A final swansong for Koscielny? + Ryan Fraser’s numbers

Hello! A quick Saturday round-up for you, as I have a young German Shepherd here who needs to get out and do stuff. You can now add ‘potato masher’ to the long list of stuff she has chewed. A list that includes glasses, headphones, shoes, a TV remote control, and much more.

Let’s take a quick round-up of what’s going on, and a report in L’Equipe yesterday suggested that the Europa League final could be Laurent Koscielny’s last game for the club. You probably remember the story from last summer when his agent revealed he was thinking of leaving when it was announced that Arsene Wenger would be departing, believing it would be a timely way to go … alongside the man who brought him to the club.

Then he got injured against Atletico Madrid and any possibility of that went out the window as his Achilles snapped. We know the struggle he had to come back, and although his first couple of games were a bit iffy as he got some match fitness under his belt, he’s been our best centre-half this season. I did speculate on the Arsecast a few weeks back that I thought he might call time on his career after the Europa League final. This was after watching him give everything he’s got to get through another 90 minutes, the discomfort was obvious and I wondered if he might not feel like pushing himself through all that again.

However, the report says he’s keen to play on, with Bayer Leverkeusen, Milan and Monaco all interested. If he does want to leave, it’d throw a bit of a spanner in the works for this summer’s planning because he’s not the name top of the list for a central defensive departure. At the same time however, there’s no way we can expect Koscielny to play anything like the same schedule he has this season. You can see it’s a struggle at times, so we’ve got to be planning to take some of the burden off him.

I’d love to keep him for another year, the last year of his contract. His experience could help the likes of Rob Holding and Dinos Mavropanos (if he doesn’t go out on loan but he should go out loan), and he’d add depth and quality to the squad. But, going into his 10th season at the club, and having put so much on the line physically, if he wanted to go then at nearly 34 years of age we’d have to give real consideration to letting him play a couple of years elsewhere if that’s what he really wanted.

Meanwhile, during the interview with the official website that we covered a lot this week, Raul Sanllehi was keen to talk about how data was used to identify transfer targets. He said:

We start having more and more meetings in which we feed more and more information coming from the scouting and the data analytics. At the end of the day, we try to reach a consensus. It’s normally an easy process because we are very much aligned with our views on football and on our analysis of the players that we try to go for. At the end of the day, as I’ve said before, it’s a team effort.

It’s part of the process rather than the be all and end all, because as everyone knows, StaTs dONt teLL tHe whOLe sToRY. We’ve heard so much about StatDNA and how it’s been used but the signings it’s been mostly associated with – rightly or wrongly – are ones which haven’t always been the greatest. Gabriel, Mustafi, Elneny and Xhaka have reportedly all been driven by it (can we call it The Red Screen of Death?), but unquestionably data analytics are playing a more significant role in player identification and recruitment.

So, throughout the summer, as rumours intensify and links to certain players grow, we’ll look at their numbers and see what the data can tell us. First up, Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser who, apparently, we’re going to make a bid for once the Europa League final is won on Wednesday. He caught the eye with 14 Premier League assists last season, but is that enough for us to splash the cash? What about his all-round game?

Scott takes a look in Ryan Fraser – By The Numbers over on Arseblog News. I have to say I’d find him a fairly underwhelming signing. I’m not entirely sure where he’d fit into the team – especially if we’re going to play with two strikers – so maybe there’s a plan to repurpose him as something different from what he is at Bournemouth. I know people say we can’t be snobby about who we sign, but I don’t see why that’s the case. Why can’t we want good players – even if they’re not superstars?

I’m not saying Fraser isn’t a good player by the way, but have I seen anything that really makes me think he’d drive this team forward? Not really. If he comes, he starts with a blank slate of course, and he’s given every opportunity to make a success of the move, but maybe there’s someone better out there too. Let’s see!

Right, time to get this dog out, and I’ll leave you with yesterday’s Arsecast in case you haven’t had a chance to listen yet. More throughout the day on Arseblog News, and I’ll be back tomorrow.

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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.

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

Ramsey will not play for Arsenal again as hamstring injury ends season

Arsenal head coach Unai Emery has confirmed Aaron Ramsey has played his last game for the club, with captain Laurent Koscielny praising the departing midfielder’s commitment in recent months.

Two key questions for Unai Emery ahead of Wolves

What is going on with the race for the top four this season? After we made a balls of our game against Crystal Palace on Sunday, Chelsea had the chance to go three clear of us but their 2-2 draw with Burnley means the gap is just one point and they’ve now played a game more.

People talk about whichever one of Man City or Liverpool will bottle the title, but their last five games show WWWWW – the bottling is happening below them. Arsenal have lost two of the last five, Sp*rs and Man Utd have lost three of their last five games, while Chelsea have lost one and drawn one of their last five fixtures. It’s as if nobody wants to take advantage of the other team’s slip-ups, and the successful sides will more likely stumble over the line rather than power clear.

Chelsea’s result is obviously good news for us on paper, but it’s only good if we can take three points against Wolves tomorrow night. I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that we still have to face Burnley at Turf Moor, and that’s been a difficult ground for us in the past. That’s a bridge we can cross when we come to it, and we have to ensure that when we get there it’s one that remains important. Not the bridge of sighs, or a bridge over troubled water, or and definitely not under the bridge but at least that reminds me of that amazing Nick Cave quote who said, “I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the f*ck is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

The next bridge we have to contend with is Wolves on Wednesday night, and Unai Emery will meet the press ahead of that fixture today. A couple of key questions spring to mind.

Can he play Laurent Koscielny?

The return of Sokratis from suspension is great news, because it means we have one of our best defenders available again, and on paper it means we don’t have to pick Shkodran Mustafi whose horror show against Crystal Palace is the sort of performance that should see a player permanently consigned to the bench unless there’s a complete emergency.

A Koscielny/Sokratis combination is by some distance our best central defensive pairing in a back four if we choose to play that way, but the issue of fatigue, red zones, and all that must surely be a consideration for the captain now. In ten days he’s played the full 90 four times, only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has that many minutes, and at 33 with a serious injury in his not too distant past, it’s got to be a risk if we keep playing him.

The thing is, his importance to the side almost dictates his inclusion, and when you’re facing two difficult away games and your only other options are the error prone Mustafi or the still very raw Dinos Mavropanos, you’ve got little choice but to ask him to push through. Personally, if we have to rest him, I’d be happier to see the young Greek defender get the nod because we don’t need the billion dollar shoe kicking us in the balls again, but I’m not sure Emery is going to see it that way.

Playing Koscielny in a back three would protect him to an extent, Sokratis and Monreal either side can do the bulk of the running, allowing him to read the game, sweep up and not get pulled all over the place, but that’s really dependent on the next question …

What kind of a midfield do we have?

Aaron Ramsey is out, and his absence was keenly felt on Sunday against Palace. It’s not to say we’ve become dependent on him, but he has been hugely influential of late and the gap in quality between himself and the two who played is blindingly obvious. Lucas Torreira wasn’t fit enough to do 90 minutes on Sunday, so we’ll have to see what his situation is for this one, while Granit Xhaka wasn’t in the squad at all for our last game.

Afterwards, Emery said:

Xhaka asked to change in the second half against Napoli and today could’ve played, but with some risk.

They decided against taking that risk, not even to have him on the bench, so the hope is that the rest is designed to ensure his readiness for the trip to Molineux. Without him and without Torreira, the only options are the Hairy Magnets, and if that is the case then it demands a back four because we need the extra player further forward. The introduction of Alex Iwobi on Sunday changed the game for us – until it went all wrong for other reasons later on – and illustrated precisely why that midfield combination with a back three just does not work.

I do feel for Emery to an extent, because we’re at the business end of the season having been without three important players for some time (Danny Welbeck, Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin – how much more confident would you feel if we had them available?), while we’re nursing players like Xhaka, Torreira, and others through injury niggles that could potentially end their seasons. It’s far from ideal, but then that’s the job of a manager, to find solutions and to make things work with what he has.

We’ll find out in due course whether he can do it for tomorrow’s game against Wolves, and we’ll have all the injury news and press conference updates over on Arseblog News throughout the day. For now, I’ll leave you with yesterday’s Arsecast Extra in which we discuss the Palace game, Mustafi and lots more. All the links you need to listen/subscribe are below.

Till tomorrow.

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This Arsecast Extra was recorded with ipDTL

Palace preview: Offensive strength to offset defensive weakness?

Another day, another dollar, another game within a very short space of time. Today we have the chance to go into third place, ahead of Sp*rs thanks to those gormless pisstrumpets Man City beating them yesterday (which they couldn’t do in midweek ohhh noooo), so there’s no shortage of motivation for this one.

The main issue for Unai Emery is personnel. We don’t have Aaron Ramsey because of his hamstring strain; we don’t have Sokratis because he’s suspended; and we might not have Lucas Torreira or Granit Xhaka because they’re both carrying little niggles, so that’s something to contend with.

We also have to consider resting/rotating a couple too, including Laurent Koscielny who is 33 now and common sense tells you that a player of his age who has gone through an injury as traumatic as his and has played three full games in a little over a week needs a break. The absence of Sokratis complicates this decision, but the absence of Koscielny for the rest of this season would complicate our lives in a big way so there’s a need for caution. Emery will obviously have more information to go on than we do in terms of the player’s physical capability, but despite his importance I’d be surprised to see him start today with two difficult away games following this one.

It’s hard to know what kind of a defence we’re going to put out actually. It might be quite makeshift, and that will certainly be an area the visitors might look to exploit if that is the case, but even still there’s no shortage of attacking talent. Even if midfield might be shorn of our three best players, at home Matteo Guendouzi and Mohamed Elneny should be able to do the job required – that’s assuming Emery’s joker in the pack today isn’t to use someone like Joe Willock.

Then you have a fresh Mesut Ozil who hasn’t started since the first leg against Napoli and only played 45 minutes against Watford on Monday. Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan haven’t been run into the ground of late, and we have two match-winning strikers to choose from – or play together. Aubameyang’s goal won us the game against Watford, Lacazette’s the second leg in Naples, so whatever else you want to say about the performances in general, their contributions have been decisive.

Aubameyang has done 90 minutes in the last three games though, compared to Lacazette doing 67′ and 68′ in the two Europa League ties, and spending the Watford game on the bench. I don’t know if that tell us he’ll start on his own today or not. It might even suggest he’s carrying a bit of a knock and being nursed through this busy period a bit, but on the basis of how much they’ve played recently, if it’s just one striker starting today then he might well be the man to get the nod.

Emery says of his two hitmen:

Every player wants to play each match for 90 minutes, but as a manager I need to use the player in the best moment. Maybe sometimes that is playing 90 minutes, maybe sometimes that is starting on the bench. But to convince the player that is very difficult.

I am very proud of both because they are scoring a lot, they are playing a lot, and sometimes they are starting as both, and sometimes they are just starting as one. They are helping us with big performances.

It doesn’t give us much insight into what he’s going to do today, but Aubameyang said in midweek he prefers to play with Lacazette, and given our potential defensive weakness, using both might well be a way to offset that. We’ll find out later this afternoon, and hopefully we can continue our impressive home form and get those three vital points. You can’t take anything for granted in this league, but on paper it looks the most simple of our next three fixtures, so fingers crossed.

In a couple of other brief snippets, our search for a Technical Director continues, with the name of former Gunner Edu doing the rounds again. I’m sure people behind the scenes are working hard, but we lost our Head of Recruitment in February – having known for some time that he was going to depart – and have yet to replace him. It feels like there’s an important cog in our machine missing, so let’s hope we sort this one out sooner rather than later. Whether it’s Edu, or someone else, it’s a role that needs to be filled.

Also, as expected the game against Brighton has been rescheduled due to our Europa League commitments. It’ll now take place on Sunday May 5th.

Finally, good luck to the Arsenal Women today as they take on Everton. They need two wins from their last three games to secure the title, Tim Stillman’s match preview is here – and following the nomination of Vivianne Miedema for Player of the Year, he writes about the team who have played such a key role in her outstanding performances this season.

Righto, dogs to be walked. We’ll be here later with a live blog and all the rest. Catch you later for the game.