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Where Has It All Gone Wrong In Europe?

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The Premier League is hotly touted as the best league in the world by most people. Action, drama, the best players and the best games all rolled into one multi-billion TV extravaganza meaning that you can watch Liverpool-Chelsea in Paris just as easily as you can watch Burnley-Leicester in Nairobi. However, under all the excitement and money, there is a worrying trend developing – English clubs are being consistently embarrassed in Europe after a few years of dominance. So why is this? What has caused the top Premier League sides to consistently struggle in Europe?

Perhaps the most telling reason is the reemergence of some of the continent’s big clubs as real forces on the European scene. Barcelona floundered for much of the 2000s until Pep Guardiola arrived in 2008 and built one of the greatest sides to ever grace a football pitch. Built around the incredible talents of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Barcelona passed sides off the pitch and were near unbeatable. Real Madrid’s spending power has always been immense but they have in the past not spent their vast wealth in such a way to build incredible sides. When money is spent on the likes of Julien Faubert then there is a real issue but in recent years, Real have begun to spend in ways that indicate they are interested in building formidable sides. Bale, Ronaldo, James, Isco, Modric, Varane and others have all came in and with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm, Madrid are a real danger once more. Bayern were inconsistent in the mid-2000s with managers changing and the tag of “FC Hollywood” apt for the time. But very gradually, a crop of young talent from the youth set-up began to break through including Thomas Muller and David Alaba which, aided by shrewd signings and stalwalrts like Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, has turned Bayern into a dominating machine.

Yet, while these big sides have emerged, the Premier League has also had sides littered with quality players as well. Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure, Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Carlos Tevez, Vincent Kompany, Luis Suarez and many more all plyed/ply their trade in the Premier League so there is certainly no shortage of quality within the clubs. However, none of last season’s top four won their game in mid-week and of the six English sides in Europe only Everton won with Liverpool and Tottenham both eliminated.

The most interesting argument to be made is that English sides lack a clear identity. Many fans of the Premier League will look at that statement with outrage and prepare some kind of scathing comment to show me how wrong I was but when you take a step back and look at it there is a real case to be made here. The only English side that perhaps can make a case is Arsenal who have been known as the fluid passing team that develops young players. But recently, the fluidity has been lacking and the faith once shown in youngsters is starting to grate on fans who long for spending to fix their immediate problems. And spending is the big issue in this identity crisis the Premier League clubs are having. When a team has a problem, they fix it not by looking internally at a young player like a Barcelona might do but instead they go out and blow millions on a player that may not be quite good enough. Average players command huge fees for Premier League clubs all too willing to spend the money at the expense of an identity.

Take some examples from the continent – Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Atletico have had an incredible amount of success under Diego Simeone and that has all been built around the Argentine giving the club and team an identity. Simeone has taken a club that just willingly bought players that looked half decent but would often not perform consistently and made it into a club that bought players who could contribute always. Atletico are now renowned for their work rate and organisation, it is their identity and a far cry from the pre-Simeone years. Jurgen Klopp has done similar in Dortmund where he took a club that was struggling after over-reaching themselves in the pursuit of glory and gave them a high intenstiy, pressing identity. Gone are the overpaid, underperformers and in came players who were hungry to succeed and willing to follow Klopp’s ethos for the club. Identity has been at the heart of the success of both sides and they’ve been on the losing side of the last two finals which says a lot about how good they are.

Most importantly, and sadly for all Premier League fans, is the fact that English sides are quite frankly not as good. That’s both technically and tactically. Sure there are world class players littered across the league but the technical quality of a regular Premier League game is not exceptional and nowhere near the likes of the Bundesliga or even La Liga. For a league that wants to trumpet that it’s the best, the technical quality is not great despite the excitement (which is near unparalleled on a positive note). Tellingly, Liverpool struggled against Swiss champions FC Basel in this season’s Champions League because Basel were technically wonderful and tactically astute. Liverpool, the second best team in England last season, were embarrassed in Switzerland and at Anfield by a side that is a near lock to win their domestic title every season. Manchester City, the champions, struggle every season against Russians CSKA Moscow because they’re better tactically and are technically very good. Premier League sides seem to have forgotten how to play in Europe – gone are the days Liverpool could rock up and win at the Nou Camp or Arsenal can be comfortable in the San Siro. Premier League sides best hope now is to park the bus and pray their luck holds – just like Chelsea did in 2012 – which is a crying shame for the best league in the world.

The Premier League’s obsession with money and excitement for TV is now beginning to hinder it’s clubs in Europe as they all turn into samey brands who struggle when faced with a side that has a clear identity and is technically proficient. The worrying signs of decline have been showing for a couple of years and only now are they beginning to really hit hard. The “best league in the world” is struggling to keep up on its own continent – and looks to be losing ground quicker than ever before.

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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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Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Vitality Stadium

Rob Meech

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Bournemouth
Photo: Reuters

Bournemouth came from behind to claim a much-needed victory over Arsenal, whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League have suffered another blow.

After an insipid opening period at the Vitality Stadium, the action sparked into life when Hector Bellerin broke the deadlock on 52 minutes.

But Arsenal’s lead was short-lived, as goals from Callum Wilson and Jordon Ibe – his first for the club – secured the Cherries’ fourth home win of the season, which lifted them to 13th in the table.

Arsenal, meanwhile, slipped further adrift in the battle to finish in the top four after their third consecutive league game without a win. Here are three talking points…

Alexis Sanchez moves closer to the Emirates exit door

All the pre-match talk centred on a player who wasn’t involved in the contest. Not only was Alexis Sanchez not named in the starting XI, he wasn’t even on the bench having not travelled to the south coast.

Manager Arsene Wenger was ambiguous when pressed on this in the aftermath of the defeat, but the insinuation was clear; the want-away Chilean will not be an Arsenal player come the end of the transfer window.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United have been heavily linked with a move for Sanchez, whose contract at the Emirates expires in the summer. Despite his uncertain future, this match was crying out for his never-say-die attitude.

Arsenal controlled the first half and deserved to be in front when Bellerin fired home. However, the Gunners were unable to add a second and Bournemouth capitalised with two late efforts. Arsene Wenger’s side are now without a win in four games in 2018 as their troubles mount.

Bournemouth buck the trend against the ‘Big Six’

Before this fixture, Bournemouth had lost all of their matches against the ‘Big Six’ this season, scoring only one goal in seven outings.

While those are not necessarily the games that will define their campaign, it was a worrying statistic that Eddie Howe needed to address. Facing an Arsenal team without Sanchez or Mesut Ozil looked like being the Cherries’ best opportunity to buck that trend, and so it proved.

With only nine points separating all the teams in the bottom half, an unexpected win can do so much to alter the picture. The Cherries didn’t fold after going a goal behind and they merited the three points for an enterprising second-half display.

Having beaten Arsenal for the first time in their history, Bournemouth are now four points clear of the drop-zone. They are by no means safe because of this result, but the psychological impact could be immense.

Jack Wilshere getting back to his best

Returning to the club at which he spent last season on loan, this was not the afternoon Jack Wilshere would have hoped for. Though it didn’t go well from a team perspective, the 26-year-old was close to his best at the Vitality Stadium.

He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch and also completed more passes. After a frustrating start to the campaign where he struggled for minutes in the Premier League, Wilshere is now establishing himself in the starting XI.

He was Arsenal’s best player against Bournemouth and in a team that lacks leaders, he was one of the few who looked like he wanted the ball. Wilshere ran the show in midfield and was always keen to move forward with purpose.

England manager Gareth Southgate surely can’t ignore Wilshere’s form and, fitness permitting, he must be a shoo-in for the next squad. In a World Cup year, Wilshere is peaking at just the right time.

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An absence of progress at Arsenal leaves Arsene Wenger in danger of becoming the villain

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Reuters

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

So says Harvey Dent, a character in the 2008 DC Comics action movie The Dark Night Rises, which portrays the story of the fictional superhero Batman as he fights against organised crime in Gotham City.

There may be no men dressed as bats around the Emirates Stadium but it is a quote that might resonate with the thoughts and feelings of a growing number of Arsenal supporters regarding the position of Arsene Wenger in recent seasons.

The Frenchman is one of the most influential and successful managers in the club’s history, having secured ten major trophies since his appointment in 1996 and overseen the transition from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, but has come under increasing pressure over the last three seasons as The Gunners struggle to maintain the pace set by their title rivals.

The previous campaign was tainted by calls from from a portion of the Arsenal fan base for the 68-year-old to resign, although the club eventually opted to hand him a new two-year deal.

However, eight months on  and Wenger’s position has never been more fragile and the number of dissenting voices in the stands is beginning to increase.

The frustration around the Emirates Stadium is completely understandable. The Gunners are 23 points behind league leaders Manchester City, face an uphill task to qualify for the Champions League next season and suffered an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Nottingham Forrest.

Furthermore, Arsenal are in danger of losing two of their prize assets in the summer for nothing after allowing the contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to run down into their final year. The unwillingness of the duo to remain in North London is a definitive sign that the club are no longer considered to be a significant threat in the domestic game.

With the club slipping behind their title rivals and struggling to retain key players, Wenger is in danger of turning from a hero into a villain.

A lack of forward momentum

The one thing that Arsenal have lacked this season, and arguably for a number of years, is a sense that the club is making progress or moving in the right direction.

The Gunners have been on a gradual decline that is only now beginning to come to the fore and there has been nothing to suggest that Arsene Wenger has the vision or prowess to reinvigorate a club that is anchored in stagnation. Even success in the FA Cup has felt like a brief moment of respite rather than a signal that a corner had been turned.

The Frenchman has failed to correct the issues that have undermined the team on the pitch, exemplified by his inability to purchase a top-quality central defender or defensive midfielder, and it has now been nearly thirteen years since the club last won the Premier League title.

A sense of progress is why Jurgen Klopp and Mauriccio Pochettino have sustained their positions at Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, despite failing to secure any silverware between them and have retained the favour of their club’s supporters.

Both have implemented a clear philosophy and playing style whilst creating the feeling around Anfield and Wembley that the team is moving forward in the right direction.

Wenger has secured more silverware than both Klopp and Pochettino combined since 2014 yet he finds himself under increasing pressure due to a lack of any forward momentum at the Emirates Stadium.

Whilst there is a general feeling that Liverpool and Tottenham are improving, the perception of many Arsenal supporters is that the club is standing still at best and certainly slipping behind their counterparts.

There have been question marks around Wenger’s future for some time and yet this feels like the 68-year-old is on the edge of cliff.

Success in the FA Cup has provided him with a degree of respite in recent years which made his team selection for the defeat to Nottingham Forrest appear especially bizarre.

With Arsenal already out of the title race you would have thought that Wenger would have put extra emphasis on winning the competition which, arguably, allowed him to negotiate a new contract in the summer.

However, such is the obvious disparity in quality between the Gunners and Manchester City that Wenger can no longer hide behind domestic cup success.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League for a second consecutive year would signify how far the club has fallen and the pressure on the Frenchman has been further exacerbated by the seemingly imminent departures of Sanchez and Ozil.

Whilst Liverpool and Tottenham are moving forward, Arsenal seem to be moving backwards. With Wenger’s position appearing increasingly fragile and the club in decline you have to wonder whether the Frenchman has now become the villain of the piece.

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