Tag Archives: Ramsey

Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Lichtsteiner showing his age in 3-1 loss

   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.

Manchester City vs. ArsenalPhoto 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.

Mustafi’s luck

   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.

Guendouzi’s composure

   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.

Broken wings

   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.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal M1 edited.jpgIwobi 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.  

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Arsenal vs. Cardiff: Gunners grind out 2-1 win to move into 4th

   Any win will do. Aubameyang and Lacazette scored in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Cardiff as Arsenal went level on points with Chelsea in the Premier League while moving two points clear of Manchester United.

arsenal vs. cardiffPhoto credit: Premier League

   The Gunners performed poorly in the first half, lacking urgency, width and penetration. When they managed to have some good situations, their final ball was not accurate enough. Cardiff had a couple of half-chances and could have reached halftime with the lead. But the absence of a decent finisher penalized the visitors. The Bluebirds finished the game with 19 shots to 15 for Arsenal but just two of their goal attempts were on target.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that got knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United with only Kolasinac, Torreira, Lacazette and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. The Spanish manager had to improvise at the back because of injuries to Maitland-Niles, Koscielny, Sokratis, Bellerin and Holding. Monreal played in the centerback position alongside Mustafi while Lichtsteiner made a rare start at rightback.

   The Arsenal team was built around Ozil in a narrow 4-4-2 formation with Elneny, Torreira and Guendouzi shielding the defense. Ozil was making his first start since Dec. 26 when he was replaced at halftime in a 1-1 draw with Brighton. It’s no secret that the Arsenal board and staff want to offload Ozil. Off the pitch, his wages put a strain on the club’s financial resources. On the pitch, his performances are not good enough for £350,000 a week. Ozil notched 3 goals and 1 assist in 14 Premier League games this season for an average of 0.29 goal or assist per game. Those are pedestrian stats for one of the best playmakers in the world. Iwobi has the same average with 2 goals and 4 assists in 21 league games.

The Ozil conundrum

   Managing Ozil has turned into a tough balancing act for Emery. On the one hand, you want to implement your ideas and you need results. On the other, you don’t want to hurt Ozil’s resale value or worsen the mood in the dressing room. Emery opted for the best compromise by starting Ozil in a home game against a weak side. Ozil can be ineffective when he comes off the bench. Most fans still remember his dreadful cameo in the 3-2 loss to Southampton. It’s therefore less risky to start Ozil and take him off if he underperforms.

   Ozil was not influential in his 76-minute performance against Cardiff. He made 66 passes, the third most behind Monreal (68) and Guendouzi (83), but only one was a key pass from open play. On the bright side, there are signs that Ozil might finally buy into Emery’s method. Ozil made 3 recoveries and won 2 of 3 tackles, according to the club’s website. Only Mustafi won more tackles on the Arsenal team. However, I doubt that Emery would use Ozil for a pressing job like the one done by the Gunners against Chelsea. Ozil was dribbled past 3 times by the Bluebirds, the most for any Arsenal player. He was also easily bullied off the ball by Peltier in the 43rd.

   Emery broke the deadlock by shifting to a 4-2-3-1 system at halftime with Iwobi replacing Elneny to provide more width and inject more directness. Iwobi created the opening goal in the 65th by playing Kolasinac in. Ecuele Manga tripped Kolasinac, forcing the referee to award a penalty that Aubameyang converted. Three minutes later, Iwobi played a one-two with Ozil and nearly doubled the lead but Etheridge denied the Nigeria international. In stoppage time, Iwobi was a bit naive as he dived in and allowed Mendez-Laing to cut inside and curl a shot into the far corner. Iwobi has built a good understanding with Kolasinac this season. Yet, that’s not enough to claim a starting spot because of his inconsistency.

An effective one-two punch

   The Gunners are still in the Top 4 race because of Aubameyang and Lacazette. They are the second best one-two punch in the Premier League behind Liverpool’s Salah and Mane. While Wenger used Aubameyang on the left wing, Emery prefers to play him on the right wing or in a front two. By scoring from the penalty spot, Aubameyang raised his tally to 15 goals in the league this season. Aubameyang nearly notched a second goal in stoppage time but Etheridge parried his first-time effort from 11 yards. Surprisingly, Aubameyang led Arsenal players with 3 key passes, all from open play.

   You often hear about competition between strikers in the same squad. Giroud and Morata barely played together at Chelsea just like Aguero and Jesus hardly start together at Manchester City. But Aubameyang and Lacazette look more like the complementary duo formed by Yorke and Cole at Manchester United. Aubameyang can stretch any defense with his electric pace while Lacazette has the all-around game to bring teammates into play.

   Lacazette scored the winning goal with a rampaging run in the 83rd. Tripped by Bamba along the touchline, Lacazette quickly got back on his feet and drove into the box to bury the ball into the far corner. Lacazette then set up Ramsey for a scoring chance in the 85th but the Wales midfielder headed wide.

   Until his goal, Lacazette struggled in the final third. He pounced on a loose ball in the second minute after Etheridge diverted Kolasinac’s cross, but his first touch was average and only allowed him to produce a tame flick with his second touch. Lacazette then missed his final ball for Aubameyang on the stroke of halftime and failed to catch the frame with a curling effort in the 73rd.

A too conservative approach

   The referee let Lacazette know that they wouldn’t go on holiday together by denying him an obvious penalty in the 44th and by booking him for exaggerating contact in the 81st. Things didn’t go Lacazette’s way but the France international kept fighting and Emery showed patience. Lacazette finished the game with 2 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 3. He also contributed defensively by making 4 fouls in Cardiff’s half.

   I suspect Emery had Sunday’s game at Manchester City in mind as he used Ramsey only for the last 20 minutes. The tired Bluebirds couldn’t cope with Ramsey’s movement. The Wales midfielder made the key pass for Aubameyang’s chance in injury time. Ramsey also had an opportunity to score in the last minute of the game but Peltier blocked his shot.

   Emery relied on Elneny, Guendouzi and Torreira to make up for any defensive lapse from Ozil. It proved a too conservative approach against Cardiff. In the holding midfielder role, Elneny had 0 turnover and showed a decent work-rate by winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 2 blocks and 2 recoveries. But his missed interception led to a scoring chance for Reid in the 12th. And the main reason why Emery yanked Elneny off at halftime was his poor contribution in Arsenal’s buildup play.

Killing the momentum of a play

   If you look at the screen captures below, you can see how Elneny wasted an opportunity to hit Cardiff on the fast break in the 37th. Lichtsteiner made a run down the right flank and could have found Lacazette in the final third with a first-time pass. But Elneny dallied on the ball, giving Cardiff more time to regroup.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37a edited.jpgElneny spots Lichtsteiner’s run but fails to pass the ball. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Because Elneny slowed down the momentum, you can see on the next screen capture that Lacazette and Aubameyang stopped running. However, Elneny still had an opportunity to move the ball forward by making a pass to Ozil.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37b edited.jpgOzil runs in front of Elneny, who fails to pass the ball again. (Photo credit: TSN)

   Elneny completely killed the momentum of the play by ignoring two good passing options (Lichtsteiner and Ozil). Surrounded by 3 Bluebirds, Elneny finally made a backpass to Torreira. On the next screen capture, you can see that Elneny’s poor decision-making allowed all the Bluebirds to get behind the ball, even Niasse who was 20 yards behind Elneny at the start of the play.

Arsenal vs. Cardiff M37c edited.jpgThe Gunners have to start from scratch again after Elneny’s backpass to Torreira. (Photo credit: TSN)    

   On the left side of the midfield, Guendouzi was much more positive than Elneny in his passing. Guendouzi made 2 key passes, 1 interception and 1 block and led all players with 8 recoveries. His reading of the game helped Guendouzi win 50-50 balls as Arter and Ralls received yellow cards for poor challenges on the French teenager. Guendouzi also showed his character with a booking for dissent at halftime, complaining about the missed penalty on Lacazette.

A rusty Monreal

   On the right side of the midfield, Torreira survived another game. He won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 7 recoveries. Those are decent stats for most midfielders but well below the level Torreira showed in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder played a lot of games last year and it’s no surprise to see his form dip since the end of December. Emery could leave him out of the squad for easy Europa League games while hoping that Torreira can catch a second wind by March.

   The Gunners nearly kept a clean sheet despite a makeshift back four. In his return from a hamstring injury, Monreal looked a bit rusty. The Spaniard received a yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Reid in the 29th. Monreal only won 28.6% of his duels, compared to 57.1% for Mustafi according to the club’s website. Cardiff mostly threatened with crosses and managed to expose Monreal’s weakness in the air in stoppage time. Zohore outjumped Monreal at the far post to flick on a cross from Harris. The ball fell to Mendez-Laing who cut the deficit to 2-1. Monreal only won 2 of 6 aerial duels compared to 5 of 9 for Mustafi.

   Often maligned for his reckless challenges, Mustafi lived up to his reputation with a silly foul on Reid in the 40th. Mustafi also gave away the ball with a poor header in the 82nd, forcing Leno to stop a curling effort from Zohore. Besides those two blemishes, Mustafi had a decent game, winning 3 of 3 tackles and 57.1% of his duels and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 1 recovery.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

   On the flanks, Lichtsteiner showed his age with a weak offensive contribution and a passive defensive performance. The Swiss veteran roamed forward a few times but made 0 key pass. His defensive stats were just as bad with 0 tackle, 0 interception, 1 block, 0 recovery and only 12.5% of duels won. Emery had seen enough and replaced Lichtsteiner with Jenkinson in the 60th. Kolasinac was more active with 1 key pass, 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries and 50% of duels won. He won the penalty for the opening goal but his defensive lapses nearly cost his team. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international was not tight to Paterson, who made a cross for Reid in the 15th. Despite that warning, Kolasinac left Paterson unmarked a couple more times. The Cardiff midfielder hit Kolasinac in the chest with a volleyed pass in the 42nd, before missing the target with long-range efforts in the 50th and 56th.

   The Gunners have reportedly signed Denis Suarez on loan to boost their chances of finishing in the Top 4. That move makes sense because they desperately need more creativity in midfield to feed Aubameyang and Lacazette. Arsenal can’t simply rely on Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Ozil, who have been too inconsistent this season. There’s no guarantee that Suarez will adapt quickly to the Premier League but it’s a low-risk gamble. If it doesn’t work out, Suarez will return to Barcelona at the end of the season.

   The Gunners visit Manchester City on Sunday. They have nothing to lose in that game. A defeat would be considered normal, especially with the injury crisis at the back, whereas any point would be deemed a bonus in the Top 4 race.

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 3-1 loss to Man United

   The Gunners’ only chance to win some silverware this season is the Europa League after Manchester United knocked them out in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Friday. The Arsenal defense proved too naive against a Manchester side quite clinical on the fast break. Injuries to Sokratis and Koscielny definitely destabilized the back four but Arsenal’s vulnerability on counterattacks also means that the club will need to sign defenders and midfielders this summer.

fa cup 4th roundPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   The Gunners dominated the game with 63% of ball possession and 5 shots on target to 4 for the Red Devils. But they often lacked penetration to trouble a compact Manchester defense. Arsenal attempted 0 through ball compared to 4 for the Red Devils. Emery started with a 4-2-3-1 formation before switching to a 4-2-4 system by replacing Koscielny and Iwobi with Guendouzi and Ozil in the 64th minute. The tactical shift hurt the balance of the team and played into Manchester’s hands as Ozil, Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang are mostly effective in central positions.

  1. Injury crisis at the back (again)

   Sokratis sprained his ankle with an awkward landing in the 16th after challenging Lingard in the air. The Greek defender tried to soldier on but had to be replaced by Mustafi in the 21st. Koscielny joined Sokratis on the sidelines in the 64th after Lukaku inadvertently kicked the French centerback in the head. It initially looked like a minor injury below the ear but Emery in his post-match conference suggested that Koscielny might have fractured his jaw. If Sokratis and Koscielny can’t be fit for Tuesday’s Premier League clash against Cardiff, Mustafi and Monreal would then be the most likely pairing at centerback.  

  1. The Gunners must sign a defensive midfielder (again)

   The Red Devils capitalized on counterattacks in the 33rd and 82nd to create 2v3 situations and score. Shaw ran past Torreira and Xhaka to find Lukaku down our left flank for Manchester’s second goal. Then Pogba outpaced Ozil, Guendouzi and Torreira to sting Cech’s gloves for the last goal.

   The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese on both plays. Xhaka was the weak link in the holding midfielder role. He lacked defensive awareness in the 31st, playing Sanchez onside for the opening goal. Xhaka won 0 of 1 tackle according to whoscored.com, compared to 5 of 7 tackles for Torreira and 2 of 5 tackles for Ramsey.

   The club signed Torreira last summer, but that’s still not enough to protect the back four. The Gunners need a quicker midfielder than Xhaka and Guendouzi and with better defensive awareness. A young version of Fernandinho would the perfect fit for the squad.  

  1. Maitland-Niles is learning the ropes

   Bellerin’s long-term injury means that Maitland-Niles could get a lot of playing time in the second half of the season. Maitland-Niles got off to a bad start with a turnover that led to a scoring chance for Pogba in the 11th. But he grew into the game, winning 4 of 4 tackles, making 2 interceptions and leading all players with 3 key passes, according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles still needs to improve his defensive awareness and cut his turnover rate. He led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers and played Sanchez onside for the opening goal.

  1. Kolasinac is a defensive liability

   The Red Devils targeted Kolasinac because they were aware of his reluctance to track back. Lukaku made a run in behind Kolasinac for Manchester’s second goal. Koscielny took one for the team with a professional foul on Pogba in the 54th because Kolasinac was pulled out of position. Kolasinac was booked in the closing minutes for locking horns with Rashford near the touchline.

   There are only two ways to protect the defense when Kolasinac plays. Either the Gunners rely on a back three so that a centerback can fill in the space behind Kolasinac. Or they use a three-man midfield like in the 2-0 win over Chelsea with a midfielder covering Kolasinac on the left flank.

  1. Lacazette’s work-rate was impressive

   He tirelessly worked for the team, winning 5 of 5 tackles, and making 1 interception and 3 key passes. The France international teed up Iwobi in the 24th and made a cross for Mustafi, who headed wide on the stroke of halftime. Lacazette also tested Romero with mid-range shots in the 45th and 73rd. The only blemish in his good all-around performance was the poor return pass that led to Manchester’s third goal.

  1. Ramsey is Arsenal’s best attacking midfielder

   It’s no coincidence if Ramsey was involved in the Gunners’ two best chances. He rounded the Manchester defense in the 43rd to square the ball back for Lacazette, who made poor contact with the ball. However, Aubameyang pounced on the loose ball to tap in at the far post. Then Ramsey nearly leveled in the 46th when he met a cross from Maitland-Niles, but Romero tipped his header over the bar. Ramsey’s influence diminished after Emery made a double change in the 64th.

   Iwobi doesn’t have Ramsey’s effectiveness. He made 0 key pass, showing poor decision-making and often holding onto the ball too long. The Nigeria international ran into traffic in the 29th instead of making a crossfield pass to Ramsey. He also ignored the overlapping Kolasinac a couple of times. His only positive contribution was an angled shot straight at Romero in the 24th.  

   Ozil came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 64th. He played 36 minutes if we count stoppage time. His cameo was interesting because Ozil won 2 of 2 tackles, which is unusual for him. Is Ozil finally buying into Emery’s method? That would be the only way for Ozil to claim a starting spot again.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Gunners stay in Top 4 race with 2-0 win

   The Gunners still have a chance of finishing in the Top 4 of the Premier League after sinking Chelsea 2-0 on Saturday to pull within 3 points of their London rivals. The Blues enjoyed 64% of ball possession but Arsenal proved the more threatening team in the final third with 5 shots on target to just 1 for the visitors.

arsenal vs. chelseaPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 3 changes to the side that lost at West Ham a week ago with Bellerin, Ramsey and Torreira replacing Maitland-Niles, Iwobi and Mustafi in the starting lineup. The Gunners played in a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield when defending and morphed into a 4-3-3 formation when attacking. The difference between those 2 systems was Ramsey’s position. The Wales midfielder man-marked Jorginho when Chelsea tried to play out from the back. But as soon as Arsenal won the ball back, Ramsey joined Aubameyang and Lacazette in a fluid front three.

   In one of their best performances this season with the 4-2 win over Spurs, the Gunners did most of the hard work in the first half before spending the second half under siege. Emery shut up shop by switching to a 4-5-1 formation in the 67th minute with Iwobi and Maitland-Niles replacing Lacazette and Ramsey.

   Arsenal showed more desire than the Blues, winning 55.4% of the duels according to the club’s website. The Gunners were also helped by Sarri’s questionable tactics: Hazard was toothless in the false nine role, leading all players with 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. Sarri moved Hazard back to the left wing by replacing Willian with Giroud in the 68th but the move came too late to have any impact.

Emeryball at its best

   When you look at the way Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang pressed high up the pitch in the first half to force Chelsea turnovers, there’s no way Ozil could play in that Arsenal team. Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win 3 of 3 tackles and make 4 interceptions and 12 recoveries, compared to 2 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 7 recoveries for Hazard, Willian and Pedro, according to the club’s website. Basically, an attacking player at Arsenal made 6.33 key defensive actions compared to 3.66 for an attacking player at Chelsea.  

   That kind of pressing game didn’t exist under Wenger. Emery also made another significant change in the way the Gunners play out from the back. Under Wenger, they slowly moved the ball forward with safe passes in their own half. Under Emery, the Gunners reach the final third more quickly with two-touch passing or even first-time passes in their own half.

   If you look at the screen capture below, you can see an example of Emery’s more ambitious and more risky approach. Sokratis took a pass from Xhaka in the fourth minute and found Bellerin down the right flank. The Spaniard picked out Lacazette who made a low cross for Aubameyang. From 8 yards, Aubameyang somehow missed the target, flicking the ball wide of the far post. On that play, Sokratis, Bellerin and Lacazette only had 2 touches each.

arsenal vs. chelsea m4edPlaying out from the back with very few touches. (Photo credit: BT)

   Lacazette broke the deadlock in the 14th minute by controlling a cross from Bellerin before turning Alonso to fire an angled strike into the top corner. The French striker showed great spatial awareness with his back to goal as well as great technique with perfect touches to maneuver in the tiny space between Pedro and Alonso. That was his only scoring chance of the game. Lacazette produced a good all-around performance with 1 goal, 1 key pass, and 3 successful dribbles, tied with Hazard and Pedro for the most by any player according to whoscored.com.

Aubameyang’s 3 tackles

   Emery’s game plan was to choke the Blues in their own half. It could only succeed with outstanding work-rate from the attacking players. Aubameyang is the leading scorer at the club but he selflessly worked his socks off, winning 3 of 3 tackles. Willian in the ninth minute and Hazard in the 19th could barely believe it when they saw Aubameyang tackling them.

   Contributing defensively doesn’t mean that you can’t attack. Aubameyang had 3 scoring chances. He should have found the net with his flick in the fourth minute. Then Aubameyang created a chance on his own in the 17th, dispossessing Azpilicueta before testing Kepa with an angled effort. He also connected with a cross from Kolasinac in the 37th for an overhead kick that sailed wide of the far post.

   Ramsey was the key cog in Emery’s pressing plan. Defensively, he made 1 interception and 6 recoveries. Offensively, he made 1 key pass and stung Kepa’s gloves with a long-range strike in the 29th. His movement created problems for the Chelsea defense. The free kick that led to Arsenal’s second goal came from Luiz’s nasty lunge on Ramsey in the 37th.

   The Wales midfielder’s performance makes Arsenal’s decision to let him go even more mind-boggling. The Gunners have 4 attacking midfielders: Ramsey, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. From a football viewpoint, the decision to release Ramsey makes no sense at all. Ozil and Iwobi can’t match Ramsey’s work-rate while Mkhitaryan can’t match Ramsey’s end product.

   And from a business viewpoint, it’s a highly questionable decision. At £180,000 per week for 4 years, Ramsey’s contract offer would have cost £37.44 million. Now let’s assume that the club finds a replacement for £50,000 a week. Arsenal would then have to agree a signing fee below £27 million to make the replacement cheaper than extending Ramsey’s contract. That’s not an easy task when you know that the signing fee was £35 million for Xhaka and £26 million for Torreira. Of course, any new signing would potentially have a higher resale value than Ramsey in 4 years, but there’s also no guarantee that the newbie could perform at Ramsey’s level.  

Guendouzi needs to beef up

   The Gunners kept a clean sheet in great part because the forwards and the midfielders did an outstanding defensive job. Torreira is slowly getting back to his best level after a drop in form since the end of December. He made 4 recoveries and 0 interception, led all players by winning 6 of 9 tackles and led all starting midfielders by winning 70.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Playing in the same position as Torreira, Chelsea midfielder Kante made 5 recoveries and 3 interceptions but only won 1 of 2 tackles and 33.3% of his duels. There were 2 signs that Torreira wasn’t at 100% yet. First, he had a bout of cramping in the 83rd. And second, his passing accuracy dipped to 61.8% while it’s usually above 80%.  

   On the left side of the Arsenal midfield, Guendouzi worked hard, making 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries, but he’s still a bit soft. The French teenager won only 1 of 5 tackles and was dribbled past 5 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Guendouzi definitely needs to work on his understanding with Kolasinac, who was frustrated a couple of times not to have an easy passing option around him.

   In the No. 6 role, Xhaka displayed good activity, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries. Those stats are nearly similar to Jorginho’s (1 tackle won, 3 interceptions and 12 recoveries). Xhaka always has an error in him but he managed to limit the damage on Saturday. The Switzerland international led all players with 4 fouls and was lucky to avoid a booking for holding back Kante in the fourth minute. Xhaka dallied on the ball and was dispossessed by Willian in the ninth minute. He then made a poor clearance in the 59th. The ball fell to Alonso, who fired wide from the edge of the box.

Bellerin’s knee injury

   Bellerin’s season could be over. He twisted his left knee in the 69th and was stretchered off the pitch. It might just be a minor knee sprain but there could be some ligament damage too. Bellerin has been quite unlucky this season. He found the right balance between defense and offense under Emery until a calf strain sidelined him last month. Bellerin is a key player for the way the Gunners play out from the back. The Spanish fullback has also built a good understanding with Lacazette down the right flank. Emery will have to rethink how the team plays on that side of the pitch.

   The options at rightback are not mouthwatering. Lichtsteiner’s legs are too rusty to play in the Premier League, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player and Jenkinson is limited technically. Maitland-Niles would seem the logical choice by default. Obviously, Maitland-Niles doesn’t have Bellerin’s technical ability but he has more pace than Lichtsteiner and Jenkinson. Maitland-Niles shifted to the rightback position when Elneny replaced Bellerin in the 72nd.

   On the left flank, Kolasinac led Arsenal players with 2 key passes. With better decision-making, Kolasinac should have made a third key pass in the 64th. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Kolasinac was in a good position to slip the ball to an unmarked Torreira or make a teasing cross for Aubameyang at the far post. But Kolasinac drove into the six-yard box and his cross for Aubameyang was cleared by Alonso.

arsenal vs. chelsea m64edThe moment Kolasinac missed a passing opportunity. (Photo credit: BT)

   Kolasinac showed good work-rate, winning 4 of 4 tackles and 77.8% of his duels and making 1 interception and 7 recoveries, but his poor defensive awareness nearly cost his team. He was not tight enough to Azpilicueta in the 10th. The Chelsea rightback made a dangerous cross for Hazard, who missed the target from 11 yards. Kolasinac was then completely clueless in the 18th when Luiz hit a ball over the top for Pedro. Standing 3 yards behind Sokratis, Koscielny and Bellerin, the Bosnia-Herzegovina international played Pedro onside. Clean through on goal, Pedro sent his lob wide.

A complementary pairing

   Kolasinac also left Pedro unmarked in the 56th. See the screen capture below. Willian outpaced Torreira to cut the ball back for Pedro, who blazed over the bar. I assume Monreal will be the first choice at leftback when he’s completely fit.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea M56ed.jpgPedro left unmarked by Kolasinac. (Photo credit: BT)

   In the heart of the defense, Koscielny and Sokratis formed a complementary partnership. Koscielny had a more pro-active approach based on anticipation while Sokratis preferred a more physical approach based on duels. Sokratis won 2 of 4 tackles and 66.7% of his duels and made 1 interception and 3 recoveries. By contrast, Koscielny won 1 of 1 tackle and 33.3% of his duels and made 1 block, 3 interceptions and 3 recoveries.

   Koscielny read the game really well, clearing a lot of dangerous crosses. But the jury’s still out on his level. He looked weak in the air against Southampton and his performance against Chelsea did not clear all the doubts. According to whoscored.com, Koscielny won only 1 of 6 aerial duels. On the stroke of halftime, Koscielny was beaten to the ball by Alonso, whose header crashed against the post. Yet, Koscielny showed again his flair for scoring chances on set pieces. The French defender met a free kick from Torreira in the 13th for a bullet header straight at Kepa. Six minutes before halftime, Koscielny beat the offside trap to redirect a speculative shot from Sokratis into the top corner for a 2-0 lead. It initially looked like a looping header but TV replays showed that the ball bounced off Koscielny’s shoulder.

   To a certain extent, Chelsea looked a lot like a Wenger team. Offensively, the Blues lacked penetration. Leno only had 1 save to make -an angled strike from Alonso in the 82nd. Defensively, the Blues were a mess on set pieces. Lacazette’s goal came from a short corner while Koscielny scored on a free kick from Torreira. Sokratis nearly scored from a short corner in the eighth minute but his header bounced wide.

   The Gunners next host Manchester United in the FA Cup on Friday before playing Cardiff in the Premier League on Tuesday. Solskjaer will field his best team so I don’t think Emery will rest anybody for that clash. Then Arsenal will need 3 points at home against the Bluebirds to make up ground in the Top 4 race.

 

West Ham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 hopes dealt a blow in 1-0 loss

   The ghosts of last season are coming back. A year ago, the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race because they were performing poorly on the road. This pattern could be repeating itself. The Gunners lost 1-0 at West Ham on Saturday, earning just 1 point from their last 4 away games to trail fourth-placed Chelsea by 6 points in the Premier League.

West Ham vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal had only 2 shots on target to 3 for the Hammers despite enjoying 58.5% of ball possession. In another example of sterile possession, the players who made the most passes were Koscielny (89) and Sokratis (67). The lack of urgency in the first half was quite disappointing since Arsenal got 6 days of rest after the victory over Blackpool in the FA Cup. West Ham showed more desire, winning 53.5% of the duels and making 17 interceptions to just 10 for the Gunners, according to the club’s website.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that routed the Seasiders with only Sokratis, Kolasinac, Iwobi and Maitland-Niles retaining their starting spots. The lack of quality in the Arsenal midfield showed in the high number of stray passes. It’s no coincidence if Denis Suarez has been linked with a move to the Emirates. Suarez plays as a central midfielder for Barcelona but I suspect that Emery would use him as an attacking midfielder. In the 2015-16 season, Suarez made 12 assists for Villareal in all competitions.

   The lack of creativity in midfield also helps explain why the Gunners struggled to play the ball out from the back. You would expect to find a Ramsey or an Ozil for that kind of tactics. Remember Ramsey’s goal against Fulham or Aubameyang’s goal against Leicester. But Emery left Ozil out of the squad while Ramsey only came off the bench in the second half.

Politics vs. sport

   Knowing that Ramsey will leave the club this year and that Ozil has been frozen out of the team, it’s impossible not to think about the chemistry in the dressing room. What a contrast between the lack of fluency at the London Stadium and the spectacular passing in the first half of the season. Does the mediocre form on the pitch reflect the current mood in the dressing room? Or is the team simply hitting a rough patch?

   Some players signed at Arsenal to play with Ozil. They must feel short-changed to take passes from Iwobi or whoever fills Ozil’s shoes. Likewise, they must certainly question Arsenal’s ambition when the club decides to let Ramsey leave. Is it a coincidence if Emery has harshly treated those 2 players because they’re not part of the club’s long-term plans?

   I think Emery needs more diplomatic tact. Obviously, the board’s emphasis on trimming payroll has led to this situation with Ozil and Ramsey. That’s politics. But the team still needs them because the other attacking midfielders lack consistency. That’s football. In that regard, Sarri has been smarter than Emery. The Chelsea manager froze out Fabregas only after securing a replacement by signing Jorginho and Kovacic last summer.

   Aubameyang and Lacazette scored with half-chances in the first half of the season. They didn’t against West Ham. That’s where chemistry plays a key role. Players felt upbeat in the first few months with a new manager, new methods and new signings. Now the reality is kicking in. The Gunners realize that they are far from the contending teams. They also see problems in the squad. Maybe that’s why the extra confidence needed to convert those half-chances is now gone.

Finding the best offensive setup

   Lacazette had a couple of half-chances in the first quarter. He chested down a long ball from Xhaka before firing a long-range strike wide in the ninth minute. Four minutes later, Lacazette took a pass from Iwobi and drove into the box only to be denied by Fabianski. He faded in the second half with no shot at all.

   Aubameyang started the season as the lone striker before moving to the left wing. Then Emery had a change of heart in the Bournemouth game and used Aubameyang in the centerforward position again. Since January, Emery has deployed Aubameyang on the right wing, letting Lacazette lead the line.

   That’s really mind-boggling that the Spanish manager still doesn’t know what Aubameyang’s best position is, especially if you compare with the situation at Manchester United. Solskjaer was appointed last month and has improved the Red Devils’ fortunes by quickly finding the best offensive setup with Matic, Herrera and Pogba in midfield and Rashford, Martial and Lingard in a front three.

   Deprived of service in the first half, Aubameyang tried to create chances. He made a cross for Lacazette, who headed over the bar in the 15th. The introduction of Ramsey in the second half finally gave Aubameyang some decent ammunition. Aubameyang headed Ramsey’s cross wide in the 63rd. The Gabon striker then met a low cross from Kolasinac in the 64th only to blaze over the bar under Cresswell’s pressure.  

   Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to have only 1 of 7 shots on target. I believe that playing Aubameyang up front and Lacazette as a second striker or in a wide position would be a more natural option. From the right wing, Aubameyang can cross the ball and make those diagonal runs a la Walcott, but he simply doesn’t have the all-around game to make a significant impact in the passing game. Aubameyang only won 14.3% of his duels according to the club’s website, that tells you he’s not optimally used.  

Positive substitutions

   You play with 2 strikers if you have good service. In a 3-4-3 formation, Emery relied on Iwobi, Guendouzi, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles to deliver the final ball. That was a big ask. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player, Guendouzi is not a playmaker and Iwobi can be inconsistent.

   Despite all the talk about his improvement under Emery, Iwobi looked again like the player of last season with a limited end product. At 22, Iwobi still has room for development, but right now he doesn’t have the impact of a Ramsey or an Ozil in the final third. Iwobi had 5 successful dribbles, tied with Anderson for the most by any player, but he also led all players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 59th by sending on Ramsey for Mustafi. In his short cameo, Ramsey made as many key passes (2) as Iwobi in the full 90 minutes. The Wales midfielder set up Iwobi, whose low drive sailed wide in the 67th.

   Although Emery’s substitutions didn’t change the outcome of the game, they were more positive than his previous substitutions. Concerned by Arsenal’s defensive issues, Emery has been reluctant to play with more than 3 attacking players. Replacing Lacazette with Ramsey in the Brighton game was obviously the nadir of that conservative approach.

   Emery seems to highly rate Guendouzi. Yet, it’s hard to understand why. Guendouzi is not a box-to-box player with the end product of a Ramsey or the pace and dribbling skills of an Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s not a defensive midfielder either. The French teenager showed his lack of defensive awareness a couple of times against West Ham. He failed to stay with Noble, who played a one-two with Nasri before producing a tame effort in the sixth minute. Again, neither Guendouzi nor Xhaka tracked Anderson, who took a pass from Nasri but missed the target in the 32nd.

Xhaka’s poor defensive instincts

   When Guendouzi is given plenty of time, he can hit accurate balls over the top. But he’s not a playmaker. At the same age, Fabregas had better passing and shooting skills. Guendouzi overhit his final ball in the 66th and 78th and finished the game with 0 key pass. He also took his chance from the edge of the box, missing the target in the 35th and 54th and lacking power in the 68th. Potentially, Guendouzi could become a deep-lying playmaker. But right now he’s not moving the ball quickly enough. It means that Guendouzi is mostly a utility midfielder at this stage of his career. Guendouzi is definitely an upgrade over Elneny because of his work-rate and his ability to win duels. He won 1 of 1 tackle and 62.5% of his duels and made 1 interception and 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website.    

   Guendouzi played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. That’s a flawed partnership because none of them is a natural ballwinner. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Nasri often managed to find pockets of space in midfield and made 3 key passes in his 70-minute performance.

   Emery’s choice to rely on Xhaka as the holding midfielder is questionable. Xhaka’s passing skills can be helpful to play out from the back but he simply lacks the defensive instincts to play in that position. His poor clearance led to Rice’s goal in the 48th. The safe option on that play would have been to head the ball toward Lacazette on the left flank. Some fans wondered why Torreira didn’t start. The Uruguay midfielder’s stats have gone down since the end of December, so Emery wisely decided to limit his playing time, sending him on for Xhaka in the 59th.

The most important game of the season

   Kolasinac can prove a potent threat down the left flank, but the Hammers managed to limit his offensive impact to just 1 key pass. The fact that Kolasinac was caught offside twice tells you that the Hammers studied his game. I’m not surprised that Arsenal extended Monreal’s contract by a year because Kolasinac is a wingback, not a defender. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international failed to track back a couple of times, forcing Koscielny to cover him in the leftback position. Kolasinac also had his share of responsibility in the goal. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Kolasinac allowed Nasri to run in front of him before setting up Rice. The screen capture also shows Arsenal’s poor defensive organization with Rice completely unmarked near the penalty spot.

west ham vs. arsenal m48edRice left unmarked by the Arsenal defense. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Maitland-Niles was caught napping on that play, too. He failed to react despite seeing Rice in a dangerous position. Maybe the most worrying part is the lack of desire Maitland-Niles showed on Saturday, forcing Aubameyang (yes, the top scorer in the Premier League) to cover him down the right flank a couple of times. Maitland-Niles definitely needs to improve his defensive awareness. Cresswell easily skipped past him to make a teasing cross in the 16th and Nasri ran past him to take a pass and muster a shot in the 26th. Offensively, Maitland-Niles was a liability for the Gunners with 0 key pass and a passing accuracy of 65%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player. In the 69th, Emery replaced Maitland-Niles with Bellerin, who was making his return from injury.  

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis was the most active of the 3 centerbacks, making 3 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Koscielny had a decent game although one stat raises some questions: Koscielny was dribbled past 2 times, compared to 0 for Sokratis and Mustafi. However, it was Mustafi who was deemed the weak link when the Gunners shifted to a back four in the 59th. The German defender received a yellow card in the 46th for a mistimed challenge on Anderson.

   The Gunners will play their most important game of the season when they host Chelsea next Saturday. A defeat would end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes whereas they could pull within 3 points of the Blues with a victory. Emery no longer has time to find his best team.

 

 

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 3-0 win over Blackpool

The Gunners advanced to the fourth round of the FA Cup by routing the Seasiders 3-0 on Saturday. They played in a half-empty stadium because the Blackpool fans boycotted the game to protest against their controversial owner.

fa cup 3rd roundPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Although Arsenal defeated Blackpool in the League Cup a couple of months ago, Emery fielded a relatively strong team with just 2 academy players in the starting lineup (Willock and Nketiah). Emery gave the evening off to Leno, Xhaka and Aubameyang but had Guendouzi, Torreira and Lacazette on the bench in case things went south.

Koscielny was supposed to start the game but Emery had to pull him out of the team because of some back pain during the warm-up. The Spanish manager shifted Lichtsteiner to the centerback position while Jenkinson made a rare start at rightback.

  1. Is Willock having a breakthrough season?

What a difference an eye can make. Willock played as a defensive midfielder under Wenger last season because he had a poor scoring record with just 1 goal in 12 games with the U23 team. Emery saw something else in Willock and turned him into an attacking midfielder. The tactical move paid off as Willock scored twice against the Seasiders.

After Ramsey’s free kick hit the far post, Willock pounced on the rebound to head into an empty net for the opening goal in the 10th minute. Willock showed again his flair for goals in the 37th. A Blackpool defender diverted Jenkinson’s cross toward the far post where an opportunistic Willock side-footed home for a 2-0 lead.

Willock had 2 chances to complete a hat trick. Lacazette fed him in the 66th but the English teenager tried to dribble inside the area instead of shooting with his left foot. Then Kolasinac cut the ball back for Willock, who tapped home in the 80th, but the goal was disallowed because of Kolasinac’s offside position.

At 19, Willock is making big strides and could be knocking on the door of the first team next season. His all-around performance at Blackpool was impressive: Willock had 2 of 2 shots on target, made 2 key passes and 1 interception, and won 4 of 5 tackles, tied with Maitland-Niles for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. The only blemish in Willock’s performance was his 7 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player.

  1. Nketiah should play in a wide position

His hold-up play is average at this stage of his career. Nketiah got bullied off the ball too easily in the 7th, 22nd and 61st. Emery played him in the lone striker role because of his pace but Nketiah still lacks physicality for that position. Nketiah would have a better chance of expressing his potential on the wings.

The academy player had 3 good chances in the first half but failed to convert them. In the third minute, Maitland-Niles picked out Nketiah who fired wide. Then Nketiah met a cross from Maitland-Niles in the seventh minute, but missed the target from 6 yards with a sliding effort. On the stroke of halftime, Nketiah got the better of O’Connor on a punt from Cech only to be denied by Howard.

  1. When Ramsey is all over the pitch

At times, Ramsey played like a holding midfielder, dropping off to take passes from Sokratis and Cech. And at times, he played like an attacking midfielder, making runs into the box to be in scoring positions. Emery loves to have the control of the game, which is in complete contradiction with Ramsey’s tactical indiscipline. Yet, it is Ramsey’s movement and ability to find space which make him such a threat in the final third.

Ramsey was involved in the 3 goals. It was the rebound from his free kick that led to the opening goal in the 10th. Then Ramsey beat 5 Seasiders with his vertical pass to Maitland-Niles while playing the ball out from the back for the second goal in the 37th. And Ramsey made the run to collect Lacazette’s pass in the 81st. Howard palmed Ramsey’s effort into the path of Iwobi, who tapped in to seal the win. Ramsey tried hard to score with another run in the 90th but Howard quickly came off his line to block Ramsey’s shot.

  1. Iwobi must improve his defensive awareness

The Nigeria international is enjoying a good run of form. He scored 1 goal and made 2 key passes against Blackpool. With better finishing, Iwobi could have notched another goal. He chased a ball over the top from Willock in the 85th to be clean through on goal, but slowed down to shift the ball to his right foot. That hesitation gave Daniels enough time to catch up and narrow the angle. Forced to shoot with his left foot, Iwobi was denied by Howard.

The next step for Iwobi is to improve his defensive contribution. Nowadays, attacking midfielders in the top clubs have to work their socks off. Bernardo Silva’s defensive performance in the recent match between Liverpool and Manchester City is one obvious example. Iwobi was caught napping in the 58th, allowing Nottingham to run in front of him and connect with a low cross for a 12-yard shot that sailed over the bar. According to whoscored.com, Iwobi was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player.

  1. The Gunners kept a clean sheet

Sokratis was a rock at the back, taking the sting off Taylor’s shot in the 18th, intercepting a dangerous cross in the 21st, clearing the danger after Delfouneso dribbled past Kolasinac and Elneny in the 63rd and making a timely challenge on Delfouneso in stoppage time.

By contrast, Lichtsteiner produced another shaky performance, backing down to let Gnanduillet shoot in the fifth minute and casually giving the ball way in the 6th, 19th and 35th. On the right flank, Jenkinson showed his technical limitations with a passing accuracy of 68.4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal starters according to whoscored.com. Jenkinson failed to stop a dangerous cross from Feeney in the 24th and failed to block the Blackpool midfielder’s curling shot in the 33rd.

Arsenal vs. Fulham: Gunners stay in Top 4 race with 4-1 win

The Gunners started the new year on a positive note by sinking Fulham 4-1 on Tuesday to stay in the Top 4 race. They were even greeted with a round of applause at halftime for heading back to the dressing room with the lead for just the second time in the Premier League this season.

arsenal vs. fulhamPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery made 3 changes to the side that was demolished at Anfield with Koscielny, Guendouzi and Lacazette replacing Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Ramsey in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also switched to a 3-4-3 formation that aimed to optimize the use of Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles as wingbacks.

Ozil was again left out of the squad. Officially, the German playmaker is recovering from knee pain. But if you read between the lines, there’s no doubt that the club wants to offload Ozil. Cutting costs is a priority for the Arsenal board and Ozil clearly looks like the elephant in the room with his weekly wage of £350,000 a week.

Unsurprisingly, his agent said on Wednesday that Ozil wants to stay at the club until the end of his contract in 2021. Ozil is not the first player to reject a move despite his lack of playing time. Jenkinson is in the same kind of situation. The only thing the club can do is to make the player redundant by signing players in the same position. For instance, Sarri has been able to sideline Fabregas because Chelsea signed Jorginho and Kovacic.

A divisive figure

Xhaka opened the scoring against Fulham and produced a good all-around performance, but his limitations were again exposed. He has been a divisive figure among fans since joining the club. To a certain extent, Xhaka embodies the problem with the current Arsenal squad. Most Gunners perform well against the weak and average sides, but they are simply not good enough against the big teams. Xhaka scored a goal, won 2 of 3 tackles and made 3 key passes, 3 interceptions and 8 recoveries. But he also gave the ball away 3 times in the first half and was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com.

Emery definitely likes Xhaka, otherwise he wouldn’t be his first-choice holding midfielder. Traditionally, the No. 6 shields the back four and is therefore a defensive midfielder. Think of Casemiro at Real Madrid or Dier at Tottenham. But there’s a trend among modern managers to use a deep-lying playmaker as the holding midfielder. Sarri and Emery both like to play out from the back so they use deep-lying playmakers like Jorginho and Xhaka in front of the defense.

Of course, the problem with that approach is that Jorginho and Xhaka can be defensively suspect because they are not natural ballwinners. Guardiola and Klopp have found a compromise by playing defensive midfielders with good passing skills (Fernandinho and Fabinho). Another issue with Xhaka is that playing out from the back requires a lot of movement from the holding midfielder. Xhaka is easy to man-mark because of his relative lack of mobility. Leno was forced to punt the ball a couple of times in the first half because of the lack of passing options.

Guendouzi’s learning process

Last season, Xhaka played alongside Ramsey in a 3-4-3 formation with Ramsey as the box-to-box player and Xhaka as the holding midfielder. On Tuesday, Emery was more conservative than Wenger as he used Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in central midfield. Let’s give some credit to Xhaka for analyzing the situation and understanding that the front three needed more support. In the 25th minute, Xhaka made a late run into the box a la Ramsey and controlled a cross from Iwobi before flicking the ball past Rico to put Arsenal ahead.

Xhaka nearly scored a second goal in the 34th. Kolasinac cut the ball back for Xhaka, who was denied by Rico. With the security provided by the back three in the first half and the introduction of Torreira in the second half, Xhaka did not hesitate to roam forward. He also created two chances, heading the ball into the path of Lacazette in the 42nd and playing the French striker clean through on goal with a ball over the top in the 58th.

Emery used Tuesday’s game as an opportunity for Guendouzi to learn while limiting the risks for the team. Guendouzi showed good work-rate by winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 key pass, 2 interceptions and 5 recoveries. He created a scoring chance for Aubameyang with a through ball in 82nd. At 19, Guendouzi is still a work in progress. He definitely needs to be more tidy in possession. Guendouzi had 4 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 80% compared to 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 86.1% for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The French teenager also has a lot of room to improve his defensive awareness. Guendouzi sat too deep in the 69th and failed to close down Seri, who made a dangerous cross to Mitrovic.

Iwobi as a two-footed player  

Torreira showed signs of fatigue against Liverpool. So Emery rested Torreira by leaving him on the bench in the first half. Torreira replaced the injured Mustafi at halftime although Elneny was also available on the bench. Maybe Emery should have given Torreira the day off because the Uruguay midfielder performed poorly with 3 turnovers, 1 tackle and just 2 recoveries in 45 minutes.

Disappointed by Ozil’s poor work-rate, Emery has given the keys of the game to Iwobi. The move could be paying off as Iwobi has notched 1 goal and 2 assists in his last 4 Premier League games. He made 3 key passes on Tuesday, including the assist for the opening goal.

What made Iwobi’s performance interesting was the accuracy of his left foot. Iwobi is a right-footed player. Yet, he set up Maitland-Niles with a left-footed cross against Liverpool. Iwobi repeated the trick against Fulham, creating chances for Aubameyang with left-footed crosses in the 2nd and the 40th. It’s too soon to conclude that Iwobi is a two-footed player like Cazorla but it’s an interesting technical development.

Iwobi has improved his game by keeping things simple lately instead of running into traffic. Despite his 4 seasons in the Premier League, he’s not the finished product yet. The weight on his passes can be dodgy. Iwobi overhit a through ball for Lacazette in the 15th and missed a simple pass for the overlapping Kolasinac in the 76th.

The Walcott role

The Nigeria international also needs to improve his decision-making. His telegraphed pass for Aubameyang was intercepted in the 27th. And he opted for a tame low drive in the 58th instead of setting up Aubameyang for a first-time effort. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Aubameyang was in a better position for a shot.

arsenal vs. fulham m58edIwobi shoots instead of feeding Aubameyang. (Photo credit: NBC) 

Up front, Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang played the Walcott role on the right wing. I would have swapped their positions for two reasons: Aubameyang has more pace and is stronger in the air than Lacazette. Aubameyang won 4 of 4 aerial duels while Lacazette won 0 of 4 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. Lacazette was also caught offside 3 times compared to just once for Aubameyang. The Gabon striker has more room to time his run because of his electric pace whereas Lacazette must perfectly time his run to beat a defensive line.

Aubameyang was quite wasteful against Fulham. He scored a goal but could have finished the match with a hat trick. His first chance came in the second minute when he met a cross from Iwobi but missed the target from a tight angle. Aubameyang then ghosted past Ream in the 40th only to head the ball wide from 8 yards. His most embarrassing moment occurred in the 79th when he met a low cross from Kolasinac and hit the post from 5 yards. Guendouzi also put Aubameyang in a very good situation with a through ball in the 82nd. Aubameyang held off Bryan but his chip attempt bounced off Rico. A minute later, Aubameyang finally found the net with the most improbable attempt -a powerful strike that took a big deflection off Ream to loop over Rico.

A tactical substitution

Lacazette could have also notched a hat trick if he had been more clinical. He skipped past Le Marchand in the 42nd to fire an angled strike that Rico saved with his leg. However, the France international got his goal in the 55th, taking a pass from Kolasinac to shoot past Rico from 10 yards for a 2-0 lead. Three minutes later, Lacazette failed to convert a big chance. He controlled a ball over the top from Xhaka to bear down on goal but Rico parried his low strike.

I definitely think the referee should have awarded Lacazette a penalty in the 65th after Seri elbowed him in the face. Lacazette could have done better with his link-up play on a counterattack. He wasted a good situation in the 48th by playing the ball between Iwobi and Aubameyang. There were boos from the crowd when Emery decided to replace Lacazette with Ramsey in the 75th. The fans have really liked Lacazette since his first season at the club. Lacazette made clear that it was not about him as he applauded his teammates while leaving the pitch.

After the game, Emery explained that the substitution was aimed at limiting the influence of Seri, who had replaced Cisse in the 61st. Seri quickly made an impact with a cross for Mitrovic in the 69th. In the build-up to Fulham’s goal, Seri was the one who dispossessed Torreira. As an attacking midfielder, Ramsey was in a better position than Lacazette to track Seri.

Ramsey vs. Ozil

Despite the collapse of the contract talks with Arsenal, Ramsey has kept performing well for the club, notching 2 goals and 6 assists in 18 league games this season compared to just 3 goals and 1 assist in 13 league games for Ozil. Ramsey made it 3-1 by pouncing on a rebound to slam the ball into the top corner in the 79th.

I think it was a mistake from the club to compare Ramsey’s contract negotiations with Ozil’s situation last season. Ramsey’s salary demands were in line with the market rate in England while Ozil’s wages were way over what any club would have given him. Another problem with the club’s rigid approach is what will they do when they have a special talent who deserves £250,000 or even £300,000 a week? Should Arsenal sell the next Mbappé because they want to trim their payroll instead of building a strong squad around a top player?

Ramsey could have become the face of the club. His work-rate and attitude are much better than Ozil’s. The Wales midfielder is also a big-game player who scored the winning goal in two FA Cup finals while Ozil tends to disappear when the going gets tough. In the end, the Gunners will get stuck with Ozil while Ramsey will reportedly join Juventus. Most Arsenal fans are grateful that Ramsey won’t be playing for a rival club in the Premier League.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

The performance of the Arsenal defense against the Cottagers wasn’t convincing. Fulham could have led 2-0 in the first half if Sessegnon had been more clinical. The Gunners especially looked vulnerable on crosses.

Kolasinac proved again a potent threat down the left flank, leading all players with 4 key passes. But his defensive lapses nearly cost his team. In the 23rd, Schurrle made a cross for Sessegnon, who miskicked the ball. Kolasinac was caught napping on that play as he failed to mark Sessegnon. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international was again guilty for Fulham’s goal in the 69th. Kolasinac let Kamara run in front of him to tap home Sessegnon’s cross. Mitrovic is not the most mobile striker, yet he managed to peel away from Kolasinac to head a corner straight at Leno in the 47th.

On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles deputized for the injured Bellerin. He led all players with 3 successful dribbles out of 4 but lacked end product with 0 shot and 0 key pass. Maitland-Niles made a good run in behind in the 34th but his cross for Aubameyang was really poor. Defensively, he made no glaring error but failed to stop 2 dangerous crosses in the 23rd and the 69th. Despite his inexperience, Maitland-Niles should leapfrog Lichtsteiner in the pecking order for the fullback position.

The Gunners started with a back three before shifting to a back four at halftime. Mustafi had another poor game with a passing accuracy dipping to 69.2%, compared to 84.1% for Sokratis and 89.1% for Koscielny. The activity of the German centerback was also weak with 0 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries in 45 minutes compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 8 recoveries for Sokratis and 1 tackle, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries for Koscielny, according to the club’s website. Emery took a risk since Mustafi didn’t seem completely fit and was replaced at halftime because of a hamstring problem.

Hangover after the festive period

Koscielny is slowly rebuilding confidence after losing key aerial duels in the 3-2 loss at Southampton. The French veteran won 6 of 6 aerial duels against Fulham, while Sokratis only won 1 of 5 aerial duels. As Koscielny is getting older, he will need to rely more on his positional play to compensate for his loss of pace. Kamara got the better of Koscielny in the 72nd with a run in behind. Koscielny also put Torreira in trouble on Fulham’s goal with a pass that was difficult to control.

Sokratis has a lot of room to improve his positional play. He was pulled out of position in the 15th and left Koscielny and Mustafi in a 2v2 situation with Sessegnon and Mitrovic. The Greek defender made the same mistake for Fulham’s goal in the 69th, leaving Koscielny in a 1v2 situation with Mitrovic and Kamara. The physical Mitrovic proved a handful for Sokratis, who struggled in the air and was at times too tight to the Fulham striker. Sokratis had a surprise for the crowd in the 36th. He showcased his dribbling skills by beating 2 Cottagers to have a shot blocked for a corner.

The Gunners have been the big losers of the festive period. They were level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea on Dec. 22. Now they trail the Blues by 3 points. The comparison with Spurs is even more telling. The Gunners were in fourth place, level on points with Tottenham after the North London derby on Dec. 2. Now Spurs are 7 points clear of Arsenal in the standings.

The Gunners next play Blackpool in the FA Cup on Saturday before visiting West Ham in the Premier League the following weekend. Emery can’t take any risk with a decimated squad. He should rest his key players against Blackpool. The defense has been exposed lately in part because 3 first-choice defenders are currently injured (Bellerin, Holding, and Monreal). Meanwhile, injuries to Welbeck, Mkhitaryan and Ozil have limited Emery’s attacking options. It’s no coincidence if the Spanish manager is relying on a front three now whereas he started the season with a front four.