Every Monday, theScore’s Daniel Rouse breaks down the weekend that was in English football. Welcome to the “Eye on England.”
Erik Lamela cut a diagonal run while the defense was largely occupied by Harry Kane’s movement, and Christian Eriksen spotted the Argentine. He slotted the ball between Sokratis’ legs and down an avenue which would seemingly bypass David Luiz and reach Lamela’s left foot. Arsenal were in trouble.
It was 10 minutes into the second half of Sunday’s 2-2 draw, so under 30 minutes since fans and pundits dissected the capriciousness of the Gunners’ backline. Luiz took plenty of criticism. Tottenham Hotspur scored twice in the first half and, in the buildup to the opener, Luiz grasped at thin air when he tried to apprehend Heung-Min Son.
Other players would’ve stewed on such an error, particularly when it occurred a week after erratic episodes against Liverpool. But not Luiz. The Brazilian nonchalantly stepped into Eriksen’s would-be assist and instructed Ainsley Maitland-Niles to funnel play upfield. Just over half a minute later, Luiz broke Spurs’ lines with a pass to Alexandre Lacazette’s toes. Sixty-six seconds after Luiz’s initial interception, Matteo Guendouzi forced Hugo Lloris into a fine save following a sustained spell of Arsenal possession.
Arsenal had taken control, and Luiz started it.
Luiz is regularly lambasted, even if his teammates are more liable for a breakdown. Sokratis effectively bookended Spurs’ opener: dashing 10 yards into the Tottenham half to challenge the same header as Granit Xhaka and then, after Luiz missed Son in the center circle, reducing his speed to unwittingly grant Eriksen space for an easy finish. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno also had cinder blocks for hands in the first half.
Luiz is guilty for some of Arsenal’s lapses in the season’s opening weeks, but harshly singling him out ignores the qualities he brings to the team. His short-range distribution can patiently turn defense into attack – just as it did early in the second half – and he can swiftly release speedy frontmen when he scatters play from deep. He produced more tackles, interceptions, and clearances than his primitive partner Sokratis during the weekend’s north London derby.
And, despite the longstanding and oft-mentioned problems in defense, Unai Emery is strangely grappling with his midfield and attack – a more concerning element of the current Arsenal regime than Luiz. First, after two wins to begin the Premier League season, there was the omission of Lacazette and odd decision to deploy a midfield diamond in a 3-1 loss in Liverpool. Then, when Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Nicolas Pepe were finally fielded together for the north London derby, they were backed up by a midfield brigade curiously missing Dani Ceballos.
Like with Emery’s other bizarre selection decisions this season, the manager was shown to be wrong. This was especially the case with the continued use of Granit Xhaka. The Swiss somehow lasted until the 92nd minute before he was carded for a lazy trip on Kane, with his previous 91 minutes spent occasionally kicking people during an otherwise idle afternoon. His foul to concede the penalty which led to Spurs’ second strike was late, incredibly clumsy, and somehow didn’t incur disciplinary action from referee Martin Atkinson.
Astonishingly, Xhaka has amassed two more Premier League appearances in little over three seasons than Gunners icon Marc Overmars managed in his whole career.
The trio of midfielders who started against Tottenham – Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, and the impressive Guendouzi – were picked to protect the defense, but they were porous when facing counterattacks and often lacked creativity. Would fielding Ceballos have made Arsenal that more susceptible to Tottenham advances?
Arsenal’s defense was the huge question mark hanging over Emery’s XI heading into this campaign, and those issues persist. But what should overshadow Luiz’s intermittent gaffes, Sead Kolasinac’s positioning, and Sokratis’ agricultural style are the difficulties higher up the park that fewer cynics anticipated. Emery appears no closer to discovering a midfield capable of supporting the explosive talents of Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Pepe after four matches of the new season.
Catalonian craft from … Rochdale?
Graham Potter has earned praise for how he’s changed the philosophy at Brighton & Hove Albion, but there’s arguably a more impressive example of quick teachings in League One. Rookie manager Brian Barry-Murphy succeeded lower-league stalwart Keith Hill as Rochdale boss in March, dragged them away from a fiercely contested relegation battle, and has gradually implemented some pass-heavy play which echoes Pep Guardiola’s approach. Rochdale scored two immense team goals in Saturday’s 3-0 win at Southend United. Ian Henderson’s opener drew praise after it followed some ambitious exchanges at the back, a dummy in midfield, and a Manchester City-esque low cross and tap-in to finish.
Wolverhampton Wanderers should be better. They retained their best players from last season; Patrick Cutrone is promising competition for Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez in attack; Adama Traore looks much more effective in the season’s early days and eviscerated Everton’s Lucas Digne several times during Sunday’s 3-2 defeat on Merseyside. So, naturally, blame will rest with Wolves’ demanding Europa League schedule. Wolves drew at home to Burnley and lost to Everton after the two qualifying legs against Torino, and their workload won’t ease up in a tricky group with Besiktas, SC Braga, and Slovan Bratislava.
Time for Lampard to shake things up
“It’s not defense, it’s conceding as a team,” Frank Lampard rued after seeing his Chelsea side surrender a two-goal lead in a 2-2 home draw with Sheffield United. “You defend as a team as much as you attack as a team.” Despite Lampard’s insistence that it’s a team concern they’re conceding goals, the Blues’ backline could look very different after the international break. Antonio Rudiger and Reece James may be fit after their respective injury complaints, and Lampard must be tempted to use Fikayo Tomori, who was his best player at Derby County last season. Either way, Kurt Zouma’s starts will surely be slashed after his late own goal added to a fattening catalogue of dodgy defending this term.