EPL top-four

:acazette couldn’t bail us out today… (pic – Arsenal.com)

All through preseason right to the eve of this season’s Premier League kick-off, most of the media, pundits, and bookmakers gave us very little chance, if any, of making the EPL top-four, never mind win the league.

While I wasn’t convinced myself that we could mount a real title challenge, I felt it was a bit disrespectful for majority of them to rule us out of top-four completely, giving our overall EPL top-four record (last season apart), our strong end to last season, and our FA Cup win which saw us beat Man City and Chelsea along the way.

There was actually this BBC Football article where 30 of their pundits were asked to predict their top-four, only nine of them picked Arsenal at all, and all of nine picked Arsenal to finish fourth at best.

However, after today’s abject performance and loss to an uninspiring Stoke, coupled with our unconvincing win against Leicester, I’m starting to get worried already about our top-four chances.

I know it’s early days yet (Utd won their first three games last season) but all the teams that finished ahead of us last season have improved their teams and none (the Chelsea vs Burnley anomaly apart) has lost so far, and our performances so far, especially against stoke today, have been very poor – we still can’t defend properly.

Here are five talking points from the game:

1. Arsenal still cannot defend
If you are having to score four goals (including two late ones) to beat a Leicester side that struggled so badly last season and had just three shots on target throughout the match, then you have problems – major defensive problems.

I wrote last week after the Leicester match about how we should give our patched-up defence the benefit of the doubt, but, the truth is, good defensive organization can always make up for absence of one or two key players in defence. After all, all three goals we conceded last week were not errors by any of the back-three but by midfielders (Ozil and Xhaka) who were either giving the ball away in dangerous areas or weren’t committed in the tackle.

Arsenal is the only team I know that will limit the opponent to only two chances and concede two goals, while they will create loads and not score (because the opposition defence is not offering gifts).  We had 77.3% possession and 732 passes today, Stoke had 23% and 212 respectively, yet we lost – SORT IT OUT BOSS!

2. Welbeck too poor a finisher to be starting for Arsenal
If you don’t concede goals you can’t lose football matches but ,ultimately, to win football matches you also need to score. To be incapable of neither is the surest recipe for losing, no matter the opposition.

Danny Welbeck – I hope I’m not being too harsh – is not prolific or composed enough in front of goal to be starting for Arsenal Football Club. I like Welbeck, he works hard, he has a good attitude and is a decent lad, but he just doesn’t take his chances when the hard work gets him into scoring positions.

Welbeck had possibly our best chance to equalize in the 59th minute with a free header in the middle of goal, but he could only connect with his shoulder instead of his head – It was just too clumsy.

Soon after, in the 67th minute, he was put through on goal, although with some pressure from Stoke defenders, but before he could sort his feet out to get a shot on goal, he was already too close to Butland to lift the ball over him and the keeper made a low save.

To make EPL top-four, you simply have to do better than Welbeck.

3. We will suffer if we lose Sanchez
One thing we lacked more than anything else today was dynamism and class around the opposition box-18. We were just too predictable and ponderous. Despite all our possession, the Stoke defence wasn’t really stretched and, indeed, Butland wasn’t making finger-tip save after finger-tip save.

We didn’t have any attacker today who could create a goal scoring chance out of nothing, except for perhaps Lacazette, but he was too closely marked by Shawcross and Co. Ozil cannot spin and take long pops at goal, Welbeck would not beat two markers on the outside left of the box-18 and curl a Henryesque right footer into the far corner of the post. Only Sanchez has this attribute and aura of unpredictability in his game.

If we lose Sanchez to injury or another club this season, that is bye-bye to Epl top-four hopes. I’m convinced about that.

4. Xhaka is starting to cost us
The main point of my post Arsenal vs Leicester article was how Xhaka was becoming complacent and tactically undisciplined in a defensive sense. I pointed out how he was becoming casual in his defensive duties, as seen when  he gave the ball away with a casual pass that led to the second Leicester goal and again when he allowed Vardy a free run to head home for their third.

Shockingly and worryingly, Xhaka has become very casual with his attacking passes and through-balls as well. It’s as if he now believes he is an Ozil or Zidane, because of the two brilliant assists against Leicester. He wasn’t only giving the ball away in dangerous defensive situations today, his misplaced a couple of attempted through balls as well, and without pressure from any Stoke defender.

He neither defended nor attacked well today, and that’s one of the main reasons we lost today.

Finally…
Up next is Liverpool at Anfield and already it’s a must-not-lose game. We should have Koscielny and Sanchez (hopefully) back in the squad, and If we leave Anfield with at least a point, especially with a solid defensive performance., then maybe our season can finally take-off.

The win against Leicester should not mask how poor we’ve been so far overall this season, but thankfully there is no obvious sign of fan negativity in the stands – yet.


YOUR THOUGHTS

Do you think it’s too early to start worrying about our EPL top-four chances?

What is your take on Welbeck as a starter?

Drop your opinion in the comments.