Tag Archives: Wilshere

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

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

Borisov vs. Arsenal 2017

Photo credit: Walcott’s Twitter account

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

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

  1. Never give space to Walcott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Wilshere is building up his fitness and confidence

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

  1. The midfield lost control

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

  1. The back three looked suspect

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

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

  1. Giroud scored his 100th goal for Arsenal

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

  1. Ospina had a decent game

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

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League Cup: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win over Doncaster

The Gunners edged Doncaster 1-0 on Wednesday to next play Norwich in the fourth round of the League Cup. Because it is a less important competition than the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Europa League, Wenger fielded a makeshift team that included Sanchez, 4 youngsters (Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Holding and Chambers) and 6 benchwarmers (Ospina, Mertesacker, Elneny, Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud).

Arsenal v Doncaster Rovers - Carabao Cup Third Round

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

The heavy rotation explained Arsenal’s poor passing game. The poor finishing was more embarrassing and more difficult to justify with Sanchez, Giroud and Walcott in the front three. By failing to put the result beyond doubt, the Gunners gave third-division Doncaster plenty of hope in the second half. With a bit of luck, the Rovers could have equalized in the closing minutes to force extra time.

  1. Wilshere could play a big role this season

In his first start of the season, Wilshere teamed up with Elneny in central midfield. I would have preferred to see Willock or Maitland-Niles play alongside Wilshere, but I can understand the manager’s decision to give Wilshere an easy ride by partnering him with a seasoned player like Elneny.

In the role of a deep-lying playmaker, Wilshere had not much defensive work as the Gunners dominated ball possession. He took his chance in the 28th minute with a long-range strike that got deflected out. With Cazorla set to miss most of the season and Coquelin sidelined by a hamstring injury, Wilshere could easily finish the season with more than 20 games under his belt. Ramsey and Xhaka currently form Arsenal’s best duo in midfield, but the 3-4-3 system is very demanding for both of them and will require some rotation to avoid injuries.

  1. Walcott saved the day

He scored the winner in the 25th by making his signature diagonal run to control a long ball from Sanchez before lifting it over Lawlor. Walcott should have added a second goal in the 49th. On a counterattack, Giroud made a perfect cross for Walcott, who missed the target from 15 yards. TV replays seemed to suggest that his shot took a deflection off the goalkeeper.

Our options on the wings are limited this season. Oxlade-Chamberlain was sold to Liverpool this summer, Perez has been loaned out to Deportivo, and Welbeck picked up a groin injury against Chelsea. Walcott doesn’t have the work-rate and all-around game to start in Premier League games when everybody is fit, but he’s a decent option off the bench. Iwobi replaced Walcott in the 76th and wasted two good situations with a poor final ball.

  1. Sanchez is building up his fitness

This has been a complicated summer for Sanchez. He had some time off in July to recover from the Confederations Cup. Then he picked up an abdominal strain in August before being involved in an aborted move to Manchester City. He hasn’t performed at 100 percent of his abilities yet. Sanchez has basically used the games against Cologne and Doncaster to build up his fitness.

The Chile striker hit a cross-shot wide in the fourth minute before testing Lawlor with a bouncing free kick in the 10th. Because there are only 2 central midfielders in the 3-4-3 system, one of the players in the front three is usually a creative player. On Wednesday, Sanchez often dropped back to help create chances. He made the assist for Walcott’s goal and also set up Giroud for a scoring chance in the second half.

  1. Is Giroud going through a scoring drought?

The France striker hasn’t scored since the Leicester game on opening day. His old understanding with Wilshere (remember that Norwich goal?) showed in the sixth minute. The English midfielder made a chipped pass for Giroud, who rattled the bar with a spectacular bicycle kick. That was unfortunately Giroud’s best goal attempt. He headed Elneny’s cross over the bar in the 20th and missed the target with volleys in the 28th and 88th.

His physicality caused problems for the Doncaster defense but Giroud had two penalty shouts turned down. Giroud also had injury scares in the second half. First, Mason made a late challenge on the Frenchman in the 68th. Then Butler trapped Giroud’s left ankle with an awkward sliding clearance three minutes later. I hope Giroud will rediscover his finishing touch because he may start in the next 3 Premier League games against West Brom, Brighton and Watford. You can expect Arsenal to dominate ball possession in those games.

  1. Youngsters always give you the jitters

Nelson and Maitland-Niles are the two most promising prospects in the academy. They were rewarded with starting spots in the League Cup. Yet, it nearly looked like a poisoned gift as they were played out of position. Nelson is usually a winger but played as a wingback because the manager wanted to give Walcott some playing time. And Maitland-Niles is usually a central midfielder but played also as a wingback because Wenger wanted to rest both Kolasinac and Monreal. The positive is that they see the game differently and can hone their defensive game. The negative is that they don’t feel comfortable in those positions.

Maitland-Niles wasted two good situations in the first half with crosses that lacked accuracy. He then gave away the ball to Whiteman by attempting a blind pass to Dasilva in the 79th. However, Maitland-Niles had enough pace to catch Whiteman and win the ball back. Nelson also ran into trouble with a dribbling attempt on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 55th. The U23 winger then let May bear down on goal in the 58th by misreading the bounce of the ball. Fortunately, Maitland-Niles covered him and bullied May off the ball.

By his own standards, Nelson had a poor game. He was dispossessed a couple of times with cheeky dribbles in the opening minutes. Despite a below-par performance, Nelson still managed to test Lawlor with a 20-yard drive in the 45th and an angled shot in the 65th.

 

Arsenal vs. Cologne: A few thoughts on the 3-1 win

Arsenal took the lead in Group H of the Europa League by defeating Cologne 3-1 on Thursday. Despite what the scoreline might suggest, it wasn’t a walk in the park. The game was delayed for an hour because of safety concerns caused by some 20,000 German supporters around the Emirates stadium. Wenger even said he thought the match would be postponed.

Arsenal vs. Cologne 2017

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

On the pitch, the Gunners made life difficult for themselves by conceding an early goal against the run of play. Some supporters added more pressure on the team by booing back passes. A tactical switch and a substitution at halftime helped Arsenal get back into the game. Kolasinac equalized with a volley in the 49th minute before Sanchez scored in the 67th and Bellerin sealed the win in the 82nd.

  1. Wenger got his priorities right

Sunday’s game at Chelsea is much more important than a Europa League match. That’s why the manager did not hesitate to make 9 changes to the side that routed Bournemouth 3-0 last Saturday with only Bellerin and Monreal retaining their starting spots. Cech, Ramsey, Ozil, Xhaka, Lacazette and Welbeck were not even in the squad while Mustafi and Kolasinac were on the bench at kickoff. And Koscielny was serving a suspension after receiving a red card against Bayern Munich last season.

  1. Don’t play youngsters out of position

Wenger improved the careers of Petit and Henry by moving them to new positions. Petit was a leftback by trade at Monaco before becoming a world-class defensive midfielder at Arsenal while Henry was a winger at Monaco and Juventus before Wenger turned him into a prolific centerforward. Those experiments worked because Petit and Henry both had the skills and tactical intelligence to adapt to those roles.

Maitland-Niles’ best position is central midfielder. Yet, the manager played him at wingback and centerback in the pre-season friendlies. On Thursday, the Gunners lost a source of supply on the left flank by playing Maitland-Niles in the wingback position. Just like Bellerin in the Stoke and Liverpool games, Maitland-Niles didn’t make any cross because he’s a right-footed player.

At halftime, Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-2-3-1 formation by replacing Holding with Kolasinac as Maitland-Niles joined Elneny in central midfield. The move paid off with Maitland-Niles performing better in that role while Kolasinac brought more fluidity down the left flank.

Maitland-Niles nearly found the net with a penetrative run in the 64th but was dispossessed by the goalkeeper in a one-on-one duel. There’s still a lot of polishing to do but the potential is there. Maitland-Niles needs to be more tidy in possession and improve his concentration levels. He was late for a block in the 79th when Jojic tested Ospina with a 25-yard strike.

New signing Kolasinac has quickly become a favorite among fans since his goal in the Community Shield. Barely four minutes after coming off the bench, he volleyed home a loose ball to level the score. Kolasinac initiated the final goal by playing a one-two with Sanchez before cutting the ball back for Walcott, who was denied by Horn. But Bellerin pounced on the rebound to score with a sliding effort. Kolasinac’s movement and reading of the game also helped him strike a better understanding with Sanchez down the left flank.

  1. Iwobi must improve his positional play and work-rate

Last season, Iwobi played as an attacking midfielder either in the hole or on a wing in the old 4-2-3-1 formation. He lost his starting spot when the team shifted to a 3-4-3 system. On Thursday, Wenger played Iwobi in central midfield. Iwobi’s impact on the game proved weak because of his poor work-rate and lack of spatial awareness. The Gunners struggled to find Iwobi because the Nigeria international did not make himself available like Cazorla, Ozil or Ramsey.

In the first half, Iwobi played too high up the pitch. Instead of acting as a deep-lying playmaker, Iwobi pretty much played like a No. 10. Wenger realized that Iwobi did not understand the role of a central midfielder and therefore shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation that was more familiar for Iwobi.

In the second half, Iwobi felt more comfortable in the No. 10 role. His attacking stats are decent with 3 key passes and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to Squawka. But his defensive stats show his poor work-rate with no tackle won, no interception and no block. Iwobi will need to get rid of this habit of running into traffic to cheaply give away the ball.

  1. Midfield is still an issue

The tempo was too slow in the first half because nobody pulled the strings in midfield. When Cazorla is sidelined, Ozil often drops back to help build up play. The lack of creativity was also blatant as Elneny and Iwobi don’t have the passing skills of Cazorla or Ozil. Defensively, Iwobi pretty much left Elneny on his own. Elneny only won 2 of 6 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. That’s OK against an average side like Cologne but it won’t be enough against a good team.

  1. Holding looked out of his depth

The youngster was such a nervous wreck that Wenger yanked him off at halftime. In 45 minutes, Holding won 0 of 3 tackles, and made 3 fouls, 0 interception and 0 block. Holding showed poor decision-making in the third minute when he attempted a risky clearance instead of making a back pass to Ospina. Bittencourt blocked the clearance to be clean through on goal but Holding pulled him back. Surprisingly, the referee did not even book Holding for that cynical foul. A minute later, Holding fouled Bittencourt on the edge of the Arsenal box. He then failed to block Cordoba’s wonder strike in the 10th. Attempting to make amends, Holding gave Cologne a counterattacking opportunity by running into traffic and losing possession in the 40th.

In the summer, the Gunners sold Paulista and kept Mustafi, Chambers and Holding. In hindsight, a smarter policy would have been to sell Chambers, keep Paulista and Mustafi and loan out Holding. The England U21 international is so low on confidence that you wonder what kind of competition would help his development: Europa League? League Cup? Championship?

  1. Sanchez is still hungry

The Chile striker will need great performances in his last season at the club to earn a fat contract next summer. Despite a relative lack of match sharpness, Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead by cutting inside to curl a shot into the far corner. He could have scored another goal in the 89th but his lob attempt sailed wide. Fans could see his desire as he pressed high up the pitch several times.

  1. A high defensive line with Mertesacker is suicidal

Playing a high defensive line can be challenging when you have a centerback with no recovery pace like Mertesacker. Most of Cologne’s chances resulted from Mertesacker’s sluggishness. Zoller initiated the opening goal by making a run between Monreal and Mertesacker. Ospina came off his line because Zoller was clean through on goal.

The German side nearly doubled the lead by using the same ploy in the 16th. Zoller beat the offside trap by making a run between Mertesacker and Holding. However, Zoller struggled to control the ball, which ended up rolling toward Ospina. Cologne exploited again Arsenal’s high defensive line in the 72nd. Cordoba rolled away from Mertesacker and dribbled past Monreal to fire a low strike that Ospina turned around the post.

  1. Arsenal shouldn’t extend Walcott’s contract

Walcott’s limited technique was exposed on Thursday. He was dispossessed 4 times and was flagged offside 4 times, the most for any player in both categories. Despite his clumsiness, Walcott managed to get involved in two goals. It was his blocked cross that led to Kolasinac’s equalizer. Then his lost duel against Horn led to the final goal. Nelson, who replaced Walcott in the 83rd, is already a much better player at the same age. Wenger will carefully give Nelson some playing time this season before integrating him into the first team next year.

  1. Giroud had an off day

The France striker tried hard but couldn’t find the net. Giroud took a pass from Maitland-Niles in the 14th for a close-range effort that Heintz deflected out. He then met a cross from Bellerin in the 20th for a tame header that Horn easily saved. I thought Giroud should have scored in the 39th when he connected with a cross from Sanchez but sent his header wide. Giroud was dominant in the air, winning 4 of 4 aerial duels. I was surprised that the Gunners didn’t try to find him more in the second half. Cologne proved so weak in the air that they only won 20% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

  1. Ospina was rusty

In his first game of the season, Ospina hit a poor clearance that led to the opening goal. The Colombia goalkeeper learned his lesson in the second half as he kicked the ball straight into touch in a similar situation. Ospina made a fine save in the 72nd to prevent Cologne from leveling. His quick legs are definitely an asset when you have Mertesacker in the back three.

  1. Bellerin had a good game

After a couple of disappointing performances, Bellerin finally showed the level that justified his selection in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year. The Spaniard scored a goal, created 2 chances, had a passing accuracy of 92%, made 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 1 of 1 tackle and 3 of 3 aerial duels and made 4 interceptions and 1 block. He’s obviously a better player on the right flank than on the left.

  1. Could this be Wilshere’s season?

In his first game of the season with the first team, Wilshere came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 68th. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in the 3-4-3 system, but Cazorla’s injury and our midfield woes give him a big opportunity to get some playing time.

  1. Debuchy and Chambers have no future at the club

Both players were not even included in the Europa League squad. That doesn’t look good when youngsters like Holding and Maitland-Niles start and when Reine-Adelaide, Nelson and Akpom get the nod on the bench. Debuchy can only blame himself for not accepting a salary cut at another club while Chambers must have regrets about his aborted move to Leicester.

 

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.