The Inquest: Width needed up front and Maitland-Niles shows potential

It’s never nice to lose a North London Derby, but when a 1-0 loss is actually a hammering, it feels even worse. The fact that we could have equalised right at the death (if Lacazette’s shooting boots had been on, maybe even got two), despite being as limp as yesterday’s noodles through most of the game, shouldn’t change our assessment of just how awful we were.
We lined up in a 4-3-3 for the game, and during the first half, the plan – to soak up pressure, compressing the space in midfield with Elneny, Xhaka and Wilshere, and hit them on the break with a quick pass out from Ozil to Aubameyang or Mkhitaryan – looked like it would actually work. But with the Armenian number 7 messing up our two best counter-attacks with poor final balls, we didn’t display the kind of ruthlessness such a plan required. The warning signs were there during the first half itself, when our midfield kept conceding possession and failing to physically compete with Dembele, and Dier and the buzzing trio of Alli, Eriksen and Son.
In the second half, Dembele stepped it up a gear and as a result, after Kane headed in Ben Davies’ cross on 49 minutes, Spurs took a stranglehold of the game, and it was only in the final minutes that we got any joy out of them. Why did this happen? There was a lot of the same old, same old about the performance. Xhaka looked uninspiring yet again, Ozil and Mkhi went AWOL, the defence looked panicky, the full-backs were caught out of position too often, forcing their defending to become increasingly desperate as things went on.
But what hurt us most was the lack of width in forward positions. I’ve written previously about how this forces the full-backs to push too far forward, which is extremely dangerous when playing a back 4, especially when our understanding of the concept of defensive midfielder is as nebulous as Michael Bay’s understanding of plot. But this hurt us even more yesterday since we needed width on the wings to push Spurs back and make more of our chances. Several times we got the ball to Ozil wide on the right, but the German’s didn’t have the pace to get away from the Spurs players and set us on the break. The lack of width also allowed Davies and Trippier, not quite the most attacking full-backs in the world, to get forward without having to worry about being caught upfield and while many of their crosses were easy to deal with, some of them created panic in our 18 yard box, and also led to the goal.
This also made it easier for Dier and Dembele to dominate the midfield, as we didn’t have options in the wide areas to take the ball forward or receive an out-ball. Neither Ozil on the right nor Mkhitaryan on the left were able to offer those options, with both preferring to drift inside but where they would run into Dier, or see their teammates hustled off the ball by Spurs’ high energy pressing. It was only when we got Welbeck on down the right wing and shifted Aubameyang to the left, that we finally managed to stretch Pochettino’s team enough to create some chances and move the ball around in the centre of the park. This indeed should have been the approach taken into the game at the outset, going with the pair of Elneny and Wilshere in midfield, with Iwobi or Welbeck creating width up front on one wing. Ozil could have taken up his preferred number 10 position, and Mkhitaryan could have drifted in off the opposite wing.
On paper, this looks like reducing bodies in midfield, which is a risk against Spurs, but things translate differently on the pitch. Width up-front would have freed up our full-backs a bit, allowing them to focus on their defending, which would free up the defensive midfielders, who would get a bit more breathing room as Spurs’ midfield would also have to sit deeper to watch Ozil. In the 2-0 win over them in November, the pair of Ramsey and Xhaka were able to run the midfield since we were using wing-backs for width, and Ozil had caused them all sorts of trouble. Keeping him on the wing in a 4-3-3 limits his ability to influence games and do what he does best: ghost between the lines and pick good passes – 2 key passes is quite the low for someone like him. The effects on the team were there for all to see – once can only hope Wenger gets over his Xhaka blind spot and realises this. Our top 4 ambitions probably ended that day, and we’re going to have to focus on winning the Europa League to get back into the Champions League next season.

Europa League: Maitland-Niles in midfield shows quality but also flaws

There’s been a lot of praise for Ainsley Maitland-Niles in midfield against Graham Potter’s Oestersunds on Thursday night (still feels weird), and for someone who’s been advocating giving him a chance there for quite some time now, it’s nice to be vindicated. However, despite the 94 passes (93.6% accurate), 1 key pass, 3 tackles and 2 interceptions, there’s still a way to go before he becomes our new midfield messiah. There were a few loose passes in there, which were actually given away in pretty dangerous areas, and he was also dispossessed 4 times – which is a bit on the high side for a defensive midfielder (2 of those were close to goal as well). He will need to work on his concentration, but if he gets it right, should be a real pleasure to watch, especially alongside Jack Wilshere for a more fluid (but strong) midfield, as well as to act as a counterweight defensively for Aaron Ramsey, allowing the Welshman to bomb forward. Without that, however, he could remain a liability.

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