You’d Petr Cech Yourself, Before You Wreck Yourself

Should we keep faith with the cup keeper or reinstate the first choice?’ seems to have replaced the cup final song and the cup final suit as the new cup final tradition of choice. For Arsenal and Unai Emery, the conundrum is layered with complexity. Petr Cech playing his final game as a professional against his former club adds thick layers to this already plump onion.

Cech began the season as first choice goalkeeper ahead of summer signing Bernd Leno and, in the pure goalkeeping stakes, produced some of his best Arsenal form. An injury in early autumn opened the door for Leno and the German has never looked back. At first, Leno had an edge over Cech in a footballing sense.

They seemed to be goalkeepers of similar quality, but Leno is a vastly superior footballer. In 2019, it is not enough to catch crosses, parry shots and bark orders. Now a goalkeeper is effectively a deep lying playmaker and Leno is so far ahead of Cech in this respect that it’s almost comical. Cech is a goalkeeper primed in a slightly different era, whose only footballing demand was to kick long to Didier Drogba.

To watch Cech try awkwardly to pick out teammates with his feet is a little like watching Mr. Burns trying to bowl. Leno has a far more positive impact on Arsenal’s style of play- especially given Emery’s preference for playing out from the back. Opposition forwards do not press Arsenal anywhere near as intently when Leno is in goal, because they know he is comfortable with long and short passing.

As the season has progressed, so too has Leno, but not just as a ball player. He has become pretty handy with his hands too. This piece from Adrian Clarke illustrates the impressive statistics behind the German’s maiden season in England. The most resounding data from Adrian’s piece is that Leno faced 45.4 expected goals on target (xGoT), but only conceded 41. Only Fabianski, Alisson and Lloris boast better tallies.

Leno adds value as a goalkeeper and as the genesis of Arsenal’s build-up play. Though a faded force, Cech is still a thoroughly decent glove butler, but the Gunners lose something significant from their build-up with the Czech in goal. Not only does Arsenal’s build-up suffer, but Cech’s profligacy in possession puts his team under pressure.

Cech’s pass completion percentage across all competitions is 57% this season according to whoscored, compared to 69% from Leno. Across 180 minutes against Valencia, only 28% of Cech’s passes and kick outs found an Arsenal player. Chelsea are likely to field a front three of Hazard, Pedro and Willian in Baku, all of whom thrive on swift transitions. Arsenal will be under serious pressure if Cech keeps turning the ball over or pumping it out of play.

All of this, of course, is obvious to even the most casual observer. Leno is currently a better goalie than Cech, ergo he should start the final. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Cech has started all of the Europa League games since being deposed by Leno, a pact between manager and back up ‘keeper that is familiar in the modern game.

We are not privy to the conversations between player and coach, but you have to assume Cech wanted sight of the small print in advance. ‘Does that mean I play in the final, boss?’ is the most glaring T or C in this arrangement. It is tempting to say that the coach should be ruthless and renege on the deal for the good of the team.

However, that is to ignore the long-term consequences of such a call. Cech is retiring, which, admittedly, complicates matters in terms of sentiment. That the game is against Petr’s former employer adds grist to that particular mill. The coach’s decision is unlikely to be informed by sentiment if he does stick with Cech- even if he is one of football’s good guys and doesn’t deserve to have his career end on a sour personal note.

If Emery did make Cech a promise to play in the final and he publicly breaks that promise in front of the group, there is potentially a wider impact. A coach relies on the buy-in of their players and to dismiss the human and the political side of making such a call is to make a rod for your own back. Every decision on an individual has a ripple effect.

When you are managing a large group of humans, you have to consider the impact your decisions has on all of them. That said, Cech’s social media presence took on an air of (understandable) desperation in the midst of the semi-final victory over Valencia. He even gave a seven-minute interview to BT Sport on the pitch at the Mestalla, his brow caked in sweat from his trademark head wear, Cech was already giving Emery a public nudge and wink to start him in Baku. He might as well be leafleting on Emery’s doorstep.

All of which suggests to me that maybe the ‘promise’ between Emery and Cech is not signed, sealed and delivered. In fact, Leno began the season as the cup keeper, starting Europa League group games against Vorskla, Qarabag and away at Sporting. Cech’s electioneering implies that either the agreement was not finalised or else he is anxious that Emery might break it.

Earlier this week, another twist in this Shakespearean plot emerged. Cech is to join Chelsea in a Sporting Director role for next season. Arsenal have already reluctantly decided to exclude one of their players based on political grounds. I don’t doubt Cech’s professionalism even 1%, but it still serves Emery another curve-ball he could have done without for this final. (Which is why I strongly suspect Chelsea are the ones that have released the information).

The public knowledge that Cech would be lining up against his past and future employers adds a further layer of complexity. Yet in another sense, it might provide Emery with some clarity and give him the best excuse he needs to put his best feet and hands forward and start Bernd Leno. Emery will be better positioned than we to make this call- he will have an infinitely better grasp of the mood in the camp were he to deny Cech the last hurrah he clearly craves.

The issue might be an easy one for us as fans- we want to see the better goalkeeper start and, though Cech comes across as a nice guy; he certainly feels more like he ‘belongs’ to Chelsea than Arsenal. We don’t quite have the same sentimental ties. For Emery, this is a much more complicated decision than it is for us as Arsenal fans.

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Second Captains

“The first captain in this group is Koscielny. Then I tell the players it is Cech, Ramsey, Özil and Xhaka. In my career I want leaders in the team. The representation for every player and in every time in the season [there is] the capacity to do that. Maybe there will be more leaders in the team to show this captaincy, not just in the captain’s group, but these five players are in this possibility to be the captain.”

So said Unai Emery last summer and it’s not an original observation, at this stage, to say that most of that inner circle of captains aren’t the future leaders of Arsenal. Cech is an excellent rolemodel, but lost his place in the team and is now retiring. Koscielny is very much a leader in the example he sets for his team and his organisation of the back line, but Arsenal surely have to pare his workload down.

Aaron Ramsey proved to be a technical leader of the team but he is moving to Juventus. Ramsey produced his best form at the business end of the season- unlike some of his teammates (more on that anon), before his hamstring inevitably gave way. Mesut Özil wore the armband but isn’t really a leader (which is not a criticism, most people aren’t leaders).

Being an introvert doesn’t make Özil unsuited to leadership per se, but he operates on the fringes of a game at the best of times. Besides which, he and the head coach have clashed oftentimes this season and he doesn’t exactly feel like the future of Arsenal Football Club any longer. I don’t think this is entirely his fault, I think, in truth, Özil and Emery just aren’t a good cocktail.

Like many modern managers, Emery has never really operated with a mercurial playmaker, ghosting around the perimeters of the game. He prizes hard running and uses the half spaces to create, either via the full-backs or the inside forwards. Özil’s game is built on finding space, which often means getting away from the action.

There is little point rehashing old ground with regards his contract, which moors the club’s spending power. If a cold war broke out between player and coach over the winter, a kind of ‘hot peace’ has prevailed in the spring, but it looks fragile. With only two assists this season, Arsenal will be keen to try to offload Özil’s salary. Though according Mesut’s agent, the player is not for turning.

When the season arrived at squeaky bum junction, Özil and the second highest earner in the squad, Mkhitaryan, hid in the bogs and waited for the inspector to pass. The team has moved away from them and exiting their wages will be high on the club’s lengthy to do list for the summer. Granit Xhaka was another player named as one of Emery’s trusted lieutenants last summer.

Only Mustafi, Leno and Aubameyang started more Premier League games than Xhaka this season. I admit I have been a fan of Xhaka’s qualities, while conceding that his habitual lapses are incredibly frustrating. At this point, I think I have given up on the idea that an improved tactical setup would see a smarter, less error prone player emerge. This season he has been well protected by Unai Emery’s system, but the brain-dead errors persist. It is surely just an indelible part of his make-up at this point.

His brand of self-destruction would have more of a home in a troubled 1970s rock band. I also wonder if modern football is moving beyond the concept of the deep lying playmaker, the sun around whom all of his colleagues orbit. Immobility is becoming more of a handicap in a league drunk on the lure of the gegenpress.

Spurs have managed Eric Dier out of the team in favour of Moussa Sissoko. Jordan Henderson found minutes easier to come by at Anfield when he convinced Jurgen Klopp he could be a shuffling number 8. Emre Can left Merseyside last summer, to be replaced by the more energetic Fabinho and Naby Keita.

And here is the rub; I think Torreira and Gunedouzi look better when Xhaka isn’t playing. Neither player operates with fixity; both look more at home in a more mobile, fluid structure. Xhaka’s presence is beginning to look a little like a forcefield. James and Andrew have observed many times in the Arsecast Extra this season that Arsenal are dependent on him but perhaps they shouldn’t be.

I think Arsenal’s midfield should evolve more to a modern, fluid 3 man structure that slots into a 433. I also think Maitland-Niles and Iwobi might be interesting options in one of the slightly wider roles within that structure. There was little comfort to take from Manchester City’s cool dissection of Arsenal at the Etihad in February, but I think I saw the future of the Arsenal midfield that day in Guendouzi and Torreira.

I’ve had the impression for a while that Xhaka is a ‘Lilly pad’ player in this project. He does not represent the most urgent boil that needs lancing from this squad, but I have long felt Arsenal would get to him eventually. All of this is to say that Xhaka is not a future leader of this team, which is a shame because on a good day, he really does look like one. If Özil and Mkhitaryan hid in the bogs when the journey got bumpy, Xhaka set himself on fire and tossed himself out of the window.

But… new leaders are emerging in this team in my opinion. Hopefully a better culture can be cultivated around them. Lacazette and Aubameyang have been the team’s shepherds from an attacking perspective. They have produced throughout the season. I think Guendouzi and Torreira don’t have that exalted status yet, but there is the potential at least for them to form the scuttling partnership the midfield needs.

The signs are good that Bernd Leno is emerging as a trustworthy performer in the Arsenal goal. When the bullets start flying, Arsenal have too many players that either duck under a table or swallow a cyanide pill. Leno has not (yet!) shown this level of fragility, he seems like a sturdy enough character who has comfortably taken on the mantle from Petr Cech. Whatever you think of Cech’s Arsenal career, if you’re a goalkeeper ten years his junior, taking over from Cech must be intimidating for a goalie given his standing in the game.

Earlier in the season I wrote that Arsenal fans had entered a kind of existential torpor, because many long serving players had departed and new ones had arrived. As a fanbase we lacked cult heroes. There will be more turnover yet and some of it will be painful as Arsenal move beyond their five anointed captains. In time, a new culture will take hold, with fresh reference points and different leaders.

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Protagonists?

There is a universally accepted truism that, for the last two seasons, Arsenal have been very strong at home, but about as robust as wet cardboard away from home. Reputation counts for a lot in top level football and the Gunners’ contrasting form at the Emirates and away from N5 have both created their own economies of scale type effects.

Arsenal’s issues on the road are compounded by an air of vulnerability- the longer the fallow form endures, the more opponents are encouraged by that perception of weakness. A lot of the team’s issues are based around tempo and an inability to respond to a high-octane approach from opponents. They simply cannot impose their game on the bright eyed and bushy tailed.

So, to embrace that most charming of football phrases, the opposition ‘has a go’ and therein lies the key to beating this Arsenal team. Turn the temperature up and watch them toss themselves into the furnace. At home however, there is an equal and opposite phenomenon at play. Arsenal have forged a fearsome reputation at Emirates Stadium.

This often results in opponents backing off into tightly coiled banks of four. They allow the Gunners to have the ball and, with it, control of the thermostat. At the bookends of the season, lots of teams play with greater freedom. In the late summer and early autumn, the table has yet to take shape in the Premier League’s flabby midriff. Points are not yet considered at a premium.

Often, as the evenings grow lighter, objectives have been achieved and that freedom returns for all but the relegation threatened. In this particular season, two relegation places were decided in March, with the final one a drawn-out inevitability. There is a greater sense of liberation in this Premier League season than most others. In the harsh winter months, a greater volume of teams have played survival football.

In the late summer and early autumn, Arsenal were outshot in consecutive home games against Watford, Everton, Wolves and Liverpool (more understandable). In the preceding game of that run, Emery’s side had allowed West Ham 13 sights of their goal. The team came through that period without defeat thanks to varying slices of serendipity.

After that came the piece du resistance of Arsenal’s season, a 4-2 victory over Spurs in which the home side took double the amount of shots of their beleaguered visitors, a day on which Emery’s tactical tinkering worked to a tee and the sun truly shone. These are the games very suited to the coach’s style.

He might forever regret using the word ‘protagonists’ in his opening salvo as Arsenal boss, because his coaching style could not be further removed from the term. What he is is very reactive. He is good at setting up a team to shut down other team’s strengths, especially in home matches. Controlled victories against Spurs, Manchester United and Chelsea elevated this team from 6th placed also rans to (reluctant and unsuitable) participants in the world’s shittest bun fight for 4th.

But Arsenal made hard work of the likes of Burnley, Huddersfield and Cardiff in home matches- the latter, fighting tooth and nail for survival, took more shots than Arsenal at Emirates Stadium. With Ramsey and Özil in a kind of 352 formation, Emery seemed to finally discover a workable formula a couple of months ago and Bournemouth, Southampton and Newcastle were swept aside with considerable ease.

Rennes and BATE were very accommodating visitors in the Europa League, trying as they were to protect first leg leads earned thanks to Arsenal’s shambolic away form. Rennes in particular tossed Arsenal the keys to the match and allowed them to dictate and the Gunners’ collection of sunshine players made hay.

The last two home matches have shown a regression to the mean for typical home performances against the league’s lesser lights. It’s difficult to remember too many genuinely memorable displays against teams from 7th downwards at the Emirates, save for a brief period in February and March when Ramsey was helping Emery to answer a season long conundrum between protecting a ramshackle defence and buttressing an under-supported attack.

Indeed, Arsenal have been fortunate to have two elite strikers capable of playing in a multitude of positions at once. Aubameyang is effectively asked to be a wide forward and centre forward simultaneously, while Alex Lacazette drops into midfield because the supply line behind him is insufficient. Without this pair of strikers, Arsenal would be in even more trouble.

They have scored 42 goals in total at the Emirates in the Premier League this season and Aubameyang (13) and Lacazette (9) are responsible for more than half of them. This in a season where the team’s elite chance creator, Mesut Özil, has 2 assists, 1 for Aubameyang at home to Leicester and 1 for Mkhitaryan at home to Bournemouth. Auba and Laca have been the judge, jury and executioner of Arsenal’s attack, left to forage for their own chances and they’ve both done it very well.

Emery might be thankful that Arsenal’s season has come to a conclusion at the Emirates, because the cloak of N5 invincibility is beginning to slip. Valencia dominated the Gunners for the opening 15 minutes of the Europa League semi-final and really ought to have led by more than one goal. Until Lacazette and Aubameyang eked out a goal for themselves in a move that has come to define the lack of support they both endure from their colleagues.

Lacazette dropped into midfield to play a delicious pass into the channel for Aubameyang, who strode towards goal and found that his friend and strike partner had made the gallop forward to stroke the ball into the net. They are largely left to hunt their own game. Thankfully, this goal seemed to scare Valencia into ceasing the high-press attacking approach they hitherto adopted and they retreated into defensive subservience. This again allowed Arsenal’s collection of control freaks to dictate the temperature of the game.

Either side of this match, Crystal Palace and Brighton illustrated how Arsenal respond to their opponents upping the stakes. Shkodran Mustafi against Palace and Granit Xhaka against Brighton happily threw themselves and their teams off the cliff edge at the sight of the tiniest slither of cloud in the sky. Any opposition scout worth their salt knows that challenging Arsenal to a duel is a far more worthy tactic than retreating into the trenches.

Hopefully, the regression to the mean at home to the Eagles and the Seagulls has come late enough in the season for opponents to have forgotten about it come August. Even more optimistically, Arsenal might even seek to rectify their complete inability to handle pressure and their creative deficit in that time. Because if their reputation at the Emirates starts to fade, they might find a few more teams willing and able to be have a go heroes.

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Runners and Riders

After a week in which Arsenal have conceded nine goals in three league games, I bet what you really want to read is an article about how shit Arsenal are at attacking. Wait, where are you going? Come back! What’s the matter? Too zeitgeisty for ya? Fine, go enjoy another lukewarm ‘Shkodran Mustafi is shit’ hit piece, see if I care.

That Arsenal’s defence is ‘flammable’ is well documented. Their best defenders are either the wrong side of 30 or else injured. The squad is top heavy in terms of talent and numbers, but the attack remains very imbalanced in terms of the type of player Arsenal have. Very few of their existing options mesh in any serious way.

Beyond Aubameyang and Lacazette there aren’t many players you would seriously back to break double figures for a season in terms of goal scoring. In February, I wrote about how few shots Arsenal take and this wasn’t really a call to arms for players to shoot from ridiculous angles, but more of an observation that they don’t have enough players that trouble the penalty area.

Aaron Ramsey has been such a big miss in recent weeks because he is one of the few players that abandons his post, so to speak. His tendency to make forward runs frustrated some Arsenal fans, but we can see now why that movement is so important. There are plenty of players that move the ball well enough, but too few that move themselves.

The opening 20 minutes against Wolves provided a case in point. Torreira, Xhaka, Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan moved the ball around pinball style. All are good technicians to varying degrees, but Wolves, frankly, just sat in a deckchair and watched the ball move to the edge of the area unconcerned. There was no Arsenal player incurring into their territory off the ball. At times, Arsenal’s build-up play took on the appearance of a fußball game.

This is what a team looks like when the formation graphic remains untroubled, this is what happens when everybody stays in their position. The striker(s) become(s) isolated when the midfielders and wide forwards are solely comprised of ‘final third entry’ players. In essence, Arsenal’s attack lacks unpredictability, movement and a touch of jeopardy. Where there is no chaos, there can be no fortune.

Losing the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott (or at least, the former versions of those players) has robbed Arsenal of some devil in their attack. Lacazette likes to move back towards the midfield to link play, which essentially turns the penalty area into an exclusion zone as nobody breaks in behind him in the absence of Ramsey.

Even when partnered, Lacazette and Aubameyang often look isolated because every striker needs someone behind them willing to run into the area and occupy defenders. Arsenal don’t get that from Ozil, Iwobi or Mkhitaryan. They wouldn’t have got it from Denis Suarez either had he been entrusted with more than the odd cameo. Suarez is the kind of player Unai Emery already has plenty of in his attack.

Aubameyang is an almost entirely off the ball player, he doesn’t want to involve himself in the build-up, which is fine for Emery’s side because they have plenty of players that can take care of that for him. Yet a striker’s movement can only achieve so much in isolation. A late run into the area creates that little frisson of panic that causes the moment’s hesitation a player like Auba can thrive on.

In short, the strikers are left to fend for themselves in the final third, save for the galloping intervention of the full-backs. And it’s not just off the ball running that Arsenal lack, there is a general lack of runners and riders with the ball. The skillsets of Cazorla, Wilshere, Rosicky and Oxlade Chamberlain’s have not really been replaced.

Only Iwobi looks to commit defenders via the noble art of dribbling. In modern football, dribbling is one of the most valuable attributes an attack can have. I would argue in these days of high pressing and painstakingly choreographed teams, an unstructured, chaotic act like dribbling has never been more important.

This is especially noticeable in away matches, where opponents tend to favour a more high-octane approach. Arsenal struggle to parse any sort of wrinkle in the pattern of the game, largely because they have so few players that thrive in the chaos of a motivated home team playing to a partisan crowd.

Earlier in the season, the likes of West Ham, Watford, Everton and even Cardiff outshot Arsenal at home and the Gunners enjoyed a degree of serendipity in winning each of those matches. Their home record has cowed opponents into their shell and for most of the season; they have subserviently sat deep and waited for Arsenal’s collection of ball shufflers to pick them off.

Eventually, opposing managers are going to realise that treating the Emirates like their home stadium and trying to disrupt Arsenal is a far more viable tactic. Taking Arsenal on in a knife fight is not the suicidal leap of faith it once was. As a point of urgency, Emery needs to acquire a wide forward and probably a midfield player that can break lines with off the ball movement and with the ball at their feet.

Arsenal’s strikers are of such a quality that this issue has been concealed well enough this season. Lacazette and Aubameyang are not an especially symbiotic pairing and they are not well supported in the penalty area. But both have been good enough to eke out their own opportunities and Aubameyang’s ability to find space in the penalty area is akin to a super power.

Ramsey’s recent goal against Napoli is a neat illustration of what Arsenal have missed in his absence. Whisper it quietly, but Alexis Sanchez’s brand of bombastic trial and error attacking in the final third has been missed away from home. I was never convinced that his individuality was holding back the collective because I didn’t ever think there was a cohesive orchestra waiting to break out of his shadow.

Emery’s maiden season has been a year-long battle with balance. Tactically, Arsenal are a duvet that is a little too short and Emery has battled between hiding his second rate defence and properly supporting his overworked strikers. Ramsey, or a player like him, in midfield gives the team a little more coverage. At the moment, Arsenal’s strikers look cold and alone.

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Blanket Party

In the front of my notebook, I have the names of the Arsenal squad written out in squad number order. This is designed purely to provoke the powers of recall. When I cannot think of anything to write about for this column, I scour the names for inspiration. Is there something of interest I can say about one of these individuals for 1200 words or so?

As such, I have written some kind of profile piece on pretty much every single member of the first team squad to date. Some of them on more than one occasion. The only player I have not written about in this manner is Shkodran Mustafi. I don’t like writing hit pieces (not about Arsenal players anyway). Partly, because it goes against my nature a little, but largely because it is not intellectually satisfying, or even particularly challenging.

‘This player is bad and here are all of the reasons I think he is bad and the majority of the readers probably agree that he is bad’ is not rewarding for anyone, really. This is not to say that I don’t try to write about players that are playing badly or whose form is in some form of turmoil. Some of the most satisfying articles to write are defensive pieces.

Maybe there is a particular tactical or physical issue that you think is preventing a maligned player from reaching their potential. That requires thought and analysis and invites challenge from readers. I’ve never had any such explanation for Shkodran Mustafi’s frequent brain farts, so I have always shied away from writing about him. Penning a peroration about Mustafi feels like a populist move akin to a politician kissing a baby’s forehead in front of a swathe of conveniently positioned photographers.

What I have found interesting is that Mustafi’s reputation online hasn’t manifested itself inside the stadium. I have never once heard his name jeered, I rarely hear an audible groan as he approaches the ball and I cannot recall many acid tongued rants aimed in his direction. The distaste for the German has been largely been an online phenomenon- not unlike the tribal fandom that Mesut Özil seems to inspire, which also does not scan inside the stadium.

I think this is because Mustafi is, 90% of the time, not actually a bad defender. He is not a sword swallower, which is to say that he does not seem to invite a gruesome death with every move. Most of the time he is competent- good even. But he has a software glitch that just does not seem to be fixable.

My interpretation is that he suffers momentary psychological faults under pressure. He probably knows this, Unai Emery probably knows it too, but he cannot get rid of it any more than Phil Jones can stop his facial muscles doing gymnastics as opposing attackers bear down on him.

Emery’s trust in Mustafi has eroded over the season. He clearly prefers Koscielny and Sokratis and when Mustafi has played recently, out of necessity, he has either been fielded out of position at right-back, or else he is hidden inside a back three. Against Watford and Crystal Palace, Emery did not feel he could rest Koscielny with Sokratis suspended. He did not trust Mustafi to babysit Mavropanos, despite Koscielny’s physical issues.

Mustafi’s errors are usually borne of a desire to find the nearest and swiftest exit from pressure situations. Whether it be by sliding on his backside, leaving the ball for a colleague, committing a ridiculous foul or claiming a non-existent infringement, the gaffes are nearly always a personal exit strategy. Whether the move ultimately succeeds or not, it takes Mustafi out of the game and curtails his involvement. It’s the football equivalent of pulling a sickie.

I think his latest mistake against Crystal Palace might see the end of the in-stadium entente and he might start to feel the brunt (or at least the underlying groan) of the boo boys. I sincerely hope not, an Arsenal player getting rough treatment from their own fans never sits correctly with me. It offends something in my programming as a fan.

Yet I fear, on this occasion that the mob might start to bray for blood. This is especially unfortunate because Arsenal’s defence is being held together by a 33-year old who ruptured his achilles tendon less than a year ago. Arsenal are going to need Mustafi before the summer when, surely, his Arsenal story will end. The tide of opinion has firmly turned against him.

At this stage, Shkodran is damaged goods and it is difficult to imagine the club recouping even half of their £35m outlay. When he joined, Mustafi seemed to be a good ball player at least, with a penchant for line breaking passes from the defence. That attribute seems to have faded in recent seasons.

Arsenal need to raise some capital and selling Mustafi on would be an ideal avenue to realise some. He has two years left on his deal; he has just turned 27 and once formed part of a World Cup winning squad. Tempting another club ought not to be too difficult- extracting a satisfactory sum from them will prove much trickier.

Laurent Koscielny turns 34 in September, Nacho Monreal is 33, Stephan Lichsteiner and Carl Jenkinson will surely continue their careers elsewhere after this season. Arsenal have enough squad surgery to do on the defence, a 27 year old World Cup winning centre-half really shouldn’t be their principle concern given the relative financial restrictions they are operating in, but the situation is that grave now. The current fiscal situation is due in no small part due to spending so poorly on players like Mustafi in Wenger’s final years at the club.

Every squad has its punchbag- in the stands and online. Every comedy needs a catchphrase and every tragedy requires a villain. There has been so much squad turnover at Arsenal in recent years that Gunners fans have lacked reference points as long serving players have left. We have lacked cult heroes and pantomime villains as we’ve gotten to know a new squad and manager.

Another reason that writing this sort of article is unattractive is because you don’t want to be accused of contributing to the pile-on. I wouldn’t flatter myself to regard this column as influential in that regard (Bacary Sagna would have a statue if it was), but there is still a pang of guilt. It calls to mind that scene from ‘Full Metal Jacket’, when Private Joker reluctantly beats Private Pyle with the soap bar in a pillowcase.

I have often become angry with players in the heat of a game situation and read and even partook in the online feeding frenzy against him, only to rue that choice in the days that follow as the well is increasingly poisoned with vitriol. After a while, the negativity starts to get a little out of hand and it affects your chi. It’s an unfortunate and unforgiving business, all of this.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

The Bitterest Pill

As separations go, Arsenal’s amicable divorce from Aaron Ramsey might be the most painful break up yet for the Gunners faithful. At least with van Persie, Cole and Fabregas, there was a sense of soothing, redemptive anger. We could place the blame firmly on the shoulders of the other party, regardless of whether that was fair or not. A simple snake emoji, a dogshit through the letterbox and the wound soon healed.

Aaron Ramsey’s insistence on being amicable and reasonable about his impending move to Juventus is making this particular break-up difficult to swallow. ‘You’re letting me have the coffee maker even though it was a gift that I bought for you? YOU BASTARD! As for the limited edition Stones vinyl, how am I supposed to smash it in your face in an impotent rage when you’re insisting I keep it?!

In essence, Arsenal have undertaken the ‘getting over him’ process in reverse. Earlier in the season, Unai Emery tried to wean his team off the Welshman and his irresistible, impossibly boyish charm. There were even whispers of a January sale, which may or may not have explained his sparing use in the first half of the season. Ramsey has a history of soft tissue injuries, of course, and has actually surpassed his appearance total for the last two seasons during 2018-19.

His minutes are still some way short of last season’s total however. But that gap is closing as Emery comes to rely on Rambo more and more. He has become indispensable at the point of departure, leaving Arsenal fans reaching for the ice cream and rom coms as they tearfully watch him dominate another opposition midfield.

Back in February, I wrote about Aaron securing his legacy by moving abroad in a scenario where the club is more to blame than the player. Emotionally, he has played a solid hand, but tactically, he has improved this season and convinced his coach of his importance.

One of the many regrettable upshots of this is that, for the six months after his departure, every below par performance will be attributed to his departure. In some scenarios it will be true, others less so, but it will always be ‘the reason’ for underperformance. I’m just warning you. Rambo has confirmed his value to Arsenal by demonstrating what those who valued him most understood. He is more than just a goal scoring midfielder, he is an all rounder.

Maybe even the player himself forgot this at times, towards the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign, when his value seemed to be entirely measured by goal contribution. I always felt there was more to Ramsey than that. I always thought that he could do everything required of a modern midfielder well and we are seeing that in recent weeks. He can fill gaps defensively, he does collect the ball from his centre halves and distribute well, he can dribble in tight spaces.

That is to say, if you give Ramsey a job to do, he can do it. Maybe towards the end of Wenger’s reign, he just wasn’t given a job, or else the only job he was given was to get into the penalty area. He has become so important to Emery’s side because he solves an issue that has dogged the new Head Coach all season. Emery has struggled to reconcile the balance of his team between attack and defence.

He has flitted between having a solid midfield base of Xhaka, Torreira and / or Guendouzi at the expense of a fourth attacker. Protect a shaky defence and lose some offensive potential or lean into the attack and sacrifice some defensive security? Ramsey solves the issue because he can simultaneously operate as part of a double pivot and support the front three.

I have always been a huge fan of Aaron’s qualities, even in the dark old days of 2012 when his post-injury form was questionable to say the least. In November 2012, somebody swore at me profusely at a urinal at Goodison Park for being persistently encouraged by Ramsey’s talents. He has divided opinion during his Arsenal tenure, but even as a consistent cheerleader, I admit I have been forced to revise some of my views on him.

Last May, I wrote a column suggesting that the time was right to sell. In principle, I stick by proclamation, but purely on the financial detail. Barring the very elite players (Messi at Barcelona, Bergkamp at Arsenal), I think all players have a shelf-life at a club before a natural end occurs. Even Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira stayed beyond their ideal expiry dates in N5 in my opinion.

I felt the point had been reached with Ramsey where he should have been moved on at great profit and the money reinvested into the new era. I felt Ramsey was an Arsene Wenger player who had come to crave freedom and chaos, stepping into the ordered universe of Unai Emery. Despite my enduring love for the player, I have been able to sip mightily from the font of kool-aid with regards his impending departure.

Save for the fiscal lunacy of losing him on a free transfer, I felt the time was right for a mutually satisfactory departure. What I have learned, is that Ramsey is not cryogenically frozen into the Wenger mould. He has not only adapted, but thrived in Unai Emery’s more controlled environment. He has been willing to rediscover his full array of attributes. Even I underestimated him, the man who was accosted by a stranger mid-urination for being too effusive about his qualities.

Of course, there are elements of the structure that have assisted Ramsey. Playing him as a number 8 with a license for the occasional burst looks far less risky when there are three central defenders behind the engine room, two of whom, in Koscielny and Sokratis, are integral to the structure of this Arsenal team.

In a sense, Arsenal are ending this season a little like they did the 2016-17 season, with a back three that gives Ramsey and Özil a little extra padding. There is a fair argument to suggest that Emery ought to have arrived at this conclusion much sooner, but invisible political machinations have undoubtedly governed the use of Ramsey and Özil at times this season, all of which might well have been necessary evils for Arsenal’s development.

The recently realised reliance on Ramsey probably creates further teething issues at the beginning of next season, as the transition process reboots. But Arsenal’s squad has been constructed in such a way that annual transition is going to be a programming bug for the next 2-3 seasons anyway. In the meantime, Arsenal’s slow motion break-up with Aaron Ramsey will claim many a few more hearts yet.

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Why Don’t You Come On Over, Napoli?

On Thursday night, Arsenal take on Napoli in what, finally, feels like a proper European night. Carlo Ancelotti’s side will provide stern opposition in a tie that feels delicately balanced. The betting odds are finely split and when the teams met in the Champions League group stage in 2013, the Gunners prevailed 2-0 at the Emirates, while Napoli were 2-0 victors at the Stadio San Paolo.

To say the Europa League takes a little time to warm up is an exercise in understatement. Arsenal decided to make the BATE Borisov and Rennes ties vaguely interesting through first leg calamity. I was among those who felt Arsenal’s drop into Europe’s secondary competition might make a refreshing change, but the last two seasons have drummed that impression out of me quite firmly.

The Europa League group stages are, quite simply, the least entertaining ‘competitive’ football I have ever seen Arsenal play. I am someone that enjoys the charms of the League Cup, I don’t need much rousing to be excited about an Arsenal game. But I find those first six matches very tough going. Much like when I watch ‘Apocalypse Now’ and sagely nod along because I probably should enjoy that movie, but in reality, I have to sit on my hands to stop myself from ripping my eyeballs out through boredom. (Sorry, I have tried).

Arsenal are locked in a curious relationship with European football. We are in no position to turn our noses up at the Europa League given our less than illustrious record in European competition. Recent winners include Atletico Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea, who did not regard winning the cup as beneath them. The 1994 Cup Winners Cup triumph is, as I wrote a couple of years ago, the most underrated Arsenal triumph of my generation.

Yet the early rounds of the Cup Winners Cup were hardly ‘all killer, no filler’. A 10-0 aggregate win over Standard Liege and a sleepy tie against Odense preceded memorable nights against PSG and Parma. However, times have changed and the differences in standard between the Europa League and the Champions League are starker than ever, with the premier competition stockpiling the continent’s great and good.

Arsenal are caught in a holding pattern where they are trying to win a tournament they don’t want to be in so they can partake in a tournament they can’t possibly win. Indeed, one of the key incentives for winning the Europa League is the automatic qualification for the Champions League that it brings. Arsenal stand a good chance of winning the secondary competition, but the problem is, let’s be honest, it’s not hugely entertaining and April is the earliest that we can expect a mouth-watering draw.

Only the Atleti semi-final tie felt remotely life affirming in last season’s competition and the Spanish side dropped out of the Champions League. That Champions League teams drop into the Europa is another quite surreal concession to its status as Europe’s wooden spoon. Now, personally, the ‘prestige’ factor does not hugely matter to me, as a supporter. I just wish the tournament were a bit more fun overall. First world problems, no doubt, but the sense of ennui lingers. (Sorry, I have tried).

The Premier League now has six Champions League knockout level sides, grappling for four places in UEFA’s top tier competition. This has injected renewed purpose into the Premier League’s ‘race for the top four.’ It became easy to become as haughty towards finishing fourth as I have been towards the Europa League in this article, when the Gunners qualified, by hook or by crook, year on year.

A couple of years outside the Champions League has knocked that sense of complacency out of us. But the fact that Arsenal are competing with Sp*rs, Chelsea and Manchester United for a qualifying spot has injected a much needed sense of rivalry and purpose into what is effectively a scrap for wider profit margins.

And let’s face it, the Champions League group stages only marginally outstrips its Europa League cousin in the fun stakes. Group stage football is a solely for profit venture, but you could argue that Arsenal participating in the Champions League at all would constitute a solely for profit venture. There is more chance of me shitting a golden egg than there is of Arsenal winning the Champions League.

But two years outside of it and the club trying to panic buy their way back in have left some visible stains on the balance sheet. Arsenal are minding a Champions League wage bill with little resale value in the squad. They have tossed the car keys onto the table and gambled their short-term future with the salaries meted out to Mesut Özil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. They have to re-qualify to replenish their budget and fund the squad refurbishment they so desperately need.

Lest we forget the club regarded its fiscal health as so poor that they couldn’t spare a single penny for transfers in January. (I’ll wait for that single tear to dry on your cheek). So we are left with the bizarre situation of thirsting after a competition where we can only ever hope to be also-rans. In a sense, what Arsenal are fighting for is promotion- like teams that fight their way out of the Championship so they can fight relegation from the Premier League.

On the Arsenal Vision Podcast recently, we recorded a ‘Would You Rather?’ episode. Among the hypothetical questions we set ourselves, ‘Would you rather win the Europa League or get to the quarter-finals of the Champions League?’ It’s another of those questions where the answer is complicated by the absurd realities of modern football, where money inescapably rules the roost and basic logic bends in subservience to it.

A potentially challenging, competitive quarter-final tie against Napoli sounds a hell of a lot more entertaining than getting our arses tanned by Barcelona or Bayern Munich. That said, Arsenal’s absence from the Champions League seems to have coincided with the super clubs weakening and the tournament has improved immeasurably as a result, with a procession of unlikely comebacks and drama dominating the narrative of the knockout rounds, even at the last 16 stage.

It has been difficult not to look on enviously. Whatever our own personal feelings about the Europa League and the Champions League, we all know where Arsenal strives to be and why it’s essential for the club’s prospects. As we anticipate a potentially exciting tie against Napoli, in a tournament Arsenal stands a chance of winning, supporters nevertheless juggle with an awkward existential dilemma of trying to win a tournament so that we can part company with it.

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