Tag Archives: Premier League

What awaits Emery at Arsenal

Emery pipped Arteta to the post to become the next Arsenal manager. Some fans might be disappointed because Allegri, Luis Enrique, and Ancelotti were on the shortlist of candidates. But in hindsight the board’s decision makes sense. Wenger’s replacement could only be either a seasoned manager accepting that the club could not contend for the Premier League title or an inexperienced manager having everything to prove and willing to work with a tight transfer budget.

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

There’s no way that Allegri, Luis Enrique and Ancelotti could have taken the job for the simple reason that they are used to winning league titles and going deep in the Champions League. If you look at Arsenal’s performances in the past few years and the massive rebuilding job required, those managers would have needed to lower their ambitions. Emery has a more modest profile than Allegri, Luis Enrique and Ancelotti. Before joining Paris Saint-Germain, Emery was a manager at Valencia and Sevilla, two Spanish clubs not contending for the Liga title but fighting for a Top 4 spot.

In the end, Arsenal’s financial priorities limited the hiring options. The board has clearly followed the Borussia Dortmund model since Kroenke took over in 2011. It’s not just about self-sufficiency, it’s also about optimizing the value of the club and ultimately being in a position to hand out dividends. For the record, Kroenke has never put money into the club. In fact, he even pocketed a £3 million consulting fee for two seasons before waiving it in 2016. So nobody should be surprised if the top choices on the shortlist turned down the job. Nowadays transfer funds are a key factor in attracting top managers.

Arteta would have been a bold choice. He has learned a lot under Guardiola and looked like a manager in the making while playing at Arsenal. Maybe Arteta could have succeeded in his first managerial stint like Deschamps at Monaco. Arteta had one significant advantage over Emery: he knows the club and English football. However, the board felt it was a too big gamble and opted for a safer option.

Micro-managing

Emery has obviously more experience than Arteta. He helped Valencia qualify for the Champions League and led Sevilla to three Europa League titles. I don’t think his stint at Paris Saint-Germain will say much about his abilities because the French league is much weaker than the Premier League. Likewise, fans should not read too much into his failure at Spartak Moscow because it’s a completely different culture.

At 46, Emery is young enough to understand and use the latest analytical tools that can help managers in their work. He’s also part of that generation of coaches who enjoy micro-managing. Some Gunners might find that approach a bit intrusive. Emery wouldn’t hesitate to adjust the players’ position on the pitch every minute if that was necessary.

Micro-managing could help young players learn more quickly. Nowadays, youngsters want to know what they need to do in specific situations or even play by play instead of finding out by themselves. Emery contributed to the development of youngsters like Kimpembe, Nkunku and Lo Celso at PSG. He could have a positive impact on the careers of Bellerin, Mavropanos, Maitland-Niles, Iwobi, Nelson and Nketiah.

I definitely think that Emery is a decent choice for Arsenal. The club didn’t screw up like Manchester United did in 2013 by hiring Moyes. However, we shouldn’t go overboard. Emery is not at the same level as Klopp. The Spaniard has a poor record against the top managers. He can sometimes get his tactics wrong. For instance, PSG lost to Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Champions League because Emery failed to anticipate bad matchups: Meunier vs. Neymar and Meunier vs. Asensio. He can also falter in the big games by second-guessing himself. After thrashing Barcelona 4-0 in the first leg last year, Emery decided to change a winning team and replaced Kimpembe and Di Maria with the sluggish Thiago Silva and the ineffective Moura. The move backfired as PSG lost the second leg 6-1.

Finding value in the transfer market

Arsenal’s 2018-19 season will be shaped by what they do during the summer transfer window. Emery must quickly coordinate with Sanllehi and Mislintat to agree on the transfer targets because the window has already opened. Once the World Cup starts on June 14, the players involved in that competition won’t be available for negotiations.

Emery must be aware that the Gunners are stingy with transfers. The Gunners make more money than Liverpool and Tottenham, yet they have spent less than those two clubs in the transfer market. See the spreadsheet I’ve compiled below, using figures from transfermarkt.co.uk.

Arsenal new manager spreadsheet

The Spanish manager had a mixed record for transfers at PSG. He signed flops like Krychowiak and Jese, and gambled on youngsters like Lo Celso and Guedes, while the club’s wealth made the difference to attract stars like Neymar, Mbappe and Draxler. I expect Mislintat to have the last word in case of disagreement.

In the next few days, Emery will have to clear the dead wood and make decisions on contracts ending this summer (Wilshere) and next year (Cech, Ospina, Monreal, Ramsey, Welbeck, Nelson). The future of the club will depend on contract extensions to Ramsey and Nelson. If Emery can’t convince them to stay, then it will be a failure worse than Oxlade-Chamberlain’s departure.

With a transfer kitty around £50 million, Emery, Mislintat and Sanllehi will have to find not just quality but also value in the transfer market. When you see clubs like Manchester City and Liverpool splashing more than £50 million on Laporte and Van Dijk, you can guess that Arsenal will only be able to sign one player if they focus on the big names.

Breaking the vicious circle

In terms of net spending, Liverpool and Tottenham have done a much better job than Arsenal in the transfer market. The Reds and Spurs have only lost £20 million per year while the Gunners have averaged a loss of £44 million every year. The main reason for that difference is that the Gunners have signed average players for the same positions in the past few years. Another reason is that Spurs have found value in the transfer market while the Reds have bought quality.

Sure, Tottenham had a few flops like Janssen, Llorente and Sissoko, but they only spent £14.4m on Alderweireld, £4.41m on Trippier, £4.50m on Dier, £12.96m on Wanyama, and £5.97m on Alli. Likewise, Liverpool made mistakes in the transfer market by signing Benteke and Markovic, but they also built the backbone of their team by spending £36.90m on Firmino, £37.80m on Salah, £37.08m on Mane, £70.92m on Van Dijk, £24.75m on Wijnaldum, £4.41m on Gomez and £8.10m on Robertson.

The comparison between Arsenal and those two clubs really hurts. The Gunners are still looking for the elusive ballwinner who will shield the defense despite spending £40.5m on Xhaka and £11.25m on Elneny. The Reds have Henderson and Can to do that job while Spurs can rely on Dier and Wanyama. At the back, the Gunners still desperately need a commanding defender despite spending £36.9m on Mustafi, £18.21m on Chambers and £13.5m on Paulista. None of them can match the level of a Van Dijk, Alderweireld or Sanchez.

The Gunners must break that vicious circle this summer and stop signing average players who won’t solve the team’s problems. Otherwise the club will be throwing money out the window again and will have to wait for the next transfer window to have a chance of fixing those recruitment mistakes.

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Huddersfield vs. Arsenal: Gunners play for Wenger in 1-0 win

The last game of the season was about earning at least an away point in the Premier League this year. The Gunners made Wenger proud by edging Huddersfield Town 1-0 on Sunday. The crowd at the John Smith’s stadium even gave the French manager a standing ovation after 22 minutes as an acknowledgement for his 22 years at the helm of Arsenal.

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

Ironically, the scoreline was the complete opposite of Arsenal’s season. The Gunners finished in 6th place with 63 points, the lowest total in the Wenger era. They also conceded 51 goals, 24 more than Manchester City, for the worst defensive record under Wenger. The only consolation was the number of goals scored (74), which was the same as Spurs’ tally and more than Manchester United (68) and Chelsea (62).

The Terriers were the more threatening team with 18 shots to 9 for Arsenal, but they simply lacked a Mahrez or a Vardy to convert their chances. Huddersfield did a lot of damage in the air, winning 10 more aerial duels than the Gunners. The Terriers also disrupted Arsenal’s passing game by pressing high up the pitch, making 24 interceptions to 7 for the visitors, according to the club’s website. The Gunners will need to sign a ballwinner this summer if they want to improve those stats.

Aubameyang scored the winning goal in the 38th minute by sliding home a pass from Ramsey. Credit must also be given to Lacazette, who played a one-two with Mkhitaryan before finding Ramsey inside the area. Lacazette could have doubled the lead in the 80th. The France striker took a pass from Mkhitaryan only to have his chip attempt well read by Lossl. A minute later, Welbeck, who had replaced Aubameyang in the 67th, dribbled past 2 Terriers but was denied by Lossl.

Turnover machines

Without Ozil, the Gunners’ passing game was poor. Huddersfield forward Pritchard made as many key passes (5) as the entire Arsenal team. The awkwardness of Ramsey and Mkhitaryan didn’t help. Ramsey and Mkhitaryan led all players with 7 and 6 turnovers, respectively, and their passing accuracy dipped to 71 and 73%, according to whoscored.com.

Like in the Leicester game, the Gunners wasted some good situations with a poor final ball. Ramsey missed his through ball for Lacazette in the 17th and for Welbeck in the 74th, Aubameyang’s pass for Kolasinac in the 52nd ran out of play, and the Huddersfield defense intercepted Welbeck’s final ball for Lacazette in the 77th. Before Aubameyang’s goal, Arsenal’s only scoring chance came from a set piece in the 27th when Mustafi redirected a corner toward Kolasinac, who flicked wide from 6 yards.

In the No. 10 role, Iwobi produced another disappointing performance. He made only 1 key pass and showed some poor work-rate with 0 tackle and 0 interception. By contrast, Ramsey won 3 tackles, according to whoscored.com. You don’t expect Iwobi to read the game like Ozil, but there are some basics that a player should master in his third Premier League season. Why does he keep running into traffic even though he doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Salah or a Sane? Iwobi foolishly took on 3 Terriers in the 53rd and lost possession. The turnover led to a Huddersfield counterattack and ultimately a corner.

Not learning from mistakes

Mounie gave the Arsenal defense a hard time in the air. The Huddersfield striker led all players with 9 aerial duels won, according to whoscored.com. He met a cross from Hadergjonaj in the third minute for a header that Ospina saved. Two minutes later, he headed a corner goalward but Xhaka knocked the ball off the line. Mkhitaryan made the mistake of not blocking Mounie’s run while Holding lost the key duel in the air. With some clinical finishing, Mounie could have notched a hat trick in the first half. Pritchard beat the offside trap to collect a long ball in the 11th. He slipped a reverse pass to an unmarked Mounie, who blazed over the bar. Xhaka failed to track Mounie on that play.

The pair of Arsenal centerbacks didn’t produce a convincing performance. Mounie often got the better of Mustafi in the air. Ince also skipped past Mustafi in the 60th to fire a diagonal strike that Ospina palmed behind. Holding made some glaring mistakes as bad as Mavropanos a few days ago. The English defender was dispossessed by Mounie on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 48th. Then Holding was a split second late in the 65th and fouled Mounie almost as the last defender.

Trying to protect his team’s lead, Wenger sent on Maitland-Niles for Iwobi in the 72nd. That move nearly backfired. Matiland-Niles forgot to track Mooy inside the area in the 88th and the Huddersfield midfielder rattled the bar with a volley on the turn. In stoppage time, Maitland-Niles gave away a dangerous free kick by fouling Lowe. Depoitre connected with Mooy’s free kick for a downward header that Ospina kept out. Ospina couldn’t make a clean catch but reacted quickly enough to gather the ball at his second attempt.

A new manager by the end of May?

The next Arsenal manager can definitely rely on Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ramsey to score goals. If he intends to use a 4-3-3 formation, Lacazette would have to play as a false winger like Salah at Liverpool. But if he opts for a 4-4-2 system with Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front two, then signing a ballwinner this summer should be a top priority to protect the back four.

I haven’t mentioned Mkhitaryan and Ozil for different reasons. Mkhitaryan has struck a good understanding with Ramsey and Aubameyang within a few months, but he has a high turnover rate, he is still adapting to a new club, and his stats are not as good as Ramsey’s or Lacazette’s. Meanwhile, Ozil is a world-class player but he’s unreliable, especially since he got a pay rise. Some of his injuries or illnesses are a complete mystery for the fans.

Here are the stats for Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey, Ozil and Mkhitaryan in the Premier League this season: Aubameyang 10 goals and 4 assists in 13 games for an average of 1.08 goal or assist per game; Lacazette 14 goals and 4 assists in 32 games (0.56); Ramsey 7 goals and 8 assists in 24 games (0.63); Ozil 4 goals and 8 assists in 26 games (0.46); Mkhitaryan 3 goals and 9 assists in 26 games (0.46).

At the back, the next manager will have a massive rebuilding job. There is no solution from within. Even with better coaching, there’s no way that Chambers, Holding and Mavropanos could become as good as Koscielny in his prime. That means finding the solution in the transfer market. And that’s why the board must appoint a new manager by the end of May. If they wait until June, it will be too late to act in the transfer market.

Leicester vs. Arsenal: Mavropanos learns the hard way in 3-1 loss

At some stage, it had to happen. Mavropanos performed well against Manchester United and Burnley, but on Wednesday he paid a hefty price for his first glaring mistake in an Arsenal shirt. The 3-1 loss at Leicester City was a reminder that the 20-year-old defender still has a lot to learn.

Leicester vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made 4 changes to the side that routed Burnley 5-0 last weekend with Holding, Maitland-Niles, Ramsey and Welbeck replacing Chambers, Bellerin, Wilshere and Lacazette in the starting lineup. Because it was the third game in a 7-day span, it made sense to rotate and inject some freshness into the team. Bellerin, Monreal, Chambers, Wilshere and Lacazette were given the day off while the manager kept experimenting at the back by leaving Mustafi on the bench and starting Mavropanos alongside Holding in the heart of the defense.

Despite Mavropanos’ red card in the 15th minute, the Gunners still finished with 60% of ball possession in a 4-4-1 system with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi on the wings and Aubameyang on his own up front. Leicester capitalized on its numerical superiority to find more space on the fast break and could have won by a bigger margin if Cech had not pulled off some fine saves.

Mavropanos showed good composure and smart decision-making in his 2 previous appearances, but there were already signs that he could struggle in key duels: Fellaini outjumped Mavropanos to head the ball onto the post at Old Trafford while Vokes also got the better of the Greek youngster to head a cross straight at Cech in the Burnley game.

The Foxes’ opening goal in the 14th came from a corner that Mavropanos poorly cleared. The ball fell to Fuchs, who hoisted it into the box. At the far post, Diabate beat Maitland-Niles to the ball to knock it down for Iheanacho, who volleyed home. Mavropanos was also guilty of ball-watching on that play as he left Iheanacho unmarked.

An error-prone defense

A minute later, Mavropanos took a pass from Maitland-Niles and dallied on the ball instead of passing it to Holding. By the time Mavropanos made up his mind, it was already too late as Iheanacho charged down his clearance. Realizing that Iheanacho would be clean through on goal, Mavropanos brought down the Leicester forward and got sent off.

Wenger complained about the call after the game but Mavropanos was the last defender and Holding, positioned on the right flank, would have been unlikely to catch Iheanacho. An aggravating factor for the referee was Mavropanos’ cynical body-check. From the moment Iheanacho sprinted toward him, the alarm bell should have been ringing loudly in Mavropanos’ head. Now Mavropanos knows that he has less time on the ball in England than in the Greek league.

Spectators will only remember Mavropanos’ ejection, but Mustafi and Holding made the same mistakes as Mavropanos. As the last defender, Holding poorly controlled a backpass from Maitland-Niles in the 61st and was dispossessed by Iheanacho. Holding was more lucky than Mavropanos as the loose ball fell into the path of Vardy, giving the Arsenal defense enough time to regroup.

Mustafi came off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 19th. He’s definitely more experienced than Mavropanos or Holding. Yet, he panicked inside the Arsenal area in the 74th. Instead of clearing a teasing cross high into the air, Mustafi played the ball back to Gray, who won a penalty after Mkhitaryan seemed to trip him. Vardy converted the spot kick to make it 2-1. I’ve watched several replays and it’s hard to know whether there was enough contact for Gray to fall down. But Mkhitaryan’s decision-making was poor. He was on the wrong side of Gray, who still had to beat Maitland-Niles.

Walking in Flamini’s steps

The next Arsenal manager may have no power over individual mistakes but he should be able to make tactical adjustments when the team is dealing with long balls. Holding was pulled out of position in the 48th when Morgan punted the ball toward Iheanacho. Holding missed his interception and the ball bounced toward Vardy. In a 2v2 situation, Vardy fed Diabate, whose shot took a deflection off Cech before Mustafi cleared the ball off the line. In stoppage time, Mahrez beat the offside trap to chase a long ball from Choudhury. The Leicester winger, who was played onside by Mustafi, gave Holding the slip before shooting past Cech to seal the win.

   Cech will finish the season with the most errors (6) leading to a goal in the Premier League. However, the Gunners could thank him on Wednesday for preventing the scoreline from looking unflattering. Cech parried an angled effort from Vardy in the 13th, tipped over the bar a volley from Maguire in the 17th, saved a curling free kick from Silva in the 39th and stopped a low strike from Iheanacho in the 41st.

While Mavropanos, Mustafi and Holding struggled to cope with the pace and movement of Vardy and Iheanacho, fullbacks Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles enjoyed mixed fortunes. Maitland-Niles had a decent game, leading all players with 4 successful dribbles and leading Arsenal players with 2 key passes, according to whoscored.com. He also showed some good work-rate by winning 3 tackles and set up the equalizer in the 53rd with a pinpoint cross for Aubameyang.

At 20, Maitland-Niles is proving relatively strong in challenges, but he still needs to improve in those that matter. He lost a key duel on the opening goal and gave away a dangerous free kick in the 37th by shoving Vardy from behind. Maitland-Niles could definitely be used like Flamini in his first seasons at Arsenal, learning the ropes at rightback before moving to central midfield when more mature tactically.

A poor final ball

On the left flank, Kolasinac led all players with 5 successful tackles and led Arsenal players with a passing accuracy of 91.1%, which is unusually high for him. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international nearly scored in the 47th with an angled strike that hit the base of the post. In his first season at the club, Kolasinac has looked more like a wingback than a fullback. His defensive awareness can be dodgy. He left Maguire unmarked in the 17th and forgot to track Mahrez on the last goal.

In midfield, Ramsey had a poor game and led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Because the Foxes are a team feasting on turnovers, the Gunners needed a Ramsey more tidy in possession to control the game. The next Arsenal manager will have to decide which formation can optimize Ramsey’s strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

The Gunners often wasted good situations with a poor final ball. Iwobi overhit his pass for Ramsey in the 10th and 44th, Kolasinac made a cross that sailed beyond every Gunner in the 12th, and Mkhitaryan completely missed his final ball for Aubameyang in the 26th and for Ramsey in the 71st.

Iwobi raised the fans’ level of expectations after his good performance against Burnley. But on Wednesday he reverted back to the awkward player that we all know. There were glimpses of hope in the first half when Iwobi tested Jakupovic with a snapshot in the seventh minute or when he set up Mkhitaryan for a low strike that the Leicester goalkeeper turned around the post in the 34th. But it all went downhill in the second half. Iwobi showed poor decision-making in the 54th by failing to pick out Ramsey, who was ready to pull the trigger. See the screen capture below. Iwobi gave the ball away with a sloppy pass to Kolasinac, who was in a worse position than Ramsey.

Leicester vs. Arsenal M54edIwobi can’t make a 5-yard pass to Ramsey. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Two minutes later, Iwobi ignored the overlapping run of Kolasinac and went for personal glory by firing a 25-yard strike into the stands. Oops! Wenger had seen enough and replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 84th. Iwobi is as inconsistent as Oxlade-Chamberlain at the same age. But the big difference is that you could never fault the Ox for his work-rate. Iwobi made 0 tackle and 1 interception, while Mkhitaryan won 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.

Earning an away point?

Up front, it was a lonely evening for Aubameyang, who was often crowded out inside the Leicester area. But Aubameyang didn’t give up and was rewarded for his perseverance in the 53rd. He met a cross from Maitland-Niles for a first-time effort that Jakupovic parried. However, Aubameyang pounced on the rebound to fire into the roof of the net. Although Wenger has often played him out of position, Aubameyang has quickly adapted to the Premier League with 9 goals and 4 assists in 12 appearances. That average of 1.08 goal or assist per game is much better than Morata’s average of 0.57.

For the last game of the season, the Gunners will need a draw at Huddersfield to get at least a point away from home this year. All the other Premier League teams have managed that ‘feat’. After the Leicester game, Wenger claimed that the squad was good enough to contend for the title next season if the Gunners could improve their away form. Such statements show why the club had to replace him.

Wenger is a great manager but he has become delusional in the past couple of years. Arsenal had no such problem in away games last season, yet they were far from contending. A quick look at the team this year tells you that there are holes in at least 5 positions (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, ballwinner, deep-lying playmaker). Wenger has been unable to improve the squad despite obvious weaknesses. The next manager will have to do a better job.

 

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Gunners win 5-0 for Wenger’s last home game

It had to be a beautiful day for Wenger’s last game at the Emirates stadium. Burnley and Arsenal both formed a guard of honor to welcome Wenger onto the warm pitch before kickoff. Even Kroenke acknowledged the importance of the French manager in the history of the club by attending what looked like a meaningless game.

Arsenal vs. Burnley

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

Wenger still took Sunday’s match seriously enough to leave Nelson, Willock and Nketiah out of the squad. As a glorious send-off for their manager, the Gunners routed Burnley 5-0 to secure 6th place in the Premier League and avoid playing in some preliminary round of the Europa League this summer. Wenger made 7 changes to the side that lost 1-0 to Atletico Madrid on Thursday with Cech, Kolasinac, Mavropanos, Chambers, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang replacing Ospina, Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi, Ramsey, Ozil and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Dyche has built a disciplined, solid defense at Burnley but once you have faced a wall like Atletico Madrid, I guess all the other teams seem porous.

I hope the next Arsenal manager will use Aubameyang in the centerforward role because it really doesn’t make sense to play him on the left wing. Aubameyang is a pure fox in the box while Lacazette is a second striker. The opening goal in the 14th minute summed up their strengths. Lacazette played a one-two with Iwobi before firing an off-target shot that Aubameyang diverted in. On that play, Aubameyang behaved like a poacher while Lacazette showed off his all-around game. The Gabon striker also scored the last goal by stabbing home a cross from Bellerin in the 75th.

Optimizing the potential of a duo

Aubameyang has performed decently on the left wing. He could have had an assist in the 46th when he squared the ball back to Wilshere, who blazed over the bar from 6 yards. But too often his all-around game is not good enough to deliver a quality final ball. Aubameyang outpaced Tarkowski in the 78th only to overhit his cross for Welbeck. He then wasted a counterattack in the 86th by playing a pass behind Ramsey.

I believe that putting Aubameyang in the centerforward role would optimize the potential of the duo formed by Aubameyang and Lacazette. Aubameyang has electric pace and is more likely to stretch a defense than Lacazette, who doesn’t enjoy playing as a target man, especially in the physical Premier League. The referee should have given a yellow card to Long for a cynical foul on Aubameyang in the 45th. Nowadays, referees are so lenient that Pope could even hold the ball for 15 seconds without being penalized in the 48th. For those who don’t know the rule, an indirect free kick should be awarded when the goalkeeper controls the ball with his hands for more than 6 seconds.

There was a touch of Sanchez in Lacazette’s performance on Sunday. Lacazette scored a goal and led all players with 4 key passes and 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The France international doubled the lead by volleying home a cross from Bellerin on the stroke of halftime. Obviously, Lacazette has developed a good understanding with Bellerin. If the next manager wants to rely on a 4-3-3 system, Lacazette could efficiently play on the right wing. Another tactical option would be a 4-4-2 formation with Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front two, a bit like Henry and Bergkamp in the old days.

Iwobi’s impact in the final third

Mkhitaryan only joined Arsenal at the end of January but he has already struck a good understanding with Lacazette. The Armenia playmaker’s through ball for Lacazette was intercepted by Tarkowski in the fifth minute. They swapped roles later on. Lacazette made a cross for Mkhitaryan, whose first-time effort sailed over the bar in the 33rd. Then Mkhitaryan played a one-two with Lacazette in the 43rd before firing a deflected shot that Pope kept out with a reflex save. Mkhitaryan had no goal or assist, but his movement and creativity gave the Burnley defense some food for thought. He cut inside Westwood in the 55th to curl a shot wide of the far post. In the closing minutes, Mkhitaryan also teed up Welbeck for a long-range strike that rattled the post.

Ozil’s absence because of a back injury meant that the onus for creating chances was on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. You never know what you will get with Iwobi because of his inconsistency. But on Sunday, Iwobi showed good work-rate and end product. The Nigeria international, who turned 22 last week, scored 1 goal, won 1 tackle, and made 2 interceptions and 2 key passes.

I hope the next manager will show as much patience as Wenger because Iwobi is not the finished product yet. Iwobi made poor passes in the final third for Bellerin in the 18th and Lacazette in the 45th. He also cheaply gave the ball away in the 62nd and showed poor decision-making in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had 3 decent passing options with Wilshere, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, but he opted for a speculative shot that Ward easily blocked.

Arsenal vs. Burnley M34ed Iwobi ignoring 3 passing options. (Photo credit: SN360)

However, the main positive from Sunday’s game is that Iwobi didn’t shy away from his responsibilities and definitely had an impact. He led all players with 93 passes, according to whoscored.com, while Xhaka is usually the one with the most passes. Iwobi is slowly improving his understanding with Lacazette. He found Lacazette inside the box in the fourth minute but the France forward was crowded out and dispossessed. Then Iwobi made the return pass to Lacazette for the opening goal in the 14th. On the stroke of halftime, it was also Iwobi who released Bellerin down the right flank for the second goal.

Where does Wilshere fit?

In previous posts, I compared Iwobi to Bergkamp and Anelka. At this stage of his career, Bergkamp would be a better model for Iwobi, who can both make assists and be a goal threat when he plays in midfield. He still needs to work on his finishing obviously. Iwobi has a tendency to either miss the target or shoot in the middle of the net. On Sunday, Iwobi managed to fire into the top corner for a 4-0 lead in the 64th. He showed better composure than in the eighth minute when he rushed and hit a tame shot straight at Pope instead of controlling Mkhitaryan’s pass with his first touch.

Wenger has also played Iwobi on the wings, but his dribbling skills and crossing ability are average. Iwobi has decent pace but he simply doesn’t provide the penetration needed for a winger. So I guess the Anelka comparison no longer works. Especially since Nelson is knocking on the door and could become the Arsenal version of Sterling at Liverpool.

If Wilshere leaves the club this summer, Iwobi would be his natural replacement in midfield. Honestly, it’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in a team trying to contend in the Top 4 race. His defensive contribution is not good enough. Wilshere made 0 tackle and 0 interception. Even the sluggish Xhaka managed to win 2 tackles, according to whoscored.com. Wilshere produced a mazy run in the 54th to set up Kolasinac for the third goal, but we already have Ozil and Mkhitaryan to pull the strings in midfield and there’s no way that Wilshere can match their numbers for goals and assists.

A rare Mertesacker appearance

What do you need to quench your thirst on a hot day? A Kola! The Burnley defense was all over the place in the 54th when Kolasinac took a pass from Wilshere to smash a low drive into the far corner. Kolasinac raised his tally to 5 goals in all competitions this season, but there are still big question marks about his ability to defend. He won only 12.5% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. On the opposite flank, Bellerin struggled defensively, winning only 25% of his duels, but he contributed offensively with 2 assists, making the cross for Lacazette on the stroke of halftime and picking out Aubameyang for the last goal.

Chambers and Mavropanos did OK at Old Trafford. Therefore Wenger gave another start to the young pair of centerbacks. The Clarets were a good matchup for Chambers because Barnes, Hendrick and Vokes are physical forwards with average pace. Chambers tends to struggle against fast players with tricky footwork. The tactical setup also helped Chambers as the Arsenal defense dropped off when Burnley had the ball. A high defensive line would have exposed Chambers’ lack of pace. The obvious drawback with Chambers as a centerback is that the Gunners can’t squeeze the play and the midfielders also have more distance to cover.

In a classy gesture, Wenger yanked Chambers off in the 77th to send on Mertesacker. The German defender was offered the opportunity to say goodbye to the fans in the last home game of the season. As a sign of respect, Cech acknowledged the moment by giving the armband to Mertesacker. Although Mertesacker is not the longest-serving player at the club (Ramsey is), he is a leader in the dressing room and he helped steady the ship after the infamous 8-2 loss at Old Trafford in 2011. The fans showed their affection for Mertesacker by cheering each of his touches.

Winning key duels

At 20, Mavropanos looks more mature than his age. The Greek defender seems to like the physicality of the Premier League. He coped well with Lukaku a week ago and went toe to toe with Vokes on Sunday. The Gunners definitely need that kind of imposing centerback. In the past seasons, they have been too often bullied by Costa, Deeney and other intimidating strikers. The crowd encouraged Mavropanos by applauding him every time he had the ball.

Mavropanos showed good composure against Manchester United. On Sunday, Mavropanos also showed that he could read the game well. He led Arsenal players with 4 interceptions. The only negative in his performance was the 46.2% of duels that he won, compared to 71.4% for Chambers, according to the club’s website. Mavropanos will quickly find out that the Premier League is about winning duels, especially key duels. Burnley’s only scoring chance of the game came in the 49th when Hendrick rounded Bellerin to make a cross for Vokes, who got the better of Mavropanos for a header straight at Cech.

For the last two games of the season, the Gunners will visit Leicester on Wednesday and Huddersfield on Sunday. The challenge for the team is to finally earn a point on the road this year. I still hope that youngsters like Nelson and Nketiah will get some playing time even if the U23 team will face Porto in the International Cup on Tuesday.

In the meantime, the board will have to speed up the interview process in their search for the next Arsenal manager. I assume the board won’t make any accouncement before the official end of the season out of respect for Wenger. But it is crucial for the club to know by the end of May who is the next manager. The summer transfer window is shorter this year and the Gunners have no room for error in the transfer market.

Atletico Madrid vs. Arsenal: A few toughts on the 1-0 loss

Wenger’s last season at Arsenal will definitely leave a bitter taste. The Gunners got knocked out of the Europa League after losing 1-0 to Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their semifinal tie on Thursday. The Colchoneros gave Arsenal a lesson in defending by limiting the visitors to just one shot on target. Now the Gunners have nothing to play for: they have been eliminated from every cup competition and can no longer finish in the Top 4 of the Premier League.

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

The French manager fielded the same team that started in the first leg. There was no surprise for Simeone, who has turned the Wanda Metropolitano stadium into a fortress: the Colchoneros haven’t conceded any goal at home since January. Arsenal never really looked threatening. They lacked penetration to crack a disciplined and compact Atletico defense. Oblak only had one save to make as he turned Xhaka’s long-range strike around the post in the 63rd minute. Defensively, the Gunners struggled to cope with Costa’s physicality and Griezmann’s movement.

  1. Dealing with long balls

Simeone was obviously aware that defending long balls was an Arsenal weakness. That’s how Griezmann scored the equalizer in the first leg. On Thursday, the Colchoneros repeated the trick in the opening minutes. Koscielny relied on his reading of the game to intercept a long ball for Costa in the fourth minute. But two minutes later, Costa ridiculed the Arsenal defense by controlling Oblak’s clearance and bullying Koscielny and Monreal to be clean through on goal. Fortunately, Ospina spread himself to force an off-target effort from Costa.

On the stroke of halftime, the Arsenal defense was all over the place when Oblak hit another long ball. Chambers outjumped Griezmann only to head the ball into the path of Partey, who found Griezmann with a first-time pass. Costa made a run in behind Bellerin to collect Griezmann’s pass and fire past Ospina for the winning goal. Chambers’ header was poor but he also made the mistake of not staying tight to Griezmann afterwards. Bellerin’s positional play was also questionable. Costa had a 5-yard lead over Bellerin when Partey made the pass. By playing in a too advanced position, Bellerin left Mustafi with a too large area to patrol.

  1. The stain on Wenger’s resume

Wenger is the most successful manager in the history of the club but you wouldn’t put him in the same class as Guardiola, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Ferguson, Benitez, Heynckes or even Simeone because he has never won any European trophy. The French manager had his best chances against Galatasaray in the 2000 UEFA Cup final and against Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final. There’s no shame in losing to a Spanish side that won the Europa League twice and reached the Champions League final twice in the past few years. But the comparison between Atletico’s budget and Arsenal’s resources tells you that Simeone has overachieved while Wenger has underachieved.

  1. The missing ingredient

Why did Arsenal struggle so badly to create chances? One reason was the poor quality of the final ball. Lacazette and Welbeck were deprived of service as they finished the game with 0 shot taken. The Gunners only made 2 accurate crosses out of 20, according to whoscored.com. And they didn’t produce any through ball whereas the Colchoneros had 2 accurate through balls out of 3. Starting on the right wing in a 4-3-3 system, Ozil had a poor game with only 1 key pass.

Here are a few plays that could have made the difference with a better final ball: Monreal made a poor cross for an unmarked Lacazette in the 15th; Bellerin overhit his cross for Welbeck in the 19th; and Ozil missed his cross for Welbeck in the 61st.

In a three-man midfield, Ramsey worked hard, leading all players with 7 tackles won according to whoscored.com. Ramsey even created the two best half-chances, picking out Lacazette and Monreal inside the Atletico area in the 27th and 32nd, respectively. Unfortunately, Lacazette and Monreal were both let down by a poor first touch.

  1. Arsenal shouldn’t count on Koscielny next season

Koscielny collapsed to the ground in the seventh minute because of a torn Achilles tendon and was replaced by Chambers in the 12th. It would be foolish from the staff to bet on a fit Koscielny for next season. The France centerback still has two years left on his contract but it could look like the last seasons at the club of Arteta, Rosicky and Cazorla. Mertesacker’s retirement, Koscielny’s nagging injuries and Chambers’ limitations mean that the club should sign 2 centerbacks this summer.

  1. Chambers is not good enough for Arsenal

At 23, Chambers may still have room for improvement, but two flaws in his game can’t be fixed: his lack of recovery pace and his inability to quickly turn. Costa dribbled past Chambers in the 67th to feed Griezmann, whose shot was deflected high in the air. Then Griezmann skipped past a diving Chambers in the 76th only to be dispossessed inside the area by Xhaka. Chambers was guilty on Costa’s goal and he gave away another chance in the 88th with a risky pass for Welbeck that Saul Niguez blocked. The loose ball fell to Torres, whose shot was parried by Ospina.

Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Youngsters impress in 2-1 loss

   A few years ago, there would have been a lot at stake in a Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester United. On Sunday, there was no such tension in the air because the Red Devils had secured a Top 4 finish while the Gunners had already dropped out of the Top 4 race a few weeks ago. In fact, both clubs have set their sights on different competitions: Mourinho wants to win the FA Cup whereas Wenger is still chasing his first European trophy.

Manchester United vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger made 8 changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid on Thursday with only Ospina, Bellerin and Xhaka retaining their starting spots. The manager obviously wanted to give a break to some key players before the second leg in Madrid. You can’t blame Wenger for such a pragmatic approach. Last season, Mourinho also heavily rotated in a game against Arsenal that was sandwiched between the two legs of a Europa League tie.

At kickoff, the Gunners looked like a makeshift team with 3 academy players (Mavropanos, Maitland-Niles and Nelson), 4 benchwarmers (Ospina, Chambers, Kolasinac and Iwobi) and 4 regular starters (Bellerin, Xhaka, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang). The heavy rotation helps explain why they struggled to create chances. Xhaka led Arsenal players with just 2 key passes while Bellerin, Maitland-Niles, Mkhitaryan, Nelson and Aubameyang had 1 key pass each.

Up front, Aubameyang got very little service. His only scoring chance came in the 36th minute when he met a cross from Bellerin for a tame header straight at De Gea. Iwobi was supposed to pull the strings in the No. 10 role but he showed again a lack of end product with 0 shot, 0 key pass, and 0 cross. The Nigeria international can be very frustrating to watch. He can produce one great performance and then look completely anonymous in the next five games. Iwobi will be turning 22 in a couple of days. It’s time for him to show more consistency and maturity in his game.

Vulnerable on crosses

Starting on the left wing, Nelson played with more confidence than against Southampton. The academy starlet had 2 goal attempts and made 1 key pass. In the 15th, Nelson cut inside only to hit a tame effort that didn’t trouble De Gea. And in the 44th, he headed wide a cross from Aubameyang. Nelson is more clinical with the U23 team but there’s no shame for a youngster to lack a bit of composure at the top level. There’s obviously less time and less space in the Premier League. I believe Nelson needs more exposure to such games in order to adjust to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. Wenger yanked Nelson off in the 64th to send on Welbeck, who tested De Gea with a long-range strike in the 69th.

Arsenal’s consolation goal came from Mkhitaryan, who was making his return from a knee injury. Mkhitaryan didn’t look 100 percent fit but he managed to beat De Gea with a low drive in the 51st. Xhaka capitalized on some poor communication between Matic and Herrera to win the ball back and feed Mkhitaryan, who fired through the legs of Lindelof. Mkhitaryan was less fortunate with his other goal attempts: he missed the target in the 20th and curled a shot wide in the 55th.

The Red Devils didn’t look impressive on Sunday but they exposed Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses. Pogba led a counterattack in the 16th and picked out Lukaku, who made a cross for Sanchez. The Chile forward struck the post with his header but the rebound fell into the path of Pogba, who tapped in to open the scoring. Xhaka made the first mistake on that play by diving in, Bellerin made the second by not marking Sanchez, and Maitland-Niles made the third by not tracking Pogba’s run inside the box. Young nearly doubled the lead in the 41st with a cross-shot that hit the woodwork.

Mavropanos’ Premier League debut

Spotting Arsenal’s weakness on crosses, Mourinho replaced Lingard in the 64th with Fellaini, who played as a second striker and proved an aerial threat inside the box. The first warning came in the 88th when Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Martial. Fellaini got ahead of Mavropanos only to head the ball onto the post. Three minutes later, Fellaini outjumped Xhaka to head a cross from Young into the top corner. Arsenal’s defensive organization was poor on that play. The nearest Gunner was 20 yards away from Young.

Xhaka was involved in both United goals. Maybe no Gunner could have done anything to prevent Fellaini from scoring in stoppage time, but Xhaka’s decision-making on the opener was poor. Xhaka also gifted the Red Devils a scoring chance in the fourth minute with a sloppy pass to Chambers. And he was booked in the 24th for pulling back Lingard.

In his Premier League debut, Mavropanos had a decent game. He looked comfortable on the ball and showed good composure. Mavropanos had 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 91.9% compared to 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 75% for Chambers, according to whoscored.com. His only moment of madness was a risky pass in a congested midfield that was intercepted in the 36th.

The staff definitely has some food for thought this summer. Should they sell Chambers to get some cash that will be used in the transfer market? The club has spent 4 years trying to develop Chambers only to see his obvious limitations. Mavropanos has more potential than Chambers. It would make more sense for the staff to invest their time in the Greek defender.

That defeat was a useful rehearsal before the Madrid game. You can bet that Costa will play in the second leg. And the former Chelsea striker is a bigger threat in the air than Gameiro. If the Gunners fail to stop dangerous crosses again, Costa and Griezmann could do a lot of damage. Mkhitaryan’s return from injury also gives Wenger more options for his starting lineup. Ramsey, Xhaka, Ozil and Lacazette will probably start on Thursday, which means that Mkhitaryan, Wilshere and Welbeck should compete for the two remaining spots behind the striker.

Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid: A few thoughts on the 1-1 draw

The Gunners threw away the lead with a defensive blunder in the closing minutes to draw 1-1 with Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their semifinal tie in the Europa League. Arsenal will have a lot of regrets after Thursday’s game: the Colchoneros aren’t that often outplayed.

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

The Spanish side was vulnerable on crosses and spent the second half under siege. Simeone was apparently happy to trail by just one goal as he made defensive substitutions after Lacazette’s opening goal, replacing Gameiro with Gabi in the 65th and Correa with Savic in the 75th. The lack of attacking options on the Arsenal bench was a relief for the Atletico defense. Mkhitaryan is still recovering from a knee injury while Aubameyang is not eligible. Wenger made no substitution, thinking that Nketiah and Iwobi could not bring anything to the team.

What can we expect for the second leg in Madrid? Obviously, there’s no way the Gunners can be as dominant as they were at the Emirates stadium where they enjoyed 76% of ball possession and had 28 shots to just 6 for Atletico. Scoring a goal would be quite a feat: the Colchoneros have kept a lot of clean sheets at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium this season. On the bright side, the Gunners have a good record in the knockout phase with a 2-2 draw in Moscow, a 2-0 win in Milan and a 3-0 win in Ostersund.

  1. Vrsaljko’s ejection was justified

The Atletico rightback earned a booking in the second minute after killing a counterattack with a cynical foul on Wilshere. Then Vrsaljko received a second yellow card for a nasty stamp on Lacazette’s ankle in the 10th. That was just his second foul of the game, but each foul definitely deserved a yellow card.

Simeone was infuriated when Bellerin got no booking in the 13th for sticking a foot between a player’s legs to flick the ball. That was an awkward challenge from Bellerin but nothing as cynical or violent as Vrsaljko’s fouls. In a show of petulance, Simeone punched the air with his fists. The referee interpreted that behavior as dissent and sent Simeone off. In that kind of situation, maybe a verbal warning to the Argentine manager would have been enough.

  1. The Gunners proved incredibly wasteful

Arsenal should have scored more goals on Thursday. Oblak is a world-class goalkeeper but he only made 2 outstanding saves. He palmed away a close-range header from Lacazette in the seventh minute and tipped around the post another header from Ramsey in the 87th. The rest was just routine saves. Arsenal’s shooting accuracy was poor: of their 28 shots, 13 were off target, 7 got blocked and only 8 were on target, according to whoscored.com. The main culprits were Lacazette (2 of 8 shots on target), Ramsey (3 of 8), Xhaka (0 of 4) and Ozil (0 of 2).

Lacazette should have opened the scoring in the sixth minute when he met a cross from Welbeck for a bouncing volley that clipped the post. He also headed a cross over the bar in the 16th and glanced a corner wide in the 69th. Other chances included a low strike from Welbeck that Oblak saved with his foot in the 18th, a miskicked effort from Koscielny in the 21st, a volley from Monreal that sailed wide in the 31st and a header from Ramsey straight at Oblak in stoppage time.

  1. Lacazette is a different beast in European games

Knowing that the Europa League final will be played in Lyon, his hometown, Lacazette was highly motivated against Atletico. Lacazette opened the scoring in the 61st by outjumping Godin and Hernandez to head a cross from Wilshere into the far corner. He led all players with 5 aerial duels won and showed some great work-rate by winning 3 tackles and making 5 key passes. Thursday’s game confirmed that Lacazette is better tailored for European football because it is less physical than the Premier League and there isn’t such a strong emphasis on aerial duels. You would never see Lacazette win so many aerial duels in the Premier League.

  1. A defensive cock-up every week

The Colchoneros’ equalizer reminded the fans why Arsenal won’t finish in the Top 4 of the Premier League: the Gunners can’t defend. There’s a cock-up every week. Last week it was Mustafi, the week before it was Cech, and last night it was Koscielny. In the 82nd, Griezmann chased a long ball from the Atletico defense, got the better of Koscielny, was denied by Ospina but fired the rebound into the roof of the net.

At the start of the play, Welbeck made the mistake of isolating himself. The nearest teammate, Ramsey, was 30 yards behind Welbeck. Instead of taking on 2 defenders, Welbeck should have waited for more support and played a simple pass to Ramsey. When Welbeck lost possession, it was a comfortable 3v1 situation for the Arsenal defense. Because Monreal and Mustafi played Griezmann onside, that quickly turned into a 1v1 situation. Koscielny had an opportunity to kick the ball out of play but he gambled and tried to chip the ball over Griezmann. That was poor decision-making. The ball bounced off Griezmann’s head and into the path of the Atletico striker, sudddenly clean through on goal.

Down to 10 men for 80 minutes, the Colchoneros gave Arsenal a lesson in defending. The Gunners struggled to find space in a compact Atletico defense. In fact, they couldn’t even produce any through ball. The Spanish side’s only glaring weakness seemed to be in the air.

  1. Questions for the Arsenal midfield

The Arsenal midfield will need to work harder in the second leg. The Colchoneros exposed our midfielders a couple of times. Griezmann was able to test Ospina with a half-volley in the 33rd because no one patrolled the edge of the box. Then Partey easily dribbled past Ramsey, Xhaka and Wilshere in the 37th to feed Griezmann, whose snapshot was parried by Ospina.

Ramsey will have to cut his turnover rate for the second leg. He led all players with 7 turnovers, compared to 1 for Xhaka and 0 for Wilshere, according to whoscored.com. Another concern is the midfield’s poor interception skills. Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka combined to make 0 interception compared to 14 for Partey, Koke and Saul Niguez. The Gunners have been obviously missing Elneny’s mobility. They will have to find a solution for the second leg.