A decision to define the end of an era

In many ways, the last couple of months have had a very familiar feel to them. Arsenal have fallen away in the title race, they’re going to exit the Champions League at the round of 16 and there have been the usual failings in the big games against strong opposition. But there has been another factor at play to make this season feel different. It feels like we’re coming to the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign at the club.
The hammering against Bayern was the final straw for some, but the decision to leave out Alexis Sanchez against Liverpool will have pushed more over the edge with the Gunners losing 3-1. Regular readers and listeners will know the esteem in which I hold Arsene Wenger and how much I fear the future without him at the helm, but it is looking increasingly difficult to see how he can remain in charge for another few years.
He’s a great manager, he can do tactics and can motivate his players, but it just feels like it is the right time for a change because of the negativity and uncertainty building around the club. Even if the team picks up form before the end of the season and maybe even wins the FA Cup, the frustrations around the club and the lack of clarity over the future of what happens when Arsene leaves will only continue. If he signs a two-year contract, I’m struggling to see that the board will have any intention of using that time to properly plan for the future.
Should Arsene Wenger not sign a new contract in the summer and depart the club, people will look back at Saturday’s defeat at Anfield as one of the key moments in the end of his reign. In a vital game, Alexis Sanchez was left on the bench as the boss tried to change his tactics to counter Liverpool’s pressing game. Clearly Wenger felt he had to do something to mix it up in the big away games, and in principle, I didn’t mind him wanting to do that. The selection of Welbeck was very welcome, and Olivier Giroud has a great record against the Reds. But those two could have started alongside the electric Chilean. Just psychologically, the hosts will have got a huge boost seeing Alexis on the bench prior to the game.
When the team sheet was announced, it seemed like Arsene Wenger was taking a do-or-die risk, both in terms of the game, and in terms of his future beyond the end of the season. He will have known how much criticism would be levelled his way if the non-selection of Alexis didn’t pay off. As it didn’t work, I suspect that it will just increase the likelihood of him stepping away from the club in the summer.
Among all of this, a lot of responsibility has to be taken by the players. This week, there were quotes in the press from senior members of the squad about how they want the boss to stay. If they are so desperate for him to do that, it’d be nice if they backed that up with performances on the pitch. A team there were desperate for a manager to stay wouldn’t continue to have these rubbish halves, especially in big games. The first half at Anfield was another one to add to the list of ones recently that just haven’t been good enough.
With Alexis not selected and Ozil unwell, it was a chance for the team to prove that they don’t need their biggest stars to perform well, something they might have to do next season if Arsene Wenger leaves and prompts his two biggest signings to follow him out the door. The team selected was still good enough to compete and cause Liverpool plenty of problems, but if the plan to select Welbeck and Giroud was to be more direct, it didn’t really materialise. Poor Olivier Giroud had almost nothing to work off in the first half as Arsenal couldn’t get control in midfield to create opportunities for him.
While selecting two more defensive-minded midfielders in these sort of games makes sense, as a partnership, I’ve yet to see Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka have a good game together. Since signing a new contract, Coquelin has been particularly poor and was rightly hooked at half-time. He was careless in possession and just doesn’t seem to click alongside the Swiss international. In general, Arsenal’s midfielders allowed Liverpool to directly attack the centre-backs too often, especially when Arsenal were sitting off for a lot of the time that Liverpool had possession.
Partly down to Liverpool being able to sit back on a 2-0 lead, but partly down to Oxlade-Chamberlain being moved into the middle of midfield, Arsenal got much more control on the game in the second half. Alexis was direct after coming off the bench and Danny Welbeck provided a threat running in behind the defence. That combination brought Arsenal back into the game with a goal, but they couldn’t build on it.
The performance was made all the more frustrating when looking at the options available to the manager. Especially in attacking areas, there are brilliant options available to the manager, but he is struggling to pick the right combinations for the right games. For Arsene Wenger’s final changes off the bench on Saturday, Lucas Perez and Theo Walcott were brought on, which wasn’t unreasonable in the situation. There were boos for the removal of Danny Welbeck, but that was understandable given he is still returning to full fitness. But it was very strange to take Olivier Giroud off. In the final quarter of the game, should Arsenal have needed to go more direct, Giroud was the ideal man to have on the field.
It is worth a minor note that at 2-1 down, Arsenal were in a position to apply pressure on a nervy Liverpool team. Already on a yellow for a cynical challenge, Emre Can then wiped out Theo Walcott in combination with Joel Matip. Bobby Madley was having a decent enough game with the whistle but then completely bottled the obvious decision to give a second yellow to Can. The midfielder rolled around on the floor as a delaying tactic and inexplicably it worked. For all the jokes of Granit Xhaka getting cards for a similar offence, Xhaka ended up getting booked for that incident itself for protesting the decision not to bring out a second yellow. Arsenal shouldn’t have been in the position they found themselves in during the game, but it would have been helpful to play against 10 men for the last 15 minutes had the referee done his job properly.
But one refereeing decision shouldn’t be the takeaway from the game. Unfortunately, it is the manager’s decision that is the one that will be talked about, and will be continually referred to until a decision is made on his future beyond the end of this season.

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Much-changed Arsenal put on a five-star performance

There’s always a risk making a lot of changes for a cup match, but with a few uninspiring ties drawn for the fourth round, and a full set of Premier League fixtures in the next midweek, alterations were inevitable across the 4th round of the FA Cup. A lot of teams suffered with sweeping changes as Liverpool went out to lower league opposition and Tottenham scraped past fourth-tier Wycombe Wanderers.
On seeing that Arsenal had made changes, critics of the FA Cup could have seen that as another example of a Premier League team not taking the competition seriously, but the Gunners put on a fantastic show to sweep Southampton aside in a 5-0 thrashing. Such is the depth and quality of Arsene Wenger’s squad this season, the starting XI he selected was still packed full of quality and players hungry to make an impression and get more regular game-time.
Southampton also made wholesale alterations after making the EFL Cup final in midweek, and their youngsters got a lesson from a vibrant and pacy Arsenal team. Arsenal still fielded a relatively experienced back four and front three generally had an experienced look to them, but the midfield trio was a bit more unfamiliar. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was playing out of position, with fellow doubled-barrellers Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Jeff Reine-Adelaide also playing in the middle. I was concerned pre-match that Arsenal would lack solidity with those three in the middle, but they controlled the tempo of the game superbly, and did the defensive work when needed. 
Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular took on the role of being the experienced man in the middle and was excellent. His range of passing was good, and with the pace up front with Welbeck, Walcott, Lucas and then Alexis all looking to run in behind the defence, he always had the option of pinging a ball over the defence from deep. Providing Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin were just rested on Saturday and don’t have injury problems, Oxlade-Chamberlain won’t be needed to fill in there in important league games, but it was encouraging to see him put in both a creative and disciplined performance. 
It was the Arsenal midfield that enabled them to grab control of the game early on and not let the hosts gain any momentum from a bouyant home crowd after their EFL Cup semi-final victory. A positive start was rewarded with a slick move involving Maitland-Niles and Lucas Perez. The Spaniard flicked a lovely pass through the Southampton defence for Welbeck to run onto and chip over the goalkeeper into the net for a goal on his first start following his injury nightmare. 
Welbeck doubled up shortly afterwards as Oxlade-Chamberlain played a fantastic pass over the defence, which Welbeck controlled well out the air and slid the ball under the advancing goalkeeper. To have Welbeck looking so sharp in front of goal after such a long time out is a testament to his hard work on the training ground and the work done by the medical staff. He could easily have snatched at either of the chances he had, but both goals were clinical finishes. He’s a player that is loved because of his work rate and desire to help the team, and he adds a different dimension to an Arsenal front-line.
With Welbeck fit and firing, it’s a tough choice for Arsene Wenger to have to make each week to pick a starting line-up. It was interesting to see Welbeck predominately play from the left against Southampton, with Lucas down the middle, so I suspect that when everyone is fit, Welbeck might play on that flank with Alexis playing centrally.
On the right, it’s likely to be Theo Walcott after he made a clinical return from a month out injured. He netted a third Arsenal goal at Southampton in the first half on Saturday as Welbeck and Lucas linked up, allowing the Englishman to square the ball for Walcott to score. 
With the tie virtually won, Arsenal were able to cruise through the second half, but they still looked keen to add to the score; none more so than when Alexis came on for Welbeck just past the hour mark. The substitution was probably pre-planned with Welbeck playing around an hour on his first start after the injury, but it must have seemed cruel on Southampton to be 3-0 down and then see the electrifying Chilean coming on. He had an impact by claiming two assists for Theo Walcott to stroke home two simple goals to complete a hat-trick. 
Even though the finishes were relatively straightforward, it was important for Walcott to return and get on the score sheet. He needs confidence to be at his best, and we’ve seen that a nervy Theo Walcott is a waste of space, so it bodes well to have him hit the ground running when back in the team.
The game really couldn’t have gone much better for Arsene Wenger as he watched on from the stands. Plenty of players who needed game time got it, and in a game that was competitive, but played at an ideal pace to just build up some sharpness. Plus Arsenal’s woeful record at St Mary’s was blown out of the water. The coming week could be season-defining with a trip to Stamford Bridge at the end of it, but Saturday’s rout showed the squad is in good shape ahead of a big week. 

Welbeck and Iwobi get Arsenal back to winning ways

After losing to Watford and Barcelona, a short turnaround to face Everton at Goodison Park probably wasn’t high on the list of things Arsenal wanted to do at the end of a challenging week. Despite the Toffees’ struggles at home this season, they went into the game off the back of a stirring performance in the FA Cup against Chelsea and had an in-form striker ready to pounce on any fragility in Arsenal’s defence.
But the Gunners were able to take the positives that came from defeat in the Nou Camp on Wednesday and play with a freedom and expression that has been missing for a lot of the season. With a refreshed front-line including Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi, who had performed encouragingly against Barcelona, Arsene Wenger’s team played some lovely attacking football and took control of the match in the first half. Too often this season, the opposition has been allowed to gain a foothold in a match against Arsenal, but on Saturday, the Gunners took control of proceedings early on and didn’t give the hosts much of a sniff to get back into it.
They were helped by a nervy Everton side who looked to be carrying a lot of pressure on their shoulders, in stark contrast to the way they’d gone after Chelsea in the previous week, and the early Arsenal goal only served to ramp up the nervousness and negativity around Goodison Park. While there were times that the defending could have been better, there wasn’t much Everton could have done about Arsenal’s opening strike as it was reminiscent of the goals scored with regularity in Arsene Wenger’s best days as manager back in the early 2000s.
There was some patient build-up play before Alexis Sanchez injected some pace into the attack and played an excellent one-two with Mesut Ozil. The Chilean then slid a ball through the hole in the defence that his movement had created, allowing Danny Welbeck to take the ball round the advancing goalkeeper and roll it into the net.
Arsenal could have extended the lead moments later when Alexis won possession back high up on the pitch and Alex Iwobi was subsequently only able to shoot straight at the goalkeeper from the edge of the box. There were other moments of intricate attacking play involving Iwobi and Welbeck as the Gunners suddenly seemed to have confidence coming back into their play. They also should have had a penalty when Alexis was fouled twice in the same movement in the box by Besic and Funes Mori, but Mark Clattenburg somehow decided it wasn’t a penalty.
Just as Everton looked to be building a bit of momentum towards the end of the first half, the Gunners struck on the break. Hector Bellerin was able to play a fantastic pass into space over-the-top of the Everton defence for Alex Iwobi to sprint clear. In his first Premier League start, he showed composure to draw the goalkeeper and slide the ball under him into the net.
Iwobi has brought a freshness to the team and the enthusiasm of a player that hasn’t been scarred by the failings of the team this season. Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell are going to find it hard to get back into the team before the end of the campaign if Iwobi continues to play as he has done in the last week with the Nigerian’s link-up play looking good with the others in the front four.
Iwobi, Welbeck, Ozil and Alexis were also helped on Saturday by the reassuring solidity of Arsenal’s midfield. Mohamed Elneny kept his place in the side and, alongside Francis Coquelin, snuffed out a lot of Everton’s attempted moves forward and limited the supply to Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku. Having two more conservative players in the centre of the field was perfect for a difficult away game as one at Goodison Park, and it freed up the front four to create some havoc going forward.
It does feel like Arsene Wenger has stumbled upon a winning combination in midfield and attack, much in the way that he did with Coquelin and Cazorla last season, but it’s a shame it’s taken so long for this to happen. It’s not been for a lack of trying from the manager as he’s tried Ramsey in the centre and on the right and given Joel Campbell and Theo Walcott runs on both flanks, plus he hasn’t been helped by other midfield options being out injured. But hopefully this new-found combination can bring the cohesion back into Arsenal’s play and get some positivity back at the club.
In the second half, Arsenal’s game management was good as, bar a headed chance for Phil Jagielka from a corner when David Ospina was struggling to move following a clash with Lukaku, Everton were restricted to very few opportunities. Olivier Giroud came off the bench and was denied a clear goal by another bizarre decision from Mark Clattenburg and hit the side-netting late on with another opportunity, summing up his recent run of form. The Frenchman usually responds well to challenges for his place in the team, and with some more luck, and proper refereeing, he would have scored coming off the bench on Saturday.
In many ways, seeing Arsenal play so well in a tricky away game only increases the frustrations that this season is likely to leave. The Gunners have it in them to put in some brilliant performances and the potential to score some beautiful goals, the consistency just hasn’t been there. Hopefully the three points at Goodison Park can be a catalyst to get that consistency back for the rest of the season and, with eight games to go, you never know where it might take Arsenal in the table, but the overriding feeling is that any remarkable winning run would be too late to take the title. For the moment though, it’s just nice to get back to winning ways and to see an Arsenal team play some beautiful football again.