I had the week off and do you know what I did? Nothing. Well, nothing by my own standards, which included preparing a Thanksgiving dinner, compiling a bunch of stats, finishing my Christmas shopping, and playing a lot of video games with my daughter. I have to go back to work Monday. I think I’ll be pretty refreshed.
You know who also had a week off? Alexis. Well, off by his standards. He’s been on a slow decline since Tottenham and has averaged just 1 shot and 1 key pass in the last two matches for Arsenal. This is a guy who averages over 5 shots and key passes (combined) per game. He’s also being dispossessed 4 times a game, which is above his average by almost 2 per game, though that could just be because Man U and PSG were well organized and had top players who work as a team to shut down dribblers like Alexis.
But as poor as Alexis has been the last two matches, the invisible man against Man U and PSG was Mesut Özil. He always passes the ball at a high rate but he created just one key pass over those last two games and took zero shots. Alexis wasn’t making himself available for the passes from Ozil and was dropping deep to collect and create for others but Ozil had other options over those two games, and it wasn’t like he didn’t get any service, he led Arsenal both time in passes in the final third, averaging 20 final third passes per game. Against Ludogorets he only took 21 touches in the final third and created 4 chances, 3 from open play. He also had three shots in that game, scoring a brace.
Wenger addressed this problem in his pre-match interview saying “it’s important that we find our simplicity, speed, and pacy combinations back. We missed a little bit that fluency, that security in our decisionmaking that made us dangerous in the final third.”
I suspect that means he’s not going to start Olivier Giroud. When asked, he sounded a bit negative on whether Giroud would start, though I’m sure many will read that as him being cagey, but Giroud isn’t there to increase the speed of Arsenal’s play, he’s a hold-up player. So, I expect Alexis and Ozil up top, flanked with wide players like Walcott and Iwobi.
The big discussion point is over the midfield pairing. Wenger has started three different players in the last three games along with Coquelin (Elneny, Xhaka, and Ramsey). When asked why he said it was a position where you run a lot and fight a lot. This is true but begs another question: why hasn’t Coquelin rotated? He’s started every match since October 19th.
If Wenger is true to what he’s saying, we should see Xhaka get a start tomorrow but my instinct tells me that there is something else wrong here. When asked why Xhaka wasn’t playing, Wenger gave the line about how he’s in a new league, playing a new style of football, and so on. Again, like the rotation question this rings true. But also like the rotation question, you can just ask why has Mustafi played every match? Different positions, sure, but no less critical to the team and no less change of playing style, teammates, and leagues.
I’m not buying what Wenger’s selling. There is something about the way Xhaka plays or fits with his teammates that Wenger doesn’t like. I’d like to see what Ramsey and Xhaka look like as a pairing and this seems like the perfect match for that but I would bet that Coquelin is the starter and we will see just one of either of those two players. My guess is Ramsey.
As for Bournemouth, the English press and Arsenal supporters think Bournemouth are going to be missing their best player tomorrow, the player who drives their offense forward, who carries the team with his excellent passing, movement, ball control, vision for teammates, and knack for scoring. But from what I’ve read, both Junior Stanislas and Jordon Ibe are 100% fit.
Stanislas leads Bournemouth in goals, assists, and shots. Meanwhile, Jordon Ibe leads Bournemouth in dribbles and is a threat against Arsenal’s fullbacks. They will be missing Jack Wilshere’s through balls and overall ability to set his teammates up: he does lead them in key passes with 18.
Bournemouth have an attacking philosophy which is reflected in their stats: they are mid table with 12 shots per game, they try to own possession against smaller teams and have 50% on average this season, they are 8th in passing success rate with 81%, they are second to last in aerial duels with just 12 per game… they are 19th in tackles, 16th in interceptions, they are 8th in dribbles, and 3rd in drawing fouls.
But they are a truly poor team and they allow the 6th most shots in the League and as you can see from the low tackle and intercept numbers are not very active when they don’t have the ball. I suppose this is why people seem to think Eddie Howe is a good manager: his team does try to play football, doesn’t hit a lot of long passes, and doesn’t go out to kick people off the pitch. I do expect them to roll over and get beaten but Arsenal can’t come out and think that three points are guaranteed. We need an assured start, control, and dispassionate finishing. This should be a routine three point win for Arsenal.
Chelsea beat Tottenham this morning in a great example of control over passion. Folks were awed by Spurs’ opening 15 minutes: Spurs were literally sprinting after every ball in defense and in offense. Chelsea looks rocked and a bit out of sorts, slow to every ball, and the pressure finally told when Eriksen got a bit of space and scored a thumper from 21 yards.
But Chelsea showed tremendous control and organization and slowly got back into the game through superior passing. Pressing is fun to watch and works well against opponents who can’t pass very well or who aren’t organized to deal with it but Conte knows that passing beats running every day; the ball is faster than our legs. This is the main lesson of the rondos that Man City, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich were drilled on under Pep Guardiola. It was magnificent to watch as Chelsea simply dragged Spurs’ shape any way they wanted by passing the ball around.
Chelsea won 2-1 and stay top of the League. Liverpool also won, 2-0 losing Coutinho in the process, with Klopp famously getting on the Anfield supporters when they started booing his players. Arsenal certainly won’t be facing an opponent anywhere near as good as Tottenham but they can’t afford to take this match against Bournemouth as anything less than a must win. A slip here means that the top teams maintain a two match gap on Arsenal.
Chary will be with us tomorrow after the match providing his man at the match observations. For his sake and ours let’s all hope for a good game!