The Death of Football

Footballing memories are always remembered with a story, a meaning, a triumphant finale or a tragic end. There is always the folklore that exists around a rivalry, a furore that manifests in the build up to a game, a tradition and a history of the beautiful game as played in the eyes of the beholder. This is what I feel now and what I’ve felt throughout my footballing life as a fan, and whilst there are some things changing with the modernisation of the game, the majority  of the above still rings true for a lot of fans.

The creation, therefore, of a European super league would absolutely massacre the sanctity of what is good and right about our beautiful game. And that’s the point, it’s OURS. I’ve spoken to so many fans and seen such an outpouring of apathy towards anything resembling a breakaway league, that if indeed it did happen so many of these fans would turn away from following the sport. It may have some global appeal for a short while because all shiny new things do, but the essence of any club involved will be lost forever.

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When you think of the super clubs’ head honchos meeting to discuss what a European super league might look like and chucking in stipulations such as relegation not being possible for a certain 11 clubs (one of which is said to be Arsenal) it is the definition of the “rich getting richer”. Leaving the other so called lesser clubs to fend for themselves in a league with much less global appeal and money flowing through it also screams of ethics being chucked out of the window. It reminds me of when I once heard Stan Collymore on talksport mention that “all the big clubs like Villa, Forrest, Everton, Leeds, and the like shouldn’t ever be relegated from the Premier League”. When he said those words I laughed out loud and he was rightly derided as nonsensical. A European version of this is the same, but worse. The thought of it is fairly sickening and any identity we have with our clubs is at risk here. I’m fairly sure that every fan (both in and out of the super league teams) feels this way.

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A short term approach to anything in life always has repercussions that come back to bite fairly quickly and it’s hard to see past apathy and disinterest. Yes we would have some incredible fixtures at all times to look forward to but just not that many fixtures in total. The rumours suggest that there would be 16 teams involved with 4 groups. Even if we were to win the damn thing we could hope for a maximum of 11 fixtures. How does that even work over the course of a year? It just doesn’t even make any logistical sense. The whole thing feels like non football people making football decisions, or trying to at least, and if true they are failing us all miserably.

Think of a world without any derbies, any cup finals, any rivalry…and the worst thing of all, it would give Sp*rs an actual chance of winning the league. Nothing good can come of this if it goes ahead and the logical, reasonable thing to happen would be for the idea to be thrown out. But logic and reason have long since been passed up by the powers that be, and for that reason we should remain both worried and cautious. We need to ensure that if there is a place where our voices as fans can be heard then we must voice our wants and needs clearly to the club/s that we follow. Why let the corrupt take what we created? I for sure know I’d lose all my real feeling towards the club I love if we joined any such league.

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My favourite memory as a fan has to be at the 2014 FA Cup Final. Being there to see us comeback vs Hull was the single greatest moment as my life as a fan of Arsenal Football Club. The opportunity for future fans to create such a memory could be taken away from them boy the formation of a super league. No one wants it. I want the derby day bragging rights, I want the cup finals, I want the Premier League.

“Things change. Friends leave. Life doesn’t stop for anybody.” as goes the famous quote, and yet this feels like we would be throwing our friends under a bus and forcing ourselves to enjoy both the fact that our friends are dead as well as the fact that we’re not on a bus, but a plane. Sounds weird right? That’s because the whole concept is weird and one that absolutely will not work.

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

Growing Pains

Identity. Personality. A playing style. It’s something that’s been lost over the last few seasons and the true #Wengerball of old was only seen in fits and spurts. For a while Wenger and his players seemed to be trying anything and everything to rediscover our USP as a football club, in terms of playing style. For 95% of the Wenger era, we as fans as well as the opposition, knew what to expect: total football with a tinge of brittle. The tinge grew and grew over time and began to supersede the total football aspect. Enter Unai Emery, the so called ‘catalyst for change’ that Gazidis had spoken of, on a number of occasions previously.

He is ripping up the playbook and trying to ingrain something completely new, which as we all know will require some time. What we maybe didn’t anticipate is the lengths that he might be willing to go to get there. There’s already rumours of rifts between our star man Ozil and captain fantastic Ramsey in that they aren’t willing to commit to the style or are falling short of the standards required for the style. Coupled with the dinosaurs of the football world laying their boot in on how playing out from the back is folly when up against Man City and Chelsea. Emery needs to have his Kevlar well and truly strapped on as the pressure exerted on him will only increase. At the moment he has the good will of the fans on his side, though at 1-0 down vs West Ham this weekend just gone the thought did enter my mind as to how long we as fans could go before results became more important than the identity.

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In my heart of hearts I truly want us to get the identity bit right first and foremost, however wanting to win at all costs is an emotion that takes over when in the emotion of the game. As it turned we were (just about) able to turn the game around and bring home all 3 points. It means that slowly but surely the players will start to believe the approach and hopefully drown out the noise that the tactically misguided fans make from the sidelines. I get that some people are crying out for pragmatism above all else, however they are the same people that were crying out for change in the first instance. Patience is the key, as we can’t have everything in this imperfect world.

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Emery seems to be keen on deploying a 4-3-3 formation and the key problem he has to solve to make the rest of the team work is the midfield three. He’s tried a multitude of variations with this, however has not yet started our most defensive minded midfielder in Lucas Torriera. My inclination is that prior to a ball being kicked his preferred midfield three would have included Torreira, Xhaka and Ramsey. Guendouzi, however, has had different ideas and has been a stand out for us thus far. I do feel that at the tender age of 19, he shouldn’t be someone that we totally depend upon for the season. It’s not fair to him nor the club in all honesty. He may well be big enough to cope with the pressure, however for his own sake as a player it’s important to bed into a club and a philosophy over a lengthy period of time to ensure the best for both the player and the club.

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While the season is still young, it seems that Torreira is being given time to fully recover from his World Cup exploits with Uruguay and therefore might be why we haven’t seen as much of him. Though losing track of Alonso vs Chelsea can’t have helped his cause as our first choice defensive midfielder. One thing that has become abundantly clear with Unai Emery at the helm is this; he will not take an ounce of slacking from any player as well as the fact that he’s not afraid to adapt to in game situations if it means sacrificing our star men to achieve the result. He substituted Ozil with 20 minutes to play vs Chelsea, made half time substitutions to adapt to in game situations and in turn has fueled the rumours that Ozil hasn’t been working hard enough and therefore wasn’t in the squad for West Ham. It’s quite the ‘rap sheet’ so to speak within the first 3 games of a new Premier League campaign.

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With the new style of play we have to consider where indeed Ozil might fit into the system. We’ve signed him up for the next few years at Arsenal and thereafter brought in a coach who we might have thought would be able to get the best out of our star man. Currently it doesn’t quite look as though Emery has worked this one out and that in itself is worrying. It would be acceptable to believe that Ozil is a player you would build your team around as a new man coming in, however sickness or no sickness, his position in the team remains unclear. It comes back to the midfield compilation and trying to find one that gives us the right balance, enough of a balance to include the likes of Ozil in the team to go ahead and create.

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Time

The process, system, personnel, style and most of all, identity will take time to instill. We should therefore be patient regardless of what Sam Allardyce might tell us to do. I did quite enjoy Phil McNulty, a BBC Sport correspondent, tweeting that Big Sam might not be the best authority from which to glean any advice on playing Man City, having been 3-0 down at half time to them with Everton and registering a record breaking low 18% possession throughout the game. Time will tell whether he is indeed a good appointment for this club, but we as fans need to be patient with him. Wenger said it best, support these players through it all, as they really do deserve it. Don’t fall into the click-bait trap of crisis, drama and rumour when we have the chance to support our great club. Let’s not waste the good will on what ifs, rather use it on pushing the team forward. Lord knows the players will require it as they grow into their new roles within the team.

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

Midfield Mind Games

The new season is upon us. It feels exciting. It feels scary. It feels refreshing. For the first time in 22 years, we go into the season facing the unknown. It’s not something we’ve felt for quite some time and it brings both positive and negative emotions to the fore, however mostly positive. Everyone’s discussed this over and over again, but the change seems to have quelled the usual naysayers and starved them of content. It feels good.

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So far as Arsenal are concerned, it looks as though we have addressed pretty much every area that has required looking into. We needed a keeper, we got one. We needed a centre back, we got one. We needed a defensive midfielder (and have done for 10 years!), we got one. We needed cover at right back, we got it. As to the quality of these signings, we know that we aren’t shopping in the elite market so to speak, however that’s what the coaching staff are there for. We can only judge this over time, and the new set up allows for some of that. The only real missing piece of the business is a new attacking wide forward. It feels like we need that gap plugged if we are to make a real impact this season, however it could become a minor gap depending on how our existing options fill that void i.e. Lucas Perez and Danny Welbeck. They’ve flattered to deceive thus far and I can’t help but think a more exciting option will give us another dimension going forward. The already existing piece of the puzzle that remains to be fully glued down is in the shape of Aaron Ramsey’s contract situation. And that’s what brings me to the crux of this article. Our midfield options.

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We finally look to have a multitude of good options in the middle of the park as we finally look to have addressed the gaping hole that was the defensive midfield position. With Torreira a certain starter the question that needs to be asked is, who will it be alongside and how many of them will be a part of the midfield make up? Emery’s past couple of seasons with PSG have been largely played with a 4-3-3 system with the electric front three of Cavani, Neymar and Mbappe propped up by the trio of Verrati, Lo Celco and Di Maria. Quite attacking as you can see. You’d expect the three behind to be more conservative considering the front line, but the manager went with a protagonist-like approach. Dominant on the ball and always forward thinking. With the options we have, if indeed Emery plays the same formation, it would suggest a front three of Lacazette, Aubameyang and Ozil with Ramsey, Xhaka and Torreira making up the base. You can imagine the home games vs stubborn opposition for us to play Mkhitaryan as a part of the front three with Ozil taking the place of Xhaka in behind, if indeed the approach is to be mirrored to PSG last season. The key difference with Arsenal to PSG is simply that we do not have a player within the squad that can demand everything to be centred around him. Ozil is maybe the closest to that type of player but he has played wide, in the deeper role as well as a more traditional number 10 for both Arsenal and Germany previously, so he’s more malleable in comparison to Neymar.  The 4-3-3 formation was dictated by Neymar and demanded to operate in the free role, creating more work for the remaining five players. Ozil won’t shirk the workload as his numbers have shown time and again, so it still remains to be see as to whether 4-3-3 is the system chosen.

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Our formation during the friendlies has chopped and changed throughout, with formations and players interchanging as phases of games go by. It’s been clear to see that the team has been put together in stages and for one game we saw what looked like our starting back four. The same has been tinkered with as a front three, however the game vs Chelsea looked like the closest to what we could see shape wise vs Man City on the opening day. I’m not sure we’ll see Torreira feature in that game just due to his lack of pre season, but even then the mix of players we have seen we just don’t quite know who we may play. We have to pick three of Ramsey, Xhaka, Torreira, Elneny, Guendouzi, Smith-Rowe and Maitland-Niles. The first three are the obvious choices, however if one or possibly two of them aren’t fully fit it begs the question. In any case the very beginning of this piece referenced the excitement and fear of uncertainty as a positive going into the season, and I truly feel the same way about our midfield shape and personnel. It’s an exciting time to be an Arsenal fan purely because of change. It’s not always good and it doesn’t always work but it does give you hope. And what is football without hope?

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

Bellerin vs AFTV: A game of opinions…

It’s been a fairly interesting week or so with a fair few opinions flying around. Fans. Players. Pundits. Managers. They are all at it.

More recently however Hector Bellerin has given an interview with the Oxford Union where he was asked various questions about his life both in and out of football. He spoke very well and came across as a really intelligent young man. Then came the controversial question. It was always going to come in some form, whether it be about social media as a whole, fan abuse, being a model pro or the like. It came in the form of a “what do you make of Arsenal Fan TV. Are there any players that watch it?” question. His response was fairly balanced in that he said sometimes his friends might say “have you seen what x, y & z is saying about you?” but then on a more pressing and poignant front he said “I think it’s so wrong for someone that claims to be a fan and their success is fed off of failure, so how can they be a fan? I think that there is people hustling trying to make money that way and they are entitled to.” He later went onto say that he would pay attention to what coaches said rather than externals, which makes sense but the fall out from this interview has been nothing short of hilarious. The head honcho of AFTV has come out to say that how can a platform base its success on failure, when the team has lost only 45 games out of the last 217 league games (since AFTV has come into existence), which is the basis for the whole argument from Robbie to suggest that “how can such a platform exist if only made off of failures”. The statement well and truly misses the point and I’ll tell you why.

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On googling AFTV or searching for them on YouTube the top hits are interviews that surround controversy or defeat in the main; Bellerin & Gary Neville interviews in the top 2 view wise. Followed by KSI is a gooner, DT having some advice for Xhaka and then a post match ‘rant’ after a defeat vs Bayern.  There’s also a podcast featuring the well known ‘characters’ of the channel followed by a couple more rants after defeats. Just on looking at the viewing numbers alone you can see that the more negative stuff has the most hits. Whether it’s people hoping for a cathartic experience or whether it’s fans of other teams (from my very thorough desk research at my place of work this seems to be the majority!) laughing at Arsenal, it’s pretty clear that the negative stuff gets more clicks. The clicks equal ad revenue, the ad revenue equals potential partnerships (ie Ladbrokes) and all of the above equals money. Now considering I work in the media industry and know how much ad revenue can be made from such numbers I can tell you it’s a fair buck. Chuck in sponsorship and you’re doing well for sure. Now whilst AFTV may argue that this is due to the success of the platform itself anyone else can argue that the platform has only gained success from the points of failure and therefore deem it unsavoury in their mind. Neither is right or wrong here and that’s the actual point here. The platform itself is about people having opinions and when on occasions where people in high profile places have had an opinion on the platform itself a huge fuss has been made of it, creating more views and more money as it turns, but again that misses the point.

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Everyone is entitled to an opinion and for the people that ‘provide opinions’ as it were, it seems a little rich (pun most definitely intended) to be upset with it. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. The bigger issue here is whether it affects the club and whether a player should or shouldn’t be making such comments. In terms of whether he should or shouldn’t, I think we are now in a world where we’re past the point of players having to behave in the ‘traditional’ model pro way. The model pro of today has evolved into something new and one where it includes behaving a certain way on social media as well as off the pitch in the public eye. We’ve also got to consider context in every situation; Bellerin was asked a direct question about his thoughts on AFTV and he simply gave his honest take on it. If players give stock answers that they may have briefed by the club to say then we’d bemoan their lack of connection with the fans and their honesty. Whether it’s damaging to the club itself is another issue. Fans these days of more than just our great club want to become a voice that matters more and more in the ever increasing culture of ‘look at me’ on the social media sphere. Following the Bellerin fall out, there’s been a further audio clip released looking to slander the player through a supposed conversation he’s had stating he wanted to leave the club etc etc. Rumour and suspicion suggests it’s been created by AFTV. AFTV regulars coincidentally come out with the ‘I told you so’ commentary. And therein lies the danger. We’ve already seen the likes of Henry having to refute claims made by Alexis Sanchez and now I’m sure we’ll see Bellerin having to come out and say the same sort of thing about the second clip that’s been released. All of this just has to have an impact on how the players play on the pitch. It must play on their minds. Gone are the days where a newspaper can just be left to the side. Notification after notification is sent directly to the players’ phones and the addiction to these devices basically give the players no opportunity to truly switch off from it all.

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The conclusion here is that if we as fans and the players themselves truly want to achieve Victory Through Harmony then a responsibility lays at both the players and the fans to try and provide the platform to go ahead and do so. In a world where mental health issues are on the rise and the fragility of us all is being pressed upon by the magnifying glass that is social media, the players are no different. They have the same struggles as we do and no amount of money can fix those ills. The reality is that no such Utopian harmony is likely to exist and therefore keeping to a more boring and vanilla approach of club briefed answers is the way forward. A response such as “I don’t watch it and neither do the other players really” is probably the best way to avoid swathes of abuse from ‘fans’ that can only have a negative impact on the players’ minds.

It’s not fun discussion to be having in the week leading up to a Cup Final, however we are where we are and that is the state of footballdom today. Fans and players alike will need to be signing from the same hymn sheet on the weekend against an outstanding Manchester City side.

Victoria Concordia Crescit.

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

The Engine Room: Balancing the Midfield

Trying to fit Ozil, Wilshere, Mkhitaryan & Ramsey into the same midfield is currently proving quite tricky for a number of reasons. Arsene Wenger is usually quite liberal when it comes to shaping a midfield that contains such an array of attacking talent, however this is usually with someone that sits at the base of that midfield who can be relied upon to do the dirty work. Currently that job is either solely left to one of Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny, or the combination of Granit Xhaka with Aaron Ramsey. The latter works rather better on the defensive front simply due to Aaron Ramsey’s rather impressive engine. However this combination is far from perfect as Xhaka seems to struggle with the basics and has sadly been the contributor, error wise, to conceded goals. Furthermore, if the option of Ramsey and Xhaka is selected, whilst leaving enough room to accommodate all of Ozil, Wilshere & Mkhitaryan it puts one of them out of position. Ozil would likely be the one that was pushed wider, however it would be a more malleable system. But would this leave the full backs exposed? Would this mean that we are now play 4 at the back? Does this mean we can’t play with 2 up top from the get go? So many questions that to this day remain unanswered. Our manager can’t solve the conundrum with the current personnel. So how should this really work?

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Whether we play with 3 at the back or 4 at the back I feel as though Wenger just needs to decide on a system whatever that system is, and stick to it. Invest time into it. Even if it’s to the end of the season. We are now at a point where the maximum amount of sticky tape is required to cover the wounds for a transitional summer. But there remains much to play for. The top 4 is not out of reach, The Carabao Cup is up for grabs and the Europa League is the best trophy left for us to try and win this season. The new signings have lifted the mood, but the midfield shape will dictate as to whether the mood remains lofty or not.

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I feel as though going with a back 4 is the only way that we fit our attacking options into the side and the likes of Bellerin and Monreal (or whoever our LB has been) have been exposed in both the back 3 and 4 systems so why not counter that with a more attacking mindset. The setup vs Sp*rs in the first half at Wembley showed that this sort of shape and approach can work quite well, however the missing engine of Ramsey took its toll and the team weren’t able to cope for the duration of the 90 minutes. I’ve seen that if we start with this shape on the front foot at games and then revert to a back 3 to hold the lead we’ve built up is something that has worked well. It just hasn’t happened often enough. This would mean is that one of Lacazette or Aubameyang would be missing out. Having a £50m player on the bench is a nice luxury, but the problem here is that it looks as though we have crushed the spirit of Lacazette and this is at a time where we finally have the ammunition to supply through to him. A debate for another day. My feeling is that we should do everything in our power to get some more energy into the team with a 4-2-3-1 set up and I would be really tempted to go with a:

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This leaves us a little more open at the back without the protection of Xhaka but can be made up with Wilshere sitting a little deeper and a combination of Ramsey and Welbeck’s hard work to compensate. This is also a shape that works a bit better without Alexis Sanchez in the team as Mkhitaryan actually works a bit harder defensively albeit having a little less end product in the final third. It makes for a more balanced shape and set up, also including all of our star men. Wenger has always said that “you play all the good players and they can always play together”, which is why this could just work. Injuries do hamper this as we have Ramsey and Welbeck to rely upon, however as a sticky plaster to see us through to the end of the season we may just get away with it. Newcastle-ing our way to some 4-2 & 4-3 wins might be the only way to do it until SOMEONE actually addresses the gaping hole in our midfield over the summer. Defensively we are always over exposed and have to deal with far more than is necessary due to that gaping hole, but nothing in our current squad short of experimenting with Ainsley Maitland-Niles in there (who might just be a little too relaxed for me in that role but I suppose he can’t be worse than the other options we’ve tried!) we’ve got to find a solution and find one quickly. Crunch time is upon us and nothing short of 9 wins out of our next 11 league games will give us a chance at cracking the top 4.

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

Laurent Koscielny: Taking its toll

There has been much debate about how Koscielny has lost his way. Much concern as to how he is coping with the schedule with his troublesome achilles requiring pain killing injections before every game. Some say old age. Some say fatigue. Some say both. The point is that our best central defender, one that is known and regarded as one of the best in the league, is under severe pressure and scrutiny due to his recent lapses. The fact that he’s been such a great servant to the club and been the rock around we’ve built upon (with biscuits may I add, nice crumbly biscuits) has given him a bit of leeway as to the social media backlash that most of our players suffer off the back of one bad performance, but that leeway is fast running out as we continue to be exposed in both the bigger and smaller games within the Premier League. What is the real issue then? Is it a case of looking for a replacement? I’m not so sure.

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Since the departure of Matthieu Flamini (the first time) we’ve not had a true DM to patrol the areas that sit in front of the back 4/5. It’s been a case of a front loaded first XI and the thought process being to outgun our opponents and then playing keep ball. Something that our team has always been capable of doing up until a couple of years ago at least. The loss of our creative hub midfield setup has been felt in recent years. The midfield 4 of Flamini, Hleb, Fabregas and Rosicky had no true wide men, rather 3 interchanging ball players with one DM supplying them with the ammunition to carry out their task. Thereafter we added the likes of Nasri, Wilshere, Arshavin, Arteta, Cazorla, Ozil and Alexis (although he plays a little higher of course). I’ve not included Ramsey in that selection simply because he is less a technical ball player and more a box to box man. Of that selection there are 2 men left standing that fit the technical ball playing role in Ozil and Wilshere. It’s the reason that we find Alexis having to drop back to pick up the creative slack so to speak when we’re in search of some inspiration. What does this have to do with Laurent Koscielny I hear you ask? It’s a fair question. The fact is our midfield has become functional (at best) rather than technical as it used to be. With our best midfield set up we have Xhaka alongside Ramsey with Ozil, Alexis and Lacazette ahead of it flanked by the wing backs with the back 3 system. With a back 4 it still comprises of Xhaka alongside Ramsey with Ozil in front flanked by Alexis and one of Welbeck/Walcott/Iwobi, with Lacazette up top. There is an argument here that Ramsey could be deployed in his wide right position with Wilshere dropping in behind (which I would love us to try in fairness) but whatever the shape and whatever team selection the technical side is lowered due to the base of the midfield. Xhaka sadly doesn’t fit either the ball player or traditional DM role (similar to Matic at Man Utd) and distribution is the basis of his game. Much like Arteta was tasked with. This lack of technical ability at the base of our midfield has further exposed our back 4/5 as we’re not quite as good at getting ourselves out of sticky situations or playing our way out of the back as we used to be. So many of the goals we’ve conceded over the last few seasons have been when we’re hit on the counter as there’s been a turnover in possession. This has been far more noticeable since the loss of Cazorla as our ball retention has decreased. Yes there are defensive errors that occur (across the whole of the back 4/5) but this is amplified due to the lack of protection in front of them.

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Chelsea have Kante, City have Fernandinho, Utd have Fellaini/Herrera, Sp*rs have Wanyama, Liverpool have Can and will add Keita (who is a bit more box to box in fairness) but the point is that all of these clubs have a solution for this area. And quite good ones too. Man Utd are the only ones that I would say could improve in this area slightly alongside ourselves who don’t really have a solution to this problem other than the brief combination of CoqZorla that we say in 2015. This stems from the fact that we have to retrofit our style based on the players that we have, rather than slotting players into a definitive playing style that we have. We’ve lacked this identity for a while now and sadly this only rests with one man and that man isn’t Laurent Koscielny. It’s Arsene Wenger. That he hasn’t been able to tailor players into a style of play is quite telling. Especially because it isn’t a new problem. It’s one we’ve had for around 18 months now. It may be due to not having the correct personnel available, however even this rests with him as the players brought in will have gone through him to be signed off. We’re now at a stage where big names aren’t as important as they once were to us, as we need to define our style first and then find the right players to slot into the system.

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The lack of a genuine defensive midfielder or lack of a genuinely creative midfield has left us more exposed at the back than we would like and has in turn impacted the level at which Koscielny has to deal with dangerous situations. It’s a numbers game and the more pressure you have to deal with the more likely you’re going to make errors over time. We’ve all seen the stats that show we allow far too many shots on goal in comparison to our rivals. It’s no coincidence that we sit 5th in this table and in turn 6th in the league. The fact we allow so much more pressure directed at our goal than City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Sp*rs smacks of a carelessness in this area. We’re marginally better than Man Utd in this area and it correlates with the fact that they could indeed improve in this area of the pitch.

The bottom line is that until we remedy either the playing style or bring in a truly defensive midfielder we will continue to leave our most accomplished central defender exposed. Arsene, it’s time to help out Koscielny. Buy him a DM or fix Santi, the choice is yours.

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

 

Shkodran Mustafi: The Accidental Hero?

The question has been asked for a few years now. Just who is going to be the partner for Laurent Koscielny? We’ve had so many false dawns; Djourou, Vermaelen, Mertesacker (although I think that he did fill the void adequetly for 2 seasons), Gabriel and now Shkodran Mustafi. Yes we’ve also brought in the likes of Chambers and Holding but they are far too young to be given the responsibility to play a mainstay role in the back line.

With Wenger stumbling upon the back 3/5 approach some 6 months or so ago it opened the door to someone who had begun to fall out of favour towards the end of last season. Not only this but it enabled the likes of Chambers and Holding to have some hope at breaking through sooner rather than later. When the final games of the season were coming thick and fast injury prevented Mustafi from really having that chance and our Cup Final showdown with Chelsea was carried out with a makeshift back 5 to say the least. Mertesacker, Holding and Monreal made up the back 3, flanked by Bellerin at right wing back and Oxlade Chamberlain at left wing back. Plasters and sticky tape galore is the only way to describe it. This season, however, Mustafi has come back from injury with a mixed bag of performances until the North London Derby. Playing vs the leagues’ most in form striker and lauded midfield backing any sort of brittle-like performance would have been pounced upon. Mesut Ozil was given the MOTM award, but I really think it ought to have been given to Mustafi. He blocked absolutely everything and won the majority of balls in the air. He ensured that they would just not pass up until the very last kick of the game. We’ve seen that he is capable of this type of performance before, however it’s never been against one of the top sides and that is why there is some new found hope with our defensive line. Couple this with the fact that it’s no longer a duet with Koscielny but a triumvirate with Monreal involved as an additional ball carrier/keeper from the back. Monreal’s stint at centre back has really blooded him into one of the most consistent performers for Arsenal and enabled him to slot in seamlessly into the back 3. All of these individual circumstances, these stars aligning, these happy accidents have allowed for Mustafi to be given a chance at thriving in this Arsenal side.

The hard part of this is going to be whether he can be consistent enough and the really big tests will be coming thick and fast simply due to the varying degrees of opposition that we will play over the next few weeks especially. We go away to Burnley where we will likely have a lot of the ball and look to avoid the counter as well as set pieces. The key here will be maintaining focus if we are struggling to break them down, as many have also found this when playing Burnley. Not pressing to high up the pitch is going to be important if the scores are level the deeper the game goes. This is followed by welcoming Huddersfield to the Emirates who will be similarly set up. Now we know about Burnley’s threat but with Huddersfield being a newly promoted side into Premier League, it may well cause some complacency to seep in. Mustafi can be one of the catalysts to ensure this isn’t allowed by leading from the back. It’s once again an opportunity to build on the confidence off the back of the North London Derby. We then welcome Manchester United to the Emirates and this is where Mustafi will really be tested, along with the rest of our back 3. They are one of the biggest sides in the league and you can expect that the likes of Lukaku, Pogba, Fellaini and Ibrahimovic will play a big part in testing how strong our back 3 really are. The Derby was just about the win and not the performance but thankfully we were treated to both, but this has meant that a little hope has rekindled itself into our lives. That hope will either be fully found or lost over the next few weeks and Mustafi performing as he did vs Sp*rs, and indeed Chelsea, in our next three fixtures could make or break his career at Arsenal.

If he makes an error of any kind and it leads to us dropping any points in the next three fixtures the pitchforks will be out and as we all know, the players all use social media and it won’t take much to crush the spirit of the young German. I’m not trying to say that he is susceptible or deals with social media hate badly, as there is no way for me to know this, however I can say that both good and bad sentiment will play a part in how he may play going forward. It’s not quite like the days of old where players can shut themselves away with training and the club for a week before they put things right, they are constantly subjected to the joys and pitfalls of social media. We can affect them in and out of the ground and those little difference can now make or break a players career at a big club.

He has all the ingredients to be a great central defender; he is great in the air, he’s strong, he’s quick but he does have the tendency to jump in to situations too early rather than passively holding up play. But he has a chance. Fingers crossed he takes it.

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani.

Can the youth step up?

After the heroics of a certain Eddie Nketiah in the Carabao Cup vs Norwich, the question of including some youth within  some Premier League match day squads has arisen. The question is a fair one as well, especially when you consider how young talent has broken through across the globe in high profile situations. Mbappe with Monaco, Asensio with Real Madrid, Dembele with Dortmund, Rashford with Man Utd, Jesus with Man City and Alli with Sp*rs. There are plenty of top players coming through at top teams across European football who are cutting it at the very top level so it does beg the question, where is our next big young star going to come from?

There are a few fringe players plying their trade in the Europa League and Carabao cup and of the fringe there are a few knocking on the door, not quite banging, but knocking a little more than politely. Alex Iwobi has seen enough first team action as well as on the rotation side of the squad to be more than considered for the first team, but the more interesting options in my opinion are the likes of Joe Willock (18), Reiss Nelson (17) and Eddie Nketiah (18).

Joe Willock is a really interesting one and the one that I think is quietly making himself a real possibility for the first XI. He has played in the central midfield role and been perfectly neat and tidy when on the ball, the type of player that Arsene really loves, as well as looking mature enough to make key interceptions with impeccable timing. Considering that central midfield is our most problematic area, especially when off the ball, it could well be an opportunity for the young man. We’ve got a number of options in that position already, however they aren’t the most inspiring options when you get past Ramsey and Xhaka. With Wilshere finding his fitness with each game, he is definitely an option that excites, however Willock is fast becoming the man whom Wenger is relying upon to calm the storm in the middle of the park. I can see him playing in there with someone like a Wilshere or a Ramsey with them willing to press forward he would happily play the deeper more secure role. If an injury crisis does present itself, Willock would be an option I’d be happy for us to try. Where I’ve seen him struggle slightly is when he’s playing alongside someone who isn’t in his ear to dictate a little where he should be. But as he’s young, that’s to be expected when playing in front of 50,000. He seems to be calm in every situation I’ve seen him in, and while I understand that the Premier League is a big step up from the Europa League and the Carabao cup, it’s the only way that stars are unearthed.

Reiss Nelson is THE stand out name of the three, simply because we know what he is capable of when on the ball. A fearless young player with some incredible footwork makes for exciting watching. The reason we haven’t seen him explode onto the scene quite yet is because he is being played out of position and the position inhibits his natural born instinct to hurt the opposition. Wenger is always great at moulding great attacking players with discipline as a foundation to learn their trade, which can work both ways. Sometimes it can curb their attacking prowess completely but in others it can help to push them onto become a more complete player and more often than not Wenger is usually spot on with these things. Aaron Ramsey has become far more disciplined with his defensive game having played as a wide man a couple of years back and one can only hope that this helps Nelson in the long run. He is however a player that could be quite useful from the bench in games that are already won as well as games that might need a bit of a spark in a forward area. I really would like to see him play as one of the men behind the front man to see how he fares with some truly world class players around him.

Now when it comes to Eddie Nketiah, we’ve only seen a small glimmer of what he can do on somewhat of a big stage, but in that short cameo vs Norwich one thing that we all saw was a complete disregard for who he was playing in front of, alongside and against. He got a goal with his first touch, which could have simply been luck, however you do have to be in the right place at the right time for these things and we saw a truly brilliant header for his second goal. But it wasn’t just his goals that were exciting, it was his ability to run at the opposition with such control and ferocity combined that really got me going. He almost added another couple of goals to the scoreline with his fearless running. This is what a young world star usually has in their locker, this fearlessness is what Mbappe, Asensio, Dembele, Rashford, Jesus and Alli all have in common in different ways. They all have an arrogance about how good they are and if they’re playing against you it does make you hate them because of the arrogance coupled with the talent, but it’s what makes you sit up and take notice. He’s another I would love to see given a go off the bench to see what he’s really made of. He’s scored goals for fun in the youth side and while that’s good in itself we only have to remember that Nicklas Bendtner broke every youth goalscoring record going and wasn’t quite the main man when he made the step up.

The point is that there are at least a few players that could get a look into the first team and it really would be nice to blend in some fearless youth into an already good first XI. As I said they’re only just politely knocking at the door and not quite banging it down, but we’re long overdue a young star to come into the fore in the Premier League and one of the above 3/4 could well be that star. 

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

 

The Arsenal Squad Depth Myth

The beginning of every season yields much promise and hope as to how we might at last conquer the Premier League once more. Year after year every team thinks it could be their season. We normally take stock of what we have and consider whether beyond the starting XI we have enough to compete to the very end, and this season felt like we had enough ‘bodies’ at least to compete. Did we have the quality though?

The simple answer to this question thus far has proved to be ‘No’, purely because when you scratch beneath the surface of a strong first XI, there’s very little quality cover available to call upon. Defensively we look like we’re just about covered, however even in this area we are using players in more than one position to full the void. It’s in midfield that we have real issues. When we play with Ramsey & Xhaka at the base, we are just about functional and the back 3 covers for it when we are at full strength, but the minute one of those links is removed we remain so exposed. We saw it against Watford away, where Ramsey wasn’t there meaning we were less creative and had one less body piling forward. In addition Koscielny had to go off with an injury, meaning the two key components of our team were removed leaving us completely exposed at the back. Elneny isn’t more than someone to utilise to close out a game in my opinion, and with Cazorla out for the long term the only other options that remain are Coquelin and Wilshere. Whilst Wilshere has looked great in the games he’s played so far this season, the true test lies for him in the Premier League.

The really annoying thing is that we actually do have 2 players for every position (finally!) but in doing so, and in keeping faith with the current crop we’ve neglected buying an actual central midfield shield. We know that Wenger tried for Kante, however that aside we’ve not looked to address the issue leaving us short of a man in there. I really like the look of Bakayoko at Chelsea and wonder if we missed a trick in not trying to bring him to the Emirates, however the lack of Champions League football may well have something to do with that. There is a plethora of youth coming up through the academy at the moment and Joe Willock could well be someone we could look to in the future for this type of role, a sort of calming presence in the middle a la Cazorla or Arteta even. But the problem still remains that the right combination of players hasn’t quite been stumbled upon by Arsene Wenger just yet.

There is an added headache for Wenger to deal with, in trying to find a midfield combination that works and is more disciplined by rifling through the squad, the decision has to be made around whether we play the triumvirate of Alexis, Ozil & Lacazette together at last. It’s long been bemoaned that we haven’t played a team that works hard enough and that’s another balancing act that Wenger has to deal with at the moment. He’s had to rely upon the likes of Iwobi & Welbeck in positions that would usually be filled by Alexis & Ozil. In that respect we’ve got players that can somewhat fill the void and be relied upon to a degree, however I’m again not sure they could lead the line. We seem to be a little top heavy and lacking in the midfield and defensive areas, especially the wing back roles. Looking at the respective wing back and central midfield roles, which are absolutely crucial to this formation and system, seem to be lacking in depth. If we had our first XI available every week we’d be absolutely fine and with us not being in the Champions League we may well get away with it for large parts of the season. The injuries look to slowly be subsiding and we should have a full complement of players to select from and that’s when we might really find out if our ‘depth’ levels are worthy of a title challenge. When the Champions League participants get to the sharp end of the competition and we are a little fresher, we may well see the benefits of a more rested first XI (hoping here that we don’t sell Alexis & Ozil in January).

Currently as it stands however, it looks to be an imbalanced squad, but crucially, the lack of Champions League football alleviates some of the pressure to balance the competitions and playing time – it could well end up being the best set of accidental ingredients required to mount a title challenge.

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

 

Koscielny-Mustafi: The Swap

Koscielny began our venture into a back 3 formation as the deepest lying centre back and in recent weeks Mustafi has switched into this position. Why has this stumbled upon formation been tinkered with so much by the boss? We’ve already seen wingers play as wing backs (on the opposing flanks no less), central midfielders play as centre backs and David Ospina play in goal so we’ve seen our fair share of players out of position. The switch between Koscielny and Mustafi however is a little more intriguing.

As I mentioned we’ve seen Koscielny placed at the base of the defence to begin with as he was seen as the most competent defender and footballer, meaning that he could run the line and organise from the back. Now we see Mustafi there and I get the feeling we could well be seeing this due to his calamitous decision making higher up the pitch. It seems like Wenger doesn’t trust him all that much having tried to shift him on for Jonny Evans (!?) over the summer. With this in mind it has now manifested its way onto the pitch whereby Mustafi has become the ball receiver from the back and key decisions in terms of stepping out to press and sit off now look to be resting with Koscielny and Monreal who play a little further up. Mustafi does have the tendency to dive in too early and therefore leaves Koscielny more exposed. Maybe Wenger playing him deeper will have him think twice about diving in and keep him firmly on his feet.

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The real benefit of this is that we don’t find ourselves exposed in the same way on counter attacks as Koscielny is a more measured and experienced defender. On top of this we also have the added benefit of having a surplus in the midfield, in a good way. Koscielny is the best ball playing defender that we have and him playing further up gives an extra body in the midfield allowing the Ramsey and Xhaka pivot to work with more effect with the ball and even when without it, we have a defensive minded player further up the pitch. He’s playing the David Luiz/Eric Dier role, which is usually left to the least defensively competent player of the back 3, however in our case it’s been flipped and yet works better. The reason the others use their least defensively competent players in those positions is because their midfield pivots consist of far better defensively minded players (Kante/Wanyama), which is something that our midfield simply does not have. The downside to this however is that Koscielny isn’t in the best position to martial the defence in off the cuff situations, which is essentially what your defenders need to do most of the time during a game, especially when you’re an Arsenal player simply because the way in which we concede goals is predominantly on the counter attack. This means that once again our balance across the whole team is quite fragile and also that in a mid game situation taking one piece out of a fragile puzzle will have the whole thing tumbling down. It’s very much a house of cards than a full proof plan in which we have a couple of players that can fill in for each other. It reminds me of when Wenger stumbled upon the CoqZorla midfield axis that worked so well for us in 2014/15.

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Whilst it’s really encouraging to see the new defensive shape working for us, it has become clear to see that it’s not completely fit for purpose. We played away to BATE Borisov with players in their unnatural positions due to the lack of depth I mentioned, and we were found out. Yes we scored 4, and going forward has never really been an issue for Wengers’ sides, but we looked fairly calamitous at the back. It’s a defensive shape that we will need a few prayers for in terms of fitness (LOL) in order to sustain a challenge for the big honours this season.

In any case, the Koscielny/Mustafi swap looks to be working in the short term at least, which is no bad thing. Drawing away at the Champions with this change is no bad thing. Winning 2 games since that draw is no bad thing. The trajectory looks good, let’s hope it can be maintained.

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.