Tag Archives: Welbeck

Arsenal vs. Sporting Lisbon: A few thoughts on the 0-0 draw

The Gunners qualified for the knockout phase of the Europa League by splitting the points with Sporting Lisbon in a dull goalless draw on Thursday. Arsenal can have regrets because they could have secured the top spot in Group E with a victory over the Portuguese club.

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

Emery made 9 changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Liverpool last weekend with only Holding and Mkhitaryan retaining their starting spots. The Spanish manager gave the evening off to Bellerin, Xhaka, Ozil and Lacazette and left Mustafi and Torreira on the bench while Aubameyang and Kolasinac made appearances as substitutes.

Maybe a stronger starting lineup would have beaten Sporting. At least, Emery will have fresher players for Sunday’s game against Wolverhampton in the Premier League. But the possibility that Sporting could still win Group E means that Emery won’t be able to blood as many youngsters as he’d like against Vorskla on Nov. 29 or Qarabag on Dec. 13.

In a familiar pattern, Arsenal dominated ball possession without creating much. The passing speed was too slow to crack the Sporting defense. The Gunners also lacked penetration in the final third with just 5 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com.

  1. The importance of the final ball

Creating chances often depends on the quality of the final ball. The Gunners usually rely on Ozil, Torreira, Bellerin and Monreal to make key passes. Unfortunately, Emery decided not to use those 4 players on Thursday, which put the onus on Mkhitaryan, Iwobi, Guendouzi, Lichtsteiner and Jenkinson to step up. A few interesting situations were wasted because of poor technique. Jenkinson in the 31st minute, Mkhitaryan in the 45th and Iwobi in the 84th floated crosses out of play.

  1. Sporting’s Mourinhesque performance

The Portuguese side was never really pulled out of position. They won some key duels inside the area, cutting out crosses from Welbeck in the 8th and Mkhitaryan in the 12th. And when Sporting felt that the Gunners were starting a dangerous counterattack, they had no scruple to make cynical fouls: Acuna blocked Smith-Rowe’s run in the 20th, Gaspar held Iwobi in the 41st, Acuna tripped Smith-Rowe in the 70th and Mathieu was sent off in the 87th for fouling Aubameyang as the last defender.

  1. Welbeck’s ankle injury

The Gunners might have lost Welbeck for several months. He’s not a regular starter in the Premier League but his versatility is an asset for Arsenal. Welbeck was making an impact in the first half, heading a free kick from Mkhitaryan wide in the 20th and heading a cross from Lichtsteiner straight at Ribeiro in the 25th. Unfortunately, Welbeck landed awkwardly on that last play. The pain was so strong that Welbeck had to breathe in some oxygen before being stretchered off the pitch. It would be a miracle if there’s no ligament damage.

  1. Iwobi is not the finished product yet

The Nigeria international has been making progress under Emery but he’s far from the finished product. Iwobi needs to improve his decision-making, especially when to take on a defender. He lost possession in the 1st, 25th and 66th while running into traffic. His passing game was a mixed bag. From a short corner, Iwobi made a pass for nobody in the 36th. Iwobi still finished the game with 3 key passes, the most for any player, including a low cross for Mkhitaryan, whose first-time effort was saved by Ribeiro in the 81st.

  1. Guendouzi needs to tidy up

There’s no doubt about Guendouzi’s potential: the French teenager has an eye for a pass. He slightly overhit his ball over the top for Smith-Rowe in the 6th and made a low cross for Welbeck in the 17th that nearly led to an own goal from Mathieu. Guendouzi also put in a shift defensively, winning 1 tackle and making 2 interceptions. But as a holding midfielder, Guendouzi must cut his turnover rate. He had 4 turnovers according to whoscored.com, compared to just 1 for Ramsey. Guendouzi was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 3rd, putting his team in trouble.

  1. Lichtsteiner’s hamstring injury

The Switzerland international picked up his customary yellow card with a challenge from behind on Nani in the 21st. He also made a teasing cross for Smith-Rowe, who couldn’t climb high enough to head the ball in the 38th. While charging forward in the 71st, Lichtsteiner seemed to pull his hamstring and was replaced by Maitland-Niles three minutes later. I actually think Maitland-Niles would be a better back-up for Bellerin, especially in the Premier League where the 34-year-old Lichtsteiner struggles to cope with the pace of the game.

  1. Where does Ramsey fit in Emery’s plans?

Emery played Ramsey in the hole at the start of the season. That advanced position nullified Ramsey’s main strength, which is the late runs he makes into the box. On Thursday, Ramsey played in a deeper position alongside Guendouzi. The Wales midfielder led all players with 115 passes but had little impact on his team’s passing game because he’s not a deep-lying playmaker. At least, Ramsey tried to show Emery that he could play in front of the defense. He was tied with Mkhitaryan for the most interceptions (3) made by any player and covered Jenkinson in the 56th and the centerbacks in stoppage time.

 

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

The Gunners took control of Group E in the Europa League by edging Sporting Lisbon 1-0 on Thursday for their 11th straight win in all competitions. They will virtually secure a first-place finish if they win the return game in two weeks. Emery took this game seriously as no academy player made the bench.

Sporting vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Spanish manager made 6 changes to the side that defeated Leicester on Monday with Leno, Xhaka, Holding, Lichtsteiner and Mkhitaryan retaining their starting spots. If things had gone wrong, Emery still had the possibility to call up Lacazette, Ozil, Iwobi, Torreira and Mustafi from the bench.

Tactically, Emery experimented a bit by using a 4-3-3 formation with Guendouzi, Elneny and Ramsey in midfield. In a familiar pattern, Arsenal created very little in the first half before improving after the break.

  1. Aubameyang’s off day

The Gabon striker was clinical against Leicester but couldn’t find the net in Portugal. Deprived of decent service in the first half, Aubameyang could only muster a tame low drive on the stroke of halftime that didn’t trouble Ribeiro. He then took a pass from Mkhitaryan in the 48th minute for an angled strike that Ribeiro pushed out. His best chance came in the 50th when Ramsey played him in but Ribeiro saved Aubameyang’s chip attempt.

  1. Welbeck’s impact

The England international is not a regular starter in the Premier League but he has made an impact this season with already 5 goals in all competitions. As a back-up striker, Welbeck is more reliable than Llorente for Spurs, Morata for Chelsea or Sanchez for Manchester United (cough, cough).

Welbeck had a close-range effort deflected out by Pinto in the 53rd and a goal disallowed in the 68th for minimal contact with Gaspar while heading in Lichtsteiner’s cross. He kept working his socks off and was rewarded in the 78th when Coates missed his interception and diverted Torreira’s pass into Welbeck’s path. Welbeck pounced on the loose ball and fired through Ribeiro’s legs to score the winning goal.

  1. Sokratis’ return from injury

Starting alongside Holding at centerback, Sokratis won 3 of 3 tackles, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis made a crucial interception to kill a counterattack in the 27th. But the Greek defender also misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 32nd and collided with Montero before Leno gathered the ball. TV replays showed that Sokratis pulled Montero’s jersey while the Sporting striker held Sokratis’ arm. There was no VAR technology to help the referee but it could have been a red card.

  1. Holding is still learning

Maybe Holding is not learning fast enough. The 23-year-old defender had a quiet start before making a couple of high-profile mistakes. His sloppy pass for Guendouzi in the 31st was intercepted by Nani, who fired over the bar from the edge of the box. Holding then received a yellow card in the 46th for leading with his arm while challenging Montero in the air. And he got away with a handball again in the 52nd when a Sporting free kick led to a goalmouth scramble.

  1. Guendouzi is too casual

In the summer friendlies, Guendouzi showed a tendency to stupidly lose possession by dallying on the ball. Guendouzi still hasn’t corrected that flaw yet as he was dispossessed 3 times against Sporting. You can’t afford to do that when you are the holding midfielder. Those 3 turnovers led to dangerous situations.

There’s no doubt that Guendouzi is technically gifted, but his decision-making is still an issue. That’s the reason why Emery prefers Xhaka to Guendouzi in the Premier League. I think Guendouzi could learn by watching Torreira, who’s a sober and yet more efficient central midfielder.

  1. Xhaka’s stint at leftback

It was quite a surprise to see Xhaka play again in the leftback position. Although Xhaka won 3 of 3 tackles according to whoscored.com, he wasn’t completely comfortable on the pitch. Xhaka was lucky not to get booked for a mistimed challenge on Fernandes in the 11th. He also panicked in the 30th, giving away a corner with a really poor pass. Jenkinson was available to start but Emery preferred to leave the English fullback on the bench. Not a good omen for Jenkinson’s career at the club.

Fulham vs. Arsenal: Emery makes tactical tweak in 5-1 win

The Gunners snatched 4th place from Spurs in the Premier League by smashing Fulham 5-1 on Sunday for their 9th straight win in all competitions. Cynics will point at the schedule. It’s true that the Gunners haven’t faced any top club during that winning run. But it’s still an improvement compared to last season when Arsenal badly struggled on the road under Wenger, even against the weak sides.

Fulham vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery had a surprise for the fans at Craven Cottage. The Spanish manager relied on a 4-2-3-1 formation for the first 7 league games. On Sunday, he switched to a flexible 4-4-2 system with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the wings and Lacazette and Welbeck up front. It morphed into a 4-2-3-1 formation when Welbeck swapped positions with Iwobi on the left wing or when Mkhitaryan drifted inside and Lacazette made runs on the right wing.

Other teams have resorted to that kind of tactical flexibility. During the World Cup, France played in a 4-4-2 formation while attacking. But when the French lost possession, they would shift to a 4-3-3 system with Matuidi moving from the left wing to central midfield and Griezmann drifting wide to defend on the left wing. Likewise, Klopp is known for using a 4-3-3 formation at Liverpool. But when the Reds lost possession in the Champions League last season, they would morph into a 4-4-2 system with Salah staying up front with Firmino while Mane dropped deeper to defend.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M4ed.jpgArsenal’s 4-4-2 formation at Craven Cottage. (Photo credit: BT)

A manager should be able to make tactical changes instead of always sticking to the same formation. It’s about creating problems for the opponents and figuring out what’s the best system for an optimal use of the players. I felt Wenger was too conservative in his last years at the club. That’s why it was such a shock when he switched to a back three in April 2017 for the first time in 20 years. Maybe Arsenal could have finished in the Top 4 that season if Wenger had made that decision earlier. Who knows.

Element of surprise

The main advantage of the 4-4-2 formation is that Lacazette and Aubameyang can play together in their best positions. Aubameyang replaced Welbeck in the 62nd minute to lead the line alongside Lacazette until Emery yanked Lacazette off to send on Guendouzi in the 81st. During that 19-minute spell, the Gunners scored 2 goals.

Another advantage of the 4-4-2 system is that Ramsey is more comfortable on the right flank than in the No. 10 role. Ramsey played on the right wing when he replaced Iwobi in the 67th. Wenger already used Ramsey in that position. Some managers might be tempted to play Ramsey in the hole behind the striker when they check his stats for goals and assists. But they should rather take a look at his position on the pitch at the start of the plays where he scores or makes an assist. Ramsey has enough room to make his late runs from central midfield or from the right wing while there’s no element of surprise when he plays like a second striker.

Emery made 6 changes to the side that started the Europa League game in Azerbaijan with Monreal, Holding, Leno, Iwobi and Welbeck retaining their starting spots. Ozil was not in the squad because of a back strain while Ramsey and Aubameyang were on the bench for different reasons: Aubameyang had just recovered from illness and Ramsey’s wife was expecting twins.

The Gunners showed diversity in their scoring. Arsenal’s first two goals came from long balls, the third and the fourth capped counterattacks and the fifth was the result of playing the ball out from the back. Lacazette gave the lead to the Gunners with a low effort on the turn in the 29th. He made it 2-0 by taking his chance from 25 yards and firing into the bottom corner in the 49th. Lacazette also played a key role in the build-up to the third goal in the 67th, showing a great understanding with Ramsey and Bellerin. His work-rate was quite impressive as he won 2 of 2 tackles and made 7 ball recoveries, tied with Xhaka and Torreira for the most by an Arsenal player, according to the club’s website. The only blemish in Lacazette’s outstanding performance was his 5 turnovers.

Welbeck as a target man

Lacazette and Aubameyang have scored 4 goals each in the Premier League this season. During his 30-minute cameo, Aubameyang showed what he could do in the centerforward position, notching 2 goals and 1 assist. Aubameyang crossed the ball to Ramsey for the third goal. The Gabon striker then controlled a cross from Bellerin and spun to bury the ball into the far corner for a 4-0 lead in the 79th. He sealed the win in stoppage time by collecting a through ball from Ramsey to beat Bettinelli with a 16-yard strike.

Welbeck is not in the same class as Lacazette and Aubameyang. The England international had 0 shot but worked selflessly for his teammates, leading all Gunners with 3 key passes, including an assist for Lacazette’s second goal. At times, Welbeck played the role of target man as he was involved in 8 aerial duels in Fulham’s half, according to whoscored.com. If the Gunners can’t beat the press, then they need an out ball and Welbeck is the most obvious choice because of his physicality, pace and aerial abilities.

On the left wing, Iwobi made the penultimate pass for the opening goal, slipping the ball to an overlapping Monreal. The Nigeria international also made a pinpoint cross for Mkhitaryan, whose effort was blocked in the sixth minute. Iwobi led all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 6 but also had the lowest passing accuracy for an Arsenal player with 65%, according to the club’s website. He still needs to work on his decision-making as he wasted a good situation in the 13th. If you look at the screen capture below, you will see that Iwobi could have picked out an unmarked Mkhitaryan at the far post while the Fulham defense was busy with Welbeck and Lacazette. In the end, Iwobi took on Odoi and lost possession.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M13ed.jpgWelbeck and Lacazette are marked while Mkhitaryan is free. (Photo credit: BT)

Like Iwobi, Mkhitaryan struggled to have an impact in the Fulham area. He should have found the net in the 32nd when he met a cross from Welbeck for a sliding effort that didn’t trouble Bettinelli. Mkhitaryan still contributed to the scoreline by making the penultimate pass for Arsenal’s third and fourth goals, releasing Aubameyang down the left flank in the 67th and switching play with a crossfield pass to Bellerin in the 79th.

Speed of execution

At this stage of the season, Ramsey has a slight edge over Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi in Emery’s mind. The Wales international is more versatile than the other attacking midfielders and has better stats with 1 goal and 3 assists compared to 2 goals for Ozil, 1 goal and 1 assist for Mkhitaryan and also 1 goal and 1 assist for Iwobi.

The Gunners’ third goal summed up what Ramsey is all about and why it doesn’t make sense to play him in the No. 10 role. Bellerin won the ball inside the Arsenal area and found Ramsey near the corner flag. At the start of that play, Ramsey was 20 yards behind Lacazette. But by the time Aubameyang made the cross, Ramsey was more than 10 yards in front of Lacazette to score with a backheel flick inside the far post.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M67The passing chain for Ramsey’s goal. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The choreography of that swift counterattack almost looked like a ballet performance. That play was also a good example of verticality and speed of execution. The goal was the result of 9 passes involving 5 players (Bellerin, Ramsey, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang). There were 5 first-time passes and the other 4 passes only required 2 touches each. Bellerin’s backheel flick slowed down the play a bit, forcing Ramsey to head the ball twice, but it wasn’t enough to kill the momentum of the attack.

That kind of high-energy transition game is the reason why I think Ramsey would be a good fit for Liverpool. Ramsey would be a perfect replacement for an aging Milner although they don’t have the same profile. The Wales midfielder is a bigger goal threat while Milner has better defensive awareness. In his 25-minute cameo, Ramsey also made an assist, taking a pass from Xhaka to play Aubameyang in for the last goal. If you watch the end of the replay, you will only notice his through ball and his position in the No. 10 role. You have to watch the start of the play to understand that Ramsey’s main asset is his movement. Ramsey was on the halfway line when Xhaka got the ball. But then Ramsey ran into a pocket of space between the Fulham defense and the midfield to create danger.

A new song for Torreira

Emery should build the team around Ramsey and Lacazette. The trouble is that Arsenal recently withdrew their offer to Ramsey, which basically means that he will leave the club either in January or next summer. History is just repeating itself, unfortunately. Wenger also tried to build his team around two talented players: Ozil and Sanchez. We all know how the story ended. Sanchez joined Manchester United last January while Ozil stayed at Arsenal but with a fat contract.

The Gunners never managed to press as a unit under Wenger. Their best pressing effort was the 3-0 demolition of Manchester United in October 2015. But that 20-minute blitz against Van Gaal’s Red Devils was the exception that confirmed the rule. Arsenal simply lacked the personnel for a high press. If Wenger had made one key signing in midfield, it could have been a different story. But the French manager had too high hopes for Coquelin. It’s true that Coquelin and Cazorla formed a complementary duo in central midfield. However, Coquelin’s limitations prevented Arsenal from switching to a formation favoring a pressing game.

It’s quite ironic that the Gunners finally have that smart ballwinner now that Wenger is gone. With Torreira, Arsenal could have played a 4-3-3 a la Liverpool. If they had managed to keep Oxlade-Chamberlain last year, they could have deployed a three-man midfield with Torreira, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

On Sunday, many Arsenal fans acknowledged Torreira’s importance in the balance of the team by chanting his name to the tune of the old Vieira song. Torreira produced an outstanding performance, winning 78% of his duels, the most for any starting midfielder according to the club’s website. He also won 0 of 2 tackles, had 7 ball recoveries and made 6 interceptions, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Uruguay international has adapted to the physicality of the Premier League by better using his body to shield the ball and draw fouls. Torreira was fouled 4 times, the most for any Gunner.

Keeping the ball on the ground, or not

Xhaka had a decent game defensively, winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 interception and 7 recoveries. Offensively, the Switzerland international missed almost everything, overhitting a long ball for Welbeck in the eighth minute, sending a pass to nobody in the 51st and missing his pass for Iwobi in the 52nd. At least, Xhaka was able to spot Ramsey’s run for the last goal in stoppage time. It was a bit surprising that when Emery switched to a 4-3-3 system in the 81st to stuff the midfield, he moved Torreira to the right side and played Xhaka in the holding midfielder role. Maybe it was aimed to cover Bellerin on the right flank and contain Sessegnon’s runs.

The Cottagers lacked creativity when they had the ball. So it was no coincidence if their best chances came from Arsenal turnovers. Vietto intercepted a sloppy pass from Bellerin in the third minute and tested Leno with a drive that took a deflection off Holding. Then Holding underhit his pass for Monreal in the 18th, forcing the Spain international to rush and miss his clearance. Seri wasted the subsequent half-chance by overhitting his final ball for Mitrovic. The Gunners played again with fire while attempting to build from the back. Holding made a risky crossfield pass for Bellerin in the 42nd. Sessegnon intercepted the ball to feed Schurrle, who fired wide.

Fulham finally leveled in the 44th when Monreal missed his long ball for Welbeck. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Monreal had no short passing option because of Xhaka’s lack of mobility. His best passing options were Welbeck down the middle or Iwobi along the touchline. Iwobi was the safer option but required a lobbed pass to prevent an interception from Christie. Welbeck was the bolder option but required a ball over the top with a lot of accuracy to prevent the goalkpeeper from catching the ball. Monreal decided to keep the ball on the ground and it proved a costly mistake.

Fulham vs. Arsenal M44ed.jpgMonreal’s two best options to evade Fulham’s press. (Photo credit: BT)

Anguissa intercepted Monreal’s pass and slipped the ball to Vietto, who played Schurrle clean through on goal. The former Chelsea forward chipped Leno to level the game just before halftime. Monreal was out of position after his sloppy pass, forcing Holding to drift wide. Schurrle saw the gap between Holding and Mustafi and made a timely run between the two Arsenal centerbacks. Mustafi showed poor positional play by reacting too late to cover Holding and mark Schurrle.

A title bid?

Monreal made the assist for the opening goal but you still expect a fullback to ruthlessly patrol his flank. The Spaniard won only 38% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal defender. And Fulham wingback Christie had so much freedom that he led all players with 5 key passes. On Bellerin’s flank, Sessegnon only managed to make 2 key passes. Monreal was out of position in the seventh minute, leaving Xhaka in a 1v2 situation with Vietto and Christie. Vietto made a cross for Mitrovic, whose first-time effort was deflected out by Mustafi for a corner. Then Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses in the 24th and 61st.

Bellerin has been among the Arsenal players improving under Emery. He was involved in Ramsey’s goal and made the cross for Aubameyang’s first goal. Bellerin could have scored in the 48th but Bettinelli palmed away his powerful strike. His offensive contribution has never been questioned under Wenger but there were question marks about his defensive performance. It looks like Bellerin has found the right balance between attack and defense under Emery. Bellerin won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 block and 5 recoveries, compared to 2 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 3 recoveries for Monreal, according to the club’s website.

In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mustafi showed better discipline than in the previous games. The German centerback made no silly foul and had no turnover. He also won 71% of his duels, the highest percentage for any Arsenal defender. Besides his slow reaction on the equalizer, his only blemish was a passing accuracy of 68%, while centerbacks usually have a percentage above 80%.

Some fans are already talking about a title bid because the Gunners trail Liverpool, City and Spurs by just 2 points. I think it’s premature at this stage of the season. To have a shot at the title, Arsenal would need to keep winning against the weak and average sides while getting some points against the big clubs. The Gunners lost against City and Chelsea and they haven’t faced United, Spurs and Liverpool yet. By contrast, the Reds defeated Spurs and drew with City and Chelsea while beating clubs outside the Top 6. It will be interesting to see whether Emery sticks to a 4-4-2 formation after the international break.

 

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 3-1 win over Brentford

In their sixth straight win in all competitions, the Gunners defeated Brentford 3-1 on Wednesday to move into the fourth round of the League Cup. Emery gave the evening off to Cech, Ozil, Xhaka and Aubameyang while making 9 changes to the side that sank Everton 2-0 last weekend with only Mustafi and Monreal retaining their starting spots. Maybe the Spanish manager would have also rested Mustafi and Monreal if Sokratis, Kocielny, Maitland-Niles and Mavropanos had not been injured.

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

Emery didn’t underestimate Championship side Brentford as he included just one academy player in his starting lineup: Smith-Rowe. A decade ago, Wenger would have started more youngsters in that competition. But nowadays, the gap in quality between academies and the Championship has become bigger.

A day after Derby County knocked out Manchester United on penalties, the Bees were hoping to cause another upset. They had 5 internationals (Dalsgaard, Mokotjo, Judge, Mepham and Sawyers), 3 players coming from the French league (Maupay, Jeanvier and Benrahma) and 4 players with a bit of experience in the Premier League (McEachran, Daniels, Yennaris and Canos).

Arsenal had the game under control in the first half, reaching halftime with a 2-0 lead. But Brentford proved more daring in the second half, even enjoying a good spell of domination. Embarrassingly, an equalizer from the visitors looked more likely than a third goal from Arsenal. Emery put an end to the suspense by sending on Lacazette, Torreira and Ramsey in the last 30 minutes.

  1. Welbeck is showing his value

His contract ends next year and no one can deny his value as an impact player. Welbeck can play in any position of the front three, he can score goals off the bench, and his work-rate and attitude have never been questioned. Obviously, the key question is whether Welbeck wants to be a regular starter in an average side or if he’s happy to compete for a spot in a big club. Welbeck opened the scoring in the fifth minute by heading home a cross from Guendouzi. The England international then doubled the lead by converting a cross from Monreal in the 36th.

  1. Smith-Rowe still has a lot of work to do

I was surprised that Smith-Rowe got the nod over Nketiah. On Wednesday, Smith-Rowe sometimes looked out of his depth. He wasted two good situations because of a lack of composure in the final third. Smith-Rowe missed his cross for Welbeck in the 54th before overhitting a final ball in the 56th. His best move was a run in behind to collect a long ball from Elneny in the seventh minute. Jeanvier deflected Smith-Rowe’s angled shot out for a corner. At 18, Smith-Rowe is a promising youngster but he’s far from the finished product. He will probably win more duels by bulking up a bit.

  1. The Gunners still struggle to play out from the back

Playing out from the back is very demanding because it requires good technique, focus, and movement. Leno nearly scored an own goal in the opening minute by miscontrolling a back pass. While trying to build up play, Holding in the 15th and 59th and Mustafi in the 35th gave the ball away. Those 3 turnovers led to 3 Brentford shots. Is the risk worth it? Maybe if we look at the second goal which started with Leno’s lobbed pass for Lichtsteiner. But the Gunners definitely need more practice on the training ground.

  1. There’s a reason why Arsenal fans dislike Dean

His controversial calls against Arsenal have been well documented. Dean added another chapter on Wednesday by denying a penalty in the 20th when Jeanvier tripped Iwobi inside the area. The referee could have used VAR technology to make the right call but he preferred not to. Then Dean failed to give Yennaris a yellow card for a stamp on Guendouzi in the 26th. That leniency was all the more stunning that Lichtsteiner was booked for an obstruction in the 28th.

  1. Guendouzi is learning the hard way

There’s a reason why Emery preferred to play Xhaka alongside Torreira in the Everton game. Guendouzi may have more potential than Xhaka, but the Switzerland international has more experience. The naivety of the French teenager nearly cost his team on Wednesday. His turnover in the 56th led to a scoring chance for Watkins, who got bullied off the ball by Holding. A minute later, Guendouzi gave away a cheap set piece by shoving Odubajo from behind. Judge cut the deficit to 2-1 with a curling free kick.

Guendouzi wasn’t really helped by Emery’s decision to play him alongside Elneny in central midfield. Neither Guendouzi nor Elneny is a ballwinner. It wasn’t clear who was supposed to shield the back four. Emery finally solved the problem by sending on Torreira for Mkhitaryan in the 76th as the team morphed into a 4-3-3 formation with Torreira, Elneny and Guendouzi in midfield and Lacazette, Iwobi and Welbeck in the front three. Torreira killed a dangerous play by intercepting Benrahma’s through ball for Maupay in the 82nd.

  1. Emery didn’t gamble

The Spanish manager played it safe by replacing Smith-Rowe, Mkhitaryan and Elneny with Lacazette, Torreira and Ramsey. Those substitutions helped Arsenal see the game out. Lacazette swapped passes with Ramsey in the 87th but was put off by Barbet while pulling the trigger. In stoppage time, Lacazette won a 50-50 ball and made it 3-1 with a strike into the bottom corner.

In a similar situation, I think Wenger would have gambled on youth to see if they had the mental strength to overcome adversity. Last year, Wenger sent on Nketiah when the Gunners were trailing 1-0 against Norwich in the League Cup. As you all remember, Nketiah scored twice to lead Arsenal to a 2-1 win.

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Gunners earn 1st win under Emery

When a manager joins a new club, he quickly needs results to win his players’ support and get the fans and journalists off his back. A manager can be a smart tactician and have a stellar resume, but if his team can’t win games, his words will ring hollow in the dressing room. Somehow, Emery managed to buy a bit of time with Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over West Ham on Saturday.

Arsenal vs. West HamPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger was the consummate man-manager, always protecting his players, almost cajoling their ego. You would never see him make a substitution before the 60th minute unless there was an injury. There is no such diplomatic consideration with Emery, who doesn’t mind making early changes if a player is underperforming. The Spanish manager replaced Ramsey in the 54th minute against Manchester City and yanked Xhaka off at halftime against Chelsea.

On Saturday, Emery replaced Iwobi at halftime and Guendouzi in the 56th before pulling Aubameyang out in the 75th. Those moves paid off as two of the substitutes had a major impact on the game: Lacazette initiated the second goal in the 70th while Welbeck put the result beyond doubt in stoppage time.

The Gunners are not yet playing the way Emery wants them to. They still struggle to implement Emery’s pressing game and no longer put a strong emphasis on playing the ball out from the back. Although Arsenal enjoyed more ball possession on Saturday than in their first two games, Cech made only 24 passes against the Hammers compared to 36 against Chelsea and 42 against City.

However, one obvious break from the Wenger era has been the way the Gunners reach the final third. Slow build-ups with a lot of back passes were common under Wenger. Now the team moves the ball forward more quickly under Emery. The aim is to prevent the opponents from parking the bus. That means making more first-time passes, even in midfield. If you see players making a lot of stray passes, it’s because they’re taking more risks.

What kind of front three?

My main impression from the first three games is that Emery still hasn’t found his best starting lineup and is still experimenting. Emery won’t change his back four until Koscielny is back in contention for a starting spot. By contrast, the front three is a mystery, especially Emery’s choice of wide players. So far, Emery has always started with 2 attacking midfielders (Ozil and Mkhitaryan against City, then Iwobi and Mkhitaryan against Chelsea and West Ham), which is strange because he used to play with 3 forwards at Paris Saint-Germain with Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe.

I definitely think that playing with 2 attacking midfielders in the wide positions is the worst option because they tend to drift inside and make the play too narrow. Another problem is the absence of a natural finisher on the wings and the over-reliance on the pass to beat a defense. Arsenal only had 9 successful dribbles to 17 for West Ham, according to whoscored.com. The Gunners need more aggression in the final third. They could play with 3 forwards like Liverpool under Klopp (Mane, Firmino, Salah) or under Rodgers (Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling). There’s also the hybrid solution with an attacking midfielder on one wing and a forward on the other like when Arsenal played with Pires and Ljungberg more than a decade ago.

The midfield is a work in progress, too. Emery made just one change to the side that lost 3-2 at Chelsea with Ramsey replacing Ozil in the starting lineup. Ozil was not even in the squad because of illness. For the third game in a row, Emery kept his faith in the flawed partnership formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi to protect the back four and it completely failed. The Arsenal defense was so open in the first half that the Hammers could have scored 3 or 4 goals.

A soft midfield

West Ham had numerous counterattacking opportunities and found plenty of space in midfield because Arsenal oscillated between a high defensive line and a medium one. The Chelsea game showed that the Gunners were vulnerable to balls over the top. Mustafi and Sokratis therefore played in a slightly deeper position against West Ham. The problem is that it left more space in midfield for the Hammers to run into while Xhaka and Guendouzi drowned because the team was not compact enough.

Emery will face that kind of dilemma for the rest of the season because he has the wrong personnel for his tactics: Sokratis is sluggish, Mustafi poorly reads the game, Monreal has lost a step, Bellerin’s positional play is dodgy, and Xhaka lacks mobility. Either the Gunners press high up the pitch and have to squeeze play by playing a high defensive line, which makes them vulnerable to balls over the top. Or they play a medium defensive line and therefore leave too much space in midfield, forcing Xhaka and Guendouzi to chase shadows.

Playing between the lines, Anderson did a lot of damage in midfield because neither Xhaka nor Guendouzi could catch him. Unchallenged by Xhaka and Bellerin, the Brazilian midfielder ran 50 yards in the 25th to set up Arnautovic, who opened the scoring with a strike into the bottom corner. Then Xhaka failed to close down Anderson, who fed Antonio for a tame effort in the 32nd. The Arsenal midfield looked soft again in the 37th when a West Ham fast break led to a 2v2 situation. Arnautovic beat Cech but the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside.

Anderson also made an interception in the 55th and ran 60 yards before picking out Arnautovic, who shot straight at Cech. Emery didn’t find the tactical answer because Anderson kept creating chances after Torreira had replaced Guendouzi in the 56th. Anderson cut inside Mkhitaryan and Torreira in the 68th to fire a low drive that Cech spilled. The Brazilian midfielder showed no sign of exhaustion as he ran again 50 yards in the 84th to find Perez, who overhit his cross.

4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1?  

Xhaka can’t flourish as a holding midfielder because he lacks the pace to stop counterattacks. That’s why he plays alongside Behrami in the Switzerland team. Xhaka led all players with 5 fouls and was lucky to escape a booking in the 44th for stamping on Snodgrass’ ankle. He tried to stop Anderson in the 51st but ended up giving away a free kick with a late challenge.

Guendouzi didn’t perform at the same level as against Chelsea, but his work-rate on Saturday was decent. He won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 6 ball recoveries in 56 minutes, according to the club’s website. In fact, those stats are better than those of Xhaka and Ramsey, who played the full 90 minutes. Ramsey won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 7 recoveries while Xhaka won 1 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception and 9 recoveries. The French teenager will still need to cut some basic mistakes out of his game. Guendouzi gave the ball away in the 20th and his risky pass in the 55th led to a scoring chance for West Ham.

In the role of a free-roaming midfielder, Ramsey tested Fabianski in the 37th and 83rd and was involved in Arsenal’s second goal by heading a loose ball toward Lacazette. He also created a chance for Aubameyang by rounding a defender in the 72nd. Ramsey has already played in that position with the Wales team but I still think that it negates some of his strengths, especially his late runs in the box. I’d prefer to see Ramsey play on the right side of a three-man midfield, but that would require a switch to a 4-3-3 formation. Emery has preferred to rely on a 4-2-3-1 system so far.

Lacazette’s hunger

Up front, Aubameyang had an off day with just 1 of 3 shots on target, but he worked hard for his teammates, leading all players with 4 key passes, according to whoscored.com. Somehow, Aubameyang survived a nasty tackle from Diop in the 41st. Diop was lucky to get only a yellow card because TV replays showed his studs on Aubameyang’s shin. You can bet that Diop would have been sent off if the Premier League had adopted VAR technology. Welbeck came off the bench to replace Aubameyang in the 75th. The England international sealed the win in stoppage time by controlling a cross from Bellerin to shoot past Fabianski from close range.

The poor performance from the wide players also helps explain why Aubameyang got very little service. Iwobi remained on the periphery of the game with 0 shot, 1 key pass and only 12 passes in the first half. He made one crucial tackle to stop a counterattack in the 17th, but one of his turnovers also led to the Hammers’ goal. Decision-making in the final third is still an issue for Iwobi, who decided to run into traffic in the 25th, taking on 3 players. A few seconds later, Arnautovic opened the scoring for the visitors.

Emery sent on Lacazette for Iwobi at halftime. The France international showed his hunger in the 53rd with a long-range strike straight at Fabianski. Four minutes later, Lacazette took a pass from Torreira and forced a fine save from the Polish goalkeeper with a low shot on the turn. The West Ham defense finally cracked in the 70th when Lacazette chested down a header from Ramsey and attempted a high pass toward Aubameyang. The ball bounced off Diop to beat Fabianski. In his 45-minute cameo, Lacazette had 2 of 2 shots on target as well as 2 key passes. Emery saw Lacazette play for Lyon and is therefore aware of the striker’s versatility. I hope the Spanish manager will also consider playing Lacazette as a false winger or as a second striker to optimize the potential of his squad.

A static Sokratis     

On the right wing, Mkhitaryan had a poor game like Iwobi. The Armenia midfielder led all players with 7 turnovers and made 0 key pass, according to whoscored.com. His only positive contribution was a snapshot from 16 yards that Fabianski parried in the 11th and the pass for Bellerin in the build-up to the equalizer in the 30th.

At the back, Mustafi produced a decent performance. He intercepted Arnautovic’s cross for Sanchez to kill a counterattack in the third minute. The truth is that Mustafi looks average when he plays alongside Koscielny. But when he teams up with Sokratis, the Germany international can almost look good.

Sokratis is the main reason why playing a high defensive line will always be a problem. His lack of pace is a too big liability in any foot race. Saturday’s game also exposed his lack of agility. Sokratis failed to intercept Snodgrass’ through ball for Arnautovic in the 12th. Then he missed his clearance in the 21st but Arnautovic couldn’t connect with Snodgrass’ cross. Sokratis also failed to block Arnautovic’s low drive on the opening goal in the 25th. I believe Koscielny would have made the block in his position. On the stroke of halftime, Sokratis failed again to intercept Antonio’s through ball for Snodgrass. Like Lichtsteiner for City’s second goal, Sokratis looked incredibly static when Arnautovic escaped his marking in the 55th to take a pass from Anderson and test Cech. To cap his mediocre performance, Sokratis earned a yellow card in the 90th for time-wasting.

3 weeks to find a fix

Bellerin’s performance on Saturday divided the fans. No one can deny his huge offensive contribution. Bellerin set up Mkhitaryan in the 11th before making the crosses for Arsenal’s first and third goals. But his defensive contribution is questionable. Bellerin can definitely improve his positional play. He played Arnautovic onside in the 12th, was flagged offside in the 23rd, and let Antonio ghost past him in the 32nd. Antonio also cut inside Bellerin to curl a shot wide in the 39th. If Emery wants Bellerin to play like a wingback, then he needs someone to cover him down the right flank. It can’t be Mkhitaryan because he plays in a too high position. So it has to be one of the midfielders.

On the left flank, Monreal played in a more conservative way than Bellerin but still managed to net the equalizer. The Hammers exposed Monreal’s declining pace twice on the stroke of halftime. First, Arnautovic made a run in behind Monreal to chase a ball over the top from Masuaku. Then, Snodgrass ghosted past Monreal to collect a through ball from Antonio only to shoot straight at Cech.

The Gunners have plenty of work to do on the training ground. They can’t afford to be so open against better sides than West Ham. Emery has three weeks to fix the defensive issues. Once the Europa League starts, Emery won’t have time anymore because Arsenal will play two games per week and the focus will then be on recovering.

 

Atletico Madrid vs. Arsenal: A few toughts on the 1-0 loss

Wenger’s last season at Arsenal will definitely leave a bitter taste. The Gunners got knocked out of the Europa League after losing 1-0 to Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their semifinal tie on Thursday. The Colchoneros gave Arsenal a lesson in defending by limiting the visitors to just one shot on target. Now the Gunners have nothing to play for: they have been eliminated from every cup competition and can no longer finish in the Top 4 of the Premier League.

Atletico vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The French manager fielded the same team that started in the first leg. There was no surprise for Simeone, who has turned the Wanda Metropolitano stadium into a fortress: the Colchoneros haven’t conceded any goal at home since January. Arsenal never really looked threatening. They lacked penetration to crack a disciplined and compact Atletico defense. Oblak only had one save to make as he turned Xhaka’s long-range strike around the post in the 63rd minute. Defensively, the Gunners struggled to cope with Costa’s physicality and Griezmann’s movement.

  1. Dealing with long balls

Simeone was obviously aware that defending long balls was an Arsenal weakness. That’s how Griezmann scored the equalizer in the first leg. On Thursday, the Colchoneros repeated the trick in the opening minutes. Koscielny relied on his reading of the game to intercept a long ball for Costa in the fourth minute. But two minutes later, Costa ridiculed the Arsenal defense by controlling Oblak’s clearance and bullying Koscielny and Monreal to be clean through on goal. Fortunately, Ospina spread himself to force an off-target effort from Costa.

On the stroke of halftime, the Arsenal defense was all over the place when Oblak hit another long ball. Chambers outjumped Griezmann only to head the ball into the path of Partey, who found Griezmann with a first-time pass. Costa made a run in behind Bellerin to collect Griezmann’s pass and fire past Ospina for the winning goal. Chambers’ header was poor but he also made the mistake of not staying tight to Griezmann afterwards. Bellerin’s positional play was also questionable. Costa had a 5-yard lead over Bellerin when Partey made the pass. By playing in a too advanced position, Bellerin left Mustafi with a too large area to patrol.

  1. The stain on Wenger’s resume

Wenger is the most successful manager in the history of the club but you wouldn’t put him in the same class as Guardiola, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Ferguson, Benitez, Heynckes or even Simeone because he has never won any European trophy. The French manager had his best chances against Galatasaray in the 2000 UEFA Cup final and against Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final. There’s no shame in losing to a Spanish side that won the Europa League twice and reached the Champions League final twice in the past few years. But the comparison between Atletico’s budget and Arsenal’s resources tells you that Simeone has overachieved while Wenger has underachieved.

  1. The missing ingredient

Why did Arsenal struggle so badly to create chances? One reason was the poor quality of the final ball. Lacazette and Welbeck were deprived of service as they finished the game with 0 shot taken. The Gunners only made 2 accurate crosses out of 20, according to whoscored.com. And they didn’t produce any through ball whereas the Colchoneros had 2 accurate through balls out of 3. Starting on the right wing in a 4-3-3 system, Ozil had a poor game with only 1 key pass.

Here are a few plays that could have made the difference with a better final ball: Monreal made a poor cross for an unmarked Lacazette in the 15th; Bellerin overhit his cross for Welbeck in the 19th; and Ozil missed his cross for Welbeck in the 61st.

In a three-man midfield, Ramsey worked hard, leading all players with 7 tackles won according to whoscored.com. Ramsey even created the two best half-chances, picking out Lacazette and Monreal inside the Atletico area in the 27th and 32nd, respectively. Unfortunately, Lacazette and Monreal were both let down by a poor first touch.

  1. Arsenal shouldn’t count on Koscielny next season

Koscielny collapsed to the ground in the seventh minute because of a torn Achilles tendon and was replaced by Chambers in the 12th. It would be foolish from the staff to bet on a fit Koscielny for next season. The France centerback still has two years left on his contract but it could look like the last seasons at the club of Arteta, Rosicky and Cazorla. Mertesacker’s retirement, Koscielny’s nagging injuries and Chambers’ limitations mean that the club should sign 2 centerbacks this summer.

  1. Chambers is not good enough for Arsenal

At 23, Chambers may still have room for improvement, but two flaws in his game can’t be fixed: his lack of recovery pace and his inability to quickly turn. Costa dribbled past Chambers in the 67th to feed Griezmann, whose shot was deflected high in the air. Then Griezmann skipped past a diving Chambers in the 76th only to be dispossessed inside the area by Xhaka. Chambers was guilty on Costa’s goal and he gave away another chance in the 88th with a risky pass for Welbeck that Saul Niguez blocked. The loose ball fell to Torres, whose shot was parried by Ospina.

Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid: A few thoughts on the 1-1 draw

The Gunners threw away the lead with a defensive blunder in the closing minutes to draw 1-1 with Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their semifinal tie in the Europa League. Arsenal will have a lot of regrets after Thursday’s game: the Colchoneros aren’t that often outplayed.

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

The Spanish side was vulnerable on crosses and spent the second half under siege. Simeone was apparently happy to trail by just one goal as he made defensive substitutions after Lacazette’s opening goal, replacing Gameiro with Gabi in the 65th and Correa with Savic in the 75th. The lack of attacking options on the Arsenal bench was a relief for the Atletico defense. Mkhitaryan is still recovering from a knee injury while Aubameyang is not eligible. Wenger made no substitution, thinking that Nketiah and Iwobi could not bring anything to the team.

What can we expect for the second leg in Madrid? Obviously, there’s no way the Gunners can be as dominant as they were at the Emirates stadium where they enjoyed 76% of ball possession and had 28 shots to just 6 for Atletico. Scoring a goal would be quite a feat: the Colchoneros have kept a lot of clean sheets at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium this season. On the bright side, the Gunners have a good record in the knockout phase with a 2-2 draw in Moscow, a 2-0 win in Milan and a 3-0 win in Ostersund.

  1. Vrsaljko’s ejection was justified

The Atletico rightback earned a booking in the second minute after killing a counterattack with a cynical foul on Wilshere. Then Vrsaljko received a second yellow card for a nasty stamp on Lacazette’s ankle in the 10th. That was just his second foul of the game, but each foul definitely deserved a yellow card.

Simeone was infuriated when Bellerin got no booking in the 13th for sticking a foot between a player’s legs to flick the ball. That was an awkward challenge from Bellerin but nothing as cynical or violent as Vrsaljko’s fouls. In a show of petulance, Simeone punched the air with his fists. The referee interpreted that behavior as dissent and sent Simeone off. In that kind of situation, maybe a verbal warning to the Argentine manager would have been enough.

  1. The Gunners proved incredibly wasteful

Arsenal should have scored more goals on Thursday. Oblak is a world-class goalkeeper but he only made 2 outstanding saves. He palmed away a close-range header from Lacazette in the seventh minute and tipped around the post another header from Ramsey in the 87th. The rest was just routine saves. Arsenal’s shooting accuracy was poor: of their 28 shots, 13 were off target, 7 got blocked and only 8 were on target, according to whoscored.com. The main culprits were Lacazette (2 of 8 shots on target), Ramsey (3 of 8), Xhaka (0 of 4) and Ozil (0 of 2).

Lacazette should have opened the scoring in the sixth minute when he met a cross from Welbeck for a bouncing volley that clipped the post. He also headed a cross over the bar in the 16th and glanced a corner wide in the 69th. Other chances included a low strike from Welbeck that Oblak saved with his foot in the 18th, a miskicked effort from Koscielny in the 21st, a volley from Monreal that sailed wide in the 31st and a header from Ramsey straight at Oblak in stoppage time.

  1. Lacazette is a different beast in European games

Knowing that the Europa League final will be played in Lyon, his hometown, Lacazette was highly motivated against Atletico. Lacazette opened the scoring in the 61st by outjumping Godin and Hernandez to head a cross from Wilshere into the far corner. He led all players with 5 aerial duels won and showed some great work-rate by winning 3 tackles and making 5 key passes. Thursday’s game confirmed that Lacazette is better tailored for European football because it is less physical than the Premier League and there isn’t such a strong emphasis on aerial duels. You would never see Lacazette win so many aerial duels in the Premier League.

  1. A defensive cock-up every week

The Colchoneros’ equalizer reminded the fans why Arsenal won’t finish in the Top 4 of the Premier League: the Gunners can’t defend. There’s a cock-up every week. Last week it was Mustafi, the week before it was Cech, and last night it was Koscielny. In the 82nd, Griezmann chased a long ball from the Atletico defense, got the better of Koscielny, was denied by Ospina but fired the rebound into the roof of the net.

At the start of the play, Welbeck made the mistake of isolating himself. The nearest teammate, Ramsey, was 30 yards behind Welbeck. Instead of taking on 2 defenders, Welbeck should have waited for more support and played a simple pass to Ramsey. When Welbeck lost possession, it was a comfortable 3v1 situation for the Arsenal defense. Because Monreal and Mustafi played Griezmann onside, that quickly turned into a 1v1 situation. Koscielny had an opportunity to kick the ball out of play but he gambled and tried to chip the ball over Griezmann. That was poor decision-making. The ball bounced off Griezmann’s head and into the path of the Atletico striker, sudddenly clean through on goal.

Down to 10 men for 80 minutes, the Colchoneros gave Arsenal a lesson in defending. The Gunners struggled to find space in a compact Atletico defense. In fact, they couldn’t even produce any through ball. The Spanish side’s only glaring weakness seemed to be in the air.

  1. Questions for the Arsenal midfield

The Arsenal midfield will need to work harder in the second leg. The Colchoneros exposed our midfielders a couple of times. Griezmann was able to test Ospina with a half-volley in the 33rd because no one patrolled the edge of the box. Then Partey easily dribbled past Ramsey, Xhaka and Wilshere in the 37th to feed Griezmann, whose snapshot was parried by Ospina.

Ramsey will have to cut his turnover rate for the second leg. He led all players with 7 turnovers, compared to 1 for Xhaka and 0 for Wilshere, according to whoscored.com. Another concern is the midfield’s poor interception skills. Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka combined to make 0 interception compared to 14 for Partey, Koke and Saul Niguez. The Gunners have been obviously missing Elneny’s mobility. They will have to find a solution for the second leg.