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.
Photo 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.
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.
Rice 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.