Per Mertesacker

What do Arsenal need to fix first?

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LONDON — Arsenal have won one of their last 12 games in all competitions and are in freefall.

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Interim head coach Freddie Ljungberg hasn’t been told if he will be in charge until the end of the season, while there is no indiciation that a new manager will arrive anytime soon.

It is a colossal mess, as the Gunners are as close to the Premier League relegation zone as they are the top four. With so much going wrong on and off the pitch, where on earth do they start to fix things?

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Here are five things they need to focus on first, and although many will say the ownership needs to change, we all know that isn’t going to happen.


STICK WITH FREDDIE OR HIRE A NEW GUY

This is the biggest thing to sort out first. What direction are the club going in? Should the players prepare for a new manager in the next week or so? Or will they at least have the comfort of knowing Ljungberg will be in charge until the end of the season? Either way, it needs sorting. Now. Arsenal are still, somehow, in the top four hunt and are just seven points back. But they are also just seven points from the drop zone.

“As I’ve said to the club, for me it is a great, great honor to do this. Of course, Per [Mertesacker] is the academy manager and he’s doing two jobs in one go and I said I think it needs to be cleared up, to make a decision so everybody knows,” Ljungberg said. “That is something I’ve said but it is totally up to the club. I am very honored and I’m trying to do things as good as I can. I think it would be good to make a decision, regardless of what it is.”

Ljungberg is spot on. One way or another Arsenal’s players, staff and fans need some direction, at least in the short term. The easy option will be to give Ljungberg and his assistant coach Per Mertesacker the job until the end of the season then evaluate who is available. Sorting out who the manager will be until May could well settle things down, and Arsenal badly need that to happen. The way the fans were just disappointed rather than angry against Man City, plus left their seats at half time and just stuck around to watch City rather than their own team was a damning indictment as to how bad things have become. The ownership have a lot to answer for and making a firm and swift decision on the managerial situation will help everything else move forward.


FOCUS ON MIDFIELD SHAPE

Matteo Guendouzi was totally overrun in central midfield on Sunday and Arsenal’s decision to play a 4-2-3-1 didn’t work out. Lucas Torreira had a torrid outing and the duo who promised so much last season seem totally out of their depth this campaign. Finding a midfield shape which works and sticking with it is the way to go as Arsenal need more numbers in the middle, either with a 4-1-4-1 formation or a 3-5-2. There isn’t enough protection for their error-strewn defense and pragmatism should now be the focus if they’re going to get back on track and secure wins way at Everton and Bournemouth to put themselves back in the top four battle. With Chelsea and Man United the next two up after that, Arsenal can still salvage their season if they bring more structure to their entire team, and especially their midfield.


3-5-2 FORMATION

This will give them extra defensive solidity and their defenders who are actually fit will get extra cover. It has to happen. Going forward it will also allow Aubameyang and Lacazette to play together centrally, while Ozil could float about in the hole ahead of two more defensive minded central midfielders. With injuries to full backs, there could be issues out wide but Saka and Maitland-Niles (the only two fit options at full back) would be better suited to being allowed to push forward. 3-5-2 should be the switch.


GO FOR EXPERIENCE OVER YOUTH

At times like this it is time for experience to come into the team. Ljungberg pointed to Arsenal’s fans being proud of the young players on the pitch at the end of the game as five players 20 years old or younger (including three teenagers) were on show. Arsenal have to get their most experienced players on the pitch to grind out results. David Luiz and Alexandre Lacazette need to come in and the Gunners simply have to get as many players on the pitch who have handled this kind of situation before. The younger players are talented but they need to be eased into the team. This pressurized situation is far from ideal for them to make progress and it could damage them for the future. It is time for Arsenal’s more experienced players to stand tall, but first of all they need to be put on the pitch.


FINDING A ROLE FOR OZIL

He divides opinion but if Ljungberg wants Arsenal to be a fluid, attacking team, then Ozil needs to play a central role going forward. Ozil has started every PL game since Ljungberg arrived and that shows the faith the Swede has in him. Playing Ozil in the hole will be key and encouraging him to drop deeper and try to set the tempo for their attack is what needs to happen. Ozil was frustrated to be brought off against Man City, and rightly so. He didn’t feature that much going forward and Arsenal just couldn’t keep hold of the ball. Against teams like Everton and Bournemouth coming up, he has the quality to unlock opposition defenses. He should be given the chance to dig Arsenal out of this horrible situation.

Surge in players seeking mental health treatment in England

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Dropping in on football clubs across England to speak to players, Michael Bennett poses a question he already know the answers to.

[ MORE: Real Madrid insists Thibaut Courtois didn’t have anxiety attack ]

“How many of you look after the physical aspects of your game?”

The hands all go up, of course. They don’t need to be reminded of the importance of sleep, nutrition and rehydration by the Professional Footballers’ Association welfare director.

“But when I ask how many look after yourselves emotionally, they don’t answer me because they don’t think about the emotional side,” Bennett said in an interview with The Associated Press. “That’s why you have to make them aware the emotional side of the game is as important as the physical side. They both go hand in hand.”

Bennett’s work is busier than ever before, with a surge in members seeking support for mental health issues.

Data provided to the AP shows 544 PFA members — mostly men — accessed therapy from January to September — up from the 438 who used the union’s counseling services throughout 2018. It represents an increase of almost 25 percent on last year’s total with three months of the year remaining.

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines: Week 8 ]

“The main reason they come forward is stress, depression and anxiety but we are aware that is a symptom of something,” Bennett said. “So we try to find out what is causing it. It could be long-term injury. It could be bereavement in the family. It could be a marriage or partnership break up. It could be a gambling issue which is prevalent at the moment.”

Bennett has a better insight than most in the English game. He played across the professional leagues, including for Charlton and Wimbledon in the topflight in the 1980s and 1990s. After training as a psychotherapist and counsellor, Bennett joined the PFA and he has been welfare director for eight years.

The PFA’s mental health services this year have been used by 553 men — 250 active players — and 26 from the women’s game. Eleven people from families of PFA members also sought support.

Only 160 PFA members accessed counselling services from the union in 2016. But any stigma around seeking help for mental health problems has been eased in the national sport by leading players, including Tottenham defender Danny Rose, talking about fighting depression. The English Football Association campaign has also launched a “Heads Up” campaign fronted by Prince William.

“We want to make them aware you don’t need to suffer in silence or be alone,” Bennett said from the PFA’s annual mental health conference at the St. George’s Park training base for England national teams.

The struggles are starting even earlier for players chasing professional contracts.

“What has changed is the tension,” former Arsenal captain Per Mertesacker, who now manages the club’s academy, told the AP. “I was injured for a year when I was 16 and to come back into academy football at the same club (Hannover) was easy at that time.

“When you are injured now for a year you are almost gone because your chance was there and you didn’t probably take it. So the judgment and assessment will be much earlier than back in the day.”

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Mertesacker now has to prepare his academy players for not making it about their club.

“People write you off, but you never should never settle,” Mertesacker said. “There’s huge expectation for yourself, from your parents around you. … So we need to make sure we create an environment where they feel safe with a good football program as well using football as a vehicle to teach them a lot of other stuff which can be helpful to life.”

The PFA has tracked how being rejected by clubs so early can see players doubt their worth and identity.

“The demands from the family, the demand from the club and more so the demand they put on themselves can be so intense,” Bennett said. “It can be unbearable and they think they can’t cope.”

Social media just adds to the toll. There is the abuse — too often racist — that players can receive on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Then there are the pressures to show a perfect life and body.

“We are seeing self-image and eating disorder issues are on the rise, particularly in the younger population,” Bennett said.

A weight on the shoulders of players at third-tier clubs Bolton and Bury in recent months was the future of their clubs being under threat. While Bolton was eventually rescued by a takeover, Bury was expelled from League One in August, leaving players out of work. The PFA stepped in to help them.

“It’s a public perception that all footballers earn a hundred grand a week or even more than that and why should they have any financial issues,” Bennett said. “They do and they can still have bereavements, issues in families and injuries that can impact them.”

Germany boss Low claims Ozil snubbed him during Arsenal visit

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Germany head coach Joachim Low claims that Arsenal playmaker Mesut Ozil did not join the rest of his German teammates in greeting Low at the Arsenal training ground during his visit on Monday.

Low visited the training ground to meet with former German defender and current Arsenal academy chief Per Mertesacker, and was greeted by fellow German internationals Bernd Leno and Shkodran Mustafi. However, Low claims that Ozil refused to join his former international teammates following his fiery retirement from international duty.

“We were there for 3 or 4 hours, and it goes without saying that I would have liked the opportunity to speak to Mesut Ozil,” Low told reporters. “Like before, I wanted to with all my heart. But he wasn’t there. All the German players [who play for Arsenal] were there, and we chatted and ate together. But Mesut wasn’t there and we have to accept that for the time being he doesn’t want to speak to us. I don’t know the reasons why he doesn’t want to.”

Earlier in the week, German reports claimed Arsenal manager Unai Emery blocked Low from meeting Ozil, but Sky Sports refuted that claim, and the Gunners boss denied that himself. Low’s quotes seem to dispute that as well, as the Germany head coach claimed he alerted the club he was coming ahead of time, so Ozil had the opportunity to greet his former coach.

“We didn’t show up at Arsenal uninvited,” Low said. “It goes without saying that as the manager of Germany I always inform clubs that I would like to visit beforehand. We did this ahead of time with Arsenal. We therefore arrived at 11 a.m. on Monday and stayed for three, three and a half hours. That’s what we did and they all knew we were coming.”

“It’s logical that I would have loved and hoped that a player who has played for me for so long would have returned to the national team, but also that he would call me personally, even for one minute because up until now this has happened for every player who has decided not to play for the national team anymore, they have always told me personally. I expected that from him.”

Ozil abruptly retired from international duty following Germany’s disappointing exit at the 2018 World Cup, claiming he was treated with “racism and disrespect.” The saga has caused a highly publicized rift between Ozil and much of the coaching staff, front office, and squad of players.

Season Preview: Arsenal to return to top-4?

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Arsenal at a Glance:

Premier League (and old First Division) titles: 13 – last in 2003/2004 season.

FA Cups: 13 times, last in 2016/2017.

League Cups: 2

FA Community Shield: 15 (last in 2017).

Top Four Finishes: 20-in-a-row between 1997 and 2017.

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It’s a new era at Arsenal.

After 20 years at the club, Arsene Wenger stepped down at the end of last season, in which Arsenal failed to break into the top four for a second consecutive season, allowing for a fresh set of eyes to come in and manage the side. In comes veteran Spaniard Unai Emery, who perhaps couldn’t live up to expectations in France but certainly beat the odds over and over again with Sevilla and Valencia in Spain.

Emery’s attention to detail and defensive focus could pair well with Arsenal’s wonderful abundance of creative, playmaking midfielders. But based on Arsenal’s preseason performances, there’s still plenty of work to be done at both ends of the pitch.


Arsenal will finish top four because….the new signings gel and add strength in depth to what is an already very strong squad. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hits the ground running in his first full-season at the club with 20 or more goals, partnering at times with Alexandre Lacazette or trading spots with him between the heavy workload of matches. More importantly, the summer signings of Sokratis, Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi and Stephan Lichtsteiner help shore up Arsenal’s leaky defense after a few months of struggles to start the season. Torreira, affectionately called “pac-man” for his ability to eat up attackers all over the field, morphs into the best defensive midfielder Arsenal has seen since the days of Patrick Vieira.

Arsenal will miss out on the UEFA Champions League because….defensive problems remain. While the team is beautiful in its attack, Emery is left pulling all the hairs out of his head wondering why Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis can’t figure out how to play together and defend as a unit. With Laurent Koscielny set to miss a large chunk of the season coming back from his torn Achilles injury, Arsenal miss his defensive leadership. In addition, both Lacazette and Aubameyang struggle to score in the big games, making Arsenal fans continue to suffer as the team fails to live up to expectations.

Best possible XI: List the team’s strongest lineup for this season when everyone is fit

———————Leno———————-

—-Bellerin—-Mustafi—Sokratis——Kolasinac

—————Torreira——-Xhaka——————

——-Mkhitaryan——Ramsey———-Ozil——

———————Aubameyang———————

Transfers In: Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), Matteo Guendouzi (Lorient, $9.1 million), Lucas Torreira (Sampdoria, $34.4 million), Bernd Leno (Bayer Leverkusen, $25 million), Sokratis (Borussia Dortmund, $23 million)

Transfers Out: Per Mertesacker (retired), Santi Cazorla (Villarreal, free), Jack Wilshere (West Ham, free), Jeff Reine-Adelaide (Angers, undisclosed)

Ranking their offseason: A-

Arsenal found itself outside the Champions League for the second straight season, and with a new manager entering, the club could have been in for a rough summer. Instead, it’s been very good so far by all accounts. Arsenal spent strategically and already, Guendouzi looks like a strong signing, having performed well as a holding midfielder in multiple preseason matches. Leno looks like the future goalkeeper the Gunners have been wanting with Torreira and Sokratis shore up a creaky defense. In addition, the Gunners were able to hold on to Aubameyang, Lacazette, and though his future is still up in the air, Aaron Ramsey so far. Through preseason, it’s clear that Arsenal needs to work more defensively, but in terms of the attacking side they’re looking good enough to start the season.


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Star player: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: The French-born Gabon International was a star both domestically and in Europe for Borussia Dortmund. If he can produce at his old level, Arsenal will be just fine.


Coaches’ Corner: Unai Emery: The 48-year-old manager comes from Paris Saint-Germain, where he gained valuable experience coaching some of the biggest names in world football. But the majority of his coaching success has come in Spain. With Valencia and Sevilla, Emery constantly beat expectations and helped his side play better than the sum of its parts. If he can pull that off for Arsenal, he will quickly win over fans. 

PST predicts: After a strong offseason, Arsenal look set to return to the club’s old glory as a regular top-four team. The spine of the squad was improved, which should give players like Mesut Ozil, Henrik Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi the freedom to attack down the wings and through the heart of the opponent’s defense. The new manager should refresh the player’s attitudes and deliver a fitter, more defensively-sound squad, which will help in terms of getting back in the Champions League. Arsenal may still be a bit away from challenging for a league title, but they’re not that far off.

Watch Live: Leicester City vs. Arsenal

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Leicester City hosts Arsenal from the King Power Stadium (Watch live at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold and online via NBCSports.com) as Arsene Wenger‘s tenure as Gunners manager heads into its final stretch.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Wenger has made several changes to his XI, with Per Mertesacker and Mustafi on the bench today, while the Foxes have kept many of their regulars in the team with the exception of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel — who has an injured ankle.

LINEUPS

Leicester City: Jakupović, Simpson, Morgan (c), Maguire, Fuchs, Choudhury, Silva, Mahrez, Diabaté, Iheanacho, Vardy. Subs: Hamer, Benalouane, Dragović, Iborra, Barnes, Gray, Thomas.

Arsenal: Cech, Maitland-Niles, Holding, Mavropanos, Kolasinac, Xhaka, Ramsey, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan, Welbeck, Aubameyang. Subs: Ospina, Osei-Tutu, Mertesacker, Mustafi, Willock, Nelson, Nketiah.