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For the first time I can remember, I am truly pleased the season is over. Since at least December, when we blew leads in successive games at Everton and Manchester City to miss the chance of going top, it’s been fractious, demoralising, and at times downright boring. The season brought my longest spell without attending a match in a while, between the home tie against Burnley on 22nd January and the FA Cup semi-final on 23rd April, in large part due to ennui. The apathy reached its nadir last week, when a half-empty stadium turned up to watch the 2-0 win over Sunderland.

It’s been a season characterised by in-fighting, fans coming to blows at most games; the battle even took to the skies at the Hawthorns. That match, a 3-1 defeat, was arguably the worst point in the season. A team devoid of organisation, character, and, most worryingly, of any visible will to win collapsed against Tony Pulis’s set-piece specialists. It came in a run of four straight away defeats in the league, leading to our first season outside the Champions League places since Arsene Wenger took over. Not even our signature late run could save us this time.

Some perspective: This season Arsenal have finished with four more points than the previous year, three more wins and 12 more goals, though the goals against column has taken a hit. Our haul of 75 points is the highest not to finish in the top four. It is remarkable to think there could have been any progress with the levels of animosity that has surrounded the club in recent months. Of course, I do not think there has been any tangible improvement this season. The only important statistic shows four teams that finished below us last season have overtaken us, and they all look set to improve further next year. We are a long way back.

This was the season I finally admitted it’s time for Wenger to go. The lack of organisation, the apparent absence of any inspiration or leadership from the bench and on the pitch, and the increasing unlikeliness that things will change in the future make it obvious a change is required.

Wenger’s one success has been to shift to the fashionable 3-4-3 formation, which has given the side a bit more stability. It has also allowed Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey to flourish. Xhaka, not a ball-winner but a deep-lying playmaker, has less responsibility than with a back four, allowing him to concentrate on starting moves. Ramsey is also given greater scope to get forward, knowing there will also be four players sitting deep. But, as Barney Ronay wrote with usual eloquence, it felt like a reactionary move, Wenger arriving very late to the party.

What I will say for the manager is that he has been left to take all the flack by an incompetent club leadership. Ivan Gazidis has been noticeably absent, but his recent comments, that this summer must be a “catalyst for change”, seem like an attempt to cover his tracks. I was heartened, however, that Sunday’s discontent was aimed almost entirely at ‘Silent’ Stan Kroenke, who appears increasingly content at playing no active role in the club. I suspect the news of Alisher Usmanov’s £1bn bid to buy the club prompted the stadium-wide rendition of “Stan Kroenke, get out of our club” against Everton.

On the pitch, it has been a mixed bag, some good games but far too many disasters. Obliterating Chelsea in September was one of our best performances over the past few years. The 4-0 victory at Basel, with several second-string players, was also impressive. The final weeks of the season saw us finally beat José Mourinho, and end our long winless runs at Southampton and Stoke. The FA Cup semi-final showed this team does still have some fight, which made the previous three months all the more puzzling.

But for every good game, there were shockers. The home defeat against Watford brought a strong run to an abrupt end, while we failed to show any mettle during the aforementioned streak of away defeats.

It’s been a season of collective rather than individual failure. Below I assess how the first team has performed individually.

Petr Cech

Our first-choice keeper showed signs of ageing during the season. At times too slow to get down, he was worryingly poor at penalties, considering we concede so many, and failed to save any of the 10 he faced in the league. Conceded 37 in 35 games, a considerable drop on last year, when he let in 31 in 34. Still, he was not helped by defensive disorganisation, and he was arguably Arsenal’s best player in the final two months of the season, when Wenger switched to a more stable 3-4-3.

7/10

David Ospina

Another season of limited game time, but the continued rotation in cup competitions offered Ospina some chances to shine. Has eradicated the howlers from his game, and performed heroics against PSG. Expected to leave this summer as Wojciech Szczesny returns.

6/10

Kieran Gibbs

Another player restricted to a bit-part role. Never complains, but has looked off the pace since getting more minutes after the formation switch. Gibbs should leave if Sead Kolasinac arrives from Schalke, and deserves a spell as the first-choice left-back wherever he goes next.

5/10

Per Mertesacker

The BFG missed the whole season after ankle surgery in August, continuing the curse of the captain. Returned against Everton after Gabriel’s injury, and could play a big part against Chelsea in the cup final.

N/A

Gabriel

Some top performances alongside some shockers. He was on top form in the semi-final, but only a week later looked completely out of his depth at Spurs. Gabriel is the sort of centre-back we need, hard as nails, not afraid of a tackle and strong in the air. But he has been let down too often by poor decision-making and positioning. He’ll be worried that Rob Holding appears to have overtaken him in the pecking order but, with three spots in his position, should get more game time next season.

6/10

Laurent Koscielny

Our best defender and one of the best in the league. We’ve been a shambles without him, most noticeably in the 10-2 aggregate defeat against Bayern Munich, when we were 1-0 down with him on the pitch, 9-2 down without him. The sending off in the second leg against the Germans was harsh, but highlighted how Koscielny, despite his quality, is still prone to moments of madness. His idiotic red on the final day of the season means we go into the cup final without our most important player.

7/10

Rob Holding

A fantastic signing at £2.5m from Bolton, proof that Wenger can still spot cheap talent. Holding was thrust into the deep end on the opening day, and understandably struggled alongside Calum Chambers in the 4-3 defeat at home to Liverpool. But Holding wasn’t blamed for not being ready, and has gone on to demonstrate an array of skills. Comfortable on the ball, good in the air, excellent timing and positioning, he featured in seven of the final nine games, becoming a fans’ favourite in the process.. He was excellent in the FA Cup semi.

7/10

Nacho Monreal

Not his best season, but Monreal improved towards the end, and looks comfortable at either left wing-back or on the left side of the central defence. Still prone to too many errors and rash challenges. Looks set to fight with Kolasinac for a spot next year.

6/10

Shkodran Mustafi

The 25-year old arrived after the season had started to boost a depleted defence. He did not lose a match until 13th December and built a reliable partnership with Koscielny. Injury and loss of form hampered the rest of his campaign, and the German was restricted to 26 league appearances. Has the attributes to succeed in the Premier League, and has had a stronger start than Koscielny did in his first season. However he is slow and can be too easily beaten on the turn by pacy wingers, and was torn apart by Spurs’ Son Heung-min earlier in the season. Overall, a positive introduction to the Premier League.

6/10

Hector Bellerin

Unfortunately a season of regression for the supremely talented full-back, culminating in being dropped for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Nothing to be too worried about, as young players often plateau after bursting onto the scene, but needs to improve next season. The 3-4-3 formation seems better suited to Bellerin, who loves getting forward but can be lax in his defensive positioning, only to bail himself out with his speed.

5.5/10

Aaron Ramsey

Another mixed bag for the Welshman, whose 23 league appearances represents a joint-lowest total since 2011. At 26, he needs to cement a place in the first team, and still tries too many flicks and tricks. Scored a superb goal on the last day of the season, his only goal of the campaign, another joint-low since 2011. Like Bellerin, the 3-4-3 formation has freed Ramsey, decreasing his defensive responsibility and allowing him to press higher up the pitch. He must build on his recent performances next season.

6/10

Mesut Ozil

Continues to frustrate, but this was in some ways a breakthrough season. Ozil scored more league goals than any season since 2013, and more total goals than since 2010. He again reached double figures for assists. Scored our goal of the season, the last-minute strike at Ludogorets, but went missing in many games as well. Has built a strong understanding with Alexis Sanchez, and the contract situation must be sorted out promptly.

7/10

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

His best season in an Arsenal shirt. Chamberlain has played in more games and scored more goals than in any previous season. He has showed the ability to perform in a number of positions, flourishing in central midfield and at wing-back. Another player whose contract situation must be sorted.

7/10

Alex Iwobi

Built on last season’s breakthrough, adding to his game with more goals and assists. Was wisely given an extensive break after his form collapsed in 2017, but has looked lively since being reintroduced in the past couple of weeks. Needs to work on his finishing.

6/10

Santi Cazorla

Arsenal were joint top of the league when Santi was injured at the end of October. By December, stats showed a huge discrepancy between Arsenal’s win percentage with and without the magician (65.5% to 38.9%). Of course, there are other factors, but it is not a complete coincidence that the side struggles without Cazorla’s ball control, incisive passing and leadership. Set for a bit-part role in the future due to his ankle issues.

5/10

Granit Xhaka

Hailed by many as the worst signing of the season, an exaggeration to say the least. Xhaka struggled to adapt to the pace of the league, and picked up two red cards, the first a touch harsh, the second deserved. The midfielder improved towards the end of the season, freed by the 3-4-3 formation, which diminishes his ball-winning responsibilities. Xhaka is still too slow, but his passing has been phenomenal, culminating in a superb ball to free Ozil in the buildup to Alexis’ first goal against Sunderland. Must be seen as a deep-lying playmaker rather than a Kanté-esque ball-winner.

6/10

Francis Coquelin

A season that highlighted Coquelin’s limitations. Too undisciplined for a holding role, Coquelin is more suited to a pressing game, which means he works best with the deep-lying Cazorla. A useful squad player, but cannot be relied upon in the spine of a successful team.

5.5/10

Mohamed Elneny

Missed a heavy chunk of the season due to the Africa Cup of Nations, Elneny failed to establish himself after promising signs in his first season. Limited to 13 league appearances despite being a more dynamic option than Francis Coquelin. Should expect to play more next year.

5/10

Alexis Sanchez

Once again the star man. Featured in every league game, scoring 24 times and ending the year as the only player in double figures for goals and assists in the Premier League. He also gave the ball away more than any other Arsenal player, but that’s his game, always trying to make something happen. Has looked frustrated on many occasions, shouting at teammates and complaining when substituted. But he always gives 100% on the pitch. He must be given a new contract.

8/10

Lucas Perez

A strange season for Lucas. Despite limited minutes, the Spaniard scored eight and created six goals, including a hat-trick at Basel that ensured Arsenal won their Champions League group. Should have been given more of a chance, but it doesn’t appear as if the manager wants him, and I’d be surprised if he were here next season.

6/10

Olivier Giroud

Much the same from the handsome Frenchman in his fifth season at the club. A mix of goals, wasted opportunities and minutes spent writhing on the ground. He remains a useful squad member, and has developed into something of a supersub, with six goals off the bench. His qualities, principally his aerial strength, set him apart from the rest of the squad, but he is too slow and static to lead the line on a regular basis.

6/10

Theo Walcott

Similarly to Giroud, it was a typical Theo Walcott season. For all the frustration, inept displays and positional dilemmas, the 28-year old finished the campaign as our second-highest goalscorer in all competitions with a respectable 19 goals. Has acknowledged that he is a right winger rather than a forward, but will be concerned by the new formation, which doesn’t appear to offer him any obvious role in the side.

6/10

Danny Welbeck

Injury meant Welbeck had to wait until the end of January for his first appearance, and he was used sparingly from then on. Has developed a knack for scoring against Manchester United, but will need to improve next season.

5.5/10

Arsenal have struggled over the past few weeks, falling to sixth in the Premier League table.

Performances have left fans frustrated, and there have been a number of significant protests recently. The most high profile involved two banner-flying planes over West Brom’s stadium in March.

Last month, the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust released polling showing that 78% of members want manager Arsene Wenger to leave the club.

Evening Standard

In recent years, the rest of the Premier League’s top teams have hired superstar managers in a bid to gain superiority in England and finally challenge in Europe. Chelsea’s Antonio Conte looks to be leading his side to a fifth Premier League title; Jose Mourinho is improving Manchester United by the game; Liverpool are a far better side under German Jurgen Klopp; and Pep Guardiola is likely to improve Manchester City.

Recent performances have done little to abate Arsenal fans’ frustrations with the current side.

But many fans remain supportive of Wenger, who joined the club in 1996 and has gone on to win nine major trophies, including a unique undefeated season.

On Monday 3rd April, the day after the home draw with City that left Arsenal seven points off the top four and in danger of not qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 1997, I interviewed several fans outside the Emirates Stadium. They expressed their concern that Arsenal were falling behind their rivals, that top players like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil would leave in the summer, and that Wenger should leave at the end of the season.

Lucas Perez was named on the bench for Arsenal’s 5-0 win over Lincoln in the FA cup quarter-final last weekend. Lucas had started in each previous round, performing well at Preston, Southampton, and Sutton. Arsene Wenger chose to stick with the forwards who played in the humiliating defeat at home to Bayern Munich just days before, leaving Lucas, who has not featured extensively this season, wondering what he has to do to get a game.

The forward arrived last summer from hometown club Deportivo La Coruna for £17. But having made just two Premier League starts this season, cups are supposed to be his chance.

Lucas is clearly unsettled. Recently there have been increasing noises from his camp that the Spaniard wants out. Last month his representative was quoted as saying: “Look, the truth is that Lucas wants to leave at all costs and is not happy at Arsenal, he hasn’t settled and hasn’t had a chance to play and show what he can do”.

While rumours he was desperate to quit north London were subsequently quelled, it is clear Lucas is not entirely comfortable at Arsenal. This week, the Sun claimed West Ham were interested in signing him in the summer. The same article added that Arsene Wenger rebuffed a £26-million offer from a Chinese club in January.

The signing of Lucas last August, just before transfer deadline day, was out of the blue for many Arsenal fans. With Danny Welbeck injured, Theo Walcott failing in a no.9 role, and Alexis Sanchez ostensibly a winger, Wenger was clearly searching for a forward. Jamie Vardy turned Arsenal down, and the club were also linked to the likes of Alvaro Morata and Alexandre Lacazette.

It would be slightly unfair to suggest the acquisition of Lucas was a panic buy. Arsenal had been scouting him for some months. But reportedly the Gunners previously passed up the opportunity to sign him, believing he was not quite good enough, despite scoring 17 goals for Deportivo that season. Everton were about to buy him before Arsenal came rushing in. Perhaps not a panic buy, but with Welbeck injured, it certainly felt like settling for a backup player rather than the big name fans craved.

Lucas was 27 when he arrived, a player who had never fully succeeded and had journeyed to Greece and Ukraine in search of a career. He is someone who arrived with plenty of experience, if not at the top level, and was clearly a fighter. Many pundits drew similarities between him and Vardy.

Lucas_Pérez_Martínez

Photo by: Олег Дубина

Six months into his Arsenal career, Wenger has never fully trusted him. Lucas scored twice in his second start, in the EFL Cup at Nottingham Forest. In December, he bagged a hat-trick in Basel, securing top spot for Arsenal in the Champions League. But his two Premier League starts came in September and January, with limited game time in between. No wonder he is growing frustrated.

One problem for Lucas is that, although it has been an inconsistent season for Arsenal, scoring goals has not been the issue. As of 17 March, Alexis Sanchez has 21; Theo Walcott has 17; and Olivier Giroud has 12. Even Mesut Ozil has contributed 9 so far. Arsenal’s problems lie further back.

When the attack has struggled, however, notably against bigger teams, Wenger has often decided to keep the forwards for the following match. After the 3-1 defeat at Chelsea and the 5-1 home loss to Bayern, Wenger kept his ailing strikers. In both subsequent games Lucas made brief cameos. It could be that Wenger is trying to play his ailing forwards into form. Furthermore, when Welbeck eventually came back from long-term injury, he immediately overtook Lucas in the pecking order.

Lucas’ struggle for minutes is all the more surprising considering he has played well whenever he has featured. In his limited game time, he has scored 7 and had 5 assists. He is direct where other Arsenal players dally, can play in any of the front three positions, and has shown he can link up well with his teammates. At Southampton he created numerous opportunities for Welbeck and Walcott while in the 4-1 win at Basel he linked up well with Alexis, Ozil and Alex Iwobi.

Lucas has evaded much of the Arsenal fans’ ire at the current state of the team. Of course, this is partly because of his peripheral role in the side. He is innocent by disassociation; he has not had the chance to fail. Nevertheless, in the glimpses we have had, Lucas has shown he deserves more of a chance. Understandably, the forward is growing frustrated at Arsenal.

Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal in September 1996, one of the first foreign managers to lead a major English club, a complete unknown. Now-famous headlines of ‘Arsene Who?’ in the British press greeted the erudite Frenchman upon arrival.

I started supporting Arsenal in 1998. The first football match I remember watching on television was the 1998 FA Cup final, in which Arsenal sealed their first double since 1971; it was Wenger’s first full season in charge.

My footballing consciousness therefore spans Wenger’s tenure in North London. I’ve never known anything different, something that many Arsenal fans, particularly the so-called millennials, share. During Arsene’s reign, Arsenal have gone from a traditional, local club, albeit one with a widespread fanbase, into a global monolith, supported as vociferously in China and Thailand as in England.

Wenger is the reason. His trophy-laden first era, culminating in the Invincibles of 2003-04, saw a successful side with a rare balance of defensive sturdiness and attacking flare conquer hearts everywhere. I have never seen anything as thrilling in football as the sight of Ashley Cole, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry terrorising right-hand sides across England and Europe. That blend of pace and power, aided by the creativity and inventiveness of Dennis Bergkamp and Freddie Ljungberg was as close as Arsene has come to building the perfect team.

Wenger isn’t just Arsenal’s manager; he is Arsenal. No current manager has moulded a club in their own way like Wenger. Every minor detail from London Colney to the Emirates is strenuously pored over. No other manager would highlight that he has 600 staff to look after, as Wenger did in 2016: “What matters to me is when you have a club with 600 employees you have the money to pay them at the end of the month”. Similarly, he has always sought to pay a relatively even salary to his squad, or at least to minimise the gap between best and worst paid.

These are valiant principles, and Wenger is undoubtedly a great guy. While he can get carried away, blame referees too much and cry foul when opposing teams are overly-physical, overall people admire him. I have several friends who, though despising Arsenal, have a soft spot for the intelligent, funny and downright clumsy 67-year old.

This blog has always been staunchly pro-Wenger. You may have guessed from the tone of the article that it still is. I will always be pro-Wenger. He will always be my favourite manager, the man who nurtured my love for the game and for Arsenal. Make a statue for him to match those for the club’s other legends.

arsene_wenger

Photo by Alexander Ottesen

You may also have inferred that, for the first time, I want Wenger to leave. I don’t want him hounded out, and I don’t like seeing fans tormenting him during games. I firmly believe that 99% of supporters are fully appreciative of everything he has done. Ensuring a (relatively) smooth transition from Highbury to the Emirates will be one of his legacies.

He will leave the club in better shape than he found it, by a mile. The next manager, whoever that may be, will have the nucleus of a very good squad, money to spend, and a fanbase eager for a fresh start. Of course it will not be easy, just look at Manchester United’s last four seasons. Sir Alex Ferguson managed to get the best out of a ageing squad, with several players playing far better than their ability. Today, Wenger is, in all honesty, incapable of motivating and organising this squad into title challengers.

And take Chelsea. There’s a good squad there, certainly an excellent starting 11. But last season they finished 10th, and both Gary Cahill and David Luiz were in the side that came 6th in 2012. The point is simple. Wholesale changes are not needed to turn Arsenal into champions. Of course certain position could be strengthened, and if Alexis leaves in the summer, a centre forward is a necessity. But with a little bit of tweaking, some organisation and inspiration, we are a club that has a lot of potential.

I am, and always will be, pro-Wenger. I love him for, and am grateful for, everything he has achieved. At the lowest of lows, the 8-2 at Old Trafford at the beginning of the 2011-12 season for example, Wenger steadied the ship and kept us in the Champions League. That was the season Chelsea finished 6th.

Wenger’s Arsenal career will be defined by three periods. The first, from 1996-2006, was an era of unparalleled success for Arsenal, with 7 major trophies. Between 2006-2012, the early Emirates years, he managed to maintain a top-four presence despite some pretty average squads. This was a monumental achievement. The final years, from 2013-2017(?), are somewhat more nuanced. Trophies returned to North London, but very talented squads failed to push on in the Premier League or in Europe. This is where Wenger should have done better.

It is now time to move on. Wenger has said that he will be managing next season, amid mounting speculation over a decision about his future in the coming months. Whether that is at Arsenal or elsewhere remains to be seen. My hunch is that he might stay. But if he does go, I hope the decision is made before the final game of the season. As soon as he announces that he is leaving, the atmosphere at the Emirates will change from turbulent and angry to celebratory. That is the minimum that Arsenal’s greatest manager deserves.

 

 

 

 

 

It has been twelve seasons since Arsenal won the league, a period in which Arsene Wenger has received all sorts of criticism, some fair, some harsh. The intervening years have seen accusations of being a miser, tactical naivety, tactical incapacity, tactical obduracy, being too loyal to players, not being loyal enough, ignoring British talent, having too many inadequate British players, etc.

The allegations vary in their validity. At times his sides have been tactically naive, during the 2013-14 season for example, the team received a series of away drubbings due to an overexcited, indisciplined attacking setup. On the other hand, charging Wenger as cheap or a money hoarder has always struck me as slightly off point. Between 2006 and 2013, the move to the Emirates necessitated frugality, and Wenger’s role in maintaining a competitive side and Champions League football should never be underestimated. Subsequent years have proven that, when funds are available and, crucially, the right target is approachable, the manager will spend.

The criticisms mentioned have all been examined substantially in the media, and there is little point expanding on them all. I have noticed, however, a further claim emerging more frequently, particularly over the past few months. Wenger’s teams continue to frustrate many fans and pundits alike, perhaps even more so considering this squad is the most complete and talented in years. Mesut Ozil, Arsenal’s record signing and creative hub, continues to divide opinion. Last summer, Stan Collymore, attempting controversy as usual, insisted Ozil and Alexis Sanchez were not good enough.

The criticism currently in vogue, often stemming from theories on Ozil’s progress, is that Wenger does not improve players. I encountered this charge most recently in this week’s episode of The Football Ramble, one of England’s most popular football podcasts. As a fairly neutral Arsenal fan, neither Wenger Out nor Arsene Knows Best, I feel a certain duty to correct what I perceive to be a rather scurrilous suggestion. Criticism, after all, is best when it’s true.

For balance, it is necessary to point out that, of course, there are many players who have not made the cut at Arsenal, for a variety of reasons. Evidently, Wenger could have done more with some, and showed too much faith to others. Many young players in recent years, whose careers one can reasonably expect to progress year on year, the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Keiran Gibbs, Theo Walcott and Wojciech Szczesny have all experienced setbacks, despite their undoubted talent. This, however, is natural, and all players go through similar periods.

Additionally, in the late 2000s, Wenger failed to turn a talented group into world-class players. Denilson, Nicklas Bendtner, Johan Djourou, Carlos Vela and Alex Song were all lauded as potential Arsenal legends before their careers veered off target. Other, older arrivals, players reaching or in their peaks and expected to immediately shine, failed to live up to their billing. To this group we can add the likes of Gervinho, Lukas Podolski, Marouane Chamakh, Mathieu Debuchy, André Santos, Andrei Arshavin and Sebastien Squillaci. Again, this is normal. Every Sir Alex has his Djemba-Djemba; Mourinho his Kezman. 

Yet to insist that Wenger doesn’t improve players, excluding youngsters, is somewhat off the mark. Wenger’s two great Arsenal sides, the league winners of 1998 and 2004, the fantastic 2002 was somewhat of a combination of the two, were built primarily on the improvement of established professionals. It is well known that Wenger’s arrival, with the introduction of modern techniques, extended the careers of the famous defence, plus midfielders like Ray Parlour, who credited the Frenchman with improving him as a player. In 2004 Arsenal won the league, undefeated, with a defence consisting of Lauren, Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell, and Ashley Cole, all of whom can thank their manager for their improvement (and some successful position changes).

As the allegations mostly cite Wenger’s modern sides, I would like to point out a number of post-2010 players who have improved since arriving in North London.

Olivier Giroud

Olivier Giroud joined Arsenal in 2012, as a 25-year old of modest professional success. In the previous season, Giroud finished as Ligue 1’s top scorer in Montpellier’s astonishing title-winning season. The victory came before PSG’s dominance of French football, and it was only Giroud’s second season in the French top flight. Essentially, he was the French Jamie Vardy. Furthermore, Giroud had only made a handful of international appearances, scoring one goal.

Four years later, Giroud was France’s starting centre forward in Euro 2016, scoring twice and doing the dirty work to facilitate Antoine Griezmann; he now has 21 goals in 59 appearances, many as a substitute, for the national side.

Evidently, Giroud has grown substantially as a player in the past five years. 2015-16 was his best goalscoring season in an Arsenal shirt, with 24 goals in all competitions at a rate of a goal every 2.2 games, despite a dreadful barren run in early 2016. Giroud has 91 goals in 206 games for Arsenal, a goal every 2.3 games, while his selfless work for the team is often overlooked. Wenger, however, does not underestimate his compatriot. In 2012, the manager spoke of his excitement at the signing of Giroud, a player who could add “an additional dimension to out attacking options”. Overall, Giroud has not let his boss down, and has just signed a new long-term contract with Arsenal.

Laurent Koscielny

Another to have recently signed a new deal with the club. Before joining Arsenal in 2010 as a somewhat awkward 24-year old, Koscielny had played a single season in France’s top flight with Lorient. As of January 2017, the Frenchman has captained Arsenal, made at least 30 appearances in all but two seasons, shone for his country at Euro 2016 and won 42 international caps. Koscielny is finally getting the recognition his performances deserve.

It hasn’t been plain sailing, however. In 2010, Koscielny was sent off on his debut at Anfield, while his error in that season’s League Cup final handed the trophy to Birmingham. In August 2011, he was part of the infamous 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, and initially he displayed a worrying tendency to give away penalties (only partially overcome).

Yet Koscielny has emerged into a talisman. A leader on the pitch, albeit a quiet one, who scores crucial goals, twice helping us to secure Champions League qualification, scoring the second in a 2-0 victory at Bayern Munich that tied the match on aggregate, and a League Cup semi-final header against Ipswich in 2011 that sent the Emirates into raptures.

More importantly for a defender, he has become crucial to Arsenal’s fortunes. Both Gabriel and Shkodran Mustafi are far better players with Koscielny to the left of them.

Santi Cazorla

Santi Cazorla was already a regular Spanish international, no mean feat for a central midfielder, when he joined Arsenal from Malaga in 2012. He had never, however, played for a club the size of Arsenal, with a huge fanbase and even bigger expectations. At 27, it was his last chance, and since 2012 the diminutive Spaniard has arguably become Arsenal’s most important player.

In early 2015, Wenger switched Cazorla’s role from a talented, if slightly out of place, winger into a world-class deep-lying playmaker. His goal output declined drastically, yet his centrality to the side increased. Since his position change, Arsenal have won 65.5% of the games in which he’s featured, yet only 38.9% of those he has missed.

Blessed with lightning footwork and an eye for a pass, Cazorla is incredibly efficient at relieving pressure from defence and turning it into an attack. Where other midfielders might clear it, or pass back to defence, Cazorla will turn his marker and quickly release Ozil, Alexis or Walcott ahead of him with a direct pass.

Cazorla makes everyone on the pitch a better player, and Wenger deserves praise for his handling of the player.

Alexis Sanchez

Alexis arrived as an explosive, energetic, big-name signing, a signing to excite the supporters after a successful World Cup in Brazil. He was also a frustrated figure, not appreciated at Barcelona, not given a starring role. Of course, with Neymar and Lionel Messi in the same side, it was always going to be difficult to be top dog.

In the ensuing two-and-a-half seasons at Arsenal, Alexis has already scored more goals than at Barca, at a rate of one every 2.1 games compared with one in three in Spain (and one every 5.3 in Italy). In these years, he has won an FA Cup and led his country to two Copa Americas, now just two goals off Chile’s all-time goalscoring record.

The Chilean is a firm fan favourite, always giving 100% on the pitch and extremely efficient, both in scoring and assisting. Wenger’s tactical shift, opting to use Alexis as a false 9 rather than a winger, has greatly benefitted the forward and the team overall. With 13 goals already this campaign, one every 1.5 games, he is only one behind Diego Costa, a more traditional centre forward. His assist tally has also increased, and he is www.whoscored.com’s second best passer of 2016-17.

Evidently, Alexis has improved as a player since joining Arsenal in 2014.

Mesut Ozil

Unbelievably, Mesut Ozil has received far more criticism than praise during his time at Arsenal, despite proving time and again his quality and importance to the side. Famously, the Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton described him as “nicking a living”, and Michael Owen insisted that Raheem Stirling was the superior of the two.

Ozil was a star before joining Arsenal in 2013. He had played for Real Madrid for three seasons, assisting Cristiano Ronaldo on countless occasions and helping the side win the title in 2012. In 2010-11, Ozil made 23 assists, more than last season’s 20 for Arsenal (although his 19 league assists in 2015-16 eclipsed his 17 league assists in 2010-11).

Since joining Arsenal, as the first superstar signing in over a decade, Ozil has scored at a superior rate than in Madrid, 29 in 140 for Arsenal compared with 27 in 159 for Real Madrid. Playing with an inferior squad in a tougher league, he has won two FA Cups, while internationally he boasts a World Cup and has been named German player of the year twice.

Mesut Ozil is the archetypal modern player, in the sense that reactions to him are extreme, myopic, and often wholly unbalanced. The fickle nature of modern football support is expressed in comment on the German. When he does something good, he is superb, when he does something bad, he is terrible, a waste of money, not world class.

The fact is that Ozil is a supremely gifted player, blessed with unparalleled technique and vision. He is by no means lazy, but he is not the complete player. When Paul Merson scalded Ozil for his poor defending in the defeat to Everton, he missed the more important point, that of why Ozil was marking one of Everton’s best headers in the first place.

Ozil has grown into a crucial member for Arsenal, and long may he continue to bring moments like this.

On Saturday, Arsenal once again spurned the opportunity to win at Old Trafford, a run which now stretches to ten league games. Arsene Wenger’s terrible record against Jose Mourinho remained in tact, though the Gunners did manage to score their first goal against a Mourinho side since 2007. Much like last season, an ostensibly superior Arsenal side failed to capitalise on Manchester United’s form and injury troubles.

A draw in Manchester is never a terrible result, indeed this was only our third since 2006. Yet Wenger’s overly-cautious starting lineup gave the initiative to United, and a better side, or one on better form, would have capitalised and taken all the points. As it panned out, Arsenal did manage a late equaliser, but only once they changed formation and personnel and opted for a more offensive approach.

Arsenal have been at their best this season playing with the creative triumvirate of Santi Cazorla, Alex Iwobi and Mesut Ozil. Their quick, incisive passing and movement creates space for Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez to thrive in the final third. As Tim Stillman explains here, Wenger’s best sides have tended to feature a playmaking combination on the left, with poachers roaming on the right; think Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg as a prime example. Though it is too early to compare Iwobi with such illustrious greats, he offers similar creative influence on the left-hand side.

Of course, with Cazorla injured and Iwobi, still only twenty, removed from the firing line after a couple of mediocre performances, there was need for a change. Yet the boss selected the most conservative approach possible, going with the midfield duo of Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny. Though tidy enough statistically, with 88% and 93% pass completion, and seven and three tackles respectively, they were unable to provide the attackers with adequate service and were often overrun by United’s well-balanced midfield. Playing Aaron Ramsey on the left-hand side, where he is even less effective than on the right, perhaps designed to offer Nacho Monreal extra protection against the marauding Antonio Valencia, was overly cautious. Consequently, Mesut Ozil, who prefers to hunt in a pack than alone, was isolated and ineffective. Alexis, who displayed several moments of sublime skill and technique, was often too deep, dropping into the centre to try to affect the match. In turn, Theo Walcott sought to inhabit the central forward role, leaving nobody out wide in the absence of Hector Bellerin.

I’m a big fan of both Coquelin and Elneny, both offer significant attributes to our side. It is plain to see, however, that they do not work together. Though one solution would be to move Ramsey to the middle, it is surely time that Granit Xhaka, our expensive summer signing, was given a sustained chance. In Cazorla’s absence, he offers the most creativity of our central midfielders. His pinpoint long passes would encourage the attackers to play on the shoulders of opposition defences rather than coming deep. He would also provide Ozil, as Cazorla does, with much quicker service. Xhaka’s qualities mean he could form an effective partnership with any of Coquelin, Elneny or Ramsey. Hopefully he is given a start either against PSG or Bournemouth. On Saturday, Arsenal finished the match with Xhaka and Ramsey as the midfield two. It was no coincidence that this was our most threatening period of the match.

To be sure, United should be given some credit for their performance. They were far from superb; they didn’t have to be to almost win. But Mourinho seems to have found a more balanced midfield, whether by luck or by design. Michael Carrick was tidy, Ander Herrera a nuisance, and Paul Pogba, though not at his very best, managed to impose himself on the match more than in recent weeks. Up front, the enforced absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the semi-enforced absence of Wayne Rooney, encouraged Mourinho to select his most mobile and threatening front three. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata, who confounded our defence by popping up in the middle to finish a well-worked goal, were threatening throughout. Overall, I felt that our defence coped well, though Monreal was worryingly poor, and should have conceded a penalty; he was partly at fault for Mata’s strike.

Performance-wise, it was a self-inflicted disappointed, Wenger going with a cautious approach and reacting too late with his substitutions. When changes were made, however, they led to the equaliser, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pinpoint cross met expertly by Olivier Giroud’s head. Certainly, it is better to draw when playing badly than when playing well, and the predictable cliche of gaining points despite poor performances have circulated in the media. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the team improves; there have been too many abject outings since Cazorla’s injury, and eventually our luck will run out.

November is never a good month for Arsenal. Injuries and poor results collude to frustrate supporters on an annual basis. This weekend, Arsenal face a resurgent Manchester United (one win in a row), a fixture that, when played at Old Trafford, fills Arsenal fans with trepidation. Not since 2006, when the erstwhile Emmanuel Adebayor scored the winner, have the Gunners come away with three points.

In the intervening years, we’ve seen Arsenal lose ten times, including that humiliating 8-2 reverse, a 4-0 in the FA Cup, losses to David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, and a Robin van Persie-inspired United victory. Only two draws have been registered, and a solitary FA Cup victory in 2015, a rare moment of glory in an otherwise dismal ten years.

We have suffered drubbings at the hands of world-class players, such as Cristiano Ronaldo and a previous incarnation of Wayne Rooney. But we’ve also come a cropper against weak opposition: in the 8-2 loss, United’s back four featured the young, inexperienced trio of Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, with Anderson, Nani, Tom Cleverley and Ashley Young in midfield. Last season, our superior side, higher in the league and better on paper, crumbled against a second-string United side struggling under van Gaal’s tempestuous reign.

In short, we don’t like playing at Old Trafford, and the added intrigue of Jose Mourinho this season, whom Arsene Wenger has never beaten in League play, adds another level of anxiety.

The November curse may have returned, with the international break robbing us of one of our most important players. Hector Bellerin, who has evolved into one of the best full backs in the world, injured his ankle in training for the Spanish under 21s, and faces a month out of action. In truth, Bellerin has been overworked. With no meaningful competition, he has featured heavily for two years now, making 36 appearances in the Premier League last season, and playing in all but one this campaign. For a player of his nature, this was bound to cause some sort of injury. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

His replacement on Saturday, likely to be either Carl Jenkinson or a reshuffled Shkodran Mustafi, will certainly face a tough test against either Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial. The thought of Mustafi, an excellent defender but not one blessed with pace, facing one of United’s lighting-quick wingers is somewhat worrying; Jenkinson’s inexperience and lack of game time does not placate my nerves.

One positive is that Alexis Sanchez has returned from Chile, as far as we know, without his thigh problem intensifying. Nevertheless, he played 84 minutes for Chile on Tuesday night scoring twice, with a heavily-bandaged leg. It was certainly a risk, and as I wrote earlier in the week, one worth taking for the Chilean national side. Struggling to qualify for the World Cup, and with no international fixture until March, there was no reason for Alexis to sit out.

It leaves Arsene Wenger, on the other hand, with a bit of a headache. Alexis will face a fifteen-hour flight back to London, a day at most of light training, and a trip to Manchester on Saturday morning, all with a thigh teetering on the brink of injury. He will want to play, and if recent history is anything to go by, probably will. He hates sitting out, and Wenger would obviously prefer him in the starting lineup. Last November, a remarkably similar series of events led to Alexis missing several weeks through injury. With PSG visiting the Emirates on Wednesday, a fixture that will decide the group winner, Wenger faces a tough decision on whether to keep the Chilean or go with Olivier Giroud.

Let’s hope injuries and fatigue don’t ruin our chances of overcoming two significant hoodoos, beating United and Jose Mourinho.

Once again, November is threatening to derail Arsenal’s campaign after a promising start. Second on goal difference at the beginning of the month, the Gunners now sit in fourth, after an underwhelming draw in the North London Derby. Over the past ten years, our record in November, as has been heavily publicised, has been poor. Arsenal’s lowest average points comes in the eleventh month of the year.

There is no specific reason for the month’s failures, neither is there a mental block in the side. For the players, November is like any other month; indeed, in 2013-14 we won five out of six matches. The fixture list, however, does tend to take its toll around now. After a relatively calm start to the season, Champions League and international fixtures see the players playing every three or four days for the first time.

This week, the proliferation of playing time has taken its toll, and both Hector Bellerin and Alexis Sanchez have been hit by injury. Worryingly, two of our most important players could be out for the coming weeks, when difficult fixtures, notably Manchester United away and PSG at home could determine how our season pans out.

Bellerin’s ankle injury appears to be the worse of the two. Apparently suffered in against Spurs, the young Spaniard was subsequently called up for the Spanish under-21s, where he seemingly aggravated the injury in training. Had he remained at Arsenal, he would have been given time to rest and recuperate. Instead, a crucial member of our team, one who has bailed out his fellow defenders time and again, faces three weeks out. Right back is arguably the only position in the squad without quality cover. Carl Jenkinson is slowly recovering after a lengthy spell out, while Mathieu Debuchy has gone missing. Neither provides sufficient competition for Bellerin, as Keiran Gibbs does to Nacho Monreal on the left. This places a lot of pressure on Bellerin, who has played almost non-stop since breaking into the first team two seasons ago. His injury was to be expected.

Alexis Sanchez has also picked up a muscle injury in the past week. Though the damage seems less severe, Alexis’ mentality will leave Arsene Wenger and Arsenal fans across the world praying that the energetic Chilean comes through the international break unscathed. As Wenger admits, Alexis’ love for the game means he will play through any pain: “he always wants to play and he’s always ready to play even when injured”. With Chile lying in fifth place in the South American World Cup qualifying group, just outside the automatic spots, he will surely do all he can to make the starting lineup for the crucial match against Uruguay on Tuesday, just three days before the Arsenal’s trip to Manchester.

Last season, November was a disastrous month for Arsenal because of injuries, not results. The month saw Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez struck down, four huge absences that, by early 2016, had deeply affected our title chances. The build up to Alexis’ injury last season was worryingly similar to now: overplayed in the first couple of months of the season, the Chilean picked up a slight hamstring strain, admitted by Wenger to the press, yet insisted on his ability to play. The Chilean subsequently missed a crucial period of the season.

Alexis certainly shared a portion of the blame with Wenger for last year’s injury. A player should always want to play, yet he should admit to having a problem, rather than myopically refusing to rest. This week, it is largely out of Wenger’s remit. With the Chilean national side not reconvening until late March, it is in their interest to do the best for themselves in the short term, which is to win on Tuesday night. Hopefully, Alexis will act responsibly, recognise that he risks again missing a significant chunk of Arsenal’s season, and sit out on Tuesday.

The curse of November is of course a fallacy; there are no exterior forces undermining Arsenal’s campaign each year. Yet, just like last season, injuries are threatening to destabilise the team and undo all the good work of the first three months of the season.

In an uncharacteristically tame North London Derby, Arsenal and Spurs shared the points after Sunday’s 1-1 draw. Whether down to the early kick off time, or the respective clubs’ midweek European exploits, with Arsenal earning a late victory in Bulgaria and Spurs struggling at ‘home’, it was a somewhat stuttered affair.

In the absence of Santi Cazorla, Arsenal started with Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka in central midfield. In the first twenty minutes, they were overrun by Spurs’ midfield, particularly the excellent Mousa Dembele. Defensively, the Gunners were less solid than in recent weeks, Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny looking shaky. Both made too many sloppy mistakes: Mustafi was turned too easily by Son Heung-min in the first half, who really should have converted, while Koscielny clumsily gave away what was, despite Arsene Wenger’s comments, a clear penalty.

Tottenham dominated the first twenty-five minutes of the game, thanks to their screwed change of formation. Dropping Eric Dier into a back three allowed Dembele to play deeper and control the pace of the game, while Kyle Walker and Danny Rose offered a lot of width. For all their early dominance, they were toothless in attack.

Their dominance wasn’t all of their own making. Arsenal are at their best when pressing, as they have done in their standout performances over the past couple of years, against Chelsea, United and Liverpool at home for instance. Too often on Sunday they were content with sitting back; Alexis Sanchez was isolated and the only front man willing to pressure Spurs’ defenders. Two or three times he almost nicked the ball, some help would have been welcome.

After twenty-five minutes, we did apply more pressure, and consequently created several chances. Though reports have been scathing of Arsenal’s performance, in the period leading up to half time they played well. Alexis and Ozil probed with their usual inventiveness, though often their through balls were slightly overhit or didn’t quite beat the last defender. When we did breach Spurs’ backline, the decision making and final balls at times were poor.

Still, from minute thirty to the end of the half there was relentless pressure and attacking from Arsenal, the kind of spell that has seen us brush aside several teams over the past two or three seasons. On thirty minutes, Ozil scuffed wide off an Alexis cross; a minute later Ozil and Alexis combined to feed Alex Iwobi, starting in his first North London Derby, on the counter. He probably thought he’d scored, and certainly should have done, but shot straight at Huge Lloris. Two minutes later, another counter released Walcott in the box, who misplaced his cross. On thirty-nine minutes, Walcott again was through, this time hitting the post from twenty yards. It seemed a goal was coming, and it did, Ozil’s perfectly-placed free kick forcing Kevin Wimmer to head into his own net.

The disappointment in Arsenal’s performance stems largely from the second half which, aside from the odd half chance, was defined by poor decision making in attack and chaos in defence. The ease with which Dembele waltzed through our midfield and was felled by an uncharacteristically poor Koscielny was concerning. Only five minutes after Harry Kane’s penalty, Tottenham probably should have taken the lead, but Cech saved well to his right from Christian Eriksen.

A draw was the right result, and both teams have the right to feel slightly frustrated. While Arsenal were flat for most of the game, they were excellent for around twenty minutes, save for some poor finishing. On another day, the opponent would have been beaten, and the performance would not face such scrutiny. As it is, two home draws in a row, Chelsea and Liverpool racking up big wins to overtake Arsenal, the next match, against Manchester United on the 19th, becomes even more significant.

In a cagey performance on Saturday, it took a 94th-minute penalty from Santi Cazorla to finally break down a dogged Southampton defence. By no means a classic, it was nevertheless important to build on the victory at Watford after an indifferent start to the season. The match was notable for a number of reasons, however. We got a first glimpse of new signings Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez, Granit Xhaka was rested as Francis Coquelin played alongside Cazorla, and the performances of Alex Chamberlain and Theo Walcott continued to create debate among Arsenal fans.

I was surprised to see both new faces play. Mustafi came in for Rob Holding, whose performances so far this season have been stellar. It was probably the more expected of the two moves. The club parted with £35 million for Mustafi, making him the fourth most expensive defender of all time. For that price, he is expected to fit right in. The German was shaky to begin with, misplacing a few passes as he took his time to settle into the game’s frenetic pace. He did improve as the game went on, aided by Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin either side of him. At 6ft, he isn’t the tallest of centre halves, and his inability to win headers was worrying. Though Koscielny is only an inch taller, he won almost everything in the air; it took the Frenchman a long time to become the defender he is today. Mustafi seemed very intelligent, and his positioning was good. It wont take him too long to get to grips with the speed of British football.

Lucas Perez started in the number 9 position in an unexpected decision by the manager. With Alexis returning late from South America, his omission was understandable, but I felt that Olivier Giroud should have been given his first start of the season, and he caused the Southampton defence all sorts of problems when he replaced Perez in the second half. The Spaniard struggled, looking isolated at times, shuffling out to either wing and leaving the box empty. He probably isn’t a typical number 9, and will have to improve his movement. He wasn’t helped by the lack of service, and the fact that we couldn’t control the game in the first half. It’ll take time for Perez to adapt.

The decision to start Coquelin over Xhaka or Elneny meant we lacked the quick passing of the Watford game, when Xhaka combined so well with Cazorla, Ozil and Alexis. In the first half we were too slow, Coquelin and Cazorla too deep. In certain games, Coquelin can be redundant, when we need to control the game and retain the ball. He improved in the second half, but I would have liked to have seen Xhaka with Cazorla, though I expect Xhaka will play at PSG.

The game was notable for the choice of wingers, Chamberlain on the left and Walcott on the right. Both players were poor last season, ending the campaign with little confidence. While Chamberlain is still in a rut, Walcott has improved somewhat since last season.

Chamberlain played superbly in pre-season. Of course, players aren’t judged on friendlies, but his quality was plain to see in every match, scoring superb goals and looking confident and direct. Unfortunately, despite scoring in the season opener against Liverpool, his form has not translated into competitive football. Against Southampton, he looked devoid of confidence; when he tried to make things happen, his crosses were invariably overhit. Worryingly, the simple stuff at times eluded him, such as controlling the ball or short passes. He is clearly a supremely talented player, and at 23 still has time on his side. But it needs to click soon.

Walcott received some criticism for his performance on Saturday, but I definitely feel he has grown since last season. He appears more aggressive, helping with defensive duties (he has already attempted more tackles this season than last), and has been slightly more effective going forward, even winning a couple of headers from corners on the weekend. Though subdued against Southampton, there are definitely signs that Walcott is up for the fight to remain in the starting lineup.