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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.

UEFA Champions League last 16 draw

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The draw for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League took place on Monday and it was a mixed bag for the four Premier League clubs.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

Reigning Premier League champions Manchester City will play Schalke, while Manchester United were handed a tough draw after finishing second in their group as they face PSG.

Tottenham have also been handed a tough, but very likeable draw for the neutral, as they’ll play Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund. And Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp will be heading back to Germany as the current PL leaders will play Bayern Munich.

Below is the draw in full, as the first legs will be played on 12–13 & 19–20 Feb. 2019 and the second legs on 5–6 & 12–13 Mar., 2019. The teams drawn first in the list below will play the first leg at home, with the second legs away.

And remember, VAR will be used in the UCL for the first time for all knockout round games. Get your VAR hand signals ready…


Last 16 draw for UEFA Champions League, 2018-19

Schalke v. Manchester City
Atletico Madrid v. Juventus
Manchester United v. Paris Saint-Germain
Tottenham Hotspur v. Borussia Dortmund
Lyon v. Barcelona
Roma v. Porto
Ajax v. Real Madrid
Liverpool v. Bayern Munich

England captain Kane finishes 3rd for Sportsman of the Year

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BIRMINGHAM, England (AP) Geraint Thomas has been voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year after becoming the third British cyclist to win the Tour de France.

In a public vote, Thomas beat five-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton — a former winner of the BBC award — into second place, while England soccer captain Harry Kane, who led his team to the World Cup semifinals, was third.

The 32-year-old Welshman joined Bradley Wiggins (2012) and Chris Froome (2013, ’15, ’16, ’17) as Britons to win the Tour de France. Wiggins has won the BBC award, but Froome never has.

“It’s been an amazing year for British sport,” Thomas said, “and long may it continue.”

Liga MX: America wins at Cruz Azul to capture Apertura title

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Club America had a tall mountain to climb following their scoreless draw, at home, with Cruz Azul in the first leg of Liga MX’s Apertura final on Thursday, but climb that mountain they did with a 2-0 victory at Estadio Azteca on Sunday.

[ LA LIGA: Lionel Messi’s hat trick paces Barcelona in rout of Levante ]

Midfielder Edson Alvarez scored both goals in the game — five minutes into the second half and one minute before full-time — as America claimed their record 13th league title (first since 2014).

Cruz Azul goalkeeper Jose de Jesus Corona committed a costly error to set up Alvarez for the opener, and ultimately the winner. Alvarez’s second came courtesy of a bit of fortuitous timing, as Corona made the initial save on Cecilio Dominguez’s shot, but the rebound fell to Alvarez for a straightforward finish.

It was the second league title of manager Miguel Herrera’s career, and his first since his first stint with America, in 2013.

Cruz Azul saw their title-less streak reach 21 years, in heartbreaking fashion, after finishing top of the table in the regular season. They are now the first team in Mexican history to lose six straight finals appearances.

La Liga: Messi’s hat trick paces Barcelona in rout of Levante

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ SATURDAY: Atletico Madrid pull level with Barcelona; Real two points back ]

Levante 0-5 Barcelona

Lionel Messi recorded his 43rd hat trick for Barcelona (all competitions) on Sunday, leading the way in a 5-0 rout away to eighth-place Levante. The five-goal hammering could be seen as a measure of revenge for Barca’s only La Liga defeat last season, a 5-4 defeat to Levante on the penultimate weekend, with the title already wrapped up and sans Messi.

“We had circled this match on the calendar after what happened here last season,” Barca manager Ernesto Valverde said after the game.

While the goals will get most of the headlines, it was Messi’s assist — the first one, to clarify — that was perhaps most impressive. Dribbling down the left side of the penalty area, he drew three defenders into his orbit before threading a chipped cross between two of them and setting up Luis Suarez for a difficult acrobatic finish.

Messi then proceeded to score the game’s next three goals before setting up Gerard Pique for the fifth — his second assist of the day — to play a key role in all five goals.

The victory restores the three-point lead which Barca held coming into the weekend, prior to Atletico Madrid pulling level on points on Saturday.

Sevilla 2-0 Girona

Sevilla reclaimed second place from Atleti (level on points) with a 2-0 victory over Girona. Ever Banega (penalty kick) and Pablo Sarabia scored the goals nine minutes apart early in the second half to extend Pablo Machin’s side’s unbeaten run to seven league games.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Espanyol 1-3 Real Betis
Huesca 2-2 Villarreal