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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.

Alex Morgan out for season with knee injury

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We knew Alex Morgan was hurt. You could see it, I could see it, we all could see it. Yet she insisted all throughout the 2019 Women’s World Cup, “I’m ok.”

Now we confirmation that she wasn’t ok.

Morgan announced she will miss the rest of the 2019 NWSL season for the Orlando Pride with a knee injury, confirming she’s been dealing with the problem since the World Cup. “I’m disappointed I won’t be able to compete with the Pride for the remainder of 2019 due to a knee injury I’ve been managing since the World Cup,” Morgan wrote on Instagram, “and that I can’t be there to help my teammates and my club have more success.”

The Pride are bottom of the NWSL table, with just four wins in 21 matches this season. Morgan has played in just six of those, four before the World Cup and two after, without scoring or assisting a single goal. Orlando won just one of the six games Morgan appeared in, the most recent one on August 21 against second-placed Chicago. Meanwhile, they were shut out in four of the six games she appeared in, with Morgan registering just one lone shot among the six appearances.

“I have already started physical therapy in LA and am eager to get back on the field doing what I love,” Morgan said without offering any other details on her injury.

The 30-year-old USWNT star scored five goals in their opening match of the 2019 Women’s World Cup against Thailand, assisting three more as the U.S. won 13-0. However, she was a consistent target for physical play in the ensuing match against Sweden and was seemingly injured in the 33rd minute, leading Jill Ellis to withdraw the striker at halftime. Morgan did not appear herself over the rest of the tournament, scoring just one more goal the rest of the way and at times looking unusually off the pace. Opposing teams copied Sweden’s strategy, targeting Morgan throughout the tournament with repeated kicks, fouls, and physical play.

“his year has had the highest of highs but along with that comes challenges and sometimes even falling short of my goals I set for myself in 2019,” Morgan wrote in her announcement.

UCL preview: Messi back for Barcelona v. Dortmund, Liverpool visits Napoli

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The Champions League group stage is back. So is Lionel Messi.

Tuesday kicks off the 2019/20 Champions League in earnest, with a litany of powerhouse matchups dotting the landscape. Most notably, Barcelona’s five-time Ballon d’Or winner is in the squad for the trip to the Rhur valley to take on Borussia Dortmund, potentially set for his first appearance of the season after missing Barcelona’s first four matches of the season with a calf injury.

[ PST writers predict the CL group stage ]

Those two teams are both roaring back from disappointing league losses, and come into this match in good attacking form. Barcelona fell to Athletic Bilbao on the opening weekend of the La Liga season, but is unbeaten in their last three with 12 goals in those three games. Dortmund, meanwhile, fell to Union Berlin at the end of August but crushed third-tier Ergenie Cottbus in cup action before blowing out fellow Champions League participants Bayer Leverkusen 4-0 this past weekend. 19-year-old Jadon Sancho provided two assists in that most recent game and will get his first crack at the La Liga giants.

Defending champions Liverpool are on the road at Napoli, with the Italians having integrated Hirving “Chucky” Lozano into the squad. The Mexican international got his first start against Sampdoria over the weekend in a 2-0 win, playing 65 minutes. The Reds fell in this same fixture last season en route to the title, losing 1-0 at San Paolo Stadium in one of their worst performances of the season. This time around they are top of the Premier League through five matches – all wins – but will be without Divock Origi, Alisson, and Naby Keita through injury while Andy Robertson is a game-time decision.

[ Villa, West Ham meet in scoreless draw ]

Chelsea hosts Spanish side Valencia in an absolutely wide-open and loaded Group H that features four quality sides, meaning every game will be a significant challenge. The Blues’ defense has been quite poor so far this season, and will again be without Antonio Rudiger thanks to a groin problem picked up after just making his return over the weekend from knee surgery. Chelsea has never lost to Valencia in six European meetings, their joint-most games without losing against any European opponent.

On the other end of that brutal Group H, new-look Ajax hosts French side Lille. The visitors finished second in Ligue 1 last season and have three wins in their first five this campaign, proceeding without Nicolas Pepe after his sale to Arsenal this summer. Ajax has also lost highly valued young talent, with Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt having left for greener pastures, although they have thus maintained an unbeaten record this season, earning a berth in the group stage while proceeding through two qualifying stages.

Benfica hosts RB Leipzig in another brutal group, Group G that also features Zenit St. Petersburg and Lyon who match up in France. Leipzig leads the Bundesliga with an unbeaten first four matches, including a draw against defending champions Bayern Munich. Striker Timo Werner has a fabulous five goal haul through RB Leipzig’s first four league matches including a hat-trick against Borussia Monchengladbach. Benfica has also started its league campaign well with four wins in five, a solid sign after the loss of young star Joao Felix to Atletico Madrid.


Tuesday Champions League matches:

Inter v. Slavia Prague (12:55pm ET)
Lyon v. Zenit St. Petersburg

Ajax v. Lille (3:00pm ET)
Benfica v. RB Leipzig
Borussia Dortmund v. Barcelona
Chelsea v. Valencia
FC Salzburg v. Racing Genk
Napoli v. Liverpool

Pellegrini chastises Masuaku for red card against Villa

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Manuel Pellegrini said he was “very happy for the performance of the team” despite the 0-0 draw with Aston Villa that saw West Ham record just one single shot on target.

Still, he noted that he was less than pleased with the sending off of Arthur Masuaku, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, the West Ham manager said the referee can be easily goaded into soft decisions against the away side by raucous fans. “It’s a typical sending off when you play away,” Pellegrini said in his post-match television interview. “With the pressure of the fans in every foul, of our players that had a yellow card – in this case Arthur Masuaku, Mark Noble, and another player in the first half, I don’t think this was a yellow card, but playing away it is very easy for the referee to send him off.”

Later, he noted that a discussion at halftime with Masuaku about his earlier booking was unsuccessful. “They [the home fans] try to do it with the pressure of the fans,” Pellegrini said in the post-match press conference. “They tried to do it with Mark Noble in the first-half, they try to get a second yellow. We [Masuaku] talked about it at half-time. We told him he must be careful.”

That didn’t pan out, as Masuaku was sent off for a second yellow card earned while fouling Ahmed Elmohamady who had just come onto the pitch moments earlier. The foul was deemed somewhat soft, but match commentator Martin Tyler pointed out – as Pellegrini seems to be indicating – that Masuaku’s mistake was giving the referee the opportunity to make the call for an otherwise needless foul.

Despite the one negative moment, Pellegrini was pleased with the team’s overall performance on the road.

“I prefer to talk about our team,” Pellegrini said when asked about the refereeing decisions. “I think we played a very good game. We had the personality to come here and try to win the game from the beginning, and the last action, the last play of the game we had a very clear chance to score. We played with 10 men exactly the same that we did with 11. We tried defending well, we tried to continue scoring a goal, so I am very happy for the performance of the team, for the personality of the team, and when you are playing away if you can’t win the game, don’t lose it.”

UEFA Champions League group stage predictions

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To have our crew predict it, the UEFA Champions League group stage should prove to be fairly straight-forward.

[ MORE: UCL score predictions, Wk 1 ]

Our three consulted staffers at Pro Soccer Talk have predicted 18 teams for the 16 spots in the group stage, including a healthy three seeded spots for Premier League sides.

GROUP A

Joe Prince-Wright: PSG, Real Madrid, Galatasaray, Club Brugge
Nick Mendola: PSG, Real Madrid, Galatasaray, Club Brugge
Kyle Bonn: Real Madrid, PSG, Galatasaray, Club Brugge

Zinedine Zidane to bring the UCL magic touch back to Spain? One of our three think so, while JPW and Nick both figure Mbappe and Neymar will be too much for the group.

GROUP B

Joe Prince-Wright: Bayern Munich, Spurs, Olympiacos, Red Star
Nick Mendola: Bayern Munich, Spurs, Olympiacos, Red Star  
Kyle Bonn: Bayern Munich, Spurs, Red Star, Olympiacos

There’s a gulf in class between the top two and bottom two, but be careful with overlooking Olympiacos; The Greek club was very difficult to break down in qualifying.

GROUP C

Joe Prince-Wright: Man City, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb
Nick Mendola: Man City, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb
Kyle Bonn:  Man City, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb

The only team in the world averaging more shots per game than Manchester City this early season is Atalanta. Colombian attackers Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel have combined for six of the side’s seven Serie A goals this season.

GROUP D

Joe Prince-Wright: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Bayer Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moscow
Nick Mendola: Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Lokomotiv Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen
Kyle Bonn: Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moscow

While it’s certainly more complex than Joao Felix against the previous Portuguese generation’s Joao Felix, Atletico Madrid will hope its young wizard has the goods to break down Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juve.

GROUP E

Joe Prince-Wright: Liverpool, Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg, Genk
Nick Mendola: Liverpool, Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg, Genk
Kyle Bonn: Liverpool, Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg, Genk

The order of this group isn’t as interesting as the performances, as American eyes will be watching how Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch manages to get on versus two of Europe’s best.

GROUP F

Joe Prince-Wright: Barcelona, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Slavia Prague
Nick Mendola: Barcelona, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Slavia Prague
Kyle Bonn: Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Slavia Prague

Is Inter Milan’s renaissance for real? Nick and JPW thinks so, while Kyle Bonn thinks Lucien Favre’s BVB will keep humming past the Serie A giants.

GROUP G

Joe Prince-Wright: Lyon, RB Leipzig, Benfica, Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Nick Mendola: RB Leipzig, Lyon, Zenit Saint-Petersburg, Benfica
Kyle Bonn: Lyon, RB Leipzig, Benfica, Zenit Saint-Petersburg

Anything could happen here, and only Nick believes Timo Werner and RBL can outlast Memphis Depay, Moussa Dembele, and Lyon to win a seeded place in the knockout rounds.

GROUP H

Joe Prince-Wright: Chelsea, Ajax, Lille, Valencia
Nick Mendola: Chelsea, Valencia, Lille, Ajax
Kyle Bonn: Chelsea, Lille, Ajax, Valencia

Massive names with equal-sized questions. In other years, this would look like a group of death, but Lille earned its place via now-sold Nicolas Pepe and Ajax sold a good part of a golden academy generation to Barcelona, Juventus, and others. Chelsea, oddly enough, may be counting its blessings.