Tag Archives: Xhaka

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth: Gunners win ugly to move into 3rd

   One-nil to the Arsenal! It was a popular chant in the early 1990’s when the Gunners played boring football under Graham but still found a way to win. On Sunday, Luiz scored the winning goal from a corner as the 1-0 victory over Bournemouth lifted Arsenal into third place in the Premier League, one point behind Manchester City.

Arsenal vs. Bournemouth 2019.jpgPhoto credit: Premier League

   The standings don’t mean much at this stage of the season because some teams will improve while some will fade away. Another factor to keep in mind is that the Gunners still haven’t played Manchester City, Chelsea and Leicester, which are more likely to finish in the Top 4 than Tottenham and Manchester United on current form. Nevertheless, Sunday’s win is a massive result for the club because it gives Emery more time to find his best team.

   Some fans regretted that Arsenal played quite defensively for a game at the Emirates stadium. You can’t accuse Emery of not doing his homework. With 3 strikers in the starting lineup (Wilson, Solanke, King), that Bournemouth team was set up to hit the Gunners on the fast break.

   The Cherries were so inhibited in the first half that Emery’s approach seemed way too cautious. But Bournemouth took control of the game in the second half, dominating ball possession and creating some decent chances. Any time the Gunners felt in danger, they dropped into a solid defensive shape so that there was no disorganization like in the Watford game.

   In the end, that defensive focus paid off as Arsenal limited the Cherries to 10 shots compared to 31 shots for Watford. The obvious criticism against Emery is that the Gunners only managed to have 12 shots. Emery must find a better balance between defense and attack, especially at home where fans expect the team to grab games by the scruff of the neck.

Both ends of the pitch

   Arsenal lost the control of the game in a nervy second half because they couldn’t boss the midfield. Emery tried to fix those midfield issues by replacing Ceballos with Willock in the 74th and Saka with Torreira in the 82nd. But Bournemouth kept threatening until the closing minutes.

   To a certain extent, Emeryball is the opposite of Wengerball. In the last few seasons of Wenger’s reign, the Gunners used to dominate ball possession and boss the midfield because of their technical superiority. But they were often found out at both ends of the pitch, missing big chances in the final third and making mistakes in the defensive third.

   Emery is not so much obsessed with ball possession and controlling the midfield. Instead, the Spanish manager emphasizes the transition game and efficiency at both ends of the pitch. When the transition game works, you get goals like the one scored by Ramsey against Fulham or the one scored by Aubameyang against Leicester. When the transition game fails, you get end-to-end plays like in a cheap basketball game.

   The conversion rate of Aubameyang and Lacazette definitely shows Arsenal’s improved efficiency in the final third. It’s a different story in the defensive third. Emery has taken Mustafi out of the back four in the Premier League but the Gunners still make a lot of mistakes. Rebuilding the team was always going to be a long process. You just have to look at Manchester United to understand the scale of the task at Arsenal.

Making choices after the international break

   Emery made 10 changes to the side that thrashed Standard de Liège on Thursday with only Ceballos retaining his starting spot. You could almost think that Emery has one lineup for Europa League games and another for the Premier League since there was just 1 change to the side that drew at Old Trafford a week ago with Ceballos replacing Torreira in the starting lineup. My guess is that Emery was simply managing the fitness of his players, hoping that everyone will be available after the international break to make the important choices.

   Aubameyang didn’t get any decent service. He curled a shot wide of the far post in the sixth minute. Then he pounced on a poor clearance from the Bournemouth defense in the 23rd for a tame effort that Solanke cleared. On paper, Pepe, Saka and Ceballos were in charge of providing ammunitions to Aubameyang, but they didn’t create any big chance.

   Despite making the assist for the winner with a pinpoint corner kick, Pepe didn’t make any key pass from open play. His only goal attempt was a mid-range curling shot that missed the target in the 19th. When Lacazette is fit again, Pepe could lose his starting spot because of his lack of end product. One play in the 47th summarized Pepe’s struggles: he dribbled past 3 Cherries only to leave the ball behind.

   Defensively, Pepe also needs to step up. Bournemouth leftback Rico made 12 of his team’s 16 crosses because Pepe gave him too much freedom. Saka even had better stats than Pepe. The academy player made 3 tackles and 3 recoveries and had 2 key passes and a passing accuracy of 76.2% compared to 1 tackle, 3 recoveries, 1 key pass, and a passing accuracy of 66.7% for Pepe, according to whoscored.com. For an 18-year-old player, Saka didn’t look out of his depth. He tested Ramsdale with an angled strike in the 35th and made a crucial recovery in the 46th when the Cherries were creating chaos inside the Arsenal area.

Lack of creativity

   The midfield has been an issue for the Gunners since the start of the season. The club spent £72 million on Pepe this summer to boost their firepower. At the time, that transfer decision made sense because Nketiah was the only back-up option if Aubameyang or Lacazette got injured. In hindsight, maybe the £72 million could have been better spent on signing a couple of midfielders.

   Arsenal dominated the first half but couldn’t create clear-cut chances. Ceballos had a good game, leading all players with 3 key passes and 11 recoveries in 73 minutes. There was a touch of Cazorla when he made a crossfield pass to Saka in the sixth minute or when he set up Chambers for a volley in the 36th. Ceballos also showed off his dribbling skills with a nutmeg in the 41st. However, his delivery from corners was poor. The Real Madrid loanee failed to beat the first man in the fifth minute and overhit his corner in the 22nd.

   The trouble is that Ceballos was the only creative player in the starting lineup. Some fans would love to see Ceballos and Ozil play together, but that scenario is unlikely because Ozil’s poor work-rate prevents Arsenal from implementing a high press. Would anybody seriously think that Ozil can make more than 10 recoveries in a game?

   During the summer transfer window, the club definitely got the balance of the squad wrong. The Gunners lost 3 attacking midfielders (Ramsey, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan) but only signed Ceballos as a temporary replacement. That’s quite a contrast with the Arsenal of 2015 when Wenger had the choice between Cazorla, Ozil, Rosicky, Ramsey, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

   Some pundits may mention Liverpool as the example of a team playing without any creative midfielder. In Liverpool’s case, the creativity comes from Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Firmino. While Lacazette can play like a false nine and create chances, Saka and Pepe don’t have the end product of a Salah, just like Kolasinac and Chambers don’t have the skills of a Robertson or Alexander-Arnold.

Where’s the ballwinner?

   Ceballos had an impact when the Gunners dominated the first half but he became useless when his team had to chase the ball in the second half. Arsenal lost the control of the game because neither Guendouzi nor Xhaka is a ballwinner. That’s another position that was overlooked by the club during the summer transfer window.

   Xhaka led all players with 3 fouls. His work-rate was decent with 2 tackles and 8 recoveries, but his poor positional play and lack of mobility will always make him a defensive liability. Guendouzi made one important clearance in the 89th, preventing King from tapping home Danjuma’s pass, but he still had a weaker work-rate than Xhaka with 2 tackles and 4 recoveries.

   Since last season, I’ve said that Xhaka and Guendouzi are not complementary because they have the same profile: they are both deep-lying playmakers with a lack of end product. Xhaka led all players with 61 passes but made 0 key pass compared to 1 key pass for Guendouzi. The Gunners could have put more pressure on Bournemouth in the first half, but they played at an average pace because Xhaka and Guendouzi are not as good as Cazorla or Fabregas at setting a high tempo.

   At the back, Chambers and Kolasinac focused on their defensive duties, contributing very little offensively. Chambers made 4 tackles, 1 interception and 6 recoveries while Kolasinac made 3 tackles and 7 recoveries. By contrast, their impact in the final third was poor. Kolasinac and Chambers combined to make only 1 key pass and had 0 accurate cross out of 7 attempts, according to whoscored.com.

   Kolasinac’s technique was especially shocking. He overhit his cross for Pepe in the 42nd and then made a lazy cross that led to a Bournemouth counterattack in the 84th. Chambers had a scoring chance in the 36th but sent his 13-yard volley wide. The Cherries exposed Chambers’ lack of pace, dribbling past him 3 times. But Chambers’ experience made the difference inside the Arsenal area. He prevented tap-ins by clearing Wilson’s cutback in the 51st and King’s cross in the 64th.

Luiz, a casual jogger

   In the heart of the defense, Luiz and Sokratis had some poor moments. Luiz scored the winner but he also lost quite a few key duels. Bournemouth’s best chance came in the 51st. Luiz was pulled out of position by Wilson, who held the ball up before finding Solanke. The former Chelsea starlet outpaced Kolasinac to play the ball back to Wilson, who dribbled past Sokratis and rounded Leno to square the ball back to King, but Chambers read the play and cleared the danger. Luiz failed to stay with Wilson on that play. By casually jogging back toward the area, Luiz left Sokratis in a 1v1 situation with Wilson. A minute later, Luiz missed a clearance but Wilson could not make contact with Rico’s dangerous cross. In the closing minutes, Cook beat Luiz to the ball only to head a corner over the bar. In stoppage time, Wilson held off the Brazilian centerback but shot straight at Leno.

   Sokratis didn’t cover himself in glory either. Solanke got ahead of Sokratis to meet Rico’s free kick in the 17th but missed the target with a free header. It was Wilson’s turn to get the better of Sokratis in the 47th but Luiz managed to block Wilson’s pass to Solanke. Sokratis also stupidly lost possession in the 74th by dallying on the ball. I expect Holding to start at centerback after the international break. He should be 100 percent match fit by then.

   It’s definitely a bonus for the Gunners to be third in the Premier League despite missing Holding, Bellerin, Tierney and Lacazette through injury. Lacazette hasn’t played since the North London derby on Sept. 1 while the other three players haven’t featured in the league yet.

Hitting the nuclear button?

   Despite this good start to the season, the knives are already out for Emery. Some Arsenal fans wanted his dismissal after the 2-2 draw at Watford. Can you imagine Manchester City fans calling for Guardiola’s sacking after the 2-0 loss to Wolverhampton at home? That wouldn’t make any sense, right? Some fans even hoped that the Gunners will miss out on a Top 4 finish to have Emery kicked out even though it would be more difficult for the club to attract a top manager and world-class players without the lure of Champions League football.  

   As long as the Gunners are in the Top 4 race, I believe that Emery has the right to stay at the club. Then the board will draw it own conclusions about Emery’s performance at the end of the season. Frankly, it’s madness to fire a manager after one season and a couple of months, especially when every reasonable person knew that rebuilding the squad would take several transfer windows. Can you imagine the kind of message it would send to prospective managers? Third place for a club in transition is not good enough!

   I don’t want Arsenal to turn into a drama club like Chelsea or Manchester United. For some fans, it might be fun to hit the nuclear button, but then what next? Is it the beginning of a cycle of instability and player power?

   Some fans don’t like Emery because the football played by the Gunners is boring. Fair enough. But I don’t think many managers would do much better with the current squad. The entire 5-6-10 spine is flawed. When Guardiola joined Manchester City, he already had a solid spine with Kompany, Fernandinho, Silva, De Bruyne and Aguero. By contrast, Klopp had to rebuild the entire spine at Liverpool by heavily spending on Alisson, Van Dijk, Fabinho, Salah and Mané.

   Emery is not in the same class as Guardiola and Klopp. But he’s still among the 30 best active managers in the world. Some abusive fans call him a fraud even though Arsenal defeated Napoli twice in the Europa League last season. Yet, Liverpool lost to Napoli in the Champions League last month.

   Some criticisms against Emery are fair. But when some fans don’t want to give him credit for anything and jump on any result to discredit him, that’s a hateful vendetta. And then you have crazy conspiracy theories like the one claiming that Ljungberg is the one managing the team in the Europa League. The danger with the Emery haters is that they could bring back the toxic atmosphere in the stands. That’s the last thing that the club needs in the middle of a rebuilding process.


Man United vs. Arsenal: Gunners saved by clinical Aubameyang

   Aubameyang had only 1 shot on Monday night but it proved enough to score the equalizer in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United. By salvaging a point at Old Trafford, the Gunners retained 4th place in the Premier League, 1 point clear of Spurs and Chelsea.

MU vs. Arsenal 2019.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   Under a pouring rain, the lackluster game showed the lack of quality from 2 teams very far from the level they reached when they were contending for the title some 2 decades ago. The Red Devils took advantage of Arsenal’s poor defensive setup on set pieces to open the scoring on the stroke of halftime. United cleared an Arsenal corner and won the second ball to launch a counterattack. James outpaced Guendouzi but overhit his cross for Rashford, who managed to keep the ball in play. The England striker squared the ball back for McTominay, who fired into the top corner with a 20-yard drive that deflected off Sokratis.

   Why is Guendouzi the last defender on Arsenal corners? Guendouzi has average pace, so he never had any chance to match James in a foot race. A lot of fans were angry when they saw Xhaka apparently duck McTominay’s shot. In the post-match news conference, Emery tried to defend Xhaka by saying that the Switzerland midfielder “ran back”. But if you look at the screen capture below, you realize that Xhaka could have been sent off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity by taking out Lingard off the ball.

MU vs. Arsenal M45a edited.jpgXhaka pulls back Lingard. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Another problem with the opening goal is why Sokratis was on his knees to block McTominay’s shot? Sokratis had a better chance to prevent McTominay from scoring by standing tall.

MU vs. Arsenal M45b edited.jpgSokratis makes an awkward block attempt. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Red Devils could have scored 2 more goals from set pieces. Unmarked at the far post, McTominay headed a corner over the bar in the 70th minute. Two minutes later, Guendouzi ended up marking Maguire on a free kick. That’s a poor matchup in the air for Guendouzi. Fortunately, the delivery was too low, forcing Maguire to cut the ball back.  

The benefits of a high press

   The Gunners had some good situations but often wasted them with a poor final ball. Kolasinac led Arsenal’s first attack in the 14th but missed his low cross for Aubameyang. Then Luiz overhit his cross in the 21st and Aubameyang ruined a fast break in the 35th with a pass rolling out of play.

   The equalizer came from a high press in the 58th. Under pressure from Pepe, United fullback Tuanzebe missed his pass for Lindelof. Saka pounced on the loose ball and found Aubameyang with a first-time pass. Aubameyang controlled the ball and chipped De Gea. The goal was initially disallowed for offside. But the referee had to let the goal stand after the VAR review showed that Aubameyang was played onside by Maguire. As you can see on the screen capture below, the linesman made a really poor call because Aubameyang was at least 2 yards onside.

MU vs. Arsenal M58 edited.jpgMaguire plays Aubameyang onside. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Emery made 9 changes to the side that knocked Nottingham Forest out of the League Cup with only Torreira and Chambers retaining their starting spots. In a 4-3-3 formation, Guendouzi and Torreira played alongside Xhaka in midfield while Saka and Pepe joined Aubameyang in the front three.

   Despite the lack of service, Aubameyang notched his 7th goal in the Premier League, just one unit behind top scorer Aguero. When Aubameyang couldn’t be in scoring position, he selflessly worked for the team, making 2 key passes. In the 36th, Aubameyang made a cross for Pepe, whose low strike didn’t trouble De Gea. Then Aubameyang picked out Torreira for a better chance in the 52nd but the Uruguay midfielder’s half-volley bounced into the ground, allowing De Gea to safely collect the ball.

Saka’s breakthrough season?

   While Aubameyang has showed his consistency since the start of the season, Saka was undoubtedly the revelation of Monday’s game. Football fans got a glimpse of his tremendous potential when Saka notched 1 goal and 2 assists against Frankfurt in the Europa League. The academy prodigy showed it was no fluke by making his first assist in the Premier League. Saka could have also scored but De Gea parried his low effort in the 44th and Lindelof deflected his shot over the bar in the 60th. At 18, Saka is already more incisive in the final third than Pepe.

   It could become impossible for Emery to keep Saka out of the starting lineup. Saka provides both penetration and end product. The Red Devils struggled with his pace and dribbling skills as Saka drew fouls from Lingard in the 20th, Young in the 23rd and McTominay in the 54th. The Arsenal staff deserves some credit for selling Iwobi in the summer to make room for Saka’s development. Now the club needs to tie Saka to a long-term contract.

   This looks like Saka’s breakthrough season. The English teenager could have the same kind of impact as Hudson-Odoi at Chelsea last season. Saka had better stats than Pepe at Old Trafford. Offensively, Saka made 2 key passes and had 2 successful dribbles out of 4, compared to 0 key pass and 1 successful dribble out of 2 for Pepe. Defensively, Saka won 2 of 5 tackles, made 6 recoveries and had 3 turnovers in 78 minutes while Pepe only won 1 of 1 tackle, made 5 recoveries and had 6 turnovers in 74 minutes, according to whoscored.com.

Is Pepe the new Gervinho?

   After a promising performance against Liverpool, Pepe still hasn’t lived up to his billing. His confidence seemed to take a hit at Old Trafford with some poor touches and passes. He sent crosses out of play in the 24th and 45th, sliced his shot over the bar in the 30th, and gave the ball away on a great counterattacking opportunity for the Gunners in the 73rd.

   Is Pepe the new Gervinho? Technical and physical abilities are extensively analyzed by scouts and managers, but the mental aspect of the game can sometimes be overlooked or underestimated in the recruitment process. Is Pepe crumbling under the weight of expectations and his £72 million price tag? Pepe still has time to adapt to English football and prove his worth. But the way he reacts in the next few weeks to this poor run of form will be crucial for his future at the club.  

   Emery has interesting options on the bench. The Spanish manager replaced Pepe with Nelson in the 75th and Saka with Willock in the 79th. Both youngsters made an impact in the closing minutes. Willock made 2 key passes, setting up Ceballos for a fluffed shot in the 88th and teeing up Nelson in stoppage time. Nelson could have scored the winner, but his low strike lacked power to beat De Gea.

   At this stage of the season, the starting spot on the right wing is still up for grabs. Emery has the choice between Pepe, an inverted winger, and Nelson, a more traditional winger. Nelson enjoys playing on the left wing but Wenger gave him his chance on the right wing. In theory, Aubameyang would get better service with Nelson while Pepe is supposed to be a greater goal threat than Nelson.

No balance in midfield

   Emery still hasn’t found the right balance in midfield. Some fans were angry that Ozil wasn’t even in the squad. But I think that Emery was right to omit Ozil simply because the German playmaker notoriously struggles in tough away games. For instance, the Gunners wouldn’t have been able to implement a high press with Ozil’s poor work-rate. I guess Emery will mostly use Ozil in home games and cup competitions.

   The bigger concern is how Emery builds his midfield. In my eyes, playing Xhaka as a holding midfielder is a mistake because he lacks pace and his positional play is poor. Likewise, using Torreira as a box-to-box player is nonsensical because he’s more efficient as a defensive midfielder.

   Let’s have a look at how Klopp and Guardiola build their midfields. The Reds play with a defensive midfielder (Fabinho) sitting behind two box-to-box players (Wijnaldum and Henderson) while the Citizens play with a defensive midfielder (Fernandinho) alongside a playmaker (De Bruyne) and a deep-lying playmaker (David Silva) or a box-to-box player (Gundogan).

   On paper, a balanced Arsenal midfield would have Torreira as the ballwinner playing alongside a deep-lying playmaker (Guendouzi) and a box-to-box player (Willock). In a more attacking version, Ceballos would replace Guendouzi or Willock.

   Xhaka provides no protection to the back four. Emery might be reluctant to bench his captain but he should remember that Wenger was ruthless with Vermaelen and Mertesacker even though they were his captains. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning games and doing what is best for the team. Putting too much faith in Xhaka will only bring Emery’s demise because the Gunners are unlikely to finish in the Top 4 with Xhaka in the No. 6 role.  

Sacrificing Torreira’s strengths

   Xhaka was dribbled past twice while Torreira didn’t let any ballholder run past him, according to whoscored.com. To compensate for his lack of pace, Xhaka simply gave away dangerous free kicks, fouling McTominay in the 71st and Greenwood in the 76th. Xhaka’s work-rate was also unconvincing with just 1 tackle and 5 recoveries compared to 4 tackles and 7 recoveries for Guendouzi, according to the club’s website. Even as a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka didn’t cover himself in glory with a passing accuracy dipping to 82%, compared to 89% for Torreira and 90% for Guendouzi.

Guendouzi had a good game but he still has that tendency to hold onto the ball too long. He was quick enough or smartly used his body to win 6 fouls. But sometimes he was caught in possession and put his team in danger. Pogba dispossessed Guendouzi in the 43rd to slip a through ball to Rashford, whose tame effort was blocked by Sokratis. Guendouzi finished the game with 3 turnovers compared to none for Xhaka. Defensively, Guendouzi made a crucial clearance in the 56th, heading out a cross from Pereira for Rashford. Offensively, he sprinted his lungs out in the 44th to pounce on a rebound and test De Gea with an angled strike.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery shifted from a 4-3-3 formation to 4-2-3-1 system by replacing Torreira with Ceballos in the 55th. On the right side of the Arsenal midfield, Torreira man-marked Pogba when the Red Devils had the ball. But when the Gunners won possession, Torreira became a box-to-box player. That’s so frustrating to see Torreira used as a utility midfielder while he should be the cornerstone of the Arsenal midfield. In his 40-minute cameo, Ceballos showed no end product with 0 key pass and 0 shot on target. The Real Madrid loanee is becoming as inconsistent as the Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi of last season.

   The Gunners were criticized for stubbornly trying to play out from the back against Watford. They proved more flexible against Manchester United. After Luiz was caught in possession in the 11th, Leno simply resorted to long kicks. Obviously, the flaw with that alternative plan was the weakness in the air of the Arsenal forwards. Aubameyang, Pepe and Saka combined to win 0 of 5 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.

A lesson in self-control

   The Arsenal staff thought Holding and Tierney were not yet ready for starting a Premier League game. Emery therefore left Holding on the bench while Tierney was not even in the squad. The Spanish manager had a surprise at rightback where he gave Chambers the nod over Maitland-Niles. Chambers struggled to cope with James’ pace, showing why both Wenger and Emery preferred to pick Maitland-Niles over Chambers.

   However, Chambers’ performance was quite a lesson in self-control for Maitland-Niles, who was watching from the bench. James outpaced Chambers in the 8th minute to make a cross that Luiz blocked. Two minutes later, Chambers got booked for a cynical foul on James, who was winning another foot race with the Arsenal defender. You’d think Chambers was a foul away from a second yellow card like Maitland-Niles against Aston Villa. But Chambers showed self-restraint when James ran at him in the 17th: using his experience, Chambers held off James to let the ball run out of play.

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis was at fault for the opening goal with his awkward block attempt. His work-rate was also poor with just 2 defensive actions (2 blocks) while Luiz made 11 defensive actions (3 blocks, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries), according to the club’s website. Some fans had their hearts in their mouths when Pereira started a dribbling run in the 29th. For a split second, it looked like Luiz was about to trip Pereira and give away a penalty like in the Watford game. But Luiz refrained from making a challenge, letting Pereira face Leno. And the German goalkeeper saved Pereira’s low strike. In the closing minutes, Luiz gave away a dangerous free kick with an obstruction on McTominay. Leno salvaged a point by saving Rashford’s subsequent free kick.

   The Gunners next play Standard de Liège in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Bournemouth in the Premier League on Sunday. I expect Emery to field a weakened side against the Belgian club because of the lack of rest and because the Gunners can’t afford to drop points in the Top 4 race.

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa: 10-man Gunners save Emery’s skin in 3-2 win

   Trailing 2-1 and down to 10 men, the Gunners found the mental resources to rally in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Aston Villa. That miraculous comeback helped Arsenal move into 4th place in the Premier League, level on points with Leicester and West Ham.

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa 2019Photo credit: Premier League

   Let’s be honest, Arsenal’s performance in the first half was embarrassing. The Gunners lacked urgency against a mediocre Villa team that will be fighting relegation this season. The crowd at the Emirates stadium had to wait until the 16th minute for Arsenal’s first chance of the game whereas the Villans had already tested Leno twice in the opening minutes. The boos at halftime were fully deserved.

   The positive result should not paper over the cracks. The Gunners have conceded 10 goals in their first 6 Premier League games. Only Chelsea, Norwich, Wolves and Watford have a worse defensive record than Arsenal. Although the Gunners allowed just 14 shots on Sunday compared to 31 against Watford and 24 against Frankfurt, the Arsenal midfield looked incredibly porous again as the Villans turned defense into attack too easily.  

   Emery doesn’t seem to have the answers in midfield. In fact, he has never started the same midfield in the Premier League this season. Guendouzi has made the most starts (6), followed by Xhaka (5), Ceballos (4), Willock (3), Torreira (1) and Ozil (1). All those changes tell us that Emery is still experimenting, which is a problem because that’s what the summer friendlies are for. When the season starts, a manager should have a clear idea of what his best options are.  

Benching a captain

   The Spanish manager must find a way to better protect the back four because Arsenal won’t be able to score 3 goals in every game. The first step should be to drop Xhaka from the starting lineup. Xhaka is simply not good enough as a holding midfielder. Emery gave him the armband but he shouldn’t be afraid of benching him. His predecessor, Wenger, was ruthless with Vermaelen and Mertesacker even though they were his captains.

   The Gunners had no excuse for their sluggish start. Emery made 6 changes to the side that won 3-0 in Germany on Thursday with Leno, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles, Guendouzi, Ceballos and Pepe replacing Martinez, Mustafi, Chambers, Torreira, Willock and Smith-Rowe in the starting lineup. The opening goal came from a cross in the 20th. Maitland-Niles failed to close down El Ghazi, whose cross was flicked home by McGinn at the far post. Guendouzi failed to track McGinn’s run inside the box.

   Guendouzi led the comeback in the second half. He held off Trezeguet before dribbling inside the area where Engels tripped him. Pepe converted the subsequent penalty by firing down the middle to level the game in the 59th. Unfortunately, Arsenal leaked another goal a minute later with some casual defending. Grealish ran 40 yards unchallenged to square the ball back for Wesley, who beat Leno from close range. Guendouzi and Xhaka made Grealish look like Maradona while Sokratis failed to block Grealish’s pass and Luiz lost his duel with Wesley. Guendouzi created the second equalizer with a crossfield pass for Chambers in the 81st. Mings poorly cleared Chambers’ volleyed pass for Aubameyang. Reacting more quickly than Taylor, Chambers pounced on the loose ball to stab it past Heaton. Aubameyang scored the winning goal by drawing a foul from Engels in the 83rd. From 20 yards, Aubameyang curled the subsequent free kick into the bottom corner.

A generous team player

   Aubameyang is the kind of player who would deserve to wear the armband. He performs week in week out. Scoring 7 goals from 7 games in all competitions so far is the very definition of consistency. And you can’t question his mentality. I guess Emery will give Aubameyang the evening off for the League Cup game against Nottingham Forest because there were some signs of fatigue against Villa.

   The Gabon striker completely missed his control with just the keeper to beat in the 16th. Then he dragged a low shot straight at Heaton in the 19th. Aubameyang also blazed over the bar after Sokratis flicked on a corner in the 71st. But he converted the free kick that made the difference in the 84th. As a true leader, Aubameyang took one for the team by making a cynical foul to kill a dangerous counterattack in stoppage time.

   Strikers are often selfish. But Aubameyang behaved like a generous team player by letting Pepe take the penalty in the 59th. Pepe finally scored his first Arsenal goal but his overall performance was a mixed bag. The Ivory Coast winger had 2 of 5 shots on target, was tied with Grealish for the most key passes (4) and led all players with 3 successful dribbles out of 5, according to whoscored.com.

   There were a couple of times when I thought Pepe could have done better. He ran into traffic in the fifth minute and his turnover led to a fast break for Villa. Pepe is smarter in his decision-making than Iwobi and usually knows when the situation is favorable for taking on a defender. He also wasted a scoring chance by overhitting his final ball for Saka in the 17th.

Pepe’s poor work-rate

   Yet, what really bothered me was Pepe’s poor work-rate. He only made 1 interception and 1 recovery in 95 minutes while Saka made 1 tackle, 1 block and 1 recovery in 45 minutes. McGinn toyed with Pepe in the 11th before unleashing a powerful long-range strike that Leno parried. Pepe also failed to close down McGinn in the 38th as the Scottish midfielder made a dangerous cross. That poor work-rate is a problem if Emery wants to implement a high press. Even a forward like Lacazette works harder than Pepe.

   On the left flank, Saka was rewarded for his outstanding performance in Germany with his first Premier League start. In the second minute, Saka made a pinpoint cross for Maitland-Niles, who missed the target from 9 yards. Then Saka took his chance in the 26th with a 25-yard drive that flirted with the bar. Despite those 2 brilliant moments, I thought Saka was a bit shy. The academy player had only 1 key pass in the first half with weaker stats than against Frankfurt even though the German side is arguably stronger than Villa. Hopefully, Saka will be more daring in his next starts.  

   Now, let’s talk about the midfield. That area of the pitch has been the main problem for Arsenal since the start of the season. Teams turn defense into attack too easily against the Gunners because the Arsenal midfield is too porous. Our midfielders either don’t work hard enough. Ceballos and Xhaka only made 5 defensive actions each in 71 minutes compared to 12 defensive actions for Guendouzi in 95 minutes. Or they are not good enough defensively. Ceballos was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com, while Xhaka and Guendouzi were dribbled past twice each.

Lack of complementarity

   The Gunners had a bit more control when Torreira and Willock replaced Xhaka and Ceballos in the 72nd. That wasn’t surprising. Torreira and Willock are more mobile than Xhaka and also have more defensive awareness. You just have to look at the Liverpool midfield to understand why Torreira and Willock would be a perfect fit for Klopp’s gegenpressing tactics: Torreira and Willock have a similar profile to Milner, Wijnaldum, Henderson and Keita, all-rounders who can both defend and attack.

   Last season, Emery relied on the duo formed by Xhaka and Torreira to protect the back four. Their best defensive performance was the 1-1 draw with Liverpool. It all went south when Torreira’s form dipped and when Emery preferred to use Torreira as a box-to-box player in a more advanced position than Xhaka.

   This season, Emery has relied on the duo formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi to shield the defense. Xhaka and Guendouzi have started 5 Premier League games together. That partnership has proved a disaster because none of them is a ballwinner. Xhaka and Guendouzi are not even complementary as they are both deep-lying playmakers. At 20, Guendouzi is inconsistent but he can still improve while Xhaka has already reached his ceiling.

   The Villans capitalized on a poor crossfield pass from Xhaka in the third minute to create their first chance of the game. Trezeguet cut the ball back for McGinn, who shot straight at Leno. The visitors then exposed Xhaka’s lack of mobility. Trezeguet toyed with Xhaka in the 33rd before finding Wesley, whose tame effort didn’t trouble Leno. Xhaka lost his cool in the 35th when Grealish shielded the ball with his body. Unable to win the ball, Xhaka pulled Grealish back and received a yellow card. Xhaka also gave away a free kick on the edge of the Arsenal box with a silly tackle on Grealish in the 46th.

Ceballos’ disappointing performance

   Guendouzi bounced back from his dreadful performance against Watford by initiating the two equalizers against Villa. Offensively, Guendouzi was a magnet for his teammates, leading all players with 83 passes. He finished the game with 3 key passes and only 1 turnover. Guendouzi nearly scored in the 69th but Heaton turned his low drive around the post.

   Maybe the most interesting part in Guendouzi’s performance was his reaction after the Gunners conceded a second goal. Guendouzi didn’t give in. Instead, he showed character and led the team forward. Emery understood it was Guendouzi’s moment and took off Xhaka in the 72nd to let Guendouzi shine.

   Defensively, Guendouzi was guilty for both Villa goals. Emery must definitely play Guendouzi alongside a defensive midfielder to preserve the balance of the team. In the current squad, only Torreira and an aging Luiz can play that role.

   In the hole, Ceballos had a disappointing game. He was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Real Madrid loanee couldn’t even beat the first man with 2 corners in a row. His passing accuracy of 100% with 43 passes was misleading: Ceballos had no impact in the final third, making only 1 key pass. Last season, Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were inconsistent attacking midfielders. Ceballos is pretty much walking in their steps.

Maitland-Niles’ naivety

   At the back, Maitland-Niles showed his naivety again. His ejection was similar to what happened against Leicester last season. Maitland-Niles received a yellow card in the 11th for a cynical foul on El Ghazi. Instead of avoiding risky challenges until halftime, Maitland-Niles made a sliding tackle on Taylor in the 38th, taking the Villa fullback down with his follow-through. The referee made the right call by showing a second yellow card to Maitland-Niles.

   Xhaka deputized for a few minutes in the rightback position before Chambers came off the bench in the 46th to replace Saka and take over Maitland-Niles’ spot in a 4-3-2 formation. Nothing went Maitland-Niles’ way on Sunday. He missed the target from 9 yards in the second minute and ran the ball out of play in the 25th.

   It’s hard to have any sympathy for Maitland-Niles when you look at his stats. He only made 1 interception and 1 recovery in his 38-minute stint, according to the club’s website (the sliding tackle was counted as a foul). By contrast, Chambers made 1 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries in the second half besides finding the net. On the opposite flank, Kolasinac worked even harder, making 11 defensive actions (4 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries). The only blemish in Kolasinac’s performance was a poor clearance that led to an 18-yard effort by McGinn in the 60th.    

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis and Luiz looked like clowns on Villa’s second goal. In his prime, Koscielny would have won that key duel with Wesley. Luiz showed off his distribution skills with a passing accuracy of 92.6% compared to 79.6% for Sokratis. He also tested Heaton with a dipping free kick in the 66th. Physically, Luiz struggled to recover from the Frankfurt game as he only made 4 defensive actions (2 tackles, 2 recoveries) while Sokratis made 10 defensive actions (1 block, 2 interceptions, 7 recoveries).

A criminal scheduling

   Sokratis was pulled out of position on the play that led to Maitland-Niles’ first yellow card. The Greek centerback did a bit of play-acting in the 43rd while trying to get Wesley sent off. Hanging onto Wesley’s leg, Sokratis tried to engineer a collision between his head and the Villa striker’s knee. The acting was so comical that the referee and the VAR official were having none of it. Sokratis had 2 dodgy moments in the second half. First, he nearly scored an own goal by deflecting Mings’ shot in the 52nd. Then he blocked Hourihane’s strike with his shoulder in the 89th. The Villans had their penalty shout turned down.

   Frankly, I can’t wait for Holding to start again in the Premier League. There’s no way he could do worse in duels than Luiz and Sokratis. I assume Emery will play Holding in the League Cup game against Nottingham Forest to help him regain his fitness. I also expect Emery to rest his best players because the scheduling was criminal with only one day of rest between the Villa game and the League Cup fixture. The risk of an injury is too high with so little rest.

Watford vs. Arsenal: Mistakes by Sokratis, Luiz cost Gunners win

   It’s hard to see how the Gunners could finish in the Top 4 after they surrendered a two-goal lead with some shambolic defending on Sunday to draw 2-2 with Watford and slip to 7th place in the Premier League.

Watford vs. Arsenal 2019.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   To a certain extent, the Gunners were lucky to come away with a point because Watford badly outplayed them. The Hornets had 31 shots to just 7 for Arsenal. In the first half, Watford played with 10 men behind the ball, hoping to hit Arsenal on the fast break. In the second half, the Hornets gained confidence and started dominating possession as the Gunners lost control of the game with a lot of end-to-end plays.

   Xhaka admitted after the game that the Gunners “were scared in the second half”. The issue of mental weakness already existed under Wenger. It worsened in the past few months with the departures of Cech, Koscielny, Ramsey and Monreal. The Gunners simply have no leader to steady the ship when the going gets tough.

   Arsenal clearly failed to address that leadership issue in the last transfer window. The club got its priorities wrong because Sanllehi ended up making the key decisions. Sanllehi has a business background and doesn’t have any clue about the balance of the team. All the money spent on Pepe and Martinelli could have been used to sign a top centerback and a defensive midfielder.

   Emery must also take his share of the blame for the poor tactical setup. The Gunners were lucky to lead 2-0 at halftime because Watford created 3 chances before the opening goal. Emery was often conservative in his team selection last season, so it was a bit surprising to see a 4-4-2 formation for an away game. The Spanish manager used a midfield diamond with Xhaka as the holding midfielder, Ceballos and Guendouzi on the flanks, and Ozil in the hole behind Aubameyang and Pepe.

Crushed in midfield

   The Liverpool game showed the tactical problems with a midfield diamond. Yet, Emery couldn’t find a fix at Vicarage Road. Just like Guendouzi and Willock gave a lot of freedom to Robertson and Alexander-Arnold at Anfield, Ceballos and Guendouzi failed to mark the Watford fullbacks. If you need some midfielders to do a defensive job, it would have been more logical to put Torreira and Willock in your starting lineup. Guendouzi was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. The Hornets also dribbled past Ceballos 3 times.

   The Arsenal midfield proved too porous to contain the Hornets in the second half. Emery replaced Ceballos with Willock in the 60th minute and Guendouzi with Torreira in the 67th. The substitutions had little impact as Watford kept creating chances. So Emery implicitly acknowledged Watford’s superiority in midfield by replacing Ozil with Nelson in the 71st while shifting to a 4-3-3 formation.

   The Gunners also put themselves in trouble by poorly playing out from the back. The first warning came in the 35th. Guendouzi dallied on the ball and lost possession while foolishly trying to take on 2 Hornets. Deulofeu won the ball and shot straight at Leno. If Guendouzi wanted to move the ball forward, Kolasinac was his safest option as you can see on the screen capture below.

Watford vs. Arsenal M35edGuendouzi fails to pass the ball to Kolasinac. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Playing long balls could have been an alternative to beat Watford’s high press. Unfortunately, Pepe and Aubameyang performed poorly in the air, combining to win 0 of 4 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Gray won 2 of 4 aerial duels for the Hornets. So the Gunners continued to make risky passes at the back. Guendouzi could have played a one-two with Maitland-Niles to beat Watford’s high press in the 46th, but the French midfielder ignored Maitland-Niles and took a couple more touches before missing his pass for Xhaka. The stray pass fell to Gray, whose lob attempt was blocked by Xhaka.

Poorly suited for playing out from the back

   The Gunners ran out of luck in the 54th. Leno slipped the ball to Sokratis, whose telegraphed pass for Guendouzi was blocked by Deulofeu. The ball fell to Cleverley, who fired past Leno from 16 yards. Sokratis showed poor decision-making on that play. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka was a safer passing option. It’s also quite telling that neither Ozil nor Ceballos appears on the picture. Last season, Ramsey was an additional passing option when the Gunners played out from the back.

Watford vs. Arsenal M54ed.jpgSokratis fails to spot Xhaka in acres of space. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Sunday’s Arsenal team was poorly suited for playing out from the back. I mean, you need players with great technique and mobility and a sound reading of the game. In the back four, Sokratis doesn’t have the ball-playing abilities of a Laporte, Alderweireld or Van Dijk. And no disrespect to Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac, but they are more limited technically than Bellerin and Tierney. In midfield, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the mobility, vision and passing skills of a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla.

   Of the 5 captains Emery named last season, only Xhaka and Ozil are still at the club. The trouble with the armband is that you need to perform week in and week out, otherwise you have no natural authority if you can’t earn your teammates’ respect. Right now, there are only 2 players who can look at themselves in the mirror and claim that they deliver on the pitch: Aubameyang and Lacazette. All the other Gunners are either inconsistent, error-prone or not good enough.

Pepe’s frustration

   Aubameyang proved clinical on Sunday with 2 goals from 3 shots. He opened the scoring in the 21st by controlling a pass from Kolasinac before firing on the turn into the bottom corner. The Gabon striker then met a cross from Maitland-Niles in the 32nd to double the lead with a tap-in. With a bit of luck, Aubameyang could have notched a hat trick. He was about to connect with a cross from Ozil in the 25th, but the cross took a deflection and Aubameyang couldn’t make contact with the ball. Besides raising his tally to 5 goals this season, Aubameyang was quite tidy in possession with a passing accuracy of 88% and just 2 turnovers.

   We know how lethal Aubameyang and Lacazette can be when they play in a front two. Lacazette was not in the squad on Sunday and won’t be available until October because of an ankle injury. So Emery gave another start to Pepe, who arguably produced his worst performance in an Arsenal shirt. Pepe had 0 shot on target and only 1 key pass. His passing accuracy of 61.8% was also the lowest among Arsenal players. Pepe missed his through ball for Aubameyang in the third minute. He then put his team in trouble in the 88th when a clearance from the Watford defense fell into his path. Pepe missed a simple pass to Kolasinac and the turnover led to a dangerous counterattack. The Ivory Coast forward led all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   There were some signs of Pepe’s frustration on the pitch. He took a speculative shot that went nowhere in the 20th. On the stroke of halftime, Pepe was unhappy with a challenge from Holebas and nearly tried to kick out at the Watford fullback. The ensuing brawl forced the referee to book both Guendouzi and Holebas. Pepe’s only positive contribution of the game was the key pass he made for Nelson in the 72nd. Obviously, Pepe still needs time to adapt to the Premier League. However, the Gunners need results quickly and Emery could be tempted to pick another forward, especially since Pepe seems more comfortable in a front three than in a front two.

Ceballos’ work-rate

   In midfield, I was shocked to see Ozil start at Vicarage Road. We all know about Ozil’s struggles in away games. The way Deulofeu dispossessed Ozil in the 18th summarized his lack of combativity. Ozil only made 3 recoveries in 70 minutes compared to 7 recoveries for Ceballos in 59 minutes, according to the club’s website. It’s impossible to win the midfield battle or press high up the pitch with Ozil’s poor work-rate. If Emery had stayed true to his ideas, he would have left Ozil on the bench. Ozil’s apologists often mention how he can turn around a game with a moment of magic. Unfortunately, those moments are becoming scarcer and scarcer. Ozil had 1 key pass and 0 shot, compared to 8 key passes and 4 shots on target for Deulofeu.  

   Nelson came off the bench to replace Ozil in the 71st. A minute later, the academy graduate tested Foster with a curling shot. At 19, Nelson is still learning his trade. He could become a regular starter on the left flank after the departures of Iwobi and Welbeck this summer. However, he will have to be less predictable. Opponents know Nelson’s tendency to check back on his right foot. That’s how Doucoure robbed Nelson in stoppage time to hit Arsenal on the fast break.

   On the left side of a midfield diamond, Ceballos didn’t really have the opportunity to express his creativity as he had to keep an eye on Femenia’s runs down the flank. Ceballos had 0 key pass and 0 shot. But the Real Madrid loanee put in a shift and played an important role in the opener by winning the ball in midfield to feed Kolasinac. Because of that work-rate, Ceballos should get the nod over Ozil in midfield. However, Ceballos will have to adjust to the physicality of the Premier League. The Spain international only won 20% of his duels, the lowest percentage among all the midfielders according to the club’s website.

Guendouzi ain’t no Fabregas

   Playing on the right side of the midfield diamond, Guendouzi showed poor work-rate with just 1 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries in 66 minutes. His lack of pace was badly exposed when he had to cover Maitland-Niles and close down Deulofeu. Guendouzi has potential but he’s nowhere near the level of a Fabregas at the same age. Fabregas knew what his passing options were before receiving the ball whereas Guendouzi needs a couple of touches before releasing the ball. That’s why Guendouzi often lost possession when the Gunners played out from the back: the Hornets didn’t give him the time to analyze his passing options. Arsenal could build play from the back with Fabregas and Cazorla. It’s much more difficult with Xhaka and Guendouzi, who don’t have their predecessors’ vision and technique.

   If you just look at the stats, you’d think Xhaka had a good game. He won 66.7% of his duels and had just 1 turnover compared to 4 for Guendouzi. Xhaka also led Arsenal players with 13 defensive actions, winning 4 of 4 tackles, and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. However, it’s a different story when you add the qualitative analysis. Xhaka’s positional play was poor. In the 11th, Xhaka failed to close down Cleverley, whose long-range strike was tipped over the bar by Leno.

Xhaka’s poor positional play

   Fans remember Luiz’s mistake for Watford’s equalizer, but it was Xhaka’s poor positional play that gave the Arsenal defense no protection on the counterattack that led to the penalty. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka made the poor decision of charging forward to close down Deulofeu even though Maitland-Niles was already marking the Spanish winger. By vacating his position, Xhaka allowed Cleverley and Doucoure to run past him. Deulofeu kept the fast break alive by playing the ball to Cleverley, who flicked it to Doucoure.

Watford vs. Arsenal M79aed.jpgCleverley and Doucoure run past Xhaka, who is pulled out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The worst part on that play was Xhaka’s lack of effort to track back. Torreira and Willock were in the Watford area when Arsenal lost possession while Xhaka was still in midfield. But after Doucoure picked out Pereyra, Xhaka slowly jogged back while Willock and Torreira sprinted at full throttle to fill the huge gap left by Xhaka. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka is not even in the picture. Xhaka’s inability to kill the counterattack left Luiz and Kolasinac in a 2v2 situation with Pereyra and Janmaat. In that kind of situation, Xhaka should have dropped off and Arsenal would have been dealing with a favorable 3v2 situation instead.

Watford vs. Arsenal M79bed.jpgTorreira and Willock rush back to fill the gap left by Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Gunners nearly lost the game because of Xhaka’s poor positional play in stoppage time. Doucoure robbed Nelson and played a one-two with Cleverley before running 30 yards unchallenged. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka was in a more advanced position than Willock and Torreira even though he’s supposed to be the holding midfielder.

Watford vs. Arsenal M92ed.jpgXhaka caught out of position again. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The Arsenal defense will have no protection as long as Emery relies on Xhaka as the holding midfielder. Xhaka lacks mobility and can’t smell the danger. If Emery can’t see that Torreira is a much better option in that role, then it’s hopeless.

Maitland-Niles’ torrid afternoon

   As Arsenal lost the control of the game, Emery made defensive substitutions, replacing Ceballos with Willock in the 60th and Guendouzi with Torreira in the 67th. Willock and Torreira didn’t shine defensively but they had scoring chances. Torreira pounced on a loose ball in the 79th to fire a half-volley straight at Foster. In stoppage time, Willock led a counterattack by running 40 yards but failed to deliver the final ball to Aubameyang, ignoring him twice.

   On the flanks, Maitland-Niles had a hard time with Deulofeu, one of the best dribblers in the league. Maitland-Niles often lacked lucidity, losing possession by dribbling in his defensive third. The academy graduate finished the game with 5 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 76.6%, compared to 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 90.5% for Kolasinac, according to whoscored.com. Some fans wonder why Maitland-Niles doesn’t play in central midfield. Sorry but with that high turnover rate, Maitland-Niles would put the team in danger. At least, Maitland-Niles made an important offensive contribution with a pinpoint cross for the second goal. Kolasinac had very little trouble with Hughes on the left flank despite collecting a yellow card for a poor challenge in the 43rd. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international led Arsenal players with 2 key passes, including the assist for the opening goal.

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis and Luiz showed their limits again. Sokratis’ work-rate was poor with just 3 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block) compared to 9 defensive actions for Luiz (1 block, 3 interceptions, 5 recoveries). The Greek centerback made a sloppy pass for Watford’s first goal and was beaten to the ball by Doucoure for the Hornets’ last chance of the game.

Finding his best team

   Despite a decent work-rate, Luiz had a poor game too. The Brazilian defender gave the ball away in the fifth minute, was beaten to the ball by Hughes who missed the target in the 35th, and was turned by Sarr who dragged his effort wide in the 65th. Luiz was wise enough to back down and let Deulofeu run the ball out of play in the 45th. But he showed poor judgement in the 79th by dangling a leg out to trip Pereyra and give away a cheap penalty that the Watford substitute converted. Luiz and Sokratis aren’t as good as Koscielny in his prime. Their poor performances might put pressure on Emery to rush Holding’s return. It’s also a reminder that Arsenal will need to sign a centerback next summer.

   Arsenal can thank Leno for salvaging a point with 8 saves. The German goalkeeper prevented Watford from scoring in stoppage time by catching Doucoure’s 12-yard strike. The Hornets were so dominant in the second half that Leno even felt the need to waste time and was booked by the referee in the 76th.          

   The Gunners visit Frankfurt in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Aston Villa in the Premier League on Sunday. Emery doesn’t have time on his side. He must quickly find his best team otherwise Arsenal will keep dropping points before ultimately dropping out of the Top 4 race.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham: Gunners make up for 2 errors in 2-2 draw

   The Gunners were the better team in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Spurs. Unfortunately, they dug a hole for themselves with two defensive blunders in the first half to trail 2-0. It’s only when Aubameyang equalized in the 71st minute that they put themselves in position to win the game. But Arsenal couldn’t score a third goal and had to drop 2 points against their North London rivals. Despite the disappointing result, the Gunners are still 2 points clear of Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham 2019Photo credit: Premier League

   Spurs opened the scoring against the run of play in the 10th. Kane flicked on a long ball from Lloris toward Son, who fed Lamela. Leno palmed Lamela’s low strike into the path of Eriksen, who tapped the rebound home. The Arsenal defense was all over the place on that play. First, Sokratis made the poor decision of challenging Kane in the air while Xhaka was already marking the England striker. Sokratis was initially marking Son and would have won that second ball. Then Luiz was pulled out of position by Son, Kolasinac forgot to track Lamela and Maitland-Niles played Lamela onside. Obviously, the fans and pundits focused on Leno’s handling mistake, but Sokratis was beaten to the ball by Eriksen because he never looked over his shoulder to see the run of the Denmark midfielder. Kane made it 2-0 in the 40th by sending Leno the wrong way after Xhaka gave away a penalty with a reckless tackle on Son.

   Guendouzi started the comeback with a ball recovery on the stroke of halftime. He found Pepe, who picked out Lacazette with the outside of his boot. Lacazette skipped past Vertonghen with some slick footwork before shooting past Lloris with his weaker left foot from a tight angle. Guendouzi was again involved in the equalizer. He slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, who flicked the offering into the bottom corner. Winks failed to close down Guendouzi on that play while Aubameyang’s run in behind Vertonghen made the difference.

Attacking through the middle

   Arsenal won 60.7% of the duels, and made 10 interceptions to 5 and 24 tackles to 14, according to the club’s website. What ruined their dominant performance was their lack of accuracy in the final third. The Gunners had only 8 of 26 shots on target while Spurs caught the frame with 9 of their 13 goal attempts.

   Emery made 3 changes to the side that lost at Anfield the previous weekend with Lacazette, Torreira and Kolasinac replacing Ceballos, Willock and Monreal in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also shifted from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-3 system with Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang starting together for the first time.

   On paper, Arsenal’s front three looked fearsome. On the pitch, the Gunners’ tendency to attack through the middle played into the hands of the Tottenham defense. Spurs kept a compact shape and capitalized on turnovers to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Down 2-1, Emery shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ceballos replacing Torreira in the 63rd.

   Lacazette’s hamstring injury forced Emery to change his plans with a bizarre substitution, sending on Mkhitaryan for the French striker in the 67th. Aubameyang moved into a more central position while Mkhitaryan took over his spot on the left wing. Mkhitaryan is more comfortable on the right wing. If Emery needed a player on the left wing, Nelson would have been a more natural choice. Surprisingly, Emery didn’t make a third substitution. He didn’t think that Nelson or Ozil could bring more than a relatively inefficient Pepe.

Pepe too eager to score    

   Pepe is a young player still adapting to a new league. On Sunday, he was too eager to score and often put too much power in his shots instead of placing the ball. Pepe had only 1 of 7 shots on target. His best effort was a curling effort that Lloris saved in the 43rd. On the bright side, Pepe led again all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 5, according to whoscored.com. He also made 2 key passes, including the assist for Lacazette. And a lot of forwards would be jealous of his passing accuracy of 82.4%.

   The summer signing still has plenty of time to prove himself. Even a legend like Henry, the best striker in the club’s history, failed to score in his first 7 Premier League games. At 24, Pepe is not the finished product yet. He still has room to improve. Despite his impressive ball retention skills, Pepe had 6 turnovers. In a couple of situations, his decision-making could have been better. Pepe ran into traffic in the last minute of injury time and his turnover led to a dangerous counterattack that ended with an off-target shot from Sissoko.

   You can definitely see why Emery is so keen to start Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang in a home game. Lacazette’s work-rate and the terrific pace of Pepe and Aubameyang are great assets for a high press. Under Pepe’s pressure, Lloris’ pass to Alderweireld was nearly intercepted by Aubameyang in the 48th. However, it will take time to build an understanding between Pepe and his new teammates. In the 23rd, Aubameyang made a cross for Pepe, whose header was blocked by Rose. Pepe couldn’t return the favor in the 88th as his final ball for Aubameyang sailed out of play.

Lacazette’s outstanding work-rate

   Starting on the left wing, Aubameyang struggled to have an impact in the first half. The Gabon striker made his presence felt when Emery moved him into a more central position. Aubameyang headed Kolasinac’s cross wide in the 68th. Three minutes later, Aubameyang scored the equalizer. Both Emery and Wenger have used Aubameyang on the left wing but I still think that he’s more productive as a centerforward.

   In the front three, Lacazette was the one who stole the show. His work-rate was outstanding for a striker with 9 defensive actions (2 tackles, 7 recoveries) made in 66 minutes, according to the club’s website. He also had 2 successful dribbles out of 2 and led all players by winning 5 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. To put this stat in context, Kane only won 2 of 7 aerial duels and Xhaka was second on the Arsenal team with 3 aerial duels won. The only blemish in Lacazette’s performance was his 8 turnovers, the most for any player.

   Lacazette didn’t get off to a great start though. He dragged a low drive wide after a poor clearance from Lloris in the 10th. The French striker also wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 34th by sending a pass straight into touch. It’s only at the end of the first half that Lacazette managed to use his powder, stinging Lloris’ gloves with a free kick. A few seconds later, Lacazette finally beat Lloris from close range. Lacazette was also involved in 2 scoring chances after the break. He met a cross from Maitland-Niles in the 46th for a downward header that lacked power to beat Lloris. His last telling contribution was a flick-on from a corner in the 56th. At the far post, Kolasinac somehow missed a tap-in from a couple of yards.

Xhaka snafu

   Someone must explain to me why both Wenger and Emery were so smitten with Xhaka that they built their midfield around him. The past seasons have shown that Xhaka is an error-prone player and no manager can change that. As long as Xhaka is the first-choice holding midfielder, the back four won’t get enough protection.

   Xhaka led all players with 7 fouls, 5 more than any other Gunner. Xhaka just doesn’t have the mindset of a defensive midfielder. And his lack of mobility is a too big weakness for that position anyway. Eriksen toyed with Xhaka before testing Leno with a curling shot in the 15th. The Gunners were trying to build pressure in the closing minutes, but Xhaka gave Spurs a breather with 4 silly fouls in a 12-minute span. Besides his repetitive fouling, Xhaka showed poor work-rate with only 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 5 recoveries) while Torreira made 10 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 interception, 6 recoveries) in 62 minutes, according to the club’s website.

   Playing alongside Xhaka in a three-man midfield, Guendouzi produced one of his best performances in an Arsenal shirt. End product has been an issue for the youngster last season. On Sunday, Guendouzi made the penultimate pass for Lacazette’s goal and the assist for Aubameyang’s equalizer. Guendouzi nearly scored in the 56th but Lloris parried his low strike.

   Guendouzi’s defensive awareness is also improving. The Arsenal defense left Kane completely unmarked inside the area in the 36th, but Guendouzi saw the danger and rushed to prevent Kane from pulling the trigger. As an all-around midfielder, Guendouzi made 11 defensive actions (3 tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 recoveries) and had 0 turnover. Even if Guendouzi develops quickly, the Gunners will still need to sign a central midfielder next season to replace Xhaka and Elneny.

Linking defense and attack

   On the right side of the midfield, Torreira performed well in the first half before fading in the second half. He pounced on a clearance from the Tottenham defense to fire a volley that sailed wide in the 24th. Torreira then controlled a cross from Maitland-Niles to tee up Guendouzi for a scoring chance in the 56th. Chasing an equalizer, Emery sent on Ceballos for the Uruguay international in the 63rd. I guess Emery killed two birds with one stone by adding more punch in midfield while managing Torreira’s fitness.

   In his 33-minute cameo, Ceballos had an impact in the final third with 2 key passes and 1 shot on target. Lloris tipped Ceballos’ long-range strike over the bar in the 65th. It got a bit physical in the 78th as Sanchez received a yellow card for throwing an elbow in Ceballos’ face. Ceballos is the kind of player that the Gunners were missing in the first half, a midfielder who can link defense and attack. The Reds have box-to-box players like Wijnaldum, Henderson, Keita, and Oxlade-Chamberlain for that role while the Citizens prefer to rely on playmakers like De Bruyne and Silva. Ceballos’ exclusion from the starting lineup was not a complete surprise after his disappointing performance at Anfield.

   At fullback, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles had a decent game for second-choice players. You look at their stats, and there’s really nothing wrong. Maitland-Niles made 10 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block, 3 interceptions, 4 recoveries) and had 3 key passes, 1 turnover, and a passing accuracy of 88.9% while Kolasinac made 8 defensive actions (2 tackles, 6 recoveries) and had 2 key passes, 2 turnovers, and a passing accuracy of 92%.

Instability at the back

   I guess the devil is in the details. Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles didn’t make an obvious error like Leno but their positional play on the opening goal was poor. Maitland-Niles was too casual when the Gunners had a corner in the 63rd. His turnover led to a dangerous counterattack for Spurs, forcing Lacazette to make a cynical foul. Kolasinac can be a frustrating player to watch, especially when he lacks accuracy in the final third. He wasted a chance in the 13th by stumbling just before squaring the ball back. Then Kolasinac overhit a cross that evaded everyone in the 46th. The Gunners thought they had scored the winner in the 79th when Kolasinac cut the ball back for Sokratis, who tapped in. But the goal was disallowed for an offside position of Kolasinac, who could see the virtual offside line but failed to correctly time his run.

   This must be a difficult situation for Emery with so much instability at the back. Last season, Monreal, Bellerin, Koscielny and Holding would have been his first-choice defenders. Koscielny and Monreal are now gone while Bellerin and Holding are recovering from long-term injuries. The club signed Tierney as a replacement for Monreal but the Scottish leftback is still sidelined by a groin injury. Basically, Emery won’t be able to play his best back four before October.

   In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Luiz performed slightly better than Sokratis. The Brazilian centerback made 12 defensive actions (4 tackles, 1 interception, 7 recoveries) compared to 8 defensive actions (3 tackles, 5 recoveries) for Sokratis. Luiz has won many trophies with Chelsea but he’s not a world-class defender like Koscielny in his prime. He failed to close down Lamela in the 52nd. The Spurs forward picked out Son, whose curling shot was tipped around the post by Leno. Luiz redeemed himself by deflecting out Kane’s cross in the 88th to kill a dangerous Spurs fast break.

Caught in two minds

   Sokratis displayed poor defensive awareness on the opening goal. He also failed to track Kane when the England striker played a one-two with Eriksen before hitting the far post in the 59th. I believe the club signed the wrong player when Arsenal had the choice between Evans and Sokratis in the summer of 2018. The Gunners will need a better player than Luiz or Sokratis to organize the defense.

   It always hurts when a goalkeeper makes a high-profile mistake because the fans forget about the saves made before and after the blunder. Leno made 7 saves, including 2 difficult ones. The German goalkeeper turned Son’s curling shot around the post in the 18th and palmed away Eriksen’s curling effort in the 38th.

   Leno had a split second to make a decision on the opening goal: either catch the ball or push it out of play. It looked like he was caught in two minds, tamely shoving the ball toward the middle of his six-yard box. The weird part is that Leno nearly repeated that mistake in the 36th when Kane hit a 25-yard low drive straight at Leno. Son pounced on the rebound, but instead of making a first-time cross, the South Korea international preferred to check back on his right foot and found Kane, who was crowded out and lost possession.

   The Gunners will play 2 games a week after the international break. That will be a true test for Emery’s belief in youth. There’s no secret: promising youngsters can improve only if you give them playing time. The Europa League and the League Cup are great opportunities to blood them. Emery should also be careful about not burning out some key players. Pressing high up the pitch and playing out from the back both require a lot of energy. If you use the same players for that style of football, they won’t last the distance.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Lack of quality exposed in 3-1 loss

   Did anyone seriously expect the Gunners to win at Anfield on Saturday? The 3-1 loss to Liverpool simply showed the gap between a team that just won the Champions League and an Arsenal side that finished outside the Top 4 in the Premier League. On the bright side, the Gunners are still 2 points clear of Chelsea and Manchester United in the standings.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal 2019.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   The Reds were obviously a much tougher test than Burnley. Their pressing game exposed the weaknesses in Arsenal’s midfield and backline. Liverpool outplayed the Gunners, winning 24 tackles to 15 and making 9 interceptions to 7, according to whoscored.com. There’s not a huge difference if you only look at shots on target. The Reds caught the frame 5 times compared to 3 for Arsenal. But the more telling stat is key passes. The Gunners only made 5 key passes compared to 19 for Liverpool.

   Emery made 2 changes to the side that defeated Burnley a week ago with Pepe and Xhaka replacing Nelson and Lacazette in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also shifted from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-4-2 system with a midfield diamond. By removing a forward and adding a midfielder, the idea was to stuff the midfield and prevent Liverpool from doing some damage through the middle. That kind of approach worked against Spurs last season, but the Reds are simply better equipped.

   To understand Emery’s tactical gamble, you have to go back to the 5-1 defeat at Anfield last season. Emery relied on a 4-2-3-1 formation with Iwobi and Maitland-Niles on the wings, Xhaka, Torreira and Ramsey in midfield, and Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner in the fullback positions. Last December, Emery tried to block the Liverpool fullbacks while hoping that Xhaka, Torreira and Ramsey could control the middle of the park. It didn’t work. The Reds scored their first 3 goals from open play through the middle. Their last 2 goals came from penalties conceded by Sokratis and Kolasinac.

Sacrificing the flanks

   On Saturday, Emery decided to sacrifice the flanks in order to concentrate on the center. He could have used Nelson and Mkhitaryan to mark Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, but that wasn’t his plan. Going toe-to-toe was too risky and would have given too much space to Salah, Mane and Firmino.

   So Emery let Liverpool dominate wing play. The Reds made 27 crosses to 12 for Arsenal. Of those 27 crosses, 13 came from Alexander-Arnold and 10 from Robertson. Likewise, of the 19 key passes made by Liverpool, 7 came from the left flank (3 by Robertson, 4 by Mane) and 7 came from the right flank (6 by Alexander-Arnold, 1 by Salah).

   That tactical approach rested on 2 reasonable assumptions: 1. that Luiz and Sokratis could beat Firmino, Mane and Salah in the air; 2. that a compact Arsenal defense could block or clear dangerous crosses. The reward for sacrificing the flanks was the possibility to hit Liverpool on the fast break with Aubameyang and Pepe.

   Emery’s plan worked to a certain extent. The Reds had no clear-cut chance until the opening goal from a set piece, five minutes before halftime. By contrast, the Gunners had the best chances from open play in the first half and could have led 2-0 with some clinical finishing. Three of those chances came from counterattacks and one was the result of a bold attempt to play out from the back.

   Xhaka dispossessed Mane in the 11th minute to find Aubameyang in midfield. Aubameyang overhit his through ball for Pepe, but Adrian had a mix-up with Van Dijk and made a poor clearance that fell to Aubameyang. From 25 yards, Aubameyang missed an open goal with his half-volley. Willock initiated the second counterattack with a 40-yard run in the 19th. The academy graduate fed Pepe, whose 30-yard curling shot did not trouble Adrian.

A learning experience

   Arsenal’s third chance came from a short spell of possession in the 31st. Trying to play out from the back, Monreal slipped the ball to Willock along the touchline. An audacious Willock turned Fabinho and dribbled past Alexander-Arnold to pick out Aubameyang on the edge of the Liverpool box. Aubameyang slipped the ball to Pepe, whose curling shot sailed wide of the far post. Pepe created on his own the Gunners’ last chance before halftime. As the Reds were recycling a corner in the 34th, Pepe robbed Henderson and dribbled past Robertson to be clean through on goal. From 18 yards, Pepe could only muster a tame effort straight at Adrian.

   Emery’s team selection looked pretty much like an experiment. Starting Willock, Ceballos and Pepe in a big game at Anfield was a gutsy call. I guess the safe or familiar choice would have been to start Torreira, Mkhitaryan and Lacazette. It proved a positive experience for Pepe, a negative one for Ceballos, while Willock’s performance was a mixed bag. In any case, Emery has learned a lot about those 3 players.

   You just have to watch Pepe’s performance to understand why he got the nod over Lacazette. Pepe has better dribbling skills and more pace than the French striker. The summer signing led all players with 7 successful dribbles out of 10, according to whoscored.com. Robertson is one of the best leftbacks in Europe. Yet, Robertson struggled badly against Pepe and was dribbled past 6 times, the most for any player. Pepe has outstanding footwork to escape tight spots. Cornered by two Reds in the sixth minute, an unfazed Pepe showed off his ball retention skills. His passing skills are also impressive for a forward. Pepe had a passing accuracy of 91.7% in a high-pressure environment. Among Arsenal starters, only Sokratis did better with a passing accuracy of 95.1%.

More penetration

   At 24, Pepe is still a rough diamond. Eager to impress, Pepe wasted a good situation in the 21st by losing sight of the ball. The big chance in the 34th also showed that he’s not the finished product yet. Pepe had a better angle with his weaker right foot but preferred to shoot with his stronger left foot. A more seasoned striker would have taken his chance with the right foot.

   While Pepe gave the Gunners more penetration, Emery’s team selection also meant that they were deprived of the good understanding between Lacazette and Aubameyang. Obviously, the partnership between Pepe and Aubameyang is still a work in progress. Pepe managed to slip a through ball to Aubameyang in the 52nd but his cross for the Gabon striker in the 61st flew out of play. Aubameyang was often isolated but still managed to have an impact in the final third with 2 key passes, the most for an Arsenal player.

   Emery stuck to his plan until the 81st minute when he replaced Willock with Lacazette, shifting to a 4-3-3 formation with Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi in midfield and Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang up front. The Spanish manager started the game with 1 attacking midfielder and 2 forwards in a 4-4-2 system. He finished it with 1 attacking midfielder and 3 forwards in a 4-2-3-1 formation by sending on Mkhitaryan for Guendouzi in the 85th.

   Playing in the hole, Ceballos struggled to exist. The Real Madrid loanee only made 29 passes in 60 minutes whereas he led all players against Burnley with 70 passes in 82 minutes. By contrast, Xhaka managed to make 76 passes at Anfield. Even if Ceballos had played the full 90 minutes against Liverpool, he would have made only 45 passes.

Managing Torreira’s fitness

   Ceballos felt comfortable against Burnley because the Gunners were dominating possession. Against a top pressing team like Liverpool, Ceballos often looked short of time as if the game was going too fast for him. Ceballos was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. One of his turnovers led to a half-chance for Liverpool in the second minute. To beat the press, Ceballos sometimes rushed his passes. This led to 2 dangerous situations. In the 21st, Ceballos sent a crossfield pass straight to Mane, who forced Leno into a save. Ceballos failed to learn his lesson and gave away the ball to Robertson with another missed crossfield pass in the 27th.

   There’s a reason why Ceballos wasn’t a regular starter at Real Madrid last season. He’s simply not at the level of a Modric yet. But what the games against Burnley and Liverpool have told us is that Ceballos can perform well against the average sides while he will struggle against the top teams. Sounds familiar?

   Emery replaced Ceballos with Torreira in the 61st. Willock moved in a more central position behind Aubameyang and Pepe while Torreira and Guendouzi patrolled the flanks. Torreira didn’t start probably because Emery didn’t want to rush him back into the team after his involvement in the Copa America. In his 33-minute cameo, Torreira made an impact in the final third with 1 key pass and 1 goal. Torreira initially miskicked the ball when Aubameyang teed him up in the 85th, but he quickly sorted out his feet to fire into the bottom corner for a consolation goal.

Poor coordination between Monreal & Willock

   Starting on the left side of a midfield diamond, Willock showed his potential as a box-to-box player with impressive runs that led to scoring chances in the 19th and 31st. At 20, Willock still has a lot to learn. I’m sure the staff will show him what he could have done better in his defensive game at Anfield. Willock had 4 turnovers compared to 3 for Xhaka and 2 for Guendouzi. That high turnover rate is not unusual for teams dealing with Klopp’s gegenpressing tactics. However, the key is to minimize the damage of those turnovers. Unfortunately, 2 of Willock’s turnovers led to scoring chances for the Reds. Leno was tested by Fabinho in the 46th and Firmino in the 62nd after Willock gave the ball away.  

   I felt that Emery asked too much of Willock defensively. Willock was dribbled past twice while no Red dribbled past Xhaka or Guendouzi, according to whoscored.com. Liverpool’s second and third goals resulted from some poor coordination between Monreal and Willock on the left flank. In the 48th, Alexander-Arnold had plenty of time to pick out Firmino in the Arsenal box. Firmino fed Salah with a first-time pass before Luiz conceded a penalty by pulling Salah’s shirt. Salah sent Leno the wrong way to make it 2-0.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal M48ed.jpgMonreal and Willock both mark Henderson, leaving Alexander-Arnold free. (Photo credit: Sky)

   As you can see on the screen capture above, Monreal and Willock were both marking Henderson near the touchline, giving plenty of time to Alexander-Arnold for his pinpoint pass. Instead of sitting too deep, Willock should have closed down Alexander-Arnold and let Monreal take care of Henderson.

Guendouzi’s average work-rate

   On the right side of the midfield diamond, Guendouzi also struggled defensively. Guendouzi simply lacked the pace to match Robertson’s runs. The big difference between Willock and Guendouzi is that none of Robertson’s crosses or passes led to a goal. Guendouzi was too casual in the 66th, losing possession to Firmino while dribbling inside the Arsenal area.

   The main flaw in Emery’s plan is that neither Willock nor Guendouzi is good at defending. If you look at the best teams that played with a midfield diamond, they had outstanding midfielders on both flanks. The 1998 France team had Vieira, Petit and Karembeu while the Juventus of the late 1990’s had Di Livio, Conte and Davids.

   The most disappointing part in Guendouzi’s performance was his average work-rate in such a big game. Guendouzi only made 9 defensive actions (3 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception, 4 recoveries) in 84 minutes while Willock made 11 defensive actions (2 tackles, 9 recoveries) in 80 minutes and Xhaka led all players with 20 defensive actions (1 tackle, 3 blocks, 0 interception, 16 recoveries), according to the club’s website. Guendouzi seems a nice kid, but at the end of the day, it’s all about performing on the pitch.

   Xhaka had a decent game in front of the back four. He showed his desire with an impressive work-rate but couldn’t refrain from giving away dangerous free kicks with a late tackle on Fabinho in the third minute and a foul on Mane in the 37th. I still think that Xhaka lacks mobility to be an efficient holding midfielder against the top teams. Salah too easily held off Xhaka in the 40th to spin and shoot wide. Xhaka was also a bit guilty for Liverpool’s third goal with a half-hearted effort to close down Fabinho.

Untidy in possession

   The Reds took a three-goal lead in the 59th by playing out from the back. Under pressure from Aubameyang, Alexander-Arnold managed to slip the ball to Fabinho, who made a first-time pass to Salah. The Egypt international rounded Luiz to beat Leno with a low strike. As you can see on the screen capture below, Monreal made the mistake of following Henderson, who was already marked by Willock. When Fabinho played the ball to Salah, Monreal realized his mistake but it was already too late because Salah had a 10-yard head start.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal M59ed.jpgMonreal is pulled out of position, leaving the Arsenal defense in a 3v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Monreal only won 20% of his duels, the lowest percentage among Arsenal players according to the club’s website. The Spaniard has never been good at blocking crosses and Alexander-Arnold clearly took advantage of that weakness.

   On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles had a poor game. Defensively, he lacked focus a couple of times. Mane lost Maitland-Niles on the stroke of halftime to have a free header from a corner. Then the academy graduate failed to close down Robertson, whose cross was headed over the bar by Salah in the 56th. Maitland-Niles also put his team in trouble with a poor clearance in the 53rd and a long ball charged down by Firmino in the 64th.

   Offensively, Maitland-Niles was untidy in possession with 5 turnovers, tied with Ceballos and Pepe for the most by an Arsenal player, according to whoscored.com. The Reds’ high press especially exposed Maitland-Niles’ average technique. The Gunners were attacking on the edge of the Liverpool area in the 55th, but a poor pass from Maitland-Niles forced them to play the ball back to Leno. In stoppage time, Maitland-Niles drove the ball out of play with some poor footwork. Maitland-Niles is not as limited as Jenkinson, but he’s nowhere near the technical level of a Bellerin.    

A six-pointer

   In the heart of the defense, Luiz showed that he’s not the leader that this club needs. Luiz only won 33.3% of his duels compared to 83.3% for Sokratis. The Brazilian defender made some important clearances, but he also made two big mistakes that turned a 1-0 deficit into a 3-0 embarrassment. Luiz conceded a penalty in the 48th because he was on the wrong side of Salah. Then Luiz should have dropped off instead of being too tight to Salah for Liverpool’s third goal in the 59th.

   The club wants to sell Mustafi because of his brain farts, but Luiz showed on Saturday that he can have lapses of concentration too. That’s definitely not a good sign when a defender makes Sokratis look good. Sokratis lost a key duel on the opening goal. Matip outjumped the Greek defender in the 41st to head home Alexander-Arnold’s corner. Two minutes later, Firmino dribbled past Sokratis but Leno quickly came off his line to snatch the ball.  

   The Gunners host Tottenham next Sunday in a potential six-pointer. Arsenal could move 5 points clear of their rivals if they win the North London derby. Ironically, both teams have a lot in common: they are rebuilding their midfield and have defensive issues. Again, Emery will have big calls to make before kickoff.


Newcastle vs. Arsenal: Aubameyang saves the day in 1-0 win

   The Gunners kicked off their season with a 1-0 victory at Newcastle on Sunday. It was an underwhelming performance but an important result for their hopes of a Top 4 finish in the Premier League. Last season, the Gunners only won 7 of their 19 away games while Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham managed to win at least 11 games on the road. That poor away record explains why Arsenal missed out on a Champions League spot. Arsenal finished 3rd in the home table but only 8th in the away table.

Newcastle vs. Arsenal 2019.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   A football season is a marathon, not a sprint. Emery was therefore cautious in his team selection. There was no new signing in the starting lineup. Luiz, Pepe, Ceballos and Martinelli were on the bench while Tierney was on the disabled list because of a groin injury. Pepe, Ceballos and Martinelli had never played in England before, so it was a wise move to help them get familiar with the intensity and physicality of the Premier League by giving them some playing time in the second half. Luiz could have made a start, but his relative lack of understanding with his new team was a too big risk.

   Lacazette and Torreira were also on the bench for different reasons. Lacazette had just recovered from an ankle injury whereas Torreira lacked match fitness after competing in the Copa America with the Uruguay team in June.

   Meanwhile, Emery was forced to leave Ozil and Kolasinac out of the squad because of security concerns. Ozil and Kolasinac were the victims of a carjacking attempt a couple of weeks ago. According to British newspapers, it wasn’t a one-off as London gangs are still targeting the two players. All these constraints led Emery to inject more youth than usual in his starting lineup. Willock started in the hole behind Aubameyang while Nelson took over the spot on the left wing.

Aubameyang’s moment of magic

   The Gunners struggled to break down the Newcastle defense. In an austere 3-5-2 formation, the Magpies used a high block to prevent Arsenal from playing out from the back. When the Gunners reached the halfway line, Newcastle switched to a low block, basically parking the bus. Arsenal enjoyed 62% of relatively sterile possession with just 2 shots on target to 2 for the hosts.

   To play out from the back, you need players with great technique and mobility and a sound reading of the game. In the heart of the defense, Sokratis and Chambers simply don’t have the ball-playing abilities of a Laporte, Alderweireld or Van Dijk. In midfield, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the passing and dribbling skills of a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla, who could help create space by setting a high tempo. The few times the Gunners reached the final third, they were let down by a lack of creativity.

   The winning goal came from a mistake by the Magpies in the 58th minute. Maitland-Niles intercepted Dummett’s pass for Willems and charged down the right flank before finding an unmarked Aubameyang with a cross. The Gabon striker controlled the ball and chipped Dubravka with a cool finish.

   Aubameyang didn’t get much service but his pace and finishing put Newcastle defenders on their toes. He wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 15th with a heavy touch. Then he tested Dubravka with a powerful angled strike in the 31st. The Magpies saw his burst of speed in the 52nd when Aubameyang made a run in behind to collect a through ball from Xhaka. However, Dummett reacted quickly enough to block Aubameyang’s shot for a corner.

Showing faith in Nelson

   Offensive support was an issue last season because Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi lacked consistency. Emery is relying on Nelson, Ceballos and Pepe this season to provide more ammunition to Aubameyang and Lacazette. In his return from a loan spell at Hoffenheim, Nelson showed some decent work-rate with 6 defensive actions (1 block, 5 recoveries) in 70 minutes, but lacked a bit of audacity in the final third. His best moment was a dribbling run in the 34th.

   I believe the staff made the right choice by cashing in on Iwobi to let Nelson grow. The English teenager has better dribbling and finishing skills. On Sunday, Nelson had 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy of 86.4% was also better than Mhkitaryan’s 73.3%. With more time and confidence, Nelson will find a way to have a greater impact in the final third.  

   Mkhitaryan showed his creativity with a ball over the top for Aubameyang in the 31st. Those two players know each other well since they’ve played together at Borussia Dortmund between 2013 and 2016. However, a lot of fans were frustrated with Mkhitaryan’s inconsistency. Mkhitaryan wasted Arsenal’s first scoring chance in the 23rd by firing over the bar from 15 yards. He then led a counterattack with an impressive dribbling run in the 50th only to miss his final ball for Nelson. I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back was Mkhitaryan’s crossfield pass for Monreal that sailed straight into touch in the 63rd.

Untidy in possession

   In midfield, Willock was given a rare start mostly because of Ceballos’ lack of match fitness and Ozil’s off-the-pitch issues. At times, Willock struggled with his positional play, not knowing when to drop off and when to play higher up the pitch. It’s not as easy as it seems. Think of Ramsey helping the defenders build play from the back and then making a late run in the box to shoot. It takes years of practice to read the game that well and be in the right place at the right time.

   Willock won 60% of his duels, the highest percentage among Arsenal midfielders according to the club’s website, but he also lacked end product with 0 key pass and 0 shot on target. The English teenager will need to be more tidy in possession too. He led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers according to whoscored.com despite playing only 63 minutes. Willock’s fitness levels quickly dropped in the second half, showing the huge gap between the Premier League and U23 games.

   Emery replaced Willock with Ceballos in the 64th. The Spanish manager nearly regretted that substitution. Ceballos put his team in trouble a couple of times with some casual passing. The Real Madrid loanee gave the ball away with a careless backheel flick in the 65th, a risky crossfield pass on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 69th and a stray pass in the 78th. Arsenal fans just hope that Ceballos will perform better than Barcelona loanee Suarez, who proved a flop last season.

A porous midfield

   The Arsenal midfield was porous at times. Guendouzi and Xhaka were both dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com. Only Newcastle wingback Ritchie did worse as the Gunners dribbled past him three times. Arsenal got away with a soft midfield against Newcastle but they will get punished against the stronger sides. Saint-Maximin cut inside Guendouzi in the 84th only to drag an effort that Leno easily saved. Offensively, Xhaka and Guendouzi can’t dictate the tempo like a Cazorla in his prime, or like Eriksen at Tottenham and David Silva at Manchester City.

   Xhaka had a horrible start with 3 stray passes in the first 20 minutes. But he grew into the game and led all players with 84 passes, including 2 key passes. Xhaka also had a scoring chance in the 53rd when he glanced Nelson’s corner wide. The Switzerland international finished the game with 11 defensive actions (3 tackles, 8 recoveries), doing slightly better than Guendouzi, who made 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 block, 2 interceptions, 4 recoveries), according to the club’s website.  

   The Arsenal back four didn’t need much protection on Sunday because Bruce fielded a very defensive lineup. Sokratis and Chambers had so little work that they made no tackle. However, the Magpies still had a couple of good opportunities to open the scoring, exposing Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses. In the 16th, Monreal failed to close down Manquillo, who made a cross for Joelinton. The Brazilian striker couldn’t climb high enough to head the ball. A minute later, Joelinton met a cross from Ritchie only to head wide. Xhaka and Sokratis looked like training cones in the 26th when Joelinton dribbled past them to shoot straight at Leno.

Maitland-Niles’ work-rate

   The Gunners will need to improve their aerial performance because stats clearly showed their weakness in the air. Joelinton won 8 of 11 aerial duels while Aubameyang won 0 of 5, according to whoscored.com. Likewise, Newcastle centerback Lascelles won 7 of 10 aerial duels compared to 0 of 3 for Chambers and 4 of 6 for Sokratis.

   In the rightback position, Maitland-Niles produced an outstanding performance, leading Arsenal players with 12 defensive actions (4 tackles, 3 interceptions, 5 recoveries). He cleared a dangerous cross after Saint-Maximin got the better of Monreal in the 67th. Besides his assist, Maitland-Niles also provided more penetration, leading all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 6. The only blemish in his performance was his 4 turnovers. On the opposite flank, Monreal put in a shift, making 9 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 7 recoveries) and setting up Mkhitaryan for a scoring chance in the 23rd.

   In his post-match news conference, Emery said that the Gunners controlled the game. Well, I felt a bit nervous because of the inconsistent officiating. I thought the referee was right to book Nelson in the 25th, Mkhitaryan in the 36th and Xhaka in the 80th for late challenges. However, the referee became very lenient when the Magpies made similar fouls. He kept his cards in his pocket as Hayden made a late challenge on Mkhitaryan in the 61st, Saint-Maximin stamped on Xhaka’s ankle in the 70th, and Schar in the 13th and Lascelles in the 29th made cynical fouls on Willock. At least, the referee got one crucial call right when he booked Almiron for diving in the 18th. The Paraguay international was trying to win a penalty by looking for contact with Monreal.

   The Gunners next host Burnley on Saturday before visiting Liverpool the following weekend. Emery knows what to expect from the Clarets. It will be a physical contest with a lot of crosses and long balls. Luiz will probably replace Chambers in the starting lineup while Torreira and Lacazette should start even if they lack a bit of match fitness.