Tag Archives: Xhaka

West Ham vs. Arsenal: Top 4 hopes dealt a blow in 1-0 loss

   The ghosts of last season are coming back. A year ago, the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race because they were performing poorly on the road. This pattern could be repeating itself. The Gunners lost 1-0 at West Ham on Saturday, earning just 1 point from their last 4 away games to trail fourth-placed Chelsea by 6 points in the Premier League.

West Ham vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal had only 2 shots on target to 3 for the Hammers despite enjoying 58.5% of ball possession. In another example of sterile possession, the players who made the most passes were Koscielny (89) and Sokratis (67). The lack of urgency in the first half was quite disappointing since Arsenal got 6 days of rest after the victory over Blackpool in the FA Cup. West Ham showed more desire, winning 53.5% of the duels and making 17 interceptions to just 10 for the Gunners, according to the club’s website.

   Emery made 7 changes to the side that routed the Seasiders with only Sokratis, Kolasinac, Iwobi and Maitland-Niles retaining their starting spots. The lack of quality in the Arsenal midfield showed in the high number of stray passes. It’s no coincidence if Denis Suarez has been linked with a move to the Emirates. Suarez plays as a central midfielder for Barcelona but I suspect that Emery would use him as an attacking midfielder. In the 2015-16 season, Suarez made 12 assists for Villareal in all competitions.

   The lack of creativity in midfield also helps explain why the Gunners struggled to play the ball out from the back. You would expect to find a Ramsey or an Ozil for that kind of tactics. Remember Ramsey’s goal against Fulham or Aubameyang’s goal against Leicester. But Emery left Ozil out of the squad while Ramsey only came off the bench in the second half.

Politics vs. sport

   Knowing that Ramsey will leave the club this year and that Ozil has been frozen out of the team, it’s impossible not to think about the chemistry in the dressing room. What a contrast between the lack of fluency at the London Stadium and the spectacular passing in the first half of the season. Does the mediocre form on the pitch reflect the current mood in the dressing room? Or is the team simply hitting a rough patch?

   Some players signed at Arsenal to play with Ozil. They must feel short-changed to take passes from Iwobi or whoever fills Ozil’s shoes. Likewise, they must certainly question Arsenal’s ambition when the club decides to let Ramsey leave. Is it a coincidence if Emery has harshly treated those 2 players because they’re not part of the club’s long-term plans?

   I think Emery needs more diplomatic tact. Obviously, the board’s emphasis on trimming payroll has led to this situation with Ozil and Ramsey. That’s politics. But the team still needs them because the other attacking midfielders lack consistency. That’s football. In that regard, Sarri has been smarter than Emery. The Chelsea manager froze out Fabregas only after securing a replacement by signing Jorginho and Kovacic last summer.

   Aubameyang and Lacazette scored with half-chances in the first half of the season. They didn’t against West Ham. That’s where chemistry plays a key role. Players felt upbeat in the first few months with a new manager, new methods and new signings. Now the reality is kicking in. The Gunners realize that they are far from the contending teams. They also see problems in the squad. Maybe that’s why the extra confidence needed to convert those half-chances is now gone.

Finding the best offensive setup

   Lacazette had a couple of half-chances in the first quarter. He chested down a long ball from Xhaka before firing a long-range strike wide in the ninth minute. Four minutes later, Lacazette took a pass from Iwobi and drove into the box only to be denied by Fabianski. He faded in the second half with no shot at all.

   Aubameyang started the season as the lone striker before moving to the left wing. Then Emery had a change of heart in the Bournemouth game and used Aubameyang in the centerforward position again. Since January, Emery has deployed Aubameyang on the right wing, letting Lacazette lead the line.

   That’s really mind-boggling that the Spanish manager still doesn’t know what Aubameyang’s best position is, especially if you compare with the situation at Manchester United. Solskjaer was appointed last month and has improved the Red Devils’ fortunes by quickly finding the best offensive setup with Matic, Herrera and Pogba in midfield and Rashford, Martial and Lingard in a front three.

   Deprived of service in the first half, Aubameyang tried to create chances. He made a cross for Lacazette, who headed over the bar in the 15th. The introduction of Ramsey in the second half finally gave Aubameyang some decent ammunition. Aubameyang headed Ramsey’s cross wide in the 63rd. The Gabon striker then met a low cross from Kolasinac in the 64th only to blaze over the bar under Cresswell’s pressure.  

   Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to have only 1 of 7 shots on target. I believe that playing Aubameyang up front and Lacazette as a second striker or in a wide position would be a more natural option. From the right wing, Aubameyang can cross the ball and make those diagonal runs a la Walcott, but he simply doesn’t have the all-around game to make a significant impact in the passing game. Aubameyang only won 14.3% of his duels according to the club’s website, that tells you he’s not optimally used.  

Positive substitutions

   You play with 2 strikers if you have good service. In a 3-4-3 formation, Emery relied on Iwobi, Guendouzi, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles to deliver the final ball. That was a big ask. Maitland-Niles is still a raw player, Guendouzi is not a playmaker and Iwobi can be inconsistent.

   Despite all the talk about his improvement under Emery, Iwobi looked again like the player of last season with a limited end product. At 22, Iwobi still has room for development, but right now he doesn’t have the impact of a Ramsey or an Ozil in the final third. Iwobi had 5 successful dribbles, tied with Anderson for the most by any player, but he also led all players with 4 turnovers, according to whoscored.com.

   Chasing an equalizer, Emery switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 59th by sending on Ramsey for Mustafi. In his short cameo, Ramsey made as many key passes (2) as Iwobi in the full 90 minutes. The Wales midfielder set up Iwobi, whose low drive sailed wide in the 67th.

   Although Emery’s substitutions didn’t change the outcome of the game, they were more positive than his previous substitutions. Concerned by Arsenal’s defensive issues, Emery has been reluctant to play with more than 3 attacking players. Replacing Lacazette with Ramsey in the Brighton game was obviously the nadir of that conservative approach.

   Emery seems to highly rate Guendouzi. Yet, it’s hard to understand why. Guendouzi is not a box-to-box player with the end product of a Ramsey or the pace and dribbling skills of an Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s not a defensive midfielder either. The French teenager showed his lack of defensive awareness a couple of times against West Ham. He failed to stay with Noble, who played a one-two with Nasri before producing a tame effort in the sixth minute. Again, neither Guendouzi nor Xhaka tracked Anderson, who took a pass from Nasri but missed the target in the 32nd.

Xhaka’s poor defensive instincts

   When Guendouzi is given plenty of time, he can hit accurate balls over the top. But he’s not a playmaker. At the same age, Fabregas had better passing and shooting skills. Guendouzi overhit his final ball in the 66th and 78th and finished the game with 0 key pass. He also took his chance from the edge of the box, missing the target in the 35th and 54th and lacking power in the 68th. Potentially, Guendouzi could become a deep-lying playmaker. But right now he’s not moving the ball quickly enough. It means that Guendouzi is mostly a utility midfielder at this stage of his career. Guendouzi is definitely an upgrade over Elneny because of his work-rate and his ability to win duels. He won 1 of 1 tackle and 62.5% of his duels and made 1 interception and 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website.    

   Guendouzi played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. That’s a flawed partnership because none of them is a natural ballwinner. Xhaka was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Nasri often managed to find pockets of space in midfield and made 3 key passes in his 70-minute performance.

   Emery’s choice to rely on Xhaka as the holding midfielder is questionable. Xhaka’s passing skills can be helpful to play out from the back but he simply lacks the defensive instincts to play in that position. His poor clearance led to Rice’s goal in the 48th. The safe option on that play would have been to head the ball toward Lacazette on the left flank. Some fans wondered why Torreira didn’t start. The Uruguay midfielder’s stats have gone down since the end of December, so Emery wisely decided to limit his playing time, sending him on for Xhaka in the 59th.

The most important game of the season

   Kolasinac can prove a potent threat down the left flank, but the Hammers managed to limit his offensive impact to just 1 key pass. The fact that Kolasinac was caught offside twice tells you that the Hammers studied his game. I’m not surprised that Arsenal extended Monreal’s contract by a year because Kolasinac is a wingback, not a defender. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international failed to track back a couple of times, forcing Koscielny to cover him in the leftback position. Kolasinac also had his share of responsibility in the goal. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Kolasinac allowed Nasri to run in front of him before setting up Rice. The screen capture also shows Arsenal’s poor defensive organization with Rice completely unmarked near the penalty spot.

west ham vs. arsenal m48edRice left unmarked by the Arsenal defense. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Maitland-Niles was caught napping on that play, too. He failed to react despite seeing Rice in a dangerous position. Maybe the most worrying part is the lack of desire Maitland-Niles showed on Saturday, forcing Aubameyang (yes, the top scorer in the Premier League) to cover him down the right flank a couple of times. Maitland-Niles definitely needs to improve his defensive awareness. Cresswell easily skipped past him to make a teasing cross in the 16th and Nasri ran past him to take a pass and muster a shot in the 26th. Offensively, Maitland-Niles was a liability for the Gunners with 0 key pass and a passing accuracy of 65%, the lowest percentage for any outfield player. In the 69th, Emery replaced Maitland-Niles with Bellerin, who was making his return from injury.  

   In the heart of the defense, Sokratis was the most active of the 3 centerbacks, making 3 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Koscielny had a decent game although one stat raises some questions: Koscielny was dribbled past 2 times, compared to 0 for Sokratis and Mustafi. However, it was Mustafi who was deemed the weak link when the Gunners shifted to a back four in the 59th. The German defender received a yellow card in the 46th for a mistimed challenge on Anderson.

   The Gunners will play their most important game of the season when they host Chelsea next Saturday. A defeat would end Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes whereas they could pull within 3 points of the Blues with a victory. Emery no longer has time to find his best team.




Arsenal vs. Fulham: Gunners stay in Top 4 race with 4-1 win

The Gunners started the new year on a positive note by sinking Fulham 4-1 on Tuesday to stay in the Top 4 race. They were even greeted with a round of applause at halftime for heading back to the dressing room with the lead for just the second time in the Premier League this season.

arsenal vs. fulhamPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Emery made 3 changes to the side that was demolished at Anfield with Koscielny, Guendouzi and Lacazette replacing Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Ramsey in the starting lineup. The Spanish manager also switched to a 3-4-3 formation that aimed to optimize the use of Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles as wingbacks.

Ozil was again left out of the squad. Officially, the German playmaker is recovering from knee pain. But if you read between the lines, there’s no doubt that the club wants to offload Ozil. Cutting costs is a priority for the Arsenal board and Ozil clearly looks like the elephant in the room with his weekly wage of £350,000 a week.

Unsurprisingly, his agent said on Wednesday that Ozil wants to stay at the club until the end of his contract in 2021. Ozil is not the first player to reject a move despite his lack of playing time. Jenkinson is in the same kind of situation. The only thing the club can do is to make the player redundant by signing players in the same position. For instance, Sarri has been able to sideline Fabregas because Chelsea signed Jorginho and Kovacic.

A divisive figure

Xhaka opened the scoring against Fulham and produced a good all-around performance, but his limitations were again exposed. He has been a divisive figure among fans since joining the club. To a certain extent, Xhaka embodies the problem with the current Arsenal squad. Most Gunners perform well against the weak and average sides, but they are simply not good enough against the big teams. Xhaka scored a goal, won 2 of 3 tackles and made 3 key passes, 3 interceptions and 8 recoveries. But he also gave the ball away 3 times in the first half and was dribbled past 4 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com.

Emery definitely likes Xhaka, otherwise he wouldn’t be his first-choice holding midfielder. Traditionally, the No. 6 shields the back four and is therefore a defensive midfielder. Think of Casemiro at Real Madrid or Dier at Tottenham. But there’s a trend among modern managers to use a deep-lying playmaker as the holding midfielder. Sarri and Emery both like to play out from the back so they use deep-lying playmakers like Jorginho and Xhaka in front of the defense.

Of course, the problem with that approach is that Jorginho and Xhaka can be defensively suspect because they are not natural ballwinners. Guardiola and Klopp have found a compromise by playing defensive midfielders with good passing skills (Fernandinho and Fabinho). Another issue with Xhaka is that playing out from the back requires a lot of movement from the holding midfielder. Xhaka is easy to man-mark because of his relative lack of mobility. Leno was forced to punt the ball a couple of times in the first half because of the lack of passing options.

Guendouzi’s learning process

Last season, Xhaka played alongside Ramsey in a 3-4-3 formation with Ramsey as the box-to-box player and Xhaka as the holding midfielder. On Tuesday, Emery was more conservative than Wenger as he used Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in central midfield. Let’s give some credit to Xhaka for analyzing the situation and understanding that the front three needed more support. In the 25th minute, Xhaka made a late run into the box a la Ramsey and controlled a cross from Iwobi before flicking the ball past Rico to put Arsenal ahead.

Xhaka nearly scored a second goal in the 34th. Kolasinac cut the ball back for Xhaka, who was denied by Rico. With the security provided by the back three in the first half and the introduction of Torreira in the second half, Xhaka did not hesitate to roam forward. He also created two chances, heading the ball into the path of Lacazette in the 42nd and playing the French striker clean through on goal with a ball over the top in the 58th.

Emery used Tuesday’s game as an opportunity for Guendouzi to learn while limiting the risks for the team. Guendouzi showed good work-rate by winning 3 of 3 tackles and making 1 key pass, 2 interceptions and 5 recoveries. He created a scoring chance for Aubameyang with a through ball in 82nd. At 19, Guendouzi is still a work in progress. He definitely needs to be more tidy in possession. Guendouzi had 4 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 80% compared to 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 86.1% for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The French teenager also has a lot of room to improve his defensive awareness. Guendouzi sat too deep in the 69th and failed to close down Seri, who made a dangerous cross to Mitrovic.

Iwobi as a two-footed player  

Torreira showed signs of fatigue against Liverpool. So Emery rested Torreira by leaving him on the bench in the first half. Torreira replaced the injured Mustafi at halftime although Elneny was also available on the bench. Maybe Emery should have given Torreira the day off because the Uruguay midfielder performed poorly with 3 turnovers, 1 tackle and just 2 recoveries in 45 minutes.

Disappointed by Ozil’s poor work-rate, Emery has given the keys of the game to Iwobi. The move could be paying off as Iwobi has notched 1 goal and 2 assists in his last 4 Premier League games. He made 3 key passes on Tuesday, including the assist for the opening goal.

What made Iwobi’s performance interesting was the accuracy of his left foot. Iwobi is a right-footed player. Yet, he set up Maitland-Niles with a left-footed cross against Liverpool. Iwobi repeated the trick against Fulham, creating chances for Aubameyang with left-footed crosses in the 2nd and the 40th. It’s too soon to conclude that Iwobi is a two-footed player like Cazorla but it’s an interesting technical development.

Iwobi has improved his game by keeping things simple lately instead of running into traffic. Despite his 4 seasons in the Premier League, he’s not the finished product yet. The weight on his passes can be dodgy. Iwobi overhit a through ball for Lacazette in the 15th and missed a simple pass for the overlapping Kolasinac in the 76th.

The Walcott role

The Nigeria international also needs to improve his decision-making. His telegraphed pass for Aubameyang was intercepted in the 27th. And he opted for a tame low drive in the 58th instead of setting up Aubameyang for a first-time effort. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Aubameyang was in a better position for a shot.

arsenal vs. fulham m58edIwobi shoots instead of feeding Aubameyang. (Photo credit: NBC) 

Up front, Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang played the Walcott role on the right wing. I would have swapped their positions for two reasons: Aubameyang has more pace and is stronger in the air than Lacazette. Aubameyang won 4 of 4 aerial duels while Lacazette won 0 of 4 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. Lacazette was also caught offside 3 times compared to just once for Aubameyang. The Gabon striker has more room to time his run because of his electric pace whereas Lacazette must perfectly time his run to beat a defensive line.

Aubameyang was quite wasteful against Fulham. He scored a goal but could have finished the match with a hat trick. His first chance came in the second minute when he met a cross from Iwobi but missed the target from a tight angle. Aubameyang then ghosted past Ream in the 40th only to head the ball wide from 8 yards. His most embarrassing moment occurred in the 79th when he met a low cross from Kolasinac and hit the post from 5 yards. Guendouzi also put Aubameyang in a very good situation with a through ball in the 82nd. Aubameyang held off Bryan but his chip attempt bounced off Rico. A minute later, Aubameyang finally found the net with the most improbable attempt -a powerful strike that took a big deflection off Ream to loop over Rico.

A tactical substitution

Lacazette could have also notched a hat trick if he had been more clinical. He skipped past Le Marchand in the 42nd to fire an angled strike that Rico saved with his leg. However, the France international got his goal in the 55th, taking a pass from Kolasinac to shoot past Rico from 10 yards for a 2-0 lead. Three minutes later, Lacazette failed to convert a big chance. He controlled a ball over the top from Xhaka to bear down on goal but Rico parried his low strike.

I definitely think the referee should have awarded Lacazette a penalty in the 65th after Seri elbowed him in the face. Lacazette could have done better with his link-up play on a counterattack. He wasted a good situation in the 48th by playing the ball between Iwobi and Aubameyang. There were boos from the crowd when Emery decided to replace Lacazette with Ramsey in the 75th. The fans have really liked Lacazette since his first season at the club. Lacazette made clear that it was not about him as he applauded his teammates while leaving the pitch.

After the game, Emery explained that the substitution was aimed at limiting the influence of Seri, who had replaced Cisse in the 61st. Seri quickly made an impact with a cross for Mitrovic in the 69th. In the build-up to Fulham’s goal, Seri was the one who dispossessed Torreira. As an attacking midfielder, Ramsey was in a better position than Lacazette to track Seri.

Ramsey vs. Ozil

Despite the collapse of the contract talks with Arsenal, Ramsey has kept performing well for the club, notching 2 goals and 6 assists in 18 league games this season compared to just 3 goals and 1 assist in 13 league games for Ozil. Ramsey made it 3-1 by pouncing on a rebound to slam the ball into the top corner in the 79th.

I think it was a mistake from the club to compare Ramsey’s contract negotiations with Ozil’s situation last season. Ramsey’s salary demands were in line with the market rate in England while Ozil’s wages were way over what any club would have given him. Another problem with the club’s rigid approach is what will they do when they have a special talent who deserves £250,000 or even £300,000 a week? Should Arsenal sell the next Mbappé because they want to trim their payroll instead of building a strong squad around a top player?

Ramsey could have become the face of the club. His work-rate and attitude are much better than Ozil’s. The Wales midfielder is also a big-game player who scored the winning goal in two FA Cup finals while Ozil tends to disappear when the going gets tough. In the end, the Gunners will get stuck with Ozil while Ramsey will reportedly join Juventus. Most Arsenal fans are grateful that Ramsey won’t be playing for a rival club in the Premier League.

Kolasinac’s defensive lapses

The performance of the Arsenal defense against the Cottagers wasn’t convincing. Fulham could have led 2-0 in the first half if Sessegnon had been more clinical. The Gunners especially looked vulnerable on crosses.

Kolasinac proved again a potent threat down the left flank, leading all players with 4 key passes. But his defensive lapses nearly cost his team. In the 23rd, Schurrle made a cross for Sessegnon, who miskicked the ball. Kolasinac was caught napping on that play as he failed to mark Sessegnon. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international was again guilty for Fulham’s goal in the 69th. Kolasinac let Kamara run in front of him to tap home Sessegnon’s cross. Mitrovic is not the most mobile striker, yet he managed to peel away from Kolasinac to head a corner straight at Leno in the 47th.

On the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles deputized for the injured Bellerin. He led all players with 3 successful dribbles out of 4 but lacked end product with 0 shot and 0 key pass. Maitland-Niles made a good run in behind in the 34th but his cross for Aubameyang was really poor. Defensively, he made no glaring error but failed to stop 2 dangerous crosses in the 23rd and the 69th. Despite his inexperience, Maitland-Niles should leapfrog Lichtsteiner in the pecking order for the fullback position.

The Gunners started with a back three before shifting to a back four at halftime. Mustafi had another poor game with a passing accuracy dipping to 69.2%, compared to 84.1% for Sokratis and 89.1% for Koscielny. The activity of the German centerback was also weak with 0 tackle, 1 interception and 2 recoveries in 45 minutes compared to 3 tackles, 1 interception and 8 recoveries for Sokratis and 1 tackle, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries for Koscielny, according to the club’s website. Emery took a risk since Mustafi didn’t seem completely fit and was replaced at halftime because of a hamstring problem.

Hangover after the festive period

Koscielny is slowly rebuilding confidence after losing key aerial duels in the 3-2 loss at Southampton. The French veteran won 6 of 6 aerial duels against Fulham, while Sokratis only won 1 of 5 aerial duels. As Koscielny is getting older, he will need to rely more on his positional play to compensate for his loss of pace. Kamara got the better of Koscielny in the 72nd with a run in behind. Koscielny also put Torreira in trouble on Fulham’s goal with a pass that was difficult to control.

Sokratis has a lot of room to improve his positional play. He was pulled out of position in the 15th and left Koscielny and Mustafi in a 2v2 situation with Sessegnon and Mitrovic. The Greek defender made the same mistake for Fulham’s goal in the 69th, leaving Koscielny in a 1v2 situation with Mitrovic and Kamara. The physical Mitrovic proved a handful for Sokratis, who struggled in the air and was at times too tight to the Fulham striker. Sokratis had a surprise for the crowd in the 36th. He showcased his dribbling skills by beating 2 Cottagers to have a shot blocked for a corner.

The Gunners have been the big losers of the festive period. They were level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea on Dec. 22. Now they trail the Blues by 3 points. The comparison with Spurs is even more telling. The Gunners were in fourth place, level on points with Tottenham after the North London derby on Dec. 2. Now Spurs are 7 points clear of Arsenal in the standings.

The Gunners next play Blackpool in the FA Cup on Saturday before visiting West Ham in the Premier League the following weekend. Emery can’t take any risk with a decimated squad. He should rest his key players against Blackpool. The defense has been exposed lately in part because 3 first-choice defenders are currently injured (Bellerin, Holding, and Monreal). Meanwhile, injuries to Welbeck, Mkhitaryan and Ozil have limited Emery’s attacking options. It’s no coincidence if the Spanish manager is relying on a front three now whereas he started the season with a front four.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Gunners need massive rebuilding after 5-1 loss

   The humiliating 5-1 loss at Anfield showed that the Gunners are miles behind Liverpool in the rebuilding process. Emery’s priority in the summer was to overhaul the defense by signing Leno, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Guendouzi. Saturday’s disastrous performance made clear that Arsenal will need more defensive reinforcements.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Maybe the most disappointing part is that the Reds scored only one goal from a counterattack. Torreira’s turnover in the 16th minute led to a 2v2 situation for Liverpool’s second goal. On the other hand, the Reds netted 4 goals from situations where the Arsenal defense was supposed to be well organized. Their third and fifth goals came from Liverpool corners while Alisson initiated the first and fourth goals with a throw and a kick, respectively.

   The sudden shift in momentum also suggests a mental weakness at the back. Liverpool equalized just 3 minutes after the Gunners opened the scoring. Arsenal surrendered the lead in recent games, too. For instance, Manchester United leveled just a minute after the Gunners took a 2-1 lead, and Brighton capitalized on a blunder from Lichtsteiner to equalize before halftime.

   Emery will also have to rebuild the offense. Arsenal will certainly lose Ramsey and Welbeck this summer. And the Gunners have struggled to create chances this season because Mkhitaryan, Iwobi and Ozil have been inconsistent.  

   Arsenal only had 2 shots on target to 10 for the hosts despite enjoying 52% of ball possession. That failure to convert possession into chances is due to a lack of penetration. Liverpool had 14 successful dribbles compared to 8 for the Gunners, according to whoscored.com. Penetration can be achieved through dribbling but also passing. Arsenal made no through ball attempt while the Reds had 2 accurate through balls out of 4.

The blueprint for rebuilding

   Klopp has provided the blueprint to rebuild a squad. The Reds are a good example because they make less money than the Gunners (I doubt the Arsenal board would follow Manchester City’s spending strategy). Klopp joined Liverpool in October 2015 and used the exact same squad as Rodgers. The Reds failed to finish in the Top 4 but the first sign of improvement was the runner-up finishes in the League Cup and the Europa League. During Rodgers’ three-year tenure, Liverpool never reached the final of any competition.

   In his second season at the club, Klopp led Liverpool to a Top 4 finish in 2017. The Reds’ progress under Klopp was confirmed by another Top 4 finish and a Champions League final in 2018. The cynics will say that the Reds still haven’t won any silverware under Klopp. But even during Wenger’s best years, Arsenal reached the Champions League final only once. And now in Klopp’s fourth season at Anfield, the Reds are in a strong position to win the league title for the first time since 1990.

Emery may not have 3 years to rebuild the Arsenal squad because some players could move to bigger clubs to win trophies if they don’t see any sign of progress. Talented players like Bellerin, Torreira and Lacazette are the obvious examples, but promising youngsters like Nelson, Smith-Rowe and Saka might be tempted to leave, too. That would be the nightmare scenario because Arsenal would become a feeder club again.

A conservative team selection

   The Spanish manager made 4 changes to the side that drew at Brighton with Iwobi, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles and Mustafi replacing Lacazette, Ozil, Guendouzi and Koscielny in the starting lineup. Emery also switched from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-5-1 system that often left Aubameyang isolated. The main tactical surprise was Maitland-Niles’ position on the right wing which aimed at nullifying the threat of Robertson’s crosses.

   Obviously, Emery was wary of Liverpool’s offense. His team selection was quite conservative if we compare with the starting lineup that drew 1-1 with the Reds in November. On Saturday, only 3 attacking players (Aubameyang, Ramsey and Iwobi) started at Anfield whereas 4 attacking players (Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ozil and Mkhitaryan) started at the Emirates. The contrast is more blatant if we compare with the Arsenal team that lost 4-0 a year ago: Wenger started 4 attacking players (Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez and Welbeck) in a 3-4-3 formation. You could even claim that Wenger used in fact 5 attacking players since Oxlade-Chamberlain played as a wingback in that game.

   Very few fans expected a clean sheet when they saw a back four made up of Lichtsteiner, Mustafi, Sokratis and Kolasinac. Some Emery apologists may argue that the defense looked better in the 1-1 draw with Bellerin, Mustafi, Holding and Kolasinac. But here’s a shocking stat: the Gunners are the team that conceded the most goals at Anfield this season. How do you justify that? Manchester City kept a clean sheet and teams like Brighton and Everton only conceded one goal.

A comedy of errors

   Saturday’s game showed the lack of quality at the back. Sokratis and Mustafi are not good enough to marshal the defense. They both made Firmino look like Maradona with their comical defending for Liverpool’s second goal in the 16th. Mustafi dangled a leg in a sheepish attempt to stop Firmino before pulling it out. From the moment Mustafi dived in, he had to take one for the team.

   Mustafi was also poor technically with a passing accuracy dipping to 71.4%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal outfield player, according to whoscored.com. He was replaced at halftime by Koscielny, who produced slightly better stats than Mustafi by making 1 more block and 2 more recoveries than the German defender, according to the club’s website. There was one embarrassing moment for Koscielny in the 48th when Salah sprinted past him and made him look like a retiree.

   Usually, the ‘error-prone’ tag belongs to Mustafi, but Sokratis, Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner really competed hard to earn it. Sokratis should have stayed on his feet and waited for an opportunity to make a block in the 16th instead of attempting a useless challenge on the 18-yard line. The Greek defender was also caught ball-watching for Liverpool’s third goal in the 32nd as Mane reacted more quickly to meet Salah’s cross. On the stroke of halftime, Sokratis completely lost his mind by kicking Salah twice from behind while trying to nick the ball away. The referee awarded a penalty that Salah converted for a 4-1 lead.  

   The alternatives at centerback are not mouthwatering. Mavropanos is still a raw player, Koscielny is past his prime and struggling to get back to his best level, and Holding won’t play before next season.

The Mertesacker role

   The picture at fullback is almost as gloomy. On the right flank, Bellerin has performed well this season until a calf injury caught up with him. In my eyes, the Spaniard is the only Arsenal defender who would be good enough for a contending team. His replacement, Lichtsteiner, has struggled to cope with the pace of the game in England. Lichtsteiner showed his age at Anfield and was involved in two goals. Mane rounded Lichtesteiner to create a chance in the sixth minute and got the better of the Switzerland international again for an angled effort straight at Leno in the 23rd.

   Lichtsteiner is supposed to be an experienced player but he made a rookie mistake for Liverpool’s equalizer. A loose ball fell to Lichtsteiner after Xhaka dispossessed Salah. Instead of clearing the danger, Lichtsteiner tried to be too clever and made what looked like a pass toward Kolasinac. The ball bounced off Mustafi and fell into the path of Firmino, who tapped in. Then Lichtsteiner played Salah onside for Liverpool’s third goal. You kind of wonder what did Lichtsteiner learn about tactics at Juventus. Lichtsteiner is basically playing the Mertesacker role this season: a liability on the pitch but useful for advice in the dressing room.

   On the left flank, Kolasinac showed again that he’s a wingback at heart, not a defender. Kolasinac had a hand in Liverpool’s third goal by making the heavy backpass that led to the corner. He then gave away a penalty by shoving Lovren from behind in the 64th. Emery hasn’t been able to improve Kolasinac’s positional play. Kolasinac was out of position when Alisson kicked the ball toward Firmino for Liverpool’s fourth goal. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also failed to close down Shaqiri, who played Salah clean through on goal in the 48th. A poor first touch from Salah allowed Leno to collect the ball. Another defensive lapse from Kolasinac in the 55th left Sokratis in a 1v2 situation with Shaqiri and Salah. Kolasinac won only 33% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any defender according to the club’s website. If he was fit, Monreal would probably get the nod over Kolasinac. But Monreal is past his prime and has struggled to stop dangerous crosses in the past few years.

The midfield battle

   Those defensive performances can only raise questions about Arsenal’s recruitment strategy.Whether it’s before or after the hiring of Mislintat, the club seems unwilling to spend big on a defender. Mustafi was Arsenal’s most expensive defender in a £35 million deal. Sokratis, Chambers, Paulista and Holding cost much less than that. By contrast, Liverpool spent £75 million to sign Van Dijk while Manchester City signed Laporte for £57 million. Either the Gunners want a defender who is ready now and they will have to loosen the strings of their purse. Or they can only afford to gamble on a hidden gem and that will mean years of patience to develop a promising youngster.

   The Arsenal defense was badly exposed at Liverpool because it wasn’t well protected by the midfield. The Reds won the midfield battle by outnumbering Arsenal in that area. There was especially a too big gap between the central midfielders (Torreira and Xhaka) and the attacking players (Ramsey, Iwobi, Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang), giving Liverpool too much space to maneuver.

   The Gunners did well in the 1-1 draw at the Emirates because Torreira and Xhaka combined to make 25 recoveries. It was a different story at Anfield as the midfield pairing only managed to make 14 recoveries. Torreira and Xhaka won respectively just 38.5% and 50% of their duels, while they had won 80% and 66.7% of their duels in the November encounter, according to the club’s website. It was quite the opposite for Fabinho and Wijnaldum, who won respectively 60% and 71.4% of their duels at Anfield compared to 33% and 50% at the Emirates.

An exhausted Torreira

   By his own standards, Torreira had a poor game. I believe Torreira is hitting the wall physically as his legs looked really heavy. Torreira is not used to playing during the Christmas period. He had a winter break with Sampdoria in Serie A before joining Arsenal. Mane easily turned Torreira in the sixth minute and Firmino nearly looked like Usain Bolt while running past the Uruguay midfielder for the equalizer in the 14th.

   Torreira only had 1 turnover, compared to 4 for Xhaka according to whoscored.com, but it proved a costly one. He took a pass from Ramsey in the 16th and tried to dribble past Mane with his second touch only to lose possession. In hindsight, his best option was a first-time pass to Maitland-Niles. Torreira was too naive on that play but you have to give credit to Mane and Firmino for quickly jumping on Torreira. Can anyone seriously imagine Ozil press like Mane or Firmino?

   Despite Torreira’s drop in performance, Xhaka managed to have some respectable stats, winning 2 of 4 tackles and making 2 interceptions and 10 recoveries. Xhaka was lucky to escape a second yellow card in the 33rd for kicking the ball away just before the Reds could take their free kick.

   Up front, an isolated Aubameyang only had 13 touches because of the lack of service. He was replaced in the 71st by Lacazette, who was unlucky to have a penalty shout turned down after Clyne kicked his toe in the 84th.

Why work-rate matters

   Iwobi was arguably Arsenal’s most threatening player with 1 of 1 shot on target, 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com. The Nigeria international was more selective than usual in his dribbling attempts and had just 3 turnovers. He tested Alisson with an angled drive in the 10th and made the assist for Maitland-Niles’ goal with a pinpoint cross in the 11th. The homegrown duo nearly repeated the trick in the 19th but Iwobi’s cross sailed beyond Maitland-Niles. Iwobi created another chance in the 73rd with a cross that Ramsey diverted with a backheel flick but Alisson beat Maitland-Niles to the ball.

   Can Iwobi reproduce that kind of performance week in, week out? His inconsistency has frustrated the fans lately. At 22, Iwobi is no longer a rookie. This is already his fourth season in the Premier League. Another issue that Emery needs to address is Iwobi’s poor work-rate. Iwobi finished the game with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Other attacking midfielders worked harder than him. Ramsey won 1 of 4 tackles, and made 1 interception and 6 recoveries, while Shaqiri won 1 of 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 9 recoveries. Iwobi also needs to be stronger in duels. He only won 25% of his duels.

   Nowadays, attacking players in the top teams have to work their socks off because the gap with the small teams has become narrower. Emery is reluctant to use Ozil in the games that are physically demanding because the high press can’t work if one player does not follow the tactical instructions. Shaqiri, Mane, Firmino and Salah helped Liverpool boss the midfield by combining for 21 recoveries compared to 15 recoveries for Iwobi, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang.  

Momentum is everything

   On the right wing, Maitland-Niles did a good job defensively since Robertson made 0 key pass. Robertson initially skipped past Maitland-Niles to make a teasing cross in the second minute. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and got the better of the Liverpool leftback. Robertson was booked in the 26th for holding Maitland-Niles. Can anybody seriously imagine Ozil running up and down the right flank to track Robertson? Offensively, Maitland-Niles had enough flair to make a run at the far post for the opening goal. He also took his chance with a curling shot that sailed over the bar in the 42nd and made a cross for Ramsey, who missed the target in the 43rd. Maitland-Niles moved to the leftback position in the 81st when Guendouzi replaced Kolasinac.  

   Like Aubameyang, Ramsey struggled to have an impact in the final third. Ramsey made a run into the box to chase a probing pass from Xhaka in the 54th but was then caught in two minds with a cross-shot when he should have chipped Alisson. The Wales midfielder still worked hard for the team and led Arsenal players by winning 63.6% of his duels. When Ramsey leaves, the club will not just miss his goals and assists but also his work-rate.

   Arsenal will play a massive game against Fulham on Tuesday. Momentum is everything in a football season. If the Gunners lose, they could trail Chelsea by 8 points. It would then become very difficult for Arsenal to catch the fourth-placed team. Liverpool finished 4th in the past two seasons with 76 points in 2017 and 75 points this year.

A target of 76 points

   To have a shot at a Top 4 finish, the target for Arsenal is to collect at least 76 points at the end of the season. Chelsea and Tottenham are currently on pace to finish with 82 and 85 points respectively. With 38 points from 20 games so far, the Gunners are projected to collect only 72 points. They definitely need to reach again a cruising speed above 2.0 points per game.

Arsenal tally comparisonComparing Arsenal’s 2017-18 season and the current season

   If you take a look at the graph above, you can see that the Gunners were below that cruising speed only twice this season: in August and September after losing to Manchester City and Chelsea; and in late December after losing at Anfield. Arsenal lost a lot of momentum with only 1 win in their last 4 league games. They would be above that cruising speed if they had drawn at Southampton and won at Brighton.

   What is more worrying is that the curve for this season is nearly catching up with the curve for the 2017-18 season when the Gunners had 37 points from 20 games under Wenger. Last season, Arsenal only reached that cruising speed of 2.0 points per game on Matchday 14 after three consecutive wins over Spurs, Burnley and Huddersfield. The Gunners completely lost their momentum after losing to Manchester United on Matchday 15.  

Brighton vs. Arsenal: Gunners lack fluency, personality in 1-1 draw

   The Gunners are still in the Top 4 race at the halfway stage despite drawing 1-1 with Brighton on Wednesday to trail Chelsea by 2 points in the Premier League. That was Emery’s main mission when he was hired to replace Wenger as the manager. A year ago, the Gunners were in 6th place with 34 points, just 1 point outside the Top 4 and level on points with Spurs. Now they are in 5th place with 38 points, 2 points outside the Top 4 and 7 points behind Tottenham.

Brighton vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.premiership.co.uk

   If you’re an optimist, you will focus on the position in the standings and the total of points and believe that the Gunners have slightly improved under Emery. If you’re a pessimist, you will notice the gap with the Top 4 and with Spurs and argue that the team is still stagnating under Emery. In both cases, any fan will agree that Arsenal got knocked out of the title race by December, trailing Manchester City by 21 points last year and Liverpool by 13 points this season.

   Emery made 3 changes to the side that defeated Burnley last weekend with Koscielny, Lichtsteiner and Torreira replacing Monreal, Maitland-Niles and Elneny in the starting lineup. Whereas the Spanish manager used a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield against Burnley, he opted for a 4-3-3 system against Brighton with a flexible front three as Ozil, Lacazette and Aubameyang often swapped positions. For instance, Ozil ended up on the left wing in the 32nd minute while Aubamaeyang was on the right wing.

   The problem with Emery’s starting lineup was the lack of natural width since Ozil, Lacazette and Aubameyang all enjoy playing down the middle. The Arsenal fullbacks therefore had to provide more width by roaming forward. However, both Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner proved inefficient in the first half. Emery attempted to give more support to Kolasinac by replacing Ozil with Iwobi at halftime. Iwobi is the only attacking midfielder in the squad who’s comfortable playing on the left flank.

A conservative substitution

   Somehow, Emery created another problem by taking Ozil off. The Gunners clearly missed Ozil as a link player since Iwobi does not have the vision and passing skills of the German playmaker. So Emery replaced Lacazette in the 61st with Ramsey, a midfielder who could link defense and attack, but also deliver the final ball and be a goal threat.

   Again, Emery created another problem with that second substitution as the Gunners lost their firepower. They started the game with 2 strikers (Aubameyang and Lacazette) and 1 attacking midfielder (Ozil) and finished it with 1 striker (Aubameyang) and 2 attacking midfielders (Iwobi and Ramsey). Arsenal completely dominated ball possession, so the game called for a bold move from Emery to crack the Brighton defense. Knowing that Spurs and Manchester United won earlier on Wednesday, the Gunners needed 3 points to keep pace with their rivals.

   Emery made some bold substitutions at the start of the season. But he failed to show personality at Brighton. Replacing Lacazette with Ramsey was a conservative substitution that sent the wrong signal to his team. Emery simply got his substitutions wrong. The more natural move would have been to play with 2 strikers and replace either Xhaka or Guendouzi with Ramsey. In those games against the average sides, Wenger wouldn’t hesitate to finish with 3 strikers and even play Oxlade-Chamberlain at rightback. But Emery lacked audacity at Brighton. His last substitution in the 70th was an attempt to rest Koscielny while using Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles as wingbacks.

   Looking at the bigger picture, Emery’s constant tinkering does not help the fluency of Arsenal’s passing game. Some players start building an understanding, which then gets disrupted in the next game. Other players don’t get any rhythm and start losing confidence.The injury crisis at the back definitely has an impact on Emery’s defensive choices. But he clearly doesn’t know what his best offensive setup is. Emery initially built his team around Ramsey before contract talks between Ramsey and the club broke down. He then gave the keys of the game to Ozil, only to be disappointed by his poor work-rate. Now those two unsatisfactory options reflect the lack of continuity and identity in Arsenal’s passing game.  


What defined Emeryball in the first half of the season was how the Gunners quickly moved the ball from their own area to the final third with first-time passes. There was no such thing on Wednesday. In fact, Arsenal’s passing game looked Wengeresque with Xhaka and Sokratis leading all players with 113 and 101 passes, respectively. The Gunners enjoyed 68% of ball possession but created very little with just 7 shots to 12 for Brighton.

Arsenal took a leaf out of Klopp’s gegenpressing book to open the scoring in the seventh minute. Torreira charged down a clearance from the Brighton defense. The ball fell to Ozil, whose backheel flick was intercepted by Balogun. But Lacazette dispossessed Balogun and danced inside the box before feeding Aubameyang, who curled a shot into the top corner.

Lacazette had a low drive saved in the second minute and a long-range effort blocked in the 49th. He also led all players with 3 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com. But that wasn’t enough for Emery, who replaced Lacazette with Ramsey in the 61st. Obviously, Emery wants to do things his way. Yet, that’s no reason to ignore successful partnerships. Ramsey and Lacazette have a good understanding that helped Arsenal stay in the Top 4 race in the first half of last season.

Aubameyang has become the first-choice centerforward under Emery. It’s hard to disagree with that. Lacazette doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace to stretch a defense. Arsenal’s best chances against the Seagulls came from balls over the top for Aubameyang. In the fourth minute, Guendouzi hit a long ball toward Aubameyang, who outpaced Duffy only to have his lob attempt tipped over the bar by Ryan.

Torreira as a No. 8

Then Aubameyang made a diagonal run between Duffy and Montoya to chest down a ball over the top from Torreira in the 30th. The Gabon striker aimed for the bottom corner from 14 yards but Ryan dived to make a one-handed save. It would have been a different story with a 2-0 lead. Aubameyang could have been more clinical but I wouldn’t blame him for not converting that chance. The ball was bouncing, Montoya was chasing him, and Ryan simply pulled off a great save. Aubameyang had one last opportunity in the 67th but he produced an air shot while attempting to volley Sokratis’ long ball.

The main concern for Arsenal is that those chances were not created by our attacking midfielders. Both Ozil and Iwobi had no impact on the team’s passing game while Ramsey mostly tried to create space with his runs. The Gunners also looked sluggish when they played the ball out from the back: Sokratis and Koscielny have limited ball-playing abilities while Xhaka is not mobile enough to receive the ball. Xhaka moved to the centerback position in the 70th when Maitland-Niles replaced Koscielny and Arsenal switched to a back three. March exposed Xhaka’s lack of pace with a run in behind in the 77th. The Brighton midfielder chased a ball over the top from Stephens only to send his lob over the bar.

Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka, first as a No. 8 and for short spells after halftime almost as a No. 10. The Uruguay midfielder helped the team offensively against Huddersfield but I think it’s counterproductive to play Torreira higher up the pitch. Despite his contribution on the opening goal, Torreira had an untidy game with 5 turnovers.

Wenger sometimes used players in a deeper position. For instance, Cazorla was initially an attacking midfielder but was converted into a deep-lying playmaker. Likewise, Oxlade-Chamberlain was a winger by trade but played as a wingback when Wenger switched to a 3-4-3 formation.

Guendouzi’s inexperience

Emery is doing the opposite by moving players into a more advanced position. Ramsey is a central midfielder by trade but has been used by Emery as an attacking midfielder. Likewise, Torreira shone with Sampdoria as a defensive midfielder but has played as a No. 8 lately. The exception, of course, is Xhaka, who had to deputize at leftback and centerback under Emery. The Spanish manager can be conservative in his approach while Wenger tended to be more bold even if it meant that his team was too open.

Surprisingly, Emery has put a lot of trust in Guendouzi. Games against teams like Brighton can help Guendouzi grow, but his inexperience cost Arsenal 2 points on Wednesday. Guendouzi let Locadia run past him on the counterattack that led to the equalizer. Emery needs to have a word with Guendouzi. The French teenager lost possession in the 26th, the 59th and the 63rd because he held onto the ball too long. What’s the point of running 40 yards across the pitch like he did in the 19th? Guendouzi is also slowing the tempo by not releasing the ball quickly enough. As long as Guendouzi doesn’t understand that notion of tempo, he shouldn’t start in the Premier League.

The Gunners have struggled defensively since the start of the season by conceding 25 goals from 19 league games. It’s no coincidence if they have reached halftime with the lead only once this season: the Brighton game showed that the Gunners still can’t defend a lead.

The Seagulls were toothless until the 24th when Stephens spread the ball wide to Montoya, who squared the ball back for Murray. The Brighton striker made poor contact with the ball and Leno reacted quickly enough to dive on it. Ozil failed to track Montoya on that play while Sokratis was on the wrong side of Murray but somehow managed to put him off.

The fullbacks’ poor performance

Holding, Mustafi, Monreal and Bellerin were on the disabled list but it’s still no excuse for the shambolic defending. Lichtsteiner switched off for Burnley’s goal last weekend. The Switzerland veteran made another blunder against Brighton, heading a long ball from Propper into the path of Locadia, who dribbled past Leno to score into an empty net in the 35th. Propper also outjumped Lichtsteiner to head a cross from March wide in the 53rd. What made Lichtsteiner’s performance worse was his poor offensive contribution. Lichtsteiner wasted good situations in the 18th and 45th with terrible crosses. And he was too slow to control a decent cross from Ramsey in the 69th. Is Lichtsteiner fit enough to play in the Premier League? His passing accuracy dipped to 69.6%, a really low percentage for the fullback position.

Lichtsteiner and Kolasinac finished the game with 0 key pass. Arsenal’s left flank was especially exposed as Montoya and March combined to make 5 key passes. Kolasinac was out of position when March created a chance in the 29th. Then Kolasinac lost a duel against March, who cut inside to fire a low drive that Leno turned around the post in the 50th. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also failed to close down March in the 53rd when Propper missed the target.

Murray getting the better of Sokratis

Maitland-Niles came off the bench in the 70th to play in the right wingback position. His cameo was unimpressive to say the least. Maitland-Niles led all players with 5 turnovers. His passing accuracy of 50% was also the lowest of any player, according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles wasted two good situations by poorly reading the game. He could have slipped the ball to Ramsey in the 71st but held onto the ball too long and was dispossessed by Bernardo. In the 90th, Maitland-Niles ran into traffic instead of running along the touchline to make a cross for Aubameyang or Ramsey.

Sokratis had a good game against Burnley, but the Brighton game showed that he’s not the commanding centerback that this Arsenal team needs. He was not tight to Murray twice as the Brighton striker hit a tame shot in the 29th and headed a cross over the bar in the 40th. And the Greek defender gave the ball away to Locadia in the 54th. If there’s only one signing during the winter transfer window, it should be at centerback.

The Gunners next visit Liverpool on Saturday before hosting Fulham on Tuesday. Assuming Arsenal can get a draw at Anfield, they could be 4 points outside the Top 4 on Sunday evening. The pressure would then become massive for the game against Fulham.



Arsenal vs. Burnley: Aubameyang fires Gunners to 3-1 win

Aubameyang has a good shot at becoming Arsenal’s Player of the Season. He scored twice in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Burnley as the Gunners bounced back from two straight losses in all competitions to go level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Burnley.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Gabon striker put Arsenal ahead in the 14th minute by stabbing Kolasinac’s offering into the bottom corner. He then concluded a counterattack with a powerful strike to double the lead in the 48th. Aubameyang is the top scorer in the league with 12 goals so far this season. If you add his 3 assists from 18 league games, that’s 0.83 goal or assist per game. Only Hazard (8 goals, 9 assists) and Salah (11 goals, 5 assists) have made a bigger offensive impact.

Is Aubameyang a world-class player? I don’t know, it’s a really close call. He doesn’t have the physicality and hold-up play of a Henry or the technique of a Van Persie, but he’s definitely an upgrade over Giroud, whose lack of pace was a liability on the fast break.

Lacazette led the line under Wenger, forcing Aubameyang to play on the left wing. Emery has a different opinion as Aubameyang has become the first choice for the centerforward position. I think that decision makes sense because Lacazette doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace to stretch a defense. On the other hand, Lacazette has a better all-around game than Aubameyang to play as a second striker or as a false winger.

Giving the keys to Ozil

Despite falling behind in the pecking order, Lacazette has managed to make a significant contribution with 6 goals and 4 assists in 17 league games, for an average of 0.59 goal or assist per game. Lacazette didn’t score against Burnley, but he made 2 key passes, including the assist for Aubameyang’s goal in the second half. Elneny connected with Lacazette’s cross in the eighth minute but his header was blocked by Mee.

Lacazette could have added 2 more key passes but either lacked accuracy or vision. On the stroke of halftime, Lacazette made a run into the box. He first dribbled past Tarkowski and then tried to take on Long instead of setting up Ozil for a 10-yard shot. Long dispossessed Lacazette and the chance was gone. Lacazette also wasted a counterattack in the 62nd by overhitting his return pass for Ozil.

Emery made 5 changes to the side that got knocked out of the League Cup by Spurs with Lacazette, Ozil, Elneny, Kolasinac and Leno replacing Mkhitaryan, Iwobi, Ramsey, Torreira and Cech in the starting lineup. In a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield, Emery gave the keys of the game to Ozil, who had 2 targets with Aubameyang and Lacazette and 3 midfielders (Xhaka, Elneny and Guendouzi) to do the defensive work for him.

That tactical choice paid off as Arsenal reached halftime with the lead for the first time in the Premier League this season. Ozil’s passing skills and reading of the game can make a difference against teams parking the bus. His perfectly weighted cross for Kolasinac in the 14th was a technical wonder. Ozil also created the last goal in stoppage time. He skipped past Long and Mee only to have his shot blocked by Tarkowski. The rebound fell into the path of Iwobi, who beat Hart from close range.

Burnley’s thuggery

That game doesn’t solve the Ozil conundrum, though. Despite his involvement in the first and last goals, Ozil finished the game with 0 key pass. And his work-rate was poor again with 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 3 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Because of the hectic schedule and the inconsistency of other attacking midfielders, Emery will definitely play Ozil again. But Ozil has no guarantee of a starting spot.

Iwobi came off the bench to replace Lacazette in the 78th. His goal in stoppage time shouldn’t hide his lack of end product this season. In fact, Iwobi is the most inefficient of our attacking midfielders with 2 goals and 2 assists in 15 league games for an average of 0.26 goal or assist per game. Ramsey has 1 goal and 6 assist in 15 games (0.47), followed by Mkhitaryan with 4 goals and 1 assist in 14 games (0.36) and Ozil with 3 goals and 1 assist in 12 games (0.33). Fans and pundits often mention how Iwobi has improved under Emery, but he’s simply on course to match his stats from last season, when he notched 3 goals and 5 assists in 26 games (0.31) under Wenger.

If you’re a neutral spectator, you don’t want to see Burnley in the Premier League. The Clarets play a boring, outdated brand of football, relying on long balls, second balls and borderline physicality. Dyche complained after the game about some Gunners going to the ground easily. That was a poor attempt to distract attention from the Clarets’ thuggery.

Barnes was booked for holding Sokratis in a headlock while the ball was out of play in the 35th. The Burnley forward got away with the benefit of the doubt for kneeing Guendouzi in the back in the 50th. But I thought Barnes should have been sent off in the 57th for a deliberate stamp on Guendouzi’s chest. Dyche can be thankful that Guendouzi didn’t play act to draw the referee’s attention.

Guendouzi’s composure

Surprisingly, Arsenal matched Burnley’s aggression in a good way by winning 17 of 23 tackles compared to 16 of 23 tackles for the visitors, according to whoscored.com. Despite his young age, Guendouzi kept his cool when Cork in the 60th and Wood in the 75th stamped on him. Guendouzi started alongside Elneny and Xhaka in midfield. The French teenager still has a tendency to take too many touches. He killed the momentum of a counterattack in the seventh minute by failing to see Aubameyang’s run and holding onto the ball. Defensively, he showed his naivety in the second minute by failing to stay with Westwood on a counterattack. Barnes fed Westwood, who fired wide. On the bright side, Guendouzi started the fast break that led to the second goal by finding Kolasinac with a ball over the top.

Elneny made his first start in the league under Emery. It’s easy to understand why the Spanish manager doesn’t rate him. Elneny struggles to win duels and lacks end product in the final third. The Egypt international led all players with 7 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. He wasted an interesting situation in the 20th by having a shot blocked instead of feeding Ozil.

Emery yanked Elneny off to send on Torreira in the 59th. Guendouzi and Elneny were no match for Torreira’s work-rate. In his short cameo, Torreira won 2 of 3 tackles and made 1 interception and 2 recoveries, compared to 1 of 1 tackle and 2 recoveries for Guendouzi and 1 of 3 tackles and 2 recoveries for Elneny, according to the club’s website. Torreira was unlucky to have his clearance charged down for Burnley’s goal in the 63rd. In hindsight, maybe Xhaka could have cleared the danger himself instead of making a risky pass to Torreira.

Maitland-Niles learning the hard way

Xhaka started as the holding midfielder before moving to the centerback position in the 37th when Lichtsteiner replaced an injured Monreal. The Switzerland midfielder gave the ball away in dangerous situations in the 9th and the 80th. He also failed to challenge for a long ball in the 18th, letting Burnley have a scoring chance but Westwood missed the target. Signing a centerback in January might be an option for the club because there’s no way Arsenal can continue to rely on Xhaka and Lichtsteiner as makeshift centerbacks.

Maitland-Niles deputized for Bellerin at rightback. Saturday’s game against a weak side was a good opportunity for him to shine. But Maitland-Niles showed that he’s still a raw player who needs to improve his reading of the game. He never made the kind of dangerous runs that Kolasinac and Bellerin usually make. Maitland-Niles started brightly, testing Hart in the second and the 20th minutes, before fading in the second half. The Clarets targeting him on long balls by creating unfavorable matchups in the air. Maitland-Niles lost his aerial duel against Mee in the 63rd when Burnley capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to score. Tarkowski also beat Maitland-Niles in the air to set up Taylor, whose low strike sailed wide in the 81st. Maitland-Niles will have to work on his jump and find ways to put off taller opponents. He will also have to be more tidy in possession as the Clarets robbed him 3 times.

On the opposite flank, Kolasinac was a constant threat for the Burnley defense. He made the assist for Aubameyang’s opener and made the penultimate pass for the second goal by picking out Lacazette. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international also created chances for Elneny in the 20th and for Lacazette in the 66th. Aubameyang certainly lacked flair in the 88th when he decided to stay back instead of jumping into the six-yard box to meet Kolasinac’s teasing cross. Technically, Kolasinac had one of his best games with a passing accuracy of 92.1% while it’s usually below 80%.

A busy Christmas period

Sokratis marshalled the defense at the back, winning 5 of 5 aerial duels and having 0 turnover, according to whoscored.com. Holding’s long-term injury, Koscielny’s poor form and Mustafi’s absence mean that Sokratis is Emery’s most reliable option at centerback right now. Sokratis was unfazed by Burnley’s physical approach. In fact, he even seemed to enjoy it. Sokratis won 2 of 2 tackles, and made 1 block, 1 interception and 6 recoveries. He also led all players by winning 72.7% of his duels, according to the club’s website. His only blemish of the game was the yellow card he received in the 41st for holding Barnes. Sokratis was too tight to Barnes and ended up on the wrong side of the Burnley striker.

Monreal’s relapse is depriving Emery of options because the Spanish defender can play at fullback and centerback. At 32, Monreal’s best years are behind him. The club will need to sign a leftback next summer to make up for Kolasinac’s defensive lapses and Monreal’s physical decline. Monreal was pulled out of position for Burnley’s first scoring chance in the second minute. His replacement, Lichtsteiner, left Barnes unmarked for the visitors’ lone goal in the 63rd. Seven minutes later, Lichtsteiner switched off again by failing to close down Cork, who fired wide.

In his first season in England, Emery is already aware of the busy Christmas period. The Spanish manager rested Koscielny, Ramsey and Torreira. Koscielny was left out of the squad, Ramsey stayed on the bench and Torreira only played 35 minutes in the second half. The Gunners visit Brighton on Wednesday and Liverpool on Saturday. Arsenal must stay within a couple of points of fourth place after those 2 away games, otherwise a Top 4 finish might become too difficult.

League Cup: A few thoughts on the 2-0 loss to Spurs

  The Gunners were poor at both ends of the pitch on Wednesday and lost 2-0 to Tottenham in the quarterfinals of the League Cup. Arsenal created more chances than Spurs but were not clinical enough with just 2 shots on target to 3 for the visitors.

League Cup quarters.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Playing youngsters in that competition was a tradition under Wenger. Maybe because it was a North London derby, Emery decided to field a strong side. The only academy player who featured in that game was Nketiah, who replaced Guendouzi in the 65th minute.

   Emery’s approach could backfire when the Gunners face Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday: Monreal, Sokratis, Torreira, Xhaka, Ramsey and Aubameyang played the full 90 minutes and might not be fresh against the Clarets.

  1. It’s still a Wenger team

   The Gunners can’t defend. Both goals looked so similar with Gazzaniga hitting a long ball, Arsenal playing a high defensive line and leaving a huge gap between the defense and the midfield, and Spurs playing a ball over the top. At the start of the season, Manchester City and Chelsea took advantage of the Gunners’ high defensive line to score goals. There were very few questions when Arsenal went on an unbeaten run. But now it’s obvious that the defensive issues of the Wenger era are resurfacing and that Emery still hasn’t fixed them.

   In the 21st, Sokratis was pulled out of position as Alli fed Son. Xhaka had no clue about the offside trap and played Son onside. The South Korea striker shot past Cech to put Tottenham ahead. For the second goal in the 59th, Xhaka failed to close down Kane, who picked out Alli. Koscielny, who had replaced Mkhitaryan at halftime, was caught in two minds. The French centerback neither marked Alli nor executed the offside trap. Clean through on goal, Alli chipped Cech with the outside of his boot. Hopefully, it’s the last time that Xhaka plays at centerback.

  1. Defending is a team effort

   Spurs showed more aggression than Arsenal, winning 27 of 33 tackles compared to 20 of 28 for the hosts, according to whoscored.com. Torreira had a good game, leading all players with 7 tackles won and 3 interceptions, but he can’t be everywhere on the pitch. Xhaka would have been more useful in midfield where Guendouzi was a bit soft, winning 2 of 4 tackles and making 1 interception. I guess the idea was to have a bit more creativity in midfield, but Emery’s gamble didn’t pay off as Guendouzi only made 1 key pass.

   Tactically, teams press high up the pitch to protect the defense. In that regard, Tottenham’s attacking midfielders worked harder than Arsenal’s: Alli, Eriksen and Moura combined to win 6 tackles and make 3 interceptions while Iwobi, Ramsey and Mkhitaryan combined to win just 2 tackles and make 1 interception.

  1. The Gunners need better options on the left wing

   A couple of years ago, Arsenal could rely on Sanchez and Cazorla to play on the left wing. Now they only have the choice between Iwobi and Aubameyang. There’s no real competition for Iwobi on the left wing because Aubameyang prefers to play down the middle.

   Iwobi created a couple of chances, setting up Ramsey in the 8th and the 43rd and making a low cross for Maitland-Niles in the 51st. But he simply doesn’t have Ozil’s passing skills and reading of the game to make a significant impact in the final third. Iwobi overhit his final ball for Aubameyang in the 21st, overcomplicated things on the edge of the box instead of feeding Ramsey in the 27th, and failed to hit a ball over the top for Aubameyang in the 41st.  

   As usual, Iwobi’s work-rate was poor with 0 tackle won and 0 interception, and he led all players with 8 turnovers according to whoscored.com, despite coming off the pitch in the 58th. It’s too bad that Ozil doesn’t enjoy playing on the left wing because he’s more tidy in possession and makes more key passes than Iwobi.

  1. Ramsey’s return from an ankle injury

   The Wales midfielder had not played since the Manchester United game. He was involved in Arsenal’s best chances in the first half before fading in the second half. Ramsey combined with Iwobi to fire a low drive wide in the 8th. Four minutes later, he played Mkhitaryan in but the Armenia international had a poorly placed shot saved by Gazzaniga. Ramsey lacked a bit of lucidity in the 42nd, attempting a difficult backheel flick for Mkhitaryan instead of taking his chance. A minute later, he met a cross from Iwobi for a volley that Gazzaniga palmed onto the post. The Gunners definitely need a fit Ramsey to have a shot at a Top 4 finish.

  1. Aubameyang got no decent service

   When you have a poacher like Aubameyang, you just have to feed him. But the current lack of creativity in the squad is hurting his scoring opportunities. The Gunners struggled to find him. So Aubameyang tried to work hard for the team. He charged down a clearance from Gazzaniga in the 42nd, made a cross for Ramsey on the stroke of halftime, and squared the ball back for Lacazette, whose low effort hit the base of the post in the 61st. Signing an attacking midfielder should be a top priority in the summer transfer window. Aubameyang deserves better service.


Southampton vs. Arsenal: Defense a concern in 3-2 loss

   The Gunners were vulnerable on crosses under Wenger. They still haven’t found a fix under Emery. Southampton headed in three crosses to win 3-2 on Sunday and snap Arsenal’s 22-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

Southampton vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   A quick look at the standings tells you that the Gunners are doing fine offensively. With 37 goals from 17 games, they have scored as many goals as Liverpool to boast the second best offense in the Premier League behind Manchester City. On the other hand, they have already conceded 23 goals, that is, 16 more than Liverpool, 13 more than City and 9 more than Chelsea. In fact, the Gunners even have a more porous defense than Wolverhampton, Everton, Leicester and Newcastle.

   On Sunday, Arsenal missed Holding through injury and Mustafi and Sokratis through suspension. Emery opted for a 3-4-3 formation with Koscielny playing alongside Xhaka and Lichtsteiner in a back three. What was Emery thinking?

   Understanding and complementarity are crucial for any defense. The starting lineup didn’t really put Koscielny in optimal conditions for his first Premier League game this season. The French defender had never played with Lichtsteiner and Xhaka at centerback. Partnering Koscielny with Monreal in a back four would have been a more rational choice.

   What also made the back three dysfunctional was Emery’s decision to use Koscielny as the sweeper and Lichtsteiner and Xhaka as the wide centerbacks. Xhaka and Lichtsteiner are simply too sluggish to efficiently play as wide centerbacks. The idea behind a back three is that the sweeper covers the wide centerbacks, who must be more pro-active than the sweeper.

Adjusting to the pace of the game

   Koscielny didn’t cover himself in glory on the opening goal. Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Targett and Ings took advantage of Koscielny’s error to give Southampton the lead in the 20th minute. Koscielny showed poor decision-making by trying to intercept the ball with a high boot instead of heading the ball out of play. He misjudged the flight of the ball and missed his interception, basically offering Ings a free header.

Saints M20edKoscielny in a perfect position to head the ball out of play. (Photo credit: Sky)

   The irony is that Koscielny was sharp physically. He made more tackles (3), blocks (2), interceptions (1) and recoveries (8) than Xhaka and Lichtsteiner combined (1 tackle, 0 block, 1 interception, 7 recoveries), according to the club’s website. However, one key stat showed that Koscielny struggled to adjust to the pace of the game: he won 0 tackle. Koscielny will certainly need a couple more games to get back to his best level.

   Playing Xhaka at centerback was the weirdest decision Emery has made this season. Xhaka never really felt comfortable in that position, especially since his matchup with Redmond was an unfavorable one. The Switzerland international missed his challenge on Redmond in the 18th, was dispossessed by Redmond in the 23rd, gave the ball away in the 39th and fouled Long in the 73rd.

Injury crisis at the back

   Xhaka’s lack of pace was exposed in the 85th when the Saints scored the winner. Leading a counterattack, Hojbjerg played Long in and the Southampton substitute made a cross for Austin, who beat Leno to the ball to head home. As you can see on the screen capture below, Xhaka failed to close down Long, giving him plenty of time and space for a pinpoint cross.

Saints M85ed.jpgKoscielny in a 1v1 situation with Austin as Xhaka is not tight to Long. (Photo credit: Sky)

   Leno was credited with an error for that goal, but the reason why he missed his catch by a few inches is because he initially thought Long would shoot. By coming off his line to narrow Long’s angle, Leno missed the couple of steps that would have allowed him to catch Long’s cross. Leno is now tied with Begovic for the most errors (3) leading to a goal in the Premier League. There’s no doubt that Leno’s distribution is better than Cech’s. His passing accuracy reached 92.9% against Southampton. Yet, passing skills are meaningless for a goalkeeper if he can’t do the basics: preventing goals. Leno has been poor at reading crosses this season. He completely missed his punch while coming for Valery’s cross in the 60th. You can bet that other Premier League sides will test Leno again with teasing crosses.

   The Gunners have been hit by an injury crisis at the back. Holding will miss the rest of the season to recover from a torn ligament in his knee while Kolasinac was not in the squad because of a thigh strain. The disabled list got longer at St Mary’s stadium as Bellerin was replaced at halftime by Lacazette because of a calf problem that will sideline him for a couple of weeks. The Spaniard underperformed lately and it was clear that something wasn’t right physically.

Guendouzi’s inexperience

   Lichtsteiner, who moved to the rightback position when Arsenal switched to a back four in the second half, also picked up an injury after a scissor tackle from Armstrong in the 71st. Maitland-Niles came off the bench to replace Lichtsteiner and should likely start at rightback in the next few games. Unless Emery is crazy enough to play Xhaka in that position.

   Xhaka and Lichtsteiner were so worried by the pace of Redmond and Armstrong that they preferred to sit back and left a huge gap between the defense and the midfield. That made the task of Torreira and Guendouzi very difficult in the first half.

   Torreira produced another good performance, leading all players by winning 4 of 5 tackles and making 9 recoveries. The Uruguay midfielder also made 1 key pass, 1 block and 2 interceptions. In the 30th, Guendouzi picked out Torreira, who squared the ball back for Aubameyang. It took a desperate sliding tackle from Bednarek to prevent Aubameyang from tapping in from 5 yards. Torreira will have regrets about the lost duel in the 85th. Ozil turned the ball over to Hojbjerg, who wriggled away from Torreira to slip a through ball to Long for the winner. For a split second, Torreira thought about holding Hojbjerg before letting him go.

   In the partnership formed with Guendouzi in central midfield, Torreira clearly had more defensive responsibilities. Guendouzi still made his defensive contribution by winning 2 of 2 tackles and having 5 recoveries. However, his inexperience cost his team at times. He lacked patience and took speculative shots, with 0 of 3 shots on target, instead of maintaining pressure on the Southampton defense.

Sterile possession

   Guendouzi also held onto the ball too long when he could have moved it faster. And he failed to smell the danger in the 44th when Redmond made a cross for Ings, whose looping header beat Leno for a 2-1 lead. As you can see on the screen capture below, Redmond got plenty of time and space for his cross. It was definitely not Xhaka’s job to chase Redmond that far and Monreal was busy with Valery down the left flank.

Saints M44ed.jpgGuendouzi fails to close down Redmond. (Photo credit: Sky)

   I guess that’s the price you have to pay for starting a teenager in Premier League games. On the bright side, Guendouzi only had 1 turnover, compared to 2 for Torreira, according to whoscored.com. And he created Arsenal’s first scoring chance in the sixth minute with a ball over the top for Aubameyang, whose close-range effort was saved by McCarthy.

   Emery made 10 changes to the side that edged Qarabag in the Europa League, so there was no excuse for Arsenal’s slow passing game and sterile possession. The Gunners only had 4 shots on target to 7 for Southampton despite enjoying 66% of ball possession. Emery tried to shake things up but with no real success. The Spanish manager switched to a 4-4-2 system at halftime when Lacazette replaced an injured Bellerin. Then he gave the keys of the team to Ozil by yanking Iwobi off in the 70th and shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ozil had very little impact in his 25-minute cameo. He had 2 key passes but those stats are misleading: one came from a corner kick and the other was a short pass to set up a long-range effort.

Turnover machine

   It has been quite obvious in the past few games that the Gunners lack creativity. Yes, they score a lot of goals, but it’s because Aubameyang and Lacazette have been clinical. Arsenal lost Cazorla, Sanchez, Rosicky, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the past couple of years. Those are players who could create chances. The Gunners still have Ozil, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi as creative players. But only Ramsey has been relatively consistent this season while Ozil’s poor work-rate has been an issue, Mkhitaryan has a too peripheral role in the team’s passing game and Iwobi lacks end product.  

   Emery has a problem on the left wing because Welbeck’s long-term injury means that there’s no competition for Iwobi. Mkhitaryan and Ozil prefer to play on the right wing while Ramsey and Aubameyang are more effective in a central position. How do you motivate a lazy player if there’s no one to take his spot?

   Iwobi is the most dispossessed player at Arsenal and 15th in the Premier League despite playing fewer minutes than most players on that list. Hazard is 6th, having been dispossessed 38 times in 1,225 minutes and Sterling is 7th with 37 in 1,140 minutes. Iwobi has already been dispossessed 29 times in 789 minutes. The big difference here is that Hazard and Sterling notch a lot of goals and assists while Iwobi only has 1 goal and 2 assists.

   Despite spending only 70 minutes on the pitch, Iwobi led all players with 7 turnovers. His work-rate was average at best with 1 block and 5 recoveries, compared to 4 interceptions and 7 recoveries for Mkhitaryan, according to the club’s website. And his end product was mediocre with 0 shot on target, 0 key pass and 0 accurate cross. Iwobi especially lacked composure in the 54th, missing the target with a 15-yard curling shot.

Aubameyang losing his finishing touch

   Managers can see the potential in Iwobi, but he still lacks the mental toughness and the attitude to reach the next level. To his credit, Iwobi released Monreal down the left flank for the first equalizer in the 28th. He then found Mkhitaryan, who set up Aubameyang for a scoring chance in the 46th. It’s usually the deep-lying playmaker who makes the penultimate pass. There’s no way Iwobi could play in that position because it requires more work than playing as an attacking midfielder.

   Mkhitaryan had a good game with 2 goals and 1 key pass. The Armenia international headed Monreal’s cross into the bottom corner in the 28th and made it 2-2 in the 53rd with a long-range strike that took a big deflection off Vestergaard to beat a wrongfooted McCarthy. His stats look a bit more decent with 4 goals and 1 assist in the Premier League this season, but we’re still far from the consistency of a Sanchez or a Cazorla in their prime.

   Up front, Aubameyang lost his finishing touch. I won’t blame Aubameyang for not scoring in the sixth minute because he was closed down by Yoshida while shooting with his weaker left foot. However, I thought Aubameyang could have done better than a tame toe poke in the 46th and should have hit the target with his sliding volley off a Guendouzi cross in the 81st.

No room for error in the Top 4 race

   Emery decided to play with two strikers after halftime because Aubameyang often looked isolated in the first half. The Gunners had a bit more presence in the final third but it didn’t solve the lack of creativity. Arsenal’s second equalizer in the 53rd came from some defensive work by Lacazette, who dispossessed Romeu to feed Mkhitaryan. Lacazette created another chance by charging down McCarthy’s clearance in the 68th but Aubameyang couldn’t pick a spot to shoot. As an example of the poor service, Lacazette had 0 shot. I’m sure Aubameyang and Lacazette would have shone in Ferguson’s Manchester United. Unfortunately, Emery doesn’t have any Giggs or Beckham to provide them a decent service.  

   The Gunners next play Spurs in the League Cup on Wednesday before hosting Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday. I believe Emery should rotate against Spurs because Arsenal’s situation in the Premier League gives them no room for error. The Gunners are 3 points outside the Top 4 and 5 points behind Tottenham. They could drop out of the Top 4 race by the end of December if they get poor results against Burnley, Brighton and Liverpool.