Tag Archives: Sanchez

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win over Doncaster

The Gunners edged Doncaster 1-0 on Wednesday to next play Norwich in the fourth round of the League Cup. Because it is a less important competition than the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Europa League, Wenger fielded a makeshift team that included Sanchez, 4 youngsters (Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Holding and Chambers) and 6 benchwarmers (Ospina, Mertesacker, Elneny, Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud).

Arsenal v Doncaster Rovers - Carabao Cup Third Round

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

The heavy rotation explained Arsenal’s poor passing game. The poor finishing was more embarrassing and more difficult to justify with Sanchez, Giroud and Walcott in the front three. By failing to put the result beyond doubt, the Gunners gave third-division Doncaster plenty of hope in the second half. With a bit of luck, the Rovers could have equalized in the closing minutes to force extra time.

  1. Wilshere could play a big role this season

In his first start of the season, Wilshere teamed up with Elneny in central midfield. I would have preferred to see Willock or Maitland-Niles play alongside Wilshere, but I can understand the manager’s decision to give Wilshere an easy ride by partnering him with a seasoned player like Elneny.

In the role of a deep-lying playmaker, Wilshere had not much defensive work as the Gunners dominated ball possession. He took his chance in the 28th minute with a long-range strike that got deflected out. With Cazorla set to miss most of the season and Coquelin sidelined by a hamstring injury, Wilshere could easily finish the season with more than 20 games under his belt. Ramsey and Xhaka currently form Arsenal’s best duo in midfield, but the 3-4-3 system is very demanding for both of them and will require some rotation to avoid injuries.

  1. Walcott saved the day

He scored the winner in the 25th by making his signature diagonal run to control a long ball from Sanchez before lifting it over Lawlor. Walcott should have added a second goal in the 49th. On a counterattack, Giroud made a perfect cross for Walcott, who missed the target from 15 yards. TV replays seemed to suggest that his shot took a deflection off the goalkeeper.

Our options on the wings are limited this season. Oxlade-Chamberlain was sold to Liverpool this summer, Perez has been loaned out to Deportivo, and Welbeck picked up a groin injury against Chelsea. Walcott doesn’t have the work-rate and all-around game to start in Premier League games when everybody is fit, but he’s a decent option off the bench. Iwobi replaced Walcott in the 76th and wasted two good situations with a poor final ball.

  1. Sanchez is building up his fitness

This has been a complicated summer for Sanchez. He had some time off in July to recover from the Confederations Cup. Then he picked up an abdominal strain in August before being involved in an aborted move to Manchester City. He hasn’t performed at 100 percent of his abilities yet. Sanchez has basically used the games against Cologne and Doncaster to build up his fitness.

The Chile striker hit a cross-shot wide in the fourth minute before testing Lawlor with a bouncing free kick in the 10th. Because there are only 2 central midfielders in the 3-4-3 system, one of the players in the front three is usually a creative player. On Wednesday, Sanchez often dropped back to help create chances. He made the assist for Walcott’s goal and also set up Giroud for a scoring chance in the second half.

  1. Is Giroud going through a scoring drought?

The France striker hasn’t scored since the Leicester game on opening day. His old understanding with Wilshere (remember that Norwich goal?) showed in the sixth minute. The English midfielder made a chipped pass for Giroud, who rattled the bar with a spectacular bicycle kick. That was unfortunately Giroud’s best goal attempt. He headed Elneny’s cross over the bar in the 20th and missed the target with volleys in the 28th and 88th.

His physicality caused problems for the Doncaster defense but Giroud had two penalty shouts turned down. Giroud also had injury scares in the second half. First, Mason made a late challenge on the Frenchman in the 68th. Then Butler trapped Giroud’s left ankle with an awkward sliding clearance three minutes later. I hope Giroud will rediscover his finishing touch because he may start in the next 3 Premier League games against West Brom, Brighton and Watford. You can expect Arsenal to dominate ball possession in those games.

  1. Youngsters always give you the jitters

Nelson and Maitland-Niles are the two most promising prospects in the academy. They were rewarded with starting spots in the League Cup. Yet, it nearly looked like a poisoned gift as they were played out of position. Nelson is usually a winger but played as a wingback because the manager wanted to give Walcott some playing time. And Maitland-Niles is usually a central midfielder but played also as a wingback because Wenger wanted to rest both Kolasinac and Monreal. The positive is that they see the game differently and can hone their defensive game. The negative is that they don’t feel comfortable in those positions.

Maitland-Niles wasted two good situations in the first half with crosses that lacked accuracy. He then gave away the ball to Whiteman by attempting a blind pass to Dasilva in the 79th. However, Maitland-Niles had enough pace to catch Whiteman and win the ball back. Nelson also ran into trouble with a dribbling attempt on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 55th. The U23 winger then let May bear down on goal in the 58th by misreading the bounce of the ball. Fortunately, Maitland-Niles covered him and bullied May off the ball.

By his own standards, Nelson had a poor game. He was dispossessed a couple of times with cheeky dribbles in the opening minutes. Despite a below-par performance, Nelson still managed to test Lawlor with a 20-yard drive in the 45th and an angled shot in the 65th.

 

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Arsenal vs. Cologne: A few thoughts on the 3-1 win

Arsenal took the lead in Group H of the Europa League by defeating Cologne 3-1 on Thursday. Despite what the scoreline might suggest, it wasn’t a walk in the park. The game was delayed for an hour because of safety concerns caused by some 20,000 German supporters around the Emirates stadium. Wenger even said he thought the match would be postponed.

Arsenal vs. Cologne 2017

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

On the pitch, the Gunners made life difficult for themselves by conceding an early goal against the run of play. Some supporters added more pressure on the team by booing back passes. A tactical switch and a substitution at halftime helped Arsenal get back into the game. Kolasinac equalized with a volley in the 49th minute before Sanchez scored in the 67th and Bellerin sealed the win in the 82nd.

  1. Wenger got his priorities right

Sunday’s game at Chelsea is much more important than a Europa League match. That’s why the manager did not hesitate to make 9 changes to the side that routed Bournemouth 3-0 last Saturday with only Bellerin and Monreal retaining their starting spots. Cech, Ramsey, Ozil, Xhaka, Lacazette and Welbeck were not even in the squad while Mustafi and Kolasinac were on the bench at kickoff. And Koscielny was serving a suspension after receiving a red card against Bayern Munich last season.

  1. Don’t play youngsters out of position

Wenger improved the careers of Petit and Henry by moving them to new positions. Petit was a leftback by trade at Monaco before becoming a world-class defensive midfielder at Arsenal while Henry was a winger at Monaco and Juventus before Wenger turned him into a prolific centerforward. Those experiments worked because Petit and Henry both had the skills and tactical intelligence to adapt to those roles.

Maitland-Niles’ best position is central midfielder. Yet, the manager played him at wingback and centerback in the pre-season friendlies. On Thursday, the Gunners lost a source of supply on the left flank by playing Maitland-Niles in the wingback position. Just like Bellerin in the Stoke and Liverpool games, Maitland-Niles didn’t make any cross because he’s a right-footed player.

At halftime, Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-2-3-1 formation by replacing Holding with Kolasinac as Maitland-Niles joined Elneny in central midfield. The move paid off with Maitland-Niles performing better in that role while Kolasinac brought more fluidity down the left flank.

Maitland-Niles nearly found the net with a penetrative run in the 64th but was dispossessed by the goalkeeper in a one-on-one duel. There’s still a lot of polishing to do but the potential is there. Maitland-Niles needs to be more tidy in possession and improve his concentration levels. He was late for a block in the 79th when Jojic tested Ospina with a 25-yard strike.

New signing Kolasinac has quickly become a favorite among fans since his goal in the Community Shield. Barely four minutes after coming off the bench, he volleyed home a loose ball to level the score. Kolasinac initiated the final goal by playing a one-two with Sanchez before cutting the ball back for Walcott, who was denied by Horn. But Bellerin pounced on the rebound to score with a sliding effort. Kolasinac’s movement and reading of the game also helped him strike a better understanding with Sanchez down the left flank.

  1. Iwobi must improve his positional play and work-rate

Last season, Iwobi played as an attacking midfielder either in the hole or on a wing in the old 4-2-3-1 formation. He lost his starting spot when the team shifted to a 3-4-3 system. On Thursday, Wenger played Iwobi in central midfield. Iwobi’s impact on the game proved weak because of his poor work-rate and lack of spatial awareness. The Gunners struggled to find Iwobi because the Nigeria international did not make himself available like Cazorla, Ozil or Ramsey.

In the first half, Iwobi played too high up the pitch. Instead of acting as a deep-lying playmaker, Iwobi pretty much played like a No. 10. Wenger realized that Iwobi did not understand the role of a central midfielder and therefore shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation that was more familiar for Iwobi.

In the second half, Iwobi felt more comfortable in the No. 10 role. His attacking stats are decent with 3 key passes and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to Squawka. But his defensive stats show his poor work-rate with no tackle won, no interception and no block. Iwobi will need to get rid of this habit of running into traffic to cheaply give away the ball.

  1. Midfield is still an issue

The tempo was too slow in the first half because nobody pulled the strings in midfield. When Cazorla is sidelined, Ozil often drops back to help build up play. The lack of creativity was also blatant as Elneny and Iwobi don’t have the passing skills of Cazorla or Ozil. Defensively, Iwobi pretty much left Elneny on his own. Elneny only won 2 of 6 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. That’s OK against an average side like Cologne but it won’t be enough against a good team.

  1. Holding looked out of his depth

The youngster was such a nervous wreck that Wenger yanked him off at halftime. In 45 minutes, Holding won 0 of 3 tackles, and made 3 fouls, 0 interception and 0 block. Holding showed poor decision-making in the third minute when he attempted a risky clearance instead of making a back pass to Ospina. Bittencourt blocked the clearance to be clean through on goal but Holding pulled him back. Surprisingly, the referee did not even book Holding for that cynical foul. A minute later, Holding fouled Bittencourt on the edge of the Arsenal box. He then failed to block Cordoba’s wonder strike in the 10th. Attempting to make amends, Holding gave Cologne a counterattacking opportunity by running into traffic and losing possession in the 40th.

In the summer, the Gunners sold Paulista and kept Mustafi, Chambers and Holding. In hindsight, a smarter policy would have been to sell Chambers, keep Paulista and Mustafi and loan out Holding. The England U21 international is so low on confidence that you wonder what kind of competition would help his development: Europa League? League Cup? Championship?

  1. Sanchez is still hungry

The Chile striker will need great performances in his last season at the club to earn a fat contract next summer. Despite a relative lack of match sharpness, Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead by cutting inside to curl a shot into the far corner. He could have scored another goal in the 89th but his lob attempt sailed wide. Fans could see his desire as he pressed high up the pitch several times.

  1. A high defensive line with Mertesacker is suicidal

Playing a high defensive line can be challenging when you have a centerback with no recovery pace like Mertesacker. Most of Cologne’s chances resulted from Mertesacker’s sluggishness. Zoller initiated the opening goal by making a run between Monreal and Mertesacker. Ospina came off his line because Zoller was clean through on goal.

The German side nearly doubled the lead by using the same ploy in the 16th. Zoller beat the offside trap by making a run between Mertesacker and Holding. However, Zoller struggled to control the ball, which ended up rolling toward Ospina. Cologne exploited again Arsenal’s high defensive line in the 72nd. Cordoba rolled away from Mertesacker and dribbled past Monreal to fire a low strike that Ospina turned around the post.

  1. Arsenal shouldn’t extend Walcott’s contract

Walcott’s limited technique was exposed on Thursday. He was dispossessed 4 times and was flagged offside 4 times, the most for any player in both categories. Despite his clumsiness, Walcott managed to get involved in two goals. It was his blocked cross that led to Kolasinac’s equalizer. Then his lost duel against Horn led to the final goal. Nelson, who replaced Walcott in the 83rd, is already a much better player at the same age. Wenger will carefully give Nelson some playing time this season before integrating him into the first team next year.

  1. Giroud had an off day

The France striker tried hard but couldn’t find the net. Giroud took a pass from Maitland-Niles in the 14th for a close-range effort that Heintz deflected out. He then met a cross from Bellerin in the 20th for a tame header that Horn easily saved. I thought Giroud should have scored in the 39th when he connected with a cross from Sanchez but sent his header wide. Giroud was dominant in the air, winning 4 of 4 aerial duels. I was surprised that the Gunners didn’t try to find him more in the second half. Cologne proved so weak in the air that they only won 20% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

  1. Ospina was rusty

In his first game of the season, Ospina hit a poor clearance that led to the opening goal. The Colombia goalkeeper learned his lesson in the second half as he kicked the ball straight into touch in a similar situation. Ospina made a fine save in the 72nd to prevent Cologne from leveling. His quick legs are definitely an asset when you have Mertesacker in the back three.

  1. Bellerin had a good game

After a couple of disappointing performances, Bellerin finally showed the level that justified his selection in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year. The Spaniard scored a goal, created 2 chances, had a passing accuracy of 92%, made 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 1 of 1 tackle and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 4 interceptions and 1 block. He’s obviously a better player on the right flank than on the left.

  1. Could this be Wilshere’s season?

In his first game of the season with the first team, Wilshere came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 68th. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in the 3-4-3 system, but Cazorla’s injury and our midfield woes give him a big opportunity to get some playing time.

  1. Debuchy and Chambers have no future at the club

Both players were not even included in the Europa League squad. That doesn’t look good when youngsters like Holding and Maitland-Niles start and when Reine-Adelaide, Nelson and Akpom get the nod on the bench. Debuchy can only blame himself for not accepting a salary cut at another club while Chambers must have regrets about his aborted move to Leicester.

 

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth: Gunners restore a bit of order with 3-0 win

Welbeck always catches your attention with his work-rate. The only question mark is about the end product. Manchester United fans liked his attitude and performance but lamented his finishing. So it was not a surprise when Van Gaal let Welbeck join Arsenal in 2014. On Saturday, Welbeck reminded Manchester United fans what could have been by scoring two goals and making an assist in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth 2017

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

The England international opened the scoring in the sixth minute by heading Kolasinac’s cross into the bottom corner. He set up the second goal in the 28th by feeding Lacazette, who fired into the top corner from 20 yards. Welbeck made it 3-0 by taking a pass from Ramsey in the 50th to beat Begovic with a low diagonal strike. He could have notched a hat trick after dribbling past Cook but his chip sailed wide of the far post in the 60th.

Welbeck worked so hard that he led all players with 3 fouls. On a more positive note, he also won 1 of 3 tackles and 2 of 5 aerial duels while making 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. Although he mostly played on the left flank, Welbeck proved a valuable outlet to help the Arsenal defense evade Bournemouth’s high press. The only blemish on Welbeck’s outstanding performance was his 4 turnovers due to poor touches, according to whoscored.com.

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that was thrashed 4-0 at Anfield with Lacazette, Kolasinac and Mustafi replacing Sanchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Holding in the starting lineup. There was a lot of pressure before the game because the Gunners had lost their 2 previous league games.

A walk in the park

Late business in the transfer window completely destabilized the team. The manager did not field his best lineup at Liverpool because he tried to convince the Ox to stay while Mustafi was linked with a move to Inter Milan. Things nearly went back to normal on Saturday as Wenger benched an unfit Sanchez and played Kolasinac on the left flank and Bellerin on the right.

In the end, it proved a walk in the park. Arsenal created 14 chances to just 4 for the Cherries. The Gunners also showed more commitment by winning 16 of 23 tackles compared to 9 of 17 for the visitors. The scoreline could have been more embarrassing for Bournemouth if the quality of the final ball had been better. Ramsey overhit a long ball for Lacazette in the 26th while Bellerin put too much weight on a pass to the French striker in the 62nd.

Lacazette proved tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 94.1%. His 100 goals in the French league have made his flair for goals pretty obvious. He showed on Saturday that he can score from anywhere in the final third. Welbeck gave him another opportunity to find the net in the 37th by charging down Begovic’s clearance. Lacazette pounced on the loose ball but was denied by the Bournemouth goalkeeper. In hindsight, maybe dribbling past Begovic was a better option than a first-time effort.

Cheers and boos for Sanchez

Welbeck and Lacazette were replaced by Sanchez and Giroud in the 74th. Sanchez performed poorly for Chile during the international break and had to overcome the disappointment of an aborted move to Manchester City. The majority of the fans cheered him when he came onto the pitch but a minority booed him. Sanchez may need two more weeks to be at the top of his game again. In his 16-minute cameo, Sanchez set up Giroud for an angled shot in the 79th and tested Begovic with a low strike in stoppage time.

Both Sanchez and Ozil have decided to run down their contracts. At the age of 28, they know they have one last opportunity to cash in their talent. They will have to perform well in their last season at the club if they want to convince potential suitors that they are worth the cash. Ozil led the team with 3 key passes but had very little impact in the final third. His work-rate was decent with 1 interception, 1 block and 2 tackles made.

Ozil often swapped positions with Lacazette, oscillating between the role of a second striker and the instincts of a playmaker. Looking for space between the lines, Ozil was caught offside twice. He forced a one-handed save from Begovic with a curling free kick in the 16th. Then he sent a half-volley wide with his weaker foot in the 56th.

Coquelin’s hamstring injury

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey didn’t have much work to do for the simple reason that the Cherries were all over the place. Howe tried to mimic Arsenal’s 3-4-3 system but his team didn’t really master the subtleties of such a formation. Xhaka and Ramsey combined to make 3 interceptions and win 1 of 3 tackles, the kind of stats that Kante can get in 45 minutes. Xhaka won 71.4% of his duels, compared to 33.3% for Ramsey according to the club’s website, but had a passing accuracy of only 72.6%.

Offensively, Xhaka tested Begovic with a long-range strike in the 12th. Defensively, he was too static in the 48th when the Cherries created their first scoring chance. Xhaka left Kolasinac in a 1v2 situation with Francis and Ibe, which explains why Kolasinac couldn’t stop Ibe’s cross for Defoe, whose glancing header hit the near post.

Ramsey made the penultimate pass for the opening goal and fed Welbeck for the third. He could have scored in the 57th but failed to make solid contact with the ball while meeting a cross from Ozil. The Gunners enjoyed 59% of ball possession, so it’s not in those games that Ramsey’s positional play can be seriously tested. A lapse of concentration still led Ramsey to give the ball away in a dangerous area in the 32nd.

Coquelin came off the bench to replace Ramsey in the 67th as the manager wanted to protect Arsenal’s three-goal lead. Did Coquelin fail to properly warm up? The French midfielder pulled his hamstring in the 81st and could not be replaced because Wenger had already made his 3 substitutions. Despite their numerical inferiority, the Gunners managed to keep a clean sheet.

Stopping dangerous crosses

Common sense dictates to have a left-footed player in the leftback position. Yet, Wenger decided to play Bellerin on the left wing against Stoke and Liverpool to accommodate Oxlade-Chamberlain on the opposite wing. The logical outcome was a lack of cross from the left flank. On Saturday, Wenger finally did what most rational managers would do by starting Bellerin on the right and Kolasinac on the left. That move paid off as Kolasinac made the assist for the opening goal.

Bellerin and Kolasinac finished the game with 2 key passes each. Arsenal fans were relieved when Bellerin volleyed the ball into touch as the Cherries cleared their lines from a corner. Obviously, Bellerin remembered the blunder he made when Salah scored for Liverpool. Using a back three makes sense since Arsenal’s fullbacks almost play like wingers. In the 40th, Bellerin made a cross for Kolasinac, whose volley was blocked by Smith.

The main challenge for Kolasinac this season will be stop dangerous crosses. Both Monreal and Gibbs failed in the previous seasons. Kolasinac lost a duel against Ibe, who crossed the ball for King in the 89th. The Bournemouth forward beat Bellerin to the ball for a looping header that Cech tipped over the bar. Kolasinac will also need to be more tidy in possession. He only had a passing accuracy of 73% compared to 84% for Bellerin.

Blooding youngsters

At the back, Koscielny led all players with 4 interceptions and 5 aerial duels won out of 7. The France centerback wasn’t completely sharp yet as he won none of the 2 tackles he made. There was an injury scare in the 46th when King stamped on Koscielny’s leg. The referee assumed it was unintentional otherwise it would have been a red card. Mustafi was a bit shaky as he missed a tackle on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 61st and was nearly dispossessed while dribbling in his own half in the 66th. His relative weakness in the air led to Bournemouth’s scoring chance in the 48th. Mustafi only won 1 aerial duel out of 3.

I still felt Arsenal made the right choice this summer by selling Paulista and keeping Mustafi. The Germany international can have poor games but he’s less dodgy in his decision-making than Paulista, whose poor command of English hampered his integration.

Saturday’s game was just the first of 7 games in a 23-day span. I hope the manager will play a makeshift team for the Europa League game against Cologne on Thursday because the Gunners don’t have a squad strong enough to seriously compete in four competitions. The Europa League should be a great opportunity to introduce more competition within the squad and blood youngsters like Holding, Nelson, Willock, Maitland-Niles and Chambers while giving some playing time to benchwarmers like Mertesacker, Elneny, Walcott, Iwobi and Ospina.

If the Gunners reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League, maybe Wenger should start fielding his best lineup, but until then it doesn’t make sense to ruin our Premier League season by chasing glory in a cheap European competition. The Chelsea game next Sunday is much more important than getting a good result against Cologne.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Defensive shambles exposed in 4-0 loss

It’s time to get really worried. The Gunners are on pace to finish the Premier League season with more than 100 goals conceded after an embarrassing 4-0 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday. They have already let 8 goals in. Only the Hammers have a more porous defense in the league with 10 goals conceded.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal 2017

Photo credit: Alexis Sanchez’s Instagram account

The Reds completely outplayed Arsenal with 10 shots on target to 0. The scoreline could have been more humiliating if Cech had not made 6 saves. Liverpool showed more desire, winning 59% of the duels and 22 tackles to 12, according to the club’s website. By contrast, the Gunners were not at the races. Their performance was so listless that some fans even sang: “you’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

A lot of fans are frustrated because the same old defensive frailties resurfaced at Anfield: Arsenal couldn’t handle crosses, turnovers and counterattacks. What made the loss more bitter is that the Reds looked like a slick machine with a great work-rate while the Gunners couldn’t press as a unit and didn’t seem to pull for each other.

There are obvious signs that this Arsenal squad is regressing. Sunday’s result brought back memories of the 2013-14 season when Arsenal suffered heavy losses at Manchester City (6-3), Liverpool (5-1) and Chelsea (6-0). The players definitely deserve some stick but in the end Wenger can’t escape the fact that he’s the one who hired them.

Three months ago, the manager said the club was one or two signings away from contending in the league. Well, the Liverpool game showed that the Gunners will need more than Lacazette and Kolasinac just to have a decent shot at finishing in the Top 4.

Organizational mess

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Stoke the previous weekend with Koscielny, Holding and Sanchez replacing Mustafi, Kolasinac and Lacazette in the starting lineup. I thought the team selection was weird. Why would you give the nod to Holding over the more experienced Mustafi? Then why would you play a right-footed player like Bellerin in the left wingback position instead of Kolasinac or Monreal? It’s no surprise if Arsenal only made 1 accurate cross compared to 8 for Liverpool, according to whoscored.com.

Up front, the manager picked Welbeck for his pace and physicality. Giroud and Lacazette are more clinical than Welbeck, but Giroud lacks pace while Lacazette is still adjusting to the physical side of the Premier League. The only positive from the team selection was the return of Koscielny and Sanchez, respectively from suspension and injury.

Defending crosses was an issue last season. Sadly, the staff still hasn’t found the cure. Liverpool midfielder Can outjumped the Arsenal defense to head Moreno’s cross wide in the sixth minute. You can see the organizational mess in the screen capture below.

Liverpool M06 edited

Moreno and Henderson, circled, are unmarked while 6 Gunners deal with 3 Reds inside the box. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Gunners were so scared of the danger that there were too many of them inside the area while Moreno and Henderson were left unmarked. The irony is that while the Gunners had numerical superiority inside the box, they committed too many players at the near post and left Bellerin in a 1v2 situation with Salah and Can at the far post. What’s the point of having 3 defenders at the near post if they don’t mark anybody?

Some more gruyere cheese?

Liverpool capitalized on some nifty one-touch passing to torment the Arsenal defense with another cross in the 10th. Ramsey failed to track Can, who made a cross for Salah at the far post. Salah beat Bellerin to the ball for a low effort but was denied by Cech.

The Reds finally opened the scoring in the 17th when Xhaka’s risky pass for Bellerin was intercepted by Gomez. Bellerin barely attempted to stop Gomez’s cross while Firmino took advantage of Arsenal’s poor marking to find the net from 6 yards with a free header. You have to give credit to Firmino for his smart movement and his ability to play between the lines. But there was a too big gap between Holding and Koscielny and I thought Holding should have put off Firmino when the Brazilian striker ghosted past Koscielny.

The second goal came from a counterattack starting from the Liverpool box in the 40th. Gomez made an interception and found Wijnaldum, who beat Xhaka with a pass to Can. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M40a editedRamsey and Xhaka are stuck high up the pitch as the Reds counterattack. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese as the ball travelled to Mane, who cut inside Holding to curl a shot into the far corner. The shift to a back three means that the Gunners don’t have numerical inferiority if the midfield is overrun. Of course, the trouble is that defenders still have to win duels. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M40b ed.jpg

The Gunners have numerical superiority but Holding loses his duel. (Photo credit: Sky)

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka in central midfield struggled against Stoke. So it was no surprise to see them completely outplayed by Henderson, Wijnaldum and Can. Ramsey’s tactical indiscipline definitely cost his team. The Wales midfielder was dispossessed 3 times, tied with Ozil for the most by any player. The irony is that Ramsey still performed better than Xhaka, winning 41.7% of his duels and 2 of 6 tackles compared to 20% and 0 of 3 tackles for the Switzerland international, according to Squawka and the club’s website.

Xhaka’s poor positional play

Xhaka has performed poorly in the first 3 games of the season. His weak positional play has often been exposed when opponents hit Arsenal on the fast break. That’s a big concern when you are supposed to be the holding midfielder. Arteta also lacked pace but his positional play wasn’t as dodgy as Xhaka’s. What made Xhaka’s performance look bad was his passing accuracy of 86.8%, well below his usual standards and lower than Ramsey’s 95.8%.

The most depressing part for Arsenal fans is that whoever the manager picks, the midfield is flawed. Wenger replaced Ramsey with Coquelin at halftime, shifting from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Bellerin and Monreal as fullbacks and Oxlade-Chamberlain as a winger. In 45 minutes, Coquelin won 0 tackle and 0 aerial duel and made just 1 interception.

The final goal from a counterattack in the 77th showed again the ineptitude of our midfielders. Coquelin was in a too advanced position as Firmino found Can in midfield. Firmino was already surrounded by Monreal and Xhaka, so there was no reason for Coquelin to come forward. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M77a edited

Firmino beats Monreal, Xhaka and Coquelin with a pass to Can. (Photo credit: Sky)

Trying to make up for Coquelin’s mistake, Holding sprinted forward to press Can. It proved a losing gamble as Can held off Holding to feed Salah on our right flank. Bellerin failed to block Salah’s cross for an unmarked Sturridge, who headed home from two yards. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M77b edited

Koscielny left in a 1v2 situation as Monreal and Holding are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

It was not a game tailored for Ozil, who still led Arsenal players with 2 key passes. The Germany playmaker also won 1 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions. Some poor communication allowed Henderson to dispossess Ozil in the 19th. Henderson played a one-two with Firmino before missing the target. Koscielny hesitated for a split second, probably thinking about the offside trap, and failed to stay with Henderson.

Rushing Holding’s development

Some Gunners seemed incredibly casual on Sunday as if they were playing some kind of friendly. Monreal made a dribbling attempt in midfield and lost possession to Salah, whose low strike was parried by Cech in the 54th. Three minutes later, Liverpool cleared a corner into the path of Bellerin. As the last defender, Bellerin should have kicked the ball back into the box with his first touch. But the Spaniard tried to control the ball with a poor first touch and was dispossessed by Salah, who sprinted 70 yards to slip the ball past Cech for a 3-0 lead. That goal mentally killed the team as a dejected Sanchez sank to his knees.

Bellerin looked like a shadow of the fullback who was voted in the PFA Team of the Year during the 2015-16 season. He won only 22.2% of his duels and 1 of 4 dribbles. The Ox had a poor game too, winning just 28.6% of his duels while making no tackle, but at least he wasn’t involved in a high-profile blunder. It was quite obvious that the Ox had his mind elsewhere.

It might not be the best time for a youngster to play in such a dysfunctional club. I can only sympathize with Holding, whose development is being recklessly rushed. Holding looked average in a back three. The shift to a back four made him look pedestrian in the second half. Holding gave the ball away to Mane in the 70th but Cech took the sting out of Mane’s effort before Bellerin cleared the ball off the line. Three minutes later, Holding was let down by another poor touch and got booked for crashing into Henderson.

Koscielny’s decent performance

Holding was obviously the weak link in the Arsenal defense, leading all players with 4 turnovers. You can’t afford that many turnovers in such a key position. Liverpool’s pressing game clearly put Holding under pressure as he hit only 2 accurate long balls out of 12 and had a passing accuracy of 71.9%, the lowest percentage of all the defenders. On the bright side, Holding won 4 of 4 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions. I still believe Holding should be loaned out to develop at a reasonable pace.

Monreal also underperformed at the back, winning only 1 of 9 tackles and 28.6% of his duels compared to 70% for Koscielny and 55.6% for Holding. The Spaniard was guilty on the last goal and struggled with the pace of the Liverpool wingers. Salah cut inside Monreal in the 25th to fire a low strike that Cech palmed away.

In his first game of the season, Koscielny was one of the few Gunners who performed at a decent level, winning 2 of 2 tackles and 5 of 7 aerial duels and making 4 interceptions and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. Koscielny is a quiet man but he must raise his voice to prevent the ship from sinking, especially since Mertesacker, the natural leader in the squad, is no longer a starter.

Up front, it was a rough day for strikers deprived of service. Welbeck worked his socks off, winning 2 of 4 tackles. He nearly dispossessed Karius twice. His only scoring chance came in the seventh minute when Sanchez led a counterattack. Wrestling with Gomez, Welbeck could only send an off-balance shot over the bar.

Sanchez still lacked a bit of match sharpness in his first game of the season. I guess the manager opted for Welbeck in the lone striker role because Sanchez is more familiar with Welbeck’s game than with Lacazette’s runs. Wenger yanked Sanchez off in the 62nd to send on Giroud, who proved dominant in the air, knocking a high ball down for Lacazette in the 69th and heading Ozil’s free kick over the bar in the 89th.

Just a few days left to save the season

The Gunners now sit in 16th place, 6 points behind Manchester United and 4 points behind Liverpool and City. The manager and the team will be under heavy scrutiny for the next game against Bournemouth on Sept. 9. The atmosphere at the Emirates stadium could quickly become suffocating if the Cherries take the lead or if the Gunners struggle to find the net.

The board members were aware of such a risk when they extended Wenger’s contract. They can only blame themselves for the club’s messy dressing room and shambolic start to the season. Wenger is a very good manager, but the Premier League has become much more competitive in the past couple of years.

During the 2006-07 season, the league had Ferguson, Mourinho and Benitez as top managers. Now Wenger has to compete with Mourinho, Guardiola, Benitez, Conte, Klopp and Pochettino. Some of them belong to a new generation of hands-on manager while Wenger has a more hands-off approach. In the era of micro-managing, some players need more guidance and want answers quickly because their careers are short. I’m not sure Wenger is the kind of person they need.

I still think it’s non-sensical to talk of firing Wenger for the simple reason that no decent manager is available at this stage of the season. If the board wanted a new manager, they had to make a move in the summer.

Now the staff has the international break to sort out the dressing room. And the club has until August 31 to save this season by signing the players it desperately needs. Wenger mentioned Lemar and Mbappe in his news conferences. But Sunday’s humiliating defeat made it clear that the Gunners need defensive leaders, not attacking players.

 

What Wenger’s new contract means for Arsenal

The 2016-17 season proved the most challenging period for Wenger in his Arsenal career because the fans turned against him while the board was reluctant to back him. Despite the criticism in the news media, the uncertainty around the squad and a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Premier League, Wenger has been handed a two-year contract extension. Let’s see what that means for the Gunners.

  1. The club structure is still an issue

The board missed an opportunity to fix structural flaws at the club. The timing would have been perfect this summer to prepare the transition and create the position of sporting director. You wouldn’t expect a manager to simultaneously supervise the squad, the youth teams, the recruitment and the scouting. That’s too much work for one person, especially in a big club. Yet, that’s pretty much what Wenger does at Arsenal. And I think it’s counterproductive.

Arsenal Pre-Season Tour

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

Big clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG and Manchester City have a sporting director helping the manager. It’s important to understand that the manager should not be accountable to the sporting director. Both are like teammates. The sporting director should remove some workload off the manager’s shoulders so that the manager can focus on the game and the squad.

It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s most successful era occurred when Dein was a vice-chairman on the board. Dein had a great knowledge of football and basically acted as a de facto sporting director by facilitating transfers and keeping an eye on the youth teams. It was the complementarity between Dein and Wenger that propelled the club to success. Nowadays, nobody on the board is knowledgeable enough to challenge Wenger’s views and provide a different perspective.

  1. Recruitment and scouting are still erratic departments

The recruitment and scouting departments have underperformed in the past few years. It might be a consequence of the flaws in the club structure. The Gunners haven’t signed any hidden gem lately. Don’t start mentioning Holding because at this stage of his career he’s just a prospect who wouldn’t be in the starting lineup if everybody was fit. When I say hidden gem, I mean players like Kante and Alli who had a major impact in their first Premier League season.

There have been at least two scouting mistakes since 2014. Signing Chambers from Southampton for about 17 million pounds was quite puzzling. That’s the kind of fee you would pay for a starter, but not for a prospect. To put things in context, Chambers cost more than Koscielny and Paulista. At 22, Chambers still has room to improve, but three flaws won’t change: his slow first steps, his inability to quickly turn and his weakness in the air. In my eyes, Chambers is a decent fit for an average team but not good enough for a club chasing a Champions League spot.

Another weird signing was Elneny, hired from Basel for about 10.5 million pounds. Arsenal needed a ballwinner at that time. Instead, the Gunners signed a utility midfielder. It might be OK to get the profile wrong if the player has great skills. Unfortunately, Elneny is not a decisive player. Defensively, he doesn’t win many tackles or duels. And offensively, he doesn’t make assists or score goals. Elneny’s main asset is his passing accuracy, which can prove useful to keep a high tempo against the weak sides but is not enough against the big teams.

An underwhelming recruitment has been the main reason for Arsenal’s inability to contend in the Premier League. Everybody knows the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. It’s the same with transfers. You need to act quickly to sign the best players who are available. You also need a decent number of players to fill the holes in the squad. And finally, the quality of those new signings must be good enough to improve the team.

Let’s analyse the last 4 transfer windows. In the summer of 2013, the Gunners signed Sanogo on July 1, Flamini on Aug. 29 and Ozil on Sept. 2. The timing was poor since Flamini and Ozil were not even available on opening day. As a prospect, Sanogo could not be the answer in the centerforward position. And of the three players, only Ozil was top quality.

The summer of 2014 was arguably the club’s best transfer window over the past four years. Arsenal signed Sanchez on July 10, Debuchy on July 17, Ospina on July 27, Chambers on July 28 and Welbeck on Sept. 2. The timing and the quantity were fine. The only question mark was about the quality with Sanchez as the only top signing on paper.

The summer of 2015 was undoubtedly the worst transfer window. the Gunners signed Cech on June 29 and that was it. The squad was not competitive enough because there were too many holes in it. That poor recruitment campaign allowed Leicester to win the league against all the odds.

Last year, the club signed Xhaka on May 25, Holding on July 22, and Perez and Mustafi on Aug. 30. The quality was decent and the quantity right, but the timing was poor as Perez and Mustafi could only make their Arsenal debut in September. Maybe the Gunners would have not dropped five points in the first two games of the season if Perez and Mustafi had joined in July.

The comparison with Manchester United and City really hurts as Mourinho and Guardiola acted much faster than Wenger. United signed Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Bailly and Pogba before opening day while Stones, Sane, Gundogan and Nolito joined City before the first game of the season.

  1. The Gunners won’t be contenders

Arsenal signed Schalke leftback Kolasinac on June 6 and Lyon striker Lacazette on July 5, but it will take more than two signings for Arsenal to have a shot at the Premier League title. Wenger tends to be too optimistic in the assessment of his squad. As a result, he fails to identify all the weaknesses in the squad and becomes reluctant to clear the dead wood.

First, the Gunners need a defensive midfielder. They currently don’t have a destroyer like Petit or Gilberto to effectively shield the defense. In his first season at the club, Wenger played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. It’s only after signing Petit in the summer of 1997 that the manager was able to switch to a back four.

And second, the Gunners should sign a creative midfielder to make up for Cazorla’s long-term absence. The Spaniard could be sidelined until November. At 32, there’s no guarantee that Cazorla will rediscover his form. The end of his Arsenal career could echo Arteta’s last couple of seasons at the club. On paper, Wilshere would look like a natural replacement but he doesn’t have Cazorla’s defensive awareness and his fitness could be a concern too.

  1. A perfect storm for players’ contracts

Quite a few Gunners haven’t signed any extension yet although their contracts end in 2018. The most obvious cases are Sanchez and Ozil, whose wage demands exceed 250,000 pounds a week. It is not just a matter of money. Sanchez and Ozil both feel that the club is lacking ambition. They could ask for a move if they think that the squad is not strong enough to contend for the title. And we would end up with a situation very similar to what happened in 2011 when Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy left the club before Van Persie and Song also jumped off the ship the following year.

If Sanchez and Ozil can’t be tied to the club beyond 2018, then it might be better to sell them this summer. If it was up to me, I would sell Walcott and Sanchez but keep Perez and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are among the clubs interested in Sanchez, who’s got the highest resale value of all the squad members. Obviously, it would be better to sell Sanchez to a German club so that it doesn’t backfire on Arsenal. But Bayern Munich seemed to have balked at the player’s wage demands.

Lacazette and Perez would be natural replacements for Sanchez as both are strikers who score a lot of goals and make a lot of assists. They also have plenty of pace and good dribbling and passing skills. However, Perez has been unhappy about the lack of opportunities last season, especially when Giroud and Welbeck were injured, as Wenger preferred to give the nod to Walcott or Iwobi. His omission from the squad touring Australia and China could hint at his departure this summer.

Selling Ozil would be more tricky. First, he has a lower resale value than Sanchez. And second, there’s no natural replacement in the squad for the Germany playmaker: Cazorla plays in a deeper position while Wilshere is not as prolific for assists as Ozil. Of course, that would become a different story if the Gunners sign Lemar from Monaco.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere and Gibbs also have their contracts ending next year. Money is not really the issue here. The key factor is their playing time. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs need to play regularly in order to shine and catch the attention of the England manager. Another factor is Wenger’s declining aura after a disappointing season. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs must be frustrated when they see other players improve under Klopp, Pochettino and Guardiola and snatch starting spots in the England team. They might think that they would perform better under a different manager. Arsenal will let Gibbs go after signing Kolasinac last month.

  1. Arsenal will stick to the 3-4-3 formation

The Gunners conceded a lot of goals last season because their midfield was not strong enough to protect the defense and because the back four was flawed: Bellerin lacked consistency because of injury and transfer rumors, Monreal and Gibbs struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank, and Mustafi performed poorly in the second half of the season. It took a shift to a back three to stop the bleeding. Unless the club signs a world-class ballwinner, Arsenal would still be too vulnerable with a back four against strong and even average teams.

  1. Tension with some fans won’t go away

Some fans turned against the team when Arsenal had a poor run of form in the winter. The ‘Wenger Out’ brigade seemed to make it personal by deliberately hurting the club with hostile chants and banners to get Wenger sacked. In my eyes, that attitude was completely wrong. Chelsea and Leicester were flirting with relegation when Mourinho and Ranieri were dismissed. Yet, neither Mourinho nor Ranieri suffered such abuse from the Chelsea and Leicester fans. By contrast, the Gunners were always in the Top 6 last season.

The main problem with such a hostile behavior is that it puts off a lot of players by instilling fear and anxiety in them. Nobody wants to play in that kind of atmosphere. And players may think twice before signing a contract at the Emirates.

Now that the board has made its choice clear, the fans have to stand by the team, which means no protest for this upcoming season unless the Gunners are stuck in a relegation battle. In the final year of Wenger’s contract, if the fans want to put some pressure on the board to hire a new manager, then empty seats at the Emirates and protests outside the stadium would be the only decent options. Displaying hostile banners and shouting hostile chants inside the stadium would be like scoring an own goal.

I have no doubt that the Wenger issue will come back in the 2018-19 season. The board had no serious replacement for Wenger this year and therefore extended his contract. They will have to anticipate and act more decisively in a year and half. Finding the right successor is a long process and should leave no room to improvisation as Moyes’ failure at Manchester United showed.

Gunners save season by downing Chelsea 2-1 in FA Cup final

Sanchez and Ramsey scored on Saturday to give Arsenal a record 13th FA Cup and make Wenger the most successful manager in that competition with a 7th title. The Gunners were complete underdogs before kickoff. I remember reading the Evening Standard on Friday and all their six pundits predicted a Chelsea victory. On the one hand, the Blues had no injured or suspended player and could therefore field a full-strength team. On the other, the Gunners were so badly crippled by injury or suspension that there was no defender on the bench.

FA Cup final

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

Wenger made a gutsy call by giving Mertesacker his first start of the season despite question marks over the match fitness of the German centerback. Koscielny’s suspension, Gibbs’ illness and injuries to Mustafi and Paulista also forced the manager to use Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback on the left flank. The key for Arsenal was to avoid playing a high defensive line that could expose Mertesacker’s lack of pace.

Tactically, the Gunners annihilated Chelsea’s strengths by using the same 3-4-3 system as Conte. They met twice in the Premier League this season. Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates stadium in September when both sides were playing with four defenders at the back. Conte then switched to a back three to beat the Gunners 3-1 in February. At that time, Wenger was still hesitating between his favored 4-2-3-1 formation and a more industrious 4-3-3 system. Those Premier League games became irrelevant on Saturday since the FA Cup final was the first meeting between Conte and Wenger in which both played a back three.

I wasn’t optimistic before the game. I thought Arsenal would be punished for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Holding’s inexperience. My only hope was the 2-1 win over Manchester City in the semifinals. Maybe we could win if the Blues missed their chances and the Gunners converted theirs. In the end, Arsenal showed more desire than Chelsea, making 23 tackles to 20 and 17 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website. The scoreline was quite misleading. The Blues were so badly outplayed that nobody would have complained if the Gunners had won 4-1 or 5-2.

Ramsey’s late runs

Arsenal capitalized on a spell of domination in the opening minutes to open the scoring with a controversial goal. Sanchez charged down a clearance from Kante and the ball hit the Chile striker’s arm before landing at the feet of an offside Ramsey. Luiz and Cahill froze while Ramsey let Sanchez take his chance. Sanchez flicked the ball past Courtois with the outside of his boot to put the Gunners ahead after three minutes.

The controversy was not so much about Ramsey’s offside position, since he didn’t play the ball, but about Sanchez’s handball. You can argue that Sanchez was simply trying to protect his face and that the handball was therefore unintentional. It’s not the first time that a referee has allowed a goal to stand despite a handball in the buildup. Trezeguet scored a similar goal in France’s 2-2 draw with Croatia at the Euro 2004.

Sanchez created the winning goal in the 79th by releasing Giroud down the left wing. Giroud made a cross for Ramsey, who headed the offering into the bottom corner. The understanding between Ramsey and Giroud made the difference on that play. Ramsey’s deep runs are hard to track for any defense. Kante lost track of Ramsey, who was able to find some space between Luiz and Alonso inside the box.

Chelsea struggled to mark Sanchez and Ozil because they have a lot of freedom in Wenger’s 3-4-3 system. As inside forwards, Sanchez and Ozil can find space between the centerbacks and the wingbacks. They can also drop back to exploit the space between the centerbacks and the midfielders. The main drawback of that formation is that Sanchez and Ozil can sometimes be isolated if there’s no support from the wingbacks or midfielders. That explains in great part their high turnover rate. Sanchez had 11 turnovers and Ozil 6, more than any other player according to whoscored.com.

Ozil’s work-rate

The reason why Sanchez and Ozil are considered world-class players is their reading of the game. They can see and make the right pass even under pressure. Sanchez initiated a counterattack in the 55th with a cross-field pass to Bellerin, who failed to find two Gunners at the far post with his cross. The Chile striker also slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was cleared off the line by Cahill in the 16th. It was a good effort since Ozil hit the ball with his weaker right foot. In the closing minutes, Giroud picked out Ozil, who cut inside Azpilicueta only to strike the near post.

Ozil finished the game with 3 key passes and worked harder than usual. The Germany playmaker made 2 tackles compared to none for Pedro and Hazard. He also played a key role in Arsenal’s passing game with 65 passes, second behind Xhaka’s 73. By contrast, Hazard made only 35 passes, fifth behind Azpilicueta, Luiz, Kante and Cahill in the Chelsea team. Sanchez made no tackle but disrupted the Blues’ passing game with 3 interceptions, tied with Monreal and Bellerin for the most by an Arsenal player.

Up front, Welbeck struggled with his finishing. He met a corner in the 19th for a header that crashed against the far post. Then Welbeck took a pass from Bellerin in the 30th and was denied by Courtois from a tight angle while a cross to Ramsey for a tap-in was the better option. On the bright side, Welbeck worked his socks off to cover Sanchez or Ozil when they were stuck high up the pitch. Giroud came off the bench in the 78th to set up Ramsey for the winner.

Moses’ dive

Ramsey has received a lot of stick this season and much of it was not deserved. First, injuries have marred his season. Ramsey never really had a good run of games to find his groove. And second, the few times Ramsey was fit, he had to play in a dysfunctional team. It’s only last month against Middlesbrough that Wenger found the right balance between defense and attack with the 3-4-3 formation.

In my eyes, Ramsey was Arsenal’s best player at Wembley. Ramsey didn’t get off to a good start by collecting a yellow card for pulling back Pedro in the ninth minute. But he grew into the game and was unlucky to chest the rebound against the post after Welbeck hit the woodwork in the 19th. Ramsey finished the game with 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 95.1%, the highest percentage among the starters. He also made 2 interceptions and won 60% of his duels and 2 of 3 tackles for an outstanding overall performance. Kante, Xhaka and Matic had a lower percentage for duels won, according to the club’s website. Xhaka’s focus on the defensive tasks allowed Ramsey to make his trademark late runs in the box. The Switzerland midfielder tested Courtois with a long-range volley in the 32nd.

The Blues were surprisingly lethargic in the first half. Maybe they took their foot off the pedal after celebrating their Premier League title. Chelsea played with more purpose in the second half and equalized after Fabregas replaced Matic in the 61st and Conte sent on Willian for Pedro in the 72nd. Somehow, Moses hurt the Blues’ chances by receiving two yellow cards. The first one was for a cynical foul on Welbeck in the 57th and the second resulted from a blatant dive to win a penalty in the 68th.

Holding as the weak link

Arsenal showed a lot of solidarity at the back to frustrate Chelsea. One defensive play in the 15th set the tone for the game: three Gunners united their efforts to block a shot from Costa. Mertesacker was dominant in the air, winning 5 duels. Only Cahill did better with 6, according to whoscored.com. On the ground, Monreal relied on his reading of the game to win 4 of 4 tackles, the most for any Gunner.

The wingbacks, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin, contributed defensively to keep Pedro and Hazard relatively quiet. Pedro still managed to get two chances by finding some space between Monreal and Mertesacker in the 39th and then between Ramsey and the centerbacks in the 59th. But each time Pedro missed the target.

In his return from injury, the Ox ran out of gas in the second half and was replaced by Coquelin in the 82nd. Bellerin was cautious in the first half and showed more audacity after the break. The Spaniard tested Courtois with a first-time effort from 18 yards in the 65th. Bellerin then led a counterattack in the 84th and dribbled past Luiz to fire a low strike wide of the far post.

Holding proved the weak link at the back. Chelsea’s best chances came from duels Holding lost. As Costa chased a long ball in the 28th, Holding tried to shield the ball for Ospina but was outmuscled by Costa, whose point-blank shot bounced off the Colombia goalkeeper. That was poor decision-making from Holding, who made a similar mistake against Manchester United three weeks ago by attempting a risky backpass instead of clearing the ball into touch. Holding was booked in the 53rd for an obstruction on Costa.

Wenger’s snipe

Chelsea’s equalizer in the 76th was the result of three Arsenal errors. First, Ozil lost possession to Luiz in midfield. Second, the Ox was late to stop Willian’s cross. And third, Holding was wrongfooted and struggled to change direction when Costa chested the ball down before pulling the trigger. TV Commentators claimed Ospina made a mistake because he got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. I thought that was harsh for Ospina because Costa’s 10-yard shot took a deflection.

The Blues nearly leveled in the 86th. Giroud sat too deep and failed to prevent Kante from hitting a ball over the top. Hazard beat Holding to the high ball and redirected it into the path of Costa, who chested the ball down and was denied by Ospina from 7 yards. Costa reacted more quickly than Mertesacker on that play. Ospina made two other key saves, stopping a long-range effort from Kante in the 49th and palming away a low strike from Moses in the 51st.

The Gunners have saved their season with that FA Cup title. Wenger couldn’t help having a snipe at the Arsenal board and the fans before and after the game. The French manager complained about the “lack of respect” and stressed how the “uncertainty” over his future affected the players. It’s now obvious that Wenger wanted some public backing from the board when the results were poor and the fans protested. In any case, that was a no-win situation for the board. If they had backed him, they would have antagonized the fans. By remaining coy, the board put Wenger under more scrutiny, which is what happened with Van Gaal last season at Manchester United. Ironically, both Wenger and Van Gaal finished fifth and won the FA Cup.

Papering over the cracks

Wenger also chastised the fans by stating that “once the game starts and you’re a fan, you stand behind the team.” He also added: “We played some games in a very hostile environment and I will never accept that.” It’s hard to disagree on that point. I think the best way for the fans to protest was to leave a lot of empty seats like they did against Sunderland. Demonstrations outside the stadium were OK but hostile chants and banners inside the stadium were wrong. What kind of player would like to stay in such a club?

The board will meet on Tuesday before announcing Wenger’s future. There’s some obvious tension between the board and the manager. It feels like the FA Cup is papering over the cracks of a disappointing season. The Gunners played 6 games and faced only 2 big teams (Manchester City and Chelsea) to lift the FA Cup, while Chelsea played 38 games and faced 5 big teams twice to win the Premier League. There’s no doubt that the Premier League is the more important competition and the 18-point gap between Chelsea and Arsenal is a reminder that the club needs more than one or two signings to contend next season. Wenger’s failures in the transfer market and in the assessment of the quality of his squad have been obvious in the past two years.

If the board has found a better manager, now is the perfect time to make the transition and maybe offer Wenger the position of sporting director. Otherwise, the board will have to say that it’s Wenger’s last contract in the hope that it could appease the fans with the obvious risk that protests could start again next season if the results are poor.

 

Arsenal vs. Everton: Gunners miss out on Top 4 despite 3-1 win

The Gunners’ 3-1 win over Everton on Sunday was their fifth straight victory in the Premier League. Unfortunately, they hit top form too late as they finished fifth, one point behind Liverpool. Optimists will point out that Arsenal racked up 4 more points than last season, suggesting that it’s an improvement. Realists will notice the 18-point gap with Chelsea, concluding that the club is regressing, especially since it’s only the second time under Wenger’s tenure that Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League.

Arsenal vs. Everton

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

For most fans, 2016-17 has been a disappointing season. It’s definitely not a bad season, otherwise the Gunners would have wound up in the middle of the table like Chelsea did a year ago. But it can’t be described as a good season for the simple reason that Arsenal finished behind Tottenham and Liverpool. I can accept the fact that Chelsea and Manchester City do better because they are both backed by generous billionaires while Kroenke is treating Arsenal like a cash cow, taking money out of the club. But finishing behind Liverpool and Tottenham is embarrassing because the Gunners have a bigger payroll and spent more money in the transfer market than those two clubs.

A quick look at the table shows where the problem is. Arsenal scored 77 goals in 38 games to claim the fifth best offense in the league and conceded 44 goals to have the sixth best defense. A total of 77 goals is decent compared to Tottenham and Chelsea, which are the top scoring teams with 86 and 85 goals respectively. But conceding 44 goals is too much compared to Spurs and the Red Devils, who have leaked 26 and 29 goals respectively. The last time the Gunners conceded 44 goals or more was during the 2011-12 season, when they finished 19 points behind the two Manchester clubs. Yes, we are back to square one!

Holding’s inexperience

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that defeated Sunderland 2-0 last Tuesday, with Koscielny, Paulista and Welbeck replacing Mustafi, Gibbs and Giroud in the starting lineup. Mustafi and Gibbs were injured while Welbeck’s pace meant that he was a better option against Everton than Giroud. Arsenal showed more commitment than the Toffees, winning 61% of the duels, and making 12 interceptions to 10 and 18 tackles to 9, according to the club’s website.

The Toffees tried to press high up the pitch in the opening minutes but ended up running into the void because the 3-4-3 formation means that the Gunners have an extra man at the back. The system gives more room for error but is not infallible. Holding’s inexperience proved quite costly in the 14th minute. What was he doing 70 yards away from the Arsenal goal? Valencia outpaced Monreal down our left flank and dribbled past Holding before Koscielny took him down with a reckless tackle.

Koscielny’s red card was deserved. The France defender was not in control and missed the ball. That was really poor decision-making. But I can understand his rationale. Holding was out of position, which means that a dangerous 3v2 situation was developing, with Koscielny and Paulista facing Mirallas, Lukaku and Valencia. To a certain extent, that challenge reminded me of Koscielny’s first season at the club when he collected two red cards.

Holding had a poor game, with a passing accuracy dipping to 73.9%, the lowest percentage for any defender. He made 0 interception and 2 blocks and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Ten years ago, Arsenal could start a youngster like Holding on a regular basis and still finish in the Top 4. Nowadays, it’s no longer possible because the level in the Premier League has significantly improved. For instance, Ake is a promising prospect at Chelsea but even Conte sees him as a bench warmer. A loan next season is a necessity both for Holding and Arsenal: Holding needs more playing time while the club needs to speed up his development.

Mertesacker’s 1st game of the season

Everton’s goal in the 58th came from another mistake from Holding, who misjudged the flight of the ball and handled it while trying to chest down a cross from Baines. Lukaku converted the subsequent penalty to cut Arsenal’s lead to 2-1. Everton found more space after Koscielny’s ejection. The shift to a back four also exposed Holding a bit more. In the 62nd, Valencia outmuscled Holding, who was booked for an obstruction on the Everton winger. Then Lukaku ghosted past Holding in the 83rd but headed Barry’s long ball wide.

Maybe the Gunners would have not struggled so badly if the referee had treated Williams with the same severity he showed to Koscielny. The Everton centerback received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 19th and should have been booked again in the 55th for tripping Welbeck. The referee kept the card in his pocket although it was clearly a cynical foul.

Paulista became a second choice after his poor performance against Tottenham. Yet, he stepped up following Koscielny’s sending-off. Paulista cut out a cross for Lukaku in the 30th, made a perfectly timed challenge on Mirallas in the 36th, killed a counterattack with another timely tackle in the 42nd and deflected out Lukaku’s shot on the stroke of halftime. However, his luck ran out in the 49th when he challenged Valencia, twisting his knee in the collision.

In less than 50 minutes, Paulista had a passing accuracy of 95.8%, made 1 interception and 3 blocks, and won 1 of 2 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He also won 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for any starting defender, according to the club’s website. Paulista was stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Mertesacker in the 53rd. The German defender was making his first appearance of the season and caused a bit of panic with a dodgy tackle on Valencia in the 55th. The referee turned down Everton’s penalty shout.

A more confident Bellerin

Cech made a couple of key saves to help Arsenal reach halftime with a 2-0 lead. He stopped a toe poke from Lukaku afer a goalmouth scramble in the 38th, turned around the post a long-range strike from Gueye in the 41st and tipped over the bar a looping header from Lukaku in the 43rd.

Wenger shifted to a back three last month because the midfield was not good enough to protect the defense, but also because the back four was not performing well: Bellerin and Mustafi both had a drop in form while Monreal struggled to stop crosses.

In the 3-4-3 formation, Bellerin proved he could be an attacking threat down the right flank. He doesn’t have Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dribbling skills but his deep runs and movement can create problems for any defense. The Spaniard finished the game with 1 goal, 2 key passes, 2 interceptions and 2 blocks. He also won 1 of 1 tackle and 1 of 3 aerial duels. Bellerin has not yet recovered his defensive level from last season, but at least he’s playing with more confidence than 2 months ago. He only won 33% of his duels compared to 71% for Monreal.

Monreal is more comfortable with the new system because his positional play makes a bigger difference. He started Sunday’s game as a wingback before Koscielny’s ejection forced him to turn into a fullback. In a back four, Monreal’s relative lack of pace can be a liability to stop crosses. He was more busy defensively than Bellerin because Valencia proved a bigger threat than Mirallas. Monreal won 4 of 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 1 block.

Ozil and Sanchez have a lot of freedom in the 3-4-3 system. Offensively, Sanchez enjoys cutting inside from the left flank while Ozil roams across the entire attacking line. Defensively, their lack of tactical discipline can put the wingbacks in trouble. It’s therefore not a surprise that fullbacks Holgate and Baines led Everton players with 3 key passes each.

Awkward in the final third

While his work-rate is still an issue, Ozil’s creativity is definitely an asset in the final third. The Germany playmaker created the opening goal in the eighth minute by squaring the ball back for Welbeck, who missed a tap-in from 3 yards. As the ball rolled under Welbeck’s studs, Bellerin rushed at the far post to score into an empty net. In stoppage time, Ozil produced some slick work on the left wing to set up Ramsey, who quickly turned to curl into the top corner for a 3-1 lead.

Ozil often showed off his dribbling skills when he played for Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen. Nowadays, he doesn’t dribble much, which is a shame, because I think he could still beat defenders. Ozil won a free kick in the 64th by completely wrongfooting Schneiderlin. He finished the game with 3 key passes, but also 0 tackle, 0 interception, and 0 aerial duel won, compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 1 aerial duel won for Sanchez, and 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 aerial duels won for Welbeck.

Despite his involvement in 2 goals, Welbeck was incredibly awkward in the final third. Bellerin combined with Sanchez in the second minute to make a cross for Welbeck, who missed the target with his volley from 4 yards. Somehow, Welbeck was credited with an assist for the opening goal because he slightly diverted Ozil’s cross. He claimed a second assist in the 27th for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A long-range effort from Sanchez hit Welbeck, who was played onside by two Toffees. Welbeck beat Robles to the loose ball to set up Sanchez for a tap-in.

Ramsey’s 1st goal of the season

Early in the second half, Welbeck capitalized on a mazy run from Sanchez to be clean through on goal but was denied by Robles. In stoppage time, Bellerin picked out Welbeck, who shot straight at the Everton goalkeeper. Besides the two assists, Welbeck impressed with a strong hold-up play. He won 83.3% of his duels according to the club’s website and had a passing accuracy of 96.4%. Both stats are quite unusual for a centerforward.

Sanchez has enjoyed his best season in the Premier League with 24 goals and 10 assists. He could have raised his tally to 25 goals but Robles punched away his angled free kick in the 32nd. The bad news is that the Chile striker picked up a hamstring injury later on and was replaced by Iwobi in the 67th. Iwobi had a couple of chances to make a good impression. He chested down a cross from Bellerin in the 85th only to have his shot blocked by Holgate. Three minutes later, Iwobi slalomed through the Everton defense but was denied by Robles.

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey were ineffective defensively, combining to win 0 of 5 tackles and make 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. They might be the most complementary midfield pairing by default because of Cazorla’s absence, but that should give the manager some food for thought for next season, especially if Cazorla’s ankle injury doesn’t heal and if the Gunners switch back to a back four. Ramsey struggled in the first half before growing into the game. The Wales midfielder slipped a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Robles in the 75th. He then scored his first goal of the season with a curling shot in stoppage time. It might be a good omen for the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday.

Lack of choice at the back

The Blues are the favorites because they just won the league and have no injured player. On the other hand, the Gunners will miss some key players. Koscielny will serve his suspension, Paulista is unlikely to recover from his knee injury, and Sanchez, Mustafi, Gibbs and the Ox will have late fitness tests.

The back three is clearly the biggest problem for the manager. When everybody is fit, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are the obvious starters. Now Wenger only has the choice between Mertesacker, Holding, Monreal and maybe Mustafi for the three starting spots. Starting Mertesacker would be a huge gamble because he has only played one competitive game this season and his lack of pace would be a liability against Costa, Hazard, Willian and Pedro.

The beauty of football is that anything can happen in a game. The better team doesn’t always win. In the FA Cup semifinals, the Citizens played better than Arsenal but still ended up losing 2-1 in extra time. Winning the FA Cup wouldn’t make up for the disappointing Premier League campaign. But it would definitely bring a smile to the fans and the players after a rough season.