Tag Archives: Xhaka

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth: Gunners restore a bit of order with 3-0 win

Welbeck always catches your attention with his work-rate. The only question mark is about the end product. Manchester United fans liked his attitude and performance but lamented his finishing. So it was not a surprise when Van Gaal let Welbeck join Arsenal in 2014. On Saturday, Welbeck reminded Manchester United fans what could have been by scoring two goals and making an assist in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth 2017

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

The England international opened the scoring in the sixth minute by heading Kolasinac’s cross into the bottom corner. He set up the second goal in the 28th by feeding Lacazette, who fired into the top corner from 20 yards. Welbeck made it 3-0 by taking a pass from Ramsey in the 50th to beat Begovic with a low diagonal strike. He could have notched a hat trick after dribbling past Cook but his chip sailed wide of the far post in the 60th.

Welbeck worked so hard that he led all players with 3 fouls. On a more positive note, he also won 1 of 3 tackles and 2 of 5 aerial duels while making 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. Although he mostly played on the left flank, Welbeck proved a valuable outlet to help the Arsenal defense evade Bournemouth’s high press. The only blemish on Welbeck’s outstanding performance was his 4 turnovers due to poor touches, according to whoscored.com.

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that was thrashed 4-0 at Anfield with Lacazette, Kolasinac and Mustafi replacing Sanchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Holding in the starting lineup. There was a lot of pressure before the game because the Gunners had lost their 2 previous league games.

A walk in the park

Late business in the transfer window completely destabilized the team. The manager did not field his best lineup at Liverpool because he tried to convince the Ox to stay while Mustafi was linked with a move to Inter Milan. Things nearly went back to normal on Saturday as Wenger benched an unfit Sanchez and played Kolasinac on the left flank and Bellerin on the right.

In the end, it proved a walk in the park. Arsenal created 14 chances to just 4 for the Cherries. The Gunners also showed more commitment by winning 16 of 23 tackles compared to 9 of 17 for the visitors. The scoreline could have been more embarrassing for Bournemouth if the quality of the final ball had been better. Ramsey overhit a long ball for Lacazette in the 26th while Bellerin put too much weight on a pass to the French striker in the 62nd.

Lacazette proved tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 94.1%. His 100 goals in the French league have made his flair for goals pretty obvious. He showed on Saturday that he can score from anywhere in the final third. Welbeck gave him another opportunity to find the net in the 37th by charging down Begovic’s clearance. Lacazette pounced on the loose ball but was denied by the Bournemouth goalkeeper. In hindsight, maybe dribbling past Begovic was a better option than a first-time effort.

Cheers and boos for Sanchez

Welbeck and Lacazette were replaced by Sanchez and Giroud in the 74th. Sanchez performed poorly for Chile during the international break and had to overcome the disappointment of an aborted move to Manchester City. The majority of the fans cheered him when he came onto the pitch but a minority booed him. Sanchez may need two more weeks to be at the top of his game again. In his 16-minute cameo, Sanchez set up Giroud for an angled shot in the 79th and tested Begovic with a low strike in stoppage time.

Both Sanchez and Ozil have decided to run down their contracts. At the age of 28, they know they have one last opportunity to cash in their talent. They will have to perform well in their last season at the club if they want to convince potential suitors that they are worth the cash. Ozil led the team with 3 key passes but had very little impact in the final third. His work-rate was decent with 1 interception, 1 block and 2 tackles made.

Ozil often swapped positions with Lacazette, oscillating between the role of a second striker and the instincts of a playmaker. Looking for space between the lines, Ozil was caught offside twice. He forced a one-handed save from Begovic with a curling free kick in the 16th. Then he sent a half-volley wide with his weaker foot in the 56th.

Coquelin’s hamstring injury

In midfield, Xhaka and Ramsey didn’t have much work to do for the simple reason that the Cherries were all over the place. Howe tried to mimic Arsenal’s 3-4-3 system but his team didn’t really master the subtleties of such a formation. Xhaka and Ramsey combined to make 3 interceptions and win 1 of 3 tackles, the kind of stats that Kante can get in 45 minutes. Xhaka won 71.4% of his duels, compared to 33.3% for Ramsey according to the club’s website, but had a passing accuracy of only 72.6%.

Offensively, Xhaka tested Begovic with a long-range strike in the 12th. Defensively, he was too static in the 48th when the Cherries created their first scoring chance. Xhaka left Kolasinac in a 1v2 situation with Francis and Ibe, which explains why Kolasinac couldn’t stop Ibe’s cross for Defoe, whose glancing header hit the near post.

Ramsey made the penultimate pass for the opening goal and fed Welbeck for the third. He could have scored in the 57th but failed to make solid contact with the ball while meeting a cross from Ozil. The Gunners enjoyed 59% of ball possession, so it’s not in those games that Ramsey’s positional play can be seriously tested. A lapse of concentration still led Ramsey to give the ball away in a dangerous area in the 32nd.

Coquelin came off the bench to replace Ramsey in the 67th as the manager wanted to protect Arsenal’s three-goal lead. Did Coquelin fail to properly warm up? The French midfielder pulled his hamstring in the 81st and could not be replaced because Wenger had already made his 3 substitutions. Despite their numerical inferiority, the Gunners managed to keep a clean sheet.

Stopping dangerous crosses

Common sense dictates to have a left-footed player in the leftback position. Yet, Wenger decided to play Bellerin on the left wing against Stoke and Liverpool to accommodate Oxlade-Chamberlain on the opposite wing. The logical outcome was a lack of cross from the left flank. On Saturday, Wenger finally did what most rational managers would do by starting Bellerin on the right and Kolasinac on the left. That move paid off as Kolasinac made the assist for the opening goal.

Bellerin and Kolasinac finished the game with 2 key passes each. Arsenal fans were relieved when Bellerin volleyed the ball into touch as the Cherries cleared their lines from a corner. Obviously, Bellerin remembered the blunder he made when Salah scored for Liverpool. Using a back three makes sense since Arsenal’s fullbacks almost play like wingers. In the 40th, Bellerin made a cross for Kolasinac, whose volley was blocked by Smith.

The main challenge for Kolasinac this season will be stop dangerous crosses. Both Monreal and Gibbs failed in the previous seasons. Kolasinac lost a duel against Ibe, who crossed the ball for King in the 89th. The Bournemouth forward beat Bellerin to the ball for a looping header that Cech tipped over the bar. Kolasinac will also need to be more tidy in possession. He only had a passing accuracy of 73% compared to 84% for Bellerin.

Blooding youngsters

At the back, Koscielny led all players with 4 interceptions and 5 aerial duels won out of 7. The France centerback wasn’t completely sharp yet as he won none of the 2 tackles he made. There was an injury scare in the 46th when King stamped on Koscielny’s leg. The referee assumed it was unintentional otherwise it would have been a red card. Mustafi was a bit shaky as he missed a tackle on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 61st and was nearly dispossessed while dribbling in his own half in the 66th. His relative weakness in the air led to Bournemouth’s scoring chance in the 48th. Mustafi only won 1 aerial duel out of 3.

I still felt Arsenal made the right choice this summer by selling Paulista and keeping Mustafi. The Germany international can have poor games but he’s less dodgy in his decision-making than Paulista, whose poor command of English hampered his integration.

Saturday’s game was just the first of 7 games in a 23-day span. I hope the manager will play a makeshift team for the Europa League game against Cologne on Thursday because the Gunners don’t have a squad strong enough to seriously compete in four competitions. The Europa League should be a great opportunity to introduce more competition within the squad and blood youngsters like Holding, Nelson, Willock, Maitland-Niles and Chambers while giving some playing time to benchwarmers like Mertesacker, Elneny, Walcott, Iwobi and Ospina.

If the Gunners reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League, maybe Wenger should start fielding his best lineup, but until then it doesn’t make sense to ruin our Premier League season by chasing glory in a cheap European competition. The Chelsea game next Sunday is much more important than getting a good result against Cologne.

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Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Defensive shambles exposed in 4-0 loss

It’s time to get really worried. The Gunners are on pace to finish the Premier League season with more than 100 goals conceded after an embarrassing 4-0 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday. They have already let 8 goals in. Only the Hammers have a more porous defense in the league with 10 goals conceded.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal 2017

Photo credit: Alexis Sanchez’s Instagram account

The Reds completely outplayed Arsenal with 10 shots on target to 0. The scoreline could have been more humiliating if Cech had not made 6 saves. Liverpool showed more desire, winning 59% of the duels and 22 tackles to 12, according to the club’s website. By contrast, the Gunners were not at the races. Their performance was so listless that some fans even sang: “you’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

A lot of fans are frustrated because the same old defensive frailties resurfaced at Anfield: Arsenal couldn’t handle crosses, turnovers and counterattacks. What made the loss more bitter is that the Reds looked like a slick machine with a great work-rate while the Gunners couldn’t press as a unit and didn’t seem to pull for each other.

There are obvious signs that this Arsenal squad is regressing. Sunday’s result brought back memories of the 2013-14 season when Arsenal suffered heavy losses at Manchester City (6-3), Liverpool (5-1) and Chelsea (6-0). The players definitely deserve some stick but in the end Wenger can’t escape the fact that he’s the one who hired them.

Three months ago, the manager said the club was one or two signings away from contending in the league. Well, the Liverpool game showed that the Gunners will need more than Lacazette and Kolasinac just to have a decent shot at finishing in the Top 4.

Organizational mess

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Stoke the previous weekend with Koscielny, Holding and Sanchez replacing Mustafi, Kolasinac and Lacazette in the starting lineup. I thought the team selection was weird. Why would you give the nod to Holding over the more experienced Mustafi? Then why would you play a right-footed player like Bellerin in the left wingback position instead of Kolasinac or Monreal? It’s no surprise if Arsenal only made 1 accurate cross compared to 8 for Liverpool, according to whoscored.com.

Up front, the manager picked Welbeck for his pace and physicality. Giroud and Lacazette are more clinical than Welbeck, but Giroud lacks pace while Lacazette is still adjusting to the physical side of the Premier League. The only positive from the team selection was the return of Koscielny and Sanchez, respectively from suspension and injury.

Defending crosses was an issue last season. Sadly, the staff still hasn’t found the cure. Liverpool midfielder Can outjumped the Arsenal defense to head Moreno’s cross wide in the sixth minute. You can see the organizational mess in the screen capture below.

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Moreno and Henderson, circled, are unmarked while 6 Gunners deal with 3 Reds inside the box. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Gunners were so scared of the danger that there were too many of them inside the area while Moreno and Henderson were left unmarked. The irony is that while the Gunners had numerical superiority inside the box, they committed too many players at the near post and left Bellerin in a 1v2 situation with Salah and Can at the far post. What’s the point of having 3 defenders at the near post if they don’t mark anybody?

Some more gruyere cheese?

Liverpool capitalized on some nifty one-touch passing to torment the Arsenal defense with another cross in the 10th. Ramsey failed to track Can, who made a cross for Salah at the far post. Salah beat Bellerin to the ball for a low effort but was denied by Cech.

The Reds finally opened the scoring in the 17th when Xhaka’s risky pass for Bellerin was intercepted by Gomez. Bellerin barely attempted to stop Gomez’s cross while Firmino took advantage of Arsenal’s poor marking to find the net from 6 yards with a free header. You have to give credit to Firmino for his smart movement and his ability to play between the lines. But there was a too big gap between Holding and Koscielny and I thought Holding should have put off Firmino when the Brazilian striker ghosted past Koscielny.

The second goal came from a counterattack starting from the Liverpool box in the 40th. Gomez made an interception and found Wijnaldum, who beat Xhaka with a pass to Can. See the screen capture below.

Liverpool M40a editedRamsey and Xhaka are stuck high up the pitch as the Reds counterattack. (Photo credit: Sky)

The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese as the ball travelled to Mane, who cut inside Holding to curl a shot into the far corner. The shift to a back three means that the Gunners don’t have numerical inferiority if the midfield is overrun. Of course, the trouble is that defenders still have to win duels. See the screen capture below.

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The Gunners have numerical superiority but Holding loses his duel. (Photo credit: Sky)

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka in central midfield struggled against Stoke. So it was no surprise to see them completely outplayed by Henderson, Wijnaldum and Can. Ramsey’s tactical indiscipline definitely cost his team. The Wales midfielder was dispossessed 3 times, tied with Ozil for the most by any player. The irony is that Ramsey still performed better than Xhaka, winning 41.7% of his duels and 2 of 6 tackles compared to 20% and 0 of 3 tackles for the Switzerland international, according to Squawka and the club’s website.

Xhaka’s poor positional play

Xhaka has performed poorly in the first 3 games of the season. His weak positional play has often been exposed when opponents hit Arsenal on the fast break. That’s a big concern when you are supposed to be the holding midfielder. Arteta also lacked pace but his positional play wasn’t as dodgy as Xhaka’s. What made Xhaka’s performance look bad was his passing accuracy of 86.8%, well below his usual standards and lower than Ramsey’s 95.8%.

The most depressing part for Arsenal fans is that whoever the manager picks, the midfield is flawed. Wenger replaced Ramsey with Coquelin at halftime, shifting from a 3-4-3 system to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Bellerin and Monreal as fullbacks and Oxlade-Chamberlain as a winger. In 45 minutes, Coquelin won 0 tackle and 0 aerial duel and made just 1 interception.

The final goal from a counterattack in the 77th showed again the ineptitude of our midfielders. Coquelin was in a too advanced position as Firmino found Can in midfield. Firmino was already surrounded by Monreal and Xhaka, so there was no reason for Coquelin to come forward. See the screen capture below.

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Firmino beats Monreal, Xhaka and Coquelin with a pass to Can. (Photo credit: Sky)

Trying to make up for Coquelin’s mistake, Holding sprinted forward to press Can. It proved a losing gamble as Can held off Holding to feed Salah on our right flank. Bellerin failed to block Salah’s cross for an unmarked Sturridge, who headed home from two yards. See the screen capture below.

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Koscielny left in a 1v2 situation as Monreal and Holding are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

It was not a game tailored for Ozil, who still led Arsenal players with 2 key passes. The Germany playmaker also won 1 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions. Some poor communication allowed Henderson to dispossess Ozil in the 19th. Henderson played a one-two with Firmino before missing the target. Koscielny hesitated for a split second, probably thinking about the offside trap, and failed to stay with Henderson.

Rushing Holding’s development

Some Gunners seemed incredibly casual on Sunday as if they were playing some kind of friendly. Monreal made a dribbling attempt in midfield and lost possession to Salah, whose low strike was parried by Cech in the 54th. Three minutes later, Liverpool cleared a corner into the path of Bellerin. As the last defender, Bellerin should have kicked the ball back into the box with his first touch. But the Spaniard tried to control the ball with a poor first touch and was dispossessed by Salah, who sprinted 70 yards to slip the ball past Cech for a 3-0 lead. That goal mentally killed the team as a dejected Sanchez sank to his knees.

Bellerin looked like a shadow of the fullback who was voted in the PFA Team of the Year during the 2015-16 season. He won only 22.2% of his duels and 1 of 4 dribbles. The Ox had a poor game too, winning just 28.6% of his duels while making no tackle, but at least he wasn’t involved in a high-profile blunder. It was quite obvious that the Ox had his mind elsewhere.

It might not be the best time for a youngster to play in such a dysfunctional club. I can only sympathize with Holding, whose development is being recklessly rushed. Holding looked average in a back three. The shift to a back four made him look pedestrian in the second half. Holding gave the ball away to Mane in the 70th but Cech took the sting out of Mane’s effort before Bellerin cleared the ball off the line. Three minutes later, Holding was let down by another poor touch and got booked for crashing into Henderson.

Koscielny’s decent performance

Holding was obviously the weak link in the Arsenal defense, leading all players with 4 turnovers. You can’t afford that many turnovers in such a key position. Liverpool’s pressing game clearly put Holding under pressure as he hit only 2 accurate long balls out of 12 and had a passing accuracy of 71.9%, the lowest percentage of all the defenders. On the bright side, Holding won 4 of 4 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions. I still believe Holding should be loaned out to develop at a reasonable pace.

Monreal also underperformed at the back, winning only 1 of 9 tackles and 28.6% of his duels compared to 70% for Koscielny and 55.6% for Holding. The Spaniard was guilty on the last goal and struggled with the pace of the Liverpool wingers. Salah cut inside Monreal in the 25th to fire a low strike that Cech palmed away.

In his first game of the season, Koscielny was one of the few Gunners who performed at a decent level, winning 2 of 2 tackles and 5 of 7 aerial duels and making 4 interceptions and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. Koscielny is a quiet man but he must raise his voice to prevent the ship from sinking, especially since Mertesacker, the natural leader in the squad, is no longer a starter.

Up front, it was a rough day for strikers deprived of service. Welbeck worked his socks off, winning 2 of 4 tackles. He nearly dispossessed Karius twice. His only scoring chance came in the seventh minute when Sanchez led a counterattack. Wrestling with Gomez, Welbeck could only send an off-balance shot over the bar.

Sanchez still lacked a bit of match sharpness in his first game of the season. I guess the manager opted for Welbeck in the lone striker role because Sanchez is more familiar with Welbeck’s game than with Lacazette’s runs. Wenger yanked Sanchez off in the 62nd to send on Giroud, who proved dominant in the air, knocking a high ball down for Lacazette in the 69th and heading Ozil’s free kick over the bar in the 89th.

Just a few days left to save the season

The Gunners now sit in 16th place, 6 points behind Manchester United and 4 points behind Liverpool and City. The manager and the team will be under heavy scrutiny for the next game against Bournemouth on Sept. 9. The atmosphere at the Emirates stadium could quickly become suffocating if the Cherries take the lead or if the Gunners struggle to find the net.

The board members were aware of such a risk when they extended Wenger’s contract. They can only blame themselves for the club’s messy dressing room and shambolic start to the season. Wenger is a very good manager, but the Premier League has become much more competitive in the past couple of years.

During the 2006-07 season, the league had Ferguson, Mourinho and Benitez as top managers. Now Wenger has to compete with Mourinho, Guardiola, Benitez, Conte, Klopp and Pochettino. Some of them belong to a new generation of hands-on manager while Wenger has a more hands-off approach. In the era of micro-managing, some players need more guidance and want answers quickly because their careers are short. I’m not sure Wenger is the kind of person they need.

I still think it’s non-sensical to talk of firing Wenger for the simple reason that no decent manager is available at this stage of the season. If the board wanted a new manager, they had to make a move in the summer.

Now the staff has the international break to sort out the dressing room. And the club has until August 31 to save this season by signing the players it desperately needs. Wenger mentioned Lemar and Mbappe in his news conferences. But Sunday’s humiliating defeat made it clear that the Gunners need defensive leaders, not attacking players.

 

Stoke vs. Arsenal: 1-0 loss exposes midfield issues

There was this hope that the Gunners had turned a corner by winning 4-1 at the Britannia stadium last season. But Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Stoke reminded Arsenal fans that their club was stuck in a time loop like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The result showed again the importance of Koscielny at the back. Without the France defender, who was serving the last game of his three-match ban, the Gunners have already conceded four goals in their first two Premier League games. The Potters also exposed our midfield problems as they too easily reached the Arsenal box.

Stoke City v Arsenal - Premier League

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

You would think that Arsenal dominated the match with 77% of ball possession and 18 shots to 11, but Stoke proved as threatening as the visitors in the final third with both teams having 9 shots each from inside the box. Obviously, the Potters’ game plan was to park the bus and hit Arsenal on the fast break. They also showed more commitment than the Gunners by winning 55% of the duels and making 10 interceptions to 8 and 19 tackles to 16, according to the club’s website.

Wenger made two changes to the side that edged Leicester 4-3 the previous weekend with Mustafi and Ramsey replacing Holding and Elneny in the starting lineup. Holding was not even on the bench as Mertesacker took his spot in the squad. The manager also left out Sanchez, who’s recovering from an abdominal strain. I thought partnering Xhaka with Ramsey in central midfield was a bold move. Coquelin or Elneny would have been a more defensive option than Ramsey. Knowing Stoke’s game plan, Coquelin’s technical limitations would have been of no help to crack their defense. And Elneny would have not provided the same goal threat as Ramsey.

A dysfunctional midfield

Whatever pairing Wenger chooses, the Arsenal midfield will still be dysfunctional. Stoke only had Fletcher and Allen in central midfield, yet that was enough to trouble the Gunners. We simply have no pairing that can match the level of the duo formed by Vieira and Petit or Vieira and Gilberto. Since the solution does not exist in the squad, that means Arsenal can only find it in the transfer market.

The club has less than two weeks left to sign the top defensive midfielder who can shield the back three and help provide more tactical flexibility. Under Ancelotti, Real Madrid had Xabi Alonso and Modric in central midfield with Di Maria as a playmaker in front of them. Zidane added more security by playing a defensive midfielder, Casemiro, behind Kroos and Modric. If we assume that Xhaka is a pacesetter like Kroos and that Ramsey is a box-to-box player like Modric, that means the Gunners would need a ballwinner with better passing skills and a better reading of the game than Coquelin.

In the current 3-4-3 system, Xhaka is the holding midfielder. Unfortunately, he lacks the pace and positional play to perform that role. That’s why Xhaka needs a ballwinner who can relieve him of his defensive duties. A three-man midfield with an efficient ballwinner would also make the shift to a back four safer.

Xhaka had a poor game with a passing accuracy of 85.3%. He won just 20% of his duels compared to 60% for Ramsey, according to the club’s website. Although Ramsey plays in a more advanced position than Xhaka, the Wales midfielder performed better defensively, winning 4 of 6 tackles while Xhaka lost the only tackle he made, according to Squawka.

Ramsey’s lack of tactical discipline

Ramsey had three scoring chances. First, he chased a ball over the top from Lacazette in the 17th minute but could only muster a tame shot under Diouf’s pressure. Then, he connected with a free kick from Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 28th for a volley at the far post that Butland saved. In the 60th, Ramsey met a cross from Mustafi for a toe poke straight at the Stoke goalkeeper. Ramsey has often been compared to Gerrard and Lampard, but those two players were more selective in their runs and gave the priority to their defensive duties. It’s no coincidence if Ramsey plays as a free-roaming midfielder in the Wales team. That position makes up for his lack of tactical discipline.

The Arsenal midfield becomes too porous with Xhaka and Ramsey. They combined to have 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. The Potters’ first scoring chance in the third minute showed that the Arsenal midfield is the football version of gruyere cheese (see the screen captures below). Shawcross initially outjumped Lacazette to head a long ball into the path of Fletcher. Somehow, the 33-year-old Fletcher ran past Ramsey and Xhaka to feed Jese. The Spain international evaded Mustafi’s tackle but was denied by Cech.

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Fletcher making a 20-yard run between Ramsey and Xhaka. (Photo credit: NBC)

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The shift to a back three prevents the Arsenal defense from being outnumbered. (Photo credit: NBC)

Stoke’s winning goal in the 47th showed how dysfunctional the Arsenal midfield is. Cameron intercepted Xhaka’s pass for Ozil and found Jese, who ran unopposed for 25 yards before slipping the ball to Berahino on the edge of the box. Berahino played the ball back to Jese, who beat Cech with a low diagonal shot. Ozil got plenty of stick from Keown on BT Sport but the Germany playmaker was covering Ramsey, who got stuck up front (see the screen capture below).

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Cameron beats two Arsenal midfielders with that short pass to Jese. (Photo credit: NBC)

Xhaka was the main culprit on that play. First, he made a sloppy pass from the halfway line. Then he tried to make up for his mistake and dived in, giving Jese plenty of space to run into. Last season, Wenger switched to a back three because he realized the defense lacked protection from the midfield. The Arsenal defense is rarely outnumbered with three centerbacks but the centerbacks still have to win their duels (see the screen capture below). Monreal hesitated for a split second and was late to block Jese’s shot. I’m pretty sure Koscielny wouldn’t have made that mistake.

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The Arsenal defense left in a 3v3 situation because of a porous midfield. (Photo credit: NBC)

The absence of Cazorla and Sanchez meant that Ozil carried the burden of creating chances as Xhaka and Ramsey combined to make only one shot assist. The Gunners had 18 shots but very few were clear-cut chances. At times, they even seemed to lack penetration. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes, according to Squawka. He also had 3 successful dribbles out of 4. As usual, his work-rate was poor with 0 tackle and 1 interception.

Losing a source of supply

Wenger’s choices for the wingback positions also limited the potential for creating chances. In the FA Cup final, Bellerin started on the right flank while the Ox roamed down the left. On Saturday, Bellerin and the Ox swapped positions. In both cases, the Gunners are losing a source of supply since Bellerin and the Ox can’t accurately cross with their left foot. It would have made more sense to play Kolasinac on the left flank and the Ox on the right with Mustafi, Monreal and Bellerin as the three centerbacks.

The Ox had a good game with 3 key passes, 7 successful dribbles out of 8 and a passing accuracy of 89%. He also displayed some impressive work-rate with 3 interceptions, 3 blocks and 3 tackles made, according to Squawka. His only weakness was the relative lack of end product with none of his 3 shots on target. Some fans often wonder why the manager hardly plays the Ox in midfield. I guess his dribbling skills are more useful on a wing and his reading of the game is not good enough yet. Lacazette lauched a counterattack with a clearance in the 36th. The ball fell to the Ox, who wasted a promising situation by opting for a long-range effort instead of feeding Ozil or Welbeck (see the screen captures blow).

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The Ox could have played Ozil clean through on goal. (Photo credit: NBC)

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The Ox could have crossed to an unmarked Welbeck at the far post. (NBC)

Bellerin struggled on the left flank as he won only 25% of his duels compared to 58.8% for the Ox on the opposite wing. In fact, his stats are much weaker than when he plays on the right flank. Bellerin made 0 cross, created 0 chance and made 0 dribbling attempt. On the bright side, Bellerin won 2 of 5 tackles and had 2 shots. The Spaniard collected a through ball from Ozil in the 58th to fire a low strike that Butland parried. Bellerin should have definitely been awarded a penalty in the 20th when Diouf tripped him inside the area. Taking the lead so early would have forced Stoke to chase the game and free some space.

Not clinical enough

Up front, it was a frustrating day for Lacazette. The France international had 0 shot, made 0 dribble and won 0 aerial duel. I just think he’s not tailored for the centerforward position in the Premier League. Lacazette used to lead the line for Lyon, but the French league is less physical and more technical than the Premier League. He was outjumped by the Stoke defense whenever the Gunners kicked long balls.

In my eyes, Lacazette would be more productive in the Premier League as a second striker. In the first half, his only moment of brilliance occurred in the 17th when he sent a ball over the top for Ramsey. In the second half, he scored an equalizer but the goal was disallowed for a very marginal offside. TV replays showed the tip of Lacazette’s boot was offside. Wenger was quite upset with the referee’s decision. As long as the Premier League doesn’t introduce the video assistant referee, you can’t really blame the linesmen.

If Lacazette is struggling in the air, why is the manager not playing Welbeck in the centerforward position? One obvious answer lies in Welbeck’s performance: he is simply not clinical enough. The Ox picked out Welbeck with a ball over the top in the 19th but Butland saved Welbeck’s volley. I believe Van Persie would have scored in that kind of situation. Then Ozil made a cross for Welbeck, who headed the ball over the bar in the 59th. When you have a free header, you have to catch the frame. A few minutes later, Giroud played Welbeck in with a first-time pass. Surrounded by two Potters, Welbeck had a heavy second touch and could only hit a toe poke straight at Butland.

Giroud came off the bench to replace Kolasinac in the 66th as the Gunners shifted to a back four. He made an immediate impact by setting up Welbeck in the 67th before feeding Lacazette for the disallowed goal with a backheel flick. In hindsight, maybe the manager should have started Giroud up front knowing that Arsenal would dominate possession and that Stoke would park the bus. In stoppage time, Giroud couldn’t live up to his reputation as a super-sub as he headed Monreal’s cross wide from 12 yards.

A six-pointer at Anfield

At the back, Mustafi had a decent performance for his first game of the season. The Germany international won 2 of 4 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels. He missed a tackle that could have proved costly in the third minute before sending shivers down the spine of most Arsenal fans with a 50-50 challenge on Pieters in the 84th. Monreal was obviously guilty on Stoke’s goal but Kolasinac is the centerback whose performance raised a few questions. Kolasinac won 0 of 3 tackles and only 37.5% of his duels compared to 62.5% for Mustafi and 66.7% for Monreal. I still believe leftback or wingback is a more natural position for Kolasinac.

I can understand why the manager played Monreal in the back three. The Spaniard is a great asset to play the ball out from the back. Monreal had a passing accuracy of 94% compared to 89% for Kolasinac and 87% for Mustafi. However, Stoke exposed Monreal’s weakness in the air. Shawcross beat Monreal and Mustafi to the ball to head Choupo-Moting’s cross over the bar in the 31st. Berahino also got the better of Monreal in the 62nd for a bouncing header that Cech tipped over the bar.

The Gunners are now under massive pressure for Sunday’s game against Liverpool. A defeat at Anfield could leave them six points off the pace. There’s also the possibility that two straight losses would bring back the negativity from last season. The fans fear the prospect of finishing outside the Top 4 again. For a big club like Arsenal, it’s not acceptable to miss Champions League football two seasons in a row. Sanchez and Koscielny are two of the leaders in the team. The Gunners will definitely need them to get a result at Anfield.

 

Arsenal vs. Leicester: Gunners survive poor defending in 4-3 win

Should we be picky or not after Arsenal opened the Premier League season with a 4-3 victory over Leicester? The Gunners didn’t really look like credible title contenders on Friday as their old defensive frailties resurfaced against an average side. Yet, we shouldn’t forget that Arsenal dropped 3 points on opening day in the past two seasons, losing 4-3 to Liverpool a year ago and 2-0 to West Ham in 2015. In mathematical terms, it’s definitely an improvement.

Arsenal vs. Leicester 2017

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

Down 3-2 with about 10 minutes left, the Gunners showed character to grind out a win that was fully deserved. They enjoyed 70% of ball possession and had 27 shots compared to just 6 for the Foxes. Arsenal also showed more commitment than the visitors, winning 61% of the duels, and making 24 tackles and 13 interceptions compared to 17 tackles and 10 interceptions for Leicester, according to the club’s website. It’s a good result if we keep in mind that Koscielny was suspended, Mustafi was on the bench but not really fit, and Sanchez, Mertesacker, Paulista and Cazorla were injured.

Wenger made two changes to the side that defeated Chelsea in the Community Shield a week ago with Ozil and Kolasinac replacing Iwobi and Mertesacker in the starting lineup. Tactically, there was no surprise from the Foxes, who used the blueprint that helped them win the league during the 2015-16 season.

Arsenal relied on the 3-4-3 system that has produced good results since April. Chasing the victory, Wenger shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 67th by sending on Ramsey and Giroud for Elneny and Holding. When the Gunners charged forward, it pretty much looked like the old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system used against Manchester United last season. But whatever system is used, the closing minutes showed that it’s still the quality of the players that makes the difference.

The super-sub strikes again

In his Premier League debut, Lacazette found the net by the second minute. The French international headed in a cross from Elneny to give Arsenal the lead. He could have scored another goal in the 85th but Schmeichel tipped his strike over the bar. Lacazette was tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 90%, which is unusual for a centerforward. He also displayed some great work-rate by making 5 tackles and contributed to the team’s passing game with 3 shot assists. Lacazette made a cross for Ramsey, who headed wide in the 68th, and then set up Xhaka for a volley that Schmeichel saved in the 70th.

I thought Lacazette could have enjoyed better service. His teammates probably need a bit more time to understand his runs and capitalize on his excellent movement. Lacazette’s integration is nevertheless a success if we remember how long it took for Henry to score his first Arsenal goal after his transfer from Juventus. He’s a false nine like Sanchez, but the big difference between the two strikers is that Lacazette doesn’t feel the need to touch the ball as often as the Chile forward. Last season, Sanchez sometimes ended up making more passes than Ozil. That won’t happen with Lacazette.

Giroud does not have Lacazette’s pace but his power and dominance in the air are great assets in a physical league like the Premier League. Wenger had no doubt that Giroud and Lacazette could be complementary as they played together the last 25 minutes of the game. It was in fact Giroud who played the ball back to Lacazette in the 85th. Giroud scored the winning goal a few seconds later by holding off Maguire and Morgan to head Xhaka corner under the bar.

Welbeck’s crucial equalizer

Technically, Welbeck is a compromise between Giroud and Lacazette. The England international has more pace than Giroud and is stronger in the air than Lacazette. He has often been criticized for his relative lack of end product, but his crucial goal on the stroke of halftime allowed the Gunners to head back to the dressing room with the score tied at 2-2. When Ozil found Lacazette inside the box, the French striker could only muster a tame sliding effort. Yet, the ball fell to Kolasinac, who fed Welbeck for a close-range chip.

Starting on the left wing, Welbeck teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain for a long-range strike in the 59th and played Bellerin in for a low shot that Schmeichel saved with his legs in the 62nd. Welbeck can swap positions with Lacazette, which means that the ballholder often has two passing options inside the box. The 3-4-3 system then turns into a 3-5-2 formation when Ozil drops back to get involved in the build-up.

By his own standards, Ozil had an average game. He led all players with 6 key passes but also had 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. One of his turnovers led to a corner and Okazaki’s equalizer in the fifth minute. Ozil finished the game with 81 passes, trailing only Xhaka’s 99. He seemed to lack a bit of sharpness in the final third as he dragged a low drive wide in the 49th and attempted a poor volley in the 74th. Ozil’s only moment of magic was the one-two he played with Welbeck in the 22nd.

The Ox’s work-rate

On the left flank, Oxlade-Chamberlain was among the Gunners who suffered from a bout of nervousness in the first half. Despite a couple of stray passes from the wingback position, the Ox grew into the game to lead all players with 8 successful dribbles out of 9. His work-rate was quite impressive as the Ox won 3 of 4 tackles and 3 of 5 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions, 2 key passes and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. The only weakness in the Ox’s performance was his lack of accuracy in the final third with just 2 of 6 shots on target. On the opposite wing, Bellerin didn’t shine as much as the Ox for the simple reason that Albrighton gave him a hard time while Mahrez’s poor work-rate played into the Ox’s hands.

In central midfield, the manager partnered Xhaka with Elneny. Cazorla’s long-term absence means that Xhaka is the only player in the squad who can set the tempo, assuming that Ozil can’t play in a deeper position. To build his midfield around Xhaka, Wenger had the choice between Coquelin, Ramsey and Elneny. Coquelin is the most defensive option and is technically limited. Ramsey is a bigger goal threat but lacks tactical discipline. In the end, the manager opted for a compromise by starting Elneny.

Elneny did enough defensive work to help Xhaka pull the strings in midfield. He won 2 of 4 tackles, made 2 blocks and even created 2 chances, including the cross for Lacazette’s opening goal. When Arsenal needed more presence in the final third, Wenger replaced Elneny with Ramsey. The Wales midfielder made it 3-3 in the 83rd by controlling Xhaka’s cross to fire an angled effort past Schmeichel.

Pub defending

Xhaka is usually tidy in possession but made a couple of sloppy passes on Friday. His turnover in the 29th led to Vardy’s goal. Xhaka nearly cost his team another goal in the 52nd when Mahrez intercepted his pass to send a ball over the top for Vardy. Fortunately, Cech quickly came off his line to clear the ball. Despite a passing accuracy of 81%, Xhaka still managed to hit 12 accurate long balls out of 15, the most for any outfield player according to whoscored.com. Xhaka somehow made up for his mistakes by setting up the last two goals.

At the back, the Gunners got plenty of stick for their pub defending. Most of Leicester’s chances came from turnovers or set pieces. The Foxes leveled in the fifth minute from a short corner. Unmarked at the far post, Maguire headed Albrighton’s cross into the path of Okazaki, who outjumped Xhaka to beat Cech. The Gunners committed too many players at the near post and in the middle of the box, leaving the far post exposed. Cech’s decision-making was poor on that play as he ended up in no man’s land.

The Foxes’ third goal in the 56th showed the limits and complexity of zonal marking. Vardy started his run from beyond the penalty spot and jumped unopposed to nod in Mahrez’s corner. The Leicester striker was able to get a free header because he spotted a gap between Monreal, Xhaka and Welbeck. The culprit on that play was Xhaka, who saw Vardy run in front of him but failed to mark him. Zonal marking requires flexibility to be successful and Xhaka clearly failed to adapt to the situation. Still, it’s very tricky to make the right decision in a split second. If you follow a player, you may leave a gap that could be exploited by another player. And if you stay in your zone, you may let an opponent have a free header. Xhaka’s involvement in the 3 Leicester goals tells you that he’s not a defensive midfielder.

Loaning out Holding?

Holding was again the weak link in the back three. The U23 player proved strong in the air, winning 4 of 4 headers, but he’s still a bit too naive for the Premier League. He made a sloppy pass in the 23rd and was dispossessed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Fuchs in the 33rd and Maguire in the 44th. Holding definitely needs to iron out mistakes from his game. Ten years ago, Arsenal could finish in the Top 4 despite starting youngsters like Denilson, Djourou and Bendtner in league games. But the Premier League has become much more competitive nowadays. If Wenger tries to speed up Holding’s development by playing him in league games, that will cost Arsenal quite a few goals. It would be less dangerous to loan him out.

Monreal took over the sweeper role when Mertesacker got injured in the Community Shield. The manager left Monreal in the middle of the back three on Friday, thinking the Spaniard could cope with Vardy and Okazaki in the air. Monreal won only 3 of 6 headers. He misjudged the flight of a long ball in the 40th and missed his header but Holding covered him and cleared the danger. On the bright side, Monreal’s technique allowed him to have a passing accuracy of 95% and his reading of the game helped him make 5 interceptions, the most for any player according to Squawka.

No gimme

Kolasinac’s performance was a mixed bag. He won 4 of 5 tackles, the most for any player, made an assist and had a volley turned around the post in the 27th. But he should have been tighter to Vardy for Leicester’s second goal. Kolasinac also had a risky pass intercepted by Mahrez on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 55th. If everybody was fit, I’d feel more comfortable with Kolasinac in the wingback position than as a centerback.

Saturday’s results show that there’s no gimme in the Premier League nowadays: Chelsea lost to Burnley and Liverpool drew with Watford. Arsenal’s defensive performance against Leicester was horrible but the three points give the team some time to work on those weaknesses and build confidence. The Gunners will need to show the same team spirit when they visit Stoke on Saturday as Koscielny will still be suspended and Sanchez won’t have recovered yet from his abdominal strain.

Community Shield: Kolasinac stuns Chelsea as Gunners win penalty shootout

The Community Shield doesn’t necessarily show a glimpse into the upcoming Premier League season. Despite thrashing Manchester City 3-0 in the curtain-raiser of the 2014-15 season, Arsenal then got off to a sluggish start, taking only 6 points from their first 4 games to finish third in the league, 12 points behind Chelsea and 4 behind City.

2017 Community Shield

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

FA officials made it clear that the Community Shield wasn’t a major trophy by allowing Koscielny to be available for Sunday’s game. The Gunners kept the bragging rights for a few more weeks by downing Chelsea 4-1 in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in regulation time.

Wenger obviously thought the season opener against Leicester on Friday was more important than the Community Shield as he left Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez and Mustafi out of the squad. Ramsey and Ozil picked up knocks on the training ground while Sanchez and Mustafi still lack match fitness after recovering from the Confederations Cup.

The manager made 4 changes to the side that edged Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final with Lacazette, Iwobi, Elneny and Cech replacing Sanchez, Ozil, Ramsey and Ospina in the starting lineup. Conte also tweaked his lineup by replacing Costa, Hazard and Matic with Batshuayi, Willian and Fabregas.

The Blues might complain that Pedro’s ejection in the 80th minute was harsh, but if you look at the TV replays, his foul on Elneny ticks all the boxes for a straight red card: studs-up challenge from behind; Elneny’s physical integrity in danger with a stamp on his Achilles; and no real intent to play the ball with Pedro’s tackling foot far from the ball.

Chelsea relied on a tight defense and some clinical finishing to win the league last season. The trouble with the Blues’ emphasis on defending is that it can sometimes prove too aggressive: Azpilicueta and Alonso also got booked in the first half for cynical fouls.

Lacazette as a false nine

Arsenal fans probably have a better understanding of Lacazette’s abilities after watching his performance in the Community Shield. When leading the line, Lacazette is a false nine like Sanchez, not a target man like Giroud. The Chelsea defense easily intercepted a long ball for Lacazette in the 19th. Lacazette can’t outmuscle an opponent like Giroud or Welbeck would, but he can contribute in the build-up play with his passing skills.

The former Lyon striker created Arsenal’s best chance in the first half by playing a one-two with Bellerin before swapping passes with Welbeck to curl a shot that struck the post in the 22nd. Those are the flashes of brilliance that Sanchez can typically produce in a game. The big difference is that Sanchez can make those moments happen 2 or 3 times in a game while that was Lacazette’s only touch of magic on Sunday. On the bright side, Lacazette is more tidy than Sanchez, having only 2 turnovers and reaching a passing accuracy of 94.4% according to whoscored.com. Lacazette also showed his willingness to perform defensive tasks by making 3 tackles.

Although Giroud replaced Lacazette in the 66th, I definitely believe the two players can be quite complementary. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger sent on Giroud to add an aerial threat inside the Chelsea box. Giroud had no scoring chance but showed nerves of steel in the penalty shootout. Walcott, Monreal, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud converted their spot kicks while Courtois and Morata both missed the target.

Iwobi’s poor work-rate

Playing on the left flank, Welbeck sometimes swapped positions with Lacazette. His work-rate was quite impressive: Welbeck dispossessed Azpilicueta in the 13th and made a robust tackle on Moses in the 27th. His only scoring chance came in the eighth minute when he met a long ball from Xhaka for a header that lacked power to beat Courtois.

Iwobi showed some poor work-rate compared to Lacazette and Welbeck. The Nigeria international made no effort to win the ball back after Kante dispossessed him in the 24th. He produced some clever footwork on the stroke of halftime to create space for a tame shot straight at Courtois. Yet, that kind of contribution is not enough to justify a lack of effort.

The Gunners finished strong last season because they shifted from a 4-2-3-1 system to a 3-4-3 formation. Tactically, it made the defense less vulnerable by adding a centerback, but what some fans overlook is that it also removed 2 softies among the attacking players. At the end of 2016, Arsenal mostly relied on Walcott, Iwobi, Ozil and Sanchez in the final third. When Wenger made his tactical switch, Walcott and Iwobi were gone while Giroud or Welbeck joined Sanchez and Ozil in a front three. There was still one softie in the attacking line with Ozil, but it was better than having 3 softies in the previous system.

If the club sticks to the 3-4-3 formation, I doubt Iwobi will get much playing time this season. It would be better to loan him out so that he could improve his work-rate.

Conceding on a set piece

At the exception of the goalkeeper, Wenger made no change to the defense that frustrated Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Mertesacker, Holding and Monreal formed the back three while Bellerin and the Ox played as wingbacks. The manager could have used Koscielny on Sunday, but left him out of the squad because he felt that defenders available for the first two league games needed more playing time than Koscielny.

Wenger had to change his plans in the 28th when Mertesacker suffered a head injury after challenging Cahill for a high ball. The German centerback needed several stitches to close the cut above his right eye and was replaced by Kolasinac in the 33rd. Despite the change in personnel, Arsenal managed to limit Chelsea to two half-chances before the break as Cech parried a cross-shot from Moses in the 32nd and punched away an angled strike from Pedro in the 35th.

Unfortunately, Arsenal’s vulnerability on set pieces was exposed in the 46th when Xhaka poorly cleared a corner. Cahill beat Xhaka to the loose high ball and headed it toward Moses, who ghosted past Holding and Bellerin to score from close range. Bellerin was the main culprit on that play. He was initially on the right side of Moses but then failed to stay with him when the Chelsea wingback made a few steps back to beat the offside trap.

Kolasinac’s versatility

If we compare with the FA Cup final, Bellerin and the Ox both under-performed in the Community Shield. The Ox had an average game while Bellerin let his team down with a couple of big mistakes. Bellerin finished the game with a passing accuracy of 70,4%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal starters. The Spaniard received a yellow card in the 14th for a late tackle on Alonso, underhit a backpass for Cech in the 25th and nearly gave away a penalty with a poor first touch in the 37th. My guess is that Bellerin still lacks a bit of match fitness after recovering from the European U21 Championship.

At the back, Monreal had a solid game, winning 4 aerial duels and making 3 tackles. Mertesacker’s injury forced Monreal to play as a sweeper for the last 60 minutes. Monreal’s experience, reading of the game and smart positional play made the transition seamless when Kolasinac came off the bench to play as the left centerback.

A leftback by trade, Kolasinac’s versatility made up for the absence of Paulista and Koscielny. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international is definitely a more natural option at centerback than Elneny or Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac won the hearts of many fans by heading home the equalizer in the 82nd off a Xhaka free kick.

Midfield trouble?

Holding proved again the weak link in the back three. His performance was a mixed bag. He showed his commitment by winning 4 aerial duels and making 2 tackles and 2 interceptions. But his naivety also put the Arsenal defense in trouble a couple of times. Holding was dispossessed by Alonso while dribbling on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 16th. In stoppage time, he gave away a dangerous free kick by fouling Morata, who was playing with his back to goal. However, I wouldn’t blame Holding for Chelsea’s goal. Holding was not aware of Moses’ presence behind him. Maybe a more experienced defender would have given a quick look behind instead of looking at the ball throughout the entire play like Holding did.

In midfield, Chelsea gave Xhaka plenty of maneuvering room. Conte’s 3-4-3 formation means that only Kante or Fabregas can really press Xhaka. Since Fabregas has lost much of his mobility and Kante can’t both protect the defense and press high up the pitch, Xhaka was therefore able to dictate play for Arsenal. The Switzerland international led all players with 4 key passes, including 2 through balls, and hit 10 accurate long balls out of 14. Xhaka nearly scored in the 76th but Courtois tipped his 35-yard drive around the post.

There are still 3 weeks left before the end of the transfer window. I hope the club will sign a midfielder because Wenger’s 3-4-3 system is very demanding for that position. Basically, the two central midfielders must cover a lot of ground to connect the defense with the front three. Ramsey and Wilshere have a bad injury record and Cazorla won’t return before November. We might be one injury away from trouble in midfield, knowing the limitations of Coquelin and Elneny.

 

A few thoughts on the Arsenal tour in Australia and China

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

Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Pre-Season Friendly

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

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

  1. Omissions aren’t always innocent

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

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

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

  1. Cech, Ramsey and Ozil are already sharp

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Lacazette and Giroud are different players

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

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

  1. The Gunners still miss the complete centerforward

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

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

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

  1. The midfield is weak

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

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

  1. Iwobi must end his sophomore slump

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

  1. Nelson is the most promising youngster

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

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

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

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

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

Gunners save season by downing Chelsea 2-1 in FA Cup final

Sanchez and Ramsey scored on Saturday to give Arsenal a record 13th FA Cup and make Wenger the most successful manager in that competition with a 7th title. The Gunners were complete underdogs before kickoff. I remember reading the Evening Standard on Friday and all their six pundits predicted a Chelsea victory. On the one hand, the Blues had no injured or suspended player and could therefore field a full-strength team. On the other, the Gunners were so badly crippled by injury or suspension that there was no defender on the bench.

FA Cup final

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

Wenger made a gutsy call by giving Mertesacker his first start of the season despite question marks over the match fitness of the German centerback. Koscielny’s suspension, Gibbs’ illness and injuries to Mustafi and Paulista also forced the manager to use Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback on the left flank. The key for Arsenal was to avoid playing a high defensive line that could expose Mertesacker’s lack of pace.

Tactically, the Gunners annihilated Chelsea’s strengths by using the same 3-4-3 system as Conte. They met twice in the Premier League this season. Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates stadium in September when both sides were playing with four defenders at the back. Conte then switched to a back three to beat the Gunners 3-1 in February. At that time, Wenger was still hesitating between his favored 4-2-3-1 formation and a more industrious 4-3-3 system. Those Premier League games became irrelevant on Saturday since the FA Cup final was the first meeting between Conte and Wenger in which both played a back three.

I wasn’t optimistic before the game. I thought Arsenal would be punished for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Holding’s inexperience. My only hope was the 2-1 win over Manchester City in the semifinals. Maybe we could win if the Blues missed their chances and the Gunners converted theirs. In the end, Arsenal showed more desire than Chelsea, making 23 tackles to 20 and 17 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website. The scoreline was quite misleading. The Blues were so badly outplayed that nobody would have complained if the Gunners had won 4-1 or 5-2.

Ramsey’s late runs

Arsenal capitalized on a spell of domination in the opening minutes to open the scoring with a controversial goal. Sanchez charged down a clearance from Kante and the ball hit the Chile striker’s arm before landing at the feet of an offside Ramsey. Luiz and Cahill froze while Ramsey let Sanchez take his chance. Sanchez flicked the ball past Courtois with the outside of his boot to put the Gunners ahead after three minutes.

The controversy was not so much about Ramsey’s offside position, since he didn’t play the ball, but about Sanchez’s handball. You can argue that Sanchez was simply trying to protect his face and that the handball was therefore unintentional. It’s not the first time that a referee has allowed a goal to stand despite a handball in the buildup. Trezeguet scored a similar goal in France’s 2-2 draw with Croatia at the Euro 2004.

Sanchez created the winning goal in the 79th by releasing Giroud down the left wing. Giroud made a cross for Ramsey, who headed the offering into the bottom corner. The understanding between Ramsey and Giroud made the difference on that play. Ramsey’s deep runs are hard to track for any defense. Kante lost track of Ramsey, who was able to find some space between Luiz and Alonso inside the box.

Chelsea struggled to mark Sanchez and Ozil because they have a lot of freedom in Wenger’s 3-4-3 system. As inside forwards, Sanchez and Ozil can find space between the centerbacks and the wingbacks. They can also drop back to exploit the space between the centerbacks and the midfielders. The main drawback of that formation is that Sanchez and Ozil can sometimes be isolated if there’s no support from the wingbacks or midfielders. That explains in great part their high turnover rate. Sanchez had 11 turnovers and Ozil 6, more than any other player according to whoscored.com.

Ozil’s work-rate

The reason why Sanchez and Ozil are considered world-class players is their reading of the game. They can see and make the right pass even under pressure. Sanchez initiated a counterattack in the 55th with a cross-field pass to Bellerin, who failed to find two Gunners at the far post with his cross. The Chile striker also slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was cleared off the line by Cahill in the 16th. It was a good effort since Ozil hit the ball with his weaker right foot. In the closing minutes, Giroud picked out Ozil, who cut inside Azpilicueta only to strike the near post.

Ozil finished the game with 3 key passes and worked harder than usual. The Germany playmaker made 2 tackles compared to none for Pedro and Hazard. He also played a key role in Arsenal’s passing game with 65 passes, second behind Xhaka’s 73. By contrast, Hazard made only 35 passes, fifth behind Azpilicueta, Luiz, Kante and Cahill in the Chelsea team. Sanchez made no tackle but disrupted the Blues’ passing game with 3 interceptions, tied with Monreal and Bellerin for the most by an Arsenal player.

Up front, Welbeck struggled with his finishing. He met a corner in the 19th for a header that crashed against the far post. Then Welbeck took a pass from Bellerin in the 30th and was denied by Courtois from a tight angle while a cross to Ramsey for a tap-in was the better option. On the bright side, Welbeck worked his socks off to cover Sanchez or Ozil when they were stuck high up the pitch. Giroud came off the bench in the 78th to set up Ramsey for the winner.

Moses’ dive

Ramsey has received a lot of stick this season and much of it was not deserved. First, injuries have marred his season. Ramsey never really had a good run of games to find his groove. And second, the few times Ramsey was fit, he had to play in a dysfunctional team. It’s only last month against Middlesbrough that Wenger found the right balance between defense and attack with the 3-4-3 formation.

In my eyes, Ramsey was Arsenal’s best player at Wembley. Ramsey didn’t get off to a good start by collecting a yellow card for pulling back Pedro in the ninth minute. But he grew into the game and was unlucky to chest the rebound against the post after Welbeck hit the woodwork in the 19th. Ramsey finished the game with 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 95.1%, the highest percentage among the starters. He also made 2 interceptions and won 60% of his duels and 2 of 3 tackles for an outstanding overall performance. Kante, Xhaka and Matic had a lower percentage for duels won, according to the club’s website. Xhaka’s focus on the defensive tasks allowed Ramsey to make his trademark late runs in the box. The Switzerland midfielder tested Courtois with a long-range volley in the 32nd.

The Blues were surprisingly lethargic in the first half. Maybe they took their foot off the pedal after celebrating their Premier League title. Chelsea played with more purpose in the second half and equalized after Fabregas replaced Matic in the 61st and Conte sent on Willian for Pedro in the 72nd. Somehow, Moses hurt the Blues’ chances by receiving two yellow cards. The first one was for a cynical foul on Welbeck in the 57th and the second resulted from a blatant dive to win a penalty in the 68th.

Holding as the weak link

Arsenal showed a lot of solidarity at the back to frustrate Chelsea. One defensive play in the 15th set the tone for the game: three Gunners united their efforts to block a shot from Costa. Mertesacker was dominant in the air, winning 5 duels. Only Cahill did better with 6, according to whoscored.com. On the ground, Monreal relied on his reading of the game to win 4 of 4 tackles, the most for any Gunner.

The wingbacks, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin, contributed defensively to keep Pedro and Hazard relatively quiet. Pedro still managed to get two chances by finding some space between Monreal and Mertesacker in the 39th and then between Ramsey and the centerbacks in the 59th. But each time Pedro missed the target.

In his return from injury, the Ox ran out of gas in the second half and was replaced by Coquelin in the 82nd. Bellerin was cautious in the first half and showed more audacity after the break. The Spaniard tested Courtois with a first-time effort from 18 yards in the 65th. Bellerin then led a counterattack in the 84th and dribbled past Luiz to fire a low strike wide of the far post.

Holding proved the weak link at the back. Chelsea’s best chances came from duels Holding lost. As Costa chased a long ball in the 28th, Holding tried to shield the ball for Ospina but was outmuscled by Costa, whose point-blank shot bounced off the Colombia goalkeeper. That was poor decision-making from Holding, who made a similar mistake against Manchester United three weeks ago by attempting a risky backpass instead of clearing the ball into touch. Holding was booked in the 53rd for an obstruction on Costa.

Wenger’s snipe

Chelsea’s equalizer in the 76th was the result of three Arsenal errors. First, Ozil lost possession to Luiz in midfield. Second, the Ox was late to stop Willian’s cross. And third, Holding was wrongfooted and struggled to change direction when Costa chested the ball down before pulling the trigger. TV Commentators claimed Ospina made a mistake because he got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. I thought that was harsh for Ospina because Costa’s 10-yard shot took a deflection.

The Blues nearly leveled in the 86th. Giroud sat too deep and failed to prevent Kante from hitting a ball over the top. Hazard beat Holding to the high ball and redirected it into the path of Costa, who chested the ball down and was denied by Ospina from 7 yards. Costa reacted more quickly than Mertesacker on that play. Ospina made two other key saves, stopping a long-range effort from Kante in the 49th and palming away a low strike from Moses in the 51st.

The Gunners have saved their season with that FA Cup title. Wenger couldn’t help having a snipe at the Arsenal board and the fans before and after the game. The French manager complained about the “lack of respect” and stressed how the “uncertainty” over his future affected the players. It’s now obvious that Wenger wanted some public backing from the board when the results were poor and the fans protested. In any case, that was a no-win situation for the board. If they had backed him, they would have antagonized the fans. By remaining coy, the board put Wenger under more scrutiny, which is what happened with Van Gaal last season at Manchester United. Ironically, both Wenger and Van Gaal finished fifth and won the FA Cup.

Papering over the cracks

Wenger also chastised the fans by stating that “once the game starts and you’re a fan, you stand behind the team.” He also added: “We played some games in a very hostile environment and I will never accept that.” It’s hard to disagree on that point. I think the best way for the fans to protest was to leave a lot of empty seats like they did against Sunderland. Demonstrations outside the stadium were OK but hostile chants and banners inside the stadium were wrong. What kind of player would like to stay in such a club?

The board will meet on Tuesday before announcing Wenger’s future. There’s some obvious tension between the board and the manager. It feels like the FA Cup is papering over the cracks of a disappointing season. The Gunners played 6 games and faced only 2 big teams (Manchester City and Chelsea) to lift the FA Cup, while Chelsea played 38 games and faced 5 big teams twice to win the Premier League. There’s no doubt that the Premier League is the more important competition and the 18-point gap between Chelsea and Arsenal is a reminder that the club needs more than one or two signings to contend next season. Wenger’s failures in the transfer market and in the assessment of the quality of his squad have been obvious in the past two years.

If the board has found a better manager, now is the perfect time to make the transition and maybe offer Wenger the position of sporting director. Otherwise, the board will have to say that it’s Wenger’s last contract in the hope that it could appease the fans with the obvious risk that protests could start again next season if the results are poor.