Calum Chambers

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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.

Wenger, Conte support VAR despite being a “cause of anxiety”

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Add Arsene Wenger and Antonio Conte, two of the most powerful managers in the game, to the list of notable figures who support the use of a video-assistant referee (VAR).

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

The VAR, which made its debut in the upper reaches of English soccer (Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Crystal Palace — FA Cup) on Monday, was available to referee Martin Atkinson during Wednesday’s scoreless League Cup semifinal first leg between Arsenal and Chelsea. While none of his initial calls were overturned by use of the VAR, Atkinson did consult the additional (off-site) assistant on multiple occasions — a non-penalty incident between Danny Welbeck and Cesc Fabregas, and a no-cards-shown extra-curricular confrontation between Calum Chambers and Cesar Azpilicueta.

After the game, Conte voiced his support of the fledgling system, even though it was his side which was not awarded a late, decisive penalty — quotes from the BBC:

“I think it was a good solution, when there is a doubt during the game the referee can check and see the situation again and make the best decision. It is right, in this way for sure the mistakes are less.”

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

While Wenger flat out said he “felt it took too much time” to resolve the Welbeck-Fabregas penalty shout (perhaps that had something to do with watching the game from the stands, at a distance), he admitted the system “worked well” overall — quotes from the BBC:

“It was interesting, a cause of anxiety as it took a bit of time to make the second decision with Welbeck and Fabregas, but overall it worked well.

“But between the penalty action or penalty not action, with the time taken it would have been strange to come back to the penalty.”

On the very grand macro level, it does seem absurd that the only person in the world who can’t immediately use replays to determine whether or not a call was made correctly or incorrectly, is the one person whose job is to make the calls and, in key instances, determine the outcome of the game.

Wenger furious with late penalty kick, festive schedule

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Arsenal were heading towards a deserved three points on New Year’s Eve at West Bromwich Albion, then Mike Dean awarded a penalty kick and it cost the Gunners two points.

Arsene Wenger — setting the record for the most PL games managed in history (811) on Sunday — fumed on the sidelines and Dean came over to talk to the Arsenal manager during and after the game as Arsenal’s players were furious and Petr Cech was booked after the final whistle for his remonstrating.

Calum Chambers was the guilty party, in Dean’s eyes, as Kieran Gibbs knocked the ball onto his arm from close range inside the box and Jay Rodriguez scored the spot kick to make it 1-1 in the 89th minute at the Hawthorns.

Speaking to Sky Sports after the game Wenger was fuming with the referees, saying “it was not a penalty at all” and also hit out at the scheduling of games over the festive period.

“What can you do – talk and talk and talk but it doesn’t change anything. The Premier League does face a problem with the scheduling and referees,” Wenger said. “I tried hard with referees to help them become professional. The level of the referees unfortunately doesn’t go up. It’s not the first time it happened but it’s best we don’t talk about it.

“I believe West Brom had five days to prepare and we had three. The Premier League has to look at when the schedule is fair and unfair, on our side it’s unfair. Since the start of the season you have to look at it.”

Asked if VAR would have made a difference, this was Wenger’s response to Sky Sports.

“It is time. I don’t know why we want to be the best league in the world and wait this time and other leagues use it already,” Wenger added.

Wenger isn’t the first manager to hit out at the scheduling of the festive games, with his Arsenal side having just three days rest compared to five for West Brom for this game, while Chelsea will also have an extra days rest before their game against Arsenal on Wednesday.

All in all, Wenger was not a happy man on the day he surpassed Sir Alex Ferguson as the man who has managed the most games in PL history.

Arsenal are only three points off the top four but Wenger will be fuming into 2018 after his side were undoubtedly dealt a bad dose of luck to see out 2017.

There was no way that was a handball against Chambers.

West Brom 1-1 Arsenal: Late NYE drama

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  • James McClean own goal put Arsenal ahead
  • Jay Rodriguez scores 89th minute penalty
  • West Brom without a win in 19

Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion both scored late on New Year’s Eve at the Hawthorns in a 1-1 draw, with Arsene Wenger left fuming on the day he set a new record for the number of games (811) managed in the Premier League.

Alexis Sanchez’s free kick, which deflected off James McClean and went down as an own goal, put Arsenal ahead late on but Jay Rodriguez’s controversial penalty one minute from time grabbed a point for the Baggies.

With the point Arsenal move up to fifth but are three points off the top four, while West Brom move off the bottom of the table.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ] 

Early on Rodriguez headed Matt Phillips‘ cross on target but Petr Cech saved fairly easily as West Brom started well.

Cech then failed to deal comfortably with a high ball into the box but Arsenal broke superbly and Lacazette saw his deflected effort fly just wide.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Alex Iwobi then found plenty of space on the edge of the box but he curled his effort over the bar.

West Brom held firm defensively and Arsenal were frustrated in the first half.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

On the hour mark Lacazette raced into the box but Foster denied him as the Gunners pushed hard for the opener as the Frenchman tapped just wide soon after.

Lacazette and Sanchez almost unlocked West Brom’s defense soon after but the latter was denied by a heroic block as the Baggies dropped deeper and deeper late on.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Rodriguez forced Cech into a smart save after a rare West Brom attack but soon after Arsenal were ahead. Sanchez won a free kick and then his effort deflected off McClean and in as it went down as an own goal. 1-0 to the Arsenal and that’s how it looked to be finishing…

Then referee Mike Dean awarded West Brom a penalty kick for a handball on Calum Chambers after Kieran Gibbs hit the ball towards him from close range and it brushed the arm of the Arsenal defender.

Amid Arsenal’s complaints, Rodriguez kept his cool to slot home the equalizer and grab a point for his team.

Watch Live: Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal

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They can’t jump into the top four barring a record-setting day, but Arsenal can draw level with Tottenham if they secure victory as they take on 16th place Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park at 3:00 p.m. ET live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Under new manager Roy Hodgson, Crystal Palace is unbeaten since November 5th in Premier League play, and they themselves can move all the way up to 13th or even 12th with victory at home over the Gunners.

[ WATCH LIVE: Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal live online at NBCSports.com ]

Arsene Wenger has returned Sead Kolasinac to the starting lineup, with the Gunners returning to a back-three in Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, and Calum Chambers. Nacho Monreal misses out with an ankle injury, while Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey both find themselves on the outside with hamstring problems.

For Crystal Palace, Christian Benteke returns to the side after his one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation. He slots right to the head of the attack, while Joel Ward misses out thanks to a groin injury. Wilfried Zaha continues to maintain his steady place for the Eagles, as he looks for his 11th straight 90-minute showing.

LINEUPS

Crystal Palace: Speroni, Kelly, Tomkins, Dann, Schlupp, Milivojevic, Cabaye, Loftus-Cheek, Townsend, Zaha, Benteke.
Subs: Hennessey, van Anholt, McArthur, Fosu-Mensah, Sako, Puncheon, Riedewald.

Arsenal: Cech, Koscielny, Mustafi, Chambers, Bellerin, Wilshere, Xhaka, Kolasinac, Ozil, Sanchez, Lacazette.
Subs: Ospina, Walcott, Holding, Iwobi, Welbeck, Maitland-Niles, Coquelin.