5 Things We Learned: Arsenal v Wolves

A bad day at the office for the Arsenal.

November has traditionally been a poor period for results at Arsenal and the trend has seemed to seep into the Emery tenure. We’ve seen 3 games in November and they have all ended in draws. The first was a credible result against league contenders Liverpool. This was followed by a drab goalless match against a poor Sporting Lisbon side (with the caveat of the horrible Welbeck injury of course) and the shambles of a performance against Wolves.

We explore the 5 things from one of Arsenal’s worst performance yet under Unai Emery.

Arsenal need to re-calibrate their radar

The team was exceptionally sloppy with their passing. Save for Torreira, most of the outfield players did not find their teammates with their passes. Even Mustafi, whose one good trait is his distribution from deep, was seen pumping aimless long balls into the final third during the second half when he had 4 central midfielders ahead of him.

It is understandable when one player is off form but to see so many moves breakdown between most of the players, something was not right here. To use a popular automotive analogy, it wasn’t that the “hand break was on” but more like a performance sports car being filled with diesel that got it sputtering and gumming up the works.

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Our goal conceded was a result of that same sloppiness. Xhaka gave away the ball needlessly and Arsenal were killed on the counter. And don’t even get me started on Xhaka’s tracking of Cavaliero after losing the ball.

Wolves took advantage of Arsenal giving them possession by making 13 shots on the Arsenal goal with 5 of them on target. By comparison, Arsenal only had 10 shots on goal with 3 on target. The scoreline could have been worse if not for Bernd Leno.

Leno proves his worth

There were a few question marks on Leno when he first joined Arsenal. It didn’t look good on him when Cech started the season as first choice despite Leno’s big price tag and reputation as a ‘keeper who can play Emery’s technical style of football.

He’s slowly proved his worth in the last few weeks after replacing an injured Cech and has been solid if not spectacular for the Gunners. Leno made 4 crucial saves from Wolves’ dangerous counters, preventing an embarrassing scoreline at home for the Arsenal.

Diamond formation

Emery pulled off another tactical switch at half time, changing the formation to a 4-4-2 with a diamond shaped midfield. Guendouzi came on for Iwobi and the emphasis was on dominating the central areas and pushing the full backs higher.

I liked the idea and I think the formation helped Arsenal to a small extent by creating overloads around the half spaces to release our full backs for a cut back. However, tactics can only do so much if the players can’t perform fundamentals like simple passes.

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The switch to the diamond formation to bring out more from the wing also looked like an indictment of a lack of wing play. I have been behind the idea of bringing in a more traditional winger to the team. A Douglas Costa/Willian type who takes on his man to break down defences who can mix it up when our quick pass and move style doesn’t work. Iwobi seems to be the only one closest to that type and Reiss Nelson can’t return fast enough.

Perhaps a January signing could be key with the next closest winger (and I say this quite loosely), Danny Welbeck, could be out for most of the season. If that signing doesn’t come, the diamond formation would be a decent alternative to get the best out of the team’s full backs.

Aubameyang as lead striker?

The switch to a diamond formation meant that we got to see a rare outing with both strikers up top. I would bet big that this won’t happen often unless we’re chasing a game.

As previously documented, attempts to shoehorn both strikers into the team haven’t been very successful. Aubameyang has looked like Thierry Henry in a Benjamin Button movie. An elite striker moved to the left wing who is slowly losing his confidence, sharpness and belief in himself.

Lacazette has also looked like he’s lost some of that sharpness which made him indispensable to the team. Passes and flicks ons were not coming off against Wolves but these were evident in the previous matches as well.

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Both players need to be played in their best position and it looks like Aubameyang could use some games up top. The next game is against Bournemouth away and a speedy goal poacher could do well to run in behind an expansive Eddie Howe team.

It’s not an easy decision to make for Emery. I totally understand why Lacazette is so important to his style of play. Does he refine Plan A and ensures that he can charge Lacazette’s batteries over the international break? Or does bank on Aubameyang who doesn’t contribute much to the build up play but can make his mark in the box.

Both strikers will affect how we play and move the ball. I reckon Emery might not want to change the style of play too much as the team is still learning his methods. He wants a rendition of “total football” which means the striker needs to be involved in the build up – suiting Lacazette’s skillset much more.

Silver linings

The international break comes at a good time for the team. Arsenal’s poor passing could be the result of mental fatigue rather than a physical one. I saw the team work hard but moves were just not coming off.

Paul has mentioned on the podcast that improvements in our play this season will not be linear and I believe this to be true. There will be times that the team will falter and the last game was an example of that. The players are learning new methods and there will be growing pains in any workplace when a team is getting used to a new management.

The good news is that Arsenal are still unbeaten in 16 games across all competitions. We have Koscielny and Mavrapanos coming back after the break who could make an appearance in the Europa League to shake off the cobwebs with the safety net of qualification.

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Monreal should make a return too while we should hope that other key players like Aubameyang, Lacazette and Mkhitaryan can regain their form for a challenging end to 2018.





Hatta is a Singapore-based Gooner, a purveyor of the latest football boots and kits and founder of BOOTHYPE.com. You can also find him on Twitter at @chatwithhat.

5 Things We Learned: Arsenal v Leicester

A captain’s redemption, nutmegs and one touch football.

Project 24 is well and truly in motion as Arsenal gained their 21st points in the league, keeping pace with the league leaders while playing some scintillating football along the way. Not many would have predicted the levels of improvement made by the Gunners at this stage of Emery’s tenure but the signs do look good so far.

Monday night’s match against Leicester showed that while the team still has deficiencies, they have it in them to blow away any opponents by sheer firepower. Below are 5 observations from one of the best games of the season yet.

Ozil The Captain

My man of the match. I was surprised to hear that Ozil got the armband. I can’t say that he’s at the top of my list when it comes to being a “leader”. All too often, he does fade into the background when the going gets tough.

Monday night against Leicester, I was glad to be proven wrong. Once Arsenal chased the game after going a goal down, there was no turning back. Ozil led the way from this moment– starting moves from deep, pulling off body feints to go past defenders and dictating Arsenal’s best offensive moves.

He played in his preferred role behind the striker, the first time in a long time this season, and proved why he’s one of the best in the world in that position.

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Ozil scored the equalizer, but not before driving through the centre of the park with the ball and playing a one-two with Bellerin to receive the ball in the box. That nonchalant one touch finish to the bottom corner looked easy but don’t let that fool you. Not many have the composure and technical ability to stroke it so calmly into the bottom corner while running at pace.

The “pre-assist” for the second goal required military level radar capabilities to spot an overlapping Bellerin. And for the final goal, Ozil’s orchestration of the entire move was sublime. He started it by casually backheeling a layoff to Guendouzi before sprinting forward to demand for the ball from the flank. Somehow, he knew that Lacazette was behind him as he let the ball through his legs for the French striker to tee him off as he burst again into the box to receive the pass. The pièce de résistance was the composure to dink the ball past an onrushing Schmeichel with the outside of his left foot for Aubameyang to tap in.

Ozil’s vision, drive and technical ability was evident today for all to see. On the evidence of this match, it would be tough now for Emery to shunt him to the right wing.

Arsene Wenger spoke during the international break about how he was worried that with Ozil’s international retirement, he might lack new goals to work towards and it might stunt his drive to maintain a high standard of performance.

Perhaps, being one of the leaders of this Arsenal team could bring renewed focus and responsibility that would finally see him put in more performances like this.

A Case for Pierre

That’s 4 goals in 2 games as a substitute for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He may not have Lacazette’s aggression or hold up play but I’ve not seen such an elite penalty box poacher since Pippo Inzaghi and Ruud Van Nistelrooy.

If Aubameyang was an X-Man, he would definitely be Nightcrawler. He seemingly teleports into space and evades the eye of opposition defenders to pounce on simple tap ins.

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Lacazette has been crucial in keeping the game ticking, pressing defenders and also scoring decent goals for the team. But you can’t deny that Aubameyang is a pure striker who, with an in-form Ozil and co providing ammunition, can challenge for the golden boot.

It’s a tough call for Emery but also a good problem for the Arsenal coach. With the team now improving with their “automatisms” going forward, I’d like to see Aubameyang given a run of games to see what kind of impact he can make for Arsenal.

Iwobi, the Prince of Nutmegs

How things have changed for Iwobi. He seems to be one of the first names on the team sheet in recent games. He looks fitter, sharper and is one of the rare players in the team who can dribble and carry the ball forward. Against Leicester, he was voted to be the man of the match as he showed great drive and invention to push for a win.

he Nigerian international seems to also have developed a penchant for nutmegs and other freestyle skills on the pitch. Who is this guy and what have you done to the real Alex Iwobi?

In all seriousness, Iwobi fully deserves the plaudits coming to him. He’s been excellent and I hope he can keep up his standard of performance as he looks to secure that left wing position in the team.

Is Mustafi… Playing Well?

Mustafi is a mystery to me. He can be excellent in some games when his sliding tackles come off but miserable in another when he loses concentration and/or takes unnecessary risks that jeopardizes the defence.

In Sokratis’ absence, I have to say Mustafi has been relatively decent and he continued his solid performance against Leicester. He hasn’t been as rash in his decision making and has done the basics fairly well. Part of it, I’m sure, is down to the improved protection in front of him in the shape of Torreira. But Mustafi has been a 7/10 with his defending and has also been good playing the ball out of the back. I don’t recall the pacey Vardy getting a big chance on his side of the penalty box.

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This may be his last season to prove to the fans and the management that he’s not a ticking time bomb at the back. Fortunately for him, he’s taking his opportunities to prove his worth in the absence of senior players such as Koscielny and Sokratis. More strong performances may give Emery a good headache when all the defenders return from injury (if we are so lucky).

Weak first halves vs strong game management

What is it with poor first halves and strong second half comebacks when it comes to Arsenal this season? The team has ridden their luck through this winning run, giving numerous chances and ceding the initiative to the opposition during most of the first half. Could it be due to Emery’s tinkering from game to game? Or perhaps his unfamiliarity with the opposition that has made it tough to prepare a tactical plan?

Whatever it is, Arsenal almost always come out all guns blazing in the second half and this game was no different. After going ahead, Arsenal’s game management was excellent – slowing down the game at will before switching gears to hit on the counter when an opening arises. Even the redeployment of Xhaka at left back didn’t seem to affect him, with enough cover to protect him on the rare occasion Arsenal lost possession.

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I’m liking how Arsenal has been more pro-active in managing the game instead of being stuck on “gung ho” setting no matter the situation. Arsenal hardly gave Leicester a sniff in the second half by controlling the game maturely.

This shows that Emery is very adept tactically and is capable of reacting to the opponent’s shape and plan. If only Emery could come up with a way for Arsenal to start strong too. Let’s hope that’s not too far in the horizon.


Hatta is a Singapore-based Gooner, a purveyor of the latest football boots and kits and founder of BOOTHYPE.com. You can also find him on Twitter at @chatwithhat.

Farewell Puma: An Arsenal Kit Retrospective

Hatta Aziz from BOOTHYPE.com Explores the Best and Worst Arsenal Kits From Puma

It’s official. The 2018/19 season will be Puma’s last as Arsenal’s kit manufacturer. The baton will be passed on to Adidas as announced by the Arsenal Twitter account. Puma have been producing Arsenal kits from the 2014/15 season and feedback from fans and ex-players have been mixed to say the least. That said, preferences can vary from fan to fan and views on the quality of recent kits have been as divisive as the “Wenger Out” debates.

Are you Puma In or Puma Out? Let’s look back at some of the good, bad and downright ugly offerings from the big cat.

The Good

Home – 2014/15

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Puma rode on the wave of euphoria as the launch of their first kit came just after Arsenal won their first title in 9 years with the FA Cup. They launched a slick marketing campaign about the club’s history and a bright future with the club. The video ticked a lot of boxes and the home kit was pretty decent though it has to be said, Puma played it safe with the design. The skin tight “player’s version” also incorporated tech such as heat transfer tapes to reduce body heat. Pretty cool stuff overall. 

Away – 2014/15

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Another decent jersey from Puma’s first season, the away top featured colours from the popular yellow/blue combination that have played a part of Arsenal’s rich history –the last gasp win over Liverpool in ’89 and the Invincibles season of 03/04 to name a few.

We won a second FA Cup in style in this jersey which seals its place as one of my favourites in recent years.

Home – 2015/16 

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Puma’s sophomore year brought us this home jersey which saw them attempting to add in a little sartorial flair into their designs. The granddad collar was making its way back into fashion and Puma used that as an opportunity to add a little something to the home kit. The gold trims were a nice touch but Puma still kept it safe with the look.

Training Kit – 2015/16 

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One of my personal favourites was this training kit from the 2015/16 season. It looks modern and I was a fan of the stripes and dark blue area on the top left-hand corner of the shirt. That said, I wouldn’t recommend putting it on after a heavy meal as the top cuts a very slim fit especially around the mid-section. 

Training Kit – 2018/19

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Fast forward to the Emery era and I’ve really taken to the training kits worn by the team this season. Perhaps it’s the excitement of a new regime, or maybe because I saw them wear it up close for a week while I covered them on tour in Singapore.

My personal favourite is the grey version which is predominantly worn by the players. Look closely and you’ll notice that the logos and trims across the sleeve has a slightly purplish, holographic shimmer to it.

Third Kit – 2018/19

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A polarising one but I really like the mint/dark blue combination on the third kit. This was another attempt by Puma to sprinkle a bit of lifestyle in their sportswear and I really dig it. And if we’re going with adidas, expect more flamboyant colours and designs as they’re trying very hard to mix lifestyle into their football apparel too. 

The selection of this very jersey could be biased though, as they launched it in my hometown on the recent tour and also sold a limited edition print featuring popular icons in Singapore. Safe to say, I got myself a set.

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Stadium – 2018/19 

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The “Stadium kit” is usually only worn by the players on the sidelines but they’re easily the nicest of the bunch. It’s predominantly white in front but the back features a deep red colour with a metallic sheen to it. It’s plain, simple but very classy. Shame we won’t see too much of it over the course of the season.

Honourable mention: Home – 2018/19 

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I hated this when I first saw it but I have warmed up to Puma’s last home jersey for the Arsenal. It’s got a nice modern cut and a deep shade of red on the torso built with a rather breathable material. 

I’m still on the fence regarding the stripes on the sleeves but overall, it’s not bad at all. 

Bad

Third Kit – 2014/15

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While the aforementioned marketing campaign for Puma’s debut season had the home and away jerseys representing the glorious past, Puma ominously had this horrendous third kit represent the future. I blame Puma for cursing the club with this awful number. 

Predominantly clad in light and dark blue, they formed a sash formation on the shirt with lime green trims. The only good memory I had of this jersey was Danny Welbeck scoring the winner against United in the FA Cup and that’s as good as it gets.

Training Jersey – 2014/15

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Did someone design this using Paint on Windows 95? The less said about this, the better.

Third Kit – 2015/16

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I liked the extremely dark shade of blue forming the base of the design (or was it a lighter shade of black?) and the gold trims. But Puma decided to play mad scientist and throw in a little turquoise and white and mix it up in a strange sash design that just didn’t work.

Why couldn’t it just be plain black and gold, Puma? Why did you treat us to this abomination?

Goalkeeper’s Jersey – 2016/17 

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Did the printer run out of ink when they decided to sketch this design? The colour panel on the sleeve reminds me of a colour printer’s CMYK cartridge – a really odd design choice to make.

Away – 2017/18

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My eyes! The light blue top did not look right to me and not even the gradient effect could save this jersey from being one of the most underwhelming tops I have seen released for the Arsenal. There was also something about it which made it look cheap but I just can’t put my finger on it.

Just like our horrible away form during the course of the season, this jersey is one to forget.

Goodbye Puma, Hello Adidas

It’s been a mixed bag by Puma and I’m certainly looking forward to see what the 3 stripes can bring to the table (besides more money of course). Adidas has certainly upped the ante in the last few years with designs that blend elements of street culture, lifestyle and sportswear. 

This season alone, they’ve launched a light pink away jersey for United (their best seller), a mint top for Bayern not too dissimilar to our third kit and also some stellar kits from the recent World Cup.

Will we be getting back the “bruised banana”? I’m not too sure about it but I have a feeling I’ll be enjoying the ride a little more than I did with Puma. 

Hatta is a Singapore-based Gooner, a purveyor of the latest football boots and kits and founder of BOOTHYPE.com. You can also find him on Twitter at @chatwithhat.












5 Things We Learned: Fulham v Arsenal

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The best team performance this season saw tactical tweaks and the B team staking a claim for a starting position.

That’s 9 wins on the bounce with 6 coming in the league. Arsenal also head into the international break just 2 points off leaders Manchester City. Not many Arsenal fans would have envisioned this scenario especially with the rocky performances that have come during this run.

The match against Fulham was one of Arsenal’s best so far under Emery and it had the hallmarks of a typical Emery team – tactical flexibility, energy and swift attacking play. Below are 5 things we learnt from the game that won Arsenal the game in style. 

1: Flexibility in formations

Many Arsenal fans have heard of Emery’s meticulous attention to detail with tactics and that was on show today. Midweek saw the team play a 3-4-3 formation to mixed effect but the team operated very astutely against the Cottagers. In attack, the shape resembled Emery’s preferred 4-2-3-1 with Lacazette up top in front of Welbeck, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan who took the supporting attack positions from left to right.

However, the team adopted a 4-4-2 shape when defending to counter Fulham’s 3 man backline. Lacazette patrolled the central areas with Welbeck lurking in a support striker role, covering the lateral space where Fulham looked to play the ball out and closed down passing channels. 

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The team’s seamless transition between the offensive and defensive shape was a positive, making Arsenal unpredictable and harder to play against. A big part of this is due to the 3 players in the attacking midfield positions. Which leads us to….

2: Welbeck, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan 

Arsenal’s performances have been a mixed bag this season. They have been able to blow opponents away due to raw firepower but they have struggled for fluency and cohesion. That is in part to the 3 players who usually support Lacazette. Aubameyang lends very little to the build up play on the left. Ramsey, in my opinion, is much better bursting from central midfield rather than dictating play as the no. 10. And Ozil on the right negates his impact on the ball and sees him drifting infield, leaving our right back with no defensive cover nor passing combination options.

The 3 who played in these positions against Fulham, though not poor players by any measure, may not be blessed with the same individual quality as the incumbent but are more flexible tactically and positionally. This has led to a better flow in attack – something we’ve seen in the cup games where they have played in.

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I was hoping to see Aubameyang start up front to run in behind Fulham’s backline as I expected the home team to push up to attack. Unfortunately, the Gabon forward was just coming back from a bug and it was Lacazette who started. Welbeck took his chance to cause problems for the backline as he regularly ran in behind the Fulham defence down the left. He further used his athleticism to great effect as an unorthodox target man on the left wing, laying down any long balls for the midfield to pounce on. It was this exact tactic that saw Welbeck assisting Lacazette with his second goal – cushioning Torreira’s clearance for the Frenchman to receive, spin around and strike from outside the box.

Iwobi’s resurgence has also been a major highlight of this season. Inventive, powerful and sharp in his play, he looks a different player from last year. His ability to carry the ball and dribble in tight spaces is a unique one in this Arsenal team who lack wingers and dribblers. He has added some trickery to his bow too with a nutmeg on a Fulham defender on the left channel. His vision and touch are rapidly improving, threading in a pass for an overlapping Monreal who cut back for Lacazette’s first goal. On the evidence of his performances, Iwobi has never been more confident and productive and he deserves to start more games for the Arsenal.

Mkhitaryan had a relatively quiet game but his place on the right did help Bellerin cover the right flank a little bit more than Ozil (though that’s not too hard to do) and provided some simple combination play to allow the right back to advance and attack.

The performances of these 3 is a conundrum for Emery. They do help the team play better but politically, it’s hard to justify dropping Aubameyang, Ramsey or Ozil due to their elevated profiles in the team. The manager head coach needs to channel his best man management abilities to balance the needs of the team and the players’ egos over the course of the season.

3: A luxury of forwards

I can’t recall the last time Arsenal had such a world class array of forwards. On this form, Lacazette is crucial to Arsenal’s build up play and he must be commended for regaining the forward role after being relegated to back-up for January record signing, Aubameyang. His 2 goals were clinical strikes of top technical quality. However, his all-round player was just as important and sometimes goes unnoticed. He pressed (and eventually fouled) Seri in the centre circle to stop a counter and played a key role in keeping the ball alive in the lead up to the Harlem Globetrotter-esque team goal for Ramsey. Lacazette is more than a great striker, he’s a fantastic team player.

I’ve waxed lyrical on Lacazette’s strengths in our post on the top 3 players in September and at this rate, he could prove to be one of the league’s top forwards and may even oust Giroud in the French national team. Elliot would be extremely pleased with that, I’m sure. #giroudhater

Personally, I would play Aubameyang against teams which hold a high line as his runs behind and movement in box are almost always timed to perfection. Combined with his electric pace and lethal finishing, there is almost no one better in world football who plays like this. He was instrumental in going behind the defence (albeit on the wide left) to cut back for Ramsey’s exquisite back heel goal. Aubameyang’s first goal showed predatory instincts to receive the ball from Bellerin and strike on the spin. The second goal was all about the aforementioned movement, pace and finishing we’ve come to know about him.

These 2 are excellent options for Emery who could (or perhaps, should?) take a horses for courses option when it comes to planning for the opposition. Either way, opposition defences should be terrified when facing Arsenal.

4: Defending wasn’t so bad, was it?

Arsenal has struggled all season to keep out goal scoring chances from the opposition but they seemed to have had a relatively comfortable performance against Fulham. Mitrovic was well marshalled by Mustafi (in other news, icicles are forming in hell), Holding looked confident and Leno had a relatively quiet day in goal. The full backs both contributed assists and were mainly solid.

 

A big part of this improvement has been the protection in midfield provided by the Torreira and Xhaka axis. Torrerira’s impersonation of the Tasmanian Devil allows Xhaka time to control the game with passes from deep and get into space when defending. It wasn’t just his robust tackling that caught the eye but the Uruguayan also displayed fantastic ability to win aerial challenges despite his diminutive size. When Guendouzi came on, Torreira was seen moving upfield in a box-to-box role and didn’t look out of place as he held the ball up well, passed efficiently and made some darting runs into the box. 

Could Torreira be the next Kante? 

5: Positivity, energy, good performance

It’s nice to see Arsenal play the type of football we’ve come to know of them with a touch of modern tactical flexibility. The players look genuinely happy to work for each other and even Lacazette and Aubameyang, rivals for the sole striker position, have a bromance that even rivals that of Ozil-Flamini. 

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Emery needs to keep this positivity up which is key to Arsenal’s continued improvement. He’s made the subs feel like a big part of the process and Arsenal need the whole squad to be performing optimally to ensure the team ends the season with some silverware. Here’s to hoping for 10 straight wins after the international break.

Follow Hatta on twitter @chatwithhat

Top 3 Players of the Month: September

In this monthly series, Hatta explores the best 3 Arsenal players and their impact on the team. 

Unlike that popular song by Green Day, I don’t want to be woken up at the end of September as it’s been a productive month for Arsenal. 6 wins on the trot (4 in the league) has put some optimism back into the Gunners fanbase. The performances haven’t always backed up the results as it’s still a work in progress by Unai Emery and the team. 

Adding some order to that chaos were 3 players who have played the biggest roles in Arsenal’s success in September. 

Petr Cech

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Cech had an extremely rocky start to the season. The new manager’s reputation and highlights from pre-season suggested that he will implement a high pressing strategy which requires the keep to be good at his feet as a distributor and unorthodox playmaker. 

Many doubted that Cech would start the season as our No. 1 with big money signing, Bernd Leno, coming in with a reputation as a new-age sweeper keeper who was great with his feet. Cech is old school. His strengths are based around commanding the box and stopping shots and crosses – not playing the ball out with his feet. It comes as no surprise as his best days were at Chelsea, a team which, despite the carousel of managers through the years, have shown a decent defensive solidity and a penchant for a low block. Mourinho’s first stint there laid the foundations for their defensive strength.

Which is why it came as a major shock to many that he started the games against Manchester City and Chelsea. He struggled to be the first point of build-up, albeit against some of the best teams in the league. It could have been so easy to have been deflated by the whole experience but Cech kept his head up and continued pushing on. 

The opposition were not as good in September and that allowed Cech to be under less pressure on the ball. He still had some nervy moments with the ball at his feet but for the most part, he kept us in the game with crucial saves. The Arsenal defence and midfield are still struggling for shape and organization and it was only through the gloves of Cech that we got those wins in the league. Cech’s best performance was against Everton has he made countless saves to ensure Arsenal got their first clean sheet of the season.

Cech has proven through his career that he’s a consummate professional and this season may just be one of the best examples yet. He’s in the twilight of his playing career, tasked with something out of his comfort zone but he turns up at work every day looking to apply himself fully. It may not be perfect but that’s not on him.

At the end of last season, I thought he had at least 1 good year left in him at the top level. I’m glad he’s spending that year at Arsenal, contributing to keeping goals out and showing a fantastic attitude in adapting to new situations. A world class role model for any professional in any field.

Alexandre Lacazette

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Lacazette has had an indifferent start to his Arsenal career last season but seemed to have found his groove towards the end. This year, in Aubameyang, he’s had to contend with another elite striker, vying for his spot in the team. It seemed that his place was under threat when Aubameyang started the first couple of games in August but he showed his value by coming on to great effect in both the Manchester City and Chelsea games.

He provides a focal point for the team by holding the ball up diligently, aggressively harrying opposition defenders, linking up play with the attacking players and scoring goals. Everything you want in a modern centre forward. Emery saw this too and in September, he moved Aubameyang wide to allow Lacazette’s all round play to flourish.

Lacazette has scored 2 goals and registered 2 assists in September alone. One of his best performances came in the game against Cardiff where he laid off the ball for Aubameyang with an instinctive back heel for the assist and won the game with a powerful strike into the top corner from an acute angle.

It is testament to Lacazette’s quality that he’s usurped the club’s record signing to lead the attack and that he’s thrived despite his supporting cast of Ozil, Ramsey and Aubameyang struggling to find any form of fluency. He’s been carrying the attack and one can only imagine how devastating he will be with a more fluent midfield behind him.

Sokratis Papastathopoulos

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Eyebrows were raised when Sokratis was purchased from Borussia Dortmund for a transfer fee of just below £18m.  It’s not a small fee for a defender who just turned 30. The move also seemed like a lazy decision by Sven Mislintat, the Head of Recruitment who previously led Dortmund’s scouting department. Fans were expecting the next hidden gem, the next Kagawa. Instead, Sven called on his old club for a favour and Arsenal got a player who was marginalized in his last season at club that was struggling for consistency.

Upon his arrival, Sokratis spoke about his contribution as a senior player and leader but we saw very little of that in his first couple of games. The team looked disorganized and it would be fair to say that he was still learning about his teammates and was acclimatizing to the manager’s instructions. 

 Sokratis started the season looking average but his performances started improving from the game against Newcastle. He showed a good reading of the game and covered well for a Mustafi’s lapses in concentration. Sokratis also has had to curb his instinct to charge in for a tackle as he’s assumed a bit more of a role as an organizer alongside his defensive partner.

Some of that leadership was evident too when he berated Mustafi for his mistake in the game against Everton.

It’s been a shame that he got injured and missed the Watford game. Possibly, that was Emery playing it safe as we’ve got a long season ahead with only so many centre backs. I would like to see him paired with Holding, who seems a more competent defender than Mustafi, and is comfortable on the ball too. Arsenal need a leader in defence and Sokratis looks to be growing into that role.

Honorable mention: Lucas Torreira

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The Uruguayan terrier would have made the list if he played more. The new signing has been slowly embedded into the team with substitute appearances but has shone in most of the matches he played in. He has since dislodged Guendouzi to form a solid partnership with Xhaka. Watch this space as I have a feeling he’ll be appearing on this list for many months to come.


Hatta is a Singapore based Gooner. A purveyor of the latest football boots and kits and founder of BOOTHYPE.com. You can also find him on Twitter at @chatwithhat.

Mesut Özil: Unai Emery’s conundrum

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This is part two of a three part series on Mesut Ozil by Oscar Wood.

Yesterday we took a detailed dive on Özil’s 2017/18 season.

An interesting aspect of Mesut Özil is that while opinions of him are vulnerable to extreme fluctuations, his performance levels, and the statistical output he produces, are usually strikingly consistent. Such is the quality and repeatability of his core technical and mental attributes - ball control, passing, movement, decision making, vision - he rarely has an outright bad game, where he performs those aforementioned skills poorly (one rare example was actually the opening day against Manchester City, where his final third passing was a letdown). The most common reason for Özil having a mediocre game is usually external; when he’s put in a position where he can’t utilise his strengths and his weaknesses are exposed more. Usually this is when Arsenal struggle to get control of games and he simply doesn’t see as much of the ball as he’d like. In other words, it’s the age old cliche about how he can’t grab a game by the scruff of the neck, unless it’s there for the taking.

This isn’t an issue for him over a sustained period of matches. Or at least, it hasn’t been so far in his career. Of course, like any player, he goes through physical ups and downs as well, meaning sometimes he has better months than others. But, whereas others like Aaron Ramsey and Henrikh Mkhitaryan may often have games where their touch and weight of pass is off, with Özil you usually know what you're going to get. Often his supposed up and down periods are simply down to the nature of assists. The finish is beyond your control and there’ll be periods where the other forwards run hot and periods where they run cold. 

All this makes his start to the season all the more alarming. The Arsenal fanbase and wider football world has had many moments of doubt surrounding the German before, but it’s rare that a period of Özil scepticism has been matched with a significant drop off in his statistical performance as well. Arsenal’s number 10 is currently underperforming in virtually every metric, with his creativity and overall passing numbers significantly worse than last season. 

While, as mentioned earlier, Özil’s statistics have tended to stay consistent over medium term periods, and we are still very early in the season, the fact Arsenal have a new coach has exasperated fears that Özil’s recent performances could be the start of a new long term trend. Arguably most striking is the drop off in overall involvement. While days can happen where a player fails to create moments of spark, a lack of involvement in possession indicates potential systemic issues. In the Premier League so far this season Özil has completed just 31.1 passes per 90 minutes, less than half of his career high figure in 17/18. To put things into perspective, in a typical game last season only Xhaka would play more passes. This season only Lacazette, Aubameyang and Cech are attempting fewer.

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So what factors could be behind Özil’s poor performances this season, and in particular, his lack of involvement compared to previous years? The most obvious change has been in his starting position. Emery has started Özil on the right in four of his five starts. Wenger, of course, almost always used Özil in a primarily central role, with only occasional spells on the wing, such as early in 14/15 and during the European run last season. From his number 10 position Özil had plenty of attacking freedom and regularly ventured to the wings anyway, but he also had responsibility to move towards the centre circle and offer himself in possession when both central midfielders were on the ball. Just look at the areas and volume of his passing on Sunday compared to when Everton came to the Emirates in February.

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Özil arguably hasn't been helped by Arsenal’s left side bias in recent matches. In their last three games the Gunners have found progressing the ball up the left side of the pitch a lot easier than building through the right. One reason for this may be Granit Xhaka. Xhaka has usually been the dominant presence in possession, and as a left footer he’s more comfortable patrolling the left side of the pitch and circulating the ball to that side. It’s notable that despite nominally starting on the right, a lot of Özil’s involvement against Everton still came on the left wing. 

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In fact, Xhaka’s preference for left sided passing, and Özil’s positioning on the right has significantly disrupted their on pitch relationship. While Xhaka didn’t have his best individual season last year, one thing he did do well was give the ball to Özil. Xhaka to Özil was regularly one of Arsenal’s most prolific pass combinations. The holding midfielder is usually Arsenal’s highest volume passer, and thus a lot of Arsenal’s attacks go through him. With so many of his passes going to Özil, it’s not a surprise the then number 11 followed him as Arsenal’s second most frequent passer in 17/18.

This season that relationship has broken off. On Sunday only 7 of Xhaka’s 82 completed passes found Özil, just under 9%. In the same fixture last season, which Arsenal won 5-1, 17 of Xhaka’s 73 went to Özil, 23%. Equally important is the location of their combinations. On Sunday the few times Xhaka did find Özil was when Özil made rare venues to the left wing. There were only a couple in the central areas of the pitch, while in the fixture last season, the majority came in those spaces. Without that direct exchange with Xhaka, the ball has to go through different routes to get to Arsenal’s number ten, and it’s not a surprise he's seeing a lot less of the ball.  

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It’s likely that a simple change of putting Özil back into the centre will not only prevent him from being isolated on one wing, but will also help Arsenal’s build up play and overall balance in possession. The central midfielders will have easier forward pass options, as Özil is more comfortable receiving in the number ten space than Ramsey is. If Aubameyang were to continue on the left, then getting Özil on the ball frequently in central areas could help him to operate as more of an outlet. The irony of Arsenal’s current left side bias is that while their best playmaker feels isolated on the right, their best outlet and poacher in the box is regularly involved in build up on the touchline, far from goal, and is often having to put crosses in for others when ideally he’d be the one getting on the end of moves. In these last few matches the rare times Özil has moved away from his position on the right have been some of the rare times Arsenal have looked potent going forward. His role in the build up to Aubameyang’s goal at Cardiff is an example. 

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Against Chelsea and West Ham, Mkhitaryan was used on the right, with Özil central for one and absent for the other. Bellerin and Mkhitaryan enjoyed their partnership, and Arsenal did a lot more attacking down that wing in those two games. As @ThatGooner alluded to in his thread, Mkhitaryan likes to make runs behind into the channels, which creates space and allows a run for the right back to try and pick out. While Özil can make those kind of runs, it’s more of a change up option for him. He usually likes to come short and drift inside, and Bellerin hasn’t been able to build the same sort of partnership with him during build up, which has contributed to Arsenal's left side bias. 

Occasionally it'll be suggested that Özil’s form last autumn was down to him playing for a new contract, and that after securing a huge wage increase, he’s reached a comfort level that is hindering his motivation. That is a possibility. But it’s also a malicious accusation to throw at an elite athlete who has worked hard his whole life on improving his craft. His Europa League performances last season also show there's still hunger there beneath his usual solemn demeanour. Given his play style, Özil should still have more years to give to Arsenal at something close to peak level. If Arsenal are to play their best attacking football, if the Unai Emery era is to become a success, or if Arsenal simply want to avoid financial disaster, it’s imperative Emery finds a way to get more out of Arsenal's highest earner, and most gifted footballer. 

The most obvious reason that Özil has been shafted wide is because of Emery’s preference for using Ramsey as the number ten. In part three we’ll look at the difficulties of accommodating both Özil and Ramsey in the same team. 

Oscar is on Twitter @Reunewal. Follow him there.

Mesut Özil: Beyond the Narrative

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This is part one of a three part series on Mesut Ozil by Special Contributor Oscar Wood


It has not been a good few months for Mesut Özil. His 2017/18 season finished disappointingly on a team level, with Arsenal’s elimination at the hands of Atletico Madrid in the Europea League. He then became part of a political storm in Germany when he and Ilkay Gündoğan posed for a photograph with Turkish president Erdoğan. What should’ve been a forgotten matter by the time of the World Cup reared back into focus after Germany’s earliest elimination in 72 years. The lack of support for Özil within the board and the negative press that surrounded the player, which regularly bordered on the extreme and had particularly sinister connotations in relation to the player’s national heritage, cumulated in one of the more shocking international retirements of recent memory. To make matters worse, the Arsenal man has had a particularly poor start to the season, just when supporters are hoping for an uptick in fortunes for the club. 

With all the negative attention that has surrounded the German in recent weeks and months, it has been easy to overlook something else. Something that might not be as obvious at the moment, but something that is just as important, if not more so, than anything else currently being said or written about the player. Mesut Özil is still Arsenal’s best player. At the moment, with him taking home a healthy £350,000 a week from the club, and his last top draw performance coming many months ago, people might scorn at the idea Arsenal’s new number ten is worthy of such a billing. But rewind eight or nine months and the narrative surrounding Özil was entirely different. With the negative energy of Arsenal fans predominantly focused on Alexis Sánchez it was easier to see the positive aspects of Özil’s play. The good will was only be helped by the building rumours of a new contract extension that cumulated with his renewal at the beginning of February. The road since has been more rocky. The burden that comes with such a wage hike started to bear heavy almost immediately, and the team overall have had few successes since their star man signed on. 

That can make it easy to forget just how important Özil is to Arsenal, and how good his performances were as recently as last season. Indeed, his 2017/18 season has become more underrated with time, thanks to recency bias and a combination of on pitch factors that meant he didn’t get quite the amount of recognition he could’ve done. In the Premier League he put in many of his best performances for the Gunners, was one of the Europa League's standout players in its latter stages, and was a consistent performer whenever he got on the field at the Emirates stadium. 

At face value, Özil’s eight Premier League assists represent a mediocre return for someone of his reputation as a creator. However, when it came to creating chances from open play, it was one of Özil’s best ever seasons. The 2.99 key passes per 90 minutes he played from non-set piece situations was the highest figure he’s had in a Premier League season, beating his previous best of 2.80 from 2015/16. One of the criticisms of the key pass stat (some call it chances created, they’re the same thing), and this isn’t without valid reason, is that it doesn’t take into account the quality of the chances created. Any pass that leads to a shot is one key pass, whether it’s a big chance, or a shot from 30 yards. But Özil’s expected assists per 90 figure was 0.38, which was the same figure as Kevin De Bruyne’s, who was widely cited as the league’s outstanding midfielder and creator last term. It was also higher than Özil's own figures in 14/15 and 16/17 figures (there’s no data for his 13/14 season) abut down on his astonishing 0.52 in 15/16. One thing which hurts his overall creative numbers is the fact he took fewer set pieces in 17/18. In 17/18 he averaged 3.2 corner takes and 0.9 free kick takes per 90 minutes. In 15/16 those figures were 4.3 and 1.3 respectively. His 16/17 figures were similar (they were slightly lower before that, Cazorla used to take quite a few). In other words he was taking one and a half fewer set pieces per match last season. Xhaka got three assists directly from corners last season, whereas in 16/17 he got none. Had Özil taken all the extra corners Xhaka took last season, his overall assist tally may have looked better. There isn’t open play only xA data publicly available unfortunately. But a significant reason why Özil’s xA per 90 in 15/16 (0.52) was better than his 17/18 figure (0.38) would’ve been those extra set pieces he took. 

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Özil’s impact doesn’t just come with the final ball, however. Last season he actually increased his already significant responsibility in Arsenal’s possession play, particularly during the part of the season when the Gunners operated with a back three. That formation left Arsenal with fewer ball playing midfielders, and Özil became a key facilitator for Aaron Ramsey to make his trademark forward runs and support the attack. In the Premier League he completed a career high 65.05 passes per 90 minutes and was one of the league's best when it came to progressing the ball up the pitch. At his peak during the season from October to the end of January, he would regularly start a passing move, keep up with the play, then lay off the final pass to finish the play, like in the clip below against Palace.

In the 2-2 draw against Chelsea, even Gary Neville was impressed by the way he took control of the match and dictated things for Arsenal. In that match he dominated possession in the final third. Özil was playing so many passes in dangerous areas of the pitch that he ended up playing 22 passes to Alexis, a remarkably high figure for a pass combinations between two forwards in a big game, which was bettered only by the 24 passes Xhaka played to Özil. 

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What didn’t help Özil’s cause is the perception surrounding his absences from the team in 2018. A back injury ended his club season after Arsenal’s Europa League tie with Atletico Madrid and seemed to disrupt his World Cup. Özil isn’t the only player to miss games through injury and illness, but with him there is definitely an impression that, at best, he misses games too easily, and, at worst, has excuses for him entirely fabricated so he can enjoy extra time off. When he misses games there are more tinfoil hat appearances on the Twittersphere than there are for perhaps any other player. We have to ask ourselves whether such attitudes to his absences are really fair. After missing the West Ham game Unai Emery became the third manager in recent years to excuse Özil from a game because of illness. What is more likely; three different managers deciding to give him special treatment, or him simply having a below average immune system? 

On face value Özil missed 12 league games, which isn’t great. However the majority of these came from February onwards, when Arsenal’s priorities shifted from domestic competition to their European run. He played every Europa League knockout game bar the Östersunds home tie, and was a standout player in the competition (only in the Atletico away match did he fail to put in a high quality performance). In other words, there were essentially just five games Özil missed that were important to Arsenal’s season. In the Premier League and Europa league knockout stage, the important fixtures in Arsenal's season, Özil played the fourth most minutes for Arsenal, more than the likes of Lacazette, Monreal, Ramsey and Koscielny. Missing sporadic games here and there also looks bad because of the number of different no shows, but when almost all the absences are short the collective damage is minor. Missing three one off games through illness is certainly no worse than missing five weeks with a muscle strain. 

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Of course, not even Özil’s biggest detractors will argue he’s incapable of doing useful things on a football pitch. The debate has always been about whether the trade offs of giving such a narrowly defined player great responsibility are worth it. Do you gain more than you lose? Özil is best used centrally rather than wide, but he can neither defend like a true midfielder, nor score like a true second striker. These traits make him something that is surprisingly common in the Arsenal squad; a player with a few elite skills who needs a fairly confined role in order to prosper to his full capabilities (I think Aubameyang and Ramsey fall into this category as well, somewhat). 

Arsene Wenger clearly felt the positives of building around Özil outweighed the negatives and gave him significant freedom and responsibility to be an on pitch leader for Arsenal. Sometimes it paid off, sometimes it didn’t. Unai Emery has up till now used him in a more periphery role, which has so far failed to produce anything like Özil’s top form. But it has arguably hurt Arsenal’s overall attack as well. As of yet, the Gunners have been able to find consistent fluency without their number ten at the heartbeat of things. After a season of under appreciated heights in 2017/18, 

it would be a shame if Özil’s best performances were to become purely a thing of the past under Unai Emery. 

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the beginnings of Özil’s 2018/19 season, and why the German has so far struggled under Unai Emery.

Oscar is on Twitter @Reunewal. Follow him there.