Elneny saves Arsenal blushes (and Wilshere’s nightmares)

Just before Nababkin scored CSKA’s second goal, Arsene Wenger told Elneny to drop deep from the midfield role and help out between Mustafi and Koscielny as a third center back. Mustafi had been struggling all game – as had Bellerin, Ramsey, Wilshere, and Lacazette – with getting overrun by CSKA’s swift dribblers.

The tactical change didn’t work. Wilshere was told to sit deeper and shield in front of Arsenal’s midfield, but Wilshere was having one of the worst nights of his career, which was compounded with the fact that he simply doesn’t play defense. And the result was CSKA’s second goal.

Wilshere wasn’t entirely at fault for the goal, Cech was awarded yet another error for parrying the ball into Nababkin’s path, but Wilshere failed to close down on Golovin in a dangerous area which led to the shot which led to the parry.

It would be unfair of me to red-circle Wilshere if it was the only time in the match that he failed to close down on an opponent or played lazy football but it wasn’t. Twice in this game he allowed passes that were within reach to simply roll right past him, once it nearly started a counter attack but for the swift intervention of Koscielny.

Wilshere had some bright spots: he completed 89% of his passes (2nd on the team – 34/38), went 3/4 dribbles, and he only lost possession 3 times. That’s not bad for an attacking midfielder. Though, on the other hand, he failed both of his tackles, didn’t make a single interception, didn’t have a shot or even a key pass, and blocked just 1 opposition pass. So, while he didn’t do much offensively, he was also horrible defensively.

And Opta doesn’t count things like “failed to close down” and “let the ball roll past him like a player who doesn’t want to play football anymore”. If they did, he would have had at least three of the former and two of the latter.

As I pointed out on twitter*, his midfield partner, Ramsey, didn’t help out much either. In that series you see Monreal throw his hands up and despair at Ramsey’s idiotic defending.  As good as Ramsey has been going forward this season – and he’s been fantastic – this is not a repeat of his breakout year. That was the year I hailed Ramsey as the most complete midfielder in the League: a player who can score, pass, and tackle.

With Wilshere incapable of playing defense, Ramsey not interested, Ozil not interested, and Mustafi making mistakes all over the place, Wenger forced Elneny into the third CB role, just to shore things up.

It was still imbalanced. The problem Arsenal struggled with was picking up Golovin and also making him work on the other end.

What Wenger needed was a workhorse in midfield and a third center back to just provide cover as CSKA attacked with two or three up top. So, he took off Wilshere, brought on Calum Chambers, and moved Elneny into the CM role.

Arsenal were down 2-0 and it looked like a defensive change, taking off an attacking midfielder and putting on a CB, but it wasn’t. Wilshere wasn’t in the game and kept turning the ball over when he did get it. Elneny would provide balance in the middle between attack and defense: covering both areas of the pitch, making passes to Ozil and the forwards, and picking up Golovin when Arsenal lost the ball.

It worked perfectly. Elneny laid on two delightful passes for his teammates, creating Arsenal’s only two Big Chances in the game and getting two assists, and his surety in possession, along with just closing down space made Arsenal’s midfield much more solid. The only defensive stats he collected after the 60th minute were a tackle and an interception but it’s true that often you don’t put up “big numbers” when you’re just covering space or making sure your opponent doesn’t have time to pick out his passes.

Up to the 69th minute, Golovin completed 91% of his passes (42/46), had two key passes, took 3 shots, made two successful dribbles. After Wenger took Wilshere off and pushed Elneny back into midfield, Golovin completed just 75% of his passes in the final 20 minutes of the game, completing just 12/16, made zero dribbles, and created zero shots for himself or his teammates. Elneny completed 100% of his passes (9/9) and created the two big chances for goals.

Stats guys are often told “it’s not what a player DOES, it’s what a player DOESN’T do that matters sometimes” and I will freely admit that’s true: just running with your marker doesn’t show up in the stats sheet but it is one of the most important things you can do defensively. The same with closing down space and other defensive actions which aren’t the obvious things like a slide tackle or a well-times interception.

But Elneny had one of those rare games where you can see both the obvious and the subtle. The subtle being how poorly Golovin played after Wenger stuck Elneny near him and told him to close down space and the most obvious being his two assists.


*My tweets self-destruct after a few days, so get them while they are fresh.


    1. Similar thought. Arsene DOES do tactics.

      Thing about Elneny is that he ran and ran and ran. Arsenal as a team still dont press and harry intelligently, but Elneny’s commitment to harassing the man in possession was impressive. He is the player who “showed” most for the ball, and for much of the game he recycled it only defensively.

      His improvement since the turn of the year has been marked.

      Jack’s been poor for weeks now. I wonder if he’s fully over his recent injury. Anyway, Im not so against the idea of letting him go. Fabinho, please please.

  1. “Twice in this game he allowed passes that were within reach to simply roll right past him”

    This is, unfortunately, Wilshere’s defensive game in a nutshell. He was guilty of doing the same exact thing in the first leg but because of our attacking efficiency, it was less of an issue.

    So we get Atleti now. They are a bad match up for us. Not simply because they are an excellent team but because their playing ethos is the exact opposite of ours. They could give two sh*ts about attacking football. They are all about organization, closing down space, playing hard and capitalizing on mistakes. I am afraid that they will roll us over but we do sometimes raise our game when the opposition is better. We would have to play a flawless first leg at the Emirates (lol!) and maybe – just maybe – we can give ourselves a chance to advance. I don’t see us getting past them though.

    1. Yeah. I remember watching them totally frustrate Bayern a couple of years ago in the CL. They anticipated every through ball and one-two. They forced Bayern to cross in from far away, and beat them in the air. If we struggle to score against bottom of the table teams in PL, we will really have a hard time against them. I think we will go out 2-4 on aggregate. But then again, I thought we would lose to Milan. 🙂

  2. It has taken Wenger virtually a season to recognise what an important cog he is .Wilsh ere should be released in the best interests of all concerned.Must afi should be sold but who would buyhim?

    1. A lot of teams would buy Mustafi. Simply because a) he is a German international, b) he is young so there is time for improvement, c) he is actually technically pretty good and d) not doing well defensively for a Wenger team doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad defender.

      1. The question is less who would buy Mustafi, but what would you get for him? We can’t possibly hope to recoup our 35m investment now.

        1. Yeah. Definitely not going to recoup our investment. Its more about cutting our losses now.

  3. I winced at the Chambers substitution but I have to give the Boss credit. Apparently he can also see Jack isn’t interested in playing for Arsenal anymore and as you say it worked perfectly.
    Welbeck has not provided a decent laugh for several matches now. Becoming downright clinical. I’m ok with finding comedy elsewhere.

    1. Welbeck didn’t even fall over when he hit that shot. I know it was him who scored the goal but as I celebrated it my mind was thinking “who the hell was that dude”?

  4. Great analysis Wenger at least got it right this time. It usually takes some tweaks mid-game sometimes and Wenger has been guilty of not doing this in the past.

  5. There isn’t any other trio of players more disinterested in putting a defensive shift in any league and on any team in Europe’s top flight.
    Wilshere, Ramsey and Ozil should never start another game unless it’s a meaningless friendly.

    I’m a big fan of Ozil’s talent but any manager worth his salt would tell him by now to stop remonstrating with dissatisfaction at his teammates under a threat of financial penalties, especially on a day when he himself isn’t pulling up trees.

    Considering how disorganized Arsenal defenders can be in best of times I have no problem with Jack staying put on that particular play.
    I’m probably more comfortable with opposition taking shots from 35 yards out than driving at our defenders.
    That being said, Czech has to do better pushing the ball out and away.

    I have to hold my hand up and say I was wrong about Elneny.
    I didn’t think there was more to his game than sideways passing and recycling of possession.

    1. Several times yesterday I saw Ozil lose the ball and he could not be arsed to switch to defending when the ball was literally 2 yards away. It’s absurd. What have we hitched ourselves to for the next 4 years.

      1. Agreed. He has been decidedly less aggressive since the new contract was signed. There was a stretch of matches leading up to the new deal where he looked more engaged and energized. Now I think he’s coasting till the world cup. And I’m one of the biggest Ozil apologists out there! I see rampant complaints coming about him disappearing against Atletico. They will smother him. And without space, he can’t work his magic.

        1. There was a failed set piece that Özil took, CSKA broke and Özil tracked back in a close quarters wrestle for the ball over some distance. He was the last man in the space he occupied and was outnumbered and yet he killed their play and either won us a throw in or got the ball out of play.
          There is a lot of defensive work he doesn’t do, but when it was absolutely down to him to close down a counter attack he got ‘proper stuck in’ and did the job needed.
          I’m delighted he signed and I’m convinced (deluded) he’s here for the football, the Manager and the club. And he wants to win.

    2. I said at the beginning of this season having any of Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka in the same midfield was tantamount to having no midfield at all. I don’t want to see no.10’s in defensive midfield positions from next season. We have to start respecting the game if we’re gonna win the big stuff.

  6. I’d like to ask about the Wilshere stats – they can’t be right. I saw Wilshere get knocked down at least 3 times in the second half that dispossessed him of the ball, no foul called. Do these not count as lost possession or failed dribbles? Twice he went down clutching his ankle. My thought at the time was that CSKA had targeted Wilshere for some rough treatment which would make sense; despite his low center of gravity it does appear you can bully Wilshere off the ball and as a bonus get his temper going.

    Wilshere was awful though. I would rather have seen Iwobi in there.

    And I honestly thought Golovin was gassed, more than Elneny being around him. For about the first 30 minutes of the 2nd half Golovin was on the ball constantly. One has to figure they’ve only been back into the season for a month now after the 3 month winter break.

    But Welbeck’s goal was fantastic, we deserved to go through.

    I would rather have gotten Atletico in the final, in a one-off. I don’t see how we’re going to beat them over two legs, but I guess we’ll see.

  7. Re: Europa semifinal: my expectations are low on this one. Atletico Madrid are a well-drilled, tenacious team who are second in La Liga (two places above Real Madrid), whereas we are challenging the likes of Burnley for sixth; they have a strong, collective defensive focus, whereas we have the complete opposite. They are, to put it bluntly, a better team, and, over two legs, the better team usually wins.

    Our chances of winning improve immeasurably if somehow Petr Cech reverses the process of aging by about seven years, Mustafi has a brain transplant, Wenger somehow forgets to put his love child Wilshere on the team sheet, our fullbacks grow new legs, and Welbeck remains hidden away while his doppelganger continues to score goals with his feet.

    1. We will beat Atletico, because we want and need this more than they do. Channel, for 2 games, last year’s FA Cup final, when we played out of our skins. Easy.

      But (half) kidding aside, yeah, we drew the best team and they’re favourites to beat us, but on the other hand I don’t think that we’re the team they wanted to draw.

      It’s UEFA or bust for us, and it’s arguably less important for them. We’ll see.

      Will be taking a good look at their goalkeeper, because there have been reports that we want him to replace Cech.

      BTW, how bad is Iwobi in front of goal. He’s a forward/AM. His shooting ability is embarrassing.

      1. Iwobi is no worse than Wilshere in front of goal, but is much more useful in midfield and a better defender as well. Frankly neither is really worth a place in the squad.

        1. “Iwobi is no worse than Wilshere in front of goal”

          Patently untrue. I grant you that Wilshere no longer waddles into goalscoring positions, but that is so clearly not the case. He’s a much more intelligent and composed taker of goals than Iwobi.

          I know that it’s pile on Jack time because of his bad form, but come on, man.

          1. Honestly I’m not the least bit embarrassed by Iwobi’s form in front of goal. He’s a 21-yr old (our youngest regular starter) who has time to improve.

            I’m much, much more embarrassed by the fact we needed a kid his age to come into the first team last season and help us link defence to attack because the other players on the team can’t shield the ball, dribble and pass like he does when he’s at his best.

            If Iwobi could score goals as well as the other stuff he can do, he’d be a freak. Instead he’s just a very good player. We shouldn’t clown him for that.

          2. He’s not that good, Kaius. And I’m not dragging him. He’s decent at best. If as you say he is this amazing player whose only flaw is that he can’t shoot, he’d be starting regularly.

            In my view Iwobi’s development has stalled significantly, and he may even have gone backwards slightly. And it’s partly down to him. You don’t need a coach to tell you that you have to put in a ton of work on your final third play and finishing. That said, he’s had some decent cameos of late, and looks like he’s finding a bit of form. Except when he’s in sight of the goal.

          3. My entire thing over the last few years is: we need to temper the way we criticise the under 23 players in our squad. Nowadays it’s clear to everyone that something about our tactical set-up and coaching is not getting the best out of the players we have. All the young guys deserve a chance to develop under different management.

            Iwobi seems to be the latest victim of excess fan criticism. He didn’t come into the first team for his goal-scoring ability. I just think it’s worth reminding people why he made such a big impact at a time last season when we were really struggling to play fluent football.

          4. Overall I like Iwobi, but find him maddening. He’s got skills… a good dribble, ferrying ability, decent speed and a bit of physicality. Yet, he can’t hit a barn door with his shooting, and truth be told, he seems to be getting worse at it.

            Perhaps I’m being a tad uncharitable here, but he looks to me like a player entering a mini-celeb, Instragram-fuelled comfort zone (calls himself The Big 17 or some such), who’s not doing the work that he needs to on the training pitch. Or you could argue that he’s a naturally self-confident and outgoing lad. I don’t know. The meme about him freezing in front of goal is more than a year old. Google “Iwobi finishing”, and see for yourself.

            I agree with you up to a point… young players need direction, and as I’ve said before, Holding’s stalled development looks like it’s down to a lack of proper coaching. However, being under 23 doesn’t inoculate anyone from criticism. His finishing isn’t just poor — it’s laughable.

            And speaking of finishing. I hope we see more of Nketiah, curcumstances permitting, of course.

      2. I like the way you think my friend but have you ever seen “El Cholo” not wanting to win a game let alone an European final.

        After Klopp, Simeone is probably the most animated, and definitely the most feared by players anywhere.
        I have seen another Diego- the bad boy of football – Costa get hooked out of games by Simeone on sixty minutes for tactical reasons and take his place on a sub bench as quietly as a choir boy, a feat neither Mourinho nor Conte could accomplish.

        But like I said on the previous thread I think Arsenal have a better chance getting the better of Atleti over two games tather than one off.

        1. I dunno…. just the reverse I think. They’re defense first. In a one-off you may get an early goal that upsets their plans (see – v. Chelsea in the FA Cup last year). Over two legs? We are basically talking about the same club beat Bayern Munich 2-1 two years ago at the Allianz by sitting deep and counter-attacking. If they can do it to a Pep Guardiola Bayer team deliberately set up to avoid counter-attacks…

        2. I think it’s the other way round. It’s easier to pull off an upset victory in an one-off game where anything can happen then it is over two games. And it will undoubtedly be an upset victory if we win as the Atleti are odds-on favorites for the competition.

      3. Atletico lost two CL finals to Madrid. I’m sure they want this as much as us, if not more.

      4. Optimism and positivity are always appreciated but that “because we want and need this more than they do” never stopped us from losing such matches before. Too many examples to mention (Birmingham in the League Cup, anyone?)

        I just hope we show up and give it a real go. Nothing to lose, everything to gain and all that. How great would it be to make to a European final!

        1. I was at the League Cup final. We didn’t want it more, they did.

          Before kickoff our boys were jovial, kicking the ball around, having a laugh. They were running aerial duel drills that I wouldn’t want to try in a live game.

          They played at 100mph in that match. We didn’t get started until after they scored. Even at the end, when they were stretching with cramp, it was them that beat us to the final ball for the winning goal.

  8. As he settles further in arsenal,jus 25,elneny slowly becomes dat uunsung signing like gilberto

  9. The consensus seems to be that we were rubbish in the first half, when in fact we largely did what was necessary by restricting CSKA to a single goal.

    With a three goal lead from the first leg there was no need to go chasing the game, just stay alert, keep the shape and break when possible. The fact that CSKA were desperate for a goal and fully committed, meant that were increasingly under pressure, and that pressure told when the first goal went in.

    Even so making it to half-time meant the job was half done. We didn’t quite weather the storm after the break and did concede a second. It was at that point that Wenger made a few tactical changes, gradually the energy drained out of CSKA and our MotM, Elneny, set up two goals which saw us through to the semi-finals.

    It wasn’t the greatest performance by Arsenal but ultimately it wasn’t that bad.

  10. Jack n ozil in d same match is a NO fr mi.fr atleti if fit shuud b elneny xaka ramsy

  11. Oh, off topic… great CL draw for Liverpool. Seems like the gods are smiling on them. Scoreline says they beat City handily, but City had huge dollops of bad luck that could have changed that tie. They get the team that removed Barcelona, and avoid Real and Bayern (what a game that’ll be).

  12. Bang on analysis. Jack was awful, Chambers introduction, allowing Elneny further forward, shored us up no end and enabled the win.
    Athleti will provide a sterner test tho’. Let’s hope we’re not 0-2 down there before AW figures it out.

  13. This article is a perfect example of how to use stats and why this blog is so great. Acknowledging what stats can’t tell you, like how closely a player tracks an opponent’s runs or the urgency with which a player chases a misplaced pass intended for him, is what separates the great stats guys from the pretenders. Nice one Tim.

    Elneny has wrecked any scepticism I had about his ability to affect our toughest games. There are bigger tests to come, but with no Xhaka and the ghost of Jack Wilshere stinking up the place, we needed someone to step up and he did.

    It’s a good draw for us tbh. I don’t care about getting back into the Champions League with a sub-standard team that’s gonna exit the competition in the last 16. I don’t care about the cash the club stands to earn and how it lets us buy/spend more on players. I don’t want Arsenal taking short-cuts back to the top just because a quirky UEFA rule change has given us the opportunity. I just want us to focus, fight like a Premier League team, play a little Wengerball, and win because Arsenal should not feel inferior to Atletico.

    They don’t like to concede. Real and Barca haven’t been able to score more than a single goal against them this season. They beat Champions League semi-finalists Roma in the group stage 2-0. Alexandre vs Antoine. Cech vs Oblak. Ozil vs Saul. Ramsey vs Koke. The football gods owe us for Lehmann’s red card in Paris. Let’s do this lads.

    1. You raise an interesting point about winning the Europa League. As a route back into the CL, it promises only to further affirm that we are a club incapable of competing amongst Europe’s elite (and I have long maintained that people overestimate the importance of CL football when it comes to recruitment).

      If we win, great. If we lose, oh well. I for one won’t mourn another season outside of a competition that regularly embarrasses us (and strips us of even more confidence in our usual February collapses). I know some others will also find in our loss the silver lining of Wenger’s resignation, but I’m not so sure about that. Honestly, I think he’ll be our manager next season regardless of what happens in the Europa League, whereas the smartest and most effective route forward would be that he ceases to be our manager regardless of what happens in the Europa League.

      1. Yeah that’s exactly it. If we take the club’s narrative seriously, ie. “we’ve made sacrifices over the last decade to establish ourselves as a self-sustaining club and that means we won’t need to panic over missing out on top-level Europe competition”, then we shouldn’t panic about missing out on top-level European competition.

        Atletico won a two UEFA Cups in three seasons before establishing themselves as a Champions League club (Simeone won the 2nd of those two) and we should also approach it as a vital step on the road back to the top and not just a shortcut.

        1. That’s a great point. I seriously wonder though we if have the maturity and discipline to make that step. Not under Wenger, I am inclined to think.

  14. Insightful as usual. However, I disagree with one thing – I don’t think Wilshere would have had nightmares, if that was the case he would have tried harder the last few games. It’s normal to be out of form but to be out of desire too.

  15. Not sure how Ramsey was supposed to do much, what with having his leg STAPLED at half time of all things.

    Is Dr. Frankenstein on our medical staff?

  16. I could be wrong, but I thought DW also put in a defensive shift toward the end of the game, helping out on the right even though he was then the only true striker on the pitch for us. More tactics from AW, shutting down the threat on that side.

    Elneny needs to start ahead of Wilshere in big games the rest of the season.

  17. There goes probably our last chance of a top five finish, Southampton from being 2 – 0 up against Chelsea are now 2 – 3 down. Two goals in eight minutes by sub Giroud, and one from Hazard. Think about that for a minute, two goals in eight minutes by Giroud. When did he last score two goals in a month for us?

  18. Good to see Salah score today. After that sad move by Kane this past week, I’m dying for Salah to win the Golden Boot!

  19. Great goal by Salah too.

    When your goals dry up( one in the last five games) you have to go looking for them wherever you can, like Kane did.

    How ironic , Tottenham managed to avoid conceding a pen in 59 games ( I think)
    while committing plenty of penalty worthy offenses in that stretch, only to concede one against City that should’ve been a free kick just outside of the area.

    England supporters should probably start to worry about their World Cup prospects by now. Alli, Kane, Walker, Wilshere ,Sterling and many others have gone off the boil form- wise.

    Sterling should’ve had at least four or five goals in his last few games.

  20. We have a match kicking off in under an hour against the Barcodes and here’s the starting line-up: Cech, Chambers, Holding, Mustafi, Monreal, Elneny, Xhaka, Willock, Iwobi, Aubemayang, Lacazette.

  21. Nice goal. Mustafi Fabregased a lovely pass up to Auba, demonstrating again how hot and cold he can be. I like Laca’s celebration too acknowledging team-mates.

  22. “Our chances of winning improve immeasurably if somehow Petr Cech reverses the process of aging by about seven years, Mustafi has a brain transplant, Wenger somehow forgets to put his love child Wilshere on the team sheet, our fullbacks grow new legs, and Welbeck remains hidden away while his doppelganger continues to score goals with his feet.

    That Mistafi brain transplant can’t come fast enough, Bunburyist.

  23. Atletico Mardid. Haha. Umm yeah sure. We can’t even get organized for a throw-in. I think that’s the third goal we have conceded from a throw-in this season. Feel disgusted by our lack of defensive organization.

  24. A bigger game awaits, we’re all in on Europa, and we can’t improve on sixth. Testing squad depth and resting the big guns make sense; as does looking to see if Auba and Laca can play together.

    I don’t fault Arsene for team selection, but I’m still disappointed. We had chances to win that. Some of our players besides the main offensive ones behave as if shooting on goal is a novel concept.

  25. Wenger seems to believe Arsenal players are suffering from fatigue.
    The same fatigue Man City players are experiencing apparently.

    Here’s a quick rundown of minutes played this season by the spine of each team put in pairs for easier viewing.

    Keepers: Cech – 3,130 , Ederson- 3.645
    CB: Koscielny – 2.598 ( Mustafi – 2,742 if you think he’s our best CB) ,
    Otamendi – 3,842
    Holding Mid/ playmakers: Xhaka- 3,400 , Fernandinho- 3,630
    Ramsey- 1,998 , Silva – 2,928
    Ozil – 2,773. , De Bruyne – 3,788
    Strikers: Lacazette – 2,236. , Aguero – 2,933 minutes

    Xhaka is the only one here with minutes remotely resembling City players’ minutes and if you said he is indispensable in Arsenal line up, most would laugh you out of the room.

    Also , it’s a sign of fatigue when you tail off the deeper you go into games.
    Not when you start games slow and without any discernible direction the way Arsenal do in most of their games.

    How stupid does Wenger think Arsenal fans are when he comes up with this $hit is mind boggling.

  26. Mustafi represents a sizable investment made in him by Wenger and unlike Holding or even Chambers , he can’t be dropped without damaging his market value.

    How many boneheaded mistakes has Xhaka made this season in midfield and started every game after.
    Same principle applies. Wenger is a businessman first and a football coach second.

    Keeping Arsenal in the black is , and has been his saving grace with Kroenke.

  27. Matic with a case of Mustafitis for WBrom goal.
    Someone call CDC , this might be contagious .

  28. If Bellerin gets injured, we are stuffed for a right wing back. Chambers can just about fill in at right back but offers little or nothing going forward.

    Iwobi is not suited to playing on either wing, he too often tries to dribble his way inside rather than going past the fullback and crossing.

    At some stage someone has to start coaching our defenders with the aim of getting them to defend as a unit rather than as a bunch of headless chickens.

    Everything now hangs on the outcome of the two upcoming games against Athletic Madrid. Reaching two finals and a sixth place place finish is not an absolute disaster but is just not good enough for a club of Arsenal’s stature.

    1. I’m not even sure we’re finishing sixth anymore. I’d put money on seventh, actually. Not that it matters a great deal either way.

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