Growing Pains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time

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

Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani1.

How Arsene Wenger should manage Arsenal’s remaining 8 Premier League games

Arsenal’s Premier League season is, for all intents and purposes, over. After five league losses since the turn of the year, the Gunners find themselves stranded behind the pack in sixth place instead of battling it out among the Premier League elite for a spot in the top four. The table tells the story: 33 points behind leaders Manchester City and 13 points behind fourth-place Tottenham, Arsenal have virtually nothing to play for in their remaining eight league matches. It is a peculiar, if not disheartening situation.

Arsene Wenger’s hopes of salvaging something from the worst season of his 21-year tenure now lie in the Europa League, a competition that offers both a chance to win his first European trophy and a route into next season’s Champions League. Still, the Frenchman must manage his squad for eight essentially meaningless domestic games, a task which presents both risk and opportunity. Here are some factors Wenger should consider as he leads his side through the ‘dead rubbers’ that make up the rest of the Premier League season.

 

Keep Key Europa League Players Fresh

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Laurent Koscielny’s fitness will be decisive in Arsenal’s Europa League run

It should serve as a wakeup call that the Europa League has, at this point, become more important to Arsenal than the Premier League. The club have no time to scoff at the stature of the competition, however, as it represents their best shot to get back into Europe’s elite tournament.

The Gunners are now in the quarterfinals after beating a strong AC Milan side 5–1 on aggregate—an outcome that few expected considering the way Arsenal had been playing. The 2-0 win at the San Siro was one of Arsenal’s strongest performances of the season, with the back four’s uncharacteristically resolute defending giving the entire team a platform to play with freedom and confidence.

Arsene Wenger will use that performance as a template for next month’s quarterfinal tie against CSKA Moscow. As Arsenal’s season rests on beating the Russian outfit over two legs, Wenger should keep key players fresh by limiting their minutes in the league. The fixture sandwiched between the two legs—Southampton at home—should see some rotation, with the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Aaron Ramsey, and perhaps even Hector Bellerin and Mesut Özil getting the day off.

 

Give the youngsters a chance

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Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock have both made their Arsenal debuts this season

One of the highlights of Arsenal’s dismal season has been the particularly exciting crop of young players breaking into the first team. Ainsley Maitland-Niles hasn’t looked out of place when slotting in at left-back—a position he’s not used to playing—while Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, and Joe Willock have all impressed when given minutes in the Europa League and Carabao Cup.

The low-pressure, dead rubber league games provide an ideal setting for Arsenal’s young talents to gain valuable first team minutes. As the Gunners tend to play their best football when the pressure is off, the youngsters will slot into a free-flowing, positive Arsenal side rather than a calamitous train wreck, ultimately aiding their development.

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One player in particular who fans would like to see more of is Reiss Nelson. Despite shining in the preseason tour of Asia last summer with his silky touches and mazy dribbles, the winger has played just 18 league minutes this season. With Alex Iwobi flattering to deceive at right-wing, it could be time to see what Nelson is truly capable of by giving him an extended run in the first team. What’s more, the 18-year-old’s contract expires next summer, and it would be a shame if the club’s brightest prospect in years was to leave because he wasn’t given a proper chance.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles is another who would benefit from increased playing time in the Premier League. Impressing at left-back a handful of times this season with composure that belies his age and remarkable recovery speed, Maitland-Niles has deserved a chance to play in central midfield, his preferred position. Moving to the defense, Rob Holding or Calum Chambers could slot in while Laurent Koscielny is rested, with both in need of minutes to regain confidence.

The opportunity is there for Arsenal’s next generation to be integrated into the first team. Of all people, Arsene Wenger should be the first to recognize it.

 

Don’t let the results slide

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Arsenal have lost 14 matches in all competitions this season

Although the rest of Arsenal’s Premier League season is technically pointless, the results will still influence the atmosphere around the club and the fan sentiment. While there may be no tangible consequences to defeat, a heavy loss at Old Trafford or a home upset to West Ham would add to the club’s malaise and bring more empty seats.

No man is more aware of that than Arsene Wenger, who in the past has described each and every defeat as “a scar on my heart.” The Frenchman will want to win his remaining games regardless of their importance as he looks to bring the feel-good factor back to the club. More importantly, Arsenal’s Premier League duties aren’t completely disconnected from their Europa League campaign: a series of losses could send them back into a negative spiral, while a run of form would build momentum that translates to Europe.

The Premier League season may be over, but Arsenal arguably have more to play for than ever. In a bid to end his worst-ever season on a high and potentially save his job, Arsene Wenger will have to manage his squad with care and canny between now and the end of May.

 

Follow me on Twitter @MattCelly

Alexandre Lacazette: How do we assess the first six months?

Alexandre Lacazette was brought from Lyon to Arsenal to be the spearhead for their future attack. After some stellar years in France where he amassed 100 goals in 203 appearances, there was hope and optimism that he would be the striker that Arsenal had been crying out for. The Gunners often had the creative midfielders to create the chances but were lacking the lethal striker to put them away and propel them to the upper echelon of the league. However, after a promising start to his life in the Premier League, he has tailed off and has been relegated to the bench.

Surely sold on the idea of playing with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, Lacazette started his first few games with a bounce in his step and some sharp link up play. In the few games that the trio started together, the results were magical and the team was firing on all cylinders. But the times that the three shared the pitch together was few and far between and rather than Ozil and Alexis providing support, he was left with Welbeck and Iwobi. Not to be disrespectful, but those two aren’t even in the stratosphere of Ozil and Alexis.

 

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The Frenchman started brightly but has seen his form take a serious dip

 

But after such a bright start, the Frenchman’s form has not only taken a turn for the worse but has completely nosedived. A pathetic return of 1 goal in his last 13 games has found Lacazette on the bench for the recent brought in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. But the problems in his game stem way before the acquisitions in the January transfer window. In the majority of the games that Lacazette has started for the club, he rarely finishes. Often if the game is in the balance, Wenger will turn to Olivier Giroud to make the difference and sacrifice Lacazette in doing so. Brought in to be the main man but yet not given the confidence to bring the team home in tight situations looks to have zapped Lacazette of his confidence and now looks a shell of himself when he plays.

Now, all this isn’t to excuse Lacazette for his individual failures because to me, he just hasn’t been good enough. You look at all the other forwards in the league that are thriving thus far such as Kane, Aguero and Salah, there is a hunger and desire to get in positions where scoring becomes a much easier task. However, in the current case of Lacazette, he tends to drift out wide far too often and when the ball comes into areas where he should be, you can find him on the edge of the box or on one of the flanks. Whether this is a coaching decision, I have no clue. But, Lacazette is now faced with a dilemma in which he would have never envisioned when he arrived.

 

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Aubameyang was signed in January for a club record fee

 

If you would have told Lacazette that Giroud would be sold, the last place he would have expected to find himself is the substitute’s bench. However, as previously mentioned, Aubameyang has been brought in and Lacazette was immediately demoted to the bench and it’s hard to suggest that it wasn’t warranted. Maybe he wasn’t fully acclimatised to the rigours of the Premier League or maybe he hit a brick wall having not had his usual winter break, but his performances didn’t warrant him being in the starting line-up and he has an uphill battle to regain that position.

So has his time in London been a success so far, to me, it hasn’t. The signs are there for hope to still exist that Lacazette will justify the money that has been spent on him, but for now, it doesn’t appear he will be starting games anytime soon. It is now up to Wenger and the other coaches to get Lacazette refocused on his game and instill him with the confidence he showed in his days in France. But with the current state of Wenger’s coaching, I’m pessimistic about that actually happening.

How Will Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fit into Arsenal’s Starting XI?

It took some time, but Arsenal have finally completed the signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund for a club record £56 million fee. The 28-year-old joins the Gunners with a reputation as one of the deadliest forwards in Europe, having scored a whopping 141 goals in all competitions for Dortmund since signing in 2013. Aubameyang’s goalscoring prowess and bonafide star status makes him an ideal replacement for Alexis Sanchez, who joined Manchester United last week in a swap deal that saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan sign for Arsenal.

In replacing his most productive player with two attackers that previously combined for 56 goal contributions in a single league season (see Borussia Dortmund 2015-16), Arsene Wenger has come out of a sticky situation with some credit. Now, Le Professeur must figure out how to fit his two shiny new signings into a lineup that already contains Mesut Özil and previous club record signing, Alexandre Lacazette. Here are a few different tactical setups Wenger might go for as he aims to please his star players and maximize Arsenal’s attacking output.

 

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A formation that is as exciting as it is unlikely for Wenger to try, the 4-2-2-2 would see Arsenal essentially field a front four of their attacking talent. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Özil take up free roles on either wing, cutting inside to combine with the two forwards while the wing-backs overlap to provide width.

Although he hasn’t been as prolific as fans anticipated, Alexandre Lacazette has proven that he is more than just a poacher, showing excellent holdup play and ability to keep the ball in tight areas around the box. The Frenchman plays slightly behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who thrives as the team’s target man and would benefit from another forward to keep defenders occupied.

The overwhelming amount of attacking impetus could potentially unbalance Arsenal’s shape, meaning the midfield pairing would need to be positionally disciplined and defensively aware. Mohammed Elneny may be Arsenal’s least exciting midfielder, but he could be the key to this formation succeeding. The Egyptian international excelled in a defensive midfield role in Arsenal’s Carabao Cup semifinal win over Chelsea, and would take up the same responsibilities in a 4-2-2-2. One of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, or Granit Xhaka would partner him in the middle of the park to keep things ticking and link midfield to attack. If the Gunners are particularly struggling to retain possession in midfield, Mesut Özil could tuck in from the right side to work some of his German magic.

While the 4-2-2-2 may appear to be top-heavy on paper, it could get the most out of Arsenal’s attackers if executed properly. Arsene Wenger is unlikely to revert to what is essentially a modified 4-4-2, but his recent tactical versatility could mean we’re in for a surprise.

 

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Arsene Wenger might not have to switch from his beloved 4-3-3 to fit his two new signings into the starting lineup.

Again, Mkhitaryan plays on the left wing, the position Thomas Tuchel used him in during his remarkable 2015-16 campaign with Dortmund. The Armenian notched up 21 goals and 26 assists in all competitions that season, and Wenger will hope he can regain that form by playing in his favored position in a team that suits his playing style.

There is one notable difference between this setup and a classic 4-3-3, and that’s the right wing position. Here, Aubameyang will be less of a traditional right winger and more of a right-sided shadow striker, making runs off of Lacazette and drifting into dangerous positions. As he will provide little support for Hector Bellerin on the right flank, Mohammed Elneny (or the equally mobile Ainsley Maitland-Niles) is again key as he will be tasked with protecting the right-back.

In theory, this formation could work, but playing your new record-signing striker on the wing—albeit not in a traditional winger’s role—could definitely be an issue. That said, it wouldn’t be unlike Arsene Wenger to stick to his system and ask players to adjust their positions to suit it—watch this space.

 

3 – 5 – 2

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For the first time in basically forever, Arsene Wenger is showing a willingness to switch his formation on a match-by-match basis based on the opposition. At long last, Arsenal (sort of) does tactics!

Earlier this season Wenger tended to play a 3-4-3, especially when he thought his side needed extra defensive support which, in the case of Arsenal, is just about every match. Recently, however, he has opted for his trusty 4-3-3—but the need to accommodate two forwards could see a three-at-the-back formation used more regularly.

A 3-5-2, for example, would look similar to the previously used 3-4-3, but with an attacking midfielder playing behind two strikers rather than two attacking midfielders behind one striker. The prospect of Mesut Özil pinging through balls to Lacazette and Aubameyang is enough to make Arsenal fans quickly forget about that strange Chilean who loved his dogs a bit too much. Mkhitaryan, then, can take up a position in midfield where he’s able to combine with Özil and burst forward when the opportunity arises. He’ll have to be a bit more disciplined, though, as Wenger said he sees the 29-year-old as a potential “box-to-box player.”

Although the prospect of Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan, Lacazette, and Özil in the same lineup is truly tantalizing, Arsene Wenger faces a genuine challenge in fitting all four of them into a functional starting eleven. It’s a good headache to have, and if the Frenchman gets it right he may just have the scariest attack in the Premier League. In what’s turning out to be an increasingly grim season, things might be a little less depressing if the club is at least fun to watch. After all, isn’t that the whole point?

 

Follow me on Twitter @MattCelly

 

DANNY WELBECK: CAN HE FIND A WAY BACK INTO THE STARTING XI?

So, here we are again with Danny Welbeck. It appears that the same narrative persists with the Englishman since he made his move to the Emirates. He manages to break into the starting line-up and put together a string of fine performances, slowly changing minds that he can become a permanent part of the attacking unit and then disaster strikes in the form of injury. For Welbeck, he doesn’t get those injuries that only limit him for weeks, he will be gone for such a length of time that his existence on the squad can sometimes be forgotten.

Welbeck is now faced with the seemingly impossible task of forcing his way back into a starting three that boasts stellar names like Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette. Since the signing of Lacazette was announced, Arsenal fans have been clamouring for the trio to start together and they have been granted their wish in recent weeks. In the three games that they have started together, Arsenal have recorded victories in all of the games including the impressive win in the North London derby where they each made a contribution with Ozil and Lacazette registering an assists and Alexis scoring the second goal.

 

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Ozil, Lacazette and Alexis have formed a fluid partnership in their time together

 

However, Welbeck’s form at the beginning of the season shouldn’t be so easily discounted when discussing his role in the squad. Early in the season, he was forming a nice understanding down the left with Kolasinac and his fellow strike partner that yielded some positive results with him scoring four goals before his untimely injury. Now, to be brutally honest, when talking about the aforementioned trio, Welbeck doesn’t come close to them in terms of quality but his unpredictability and his uncanny nature to find himself in scoring positions keeps him in Wenger’s favour.

One thing that the Englishman can never be accused of is lacking effort. But that criticism has been levelled towards Ozil and Sanchez and recent months and deservingly so. With their contract situation still remaining unresolved and both of them being prone to having emotional mood swings on the pitch, Welbeck could easily find his name back in the starting line-up if their form and subsequently their play begins to dip.

 

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Welbeck started the season in fine form before his injury

 

 

There is no doubt that Wenger has put trust in Welbeck and won’t hesitate to put him in the line-up when we will inevitably need a spark from the bench. Welbeck’s past does indicate that he will never be a 20+ a season player because he can’t stay fit enough for the whole campaign and quite frankly, he hasn’t shown the finishing ability. But there is no doubt that he can contribute 10-15 goals across all competitions and still be a valuable asset to the Arsenal squad.

Finally, Welbeck falls under the same bracket as his fellow Englishman, Jack Wilshere. Naturally, you would want them on the team because they have the ability to make a difference but there are only so many times that Wenger can play them before an injury occurs. Both will be looking to get back into the starting XI as soon as possible and with a World Cup coming up in June, both need to grab any opportunity they are given with both hands.

By _TimPD

How to Fix Arsenal’s Defensive Issues: A 5-Step Plan

 

New season, same Arsenal. The Gunners have added a defender in Sead Kolasinac and had an entire summer to straighten things out on the training pitch, but four goals conceded in the opening two games suggests the defense is as porous as ever. Here are five steps Arsene Wenger and his side can take to patch up the leaky backline.

1. Play defenders in the correct positions

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Sounds obvious, right?

Wrong. Arsene Wenger’s latest defensive stunt is the refusal to play center-backs, instead puzzlingly choosing to start left-backs Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac at center-back for Arsenal’s first two Premier League fixtures.

It’s not as if the squad has been ravaged by injury. Per Mertesacker, the club captain, was fit to play against Stoke last weekend yet remained on the bench. Rob Holding was dropped from the squad altogether after a shaky opening day performance against Leicester, as was Calum Chambers, who appears to be out of favor despite an impressive loan spell with Middlesborough last season.

There’s usually some sort of rhyme or reason to Arsene Wenger’s team selections, but it’s difficult to understand the manager’s thinking when he plays a back five that consists of four players out of position. Nacho Monreal works quite well as the left center-back in a back three, but is evidently uncomfortable as the centermost one. Sead Kolasinac, the left-back in the 2016-17 Bundesliga Team of the Season, was presumably signed to play in that position—so why play him at center-back while Hector Bellerin, a right-back, plays at left wing-back?

At the moment, the defense feels topsy-turvy when it doesn’t have to be. The first step to fixing Arsenal’s leaky backline is really quite simple.

 

2. Give Per Mertesacker a chance

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Arsenal’s defense is crying out for leadership and organization—two qualities that Per Mertesacker embodies. Now in his final season as a professional footballer before taking on a role as Arsenal’s academy manager next year, he deserves the chance to be a part of the first team setup once again.

Although he’s 32, Mertesacker’s game has never relied on pace—if anything, age adds to his expertise in reading the game and marshaling fellow teammates. His performance for the ages in the FA Cup final against Chelsea reaffirmed the German’s quality. Not only was Mertesacker stellar, but Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal fed off of his experience and solidity, resulting in one of Arsenal’s best defensive displays in recent memory.

The success of the 3-4-2-1 formation relies on the centermost center-back’s capability. If Arsene Wenger allows his club captain to anchor the back three, he might find the rest of the defense steadier as a result.

 

3. Find a balanced midfield partnership

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The sole goal that Arsenal conceded against Stoke last weekend was as much the fault of the defense as it was the midfield. With Aaron Ramsey the furthest man forward, Granit Xhaka carelessly lost the ball before failing in an attempt to win it back, leaving Arsenal’s backline completely exposed.

The defense should have dealt with the ensuing attack, but they wouldn’t have been in such a scenario in the first place if there was a stable midfield in front of them. The partnership between Xhaka and Ramsey has a lot of promise, but it also contains some inherent flaws. While Ramsey’s forays forward are the best aspect of his game, they often leave Xhaka in situations he isn’t comfortable dealing with, putting even more pressure on the defense.

Arsene Wenger needs to either coach Xhaka and Ramsey to have more balance and understanding in their partnership, or look elsewhere bring stability to his midfield—whether it be internal or external.

 

4. Hire a new defensive coach

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Individual errors have played a big part in the Gunners’ recent defensive shortcomings, but the system they’re set up in certainly doesn’t help. Arsenal’s backline looks like a group of strangers figuring things out as they go rather than a cohesive unit, and much of that is a result of the coaching and work done on the training ground.

When Steve Bould was appointed as Arsene Wenger’s assistant manager in 2012, fans expected the former Arsenal stalwart to inject some of his own toughness and strength into the defense. The side’s defending has improved in spells here and there, but the “Bould effect” has not been what was initially imagined.

Arsenal could use another coach to bring fresh ideas and improved organization to a backline evidently lacking guidance.

 

5. Sign a center-back

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It may sound like a simple solution, but Arsenal are in a precarious situation with their current center-backs. Per Mertesacker is in his final year while Laurent Koscielny and his dodgy achilles’ are 32 next month, leaving Rob Holding, Shkodran Mustafi, and Calum Chambers as the club’s remaining central defenders.

On paper, Arsenal have plenty of center-backs. The reality, however, is that there will be a massive gap to fill once the club’s senior defenders begin to age. Are Holding (21), Mustafi (25), and Chambers (22) prepared to fill that gap? Perhaps one day, but in the meantime Arsenal could use a player with sufficient experience and defensive nous—say, Virgil Van Dijk—to be the lynchpin of the backline in the not-so-distant future.

 

Follow me on Twitter @MattCelly

 

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.