Tag Archives: Wilshere

What Wenger’s new contract means for Arsenal

The 2016-17 season proved the most challenging period for Wenger in his Arsenal career because the fans turned against him while the board was reluctant to back him. Despite the criticism in the news media, the uncertainty around the squad and a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Premier League, Wenger has been handed a two-year contract extension. Let’s see what that means for the Gunners.

  1. The club structure is still an issue

The board missed an opportunity to fix structural flaws at the club. The timing would have been perfect this summer to prepare the transition and create the position of sporting director. You wouldn’t expect a manager to simultaneously supervise the squad, the youth teams, the recruitment and the scouting. That’s too much work for one person, especially in a big club. Yet, that’s pretty much what Wenger does at Arsenal. And I think it’s counterproductive.

Arsenal Pre-Season Tour

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

Big clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG and Manchester City have a sporting director helping the manager. It’s important to understand that the manager should not be accountable to the sporting director. Both are like teammates. The sporting director should remove some workload off the manager’s shoulders so that the manager can focus on the game and the squad.

It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s most successful era occurred when Dein was a vice-chairman on the board. Dein had a great knowledge of football and basically acted as a de facto sporting director by facilitating transfers and keeping an eye on the youth teams. It was the complementarity between Dein and Wenger that propelled the club to success. Nowadays, nobody on the board is knowledgeable enough to challenge Wenger’s views and provide a different perspective.

  1. Recruitment and scouting are still erratic departments

The recruitment and scouting departments have underperformed in the past few years. It might be a consequence of the flaws in the club structure. The Gunners haven’t signed any hidden gem lately. Don’t start mentioning Holding because at this stage of his career he’s just a prospect who wouldn’t be in the starting lineup if everybody was fit. When I say hidden gem, I mean players like Kante and Alli who had a major impact in their first Premier League season.

There have been at least two scouting mistakes since 2014. Signing Chambers from Southampton for about 17 million pounds was quite puzzling. That’s the kind of fee you would pay for a starter, but not for a prospect. To put things in context, Chambers cost more than Koscielny and Paulista. At 22, Chambers still has room to improve, but three flaws won’t change: his slow first steps, his inability to quickly turn and his weakness in the air. In my eyes, Chambers is a decent fit for an average team but not good enough for a club chasing a Champions League spot.

Another weird signing was Elneny, hired from Basel for about 10.5 million pounds. Arsenal needed a ballwinner at that time. Instead, the Gunners signed a utility midfielder. It might be OK to get the profile wrong if the player has great skills. Unfortunately, Elneny is not a decisive player. Defensively, he doesn’t win many tackles or duels. And offensively, he doesn’t make assists or score goals. Elneny’s main asset is his passing accuracy, which can prove useful to keep a high tempo against the weak sides but is not enough against the big teams.

An underwhelming recruitment has been the main reason for Arsenal’s inability to contend in the Premier League. Everybody knows the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. It’s the same with transfers. You need to act quickly to sign the best players who are available. You also need a decent number of players to fill the holes in the squad. And finally, the quality of those new signings must be good enough to improve the team.

Let’s analyse the last 4 transfer windows. In the summer of 2013, the Gunners signed Sanogo on July 1, Flamini on Aug. 29 and Ozil on Sept. 2. The timing was poor since Flamini and Ozil were not even available on opening day. As a prospect, Sanogo could not be the answer in the centerforward position. And of the three players, only Ozil was top quality.

The summer of 2014 was arguably the club’s best transfer window over the past four years. Arsenal signed Sanchez on July 10, Debuchy on July 17, Ospina on July 27, Chambers on July 28 and Welbeck on Sept. 2. The timing and the quantity were fine. The only question mark was about the quality with Sanchez as the only top signing on paper.

The summer of 2015 was undoubtedly the worst transfer window. the Gunners signed Cech on June 29 and that was it. The squad was not competitive enough because there were too many holes in it. That poor recruitment campaign allowed Leicester to win the league against all the odds.

Last year, the club signed Xhaka on May 25, Holding on July 22, and Perez and Mustafi on Aug. 30. The quality was decent and the quantity right, but the timing was poor as Perez and Mustafi could only make their Arsenal debut in September. Maybe the Gunners would have not dropped five points in the first two games of the season if Perez and Mustafi had joined in July.

The comparison with Manchester United and City really hurts as Mourinho and Guardiola acted much faster than Wenger. United signed Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Bailly and Pogba before opening day while Stones, Sane, Gundogan and Nolito joined City before the first game of the season.

  1. The Gunners won’t be contenders

Arsenal signed Schalke leftback Kolasinac on June 6 and Lyon striker Lacazette on July 5, but it will take more than two signings for Arsenal to have a shot at the Premier League title. Wenger tends to be too optimistic in the assessment of his squad. As a result, he fails to identify all the weaknesses in the squad and becomes reluctant to clear the dead wood.

First, the Gunners need a defensive midfielder. They currently don’t have a destroyer like Petit or Gilberto to effectively shield the defense. In his first season at the club, Wenger played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. It’s only after signing Petit in the summer of 1997 that the manager was able to switch to a back four.

And second, the Gunners should sign a creative midfielder to make up for Cazorla’s long-term absence. The Spaniard could be sidelined until November. At 32, there’s no guarantee that Cazorla will rediscover his form. The end of his Arsenal career could echo Arteta’s last couple of seasons at the club. On paper, Wilshere would look like a natural replacement but he doesn’t have Cazorla’s defensive awareness and his fitness could be a concern too.

  1. A perfect storm for players’ contracts

Quite a few Gunners haven’t signed any extension yet although their contracts end in 2018. The most obvious cases are Sanchez and Ozil, whose wage demands exceed 250,000 pounds a week. It is not just a matter of money. Sanchez and Ozil both feel that the club is lacking ambition. They could ask for a move if they think that the squad is not strong enough to contend for the title. And we would end up with a situation very 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.

If Sanchez and Ozil can’t be tied to the club beyond 2018, then it might be better to sell them this summer. If it was up to me, I would sell Walcott and Sanchez but keep Perez and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are among the clubs interested in Sanchez, who’s got the highest resale value of all the squad members. Obviously, it would be better to sell Sanchez to a German club so that it doesn’t backfire on Arsenal. But Bayern Munich seemed to have balked at the player’s wage demands.

Lacazette and Perez would be natural replacements for Sanchez as both are strikers who score a lot of goals and make a lot of assists. They also have plenty of pace and good dribbling and passing skills. However, Perez has been unhappy about the lack of opportunities last season, especially when Giroud and Welbeck were injured, as Wenger preferred to give the nod to Walcott or Iwobi. His omission from the squad touring Australia and China could hint at his departure this summer.

Selling Ozil would be more tricky. First, he has a lower resale value than Sanchez. And second, there’s no natural replacement in the squad for the Germany playmaker: Cazorla plays in a deeper position while Wilshere is not as prolific for assists as Ozil. Of course, that would become a different story if the Gunners sign Lemar from Monaco.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere and Gibbs also have their contracts ending next year. Money is not really the issue here. The key factor is their playing time. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs need to play regularly in order to shine and catch the attention of the England manager. Another factor is Wenger’s declining aura after a disappointing season. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs must be frustrated when they see other players improve under Klopp, Pochettino and Guardiola and snatch starting spots in the England team. They might think that they would perform better under a different manager. Arsenal will let Gibbs go after signing Kolasinac last month.

  1. Arsenal will stick to the 3-4-3 formation

The Gunners conceded a lot of goals last season because their midfield was not strong enough to protect the defense and because the back four was flawed: Bellerin lacked consistency because of injury and transfer rumors, Monreal and Gibbs struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank, and Mustafi performed poorly in the second half of the season. It took a shift to a back three to stop the bleeding. Unless the club signs a world-class ballwinner, Arsenal would still be too vulnerable with a back four against strong and even average teams.

  1. Tension with some fans won’t go away

Some fans turned against the team when Arsenal had a poor run of form in the winter. The ‘Wenger Out’ brigade seemed to make it personal by deliberately hurting the club with hostile chants and banners to get Wenger sacked. In my eyes, that attitude was completely wrong. Chelsea and Leicester were flirting with relegation when Mourinho and Ranieri were dismissed. Yet, neither Mourinho nor Ranieri suffered such abuse from the Chelsea and Leicester fans. By contrast, the Gunners were always in the Top 6 last season.

The main problem with such a hostile behavior is that it puts off a lot of players by instilling fear and anxiety in them. Nobody wants to play in that kind of atmosphere. And players may think twice before signing a contract at the Emirates.

Now that the board has made its choice clear, the fans have to stand by the team, which means no protest for this upcoming season unless the Gunners are stuck in a relegation battle. In the final year of Wenger’s contract, if the fans want to put some pressure on the board to hire a new manager, then empty seats at the Emirates and protests outside the stadium would be the only decent options. Displaying hostile banners and shouting hostile chants inside the stadium would be like scoring an own goal.

I have no doubt that the Wenger issue will come back in the 2018-19 season. The board had no serious replacement for Wenger this year and therefore extended his contract. They will have to anticipate and act more decisively in a year and half. Finding the right successor is a long process and should leave no room to improvisation as Moyes’ failure at Manchester United showed.

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa: Giroud celebrates St Totteringham’s Day with hat trick

The Gunners retained the bragging rights in north London by thrashing bottomside Aston Villa 4-0 in the final round of the Premier League on Sunday. Arsenal leapfrogged Tottenham into second place as Spurs imploded with a 5-1 loss at Newcastle.

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa

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

Giroud notched a hat trick to finish the season as the club’s top striker with 16 goals in the league and 24 in all competitions. Maybe Giroud could have scored more than 20 league goals like Kane (25), Vardy (24) and Aguero (24) if he had not gone through a poor run of form from mid-January to the beginning of May. But a quick look at Giroud’s career stats tells us that his tally is in line with past performances. He racked up 14 league goals in the 2014-15 season and 16 league goals in the 2013-14 season.

The Frenchman proved quite clinical on Sunday by catching the frame with 3 of his 4 goal attempts. Giroud headed a cross from Monreal into the bottom corner to open the scoring in the fifth minute. He then made a run to the near post to slide into the roof of the net a cross from Ozil in the 78th. Two minutes later, Giroud made a run to the far post to guide a cross from Bellerin past the goalkeeper for a 3-0 lead.

Giroud was also involved in some good plays but couldn’t turn them into chances. In the 30th, he initiated a one-two with Ozil, who overhit his return pass. Giroud was then in a one-on-one situation with Lescott in the 50th but lacked the pace and dribbling skills to beat the Aston Villa centerback. A minute later, the Frenchman couldn’t connect with a cross from Ozil for a close-range header.

Sanchez as a centerforward?

Sanchez’s performance was a mixed bag. The Chile forward was a live wire and made 4 shot assists. But he also had a high turnover rate and wasted some good situations with just 1 of 5 shots on target. Sanchez cut inside Lyden in the 32nd only to fire a low drive wide. He then chased a long ball from Ozil in the 84th and had his lob attempt palmed out by Bunn. In stoppage time, Sanchez rounded Bacuna down the left wing and proved a bit selfish by attempting a lob from a tight angle instead of feeding Giroud.

In the past two seasons, Wenger has tried to develop Walcott into a centerforward. Unfortunately, that project has become a complete waste of time because of Walcott’s weakness in the air, his inability to hold the ball up and his poor link-up play. I’ve often wondered whether the manager would try a similar experiment with Sanchez, who’s even shorter than Walcott.

On Sunday, two plays summed up well why it would be an awkward position for Sanchez. He checked his run to control a long ball in the fourth minute, instead of taking the ball in his stride, and lost possession to Lescott. He then miskicked a volley with his left foot in the 35th while connecting with a clipped pass from Ozil. Sanchez is stronger in challenges than Walcott, but he doesn’t have Giroud’s dominance in the air and ability to play back to goal.

A better balance, more control

Wenger made four changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Manchester City the previous weekend with Wilshere, Cazorla, Coquelin and Ozil replacing Welbeck, Ramsey, Elneny and Iwobi in the starting lineup. Arteta, Flamini and Rosicky are set to leave the club this summer, but there was no room for sentimentality as only Arteta managed to make the bench.

The difference in midfield between the two games was pretty obvious. The Gunners had a better balance because Coquelin provides more protection to the back four than Elneny while Cazorla is more disciplined in his positional play than Ramsey. Our passing game was also more slick because Cazorla is a more creative player than Elneny and because Wilshere has better ball retention skills than Ramsey. Cazorla’s ability to dictate the tempo also improved Arsenal’s control of the game.

Cazorla produced a great all-round performance and led all midfielders by making 80 passes and winning 3 of 3 tackles and 71% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Paulista headed a free kick from Cazorla in the 13th but his effort lacked power to trouble Bunn. Cazorla then made a run to the far post in the 56th to meet a cross from Ozil, but his headed pass went behind Sanchez and Wilshere. His only goal attempt was a low shot straight at Bunn in the 75th. Cazorla and Coquelin are arguably our most complementary midfield duo. To a certain extent, they remind me of Pirlo and Gattuso at AC Milan a decade ago.

Ozil’s best season at Arsenal

In his first start of the season, Wilshere was not 100% sharp. That did not prevent England manager Hodgson from including him in the provisional squad for the Euros. Wilshere should get stronger in challenges with a few more games under his belt. He overhit a ball over the top for Sanchez in the 16th. The two players showed a good understanding on Sunday as Wilshere found Sanchez inside the area in the 22nd, but the Chile forward had his shot blocked. Wilshere then connected with a cross from Sanchez in the 33rd only to send a half-volley into the side-netting.

Long-term injuries to Cazorla and Wilshere definitely hurt Arsenal’s title bid this season. They could have helped remove the creative burden off Ozil’s shoulders when the Germany playmaker had a slump in the second half of the season. It was no coincidence if Ozil’s slump happened at the same time as Giroud’s goal drought.

Ozil made the cross for Giroud’s second goal to raise his tally to 19 assists this season, one unit shy of Henry’s Premier League record. He’s definitely having his best season at the club with 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 league games for an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. By contrast, Ozil’s average was 0.54 in his first season at Arsenal and 0.41 in his second. In fact, Ozil has even been more efficient than in his stint at Real Madrid where he averaged 0.64 goal or assist in his first season, 0.60 in his second and 0.69 in his third.

Arteta’s last game

But Ozil hasn’t reached yet the level of Fabregas’ two best seasons at Arsenal. The Spaniard had 7 goals and 20 assists in 32 league games during the 2007-08 season for an 0.84 average. Fabregas improved that mark with 15 goals and 13 assists in 27 league games during the 2009-10 season for a 1.04 average. Ozil has plenty of room to improve his scoring record. That’s why the manager has asked him this season to play higher up the pitch almost like a second striker. One good example for Ozil is Mahrez who guided Leicester to the title with 17 goals and 11 assists in 37 league games for an 0.76 average.

Elneny came off the bench to replace a tiring Wilshere in the 69th. He pounced on a deflected cross from Sanchez in the 73rd only to volley over the bar from 11 yards. Elneny was then played in by Arteta in stoppage time but shot into the side-netting. Obviously, the Egypt international needs to work on his composure in front of goal. For his last game at the club, Arteta replaced Ozil in the 88th and contributed to the fourth goal in injury time with a strike that hit the bar and bounced off the goalkeeper to roll into the back of the net.

Cech had a quiet afternoon as he only had to make two routine saves, stopping a low bouncing drive from Westwood in the 16th and an angled effort from Ayew in the 66th. Paulista was a bit more busy than Koscielny because Ayew often cut inside from Bellerin’s flank. Koscielny (7 interceptions, 57% of duels won) acted more like a sweeper while Paulista (3 interceptions, 33% of duels won) was often involved in one-on-one situations.

A misleading second-place finish

Ayew is a good striker, but you wouldn’t put him in the same class as Aguero or Kane. So it was a bit surprising to see that Ayew had Paulista in his pocket. Ayew dribbled past Paulista in the eighth minute to make a cross that Koscielny cleared. The Ghana international then turned Paulista in the 38th to feed Sinclair, who dragged his shot wide. Ayew also outmuscled Bellerin in the 66th and skipped past Paulista for a toe-poke that Cech saved. In the closing minutes, it took a sliding tackle from Koscielny to prevent Ayew from being clean through on goal.

This has been a good season for Bellerin who did not suffer from the traditional sophomore slump. He fed Giroud for the third goal, made 4 interceptions and won 3 of 3 tackles. The Spanish defender has racked up 1 goal and 5 assists in 36 league games compared to 2 goals and 1 assist in 20 league games last season. At 21, Bellerin still has room to improve his positional play and the consistency in his delivery. Knowing that we have the best rightback in the league, it would make sense to sell Debuchy this summer. Keeping Debuchy would only hurt the team’s chemistry and take one extra spot in the squad.

Somehow, the Gunners’ second-place finish is misleading. It would be considered a good season by most fans any other year. But finishing 10 points behind Leicester tells you that something is wrong. The Foxes have a weaker squad and a smaller budget than Arsenal. Yet, they still won the league. What makes this season so disappointing is that the Gunners fell out of contention by March while Tottenham still had a shot at the title in May.

Big clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City couldn’t even mount a serious title bid. Chelsea self-destructed under Mourinho while City undermined Pellegrini’s authority by disclosing the hiring of Guardiola. But that’s no excuse for not building a squad that can contend and go the distance. Failing to strengthen an aging squad last summer is the main regret for most Arsenal fans. I would say that Arsenal had a decent season, but not a good one.


Manchester City vs. Arsenal: Giroud ends goal drought in 2-2 draw

Giroud scored and made an assist in the 2-2 draw with Manchester City on Sunday to prevent Spurs from securing second place in the Premier League. The Gunners can still finish second if they beat Aston Villa in the last game of the season next weekend and Spurs lose at Newcastle.

Manchester City vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made two changes to the side that edged Norwich 1-0 the previous weekend by replacing the injured Mertesacker and Ozil with Paulista and Welbeck. Arsenal conceded the opening goal in the eighth minute, but Giroud leveled two minutes later with his first goal in the league since mid-January. Giroud lost Mangala to head in a corner after Clichy nearly scored an own goal by heading Giroud’s cross wide of the post. The Frenchman then held off Mangala to set up Sanchez for the equalizer in the 68th. Sanchez notched his 13th league goal this season by firing into the bottom corner.

Somehow, that equalizer reflects the Gunners’ offensive struggles. Sanchez and Giroud interacted for the first time this season to score a league goal. That’s a poor understanding for two players who are often in the final third. Sanchez has made 4 league assists this season, creating goals for Ozil, Campbell, Welbeck and Iwobi, while Giroud has raised his tally to 6 league assists after also helping Ozil, Koscielny, Walcott and Welbeck find the net. There’s no doubt that Arsenal would have scored more goals if the manager had improved the understanding between those two players.

Giroud and Sanchez have scored 13 league goals each. That’s not enough for a decent title bid. Even Ighalo and an aging Defoe have notched more league goals than Giroud or Sanchez. I thought Giroud was the best Gunner on Sunday. He led Arsenal with 2 key passes, which is a lot when Ozil is not around. Giroud fed Walcott in the 67th but the England international’s lob attempt sailed wide. Sanchez lived up to his reputation as a risk taker by making 5 successful dribbles out of 7 and by losing possession 3 times, the most for an Arsenal player. He also made 1 key pass and his only goal attempt gave the Gunners a point at the Etihad stadium.

Killing Ramsey’s qualities

The Citizens pressed high up the pitch to force turnovers and hit Arsenal on the fast break. That’s the way they’ve played in the Champions League this season to knock out Paris Saint-Germain and nearly match Real Madrid. The Gunners struggled to cope with Manchester City’s high intensity as the hosts enjoyed 57% of ball possession and mustered 14 shots compared to just 5 for Arsenal.

I felt our midfield was a bit too soft with Elneny, Ramsey and Iwobi. In the playmaking role, Iwobi had a poor game with 0 dribble, 0 tackle, 0 shot and 0 key pass. He was replaced by Walcott in the 59th. It’s the first time this season that the game has looked too fast for Iwobi. For a youngster, there’s no shame in not performing well against a top team. At 20, Iwobi still has a lot to learn. The manager might consider dropping him to the bench for the last game after a string of weak performances.

The Citizens outplayed Arsenal in midfield mostly because Wenger relied on Ramsey and Elneny to protect the back four. That duo can do a decent job against the weak and average sides, but it can’t contain the strong teams because neither Ramsey nor Elneny is a natural ballwinner. That partnership especially kills Ramsey’s qualities because he’s the one doing the dirty work while Elneny has more freedom to roam forward. That role distribution is just wrong.

Playing without a ballwinner

Ramsey led the team in passes and tackles (7 tackles according to whoscored.com and 12 tackles according to Squawka) and made 2 successful dribbles out of 3. But he made no key pass and his only goal attempt was off target. By contrast, Elneny lost all 4 tackles he made, according to Squawka, and had just 1 shot assist, the corner kick for Giroud’s goal. As you can see, Ramsey contributes a lot defensively but his offensive impact is annihilated while Elneny is inefficient in both categories.

Most of Manchester City’s chances came from the absence of a ballwinner in the Arsenal team. Navas made a cross in the eighth minute for Fernandinho, who knocked the ball down for Aguero and the Argentina striker fired a half-volley into the bottom corner for the opener. That goal showed the Gunners’ difficulties this season to deal with crosses and win second balls. Welbeck failed to stop Navas’ cross while Ramsey lost an aerial duel against Fernandinho and Elneny failed to win a 50-50 challenge against Aguero. If you replace Ramsey and Elneny with Vieira and Gilberto, you can bet the Citizens would have never scored on that play.

Fernando then beat Ramsey to the ball in the 16th to feed Aguero, whose effort was deflected out by Paulista. Arsenal midfielders were completely ridiculed in the 27th when Fernando won a tackle against Wilshere to initiate a counterattack. The Brazilian midfielder brushed off Ramsey and was able to slip the ball to Aguero because Elneny was out of position on the right wing. Although Koscielny was tightly marking Aguero, Cech charged outside the box to make an awkward clearance.

Cech’s issues at the near post

The Citizens took again advantage of our midfield woes in the second half. Iheanacho dropped back to pull Koscielny out of position in the 49th and Fernandinho ran into the big gap to collect a long ball from Navas and shoot wide from a tight angle. Elneny saw Fernandinho run in front of him and completely failed to read the play.

Two minutes later, De Bruyne benefited from a lucky bounce and cut inside Paulista to beat Cech at his near post with a low drive for a 2-1 lead. Bellerin lost his duel against De Bruyne on that play, while Elneny was too easily outpaced and Paulista failed to make the block. But the main culprit was Cech, who couldn’t stop a 24-yard effort. It was a goal similar to Crystal Palace’s equalizer by Bolasie last month. You would expect a very good goalkeeper like Cech to save those long-range strikes at the near post. Can Cech fix that problem or his legs are simply too old to go down quickly?

The turning point of the game occurred in the 54th. The Citizens capitalized on a Ramsey turnover to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Iheanacho bullied Monreal to create a 3 vs. 2 situation. The Manchester City striker had Aguero and Navas as passing options and both were not even marked by Koscielny and Paulista. A selfish Iheanacho wasted the chance by dragging his shot wide. Down 3-1, it would have been very hard for the Gunners to salvage a point. Again, fielding a ballwinner would have helped kill that kind of counterattack.

The impact of injuries for next season

De Bruyne gave Bellerin and Paulista a hard time. He scored a goal and led all players with 4 key passes. Paulista received a yellow card in the 71st for a clumsy challenge on De Bruyne. The Belgium international nearly scored from the subsequent free kick that Cech tipped over the bar.

The Arsenal back four did not get much protection from the midfielders, but I thought they made some really poor marking mistakes. Unmarked at the far post, Aguero met a corner in the 73rd to hit a volley wide. A minute later, Aguero played a one-two with De Bruyne only to miss the target with a diagonal shot. Several Gunners surrounded De Bruyne on that play but no one tracked Aguero. In the closing minutes, Paulista gave too much space to Bony, who connected with a cross from Sagna to unleash a volley that crashed against the bar.

The bad news from Sunday’s game was Welbeck’s knee injury. He was replaced in the 25th by Wilshere, who needed a bit of time to adjust to the pace of the game, much more intense than his brief cameo against Sunderland or the U21 games he has played to build his fitness. Welbeck’s injury means that we shouldn’t expect him to be available for more than 30 games next season. The same rationale should be considered for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had a setback in his recovery from a knee injury. Hopefully, the manager will take those fitness issues into account during the summer transfer market, otherwise our bench could prove weak again next season.

Sunderland vs. Arsenal: Gunners slip to 4th after lack of penetration exposed in 0-0 draw

Sterile domination. What’s the use of enjoying 70% of ball possession if you can’t even score? There was no glaring miss from the Gunners while Mannone made four good saves that you would expect from a decent goalkeeper. Sunday’s goalless draw at Sunderland means that Arsenal slipped to fourth place in the Premier League and will therefore depend on the points dropped by Manchester City to finish in the Top 3.

Sunderland vs. Arsenal

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

The Gunners had 7 shots on target compared to just 3 for the hosts. However, those numbers are misleading. Sunderland created as many big chances as Arsenal. Credit to the Black Cats for putting in a shift and depriving the Gunners of time on the ball. But I thought Wenger got his team selection wrong by relying on the same starting lineup that defeated West Brom 2-0 on Thursday. Mertesacker and Giroud had a terrible game. Defoe created problems for the Arsenal defense by often isolating himself with the slow-footed Mertesacker. By contrast, the Sunderland centerbacks had Giroud in their pocket. The French striker was caught three times offside and missed the target with his two goal attempts.

When the Gunners were still chasing a winner in the second half, the manager made like-for-like substitutions, replacing Iwobi and Giroud with Walcott and Welbeck in the 71st minute before sending on Wilshere for Ozil in the 84th. The first question is: why did Wenger give Walcott the nod over Campbell? The Costa Rica international made a stronger impression than Walcott when they came off the bench against the Baggies. The second question is: why did the manager not shift from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 in order to put more pressure on the Sunderland defense?

Penalty shouts ignored

Kaboul and Kone had a quiet afternoon because they did not face a centerforward who could run at them. Giroud and Ozil made no dribble while Sanchez and Iwobi respectively had 5 and 4 successful dribbles. The trouble is that those dribbles were against midfielders and a fullback, which means that Kaboul and Kone were never pulled out of position. Welbeck has power and pace, but he doesn’t have the technique of a Van Persie or Henry.

In the end, Sanchez was the Gunner who tested Mannone the most. The Sunderland goalie palmed away a dipping free kick and a low drive from Sanchez in the 34th and 87th respectively. Sanchez nearly scored in the 35th when Giroud redirected a corner toward the far post but the Chile forward’s header was cleared off the line.

Iwobi had two chances, firing a low diagonal drive wide in the fourth minute and pouncing on a pass from Giroud in the 41st to have his effort blocked by Yedlin’s arm. It could have been a spot kick for Arsenal but the referee probably thought it was unintentional and that Yedlin had no time to get his arm out of the way. At least, Dean was consistent in his calls since he also turned down a penalty shout from Sunderland in the 37th when Defoe’s point-blank volley hit Mertesacker’s hand after Bellerin made a poor clearance.

Giroud and Ozil respectively had 4 and 5 shot assists but you would expect more in the final third from those two players. Giroud controlled a ball over the top from Sanchez to have his goal attempt blocked by a defender in the ninth minute. He then connected with a low cross from Monreal to flick the ball wide in the 24th. Ozil fired a long-range strike that took a deflection off a defender but Mannone still managed to make the save in the 31st. Leading the line in the last 20 minutes, Welbeck could only hit a low effort straight at Mannone in the 82nd.

Defoe torturing Mertesacker

Allardyce’s game plan was pretty obvious. The Black Cats targeted Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Arsenal’s poor defending on set pieces. Playing a high defensive line is always an issue when Mertesacker is in the team. Defoe outpaced the German centerback while chasing a long ball in the fifth minute, but Cech came off his line to clear the danger. Defoe beat Mertesacker to another long ball in the 50th and fired a half-volley that Cech parried. M’Vila pounced on the rebound for a long-range effort that Cech turned around the post.

The hosts repeated that same trick two more times. Cattermole played Defoe in with a long ball in the 64th but the Sunderland striker’s lob attempt sailed wide. Four minutes later, Defoe beat Mertesacker in a foot race to take a pass from Khazri but his low cross for an unmarked Borini was cut out by Koscielny. Mertesacker did not cover himself in glory by letting a low drive from Khazri slip through his legs in the 52nd. It took a diving save from Cech to deny Khazri.

Koscielny was Arsenal’s best defender on Sunday. He often made up for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and deflected out a shot from Khazri in the 14th after Ramsey lost possession from a throw-in. However, Koscielny was let down by his impetuosity twice. He gave away a dangerous free kick in the 21st by fouling Defoe on the edge of the box. Van Aanholt struck the woodwork with the subsequent set piece as Cech seemed helpless. In stoppage time, Koscielny was booked for a reckless challenge on Watmore.

Can Wilshere make a difference?

In midfield, Ramsey seemed to run out of gas in his second start since returning from a hamstring injury. The Wales international made no tackle and won only 33% of his duels according to the club’s website, forcing Elneny to contribute a bit more defensively. Elneny won 2 of 3 tackles and 75% of his duels, the best defensive stats for a Gunner.

Wilshere’s return to the first team was the only positive from Sunday’s game. The England midfielder has missed most of the season because of a calf bone injury. He can make a difference in the last three games with his deep runs a la Ramsey, his passing skills similar to Cazorla’s and his ability to score from distance.

I’m not sure what we should expect from the game against Norwich next Saturday. This is a match that Arsenal must win to keep the pressure on the two Manchesters in the race for third place. The Gunners have convincingly beaten Watford and West Brom this month but they have also dropped points against Crystal Palace and Sunderland. They definitely need to rediscover their finishing touch before facing the Citizens in two weeks.

Arsenal vs. West Brom: Gunners finish 3rd as Walcott nets hat trick in 4-1 win

The Gunners snapped their three-game goal drought at the Emirates stadium by thrashing West Bromwich Albion 4-1 on Sunday to finish third in the Premier League, 12 points behind Chelsea. Qualifying for the group stage of the Champions League implies that we will have a lighter schedule in August as well as more maneuvering room to sign top players during the summer transfer window.

Arsenal vs. West Bromwich

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

Wenger made three changes to the side that drew 0-0 with Sunderland last Wednesday with Coquelin, Walcott and Paulista replacing Ramsey, Giroud and Koscielny in the starting lineup. I expected the manager to rest Cazorla and Sanchez since they have played respectively 52 and 51 matches for the club this season. In the end, Cazorla had a good game while Sanchez showed again a lack of energy.

Arsenal’s passing game was quicker and sharper than against Sunderland with Walcott and Wilshere providing more penetration in the final third. The Baggies parked the bus with 10 men behind the ball to deny space to Walcott. It looked like a sound game plan except West Brom had nothing to play for and lacked a bit of commitment. Teams managed by Pulis are known for working hard and relishing duels. It was almost a surprise not to see any rough challenge.

In his first start since a 3-0 victory over West Ham in March, Walcott was much sharper than a couple of months ago when he couldn’t convert one-on-one chances. Maybe my memory tricks me, but I remember Walcott’s first touch was kind of average before his knee injury. On Sunday, his first touch was outstanding and helped him beat defenders in tight spaces.

Clinical finish

In the opening minute, the Baggies got a foretaste of what was coming. Walcott took a pass from Ozil and made a quick turn to have an effort blocked. Three minutes later, Walcott found a gap between Lescott and Olsson and used his pace to escape marking. Cazorla spotted his run and fed him inside the area. With his first touch, Walcott spun and put himself in a position to shoot. With his second touch, the England forward blasted a diagonal strike into the top corner for a 1-0 lead. That was definitely a clinical finish.

The Gunners doubled the lead in the 14th. Ozil played a one-two with Wilshere, but Wilshere’s return pass was slightly overhit. Somehow, Ozil managed to flick the ball through McAuley’s legs. Pouncing on the loose ball, Walcott skipped past Olsson with his first touch, got away from Dawson with his second before sliding the ball home with his third. Walcott was surrounded by four defenders on that play and had to be very accurate with each of his touches.

Walcott completed his hat trick with a poacher’s goal in the 37th. Wilshere combined with Sanchez before releasing Cazorla on the left side of the area. Cazorla’s low attempt was off target but Walcott reacted quickly at the far post to stab the ball home. The West Brom defense was so lethargic that Walcott could have scored a few more goals. Leading a counterattack in the 23rd, Wilshere picked out Sanchez, who slipped the ball to Walcott. But Myhill palmed away Walcott’s curling shot. The West Brom goalkeeper denied Walcott again in the 42nd. Walcott took a pass from Ozil and created space to his right for a low strike that Myhill turned around the post.

The English Iniesta

Walcott and Giroud are two completely different strikers. Basically, Giroud’s strengths are Walcott’s weaknesses and the other way around. Giroud is strong in the air, links up well and has good hold-up play while Walcott beats defenders with his pace and makes runs in behind the defense. Walcott made an outside run to take Ozil’s pass in the 34th and cut the ball back for Sanchez. A minute later, Walcott got the better of Olsson with an inside run to collect a through ball from Cazorla. Walcott controlled the ball with his first touch but could only muster a tame toe poke with his second touch. I think Walcott would have hit a better shot if he had used his left foot.

Walcott and Wilshere are the two players who are peaking as the season is coming to an end. On Sunday, Wilshere reminded everybody of his talent with his lethal bursts from midfield a la Iniesta. When he’s on fire, Wilshere can score and create chances like the Barcelona star. That’s why I believe Hogdson is wasting Wilshere’s talent by playing him as a No. 6. Of course, the main issue is whether Wilshere can have an injury-free season.

Wilshere was involved in the second and fourth goals and also gave Arsenal a 3-0 lead in the 17th. The Baggies poorly cleared a corner and the ball fell to Sanchez whose goal attempt was blocked. Paulista teed up the rebound for Wilshere, who volleyed into the top corner from 20 yards. Wilshere had two more chances. Driving forward in the 25th, he played a one-two with Sanchez before unleashing a low strike straight at Myhill. On the stroke of halftime, Cazorla found Wilshere, who cut inside Lescott but had his effort blocked.

Ramsey’s desire

Cazorla’s conversion into a deep-lying playmaker this season has proved successful with 7 goals and 11 assists in 37 league games. In fact, the Spaniard is our best midfielder with 0.486 goals or assists per game. By contrast, Ramsey racked up 6 goals and 6 assists in 29 games for a 0.414 ratio and Ozil had 4 goals and 5 assists in 22 games for a 0.409 ratio. If we only consider league starts, Cazorla’s ratio increases to 0.545 compared to 0.522 for Ramsey and 0.429 for Ozil.

Partnering Coquelin with Cazorla has been the key to the team’s resurgence in the second half of the season. Cazorla sets the tempo in midfield while Coquelin is protecting the back four. It’s a duo as complementary as Barcelona’s Xavi and Busquets or AC Milan’s Pirlo and Gattuso a few years ago. Cazorla made the assist for the first and fourth goals and had two scoring chances. He took a pass from Sanchez in the 31st only to have his drive deflected out for a corner. Myhill then parried Cazorla’s curling shot in the 53rd.

Ramsey replaced Coquelin in the 68th and showed tremendous desire despite his team’s big lead. Ozil slipped the ball to Ramsey in the 81st and the Wales midfielder hit the post with a left-footed strike from 15 yards. I liked the way Ramsey analyzed the situation on that play. He tried to set up a right-footed shot with his first touch but realized he had two defenders to his right. Ramsey then saw plenty of space to his left and therefore drifted to his left with his second touch before taking his chance with his third. Two minutes later, Ramsey chested down a long ball to curl a shot that Myhill tipped onto the bar. His last chance came in the 84th when Sanchez played him in. Ramsey’s first-time effort with his weaker foot sailed wide.

Running on empty

In a more industrious role than usual, Ozil had a good game with six key passes and three tackles won. I guess some fans get frustrated with him because he’s not a traditional playmaker. Instead of acting like a conductor, Ozil looks more like a free-floating midfielder occasionally regulating the flow of traffic. Ozil set up Mertesacker for a scoring opportunity in the 30th. Mertesacker lost his marker with a run at the near post to connect with Ozil’s free kick but Myhill saved his divertion.

Sanchez is undoubtedly Arsenal’s player of the season with 16 goals and 8 assists in 35 league games but he’s currently running on empty. His lack of sharpness in the final third was obvious with a curling free kick over the bar in the seventh minute, and tame low shots in the 11th and 71st. What saved Sanchez on Sunday was his passing skills. Despite an obvious fatigue, Sanchez was able to make accurate passes. I still don’t understand why the manager did not pull him out in the second half so that the Chile forward could have a bit more freshness for the FA Cup final.

The Baggies were no threat in the first half. It was a different story after halftime as the Gunners subconsciously saved stamina for the final and played at a slower pace. Ospina tipped around the post a low drive from Anichebe, who had rolled away from Mertesacker in the 57th. West Brom pulled one back from the subsequent corner with McAuley beating Ospina to the ball to head home.

Ospina’s worst performance

Let’s be honest, that was poor goalkeeping. Ospina had five Gunners in front of him to clean up the 6-yard box and prevent any obstruction. So he had no excuse for not claiming the ball. Ospina poorly guessed the flight of the ball and was therefore poorly positioned for a good catch. What made the defending look even more pathetic is that Paulista lost his duel against McAuley.

Ospina seemed to recover from that positional mistake as he pushed out a shot from Brunt in the 76th and stopped a low drive from Baird in the 87th. But a play in stoppage time raised more questions about the Colombia goalkeeper. From 30 yards, Gardner unleashed a swerving strike that Ospina palmed onto the bar. There were two errors on that play. First, Cazorla failed to challenge Gardner. The Spaniard is not a natural ballwinner but his new position means that he has more defensive duties than when he played on the left wing. And second, Ospina hesitated in his decision-making. He probably tried to palm the ball down, hoping to gather it after the bounce. But from the moment there was some spin on the ball, he should have punched it away.

It’s so weird to see Ospina produce his worst performance of the season just four days after his outstanding game against Sunderland. Take out this match against West Brom and Ospina would definitely have gotten the nod over Szczesny for next season. Now the manager may have doubts about who is the No. 1 goalie. I guess the big difference is that Szczesny cost two goals and three points in the 2-0 loss at Southampton while Ospina only cost a goal in an emphatic victory.

Food for thought

The Gunners boosted their confidence ahead of the FA Cup final. The eye-catching performances of Walcott and Wilshere will give the manager some food for thought when he makes his team selection. Oxlade-Chamberlain also gave himself a chance to be in Saturday’s squad by replacing Wilshere in the 77th for his first game since March 9 when he picked up a groin injury. Welbeck is unlikely to make the squad simply because he’s not a natural scorer and therefore needs several matches to rediscover his form.

Walcott’s scoring form could make negotiations with his agent more difficult this summer. Think of a scenario in which Walcott scores the winning goal on Saturday and you can bet that his agent will ask for a raise even though Walcott missed an entire year and has played very few games since his return from injury.

Arsenal vs. Sunderland: Ospina salvages draw; finishing & defending become a concern

Arsenal’s poor scoring form is a concern eight days before the FA Cup final. The Gunners have not found the net in their last three games at the Emirates stadium as they drew 0-0 with Sunderland in the Premier League on Wednesday. That’s not good for the team’s confidence and you can bet that Aston Villa will adopt a game plan similar to the one implemented by Swansea and Sunderland.

Arsenal vs. Sunderland

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

The only positive is that Arsenal moved three points clear of Manchester United in the standings, which means that we have virtually secured third place. The Gunners have a goal difference which is seven better than the Red Devils. Only a heavy loss to West Bromwich on Sunday combined with a big victory from Manchester United at the KC stadium would force Arsenal to compete in the Champions League playoffs this summer.

The Gunners kept a clean sheet but Sunderland pulled them out of position quite a few times. The Black Cats kicked off with a 4-2-4 formation which clearly aimed at hitting Arsenal on the fast break. The visitors then switched to a 4-3-3 system at halftime for more defensive solidity. I was surprised to see a weak side like Sunderland play so many through balls behind our defense.

We were vulnerable because we played a high defensive line but also because our midfielders failed to press. You improve your passing game when you boast Cazorla, Ramsey and Ozil in midfield. The downside is that you don’t give much protection to your defense with such a trio.

The new Arteta

Wenger rested Coquelin and played Cazorla as a holding midfielder. That must have been a strange season for Cazorla, who started his Arsenal career on the left wing. The manager noticed how Cazorla’s offensive contribution declined and therefore turned him into an all-rounder playing next to Coquelin. Cazorla shone in that position against Manchester City. On Wednesday, Wenger moved Cazorla further back by playing him as a No. 6.

Arteta is the first name that comes to mind when you think about a playmaker becoming a holding midfielder in the later stages of his career. The main difference is that Cazorla has better dribbling skills while Arteta is stronger in tackles. Obviously, this is a new position for Cazorla but I don’t think it’s a viable option at kickoff simply because Coquelin is the better ballwinner in the squad. Maybe in the last 20 minutes when our opponents start tiring.

There were signs in the first half that the Black Cats could hurt us with their vertical game. Graham outpaced the Arsenal defense in the opening minute to chase a long ball but Ospina quickly came off his line to clear the danger. The focus of the Colombia goalkeeper was again tested in the 16th. Defoe ghosted past Bellerin to connect with a pass from Larsson but Ospina was able to beat him to the ball.

Paying the price for not rotating

The Gunners could have lost the match in the second half if Ospina had not made a couple of outstanding saves. Johnson sent Fletcher clean through on goal in the 50th but Ospina denied the Sunderland substitute. We poorly executed the offside trap on that play as Fletcher got ahead of Koscielny. A few seconds later, Van Aanholt took a pass from Defoe by sneaking in behind Bellerin only to fire a low strike that Ospina saved with his leg. Bellerin is still a young player but Wednesday’s game showed that he still needs to work on his tactical awareness.

The Black Cats also took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line to launch a counterattack in the 60th. Defoe picked out Fletcher with a long ball along the touchline. Fletcher beat Mertesacker in a foot race to face Ospina one-on-one but the Colombia keeper made himself big to palm out Fletcher’s chip attempt. The Gunners had another scare in the 68th when Fletcher diverted Van Aanholt’s low drive over the bar. Walcott failed to track Van Aanholt on that play while Fletcher ghosted past Koscielny again. The Black Cats did not score but the number of clear-cut chances they created is a concern ahead of the FA Cup final.

Another worry for the manager is our poor finishing. The Gunners enjoyed 75 percent of ball possession but only 7 of their 28 shots were on target. Wenger complained about tired legs in his post-match news conference but that’s what happens when you name the same starting lineup in your six previous league games.

Sanchez’s lack of freshness

Not releasing the ball quickly enough in the opening minutes was a clear sign of fatigue. Our passing game got quicker after 20 minutes but we made a poor use of the wings with Wilshere and Sanchez both cutting inside. The Gunners too often tried to play the ball in the congested heart of the Sunderland defense. Gibbs and Bellerin provided a bit of width but couldn’t make up for the lack of penetration in the final third. We badly missed a player like Oxlade-Chamberlain who has the ability to run at defenders in tiny spaces. The situation improved in the second half when Walcott came off the bench and Sanchez hugged a bit more the touchline.

In his 50th match for the club, Sanchez’s lack of freshness showed in the final third. He had three turnovers in the opening minutes because he was too slow to pass the ball. His finishing was surprisingly erratic for a player who carried the team on his shoulders in the first half of the season. Sanchez volleyed wide in the 23rd, missed the target from 10 yards with a free header in the 67th and blasted a long-range effort into the stands in the 77th. He also had space to shoot on the stroke of halftime but lost possession because of a poor touch.

Giroud extended his scoring drought but flashed positive signs with some good hold-up play and a backheel flick that forced Pantilimon into a one-handed save in the 56th. The Frenchman also clipped the bar with a poor cross in the 52nd. I think Giroud gets better service when he’s surrounded by players like Ramsey, Bellerin, Walcott and Wilshere who naturally fit his set of skills.

Wilshere’s final ball

Wenger made two changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Manchester United on Sunday with Gibbs and Wilshere replacing Monreal and Coquelin in the starting lineup. Gibbs looked a bit rusty in the first half with a speculative shot going nowhere in the 27th and two poor cutbacks in the 31st and 33rd. But he found his rhythm in the second half with a header that lacked power to beat Pantilimon in the 58th and a curling shot that deflected off Coates for a corner in the 63rd.

Wednesday’s match was Wilshere’s first start of the year. With more playing time under his belt, maybe Wilshere would have been sharper in his decision-making when Sanchez fed him with a diagonal pass in the 14th. Wilshere controlled the ball with his first touch and then seemed to hesitate between rounding and beating Pantilimon with his second touch. That hesitation allowed the Sunderland goalkeeper to come off his line and knock the ball away. The better option on that play was a first-time pass to an unmarked Ramsey.

Wilshere had another chance when Ramsey set him up in the 20th, but sent his volley over the bar from 17 yards. While finishing was definitely an issue, I thought Wilshere’s presence helped improve the quality of our final ball. Giroud connected with a chipped pass from Wilshere in the 32nd for a difficult volley that sailed wide. Ozil was in a better position in the 30th when Wilshere played a ball over the top. But the Germany playmaker missed the target with his weaker foot from nine yards.

That miss seemed to affect Ozil’s confidence in the 59th. Wilshere played him in again but Ozil refused to shoot with his right foot from 15 yards. Instead, Ozil made a pass across goal to Sanchez, who cut inside and had an effort blocked.

Ramsey back in a central position

Technically, Ozil is our most gifted player. So it’s hard to understand how he couldn’t beat the first man with a corner in the 63rd. And it’s not the first time that he has poorly taken a corner. I remember when Ronaldinho was at the top of his game, he could almost put the ball on a teammate’s head with every corner kick. So far, Ozil has notched 4 goals and 5 assists in 21 league games this season. That’s not enough for a world-class player like Ozil. He needs to be more decisive in the final third. The funny thing is that Ozil and Ramsey have the same ratio of goals or assists per league game (0.4285) even though Ozil plays in a more advanced position and does not contribute as much as Ramsey defensively.

Ramsey finally moved into a more central position after a string of games on the right flank. He nearly put himself in trouble by receiving a yellow card for a rough challenge on Larsson in the 18th. However, the Wales midfielder showed enough maturity to refrain from earning a second booking. Ramsey could have made the difference as a finisher. He had a long-range strike stopped by Pantilimon in the 85th and was also body-checked while playing a one-two with Giroud in the 28th but the referee did not spot the foul.

As a passer, Ramsey slipped a perfect through ball to Walcott in the 72nd. The England winger beat Pantilimon with a low shot but Coates cleared the ball off the line. Two minutes later, a cross from Ramsey caused panic in the Sunderland defense. Coates fluffed his clearance and the ball bounced off Jones to hit the bar.

A rehearsal and an audition

I thought Walcott was much sharper in the final third than a couple of months ago. In the closing minutes, it looked like the winner would come from him. Giroud set up Walcott for an angled strike that Pantilimon spilled in the 84th. But no Gunner was alert enough to pounce on the rebound. Walcott then used his pace in the 87th to skip past Van Aanholt for a powerful effort that Pantilimon parried.

The final league game against West Bromwich on Sunday should be a rehearsal and an audition for the FA Cup final. We need to fix our finishing and our defending. Rosicky, Flamini, Gibbs and Paulista could get a chance to make an impression on the manager. It will be interesting to see who gets picked by Wenger between those struggling for form (Giroud, Sanchez, Ozil, Cazorla) and those peaking as the season is coming to an end (Walcott, Wilshere, Ramsey).

Hull vs. Arsenal: Gunners secure top 4 finish with 3-1 win

Arsenal secured a top-four finish in the Premier League by defeating Hull 3-1 on Monday. Now the next goal is to make sure we qualify directly for the group stage of the Champions League instead of going through the playoffs. The Gunners are five points clear of Manchester United and have a game in hand, which means that a victory over Swansea next Monday and a draw at Old Trafford in 11 days would be enough to clinch a top-three finish. In the meantime, Arsenal kept pace with Manchester City in the race for second place as both teams are level on points but the Citizens have played a game more.

Hull vs. Arsenal

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

Do you believe in karma? The Tigers started making a lot of cynical fouls when Arsenal took control of the match after 20 minutes. Livermore received a yellow card for a cynical foul on Sanchez in the 23rd and could have earned a second booking for tripping the Chile forward in the 27th. The referee only gave a free kick but Sanchez punished Hull with a curling shot that took a deflection off the wall to loop over Harper for the opening goal.

Huddlestone was lucky to escape a booking for a reckless challenge on Ramsey in the 24th. In fact, the referee did not even spot the foul. Ramsey wobbled off the pitch to receive treatment as Wilshere warmed up along the touchline. Somehow, Ramsey managed to recover from that nasty tackle and replied by doubling the lead in the 33rd. The Wales midfielder controlled a long ball from Cazorla and spun for an effort that Brady diverted into his own net. Two lucky goals indeed, but the Tigers were also lucky not to have Livermore sent off and Huddlestone booked.

When bad karma hits back

Let’s be honest: the officiating was terrible. The referee missed a couple of dirty tackles, including one that led to Hull’s goal in the 56th. His failure to spot Meyler’s stamp on Koscielny’s ankle allowed Elmohamady to cross the ball for Quinn, who ghosted past Mertesacker to head in. It was at least a yellow card but Arsenal should have played to the whistle instead of switching off defensively on that play. There was a bit of uncertainty as McShane headed another cross from Elmohamady above the bar in the 60th. However, the Tigers’ threat faded quickly after Robertson replaced Aluko in the 65th.

Bad karma hit back at the Tigers with Coquelin’s unintentional stamp on Quinn’s leg in the 59th and Koscielny inadvertently kicking Meyler in the head in the 70th when the Hull substitute fell to the ground. Again, the referee showed his incompetence by refusing to stop play despite an obvious head injury.

In his first Premier League season, Sanchez has become the star of his team with 16 goals. It’s no surprise to see him named in the PFA team of the year. Sanchez made it 3-0 on the stroke of halftime by forcing a turnover in midfield. The ball fell to Ozil, who found Ramsey. Full of energy, Sanchez was both at the start and the end of that play as he collected Ramsey’s through ball to round Harper and slot into an empty net.

Wilshere’s return from injury

Sanchez’s scoring resurgence comes at the right time with Giroud suffering a dip in form. It’s too bad that Welbeck is sidelined by a knee inflammation because I think the manager would have considered starting him up front against Swansea.

Ramsey is not our most gifted player but what I like about him is the energy and drive he shows on the pitch. He had three turnovers in the first 15 minutes before suffering a dirty tackle from Huddlestone. A lot of players would feel down after such an ugly start but not Ramsey. He proved mentally strong and reacted well with a goal and an assist. The best part of his game is when he makes those deep runs that are not tracked by our opponents. Coquelin led a counterattack in the 19th but his limited passing skills prevented the Frenchman from slipping the ball to Ramsey, unmarked at the far post.

In his return from an ankle injury, Wilshere came off the bench to replace Ramsey in the 68th. Wilshere looked sharp, especially with a mazy run in the 70th stopped by a foul from Dawson. He also combined with Ozil in the 75th as the Germany playmaker fed Cazorla, whose first-time effort went straight into Harper’s arms. I definitely believe Wilshere should play as an attacking midfielder or as an all-rounder because he can make a big difference in the final third. Hodgson is wasting Wilshere’s talent by using him as a holding midfielder. There are English players who can do a better job than Wilshere in that position while I don’t think the same is true in the playmaking role.

Cazorla’s master stroke

Cazorla’s change of role this season has been positive for the club. The Spaniard started his Arsenal career as a false winger before turning into an all-around midfielder a few months ago. His reading of the game, his technique and his unselfishness have definitely helped Coquelin settle in front of the back four. To a certain extent, Cazorla has taken on the role of Xavi in his prime at Barcelona.

Cazorla has become instrumental in preserving the balance of the team, acting like the keeper of Arsenal’s football identity with his great vision and passing skills. He led the team with 106 passes. That tells you how important he is for his teammates. His long ball for Ramsey in the 33rd was a master stroke. Cazorla delivered another magical through ball in the 45th to send Sanchez clean through on goal but Harper saved the Chilean’s chip attempt. The Spaniard could have scored but had an angled strike turned around the post by Harper in the 37th and a low drive acrobatically stopped by the Hull goalkeeper in the 83rd. Defensively, Cazorla showed his generosity with two interceptions, two blocks and a tackle won.

Ozil also had a good game, making quite a few runs to create space. His understanding with Sanchez split the Hull defense apart a couple of times. Sanchez played a one-two with Ozil in the 13th to fire a low drive that Harper parried. Ozil then combined with Sanchez in the 44th for an angled strike. I guess their best move came in the 63rd when Ozil released Sanchez down the left flank with a backheel flick. Sanchez tried to feed Ozil but Harper intercepted the cross. Ozil had one thing in common with Cazorla: Cazorla in the first half and Ozil in the second half poorly took corners, failing to beat the first man.

Bellerin’s attacking verve

The manager replaced Giroud with Walcott in the closing minutes. Walcott has become so peripheral to the team that his lack of understanding with Sanchez showed in stoppage time. Sanchez led a counterattack with Walcott by his side against two Hull defenders. The Chilean had no clue about Walcott’s favored runs and ended up dragging a low diagonal shot wide.

Wenger made no change to the side that drew 0-0 with Chelsea last month. The Tigers troubled the visitors by pressing high up the pitch in the opening minutes, leading Coquelin and Koscielny to express their impatience with long balls going nowhere. I thought Arsenal’s defensive performance in the first half was outstanding. Mertesacker killed two half-chances by clearing a pass from Aluko in the 23rd and cutting a cross from N’Doye in the 41st. The only scare came from Bellerin’s naivety in the 38th. The Spanish rightback underestimated N’Doye’s speed and missed his interception. However, N’Doye’s final ball was poor with his cross sailing straight into Ospina’s arms.

Bellerin displayed his attacking verve in the 61st with a cross for Sanchez, who could only muster a tame header. The Spaniard then took his chance in the 85th with a powerful strike that Harper palmed into the path of Wilshere. The England international pounced on the rebound for a goalbound effort but Chester blocked the shot with his arm. The referee did not award any penalty. To be fair, Chester seemed to pull away his arm. But in that kind of situation, especially with the goalkeeper stranded on the ground, I believe a penalty and no booking should be the correct call. It’s quite different from a cross that is not a clear-cut chance. In injury time, Walcott connected with another cross from Bellerin but missed the target from 12 yards.

Preparing next season

While the Gunners dominated the first half with six shots on target to none for Hull, they mostly sought to protect their lead after the break. Mertesacker prevented the Tigers from capitalizing on a Coquelin turnover in the 77th by clearing a cross from Meyler.

By winning 10 of their last 11 games in all competitions, the Gunners are doing the opposite of last season. The manager must find a way to make his squad perform consistently over an entire season. The summer transfer window officially opens on July 1, but it’s now that the staff must make choices that will prove crucial for the club next season.