Tag Archives: Walcott

Arsenal vs. Leicester: Gunners keep slim Top 4 hopes alive with ugly win

On the pitch, players only care about winning, especially when they are exhausted. Three days after the 2-1 victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup, Sanchez had no energy, losing possession quite a few times in the centerforward position. When Bellerin played him clean through on goal in the 55th minute, a tired Sanchez was let down by a poor first touch, allowing Huth to clear the danger with a sliding tackle. Sanchez even put his team in danger in the seventh minute, attempting a reckless backheel flick on the edge of the Arsenal box that Mahrez intercepted. The ball fell to Vardy, who missed the target from 12 yards.

Arsenal vs. Leicester

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

Despite the lack of rest, Sanchez nearly scored on the stroke of halftime, cutting inside Simpson to rattle the bar from 25 yards. However, the Chile striker’s best contribution on Wednesday came in stoppage time. Fuchs wanted to put the Gunners under pressure with a long throw-in. In an attempt to thwart Fuchs’ plan, Sanchez stood in front of the Leicester leftback, who got so annoyed that he threw the ball straight at Sanchez. The ball bounced off Sanchez’s shoulder, who paused for a second before collapsing to the ground as if it had hit him in the head. That was the worst bit of play-acting that I saw this season! The referee booked Sanchez for not standing two yards inside.

In the end, the Gunners held on to their 1-0 lead for their third consecutive win in all competitions for the first time since January. They have also kept alive their slim hopes of finishing in the Top 4 of the Premier League. With a game in hand, they still sit in sixth place and need Manchester United or City to drop points.

A questionable team selection

Wenger tried to inject some freshness in his team by making 4 changes to the side that edged City with Gibbs, Bellerin, Coquelin and Walcott replacing Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud in the starting lineup. The manager played a back three again to provide some defensive stability before switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 68th by sending on Welbeck for Gibbs.

I thought Wenger got his team selection wrong. First, he could have started Iwobi to rest Ozil or Sanchez. And second, playing Sanchez in the centerforward position made the Arsenal attack quite one-dimensional. The Gunners had a lot of pace in the 3 attacking positions but no physical player, which means that the Foxes just had to sit deep to prevent runs in behind from Sanchez, Walcott or Ozil.

The manager changed of approach in the 75th by replacing Walcott with Giroud. Whereas Sanchez often dropped back to escape the marking of the 2 Leicester centerbacks, Giroud didn’t mind physical duels with Benalouane or Huth and was also a better target for crosses in the box. Benalouane should have been sent off in the 80th by planting his studs into Giroud’s back. It was almost as bad as De Jong’s kung-fu kick into Alonso’s chest in the 2010 World Cup final. Giroud then rolled away from Huth in stoppage time to fire over the bar.

Sterile domination

The Gunners were definitely the better team, enjoying 69% of ball possession, having 13 shots to 7 for Leicester and creating 10 chances to 5 for the visitors, according to Squawka. Arsenal also showed enough commitment by winning 57% of the tackles and 60% of the aerial duels. But it often looked like sterile domination as the Gunners probed around the Leicester area with no real penetration.

Arsenal mostly relied on long-range efforts to test Schmeichel, who turned around the post drives from Coquelin and Xhaka respectively in the 16th and 58th. Our best chance came in the 27th when Walcott forced his way past Fuchs for an angled effort that Schmeichel saved. That play should have given Walcott some confidence, yet it did the opposite.

Walcott was in a good position to shoot in the 42nd but preferred to play the ball back to Xhaka. Then, Walcott failed to make a run toward goal in the 71st when Welbeck charged down the left flank to make a teasing cross. Walcott displayed a decent work-rate, making 1 interception and winning 1 of 2 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels, but he lacked an edge in the final third. The main problem with the 3-4-3 formation is that it requires a lot of sharpness from the attacking players.

Lack of creativity

The winning goal came from Monreal, who started as a centerback before shifting to the fullback position in the 68th. Ozil won a second ball in the 86th and Monreal fired a half-volley that ricocheted off Huth’s chest to beat Schmeichel. That was a lucky goal but Monreal’s goal attempt was no coincidence. The Spaniard made his presence felt in the Leicester box by flicking a corner in the 17th. Simpson cleared the ball off the line. It was then Paulista’s turn to flick on a corner in the 29th. Fuchs made a timely clearance to prevent a Monreal tap-in. Monreal’s pace is declining but he has compensated with his reading of the game.

I was a bit disappointed by Gibbs’ performance as a wingback. I expected more end product. Gibbs only created 1 chance compared to 3 for Bellerin. Oxlade-Chamberlain has shone in the wingback role, but the manager didn’t want to take any risk after the Ox picked up a knock against City.

In midfield, Ozil didn’t have the legs to play as a second striker. He therefore dropped back in the playmaker role. That wasn’t enough to improve Arsenal’s passing game, which was too slow to unsettle the Foxes. Xhaka made 98 passes, the most for any player, but couldn’t dictate the tempo like Cazorla would. The Switzerland international had a decent game though, making 1 interception and 1 block and winning 3 of 4 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. His partnership with Coquelin in central midfield lacked creativity to create gaps in the Leicester defense. Coquelin’s limited passing skills especially showed in the final third.

Bragging rights at stake

We knew the Gunners were vulnerable on corners. The Foxes exposed another weakness on Wednesday by creating 3 chances from throw-ins. Koscielny won the header from Fuchs’ long throw in the 22nd, but Mahrez pounced on the second ball to hit a half-volley that Cech palmed over the bar. Ndidi met another long throw in the 54th but could only muster a tame header straight at Cech. In stoppage time, Fuchs’ long throw led to a goalmouth scramble after Ozil failed to clear the danger.

At the back, Koscielny was dominant in the air, winning 8 of 10 aerial duels. He could miss Sunday’s North London derby after landing awkwardly in the 78th. The France defender seemed to twist his knee but was able to play the last minutes of the game. The main advantage of playing a back three is that it’s more difficult for the other team to press high up the pitch in the hope of forcing a turnover. Paulista, Monreal and Koscielny respectively made 79, 75 and 73 passes, according to whoscored.com. Only Xhaka and Ozil made more passes. Paulista too easily let Mahrez run past him in the 39th. The Leicester midfielder missed the target as Bellerin forced him wide. Somehow, Paulista redeemed himself in the 78th by blocking Okazaki’s shot as Koscielny lay on the ground in pain.

Spurs will be the heavy favorites in the North London derby. They have won their last 8 games in the Premier League. There’s no way Arsenal can celebrate St Totteringham’s Day this year. Sunday’s game will be about preventing Tottenham from securing a better finish than the Gunners. If Spurs win the derby, they will finish above Arsenal even if they lose all their remaining games. It would be embarrassing to see such a change of fortunes at White Hart Lane. Under Wenger’s tenure, the Gunners never finished behind Tottenham.

 

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Gunners restore confidence with 3-0 win

The Gunners thrashed West Ham 3-0 on Wednesday for their first victory in the Premier League since Feb. 11. They still have a lot of ground to make up if they want to get back in the race for a Top 4 finish, but at least the results are going Arsenal’s way as Manchester City lost at Chelsea while Liverpool split the points with Bournemouth.

Arsenal vs. West Ham edited

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

I was a bit anxious at kickoff. Injuries forced Wenger to make 3 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Manchester City on Sunday with Martinez, Paulista and Elneny replacing Ospina, Koscielny and Coquelin in the starting lineup. In a dull first half, the Gunners managed to test Randolph only once. Then they capitalized on a spell of domination in the second half to take the lead. You could feel that their confidence was back after they added a second goal: their passing game suddenly became crisp just like when they had a 19-game unbeaten run in the first half of the season.

The scoreline clearly reflected Arsenal’s dominance as West Ham created only 2 chances compared to 17 for the Gunners, according to Squawka. However, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too quickly. The Hammers don’t have the technical ability and movement of Manchester City and were low on confidence after losing their 4 previous league games.

Ozil made the difference by scoring the opening goal and setting up the second. He beat Randolph with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 58th minute. Ozil then played a one-two with Sanchez to square the ball back for Walcott, who got ahead of Byram to stab it home in the 68th. Somehow, Ozil could have notched one more goal and one more assist. Instead of attempting a first-time effort in the 49th, Ozil controlled a reverse pass from Sanchez and was dispossessed by a sliding tackle from Collins. He also played another one-two with Sanchez in the 66th to make a cross for Elneny, whose bouncing header went straight into Randolph’s gloves.

Ozil ends scoring drought

The Germany playmaker finished the game with 5 key passes, 3 successful dribbles out of 3 and 8 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Shifting Sanchez back to the left wing has helped restore Ozil’s influence on the game. When Sanchez plays as a false nine, he’s stepping on Ozil’s toes in midfield. Sometimes, they can create moments of magic like the goal scored against Chelsea in September. But too often Ozil has very little opportunity to deliver the final ball because he’s making runs in the final third. That’s why his number of assists has dropped this season.

I believe Ozil performs better in the role of a free-roaming midfielder than as a second striker when Sanchez leads the line. Ozil may score a lot of goals in training but he simply doesn’t have the killer instinct to repeat that feat in competitive games. His goal against West Ham was his first one in the Premier League since the 3-1 win over Stoke on Dec. 10. The Gunners were second in the standings after that Stoke game, three points behind Chelsea. In the end, Wenger’s tactical gamble on Ozil as a second striker backfired since Arsenal’s free fall also coincided with Ozil’s scoring drought.

Ozil slightly improved his work-rate by making 2 interceptions, 3 blocks and winning none of the 4 tackles he made against West Ham. But there are still issues about his attitude. In the first half, Ozil was reluctant to press high up the pitch, forcing Xhaka to do the job in his zone. In the second half, it was Elneny’s turn to perform Ozil’s pressing duties. The Gunners can survive that kind of behavior against the weak teams but they get in trouble against the stronger sides. Remember how Chelsea and Bayern Munich outplayed Arsenal in midfield. You also have to wonder to what extent it affects the chemistry in the dressing room. Players like Silva and Hazard would be criticized in their respective clubs for such a lack of effort.

Welbeck’s poor finishing

Sanchez had an off day with none of his 3 shots on target. He still managed to create 3 chances, finding Bellerin with a ball over the top in the 70th but the Spaniard missed the target from 7 yards. I’m guessing Sanchez must still feel the exhaustion from his trip to South America for the World Cup qualifiers with the Chile team. You can’t blame a player who has carried the club on his shoulders for most of the season, racking up 18 goals and 9 assists in the Premier League.

On the other hand, Walcott had a good game with 1 goal and 1 key pass. He also won 2 of 2 tackles and had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but made no interception and no block. Walcott has 10 goals and 2 assists in 23 Premier League appearances this season. It’s only the second time in his career that he’s reaching the 10-goal mark. He still has enough games to do better than the 14 league goals scored during the 2012-13 season. My views on Walcott haven’t changed. He’s a great option against teams leaving space at the back, but his limited passing skills are exposed against teams with a tight defense.

Recently, Wenger has preferred Welbeck to Sanchez and Giroud in the lone striker role. Welbeck is stronger in the air than Sanchez and has more pace than Giroud. His main problem is the lack of end product. With some clinical finishing, he could have scored a hat trick. Welbeck met a clipped free kick from Sanchez in the 24th only to fluff his volley. He then connected with a corner from Ozil in the 42nd for a header straight at Randolph. His worst miss came in the 61st when Walcott played him clean through on goal. Welbeck had just Randolph to beat from 10 yards but was denied by the West Ham keeper.

Giroud the supersub

The manager sent on Giroud for Welbeck in the 74th and the Frenchman lived up to his supersub status by cutting inside Collins for a curling shot into the far corner in the 83rd. Giroud has 9 goals and 3 assists from 21 Premier League appearances this season, which is a good return for Arsenal’s third-choice centerforward. That last goal started with a fantastic run from Oxlade-Chamberlain, who dribbled past two Hammers to feed Giroud.

The Ox and Ramsey made their return from injury by replacing Walcott and Elneny in the 81st. They could make a difference in a busy run-in knowing that Cazorla will miss the rest of the season. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka was not as efficient as Cazorla in setting a high tempo. But he still did a decent job by creating 3 chances, winning 4 of 10 tackles and leading all players with 120 passes. Xhaka also tested Randolph with a long-range strike in the 79th.

The midfield partnership formed by Xhaka and Elneny performed well on Wednesday. I’m still not convinced by their quality against the stronger teams but they looked complementary against West Ham. Elneny struggled in his defensive duties, winning only 1 of 6 tackles. However, he contributed to the fluency of Arsenal’s passing game with a passing accuracy of 97%.

On paper, Carroll was supposed to be West Ham’s main threat but had no decent service. Lanzini overhit his free kick in the seventh minute for Carroll, who had isolated himself with Bellerin at the far post. The Hammers’ chances came in fact from duels lost by Elneny. Noble dispossessed Elneny in the 13th to drag a diagonal drive wide. Lanzini then got the better of Elneny in the 75th and dribbled past Mustafi to fire a powerful strike that Martinez parried. In the closing minutes, Martinez also saved a low drive from Fernandes.

Mediocre officiating

At the back, Bellerin slightly improved after a poor performance against City. The Spaniard created 2 chances, had 3 successful dribbles out of 3, won 1 of 3 tackles, and made 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. He got booked for a cynical foul on Antonio in the 18th. Surprisingly, Paulista proved our most solid defender, winning 1 of 1 tackle and 4 of 6 aerial duels, and leading all players with 5 interceptions.

The Gunners won despite some mediocre officiating from Atkinson. Another referee would have awarded at least 2 penalties. In the 18th, Walcott dribbled past Masuaku, who made a blatant obstruction inside the area. The only penalty shout that looked weak was the collision between Collins and Monreal in the 80th. Both pounced on a loose ball and missed it. I’m OK with that call. On the other hand, I thought Atkinson showed poor judgement by dismissing Monreal’s penalty appeal in stoppage time. Monreal cut inside Byram, who made a late tackle and not only missed the ball but also stamped on Monreal’s foot. Any decent referee would have awarded Arsenal a spot kick and given Byram a second yellow card. Atkinson missed another call when Carroll elbowed Mustafi on the stroke of halftime. The referee should have given Arsenal a free kick and stopped play because it was a head injury.

The Gunners only have fourth place to play for now. Qualifying for the Champions League is crucial to boost the club’s transfer budget and sign top players this summer. Trailing Manchester City and Liverpool by 4 and 6 points respectively, the Gunners have no room for error. That implies victories over Crystal Palace on Monday and over Middlesbrough on April 17.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City: Gunners still in 6th place after 2-2 draw

The Gunners showed character by rallying twice in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City. However, the result makes a Top 4 finish in the Premier League even more unlikely. Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool are projected to finish the season with 90, 81, 76 and 75 points respectively. The Gunners have 51 points from 28 games so far and would therefore need 24 points from the last 10 games to match Liverpool’s projected total. That would mean 8 wins and 2 losses or an unbeaten run with 7 wins and 3 draws. It’s mission impossible given Arsenal’s current form and tough run-in.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City

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

Wenger hasn’t lost the dressing room yet. His players showed enough desire and commitment by winning 51.2% of the duels compared to 48.8% for City, according to the club’s website, and by making 20 interceptions compared to 21 for the visitors, according to Squawka. The Citizens still looked the better team because they created 11 chances compared to 6 for Arsenal. What really hurt the Gunners was their shaky defense and their lack of options in midfield because of injuries to Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Mustafi saved the day with a goal and an assist. He pounced on a poor clearance from the City defense to head the ball into the path of Walcott in the 40th minute. Walcott controlled the ball and got the better of Clichy in a weird dance of legs to beat Caballero from close range. Mustafi then made a run from beyond the penalty spot in the 53rd to nod in Ozil’s corner for the equalizer. He took advantage of City’s zonal marking to gather momentum and outjump a static Otamendi waiting on the 6-yard line. Quite ironically, that goal was similar to the ones scored by Dawson in the 3-1 loss to West Brom.

Is Mustafi the new Vermaelen?

Mustafi had a decent game, but you don’t want him to make up for defensive errors with goals like Vermaelen. I thought he shouldn’t have been drawn out of position for City’s opener in the fifth minute. When Caballero kicked the ball, Mustafi followed Aguero in City’s half to head the ball into the path of De Bruyne, who fed Sane with a first-time pass. Mustafi had no time to recover while Sane outpaced Bellerin to round Ospina and shoot into an empty net. Aguero often drops back to create space for his teammates to run into. It could make sense to track Aguero if he’s 30 yards from the Arsenal goal but not when he’s inside his own half.

Decision-making is one area where Mustafi must improve. He lost possession in the 50th after trying to dribble his way out of trouble. The Germany international got booked in the 61st for a cynical challenge on Sane. Mustafi made 1 interception and won 3 of 6 tackles and 3 of 4 aerial duels, but he also finished the game with a passing accuracy of 66%, which is too low for a centerback. Koscielny had a passing accuracy of 82.6% compared to 88.9% for Stones and 87.2% for Otamendi.

Monreal proved Arsenal’s best defender while Bellerin had a poor game. Bellerin was on the wrong side of Sane for the opener, made no interception and won no tackle or aerial duel. By contrast, Monreal made 6 interceptions, the most for any player, and won 2 of 6 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Monreal took advantage of Navas’ inexperience at fullback to cause havoc by overlapping with Sanchez down the left flank. Navas was very lucky to stay on the pitch after planting his studs into Monreal’s shinpad in the eighth minute.

Ozil’s average season

Down 2-1 at halftime, a lot of fans were worried when they saw Paulista replace an injured Koscielny for the start of the second half. It was Koscielny’s replacement that led to the 5-1 disaster in the first leg of the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich. Somehow, Paulista did a decent job.

In midfield, City outperformed Arsenal again. Fernandinho, De Bruyne and Silva combined to make 7 interceptions and win 8 of 25 tackles while Coquelin, Xhaka and Ozil combined to make 4 interceptions and win 7 of 16 tackles. Ozil had decent attacking stats with 2 successful dribbles out of 2 and 3 key passes (tied with Navas and Silva for the most by any player), but his work-rate was poor. He made 1 interception and 2 tackles. De Bruyne and Silva are creative players too but they contributed more defensively. Silva made 2 interceptions and 9 tackles while De Bruyne made 1 interception and 7 tackles.

Ozil was guilty on City’s second goal in the 42nd as he gave the ball away to Silva, who found De Bruyne on the edge of the Arsenal box. The Belgium international attempted a one-two with Sterling but Koscielny knocked the return pass away with a sliding tackle. The loose ball fell to Silva, who fed Aguero and the Argentina striker made it 2-1 with an angled effort into the bottom corner.

Wenger’s decision to turn Ozil into a second striker or nine and a half has backfired. Ozil is not clinical enough in front of the net. He took a pass from Sanchez in the 21st and rolled away from Stones only to muster a tame shot that did not trouble Caballero. Ozil notched 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 Premier League appearances last season, that is, an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. His number are down this season with just 5 assists and 5 goals from 23 Premier League appearances, that is, an average of 0.43 goal or assist per game.

Xhaka & Coquelin caught ball-watching

Xhaka and Coquelin didn’t cover themselves in glory either. Both were caught ball-watching on City’s second goal. Coquelin failed to mark De Bruyne when he played a one-two with Sterling while Xhaka made no real effort to track back when Ozil lost possession. Monreal ended up dealing with both Aguero and Silva because of Xhaka’s passivity.

Petit, Vieira and Gilberto were enforcers who could boss the midfield. I don’t think Xhaka and Coquelin are anywhere near their level. Xhaka gifted the Citizens their first chance by slipping in the fourth minute. Fernandinho played Sterling clean through on goal, but Ospina quickly rushed outside his area to clear the danger. The ball bounced off Sterling and out of bounds. Then Xhaka was late for a block when Silva teed up De Bruyne for a long-range strike that hit the post in the 10th. The Switzerland international received a yellow card in the 32nd for a poorly timed challenge on Otamendi. Coquelin also got booked for a late tackle on Silva in the 14th and escaped a second yellow card in the 81st for a cynical foul on De Bruyne.

Back from a trip to South America for World Cup qualifiers, Sanchez produced an energetic display with 2 key passes, 5 interceptions and 7 successful dribbles out of 11. He also won 2 of 6 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels and had 11 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Turnovers are OK when you’re in the final third. But they should be avoided when you’re on the edge of your own area because you can put your team in danger. Navas intercepted a Sanchez backheel flick in the 66th to make a cross for Aguero, whose header lacked power to beat Ospina. The Colombia goalkeeper made two fine saves to keep Arsenal in the game, palming away a low strike from Silva in the 10th and parrying a long-range effort from Fernandinho in the 58th.

The next 3 games

Up front, Welbeck got no decent service. He had a passing accuracy of 100%, won 2 of 2 tackles and lost the 4 aerial duels in which he was involved. His only chance came from a missed clearance from Otamendi in the fourth minute. Welbeck pounced on the loose ball for a sliding effort that sailed wide.

On the right wing, Walcott scored a goal but did very little compared to Sanchez. With a bit of luck, Walcott could have added a second goal on the stroke of halftime. He controlled a cross from Sanchez for an acrobatic effort that went over the bar.

Arsenal would need a miracle to finish in the Top 4. They could make up ground by winning their next three Premier League games against West Ham, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough while hoping that Liverpool and the two Manchesters drop points. Then they would need outstanding performances in the run-in against Leicester, Tottenham, Manchester United, Stoke, Everton, Southampton and Sunderland. In any case, the Gunners will have to tighten up at the back because they looked incredibly open against City.

 

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

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

West Brom vs. Arsenal

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

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

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

Lack of defensive awareness

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

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

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

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

Targeting Sanchez

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

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

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

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

The board’s passivity

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Arsenal vs. Lincoln

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

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

  1. Walcott is still on fire

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

  1. Sanchez loves the game

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

  1. Giroud could play key role in run-in

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

  1. The midfield is still a work in progress

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

  1. Ramsey is still a bit rusty

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

  1. The fullbacks did a great job

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

  1. Referees lose credibility when they make inconsistent calls

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Should Arsenal use an inverted pyramid?

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

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

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

  1. Walcott was on fire

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

  1. The additional assistant referee screwed up

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

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

  1. Giroud can be incredibly wasteful

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

  1. Has the bust-up controversy affected Sanchez?

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

  1. The Gunners lack defensive awareness

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

  1. Mustafi looks bad without Koscielny

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

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

  1. Why did Xhaka play as a defender?

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

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

  1. Ospina needs to work on his distribution

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

FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-0 win over Sutton

Arsenal defeated Sutton United 2-0 on Monday to next face Lincoln City in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. It doesn’t make up for the humiliating 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League but it shows that the players still care about the club and their manager.

  1. The Gunners overcame nerves

The club was under heavy scrutiny after the defeat in Germany last week. The FA Cup tie at Gander Green Lane looked like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was a great opportunity to bounce back and restore a bit of confidence. On the other, a poor result would have made the atmosphere around the club even more toxic. Neutral fans and pundits were obviously rooting for the Yellows, who play in the fifth division of English football.

Sutton vs. Arsenal.jpg

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

It could have been a tricky match on Sutton’s artificial pitch, where the ball doesn’t bounce like it does on the grass. The game almost had a goofy feel with balloons rolling on the pitch and a streaker interrupting play after 11 minutes. The Yellows showed a lot of commitment, winning 60.5% of the duels according to Arsenal’s website. Two misplaced passes from Monreal to Iwobi in the opening minutes betrayed the visitors’ nervosity. With 10 men behind the ball, Sutton kept a compact shape until the 27th minute when the Gunners converted their first chance of the game.

  1. Perez deserves more playing time

The Spanish striker capitalized on a counterattack to break the deadlock with a low curling shot. He displayed a tremendous work-rate by making 3 tackles and winning 63.6% of his duels. In my eyes, Perez should be ahead of Walcott in the pecking order not just because he contributes more defensively but also because he has better passing skills.

  1. Walcott reached the 100-goal mark

The England international scored his 100th goal for Arsenal by stabbing home a low cross from Monreal in the 55th. That’s a lot if you compare with Aaron Lennon’s tally. And it’s not much when you know that he has been at the club since 2006. Pundits sometimes say that as a winger Walcott doesn’t get as many chances as a centerforward. But then Sanchez notched 25 goals from the left wing in his first season at Arsenal.

To a certain extent, Walcott embodies the limits of this club. He can produce a moment of magic with his trademark diagonal run. But he can also go missing from an entire game. Walcott has shown consistency at the top level only once in his career: that was in the 2012-13 season when he scored 21 goals for the club. He has a good shot at beating that total with 15 goals so far this season.

  1. Oxlade-Chamberlain must learn from his mistakes

The Ox gifted a goal to Bayern Munich by dribbling on the edge of his own area. He obviously failed to learn his lesson on Monday when he came off the bench to replace Elneny at halftime. Gomis initiated a fast break by dispossessing the Ox in the 77th. It took a clearance from Holding to end the threat.

At 23 and in his 6th season at Arsenal, the Ox is no longer a rookie. He definitely has the skills to play in central midfield but first he needs to cut his turnover rate and improve his passing accuracy. The Ox showed a glimpse of his talent by dribbling past two players in the 69th to make a teasing cross for Walcott who couldn’t make contact with the ball. Then the Ox forced a diving save from Worner with a curling shot in the 81st.

  1. Our goalkeepers are flawed

Cech struggled to stop long-range strikes last season and has already cost two penalties this season. That should be the perfect opportunity for Ospina to claim the starting spot in goal. Unfortunately, Ospina still can’t command his area. The Colombia goalkeeper was outmuscled by Bailey in the 6-yard box and beaten to the ball by Collins, who headed a corner over the bar in the 60th. And just like Cech gifted Chelsea a goal with a sloppy pass, Ospina had a poor pass intercepted by May, who fired wide on the stroke of halftime. For those who think that Szczesny is the answer, just remember his blunders and his attitude issues on and off the pitch.

  1. Reine-Adelaide shouldn’t be in the first team

The French teenager has a lot of potential but is really too soft. He was dispossessed 7 times, more than any other player according to whoscored.com, and won only 11% of his duels. Reine-Adelaide clearly doesn’t have the level to play in the Premier League. And after watching his performance against Sutton, you kind of wonder whether he would be strong enough to play in the fifth division of English football.

Arsenal should definitely loan him out to a lower-league club so that he can toughen up and add some physicality to his game. Otherwise we’ll keep having those “men vs. boys” comments that pundits made after the losses to Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Reine-Adelaide was replaced by Maitland-Niles in the 74th.

I have high hopes for Maitland-Niles and was disappointed not to see him in the starting lineup. He’s pretty much a holding midfielder a la Makelele and has more potential than Coquelin, who doesn’t have the tactical discipline for that role. In fact, I tend to see Coquelin more like a utility midfielder, a cheap version of Matuidi, who has limited skills like Coquelin but provides more end product.

  1. More sobriety needed for Holding

The English centerback must get rid of that habit of taking unnecessary risks. He thought he was Beckenbauer in the 85th and ran past Sutton’s attacking line to give away the ball with a poor pass. Holding was out of position when the Yellows hit Arsenal on the fast break. The ball fell to Hudson-Odoi, whose shot was deflected out by Mustafi. Holding was also late for a block attempt when Deacon smashed the bar with a 25-yard drive in the 65th.

  1. The Premier League is still the priority

The manager left Cech, Bellerin, Coquelin, Ozil, Giroud and Welbeck out of the squad while the injured Koscielny, Ramsey and Cazorla were not available. It won’t hurt to have 11 days of rest before the trip to Anfield Road. The Gunners need at least a draw against Liverpool, a direct rival for a Champions League berth, for the simple reason that the Reds have an easier run-in. A Top 4 finish is crucial to keep our best players and sign top talents this summer.