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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.

Hope for Manchester clubs chasing Sanchez?

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Arsene Wenger wasn’t as defiant as he has been when discussing Alexis Sanchez’s future at Arsenal on Friday.

Reports have been rife in recent days that Sanchez, 29, will be sold in January with Manchester City the long-standing favorites to sign the Chilean forward (their $75 million deal was called off on deadline day back in September 2017) before he can leave Arsenal for nothing on a free transfer in July.

However, multiple reports surfaced on Thursday suggesting that Manchester United have entered the race for Sanchez and would be willing to pay a higher transfer fee than City and a deal could include Henrikh Mkhitaryan heading to Arsenal in exchange.

Speaking to reporters on Friday ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Bournemouth on Sunday (Watch live, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), Wenger was keeping his cards close to his chest when asked about United’s bid and Mkhitaryan.

“Nothing is really concrete at the moment. You conclude [that Manchester United are also interested] – but I don’t want to give you the wrong information. Nothing is decided one way or the other,” Wenger said. “Normally he should stay here until the end of the season but we shall see.”

Hmmm.

A change in Wenger’s mood was definitely noticeable as he had previously stated that Sanchez, and Mesut Ozil, would both stay at Arsenal until the end of the season.

Now, it seems like the situation has altered. Sanchez’s output (7 goals in 20 PL games so far this season) hasn’t lived up to his last three campaigns at Arsenal and rumblings suggest the rest of the squad have become unsettled with his attitude.

Wenger defended Sanchez’s recent form, even though he was left on the bench for the League Cup first leg draw at Chelsea on Wednesday.

“I don’t question Sanchez’s passion. I have had many conversations with him and we talked about how people always observe you with a microscope when you’re on a short term contract but I’ve never questioned his professional attitude on the pitch,” Wenger said. “[His form] is not necessarily linked with the length of your contract – [losing form] can happen even if you’ve got 10 years to go.”

All the signs are pointing towards Arsenal offloading Sanchez in the next few weeks, with Bordeaux’s Brazilian forward Malcom reported to be interesting the Gunners, even though Wenger admitted he was a good player “but at the moment nothing is happening” with that particular deal.

It seems there is now more hope than ever for the two Manchester clubs when it comes to signing Sanchez.

As for Arsenal this weekend, Wenger has been handed a fitness boost with Aaron Ramsey returning to the squad, Jack Wilshere‘s ankle injury isn’t as bad as first feared and he could play at Bournemouth on Sunday, while Mesut Ozil is rated at 50/50.

He also confirmed that Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal will be back in contention next week with Olivier Giroud back to full fitness the week after.

Premier League Preview: Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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  • Arsenal leads all-time 74W-56D-62L
  • Arsenal won Community Shield in pens
  • Drew 0-0 at Stamford Bridge in Sept.

Chelsea and Arsenal review their even rivalry Wednesday in a midweek marvel at the Emirates Stadium (Watch live at 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Gunners’ boss, Arsene Wenger, is under a bit of fire, charged by the FA for entering the referees’ room after Arsenal’s draw with West Brom, raging about a penalty call from Mike Dean off a controversially-deemed handball.

Arsenal drew first blood in the series when it took the Community Shield in penalty kicks following 1-1 over 120 minutes, but Chelsea held the Gunners to 0-0 one month later in league play.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Arsenal is without several players as their injury concerns continue to mount, with Sead Kolasinac out and both Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny doubts. Nacho Monreal, Olivier Giroud, and Aaron Ramsey remain out of the lineup.

Antonio Conte‘s Blues can climb back about Manchester United and into second place with a win, while Arsenal needs a win to stay within three points of surging Liverpool.

What they’re saying

Wenger on Arsenal’s plans in the January transfer window“We are open in any position for the exceptional player who can give us a plus. Of course it depends a little bit on the injuries as well and on the other hand I must say it depends on who will manage to extend the contracts of the players who are at the end of their contracts in June. It will depend on that as well because we will have to take the consequences of these decisions and respond to it.”

Conte is focusing on Arsenal, not transfers“For us in this period we must be very focused on our target and tomorrow we have a really tough game against Arsenal. We have to find the right concentration. When you play against Arsenal every game is very important and tomorrow’s game is very important for the league. For sure we want to try our best and get three points and also to give satisfaction to our fans.”

Prediction

The series of stalemates continue, as defense is somewhat optional in a 2-2 draw in the home of the Gunners.

PL Sunday preview: Man City go for 19; WBA-Arsenal

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How much longer can Manchester City keep up to their winning ways in the Premier League? Their latest test comes on Sunday…

[ PL ROUNDUP: Chelsea leapfrog Man United for 2nd ]

Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

At some point, one would presume, Man City will lose a PL game again. Whether or not it happens this season is the storyline on everyone’s mind: they’re 20 games through the 38-game campaign, and yet to taste domestic defeat. Sunday’s trip to Selhurst Park will afford Pep Guardiola‘s side the opportunity to make it 19 straight wins, thus extending their own English top-flight record. After winning three straight by a combined score of 12-1, Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Newcastle United felt uncharacteristically laborious for the Citizens, but they held on to turn Raheem Sterling‘s 31st-minute goal (his team-leading 13th of the PL season) into the winner.

“I don’t think anyone is really thinking about records,” Sterling said this week. “They’re nice to have on your CV but we have to keep winning and getting three points. Records only stand for a certain amount of time. Three points add to the table.

After a dreadful start to the season (they didn’t win a point — or score a goal — until game no. 8), Crystal Palace put together a seven-game unbeaten run starting in mid-November, only to see all their hard work go up in flames in Thursday’s 3-2 home defeat to Arsenal. Sunday’s clash with a record-setting City side is, to put it lightly, hardly an ideal opportunity for Roy Hodgson‘s to get back to winning ways.

INJURIES: Crystal Palace — OUT: Mamadou Sakho (calf), Connor Wickham (knee), Chung-Young Lee (hamstring) | Man City — OUT: Vincent Kompany (calf), John Stones (hamstring), Benjamin Mendy (knee)

West Brom vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

It’s no 18-game winning streak, but Arsenal do enter Sunday’s trip to The Hawthorns with a five-game unbeaten run in tow — that’s the positive spin. Here’s the negative from the other side: the Gunners have won just two of those five games and have fallen behind Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur while slipping to sixth place (from fourth) in the PL table. The victory over Palace did see Arsene Wenger‘s side overcome a bit of adversity, as they were pegged back to 1-1 after taking an early lead. Alexis Sanchez responded with a second-half brace just four minutes apart. Palace finished the game with a second goal a furious fight for an equalizer, and Wenger was largely pleased with the result.

“Overall, I think it was a very good, positive performance. We were fluid going forward and controlled the game well,” he said. “At half-time it was 1-0, but it should have been more and then of course at some stage the home team who fights against relegation will come at you. I thought we had two good chances and after it was just down to 1-1, then we showed resources and character, were leading 3-1 and controlled the game quite well, but at 3-2 we became quite nervy again and we finished in a bit of a less controlled way, but overall it was a good team performance.”

West Bromwich Albion are currently the anti-Man City: having won their first two games of the season, the Baggies are without a win in their last 18 PL games and have fallen into 20th place, currently three points behind Palace who sit just outside the relegation zone. Similar to the Eagles, West Brom have a genuine mountain to climb if they’re to reverse fortunes on Sunday.

INJURIES: West Brom — OUT: Salomon Rondon (hamstring), Nacer Chadli (thigh), James Morrison (calf) | Arsenal — OUT: Olivier Giroud (hamstring), Aaron Ramsey (hamstring), Nacho Monreal (ankle), Santi Cazorla (achilles)

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.