Petr Cech

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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.

Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal: Cherries keep Gunners down

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Callum Wilson and Jordon Ibe scored second half goals as Bournemouth came back to beat Arsenal 2-1 on Sunday at the Vitality Stadium, securing its first ever win over the Gunners.

Hector Bellerin scored Arsenal’s lone goal in a match played without injured Mesut Ozil and “vague” Alexis Sanchez.

It’s Arsenal’s first league loss since Dec. 2, but that eight-match stretch includes just two wins to go with Sunday’s loss and five draws.

The Gunners are now five points back of the Top Four before fourth-place Liverpool hosts Man City at 11 a.m. ET.

Bournemouth rises to 13 with 24 points, four points clear of the drop zone.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

An active first 20 minutes showed both Arsene Wenger and Eddie Howe remained aligned in spirit, pushing tempo (albeit at the expense of precision on this particular Sunday).

Perhaps the best chance of the half was blocked by Arsenal’s Callum Chambers, as in-form Ryan Fraser was alone at the back post following a seeing-eye cross from the right.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Bellerin put Arsenal ahead in the 52nd minute, racing down the right and watching as Asmir Begovic could only get most of his hard shot.

Bournemouth, spurred by lively Ibe and Nathan Ake, produced some promising moves over the next quarter hour.

The Cherries went level in the 70th minute through Wilson, who beat a sliding Petr Cech to a Fraser cross.

Ibe then broke his Cherries duck, belting a low shot through traffic after Wilson’s trap spun onto his path.

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.

Four things we learned from Arsenal v. Chelsea

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What a game. Arsenal and Chelsea played out a pulsating 2-2 draw at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday to showcase the bets the Premier League has to offer.

[ MORE: Player ratings out of 10 ]

Arsenal took the lead via Jack Wilshere, but Chelsea scored twice through Eden Hazard and Marcos Alonso before Hector Bellerin equalized late on.

Here’s what we learned from an absorbing encounter in north London between the crosstown rivals.


CECH, COURTOIS EXCEL

We rave about sublime goals and attacking play time and time again (we usually do when Arsenal play at home. See: Arsenal v. Tottenham, Arsenal v. Man United and Arsenal v. Liverpool this season) but Wednesday was the time to applaud two top-class goalkeepers who put on a clinic despite conceding two goals each.

Both Thibaut Courtois and the man he took the No.1 jersey from at Chelsea, Petr Cech, excelled as they each made at least three key saves and Courtois was the slightly busier of the two.

Courtois usurped Cech as Chelsea’s first-choice goalkeeper in 2014 and you can see why it was such a tough decision for Jose Mourinho at the time. Both goalkeepers are very similar in the way they play the game, their size and their strengths.

Both made good stops with their feet and also by coming out and smothering chances with Cech denying Alvaro Morata late on but standing his ground at the crucial moment.

With Courtois said to be in talks with Chelsea over a new contract amid constant links to Real Madrid, he continues to be the main man battling David De Gea as the top goalkeeper in the PL. Yet the experienced head of Petr Cech also reminded us just how good he still is.


WILSHERE CONTINUES RESURGENCE

Jack Wilshere has now started six-straight PL games for Arsenal for the first time since September-October 2013 and he continued his resurgence with a fine goal and an all-action display in central midfield.

Is their still rust after his numerous injuries over the past few years? Yes. Undoubtedly. But the England midfielder is doing his chances of earning a new contract at Arsenal no harm, just as Arsene Wenger said last month.

Wilshere, 26, is at a real crossroads in his career but if he can stay fit we all know the quality he has on the ball and being able to make the Gunners tick in central midfield. He is rusty and at times the pace of the game seemed to nullify his impact, but he popped up to score a goal and tried his best to drive Arsenal on from midfield despite getting a yellow card in the first half for clattering Cesc Fabregas.

The one disappointing moment from Wilshere was when he went down easily under a challenge from the excellent Andreas Christensen in the second half but wasn’t shown a yellow card for simulation. He should have been sent off before he scored Arsenal’s first goal in a breathtaking draw.


VAR DEBATE CONTINUES

The debate of simulation has cropped up time and time again over the festive period and it did so at the Emirates. Two crucial moments in the game both involved questionable dives from star players and both could have been cleared up with the VAR system.

Wilshere should have been handed a second yellow card for simulation by referee Antony Taylor, it was as simple as that and the referee had a decent view but may have been slightly blocked.

Then, the big turning point of the game came as Hazard won a penalty kick. The Belgian went down under minimal contact from Hector Bellerin but Taylor pointed to the penalty spot and Chelsea equalized just as Arsenal were in the ascendancy and looked like running away with things.

Wenger was furious with a late handball decision against his side at West Brom on New Year’s Eve which cost them a win, while the likes of Wilfried Zaha has been accused of diving and Mourinho complained about a handball which could have led to a penalty kick for his side over the festive period.

When Chelsea and Arsenal meet in the in the League Cup semifinals later this month VAR will be used and both managers will probably be very happy with that.

Given VAR’s problems at the Confederations Cup last summer, you can understand why the PL is waiting before bringing it in full time.

But with so many debatable calls and managers upset with decisions from referees, surely now is the time to give the officials extra help and take some of the tougher decisions out of their hands and to a team upstairs watching on TV?


STONE COLD MORATA

Alvaro Morata has been deadly for most of his first season at Chelsea in the Premier League. He wasn’t on Wednesday.

The Spaniard missed three glorious chances, slotting wide after going clean through early on, then dinking over in the second half when one-on-one with Cech, while he hit a tame effort at the Arsenal goalkeeper in stoppage time with the score locked at 2-2.

Morata can’t be faulted for the way he’s settled in the PL since arriving at Chelsea in the summer (12 goals in all competitions so far) but he certainly fluffed his lines in the big moments on Wednesday.

He should have given Chelsea the three points which would’ve pushed them up to second place in the PL table and on the same night that Diego Costa scored on his second debut for Atletico Madrid, the man who replaced him at Chelsea, Morata, proved his isn’t quite as clinical. Not yet, anyway.