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.

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!

Derby Day

Bragging rights up for grabs in the North West.

It was derby day in the North West of England this weekend. United played host to Manchester City, but first Everton had to go to Anfield.

Everton has had somewhat of a renaissance since Sam Allardyce arrived. Let me rephrase that. The ship has steadied on the blue side of Merseyside. 3 wins and 3 clean sheets (one of which came in the Europa League) have managed to stave off relegation battle whispers for the meantime. That said, Everton still find themselves inherently flawed and were not given much of a hope going in to this one. Liverpool were fresh off a resounding 7-0 win to top their Champions League group, 16 points in their last 6 Premier League fixtures and scoring goals a-plenty.

Then the team sheets came in. Liverpool’s two Brazilian stars, Coutinho and Firmino were named on the bench. Suddenly the topic of conversation pre game around the ground goes from wondering how many goals, to simply asking why? Why leave the two who make that offence tick sat on the bench in a local derby?

Cut to 75 minutes in. Liverpool seemingly haven’t missed their stars at all. They’ve dominated the whole game. Top goalscorer Mo Salah has opened the scoring and is giving the Everton full back Martina a torrid time. There’s been chances to make it two. Namely when Mane was guilty of not squaring the ball in a 4 on 1 situation before promptly dragging a left footed shot horribly wide. Everton have mustered up only one shot on target and quite frankly are barely threatening to even get out their whole half.

Yet there was something quite inevitable about this game, as there often is when Liverpool find themselves up only a goal in a contest they’ve had much the better of. If they can just get that illusive second goal, it quite often becomes three, four and five. If not, you always fear that one costly mistake that results in dropped points. That mistake came right on cue. There are just two blue shirts in the Liverpool half, compared to six in a red shirt. One long pass behind the defence from wide, one naive lunge inside his own box from Dejan Lovren. Suddenly Rooney finds himself placing the ball on the penalty spot. 1-1. That’s all it took. Its a trend that plagues Liverpool far too often. In fact, their recent form is a perfect example of that.

 

In their last seven Premier League games, Klopp’s team have found themselves 1-0 ahead on every occasion. Five of those times, they have gone on to make it 2-0. Liverpool have won all of those games, finishing with a +16 goal difference in those matches. When failing to get the second goal, they have gone on to draw the two remaining games. In fact, you have to go back to the second game of the season to find a Liverpool 1-0 victory, beating a Palace team that took a record 8 games to score a goal this season. Just 16 games in, Liverpool have already dropped 8 points from winning positions this year. Klopp’s team selection will get questioned here, but this is a recurring theme on Merseyside.

Everton looked like a Sam Allardyce team. They limited the opposition to just 3 shots on target, despite 23 against. They conceded the possession battle. If it wasn’t obvious Big Sam would be satisfied with a point before the game, it certainly was when he brought on Phil Jagielka on for skipper Wayne Rooney with 10 minutes still left to play. Who can blame him?

Whilst a good result for Everton to take them to 7 points from 9 available under Allardyce, this game was the red’s to lose. Jurgen Klopp and the Anfield faithful will be hoping such lapses don’t cost them a place in the top four come May.

Some things are just too predictable…

The clock struck 4:30pm and all focus moved 30 miles east at the Theatre of Dreams. For all the attacking quality on the pitch, all three goals came in a scrappy manner. Despite controlling the game, The Citizens hadn’t once got in behind the United defence. 42 minutes in, left back Ashley Young found himself caught underneath opposing left back Fabian Delph’s cross. Leroy Sane took the ball down with a neat touch using his thigh, worked the ball on to his right foot, and lashed a shot towards the near post. De Gea tipped over. A poor Lukaku header in front of his own goal dropped to David Silva inside the 6 yard box, which he promptly volleyed in.

Facing going in at half time, behind and being outplayed by local and title rivals, United pressed forward. This time, it was Young providing the cross. A simple chip forward, Otamendi misjudged the flight, only flicking the ball on into an unsuspecting Fabian Delph’s midriff. Marcus Rashford latched on to the loose ball, opened his foot and placed the ball past the onrushing City keeper. Honours even at the break.

Just 10 minutes in to the second half, another City set piece created chaos in the box. Lukaku again the culprit, his right foot clearance only going back into the crowd of bodies and Otamendi latched on to the loose ball to regain the lead.

Despite being the side in need of a goal, United if anything found themselves pinned back. An attack spearheaded by Martial, Lukaku, Lingard and Rashford struggled to get anything going. The only time they did look like scoring was from a City mistake, always a possibility given Guardiola’s intent to play from the back. The one time Mourinho’s men did cut open the defence of Manchester City, Lukaku couldn’t convert. A lovely move, Ibrahimovic layed the ball to Mata who’s first time lofted pass allowed Martial to punch a volleyed cross across the face of the City box. Despite the brilliant ensuing double save from Ederson, it’s a chance Lukaku will know he has to take. His poor record against the big sides continued after he again struggled to have an impact on the game.

Mourinho and his players may feel frustrated after only conceding to set pieces when the scouting report will have focused on City’s intricate play far more heavily. Rightly so. However, Manchester City just had an air about them. Watching them, you always felt they could score another if they really needed to. There is a long way to go of course, but after making a record breaking start and looking so comfortable in their closest challengers home, the only thing potentially standing in their way will be themselves.

The scary thing for the rest of the league? Given the sheer number of young players playing an important part in the squads success; today’s front three of Sterling, Sane and Jesus to name a few, along with arguably the worlds best coach, a generation of dominance could be headed to the blue side of the Manchester.

Vintage NBA!

Definitely up there as one of my favourite ever sports garments. Had this screengrab a long time. Unfortunately i don’t have the bottle (arms) to ever wear it! Wouldn’t mind as a collectors piece though, maybe when I’m a bit less skint. Almost bought a Tracy McGrady replica of the same uniform. Have looked for other similar merchandise but came up short. Really fantastic piece though… almost cheesy but it draws the line perfectly for me.

Vince by the way, still dunking at 40!

A Big Fish In a Small Pond- Sigurdsson struggles and Team Building

A Big Fish in a Small Pond

– Why can’t Everton get the best out of Gylfi Sigurdsson? An investigation in to the importance of team building and role players. 

Lets start with this. Gylfi Sigurdsson is a very good Premier League footballer. He’s arguably Everton’s best player. After a strong season in which he essentially carried Swansea to top flight safety, the silky Icelandic playmaker earned himself a £45 million move to Everton: a club with seemingly bigger ambitions than Swansea, coming off a 7th place finish and armed with a new owner intent on investing. We would expect these factors to contribute towards Sigurdsson performing even better yes? The thinking goes; if he can perform so well for a struggling Swansea team, his level of play will surely rise to an even higher level when surrounded by better talent. So why has this not been the case?

To get an idea of how to get the best out of Sigurdsson, we should start by looking at his strengths. What does he bring to the team, what are his best pieces of play and where on the pitch do they happen?

In the Barclay’s Premier League, 2016/17, Sigurdsson was responsible for (scored/assisted) 22 goals on a Swansea side that managed 45 in total, good for 12th best in the league. That accounts for a whopping 49% of his side’s goals. For context, Kevin De Bruyne, a world class player in a similar position was only responsible for 30% of Manchester City’s Premier League goals that same season. Over the course of his last 3 seasons at Swansea, he averaged 8.7 assists, 9 goals and 12 big chances created a season. What is clear from these stats is we know Sigurdsson is a player who has the ability to put teammates in a position to score, with the added bonus of chipping in with a few in himself. These seem like the type of numbers you would traditionally expect from a number 10, the role he was given in Swansea (hold that thought).

At the time of writing this, Sigurdsson has registered 2 assists and 1 goal in 13 games played, whilst only directly creating an additional 2 “big chances”. If he continues at this rate across a full 38 game season, he would finish with 5.8 assists and 2.9 goals. As seen from earlier, this is clearly below his mean average season performance. Not ideal production from your £45 million addition you spent the majority of the window courting.

Has Sigurdsson suddenly developed in to a lesser player in his aged 28 (typically prime years) season? I highly doubt it. He is clearly capable of delivering the same wicked delivery he is renowned for, seen here in this perfectly placed free kick during Everton’s underwhelming Europa League campaign.

*will insert clip when I upgrade my scouting software*

So why the lack of production? I think the most basic argument would be to start with the position he is playing. For Swansea, Sigurdsson played almost exclusively in the 10 role just behind the main striker, which most observers would agree is his natural position. He is a rangy player who is comfortable receiving the ball with his back to goal, turning the ball round the corner and starting attacking moves. He excels in making the most of open space opportunities, regularly making good decisions to exploit recovering defences, using his technical ability to release forwards with through balls and threaten the goal with his own shooting ability. It’s unsurprising that a player with these attributes produces good numbers playing from the 10. role.

However, due to the logjam of no.10s in the Everton squad (namely Rooney, Klaassen and despite not playing often, Barkley) we have seen Sigurdsson start games on the left of a front 3.

1ef9a-sigurdsson2bheatmap
via Wyscout
  • As we can see from his heat map he has spent the majority of his time in that left forward position. Also note the lack of time spent getting towards the left hand by-line compared to central edge of the box area, suggesting he tends to cut inside rather than go down the outside (there’s a theme building here…)

Now lets compare the positive contributions from the left forward position, to the traditional edge of box position we would expect to see a no.10 play in.

d663d-sigurdsson2bheatmap2bcompared
via Wyscout
  • Left: Sigurdsson left forward +ve 65%.
  • Right: Sigurdsson central +ve 71%

As we can see, there is a 6% jump in positive contributions made when he finds himself in that no.10 position. 71% is a seriously impressive number when you consider we are talking about the most difficult area on the pitch. For context, the phenomenal David Silva is at 77% and teammate Wayne Rooney is at 68%. Again, this points towards Sigurdsson being an impressive forward player. To get the best results from him we need to maximise his time spent in that central area.

This said, I think there is more to it than just playing out wide. The modern footballer often has to be versatile, especially those who operate as attacking midfielders. We have seen on numerous occasions in recent years, forward players having success by cutting in from wide on to their favoured foot. The surrounding personnel could be the bigger issue in this case.

Whilst at Swansea, Sigurdsson played with the likes of Wilfried Bony, Bafetimbi Gomis and Marvin Emnes at striker. He had Wayne Routledge, Jefferson Montero , Nathan Dyer and Andre Ayew contributing from the flanks. Are these players exclusively better footballers than his Everton team mates? Not necessarily. But they do have one thing in common. Pace. At Swansea, the team was built around Sigurdsson, so as a club they acquired players to complement their star player. There is a consistent pattern in their intent to sign pacey forward players with a willingness to run beyond the defence. This helps Sigurdsson for two main reasons, the first being the runs behind give him opportunities to use his impressive passing skills to penetrate defences. These forward runs also provide Sigurdsson with more space to work with, the defence naturally drops deeper due to the mere threat of the pacey forward runs and this is reflected in Sigurdsson’s goal return.

In contrast with Everton, Sigurdsson has routinely found himself playing in forward line ups alongside Tom Davies, Calvert Lewin, Sandro and Wayne Rooney. Who is going to make the runs in behind that Sigurdsson thrives on? Instead, he is just cutting inside in to a crowd of  players in that central area. Now this isn’t to say Everton should go out and sign players purely because they are quick. But they have been accused of signing players for players sake, with the attitude of worrying about the fit later, and so far it has provided a square peg in round holes feel to the team, reflected in their poor results.
I’m not saying it is or isn’t time to build this team around Sigurdsson (although you did just spend £45m on him). I’m personally not sure how high your ceiling is with him as your best player. However I do think it brings up an interesting question about how teams roster construct, especially with so much money being thrown around. Sigurdsson is merely an example of what can happen when you don’t play complementary players. His early season struggles are more likely accrued from not having a team built around him, not being the clear star man due to the competition of better teammates, as appose to old adages such as the pressure that comes with a big money move.
Ronald Koeman couldn’t make the find the right combination and it cost him his job. I am interested to see how Sam Allardyce will approach this conundrum. My early guess is he will move Wayne Rooney further back in to a midfield role (think: his only England game as manager) and we have seen Aaron Lennon re-introduced into the squad since Koeman left. All is not lost for Sigurdsson either, and the return of Bolasie and Mirallas to full fitness should really help his cause. Could Michael Antonio be a January target? An underperforming wide player with pace to burn and a knack for a back post goal, someone Big Sam is known to like. With West-Ham needing to rebuild he could be available.

It looks to be an interesting few months ahead for Everton Football Club, we will see the impact their record signing has on that future.

// This was written for my Blogspot on 28/11/17. All stats are accurate as of then