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Will Arsene’s returning stars fire the Gunners to Europe?

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For Arsenal fans, the 2014/2015 season has been somewhat of a mixed bag. The Gunners suffered an indifferent start to the season, their early form dotted by several draws and a handful of losses, the low point coming in late November after a loss at home to Manchester United left Arsene Wenger’s men stuck in eighth position in the Premier League table. However, these results were affected heavily by injuries to key players, including Mesut Özil, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott; a trio of players who, back in contention for the Gunners in recent weeks, have helped turn the season around. Additionally, the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin and David Ospina have all made a difference to Arsenal from a defensive standpoint, making the Gunners a much tougher opponent in the process.

Arsenal have won nine of thirteen matches in the Premier League since they hit their lowest ebb in that loss to Manchester United, and have enjoyed a relatively painless run to the FA Cup Quarter Finals with wins over Hull, Brighton and Middlesbrough since the turn of the year. Furthermore, the Gunners’ good recent form puts them fourth in the form table, marginally above some of their direct rivals in the race for Champions League football during 2015/2016, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. Their other rivals in the European race, it seems, are Southampton and Liverpool, who are both – according to the form table – in excellent form. However, question remarks perhaps remain over both Southampton’s attack and Liverpool’s defence, while Arsenal seem to be getting continually better thanks to the return of their key attackers.

Equally, Arsenal have a relatively kind run-in; of the remaining thirteen games, they play two direct rivals, Liverpool (at home) and United (away), as well as league leaders Chelsea, but the further ten games are all fixtures which one would realistically expect Arsenal to be winning. Spurs, meanwhile, face a gruelling Europa League campaign – assuming they can beat Fiorentina – which could feasibly force a down-turn in results, while Manchester United have to play the majority of the top half between now and May. Interestingly, the re-match of the game which provided Arsenal with this season’s current low-point – with the Red Devils – could ultimately decide a lot in the race for Europe.

However, this is all pure conjecture about football teams and their respective formbooks; as we all know, that is subject to a great deal of change, and it’d be churlish not to expect a raft of surprises between now and the end of the season. It is much more productive to look at the reasons for Arsenal’s upturn in form in recent weeks, and how this could continue.

Firstly, dropping Wojciech Szczesny has proven an incredibly productive step by manager Arsene Wenger, with Colombian custodian David Ospina providing a more than capable replacement; looking far more steady than the at-times hapless Pole in goal. Having played each of Arsenal’s last five games in the Premier League, Ospina has conceded a miserly three goals, keeping three clean sheets in the process. Szczesny started against Middlesbrough in the cup at the weekend, and Wenger maintains he’s “not yet chosen a number one”, but it’s quite obvious as to who the jersey should belong to. Ospina has missed much of the season due to injury, and it’s unclear whether he’d have played if fit during his spell on the sidelines, but should the Colombian stay fit between now and May, and barring a series of terrible mistakes, Arsenal fans should probably feel safer with Ospina in goal.

Arsenal’s recent strength in defence has also been helped by the re-emergence of the Koscielny/Mertesacker partnership which was so lauded last season. Mertesacker hadn’t quite looked himself without the French defender, but the pairing have finally managed to get a run of games together and, as a result, Arsenal’s defence has sharpened, only conceding five in the league in 2015 thus far.

Also useful has been the emergence of Francis Coquelin as a useful defensive midfielder. Given Flamini’s erratic performances since his return to the Emirates last summer, Arsenal have been short of a player to break up the play, and Coquelin has finally provided someone to play this role. Much like Lucas at Liverpool, Coquelin isn’t a particularly brilliant player – people who saw any of his loan spell at Freiburg last year should attest to this – and while Arsenal have vastly better players, the Frenchman can, it seems play his role better than anyone else. His excellent performance against Manchester City at the Etihad in January showed a player whose presence alone can help Arsenal in the big games; it will be interesting to see how Coquelin’s position in the team develops over the run-in.

On a similar note, Arsenal’s attack has been bolstered since the Christmas period by the return of the aforementioned trio of Özil, Walcott and Giroud. The trio have managed just 31 games between them this season, but have provided vital goals and assists since their comebacks. Giroud’s goals have proven crucial at times since his return, scoring seven since the Manchester United game (including his goal that day). His petulant sending off against QPR proved costly when the Gunners played Southampton and lacked any bite up front, but it has perhaps been Giroud’s absence which has shown just how important he is in Arsenal’s all round play – as well as, obviously, being Arsenal’s main goal threat. Giroud was, at points of last season, perhaps taken for granted – even then, arguably rightfully so, given his poor runs of form at points – but has proven the difference in a few games since coming back into contention, and with goals against United, City and Liverpool, among others, the French striker has proven himself as a big game player, which could become useful for the Gunners during the run in.

Özil has been something of a revelation in recent weeks and, despite his return from injury still being at an early stage, having only played three full Premier League fixtures, appears to be in the best form of his still-relatively-embryonic Arsenal career. The German has two goals and three assists in the last three league games, and arguably pulled the strings for Arsenal against Leicester, creating both goals. A player of his calibre, finally in the form which earned him a move to the Emirates in the first place, will prove incredibly important come the end of the season. Walcott, too, has impressed – often in tandem with Özil – but the England winger is yet to complete ninety minutes following the rupturing of his cruciate ligament. As his return from injury continues, expect him to continue the lethal form he was in prior to his injury in the FA Cup third round last year – even while returning to full fitness, he’s managed a return of three goals.

Everything, it seems, points towards a positive few months for Arsenal; if they can keep their key players fit for a few weeks, they’ll be in a brilliant position with regards to qualifying for the Champions League, something which, a few months ago, seemed to be a tough ask. This, too, is without even mentioning the excellent seasons of Cazorla, Sanchez or Rosicky; Arsenal are arguably still in with a shout in the European race because of that particular trio. Everything depends heavily on their head-to-head matches with rivals in the race for Europe, it must be said, but crucially, Arsenal’s form is on an upward curve, and this can only be good for Arsene Wenger, his squad, and the club’s fans.

Conor is a lifelong fan of Swindon Town. He hosts Dreierpack Podcast, a podcast about the Bundesliga, and writes about Borussia Mönchengladbach for the Bundesliga Fanatic.

Arsenal

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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Arsenal
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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