Tag Archives: Ramsey

West Brom vs. Arsenal: Free fall continues with 3-1 loss

Let’s not kid ourselves, Arsenal won’t finish in the Top 4 this season and there will be no St Totteringham’s Day. The Gunners have lost 4 of their last 5 Premier League games after Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at West Brom. They still sit in fifth place in the standings but 5 points behind Liverpool and 6 behind Manchester City and Tottenham.

West Brom vs. Arsenal

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

The Baggies’ game plan was pretty simple: park the bus and capitalize on counterattacks and set pieces to score. Yet, Arsenal couldn’t cope with West Brom’s direct approach. Let’s start with the set pieces. Dawson made a run from the penalty spot in the 12th minute to nod in Chadli’s corner from about 3 yards. We know that the Gunners use zonal marking on corners. One problem with zonal marking is that it’s very static. Dawson was able to outjump Koscielny because he had more momentum. Ramsey made the first mistake on that play by not blocking Dawson, who had a free run inside the box. The second mistake came from the defenders. Cech should be able to claim the ball but Fletcher hampered the goalkeeper’s freedom of movement by standing in front of him. It’s up to the defenders to clean up the 6-yard box for their goalkeeper.

Arsenal tried to adjust to those tactics in the second half but Dawson made it 3-1 by heading home McClean’s corner in the 75th. The plan was to neutralize Dawson and Fletcher. Oxlade-Chamberlain marked Dawson but failed to get in the way of the West Brom fullback when he made his run from the penalty spot. Likewise, Xhaka tried to shield Ospina from Fletcher, but the Colombia goalkeeper, who replaced an injured Cech in the 38th, lost his footing and couldn’t intervene. That goal looked worse than the opening goal because Mustafi and Koscielny both followed McAuley and left a huge gap for Dawson to run into.

Lack of defensive awareness

The Ox and Ramsey are seasoned players. Yet, they showed their lack of defensive awareness on those corners. If Ramsey wants to play in central midfield, he seriously needs to improve his positional play. The Wales midfielder failed to track Fletcher, who took a pass from Livermore to test Cech in the 34th. The Ox had a good work-rate, winning 2 of 3 tackles and making 1 key pass, 1 interception, 2 blocks and 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but it’s the defensive details that are ruining his overall performance.

Ramsey also had a hand in the Baggies’ second goal. Chadli sent a ball over the top to McClean in the 56th but Ospina came off his line to knock the ball into the path of Robson-Kanu, who stabbed the rebound home. The first mistake came from Ramsey, who sat too deep on that play. He was next to Mustafi inside the area while he should have closed down Chadli on the edge of the box. The second mistake came from Mustafi, who played McClean onside. And the third mistake came from some poor coordination between Bellerin and Ospina. The goalkeeper should have dived headfirst to gather the ball instead of going feet first.

At the back, Monreal proved our best defender, winning 80% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 94.6% according to the club’s website. The main disappointment came from the centerbacks. Rondon outjumped Koscielny in the 51st only to head Brunt’s cross wide. Then Robson-Kanu got ahead of Mustafi to take Brunt’s pass in the 67th but was denied by Ospina.

Our defenders were a bit more exposed than usual because our midfield was again too soft. I thought the Baggies too easily reached the final third the few times they led counterattacks. Nyom ran past Xhaka, Bellerin and Mustafi in the fifth minute to square the ball back for Rondon, who couldn’t make contact with the offering for a tap-in. Then Brunt fed McClean, whose angled strike was parried by Cech in the 12th. Chadli also led a fast break in the 31st to pick out Rondon, who dragged his shot wide.

Targeting Sanchez

While we have struggled to keep clean sheets this season, another concern is the team’s lack of ideas. The Gunners enjoyed 77% of ball possession but only produced 2 shots on target compared to 8 for West Brom. A more shocking stat is that the Baggies had 3 accurate through balls compared to just one for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. Ozil was not in the squad because he picked up a knock in training. The quality of his final ball would have maybe made a difference in that kind of game.

Walcott was invisible at the Hawthorns. He had no shot and no key pass, made no dribble and no interception, and won no tackle and no aerial duel. His limited passing and dribbling skills became all the more obvious that the West Brom defense sat deep to give him no space to run into. The manager yanked Walcott off in the 65th to send on Giroud. Welbeck got the nod over Giroud to lead the line but lacked decent service. His only scoring chance came in the 65th when he met a corner from Xhaka for a header that crashed against the bar. Welbeck showed more end product than Walcott by finishing the game with 2 key passes.

Besides Monreal, the only Gunner who performed at a good level was Sanchez. The Chile striker chested down a cross from Xhaka in the 15th to fire into the roof of the net for his 18th league goal this season. Sanchez also slipped a through ball to Ramsey, who forced Foster into a diving save in the 33rd. He was replaced by Iwobi in the 78th because of an ankle injury suffered in the first half.

The Baggies felt Sanchez was the main threat and targeted him. McAuley made a cynical foul on Sanchez in the 19th. Then Livermore pulled Sanchez back and clipped his leg in the 23rd but no foul was given. Rondon killed a counterattack in the 27th by fouling Sanchez and landing on his back with his knee. It could have been a yellow card but the referee only awarded a free kick.

The board’s passivity

If Oliver had been the referee, he would have warned West Brom about repetitive fouling like he did with Manchester United against Chelsea in the FA Cup. Unfortunately, the Gunners had to deal with a referee, Swarbrick, who didn’t seem to care much about the players’ physical integrity. So I wasn’t really surprised when McClean damaged Sanchez’s ankle with a late tackle in the 42nd. The Irish winger received a yellow card but it could have been a sending-off, especially when you compare with Xhaka’s red cards. See the screen capture below.

West Brom vs. Arsenal Sky editedMcClean makes a late studs-up tackle that could have broken Sanchez’s leg. (Photo credit: Sky)

Arsenal’s collective expression was really poor. You have to wonder to what extent the players are affected by those negative banners displayed by the fans in the stands. Putting pressure on the board is fine, but the way it’s done by the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade is completely wrong. Those banners just create a toxic atmosphere for the team, too. There are still 11 league games to play. A free fall won’t help the club sign new players this summer, especially since Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchesters.

Renewing Wenger’s contract would make the atmosphere even more toxic next season. The board must act to protect the club. Wenger is like a punch-drunk boxer who is convinced he can still win the next round. I believe the manager already had his chances and simply failed to take them. Wenger only signed Cech in the summer of 2015 while a couple more signings would have turned Arsenal into a legitimate contender. Last summer, he tried to improve the squad by signing Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez, but the quality of those players has been questionable. It’s unfair for the most successful manager in the club’s history to get so much stick, but the board’s passivity has made the situation worse.

 

Arsenal vs. Lincoln City: A few thoughts on the 5-0 win

The Gunners bounced back from a humiliating Champions League exit by routing Lincoln City 5-0 on Saturday to reach the semifinals of the FA Cup. Wenger did not underestimate the Imps as he made only two changes to the side that was thrashed 5-1 by Bayern Munich on Tuesday, replacing Ospina and Monreal with Cech and Gibbs in the starting lineup. Even the bench looked strong with Ozil, Monreal, Coquelin, Iwobi, Perez, Paulista and Martinez available for substitutions.

Arsenal vs. Lincoln

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

Lincoln City, a club leading the fifth division of English football, put up a good fight for 45 minutes before the gulf in class showed in the second half. Arsenal enjoyed 77% of ball possession and had 23 goal attempts compared to 4 for the visitors. That sounds like a one-sided encounter but it could have been a different story if Walcott had not opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime.

  1. Walcott is still on fire

Just a few days after finding the net against Bayern, Walcott proved a live wire in the first half. He pounced on a clearance from the Lincoln defense in the 14th minute to fire a volley that hit the base of the post. The England international then got ahead of his marker in the 34th to take a pass from Sanchez and unleash a low strike straight at the goalkeeper. The Gunners capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to finally take the lead in the 45th. Gibbs teed up Walcott, who buried the ball into the bottom corner.

  1. Sanchez loves the game

Amid rumors of a departure this summer, Sanchez keeps giving everything on the pitch. Surprisingly, Sanchez’s body language was less negative than usual as he even applauded his teammates when they overhit a pass. The Chile striker was relatively quiet in the first half before coming to life in the second. He finished the game with 1 goal, 3 key passes, 3 tackles won and 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Ozil met a cross from Sanchez in the 68th only to head over the bar. Five minutes later, Sanchez evaded a tackle from Wood and made it 4-0 with a curling shot from the edge of the box. Sanchez set up Ramsey for the fifth goal in the 75th before rattling the bar with a free kick in the 86th.

  1. Giroud could play key role in run-in

In the first half of the season, Wenger played Sanchez as a centerforward while using Giroud as a super-sub. That tactical shift gave more pace to the offense but it also proved a bit one-dimensional since Sanchez is no threat in the air. In the past three games, the manager has switched back to the blueprint of last season by starting Giroud up front while moving Sanchez back to the left wing. Giroud’s performance against Lincoln City was a mixed bag. He converted Bellerin’s cross in the 53rd and also had an angled effort palmed away by Farman in the 50th. However, the Frenchman did not cover himself in glory with a tame chip attempt from 12 yards in the 51st and an air shot in the 53rd.

  1. The midfield is still a work in progress

Like in the Bayern game, Wenger used again an inverted pyramid with Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain playing as all-rounders in front of Xhaka, the holding midfielder. The manager had to change his plans in the 27th when the Ox picked up an injury. Wenger switched to a 4-2-3-1 system by replacing the Ox with Ozil. Ramsey teamed up with Xhaka in central midfield for 34 minutes before the manager sent on Coquelin in the 61st for Xhaka, who got booked for a rash challenge on Rhead in the 24th. Was Wenger able to draw any significant conclusion from those three different midfield combinations?

  1. Ramsey is still a bit rusty

This has been a challenging season for Ramsey, who had to deal with a calf injury and two hamstring injuries. Definitely not the best scenario to build self-confidence. The Wales midfielder still made his trademark deep runs on Saturday but had only 1 of 6 shots on target. He met a low cross from Walcott on the stroke of halftime only to blaze over the bar from 15 yards. Ramsey managed to score in the 75th by controlling a cross from Sanchez to dribble past Farman and walk the ball into the net. His hyperactivity in midfield is perfectly tailored for an inverted pyramid. Ramsey doesn’t have Ozil’s passing skills but he makes more tackles and interceptions than the Germany playmaker while still being a goal threat.

  1. The fullbacks did a great job

Gibbs and Bellerin finished the game with two key passes each. They also won 70% and 75% of their duels respectively, according to the club’s website. Gibbs set up Walcott for the opening goal and had his cross diverted into his own net by Waterfall in the 58th for the third. Both Gibbs and Bellerin helped Arsenal stretch the Lincoln defense by making good use of the flanks. Gibbs could have scored in the 50th but headed Walcott’s cross over the bar.

  1. Referees lose credibility when they make inconsistent calls

Taylor is the infamous fourth official who had a beef with Wenger in the 2-1 win over Burnley in January. The row led to a four-game touchline ban for Wenger. The French manager kept his cool on Saturday although some of Taylor’s calls were dodgy. Arnold was not even booked for a stamp from behind on Sanchez in the ninth minute. And Sanchez did not get any free kick despite an obvious obstruction from Wood in the 36th. For a similar obstruction on Muldoon in the 37th, Koscielny received a yellow card. In the end, those poor calls did not affect the outcome because of the gulf in class between the two teams.

 

Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich: A few thoughts on the 5-1 defeat

Things are getting ugly both for the manager and the club after Arsenal suffered another 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich on Tuesday. The 10-2 aggregate defeat is the worst result by an English club in the history of the Champions League. The Bavarians are definitely a good side, but they still lost to Atletico Madrid and Rostov in the group stage. So there was room for the Gunners to salvage some pride and maybe get a draw in the second leg just like when Bayern knocked them out three years ago.

Arsenal FC v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg

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

The Gunners have been eliminated in the last 16 of the Champions League for the seventh straight season. In that seven-year span, smaller clubs like Shaktar Donetsk, APOEL, Galatasaray, Malaga and Wolfsburg managed to reach the quarterfinals. There’s this feeling among the fans that Wenger has carried Arsenal as far as he could and that someone else needs to take over. Many supporters left the Emirates stadium before the final whistle and some displayed banners in the second half calling for an end to the French manager’s tenure.

To be honest, the Gunners produced a decent performance until Koscielny’s controversial ejection in the 53rd minute. Bayern created 12 chances compared to 8 for Arsenal. Just like in the first leg, the Bavarians did a better job at defending as a unit, making 52 ball recoveries compared to 40 for Arsenal according to the UEFA statistics, and making 24 interceptions compared to 13 for the hosts according to Squawka.

  1. Should Arsenal use an inverted pyramid?

The Gunners have leaked a lot of goals lately. One explanation is that Coquelin is winning fewer tackles than when he was paired with Cazorla. Another reason is that the Gunners are often outplayed in midfield because of Ozil’s poor work-rate. Wenger tried to provide more protection to the back four against Bayern by switching to a 4-3-3 system instead of his favored 4-2-3-1 formation. In a 4-2-3-1 system, the midfield looks like a pyramid with a playmaker on top of it. In a 4-3-3 formation, there is no playmaker and the midfield looks like an inverted pyramid.

The manager used that inverted pyramid at Stamford Bridge with Coquelin, Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield but it didn’t work out as Arsenal lost 3-1. Against Bayern, Wenger played Ramsey and the Ox as all-rounders in front of Xhaka, the holding midfielder. A more defensive alternative would be to play Maitland-Niles as the sweeper in front of the back four. Maitland-Niles doesn’t have Xhaka’s passing skills but he has more pace and wins more tackles.

Obviously, Ramsey and the Ox don’t play like Ozil. Therefore, the team has to adapt and play differently. Ramsey and the Ox still led the team with 2 key passes each. In his return from injury, Ramsey was a bit rusty with a passing accuracy as low as 68.2% but he managed to win 2 of 3 tackles before Coquelin replaced him in the 72nd. The Ox shone in midfield and proved his importance in the transition game by having 10 successful dribbles out of 10.

  1. Walcott was on fire

The England international showed a lot of desire and proved a bigger threat in the final third than Sanchez. Walcott put in a shift, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 4 interceptions and 2 blocks, but he also had 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. His first chance came from a Sanchez crossfield pass in the 11th. Walcott was clean through on goal but his poor first touch allowed Neuer to kick the ball into touch. He then met a cross from the Ox in the 17th for a header that bounced off Martinez for a corner. Three minutes later, Walcott benefited from a lucky bounce to open the scoring with an angled strike into the roof of the net. In a similar situation in the 34th, Walcott fired into the side-netting instead of cutting the ball back for Giroud. Walcott faded in the second half after Koscielny’s ejection.

  1. The additional assistant referee screwed up

Also known as the goal-line official, he denied Walcott a penalty in the 33rd. Walcott shifted the ball from his left foot to his right when a clumsy challenge from Alonso brought him down. It’s pretty clear with TV replays that Alonso was a split second late and tripped Walcott. If the referee makes the right call, it could have been 2-0 for Arsenal.

The turning point of the game was Koscielny’s red card in the 53rd. Initially, the referee awarded a penalty and gave Koscielny a yellow card for a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge on Lewandowski, who went down easily. But the goal-line official claimed it was a deliberate foul and therefore a red card. In the end, the referee followed his assistant’s advice and sent Koscielny off. To me, Koscielny’s foul was even less obvious than Alonso’s foul. Lewandowski converted the penalty to level. Down to 10 men, winning the match became mission impossible for Arsenal.

  1. Giroud can be incredibly wasteful

The France striker could have almost notched a hat trick with some clinical finishing. He beat Hummels to a loose ball in the 13th for a header that bounced off the base of the post. Then Giroud couldn’t make solid contact with Monreal’s headed pass in the 37th and sliced his effort wide. But the one chance he should have converted was his free header in the 48th. An unmarked Giroud mistimed his jump and sent Ramsey’s cross over the bar from 6 yards.

  1. Has the bust-up controversy affected Sanchez?

Sanchez did very little if we except his long ball for Walcott in the 11th. That’s so unusual from the Chile striker that fans may wonder whether the controversy over the row on the training ground has worn him down mentally. In the 68th, Sanchez was robbed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Robben, who shot past Ospina to make it 2-1. Playing on the left flank, Sanchez made no key pass and was replaced by Ozil in the 72nd.

  1. The Gunners lack defensive awareness

Twice Bayern quickly played a free kick, and twice Arsenal switched off. Lewandowski beat the offside trap to control a ball over the top in the 25th but was denied by Ospina. Then Hummels flicked home a free kick from Alonso in the 49th but the goal was disallowed for offside.

  1. Mustafi looks bad without Koscielny

It was like in the first leg when Mustafi suddenly became clueless after an injury forced Koscielny off the pitch. There were signs in the first half that Mustafi’s decision-making was dodgy. Twice he dived in, and twice he missed the ball and left the defense exposed. Mustafi only won 1 of 7 tackles according to Squawka.

Koscielny’s red card forced Mustafi to team up with Xhaka at the back. Mustafi was pulled out of position on the play that led to Lewandowski’s penalty. The last 15 minutes were a nightmare for the Germany international. Costa dribbled past Mustafi in the 76th to make a cross for Lewandowski, who struck the post with a first-time effort. Two minutes later, Costa cut inside Mustafi to curl a low shot inside the far post for a 3-1 lead. Mustafi then gave the ball away to Alonso, who fed Vidal and the Chile midfielder chipped Ospina for a 4-1 lead in the 80th. Bayern capitalized on an ill-advised offside trap set by Mustafi to seal the win in the 85th. Costa teed up Vidal, who fired past the helpless Ospina. There was no pressure on Sanches, the ballholder, and Mustafi had very little understanding with Coquelin, who had taken Xhaka’s spot at centerback.

  1. Why did Xhaka play as a defender?

I was surprised by Wenger’s decision to play Xhaka as a centerback after Koscielny’s ejection. It was a risky gamble that backfired. I expected the manager to limit the damage by sending on Paulista for Giroud.

Xhaka’s lack of pace is a greater liability at the back than in midfield. For some reason, he ventured high up the pitch in the 78th and lost possession to Rafinha. Pulled out of position, Xhaka fouled Rafinha with a mistimed tackle, but the referee played advantage and Costa got hold of the loose ball to score Bayern’s third goal.

  1. Ospina needs to work on his distribution

The Colombia goalkeeper made two good saves, keeping out Vidal’s header with a reflex save in the 24th and parrying Lewandowski’s powerful strike in the 64th. But his poor distribution led to Bayern’s second goal.

Arsenal vs. Watford: Title bid over after pathetic 2-1 loss

The Gunners had a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday to get back in the Premier League title race. A victory over Watford combined with Chelsea’s 1-1 draw at Liverpool would have narrowed the gap to 6 points. This was the perfect moment to make a statement. But Arsenal bottled it with an abject performance at the Emirates stadium, losing 2-1 to the Hornets to trail the Blues by 9 points in the standings. Even if the Gunners win at Stamford Bridge this Saturday, Chelsea will still have a six-point lead atop the league. That’s a massive gap knowing that Arsenal will have to face Liverpool, Tottenham and the two Manchesters in the next couple of months while the Blues are already done with two of those clubs.

arsenal-vs-watford

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

In the first half, Arsenal never looked like a team contending for the title. They didn’t create any chance and had no shot on target in what was arguably their worst performance of the season. It wasn’t a fitness issue since only Mustafi had started the FA Cup game against Southampton last Saturday. It’s just that the Hornets showed more hunger, making more interceptions (19 vs. 8) and more tackles (53 vs. 37) than Arsenal, according to Squawka. Anybody could see that the Gunners were not at the races with a flurry of stray passes and turnovers.

Arsenal gave away cheap free kicks in the first 10 minutes of the match. The third free kick led to the opening goal with a long-range strike from Kaboul that deflected off Ramsey to beat Cech in the 10th. Three minutes later, a poor throw-in from Paulista led to a Watford counterattack. Capoue intercepted the ball, ran past Coquelin and rounded Mustafi to be denied by Cech. However, the rebound fell into the path of Deeney who doubled the lead from close range. It was a basic 3v2 situation that got out of control because Coquelin and Mustafi failed to challenge Capoue. Did Coquelin and Mustafi defend too passively because they still had in mind Xhaka’s red card against Burnley?

Nobody to steer the ship

The fans punished the Gunners for their complacency by booing them at halftime. The scoreline could have been worse if Cech had not made a couple of decent saves, tipping Prodl’s header over the bar in the 34th and parrying Janmaat’s powerful strike in the 36th. The manager made a tactical adjustment during the break by yanking off Giroud to send on Walcott. Giroud was inefficient in his hold-up play as he was dispossessed 4 times. But he never really got any decent service from Ozil, Sanchez or Iwobi.

The club still hasn’t reached any agreement with Sanchez and Ozil in their contract negotiations. If they ask for more than £200,000 per week, I believe it wouldn’t be worth it to keep them. Sanchez and Ozil are the technical leaders of the team but they completely went missing in the first half. In fact, no player was able to steer the ship in the right direction after the Gunners got off to a poor start.

Sanchez finished the game with only 1 key pass, 0 of 5 shots on target, and was dispossessed 8 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. A risky dribbling attempt by Sanchez on the edge of the Arsenal box led to a turnover in the 26th but Capoue’s low drive did not trouble Cech.

Ozil made 6 key passes, the most for any player, but no through ball. He was let down by his nerves in the 43rd with a cross that sailed beyond Giroud and Sanchez. The Germany playmaker also had a decent goalscoring chance in the 55th but could only muster a tame half-volley straight at Gomes.

Iwobi leading the revolt

Iwobi and Perez were two players who showed more desire than Sanchez and Ozil. Iwobi had very little impact on the right flank in the first half, but his switch to the left wing in the second half led to Arsenal’s revolt. He held off a defender in the 50th to find Ozil, who slipped the ball to Walcott. The England international finally tested Gomes with a low strike. Five minutes later, Iwobi played a one-two with Oxlade-Chamberlain only to be denied by a diving save from Gomes. Iwobi then met a cross from Sanchez in the 57th for an awkward volley that trickled into the far corner to cut the Hornets’ lead.

Desperately chasing an equalizer, Wenger switched to a 4-2-4 formation by replacing Coquelin with Perez in the 67th. The Gunners had more presence in the box but still couldn’t crack the Watford defense. Perez proved our most dynamic player in the closing minutes. He cut the ball back for Paulista, who fired over the bar in the 76th. The Spaniard then rattled the bar with a powerful drive in the 85th. In stoppage time, Perez took a pass from Ozil to hit a tame effort straight at Gomes.

The manager started Coquelin and Ramsey in central midfield. Ramsey is mostly a box-to-box player and couldn’t really perform the role of a deep-plying playmaker that the Gunners need against average sides like Watford to set the tempo. He had to leave the pitch in the 18th after picking up a calf injury. Oxlade-Chamberlain, who replaced the Wales midfielder, worked his socks off, winning 2 of 7 tackles and having 2 successful dribbles out of 3. His partnership with Coquelin didn’t look as complementary as the duo he formed with Maitland-Niles against Southampton.

Rethinking the Ox’s position

Ramsey is having a nightmarish season with already three injuries so far. I believe the staff should use the Ox as a central midfielder until the end of the season to make up for the lack of options in that area. Cazorla may not return before April, Ramsey is now doubtful for the next couple of games, and Xhaka is still serving a four-game ban.

At the back, Paulista had the best stats amongst Arsenal defenders, winning 4 of 8 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels, and making 3 key passes, 3 interceptions and 1 block. Wenger would have probably started Bellerin at rightback if the Spaniard had not been sidelined by an ankle injury last month.

In the first half, I really felt that Arsenal’s season was unraveling. This is not the first time that the Gunners are dropping points against weak or average teams. The draws with Leicester, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth and the loss to Watford all point to the same pattern: the Gunners aren’t ruthless enough. That’s why they aren’t serious contenders this season. Will those results cost them a Top 4 finish, too?

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Gunners grind out 2-1 win despite Xhaka’s red card

The Gunners scored in the eighth minute of stoppage time to move into second place in the Premier League with a 2-1 victory over Burnley on Sunday. However, I still don’t see them as serious contenders this season. First, they trail Chelsea by 8 points. Of course, there are 16 league games left. That means 48 points up for grabs. But the Blues have been incredibly consistent so far, dropping points in just 4 games. Chelsea lost to Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, and drew with Swansea at the beginning of the season when Conte had not switched to a back three yet. By contrast, the Gunners have conceded 5 draws and 3 defeats. It’s OK to lose to Liverpool and Manchester City and draw with Tottenham and Manchester United, but dropping points against weak or average sides like Leicester, Middlesbrough, Bournemouth and Everton has significantly hurt Arsenal’s title bid. And second, the Gunners have a tougher schedule than some of their rivals. Spurs are 1 point behind Arsenal but they have already played Chelsea and Manchester City in the second half of the season while the Gunners haven’t faced any Top 6 team yet.

arsenal-vs-burnley

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

Moss, the referee, was under the spotlight for a couple of questionable calls. Xhaka’s ejection in the 65th minute was the least controversial one. The Switzerland international definitely deserved a red card for his reckless two-footed lunge on Defour. What really upset Wenger was the penalty that Moss awarded to Burnley in the second minute of stoppage time. Coquelin tripped Barnes while trying to control the ball. It was pretty similar to the play involving Koscielny and Ki a week ago. Coquelin flicked out a leg and withdrew it when he saw Barnes intercept the ball. There was contact, but was it enough to give a penalty? Wenger disagreed with the referee and got sent off after Gray converted the spot kick.

Bournemouth’s playbook

Managers usually rely on consistency to assess a referee’s performance. Wenger probably had in mind the penalty shout ignored by Moss in the 56th when Gray shoved Mustafi from behind while challenging for the ball. Honestly, it was a soft penalty, the kind of call that can go either way. But then, Coquelin’s foul was a soft penalty too. So where’s the consistency?

Then, Sanchez made a cross for Koscielny in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Koscielny met the cross but was kicked in the head by Mee. If Moss thought Coquelin’s foul was a penalty, there’s no way he could not award a penalty to Arsenal for Mee’s dangerous kick. Sanchez scored the winner with a cheeky Panenka and threw his shirt in the crowd after the final whistle.

It looks like the weak and average sides are taking a leaf out of Bournemouth’s playbook by turning the game into a physical contest. After the match, Wenger described Burnley as “a team who made the game very uncomfortable” for Arsenal. The Gunners enjoyed 70% of ball possession but struggled to create clear-cut chances, mustering just 8 shots on target compared to 7 for the visitors.

There was no mid-week game, yet Arsenal played at a too average tempo to really trouble a well-organized Burnley side. The Clarets showed more commitment by winning 18 of 49 tackles, while the Gunners only won 7 of 22 tackles according to Squawka. They also added a touch of cynicism to prevent Arsenal from punishing them on the fast break. Lowton received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 58th and Marney got booked for a cynical foul on Ozil in the 73rd.

Poor service for Giroud

As a sign of Arsenal’s lack of penetration, most of our chances came from crosses or long-range efforts. Ozil had a curling shot tipped around the post by Heaton in the 14th while Sanchez tested the Burnley goalkeeper with a low drive in the 40th. The Gunners struggled with the quality of the final ball but they put the Burnley defense under pressure the few times their delivery proved accurate. Koscielny connected with a cross from Ramsey in the 15th for a header straight at Heaton. Giroud then redirected a cross from Sanchez in the 48th toward Ramsey, whose backheel flick sailed over the bar. Mustafi finally opened the scoring in the 59th by nodding a corner from Ozil into the bottom corner. Arsenal could have doubled the lead in the 89th when the Clarets poorly cleared a cross from Bellerin. The loose ball fell to Coquelin, whose powerful strike was parried by Heaton.

Sanchez showed great composure to convert his penalty but I thought his finishing was poor a couple of times. He headed wide a long ball from Mustafi in the 10th and missed the target with curling shots in the 42nd and 49th. The Chile striker also held onto the ball too long and was dispossessed 5 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Sanchez has made progress in improving his understanding with Giroud, but it still doesn’t come naturally.

Giroud didn’t get much service although he’s a dominant player in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 20th when Ozil found him with a low pass. Giroud made poor contact with the ball for a first-time effort that rolled wide. Sanchez and Iwobi are great options for plays on the ground but crosses from the wings aren’t their forte. Maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been a better choice to feed Giroud. Despite the lack of opportunities, Giroud contributed by making 2 key passes and winning 3 of 5 headers.

A costly lapse of concentration

Xhaka was having a good game until his red card. Besides his 3 key passes, tied with Ozil, Sanchez and Iwobi for the most by any player, Xhaka was the only Arsenal midfielder who won a tackle on Sunday, according to Squawka. He also won 85.7% of his duels, the best percentage for any midfielder according to the club’s website, and helped his team evade Burnley’s high press with his passing range, hitting 8 accurate long balls out of 9.

His ejection resulted from a lapse of concentration and some poor judgment. For a split second, Xhaka lost his focus and failed to realize that the Clarets were cutting his passing options. When Defour intercepted his risky pass for Paulista, Xhaka panicked and made a reckless challenge on the Belgium midfielder although Mustafi and Koscielny were covering him. A similar lapse of concentration from Xhaka cost Arsenal a goal in the 3-2 win over Swansea last October. Can Xhaka quickly learn his lesson like Koscielny did after his first season in England? Koscielny is now the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense but he was just as reckless as Xhaka when he joined the club in 2010.

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka is still a work in progress. I felt Ramsey could have contributed a bit more defensively. The Wales midfielder made no tackle and no interception. Offensively, Ramsey made 2 key passes and had 5 successful dribbles out of 6, but none of his 4 goal attempts was on target. His failure to clear the ball in stoppage time led to the Clarets’ equalizer. Koscielny initially won the header from a Burnley throw-in and the second ball fell to Ramsey, who was reluctant to clear the danger with his left foot. Ramsey put Coquelin in trouble by awkwardly knocking the ball with his right foot. Coquelin couldn’t control the ball with his first touch and ended up tripping Barnes.

Bellerin & Coquelin return

In a strange game of symmetry, the Clarets also relied on crosses and long-range efforts to create chances. Cech turned around the post a diagonal drive from Barnes in the 16th before Marney fired straight at the Czech goalkeeper in the 60th. The Gunners struggled again to stop crosses from their left flank. Lowton capitalized on a Sanchez turnover in the 13th to make a cross for Barnes that Cech intercepted. Burnley could have taken the lead in the 28th when Boyd picked out Gray, who rolled away from Xhaka only to shoot straight at Cech. Boyd made another teasing cross in the 44th but Cech beat Gray to the ball. In the second half, Keane hit a long ball toward Vokes, who outjumped Mustafi to flick the ball on. Barnes beat Paulista to the second ball, but Koscielny managed to block the striker’s close-range attempt.

Within a few months, Koscielny and Mustafi have built a solid partnership at centerback. Koscielny acts like a sweeper, relying on his positional play and sound reading of the game, while Mustafi is a pro-active defender, more mobile and more involved in the team’s passing game. When Mustafi was dispossessed by Gray in the 20th, Koscielny killed the counterattack with a timely tackle. At 24, Mustafi is still a young centerback. He must learn to refrain from making silly fouls like the one in the 71st that allowed Defour to test Cech with a dangerous free kick.

In his return from an ankle injury, Bellerin came off the bench to replace Ozil in the 88th as Wenger was trying to protect his team’s lead. I expect Bellerin to start the next games at rightback since Paulista doesn’t have the Spaniard’s pace and passing skills. Paulista only won 16.7% of his duels, the lowest percentage among all the defenders. His passing accuracy reached 92.5% but it’s a misleading stat because a lot of Paulista’s passes went sideways or backward. He only made 1 cross compared to 3 for Monreal.

Xhaka’s second red card in the Premier League means that he will miss the next 4 games. It also means that the manager will have no room for rotation in midfield since Elneny is still on national duty with Egypt while Cazorla may not return before April. Coquelin, who made his return from a hamstring injury by replacing Iwobi in the 69th, will therefore team up with Ramsey until mid-February.

Swansea vs. Arsenal: Gunners make up ground with 4-0 win

Arsenal thrashed Swansea 4-0 on Saturday to move into fourth place, one point behind Liverpool and Tottenham. The scoreline was quite flattering since two goals resulted from deflected shots and the other two came from poor clearances. However, what really matters is the clean sheet, only their seventh in the Premier League this season.

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

One big reason why the Gunners have struggled to mount a serious title challenge is their defensive record. They have conceded 22 goals so far, 7 more than Chelsea and 8 more than Tottenham. The draw with Bournemouth and the losses to Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool are obvious examples of points dropped because of some poor defending. By contrast, the Gunners have an outstanding offensive record with 48 goals scored. Only Liverpool can match that tally. The goalless draws with Middlesbrough and Leicester are the only two league games in which Arsenal failed to find the net.

At the Liberty stadium, the Gunners produced a lethargic display in the first half with a slow tempo and no penetration. Somehow, they took the lead in the 37th minute thanks to Giroud, the man who scores important goals. The France striker didn’t cover himself in glory on that play though. Ramsey squared the ball back to Giroud, who couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Sanchez kept the ball in play and made a cross for Ozil, whose header was blocked by Mawson. The ball fell into the path of Giroud, who slammed it into the top corner.

Giroud usually loves celebrating his goals, but an ankle injury he picked up while missing the tap-in led him to ask for a substitution. He managed to stay on the pitch until the 60th when Oxlade-Chamberlain finally came off the bench. By winning 4 of 6 aerial duels, Giroud proved a valuable outlet for long balls when Arsenal tried to evade the Swans’ high press.

The bigger picture

Sanchez sealed the win by scoring from close range in the 73rd. The Ox initially made a poor cross that sailed behind Sanchez. Routledge beat Ramsey to the loose ball only to knock it back into the path of Sanchez, who volleyed home. Sanchez could have made it 5-0 in the 78th but he was dispossessed by Mawson after an awkward first touch.

The Chile striker had 2 key passes, 2 successful dribbles out of 2, and tested Fabianski with a low strike in the 28th. He showed a tremendous work-rate by winning 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player according to Squawka. As a result of his hyperactivity, Sanchez was also dispossessed 4 times.

Much was said about Sanchez’s reaction when Welbeck replaced him in the 79th. Sanchez clearly looked upset. However, it shouldn’t be a big deal. It simply shows that Sanchez wants to give his all. Players like Aguero and Cristiano Ronaldo also look frustrated when they are yanked off the pitch. The bigger picture is that Wenger needed to give some playing time to Welbeck, who is the only forward with a skillset similar to Giroud’s.

On the right wing, Iwobi gave Arsenal a 3-0 lead with two deflected shots. He capitalized on a good spell of domination in the 54th to fire a shot that took a deflection off Cork to loop over Fabianski. Then, Iwobi’s cross was diverted by Naughton into his own net in the 67th. Those were lucky goals, but you have to give Iwobi some credit for his desire. The Nigeria international also improved his defensive contribution by winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels.

A work in progress

In his return from illness, Ozil didn’t show much although he managed to make 3 key passes, the most for any player. His work-rate is still questionable. Ramsey ended up pressing a Swan in the space occupied by Ozil because the Germany playmaker was reluctant to do it. It’s not the first time that Ozil has ignored his defensive duties. Giroud against West Brom and Sanchez against Manchester City also had to close down opponents in Ozil’s zone.

The tandem formed by Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield is still a work in progress. When Coquelin starts alongside Cazorla or Xhaka, it’s pretty clear that Coquelin will do most of the defensive work while Cazorla or Xhaka will focus on building plays. The distribution is more even when Xhaka teams up with Ramsey because Xhaka doesn’t have Coquelin’s mobility while Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder. Offensively, Xhaka is the one connecting the defense with the forwards while Ramsey is the one making the runs in the final third. Defensively, Xhaka is the one protecting the back four while Ramsey is the one pressing high up the pitch.

Xhaka had two passes intercepted in the first 10 minutes before growing into the game. The Switzerland international finished the match with a passing accuracy of 93.5%, the highest percentage for any starting player. He also hit 5 accurate long balls out of 6. Among the outfield players, only Ki had more accurate long balls according to whoscored.com. At 24, Xhaka still has room for improvement, especially in his reading of the game. He dropped back in a too deep position in the 11th instead of staying with Naughton, who took a pass from Dyer for a low drive that Cech turned around the post. In the closing minutes, Xhaka tested Fabianski twice with long-range efforts.

Ball-watching

Ramsey and Xhaka combined to win only 2 of 8 tackles. Xhaka made 4 interceptions compared to just 1 for Ramsey. That’s an area in which Ramsey could improve. Aware of his defensive duties, Ramsey was also more frugal with his runs in the final third. His only goal attempt was a low strike that Fabianski saved in the 53rd.

The Swans were not as shabby as the scoreline would suggest. They created 7 chances compared to 9 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. Their best chances came from turnovers and ball-watching by the Gunners. Wenger really needs to do something about ball-watching in training because that could become a serious problem for his team.

Managers often talk about fitness, technique, mental toughness and reading of the game as key factors in the success of a player, but focus is just as important. One short lapse of concentration is enough to prevent a player from spotting a dangerous situation or a goalscoring opportunity.

Swansea could have equalized in the 43rd when Llorente held off Koscielny to feed Ki. The South Korea international took a heavy first touch and the ball got away from him. Koscielny flicked out a leg but removed it to avoid a penalty. Ki went down while the loose ball fell to Routledge, who got ahead of Paulista to fire a low strike that Cech parried with his legs. The referee booked Ki for diving although there seemed to be contact between Ki and Koscielny. However, the main defensive mistake on that play was Xhaka’s failure to track Ki’s run inside the area. See the screen captures below.

swansea-aedXhaka caught ball-watching as Ki makes a dangerous run in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Gunners were guilty of another ball-watching moment in the 65th when Kingsley’s half-volley hit Llorente, who teed up Fernandez for an off-target shot. The main defensive mistake on that play was the Ox’s failure to properly mark Fernandez. See the screen captures below.

swansea-bedOxlade-Chamberlain caught ball-watching as Fernandez gets a free shot in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Swans also capitalized on turnovers to have a crack at goal. Dyer intercepted Paulista’s poor pass to Koscielny on the stroke of halftime but wasted a good situation with a long-range effort instead of choosing one of his three passing options. Paulista put his team in trouble again in the 62nd by chesting the ball down instead of heading it away. Kingsley dispossessed Paulista to feed Routledge, whose low strike was parried by Cech. Mustafi also cheaply gave the ball away in the 86th, but Sigurdsson could only drag his shot straight at Cech.

Looking beyond Cazorla

Koscielny was a dominant force in the air, winning 7 of 7 aerial duels. His only blemish was an underhit header that Sygurdsson nearly intercepted in the 16th. Paulista got the nod over Holding at rightback but proved the weak link in the back four with some dodgy decision-making. By contrast, Monreal had a solid performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and making 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.

January is a key month for Arsenal. First, because they have an easy schedule on paper and can therefore make up ground before visiting Chelsea in February. And second, because they have no mid-week game for three consecutive weeks, which means more time available on the training ground to work on tactical issues. Knowing that Cazorla underwent a second surgery and may not return before April, the Gunners should wisely use that time to make their team more compact in order to improve their defensive record.

Cazorla’s contract expires this summer. That’s a tricky issue for Arsenal because the Spaniard has become a key component in midfield. At 32, his best days are obviously behind him. A one-year extension would seem the most reasonable outcome for both parties as Cazorla’s past two years at the club have been marred by injuries and strangely echo the end of Arteta’s career.

From a long-term perspective, the manager will need to sign a specific type of midfielder this summer. We can divide our midfielders into three categories: those who mostly defend (Coquelin, Elneny, Xhaka), those who mostly attack (Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain), and those who can both defend and attack (Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere). The problem is that Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey are injury-prone players. We therefore need cover for that kind of profile, whether it’s a box-to-box player like Ramsey or a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla.

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Preston

The Gunners overcame an embarrassing first-half performance on Saturday to edge Preston 2-1 in the third round of the FA Cup. The Lilywhites may ply their trade in the Championship, the second division of English football, they still managed to outplay Arsenal for 45 minutes. It was as bad as the 1-1 draw with Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

  1. An FA Cup game is about work-rate and desire

Preston took a leaf out of Bournemouth’s playbook by giving everything in the first half. The Lilywhites played at a high tempo and showed more commitment than Arsenal, whose lack of intensity was blatant. The Gunners looked like they were playing some kind of pre-season friendly. The poor defensive contribution from the attacking players allowed Preston to easily reach the Arsenal box on counterattacks.

fa-cup-preston

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

It’s only after the halftime break that the Gunners fixed those issues. In the old days, Vieira, Petit or Gilberto Silva would have screamed at their teammates for their poor work-rate. I felt Xhaka and Ramsey should have said in the first half that they needed more defensive support. If there’s a lack of leadership on the pitch, then it becomes a liability because the best teams have players who can quickly spot problems and make adjustments without waiting for the manager to intervene. The Lilywhites parked the bus in the second half as they started tiring while Arsenal played with more purpose.

The Gunners’ first-half performance was so pathetic that Preston could have led 3-0. Hugill made a run in behind Monreal to collect a through ball from McGeady in the seventh minute. The Preston striker fed Robinson, who beat Ospina with a low strike. Arsenal lost three duels on that play as Monreal failed to intercept McGeady’s pass, Paulista missed his clearance and Mustafi was beaten to the ball by Robinson.

The Lilywhites nearly doubled the lead on a counterattack in the 22nd but Mustafi blocked Robinson’s header. Two minutes later, Paulista gifted Preston another chance with a poor offside trap. Robinson got away from Paulista to cross the ball for Hugill, who couldn’t make contact for a tap-in. Ospina kept the Gunners in the game by turning around the post a dipping drive from Pearson in the 25th. Mustafi then lost possession on the edge of the box with a poor first touch in the 36th but Gallagher’s lob attempt was cleared off the line by Monreal.

Fatigue played a role in Tuesday’s 3-3 draw with Bournemouth. That was not the case for Saturday’s game at Deepdale stadium since Arsenal had 3 full days of rest and Wenger made 5 changes to the side that played in Bournemouth with Ospina, Paulista, Maitland-Niles, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Perez replacing Cech, Koscielny, Bellerin, Coquelin and Sanchez in the starting lineup.

  1. Perez is a good value signing

The Gunners signed him for 20 million euros last summer. Perez has shown great work-rate as well as consistency in his performances after needing a couple of months to recover from an ankle injury and adapt to English football. He set up Giroud with a backheel flick for the winning goal in the 89th. What I like about Perez is that he’s technically more gifted than Walcott but also works harder. His attitude is spot on. He’s also more consistent than the Ox.

Perez has struck a good understanding with Giroud. He played a one-two with the France striker in the 16th before firing straight at Maxwell from the edge of the box. Giroud then volleyed home the Spaniard’s cross in the 77th but the goal was disallowed for offside. That kind of understanding is important for the team because Giroud heavily depends on good service to find the net.

  1. Giroud scores important goals

His late goal against Preston sent Arsenal into the next round of the FA Cup. Giroud has scored 9 goals in all competitions this season. Seven were game-changing goals. In the Premier League, he scored twice in the 4-1 win over Sunderland on Oct. 29. His first goal gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead and his second made it 3-1. Giroud also scored the equalizer in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United on Nov. 19. He then netted the winner in the 1-0 victory over West Brom on Dec. 26 and opened the scoring in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on Jan. 1 before salvaging a point in the 3-3 draw with Bournemouth. In the Champions League, Giroud made it 2-2 at Ludogorets before Ozil scored the winner. He also made it 1-1 in the 2-2 draw with Paris Saint-Germain. Basically, only his second goal against Sunderland and his equalizer against PSG did not directly yield points.

  1. Ramsey opened his account

In a season marred by injuries, Ramsey finally scored his first goal in the 46th. Iwobi held off three Lilywhites to buy time for Ramsey, who equalized from 18 yards. The shot was at a good height for Maxwell but simply had too much power.

Ramsey finished the game with 102 passes. Only Xhaka made more passes with 112. Ramsey is definitely a box-to-box player, not a playmaker. He made just 1 key pass, less than five other Gunners (Maitland, Mustafi, Perez, Iwobi and the Ox). His main strength is to make those deep runs and be in a good position to score. He played a one-two with Giroud in the 33rd but was reluctant to shoot with his weaker foot. See the screen capture below. Ramsey checked back before slipping the ball to Perez and the chance was gone.

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Ramsey’s shooting options with his left foot from 16 yards (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Wales midfielder also met a cross from Maitland in the 36th for a header that Maxwell saved. The Gunners need Ramsey to be close to his performance level of the 2013-14 season if they want to finish in the Top 4, especially since Cazorla won’t return before March. In modern football, midfielders who can both attack and defend are a hot commodity because they can make a big difference in transition plays.

  1. Welbeck is back

In his return from a knee injury, Welbeck came off the bench to replace the Ox in the 83rd. Welbeck nearly scored in stoppage time with a curling shot that Maxwell tipped over the bar. Although Welbeck played on the left wing, he’s a more interesting option up front because he’s the only forward in the Arsenal squad who can win headers and hold the ball up like Giroud.

  1. Maitland-Niles’ future is in midfield

The manager is looking for alternatives at rightback because Jenkinson and Debuchy are poor options if Bellerin gets injured. Maitland-Niles’ performance as a fullback was a mixed bag. He made 2 key passes and 8 tackles, more than any other Gunner, but he also failed to stop some dangerous crosses from McGeady. Maitland-Niles especially struggled to hit the brakes and turn quickly. It wasn’t as bad as Chambers but Maitland-Niles doesn’t look like a natural fullback. I believe ballwinner is his best position. Since Coquelin is sidelined by a hamstring injury, it would make sense to play Maitland-Niles as a defensive midfielder in the next FA Cup game.

  1. Some attacking players forget their defensive duties

Iwobi and the Ox made 2 key passes each but contributed little defensively. They made no tackle and were not tidy in possession with 7 turnovers each, according to whoscored.com. They must improve their work-rate if they want to become regular starters. Offensively, Iwobi had a decent game as he made the assist for Ramsey’s goal and fed Giroud in the 34th for a chip that sailed wide. The Nigeria international also tested Maxwell with a low strike in the 86th. By contrast, the Ox had a rough day as he tried to overcomplicate things instead of keeping it simple.