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Alcantara, Wilshere and Verratti: The Three Midfield Musketeers

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Three names; Thiago Alcantara, Jack Wilshere and Marco Verratti.

This was a spontaneous twitter debate, where the person asking actually had a point and was not getting the answers he desired, just loads of unprintable abuse and scorn. Since it was a drop of the hat debate, I decided to go off cuff and actually debate it off of the top of my head.

Jack Wilshere has actually been around for so long till he feels old, an infant fossil sort of. After THAT performance against Barcelona he was typified as the great hope of the English midfield yiddi yadda, it has come to pass that even supporters of his club do not rate him as much. So what changed? Has Jack regressed? I personally wouldn’t go as far as say he has regressed but partly due to a bombed confidence and an array of injuries he hasn’t quite developed as projected, back in 2010 Pep Guardiola declared that La Masia had 20 Jack Wilshere’s. While the technical ability has never been in question, the application of it is almost always in query, his in game management can be spectacularly poor or if he gets it right he is an unplayable midfield metronome, gliding between the lines with those stout lines like Casper the Holy Ghost and keeping things moving. So while he might not have in the strictest sense of the word gone backwards, he hasn’t progressed either. He has played central midfield, defensive midfield, right midfield and attacking midfield and in THAT game he went toe to toe with Busquets, Hernandez and Andres and you can be sure they remembered the little English lad who tackled like a seasoned center back but passed the ball like a young Pirlo. I’ve always liked to think that played further forward he could be a devastating goal scorer as evidenced in his youth career numbers which he has not at all matched at senior level. And indecision on when to press or not to holds back his influence even defensively on games and at times lets down his whole team, his tactical understanding of the game I feel has not grown in any way. His current state is more mental than physical, his timing of when to play the simple pass, when to retain the ball, when to release a player, when to tackle or when to press. Jack gets lost in games that maybe at 18 years old he would have dominated single handedly, has the natural instinct been coached out of him by Arsene Wenger’s constant chopping and changing his position? The players around him have also influenced the way he plays and at times he might feel like he has to do more to influence games when his older contemporaries go into hiding and it ends up being a Steven Gerrardesque type of one man to the rescue of the planet type of performance, rarely ends well.

Marco Verratti; young, impetuous, super charged, outrageously talented, arrogant and opinionated. Straight from Pescara to the apex of the European game with PSG, testament to his capabilities he slotted right into the Qatari money funded midfield, expensively assembled but that is of no concern to the impertinent Italian. Two inches shorter than Jack he is nonetheless just as Brutish and tears about the defensive and middle third of the pitch with a zeal that oft manifests itself in many a yellow card. But when on the ball this insatiable little bundle of energy is a Van Gogh to look at, his ball retention in the tightest of spaces is a marvel, his progressive passing leaves one awestruck, the control and calm he exudes on a game is exemplary for one who went from the Italian second division straight into the very top of the European game. His defensive game isn’t lacking in zest though a notoriously bad tackler, the man playing alongside him is very important in keeping the rash side of his game well under wraps. Albeit a goal shy midfielder his other qualities more than make up for it, it is an area that can be improved, he almost scoffs at having to play in the attacking third of the pitch. His reading of a game for one so young cannot be explained, always open to team mates for the pass, always looking to either retain it or play it on. He has had Carlo Ancelloti and Laurent Blanc as his coaches, but you get the sense that his development is more down to his indispensable qualities than any coaching the two men could have indulged in. paired with an older more experienced head like Thiago Motta he is steadily on his way to claim the title of the best Regista in the business when Pirlo, Carrick and Xavi retire.

Thiago Alcantara is Pep’s dream come true, seeing as he could not prise away either Xavi or Iniesta due to age and circumstance, Pep with an insider’s knowledge stole the Catalan’s most prized asset, it is even claimed that he only asked for Thiago as his sole transfer when he was taking the Bayern Munchen reins. The hype behind this fiery midfield maverick I have to say is justified, a year older than the aforementioned duo, he is 5 foot 7, just like Jack Wilshere and just as naturally gifted if not more, technically otherworldly. His development at the very top has been stunted by injuries but he always seems to come back better which isn’t in line with any known science. His close affiliation to the La Masia breeding ground and his very apparent Brasilian roots make for interesting flair, a central midfielder by trade, he can play as a box to box or can sit alongside another midfielder, in a way he is a quarterback and his vision and the way his passing from deep opens up spaces shows exactly why he is teacher’s pet. His close control is a wonder, not averse to the odd showboating now then during matches, his quick feet bamboozles the first press and the awareness to release the pass at precisely the right time is what distinguishes him from Jack Wilshere. As a midfielder his pressing is one of the most impressive aspects to his game, he knows when to stick or twist, when to tackle or when to backtrack. His tactical understanding of the game is very mature and it has to have something to do with the guidance of Pep Guardiola and the philosophy in place at La Masia. His bloody mindedness oft stands him in good stead to dominate a game single handedly and he only makes his team mates play better, not much of a goal scorer though when he pops up with a goal, more often than not it is a worldie. What his best position is is up to date, probably not as an exclusively deep lying playmaker since his defensive side while quite okay isn’t exactly Claude Makelele like. A sprightly lad and probably one with the best platform to perform given his manager and the sort of club he plays for. When given the license to roam he can do no wrong, poetry in motion if anything.

The debate of who is better is a chicken, egg, yolk one. All born within 17 months of each other, all physically almost similar, all almost former trequartistas transitioned into regista’s , what distinguishes one from the other? Thiago would seem the better of the trio but mostly in part due to his innate intelligence and understanding of the game which is well beyond his years, the scope with which he influences a game’s tempo and contributes both defensively and offensively is superior to Jack and Marco but Marco isn’t very far behind him in terms of influencing the tempo of a game. Dictating the flow of a game is very important and an oft overlooked aspect of the best Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams, depending on the score and the aim of the team during a game, these registas are the in game managers. Perhaps when a team is losing the tempo is increased, when a team is preserving a lead the tempo is slowed down but not killed completely, Paul Scholes was a master at killing the tempo of an attacking team due to the passes he chose and ball retention, Marco and Thiago have mastered that art, Jack hasn’t come along that far and the tactical side of the game still escapes him, that is an aspect that can be corrected. So who is superior is up to your point of view and what rocks your boat, these three are the three midfield musketeers.

When I reincarnate I want to come back as a cross breed of a Mateo Kovacic pass and an Andres Iniesta-David Silva love child.

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How Arsenal could line-up with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Reuters

Arsenal prefer not to do business in the January transfer window, but their hand has been forced this month due to the contract situations of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere.

They could all leave the club before the start of next season and Arsene Wenger will recognise the need to prepare for those departures. Sanchez is the only one to have left the club already this month, as he has joined Manchester United.

In return, the Gunners have secured the services of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The former Borussia Dortmund player has struggled in England, but he has the talent to produce more at the Emirates Stadium.

Considering they are facing a battle to qualify for the Champions League, there could be more arrivals this month to improve their chances of making the top four.

Sky Sports reported that Arsenal are attempting to secure a deal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Dortmund could be tempted to make a clean break from the striker

The Gunners are at risk of missing out on the Champions League for the second successive season, but their reputation remains strong across Europe. It would be a statement of intent to sign the Gabon international and an exciting move for supporters.

How could they line-up at the end of the window?

Arsene Wenger has favoured a 3-4-2-1 formation this season and it has achieved relative success. It was a major reason for their FA Cup win last season, as it provided more balance and made the side solid at the back.

However, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang are both attacking players and will be expecting to start most matches. It could be that a switch back to 4-2-3-1 is required to fit both into the starting eleven.

One major problem that Arsenal have faced this season is their lack of quality at the back. Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal are serviceable as a three-man defence.

However, it has been rare for all three to be fit at the same time and the squad is lacking in depth. Per Mertesacker is passed his best, while Rob Holding and Calum Chambers remain inexperienced at the highest level.

A change back to a four-man defence would be a smart move unless a quality centre-back is signed this month. A tactical switch would likely mean Monreal loses his place in the starting eleven.

This would be a shame considering his impressive season to date, but he would offer stern competition to Sead Kolasinac.

It would be a boost if they were to sign another centre-back. Sky Sports reported earlier this month that Arsenal had made a fresh enquiry for Jonny Evans, but no reports suggest that a deal is in the pipeline for this month.

If they were to make no defensive signings, their back five would pick itself when everyone was available.

Petr Cech is not the player that he once was, but he remains the best goalkeeper at the Emirates Stadium.

The full-backs would provide the width, as Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac are both excellent at going forwards. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Nacho Monreal would offer good competition on the left side.

By playing two attack-minded full-backs, Arsenal can afford to play with narrow attackers, which will get the best from those playing in the forward positions.

There has been a resurgence in the career of Jack Wilshere, but he is unlikely to make the starting eleven when everyone is fully fit.

The midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka has been the most balanced of those chosen by Wenger this season.

The former has provided the drive and attacking support from deep, with three goals and six assists in the Premier League. Meanwhile, the latter sits deep and contributes in both halves of the pitch.

There is still more to come from the Swiss international and it will be next to Ramsey that he takes the next step forward.

The four attacking players would be best suited in a fluid attacking set-up as they are all intelligent players and capable of fulfilling any role. It would likely be a narrow formation with the full-backs providing width.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be the ones asked to start on the wing. It would be great to see the former be given a sustained run on the right flank, giving him a great opportunity to re-capture his Dortmund form.

Although Aubameyang is primary a striker, he has played on the left-wing during his career and he would be given freedom to interchange with the rest of the front-line. His pace will cause problems and he has the dynamism to excite supporters in the Premier League.

The 28-year-old has 13 goals in 15 Bundesliga appearances this season. In addition, despite Dortmund’s poor Champions League form, the forward found the back of the net on four occasions.

He is a top-tier striker and will add goals to the Arsenal attack. It will be exciting to see him link-up with Mkhitaryan again if a move does go through. Arsene Wenger will be hoping they can be as productive as they were in Germany.

Alexis Sanchez may have left, but Mesut Ozil is probably going to stay at the club until the end of the season.

The Evening Standard report that Arsenal are hopeful that the German international will extend his contract if they do sign Aubameyang alongside Mkhitaryan.

The 29-year-old will be given a central role in the team as the club try to convince him to stay and as the number ten position is his favoured role, this will likely be where he plays.

Alexandre Lacazette has had a mixed first season in the Premier League. It wasn’t easy to come into an Arsenal side that was short on confidence and Wenger will be wanting the Frenchman to kick on alongside the new arrivals.

If Aubameyang does sign, it will increase competition to start up front.

The current Gunners’ number nine has scored nine Premier League goals and contributed three assists. He is involved in a goal every 142.25 minutes, which is not bad, but he will be hoping to improve during the second half of the season.

If the club do sign Aubameyang, it will be a major statement of intent and serve as a reminder to the rest of Europe that Arsenal remain a force to be reckoned with.

A front four of Aubameyang, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan and Ozil promises to be exciting to watch and provide lots of goals.

No one player will be guaranteed a start and that is beneficial to the squad. The rest of the team needs strengthening, but this window would represent a good start to the rebuild.

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Arsenal 4-1 Crystal Palace: Three talking points from the Emirates

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A barnstorming first-half performance against Crystal Palace saw Arsenal record their first victory of 2018. Nacho Monreal, Alex Iwobi, Laurent Koscielny and Alexandre Lacazette all scored in the opening 22 minutes to stun Crystal Palace. Arsenal could not add to their tally as the visitors stemmed the bleeding and replied with a late consolation through Luka Milivojevic.

This was a much-needed victory for Arsenal, whose ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League have taken a blow in recent weeks. Palace meanwhile, have been in impressive form since Roy Hodgson took charge, but this defeat has checked their progress. Here are three talking points from the Emirates…

Mesut Ozil steps up in Alexis Sanchez’s absence

With Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United rumoured to be nearing completion, this was a chance for Arsenal supporters to see how the team might shape up without him. Sanchez was excluded from the side that lost to Bournemouth last weekend, but his absence was hardly felt here.

That might have had something to do with the return of Mesut Ozil from injury. The Germany international was influential throughout, particularly in partnership with the rejuvenated Jack Wilshere. Ozil is sometimes accused of drifting in and out of games against top-quality opposition, but when he is given licence to express himself without defensive responsibility, there are few better players to watch in the Premier League.

Although he failed to get on the scoresheet, Ozil showed Gunners fans that there can be life after Sanchez. It should not be forgotten that Ozil is another Arsenal player in the final six months of his contract. Tying him down to a new deal must be a priority for the club.

A reality check for lacklustre Palace

After losing their first seven Premier League matches – without scoring a goal in the process – relegation seemed nailed on for Palace. The appointment of Hodgson was largely derided, but the former England boss has had a remarkable impact in a relatively short space of time at Selhurst Park.

Survival is by no means guaranteed, but such has been their upturn in form that it is hard to imagine the Eagles being sucked back into trouble. It says a lot about their progress that many thought an upset might have been on the cards. Palace, however, were left shell-shocked after Arsenal’s four-goal burst.

When the Gunners click, they can be irresistible. Palace fans need not be too alarmed, even if their defending was lax. In fact, they should be heartened that their players did not capitulate in the second period, with the game effectively over. Although Milivojevic’s goal was too, little too late, it was just reward for a much-improved second-half performance.

Lacazette issues a timely reminder 

With a 3-0 advantage after just 13 minutes, Arsenal were in cruise control. But it was Lacazette’s goal, rounding off a superb team move to make it 4-0, that would have provided the biggest cheer. After hitting the ground running following his big-money transfer from Lyon last summer, the 26-year-old had endured a goal drought that stretched all the way back to December 2.

With questions being asked about his form, amid speculation that Arsenal are set to launch a raid for Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, this was a timely reminder that Lacazette has plenty to offer. His overall record of nine Premier League goals from 24 appearances is more than respectable for a newcomer to the English game.

Lacazette will hope that his goal against Palace can be the catalyst for another scoring run. Without Sanchez, the burden rests more heavily on the France international and if a move for Aubameyang does not materialise, he will have a big part to play in Arsenal’s push for the top four.

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Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech

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Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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