Arsenal started December on a high with a win over arch rivals Tottenham and a point away at Manchester United. The Gunners extended their unbeaten run but had lost their main players in defense either to injuries or suspensions before a busy festive period.
Rob Holding was ruled out for the season after picking up an ACL injury at Old Trafford, which turned out to be a huge dent in defense. Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis were suspended for a game after picking up yellow cards in the same match. Mustafi has not even made the bench since Manchester United with a persisting tight hamstring. Arsenal welcomed back club captain Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal after a long lay off but they were off the pace.
Injuries ruined Emery's plans. Earlier he had Welbeck to put on for Lacazette and Auba. Holding was perfect. Bellerin and Mustafi's injury cost us those draws orelse they all were 3 points. Can't wait for transfer window so he buys he's types of player and sell others.
— Dammit Arsenal🤦 (@DammitArsenal) December 27, 2018
The patchy defense of Arsenal showed when they lost their first game since late August, away 3-2 to Southampton. Hector Bellerin also suffered a calf injury at St. Mary’s which keeps him out till mid-January. A stitched defense managed two underperforming home wins against struggling Huddersfield and Burnley.
Nacho Monreal was substituted in the Burnley game taking no further risk of losing another player in defense department as he felt tightness in his hamstring. The weakness in the North-London’s outfit were again at display when Brighton scored a counter-attacking goal from Arsenal’s corner.
With the kind of form and attacking firepower, the Gunners should have managed maximum points from away trips to Southampton and Brighton. It seems the defensive instability was always there but was overshadowed by a powerful 22-unbeaten streak. Emmanuel Petit the double winner with the Gunners mentioned about Arsenal’s average defense when he spoke to Mirror,
“In defense they are weak, they are average. They make individual and collective errors. The injuries are not an excuse, most players who stepped in are internationals. During the long unbeaten-run you thought Arsenal are back on track.
But now I look back at the number of games in which they were lucky and, suddenly, reality returned.”
BRING STABILITY IN DEFENSE
With all the tactical measures and instability in defense, Emery has to decide his starting Xl for Anfield so not to lose more ground on the Champion’s League spot. The Head coach has to sort his backline before the visit to Merseyside. Since there is news of Shkodran Mustafi returning to full fitness, Unai should resort to 3 regular centre backs in the German himself, Koscielny and the ever willing and combating Greek Sokratis. Koscielny’s experience with the combination of front foot defenders in Sokratis and Mustafi should keep the balance right at the back.
— Shkodran Mustafi (@MustafiOfficial) December 28, 2018
Three in the defense with two wingbacks has made Arsenal more dangerous going forward too. It gives stability at the back and with the likes of Sead Kolasinac on left showing some real desire to get at the end of things, making crosses and also trying to score has made this formation effective for the Gunners.
With only Lichsteiner as first choice right back he should start the game with the experience he has, even with the fatal mistake he did at Brighton. The Gaffer would be tempted to play Maitland-Niles but he has to put a shift up in his defense with Shaqiri, Mane and Salah looking for any kind of space behind him.
Emery and his wall of defense have to back themselves since this same Arsenal side had kept the Red’s front three quiet when they visited the Emirates back in early November. Mustafi and Rob Holding had done a great job allowing zero shots on target by Salah, Firmino and Mane combined. Historically the fixture has been full of goals and a prospect for the neutrals as well but Arsenal would like to take lessons from Manchester City’s consecutive defeats and try to stop or at least hold the firing Reds.
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TACTICAL DECISION AND OZIL
The Emery tactics might have also gone wrong previously in the season but were notable as he removed the creativity and directness to score a goal by substituting Mesut Ozil and Lacazette for Iwobi and Ramsey. The strange Ozil substitution was also noted by the opposition (Brighton) player Pascal Gross and shared his thoughts while talking to the Argus,
“People talk about his body language. If you are not having the best day or the team, you try until the end. I think he also does that but the body language sometimes- you don’t have the same feeling that he is.
That has always been the thinking in his life people moan about. But the football, the technical thing, you don’t have to say anything, its brilliant. He’s had a great career with his clubs and national team.”
The first substitution was quite hasty and bringing on Ramsey for young Guendouzi would have made more sense with Lacazette still on the pitch. Even after having over 70% possession Arsenal managed only seven attempts (4 on target) which were mainly in the first half.
This was recorded at 6pm but we now know Mesut Ozil is out of Arsenal’s game at Liverpool tomorrow. He trained with the squad today but complained of pain in his knee and was withdrawn from the travelling party #AFC #LFC https://t.co/io95HjjIyl
— David Ornstein (@bbcsport_david) December 28, 2018
The same kind of statistics were seen in the home game against Huddersfield where the Gunners had 68% possession but only managed 2 shots on target. This was also a game without Ozil and Ramsey in the matchday squad.
Without these two there is no kind of creativity from the centre of the pitch. The only option is to run down the wing and find a cut back in the box and try to score. Emery has to define a role for the club’s star asset Mesut Ozil where he pulls the strings from the centre of the pitch and also tries to help in defensive situations.
The Head Coach’s man management skills are here for test where he should stick to his tactics with Ozil on the same wavelength as others. On the other-hand Ozil also needs to lend his hand in defensive department himself with the kind of defense Arsenal have at this moment. With Xhaka starting in the defense, the burden of creativity can be shared with Mesut and Torreira.
All things were bright and beautiful for Arsenal before the injury crisis in defense. But this kind of situation should have been hypothesized by Head of Recruitments Sven Mislintat. Even at the end of summer transfer window, Arsenal were always a defender short with Calum Chambers sent on a season long loan to Fulham FC. Arsenal should at least look for a stop-gap solution for this ongoing injury crisis at the back.
The Gunners are also a player short in the creative midfield. They would be tempted to get something out of Aaron Ramsey and get an able recruit which would be difficult to find in a January transfer window. The lack of depth in the winger section is also notable, but the lack of January transfers historically at North London Club would limit it to one player mostly.
Come the halfway, Arsenal looks in need of fresh reinforcements of sorts, particularly in defense. Mislintat should be looking to get some substance player unlike last year’s bonanza of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang.
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) December 29, 2018
But for the next game Arsenal have to do with the limited resources at the back and creativity in Ozil partnered by the positivity, hard work and never die attitude incarcerated by Unai Emery since the beginning of the season.
Arsenal have to take some spirit from the previous game at the Emirates and fight with a renewed vigour to get back in the Champion’s League spots. The intimidating Kop should be taken as a challenge by this set of players and put their critics to bed.