Tag Archives: Walcott

The art of squad building and how Wenger lost the plot

Poor recruitment is the main reason why the Gunners are no longer in the Top 4 of the Premier League. Last season, they finished in fifth place, 11 points behind Spurs. Arsenal will again miss out on the Top 4 this season as they currently sit in sixth place, 13 points behind Spurs after 30 games.

Squad buildingPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

You may think that money is the issue. It’s true that the Red Devils generate more revenue than any other football club, while Manchester City and Chelsea are backed by billionaires. But you also have to remember that Liverpool and Tottenham have a smaller budget than the Gunners and spend less money in the transfer market.

On paper, building a squad looks pretty simple: you spot the weaknesses in the team, you clear the dead wood, and you sign the players who will make the team stronger. To understand how that process works, I will compare the job done by Pochettino, Klopp and Wenger. I have chosen Tottenham and Liverpool as case studies because Arsenal can match them financially.

The 2013-14 season proved an unstable period for Spurs, who replaced Villas-Boas with Sherwood in December. Despite the managerial change, Tottenham finished in sixth place, 10 points behind Arsenal. I have used startingeleven.co.uk to provide a picture below of Sherwood’s favorite lineup.

2014 Spurs

The 2014 Spurs lineup under Sherwood

Here’s the Tottenham squad under Sherwood:

Goalkeepers: Lloris as the starter (Friedel as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Walker, Rose (Naughton, Fryers). Centerbacks: Vertonghen, Dawson (Kaboul, Chiriches). Central midfielders: Dembele, Paulinho (Sandro, Capoue, Bentaleb). Playmakers: Eriksen (Sigurdsson). Wingers: Chadli, Lennon (Townsend, Lamela). Centerforwards: Adebayor (Soldado, Kane, Defoe).

When Pochettino took over in May 2014, he quickly spotted the weaknesses in the Spurs lineup. First, the team lacked a commanding centerback. Dawson was a decent fit for an average side but not good enough for a club aiming at a Top 4 finish. So Pochettino signed Fazio in August 2014 and Wimmer and Alderweireld in the summer of 2015. Fazio was a flop while Wimmer turned out to be a benchwarmer. However, Alderweireld proved a key signing as he helped stabilize the Tottenham defense.

Becoming a contender within 2 years

Pochettino inherited good players at fullback with Rose and Walker, but he wasn’t happy with the back-up options. So the club signed Davies in July 2014 and Trippier in June 2015. The development of Trippier and Davies helped Spurs cope with Walker’s departure last summer and Rose’s injuries. The Argentine manager also strengthened the bench for the goalkeeping position by replacing an aging Friedel with Vorm.

In midfield, Pochettino realized that Spurs lacked a good holding midfielder. Capoue, Sandro and Bentaleb were not good enough, Dembele played as a deep-lying playmaker and Paulinho was mostly a utility midfielder. So Pochettino recalled Mason to the squad and signed Dier and Stambouli in the summer of 2014. Stambouli struggled in the Premier League but Dier proved a good investment as he efficiently shielded the Tottenham defense.

On the wings, Pochettino noticed the lack of end product. So he signed Alli and Son in 2015 while putting more pressure on Lamela. Up front, he spotted Kane’s potential and gave him the nod over an aging and more limited Adebayor. Pochettino also shook up the bench by releasing Soldado in 2015 and signing N’Jie, who didn’t manage to make the cut.

Within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino turned Tottenham into a title contender. If you look at the picture below, you will notice 5 changes between Sherwood’s lineup and Pochettino’s team. Spurs ran out of steam at the end of the 2015-16 season, but they were the only real threat to Leicester’s title bid.

2016 Spurs

The 2016 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

Instead of resting on his laurels, Pochettino stayed busy in the transfer market to make Spurs more competitive, in part because some of his signings didn’t deliver, but also because other rivals were spending lavishly. So within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino made 4 changes to a team that was in contention until April 2016.

2018 Spurs

The 2018 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

At the back, Pochettino promoted Walker-Peters and signed Aurier to make up for Walker’s departure last summer. He also hired Sanchez and Foyth as cover for Vertonghen and Alderweireld. In his first season at the club, Sanchez impressively stepped up when Alderweireld picked up a hamstring injury last November.

Seeing the weaknesses and the potential

In midfield, Pochettino was a bit conservative but he still promoted Winks and added more power by signing Wanyama and Sissoko in 2016. On the wings, the Argentine manager clearly wanted more pace as he signed N’Koudou in 2016 and Moura this year. N’Koudou is still a raw player and has been loaned out to Burnley while Moura is close to the finished product with 5 seasons under his belt at French club PSG.

Up front, Pochettino signed Janssen in 2016 and Llorente in 2017 as cover for Kane. Janssen failed to impress and was loaned out to Turkish club Fenerbahce, while expectations were low for Llorente, an aging striker who was willing to deputize for Kane.

Over a four-year period, Pochettino has cleared the dead wood and strengthened both the lineup and the bench. He has also lost some gambles in the transfer market, but at least they didn’t cost the club a fortune. So there is no doubt that Spurs have a good squad builder with Pochettino.

Klopp’s appointment at Liverpool in October 2015 also provides a good example of squad building. Despite coming in the middle of the season, Klopp still managed to lead the Reds to the League Cup final and a runner-up finish in the Europa League.

Liverpool famously challenged for the Premier League title during the 2013-14 season, but it all went downhill for Rodgers after the departures of Suarez in 2014 and Sterling in 2015. Rodgers also struggled to replace leaders like Gerrard and Toure. In the summer of 2015, Rodgers signed Ings, Firmino and Benteke to add more firepower up front, but the team didn’t really gel. Stuck in 10th place after 8 Premier League games, the club lost patience and sacked Rodgers in October.

2015 Liverpool

The 2015 Liverpool lineup under Rodgers

Here’s the Liverpool squad under Rodgers:

Goalkeepers: Mignolet as the starter (Bogdan as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Clyne, Moreno (Flanagan, Gomez). Centerbacks: Skrtel, Lovren (Sakho, Toure). Midfielders: Henderson, Milner, Can (Allen, Leiva). Playmaker: Coutinho. Wingers: Lallana (Origi, Ibe). Centerforwards: Benteke (Sturridge, Firmino, Ings).

When Klopp took over, he could only make tactical adjustments because he had to wait eight months for the next summer transfer window. The Reds finished eighth in the Premier League at the end of the 2015-16 season. But Klopp got plenty of time to see the weaknesses as well as the potential of the squad he inherited.

Rebuilding an entire defense

Liverpool conceded a lot of goals under Rodgers, so Klopp decided to completely rebuild the defense. Klopp had doubts about Mignolet in goal and therefore signed Karius in 2016. Karius hasn’t been really convincing yet, even playing fewer games than Mignolet. That might explain why Roma goalkeeper Alisson has recently been linked with a move to Anfield. At centerback, Klopp shipped out Toure, Sakho and Skrtel while signing Matip and Klavan in 2016 and Van Dijk a couple of months ago. Klopp also signed Robertson in 2017 to take the leftback spot from Moreno. At rightback, Clyne’s long-term injury obliged Klopp to hand Gomez a starting spot.

By contrast, Klopp has been relatively conservative in midfield. The German manager sold Allen and Leiva, who were second-choice midfielders, and hired Grujic and Wijnaldum in 2016 and Oxlade-Chamberlain last year. Henderson and Can are still regular starters under Klopp while Milner gets plenty of playing time, too. In fact, the biggest change in midfield is Klopp’s rotation policy to keep fresh legs for his gegenpressing tactics.

The Reds struggled to score in Rodgers’ last season at the club. Klopp realized that Benteke and Ibe were not good enough for a Top 4 club and let them go. He also noticed a lack of penetration in the final third and therefore signed Mane in 2016 and Salah in 2017. Both Mane and Salah have a lot of pace and great dribbling skills.

However, Klopp’s really smart decision was to play Firmino as a false nine. Rodgers didn’t know how to use Firmino and made the mistake of believing that Benteke could deliver at the top level. Klopp also took a gamble on a youngster by signing Solanke last summer. This season, only Manchester City can claim a front three (Aguero, Sane, Sterling) as threatening as Liverpool’s.

2018 Liverpool

The 2018 Liverpool lineup under Klopp

The only blemish in Liverpool’s transfer policy was the sale of Coutinho to Barcelona in January. The Reds lost a versatile playmaker who could play either as a false winger or in a three-man midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain is versatile too but he doesn’t have Coutinho’s creativity. Plus Coutinho was a free-kick specialist who could make the difference in any tight game.

Having a coherent plan

Within two years and a half, Klopp has turned Liverpool into a Top 4 team by making 9 changes to Rodgers’ lineup. You can see the similarities between Klopp and Pochettino: they both have a coherent plan to build their respective squads and they only need a couple of years to implement it.

We have analyzed what Pochettino has achieved at Tottenham since the summer of 2014 and how Klopp has transformed Liverpool since the end of 2015. Now let’s compare with what Wenger has done at Arsenal since 2015. I’ve chosen 2015 because the club had not much cash to spend in the transfer market before 2013 (remember, the Gunners signed Ozil in 2013 and Sanchez in 2014). It’s also similar to the amount of time that Pochettino and Klopp had to change their clubs’ fortunes. You can see below Wenger’s favorite lineup at the end of the 2014-15 season.

2015 Arsenal

The 2015 Arsenal lineup   

Here’s the Arsenal squad during that season:

Goalkeepers: Ospina as the starter (Szczesny as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Bellerin, Monreal (Debuchy, Gibbs). Centerbacks: Koscielny, Mertesacker (Paulista, Chambers). Midfielders: Cazorla, Coquelin, Ramsey (Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere). Playmakers: Ozil (Rosicky). Wingers: Sanchez, Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski). Centerforwards: Giroud (Welbeck, Sanogo).

If you were a neutral manager, you could see that Ospina and Szczesny were not good enough in goal for a Top 4 team. Ospina struggled to command his area while Szczesny was error-prone and had discipline issues off the pitch. At the back, Mertesacker was an obvious target for strikers because of his lack of pace, while Wenger also had a problem at leftback where Gibbs and Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses. In midfield, Coquelin was too limited in his all-around game and was not smart enough in his positional play to shield the defense. On the right wing, Ramsey was a starter by default simply because Oxlade-Chamberlain lacked end product while Walcott had limited passing skills. Up front, Giroud lacked the pace to stretch a defense while Welbeck lacked end product.

Failing to fix 6 positions

Did Wenger spot those weaknesses in the Arsenal squad? The answer must be yes since he made moves in the transfer market for those positions. The Gunners signed Cech in 2015, Holding and Mustafi in 2016, Kolasinac in 2017 and Mavropanos a couple of months ago. In midfield, the club added Elneny and Xhaka in 2016. On the wings, Sanchez’s contractual situation led to a swap deal with Manchester United as Mkhitaryan joined Arsenal in January. Up front, pace was clearly the priority as the Gunners signed Perez in 2016, Lacazette in 2017 and Aubameyang a couple of months ago. Wenger also relied on the academy to strengthen the first team by promoting Iwobi and Maitland-Niles.

Over the past three years, Wenger was less active than Pochettino in the transfer market and less successful than Klopp in getting the right targets for the club. Let’s be honest, the majority of the signings have been flops. And the manager hasn’t fixed the 6 positions that were weaknesses during the 2014-15 season (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, holding midfielder, right winger, centerforward). You can see below Arsenal’s best lineup for this year.

2018 Arsenal

The 2018 Arsenal lineup

Lacazette’s injury means that Aubameyang is the natural choice up front. In midfield, you may argue that Iwobi or Welbeck could replace Wilshere if the team plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But that tactical difference doesn’t change my analysis. Cech used to be the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, but at 35 he’s already past his prime. In fact, Cech has the most errors leading to a goal (6) this season. At centerback, Mustafi is not the player who will marshal the defense. And Koscielny’s nagging Achilles injury also means that the club will need to sign an experienced centerback this summer. At leftback, Kolasinac’s defensive performances have been disappointing. In central midfield, Elneny doesn’t win duels while Xhaka lacks mobility and defensive awareness. On the wings, Iwobi lacks end product while Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck don’t have the dribbling skills to crack a defense. Up front, Aubameyang and Lacazette both struggle in the air. And Aubameyang has a limited all-around game while Lacazette’s hold-up play is weaker than Giroud’s.

Another issue with Wenger’s squad management is the time wasted to clear the dead wood. Walcott and Coquelin should have been shipped out way before January. And there’s no reason to hang onto Chambers and Elneny, especially since the Gunners also have Holding and Mavropanos at centerback as well as Wilshere and Maitland-Niles in midfield. Chambers lacks pace and struggles to turn, while Elneny may be more mobile than Xhaka but the Egypt international is not a decisive player defensively or offensively.

No challenge before 2021?

Because Wenger failed to improve the team in the past 3 years and took too much time to clear the dead wood, it doesn’t make sense to rely on the French manager for an overhaul of the squad this summer. The next manager will have a lot of work to bring Arsenal back into the Top 4.

2019 Arsenal

How a competitive Arsenal team could look like

It will take more than a season to rebuild the squad. And the way the Citizens are dominating the Premier League, Arsenal might not be able to challenge for the title before 2021. Look at Liverpool: Klopp has done a good job within 3 years, but the Reds are still miles behind City.

The board and the staff will obviously have to set the priorities in terms of transfers. If a centerback and a holding midfielder are the top priorities, it means that Arsenal might have to stick with Cech or Ospina next season. I’ve chosen a 4-3-3 formation because that’s the best system to implement a pressing game. I don’t think the Gunners could finish in the Top 4 without pressing high up the pitch. That implies signing a more dynamic midfielder than Wilshere or Xhaka to harry opponents. I believe only Ramsey would have the pace, stamina and skills to play in Liverpool’s three-man midfield. Ozil’s poor work-rate means that he can only play in the front three.

For next season, assuming that Arsenal can only sign one attacking player because of financial constraints, a winger with great dribbling skills should also be at the top of the list. Liverpool, City and Chelsea respectively have Salah, Sane and Hazard to make the difference against compact defenses.

If the club runs out of cash, the Gunners could either play Lacazette or Perez on the right wing, or fast-track Nelson a bit like Sterling at Liverpool. Mkhitaryan and Ozil would have to fight for the spot on the left wing. Of course, Arsenal could switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation and play both Ozil and Mkhitaryan against the weak sides, but that would still depend on the hiring of a defensive midfielder. Up front, the Gunners would have the choice between Lacazette, a false nine coming to the ball, and Aubameyang, a striker stretching a defense.

The board and the staff have no room for error this summer because they have poorly performed in the previous transfer windows. By the end of August, we will know whether the Gunners have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish for next season.

 

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FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 4-2 loss to Nottingham Forest

The Gunners suffered their earliest exit in the FA Cup since 1996 by losing 4-2 to Nottingham Forest in the third round. The two penalties awarded to the hosts should be no excuse for Arsenal’s poor performance on Sunday. The Reds were the better team, having 9 shots on target to 4 for Arsenal, making 15 interceptions to 12 and winning 25 tackles to 17, according to whoscored.com. Now the Gunners only have the League Cup and the Europa League left to save their season.

FA Cup 3rd round

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

Wenger made 9 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Chelsea on Wednesday with Maitland-Niles and Holding retaining their starting spots. Last season, the FA Cup final showed that Mertesacker could only play in a back three sitting deep. Yet, the manager switched to a back four against Forest and it proved a tactical mistake. Mertesacker, Holding and Debuchy struggled to cope with the pace of the 18-year-old Brereton.

  1. Was the team selection wrong?

Some fans complained about the team selection after the game. I thought the starting XI was good enough to beat a Championship side or at least get a replay. Mertesacker is a World Cup winner; Elneny, Iwobi and Ospina will play in the World Cup this summer; Walcott, Welbeck, and Debuchy are Premier League veterans; Holding lifted the FA Cup less than a year ago; only Willock, Maitland-Niles and Nelson are still academy players. On paper, it was a decent mix of youth and experience. In fact, Forest even had a younger starting lineup than Arsenal.

Because the regular starters needed a break to recover from the festive period and because the manager couldn’t afford to have more players on the disabled list, the team selection made sense to me. On the other hand, I thought Wenger should have opted for a stronger bench. When the Gunners had to chase the game, there was no Sanchez, Ozil or Lacazette on the bench, only youngsters like Akpom, Nketiah and Reine-Adelaide.

  1. The defending was shambolic

Lichaj opened the scoring with a free header from a set piece because no Gunner marked him in the 20th minute. It was maybe a communication issue, but you wouldn’t expect that kind of schoolboy defending from experienced players like Mertesacker, Debuchy and Ospina.

Playing a high defensive line proved suicidal as it exposed Mertesacker’s lack of pace. Brereton cut inside Mertesacker in the 32nd to fire a low shot that Ospina saved. The Forest striker then made a run in behind Mertesacker to control a ball over the top in the 41st but was denied again by Ospina. In the closing minutes, Traore skipped past Mertesacker and won a penalty after Debuchy brought him down. Maybe Debuchy got a touch on the ball, but it was poor decision-making. From such a tight angle, it would have been unlikely for Traore to beat Ospina. Dowell converted the spot kick to seal the win.

Mertesacker equalized in the 23rd by converting a rebound after Holding’s header hit the post. However, you don’t want defenders to have Vermaelen syndrome, i.e. making up for poor defending by scoring goals. It’s now obvious why the manager is reluctant to play Mertesacker in Premier League games: his lack of pace is simply a too big liability. Debuchy didn’t cover himself in glory either. He won only 31% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any defender according to the club’s website, and had a passing accuracy of 81%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal starter.

  1. Holding should be loaned out

At 22, Holding needs playing time to continue his development. I’m not sure his season at the club is helping him. He doesn’t play regularly, which makes it difficult to build consistency. And because he plays for Arsenal, his mistakes are magnified and therefore hurt his confidence. In my eyes, a loan to a Premier League club would have been more helpful.

Holding had a decent game compared to Mertesacker and Debuchy. He won 3 of 4 tackles while Mertesacker made none and Debuchy won only 1 tackle, according to the club’s website. Of course, the fans will remember the challenge that led to a penalty in the 64th. Holding was a bit unlucky on that play. He intercepted Dowell’s backheel flick for Brereton but failed to see Cash and inadvertently tripped the Forest winger. Brereton converted the subsequent penalty to make it 3-1. Holding was also pulled out of position in the 32nd and was too easily beaten by Dowell in the 74th.

  1. The back four got no protection from the midfield

A couple of minutes before halftime, the Arsenal defense cleared a cross from Cash into the path of Lichaj, who had plenty of time to chest the ball down and volley into the top corner for a 2-1 lead. As you can see on the screen capture below, the midfielders failed to perform their defensive duties on that play.

FA Cup editedElneny, Willock and Iwobi giving Lichaj acres of space. (Photo credit: BT)

Elneny won 1 tackle and made 4 interceptions, according to whoscored.com, while Willock won 1 tackle and made 0 interception. That’s not good enough for a midfield pairing. We already know that Elneny is not a natural ballwinner while Willock looked too soft against Forest, winning only 33% of his duels. Willock seemed to overestimate his dribbling abilities in the first half as he lost possession 3 times while attempting to dribble past an opponent.

  1. Walcott and Iwobi performed poorly

Walcott and Iwobi wouldn’t be good enough to play in the Championship. They finished the game with 0 of 3 shots on target each. Brereton outshone Walcott while Dowell showed more end product and desire than Iwobi. I don’t understand why the manager wants to keep Walcott. At 28, Walcott won’t improve his all-around game. He’s also blocking the development of youngsters like Nketiah and Nelson, who could play in the front three. Walcott had a golden opportunity in the seventh minute but completely miskicked his shot.

Iwobi is regressing and his poor work-rate is becoming a problem. He was dispossessed 5 times, tied with Brereton for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. Iwobi also put Mertesacker in trouble by overhitting a back pass in the sixth minute. The Nigeria international made 0 interception and won just 1 of 1 tackle whereas Nelson made 2 interceptions and won 3 of 4 tackles.

Although Arsenal enjoyed 69% of ball possession, Iwobi had no impact on the game in the No. 10 role. Iwobi made only 1 key pass compared to 4 for Nelson and 2 for Walcott. That begs the question: Where can Iwobi play? He lacks the end product to play as a second striker. Playing on a wing would be an issue because Iwobi made 0 cross on Sunday while Walcott made 4 accurate crosses out of 9. And playing in central midfield would require a much better work-rate from Iwobi.

Welbeck had an average game in the lone striker role. But at least he found the net in the 79th after Smith fumbled the ball. Welbeck also had a penalty shout in the 83rd when Mancienne seemed to shove him from behind while he met a cross from Maitland-Niles.

  1. Nelson is Arsenal’s future

The only bright spark in the Arsenal offense came from Nelson, whose clever footwork won the free kick that led to the equalizer in the 23rd. Nelson led all players with 6 successful dribbles. He faded in the second half as the Reds roughed him up a bit. At 18, Nelson is very gifted technically, but he will need to beef up his game in order to survive in the Premier League. Nketiah came off the bench to replace Willock in the 65th and nearly produced another moment of magic after his two goals against Norwich in the League Cup. Welbeck fed Nketiah, who dribbled past Lichaj only to be denied by Smith in the 70th.

  1. Ospina still can’t command the area

The Colombia goalkeeper pulled off some outstanding saves in the 18th, 32nd and 41st. But his lack of authority in the box showed in the 20th when Lichaj headed home Dowell’s free kick from a yard. You would expect a good goalkeeper to beat his opponent to the ball in that kind of situation. Ospina is a great shot-stopper but his weakness in the air has always been his Achilles’ heel in England.

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

The Gunners reached the semifinals of the League Cup with a 1-0 victory over West Ham on Tuesday. The game was duller than when both teams met a week ago in the Premier League. Arsenal enjoyed 67% of ball possession, but had just 8 goal attempts compared to 1 for the visitors. Welbeck scored the winner with the only shot on target of the match.

League Cup quarters

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

The Premier League is still the priority for both teams. Wenger made 11 changes to the side that defeated Newcastle last weekend to rest his key players before Friday’s game against Liverpool. Likewise, Moyes did not include Zabaleta, Noble, Arnautovic and Antonio in his starting lineup.

  1. The fullbacks were Arsenal’s main threat

The fullbacks made the most passes according to whoscored.com with 90 for Kolasinac and 87 for Debuchy, which is quite unusual. Kolasinac also led all players with 2 key passes. In the 39th minute, Kolasinac made a cross for an unmarked Walcott, who headed wide from 10 yards. Three minutes later, Coquelin picked out Debuchy, who headed the ball across goal. Welbeck outjumped Collins to connect with the ball, but missed his header. Somehow, Welbeck reacted quickly enough to bundle the loose ball into the net.

  1. December can be a lethal month

It proved a costly win as Giroud and Coquelin picked up injuries. Giroud pulled his hamstring and was replaced by Nelson in the 78th while Coquelin seemed to suffer a groin strain and was replaced by Dasilva in the 90th. Those injuries don’t make sense since the manager has heavily rotated in the League Cup and the Europa League. Plus Giroud and Coquelin didn’t even start against Newcastle. They’ll be joining Cazrola, Mustafi and Ramsey on the disabled list. Mustafi and Ramsey picked up injuries against Manchester United and Southampton earlier this month.

  1. The audition for the front three was uninspiring

Against a compact West Ham side playing in a 5-2-3 formation, Welbeck, Walcott and Giroud didn’t really shine. Welbeck scored a goal but he also led all players with 10 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Walcott had 6 turnovers, made a poor cross in the 21st and should have volleyed Kolasinac’s cross with his left foot in the 39th instead of attempting a diving header. Giroud got no decent service and was flagged offside 3 times. His injury means that the Gunners only have Welbeck as a potential aerial threat up front.

  1. Coquelin had a great game

The technical quality of the game was poor in part because Arsenal played with 3 defensive midfielders (Coquelin, Willock and Elneny). Elneny had a poor game, sending a free kick straight to a Hammer in the 72nd while Holding, Giroud and Welbeck were waiting inside the area to head the ball. And his passing accuracy dipped to 84% while it’s usually above 90%. Willock didn’t look out of his depth with a passing accuracy of 92% and 4 successful dribbles. But the academy player also had 3 turnovers, which is too much for a central midfielder, and sometimes lacked lucidity in the final third.

Coquelin was the bright spark in midfield, winning 3 tackles and having 4 successful dribbles, the most for an Arsenal player. He also hit 8 accurate long balls out of 11. Stats can sometimes be misleading. Elneny and Willock had 1 key pass each compared to none for Coquelin, but it was Coquelin who created two of Arsenal’s best chances. Coquelin created the play that led to Welbeck’s goal. He also hit a long ball for Welbeck in the 71st. Hart came off his line but missed his tackle and fouled Welbeck on the edge of the box. The Gunners could miss Coquelin for a couple of games.

  1. The defense had a quiet evening

The manager played a back four like in the last two Premier League games. Holding and Chambers led all players by winning 6 and 5 headers respectively. West Ham made their job easier by sending long balls to Hernandez, who’s no threat in the air. On the flanks, Debuchy might be a decent option at wingback but I fear that his lack of pace would be a problem for the fullback position, especially to cover the right-sided centerback. Debuchy gifted a dangerous free kick by fouling Masuaku in the 63rd. Cresswell curled the subsequent set piece wide. In the leftback position, I felt that Kolasinac played with the handbrake on. Kolasinac had the opportunity to charge down his flank a few times but opted for sideways passes instead.

 

Arsenal vs. BATE Borisov: A few thoughts on the 6-0 win

The Gunners finished the group stage of the Europa League on a high note with a 6-0 demolition of BATE Borisov on Thursday. Arsenal played in a half-empty stadium because they had secured the top spot in the previous round and the game was therefore a dead rubber.

Arsenal vs. Borisov

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

Wenger made 11 changes to the side that lost 3-1 to Manchester United a few days ago. Against the weakest club of Group H, the manager also shifted to a back four with Chambers and Holding as centerbacks and Debuchy and Maitland-Niles as fullbacks. Although the Gunners won 4-2 in Belarus, Wenger fielded an experienced lineup with just one player from the academy. Youngsters like Nelson, Willock and Nketiah only came off the bench in the second half.

  1. The World Cup is coming

For some players, the World Cup is the most important competition in their careers. They only have a few months left to convince their national managers that they should go to Russia. Welbeck played in the 2014 World Cup and is facing some tough competition for the England squad this season. He knows goals will definitely impress Southgate.

On Thursday, Welbeck had 2 shots saved by Scherbitski and proved selfish at least twice. Wilshere released Welbeck down the left flank in the 22nd minute. Instead of making a low cross for an unmarked Giroud, Welbeck attempted an angled effort that Scherbitski blocked outside his area. Welbeck was again obsessed with scoring on his own in the 37th. The Englishman tried to dribble past 2 defenders but lost possession with a heavy touch. Milunovic knocked the loose ball into the path of Walcott, who fired past Scherbitski for a 2-0 lead.

Giroud also tried too hard with just 2 of 7 shots on target. He took his chance from tough positions a couple of times. His hold-up play was also poor but at least he found the net and worked hard for his teammates. Giroud beat Scherbitski with a spot kick into the top corner in the 63rd but was forced to re-take the penalty because of an encroachment. The Frenchman chose the same side but fired low the second time to make it 5-0.

As a selfless player, Giroud set up Elneny for a strike that hit the base of the post in the third minute. He also redirected a cross from Wilshere into the path of Walcott, whose half-volley was saved in the 26th. And he won the ball in midfield for the second goal. Playing time might be a less important issue for Giroud to earn a World Cup spot because his unique profile in the France squad makes him more valuable.

Few football fans would bet on Walcott making the England squad, but he still has an outside chance. The Belarusian side played to his strengths by leaving a lot of space between the goalkeeper and the backline. Walcott notched 1 goal and 2 assists in a good all-around performance. He could have added another goal in the 40th but Milunovic cleared his low effort off the line. Poliakov was less lucky in the 51st as he sent Walcott’s cross into his own net. Walcott then won the penalty in the 63rd by poorly controlling Welbeck’s pass. Milunovic tried to win the ball but Walcott was quicker and got fouled by the BATE defender.

  1. Holding is slightly ahead of Chambers

The football website whoscored.com gave a better grade to Chambers but I thought Holding performed better. They didn’t have much work to do, but at least they didn’t make any cock-up like Koscielny and Mustafi. The case for Holding: He had a passing accuracy of 94%, made 4 interceptions and 2 blocks, hit 3 accurate long balls out of 3, and had 0 turnover, while Chambers had a passing accuracy of 84%, made 1 interception and 1 block, hit 5 accurate long balls out of 12, and was dispossessed twice. The case for Chambers: He won 1 of 1 tackle and 5 of 5 aerial duels, while Holding won 0 of 2 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. It doesn’t show in the stats but Stasevich rolled away from Chambers in the 68th to shoot straight at Ospina.

  1. What is the best system for Wilshere?

It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in a 3-4-3 system. His limited defensive contribution prevents him from playing as the holding midfielder even if Xhaka is a choice by default. Wilshere doesn’t have Ramsey’s all-around game to play in the demanding position of a box-to-box midfielder. And he doesn’t have the pace of Sanchez or Ozil to play in the front three. On Thursday, the switch to a back four made clear that Wilshere is more comfortable in a 4-2-3-1 formation. As he is aging, Wilshere looks more and more like Fabregas in his game. Wilshere can slip those through balls from midfield while proving a serious goal threat from mid-range.

Wilshere finished the game with 1 goal and 1 assist and led all players with 5 key passes. He also had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, according to Squawka. Wilshere curled a shot from the edge of the box that Scherbitski tipped over the bar in the 42nd. A minute later, Wilshere took a pass from Walcott and created some space to smash the ball into the corner for a 3-0 lead. In a similar situation in the 74th, Wilshere drew two defenders before setting up Elneny, who curled into the far corner to seal the win. It was a great performance but the weakness of the opposition definitely helped Wilshere.

  1. Debuchy scored his first goal since 2014

Debuchy broke the deadlock in the 11th minute by pouncing on a loose ball to rifle into the far corner. Milunovic initially brought down Walcott inside the area but the referee didn’t blow the whistle, so Debuchy took his chance from 16 yards. Debuchy looked a better fit at rightback than Chambers against Cologne. Most Arsenal attacks came from the right flank although Debuchy didn’t create any chance. BATE forwards also never really tested Debuchy’s relative lack of pace. Debuchy seems to have come to terms with the end of his international career as he hasn’t been vocal about his playing time this season.

  1. Coquelin and Elneny bossed the midfield

The opposition was so weak that Coquelin and Elneny only combined for 1 tackle. The more surprising stat is the 3 key passes they each made. Only Wilshere had more key passes. Elneny led all starters with a passing accuracy of 96% while Coquelin’s technical limitations showed with 6 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player.

 

Arsenal vs. Red Star Belgrade: A few thoughts on the 0-0 draw

That wasn’t pretty but Arsenal qualified for the knockout phase of the Europa League by splitting the points with Red Star Belgrade on Thursday. The Gunners still top Group H of that competition, 5 points clear of the Serbian side and 6 points ahead of BATE Borisov. Arsenal will secure a first-place finish if Belgrade and Borisov draw in 3 weeks. Otherwise, the Gunners would need a victory in Cologne if Belgrade wins or just a draw if Borisov prevails.

Arsenal vs. Red Star

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

The Premier League remains the top priority for the club, especially with the trip to Manchester City this weekend. Wenger made only one change to the side that won 1-0 in Belgrade with Macey replacing Cech in the starting lineup. Tactically, there was no surprise: the Serbian side sat back to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Belgrade had the better chances and would have found the net with a decent striker.

  1. The 3 Stooges kept a clean sheet

Elneny, Holding and Debuchy have started 3 games together this season. Their record is quite flattering with 2 wins and 1 draw. The weakness of the opposition helps explain why that back three has survived poor performances. Boakye missed the target in the 45th and 80th minutes with just Macey to beat. The Gunners can definitely thank their third-choice goalkeeper for salvaging a point as Macey tipped Srnic’s drive over the bar in the 35th and diverted the Serbian winger’s header onto the bar in the 36th.

I’m assuming Mustafi’s injury is the only reason why the manager keeps playing Elneny as a centerback because that experiment is going nowhere. Elneny lost the only tackle he made and was not involved in any aerial duel. Of the 3 centerbacks, Holding had the best stats. He won 2 of 5 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels and made 4 interceptions while Debuchy won 1 of 3 tackles and 5 of 5 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. Holding recovered the ball in the fifth minute after Macey gave the ball away to Boakye with a poor clearance.

  1. What is Wilshere’s best position?

Wilshere started on the left flank while Coquelin teamed up with Willock in central midfield. Arsenal’s passing game never really clicked because neither Coquelin nor Willock is a pacesetter. Willock had a passing accuracy of 81.6% compared to 82.9% for Coquelin, according to whoscored.com, and both combined to create only 1 chance. That’s below the level of the duo formed by Xhaka and Ramsey. In the 31st minute, Coquelin wasted a counterattack with some poor decision-making. He had 3 passing options with Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud but carried the ball for too long and saw his pass for Giroud intercepted.

In that kind of situation, you kind of wonder whether Wilshere would have made the right choice at the right time. Before the game, Wenger said he considered Wilshere as a candidate for one of the front three positions. It would make sense since Wilshere has the ability to make key passes and score goals. Capitalizing on some pub defending from Belgrade, Wilshere took the ball off Maitland-Niles in the 64th for a chip that Le Tallec cleared off the line.

Wilshere dropped back in central midfield in the 68th when Nketiah replaced Willock. There would be a strong case too for Wilshere as a deep-lying playmaker. His passing accuracy of 91.1% would have improved Arsenal’s efforts to build play from the back. Wilshere led all players with 3 key passes. The only negative from his performance was the 8 turnovers, which tied Boakye for the most by any player, according to whoscored.com. You can’t afford that many turnovers in the middle of the park.

  1. Giroud had some decent service but couldn’t score

The France striker finished the game with 2 of 4 shots on target. Borjan saved Giroud’s low strike in the 10th and denied him again in the 34th. Giroud didn’t miss any sitter but you would expect more from a player involved in international matches. Walcott didn’t impress either. The English forward had a poor game with none of his 2 goal attempts on target. Walcott beat his marker in the 76th to head Wilshere’s cross wide before hitting an air shot in the 79th. Next summer would be the perfect time to sell Walcott and give more playing time to youngsters like Nelson and Nketiah.

  1. Youngsters should be hungry but not greedy

Willock made the right choice in the 34th when he dispossessed Donald to feed Giroud. But then Willock opted for personal glory in the 57th, dragging his shot wide from 25 yards instead of slipping the ball to an unmarked Walcott. Three minutes later, the ball fell into the path of Coquelin, who was about to shoot, but Willock took the ball off the French midfielder and the chance was gone. Youngsters always want to make a strong impression on the manager, but when they try too hard, it usually has the opposite effect.

  1. Maitland-Niles and Nelson are learning the ropes

Finding the right balance between offense and defense can be tricky, especially in the wingback position. Maitland-Niles is a central midfielder by trade and Nelson a winger. Playing out of position will help them improve their reading of the game.

Maitland-Niles finished the game with 2 key passes. He dribbled past a defender to set up Giroud in the 10th and found again the Frenchman in the 65th for a wide effort. For any right-footed player, making crosses from the left flank is not easy. Maitland-Niles only attempted one cross with his weaker left foot in the 38th. Unsurprisingly, the ball went out of play. Maitland-Niles did OK defensively although he failed to stop Srnic’s teasing cross in the 56th.

Nelson had a good game defensively. He won 2 of 3 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 1 block. However, Nelson struggled a bit offensively despite 2 of 4 crosses completed and 2 successful dribbles out of 4, according to Squawka. With 0 shot and 0 key pass, Nelson simply had no end product in the final third. At 17, that’s not embarrassing but it shows there’s still a long way to go for him.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Norwich

That was a narrow escape for the Gunners, who edged Norwich 2-1 in extra time on Tuesday to reach the quarterfinals of the League Cup. The Canaries had a couple of chances in the second half to take a 2-0 lead. Wenger made two desperate substitutions to avoid elimination. The manager replaced Maitland-Niles with Akpom in the 70th minute and Nelson with Nketiah in the 85th, forcing Iwobi and Walcott to play as wingbacks for the end of the game.

Arsenal vs. Norwich

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

Because there was only one full day of rest between the Everton match and Tuesday’s League Cup encounter, Wenger made 11 changes to the side that won at Goodison Park. By contrast, Manchester United and City had 4 or 5 first-choice players in their starting lineups for that competition.

The Arsenal team looked very similar to the one that played in Belgrade with Macey and Iwobi taking the starting spots of Cech and Willock. The manager added more creativity in midfield by using Wilshere in central midfield alongside Coquelin. Despite the presence of Wilshere and Iwobi, the passing was not crisp at all and the tempo was too slow, especially in the first half.

  1. Nketiah had Norwich and the crowd in his pocket

There’s nothing exceptional about beating a Championship side. But when a teenager scores 2 goals in his home debut, you can understand why the crowd got excited and chanted “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” several times. At 18, Nketiah showed more end product than veterans like Giroud and Walcott. With his first touch of the game, he scored the equalizer in the 85th by stabbing home a corner after a flick-on from Coquelin. In the sixth minute of extra time, Nketiah outjumped two Canaries to head in another corner. And 8 minutes from time, Nketiah outpaced two defenders to fire an angled strike that Gunn saved with his legs.

Wenger was right after the game to suggest that fans shouldn’t get carried away too quickly. Youngsters like Merida and Vela also shone in domestic cup competitions but never managed to impress in the Premier League. Playing in the League Cup will help boost Nketiah’s development though. He’ll definitely learn more from that kind of competition than from an Under-23 game. Whatever happens to his career, Nketiah has already done better than Afobe, Aneke and Emmanuel-Thomas, who never scored for the first team despite shining with the academy.

  1. Iwobi is regressing

Iwobi is a good example why we shouldn’t go overboard with Nketiah. Starting in the front three with Giroud and Walcott, the Nigeria international missed a few simple passes, shot from unfavorable positions, carried the ball too much and sometimes had the bad habit of running into traffic. At 21, Iwobi is not the finished product yet, so it’s normal that he doesn’t read the game like Ozil or Sanchez. But he definitely needs to simplify his game. Ironically, it’s only when he shifted to the wingback position that Iwobi made a positive impact. He found Nketiah, who set up Wilshere in the 90th. Three minutes later, Iwobi slipped the ball to Akpom, who fired wide.

  1. Elneny is not a centerback

The summer friendlies showed Elneny’s poor positional play in the centerback position. That weakness was again exposed against Norwich. Elneny was in no man’s land for the Canaries’ goal in the 34th and when Vrancic dragged his shot wide in the 74th. His relative lack of pace also proved a liability in one-on-one duels. In the 56th, Oliveira ran past Elneny, who brought down the Norwich striker. Holding’s nearby presence saved Elneny from a red card as the last defender. Two minutes later, Murphy outpaced Elneny to make a dangerous cross that Macey knocked away.

I’m wondering how long can Arsenal still get away with the 3 Stooges at the back. Debuchy has no pace either. He lost the foot race with Murphy in the 34th. And Holding can sometimes be let down by his decision-making. He made the mistake of helping out Debuchy against Oliveira in the 74th while Vrancic was making a run on the edge of the Arsenal box.

  1. Walcott & Giroud couldn’t find the net

Giroud had very little service. It’s only when Wenger sent the cavalry at the end of the second half that Giroud really had an impact in the final third. Last season, players like Bellerin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Monreal and Gibbs fed Giroud from the wings. On Tuesday, the attacking contribution of Maitland-Niles and Nelson was limited. Giroud headed a free kick over the bar in the 50th and was denied by Gunn in the 11th minute of extra time.

Walcott was able to more seriously test the Norwich goalkeeper with a low strike in the 42nd, a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 45th, and an angled effort in the fifth minute of extra time. Despite the margin of security provided by his speed, Walcott was caught offside at least 3 times, which is too much for a single player.

  1. Can Wilshere perform well as a deep-lying playmaker?

Wilshere played in a deeper position than against Belgrade. Alongside Coquelin, Wilshere didn’t really look like an efficient pace-setter. Arsenal’s passing game depends on a midfielder imposing a high tempo. Cazorla used to perform that job before his injuries. Xhaka is now in charge of that duty but his lack of pace prevents him from reaching Cazorla’s level. Obviously, it didn’t help Wilshere to play in a makeshift team. Could Wilshere perform better if he’s surrounded by the first-choice players?

Red Star Belgrade vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win

The Gunners increased their lead atop Group H of the Europa League to five points with a 1-0 win in Belgrade. Thursday’s result also means that they will qualify for the knockout phase of the competition if they beat the Serbian side in two weeks at the Emirates.

Red Star vs. Arsenal

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

The Premier League still remains the top priority as Wenger made 9 changes to the side that lost 2-1 at Watford with only Cech and Elneny retaining their starting spots. The manager took no risk with his first-choice players by leaving Koscielny, Monreal, Bellerin, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Xhaka, Iwobi, Lacazette, Sanchez and Ozil at home while filling the bench with youngsters from the academy.

Belgrade had the better chances, sitting back to hit the visitors on the fast break. But Arsenal’s enthusiasm made the difference. Despite a hostile crowd in a packed stadium, youngsters like Nelson, Maitland-Niles and Willock rose to the occasion. The Gunners made more interceptions (15 to 9) and won more tacles (14 to 11) than the Serbian side, according to Squawka.

  1. The 3 Stooges

You can’t really complain about a scrappy win when your back three is made up of Elneny, Holding and Debuchy. They were lucky to come away with a clean sheet but at least they didn’t prove as farcical as the 3 Stooges.

Elneny’s performance was a mixed bag. He led the team with 4 interceptions and made a crucial sliding tacle to prevent Srnic from pulling the trigger in the 46th minute. But his positional play can be dodgy. In the 54th, Elneny gave the ball away to Srnic, whose shot was tipped over the bar by Cech.

Holding had a low-key performance. He showed more composure than against Cologne but could have done better to stop Snric’s cross in the 31st. Radonjic controlled the ball only to have his close-range effort parried by Cech.

In his first start of the season, Debuchy relied on his experience and reading of the game to adjust to a new position. Wenger made that gamble in part because Sagna and Monreal successfully made the transition from fullback to centerback. At 5’10, Debuchy is not a tall defender. Yet, he still managed to win 5 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka.

  1. Wilshere as an alternative to Ozil?

Ozil might leave the club in January so it would make sense to have a couple of options in the playmaking role. Iwobi is a possible alternative but he lacks consistency. Against Belgrade, Wilshere was in charge of pulling the strings. In the opening minutes, he fed Walcott, who had an opportunity to shoot but tried to dribble past 2 defenders and lost possession. Then Wilshere made an interception in the 10th but misread Giroud’s run while delivering the final ball. In the closing minutes, Wilshere initiated the play that led to the winning goal. The nifty one-touch passing brought back memories of the goal he scored against Norwich 4 years ago.

Wilshere definitely impressed against Belgrade but the Europa League is not at the same level as the Premier League. Because play is faster in the Premier League, Wilshere would need to take fewer touches than in the Europa League. I noticed that Wilshere has lost a bit of pace over the years because of the repetition of injuries. Wilshere had 4 turnovers against Belgrade, according to whoscored.com. Against stronger opposition, that turnover rate could double.

  1. Call Giroud for improbable goals

In his first years at the club, Giroud could be a frustrating striker to watch because he would miss sitters while scoring difficult goals. The Frenchman has become more efficient as he’s getting older. He can now add an overhead kick to his collection of improbable goals. Walcott headed the ball into the path of Giroud, who catapulted it into the top corner for the winner in the 85th. Until that goal, Giroud’s performance was relatively mediocre. Having no decent service, Giroud sometimes tried to shoot from unfavorable positions. He led the team with 5 turnovers and had only 2 of 5 shots on target.

  1. Nelson is learning fast

The difference between the Borisov game and the one in Belgrade is that Nelson was more focused on his defensive duties. He made a crucial sliding tackle on Radonjic in the 24th and even killed a counterattack with a cynical foul in stoppage time. Nelson finished the game with 3 interceptions and 2 blocks. He also led the team with 77 passes, which is an implicit acknowledgement of his quality by his teammates. However, the 17-year-old player still needs to work on his end product. Nelson had one scoring chance, an angled shot turned around the post by Borjan, but made no key pass.

  1. How to recognize an Arsenal team

Whether it’s the first-choice players or a second-string team, the defensive frailties of the Gunners remain the same. Belgrade led dangerous counterattacks in the 12th, the 20th and the 68th from 2 Arsenal corners and a Wilshere free kick. The Serbian side also created chances from crosses in the 31st and 52nd. The hosts should have opened the scoring in the 26th when Boakye capitalized on some lax marking from Walcott and Elneny to head a corner onto the post. I’m no fan of catenaccio but you still need to get the defensive basics right.

  1. Who should take Xhaka’s starting spot?

Xhaka’s poor performances since the start of the season mean that the manager might give the holding midfielder role to another player. In Wenger’s 3-4-3 system, only Ramsey is safe in central midfield: the Wales international’s work-rate and movement in transition make him too valuable despite his tactical indiscipline.

Coquelin teamed up with Willock in central midfield against Belgrade. Unsurprisingly, the passing quality was low. Coquelin and Willock combined to win 7 of 13 tackles and make 3 interceptions and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. In the 80th, Coquelin was elbowed in the face by Rodic, who received a second yellow. A few minutes later, Coquelin seemed to pick up a leg injury and was replaced by Sheaf.

Willock and Coquelin have pretty much the same profile: both are hard-working midfielders but with limited passing skills. Maybe a more creative player like Wilshere would be a better choice in the holding midfielder role. Wilshere played in that position with England when Hodgson was in charge. The key question then would be whether Wilshere can also contribute defensively.

  1. Walcott did his bit

Walcott’s work-rate and all-around game are not good enough to get a starting spot in the Premier League. But his flair for being in the right place at the right time makes him an interesting option against weaker opposition. Walcott should have found the net in the 15th when the Belgrade defense failed to clear a Wilshere free kick. The loose ball fell to Walcott, whose low strike was stopped by Borjan’s leg.

Most fans would think that Walcott had a poor game because they barely noticed him. But that’s what Walcott does: he disappears from the game for long spells before occasionally re-appearing in the final third. His stats are quite good with 2 of 3 shots on target and 3 key passes, the most for any player.