The Gunners threw their perfect home record out the window with some pub defending from the centerbacks, losing 3-1 to Manchester United on Saturday to slip to fifth place in the Premier League, 1 point behind Liverpool and 4 points behind Chelsea.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Paradoxically, Arsenal produced a good performance with 15 shots on target to just 4 for the visitors. The trouble is that the Gunners proved wasteful in the final third. Sure, De Gea was at his shot-stopping best with 14 saves, but only a couple of those saves were really outstanding. By contrast, the Red Devils were more efficient at both ends of the pitch, sound defensively and clinical offensively, pretty much like the Inter Milan side managed by Mourinho from 2008 to 2010.
United created very little: all their goals came from Arsenal turnovers. The Gunners made Mourinho’s job much easier by conceding 2 goals in the first 11 minutes. United then just had to sit back and hit Arsenal on the fast break. The Arsenal centerbacks and Xhaka usually lead the team in passes. But on Saturday, it was Ozil (107), Ramsey (77) and Sanchez (67) who made the most passes according to whoscored.com, which clearly shows that the Red Devils were happy to let Arsenal enjoy 75% of ball possession.
Wenger made no change to the side that thrashed Huddersfield Town 5-0 on Wednesday. I thought the Gunners’ approach in the opening minutes was wrong. United had one day more of recovery and therefore tried to put Arsenal on the back foot early in the game. Instead of absorbing the pressure, the Gunners tried to match United’s intensity. Unfortunately, United’s fresher legs made the difference in the opening minutes. If Arsenal had played their previous league game on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, maybe it would have been a good idea to go tit for tat.
When a simple pass is the best option
Besides the final scoreline, the losses to Manchester City and United have one thing in common: both teams created chances by forcing Arsenal turnovers. The Red Devils made 14 interceptions compared to 8 for the Gunners, according to Squawka. Koscielny put his team in danger with a risky crossfield pass for Kolasinac in the fourth minute. Valencia intercepted the pass and played a one-two with Pogba before firing through Cech’s legs to give United the lead.
As you can see on the screen capture below, Pogba, Lukaku and Valencia were positioned to cut two of Koscielny’s passing options (Sanchez and Kolasinac). The static Xhaka was standing in front of Koscielny, preventing the France centerback from spotting Ozil and Lacazette. In hindsight, Ramsey to his left was Koscielny’s best passing option. It was a simple pass and maybe an overambitious Koscielny thought it didn’t help Arsenal move forward. On that play, Monreal made the mistake of rushing toward Pogba instead of staying with Valencia.
Pogba, Lukaku and Valencia cutting Koscielny’s passing options. (Photo credit: BT)
The second goal also resulted from United’s work in cutting the passing channels. Lingard pressured Mustafi into making a mistake in the 11th. Looking for a solution, Mustafi dallied on the ball and was robbed by Lingard, who slipped the ball to Lukaku. The Belgium striker dribbled past Mustafi to find Martial, who played Lingard in with some clever footwork. Lingard doubled the lead by beating Cech with a low strike off the post. Cech was Mustafi’s best passing option on that play. As you can see on the screen capture below, Monreal was even showing Mustafi where to play the ball.
Martial, Lingard and Lukaku cutting Mustafi’s passing options. (Photo credit: BT)
The Gunners didn’t cover themselves in glory with the last goal either. The Red Devils capitalized on a Sanchez turnover to launch a counterattack from their own half in the 63rd. Lingard ran past Xhaka to release Pogba down our left flank. Instead of showing Pogba the corner, Koscielny dived in and missed his challenge, allowing Pogba to cut the ball back for Lingard, who tapped in for a 3-1 lead.
Fixing 2 key positions
This defeat shows that the Gunners have weak defensive foundations. A world-class centerback and a top defensive midfielder should be signed next summer. As long as the club doesn’t fix those 2 positions, Arsenal will never be able to contend. Mustafi’s leadership skills were seriously questioned with his blunder that led to the second goal. Losing possession as the last defender is a no-no at the top level. Meanwhile, Koscielny is losing a step at 32 and his nagging Achilles problem means that playing 3 games in a 7-day span could prove a too big challenge for him. Koscielny only won 23% of his duels compared to 58% for Monreal, according to the club’s website.
Lingard beat the offside trap in the 52nd to collect a through ball from Martial. After Cech diverted Lingard’s shot onto the far post, Martial pounced on the rebound only to have his close-range effort blocked by Monreal. With no pressure on Martial, Koscielny should have dropped off on that play instead of playing a high defensive line. In the closing minutes, Koscielny was booked for bringing down Lukaku. Bellerin’s nearby presence somehow prevented Koscielny from getting a red card.
On the flanks, Bellerin had a poor game. The Spaniard made no interception and no block and won 0 of 4 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Kolasinac did a bit better by making 1 interception and winning 1 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels. Both tested De Gea with long-range strikes in the 44th. The switch to a back four in the 15th because of Mustafi’s injury did not benefit Bellerin, whose game is better tailored for the wingback position. Bellerin received a yellow card for a poor challenge on Young in the 72nd. Two minutes later, Bellerin had an injury scare as Pogba stamped on the back of his knee. The Manchester midfielder was sent off for that dangerous play.
Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness
In midfield, Ramsey and Xhaka performed well against Huddersfield but the duo showed again their limits against top opposition (first Liverpool, then Manchester City and now United). Ramsey is obviously the attacking spear of the duo because of his deep runs. He won 1 of 4 tackles and made 3 key passes and 2 interceptions. The Wales midfielder set up Lacazette for the consolation goal in the 49th, raising his tally to 6 assists this season. Only De Bruyne and Silva have more assists in the league with 8 each. Ramsey could have scored in stoppage time but sent his half-volley over the bar.
Xhaka is supposed to be the shield in the midfield partnership. His stats look decent with a passing accuracy of 93%, 2 chances created, 5 of 7 tackles won, 1 of 2 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 2 blocks. No one can deny that Xhaka put in a shift. The issue is Xhaka’s lack of mobility and his poor defensive awareness.
When Xhaka is well positioned, he can make clean tackles like the one on Martial in the 40th. But when he’s a yard off, the challenge turns into a foul because of his lack of mobility. Xhaka made an obstruction on Rojo in the third minute, missed his tackle on Lingard in the 52nd and made another mistimed challenge on Lingard in the 62nd. Despite this flaw, Xhaka has shown enough self-discipline to avoid penalties and red cards this season.
A too big hole to climb out of
However, the real problem is Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness. Xhaka doesn’t smell the danger. On the opening goal, Xhaka was on the same line as Valencia when the interception was made. Yet, Xhaka didn’t rush back. In fact, he only entered the Arsenal area when Valencia pulled the trigger. The last goal showed how clueless Xhaka was. Sanchez gave away the ball with a backheel flick. Matic launched the counterattack by finding Lukaku in midfield. As you can see on the screen capture below, 7 Gunners were ahead of Xhaka when Matic made the pass. Xhaka should have realized that Koscielny and Monreal were badly exposed. He was also in a good position to spot Lingard’s run. As the holding midfielder, Xhaka should have dropped off to mark Lingard or even block his run.
Xhaka should have dropped off as Lingard made his run. (Photo credit: BT)
Xhaka only reacted once Lingard took Lukaku’s pass. Because Lukaku pulled Monreal out of position, Xhaka’s passivity basically meant that Lingard was in a 1v1 situation with Koscielny within a couple of seconds. See the screen capture below. Xhaka got some stick for not marking Lingard when Pogba cut the ball back, but I don’t blame Xhaka for not spotting Lingard’s movement behind his back. On the other hand, Xhaka could have killed the counterattack if he had smelt the danger in midfield.
Lingard running past Xhaka to be in a 1v1 situation with Koscielny. (Photo credit: BT)
We can give Arsenal some credit for reacting after a disastrous start. But the Gunners really digged a hole that was too big to climb out of. The manager shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation when Iwobi replaced Mustafi in the 15th with Ozil playing in the hole. Arsenal looked vulnerable on the Red Devils’ counterattacks because the back four didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. On a weird play in the 33rd, Ozil even ended up in the centerback position because Ramsey and Xhaka got stuck high up the pitch while Monreal was again pulled out of position.
Lacazette deprived of a hat trick by De Gea
Trailing by two goals, Wenger threw the kitchen sink at United by replacing Xhaka with Welbeck in the 70th with Iwobi joining Ramsey in midfield while Welbeck played on the right wing. Pogba’s ejection in the 74th led to another tactical change with a switch back to a 3-4-3 system. The manager sent on Giroud for Kolasinac in the 76th with Iwobi and Welbeck playing as wingbacks while Ozil and Ramsey pulled the strings in midfield. The team lacked balance especially since Giroud had no source of supply from the left wing.
Lacazette was arguably the best Gunner on Saturday with a good all-around game. He scored a goal, created 2 chances, had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, made 2 blocks and won 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. My only criticism is the 7 turnovers he had, tied with Sanchez for the most by an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Lacazette is usually tidy in possession but the density of the Manchester defense deprived him of any space.
Without De Gea’s outstanding saves, Lacazette could have notched a hat trick. The Manchester defense failed to clear a corner in the 20th and Xhaka headed the loose ball toward Lacazette, who could only flick the ball with the tip of his boot while wrestling with Rojo. De Gea was lucky to see the ball bounce off his leg as he had no idea of what was going on.
A deflected pass from Sanchez led to another goalmouth scramble in the 32nd. Lacazette took the loose ball and got the better of Rojo before rounding De Gea to fire a shot that the goalkeeper, crawling on the ground, diverted onto the bar. The France striker finally found the net in the 49th, blasting the ball past De Gea from 5 yards. Lacazette was then denied the equalizer in the 56th as De Gea dived to parry his 10-yard strike.
Iwobi finally connecting with Lacazette
Coming off the bench, Welbeck had more impact than Giroud. De Gea tipped Welbeck’s deflected shot over the bar in the 83rd. Two minutes later, Welbeck headed Ramsey’s cross over the bar. He was also involved in a small controversy in the 88th. Welbeck should have been awarded a penalty after Darmian tripped him inside the area. But Welbeck quickly got back on his feet and the referee refrained from blowing the whistle. I felt that the referee bottled it. After giving a red card to Pogba, he probably didn’t want to seem too harsh with United. In his post-match news conference, a cynical Mourinho suggested that it was a dive. Well, we all know what Mourinho would have said if it had happened to his team.
There was a lot of pressure on Iwobi when he replaced Mustafi in the 15th. Substitutes sometimes want to do too much when their team trails by two goals. But Iwobi kept things simple and showed more end product than usual with 3 shots on target and 3 key passes. He also made 2 blocks and won 1 of 1 tackle. The main positive from the game for Iwobi is the improvement of his relationship with Lacazette. In the 52nd, the Frenchman picked out Iwobi, who lifted the ball for himself to test De Gea with a 13-yard snapshot. Four minutes later, Iwobi set up Lacazette for a scoring chance. Iwobi definitely needs to work on his finishing, which is mediocre. While Lacazette naturally aims for the corners, too many of Iwobi’s goal attempts are either off target or near the middle of the net.
3 must-win games
Although Arsenal dominated ball possession, Ozil and Sanchez didn’t really shine. Sanchez led the team with 5 key passes, followed by Ozil with 4. The Chile striker produced an average performance by his own standards. He had no successful dribble and made no tackle, no interception and no block. It was very similar to his performance against Huddersfield, except that he didn’t score on Saturday. Sanchez still made the penultimate pass for Lacazette’s goal with a pinpoint cross for Ramsey. He also found Iwobi with another cross in the 55th but the Nigeria international could only hit a tame header.
I thought Sanchez should have done better when De Gea parried Lacazette’s shot in the 56th. Sanchez pounced on the rebound and had his effort saved by De Gea’s foot. After watching several TV replays, maybe a chip or a strike into the roof of the net would have been the better option. Or maybe De Gea would have still made the save. That was definitely the turning point of the game. Who knows how United would have reacted to an equalizer. Sanchez also tested De Gea with a shot from the edge of the box in the 65th.
Amid all the talk about his contract, Ozil did his bit but nothing more. Ozil managed to beat De Gea with a free kick in the 30th but Young cleared the ball off the line. Then Ozil fired a low volley straight at De Gea in the 36th. When your team is struggling, you want a player who can take the game by the scruff of the neck. Unfortunately, Ozil is not that kind of player.
I expect the manager to heavily rotate against BATE Borisov on Thursday. The Gunners have already secured a first-place finish in the group stage of the Europa League, so there’s no need to start any key player and risk a stupid injury. The priority is still the Premier League, where Arsenal will need to win their next 3 games against Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle to make up ground in the Top 4 race.