Why Curiosity was Never Going to Kill Arsenal’s Mesut Özil


London – You’d have to try pretty hard not to like Paul Merson as a TV pundit. Even if you insisted on making a public show of not liking him – rolling your eyes, clutching a scented handkerchief, pointing out, pedantically, that he often talks a load of rubbish – it would be hard to avoid secretly liking him all the same.

Maybe not in the same way you might like Ian Wright, who has in the past few years taken a breath, realized he can just say whatever is on his mind and become in the process the best football pundit out there.

This is not as easy as it looks. Martin Keown, for example, also seems to know his stuff and has good opinions, but still talks about football like a man delivering a terse, menacing funeral elegy for his recently deceased border collie. Michael Owen is good these days but in an oddly resentful way, with an on-screen manner that suggests he’s been taken hostage in a brightly lit bunker by unseen kidnappers and is now buying time by sitting on a sofa speaking in a guarded voice about link-up play and instant finishes while a police sniper unit maneuvers into position just out of his eyeline.

Merson is the opposite of this. At times he seems to have forgotten he is actually on television and is just sitting with some other people talking about Harry Kane for ages while a man in a suit keeps trying to change the subject. But he is always watchable and passionate, and often very persuasive. As he was this week while being right, for the wrong reasons, about Mesut Özil.

Merse has had enough of Özil. “He doesn’t work hard enough for the team,” is the latest variation on the doesn’t-run-enough strand of objections that have followed Özil around the Premier League. But it is impossible to argue with the natural conclusion. Özil is available to play now and may well shimmy back in with a goal or two, or an impudently brilliant assist against Watford on Saturday. But Arsène Wenger really does have to try to sell him in January. The idea of this Arsenal team as some high-grade Özil-centered machine has flickered at times. But that ship has sailed. This is over. It’s done.

Next week it will be the six-month anniversary of Özil’s last Arsenal goal. Since December 2016 he has contributed one – one! – assist away from the Emirates Stadium. The team play better without him in it. He has already earned £30m in his time at the club. There is nothing here to justify an astronomically improved contract. The Age of Özil is over, a fascinating footnote in the wider history of why apparently well-suited player moves sometimes just don’t work out.

This is the real point. Never mind debating the exact nature of Özil’s undoubted qualities. It is more interesting to understand why he has tailed off at Arsenal. English football has always loved calling people lazy or weak. The idea that your Özils are not native enough in style, lacking the basic fiber and guts to succeed in the world’s most energetic league is clearly quite appealing.

Whereas in this case the opposite is true. Firstly, as has been frequently pointed out, Özil does run quite a lot. Last year he covered more ground per game in the Champions League than any other player with as many goals to their name.

Secondly, like it or not, Özil’s significant failings are strikingly English in nature. What has happened at Arsenal is that he has failed to develop, has failed to add any further gears to his game. Football has changed a lot in four years. But Özil is basically the same player with the same skills, the same needs, the same strengths and flaws. This is a kind of laziness. But it’s not to do with running or energy expended on the pitch; more a familiar, and very native lack of curiosity, a complacency, a failure to learn.

And please, we know the excuses by now. I’ve set them out myself in the past, mainly because Özil is just such a seductively pleasing talent, a player who in the right team and the right mood makes everything look like a kind of dance, pirouetting in search of space, gliding the ball between a series of points with such ease you half expect to look down and notice he’s wearing flip-flops or holding a sandwich.

We’ve all heard the one about needing special privileges too, the idea Özil’s work is so finely graded as to be almost invisible to the uncultured eye, like the most delicate component of some purringly over-engineered luxury car.

The problem here is that club football has moved on. Often Özil’s best moments rely on his team having enough possession for long enough periods, as Real Madrid and Arsenal may have in the recent past and Germany still do. But opponents are less stretched by these tactics now, are less likely to find themselves pulled out of shape while Özil, or similar, wheels himself into place for the killer incision. His pure style has dated, just as Arsenal’s switch to playing a little more without the ball has hardly helped.

The proof is in the success of similar players with greater range. Kevin De Bruyne is the obvious counterpoint, a player who can also pass brilliantly, who has many of the same functions, but who has learned and adapted at a thrilling speed. De Bruyne can now do pretty much anything – central midfield, No10, manage the counterattack. He will find a way to affect the game. Similarly Christian Eriksen has improved in his own four years in England, and not only in the things he already did well. Meanwhile, to borrow an oft-quoted phrase, Özil hasn’t played 166 games for Arsenal, he’s played the same game 166 times.

Perhaps he will come again. He isn’t alone in failing to progress his career under Wenger. He often plays really well for Germany. For now it is hard to avoid the feeling of fate closing in. There was a genuine shiver of excitement when Özil signed for Arsenal. He was meant to announce and define an era, the embodiment of late Wenger-ism. And so it has come to pass. This has been the age of Özil. Just not in the way Arsenal will have hoped, more as an emblem of princely stasis, and of a paradoxically English refusal to adapt and learn.

The Guardian Sport

Premier League Clubs Missed their Chance to Keep Christmas Eve Special


London – The almost total lack of regard in which broadcasters hold football fans is no secret, so it should have come as no surprise to learn Sky Sports is proposing to reschedule Arsenal’s home match against Liverpool for Christmas Eve in what the Football Supporters’ Federation has described as “a new low point in putting the interests of football broadcasters over those of match-going fans”. And yet somehow it did come as a surprise. Even by the notoriously cut-throat standards of TV networks scrambling for subscriptions, this seems unnecessarily grasping.

With an already hectic festive grind looming, footballers would almost certainly rather not play on Christmas Eve. Fans, some with other commitments and others faced with the return journey to and from London from Liverpool on what is a chaotic day for transport, would almost certainly rather not travel on Christmas Eve.

Matchday staff earning not much more than minimum wage for their shifts would almost certainly rather not work on Christmas Eve. On a day that vast swaths of the British population set aside for last-minute trolley dashes, family reunions, festive roistering and all the domestic disquiet that entails, we could almost certainly do without the added distraction of Premier League football on television. Couldn’t we?

Apparently not, despite the fact almost everyone involved apart from the broadcasting company that paid £11m for British TV rights for the match appears to agree it is a ridiculous idea. Even before a final decision has been made, both football clubs involved have complained, as have their supporters.

But while Sky Sports has not yet publicly acknowledged any of these gripes, early indications suggest it is likely to respond to this almost unanimous groundswell of disapproval by – yes, you’ve guessed it – scheduling a second Premier League match for the same day and transforming Christmas Eve into a Super Sleigh Bell Sunday featuring two games instead of the more traditional and generally accepted none.

A spokeswoman for Sky said she was not in a position to comment given the fixtures for December have not been selected but that an announcement will be made in the next fortnight. “Twice in recent years [2011 and 2016] Christmas Eve has fallen on a Saturday,” says the FSF. “In both those years the Premier League has not scheduled any fixtures for that day, presumably in recognition of the significance of the date. For broadcasters now to move fixtures to Christmas Eve, and on a Sunday at that, flies in the face of that policy.”

On Monday, it emerged the second match being mooted for rescheduling to Christmas Eve is West Ham v Newcastle, which would almost certainly occupy the 1.30pm TV slot and mean a round trip of 560 miles for traveling Geordies, who, unlike Father Christmas, do not have the luxury of airborne sleighs drawn by reindeer to speed them home.

Expect more entirely justified disquiet from a set of supporters whose location means they are already treated particularly contemptuously by TV schedulers.

The clubs, despite their predictable carping, can have no complaints as they are lying in a cash-strewn bed of their own making. When Sky and BT Sport paid a combined £5.136bn for the UK TV rights of the Premier League in the famously lucrative carve-up of February 2015, it was the former network that paid the lion’s share of the money, £4.176bn, to win the vast majority of the TV slots available. Two of those are on Sunday afternoons, with kick-offs at 1.30pm and 4pm, windows dictated at the time by clubs mindful of potential viewing audiences and hoping to rinse the maximum revenue possible out of the bidders.

Much to their delight the money duly arrived but in the ensuing contract negotiations the clubs either did not bother, did not want to, or perhaps just never thought to insist on clauses precluding Sky or BT Sport from rescheduling matches that would quite clearly inconvenience fans traveling long distances at great expense.

Evidently they also failed to reckon on Christmas Eve 2017 falling on a Sunday and the potential problems that might cause. Sky has two slots to play with on Christmas Eve Sunday. One can be moved to the previous Friday night, but this would still leave one Sunday slot vacant.

Should Sky decide to keep match-going fans and the FSF happy by not broadcasting Arsenal v Liverpool or any other match on Christmas Eve, it would to all intents and purposes be throwing away the £11m it paid for the right to do so. Even at a time of goodwill to all men, this course of action is one it would be understandably reluctant to take.

This could easily have been avoided. As equal shareholders in the Premier League, along with the 18 other clubs who comprised English football’s top flight at the time the deal with Sky and BT was struck, there was nothing to stop Arsenal, Liverpool or the other shareholders preempting such a scenario and colluding to ensure it never came to pass. They did not and, as usual, it is their fans who will suffer the most.

“Spirit Of Shankly have been made aware that Liverpool’s away fixture against Arsenal, scheduled for 23 December, is being considered for a move to Christmas Eve,” said a Liverpool’s supporters’ group, which pointed out the impact such a switch would have. “SOS are contacting relevant personnel to put forward our case that it is completely unacceptable to expect fans to travel for a match at this time. The suggestion of such a change again shows zero regard for supporters – much like the corresponding fixture where Euston station was closed over bank holiday weekend.”

The FSF has declared it will continue to work in conjunction with supporters’ groups to engage with the Premier League and broadcasters “to register our discontent and to seek full involvement and consultation with supporters in determining future scheduling”.

Good luck to them but history suggests their hopes of being paid anything other than lip service would constitute a Christmas miracle.

The Guardian Sport

Jack Wilshere Keen to Stay at Arsenal after Return to First-Team Fold


London – Jack Wilshere looks like a player determined to grasp every moment of football he is offered this season, and his mini renaissance since returning to fitness and the fold at Arsenal has made him want to commit to the club for the long term. Wilshere’s contract expires at the end of this season and given his injury history he is doing everything in his power to ensure he prolongs a connection that dates back to boyhood.

“Do I see myself staying? Of course I do,” he said. “I have always been at Arsenal, I love this club. They have been good to me over the years, I have a great relationship with the boss. He has played me since I was 17. He has put his trust in me since then. We have a great understanding and of course I want to stay.”

Past experience ought to have taught Wilshere to be cautious about what the future holds but his desire to play and enjoy football is so strong he walked off the pitch after an impressive 90 minutes against Bate Borisov in the Europa League on Thursday and could not resist saying: “I definitely feel I’m back.”

Wilshere’s positive vibes outweigh any wariness about how much football and how many performances are needed to convince others that this latest comeback has staying power. There were moments – imaginative touches and brilliant passes – that were classy reminders of his capabilities. Of that Arsène Wenger has no doubt. The midfielder’s capacity to produce his best over a season is less clear.

“You are always playing for your future but at the moment I am happy to be back, to feel part of the squad. It has been a while,” added Wilshere. “Last year I was at Bournemouth, year before I was injured. It has been a while since I felt a proper Arsenal player but I am back, in training, back in the squad, playing these types of games. I am doing everything I can to stay fit, training well, we will see. I am not looking too far ahead. We have another game Sunday, more League Cup and Europa League, so I am happy.”

He acknowledged that football critics have short memories and that being written off comes with the territory. “That is part and parcel of football. Football is a game where people forget. Everyone says ‘you are never fit’ but last season I was fit for the whole season. It was only in April that I got an impact injury. That was unfortunate timing but throughout my rehab it went well.

“People say it’s a long road but it was four months and I have had longer than that before. I felt good coming back to Arsenal and into training and the boss has been good. He has been speaking to me, been patient and I feel good and enjoy working with these top players again.”

Wilshere confessed that the night before the game in Borisov he was in the hotel and could not remember when he had last played a European away game for Arsenal. In fact, the answer was at Anderlecht in the Champions League in October 2014. Fellow team-mates that day were Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini. It must feel like an age ago.

Wilshere has not yet worked his way into contention to start in the Premier League but if he keeps up his current progression that should not be too far away. Arsenal do not possess too many midfielders blessed with the vision he uses so instinctively.

“As a player you want to be in every game, especially when you have been injured, but at the same time I understand they have been winning and playing well,” he said. “Am I 100 percent back? Maybe not. I felt good in the first half and start of the second and then fitness-wise it started to go a bit towards the end. But that is normal. It will come and I am patient at the moment and we will see where I am in three or four weeks.”

Wilshere enjoyed the challenge of playing in a tweaked position in Belarus, pushed further forward as part of the attacking trio alongside Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud.

“I was playing a different position, coming off the line to link with Theo and Olivier and especially in the first half it worked really well. I wasn’t playing as an out and out 10, I was on the wing and the boss told me to come into the pocket and pick it up.”

The 25-year-old was instrumental in helping Arsenal beat Borisov 4-2 and hopes that he can go from strength to strength. There is a lot to pin hopes on – a new contract and the prospect of a World Cup at the end of the season – but for now he is taking baby steps. He has stopped even looking out for the England squad.

“I am getting back to full fitness and of course I want to be part of that. I have only played two 90s in four or five months. When I am fit and playing in the Premier League, we will see.”

The Guardian Sport

Coutinho, Van Dijk, Sanchez Need to Re-Find Feet after Being Stood up by Suitors


A penny for someone’s thoughts seems a ludicrously old-fashioned saying in the era of the £1.4bn Premier League transfer window. But now the whole brouhaha is over it is hard not to wonder what is going on inside the heads of players whose hopes were dashed on deadline day. It is the football world’s equivalent of being stood up for a dream date. Wake up full of nervous expectancy, impossible to think about anything else all day, then the wretched waiting before the bleak realization that nothing special is going to happen.

So what now for Virgil van Dijk and Philippe Coutinho, whose transfer requests were utterly ignored by their clubs and they will be expected to represent Southampton and Liverpool respectively with full professionalism as quickly as possible? What now for Alexis Sánchez, who will return from international duty by opening the door to his London home and his beloved dogs knowing that he was close to an exit from Arsenal’s problems but it never came off?

Football’s weird moral compass means that possible hissy fits or friction tend not to be major factors once the games come and the athletes are sent out to play. Remember the case of Carlos Tevez, whose reluctance to come on as a Manchester City substitute in a Champions League game at Bayern Munich led to him being frozen out, fined and going on strike to the apparent point of no return?

That turned out to be the same Carlos Tevez who was showered with love when he came back a few months later to score the goals that helped City to win the title. Football emotions can overstretch and suddenly bounce back if it suits everyone.

If Van Dijk, Coutinho and Sánchez, whatever their personal sentiments, get back on the pitch for the Premier League clubs they have generally graced with distinction, if they can find some rhythm and put in the kind of performances that made them so coveted by other suitors, they will be welcomed back into the fold pretty quickly.

It is the less needed players who have the hardest time readjusting if a transfer window move does not materialize. On the fringes of teams around the country are the players who remain trapped in the system which keeps them at clubs with a limited prospect of playing time. A penny for the thoughts of Vincent Janssen as he saw photos of Fernando Llorente trying on a Spurs shirt while he stayed moveless?

The Dutchman could not find it in himself to commit to guaranteed football at Brighton but life at Tottenham will surely feel frustrating at times if he has another season on the edge of the first XI picture.

How do players manage the situation when the optimism of a new chapter turns humdrum? Janssen joined Tottenham a year ago on the back of success at AZ Alkmaar on a four-year deal. Staying confident and positive about the impact one can make on the pitch is not easy without matches. A high salary is not always enough to make a player feel better.

The parable of Winston Bogarde is an important one. Bogarde is widely regarded as a benchmark of sorts for players who pick up a fortune while barely dirtying their boots in earnest. He made almost £10m at Chelsea while playing for them 12 times in 2000–04. But the reality tells of a man who felt lonely, desperate and misunderstood. “My situation was not very good and we tried to solve it many ways,” he said. “Like to maybe go on loan or sell me, or whatever. But in the end it didn’t work out. For a player, for me, it’s terrible not to play. Yet I had to return for training. Mentally it was very hard. To keep the motivation is very difficult.”

It was poignant to see footage of Lucas Pérez, who returned to Deportivo La Coruña on deadline day, arriving back at his hometown airport after a year of frustration at Arsenal being barely used. With his arm round his son, the door to the arrivals hall opened and he was greeted by the warmth of fans singing his name. “Si, si, si. Lucas esta aqui” Yes, yes, yes. Lucas is here. It looked obvious that in that moment his football motivation was reignited after a period struggling for opportunities and mulling over self-doubt.

Across the Premier League plenty remain stuck. At Everton, in their post-splurge new world, the future is uncertain at best for Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas and Oumar Niasse, all of whom shook their heads at a potential deadline-day move knowing that they are not as wanted as others at Goodison Park. At Liverpool Lazar Markovic stayed put but will not expect to figure too much. Jack Colback is in a pickle at Newcastle. Diafra Sakho remains at West Ham after a particularly curious turn of events. He had taken it upon himself to travel to Rennes for a medical without a deal being struck between the clubs and ended up spending deadline day at Chelmsford Races with his agent hoping for a winning ticket. The move failed.

Life at the training ground goes on the morning after the window closes. Life on the edges goes on for the unwanted and disappointed wantaways.

The Guardian Sport

Palace and Arsenal Epitomize Premier League’s Lack of Joined-Up Thinking

Frank de Boer has made a disastrous start at Crystal Palace but his players are struggling with an extreme transition after a relegation battle under Sam Allardyce.

Now the honeymoon period has well and truly fizzled out, extinguished by so much sideways football that soon Louis van Gaal will be making a pilgrimage to Selhurst Park to see what all the fuss is about, it comes as no surprise to learn Crystal Palace appear to be wondering whether the man who said he would make his new team play like Ajax might not be up to the task of managing in the Premier League.

Judging by the grumbling emanating from south London last week, some members of Palace’s squad appear to have made up their minds already about Frank de Boer. If the writing is on the wall for him, it is largely because his apparently dissatisfied players have wasted no time sharpening their pens and, although that kind of insurrection could be seen as yet another damning indictment of the state of modern football, it is worth remembering no manager is safe if his methods raise eyebrows rather than spirits in the dressing room.

Perhaps it reflects poorly on English football that De Boer, who led Ajax to four consecutive Eredivisie titles in his first managerial job, has encountered early resistance at Palace (highest Premier League finish: 10th in 2015). After all, everyone was on board when he outlined his vision in the summer and demonstrated an awareness that refining Palace’s style would not be easy, promising “evolution, not revolution”. Three matches in, however, Palace fans are still waiting to celebrate a goal, let alone their first point. More worrying than the results are the insipid, cure-for-insomnia performances, the dogmatism that makes Van Gaal’s Manchester United look even more freewheeling than Brazil’s 1970 team.

But why did the Palace hierarchy not see this coming? Before De Boer, the home dugout at Selhurst Park was the domain of the Proper Football Man. Since winning promotion under Ian Holloway in 2013, Palace have employed Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce, and the result is a gritty, direct team with few frills and little creativity or flair. One has got to go back 19 years to find the only other time they had a foreign manager, Atillio Lombardo, who could not save them from relegation during a brief spell as caretaker player-manager. Hiring De Boer was a departure from the norm for Palace and maybe it was to be expected they would experience teething problems. They will be accused of impatience if they decide to cut their losses; in reality, however, their biggest crime would be failing to lay the proper foundations for such a big change to their identity.

It would hint at the kind of structural shortcomings stemming from a lack of a philosophy within the club. Allardyce one minute, De Boer the next: it was too extreme. Palace had just survived a relegation scrap and there was no sense they had been gearing up to become the English Ajax. It is no wonder the squad has struggled to adapt to De Boer, who said his players lacked courage on the ball after the home defeat by Swansea City.

This can be a consequence when clubs attempt a quick fix instead of building gradually. Last month Palace hired Dougie Freedman as a sporting director. Yet it is difficult not to conclude Freedman should have arrived before De Boer and it is baffling that clubs with Palace’s resources do not seek to emulate the model at Southampton, where long-term planning ensures they are equipped to handle a change in the dugout. The expertise of the Pozzo family helps Watford punch above their weight despite their rotating cast of managers. What mattered more when Leicester won the title: hiring Claudio Ranieri or scouting N’Golo Kanté?

The director of football role remains staggeringly underrated in England. When it was put to Arsène Wenger that Arsenal could benefit from appointing one, he sounded as if he had been told to change his name to José. “I don’t know what it means,” Wenger said. “Is it somebody who stands on the road and directs the players left and right?”

A director of football could have challenged Wenger’s authority, forcing Arsenal out of their comfort zone. Instead his bosses shied away from making a tough decision at the end of last season, condemning Arsenal to two more years of stasis.

These are troubled times in the capital. Only West Ham’s miserable goal difference keeps Palace off the foot of the table. Time is running out for Slaven Bilic, who was found wanting tactically a long time ago. Yet while Bilic is fortunate to have his job, West Ham’s main problem is David Sullivan’s idea of a director of football seems to be David Sullivan. Gaping holes have not been filled and the club’s decision to focus on short-term acquisitions has left the team looking slow and old. How appropriate was it for the man in charge of transfers to be on holiday in Spain on deadline day?

So nothing changes. With the De Boer project looking doomed, Freedman is expected to step in on a temporary basis before making way for Roy Hodgson. Another emergency will force Palace back to square one, but it could have been avoided with greater foresight.

De Boer, schooled at Ajax and one of the most technically gifted defenders of his generation, appeared to have the credentials. More relevant than the 85-day stint at Internazionale, however, is the way Ajax became stagnant in his final two seasons, boring the Amsterdam Arena with laborious passing. Johan Cruyff disciples came to view De Boer as a Van Gaal man. He promised to bring excitement to Palace but so far he has offered precious little evidence of his Cruyffism.

(The Guardian)

Arsenal’s Continuing Malaise at the Heart of Operations

Arséne Wenger and the Arsenal bench feel the strain at Anfield.

If Brian Clough was displeased with a performance, his players knew about it.

There was an occasion at half-time during a Nottingham Forest match when, unhappy with a couple of failed stepovers and a cross that went behind the goal, he punched the culprit, Nigel Jemson, in the stomach.

Understandably enough, that’s not going to happen in an Arsenal dressing room when Arsène Wenger confronts his players in the middle of another catastrophic display. The trouble is that nothing is going to happen.

During Alex Ferguson’s quarter-century at Old Trafford, Manchester United very seldom crumbled in the way that has become all too familiar to Arsenal’s fans. When United looked as if they might be in danger of a meltdown, Ferguson would do something. Anything.

Like the day in the spring of 1996 when, on the way to their third title under Fergie, they went to Southampton and found themselves 3-0 down at half-time. What the manager did next went down in legend. During the interval, he made them change their kit.

The grey away strip, he said, was making it impossible for them to pick each other out with their passes. So he sent them out for the second half in their alternative away kit, blue and white. That didn’t save the match, but they did win the second half 1-0 with a goal from Ryan Giggs to salvage a scrap of self-respect.

Almost a decade later Lee Sharpe told this newspaper that the grey strip hadn’t made any difference. They had been able to see each other perfectly well. But Ferguson showed that he was not going to accept the first-half performance without doing something to change it. Anything.

All Wenger does in such a situation is lean forward in his padded chair, rub his face and look distraught. The Sky Sports cameras close in on him, waiting for some telltale gesture of distraction, something either embarrassing or potentially symbolic, or both, like the habitual fumbling with the zips on his quilted jackets.

They don’t see him change anything, not even the players’ kit. That’s because he never does, beyond a handful of substitutions late in the game. And so a half-time score of 3-1 will turn inexorably into an 8-2, as it did six years ago this week at Old Trafford. A 2-1 at the Etihad will become a 6-3, as it did in 2013. A 4-0 will become a 6-0, as it did in his 1,000th match in charge of the club at Stamford Bridge in March 2014.

They don’t see him talking to the man sitting next to him – Steve Bould, his assistant – because he never does, at least in public. Bould’s stone face might disguise a desire to initiate a conversation about the way things are going, but Wenger’s own expression does not appear to encourage debate.

After the 4-0 pasting at Anfield on Sunday, it was seemingly left to Petr Cech, the goalkeeper, to raise his voice in the dressing room. Ever since sanctioning Gilberto Silva’s premature departure in the summer of 2008, Wenger has been asked time again why his side has no leaders on the pitch of the kind who, when the going is tough, know how to direct, motivate and inspire their colleagues.

It’s a question to which he has perfected a dead-bat answer, and three FA Cup successes in the past four years have just about provided him with the evidence that, in a one-off match, today’s Arsenal can still get their hands on a trophy. But in terms of achieving competitive consistency, he has no answer at all.

Gilberto Silva was the club’s last central midfield player worthy of the name. Wenger’s best midfielders of the last decade – Tomas Rosicky, Cesc Fàbregas, Santi Cazorla – have been inside forwards or playmakers. The number of failures in the crucial defensive-midfield role since the Brazilian’s departure must now be approaching double figures, with Granit Xhaka the latest.

Abou Diaby was never fit and Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin were not good enough. Lassana Diarra and Alex Song certainly were good enough – good enough, anyway, to play 87 La Liga games for Real Madrid and 39 for Barcelona respectively in that position after Wenger had let them go.

He had two chances to sign N’Golo Kanté and missed both of them. In other positions there have been a string of disasters. Who knows what he saw in Sébastien Squillaci, Yaya Sanogo or Shkodran Mustafi?

In the last decade he has failed to help so many of his young British players realise their potential that the departure of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Liverpool now looks like a test case. If, under Jürgen Klopp, the player succeeds in fulfilling the huge promise he showed as a teenager, the verdict will be obvious.

Then there are the Frenchmen. Right from the beginning, when Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry swept all before them, Wenger has tended to favour signing his compatriots. He is still at it, except that now he tends to sign the wrong ones. He acquired Alexandre Lacazette in July for what could turn out to be £53m but put him among the substitutes on Sunday because, apparently, he is still trying to adapt to the Premier League.

Perhaps Lacazette will turn out to be the real thing – although if he is, shouldn’t it have been a case of the Liverpool defence trying to adapt to him?

But it’s the heart of the team, in the hole that Kanté would have filled, where Arsenal’s problems loom largest. The day before their collapse at Anfield, Sam Clucas made his debut for Swansea City, following a £16.5m transfer from Hull City, and won universal applause for his role as the team’s defensive midfield player in the win at Selhurst Park.

Clucas is 27. Released by Leicester City’s academy at 16, he played a season for Nettleham in the Central Midlands league while studying for a sports degree before moving on via Lincoln City. He played for Jerez Industrial while spending a fruitful 18 months with Glenn Hoddle’s academy for rejected young pros in Spain, then Hereford United, Mansfield Town and Chesterfield.

Not a CV, one imagines, that would attract Wenger’s interest. Afterwards Clucas spoke on Match of the Day of how he had been attracted to the idea of working not just with Paul Clement, Swansea’s head coach, but also Claude Makelele, Clement’s assistant.

“He played in my position,” Clucas said – a bit of an understatement, since some would say Makelele invented it – “so you’re working with the best.”

Which member of the current Arsenal squad could put his hand on his heart and say that?

(The Guardian)

Another Early-Season Breakdown for Arsenal but No Sign of Any Change

Mesut Özil, Granit Xhaka and Laurent Koscielny after Arsenal fell 4-0 down at Anfield – the latest in a series of horror shows in recent seasons. Arsenal

In the thick of Arsenal’s chronic breakdown at Anfield on Sunday it did not take long for football’s splurging social commentary to begin establishing just how bad this was compared with other abhorrences. How rotten exactly are things in the state of Arsenal? As bad as the 8-2 at Manchester United? On a par with the season they were dismembered by vicious scorelines at Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea? Worse than an aggregate 10-2 thumping from Bayern Munich? More embarrassing than imploding in fright at home to Swansea or Watford or Aston Villa?

Hereby hangs Arsenal’s sharpest problem. Scanning through the past five years to pick out the performances that were especially awful is instructive. This is not an exercise in recalling the common or garden soft defeats at Stoke or West Brom, but a search for the goriest of horror shows. This involves the type of ordeal to leave observers wondering how much longer, how much worse, how much more intolerable, how many times it is possible to repeat the same mistakes without wanting to smash the place up and sweep everything out to start afresh.

This was a subjective exercise but a rough count tots up 20 such occasions over five years. That tells of a damning sense of paralysis, a club constructed in such a way they cannot change the record no matter how screechingly discordant their most annoying songs sound. If Arsenal turn on their internal radio and hear a tune they loathe which taunts them by infernal repetition, they just do not have it in them to change the station. Think about it: 20 times in five years with no radical reaction.

Arsenal have managed to respond to setbacks in their own way. They usually regain enough composure to qualify for the Champions League (missing out only once, last May) and to have earned the sweet salve of three FA Cup victories out of four attempts. But real, profound change, the kind to reset the club as one with ambition to believe in, the kind that creates a team resolve that does not look as if it is made of straw ready to be obliterated by a mere puff of wolfish intent from any opponent, remains a long shot.

The greatest concern to those who care about Arsenal is the fact that getting lacerated by Liverpool with a reasonably strong if weirdly imbalanced selection does not necessarily represent depths significantly lower than other nadirs they have skulked around in the past. If the club did not feel the necessity to address serious issues at any of the previous 19 calamities, why suddenly feel pushed to do things differently after No20?

Which introduces the other major problem. For a long time Arsène Wenger has been a lightning rod for the issues that dog the club. What Arsenal did or did not do in terms of management alone started off as an elephant in the room. But now there is an entire herd of them. One can hardly see the wall on the other side for doleful elephants, great big creatures squishing all their complaints against each other. They have become noisy, too, which is understandable.

The difficulties are manifold. At the top of the business the majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, has never shown any inclination to take active control of goings-on. The chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, who called for a “catalyst for change” a few months ago, is unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo. The manager presides over a set of players who play as if they either do not know what they are supposed to be doing, cannot do what they are asked to do or do not wish to – a mere three games into the season. To be too tactically sunk and low in determination to perform basic tasks is a desperate recurring theme. Quite what was going on inside the heads of Alexandre Lacazette or Sead Kolasinac as they watched from the bench is hard to fathom. Quite how Jens Lehmann kept any kind of calm counsel is harder still.

Behind the scenes the scouting department and the men detailed with arranging contracts and dealing in the transfer market are failing. Numerous players are out of contract this summer or next and it has not gone unnoticed that recent purchases recommended by the StatDNA data business Arsenal bought supposedly to give them a competitive edge have struggled and are among those Wenger seeks to offload. Elsewhere the marketing and commercial gurus strain to strike deals that compare well with their rivals.

It is not as if this kind of situation was freakish. A flaky run exposing basic problems in the team’s structure and motivation was not exactly unpredictable. Perhaps the shock for Arsenal is how quickly it manifested itself this season.

Can they enforce the changes needed to turn a club that looks unhealthy into one that is radiant and positive? It will not be easy, simply because there appear to be so many departments that are underperforming, complacent, overwhelmed (or any combination of). The probability of any substantial remodelling is wafer thin. There is no reason to believe a change of management, ownership, chief executive or a wholesale shake-up of team personnel or dynamic is around the corner.

The herd of elephants have nowhere obvious to go.

(The Guardian)

Arsenal Put at Risk in the ‘Red Zone’ by the Lack of a Commanding Midfielder

The Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka, left, failed to track Jesé Rodríguez, right, leading to Stoke’s winner.

It turns out the switch to a back three was not a magic bullet, after all. It is early days still, of course, but already the sense is that for Arsenal the move to the tactic du jour was just the 2017 version of their regular upswing in April and May. Nobody has monetized mediocrity quite so well: they are masters at stimulating optimism at just the right moment to maximize season‑ticket sales.

The familiar tropes are already being wheeled out: the excellent record at Wembley (nine wins in a row if you include penalty shootouts, a run that presumably makes Tottenham’s struggles there all the more amusing for Arsenal fans); the terrible record at Stoke (one win in eight games); and perhaps most gallingly, the endlessly fragile midfield.

To an extent Arsenal were unlucky at Stoke last Saturday. Alexandre Lacazette may have been a fraction offside when he had a goal ruled out, but many officials would have regarded him as being level with the last defender. They had six shots on target to Stoke’s four – or, if that feels old-fashioned, they won 1.74 to 0.68 on Expected Goals. It was, to an extent, just one of those days; it’s just that Arsenal keep having those days, particularly in Stoke.

And through it all, one thread endures. Arsenal may have started spending (relatively) big on players. They may at last have brought in a high-grade centre-forward (even if there are doubts about Lacazette’s contribution outside the box); they may finally have, in Sead Kolasinac, a physically imposing presence; they may even for once hold on to a wantaway player (although it is probably best to reserve judgement on that for another week or so); but they still lack a commanding central midfielder. Temporary solutions may at times have been patched together, but Patrick Vieira has never truly been replaced. That’s hardly a new insight and its discussion may provoke sighs of weariness but it remains as true as it has been for more than a decade.

Ottmar Hitzfeld, who won Champions League titles with both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, often spoke of the “red zone”, the central area just outside the penalty area. A team’s first priority must always be to protect that, to try to avoid, as far as possible, opponents generating shooting, passing or dribbling opportunities from that area. That can be done by pressing, squeezing the space between the lines, or it can be done by having one or more holding midfielders sitting there, but what cannot happen is for central defenders to be isolated against an opponent with space in front of him.

One of the reasons for the recent success of 3-4-2-1 is that it has such a stable base: three central defenders protected by a screen of two holding players – the same trapezium shape that was the base of the W-M formation and that has returned to fashion as full-backs have begun to shuck off their defensive responsibilities, placing greater strain on the center-halves.

Towards the end of last season, the shape seemed to bring some stability even to Arsenal. Yet Leicester rampaged through that space again and again on the opening Premier League game of the season as the two nominal holding midfielders, Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny were too often drawn upfield. Jesé Rodríguez enjoyed that space for Stoke as well, but his goal was less to do with shape than with Xhaka not performing the utterly basic task of following his run into the box.

Xhaka is a divisive figure but it is hard to see why. He may have averaged almost 90% pass completion last season while making 2.4 tackles per game (although given he also conceded 1.2 fouls per game that is perhaps not quite such an impressive figure as it may initially appear) but again and again seems to lose concentration, exposing the defenders behind him. His apologists claim that his role is to create the play, keeping the ball moving, and there may be some truth to that, but nobody, whatever their role, can just let a forward run off him as he allowed Jesé to. Besides, if that is Xhaka’s role, why doesn’t he have a more robust, ball-winning presence alongside him, somebody to act as a breakwater for opposition attacks? The issue is particularly acute at Arsenal given the lack of defensive cover offered to the back of the midfield by Mesut Özil.

In a world of increasingly universal players, in which they are all expected to be able both to pass and to perform basic defensive functions, Arsenal seem increasingly anachronistic, the problem exacerbated by Arsène Wenger’s refusal to sign the holding player who might mitigate the problem. It seems increasingly likely that history will judge that William Carvalho’s most significant act in football was to remain unsigned by Arsenal.

It is an area likely to be particularly exposed on Sunday as Arsenal travel to Anfield. Last season they leaked seven goals over two league games against Liverpool. In both matches Roberto Firmino prospered by dropping deep into precisely that space: if Arsenal cannot deal with a threat into that zone coming from in front of them, they struggle even more when it comes from behind them. If defenders follow Firmino that in turn creates space for wide men to cut into. Given the arrival of Mohamed Salah means Liverpool now have pace on both flanks, Sunday could be horribly messy for Arsenal as the same failing repeats once again.

(The Guardian)

Arsène Wenger Confident Arsenal Can Prosper from Champions League Absence


London – For Arsène Wenger, the boot is on the other foot – well, almost. The Arsenal manager flagged up a trend at the end of last season when he noted that Chelsea and Leicester City, the two most recent Premier League champions, were unencumbered by the demands of European football during their triumphant campaigns.

“Because the league is so physically difficult, maybe it is very difficult to cope with both,” Wenger said. “We will see how Chelsea respond next season.”

Arsenal’s league campaign ended in frustration when they finished fifth, meaning they missed out on Champions League qualification for the first time since 1997. But at least they had freed themselves up for a clear run at the domestic title. Not quite.

One of the keys to Arsenal’s season will be how they contend with the Europa League, with the unique Thursday-Sunday scheduling that it entails. Will Wenger rest his first-choice players to have them firing for the more serious business of the league? Yes, he suggested. That would be the plan.

“I will always play a team that has a good chance to win the next game,” Wenger said. “In the Europa League, if we can afford sometimes to rest some players, we will do it. But we have to adapt to the level of the competition and see, first, what kind of group we play in.”

Wenger had earlier been asked how he felt before a season with no Champions League football. “For us, it is a good opportunity to focus completely on the Premier League,” he replied.

The manager has signposted his intentions and it may be a popular move to give some of the club’s younger players – such as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock – an opportunity in the Europa League. Wenger intends to sell a clutch of players, including Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs and Lucas Pérez, but his squad will remain extremely deep.

Wenger offered further insight into his feelings towards the Europa League when he said the winners ought not to be granted entry into the Champions League. He even revealed he had voted against the proposal, which came into force in the 2014-15 season. To him, a big club should not view the Europa League as a kind of insurance policy in terms of Champions League qualification.

“You cannot go into the season and think that,” Wenger said. “I was always against it [the Europa League winners qualifying for the Champions League] because, at some stage, it can influence the championship. If a team is in a position in April where they have more chance to win the Europa League, they can let some games go in the championship and not completely focus on the regularity of the competition.

“Apart from Manchester United last season, who won the Europa League [having started in the competition], all the years before it was always a team who was kicked out of the Champions League [that won it]. That’s why, when we voted in Geneva [for the route into the Champions League], I was always against it.”

Wenger’s numbers do not bear scrutiny. Since the format of the Europa League – then the Uefa Cup – was changed in 1999-2000, only seven clubs have lifted the trophy after dropping down from the Champions League. Arsenal almost won it in that first season, after entering through the Champions League, only to lose the final to Galatasaray on penalties.

Wenger’s team finished last season 18 points adrift of Chelsea but they showed in the FA Cup final they could get the better of them over 90 minutes. “Last year, Chelsea did not play in the European Cup and, certainly, they were a bit more consistent in the Premier League,” Wenger said. “In the final, we have shown that the gap was not as high, maybe. I expect Chelsea to fight for the championship again and for us, when we have made 75 points, as we did last season, the target is to get 10 points more. With 10 points more, you are in there.”

Wenger is still there, in situ at the Emirates Stadium after all of the uncertainty over his contract renewal last season, and he is gripped by that eternal optimism. “I am sorry I am still here,” he said, with a smile. “I can understand that you want to kill me but, at the moment, I survive.”

The Guardian Sport

Tottenham Need to Find Their Bearings Quickly as Wembley Tenants


London- The irony was not lost on Mauricio Pochettino. “Remember when I first came to Tottenham and I was criticised for saying the White Hart Lane pitch was too small for us?” the manager said. “And now, people are saying that Wembley is too big?”

Pochettino’s comments came last season, when his team’s travails at Wembley – their temporary home for European matches – were under the microscope. It was a regular talking point, one of those things that become a thing, much to the annoyance of the manager who finds himself caught up in them.

The mind went back to John Toshack and how, when he was managing Wales, he would routinely lament the difficulty of finding the right balance, whether between defence and attack, established players and new faces or any number of other teasers. “If I pull the blanket over my head, my feet get cold,” Toshack would say. “And if I push it over my feet, my head gets cold.”

The joke was Toshack ought to find a bigger blanket and Pochettino must now do something similar, as he considers the Wembley factor and what can justifiably be billed as a season-defining issue. Tottenham will play all of their home matches at the national stadium while the building work on their new ground is completed.

Pochettino prefers to play on a bigger pitch, such as Wembley, as it better allows his team to unpick visiting sides who sit deep and mass men behind the ball. He made this point back in October 2014, in the early months of his Tottenham tenure, when his team were struggling at White Hart Lane – on what was one of the tightest pitches in the Premier League.

“Our style means we need a bigger space to play because we play a positional game,” Pochettino said. “It’s true that White Hart Lane is a little bit tight and it’s better for the opponent when they play deep. We need time to adapt to our new set-up and to understand better our position on the pitch.”

On the other hand Pochettino has built his success at Tottenham as much on what his players do when they do not have possession; the way that they press, often in packs, to win back the ball – the higher up the pitch, the better.

The old White Hart Lane, as it must now be called, measured 100m x 67m whereas the Wembley surface is 105m x 69m, making it larger than any in the Premier League. Wembley is 8% bigger than White Hart Lane or, to put it another way, Pochettino’s players have 545 square metres more to cover at the national stadium. Consequently they must work harder to close down opposing teams and it is no great stretch to say that it is more difficult for them to impose their pressing style at Wembley.

The contrast last season between Tottenham’s results at White Hart Lane and Wembley was like night and day. At the Lane their record in all competitions read: P23 W21 D2 L0. At Wembley it was P5 W1 D1 L3, with one of the defeats coming in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea.

Pochettino said that his players had fed off it being the final season at White Hart Lane, with all of the attendant energy and emotion, but the reality was they had come to be perfectly in sync at the stadium. According to Pochettino, they had needed time to adapt. How they adapted.

Perhaps, the same thing can be said about them at Wembley. Take the small details, which are so crucial at the highest level. At White Hart Lane Toby Alderweireld, for example, would hit those long diagonal passes with unerring accuracy. It looked almost instinctive. The central defender was familiar with his frames of reference, such as the distance between the touchline and the stands. Space and perspective are key. Did he play that ball quite so effortlessly at Wembley? Alderweireld and his team-mates must recalibrate their bearings.

Pochettino is a slave to his preparations and he said last season that his squad would train at the club’s Enfield base before European ties on a pitch that had been modified to replicate the dimensions of Wembley. In fact, Pochettino does this before any away game. Wherever Tottenham are playing, be it Selhurst Park, Anfield or The Hawthorns, the training pitch will be marked out to match. As an aside, they would not be allowed to change the dimensions at Wembley to mirror those at White Hart Lane.

Tottenham do not have an agreement with the Football Association to train at Wembley and so Pochettino will continue to use his replica pitch approach in Enfield, even if this cannot simulate the overall national stadium experience. The club do have a friendly at Wembley against Juventus on Saturday 5 August, after they return from their tour of the United States at the end of the month.

Pochettino had said in May that he was keen to work at Wembley. “It’s important for us to start training and to get a feel for Wembley,” he said. “That will be fantastic for us. It’s impossible now to decide which day we will start there but it is in our plan to start to train at the training ground and then to try to move there [to Wembley] for a few days to train – not just for two days. We need to plan the training sessions with the organisation at Wembley.”

The FA would be open to having the discussion with Tottenham about them using Wembley to train but, for now, the big date for the club is Sunday 20 August when they play their first Premier League game at the national stadium, against Chelsea. They are scheduled to kick off the season at Newcastle United on 13 August. There is the belief within the club the Wembley factor has been overplayed. Nobody can dispute the importance of a positive start.

Guardian Sport