Rotated Arsenal side lose out to Crystal Palace

Unai Emery

Unai Emery opted to rotate his starting line up against Crystal Palace. Arsenal were made to pay though, as goals from Christian Benteke, Wilfried Zaha and James McArthur cancelled out strikes from Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, handing Palace the victory.

Emery clearly decided he needed to give some of his players a rest following Thursday night’s 1-0 win away at Napoli, which had secured the club’s place in the Europa League semi final.

There was a total of six changes. Bernd Leno was back between the sticks for the Gunners, as is usual for league games, replacing Petr Cech who is their cup keeper. Shkodran Mustafi and Konstantinos Mavropanos replaced Nacho Monreal and suspended Sokratis Papastathopoulos in the back three. Matteo Guendouzi and Mohamed Elneny replaced Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira at the base of the midfield, while Mesut Özil replaced Aaron Ramsey.

Perhaps the most surprising addition of the lot was Carl Jenkinson, who was making his first competitive start in a red and white shirt since February. It was also just the second time Mavropanos has started this campaign. Neither made an impact though, as they were both brought off at half time to be replaced by Alex Iwobi and Maitland-Niles, with Mavropanos having already been carded.

Arsenal will have seen this loss as a wasted opportunity to solidify their place in the Champions League places. A victory would have taken the Gunners two points ahead of third placed Tottenham Hotspur and three ahead of fourth placed Chelsea with just four games of the Premier League season remaining. They are still clinging onto that fourth spot though, as they lead Chelsea on goal difference.

That Emery decided to make so many changes in this match, rather than resting men against Napoli -especially as his side already had a two goal lead from the first leg- could show that he is prioritising the Europa League. His record with Sevilla in Europe’s secondary competition is well known and it is now the only trophy he can possibly win in his maiden Arsenal campaign.

He will be wary of Arsenal losing their place in the top four though, as to do so would put added pressure on his side winning the Europa League. If the Gunners slip up and fail to secure Champions League football for next season, it would mean missing out on a spot in Europe’s biggest competition for a third year in a row. This is something they surely can’t afford to happen.

The Arsenal manager will now need to perform a balancing act, regarding who he rests and starts, if his team are to fight on both fronts for the remainder of the season. The Gunners have two Premier League games in a week -against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City- before their Europa League semi final first leg against Valencia on May 2nd.

Many will argue that he has done well since taking over from Arsène Wenger, though his side’s performance between now and the end of May will dictate how his first season is remembered.

 

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Arsenal’s away troubles hint at lingering Wenger-era weakness

Things were supposed to be different, and in many ways they are. Arsenal, with Unai Emery at the helm, are in a good position to finish in the Premier League’s top four, their objective at the start of the season. The Spaniard has revived some aspects of the North London club many believed to have died under Arsene Wenger.

One rather significant remnant of the Wenger era lingers, though. Just as was the case last season, the Gunners have struggled away from home of late, winning just one of their last 10 away games in the league. If there is one thing holding Arsenal back from achieving their targets, it is their dismal away record.

Chelsea 3-2 Arsenal

So how can they address this? Well, for starters they must look to take the initiative more often. Far too frequently, Emery’s side invite pressure on top of themselves when they have the capacity and ability to take control themselves. Arsenal, on their travels are too flimsy in the centre of midfield and defence. This was obvious in the recent away defeats to Everton and West Ham.

What’s more, Arsenal’s pressing game seems to lose its edge when they are away from the Emirates Stadium. At home, the Gunners tend to press from the front, yet on the road they sit back. Alexandre Lacazette against Everton, for instance, found himself in midfield for the majority of the match whenever the opposition had the ball. He should have been leading a high press from the front.

Mesut Ozil is another who could help improve Arsenal’s recent away record. The German can often be unfairly typecast as the sort of player who slacks off when it comes to the dirty side of the game. Recent displays against Manchester United and Rennes have gone against the grain of that perception, but away from home Ozil reverts to that damaging typecast. He is too passive.

The other issue Arsenal face is that individual errors are costing them. Those are much harder to legislate for, but Emery must attempt to instil the sort of confidence and self-assurance in his players that lead to these mistakes being avoided.

Arsenal currently occupy a place in the top four and stand a good chance of finishing there. Emery has undoubtedly made progress in his first season at the club, but old weaknesses remain. Ironing them out will be key to achieving long term success and there is no bigger kink than the troublesome away record.

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Unai Emery has been a success at Arsenal in his debut season

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While the Premier League still has 6 weeks to go it does seem that Unai Emery has done a very good job if not always brilliant one at Arsenal.

These are still strange times at the club, coming to terms with Arsene Wenger leaving after 22 years, the Frenchman was such a part of the club and its history. So having any new manager come in was always going to be judged, good or bad. But on the face of it Emery has done a great job considering this is his debut season.

Tonight Arsenal will play Newcastle and will start as the favourites to win. They are at home where they haven’t actually lost in the league since being beaten by Manchester City on the opening day of the season- that’s quite a record for a non title challenger. What is significant is that if the Gunners do win tonight they would go 3rd and 2 points clear of Manchester United and their great rival Tottenham, so this would be a statement win.

Emery has done well in the transfer market and has a calmness and assurance about him, which has at times frustrated the Arsenal faithful but he also garners there respect too. We shouldn’t forget that Arsenal also have a realistic chance of winning the Europa League and they have made it to the quarter finals. Emery is of course a specialist in winning the competition, it was his hat trick of successes in it which led PSG to sign him up. How ironic too would it be if Emery won in his first season a competition that Wenger couldn’t in 20 plus years.

What will also be assured this season is that Arsenal will easily past the 64 point mark that Wenger’s Arsenal achieved last season, evidently then an improvement. If Arsenal end up with no trophies at the end of the season but qualify for the Champions League and with more league wins under their belt, then this season has to be deemed as a successful one for the club. Little steps granted but going in the right direction which under Wenger they weren’t.

It will be fascinating to see who Arsenal buy in the summer and to be fair Emery should only be judged in his 2nd season with the club as he gets his feet under the table. The pressure to add to the trophy cabinet will be greater too. For now though Arsenal will be aiming for 3rd place tonight.

How much longer will Arsenal persist with Shkodran Mustafi?

At the time, it appeared a shrewd signing. A World Cup winner with Germany in 2014, Shkodran Mustafi looked to be a solid addition for Arsenal in the summer of 2016. The Gunners needed defensive reinforcements and the German, signed from Valencia for a fee of £35 million, seemed to fit the bill.

Since then, though Mustafi has become a perpetual source of frustration and exasperation for Arsenal fans. Never before has the Emirates Stadium faithful seen such an error prone player, and that’s saying something given the calamity merchants that have rolled through the club in recent years. On Tuesday, they were forced to watch another gaffe from the 26-year-old.

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In Tuesday’s friendly against Al Nasr, played in Dubai following a few days of warm weather training during the international break, Mustafi was at fault. Again. The German fell over not once, but twice as he attempted to block Ronnie Fernandez for the opener, playing something closer to crab football than anything resembling the professional game. It was comical, although not from an Arsenal standpoint.

Of course, this was a meaningless mistake. This was just a friendly, but Mustafi has become a liability in much bigger games, in the Premier League and Europa League this season. At this stage, it’s remarkable that he continues to hold down a place in Unai Emery’s starting lineup.

Mustafi has failed time and time again to learn from his mistakes. His gaffes can be traced all the way back to last season, when costly lapses in concentration were made in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City and Premier League games against Southampton and Newcastle United.

The German has carried his gaffe-prone ways over to this season. He is a source of the defensive insecurity that continues to dog Arsenal in the post-Arsene Wenger age. Emery has done his best to overhaul the culture of mediocrity that lingers at the Emirates Stadium, but until players like Mustafi are cast aside he won’t be able to do that entirely.

Arsenal must look to sell Mustafi as soon as possible. Far too frequently in the past the Gunners have shown faith in players who do not deserve it. Mustafi is one such player and so even if it takes taking a financial hit, which would likely be the case, the 26-year-old must be pushed out the door.

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Who should Arsenal target in the transfer market this summer?

It’s not yet certain what Arsenal’s season will hold, with the Gunners still in the chase for a top four finish and qualification to next season’s Champions League, but they must already start looking ahead to the summer. Speculation has already been sparked over who could arrive at the Emirates Stadium.

Of course, it’s not yet known if Arsenal will spend big. In January, they only signed Denis Suarez on loan from Barcelona, with their transfer market outlay last summer modest. The North London side aren’t even trying to challenge the likes of the two Manchester clubs and the two Spanish giants for players anymore. They need to look elsewhere.

pepe

So who should they target this summer? Kieran Tierney has been linked with a move to the Emirates Stadium in recent weeks, with the Celtic left bak considered one of the best young prospects in the European game right now. With Nacho Monreal expected to move on at the end of the season, his signing would be a shrewd addition.

Unai Emery could use a wide attacker to compliment what he already has in the final third with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette and so Nicolas Pepe could be a target this summer, with the Lille winger attracted attention from a number of Premier League and European clubs.

However, Pepe could cost something close to £100 million and that would put the winger out of Arsenal’s reach. This could force the Gunners to look at younger options, with Paris Saint-Germain’s Christopher Nkunku linked with a move to North London. He would seem to fit the profile that Arsenal are looking for.

Much of Arsenal’s focus this summer will be on moving players out, rather than bringing them out. Aaron Ramsey is already set to make the move to Juventus when his contract runs out and Monreal, as already mentioned, is expected to leave the Emirates Stadium. Barcelona, of all clubs, are reported to be interested.

Then there’s the continuing Mesut Ozil saga. Emery hasn’t managed to keep his desire to get the German out of the club much of a secret, but on a contract of £350,000 finding a buyer for the playmaker will be tough. Bringing in the right players on a modest budget might prove just as tough for the Gunners.

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Arsenal must retain focus after Monchi and Overmars snubs

Arsenal thought they had their man. By many accounts, Monchi, the superstar sporting director credited with forging an era for unprecedented success at Sevilla and, partly, with guiding Roma to the semi finals of the Champions League last season, had an offer from the Gunners and he was expected to accept it.

So last week’s announcement that Monchi, rather than making the move to North London, would be returning to Sevilla came as something of a surprise, not least to those in the corridors of power at Arsenal. For months, Monchi had been a target, but like so many of the Gunners’ targets he choose to look elsewhere.

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This disappointment was compounded by Marc Overmars, another option to fill the sporting director’s position at Emirates Stadium, deciding to extend his contract at Ajax the very next day. Overmars was never Arsenal’s number one choice for the job, but he was a good option. That option is now gone.

Arsenal find themselves in a transitional period right now, not just on the field, but off it too. Unai Emery, it seems, is making progress in leading the Gunners into the top four, but things remain fluid behind the scenes as the North London club restructure following the exit of Arsene Wenger at the end of last season.

The idea was always for a sporting director, of some sorts, to be appointed in the post-Wenger age. The hiring of Sven Mislintat as head of recruitment 18 months ago seemed to be made with the intention of moving the German into a more senior role this season. That didn’t happen, though, and Mislintat left Arsenal at the start of February in frustration.

This suggested that Arsenal were no longer so committed to the notion of a sporting director, but their pursuit of Monchi illustrated otherwise. The Spaniard’s snub towards the North London club shouldn’t blur their focus, though. The Gunners still need someone of a similar mould and they must be considered in their recruitment process.

This process should be thorough, but Arsenal, so far, have been muddled in their thinking. Why was Monchi set to be afforded the freedom Mislintat was denied? What led Monchi to snub them? The Gunners are fighting against the current of many off-the-field factors, but they must swim against them to get where they want to be.

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Are Arsenal hitting their stride ahead of season’s final stretch?

There was a stretch of three games over the middle February during which it seemed Arsenal’s season was at risk of falling apart. Defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium left the Gunners slumped in sixth place in the Premier League table, with the away loss to BATE Borisov one week later also leaving their Europa League hopes hanging by a threat.

Since then, Arsenal have made quite the recovery. They have won five of their last seven games with their only defeat coming away to Rennes in the Europa League, a result that was overturned with a 3-0 home win in the second leg on Thursday night. This run of results has seen Arsenal lift themselves back up into the top four and firmly into Europa League contention.

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League

Unai Emery has faced questions almost from the moment he first arrived at the Emirates Stadium last summer and there have been times when the former Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla has looked to be buckling under the pressure. But now, as Arsenal head into the final stretch of the season, it seems that he and his team are finding their stride.

Last week’s home win over Manchester United was a landmark moment in the Gunners’ season. Defeat would have widened the gap between Arsenal and the top four and bolstered one of their rivals at a critical time of the campaign. Instead, they built momentum of their own and now look value to achieve their objective of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

“In the domestic league, like here, we have six teams playing to be in the top four,” Emery said after the win over Rennes. Two teams are going out and the Europa League is giving us a big opportunity also to take one way to go to the Champions League. And also, it’s one title. I am excited about this competition.

“It’s not just because you can get to the Champions League through this competition. It’s also because it’s one title and I think we can feel the possibility to win one title, doing this way with a difficult moment like today and playing also against big teams.”

Arsenal seem to be hitting their stride at just the right time, whether it’s in the Premier League or the Europa League where the Gunners have to be one of the frontrunners. Their season might just be coming together.

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Why did Arsenal sign Denis Suarez?

Arsenal’s hands were tied in the January transfer window. With the Gunners’ season on the brink of falling away, they really could have used some mid-season reinforcements. Instead, Unai Emery was restricted to loan additions only and so Denis Suarez was the club’s only January addition, joining Arsenal from Barcelona until the end of the season.

Suarez had struggled for game time at Barca this season, but the midfielder looked to be a good fit for the Gunners, despite the short term nature of his move to North London. Two months later, though, and the Spaniard has only made a handful of appearances for Arsenal.

Denis Suarez

Indeed, Suarez has made only six appearances for the Gunners since joining from Barcelona. He has yet to be given a single start. So this begs the question – why did Arsenal sign Suarez in the first place? Was he just a signing for the sake of a signing? Will he return to Barcelona in the summer without even being given a chance to show what he is all about?

“Denis is improving every day and his quality can give us a lot,” explained Emery in a recent interview. “He cannot play 90 minutes because he needs rhythm. One possibility is he starts and knows that [he would come off] or he comes off the bench. He is getting to know us. His adaptation needs time.”

The thing is, Arsenal don’t have time to get the best out of Suarez. They only have him until the end of the season and as things stand there is not enough evidence to suggest the Gunners should make a permanent move for the 25-year-old at the end of the season. The whole thing, right now, looks like a waste of time.

Suarez fits the profile of the sort of player Arsenal are looking for. He is energetic, provides drive, but is good with the ball at his feet. At 25, he is still relatively young and so he holds some sell-on value. But Arsenal were not able to secure Suarez on a permanent deal in January, so what’s the point of having such a player on the bench?

On whether Suarez could move to the Emirates Stadium this summer, Emery recently said: “For me so far, each match and each week can change a lot. We are every match doing a test. We are very demanding to work hard, be focused and show everyone we can improve and be better every day. Summer is very far away.” How many tests are taking place with Suarez on the bench, though?

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Nathan Ake should be a summer target for Arsenal

Arsenal fans got what they wanted when Arsene Wenger left the club at the end of last season. However, what they were denied was the transfer market spending called for by the masses. Instead, the Gunners spent prudently, signing players who filled gaps in their squad, but didn’t really improve the quality of their first team.

It’s likely to be a similar story this summer. There is no suggestion that Arsenal will spend big, with Sven Mislintat leaving the Emirates Stadium at the start of the month after a different of opinion over the direction of the club in the transfer market. That isn’t to say the Gunners can’t improve their side this summer, though.

Unai Emery

Nathan Ake is one of the players who should be on Arsenal’s transfer targets shortlist. The Bournemouth defender is exactly the sort of defender Unai Emery needs and there is a suggestion that a bid of between £40 million and £50 million might be enough to prise the Dutchman from the grips of the Cherries.

The 24-year-old has been in exceptional form this season. Ake is strong on the ball, is a good tackler and maintains a high level of concentration. He is no Shokdran Mustafi, that’s for sure. Indeed, Ake would be an upgrade on what the Gunners currently have in their defensive ranks.

There’s a case to be made that Ake is among the best centre backs in the Premier League right now and Arsenal desperately need someone of his ilk to build around. It’s crucial that they look to make defensive improvements as they enter the second phase of Emery’s project at the club.

“People have more expectations of me now because of the season I had… so there is a new step, a new thing I have to overcome and cope with the expectations,” Ake said in a recent interview. “I need to learn and cope with that and after that, who knows… you always want to reach the highest levels.”

Arsenal simply aren’t strong enough at the back. Sokratis Papastathopoulos has proven himself as a decent option, but injuries have been a problem for the Greek defender. Rob Holding has also impressed at times, but consistency has been an issue. Ake would be a kingpin in the way Virgil Van Dijk is for Liverpool and Aymeric Laporte is for Manchester City.

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Arsenal’s away record exposes their weak mentality

Things were meant to be different under Unai Emery. He was the main anointed to oversee a complete overhaul of Arsenal, not just as a football team, but as a club and an organisation. And yet what we have seen from the Gunners this season has been very similar to what was witnessed over the latter years of Arsene Wenger’s tenure.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, Emery has inherited almost exactly the same squad that Wenger had to work with last season. Some additions were made in the summer, with Denis Suarez arriving on loan from Barcelona in the January window, but besides that, not much has changed in terms of personnel.

Arsenal Training Session

Or in terms of mindset either. Under Wenger last season, Arsenal went from the turn of the year to the very last game of the campaign without picking up a point away from home. As things stand right now, the Gunners have won just one of their last seven Premier League away days, also suffering a defeat away to BATE Borisov in the last 32 of the Europa League.

Emery wasn’t just appointed to impose a new style of play on a team that had lost its identity. He was appointed to change the mentality at the Emirates Stadium and the early signs are that he has so far failed to do that, at least going on the frailty of Arsenal’s recent performances on the road.

“We can have better balance [in performances] when we prepare by thinking it’s going to be very difficult,” Emery said after the defeat to Man City a couple weeks ago. “I spoke with the players [and told them] we need to think this match is very important for us. Every player needs to be ready, be focused and be thinking we need to win this match. We must impose ourselves from the first minute and throughout the 90 minutes but first is the mentality.”

Another away defeat in their next trip on the road – away to Spurs – would really expose the issues in the minds of the Arsenal players right now. Earlier this season it seemed that progress had been made under Emery. Now, that is in question. A rebuttal is needed. And soon.

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