BLOG: ARSENAL FC – A SEASON REVIEW

Now that the dust of the season has settled, it feels like the right time to take stock and review what happened. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Unprepared

As the dawn of the season approached we seemed to be perpetually stuck in the unprepared way of life that we’ve become so accustomed to over the recent past. Post the European Championships we were without Koscielny, Ozil and Giroud due to their exertions. We were without an injured Gabriel. We were short a centre back with the Mustafi deal yet to be completed. Cazorla was not deemed fit enough to start. Our new signing Granit Xhaka could only make the bench for our first game. Now injuries and tournament football is something that will cost you in early games, yet when you look at our centre backs in Chambers and new boy Holding it doesn’t take too much to see that the inexperience may well cost us against a good Liverpool side. You can’t blame the players selected here, who you can blame are the board and to a certain degree Wenger for lacking that killer instinct in the transfer market. Who knows whether this is solely on him or whether he is restrained by the board but either way you look at it, we were unprepared. Especially when you see that we additionally signed Mustafi and Lucas Perez.

The loss against Liverpool was a watershed moment in that following it, we went on a 19 game unbeaten run in all competitions and it looked to be a team that was showing some fight. Showing some resolve. Winning ugly. Winning late on. Wengerball also looked to be back with a couple of blistering performances, namely the dismantling of Chelsea at the Emirates. A new Arsenal or a false dawn?

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Same old, same old…

Then it happened. The stuttering began and it was in two big away games in which we saw the same cracks appear. In both fixtures, Man City & Everton, we took the lead and the initiative. We deservedly led in both games and took the foot off the gas as the comprehension of winning the big games themselves hit us. Caution took over and our luck ran out. Yes we should have had a penalty vs Everton and yes Man City’s second goal was offside, but that’s not the point. When the game was there for the taking we fell short. Another interesting development during this period of the season was the adoption of the 3-4-3 formation from the leaders of the pack. Chelsea adopted this change off the back of their humbling at the Emirates, which was very much the Conte way as we’d seen with the Italian team at the Euros. Sp*rs had also changed their way to match Chelsea in order to ensure they kept pace. City continued with their version of tiki-taka. United continued with their version of 6 at the back (or Mourinho-ball as we know it). We continued with our tried and tested 4-2-3-1, even when it became apparent that it wasn’t quite working as efficiently as the season before.

This pattern continued for far too long into the season for my liking and we just couldn’t seem to put a run of games together nor any real form to carry us forward and maintain a title challenge. What we did see was a Champions League capitulation like we’ve never seen before. Losing is one thing, but a 10-2 aggregate scoreline against a club Ivan Gazidis said that we would be competing with back in 2013, is quite frankly farcical.

This coupled with uncertainty around our manager and any sort of clarity from the board was only ever going to lead to one thing. Adverse effects on the players. I’ve said it before, but think about it, if as a player you don’t know who is going to be in charge next season why would you want to play for him at a level of 100%, even subconsciously? If you knew a manger was coming in, your agent would want to know if you as his player were in the new managers plans, else you may need to find a new club. If the current manager was known to be staying on then you’d know where you stand. But not knowing what is going to happen leaves you uncertain, even if only slightly, and we all know that if there is even a modicum of giving anything less than 100% in any form of football you will quickly be found wanting.

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Stubborn change

We finally saw Wenger succumb to the 3-4-3 formation in an attempt to galvanise the squad and give us something to hope for. It began with a fairly unconvincing display vs Boro followed by a quite stunning display vs Man City in an FA Cup semi-final. That was the moment that we found our usual end of season get-out-of-jail-free card that would normally propel us into the top 4 and displace Sp*rs form their mind the gap perch. This wasn’t to be the case this season, but it did galvanise the squad, giving us 18/21 points as well as a place in the Cup Final. The points came against some tough opposition as well, with us having faced Man United & Everton at home alongside Stoke and Southampton away. Imagine we had adapted sooner? Although it’s equally annoying to imagine what would have happened if our board had given a semblance of forward planning and guidance to steer a ship that was quite visibly shaking. This approach was also adopted in the FA Cup Final vs the best team in England this season. This with Per Mertesacker playing with Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal as a part of a makeshift back three. Not only that but we played The Ox at left wing back. We were given a quite unbelievable performance given the circumstances and we brought home some silverware, which I’ve always maintained is the whole point of it all. I’m in no way saying that winning the FA Cup is more succesful than winning the Premier League, in fact I would rather we could swap to what Chelsea had. However I would argue that the single expressive emotion of celebrating a cup winning goal and at the full time whistle is more rapturous as an experience than actually winning a league unless of course it’s a Michael Thomas or an Aguero like moment. That one portion of joy is probably collectively less joyful than that of perpetually winning throughout the season, however taken in isolation is more than likely of a higher peak than any of the collective celebrations, again taken in isolation. Winning things is what it’s about as a fan, and no matter what the celebration police say I hope you all enjoyed it.

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The win resulted in a new 2 year deal being offered to Arsene Wenger and added information to suggest that this may well not be his last contract, and that’s the bit that irks me about the situation. I am in no way displeased that he has been kept on, so let me say that off the bat. I am very pleased that he is still our manager, however the annoyance lies with the fact that we may well find ourselves in this very same situation in 2 years time. The uncertainty. The fan unrest. The player unrest. That’s what annoys me. How does the club plan for a replacement if they’re not sure he is going to be replaced? I feel as though this should be his last contract as they can then begin to plan for the future, and the problem is Arsene just loves the club as well as the game too much (as we all do). And it’s due to that fact that we as fans will be left in limbo in 2 years time. As much as I adore the man, he shouldn’t be the priority of our club, not ahead of the club itself in any case. 1. Arsenal, 2. Arsene, 3. Players. Number 1 includes the fans by the way, as we are the lifeblood of the game. I just truly hope that Wenger has the foresight to know when the time is right to hang up his zip and ensure that the baton is passed onto a worthy successor. Time will tell.

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Goal of the season

My top 5 goals for us this season are as follows:

5. Alexis v Ludogorets. Purely just for its fantastic technique. Watch it.

4. Walcott v Chelsea. Because #Wengerball. Watch it.

3. Ramsey v Chelsea. Because Cup winning goals bring about joy. Watch it.

2. Ozil v Ludogorets. Last minute, winning goal, unreal technique, bodies flying. Exquisite. Watch it.

1. Giroud v Crystal Palace. This is THE goal of the season and will be hard pushed to be beat by anything we see from here on in. MOTD voted Emre Can’s goal as the goal of the season, but we’ve all seen bicycle kicks before. Adebayor did it vs Villareal etc etc. But the Giroud scorpion kick with it being behind him, further away from goal than Mkhitaryans effort (as well as onside!) and clipping the crossbar before it went in makes it a very special goal indeed. It even had a #Wengerball build up included. One of the best we’ll ever see and the only Arsenal goal I really rate above this is King Denis’ goal v Newcastle as he beat a man with skill and followed it with a finish. It had an aesthetic appeal to beating a man that we’ve never seen before it, nor after. Drink it in: Watch it.

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Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

BLOG: CONTRACT REBELS?

Will they? Won’t they? What does it all mean for Arsenal FC? Are we still a ‘big club’? So many questions, so few games remaining, so much uncertainty.

Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil remain our two most important and valuable players, which is why it is integral for them to be kept on to build the team around. But I’m here to talk about what it would mean if they didn’t sign. I can see the motivation for wanting a move; Trophies, Money, Career progression in short. However what both players clearly thrive on are to be the main men at their clubs. Ozil seems ok playing second fiddle to Alexis, however is revered by our fan base and therefore loves playing for Arsenal Football Club. Alexis knows that he’s our most important player and thrives on the responsibility that we heap on his shoulders. He loves that. Pep Guardiola had recently said of Alexis that he really wanted to be the difference maker at Barcelona and while he did contribute in a big way whilst there, he was always going to be second fiddle to Lionel Messi. That’s what any player has to understand when moving to Barcelona. And so he moved to pastures new, finding the perfect blend at Arsenal. Or so he thought.

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In the last two months we’ve seen that the team and quite possibly the manager is going through a transitional phase. It’s almost as if the club has been left to float in an uncomfortable space whilst minds are made up at the very top as to the direction of Arsenal from the summer onward. This is what has led to a delay in the contracts being signed. This as well as both players trying to get as much money as possible for their last ‘big’ contract at a truly competitive club anyway. There will likely be big money offers as their careers disappear into the sunset from China and the MLS in a few years from now, however the next contract is the one that is the most significant of their careers. They will want to know who their new manager is, they will also want to know if they fit the managers plans (I can’t imagine this being an issue in all honesty unless we have a manager who writes for a tabloid) and they’ll also want to know what the transfer plans are for the summer to ensure that Arsenal remain competitive. All of that as well as a bumper new contract. It’s not just a question of one or two elements, there are a lot of moving parts and therefore a lot of room for deliberation exists, not to mention the uncertainty that surrounds the manager.

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But let’s just say that they don’t sign and they do look for moves away. Alexis Sanchez has 18 months left on his contract and therefore we can look to get around £60-70m for a player of his calibre in today’s market. The Clubs that he could join in my view are PSG, Bayern Munich, Man City & Chelsea. He’s done Italy and Spain, seems to like the Premier League intensity but also wants to win the biggest prizes. Whilst the lure of Pep at City would probably be his favoured destination were he to leave I just don’t think we will be held to ransom by another English club. He fits at Chelsea where he would probably take Pedro’s role, however again I just don’t think that we will be held to ransom as we’ve seen in the past. The most likely destinations are Bayern or PSG and Bayern tend to be more sensible in their transfer offers therefore I think that PSG would be the only  realistic option both for him and Arsenal. They would pay the required money and have the lure of potential success.

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As far as Mesut Ozil is concerned, I genuinely think that he is truly happy here and more importantly truly happy playing for Arsene Wenger. However if he were also to leave we would look to command at least £50m for the worlds most creative number 10. His list of suitors would be similar to that of Alexis Sanchez. Madrid may want him back, Bayern would indeed love him there, PSG also another option but I can’t see that any English clubs would be after him. The only other team whose style he suits could be Man Utd as he’s played under Mourinho previously, but they already have Pogba and Mkhitaryan who are number 10s that aren’t being played in their position. As well as this there’s just no way that we would sell to an English club.

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The combined transfer fees would look like £110m in addition to the £100m warchest being banded about, which would mean a lot of new faces and a massive squad rebuild. I almost think that if this were the case it would be the perfect way to bring in a new manager as well. He could truly put his stamp on the squad and shape it in exactly the way he wants. The squad, in my opinion, is good enough to be competing and the players are only just now showing signs of fight. We all know that Wenger cares profusely for the club, however just how much can he get out of this squad going beyond this season? If Wenger is to stay he must ensure that he keeps a hold of both Ozil and Alexis, as if they both do leave, it will be Wenger that puts his own £200m stamp on a squad that won’t be his for more than 2 years afterwards. That would be grossly unfair and unjust on the incoming new manager, whenever that may be and would cause a longer term imbalance to the squad. That in itself is not The Arsenal way.

In my opinion both players will indeed stay as well as Arsene Wenger and the rebuild will be set for another time. Of the above scenarios, if keeping both players means keeping Wenger for a little bit more then I say it’s the right thing to do. Whatever happens we are in for an intense summer. A lot of plates remain spinning and we need to ensure that the right people are in place both on and off the pitch to ensure none of them come crashing down.

BLOG: IS #WENGERBALL DEAD?

It’s long been said that we play the finest football in the land. Whether it’s Bergkamp, Henry, Denilson, Chamakh, Bendtner, Fabregas, Alexis or Ozil the mantra has always been the same: we will out-football you. Wenger’s teams have always had a fluidity about them no matter the personnel, granted we had the grit in the days of Vieira and Gilberto however even in their absence we stayed true to the philosophy that Wenger brought to the Premier League. Playing in triangles, devastating counter-attack football and excellent possession based slow to quick transition play to break down a stubborn team. It’s been a privilege to watch this over the years, but over the last 18 months or so we’ve looked like we don’t really know what our style is, what our identity is, what our ‘go to’ method is when approaching any game. It begs the question; is #Wengerball dead?

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Arsenal football club has been struggling to find a formula that works for quite some time now and there are a number of reasons as to why. Previously, when it’s worked really well, we’ve had a spine that has stayed constant throughout the majority of the season around which Wenger has added patches of talent to and kept the football playing machine going. In recent times we’ve found it hard to maintain that identity and I believe a lot of this is to do with the type of striker that the players around have gotten used to playing with. Before the arrival of Olivier Giroud we had Robin VanPersie, who whilst not the most mobile of strikers in comparison to an Alexis or Aguero, his movement was incredibly incisive and a fair bit quicker than Giroud. He was no target man. Before him we had Chamakh, Adebayor, Eduardo, Bendtner & Vela who played a significant(ish) amount of games to justify that they were important to us as a team. Bendtner aside, we had a more mobile strikeforce than we do now, and have done for the past 4 years or so. Yes Podolski was also bought at the same time, but I firmly believe he was bought as the main man and Giroud as the plan B, however it didn’t work out that way. Buying a more mobile striker has always been the way for Wenger, and this has been why our teams have had to be so good in possession. There was no quick and easy outlet as a long ball that can give teams a breather. There was only one way of playing and it included keeping the ball and keeping it moving. As Guardiola has famously said “Take the ball. Pass the ball”. It’s the way we played and we didn’t have a choice. That means that in training and in games it was always likely to be a more intense scenario as the ball was always on the floor. There always had to be a way to play our way out of trouble. I think that this mentality kept every single player a little more on their toes than they are right now. The introduction of Olivier Giroud as the main striker over the course of the last few years has taken its toll on the identity of our football. No longer is it on-the-toes-pedal-to-the-metal free flowing football, there’s always an out ball that lets our team catch their breath. This, whilst incredibly useful at times, has over time created a more sterile possession based team that lacks a little direction.

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Wenger’s teams have always been ‘allowed to play’ in the way they want to in terms of when attacking, however with a target man as the tip of our sword we have now become overly reliant and a little lazy in our approach play. It’s not something that’s happened overnight, as towards the beginning of our target man era we had played some scintillating football to which Giroud was a key figure (Wilshere goal v Norwich, Rosicky goal v Sunderland). Though our game has swung from an occasional outball to OG into a more regularly used option. This coupled with the changing of the modern game to having just the one centre forward has almost pushed us in this direction no matter how hard we try to change it, and try we have. Wenger has tried to sign Suarez, Benzema & Higuain for their intelligent movement and finishing abilities. They are not target men at all, yet can still score the same types of goals as Giroud. Wenger has been trying to adapt to the modern game by buying a more dynamic centre forward than Giroud. The conundrum is that Giroud has performed so well for the money we paid for him, that we’re stuck between whether to pull the trigger or not. I saw a great clip that identifies Giroud as being just short of an elite centre forward based on the money spent on him and his goal return (95 goals in almost 5 seasons), which you can see in full here. It’s basically saying that to bridge the gap between a Giroud and an Aguero shouldn’t be as steep a cost as is portrayed in the media these days.

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We saw against West Ham this week that #Wengerball is clearly there to be seen in fit and spurts, but unfortunately it’s become us playing Wenger’s brand of football sporadically rather than playing badly sporadically. Wenger has always had the same principles and I don’t see them changing, however to change the way the team is playing and to once again bring back the identity and brand of football that we all know and love he will need to go out and break the bank for a more mobile centre forward. It’s the only way the jigsaw puzzle makes sense and is the only way that our sterile approach play will be sharpened up to what we’ve known and loved in years gone by. Yes there are defensive issues, yes there are midfield issues and yes there are issues of mental weakness however none of this is new information. We’ve dealt with this in the past and yet still played excellent football, so the only way we are going to see what we want is to finally go out and buy that elite front man. It’s the only way we can keep #Wengerball alive.

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

BLOG: IWOBI – THE LOST CHILD

There is so much noise in the world of Arsenal Football Club at the moment. We are in full crisis mode, or so the media would have you believe. Out of the Champions League in the last 16, again. Players demanding the earth for contracts when a club is at its weakest, again. The manager under fire from a run of bad, no terrible results, again. It feels like we’ve been here so many times over the years and yet still found a way to get into the top 4 and win a few trophies along the way. This season feels a little different, however, as the fans from all areas have begun to turn. Not in the poisonous way that AFTV would have you believe, but there is a resignation around the club as to how Wenger’s tenure is about to draw to an end. In amongst all of this commotion there is a young footballer who needs attention. Wenger has been fighting fires left right and centre creating a blinkered view of proceedings and those blinkers are blinding the smaller, more delicate problems. There is a young man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders. There is a young man who has come of age, and yet has been thrown into the cross-hairs of Arsenal fans. Alex Iwobi is in danger of never being found again.

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His talent is undoubted. He’s stepped up in big games, he’s had responsibility thrust upon him at a young age and dealt with it magnificently to begin with as the pressure was off. What was a well-managed situation by Wenger has turned into a bit of a mess in all honesty. Iwobi needs to be taken out of the firing line for big games from time to time, especially when there are others to call on with more experience and a squad that actually has some depth to it exists. He’s started a lot of big, big games: Bayern, Chelsea, Liverpool (A) in recent weeks where we full well knew that pace was going to be key and with the likes of Walcott, Perez and Alexis left out for him in different instances, there is most definitely some miss-management going on. A young man of the age of 20 should not be subject to that much pressure, that early in his career. Yes this may be how Lionel Messi was discovered in terms of being thrust into the limelight early on, however it needs to be a little more measured. Within the Barcelona team that Messi was introduced, he was surrounded by superstars everywhere he looked so the pressure was lessened. When Iwobi looks around, it’s not quite the same. In fact the pressure is well and truly on him to try and make the difference, which is unfair when there are plenty of senior players shirking their responsibilities. Too much to ask of a man so young.

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It boils down to Arsene Wenger. It’s not Alex Iwobi’s fault that he’s being picked. You can see that he’s a really nice guy who loves the club and really wants to do well, however you can also see that the spurned chances and the mistakes he makes play on his mind tremendously, simply because he cares so damn much. The fan base doesn’t help and I’ve alluded to this previously in that players nowadays are always connected and so will see the abuse and vitriol chucked their way. Iwobi hasn’t escaped some of the more critical portion of the fan base and it has to be said that this is down to Arsene Wenger throwing him to the Lions a little bit. We live in a world where the fans who don’t turn up week in week out, have a direct impact on a players’ performance. It’s that social media bubble of trolling once again and the younger players, no in fact all players are susceptible to criticism whether it’s justified or not when things aren’t going so well. It is therefore Arsene Wenger’s responsibility to shield the younger players from that. It is harder for him to do this when the whole squad needs protecting, which is what’s been happening in recent weeks.

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Iwobi is slowly approaching that dangerous territory of being overplayed and being relied upon too heavily, with not too many leaders and points of inspiration around him. With the squad facing so much uncertainty with player contracts and manager unrest, it’s no wonder the likes of Iwobi are out there fending for themselves. What used to be a direct and carefree approach has become one of second guessing and apprehension. The spark is still there because he massively cares about the club, but the manager needs to ensure that it isn’t extinguished and we lose yet another ray of hope for the future of our great club. Let’s get that #BIG17 back.

BLOG: OZIL – THE LIGHTNING ROD…

Ever since his move to the Emirates, Mesut Ozil has been a constantly pedestal-ed or maligned figure for Arsenal Football Club. He’s helped to deliver 2 FA Cups and 2 Community Shields in  his time at the club and yet he’s forever talked about by the Media, other fans and even our own fans in both hyperbolic extremes of good and bad. His form, as is the case for every other player on the planet bar Lionel Messi and Cristano Ronaldo, has had peaks and troughs yet is narrowed upon when the chips are down. It seems to have taken its toll and has affected his form a little this season.

BLOG: ALEXIS – A GOOD BOY?

Will he? Won’t he? The question on all Arsenal fans’ lips at the moment. Well maybe not quite ‘at the moment’ purely because we’re furiously retweeting his Panenka vs Burnley. What a man.

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The future of both Alexis Sanchez as a player alongside Arsenal Football Club are intertwined and aren’t as separate as we would normally imagine them to be. Usually you would say that no one player is bigger than the club and if he needs to be moved on then let’s move him on. However this is a quite unique situation for a multitude of reasons; Will Wenger stay? Will Ozil stay? Will we win a major trophy? Will we add more World Class players to the squad? These are the questions that will be whirring around Alexis’ mind as he comes to a decision as to whether he will extend his contract or not and I completely understand the reasoning behind the slight delay with it all. It’s not just one thing and it feels like there are a set of dominoes that need to fall in order to get this one over the line.

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There are plenty of people in the media  as well as some of the fan base are suggesting that his ‘attitude’ on the pitch is indicative of a man who has his mind elsewhere. Being upset at not winning football matches is now something that means you want to leave a football club nowadays. The media are becoming more and more inclined to the clickbait life and in turn are producing nothing more than a headline rather than real content, real analysis and real meaning. Connecting things in the loosest way possible is not helpful to the more innocent amongst the fan base and certainly fuels the fire for the growing number of ‘super fan personalities’ who feel vindicated because people like the Daily Mail back them. I mean I saw a Tweet sent out by Ian Ladyman post the Burnley game stating that the Mustafi penalty call was outside the box. It wasn’t even a close call – and for a man who professed to watch the game and then write a match report on said game it smacks of nothing but laziness to the extreme with regards to the analysis. The balance between getting content out and producing quality content is far too heavily slanted in the direction of efficiency. I digress…

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The other side of the coin you have Arsenal fans who state the quite pathetic emotion of “Don’t stay Alexis, you can do better than this mate. I understand. Sniff”. Do me a favour. Since when do we as fans need to take the high road and look out for the players over the club? It’s quite frankly an embarrassing stance to take by so many who profess to love the club yet understand the very players whom they want there, to leave. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. On top of this we had a tremendous amount of angst from the agenda merchants around the whole Wenger/Ozil contract situation potentially being tied together. It’s as if there can be no acceptance to the fact that Arsene Wenger is a big draw to players, even though some of the fan base think he is past it. Yes you may feel he’s past it but you cannot control how Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez feel about him. The same fans who want us to grow and attract top talent don’t seem to realise that by losing the likes of Alexis and Ozil (and even Wenger to a degree) means we have to: 1) Replace them. 2) Let them settle in. 3) Wait even longer for a trophy.

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Now for Alexis’ ‘behaviour’ over the last few weeks. He has been far from happy when we’ve lost/drawn games and when he’s been substituted. Now consider the fact that he is a human being first, footballer second and think about this. If you’re playing a 5 aside or an 11 a side game of football on a Saturday or at a work lunchtime kick about or even down the park with your mates you a) probably don’t want to go in goal and b) would hate to be the sub on either side. We all like to be involved at all times. Secondly whether we win or lose is in no way comparable to a Premier League footballer however we all know that it feels terrible. The difference is that we have the distractions of work/life to get back to whereas a footballer has the feeling of defeat and only that to think about before the next game where the demons can be exercised. Of course they are going to feel it more. Especially if they are a super passionate footballer in the first instance. Alexis Sanchez, we all know, wears his heart on his sleeve and it’s something that Wenger will have known when he bought him. Wenger himself seems fairly calm about the situation, which gives me hope and confidence that the man will stay. I do really feel that the only way to assure that he does so is to win one of the Premier League or the Champions League. The FA Cup may well help, however it’s one of the big ones that he really wants, as all athletes do – they want to experience the unknown when it comes to winning things.

As much as I love the Atom and Humber banner, it might take a Premier League title to keep everyone happy. Time to deliver Arsenal.

 Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

BLOG: I JUST DON’T THINK THEY UNDERSTAND…

What a horrible, horrible week of football. Two massive tests away from home and two massive tests failed. It’s not all doom and gloom as Twitter would have you suggest, however the early season optimism has been completely sapped from the team and the fans. It feels like we as fans have been asking the question of ‘why it’s so’ in various forms so I guess the only thing we can do this week is once again explore why we think that is. I’m despising writing this already. Eughhh.

Both performances started rather well, we were on the front foot against Everton and looked brilliant for the first 45 against City. Everton barely created anything and City only really had one opportunity with a Sterling header (that he should have scored) where we had some great situations where better decision making could have proved vital. Actually it did prove to be vital, it cost us the game. Rather than dissect the game at length I’ll simply say a few words that should surmise each game.

Everton: sloppy performance. Stopped playing when we scored. Looked tired. Their winner was not a corner. Alexis Sanchez denied a stonewall penalty. Everton are shite and we should have beaten them by 3 or 4.

Man City: Much better first 45. Should have taken advantage of a poor City side missing key players. Created good situations and decision making was poor. The second half was one of the worst performance I’ve seen. Both their goals were offside.

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Why is it that this happens? That we don’t perform on the big occasions? I mean I know we were subject to some horrific officiating, but that is something that you can only hope evens itself out over the course of the season. We’ve been on the end of some quite ludicrous refereeing decisions for example the Xhaka red v Swansea. John Moss deemed an identical challenge by Kante as worthy of simply a foul, not even a booking. The penalties against us have been terrible. The decisions we should be getting haven’t been given, so I’m hoping there is some karmic balance restored on that front over the course of this season. But that’s not the big issue, as it’s not within our control. What is in our control is the way that we approach these games. You can talk about systems and tactics all day long but if the hunger and desire is not there to want to perform  then no amount of the genius that is gegenpress, 3-4-3 or tiki-taka will save you. After one interview with Pep Guardiola in the post hue of victory for his side it was revealed that they worked on winning second balls for two and a half hours at every training session this week. His team were out fought by Leicester a week back and this was addressed in the following games. What can one do about working on intensity? This rests with the manager and when your players do not come out with what looks like a fire cracker up their backside then it has to be laid at the managers feet to address. Don’t get me wrong I’m very much of the opinion that Arsene Wenger should be our manager, quite simply because there is no one better to do the job for us, but what I’ve seen in the last week is a combination of a few things: Squad management/rotation, lack of responsibility from our senior men, tiredness (relates to squad management) and a real mental block.

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The mental issue stems from bad performances and when the performances are few and far between this can be shaken, but when the bad performances against the big boys become a regular occurrence the mental issue becomes harder to shake. The responsibility to change this rests with the manager, and that’s not through inspiring the men through an impassioned speech before each game and shouting in the faces of the timid to get their blood pumping. Where this needs to come from is with an adaptation of tactics and a real belief in those tactics. We’ve seen the adaptation of tactics done if a little half halfheartedly, but there doesn’t seem to be a real belief in the changes. For example with the Everton game, we just reverted to type, we went with slow possession based football and after fortuitously taking the lead we carried on in a pedestrian manner. Wenger at that point should have delivered the message for our entire team to step up 10 yards and pin Everton back into submission through high press tactics. They were ready to cave and the fans were on their back, yet the cautious approach prevailed and ended up slowly letting them back into the game. Against City we started really fast an positive. We pressed, won balls back and hit them on the counter. Our tactics were to go long, which really threw them and after going 1-0 up, aside from one good chance for City we had enough momentum to press for more goals. We looked to try and do that with a 7/10 approach I’d say (in terms of actually believing that we would get more goals) but our decision making let us down. There is something that needs to be said about Alexis Sanchez at this point. He had two opportunities in the first half to play in Monreal early down the left side where we could have been in a 3 v 2 situation however he chose to delay and finally go down the right side when that was the only option available. This is a really infuriating but interesting pattern I’ve noticed this season. He seems unwilling to pass to certain team members purely because he lacks trust in them. He seems to link better with the likes of Ozil (obviously) and Iwobi more than most. He likes Bellerin every now and again but doesn’t seem to trust too many others with forward passes at least anyway. I can understand that to a degree as he knows the ability of other players as the others know his ability, however over time that can only create disharmony amongst the team and when a couple of players aren’t singing off the same hymn sheet you get an imbalanced performance. It’s happened far too many times at our club over the recent years and it’s something that needs to be looked at.

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I don’t think it’s a question of change in management, I feel it’s a change in attitude of the management. Far too often we become passive in games and are slow to change our ‘state of play’ within a game situation, which has become hugely frustrating. It takes us going into a losing position to inject any urgency into our game and I just wish that Wenger were able to instil that into our players with in game situations. We have one of the strongest squads in the Premier League this season without question and in terms of external additions to our own squad from others in the league I can only think of a handful of players I’d add; Aguero, Hazard, Martial/Mahrez & Kante are the players I feel would add hugely to our squad. What I mean to say is that there’s not one club that has a clutch of 4/5 players that you’d want us to steal. I can imagine most top clubs would want the likes of Ozil, Alexis, Bellerin, Xhaka, Koscielny, probably Mustafi and a case could even be made for Ramsey and Cazorla. Chelsea flying as they are would probably leave out Xhaka, Ramsey and Cazorla but take the rest and they could well slot into their 3-4-3 system. We all know Mourinho loves Ozil and would take Alexis & the rest without question. Again what I’m trying to say is that we have a really good squad that everyone seems to know and take seriously now so the worry for me is why Wenger can’t get them firing. Are the players receiving his message? Do they believe in him and each other?

There’s a lot to address in the coming weeks and our next 6 games are all must wins before we play Chelsea away. We play 6 winnable fixtures while Chelsea play Sp*rs, Leicester and Liverpool all away in the time that we play West Brom, Palace, Burnley, Watford (all home games), Swansea and Bournemouth (both away games). Chelsea and Liverpool look to be flying and City will undoubtedly go on a run now but we aren’t out of it as many are knee-jerking their way through Twitter might suggest.

This time last year we were 2 points off Leicester who were top, this time we’re 9 points adrift but it’s not curtains yet. Thankfully Christmas is around the corner to cheers us all up.

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

BLOG: DECISIVE DECEMBER

We’re now into December. We’ve somehow travelled through our traditionally difficult November relatively unscathed and sit 2nd in the league with our results this time around markedly better than last time. Last November we played Bayern, West Brom, Norwich (away) Sp*rs and Zagreb (home) and ended up with a total of 2 points in the league and 3 points in the Champions League. This time we’ve played Ludogorets, Man Utd (away), Sp*rs, PSG and Bournemouth (home) as well as a league cup tie which we lost. We ended up with a total of 5 points in the league and 4 points in the Champions League as well as having advanced a round further into the EFL cup. We’re a lot better off than last season but now go into a run of quite tricky fixtures leading up to Christmas, and this will be a really defining point in our season. We’re coming up to the half way stage of the season and a real place to take stock of what our title challenge might look like…

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The next three league games bring us Stoke at home, Everton away just 3 days later followed by Man City away on the weekend. Three massive tests following our Champions League qualification surprise of finishing top of the group. Thank you kindly Ludogorets! How on earth did that happen???? How on earth? Though obviously we’ll take it. I digress…Stoke are now playing some great football (weird I know) and scoring some good goals, however have also retained the darker side of their game through the likes of Charlie Adam and Ryan Shawcross etc etc. Thankfully we’re playing them at home where we traditionally do well against them so a win here is essential if we are to stay in touch at the top come Christmas. This is quickly followed up with what I can only describe as an unpredictable Everton side. They drew against Man Utd albeit a little fortuitously, and hilariously I might add, but they are capable of great football as well as frustration. Lately it’s been more frustration than free flowing football, but Koeman for some reason loves playing Wenger and really loves stopping teams playing football so expect a Gareth Barry led monstrosity on Tuesday evening. Finally we play Man City away who are more than capable of blowing us away with the attacking depth at their disposal. Yes they’ll be missing Aguero and Fernandinho, however they still have the likes of Silva, De Bruyne, Iheanacho, Sterling, Nolito and the newly motivated Yaya Toure available. Plenty to plan for and be worried about.

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The fact is, with the games that lie in wait, we really must take a minimum of 5 points to not lose too much ground and 7 points if we are to stay in touch with the leading pack. If we manage to get 4 points it wouldn’t be the end of the world but would leave us needing a really strong Christmas period and even better January – the fixtures ‘look’ kind, however fatigue is something that brings out the worst in our performances so it could get messy very quickly. The key here is managing our squad appropriately. The midfield will be the factor that gets us through this tricky period and I feel like Wenger has now had enough time to know which of the options he can be comfortable with for each scenario. We’ve played a variety of different teams now that play both defensive, counter attack, possession based and park the bus football so he will have seen which combinations work best for which scenarios. A West Brom at home seems like one for a Ramsey & Xhaka partnership as opposed to Bournemouth away where winning the ball back will be vital so Coquelin comes back into the fore. Options. For once it’s a luxury that we can afford.

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The final factor in all of this will be our front man/men. I feel as though everywhere else across the pitch we will be able to give minutes to most and keep them content. Perez in his first season has seen minimal game time mostly due to injury and Xhaka is taking his time to bed in so they won’t be too disheartened. The wide men will be in and out of the team simply because a young Iwobi cannot play every week and The Ox and Theo seem to need to continually prove themselves so there will be game time aplenty. It’s how to manage the Alexis vs Giroud situation that will cause Wenger a headache (a nice one to have). Alexis wants to and will play every week, Giroud looks a frustrated figure on the sidelines and keeping him happy will absolutely be required. He will be played from the start in some games, where Alexis will shift to the left side, however it’s not likely that he’ll play in the big games. Yes his future will be something he is thinking about, but that will be in the summer rather than January so its a case of playing him in games tactically. I have a feeling he will play alongside Alexis for the home games vs West Brom and Palace rather than Everton and Man City for example. Wenger is a master of handling his players over the course of the season so he’ll need to pull out all the stops to manage the big man to keep our season on course, Giroud is the final piece of our intricate fixture puzzle.

BLOG: ALEXIS – A CLUB VS COUNTRY BATTLE

The battle lines had been drawn long before this International break, however the talk has intensified with Alexis Sanchez suffering a hamstring injury in training with Chile last week. Whose responsibility is it to manage his fitness? Who’s his priority? What’s our role in this? How do the Chilean FA work with us on this?

Lot’s of questions that we would love to know the real answers to, but we can surmise the answers to some of them. In normal circumstances with a normal footballer the responsibility and decisions largely sit with the club because the club pay their wages, the club manage their fitness and the club is the over arching all powerful force that has to be succumbed to by the National team. In Alexis Sanchez’s case, it’s an entirely different story. He is one of a rare breed of footballers that seems to exist in today’s age in that he just wants to play in every single game going. It doesn’t matter who for, he just wants to play the sport that he truly loves and is lucky enough to be getting paid to play. With Alexis, as well as deeply loving and caring for his country he also sees it as a moral duty to play for Chile. It’s said that he’s the ultimate street footballer, yet he’s not the only one. The whole of the Chilean national side is programmed to think this way. It’s something that Arsene Wenger alluded to when signing Alexis in saying that players from South American backgrounds had to fight harder to compete:

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“Maybe in our history street football has gone. In street football when you are 10 years old, you play with 15-year-olds so you have to be shrewd, you have to show that you are good, you have to fight, win impossible balls”.

In a polite way he is trying to say that it’s a much harder fight to become noticed, to become great from an impoverished background in comparison to the monster sized football academies being born all over Europe. The footballing culture is different and it’s clear when you think of national sides. Think of Germany, France & Spain for example, all well oiled machines designed to play football the right way and not a mass of the old school “fighter mentality” around very much. Compare that to the mavericks that are Chile, Argentina & Brazil and you have a real determination in the way they play alongside the sublime style. Brazil less so historically, however it’s on the increase within their recent squads. In any case it’s a culture that embodies fighting spirit and a never say die attitude, which is why we are seeing Alexis desperate to play and help his country win at all costs.

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In terms of his injury management it’s very much down to himself. He clearly doesn’t take on board how his club feels, or his country for that matter. He just wants to play. As much as Wenger tries to publicly state that the player needs extra care in order to control him, it’s just not enough. You can see that Alexis is like a child that a frustrated parent can’t quite control and has to put that face on for the public “he’s never like this at home” (NB This may not be a real quote). In short it is clear cut in as much as it isn’t clear cut for Alexis. He’s going to try and pitch to play every game and if he doesn’t he’ll be a rage monster. If he is allowed to play every game and is then injured for a long period he and the manager will be lambasted for mismanagement. From my point of view it looks as though the player himself is out all guns blazing whether he is 100% fit or not and it’s a case of Arsene Wenger being very calculated in the way he uses him. Wenger has to guide the manner in which he is played and even taking him off for a few minutes here and there to try and save his legs just that little bit, creates an annoyance for Alexis. We all wondered in the game vs Basel at home as to why he wasn’t taken off when the game was all but won, it was a question of keeping his player happy. Letting him play in a not so intense game situation for 20 minutes is probably less brutal on a finely tuned machine than playing 5 minutes more in an intense close to a game. He was taken off in the 3-2 victory over Swansea with 8 minutes plus added time to play vs having played on when we were 4-1 up against Sunderland. Wenger is being smarter with his energy distribution, or is trying to be as Alexis looks to be firmly in charge of the situation. Playing with a minor problem here and there isn’t in Alexis’ game. He’s always 100% and if he plays with a little niggle (not very often) you can see it. The weaker parts of his game are exposed (ball retention), which makes it all the more important for his fitness to be appropriately managed.

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I think that the English have built up more of a stigma for international football simply because of the England national team. The players look more and more like they don’t give a monkeys and this plays back to the Arsene Wenger quote from earlier. European football is a little more spoilt, a little less hard working and a little more brittle when it comes to the pressure. It’s because of this that so many English fans have become disenchanted with international football and it’s because of this that their affiliation with their clubs has never been as high. When it comes down to the real question of “who’s to blame for his fitness struggles/issues?”, it’s really the player himself but not for a bad reason. He just wants to play and he doesn’t know any other way of playing other than giving 100% for every second of every game. Unfortunately it’s not a conundrum that anyone will be able to resolve or fix and I think that Arsene Wenger knew that when he bought the man.

It’s Club over Country for the fans, for the players it seems to be Country over Club, but for Alexis Sanchez it’s football over everything else.

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MATCH REPORT: ARSENAL 1-1 TOTTENHAM

The North London Derby. A game that I look forward to and am nervous about in equal measure. The bragging rights. The one-upmanship. The points. Lots at stake. The game itself however, flattered to deceive. It was an absorbing encounter for sure but by no means a classic. It didn’t matter to me so much as to how the points arrived, just that they did, as is always the case on derby day.

The way we set up was to perform in a similar way as the home performance vs Chelsea, which was most definitely the correct approach. There was much said about the way that Sp*rs set up with 3 centre backs alongside two wing backs, so very much playing with 5 across the back to stifle our pace. Smart tactics and that’s not at all what I had a problem with, I mean Chelsea set up in this way vs Everton and look at their performance on the weekend – one of the best of the season alongside our win vs them (ironically the watershed moment that prompted Chelsea to change to this more favoured system to Conte). The problem that I have with the way the game panned out is once again Sp*rs constant need to foul their way into the game. Chelsea amassed just 5 fouls in their game vs the 17 that Sp*rs managed against us. I have a good friend who’s a Sp*rs fan (I know, I know) who was livid at the way Leicester defended last season and got away with it. It’s pretty clear that Sp*rs have a distinct playing style now, which involves the high press invoking counter attack football alongside persistent high half fouling. As I’ve alluded to previously, they finished 4th on the foul charts last season and are sitting pretty in 2nd place this time around. I have absolutely no idea how Wanyama remained on the pitch throughout the game. He made at least five or six fouls and they all went unpunished. Kevin Wimmer completely took out Coquelin, with no intention to play the ball early on and received a yellow. Cough Granit Xhaka cough. The same level of consistency doesn’t seem to be being applied across the whole Premier League contingent and our mistake has been to be far too nice over recent years. It’s now costing us. A foul we make is so out of character that it surprises refs into believing that a yellow card or worse is a must, but when the likes of Sp*rs carry this sort of behaviour, or Stoke and Leicester for that matter, they get away with it as it has now become expected. Every time we looked to be building momentum they intervened with a foul. We should also have had a penalty when Vertonghen did his best impression of Robert Huth by tugging and almost ripping off Xhaka’s shirt:

As you can see it’s not even subtle. But it’s a pattern of how they’ve set up and how they try to quite frankly cheat their way to points. It’s the way Pochettino behaved as a player and the style has transferred to the Sp*rs players seamlessly. They can claim to play pretty football, but the fact of the matter is that it’s quite simply a slightly better version of what Leicester did. You can forgive Leicester for their lack of resources, but for a club who claims to play good football and do things the right way alongside having outspent all bar Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea & Liverpool, to produce this brand of football is embarrassing. They’ll profess that it doesn’t matter so long as they win trophies now that they have discovered how to not lose a game. Jose Mourinho beckons.

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In terms of the game itself, neither team ‘bossed’ it per se. Sp*rs started the better without creating too much and we grew into the game. They had one half chance tat Kane almost converted (with Son in an offside position – something to note for later on), glancing just wide of the post with Cech beaten. We then took the lead via a set-piece from Mesut Ozil. He delivered a great ball into the box that Wimmer simply had to attempt to clear with three players waiting behind him to put the ball away. Now here’s the big talking point. Two of the three players were in offside positions (as Son was earlier), however didn’t attempt to play the ball in anyway nor did they impede Lloris or Wimmer. Koscielny was onside and waiting to put the ball in so Wimmer jumped and headed into his own net. The goal was analysed by Howard Webb on BT sport following the game explaining the rules, to which all of Rio Ferdinand, Ian Wright and Harry Redknapp all disagreed with. We might disagree with rules, but with Webb having clearly explained the rules and looking as though he wasn’t flat out allowed to disagree with his more well paid pundits played diplomat and said the rule needs looking at. The fact is that in accordance with the rules the goal was good. 1-0 to The Arsenal. The second half I thought would be a good opportunity to stamp our authority on the game and put up a resolute first 15 minutes to the half as we all knew Sp*rs would start the half with more intent. We let Dembele waltz through all too easily and Koscielny then put in a foot in the wrong place. Wenger says it was soft, but there’s no doubt that it was a penalty. Kane put it away and it was followed with our typical nervy 10 minutes following the concession of a goal. We had some half chances as did they, the best of which was when Rose put a dangerous ball across the box for what looked like a tap in for Kane until Nacho Monreal made a great last ditch tackle. On the balance of play in the overall game I think a draw was probably a fair result. I’m not sure either side really did enough to win the game. Actually I am sure, as if they had then it would have been a different result. Playing away to Sunderland (6 hour travel) and away in Bulgaria (3.5 hour flight with coach travel either side) seemed to take its toll on us. Sp*rs on the contrary played at home vs Leicester and then at home vs Leverkusen so had a less hectic schedule in the lead up to the game. In any case it looked as though both sides were sapped of energy in the final stages of the game.

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The international break is upon us once again and it comes at a good time for us because it’s November. It makes the historically painful month for us a little less fixture filled, however we have the small matter of an away trip to Old Trafford when we do come back from it. As it turns out Zlatan will miss out, however they didn’t need Zlatan to beat us last season and it will most definitely be a tough tough game. For now though we are just the 1 point off top spot where Chelsea seem to have crept up to with their good performances over the last few weeks. I think it’s still a little too early to look at the league table just yet but we’ve made a good start having now played Liverpool, Leicester, Chelsea and Sp*rs.

Not quite the result we wanted but not the end of the world either. Onto the next one…

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.