Archives for posts with tag: Football

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.






In one of the more surprising moves of the summer, Jack Wilshere signed for Bournemouth on transfer deadline day on a season-long loan. Predictably, the move has divided Arsenal fans (what doesn’t?), some seeing it as a risk, others noting that the midfielder needs regular playing time. When I heard the news on Tuesday night, I was initially slightly unsure. Every season, we are beset by an injury crisis, and they usually strike one area of the field. Just last year, a midfield crisis left us with only Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey in the centre.

The more I think about it, however, the more the move makes sense, both for Wilshere and for Arsenal. For Arsenal, there are positives. Financially, Bournemouth will pay a £2m loan fee, and his 80k-per-week wages in full. This means we are not paying for someone else’s benefit, as often happens with a loan move. Presumably, should he suffer another injury on the south coast, the loan fee means they cannot send him back to us. He will also be working with a young, talented manager, one who tries to play good football in a similar vein to Arsenal.

There is a slight risk considering his contract runs out at the end of next season. If he shines, there is a chance that another big club, whether in England or abroad, could come in for him. Undoubtedly, he loves Arsenal, where he’s played since the age of nine. However, if his injury troubles cease and a top club offers him a guaranteed starting spot, it could be too tempting to turn down. This is unlikely, and I think he will sign a new contract at Arsenal.

More importantly, the move makes sense for the player. His career has stagnated since he broke into the first team in 2010: he made 35 Premier League appearances that season, and outperformed Xavi and Iniesta in the Champions League. Since then, his best season, in terms of league games played, was 25 in 2012-13. In the past three seasons, he has featured in a mere 19 league matches. By definition, stagnation.

I am not critical of Wilshere here, or Arsenal, necessarily. He evidently has terrible injury issues, his ankles are as brittle as Donald Trump’s feelings. Without knowing much about the internal affairs of the club’s medical affairs, it is hard to criticise Arsenal’s doctors and physiotherapists. I also wouldn’t agree that he should change his playing style. He is clearly a combative, quick-footed midfielder, which invites heavy challenges. Perhaps he sometimes holds onto the ball too long, which he could improve on, but if he lost his competitive edge, he wouldn’t be the same player.

What he does need is game time, in a single position, both of which are not available to him at Arsenal right now. He has featured in two league games so far this season, and for once had a full pre-season. He evidently hasn’t been phased out of Arsenal, and if he hadn’t been dropped from the England squad, he’d probably have stayed. However, the cold hard truth, right now, is that he has too many players ahead of him, and hasn’t made any position his own. I personally feel he is best suited to a deeper role, but I would not start him ahead of Cazorla, Xhaka, Coquelin, Elneny or Ramsey. Wilshere, undeniably, is as talented as his colleagues. Yet I cannot see him, currently, overtaking them in the pecking order. He can also play number ten, but again there are too obstacles in his way. His recent appearances have mostly been limited to cameos on the wing. This does little to aid his development.

Many expressed shock that he moved to Bournemouth, a side that finished 16th in the league last season. Would it have been more ambitious to join a bigger club? Supposedly, 22 clubs wanted Wilshere, among whom were Juventus and Roma, who would have offered European football, and Milan. Yet joining Bournemouth is arguably more admirable than joining a top side. Would he have had more game time at Roma? He’d compete with Strootman, Paredes, De Rossi and Nainggolan, among others; it is hard to see him being more than a luxury player there. Conversely, at Bournemouth he is the biggest name. There is nowhere to hide, and he will be expected to deliver every week. Moreover, not playing in Europe will afford him more rest.

Wilshere’s personal life has often upset observers. Should he be partying and smoking into the early hours when he cannot perform for his club? Ultimately, if a player plays well, he wont be criticised for having a life. Ronaldinho the best player in the world, and still had time to party. With Wilshere, it can appear as though he isn’t taking his career seriously. But I don’t agree that a few nights out is the reason for his footballing struggles.

Wilshere evidently pushed for a move away when dropped from the England squad, a clear signal from Big Sam that the player hasn’t evolved as he should have. In terms of club, it is obviously a huge step backwards. For his career, however, I believe it is a risk worth taking. Wilshere is still only 24. He could have stayed at Arsenal and accepted a supporting role; financially, he doesn’t need to move. Yet he so clearly wants to fulfil his potential, and has probably seen how Theo Walcott has stagnated after a bright spell at Arsenal. This isn’t Wilshere’s last chance, the move to Bournemouth isn’t make or break. But if he wants to overcome his injury problems and prove himself to be the best English midfielder of his generation, time is running out. Dropping down a level, playing every week, and becoming the star man, will hopefully help him overcome his troubles and allow him to become an integral part of Arsenal’s first team over the next few years.