It’s Going To Be A Big 2019-20 For…

Following on from last week’s column, ‘It’s Going To Be A Big 2019-20 for…Youth Edition’, this week, I will assess three of the more senior players for whom this season represents a decisive one.

BERND LENO
In pure personnel terms, it’s difficult to argue that Arsenal’s defence has improved ahead of this season. Laurent Koscielny was unlikely to be able to play the same volume of games he managed in the second half of last season anyway, but his imminent departure weakens the Gunners back line. Rob Holding should return to fitness soon which is great because it ought to mean less Mustafi.

However, we should be cautious about expecting Holding and Bellerin to come in and rescue an Arsenal defence that has conceded 102 goals in its last 76 Premier League games. In short, Leno is going to need to have a shit hot season. In fairness, he performed a reasonable impression of a one-man resistance during the second half of last season.

The worry is whether he can continue to defy metrics and perform above his career average thus far. In this Statsbomb post @MoeSquare writes, “The fear is that Leno’s performance this season was such an outlier compared to previous ones, that it’s more likely he experiences a decline moving forward. If Arsenal’s defence doesn’t improve, anything short of a repeat performance from Leno could spell further trouble.”

Many Gunners fans were ready to move on from Petr Cech last season and it was obvious that Leno was a much more modern goalkeeper when it came to distribution. It took a little while for him to emphatically win over the Arsenal fan base but nothing earns you the adoration of the Arsenal crowd quite like a breath-taking double save away at Tottenham.

The hope is that he can maintain that form going into this season. Tim from @7amkickoff pointed out the disparity between Leno’s stats away from home compared to games at the Emirates in a March episode of the Arsecast. It’s difficult to explain the discrepancy but, not unlike the team itself, Leno might have to spit on his gloves a little more for away fixtures. He quickly forged a good reputation with Arsenal fans in the spring, but he could just as quickly lose it if that spell proved to be a statistical outlier.

GRANIT XHAKA
Xhaka is in a curious position as the most likely player to inherit the captain’s armband from Laurent Koscielny, but I think there is a fair chance that he is on trial this season. Mind you, given Arsenal’s recent history with the armband, perhaps it would be more curious if his medium-term future were not under question.

Xhaka’s good attributes are useful to Arsenal, but his all too frequent brain fades are, to put it lightly, inconvenient. There is a suspicion that the Swiss is just ill-suited to a league high on the drug of pressing. His passing is very good, but it takes entirely too long for him to collect the ball from the defence, turn and distribute on his favoured left foot.

Were I the manager, I would lean very heavily into making Guendouzi and Torreira my preferred partnership. I think that’s a duo that has a lot of upside and carries out a lot of the duties you would expect from a high functioning double pivot. Xhaka is embroiled in a battle not to become obsolete, much like high street retail.

Even if he manages to convince Emery (assuming Emery needs convincing) that his skills are what Arsenal require going forward, he still has other puzzles to solve. Most urgently, Granit needs to rid of his game of the kind of brain-dead errors that make you want to put your fist through a wall. In fairness to him, Xhaka managed to amend his disciplinary issues after three red cards in his debut season.

He turns 27 in September and is about to enter his prime years. The propensity to panic and self-destruct has to exit his game immediately. Xhaka is a bit of a control freak as a player, once he loses control of a situation, he has an unpleasant habit of switching into meltdown mode at the flick of a switch. It’s the same reason his disciplinary record was so poor in his debut season.

Xhaka has entered a phase where there can be no more excuses for his impetuousness. He often has three centre-halves behind him, he often has Lucas Torreira next to him, he can’t ask for much more protection. I suspect Emery still really likes to have Xhaka in his team because of his ability to spread play into the half-spaces and to find the wing-backs. That is useful to Arsenal, but he needs to repent for his sins in 2019-20 and show he can keep a cool head.

MESUT ÖZIL
Özil has a very generous contract with two years still to run on it. He has retired from international duty having already won a World Cup and he enjoys life in London. In pure employment terms, Mesut is in an exceptionally comfortable situation. In career terms, he is under greater pressure and scrutiny than ever- and he has endured a lot of scrutiny throughout his professional life.

I think Özil’s recent malaise is down to several factors that have intermingled into an unpleasant soup. I do think that, frankly, his motivation has been lacking since he signed onto his current terms in January 2018. His retirement from international football may have fed into that sense of ennui as he has one less motivating factor.

I don’t think we can ignore the psychological toll surrounding the bitter end to his Germany career and the fallout from it. That has to have an impact. I also believe that he is just fundamentally not suited to the football Emery wants to play. In fact, Özil is slowly becoming a relic, because not many teams play with this kind of out and out number 10 any longer.

The physical demands of the position have changed and the likes of Mesut and James Rodriguez have found their careers dwindling with the fashion for high-pressing. It puts one in mind of the move from goal hanging ‘fox in the box’ strikers to channel running grifters in the centre-forward position some 15-20 years ago.

Yet Özil’s legacy is under pressure. If he continues to play as he has for the last 18 months or so, his story will be viewed as one of wasted talent, of an ethereal playmaker that did not apply his skill as much as he ought. Whether or not Mesut is motivated by that challenge remains to be seen, but after the mud that has been slung in his direction recently, there must be some willingness to cock a snook at the haters.

Arsenal cannot shift Özil as they would undoubtedly like to for obvious reasons and the player himself, understandably, doesn’t want to leave for a lesser contract. The two parties are stuck in an uneasy marriage, but it would be in both of their interests to try and revive the love affair they once enjoyed. Whether or not he is a “tactical fit”, Arsenal with a firing Mesut Özil is a far better team. His reputation is very much on the line.

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

O Captain, my Captain!

Coffee when you wake up is good. Coffee just before you go to bed is bad. For some reason I got it into my head last night that an espresso poured over vanilla ice cream would be an excellent dessert choice and that imbibing a shot of joe in this form would dampen its potency. It turns out I was very wrong. 

I’ve spent much of the night staring at the ceiling thinking about weird, random stuff. Like, who did Mesut send to buy peroxide so he could bleach his hair? Did he buy it himself and then spend an hour in his hotel room carefully applying it? Maybe he went to a hair salon and had it done professionally? If so, why didn’t he take Raul Sanllehi with him for a trim? Also, if Shkodran Mustafi and Sead Kolasinac also lost the bet, why are they still sporting regulation follicles? What other bets are going on in the changing room? Surely Unai isn’t involved? Is he making Granit Xhaka captain because he lost a bet? Surely the Swiss isn’t the right man to inherit Per Mertesacker’s fine jar? Or maybe he is, there are loads of banks in Switzerland, aren’t there?

It went on like this. There were lots of questions and very few answers. And then the alarm went off and here we are. Naturally, I’m now drinking coffee again to perk me up. 

*Shakes fist at the evil brilliance of the caffeine gods*

I should probably get out of the habit of reading about Arsenal just before bed. I think it was late landing quotes from Emery about the soon-to-be-vacant club captaincy that got me into such a weird train of thought. 

Despite it precipitating an exodus, it sounds as though the Spaniard is again going to ask several players to share the leadership responsibilities. I think at this point we can all accept that even if Laurent Koscielny performed a miraculous u-turn, it’s impossible for him to retain the armband. 

Having led the team out against Bayern the other night, the smart money is on Xhaka to take over. But if it was put to a vote, Nacho Monreal would get mine. I know he’s not got long on his contract – 12 months and a Cazorla-style clause to keep him for another season after that – but he looks like he has gravitas in the dressing-room. 

When he arrived he struck me as quite shy, but I think it was just a case of not knowing the language. As soon as he picked up English he became very vocal on the pitch. I guess the major drawback is whether he’ll even be in the side regularly this season. If we sign Kieran Tierney and want to play a back four, he might struggle for minutes.

Interestingly, Emery wants an English voice to take a lead role too. Unless he’s been impressed by one of our teenagers, that leaves Rob Holding, Calum Chambers, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Carl Jenkinson or Stepney-born ‘ector Bellerin. 

The Spaniard said: “Last year [Granit] Xhaka, Mesut [Ozil] and Nacho [Monreal] were working as captains. But after Aaron Ramsey and Petr Cech left – and possibly Laurent Koscielny – I will want more.

“An English player who grew up in our academy can understand the English spirit and Arsenal values. These are the qualities and more [we want].”

Can you imagine Carl getting the gig? That would be some turnaround

Football.London’s James Benge reckons 23-year-old Rob Holding, who is set to return to action a month earlier than expected, is a serious candidate for the vice-captaincy. I’d be fine with that, so long as he can cope with the pressure of being a leader at the same time as winning back his place after a long spell on the sidelines. I thought it was interesting Holding also got backing from Jack Wilshere recently

One young defender who doesn’t seem to have a future at Arsenal is Krystian Bielik. The Pole, who wasn’t included in our US Tour squad, wants to play first team football next season and it’s reported that a number of England’s second-tier sides want a piece of him. He did well at Charlton last season and impressed for his country at the under-21 European Championships this summer but for whatever reason, it looks as though Unai Emery doesn’t fancy him. He’s under contract until 2021 so we could probably get a half-decent price for him from someone. Definitely one to watch on the transfer front in the next few weeks. 

Elsewhere, Sven ‘Diamond Eye’ Mislintat has been talking about why he decided to leave Arsenal in February. In an interview with 11Freunde, the best bits of which have been kindly translated for us by @LGAmbrose, he mentions the club’s recruitment policy being increasingly reliant on agent contacts. 

He said: “Previously we had a strong systematic approach to transfers, a mixture of watching things live as well as quality data and video analysis – Arsenal actually owns their own data company. 

“That meant that we acted independently, we knew about all markets and players in all positions that came into question. However, the new leadership work more strongly with what they are offered from clubs or agents through their own networks.” 

The Denis Suarez deal would apper to fall into that latter category and it looks like we’ve already recruited Gabriel Martinelli thanks to Edu’s background in South America. There are also strong suggestions we’re pursuing Brazil international Everton Soares via similar means. 

For what it’s worth, I don’t think we’re suddenly going to make all our decisions based on Raul and Edu’s contact book. By most accounts, StatDNA, owned by Arsenal and run by Jaeson Rosenfeld, continues to grow in influence at the Emirates. Also, is leaning on contacts a bad thing? Sven himself landed us Aubameyang and Sokratis from Dortmund in this way. I guess we’ll just have to see how it plays out over the next few transfer windows. I can’t be bothered to reach for the pitchfork this morning. 

Before I go, I want to point you in the direction of a few bits and bobs. First, for those of you who aren’t aware, Blogs has been writing a US tour diary for our Patreon members. I don’t want to play down how exciting it is, but the highlights have definitely been his interactions with Stateside Uber/Lyft drivers. If you sign up, you get this excellent content straight to your inbox. Seriously, it’s most enjoyable. Also, all the Patreon money goes on champagne, oysters, caviar improving the Arseblog infrastructure and providing broader coverage of this ridiculous football club we’ve all fallen for. 

Second, the very cool guys behind MUNDIAL magazine have produced, with a helping hand from the always lovely @DJTayo, a brilliant podcast series called GIANT which is available on Spotify. Their latest episode is all about the rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United during the nineties and noughties. It’s by fans for fans. And it’s great. You have to listen. You’ll recognise quite a few of the voices. 

Next, as you well know, we’re slap-bang in the middle of ‘silly season’ meaning Arsenal could be linked with Sebastien Frey and/or Hatem Trabelsi at any given moment. But what if you ignore all the transfer window fluff and nonsense and try to analyse what our club really needs? That’s what the guys at @TifoFootball_ attempt in this great video. It’s jam-packed full of stats and includes a tremendous illustration of Unai Emery with a clipboard. 

Finally, an Irishman and I have been doing a podcast for a few weeks called Left Field. The sound quality isn’t amazing, but (once you’ve listened to GIANT) we’d love you to lend us your ears for 45 minutes or so. We’re doing it because we like chatting about football, but also other sports. If you think it’s a bit shit, let us know. If you have ideas about how it could improve, tell us. If you like it, tell your friends. 

Right, I’m done. Tom will be on duty here over the weekend and I’ll be back on Monday. Catch you on the other side. 

Schrodinger’s purple dildo + Freddie and Bouldie job swap

For as long as I can remember, the summer transfer window has been known as ‘silly season’. This is because things can often get silly. Spurious rumours and gossip abound. It used to be the case that estate agents were key to many of these.

X player has been spotted looking at properties in an affluent part of North London, therefore he’s joining Arsenal. Or, conversely, one of our star players has put his Highgate mansion up for sale and that means he’s going. Then we had social media come along which fuelled the ITKs because they fed off the desperation of people to see signings made. We’ve had stories of someone’s sister on LinkedIn saying something, and just a week after the Europa League final defeat, we have already descended into outright MADNESS.

There’s a story about how some bloke who says he’s Granit Xhaka’s cousin put up a post on Facebook about how the midfielder is going to join Inter Milan for €55m. The worst thing about this is that despite how ludicrous it sounds, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it might be true. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making any assurances as to its veracity – and €55m for Xhaka from anyone is bite their hands off money and therefore in too good to be true territory – but simply because of how the world works these days you can’t categorically rule it out even though the chances of it being true are about 0.0000000000001%.

It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that someone close to a player might decide to court attention. You might say it’s foolish for someone to overshare that way, but look at social media and tell me that there aren’t a billion examples every day of people being foolish and revealing stuff they shouldn’t. We live in an era when ‘influencers‘ are an actual thing, so some lad who’s a bit daft posting something he knows about his cousin or his mate or his brother or whatever doesn’t seem like that much of a push.

Am I convinced? Absolutely not. Chances are Xhaka’s cousin is just some random bloke taking the absolute mickey because he knows how desperate people are to believe ANYTHING. This summer has already got so crazy people are actually suggesting we sign Alberto Moreno from Liverpool, who is to defending what Ivan Gazidis is to making this club as big as Bayern Munich. This is not my first rodeo/summer/silly season. In fact, I think silly no longer covers it. It should rebrand itself to something more 2019. Perhaps in the style of an app we could all download on our phones:

  • Twattr
  • Dmwit
  • AbZrd
  • Roomurz
  • GuLbL

But there’s this strange thing now where the inter-connectedness of everything means you can’t truly rule anything out. Apart from the stuff like comes from the kind of lunatic pretends to be a goddam horse that somehow has access to the training ground, knows about transfer stories, and replies to themselves with all their sock-puppet accounts until they’re put in their place by Stuart MacFarlane when they claim knowledge of when photos of a player everyone already knows we’re signing were taken.

Anyway, we’re down the rabbit hole right now, waiting to see which player might or might not making some changes to their Instagram bio but wait did they change anything at all or was it always like that who cares man it’s a BIG thing but you didn’t know or care about it yesterday shut up dude this is a serious issue because it probably means he’s leaving or not leaving or looking for a new contract or staying.

You’re so right. That’s exactly what it means … and also what it doesn’t. This is the next few months. It’s Schrodinger’s purple dildo.

Anyway, away from the madness which will slowly and steadily consume us all over the course of the summer, there’s interesting news from the training ground which will see Freddie Ljungberg promoted to Unai Emery’s coaching staff next season. He’s done a fantastic job coaching the U23s, and with an excellent crop of young talent coming through – and a real need to start bringing some of them into the first team squad – he could well be the bridge for some of those players to make the step up.

He knows them better than anyone, and if part of his role is to recommend and then manage their integration then it makes a fair bit of sense. It leaves a gap at U23 level, but that apparently is going to be filled by Steve Bould. On the face of it, it looks like a demotion of sorts, but Arsenal have been stressing that’s not the case and saying it’s about getting the best out of everyone’s particular skillsets.

It’s tough not to be a bit cynical, but Bouldie has done excellent work at youth level before, winning the FA Youth Cup in his time, and it’s suggested that along with Per Mertesacker his job will include development plans for individual players to ensure that our Academy produces the players we need. I always suspected he was kept on at first team level as a kind of advisor to Emery in his first season. The new man was always going to bring his own coaching staff, but to have someone there who knew the existing players well and could give him the inside track on them was an important part of the transition.

Can we also just put to bed this trope that somehow our defensive problems are down to him? He was a brilliant defender during his playing days, underrated in my opinion because he had a quiet steel/menace that helped make us so tough, but he’s worked under two single-minded managers who have more or less complete control over the team selection, the coaching and everything else. Just because he was a defender doesn’t make him our defensive coach. He didn’t sign players who can’t defend to save their lives, so I don’t understand why people point the finger of blame at him when, if it must be pointed, it clearly ought to be directed towards Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery.

A final thought on this: I could be miles off the mark here and going at this with my super optimistic hat on, but it does feel a bit as if the promotion of Freddie is potentially a bit of a succession plan. Having done his time at youth level over two spells with this club, and had some first team experience with Wolfsburg under former Academy boss Andries Jonker, we’re now giving him more top level experience. I don’t think he’s in any way wedded to the current head coach, certainly not so much that if a change was made he’d be a casualty of it, so perhaps we’re looking at someone who has been earmarked as the next Head Coach as and when change takes place.

Righto, that’s it for this morning. Back tomorrow as usual, we’ll have a podcast for you too, so until then have a good one.

Note: Today’s somewhat pixelated blog image comes via the brilliant David Squires:

Sokratis and Xhaka in ‘Let’s do it for Mkhitaryan’ Europa League final plea

Arsenal have vowed to win the Europa League final in honour of absent team-mate Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

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.

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