Alexandre Lacazette

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It’s time for Arsenal to hit the reset button

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John Cross of the Mirror wrote yesterday that this is the worst Arsenal team in 20 years. He’s right, and that means it’s time to blow the squad up.

Sitting in 6th and coming off an embarrassing 2-1 loss at 13th placed Bourneouth, there is no quick fix to return this club to Champions League caliber, having slowly emaciated through years of poor transfer policy and miserable contract management.

Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, and even Jack Wilshere could all potentially leave this summer for zero return, the loss of prime talent at the height of its monetary value. Even if Sanchez does leave this January, which looks likely, he’ll leave for a cut-rate price.

In recent years, Arsenal has failed to prepare for the stark decline of defensive stalwarts Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, left with Rob Holding, Calum Chambers, and occasionally an out of position Nacho Monreal at the back. In Holding’s five Premier League starts this season, Arsenal has conceded 11 goals; Chambers has started the last four games, with just one win and seven goals conceded.

[ MORE: Man United, Chelsea battle for Alexis Sanchez ]

It doesn’t end there. With Francis Coquelin failing to live up to his sky-high potential shown early in his career, the Gunners brought in Granit Xhaka, who has been utterly useless, succeeding more at reducing his side to 10 men than he has in providing defensive cover or possessional strength. The 25-year-old Swiss is rated the 21st-best midfielder in the Premier League this season according to Squawka’s player ratings, behind guys like West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini and Watford’s Abdoulaye Doucore.

Hector Bellerin has declined for two seasons straight. Petr Cech looks all of his 35 years old, leaving fans longing for Wojciech Szczesny, who has performed his backup duties to Gianluigi Buffon to perfection (six goals conceded in 10 Serie A appearances). Lucas Perez lasted one season before being shipped out on loan. Mohamed Elneny can’t even beat out Xhaka for a starting spot. Gabriel Paulista was a flop; Mathieu Debuchy too.

The miserable squad makeup has forced youth products Alex Iwobi, Chuba Akpom, Yaya Sanogo, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles into spot starts over the last few years, with none of the above able to grab a foothold among Premier League competition.

Meanwhile, on the outgoing side, the club has sold players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who has been revived under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. They let Szczesny leave for Italy. Even back to the Robin Van Persie sale in the summer of 2012, they handed a top talent to a Premier League rival where he won a title. Arsenal hasn’t broken its record sale since shipping Marc Overmars to Barcelona in 2000 for $49 million, proving they can’t cash in on top talent when necessary. Allowing Alexis Sanchez to leave for pennies on the dollar (if anything) is a disaster of epic proportions, but not the first – they held onto players like Lukas Podolski too long, eventually saying goodbye far past peak value for little return.

And so, the Gunners have no other option. They must completely blow up the squad and start over. It will take some time, it will take heavy investment given the lack of assets at the club, and it might take a painful season or two. But it is what must be done. They only need to look north to Anfield to get a solid blueprint of what a top club grinding out a successful rebuild looks like.

Liverpool was in the same situation in 2015. The squad was aging, the transfer policy was poor, and aside from a 2nd place finish the year before which masked some of the problems plaguing the club, they hadn’t qualified for the Champions League since 2010. So, Fenway Sports Group blew the whole thing up. They sold Raheem Sterling, who would take years to finally blossom under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, for top dollar. They saw Steven Gerrard, Luis Enrique, and Pepe Reina out. They got rid of failures like Mario Balotelli and Lazar Markovic. They used money from the painful but necessary sale of Luis Suarez to bring in Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. They swung and missed on Christian Benteke, but righted that wrong quickly and got most of their money back. They brought in a veteran grinder in James Milner on a free. Eventually, smart money was spent on Emre Can, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mohamed Salah, and they found a gem in Philippe Coutinho for just $16 million.

The key however, through all that, was the home run hire of Jurgen Klopp, who has had plenty of growing pains in the Premier League, but is the perfect manager for a rebuild. A loyal and enigmatic character who grooms young players brilliantly, Klopp has mixed cheap veterans with promising youngsters with amazing touch, and can tactically mask squad weaknesses with the best of them. The Reds still have a ways to go as they slowly climb the ladder to perennial Champions League contender, still sporting massive holes at defense and goalkeeper, but shrewd decision-making at the top now has Liverpool with the resources to patch holes while still allowing the stars of the squad to shine.

No rebuild is perfect, and no rebuild is without pain and mistakes, but it is preferable to the alternative in the long-run. Manchester United has been able to avoid a full-on squad nuke when left in a similar position after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, but only because of near-unlimited resources and the hiring of managers who mask deficiencies with short-term band-aids such as negative tactics which infuriate supporters and yet fail to achieve the heights the club once reached on a regular basis.

It’s clear that Arsenal must follow Liverpool’s example and sacrifice a few battles to win the war. The first step is letting go of Arsene Wenger and finding someone to lead them through the muck and still be there on the other side. While Carlo Ancelotti would be a big-name get, he wouldn’t fit a long-term plan as snug as someone like Diego Simeone.

The next step – which is no cake walk – would be to retool the squad without many assets of value on hand. Players like Jack Wilshere must be retained, while recent transfers Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac have shown enough promise and work rate to build around. The rest are expendable, and departures are required to both raise funds and provide turnover. Aaron Ramsey would be a rare example of someone who could net a solid return while also proving replaceable, as would Hector Bellerin at just 22 years old. Expired has-beens over 30 in Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Debuchy are all immediately out the door despite minimal return, while keeping Olivier Giroud and Nacho Monreal would provide valuable veteran leaders who can still produce on the field.

These aren’t all the answers, and it can’t all be done at once, but it’s a starting point. As is, the Gunners are slowly bleeding out, and instead of layers and layers of gauze, upper management should invest in wide-scale surgery for the long-term health of the club.

League Cup: Chelsea, Arsenal not so thrilling in 0-0 draw

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One of the great — or, in some instances, not-great — things about soccer is that every game is different: the same two teams can meet just seven days apart, and everything about those games can — and likely will — be completely different, from the victors, to the final score, to the flow and tale of the game.

[ MORE: Man City come back to lead Bristol City, 2-1, in other semi ]

Take, for instance, Wednesday’s League Cup semifinal first-leg meeting between Chelsea and Arsenal. On Jan. 3, the two sids played to a thrilling 2-2 draw that went down as an instant Premier League classic. Tuesday’s encounter at Stamford Bridge, which finished 0-0, was… very different.

Arsene Wenger watched this one from the stands, as the Gunners boss continues to serve his three-game touchline ban for poor behavior inside the referees’ locker room. He won’t have been impressed by much of anything he saw over 90 minutes.

Alexandre Lacazette got in behind the Chelsea defense for the game’s first real scoring chance, in the 22nd minute, but the Frenchman skied his right-footed blast from the edge of the penalty area roughly 15 rows into the stands.

[ MORE: Guradiola credits Bristol — “They came here to play” ]

Victor Moses proved Chelsea’s truest threat from start to finish, as the Nigerian international forced David Ospina to make a pair of tough saves — first in the 24th minute, when Moses cut inside from the right wing and unleashed a powerful, dipping shot with his left foot; and, again four minutes later, when the Nigerian international ran circles around Ainsley Maitland-Niles before attempting another left-footed strike from a tough angle.

Moses and Maitland-Niles were involved in a controversial moment seven minutes before halftime, as the former appeared to make the slightest bit of contact with the latter inside the penalty area. Maitland-Niles went down after it became clear the ball was going to run out of bounds, but referee Martin Atkinson was unmoved and opted not to use video review — which was available for this game — to assess the incident.

[ MORE: Conte and Mourinho’s war of words continues ]

Moses again threatened to break the deadlock in the 66th minute, but a last-second block by Shkodran Mustafi bailed out Ospina who appeared to be beaten. After Cesc Fabregas’ free kick was headed away, Marcos Alonso put the ball back into the box and it eventually fell to Moses near the top of the box. His shot was struck hard and low, but Mustafi intervened at the far post.

Jack Wilshere left the game in the 57th minute with an(other) apparent ankle injury, and Alexis Sanchez — amid continuous rumors that he’ll leave for Manchester City this month — came off the bench in the 66th minute.

The second and decisive leg will be played at the Emirates Stadium in two weeks’ time, Wednesday, Jan. 24.

Wenger sheds blame to players after Nottingham Forest loss

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After Arsenal was soundly beaten by Nottingham Forest 4-2 in the third round of the FA Cup on Sunday, Arsene Wenger was quick to criticize his players’ defensive performance, but dismissed any notion that the weaker side selected played a part.

“It was very frustrating,” Wenger said when asked about having to watch the game from the stands due to his touchline ban.”Unfortunately it was the case on top of that to see the team lose because we played against a very good Nottingham Forest team that was sharp, focused, won the challenges that were decisive and you know overall our performance today was not good enough to win the game.”

[ MORE: FA Cup roundup with Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham all in play ]

When asked about his team selection, which featured a defensive pairing with a combined 11 Premier League appearances this season in Rob Holding and Per Mertesacker, plus the presence of Joseph Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and Reiss Nelson in the starting lineup, along with the absence of first team players Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere, Hector Bellerin, Petr Cech, Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Alexandre Lacazette, Olivier Giroud, and Francis Coquelin from even the substitutes bench, Wenger brushed off any criticism of himself. “We had 8 or 9 international players and only 2 young players in the team so I believe it would be a bit easy to think that was a problem today.”

When the interviewer followed up by asking what he thought the problems were then, Wenger answered, “Defensively you cannot afford the mistakes we made today to get away with a good result.”

Finally, when asked about his thoughts on the controversial penalty awarded to Nottingham Forest that led to their final goal, Wenger wouldn’t be baited into blaming the officials again. “For the referee, honestly, I’ve said what I had to say, I don’t need to say anymore. That’s all I can tell you.”

Player Ratings: Arsenal v. Chelsea

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A big London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea didn’t disappoint with a pulsating 2-2 draw seeing plenty of top performances from individuals on both teams.

[ MORE: 4 things we learned ]

There were also some very shaky displays, especially defensively.

Here are marks out of 10 for the players who contributed to a cracking encounter.


Arsenal

Petr Cech – 8 – Made two fines saves from Hazard and Alonso early in the second half.

Callum Chambers – 5 – Bad mistake early on let in Morata. Shaky display overall.

Shkodran Mustafi – 6 – Decent enough defensively and tried to start attacks by pushing into midfield.

Rob Holding – 6 – Steady enough but struggled to contain the runs of Morata and Hazard.

Hector Bellerin – 6 – Silly challenge for the penalty kick, even if it was harsh, but somewhat redeemed himself with a fine half volley in stoppage time.

Granit Xhaka – 6 – Did his job breaking up the play but failed to provide an adequate shield for the back four in the second half.

Jack Wilshere – 7 – Scored his goal, crunched into a tackle with Cesc Fabregas and probably should have been given a second yellow for diving. A mixed night for the Englishman but his best form is returning.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles – 7 – The youngster playing out of position at left wing-back excelled. Composed on the ball, solid defensively and provided a threat going forward.

Mesut Ozil – 8 – Simply sublime on the ball at times and was the creative hub of an impressive attacking display from Arsenal.

Alexis Sanchez – 7 – Went close with his shot that Courtois tipped onto both posts and drifted around the attacking line looking for the ball.

Alexandre Lacazette – 7 – Didn’t get a goal but was tireless up front and his link-up play with Ozil and Sanchez is underrated.

Subs:
Danny Welbeck (on for Lacazette, ’80) – 5 – Struggled to get into the game and wasted a few good crossing opportunities.
Theo Walcott (on for Chambers, 88′) – 5 – No real impact but did help Arsenal salvage a draw by being around the box during the equalizer.


Chelsea

Thibaut Courtois – 8 – Superb stops to keep Chelsea in the game, the Belgian used his full size to tip a Sanchez shot onto the post, then smother other efforts. A fine display.

Cesar Azpilicueta – 6 – Solid as ever defensively but was shackled by Arsenal and couldn’t whip in any of his now trademark crosses from center back.

Andreas Christensen – 7 – The young Danish defender had a telling interception at a crucial moment early on and was Chelsea’s best defender.

Gary Cahill – 6 – Solid display at center back but did struggle to contain Ozil, Sanchez and Lacazette, as most defenders do.

Victor Moses – 5 – Subbed off in second half and a very poor display. Offered nothing in attack.

N'Golo Kante – 7 – One fine tackle to set up a big chance for Fabregas but steady in central midfield as ever.

Tiemoue Bakayoko – 5 – Poor display defensively and Arsenal ran rings around him.

Marcos Alonso – 7 – A constant threat in attack and a fine finish for his goal to make it 2-1. What a signing he has been.

Cesc Fabregas – 7 – Lovely passes and flicks to get Chelsea back into the game. Subbed off in second half and applauded by most of the home fans. Nice to see.

Eden Hazard – 8 – Won the penalty kick somewhat controversially but tucked it away. Some superb touches throughout.

Alvaro Morata – 5 – Should have had a hat trick. Missed three glorious chances when one-on-one with Cech. Poor.

Subs
Davide Zappacosta (on for Moses, ’56) – 7 – Great cross for Alonso’s goal and smashed a shot against the bar right at the death. Lively.
Danny Drinkwater (on for Fabregas, 71′) – 5 – His job was to help shore up the Chelsea midfield but Arsenal kept pouring forward.
Willian (on for Hazard, 82′) – 6 – Lovely ball to Zappacosta to help set up the Alonso goal and dangerous in his brief cameo.

Arsenal 2-2 Chelsea: London rivals thrill

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  • Courtois stars between sticks
  • Wilshere opens scoring
  • Hazard wins, converts PK
  • Alonso puts Chelsea ahead
  • Bellerin levels in stoppage

Hector Bellerin‘s stoppage time goal was the final marker of a 2-2 thriller between Arsenal an Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.

Eden Hazard and Marcos Alonso scored and Thibaut Courtois was strong in goal as Chelsea came back to take a lead on Arsenal 2-1.

Jack Wilshere had put Arsenal deservedly ahead in the 63rd minute, but the match was only level for four minutes.

The draw means Chelsea stays third behind Manchester United, while Arsenal remains sixth. That’s a point behind North London Derby rivals Spurs, who play West Ham to finish the festive fixture season on Thursday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

There was heightened intensity at the Emirates, leading to some overcooked passes and stylish interventions, but goals looked likely four times in the first 30 minutes.

  • Alvaro Morata ran onto an overcooked cross and had a 1v1 with Petr Cech, but screwed his effort wide of the net.
  • Alexis Sanchez stepped onto a ball inside the 18 and forced Thibaut Courtois to push the ball off not one, but both goal posts.
  • Eden Hazard danced through the Arsenal defense to set up ex-Gunners mid Cesc Fabregas, but the Spaniard blazed over the bar.
  • Alexandre Lacazette turned neatly near the penalty spot off a Sanchez feed, but Courtois again got his paw on the ball from a horizontal perspective.

Granit Xhaka fouled Tiemoue Bakayoko on the edge of the Arsenal 18, opening the door for Marcos Alonso’s dangerous left peg. The Spanish defender’s effort wasn’t his best, though, as it ballooned over the bar to keep the match scoreless

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Another good-looking turn from Lacazette sent Gary Cahill to the moon and cued up an early second half chance for Arsenal, but Courtois made a wonderful leg save.

The breakthrough came in the 63rd minute through longtime Gunners midfielder Wilshere, who belted a deflected and loose ball into the roof of the goal.

Courtois returned to his game-saving ways, deterring a Lacazette shot moments later.

Hazard then drew and converted a penalty and had it level in the 67th minute, as Hector Bellerin kicked Hazard’s boot in a duel for a bouncing ball. 1-1.

Morata then bodied Chambers off a breakaway ball, but his chip failed to find the frame. That wouldn’t be the case for Alonso, who finished his sixth goal of the season off a hard low pass from substitute Davide Zappacosta.

But Bellerin scored in stoppage time before Zappacosta ripped an effort off the cross bar at the other end!