Category Archives: Football

Arsenal turning the page on Wenger era

Gazidis was ridiculed by Arsenal fans for saying last season that the club’s poor run of form would be a “catalyst for change”. A year later, that change has finally come. I think Wenger made the right decision by announcing on Friday that he would step down at the end of the season. Wenger showed respect to the club by realizing that he couldn’t take the club further. And the board showed respect to Arsenal’s most successful manager by letting him go on his own terms instead of sacking him.

Wenger's departure

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger and the board didn’t really have the choice. First, the Gunners will miss out on a Top 4 finish for the second year in a row. There was some suggestion that last season was just a blip because Arsenal finished only 1 point behind Liverpool in the Premier League. But poor performances this season have confirmed the club’s decline. The Gunners trail fourth-place Tottenham by 14 points and are on course to finish the season with their lowest tally in the Wenger era. The board would have taken the risk of a third straight year outside the Top 4 by letting Wenger see out his contract.

Second, Kroenke treats Arsenal like a business. The club really looked bad this year when a lot of fans decided to protest with their wallets by not attending home games. Sponsors can’t be happy when they see so many empty seats at the Emirates stadium. And when you add the number of memberships that haven’t been renewed for next season, the business outlook is definitely not good.

And third, the board had to stop the rot on and off the pitch. The Gunners used to be known for their spectacular style of football under Wenger. Unfortunately, their brand of football has become boring this season as if they had lost their identity. Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham are more entertaining teams than Arsenal. If you are a TV network and have the choice between a Liverpool game and an Arsenal game, you can bet your viewers will prefer to watch the Liverpool game. Off the pitch, the club has signed a lot of average players in the past few years. Therefore it didn’t make sense to let Wenger spend a fortune in the transfer market for another mediocre season.

3 key criteria for a successor

In the end, Wenger’s departure is the logical outcome of the moves made by Gazidis last year: the Arsenal chief executive appointed Fahmy as contract negotiator last summer before hiring Mislintat as head of recruitment and Sanllehi as head of football relations in November. The club used to let Wenger supervise the squad, the youth teams, the recruitment and the scouting. That’s a lot of work and power for one person. Now the structure of the Arsenal staff is more horizontal and to a certain extent similar to clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG and Manchester City where a sporting director helps the manager.

The timing of Wenger’s departure is questionable. I believe Wenger should have already stepped down last year when he missed out on a Top 4 finish. In my eyes, that was the sign that his powers were waning. Of course, the board also had its share of responsibility. Kroenke, Gazidis and Co. gave Wenger a two-year extension because they were not prepared for life without the French manager and therefore had no shortlist of successors.

The timing of Wenger’s announcement is also questionable. It could have been done in March when the Gunners were falling out of the Top 4 race. In 2016, Manchester City announced Pellegrini’s departure in February. That did not prevent the Citizens from finishing 4th and hiring Guardiola in the summer. Why am I saying that Wenger’s announcement came a bit late? Because it will take 1 to 2 months to have applications, to interview candidates and to coordinate strategies with Mislintat and Sanllehi. That’s bad news when you know that some signings are negotiated by May. And the shorter transfer window this summer leaves no room for error. Arsenal can’t afford to mess like Manchester United did in 2013 when Moyes only got Fellaini.

The key criteria for appointing the next Arsenal manager are pretty simple: 1. He should be able to develop youngsters. There are some top prospects in the academy (Nelson, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles) and you don’t want to lose them to rival teams. Klopp and Pochettino have done a great job with Gomez, Alexander-Arnold, Kane, Alli and Winks. By contrast, Mourinho lacked patience and flair with De Bruyne, Salah and Lukaku; 2. He should have a shrewd transfer policy because Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs. That means signing underrated players; 3. He should have a good knowledge of European football to help the club go further in the Champions League.

Simeone’s brand of football

Let’s have a look at some of the names tossed around: Ancelotti, Rodgers, Howe, Dyche, Low, Tuchel, Conte, Allegri, Enrique, Simeone, Jardim, Vieira, Henry, Arteta. Ancelotti has a fantastic resume and is more astute tactically than Wenger but he’s not a squad builder and doesn’t develop youngsters. The Italian manager mostly worked with seasoned players at AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

Rodgers, Howe and Dyche are British managers who aren’t good enough tactically to cope with European football. Howe and Dyche have done a good job at Bournemouth and Burnley but Arsenal is a too big club for them and they would likely suffer the same fate as Moyes at Manchester United. Rodgers has more experience at the top level than Howe and Dyche. He led Liverpool to a runner-up finish in 2014 but he was also responsible for their mediocre start to the 2015-16 season and made a costly mistake by signing Benteke.

Low won the World Cup with Germany in 2014 but he hasn’t managed a club since 2004. So there are big question marks about his capacity to adjust again to a club’s workload. Tuchel would be a weird appointment because of his rift with Mislintat at Borussia Dortmund. And he has never enjoyed the same level of success at Dortmund as Klopp.

Conte and Allegri would definitely improve the Arsenal defense. Is Conte still feeling homesick or is he willing to stay a few more years in England? Conte would be a better choice than Allegri, who hasn’t developed youngsters at Juventus. In fact, Allegri has mostly signed seasoned players in the past few years (Matuidi, Benatia, Costa, Higuain, Pjanic, Alves, Dybala, Mandzukic, Khedira).

Simeone and Enrique are intriguing names. Enrique won the Spanish Liga and the Champions League with Barcelona but he also did a poor job at AS Roma, which couldn’t qualify for any European competition in 2012. I wasn’t much impressed when Enrique was the Barcelona manager. He mostly played counterattacking football, relying on the finishing of Messi, Suarez and Neymar. Simeone would be a more solid choice than Enrique. The Argentine manager won the Liga and led Atletico Madrid to two runner-up finishes in the Champions League. Simeone also showed some flair in the transfer market by signing Griezmann and Oblak and he helped youngsters like Koke and Saul Niguez blossom at the top level. However, his brand of football requires a lot of intensity and I’m not sure Arsenal could last the distance.

Patience needed for next season

Jardim would be a great choice but the Portuguese manager is a non-starter because he has recently extended his contract with Monaco. So we have some former Gunners left as potential candidates: Henry, Vieira and Arteta. Arsenal fans have fond memories of Henry, but I don’t think he’s ready yet to become a manager at this club. Some pundits might mention Guardiola and Zidane as successful examples of players who quickly moved into high-profile managerial roles, but the circumstances are really different. Guardiola and Zidane had very little rebuilding to do at Barcelona and Madrid, and they also had leaders in their respective squads.

Vieira and Arteta would be more decent options than Henry. Arteta has learned a lot under Guardiola and he always looked like a manager in the making while playing at Arsenal. Vieira doesn’t look like a short-term solution. The Frenchman is tied to Manchester City and said today that he’s “happy” at New York City.

Fans will have to be patient next season because whoever takes over will face a massive rebuilding job. The Gunners will need to sign a goalkeeper (because Cech has become error-prone while Ospina can’t commant the area), two centerbacks (because Koscielny is past his prime, Mustafi is shaky and Holding and Chambers aren’t good enough), a leftback (Monreal is past his prime and Kolasinac is a poor defender), a holding midfielder (because Xhaka lacks defensive awareness and Elneny doesn’t win duels), and a deep-lying playmaker (because Cazorla is injured and Wilshere is not good enough).

Thank you for the memories Arsene. Hopefully, the fans will give you a glorious send-off for those 22 years at the helm of the club.

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Newcastle vs. Arsenal: 2-1 loss sums up worst season in Wenger era

The Gunners are on course to finish the Premier League season with their worst tally in the Wenger era after losing 2-1 at Newcastle on Sunday. With 54 points from 33 games so far, they must win all their remaining games to avoid a tally as low as the 67 points of the 2005-06 season. The reason for such a mediocre season obviously lies in Arsenal’s poor away form. The Gunners are the only Premier League team without a point on the road this year.

Newcastle vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger made 6 changes to the side that drew 2-2 with CSKA Moscow in the Europa League on Thursday with Chambers, Holding, Xhaka, Willock, Iwobi and Aubameyang replacing Bellerin, Koscielny, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Lacazette and Aubameyang started together for the first time, but the real surprise on the team sheet was Willock playing in the hole.

Arsenal enjoyed 72% of ball possession but created very little with just 3 shots on target to 4 for the Magpies. There was an obvious lack of creativity and penetration as the Gunners played at a too slow tempo to trouble the Newcastle defense.

At the back, Mustafi, Chambers and Monreal produced another horror show after the dodgy performance against Southampton a week ago. Gayle made a run in behind Mustafi in the 29th minute to chase a long ball from Shelvey and find Yedlin on our left flank. The American international made a cross for Perez, who beat Mustafi to the ball at the near post to open the scoring. You would expect a World Cup winner to win those duels at the near post. Mustafi was already at fault for Southampton’s opening goal from a similar cross. Mustafi also showed poor decision-making on that play. He could have played Gayle offside but didn’t. Monreal didn’t cover himself in glory either. The Spaniard was pulled out of position on that play, forcing Xhaka to cover him on the left flank. The trouble is that Xhaka didn’t track Yedlin when Shelvey hit the long ball.

Chambers’ limitations

The Magpies’ second goal came from a throw-in. Mustafi outjumped Slimani to head the ball sideways in the 68th. Monreal pounced on the loose ball only to head it into the path of Slimani, who found Perez inside the area. The Newcastle striker flicked the ball toward Ritchie, who shot past Cech from close range. Monreal made an error on that play and was again pulled out of position but Chambers and Xhaka were guilty too for not tracking Perez, leaving Holding in a 1v2 situation.

Could Mustafi improve under a new manager? I’m not so sure. Keown, who works as a TV pundit nowadays, pointed out what was wrong with Mustafi’s defending. You can bet that Bould, who played alongside Keown in the 1990s, made the same criticisms on the training ground at Colney. Is Mustafi listening? Maybe. But it’s hard to see him marshal the Arsenal defense when Koscielny will be gone. Mustafi was dominant in the air, winning 10 of 11 aerial duels. However, you can’t really be a top centerback if you keep losing key duels. Slimani dribbled past Mustafi in the 77th to cut the ball back for Perez, who fired into the side-netting.

Chambers didn’t make glaring mistakes like Mustafi, but his performance was just as poor. He did OK in the first half but was exposed after the break: the Magpies’ chances in the second half all came from his flank. Chambers led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, compared to 0 for Mustafi, 1 for Monreal and 1 for Holding, according to whoscored.com. As evidence of his technical limitations, Chambers’ passing accuracy dipped to 71.4%, compared to 85.1% for Mustafi, 88.8% for Monreal and 89.6% for Holding.

Chambers was also tortured in one-on-one situations, winning only 2 of 8 tackles according to Squawka. Kenedy turned Chambers in the 16th while Perez easily dribbled past the English defender in the 33rd. Playing as a rightback, Chambers’ lack of recovery pace allowed Kenedy to play a one-two with Slimani in the 75th before having his shot deflected by Mustafi onto the bar. Wenger ended Chambers’ suffering by replacing him with Maitland-Niles in the 78th.

Iwobi’s inconsistency

In the front three, Lacazette led the line while Aubameyang and Iwobi started on the wings. There are two mysteries here. Iwobi had a good game in the No. 10 role against Southampton. Yet, Wenger moved Iwobi to the right wing to play an academy player, Willock, in the hole. The second mystery is Wenger’s conviction that Aubameyang can shine as a winger. Yes, Aubameyang occasionally played as a winger for Saint-Etienne from 2011 to 2013, but he then became a prolific centerforward at Borussia Dortmund.

Arsenal’s opening goal in the 14th might give the impression that the manager made the right choice. Aubameyang controlled a long ball from Mustafi to make a cross for Lacazette, who volleyed home from close range. But that was the only meaningful play in which Lacazette and Aubameyang interacted.

Aubameyang was ineffective from the wing with 0 of 3 shots on target, while Lacazette’s weakness in the air was again exposed with just 1 of 4 aerial duels won, according to Squawka. Besides the goal, Lacazette was no threat in the final third, dragging a shot wide from the edge of the box in the fifth minute and wasting a scoring chance in the 42nd with a poor pass to Willock while he could have taken the shot himself. I still believe that the more natural partnership is to have Lacazette play off Aubameyang and not the other way around. Lacazette has a better all-around game than Aubameyang, who’s stronger in the air than the France international.

Starting on the right wing, Iwobi wasn’t able to repeat the performance he produced against the Saints with just 1 of 3 shots on target and 2 key passes. He also had 5 turnovers and showed poor work-rate again (0 tackle, 0 block, 1 interception). Inconsistency is normal for a 21-year-old player but the poor work-rate is a coaching problem. Ferguson wouldn’t have tolerated that while Wenger seems more lenient in that regard. Chasing an equalizer, Wenger replaced Iwobi with Nketiah in the 86th, shifting from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a poorly balanced 4-2-4 system.

Willock’s Premier League debut

In midfield, Wenger overestimated Willock’s abilities by playing him behind Lacazette. Willock has made quite a few assists with the U23 team this season, but the gap with the Premier League level is massive. In his Premier League debut, Willock wasn’t really up to speed. He led all players with 3 fouls. In the opening minute, Willock turned over the ball after a poor first touch. He then dallied on the ball in the 35th and lost possession under Ritchie’s pressure.

Willock must certainly realize now that he has less time and space in the Premier League than in the U23 games. His work-rate at St. James’ Park was decent with 2 of 6 tackles won, 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. However, Willock will have to improve his tactical awareness. He failed to close down Shelvey in the 28th. The Newcastle midfielder hit a long ball for Gayle and it took a timely challenge from Mustafi to end the threat. A minute later, Willock was a split second late to close down Shelvey, who initiated the equalizer with another long ball for Gayle. Wenger yanked Willock off in the 68th to send on Welbeck. I tend to see Willock as a utility midfielder with the profile of a Coquelin or Flamini. He clearly doesn’t have the skills to play as a No. 10 or even as a box-to-box midfielder like Ramsey.

The Gunners have one week to recharge their batteries before facing West Ham on Sunday. At this stage of the season, the priority is the Europa League, which means that the two legs against Atletico Madrid on April 26 and May 3 will lead to rotation in Premier League games. I don’t think Wenger will rest key players against West Ham because the three days of rest before the first leg should be enough to recover. However, I’m pretty sure the manager will field a makeshift team against Manchester United to avoid injuries for the second leg.

CSKA Moscow vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 2-2 draw

Arsenal survived a scare on Thursday to qualify for the last 4 of the Europa League. Despite a three-goal advantage in the first leg, the Gunners were one goal away from elimination in the second leg of their quarterfinal tie. It took great passing skills from Elneny and cool finishing from Welbeck and Ramsey to draw 2-2 with CSKA Moscow.

CSKA Moscow vs. Arsenal.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.uefa.com

The Gunners will play in the semifinals of a European competition for the first time since 2009, when they got knocked out by Manchester United in the Champions League. It will also be their first semifinal in the Europa League since 2000, when they lost to Galatasaray in the final. The second-tier competition was then known as the UEFA Cup.

  1. How a few percent can make the difference

Subconsciously, teams lose a few percent in their level of intensity when they take a three-goal advantage into the second leg. That’s what happened to Barcelona against AS Roma in the Champions League on Tuesday. The Gunners nearly fell into the same trap. They lost duels in their own half and lacked movement in the final third. The opening goal in the 39th minute summed up the difference between the two sides. Elneny was left in a 1v2 situation and couldn’t block Kuchaev’s cross. At the far post, Nababkin outjumped Monreal for a header that Cech saved. And Chalov reacted more quickly than Mustafi to tuck the rebound home.

  1. Tactical moves can backfire

Down 1-0 at halftime, Wenger tried to protect Arsenal’s aggregate lead by shifting to a back three after the break with Elneny playing alongside Koscielny and Mustafi. The Gunners clearly lacked Elneny’s mobility in midfield on the second goal as neither Wilshere nor Ramsey closed down Golovin in the 50th. Cech palmed Golovin’s long-range strike into the path of Nababkin, who reacted more quickly than Monreal to pounce on the rebound and fire past Cech for a 2-0 lead. Wenger made up for his mistake by replacing Wilshere with Chambers in the 68th. Chambers played in the back three while Elneny teamed up with Ramsey in central midfield.

  1. Elneny had his best game of the season

The Egypt international was the only Gunner who rose to the occasion. Arsenal fans know Elneny as a utility midfielder, but not as a playmaker. On Thursday, Elneny won 2 tackles, made 1 interception, had 0 turnover and led all players with a passing accuracy of 94.3%, according to whoscored.com. But what really stood out was the 2 assists Elneny made. He slipped a through ball to Welbeck in the 75th and repeated the feat for Ramsey’s goal in stoppage time. Both assists were good examples of verticality and looked pretty similar: 15-yard forward passes. On current form, Elneny should be ahead of Wilshere in the pecking order.

  1. Wilshere and Lacazette performed poorly

There was no surprise with Wenger’s substitutions. The French manager yanked off the 2 worst Gunners on the pitch. Wilshere had no impact on the game. Defensively, Wilshere won 0 tackle and made 0 interception. Offensively, Wilshere made just 1 key pass although he played in a more advanced position than Elneny. By contrast, Ramsey made 3 interceptions and scored a goal. The more irritating part in Wilshere’s performance was his inability to cut turnovers. Vitinho dispossessed Wilshere in the 45th, 61st and 64th.

What was Lacazette thinking? The France international played in Moscow as if it was a friendly. Lacazette lacked end product (0 shot on target, 0 key pass) and showed poor work-rate (0 tackle won, 0 interception, 0 block). Lacazette preferred to jog quite a few times instead of closing down CSKA players. The quality of his runs in the final third was also questionable. In the closing minutes of the game against Southampton last weekend, I already noticed that Lacazette made it more difficult for Iwobi to find him by making runs at the far post. Wenger replaced an ineffective Lacazette with Iwobi in the 77th. Ozil fed Iwobi, who missed the target in the 88th with just the goalkeeper to beat. Iwobi will need to take some advice from Ramsey to improve his composure.

  1. Welbeck’s on fire

The England international has scored 5 goals in his last 5 games in all competitions. Welbeck has definitely increased his chances of participating in the World Cup this summer with those recent performances. His work-rate, his versatility and his efficiency are arguments that Southgate can’t ignore. I think Welbeck is a better option up front than on a wing because his passing skills are average. Welbeck wasted a counterattack with a cross slightly ahead of Ramsey in the 35th. He then overhit a through ball for the Wales midfielder in the 49th. But let’s give Welbeck some credit for initiating the goal that shattered the morale of the Russian side. Welbeck turned Nababkin and played a one-two with Elneny before shooting past Akinfeev in the 75th. He could have scored another goal in stoppage time, but the CSKA goalkeeper palmed away his shot.

 

Arsenal vs. Southampton: Iwobi pulls the strings in 3-2 win

The Gunners showed great character to edge Southampton 3-2 in the Premier League after conceding the opening goal in the first half and squandering a 2-1 lead in the second. In a match between two leaky defenses, Wenger fielded a makeshift team, leaving Koscielny, Ramsey and Mkhitaryan out of the squad while Monreal, Wilshere, Ozil and Lacazette were on the bench at kickoff. Arsenal’s hectic schedule basically means that the French manager has to rotate like Mourinho did last season with Manchester United.

Arsenal vs. SouthamptonPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Welbeck received most of the plaudits for his two goals and his assist, but I really thought that Iwobi was the Gunner who produced an outstanding performance on Sunday. Iwobi was smarter in his decision-making and less selfish than usual. He didn’t get off to a good start, missing a 5-yard pass for Welbeck in the fifth minute and wasting a counterattacking opportunity with a poor cross in the 15th. But Iwobi managed to grow into the game. Surrounded by 4 Saints in the 29th, Iwobi needed just two touches to control Aubameyang’s pass and slip the ball to Welbeck, who flicked it toward Aubameyang. In a fine example of triangular play, Aubameyang beat Soares to the ball to poke it past McCarthy and level the game.

The understanding between Iwobi and Welbeck played a key role in that equalizer as well as in the other two goals scored by Arsenal. Iwobi released Welbeck down the left flank in the 38th and the England international cut inside Stephens to beat McCarthy with a shot that took a deflection off Yoshida for a 2-1 lead. Then Iwobi worked some space in the 81st to make a cross for Welbeck, who netted the winner with a downward header at the far post. It’s interesting to see such a partnership blossom because Iwobi never really struck a good understanding with Giroud last season while Lacazette has mostly relied on service from Ozil and Ramsey so far.

Welbeck’s contract

Iwobi created two other chances in the second half. He picked out Aubameyang, whose angled strike was parried by McCarthy in the 47th. The Nigeria international also made a cross for Wilshere, who redirected the ball toward Welbeck in the 78th. With the goal at his mercy, Welbeck somehow flicked the ball over the bar from 3 yards. The bounce was a bit high and Welbeck couldn’t adjust his legs quickly enough to keep the ball down. That game showed Iwobi’s potential. But his poor performance against Watford last month is also a reminder that consistency remains an issue for most 21-year-old players.

A few weeks ago, Iwobi would have probably taken his chance from a tight angle instead of making those crosses. His only goal attempt on Sunday was a snapshot from the edge of the box that McCarthy turned around the post in the 52nd. Being more selective with your shots is a sign of tactical intelligence: it’s about seeing the difference between a good spot and a bad one. Iwobi also did a better job of recognizing dribbling opportunities. He had 1 successful dribble out of 1. In the first half of the season, Iwobi too often lost possession by running into traffic. The only blemish in Iwobi’s performance was his poor work-rate. He made 0 interception and 0 block and won 0 of 2 tackles and 0 of 1 aerial duel, according to Squawka. In the eighth minute, Iwobi poorly closed down Stephens, who put the Arsenal defense in trouble with a long ball.

Welbeck is definitely giving the staff some food for thought with his two goals and his assist. His contract expires next year and there has been no loud call yet for an extension. Honestly, it’s a tough choice for the club. On the one hand, Welbeck is a versatile forward who will always provide you some good work-rate: he made 2 blocks and won 1 of 3 tackles and 4 of 6 aerial duels against Southampton. On the other, he’s an injury-prone player who will never hit the heights of a Henry or Sanchez. Would the staff be happy to keep Welbeck as an interesting bench option? Or do they think that the new crop of forwards (Nelson, Nketiah) has more to offer?

Nelson’s 1st Premier League start

A superstar in the Arsenal academy, Nelson finally made his first Premier League start on Sunday. I thought he was a bit too shy. Nelson showed some good work-rate with 1 interception, 3 blocks and 1 tackle won, but he lacked end product with 0 shot, 0 key pass, 0 cross and 0 dribble. Maybe Tadic’s nasty challenge in the second minute played a role in Nelson’s cautiousness. The Serbian midfielder should have received a yellow card for stamping on Nelson’s ankle. Tactically, Nelson too often drifted inside instead of staying wide to stretch the Southampton defense. Physically, Nelson will need to be stronger in duels because he got too easily brushed off the ball a couple of times. Nelson flashed a glimpse of his talent by releasing Aubameyang down the left flank in the 30th. Unfortunately, Aubameyang overhit his through ball for Welbeck, allowing McCarthy to collect the ball.

Wilshere replaced Nelson in the 64th and showed why the club won’t offer him better contract terms. He started one of his dribbling runs in the 65th and lost possession by falling over the ball. By sending on Wilshere, the manager simply wanted his team to retain the ball. But the opposite happened. In his 30-minute cameo, Wilshere led Arsenal players with 4 turnovers according to whoscored.com. He also proved a defensive liability as Soares played a one-two with Tadic in the 73rd before setting-up Austin for a tap-in to make it 2-2. Wilshere failed to track Soares on that play. In stoppage time, Wilshere lost possession again with a poor pass for Welbeck. Trying to make up for that error, Wilshere chased Stephens and ripped his shirt. Stephens retaliated by throwing Wilshere to the ground.

Ten years ago, Wilshere was making his Premier League debut. He is now a league veteran. But on Sunday Wilshere behaved like a petulant brat. His supporters will say that he got Stephens sent off. But they are missing the point: Wilshere gave away the ball as well as a dangerous free kick and the Gunners lost control of the situation. Kolasinac could have been booked for shoving Stephens while Elneny received a straight red card for pushing Soares and knocking the ball off Ward-Prowse’s hands. It was a harsh call but I can understand the referee’s rationale. The Saints were taking their free kick, so Elneny had no right to touch the ball. His behavior threatened to trigger another brawl and the referee probably considered that Elneny brought the game into disrepute.

Poor performance from the centerbacks

   That was a sad conclusion for Elneny, who had a decent game in midfield alongside Xhaka. The duo might lack creativity and defensive nous against the top teams but they are quite complementary against the weaker sides. They were at the heart of Arsenal’s passing game with 125 passes for Xhaka, the most for any player, and 116 passes for Elneny. The Egypt international contributed to his team’s fluency with a passing accuracy of 95.7%, the highest percentage for any player. Xhaka proved strong in duels, winning 3 of 4 tackles and 6 of 9 aerial duels, while Elneny compensated for his teammate’s lack of mobility by making 3 interceptions and 1 block, according to Squawka.

At the back, poor performances from Mustafi and Chambers showed the need for signing a centerback this summer.The pair’s horror show started with Southampton’s first scoring chance in the eighth minute. Chambers failed to intercept Stephens’ long ball and could only redirect it into the path of Tadic, who fed Ward-Prowse. The English midfielder outpaced Mustafi only to have his shot cleared off the line by Bellerin.

Chambers’ lack of pace has become legendary. Long outpaced Chambers in the 11th but wasted a good situation with a poor pass to Tadic. Arsenal can’t really play a high defensive line with Chambers because they face the same problems they had with Mertesacker a couple of years ago. That’s why I think Chambers would be a decent fit for a team parking the bus because there’s not much space behind the backline. By contrast, the Gunners dominate ball possession against 70% of the teams, which means that they have to push forward and leave plenty of space behind the centerbacks.

Another issue with Chambers is his inability to turn quickly, especially inside the area. Chambers couldn’t adjust his feet quickly enough to block Soares’ cross for Southampton’s equalizer in the 73rd. And he was not tight enough to block Tadic’s volley in the 86th. Chambers finished the game with 3 turnovers, which is too much for a centerback. Mustafi and Chambers combined to win 0 of 4 tackles, 5 of 14 aerial duels, while making just 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka.

Cech’s saves

The Gunners spent about £35 million to sign Mustafi two years ago. Such an investment hasn’t been justified so far. Mustafi was the main culprit for the opening goal in the 17th. Kolasinac failed to cut out a cross from Soares and Long got ahead of a static Mustafi to flick home the cross. Mustafi tried to blame Cech for the goal but Cech had no chance to beat Long to the ball since it was an outswinging cross.

If you believe Mustafi is Koscielny’s successor, then you’d better think twice because Mustafi can switch off at the most unexpected time like in the League Cup final for Aguero’s goal or when he shouted at Bellerin while Alcantara ran past him to score in Munich a year ago. Mustafi lost another duel in the 56th when Hoedt headed a corner goalward but Elneny cleared the ball off the line. The Germany international was lucky not to get penalized for body-checking Tadic in the 67th.

At fullback, Kolasinac won 6 of 9 aerial duels but also showed his limitations with a passing accuracy of 75%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal outfield starters. Bellerin didn’t completely recover from the game against CSKA Moscow as he made fewer runs than usual down the right flank. The Spaniard even received a yellow card in the 50th for pulling back Long. Wenger replaced Bellerin with Holding in the 75th as Chambers shifted to the rightback position. Holding lost a foot race against Austin in the 79th but he also made a crucial block in the 87th.

In the end, the Gunners can definitely thank Cech for the win. The Czech goalkeeper made 5 saves, stopping long-range strikes from Hojbjerg in the 54th and Hoedt in the 68th, palming away a header from Long in the 62nd, and tipping Tadic’s volley over the bar in the 86th.

There are just 6 Premier League games left this season. The manager will probably use them to build confidence for the Europa League and give some playing time to second-choice players. I hope Nelson, Nketiah and maybe Maitland-Niles will features in those games. They will get a better idea of the efforts required to compete in the Premier League, while the staff could decide whether those youngsters already have the level to be loaned out to a Championship side.

Arsenal vs. CSKA Moscow: A few thoughts on the 4-1 win

The Gunners put themselves in a very good position to qualify for the last 4 of the Europa League by smashing CSKA Moscow 4-1 in the first leg of their quarterfinal tie. Ramsey and Lacazette scored 2 goals each on Thursday while Ozil was involved in every Arsenal goal.

Arsenal vs. CSKA

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Because the Europa League has become more important than the Premier League, Wenger fielded his strongest team for that leg. There was no room on the bench for Nelson, Maitland-Niles and Willock. Arsenal found plenty of space against a Russian side that took the risk of playing a high defensive line. The scoreline was a bit flattering for the Gunners, who struggled to cope with Musa’s pace. CSKA Moscow could have scored 3 goals in the first half with some decent finishing.

  1. Ramsey’s golden touch

Almost everything Ramsey touched in the first half turned into gold. His deep runs are always a headache for any defense. Ramsey tucked home a low cross from Ozil in the seventh minute but his goal was disallowed for an offside position from Ozil. CSKA Moscow had been warned about the quality of Ramsey’s movement, yet they completely forgot to mark him two minutes later. Bellerin picked out Ramsey, who opened the scoring by guiding the ball past Akinfeev from 10 yards. Ramsey then beat the offside trap to make it 3-1 in the 28th. The Wales midfielder connected with a cross from Ozil to volley the ball over Akinfeev with an acrobatic backheel flick.

Paradoxically, Ramsey had easier chances afterwards but couldn’t convert them to notch a hat trick. He met a cross from Monreal in the 33rd for a header that lacked power to beat Akinfeev. In the 56th, Ramsey pounced on a rebound only to fire over the bar from close range. In the 77th, he took a pass from Iwobi to curl a shot that hit the post. And in the 85th, Iwobi fed again Ramsey, who missed the target with a low strike. Ramsey took 7 shots, 3 more than any other player. The only negative in his performance was his 6 turnovers, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. If the Gunners want to win the Europa League, Ramsey will have to stay fit and avoid any suspension because he has become the heartbeat of this team.

  1. Ozil’s passing masterclass

The Germany playmaker can do a lot of damage if you give him space and time because he can see every passing option and execute properly. Ozil led all players with 5 key passes. He created the opening goal by releasing Bellerin down the right flank in the ninth minute. Then Ozil won the penalty for the second goal with a run inside the box in the 22nd. He played a one-two with Ramsey before Schennikov brought him down. Ozil also spotted Ramsey’s run for the third goal in the 28th and set up Lacazette for the last goal in the 35th.

The quality of Ozil’s delivery is not his only asset. He can create problems for a defense with his runs in the final third, too. In the season Sanchez played as a false nine at the club, Ozil often morphed into a second striker. Ozil met a cross from Xhaka in the 44th for a half-volley that sailed wide. And he took a pass from Iwobi in the 73rd for a low curling shot that Akinfeev saved.

  1. Lacazette is better tailored for European football

The Europa League is a familiar competition for Lacazette, who led French club Lyon to the semifinals last season. Lacazette gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead by converting a penalty in the 23rd. The France international then controlled Ozil’s cross in the 35th to bury the ball into the bottom corner with his weaker left foot. Wenger sent on Welbeck for Lacazette in the 74th and Welbeck nearly found the net in the 84th by diverting Ramsey’s cross with his shin, forcing a reflex save from Akinfeev. I believe Lacazette will perform better as a centerforward in the Europa League than in the Premier League because the Europa League is less physical and there isn’t such a strong emphasis on aerial duels.

  1. It wasn’t Mkhitaryan’s day

Mkhitaryan missed the target from good positions in the 4th and 47th minutes. His best effort was a low drive that Akinfeev parried in the 56th. Then Mkhitaryan picked up a knee injury after a poor challenge from Schennikov in the 58th and was replaced by Iwobi in the 61st. It might just be a knock but if it’s a serious injury, that would definitely be a blow for Arsenal’s chances in the Europa League because they have very few creative players left in the squad: Sanchez is gone while Cazorla has been ruled out for the rest of the season.

  1. Silly fouls can prove costly

In the previous round, the Gunners got away with a lot of cheap free kicks on the edge of box against AC Milan. They had no such luck against CSKA Moscow. In the 15th, Koscielny barged into Golovin, who was trying to control a high ball. The Russian midfielder curled the ensuing free kick into the top corner to level the game. In the end, that equalizer didn’t matter, but it would have been a different story against a team like Atletico Madrid.

  1. Wilshere must change his game

He proved the weak link in midfield with a lack of end product (0 shot, 0 key pass) and a passing accuracy of 73%, the lowest percentage for any Arsenal outfield player according to whoscored.com. Wilshere must realize that he doesn’t have the pace or skills to dribble past several opponents. He wasted a counterattack in the 37th by carrying too much the ball instead of releasing an unmarked Ozil down the right flank. Wilshere was again dispossessed in the 40th and 53rd while making dribbling runs. If he sticks to that stubborn approach, Wilshere won’t survive in the Premier League.

Wenger sent on Elneny for Wilshere in the 74th to protect the lead. Wilshere’s average performances mean that Iwobi could get back in contention for a starting spot. Iwobi and Wilshere don’t play in the same position but the manager could still tweak his formation. In his 30-minute cameo, Iwobi managed to make 2 key passes. The Nigeria international had a golden chance to score in the 67th but he seemed to hesitate between a shot and a pass. The ball fell to Lacazette at the far post, who fired across goal.

Arsenal vs. Stoke: Aubameyang, Lacazette score in 3-0 win

A quick look at the bench on Sunday showed that the Europa League has become the top priority for Arsenal. Koscielny, Xhaka, Mkhitaryan and Lacazette were sitting on the bench when the Gunners started their Premier League game against Stoke. In a normal season, those four players would be in the starting lineup. But a poor run of form from January to March means that Arsenal can no longer expect to finish in the Top 4 as they trail Spurs by 13 points with just 7 games left.   

Arsenal vs. StokePhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The low stakes maybe explain why the Gunners produced a listless performance in the first half with a lot of misplaced passes. Arsenal showed more urgency in the second half and capitalized on two cheap fouls from the Stoke defense to convert two penalties. Ozil is a great asset against the weak and average sides because the quality of his final ball can really make the difference. He played Aubameyang clean through on goal in the 71st minute but Butland saved the Gabon striker’s chip attempt.

Ozil led all players with 6 key passes and created the opening goal by dribbling inside the Stoke area in the 74th. Martins Indi was on the wrong side of Ozil but still managed to toe poke the ball. Unfortunately, the Dutch defender also tripped Ozil and the referee thought it was a foul while TV replays showed Martins Indi kicked the ball before making contact with Ozil’s leg. Because the Premier League still hasn’t adopted VAR technology, the referee had no chance to double-check his call.

From the penalty spot, Aubameyang sent Butland the wrong way to put Arsenal ahead. He doubled the lead in the 86th by pouncing on a poor clearance from the Stoke defense to volley home from 10 yards. With 3 of 4 shots on target, 1 key pass and 0 turnover, Aubameyang had a good game. But he had to show a lot of patience because he got no service in the first half and his first goal attempt only came in the 65th, just four minutes after Lacazette had replaced an inefficient Welbeck.

The understanding between Lacazette and Bellerin

Lacazette and Aubameyang had already played together in the 1-0 loss to Tottenham. The France international came off the bench to play as a centerforward while Aubameyang shifted to the left wing both against Spurs and Stoke. I thought Wenger’s tactical choice was weird. Aubameyang occasionally played as a winger for French club Saint-Etienne from 2011 to 2013 but Lacazette has a better all-around game than Aubameyang and is therefore a more natural candidate to play on the wings. And Aubameyang is also a more natural candidate to lead the line as he is 5 inches taller than Lacazette and has electric pace.

In the end, those tactical considerations didn’t matter as Lacazette managed to make an impact. He chased a long ball from Bellerin down the right wing to feed Mkhitaryan, whose low strike was parried by Butland in the 85th. Three minutes later, Bellerin picked out Lacazette, who was smart enough to shield the ball with his body. Ndiaye gave away a cheap penalty by shoving Lacazette from behind. The Stoke midfielder made the decision easy for the referee by showing no genuine intent to play the ball.

In his return from a knee injury, Lacazette found the net by converting the penalty himself to seal the win. I believe Lacazette is a natural second striker, a bit like Griezmann who shines more by playing off Costa at Atletico Madrid and off Giroud with the French national team. Would Wenger use a 4-4-2 formation to accommodate Lacazette and Aubameyang? Another option would be to use Lacazette as a false winger like Sanchez. On the right wing, Lacazette has struck a good understanding with Bellerin. On the left wing, he could check back on his stronger right foot. In the 90th, Lacazette displayed great footwork on the left flank to dribble past 2 Potters before Martins Indi fouled him.

The Arsenal defense wasn’t much tested although each defender had a poor moment. Mustafi gave the ball away 3 times from the 10th to the 14th; Monreal was not tight enough to Shaqiri, whose curling shot sailed wide in the fourth minute; Chambers was nutmegged by Shaqiri in the 50th; and Bellerin was lucky not to get booked for a reckless challenge on Sobhi in the fourth minute.

Lapses of concentration on set pieces

Chambers was arguably our most solid defender on Sunday. He led all players with 4 interceptions and 89 passes, according to the club’s website. The English centerback also stole the limelight from Mustafi on set pieces, heading a free kick over the bar in the 44th and flicking a corner straight at Butland in the 72nd. Obviously, Chambers won’t face strikers as poor as Diouf and Berahino every weekend.

While Monreal had a quiet game on the left flank, Bellerin proved our most attacking defender on the right flank. Bellerin tested Butland with an angled strike in the 83rd before making the pass that led to the penalty in the 88th. Hopefully, Arsenal will keep him because I believe Bellerin could become one of the best fullbacks in the world with better coaching.

The scoreline was quite flattering for the Gunners, who could have conceded the opening goal because of lapses of concentration on set pieces between the 68th and 70th minutes. Shaqiri capitalized on a recycled corner in the 68th to fire a curling shot straight at Ospina. A minute later, the Switzerland international hit the far post with a direct corner. The Gunners had nobody to guard the far post and they failed to clean up the 6-yard box for Ospina, who wasted his time wrestling with Shawcross and Sobhi. Then Berahino ghosted past Mustafi on a throw-in but was denied by Ospina in the 70th.

In midfield, Elneny played behind Ramsey and Wilshere in an inverted pyramid. Elneny can survive as a holding midfielder against weak teams like Stoke but he would definitely struggle against the top teams because he doesn’t win duels. The Egypt international missed his tackle on Shaqiri in the opening minute and received a yellow card in the 37th for a poor challenge on Allen. In Arsenal’s passing game, Elneny is a facilitator because of his mobility and high passing accuracy. But he’s not an organizer like Cazorla or Xhaka.

Empty seats

The Gunners definitely seemed to miss a deep-lying playmaker in the first half. Wilshere could have dropped back to play alongside Elneny and pull the strings in midfield, but he mostly played as a No. 10 with a limited impact. Ramsey took a pass from Wilshere in the 29th for a shot that Pieters deflected out. A few seconds later, Wilshere made a cross for Mustafi, whose tame header didn’t trouble Butland. Unable to play for England during the international break because of knee tendonitis, Wilshere was replaced in the 76th by Mkhitaryan.

Ramsey also missed games with Wales to undergo surgery during the international break. His performance was a mixed bag. He had a couple of chances and made 2 key passes, but he also led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. After a poor punch from Butland in the 23rd, the ball fell to Ramsey, whose lob attempt bounced off the bar. Ramsey then teed up Welbeck in the 57th but the England forward missed the target from 15 yards. In the 83rd, Ramsey made a run in behind the Stoke defense to collect Xhaka’s long pass only to be denied by Butland, who came off his line.

There were again a lot of empty seats at the Emirates stadium and you can’t really blame the fans for Arsenal’s disappointing run in the league. Those who attended the game booed the team at halftime. Again, it was a mediocre first half, not worthy of the ticket prices. If some regular starters can’t perform at a decent level, then why not play youngsters who are more hungry? Players like Welbeck, Lacazette and Wilshere need some playing time to show their fitness and improve their chances of participating in the World Cup. But I’m sure players like Xhaka and Ozil wouldn’t mind getting some rest to be fresh for that competition this summer.

The art of squad building and how Wenger lost the plot

Poor recruitment is the main reason why the Gunners are no longer in the Top 4 of the Premier League. Last season, they finished in fifth place, 11 points behind Spurs. Arsenal will again miss out on the Top 4 this season as they currently sit in sixth place, 13 points behind Spurs after 30 games.

Squad buildingPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

You may think that money is the issue. It’s true that the Red Devils generate more revenue than any other football club, while Manchester City and Chelsea are backed by billionaires. But you also have to remember that Liverpool and Tottenham have a smaller budget than the Gunners and spend less money in the transfer market.

On paper, building a squad looks pretty simple: you spot the weaknesses in the team, you clear the dead wood, and you sign the players who will make the team stronger. To understand how that process works, I will compare the job done by Pochettino, Klopp and Wenger. I have chosen Tottenham and Liverpool as case studies because Arsenal can match them financially.

The 2013-14 season proved an unstable period for Spurs, who replaced Villas-Boas with Sherwood in December. Despite the managerial change, Tottenham finished in sixth place, 10 points behind Arsenal. I have used startingeleven.co.uk to provide a picture below of Sherwood’s favorite lineup.

2014 Spurs

The 2014 Spurs lineup under Sherwood

Here’s the Tottenham squad under Sherwood:

Goalkeepers: Lloris as the starter (Friedel as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Walker, Rose (Naughton, Fryers). Centerbacks: Vertonghen, Dawson (Kaboul, Chiriches). Central midfielders: Dembele, Paulinho (Sandro, Capoue, Bentaleb). Playmakers: Eriksen (Sigurdsson). Wingers: Chadli, Lennon (Townsend, Lamela). Centerforwards: Adebayor (Soldado, Kane, Defoe).

When Pochettino took over in May 2014, he quickly spotted the weaknesses in the Spurs lineup. First, the team lacked a commanding centerback. Dawson was a decent fit for an average side but not good enough for a club aiming at a Top 4 finish. So Pochettino signed Fazio in August 2014 and Wimmer and Alderweireld in the summer of 2015. Fazio was a flop while Wimmer turned out to be a benchwarmer. However, Alderweireld proved a key signing as he helped stabilize the Tottenham defense.

Becoming a contender within 2 years

Pochettino inherited good players at fullback with Rose and Walker, but he wasn’t happy with the back-up options. So the club signed Davies in July 2014 and Trippier in June 2015. The development of Trippier and Davies helped Spurs cope with Walker’s departure last summer and Rose’s injuries. The Argentine manager also strengthened the bench for the goalkeeping position by replacing an aging Friedel with Vorm.

In midfield, Pochettino realized that Spurs lacked a good holding midfielder. Capoue, Sandro and Bentaleb were not good enough, Dembele played as a deep-lying playmaker and Paulinho was mostly a utility midfielder. So Pochettino recalled Mason to the squad and signed Dier and Stambouli in the summer of 2014. Stambouli struggled in the Premier League but Dier proved a good investment as he efficiently shielded the Tottenham defense.

On the wings, Pochettino noticed the lack of end product. So he signed Alli and Son in 2015 while putting more pressure on Lamela. Up front, he spotted Kane’s potential and gave him the nod over an aging and more limited Adebayor. Pochettino also shook up the bench by releasing Soldado in 2015 and signing N’Jie, who didn’t manage to make the cut.

Within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino turned Tottenham into a title contender. If you look at the picture below, you will notice 5 changes between Sherwood’s lineup and Pochettino’s team. Spurs ran out of steam at the end of the 2015-16 season, but they were the only real threat to Leicester’s title bid.

2016 Spurs

The 2016 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

Instead of resting on his laurels, Pochettino stayed busy in the transfer market to make Spurs more competitive, in part because some of his signings didn’t deliver, but also because other rivals were spending lavishly. So within two summer transfer windows, Pochettino made 4 changes to a team that was in contention until April 2016.

2018 Spurs

The 2018 Spurs lineup under Pochettino

At the back, Pochettino promoted Walker-Peters and signed Aurier to make up for Walker’s departure last summer. He also hired Sanchez and Foyth as cover for Vertonghen and Alderweireld. In his first season at the club, Sanchez impressively stepped up when Alderweireld picked up a hamstring injury last November.

Seeing the weaknesses and the potential

In midfield, Pochettino was a bit conservative but he still promoted Winks and added more power by signing Wanyama and Sissoko in 2016. On the wings, the Argentine manager clearly wanted more pace as he signed N’Koudou in 2016 and Moura this year. N’Koudou is still a raw player and has been loaned out to Burnley while Moura is close to the finished product with 5 seasons under his belt at French club PSG.

Up front, Pochettino signed Janssen in 2016 and Llorente in 2017 as cover for Kane. Janssen failed to impress and was loaned out to Turkish club Fenerbahce, while expectations were low for Llorente, an aging striker who was willing to deputize for Kane.

Over a four-year period, Pochettino has cleared the dead wood and strengthened both the lineup and the bench. He has also lost some gambles in the transfer market, but at least they didn’t cost the club a fortune. So there is no doubt that Spurs have a good squad builder with Pochettino.

Klopp’s appointment at Liverpool in October 2015 also provides a good example of squad building. Despite coming in the middle of the season, Klopp still managed to lead the Reds to the League Cup final and a runner-up finish in the Europa League.

Liverpool famously challenged for the Premier League title during the 2013-14 season, but it all went downhill for Rodgers after the departures of Suarez in 2014 and Sterling in 2015. Rodgers also struggled to replace leaders like Gerrard and Toure. In the summer of 2015, Rodgers signed Ings, Firmino and Benteke to add more firepower up front, but the team didn’t really gel. Stuck in 10th place after 8 Premier League games, the club lost patience and sacked Rodgers in October.

2015 Liverpool

The 2015 Liverpool lineup under Rodgers

Here’s the Liverpool squad under Rodgers:

Goalkeepers: Mignolet as the starter (Bogdan as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Clyne, Moreno (Flanagan, Gomez). Centerbacks: Skrtel, Lovren (Sakho, Toure). Midfielders: Henderson, Milner, Can (Allen, Leiva). Playmaker: Coutinho. Wingers: Lallana (Origi, Ibe). Centerforwards: Benteke (Sturridge, Firmino, Ings).

When Klopp took over, he could only make tactical adjustments because he had to wait eight months for the next summer transfer window. The Reds finished eighth in the Premier League at the end of the 2015-16 season. But Klopp got plenty of time to see the weaknesses as well as the potential of the squad he inherited.

Rebuilding an entire defense

Liverpool conceded a lot of goals under Rodgers, so Klopp decided to completely rebuild the defense. Klopp had doubts about Mignolet in goal and therefore signed Karius in 2016. Karius hasn’t been really convincing yet, even playing fewer games than Mignolet. That might explain why Roma goalkeeper Alisson has recently been linked with a move to Anfield. At centerback, Klopp shipped out Toure, Sakho and Skrtel while signing Matip and Klavan in 2016 and Van Dijk a couple of months ago. Klopp also signed Robertson in 2017 to take the leftback spot from Moreno. At rightback, Clyne’s long-term injury obliged Klopp to hand Gomez a starting spot.

By contrast, Klopp has been relatively conservative in midfield. The German manager sold Allen and Leiva, who were second-choice midfielders, and hired Grujic and Wijnaldum in 2016 and Oxlade-Chamberlain last year. Henderson and Can are still regular starters under Klopp while Milner gets plenty of playing time, too. In fact, the biggest change in midfield is Klopp’s rotation policy to keep fresh legs for his gegenpressing tactics.

The Reds struggled to score in Rodgers’ last season at the club. Klopp realized that Benteke and Ibe were not good enough for a Top 4 club and let them go. He also noticed a lack of penetration in the final third and therefore signed Mane in 2016 and Salah in 2017. Both Mane and Salah have a lot of pace and great dribbling skills.

However, Klopp’s really smart decision was to play Firmino as a false nine. Rodgers didn’t know how to use Firmino and made the mistake of believing that Benteke could deliver at the top level. Klopp also took a gamble on a youngster by signing Solanke last summer. This season, only Manchester City can claim a front three (Aguero, Sane, Sterling) as threatening as Liverpool’s.

2018 Liverpool

The 2018 Liverpool lineup under Klopp

The only blemish in Liverpool’s transfer policy was the sale of Coutinho to Barcelona in January. The Reds lost a versatile playmaker who could play either as a false winger or in a three-man midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain is versatile too but he doesn’t have Coutinho’s creativity. Plus Coutinho was a free-kick specialist who could make the difference in any tight game.

Having a coherent plan

Within two years and a half, Klopp has turned Liverpool into a Top 4 team by making 9 changes to Rodgers’ lineup. You can see the similarities between Klopp and Pochettino: they both have a coherent plan to build their respective squads and they only need a couple of years to implement it.

We have analyzed what Pochettino has achieved at Tottenham since the summer of 2014 and how Klopp has transformed Liverpool since the end of 2015. Now let’s compare with what Wenger has done at Arsenal since 2015. I’ve chosen 2015 because the club had not much cash to spend in the transfer market before 2013 (remember, the Gunners signed Ozil in 2013 and Sanchez in 2014). It’s also similar to the amount of time that Pochettino and Klopp had to change their clubs’ fortunes. You can see below Wenger’s favorite lineup at the end of the 2014-15 season.

2015 Arsenal

The 2015 Arsenal lineup   

Here’s the Arsenal squad during that season:

Goalkeepers: Ospina as the starter (Szczesny as the back-up option). Fullbacks: Bellerin, Monreal (Debuchy, Gibbs). Centerbacks: Koscielny, Mertesacker (Paulista, Chambers). Midfielders: Cazorla, Coquelin, Ramsey (Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere). Playmakers: Ozil (Rosicky). Wingers: Sanchez, Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski). Centerforwards: Giroud (Welbeck, Sanogo).

If you were a neutral manager, you could see that Ospina and Szczesny were not good enough in goal for a Top 4 team. Ospina struggled to command his area while Szczesny was error-prone and had discipline issues off the pitch. At the back, Mertesacker was an obvious target for strikers because of his lack of pace, while Wenger also had a problem at leftback where Gibbs and Monreal failed to stop dangerous crosses. In midfield, Coquelin was too limited in his all-around game and was not smart enough in his positional play to shield the defense. On the right wing, Ramsey was a starter by default simply because Oxlade-Chamberlain lacked end product while Walcott had limited passing skills. Up front, Giroud lacked the pace to stretch a defense while Welbeck lacked end product.

Failing to fix 6 positions

Did Wenger spot those weaknesses in the Arsenal squad? The answer must be yes since he made moves in the transfer market for those positions. The Gunners signed Cech in 2015, Holding and Mustafi in 2016, Kolasinac in 2017 and Mavropanos a couple of months ago. In midfield, the club added Elneny and Xhaka in 2016. On the wings, Sanchez’s contractual situation led to a swap deal with Manchester United as Mkhitaryan joined Arsenal in January. Up front, pace was clearly the priority as the Gunners signed Perez in 2016, Lacazette in 2017 and Aubameyang a couple of months ago. Wenger also relied on the academy to strengthen the first team by promoting Iwobi and Maitland-Niles.

Over the past three years, Wenger was less active than Pochettino in the transfer market and less successful than Klopp in getting the right targets for the club. Let’s be honest, the majority of the signings have been flops. And the manager hasn’t fixed the 6 positions that were weaknesses during the 2014-15 season (goalkeeper, centerback, leftback, holding midfielder, right winger, centerforward). You can see below Arsenal’s best lineup for this year.

2018 Arsenal

The 2018 Arsenal lineup

Lacazette’s injury means that Aubameyang is the natural choice up front. In midfield, you may argue that Iwobi or Welbeck could replace Wilshere if the team plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But that tactical difference doesn’t change my analysis. Cech used to be the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, but at 35 he’s already past his prime. In fact, Cech has the most errors leading to a goal (6) this season. At centerback, Mustafi is not the player who will marshal the defense. And Koscielny’s nagging Achilles injury also means that the club will need to sign an experienced centerback this summer. At leftback, Kolasinac’s defensive performances have been disappointing. In central midfield, Elneny doesn’t win duels while Xhaka lacks mobility and defensive awareness. On the wings, Iwobi lacks end product while Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck don’t have the dribbling skills to crack a defense. Up front, Aubameyang and Lacazette both struggle in the air. And Aubameyang has a limited all-around game while Lacazette’s hold-up play is weaker than Giroud’s.

Another issue with Wenger’s squad management is the time wasted to clear the dead wood. Walcott and Coquelin should have been shipped out way before January. And there’s no reason to hang onto Chambers and Elneny, especially since the Gunners also have Holding and Mavropanos at centerback as well as Wilshere and Maitland-Niles in midfield. Chambers lacks pace and struggles to turn, while Elneny may be more mobile than Xhaka but the Egypt international is not a decisive player defensively or offensively.

No challenge before 2021?

Because Wenger failed to improve the team in the past 3 years and took too much time to clear the dead wood, it doesn’t make sense to rely on the French manager for an overhaul of the squad this summer. The next manager will have a lot of work to bring Arsenal back into the Top 4.

2019 Arsenal

How a competitive Arsenal team could look like

It will take more than a season to rebuild the squad. And the way the Citizens are dominating the Premier League, Arsenal might not be able to challenge for the title before 2021. Look at Liverpool: Klopp has done a good job within 3 years, but the Reds are still miles behind City.

The board and the staff will obviously have to set the priorities in terms of transfers. If a centerback and a holding midfielder are the top priorities, it means that Arsenal might have to stick with Cech or Ospina next season. I’ve chosen a 4-3-3 formation because that’s the best system to implement a pressing game. I don’t think the Gunners could finish in the Top 4 without pressing high up the pitch. That implies signing a more dynamic midfielder than Wilshere or Xhaka to harry opponents. I believe only Ramsey would have the pace, stamina and skills to play in Liverpool’s three-man midfield. Ozil’s poor work-rate means that he can only play in the front three.

For next season, assuming that Arsenal can only sign one attacking player because of financial constraints, a winger with great dribbling skills should also be at the top of the list. Liverpool, City and Chelsea respectively have Salah, Sane and Hazard to make the difference against compact defenses.

If the club runs out of cash, the Gunners could either play Lacazette or Perez on the right wing, or fast-track Nelson a bit like Sterling at Liverpool. Mkhitaryan and Ozil would have to fight for the spot on the left wing. Of course, Arsenal could switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation and play both Ozil and Mkhitaryan against the weak sides, but that would still depend on the hiring of a defensive midfielder. Up front, the Gunners would have the choice between Lacazette, a false nine coming to the ball, and Aubameyang, a striker stretching a defense.

The board and the staff have no room for error this summer because they have poorly performed in the previous transfer windows. By the end of August, we will know whether the Gunners have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish for next season.