Tag Archives: Ramsey

Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Gunners get back in Top 4 race with 2-0 win

The Gunners won the North London Derby on Saturday to pull within a point of fourth-place Tottenham in the standings. Wenger fielded his best lineup to earn his first victory over Pochettino’s Spurs in the Premier League: Mustafi returned from a hamstring injury to play alongside Koscielny and Monreal in the back three while Lacazette led the line with Sanchez and Ozil in the front three.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham

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

Pochettino chose to mirror Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation despite winning with a back four at White Hart Lane in April. In a tense tactical match, the Gunners pressed high up the pitch in the first half before sitting back in the second half to hit Tottenham on the fast break. The game was tighter than what the scoreline might suggest. Both teams had 14 shots each and won 50% of the duels, according to the club’s website. Spurs also made 19 interceptions compared to 18 for Arsenal. So what made the difference? Pochettino took the risk of playing a high defensive line. The Gunners were caught offside 8 times compared to just once for Tottenham. But Spurs paid dearly for the 2 times Arsenal beat the offside trap. The Gunners also had more penetration in the final third with 3 accurate through balls compared to none for Tottenham, according to whoscored.com.

Saturday’s result showed the importance of Sanchez and Ozil in the team. Ozil made the assist for the opening goal while Sanchez netted the second goal. The club has struggled since the start of the season because of their lacklustre performances. Before the North London Derby, Ozil only had 1 goal and 2 assists from 9 Premier League games for an average of 0.33 goal or assist per game. Sanchez barely fared better with an average of 0.38 goal or assist per game. In fact, Ozil and Sanchez were only the 5th and 6th most efficient Gunners behind Kolasinac (0.4), Lacazette (0.55), Ramsey (0.6) and Welbeck (0.66).

What can we expect from Ozil and Sanchez?

Sanchez and Ozil are world-class players. You would expect from them an average above 0.6. To put things in context, Ozil had an average of 0.41 goal or assist in his worst season at the club (2014-15) and 0.71 in his best (2015-16). Sanchez enjoyed an average of 0.89 goal or assist last season and still claimed an average of 0.57 in his worst season at Arsenal (2015-16). Some fans may say that we’ve only reached Matchweek 12 and that the sample is quite small. But top players in the other clubs are already firing on all cylinders. Here are the averages for some top performers before the international break: Aguero 1.38, Sane 1.00, Morata 1.00, Lukaku 0.91, Kane 0.9, Salah 0.82, Jesus 0.8, D. Silva 0.73, De Bruyne 0.73, Mkhitaryan 0.55.

If Sanchez and Ozil keep performing like they did against Tottenham, then the Gunners have a decent chance of finishing in the Top 4. But if they go missing in too many games, then the club should build the team around other players and try to get transfer fees for Sanchez and Ozil in January. France internationals Fekir and Lemar have been mentioned as potential replacements, but it’s unlikely that they would move in the middle of the season with World Cup spots at stake.

Ozil led all players with 4 key passes. He displayed some fine work-rate by winning 2 of 2 tackles, according to Squawka. His movement in the final third also gave his teammates an extra passing option. The Germany playmaker set up Mustafi for the opener in the 36th minute with a pinpoint free kick. Mustafi outjumped Dier and Vertonghen to head Ozil’s offering into the top corner. Pochettino complained after the game about an offside position. Mustafi was maybe marginally offside, but unless you have a video assistant referee, it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it’s a matter of inches.

What’s wrong with a toe poke?

Sanchez produced a good all-around performance with 1 goal, 3 key passes, 5 tackles, and 5 successful dribbles out of 6. It was impossible not to notice his hyperactivity with also 7 turnovers and 5 offside calls, the most for any player in both categories according to whoscored.com. Somehow, Sanchez played a role in the opening goal by drawing a foul from Davinson in the 35th. Ramsey initiated a counterattack by sending a long ball toward Sanchez. Marking the Chile striker, Davinson put his arm across Sanchez’s body before tackling the ball. It was a soft foul just like Monreal’s challenge on Sterling in the City game. But the referee thought it was enough to award Arsenal a free kick, which led to Mustafi’s goal.

The Gunners doubled the lead in the 42nd when Bellerin released Lacazette down the right flank. The France striker cut the ball back for Sanchez, who controlled the ball before firing into the roof of the net from a tight angle. Dier was the culprit for both goals. He’s not a natural centerback and you kind of wonder whether Alderweireld would have prevented those goals. Sanchez was twice in a similar situation in the second half. He took a pass from Ozil in the 76th and dribbled past Dier but was denied by Lloris. The difference with his first-half goal is that Sanchez was on the left side of the area. Instead of shooting with his weaker left foot, Sanchez preferred to open up his body and use his right foot. In that kind of 1v1 situation, you can bet that Romario would have attempted a toe poke. In stoppage time, Sanchez chased a long ball from Coquelin and stayed on his feet despite a poor challenge from Davinson only to be denied by Lloris again.

Lack of lucidity

Lacazette got an assist but he wasted two good chances in the opening minutes. He charged down a clearance from Dier in the fifth minute and the loose ball fell to Sanchez, who played it back to Lacazette. The France striker cut inside only to fire over the bar from 15 yards. The better option was to pick out an unmarked Ozil at the far post. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal Spurs M05ed The pass that Lacazette should have made to Ozil. (Photo credit: Sky)

You would expect better from a player who scored twice in the 2-2 draw between France and Germany during the international break. Lacazette lacked again lucidity in the 19th when Ramsey released Bellerin down the right flank. Instead of keeping pace with Bellerin, Lacazette slowed his run and couldn’t connect with the Spaniard’s low cross for a tap-in. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Lacazette is two yards ahead Dier and Davinson when Bellerin takes the pass from Ramsey.

Arsenal Spurs M19aed Lacazette, circled, is behind the potential offside line. (Photo credit: Sky)

When Bellerin cuts the ball back, Lacazette has lost so much ground that he is sandwiched between Davinson and Dier. By staying too far behind the potential offside line, Lacazette basically put himself in a more difficult position to finish the play. See the screen capture below. If Lacazette had kept pace with Bellerin, he would have had a tap-in from 4 yards.

Arsenal Spurs M19ced Lacazette, circled, is surrounded by Dier and Davinson. (Photo credit: Sky)

On the wings, Kolasinac played a more defensive role than Bellerin. Kolasinac struggled offensively with a passing accuracy of 58%, the lowest percentage among the outfield players, but he kept Trippier quiet. By contrast, Bellerin created that chance for Lacazette but sometimes gave too much room to Davies, who led Spurs with 3 key passes.

Ramsey’s tackling frenzy

In midfield, Ramsey put in a tremendous shift by winning 4 of 11 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. The fact that Ramsey had no goal attempt tells you that he was completely focused on his defensive duties. Xhaka also contributed defensively by making 2 blocks and winning 1 of 7 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels. At times, Xhaka looked like the weak link in midfield. He made a cynical foul on Sissoko to kill a counterattack in the 24th and was booked in the 32nd for an obstruction on Alli. At least, Xhaka controlled his nerves to avoid a second yellow card.

A couple of chances exposed the absence of a natural defensive midfielder in that duo. Eriksen cut inside Xhaka to hit the base of the post in the 33rd. Then Kolasinac and Monreal failed to stop a cross from Sissoko in the 34th as an unmarked Kane tested Cech with a header. As you can see on the screen capture below, both Kane and Eriksen were unmarked on the edge of the box while Ramsey and Xhaka were in no man’s land.

Arsenal Spurs M34edRamsey and Xhaka leave Kane and Eriksen unmarked on the edge of the box. (Photo credit: Sky)

At the back, Koscielny was arguably the best defender, winning 75% of his duels compared to 50% for Monreal and 40% for Mustafi, according to the club’s website. The Arsenal captain also made 4 interceptions and 3 blocks and won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels. Some poor communication between Koscielny and Mustafi nearly cost Arsenal a goal in the sixth minute. Kane cut inside Mustafi only to shoot straight at Cech. Mustafi made amends by netting the opener and blocking a strike from Kane in the 56th.

Hectic schedule

Kane and Alli seemed to lack sharpness and were replaced by Llorente and Son in the 75th. Meanwhile, Wenger tried to protect the lead by sending on Coquelin for Lacazette in the 73rd and Iwobi for Ozil in the 84th. Throwing the kitchen sink at the Arsenal defense, Spurs played more direct in the closing minutes. Dier outjumped Monreal at the far post to meet a cross from Davies for a header that Cech palmed away in the 81st. Then Tottenham capitalized on an Iwobi turnover to launch a counterattack in the 85th. Llorente outjumped Mustafi to knock a long ball down for Son, who volleyed over the bar from 15 yards.

The Gunners next play Cologne in the Europa League on Thursday. They will need to rotate because the Tottenham game was just the first of 15 games in a 50-day span. With such a hectic schedule, there’s a too big risk of injury for players like Ramsey, Welbeck and Koscielny. Another reason for resting key players is the Premier League game against Burnley next weekend. The Clarets are level on points with Arsenal in the standings. The Gunners could lose at Turf Moor if they don’t match Burnley’s desire and commitment. They have turned the Emirates stadium into a fortress with 6 wins from 6 Premier League games. But it’s a different story on the road with just 1 win from 6 away games. The Gunners definitely need a better record if they want to finish in the Top 4.

 

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Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Gunners out of title race after 3-1 loss

   Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Manchester City made clear that the Gunners are not contenders in the Premier League this season. They dropped to 6th place in the standings, 12 points behind the Citizens. If we look at the bigger picture, we can also see that Guardiola has nearly completed his house while Wenger’s house is still missing an entire floor and a roof. It’s true that Guardiola has spent more money than the French manager but Wenger has had more time to build his squad. The Citizens have spent £416 million since the summer of 2016, according to transfermarkt.co.uk, compared to £319 million since the summer of 2013 for Arsenal. Basically, Guardiola has completed his project within a year and a half while there are still holes in the Gunners’ squad more than 4 years after Ozil joined the club.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal

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

There were two surprises in the starting lineup: Iwobi started in the front three and Coquelin played alongside Monreal and Koscielny in the back three. Holding would have been a more natural choice than Coquelin at centerback, but the U23 player had a thigh strain according to Wenger. In the center of the back three, Coquelin had a role similar to Dier at Tottenham. Up front, Sanchez played in the lone striker role with Iwobi and Ozil as inside forwards. I don’t really understand why the manager was reluctant to start Lacazette. Trailing 2-0 in the second half, Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Coquelin with Lacazette in the 57th minute. Lacazette played 20 minutes as a centerforward before moving to the right wing in the 78th when Giroud and Wilshere came on for Iwobi and Xhaka.

In the end, the formation didn’t really matter. What made the difference was the capacity to capitalize on turnovers. The Gunners showed a bit of naivety at times by trying to play the ball out from the back. At least they had an excuse: Arsenal had no natural outlet for high balls with Sanchez as the lone striker.

A tactical surprise that backfired

I guess the biggest disappointment from the game was the average performance in the first half. All of the Citizens’ chances in the first 45 minutes came from turnovers (Sanchez in the 2nd, 42nd and 44th, Coquelin in the 11th, Iwobi in the 18th, Ozil in the 33rd, Ramsey in the 35th, and Xhaka in the 38th).

The Gunners should have performed better for the simple reason that Wenger made 10 changes to the side that drew with Red Star Belgrade on Thursday. By contrast, City could not claim the same freshness. Guardiola made just 2 changes to the side that won 4-2 in Italy on Wednesday with Walker and Silva replacing Danilo and Gundogan in the starting lineup. Yet, the Citizens won 55.1% of their duels, according to the club’s website. It might have been a different story if the quality of the final ball had been better in the first half: Bellerin put too much weight on his pass for Ozil in the 7th while Sanchez overhit his through ball for the Germany playmaker in the 25th.

Wenger prepared a tactical surprise for Guardiola by starting Sanchez as a centerforward for the first time this season. The move backfired as Sanchez led all players with 11 turnovers, 6 more than Ramsey who had the second worst turnover rate in the Arsenal team, according to whoscored.com. The Chile striker was also caught offside 3 times.

In the second half, Sanchez forgot his defensive duties. Silva flicked on a corner toward the far post, where Jesus took advantage of the passivity of Sanchez and Xhaka to test Cech in the 68th. Then a Kolasinac turnover led to a dangerous situation in the 74th. Kolasinac was pulled out of position after chasing Sterling and Silva. Sanchez could have covered Kolasinac by closing down Fernandinho. But Sanchez preferred to stand back, giving Fernandinho plenty of time to pick out Silva. See the screen capture below. The Spain international cut the ball back for Jesus, who tapped home for a 3-1 lead. TV replays showed Silva was offside. Still, Bellerin should have played to the whistle instead of freezing and leaving Fernandinho unmarked.

City M74 edited Kolasinac is drawn out of position as Sanchez is not closing down Fernandinho, circled. (Photo credit: Sky)

It’s easy to second-guess Sanchez after such a defeat. But stats show Sanchez wasn’t the worst softie in the front three. Sanchez made 2 key passes, 5 tackles, 0 interception and 0 block, compared to 0 key pass, 5 tackles, 1 interception and 0 block for Ozil and 0 key pass, 2 tackles, 0 interception and 1 block for Iwobi, according to Squawka.

The reality of total football

When the team has to fight for ball possession, you know it’s not a game for Ozil. It was quite telling that De Bruyne dispossessed Ozil in the 63rd. You often hear football pundits say that Ozil is a creative player who needs teammates around him to do the defensive work. But players like Fernandinho and De Bruyne show that it’s possible for talented players to both attack and defend. In the early 1970’s, Cruyff’s Ajax team became the symbol of total football. It’s no coincidence if Guardiola, who had Cruyff as manager at Barcelona in the 1990’s, shares a similar vision of football. De Bruyne scored a goal, had 5 successful dribbles out of 5, and made 9 tackles, 4 blocks and 3 interceptions, according to Squawka.

While Ozil performed poorly compared to De Bruyne, Iwobi is the one who should be ashamed of his work-rate. Some fans will only remember Iwobi’s long-range strike that Ederson spilled in the 55th or the 50-50 challenge that Iwobi won inside the Arsenal area in the 44th. But they will forget that Iwobi had the opportunity to close down Walker a couple of times in the first half but preferred to stay 4 or 5 yards away from the City rightback.

The draw at Stamford Bridge is sometimes mentioned as a blueprint for a hard-working front three without Sanchez and Ozil. But it was Welbeck’s work-rate that really made a difference against Chelsea, not Iwobi’s presence. In my eyes, Iwobi doesn’t read the game well enough yet to deserve a starting spot, especially in a big game against City. Iwobi had two good passing options in the 76th, but preferred to run into traffic and was dispossessed. See the screen capture below. There’s no doubt that Iwobi has great potential. But at 21, he’s simply not developing as quickly as Alli at Tottenham.

City M76 editedIwobi ignores Lacazette and Ozil to run into traffic. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Arsenal midfield has been a running gag this season. Guardiola exploited the lack of pressure in the hole behind Sanchez for the first two goals. It’s mind-boggling when you know that Wenger played as a central midfielder in his youth and that he developed very good defensive midfielders like Puel and Petit at Monaco. Yet, for years now, Wenger hasn’t been able to find the missing component in midfield.

Xhaka’s lack of mobility

The pairing of Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield is a flawed partnership because they can’t properly defend. Silva intercepted a sloppy pass from Iwobi in the 18th to release Aguero down our left flank. The Argentina striker made a cross that the Arsenal defense cleared into the path of De Bruyne, whose half-volley was parried by Cech. As you can see on the screen capture below, Ramsey is patrolling the edge of the box but is not marking De Bruyne, while Xhaka is sitting too deep, interfering with Coquelin’s defensive duties. In fact, both Xhaka and Coquelin collided on that play.

City M18a edited.jpgXhaka is in no man’s land while Ramsey can’t prevent De Bruyne from winning the second ball. (Photo credit: Sky)

On the same play, a couple of seconds after Cech’s save, the ball was played back to De Bruyne, who exchanged passes with Fernandinho to open the scoring with a low diagonal strike. Xhaka was too far to pressure Fernandinho, while Ramsey failed to stay with De Bruyne. See the screen capture below. Inside the area, Koscielny couldn’t block De Bruyne’s goal attempt.

City M18b edited.jpgRamsey fails to stay with De Bruyne, who plays a one-two with Fernandinho, left unmarked by Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

City’s second goal in the 49th exposed the same issue. Following a long spell of domination from the Citizens, Fernandinho hit a long ball toward Sterling, who beat the offside trap and won a penalty from a Monreal challenge. Wenger called it a dive. I thought it was a slightly more legitimate penalty than the one awarded to Watford for the Bellerin challenge. Sterling definitely went down easily but what swayed the referee was that Monreal did not make a genuine attempt to play the ball. Because Sterling was smart enough to shield the ball with his body, Monreal basically tried to bully him off the ball.

But focusing on the penalty, converted by Aguero for a 2-0 lead, distracts from the real problem. Xhaka failed to close down Fernandinho, giving him plenty of time to hit a perfect ball over the top for Sterling. Then Kolasinac failed to keep an eye on his teammates’ position and played Sterling onside. See the screen capture below. Things can change quickly in football. Kolasinac was the hero against Swansea the previous weekend. A week later, Kolasinac nearly turned into a villain by getting involved in City’s last two goals.

City M49 editedKolasinac is two yards behind the potential offside line as Xhaka fails to close down Fernandinho. (Photo credit: Sky)

City’s passing game and the movement of their players exposed Xhaka’s lack of mobility. While Fernandinho and De Bruyne made a difference defensively and offensively, Xhaka had no positive impact at all. Xhaka won 1 of 1 tackle, made 1 interception and 1 block, and had 0 key pass and a passing accuracy of 83%. Those are weaker stats than Ramsey, who won 2 of 9 tackles, made 1 interception and 0 block, and had 2 key passes and a passing accuracy of 90%.

The Ramsey-Lacazette understanding

Ramsey’s work-rate means that he’s Arsenal’s most valuable player in midfield. But his poor tactical discipline also means that he shouldn’t play as a central midfielder. I believe Ramsey’s best position is on the right side of a three-man midfield or in the hole as a free-roaming midfielder. On the stroke of halftime, Ramsey took a pass from Sanchez to test Ederson with a low strike. Then Lacazette fed Ramsey, who was denied by Ederson in the 59th. In tough circumstances, Ramsey and Lacazette somehow managed to strike an understanding within a few minutes as Ramsey picked out Lacazette, who fired through Ederson’s legs in the 65th to cut the deficit to 2-1. If I were in the manager’s shoes, I would build the team around that partnership because it’s very hard to know what the club can expect from Sanchez and Ozil these days.

On the wings, Bellerin and Kolasinac were so overwhelmed with their defensive duties that Arsenal’s back three often looked like a back five. Both wingbacks made no dribble and had no key pass. Kolasinac was very lucky to get away with a shove from behind on Sterling, who failed to convert Sane’s cross in the 11th. City also did a good job to cut the supply lines between Kolasinac and Sanchez on the left flank and between Bellerin and Ozil on the right.

At the back, Koscielny limited the damage with some smart defending. In a 1v2 situation, Koscielny backed down and forced Sterling to make a poor cross for an unmarked Sane in the 35th. Three minutes later, Koscielny got ahead of Aguero to divert Walker’s teasing cross and force a point-blank save from Cech. The France centerback also killed a counterattack with a cynical foul in the 67th and intercepted De Bruyne’s final ball for Jesus in the 88th.

A North London derby with a Top 4 spot at stake

Koscielny had the best stats of the back three, having a passing accuracy of 88%, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels, and making 5 interceptions and 0 block. By contrast, City’s pressing game exposed Coquelin’s technical limits. Coquelin had a passing accuracy of 65.2%, the lowest percentage of all the starters. On the bright side, Coquelin won 3 of 4 tackles, including one that killed a dangerous counterattack in the 42nd. Monreal’s relative lack of pace proved a liability against the speed of Aguero, Sterling, Sane and Jesus. The Spaniard won none of the 3 tackles he made. At 32, Koscielny is still the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense despite his recurrent Achilles problem. Mustafi would be his natural successor in the squad if Koscielny’s legs let him down, but the Germany international hasn’t proved as reliable yet.

The next game could be crucial in the Top 4 race. The Gunners host Tottenham after the international break. A defeat in the North London derby could leave Arsenal 6 points behind Chelsea, currently in 4th place. The Gunners have shown some serious defensive frailties against City. There’s no way they can win or even get a point against Spurs with another dodgy defensive performance. The result could set the tone for the toughest stretch of the season with 2 games a week until mid-January if the Gunners are still involved in the League Cup.

 

Arsenal vs. Swansea: Kolasinac & Ramsey save the day in 2-1 win

Kolasinac’s attacking verve and Ramsey’s dynamism fired Arsenal to a 2-1 win over Swansea on Saturday as the Gunners pulled within a point of third-place Tottenham in the Premier League. Wenger made no change to the side that routed Everton 5-2 a week ago. The big difference is that Swansea didn’t give as much space as the Toffees. In a 3-5-2 formation, Clement somehow managed to contain the threat from Sanchez, Ozil and Lacazette.

Arsenal vs. Swansea

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

The visitors could have come away with three points but Naughton proved a weak link at the back. The Swansea wingback left Kolasinac unmarked for both goals. Lacazette set up Ozil with a backheel flick in the 51st minute. Van der Hoorn blocked Ozil’s shot but the ball fell into the path of Kolasinac, who fired past Fabianski to level the game. As you can see in the screen capture below, Naughton didn’t want to leave Van der Hoorn in a 1v1 situation with Sanchez.

Arsenal vs. Swansea M51 editedKolasinac, circled, is unmarked while Naughton and Van der Hoorn are double-teaming Sanchez. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

In a fluid 3-5-2 system, Fer should have dropped back to cover Naughton on that play. Quite a few English clubs have adopted a back three since Conte’s success with Chelsea last season. However, the tactical cogs are complex, especially for the wingback position and for the players who have to cover the wingbacks defensively and offensively.

Seven minutes later, Xhaka switched play from the right flank to the left with a long ball toward Kolasinac, who chested the ball down to feed an onrushing Ramsey. With a first-time effort, Ramsey guided the ball into the bottom corner for a 2-1 lead. As you can see in the screen capture below, Naughton made the mistake of following Sanchez in midfield and left Kolasinac unmarked. Then Fer failed to track Ramsey inside the area.

Arsenal vs. Swansea M58 editedNaughton gives Kolasinac plenty of time to control the ball. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The slim lead made for a nervy finish. The Gunners simply don’t have that ruthless streak to finish off their opponents like Manchester City. Arsenal had 73% of ball possession and 17 shots to 4 for the Swans, who parked the bus and waited for counterattacking opportunities. Swansea made 25 interceptions compared to just 8 for the hosts, according to Squawka.

Defensive sloppiness

A week ago, Everton exposed Arsenal’s defensive sloppiness by taking advantage of blunders to score twice. The Gunners put themselves in trouble again with some poor defending. Koscielny slipped while missing an interception in the 22nd and gave Abraham plenty of time to play Clucas in. The Swansea wingback ghosted past Bellerin to beat Cech with a low strike. Clucas perfectly timed his run but Bellerin should have never lost that duel. Then Bellerin lost possession with a poor first touch in the 40th and Clucas pounced on the loose ball to miss the target from the edge of the Arsenal box. On the stroke of halftime, Mertesacker dallied on the ball and was robbed by Ayew, who was denied by Cech.

The Swans came close to doubling the lead in the 52nd as the Arsenal defense was all over the place. Mertesacker blocked Clucas’ shot and Abraham converted the rebound but the goal was disallowed for offside. The back three looked nervous a couple of times while playing a high defensive line. Last season, the Gunners defeated Chelsea in the FA Cup final with Mertesacker in the starting lineup but I wouldn’t feel so confident for the next league game against Manchester City.

Mertesacker proved dominant in the air by winning 5 of 5 aerial duels while Monreal was the most creative centerback with 3 key passes. The Spaniard also led all players with 114 passes, according to whoscored.com. Koscielny was the most proactive of the back three with 3 interceptions but his missed interception in the 22nd led to the opener.

Kolasinac’s hip injury

On the left wing, Kolasinac produced a Man of the Match performance with a goal and an assist. Kolasinac also won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 1 aerial duel, according to Squawka. He was replaced by Holding in the 78th because of a hip problem. I just hope that Kolasinac will be able to fully recover during the next international break. Bellerin had more defensive work than Kolasinac on the opposite flank. The Spaniard was guilty on the opener and also failed to stop a cross from Clucas in the 77th. Abraham connected with the cross for a spinning shot that sailed wide. Bellerin nearly redeemed himself in the 66th with a volley that hit the crossbar.

A lot of fans keep asking who’s the best partner for Xhaka in midfield. Maybe the more appropriate question is: who’s the best partner for Ramsey in midfield. Both players can’t protect the defense. However, Ramsey is a more valuable player than Xhaka because he’s more mobile and versatile. Ramsey produced a good all-around performance by making 2 key passes and 1 interception and winning 2 of 5 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, while Xhaka made 0 key pass, 1 interception and 1 block and won 0 of 3 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels.

In a 10-minute span, Ramsey caused problems for the Swansea defense. First, Ozil cushioned a long ball into the path of Ramsey, whose goal attempt was blocked in the 56th. Two minutes later, Ramsey found the net from Kolasinac’s pass. The Wales midfielder proved a bit greedy in the 61st, firing over the bar with his left foot as he took the ball off Sanchez, who was about to pull the trigger with his right foot. Finally, Ramsey created a chance for Bellerin in the 66th.

One-dimensional attack

Xhaka showed his value last season with his accurate long balls that helped evade a high press. However, English teams are giving him less time on the ball this season. That explains the dip in his passing accuracy as well as the team’s difficulty to set a high tempo. Under pressure, Cazorla could dribble his way out of trouble. Xhaka doesn’t have Cazorla’s mobility or dribbling skills. Against Swansea, Ozil occasionally dropped back to help the team build up plays.

The front three couldn’t replicate the brilliance of their performance at Goodison Park. Arsenal’s attack looked one-dimensional: Lacazette, Ozil and Sanchez were not involved in any aerial duel. That’s the problem when you don’t have a complete centerforward. Henry and Van Persie had pace and could win headers. Giroud has no pace while Lacazette is not dominant in the air.

The Gunners struggled to find Lacazette because of Swansea’s compact defense. Lacazette doesn’t have Giroud’s physicality but he still proved tidy in possession with 0 turnover. His only scoring chance came in the 64th when he took a pass from Bellerin for a spinning shot that Fabianski saved. Since the start of the season, I keep thinking that Lacazette would be more comfortable in the role of a second striker than as a centerforward, especially in the Premier League which is more physical than the French league where Lacazette used to play.

Ozil had a decent game with 5 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 2. The Germany playmaker also won 2 of 3 tackles. In the front three, Sanchez acts like an equalizer because he can both create and finish while Lacazette is mostly a finisher and Ozil mostly a passer. The Chile striker had 3 shots and 3 key passes. That kind of profile will be hard to find when Sanchez leaves the club.

The accuracy of Sanchez’s delivery nearly made a difference on set pieces. Mertesacker nodded a Sanchez free kick straight at Fabianski in the eighth minute while Koscielny missed the target with his header from a Sanchez free kick in the 55th. Fabianski caught a cross-shot from Sanchez in the sixth minute and parried his angled strike in the 41st. Sanchez didn’t score but the fear he instilled in defenders created gaps for his teammates.

Challenging the board

The Gunners next host Red Star Belgrade on Thursday before visiting Manchester City on Sunday. I expect the manager to rest his key players against the Serbian side because the game at the Etihad stadium is much more important. A defeat would leave Arsenal 12 points behind the Citizens. Such a gap would imply the end of any title bid for the Gunners.

Of course, I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the Annual General Meeting of the club. Thursday’s meeting showed the disconnect between the board and the supporters. Most small shareholders were against the re-election to the Arsenal board of Keswick and Josh Kroenke and forced a vote with a show of hands from the floor. Stan Kroenke saved their seats because he owns 67% of the shares and his vote had therefore more weight.

Gazidis tried to quell the supporters’ dissatisfaction with the governance of the club. Citing metrics comparing points with transfer expenditure, Gazidis claimed that the Gunners were overperforming. Rational supporters thought that it was a joke. Spurs spent less than Arsenal and still finished 11 points ahead of their North London rivals last season.

Over the past few years, Wenger has received the biggest share of the criticism. There’s no doubt that Wenger’s powers are waning. The Gunners finished outside the Top 4 last season for the first time under his tenure. But the owner is the one really holding back the club. Finishing fifth in the league and winning the FA Cup is seen as a success at Arsenal while it would be considered an average season at other big clubs.

Kroenke is only interested in the financial aspect of the club. He has no vision for Arsenal for the simple reason that his passion for sport is diluted in other U.S. teams. The club needs a completely focused owner who can provide some guidance and leadership. The best scenario for the supporters would be Usmanov selling his shares to an investor knowing the club and showing more ambition than Kroenke, someone who could challenge the American billionaire and the board.

 

Everton vs. Arsenal: Gunners earn 1st away win to get back in Top 4 race

The understanding between Sanchez and Ozil fired the Gunners to a 5-2 rout of Everton on Sunday. That first victory on the road helped Arsenal stay level on points with fourth-place Chelsea in the Premier League standings. Trailing Manchester City by 9 points, the Gunners are no longer serious contenders after dropping points at Stoke and Watford. However, they still have a decent shot at finishing in the Top 4 as they also sit just 4 points behind Tottenham and Manchester United.

Everton vs. Arsenal

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

Anybody watching Sunday’s game could see the importance of Sanchez and Ozil for the team. They had a goal and an assist each. Through their technical skills and reading of the game, they provide you the guarantee of quality in the final third. Sanchez and Ozil might leave in January but even if the club keeps them until the summer, defensive issues would still prevent Arsenal from contending.

On the other hand, the Gunners would have very little chance of finishing in the Top 4 without Sanchez and Ozil. Optimists will mention the performance at Stamford Bridge last month as evidence that Arsenal can cope without those 2 stars, but that was just a goalless draw, not a convincing win like Spurs’ 4-1 demolition of Liverpool on Sunday or the Citizens’ masterclass at Chelsea and Watford this season.

Clubs usually rebuild their squads in the summer, not in the middle of the season. That speaks volumes for the poor planning from the staff. Assuming the club is able to sell Sanchez and Ozil during the winter transfer window, can you seriously think that the Gunners will sign a top player in January?

Visualizing a play

As football fans, we can only enjoy the moments of magic produced by the understanding between Sanchez and Ozil. In the 53rd minute, Lacazette expected to play a one-two with Sanchez. But the Chile striker had a better idea: he lifted his head up and spotted Ozil’s run inside the box. Sanchez made a pinpoint cross for Ozil, who headed the ball past Pickford for a 2-1 lead.

When Lacazette slipped the ball to Sanchez, the Everton defense did not seem in trouble. As you can see in the screen capture below, Sanchez, Lacazette, Ozil and Ramsey were all man-marked while Keane was free to act as a sweeper.

Everton M53a editedThe Toffes in a favorable 5v4 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

However, Ramsey’s deep run inside the area and Davies’ failure to track the Wales midfielder left Jagielka in a tricky 1v2 situation. See the screen capture below. Keane could not intervene since Ozil made his run in behind the Everton centerback, who also kept an eye on Lacazette.

Everton M53b editedJagielka in a 1v2 situation with Ozil and Ramsey. (Photo credit: Sky)

Sanchez and Ozil produced another moment of magic in the 74th. Bellerin intercepted Vlasic’s pass and found Sanchez, who released Ozil down the right flank with a first-time pass. Lacazette made it 3-1 by converting Ozil’s cross.

The reading of the game is what separates top players from the average ones. As you can see on the screen capture below, Sanchez was literally begging Bellerin to quickly give him the ball. Sanchez had visualized the potential play in a split second and knew timing was key to make it succeed. Ozil was making a smart run down the right wing and could get caught offside if Bellerin held too long onto the ball.

Everton M74 editedHow the play unfolded for Arsenal’s third goal. (Photo credit: Sky)

Ozil showed character after his miss against Watford by leading all players with 8 key passes. The Germany playmaker set the tone early by setting up Ramsey in the third minute and Lacazette in the seventh. There will always be question marks about Ozil’s capacity to shine against the big teams or when the Gunners have to fight for ball possession, but his creativity and technique definitely make a difference against the weak teams.

First start for an expensive trident

Ramsey and Sanchez removed some burden off Ozil’s shoulders by making 4 key passes each. Sanchez tested Pickford with a low free kick in the 16th and was denied by the Everton goalkeeper in the 44th after Ozil played him in. In stoppage time, Sanchez rounded 3 Toffees to drill into the far corner for his first goal in the Premier League this season.

Another oddity is that Ozil, Sanchez and Lacazette started together for the first time. They are the 3 most expensive signings in the history of the club. On paper, it’s also a lot of goals and assists. Ironically, Lacazette’s good integration in the team depends on the development of his understanding with two players who will leave in a few months. Ozil sealed the new partnership by offering Lacazette a goal on a plate.

Lacazette proved tidy in possession with just 2 turnovers, compared to 4 for Ramsey, 4 for Ozil and 6 for Sanchez, according to whoscored.com. In the ninth minute, Ramsey cut the ball back for Lacazette, who showed quick feet to roll away from his marker for a close-range effort that Pickford saved.

At Lyon, Lacazette was the star of his team. It’s a different story at Arsenal, where there is a better squad and more competition. Sanchez and Ramsey had 7 shots each compared to just 4 for Lacazette. The France international might have to tweak his game a bit to adapt to the runs of Sanchez and Ramsey. Players aren’t always selfless like Ozil.

The bull in a china shop

In the previous seasons, Wenger used to shut up shop by replacing the wingers with fullbacks. The new 3-4-3 formation has led the manager to change his tactical habits. When he wants to protect a lead, Wenger is replacing the front three with midfielders. Wilshere was sent on for Lacazette in the 77th while Coquelin took Ozil’s spot in the 82nd. Wilshere played Ramsey clean through on goal in the 90th and the Wales midfielder beat Pickford with a low strike for a 4-1 lead. It was a much better finish from Ramsey than in the 55th when he met a cross from Koscielny to miss the target from 12 yards.

In midfield, Xhaka raised more doubts with a mixed performance. Xhaka initiated the equalizer in the 40th with a low drive that Pickford could only parry into the path of Monreal, who converted the rebound. The Switzerland international also rattled the bar with a 25-yard strike in the 84th. But Xhaka is a holding midfielder and the priority in that position is to protect the defense. Xhaka took a pass from Mertesacker in the 12th and let the ball get away with a poor first touch. Gueye dispossessed Xhaka to feed Rooney, who opened the scoring with a curling shot.

When he’s fit, Cazorla is a better deep-lying playmaker than Xhaka because he’s more mobile, has better close control and can dribble his way out of trouble. Arteta had limited pace and mobility like Xhaka but the big difference is that Arteta was smarter in his positional play. Xhaka fouled Davies on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 76th and Vlasic easily rounded Xhaka on a counterattack in the 24th.

Kolasinac’s lackluster performance

Xhaka led all players with 99 passes but made no shot assist. His passing accuracy (83.8%) was also weaker than Ramsey’s (87.8%). I definitely believe Xhaka is a defensive liability. One solution could be to switch to a three-man midfield with a ballwinner behind Xhaka and Ramsey, but that would imply reverting to a back four. The obvious example is Real Madrid’s midfield with Casemiro covering Kroos and Modric.

On the wings, Kolasinac produced another lackluster performance with no key pass and a passing accuracy of 75.4%, compared to 1 key pass and a passing accuracy of 84.2% for Bellerin, according to whoscored.com. Kolasinac failed to stop Rooney’s cross for Calvert-Lewin in the 26th and let the Toffees dribble past him too easily in the 51st and 53rd. His only significant offensive contribution was a header that sailed wide in the 89th. By contrast, Bellerin showed more desire with a snapshot straight at Pickford in the 32nd and a cross for Sanchez, who missed the target with a diving header in the 83rd. The Spaniard still lacks a bit of lucidity in the final third. Bellerin opted for an angled shot in the 41st instead of feeding Lacazette or Ramsey, both unmarked inside the Everton area.

The Gunners were so dominant that Everton should have never found the net. The opener came from a Xhaka mistake. Arsenal had lapses of concentration a couple of times. Cech dallied on the ball in the 14th and saw his pass blocked by Calvert-Lewin. In stoppage time, Monreal underhit a back pass to Cech instead of clearing the ball. Niasse dispossessed Cech to tap into an empty net and cut the deficit to 4-2.

Ridiculous scheduling

Short on confidence, the Toffees tried to compensate with a bit of aggressivity. Williams was lucky not to get a second yellow card in the 31st for a foul on Lacazette as the last defender. Gueye had no such luck. The Everton midfielder led all players with 5 fouls. He was first booked for a late challenge on Sanchez in the 33rd. Another late tackle on Xhaka led to his ejection in the 68th. The referee was a bit lenient in the 42nd when Calvert-Lewin shoved Monreal into the crowd while the ball was already out of play. Debuchy picked up a shoulder injury a couple of years ago when Arnautovic made a similar push. I thought it should have been at least a yellow card. But then the referee was merciful too when Koscielny stamped on Niasse’s heel in the 86th, giving the Frenchman just a yellow card.

The Gunners next play Norwich in the League Cup on Tuesday before hosting Swansea in the Premier League on Saturday. Honestly, that’s some ridiculous scheduling. I don’t understand how the EFL could give Arsenal only one full day of rest when teams like Tottenham and Everton will have two days of rest and play on Wednesday. There’s a too big risk of injury for the Arsenal players who started the Everton game. I expect the manager to field a makeshift team like the one that won in Belgrade.

 

Arsenal vs. Brighton: Gunners get back in Top 4 race with 2-0 win

The Gunners earned a fourth straight win in all competitions and a fourth straight clean sheet in the Premier League by defeating Brighton 2-0 on Sunday. They also got back in the race for a Champions League spot by going level on points with fourth-place Chelsea in the standings.

Arsenal vs. Brighton

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

Wenger made 9 changes to the side that played in the Europa League on Thursday with only Mustafi and Holding retaining their starting spots. Despite the team’s freshness, Arsenal played at an average tempo and needed a second goal in the 56th minute to start feeling comfortable. A lot of fans were frustrated by the number of passes made to reach the final third. Xhaka and the 3 centerbacks combined to make 390 passes, 34 more than the entire Brighton team according to whoscored.com.

Maybe we are too demanding as fans. When a Mourinho team wins ugly, pundits say it’s how champions lift silverware. In August, the Gunners dominated Stoke but ended up losing 1-0. And two weeks ago, they produced their best performance of the season against Chelsea but could only collect one point. On Sunday, Arsenal led in most key categories. They had 25 shots and 16 chances to 9 shots and 6 chances for the Seagulls, according to Squawka. The Gunners also won 11 of 27 tackles compared to 6 of 25 tackles for Brighton. However, the visitors’ tactical approach allowed them to make 8 more interceptions than Arsenal.

Monreal capitalized on a goalmouth scramble in the 16th to open the scoring with a low strike. Credit should be given to Lacazette for keeping the ball in play. The France international headed Xhaka’s overhit free kick toward Mustafi, whose effort got cleared off the line by Duffy. Bellerin pounced on the rebound but had his shot blocked. The ball fell to Monreal, who fired home from 11yards.

Sanchez’s flash of brilliance

Lacazette could have found the net in the opening minutes. He took a pass from Iwobi and unleashed a 25-yard piledriver that rattled the post. Lacazette is often described in the English press as a fox in the box but he also has this ability to score from outside the area and from any angle. From his 4 goal attempts on Sunday, 2 were blocked, 1 was saved and 1 hit the woodwork. Lacazette dispossessed Dunk in the 34th but could only muster a tame shot straight at Ryan.

In their second start together, Lacazette and Sanchez kept working on their understanding. Sanchez made 2 key passes for Lacazette. The Chile striker is now fully fit as stats reflected his trademark hyperactivity: he won 1 of 2 tackles, had 3 of 8 shots on target, 7 turnovers, 6 key passes, and 4 successful dribbles out of 5.

His flash of brilliance in the 56th led to Iwobi’s goal. Sanchez slipped the ball to Lacazette before penetrating in the heart of the Brighton defense. Ramsey played the ball back to Sanchez, who created space for Iwobi by attracting 3 defenders. With his back to goal, Sanchez played Iwobi in with an outrageous backheel flick. Unmarked, Iwobi shot high past Ryan to double the lead.

Iwobi and his reading of the game

Sanchez took on the playmaking duties because Iwobi didn’t create much. Iwobi had a good game with 3 of 3 shots on target, 2 key passes, 1 interception, 2 successful dribbles out of 3, and 2 tackles made, but he’s not as smart as Ozil in his movement and reading of the game. The Nigeria international mustered a tame effort from a tight angle in the 13th instead of feeding Lacazette. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M13 editedIwobi attempts to curl a shot instead of feeding Lacazette. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Obviously, Iwobi tried to curl a shot inside the far post like Thierry Henry. But he doesn’t master that technique yet and Lacazette, a better finisher, was in a better position to score. Iwobi wasted another good situation in the 28th. He ran 40 yards while leading a counterattack. Reaching the edge of the Brighton box, Iwobi had 3 good passing options but opted for a low effort that didn’t trouble Ryan. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M28 editedIwobi could have passed the ball to Lacazette to his right, to Kolasinac to his left or to Sanchez on the left wing. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Iwobi is only 21, so he still has time to improve. But those situations show the gap between a youngster like Iwobi and world-class players like Ozil and Sanchez, who perfectly read the play and make the right decision at the right time.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey had very similar stats. Although Arsenal dominated ball possession, both midfielders still contributed defensively by winning 3 of 8 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels, while making 3 interceptions and 4 blocks. Ramsey had an off day with 6 turnovers and 0 key pass, but he nearly scored from a counterattack in the 42nd. Kolasinac cut the ball back for Ramsey, whose goal-bound effort was stopped by Ryan’s leg.

Lack of coordination

The Seagulls never managed to crack the Arsenal defense. Their plan was to sit deep and wait for counterattacking opportunities. Yet, their few chances came from set pieces and crosses. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick in the fifth minute by fouling Brown. The Brighton striker headed wide the subsequent set piece. The turning point of the game was probably March’s indirect free kick in the 23rd. March struck the post from 25 yards as no Arsenal defender could block his shot.

Brighton decided to throw the kitchen sink in the last 15 minutes by replacing Izquierdo and Brown with Knockaert and Murray, but it proved too little too late. Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Gross in the 84th. Murray got ahead of Mustafi to meet the cross but headed wide. Three minutes later, Mustafi nearly headed into his own net another teasing cross from Gross.

In the first half, Kolasinac was in trouble because of March’s runs in behind. A lack of coordination left Monreal in a 1v2 situation in the 19th. March got the better of Monreal to make a cross that Mustafi cleared. Three minutes later, Kolasinac made a stupid foul on Propper and the subsequent set piece led to March’s scoring chance. Kolasinac was more solid defensively after halftime. He finished the game with 3 key passes, 1 of 2 tackles won, 4 of 4 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 1 block. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also had a header cleared off the line by March in the 62nd. On the opposite wing, Bellerin had a decent game defensively but failed to create any chance.

Holding’s calm performance

At the back, Holding produced a sober and calm performance, miles away from what we see in the Europa League. He showed his self-control by not making any foul. His stats were as good as Mustafi’s. I still wouldn’t trust Holding for big games against the two Manchester clubs, but he’s good enough against weak sides like Brighton. In the continuity of his performance against West Brom, Monreal scored the opener, made 2 key passes, and led all starters with a passing accuracy of 97%. His passing skills and reading of the game are an asset against teams parking the bus.

Koscielny, Ozil, Welbeck and Coquelin should return from injury after the international break. Those injuries show the need for a smart rotation policy throughout the season. The quality of the bench could make the difference in the race for a Top 4 finish. The next game is a trip to Watford on Oct. 14. The Gunners still haven’t won on the road in the Premier League while Manchester United, City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool have already won away from home. Arsenal will need 3 points at Vicarage Road to prove that they can match their rivals.

Arsenal vs. West Brom: Lacazette nets twice in 2-0 win

The Gunners had no room for error on Monday after the top teams won over the weekend. Lacazette scored both goals in the 2-0 win over West Brom to help Arsenal move into 7th place in the Premier League, 6 points behind the two Manchester clubs, and 3 points behind Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. West Brom 2017

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

The defensive performance in the first half was so poor that West Brom could have reached halftime with the lead. The Gunners were more focused on their defensive tasks in the second half and prevented the Baggies from creating any chance.

After the game, Pulis complained about a penalty that the referee failed to award in the eighth minute for a poor challenge from Mustafi on Rodriguez. Obviously, it could have been a different match with West Brom taking the lead. But then, the Gunners were also denied a penalty in the 34th when Krychowiak held Sanchez inside the area. Pulis can blame the referee but if he’s honest, he should also blame himself for relying on a very defensive 5-3-2 system and shifting to a 4-3-3 formation only after his team was two goals down. Arsenal finished the game with 16 shots and 8 chances to 7 shots and 2 chances for the visitors, according to Squawka.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that drew with Chelsea more than a week ago with Elneny and Sanchez replacing Welbeck and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The team selection was a bit intriguing because Sanchez and Lacazette started together for the first time. They might only play 9 months together, or just 5 months if Sanchez leaves in January, but their understanding could prove crucial in helping Arsenal secure a Top 4 finish.

Spot-kick specialist

Lacazette had a solid performance with 2 of 4 shots on target, 1 key pass, 4 successful dribbles out of 4 and 2 of 3 aerial duels won. He showed his flair for goals in the 20th by heading in a rebound after Foster had saved a free kick from Sanchez. The France international doubled the lead in the 67th by drilling a penalty into the bottom corner after Nyom had fouled Ramsey. Lacazette earned a strong reputation in the French league for converting spot kicks, so it made sense to have him as our No. 1 penalty taker. He’s definitely more convincing than Sanchez and Ozil in that duty. Lacazette could have notched a hat trick, but Gibbs deflected out his goal attempt in the 51st. Then Lacazette missed the target from a tight angle in the 70th.

Giroud came off the bench to replace Lacazette in the 82nd. In a 10-minute cameo, Giroud made a positive contribution with 2 key passes. He controlled a long ball from Elneny in the 87th to tee up Xhaka. Three minutes later, Giroud, released Ramsey down the right flank for a low drive that Foster saved with his leg.

When Sanchez starts, the game usually revolves around him. On Monday, Sanchez nearly played second fiddle to Lacazette, often dropping back to create chances with 2 accurate crosses and 1 accurate through ball. Sanchez played a one-two with Lacazette in the fourth minute but was shoved by Dawson when Lacazette returned the pass. Pulis claimed it was a dive but TV replays clearly showed Dawson putting an arm across Sanchez’s chest. Then Sanchez hit a ball over the top for Lacazette in the 70th. It was a decent start for that new attacking duo.

Ramsey as a free-roaming midfielder

Anybody having doubts about the Chile striker’s desire should look at his work-rate: Sanchez made 6 tackles and won 5 fouls and 3 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka. He also led all players with 10 turnovers, his péché mignon, compared to 4 for Lacazette and 3 for Ramsey, according to whoscored.com. Wenger yanked Sanchez off in the 83rd to send on Ozil, who has been nursing a knee inflammation. If his knee doesn’t heal properly, that means Arsenal could miss their two most creative players (Ozil and Cazorla) for many games this season.

One alternative to Ozil in midfield is Iwobi. Unfortunately, Iwobi is still inconsistent and can lack end product. Maybe that’s why the manager played Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder on Monday. In fact, it’s Ramsey’s position when he plays with the Wales team. He headed Bellerin’s volleyed pass over the bar in the 11th and dribbled past Foster in the 32nd only to have his cross intercepted by the West Brom goalkeeper. However, it was his run inside the box in the 66th that gave Arsenal a two-goal cushion. Nyom basically bumped Ramsey out of the pitch with his thigh. The referee awarded a penalty for two obvious reasons. First, Nyom was not playing the ball. And second, Ramsey had run past Nyom.

Elneny teamed up with Xhaka in central midfield. They did OK offensively but their defensive performance was unconvincing. Both had a passing accuracy above 92%, which means that Arsenal could apply constant pressure on the West Brom defense. Their passing range also means that the team can quickly find the forwards when play is stretched. Xhaka and Elneny combined to hit 10 accurate long balls out of 10, according to whoscored.com.

Some more gruyere cheese

However, their defensive contribution was not good enough. They combined to make only 2 tackles, 0 interception and 0 block. The Baggies too easily ran through the midfield in the first half. Krychowiak intercepted Ramsey’s sloppy pass for Elneny in the 38th and ran half the length of the pitch to make a cross for Rodriguez, who headed the ball past Cech. It took a clearance from Monreal off the line to prevent West Brom from equalizing.

It’s not the first time this season that the Arsenal midfield looks like the football version of gruyere cheese. As you can see on the screen capture below, Krychowiak ran past Ramsey and Elneny before getting involved in a foot race with Koscielny. The Gunners still seemed to have the situation under control with Monreal and Mustafi keeping an eye on Robson-Kanu while Xhaka was ahead of Rodriguez.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M38a editedXhaka is ahead of Rodriguez as the Gunners deal with a 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

Then the situation became critical because Xhaka failed to track Rodriguez while Mustafi made the mistake of helping Koscielny, leaving Monreal in a 1v2 situation with Rodriguez and Robson-Kanu. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M38b editedXhaka loses the foot race with Rodriguez as Monreal is in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

Three minutes later, Xhaka showed his lack of defensive focus by not being tight enough to Robson-Kanu. See the screen capture below. Monreal and Kolasinac did not cover themselves in glory either as they failed to block Nyom’s cross for Robson-Kanu. The Wales international flicked the ball on for Rodriguez, who couldn’t put the finishing touch.

Arsenal vs. West Brom M41a editedMonreal and Kolasinac fail to stop Nyom’s cross as Xhaka is not tight to Robson-Kanu. (Photo credit: Sky)

Stopping crosses from the left flank was an issue last season as neither Monreal nor Gibbs could do a decent job. Kolasinac had a decent game but that’s definitely one area where he could improve. The Baggies capitalized on another cross to test Cech on the stroke of halftime. Following a corner, the Gunners cleared their lines and played the offside trap, which turned out to be a mistake. Krychowiak found an unmarked Gibbs down our left flank and the former Arsenal fullback hoisted the ball into the box. Bellerin missed his clearance and Barry forced Cech into an acrobatic save with a header.

Monreal’s outstanding performance

Mustafi proved again the weak link at the back. He won only 30% of his duels, compared to 58.3% for Koscielny and 66.7% for Monreal, according to the club’s website. The Germany international still has this bad habit of making reckless challenges. When Barry hit a long ball toward Rodriguez in the eighth minute, Mustafi just had to show Rodriguez down the line and keep him off his right foot. Somehow, Mustafi brought down Rodriguez with an awkward block attempt as he thought the West Brom striker would shoot with his weaker left foot while in fact Rodriguez was checking back. The referee either played advantage or simply didn’t spot the foul. In any case, he didn’t blow the whistle. So Rodriguez quickly got back on his feet and fired a low strike that Cech diverted onto his far post. Livermore followed up only to sweep the rebound wide.

Monreal was arguably our best defender on Monday. The Spaniard led all players with 6 interceptions and all starters with a passing accuracy of 93.8%, according to whoscored.com. He also won 2 of 5 tackles, while Koscielny and Mustafi won none, and 3 of 4 aerial duels. His clearance in the 38th allowed Arsenal to retain the lead at halftime. Monreal has definitely benefited from the shift to a 3-4-3 system. He wasn’t strong enough in the air to play as a centerback in a back four and his inability to stop dangerous crosses made him a liability as a fullback.

The Gunners next face BATE Borisov on Thursday. I expect the manager to rest a lot of regular starters because it’s an exhausting trip to Eastern Europe and those who play won’t have much time to recover for the early kickoff against Brighton on Sunday. Arsenal can afford a draw or even a loss in Belarus whereas they desperately need 3 points against Brighton to make up ground in the standings.

 

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Gunners show desire & discipline to earn a point

The Gunners produced their best performance of the season on Sunday to split the points with Chelsea in a goalless draw. Given Arsenal’s poor record at Stamford Bridge in the past few seasons, it’s definitely a good point. Very little separated both teams in a highly tactical match. Chelsea and Arsenal had 8 chances each. The Blues enjoyed 51% of ball possession and mustered 13 shots to 11 for the visitors. But the Gunners showed a bit more commitment by winning 20 tackles to 13 and making 20 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal 2017

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

Wenger has often been maligned for his poor record against Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager. Yet, he slightly outfoxed Conte in Sunday’s encounter. Both teams started with a 3-4-3 formation. But the duo formed by Ramsey and Xhaka got the better of Kante and Fabregas in midfield. At halftime, Conte decided to beef up his midfield by replacing Pedro with Bakayoko, switching to a 3-5-2 system.

Conte has a more defensive approach to the 3-4-3 formation than Wenger. The Italian manager mostly uses it as a counterattacking device. The Blues pounced on a sloppy pass from Bellerin in the third minute to hit Arsenal on the fast break. However, the Gunners quickly retreated and Pedro could only fire a 25-yard drive straight at Cech.

Making the most of a disequilibrium

The problem with Conte’s approach is that it puts a strong emphasis on defensive discipline. Chelsea coped well with such an austere system last season. But we can see the limits of this demanding approach as the Blues have already received 3 red cards in 5 league games this season. Luiz got booked in the 52nd for hitting Koscielny’s head with an overhead kick in a crowded area. In the closing minutes, Luiz overran the ball and fouled Kolasinac with a studs-up challenge. The referee made the right call by giving Luiz a straight red card. As you can see on the screen capture below, the Brazilian defender’s block attempt was a potential leg-breaker.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M87ed Luiz’s studs land on Kolasinac’s shin. (Photo credit: Sky)

By contrast, Wenger’s approach is more messy. His switch to the 3-4-3 formation was not a deliberate choice but a decision by default. He realized his midfield could not control the game. Because his midfield had become a weakness, Wenger tacitly accepted the lack of balance in his team by adopting a system that made the most of such a disequilibrium. You therefore often see the team split in two because the 3-4-3 formation optimizes what happens at both ends of the pitch. Defensively, the Gunners are never outnumbered. Offensively, they are at least 4 or 5 on a counterattack.

Wenger made just one change to the side that routed Bournemouth 3-0 the previous weekend with Iwobi replacing an injured Ozil in the starting lineup. However, there were 8 changes to the team that defeated Cologne 3-1 on Thursday with only Bellerin, Monreal and Iwobi retaining their starting spots. That rotation was crucial to have enough freshness against Chelsea.

Mustafi as the weak link

The Gunners earned their second straight clean sheet in the Premier League. Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi seem our best options for the back three. Chambers and Holding are still too naive while Mertesacker’s lack of pace is a liability for a high defensive line. Mustafi proved the weak link at the back on Sunday. The Germany international had 3 turnovers, made 2 interceptions and 0 block and won only 46.7% of his duels, compared to 1 turnover, 4 interceptions, 2 blocks and 88.9% duels won for Koscielny and 0 turnover, 4 interceptions, 2 blocks and 70% duels won for Monreal, according to Squawka and the club’s website.

Chelsea’s only clear-cut chance came from Mustafi’s poor positional play in the 21st. Monreal and Koscielny both played a high defensive line but Mustafi was caught napping four yards behind them, playing Pedro and Morata onside. See the screen capture below. Fabregas slipped a through ball to Pedro, who was clean through on goal but was denied by Cech.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal M21ed Mustafi, circled, is 4 yards behind the potential offside line as Pedro makes a run in behind. (Photo credit: Sky)

Mustafi also misjudged the flight of Cahill’s long ball for Morata on the stroke of halftime. Morata was about to bear down on goal but Monreal rushed back to beat Morata to the ball and divert it into Cech’s path. Mustafi could have been the hero by heading in Xhaka’s free kick in the 75th but his goal was disallowed for offside.

Ramsey’s mazy run

In midfield, Ramsey ran the show with 3 interceptions, 2 blocks, 3 of 6 tackles won and 4 successful dribbles out of 4. Arsenal’s best scoring chance came from Ramsey’s mazy run in the 41st. Ramsey slalomed through the Chelsea defense only to hit the far post with a toe poke. Sanchez was so excited in the stands that he slapped Ospina’s back a couple of times. The Blues simply couldn’t cope with Ramsey’s movement.

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka outperformed the duo formed by Kante and Fabregas. Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 14 tackles, 5 interceptions and 4 blocks, compared to 10 tackles, 3 interceptions and 4 blocks for Kante and Fabregas, according to Squawka. In the first half, Ramsey and Xhaka got the better of Kante and Fabregas with a mix of zonal marking and man-marking. They had more defensive work in the second half when Bakayoko joined Kante and Fabregas in midfield. Wenger tried to steady the midfield by sending on Elneny for Iwobi in the 80th.

On the wings, Kolasinac was more busy defensively than Bellerin. Kolasinac won 4 of 6 tackles, had 5 turnovers and made 2 interceptions, 2 blocks and 0 key pass while Bellerin won 1 of 1 tackle, had 1 turnover and made 0 interception, 5 blocks and 2 key passes. Kolasinac was signed as an upgrade over Gibbs and Monreal at leftback. Yet, the Gunners still struggle to stop crosses from their left flank. In the 23rd, Kolasinac couldn’t block Moses’ cross for Morata, who headed wide.

Welbeck’s groin injury

Despite his defensive workload, Kolasinac managed to test Courtois with a long-range strike in the 20th and had a shot blocked by Azpilicueta in the 62nd. Bellerin proved an attacking threat down the right wing in the first half but faded after the break. The Spaniard was one of the three Gunners who also started in the Europa League game against Cologne.

Wenger can have regrets about the front three, which underperformed compared to the rest of the team. Iwobi started on the right wing because Ozil had not recovered from a minor injury. The Nigeria international led Arsenal with 3 key passes but also 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. I thought Iwobi’s work-rate was not good enough. He made no tackle, no interception and no block while Welbeck made 2 interceptions and 1 block and Lacazette made 3 tackles and 1 block. Iwobi also needs to improve his spatial awareness. He is not as good as Ozil in finding pockets of space, which explains why his movement is not good enough.

While Welbeck played as a centerforward in the FA Cup final, the manager decided to play him on the left wing on Sunday. Welbeck should have caught the frame from 7 yards in the 16th but he inexplicably headed Bellerin’s cross wide. He also wasted a good situation in the 57th by overhitting his final ball for Ramsey. Welbeck suffered more bad luck by picking up a groin injury in the 72nd. His injury could become an issue because he’s the only forward in the squad who is both pacey and strong in the air.

Worst start since 2011

Lacazette struggled in the centerforward role. His passing accuracy dropped to 53.3% while his teammates preferred to rely on Welbeck as an outlet for high balls. He had two chances in the first half. Bellerin cut the ball back for Lacazette in the 17th. Tightly marked by Luiz, the France international could only hit a first-time effort straight at Courtois. Then Lacazette had a better opportunity in the 41st when Ramsey’s toe poke hit the post. The rebound fell to Lacazette, who volleyed wide from 6 yards with his weaker left foot. Sanchez replaced Lacazette in the 66th but had no real impact in the final third.

The Gunners produced a great performance but I still don’t see them as serious contenders for the simple reason that their options at centerback and in midfield are limited. If Koscielny gets injured, would you trust Mertesacker and Holding to step up? Likewise, if Ramsey is sidelined for a few weeks, which midfielder could be an attacking force while performing defensive duties? Cazorla and Wilshere are the only players matching that profile, but Cazorla is out for most of the season while Wilshere has a dreadful injury record.

With just 7 points from the first 5 league games, the Gunners are having their worst start to the season since 2011 when they collected only 4 points. In the past two seasons, Arsenal enjoyed a decent start with 10 points. Those results mean that the Gunners desperately need a victory over West Brom next weekend. I therefore expect the manager to rest key players in Wednesday’s League Cup game against Doncaster Rovers.