Tag Archives: Xhaka

Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich: A few thoughts on the 5-1 defeat

Things are getting ugly both for the manager and the club after Arsenal suffered another 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich on Tuesday. The 10-2 aggregate defeat is the worst result by an English club in the history of the Champions League. The Bavarians are definitely a good side, but they still lost to Atletico Madrid and Rostov in the group stage. So there was room for the Gunners to salvage some pride and maybe get a draw in the second leg just like when Bayern knocked them out three years ago.

Arsenal FC v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg

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

The Gunners have been eliminated in the last 16 of the Champions League for the seventh straight season. In that seven-year span, smaller clubs like Shaktar Donetsk, APOEL, Galatasaray, Malaga and Wolfsburg managed to reach the quarterfinals. There’s this feeling among the fans that Wenger has carried Arsenal as far as he could and that someone else needs to take over. Many supporters left the Emirates stadium before the final whistle and some displayed banners in the second half calling for an end to the French manager’s tenure.

To be honest, the Gunners produced a decent performance until Koscielny’s controversial ejection in the 53rd minute. Bayern created 12 chances compared to 8 for Arsenal. Just like in the first leg, the Bavarians did a better job at defending as a unit, making 52 ball recoveries compared to 40 for Arsenal according to the UEFA statistics, and making 24 interceptions compared to 13 for the hosts according to Squawka.

  1. Should Arsenal use an inverted pyramid?

The Gunners have leaked a lot of goals lately. One explanation is that Coquelin is winning fewer tackles than when he was paired with Cazorla. Another reason is that the Gunners are often outplayed in midfield because of Ozil’s poor work-rate. Wenger tried to provide more protection to the back four against Bayern by switching to a 4-3-3 system instead of his favored 4-2-3-1 formation. In a 4-2-3-1 system, the midfield looks like a pyramid with a playmaker on top of it. In a 4-3-3 formation, there is no playmaker and the midfield looks like an inverted pyramid.

The manager used that inverted pyramid at Stamford Bridge with Coquelin, Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield but it didn’t work out as Arsenal lost 3-1. Against Bayern, Wenger played Ramsey and the Ox as all-rounders in front of Xhaka, the holding midfielder. A more defensive alternative would be to play Maitland-Niles as the sweeper in front of the back four. Maitland-Niles doesn’t have Xhaka’s passing skills but he has more pace and wins more tackles.

Obviously, Ramsey and the Ox don’t play like Ozil. Therefore, the team has to adapt and play differently. Ramsey and the Ox still led the team with 2 key passes each. In his return from injury, Ramsey was a bit rusty with a passing accuracy as low as 68.2% but he managed to win 2 of 3 tackles before Coquelin replaced him in the 72nd. The Ox shone in midfield and proved his importance in the transition game by having 10 successful dribbles out of 10.

  1. Walcott was on fire

The England international showed a lot of desire and proved a bigger threat in the final third than Sanchez. Walcott put in a shift, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 4 interceptions and 2 blocks, but he also had 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. His first chance came from a Sanchez crossfield pass in the 11th. Walcott was clean through on goal but his poor first touch allowed Neuer to kick the ball into touch. He then met a cross from the Ox in the 17th for a header that bounced off Martinez for a corner. Three minutes later, Walcott benefited from a lucky bounce to open the scoring with an angled strike into the roof of the net. In a similar situation in the 34th, Walcott fired into the side-netting instead of cutting the ball back for Giroud. Walcott faded in the second half after Koscielny’s ejection.

  1. The additional assistant referee screwed up

Also known as the goal-line official, he denied Walcott a penalty in the 33rd. Walcott shifted the ball from his left foot to his right when a clumsy challenge from Alonso brought him down. It’s pretty clear with TV replays that Alonso was a split second late and tripped Walcott. If the referee makes the right call, it could have been 2-0 for Arsenal.

The turning point of the game was Koscielny’s red card in the 53rd. Initially, the referee awarded a penalty and gave Koscielny a yellow card for a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge on Lewandowski, who went down easily. But the goal-line official claimed it was a deliberate foul and therefore a red card. In the end, the referee followed his assistant’s advice and sent Koscielny off. To me, Koscielny’s foul was even less obvious than Alonso’s foul. Lewandowski converted the penalty to level. Down to 10 men, winning the match became mission impossible for Arsenal.

  1. Giroud can be incredibly wasteful

The France striker could have almost notched a hat trick with some clinical finishing. He beat Hummels to a loose ball in the 13th for a header that bounced off the base of the post. Then Giroud couldn’t make solid contact with Monreal’s headed pass in the 37th and sliced his effort wide. But the one chance he should have converted was his free header in the 48th. An unmarked Giroud mistimed his jump and sent Ramsey’s cross over the bar from 6 yards.

  1. Has the bust-up controversy affected Sanchez?

Sanchez did very little if we except his long ball for Walcott in the 11th. That’s so unusual from the Chile striker that fans may wonder whether the controversy over the row on the training ground has worn him down mentally. In the 68th, Sanchez was robbed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Robben, who shot past Ospina to make it 2-1. Playing on the left flank, Sanchez made no key pass and was replaced by Ozil in the 72nd.

  1. The Gunners lack defensive awareness

Twice Bayern quickly played a free kick, and twice Arsenal switched off. Lewandowski beat the offside trap to control a ball over the top in the 25th but was denied by Ospina. Then Hummels flicked home a free kick from Alonso in the 49th but the goal was disallowed for offside.

  1. Mustafi looks bad without Koscielny

It was like in the first leg when Mustafi suddenly became clueless after an injury forced Koscielny off the pitch. There were signs in the first half that Mustafi’s decision-making was dodgy. Twice he dived in, and twice he missed the ball and left the defense exposed. Mustafi only won 1 of 7 tackles according to Squawka.

Koscielny’s red card forced Mustafi to team up with Xhaka at the back. Mustafi was pulled out of position on the play that led to Lewandowski’s penalty. The last 15 minutes were a nightmare for the Germany international. Costa dribbled past Mustafi in the 76th to make a cross for Lewandowski, who struck the post with a first-time effort. Two minutes later, Costa cut inside Mustafi to curl a low shot inside the far post for a 3-1 lead. Mustafi then gave the ball away to Alonso, who fed Vidal and the Chile midfielder chipped Ospina for a 4-1 lead in the 80th. Bayern capitalized on an ill-advised offside trap set by Mustafi to seal the win in the 85th. Costa teed up Vidal, who fired past the helpless Ospina. There was no pressure on Sanches, the ballholder, and Mustafi had very little understanding with Coquelin, who had taken Xhaka’s spot at centerback.

  1. Why did Xhaka play as a defender?

I was surprised by Wenger’s decision to play Xhaka as a centerback after Koscielny’s ejection. It was a risky gamble that backfired. I expected the manager to limit the damage by sending on Paulista for Giroud.

Xhaka’s lack of pace is a greater liability at the back than in midfield. For some reason, he ventured high up the pitch in the 78th and lost possession to Rafinha. Pulled out of position, Xhaka fouled Rafinha with a mistimed tackle, but the referee played advantage and Costa got hold of the loose ball to score Bayern’s third goal.

  1. Ospina needs to work on his distribution

The Colombia goalkeeper made two good saves, keeping out Vidal’s header with a reflex save in the 24th and parrying Lewandowski’s powerful strike in the 64th. But his poor distribution led to Bayern’s second goal.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Old defensive frailties resurfacing in 3-1 loss

What was he thinking? That was the reaction from a lot of fans on Saturday when Wenger benched Sanchez in the first half of the 3-1 loss to Liverpool. In a crucial game against a rival for a Top 4 finish, you would assume that the manager would start his best player. But Wenger didn’t, and the move backfired as the Gunners dropped to fifth place in the Premier League, 2 points behind Liverpool and 5 behind Manchester City.

liverpool-vs-arsenal

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

The manager claimed after the game that he benched Sanchez to have more directness with Giroud and Welbeck. That explanation still doesn’t justify why Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain got the nod over Sanchez. In a 4-2-3-1 system, Giroud would have led the line, Sanchez and Welbeck would have started on the wings, and either Iwobi or the Ox would have played in the hole.

I guess Wenger’s game plan was to evade Liverpool’s high press by using Giroud and Welbeck as targets for long balls. That plan had mixed success with Giroud and Welbeck combining to win 4 of 6 aerial duels outside the area, according to Squawka. When Arsenal had the ball, the plan was either to hit Liverpool on the fast break with the pace of Welbeck, Iwobi and the Ox or feed Giroud if the Reds had already retreated in their own half. Unfortunately, the Gunners couldn’t create any chance in the first half because Liverpool quickly closed down to kill any counterattack while Giroud had no decent service. Set pieces are potential scoring opportunities for a player who is strong in the air like Giroud, but neither Xhaka nor the Ox could beat the first man with their corner kicks.

Men vs. boys

Down 2-0 at halftime, Wenger had no choice but to replace the ineffective Coquelin with Sanchez while shifting the Ox from the right wing to central midfield. The team suddenly looked more dynamic. Giroud met a cross from Monreal in the 48th minute for a header that Mignolet palmed onto the bar. Then Sanchez capitalized on a counterattack in the 57th to slip a through ball to Welbeck, who cut the deficit to 2-1 by chipping Mignolet. But in the end, it was too little too late.

The scoreline could have been more humiliating if Cech had not made a couple of fine saves and if the Reds had produced better finishing. The stats don’t lie: Liverpool completely outplayed Arsenal with 14 chances to 6 according to Squawka. It almost looked like men vs. boys in the first half. Wenger claimed after the game that the Gunners lacked rhythm because of the 11-day break between the FA Cup tie against Sutton and the Anfield match. That’s quite a surprising statement from such a seasoned manager. Most clubs play against their own academy teams to stay sharp. The Arsenal U23 side also had a gap in its schedule and was therefore available for a friendly with the first team.

What really hurts in the 3-1 loss is that some old defensive frailties are resurfacing. The opening goal came from a Liverpool goal kick in the ninth minute. Koscielny challenged Firmino in the air but both missed the ball, which was redirected by Coutinho into the path of Lallana. The England international released Mane down our left flank while Firmino sprinted into the box. Unmarked at the far post, Firmino controlled Mane’s cross-shot before blasting the ball into the roof of the net.

Struggling to defend set-pieces

Let’s analyze that goal. The first mistake comes from Koscielny’s decision to go for the ball. Firmino plays like a false nine, often dropping back to be involved in the passing game and create space for his teammates. In that kind of situation, I believe Coquelin or Xhaka should have challenged Firmino in the air. If Koscielny gets pulled out of position, he must be sure to win the header otherwise he’s leaving a big gap at the back. As you can see on the screen capture below, Koscielny’s decision to go for the ball makes the Arsenal defense more vulnerable with a dangerous 3v3 situation developing.

liverpool-a1edKoscielny’s missed header leads to a 3v3 situation. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The second mistake comes from the way the Gunners are retreating. They are all focused on Mane and nobody is paying attention to Firmino. As a result, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are running toward the near post while Bellerin is alone at the far post dealing with three Reds (Coutinho, Lallana and Firmino). If you look at the screen capture below, the poor distribution of resources becomes obvious with the red line that I’ve drawn. This has been a recurrent issue for Arsenal this season: they tend to commit too many defenders at the near post and therefore leave the far post exposed.

liverpool-a2edBellerin alone at the far post vs. 3 Reds. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

This goal is also symptomatic of our struggles in defending set-pieces. Liverpool nearly scored from a Coutinho free kick in the 76th. Matip beat Mustafi to the ball for a tame header that Cech saved. Seven minutes later, Origi got the better of Bellerin to head a free kick against the post. Why was Bellerin marking Origi? Koscielny was marking Matip and Mustafi was busy with Klavan, but Xhaka and Perez, who are stronger in the air than Bellerin, could have dealt with Origi instead.

A soft midfield

Mustafi and Koscielny did not get much protection from the midfielders on Saturday. They had a low passing accuracy of 70.8% and 72.2% respectively because of Liverpool’s high press. Koscielny won 0 of 2 tackles and 10 of 12 aerial duels and made 5 interceptions and 3 blocks, while Mustafi won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels and made just 1 interception and 1 block.

In that centerback partnership, Koscielny is the key component. The Frenchman is the one who made Mustafi look good in the first half of the season. Partner Mustafi with another defender and his weaknesses become obvious like in the second half of the Bayern Munich game. Koscielny was at fault for the opening goal but Mustafi could have also cost his team a goal or two. Mustafi fouled Wijnaldum on the edge of the box in the 29th but the referee played advantage and Coutinho fired a strike that Cech tipped over the bar. On the stroke of halftime, Coutinho ghosted past Mustafi to collect Lallana’s deflected ball over the top and shoot straight at Cech.

Liverpool’s second goal in the 40th really showed how soft is the Arsenal midfield. The ball travelled from our right flank to the left flank, where an unmarked Mane fired a low diagonal strike past Cech. Our midfielders lacked defensive awareness on that play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi failed to track Wijnaldum, who had plenty of time to take Milner’s pass. Then Xhaka was a split second late to close down Firmino, who slipped the ball to Mane. And Coquelin failed to mark Lallana, forcing Monreal to cover him and leave Mane free.

liverpool-b1edIwobi, Xhaka and Coquelin fail to close down Wijnaldum, Firmino and Lallana. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

If one of those three Arsenal midfielders had done his defensive duty, Mane would have not enjoyed a free shot. In the end, Koscielny tried to close down Firmino while Monreal marked Lallana, who made a decoy run to pull the Spaniard out of position and free some space for Mane. See the screen capture below.

liverpool-b2edKoscielny and Monreal trying to make up for the midfielders’ mistakes while Mane is free. (Photo credit: ww.Arsenal.com)

The work-rate from our midfielders is simply not good enough. Coquelin, Xhaka, Iwobi and the Ox made no interception while Can, Lallana, Wijnaldum and Coutinho combined to make 5 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. Lallana rushed back inside the Liverpool area in the 84th to put off Perez, who headed Bellerin’s cross wide. Can anybody imagine Ozil or Iwobi doing that?

Searching for a complementary duo

Cazorla has made Coquelin look good in central midfield but the Spaniard’s absence has exposed Coquelin’s limitations and especially his average positional play. Lallana dispossessed Coquelin to start a counterattack in the 32nd. Two minutes later, Coquelin was booked for a cynical foul on Lallana, who had intercepted a sloppy pass from the Frenchman.

Iwobi finished the game with a passing accuracy of 97.1%, the highest percentage among all the starters. He also won 2 of 3 tackles, more than any other Arsenal midfielder according to Squawka. There’s no doubt that Iwobi has great potential, but at 20 and with a poor run of form, he shouldn’t be in the starting lineup. He still needs to work on his defensive awareness.

Partnering Xhaka in central midfield after the break, the Ox led Arsenal players with 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com. He also led the team with 5 turnovers, which is a bad stat in such a key position.

It’s obvious that Wenger hasn’t found a decent alternative to the Coquelin-Cazorla tandem in central midfield. Injuries and suspensions have not helped the manager in his search. Since the beginning of this year, Wenger has started 6 different partnerships: Coquelin-Xhaka (3), Xhaka-Ramsey (3), Xhaka-Elneny (2), Coquelin-Ox (2), Coquelin-Ramsey (1), and Ox-Maitland-Niles (1).

The manager seems to believe that Xhaka should be the cornerstone of his midfield. But none of the combinations involving Xhaka has really been impressive. Xhaka & Coquelin were terrible against Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Bournemouth. Xhaka & Ramsey produced wins against Burnley, Swansea and Preston but did not provide much solidity. And Xhaka & Elneny did OK against weak sides like Sutton and Crystal Palace. Surprisingly, the Ox-Maitland-Niles tandem has been the most complementary one this year but it’s also the youngest pairing.

Vulnerable to the fast break

Liverpool’s third goal in stoppage time exposed Arsenal’s inability to kill counterattacks. Lallana toyed with Xhaka in midfield and pulled Mustafi out of position with a quick turn before releasing Origi down our left flank. Origi cut the ball back for Wijnaldum, who slotted into the bottom corner to put the result beyond doubt. Origi was marginally offside on that play, but what really matters is how Xhaka was unable to stop the fast break and how Xhaka, Mustafi and Bellerin lacked defensive awareness by letting Wijnaldum run past them.

Xhaka’s relative lack of pace becomes an issue in games played at a high tempo. The Switzerland international won none of the four tackles he made. To a certain extent, he reminds me a bit of Arteta, whose sluggishness prevented him from stopping counterattacks. The Gunners have worked hard to fix that problem since the 6-0 loss to Chelsea and 5-1 loss to Liverpool during the 2013-14 season. But it looks like that vulnerability to the fast break is coming back to haunt them again. You might think that Arsenal threw the kitchen sink in the closing minutes to level and therefore didn’t care about defending, but quite a few times during the game the Gunners were split in two when Liverpool initiated a counterattack.

As I’m wrapping up this analysis, reports have emerged that Wenger benched Sanchez because of a bust-up on the training ground. That makes more sense than the tactical explanation given by the manager in his post-game press conference. It’s not a surprise since Sanchez’s body language has been quite negative lately. The Chile striker has probably realized that he won’t win the league with Arsenal. At 28, Sanchez won’t have many opportunities left to lift a trophy and a departure this summer becomes therefore more likely. Sanchez might be upset but he’s a top professional. He gave everything on the pitch against Liverpool, whereas some Chelsea players hurt their club last season by performing poorly on purpose. Cynics will say that Sanchez is marketing himself to get a raise at his next club. Fair enough.

Injecting competition within the squad

That bust-up also shows that the chemistry in the dressing room is not great. Consecutive losses to Watford and Chelsea must have dealt a significant blow to the team’s morale. But the lack of competition within the squad could be a factor, too. Coquelin, Iwobi, Walcott and Ozil have been automatic starters lately despite a poor run of form. I think the manager needs to give more weight to merit in his team selection if he wants to save Arsenal’s season. That means starting players who really show hunger and are willing to work their socks off.

Tuesday’s Champions League game against Bayern Munich is coming at a tricky time. On the one hand, another spanking would further damage the team’s confidence. On the other hand, it could be a good opportunity to make experiments against top opposition. In any case, the Gunners need to fix their defensive frailties quickly, otherwise they have no chance of finishing in the Top 4.

Arsenal vs. Burnley: Gunners grind out 2-1 win despite Xhaka’s red card

The Gunners scored in the eighth minute of stoppage time to move into second place in the Premier League with a 2-1 victory over Burnley on Sunday. However, I still don’t see them as serious contenders this season. First, they trail Chelsea by 8 points. Of course, there are 16 league games left. That means 48 points up for grabs. But the Blues have been incredibly consistent so far, dropping points in just 4 games. Chelsea lost to Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, and drew with Swansea at the beginning of the season when Conte had not switched to a back three yet. By contrast, the Gunners have conceded 5 draws and 3 defeats. It’s OK to lose to Liverpool and Manchester City and draw with Tottenham and Manchester United, but dropping points against weak or average sides like Leicester, Middlesbrough, Bournemouth and Everton has significantly hurt Arsenal’s title bid. And second, the Gunners have a tougher schedule than some of their rivals. Spurs are 1 point behind Arsenal but they have already played Chelsea and Manchester City in the second half of the season while the Gunners haven’t faced any Top 6 team yet.

arsenal-vs-burnley

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

Moss, the referee, was under the spotlight for a couple of questionable calls. Xhaka’s ejection in the 65th minute was the least controversial one. The Switzerland international definitely deserved a red card for his reckless two-footed lunge on Defour. What really upset Wenger was the penalty that Moss awarded to Burnley in the second minute of stoppage time. Coquelin tripped Barnes while trying to control the ball. It was pretty similar to the play involving Koscielny and Ki a week ago. Coquelin flicked out a leg and withdrew it when he saw Barnes intercept the ball. There was contact, but was it enough to give a penalty? Wenger disagreed with the referee and got sent off after Gray converted the spot kick.

Bournemouth’s playbook

Managers usually rely on consistency to assess a referee’s performance. Wenger probably had in mind the penalty shout ignored by Moss in the 56th when Gray shoved Mustafi from behind while challenging for the ball. Honestly, it was a soft penalty, the kind of call that can go either way. But then, Coquelin’s foul was a soft penalty too. So where’s the consistency?

Then, Sanchez made a cross for Koscielny in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Koscielny met the cross but was kicked in the head by Mee. If Moss thought Coquelin’s foul was a penalty, there’s no way he could not award a penalty to Arsenal for Mee’s dangerous kick. Sanchez scored the winner with a cheeky Panenka and threw his shirt in the crowd after the final whistle.

It looks like the weak and average sides are taking a leaf out of Bournemouth’s playbook by turning the game into a physical contest. After the match, Wenger described Burnley as “a team who made the game very uncomfortable” for Arsenal. The Gunners enjoyed 70% of ball possession but struggled to create clear-cut chances, mustering just 8 shots on target compared to 7 for the visitors.

There was no mid-week game, yet Arsenal played at a too average tempo to really trouble a well-organized Burnley side. The Clarets showed more commitment by winning 18 of 49 tackles, while the Gunners only won 7 of 22 tackles according to Squawka. They also added a touch of cynicism to prevent Arsenal from punishing them on the fast break. Lowton received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 58th and Marney got booked for a cynical foul on Ozil in the 73rd.

Poor service for Giroud

As a sign of Arsenal’s lack of penetration, most of our chances came from crosses or long-range efforts. Ozil had a curling shot tipped around the post by Heaton in the 14th while Sanchez tested the Burnley goalkeeper with a low drive in the 40th. The Gunners struggled with the quality of the final ball but they put the Burnley defense under pressure the few times their delivery proved accurate. Koscielny connected with a cross from Ramsey in the 15th for a header straight at Heaton. Giroud then redirected a cross from Sanchez in the 48th toward Ramsey, whose backheel flick sailed over the bar. Mustafi finally opened the scoring in the 59th by nodding a corner from Ozil into the bottom corner. Arsenal could have doubled the lead in the 89th when the Clarets poorly cleared a cross from Bellerin. The loose ball fell to Coquelin, whose powerful strike was parried by Heaton.

Sanchez showed great composure to convert his penalty but I thought his finishing was poor a couple of times. He headed wide a long ball from Mustafi in the 10th and missed the target with curling shots in the 42nd and 49th. The Chile striker also held onto the ball too long and was dispossessed 5 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Sanchez has made progress in improving his understanding with Giroud, but it still doesn’t come naturally.

Giroud didn’t get much service although he’s a dominant player in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 20th when Ozil found him with a low pass. Giroud made poor contact with the ball for a first-time effort that rolled wide. Sanchez and Iwobi are great options for plays on the ground but crosses from the wings aren’t their forte. Maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been a better choice to feed Giroud. Despite the lack of opportunities, Giroud contributed by making 2 key passes and winning 3 of 5 headers.

A costly lapse of concentration

Xhaka was having a good game until his red card. Besides his 3 key passes, tied with Ozil, Sanchez and Iwobi for the most by any player, Xhaka was the only Arsenal midfielder who won a tackle on Sunday, according to Squawka. He also won 85.7% of his duels, the best percentage for any midfielder according to the club’s website, and helped his team evade Burnley’s high press with his passing range, hitting 8 accurate long balls out of 9.

His ejection resulted from a lapse of concentration and some poor judgment. For a split second, Xhaka lost his focus and failed to realize that the Clarets were cutting his passing options. When Defour intercepted his risky pass for Paulista, Xhaka panicked and made a reckless challenge on the Belgium midfielder although Mustafi and Koscielny were covering him. A similar lapse of concentration from Xhaka cost Arsenal a goal in the 3-2 win over Swansea last October. Can Xhaka quickly learn his lesson like Koscielny did after his first season in England? Koscielny is now the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense but he was just as reckless as Xhaka when he joined the club in 2010.

The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka is still a work in progress. I felt Ramsey could have contributed a bit more defensively. The Wales midfielder made no tackle and no interception. Offensively, Ramsey made 2 key passes and had 5 successful dribbles out of 6, but none of his 4 goal attempts was on target. His failure to clear the ball in stoppage time led to the Clarets’ equalizer. Koscielny initially won the header from a Burnley throw-in and the second ball fell to Ramsey, who was reluctant to clear the danger with his left foot. Ramsey put Coquelin in trouble by awkwardly knocking the ball with his right foot. Coquelin couldn’t control the ball with his first touch and ended up tripping Barnes.

Bellerin & Coquelin return

In a strange game of symmetry, the Clarets also relied on crosses and long-range efforts to create chances. Cech turned around the post a diagonal drive from Barnes in the 16th before Marney fired straight at the Czech goalkeeper in the 60th. The Gunners struggled again to stop crosses from their left flank. Lowton capitalized on a Sanchez turnover in the 13th to make a cross for Barnes that Cech intercepted. Burnley could have taken the lead in the 28th when Boyd picked out Gray, who rolled away from Xhaka only to shoot straight at Cech. Boyd made another teasing cross in the 44th but Cech beat Gray to the ball. In the second half, Keane hit a long ball toward Vokes, who outjumped Mustafi to flick the ball on. Barnes beat Paulista to the second ball, but Koscielny managed to block the striker’s close-range attempt.

Within a few months, Koscielny and Mustafi have built a solid partnership at centerback. Koscielny acts like a sweeper, relying on his positional play and sound reading of the game, while Mustafi is a pro-active defender, more mobile and more involved in the team’s passing game. When Mustafi was dispossessed by Gray in the 20th, Koscielny killed the counterattack with a timely tackle. At 24, Mustafi is still a young centerback. He must learn to refrain from making silly fouls like the one in the 71st that allowed Defour to test Cech with a dangerous free kick.

In his return from an ankle injury, Bellerin came off the bench to replace Ozil in the 88th as Wenger was trying to protect his team’s lead. I expect Bellerin to start the next games at rightback since Paulista doesn’t have the Spaniard’s pace and passing skills. Paulista only won 16.7% of his duels, the lowest percentage among all the defenders. His passing accuracy reached 92.5% but it’s a misleading stat because a lot of Paulista’s passes went sideways or backward. He only made 1 cross compared to 3 for Monreal.

Xhaka’s second red card in the Premier League means that he will miss the next 4 games. It also means that the manager will have no room for rotation in midfield since Elneny is still on national duty with Egypt while Cazorla may not return before April. Coquelin, who made his return from a hamstring injury by replacing Iwobi in the 69th, will therefore team up with Ramsey until mid-February.

Swansea vs. Arsenal: Gunners make up ground with 4-0 win

Arsenal thrashed Swansea 4-0 on Saturday to move into fourth place, one point behind Liverpool and Tottenham. The scoreline was quite flattering since two goals resulted from deflected shots and the other two came from poor clearances. However, what really matters is the clean sheet, only their seventh in the Premier League this season.

swansea-vs-arsenal

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

One big reason why the Gunners have struggled to mount a serious title challenge is their defensive record. They have conceded 22 goals so far, 7 more than Chelsea and 8 more than Tottenham. The draw with Bournemouth and the losses to Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool are obvious examples of points dropped because of some poor defending. By contrast, the Gunners have an outstanding offensive record with 48 goals scored. Only Liverpool can match that tally. The goalless draws with Middlesbrough and Leicester are the only two league games in which Arsenal failed to find the net.

At the Liberty stadium, the Gunners produced a lethargic display in the first half with a slow tempo and no penetration. Somehow, they took the lead in the 37th minute thanks to Giroud, the man who scores important goals. The France striker didn’t cover himself in glory on that play though. Ramsey squared the ball back to Giroud, who couldn’t make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Sanchez kept the ball in play and made a cross for Ozil, whose header was blocked by Mawson. The ball fell into the path of Giroud, who slammed it into the top corner.

Giroud usually loves celebrating his goals, but an ankle injury he picked up while missing the tap-in led him to ask for a substitution. He managed to stay on the pitch until the 60th when Oxlade-Chamberlain finally came off the bench. By winning 4 of 6 aerial duels, Giroud proved a valuable outlet for long balls when Arsenal tried to evade the Swans’ high press.

The bigger picture

Sanchez sealed the win by scoring from close range in the 73rd. The Ox initially made a poor cross that sailed behind Sanchez. Routledge beat Ramsey to the loose ball only to knock it back into the path of Sanchez, who volleyed home. Sanchez could have made it 5-0 in the 78th but he was dispossessed by Mawson after an awkward first touch.

The Chile striker had 2 key passes, 2 successful dribbles out of 2, and tested Fabianski with a low strike in the 28th. He showed a tremendous work-rate by winning 4 of 5 tackles, more than any other player according to Squawka. As a result of his hyperactivity, Sanchez was also dispossessed 4 times.

Much was said about Sanchez’s reaction when Welbeck replaced him in the 79th. Sanchez clearly looked upset. However, it shouldn’t be a big deal. It simply shows that Sanchez wants to give his all. Players like Aguero and Cristiano Ronaldo also look frustrated when they are yanked off the pitch. The bigger picture is that Wenger needed to give some playing time to Welbeck, who is the only forward with a skillset similar to Giroud’s.

On the right wing, Iwobi gave Arsenal a 3-0 lead with two deflected shots. He capitalized on a good spell of domination in the 54th to fire a shot that took a deflection off Cork to loop over Fabianski. Then, Iwobi’s cross was diverted by Naughton into his own net in the 67th. Those were lucky goals, but you have to give Iwobi some credit for his desire. The Nigeria international also improved his defensive contribution by winning 2 of 3 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels.

A work in progress

In his return from illness, Ozil didn’t show much although he managed to make 3 key passes, the most for any player. His work-rate is still questionable. Ramsey ended up pressing a Swan in the space occupied by Ozil because the Germany playmaker was reluctant to do it. It’s not the first time that Ozil has ignored his defensive duties. Giroud against West Brom and Sanchez against Manchester City also had to close down opponents in Ozil’s zone.

The tandem formed by Xhaka and Ramsey in midfield is still a work in progress. When Coquelin starts alongside Cazorla or Xhaka, it’s pretty clear that Coquelin will do most of the defensive work while Cazorla or Xhaka will focus on building plays. The distribution is more even when Xhaka teams up with Ramsey because Xhaka doesn’t have Coquelin’s mobility while Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder. Offensively, Xhaka is the one connecting the defense with the forwards while Ramsey is the one making the runs in the final third. Defensively, Xhaka is the one protecting the back four while Ramsey is the one pressing high up the pitch.

Xhaka had two passes intercepted in the first 10 minutes before growing into the game. The Switzerland international finished the match with a passing accuracy of 93.5%, the highest percentage for any starting player. He also hit 5 accurate long balls out of 6. Among the outfield players, only Ki had more accurate long balls according to whoscored.com. At 24, Xhaka still has room for improvement, especially in his reading of the game. He dropped back in a too deep position in the 11th instead of staying with Naughton, who took a pass from Dyer for a low drive that Cech turned around the post. In the closing minutes, Xhaka tested Fabianski twice with long-range efforts.

Ball-watching

Ramsey and Xhaka combined to win only 2 of 8 tackles. Xhaka made 4 interceptions compared to just 1 for Ramsey. That’s an area in which Ramsey could improve. Aware of his defensive duties, Ramsey was also more frugal with his runs in the final third. His only goal attempt was a low strike that Fabianski saved in the 53rd.

The Swans were not as shabby as the scoreline would suggest. They created 7 chances compared to 9 for Arsenal, according to Squawka. Their best chances came from turnovers and ball-watching by the Gunners. Wenger really needs to do something about ball-watching in training because that could become a serious problem for his team.

Managers often talk about fitness, technique, mental toughness and reading of the game as key factors in the success of a player, but focus is just as important. One short lapse of concentration is enough to prevent a player from spotting a dangerous situation or a goalscoring opportunity.

Swansea could have equalized in the 43rd when Llorente held off Koscielny to feed Ki. The South Korea international took a heavy first touch and the ball got away from him. Koscielny flicked out a leg but removed it to avoid a penalty. Ki went down while the loose ball fell to Routledge, who got ahead of Paulista to fire a low strike that Cech parried with his legs. The referee booked Ki for diving although there seemed to be contact between Ki and Koscielny. However, the main defensive mistake on that play was Xhaka’s failure to track Ki’s run inside the area. See the screen captures below.

swansea-aedXhaka caught ball-watching as Ki makes a dangerous run in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Gunners were guilty of another ball-watching moment in the 65th when Kingsley’s half-volley hit Llorente, who teed up Fernandez for an off-target shot. The main defensive mistake on that play was the Ox’s failure to properly mark Fernandez. See the screen captures below.

swansea-bedOxlade-Chamberlain caught ball-watching as Fernandez gets a free shot in front of him (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The Swans also capitalized on turnovers to have a crack at goal. Dyer intercepted Paulista’s poor pass to Koscielny on the stroke of halftime but wasted a good situation with a long-range effort instead of choosing one of his three passing options. Paulista put his team in trouble again in the 62nd by chesting the ball down instead of heading it away. Kingsley dispossessed Paulista to feed Routledge, whose low strike was parried by Cech. Mustafi also cheaply gave the ball away in the 86th, but Sigurdsson could only drag his shot straight at Cech.

Looking beyond Cazorla

Koscielny was a dominant force in the air, winning 7 of 7 aerial duels. His only blemish was an underhit header that Sygurdsson nearly intercepted in the 16th. Paulista got the nod over Holding at rightback but proved the weak link in the back four with some dodgy decision-making. By contrast, Monreal had a solid performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and making 5 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.

January is a key month for Arsenal. First, because they have an easy schedule on paper and can therefore make up ground before visiting Chelsea in February. And second, because they have no mid-week game for three consecutive weeks, which means more time available on the training ground to work on tactical issues. Knowing that Cazorla underwent a second surgery and may not return before April, the Gunners should wisely use that time to make their team more compact in order to improve their defensive record.

Cazorla’s contract expires this summer. That’s a tricky issue for Arsenal because the Spaniard has become a key component in midfield. At 32, his best days are obviously behind him. A one-year extension would seem the most reasonable outcome for both parties as Cazorla’s past two years at the club have been marred by injuries and strangely echo the end of Arteta’s career.

From a long-term perspective, the manager will need to sign a specific type of midfielder this summer. We can divide our midfielders into three categories: those who mostly defend (Coquelin, Elneny, Xhaka), those who mostly attack (Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain), and those who can both defend and attack (Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere). The problem is that Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey are injury-prone players. We therefore need cover for that kind of profile, whether it’s a box-to-box player like Ramsey or a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal: Resilience makes up for sins of youth in 3-3 draw

Giroud scored in the second minute of stoppage time to salvage a 3-3 draw with Bournemouth on Tuesday as the Gunners slipped to fifth place in the Premier League. Pundits said before the game that Arsenal needed to win at the Vitality stadium to stay in the title race, but I already had my doubts when the Gunners couldn’t beat Middlesbrough in October. Their inability to get a point against Everton and Manchester City last month made me more skeptical. Actually, it’s quite foolish to think about the title now that the Red Devils are just two points behind Arsenal in the standings. The league has become so competitive this season that finishing with 80 points may not even guarantee a Champions League spot.

bournemouth-vs-arsenal

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

The Gunners trailed 3-0 on Tuesday because of some unbelievable naivety at the top level. Daniels cut inside Bellerin in the 16th minute to beat Cech from close range. Instead of diving in, Bellerin should have closed the inside door and forced Daniels to take his chance from a tight angle. Four minutes later, Xhaka gave away a penalty by shoving Fraser from behind. That was a silly foul because Fraser was running toward the corner flag while Bellerin was covering Xhaka. Wilson converted the spot kick by firing down the middle to double the lead.

The game turned into a nightmare for Bellerin in the 58th when Fraser bullied the Spaniard to win the ball and slip it through Cech’s legs for a 3-0 lead. Bellerin tried to be too cute on that play. As the last defender, he should have simply cleared the ball into touch. There was also a moment when Xhaka failed to smell the danger. In the 12th, Xhaka gave too much space to Stanislas, who slipped a through ball to Wilson. Cech quickly came off his line to knock the ball away. If you are reluctant to close down an opponent, at least you have to cut the passing channel and Xhaka didn’t.

Xhaka’s bad instincts

To a certain extent, I am not surprised that Xhaka and Bellerin made those mistakes. Only Iwobi was younger than those two players in Arsenal’s starting lineup. I still think that Bellerin is a world-class player but he really had a poor game by his own standards. Bellerin had clearly not recovered from Sunday’s game as he won none of the 3 tackles he made. The Spaniard was even booked in the 31st for a late challenge on Fraser.

Throughout his career, Xhaka has often struggled to control his temper. The Switzerland international has tried to curb his instincts since his red card against Swansea, but he was let down by some poor self-control in the play that led to Bournemouth’s penalty. Wenger will need to have a word with Xhaka. That’s not a new situation for the manager since his former captain, Vieira, still shares the Premier League record for the most red cards received by a player (8).

It was a complicated game for Xhaka, who had to play in a more defensive role after Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced an injured Coquelin in the 28th. Xhaka only produced 71 passes, which is not much for a deep-lying playmaker, but he made a significant defensive contribution by winning 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He wasted a couple of set pieces in the first half with a poor delivery that failed to beat the first man. That’s when you realize that you really miss Ozil’s quality delivery, especially with a Giroud so dominant in the air. Somehow, Xhaka made amends in the second half by creating Arsenal’s second goal and making the assist for the equalizer.

A Frenchie’s revolt

We can give some credit to the Gunners for not giving up despite a three-goal deficit. As an example of their resilience, they won more tackles than Bournemouth: 13 of 35 tackles for Arsenal compared to 8 of 25 tackles for the Cherries, according to Squawka.

Giroud proved the key player in leading the revolt by making two assists and netting the equalizer. He held off Cook in the 70th to redirect a cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain toward the far post where Sanchez headed home. Five minutes later, Giroud flicked a pass from Xhaka toward Perez, who volleyed into the far corner to make it 3-2. In stoppage time, Giroud outjumped Cook to head Xhaka’s cross into the bottom corner.

The Frenchman’s work-rate was quite impressive. He made 4 tackles and won 5 of 10 headers. Giroud even killed a Bournemouth counterattack with a sliding challenge on King in the 52nd. There was a minor injury scare as King stamped on Giroud’s ankle on that play. Giroud also played in the position of a centerback in the 82nd when Paulista was pulled out of position. Gosling managed to roll away from Giroud but sent his curling shot wide with just Cech to beat. Down 4-2, it would have been game over for the Gunners.

In stoppage time, Cech parried an angled shot from Arter to salvage a point. I thought Cech made some decent saves but nothing outstanding. I can’t help wondering whether De Gea or Courtois would have stopped Fraser’s goal from a tight angle. Cech was lucky to get away with a poor punch in the 56th. The ball fell to Arter, whose long-range strike deflected off Wilson’s hand to go into the net. The goal was disallowed for a handball but quite honestly it was similar to Koscielny’s goal against Burnley.

Lack of rotation

In the end, the draw was a fair result. The Cherries dominated the first half while Arsenal dominated the second half. Bournemouth played at a high tempo in the first half and the Gunners simply couldn’t cope with the intensity because of a lack of freshness. The energy levels of the Cherries dropped after the break while Arsenal somehow caught a second wind in the last 30 minutes.

At kickoff, I felt Wenger didn’t rotate enough. The manager only made 3 changes to the side that defeated Crystal Palace 2-0 on Sunday with Mustafi, Coquelin and Ramsey replacing Paulista, Elneny and Perez in the starting lineup. Wenger is right to complain about the schedule. But then, he has to understand the implications and adapt. Bellerin, Koscielny and Iwobi clearly looked jaded. In hindsight, Holding, Paulista and Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been better starting options.

Koscielny had a decent game, making 2 interceptions and winning 2 of 2 tackles and 3 of 5 headers, until a bout of cramping led to his replacement by Paulista in the 64th. You can bet the manager would have been crucified if it had been a serious injury. In his return from a hamstring injury, Mustafi proved hyperactive with 8 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 blocks. He made a crucial sliding tackle in the 34th when Wilson made a run in behind the defense. However, his decision to set the offside trap in the 82nd was quite dodgy.

Ramsey in search of form and consistency

The situation in midfield is becoming a concern after Coquelin picked up a hamstring injury. Cazorla won’t return before March, Elneny is with the Egypt squad for the African Cup of Nations, and Ozil is still recovering from illness. That means we only have two established midfielders available: Xhaka and Ramsey.

Coquelin’s injury was unexpected since he didn’t even start against Palace and had therefore enough rest. The manager sent on the Ox for Coquelin in the 28th, as Xhaka teamed up with Ramsey in midfield. Ramsey is still struggling to get back on top of his game. His season has been marred by injuries so far.

In midfield, Ramsey will have to find the right balance between defense and attack. He let his team down by not marking Daniels in the 16th. Bellerin took the blame for the opening goal, but if you look at the screen capture below, you can see that the Spaniard was busy tracking Fraser. In fact, each Arsenal defender was marking one player before Stanislas made a cross-field pass to Daniels. That means Ramsey had to show more defensive awareness and cover the space created by Fraser’s movement.

bournemouth-b-edited

Ramsey does not pay attention to Daniels, who has plenty of space to run into (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

Ramsey still lacks a bit of sharpness as none of his 4 goal attempts was on target. The Wales midfielder controlled a cross from Sanchez in the 29th for an effort that Ake deflected out. He then connected with another cross from Sanchez in the 86th for a volley that sailed wide. On the bright side, Ramsey had 3 successful dribbles out of 4 and made 79 passes, more than any other player. His passing accuracy also reached 93.7%, the highest percentage for any player according to whoscored.com.

Season on the line at Swansea

The Cherries were down to 10 men after Francis made a two-footed challenge on Ramsey in the 82nd. However, Arsenal had gathered plenty of momentum by then. The turning point was arguably the shift to a 4-4-2 formation with Perez replacing Iwobi in the 63rd. Perez netted his first Premier League goal and could push Walcott out of the starting lineup if he keeps scoring and showing great work-rate. The Ox also made a good cameo appearance with 3 key passes and 3 accurate crosses, the most for any player. He also won 2 of 3 tackles and made 1 interception and 1 block.

The next league game against Swansea on Jan. 14 has suddenly become massive because of the two points dropped at Bournemouth. Our season could slip away if we can’t beat Swansea, Burnley and Watford this month. There’s enough quality in the squad to rest key players on Saturday when the Gunners face lower-league Preston in the FA Cup. We simply have too many players injured (Cazorla, Coquelin, Gibbs, Walcott) or still recovering (Ozil, Mertesacker, Welbeck) right now to make another silly gamble.

 

 

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: Closer to a Top 4 dogfight than a title race after 19 games

Arsenal defeated Crystal Palace 2-0 on Sunday to reach the halfway stage with 40 points in the Premier League. That’s one more point than last season when the Gunners were topping the table after 19 games. The big difference is that the league has become more competitive this season as the Gunners only sit in third place, 9 points behind Chelsea and 3 behind Liverpool.

arsenal-vs-crystal-palace

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

The title is a distant dream for Arsenal right now because the Blues are on pace to finish the season with 98 points and break the record for the highest points total (95 points by the Chelsea team of 2004-05). There’s still a long way to go but the Blues seem to enjoy the luck that Leicester had last season. The Foxes did not need to rotate because they played no European game and suffered no big injury. Similar circumstances have enabled Conte to rely pretty much on the same 14 players.

The reality for the Gunners is that they should not take a Top 4 finish for granted. They are just one point clear of Tottenham and Manchester City and 4 points ahead of Manchester United after 19 games. Basically, it means that two big teams will bite the dust at the end of the season.

Wenger made 3 changes to the side that edged West Brom 1-0 a week ago with Monreal, Elneny and Perez replacing Gibbs, Coquelin and Ozil in the starting lineup. The manager had no choice with Ozil and Gibbs. The Germany playmaker was ill while Gibbs is recovering from a knee injury.

On the other hand, Wenger started Elneny to give Coquelin some rest. That move made sense since Elneny will join the Egypt squad for the African Cup of Nations and will therefore not be at the club for a couple of weeks at least. Tactically, there was also no need to have a ballwinner like Coquelin against a weak Palace side. The Gunners lost a bit of defensive security without Coquelin but gained a bit more fluency in their passing game with Elneny.

The forwards’ work-rate

What really struck me in Sunday’s game was the work-rate of the Arsenal forwards. You can see a major difference when Giroud and Perez take the spots occupied by Ozil and Walcott. The Gunners won more tackles than Palace, 19 out of 38 tackles for Arsenal compared to 12 out of 33 for the visitors, according to Squawka. The Gunners lost a bit of pace and fluency in their passing game without Ozil, but they gained more aggression and physicality with Giroud, who won 3 of 5 tackles and made 1 interception.

Giroud deservedly grabbed the headlines with his sensational scorpion kick in the 17th minute. Sanchez capitalized on a counterattack to make a poor cross for Giroud, who reacted quickly enough to attempt an acrobatic backheel flick. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar before bouncing behind the goal line. Sanchez tried again to set up Giroud in the 79th but the Frenchman couldn’t climb high enough to connect with the cross.

It’s positive for the club to see Sanchez improve his relationship on the pitch with Giroud. Last season, their poor understanding played an important role in Arsenal’s offensive problems: Sanchez and Giroud only interacted once to score a league goal. That was when Giroud set up Sanchez in the 2-2 draw with Manchester City. They have already interacted twice this season in the league with Giroud also making an assist for Sanchez against Bournemouth.

Can Arsenal be ruthless?

Some fans get frustrated with Giroud because he can score the most difficult goals and miss the easy ones. Giroud lived up to to his reputation in the sixth minute as he failed to connect with a bouncing cross from Monreal for a tap-in. Surprisingly, the stat sheet says Giroud scored with his only shot of the game. To some extent, that speaks volumes about the relative lack of service Giroud got.

That leads me to the second thing that caught my attention. The Gunners completely outplayed Palace, finishing the match with 15 chances compared to 5 for the visitors. The Eagles were so toothless in the first half that Arsenal should have reached halftime with a 3-goal lead. Unfortunately, the Gunners don’t have that capacity to kill off games. Sanchez should have doubled the lead on the stroke of halftime when some poor defending by Palace gifted Arsenal a golden opportunity. The Chile striker pounced on a loose ball but had his 10-yard effort saved by Hennessey.

Sanchez lacked his finishing touch on Sunday with only 2 of his 8 goal attempts on target. I thought he was also a bit selfish and could have released the ball more quickly instead of holding onto it. That’s the difference with Ozil, who’s a selfless player in the final third. Sanchez was dispossessed 6 times, tied with Zaha for the most by any player, according to whoscored.com.

Perez’s strong performance

When he plays on the left wing, Sanchez becomes a bit predictable because he often cuts inside to shoot with his right foot. That did not prevent him from having 4 successful dribbles out of 6. On the other hand, Sanchez’s limited ability to win headers becomes a problem when he plays in a central position. Giroud is a better option at centerforward to hold the ball up. The Frenchman won 4 of 5 aerial duels against Palace and 4 of those duels were in midfield.

Perez made a strong impression on Sunday. He made 2 key passes, 5 tackles, 1 block and 1 interception. With a better scoring record, Perez could take Walcott’s spot on the right wing. The Spaniard has scored in the Champions League and the League Cup, but not yet in the Premier League. His work-rate against Palace was outstanding. Perez initiated the first goal by making an interception on the edge of the Arsenal box. He then showed his stamina in the 24th by running the length of the pitch to lead a counterattack and tracking back 50 yards after losing possession. His best chance to score came in the 27th when Iwobi sent a ball over the top. Unfortunately, Perez missed his first touch and Hennessey was able to gather the ball. In the second half, Perez made a run in behind Flamini to take a pass from Sanchez for an angled strike that Dann deflected out.

Ozil’s illness meant that Wenger had the choice between starting Iwobi in the No. 10 role and playing Sanchez as a second striker. The manager opted for the first solution, which made sense since Iwobi is more spontaneous in his passing game than Sanchez. Iwobi made 5 key passes, tied with Sanchez for the most by any player.

Iwobi’s finishing

After the game, Wenger said that Iwobi had worked hard in training to improve his finishing and it showed as the Nigeria international caught the frame with 2 of his 3 shots. Iwobi did not really trouble Hennessey with a tame effort in the 16th. But he was much more clinical in the 56th when Dann deflected a cross from Monreal high into the air. Iwobi headed the loose ball past Hennessey and two Palace defenders. Ward tried to head the ball out but his clearance bounced off the bar and back into the net.

Iwobi had a poor run of form in October and November. He has rediscovered his form lately with 3 goals in all competitions since December. Expectations should be kept low for a player who’s only 20 years old. But if he wants to set the bar high, then he should try to match Alli’s performance level at Tottenham.

In his return from a hamstring injury, Oxlade-Chamberlain made an interesting cameo appearance with 1 key pass, 1 shot on target and 3 successful dribbles in the last 15 minutes. The Ox set up Ramsey, who missed the target in the 88th. He then controlled a pass from Sanchez for a low strike that Hennessey saved in stoppage time. As long as the Ox shows some end product, he’ll get his share of playing time.

In midfield, Elneny showed more aggression than usual, which is a good thing when you remember how he was brushed off the ball in his first Arsenal games. Elneny won 2 of 4 tackles and 75% of his duels, the highest percentage among the starting midfielders according to the club’s website. He made no key pass but his passing accuracy reached 90.6%.

Xhaka asserting himself

Elneny’s defensive contribution was enough to help Xhaka perform his playmaking duties. Xhaka made 111 passes, 49 more than any other player. He showed his passing range by hitting 13 accurate long balls out of 17, according to whoscored.com. Those long balls can be useful to switch play, evade a high press or start a fast break. Xhaka did not neglect his defensive duties as he won 3 of 5 tackles and 1 of 2 headers. Recent Arsenal teams have often been criticized for their lack of leadership and character, but I believe Xhaka could provide the steel and fight we’ve been missing in midfield since Vieira’s departure. I definitely look forward to Xhaka’s second season at the club when he’ll play with more confidence.

At the back, Koscielny and Paulista had very little work. They committed no foul, made one tackle each and were mostly tested in the air, with Koscielny winning 3 of 8 headers and Paulista 3 of 12, according to Squawka. In fact, the Eagles focused most of their efforts on the flanks to feed Benteke. But Bellerin and Monreal did a fine job, combining to win 6 of 9 tackles.

Palace proved more threatening in the second half, coming close to scoring on a fast break and a corner. With Monreal out of position in the 47th, Townsend was able to make a cross for Benteke at the far post. The Belgium striker outjumped Bellerin but his downward header sailed wide. I thought the Gunners made a decent retreat on that play and Bellerin did enough to prevent Benteke from having a free header.

Unprofessional league executives

The Arsenal defense looked more shaky in the 60th when the Eagles put pressure with corner kicks. Benteke outjumped Paulista near the penalty spot for a header that Cech palmed away. A few seconds later, the ball fell to Flamini, who hoisted the ball into the box. Cech punched the ball into the path of Cabaye, who forced Cech into another save with a long-range volley. The following corner led to a goalmouth scramble and a Townsend drive that Cech parried. The Eagles were unable to create a single chance after Wenger decided to shut up the shop by replacing Elneny and Perez with Coquelin and Ramsey in the 72nd and Iwobi with the Ox in the 77th.

The Gunners only have one full day of rest before visiting Bournemouth on Tuesday. That’s completely unprofessional from the Premier League executives to give so little rest between two games. The players don’t have enough time to recover physically, which means that they are unlikely to perform well and that there’s a high risk of injury. Such nonsensical scheduling doesn’t happen in the other top European leagues. Spain, Germany, Italy and France have broadcasting constraints too, but they always make sure that teams have at least two full days of rest. If a club plays on Sunday, then its next game will be on Wednesday and not Tuesday.

I assume key players like Sanchez and Koscielny won’t start against Bournemouth. On the other hand, Ramsey, Coquelin, Mustafi and the Ox were on the bench against Palace and might start against the Cherries. The Gunners desperately need three points after both Manchester clubs won on Monday.

Arsenal vs. West Brom: Giroud shows he still has big role to play this season

What do you do when Plan A is not working? Well, you simply switch to Plan B.

Wenger’s main innovation this season has been to play the diminutive Sanchez in the centerforward role. That Plan A has helped Arsenal crack defenses with intricate plays on the ground. The obvious side effect has been Giroud’s relegation to the bench. However, recent losses to Everton and Manchester City have exposed the limits of Plan A. For Monday’s game against West Brom, the manager switched back to last season’s blueprint, Plan B, with Giroud leading the line and Sanchez on the left wing.

arsenal-vs-west-brom

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

This was Giroud’s first start in the Premier League this season. Yet, his teammates barely noticed him in the first half. Giroud somehow expressed his frustration with the lack of decent service by receiving a yellow card for dissent in the 43rd minute. I guess it took a while for Arsenal to rediscover how to play with Giroud up front. In the 56th, Sanchez finally made one good cross for Giroud, whose header lacked power to trouble Foster. Three minutes later, Giroud took a pass from Ozil and fired a low diagonal strike that Foster saved with his leg.

It looked like the Gunners were about to extend their poor run of form by dropping two points at the Emirates stadium against an average side. But Giroud held off McAuley in the 86th to meet a cross from Ozil and send a looping header into the top corner. That 1-0 victory helped Arsenal stay fourth in the standings, 9 points behind leader Chelsea and 4 points clear of Manchester United.

The Gunners definitely proved more threatening against the Baggies than in their two previous games. They created 21 chances compared to 2 for the visitors, according to Squawka. They also had 11 shots on target compared to just 1 for West Brom.

Injecting pace around Giroud

Arsenal fans often complain about Giroud’s lack of pace. At the Euro 2016, France manager Deschamps found a solution by putting pacy players around Giroud. France reached the final of that tournament by using a 4-4-2 formation with Griezmann and Giroud up front, Payet on the left wing, and Coman or Sissoko on the right wing.

There are similarities between the Gunners and the France team. Sanchez and Griezmann are both strikers although Griezmann plays behind Giroud for France while Sanchez plays on the left wing for Arsenal. Likewise, Ozil and Payet are both creative players but Payet roams on the left wing for France while Ozil pulls the strings behind Giroud. On the right wing, Deschamps alternates between a winger, Coman, and a midfielder, Sissoko, just like Wenger has the choice between Walcott, Ramsey and Iwobi.

Giroud is obviously the difference between Plan A and Plan B. Plan A deliberately puts the emphasis on speed and intricate plays with Sanchez, Walcott and Iwobi/Oxlade-Chamberlain as the 3 forwards, while Plan B is more balanced with Giroud, Sanchez and Walcott/Ramsey as the attacking trident. Plan B offers a threat in the air and a physicality that Plan A doesn’t have. Sanchez would have never been able to score the winner against the Baggies because he doesn’t have Giroud’s power and dominance in the air.

Marginal gain for Sanchez with Plan A

I prefer Plan B to Plan A for the simple reason that Ozil is more efficient in the traditional No. 10 role and Giroud is an easy target to hit. Let’s be honest, no player can deliver a better final ball than Ozil. Last season, Ozil racked up 15 assists and 2 goals after 18 league games. This season, he has notched 5 goals and 4 assists in the Premier League by playing in a slightly more advanced position. That’s a small increase in goals but a dramatic drop in assists.

Sanchez is making more key passes with Plan A, but the gain is marginal if we compare with his stats from the 2014-15 season, when he still played on the left wing (I’m not taking last season into account because he came back exhausted from the Copa America and was sidelined for a few games by a hamstring injury). Plan A is tailored for Sanchez’s tendency to be all over the pitch. The Chile striker has racked up 12 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League this season. That’s pretty similar to his tally from the 2014-15 season when he notched 10 goals and 6 assists after 18 league games.

Of course, there are games where Plan A is the better option to carve open a defense. I’m especially thinking of the 3-0 win over Chelsea. It’s also easier to switch from Plan A to Plan B than the other way around. Once you take Giroud off the pitch, you have nobody else on the bench who can give you his physicality and aerial threat, except maybe Welbeck who won’t return before next year. By contrast, if you yank off Walcott, you still have pacy forwards like Oxlade-Chamberlain and Perez on the bench.

Ozil’s work-rate is still an issue

On Monday, Ozil made 7 key passes, the most for any player. In a deeper position, he played a more important role in the team’s passing game than when Sanchez is the centerforward, finishing the match with 122 passes, second only behind Xhaka’s 141, according to whoscored.com.

Ozil’s work-rate is still an issue though. He won just 20% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Only Chadli had a lower percentage among all the players. There was one moment in the first half when Fletcher ran into the space occupied by the Germany playmaker. Noticing that Ozil did not close Fletcher down, Giroud sprinted past Ozil to press the West Brom midfielder. A similar situation happened against Manchester City when Silva dispossessed Ozil, forcing Sanchez to track back and do Ozil’s defensive job in midfield.

In Plan A, Sanchez plays the role of a false nine, often dropping back to relieve Ozil of his playmaking duties and therefore make more key passes. Back on the left wing in Plan B where he is less involved in the passing game and more focused on finishing, Sanchez saw his number of shot assists drop to 2 against West Brom. However, that did not impact his scoring opportunities as he had 4 of 9 shots on target, compared to 3 of 5 for Giroud.

Sanchez could have opened the scoring in the 50th when a corner led to a goalmouth scramble. The ball fell to Sanchez, who rounded Evans to hit the post from 6 yards. Six minutes later, Sanchez controlled a cross from Iwobi to fire a powerful strike that Foster tipped over the bar.

Positive contribution from Ramsey & Perez

This season is still a learning period for Iwobi, who’s just 20 years old. Performances can be quite inconsistent at that age. Only 1 of his 4 goal attempts was on target. Iwobi pounced on a headed pass from Ozil in the 50th to unleash a low volley that Foster saved. Obviously, Iwobi must focus on showing more end product and improving his composure in front of the net. It’s good news for his development that Nigeria failed to qualify for next year’s African Cup of Nations. That means Iwobi will keep training and playing for Arsenal in January and February instead of traveling to Africa.

Ramsey and Perez came off the bench in the second half and made a positive contribution. They had 2 key passes each despite playing only the last 20 minutes. Perez crossed the ball for Giroud in the 76th but the Frenchman failed to make contact with the ball for a tap-in. Ramsey could have made it 2-0 in the 90th after Sanchez knocked down a Bellerin cross but his half-volley was stopped by Foster. In stoppage time, Ramsey had another scoring opportunity on a counterattack but lacked the confidence for a lob attempt.

The Gunners will definitely need both players in the second half of the season. Ramsey is the key player in midfield when they struggle to break the deadlock while Perez is a great alternative if Walcott and Sanchez get injured or have a poor run of form.

A sterile first half

The Baggies made the game difficult for Arsenal by playing with 10 men behind the ball. They also tried to slow the tempo with time-wasting tactics. That became obvious by Foster’s third goal kick in the 21st. The West Brom goalkeeper was booked in the 83rd but I felt the referee should have done it in the first half when Foster used up a lot of time for 7 goal kicks.

The performance in the first half was unconvincing with a lot of sterile possession. The Gunners especially struggled to play the ball out from the back as Paulista doesn’t have Mustafi’s passing skills and Xhaka doesn’t have Cazorla’s dribbling skills. Cazorla is usually the one injecting a sense of urgency in the team’s passing game. Xhaka somehow lacked the Spaniard’s dynamism in setting the tempo.

Arsenal failed to create any clear-cut chance in the first half. Their few goal attempts were long-range strikes that often missed the target. Sanchez’s low drive in the 33rd was the only one that forced Foster into a save. Reaching half-time with no goal scored against an average side didn’t feel good at all, especially since Chelsea and Manchester United had taken the lead in their respective games.

The Gunners opted for a more direct approach in the second half with crosses that put the West Brom defense in trouble. It’s quite telling that Arsenal finished the game with no accurate through balls from 4 attempts but managed to make 7 accurate crosses out of 18.

Question marks about Cech

Xhaka contributed to that directness with 11 accurate long balls out of 15, the most for any outfield player, according to whoscored.com. I believe Xhaka and Coquelin have found the right balance in their partnership with Coquelin making 9 tackles against the Baggies while Xhaka made 3. Coquelin’s aggression in midfield allows Xhaka to focus on his passing.

At the back, the Gunners made two defensive mistakes to gift West Brom chances that could have been costly. Rondon beat the offside trap in the 32nd to meet a Chadli cross for a tame header. I don’t understand why Koscielny decided to set the offside trap on that play since Chadli was already in the final third and Koscielny was in a good position to win the header. Despite that rare instance of poor decision-making, Koscielny was arguably our best defender on Monday, bringing calm in the backline and winning 88.9% of his duels, the most for any starter according to the club’s website.

I have mixed feelings about Cech’s performance level since the start of the season. The scrutiny could have been worse without the change in the laws of the game, otherwise Cech would have been sent off this season against Hull and Sunderland for killing goal-scoring opportunities. When I see the leg saves Foster made on Monday, I’m wondering whether Cech could have denied Sterling the previous weekend by sticking a leg out instead of diving to palm the shot away.

Competition for the leftback spot

Cech didn’t have much to do against the Baggies but he did it poorly. He sent a goal kick straight into touch in the 48th. Then he made a handling mistake while to trying to catch a corner kick in the 70th. The ball fell to Yacob, who fired over the bar from 5 yards. In hindsight, Cech should have punched the ball away. Another issue is why the Gunners struggle so badly to win the second ball.

Guessing how a goalkeeper will age can be tricky. Buffon is still a very good goalie at 38 while Casillas lost a step by the age of 31. At 34, Cech seems past his prime. The number of goals he conceded last season from long-range shots was already a concern. His lack of mobility is becoming obvious this season. On current form, Ospina would have taken Cech’s starting spot if he had a better command of his area.

Wenger made just two changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Manchester City the previous weekend with Gibbs and Giroud replacing Monreal and Walcott in the starting lineup. Gibbs got the nod over Monreal while Walcott’s absence was the result of a calf injury. Gibbs had a decent game with 3 key passes and an effort on target. But a clash of knees with Yacob in the 64th led to Gibbs’ substitution for Monreal. The leftback position has been a weakness this season. It will be interesting to see how the manager can fix it.

The Gunners next face Crystal Palace on Sunday and desperately need three points to stay in the title race and keep Tottenham and Manchester United at bay.