Tag Archives: Willock

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

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

Arsenal vs. Red Star

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

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

  1. The 3 Stooges kept a clean sheet

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

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

  1. What is Wilshere’s best position?

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Youngsters should be hungry but not greedy

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

  1. Maitland-Niles and Nelson are learning the ropes

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

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

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


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

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

Red Star vs. Arsenal

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

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

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

  1. The 3 Stooges

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

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

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

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

  1. Wilshere as an alternative to Ozil?

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

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

  1. Call Giroud for improbable goals

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

  1. Nelson is learning fast

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

  1. How to recognize an Arsenal team

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

  1. Who should take Xhaka’s starting spot?

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

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

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

  1. Walcott did his bit

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

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

BATE Borisov vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 4-2 win

Despite a tricky schedule, the Gunners defeated BATE Borisov 4-2 on Thursday to consolidate their lead atop Group H of the Europa League. They had the game under control in the first half but somehow relaxed their grip on the Belarusian club, which finished stronger in the second half with a total of 18 shots and 11 chances compared to 16 shots and 7 chances for Arsenal, according to Squawka.

Borisov vs. Arsenal 2017

Photo credit: Walcott’s Twitter account

Wenger obviously had Sunday’s early kickoff against Brighton in mind as he made 9 changes to the side that downed West Brom with only Mustafi and Elneny retaining their starting spots. The manager fielded a makeshift team with 4 youngsters (Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Willock and Holding), 6 benchwarmers (Ospina, Mertesacker, Elneny, Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud) and just 1 regular starter (Mustafi).

If things had turned ugly, Wenger had no Plan B because he left Cech, Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Bellerin, Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, Iwobi, Sanchez and Lacazette out of the squad, filling instead the bench with youngsters like Macey, Akpom, Dasilva, Dragomir, Gilmour, McGuane and Nketiah. And that audacious gamble paid off.

  1. Never give space to Walcott

Premier League clubs often sit deep when they face Arsenal because they know the damage Walcott can do with his pace. The Belarusian club did not want to adapt its game plan and paid a hefty price as Walcott exploited the space between Scherbitski and the backline to score two goals.

The first warning came in the eighth minute when Walcott played a one-two with Wilshere before striking the base of the post. A minute later, Walcott met a cross from Wilshere for a header that Scherbitski saved, but Walcott pounced on the rebound to tap home. Then Walcott intercepted a sloppy pass from the BATE goalkeeper in the 22nd to double the lead with a low strike. The English forward could have notched a hat trick in the 43rd but Scherbitski tipped his angled shot around the post. I thought Walcott was a bit too greedy in the 50th when he took his chance and missed the target instead of slipping the ball to an unmarked Wilshere.

Walcott definitely produced a good all-around performance. Usually, you just see the goal(s) and nothing else. Besides his 2 goals, Walcott also made 3 key passes and 10 crosses (including 5 corners), had 4 successful dribbles out of 4, won 1 of 2 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels, and made 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. It doesn’t mean that he will start against Brighton, for the simple reason that the Seagulls won’t play like BATE.

  1. The issue with wingbacks in a 3-5-2 system

Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 3-5-2 system against West Brom to give Ramsey more freedom. The manager relied on that 3-5-2 system again basically to accommodate Walcott, who looks more comfortable as a second striker than as an inside forward.

The main problem with the 3-5-2 formation is that the wingbacks can be left on their own defensively. It’s not a coincidence if BATE wingers Gordeychuk and Stasevich made 3 key passes each while fullbacks Rios and Volodko combined to create 3 chances.

In the 3-4-3 system, the inside forwards and the wingbacks respectively mark the fullbacks and the wingers in midfield. When the team sits deep, it is then the wingbacks and the centerbacks who respectively mark the fullbacks and the wingers. In Thursday’s 3-5-2 formation, the wingbacks had no inside forwards to help them out in midfield since Walcott played as a second striker while Wilshere was in the No. 10 role.

Maitland-Niles did better defensively than Nelson, leading all Arsenal players with 5 interceptions. However, Maitland-Niles needs to improve his positional play. He left Holding in a 1v2 situation for BATE’s first goal in the 28th and should have covered Holding when the hosts scored in the 67th.

Nelson had 3 successful dribbles out of 4 and a passing accuracy of 88%, but won 0 of 3 tackles and lacked end product with only 1 key pass. In my eyes, Nelson is still too soft defensively for the wingback position. That’s the main reason why BATE mostly attacked down our right flank.

  1. Wilshere is building up his fitness and confidence

The manager used Wilshere as a central midfielder against Cologne. On Thursday, Wenger moved Wilshere further up the pitch to relieve him of his defensive duties and let him focus on his playmaking role. Wilshere set up Walcott for Arsenal’s first two chances. He also slipped a through ball to Maitland-Niles in the 25th. Unfortunately, Maitland-Niles lacked spontaneity and took two touches instead of feeding Giroud with a first-time pass. Wilshere faded in the second half and moved back into a deeper position when Nketiah replaced Willock in the 89th.

  1. The midfield lost control

The Gunners led 3-0 after 25 minutes but somehow allowed BATE to get back in the game. Elneny was teaming up with Willock for the first time. The duo made no key pass, leaving all the creating burden on Wilshere’s shoulders. Defensively, they had their flaws. Elneny won 0 of 5 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, while Willock won 4 of 5 tackles, but was dispossessed 5 times, according to whoscored.com. Willock looks so much like a mini-Coquelin. I feel that he needs to simplify his game. There are times when Willock is overestimating his abilities and running into trouble instead of releasing the ball more quickly.

  1. The back three looked suspect

Mertesacker won just 1 of 4 aerial duels, Mustafi won 0 of 4 tackles and Holding made a couple of mistakes. Stasevich in the 20th and Gordeichuk in the 71st too easily dribbled past Mustafi. Holding scored from a corner in the 25th and hit the post from another corner in the 44th, but you don’t want him to become the new Vermaelen, i.e. a flawed defender occasionally finding the net.

Holding didn’t look out of his depth like in the Cologne game. He even won more tackles than Mustafi and more aerial duels than Mertesacker. But he needs to get rid of his naivety. Holding was penalized in the 40th for making a rash tackle after giving the ball away. And he was the main culprit on BATE’s second goal. Volodko beat Mertesacker in a foot race to make a cross in the 67th. Holding lost his footing, allowing Ivanic to head the ball. Ospina made the save but Gordeichuk followed up to slam the rebound home.

  1. Giroud scored his 100th goal for Arsenal

The France striker had not scored since the Leicester game on opening day. He ended that bad run of form by converting a penalty in the 49th after Dragun had pulled Mustafi’s shirt inside the area. Giroud didn’t get much service throughout the game. However, he proved a solid target man, winning 4 of 4 aerial duels.

  1. Ospina had a decent game

Some fans complained about Ospina’s performance. Well, there’s not much he could do about BATE’s goals. Ivanic’s header from 8 yards had too much power in the 28th while Ospina could only make a reflex save in the 67th to parry the Montenegro midfielder’s header from 6 yards. To his credit, Ospina palmed away a glancing header from Signevich in the 57th and stopped a low drive from Stasevich in the 75th.

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Australia and China

The Gunners enjoyed mixed fortunes in the recent summer tour aimed at building up their fitness and increasing their worldwide fan base. Last week, Arsenal faced two Australian teams that would probably sit at the bottom of the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners defeated Sydney FC 2-0 before downing Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1.

Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Pre-Season Friendly

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

The level was much higher this week with games in China against Bayern Munich and Chelsea. The German champions completely outplayed Arsenal but somehow lost 3-2 in a penalty shootout after drawing 1-1 in regulation time. Chelsea proved more clinical than the Bavarian side by thrashing Arsenal 3-0 on Saturday.

  1. Omissions aren’t always innocent

Paulista, Wilshere and Cazorla were not in the squad for the summer tour because of injury. Holding, Chambers, Bellerin, Campbell, Mustafi and Sanchez also missed the pre-season friendlies because they were given some time off to recover from international competitions.

On the other hand, the absence of Szczesny, Debuchy, Gibbs, Jenkinson and Perez had nothing to do with an injury or international competition. Those five players seem to no longer be part of the club’s future plans. In fact, Juventus signed Szczesny a few days ago while Gibbs and Jenkinson have been linked to several English clubs.

Among the youngsters, Akpom and Reine-Adelaide missed out on the tour because their performances stagnated last season. Akpom showed poor attitude during his loan spell at Brighton while Reine-Adelaide failed to impress with the U23 team. Therefore, Wenger preferred to give a chance to Willock, Nelson, Nketiah, Bramall and Malen instead of including Akpom and Reine-Adelaide in the squad.

  1. Cech, Ramsey and Ozil are already sharp

Without Cech’s saves, Arsenal could have lost 5-1 to Bayern again. At 35, Cech is no longer the goalkeeper who led Chelsea to a flurry of titles, but he’s still among the best in the Premier League.

Ramsey’s 2016-17 season was marred by injuries because the manager didn’t give him enough time to recover from the Euros. It was therefore important to gradually build up Ramsey’s fitness this summer. The Wales midfielder made a run in behind to score the second goal against the Wanderers. He also set up Iwobi for the equalizer against Bayern with a left-footed cross.

Although Ozil only has one year left on his contract, it looks like he will play the upcoming season with Arsenal. Ozil sometimes gets criticized for his poor work-rate but the quality of his delivery can make a difference in the tight games, especially when you compare with the relative lack of accuracy from Xhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain on set pieces. The Germany playmaker slipped a through ball to Walcott against the Wanderers and to Lacazette against Bayern. He also volleyed a cross from Welbeck straight at Starke.

  1. Mertesacker’s lack of pace is still an issue

Mertesacker’s performance in the FA Cup final gave the illusion that a back three could make up for his lack of pace. Unfortunately, the pre-season friendlies showed that some situations could put Mertesacker in trouble. Sydney FC created their first scoring chance by isolating Mertesacker with a speedy forward.

In the FA Cup final, Arsenal protected Mertesacker by seating deep. In Beijing, the Gunners were punished for playing a high defensive line. Mertesacker was pulled out of position by chasing Batshuayi in midfield and couldn’t recover as Willian cut inside Monreal to open the scoring. Two minutes later, Mertesacker didn’t want to dive in like on the first goal and gave plenty of space to Batshuayi, who doubled the lead with a curling shot.

  1. Lacazette and Giroud are different players

Lacazette scored the second goal against Sydney FC by converting a low cross from Iwobi. The British news media often portray Lacazette as the back-up for Giroud in the France striker role but that description is inaccurate. In fact, Lacazette is a second striker like Griezmann, not a pure centerforward like Giroud. When France manager Deschamps picks his lineup, he is therefore choosing between Griezmann and Lacazette, and not between Giroud and Lacazette.

Because the French league is more technical but also less physical than the Premier League, Lacazette was able to play as a lone striker for Lyon. However, at 5’9 Lacazette simply can’t play as a target man like Giroud or Welbeck. He couldn’t help Arsenal evade Chelsea’s high press like Welbeck did in the FA Cup final.

  1. The Gunners still miss the complete centerforward

Remember when Henry and Van Persie led the line? They had everything. They could outpace defenders, dribble past them, win headers, hold the ball up, link up play and of course score plenty of goals. Among the six strikers at Arsenal (Sanchez, Giroud, Perez, Lacazette, Welbeck, and Walcott), none of them possesses all those qualities.

There are rumors that Giroud could leave the club this summer although no Gunner has his skill set. Welbeck can win headers and hold the ball up but he’s less prolific than the Frenchman. Giroud scored against the Wanderers with his trademark first-time effort at the near post.

Walcott failed in his attempt to become a centerforward during the 2015-16 season. It’s hard to see where Walcott fits in the 3-4-3 system. He started as an inside forward against Sydney FC and clearly struggled to adjust to that new position as he was caught offside three times in the first half.

  1. The midfield is weak

Wenger paired Xhaka and Coquelin against Bayern and Xhaka and Ramsey against Chelsea. The way Bayern and Chelsea outplayed Arsenal shows that we need a destroyer in midfield. Xhaka is not a natural ballwinner. He fouled Batshuayi and Willian in the opening minutes of the Beijing match. Coquelin may be a better tackler than Xhaka, but his technical limitations really hurt the team: he made a couple of poor passes to Welbeck in the first half of the Shanghai match.

Friendlies are often an opportunity for experiments. A midfielder by trade, Elneny played all four games as a centerback. Does it mean that the manager no longer considers Elneny as a midfield option? Or was it just to make up for the lack of centerbacks on the tour? In any case, Elneny’s stint at centerback was not really convincing. He made a poor backpass to Martinez against Sydney FC and a sloppy pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain against the Wanderers. Then Lewandowski and Willian got the better of Elneny in China. It’s hard to imagine how Elneny could mark physical forwards.

  1. Iwobi must end his sophomore slump

After breaking into the first team during the 2015-16 season, Iwobi struggled with consistency and lost his starting spot when Wenger shifted to a 3-4-3 formation a few months ago. There were mostly two issues last season: Iwobi’s lack of end product and his poor work-rate. Iwobi did well on the first issue by making an assist against Sydney FC and scoring a goal against Bayern. However, his work-rate was questionable against Chelsea. He had a high turnover rate in the first half and became nearly invisible when moved to the wingback position in the second half.

  1. Nelson is the most promising youngster

Nelson showed good technique and movement against Sydney FC. His runs helped create space in the final third. The 17-year-old midfielder set up Walcott and Bramall with accurate crosses. Nelson also produced a decent cameo against Chelsea, dancing around defenders to find Malen, who hit the post. He’s still a bit soft physically, especially in duels. Nelson could either stay at the academy to continue his development or be loaned out to a Championship side to beef up his game.

Despite the obvious needs in midfield, Wenger preferred to use Maitland-Niles as a centerback and wingback during the summer tour. Initially, I had high hopes for Maitland-Niles after his performances with the first team at the end of 2016. But his lack of effort with the youth team in 2017 raised some doubts about his work ethic.

Maitland-Niles was too casual against Sydney FC, losing possession after dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box, as well as against Chelsea, making a sloppy pass to Mertesacker and a poor clearance into the path of Willian. He also showed his defensive naivety against Bayern by allowing Ribery and Bernat to easily dribble past him because of some poor body-positioning along the by-line. To a certain extent, Maitland-Niles reminds me of Song when he joined Arsenal in 2005.

The games against Bayern and Chelsea showed that some youngsters still have a long way to go before joining the first team. Bramall struggled to cope with the level of play against Chelsea, even panicking at times. He cleared the ball straight into touch in the 24th and was dispossessed by Moses in the second minute and Kante in the 42nd on the edge of the Arsenal box. Technically, Bramall also showed some limitations with poor crosses in the sixth minute and the 44th.

Bielik was overwhelmed by the level against Bayern too, giving the ball away in the 18th and allowing a counterattack by diving in on the stroke of halftime. In midfield, Willock often looked like a mini-Coquelin, mixing up snappy tackles with cynical fouls. The best Bielik and Willock can hope for is a loan deal to a Championship side.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-0 win over Reading

Oxlade-Chamberlain scored both goals in the 2-0 win over Reading on Tuesday to send Arsenal into the quarterfinals of the League Cup. The Premier League is definitely a much more important competition as the manager made nine changes to the side that drew with Middlesbrough last weekend.

  1. Ox deserves a starting spot

On current form, the Ox should be the one starting on the left wing against Sunderland on Saturday. He capitalized on a Reading turnover in the 33rd minute to open the scoring from a tight angle despite two defenders attempting to make a block. The Ox then pounced on a pass from Giroud to beat Al-Habsi in the 78th with a first-time effort that deflected off a defender. Besides his finishing, the Ox also created chances. He slipped a through ball to Perez, who wasted the chance with some questionable decision-making in the 22nd. The only negative was the two corners poorly taken by the Ox.


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

Iwobi performed better than the Ox last season but that’s no reason to turn Iwobi into an automatic starter in the Premier League. Despite a recent dip in form, Iwobi had a decent game against Reading. He released the Ox down the right flank in the eighth minute and the England international dragged a low shot wide of the far post. A minute later, Iwobi sent Reine-Adelaide clean through on goal, but a poor first touch from the French teenager enabled Al-Habsi to gather the ball. Iwobi also had a couple of cheap turnovers in the first half before testing the Reading goalkeeper with a long-range drive in the 77th.

  1. Giroud returns from injury

The France striker replaced Reine-Adelaide in the 65th and quickly showed what Arsenal missed against Middlesbrough with his physical presence inside the box. Giroud met a free kick from Elneny in the 70th for a powerful header that Al-Habsi parried. He then fed the Ox, who had his 15-yard effort saved by Al-Habsi in the 74th. Four minutes later, Giroud set up the Ox for the second goal. Giroud doesn’t have Sanchez’s pace, but he’s stronger in the air and can bring teammates into play while back to goal.

Giroud’s return is coming at the right time as Perez seemed to pick up a nasty injury. Gravenberch stamped on Perez’s ankle in the 69th, forcing the Spaniard to be replaced by Willow in the 71st. Perez had a relatively quiet game. He could have scored in the 22nd by rounding the goalkeeper or curling a shot but he preferred to set up Reine-Adelaide for a tap-in. The Royals killed the chance by intercepting Perez’s pass, which was slightly behind Reine-Adelaide anyway.

  1. Debuchy has no future at Arsenal

The League Cup could have been an opportunity for Debuchy to get some playing time but the manager decided to start Jenkinson on the right flank. You can’t blame Wenger for such a choice. On the one hand, you have an aging player who performed poorly last season and bad-mouthed the manager. On the other, you have a young player recovering from a knee injury and accepting to deputize for Bellerin. A mid-season loan would be the best option for Debuchy to revive his career.

Jenkinson’s technical limitations were quite obvious against Reading. The English fullback doesn’t have Bellerin’s dribbling skills but he still managed to test Al-Habsi in the sixth minute. Jenkinson failed to close down Obita in the 61st. Kermorgant connected with Obita’s cross for a header that Martinez saved.

  1. Paulista is still a dodgy defender

The Brazilian centerback made 4 of the 7 fouls committed by Arsenal. It’s still a mystery how he finished the game with no yellow card despite tripping Harriott in the 10th and fouling Samuel on the edge of the box in the 88th. Paulista looked so reckless that Holding could be a better second choice if Koscielny or Mustafi gets injured.

  1. What could have been for Gibbs

Gibbs wore the armband for that game because he was the most senior player on the pitch. At 27, he should be challenging Monreal for a starting spot. Gibbs has more pace than the Spaniard. He made a fantastic recovery tackle in the 24th after Maitland-Niles underhit a back pass. Unfortunately, Gibbs also showed why he’s not an England starter and why Monreal is still ahead in the pecking order despite average performances this season. As the last defender in the 52nd, Gibbs had a lapse of concentration and lost possession to McCleary. Bearing down on goal, McCleary had his pass for Samuel intercepted by Gibbs.

  1. The Gunners still lack creativity in midfield

Elneny teamed up with Maitland-Niles in midfield and struggled to engineer the build-up play. The Egypt international doesn’t have the passing skills of Cazorla or Xhaka, he’s mostly a utility midfielder. It’s only when the Ox drifted inside or when Iwobi dropped back that the Gunners were able to put Reading on the back foot. Elneny took a pass from Jenkinson in the 30th to fire an angled strike that Al-Habsi stopped.

  1. Martinez would be a better No. 3 than Szczesny

Could you imagine Szczesny accepting to be the No. 3 goalkeeper behind Cech and Ospina? Not really. That’s why it would make more sense to retain Martinez and sell Szczesny for the sake of team chemistry. Martinez produced a fine performance, saving Kermorgant’s header in the 61st and palming away the Reading susbtitute’s free kick in the 89th.

  1. No academy player is close to the regular starters’ level

The only academy players who started the game were Reine-Adelaide and Maitland-Niles. Reine-Adelaide showed flashes of brilliance, like the backheel flick that played Jenkinson in after five minutes, but he’s still a raw player. The French teenager was too slow in his decision-making and took too much time to release the ball. He needs to play more often with his head up and improve his reading of the game.

Maitland-Niles made some timely interceptions but he lacked accuracy in the final third, overhitting two final balls in the second half. Willock and Zelalem came off the bench in the last 20 minutes and didn’t show much. I guess Reine-Adelaide, Maitland-Niles, Willock and Zelalem will still need to hone their skills with the under-23 team.


A rough season ahead for Arsenal & Wenger

For the very first time, I am NOT looking forward to the start of the season as an Arsenal fan. I am simply getting tired of seeing the squad stagnate. The club has only signed three players so far. Xhaka is good enough to claim a starting spot whereas Asano and Holding are mostly prospects. What makes me angry is that the two Manchester clubs are pretty much done with their summer transfers while the Gunners still haven’t upgraded the two key positions that would turn them into potential contenders: centerback and centerforward.

Arsenal 2016-17 intro

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

We have until Aug. 31 to improve our squad but there are two significant issues. First, any club is reluctant to release its top striker in the last days of the transfer window because it’s very difficult to find a replacement who’s available. For instance, Lyon forward Lacazette has been linked with a move to Arsenal. If the French club accepts to let him go, it would lose the guarantee of 20 league goals per season and hurt its chances of securing a Champions League spot. And second, even if the Gunners manage to sign a defender and a striker, it will take weeks for the team to gel.

Koscielny, Ozil and Giroud are Arsenal’s best centerback, assists leader and top scorer respectively. They haven’t played any pre-season game and will likely miss the opening match against Liverpool on Sunday. They will also lack match fitness for the game against Leicester the following weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gunners get zero point from their first two Premier League matches. A poor start would put a lot of pressure on the club and the manager. Fans still remember those seasons when Arsenal fell out of contention by October.

What is really at stake this summer

Injuries to Mertesacker and Paulista in the pre-season mean that Chambers, Holding and Bielik are the only centerbacks available for the opening game. That sounds like bad luck but I really don’t feel sorry for Wenger. Heavy losses to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea during the 2013-14 season showed that Mertesacker’s lack of pace was a liability. The manager signed Paulista in January 2015 to inject more pace at the back. However, the Brazilian’s dodgy performances didn’t convince anybody that Arsenal had a reliable centerback partnership.

Will the manager hit the panic button? Last summer, Sanchez was rushed back into action after his Copa America heroics. The lack of rest finally caught up with the Chile international when he picked up a hamstring injury in the winter. Wenger could make the same mistake with Koscielny this season because of the injury crisis at centerback. I can imagine an unfit Koscielny pulling his hamstring while chasing Sturridge or Vardy.

Inactivity in the transfer market has an impact not just on the upcoming season but also on the future of the club. Sanchez and Ozil haven’t signed any contract extension yet because they feel that the club is lacking ambition. Their contracts both end in 2018. They could ask for a move next summer if they think that the squad is not strong enough to contend for the Premier League title. We would then end up with a situation similar to what happened in 2011 when Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy left the club before Van Persie and Song also jumped off the ship the following year.

A flawed business plan

A lot of Arsenal fans are upset because they realize that the club is just a small step away from becoming a legitimate contender. The priority for the board is consistency and a top-four finish every year. Playing in the Champions League is obviously an important factor to sign top players when you are not a big club like Manchester United.

But there’s a flaw in the board’s business plan. The Red Devils have become a major global brand that can generate huge commercial revenues and sponsorship deals because they were the most successful British team in the past two decades. The Gunners are a big club in England but they are not a major global brand like Manchester United because they haven’t won the Premier League title since 2004. And the reality nowadays is that you need investments in the squad to win the league.

Do Wenger and the board want to win the Premier League? Yes. But if we analyze the recent transfer windows, they seem to believe that the key to success is about signing a couple of big names and developing a lot of youngsters. That idea is an utopia! Sure, the Red Devils managed to build half of their team with academy players (Neville, Butt, Scholes, Giggs, Beckham and Hugues) in the 1990’s and Barcelona repeated that feat in the past decade with Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi and Pedro. But those teams are the exception that proves the rule.

The reality of the transfer market

On average, one academy player joins the Arsenal first team every two years. Of the current crop, only Bellerin is an automatic starter while Wilshere, Gibbs, Iwobi and Gnabry are substitutes when everybody is fit. If I were cynical, I’d say that Ozil and Sanchez will be in their 40’s by the time half of the starting lineup is made up of academy players.

The choice for Wenger and the board is therefore pretty simple. Either they financially compete head on with the two Manchesters. Or they try to find hidden gems with great scouting like Tottenham and Leicester.

I’m not really sure that the club has adjusted to the reality of the transfer market. Arsenal slightly paid over the odds when they signed Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach for about 35 million pounds. But then they tried to get Lacazette for 29 million pounds, which is exactly the player’s market value. A bid of 40 million pounds would have been more realistic, knowing that there’s a normal price tag for most European clubs and an inflated price tag for English clubs and powerhouses like Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Gunners are unlikely to get any deal done if they don’t take that factor into account.

Nobody expects Arsenal to spend more than 150 million pounds in the transfer market like Manchester United or City. But you can’t ignore the fact that both Manchester teams have significantly improved with new additions. Stones, Gundogan, Nolito and Sane should feature in Guardiola’s starting lineup while Moreno, Gabriel Jesus and Zinchenko could be interesting impact players. Likewise, Bailly, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic should be first choices for Mourinho. By contrast, only Xhaka among the new signings might be a starter for Arsenal.

Bielik & Holding are not ready

The Gunners have only spent about 40 million pounds this summer, which is less than Liverpool and Chelsea, who have splashed about 64 million pounds each despite missing out on a Champions League spot. Given Arsenal’s financial results, I would have assumed that Wenger got a transfer kitty of at least 80 million pounds like in 2014 when the club signed Sanchez, Chambers, Welbeck, Debuchy and Ospina. But recent comments by the manager about scouts looking in the lower leagues suggest that the board did not give Wenger much maneuvering room financially.

I’m not really optimistic for this season after watching the summer friendlies in America and Scandinavia. At the back, Bielik and Holding are not ready yet for the Premier League. Their decision-making was terrible against average sides and could prove a disaster against top English clubs.

Bielik tends to hold onto the ball for too long and can make poor passes when he’s under pressure. One of his turnovers led to Drogba’s goal in the game against the MLS All-Stars. Holding may have great potential but he’s still too naive in my eyes. He cheaply lost possession against Chivas, lost a key duel against Viking forward Pedersen, and tried to dribble twice in his own half against Manchester City. Aguero ghosted past Holding to tuck home the opening goal.

Some fans have suggested that Chambers is a reliable centerback. Well, they just need to watch again his performance in the 3-0 loss to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup last season to understand his limitations. Chambers made a reckless challenge against Chivas, and gave Manchester City a counterattacking opportunity with a sloppy pass.

On the same wavelength

Midfield is the one area we don’t have to worry about. Elneny has replaced Flamini as a utility midfielder, Xhaka has filled Arteta’s shoes as the pacesetter, and Iwobi has taken Rosicky’s spot as an attacking midfielder.

In their first game together, Xhaka and Cazorla showed a great understanding against Chivas as if they were on the same wavelength. If ever Ozil gets injured this season, Cazorla will probably be the main alternative as he shone in the playmaking role against Viking. Xhaka’s smart positional play enabled him to make a couple of interceptions against Manchester City. After winning the ball back, Xhaka also slipped a through ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose chip sailed wide.

Ramsey produced outstanding performances as a free-floating midfielder for Wales at the Euros. The manager obviously noticed that and played him in a similar position behind the striker against the Citizens. With his trademark deep runs, Ramsey ghosted past Fernando to head a Sanchez cross over the bar before leading a counterattack to fire a powerful strike that Caballero parried.

Zelalem and Reine-Adelaide have been touted as having a great future but the reality is that they are still miles away from the Premier League level. Wenger used Zelalem as a deep-lying playmaker in the summer friendlies. The American teenager struggled to have an impact. Physically, Zelalem must beef up a bit to win duels in midfield. Tactically, he needs to improve his defensive game, especially when the team loses possession.

Typical goal poacher

Reine-Adelaide started his Arsenal career as a winger. The manager tried him in the No. 10 role against the MLS All-Stars and Viking. Obviously, Reine-Adelaide needs to be more efficient in the final third. He also needs to simplify his game and release the ball more quickly. He often lost possession because he either took too many touches or showed too much of the ball.

Up front, Walcott showed against the MLS All-Stars that he’s not really thinking like a centerforward. He had opportunities to make runs to the near post but didn’t seize them. Walcott clearly feels uncomfortable when he’s playing back to goal, which explains his poor link-up play against the MLS All-Stars and his inability to hold the ball up against Viking. He also proved wasteful by missing some good chances against Chivas and Viking.

Wenger moved Walcott back to the right flank for the Manchester City game. The difference was obvious: Walcott is a more lethal weapon when he can make those smart runs from the right wing. He set up Iwobi for an equalizer and then played a one-two with Sanchez to chip Hart for a 2-1 lead.

I would be very surprised if Walcott starts as a lone striker for the opening match against Liverpool. Akpom or even Sanchez would be more suited for that position. Akpom might be given a chance since he scored four goals in the summer friendlies. He is the typical goal poacher, in the right place at the right time, and able to outmuscle his marker to score from close range. But shining in the pre-season is no guarantee of a brilliant campaign. Sanogo shone in the 2014 Emirates Cup but then failed to score in the Premier League.

Not a contender

There’s also the issue of work-rate. Akpom doesn’t contribute as much defensively as Giroud. When Akpom was on loan at Hull, Bruce dropped him to the bench because of his attitude. Sanchez would be a better choice up front for a high press although he doesn’t have Akpom’s aerial threat and physicality.

On the wings, the Ox displayed some great footwork to beat two defenders and the keeper for a solo goal against Chivas while Iwobi and Campbell scored three goals each in the summer friendlies. Willock also got some playing time, showing some good decision-making and a laudable work ethic.

I don’t think any of the youngsters will have an impact on the first team like Wilshere and Bellerin did after shining in the Emirates Cup. Some of them might play in the League Cup but they will most likely be loaned out to Championship sides to hone their skills.

Right now, the squad is not strong enough to contend for the Premier League title. We struggled at both ends of the pitch last season and haven’t solved those problems since we still haven’t signed any seasoned centerback or centerforward. On paper, the two Manchesters are the overwhelming favorites to win the title.

Finishing in the Top 4 will be even more difficult than in the past seasons. Liverpool and Chelsea have a big advantage over Arsenal because they are not involved in any European competition. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4 for the first time under Wenger’s tenure.