Arsenal’s Early Form and Why It Isn’t a Surprise

In my Premier League predictions, I predicted Arsenal to overperform, based on their overreliance on Aubameyang, who covered their cracks quite effectively. Even with the new additions of Kieran Tierney, David Luiz, Nicolas Pepe and Dani Ceballos, the side still lacked that solidarity at the back and in midfield to prevent them from challenging Liverpool and Man City at the top of the table. When you add that alongside a manager who I doubt can take Arsenal into the Champions League spots, this season could get a lot worse for the Gunners.

Let’s start with the attack, where the numbers read similarly to last season. It was an area that needed desperate improvement. Last season, Arsenal were taking 12.3 shots per game, the 11th best in the division, behind Southampton, Wolves and Crystal Palace. Arsenal were dominating games, averaging 56% possession per game last season, but failed to make that control count. The ‘Top 6′ are perceived to be miles ahead of the teams below them in the table, but the truth is countless times Arsenal looked so passive in the final third, especially against weaker opposition. Take their 1-1 draw against Wolves in November 2018 as one of many examples. They dominated the game 72% possession to Wolves’ 28%, yet were outshot by their opponents, with Jota, Traore and Costa having chances to win the game for the away side. Arsenal just couldn’t deal with their counter attacks and speedy wingers and allowed them to look the better team in possession.

Even with a lot of bad performances, Arsenal still remained in the conversation for Champions League football. However, that all changed after a 3 game spell, which saw them showcase their frailties for the country to see. Defeats to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester allowed Chelsea to get into the top 4. Their 3-2 loss to Palace was bad based on individual errors. It must have been the final nail in the coffin for Mustafi’s future in North London, with the German defender allowing Zaha to ease past him for the second goal. Their 3-1 defeat to Wolves did flatter in the sense of Wolves were putting the ball away from difficult areas, but this game showed just how useless Arsenal were at chance creation. From open play, Arsenal created next to nothing, and while they were unfortunate to concede three, they didn’t deserve to win by any stretch. Yet, this wasn’t even the worst performance out of the three defeats. Their 3-0 battering by the hands of Leicester City was a sign of just how bad Emery’s team was. While Maitland-Niles’ red card in the first half did obviously make it more challenging to get the win, allowing Leicester to have so many shots from inside the box was still extremely concerning, considering Koscielny came on for Iwobi soon after the sending off. xG had this game 3.68 to 0.60, showing how Leicester deserved such a comfortable victory.

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These 3 games perfectly provided proof of the problems with Arsenal. The Palace game showed the poor individuals who needed replacing, The Wolves game showed a side unable to create chances and Leicester just how easily Arsenal could be opened up. The North London club attempted to resolve a lot of these problems in the transfer market, and to their credit, they had a great summer in terms of recruitment. William Saliba began the spending with the defender signing for £27 million. The 18-year-old, however, was sent back to his former club St Etienne on loan, to gain more first-team experience in a league which excels in the development in young players. Dani Ceballos was next, arriving on loan from Real Madrid. The Spaniard was seen as one of Spain’s next excellent midfield talent, able to bring quality on the ball while putting in a lot of defensive actions. He could add much-needed ball progression to a very slow and sluggish midfield. Nicolas Pepe was the marquee signing, with the former Lille winger arriving for over £70 million. There is no denying Arsenal have overspent on Pepe, but he was absolutely fantastic last season. I was intrigued to see how he would play in a team where he wasn’t the main threat and prove that he is one of the best wide players in Europe. David Luiz and Kieran Tierney signed on deadline day for £8 million and £25 million respectively. Luiz is on the older side but is a fine-enough stop-gap until Saliba is ready to become a regular in that defence. There is definitely question marks over Tierney being good enough for a big club, with Scotland having a pretty bad domestic league. However, there is no denying he is an improvement over an ageing Monreal and a defensively-weak Kolasinac.

There is no doubting that Arsenal have improved in terms of personnel, and are arguably the 3rd best team in the country. Manchester United still have weaknesses in attack and midfield, Chelsea lost their best attacker and Spurs didn’t bring in a back-up for a Harry Kane who isn’t one of the top 5 strikers in the world anymore. Arsenal already had a decent goalkeeper and the best striking partnership in the league, and have added improvements throughout the team. You could argue Arsenal did need to look at a back up for Bellerin until his return, but Maitland-Niles can cover pretty well for him.

After 6 games, Arsenal sit in 4th with 11 points, 7 behind Liverpool and 2 behind Man City. On that fact, it would seem like Arsenal have started well, but in reality, they haven’t improved as of yet. A scrappy nevertheless, deserved win over Newcastle wasn’t the worst way to start the season, considering their away form has always been questionable. Their 2-1 home win over Burnley didn’t exhale confidence. Sean Dyche’s side had a few good chances to win the game and were slightly ahead of Arsenal on xG (1.16 to Burnley’s 1.39). Excellent performances from both David Luiz and Dani Ceballos did give Arsenal fans a big positive out of the game. It wasn’t a great start, but getting maximum points with players still missing was at least acceptable. Then the Liverpool game happened.

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I haven’t touched on Emery yet, but I have not been the Spaniard’s biggest fan since his arrival in North London. He showed at Sevilla how good his sides were in knockout competitions, winning the Europa League three consecutive times. Both him and Monchi were getting the best out of undervalued talent like Rakitic, Gameiro, Bacca and N’Zonzi, who were brought in for low prices and left bringing Sevilla a significant profit. PSG looked at Emery and in their desperation to win the Champions League, chose him to finally begin their desired domination in Europe. However, all didn’t go to plan in his debut season in France. It’s hard to criticise him in Ligue 1 when Monaco won the league with an extremely talented squad. It was a year where everything seemed to click for Jardim’s side, and with PSG losing Ibrahimovic and David Luiz, it left them relatively vulnerable. Their recruitment that summer was especially weak, with Ben Arfa, Krychowiak, Jese Rodriguez and Gonzalo Guedes all failing to make an impression. Unfortunately, Emery’s time at PSG is best remembered by that round of 16 encounter with Barcelona. After tearing them apart in the first leg, with Verrati especially having one of the best games for the club, it gave them a 4 goal lead over the Catalan club. However, as we all know, they absolutely capitulated in the second leg. The pressure seemed to get to the players and thanks to some extremely questionable refereeing decisions, a weak Barcelona side advanced.

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His second season did bring the league title back to Paris, but a defeat to Real Madrid in the round of 16 cemented Emery’s time in France as an overall failure. When brought in with the sole intention of winning one competition and failing even to get close to the final, it’s easy to see why PSG didn’t renew his contract. After Wenger finally departed the club, Arsenal chose Emery as his successor, giving him a two-year contract, making it a very sensible appointment and allowing the club to resolve some of their off-field problems.

So why don’t I like him? Well because he hasn’t been great for years now, especially at Arsenal, where the attack has gotten a lot worse, and the defence has marginally improved. During Wenger’s final years at the club, Arsenal were extremely weak defensively but remained one of the best-attacking sides in the league. Emery sacrificed that attack to help resolve the defensive issues, but haven’t shown much of an improvement, even after the summer signings. However, during their 3-1 defeat to Liverpool, Emery was entirely to blame for their awful performance. When you play the European champions, the one thing you do not allow them is space in the wide areas, and what did Arsenal do? Give Alexander-Arnold and Robertson all the room in the world on their respective flanks. Arsenal simply didn’t deal with their biggest threat, with the Alexander-Arnold saying after the game that he expected them to play a different system, and they were “really narrow.”

Allowing Liverpool to play to their strengths is something you wouldn’t expect a manager of Emery’s experience to do. I’ve always seen him as a defensively-minded, adaptable and pragmatic coach. It baffles me why many of the mainstream media treat him like a philosophy manager, similar to Guardiola and Klopp. Emery has always been pretty effective in those big games, which is why he was able to guide Sevilla to three Europa Leagues. He doesn’t mind bringing in players to fill specific roles, something you see Mourinho or Allegri attempt to do. It’s some of Arsenal’s performances in the big games that have left me scratching my head, to why he consistently makes terrible decisions.

The Liverpool performance was abysmal, but their 2-2 draw against Watford was arguably the worst performance I’ve seen from Emery’s Arsenal as of yet. Allowing arguably the worst side in the league, right after they sacked their manager and brought in former Watford coach Quique Sanchez Flores. The Gunners allowed Watford to have 31 shots on target. That is a number you see Manchester City have against relegation sides, which helps illustrate just how bad Arsenal are at the back. The lack of midfield protection was staggering, with Guendouzi and Xhaka just allowing Deulofeu, Doucoure and Capoue to waltz right into the box and if it weren’t for Aubameyang scoring a first-half brace, it would have been an embarrassing day for Emery and his players.

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Do I think Arsenal can improve? Absolutely. Bellerin and Tierney haven’t played in the Premier League as of yet and will offer a lot in attack while not being so weak defensively. The best thing Arsenal can do until the pair are fully fit is drop Xhaka. There is no reason to play Xhaka when you have an excellent passer in David Luiz and an elite ball progressor in Dani Ceballos. Xhaka is one of the best passers in the league but is such a liability in every other area that it’s hard to justify him starting every weak, especially when the new signings can do what he can and offer more. Playing a midfield three of Torreira, Guendouzi and Ceballos will give them more mobility and keep them defensively solid. I just worry that Emery won’t do this, and persist with starting Xhaka every week, keeping Torreira on the bench and using him incorrectly and only playing Ceballos when he feels like it.

If I were Arsenal’s head of football operations, I wouldn’t give Emery a contract extension. Giving him 2-years was sensible, not wanting to make the same consistent mistakes that Manchester United have made in terms of managers’ contract. Arsenal have let go of many of their fringe players and brought young talent to keep the team fresh and giving them a chance to grow. Arsenal were a mess under Wenger, but at least they were fun. Under Emery, it’s been a frustrating journey to see how bad their performances have become.

From Mid-Table to Europa League – Let’s Fix Crystal Palace

I thought it would be fun to ‘fix’ a club. While there might not be anything wrong in particular, I want to try and push a club to the next stage, and decided to choose Crystal Palace. They have a very interesting way of playing, and gets the best out of the players there, while also keeping them solid defensively and allowing them to create chances. They are quite simple, but effective.

So what are Palace good at? Well first it’s chance creation. The Eagles are 6th in shots per game, ahead of the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal. They are a side that are very good at quickly transitioning the ball, with Zaha, Wan-Bissaka, Van Aanolt and Townsend all being good dribblers. They are 3rd in the league for dribbles per game, with only Man City and Chelsea ahead of them. Finally, their ability at winning the ball back has to be praised. Palace are a side that focus on quickly regaining the ball, and moving the ball up the pitch. It’s why their dribble numbers are so high. Milivojevic and Wan-Bissaka put in a lot of defensive work, and even players like Zaha and Ayew are putting in a tackle per match. It’s why I’ve chose Palace, because they have an effective style, and makes them a threat. They have the 7th best away form in the league, because their style suits that underdog approach.

Now that we know what is good, let’s look at the more negative side. The first is their home record. I mentioned how well Palace have done away, but their results at Selhurst Park have not being nearly as impressive. They home record ranks 18th in the league, with the Eagles only winning 4 games at home. To describe them as unfortunate is an understatement. xPTS would rank them at 7th in the league, with Palace being very unfortunate to have such a poor record. Their shots and dribble numbers are much better at home than on the road, which highlights the next problem. I mentioned how good they are when it comes to transition and creating chances, but they have a finishing problem. While Palace rank high when it comes to taking shots, their shots on target are not as impressive. They rank 15th in shots on target per game, eight places below where they rank with regular shots. It highlights their biggest problem when it comes to attacking, lacking a good striker. While Hodgson playing Townsend and Zaha as a striking pair did work, they just lack a vocal point, and someone who has a better ability at finding space and taking those chances. Batshuayi has added that to an extent, but I think they need something else, and his move seems more of a boost for the Belgian’s career than for Crystal Palace. The midfield could also use a boost. Kouyate is a below average player at best, and Max Meyer has been horrible, continuing his reputation of being a player many think is good, but just doesn’t offer enough to justify dealing with his baggage, meaning his wages. Meyer left Schalke because they refused to accept his wage demands, which makes sense considering he was bad last season.

Now that we’ve went through the good and the bad, let’s talk about what needs to change. The manager is one that might make a lot of sense, but as mentioned on my manager rankings, I like Hodgson a lot and is still getting the best out of this side, but if the owners do want to upgrade for justfied long term issues (maybe Pablo Machin is getable) but for now we’ll stick with him.

Let’s look at the players. Their goalkeeper options are fine for now. Both Hennessey and Guaita have been fine enough to keep around, with Hennessey finally being replaced. Defence is where it becomes a bit more of a priority. We’ll look at players to bring in later, but for now we’ll focus on who stays and goes. Starting with the centre back options, I think Tompkins and Sakho will be fine for now, but it will be area that I will be looking at later for additions. While both players are have formed a solid partnership, their back ups should be looking at moving on. Scott Dann used to be a regular in the side, but has only started 3 games. He’s also 32 and it might be time for him to leave. The team needs to ensure that they’re is solid competition in all areas. Martin Kelly was one I was thinking of letting go, but then we’d only be left with two centre halves. The full backs are an interesting topic. They arguably have one of the best pairs of full backs in the league, with Wan-Bissaka and Van Aanholt being great at transitioning the ball, winning it back and giving the side a lot of width. The former is going to be on many big club’s radar, but it would be vital to keep hold of him for at least another season. However if United do offer something crazy like £50m, I couldn’t blame Palace for accepting it. We aren’t going to be looking at another full back, since in this perfect world, Wan-Bissaka stays.

Moving on to the midfield, Max Meyer is the first to go. Since he has arrived on a free, you can get some money for the player, because he isn’t worth keeping around. Schlupp and Townsend both stay, with the pair having their best seasons in recent memory. They are versitile and can help fill a number of positions. McArthur, Milivojevic and Kouyate all stay. Regarding the forward options, all are going to be sold besides Zaha. Benteke, Sorloth, Ayew and Wickham are all going to be sold. All have failed to add goals on a consistent basis and also haven’t shown enough to justify even keeping in the first place. It’s an area that definitely needs improving.

Palace have been making conistently bad business in recent windows. Many just seem to have arrived based on the falsely believed ‘premier league proven.’ Palace are another side to show that just because you have players who have experience in the league, doesn’t make it a guaranteed success. I would never recommend any Premier League side sign a player from the same league, unless they’re a relegated side. There’s always an expense based on selling to a Premier League side, as well as many clubs refusing to give to their rivals. Ayew, Kouyate, Benteke, Townsend and Schlupp are average players at best, and the club could have found better options abroad, but decided to play it incredibly safe. Let’s get to the most interesting part, and talk about which players will be brought in, if I had such control.

Let’s begin with an additional centre back. With Sakho, Tompkins and Kelly all over 28, it means a younger addition makes the most sense. With the solid partnership that Sakho and Tompkins forming a decent partnership, it means there’s a chance to find some value in the market here. The first option that should be considered is a player from the tier below. After seeing plenty of players make the step up from the Championship, it’s proof that there is definitely value to be found. Bournemouth are a great example of this, with Brooks, Mephan and Lewis Cook all showing plenty of promise since making the step up. Palace could try a similar approach, since the quality in the Championship is starting to increase by the season. the first suggestion is 24 year old Bristol defender Adam Webster. Ever since their impressive run to the League Cup semi final last season, I’ve always kept an interest in seeing how they’re doing, and after their drop off during the second half of the season, they have definitely shown improvement. They currently sit in 5th, with the 3rd best defensive record in the league. Adam Webster has been very good in the heart of that Bristol defence, turning them into a side finally ready for a chance at promotion. This isn’t exactly a new revelation either. Webster should a lot of promise at Ipswich, with his high interception numbers and massive aerial duels showing him to be a player to keep an eye on, but he just wasn’t playing enough games at his former club, with Webster starting only 25 games in the 2017/18 season, thanks to another ankle injury. Bristol took that risk on him and to say it’s paid off is an understatement. He’s started 35 games this season and has become a vital player for them. Earning the nickname ‘Webdini’ (after Italian legend Maldini), he has come up with important moments, including a winner against Middlesborough. Webster has been putting in the numbers to back up this praise, making 2.1 interceptions per game, the 8th highest in the league. He is also a monster in the air, winning 6.3 aerial duels per match, again the 8th highest. He has been simply fantastic, and would be perfect for a side who are needing a younger defender. Defenders are harder to buy in the current market, so a bargain like this is exactly what the team needs.

Midfield is the next position that needs addressing. While Milivojevic has been great and has been winning points thanks to his penalty prowess, he need a better partner beside him. While he isn’t my first choice, I would still recommend Crystal Palace pick up Philip Billing. Huddersfield might go down as one of the worst sides in the history of the league, but Billing has been a stand out. He’s only 22, and has put in massive defensive numbers, with the Danish midfielder putting 4.7 tackles and interceptions and winning 3.3 aerial duels a game. He is still young, and since Huddersfield are now relegated, it makes picking him up so much easier. I think Palace could pick him up for less than £15m, which would be reasonable enough for a player who has performed well in the Premier League.

My real recommendation would be Jordan Veretout. While Zambo Anguissa and Joan Jordan were all looked at, I thought going for a player who is in his prime would be a great idea. It would be the Frenchman’s second time in the league, with the Veretout previously playing for Aston Villa, a Villa side that were really bad, and Veretout wasn’t good in the slightest. However he was much younger then, and after 3 successful seasons, 2 for Fiorentina, he has turned into a very good player. Veretout deserves another chance in England, and he would add a lot of Palace. He is a great creator, and can help in quickly moving the ball further up the pitch. His key passes are at a career high with 2.4, which would be higher than anyone else in the Palace squad. It’s one of my biggest issues with how Palace build up. They have this over reliance on attacking through the wide areas. They have been playing Zaha and Townsend have been playing as a partnership for most of the season, and it means they mostly lack any unpredictability sometimes. Having a midfielder who is actually able to create means they don’t have to keep relying on Zaha for everything. It’s their biggest flaw. While he is great at transition, he is awful in the final third. I’ll get more into fixing this problem soon, but having another player who can with that is really useful. It makes them so much better in midfield, instead of having just a solid pair, they have more than that. I think Fiorentina might sell if they’re offered between £20-£25 million. He’s 26 and has played a lot of games for them. It could be more, but that’s how much I think he is worth.

Let’s move on to strikers. Since all are departing, and Zaha will be playing as a second striker, bringing in two would make sense. The first is Karl-Toko Ekambi. The Villarrael striker has not had the best of seasons, but can’t all be blamed. Villarreal have been really bad this season, and have only recently looked like surviving. It was a massive decline from a side that qualified for the Europa League last season. Ekambi arrived in the summer to fix their goal problem, alongside Gerard Moreno. He has scored 8 and assisted 1 in 19 starts, which is good considering he’s playing for a struggling side. Many might look at this selection as a strange one, and I get it. His shot numbers aren’t crazy high and he’s 26, so the chances of this changing are unlikely. He’s getting selected because he’s a really good finisher. He doesn’t overperform or underperform his xG, and has a respectable 0.44 xGP90, which is good considering he doesn’t play much. He is just a really good finisher and would fix one of my biggest issues with Palace, being they take a lot of shots, but not good ones. Bringing in a guy who will put those chances away is needed if they want to push onto the next level. I think Villarreal would sell for more than £20m. He is on a 5 year deal which would make it difficult to sign him. Ekambi has proven before that he can score goals. Villarreal signed him because of his impressive 17 goal season in Ligue 1. If he can replicate that for Crystal Palace, it could be exactlywhat they need.

My next striker choice is more of a wildcard, but would be a lot of fun. I’ve already brought up how the level of the Championship has improved massively in the past couple of years, and my next choice shows this. While Brentford don’t seem to be getting promotion this season, they have a very interesting attack. Ollie Watkins has been on the radar of so many clubs, and seems to be on the verge to a Premier League club very soon. Said Benrahma has been one of the best players in the league this season, and is now in double figures for goals and assists. While both of those players are great, the player I will be talking about is Neal Maupay. The Frenchman has been insanely good this season, scoring 21 and assisting 7 in 38 appearances. He has played more than the players previously mentioned, and as been vital for Brentford. While small, he is quick, technically gifted and gets in very good areas. He is taking 3.4 shots per 90, more than anyone for Palace. While the clear quality difference needs to be pointed out, it’s still positive to have a young forward having such healthy shot numbers. He is also a good creator, which is needed they want to get even more out of Zaha. It’s something I forgot to bring up when talking about Ekambi, but both have very good key pass numbers. A little more is needed from them if Zaha is to work as a second striker. Maupay averages 1.4 per 90, which is very good for a striker. Bringing both Ekmbi and Maupay into the side will give them options and two very good finishers. It’s rumoured Brentford are asking for upwards to £20m for their forward, which is a fair price. It might be a lot for a Championship player, but he is clearly a step above that league.

That’s all the signings I would bring in. Let me know if there are any I might have missed. These names might not be the huge names, but it’s not about the names. It’s about being smart, in taking risks while also having players who are likely to succeed. The Eagles have potential to take that next step up. It’s insanely unlikely that they would take this advice, but it’s I would see in fixing this side.