The Gunners are on course to finish the Premier League season with their worst tally in the Wenger era after losing 2-1 at Newcastle on Sunday. With 54 points from 33 games so far, they must win all their remaining games to avoid a tally as low as the 67 points of the 2005-06 season. The reason for such a mediocre season obviously lies in Arsenal’s poor away form. The Gunners are the only Premier League team without a point on the road this year.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger made 6 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with CSKA Moscow in the Europa League on Thursday with Chambers, Holding, Xhaka, Willock, Iwobi and Aubameyang replacing Bellerin, Koscielny, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Lacazette and Aubameyang started together for the first time, but the real surprise on the team sheet was Willock playing in the hole.
Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession but created very little with just 3 shots on target to 4 for the Magpies. There was an obvious lack of creativity and penetration as the Gunners played at a too slow tempo to trouble the Newcastle defense.
At the back, Mustafi, Chambers and Monreal produced another horror show after the dodgy performance against Southampton a week ago. Gayle made a run in behind Mustafi in the 29th minute to chase a long ball from Shelvey and find Yedlin on our left flank. The American international made a cross for Perez, who beat Mustafi to the ball at the near post to open the scoring. You would expect a World Cup winner to win those duels at the near post. Mustafi was already at fault for Southampton’s opening goal from a similar cross. Mustafi also showed poor decision-making on that play. He could have played Gayle offside but didn’t. Monreal didn’t cover himself in glory either. The Spaniard was pulled out of position on that play, forcing Xhaka to cover him on the left flank. The trouble is that Xhaka didn’t track Yedlin when Shelvey hit the long ball.
The Magpies’ second goal came from a throw-in. Mustafi outjumped Slimani to head the ball sideways in the 68th. Monreal pounced on the loose ball only to head it into the path of Slimani, who found Perez inside the area. The Newcastle striker flicked the ball toward Ritchie, who shot past Cech from close range. Monreal made an error on that play and was again pulled out of position but Chambers and Xhaka were guilty too for not tracking Perez, leaving Holding in a 1v2 situation.
Could Mustafi improve under a new manager? I’m not so sure. Keown, who works as a TV pundit nowadays, pointed out what was wrong with Mustafi’s defending. You can bet that Bould, who played alongside Keown in the 1990s, made the same criticisms on the training ground at Colney. Is Mustafi listening? Maybe. But it’s hard to see him marshal the Arsenal defense when Koscielny will be gone. Mustafi was dominant in the air, winning 10 of 11 aerial duels. However, you can’t really be a top centerback if you keep losing key duels. Slimani dribbled past Mustafi in the 77th to cut the ball back for Perez, who fired into the side-netting.
Chambers didn’t make glaring mistakes like Mustafi, but his performance was just as poor. He did OK in the first half but was exposed after the break: the Magpies’ chances in the second half all came from his flank. Chambers led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, compared to 0 for Mustafi, 1 for Monreal and 1 for Holding, according to whoscored.com. As evidence of his technical limitations, Chambers’ passing accuracy dipped to 71.4%, compared to 85.1% for Mustafi, 88.8% for Monreal and 89.6% for Holding.
Chambers was also tortured in one-on-one situations, winning only 2 of 8 tackles according to Squawka. Kenedy turned Chambers in the 16th while Perez easily dribbled past the English defender in the 33rd. Playing as a rightback, Chambers’ lack of recovery pace allowed Kenedy to play a one-two with Slimani in the 75th before having his shot deflected by Mustafi onto the bar. Wenger ended Chambers’ suffering by replacing him with Maitland-Niles in the 78th.
In the front three, Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang and Iwobi started on the wings. There are two mysteries here. Iwobi had a good game in the No. 10 role against Southampton. Yet, Wenger moved Iwobi to the right wing to play an academy player, Willock, in the hole. The second mystery is Wenger’s conviction that Aubameyang can shine as a winger. Yes, Aubameyang occasionally played as a winger for Saint-Etienne from 2011 to 2013, but he then became a prolific centerforward at Borussia Dortmund.
Arsenal’s opening goal in the 14th might give the impression that the manager made the right choice. Aubameyang controlled a long ball from Mustafi to make a cross for Lacazette, who volleyed home from close range. But that was the only meaningful play in which Lacazette and Aubameyang interacted.
Aubameyang was ineffective from the wing with 0 of 3 shots on target, while Lacazette’s weakness in the air was again exposed with just 1 of 4 aerial duels won, according to Squawka. Besides the goal, Lacazette was no threat in the final third, dragging a shot wide from the edge of the box in the fifth minute and wasting a scoring chance in the 42nd with a poor pass to Willock while he could have taken the shot himself. I still believe that the more natural partnership is to have Lacazette play off Aubameyang and not the other way around. Lacazette has a better all-around game than Aubameyang, who’s stronger in the air than the France international.
Starting on the right wing, Iwobi wasn’t able to repeat the performance he produced against the Saints with just 1 of 3 shots on target and 2 key passes. He also had 5 turnovers and showed poor work-rate again (0 tackle, 0 block, 1 interception). Inconsistency is normal for a 21-year-old player but the poor work-rate is a coaching problem. Ferguson wouldn’t have tolerated that while Wenger seems more lenient in that regard. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 86th, shifting from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a poorly balanced 4-2-4 system.
Willock’s Premier League debut
In midfield, Wenger overestimated Willock’s abilities by playing him behind Lacazette. Willock has made quite a few assists with the U23 team this season, but the gap with the Premier League level is massive. In his Premier League debut, Willock wasn’t really up to speed. He led all players with 3 fouls. In the opening minute, Willock turned over the ball after a poor first touch. He then dallied on the ball in the 35th and lost possession under Ritchie’s pressure.
Willock must certainly realize now that he has less time and space in the Premier League than in the U23 games. His work-rate at St. James’ Park was decent with 2 of 6 tackles won, 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. However, Willock will have to improve his tactical awareness. He failed to close down Shelvey in the 28th. The Newcastle midfielder hit a long ball for Gayle and it took a timely challenge from Mustafi to end the threat. A minute later, Willock was a split second late to close down Shelvey, who initiated the equalizer with another long ball for Gayle. Wenger yanked Willock off in the 68th to send on Welbeck. I tend to see Willock as a utility midfielder with the profile of a Coquelin or Flamini. He clearly doesn’t have the skills to play as a No. 10 or even as a box-to-box midfielder like Ramsey.
The Gunners have one week to recharge their batteries before facing West Ham on Sunday. At this stage of the season, the priority is the Europa League, which means that the two legs against Atletico Madrid on April 26 and May 3 will lead to rotation in Premier League games. I don’t think Wenger will rest key players against West Ham because the three days of rest before the first leg should be enough to recover. However, I’m pretty sure the manager will field a makeshift team against Manchester United to avoid injuries for the second leg.