The Gunners suffered a setback in the Top 4 race as they lost 3-1 at Manchester City on Sunday to slip to 6th place in the Premier League, 3 points behind Chelsea and 1 behind Manchester United.
Photo credit: Premier League
Arsenal performed at a decent level in the first half and even had a couple of half-chances to take a 2-1 lead before Aguero scored his second goal in the 44th minute. Maybe it would have been a different story if Arsenal had reached halftime with the score tied. City stepped up a gear in the second half as the Gunners proved toothless with zero goal attempt.
Sunday’s game showed the gap between the two teams. You could say that the Gunners were 2 or 3 signings away from contending in 2015. But now they have to rebuild their defense and clean up the mess in midfield left by the previous regime.
Obviously, the generosity of the Abu Dhabi owner has helped Guardiola build a winning team within 2 years. The Citizens completely outplayed Arsenal, having 12 shots on target to 2 and 18 successful dribbles to 10 while winning 13 tackles to 10 and 19 aerial duels to 5, according to whoscored.com.
Lichtsteiner as the weak link
Emery made 2 changes to the side that edged Cardiff the previous weekend with Iwobi and Koscielny replacing Ozil and Elneny in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager had to cope with a depleted defense as Holding, Sokratis, Bellerin, Maitland-Niles and Xhaka were not available.
Some fans complained about the lack of creative players in the lineup but I don’t think it was the kind of game where Arsenal needed creativity for the simple reason that the Citizens dominated possession. My only criticism about Emery’s team selection was Iwobi getting the nod over Ramsey. The Wales midfielder will always give you more work-rate and more end product than Iwobi.
Xhaka’s groin strain limited Emery’s options in midfield. The Gunners started in a 4-4-2 formation with Kolasinac and Iwobi on the wings before shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 66th when Ramsey and Suarez replaced Iwobi and Kolasinac. City bossed the midfield because Fernandinho, De Bruyne and the Silvas outnumbered Torreira and Guendouzi. But it was on Arsenal’s right flank that the damage was done.
The Citizens identified Lichtsteiner as the weak link in the Arsenal defense and concentrated their attacks on his side. It was no coincidence if all the City goals came from crosses on Lichtsteiner’s flank that Aguero converted from close range. The Arsenal staff definitely made a mistake in recruiting Lichtsteiner. The game is going too fast for the 35-year-old defender, whose work-rate was poor with 2 tackles, 0 block, 0 interception, and 1 recovery, according to the club’s website.
Lichtsteiner made the mistake of running toward Gundogan instead of staying with Sterling for Aguero’s second goal in the 44th. Gundogan found Sterling with a clipped pass and the diminutive winger squared the ball back for Aguero, who tapped in at the far post. Sterling outpaced Lichtsteiner for the final goal in the 61st, making a low cross that Leno could only divert into the path of Aguero, who bundled the ball over the line with his midriff and arm.
Somehow, Lichtsteiner managed to prevent a tap-in from Sterling by clearing a cross from De Bruyne in the 81st. Emery had no alternative on the bench to yank Lichtsteiner off the pitch. Playing an inexperienced Mavropanos out of position would have been a too big gamble.
Monreal didn’t suffer as much on the opposite flank because Guardiola preferred to play Bernardo Silva in a wide position instead of having Sterling and Sané on both wings. The Citizens confused the Gunners a couple of times by swapping positions. An all-around midfielder for City, De Bruyne cracked the Arsenal defense with his penetrative runs. De Bruyne made a run in behind Monreal to collect Bernardo’s reverse pass only to fire wide on the stroke of halftime. Spotting a gap between Lichtsteiner and Mustafi in the 56th, Sterling played De Bruyne in but the Belgium international was denied by Leno.
Mustafi didn’t cover himself in glory at centerback. He miraculously avoided a booking and a penalty in the third minute for holding Aguero, who was chasing a through ball from De Bruyne. Mustafi was then in no man’s land when Aguero opened the scoring. His passing was poor with an accuracy dipping to 71.7% compared to 88.9% for Koscielny. The cherry on the cake was his substitution in the 79th for a knock. Something similar happened when Arsenal got thrashed 5-1 at Liverpool. You kind of wonder if he’s the kind of guy who runs away when his team takes a beating.
An aging Koscielny showed more leadership than Mustafi. In the heart of a weak backline, Koscielny won 0 of 1 tackle and 66.7% of his duels and made 2 blocks, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The France international also scored an equalizer by heading home a corner in the 11th. The Gunners have 6 centerbacks with Koscielny, Mustafi, Sokratis, Holding, Mavropanos and Chambers. It would make sense to boost the transfer funds by selling Mustafi and Chambers this summer.
The scoreline could have been more embarrassing without a good performance from Leno. The German goalkeeper made 9 saves, denying De Bruyne in the 51st, 53rd and 63rd and palming away efforts from Aguero in the 76th and David Silva in the 82nd. It really was one-way traffic in the second half.
Torreira and Guendouzi did their best to protect the defense, but they were simply outnumbered by the Citizens in midfield. Basically, they had to multi-task: fighting for the ball in midfield, covering the fullbacks and initiating plays. Torreira cleared a dangerous cross from Bernardo in the 23rd and made a crucial interception inside the Arsenal area in the 39th. He was unlucky to receive a yellow card in the 39th for a collision with De Bruyne.
Guendouzi can be proud of his performance. Despite his young age, Guendouzi showed great composure and didn’t hide, leading Arsenal players with 58 passes and a passing accuracy of 91.4%. The French teenager managed to match Torreira’s defensive stats with 1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 9 recoveries compared to 1 tackle, 3 interceptions and 9 recoveries for Torreira, according to the club’s website. Guendouzi set up Kolasinac for a powerful strike that Ederson parried in the 39th. The only blemish in Guendouzi’s performance was his turnover in the 85th that led to a City counterattack, forcing Leno to stop Jesus’ low strike.
The biggest disappointment in Emery’s tactical approach was the poor performances from Kolasinac and Iwobi on the wings. They made 0 key pass while Sterling and Bernardo Silva made 4 key passes each. Iwobi’s work-rate was decent with 1 tackle, 1 interception and 4 recoveries in 66 minutes. But he had 2 turnovers in the opening minutes that put his team in trouble.
Iwobi’s decision-making was especially poor in the first minute of the game. Guendouzi slipped the ball to Iwobi as the Gunners cleared their lines. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi only had 2 passing options: a short pass to Lacazette to start a fast break or a back pass to Lichtsteiner. The first option was too risky because Lacazette was surrounded by Laporte, Gundogan and Sterling. Therefore a back pass to Lichtsteiner was the safer option. Lichtsteiner could have then played the ball back to Iwobi along the touchline or hit a long ball toward Aubameyang.
Iwobi has 2 passing options: Lacazette and Lichtsteiner. (Photo credit: Sky)
In the end, Iwobi chose neither of those 2 options. He decided to take on Laporte on the edge of the Arsenal box. Laporte dispossessed Iwobi and made a cross for Aguero, who headed home to put City ahead. The Arsenal defense was completely disorganized on that play and had almost no chance to stop the final ball. Guardiola’s teams are usually known for their intricate passing but that goal (a one-pass play!) was rather a good example of Klopp’s gegenpressing philosophy. Iwobi had made efforts lately to stop running into traffic but Sunday’s game showed that he still needs to improve his decision-making and keep it simple.
Suarez making his Arsenal debut
On the opposite wing, Kolasinac looked lost in the role of an attacking midfielder. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 52.6%, the lowest percentage for any starting player. His poor positional play also led to a mediocre work-rate with 1 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. How Emery came up with that tactical surprise is a mystery because Kolasinac has always been a limited player, technically.
Some Arsenal fans wondered why Suarez, and not Ozil, replaced Kolasinac in the 66th. The answer is very simple: Emery doesn’t trust Ozil in those away games where attacking midfielders also have to fight for the ball. It was also a show of trust in Suarez. Here are some stats showing how hard creative players have to work in the top teams: De Bruyne made 7 recoveries and 4 fouls, David Silva won 2 tackles and made 4 recoveries and 3 fouls, Sterling won 2 tackles and made 4 recoveries and Bernardo Silva hit the jackpot with 1 tackle won, 1 interception and 10 recoveries. Those are the kind of stats that Emery expects from his attacking midfielders.
In his Arsenal debut, Suarez looked a bit sluggish. The Spaniard has only played 257 minutes for Barcelona this season. Suarez had 2 turnovers and seemed weak in duels against City. Obviously, he will need a couple of weeks to fit in the team as the Gunners don’t play like Barcelona. Suarez will also have to work hard if he wants to adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League.
Winning on the road
Up front, it was a frustrating game for Lacazette and Aubameyang, both deprived of service. They combined to have only 1 goal attempt. Lacazette led a counterattack in the 35th and tried to play Aubameyang clean through on goal, but Ederson perfectly read the play and sprinted outside his area to clear the danger. Arsenal tried again to hit City on the fast break in the 42nd when Lacazette dispossessed De Bruyne. Torreira found Aubameyang, whose shot was deflected out for a corner.
The Gunners next visit bottom side Huddersfield on Saturday. A victory on the road is necessary to make up ground in the Top 4 race. Dropping points against the Terriers would deal a bad blow to any hope of a Top 4 finish. Then Arsenal would need victories in the home games against Southampton and Bournemouth at the end of February before the decisive games against Tottenham and Manchester United in early March.