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Just how good is Arsenal and Man Utd target Morgan Schneiderlin?

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It’s easy to forget just how far Southampton have come in recent years; the Saints’ unlikely Champions League bid may have been unsuccessful, but the seventh place finish was the sixth consecutive season that the club had improved their league position.

Just six years ago, Southampton finished 23rd in the Championship and the club entered administration. Had the Liebherr family not have bought the Saints for around £15m, the club could have ceased to exist altogether.

One of the two survivors of that squad is goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, who after the Liebherr takeover decided to cancel his move to then-Premier League side West Ham, and made his 300th appearance for the Saints in the 2-0 loss to Manchester City last weekend, receiving a heroes reception from the 3,000 away fans at the Etihad.

The other survivor did not play in the final game of Southampton’s memorable 14/15 season, and many Saints fans reluctantly accept that he probably won’t play a part in the 15/16 season either. Morgan Schneiderlin had already said goodbye the week before after the final home game of the season, in the lap of honour after the 6-1 drubbing of Aston Villa.

Schneiderlin has been injured since the 2-2 draw against Tottenham, ironically coming against one of his most favoured managers in Mauricio Pochettino, and has likely played his last game on the South Coast. The next time he wears red and white, it will be more than likely the red and white of Spurs’ biggest rivals, Arsenal. Meanwhile, reports suggest Manchester United are interested.

Schneiderlin, who has made over 200 league appearances for Southampton, is reportedly wanted by both Manchester United and Arsenal.

The 25 year old is one of the more under-appreciated midfielders in the league, his reputation often coming from fans who just see his name linked to them in the papers, not from actual understanding of what he does. Some may say he’s just a box-to-box midfielder, because of the high number of tackles and interceptions he makes, but to call him a mere ball-winner would be drastically underestimating him.

Schneiderlin can play that role, but what sets him apart is how well rounded his game is. Physically very strong but also deceptively quick (as the video of his tackle on Danny Welbeck on Youtube will testify), the French international also has an impressive passing range, and provides a Gallic flair alongside the more robust Victor Wanyama. Under Pochettino he’d push forward more, but under Ronald Koeman he has become the conductor of the Southampton midfield, often just sitting in front of centre backs Toby Alderweireld and Jose Fonte.

It has been some journey for the Frenchman. Arriving from Strasbourg in summer 2008 as a skinny young 18 year old, he was thrown into the hustle and bustle of the Championship; like so many of the younger faces in that Saints team, he wasn’t ready to play so many games, and his rumoured £1m transfer fee, paid by a club struggling to pay the bills, meant he had more than his fair share of critics.

It would have been easy for Schneiderlin to give up and go back to France, like Romain Gasmi who also joined from Strasbourg that summer, but he didn’t want to. The club received offers for him, but the Frenchman wanted to prove himself and pay back the Saints. Schneiderlin’s new chairman, Nicola Cortese, made sure he knew he was to stay too, as the Italian banker ripped the transfer offers up in front of him.

It was tough in the Football League for the Frenchman, though. Still only 20, the four seasons he spent in League One and the Championship were a steep learning curve. He went from someone, by his own admission, who struggled to finish games to the player now who regularly tops the distance covered tables.

Perhaps his biggest adaptation was in his style of play. Casual watchers of Schneiderlin will know he’s a very good tackler, yet this is someone who was deemed by his former manager, Alan Pardew, as a player who couldn’t tackle. From a playmaker that struggled to impose himself on games, now he dictates the tempo and drives the team forward.

Schneiderlin has emerged as a domineering figure at the heart of the Saints midfield.

That has come from Schneiderlin’s own hard work; in the lower leagues, he struggled a bit with injury and suspension. He wasn’t the most important player in the team that won consecutive promotions, but it would have been very difficult to steal the limelight from Adam Lallana or Rickie Lambert.

Having wanted to leave last summer, even tweeting his displeasure of his ‘six years of an amazing journey being destroyed in one hour’, Schneiderlin was understandably frustrated at not being allowed to move, feeling promises had been broken.

But with a new agreement with the club’s hierarchy, after the previous arrangement was made with the departed Cortese, Schneiderlin was allowed to leave a season later. Considering the struggles of his ex-teammates, it was to his benefit.

And after keeping up his side of the bargain, it is now very likely that the midfielder will be finally be allowed his wish to join a team in the Champions League. Arsenal and Manchester United are the obvious favourites, considering his desire to continue in the Premier League, but a move to Juventus or PSG may not be totally out of the question, especially if they agree to the £25m asking price.

It will bring an end to the stay of perhaps one of Southampton’s finest players of the modern era. Considering the transformation that Schneiderlin has gone under in his seven years at Saints, it almost feels like the fans will be saying goodbye to one of their own. He may not have come from the muddy pitches of Hampshire, but the intense pride Southampton fans will have felt when he made his World Cup debut for France in the Maracana will have been priceless.

Merci beaucoup, Morgan, et bonne chance, wherever you may be.

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Arsenal

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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