Arsenal must continue their rebuild in January window

Unai Emery can be satisfied with his first few months in England. Arriving at Arsenal in the summer, the former Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla boss was faced with one of the biggest jobs in Premier League history. Somehow he had to untangle an entire legacy, the legacy of his predecessor Arsene Wenger. He hasn’t done that yet, but progress has been made.

Indeed, Arsenal are at least on an upward trajectory again. They are playing well and Emery has gone some way to instilling a winning mentality at the Emirates Stadium. As demonstrated against Spurs in last weekend’s North London derby, and to a lesser extent against Manchester United on Wednesday night, the Gunners are capable of competing with the elite.

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Nobody was really sure what to expect from Arsenal. Their summer business raised eyebrows, spending money, but not the sort of money usually splurged by the top teams in the Premier League. Now, their business looks to have been shrewd, with Lucas Torreira giving Arsenal the sort of bite they have missed in midfield for years. Sokratis Papastathopoulos has nailed down a place at centre back, while Bernd Leno and Matteo Guendouzi are now considered first team figures.

But if Arsenal are to continue their improvement, they must pick up their rebuild again when the January transfer window opens. Emery has found a starting lineup that can carry out his instructions, but that isn’t to say that they can’t get better. Arsenal’s top four place still isn’t certain. It’s entirely possible that they could fall away in the second half of the season, leaving them locked out of the Champions League for a third straight year.

Most of the transfer speculation surrounding the club at present concerns players potentially leaving the club. Before his season-ending injury, it was thought that Danny Welbeck would depart the Emirates in January. Aaron Ramsey is another who has been linked with an exit, with the Welsh midfielder’s contract set to expire at the end of the season.

Then there’s the Mesut Ozil saga. The German playmaker has fallen out of favour in recent weeks, with suggestions that Emery no longer sees him as a part of his long term plans. It’s unlikely that Ozil will leave mid-season, but that hasn’t stopped the rumour mill churning out conjecture.

Arsenal need to buy players, though. They could still do with another body in midfield, especially if Ramsey is to leave soon. Lyon’s Tanguy N’Dombele would fit the bill. They could also use a playmaker if Ozil is to depart, and so Isco, whose future at Real Madrid is far from certain, would be a blockbuster addition.

Emery is the coach and he has done well with what he has this season. Now, he needs the club, people like Sven Mislintat, to continue the rebuild in the transfer market. He needs more to work with.

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Riqui Puig is the player Barcelona have been waiting for

He was only on the pitch for 35 minutes, thrown on as a second half substitute with the game already won by then, but that was enough for Riqui Pique to catch the eye of everyone inside Camp Nou on Wednesday night. Long hyped as Barcelona’s next best thing, this was a glimpse of the future for the Catalan club.

There was something Xavi-esque about the display Puig put in against Cultural Leonesa, particularly his run and chipped through ball for Barcelona’s fourth goal on the night. Sure, it might have been against third tier opposition, but it takes a lot of ability for a player, any player, never mind one 17 years old, to command the Camp Nou turf like Puig did.

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Alongside Carles Alena, Barcelona fans were afforded a glimpse of what their team’s midfield of the future might look like. The Catalans have struggled to find players good enough to replace Andres Iniesta and Xavi, with Paulinho, Arturo Vidal, Arda Turan, Denis and Rafinha all given a shot. While Paulinho proved himself to be a decent option, and Vidal has played a lot in recent weeks, nobody has come close to filling the void.

Arthur has, so far, proved to be an astute signing, joining Barcelona from Gremio in the summer. Over time, it’s possible that he could form a midfield unit alongside Alena and Puig, who is still maturing. This could be the platform that sustains Barcelona in the post-Lionel Messi age.

What’s more, both Alena and Puig represent a recovery to the ways of old for Barcelona. The path from La Masia to the senior team has been walked by few in recent years, with the Catalan club instead splurging hundreds of millions on players in the transfer market.

Alena and Puig are both players forged from the Barcelona mould. They look like Barcelona players, they play like Barcelona players. Not since Thiago Alcantara has a midfielder looked like such a natural fit for the Catalan club. Now, Barca must ensure they don’t undervalue them and lose them to Bayern Munich.

Puig has been linked with a number of elite clubs, with Spurs the latest to be reported suitors for the teenager. Mauricio Pochettino took in a Barcelona B game during the international break, raising speculation that he could make a move for Puig, taking advantage of the contract regulations that leave Spanish sides at a disadvantage when it comes keeping teenagers.

Barcelona must do all they can to keep Puig. Not for years has a young prospect so clearly represented the future of the club. The era of Messi will one day come to an end and with the Argentinean now 31 Barca must start making plans. Puig is one of the players they should plan around. His 35-minute performance in the Copa del Rey demonstrated that.

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Arsenal can show Man Utd what they are missing

It was the best performance of Unai Emery’s time as Arsenal manager so far. Indeed, the Gunners’ display in the North London derby against Spurs on Sunday was everything the club’s fans wanted to see from their team in the post-Arsene Wenger era. It was fast and furious. There was a game plan. And most importantly, there was a victory.

One wonders what those Manchester United supporters who just so happened to catch the game thought of what they saw. 24 hours earlier, their team had struggled to a 2-2 draw against Southampton- the bottom team in the Premier League. It was in stark contrast to what Arsenal served up.

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Now, the two teams will face each other on Wednesday night. For both teams, this could be a season-defining clash. Man United are in desperate need of a win to give their chances of finishing in the top four a shot in the arm, while Arsenal also need a victory to shore up the progress they have made in recent weeks.

In terms of a sporting identity, there are plenty of parallels between Arsenal and Manchester United. They were fierce of rivals for years, when Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson locked horns for major honours, but in retrospect, there was more to unite them than there was to divide them.

Both sets of fans expect their team to play attractive, dynamic and attacking football. They also expect their team to challenge for silverware having grown accustomed to success. In recent years, the parallels have become even clearer, with Arsenal and Man United left looking upwards at teams like Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and even Leicester City.

But while United have festered and allowed malaise to grow at the club, Arsenal have taken measures to overhaul themselves. The replacement of Wenger with Emery in the summer was the most public- most significant part of that overhaul- but changes have also taken place behind the scenes.

This has manifested itself in what we have seen on the pitch from Arsenal so far this season. They have a transfer strategy, a clear and coherent notion of what they want the club to be, and of what they want the club to represent. This led them to the hiring of Emery through a comprehensive recruitment process in line with this approach.

United, on the other hand, are utterly dependent on one man, Jose Mourinho. And that one man is charged with imposing an identity on the club. This is an infrastructure that rarely works in the modern game, and we are seeing that in the way United have struggled this season.

Arsenal can show Manchester and their fans what they are missing on Wednesday night. They can show the Old Trafford club what happens when there is a plan and when that plan is implemented properly.

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North London derby will be marker for Arsenal

Arsenal aren’t used to looking upwards at Spurs. The Gunners finished above their North London rivals for 22 years in succession before the 2017/18 season, when Spurs broke the trend that had been over two decades in the making.

Indeed, the dynamic of the North London derby has been flipped in recent seasons, with Spurs setting a precedent for Arsenal to aspire to, rather than the other way around. While Mauricio Pochettino has built a team within touching distance of mounting a genuine title challenge, Arsenal have struggled to break into the top four.

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The Gunners are in the midst of a revolution, with Unai Emery replacing Arsene Wenger in the summer. This is a long term project that won’t even be judged on what is achieved in the first season under the former Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla boss. With this in mind, though, Arsenal have already made progress.

While the Gunners may not be good enough to challenge for the title this season, they are back in play for a top four spot. What’s more, Emery has restored Arsenal’s identity as a team. Once again, they are one of the most dynamic, entertaining teams in the Premier League, with the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all in good form.

After two years looking upwards at Spurs, Arsenal might be back on an equal footing with their North London rivals. The two teams are occupying the same section of the Premier League table this season, competing for the same places. That will give this weekend’s derby, the first of the season, a real edge.

In terms of sheer competitiveness, the North London derby might be the Premier League’s fiercest right now. The Manchester derby is a mismatch in its current form, with City streets ahead of United. The Merseyside derby is historically also a mismatch, and even more so at this point, with Liverpool title challengers and Everton only aiming for the top six.

Then there’s the Second City derby, with both Aston Villa and Birmingham City down in the Championship at present. Arsenal and Chelsea is a London derby, and like Arsenal and Spurs, they are competing for the same places this season, but it’s not a rivalry entrenched in history like the North London derby.

For Arsenal, this Sunday’s game will be a real marker for the improvement made, or not made, under Emery. The Gunners have won almost every game they have been expected to win so far this season, but they have lost or drawn to every higher calibre side they have faced. Spurs, at the very least, are a team of equal quality. This weekend’s match could have a real bearing on how this season turns out for both rivals. It will have a symbolic and sporting impact.

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Lionel Messi is masking Barcelona’s problems

On the face of things, all went well for Barcelona on Wednesday night. Against a PSV Eindhoven side intent of giving it one last go to climb their way off the foot of Group B in this season’s Champions League, the Catalans claimed a 2-1 win to secure top spot. Dig a little deeper, though, and there was plenty to concern Ernesto Valverde.

Barca gave up enough opportunities for the result to be very different – ‘gave up’ being the key term. As effective as PSV were in the final third, hassling and harrying the Spanish champions, Valverde’s side were unusually slack with possession. Sergio Busquets surely can’t have had many looser games. Ivan Rakitic wasn’t much better, with Marc-Andre Ter Stegen also extremely uncomfortable.

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The xG plot maps produced after full time backed up the notion that PSV, had they taken their chances, probably should have beaten, or at least taken a point off, Barcelona. The visitors were fortunate to leave with all three points, once again owing to the brilliance of Lionel Messi, whose stunning opener changed the course of the match as a contest.

Fears that Messi may be slowing down have been, so far, unfounded this season, with the Argentinean as lethal as ever. Playing in a ‘false nine’ position on Wednesday night, with Luis Suarez missing for the match, Messi was both Barcelona’s attacking hub and their cutting edge. He is good enough to play both roles at the same time.

Elsewhere, though, there was reason for Valverde to be concerned. Barcelona’s midfield was far too deep against PSV, with Philippe Coutinho positioned only slightly in front of the central platform of Busquets and Rakitic. This resulted in Barca holding the ball closer to their own goal than is normal, which subsequently incentivised PSV to press high on the Catalans.

Last season, Valverde was criticised for not rotating his squad sufficiently. This resulted in Barcelona running out of steam when they reached the latter rounds of the Champions League, demonstrated by their infamous collapse to Roma in the quarter finals.

While Valverde is rotating his squad better this season, his changes on Wednesday night were peculiar. Busquets and Rakitic were quite clearly struggling from the 60-minute mark onwards, yet the Barca boss chose to withdraw Ousmane Dembele rather than resting one of his fatigued central midfielders.

This only accentuated the positional issues that Barcelona were experiencing in the middle of the pitch, giving PSV a way back into the match when the points should have been secured with the scoring of the second goal through Gerard Pique. Against better teams, Barca could come unstuck if they continue to play in this way. They might be through to the Champions League last 16, top of their group, but Valverde has plenty to think about.

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Unai Emery should be praised for his flexibility, not criticised for it

As soon as Mesut Ozil was spotted on the Arsenal bench for the weekend’s away day at Bournemouth, there was gossiping. Was this a sign that the German no longer had a place at the North London club? Or that there had been an argument between the playmaker and Unai Emery? Would he be off in the January transfer window?

As it turned out Emery had an explanation for Ozil’s omission from the Arsenal team. “We thought about how we can be better in the match today, with a very demanding match physically with their intensity against us and we decided,” the Spaniard said after the 2-1 win on the south coast.

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In essence, Emery opted for a more physical style to combat what Bournemouth would throw at his team. In the end, it was a strategy that worked well, as Arsenal claimed all three points to edge them closer to the Premier League’s top four places, just a single point behind Chelsea.

Rather than being criticised for his flexibility, Emery should be praised for it. For years under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal were typecast, with good reason, as a team that would play one, and only one, way. It didn’t matter the opposition or the situation, Wenger’s side would attempt to impose their natural game.

Of course, that didn’t always work and Arsenal suffered for it. Now, Emery is taking measures to be more pragmatic, to make better use of the squad he has, and against Bournemouth it worked. The Gunners didn’t need Ozil to grind out the win over Bournemouth and as manager Emery was entitled to take the decision he did.

Increasingly in the modern game, it’s assumed that every top player will play every minute of every match. We perhaps have Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to thank for this zeitgeist, such is their superhuman drive to do exactly that – play every minute of every match. It should, however, be entirely normal for a manager to alter his team depending on the task at hand.

There have been suggestions that Emery and Ozil don’t always see eye to eye, that the two figures clashed earlier in the season. If that is truly the case, it’s unlikely the German will have been enamoured with the decision to leave him out of the team on Sunday, even if Emery could offer vindication.

In so many ways, Emery is the manager Arsenal have needed for years. He is in the antidote to the latter part of the Wenger era, and his versatility and pragmatism is just another aspect of that. Dropping Ozil, just as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was benched for a spell earlier in the season, demonstrates this. Let’s move on from the hysteria of the Spaniard’s decision on Sunday.

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Real Madrid’s problems down to much more than just the manager

As interim head coach, Santiago Solari had claimed four wins from four games. At the time of his appointment as the stop-gap solution, few believed that the former midfielder would be given the job for real, but the Real Madrid squad seemed to respond well to his methods, leaving Florentino Perez will little choice. Solari would be the new manager.

In his bow as permanent boss, though, familiar problems surfaced for Real Madrid. It was often said that Julen Lopetegui was unlucky as Real Madrid manager, that his players struck the woodwork more than was normal, that ricochets and odd bounces went against him. But luck wasn’t a factor on Saturday for Solari.

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale look dejected after the first goal of Sevilla team during their soccer match in Seville

Real Madrid were soundly beaten by Eibar. The 3-0 scoreline was reflective of the game as a whole, with Solari’s side dominated from start to finish. They could have no complaints. They got what they deserved, leaving Real five points adrift of La Liga pace-setters Barcelona by Saturday evening.

Lopetegui paid for Real Madrid’s dismal start to the season with his job, but the capital club’s problems are down to much more than just the manager. This is a team, and a squad, with a great imbalance, most significantly in terms of spirit and personality. That was evident in the performance against Eibar.

The loss of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer was always going to be a blow to Real Madrid, especially with no real replacement signed for the Portuguese forward, but most misunderstood the true nature of the impact that would be felt. While Ronaldo was a great goalscorer, maybe the greatest of all time, it was his character that was of most value to Real Madrid.

He would be the one who would drag Real Madrid through games like the one they experienced at Ipurua on Saturday. Ronaldo was the one who would keep Real Madrid believing. It was this spirit that saw them win three Champions League titles on the spin.

Nobody has stepped into this void of personality that Ronaldo has left at the Santiago Bernabeu. Sergio Ramos, the club captain, has tried, but he lacks the composure to lead by example. Gareth Bale is another who fancied himself to step into the Ronaldo role, but the Welsh winger has wasted his chance this season. He’s waited years for this opportunity at Real Madrid, finally out of the shadow of Ronaldo, but Bale has never looked so out of his depth.

Real Madrid need an overhaul. They have become a team without an identity. Of course, this was a problem that simmered under the surface last season, and maybe even the season before, but winning was their identity under Zinedine Zidane. Now that is gone, they have nothing. That is not Solari’s fault.

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Unai Emery is right about Arsenal’s defence

The first step to change is the acceptance of a problem in the first place. This seemed beyond Arsene Wenger, who time and time again refused to acknowledge Arsenal, under his charge, had become a soft touch at the back. Everyone could see their defence was vulnerable, prone to weakness at the worst possible moments, but Wenger couldn’t.

This is just one of the reasons the Frenchman was pushed out of the club at the end of last season. In Unai Emery, the Gunners now have a manager who is intent on changing things, and progress has been made over the first few months of the season, with Arsenal once again one of the most exhilarating teams to watch in the Premier League.

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However, at the back the same old problems persist. Arsenal have, more than once, looked shaky in defence, but at least Emery recognises there are problems to be addressed. That’s more than could have been said about Wenger, whose stubbornness became his worst quality over time.

“Before Wenger came, Arsenal celebrated 1-0 and were based on defensive solidity,” the Spaniard explained in an interview given to the Spanish press earlier this week. “With Arsene, joy came from attacking, with players of good standing. And the perfect combination was the Invincibles.

“But over time, only technical quality and offensive freedom were taken care of, losing the defensive structure. What I want is to unite both essences and be more competitive. Arsenal was in decline. We had to stop it and start climbing.”

As demonstrated across the Premier League, defensive resolution is difficult to instil in a team. There is a global shortage of top class centre backs at the moment, explaining why Liverpool were so desperate to sign Virgil Van Dijk for a club record fee of £70 million last January. Emery has yet to settle on his defensive formula, at least one that works.

So far Shokdran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos have been used as Arsenal’s centre back pairing, with Hector Bellerin on the left of the defence and Nacho Monreal on the left. Bellerin has rediscovered his form this season, with Monreal his usual consistent self. But at the heart of the defence, Mustafi and Sokratis have proved less than convincing… and that’s putting it mildly.

It could take some time for the former Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla boss to get things right at the back – just look at how long it took Jurgen Klopp to settle on a defensive line at Liverpool. But as least Emery knows there is a problem. Whether it’s through coaching or through signings made in the transfer market, the defensive process has only just started at Arsenal.

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Giles Grimandi exit underlines Arsenal overhaul

The exit of Arsene Wenger and the subsequent hiring of Unai Emery as his successor was widely recognised the symbolic changing of the guard desperately needed at Arsenal. In truth, though, the overhaul had started at the Emirates Stadium long before then.

Indeed, much has changed around Arsenal over the past 18 months or so. The club has implemented a new structure, with Sven Mislintat the most high profile appointment made in preparation for Wenger’s departure. The former Borussia Dortmund chief now has more power than anyone else at the Gunners, but influence is spread across a whole team of figures.

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Now, it emerges that Giles Grimandi is set to leave Arsenal. The former defender was a key figure in the Wenger camp, overseeing the club’s scouting operation in France, where the Gunners sourced many of their best players over the years. Grimandi played a significant role in the creation of the club Arsenal became under Wenger.

This is why his exit is so symbolic. Arsenal, in every way, are moving on from the Wenger era. They are implementing a new, more comprehensive infrastructure that will see them become the modern football club. A scouting overhaul will help them do that. They have already made progress when it comes to scouting Germany, where a number of new signings have been sourced over the past 18 months or so.

And yet while Arsenal are doing their best to move on from the Wenger era, they are rediscovering the identity that made them so successful under their former manager. Emery has brought back the brand of exhilarating, dynamic football that hasn’t been seen seen at the Emirates for years.

When it comes to scouting as well, Arsenal are seeking a return to the ways of old. In the mid 2000s, there was no club in the Premier League better at scouting talent. The Gunners managed to keep up with their rivals through shrewd moves in the transfer market. They rarely spent big, with the £12 million signing of Jose Antonio Reyes standing as the club’s transfer record for years.

Arsenal have already flexed their scouting muscle by finding Matteo Guendouzi, signed for around £7 million from Lorient. To keep up with the likes of Manchester City and Manchester United, they will need more like the French midfielder. The Gunners, it seems, will become increasingly dependent on their scouting system.

Great progress has been made at Arsenal over the last 18 months or so. Most will focus on the way Emery’s team are playing this season, exciting fans once again, and most importantly, winning. But the real marker of progress can be found in the off-the-field detail. Grimandi’s exit is just the next part of the process.

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Would Ousmane Dembele be the right fit for Arsenal?

From the moment Ousmane Dembele arrived in Barcelona as the most expensive teenager, and the second most expensive player, in football history, questions were asked. The French winger was the replacement for Neymar, sold to Paris Saint-Germain in the sale of the summer, possibly even of this century, but he is not a player in the mould of the departing Brazilian.

Injuries hampered Dembele’s first season in Spain, but even when he did make it on the pitch he looked short of confidence, sometimes even short of ability. Some doubted whether he would truly ever be good enough for Barcelona, even at such a young age.

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A full pre-season and a run of games saw Dembele hit the ground running at the start of the season, but familiar doubts have started to rise to the surface once again. The Frenchman has made headlines in Spain over the past week, with it being reported that Barcelona are growing increasingly concerned at what they view to be a lack fo discipline from their player.

Some of this criticism has been grossly unfair on Dembele, who has shown himself to be a valuable member of Ernesto Valverde’s team a number of times over the past few months. He has scored important goals and has started to forge relationships with the likes of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

Nonetheless, there are rumours that Dembele could soon leave Camp Nou, with Arsenal reported to be leading the chase for the French winger. So would Dembele be a good fit for the Gunners? Or would Unai Emery suffer many of the same problems in trying to fit him into his team that Valverde has over the past season-and-a-half?

If Arsenal can get Dembele for a cut price deal, around £60 million as has been mooted, then they would be foolish not to make a move. At just 21 years old, the former Borussia Dortmund winger is still growing as a player, and as a person. It would be a pretty solid investment in the future, even if Dembele currently suffers from dips in form. It’s the same for most young players.

What’s more, Emery’s system and approach would suit Dembele better than Valverde’s presently does. Arsenal have taken to playing with speed and directness in the final third under their new Spanish manager this season. This has seen Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette find their groove.

There’s space for Dembele on the right side of their attacking line, with Aubameyang on the left, Lacazette as the central striker and Mesut Ozil in behind. In fact, he could be exactly the player Arsenal need to rebalance their team which, at present, places too much of an emphasis on the left side. If Barcelona are selling, as unwise and as hasty as that would be, Arsenal should be in line to buy.

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