Tag Archives: Wilshere

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 race over after 1-0 loss in North London derby

The Top 4 race is virtually over for Arsenal after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Tottenham. The Gunners trail their North London rivals by 7 points and Liverpool by 9 in the Premier League. Even if we assume a miraculous improvement in Arsenal’s poor away form, it’s hard to see how they could make up so much ground with just 11 league games left. To match their total from last season (75), they would need to win 10 of those games.

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

The scoreline doesn’t reflect how Tottenham outplayed the Gunners in the second half. With some decent finishing, Spurs could have won by a four-goal margin. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves but the hosts also wasted some big chances by simply missing the target. If we except interceptions, Tottenham had the edge in all the key categories: 6 shots on target to 1 for Arsenal, 13 chances to 4, 15 key passes to 4, 13 successful tackles to 12, 14 successful dribbles to 8, 34 crosses to 13, and 52.6% of duels won, according to the club’s website and Squawka.

From those stats, we can see that dribbling is a weakness in the current Arsenal squad. The staff will have to address that issue in the summer transfer window unless they think Nelson and Nketiah are ready to start in the Premier League. That weakness means that the Gunners rely heavily on their passing game to crack a defense. By denying space and pressing the ballholder, Spurs managed to limit Arsenal to just 4 key passes. Arsenal had a couple of promising situations in the first half but failed to turn them into clear-cut chances because of a poor final ball. At the end of the second half, the Gunners improved the quality of their final ball but were let down by their finishing.

Failing to stop crosses

Tottenham did most of the damage from crosses. Last season, the leftback position was identified by opponents as the weak link in the Arsenal defense. Pochettino took a more sophisticated approach by exploiting the poor defensive contribution from Ozil and Mkhitaryan as Trippier and Davies charged down the flanks to hoist the ball into the box. In the 25th minute, Mkhitaryan failed to close down Trippier. The Tottenham rightback made a cross for Eriksen, whose looping header didn’t trouble Cech.

On the opposite flank, Davies was given plenty of time and space by Ozil in the 49th and the Wales leftback made a cross for Kane, who outjumped Koscielny to head the ball into the bottom corner. The timing of Kane’s jump was perfect. The only thing Koscielny could have done better was to try and put Kane off by colliding into the Spurs striker while pretending to jump.

Making crosses was a simple ploy but it worked wonders for Spurs. In the 54th, Monreal was caught out of position and Mkhitaryan failed to track Trippier, who set up Kane for a volley that Cech parried. As you can see on the screen capture below, Wilshere covered Monreal on the left flank and somehow managed to slow down the counterattack, but Xhaka left Kane unmarked on the edge of the Arsenal box.

Tottenham M54ed Xhaka showing his lack of defensive awareness by leaving Kane unmarked. (Photo credit: BT)

Tottenham even had a Plan B if Ozil or Mkhitaryan made the effort to close down Davies or Trippier. In the 52nd, Trippier lured Mkhitaryan down our left flank, creating space for Dier, who whipped a cross into the box. Kane made a run between Koscielny and Mustafi only to head the cross wide. Wilshere sat too deep on that play, failing to press Dier, while Koscielny was not tight enough to Kane.

Questionable tactics

In the battle of playmakers, Eriksen got the better of Ozil with 4 key passes compared to just 2 for the Germany international. Eriksen created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense by playing between the lines and finding pockets of space to pull the strings. Dier in the 14th and Kane in the 27th met his crosses but missed the target. Then Bellerin failed to stop another cross from Eriksen in the 76th. Unmarked at the far post, Trippier connected with the ball for a volley that Cech saved.

Wenger made 2 changes to the side that smashed Everton 5-1 a week ago with Elneny and Wilshere replacing Iwobi and an injured Ramsey in the starting lineup. I would have played a back three like in the 2-0 win at the Emirates in November. To the manager’s credit, the team did OK in the first half in a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny, Xhaka and Wilshere in midfield.

Chasing an equalizer, Wenger made some substitutions that were questionable. He replaced Elneny and Mkhitaryan with Iwobi and Lacazette in the 65th, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ozil in the hole, Aubameyang on the left wing, Iwobi on the right and Lacazette up front. Aubameyang has never been known for his crossing ability or all-around game, so I don’t quite understand what Wenger had in mind. It would have been more rational to play Lacazette on the right wing, Iwobi on the left and keep Aubameyang in the centerforward role. Another tactical option would have been to use a 4-4-2 formation with Ozil and Iwobi as the wide players and Lacazette as a second striker playing behind Aubameyang.

The Chamakh syndrome

The manager switched back to a 4-3-3 formation in the 86th by sending on Welbeck for Xhaka. Iwobi teamed up with Ozil and Wilshere in midfield while Welbeck joined Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front three. The move nearly paid off as Spurs started tiring in the closing minutes and invited pressure by sitting deeper and deeper. Bellerin made a pinpoint cross for an unmarked Lacazette in stoppage time, but the France international sent his volley over the bar from 12 yards. Two minutes later, Iwobi slipped a through ball to Lacazette, who lacked composure and dragged his shot wide instead of attempting a chip.

Besides those 2 golden chances, Lacazette led all players with 3 offside calls in his 25-minute cameo. When he signed for Arsenal, there was some uncertainty about his level. Was Lacazette a world-class player like Henry and Van Persie or just a good striker like Lukaku? We don’t have the answer yet, but now the danger for Lacazette is the Chamakh syndrome.

Don’t get me wrong, Lacazette is a much better player than Chamakh. But if he doesn’t show more mental strength, his spell at Arsenal could end next year. Chamakh joined Arsenal in 2010 and scored 7 goals in his first 15 Premier League games. But then the Morocco international couldn’t find the net in the league for the rest of the season. The similarities with Lacazette’s new career in England are quite obvious. Lacazette scored 8 goals in his first 15 league games but has netted only once in the following 11 league games.

There have been many comparisons made between Aubameyang and Henry. I think those comparisons make no sense at all because Aubameyang and Henry are 2 completely different players. Yes, both Aubameyang and Henry have electric pace. But Henry was not a fox in the box like Aubameyang, and the former Borussia Dortmund player doesn’t have Henry’s dribbling and passing skills. Aubameyang is a pure centerforward who depends on good service. He won’t create a goal out of nothing like Henry.

An awkward left foot 

On Saturday, Aubameyang took 0 shot and made 2 crosses that went nowhere. Although Aubameyang is 5 inches taller than Lacazette, Spurs exposed his relative weakness in the air by winning 1 of 8 aerial duels against him, according to Squawka. Despite Tottenham’s high defensive line, the Gunners never managed to capitalize on Aubameyang’s speed. Wilshere played Aubameyang clean through on goal in the 12th but the Gabon striker was flagged offside. Then Xhaka overhit his through ball for Aubameyang in the 60th before Aubameyang was again caught offside in the 82nd while collecting a through ball from Ozil. It will take a bit of time to develop a good understanding between Aubameyang and his teammates. Aubameyang scored in his first Arsenal game but we should remember that Mkhitaryan, who made the assist, previously played with him in Germany.

Starting on the left wing, Mkhitaryan had a much weaker impact than against Everton. Let’s be honest, Mkhitaryan seems more comfortable on the right wing than on the left for the simple reason that his left foot is a mess. The Armenia international couldn’t find anybody with his cross in the 22nd and he wasted a golden chance with a poor final ball in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Mkhitaryan just had to make a basic pass to set up Aubameyang for what would have looked like a spot kick. Somehow, Mkhitaryan catapulted the ball straight into touch.

Tottenham M34edWhere Mkhitaryan should have played the ball. (Photo credit: BT)

Mkhitaryan’s technical struggles meant that Arsenal had to rely on Ozil or Wilshere for the final ball. Spurs limited Ozil’s impact to 2 key passes, 2 crosses and 3 successful dribbles. Ozil has always struggled in games where players have to fight for the ball. Saturday’s North London derby was not a game for him. In stoppage time, Ozil had the opportunity to salvage a point with a dead ball but his free kick crashed into the wall. That was quite a contrast with the quality of Eriksen’s free kick that Cech tipped over the bar in the 57th.

Inability to win duels

The Gunners never had the control of the match because Tottenham outplayed them in midfield. Elneny is more mobile than Xhaka but his defensive contribution is poor. The scouting department made a mistake in failing to spot Elneny’s inability to win duels. The Egypt international was not involved in any aerial duel and made 0 tackle, 0 interception and 2 blocks. Those are weak stats for a holding midfielder. By contrast, Dier made 3 interceptions and 0 block and won 2 of 4 tackles and 5 of 6 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Taking over Elneny’s spot in the 65th, Iwobi initially struggled to adjust to the intensity of the game. Iwobi was dispossessed twice before creating Arsenal’s best chance in stoppage time.

Among the 3 starting midfielders, Xhaka had the best defensive stats. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 1 block and won 2 of 3 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels. For a No. 8, that would be a decent defensive contribution. Unfortunately, Xhaka’s offensive stats are too weak. Xhaka created 0 chance and never proved a goal threat like Ramsey.

It was quite the opposite with Wilshere, who had decent offensive stats but weak defensive stats. Wilshere was not involved in any aerial duel, won 1 of 5 tackles, and made 0 interception and 0 block. He also led all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Dier and Dembele were much more tidy in possession with 0 and 1 turnover, respectively. To Wilshere’s credit, he tested Lloris with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 68th. Wilshere also fed Welbeck in the 87th but the rusty substitute had a heavy first touch which allowed Lloris to gather the ball.

Son in Bellerin’s pocket

The Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. As the goal showed, Koscielny struggled badly in the air against Kane, winning only 3 of 6 aerial duels. The France defender had an unusual lapse of concentration in the 71st, giving the ball away to Lamela, who sent a ball over the top for Alli. Clean through on goal, Alli flicked the ball wide. Koscielny won only 44.4% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi, according to the club’s website. Mustafi was again the most pro-active of the 2 centerbacks, leading all players with 5 interceptions but winning just 1 of 4 tackles. Koscielny and Mustafi didn’t cover themselves in glory in the 90th when Lamela beat the offside trap to chase a long free kick and fire wide.

On the flanks, Bellerin and Monreal were mostly focused on their defensive tasks. Monreal remained anonymous throughout the game (passing accuracy of 75%, 0 chance created, 2 crosses, 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 of 3 aerial duels won, 1 interception and 2 blocks) while Bellerin had Son in his pocket and contributed offensively (passing accuracy of 85%, 1 chance created, 4 crosses, 2 of 4 tackles won, 1 of 2 aerial duels won, 0 interception and 6 blocks). Bellerin took a pass from Ozil in the 40th only to miss the target from 20 yards.

Still no clean sheet

Cech’s quest for a 200th clean sheet in the Premier League has become a running gag. The Gunners haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last 9 league games. Cech made a couple of outstanding saves on Saturday but his error rate is a concern. The Czech goalkeeper had a pass blocked by Alli in the 71st and he nearly lost possession with a dribbling attempt in the 48th. According to the Premier League’s website, Cech tops all players for the number of errors leading to a goal this season (4). At 35, Cech is clearly past his prime but I guess the staff will let Cech run down his contract instead of signing a new goalkeeper this summer.

The Gunners next play Ostersund in the Europa League on Feb. 15 before hosting the Swedish side a week later. The staff has two options: 1. Either leave their key players out of the squad for the first leg in Sweden and play their best team in the second leg; 2. Or leave their key players out of the squad for the second leg to give them a break before the League Cup final on Feb. 25. In any case, I hope youngsters like Nelson, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock will get some playing time against Ostersund.

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League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-1 win over Chelsea

The Gunners are just one victory away from lifting a trophy this season after edging Chelsea 2-1 in the second leg of their League Cup semifinal on Wednesday. Wenger took that game seriously as he made only one change to the side that smashed Crystal Palace 4-1 last weekend with Ospina replacing Cech in goal.

League Cup Semi 02

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

Arsenal showed great team spirit to rally from a goal down. Starting in a 4-3-3 formation, the Gunners were quickly in trouble because of the pace and movement of Pedro, Willian and Hazard. The manager switched to a back three in the second half with Elneny playing in a deeper position.

After Xhaka made it 2-1 in the 60th minute, Chelsea never managed to threaten again, except on a set piece. The Blues had limited options on the bench because of injuries to Fabregas and Morata. They also lacked the tactical flexibility to shift to a back four in order to put more pressure on Arsenal.

  1. Iwobi is a different player

The Nigeria international showed some great work-rate with 5 tackles won, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, and 2 interceptions. Iwobi is now challenging for the ball instead of just tracking back without closing down anybody. That makes a huge difference both defensively and offensively. When you close down the ballholder, he is less likely to make a good pass. And if the ballholder loses possession, then it becomes a counterattacking opportunity.

Iwobi could have finished the game with a goal and an assist. He slipped a through ball to Wilshere, who took a heavy first touch and was denied by Caballero in the ninth minute. Then Ozil led a counterattack in the 76th and fed Iwobi, whose low strike was saved by Caballero. Iwobi still has this tendency to shoot toward the middle of the net instead of aiming at the corners. He’s only 21 but finishing is definitely one part of his game that needs improvement.

  1. Monreal can be quite a goal threat

The Spaniard showed his flair on corners against Crystal Palace. The Blues were aware of the threat but couldn’t prevent Monreal from connecting with an Ozil corner in the 12th for a header that ricocheted off Alonso and Rudiger to beat a wrongfooted Caballero. Monreal nearly repeated the trick in the 40th when he met an Ozil free kick for a tame header straight at Caballero. In the second half, Monreal focused on his defensive duties, receiving a yellow card for bringing down Hazard in the 66th and preventing Zappacosta from tapping home Alonso’s low cross in the 77th.

  1. Lacazette had a night to forget

The France international took 0 shot and led all players with 5 offside calls against him. He even put the Gunners in trouble with a poor crossfield pass for Iwobi in the 80th. But what I like with Lacazette is that he always works hard for the team whether it’s a good day or a bad day. Lacazette somehow created the winning goal with a pass for Iwobi that took a deflection off Rudiger to fall into the path of Xhaka, who beat Azpilicueta to the loose ball to flick it past Caballero from 6 yards. Conte must have been furious to concede a goal on such a play because it was a 7v3 situation inside the Chelsea area.

  1. Mustafi produced a shaky performance

A poor clearance from Mustafi in the fifth minute led to Chelsea’s first scoring chance but Pedro’s goal was disallowed for offside. Two minutes later, Mustafi made a mistake in his positional play. Kante picked out Pedro, who played Hazard in and the Belgium star beat Ospina to open the scoring. As you can see on the screen capture below, Wilshere and Elneny failed to close down Kante, who had plenty of time to find Pedro. Before Pedro got the ball, Mustafi failed to mark Hazard and was too far from Koscielny. Hazard just had to make a run in the gap between Mustafi and Koscielny to take Pedro’s pass and be clean through on goal.

League Cup Semi M07ed Elneny and Wilshere fail to close down Kante while Mustafi is not marking Hazard. (Photo credit: Sky)

It could have been worse for Mustafi in the second half. Mustafi seemed to clip Hazard’s leg in the 53rd as the Chelsea striker was bearing down on goal but no foul was given. Then Mustafi was beaten to the ball by Rudiger, who headed a corner over the bar in the 82nd with Ospina in no man’s land. In the closing minutes, Mustafi gave away a dangerous free kick with a silly foul on Barkley, who had his back to goal.

  1. Wilshere is no Maradona

The England international led all players with 6 successful dribbles, but he lost possession at least three times while dallying on the ball instead of releasing it. Wilshere received a yellow card in the 31st for a late challenge on Barkley after turning the ball over. He was also dispossessed by Rudiger in the 46th and Bakayoko in the 81st. You are venturing into Maradona territory when you take 6 or 7 consecutive touches. In modern football, most players don’t have the time to take more than 3 or 4 touches because they get quickly surrounded. Wilshere doesn’t have the pace and dribbling skills of a Messi to take so many touches. Hopefully, he will play more soberly in the future.

  1. Mkhitaryan was not in the squad

The swap deal between Sanchez and Mkhitaryan was completed on Monday. However, Mkhitaryan can no longer participate in the League Cup this season for the simple reason that he has played a few minutes for Manchester United in this competition and is therefore cup-tied.

Arsenal limited the damage in the Sanchez saga by finding a replacement for the Chile striker. Mkhitaryan won’t score as many goals as Sanchez but he will add more creativity and hopefully help provide better service for Lacazette. Signing Lemar and selling Sanchez last summer would have been a better scenario because the uncertainty surrounding Sanchez’s contractual situation destabilized the dressing room and because Lemar is only 22 while Mkhitaryan is already 29.

If we look at the bigger picture, the summer and winter transfers don’t reflect well on Arsenal’s ambitions. The Gunners are one of the few Premier League clubs to have made a profit in the transfer market (some £45 million according to transfermarkt.co.uk). Clubs usually take a loss in the transfer market because they still have the money from the commercial deals, broadcasting rights and match day sales to recover financially.

Within a few months, Arsenal signed Lacazette, Kolasinac, Mavropanos and Mkhitaryan and sold Szczesny, Gibbs, Paulista, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Coquelin and Sanchez. In my eyes, the squad is definitely weaker. The Gunners got a top striker with Lacazette but lost a match-winner with Sanchez. In midfield, they added Mkhitaryan but lost the younger and more versatile Oxlade-Chamberlain. At the back, they decided to rely on the shaky Chambers and Holding to compensate for the departure of the more experienced Paulista.

On the bright side, the club cleared some dead wood by selling Szczesny, Gibbs, Walcott and Coquelin. Szczesny and Gibbs had their path blocked by Ospina and Monreal, respectively, while Walcott and Coquelin were too limited technically. The trouble is that the transfer money hasn’t been properly re-invested in the squad yet. Mavropanos is just a prospect while Kolasinac has been a disappointment defensively.

 

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Monreal fires Gunners to 1st win of the year

Monreal’s attacking verve and Ozil’s creativity made the difference in Saturday’s 4-1 rout of Crystal Palace as Arsenal snapped a five-game winless streak in all competitions to remain sixth in the Premier League. The Gunners quickly put the result beyond doubt by taking a 3-0 lead after 13 minutes, finishing the match with 10 shots on target to 5 for the Eagles and 13 chances to 5, according to Squawka.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace

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

Wenger fielded a stronger side than the one that lost 2-1 at Bournemouth a week ago with Ozil, Koscielny, Monreal and Elneny replacing Welbeck, Chambers, Maitland-Niles and Holding in the starting lineup. The manager also switched to a 4-3-3 formation with Elneny playing as a holding midfielder behind Xhaka and Wilshere. The Gunners outnumbered Palace in midfield with that tactical setup as Ozil often dropped back to be the fourth midfielder.

   Playing Elneny in that position is OK against the weak teams. Elneny’s mobility compensates for Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness to a certain extent. However, Elneny’s inability to win duels would become an issue against the strong teams. Signing a ballwinner in the summer could allow Arsenal to use an inverted pyramid midfield that would protect the back four while making up for the defensive flaws of Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere. When Zidane succeeded Benitez at Real Madrid, he made a key change in midfield by playing Casemiro behind Kroos and Modric. As long as the Gunners don’t have a solid No. 6, they will still be vulnerable on counterattacks.

End of Lacazette’s goal drought

In his return from injury, Monreal scored a goal and made two assists. Monreal lost his marker at the far post to head in Xhaka’s corner in the sixth minute. The Spaniard then set up Iwobi for a 2-0 lead in the 10th. He got the better of McArthur again in the 13th to meet Xhaka’s corner and cut the ball back to Koscielny, who bundled it over the line. The visitors’ defending was terrible, but Monreal definitely made his runs inside the Palace box count. Monreal led all players with 3 key passes despite staying on the pitch for just 33 minutes. He picked up a knock and was replaced by Maitland-Niles, who suffered from lapses of concentration again.

Maitland-Niles made a sloppy pass to Elneny in the 43rd and the ball fell to Zaha, whose shot was deflected out for a corner. The academy player also lost possession with a poor touch in the 76th. You may recover from poor focus in U23 games but not in the Premier League where every mistake can get punished. Maitland-Niles impressed against Chelsea but didn’t show the same focus against Bournemouth and Palace. His reluctance to cross with his weaker left foot also deprived Arsenal of a source of supply on the left flank.

Up front, Lacazette ended his goal drought by giving the Gunners a 4-0 lead with a low strike in the 22nd. He had not scored since the beginning of December. Lacazette could have also found the net in the 79th when Wilshere played him clean through on goal, but Hennessey denied him. In stoppage time, Lacazette should have been awarded a penalty for an awkward challenge from Tomkins. As usual, the France international worked hard for the team, making 2 key passes and 1 block and winning 2 of 3 tackles, according to Squawka.

Nelson’s Premier League debut

It was no coincidence if Ozil was the one who helped put an end to Lacazette’s goal drought. Lacazette is a striker who depends on decent service. He couldn’t get any from Welbeck, Iwobi and Sanchez in the past few games. Ozil played the role of architect for Arsenal’s fourth goal by playing a one-two with Wilshere before feeding Lacazette with a backheel flick. In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 2 key passes and 2 successful dribbles out of 2. His contractual situation hasn’t been as much publicized as Sanchez’s but the Gunners will have to sign a creative midfielder if Ozil leaves this summer, otherwise the creative burden will rest on the shoulders of Wilshere and Mkhitaryan -assuming the swap deal for Sanchez does materialize.

   Wenger yanked Ozil off in the 72nd to send on Nelson, who made his Premier League debut at just 18. He showed some really great work-rate in his short cameo by winning 2 of 4 tackles. The game also made obvious that Nelson must beef up his game. In his only dribbling attempt, Nelson was too easily brushed off the ball.

The more I watch Iwobi, and the more I am convinced he is a second striker and not an attacking midfielder like Rosicky or Pires. Iwobi had 4 of 4 shots on target but made just 1 key pass. Only Lacazette took more shots than Iwobi. If Iwobi wants to become a striker, he will need to work harder on his finishing. His 4 goal attempts were all in the middle of the net. See the screen capture below.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace Iwobi edited

Iwobi’s 4 goal attempts against Palace. (Photo credit: Squawka)

Iwobi will also have to improve his reading of the game. Sanchez can often be selfish but you can bet the Chile striker would have fed Lacazette in the 56th when Iwobi chased a long ball from Ozil and preferred to take his chance from a tight angle instead of squaring the ball back to Lacazette for a tap-in. As a consequence of Iwobi’s lust for goals, the Nigeria international sometimes drifted inside and ended up in the centerforward position, forcing Lacazette to move to the left wing. On the bright side, Iwobi improved his work-rate by making 4 tackles, 1 interception and 2 blocks. That’s the kind of attitude Iwobi needs to show more often on the pitch.

Wilshere’s high turnover rate

In midfield, Elneny acted as a facilitator by leading Arsenal starters with 97 passes and a passing acuracy of 95.9%, according to whoscored.com. Elneny was a holding midfielder by default: he won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 3 aerial duels, but his mobility helped him make 1 block and 1 interception. We are still very far from the stats of a Kante, Matic or Fernandinho. The manager played Elneny behind Wilshere and Xhaka because those two midfielders are more creative than Elneny. Wilshere and Xhaka had 2 and 1 key passes respectively compared to none for Elneny.

   Wilshere played as a holding midfielder for England under Hodgson but I just think he’s not good enough defensively for that position. He won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 block and 0 interception. Another issue is Wilshere’s high turnover rate, which was obvious in the Europa League games. Although Wilshere is now fitter than a couple of months ago, he still had 5 turnovers against Palace, according to whoscored.com. Only Bellerin had more turnovers (6) among Arsenal players. Losing possession in suck a key position might be OK against the weak sides but it’s simply too dangerous against top teams that thrive on counterattacks.

Xhaka lacks mobility so it made sense to play him alongside Elneny since Wilshere has lost a bit of speed after recovering from a string of injuries. The Switzerland international set up the first and third goals with accurate corner kicks. However, his delivery took a hit in the second half with a poor corner in the 76th and a free kick that beat every Gunner in stoppage time.

Koscielny’s reading of the game

At the back, Koscielny proved the best defender and defused dangerous situations with his outstanding reading of the game. He killed a counterattack with a timely challenge on Zaha in the 19th, blocked McArthur’s effort in the 36th, robbed Zaha in the 38th and intercepted Milivojevic’s through ball for Van Aanholt in the 87th. The France centerback scored the third goal and led all Arsenal players with 3 interceptions and 3 blocks. Mustafi will have big shoes to fill when Koscielny retires. The Germany international had a couple of dodgy moments, heading the ball past Cech for a corner in the 55th and allowing Benteke to be clean through on goal by missing an interception in the 60th.

From open play, the Eagles mostly threatened with crosses, especially with Van Aanholt who took advantage of Ozil’s poor marking. Mustafi headed out the Dutch leftback’s cross in the third minute while Zaha failed to make contact with the ball in the 52nd. In the end, Palace scored from a set piece. Benteke outjumped Iwobi and Mustafi in the 78th to redirect a corner toward Milivojevic, who chested the ball down to shoot past Cech. There had been already a warning in the 49th when Kelly pounced on a second ball from a corner to muster a tame effort straight at Cech.

The Gunners will be the underdogs for the second leg of the League Cup semifinal against Chelsea on Wednesday. Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac and Ozil made their return from injury against Palace while Sanchez, Ramsey, Giroud and Welbeck were not even in the squad. Wenger will definitely field a stronger team than the one that started the first leg but it might not be a full-strength team. Even if Mkhitaryan joins the Gunners before Wednesday, he’s unlikely to have the same impact as Sanchez right away.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Gunners pay price for poor transfer policy

   The Arsenal board must act quickly to clean up the mess created by the uncertainty about Sanchez’s situation at the club. Sanchez was not even on the bench Sunday when the Gunners lost 2-1 to Bournemouth in the Premier League. That tells you the club did not want to take any risk of injury before a possible transfer. Ironically, Bordeaux had no scruples about starting Malcom in the French league on Saturday even though the Brazilian forward has been tipped as the replacement for Sanchez. Guess what? Bordeaux won at Troyes.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

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

Last August, the Gunners performed poorly in losses to Stoke and Liverpool. The contractual situations of Sanchez, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly created doubt in the dressing room. The Ox is gone but Sanchez and Ozil are still at the club and the Arsenal squad could get destabilized again by all the transfer rumors. Sanchez could have joined Manchester City a few months ago for £60 million but Arsenal wasted too much time to meet Monaco’s asking price for Lemar, offering £31 million in June, then £40 million in July and finally £92 million at the end of August. By the time Monaco accepted the Gunners’ bid, Lemar had already started his season with the French side and was no longer willing to move, forcing Arsenal to call off the Sanchez deal.

   Will the Arsenal board learn from its mistakes and quickly sell Sanchez while signing his replacement? Or will it be another debacle with Sanchez leaving on a free transfer and his replacement coming only in the summer? If the Gunners want to know how to do some proper business, they just need to look at Liverpool. The Reds sold Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million and signed Van Dijk from Southampton for £75 million. The impact on the dressing room has been quite positive since Liverpool edged Manchester City 4-3 on Sunday.

A mid-table team

The Gunners face a massive rebuilding task this summer. Sunday’s game at the Vitality stadium gave them a foretaste of what the team could look like next season if they don’t improve the squad. Wenger fielded pretty much a mid-table team with 6 high-profile players (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Sanchez and Ozil) missing in the starting lineup. The club has already lost a year in the rebuilding process by refusing to sell Sanchez and Ozil last summer. And I don’t think the Arsenal board understands the financial implications of a massive overhaul.

Before the start of the season, I said Arsenal should have sold Chambers, loaned out Holding and signed an experienced centerback. The club chose the worst solution by selling Paulista while keeping Chambers and Holding as back-up options for the aging Mertesacker, Monreal and Koscielny. We saw the result of that poor transfer policy against Bournemouth as Chambers and Holding were involved in the two goals conceded.

The Cherries equalized in the 70th minute when Wilson converted a cross from Fraser. That’s the kind of goal that doesn’t make sense. Wilson was double-teamed by Chambers and Bellerin while Fraser and Mousset were surrounded by 4 Gunners along the touchline. Arsenal had numerical superiority on that play but lost two key duels. First, Maitland-Niles allowed Fraser to ghost past him. And second, Chambers failed to intercept the cross because of his lack of pace. To make things worse, Mustafi was pulled out of position by Mousset and couldn’t act as a safety. Cech was credited with an error by whoscored.com, but I don’t think that the Czech goalkeeper made a mistake for the simple reason that Wilson beat Chambers to the ball and had a free shot from 11 yards.

A flawed back three

Bournemouth scored the winner in the 74th, just a few seconds after Arsenal switched from a back three to a back four. As you can see on the screen capture below, the backline was not ready: Holding played Wilson onside by staying 4 yards behind Mustafi. With his back to goal, Wilson controlled a ball over the top from Cook and set up Ibe, who rifled a half-volley past Cech.

Bournemouth M72a editedHolding is 4 yards behind Mustafi while Xhaka keeps an eye on Ibe. (Photo credit: Sky)

Holding should have stood on the same line as Mustafi and Maitland-Niles. Xhaka also made a mistake on that play by not tracking Ibe, who beat everybody to the second ball. It’s not the first time this season that Xhaka’s poor defensive awareness has cost his team a goal.

Bournemouth M72b edited Xhaka forgets to track Ibe, who scores the winning goal. (Photo credit: Sky)

   While a back three of Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi can perform at a good level, Sunday’s back three of Mustafi, Holding and Chambers is deeply flawed. As the sweeper, Mustafi should be cautious but he’s sometimes too easily pulled out of position. That rashness can be deadly with 2 youngsters at the back. Holding is a pro-active defender like Mustafi but tends to dive in too often, winning only 2 of 7 tackles according to Squawka. By contrast, Chambers is way too passive: he made no tackle at all.

On the left wing, Maitland-Niles had a poor game. He had some lapses of concentration that are not acceptable at the top level. As the last defender on a corner in the 13th, Maitland-Niles gave the ball away to Ibe, who initiated a counterattack. He then fouled Smith in the 39th after losing possession with a poor touch on the edge of the Arsenal box. A few seconds later, Maitland-Niles had a pass intercepted by Smith, whose tame effort didn’t trouble Cech. Besides the cross for Bournemouth’s equalizer in the 70th, Maitland-Niles also failed to stop dangerous crosses from Ibe in the 40th and Francis in the 65th. At 20, Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress, but he will have to quickly get rid of his naivety. The academy player was dribbled past 3 times.

Lacazette deprived of service

On the opposite wing, Bellerin was arguably Arsenal’s best player. The Spaniard scored a goal, won 5 of 6 tackles and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 1 interception and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. He opened the scoring in the 52nd by firing a low strike that Begovic could only divert into his own net. After an average start to the season, Bellerin is getting close to the level of performance that led to his inclusion in the 2015-16 PFA Team of the Year, striking the right balance between attack and defense.

In midfield, Xhaka and Wilshere struggled defensively. Xhaka was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, while Wilshere led all players with 7 turnovers. They received yellow cards and combined to win only 1 of 11 tackles. Ramsey made his return from injury by replacing Chambers in the 74th. The Wales midfielder didn’t look sharp, making some inaccurate passes. It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks whether the manager switches to a back four to have Xhaka, Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield, or if he sticks to a back three and therefore benches one of the three midfielders.

In the front three, Lacazette was deprived of service. Sanchez and Ozil are two world-class players who can see and execute plays. The less talented Welbeck and Iwobi couldn’t make up for their absence. Lacazette was so frustrated that he dropped back to create chances for his teammates. He took 0 shot but attempted 4 through balls, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles met a cross from Lacazette in the eighth minute and created space to fire a shot that clipped the bar. Then Lacazette slipped a through ball to Welbeck, who was denied by Begovic in the 35th. In the second half, Lacazette sent a ball over the top for Iwobi, who was dispossessed by Cook, and slightly overhit a through ball for Welbeck.

No Top 4 finish?

I’m worried about Lacazette’s confidence. He hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game. The France international worked hard on Sunday, winning 1 of 2 tackles, and making 2 interceptions and 2 blocks, but he struggled again in the centerforward role with 7 turnovers and only 1 of 10 aerial duels won. Welbeck and Iwobi didn’t do much to feed him. They combined to make only one cross. Iwobi wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 12th by ignoring Lacazette twice on the same play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi ended up running into traffic before playing a backpass to Wilshere and the chance was gone.

Bournemouth M12b edited Lacazette shows Iwobi where to play the ball. (Photo credit: Sky) 

Bournemouth M12c edited A second later, Lacazette points again where the ball should be played. (Photo credit: Sky)

Iwobi made the assist for Bellerin’s goal but his creative contribution was limited. In fact, that was Iwobi’s only key pass of the game. Somehow, it put more pressure on Wilshere and Xhaka to create plays even though they were busy defensively (Xhaka and Wilshere combined to make 6 key passes). Iwobi tested Begovic with a 20-yard drive in the 10th but missed his cross for Welbeck in the 28th in a situation that was similar to Bournemouth’s equalizer. The Nigeria international was lucky not to get penalized in the 39th for a silly handball inside the Arsenal area.

Arsenal’s record on the road has been poor this season with just 3 away wins while Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs have won 6 away games at least. We shouldn’t look elsewhere if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4.

The Gunners trail fourth-place Chelsea by 8 points in the standings with 15 games left. Mathematically, Arsenal can still finish in the Top 4. But that would imply a winning run from Arsenal and an implosion from Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea. If we’re honest, winning the Europa League is the club’s most realistic chance to qualify for the Champions League next season.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 0-0 draw at Chelsea

Arsenal and Chelsea staked everything on the second leg of their League Cup semifinal as they both seemed happy with a goalless draw in Wednesday’s first leg. The Gunners were depleted by injuries with Ozil joining Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Cazorla and Giroud on the disabled list. By contrast, the Blues fielded a much stronger lineup but played at a too slow tempo to trouble the Arsenal defense. Maybe Chelsea had an eye on Saturday’s Premier League game against Leicester.

League Cup Semi 01

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

Like in the 2-2 draw a week ago, the Blues were the better team with 6 shots on target to 3 and 18 successful tackles to 13, according to whoscored.com, but proved wasteful again, especially on set pieces. We’ll have to wait until Jan. 24 to know which team will play the final at Wembley.

  1. Arsenal played like a Mourinho team

The Gunners played like a side that was only interested in getting a clean sheet, which is understandable after the shocking defending in the two previous games. The Arsenal defense was prepared for long balls and did not allow dangerous runs in behind like in the 2-2 draw. Welbeck and Iwobi also tried to limit Fabregas’ influence with some zonal marking although the Spaniard still finished the game with 6 key passes, the most for any player.

  1. Defending set pieces still an issue

Most of Chelsea’s chances came from set pieces. On the stroke of halftime, Azpilicueta sent a ball over the top for Fabregas, whose tame header didn’t trouble Ospina. Then Kante capitalized on a short corner in the 47th minute to make a cross that Alonso redirected toward an unmarked Christensen, who headed wide. Alonso also made a run toward the near post to meet a corner from Fabregas in the 54th but missed his header. A recycled free kick in the 66th led to another opportunity for Moses, whose low strike was diverted out by Mustafi. A minute later, Christensen headed a corner wide although Ospina was in no man’s land. Defending set pieces has been a recurrent problem in the past few years. The Gunners will need better focus for the second leg.

  1. The Sanchez saga

The presence of Sanchez on the Arsenal bench was a hot topic after the match. Why would you bench your best player for such a big game? The League Cup is the best chance for the club to lift a trophy this season. Sanchez didn’t play against Nottingham Forest and would have been fresh enough for the Bournemouth game on Sunday. The Chile striker replaced Lacazette in the 66th but couldn’t test Courtois.

Anything can happen until Jan. 31. Manchester City made a £20 million bid while Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich may also be interested. Fans can only hope that the transfer rumors won’t destabilize the club like they did in August. Even if the Gunners find a replacement for Sanchez this month, it won’t make up for the disastrous summer transfer window. And even if Wenger wants to let Sanchez run down his contract, Kroenke and the board will still have the last word.

  1. Iwobi should be loaned out

How do you know Welbeck used to be a Ferguson player? By his great work-rate. And how do you know Iwobi is a Wenger player? By his poor work-rate. Welbeck won 4 tackles, the most for an Arsenal player according to whoscored.com, while Iwobi won no tackle. Iwobi was dispossessed 6 times, the most for any player, while Welbeck lost possession only twice. Iwobi had a 17-yard effort palmed away by Courtois in the 39th but he also wasted a counterattack in the 72nd by opting for personal glory with a tame shot instead of feeding Sanchez, Welbeck or Bellerin.

There’s simply too much comfort for Iwobi at Arsenal. He needs a loan at another club to understand what playing football at the top level really means. Iwobi clearly has an attitude issue. He’s the most fined player at Arsenal because he’s often late. And British tabloids found out a couple of days ago that Iwobi attended a drug-fuelled party some 36 hours before the Forest game. Iwobi is only 21 but you kind of wonder whether he’ll become the next Bendtner.

  1. The Gunners badly missed Ramsey in midfield

Wilshere created Arsenal’s best chance in the 22nd with a ball over the top for Lacazette, whose half-volley sailed over the bar. However, Wilshere’s weak defensive contribution put the team in trouble. Xhaka tried to compensate and led all players with 4 fouls. The Switzerland international got booked in the 51st after Wilshere turned over the ball. Wilshere picked up an ankle sprain in the 54th and was replaced by Elneny, who also received a yellow card in the 86th for a cynical foul on Morata. Wilshere simply doesn’t have Ramsey’s mobility whereas Elneny doesn’t have Ramsey’s ability to win duels.

  1. Maitland-Niles is still learning the ropes

The academy player got Moses in his pocket a week ago, but the Chelsea wingback had different plans this time. Moses cut inside Maitland-Niles in the 24th to fire a low strike that Ospina saved with difficulty. Four minutes later, Moses took advantage of a slip from Maitland-Niles to test Ospina with another low effort. Somehow, Maitland-Niles grew into the game and made two crucial contributions, holding off Hazard, who ghosted past Mustafi in the 43rd, and intercepting Hazard’s pass for Moses in the 69th. Maitland-Niles is younger than Iwobi, but the Nigeria international would have a lot to learn from the academy player in terms of attitude and work-rate.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Gunners salvage 2-2 draw despite erratic defending

In Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea, the Gunners got a foretaste of what their defense could look like next season. Injuries to Monreal and Koscielny led Wenger to start Mustafi, Chambers and Holding in the back three. And the result on the pitch wasn’t pretty. The Blues could have won by a big margin if Cech had not pulled off a couple of outstanding saves and if Morata had not missed some big chances.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 1-1 at the Hawthorns on Sunday with Holding, Maitland-Niles and Ozil replacing Koscielny, Kolasinac and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Both teams used 3-5-2 formations which favored a lot of end-to-end plays. The Blues were the better team, creating 14 chances to just 6 for the Gunners, according to Squawka.

Defensively, Arsenal’s back three was all over the place. Mustafi is not an organizer like Mertesacker and he doesn’t absorb pressure like Koscielny. In the role of the sweeper, Mustafi failed to chaperone Chambers and Holding. There have been some cases of pub defending this season because of poor focus or poor decision-making, but the level of panic and disorganization reached on Wednesday was a first.

Chambers was again the weak link at the back, winning only 23% of his duels according to the club’s website. He’s a decent player for an average club but not good enough to start for Arsenal or any team chasing a Champions League spot. Chambers got off to a bad start with a poor challenge on Alonso in the second minute. He was then dispossessed in dangerous areas in the 13th and 79th and gave the ball away in the 28th.

His lack of pace was also exposed a couple of times. Morata made a run in behind Chambers in the 14th to be clean through on goal but missed the target from 12 yards. Then Hazard outpaced Chambers in the 50th to fire a diagonal strike that Cech saved with his leg. Chambers was again tortured by Morata in the 70th. Chasing a through ball from Fabregas, Morata bullied and held off Chambers but his chip attempt sailed wide.

Chambers’ passivity

I don’t think Chambers understands the difference between a back four and a back three. While Koscielny and Monreal are pro-active wide centerbacks, Chambers is too passive for such a position. Chambers made 0 interception and 0 block whereas Holding and Mustafi made 5 interceptions and 2 blocks each, according to Squawka.

It was quite telling that Mustafi and Chambers had a heated argument in the 14th after Chambers stopped chasing Morata, hoping that Mustafi would cover him. Mustafi was so frustrated by Chambers’ passivity that he tried to compensate and too often dived in. That’s why Mustafi was out of position when Chelsea had chances in the 50th and 70th.

The Blues exploited the mess in the Arsenal defense by sending long balls. Morata received a long ball from Cahill in the 76th to feed Hazard, who played the ball back to Morata. Holding was out of position on that play while Mustafi was outpaced by Morata, whose cross was intercepted by Cech. Chelsea nearly scored the winner in stoppage time. Morata made a run in behind Mustafi to bear down on goal but was denied by Cech. Zappacosta pounced on the rebound only to rattle the bar.

When Koscielny retires, I’m not sure Mustafi will be the right person to marshal the defense. Mustafi gave away some cheap free kicks with silly fouls on Morata in the eighth minute and Hazard in the 57th. He also lost two key duels inside the area. Morata got ahead of Mustafi in the 15th but couldn’t convert Moses’ cross. Then Alonso ghosted past Mustafi in the 84th to tap in Zappacosta’s cross for a 2-1 lead.

Lack of protection from the midfield

Of the 3 centerbacks, only Holding did OK. He won 71% of his duels, compared to 50% for Mustafi. At 22, Holding will need to learn faster because he’s still too raw. He was lucky not to get a yellow card in the 48th for a cynical foul on Morata. Five minutes later, Holding finally got booked for a late challenge on Fabregas. Holding will have to get rid of his naivety. He was pulled out of position by Hazard in the 27th when Bakayoko tested Cech with a high shot. His reading of the game is also a concern. Bakayoko made runs in behind Holding in the 34th and 69th while chasing long balls from Fabregas.

The Gunners are paying the price for their failure to sign good centerbacks in the past few years. Paulista never really convinced and was therefore sold to Valencia last summer. Holding is a work in progress while Chambers will never be a top centerback because of his lack of pace and poor ability to win duels. Mustafi is still a big question mark and hasn’t performed yet at the level of a Koscielny in his prime.

Arsenal’s defensive frailties are made more obvious by the lack of protection provided by the midfield. Fabregas had so much freedom on Wednesday that he racked up 6 key passes before Drinkwater replaced him in the 71st. Fabregas often dropped back to escape marking and deliver pinpoint long balls. In that kind of situation, a midfielder or a forward must mark him. But neither the manager nor the players could find the solution.

Fabregas’ performance showed how much the Gunners missed Ramsey in midfield. Xhaka and Wilshere simply can’t match Ramsey’s mobility and work-rate. Wilshere opened the scoring in the 63rd with a powerful strike into the top corner, but his defensive contribution was poor: he won 0 tackle, made 0 interception and 0 block. In fact, Chelsea completely outplayed Arsenal in midfield. Kante, Bakayoko and Fabregas combined to win 7 of 16 tackles and make 10 interceptions and 7 blocks, according to Squawka. By contrast, Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil combined to win 2 of 9 tackles and make 2 interceptions and 3 blocks.

A soft penalty

In his return from injury, Ozil had a decent game with 3 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. Ozil fired a long-range strike that Courtois turned around the post in the 39th. He also added more fluency in the team’s passing game and was able to find pockets of space in a compact Chelsea defense. But the comparison with Fabregas showed again Ozil’s main weakness in those tight games. The Germany playmaker won’t fight for the ball like Fabregas. He will also struggle offensively when under pressure. Kante dispossessed Ozil on the stroke of halftime to launch a counterattack.

On the wings, Bellerin and Maitland-Niles were among Arsenal’s best performers with Cech, although they will probably be remembered for their involvement in Chelsea’s goals. Bellerin showed poor decision-making in the 66th when Hazard’s cross was blocked. The Spaniard thought he could beat Hazard to the loose ball but ended up kicking his boot. It was a soft foul and Hazard definitely exaggerated contact. But the golden rule is that when you make a challenge inside the box, you have to win the ball. And Bellerin didn’t. Hazard sent Cech the wrong way to level the game. Wenger called the penalty a “farcical” decision. I can understand the manager’s frustration. Bellerin has been denied two penalties that they were more obvious this season. The Spaniard made amends in stoppage time by pouncing on a poor clearance from the Chelsea defense to volley into the far corner.

Besides that late goal, Bellerin had 2 successful dribbles out of 3, made 1 interception, and won 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels, according to Squawka. At 20, Maitland-Niles looked very mature against Chelsea. He led Arsenal players with 4 blocks and 3 successful dribbles out of 4. Maitland-Niles also created a chance, won 75% of his duels and 3 of 6 tackles, according to the club’s website.

Poor final ball

Some fans keep complaining about Maitland-Niles being played out of position, but the problem is that he looks more solid at left wingback than Kolasinac. When Bakayoko controlled a long ball from Fabregas in the 69th, Maitland-Niles covered Holding and dispossessed the Chelsea midfielder just before he could pull the trigger. Does anybody seriously think that Kolasinac would have covered Holding on that play? Maitland-Niles’ only blemish in the first half came in the 15th when he failed to stop a cross from Moses. Morata got ahead of Mustafi but couldn’t make contact with the ball, allowing Cech to gather it. Conte acknowledged Moses’ ineffectiveness and replaced him with Zappacosta in the 56th. With a sharp turn in the 84th, Zappacosta created a bit of space for a cross that Alonso converted for a 2-1 lead. What could Maitland-Niles have done better on that play? Maybe guess that Zappacosta’s initial move to cut inside was just a bluff.

Chelsea played 3 games in a 9-day span while Arsenal played 3 games in a 7-day span, so I wasn’t surprised that the Blues created more chances. A relative lack of freshness could help explain the poor quality of the Gunners’ final ball: Sanchez overhit his cross for Ozil in the 10th, Maitland-Niles missed his cross in the 13th, and Wilshere overhit his pass for Ozil in the 27th.

Up front, Lacazette struggled with his hold-up play, leading all players with 9 turnovers, while Morata had just 5 turnovers according to whoscored.com. However, Lacazette worked hard, making 1 interception and winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. Despite skipping a winter break for the first time in his career, Lacazette still managed to have 3 of 3 shots on target. The France international took a pass from Ozil in the 23rd and rolled away from Cahill to hit a low strike that Courtois palmed away. Lacazette then benefited from a lucky bounce in the 52nd but couldn’t get the ball out of his feet quickly enough and was denied by the Chelsea goalkeeper. His last chance came in the 64th. Sanchez found Lacazette, whose angled shot deflected off Azpilicueta before being tipped around the post by Courtois. No big miss like Morata but a golden chance that should have found the net in the 52nd.

Bleak Top 4 chances

How do you recognize great players? Even when they have an off day, they can still be able of one moment of magic. Sanchez wasn’t sharp on Wednesday, having 1 of 4 shots on target and winning only 22% of his duels and 0 of 3 tackles. But he nearly opened the scoring in the 16th with a snapshot that Courtois diverted onto his near post. The ball ricocheted off the far post before gently rolling back toward Courtois. In the second half, Sanchez could only head wide a cross from Maitland-Niles.

I have mixed feelings after this game. It’s a decent result if we consider the number of injuries (Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Giroud) and the unfavorable schedule. But a quick look at the standings shows that Arsenal’s Top 4 chances are weak. The Gunners trail Chelsea by 7 points and Liverpool by 5. It basically means that Arsenal must put together a winning run while hoping for a slip from Chelsea or Liverpool. I expect the manager to rest his key players when the Gunners face Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup on Sunday. Then he might field a makeshift team for the League Cup game against Chelsea on Wednesday.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: Sanchez nets twice in 3-2 win

Sanchez might leave the club next month but he made a significant contribution on Thursday by scoring two goals in the 3-2 win over Crystal Palace as the Gunners stayed in the Top 4 race, 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League.

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that drew 3-3 with Liverpool a week ago with Kolasinac, Mustafi and Chambers replacing Maitland-Niles, Monreal and Iwobi in the starting lineup. The manager also made a tactical change with a switch from the 4-3-3 formation to a 3-4-3 system. Palace played with 10 men behind the ball in the first half and the game looked similar to recent encounters with Newcastle, West Ham and Southampton. The Eagles then showed more aggression and ambition in the second half and came close to earning a draw.

Zaha was the main source of trouble for the Arsenal defense. He started as a second striker and caused more damage when Hodgson moved him to the left wing by sending on Sako for the ineffective Loftus-Cheek in the 70th minute. Wenger also put his team in trouble by replacing Lacazette with Coquelin in the 75th. The move basically invited pressure since the Gunners no longer had an outlet up front. Welbeck would have been a better option because he’s stronger in the air than Lacazette and works his socks off to press high up the pitch.

Sanchez gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead in the 63rd by pouncing on a pass from Lacazette to fire an angled strike into the bottom corner. Speroni was well positioned at the near post, but the shot simply had too much power for the Palace goalkeeper. Three minutes later, Sanchez beat the offside trap to control a ball over the top from Wilshere with his thigh before flicking the ball past Speroni for a 3-1 lead.

Lacazette’s goal drought

The Chile striker produced a good all-around performance. He led all players with 5 successful dribbles and created several plays despite making only 2 key passes. Sanchez slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was saved by Speroni in the 30th. He fed Ozil again in the 39th but the Germany playmaker preferred to pick out Lacazette on the right wing instead of taking his chance. Bellerin then met a cross from Sanchez in the 47th, but a heavy first touch allowed Speroni to gather the ball. Sanchez’s hyperactivity also generated 12 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, but the return was worth the risk in the end.

Lacazette didn’t score but he was involved in 2 goals. The France international capitalized on a recycled free kick in the 25th to fire an angled strike that Speroni palmed into the path of Mustafi, who converted the rebound with a first-time effort to open the scoring. Then Lacazette took advantage of a recycled corner in the 63rd to tee up Sanchez for Arsenal’s second goal. Decent service is still an issue for Lacazette, especially against teams parking the bus. He managed to create space against 3 defenders in the 35th only to drag his shot wide. Ramsey is the Gunner who understands really well Lacazette’s game. The absence of the Wales midfielder is indirectly impacting the productivity of Lacazette, who hasn’t found the net since the Manchester United game.

Starting on the right wing, Ozil had 4 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player. In the 3-4-3 formation, Ozil doesn’t shine as much as in the 4-3-3 system for the simple reason that the team sometimes needs him to finish off plays as a second striker. Ozil was denied by Speroni in the 30th and shot over the bar in the 70th after an average final ball from Kolasinac. To his credit, Ozil showed decent work-rate by making 2 tackles and even closing down Zaha on the edge of the Arsenal area in the 45th.

Bambi on ice

In midfield, Wilshere showed his technical quality with a spectacular assist for Sanchez, who acknowledged the gift by pointing at the England international after scoring. Wilshere led all starters with a passing accuracy of 93.8%, according to whoscored.com. As he is maturing, Wilshere looks like the natural replacement for Cazorla in the deep-lying playmaker role. Ozil’s probable departure means that it is crucial for the club to extend Wilshere’s contract: Wilshere is one of the few creative midfielders in the squad with Ozil and Cazorla. As a bonus, he’s also a homegrown player.

The partnership formed by Xhaka and Wilshere is OK against average sides but it doesn’t provide much protection to the defense against the top teams. Neither Xhaka nor Wilshere is a natural ballwinner. Xhaka’s lack of mobility is obviously an issue. With a sharp turn, Milivojevic made Xhaka look like Bambi on ice in the 82nd. Xhaka was also late in the 15th to block Cabaye’s low drive, which sailed wide.

Arsenal and Palace had 16 shots each. What made the difference was the Gunners’ shooting accuracy with 9 shots on target to just 2 for the Eagles. In the wingback position, Bellerin’s performance was a mixed bag. Bellerin led all players by winning 5 tackles but his passing accuracy also dipped to 74.5%, the lowest percentage for any outfield players, according to whoscored.com. The Spaniard proved a threat in the final third but was let down by his final ball. He sent a cross straight to Speroni in the 18th and had a pass blocked inside the area in the 33rd. On a more positive note, Bellerin tested Speroni with a half-volley in the 81st.

Kolasinac & Chambers having a poor game

Zaha’s shift to the left wing in the second half exposed the poor coordination between Bellerin and Chambers. Zaha outmuscled Bellerin to head Sako’s cross wide in the 83rd. The Palace winger then ghosted past Bellerin in the 85th to pull the ball back for Benteke but Mustafi cleared the danger. A poor clearance from Bellerin in the 88th gave the Eagles another scoring chance. Schlupp squared the ball back to Sako, whose effort got blocked by Koscielny.

On the opposite wing, Kolasinac had a poor game. He won only 22.2% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international gave away a dangerous free kick by holding Townsend in the 41st. And he failed to stop a dangerous cross from Sako in the 83rd.

The Gunners signed Kolasinac because Monreal and Gibbs dealt poorly with crosses. If Kolasinac can’t do better, then it makes complete sense to give Maitland-Niles a chance at leftback. Kolasinac’s poor defensive awareness is indeed becoming a growing concern. He failed to identify the danger when Palace equalized in the 49th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Koscielny and Kolasinac were left in a 2v2 situation with Benteke and Townsend because Mustafi was protecting the near post. While Koscielny was marking Benteke, Kolasinac gave Townsend too much space at the far post.

Crystal Palace M49aedKolasinac not marking Townsend before Zaha’s cross. (Photo credit: Sky)

When Townsend met Zaha’s cross, Kolasinac was too far to make a decent block. See the screen capture below. From 14 yards, Townsend guided the ball into the bottom corner to make it 1-1.

Crystal Palace M49bed Kolasinac too far to block Townsend’s goal attempt. (Photo credit: Sky)

Kolasinac’s performance really makes the scouting department look bad. Chambers is another player recommended by the scouting department. The English defender also had a poor game. He was guilty on Tomsend’s equalizer as he failed to stop Zaha’s cross. Zaha, who led all players with 5 key passes, exposed Chambers’ lack of pace. Chambers even received a yellow card in the 29th for pulling back Zaha. The Ivory Coast dribbled past Chambers in the 13th but Bellerin covered his teammate and flicked the ball to safety. Chambers can thank his teammates for having his back. Zaha rounded Chambers in the 39th to make a cross but Koscielny cut it out. Mustafi then made a timely tackle on Zaha after a sloppy pass from Chambers led to a Palace counterattack in the 51st. And Kolasinac cleared a cross from Zaha, who had evaded Chambers’ marking in the 85th.

Doing better in away games

   I’m definitely not a fan of Chambers and I still don’t understand what the scouting department saw in him. I guess Chambers got the nod over Holding because he’s more conservative in his game while Holding sometimes dives in. The presence of a sweeper in a back three gives the right-sided and left-sided centerbacks more room for initiative whereas the two centerbacks in a back four have no room for error. In the end, Chambers played like a centerback in a back four, making only 1 interception compared to 3 for the more pro-active Koscielny. In the manager’s shoes, I would have played Bellerin in the back three with Maitland-Niles in the wingback position.

Mustafi was the only Arsenal defender who didn’t perform below par on Thursday. He won 2 of 4 tackles, blocked 2 shots, and broke the deadlock in the 25th by converting a rebound from a tight angle. His only blemish was a sloppy pass that led to a Palace counterattack in the 80th. By contrast, Koscielny looked his age, winning only 30.8% of his duels and allowing Tomkins to outjump him for the Eagles’ second goal.

The Gunners improved their record on the road with a third victory from 10 away games, but they will have to do much better if they want to finish in the Top 4. Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have already won at least 5 away games this season. Even Burnley, Watford and Leicester have racked up more points on the road than Arsenal.

I expect the manager to rotate and inject a bit of freshness in the starting lineup for the trip to West Brom on Sunday. Last season, the Gunners lost 3-1 at the Hawthorns, conceding two goals from set pieces, so they know where the threat will come from. Welbeck and Holding are stronger in the air than Lacazette and Chambers while Maitland-Niles could do better than Kolasinac to stop crosses. A victory is a necessity if the Gunners want to make up ground and preserve their chances of reaching the 76-point target.