Tag Archives: Premier League

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Ceballos pulls the strings in 2-1 win

   Lacazette and Aubameyang found the net and Ceballos made two assists in the 2-1 victory over Burnley on Saturday as the Gunners won their first two Premier League games for the first time since 2009. Emery made three changes to the side that edged Newcastle 1-0 a week ago with Luiz, Ceballos and Lacazette replacing Chambers, Xhaka and Mkhitaryan in the starting lineup. With a more attack-minded approach, Arsenal proved more incisive in the final third with 9 shots on target to 5 for the Clarets.

Arsenal vs. Burnley 2019Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Pundits will perhaps remember this game as the moment when Emery gave the keys of the team to Ceballos. The Real Madrid loanee led all players with 70 passes despite coming off the pitch in the 83rd minute. At 23, Ceballos is no longer a youngster, but he’s not the finished product yet. That’s why Zidane preferred to send him out on loan. There’s too much competition at Real Madrid for Ceballos to gain enough playing time and hone his skills. Of course, the key question is: how good is Ceballos? He definitely won’t be a flop like Suarez last season. But Ceballos is also far from the level of a Fabregas at the same age.    

   On Saturday, Ceballos showed his creativity by leading all players with 4 key passes. Ceballos also displayed his technique with 4 successful dribbles out of 4, according to whoscored.com. The fans got a glimpse of his footwork and close control in the 30th when he was surrounded by 3 Clarets and managed to shield the ball and win a foul. Ceballos nearly scored in the 63rd but Pope turned his curling shot around the post.  

   Ceballos would be an upgrade on Ozil if he keeps performing at that level. His work-rate for a playmaker was outstanding with 2 tackles won and 7 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Ceballos would be a better fit for Emery’s pressing game than Ozil. However, Ceballos still has room to improve defensively. He was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any Gunner according to whoscored.com. The Spanish midfielder was also untidy in possession with 6 turnovers. Those defensive flaws are negligible against the weak sides, but they could become dangerous against the top teams.

Nelson’s poor work-rate

   Scoring goals is not a concern when you have top strikers like Aubameyang and Lacazette. They proved efficient in the final third with 2 of 3 shots on target each. In his return from an ankle injury, Lacazette tested Pope with a header in the 12th. A few seconds later, Lacazette controlled Ceballos’ corner and turned Pieters to fire through Pope’s legs for the opening goal. Lacazette’s fitness levels dipped in the second half. Emery therefore replaced the French striker with Kolasinac in the 71st, shifting from the initial 4-2-3-1 formation to a more conservative 3-5-2 system to protect Arsenal’s lead.

   Aubameyang was relatively quiet in the first half, playing on the right wing while Lacazette led the line. The Gabon striker came to life in the second half, curling a shot wide in the 51st after Monreal teed him up. Then Aubameyang took a pass from substitute Pepe to shoot straight at Pope in the 60th. The Gunners benefited from Ceballos’ hard work in the 64th. Ceballos dispossessed Gudmundsson to feed Aubameyang, who cut inside to bury the ball into the bottom corner from 21 yards.

   In the front three, Nelson was the one who didn’t find the net. The English teenager showed flashes of brilliance though with a ball over the top for Lacazette, who missed his control in the seventh minute. Nelson also tested Pope with an angled shot in the 35th. The crowd at the Emirates stadium thought that Nelson finally scored on the stroke of halftime when he pounced on Monreal’s offering to fire into the roof of the net. But the goal was disallowed after a VAR check showed that Monreal was a foot offside.

   Disappointed with Nelson’s performance, Emery replaced him with Pepe at halftime. At first, I thought it was a bit harsh. But Nelson really showed some poor work-rate with 0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block and only 1 recovery, according to the club’s website. The only Gunner with a worse work-rate was Lacazette. Nelson also made some poor decisions, losing possession in the 16th and 25th and forcing a shot while surrounded by two defenders in the 43rd. Nelson’s blocked shot led to Burnley’s equalizer. If he wants to start games, Nelson must find a way to have more impact in the final third. That means playing between the lines, finding space, and making penetrative runs.

   More tomorrow.

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Newcastle vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang saves the day in 1-0 win

   The Gunners kicked off their season with a 1-0 victory at Newcastle on Sunday. It was an underwhelming performance but an important result for their hopes of a Top 4 finish in the Premier League. Last season, the Gunners only won 7 of their 19 away games while Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham managed to win at least 11 games on the road. That poor away record explains why Arsenal missed out on a Champions League spot. Arsenal finished 3rd in the home table but only 8th in the away table.

Newcastle vs. Arsenal 2019.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   A football season is a marathon, not a sprint. Emery was therefore cautious in his team selection. There was no new signing in the starting lineup. Luiz, Pepe, Ceballos and Martinelli were on the bench while Tierney was on the disabled list because of a groin injury. Pepe, Ceballos and Martinelli had never played in England before, so it was a wise move to help them get familiar with the intensity and physicality of the Premier League by giving them some playing time in the second half. Luiz could have made a start, but his relative lack of understanding with his new team was a too big risk.

   Lacazette and Torreira were also on the bench for different reasons. Lacazette had just recovered from an ankle injury whereas Torreira lacked match fitness after competing in the Copa America with the Uruguay team in June.

   Meanwhile, Emery was forced to leave Ozil and Kolasinac out of the squad because of security concerns. Ozil and Kolasinac were the victims of a carjacking attempt a couple of weeks ago. According to British newspapers, it wasn’t a one-off as London gangs are still targeting the two players. All these constraints led Emery to inject more youth than usual in his starting lineup. Willock started in the hole behind Aubameyang while Nelson took over the spot on the left wing.

Aubameyang’s moment of magic

   The Gunners struggled to break down the Newcastle defense. In an austere 3-5-2 formation, the Magpies used a high block to prevent Arsenal from playing out from the back. When the Gunners reached the halfway line, Newcastle switched to a low block, basically parking the bus. Arsenal enjoyed 62% of relatively sterile possession with just 2 shots on target to 2 for the hosts.

   To play out from the back, you need players with great technique and mobility and a sound reading of the game. In the heart of the defense, Sokratis and Chambers simply don’t have the ball-playing abilities of a Laporte, Alderweireld or Van Dijk. In midfield, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the passing and dribbling skills of a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla, who could help create space by setting a high tempo. The few times the Gunners reached the final third, they were let down by a lack of creativity.

   The winning goal came from a mistake by the Magpies in the 58th minute. Maitland-Niles intercepted Dummett’s pass for Willems and charged down the right flank before finding an unmarked Aubameyang with a cross. The Gabon striker controlled the ball and chipped Dubravka with a cool finish.

   Aubameyang didn’t get much service but his pace and finishing put Newcastle defenders on their toes. He wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 15th with a heavy touch. Then he tested Dubravka with a powerful angled strike in the 31st. The Magpies saw his burst of speed in the 52nd when Aubameyang made a run in behind to collect a through ball from Xhaka. However, Dummett reacted quickly enough to block Aubameyang’s shot for a corner.

Showing faith in Nelson

   Offensive support was an issue last season because Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi lacked consistency. Emery is relying on Nelson, Ceballos and Pepe this season to provide more ammunition to Aubameyang and Lacazette. In his return from a loan spell at Hoffenheim, Nelson showed some decent work-rate with 6 defensive actions (1 block, 5 recoveries) in 70 minutes, but lacked a bit of audacity in the final third. His best moment was a dribbling run in the 34th.

   I believe the staff made the right choice by cashing in on Iwobi to let Nelson grow. The English teenager has better dribbling and finishing skills. On Sunday, Nelson had 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy of 86.4% was also better than Mhkitaryan’s 73.3%. With more time and confidence, Nelson will find a way to have a greater impact in the final third.  

   Mkhitaryan showed his creativity with a ball over the top for Aubameyang in the 31st. Those two players know each other well since they’ve played together at Borussia Dortmund between 2013 and 2016. However, a lot of fans were frustrated with Mkhitaryan’s inconsistency. Mkhitaryan wasted Arsenal’s first scoring chance in the 23rd by firing over the bar from 15 yards. He then led a counterattack with an impressive dribbling run in the 50th only to miss his final ball for Nelson. I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back was Mkhitaryan’s crossfield pass for Monreal that sailed straight into touch in the 63rd.

Untidy in possession

   In midfield, Willock was given a rare start mostly because of Ceballos’ lack of match fitness and Ozil’s off-the-pitch issues. At times, Willock struggled with his positional play, not knowing when to drop off and when to play higher up the pitch. It’s not as easy as it seems. Think of Ramsey helping the defenders build play from the back and then making a late run in the box to shoot. It takes years of practice to read the game that well and be in the right place at the right time.

   Willock won 60% of his duels, the highest percentage among Arsenal midfielders according to the club’s website, but he also lacked end product with 0 key pass and 0 shot on target. The English teenager will need to be more tidy in possession too. He led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers according to whoscored.com despite playing only 63 minutes. Willock’s fitness levels quickly dropped in the second half, showing the huge gap between the Premier League and U23 games.

   Emery replaced Willock with Ceballos in the 64th. The Spanish manager nearly regretted that substitution. Ceballos put his team in trouble a couple of times with some casual passing. The Real Madrid loanee gave the ball away with a careless backheel flick in the 65th, a risky crossfield pass on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 69th and a stray pass in the 78th. Arsenal fans just hope that Ceballos will perform better than Barcelona loanee Suarez, who proved a flop last season.

A porous midfield

   The Arsenal midfield was porous at times. Guendouzi and Xhaka were both dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com. Only Newcastle wingback Ritchie did worse as the Gunners dribbled past him three times. Arsenal got away with a soft midfield against Newcastle but they will get punished against the stronger sides. Saint-Maximin cut inside Guendouzi in the 84th only to drag an effort that Leno easily saved. Offensively, Xhaka and Guendouzi can’t dictate the tempo like a Cazorla in his prime, or like Eriksen at Tottenham and David Silva at Manchester City.

   Xhaka had a horrible start with 3 stray passes in the first 20 minutes. But he grew into the game and led all players with 84 passes, including 2 key passes. Xhaka also had a scoring chance in the 53rd when he glanced Nelson’s corner wide. The Switzerland international finished the game with 11 defensive actions (3 tackles, 8 recoveries), doing slightly better than Guendouzi, who made 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 block, 2 interceptions, 4 recoveries), according to the club’s website.  

   The Arsenal back four didn’t need much protection on Sunday because Bruce fielded a very defensive lineup. Sokratis and Chambers had so little work that they made no tackle. However, the Magpies still had a couple of good opportunities to open the scoring, exposing Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses. In the 16th, Monreal failed to close down Manquillo, who made a cross for Joelinton. The Brazilian striker couldn’t climb high enough to head the ball. A minute later, Joelinton met a cross from Ritchie only to head wide. Xhaka and Sokratis looked like training cones in the 26th when Joelinton dribbled past them to shoot straight at Leno.

Maitland-Niles’ work-rate

   The Gunners will need to improve their aerial performance because stats clearly showed their weakness in the air. Joelinton won 8 of 11 aerial duels while Aubameyang won 0 of 5, according to whoscored.com. Likewise, Newcastle centerback Lascelles won 7 of 10 aerial duels compared to 0 of 3 for Chambers and 4 of 6 for Sokratis.

   In the rightback position, Maitland-Niles produced an outstanding performance, leading Arsenal players with 12 defensive actions (4 tackles, 3 interceptions, 5 recoveries). He cleared a dangerous cross after Saint-Maximin got the better of Monreal in the 67th. Besides his assist, Maitland-Niles also provided more penetration, leading all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 6. The only blemish in his performance was his 4 turnovers. On the opposite flank, Monreal put in a shift, making 9 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 7 recoveries) and setting up Mkhitaryan for a scoring chance in the 23rd.

   In his post-match news conference, Emery said that the Gunners controlled the game. Well, I felt a bit nervous because of the inconsistent officiating. I thought the referee was right to book Nelson in the 25th, Mkhitaryan in the 36th and Xhaka in the 80th for late challenges. However, the referee became very lenient when the Magpies made similar fouls. He kept his cards in his pocket as Hayden made a late challenge on Mkhitaryan in the 61st, Saint-Maximin stamped on Xhaka’s ankle in the 70th, and Schar in the 13th and Lascelles in the 29th made cynical fouls on Willock. At least, the referee got one crucial call right when he booked Almiron for diving in the 18th. The Paraguay international was trying to win a penalty by looking for contact with Monreal.

   The Gunners next host Burnley on Saturday before visiting Liverpool the following weekend. Emery knows what to expect from the Clarets. It will be a physical contest with a lot of crosses and long balls. Luiz will probably replace Chambers in the starting lineup while Torreira and Lacazette should start even if they lack a bit of match fitness.

Which pieces of the Arsenal puzzle are missing?

   In Emery’s second season at the club, the Gunners have been much more active in the summer transfer market than under Wenger. The transfer business looks more spectacular than it really was because Wenger failed to rebuild the squad in his last few years at the club. Was Gazidis responsible for that failure by imposing a tight transfer budget? Or was Wenger simply too erratic in his recruitment? Only Gazidis and Wenger know the truth, but their record in the transfer market left Arsenal in need of a massive overhaul.

Arsenal PhotocallPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   To understand the huge task that Emery faced, here’s below a quick look at the summer transfers since 2013. Players joining the club are the most important stat because they strengthen the squad. However, the stat for players leaving the club is important too because it shows an effort to clear the dead wood and balance the books.  

* Summer 2019: 6 players in (Pepe, Saliba, Tierney, Luiz, Martinelli, Ceballos), 11 players out (Koscielny, Iwobi , Bielik, Ospina, Jenkinson, Ramsey, Welbeck, Cech, Lichtsteiner, Suarez, Asano). Total: 17 moves (or 16 if we consider that Saliba was loaned back to Saint-Etienne and is therefore an option for next season).

* Summer 2018: 5 players in (Torreira, Guendouzi, Leno, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner), 7 players out (Mertesacker, Cazorla, Wilshere, Perez, Campbell, Akpom, Reine-Adelaide). Total: 12 moves.

* Summer 2017: 2 players in (Lacazette, Kolasinac), 5 players out (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Szczesny, Paulista, Gibbs, Sanogo). Total: 7 moves. In the winter, Coquelin, Walcott, Giroud, Sanchez and Debuchy left the club while Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and Mavropanos joined Arsenal.

* Summer 2016: 5 players in (Xhaka, Mustafi, Perez, Holding, Asano), 5 players out (Arteta, Gnabry, Flamini, Rosicky, Hayden). Total: 10 moves.

* Summer 2015: 1 player in (Cech), 2 players out (Diaby, Podolski). Total: 3 moves.

* Summer 2014: 5 players in (Sanchez, Chambers, Welbeck, Ospina, Debuchy), 6 players out (Fabianski, Sagna, Park, Djourou, Vermaelen, Bendtner). Total: 11 moves.

* Summer 2013: 4 players in (Sanogo, Flamini, Ozil, Viviano), 7 players out (Denilson, Arshavin, Mannone, Squillaci, Santos, Gervinho, Chamakh). Total: 11 moves.

Reducing the net spend

   While Arsenal had an acceptable summer transfer window in 2013, 2014 and 2016 with a minimum of 10 moves, the club performed poorly in 2015 and 2017. The unusual transfer activity in the winter of the 2017-18 season can be interpreted as a correction.

   Arsenal did a good job this summer but not an outstanding one. First, the Gunners addressed some of their needs but there are still weaknesses in the squad with a lack of quality in some key positions. And second, only two signings (Pepe, Tierney) look like regular starters who will be part of the club’s long-term plans. Martinelli and Saliba are a gamble on the future while Luiz and Ceballos are short-term solutions. Arsenal will still have to look for a centerback and a creative midfielder next summer.

   If we compare with the Big Six clubs, the Gunners made a better effort than in the previous seasons. With a gross spending of £137 million, according to http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk, Arsenal only trailed Manchester City (£150 million) and United (£143 million) among Premier League clubs. Spurs were far behind with a gross spending of £103 million while Chelsea and Liverpool were quite frugal for different reasons. The Reds are recovering from their spending spree in the past three years while the Blues have been hit with a transfer ban.

   Taking into account the sale of players, Arsenal underperformed with a net spending of £92 million mainly due to the free transfers of Ramsey and Welbeck. By contrast, Manchester City and United limited their net spending to £88 million and £84 million, respectively, while Chelsea and Liverpool managed to make a profit in the transfer market. In fact, only Aston Villa did worse than Arsenal among Premier League clubs with a net spending of £133 million. The Gunners still have until Sept. 2 to offload players in Europe and therefore cut the club’s net spending.

A fearsome front three

   Let’s analyze the transfers. My main regret is that the club didn’t manage to keep Ramsey. The Wales midfielder embodies the values of the club, has great mental toughness and is a leader on and off the pitch. Of the 5 captains that Emery named last year, Cech, Koscielny and Ramsey are gone. The 2 captains still at the club are flawed: Xhaka is an error-prone player while Ozil has a poor work-rate and is no leader. When the going gets tough, I’m not sure Emery can find a reliable leader in the current squad.

   I pretty much agree with the sales made by the club. Koscielny is past his prime and was desperate to head back to France, Ospina is weaker than Leno and struggles to command his area in a physical league, Jenkinson is a limited player, Bielik and Asano were gambles that didn’t pay off, and Iwobi has less potential than Nelson and Saka. Clearing more dead wood (Mustafi, Elneny, Chambers, Ozil) would have turned this transfer window into a real success.

   By signing Pepe, the Gunners added more penetration and more end product in the final third. Pepe is a better dribbler than Iwobi and Mkhitaryan and much more clinical in front of goal. At 24, Pepe is entering his peak years and could contribute 8 years of service to the club. The addition of the Ivory Coast forward meant that Nketiah needed a loan move to Leeds United to get some significant playing time and continue his development.

   Pepe has a different profile than Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. He’s a forward while Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are attacking midfielders. That could be the sign that the Gunners will play differently this season. Assuming that Emery plays Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang in a front three, the offense could look very much like the Liverpool trio formed by Salah, Firmino and Mane. Such an attack would however require a hard-working midfield.

Showing faith in Nelson

   I’m not convinced that Arsenal needed to sign Martinelli. The staff see him as a replacement for Iwobi and Welbeck on the left wing, but Nelson and Saka have as much potential as Martinelli. The £6 million fee was reasonable but the competition for playing time also means that Nelson and Saka will have less space to develop. I believe Nelson has the talent to nail the starting spot on the left wing.

   Iwobi has stagnated under Emery, notching 3 goals and 6 assists in 35 Premier League games for an average of 0.26 goal or assist per game. That’s a weaker output than the previous season when Iwobi had 3 goals and 5 assists in 26 Premier League games for a 0.31 average under Wenger. Even Mkhitaryan managed to perform better with 6 goals and 4 assists in 25 Premier League games for a 0.40 average under Emery.

   It was therefore time to let Iwobi go and show some faith in Nelson, who has the tools to become a world-class player. Nelson notched 6 goals and 1 assist in his first seven Bundesliga games with Hoffenheim. However, he became inconsistent by December with just 1 goal in the second half of the season. The challenge for Nelson will be to show more consistency this season.

   In midfield, the Gunners desperately needed more creativity and therefore got Ceballos on loan from Real Madrid. The Spanish midfielder will fight with Ozil for the No. 10 starting spot. If ever the club manages to sell Ozil, teenager Smith-Rowe would then become the back-up option in the hole. Ozil’s departure wouldn’t hurt the club much since his output has significantly declined in the past few years. The German playmaker only notched 5 goals and 2 assists in 24 Premier League games for a 0.29 average last season, compared to 4 goals and 8 assists in 26 games for a 0.46 average in Wenger’s last season at the club. The top playmakers in the Premier League have far better stats. Eriksen had 8 goals and 12 assists in 35 Premier League games for a 0.57 average last season. Even an aging David Silva managed to get 6 goals and 8 assists in 33 games for a 0.42 average.

Lack of quality in central midfield

   Last season, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi were too inconsistent to make up for the loss of creativity since the departures of Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere and Sanchez. It therefore made sense to have a quick fix with Ceballos. Obviously, Arsenal had more urgent needs in other positions and could only afford a cheap solution in the playmaking role. The Gunners should have more maneuvering room in the transfer market when Ozil and Mkhitaryan are no longer on the club’s payroll.      

   Some fans have mentioned that Ceballos could be used as a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla. In my eyes, Ceballos just doesn’t have the work-rate to shine in that position. And anyway, Ceballos would be more useful in the No. 10 role because someone must deliver the final ball to Lacazette and Aubameyang.

   I think that central midfield is an area where there is a lack of quality and where the club could have done more in the transfer window. Especially if Emery wants his team to press high up the pitch. You need some versatile, hard-working midfielders for that kind of pressing game. The Reds have Fabinho, Henderson, Milner, Wijnaldum, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain to implement Klopp’s gegenpressing. Among the Arsenal midfielders, only Torreira and Willock would fit into that style of play. Guendouzi still lacks end product. The French midfielder had 0 goal and 0 assist in his first Premier League season. At the same age, Fabregas had already notched 2 goals and 11 assists in 38 Premier League games.

   The staff decided to replace Ramsey on the cheap with Willock. I don’t have any problem with that approach. Although Willock impressed in the summer friendlies, I don’t expect him to shine in the big games like Ramsey did. On the other hand, I was disappointed that the club didn’t invest in a defensive midfielder. The Gunners conceded 51 goals in the Premier League last season, 29 more goals than Liverpool. The back four definitely needs more protection.

Solving half of the problems

   The 2018-19 season showed that Torreira can’t shield the defense on his own. The Uruguay international needs a better partner in central midfield than Xhaka, Guendouzi, Elneny, Willock or Maitland-Niles. We’re talking about signing a player at the level of a Kante, Fabinho or Fernandinho. Elneny is a benchwarmer, Xhaka and Guendouzi both lack pace and defensive awareness, and Maitland-Niles and Willock are still too raw.          

   At the back, the Gunners have only solved half of their problems. Tierney looks like the long-term replacement for an aging Monreal. However, the Scottish fullback will miss the first few weeks of competition because of a groin injury and a double hernia. Limited funds meant that Arsenal had to replace Cech and Ospina on the cheap with Martinez while hoping that Maitland-Niles could deputize at rightback for a couple of months until Bellerin is fit again.

   The Gunners still have problems at centerback. Mustafi, Chambers and Mavropanos are terrible options, Luiz is a stop-gap signing and can occasionally make blunders, Sokratis is a decent player but not a world-class defender like Koscielny in his prime, and teenager Saliba will only join next summer.

   I’m not sure I understand the club’s priorities. Last season, Arsenal had the 3rd best offense in the Premier League but only the 9th tightest defense. It would have made more sense to spend £67.5 million on De Ligt (that’s what Juventus paid for the Ajax centerback) instead of signing Pepe for £72 million. The good news is that Holding is just a few weeks away from match fitness. However, Holding is not the finished product yet at 23. The Gunners still need a leader to marshal the defense.  

   The summer recruitment gave Arsenal a chance to finish in the Top 4 this season. However, the fans shouldn’t have too high hopes because there are still weaknesses in the squad and the Gunners will likely finish far behind Manchester City again. The disparity in financial resources between Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs logically means that the Gunners will need two more summer transfer windows to rebuild a competitive squad. Their work is all cut out: signing a centerback, a ballwinner and a creative midfielder is the sine qua non condition to have a solid spine.

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Why Emery deserves a second season at Arsenal

   Some Arsenal fans called Emery a bad manager and a fraud after the disappointing end of the 2018-19 season. The Gunners threw away a Top 4 spot by losing to Crystal Palace and drawing with Brighton at the Emirates stadium. A victory against either team would have been enough to qualify for the Champions League as Arsenal finished 5th in the Premier League, one point behind Spurs and two behind Chelsea. The Gunners could not even find redemption in the Europa League, suffering an embarrassing 4-1 loss to Chelsea in the final.

Emery second seasonPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   That was an epic collapse no matter how you look at it. But the last few games should not hide the fact that Arsenal had acceptable results for a transition season. The Gunners finished 5th with 70 points, staying in the Top 4 race until May, whereas they were out of contention for a Champions League berth by March the previous season, finishing 6th with 63 points. In terms of results, Emery did better than Wenger in his last season. We are very far from Moyes’ poor tenure at Old Trafford where the defending champions finished 7th in 2014.

   Emery is definitely among the 30 best active managers in the world. There’s no way a bad manager could win the Europa League three times or lead Valencia to three Top 4 finishes in four attempts. I understand the supporters’ frustration but calling for Emery’s sacking, like some did after the Europa League final, doesn’t help Arsenal. By firing a manager who did better than his predecessor, the club would deter prospective managers. And there’s no guarantee that Arsenal could hire a better manager than Emery. Changing just for the sake of changing makes no sense at all.

A poor match

   The board and the fans knew that it would take more than one season to rebuild the squad. To a certain extent, the Gunners still looked very much like a Wenger team last season. As a rule of thumb, I consider that a manager is entirely responsible for his team only when he has changed more than half of the players in his predecessor’s favorite starting lineup. You just have to compare Liverpool’s starting XI under Rodgers in 2015 with Klopp’s team selection during the 2017-18 season to see the massive difference in personnel.

   In his first Arsenal season, Emery tried to impose his brand of football by playing out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. The results were mixed. At times, you could see flashes of the style of football that Emery wants to play. But very often the Gunners either looked like an awkward Wenger team or like a team with no identity.

   Emery could only make small adjustments in his first season at the club simply because the squad he inherited was a poor match for his brand of football. Arsenal often struggled to press like a unit because players like Ozil and Iwobi just don’t have the work-rate to close down opponents. Likewise, you have to squeeze play while pressing to prevent your opponents from finding space. That implies a high defensive line which exposed Mustafi’s poor decision-making as well as Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace.

   The Gunners also put themselves in trouble by playing out from the back because of Cech’s limited ball-playing abilities, Xhaka’s lack of mobility and Guendouzi’s tendency to dally on the ball. Emery could replace Cech with Leno in goal but he had no reliable alternative to Xhaka and Guendouzi in central midfield.

Some error-prone players

   Just like Emery didn’t have the right personnel to implement his vision of football, he could not iron out the defensive issues that plagued the last years of Wenger’s tenure because some players are simply not good enough. The Gunners were still vulnerable on counterattacks, crosses and set pieces under Emery. For instance, Southampton headed in three crosses to beat Arsenal 3-2 in December. And Crystal Palace capitalized on three set pieces to win 3-2 in April and dent the Gunners’ Top 4 hopes. The three goals scored by Palace came from poor decision-making by Mustafi and Jenkinson. Some players keep making mistakes either because they can’t read the game well enough or because they crumble under pressure. Arsenal won’t have a solid spine as long as they rely on error-prone players like Mustafi and Xhaka.

   Emery’s critics will say that a good manager should be able to improve players. But do you really think that Guardiola or Klopp could turn Mustafi, Xhaka, Jenkinson and Elneny into world beaters? It’s one thing to develop youngsters, it’s another to fix 27-year-old players who have reached their ceiling. I mean there’s a reason why Guardiola and Klopp have spent a fortune to sign top players who can actually improve their teams and fit into their style of play.

   If the Gunners want a world-class centerback, they will have to loosen the strings of their purse because they have no promising defender in their academy. For some reason, the club seems unwilling to spend big on a defender. Mustafi is still the most expensive centerback in Arsenal history with a transfer fee of £35 million, which is peanuts compared to the £75 million spent by Liverpool on Van Dijk or even the £57 million spent by City on Laporte. The Gunners recently signed Saliba for £27 million but at 18 the French defender is pretty much a gamble.

Improvements on the pitch

   In my eyes, Emery has earned the right to manage a second season. Some improvements on the pitch have been quite obvious. Under Wenger, Arsenal slowly moved the ball forward with a lot of safe passes in their own half. Under Emery, the Gunners managed to reach the final third more quickly by taking risks inside their own half with two-touch passing or even first-time passes. Think of Ramsey’s goal against Fulham for instance.

   Another difference between Wenger and Emery is the high press. The pressing effort was poorly coordinated under Wenger. Every Arsenal fan can still remember Sanchez waving his arms to initiate the high press before giving up a second later. The 20-minute blitz in the 3-0 demolition of Manchester United in October 2015 was the only time the Gunners efficiently pressed as a unit. The pressing game improved under Emery with the 2-0 win over Chelsea in January as the perfect blueprint for choking opponents in their own half.

   One possible explanation for Arsenal’s collapse at the end of last season is Emery’s underestimation of the physical intensity in the Premier League. Playing out from the back and pressing high up the pitch both require a lot of energy. Unless you have a quality bench to rotate, it’s impossible to play that brand of football in every game.

   Klopp also learned his lesson in his first season at Liverpool. Because of the Reds’ inconsistency, Klopp understood that he couldn’t implement gegenpressing in every game and therefore needed to play in a more economical way when his players were jaded. By signing Alisson, Van Dijk and Fabinho, the Reds upgraded their defense and could afford to sit back and absorb the pressure instead of pressing frantically. The Champions League final against Spurs was an example of that more pragmatic approach.

Emery’s tactical flexibility

   Arsenal put an end to Wenger’s tenure not only because the players needed to hear a new voice but also because Wenger was becoming an outdated manager in his last years at the club. Emery belongs to that younger generation of coaches who enjoy micro-managing whereas Wenger was more famous for his man-management skills.

   Tactically, Wenger was so predictable. For years, Wenger built his team around Ozil in a 4-2-3-1 formation. It’s only when the Gunners struggled on the road during the 2016-17 season that the French manager switched to a back three for the first time in 20 years. That tactical rigidity explains in great part why Arsenal had mediocre results against the Top 6 clubs. The Gunners won 12 points against the Big Six under Emery compared to just 6 points in Wenger’s last season.

   There’s no doubt that Emery is more flexible tactically than Wenger. The Spanish manager didn’t mind using any system that could help his team perform better: a Wengerian 4-2-3-1 built around Ozil, a 4-4-2 without Ozil, a basic 4-3-3, a 3-4-3 with wide players or a more narrow 3-5-2.

   Of course, the trouble with Emery’s flexibility is that he tinkered a lot. Sometimes, Emery gave the impression that he didn’t know what a player’s best position was. For instance, Aubameyang started last season as the lone striker before moving to the left wing. Then Emery had a change of heart and used Aubameyang in the centerforward position again before deploying him on the right wing.

   That constant tinkering didn’t help improve the fluency of Arsenal’s passing game. Some players start building an understanding, which then gets disrupted in the next game,while other players don’t get any rhythm and start losing confidence.

The infamous halftime substitutions

   The injury crisis at the back definitely had an impact on Emery’s plans. But that doesn’t explain some of his dodgy experiments. For Koscielny’s first Premier League game since his Achilles injury, the Spanish manager used Koscielny as a sweeper with Lichtsteiner and Xhaka as the wide centerbacks. There’s no way Guardiola or Klopp could have thought of such a dysfunctional back three because Xhaka and Lichtsteiner are simply too sluggish to play as efficient centerbacks.

   Likewise, Emery preferred to use Xhaka as the holding midfielder with Torreira in a more advanced position as a box-to-box player even though Torreira plays as a defensive midfielder for the Uruguay team. If you are a rational manager, you want your best defensive midfielder to shield the defense and break up plays, not a slow deep-lying playmaker.

   In the first half of the season, Emery was praised for his halftime substitutions. Pundits saw those substitutions as the sign of a pro-active manager, not scared to bruise a player’s ego. Trailing 2-1 against Spurs in December, Emery replaced Iwobi and Mkhitaryan with Ramsey and Lacazette at halftime to turn the match around and win the North London derby 4-2.

   However, when halftime substitutions led to disappointing results, pundits started interpreting those rash changes as the symptoms of a manager who didn’t know what his best team was or who didn’t get his team selection right. The 1-1 draw with Brighton in December was the perfect example of Emery losing the plot. The Gunners started the game with 1 attacking midfielder (Ozil) and 2 strikers (Aubameyang and Lacazette). Held 1-1 at halftime, Emery replaced Ozil with Iwobi during the break before sending on Ramsey for Lacazette in the second half. Those substitutions made no sense at all as the Gunners lost their firepower by finishing the game with 2 attacking midfielders (Iwobi and Ramsey) and only 1 striker (Aubameyang). In hindsight, Emery should have kept his 2 strikers on the pitch and replaced Xhaka or Guendouzi with Ramsey in central midfield.

Developing youngsters

   In his second season at the club, Emery will have to dial down the tinkering and more often get his team selection right. He will also need to improve his man-management skills. His poor treatment of Ozil and Ramsey led to Arsenal’s poor run of form in December and January. Now I give Emery the benefit of the doubt because the Arsenal board wanted to trim payroll and the January transfer window was clearly seen as an opportunity to sell Ozil and Ramsey. Yet, it doesn’t mean that Emery should get a blank check. How far Emery can take the Gunners during the 2019-20 season will determine whether he should stay a third season at the club or not.

   The upcoming season should show the true extent of Emery’s capabilities as the board has significantly backed him in this summer transfer market. Officially, Emery has a three-year contract with a break clause after two seasons. However, the Spanish manager may not have 3 years to rebuild the squad because some players might be tempted to leave if they don’t see any sign of progress. Emery would have a weak case if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4. There’s no way the board could accept a fourth straight season in the Europa League. The obvious danger is that Arsenal could turn into a feeder club again, which would make the rebuilding process even more difficult.

   Emery will have a lot to prove in his second season at the club. He benefited from two favorable factors last season. First, the atmosphere around the club was quite toxic in the last two years of Wenger’s tenure. As soon as Wenger left, there was less negativity. Emery’s arrival was like a breadth of fresh air for the fans and the players. That psychological effect will be gone this season.

   And second, the Top 4 race looked much tighter than it was a year ago because Manchester United and Chelsea imploded under Mourinho and Sarri, respectively, while Tottenham failed to spend in the transfer market and therefore wasted a lot of energy with a thin squad in the Champions League. The Red Devils and the Blues could still be a mess this season but Spurs will be stronger as they heavily spent this summer.  

   Besides a Top 4 finish, the key for Emery will be his track record with youngsters. Arsenal can’t compete financially with the two Manchester clubs. The Gunners therefore have to be smarter by finding hidden gems and developing them like Klopp did with Gomez, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson or like Pochettino did with Kane, Alli, Trippier and Winks. Last season, Emery scored points with the emergence of Smith-Rowe but he also raised doubts by limiting Nketiah’s playing time. Keep an eye on the performances of Smith-Rowe, Nelson, Pepe, Willock and Saka to have an idea of Emery’s future at the club.  

 

The elephant in the Arsenal room

   A year after Wenger’s departure, the Gunners are no contenders in the Premier League and will play for the third straight season in the Europa League, the second tier of European football. They are very far from competing with the biggest clubs in the world as promised by Gazidis in 2012. Under Emery, Arsenal finished 28 points behind Manchester City and 27 points behind Liverpool.

Elephant Getty Images

Photo credit: Getty Images

   The main culprit for the slow transition and the lack of competitiveness is the Arsenal board. Emery had limited financial resources to rebuild the squad last summer. Liverpool and Manchester City spent more than £50 million to sign top centerbacks like Van Dijk and Laporte and more than £40 million to sign top midfielders like Fabinho and Bernardo Silva. Quality has a price but the Gunners were not willing to match the investments made by the Reds, the Citizens or even Chelsea. So Arsenal spent £17 million for Sokratis and £26 million for Torreira. No disrespect, but any club would choose Van Dijk and Bernardo Silva over Sokratis and Torreira.

   The Gunners have incrementally improved under Emery. They play the ball out from the back and press high up the pitch, two aspects of the game where they struggled under Wenger. Emery will need more time to shape his squad according to his vision of football. Let’s remember that Klopp and Guardiola could only introduce minor changes in their first season at Liverpool and Manchester City, respectively.

   Likewise, Arsenal will need several transfer windows before becoming competitive again. The club signed 5 players last summer: Leno, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Guendouzi. Only Leno and Torreira might be starters in a Top 4 team. The Gunners still need to address significant weaknesses at centerback, leftback and central midfield. In the most optimistic case, we are talking about two more summers to rebuild the squad. Aubameyang could be past his prime by 2021 while other key players might not have the patience to wait that long before contending for trophies.

A lack of ambition

   Kroenke’s lack of ambition is the biggest obstacle to Arsenal’s competitiveness. Recent sound bites from the Arsenal board have not convinced the fans, who can clearly see that Kroenke doesn’t back his words with actions. Spurs might have already smashed Arsenal’s summer transfer kitty by signing Lyon midfielder Ndombele for more than £55 million. Tottenham can now afford top players while the Gunners are limiting expenses by gambling on teenagers like Saliba and Martinelli.  

   Owners usually show their ambitions by investing in their teams. But Kroenke has been doing the opposite, saying that the club should have a self-sustaining model. As you can see in the graph below prepared by financial blogger Swiss Ramble, Arsenal and Manchester United are the only Top 6 clubs whose owners have not contributed financially in the last 5 years.

Elephant owner financing.jpgArsenal lacking ambition. (Photo credit: Swiss Ramble)

   The Glazers can afford to be stingy because the Red Devils are the wealthiest club in England. On a global scale, only Real Madrid and Barcelona can match Manchester United’s financial firepower. By contrast, the Gunners are only ninth in the list of the richest clubs, some £200 million short of United’s total revenue, according to Deloitte’s annual report.

   The Kroenke apologists might mention Leicester as the example of a club winning the Premier League with a relatively small budget. But they would miss the point: every team that won the league in the past 10 years had an owner who heavily invested into his club. In fact, only the owners at Chelsea, Liverpool and the two Manchesters poured more money into their respective clubs than the Leicester owner. The situation becomes even more ludicrous when you realize that Arsenal and Middlesbrough were the only Premier League clubs receiving nothing from their owners. See the graph below prepared by Swiss Ramble.

Elephant owner financing bis.jpgOnly 2 clubs received nothing from their owners from 2008 to 2017. (Photo credit: Swiss Ramble)  

   The excuse I often hear is that Arsenal would breach the financial fair-play rules if Kroenke decided to finance the club. That’s simply not true. Kroenke could significantly help the club without breaking the FFP rules by paying the annual installments for the construction of the Emirates stadium. That would free some £20 million for transfers. Spurs nearly hijacked the deal for Saliba because the Gunners had no financial maneuvering room and preferred to pay in several installments.

A cheap version of Manchester United

   It’s no coincidence if Arsenal and Manchester United are the only Top 6 clubs whose owners have not contributed financially in the last 5 years. The Kroenke family made it clear that the Red Devils are their business model. And you can guess the reason why: the Glazers happily collect their dividends every year. Now that Kroenke owns 100 percent of the club, he should be able to do the same. In fact, Kroenke managed to pocket a consulting fee of £3 million for two straight seasons before waiving it in 2016 under the fans’ pressure.

   Here’s the problem with Kroenke’s approach: he doesn’t realize that Manchester United’s value and total revenue increased because of years of investments and years of success on the pitch. Nowadays, the Red Devils are a failure on the pitch. Since Ferguson’s retirement, they haven’t been able to contend for the Premier League title despite spending hundreds of millions. Failure on the pitch has a financial cost. As you can see on the graph below, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, and the two Manchesters earned more TV revenue than Arsenal in the past two seasons.

Elephant TV revenue bis.jpgSpurs earned £84 million more of TV revenue than Arsenal from 2017 to 2019. (Photo credit: Swiss Ramble)

   The Gunners have pretty much turned into a cheap version of Manchester United. Both clubs lack a clear football vision because the key decisions are made by people with a business background: Woodward at Old Trafford and Sanllehi at Arsenal.

   Besides saying that the Gunners should have a self-sustaining business model, Kroenke’s main excuse for not investing in the team is that he doesn’t want to interfere in football matters. Unfortunately, he already did by pushing the club to purchase StatDNA in 2012. That data analytics company was supposed to improve Arsenal’s record in the transfer market. Instead, it led to mediocre or average signings like Paulista, Elneny, Mustafi and Xhaka.

   Some fans would even call Kroenke a hypocrite for personally contributing some $1.6 billion of equity to finance the new LA Rams stadium, which is scheduled to open in 2020. That NFL team also heavily spent in the transfer market to sign top players like Suh and Donald. Would Kroenke show the same level of ambition if the Rams were in England?  

Sanllehi vs. Mislintat

   Another obstacle to Arsenal’s competitiveness is the lack of a coherent strategy. The Gunners currently have no sporting director. Mislintat was hired as the head of recruitment in November 2017. However, disagreements with Sanllehi led to Mislintat’s dismissal in February. Sanllehi won the power game inside the club and basically filled the void created by Gazidis’ departure last year.

   But what’s the point of becoming the most powerful executive at Arsenal behind Kroenke if you throw away the weapon that could help the Gunners outfox rivals in the transfer market? Mislintat was the perfect fit for Kroenke’s business model. Using an analytical and statistical approach, Mislintat helped Borussia Dortmund sign hidden gems like Dembele, Kagawa, Aubameyang, Lewandowski, Pulisic, Hummels and Gundogan.

   Now the Gunners have to rely on a more traditional approach to spot promising players. And please, don’t even start mentioning StatDNA. Sanllehi tried to downplay Mislintat’s departure by claiming that his own network of contacts would give Arsenal an edge in their recruitment. That’s a questionable argument. Sanllehi’s ties with Barcelona definitely helped Arsenal get Suarez on loan. But that loan deal proved a disaster as Suarez had no goal and no assist in the few games he played for Arsenal. The fans were especially unimpressed by Suarez’s lack of pace, limited creativity and poor work-rate.

   The Suarez case showed that accurate scouting is more important than an address book. Borussia Dortmund had no ties with Osaka before 2010 but still managed to sign Kagawa. Sanllehi is neither a former player nor a former scout. So why does he have the final say on key football decisions? Pundits sometimes mention his success as a sporting director at Barcelona. But that Barcelona side would have succeeded without Sanllehi because they had Guardiola, Messi and the most brilliant generation of La Masia graduates.

A new triumvirate

   Arsenal can be considered an anomaly because most big clubs have former players as sporting directors: Abidal at Barcelona, Begiristain at Manchester City, Salihamidzic at Bayern Munich, Zorc at Borussia Dortmund, Paratici at Juventus, Giuntoli at Napoli, Overmars at Ajax Amsterdam and Leonardo at Paris Saint-Germain.

   At Liverpool, Klopp has the final say on transfers but he still relies on a sporting director, Michael Edwards, whose profile looks similar to Mislintat’s. Edwards was an apprentice professional before becoming an analyst for Prozone. He then shone as head of analysis at Portsmouth, Spurs and Liverpool with his data-driven approach. While the Gunners refused to promote Mislintat to the position of technical director, the Reds were so impressed with Edwards that they took the bold decision to promote him. Arsenal will have regrets if Mislintat succeeds as director of football at Stuttgart.  

   Mislintat’s departure meant that Sanllehi increasingly depended on Emery’s football knowledge for key decisions. However, the Suarez fiasco showed the necessity for a third viewpoint. On paper, hiring Edu as technical director will compensate for Sanllehi’s limits while reducing possible mistakes by Emery. This new triumvirate will therefore be responsible for all the transfer decisions. Sanllehi will still have the final say under the current structure. But you have to wonder what will be the mood at the club when Sanllehi sides with Emery or Edu. Remember, Mislintat left in part because he disagreed with Sanllehi’s decision to back Emery for the Suarez loan deal.

   Edu’s return at the club should boost Arsenal’s performance in the transfer market because Emery has no track record in signing hidden gems if we except Lo Celso at PSG. The French club did sign Mbappe under Emery, but the prodigy was already on everyone’s radar after his outstanding 2016-17 season with Monaco.

   Despite Edu’s arrival, Arsenal’s summer transfers have been characterized by the lack of a coherent strategy so far. The Gunners have urgent needs at centerback, leftback and in central midfield. Yet, they signed Martinelli and Saliba and got Ceballos on loan. Saliba is a promising centerback but won’t join the club before next summer.

An obsolete product

   If Saliba becomes the next Varane or Van Dijk, that move will be considered a smart pre-emptive strike. But if Saliba turns into the next Christensen, Lindelof or Vermaelen, then it will be 1 season and £27 million wasted. Likewise, Martinelli is a promising forward, but the Gunners already have top strikers with Aubameyang and Lacazette as well as talented academy players like Nketiah, Nelson and Saka. Why can’t the club develop Nketiah, Nelson and Saka instead of spending £6 million on a position which is not a priority?

   Arsenal limited expenses by getting Ceballos on loan. The Gunners definitely need more creativity because Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are too inconsistent and someone must replace Ramsey’s goals and assists. However, Ceballos is neither a ballwinner nor a holding midfielder. So his one-year deal won’t solve Arsenal’s defensive issues in midfield.

   Right now, the Gunners are a dysfunctional football club. Kroenke is busy looking after several U.S. teams and the Gunners are the least of his priorities. Sanllehi has basically taken over Gazidis’ role, making the key football decisions, while Venkatesham handles the club’s business strategy. Kroenke’s unwillingness to invest in the Arsenal brand is a major problem because you may trim a club’s budget but you can’t erase its history and the level of competitiveness the fans and sponsors have been used to.

   Arsenal Football Club is simply too big for Kroenke’s stingy approach. If Kroenke can’t make his product more competitive, then the Gunners won’t be able to keep up with their traditional rivals. With that decline in status, sponsors will be reluctant to give Arsenal lucrative deals. Ultimately, the product will become outdated and its value will decline. The only option left for Kroenke will be to sell his shares before it’s too late to make a profit. It’s a scenario that football fans have already seen with Sugar at Tottenham and Gillett and Hicks at Liverpool. Most Arsenal fans have only one question in mind: how long will it take for Kroenke to sell his shares?  

 

Humiliating 4-1 loss in Europa League final shows lack of quality in Arsenal team

   The Gunners will miss out on the Champions League for the third season in a row after losing 4-1 to Chelsea in the Europa League final on Wednesday. They were badly outplayed in the second half and will keep struggling against the top teams if there is no significant investment in the squad this summer.

Europa League finalPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   In the first half, the Gunners did a decent job defensively but failed to capitalize on some good situations offensively. The double threat of Lacazette and Aubameyang forced Azpilicueta and Emerson to drift inside and play in a narrow back four, giving more space to Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Unfortunately, the Arsenal wingbacks lacked accuracy with their final ball, depriving Lacazette and Aubameyang of good service.

   When Chelsea took the lead early in the second half, it became a different story. The Blues had more counterattacking opportunities and the Arsenal defense looked much more vulnerable. The Gunners also showed their mental weakness by conceding 3 goals in a 16-minute span. It’s not the first time this season that they have collapsed after conceding the opening goal. The Wolverhampton game was another recent example.

   Down 3-0, Emery threw caution to the wind and shifted from a 3-5-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Monreal and Torreira with Guendouzi and Iwobi in the 66th minute. Iwobi played on the left wing while Aubameyang moved to the right wing. In the end, what made the difference was that Chelsea had a matchwinner with Hazard while Lacazette and Aubameyang couldn’t even find the net. The Blues also wanted it more as they ran 101.59 kilometers compared to 95.94 for Arsenal, according to the UEFA statistics.

Losing a step

   I have no issue with the team selection. On paper, this was the best starting lineup, knowing that Ramsey was injured while UEFA couldn’t guarantee Mkhitaryan’s safety in Azerbaijan. For his last game, Cech produced a decent performance. The Czech goalkeeper prevented Chelsea from taking the lead in the first half by parrying Emerson’s diagonal shot in the 34th and palming away Giroud’s low strike in the 39th. He limited the damage in the second half by saving Hazard’s curling shot in the 75th and turning Willian’s low strike around the post in the 78th.

   On the other hand, Wednesday’s game made clear that Koscielny and Monreal have lost a step. Giroud is often mocked for his lack of pace but he still beat Koscielny to the ball to head in Emerson’s cross for the opening goal in the 49th. Monreal also lost a key duel in the 60th. Pedro escaped Monreal’s marking to double the lead with a first-time effort. Sokratis performed better than Monreal and Koscielny but he was guilty on the last goal. Hazard ran past Sokratis in the 72nd to volley Giroud’s cross past Cech.

   Sokratis won 3 of 3 tackles and led all players by winning 6 of 7 aerial duels and blocking 3 shots, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Koscielny won 1 of 3 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels and made 1 block while Monreal won 1 of 1 aerial duel and made 0 tackle and 1 block. The alternatives at centerback were unappealing with the error-prone Mustafi and the sluggish Lichtsteiner.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety

   The Gunners struggled to cope with Chelsea’s high press. Turnovers from Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang led to goals in the 60th and 72nd, respectively. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player. He definitely needs to work on his technique. A couple of times, his first touch was shockingly poor. The academy graduate was involved in the first 3 goals. Maitland-Niles failed to close down Emerson for the opener in the 49th. He then tried to dribble his way out of trouble in the 60th only to lose possession. Hazard recovered the loose ball to set up Pedro for the second goal. Finally, Maitland-Niles lost his composure in the 64th and gave away a silly penalty by shoving Giroud from behind. Hazard converted the subsequent spot kick to make it 3-0.

   Kolasinac had less defensive work than Maitland-Niles, in great part because Pedro was less threatening than Hazard. However, Kolasinac’s offensive contribution was disappointing. Despite 2 key passes, Kolasinac’s technique often let him down in the final third. He finished the game with a passing accuracy of 72.1%, the lowest percentage for any player.

   In midfield, it could only be an uphill battle from the moment Ramsey and Mkhitaryan were not available because Ozil and Iwobi don’t have their work-rate. Emery trusted Ozil to mark Jorginho out of the game like Ramsey did in the 2-0 win some four months ago. There were two problems with that idea. First, Ozil followed Jorginho and tried to cut the supply lines but he simply doesn’t have Ramsey’s impact. Defensively, Ozil made 0 tackle and 1 interception. Offensively, Ozil had 0 shot and 1 key pass. The German playmaker also led Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. And second, Chelsea had a Plan B. Because of the focus on Jorginho, Kovacic enjoyed more freedom and led Chelsea players with 64 passes despite playing only 75 minutes.

Iwobi’s cameo

   Ozil lived up to his reputation as a talented player going missing in the big games. You just have to compare with Hazard’s performance to understand what a clutch player is. Hazard scored twice and made an assist. In hindsight, maybe Iwobi would have been a better option than Ozil in the playmaking role. In his 27-minute cameo, Iwobi scored a goal and made 3 key passes. Iwobi pounced on a Chelsea clearance in the 69th to volley into the far corner from 25 yards. Ozil was replaced by Willock in the 77th. The academy midfielder played in the Ramsey role, making penetrative runs instead of pulling the strings like Ozil. Willock should have scored in the 84th when he played a one-two with Lacazette but his curling shot sailed wide of the far post.

   Playing in front of the back three, Torreira and Xhaka had contrasting fortunes. Torreira produced a disappointing performance, making 2 interceptions and winning only 2 of 7 tackles, whereas Jorginho made 1 interception and won 7 of 10 tackles. It was a difficult game for Torreira because he had to help Xhaka in midfield while also marking Hazard when the Belgium international dropped back.

   Xhaka almost had a decent game compared to Ozil and Torreira. He led all players with 68 passes and hit 12 of 14 accurate long balls, according to whoscored.com. His long-range effort flirted with the bar in the 28th. However, Xhaka’s work-rate wasn’t good enough to help Arsenal match Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic in midfield. Xhaka made 0 interception and won 2 of 2 tackles.

Aubameyang’s off day

   Lacazette and Aubameyang have carried the Gunners in this competition but they really lacked support on Wednesday. The Chelsea defense had a relatively quiet evening. Would Ramsey’s presence have made a difference in the final third?

   After walking on water against Valencia, Aubameyang had an off day in Azerbaijan with 0 of 4 shots on target and 0 key pass. Aubameyang sent a 15-yard volley wide in the ninth minute, hit a cross beyond Lacazette in the 52nd, had a turnover that led to the final goal in the 72nd, and completely fluffed his shot in stoppage time.

   It was quite ironic that Arsenal sold Coquelin, Walcott and Giroud last year to finance the signing of Aubameyang because Giroud played a key role in Chelsea’s victorious campaign. Giroud finished the season as the top scorer in the Europa League with 11 goals. In Azerbaijan, Giroud crucified his former team by scoring a goal, making an assist and winning a penalty. The Gunners got more speed with Aubameyang but they also lost a dominant player in the air. The Blues sometimes used Giroud as a target man to evade Arsenal’s high press. Giroud won 3 of 7 aerial duels, while Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win only 1 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

A deep-rooted problem

Lacazette performed a bit better than Aubameyang with 3 key passes and 1 of 3 shots on target. The French striker had 2 good situations in the first half. Aubameyang fed Lacazette, who dribbled past Kepa in the 18th. Kepa was a split second late and clipped Lacazette’s foot. Despite a VAR review, no penalty was given. Four minutes later, Torreira hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, who held off Azpilicueta but couldn’t control the ball. Lacazette finally tested Kepa in the 83rd but the Spanish goalkeeper made the save.

   As a knee-jerk reaction, some fans wanted Emery to leave the club after this embarrassing defeat. I think it would be unfair for Emery, who did better than Wenger both in the Premier League and the Europa League. It would also make things worse for the club because that kind of instability would put off prospective managers and players.

   Anyway, Emery’s departure this summer wouldn’t help the club because the real issue is the board. Dismissing Emery won’t solve a deep-rooted problem, which is the owner’s lack of ambition and his failure to invest in the squad. An average manager with a great squad can win titles. Think of Di Matteo with Chelsea in 2012. But a great manager with an average squad won’t win anything. Think of Benitez at Newcastle.    

Burnley vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang on fire in 3-1 win

Too little, too late.

   The Gunners defeated Burnley 3-1 on Sunday to finish 5th in the Premier League, one point behind Spurs and two behind Chelsea. The loss to Crystal Palace and the draw with Brighton, both at the Emirates stadium, were the turning points in Arsenal’s season. A victory against either of these teams would have been enough to secure a Top 4 spot.

Burnley vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Now the only way to qualify for next season’s Champions League is to win the Europa League. Emery was aware of the priorities as he made 9 changes to the side that knocked Valencia out of the European competition with only Monreal and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. Koscielny, Kolasinac, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka and Lacazette were on the bench while Sokratis, Torreira and Ozil were not even in the squad.

The Gunners enjoyed 60% of ball possession and had 6 shots on target to 5 for the hosts. They wasted some good situations with a poor final ball, in part because the numerous changes had a negative impact on the fluency of the team’s passing game. For instance, Aubameyang overhit his cross for Nketiah in the 78th minute, and Iwobi played the ball behind an unmarked Mkhitaryan in stoppage time.  

   Aubameyang could have been left on the bench to avoid any injury before the Europa League final, but finishing as the top scorer in the Premier League was one of his ambitions, so Emery let him lead the line. He nearly opened the scoring in the fourth minute. Aubameyang made a run to the near post to meet Mkhitaryan’s free kick but his header hit the woodwork. Three minutes later, Aubameyang chased a long ball from Mustafi to fire an angled strike that Heaton parried.

Aubameyang’s 31 goals

   The opener came from a mistake by the Clarets in the 52nd. Cork missed his backpass to Mee and the ball fell to Aubameyang, who beat Heaton with a low strike. Aubameyang doubled the lead in the 63rd by volleying Iwobi’s cross into the far corner. The Gabon striker then had a few opportunities to notch a hat trick. Iwobi made a teasing cross in the 72nd but Aubameyang didn’t anticipate and failed to make contact with the ball. A minute later, Mkhitaryan made another offering. From 4 yards, Aubameyang missed the target with a sliding effort.

   The Gunners really tried hard to give him a hat trick but Aubameyang failed to connect with a cross from Elneny in the 79th. In stoppage time, Aubameyang took a pass from Iwobi and worked some space only to shoot over the bar from 12 yards. Despite those misses, Aubameyang still finished the Premier League season as the joint top scorer with 22 goals, tied with Salah and Mane. Aubameyang is also the fourth Gunner to score at least 30 goals in all competitions in a single season since the move to the Emirates stadium. Adebayor, Van Persie and Sanchez achieved that feat before Aubameyang.

   This season confirmed Aubameyang’s successful adaptation to the Premier League. He sometimes gets criticized for missing some big chances, but his electric pace and movement inside the box are a headache for most defenders. Emery can only hope that Aubameyang will maintain that level of form until the Europa League final.  

The inconsistency of the attacking midfielders

   Mkhitaryan has been inconsistent this season and it really showed in his performance on Sunday. Playing on the right wing, Mkhitaryan finished the game with 2 key passes and 2 of 4 shots on target, but no goal and no assist. His delivery on set pieces was especially poor. Mkhitaryan couldn’t beat the first defender with a free kick on the stroke of halftime. He then sent a cross straight into Heaton’s arms in the 49th.

   Assuming Emery relies on a 3-5-2 formation for the Europa League final, that means only one attacking midfielder will start for Arsenal against Chelsea. Because of Ramsey’s hamstring injury, Emery will only have the choice between Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi, who have all lacked consistency in the final third this season. Mkhitaryan and Ozil are a slightly bigger goal threat than Iwobi. However, if Emery’s priority is to mark Jorginho out of the match, then Mkhitaryan is the more natural choice because of his work-rate. Mkhitaryan won 1 of 2 tackles, and made 3 interceptions and 4 recoveries against Burnley, compared 2 of 3 tackles won, 0 interception and 1 recovery for Iwobi, according to the club’s website.

   Iwobi led all players with 5 key passes. Despite 2 assists against Burnley, the overall impression this season is that Iwobi has stagnated under Emery. His finishing is still poor and his reading of the game is not good enough. It’s no coincidence if Iwobi was not involved in the best team goals scored by Arsenal. His work-rate is also far from the level required for a Top 4 club. Iwobi’s failure to close down Lowton led to a couple of chances for Burnley.

Loaning out Willock and Nketiah?

   Benefiting from the rest given to Ozil and Lacazette, academy player Willock made his second start in the Premier League. Willock impressed against Blackpool in the FA Cup, but there’s quite a gap between facing a third-division team and playing in the Premier League. Obviously, Willock is not the finished product yet. He will need to work on his close control because youngsters have more time and space in the Premier League 2 and often show too much of the ball. Willock led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He will also have to play more with his head up. The English teenager often needed too much time on the ball before finding a decent pass. At the same age, Fabregas already knew what were his passing options before even receiving the ball.

   Willock showed his potential on a couple of plays. His shot on the turn was blocked for a corner in the 10th and his low curling shot sailed wide on the stroke of halftime. However, the lack of end product was a real issue. Willock had 0 shot on target, 0 key pass and 0 successful dribble out of 2. His work-rate was also disappointing with just 1 tackle and 1 recovery. I don’t think Willock was lazy but he clearly struggled with his positional play. If you’re not in the right spot, you’re unlikely to win the ball or make a challenge.

   Emery replaced Willock with Nketiah in the 62nd. The young striker made an impact by scoring the last goal in stoppage time. His cross-shot took a deflection off Lowton before rolling through Heaton’s legs. The staff should consider loaning both Willock and Nketiah to a Championship side next season because they are too good for the Premier League 2 and need to develop.  

Vulnerable on crosses (again)

   In central midfield, Guendouzi played alongside Elneny. Surprisingly, Elneny had more influence in the final third with 3 key passes, compared to 0 key pass for Guendouzi. However, they had relatively similar defensive stats with Guendouzi making 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 9 recoveries, compared to 0 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries for Elneny, according to the club’s website.

   So far, Guendouzi is the same type of player as Elneny. Both are utility midfielders because they don’t have the same defensive impact as ballwinners and can’t match the offensive impact of deep-lying playmakers or box-to-box players. The only difference between Elneny and Guendouzi is that Elneny is more conservative in his passing while Guendouzi wins slightly more duels. This has been a positive season for Guendouzi, who has managed to make the leap from the French second division to the much tougher Premier League. Next season, Guendouzi will have to be less casual. He gave the ball away in the 17th and 29th and was lucky to win a foul after recklessly dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 75th.

   The Clarets mostly threatened on crosses and set pieces. Their consolation goal came from a cross in the 65th. Leno initially palmed away a deflected shot from Gudmundsson, but the rebound fell to Hendrick, who made a cross for Wood. The Burnley forward could only head the ball toward the far post, where Gudmundsson got hold of the ball and picked out Barnes who headed in. The Gunners lost 4 duels on that play: Monreal failed to block Hendrick’s cross, Koscielny lost his aerial duel with Wood, Gudmundsson reacted more quickly than Lichtsteiner, and Barnes beat Mustafi to the ball.

Mavropanos looking out of his depth

   Some fans sweated a lot when they saw Mavropanos starting alongside Mustafi at centerback. Mustafi produced a solid performance, leading all players by winning 8 of 11 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. The German defender also won 2 of 2 tackles and 76.9% of his duels and made 2 blocks, 1 interception and 5 recoveries. Mustafi made a timely challenge after Guendouzi gave the ball away in the 29th. A minute later, Mustafi prevented Burnley from opening the scoring by blocking Lowton’s close-range effort. The only blemish in Mustafi’s performance was his passing accuracy of 74.2%, much lower than Koscielny’s 97.1%.

   It has been a rough season for Mavropanos, who has played only 4 games after needing several months to recover from a groin injury. To be honest, Mavropanos looked out of his depth. When Taylor made a cross in the fifth minute, Mavropanos completely missed his header, allowing Barnes to have a free header. Fortunately, the Burnley striker missed the target. Mavropanos made the same mistake again in the ninth minute as Barnes connected with a cross from Lowton for a half-volley that Leno palmed away.

   The Clarets had a penalty shout in the 20th when Mavropanos wrestled with Barnes inside the area. Burnley nearly took the lead in the 28th. Wood made a run in behind Mavropanos to chase a long ball from Lowton and hit the base of the post. Burnley then capitalized on a Mavropanos turnover in the 30th to launch a counterattack. Mavropanos’ injury in the 31st was almost a blessing in disguise because there seemed more troubles coming his way. The Greek defender is not yet ready for the Premier League. In his 30-minute performance, Mavropanos made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 0 recovery. There are big question marks about his reading of the game. The club should loan him out in the summer.

Singing the blues in Baku

   Emery replaced Mavropanos with Koscielny in the 34th. The French veteran struggled again in the air, winning only 2 of 7 duels. Koscielny had an injury scare in the 50th when Wood shoved him into the advertising hoardings. That was similar to Arnautovic’s dangerous shove that led to Debuchy’s shoulder injury. Yet, the referee didn’t award any foul. There were other examples of leniency from the referee, who ignored Westwood’s shove on Guendouzi in the eighth minute even though the ball was already gone. And Hendrick was not even booked for pulling back Willock in the 61st.  

   The Gunners only have one game left to play this season: a Europa League final against Chelsea in Azerbaijan. It would definitely be a successful season if they manage to lift the trophy. The Gunners are in good hands since Emery is the most successful manager in that competition. I assume Emery will plan the training sessions so that the players hit peak form on May 29.