Tag Archives: Xhaka

Arsenal vs. Manchester United: Gunners ride their luck in 2-0 win

   The Gunners showed a lot of steel and resilience in their 2-0 win over Manchester United to move into fourth place in the Premier League on Sunday. While Manchester City and Liverpool are contending for the title, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United are fighting for the two remaining Champions League spots. The Gunners are 1 point behind Spurs, but 2 points clear of the Red Devils and 3 points ahead of the Blues, who have a game in hand.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United.JPGPhoto credit: Premier League

   With 60 points from 30 games, the Gunners have 12 more points than last season. There are two main reasons for that difference. Under Wenger, Arsenal had mediocre results against the Top 6 clubs and suffered from a poor away form. The Gunners have won 12 points against the Big Six under Emery (4 points vs. Spurs, 4 points vs. Manchester United, 3 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City), whereas they only earned 6 points last season (3 points vs. Spurs, 0 point vs. Manchester United, 2 points vs. Chelsea, 1 point vs. Liverpool, 0 point vs. City).

   The Gunners are on course to finish the season with 76 points. I believe Arsenal must reach that target to have a good shot at a Top 4 finish. Liverpool secured fourth place with 76 points in 2017 and 75 points in 2018. You may point out that Manchester City finished fourth with only 66 points under Pellegrini in 2016, but that was a different era. The arrivals of Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have made the Premier League much more competitive.

Emery trusting Ramsey in central midfield

   If you take a look at the graph below, you can see that Arsenal lost some momentum in December after dropping points against Southampton, Brighton and Liverpool. By collecting 13 points from their last 5 league games, the Gunners have managed to increase their cruising speed to 2.0 points per game, which is the required average to finish with 76 points.

Arsenal tally comparison 2019Comparing Arsenal’s 2017-18 season and the current season


   Arsenal won’t face any Top 6 club in their run-in but their schedule is no gimme. They have home games against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Brighton and away games against Wolverhampton, Everton, Watford, Leicester and Burnley. If we assume that the Gunners will win their home games and draw their away games, they would still be 2 points short of the 76-point target. It means that one away win would be necessary to reach 76 points.

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that was defeated in Rennes with Lacazette, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac and Leno replacing Iwobi, Torreira, Mkhitaryan, Mustafi and Cech in the starting lineup. Torreira was serving a three-match ban while Mkhitaryan was sidelined by a back injury. Most fans were not surprised that Emery left Mustafi and Guendouzi on the bench. Mustafi gave away a silly penalty against Spurs while Guendouzi showed a blatant lack of effort against Rennes.

   The only real surprise was to see both Ozil and Ramsey playing in a fluid 3-4-3 formation. It was the first time since the 2-0 win over Watford in September that Ramsey and Ozil started together. Ozil reads the game better than Iwobi, so I guess the plan was to have the German playmaker deliver the final ball to Aubameyang and Lacazette. To a certain extent, the starting lineup had a Wengerian feel with Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield. Emery prefers to deploy Ramsey as a false 10 or as a second striker. But on Sunday the Spanish manager played Ramsey in central midfield for the first time this season.

United’s tactical ploy

   Xhaka opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a swerving shot from 29 yards. Then Aubameyang converted a soft penalty in the 69th after Fred shoved Lacazette from behind. The Gunners really rode their luck because the Red Devils created 5 big chances compared to none for Arsenal if we except the penalty. Emery got a lot of credit from TV pundits after the game but I thought the Arsenal defense looked shaky at times.

   Two of those 5 big chances came from crosses. Shaw played a one-two with Pogba in the ninth minute before making a cross for Lukaku, who hit the bar from close range with a bouncing volley. Maitland-Niles failed to stay with Shaw on that play while Monreal lost his duel with Lukaku at the far post. In stoppage time, Young made a cross for Rashford, who had a free header from 9 yards but sent the ball straight into Leno’s arms. Iwobi failed to close down Young on that play while Maitland-Niles left Rashford unmarked. That vulnerability on crosses is a legacy of the Wenger era that Emery hasn’t fixed yet.

   The Gunners also failed to adjust to the tactical ploy used for the other 3 big chances. Lukaku and Rashford often dropped off to find space between the defense and the midfield. Lukaku hit a ball over the top for Rashford, who shot wide in the 28th. Monreal should have been tight to Lukaku on that play, while Koscielny missed his clearance by attempting a stupid high kick instead of heading the ball away. Lukaku and Rashford swapped roles in the 36th. Rashford slipped a through ball to Lukaku, who was denied by Leno. Sokratis gave Rashford too much time on the ball while Lukaku took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line to make a run between Koscielny and Monreal.

   You would expect the wide centerbacks (Sokratis and Monreal) to understand at halftime the need for pressing Lukaku and Rashford when they drop off. But the same situation happened again in the 51st. Sokratis failed to close down Rashford, who played Lukaku clean through on goal. Leno somehow managed to divert Lukaku’s 9-yard shot over the bar. Monreal made the mistake of trying to play Lukaku offside instead of tracking him.

A streetwise Leno

   Leno was the main reason why Arsenal kept a clean sheet. The German goalkeeper definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. Besides his 4 saves, Leno also sprinted outside the box to intercept a ball over the top for Lukaku in the 47th and quickly came off his line to catch Pogba’s through ball for Rashford in the 65th.

   There were some question marks when Leno joined the club. Why was he not part of Germany’s World Cup squad, knowing that a flawed goalkeeper like Trapp still managed to make the cut? The doubts grew louder when Leno made a couple of errors leading to a goal in the first half of the season. But Leno worked hard to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League. He is now more streetwise in aerial duels.  

   Emery relied on an experienced back three to cope with the threat of Lukaku and Rashford. But Koscielny, Monreal and Sokratis nearly made a mess of it. Despite the fresh memory of his red card against Rennes in the Europa League, Sokratis dived in again and got booked in the 37th for a mistimed challenge on Pogba. Some fans had the jitters when Monreal made a sliding challenge on Lukaku in the 36th. Monreal didn’t win the ball but at least he didn’t bring Lukaku down inside the area either.

   Playing as a sweeper, Koscielny blocked Fred’s shot with his ribs in the 51st. Koscielny was the captain of the team but he didn’t have the leadership skills to sort out the tactical problem created by Lukaku and Rashford when they dropped off to deliver the final ball. Because Arsenal played a relatively high defensive line, it was crucial that Sokratis and Monreal press the United strikers. The Gunners definitely need an organizer at the back who can spot and correct tactical issues without waiting for the manager’s instructions.

Maitland-Niles’ inexperience and desire

   In the wingback position, Emery gave Maitland-Niles the nod over Mustafi. Maitland-Niles’ performance was a mixed bag. I thought he was too easily beaten down the right flank in the first half. But Maitland-Niles grew into the game and made some decisive contributions, intercepting Lukaku’s ball over the top in the 17th, breaking up play with a sliding tackle in the 63rd, winning a foot race with Rashford to win the ball back in the 89th, and dispossessing Martial inside the area in the 90th.

   Maitland-Niles still showed his inexperience on the 2 crosses that led to big chances for the Red Devils. Despite those blemishes, Emery might be tempted to trust Maitland-Niles in that position for the rest of the season, especially if he shows the same desire. Maitland-Niles won 2 of 4 tackles and made 1 key pass, 1 block and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 interceptions, according to the club’s website.

   On the opposite flank, Kolasinac was able to attack in the opening minutes, making a teasing cross for Lacazette, who couldn’t make contact with the ball at the near post. But Solskjaer’s tactical tweak in the first half, shifting from a flat 4-4-2 formation to a 3-5-2 system, put Arsenal on the back foot and forced Kolasinac to defend. Kolasinac finished the game with 11 recoveries. Only Fred had more with 12.

   The Gunners bossed the midfield in the opening minutes with Xhaka, Ramsey and Ozil outmuscling Matic and Fred. This led to Solskjaer’s tactical tweak, moving Pogba from a wide position to the No. 10 role to match Arsenal in midfield. Xhaka made 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries and led all players with 64 passes, while Ramsey was the more mobile of the 2 central midfielders and showed outstanding work-rate, making 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries and leading all players by winning 3 of 7 tackles, according to the club’s website. The Wales midfielder had even better stats on whoscored.com, winning 7 of 8 tackles. I tend to prefer stats from the Arsenal website, which are more conservative and safer to use.

Limiting Pogba’s influence  

   Wenger always relied on Xhaka and Ramsey in central midfield last season. I was wondering why Emery was reluctant to use Ramsey alongside Xhaka and preferred to play him in a more advanced position. That must have been because of Ramsey’s end product in the final third because on Sunday Ramsey showed that he could defend, too. The duo needed to step up because Ozil’s work-rate was poor with just 1 interception and 3 recoveries. Xhaka made a crucial sliding clearance on the stroke of halftime to protect Arsenal’s lead while Ramsey was so focused on his defensive duties that he only had 1 scoring chance. Maitland-Niles cut the ball back for Ramsey, who blazed over the bar in the 22nd.

   The duo did a good job to limit Pogba’s influence. Apparently frustrated, Pogba caught Ramsey’s neck with a high arm in the 54th before getting booked in the 76th for fouling Xhaka. The only time Pogba managed to really pull the strings was in the 65th when Fred dispossessed Ramsey to find Pogba. Free of his minders, Pogba slipped a through ball to Rashford, who lost his duel with Leno. Because Xhaka lacks mobility and Ramsey is not a natural defensive midfielder, the Gunners allowed some dangerous long-range strikes. Fred hit the post with a 25-yard drive in the 19th while Pogba fired a 30-yard effort straight at Leno in the 26th. Maybe the more mobile Torreira would have been able to block those shots.  

   It wasn’t a game for attacking players. Ozil led all players with 4 key passes but couldn’t create any clear-cut chance. His technical quality still helped Arsenal retain ball possession. Ozil led all starters with a passing accuracy of 91.2%, according to whoscored.com. He also made smart runs to be an easy passing option for his teammates and was unlucky to be flagged offside twice despite being level with the last defender.

Aubameyang’s risky technique for penalties

   Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to have only 1 of 9 shots on target because most of those shots were taken from unfavorable positions. Lacazette had the best half-chance in the 24th, bullying Lindelof to fire a strike from 18 yards that deflected off Smalling for a corner. The French forward lacked a bit of composure in the 71st when Lindelof misjudged the bounce of the ball following a header from Sokratis. Lacazette pounced on the loose ball only to drag his shot wide from 15 yards.

   To his credit, Lacazette won the penalty for the second goal with a penetrative run in the 68th. Lacazette outpaced Fred, who shoved him from behind. Aubameyang was gutsy enough to take the spot kick just a week after missing one against Spurs. The Gabon striker waited for De Gea to dive before rolling the ball into the middle of the net. I’m not a fan of that kind of technique and definitely prefer when the penalty taker hits the corners of the net.  

   Emery’s narrow formation gave Shaw and Young a lot of freedom when Solskjaer shifted to a 4-3-3 system in the 70th with Martial replacing Dalot and then to a 4-4-2 system in the 81st with Greenwood replacing Matic. So the Spanish manager decided to shut up shop by shifting to a 5-4-1 formation with Iwobi replacing Ozil in the 76th and Suarez taking Aubameyang’s spot in the 80th. Iwobi didn’t really help with 5 turnovers in his short cameo. Only Lacazette had more with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Likewise, Suarez was too easily brushed off the ball at times. The Spaniard was dribbled past twice, tied with Xhaka and Maitland-Niles for the most by any Gunner. Suarez has two months and a half to prove his worth, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to sign him.  

   The Gunners next face Rennes in the second leg of their Europa League encounter. They need a victory by at least 2 goals on Thursday to qualify for the quarterfinals. Emery should field his best team since it will be the last game before the international break. He will miss Lacazette and Sokratis through suspension, but the squad is strong enough to cope without those two players.



Rennes vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 3-1 loss

   The Gunners are on the verge of elimination in the Europa League after losing 3-1 to Rennes on Thursday in the first leg of their last-16 encounter. They will miss Sokratis and Lacazette for the second leg next week. The Greek defender picked up two yellow cards while Lacazette is still serving a three-game ban.

FBL-EUR-C3-RENNES-ARSENALPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   Arsenal opened the scoring with a cross-shot from Iwobi in the fourth minute. They had a couple of chances to lead 2-0 before Sokratis’ ejection in the 41st. Iwobi found Torreira, whose 12-yard effort was parried by Koubek in the 12th. Then Torreira teed up Mustafi, who rifled wide from a good position in the 30th. Under siege in the second half, the Gunners could have snatched a 2-2 draw against the run of play in the 68th but Ozil shot straight at the goalkeeper from 10 yards.

  1. Arsenal should focus on recruiting in France

Wenger led Arsenal to 3 Premier League titles by signing some of the best French players (Henry, Vieira, Pires, Petit, Anelka, Wiltord). Nowadays, the Gunners are no longer contenders because their scouting department is doing a poor job in the French league. It’s no coincidence if the club has missed out on the top prospects in the past few years, whether it’s French players (Mbappe, Pogba, Martial, Kante, Dembele, Varane, Umtiti, Lemar, Mendy, Ndombele) or non-French players (Hazard, Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, Pjanic, Azpilicueta).

   Rennes used 13 players last night. Nine of them (Zeffane, Da Silva, Bourigeaud, Grenier, Andre, Hunou, Ben Arfa, Lea-Siliki, Gelin) grew up in French football academies. The other four players (Bensebaini, Sarr, Mexer, Koubek) learned their trade in Algeria, Senegal, Mozambique and the Czech Republic. France arguably has the best football academies in the world because they provide a smart mix of technique and physicality.

   The Arsenal board has big calls to make in the scouting department. Mislintat, Arsenal’s head of recruitment, left last month, while Grimandi, Arsenal’s chief scout in France, joined French club Nice as technical director this week. Overmars and Monchi are among the favorites for the position of sporting director at the club. Could they improve Arsenal’s recruitment on a limited budget?

  1. Emery’s tactical choices were puzzling

   When the referee sent Sokratis off in the 41st, the logical move would have been to replace Ozil with Maitland-Niles and switch to a 4-4-1 formation. But Emery made a bolder decision by shifting Mkhitaryan to the rightback position in an improvised 4-2-3 system. That gamble worked to a certain extent since Mkhitaryan won 4 of 6 tackles and made 1 interception, according to whoscored.com.

   Noticing that the Gunners were struggling in midfield and on the left flank, Emery sent on Guendouzi for Iwobi in the 53rd, switching to a 4-3-2 formation with Aubameyang and Ozil playing in the front two. Rennes’ second goal led to a like-for-like substitution with Ramsey replacing Ozil in the 70th. That substitution came too late as Ozil’s poor work-rate definitely helped Rennes dominate the game.

   Emery’s final substitution was probably the weirdest one. The Spanish manager yanked Aubameyang off to send on Kolasinac. On paper, it could have been a 4-4-1 system with Kolasinac on the left wing. But on the pitch, Kolasinac played like a free roaming midfielder alongside Ramsey in a 4-3-2 formation. Nketiah would have been a better choice if Emery wanted a player to combine with Ramsey up front.  

  1. Sokratis is not a dominant centerback

   The Greek defender is an upgrade on Mustafi but he’s not a world-class centerback like Koscielny in his prime. I was surprised by the praise Sokratis received after the North London derby. Many fans seemed to forget about his mistakes in the first half of the season. On Thursday, Sokratis panicked against a team sitting in 10th place in the French league. Sokratis gave away a free kick in the 27th with a challenge from behind on Hunou. He was then booked in the 33rd for blocking Ben Arfa’s run. Sokratis received a second yellow card in the 41st for killing a Rennes counterattack by tripping Sarr. It was a silly foul because Koscielny was covering Sokratis and because Rennes capitalized on the free kick to equalize. The Gunners will need to make fewer fouls in the second leg because Grenier, Ben Arfa and Bourigeaud are free-kick specialists.  

  1. Monreal has lost a step

   It’s not the first time this season that Monreal makes an opponent look like Usain Bolt. Monreal simply couldn’t cope with Sarr’s pace. He performed well against Tottenham, but at 33 you kind of wonder if Monreal can still play two games a week at 100 percent. Monreal was dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy also dipped to 65.6%, the lowest percentage for any outfield starter. Monreal was unlucky to turn Zeffane’s cross into his own net in the 65th, but he was guilty of switching off defensively on that play, hoping for an offside call against Hunou instead of chasing the ball down the left flank. The Spaniard struggled defensively but his work-rate was not an issue: he led all players by winning 7 of 10 tackles and making 5 interceptions, according to whoscored.com.    

  1. Mustafi’s desire was questionable

   Does Mustafi enjoy playing at rightback? After fouling Ben Arfa in the 12th, Mustafi stayed on the ground, complaining about his leg. The German defender collapsed to the ground again in the 21st as if he had not recovered from that knock. That’s how a player would behave to get substituted. But when Mustafi moved back to the centerback position in the 41st, he stopped hobbling around. Mustafi’s work-rate was poor: he won 1 tackle and made 0 interception, compared to 1 tackle won and 2 interceptions for Koscielny and 4 tackles won and 1 interception for Mkhitaryan. He also lived up to his reputation as an error-prone player by giving the ball away in the 69th, forcing Cech to turn Ben Arfa’s shot around the post.  

  1. The midfield was shambolic

   Down to 10 men, the Gunners could not rely on their midfielders to shield the defense. Xhaka’s lack of mobility was badly exposed in the holding midfielder role. The Switzerland international won 0 tackle and made 0 interception, compared to 1 tackle won and 3 interceptions for Torreira. Sokratis earned his first booking in the 33rd because he tried to make up for Xhaka’s turnover. Xhaka couldn’t cope with Ben Arfa’s movement and received a yellow card in the 61st for pulling back the Rennes playmaker. Ben Arfa led all players with 3 key passes and 7 successful dribbles out of 12, according to whoscored.com.  

   Emery tried to beef up the midfield by replacing Iwobi with Guendouzi in the 53rd, but the French teenager was too casual with 3 turnovers in 40 minutes compared to 0 turnover for Torreira and 2 for Xhaka. Guendouzi also showed a lack of defensive awareness in the 88th. After Monreal’s pass was intercepted on the edge of the Rennes box, Guendouzi let Sarr run past him instead of covering Monreal in the leftback position. An unmarked Sarr headed home Lea-Siliki’s cross for a 3-1 lead.      

  1. Iwobi lacks spontaneity

   To his credit, Iwobi scored the away goal that gives Arsenal a bit of hope for the second leg. But he wasted a couple of good situations because of a lack of spontaneity. When Ozil released Iwobi on the left flank in the 23rd, the Nigeria international could have made a quick cross. But he preferred to take his time, shifting the ball to his right foot for a telegraphed cross that Koubek punched away. When Monreal cut the ball back in the 25th, Iwobi could have taken a first-time shot, but he tried to control the ball and lost possession with a poor first touch. And when the Gunners launched a counterattack in the 48th, Iwobi failed to release the ball quickly enough. He dallied on the ball and his pass for Torreira was intercepted.

Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Gunners let down by strikers in 1-1 draw

  The Gunners drew 1-1 with Tottenham on Saturday to slip to fifth place in the Premier League, 4 points behind their North London rivals and 1 behind Manchester United. There was a lot of talk about some officiating decisions, but those poor calls will still be made as long as the Premier League doesn’t have the VAR system. The harsh reality is that Arsenal could have won the game if Lacazette and Aubameyang had converted some big chances. On the bright side, the Gunners won more points in North London derbies than Pochettino’s Spurs for the very first time. Under Emery, Arsenal earned 4 points out of 6 this season. Under Wenger, the Gunners only collected 1 point in the 2014-15 season, 2 points in 2015-16, 1 point in 2016-17 and 3 points last season.

Spurs vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 5 changes to the side that smashed Bournemouth on Wednesday with Lacazette, Ramsey, Iwobi, Xhaka and Mustafi replacing Aubameyang, Ozil, Kolasinac, Torreira and Jenkinson in the starting lineup. I thought the Spanish manager got his team selection and his game plan right. The bastardized 4-4-2 formation was a bit of a surprise because Emery relied on a back three in the previous away games.

   Up front, Lacazette got the nod over Aubameyang because of his better all-around game. In midfield, Ramsey played as a second striker when Arsenal had the ball. When the Gunners lost possession, Ramsey helped Xhaka and Guendouzi to match the work-rate of Sissoko, Wanyama and Eriksen. On the flanks, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan provided width while tracking the runs of Trippier and Rose. At the back, Monreal and Mustafi kept an eye on Son and Kane whenever they tried to run in the channels.

   Emery clearly adopted a cautious approach. Instead of pressing high up the pitch, the Gunners waited near the halfway line to prevent Tottenham from finding space for runs in behind the defense. Spurs were toothless until the 44th minute when they finally had their first scoring chance.

Ramsey’s love story with Wembley

   Surprisingly, Pochettino started the game with a conservative 3-5-2 formation. Forced to chase an equalizer in the second half, Pochettino switched to a 3-4-3 system in the 59th when Lamela replaced Wanyama. The Argentine manager made another tactical change in the 70th by moving Rose to a central midfield position in a 4-3-3 formation. Those moves paid off as Tottenham leveled in the 74th.

   Emboldened by Kane’s goal, Pochettino tried to put more pressure on the Arsenal defense by replacing Son with Llorente in the 79th, switching to an improvised 4-4-2 system with Llorente and Kane up front and Eriksen and Lamela in the wide positions. Pochettino spotted Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses, but that emphasis on aerial duels came at the expense of Spurs’ passing game.  

   The Gunners will definitely miss Ramsey next season. As a link player, Ramsey can link defense and attack by winning the ball in midfield, delivering the final ball and being a goal threat. We have no player in the squad with that kind of profile. Three years ago, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain could have played in that role. Now an aging Cazorla is finishing his career at Villarreal while Oxlade-Chamberlain has improved under Klopp at Liverpool. Signing a link player should be a priority for the club this summer.

   Ramsey scored the opening goal with a dash from his own half in the 16th. Sanchez initially misjudged the flight of a clearance from Xhaka and missed his header. The ball fell to Lacazette, who played Ramsey clean through on goal with a first-time pass. Ramsey faked a curling shot by opening his body up and rounded Lloris to knock the ball into an empty net.

The power of anticipation

   As you can see on the screen capture below, Tottenham played an incredibly high defensive line. As the last defender, Sanchez was more than 70 yards away from his goal. When Ramsey started his run, Vertonghen and Alderweireld were already out of position. And Wanyama was on the same line as Ramsey when Sanchez was about to head the ball. Ramsey’s genius here was to anticipate and believe that Lacazette would somehow win the ball and start a counterattack.

Spur vs. Arsenal M16a edited.jpgVertonghen and Alderweireld are out of position while Ramsey runs past them. (Photo credit: NBC)

   As you can see on the next screen capture, there was no offside since Ramsey was still in his own half when Lacazette made the pass. Ramsey built a four-yard lead over Wanyama because the Spurs midfielder slowed down for a split second, thinking that Sanchez would head the ball.

Spur vs. Arsenal M16b edited.jpgTottenham’s back three can’t catch Ramsey, clean through on goal. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Besides his goal, Ramsey worked hard for the team, winning 1 of 1 tackle, and making 1 block, 3 fouls, and 7 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Ramsey also put off Alderweireld, who fired into the side-netting in the 55th after Mustafi poorly cleared a free kick. Emery replaced a tiring Ramsey with Ozil in the 72nd. It didn’t prove a good omen as Kane won the penalty for the equalizer a minute later.

   Ramsey converted the only scoring chance that he had. It was a lot of hard work because Ramsey ran 80 yards from Xhaka’s clearance to the moment the ball rolled into the back of the net. Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t have to run that hard for the big chances that they missed.

   Lacazette could have opened the scoring by the second minute when Iwobi’s pass took a heavy deflection off Wanyama and fell into his path. From 8 yards, Lacazette attempted a volley with his weaker left foot, but he completely miscued his shot and the ball lazily bounced wide. Lacazette had a better chance when Monreal overlapped with Iwobi to cut the ball back in the 53rd. From 8 yards, an unmarked Lacazette missed the target with his right foot. Emery felt that it wasn’t Lacazette’s day and replaced the French striker with Aubameyang in the 56th.

The need to be clinical in the big games

   Mkhitaryan won the ball in the 72nd and fed Aubameyang, who was dispossessed by Sissoko inside area before he could even pull the trigger. The Borussia Dortmund connection worked again in the 89th when Mkhitaryan beat Vertonghen along the touchline with some great footwork. Leading a counterattack, Mkhitaryan picked out Aubameyang, who made a run in behind Sanchez. There was minimal contact between Aubameyang and Sanchez when the Gabon striker fell inside the area. But the referee still awarded the Gunners a penalty. From the moment the referee gave Spurs a penalty for Mustafi’s shove on Kane, it was very likely that he would try to compensate in a similar situation for Arsenal.  

   Aubameyang had the opportunity to be the hero by converting that spot kick. He usually waits for the goalkeeper to dive before kicking the ball in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, Lloris proved even more patient. Instead of anticipating, Lloris decided to react to the shot. With no giveaway from Lloris, Aubameyang hit a tame shot that was poorly placed and that Lloris palmed away. The rebound fell to Iwobi ,who squared the ball back to Aubameyang. It should have been a simple tap-in. But Vertonghen, who was encroaching into the area, made the block and deflected Aubameyang’s shot over the bar.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M91 edited.jpgAubameyang’s poor shot placement. (Photo credit: NBC)

   If you’re the manager, you probably tell Aubameyang to change his penalty routine because other goalkeepers will wait like Lloris did. It’s time for Aubameyang to hit the corners at Colney. Aubameyang could have redeemed himself in stoppage time. Torreira spread the ball to the right wing, where Aubameyang could have set up Ozil for a 9-yard shot. But Aubameyang played the ball behind Ozil, allowing Sanchez to clear the danger. In the big games, strikers need to be clinical because they won’t have many chances. I couldn’t help myself and think that Henry or Van Persie would have converted one of those big chances. But here’s the difference: Henry and Van Persie were world-class players while Lacazette and Aubameyang are just very good strikers.  

Iwobi’s decision-making

   In the wide positions, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi provided the creative touch. They led all players with 3 successful dribbles each, according to whoscored.com. Iwobi made 2 key passes while Mkhitaryan led all players with 2 accurate through balls. Pochettino’s pressing game limited the Gunners’ passing accuracy to 63.5%, compared to 77.6% for Spurs. Mkhitaryan proved highly valuable in the transition game as he led Arsenal starters with a passing accuracy of 75%, compared to 72% for Ramsey and 66.7% for Iwobi.

   Trippier had Iwobi in his pocket, winning 6 of 6 tackles. Yet, Iwobi had two occasions to shine. In the second minute, Iwobi made a pass that took a heavy deflection off Wanyama and accidentally led to Lacazette’s first scoring chance. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had in fact a better option with Ramsey making a run in the big gap between Sanchez and Alderweireld.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M2a edited.jpgIwobi fails to slip a through ball to Ramsey. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Iwobi held onto the ball too long, forcing Ramsey and Lacazette to check their runs. As you can see on the next screen capture, Iwobi killed the momentum of the play as there was less space for a pass. When Iwobi finally decided to feed Lacazette, both Sanchez and Wanyama were in a good position to intercept the pass. But Wanyama put the Tottenham defense in trouble by inadvertently redirecting the ball into Lacazette’s path.

Spurs vs. Arsenal M2b edited.jpgSanchez and Wanyama are ready to intercept Iwobi’s pass to Lacazette. (Photo credit: NBC)

   Poor decision-making has held Iwobi’s development back. Emery can show him thousands of videos, but in the end Iwobi is the one making the decisions on the pitch. Is Iwobi overthinking in those situations? Or is he simply unable to see the best passing option? You put Ozil in the same situation and I bet you he plays Ramsey clean through on goal.  

   Another issue has been Iwobi’s poor finishing. Iwobi has a tendency to aim at the middle of the net. As a result, Lloris had no trouble to save Iwobi’s 15-yard curling shot in the 41st. Hopefully, Iwobi will have more competition on the left wing next season when Nelson returns from his loan spell at Hoffenheim.  

Torreira’s ejection

   Defensively, Iwobi put in a shift and even had better stats than Mkhitaryan, which is unusual. Iwobi won 1 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 8 recoveries, while Mkhitaryan won 1 of 1 tackle and made 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Nigeria international still needs to improve his defensive awareness. He forgot to track Trippier a couple of times.

   In midfield, Guendouzi got the nod over Torreira, who has suffered a dip of form since the end of December. Guendouzi had a decent game, making 3 recoveries and winning 2 of 2 tackles and 66.7% of his duels. He was charged with an error for giving the ball away to Vertonghen in the 39th.

   At halftime, Emery was worried about Eriksen’s impact and therefore sent on Torreira for Guendouzi in the 46th. As a natural ballwinner, Torreira was more suited to mark Eriksen than Guendouzi. The Uruguay international made a crucial clearance as the last defender to kill a counterattack in the 62nd. In the last minute of stoppage time, Torreira won the ball with a sliding tackle but planted his studs into Rose’s shin with his follow-through. The referee thought the challenge was dangerous and sent Torreira off. I thought it was a fair call because Torreira was not in control. Of course, some fans will point out the referee’s inconsistency. Why did he not give Rose a straight red card for banging Leno’s belly with his studs in the 68th?

   In the holding midfielder role, Xhaka showed good work-rate by making 1 tackle, 1 interception and 10 recoveries. The trouble is that Xhaka is not a natural defensive midfielder because of his lack of mobility. He made 3 fouls and was dribbled past 3 times, tied with Trippier for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. The Switzerland international was very lucky not to receive a red card in the 13th for a tackle from behind on Kane.

Thinking about the transfer market

   At the back, Monreal produced an outstanding performance, winning 3 of 6 tackles and 92.3% of his duels and leading all players with 4 interceptions and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Monreal especially won a crucial challenge to stop Son’s mazy run in the 27th. The Spaniard was very selective in his forward runs but he still managed to make an important contribution by setting up Lacazette in the 53rd.

   On the opposite flank, Mustafi didn’t work as hard as Monreal, winning 2 of 4 tackles and 50% of his duels and making just 2 interceptions and 1 recovery. Mustafi struggled to cope with Tottenham’s high press as his passing accuracy dipped to 43.3%, the lowest percentage for any Gunner. The German defender showed in the 73rd that he will always have an error in him. On a set piece, Mustafi shoved Kane from behind to give away a cheap penalty. TV replays showed that Kane was offside. Would Kane have been flagged offside if Mustafi had not made the foul? Kane sent Leno the wrong way to level the game. In stoppage time, Mustafi gave away a free kick with another silly foul on Kane.  

   There’s no way Mustafi can be in the starting lineup if the Gunners want to contend for the title in the next few years. Mustafi’s only asset is that he’s younger than Koscielny and Sokratis and more experienced than Holding. But otherwise, Mustafi is weaker than those 3 centerbacks. The club has a big decision to make this summer. They must sell Mustafi, Chambers and Jenkinson to fund transfers. Then they must decide where is the recruitment priority at the back. Should they sign a leftback because Monreal has lost a step and Kolasinac lacks defensive awareness? Or a centerback because Koscielny is getting old, Mavropanos is still raw and Holding will miss the start of the season? Or a rightback because Lichtsteiner is too slow, Maitland-Niles is still raw and Bellerin will miss a few months?

Leno’s double save

   Koscielny and Sokratis did a good job to keep Kane and Son quiet. The French veteran got the better of Kane in the 16th to start the play for the opening goal, while Sokratis blocked a dangerous cross from Son in the 33rd. The only weakness of the pair of centerbacks was in the air: Koscielny and Sokratis won only 60% and 40% of their aerial duels, respectively, according to whoscored.com. I thought Dixon’s comment on NBC was quite telling. The Arsenal legend claimed that Mustafi fouled Kane for the penalty because he didn’t trust Koscielny to win the header.

   I was a bit surprised by the praise Sokratis received after the match. Koscielny looked more solid than Sokratis, who made a couple of mistakes. Sokratis gave the ball away to Son in the 11th, was caught ball-watching when Eriksen tested Leno in the 44th, and fouled Lamela in the 73rd for the free kick that led to the penalty.

   There’s not much Leno could do to save Kane’s penalty. The German goalkeeper did his homework and dived in the corner where Kane usually dispatches most of his spot kicks. To Leno’s credit, he protected Arsenal’s lead with a spectacular double save before halftime. Iwobi failed to track Trippier, who found Kane on the edge of the box in the 44th. The England striker made a clipped pass for Eriksen, who ghosted past Sokratis for a 7-yard effort that Leno stopped wth his leg. The rebound fell to Sissoko, whose powerful strike was parried by Leno with a firm hand. Leno also reacted quickly enough when Mkhitaryan missed his clearance in the 68th. Rose chested the ball down, but Leno came off his line to deny the English fullback.

   The Gunners next visit Rennes in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday. The priority is to get 3 points against the Red Devils, who are direct rivals for a Top 4 finish. Torreira’s suspension will make Emery’s job more difficult. Arsenal will need to stop Pogba and Pereira in midfield. Ramsey is the obvious choice to mark those players when they drop off. When they charge forward, Emery will have to find an alternative to Torreira. Xhaka and Guendouzi are not defensive midfielders and don’t have the pace to track Pogba. Playing Maitland-Niles in central midfield could be an interesting gamble although his turnover rate would be an obvious concern.


Arsenal vs. Southampton: Gunners move into 4th with 2-0 win

   The Gunners leapfrogged Manchester United into fourth place in the Premier League by downing Southampton 2-0 on Sunday. They did the hard work in the first half before dropping their intensity in the second half. The positive is that Arsenal scored quickly while at the beginning of the season they struggled to reach halftime with the lead. The negative is that they could have scored more goals. The Top 4 race is so tight that it could be decided by goal difference.

Arsenal vs. SouthamptonPhoto credit: Premier League

   Most of the Gunners’ chances came from the left flank. Iwobi and Kolasinac combined to make 5 key passes while Mkhitaryan and Lichtsteiner only had 1 key pass. That’s ironic because Arsenal’s passing game tilted to the right side in the first half of the season. Bellerin’s knee injury last month was obviously the factor that led the Gunners to rely more heavily on Kolasinac and Iwobi to create chances from the left flank.

   Iwobi made a cross for Torreira, who was shoved from behind by Stephens in the seventh minute. The ball fell to Mkhitaryan, whose half-volley was diverted home by Lacazette with a backheel flick. One basic rule in football is to play to the whistle. When Torreira fell inside the area, some Southampton defenders stopped playing and looked at the referee, waiting for his reaction. But Mkhitaryan and Lacazette kept their focus, continued to play and were rewarded with the opening goal. We will never know whether the referee would have awarded a penalty even though TV replays suggested Torreira had been fouled.

Rotation policy

   Lacazette initiated the second goal in the 17th by pressing Stephens, who made a clumsy back pass to his goalkeeper. Gunn’s off-balance clearance fell into the path of Iwobi, who made a cross that took a deflection off Bednarek. Somehow, the ball landed at the feet of Mkhitaryan, who side-footed into the bottom corner from 12 yards. You sometimes need a bit of luck to score in football. The goals came from an off-target shot by Mkhitaryan and an inaccurate cross from Iwobi. That’s funny because Arsenal built better plays which did not end up with a goal because of some poor finishing or a poor final ball.

   Emery made 6 changes to the side that thrashed BATE Borisov on Thursday with Leno, Kolasinac, Sokratis, Torreira, Ramsey and Lacazette replacing Cech, Monreal, Koscielny, Guendouzi, Ozil and Aubameyang in the starting lineup. That kind of rotation is necessary because the Gunners play two games a week until mid-March. Such a hectic schedule can lead to injuries if some players are not rested. Changing the team selection is also a means to inject some freshness. It’s no coincidence if Arsenal won 60.8% of the duels, according to the club’s website.

   Those are the reasons that Emery gave in his post-match conference: “I think we can use these moments and different players to get good paces and fresh players with energy and quality. We need the mix to reserve some players for some matches, because we are going to play a lot of matches.” And you can trust Emery on that issue because Sevilla had to play a lot of games to win the Europa League.

The new Wiltord

   Up front, Lacazette got some decent service and could have notched a hat trick with better finishing. Lacazette surprisingly lacked composure in the 40th when Kolasinac pounced on a poor clearance from Bednarek to feed the French striker. Somehow, Lacazette found a way to blaze over the bar from 6 yards. Two minutes later, Kolasinac ran through the Southampton defense to tee up Lacazette, who fired straight at Gunn from 16 yards. Lacazette forced Gunn to make a save but his shot placement was poor. Those are the kind of chances you would expect a world-class striker to bury. After one season and a half at Arsenal, Lacazette seems closer to the level of a Wiltord than the heights of a Henry.

   Lacazette had two more scoring chances, which were more difficult to convert than his miss in the 40th. He chased a long ball from Xhaka in the 26th and cut inside Stephens only to have his shot blocked by Bednarek. Then Lacazette met a corner from Xhaka for a tame header that Gunn caught in the 38th. On the bright side, Lacazette led all players by having 5 successful dribbles out of 5, according to whoscored.com.  

   Iwobi was the creative force behind Arsenal’s attack, making crosses with his weaker left foot for both goals. He led all players with 3 key passes. You would still expect a bit more from Iwobi. In terms of end product, Mkhitaryan had 1 goal and 1 assist while Iwobi had no goal or assist because his cross for the second goal took a deflection off Bednarek. In terms of work-rate, Mkhitaryan made 7 ball recoveries and led all players by winning 4 of 4 tackles, according to the club’s website, while Iwobi won 1 of 1 tackle and made 1 interception and 1 recovery.

Iwobi’s decision-making

   Are we expecting too much from Iwobi? Or his relatively young age should not be an excuse for his lack of productivity in the final third? Despite all the talk about his improvement under Emery, Iwobi has only notched 3 goals and 4 assists in 24 Premier League games this season, about the same stats as last season under Wenger when he had 3 goals and 5 assists in 26 league games.

   Both Alli and Iwobi are 22 and have 4 Premier League seasons under their belt, but Alli is already the finished product whereas Iwobi is still a work in progress. Iwobi will certainly need time to improve his composure in front of goal, but Emery should find a way to quickly improve his decision-making because that has been the main stumbling block in his development so far.

   Here’s an example of a good situation wasted because of Iwobi’s poor decision-making. As you can see on the screen capture below, Iwobi had two good passing options with Lacazette to his left and Ramsey to his right. In the end, Iwobi opted for a 20-yard curler that was blocked by Vestergaard. You can bet that Ozil would have delivered the final ball in that kind of situation.

Arsenal vs. Southampton M38 editedIwobi ignores 2 good passing options. (Photo credit: Sportsnet)

   Playing in the hole, Ramsey had an off day with 0 key pass and 0 shot. He also led all players with 8 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. To his credit, Ramsey helped create overloads by drifting to the left flank. The Wales international was also involved in a couple of good situations, combining with Kolasinac for Lacazette’s chance in the 42nd and making teasing crosses in the 6-yard box that no one anticipated in the 60th and 61st.

A quiet afternoon for the midfield

   Emery replaced Ramsey with Ozil in the 63rd and Iwobi with Aubameyang in the 74th. Ozil and Aubameyang combined twice in the closing minutes. First, Ozil fed Aubameyang, whose cross took a deflection off Vestergaard, forcing Gunn to make a reflex save with his foot in the 86th. Then Aubameyang took a pass from Ozil in the 87th only to have his shot blocked by Bednarek. In stoppage time, Aubameyang swapped passes with Xhaka before missing his final ball for Lacazette.  

   In midfield, Torreira and Xhaka had a quiet afternoon as the Gunners enjoyed 62% of ball possession. They combined to win 1 of 2 tackles and make 1 block, 3 interceptions and 10 recoveries, according to the club’s website. The Saints gave Xhaka a lot of time on the ball. Yet, the Switzerland midfielder still managed to make a blunder in the 52nd with a risky pass that Ward-Prowse intercepted to shoot wide from 19 yards.  

   Arsenal struggled at St Mary’s stadium in December, conceding 3 goals from headers. They did their homework as Sokratis, Mustafi and Lacazette led all players on Sunday by winning 4 aerial duels each, according to whoscored.com. In fact, Southampton’s best chance came from a long ball in the sixth minute. Redmond beat the offside trap to bear down on goal, but Leno made himself big to deny the English forward. Mustafi and Sokratis probably felt the need to squeeze play. But why did they stand a couple of yards from the halfway line when there was no pressure on the ballholder?

Kolasinac’s outstanding performance

   The fullback positions were a concern before the game but Lichtsteiner and Kolasinac showed good tactical discipline. Kolasinac had arguably his best game of the season, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 2 blocks, 1 interception and 9 recoveries. When you add his offensive contribution with 2 key passes and his tidiness with a passing accuracy of 86.3% and only 1 turnover, there might still be hope to turn Kolasinac into a good leftback. Kolasinac saved Arsenal twice, blocking Armstrong’s header in the 14th and blocking Ward-Prowse’s close-range shot in the 76th.

   By contrast, Lichtsteiner looked again like the lethargic player that most fans know. He won 0 of 1 tackle and made 0 key pass, 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. Lichtsteiner also had 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy dipping to 71.4%. Emery replaced Lichtsteiner with Koscielny in the 55th as the Switzerland defender picked up a knock.

   At centerback, Sokratis had a solid performance, winning 1 of 3 tackles and making 3 interceptions and 4 recoveries. He also led all players by winning 87.5% of his duels, according to the club’s website. His only blemish was the ball he gave away in the 71st, forcing Mustafi to make a professional foul.  

   Leno kept a rare clean sheet by making 4 saves. The most important one was obviously the chance Redmond had to open the scoring in the sixth minute. The other 3 could be considered routine saves. The German goalkeeper pushed away Armstrong’s mid-range strike in the 14th, caught Austin’s looping header in the 72nd and parried Targett’s volley in the 89th.

   The Gunners will again need 3 points to stay in the Top 4 race when they host Bournemouth on Wednesday. This could prove a tricky match for Arsenal because the Cherries have enjoyed one more day of rest and are known for running a lot. Hopefully, Emery’s rotation policy will bear fruits this week.


FA Cup: A few thoughts on the 3-1 loss to Man United

   The Gunners’ only chance to win some silverware this season is the Europa League after Manchester United knocked them out in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Friday. The Arsenal defense proved too naive against a Manchester side quite clinical on the fast break. Injuries to Sokratis and Koscielny definitely destabilized the back four but Arsenal’s vulnerability on counterattacks also means that the club will need to sign defenders and midfielders this summer.

fa cup 4th roundPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

   The Gunners dominated the game with 63% of ball possession and 5 shots on target to 4 for the Red Devils. But they often lacked penetration to trouble a compact Manchester defense. Arsenal attempted 0 through ball compared to 4 for the Red Devils. Emery started with a 4-2-3-1 formation before switching to a 4-2-4 system by replacing Koscielny and Iwobi with Guendouzi and Ozil in the 64th minute. The tactical shift hurt the balance of the team and played into Manchester’s hands as Ozil, Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang are mostly effective in central positions.

  1. Injury crisis at the back (again)

   Sokratis sprained his ankle with an awkward landing in the 16th after challenging Lingard in the air. The Greek defender tried to soldier on but had to be replaced by Mustafi in the 21st. Koscielny joined Sokratis on the sidelines in the 64th after Lukaku inadvertently kicked the French centerback in the head. It initially looked like a minor injury below the ear but Emery in his post-match conference suggested that Koscielny might have fractured his jaw. If Sokratis and Koscielny can’t be fit for Tuesday’s Premier League clash against Cardiff, Mustafi and Monreal would then be the most likely pairing at centerback.  

  1. The Gunners must sign a defensive midfielder (again)

   The Red Devils capitalized on counterattacks in the 33rd and 82nd to create 2v3 situations and score. Shaw ran past Torreira and Xhaka to find Lukaku down our left flank for Manchester’s second goal. Then Pogba outpaced Ozil, Guendouzi and Torreira to sting Cech’s gloves for the last goal.

   The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese on both plays. Xhaka was the weak link in the holding midfielder role. He lacked defensive awareness in the 31st, playing Sanchez onside for the opening goal. Xhaka won 0 of 1 tackle according to whoscored.com, compared to 5 of 7 tackles for Torreira and 2 of 5 tackles for Ramsey.

   The club signed Torreira last summer, but that’s still not enough to protect the back four. The Gunners need a quicker midfielder than Xhaka and Guendouzi and with better defensive awareness. A young version of Fernandinho would the perfect fit for the squad.  

  1. Maitland-Niles is learning the ropes

   Bellerin’s long-term injury means that Maitland-Niles could get a lot of playing time in the second half of the season. Maitland-Niles got off to a bad start with a turnover that led to a scoring chance for Pogba in the 11th. But he grew into the game, winning 4 of 4 tackles, making 2 interceptions and leading all players with 3 key passes, according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles still needs to improve his defensive awareness and cut his turnover rate. He led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers and played Sanchez onside for the opening goal.

  1. Kolasinac is a defensive liability

   The Red Devils targeted Kolasinac because they were aware of his reluctance to track back. Lukaku made a run in behind Kolasinac for Manchester’s second goal. Koscielny took one for the team with a professional foul on Pogba in the 54th because Kolasinac was pulled out of position. Kolasinac was booked in the closing minutes for locking horns with Rashford near the touchline.

   There are only two ways to protect the defense when Kolasinac plays. Either the Gunners rely on a back three so that a centerback can fill in the space behind Kolasinac. Or they use a three-man midfield like in the 2-0 win over Chelsea with a midfielder covering Kolasinac on the left flank.

  1. Lacazette’s work-rate was impressive

   He tirelessly worked for the team, winning 5 of 5 tackles, and making 1 interception and 3 key passes. The France international teed up Iwobi in the 24th and made a cross for Mustafi, who headed wide on the stroke of halftime. Lacazette also tested Romero with mid-range shots in the 45th and 73rd. The only blemish in his good all-around performance was the poor return pass that led to Manchester’s third goal.

  1. Ramsey is Arsenal’s best attacking midfielder

   It’s no coincidence if Ramsey was involved in the Gunners’ two best chances. He rounded the Manchester defense in the 43rd to square the ball back for Lacazette, who made poor contact with the ball. However, Aubameyang pounced on the loose ball to tap in at the far post. Then Ramsey nearly leveled in the 46th when he met a cross from Maitland-Niles, but Romero tipped his header over the bar. Ramsey’s influence diminished after Emery made a double change in the 64th.

   Iwobi doesn’t have Ramsey’s effectiveness. He made 0 key pass, showing poor decision-making and often holding onto the ball too long. The Nigeria international ran into traffic in the 29th instead of making a crossfield pass to Ramsey. He also ignored the overlapping Kolasinac a couple of times. His only positive contribution was an angled shot straight at Romero in the 24th.  

   Ozil came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 64th. He played 36 minutes if we count stoppage time. His cameo was interesting because Ozil won 2 of 2 tackles, which is unusual for him. Is Ozil finally buying into Emery’s method? That would be the only way for Ozil to claim a starting spot again.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Gunners stay in Top 4 race with 2-0 win

   The Gunners still have a chance of finishing in the Top 4 of the Premier League after sinking Chelsea 2-0 on Saturday to pull within 3 points of their London rivals. The Blues enjoyed 64% of ball possession but Arsenal proved the more threatening team in the final third with 5 shots on target to just 1 for the visitors.

arsenal vs. chelseaPhoto credit: Premier League

   Emery made 3 changes to the side that lost at West Ham a week ago with Bellerin, Ramsey and Torreira replacing Maitland-Niles, Iwobi and Mustafi in the starting lineup. The Gunners played in a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield when defending and morphed into a 4-3-3 formation when attacking. The difference between those 2 systems was Ramsey’s position. The Wales midfielder man-marked Jorginho when Chelsea tried to play out from the back. But as soon as Arsenal won the ball back, Ramsey joined Aubameyang and Lacazette in a fluid front three.

   In one of their best performances this season with the 4-2 win over Spurs, the Gunners did most of the hard work in the first half before spending the second half under siege. Emery shut up shop by switching to a 4-5-1 formation in the 67th minute with Iwobi and Maitland-Niles replacing Lacazette and Ramsey.

   Arsenal showed more desire than the Blues, winning 55.4% of the duels according to the club’s website. The Gunners were also helped by Sarri’s questionable tactics: Hazard was toothless in the false nine role, leading all players with 9 turnovers according to whoscored.com. Sarri moved Hazard back to the left wing by replacing Willian with Giroud in the 68th but the move came too late to have any impact.

Emeryball at its best

   When you look at the way Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang pressed high up the pitch in the first half to force Chelsea turnovers, there’s no way Ozil could play in that Arsenal team. Ramsey, Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to win 3 of 3 tackles and make 4 interceptions and 12 recoveries, compared to 2 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 7 recoveries for Hazard, Willian and Pedro, according to the club’s website. Basically, an attacking player at Arsenal made 6.33 key defensive actions compared to 3.66 for an attacking player at Chelsea.  

   That kind of pressing game didn’t exist under Wenger. Emery also made another significant change in the way the Gunners play out from the back. Under Wenger, they slowly moved the ball forward with safe passes in their own half. Under Emery, the Gunners reach the final third more quickly with two-touch passing or even first-time passes in their own half.

   If you look at the screen capture below, you can see an example of Emery’s more ambitious and more risky approach. Sokratis took a pass from Xhaka in the fourth minute and found Bellerin down the right flank. The Spaniard picked out Lacazette who made a low cross for Aubameyang. From 8 yards, Aubameyang somehow missed the target, flicking the ball wide of the far post. On that play, Sokratis, Bellerin and Lacazette only had 2 touches each.

arsenal vs. chelsea m4edPlaying out from the back with very few touches. (Photo credit: BT)

   Lacazette broke the deadlock in the 14th minute by controlling a cross from Bellerin before turning Alonso to fire an angled strike into the top corner. The French striker showed great spatial awareness with his back to goal as well as great technique with perfect touches to maneuver in the tiny space between Pedro and Alonso. That was his only scoring chance of the game. Lacazette produced a good all-around performance with 1 goal, 1 key pass, and 3 successful dribbles, tied with Hazard and Pedro for the most by any player according to whoscored.com.

Aubameyang’s 3 tackles

   Emery’s game plan was to choke the Blues in their own half. It could only succeed with outstanding work-rate from the attacking players. Aubameyang is the leading scorer at the club but he selflessly worked his socks off, winning 3 of 3 tackles. Willian in the ninth minute and Hazard in the 19th could barely believe it when they saw Aubameyang tackling them.

   Contributing defensively doesn’t mean that you can’t attack. Aubameyang had 3 scoring chances. He should have found the net with his flick in the fourth minute. Then Aubameyang created a chance on his own in the 17th, dispossessing Azpilicueta before testing Kepa with an angled effort. He also connected with a cross from Kolasinac in the 37th for an overhead kick that sailed wide of the far post.

   Ramsey was the key cog in Emery’s pressing plan. Defensively, he made 1 interception and 6 recoveries. Offensively, he made 1 key pass and stung Kepa’s gloves with a long-range strike in the 29th. His movement created problems for the Chelsea defense. The free kick that led to Arsenal’s second goal came from Luiz’s nasty lunge on Ramsey in the 37th.

   The Wales midfielder’s performance makes Arsenal’s decision to let him go even more mind-boggling. The Gunners have 4 attacking midfielders: Ramsey, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. From a football viewpoint, the decision to release Ramsey makes no sense at all. Ozil and Iwobi can’t match Ramsey’s work-rate while Mkhitaryan can’t match Ramsey’s end product.

   And from a business viewpoint, it’s a highly questionable decision. At £180,000 per week for 4 years, Ramsey’s contract offer would have cost £37.44 million. Now let’s assume that the club finds a replacement for £50,000 a week. Arsenal would then have to agree a signing fee below £27 million to make the replacement cheaper than extending Ramsey’s contract. That’s not an easy task when you know that the signing fee was £35 million for Xhaka and £26 million for Torreira. Of course, any new signing would potentially have a higher resale value than Ramsey in 4 years, but there’s also no guarantee that the newbie could perform at Ramsey’s level.  

Guendouzi needs to beef up

   The Gunners kept a clean sheet in great part because the forwards and the midfielders did an outstanding defensive job. Torreira is slowly getting back to his best level after a drop in form since the end of December. He made 4 recoveries and 0 interception, led all players by winning 6 of 9 tackles and led all starting midfielders by winning 70.6% of his duels, according to the club’s website. Playing in the same position as Torreira, Chelsea midfielder Kante made 5 recoveries and 3 interceptions but only won 1 of 2 tackles and 33.3% of his duels. There were 2 signs that Torreira wasn’t at 100% yet. First, he had a bout of cramping in the 83rd. And second, his passing accuracy dipped to 61.8% while it’s usually above 80%.  

   On the left side of the Arsenal midfield, Guendouzi worked hard, making 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries, but he’s still a bit soft. The French teenager won only 1 of 5 tackles and was dribbled past 5 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Guendouzi definitely needs to work on his understanding with Kolasinac, who was frustrated a couple of times not to have an easy passing option around him.

   In the No. 6 role, Xhaka displayed good activity, winning 1 of 1 tackle and making 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries. Those stats are nearly similar to Jorginho’s (1 tackle won, 3 interceptions and 12 recoveries). Xhaka always has an error in him but he managed to limit the damage on Saturday. The Switzerland international led all players with 4 fouls and was lucky to avoid a booking for holding back Kante in the fourth minute. Xhaka dallied on the ball and was dispossessed by Willian in the ninth minute. He then made a poor clearance in the 59th. The ball fell to Alonso, who fired wide from the edge of the box.

Bellerin’s knee injury

   Bellerin’s season could be over. He twisted his left knee in the 69th and was stretchered off the pitch. It might just be a minor knee sprain but there could be some ligament damage too. Bellerin has been quite unlucky this season. He found the right balance between defense and offense under Emery until a calf strain sidelined him last month. Bellerin is a key player for the way the Gunners play out from the back. The Spanish fullback has also built a good understanding with Lacazette down the right flank. Emery will have to rethink how the team plays on that side of the pitch.

   The options at rightback are not mouthwatering. Lichtsteiner’s legs are too rusty to play in the Premier League, Maitland-Niles is still a raw player and Jenkinson is limited technically. Maitland-Niles would seem the logical choice by default. Obviously, Maitland-Niles doesn’t have Bellerin’s technical ability but he has more pace than Lichtsteiner and Jenkinson. Maitland-Niles shifted to the rightback position when Elneny replaced Bellerin in the 72nd.

   On the left flank, Kolasinac led Arsenal players with 2 key passes. With better decision-making, Kolasinac should have made a third key pass in the 64th. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Kolasinac was in a good position to slip the ball to an unmarked Torreira or make a teasing cross for Aubameyang at the far post. But Kolasinac drove into the six-yard box and his cross for Aubameyang was cleared by Alonso.

arsenal vs. chelsea m64edThe moment Kolasinac missed a passing opportunity. (Photo credit: BT)

   Kolasinac showed good work-rate, winning 4 of 4 tackles and 77.8% of his duels and making 1 interception and 7 recoveries, but his poor defensive awareness nearly cost his team. He was not tight enough to Azpilicueta in the 10th. The Chelsea rightback made a dangerous cross for Hazard, who missed the target from 11 yards. Kolasinac was then completely clueless in the 18th when Luiz hit a ball over the top for Pedro. Standing 3 yards behind Sokratis, Koscielny and Bellerin, the Bosnia-Herzegovina international played Pedro onside. Clean through on goal, Pedro sent his lob wide.

A complementary pairing

   Kolasinac also left Pedro unmarked in the 56th. See the screen capture below. Willian outpaced Torreira to cut the ball back for Pedro, who blazed over the bar. I assume Monreal will be the first choice at leftback when he’s completely fit.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea M56ed.jpgPedro left unmarked by Kolasinac. (Photo credit: BT)

   In the heart of the defense, Koscielny and Sokratis formed a complementary partnership. Koscielny had a more pro-active approach based on anticipation while Sokratis preferred a more physical approach based on duels. Sokratis won 2 of 4 tackles and 66.7% of his duels and made 1 interception and 3 recoveries. By contrast, Koscielny won 1 of 1 tackle and 33.3% of his duels and made 1 block, 3 interceptions and 3 recoveries.

   Koscielny read the game really well, clearing a lot of dangerous crosses. But the jury’s still out on his level. He looked weak in the air against Southampton and his performance against Chelsea did not clear all the doubts. According to whoscored.com, Koscielny won only 1 of 6 aerial duels. On the stroke of halftime, Koscielny was beaten to the ball by Alonso, whose header crashed against the post. Yet, Koscielny showed again his flair for scoring chances on set pieces. The French defender met a free kick from Torreira in the 13th for a bullet header straight at Kepa. Six minutes before halftime, Koscielny beat the offside trap to redirect a speculative shot from Sokratis into the top corner for a 2-0 lead. It initially looked like a looping header but TV replays showed that the ball bounced off Koscielny’s shoulder.

   To a certain extent, Chelsea looked a lot like a Wenger team. Offensively, the Blues lacked penetration. Leno only had 1 save to make -an angled strike from Alonso in the 82nd. Defensively, the Blues were a mess on set pieces. Lacazette’s goal came from a short corner while Koscielny scored on a free kick from Torreira. Sokratis nearly scored from a short corner in the eighth minute but his header bounced wide.

   The Gunners next host Manchester United in the FA Cup on Friday before playing Cardiff in the Premier League on Tuesday. Solskjaer will field his best team so I don’t think Emery will rest anybody for that clash. Then Arsenal will need 3 points at home against the Bluebirds to make up ground in the Top 4 race.


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.