate had a good game against Huddersfield last weekend but he failed to have an offensive impact in Belarus. Maitland-Niles won 4 of 6 tackles but made 0 key pass. Arsenal’s attacks became too predictable in the second half because of Maitland-Niles’ inefficiency and the team’s over-reliance on Kolasinac on the opposite flank.

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Huddersfield vs. Arsenal: Gunners win ugly to stay in Top 4 race

   The Gunners held off Huddersfield 2-1 on Saturday to keep pace with Manchester United in the Top 4 race and earn their first away win in the Premier League since November. It wasn’t a pretty game. The Terriers outplayed Arsenal, enjoying 55% of ball possession and having 6 shots on target to 4. Yet, the result could prove crucial mentally. Last season, the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race because of their poor form on the road with 7 losses from January to May 2018.

Huddersfield vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   The injury crisis in defense has led Emery to rely on a back three for away games lately. It’s quite ironic that Emery is revisiting Wenger’s old recipes. The French manager switched to a back three at the end of the 2016-17 season because of 5 straight losses on the road. However, the tactical move came too late as Arsenal finished in fifth place, 1 point behind Liverpool.

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that lost at Manchester City a week ago with Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles replacing Aubameyang and Lichtsteiner in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager had to cope with a depleted squad as Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, and Aubameyang were sidelined either by injury or illness.

   Saturday’s game exposed the lack of quality in some key positions. The Terriers are the worst team in the Premier League but they still managed to have a passing accuracy of 78.6% compared to 71.8% for Arsenal, according to the club’s website. The Gunners compensated for their poor passing game with some great work-rate in the first half.

Flying wings

   There are only 3 attacking players in a 3-4-3 formation compared to 4 in a 4-2-3-1 system. The lack of creativity on the team sheet was quite obvious. Arsenal couldn’t just rely on inconsistent players like Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to create chances. In the end, the supply came from the wingbacks, Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac. The stats don’t lie: the Gunners only made 7 key passes. Maitland-Niles led Arsenal players with 3 key passes, followed by Kolasinac (2), Mkhitaryan (1) and Iwobi (1).

   Maitland-Niles arguably produced his best performance of the season. He set up the winning goal with a low cross that Lacazette converted from close range in the 44th minute. Besides 2 interceptions, Maitland-Niles led all players by winning 4 of 6 tackles, having 4 successful dribbles out of 7 and making 12 recoveries, according to the club’s website. His teammates trusted him as Maitland-Niles led Arsenal players with 51 passes.

   At 21, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player with a lot of room for improvement. Technically, he was among the weakest players with a passing accuracy of 62.8%. Maitland-Niles also had 5 turnovers compared to just 1 for Kolasinac. He especially gave the ball away with poor passes in the 33rd, the 47th and the 54th. That kind of flaw can be corrected on the training ground. Hopefully, Maitland-Niles will take the positives from his performance to claim the starting spot on the right flank while Bellerin recovers from his knee injury.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac created the opening goal in the 16th with a cross for Iwobi, whose volley took a deflection off Kongolo to beat a wrongfooted Hamer. Those 2 Gunners have built a good understanding on the left flank. Kolasinac combined with Iwobi to make another pinpoint cross in the 60th. Lacazette was about to meet the cross but Elneny jumped on the French striker to head the ball wide. What happened to team spirit? I thought Elneny and Lacazette were better educated than Kamara and Mitrovic.

A firefighter surrounded by pyromaniacs

   The trouble with Kolasinac is that his defensive lapses often outweigh his offensive contributions. Kolasinac was pulled out of position in the 80th when the Terriers hit Arsenal on the fast break. An unmarked Smith made a low cross for Depoitre, whose angled strike sailed wide. You can’t fault Kolasinac for his work-rate though. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international won 2 of 2 tackles, and made 3 interceptions and 11 recoveries.

   However, his technical limitations are becoming more and more obvious. Kolasinac completed only 55.6% of his passes, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. In stoppage time, Kolasinac should have cleared the rebound after Leno diverted Diakhaby’s chip, but some poor footwork led to a comical own goal. Monreal’s physical decline means that signing a leftback should be a top priority this summer.

   At the back, Koscielny and Leno were the only reasons why Arsenal nearly kept a clean sheet. Koscielny must have felt like a firefighter surrounded by pyromaniacs. Mustafi was very active on the right side of a back three with 2 tackles won, 5 interceptions and 11 recoveries, but his performance also looked like a catalogue of errors. The German defender put his team in trouble with a poor header in the 22nd. Mustafi was then pulled out of position in the 27th, made a silly foul in the 28th, lost possession on the edge of the area in the 35th and missed his tackle in the 47th. And his weak passing accuracy of 72.3% didn’t help his team retain possession.

   Monreal’s season has been marred by injuries. I don’t think the Spaniard was 100 percent fit on Saturday. His stats were very low with just 1 tackle, 2 blocks, 2 interceptions and 1 recovery. Monreal especially struggled to cope with Diakhaby’s pace. Diakhaby ran past Monreal in the 25th but Koscielny managed to block the cross from the Huddersfield winger. Covering Leno in the 84th, Monreal prevented Grant from scoring with a clearance off the line.

Lack of protection

   Chaperoning an error-prone Mustafi and a sluggish Monreal, Koscielny shone in the sweeper role as he cleaned up mistakes from his teammates. Koscielny headed the ball out after Diakhaby intercepted a poor back pass from Kolasinac in the second minute. The French centerback then cut out a cross from Smith in the 61st after Iwobi failed to track the Huddersfield fullback. Using his experience in the 78th, a smart Koscielny won a free kick after Bacuna outpaced Monreal.

   Koscielny finished the game with 2 tackles won, 2 blocks, 4 interceptions, 7 recoveries and a passing accuracy of 90.2%. Maybe the only blemish in Koscielny’s performance was his decision-making on the Terriers’ consolation goal. Instead of playing a high defensive line, Koscielny should have dropped off to control Diakhaby’s run.

   Leno had a quiet first half with just a routine save in the 19th. However, he definitely helped the Gunners secure the win with a couple of fine saves in the second half. The German goalkeeper saved Diakhaby’s first-time effort in the 50th, parried Diakhaby’s swerving shot in the 72nd, denied Depoitre in the 84th and stopped Bacuna’s long-range strike in stoppage time.

   The Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection after the break. By his own standards, Torreira had a poor game with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception, 10 recoveries and a passing accuracy of 64.3%. Guendouzi couldn’t compensate for Torreira’s relative lack of activity with 1 tackle, 0 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. The French teenager was a bit too casual at times with 6 turnovers, including one that led to a counterattack by Diakhaby in the 25th.

Missing a big chance

   Emery felt that something was not right in midfield and replaced Torreira with Elneny in the 59th. The move didn’t pay off. In fact, the Terriers were even more threatening after Torreira left the pitch. Elneny failed to close down Diakhaby, whose swerving shot tested Leno in the 72nd. Emery then decided to beef up the midfield by sending on Willock for Iwobi in the 88th. Willock failed to press Mooy, who slipped a through ball to Diakhaby for the consolation goal in stoppage time.

   Iwobi can be a frustrating player to watch. Let’s start with the positives. Iwobi opened the scoring and created a couple of half-chances. He fed Lacazette in the eighth minute. Instead of taking a first-time shot, Lacazette controlled the ball only to be dispossessed by Kongolo. Three minutes later, Iwobi made a low cross for Lacazette, who made poor contact with the ball and flicked it wide. Iwobi found the net again in the 36th but the goal was disallowed for an offside position.

   Now the reason why Iwobi drives some fans mad is because his passing and shooting skills can be poor at times. Iwobi led all players with 10 turnovers and completed only 60.6% of his passes, according to whoscored.com. Attacking midfielders at the top clubs have a passing accuracy above 80%. His decision-making can also be questionable. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi opted for an angled strike in the 10th minute instead of setting up Mkhitaryan for a tap-in. The defender might have intercepted Iwobi’s pass but it was still a better option than shooting from a tight angle. In the end, Iwobi embarrassingly fired into the side-netting.

Huddersfield M10edIwobi misses a passing opportunity. (Photo credit: SN1)

   Iwobi was also let down by his technique in the 69th, completely missing the target after cutting inside, and in the 86th, crossing the ball out of play. He could have put the result beyond doubt in the 70th when Mkhitaryan played him clean through on goal. But the Nigeria international wasted that big chance by shooting straight at the goalkeeper.

Pretending to defend vs. actually defending

   Much has been said about Iwobi’s improvement under Emery, but he still doesn’t know how to defend. Iwobi made 1 tackle and 4 recoveries in 88 minutes, while Mkhitaryan made 1 tackle, 1 interception and 7 recoveries in 76 minutes. Iwobi’s work-rate is poor because he lacks aggression like Ozil. Both Ozil and Iwobi track back but they barely perform defensive actions.

   In his return from a foot injury, Mkhitaryan looked incredibly sharp for his first Premier League game since December. From an attacking viewpoint, the right flank became a weakness after Bellerin’s injury. It will be interesting to see whether Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles can strike an understanding on the right flank like the one built by Kolasinac and Iwobi on the left flank.

   Mkhitaryan controlled Maitland-Niles’ cross in the 39th to test Hamer with a low drive. They swapped roles in the 44th as Mkhitaryan released Maitland-Niles for the second goal. Suarez replaced Mkhitaryan in the 76th and didn’t seem up to speed. Right now, Suarez looks like a player in his second week of pre-season training.

   Up front, Lacazette did his best in a position which is not tailored for him because he’s much more a second striker than a pure centerforward. Lacazette won 0 of 5 aerial duels and had 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Those are definitely not the stats of a target man. When Wenger used a 3-4-3 formation, he played Welbeck or Giroud in the centerforward role. To Lacazette’s credit, he scored the winning goal and worked his socks off with 4 fouls committed.  

   Arsenal’s next couple of games are the two legs against BATE Borisov in the Europa League. At this stage of the season, the Gunners can’t prioritize that European competition over the Premier League yet. There are still 8 games to play before reaching the Europa League final while the Gunners are only 1 point behind Manchester United in the standings.

   The main difficulty for Emery will be to manage a tricky schedule. After the second leg against the Belarusian side, Arsenal will play 3 Premier League games in a 7-day span. The only opportunity to rest key players will therefore be the second leg. Only a significant victory in the first leg would enable Emery to rotate in the second leg.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Lichtsteiner showing his age in 3-1 loss

   The Gunners suffered a setback in the Top 4 race as they lost 3-1 at Manchester City on Sunday to slip to 6th place in the Premier League, 3 points behind Chelsea and 1 behind Manchester United.

Manchester City vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Arsenal performed at a decent level in the first half and even had a couple of half-chances to take a 2-1 lead before Aguero scored his second goal in the 44th minute. Maybe it would have been a different story if Arsenal had reached halftime with the score tied. City stepped up a gear in the second half as the Gunners proved toothless with zero goal attempt.

   Sunday’s game showed the gap between the two teams. You could say that the Gunners were 2 or 3 signings away from contending in 2015. But now they have to rebuild their defense and clean up the mess in midfield left by the previous regime.

   Obviously, the generosity of the Abu Dhabi owner has helped Guardiola build a winning team within 2 years. The Citizens completely outplayed Arsenal, having 12 shots on target to 2 and 18 successful dribbles to 10 while winning 13 tackles to 10 and 19 aerial duels to 5, according to whoscored.com.

Lichtsteiner as the weak link

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that edged Cardiff the previous weekend with Iwobi and Koscielny replacing Ozil and Elneny in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager had to cope with a depleted defense as Holding, Sokratis, Bellerin, Maitland-Niles and Xhaka were not available.

   Some fans complained about the lack of creative players in the lineup but I don’t think it was the kind of game where Arsenal needed creativity for the simple reason that the Citizens dominated possession. My only criticism about Emery’s team selection was Iwobi getting the nod over Ramsey. The Wales midfielder will always give you more work-rate and more end product than Iwobi.

   Xhaka’s groin strain limited Emery’s options in midfield. The Gunners started in a 4-4-2 formation with Kolasinac and Iwobi on the wings before shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 66th when Ramsey and Suarez replaced Iwobi and Kolasinac. City bossed the midfield because Fernandinho, De Bruyne and the Silvas outnumbered Torreira and Guendouzi. But it was on Arsenal’s right flank that the damage was done.

   The Citizens identified Lichtsteiner as the weak link in the Arsenal defense and concentrated their attacks on his side. It was no coincidence if all the City goals came from crosses on Lichtsteiner’s flank that Aguero converted from close range. The Arsenal staff definitely made a mistake in recruiting Lichtsteiner. The game is going too fast for the 35-year-old defender, whose work-rate was poor with 2 tackles, 0 block, 0 interception, and 1 recovery, according to the club’s website.

Mustafi’s luck

   Lichtsteiner made the mistake of running toward Gundogan instead of staying with Sterling for Aguero’s second goal in the 44th. Gundogan found Sterling with a clipped pass and the diminutive winger squared the ball back for Aguero, who tapped in at the far post. Sterling outpaced Lichtsteiner for the final goal in the 61st, making a low cross that Leno could only divert into the path of Aguero, who bundled the ball over the line with his midriff and arm.

   Somehow, Lichtsteiner managed to prevent a tap-in from Sterling by clearing a cross from De Bruyne in the 81st. Emery had no alternative on the bench to yank Lichtsteiner off the pitch. Playing an inexperienced Mavropanos out of position would have been a too big gamble.

   Monreal didn’t suffer as much on the opposite flank because Guardiola preferred to play Bernardo Silva in a wide position instead of having Sterling and Sané on both wings. The Citizens confused the Gunners a couple of times by swapping positions. An all-around midfielder for City, De Bruyne cracked the Arsenal defense with his penetrative runs. De Bruyne made a run in behind Monreal to collect Bernardo’s reverse pass only to fire wide on the stroke of halftime. Spotting a gap between Lichtsteiner and Mustafi in the 56th, Sterling played De Bruyne in but the Belgium international was denied by Leno.

   Mustafi didn’t cover himself in glory at centerback. He miraculously avoided a booking and a penalty in the third minute for holding Aguero, who was chasing a through ball from De Bruyne. Mustafi was then in no man’s land when Aguero opened the scoring. His passing was poor with an accuracy dipping to 71.7% compared to 88.9% for Koscielny. The cherry on the cake was his substitution in the 79th for a knock. Something similar happened when Arsenal got thrashed 5-1 at Liverpool. You kind of wonder if he’s the kind of guy who runs away when his team takes a beating.

Guendouzi’s composure

   An aging Koscielny showed more leadership than Mustafi. In the heart of a weak backline, Koscielny won 0 of 1 tackle and 66.7% of his duels and made 2 blocks, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The France international also scored an equalizer by heading home a corner in the 11th. The Gunners have 6 centerbacks with Koscielny, Mustafi, Sokratis, Holding, Mavropanos and Chambers. It would make sense to boost the transfer funds by selling Mustafi and Chambers this summer.  

   The scoreline could have been more embarrassing without a good performance from Leno. The German goalkeeper made 9 saves, denying De Bruyne in the 51st, 53rd and 63rd and palming away efforts from Aguero in the 76th and David Silva in the 82nd. It really was one-way traffic in the second half.

   Torreira and Guendouzi did their best to protect the defense, but they were simply outnumbered by the Citizens in midfield. Basically, they had to multi-task: fighting for the ball in midfield, covering the fullbacks and initiating plays. Torreira cleared a dangerous cross from Bernardo in the 23rd and made a crucial interception inside the Arsenal area in the 39th. He was unlucky to receive a yellow card in the 39th for a collision with De Bruyne.  

   Guendouzi can be proud of his performance. Despite his young age, Guendouzi showed great composure and didn’t hide, leading Arsenal players with 58 passes and a passing accuracy of 91.4%. The French teenager managed to match Torreira’s defensive stats with 1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 9 recoveries compared to 1 tackle, 3 interceptions and 9 recoveries for Torreira, according to the club’s website. Guendouzi set up Kolasinac for a powerful strike that Ederson parried in the 39th. The only blemish in Guendouzi’s performance was his turnover in the 85th that led to a City counterattack, forcing Leno to stop Jesus’ low strike.

Broken wings

   The biggest disappointment in Emery’s tactical approach was the poor performances from Kolasinac and Iwobi on the wings. They made 0 key pass while Sterling and Bernardo Silva made 4 key passes each. Iwobi’s work-rate was decent with 1 tackle, 1 interception and 4 recoveries in 66 minutes. But he had 2 turnovers in the opening minutes that put his team in trouble.

   Iwobi’s decision-making was especially poor in the first minute of the game. Guendouzi slipped the ball to Iwobi as the Gunners cleared their lines. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi only had 2 passing options: a short pass to Lacazette to start a fast break or a back pass to Lichtsteiner. The first option was too risky because Lacazette was surrounded by Laporte, Gundogan and Sterling. Therefore a back pass to Lichtsteiner was the safer option. Lichtsteiner could have then played the ball back to Iwobi along the touchline or hit a long ball toward Aubameyang.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal M1 edited.jpgIwobi has 2 passing options: Lacazette and Lichtsteiner. (Photo credit: Sky)

   In the end, Iwobi chose neither of those 2 options. He decided to take on Laporte on the edge of the Arsenal box. Laporte dispossessed Iwobi and made a cross for Aguero, who headed home to put City ahead. The Arsenal defense was completely disorganized on that play and had almost no chance to stop the final ball. Guardiola’s teams are usually known for their intricate passing but that goal (a one-pass play!) was rather a good example of Klopp’s gegenpressing philosophy. Iwobi had made efforts lately to stop running into traffic but Sunday’s game showed that he still needs to improve his decision-making and keep it simple.

Suarez making his Arsenal debut

   On the opposite wing, Kolasinac looked lost in the role of an attacking midfielder. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 52.6%, the lowest percentage for any starting player. His poor positional play also led to a mediocre work-rate with 1 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. How Emery came up with that tactical surprise is a mystery because Kolasinac has always been a limited player, technically.  

   Some Arsenal fans wondered why Suarez, and not Ozil, replaced Kolasinac in the 66th. The answer is very simple: Emery doesn’t trust Ozil in those away games where attacking midfielders also have to fight for the ball. It was also a show of trust in Suarez. Here are some stats showing how hard creative players have to work in the top teams: De Bruyne made 7 recoveries and 4 fouls, David Silva won 2 tackles and made 4 recoveries and 3 fouls, Sterling won 2 tackles and made 4 recoveries and Bernardo Silva hit the jackpot with 1 tackle won, 1 interception and 10 recoveries. Those are the kind of stats that Emery expects from his attacking midfielders.  

   In his Arsenal debut, Suarez looked a bit sluggish. The Spaniard has only played 257 minutes for Barcelona this season. Suarez had 2 turnovers and seemed weak in duels against City. Obviously, he will need a couple of weeks to fit in the team as the Gunners don’t play like Barcelona. Suarez will also have to work hard if he wants to adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League.

Winning on the road

   Up front, it was a frustrating game for Lacazette and Aubameyang, both deprived of service. They combined to have only 1 goal attempt. Lacazette led a counterattack in the 35th and tried to play Aubameyang clean through on goal, but Ederson perfectly read the play and sprinted outside his area to clear the danger. Arsenal tried again to hit City on the fast break in the 42nd when Lacazette dispossessed De Bruyne. Torreira found Aubameyang, whose shot was deflected out for a corner.

   The Gunners next visit bottom side Huddersfield on Saturday. A victory on the road is necessary to make up ground in the Top 4 race. Dropping points against the Terriers would deal a bad blow to any hope of a Top 4 finish. Then Arsenal would need victories in the home games against Southampton and Bournemouth at the end of February before the decisive games against Tottenham and Manchester United in early March.  

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

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

arsenal vs. cardiffPhoto credit: Premier League

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

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

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

The Ozil conundrum

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

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

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

An effective one-two punch

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

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

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

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

A too conservative approach

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

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

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

Killing the momentum of a play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rusty Monreal

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

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

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

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Injury crisis at the back (again)

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Maitland-Niles is learning the ropes

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

  1. Kolasinac is a defensive liability

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

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

  1. Lacazette’s work-rate was impressive

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

  1. Ramsey is Arsenal’s best attacking midfielder

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

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

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

Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Gunners stay in Top 4 race with 2-0 win

   The Gunners still have a chance of finishing in the Top 4 of the Premier League after sinking Chelsea 2-0 on Saturday to pull within 3 points of their London rivals. The Blues enjoyed 64% of ball possession but Arsenal proved the more threatening team in the final third with 5 shots on target to just 1 for the visitors.

arsenal vs. chelseaPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 3 changes to the side that lost at West Ham a week ago with Bellerin, Ramsey and Torreira replacing Maitland-Niles, Iwobi and Mustafi in the starting lineup. The Gunners played in a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield when defending and morphed into a 4-3-3 formation when attacking. The difference between those 2 systems was Ramsey’s position. The Wales midfielder man-marked Jorginho when Chelsea tried to play out from the back. But as soon as Arsenal won the ball back, Ramsey joined Aubameyang and Lacazette in a fluid front three.

   In one of their best performances this season with the 4-2 win over Spurs, the Gunners did most of the hard work in the first half before spending the second half under siege. Emery shut up shop by switching to a 4-5-1 formation in the 67th minute with Iwobi and Maitland-Niles replacing Lacazette and Ramsey.

   Arsenal showed more desire than the Blues, winning 55.4% of the duels according to the club’s website. The Gunners were also helped by Sarri’s questionable tactics: Hazard was toothless in the false nine role, leading all players with 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. Sarri moved Hazard back to the left wing by replacing Willian with Giroud in the 68th but the move came too late to have any impact.

Emeryball at its best

   When you look at the way Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang pressed high up the pitch in the first half to force Chelsea turnovers, there’s no way Ozil could play in that Arsenal team. Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win 3 of 3 tackles and make 4 interceptions and 12 recoveries, compared to 2 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 7 recoveries for Hazard, Willian and Pedro, according to the club’s website. Basically, an attacking player at Arsenal made 6.33 key defensive actions compared to 3.66 for an attacking player at Chelsea.  

   That kind of pressing game didn’t exist under Wenger. Emery also made another significant change in the way the Gunners play out from the back. Under Wenger, they slowly moved the ball forward with safe passes in their own half. Under Emery, the Gunners reach the final third more quickly with two-touch passing or even first-time passes in their own half.

   If you look at the screen capture below, you can see an example of Emery’s more ambitious and more risky approach. Sokratis took a pass from Xhaka in the fourth minute and found Bellerin down the right flank. The Spaniard picked out Lacazette who made a low cross for Aubameyang. From 8 yards, Aubameyang somehow missed the target, flicking the ball wide of the far post. On that play, Sokratis, Bellerin and Lacazette only had 2 touches each.

arsenal vs. chelsea m4edPlaying out from the back with very few touches. (Photo credit: BT)

   Lacazette broke the deadlock in the 14th minute by controlling a cross from Bellerin before turning Alonso to fire an angled strike into the top corner. The French striker showed great spatial awareness with his back to goal as well as great technique with perfect touches to maneuver in the tiny space between Pedro and Alonso. That was his only scoring chance of the game. Lacazette produced a good all-around performance with 1 goal, 1 key pass, and 3 successful dribbles, tied with Hazard and Pedro for the most by any player according to whoscored.com.

Aubameyang’s 3 tackles

   Emery’s game plan was to choke the Blues in their own half. It could only succeed with outstanding work-rate from the attacking players. Aubameyang is the leading scorer at the club but he selflessly worked his socks off, winning 3 of 3 tackles. Willian in the ninth minute and Hazard in the 19th could barely believe it when they saw Aubameyang tackling them.

   Contributing defensively doesn’t mean that you can’t attack. Aubameyang had 3 scoring chances. He should have found the net with his flick in the fourth minute. Then Aubameyang created a chance on his own in the 17th, dispossessing Azpilicueta before testing Kepa with an angled effort. He also connected with a cross from Kolasinac in the 37th for an overhead kick that sailed wide of the far post.

   Ramsey was the key cog in Emery’s pressing plan. Defensively, he made 1 interception and 6 recoveries. Offensively, he made 1 key pass and stung Kepa’s gloves with a long-range strike in the 29th. His movement created problems for the Chelsea defense. The free kick that led to Arsenal’s second goal came from Luiz’s nasty lunge on Ramsey in the 37th.

   The Wales midfielder’s performance makes Arsenal’s decision to let him go even more mind-boggling. The Gunners have 4 attacking midfielders: Ramsey, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. From a football viewpoint, the decision to release Ramsey makes no sense at all. Ozil and Iwobi can’t match Ramsey’s work-rate while Mkhitaryan can’t match Ramsey’s end product.

   And from a business viewpoint, it’s a highly questionable decision. At £180,000 per week for 4 years, Ramsey’s contract offer would have cost £37.44 million. Now let’s assume that the club finds a replacement for £50,000 a week. Arsenal would then have to agree a signing fee below £27 million to make the replacement cheaper than extending Ramsey’s contract. That’s not an easy task when you know that the signing fee was £35 million for Xhaka and £26 million for Torreira. Of course, any new signing would potentially have a higher resale value than Ramsey in 4 years, but there’s also no guarantee that the newbie could perform at Ramsey’s level.  

Guendouzi needs to beef up

   The Gunners kept a clean sheet in great part because the forwards and the midfielders did an outstanding defensive job. Torreira is slowly getting back to his best level after a drop in form since the end of December. He made 4 recoveries and 0 interception, led all players by winning 6 of 9 tackles and led all starting midfielders by winning 70.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Playing in the same position as Torreira, Chelsea midfielder Kante made 5 recoveries and 3 interceptions but only won 1 of 2 tackles and 33.3% of his duels. There were 2 signs that Torreira wasn’t at 100% yet. First, he had a bout of cramping in the 83rd. And second, his passing accuracy dipped to 61.8% while it’s usually above 80%.  

   On the left side of the Arsenal midfield, Guendouzi worked hard, making 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries, but he’s still a bit soft. The French teenager won only 1 of 5 tackles and was dribbled past 5 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Guendouzi definitely needs to work on his understanding with Kolasinac, who was frustrated a couple of times not to have an easy passing option around him.

   In the No. 6 role, Xhaka displayed good activity, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries. Those stats are nearly similar to Jorginho’s (1 tackle won, 3 interceptions and 12 recoveries). Xhaka always has an error in him but he managed to limit the damage on Saturday. The Switzerland international led all players with 4 fouls and was lucky to avoid a booking for holding back Kante in the fourth minute. Xhaka dallied on the ball and was dispossessed by Willian in the ninth minute. He then made a poor clearance in the 59th. The ball fell to Alonso, who fired wide from the edge of the box.

Bellerin’s knee injury

   Bellerin’s season could be over. He twisted his left knee in the 69th and was stretchered off the pitch. It might just be a minor knee sprain but there could be some ligament damage too. Bellerin has been quite unlucky this season. He found the right balance between defense and offense under Emery until a calf strain sidelined him last month. Bellerin is a key player for the way the Gunners play out from the back. The Spanish fullback has also built a good understanding with Lacazette down the right flank. Emery will have to rethink how the team plays on that side of the pitch.

   The options at rightback are not mouthwatering. Lichtsteiner’s legs are too rusty to play in the Premier League, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player and Jenkinson is limited technically. Maitland-Niles would seem the logical choice by default. Obviously, Maitland-Niles doesn’t have Bellerin’s technical ability but he has more pace than Lichtsteiner and Jenkinson. Maitland-Niles shifted to the rightback position when Elneny replaced Bellerin in the 72nd.

   On the left flank, Kolasinac led Arsenal players with 2 key passes. With better decision-making, Kolasinac should have made a third key pass in the 64th. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Kolasinac was in a good position to slip the ball to an unmarked Torreira or make a teasing cross for Aubameyang at the far post. But Kolasinac drove into the six-yard box and his cross for Aubameyang was cleared by Alonso.

arsenal vs. chelsea m64edThe moment Kolasinac missed a passing opportunity. (Photo credit: BT)

   Kolasinac showed good work-rate, winning 4 of 4 tackles and 77.8% of his duels and making 1 interception and 7 recoveries, but his poor defensive awareness nearly cost his team. He was not tight enough to Azpilicueta in the 10th. The Chelsea rightback made a dangerous cross for Hazard, who missed the target from 11 yards. Kolasinac was then completely clueless in the 18th when Luiz hit a ball over the top for Pedro. Standing 3 yards behind Sokratis, Koscielny and Bellerin, the Bosnia-Herzegovina international played Pedro onside. Clean through on goal, Pedro sent his lob wide.

A complementary pairing

   Kolasinac also left Pedro unmarked in the 56th. See the screen capture below. Willian outpaced Torreira to cut the ball back for Pedro, who blazed over the bar. I assume Monreal will be the first choice at leftback when he’s completely fit.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea M56ed.jpgPedro left unmarked by Kolasinac. (Photo credit: BT)

   In the heart of the defense, Koscielny and Sokratis formed a complementary partnership. Koscielny had a more pro-active approach based on anticipation while Sokratis preferred a more physical approach based on duels. Sokratis won 2 of 4 tackles and 66.7% of his duels and made 1 interception and 3 recoveries. By contrast, Koscielny won 1 of 1 tackle and 33.3% of his duels and made 1 block, 3 interceptions and 3 recoveries.

   Koscielny read the game really well, clearing a lot of dangerous crosses. But the jury’s still out on his level. He looked weak in the air against Southampton and his performance against Chelsea did not clear all the doubts. According to whoscored.com, Koscielny won only 1 of 6 aerial duels. On the stroke of halftime, Koscielny was beaten to the ball by Alonso, whose header crashed against the post. Yet, Koscielny showed again his flair for scoring chances on set pieces. The French defender met a free kick from Torreira in the 13th for a bullet header straight at Kepa. Six minutes before halftime, Koscielny beat the offside trap to redirect a speculative shot from Sokratis into the top corner for a 2-0 lead. It initially looked like a looping header but TV replays showed that the ball bounced off Koscielny’s shoulder.

   To a certain extent, Chelsea looked a lot like a Wenger team. Offensively, the Blues lacked penetration. Leno only had 1 save to make -an angled strike from Alonso in the 82nd. Defensively, the Blues were a mess on set pieces. Lacazette’s goal came from a short corner while Koscielny scored on a free kick from Torreira. Sokratis nearly scored from a short corner in the eighth minute but his header bounced wide.

   The Gunners next host Manchester United in the FA Cup on Friday before playing Cardiff in the Premier League on Tuesday. Solskjaer will field his best team so I don’t think Emery will rest anybody for that clash. Then Arsenal will need 3 points at home against the Bluebirds to make up ground in the Top 4 race.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics vs. sport

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

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

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

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

Finding the best offensive setup

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

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

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

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

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

Positive substitutions

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

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

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

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

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

Xhaka’s poor defensive instincts

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

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

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

The most important game of the season

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

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

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

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

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