Tag Archives: Premier League

Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal: Gunners make tactical tweak in 2-1 win

Arsenal’s away form has been really poor lately. So Wenger decided to beef up the defense on Monday by relying on a back three. The tactical shift paid off as the Gunners edged Middlesbrough 2-1 for their first away win in the Premier League since Jan. 14 and a 4-0 demolition of Swansea.

Middlesbrough vs. Arsenal

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

In times of crisis, you need leaders. Cech and Koscielny made their return from injury to bring back some calm in the Arsenal team. The manager made 6 changes to the side that was hammered 3-0 at Crystal Palace a week ago with Cech, Koscielny, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud replacing Martinez, Mustafi, Bellerin, Walcott, Elneny and Welbeck in the starting lineup.

The Gunners matched Boro’s commitment, making 11 interceptions compared to 13 for the Smoggies, and winning 19 tackles and 26 aerial duels compared to 17 tackles and 24 aerial duels for the hosts, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal proved the better side in the first half and deservedly took the lead before halftime. But it could have gone either way in the second half. In fact, it was an even contest with each team creating 7 chances and Boro finishing the game with 13 shots compared to 12 for the Gunners.

Cech pulled off a couple of fine saves to prevent Boro from adding a second goal. The Czech goalkeeper stopped Ayala’s header with a reflex save in the 61st minute, parried Negredo’s low strike in the 79th and was lucky to see Gibson muster only a tame effort in the 87th. Arsenal will need to work harder on the training ground as those 3 chances came from set pieces.

In his first season at Arsenal, Wenger frequently played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. Then signing Petit in the summer of 1997 helped the manager switch to the 4-4-2 system he was known for during his time at Monaco.

More room for error

It’s kind of funny that a poor run of form finally led Wenger to use again a 3-4-3 system he has discarded for 20 years. Young managers like Pochettino and Guardiola are more flexible and frequently change formations throughout the season because of injuries or tactical concerns.

Koscielny played as a safety in that back three while Paulista was on the right side and Holding on the left side. On paper, you have more room for error: if Paulista or Holding covers the wingback, you still have two central defenders. In a back four, if Koscielny covers Monreal on the left flank, there’s only one central defender left.

A 3-4-3 system gives you numerical superiority at the back and makes it harder for the opponent to press high up the pitch. That’s why the Gunners enjoyed 65% of ball possession. The problem then is how to avoid sterile possession. Chelsea can play the ball out from the back because Azpilicueta and Luiz are comfortable on the ball. By contrast, Paulista has limited passing skills while Koscielny and Holding are average. Mustafi and Monreal have better passing skills but Mustafi was not in the squad because of an injury while the manager preferred to start Monreal in the wingback position. In the end, Arsenal’s passing game really looked tentative at best and shambolic at worst.

Despite the victory, the performance of the Arsenal defense wasn’t really convincing. Whatever formation used by the manager, you still have to win duels. Koscielny missed his clearance in the 50th, allowing Negredo to volley home Downing’s cross for Boro’s equalizer. The France centerback attempted an acrobatic clearance because he didn’t want to head the ball out of play. Obviously, that was not the safe option.

Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback

Koscielny made no tackle mostly because he was the sweeper. He won 4 of 7 aerial duels and led all players with 4 interceptions. I’m not sure Koscielny enjoys that kind of role. In a back three, the sweeper is usually an organizer too. The best example is Sammer in the Germany team that won the Euro 1996. Sammer had good tackling skills but could also play as a midfielder because of his technical abilities.

The other two centerbacks, Holding and Paulista, combined to win 6 of 11 aerial duels but performed poorly on the ground, winning none of the 6 tackles they made, according to Squawka. Paulista looked the more uncomfortable of the two. The Brazilian defender missed his clearance in the 87th when Gibson had a goal attempt. He also let Friend run past him in the 55th. The Boro substitute fired a diagonal strike that Monreal deflected into the path of Downing, who missed the target from 8 yards.

Oxlade-Chamberlain had a good game as a wingback, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and winning 2 of 5 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. He walked a tightrope after receiving a yellow card for a late tackle on Fabio in the fourth minute but showed enough self-discipline to avoid a second booking. Defensively, the Ox killed a Boro counterattack with a timely challenge as the last defender in the 62nd. Offensively, he tried to feed Giroud from the right wing. In the 28th, Giroud knocked the ball down for Ramsey, whose volley was headed out by a Smoggie. The Ox enjoyed more freedom when Bellerin replaced Ozil in the 89th. He could have scored on a counterattack in stoppage time but was denied by Guzan.

Sanchez as a playmaker

Monreal is a more defensive wingback than the Ox. The Spaniard won 4 of 6 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels and made 2 interceptions and no dribbling attempt. He has been struggling to stop crosses since last season. That flaw led to Boro’s equalizer as Downing had plenty of time and space for a cross. Monreal’s declining pace was also exposed when Traore replaced Ramirez in the 68th. The speedy Boro winger dribbled past Monreal in the 69th but dallied on the ball and lost possession.

In midfield, Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 3 key passes and 3 interceptions and win 3 of 11 tackles and 2 of 6 aerial duels. We’re very far from the standards set by Vieira, Petit and Gilberto when Arsenal could truly boss the midfield. The partnership formed by Kante and Matic at Chelsea or Wanyama and Dembele at Tottenham looks more convincing.

Walcott was the player sacrificed by Wenger in the 3-4-3 system. There are two interesting things that we have learned from Monday’s game. First, Ozil and Sanchez contributed defensively on the wings just like Hazard and Pedro do at Chelsea. Ozil won 3 of 5 tackles compared to 1 of 5 for Sanchez. In the modern game, creative players need to share the defensive burden too. Maybe the Christmas tree or 4-3-2-1 formation is the only system that would require very little defensive work from Ozil and Sanchez.

And second, Ozil played again like a second striker while Sanchez took over the playmaking duties. Sanchez hit 4 accurate long balls out of 5 and 1 accurate through ball out of 2, according to whoscored.com, whereas Ozil did not attempt any and made no key pass. Ozil mostly focused on his runs in the final third and had very little impact on his team’s passing game. In fact, 7 Gunners made more passes than Ozil (46): Xhaka (93), Paulista (73), Ramsey (67), Koscielny (56), Sanchez (50), Holding (49), and the Ox (48).

European football in July or September?

Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead with a dipping free kick in the 40th. He then created the winning goal in the 71st with a cross that Ramsey chested down for Ozil, who buried the ball into the near corner. The Chile striker also had 9 turnovers, including two that led to Boro chances. Ozil could have scored in the 63rd when he collected a through ball from Sanchez but Guzan denied him.

Up front, the misfiring Giroud had none of his 3 shots on target but proved useful as an outlet, winning 6 of 11 aerial duels. In the 29th, Giroud redirected an Ozil corner toward Sanchez, who fluffed his volley straight at Guzan. In the 81st, Sanchez found Giroud, who cut inside to curl his shot wide. Giroud should have been awarded a penalty in the 18th when Ayala held him with both arms on a corner. Arsenal can thank Giroud for the three points as the Frenchman put off Gibson in the 87th.

That victory might be too little too late for the Gunners, who sit in sixth place in the standings, trailing Liverpool, Manchester City and the Red Devils by 9, 7 and 3 points respectively. Arsenal could end up playing in the Europa League for the first time under Wenger. They would participate in the preliminary round in July if they finish sixth in the Premier League. Or they could qualify for the group stage if they win the FA Cup. I don’t think the club will be able to keep Sanchez and Ozil without the prospect of Champions League football.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: Time for board to find a new manager for next season

Managers know they are in trouble when they make Big Sam look like a genius. That’s what happened on Monday night as Crystal Palace smashed Arsenal 3-0 in the Premier League. In the old days, Wenger could still inject confidence into his squad after a humiliating defeat. The Gunners opened the 2013-14 season with an embarrassing 3-1 loss to Aston Villa but then went on to earn 7 straight victories in all competitions. Two years ago, they bounced back from a 3-1 loss to Monaco by winning the next 9 games in all competitions. Now, Wenger’s powers are clearly waning. There’s something broken in the relationship between the manager and the players. If the board decides to give Wenger a new contract, the situation at the club could worsen next season. Imagine Wenger completely losing the dressing room and Arsenal fighting off relegation like Chelsea a year ago or Leicester this year. Yeah, that would be quite a mess…

Crystal Palace Abised

Xhaka caught ball-watching as he fails to track Cabaye’s run. (Photo credit: NBC)

The players deserved as much blame as their manager for producing their worst performance of the season at Selhurst Park. Even the 5-1 losses to Bayern Munich didn’t look as pathetic in comparison. Crystal Palace won 63.6% of the tackles compared to 30% for the Gunners, according to the club’s website. The Eagles also made 19 interceptions compared to 10 for Arsenal. The lack of desire was so blatant that some supporters couldn’t help singing “You’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

The 3-0 win over West Ham last week gave the illusion that the Gunners had rediscovered their self-confidence. Wenger therefore named an unchanged side for the Palace game. Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession but created only 9 chances compared to 14 for the Eagles, according to Squawka. Palace also had 6 of 17 shots on target compared to 3 of 11 for the misfiring Gunners.

A dysfunctional team

Allardyce’s game plan was pretty simple: press high up the pitch when Arsenal tried to play the ball out from the back, then play with 10 men behind the ball when the Gunners reached the halfway line. The Gunners proved toothless throughout the game as if Wenger had no tactical answer to break down the Palace defense. Hennessey made 3 routine saves in the first half, turning Elneny’s longe-range effort around the post in the ninth minute, stopping Sanchez’s low strike in the 21st and catching Paulista’s tame header on the stroke of halftime. The Palace goalie was not even tested in the second half as Arsenal shamelessly capitulated.

The defensive performance showed how dysfunctional the Gunners were as a team. There’s no surprise when you’re facing an Allardyce team. It’s all about directness, duels and commitment. Yet, Arsenal seemed to have no clue. The way they conceded the opener from a goal kick in the 17th was a joke. Benteke bullied Paulista to win a header, then Townsend beat Elneny to the second ball and swapped passes with Cabaye, who was not tracked by Xhaka. Cabaye released Zaha down our left flank and the Palace winger squared the ball back to Townsend, who got ahead of Mustafi to sweep the ball home.

The Gunners lost all their duels on that play. That’s not good enough for a team pretending to chase a Champions League spot. The first mistake came from Paulista, who was drawn out of position by challenging Benteke in the air. If you’re a manager and want to play it safe tactically, then you ask Xhaka to mark Benteke when he drops back on goal kicks. Arsenal made a similar mistake against Manchester City 10 days ago: Sane opened the scoring because Mustafi was pulled out of position by Aguero on a goal kick. You kind of wonder what kind of defensive drills do they practice on the training ground. The second mistake came from Xhaka, who made no effort to track Cabaye. See the screen capture at the top of this post. Xhaka’s passivity left Monreal in 1v2 situation, giving the Spaniard no chance to stop Zaha’s cross.

What’s on Bellerin’s mind?

Mustafi performed poorly. He won just 4 of 9 aerial duels and none of the 6 tackles he made, according to Squawka. Paulista struggled in the air too and lost the only tackle he made. Obviously, the Arsenal defense is weakened by Koscielny’s absence. The France centerback is turning 32 this year and if he loses a step next season, no fan can seriously think that Mustafi or Paulista would be able to marshall the defense.

The fullbacks were quite busy on Monday as Palace relied on wing play to crack the Arsenal defense. Bellerin and Monreal combined to win 6 of 16 tackles and 3 of 4 aerial duels. Monreal had a decent game although the first two goals came from his flank. On the other hand, Bellerin is really having a poor run of form. He was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Two of Bellerin’s turnovers led to dangerous counterattacks in the opening minute and the 41st. He also misjudged the flight of a long ball in the third minute, allowing Sakho to feed Cabaye for an off-target effort.

On paper, Bellerin is one of the most gifted fullbacks in the league. But his performance on Monday was full of technical errors. He underhit a backpass that was nearly intercepted by Benteke in the 36th, gave away a free kick because of a poor touch in the 39th, fluffed a volley wide in the 58th, and sent a pass intended for Walcott straight into touch in the 65th. There can only be two possible explanations. Either the team’s poor results are affecting his confidence, or his mind is distracted by the idea of a move.

Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness    

Martinez made a couple of fine saves to keep Arsenal in the game, parrying an angled strike from Benteke in the 41st, palming away a low effort from Townsend in the 50th and stopping Puncheon’s header in the 54th. But he showed his inexperience in the 67th by fouling Townsend to give away a cheap penalty. Milivojevic converted the spot kick to make it 3-0. That was poor decision-making from Martinez, who didn’t need to charge out, first because Townsend still had to beat Bellerin, and second because Townsend was running away from goal.

Xhaka and Elneny performed well against West Ham but their limits were exposed by Palace. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka had decent stats with 4 key passes, tied with Zaha and Townsend for the most by any player. He also won 2 of 3 tackles and 4 of 4 aerial duels. However, Xhaka is less effective than Cazorla against compact teams because he can’t dribble like the Spaniard. And his lack of defensive awareness is a problem. He didn’t spot Cabaye’s run on the opening goal and didn’t care at all on the second goal.

Sometimes I wonder what the scouts saw in Elneny when they recommended him. Elneny is not a decisive player. Offensively, he made no key pass. And defensively, he won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 air duels. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger replaced Elneny with Ramsey in the 59th. The move backfired as Ramsey failed to spot Cabaye’s run for the second goal in the 63rd. It all started from a throw-in. Surrounded by Monreal and Ramsey, Benteke still won the header and found Townsend, who released Zaha down our left flank. Zaha cut the ball back to Cabaye, who beat Martinez with a looping effort into the far corner. Ramsey’s lack of effort on that play was shocking. See the screen capture below.

Crystal Palace Bbised

Ramsey caught ball-watching as Cabaye runs in front of him. (Photo credit: NBC)

Maybe the failure of the Ozil project is what will define Wenger’s last seasons at the club. Ozil notched 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 Premier League games last season for an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. That was definitely his best season at the club. However, his work-rate was an issue. Ozil didn’t work in midfield as hard as Silva at City or Lallana at Liverpool. So the manager thought about playing Ozil in a slightly more advanced position, almost like a second striker (Ozil had 42 through balls in the Premier League last season compared to 15 this term).

What a waste, Mesut

We were told Ozil scored a lot of goals on the training ground. Unfortunately, he rarely showed any killer instinct in competitive games this season. As a result, his number of assists significantly dipped while his number of goals didn’t really soar. With 6 goals and 6 assists from 25 Premier League appearances so far, Ozil is averaging 0.48 goal or assist per game.

At 28, Ozil should be at the top of his game. But the sad reality is that Alli at Tottenham is having the kind of impact that Wenger expected from Ozil. With 16 goals and 5 assists from 30 Premier League appearances, Alli is averaging 0.7 goal or assist per game. At 21, Alli is already a better player than Ozil in his prime. Of Alli’s 16 goals, 4 were headers, 8 were scored with the right foot, 4 with the left foot and only 1 was a penalty.

Ozil enjoys more being a playmaker than a finisher. Wenger has implicitly acknowledged his failure to turn Ozil into a nine and half like Bergkamp or Baggio by moving him back into his former position. At Selhurst Park, Ozil played like someone who didn’t seem to care about his future at the club. He had no goal attempt, won no tackle, and made no key pass, interception or block. His technique also let him down a couple of times. Ozil couldn’t beat the first defender with a corner in the 15th and sent a pass straight into touch in the 62nd. His performances this season have confirmed that he’s not a leader on the pitch and can’t carry the team in times of trouble.

Only the FA Cup to play for

Sanchez tried a bit harder than Ozil with 4 shots, 1 key pass and 2 interceptions, but it’s difficult to see him stay at the club. The Chile striker is an ambitious and demanding player, who knows that he won’t win the Premier League with Arsenal. The club could face in a couple of months its most unstable summer since 2011. Even if the British core (Gibbs, Holding, Ramsey, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Welbeck) remains at the club, a lot of them have either regressed or stagnated this season. Walcott couldn’t find any space behind the Palace defense for his trademark runs while Welbeck got no decent service up front. Welbeck chased a long ball from Xhaka in the 44th only to fire an angled volley wide.

The end of the season could turn ugly for Arsenal. They have no realistic hope of finishing in the Top 4. If the target is 75 points, that would imply 7 wins from the final 8 games in the Premier League, which is very unlikely since the Gunners have won just 1 of their last 5 games. Basically, they only have the FA Cup to play for. Will the squad throw away the next league games to focus on the Cup?

 

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Gunners restore confidence with 3-0 win

The Gunners thrashed West Ham 3-0 on Wednesday for their first victory in the Premier League since Feb. 11. They still have a lot of ground to make up if they want to get back in the race for a Top 4 finish, but at least the results are going Arsenal’s way as Manchester City lost at Chelsea while Liverpool split the points with Bournemouth.

Arsenal vs. West Ham edited

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

I was a bit anxious at kickoff. Injuries forced Wenger to make 3 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Manchester City on Sunday with Martinez, Paulista and Elneny replacing Ospina, Koscielny and Coquelin in the starting lineup. In a dull first half, the Gunners managed to test Randolph only once. Then they capitalized on a spell of domination in the second half to take the lead. You could feel that their confidence was back after they added a second goal: their passing game suddenly became crisp just like when they had a 19-game unbeaten run in the first half of the season.

The scoreline clearly reflected Arsenal’s dominance as West Ham created only 2 chances compared to 17 for the Gunners, according to Squawka. However, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too quickly. The Hammers don’t have the technical ability and movement of Manchester City and were low on confidence after losing their 4 previous league games.

Ozil made the difference by scoring the opening goal and setting up the second. He beat Randolph with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 58th minute. Ozil then played a one-two with Sanchez to square the ball back for Walcott, who got ahead of Byram to stab it home in the 68th. Somehow, Ozil could have notched one more goal and one more assist. Instead of attempting a first-time effort in the 49th, Ozil controlled a reverse pass from Sanchez and was dispossessed by a sliding tackle from Collins. He also played another one-two with Sanchez in the 66th to make a cross for Elneny, whose bouncing header went straight into Randolph’s gloves.

Ozil ends scoring drought

The Germany playmaker finished the game with 5 key passes, 3 successful dribbles out of 3 and 8 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Shifting Sanchez back to the left wing has helped restore Ozil’s influence on the game. When Sanchez plays as a false nine, he’s stepping on Ozil’s toes in midfield. Sometimes, they can create moments of magic like the goal scored against Chelsea in September. But too often Ozil has very little opportunity to deliver the final ball because he’s making runs in the final third. That’s why his number of assists has dropped this season.

I believe Ozil performs better in the role of a free-roaming midfielder than as a second striker when Sanchez leads the line. Ozil may score a lot of goals in training but he simply doesn’t have the killer instinct to repeat that feat in competitive games. His goal against West Ham was his first one in the Premier League since the 3-1 win over Stoke on Dec. 10. The Gunners were second in the standings after that Stoke game, three points behind Chelsea. In the end, Wenger’s tactical gamble on Ozil as a second striker backfired since Arsenal’s free fall also coincided with Ozil’s scoring drought.

Ozil slightly improved his work-rate by making 2 interceptions, 3 blocks and winning none of the 4 tackles he made against West Ham. But there are still issues about his attitude. In the first half, Ozil was reluctant to press high up the pitch, forcing Xhaka to do the job in his zone. In the second half, it was Elneny’s turn to perform Ozil’s pressing duties. The Gunners can survive that kind of behavior against the weak teams but they get in trouble against the stronger sides. Remember how Chelsea and Bayern Munich outplayed Arsenal in midfield. You also have to wonder to what extent it affects the chemistry in the dressing room. Players like Silva and Hazard would be criticized in their respective clubs for such a lack of effort.

Welbeck’s poor finishing

Sanchez had an off day with none of his 3 shots on target. He still managed to create 3 chances, finding Bellerin with a ball over the top in the 70th but the Spaniard missed the target from 7 yards. I’m guessing Sanchez must still feel the exhaustion from his trip to South America for the World Cup qualifiers with the Chile team. You can’t blame a player who has carried the club on his shoulders for most of the season, racking up 18 goals and 9 assists in the Premier League.

On the other hand, Walcott had a good game with 1 goal and 1 key pass. He also won 2 of 2 tackles and had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but made no interception and no block. Walcott has 10 goals and 2 assists in 23 Premier League appearances this season. It’s only the second time in his career that he’s reaching the 10-goal mark. He still has enough games to do better than the 14 league goals scored during the 2012-13 season. My views on Walcott haven’t changed. He’s a great option against teams leaving space at the back, but his limited passing skills are exposed against teams with a tight defense.

Recently, Wenger has preferred Welbeck to Sanchez and Giroud in the lone striker role. Welbeck is stronger in the air than Sanchez and has more pace than Giroud. His main problem is the lack of end product. With some clinical finishing, he could have scored a hat trick. Welbeck met a clipped free kick from Sanchez in the 24th only to fluff his volley. He then connected with a corner from Ozil in the 42nd for a header straight at Randolph. His worst miss came in the 61st when Walcott played him clean through on goal. Welbeck had just Randolph to beat from 10 yards but was denied by the West Ham keeper.

Giroud the supersub

The manager sent on Giroud for Welbeck in the 74th and the Frenchman lived up to his supersub status by cutting inside Collins for a curling shot into the far corner in the 83rd. Giroud has 9 goals and 3 assists from 21 Premier League appearances this season, which is a good return for Arsenal’s third-choice centerforward. That last goal started with a fantastic run from Oxlade-Chamberlain, who dribbled past two Hammers to feed Giroud.

The Ox and Ramsey made their return from injury by replacing Walcott and Elneny in the 81st. They could make a difference in a busy run-in knowing that Cazorla will miss the rest of the season. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka was not as efficient as Cazorla in setting a high tempo. But he still did a decent job by creating 3 chances, winning 4 of 10 tackles and leading all players with 120 passes. Xhaka also tested Randolph with a long-range strike in the 79th.

The midfield partnership formed by Xhaka and Elneny performed well on Wednesday. I’m still not convinced by their quality against the stronger teams but they looked complementary against West Ham. Elneny struggled in his defensive duties, winning only 1 of 6 tackles. However, he contributed to the fluency of Arsenal’s passing game with a passing accuracy of 97%.

On paper, Carroll was supposed to be West Ham’s main threat but had no decent service. Lanzini overhit his free kick in the seventh minute for Carroll, who had isolated himself with Bellerin at the far post. The Hammers’ chances came in fact from duels lost by Elneny. Noble dispossessed Elneny in the 13th to drag a diagonal drive wide. Lanzini then got the better of Elneny in the 75th and dribbled past Mustafi to fire a powerful strike that Martinez parried. In the closing minutes, Martinez also saved a low drive from Fernandes.

Mediocre officiating

At the back, Bellerin slightly improved after a poor performance against City. The Spaniard created 2 chances, had 3 successful dribbles out of 3, won 1 of 3 tackles, and made 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. He got booked for a cynical foul on Antonio in the 18th. Surprisingly, Paulista proved our most solid defender, winning 1 of 1 tackle and 4 of 6 aerial duels, and leading all players with 5 interceptions.

The Gunners won despite some mediocre officiating from Atkinson. Another referee would have awarded at least 2 penalties. In the 18th, Walcott dribbled past Masuaku, who made a blatant obstruction inside the area. The only penalty shout that looked weak was the collision between Collins and Monreal in the 80th. Both pounced on a loose ball and missed it. I’m OK with that call. On the other hand, I thought Atkinson showed poor judgement by dismissing Monreal’s penalty appeal in stoppage time. Monreal cut inside Byram, who made a late tackle and not only missed the ball but also stamped on Monreal’s foot. Any decent referee would have awarded Arsenal a spot kick and given Byram a second yellow card. Atkinson missed another call when Carroll elbowed Mustafi on the stroke of halftime. The referee should have given Arsenal a free kick and stopped play because it was a head injury.

The Gunners only have fourth place to play for now. Qualifying for the Champions League is crucial to boost the club’s transfer budget and sign top players this summer. Trailing Manchester City and Liverpool by 4 and 6 points respectively, the Gunners have no room for error. That implies victories over Crystal Palace on Monday and over Middlesbrough on April 17.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City: Gunners still in 6th place after 2-2 draw

The Gunners showed character by rallying twice in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City. However, the result makes a Top 4 finish in the Premier League even more unlikely. Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool are projected to finish the season with 90, 81, 76 and 75 points respectively. The Gunners have 51 points from 28 games so far and would therefore need 24 points from the last 10 games to match Liverpool’s projected total. That would mean 8 wins and 2 losses or an unbeaten run with 7 wins and 3 draws. It’s mission impossible given Arsenal’s current form and tough run-in.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger hasn’t lost the dressing room yet. His players showed enough desire and commitment by winning 51.2% of the duels compared to 48.8% for City, according to the club’s website, and by making 20 interceptions compared to 21 for the visitors, according to Squawka. The Citizens still looked the better team because they created 11 chances compared to 6 for Arsenal. What really hurt the Gunners was their shaky defense and their lack of options in midfield because of injuries to Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Mustafi saved the day with a goal and an assist. He pounced on a poor clearance from the City defense to head the ball into the path of Walcott in the 40th minute. Walcott controlled the ball and got the better of Clichy in a weird dance of legs to beat Caballero from close range. Mustafi then made a run from beyond the penalty spot in the 53rd to nod in Ozil’s corner for the equalizer. He took advantage of City’s zonal marking to gather momentum and outjump a static Otamendi waiting on the 6-yard line. Quite ironically, that goal was similar to the ones scored by Dawson in the 3-1 loss to West Brom.

Is Mustafi the new Vermaelen?

Mustafi had a decent game, but you don’t want him to make up for defensive errors with goals like Vermaelen. I thought he shouldn’t have been drawn out of position for City’s opener in the fifth minute. When Caballero kicked the ball, Mustafi followed Aguero in City’s half to head the ball into the path of De Bruyne, who fed Sane with a first-time pass. Mustafi had no time to recover while Sane outpaced Bellerin to round Ospina and shoot into an empty net. Aguero often drops back to create space for his teammates to run into. It could make sense to track Aguero if he’s 30 yards from the Arsenal goal but not when he’s inside his own half.

Decision-making is one area where Mustafi must improve. He lost possession in the 50th after trying to dribble his way out of trouble. The Germany international got booked in the 61st for a cynical challenge on Sane. Mustafi made 1 interception and won 3 of 6 tackles and 3 of 4 aerial duels, but he also finished the game with a passing accuracy of 66%, which is too low for a centerback. Koscielny had a passing accuracy of 82.6% compared to 88.9% for Stones and 87.2% for Otamendi.

Monreal proved Arsenal’s best defender while Bellerin had a poor game. Bellerin was on the wrong side of Sane for the opener, made no interception and won no tackle or aerial duel. By contrast, Monreal made 6 interceptions, the most for any player, and won 2 of 6 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Monreal took advantage of Navas’ inexperience at fullback to cause havoc by overlapping with Sanchez down the left flank. Navas was very lucky to stay on the pitch after planting his studs into Monreal’s shinpad in the eighth minute.

Ozil’s average season

Down 2-1 at halftime, a lot of fans were worried when they saw Paulista replace an injured Koscielny for the start of the second half. It was Koscielny’s replacement that led to the 5-1 disaster in the first leg of the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich. Somehow, Paulista did a decent job.

In midfield, City outperformed Arsenal again. Fernandinho, De Bruyne and Silva combined to make 7 interceptions and win 8 of 25 tackles while Coquelin, Xhaka and Ozil combined to make 4 interceptions and win 7 of 16 tackles. Ozil had decent attacking stats with 2 successful dribbles out of 2 and 3 key passes (tied with Navas and Silva for the most by any player), but his work-rate was poor. He made 1 interception and 2 tackles. De Bruyne and Silva are creative players too but they contributed more defensively. Silva made 2 interceptions and 9 tackles while De Bruyne made 1 interception and 7 tackles.

Ozil was guilty on City’s second goal in the 42nd as he gave the ball away to Silva, who found De Bruyne on the edge of the Arsenal box. The Belgium international attempted a one-two with Sterling but Koscielny knocked the return pass away with a sliding tackle. The loose ball fell to Silva, who fed Aguero and the Argentina striker made it 2-1 with an angled effort into the bottom corner.

Wenger’s decision to turn Ozil into a second striker or nine and a half has backfired. Ozil is not clinical enough in front of the net. He took a pass from Sanchez in the 21st and rolled away from Stones only to muster a tame shot that did not trouble Caballero. Ozil notched 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 Premier League appearances last season, that is, an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. His number are down this season with just 5 assists and 5 goals from 23 Premier League appearances, that is, an average of 0.43 goal or assist per game.

Xhaka & Coquelin caught ball-watching

Xhaka and Coquelin didn’t cover themselves in glory either. Both were caught ball-watching on City’s second goal. Coquelin failed to mark De Bruyne when he played a one-two with Sterling while Xhaka made no real effort to track back when Ozil lost possession. Monreal ended up dealing with both Aguero and Silva because of Xhaka’s passivity.

Petit, Vieira and Gilberto were enforcers who could boss the midfield. I don’t think Xhaka and Coquelin are anywhere near their level. Xhaka gifted the Citizens their first chance by slipping in the fourth minute. Fernandinho played Sterling clean through on goal, but Ospina quickly rushed outside his area to clear the danger. The ball bounced off Sterling and out of bounds. Then Xhaka was late for a block when Silva teed up De Bruyne for a long-range strike that hit the post in the 10th. The Switzerland international received a yellow card in the 32nd for a poorly timed challenge on Otamendi. Coquelin also got booked for a late tackle on Silva in the 14th and escaped a second yellow card in the 81st for a cynical foul on De Bruyne.

Back from a trip to South America for World Cup qualifiers, Sanchez produced an energetic display with 2 key passes, 5 interceptions and 7 successful dribbles out of 11. He also won 2 of 6 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels and had 11 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Turnovers are OK when you’re in the final third. But they should be avoided when you’re on the edge of your own area because you can put your team in danger. Navas intercepted a Sanchez backheel flick in the 66th to make a cross for Aguero, whose header lacked power to beat Ospina. The Colombia goalkeeper made two fine saves to keep Arsenal in the game, palming away a low strike from Silva in the 10th and parrying a long-range effort from Fernandinho in the 58th.

The next 3 games

Up front, Welbeck got no decent service. He had a passing accuracy of 100%, won 2 of 2 tackles and lost the 4 aerial duels in which he was involved. His only chance came from a missed clearance from Otamendi in the fourth minute. Welbeck pounced on the loose ball for a sliding effort that sailed wide.

On the right wing, Walcott scored a goal but did very little compared to Sanchez. With a bit of luck, Walcott could have added a second goal on the stroke of halftime. He controlled a cross from Sanchez for an acrobatic effort that went over the bar.

Arsenal would need a miracle to finish in the Top 4. They could make up ground by winning their next three Premier League games against West Ham, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough while hoping that Liverpool and the two Manchesters drop points. Then they would need outstanding performances in the run-in against Leicester, Tottenham, Manchester United, Stoke, Everton, Southampton and Sunderland. In any case, the Gunners will have to tighten up at the back because they looked incredibly open against City.

 

West Brom vs. Arsenal: Free fall continues with 3-1 loss

Let’s not kid ourselves, Arsenal won’t finish in the Top 4 this season and there will be no St Totteringham’s Day. The Gunners have lost 4 of their last 5 Premier League games after Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at West Brom. They still sit in fifth place in the standings but 5 points behind Liverpool and 6 behind Manchester City and Tottenham.

West Brom vs. Arsenal

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Baggies’ game plan was pretty simple: park the bus and capitalize on counterattacks and set pieces to score. Yet, Arsenal couldn’t cope with West Brom’s direct approach. Let’s start with the set pieces. Dawson made a run from the penalty spot in the 12th minute to nod in Chadli’s corner from about 3 yards. We know that the Gunners use zonal marking on corners. One problem with zonal marking is that it’s very static. Dawson was able to outjump Koscielny because he had more momentum. Ramsey made the first mistake on that play by not blocking Dawson, who had a free run inside the box. The second mistake came from the defenders. Cech should be able to claim the ball but Fletcher hampered the goalkeeper’s freedom of movement by standing in front of him. It’s up to the defenders to clean up the 6-yard box for their goalkeeper.

Arsenal tried to adjust to those tactics in the second half but Dawson made it 3-1 by heading home McClean’s corner in the 75th. The plan was to neutralize Dawson and Fletcher. Oxlade-Chamberlain marked Dawson but failed to get in the way of the West Brom fullback when he made his run from the penalty spot. Likewise, Xhaka tried to shield Ospina from Fletcher, but the Colombia goalkeeper, who replaced an injured Cech in the 38th, lost his footing and couldn’t intervene. That goal looked worse than the opening goal because Mustafi and Koscielny both followed McAuley and left a huge gap for Dawson to run into.

Lack of defensive awareness

The Ox and Ramsey are seasoned players. Yet, they showed their lack of defensive awareness on those corners. If Ramsey wants to play in central midfield, he seriously needs to improve his positional play. The Wales midfielder failed to track Fletcher, who took a pass from Livermore to test Cech in the 34th. The Ox had a good work-rate, winning 2 of 3 tackles and making 1 key pass, 1 interception, 2 blocks and 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but it’s the defensive details that are ruining his overall performance.

Ramsey also had a hand in the Baggies’ second goal. Chadli sent a ball over the top to McClean in the 56th but Ospina came off his line to knock the ball into the path of Robson-Kanu, who stabbed the rebound home. The first mistake came from Ramsey, who sat too deep on that play. He was next to Mustafi inside the area while he should have closed down Chadli on the edge of the box. The second mistake came from Mustafi, who played McClean onside. And the third mistake came from some poor coordination between Bellerin and Ospina. The goalkeeper should have dived headfirst to gather the ball instead of going feet first.

At the back, Monreal proved our best defender, winning 80% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 94.6% according to the club’s website. The main disappointment came from the centerbacks. Rondon outjumped Koscielny in the 51st only to head Brunt’s cross wide. Then Robson-Kanu got ahead of Mustafi to take Brunt’s pass in the 67th but was denied by Ospina.

Our defenders were a bit more exposed than usual because our midfield was again too soft. I thought the Baggies too easily reached the final third the few times they led counterattacks. Nyom ran past Xhaka, Bellerin and Mustafi in the fifth minute to square the ball back for Rondon, who couldn’t make contact with the offering for a tap-in. Then Brunt fed McClean, whose angled strike was parried by Cech in the 12th. Chadli also led a fast break in the 31st to pick out Rondon, who dragged his shot wide.

Targeting Sanchez

While we have struggled to keep clean sheets this season, another concern is the team’s lack of ideas. The Gunners enjoyed 77% of ball possession but only produced 2 shots on target compared to 8 for West Brom. A more shocking stat is that the Baggies had 3 accurate through balls compared to just one for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. Ozil was not in the squad because he picked up a knock in training. The quality of his final ball would have maybe made a difference in that kind of game.

Walcott was invisible at the Hawthorns. He had no shot and no key pass, made no dribble and no interception, and won no tackle and no aerial duel. His limited passing and dribbling skills became all the more obvious that the West Brom defense sat deep to give him no space to run into. The manager yanked Walcott off in the 65th to send on Giroud. Welbeck got the nod over Giroud to lead the line but lacked decent service. His only scoring chance came in the 65th when he met a corner from Xhaka for a header that crashed against the bar. Welbeck showed more end product than Walcott by finishing the game with 2 key passes.

Besides Monreal, the only Gunner who performed at a good level was Sanchez. The Chile striker chested down a cross from Xhaka in the 15th to fire into the roof of the net for his 18th league goal this season. Sanchez also slipped a through ball to Ramsey, who forced Foster into a diving save in the 33rd. He was replaced by Iwobi in the 78th because of an ankle injury suffered in the first half.

The Baggies felt Sanchez was the main threat and targeted him. McAuley made a cynical foul on Sanchez in the 19th. Then Livermore pulled Sanchez back and clipped his leg in the 23rd but no foul was given. Rondon killed a counterattack in the 27th by fouling Sanchez and landing on his back with his knee. It could have been a yellow card but the referee only awarded a free kick.

The board’s passivity

If Oliver had been the referee, he would have warned West Brom about repetitive fouling like he did with Manchester United against Chelsea in the FA Cup. Unfortunately, the Gunners had to deal with a referee, Swarbrick, who didn’t seem to care much about the players’ physical integrity. So I wasn’t really surprised when McClean damaged Sanchez’s ankle with a late tackle in the 42nd. The Irish winger received a yellow card but it could have been a sending-off, especially when you compare with Xhaka’s red cards. See the screen capture below.

West Brom vs. Arsenal Sky editedMcClean makes a late studs-up tackle that could have broken Sanchez’s leg. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal’s collective expression was really poor. You have to wonder to what extent the players are affected by those negative banners displayed by the fans in the stands. Putting pressure on the board is fine, but the way it’s done by the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade is completely wrong. Those banners just create a toxic atmosphere for the team, too. There are still 11 league games to play. A free fall won’t help the club sign new players this summer, especially since Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchesters.

Renewing Wenger’s contract would make the atmosphere even more toxic next season. The board must act to protect the club. Wenger is like a punch-drunk boxer who is convinced he can still win the next round. I believe the manager already had his chances and simply failed to take them. Wenger only signed Cech in the summer of 2015 while a couple more signings would have turned Arsenal into a legitimate contender. Last summer, he tried to improve the squad by signing Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez, but the quality of those players has been questionable. It’s unfair for the most successful manager in the club’s history to get so much stick, but the board’s passivity has made the situation worse.

 

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Old defensive frailties resurfacing in 3-1 loss

What was he thinking? That was the reaction from a lot of fans on Saturday when Wenger benched Sanchez in the first half of the 3-1 loss to Liverpool. In a crucial game against a rival for a Top 4 finish, you would assume that the manager would start his best player. But Wenger didn’t, and the move backfired as the Gunners dropped to fifth place in the Premier League, 2 points behind Liverpool and 5 behind Manchester City.

liverpool-vs-arsenal

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The manager claimed after the game that he benched Sanchez to have more directness with Giroud and Welbeck. That explanation still doesn’t justify why Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain got the nod over Sanchez. In a 4-2-3-1 system, Giroud would have led the line, Sanchez and Welbeck would have started on the wings, and either Iwobi or the Ox would have played in the hole.

I guess Wenger’s game plan was to evade Liverpool’s high press by using Giroud and Welbeck as targets for long balls. That plan had mixed success with Giroud and Welbeck combining to win 4 of 6 aerial duels outside the area, according to Squawka. When Arsenal had the ball, the plan was either to hit Liverpool on the fast break with the pace of Welbeck, Iwobi and the Ox or feed Giroud if the Reds had already retreated in their own half. Unfortunately, the Gunners couldn’t create any chance in the first half because Liverpool quickly closed down to kill any counterattack while Giroud had no decent service. Set pieces are potential scoring opportunities for a player who is strong in the air like Giroud, but neither Xhaka nor the Ox could beat the first man with their corner kicks.

Men vs. boys

Down 2-0 at halftime, Wenger had no choice but to replace the ineffective Coquelin with Sanchez while shifting the Ox from the right wing to central midfield. The team suddenly looked more dynamic. Giroud met a cross from Monreal in the 48th minute for a header that Mignolet palmed onto the bar. Then Sanchez capitalized on a counterattack in the 57th to slip a through ball to Welbeck, who cut the deficit to 2-1 by chipping Mignolet. But in the end, it was too little too late.

The scoreline could have been more humiliating if Cech had not made a couple of fine saves and if the Reds had produced better finishing. The stats don’t lie: Liverpool completely outplayed Arsenal with 14 chances to 6 according to Squawka. It almost looked like men vs. boys in the first half. Wenger claimed after the game that the Gunners lacked rhythm because of the 11-day break between the FA Cup tie against Sutton and the Anfield match. That’s quite a surprising statement from such a seasoned manager. Most clubs play against their own academy teams to stay sharp. The Arsenal U23 side also had a gap in its schedule and was therefore available for a friendly with the first team.

What really hurts in the 3-1 loss is that some old defensive frailties are resurfacing. The opening goal came from a Liverpool goal kick in the ninth minute. Koscielny challenged Firmino in the air but both missed the ball, which was redirected by Coutinho into the path of Lallana. The England international released Mane down our left flank while Firmino sprinted into the box. Unmarked at the far post, Firmino controlled Mane’s cross-shot before blasting the ball into the roof of the net.

Struggling to defend set-pieces

Let’s analyze that goal. The first mistake comes from Koscielny’s decision to go for the ball. Firmino plays like a false nine, often dropping back to be involved in the passing game and create space for his teammates. In that kind of situation, I believe Coquelin or Xhaka should have challenged Firmino in the air. If Koscielny gets pulled out of position, he must be sure to win the header otherwise he’s leaving a big gap at the back. As you can see on the screen capture below, Koscielny’s decision to go for the ball makes the Arsenal defense more vulnerable with a dangerous 3v3 situation developing.

liverpool-a1edKoscielny’s missed header leads to a 3v3 situation. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The second mistake comes from the way the Gunners are retreating. They are all focused on Mane and nobody is paying attention to Firmino. As a result, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are running toward the near post while Bellerin is alone at the far post dealing with three Reds (Coutinho, Lallana and Firmino). If you look at the screen capture below, the poor distribution of resources becomes obvious with the red line that I’ve drawn. This has been a recurrent issue for Arsenal this season: they tend to commit too many defenders at the near post and therefore leave the far post exposed.

liverpool-a2edBellerin alone at the far post vs. 3 Reds. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

This goal is also symptomatic of our struggles in defending set-pieces. Liverpool nearly scored from a Coutinho free kick in the 76th. Matip beat Mustafi to the ball for a tame header that Cech saved. Seven minutes later, Origi got the better of Bellerin to head a free kick against the post. Why was Bellerin marking Origi? Koscielny was marking Matip and Mustafi was busy with Klavan, but Xhaka and Perez, who are stronger in the air than Bellerin, could have dealt with Origi instead.

A soft midfield

Mustafi and Koscielny did not get much protection from the midfielders on Saturday. They had a low passing accuracy of 70.8% and 72.2% respectively because of Liverpool’s high press. Koscielny won 0 of 2 tackles and 10 of 12 aerial duels and made 5 interceptions and 3 blocks, while Mustafi won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels and made just 1 interception and 1 block.

In that centerback partnership, Koscielny is the key component. The Frenchman is the one who made Mustafi look good in the first half of the season. Partner Mustafi with another defender and his weaknesses become obvious like in the second half of the Bayern Munich game. Koscielny was at fault for the opening goal but Mustafi could have also cost his team a goal or two. Mustafi fouled Wijnaldum on the edge of the box in the 29th but the referee played advantage and Coutinho fired a strike that Cech tipped over the bar. On the stroke of halftime, Coutinho ghosted past Mustafi to collect Lallana’s deflected ball over the top and shoot straight at Cech.

Liverpool’s second goal in the 40th really showed how soft is the Arsenal midfield. The ball travelled from our right flank to the left flank, where an unmarked Mane fired a low diagonal strike past Cech. Our midfielders lacked defensive awareness on that play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi failed to track Wijnaldum, who had plenty of time to take Milner’s pass. Then Xhaka was a split second late to close down Firmino, who slipped the ball to Mane. And Coquelin failed to mark Lallana, forcing Monreal to cover him and leave Mane free.

liverpool-b1edIwobi, Xhaka and Coquelin fail to close down Wijnaldum, Firmino and Lallana. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

If one of those three Arsenal midfielders had done his defensive duty, Mane would have not enjoyed a free shot. In the end, Koscielny tried to close down Firmino while Monreal marked Lallana, who made a decoy run to pull the Spaniard out of position and free some space for Mane. See the screen capture below.

liverpool-b2edKoscielny and Monreal trying to make up for the midfielders’ mistakes while Mane is free. (Photo credit: ww.Arsenal.com)

The work-rate from our midfielders is simply not good enough. Coquelin, Xhaka, Iwobi and the Ox made no interception while Can, Lallana, Wijnaldum and Coutinho combined to make 5 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. Lallana rushed back inside the Liverpool area in the 84th to put off Perez, who headed Bellerin’s cross wide. Can anybody imagine Ozil or Iwobi doing that?

Searching for a complementary duo

Cazorla has made Coquelin look good in central midfield but the Spaniard’s absence has exposed Coquelin’s limitations and especially his average positional play. Lallana dispossessed Coquelin to start a counterattack in the 32nd. Two minutes later, Coquelin was booked for a cynical foul on Lallana, who had intercepted a sloppy pass from the Frenchman.

Iwobi finished the game with a passing accuracy of 97.1%, the highest percentage among all the starters. He also won 2 of 3 tackles, more than any other Arsenal midfielder according to Squawka. There’s no doubt that Iwobi has great potential, but at 20 and with a poor run of form, he shouldn’t be in the starting lineup. He still needs to work on his defensive awareness.

Partnering Xhaka in central midfield after the break, the Ox led Arsenal players with 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com. He also led the team with 5 turnovers, which is a bad stat in such a key position.

It’s obvious that Wenger hasn’t found a decent alternative to the Coquelin-Cazorla tandem in central midfield. Injuries and suspensions have not helped the manager in his search. Since the beginning of this year, Wenger has started 6 different partnerships: Coquelin-Xhaka (3), Xhaka-Ramsey (3), Xhaka-Elneny (2), Coquelin-Ox (2), Coquelin-Ramsey (1), and Ox-Maitland-Niles (1).

The manager seems to believe that Xhaka should be the cornerstone of his midfield. But none of the combinations involving Xhaka has really been impressive. Xhaka & Coquelin were terrible against Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Bournemouth. Xhaka & Ramsey produced wins against Burnley, Swansea and Preston but did not provide much solidity. And Xhaka & Elneny did OK against weak sides like Sutton and Crystal Palace. Surprisingly, the Ox-Maitland-Niles tandem has been the most complementary one this year but it’s also the youngest pairing.

Vulnerable to the fast break

Liverpool’s third goal in stoppage time exposed Arsenal’s inability to kill counterattacks. Lallana toyed with Xhaka in midfield and pulled Mustafi out of position with a quick turn before releasing Origi down our left flank. Origi cut the ball back for Wijnaldum, who slotted into the bottom corner to put the result beyond doubt. Origi was marginally offside on that play, but what really matters is how Xhaka was unable to stop the fast break and how Xhaka, Mustafi and Bellerin lacked defensive awareness by letting Wijnaldum run past them.

Xhaka’s relative lack of pace becomes an issue in games played at a high tempo. The Switzerland international won none of the four tackles he made. To a certain extent, he reminds me a bit of Arteta, whose sluggishness prevented him from stopping counterattacks. The Gunners have worked hard to fix that problem since the 6-0 loss to Chelsea and 5-1 loss to Liverpool during the 2013-14 season. But it looks like that vulnerability to the fast break is coming back to haunt them again. You might think that Arsenal threw the kitchen sink in the closing minutes to level and therefore didn’t care about defending, but quite a few times during the game the Gunners were split in two when Liverpool initiated a counterattack.

As I’m wrapping up this analysis, reports have emerged that Wenger benched Sanchez because of a bust-up on the training ground. That makes more sense than the tactical explanation given by the manager in his post-game press conference. It’s not a surprise since Sanchez’s body language has been quite negative lately. The Chile striker has probably realized that he won’t win the league with Arsenal. At 28, Sanchez won’t have many opportunities left to lift a trophy and a departure this summer becomes therefore more likely. Sanchez might be upset but he’s a top professional. He gave everything on the pitch against Liverpool, whereas some Chelsea players hurt their club last season by performing poorly on purpose. Cynics will say that Sanchez is marketing himself to get a raise at his next club. Fair enough.

Injecting competition within the squad

That bust-up also shows that the chemistry in the dressing room is not great. Consecutive losses to Watford and Chelsea must have dealt a significant blow to the team’s morale. But the lack of competition within the squad could be a factor, too. Coquelin, Iwobi, Walcott and Ozil have been automatic starters lately despite a poor run of form. I think the manager needs to give more weight to merit in his team selection if he wants to save Arsenal’s season. That means starting players who really show hunger and are willing to work their socks off.

Tuesday’s Champions League game against Bayern Munich is coming at a tricky time. On the one hand, another spanking would further damage the team’s confidence. On the other hand, it could be a good opportunity to make experiments against top opposition. In any case, the Gunners need to fix their defensive frailties quickly, otherwise they have no chance of finishing in the Top 4.

The Arsenal board must act before it’s too late

How much time does a good manager need to rebuild a squad?

This is a key question that must be taken into account when assessing Wenger’s performance at Arsenal. Two to three years would seem a fair answer. Spurs were a team in sixth place when Pochettino took over in the summer of 2014. Within two seasons, Pochettino turned Tottenham into a title contender. By contrast, two years were not enough for Van Gaal to restore the Red Devils to their former glory. The Dutch manager was sacked and replaced by Mourinho last summer. Maybe Van Gaal would have found the right recipe in his third season at Manchester United but the board lost patience after the club missed out on a Champions League spot.

arsenal-board

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

That kind of task can prove difficult in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. Klopp has almost turned Liverpool into a contender within a year and half. The German manager will still need at least one more season before the Reds become a genuine threat for the Premier League title because their defense is still too porous. In his first season at Manchester City, Guardiola is facing similar problems. The Citizens have lost too much ground in the title race because they have leaked too many goals. You can expect a spending spree from City on defenders this summer.

Wenger is also rebuilding his squad. Obviously, the big difference is that Wenger has been the Arsenal manager for 20 years. The Frenchman has been heavily criticized by the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade for not winning the league since 2004. I think that time frame is unfair for the simple reason that the club was losing its best players from 2006 to 2012 besides reimbursing the cost of the Emirates stadium. In fact, the club is not done yet with the payments for the new stadium. The Gunners have a net debt of 101 million pounds, according to the latest financial results released a few days ago.

Losing the golden touch

If Wenger deserves some criticism, that can only be for the last four years when the club finally had some money to spend in the transfer market. Signing Ozil in the summer of 2013 was the signal that Arsenal could afford to be ambitious again. The Gunners added Sanchez, Welbeck, Chambers, Debuchy and Ospina in 2014, then Paulista and Cech in 2015 and Elneny, Xhaka, Mustafi, Perez and Holding last year.

Should the board not renew Wenger’s contract because many of those recruits have disappointed? You could argue that Wenger has lost his golden touch in the transfer market and is therefore unlikely to improve the squad this summer. For years, the Gunners have been accused of lacking character, leadership and physicality. Despite some significant spending since 2013, Wenger still hasn’t fixed those flaws as the losses at Chelsea and Bayern Munich showed.

Those who read my blog know that I am not part of the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade. In previous posts like ‘What went wrong for Arsenal this season’ (25 March 2016), ‘How complacency is crippling the club’ (21 May 2016), and ‘Reflecting on Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal’ (12 October 2016), I have acknowledged the manager’s historic contribution to the club but also pointed out his limitations in taking Arsenal to the next level, i.e., becoming a genuine contender again.

Clearing the dead wood

In my assessment of Wenger’s contract situation, what has really tipped the scales is the massive overhaul needed this summer. There’s a lot of dead wood to clear and I just don’t think that Wenger is ruthless enough to do it. The manager was too sentimental in 2015 with Arteta and Rosicky, whose contracts were extended although they were past their prime and had fitness issues. Rosicky only played one game last season while Arteta was involved in 15 games but for a total of just 416 minutes.

The club has pretty much become a retirement home by also extending the contracts of Mertesacker and Cazorla. Mertesacker hasn’t played this season because of a knee injury while Cazorla is set to miss the rest of this campaign because of an ankle injury. Wenger values their experience and the advice they can provide to the youngsters. But if you look at next season, it’s two spots lost in the squad.

To me, it’s clear that the manager has mellowed in his old age. When Arsenal won the Premier League in 1998, 2002 and 2004, each of those titles was preceded by a relentless activity in the transfer market. I believe a younger Wenger would have released Arteta and Rosicky in 2015 and Mertesacker and Cazorla this summer.

Issues at the back

If we have a look at what the squad needs, then it becomes obvious that such a massive task is not tailored for Wenger. In goal, we have three flawed players: Cech is past his prime and his slow legs have cost Arsenal two penalties this season; Ospina can’t command his own area; and Szczesny, on loan at Roma, is error-prone and has attitude issues on and off the pitch. At rightback, Debuchy and Jenkinson are not good enough, even as back-up players, and should be shipped out. It’s quite telling that Paulista is the manager’s second choice in that position behind Bellerin.

At centerback, we have six defenders: Koscielny, Mustafi, Paulista, Holding, Mertesacker and Chambers, on loan at Middlesbrough. That’s simply too many players for two starting spots. Chambers is not good enough and must be sold; Holding needs a loan to speed up his development; and Mertesacker will probably act as an informal assistant coach since his lack of pace is a liability when the team plays a high defensive line. If the club had not extended Mertesacker’s contract, there would have been a spot available for Koscielny’s potential successor. Let’s not forget that Koscielny will turn 32 this year and might decline like Vidic did at the same age.

At leftback, Monreal and Gibbs have struggled this season to stop dangerous crosses. Monreal is performing a notch below the level of his 2014-15 season while Gibbs is a decent back-up option but not a starter. I doubt Bramall could be the answer at leftback next season. As you can see, there are plenty of moves required just to improve our defense. It gets even more shambolic when we analyze the midfield and the offense.

Letting Ozil go?

I divide the midfield into three categories: defensive midfielders, attacking midfielders, and all-around midfielders who can both defend and attack. Elneny, Coquelin, Xhaka and Maitland-Niles are mostly defensive midfielders. Xhaka can be an attacking threat with his long-range strikes and balls over the top, but his limited dribbling and running skills force him to be a deep-lying playmaker. Elneny and Coquelin are utility midfielders not good enough to start for a contending team. They are basically cheap versions of PSG workhorse Matuidi. Coquelin has better tackling skills than Elneny but his end product and positional play can be questionable. I have high hopes for Maitland-Niles but he’s only 19. The English teenager can win tackles and has more tactical discipline than Coquelin. He could do for Arsenal what Kante is doing for Chelsea.

All-around midfielders play an important role nowadays because of the emphasis put on the transition game, whether it’s capitalizing on turnovers or stopping counterattacks. On paper, we have four all-around midfielders with Cazorla, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere, on loan at Bournemouth. The trouble is that Cazorla, Ramsey and Wilshere are injury-prone players. Wilshere is having an injury-free season with Bournemouth, but he’s not playing any European game, which makes a huge difference in terms of physical recovery. And the Ox lacks experience in midfield as he has mostly played on the wings under Wenger.

The difference between an all-around midfielder and an attacking midfielder is the capacity to contribute defensively. Ozil, Iwobi and Reine-Adelaide can’t properly defend and fall therefore in the latter category. I wouldn’t mind letting Ozil go this summer, especially if he wants to earn more than 200,000 pounds a week. The cash from his transfer would help Arsenal sign a player with a stronger work ethic and whose game is better tailored for a high press. At 19, Reine-Adelaide is too soft for the Premier League and would need a loan to toughen up. Iwobi has great potential but you can’t expect much consistency from a 20-year-old kid.

More than 10 moves needed

The forward positions are quite a mess. Sanogo and Campbell, on loan at Sporting Lisbon, should be shipped out. The manager has built the attack around Sanchez this season but the Chile international is not the complete centerforward. Sanchez can’t win aerial duels and his hold-up play is poor. If the club can’t convince Sanchez to stay, then Arsenal should cash in this summer and play differently with Giroud, Welbeck or Perez up front. Walcott has decent stats this season but his poor work-rate doesn’t justify a starting spot. And does Akpom, on loan at Brighton, still have a future as a Gunner?

Basically, more than 10 moves would be required this summer to improve the squad and the chemistry in the dressing room. If the board and the management balk, the Arsenal team will be one or two years late in its development because you can be sure that the managers at Liverpool, Manchester United and City will be ruthless in the transfer market.

If the board is serious about finding Wenger’s successor, they must have a shortlist by now. The timing can be delicate for a changing of the guard. No Arsenal fan wants to see Wenger sacked in the middle of the season like Ranieri. By contrast, Ferguson had the perfect send-off but the Manchester United board mismanaged his succession.

If the Arsenal board can’t sign a top manager this summer, then extending Wenger’s contract by a year could be a wise move to buy a bit of time, assuming the Gunners finish in the Top 4. On the other hand, letting Wenger at the helm of the club would be a risky choice if they finish outside the Top 4. The atmosphere could become toxic next season, especially with a polarised fan base.

What the next Arsenal manager must have

There should be at least three requirements met by the next Arsenal manager: he must be good at developing youngsters otherwise academy players like Bellerin and Iwobi wouldn’t have joined the first team; he must have a shrewd transfer policy because Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs; and he must have a good knowledge of European football to help the club go further in the Champions League.

Let’s have a look at some of the names tossed around: Howe, Simeone, Tuchel, Allegri, Jardim, Henry, Blanc, Koeman and Puel. For a club like Arsenal, Howe is simply not good enough. Some pundits have claimed that Wenger was a relatively unknown manager when Arsenal hired him, but there’s a massive difference between Howe and Wenger’s situation in 1996. Wenger won the French league with Monaco in 1988 and led the French club to the semifinals of the 1994 Champions League. Howe has done a good job at Bournemouth but has no experience of European football and has never managed a big club.

Simeone is a popular name although his team plays more defensive football than Arsenal. He won the Spanish league and the Europa League with Atletico Madrid and led the Spanish club to two runner-up finishes in the Champions League. The Argentine manager also showed some flair in the transfer market by signing Griezmann and Oblak and he helped youngsters like Koke and Saul Niguez blossom at the top level. The only question mark is whether Simeone would contemplate a move to the Premier League.

Tuchel is an intriguing name. He has 7 seasons under his belt as a manager in the Bundesliga but no experience outside Germany as a player or manager. Would he be good enough for a club like Arsenal? Borussia Dortmund finished second in the German league last year but has quickly dropped out of the title race this term.

The Monaco connection

Allegri is the bookmakers’ favorite. The Italian manager won Serie A with AC Milan and Juventus and reached the Champions League final with the Bianconeri two years ago. Known as a tactical expert, Allegri shouldn’t struggle to adjust to the Premier League. The only question mark is about his ability to develop youngsters. There are mostly seasoned players in the Juventus squad and the few youngsters learned their trade at smaller clubs.

Jardim has at least one thing in common with Wenger: the Monaco connection. The Portuguese manager is known for his shrewd transfer policy and his capacity to trust youngsters. He built the tightest defense in the French league to lead Monaco to a third-place finish in 2015. Although PSG keeps spending more money than Monaco, Jardim has tweaked his tactics to lead the French league this season. With 2.89 league goals per game, Monaco has the most prolific attack among the top European clubs.

Arsenal fans have fond memories of Henry, but I don’t think he’s ready yet to become a manager at this club. Some pundits might mention Guardiola and Zidane as successful examples of players who quickly moved into high-profile managerial roles, but the circumstances are really different. Guardiola and Zidane had very little rebuilding to do at Barcelona and Madrid, and they also had leaders in their respective squads.

Blanc is available after PSG sacked him last summer. He won the French league with Bordeaux and then PSG, but the comparison with his successor, Emery, doesn’t look good. Emery has trusted youngsters like Kimpembe and Nkunku while Blanc was reluctant to use Coman, who finally joined Juventus in 2014. PSG under Blanc struggled against the top teams in the Champions League, losing to Barcelona and Manchester City in the 2015 and 2016 quarterfinals. The French club adopted a more aggressive approach under Emery and managed to thrash Barcelona 4-0 in the first leg of their last-16 encounter this month.

Becoming a sporting director?

Koeman and Puel have plenty of experience but are outsiders compared to Simeone, Allegri and Jardim. Koeman has a great knowledge of European football but hasn’t managed a big club since a poor spell at Valencia. Puel has probably won more admirers after Southampton’s good performance in the League Cup final but the lack of silverware on his resume, with just the French league title in 2000, could deter the Arsenal board.

What worries me is that there is no football expert on the Arsenal board. That will make the transition even more difficult. Remember, Arsenal hired Wenger in 1996 because Dein, then a vice-chairman at the club, recommended him. The board might be tempted by a clean break, but it was clearly a mistake in Manchester United’s case. The Red Devils felt that Ferguson’s presence would be an additional weight on Moyes’ shoulders. In the end, Moyes got plenty of freedom but the transition was a mess. I hope the Arsenal board can convince Wenger to become a sporting director although the Frenchman believes he still has a couple of years left in him as a manager. Big clubs like Bayern Munich and Barcelona have sporting directors on their staff.