Rob Holding

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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.

Premier League stars attend NBA game in London

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Premier League stars of now and years past graced London’s O2 Arena to catch a rare regular season NBA game outside of the U.S. and Canada.

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and former Blues midfielder Michael Ballack were all seen courtside, as well as Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Arsenal pair Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin. Even former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson enjoyed the game.

Stoke City’s American centerback Geoff Cameron also attended the game to see his hometown Boston Celtics face the Philadelphia 76ers, and he had a chat with our sister TV station in Boston.

Here’s a cool photo gallery of some of the Premier League’s best who were in attendance.

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.”

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

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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.

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.