Tag Archives: Ramsey

Arsenal vs. Everton: Ramsey notches hat trick in 5-1 win, Aubameyang scores in PL debut

Call it the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. When they play at the Emirates stadium, the Gunners are a completely different team from the one struggling so badly on the road. Arsenal smashed Everton 5-1 on Saturday just a few days after losing 3-1 at Swansea. The Gunners have the joint second best home record in the Premier League whereas they are a mid-table side if we look only at their away record.

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

The quality of Mkhitaryan’s final ball combined with Ramsey’s movement and finishing turned Saturday’s game into a goalfest. Aubameyang released Mkhitaryan down the right wing in the sixth minute and the Armenia international made a low cross for Ramsey who opened the scoring by beating Pickford from close range. Ramsey made it 3-0 in the 19th with a 24-yard drive that took a deflection off Mangala. The Dortmund connection played a role in the first and fourth goals as Mkhitaryan played Aubameyang in before the Gabon international chipped Pickford for a 4-0 lead in the 37th. Ramsey completed his hat trick in the 74th by pouncing on a cross from Mkhitaryan to bury the ball into the bottom corner.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that lost to Swansea with Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan replacing Lacazette and Elneny in the starting lineup. Arsenal played in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Aubameyang up front, Ozil in the hole and Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings. The Gunners have no natural dribbler in the squad if we except the youngsters Nelson and Nketiah. The Toffees finished the game with 19 dribbling attempts compared to just 10 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. That basically means the Gunners rely on their passing game to crack a defense. And you need movement to find gaps and create passing options.

Ramsey’s clinical finishing

Ramsey’s deep runs provide the movement necessary for pass masters like Ozil and Mkhitaryan to express their creativity. The Wales midfielder proved clinical on Saturday by converting all his goal attempts. He could have added an assist in the 13th when Iwobi found him with a long ball. Ramsey squared the ball back for Aubameyang, whose strike was deflected out by Williams. With 6 goals and 6 assists from 18 Premier League games, Ramsey has been the most productive Gunner this season. It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s poor run of form happened during Ramsey’s injury period.

Some fans complain about Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline. But Ramsey is not a defensive midfielder. He plays as a free-roaming midfielder for Wales. His potential is optimized when there’s a holding midfielder who gives him the freedom to play between the lines. Ramsey is often compared to box-to-box players like Lampard and Gerrard. Lampard had Makelele and Essien to cover him at Chelsea while Gerrard could rely on Xabi Alonso and Mascherano to do the dirty work at Liverpool. The Gunners will need a better midfielder than Elneny or Xhaka next season to cover Ramsey and protect the defense.

The partnership between Xhaka and Ramsey only works when Xhaka understands that he must take care of the defensive duties and let Ramsey play in a more advanced position. Xhaka won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, while Ramsey won 1 of 2 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 1 block, according to Squawka. There were a couple of times when the Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese again. Xhaka had to make a cynical foul on Walcott to kill a counterattack in the 18th. Five minutes later, Walcott easily skipped past 2 Gunners to feed Niasse, who was then fouled by Koscielny. The Arsenal midfield also went missing in the 27th. It took a desperate block from Mustafi to prevent Walcott from scoring.

Mkhitaryan’s creativity and work-rate

Surprisingly, Mkhitaryan has already struck a good understanding with Ramsey in their second game together. Mkhitaryan is a smart player who is aware of the movement around him. He spotted Ramsey’s runs for the opener and the last goal. Since Cazorla’s injury, Ozil has been a bit isolated to create chances. Sanchez could occasionally step up and make assists but he’s not a natural passer like Mkhitaryan. Signing Mkhitaryan has definitely removed some of the creative burden off Ozil’s shoulders. The Gunners also play more free-flowing football with Mkhitaryan because Sanchez often gave the opponents time to regroup by taking too many touches.

The manager used Mkhitaryan in a wide position a bit like Pires and Rosicky before. Obviously, Mkhitaryan is an attacking midfielder, not a winger, but he’s smart enough to know when to drift inside and when to stretch a defense by staying wide. I don’t quite understand why Mourinho didn’t like him at Manchester United. Besides his 3 assists, Mkhitaryan also showed some great work-rate by making 3 interceptions and winning 3 of 9 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. In fact, Mkhitaryan made more interceptions and tackles than any Arsenal defender. The only blemish in his performance was his average shooting accuracy. Mkhitaryan’s long-range effort sailed wide in the 10th and his tame effort in the 56th didn’t trouble Pickford. Hopefully, it was just a consequence of his rustiness at Old Trafford.

Ramsey and Mkhitaryan stole the limelight, but Ozil still led all players with 4 key passes. Ozil created the second goal with a pinpoint delivery in the 14th. Mustafi made a run at the near post to redirect Ozil’s corner toward Koscielny, who headed in from close range. Playing on the left wing, Iwobi lacked end product compared to Ozil and Mkhitaryan. Iwobi finished the game with 0 shot and only 1 key pass (his assist for Ramsey’s long-range strike). He also had 4 turnovers, the most for any Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. I thought his work-rate was average with only 1 tackle, 1 interception and 1 block. My guess is that Iwobi and Lacazette will compete for the spot on the left flank, assuming Aubameyang, Ozil and Mkhitaryan are safe starters. Lacazette is a bigger goal threat while Iwobi provides more control in the passing game.

Aubameyang’s electric pace

In his Arsenal debut, Aubameyang found the net in the 37th. TV replays showed Aubameyang was a yard offside but that’s the price to pay when the league doesn’t adopt VAR technology. Arsenal fans got a glimpse of his electric pace in the 32nd when he outpaced Williams and Schneiderlin to collect a through ball from Ozil. From a tight angle, Aubameyang was denied by Pickford.

I have mixed feelings on the signing of Aubameyang. He has more pace than Giroud and is 3 years younger than the France striker. But the reason why Arsenal hired Mislintat was to replicate Borussia Dortmund’s scouting and recruitment model, that is, sign players at a cheap price just before they enter their prime. That’s what Arsenal did with Fabregas and Van Persie in the previous decade. With Aubameyang, the Gunners paid a premium price for a player who will turn 29 this year and has therefore a low resale value.

The best years of a football player are usually between the age of 25 and 30. You can stretch that to 32 or 33 if the player has great fitness levels. Which means that Aubameyang has 3 or 4 years left at the top. That’s a relatively weak return for £56 million. Van Persie was only 20 and Henry 21 when the club signed them for much less. They both gave 8 years to Arsenal. Also, Aubameyang is a pure centerforward. He scores most of his goals inside the box and therefore needs good service to find the net. He won’t create goals out of nothing like Van Persie or Henry.

Kolasinac’s defensive frailties

At the back, the partnership between Koscielny and Mertesacker is looking more and more like the previous partnership between Mertesacker and Koscielny. The France centerback is the more cautious of the two, acting almost like a sweeper, whereas Mustafi is the more aggressive defender. Mustafi won 5 of 6 tackles and 8 of 11 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 2 blocks. Those are very good stats but they don’t tell the whole story.

   Mustafi still needs to improve his decision-making and positional play. In the opening minute, Mustafi was too casual and nearly lost possession as the last defender. He also gave away a dangerous free kick in the 49th with a mistimed tackle on Niasse. Mustafi was then pulled out of position in the 81st by challenging Calvin-Lewin in the air. Calvin-Lewin knocked the ball down for Davies, who evaded Bellerin’s challenge and played the ball back to Calvin-Lewin. As you can see on the screen capture below, Arsenal ended up in a 2v4 situation because Mustafi and Bellerin dived in. Somehow, Calvin-Lewin failed to catch the frame from 13 yards.

Arsenal vs. Everton M81 edited Everton wasting a 4v2 situation. (Photo credit: BT)

The Toffees could have done more damage if they had been more accurate with their final ball or finishing. They made 24 crosses compared to just 10 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. The leftback position is still a concern for the Gunners. Monreal met Xhaka’s corner in the 40th for a bouncing header that hit the post. The Spaniard played sick according to the manager and was replaced at halftime by Kolasinac, whose defensive frailties were again exposed. Kolasinac gave the ball away in the 51st and 83rd. He was also involved in the messy play that led to a turnover and a scoring chance for Everton in the 52nd. Walcott made a cross for Niasse, who hit the post while colliding with Cech.

Back four or back three?

Everton’s consolation goal in the 64th came from some poor defending by Kolasinac. Martina made a cross for Calvert-Lewin, who outjumped Kolasinac to head home. Kolasinac did not even jump on that play. Even if he wasn’t aware of Calvert-Lewin’s presence behind him, Kolasinac still had to head the ball away. Kolasinac had a passing accuracy of 57%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. He also won 0 of 4 aerial duels. Kolasinac is looking more and more like a recruitment mistake. That’s another embarrassment for the scouting department, which has recommended a lot of average players in the past few years (Xhaka, Elneny, Chambers, Paulista) but no real jewel.

The Gunners play the North London derby next Saturday. Cech is doubtful after picking up a calf injury in his collision with Niasse. Ospina replaced the Czech goalkeeper in the 70th and showed his poor command of the area on a corner kick three minutes later. A victory at Wembley would keep alive Arsenal’s slim hopes of a Top 4 finish as they trail Spurs by 4 points and Liverpool by 6. Wenger will have to choose between sticking with a back four or switching to a back three.


Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Gunners pay price for poor transfer policy

   The Arsenal board must act quickly to clean up the mess created by the uncertainty about Sanchez’s situation at the club. Sanchez was not even on the bench Sunday when the Gunners lost 2-1 to Bournemouth in the Premier League. That tells you the club did not want to take any risk of injury before a possible transfer. Ironically, Bordeaux had no scruples about starting Malcom in the French league on Saturday even though the Brazilian forward has been tipped as the replacement for Sanchez. Guess what? Bordeaux won at Troyes.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

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

Last August, the Gunners performed poorly in losses to Stoke and Liverpool. The contractual situations of Sanchez, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly created doubt in the dressing room. The Ox is gone but Sanchez and Ozil are still at the club and the Arsenal squad could get destabilized again by all the transfer rumors. Sanchez could have joined Manchester City a few months ago for £60 million but Arsenal wasted too much time to meet Monaco’s asking price for Lemar, offering £31 million in June, then £40 million in July and finally £92 million at the end of August. By the time Monaco accepted the Gunners’ bid, Lemar had already started his season with the French side and was no longer willing to move, forcing Arsenal to call off the Sanchez deal.

   Will the Arsenal board learn from its mistakes and quickly sell Sanchez while signing his replacement? Or will it be another debacle with Sanchez leaving on a free transfer and his replacement coming only in the summer? If the Gunners want to know how to do some proper business, they just need to look at Liverpool. The Reds sold Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million and signed Van Dijk from Southampton for £75 million. The impact on the dressing room has been quite positive since Liverpool edged Manchester City 4-3 on Sunday.

A mid-table team

The Gunners face a massive rebuilding task this summer. Sunday’s game at the Vitality stadium gave them a foretaste of what the team could look like next season if they don’t improve the squad. Wenger fielded pretty much a mid-table team with 6 high-profile players (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Sanchez and Ozil) missing in the starting lineup. The club has already lost a year in the rebuilding process by refusing to sell Sanchez and Ozil last summer. And I don’t think the Arsenal board understands the financial implications of a massive overhaul.

Before the start of the season, I said Arsenal should have sold Chambers, loaned out Holding and signed an experienced centerback. The club chose the worst solution by selling Paulista while keeping Chambers and Holding as back-up options for the aging Mertesacker, Monreal and Koscielny. We saw the result of that poor transfer policy against Bournemouth as Chambers and Holding were involved in the two goals conceded.

The Cherries equalized in the 70th minute when Wilson converted a cross from Fraser. That’s the kind of goal that doesn’t make sense. Wilson was double-teamed by Chambers and Bellerin while Fraser and Mousset were surrounded by 4 Gunners along the touchline. Arsenal had numerical superiority on that play but lost two key duels. First, Maitland-Niles allowed Fraser to ghost past him. And second, Chambers failed to intercept the cross because of his lack of pace. To make things worse, Mustafi was pulled out of position by Mousset and couldn’t act as a safety. Cech was credited with an error by whoscored.com, but I don’t think that the Czech goalkeeper made a mistake for the simple reason that Wilson beat Chambers to the ball and had a free shot from 11 yards.

A flawed back three

Bournemouth scored the winner in the 74th, just a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four. As you can see on the screen capture below, the backline was not ready: Holding played Wilson onside by staying 4 yards behind Mustafi. With his back to goal, Wilson controlled a ball over the top from Cook and set up Ibe, who rifled a half-volley past Cech.

Bournemouth M72a editedHolding is 4 yards behind Mustafi while Xhaka keeps an eye on Ibe. (Photo credit: Sky)

Holding should have stood on the same line as Mustafi and Maitland-Niles. Xhaka also made a mistake on that play by not tracking Ibe, who beat everybody to the second ball. It’s not the first time this season that Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness has cost his team a goal.

Bournemouth M72b edited Xhaka forgets to track Ibe, who scores the winning goal. (Photo credit: Sky)

   While a back three of Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi can perform at a good level, Sunday’s back three of Mustafi, Holding and Chambers is deeply flawed. As the sweeper, Mustafi should be cautious but he’s sometimes too easily pulled out of position. That rashness can be deadly with 2 youngsters at the back. Holding is a pro-active defender like Mustafi but tends to dive in too often, winning only 2 of 7 tackles according to Squawka. By contrast, Chambers is way too passive: he made no tackle at all.

On the left wing, Maitland-Niles had a poor game. He had some lapses of concentration that are not acceptable at the top level. As the last defender on a corner in the 13th, Maitland-Niles gave the ball away to Ibe, who initiated a counterattack. He then fouled Smith in the 39th after losing possession with a poor touch on the edge of the Arsenal box. A few seconds later, Maitland-Niles had a pass intercepted by Smith, whose tame effort didn’t trouble Cech. Besides the cross for Bournemouth’s equalizer in the 70th, Maitland-Niles also failed to stop dangerous crosses from Ibe in the 40th and Francis in the 65th. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress, but he will have to quickly get rid of his naivety. The academy player was dribbled past 3 times.

Lacazette deprived of service

On the opposite wing, Bellerin was arguably Arsenal’s best player. The Spaniard scored a goal, won 5 of 6 tackles and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. He opened the scoring in the 52nd by firing a low strike that Begovic could only divert into his own net. After an average start to the season, Bellerin is getting close to the level of performance that led to his inclusion in the 2015-16 PFA Team of the Year, striking the right balance between attack and defense.

In midfield, Xhaka and Wilshere struggled defensively. Xhaka was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, while Wilshere led all players with 7 turnovers. They received yellow cards and combined to win only 1 of 11 tackles. Ramsey made his return from injury by replacing Chambers in the 74th. The Wales midfielder didn’t look sharp, making some inaccurate passes. It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks whether the manager switches to a back four to have Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield, or if he sticks to a back three and therefore benches one of the three midfielders.

In the front three, Lacazette was deprived of service. Sanchez and Ozil are two world-class players who can see and execute plays. The less talented Welbeck and Iwobi couldn’t make up for their absence. Lacazette was so frustrated that he dropped back to create chances for his teammates. He took 0 shot but attempted 4 through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles met a cross from Lacazette in the eighth minute and created space to fire a shot that clipped the bar. Then Lacazette slipped a through ball to Welbeck, who was denied by Begovic in the 35th. In the second half, Lacazette sent a ball over the top for Iwobi, who was dispossessed by Cook, and slightly overhit a through ball for Welbeck.

No Top 4 finish?

I’m worried about Lacazette’s confidence. He hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game. The France international worked hard on Sunday, winning 1 of 2 tackles, and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, but he struggled again in the centerforward role with 7 turnovers and only 1 of 10 aerial duels won. Welbeck and Iwobi didn’t do much to feed him. They combined to make only one cross. Iwobi wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 12th by ignoring Lacazette twice on the same play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi ended up running into traffic before playing a backpass to Wilshere and the chance was gone.

Bournemouth M12b edited Lacazette shows Iwobi where to play the ball. (Photo credit: Sky) 

Bournemouth M12c edited A second later, Lacazette points again where the ball should be played. (Photo credit: Sky)

Iwobi made the assist for Bellerin’s goal but his creative contribution was limited. In fact, that was Iwobi’s only key pass of the game. Somehow, it put more pressure on Wilshere and Xhaka to create plays even though they were busy defensively (Xhaka and Wilshere combined to make 6 key passes). Iwobi tested Begovic with a 20-yard drive in the 10th but missed his cross for Welbeck in the 28th in a situation that was similar to Bournemouth’s equalizer. The Nigeria international was lucky not to get penalized in the 39th for a silly handball inside the Arsenal area.

Arsenal’s record on the road has been poor this season with just 3 away wins while Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have won 6 away games at least. We shouldn’t look elsewhere if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4.

The Gunners trail fourth-place Chelsea by 8 points in the standings with 15 games left. Mathematically, Arsenal can still finish in the Top 4. But that would imply a winning run from Arsenal and an implosion from Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea. If we’re honest, winning the Europa League is the club’s most realistic chance to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Southampton vs. Arsenal: More pub defending in 1-1 draw

Giroud scored in the closing minutes to salvage a 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday as the Gunners stayed 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. This weekend’s results clearly show that Manchester City is running away with the title, while 5 clubs (Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham) will fight for the 3 remaining Champions League spots. Last season, Arsenal missed out on Europe’s elite competition with 75 points from 38 games, 1 point behind the Reds. The cut line this season could be 76 points again. So far, the Gunners are 1 victory short of the cruising speed required for Champions League football with 29 points from 16 games.

Southampton vs. Arsenal

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

The Gunners hurt their chances of getting 3 points at St Mary’s stadium with another poor start. They conceded a goal by the third minute with some pub defending. Cech was not happy after the game as he bluntly said that Arsenal “could have been 3-0 down after 10 minutes again.” The Czech goalkeeper was referring to the disastrous start against Manchester United the previous weekend. While the Gunners had one day less of rest than United after a mid-week game, there was no such excuse for the Southampton game: the 11 starters did not even play in the Europa League on Thursday. An early goal was obviously the best scenario for the Saints, who parked the bus and proved hard to break down.

   Wenger made just one change to the side that lost to United the previous weekend with Mertesacker replacing an injured Mustafi. The FA Cup final provided the blueprint for playing Mertesacker in a back three: Arsenal left very little space between the goalkeeper and the backline against Chelsea even if it meant a lot of distance to cover for the midfielders. Yet, the Gunners decided to play a high defensive line against Southampton. Mertesacker’s lack of pace made such a plan completely suicidal.

Mertesacker and Koscielny struggling at the back

   Mertesacker didn’t cover himself in glory in the third minute. The German defender gave the ball away to Austin, who found Tadic on the edge of the box. Taking advantage of Mertesacker’s comical fall, Tadic had plenty of time to play Austin in. The Southampton striker took a touch before beating Cech from close range. Monreal was slow to react on that play as he let Austin run past him.

Playing on the shoulder of Mertesacker near the center circle, Austin beat again the offside trap in the fifth minute to collect a pass from Tadic but was denied by Cech. The Gunners did not learn their lesson as Austin made another run in behind in the 43rd to chase a through ball from Romeu. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to beat Austin to the ball and clear the danger. A static Mertesacker also failed to close down Romeu, who clipped the bar with a long-range strike in the 62nd.

A week after his poor performance against United, Koscielny had another miserable moment. Koscielny gave the ball away to Redmond in the 66th and the Southampton forward hit a long ball toward Bertrand. Koscielny intercepted the ball with a header but only to knock it into the path of Tadic. Attempting to make up for his mistakes, Koscielny missed his tackle on Tadic and let Bertrand run past him to take Tadic’s pass. With just Cech to beat, Bertrand somehow missed the target. You don’t often see a player make 4 mistakes on the same play.

We know Mertesacker and Koscielny have lost a step. It’s a different story with Bellerin who is only 22. The Spaniard has produced a lot of average performances this season, well below the level that helped him get named in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year.

A more direct approach

Bellerin had a hard time on Sunday with Bertrand and Redmond roaming down his flank. He won only 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage for an Arsenal midfielder according to the club’s website. Bertrand outpaced Bellerin in the eighth minute to make a cross for Austin, who hit the post but was flagged offside anyway. Then Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Ward in the 29th. An unmarked Austin knocked the ball down for Van Dijk, whose flick bounced off Xhaka to gently roll toward Cech. Bellerin lost another duel in the 53rd, allowing Redmond to test Cech with a long-range effort, before receiving a yellow card in the 78th for pulling back Boufal.

After Southampton took the lead, the Gunners enjoyed plenty of ball possession but lacked penetration in the final third. As a symbol of Arsenal’s sterile possession, Koscielny (102), Xhaka (95) and Monreal (93) led the team in passes, according to whoscored.com. If you can’t beat with the pass, then running at defenders is the obvious alternative. Unfortunately, our dribbling options are limited since Oxlade-Chamberlain joined Liverpool. Arsenal finished the game with fewer successful dribbles than the Saints.

So the manager opted for more directness by replacing Mertesacker with Welbeck in the 64th and Lacazette with Giroud in the 72nd. With those 2 substitutions, the Gunners suddenly became more threatening in the air. Yet, it took them 16 minutes to finally feed Giroud. The France striker converted his only scoring chance of the game by outjumping Yoshida in the 88th to head Sanchez’s cross into the bottom corner. Let’s give some credit to Giroud for isolating himself with Yoshida and therefore creating a bad matchup for the Southampton defense.

Very good or world class?

Arsenal had to rely on Giroud’s physicality because Lacazette’s pace was of no use against a compact defense. Receiving the ball in tight spots, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, which is not his forte. Xhaka redirected a high ball from Sanchez toward Lacazette, who held off Yoshida only to fire a low shot straight at Forster in the 16th. A minute later, Lacazette wasted a better chance on a counterattack. See the screen capture below. In a 3v1 situation, Lacazette controlled Bellerin’s pass with a poor first touch, allowing Hojbjerg to clear the ball to safety. In hindsight, Lacazette should have made a first-time pass to Ozil to his right. Easy to say, but very difficult to do at full throttle.

Southampton M17edLacazette wasting a 3v1 situation on a counterattack. (Photo credit: BT)

Then Bellerin made a low cross for Lacazette, who fired over the bar from 12 yards in the 41st. The France international should have caught the frame in that kind of situation. If Lacazette doesn’t become more clinical, football fans will keep thinking he’s a very good player but not a world-class striker, i.e. the difference between Lukaku and Aguero.

Sanchez and Ozil didn’t shine either on Sunday. Sanchez had an average game while Ozil was pretty much anonymous. Ozil finished the game with 0 key pass and had 6 turnovers, trailing only Sanchez (7) for the most by any player. By contrast, Tadic led Southampton with just 4 turnovers. Ozil’s lack of end product meant that the creative burden rested on the shoulders of Sanchez, who led Arsenal with 3 key passes. Besides the assist for the equalizer, Sanchez also had a curling free kick punched away by Forster in the 84th.

Questions about Sanchez and Ozil

Any time Sanchez and Ozil don’t perform well, Arsenal supporters can’t help wondering whether they are still playing for the club or preparing their transfers. You can only blame the manager and the board for having created this situation. It feels very much like a transition season because of all that uncertainty.

In hindsight, most supporters wouldn’t have been mad at the club for letting Sanchez and Ozil go this summer if they had been properly replaced. There was a dressing room revolt in 2011 because Fabregas and Nasri had not been replaced. Oxlade-Chamberlain was just a prospect then. By contrast, Van Persie’s departure generated no such drama in 2012 because the club had signed Podolski and Giroud for goals as well as Cazorla to finally fill the hole left by Fabregas.

It was also in 2011 that the Gunners signed Arteta. The Spaniard proved a leader in the dressing room but his time with Mertesacker became the symbol of Arsenal’s porous defense, especially during the 2013-14 season. Their lack of pace made the team vulnerable on counterattacks. The same issue is repeating itself with the gradual decline of Koscielny and Monreal at the back and Xhaka’s lack of mobility in midfield.

There were suggestions before Sunday’s game that Arsenal might start with a back four like in the 6-0 win over BATE Borisov. In the end, the manager was too much aware of the lack of protection provided by the midfield and stuck with the 3-4-3 formation. The third centerback is basically making up for the lack of a decent defensive midfielder. In theory, Xhaka is the holding midfielder but you never know what you are going to get with him. He made a reckless challenge on Bertrand to give away a cheap free kick in the 26th. But he also made a clean tackle on Redmond to kill a Southampton counterattack in the 35th. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger finally switched to a back four in the 64th even though it exposed Monreal and Koscielny, who had to cope with 2v2 situations a couple of times.

Ramsey’s hamstring injury

Ramsey was the only Arsenal player who really tested Forster in the first half. He met a low cross from Sanchez in the 32nd for a first-time effort that the Southampton goalkeeper saved. In the closing minutes, Ramsey seemed to pick up a hamstring injury. He stayed on the pitch because Wenger had already used up his substitutions. On one leg, Ramsey still managed to connect with a cross from Kolasinac in stoppage time but his shot had no power.

The Wales midfielder has been Arsenal’s most valuable player this season in terms of goals and assists. His injury is coming at a bad time because of the hectic schedule. Knowing Ramsey’s injury record, the staff definitely needs to be careful and not rush him in his return. Wilshere would seem the most suitable replacement for Ramsey in midfield even though they have 2 different profiles.

The Gunners need 2 wins from their next 2 games to make up for the points dropped against Stoke, Watford and Manchester United. I don’t expect too much rotation against West Ham on Wednesday but some tinkering against Newcastle on Saturday might be necessary to inject some freshness and avoid injuries.



Arsenal vs. Manchester United: Gunners pay for defensive errors in 3-1 loss

The Gunners threw their perfect home record out the window with some pub defending from the centerbacks, losing 3-1 to Manchester United on Saturday to slip to fifth place in the Premier League, 1 point behind Liverpool and 4 points behind Chelsea.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Paradoxically, Arsenal produced a good performance with 15 shots on target to just 4 for the visitors. The trouble is that the Gunners proved wasteful in the final third. Sure, De Gea was at his shot-stopping best with 14 saves, but only a couple of those saves were really outstanding. By contrast, the Red Devils were more efficient at both ends of the pitch, sound defensively and clinical offensively, pretty much like the Inter Milan side managed by Mourinho from 2008 to 2010.

United created very little: all their goals came from Arsenal turnovers. The Gunners made Mourinho’s job much easier by conceding 2 goals in the first 11 minutes. United then just had to sit back and hit Arsenal on the fast break. The Arsenal centerbacks and Xhaka usually lead the team in passes. But on Saturday, it was Ozil (107), Ramsey (77) and Sanchez (67) who made the most passes according to whoscored.com, which clearly shows that the Red Devils were happy to let Arsenal enjoy 75% of ball possession.

Wenger made no change to the side that thrashed Huddersfield Town 5-0 on Wednesday. I thought the Gunners’ approach in the opening minutes was wrong. United had one day more of recovery and therefore tried to put Arsenal on the back foot early in the game. Instead of absorbing the pressure, the Gunners tried to match United’s intensity. Unfortunately, United’s fresher legs made the difference in the opening minutes. If Arsenal had played their previous league game on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, maybe it would have been a good idea to go tit for tat.

When a simple pass is the best option

Besides the final scoreline, the losses to Manchester City and United have one thing in common: both teams created chances by forcing Arsenal turnovers. The Red Devils made 14 interceptions compared to 8 for the Gunners, according to Squawka. Koscielny put his team in danger with a risky crossfield pass for Kolasinac in the fourth minute. Valencia intercepted the pass and played a one-two with Pogba before firing through Cech’s legs to give United the lead.

As you can see on the screen capture below, Pogba, Lukaku and Valencia were positioned to cut two of Koscielny’s passing options (Sanchez and Kolasinac). The static Xhaka was standing in front of Koscielny, preventing the France centerback from spotting Ozil and Lacazette. In hindsight, Ramsey to his left was Koscielny’s best passing option. It was a simple pass and maybe an overambitious Koscielny thought it didn’t help Arsenal move forward. On that play, Monreal made the mistake of rushing toward Pogba instead of staying with Valencia.

Arsenal vs. United M4editedPogba, Lukaku and Valencia cutting Koscielny’s passing options. (Photo credit: BT)

The second goal also resulted from United’s work in cutting the passing channels. Lingard pressured Mustafi into making a mistake in the 11th. Looking for a solution, Mustafi dallied on the ball and was robbed by Lingard, who slipped the ball to Lukaku. The Belgium striker dribbled past Mustafi to find Martial, who played Lingard in with some clever footwork. Lingard doubled the lead by beating Cech with a low strike off the post. Cech was Mustafi’s best passing option on that play. As you can see on the screen capture below, Monreal was even showing Mustafi where to play the ball.

Arsenal vs. United M11editedMartial, Lingard and Lukaku cutting Mustafi’s passing options. (Photo credit: BT)

The Gunners didn’t cover themselves in glory with the last goal either. The Red Devils capitalized on a Sanchez turnover to launch a counterattack from their own half in the 63rd. Lingard ran past Xhaka to release Pogba down our left flank. Instead of showing Pogba the corner, Koscielny dived in and missed his challenge, allowing Pogba to cut the ball back for Lingard, who tapped in for a 3-1 lead.

Fixing 2 key positions 

This defeat shows that the Gunners have weak defensive foundations. A world-class centerback and a top defensive midfielder should be signed next summer. As long as the club doesn’t fix those 2 positions, Arsenal will never be able to contend. Mustafi’s leadership skills were seriously questioned with his blunder that led to the second goal. Losing possession as the last defender is a no-no at the top level. Meanwhile, Koscielny is losing a step at 32 and his nagging Achilles problem means that playing 3 games in a 7-day span could prove a too big challenge for him. Koscielny only won 23% of his duels compared to 58% for Monreal, according to the club’s website.

Lingard beat the offside trap in the 52nd to collect a through ball from Martial. After Cech diverted Lingard’s shot onto the far post, Martial pounced on the rebound only to have his close-range effort blocked by Monreal. With no pressure on Martial, Koscielny should have dropped off on that play instead of playing a high defensive line. In the closing minutes, Koscielny was booked for bringing down Lukaku. Bellerin’s nearby presence somehow prevented Koscielny from getting a red card.

On the flanks, Bellerin had a poor game. The Spaniard made no interception and no block and won 0 of 4 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Kolasinac did a bit better by making 1 interception and winning 1 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels. Both tested De Gea with long-range strikes in the 44th. The switch to a back four in the 15th because of Mustafi’s injury did not benefit Bellerin, whose game is better tailored for the wingback position. Bellerin received a yellow card for a poor challenge on Young in the 72nd. Two minutes later, Bellerin had an injury scare as Pogba stamped on the back of his knee. The Manchester midfielder was sent off for that dangerous play.

Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness

In midfield, Ramsey and Xhaka performed well against Huddersfield but the duo showed again their limits against top opposition (first Liverpool, then Manchester City and now United). Ramsey is obviously the attacking spear of the duo because of his deep runs. He won 1 of 4 tackles and made 3 key passes and 2 interceptions. The Wales midfielder set up Lacazette for the consolation goal in the 49th, raising his tally to 6 assists this season. Only De Bruyne and Silva have more assists in the league with 8 each. Ramsey could have scored in stoppage time but sent his half-volley over the bar.

Xhaka is supposed to be the shield in the midfield partnership. His stats look decent with a passing accuracy of 93%, 2 chances created, 5 of 7 tackles won, 1 of 2 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 2 blocks. No one can deny that Xhaka put in a shift. The issue is Xhaka’s lack of mobility and his poor defensive awareness.

When Xhaka is well positioned, he can make clean tackles like the one on Martial in the 40th. But when he’s a yard off, the challenge turns into a foul because of his lack of mobility. Xhaka made an obstruction on Rojo in the third minute, missed his tackle on Lingard in the 52nd and made another mistimed challenge on Lingard in the 62nd. Despite this flaw, Xhaka has shown enough self-discipline to avoid penalties and red cards this season.

A too big hole to climb out of

However, the real problem is Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness. Xhaka doesn’t smell the danger. On the opening goal, Xhaka was on the same line as Valencia when the interception was made. Yet, Xhaka didn’t rush back. In fact, he only entered the Arsenal area when Valencia pulled the trigger. The last goal showed how clueless Xhaka was. Sanchez gave away the ball with a backheel flick. Matic launched the counterattack by finding Lukaku in midfield. As you can see on the screen capture below, 7 Gunners were ahead of Xhaka when Matic made the pass. Xhaka should have realized that Koscielny and Monreal were badly exposed. He was also in a good position to spot Lingard’s run. As the holding midfielder, Xhaka should have dropped off to mark Lingard or even block his run.

Arsenal vs. United M63aeditedXhaka should have dropped off as Lingard made his run. (Photo credit: BT)

Xhaka only reacted once Lingard took Lukaku’s pass. Because Lukaku pulled Monreal out of position, Xhaka’s passivity basically meant that Lingard was in a 1v1 situation with Koscielny within a couple of seconds. See the screen capture below. Xhaka got some stick for not marking Lingard when Pogba cut the ball back, but I don’t blame Xhaka for not spotting Lingard’s movement behind his back. On the other hand, Xhaka could have killed the counterattack if he had smelt the danger in midfield.

Arsenal vs. United M63bedited Lingard running past Xhaka to be in a 1v1 situation with Koscielny. (Photo credit: BT)

We can give Arsenal some credit for reacting after a disastrous start. But the Gunners really digged a hole that was too big to climb out of. The manager shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation when Iwobi replaced Mustafi in the 15th with Ozil playing in the hole. Arsenal looked vulnerable on the Red Devils’ counterattacks because the back four didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. On a weird play in the 33rd, Ozil even ended up in the centerback position because Ramsey and Xhaka got stuck high up the pitch while Monreal was again pulled out of position.

Lacazette deprived of a hat trick by De Gea

Trailing by two goals, Wenger threw the kitchen sink at United by replacing Xhaka with Welbeck in the 70th with Iwobi joining Ramsey in midfield while Welbeck played on the right wing. Pogba’s ejection in the 74th led to another tactical change with a switch back to a 3-4-3 system. The manager sent on Giroud for Kolasinac in the 76th with Iwobi and Welbeck playing as wingbacks while Ozil and Ramsey pulled the strings in midfield. The team lacked balance especially since Giroud had no source of supply from the left wing.

Lacazette was arguably the best Gunner on Saturday with a good all-around game. He scored a goal, created 2 chances, had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, made 2 blocks and won 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. My only criticism is the 7 turnovers he had, tied with Sanchez for the most by an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Lacazette is usually tidy in possession but the density of the Manchester defense deprived him of any space.

Without De Gea’s outstanding saves, Lacazette could have notched a hat trick. The Manchester defense failed to clear a corner in the 20th and Xhaka headed the loose ball toward Lacazette, who could only flick the ball with the tip of his boot while wrestling with Rojo. De Gea was lucky to see the ball bounce off his leg as he had no idea of what was going on.

A deflected pass from Sanchez led to another goalmouth scramble in the 32nd. Lacazette took the loose ball and got the better of Rojo before rounding De Gea to fire a shot that the goalkeeper, crawling on the ground, diverted onto the bar. The France striker finally found the net in the 49th, blasting the ball past De Gea from 5 yards. Lacazette was then denied the equalizer in the 56th as De Gea dived to parry his 10-yard strike.

Iwobi finally connecting with Lacazette

Coming off the bench, Welbeck had more impact than Giroud. De Gea tipped Welbeck’s deflected shot over the bar in the 83rd. Two minutes later, Welbeck headed Ramsey’s cross over the bar. He was also involved in a small controversy in the 88th. Welbeck should have been awarded a penalty after Darmian tripped him inside the area. But Welbeck quickly got back on his feet and the referee refrained from blowing the whistle. I felt that the referee bottled it. After giving a red card to Pogba, he probably didn’t want to seem too harsh with United. In his post-match news conference, a cynical Mourinho suggested that it was a dive. Well, we all know what Mourinho would have said if it had happened to his team.

There was a lot of pressure on Iwobi when he replaced Mustafi in the 15th. Substitutes sometimes want to do too much when their team trails by two goals. But Iwobi kept things simple and showed more end product than usual with 3 shots on target and 3 key passes. He also made 2 blocks and won 1 of 1 tackle. The main positive from the game for Iwobi is the improvement of his relationship with Lacazette. In the 52nd, the Frenchman picked out Iwobi, who lifted the ball for himself to test De Gea with a 13-yard snapshot. Four minutes later, Iwobi set up Lacazette for a scoring chance. Iwobi definitely needs to work on his finishing, which is mediocre. While Lacazette naturally aims for the corners, too many of Iwobi’s goal attempts are either off target or near the middle of the net.

3 must-win games

Although Arsenal dominated ball possession, Ozil and Sanchez didn’t really shine. Sanchez led the team with 5 key passes, followed by Ozil with 4. The Chile striker produced an average performance by his own standards. He had no successful dribble and made no tackle, no interception and no block. It was very similar to his performance against Huddersfield, except that he didn’t score on Saturday. Sanchez still made the penultimate pass for Lacazette’s goal with a pinpoint cross for Ramsey. He also found Iwobi with another cross in the 55th but the Nigeria international could only hit a tame header.

I thought Sanchez should have done better when De Gea parried Lacazette’s shot in the 56th. Sanchez pounced on the rebound and had his effort saved by De Gea’s foot. After watching several TV replays, maybe a chip or a strike into the roof of the net would have been the better option. Or maybe De Gea would have still made the save. That was definitely the turning point of the game. Who knows how United would have reacted to an equalizer. Sanchez also tested De Gea with a shot from the edge of the box in the 65th.

Amid all the talk about his contract, Ozil did his bit but nothing more. Ozil managed to beat De Gea with a free kick in the 30th but Young cleared the ball off the line. Then Ozil fired a low volley straight at De Gea in the 36th. When your team is struggling, you want a player who can take the game by the scruff of the neck. Unfortunately, Ozil is not that kind of player.

I expect the manager to heavily rotate against BATE Borisov on Thursday. The Gunners have already secured a first-place finish in the group stage of the Europa League, so there’s no need to start any key player and risk a stupid injury. The priority is still the Premier League, where Arsenal will need to win their next 3 games against Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle to make up ground in the Top 4 race.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield: Ozil shows his class in 5-0 win

   In a five-minute span, Ozil made 2 assists and scored 1 goal to lead Arsenal to a 5-0 rout of Huddersfield on Wednesday. The Gunners needed that victory to stay fourth in the Premier League and keep pace with the top teams as Manchester City, the Red Devils, Chelsea and Liverpool also won their games.

Arsenal vs. Huddersfield

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

Wenger made just one change to the side that edged Burnley 1-0 on Sunday with Ozil replacing Iwobi in the starting lineup. That move made a huge difference on the pitch. At 21, Iwobi has great potential but he’s not the finished product yet. He only managed 1 key pass against a compact Burnley defense because his reading of the game is not good enough. By contrast, Ozil is at the top of his game at 29. Ozil may go missing against the big teams but the quality of his runs and final ball proves so valuable against the weak and average sides.

Ozil led all players with 5 key passes. The Germany playmaker was relatively quiet in the first half. But his performance after halftime was a different story. In the 3-4-3 formation, Ozil has a lot of freedom. He can drop back to create plays. He can also drift to the right flank to escape marking. And he can play as a second striker by making runs in behind.

Sanchez caught the attention of three Terriers in the 47th minute to set up Ozil, unmarked at the far post. Ozil controlled the ball and curled a 12-yard shot that Cranie blocked. Maybe a first-time effort was the better option. Then the Ozil show started. Ozil played a one-two with Sanchez in the 68th before squaring the ball back to Giroud, who made it 2-0 with a low strike. In that kind of situation, I have too often seen Iwobi run into traffic this season only to lose possession. Ozil has a perfect picture of the situation before he gets the ball, which means that he knows exactly what are his passing options when he makes his first touch.

The understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey

Another difference between Ozil and Iwobi is that Ozil is smarter in his runs off the ball because he can visualize how a play will unfold and what his role in that play will be. As soon as Mustafi won a header in midfield in the 70th, Ozil made a run along the touchline. The ball fell to Giroud, who played it back to Ramsey. With a first-time pass, Ramsey released Ozil down the right wing. By the time Lowe saw the danger, it was already too late. Ozil got a head start over the Huddersfield wingback and had therefore plenty of time to make a pinpoint cross with his weaker foot for Sanchez, who volleyed high past Lossl for a 3-0 lead.

Ozil swapped positions with Giroud in the 72nd and perfectly timed his run to beat the offside trap. Collecting a through ball from Ramsey, Ozil added a fourth goal by chipping Lossl. In the closing minutes, Ozil nearly got a third assist with a ball over the top for Welbeck, but the England international couldn’t trap the ball and Lossl was able to gather it. Ozil is simply one of the best playmakers in the world and Iwobi needs to work harder to get near his level.

While Ozil stole the show in the second half, the Gunners owed their first-half lead to Lacazette. In the third minute, Ramsey played Lacazette in with a backheel flick and the France striker slipped the ball past Lossl to open the scoring. While the understanding between Ozil and Sanchez proved instrumental in the second and third goals, it was the understanding between Lacazette and Ramsey that cracked the Huddersfield defense in the opening minutes. It’s kind of ironic because Ozil and Sanchez may no longer be at the club next season whereas the duo formed by Lacazette and Ramsey could define Arsenal’s future.

Giroud’s hunger

Lacazette came close to doubling the lead in the 31st. Xhaka initially overhit his pass for an offside Kolasinac, but Lacazette sprinted to keep the ball in play and attempted a cheeky lob from the by-line. Cranie somehow cleared the ball off the line with an overhead kick. Unfortunately, Lacazette picked up a groin injury and was replaced by Giroud at halftime. That injury is coming at the worst time for the Gunners because they have a busy schedule until mid-January.

Giroud showed his hunger by taking 6 shots and reaching a passing accuracy of 100%, according to Squawka. His first scoring chance came from a counterattack in the 51st. Bellerin made a low cross for Giroud, whose shot was blocked by Schindler. Then Ramsey slipped a through ball to Giroud, who rounded Lossl in the 59th only to hit the near post. Giroud made amends by converting Ozil’s pass in the 68th for his first goal in the Premier League since the opening game against Leicester in August. As a boost to his confidence, Giroud took the ball off Kolasinac to seal the win from close range in the 87th. Hopefully, Giroud’s rediscovered form will help compensate for Lacazette’s absence.

Sanchez didn’t have a great game, but he still managed to find the net with a clinical volley in the 70th. His previous goal attempts were unimpressive to say the least. Sanchez took a pass from Ozil in the 27th only to produce an air shot. Then Kolasinac found Sanchez inside the area in the 62nd and the Chile striker curled a shot wide of the far post. The manager clearly had the United game in mind as he yanked Sanchez off in the 73rd to send on Welbeck.

In midfield, Ramsey shared the creative burden with Ozil by making 3 key passes, including 2 accurate through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Sanchez is usually the one helping Ozil to create chances, but Sanchez had an off day with only 1 key pass so Ramsey had to step up in that area.

Complacency after the opener

At times, the team morphed into a bastardized 4-4-2 formation with Xhaka, Mustafi, Koscielny and Monreal at the back, Ramsey, Ozil, Bellerin and Kolasinac in midfield, and Sanchez and Lacazette up front. Xhaka helped Ramsey have an impact in the final third by focusing on his defensive duties. The Switzerland international won 3 of 6 tackles compared to 0 of 3 tackles for Ramsey, according to Squawka.

On the wings, Kolasinac and Bellerin contributed offensively with 3 and 2 key passes, respectively. Kolasinac was involved in the second and fifth goals but his passing accuracy of 68% was the lowest of any Arsenal player. Obviously, Kolasinac is taking risks in the final third, so you shouldn’t expect him to have Bellerin’s passing accuracy of 91%. But Kolasinac’s technique is decent enough to expect a passing accuracy around 80%. Hopefully, the Arsenal staff can sort out what is the issue.

Besides Lacazette’s injury, the only negative from Wednesday’s game is the complacency that hit the team after the opening goal. The Gunners basically took their foot off the pedal. They put themselves in trouble by playing at 90 or 95% of their potential between the third minute and the 68th. Mustafi in the 29th, Xhaka in the 35th and Koscielny in the 63rd cheaply gave the ball away. In the final third, Bellerin crossed the ball out of play in the 33rd, and Xhaka’s long-range strike veered toward the corner flag in the 42nd.

The Gunners lost their minds in the 37th by trying to dribble their way out of trouble from their own area. A poor clearance from Koscielny led to an Arsenal turnover and a penalty shout for Huddersfield as Mustafi lost an aerial duel and collided with Mounie. A minute later, a string of misplaced passes led to a dangerous Huddersfield counterattack. Quaner dribbled past Xhaka to find Mounie, who played the ball back to Quaner. A poor first touch from Quaner gave Koscielny enough time to rush back and block the shot from the German forward.

The best and worst of Cech

There was also a lack of focus that could have cost the Gunners dearly. Mustafi misread the flight of a long ball in the 21st and missed his header, forcing Cech to come off his line. The Czech goalkeeper beat Mounie to the ball to clear the danger. Then the Arsenal defense was completely disorganized in the 51st. As Monreal was pulled out of position, Kolasinac forgot to cover the Spaniard and gave Quaner a boulevard to the area. Mustafi hesitated for a split second and came too late to make the block. It took a leg save from Cech to prevent Quaner from equalizing. Two minutes later, Cech nearly scored an own goal by panicking in his own area. Monreal diverted Mounie’s shot high in the air. Cech could have caught the loose ball but he preferred to punch it to safety off the crossbar.

If we except those chances gifted by Arsenal’s complacency, the Terriers created very little. Lowe skipped past Bellerin in the 12th only to have his cross intercepted by Cech. Jorgensen then connected with a free kick from Lowe in the 22nd but Koscielny did enough to put off the Huddersfield centerback, who headed over the bar. After the break, Hadergjonaj made a dangerous cross from Kolasinac’s flank but Mounie missed his header in the 65th. Mustafi produced the most decent performance at the back by making 7 interceptions and winning 3 of 4 tackles and 4 of 12 headers while Koscielny and Monreal combined to win only 1 of 8 tackles, according to Squawka.

A perfect record on the line

The Gunners have turned the Emirates stadium into a fortress this season with 7 wins from 7 Premier League games. That perfect record could be in danger against Manchester United on Saturday. Lacazette’s injury means that either Giroud or Welbeck will lead the line. Giroud is a good choice when the team dominates ball possession while Welbeck is a better option when the team has to run after the ball. Welbeck also has more pace but the Frenchman has scored more goals recently.

Wenger was again asked about Ozil’s future in his news conference before the United game. It could prove a tricky match for Ozil, who has been linked with a move to the Red Devils. The more we look at it, and the more it’s obvious that the club completely mismanaged the summer transfer window. Scenario 1: the manager and the board win their gamble if both Sanchez and Ozil extend their contracts at Arsenal. Scenario 2: if both players leave next summer while the Gunners finish in the Top 4, the club will limit the damage on the pitch but lose £50-90 million of transfer fees. Scenario 3: if both players leave next summer while the Gunners miss out on a Champions League spot, the club will lose on the pitch and financially. Scenario 4: Ozil and/or Sanchez leave in January but there’s no replacement. The club will limit the damage financially but the squad will be significantly weakened. Scenario 5: Ozil and/or Sanchez leave in January and are replaced by top signings. The club will limit the damage financially but only a Top 4 finish will tell whether it is a smart move.

Burnley vs. Arsenal: Gunners leapfrog Spurs into 4th place after 1-0 win

   Sanchez converted a penalty in the last minute of stoppage time to lead Arsenal to a 1-0 victory over Burnley on Sunday. The scrappy win propelled the Gunners to fourth place in the Premier League, 1 point behind Chelsea and 1 point clear of Spurs.

Burnley vs. Arsenal.jpg

Photo credit: Getty

Wenger made only one change to the side that defeated Tottenham the previous weekend with Iwobi replacing a sick Ozil in the starting lineup. Dyche is like the new Pulis: his Burnley side played with a lot of commitment, relying on crosses and long balls to test the Arsenal defense and parking the bus in a 4-5-1 formation when the Gunners had the ball. I thought Arsenal didn’t work hard enough in the first half. They were miles away from the level displayed against Spurs. Somehow, the Gunners could have opened the scoring before halftime but were let down by some poor finishing. They played with more intensity in the second half and wasted good situations with some poor decision-making or a final ball lacking accuracy. On the bright side, the Clarets had no clear-cut chances after forcing Cech into a couple of fine saves in the first half.

Dyche complained about the penalty in his post-match news conference, saying the big clubs get those big decisions, but not small clubs like Burnley. It’s basically a manager trying to protect one of his players, Tarkowski, by deflecting the blame on the officiating. If Dyche is honest, he should acknowledge that the Clarets could have been down to 10 men in the first half and that Arsenal could have been awarded another penalty in the second half. Brady was not even booked for a reckless studs-up tackle on Monreal in the 17th, which means that the Burnley winger should have received a second yellow card instead of his first one for his poor challenge on Iwobi in the 25th. Then Brady brought down Bellerin inside the area in the 67th. The Burnley winger completely missed the ball while making a sliding tackle. I guess the only reason why the referee didn’t spot the foul is because Bellerin tried to chip the ball over Brady and the ball bounced off the winger’s chest, leading the referee to assume that Brady cleanly got the ball.

Ramsey’s movement

The last-minute penalty shouldn’t be controversial for the simple reason that Burnley earned free kicks for less obvious shoves from Lacazette and Mustafi. The referee was therefore consistent in his decisions when he saw Tarkowski deny Arsenal a scoring chance by shoving Ramsey from behind in stoppage time. Tarkowski was on the wrong side of Ramsey and simply panicked. To a certain extent, that foul reminded me of Rosicky’s shove in the infamous 4-4 draw between Newcastle and Arsenal a few years ago.

When you face a compact defense, you need a lot of movement and creativity to find and exploit a gap. The Gunners’ few chances came from Ramsey’s movement in the final third. Lacazette skipped past Tarkowski in the 19th to make a cross for Ramsey, whose half-volley sailed wide. Then Ramsey picked out Kolasinac, who missed the target with a free header from 12 yards in the 43rd. The Wales midfielder also took a pass from Sanchez in the 64th for an angled effort that went wide. Ramsey finished the game with 0 of 4 shots on target. But it was his late foray in the area that led to the penalty.

Ozil’s absence meant that the creative burden rested on the shoulders of Sanchez. The Chile striker led all players with 4 key passes. He was also more tidy in possession than usual with just 3 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Sanchez may not be our best penalty taker, but he showed nerves of steel to fire his spot kick low past the goalkeeper.

Up front, Lacazette didn’t get much service. Out of frustration, Lacazette unleashed a low drive in the 51st that didn’t really trouble Pope. The France international also struggled in the air, winning only 1 of 4 headers. To put more pressure in the air, Wenger replaced Lacazette with Welbeck in the 79th.

Within a few months, Lacazette has built a decent understanding with Sanchez and Ramsey, but his interaction with Iwobi is still poor mostly because Iwobi doesn’t read the game well enough. Ozil’s shoes were too big for Iwobi to fill on Sunday. Iwobi doesn’t make smart runs off the ball like Ozil and his end product was limited to only 1 key pass at Turf Moor.

The balance between attacking and defending

The manager tried to inject more creativity in the final third by sending on Wilshere for Iwobi in the 66th. The positives and negatives Wilshere showed in Europa League games were summarized in two plays. Defour capitalized on a Wilshere turnover in the 70th to take his chance from the edge of the box. Wilshere must make an effort to cut his turnover rate otherwise he’ll hurt his team. Ten minutes later, Wilshere played a one-two with Sanchez before mustering a shot that deflected off Tarkowski for a corner. Wilshere can provide more penetration with his ability to play in tiny spaces.

On the wings, Kolasinac created the best chances despite a passing accuracy of 61.4%, the lowest percentage for an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. His decision-making was questionable on a couple of plays. Kolasinac dribbled past Tarkowski in the 49th only to have his shot blocked by Mee. The Bosnia-Herzegovina wingback produced another mazy run in the 68th and completely miscued his shot across goal instead of feeding Lacazette or Ramsey, who both were in a better position. See the screen capture below.

Burnley M68ed Kolasinac could have passed the ball to Ramsey or Lacazette. (Photo credit: CNBC)

In stoppage time, Xhaka sent a long ball toward Kolasinac, who headed it across goal. Ramsey was fouled by Tarkowski before he could even flick it on. Amid all the controversy about the penalty, Wilshere was a better passing option than Ramsey, sandwiched between 2 defenders. See the screen capture below.

Burnley M91ed Kolasinac could have knocked the ball down for an unmarked Wilshere. (Photo credit: CNBC)

In the last few games, I felt Bellerin didn’t find the right balance between attacking and defending. The Spaniard made no interception and no block and won only 1 of 5 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Burnley’s main chances came from his flank in the first half. Bellerin failed to stop a Brady cross for Barnes, who was flagged offside in the 10th. Five minutes later, Bellerin was dispossessed by Brady and the ball fell to Gudmunsson, who rounded Monreal to rattle the near post. Hendrick then met a cross from our right flank in the 22nd but Cech parried the close-range header from the Irish midfielder.

Team selection dilemma

It’s obviously easier to deal with crosses when you have 3 centerbacks. Mustafi was the most active of the trio as he made 2 interceptions and 2 blocks and won 3 of 5 tackles and 7 of 12 headers. He also led all players with 4 fouls, including a silly one that led to a dangerous free kick on the edge of the box in the 59th. In the closing minutes, Wenger could have shifted to a back four to send on Giroud but he preferred to stick with the back three.

I only expect a couple of changes for Wednesday’s game against Huddersfield Town. Then the Gunners will have just 2 days of rest before hosting Manchester United on Saturday. That game could prove tricky since Arsenal will have one day less to recover than the Red Devils. Can Ramsey start 3 Premier League games in a 7-day span or is that a too big risk?


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.