Per Mertesacker

Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

One player for each of the Premier League’s Top Six

1 Comment

The Premier League’s transfer window is going to close within the next two weeks, and each of the big boys feels a need to find help in at least one position on the field.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Manchester City: Yes, it’s laughable that City would require another piece; They’ll be fine either way. But injuries to Fabian Delph and Benjamin Mendy and lack of faith in Danilo does mean that left back would be a spot of interest for Pep Guardiola. This is not shot at young Oleksandar Zinchenko, but City wants at least a treble. This is why City is being linked with Fred, who can play at left back as well as his traditional center mid. It makes sense.

Manchester United: Yeah, yeah, Alexis Sanchez, we know. But with Michael Carrick retiring and Ander Herrera‘s surprising lack of consistent starting time, perhaps Jose Mourinho is aiming for more presence in the center of the park. It betrays things in terms of age, but Lassana Diarra is a free agent and could provide the competition United craves at an easy-to-digest budgetary addition.

Chelsea: Adding Ross Barkley was a nice pick-up, but depth behind Alvaro Morata is clearly a desire for Antonio Conte considering the names which have been linked with Stamford Bridge: Andy Carroll, Ashley Barnes, Edin Dzeko, Peter Crouch. West Ham might like a Carroll-for-Batshuayi swap, and the big Englishman would be a huge get for the Blues should he stay healthy. We wonder if newly available loan target Andre Schurrle has any love left for Chelsea

Liverpool: Here’s a name you probably expected in the City portion of this post: Johnny Evans. The ex-Manchester United defender may be on the move from West Brom, and pairing him with Virgil Van Dijk would give Jurgen Klopp‘s 4-4-2 perhaps the toughest center back pairing in England. Obviously pushing the Naby Keita transfer earlier would be way more effective for Klopp’s project, but it is extremely unlikely to happen in January. So we stick with Evans. Bold statement: With Evans, Liverpool could post the most points in the PL the rest of the way. With Evans and Keita, they’ll be a favorite to rival Man City next season.

Tottenham Hotspur: This club is very, very good and two deep at nearly every position. Heck, Victor Wanyama can’t even get on the field. That’s why it makes sense that the club’s been linked with unfinished project Malcom as well as Schurrle, who Bordeaux said today will not be moving in January. So while that’s the name we’d choose, we’ll instead nod to Cagliari youngster and Golden Boy nominee Nicolo Barella, whose name continues to pop up as a target of several top clubs in the Premier League.

Arsenal: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be nice, and forward is being magnified as a position at the Emirates Stadium thanks largely to a slow period for the very good Alexandre Lacazette. But his numbers are going to increase with (probably, almost certainly) Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil as twin playmakers, the former who will be motivated to prove his Manchester United critics wrong (See his amazing final Bundesliga season for hope, Gunners fans).

So we’ll seek Arsenal help closer to the back, where they need center back experience thanks to the predictable slide of Per Mertesacker and the unpredictable dip in form of Laurent Koscielny. Man, Evans is a good shout here, but we’ll go off the board completely and speculate that Ajax teen center back Matthijs de Ligt is a very Arsene Wenger type player. In other words: instantly effective or not, how Wenger would it be to add a teenage CB? In a window in which he’s (maybe) sated those who want both a playmaker (Mkhitaryan) and striker (Aubameyang), that seems pretty possible.

It’s time for Arsenal to hit the reset button

Getty Images
1 Comment

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 sheds blame to players after Nottingham Forest loss

Getty Images
1 Comment

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.”

FA Cup Roundup: Forest stuns Arsenal, Spurs roll, West Ham held

Getty Images
Leave a comment

League One side Shrewsbury Town impressed against West Ham, Spurs rode Harry Kane to victory, and a weak Arsenal lineup slumped to an embarrassing defeat on the road as the FA Cup third round continued on Sunday.

In the early game, West Ham had almost nothing going forward against the League One opposition, with Shrewsbury out-possessing the Hammers 56%-44% at home and they out-shot their Premier League opponents 9-4. Joe Hart was forced to make a pair of saves within a minute near the end of the first half while wearing a baseball cap to keep the game scoreless in what proved to be the best two chances of the game.

City Ground was the site of the day’s biggest upset as Nottingham Forest downed Arsenal 4-2 thanks to a pair of goals from American international Eric Lichaj. He struck first 20 minutes in when the defender snuck behind the entire defensive pack on a lateral set-piece and headed home right on the doorstep to put Notthingham Forest 1-0 up.

[ VIDEO: USMNT defender Eric Lichaj scores brilliant volley against Arsenal ]

The Gunners responded almost immediately as Per Mertesacker capitalized on the scramble after a Theo Walcott free-kick hit the post via the head of Rob Holding, but it would’t hold. Lichaj struck again just before halftime in absolutely stunning fashion with a wonderful volley into the top corner for a 2-1 lead. Forest would add some insurance past the hour mark as Rob Holding fouled Matthew Cash in the penalty area and dangerous 18-year-old Ben Brereton deservedly converted from the spot, sending David Ospina the wrong way.

Arsenal held 70% possession throughout the match, but the weak side that included Mathieu Debuchy, Mohamed Elneny, Reiss Nelson, and Theo Walcott managed just two shots on target until the 79th minute when Danny Welbeck pulled out a consolation, but again it didn’t last as Mathieu Debuchy fouled Armand Traore in the area and Kieran Dowell roofed it despite slipping. On the other end, Forest looked the side with more cutting edge as Brereton and his supporting cast looked far more dangerous against Holding and Mertesacker. They were reduced to 10 men with a minute left in regulation after Joe Worrall was given a second yellow for a bad foul, but they held on strong.

And finally, it took Tottenham an hour to break through, but Spurs eased by AFC Wimbledon 3-0 on a quickfire double from – who else – Harry Kane. The England star scored in the 63rd minute and again in the 65th minute to put Spurs well in front. Defender Jan Vertonghen put the game away six minutes later to put Spurs three-up. Kane started next to new signing Fernando Llorente, but the Spaniard struggled to have an effect on the game.

Arsenal 2-1 Swansea City: Gunners come back to win

Leave a comment
  • Swans take lead to half
  • Kolasinac equalizes
  • Ramsey scores his 50th Arsenal goal

Sead Kolasinac and Aaron Ramsey led Arsenal’s fight back as the Gunners claimed three points with a 2-1 win over Swansea City at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday.

Sam Clucas gave Swans a first half lead, but the Welsh side could end up in the drop zone by the weekend’s conclusion.

Arsenal rises fourth, a point behind third place Spurs.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Gunners looked lively, with Alexis Sanchez running the show down the left, and won a free kick that Per Mertesacker nodded into the hands of former teammates Lukasz Fabianski.

But Arsenal’s dominant half went in the wrong direction come the 22nd minute, when Petr Cech‘s charge at Sam Clucas was coolly defied by the ex-Hull midfielder. 1-0, Swans.

Fabianski made an outstanding save on Sanchez after a 1-2 with Nacho Monreal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Someone said the right things at halftime, and Arsenal burst out of the break without self pity.

Kolasinac blasted a shot through traffic to make it 1-1, and Ramsey added his milemarker goal to give the hosts a deserved lead.

Follow @NicholasMendola