Tag Archives: Ramsey

Napoli vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win

   The Gunners qualified for the semifinals of the Europa League by edging Napoli 1-0 in the second leg on Thursday. Only Juventus had previously managed to win at the San Paolo stadium this season.

Napoli vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Getty Images

   Emery made one change to the side that defeated the Italian side 2-0 a week ago with Xhaka replacing Ozil in the starting lineup. Both teams adopted the same tactical approach as in the first leg. Arsenal pressed high up the pitch to force turnovers. Their high defensive line worked well as the Gli Azzurri were caught offside 5 times in the first half. The Gunners were under siege in the second half because their fitness levels dipped. Napoli mostly relied on balls over the top to crack the Arsenal defense in the first half. After the break, the Gli Azzurri resorted more to crosses because the Gunners switched to a low defensive line.

   It’s quite ironic that Ancelotti was among the candidates to replace Wenger last summer. Napoli’s performance on Thursday was very Wengerian: the hosts enjoyed 67% of ball possession and had 20 shots to just 7 for the Gunners. One typical flaw of the late Arsenal teams was their inefficiency at both ends of the pitch. The Gli Azzurri proved wasteful in front of goal while the Gunners had very few chances but scored on a set piece. Maybe the board will see this result as vindication for choosing Emery over Ancelotti.

  1. Emery’s gamble paid off

   The Spanish manager helped Lacazette recharge his batteries by leaving him on the bench against Watford. Three days later, a fresh Lacazette scored the winning goal against Napoli by curling home a free kick in the 36th minute. The French striker also showed good work-rate, winning 2 of 2 tackles according to whoscored.com. The only blemish in Lacazette’s performance was his weakness in the air as he won only 1 of 6 aerial duels. Seeking to protect Arsenal’s lead, Emery replaced Lacazette with Iwobi in the 68th.    

  1. Ramsey’s race against the clock

   The Wales midfielder was replaced by Mkhitaryan in the 34th after pulling his hamstring. If it’s a strain, Ramsey might be fit for the final, assuming the Gunners knock out Valencia in the next round. But if it’s a tear, this could have been Ramsey’s last game with Arsenal.

   That injury is a blow for Emery because of Ramsey’s unique profile in the squad. Ramsey is a versatile player who can play both in central midfield and in the hole. Emery will therefore have fewer tactical options in midfield since Xhaka, Torreira and Iwobi don’t have Ramsey’s flair for goals while Ozil and Mkhitaryan don’t play in central midfield. Mkhitaryan is the most likely alternative for the No. 10 role in away games. Emery might also have to rely more on Guendouzi and Elneny in central midfield to rest Xhaka and Torreira.  

  1. Monreal was the weak link at the back

   Like in the first leg, Napoli targeted the left side of the Arsenal defense. Insigne made a run in behind Monreal to chase a ball over the top in the 26th but could only produce an air shot. Then Milik ghosted past Monreal to head Zielinski’s chipped pass wide in the 28th. The Spanish defender nearly scored an own goal by diverting a cross from Mario Rui in the 80th.

  1. Maitland-Niles had a rough game

   Napoli focused on the left side of the Arsenal defense in the first half before testing Maitland-Niles in the second half. Insigne rounded the academy graduate in the 47th to cut the ball back for Ruiz, who fired over the bar. Then Insigne made a run in behind Maitland-Niles in the 60th to control a long ball, but his tame effort didn’t trouble Cech. Mario Rui also got the better of Maitland-Niles in the 73rd to make a low cross for Milik. Fortunately, the Napoli forward could only connect with his thigh.

   Maitland-Niles worked hard, winning 2 of 4 tackles and making 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. He also led Arsenal starters with a passing accuracy of 85.7%, compared to 79.4% for Kolasinac, 60% for Torreira and 77.4% for Xhaka. But at the top level, winning key duels at both ends of the pitch is what really matters.

  1. It wasn’t Aubameyang’s night

   Aubameyang scored the winner against Watford but lacked a bit of freshness in Italy despite having 3 of 3 shots on target. The Gabon striker tried to be too clever in the 17th and was dispossessed by Koulibaly who launched a counterattack and created Napoli’s first scoring chance. Aubameyang finally had Arsenal’s first shot on target in the 30th with a tame volley from 20 yards. He should have doubled the lead in the 48th when Mkhitaryan squared the ball back. Completely unmarked, Aubameyang took his chance from 9 yards only to be denied by Meret. He escaped marking again to meet a corner at the far post in the 58th but his tame volley was easily saved by Meret. Emery might rest Aubameyang against Crystal Palace this weekend after starting him in the last 3 games in all competitions.  

  1. Cech’s experience made a difference

   The Czech goalkeeper made 2 big saves to keep a clean sheet. He stopped Callejon’s shot with his leg in the 17th and made a reflex save in the 80th to prevent an own goal by Monreal. As a former Chelsea player, Cech remembered a few lessons from Mourinho and was booked in the 74th for time wasting. For the next round, Cech will have to work on his distribution. His passing accuracy dipped to 34.2% against Napoli. Obviously, Cech doesn’t fit Emery’s style of play but he’s the only player in the squad who has won the Europa League.

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Watford vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang leads Gunners into 4th

   The Gunners earned their first clean sheet in a Premier League away game this season by edging Watford 1-0 on Monday. They moved into 4th place, one point behind Spurs in the standings. Despite enjoying 66% of ball possession and having 19 shots to 11 for the hosts, it was an ugly win for Arsenal. The Hornets had the best chances even though they were down to 10 men by the 11th minute.

Watford vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Sometimes, a manager has to make unpopular choices. Some fans didn’t like Emery’s team selection or his substitutions at Vicarage Road. But Emery simply gave the priority to his players’ fitness by managing their playing time. The Watford match was the first of 4 games in a 10-day span, which means that the Gunners will only have 2 days of rest before each of the next 3 games. Basically, it’s just as bad as the congested list of fixtures during the Christmas period.  

   Emery rested some of his key players. Kolasinac and Lacazette stayed on the bench, Torreira and Ramsey were replaced in the second half, and Maitland-Niles only played the last 25 minutes. The Spanish manager also took a gamble by starting Mavropanos at centerback while moving Mustafi to the rightback position.

   Two moments decided the game. Janmaat made a backpass toward Foster in the 10th. The Watford goalkeeper controlled the ball with his first touch before attempting a clearance with his second touch. But Aubameyang sprinted like a black panther to make the block. The ball ricocheted off Aubameyang’s leg to bounce into the net. And just a minute after Aubameyang opened the scoring, Deeney was sent off for swinging an elbow into Torreira’s face. The referee initially failed to spot the foul, but the linesman had a good view of the incident and told the referee.

Losing control of the midfield

   Down to 10 men, the Hornets had to change their plans. Watford started the game by pressing high up the pitch to force turnovers. Under Gray’s pressure, Leno even had to kick the ball into touch by the second minute. But Deeney’s ejection made that high press impossible. It also deprived the Hornets of a tactical option. Deeney can be a handful in the air. His absence meant that Watford no longer had a physical striker to attack crosses. Mavropanos and Koscielny were involved in only one aerial duel.

   In the first half, the Hornets could only threaten on long balls and set pieces. Arsenal somehow lost control of the midfield in the second half and Watford became more dangerous with short passes. Emery’s substitutions obviously contributed to that loss of momentum. At halftime, Emery sent on Ozil for Torreira while moving Ramsey to a deeper position alongside Xhaka. The Spanish manager certainly wanted to inject more creativity into his team. On paper, that move made sense since the Hornets were playing with 9 men behind the ball. On the pitch, the Gunners lost Torreira’s work-rate in midfield.

   To take back control of the midfield, Emery replaced Mavropanos with Guendouzi in the 59th, shifting from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 system with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan in the wingback positions while Ramsey and Ozil played behind Aubameyang in the front three. However, the Hornets targeted Mkhitaryan, forcing Emery to revert to a back four by replacing Ramsey with Maitland-Niles in the 68th. That last change wasn’t enough to stifle the hosts, who had 2 chances in the closing minutes to level.

Aubameyang’s 18th league goal this season

   Aubameyang worked his socks off to notch his 18th league goal this season, just one unit behind Aguero and Salah. The Gabon striker made 2 sprints within a few seconds to close down Janmaat and Foster in the 10th. He could have doubled the lead in the second half but lacked that bit of luck. In the 53rd, Iwobi crossed the ball to the far post where Aubameyang couldn’t make contact with the ball despite a desperate slide. Then Aubameyang managed to meet a teasing cross from Mkhitaryan in the 74th but his sliding effort sailed wide. In the closing minutes, Aubameyang took a pass from Iwobi and ran into the box only to miss the target from a tight angle.

There’s more pressure on Aubameyang to score when he plays alongside Iwobi and Mkhitaryan because their scoring ability is average. Mkhitaryan and Iwobi have found the net only 6 and 3 times respectively in the Premier League this season. On the bright side, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan participate more in the build-up than Lacazette. Iwobi led all players with 7 key passes, including a smart cross for Mhkitaryan, whose close-range volley was saved by Foster in the 57th. The Nigeria international also had a shot tipped over the bar in the 26th. I felt Iwobi didn’t make the best choice on that play by ignoring Ramsey’s run in behind. Defensive awareness is still an issue for Iwobi, who failed to track Janmaat a couple of times. Janmaat had plenty of time to make a pinpoint cross for Hugues in the 83rd. Hugues headed the ball over the bar only because Mkhitaryan put him off.  

   Playing behind Aubameyang, Ramsey had very little impact on the game despite 2 key passes. The Wales midfielder started the second half in a deeper position, letting Ozil take over the playmaking duties. I thought it was a wise decision from Emery to rest Ramsey by yanking him off in the 68th. Ramsey has a poor injury record when playing too many games. If the club wants to finish in the Top 4 or win the Europa League, they simply can’t afford to lose Ramsey at this stage of the season.

Mavropanos’ 1st start of the season

   In midfield, Xhaka made his return from a groin injury. The Switzerland international was not yet up to speed. He won only 28.6% of his duels and made 0 tackle, 0 interception and just 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Despite his relative lack of match fitness, Xhaka played the full 90 minutes, teaming up with Torreira in the first half and then Ramsey and Guendouzi in the second half. That tells you how important Xhaka is in Emery’s plans. I still think it’s too risky to rely on Xhaka as a holding midfielder because he lacks mobility and is not a natural ballwinner. He was dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com, and his missed header in the 20th led to Watford’s best scoring chance.

   Torreira’s form has dipped since the end of December but there are signs that he could finish the season strong. The Uruguay midfielder made 1 block, 1 interception and 10 recoveries despite playing just 45 minutes. In fact, only Capoue managed to make more recoveries than Torreira during the whole game. When Torreira is at the top of his game, you usually see him win the 50-50 balls. That’s what happened in the 22nd when Doucoure was a split second late and ended up fouling Torreira. However, a lapse of concentration nearly cost his team in the 30th. Torreira gifted a dangerous free kick after giving the ball away to Hugues.    

   At the back, Mavropanos sometimes looked out of his depth. He showed his naivety in the 24th by diving in. Gray bullied Mavropanos to chase a ball over the top and cut it back for Doucoure. It took a clearance from Monreal to prevent a tap-in from Doucoure. The Greek defender also misread a long ball in the 55th, allowing Hugues to skip past him and cut inside. At 21, Mavropanos is still a raw player, quite hesitant in his positioning and decision-making. He definitely needs more playing time to develop. A loan to a Championship side next season would make sense.

Season on the line

   The more seasoned Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi showed more calmness than Mavropanos. Monreal had the best work-rate of the Arsenal defenders with 2 tackles, 1 interception and 9 recoveries, compared to 1 tackle, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 5 recoveries for Koscielny and 2 tackles, 4 interceptions and 3 recoveries for Mustafi.

   Starting in the rightback position, Mustafi produced a mixed performance. He led all players by winning 7 aerial duels, but his passing accuracy of 77.6% was relatively low compared to the other defenders (96.5% for Koscielny, 95.8% for Mavropanos, and 85.3% for Monreal). Mustafi also made a couple of mistakes that put his team in trouble. The German defender dallied on the ball and lost possession in the 34th, then missed his interception in the 64th and shoved Success from behind for a silly free kick in the 79th.

   Maitland-Niles took over the rightback spot in the 68th and made a crucial sliding block in the 80th to prevent Gray from scoring into an empty net. Leno forced Gray to round him on that play. The German goalkeeper protected Arsenal’s lead in the first half with two big saves, denying Cathcart in the 20th and turning Capoue’s free kick around the post in the 32nd. When Masina unleashed a long-range strike in the 62nd, Leno seemed beaten but the bar saved him.

   The Gunners next visit Napoli in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Sunday. Arsenal can afford a loss against the Italian side while a victory over the Eagles is a necessity to finish in the Top 4. I expect some heavy rotation between the two games since Napoli will probably dominate possession and therefore force the Gunners to run after the ball.

 

Arsenal vs. Napoli: A few thoughts on the 2-0 win

   The Gunners took control of their Europa League tie on Thursday by sinking Napoli 2-0 in the first leg of the quarterfinals. Ramsey opened the scoring with a low strike in the 14th minute before Torreira doubled the lead with a shot that took a big deflection off Koulibaly in the 25th.

Arsenal vs. NapoliPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Everton last weekend with Aubameyang, Ramsey, Torreira, Koscielny and Cech replacing Mkhitaryan, Guendouzi, Elneny, Mustafi and Leno in the starting lineup. Koscielny was making his return from a foot injury while Xhaka was left out of the squad because of a groin injury.

   Napoli enjoyed 58% of ball possession but Arsenal proved the more threatening team with 17 shots compared to 8 for the visitors. The Gunners pressed high up the pitch in the first half to prevent the Gli Azzurri from finding their rhythm. Arsenal couldn’t press as hard in the second half, giving Napoli more time on the ball. The best chances for the Italian side came from the same type of play: no pressure from the Gunners on the ballholder, who hits a ball over the top.  

  1. Ramsey is enjoying his peak years

   Playing alongside Torreira in central midfield, Ramsey created a lot of problems for the Napoli defense with his movement and late runs into the box. The Wales midfielder had a shot blocked by Koulibaly in the seventh minute before finding the net with a first-time effort into the bottom corner a few minutes later. Ramsey also tested Meret with an angled strike in the 37th, an awkward volley in the 45th, and a powerful drive in the 59th. There were only 2 blemishes in Ramsey’s performance: the stray pass that led to Mario Rui’s long-range effort in the 42nd; and the big chance that Ramsey missed from 9 yards in the 81st.

   In his first years at the club, Ramsey was often criticized for neglecting his defensive duties to chase personal glory. That kind of criticism was harsh because Ramsey didn’t read the game as well as he does now. For instance, he had a tendency to hold onto the ball too long whereas nowadays he’s more economical with his touches and moves the ball more quickly. Wenger also didn’t use Ramsey in the most optimal way. I am convinced Ramsey would have definitely flourished in a three-man midfield alongside Torreira and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Besides his goal, Ramsey put in a shift on Thursday, winning 1 of 2 tackles and making 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.

  1. Torreira was hungry

   Because of a three-game ban in the Premier League, Torreira had not played with Arsenal since the 3-0 win over Rennes four weeks ago. The Uruguay midfielder produced a solid performance, winning 2 of 2 tackles, making 2 key passes and 2 interceptions and having only 1 turnover. Torreira was a key component of Arsenal’s pressing game. He created the second goal by dispossessing Ruiz in midfield and bursting forward. His energy levels dipped in the second half, forcing Emery to replace him with Elneny in the 77th.  

  1. Arsenal’s left flank is vulnerable

   The Napoli staff must have spotted that weakness since the Gli Azzurri targeted the left side of the Arsenal defense. Monreal and Kolasinac combined to have 5 turnovers compared to just 2 for Sokratis and Maitland-Niles, according to whoscored.com. Kolasinac’s offensive contribution can’t be denied: he led all players with 3 key passes. But his poor defensive awareness and positional play have put the Gunners in trouble. It’s no coincidence that Wenger preferred to use Oxlade-Chamberlain in the left wingback position.

   Callejon made a run in behind Kolasinac to collect a long ball from Allan on the stroke of halftime. The Spanish winger cut the ball back for Insigne, who fired over the bar from 12 yards. Then Monreal misjudged a long ball in the 48th as Insigne made a run in behind. But Koscielny was able to drift to his left to cut out Insigne’s final ball. Napoli’s best chance came in the 72nd when Kolasinac failed to close down Callejon, who hit a ball over the top for Insigne. The diminutive Italian forward made a run in behind Monreal to square the ball back for Zielinski, who missed the target from 6 yards. The Gunners will need to work harder on the training ground if they want to fix that defensive problem before the second leg.

  1. Maitland-Niles loves the Europa League

   The academy graduate shone again on the European stage four weeks after his outstanding performance against Rennes. Maitland-Niles won 2 of 2 tackles, had 1 of 2 shots on target and made 2 key passes and 2 interceptions. He initially struggled in the opening minutes, letting Zielinski run past him in the 11th and sending a crossfield pass into touch in the 14th. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and teed up Ramsey for the opening goal in the 14th. He also nearly scored in the 69th with a bouncing volley that Meret tipped over the bar. The only blemish in Maitland-Niles’ performance was his passing accuracy of 66.7%, the lowest percentage for any outfield starter, and well below Kolasinac’s passing accuracy of 76.6%.  

  1. The Arsenal strikers struggled again

   Lacazette and Aubameyang were anonymous against Everton and barely did better against Napoli. The French striker performed poorly, having 0 shot on target and leading all players with 7 turnovers according to whoscored.com. His most embarrassing moment came in the 33rd when Aubameyang set him up. With his weaker left foot, Lacazette produced an air shot.

   At least, Aubameyang limited the damage with 3 turnovers and 3 of 5 shots on target. But he was far from clinical. His first-time effort in the 26th was too tame to trouble Meret. Aubameyang then attempted a lob in the 41st when a cross would have been a better option. On a counterattack in the 88th, Mkhitaryan fed Aubameyang who fired wide from 15 yards. Aubameyang’s most decent effort was a long-range strike that Meret spilled before gathering the rebound in the 39th.  

Arsenal vs. Newcastle: Ramsey, Lacazette help Gunners move into 3rd

   The Gunners have never been this close to a Top 4 finish this season. They defeated Newcastle 2-0 on Monday to leapfrog Tottenham into third place in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Deprived of Koscielny, Xhaka and Torreira either through injury or suspension, Emery relied on a 3-4-3 system to get the better of some well-drilled Magpies. Emery has put the emphasis on improving Arsenal’s defensive record lately. From the moment Guendouzi started in the holding midfielder role, playing a back three was the only reasonable option. Some fans were surprised to see Aubameyang on the bench, but the Magpies’ 5-4-1 formation meant that the Gunners had to stretch the Newcastle defense by using the whole width of the pitch. Iwobi got the nod on the left flank because of his understanding with Kolasinac. If Emery had played Ozil in the No. 10 role behind Lacazette and Aubameyang, it would have been a narrow formation playing into the hands of Benitez’s negative approach.

   Despite enjoying 71% of ball possession, Arsenal created very few chances with only 7 goal attempts. But you just need one moment of magic to find the net. That’s why individual quality will always matter in the final third. As Lacazette went on a dribbling run in the 30th minute, the ball ricocheted off a defender to fall into the path of Ramsey, who fired a low drive inside the far post with a first-time effort from 16 yards. Ramsey only had a split second to make a decision. He could have made a pass to Kolasinac to his left or Ozil to his right. But Ramsey recognized a good opportunity and shot with his weaker left foot. Most players would have shifted the ball to their stronger foot, and the chance would have been gone.

Ramsey’s work-rate

   Ramsey should have opened the scoring in the 13th when he side-footed home a corner flicked on by Kolasinac. But his goal was disallowed for a foul from Sokratis on Lejeune. The Wales midfielder felt cramps in the second half and was replaced by Elneny. It won’t be easy to find a replacement for Ramsey next season. He has notched 4 goals and 6 assists in 26 Premier League games this season. There aren’t many central midfielders with that kind of impact in the final third. The Gunners will also miss his work-rate and his team spirit. Although Ramsey only played 66 minutes on Monday, he still led all players with 12 recoveries. The only blemish in his performance was his 6 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com.

   The Gunners doubled the lead in the 83rd when Lacazette combined with Aubameyang to lob Dubravka. Lacazette already has 13 goals and 7 assists in 30 league games this season, an improvement on his stats from last season when he notched 14 goals and 4 assists in 32 league games. He could have scored on the stroke of halftime, but Ritchie cleared Lacazette’s strike off the line. The referee also disallowed a goal in the 86th as Lacazette made contact with Dubravka’s arm to head in a corner. Lacazette produced an outstanding performance with 2 of 2 shots on target and 2 key passes, tied with Ozil for the most by any player.

   Although Emery trusted Lacazette to lead the line, I still feel that he’s more a second striker than a centerforward. To make up for his average pace and lack of physicality, Lacazette plays like a false nine. Obviously, Lacazette is not a target man like Giroud. He only won 1 of 4 aerial duels against Newcastle. But Lacazette doesn’t make the penetrative runs of a Henry or Van Persie either. One play in the 21st summed up my reservations about Lacazette as a centerforward. Lacazette preferred to stay near the penalty spot instead of making a run toward the near post where he could have met Ramsey’s low cross. That’s the kind of run that Giroud would have definitely made. I believe Lacazette is more efficient when he plays alongside another striker. It’s no coincidence that Lacazette scored after Aubameyang came off the bench in the 61st. 

A transformed Ozil

   Ozil and Iwobi started alongside Lacazette in the front three. Talent has never been an issue for Ozil, who was named ‘Man of the Match’. We all know that Ozil is the most gifted player in the Arsenal squad. The German playmaker showed glimpses of his brilliance on 3 plays. He swapped passes with Iwobi to create a half-chance in the 40th, let a pass from Kolasinac reach Lacazette with a dummy in the 55th, and slipped a through ball to Aubameyang for a scoring chance in the 73rd. Yet, the most stunning part of Ozil’s performance was his 11 recoveries, according to the club’s website. By improving Ozil’s work-rate, Emery could be succeeding where Wenger failed. Can Ozil be consistent in his defensive contributions like a Silva and an Eriksen are?

   By contrast, Iwobi had a poor game with no end product (0 shot, 0 key pass) and a mediocre work-rate (0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block, 1 recovery). Improving options on the left wing should be a priority for the club next season. At 22, Iwobi still has room for development. However, his reading of the game is not good enough to deserve a starting spot in a Top 4 team. Assuming Welbeck leaves the club in the summer, Emery should let Nelson compete with Iwobi for the starting spot on the left wing since Mkhitaryan and Ozil both prefer to play on the right wing.

   Aubameyang replaced Iwobi in the 61st as the Gunners switched to a 3-5-2 formation with Ozil in the hole behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. The Gabon striker made a telling impact in his 30-minute cameo with 1 assist and 1 of 1 shot on target. Lacazette combined with Aubameyang down the middle for the final goal in what looked like a narrow play. Yet, Lacazette and Aubameyang are smart enough in their positional play to exploit the width of the pitch. They can make runs into the half-space or one of them can turn into a winger. Aubameyang charged down the right flank in the 68th to make a low cross for Lacazette that Dubravka intercepted.

A shaky Mustafi

   Emery has put so much trust in Guendouzi that Elneny has only made 5 Premier League appearances this season compared to 26 for the French teenager. There are mainly two reasons why Guendouzi got the nod over the more experienced Elneny against Newcastle: he wins more duels and is more creative than Elneny. Defensively, Guendouzi won 1 of 1 tackle and made 9 recoveries. Offensively, he had a passing accuracy of 92.6% and led all players with 94 passes, according to whoscored.com. Guendouzi is still far from the finished product. He had 5 turnovers, which is too much for a holding midfielder, and could have released the ball more quickly quite a few times. It would make sense to sell Elneny this summer in order to sign a box-to-box player.

   On the left flank, Kolasinac lacked accuracy in his final ball for Ozil in the 40th and Ramsey in the 45th. Kolasinac somehow made amends by creating that golden chance for Lacazette on the stroke of halftime. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international picked up a silly yellow card in the 72nd for dissent. On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles was mostly focused on his defensive duties. He made 2 tackles, 1 interception and 6 recoveries compared to just 4 recoveries for Kolasinac, according to the club’s website. Maitland-Niles’ only significant offensive contribution came in the 86th when he made a teasing cross for Aubameyang, who couldn’t make contact with the ball.  

   At the back, Sokratis acted like a sweeper while Mustafi and Monreal had more pro-active roles. Sokratis lost a key duel in the 31st as Rondon bullied the Greek defender to win a long ball before testing Leno with a low strike. The Arsenal defense lacked protection in the 42nd when the Magpies created a 2v2 situation on the fast break. Sokratis ended the threat by blocking Almiron’s pass to Rondon. Monreal was reliable defensively despite receiving a yellow card in the 59th for a studs-up challenge. The Spaniard won 2 of 3 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 9 recoveries. Mustafi worked hard too, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 5 interceptions and 6 recoveries, but he was more shaky than Monreal, giving the ball away a couple of times and attempting risky passes on the edge of the area. Leno had to rush off his line in the 47th to gather the ball after Mustafi was caught in possession.  

   The Gunners next visit Everton on Sunday. They will need to show good defensive discipline if they want to get a result at Goodison Park. Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes will depend on their away form. Their run-in includes 5 away games (Everton, Watford, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Burnley), more than any of the Top 4 contenders.

 

 

Arsenal vs. Rennes: A few thoughts on the 3-0 win

   The Gunners qualified for the quarterfinals of the Europa League by thrashing Rennes 3-0 in the second leg on Thursday. Arsenal, Chelsea, Napoli and Valencia are among the favorites left in the draw. Relying on the team that defeated Manchester United last weekend, Emery made only 2 changes with Mustafi replacing a suspended Sokratis while Cech got the nod over Leno. It was a physical game with a lot of duels and challenges. There were 29 fouls committed and that total could have been higher with a stricter referee.

Arsenal vs. RennesPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal got off to a flying start. Maitland-Niles picked out Ramsey, who made a blind cross for Aubameyang in the fifth minute. From 3 yards, Aubameyang converted the cross to open the scoring. Aubameyang then improvised a one-two with Ramsey before making a cross toward the far post where Maitland-Niles doubled the lead with a downward header in the 15th. TV replays showed Aubameyang was in an offside position. The goal stood because the VAR system will only be used for the Europa League final. The Gunners sealed the win in the 72nd when Mkhitaryan swapped passes with Ramsey and Aubameyang before releasing Kolasinac down the left flank. Kolasinac made a pinpoint low cross that Aubameyang tapped home.

   Rennes had a spell of domination in the beginning of the second half and nearly cut the lead to 2-1 when Niang’s low drive hit the post in the 47th. The French side threw the kitchen sink at Arsenal in the closing minutes with dangerous runs from Ben Arfa but offside calls saved the Gunners.

  1. Ramsey aging like fine wine

   The Wales midfielder showed his creative side, leading all players with 3 key passes. Ramsey set up Aubameyang for the opening goal and would have made a second assist if the Gabon striker had not missed a big chance in the 83rd. Spectators could see Ramsey’s passing range and vision through two half-chances. Lacazette chased a long ball from Ramsey in the fourth minute but Koubek beat the French striker by a split second to clear the danger. Ramsey then played the ball to Aubameyang along the touchline in the 50th. Aubameyang rounded Koubek but his cross for Lacazette was caught by the Rennes goalkeeper.  

   A few years ago, Ramsey lacked discipline in the role of a central midfielder. Now, he’s smarter in his reading of the game and more selective with his forward runs. His only scoring chance came in the 39th when Lacazette teed him up for a shot straight at Koubek. Defensively, Ramsey was tidy in possession with only 1 turnover compared to 3 for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The workload was more evenly distributed than against Manchester United. Ramsey won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception, Xhaka won 3 of 3 tackles and made 2 interceptions and Ozil won 2 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception.  

  1. Lacazette’s short fuse

   The French striker had an off day with 0 of 3 shots on target. One play in the 36th summed up his struggles on the pitch. The Gunners were hitting Rennes on the fast break and Lacazette should have delivered the final ball to his right. But Lacazette looked to his left and picked out Kolasinac in an offside position.

   Lacazette was allowed to play against Rennes because UEFA reduced his three-match ban to two games. You would think that Lacazette would be more careful after his ejection in Belarus. But he wasn’t. Lacazette got booked in the 31st for a rash tackle on Andre. And he nearly received a second yellow card in the 55th for a block attempt on Bensebaini, catching the defender’s foot with his follow-through. It was quite a relief when Emery replaced Lacazette with Iwobi in the 69th.  

  1. Aubameyang should have notched a hat trick

   The Gabon striker finished the game with 2 goals and 1 assist. But he also missed two big chances in the closing minutes. Aubameyang poked the ball wide in the 82nd after Iwobi had played him in. A minute later, Ramsey fed Aubameyang, who missed the target again by miskicking the ball from 8 yards. Aubameyang received a yellow card in the 73rd for wearing a Black Panther mask to celebrate his goal. He won’t be suspended for the next round but will need to be careful because yellow cards only expire on completion of the quarterfinals.      

  1. The wingbacks were on fire

   Maitland-Niles made the penultimate pass for the opening goal and netted the second goal while Kolasinac made the assist for the third goal. The Gunners have maybe found the balance on the flanks that has been missing since Bellerin’s injury. Jenkinson is a limited player while Lichtsteiner and Mustafi contribute very little offensively. It’s a big challenge for Maitland-Niles because he’s only 21 and consistency is still an issue at that age. Maitland-Niles showed outstanding work-rate, making 2 interceptions and leading all players by winning 5 of 6 tackles, according to whoscored.com. Among the highlights, Maitland-Niles made a sliding tackle on Ben Arfa in the 22nd while Kolasinac blocked Sarr’s close-range effort in the 61st.  

  1. Mustafi was the weak link at the back

   The German defender was caught in possession on the edge of the box in the 47th, offering Rennes their best scoring chance of the game. He also gave the ball away in the 67th but the French side couldn’t capitalize on that blunder. Technically, Mustafi was very poor with a passing accuracy of 62%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters according to whoscored.com. Assuming Holding’s rehab goes according to plan, the Gunners should sell Mustafi this summer to boost their transfer kitty.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United: Gunners ride their luck in 2-0 win

   The Gunners showed a lot of steel and resilience in their 2-0 win over Manchester United to move into fourth place in the Premier League on Sunday. While Manchester City and Liverpool are contending for the title, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United are fighting for the two remaining Champions League spots. The Gunners are 1 point behind Spurs, but 2 points clear of the Red Devils and 3 points ahead of the Blues, who have a game in hand.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   With 60 points from 30 games, the Gunners have 12 more points than last season. There are two main reasons for that difference. Under Wenger, Arsenal had mediocre results against the Top 6 clubs and suffered from a poor away form. The Gunners have won 12 points against the Big Six under Emery (4 points vs. Spurs, 4 points vs. Manchester United, 3 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City), whereas they only earned 6 points last season (3 points vs. Spurs, 0 point vs. Manchester United, 2 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City).

   The Gunners are on course to finish the season with 76 points. I believe Arsenal must reach that target to have a good shot at a Top 4 finish. Liverpool secured fourth place with 76 points in 2017 and 75 points in 2018. You may point out that Manchester City finished fourth with only 66 points under Pellegrini in 2016, but that was a different era. The arrivals of Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have made the Premier League much more competitive.

Emery trusting Ramsey in central midfield

   If you take a look at the graph below, you can see that Arsenal lost some momentum in December after dropping points against Southampton, Brighton and Liverpool. By collecting 13 points from their last 5 league games, the Gunners have managed to increase their cruising speed to 2.0 points per game, which is the required average to finish with 76 points.

Arsenal tally comparison 2019Comparing Arsenal’s 2017-18 season and the current season

 

   Arsenal won’t face any Top 6 club in their run-in but their schedule is no gimme. They have home games against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Brighton and away games against Wolverhampton, Everton, Watford, Leicester and Burnley. If we assume that the Gunners will win their home games and draw their away games, they would still be 2 points short of the 76-point target. It means that one away win would be necessary to reach 76 points.

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that was defeated in Rennes with Lacazette, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac and Leno replacing Iwobi, Torreira, Mkhitaryan, Mustafi and Cech in the starting lineup. Torreira was serving a three-match ban while Mkhitaryan was sidelined by a back injury. Most fans were not surprised that Emery left Mustafi and Guendouzi on the bench. Mustafi gave away a silly penalty against Spurs while Guendouzi showed a blatant lack of effort against Rennes.

   The only real surprise was to see both Ozil and Ramsey playing in a fluid 3-4-3 formation. It was the first time since the 2-0 win over Watford in September that Ramsey and Ozil started together. Ozil reads the game better than Iwobi, so I guess the plan was to have the German playmaker deliver the final ball to Aubameyang and Lacazette. To a certain extent, the starting lineup had a Wengerian feel with Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield. Emery prefers to deploy Ramsey as a false 10 or as a second striker. But on Sunday the Spanish manager played Ramsey in central midfield for the first time this season.

United’s tactical ploy

   Xhaka opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a swerving shot from 29 yards. Then Aubameyang converted a soft penalty in the 69th after Fred shoved Lacazette from behind. The Gunners really rode their luck because the Red Devils created 5 big chances compared to none for Arsenal if we except the penalty. Emery got a lot of credit from TV pundits after the game but I thought the Arsenal defense looked shaky at times.

   Two of those 5 big chances came from crosses. Shaw played a one-two with Pogba in the ninth minute before making a cross for Lukaku, who hit the bar from close range with a bouncing volley. Maitland-Niles failed to stay with Shaw on that play while Monreal lost his duel with Lukaku at the far post. In stoppage time, Young made a cross for Rashford, who had a free header from 9 yards but sent the ball straight into Leno’s arms. Iwobi failed to close down Young on that play while Maitland-Niles left Rashford unmarked. That vulnerability on crosses is a legacy of the Wenger era that Emery hasn’t fixed yet.

   The Gunners also failed to adjust to the tactical ploy used for the other 3 big chances. Lukaku and Rashford often dropped off to find space between the defense and the midfield. Lukaku hit a ball over the top for Rashford, who shot wide in the 28th. Monreal should have been tight to Lukaku on that play, while Koscielny missed his clearance by attempting a stupid high kick instead of heading the ball away. Lukaku and Rashford swapped roles in the 36th. Rashford slipped a through ball to Lukaku, who was denied by Leno. Sokratis gave Rashford too much time on the ball while Lukaku took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line to make a run between Koscielny and Monreal.

   You would expect the wide centerbacks (Sokratis and Monreal) to understand at halftime the need for pressing Lukaku and Rashford when they drop off. But the same situation happened again in the 51st. Sokratis failed to close down Rashford, who played Lukaku clean through on goal. Leno somehow managed to divert Lukaku’s 9-yard shot over the bar. Monreal made the mistake of trying to play Lukaku offside instead of tracking him.

A streetwise Leno

   Leno was the main reason why Arsenal kept a clean sheet. The German goalkeeper definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. Besides his 4 saves, Leno also sprinted outside the box to intercept a ball over the top for Lukaku in the 47th and quickly came off his line to catch Pogba’s through ball for Rashford in the 65th.

   There were some question marks when Leno joined the club. Why was he not part of Germany’s World Cup squad, knowing that a flawed goalkeeper like Trapp still managed to make the cut? The doubts grew louder when Leno made a couple of errors leading to a goal in the first half of the season. But Leno worked hard to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League. He is now more streetwise in aerial duels.  

   Emery relied on an experienced back three to cope with the threat of Lukaku and Rashford. But Koscielny, Monreal and Sokratis nearly made a mess of it. Despite the fresh memory of his red card against Rennes in the Europa League, Sokratis dived in again and got booked in the 37th for a mistimed challenge on Pogba. Some fans had the jitters when Monreal made a sliding challenge on Lukaku in the 36th. Monreal didn’t win the ball but at least he didn’t bring Lukaku down inside the area either.

   Playing as a sweeper, Koscielny blocked Fred’s shot with his ribs in the 51st. Koscielny was the captain of the team but he didn’t have the leadership skills to sort out the tactical problem created by Lukaku and Rashford when they dropped off to deliver the final ball. Because Arsenal played a relatively high defensive line, it was crucial that Sokratis and Monreal press the United strikers. The Gunners definitely need an organizer at the back who can spot and correct tactical issues without waiting for the manager’s instructions.

Maitland-Niles’ inexperience and desire

   In the wingback position, Emery gave Maitland-Niles the nod over Mustafi. Maitland-Niles’ performance was a mixed bag. I thought he was too easily beaten down the right flank in the first half. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and made some decisive contributions, intercepting Lukaku’s ball over the top in the 17th, breaking up play with a sliding tackle in the 63rd, winning a foot race with Rashford to win the ball back in the 89th, and dispossessing Martial inside the area in the 90th.

   Maitland-Niles still showed his inexperience on the 2 crosses that led to big chances for the Red Devils. Despite those blemishes, Emery might be tempted to trust Maitland-Niles in that position for the rest of the season, especially if he shows the same desire. Maitland-Niles won 2 of 4 tackles and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 interceptions, according to the club’s website.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac was able to attack in the opening minutes, making a teasing cross for Lacazette, who couldn’t make contact with the ball at the near post. But Solskjaer’s tactical tweak in the first half, shifting from a flat 4-4-2 formation to a 3-5-2 system, put Arsenal on the back foot and forced Kolasinac to defend. Kolasinac finished the game with 11 recoveries. Only Fred had more with 12.

   The Gunners bossed the midfield in the opening minutes with Xhaka, Ramsey and Ozil outmuscling Matic and Fred. This led to Solskjaer’s tactical tweak, moving Pogba from a wide position to the No. 10 role to match Arsenal in midfield. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries and led all players with 64 passes, while Ramsey was the more mobile of the 2 central midfielders and showed outstanding work-rate, making 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries and leading all players by winning 3 of 7 tackles, according to the club’s website. The Wales midfielder had even better stats on whoscored.com, winning 7 of 8 tackles. I tend to prefer stats from the Arsenal website, which are more conservative and safer to use.

Limiting Pogba’s influence  

   Wenger always relied on Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield last season. I was wondering why Emery was reluctant to use Ramsey alongside Xhaka and preferred to play him in a more advanced position. That must have been because of Ramsey’s end product in the final third but on Sunday Ramsey showed that he could defend, too. The duo needed to step up because Ozil’s work-rate was poor with just 1 interception and 3 recoveries. Xhaka made a crucial sliding clearance on the stroke of halftime to protect Arsenal’s lead while Ramsey was so focused on his defensive duties that he only had 1 scoring chance. Maitland-Niles cut the ball back for Ramsey, who blazed over the bar in the 22nd.

   The duo did a good job to limit Pogba’s influence. Apparently frustrated, Pogba caught Ramsey’s neck with a high arm in the 54th before getting booked in the 76th for fouling Xhaka. The only time Pogba managed to really pull the strings was in the 65th when Fred dispossessed Ramsey to find Pogba. Free of his minders, Pogba slipped a through ball to Rashford, who lost his duel with Leno. Because Xhaka lacks mobility and Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder, the Gunners allowed some dangerous long-range strikes. Fred hit the post with a 25-yard drive in the 19th while Pogba fired a 30-yard effort straight at Leno in the 26th. Maybe the more mobile Torreira would have been able to block those shots.  

   It wasn’t a game for attacking players. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes but couldn’t create any clear-cut chance. His technical quality still helped Arsenal retain ball possession. Ozil led all starters with a passing accuracy of 91.2%, according to whoscored.com. He also made smart runs to be an easy passing option for his teammates and was unlucky to be flagged offside twice despite being level with the last defender.

Aubameyang’s risky technique for penalties

   Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to have only 1 of 9 shots on target because most of those shots were taken from unfavorable positions. Lacazette had the best half-chance in the 24th, bullying Lindelof to fire a strike from 18 yards that deflected off Smalling for a corner. The French forward lacked a bit of composure in the 71st when Lindelof misjudged the bounce of the ball following a header from Sokratis. Lacazette pounced on the loose ball only to drag his shot wide from 15 yards.

   To his credit, Lacazette won the penalty for the second goal with a penetrative run in the 68th. Lacazette outpaced Fred, who shoved him from behind. Aubameyang was gutsy enough to take the spot kick just a week after missing one against Spurs. The Gabon striker waited for De Gea to dive before rolling the ball into the middle of the net. I’m not a fan of that kind of technique and definitely prefer when the penalty taker hits the corners of the net.  

   Emery’s narrow formation gave Shaw and Young a lot of freedom when Solskjaer shifted to a 4-3-3 system in the 70th with Martial replacing Dalot and then to a 4-4-2 system in the 81st with Greenwood replacing Matic. So the Spanish manager decided to shut up shop by shifting to a 5-4-1 formation with Iwobi replacing Ozil in the 76th and Suarez taking Aubameyang’s spot in the 80th. Iwobi didn’t really help with 5 turnovers in his short cameo. Only Lacazette had more with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Likewise, Suarez was too easily brushed off the ball at times. The Spaniard was dribbled past twice, tied with Xhaka and Maitland-Niles for the most by any Gunner. Suarez has two months and a half to prove his worth, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to sign him.  

   The Gunners next face Rennes in the second leg of their Europa League encounter. They need a victory by at least 2 goals on Thursday to qualify for the quarterfinals. Emery should field his best team since it will be the last game before the international break. He will miss Lacazette and Sokratis through suspension, but the squad is strong enough to cope without those two players.

 

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Gunners let down by strikers in 1-1 draw

  The Gunners drew 1-1 with Tottenham on Saturday to slip to fifth place in the Premier League, 4 points behind their North London rivals and 1 behind Manchester United. There was a lot of talk about some officiating decisions, but those poor calls will still be made as long as the Premier League doesn’t have the VAR system. The harsh reality is that Arsenal could have won the game if Lacazette and Aubameyang had converted some big chances. On the bright side, the Gunners won more points in North London derbies than Pochettino’s Spurs for the very first time. Under Emery, Arsenal earned 4 points out of 6 this season. Under Wenger, the Gunners only collected 1 point in the 2014-15 season, 2 points in 2015-16, 1 point in 2016-17 and 3 points last season.

Spurs vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that smashed Bournemouth on Wednesday with Lacazette, Ramsey, Iwobi, Xhaka and Mustafi replacing Aubameyang, Ozil, Kolasinac, Torreira and Jenkinson in the starting lineup. I thought the Spanish manager got his team selection and his game plan right. The bastardized 4-4-2 formation was a bit of a surprise because Emery relied on a back three in the previous away games.

   Up front, Lacazette got the nod over Aubameyang because of his better all-around game. In midfield, Ramsey played as a second striker when Arsenal had the ball. When the Gunners lost possession, Ramsey helped Xhaka and Guendouzi to match the work-rate of Sissoko, Wanyama and Eriksen. On the flanks, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan provided width while tracking the runs of Trippier and Rose. At the back, Monreal and Mustafi kept an eye on Son and Kane whenever they tried to run in the channels.

   Emery clearly adopted a cautious approach. Instead of pressing high up the pitch, the Gunners waited near the halfway line to prevent Tottenham from finding space for runs in behind the defense. Spurs were toothless until the 44th minute when they finally had their first scoring chance.

Ramsey’s love story with Wembley

   Surprisingly, Pochettino started the game with a conservative 3-5-2 formation. Forced to chase an equalizer in the second half, Pochettino switched to a 3-4-3 system in the 59th when Lamela replaced Wanyama. The Argentine manager made another tactical change in the 70th by moving Rose to a central midfield position in a 4-3-3 formation. Those moves paid off as Tottenham leveled in the 74th.

   Emboldened by Kane’s goal, Pochettino tried to put more pressure on the Arsenal defense by replacing Son with Llorente in the 79th, switching to an improvised 4-4-2 system with Llorente and Kane up front and Eriksen and Lamela in the wide positions. Pochettino spotted Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses, but that emphasis on aerial duels came at the expense of Spurs’ passing game.  

   The Gunners will definitely miss Ramsey next season. As a link player, Ramsey can link defense and attack by winning the ball in midfield, delivering the final ball and being a goal threat. We have no player in the squad with that kind of profile. Three years ago, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain could have played in that role. Now an aging Cazorla is finishing his career at Villarreal while Oxlade-Chamberlain has improved under Klopp at Liverpool. Signing a link player should be a priority for the club this summer.

   Ramsey scored the opening goal with a dash from his own half in the 16th. Sanchez initially misjudged the flight of a clearance from Xhaka and missed his header. The ball fell to Lacazette, who played Ramsey clean through on goal with a first-time pass. Ramsey faked a curling shot by opening his body up and rounded Lloris to knock the ball into an empty net.

The power of anticipation

   As you can see on the screen capture below, Tottenham played an incredibly high defensive line. As the last defender, Sanchez was more than 70 yards away from his goal. When Ramsey started his run, Vertonghen and Alderweireld were already out of position. And Wanyama was on the same line as Ramsey when Sanchez was about to head the ball. Ramsey’s genius here was to anticipate and believe that Lacazette would somehow win the ball and start a counterattack.

Spur vs. Arsenal M16a edited.jpgVertonghen and Alderweireld are out of position while Ramsey runs past them. (Photo credit: NBC)

   As you can see on the next screen capture, there was no offside since Ramsey was still in his own half when Lacazette made the pass. Ramsey built a four-yard lead over Wanyama because the Spurs midfielder slowed down for a split second, thinking that Sanchez would head the ball.

Spur vs. Arsenal M16b edited.jpgTottenham’s back three can’t catch Ramsey, clean through on goal. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Besides his goal, Ramsey worked hard for the team, winning 1 of 1 tackle, and making 1 block, 3 fouls, and 7 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Ramsey also put off Alderweireld, who fired into the side-netting in the 55th after Mustafi poorly cleared a free kick. Emery replaced a tiring Ramsey with Ozil in the 72nd. It didn’t prove a good omen as Kane won the penalty for the equalizer a minute later.

   Ramsey converted the only scoring chance that he had. It was a lot of hard work because Ramsey ran 80 yards from Xhaka’s clearance to the moment the ball rolled into the back of the net. Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t have to run that hard for the big chances that they missed.

   Lacazette could have opened the scoring by the second minute when Iwobi’s pass took a heavy deflection off Wanyama and fell into his path. From 8 yards, Lacazette attempted a volley with his weaker left foot, but he completely miscued his shot and the ball lazily bounced wide. Lacazette had a better chance when Monreal overlapped with Iwobi to cut the ball back in the 53rd. From 8 yards, an unmarked Lacazette missed the target with his right foot. Emery felt that it wasn’t Lacazette’s day and replaced the French striker with Aubameyang in the 56th.

The need to be clinical in the big games

   Mkhitaryan won the ball in the 72nd and fed Aubameyang, who was dispossessed by Sissoko inside area before he could even pull the trigger. The Borussia Dortmund connection worked again in the 89th when Mkhitaryan beat Vertonghen along the touchline with some great footwork. Leading a counterattack, Mkhitaryan picked out Aubameyang, who made a run in behind Sanchez. There was minimal contact between Aubameyang and Sanchez when the Gabon striker fell inside the area. But the referee still awarded the Gunners a penalty. From the moment the referee gave Spurs a penalty for Mustafi’s shove on Kane, it was very likely that he would try to compensate in a similar situation for Arsenal.  

   Aubameyang had the opportunity to be the hero by converting that spot kick. He usually waits for the goalkeeper to dive before kicking the ball in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, Lloris proved even more patient. Instead of anticipating, Lloris decided to react to the shot. With no giveaway from Lloris, Aubameyang hit a tame shot that was poorly placed and that Lloris palmed away. The rebound fell to Iwobi ,who squared the ball back to Aubameyang. It should have been a simple tap-in. But Vertonghen, who was encroaching into the area, made the block and deflected Aubameyang’s shot over the bar.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M91 edited.jpgAubameyang’s poor shot placement. (Photo credit: NBC)

   If you’re the manager, you probably tell Aubameyang to change his penalty routine because other goalkeepers will wait like Lloris did. It’s time for Aubameyang to hit the corners at Colney. Aubameyang could have redeemed himself in stoppage time. Torreira spread the ball to the right wing, where Aubameyang could have set up Ozil for a 9-yard shot. But Aubameyang played the ball behind Ozil, allowing Sanchez to clear the danger. In the big games, strikers need to be clinical because they won’t have many chances. I couldn’t help myself and think that Henry or Van Persie would have converted one of those big chances. But here’s the difference: Henry and Van Persie were world-class players while Lacazette and Aubameyang are just very good strikers.  

Iwobi’s decision-making

   In the wide positions, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi provided the creative touch. They led all players with 3 successful dribbles each, according to whoscored.com. Iwobi made 2 key passes while Mkhitaryan led all players with 2 accurate through balls. Pochettino’s pressing game limited the Gunners’ passing accuracy to 63.5%, compared to 77.6% for Spurs. Mkhitaryan proved highly valuable in the transition game as he led Arsenal starters with a passing accuracy of 75%, compared to 72% for Ramsey and 66.7% for Iwobi.

   Trippier had Iwobi in his pocket, winning 6 of 6 tackles. Yet, Iwobi had two occasions to shine. In the second minute, Iwobi made a pass that took a heavy deflection off Wanyama and accidentally led to Lacazette’s first scoring chance. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had in fact a better option with Ramsey making a run in the big gap between Sanchez and Alderweireld.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M2a edited.jpgIwobi fails to slip a through ball to Ramsey. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Iwobi held onto the ball too long, forcing Ramsey and Lacazette to check their runs. As you can see on the next screen capture, Iwobi killed the momentum of the play as there was less space for a pass. When Iwobi finally decided to feed Lacazette, both Sanchez and Wanyama were in a good position to intercept the pass. But Wanyama put the Tottenham defense in trouble by inadvertently redirecting the ball into Lacazette’s path.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M2b edited.jpgSanchez and Wanyama are ready to intercept Iwobi’s pass to Lacazette. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Poor decision-making has held Iwobi’s development back. Emery can show him thousands of videos, but in the end Iwobi is the one making the decisions on the pitch. Is Iwobi overthinking in those situations? Or is he simply unable to see the best passing option? You put Ozil in the same situation and I bet you he plays Ramsey clean through on goal.  

   Another issue has been Iwobi’s poor finishing. Iwobi has a tendency to aim at the middle of the net. As a result, Lloris had no trouble to save Iwobi’s 15-yard curling shot in the 41st. Hopefully, Iwobi will have more competition on the left wing next season when Nelson returns from his loan spell at Hoffenheim.  

Torreira’s ejection

   Defensively, Iwobi put in a shift and even had better stats than Mkhitaryan, which is unusual. Iwobi won 1 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries, while Mkhitaryan won 1 of 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Nigeria international still needs to improve his defensive awareness. He forgot to track Trippier a couple of times.

   In midfield, Guendouzi got the nod over Torreira, who has suffered a dip of form since the end of December. Guendouzi had a decent game, making 3 recoveries and winning 2 of 2 tackles and 66.7% of his duels. He was charged with an error for giving the ball away to Vertonghen in the 39th.

   At halftime, Emery was worried about Eriksen’s impact and therefore sent on Torreira for Guendouzi in the 46th. As a natural ballwinner, Torreira was more suited to mark Eriksen than Guendouzi. The Uruguay international made a crucial clearance as the last defender to kill a counterattack in the 62nd. In the last minute of stoppage time, Torreira won the ball with a sliding tackle but planted his studs into Rose’s shin with his follow-through. The referee thought the challenge was dangerous and sent Torreira off. I thought it was a fair call because Torreira was not in control. Of course, some fans will point out the referee’s inconsistency. Why did he not give Rose a straight red card for banging Leno’s belly with his studs in the 68th?

   In the holding midfielder role, Xhaka showed good work-rate by making 1 tackle, 1 interception and 10 recoveries. The trouble is that Xhaka is not a natural defensive midfielder because of his lack of mobility. He made 3 fouls and was dribbled past 3 times, tied with Trippier for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. The Switzerland international was very lucky not to receive a red card in the 13th for a tackle from behind on Kane.

Thinking about the transfer market

   At the back, Monreal produced an outstanding performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 92.3% of his duels and leading all players with 4 interceptions and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Monreal especially won a crucial challenge to stop Son’s mazy run in the 27th. The Spaniard was very selective in his forward runs but he still managed to make an important contribution by setting up Lacazette in the 53rd.

   On the opposite flank, Mustafi didn’t work as hard as Monreal, winning 2 of 4 tackles and 50% of his duels and making just 2 interceptions and 1 recovery. Mustafi struggled to cope with Tottenham’s high press as his passing accuracy dipped to 43.3%, the lowest percentage for any Gunner. The German defender showed in the 73rd that he will always have an error in him. On a set piece, Mustafi shoved Kane from behind to give away a cheap penalty. TV replays showed that Kane was offside. Would Kane have been flagged offside if Mustafi had not made the foul? Kane sent Leno the wrong way to level the game. In stoppage time, Mustafi gave away a free kick with another silly foul on Kane.  

   There’s no way Mustafi can be in the starting lineup if the Gunners want to contend for the title in the next few years. Mustafi’s only asset is that he’s younger than Koscielny and Sokratis and more experienced than Holding. But otherwise, Mustafi is weaker than those 3 centerbacks. The club has a big decision to make this summer. They must sell Mustafi, Chambers and Jenkinson to fund transfers. Then they must decide where is the recruitment priority at the back. Should they sign a leftback because Monreal has lost a step and Kolasinac lacks defensive awareness? Or a centerback because Koscielny is getting old, Mavropanos is still raw and Holding will miss the start of the season? Or a rightback because Lichtsteiner is too slow, Maitland-Niles is still raw and Bellerin will miss a few months?

Leno’s double save

   Koscielny and Sokratis did a good job to keep Kane and Son quiet. The French veteran got the better of Kane in the 16th to start the play for the opening goal, while Sokratis blocked a dangerous cross from Son in the 33rd. The only weakness of the pair of centerbacks was in the air: Koscielny and Sokratis won only 60% and 40% of their aerial duels, respectively, according to whoscored.com. I thought Dixon’s comment on NBC was quite telling. The Arsenal legend claimed that Mustafi fouled Kane for the penalty because he didn’t trust Koscielny to win the header.

   I was a bit surprised by the praise Sokratis received after the match. Koscielny looked more solid than Sokratis, who made a couple of mistakes. Sokratis gave the ball away to Son in the 11th, was caught ball-watching when Eriksen tested Leno in the 44th, and fouled Lamela in the 73rd for the free kick that led to the penalty.

   There’s not much Leno could do to save Kane’s penalty. The German goalkeeper did his homework and dived in the corner where Kane usually dispatches most of his spot kicks. To Leno’s credit, he protected Arsenal’s lead with a spectacular double save before halftime. Iwobi failed to track Trippier, who found Kane on the edge of the box in the 44th. The England striker made a clipped pass for Eriksen, who ghosted past Sokratis for a 7-yard effort that Leno stopped wth his leg. The rebound fell to Sissoko, whose powerful strike was parried by Leno with a firm hand. Leno also reacted quickly enough when Mkhitaryan missed his clearance in the 68th. Rose chested the ball down, but Leno came off his line to deny the English fullback.

   The Gunners next visit Rennes in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday. The priority is to get 3 points against the Red Devils, who are direct rivals for a Top 4 finish. Torreira’s suspension will make Emery’s job more difficult. Arsenal will need to stop Pogba and Pereira in midfield. Ramsey is the obvious choice to mark those players when they drop off. When they charge forward, Emery will have to find an alternative to Torreira. Xhaka and Guendouzi are not defensive midfielders and don’t have the pace to track Pogba. Playing Maitland-Niles in central midfield could be an interesting gamble although his turnover rate would be an obvious concern.