Danny Welbeck: Turning the Corner?

Danny Welbeck is among the tougher Arsenal players to value. He has every physical intangible that a top-flight striker could ask for: speed, quickness, strength, and height, but since coming to Arsenal, Welbeck’s biggest problem has been staying fit. Each year he’s had with the club has been marred by injuries. Just as he seems ready to turn the corner and become a consistent goal threat, he finds himself on the training table, sidelined for weeks. His fitness is also closely linked to his shaky confidence in front of goal; months off the pitch and inconsistent appearances can ruin any striker’s confidence.

Welbeck showed serious promise in August and September, tallying three goals in the first four games of the Premier League season, when once again, the injury bug came calling. First, with a hip problem, then closely followed by a groin pull, both forcing him to miss two months of action in October and November. His return from injury, again, was marked with inconsistency, lack of urgency, and poor finishing. Two goals. Over 24 appearances in all competitions from late November until early March, two goals were all that “Welbeast” could manage.

With the added competition of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a player of higher class and similar physical intangibles, it looked as if Welbeck’s role at Arsenal would be limited even further. However, an injury to Lacazette, offered an opportunity to grab playing time in Europe as Arsenal’s only legitimate striking option.  Danny came through for Arsenal at home against AC Milan, when he added two key goals to put the Gunners past the (former) Italian giants and into the Europa League Quarter Finals. Since that performance he’s added three more goals, including a pivotal strike against CSKA Moscow that swung the momentum back towards Arsenal and helped cement their place in the Semi Final.

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So, now what? Who really is Danny Welbeck? Is he a key player for Arsenal? Will he finally find consistency and fitness?

Who can say one way or another for certain, and although we may not have a reliable answer about Welbeck’s future form or even his status with the club, what we have seen is that he is a player capable of taking his chance. He’s fought alongside two world class strikers and delivered in the clutch when his club needed him most. Injuries, form and playtime can’t be predicted, but Welbeck’s positivity off the bench and as a recent First XI player is a sign of good things to come.

Even through added competition, injuries and a difficult year for the club as a whole, Welbeck has contributed 11 goals in all competitions and has shown that he can be a relied-on squad player in the years that follow. Working alongside the likes of Aubameyang and Lacazette may, at times, limit how often he sees the pitch, but should prove to elevate his play when opportunities arise. Recent matches should highlight the importance of working with classy strikers such as newly added Aubameyang.

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Regardless of injury history and inconsistency, Welbeck still possesses undeniable talent and potential. He will never be the “main man” at Arsenal, but he certainly can become a key man of the bench and a fill-in starter off the bench in smaller competitions. For his and Arsenal’s sake, hopefully “Welbeast” can remain fit and solidify himself as a positive third striking option behind the dynamic duo of Aubameyang and Lacazette. Arsenal would be wise to keep him around. Perhaps his big break is right around the corner?

Arsenal in Desperate Need of Petr Cech’s Heir Apparent

Arsenal are finally spending money on quality players. That fact in itself is a promising sign of a new regime led by Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi. It’s no accident that Arsenal recruited former Dortmund duo Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan to bolster the clubs attacking options in the wake of Alexis Sanchez’s departure, and although new stars like Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and Lacazette provide brilliant attacking options, Arsenal’s struggles begin at the back. It’s clear that the Gunners need significant upgrades in defense, but one area that has been overlooked for the past few seasons has been the goalkeeper position.

When Petr Cech first arrived at the Emirates in the summer of 2015, it was exactly the type of move Arsenal’s squad needed. A proven winner, leader, and legend whose experience made up for age. At the time, Arsenal only had Ospina and Szczesny on the books, both of whom failed to grab hold of the number one spot in the first XI. During the 2016/17 season and even more noticeably in this years Premier League campaign, goalkeeper has become a position of weakness and inconsistency at Arsenal. Plain and simple, Petr Cech has not maintained expectations. His first year as a Gunner proved fruitful and solidified what had been a shaky position over previous seasons, but over the past 18 months, his performances have consistently fallen short of the mark. Known for his mistake free play during the entirety of his career, Cech has seemingly made a horrendous error every other week. Not all of them have lead to goals, but it appears his most recent error against Swansea was the last straw. Cech has made four errors leading to a goal this season, more than any other player. Arsenal lead the Premier League with 11 errors leading to goals, but Cech’s have certainly been the most noticeable.

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Since before the start of the season, I’ve been clamoring for a legitimate heir apparent or full time replacement in goal. Petr Cech is losing his edge by the day and David Ospina has been so firmly placed as the number two, that even his sharpness in Cup and European matches has come into question. With the defensive frailty Arsenal have shown recently, the last thing the club can afford is a keeper who causes problems.  Cech’s frequent errors, poor distribution, and weak clearances have caused Arsenal significant issues all year long; not to mention his dreadful and frankly comical penalty record. 15 faced, none saved. In fact, Arsenal goalkeepers have failed to save their last 23 penalties faced over a nearly five-year period in the Premier League. Something needs to change, and although it should have happened last summer or over the January window, this summer it must be addressed.

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Arsenal made the first step towards fixing their goalkeeping woes with the signing of Jens Lehman to the first team staff, now they need to go into the market and spend money on the right keeper. Whether it’s an established keeper such as Bernd Leno from Bayer Leverkusen, Roma’s Alisson, or recently rumoured Jan Oblak from Atletico Madrid, or perhaps even a younger talent like Alban Lafont, Arsenal need fresh blood in goal come this summer.

Let it be known that Petr Cech is a consummate professional and competitor, but Father Time remains undefeated. Arsenal need something new.

Back in Business: Arsenal’s New Management

Football fans spend most of their time watching and reacting to what happens on the pitch. During the summers, that attention turns towards transfers. Rarely does the focus fall on management, but over the past year, Arsenal and their front office have been under the microscope. Mismanagement has crippled the club of late: letting contracts run down, botching transfer deals, and watching young talent slip away to league rivals. For what seems like an eternity, supporters have been flying their “Wenger Out” banners, when in reality, men like Dick Law, Steve Rowley, and until recently, Ivan Gazidis should’ve been up there too. So, what has changed? Arsenal Football Club have finally woken up.

Arsenal, regardless of the ups and down of the past decade, have always had a high-quality squad with top players from across the globe. In contrast, Arsenal’s management, year after year has become weak, lazy and dated.  Wenger, although a part of it, remains the face of a deeply dysfunctional and mediocre management team. In particular, Arsenal supporters have been clamoring for a Director of Football for years. In the world of modern football, it’s a mandatory position for elite clubs. Arsene Wenger in the past, has attempted to play the role of both manager and director; clearly his results have not hit the mark.

Of the many issues Arsenal have faced over the past few years, scouting and transfers have been at the top of that list. Scouting has been a particularly troublesome area. For example, Wenger and Arsenal, once known for establishing, growing and developing elite young players, no longer hold that reputation. When was the last time Arsenal found a young player and developed him into a top-class talent? Perhaps Hector Bellerin can prove to be a recent anomaly, but he still has a lot to prove.

In the past month, the club has announced two signings that will prove to reinvigorate the front office. Sven Mislintat, who will take the position of Chief Scout, replaces Steve Rowley who had been at the club for 25 years and in the position since Wenger became manager. Raul Sanllehi, announced a week later, will finally fill Arsenal’s Sporting Director position.

Before we get excited, lets discuss who these men are, what these moves mean, and whether they will help Arsenal now and in the future.

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Who is Sven Mislintat?

Sven Mislintat is a German scout, most recently for Borussia Dortmund. Spending eight years at the club working as their Chief Scout, Mislintat is directly responsible for bringing Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ousmane Dembele, and Shinji Kagawa to the club. Kagawa, of note, was found by Mislintat while he was playing for Cerezo Osaka in the 2nd division of Japan. The man has reach, and he has been able to find a diamond in the rough time after time. Still not convinced? He was also credited for bringing in Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, and Sven Bender, not to mention young talent like Christian Pulisic, Alexander Isak, Emre Mor (now departed to Celta Vigo), Mahmoud Dahoud… the list goes on. Borussia Dortmund have made a name for themselves in recent years, alongside Monaco as two of the worlds best talent finders. Mislintat’s addition to Arsenal, finally gives the club an elite scouting presence.

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Who is Raul Sanllehi?

Raul Sanllehi is one of the most influential men in football, that you’ve never heard of. Unless you also happen to support Barcelona, or follow La Liga religiously, his name likely hasn’t come up in conversation. Originally a part of Nike, Sanllehi joined Barcelona in 2007 and became their Sporting Director. Sanllehi is especially known for two things. The first, his seemingly limitless connections across the globe. The second, his ability to get big transfer deals done, no matter the complications. Having a Sporting Director with renowned connections is always a benefit, however, it is his reputation for getting deals done that should be valued even higher. Arsenal have become the “almost signed” club under Wenger, especially recently. For some reason, the boss thinks talking about “almost” signing players deserves a prize.  For Sanllehi, the prize is a signed contract and photo shoot with a new player. Sanllehi was the most critical figure in Barcelona during the signings of Neymar, Suarez and Rakitic. He is the connected, relentless director that Arsenal needs to elevate itself back to glory.

Sanllehi also brought Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona in 2011. Alexis may be on his way out, but if anyone could convince him to stay, it would be our new Director of Football.

What does this mean?

Clearly, these men come with tremendous resumes, experience and should prove to be excellent additions to the club’s management team.  What they, and other various changes across the club indicate is a new era, or “renaissance” for Arsenal.  Little by little, ancient members of the club’s staff such as Dick Law and Steve Rowley have been replaced and positions of uncertainty are being filled. In the past year Arsenal have now signed or confirmed a new Chief Scout, Director of Football, Academy Director, Contract Negotiator, and Performance Coach. Wenger remains the last man standing, but he won’t remain for much longer.  The decisions made by the club have proven that there is a plan set in place for Arsene Wenger’s ultimate swansong. Although it won’t likely happen until the end of his contract in 2019, the club is finally headed in the right direction.

 

 

 

Away Troubles Must End With Burnley

Arsenal already have four away losses. How bad is that? To provide some context, in last year’s campaign, it took until March 4th in a losing effort against Liverpool, for the fourth loss away from The Emirates. As tumultuous as last year’s campaign was, the Gunners are four months ahead of schedule in the loss column on the road, a historically bad start.

How do we turn the corner from this? Luckily, our record at home has been excellent and has kept us in contention for a place in the top four.

For now, we sit in 6th *insert eye-roll* and face an away clash against Burnley. In recent years this match would have been a foregone conclusion as Arsenal have won their last six matches against Burnley, but this go around provides a different challenge. Arsenal are level with Burnley in the Premier League, only ahead by goal difference. Are they Arsenal quality? Of course not, but they are the “best of the rest” and on the road, can’t be taken for granted. We saw that happen against Watford and arguably against Stoke earlier this season.

Let’s start by giving Burnley some well deserved credit for their start to the Premier League season. Thus far Burnley have defeated Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, while also drawing away to Tottenham and Liverpool. That is an impressive record for a “small” club that finished one spot above relegation just a few months back. Their most recent clash against a top six side was away to Man City where they lost 3-0, but with City’s form of late, 3-0 at the Etihad isn’t a shameful battering. Burnley have proved especially strong at Turf Moor, even going back to last year, including 10 wins, while only managing one victory away from home. In short, they won’t rollover and Arsenal need to be wary. Arsenal, and specifically Arsene Wenger, have a terrible habit of assuming quality and stature are enough to control games against weaker opponents. With four loses in the bag, casual approaches, especially on the road are no longer acceptable.

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So, how do Arsenal approach this game? Our away record is dreadful and Burnley have proven to be a strong side, capable of competing and even defeating some of the league’s best teams. Fresh legs may prove to be the difference, but in two entirely different directions. The Arsenal first team last played Tottenham in a thumping win, which means they’ll come out and lay an egg come Sunday. Let’s hope not, but it wouldn’t be the first time. It’s important that the side takes the momentum and quality from their performance against Spurs and put that same intensity and energy into a match away from the Emirates against a “weaker” side. Top teams play every game like its win or die, Arsenal can’t accept a draw, let alone a loss if they hope to stay afloat in the race for top four. Obviously Burnley are doing something right to be 7th and contending with Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool.

How do the Gunners avoid a shock defeat, they must know who their up against.  Burnely are one of the soundest defensive groups in the league, allowing a mere nine goals thus far. Their general defensive statistics are impressive. For starters, they block 35% of the shots they face, well over the league average of 27%. Perhaps even more worrying, they are almost never caught out, conceding fewer than 2% of their chances with one or fewer defenders back (OPTA). The league average is 14%! Don’t expect Arsenal to fly by their backline on the break, which can be worrying because Arsenal have a tendency to become “possession happy,” pass the ball about for the first 75 odd minutes and spend the final 15 scrambling to find a goal to avoid a scoreless draw. Burnley somehow allow the most shots on goal even with their other impressive statistics.

Ultimately, Arsenal are going to need quality shots from inside the 18 to avoid the fate of other Premier League sides. They need to continue with their lineup from last weekend’s victory. A Lacazette, Ozil, Sanchez trio at the top is an absolute must against a strong defensive side like this, with Giroud available off the bench if the aforementioned three can’t cope with Burnley’s physicality. Quickness will be key, perhaps not on the break as Burnley won’t risk throwing their defenders forward, but rather quickness in the final third and deadly finishing. Ozil showed his immense quality last weekend and has a great opportunity to shut down his critics once again. Burnley are very tough defensively, but lack a dynamic attack, creating the perfect opportunity for Ozil to focus on his offensive strengths. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey will also be called on to have top performances on both sides of the ball. Both will prove critical as they look to play through the lines and create real goal scoring opportunities.

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One goal may prove to be enough for victory at Turf Moor and starting on the front foot is critical. Sanchez in particular has had an excellent record against Burnley in the past with four goals in his last five. If Arsenal come away with the win, they’ll have put in a performance with clinical finishing. Burnley offer plenty of chances, but rarely concede. Arsenal cannot take 20 shots, control 75% of possession, and still come away with nothing. Wenger must stress urgency and precision to his side throughout.

If the Gunners come out with intensity, play on the front foot and take their chances, the three points are all but certain.

The Magician, Mesut Özil

Mesut Özil has and always will be one of the most polarizing players in world football. He certainly is the most criticized player in the Premier League, sometimes fairly, other times not.  At his best, there is no better chance creator and distributor, at his worst, he becomes invisible and a defensive liability for the club.

After a majestic 2015/16 campaign, Özil’s production dropped off last year and his play has seemingly gotten worse since. From the get-go, he has never looked comfortable in the new formation and as a player who thrives in the middle, Arsenal’s triangular attacking shape at the top pushes him further toward the wing. Arsenal supporters had been clamoring for Wenger to play the Özil-Sanchez-Lacazette combination at the top and finally saw the three attackers play against Everton in a resounding win and again in the comeback win opposite Swansea last weekend. Although Özil was largely ineffective on Saturday, his form has improved significantly since coming back from injury.  Indeed, his hit and miss style can be excruciating but for a man who provided eight, yes eight, goal scoring chances against Everton, he’s a difficult player to leave out of the Starting XI.

With a season changing game coming up against Manchester City on Sunday, many do in fact wonder if Özil should be included in that Starting XI. The last time Arsenal traveled to the Etihad, Özil was frankly abysmal and failed to produce in the defeat. He played moderately better when the two sides met again at The Emirates and was excellent in the FA Cup Semi-Final, but the risk still remains. Özil has a reputation to disappear in the big games. There have been numerous stats to denounce his so called “disappearances” claiming he does produce on the big stage, but most supporters aren’t looking for cheap assists in the final minutes down 3-0, rather a full 90-minute performance from our world-class attacker.

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It can’t be denied with Manchester United, Inter Milan, and others circling for the German internationals signature come January, that the man hasn’t been himself. Even with injury, distractions and a poor run of form, Özil has somehow managed 30 chances created through eight games in the Premier League. Notorious for creating chances, but of late, only a fraction have been converted. It’s remarkable that 30 chances have led to a total of 2 assists. Is that on Özil? Arsenal’s strikers? A touch of both? Regardless, Özil is due to produce and if Wenger selects him in the first XI, he has an opportunity to silence his critics.

If Özil were dropped from the first team, who might replace him? Don’t expect anyone from Thursday’s Europa squad to earn the callup. With Welbeck still recovering from injury, Alex Iwobi remains the only legitimate option. Iwobi has had a strong start to the season and offers a more active presence to pair with Sanchez, but in a match where one through ball could be the difference, it’s hard to select anyone over Özil.

As frustrating and excruciating as Mesut Özil can be to watch when he’s off form, his talent is too much to leave on the bench in such a vital matchup. With all of Arsenal’s inconsistencies and drama, the club can close the gap to 6 points with a win at The Etihad and will need their finest XI if they hope to gain a result.

Will Özil play the role of the magician and make magic for Arsenal, or will he disappear when the club needs him most?

Nacho Monreal: Unsung Hero

At 31 years old, Nacho Monreal faced a crossroad last spring.

Much like the club itself, Monreal desperately needed a change. He struggled for form at left back during most of Arsenal’s toxic campaign. The implementation of the three at the back was the change he needed, but not the change most expected. For every physical intangible one might desire in a centre-back, Nacho Monreal misses the target across the board. He isn’t tall, strong, or good in the air. But what he lacks in physicality he makes up for in his smart and crafty play. Nacho Monreal put his intelligence to work and was simply a revelation in the final weeks of last season’s campaign.

Despite all his success, and as much as the Spaniard continued to star towards the end of the previous campaign and even during pre-season, supporters were rightfully looking for a legitimate centre-back to play alongside Koscielny and Mustafi.  Arsenal’s summer, again, ended in failure.  Among other frustrations, the club let go of multiple defenders and received none in return. Other than hope of a continued Rob Holding emergence, and an outside chance of Calum Chambers, Monreal remained Arsenal’s only other option at the back.

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As an “out of position” player, Monreal has also been the subject of much debate and subsequently an inordinate amount of criticism, especially when the club struggles for form. In the first few matches of the 2017-18 campaign, Arsenal’s defense struggled mightily. Among woeful displays from the entire squad, Monreal was placed front and center in the media’s blame game. While discussing his picks for an Arsenal-Chelsea combined XI, Paul Merson claimed that, “Nacho Monreal wouldn’t get in if I was picking a combined XI against a bottom-half team…”

Nacho started the premier league season slowly, but he was not alone. Defensive issues and a weak midfield presence have plagued this club for years. But in the case of Monreal, he takes an enormous amount of undeserved heat for his play. To prove why Nacho Monreal is unequivocally Arsenal’s “unsung hero”, take a look at the statistics behind Montreal’s “dreadful” early season performances that deemed him reserve worthy to Merson and other critics. Through the first few games of the season prior to Merson’s comments, Monreal posted 0.25 defensive errors per 90 minutes and a 90% passing accuracy. Although his defensive errors at the time weren’t sublime, they were far from the horrendous mess described. In fact, none of his errors led directly to a goal. Fast forward to the present, Monreal currently leads Arsenals defense almost every defensive category. He leads the squad with 14 total tackles won (3.2 per 90 minutes), 15 interceptions and 23 clearances [per Squawka]. Yet, he still remains largely “out of his depth,” rather than a deserved starter.

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Can he can be frustrating to watch at time, yes. His height makes him liability in the air and he is simply not trained (or built) to be centre-back, but he is one of the hardest working players on the pitch and refuses to give a game away, regardless of the circumstances.  In a side that puts their heads down quickly, Nacho is the first to hold the other players accountable on the pitch and rally the troops.  Arsenal’s inconsistent and sloppy play to start the year has caused Monreal’s consistent effort to fly under the radar.  Sead Kolasinac, already a cult hero, has received enormous praise for his play thus far, but it’s important to recognize the partnership he and Nacho have built to make Kolasinac’s deep runs into the attacking third a possibility.

At the end of the day, Monreal may not be Arsenal’s most talented, fastest, strongest, or even most consistent player. He, however, remains invaluable to the squad and his play on the pitch directly correlates with Arsenal’s success.  It shouldn’t take an incredible goal line clearance to get the recognition he deserves.

Update (1 Oct 2017): Monreal scored the opener against Brighton, just for good measure.

Match Report: Arsenal 0-4 Liverpool

From the announcement of the Starting XI, this fixture felt doomed from the start. Welbeck over Lacazette, Bellerin at left wing back, the Ox at right wing back, Ramsey/Xhaka pairing in the midfield, and no Kolasinac…what was Wenger thinking?

It appears the players decided to follow suit and refused to put any effort into the match like their manager, because for the entirety of the 90 minutes, Arsenal were flat, lethargic and downright embarrassing. After a crushing defeat to Stoke last weekend the team came out in predictable Arsenal fashion. In fact, if Petr Cech didn’t surprise with a few outstanding saves, it could have been 3-0 after 25 minutes.  Roberto Firmino managed to find a free header and buried it past Cech 17 minutes in to start the nightmare. Possibly the most frustrating aspect of the goal is that Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain were barking at each other seconds before Arsenal turned the ball over and let Firmino cut right through the middle of the defense.

Note: This match was such an utter embarrassment, that a traditional match report won’t suffice. Arsenal were exposed and need to be held accountable for their dismal display and shambolic actions that led to this predictable performance. Thus…

Mid-Report Rant #1: Mentality

This match in itself is why Arsenal’s “mentality” is the most detrimental aspect of the club. Not the makeshift lineups, lack of depth, or expiring contracts, but when a club shows up to Anfield with no fight or desire how can they expect to win the league, let alone compete for a Champions League position. Supporters have been yearning for footballers with a winning mentality, or at bare minimum a consistent effort and fight. 80-90% of the squad lacks the mentality that the Arsenal badge requires.

Now, back to the match. After a few early yellow cards were exchanged, as Arsenal attempted to find any sense of rhythm, the play switched back over to Liverpool who thoroughly dominated the ball and attacking chances. The Gunners constantly remained on the defensive. They were repeatedly stretched apart and couldn’t pick out a pass or retain possession for more than a few seconds. For a brief period, it appeared Arsenal might get themselves back into the game, so naturally, Liverpool responded with a curling goal from Sadio Mane in the 40th minute. 2-0.

Mid Report Rant #2: Wenger Out

Wenger has continually behaved as if he’s five steps ahead and the rest of the world just can’t comprehend his brilliance. The reality is, Wenger is dated, egotistical, tactically oblivious and motivationally inept. What kind of manager allows his squad to barely scrape back past Leicester City, then lose 1-0 to Stoke and finally follow it up with a beatdown against Liverpool? No accountability, no respect, and worst of all, a refusal to learn from mistakes. “Wenger Out” was toxic last campaign, but it has become more than necessary this time around.

Arsenal started the 2nd half more positively, but in reality, how could any club not? Supporters can’t give their club credit for “working hard” after getting run ragged and outworked for the first half. After 55 minutes, the Gunners managed a few attacking sequences but failed to find a final pass. Just as a comeback appeared possible, Bellerin botched his first touch following a miserable corner and allowed Salah to fly by unmarked and slot it past Cech for the third goal of the afternoon. Wenger then responded by taking off Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain, for possibly the last time, replacing them with Lacazette and Giroud.

Mid-Report Rant #3: Inept Transfer Business

It’s been clear to Arsenal supporters for years now that the quality of the starting XI as well as the reserves is severely lacking. This club desperately needs depth in goal, at centre-back, in the midfield, and in some ways on the attack as well.  Days remain in the transfer window, but Arsenal won’t bring anyone of significance into the squad. Wenger and the board have no sense of urgency and no desire to MAKE. DEALS. HAPPEN. It’s always been about the “best” deal late in the window, that sometimes but more realistically most of the time fails to go through. When City, United, and Chelsea want a player, they get it done. Arsenal is a big club that behaves like a small club. The club needs a fire sale, from top to bottom. We need new ownership, a new manager, and players who are willing to die for the badge on their chest.

By the 80th minute, Arsenal were down 4-0 following a Sturridge header, as any remaining Arsenal fans slowly meandered out of Anfield. The shots of Alexis Sanchez on the bench encapsulated the tone of the day: sad, unforgivable, and comically tragic. Thankfully Liverpool couldn’t find the net for a fifth as Arsenal still suffered their worst defeat in the Premier League since December of 2015, losing 4-0. As the final whistle blew, Arsenal managed an astounding zero shot on goal. A truly inspired performance, just not from our beloved Arsenal.

Final Rant: What Now?

Arsene Wenger should resign immediately. “But the end of the transfer window is so close, wouldn’t a change ruin any chance of late additions?” No, simply because Wenger is as incapable of getting that side of the job done as he is the tactical side. Truthfully, what quality player in their right mind would come to a club that expects to lose the majority of its best players on free come next summer?  If Wenger stays, which he almost certainly will, expect one or two panic signings that reinforce our amateurish depth but fail to improve the quality or mentality of the squad.

Arsenal look shockingly midtable. Perhaps this performance is enough to convince Wenger that his legacy will be tarnished forever if he refuses to hand over the reins.  As for the players, if they have any respect for the club, the fans and themselves, a resounding win following international break is the least they can do to repair some of the damage.

 

 

Is the New Formation Forcing Players to Accommodate or Allowing Them to Flourish?

Arsene Wenger was forced to change his tactics last spring when Arsenal found themselves in possibly the most contentious period in its history.  For the first time since 1997, Wenger used a three at the back system hoping to make a late season push for both Champions League and an FA Cup. We all know the rest: FA Cup glory, dampened by Europa League football for the next season. One thing for certain, the change brought new life to the squad and a tactical plan for Wenger and the club going into the next season. With the 2017/18 campaign underway, the new formation has continued to bring largely positive results, but has also left supporters wondering if it forces too many players out of their natural positions, causing a struggle to solidify the back line as a cohesive unit. Modified positioning can sometimes be a positive thing in football and test the resolve and focus of players, but too much can cause chaos and disarray, as we saw at times against Leicester City Friday night.

So, where do Arsenal stand in this regard? Most can agree the new system has created an excellent run of form, but is Wenger forcing a system on a squad that can’t cope with “unnatural positioning?” Before we can decide, let’s take a look at a few key players who have undergone positional changes to accommodate the three at the back and how their abilities might fit the mold of the new system, or leave them lost in no man’s land.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should stick out as a key member of the squad who has been thrown into an entirely new world. Arguably most comfortable out on the right wing as an attacking midfield player, the Ox has seen time at both wingback positions over the past few months. For a player looking to become a true central midfielder, it may not have initially been an ideal change. However, it has brought out the best in a player who has shown raw ability for years but never quite made it click. Out on the left, or right (at the moment it doesn’t seem to matter), the Ox is showing power, pace, technique, and a dynamic ability to move up and down the flank. He has looked strong and effective defensively, an aspect of his game many were uncertain he could handle. On the front foot, he is a constant danger and springs counter attacks at every chance.  Although the Ox might one day, perhaps even now, have the ability to be a true central midfielder, in Arsenal’s new system he has shown to be a high class and powerful player. His stock has risen dramatically since the change and will continue to do so if he stays at the club, remains healthy and committed to his new role. Conclusion: Flourishing

Hector Bellerin’s rise into the first team has been a dream for the player and for supporters. His blistering pace and active presence has made him among the best right backs in England and among the most valuable young defensive players in the world.  But, is he best suited as a right wing back? Bellerin’s pace makes him dynamic out on the flanks, but he is still young and improving his playmaking. Wingbacks often need the attacking skills of wingers in order to put in strong crosses and begin attacking play, but Bellerin lacks in this regard. Up to this point, the new system is hurting him as a player, but it is also forcing him to improve his link up play and most importantly his crossing. Because he is such a high-quality player, even with slight discomfort in his new role, he is performing admirably and will continue to get better. However, until he can consistently put dangerous balls into the box and find attacking players in front of him, he won’t be an all-around wingback. His transition to the new system will take time. Conclusion: Accommodating

Nacho Monreal has seen an interesting new role develop for him over the past few months. Most of last season, he was constantly exposed out on the left. He seemed to have lost a step and didn’t have the physicality to push off opposing attackers. Many supporters, myself included, felt his time at Arsenal was up, but the new system offered him a fresh start and interesting opportunity. In most of the matches he has played since, he has found himself on the left side of the three playing as a “centre-back” and has done quite well. It’s important to mention that, in the opener against Leicester, Arsenal’s defense was in shambles with Monreal in the center of the three. Thankfully, he won’t have to take on this role when Koscielny and Mustafi return. It was an important lesson for Wenger because although Monreal has improved his play at the left centre-back position, he doesn’t have the size, strength or experience to play directly in the middle. It is quite possible that if Wenger had never changed from a back four, that Monreal might be at a different club, or perhaps stuck with the reserves. His days as an out and out left back for Arsenal are likely over, but as a left centre-back he has truly found new life. Conclusion: Flourishing, as a left centre-back

The Tank, Sead Kolašinac. A defensive juggernaut and Bosnian international looks to be the smartest piece of transfer business Arsenal have conducted in years. He has quickness, hunger, frightening strength, and quality attacking play, both in the air and with his smart passing and runs. He is a perfect player for the new system as he can boss the left flank on the wing or physically hound opposing strikers as a centre-back. Although he isn’t a traditional centre-back, similar to Monreal, he has what most left backs and simply what most footballers don’t: a physique made of stone. One concern about his play at centre-back is that he absolutely loves to get involved with the attack and make runs forwards, an admirable characteristic until the opposing team springs for a quick counter and smashes it past Petr Cech. If Oxlade-Chamberlain can take the left wingback and Kolašinac can take the left centre-back and remain discipled, Arsenal can crunch opponents on the defensive end and fly by them on the attack. Wenger must focus on creating a safety net for when Kolašinac comes forward as a LCB, or simply tell the “Bosnian Tank” to stay back with the other defenders in open play. Conclusion: Flourishing, while discovering his role

Danny Welbeck can be both brilliant and frustrating about a dozen times in a single match. He has pace, physicality, aerial play, but lacks the confidence needed in a consistent number nine. Alternatively, he’s seen time out on the wing but isn’t a great crosser, so when he inevitably runs around his defender he isn’t sure where to go.  Arsenal’s new system hasn’t changed just the defensive set up, it has also created an attacking front three consisting of two attacking midfielders set behind a striker. Welbeck has been tested as an attacking midfielder and has done surprisingly well. His linkup play has been strong and he’s been active in the attack. You might also argue that with a player to his side and one in front, he doesn’t feel the pressure to find the back of the net every game, rather he looks to be feeling the freedom of an attacking playmaker able to make smart runs and slip through balls in for others. The new system has given Welbeck a much clearer and more manageable objective in the first team. If healthy he could provide excellent depth from the bench and contribute whenever Wenger puts him on the pitch. Conclusion: Flourishing

At first glance, Arsenal’s new system puts certain players in brand new roles. Some might call them “unnatural,” and for some players, like Hector Bellerin this holds true. However, for others like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kolasinac, Welbeck, and even Nacho Monreal, their skills sets might truly be of better use in a not so traditional system. In many ways, the Ox isn’t a traditional rightwing, Welbeck isn’t an out and out striker, and Nacho doesn’t have the pace needed on the left side of a back four.  Arsene Wenger won’t be forced to play Nacho Monreal in the middle of a back three every game, and in many ways, the defensive chaos shown in week one isn’t indicative of the new formation and players roles within it, but points towards critical absences that prevented Arsenal’s backline from performing like a solidified group.  As I wrote last week in, “Wenger’s Dilemma in a Closing Transfer Window,” Arsenal still need a defensive addition at centre-back to make a run at the Premier League title, but in their new modern system, the majority of players forced into unnatural roles have proven they aren’t so “unnatural” after all.

 

 

 

Wenger’s Dilemma in a Closing Transfer Window

The 2017 summer transfer window has been an interesting one for Arsenal fans. From the rampant transfer rumours that seem to consume the fan base every year, to a club record signing, to questions about the futures of key players, it has been a whirlwind of emotions and looks only to get more complicated. Until now, supporters seem pleased with the moves thus far, but are still eager for more. And rightfully so. The squad has weaknesses that Arsene Wenger must address, especially when every other transfer rumour mentions how Alexis Sanchez is now off to anywhere but Arsenal. Fans need the relief and excitement that comes from a big, impactful signing. With the early additions of Lacazette and Kolasinac, the club started the summer strong, but it remains to be seen if Wenger & Co can finish August with a bang and set the club up for a legitimate title challenge.

Wenger continues to ignore the goalkeeper situation

Wenger never lets his true thoughts and desires slip to the media and most of his comments should be taken with a grain of salt regarding Arsenal’s transfer business. In the case of an addition to Arsenal’s goalkeeping group, Wenger seems disinterested and unwilling to find an immediate replacement for Ospina and future number one to replace Cech. David Ospina remains Arsenal’s number two, much to the disappointment of many supporters and the departure of Wojciech Szczesny’s to Juventus is somewhat of a head scratcher. His time at Roma convinced Juventus that he was the man to take the reins from Gigi Buffon; it’s hard to imagine how Wenger felt he couldn’t do the same for Cech. Many pundits and fans alike wondered if this was the year for Emi Martinez to get a crack as Cech’s backup, but his loan move to Getafe has delayed his presence another year. Regardless, not all supporters view him to be the answer as Arsenal’s future number one.

At the moment, Arsenal are seriously lacking depth at the position and should look to make a long-term investment with a young goalkeeper they can train behind Cech and Ospina while learning from new coach Jens Lehmann. Arsenal would be wise to consider a keeper like the highly touted Bartłomiej Dragowski, who failed to crack the first team at Fiorentina last year, or go after the young Frenchman Alban Lafont, rather than overspending for a Premier League youngster.  For now, Arsenal are living dangerously. One long-term injury to Cech, even Ospina, could make the race for silverware nearly impossible.

Wingbacks offer elite presence, but centre-back depth could improve

Arsenal’s move to a three at the back system has been brilliant so far and has brought the best out of the club’s defensive players who, for most of last season, were the largest liability on the pitch. Depth at wingback is strong and the club shouldn’t bother with additions. With names like Kolasinac, Bellerin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Monreal, and even Reiss Nelson, Arsenal’s flanks are wrought with pace, strength, talent and technical ability. If Arsenal truly want to take their squad to the next level they should look at upgrading at centre-back.

Gabriel is in a make or break season, but if the club wants to challenge, they would be wise to unload the Brazilian, who seemingly lacks the necessary composure and footballing brain. Calum Chambers is also rumoured to be on the way out, hopefully on loan or with a buyback clause, but this presents the perfect opportunity for the club to strike and make a high class signing at the back. Slimming the squad while replacing with higher quality. AC Milan’s move to capture Bonnuci for an exceedingly good value is exactly the type of move the club should consider making. Koulibaly has been linked in the past, as well as the alluring possibility of Virgil Van Dijk, who would fit in brilliantly with Koscielny and Mustafi. Malang Sarr out of France has also been rumored of late, but news of any addition, especially defensive, will remain sparse until the club sells a few fringe players. Arsenal remains heavy at center back but not necessarily strong. The smartest move: two men out, one top man in. If Wenger and the board want a statement move to show their ambition it would be another club record fee for Virgil Van Dijk, stealing the Southampton defender right under the noses of rivals Liverpool and Chelsea.

Midfield requires toughness and consistency

Arsenal’s midfield has been troubling over recent years, often injury prone and flat. After an outstanding second half last season and a strong preseason, Granit Xhaka is ready to break out, but his partner in the midfield remains a question mark. Arsenal currently have an abundance of injury prone, inconsistent midfield options. The club can survive with the players currently available, but there are two players recently linked with the club that could serve as outstanding additions. Jean Michael Seri is the first. The diminutive Ivorian from Nice is a passing maestro, reminiscent of Santi Cazorla and even has traces of a young Andrea Pirlo.  As a creator, he would be a superb addition, but he is not without his weaknesses. He is not known for his vocal presence and like many players on the squad, lacks the natural leadership qualities the Gunners so desperately need. His size and strength might also emerge as an issue in the much more physical Premier League. Lastly, Seri suffers from a condition called “chilblains,” an itchiness and swelling of the skin in cold conditions, which may also prove a problem in the winter months.  Even with these weaknesses, Seri is a young, high class talent with a supposed €40M buyout clause. In today’s market, not only is that figure a steal, but it is a very reasonable gamble for a club that tends to be quite risk averse.

The second target Arsenal have been linked to quite recently is Steven N’Zonzi from Sevilla. Yes, the man who buried an absolute wondergoal against us earlier in preseason. N’Zonzi fits the bill as the tough minded, physical, yet surprisingly technical midfielder supporters have been yearning. He may not have the cache of a big market name, but he has Premier League experience and dominated La Liga for Sevilla. At 28 he doesn’t have the same youth as other transfer targets, such as Seri, but he would come in right away and make a crushing midfield tandem with Xhaka. Arsene Wenger and the board need to strongly consider both men for the upcoming campaign and stir up a midfield group in need of outside competition.

Looming uncertainty surrounds an immensely talented attack

The biggest question for Arsenal’s attacking group is regarding the fate of Alexis Sanchez and even Mesut Özil. Although the latter appears set on staying at least until the end of the season, the contract situation for both men has led to fear and uncertainty going forward. If Wenger keeps his word and refuses to sell Sanchez this summer, Arsenal will have an outstanding group of attacking players. Even if Sanchez stays, Arsenal should still look to seal the deal with Thomas Lemar. Rumours of a move for the young Frenchman out of Monaco have gone on for weeks. The interest is real but his arrival is far from a sure thing. Without a doubt his addition, for this season and for the club’s future, would push Arsenal’s attacking group to the top of the Premier League. Alexis, Özil, and Lacazette already make up arguably the best attacking trio in the league, but the addition of Lemar would be an elite boost to the squad. Riyad Mahrez has also been discussed at length this summer and should be pursued aggressively late in the window if the Lemar deal falls through. Mahrez wants to leave and Leicester are in a bind. Wenger needs to be ruthless. As a manager, he has lacked that aggressive quality over the years during the transfer window, but he has also shown in his dealings to sign Sanchez and Özil that he can steal a player away at the last second.

So, what happens if Alexis Sanchez forces a move – how does the club recover? If Sanchez does in fact leave in the coming weeks, Arsenal need to buy proven scorers and creators to attempt to replace his production. Yes, plural. In this scenario, Wenger would be wise to sign both Mahrez and Lemar. Lemar could contribute and adjust in time, but Mahrez could take the spot of Alexis alongside Özil creating an elite attacking pair. That still leaves goals needing to be replaced, but they could be found in a player like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. While he has been linked for years, the departure of Alexis would force the club to aggressively pursue targets looking for new clubs. Although Aubameyang is more accustomed to the role Lacazette is set to play this season, he plays in a very open, counter attacking system at Dortmund and finishes as clinically as any player in the world not named Messi or Ronaldo. Arsenal may have looked past Aubameyang earlier this summer in their pursuit of Lacazette, but in a world without Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal need players who simply score. 31 goals in 32 Bundesliga games last season and cheetah-like pace could make him a perfect replacement for Sanchez.

After what felt like years of rumours and no action, Wenger finally signed a big-time striker in Alexandre Lacazette. The club record signing should prove to be a perfect addition and leaves the striker group well equipped for the first time in years. However, if Giroud does make a push to leave late in the window, Arsenal must have a backup plan to replace him. Although he has taken criticism over the years, he is still amongst the highest Premier League scorers since his arrival and has shown to be a high class late-game substitute. If Giroud remains, as all indications point, Arsenal have both high quality and depth at their number nine position and should look towards the back half of the squad for meaningful additions.

 Looking Forward to September 1st

What can fans expect for this year? It depends. Although that may not be a satisfying answer, the urgency of Wenger and Arsenal is largely dependent on the fate of Alexis Sanchez, and the availability of targets late in the window. Wenger seems unlikely to force a move through and overpay, but if Lemar or Mahrez’s clubs allow the price to drop, Arsenal won’t hesitate to swoop in. For now, the club will spend its time unloading the likes of Lucas Perez, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, and other fringe players before they pull out the check book.

Arsenal started their summer with excellent transfer business and showed their intent to compete for the title and clinch champions league football for next season. Gaps remain however, and a high-class addition in defense and midfield will place the Gunners squarely in contention. Barring a departure from Alexis Sanchez, any other attacking signings will simply add to the existing quality. The next few weeks hold many unknowns for supporters, but if Wenger can solidify the squad and keep Alexis and Özil, the 2017/18 campaign may prove to be a highly successful one.