Merseyside Derby

So, 20 minutes left at Anfield. Two things I have written about have come to light in one game.

Two noticeable things have happened so far.

Firstly, Liverpool have dominated all game, not found that second and find themselves pegged back at 1-1.

Secondly, due to discipline problems Rooney is substituted. Sigurdsson moves central with the pacey Lookman and Bolasie wide of him. It was Sigurdsson who made it 1-1.

1: I wrote here about Liverpool’s struggles from 1-0 leads, underlining the importance of the second goal.

2: I wrote here about how to get the best out of Sigurdsson, playing him centrally and surrounding him with complimentary, pacey players.

Last time out Liverpool got a last gasp winner from the same situation. However last time these two played it finished 1-2. Lets see how this pans out!

Arsenal’s Darkest Timeline

Picture back to 2012. One picture in particular. After years of seeing their best foreign stars leave for pastures new, Wenger posed with 5 young British players signing long term contracts. A year later, Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil, smashing the club record fee to do so. The following summer, the club beat out competition from Liverpool to acquire Alexis Sanchez. This was the template. This was a team with a young British core that has added two genuine superstars to finally push them over the line, just as Ferguson’s dominance had ended and the top spot was vacant in England. The selling club tag had been shaken. Arsenal were ready to compete. So, as these contracts all run to an end this summer, lets take a look back on how this generation has performed so far and consider what lies ahead.

For starters, the British core didn’t exactly work out as planned. Carl Jenkinson has played more Premier League games for West Ham than Arsenal since that contract was signed and is currently on loan at Championship side Birmingham. Kieran Gibbs was unsurped by Spanish veteran Nacho Monreal and is currently plying his trade at Premier League strugglers West Brom. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fizzled out and finished his Arsenal career as a wing back, only to look much improved in a rotational midfield role at Liverpool, albeit signed for a huge fee. Injuries have stunted Jack Wilshere’s progress and, after a loan spell at Bournemouth, is only just playing his way back in to the first XI with 6 months remaining on his contract. Finally, Aaron Ramsey has teased in stretches, scoring vital goals, breaking from midfield to look like the next Frank Lampard, only to find himself cutting a frustrated figure on the Arsenal bench.

So how about the superstars? What levels of success have they brought Arsenal?

In Ozil’s first season, the club beat out a strong run from Everton to finish 4th without ever threatening the title race, as Manchester City were pushed all the way to the end by Luis Suarez and Liverpool. A poor showing in the Champions League knockout stages made this season feel like par for the course for this squad. However, a comeback victory against Hull City in the F.A cup final brought the club’s first silverware in 10 years. The duck was broken, leaving this season to go down as a starting point at least.

The 2014-15 season began. Arsenal had a big win in the transfer market, acquiring Alexis Sanchez for a fee in the region of £32 million. A convincing 3-0 Community Shield Victory over Manchester City gave the fan base reason for optimism. However, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea got off to a flying start and nobody really got close. Another typical Champions League exit followed, but it felt like a comfortable third place finish this time round and the season finished with yet more silverware via the F.A Cup. This squad felt only one or two pieces away.

The honeymoon period for this squad had gone by the time August 2015 came around. The time to compete for a title was now. Nobody predicted what was about to happen, as 5000/1 shots Leicester stormed their way to the Premier League title. However from an Arsenal perspective, it was an opportunity squandered. Their second place finish doesn’t tell the full story, as 3rd place Tottenham were the only team to challenge before dropping off at the very end. Arsenal were famously pointed fingers at after celebrating a mid season comeback victory against 10 man Leicester to take control of the league as if they’d won the whole lot. It was infact Leicester themselves who never looked back from that day.  Early exits from all the cup competitions left the club empty-handed. Never has a second place finish felt like such a loss of momentum.

That brings us to last season. Arsenal finished outside the top four for the first time in 20 years. It was a devastating blow and really put last years second place in to perspective. The F.A Cup victory, their third in four years, only seemed to paper over the cracks. A technicality to save Wenger’s job. A summer spent fending off Alexis Sanchez transfer rumours was to follow and has only led to another indifferent season.

With only Aaron Ramsey of the aforementioned group still under contract after May, it is time for Arsenal to reflect and reassess. In terms of reflection, three F.A Cups, not one title challenge and failure to win a knock out tie in Europe can only be looked upon as a disappointment. However, to actually recede after dropping out of the top four is nothing short of distinct failure.

Looking forward, the future doesn’t appear any brighter for the club. A second successive season with no Champion’s League could be catastrophic for the club. They quite simply look like the sixth best side in the division. Their only two players who would likely start for the sides above them look increasingly likely to leave on a free this summer. To compound their worries, the sides above them look increasingly well set. Guardiola is taking City to new heights, United are spending relentlessly and Chelsea are always there or thereabouts. With Liverpool looking ever improving under Klopp and Pochettino turning a balanced Spurs core in to one of the league’s most impressive, the path to a top four finish has never looked more difficult for Arsenal. Take away the carrot of Champion’s League football and it looks unlikely the club will have a realistic shot at convincing players of Ozil & Sanchez’ quality to replace them. Even if they themselves resign, the team looks sixth best as it is?

So what lies ahead for Arsenal? It took hitting on a top five world player to break Liverpool’s Champions League drought. Manchester United spent their way back in to Europe. That tactic has never been Arsenal’s way. It is questionable whether it will even be an option for them, few clubs marketing teams can weather a storm like dropping out of the top four as Manchester United did.

To decide what path to take, Arenal must take stock of their assets. They currently have an ageing goalkeeper, and ageing first choice centre back in Laurent Koscielny, and two veteran stars in forward positions on dwindling contracts. Essentially, in terms of win now world class players in their prime, we’re looking at next to nothing come May. Therefore, we must look at current assets who have a chance of being contributors to the next great Arsenal side. Hector Bellerin certainly fills that category at right back. Come summer, could it be time to accelerate the development of centre half prospect Rob Holding? I would expect a young left back to be on Arsenal’s agenda, with Monreal likely heading for the door. A decision will have to be made regarding Wilshere’s next contract, the next six months will be pivotal for him. Can Ramsey be trusted to reach his potential? Does Granit Xhaka count as a genuine building block? Is Alex Iwobi ready for a bigger role? I can’t imagine Coquelin or Elneny playing much of a role in Arsenal’s next title challenge. You’d think it is time to move on from Theo Walcott, who is currently a non-factor. Giroud also seems to fit that of a different time line, a more win-now centric squad player. He himself may be getting frustrated at the lack of opportunities. Moving him whilst he still offers value and bringing in/promoting a young forward to back up Lacazette in a move similar to Dom Solanke at Liverpool seems logical.

It could be a long way back for Arsenal. The possibility of a full scale rebuild lies ahead, from the manager to players alike. A lot of player evaluation, both internally and externally will take place. Tough decisions will need to be made. Do they accept time out of the top four to develop a new, younger side? Are they aggressive this transfer window to try get back in to the picture? There a lot of variables still to go before these decisions are made, most notably their finishing league position come May. The season is far from over. That said, the narrative surrounding Arsenal this next six months is one worth following. Their future is heading in to murky waters at best. Their team is trending down. Questions need to be answered. Do we know which route they should take? No. But they can’t do nothing.

“That Aged Well” – Everton Team Sheet

Allardyce has picked two wingers in his line up to face Man United today, with the inclusion of Bolasie back from injury, as I suggested he should here in this analysis of Gylfi Sigurdsson’s start to his Everton career! However, unfortuanately for my article he has left Sigurdsson on the bench…

That said, the principle is clear and it will be interesting to see if this is a tactic Allardyce carries forward or if it is just a counter attacking measure since the opponent is United. I speculated in my article whether he might employ this tactic, but with Rooney dropping into a deeper lying midfield role and Sigurdsson playing the no. 10 role. You can understand the decision, defensively, not to play Sigurdsson and Rooney in the same midfield with the more mobile Tom Davies getting the nod on this occasion. That said, I will be sure to take notice of Everton’s team sheets in the coming week, as well as how the tactic itself performs.

I think it is important to go back and see how your previous articles age. This can help you see which stats were useful, which pieces of analysis played out well & which didn’t etc. Essentially, I just mean to analyse yourself and use it to improve.

At the time of writing this, there has been a development in the Liverpool game that has followed a pattern I wrote about in this piece from Derby Day! Thankfully for myself (Liverpool fan) they have managed to nick a late winner in a game that read like a script we have seen far too often with them prior. I will take a deeper dive in to that a little later.

Daniel Avery

Was lucky enough to see Daniel Avery this weekend! For those who don’t know, Avery is a London based DJ on Erol Alkan’s record label Phantasy Sound. His sets tend to mix between techno & house, but with acid almost always running through it to varying degrees. I saw him at Cosmic Ballroom presented by Ape-X events.

He closed with two tracks from his debut LP, Drone Logic. You can find Spotify links to both at the bottom of this post. Both tracks are two of my current favourites, but I have to say, Knowing We’ll Be Here is one of the most perfect “last song of the night” tunes you are likely to hear.

Two stand out upcoming gigs for Avery come on New Year’s eve & New Year’s day, playing at Fabric and The Warehouse Project respectively.

Pub Chatter: Best of the Rest XI

Not for the first time, I have found myself taking a typical pub conversation a little too far. On this occasion, the topic of discussion over a bag of nuts was: pick a team choosing only Premier League players playing for clubs outside the Big 6. The “Big 6” being of course – Man Utd, Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs. Being the way I am, I took this home with me and after far too much thought, this is what I came up with!

best of rest XI

Honary mentions: Xherdan Shaqiri, Jermain Defoe, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Salomon Rondon, Winston Reid, Nathan Redmond, Manuel Lanzini, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Jonny Evans

Goalkeeper: Kasper Schmeichel

This was probably the easiest decision I had to make in the whole process. The stand out keeper from those available, especially given Forster’s poor form and the decline of Joe Hart. Jack Butland (for me, England’s no.1) is still someway off Schmeichel’s level despite his obvious potential. Begovic could maybe be inserted in to this conversation but he’s not quite on the level. Schmeichel could quite easily be playing for one of the top 6 clubs, Liverpool stands out as a great fit.

Defence: Matt Lowton, Harry Maguire, Virgil van Diijk, Ryan Betrand

From the easiest decision to what was certainly the hardest; right back. It was noticeable how top heavy the league is at the position. Seamus Coleman was the probable favourite for the position, but after not playing due to injury this term and coming off a down year last season, it was hard to justify. Matt Lowton has had a solid season in a solid defence, and represents what is currently the highest placed side outside the Big 6.

Virgil Van Diijk was an easy pick, not many centre halves in the league get quoted £50million plus. After picking up plenty of caps and forcing his way in as an England regular, Betrand beat out the competition at what is a very deep position.

The second centre back position was a more difficult choice. In the end, it was between Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans. I could be accused of slight bias here, after predicting Maguire would play for England when watching him play reserve football years ago, I have a slight affinity towards him. Whilst he probably has a mistake or two more in him than the more experienced Evans, I feel like he also offers more upside in terms of positive impact on a game. This one could have gone either way though. I’ve arguably missed out Mamadou Sahko here, but from a personal point of view he’s a player I struggle to really define.

Midfield: Wilfried Zaha, Yohan Cabaye, Morgan Schneiderlin, Riyad Mahrez, 

This is certainly the deepest position area outside the top six. Mahrez is far and away the best player in this side, but the other wing required a lot more deliberation. In the end I opted for Zaha, with his goal return fending off the likes of Nathan Redmond and the elusive Xherdan Shaqiri.

In the middle, there really were a lot of ways this could have gone. There seemed to be an abundance of solid but not spectacular players to choose from. Harry Arter came to mind, along with consistent Premier League stalwarts such as Darren Fletcher, but West Brom’s Grzegorz Krychowiak felt like the biggest snub here after impressing for his new club despite their poor season. Ive probably leant towards reputation slightly with these picks, going for two players with impressive bodies of work but not so impressive recent form. However, Cabaye and Schneiderlin, feel like apt players to anchor a Best of the Rest XI after both earning moves to bigger clubs, only to return due to not living up to the standard.

Forwards: Wayne Rooney, Jamie Vardy

It would have been easy to over-complicate this one and I very nearly did. It was difficult to leave Lanzini out the side, a really aesthetically pleasing attacking player who is consistently having an impact on games. I initially had Sigurdsson ahead of Rooney, but a quick look at the leading league scorers and this debate was over. Rooney has had a mini-resurgence in recent weeks and reminded us all of his quality. Whilst Vardy is not at his record setting pace of a couple of years ago, he’s still consistently the biggest goal threat outside of the top echelon.

  • It was noticeable how many Leicester players I picked. That said, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise given their league position, 8th.
  • I only picked one Burnley player and that came at a stretch, which is testament to the job Sean Dyche has done. Regression to the mean is to be expected but this side consistently overachieves. His uncompromising manner and rigid, high tempo style of play may not win him too many suitors, but the results are unquestionable.
  • I had a hard time picking any Everton players. Whilst of course being a completely subjective exercise, the lack of stand out obvious picks should be a concern for a team with their net outlay and supposed ambitions.

Feel free to respond with your own XI’s or argue against my picks!