Tag Archives: Sokratis

Arsenal vs. Brighton: Gunners throw away lead to finish outside Top 4

  The Gunners showed mental weakness in the clutch. Their Top 4 hopes came to an end after they drew 1-1 with Brighton on Sunday. Theoretically, Arsenal could still finish level on points with Spurs in the Premier League, but there’s no way that the Gunners could overturn a goal difference of eight. Now the only question left is: Who will finish sixth between Arsenal and Manchester United?

Arsenal vs. Brighton.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   A month ago, the Gunners still had the Top 4 race in their hands after they defeated Newcastle to move into third place. But they have blown their best chance of qualifying for the Champions League by having a poor run of form at the worst moment of the season, earning only a point from their last 4 league games.

   It is quite ironic that Arsenal paid tribute to the departing Ramsey with a guard of honor at the Emirates stadium. Ramsey is the longest-serving Gunner in the current squad. He will join Juventus this summer after 11 years at Arsenal. It requires a lot of mental toughness to return from a double leg fracture and score the winning goal in two FA Cup finals despite several hamstring injuries. Ramsey is exactly the kind of player that the Gunners need: mentally tough and performing in the clutch. At 28, Ramsey still has at least 4 years left at the top. Yet, the Arsenal board decided to withdraw his contract offer.

   Calling for Emery’s sacking would be a knee-jerk reaction to this disappointing run of form. I don’t think it would help the club. First, because the Gunners have done slightly better than last season. Emery kept Arsenal in the chase for Champions League spots until May while the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race by March under Wenger. And the Gunners can still reach the Europa League final whereas they got knocked out in the semifinals a year ago. We are very far from Moyes’ poor tenure at Old Trafford where the defending champions finished seventh in 2014.

Slow transition

   Second, what kind of signal would Arsenal send to future candidates by firing Emery after a decent season? Arsenal would be seen as an unstable club where managers must succeed in their very first season. Even Guardiola won nothing in his first season at Manchester City.

   And third, the main culprit for the slow transition and lack of competitiveness is the Arsenal board. Financially, Emery had limited ressources to rebuild the squad last summer. Liverpool and Manchester City spent more than £50 million to sign top centerbacks like Van Dijk and Laporte and more than £40 million to sign top midfielders like Fabinho and Bernardo Silva. Quality has a price but the club wasn’t willing to match the investments made by City, Liverpool or even Chelsea. So the Gunners spent £17 million for Sokratis and £26 million for Torreira. What’s the point of changing of manager after a year if the transfer kitty will limit the scope of the rebuilding effort?

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that defeated Valencia last Thursday with Leno, Monreal, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Mkhitaryan replacing Cech, Koscielny, Kolasinac, Guendouzi and Maitland-Niles in the starting lineup. On paper, it looked like a 4-2-2-2 formation, but it often morphed into a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield because Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka while Mkhitaryan filled the hole on the left.

Arsenal vs. Brighton M44ed.jpgArsenal’s diamond midfield. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Seagulls preferred to sit deep instead of pressing high up the pitch. The advantage of that plan is that you have a solid defensive shape. The drawback is that you invite pressure. Brighton winger Jahanbakhsh gave away a penalty with an awkward challenge on Monreal in the eighth minute. There was minimal contact and even the referee had a doubt for a split second. Aubameyang converted the penalty by firing into the bottom corner to give Arsenal the lead.

Xhaka’s silly challenge

   I mentioned the issue of mental weakness because the Gunners were too passive after the opener. They created no scoring chance between the 9th and the 36th and allowed the Seagulls to get back into the game. Arsenal had a couple of chances before halftime but Ryan pulled some fine saves. At the restart, the Gunners were again very quiet in the final third with no scoring chance between the 46th and the 68th.

   Some teams are ruthless and just pile on the pressure. But this Arsenal team lost its intensity and got punished in the 60th. Brighton capitalized on a poor pass from Mkhitaryan to launch a counterattack. Bernardo’s clearance fell to March, who sprinted down our right flank before rounding Xhaka. The Switzerland midfielder panicked and pulled March back. March lost his balance and fell to the ground. The referee awarded a penalty to the Seagulls and gave a yellow card to Xhaka for that cynical foul. Murray equalized by sending Leno the wrong way.  

   It was a silly challenge from Xhaka because March could only cut the ball back and Mustafi was in a very good position to block the pass. Looking at the big picture, Brighton’s chances of scoring on that play were low because Sokratis was marking Murray, who was the only Seagull inside the Arsenal area, while Monreal had an eye on Knockaert on the edge of the box. Again, some Gunners simply lack mental toughness and keep making blunders under pressure. The Gunners won’t have a solid spine as long as they rely on error-prone players like Xhaka and Mustafi.

   I thought Emery’s substitutions came really late. And they looked pretty much like a punishment for the three players involved in the Brighton equalizer. Kolasinac, Iwobi and Guendouzi came off the bench to replace Lichtsteiner, Mkhitaryan and Xhaka in the 77th.

Aubameyang’s tally

   Mkhitaryan got some stick from the fans for missing a short pass to Lichtsteiner on the play that led to the equalizer. But I thought Mkhitaryan had more impact in the final third than Ozil. The Armenia international nearly opened the scoring in the second minute with a 19-yard strike that hit the base of the post. Then he tested Ryan with a long-range effort on the stroke of halftime. Just before his replacement, Mkhitaryan set up Aubameyang for a big chance in the 74th and fed Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Ryan in the 75th. As usual, Mkhitaryan’s work-rate was better than Ozil’s with 1 interception and 5 recoveries compared to 1 interception and 3 recoveries for the German playmaker, according to the club’s website.

   Although Arsenal enjoyed 71% of ball possession, Ozil didn’t have the influence that fans can expect from him. He led all players with 3 key passes, but one was from a corner and another was a short pass for a long-range strike. Ozil’s best contribution of the game was a cross for Aubameyang, whose 10-yard shot was turned around the post by Ryan in the 39th. Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi have lacked consistency this season, but Mkhitaryan has one advantage over the other two attacking midfielders: his work-rate. Mkhitaryan can press high up the pitch like Ramsey but you wouldn’t trust Ozil and Iwobi to do that job.

   Aubameyang raised his tally to 20 goals in the Premier League this season, trailing only Salah who has 22 goals. He had opportunities to score the winner, first volleying Xhaka’s corner over the bar in the 68th, and then meeting a cross from Mkhitaryan in the 74th only to miss the target from 8 yards. In the closing minutes, Kolasinac also made a pinpoint cross but Aubameyang failed to make any contact for a close-range header.  

Emery making the same mistake as Wenger

   Arsenal’s offense struggled in the air again. Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to win only 2 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. It was so bad that Lacazette even managed to head Aubameyang’s cross into touch in the 87th. Lacazette’s best chance came on the stroke of halftime when he pounced on a rebound and had his 18-yard effort headed out by Dunk. He also forced a comfortable save from Ryan with a strike on the turn in the 90th. Although Lacazette didn’t find the net, he showed outstanding work-rate with 2 tackles and 6 recoveries.

   In midfield, Xhaka cost his team the win with his blunder in the 60th. He also gave the ball away twice in the opening minutes. It’s quite puzzling that both Wenger and Emery have relied on Xhaka to be Arsenal’s holding midfielder. His passing range and his delivery can sometimes make the difference. Xhaka finished the game with 3 key passes, including 2 from corners. Mustafi met a corner from Xhaka in the 36th for a diving header that Ryan saved at the near post. But in the end, Xhaka’s lack of mobility and poor decision-making far outweigh his positive contributions.

   Playing on the right side of a diamond midfield, Torreira had a decent game but his performance didn’t match the high standards he set in the first half of the season. Torreira won 2 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. He was also dribbled past 3 times, tied with Brighton midfielder Stephens for the most by any player. Torreira may have not any proper rest this summer if the Uruguay team goes deep in the Copa America.

Sokratis’ 12 yellow cards

   The main problem with a diamond midfield is that it can make the attack too narrow unless the fullbacks roam forward to provide the width. Lichtsteiner and Monreal were no threat on the flanks as they combined to have 0 key pass and 0 accurate cross. Brighton midfielder March exposed Lichtsteiner’s lack of pace a couple of times. In the 26th, Lichtsteiner failed to close down March, who created a scoring chance with a cross for Murray. Then March rounded Lichtsteiner in the 30th only to shoot into the side-netting. At least, Lichtsteiner didn’t make a silly foul on that play like Xhaka. Lichtesteiner also received a yellow card for dissent in the 64th.

   In the heart of the defense, Mustafi refrained from making any high-profile blunder while Sokratis lost a couple of key duels. Murray beat Sokratis to the ball in the 26th for a downward header that Leno saved. Then March rounded Sokratis to fire an angled strike in the 51st. Sokratis broke a record in the 14th by diving and earning his 12th yellow card in the Premier League, the most for an Arsenal player in a single season.

   Leno salvaged a point for the Gunners by saving March’s header in the 85th. Iwobi left March unmarked at the far post on that play. Leno’s distribution is usually reliable but on Sunday the German goalkeeper had two poor moments, having a pass intercepted by Jahanbakhsh in the 26th and kicking the ball straight to Bissouma in the 33rd.

   The Gunners next visit Valencia on Thursday before facing Burnley on Sunday for their last Premier League game of the season. There’s no doubt that Emery will field his best team against the Spanish side because the Europa League has become the only way for Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League. If Emery is bold enough, he will play a few youngsters against Burnley because players like Nketiah, Willock and Saka will certainly show more desire than the regular starters.

 

 

 

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

   The Gunners took a big step toward qualifying for the Europa League final by defeating Valencia 3-1 in the first leg of the semifinals on Thursday. They showed more desire than against Leicester and had a bit of luck as the Spanish side could have led 2-0 after 15 minutes.

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

   Emery relied on a 3-5-2 formation with Ozil playing behind Lacazette and Aubameyang. Lacazette initiated the equalizer in the 18th minute by playing Aubameyang in. The Gabon striker cut inside Roncaglia before slipping the ball to Lacazette, who scored into an empty net from 17 yards. Then Lacazette lost Roncaglia inside the box to head Xhaka’s cross for a 2-1 lead in the 25th. Neto diverted Lacazette’s bouncing header onto the post and palmed the ball out after it entirely crossed the line. In the last minute of regulation time, Aubameyang met Kolasinac’s cross to seal the win with a volley from a very tight angle.

  1. Arsenal’s version of Cole & Yorke

   The telepathic understanding between Lacazette and Aubameyang reminds me of Manchester United’s strike partnership of the late 1990s. They both produced a good all-around performance, making 2 key passes each and winning 1 of 2 tackles each, according to whoscored.com.

   Lacazette definitely feels more comfortable with continental football, which is less physical than the Premier League. He could have notched a hat trick with better finishing in the second half. Aubameyang rounded Paulista in the 63rd to make a cross for Lacazette, who produced an air shot from 6 yards. Four minutes later, a long-range strike from Kolasinac fell into the path of Lacazette, whose 5-yard effort was saved by Nieto.

   Aubameyang didn’t get off to a great start. He missed the target with an awkward shot in the 23rd when a pass to an unmarked Maitland-Niles was the better option. Then Aubameyang connected with a cross from Xhaka in the 33rd for a volley that bounced over the bar. But Aubameyang grew into the game, worked his socks off and was rewarded with the last goal.

  1. The Gunners struggled to defend set pieces (again)

   Arsenal will need to train harder on set pieces for the second leg because Valencia created 2 chances from corners and 1 chance from free kicks. The Spanish side should have opened the scoring in the eighth minute when an unmarked Rodrigo redirected Parejo’s free kick into the path of Garay, who fired over the bar from close range. Maitland-Niles failed to track Rodrigo’s run on that play. Three minutes later, Valencia finally found the net. An unmarked Rodrigo headed a corner toward Diakhaby, who nodded in. Sokratis lost the first duel with Rodrigo while Xhaka lost the second duel with Diakhaby. Cech is a keeper who can command his area, yet he proved powerless against Diakhaby, who beat him to a corner in the 69th. Fortunately, Diakhaby could only flick the ball on and Mustafi cleared the danger.    

  1. The Arsenal defense was shaky but survived

   Every Arsenal defender had a poor moment. Sokratis was lucky not to get booked for a late challenge on Diakhaby in the sixth minute. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick with a clumsy challenge on Soler in the 35th. Koscielny lacked focus in the 73rd when Gameiro made a run in behind to collect Parejo’s through ball and be denied by Cech. But Maitland-Niles arguably made the worst blunder in the 15th after Cech parried Parejo’s long-range strike. The rebound fell to Maitland-Niles, who headed the ball toward Cech. Guedes pounced on the tame backpass only to flick the ball over the bar.

  1. Kolasinac was let down by his technique

   The Bosnia-Herzegovina international had a passing accuracy of 71.4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters according to whoscored.com. He gave the ball away twice in the opening minutes and wasted good situations with a poor delivery. Out of the 6 crosses Kolasinac made, only one was accurate, but it proved the assist for Aubameyang’s goal.  

  1. A flawed midfield

   Emery played Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in central midfield. I think it’s a less complementary partnership than the duo formed by Xhaka and Torreira because Xhaka is not a natural defensive midfielder and therefore needs a ballwinner to cover him. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times and led all players with 4 fouls. Despite those flaws, Xhaka was still able to pull the strings in midfield and led all players with 3 key passes and 5 accurate crosses, including those for Lacazette’s goal in the 25th and Aubameyang’s chance in the 33rd.

   I expect Emery to start Torreira alongside Xhaka for the second leg because Guendouzi’s work-rate on Thursday was not good enough. Guendouzi won 0 of 1 tackle compared to 2 of 5 tackles for Xhaka and 2 of 2 tackles for Ozil, according to whoscored.com. Emery must probably be managing Torreira’s playing time because he sent on the Uruguay midfielder for Guendouzi in the 58th.

 

Leicester vs. Arsenal: Top 4 hopes in tatters as Gunners self-destruct

   The Top 4 race is virtually over for the Gunners after they suffered a third straight defeat on Sunday, losing 3-0 at Leicester. In hindsight, the home loss to Crystal Palace has been the turning point in Arsenal’s Premier League campaign. The Gunners would still have their fate in their hands if they had beaten the Eagles.

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

   Arsenal Women have been the only ray of light at the club this season. The ladies clinched the Super League title on Sunday by winning 4-0 at Brighton. That’s quite a contrast with the lads, who are miles away from contending. The Gunners trail Manchester City by 26 points and Liverpool by 25 points. There’s a massive rebuilding job required this summer, not even to turn Arsenal into a contender, but simply to have a shot at a Top 4 finish next season.

   A quick look at the standings tells you where the priority should be. The Gunners have scored 69 goals and conceded 49 goals in 36 Premier League games under Emery. The most depressing part is that they are actually overperforming, both defensively and offensively. Arsenal should have scored only 59.56 goals and conceded 53.66 goals, according to understat.com.

   Those are worse stats than under Wenger. The Gunners scored 74 goals and conceded 51 goals in 38 Premier League games last season. The irony is that they were slightly underperforming then, according to understat.com, calculating that Arsenal should have scored 72.27 goals and conceded 48.75 goals. As long as the club doesn’t fix those defensive issues, the Gunners will still be closer to 6th place than 2nd.

Down to 10 men

   Emery made 3 changes to the side that lost at Wolverhampton with Kolasinac, Mustafi and Aubameyang replacing Monreal, Koscielny and Ozil in the starting lineup. Surprisingly, the Spanish manager opted for an attacking 4-4-2 formation with Aubameyang and Lacazette up front, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings, and Xhaka and Torreira in central midfield.  

   Leicester outplayed the Gunners with 67% of ball possession and 12 shots on target to 1 for the visitors. If you think the scoreline was harsh, keep in mind that Leno was Arsenal’s best player and made 9 saves. The Arsenal midfield looked completely spineless without Ramsey. Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi are not link players like Ramsey and don’t have his impact in the final third.

   The Foxes dominated the game because they had an extra man in midfield. So it was up to Lacazette or Aubameyang to drop off and help Xhaka and Torreira. Or maybe Emery should have tweaked his system by playing Mkhitaryan in the hole and Aubameyang on the right wing.

   The Gunners had reasonable hopes of earning a point until Maitland-Niles’ sending off for a second yellow card in the 36th minute. I thought the first yellow card in the eighth minute was a bit harsh. Maitland-Niles definitely made a foul when he collided with Chilwell. The problem was the referee’s interpretation. The referee certainly thought that the Arsenal rightback made no genuine attempt to play the ball and only wanted to kill a dangerous counterattack. If we give Maitland-Niles the benefit of the doubt, maybe he miscalculated the angle of his run.

   The second yellow card was not controversial in itself. Maitland-Niles lost his footing after his first touch and made a late challenge on Maddison while trying to win the ball back. That’s a booking in any game. The referee showed his consistency by booking Ndidi in the 13th and Pereira in the 63rd for similar fouls. Maitland-Niles thought his ejection was harsh because he only made 2 fouls. Somehow, his inexperience cost his team on Sunday, because a Sagna or a Monreal would have been more careful.

Koscielny’s twilight

After Maitland-Niles’ ejection, Mkhitaryan played as a rightback until halftime. Emery replaced Iwobi with Koscielny before the start of the second half, moving Mustafi to the rightback position. Leicester finally opened the scoring in the 59th when Tielemans made a deep run to nod Maddison’s cross into the bottom corner. Torreira failed to close down Maddison on that play while Koscielny couldn’t climb high enough to clear the cross. That goal forced Emery to add more density in midfield by sending on Guendouzi for Mkhitaryan in the 73rd.

The Foxes doubled the lead with a direct ball from Schmeichel to Vardy in the 86th. Koscielny missed his interception while Sokratis lost the foot race with Vardy, who hit the bar with his lob. However, Vardy pounced on the rebound to head home. The Gunners gave up in the last minute of stoppage time, making Pereira look like Maradona. The Leicester rightback ran past Guendouzi, Kolasinac and Koscielny to set up Vardy for a tap-in.

Koscielny was the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense in the past few seasons, but he has lost a step physically. There were moments on Sunday when Koscielny really looked sluggish. He was dribbled past twice, tied with Lacazette and Guendouzi for the most by an Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. So Koscielny is relying on his reading of the game to compensate. The French centerback won a crucial tackle to prevent Vardy from shooting in the 57th and intercepted a through ball for Vardy in the 61st. In his 50-minute cameo, Koscielny even managed to make more interceptions (2) and recoveries (7) than Sokratis and Mustafi combined (2 interceptions and 6 recoveries), according to the club’s website. The desire is still there but the physical ability is waning.

The offside trap that didn’t work

The Arsenal defense was wary of Vardy’s pace, especially since Emery wanted to play a high defensive line. The first warning came in the seventh minute when the Gunners struggled to defend a set piece. Evans met Chilwell’s free kick for a header that Leno saved. On that play, Mustafi played Evans onside while Sokratis failed to mark the Leicester centerback. Mustafi played Vardy onside again in the 27th. Maddison took Vardy’s pass to test Leno with an angled strike. Five minutes later, Vardy beat the offside trap with a run in behind Sokratis. The England international chased a long ball from Albrighton to send a lob over the bar. What worked so well against Napoli failed against Leicester. Vardy also beat the offside trap in the 42nd, running past Mustafi to fire a shot that Leno turned around the post.

Mustafi didn’t produce a disastrous performance like against Crystal Palace but he looked shaky at times. He dived in and gave away a cheap free kick in the second minute. Then Mustafi collided with Leno in the 14th for what should have been a routine catch for the German goalkeeper. Under pressure, Mustafi’s passing accuracy dipped to 50%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis barely did better with a passing accuracy of 53.9%. Koscielny, who only played in the second half when the Gunners were down to 10 men, showed his cool with a passing accuracy of 82.6%.

Sokratis lost a couple of key duels that led to scoring chances for Leicester. The Greek defender was pulled out of position by Vardy in the 24th and missed his tackle. The ball fell to Maddison who hit a tame shot straight at Leno. Four minutes later, Ndidi outjumped Sokratis to meet a corner for a header that Leno palmed away. In stoppage time, Barnes evaded a tackle from Sokratis to bear down on goal but was denied by Leno.

The card collector

The icing on the cake was Sokratis’ 11th yellow card in the Premier League for an obstruction on Maddison in the 64th. Only two players have collected more yellow cards in the league this season than Sokratis: Capoue (13) and Holebas (12), who both play for Watford. That may not sound like a lot but Sokratis has only made 24 Premier League appearances compared to 32 for Capoue. Obviously, Sokratis leads Arsenal players for yellow cards, followed by Xhaka (9) and Mustafi (8). To put those numbers in context, Fabinho leads Liverpool players with 6 yellow cards while the Manchester City player with the most yellow cards is Fernandinho with 5.

On the flanks, Kolasinac worked hard, leading Arsenal players with 9 recoveries while also winning 1 of 4 tackles and making 1 interception, according to the club’s website. However, Kolasinac let Albrighton have too much influence on the game as the Leicester midfielder made 5 crosses and had 3 key passes. Signing a leftback should be a priority this summer since the Gunners have struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank in the past few seasons. On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles paid for his inexperience. Some fans don’t like him at rightback but I’d rather play him in that position next season than extend Lichtsteiner’s contract or hire a new rightback.

In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka looked pedestrians. They worked their socks off but were no match for the Foxes. Xhaka made 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries while Torreira made 3 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. Leicester ballwinner Ndidi beat those stats with 5 tackles, 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries in the first 45 minutes before Rodgers replaced him with the more attacking Barnes at halftime.

Iwobi missing a big chance

Torreira is nowhere near the level he showed in the first half of the season. Is Torreira playing hurt or is it a case of physical burnout? Signing a defensive midfielder should be a priority for the club this summer. Xhaka lacks the mobility for the job. He gave away a free kick by holding Maddison in the seventh minute and fouled Ndidi to stop a counterattack on the stroke of halftime. The Switzerland international was also late a couple of times to block shots from the edge of the box.

Emery relied on Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to feed Lacazette and Aubameyang. The two attacking midfielders were in search of redemption after their poor performance against Wolverhampton. Yet, Mkhitaryan made 0 key pass and showed some poor work-rate with 0 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 4 recoveries in 72 minutes. He failed to close down Chilwell in the 14th as the Leicester leftback made a dangerous cross. Chilwell had enough freedom to finish the game with 3 crosses and 3 key passes. Iwobi’s work-rate was even worse than Mkhitaryan’s with only 1 interception and 1 recovery in his 45-minute cameo. At least, Iwobi had an impact in the final third with 1 key pass and 1 shot on target.

It could have been a different story if Iwobi had converted Arsenal’s only big chance of the game in the 35th. Hitting Leicester on the fast break, Aubameyang played Iwobi clean through on goal. From 10 yards, Iwobi mustered a tame effort straight at Schmeichel. In that kind of situation, you can bet that Ramsey would have scored. Iwobi clearly hasn’t worked on his finishing. He still has that tendency to shoot toward the middle of the net instead of aiming at the corners. Emery should introduce more competition for the winger positions next season, especially since Nelson, Nketiah, Saka and Smith-Rowe have better finishing skills than Iwobi.

Walking a tightrope

That wasn’t a game for Arsenal strikers. Starved of service, Aubameyang took 0 shot despite contributing offensively with 2 key passes. Lacazette led the line but missed the target with his 3 goal attempts. His best chance came in the 23rd when Iwobi made a cross from the left flank. From 12 yards, Lacazette volleyed wide with his right foot. He would have had a better chance of catching the frame with his weaker left foot.

Sunday’s game also highlighted the main weakness of the Arsenal frontline: they don’t have a target man. Leicester centerbacks were dominant in the air with Maguire winning 5 of 6 aerial duels and Evans winning 5 of 8, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win only 2 of 11 headers. Lacazette also led all players with 5 turnovers. The few times the Gunners tried to relieve the pressure with long balls, Aubameyang and Lacazette simply couldn’t beat Maguire and Evans in the air.

Mathematically, the Gunners are still in the Top 4 race. But on current form, it’s hard to see how Arsenal could get more than 4 points from their last two games against Brighton and Burnley. Even if we assume that the Gunners finish the season with 70 points, Chelsea would just need a win against either Watford or Leicester to pip them to the post. And Manchester United could also leapfrog Arsenal with 6 points from their last two games against Huddersfield and Cardiff.

The Leicester game gave the impression that the players have prioritized the Europa League over a Top 4 finish. It wouldn’t be something new. Arsenal did the same last season under Wenger. The Gunners will next play Valencia in the Europa League on Thursday and Brighton in the Premier League on Sunday. The players are walking a tightrope. Another defeat could bring back the toxic atmosphere under Wenger. Are they still fit to wear the shirt?

 

 

Wolverhampton vs. Arsenal: Top 4 finish out of Gunners’ hands after 3-1 loss

  The Gunners produced their worst performance of the season on Wednesday, conceding 3 goals in the first half of a 3-1 defeat at Wolverhampton. After the embarrassing loss to Crystal Palace last weekend, Arsenal found a way to sink even further as a Top 4 finish is now out of their hands. The Gunners trail Tottenham by 4 points and Chelsea by 1 point with just 3 rounds left in the Premier League.

Wolves vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   The clean sheets against Napoli and Watford gave the impression that Arsenal had fixed their defensive problems. But the 6 goals conceded in the last two games show that the Gunners have been struggling for consistency since December and the end of their 22-game unbeaten run.

   In his post-match news conference, Emery made one telling admission. He said: “We didn’t do the game plan like I wanted.” At the start of the season, Emery wanted his team to play out from the back and press high up the pitch. That style of football requires a lot of movement and energy. I think Emery is just finding out how physically demanding the Premier League can be.

   Klopp also learned his lesson in his first season at Liverpool. Because the Reds were inconsistent at that time, Klopp understood that he couldn’t implement gegenpressing in every game and therefore needed to play in a more economical way when his players were jaded. The Reds are not pressing frantically in every game this season because they can rely on Salah, Mane and Firmino to score goals and they have improved their defense by signing Van Dijk and Alisson.

Poor final ball

   At Molineux stadium, the Gunners seemed to be running out of gas even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that lost to Crystal Palace with only Lacazette, Ozil, Koscielny and Leno retaining their starting spots. Were the players unconsciously prioritizing the Europa League over a Top 4 spot in the Premier League?

   Offensively, Arsenal enjoyed 70% of sterile possession with only 1 shot on target compared to 3 for the hosts. In fact, Rui Patricio had no save to make until the last 15 minutes. Ramsey’s absence was badly felt in the final third where the lack of movement played into the hands of the Wolverhampton defense. It’s hard to see how Arsenal could win on the road without Ramsey. The Gunners also lacked penetration because they have no dribbler who can slalom past defenders in a tiny space. Liverpool and Manchester City can beat teams parking the bus because they have dribblers like Salah, Mane, Sterling, Sane and Bernardo Silva.

   Arsenal tried to stretch the Wolverhampton defense with combination play on the wings but it didn’t really click between Mkhitaryan and Maitland-Niles on the right flank. The Gunners managed to find an opening on the left flank in the 17th minute when Monreal played a one-two with Iwobi but Doherty cynically pulled the Spaniard back on the edge of the box.

   The few times Arsenal had some good situations, the final ball simply lacked accuracy. Mkhitaryan delivered a poor final ball in the eighth minute, Ozil’s cross for Monreal went out of play in the 39th, Iwobi played the ball behind Mkhitaryan in the 40th, and Ozil missed his pass to Lacazette in the 70th.

Wengerian frailties

   Wolves showed more commitment, winning 15 of 25 tackles and making 20 interceptions while Arsenal only won 6 of 13 tackles and made 4 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. The hosts also exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on set pieces and counterattacks -defensive frailties belonging to the Wenger era.

   The first warning came in the 25th. An unmarked Boly redirected Bennett’s throw toward Jimenez, who flicked the ball over the bar. Three minutes later, Monreal gave away a dangerous free kick with a cynical foul on Jonny. Neves curled the subsequent set piece into the bottom corner to give Wolves the lead. The players in the wall failed to do their job: they turned their backs instead of attempting to block the shot.

   Wolverhampton’s second goal was even more comical. Playing a short corner in the 37th, Moutinho swapped passes with Jonny as only Torreira tried to close them down. When Ozil finally decided to run toward Jonny, it was already too late. Doherty met Jonny’s cross to head home for a 2-0 lead. Leno was harshly credited with an error for trying to claim the ball. Because Doherty had a free header from 7 yards, Leno had almost no chance of making a save by staying on his line. That’s how Benteke scored for Crystal Palace a few days ago. In my eyes, it would have been an error if an Arsenal defender still had a chance to beat Doherty in the air, but that wasn’t the case. The real issue on that play was Sokratis’ decision-making. The Greek centerback stood 2 yards behind his teammates and played Doherty onside.

   The hosts also caused damage on the counterattack. Jota outpaced Xhaka in the 26th to feed Jonny, whose leg was clipped by Monreal. Four minutes later, Xhaka failed to close down Jonny, who played Jimenez in. From a tight angle, the Wolves striker fired over the bar. On those two plays, Xhaka was too sluggish to break the counterattack while Torreira was stranded up the pitch. Xhaka made the blunder that led to the third goal on the stroke of halftime. He gave the ball away to Jota, who treated Sokratis like a vulgar training cone before firing a low diagonal strike past Leno. Sokratis should have either made a tackle ot stayed with Jota.

Overrun in midfield

   The Arsenal defense was again carved wide open in the second half. Dendoncker blocked Xhaka’s pass and ran past the Switzerland international to take Doherty’s return pass before releasing Jimenez down our left flank in the 55th. Jimenez wasted the scoring chance by overhitting his cross for Jota. In the hope of stopping Wolverhampton’s counterattacking threat, Emery shifted to a back three in the 58th by replacing Torreira and Mkhitaryan with Guendouzi and Kolasinac. That did not prevent Wolves from hitting Arsenal on the fast break in the 68th. Jonny picked out an unmarked Jimenez, who missed the target.

   All these counterattacks clearly show that the Gunners were overrun in midfield. First, the work-rate of the Arsenal midfielders was not good enough. Neves, Moutinho and Dendoncker combined for 32 defensive actions while Xhaka, Torreira, Guendouzi and Ozil only combined for 21 defensive actions. Wolverhampton basically played with one extra man in midfield. Here are the stats for each midfielder according to the club’s website:

  • Neves: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Moutinho: won 4 of 4 tackles, 3 blocks, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Dendoncker: made 1 interception, 8 recoveries.
  • Xhaka: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 block, 3 recoveries.
  • Torreira (57 minutes): made 1 interception, 7 recoveries.
  • Guendouzi (37 minutes): made 3 recoveries.
  • Ozil: made 4 recoveries.

   The second reason for the Gunners’ inability to stop counterattacks was Emery’s tactical configuration in midfield. Xhaka played as the holding midfielder while Torreira was in a more advanced position as a box-to-box player. It’s just as flawed as Sarri’s decision to play Jorginho behind Kante at Chelsea. If you are a rational manager, you want your best defensive midfielder to shield the defense and break up plays, not a sluggish deep-lying playmaker.

Mental block on the road

   Xhaka lacks defensive awareness. He was completely out of position in the 21st when Dendoncker controlled a long ball from Neves to find Doherty on our left flank. Doherty set up Moutinho, who curled a shot wide. And more importantly, Xhaka simply lacks the mobility necessary for the No. 6 role. Jota too easily ran past Xhaka in the 31st before Koscielny blocked his run on the edge of the box. We saw how vulnerable the Arsenal defense was when Arteta played as the holding midfielder. Emery shouldn’t be making the same mistake by relying on Xhaka for defensive duties.  

   Torreira has struggled for form since December. On Wednesday, he lost 50-50 balls that he would have won in the first half of the season. The Uruguay midfielder made a late challenge on Moutinho in the second minute, received a yellow card in the 45th for a two-footed lunge on Neves, and led all players with 3 fouls. At 23, Torreira is still a young player who can improve his reading of the game. He should have played in a deeper position to help out Xhaka in midfield.  

   Emery trusted Ozil in an away game and the move backfired. Ozil was ineffective in the final third and untidy in possession, leading all players with 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. Pundits and fans often talk about Arsenal’s mental block on the road, and Ozil is the player who embodies that issue. Emery also relied on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi to feed Lacazette. Their work-rate was even poorer that Ozil’s. Mkhitaryan only made 1 recovery in 57 minutes and Iwobi barely did better with 2 recoveries in 70 minutes. Looking at the big picture, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi have one thing in common: they have been inconsistent this season, very far from the standards set by attacking midfielders like Silva and Eriksen. Emery replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 71st. The academy player showed more desire and end product than the anonymous Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.    

Don’t leave Lacazette on his own

   Up front, Lacazette showed again why he’s not a centerforward, but a second striker. The France international feels much more comfortable when he can make runs off Aubameyang, who was not in the squad because of a sinus procedure. On Wednesday, Lacazette led the line on his own and spent most of his time dropping back and running away from goal. That obviously made Ozil’s job more difficult because the German playmaker loves having a target in front of him like a quarterback with a receiver.

   Sokratis hit a long ball for Lacazette in the 14th, but Lacazette doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace and the ball bounced out of play. Lacazette doesn’t have Giroud’s strong hold-up play either. Back to goal, Lacazette took passes in the 22nd and 48th and lost possession. Lacazette’s performance improved when Emery sent on Nketiah in the 71st. Nketiah got the better of Boly in the 73rd and made a cross for Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Bennett. Then Guendouzi won possession in the 79th and fed Lacazette, who had another effort blocked. In the end, Arsenal’s consolation goal came from a set piece in the 80th. Sokratis outjumped Neves and Jonny at the far post to head in a corner.  

   The Gunners next visit Leicester on Sunday. They should expect the same kind of treatment since the Foxes perform well against the top clubs and capitalize on counterattacking opportunities. A defeat could virtually end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes if the Blues win at Old Trafford.

 

Everton vs. Arsenal: Gunners show lack of fight in 1-0 loss

   The Gunners have a massive mountain to climb in the Top 4 race. They lost 1-0 at Everton on Sunday to slip to 4th place, level on points with Chelsea in the Premier League. A quick look at the schedule tells you that securing a Champions League spot won’t be easy. Arsenal will play 2 home games against Crystal Palace and Brighton and 4 away games against Watford, Wolverhampton, Leicester and Burnley. The Hornets, the Wanderers and the Foxes are stuck between 7th and 10th like the Toffees. Even the Burnley game will be no gimme, knowing that the Gunners still haven’t kept a clean sheet on the road this season.

Everton vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that defeated Newcastle 2-0 a week ago with Elneny and Mkhitaryan replacing Ramsey and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Iwobi performed poorly against the Magpies while Emery was simply cautious with Ramsey, who was recovering from a minor groin injury. The problem with the team selection was the obvious lack of leadership and aggression. The Gunners were still missing their most experienced centerback (Koscielny) as well as their two most reliable central midfielders (Torreira and Xhaka).

   Arsenal lost 3 duels on the play that led to Everton’s goal in the 10th minute. Jagielka beat Mustafi and Elneny to the ball to flick on Digne’s throw-in. Then Calvert-Lewin ghosted past Mkhitaryan to win the second ball. Calvert-Lewin’s header ricocheted off Kolasinac’s foot and into the path of Jagielka, who reacted more quickly than Mustafi to tap the loose ball home. It looked like a lucky goal for the Toffees but the Gunners were really outplayed at Goodison Park. Everton had 23 shots and 4 big chances to 7 shots and 0 big chance for Arsenal.

A team losing its balance

   In the first half, the Gunners had 2 good situations but lacked accuracy with the final ball. Mkhitaryan released Lacazette down the left flank in the second minute. Under pressure from Zouma and Coleman, the French striker overhit his low cross for Ozil at the far post. Then Maitland-Niles failed to put enough bend on his cross for Elneny in the 37th. Left completely unmarked inside the area, Elneny would have had a free header from 8 yards.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery switched from a 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system at halftime by replacing Elneny and Kolasinac with Ramsey and Aubameyang. Despite enjoying more ball possession, the Arsenal team lost its balance in the second half. The Gunners created a couple of half-chances but they also looked more open. In the 48th, Aubameyang whipped in a cross for Ramsey, whose looping header was awkwardly punched away by Pickford. The ball fell to Ramsey, who volleyed over the bar from 12 yards. In the 59th, Mustafi hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, whose tame header gently bounced into Pickford’s arms. Mkhitaryan also took his chance in the 71st with a curling shot that sailed wide of the far post. Emery switched to a 4-4-2 formation by replacing Ozil with Iwobi in the 74th, but that last tactical change didn’t trouble the Everton defense.

   Sunday was not a good day to be an Arsenal striker. Aubameyang had 0 shot while Lacazette could only muster 1 goal attempt. That game summed up why Lacazette is not a centerforward but a second striker. The Gunners had no natural out ball when Lacazette was on his own up front because the France international is not a target man like Giroud or Henry. At 5’9, Lacazette will never be dominant in the air. He won 2 of 6 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com, while Calvert-Lewin won 8 of 17 aerial duels. Lacazette has decent speed but not electric pace like Aubameyang. That explains why Lacazette has less maneuvering room to beat the offside trap. In the 22nd, Ozil hit a ball over the top for Lacazette, who was flagged offside.

Ozil struggling on the road

   Ozil certainly impressed Emery with his work-rate against Newcastle. But at Goodison Park, Ozil reverted back to the gutless player struggling so badly in away games. Ozil had no impact in the final third with 0 shot and 0 key pass. Even Ramsey, who only played in the second half, managed to do better with 1 of 3 shots on target and 1 key pass. When a player struggles offensively, he can still show his value to the team with his defensive work. But Ozil had the poorest work-rate of the attacking midfielders who started the game. In his 73-minute performance, Ozil only made 2 recoveries compared to 11 for Mkhitaryan, who led all players according to the club’s website.

   I believe Emery should leave Ozil out of the starting lineup for the remaining away games. Ozil simply doesn’t have the required aggression for those games. The German playmaker was too easily bullied by the Toffees. He was dispossessed 3 times and led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   The work-rate of the Arsenal midfield was not good enough to destabilize the Toffees. The Everton midfield won 7 of 8 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 24 recoveries for a total of 35 defensive actions, while the Arsenal midfield won 3 of 4 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 10 recoveries for a total of 16 defensive actions, according to the club’s website. Here are the stats for each midfielder:

  • Guendouzi: won 1 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 3 recoveries.
  • Elneny (45 minutes): made 0 tackle, 1 interception, 2 recoveries.
  • Ramsey (50 minutes): won 2 of 2 tackles, 0 interception, 3 recoveries.
  • Ozil (73 minutes): made 0 tackle, 0 interception, 2 recoveries.
  • Gueye: won 4 of 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 recoveries.
  • Gomes: won 1 of 2 tackles, 8 recoveries.
  • Sigurdsson (90 minutes): won 2 of 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries.
  • Davies (5 minutes): made 0 tackle, 1 recovery.

Where’s the enforcer?

   Elneny’s work-rate was really poor while Guendouzi’s numbers were average for a holding midfielder. Emery can’t be blamed for starting Elneny and Guendouzi in central midfield since Torreira was suspended, Xhaka was injured and Ramsey was recovering from a groin injury. But Sunday’s midfield issues show that the Gunners need to offload Elneny in the summer and sign an enforcer with the right mix of physicality and technique. The club needs an intimidating factor like Vieira and Gilberto Silva in their prime.

   Right now, the Gunners are still too soft in the middle of the park. Elneny was too easily brushed off the ball in the 21st and his passing was so conservative that Ozil had to drop back in order to move the ball forward. Arsenal got away with starting Guendouzi in the holding midfielder role against Newcastle. There was no such luck against Everton. Guendouzi is not a natural defensive midfielder and his inexperience cost him a yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Digne in the fifth minute. The French teenager was also casual at times, giving the ball away in the 38th and 45th. Emery’s switch to a back four in the second half was very risky because it wrongly assumed that Guendouzi could shield the Arsenal defense. If the Gunners want to have a chance of winning on the road, they will have to start Torreira, Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield.

   On the flanks, the wingbacks proved ineffective with 0 key pass for Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac was let down by his technique with a passing accuracy of 53.9%, the lowest percentage for any starting outfielder. He even managed to send a cross out of play in the 31st. Knowing Kolasinac’s reluctance to track back, the Toffees targeted the space behind him in the first half. When Arsenal switched to a back four in the second half, Everton targeted Monreal with Richarlison making runs in behind. The Gunners have been quite vulnerable down the left flank this season. Signing a leftback should be a top priority this summer.

Maitland-Niles’ lack of diligence

   On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles performed poorly too. He won only 33.3% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Bernard too easily skipped past Maitland-Niles in the 10th to make a low cross that Sokratis cleared. His inexperience nearly cost his team. Maitland-Niles lost possession while dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 54th. That turnover led to a scoring chance for Sigurdsson, who blazed a long-range strike over the bar. Five minutes later, Maitland-Niles was too casual, heading a loose ball toward Leno instead of simply knocking it into touch. Bernard intercepted the header but was denied by Leno.

   The worst part in Maitland-Niles’ performance was his lack of diligence. He sent a throw-in out of play in the 63rd and was so slow to track back in the 77th that Ramsey ended up covering him at rightback. Maitland-Niles was mediocre in the 1-0 loss to West Ham just like he was brilliant in the 3-0 win over Rennes. Inconsistency is not unusual for a 21-year-old player. But Emery should make it clear that Maitland-Niles needs to show more desire. Maybe Maitland-Niles would prefer to play in central midfield, but his inconsistency and casualness make that option unlikely right now. Rightback is the best position for him to learn the ropes. Maitland-Niles should follow the example of Flamini, who was humble enough to deputize at fullback when he arrived at the club.

   Mustafi had the best stats of the 3 centerbacks but he was also the main culprit for Everton’s goal. The German defender won 4 of 4 tackles and 8 of 12 aerial duels and made 2 blocks and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. It’s better than the numbers produced by Sokratis (who won 2 of 3 tackles and 3 of 7 aerial duels and made 4 blocks, 2 interceptions and 2 recoveries) or Monreal (who won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 block, 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries). Mustafi was booked in the 82nd for a cynical foul on Calvert-Lewin along the touchline.

Not prioritizing (yet)

   Signing Sokratis was a quick fix to replace an aging Koscielny but I don’t think he’s the answer to Arsenal’s defensive problems. The Greek defender will miss the next 2 league games after collecting his 10th yellow card in the Premier League for blocking Calvert-Lewin’s run in the 24th. Sokratis is definitely not as good as Koscielny in his prime, otherwise he wouldn’t need to make so many fouls. In each of the past 6 Premier League seasons, Koscielny never had more than 4 yellow cards. Koscielny’s worst tally came in the 2011-12 season when he received 9 yellow cards. In terms of discipline, Van Dijk has even better stats than Koscielny. So yes, the Gunners still need to sign a top centerback this summer, especially since Koscielny will turn 34 this year. And please, don’t mention Chambers as a possible solution because he’s miles away from the level of a Koscielny or Van Dijk.      

   While Torreira proved the best signing in the first half of the season, Leno has turned out to be our best signing in the second half. Leno prevented Arsenal from suffering a heavier loss by making 5 saves. The final score is important because goal difference could play a crucial role at the end of the season for the Champions League spots. Leno especially saved 2 big chances, denying Bernard after Maitland-Niles’ blunder in the 59th and stopping Sigurdsson’s 12-yard strike in the 72nd. The German goalkeeper also parried Bernard’s angled strike in the 81st and acted like a magnet to attract Sigurdsson’s curling shot in the 38th and Calvert-Lewin’s tame header in the 70th.

   The Gunners next host Napoli in the Europa League on Thursday before visiting Watford in the Premier League on Monday. That’s a tough schedule but at least they have 3 days of rest before each game. At this stage of the season, Arsenal can’t afford to prioritize a competition because the Europa League is their only chance to win a trophy while they still have a good shot at finishing in the Top 4. But a poor result in the first leg of their quarterfinal tie against Napoli could change their approach.  

 

 

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. 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.