It had to be a beautiful day for Wenger’s last game at the Emirates stadium. Burnley and Arsenal both formed a guard of honor to welcome Wenger onto the warm pitch before kickoff. Even Kroenke acknowledged the importance of the French manager in the history of the club by attending what looked like a meaningless game.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger still took Sunday’s match seriously enough to leave Nelson, Willock and Nketiah out of the squad. As a glorious send-off for their manager, the Gunners routed Burnley 5-0 to secure 6th place in the Premier League and avoid playing in some preliminary round of the Europa League this summer. Wenger made 7 changes to the side that lost 1-0 to Atletico Madrid on Thursday with Cech, Kolasinac, Mavropanos, Chambers, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang replacing Ospina, Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi, Ramsey, Ozil and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Dyche has built a disciplined, solid defense at Burnley but once you have faced a wall like Atletico Madrid, I guess all the other teams seem porous.
I hope the next Arsenal manager will use Aubameyang in the centerforward role because it really doesn’t make sense to play him on the left wing. Aubameyang is a pure fox in the box while Lacazette is a second striker. The opening goal in the 14th minute summed up their strengths. Lacazette played a one-two with Iwobi before firing an off-target shot that Aubameyang diverted in. On that play, Aubameyang behaved like a poacher while Lacazette showed off his all-around game. The Gabon striker also scored the last goal by stabbing home a cross from Bellerin in the 75th.
Optimizing the potential of a duo
Aubameyang has performed decently on the left wing. He could have had an assist in the 46th when he squared the ball back to Wilshere, who blazed over the bar from 6 yards. But too often his all-around game is not good enough to deliver a quality final ball. Aubameyang outpaced Tarkowski in the 78th only to overhit his cross for Welbeck. He then wasted a counterattack in the 86th by playing a pass behind Ramsey.
I believe that putting Aubameyang in the centerforward role would optimize the potential of the duo formed by Aubameyang and Lacazette. Aubameyang has electric pace and is more likely to stretch a defense than Lacazette, who doesn’t enjoy playing as a target man, especially in the physical Premier League. The referee should have given a yellow card to Long for a cynical foul on Aubameyang in the 45th. Nowadays, referees are so lenient that Pope could even hold the ball for 15 seconds without being penalized in the 48th. For those who don’t know the rule, an indirect free kick should be awarded when the goalkeeper controls the ball with his hands for more than 6 seconds.
There was a touch of Sanchez in Lacazette’s performance on Sunday. Lacazette scored a goal and led all players with 4 key passes and 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The France international doubled the lead by volleying home a cross from Bellerin on the stroke of halftime. Obviously, Lacazette has developed a good understanding with Bellerin. If the next manager wants to rely on a 4-3-3 system, Lacazette could efficiently play on the right wing. Another tactical option would be a 4-4-2 formation with Aubameyang and Lacazette in the front two, a bit like Henry and Bergkamp in the old days.
Iwobi’s impact in the final third
Mkhitaryan only joined Arsenal at the end of January but he has already struck a good understanding with Lacazette. The Armenia playmaker’s through ball for Lacazette was intercepted by Tarkowski in the fifth minute. They swapped roles later on. Lacazette made a cross for Mkhitaryan, whose first-time effort sailed over the bar in the 33rd. Then Mkhitaryan played a one-two with Lacazette in the 43rd before firing a deflected shot that Pope kept out with a reflex save. Mkhitaryan had no goal or assist, but his movement and creativity gave the Burnley defense some food for thought. He cut inside Westwood in the 55th to curl a shot wide of the far post. In the closing minutes, Mkhitaryan also teed up Welbeck for a long-range strike that rattled the post.
Ozil’s absence because of a back injury meant that the onus for creating chances was on Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. You never know what you will get with Iwobi because of his inconsistency. But on Sunday, Iwobi showed good work-rate and end product. The Nigeria international, who turned 22 last week, scored 1 goal, won 1 tackle, and made 2 interceptions and 2 key passes.
I hope the next manager will show as much patience as Wenger because Iwobi is not the finished product yet. Iwobi made poor passes in the final third for Bellerin in the 18th and Lacazette in the 45th. He also cheaply gave the ball away in the 62nd and showed poor decision-making in the 34th. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had 3 decent passing options with Wilshere, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, but he opted for a speculative shot that Ward easily blocked.
Iwobi ignoring 3 passing options. (Photo credit: SN360)
However, the main positive from Sunday’s game is that Iwobi didn’t shy away from his responsibilities and definitely had an impact. He led all players with 93 passes, according to whoscored.com, while Xhaka is usually the one with the most passes. Iwobi is slowly improving his understanding with Lacazette. He found Lacazette inside the box in the fourth minute but the France forward was crowded out and dispossessed. Then Iwobi made the return pass to Lacazette for the opening goal in the 14th. On the stroke of halftime, it was also Iwobi who released Bellerin down the right flank for the second goal.
Where does Wilshere fit?
In previous posts, I compared Iwobi to Bergkamp and Anelka. At this stage of his career, Bergkamp would be a better model for Iwobi, who can both make assists and be a goal threat when he plays in midfield. He still needs to work on his finishing obviously. Iwobi has a tendency to either miss the target or shoot in the middle of the net. On Sunday, Iwobi managed to fire into the top corner for a 4-0 lead in the 64th. He showed better composure than in the eighth minute when he rushed and hit a tame shot straight at Pope instead of controlling Mkhitaryan’s pass with his first touch.
Wenger has also played Iwobi on the wings, but his dribbling skills and crossing ability are average. Iwobi has decent pace but he simply doesn’t provide the penetration needed for a winger. So I guess the Anelka comparison no longer works. Especially since Nelson is knocking on the door and could become the Arsenal version of Sterling at Liverpool.
If Wilshere leaves the club this summer, Iwobi would be his natural replacement in midfield. Honestly, it’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in a team trying to contend in the Top 4 race. His defensive contribution is not good enough. Wilshere made 0 tackle and 0 interception. Even the sluggish Xhaka managed to win 2 tackles, according to whoscored.com. Wilshere produced a mazy run in the 54th to set up Kolasinac for the third goal, but we already have Ozil and Mkhitaryan to pull the strings in midfield and there’s no way that Wilshere can match their numbers for goals and assists.
A rare Mertesacker appearance
What do you need to quench your thirst on a hot day? A Kola! The Burnley defense was all over the place in the 54th when Kolasinac took a pass from Wilshere to smash a low drive into the far corner. Kolasinac raised his tally to 5 goals in all competitions this season, but there are still big question marks about his ability to defend. He won only 12.5% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. On the opposite flank, Bellerin struggled defensively, winning only 25% of his duels, but he contributed offensively with 2 assists, making the cross for Lacazette on the stroke of halftime and picking out Aubameyang for the last goal.
Chambers and Mavropanos did OK at Old Trafford. Therefore Wenger gave another start to the young pair of centerbacks. The Clarets were a good matchup for Chambers because Barnes, Hendrick and Vokes are physical forwards with average pace. Chambers tends to struggle against fast players with tricky footwork. The tactical setup also helped Chambers as the Arsenal defense dropped off when Burnley had the ball. A high defensive line would have exposed Chambers’ lack of pace. The obvious drawback with Chambers as a centerback is that the Gunners can’t squeeze the play and the midfielders also have more distance to cover.
In a classy gesture, Wenger yanked Chambers off in the 77th to send on Mertesacker. The German defender was offered the opportunity to say goodbye to the fans in the last home game of the season. As a sign of respect, Cech acknowledged the moment by giving the armband to Mertesacker. Although Mertesacker is not the longest-serving player at the club (Ramsey is), he is a leader in the dressing room and he helped steady the ship after the infamous 8-2 loss at Old Trafford in 2011. The fans showed their affection for Mertesacker by cheering each of his touches.
Winning key duels
At 20, Mavropanos looks more mature than his age. The Greek defender seems to like the physicality of the Premier League. He coped well with Lukaku a week ago and went toe to toe with Vokes on Sunday. The Gunners definitely need that kind of imposing centerback. In the past seasons, they have been too often bullied by Costa, Deeney and other intimidating strikers. The crowd encouraged Mavropanos by applauding him every time he had the ball.
Mavropanos showed good composure against Manchester United. On Sunday, Mavropanos also showed that he could read the game well. He led Arsenal players with 4 interceptions. The only negative in his performance was the 46.2% of duels that he won, compared to 71.4% for Chambers, according to the club’s website. Mavropanos will quickly find out that the Premier League is about winning duels, especially key duels. Burnley’s only scoring chance of the game came in the 49th when Hendrick rounded Bellerin to make a cross for Vokes, who got the better of Mavropanos for a header straight at Cech.
For the last two games of the season, the Gunners will visit Leicester on Wednesday and Huddersfield on Sunday. The challenge for the team is to finally earn a point on the road this year. I still hope that youngsters like Nelson and Nketiah will get some playing time even if the U23 team will face Porto in the International Cup on Tuesday.
In the meantime, the board will have to speed up the interview process in their search for the next Arsenal manager. I assume the board won’t make any accouncement before the official end of the season out of respect for Wenger. But it is crucial for the club to know by the end of May who is the next manager. The summer transfer window is shorter this year and the Gunners have no room for error in the transfer market.