Tag Archives: Xhaka

Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: Time for board to find a new manager for next season

Managers know they are in trouble when they make Big Sam look like a genius. That’s what happened on Monday night as Crystal Palace smashed Arsenal 3-0 in the Premier League. In the old days, Wenger could still inject confidence into his squad after a humiliating defeat. The Gunners opened the 2013-14 season with an embarrassing 3-1 loss to Aston Villa but then went on to earn 7 straight victories in all competitions. Two years ago, they bounced back from a 3-1 loss to Monaco by winning the next 9 games in all competitions. Now, Wenger’s powers are clearly waning. There’s something broken in the relationship between the manager and the players. If the board decides to give Wenger a new contract, the situation at the club could worsen next season. Imagine Wenger completely losing the dressing room and Arsenal fighting off relegation like Chelsea a year ago or Leicester this year. Yeah, that would be quite a mess…

Crystal Palace Abised

Xhaka caught ball-watching as he fails to track Cabaye’s run. (Photo credit: NBC)

The players deserved as much blame as their manager for producing their worst performance of the season at Selhurst Park. Even the 5-1 losses to Bayern Munich didn’t look as pathetic in comparison. Crystal Palace won 63.6% of the tackles compared to 30% for the Gunners, according to the club’s website. The Eagles also made 19 interceptions compared to 10 for Arsenal. The lack of desire was so blatant that some supporters couldn’t help singing “You’re not fit to wear the shirt.”

The 3-0 win over West Ham last week gave the illusion that the Gunners had rediscovered their self-confidence. Wenger therefore named an unchanged side for the Palace game. Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession but created only 9 chances compared to 14 for the Eagles, according to Squawka. Palace also had 6 of 17 shots on target compared to 3 of 11 for the misfiring Gunners.

A dysfunctional team

Allardyce’s game plan was pretty simple: press high up the pitch when Arsenal tried to play the ball out from the back, then play with 10 men behind the ball when the Gunners reached the halfway line. The Gunners proved toothless throughout the game as if Wenger had no tactical answer to break down the Palace defense. Hennessey made 3 routine saves in the first half, turning Elneny’s longe-range effort around the post in the ninth minute, stopping Sanchez’s low strike in the 21st and catching Paulista’s tame header on the stroke of halftime. The Palace goalie was not even tested in the second half as Arsenal shamelessly capitulated.

The defensive performance showed how dysfunctional the Gunners were as a team. There’s no surprise when you’re facing an Allardyce team. It’s all about directness, duels and commitment. Yet, Arsenal seemed to have no clue. The way they conceded the opener from a goal kick in the 17th was a joke. Benteke bullied Paulista to win a header, then Townsend beat Elneny to the second ball and swapped passes with Cabaye, who was not tracked by Xhaka. Cabaye released Zaha down our left flank and the Palace winger squared the ball back to Townsend, who got ahead of Mustafi to sweep the ball home.

The Gunners lost all their duels on that play. That’s not good enough for a team pretending to chase a Champions League spot. The first mistake came from Paulista, who was drawn out of position by challenging Benteke in the air. If you’re a manager and want to play it safe tactically, then you ask Xhaka to mark Benteke when he drops back on goal kicks. Arsenal made a similar mistake against Manchester City 10 days ago: Sane opened the scoring because Mustafi was pulled out of position by Aguero on a goal kick. You kind of wonder what kind of defensive drills do they practice on the training ground. The second mistake came from Xhaka, who made no effort to track Cabaye. See the screen capture at the top of this post. Xhaka’s passivity left Monreal in 1v2 situation, giving the Spaniard no chance to stop Zaha’s cross.

What’s on Bellerin’s mind?

Mustafi performed poorly. He won just 4 of 9 aerial duels and none of the 6 tackles he made, according to Squawka. Paulista struggled in the air too and lost the only tackle he made. Obviously, the Arsenal defense is weakened by Koscielny’s absence. The France centerback is turning 32 this year and if he loses a step next season, no fan can seriously think that Mustafi or Paulista would be able to marshall the defense.

The fullbacks were quite busy on Monday as Palace relied on wing play to crack the Arsenal defense. Bellerin and Monreal combined to win 6 of 16 tackles and 3 of 4 aerial duels. Monreal had a decent game although the first two goals came from his flank. On the other hand, Bellerin is really having a poor run of form. He was dispossessed 4 times, the most for any Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Two of Bellerin’s turnovers led to dangerous counterattacks in the opening minute and the 41st. He also misjudged the flight of a long ball in the third minute, allowing Sakho to feed Cabaye for an off-target effort.

On paper, Bellerin is one of the most gifted fullbacks in the league. But his performance on Monday was full of technical errors. He underhit a backpass that was nearly intercepted by Benteke in the 36th, gave away a free kick because of a poor touch in the 39th, fluffed a volley wide in the 58th, and sent a pass intended for Walcott straight into touch in the 65th. There can only be two possible explanations. Either the team’s poor results are affecting his confidence, or his mind is distracted by the idea of a move.

Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness    

Martinez made a couple of fine saves to keep Arsenal in the game, parrying an angled strike from Benteke in the 41st, palming away a low effort from Townsend in the 50th and stopping Puncheon’s header in the 54th. But he showed his inexperience in the 67th by fouling Townsend to give away a cheap penalty. Milivojevic converted the spot kick to make it 3-0. That was poor decision-making from Martinez, who didn’t need to charge out, first because Townsend still had to beat Bellerin, and second because Townsend was running away from goal.

Xhaka and Elneny performed well against West Ham but their limits were exposed by Palace. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka had decent stats with 4 key passes, tied with Zaha and Townsend for the most by any player. He also won 2 of 3 tackles and 4 of 4 aerial duels. However, Xhaka is less effective than Cazorla against compact teams because he can’t dribble like the Spaniard. And his lack of defensive awareness is a problem. He didn’t spot Cabaye’s run on the opening goal and didn’t care at all on the second goal.

Sometimes I wonder what the scouts saw in Elneny when they recommended him. Elneny is not a decisive player. Offensively, he made no key pass. And defensively, he won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 2 air duels. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger replaced Elneny with Ramsey in the 59th. The move backfired as Ramsey failed to spot Cabaye’s run for the second goal in the 63rd. It all started from a throw-in. Surrounded by Monreal and Ramsey, Benteke still won the header and found Townsend, who released Zaha down our left flank. Zaha cut the ball back to Cabaye, who beat Martinez with a looping effort into the far corner. Ramsey’s lack of effort on that play was shocking. See the screen capture below.

Crystal Palace Bbised

Ramsey caught ball-watching as Cabaye runs in front of him. (Photo credit: NBC)

Maybe the failure of the Ozil project is what will define Wenger’s last seasons at the club. Ozil notched 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 Premier League games last season for an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. That was definitely his best season at the club. However, his work-rate was an issue. Ozil didn’t work in midfield as hard as Silva at City or Lallana at Liverpool. So the manager thought about playing Ozil in a slightly more advanced position, almost like a second striker (Ozil had 42 through balls in the Premier League last season compared to 15 this term).

What a waste, Mesut

We were told Ozil scored a lot of goals on the training ground. Unfortunately, he rarely showed any killer instinct in competitive games this season. As a result, his number of assists significantly dipped while his number of goals didn’t really soar. With 6 goals and 6 assists from 25 Premier League appearances so far, Ozil is averaging 0.48 goal or assist per game.

At 28, Ozil should be at the top of his game. But the sad reality is that Alli at Tottenham is having the kind of impact that Wenger expected from Ozil. With 16 goals and 5 assists from 30 Premier League appearances, Alli is averaging 0.7 goal or assist per game. At 21, Alli is already a better player than Ozil in his prime. Of Alli’s 16 goals, 4 were headers, 8 were scored with the right foot, 4 with the left foot and only 1 was a penalty.

Ozil enjoys more being a playmaker than a finisher. Wenger has implicitly acknowledged his failure to turn Ozil into a nine and half like Bergkamp or Baggio by moving him back into his former position. At Selhurst Park, Ozil played like someone who didn’t seem to care about his future at the club. He had no goal attempt, won no tackle, and made no key pass, interception or block. His technique also let him down a couple of times. Ozil couldn’t beat the first defender with a corner in the 15th and sent a pass straight into touch in the 62nd. His performances this season have confirmed that he’s not a leader on the pitch and can’t carry the team in times of trouble.

Only the FA Cup to play for

Sanchez tried a bit harder than Ozil with 4 shots, 1 key pass and 2 interceptions, but it’s difficult to see him stay at the club. The Chile striker is an ambitious and demanding player, who knows that he won’t win the Premier League with Arsenal. The club could face in a couple of months its most unstable summer since 2011. Even if the British core (Gibbs, Holding, Ramsey, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Welbeck) remains at the club, a lot of them have either regressed or stagnated this season. Walcott couldn’t find any space behind the Palace defense for his trademark runs while Welbeck got no decent service up front. Welbeck chased a long ball from Xhaka in the 44th only to fire an angled volley wide.

The end of the season could turn ugly for Arsenal. They have no realistic hope of finishing in the Top 4. If the target is 75 points, that would imply 7 wins from the final 8 games in the Premier League, which is very unlikely since the Gunners have won just 1 of their last 5 games. Basically, they only have the FA Cup to play for. Will the squad throw away the next league games to focus on the Cup?

 

Arsenal vs. West Ham: Gunners restore confidence with 3-0 win

The Gunners thrashed West Ham 3-0 on Wednesday for their first victory in the Premier League since Feb. 11. They still have a lot of ground to make up if they want to get back in the race for a Top 4 finish, but at least the results are going Arsenal’s way as Manchester City lost at Chelsea while Liverpool split the points with Bournemouth.

Arsenal vs. West Ham edited

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

I was a bit anxious at kickoff. Injuries forced Wenger to make 3 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Manchester City on Sunday with Martinez, Paulista and Elneny replacing Ospina, Koscielny and Coquelin in the starting lineup. In a dull first half, the Gunners managed to test Randolph only once. Then they capitalized on a spell of domination in the second half to take the lead. You could feel that their confidence was back after they added a second goal: their passing game suddenly became crisp just like when they had a 19-game unbeaten run in the first half of the season.

The scoreline clearly reflected Arsenal’s dominance as West Ham created only 2 chances compared to 17 for the Gunners, according to Squawka. However, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too quickly. The Hammers don’t have the technical ability and movement of Manchester City and were low on confidence after losing their 4 previous league games.

Ozil made the difference by scoring the opening goal and setting up the second. He beat Randolph with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 58th minute. Ozil then played a one-two with Sanchez to square the ball back for Walcott, who got ahead of Byram to stab it home in the 68th. Somehow, Ozil could have notched one more goal and one more assist. Instead of attempting a first-time effort in the 49th, Ozil controlled a reverse pass from Sanchez and was dispossessed by a sliding tackle from Collins. He also played another one-two with Sanchez in the 66th to make a cross for Elneny, whose bouncing header went straight into Randolph’s gloves.

Ozil ends scoring drought

The Germany playmaker finished the game with 5 key passes, 3 successful dribbles out of 3 and 8 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Shifting Sanchez back to the left wing has helped restore Ozil’s influence on the game. When Sanchez plays as a false nine, he’s stepping on Ozil’s toes in midfield. Sometimes, they can create moments of magic like the goal scored against Chelsea in September. But too often Ozil has very little opportunity to deliver the final ball because he’s making runs in the final third. That’s why his number of assists has dropped this season.

I believe Ozil performs better in the role of a free-roaming midfielder than as a second striker when Sanchez leads the line. Ozil may score a lot of goals in training but he simply doesn’t have the killer instinct to repeat that feat in competitive games. His goal against West Ham was his first one in the Premier League since the 3-1 win over Stoke on Dec. 10. The Gunners were second in the standings after that Stoke game, three points behind Chelsea. In the end, Wenger’s tactical gamble on Ozil as a second striker backfired since Arsenal’s free fall also coincided with Ozil’s scoring drought.

Ozil slightly improved his work-rate by making 2 interceptions, 3 blocks and winning none of the 4 tackles he made against West Ham. But there are still issues about his attitude. In the first half, Ozil was reluctant to press high up the pitch, forcing Xhaka to do the job in his zone. In the second half, it was Elneny’s turn to perform Ozil’s pressing duties. The Gunners can survive that kind of behavior against the weak teams but they get in trouble against the stronger sides. Remember how Chelsea and Bayern Munich outplayed Arsenal in midfield. You also have to wonder to what extent it affects the chemistry in the dressing room. Players like Silva and Hazard would be criticized in their respective clubs for such a lack of effort.

Welbeck’s poor finishing

Sanchez had an off day with none of his 3 shots on target. He still managed to create 3 chances, finding Bellerin with a ball over the top in the 70th but the Spaniard missed the target from 7 yards. I’m guessing Sanchez must still feel the exhaustion from his trip to South America for the World Cup qualifiers with the Chile team. You can’t blame a player who has carried the club on his shoulders for most of the season, racking up 18 goals and 9 assists in the Premier League.

On the other hand, Walcott had a good game with 1 goal and 1 key pass. He also won 2 of 2 tackles and had 4 successful dribbles out of 5, but made no interception and no block. Walcott has 10 goals and 2 assists in 23 Premier League appearances this season. It’s only the second time in his career that he’s reaching the 10-goal mark. He still has enough games to do better than the 14 league goals scored during the 2012-13 season. My views on Walcott haven’t changed. He’s a great option against teams leaving space at the back, but his limited passing skills are exposed against teams with a tight defense.

Recently, Wenger has preferred Welbeck to Sanchez and Giroud in the lone striker role. Welbeck is stronger in the air than Sanchez and has more pace than Giroud. His main problem is the lack of end product. With some clinical finishing, he could have scored a hat trick. Welbeck met a clipped free kick from Sanchez in the 24th only to fluff his volley. He then connected with a corner from Ozil in the 42nd for a header straight at Randolph. His worst miss came in the 61st when Walcott played him clean through on goal. Welbeck had just Randolph to beat from 10 yards but was denied by the West Ham keeper.

Giroud the supersub

The manager sent on Giroud for Welbeck in the 74th and the Frenchman lived up to his supersub status by cutting inside Collins for a curling shot into the far corner in the 83rd. Giroud has 9 goals and 3 assists from 21 Premier League appearances this season, which is a good return for Arsenal’s third-choice centerforward. That last goal started with a fantastic run from Oxlade-Chamberlain, who dribbled past two Hammers to feed Giroud.

The Ox and Ramsey made their return from injury by replacing Walcott and Elneny in the 81st. They could make a difference in a busy run-in knowing that Cazorla will miss the rest of the season. As a deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka was not as efficient as Cazorla in setting a high tempo. But he still did a decent job by creating 3 chances, winning 4 of 10 tackles and leading all players with 120 passes. Xhaka also tested Randolph with a long-range strike in the 79th.

The midfield partnership formed by Xhaka and Elneny performed well on Wednesday. I’m still not convinced by their quality against the stronger teams but they looked complementary against West Ham. Elneny struggled in his defensive duties, winning only 1 of 6 tackles. However, he contributed to the fluency of Arsenal’s passing game with a passing accuracy of 97%.

On paper, Carroll was supposed to be West Ham’s main threat but had no decent service. Lanzini overhit his free kick in the seventh minute for Carroll, who had isolated himself with Bellerin at the far post. The Hammers’ chances came in fact from duels lost by Elneny. Noble dispossessed Elneny in the 13th to drag a diagonal drive wide. Lanzini then got the better of Elneny in the 75th and dribbled past Mustafi to fire a powerful strike that Martinez parried. In the closing minutes, Martinez also saved a low drive from Fernandes.

Mediocre officiating

At the back, Bellerin slightly improved after a poor performance against City. The Spaniard created 2 chances, had 3 successful dribbles out of 3, won 1 of 3 tackles, and made 1 interception and 2 blocks, according to Squawka. He got booked for a cynical foul on Antonio in the 18th. Surprisingly, Paulista proved our most solid defender, winning 1 of 1 tackle and 4 of 6 aerial duels, and leading all players with 5 interceptions.

The Gunners won despite some mediocre officiating from Atkinson. Another referee would have awarded at least 2 penalties. In the 18th, Walcott dribbled past Masuaku, who made a blatant obstruction inside the area. The only penalty shout that looked weak was the collision between Collins and Monreal in the 80th. Both pounced on a loose ball and missed it. I’m OK with that call. On the other hand, I thought Atkinson showed poor judgement by dismissing Monreal’s penalty appeal in stoppage time. Monreal cut inside Byram, who made a late tackle and not only missed the ball but also stamped on Monreal’s foot. Any decent referee would have awarded Arsenal a spot kick and given Byram a second yellow card. Atkinson missed another call when Carroll elbowed Mustafi on the stroke of halftime. The referee should have given Arsenal a free kick and stopped play because it was a head injury.

The Gunners only have fourth place to play for now. Qualifying for the Champions League is crucial to boost the club’s transfer budget and sign top players this summer. Trailing Manchester City and Liverpool by 4 and 6 points respectively, the Gunners have no room for error. That implies victories over Crystal Palace on Monday and over Middlesbrough on April 17.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City: Gunners still in 6th place after 2-2 draw

The Gunners showed character by rallying twice in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City. However, the result makes a Top 4 finish in the Premier League even more unlikely. Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool are projected to finish the season with 90, 81, 76 and 75 points respectively. The Gunners have 51 points from 28 games so far and would therefore need 24 points from the last 10 games to match Liverpool’s projected total. That would mean 8 wins and 2 losses or an unbeaten run with 7 wins and 3 draws. It’s mission impossible given Arsenal’s current form and tough run-in.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City

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

Wenger hasn’t lost the dressing room yet. His players showed enough desire and commitment by winning 51.2% of the duels compared to 48.8% for City, according to the club’s website, and by making 20 interceptions compared to 21 for the visitors, according to Squawka. The Citizens still looked the better team because they created 11 chances compared to 6 for Arsenal. What really hurt the Gunners was their shaky defense and their lack of options in midfield because of injuries to Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Mustafi saved the day with a goal and an assist. He pounced on a poor clearance from the City defense to head the ball into the path of Walcott in the 40th minute. Walcott controlled the ball and got the better of Clichy in a weird dance of legs to beat Caballero from close range. Mustafi then made a run from beyond the penalty spot in the 53rd to nod in Ozil’s corner for the equalizer. He took advantage of City’s zonal marking to gather momentum and outjump a static Otamendi waiting on the 6-yard line. Quite ironically, that goal was similar to the ones scored by Dawson in the 3-1 loss to West Brom.

Is Mustafi the new Vermaelen?

Mustafi had a decent game, but you don’t want him to make up for defensive errors with goals like Vermaelen. I thought he shouldn’t have been drawn out of position for City’s opener in the fifth minute. When Caballero kicked the ball, Mustafi followed Aguero in City’s half to head the ball into the path of De Bruyne, who fed Sane with a first-time pass. Mustafi had no time to recover while Sane outpaced Bellerin to round Ospina and shoot into an empty net. Aguero often drops back to create space for his teammates to run into. It could make sense to track Aguero if he’s 30 yards from the Arsenal goal but not when he’s inside his own half.

Decision-making is one area where Mustafi must improve. He lost possession in the 50th after trying to dribble his way out of trouble. The Germany international got booked in the 61st for a cynical challenge on Sane. Mustafi made 1 interception and won 3 of 6 tackles and 3 of 4 aerial duels, but he also finished the game with a passing accuracy of 66%, which is too low for a centerback. Koscielny had a passing accuracy of 82.6% compared to 88.9% for Stones and 87.2% for Otamendi.

Monreal proved Arsenal’s best defender while Bellerin had a poor game. Bellerin was on the wrong side of Sane for the opener, made no interception and won no tackle or aerial duel. By contrast, Monreal made 6 interceptions, the most for any player, and won 2 of 6 tackles and 4 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka. Monreal took advantage of Navas’ inexperience at fullback to cause havoc by overlapping with Sanchez down the left flank. Navas was very lucky to stay on the pitch after planting his studs into Monreal’s shinpad in the eighth minute.

Ozil’s average season

Down 2-1 at halftime, a lot of fans were worried when they saw Paulista replace an injured Koscielny for the start of the second half. It was Koscielny’s replacement that led to the 5-1 disaster in the first leg of the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich. Somehow, Paulista did a decent job.

In midfield, City outperformed Arsenal again. Fernandinho, De Bruyne and Silva combined to make 7 interceptions and win 8 of 25 tackles while Coquelin, Xhaka and Ozil combined to make 4 interceptions and win 7 of 16 tackles. Ozil had decent attacking stats with 2 successful dribbles out of 2 and 3 key passes (tied with Navas and Silva for the most by any player), but his work-rate was poor. He made 1 interception and 2 tackles. De Bruyne and Silva are creative players too but they contributed more defensively. Silva made 2 interceptions and 9 tackles while De Bruyne made 1 interception and 7 tackles.

Ozil was guilty on City’s second goal in the 42nd as he gave the ball away to Silva, who found De Bruyne on the edge of the Arsenal box. The Belgium international attempted a one-two with Sterling but Koscielny knocked the return pass away with a sliding tackle. The loose ball fell to Silva, who fed Aguero and the Argentina striker made it 2-1 with an angled effort into the bottom corner.

Wenger’s decision to turn Ozil into a second striker or nine and a half has backfired. Ozil is not clinical enough in front of the net. He took a pass from Sanchez in the 21st and rolled away from Stones only to muster a tame shot that did not trouble Caballero. Ozil notched 19 assists and 6 goals in 35 Premier League appearances last season, that is, an average of 0.71 goal or assist per game. His number are down this season with just 5 assists and 5 goals from 23 Premier League appearances, that is, an average of 0.43 goal or assist per game.

Xhaka & Coquelin caught ball-watching

Xhaka and Coquelin didn’t cover themselves in glory either. Both were caught ball-watching on City’s second goal. Coquelin failed to mark De Bruyne when he played a one-two with Sterling while Xhaka made no real effort to track back when Ozil lost possession. Monreal ended up dealing with both Aguero and Silva because of Xhaka’s passivity.

Petit, Vieira and Gilberto were enforcers who could boss the midfield. I don’t think Xhaka and Coquelin are anywhere near their level. Xhaka gifted the Citizens their first chance by slipping in the fourth minute. Fernandinho played Sterling clean through on goal, but Ospina quickly rushed outside his area to clear the danger. The ball bounced off Sterling and out of bounds. Then Xhaka was late for a block when Silva teed up De Bruyne for a long-range strike that hit the post in the 10th. The Switzerland international received a yellow card in the 32nd for a poorly timed challenge on Otamendi. Coquelin also got booked for a late tackle on Silva in the 14th and escaped a second yellow card in the 81st for a cynical foul on De Bruyne.

Back from a trip to South America for World Cup qualifiers, Sanchez produced an energetic display with 2 key passes, 5 interceptions and 7 successful dribbles out of 11. He also won 2 of 6 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels and had 11 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Turnovers are OK when you’re in the final third. But they should be avoided when you’re on the edge of your own area because you can put your team in danger. Navas intercepted a Sanchez backheel flick in the 66th to make a cross for Aguero, whose header lacked power to beat Ospina. The Colombia goalkeeper made two fine saves to keep Arsenal in the game, palming away a low strike from Silva in the 10th and parrying a long-range effort from Fernandinho in the 58th.

The next 3 games

Up front, Welbeck got no decent service. He had a passing accuracy of 100%, won 2 of 2 tackles and lost the 4 aerial duels in which he was involved. His only chance came from a missed clearance from Otamendi in the fourth minute. Welbeck pounced on the loose ball for a sliding effort that sailed wide.

On the right wing, Walcott scored a goal but did very little compared to Sanchez. With a bit of luck, Walcott could have added a second goal on the stroke of halftime. He controlled a cross from Sanchez for an acrobatic effort that went over the bar.

Arsenal would need a miracle to finish in the Top 4. They could make up ground by winning their next three Premier League games against West Ham, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough while hoping that Liverpool and the two Manchesters drop points. Then they would need outstanding performances in the run-in against Leicester, Tottenham, Manchester United, Stoke, Everton, Southampton and Sunderland. In any case, the Gunners will have to tighten up at the back because they looked incredibly open against City.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Should Arsenal use an inverted pyramid?

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

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

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

  1. Walcott was on fire

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

  1. The additional assistant referee screwed up

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

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

  1. Giroud can be incredibly wasteful

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

  1. Has the bust-up controversy affected Sanchez?

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

  1. The Gunners lack defensive awareness

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

  1. Mustafi looks bad without Koscielny

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

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

  1. Why did Xhaka play as a defender?

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

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

  1. Ospina needs to work on his distribution

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

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

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

liverpool-vs-arsenal

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

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

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

Men vs. boys

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

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

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

Struggling to defend set-pieces

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

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

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

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

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

A soft midfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for a complementary duo

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

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

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

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

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

Vulnerable to the fast break

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

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

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

Injecting competition within the squad

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

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

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

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

arsenal-vs-burnley

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

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

Bournemouth’s playbook

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

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

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

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

Poor service for Giroud

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

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

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

A costly lapse of concentration

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

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

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

Bellerin & Coquelin return

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

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

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

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

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

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

swansea-vs-arsenal

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

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

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

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

The bigger picture

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

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

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

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

A work in progress

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

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

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

Ball-watching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking beyond Cazorla

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

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

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

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