Burnley Preview: Youth Gives Way to New Boys

The opening home game of the season is always a special occasion. The campaign is really underway when the Arsenal lay in front of their own fans.

Today sees an attempt to inject atmosphere into the stadium:

Hope it goes better for you than the parachutist who ended up in the North Bank building site.

It is a big day for Unai Emery. We get a better idea of who his core players will be. Most were on the pitch last weekend at some point but Alexandre Lacazette, for example, wasn’t.

While we set out with a 4-2-3-1 formation last week, it’s a home game; we’ll need to be more adventurous in our play. It takes a subtle change in personnel to achieve that end and Granit Xhaka’s absence helps. That’s if he hasn’t recovered from his back problem.

The upcoming matches against Liverpool and Tottenham influence team selection, surely? It’s too much to expect full debuts at Anfield or in the North London Derby. Too many of the new signings are in key positions to be left to tat level of chance.

Which is tough on this such as Chambers, Nelson and Willock who will drop to the bench. David Luiz and Nicholas Pepe are almost certain to start. Dani Ceballos faces competition from Mesut Özil who returned to training this week.

Unai’s caution with player fitness suggests the German won’t start. His absence from the club derailed the final phase of his preseason training and it seems most contrary to put him in from the start.

But needs must. The answer to that little problem comes with Ceballos’ own fitness. I was surprised he didn’t start at St James Park but a home game is in many respects an easier introduction to the English game.

Talking Balls

Alongside Ceballos (or Özil) in a midfield trio, I’d like to see Torreira and Guendouzi. The former takes the defensive duties, the latter the harrying.

It’s a complicated choice although the decision is masked by fitness. There are so many factors at play in this aspect of the team selection.

Not least of which is Granit Xhaka. He’s been burbling on about how captaining Arsenal is an honour, seemingly oblivious to it being a poisoned chalice. Captains don’t last too long; age or greed catches up with sooner or later.

Unless, of course, this is his way of handing in a transfer request but keeping all his loyalty bonuses intact.

On the playing side, I’ve been clear that I think we have better options and combinations. I don’t, however, agree that he and David Luiz cannot play in the same side. Emery will prove that wrong in coming weeks, if not today.

Xhaka is a ‘caught in between’ midfielder. Arsène and Unai want him to be a defensive midfielder which he quite clearly isn’t. Yet we don’t play a system which suits his relatively static style.

He’s caught in between a rock and a hard place. A style which doesn’t suit him in a role to which he is ill-suited.

Nonetheless, Wenger and now Emery like him so in the XI he stays. For the moment: Unai is no stranger to using players for expediencies sake.

All of which leaves us with the forward line. A potentially prolific one at that. Close to 70 goals between them last season; no wonder Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang salivated at the prospect of playing with Pepe and Lacazette.

A fluid, interchangeable trio, taking spaces left by the runs of others? It’s definitely the most potent I can think of in my Arsenal lifetime.

Pace, Power, Proligacy

Hopefully not the latter. Or not the latter to the extent that we are left ruing missed chances.

Notionally, you’d expect Pepe and Aubameyang to occupy the wider roles. The latter worked OK in preseason for Auba so no reason why it shouldn’t now we’re playing proper matches.

There are so many potentially potent combinations for the three to play, it is almost dizzying. Unai may have a cunning plan to bring out the best in them. I’m hoping it isn’t the Baldrick moment most of us would have when it comes to fitting them into the side!

But fit them in he must. We’re facing Burnley; in the real and electronic stands we’ve banked the three points and are preparing for the sterner tests ahead. If you’re going to give out a sprinkling of debuts, this is the game to do it in.

Which leaves the team:

Leno; Maitland-Niles, Luiz, Sokratis, Monreal; Torreira, Guendouzi, Ceballos; Pepe, Lacazette, Aubameyang

Özil, Willock and Nelson are the subs between the 60th and 85th minutes, injuries excepted.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.

‘til Tomorrow

On Ozil and Home Debuts in Early Burnley Thoughts

Unai met the press yesterday with Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac dominating the reporting.

As you’d expect, he welcomed them back. Not just as a boss or Arsenal employee but as human beings as well. First and foremost, he observed. He didn’t welcome them back into the starting line-up, however.

They might there but it seems unlikely. Ozil was ill during the week but irrespective of that, both players cannot be as fit as others. In any case, do you change a winning line-up beyond reasons of necessity?

Granit Xhaka’s back-knack, for example, necessitates change. It isn’t a bad injury, he could probably play but for a midfielder, anything which restricts mobility isn’t a good thing. You can insert your own joke about that here.

Nonetheless, the win at Newcastle should see Emery keep faith with the majority of that XI. Does the majority mean the youth of Nelson and Willock continues in the side? The fitness of Nicolas Pepe and Dani Ceballos answers that question, answers Unai expects to get after today’s final training session.

Ozil might think he’s ready for the visit of Burnley but that’s a minority view. A place on the bench? It might be an idea with Liverpool and Tottenham awaiting in the next fortnight.

This is the weekend where Emery’s preferred XI begins to take shape. Unfortunately, there will be some players who lose out for no reason other than there are better players in the squad. I’d venture that for Willock and Chambers, that’s unfortunate.

The former played well preseason and at St James’ Park. The latter is much better at centre-back than we thought. Doubling up as a midfielder gives him the versatility we may appreciate as the season takes its toll.

Mum’s The Word

Yet David Luiz is more experienced and in Xhaka’s potential absence, a better range of passing. One which gives us more variety. It’s a chance for Chambers to learn; he and Rob Holding are the future so this might be a season where they don’t feature as often as they might expect.

Whether Ozil will is another question. Debates over his future were almost moot. But not quite. Unai, you see, doesn’t sit around all day thinking about selling the German. Shocking, huh?

Even more shocking is someone asking the Spaniard if he is considering selling Ozil. Or expecting an answer; not everyone is as open as Neil Lennon although the Celtic boss doesn’t have a Cluj about much these days.

It was highly unlikely that Emery would admit the player can leave if he wants under normal circumstances. Now, it’s even less so. He knows how that plays out in the media so will be careful what he says.

The smoke for the story comes from his agent meeting DC United. It would be remiss of him not to hear what they have to say; he’s only got his client’s best interests to be concerned about, not those of Arsenal.

That doesn’t affect tomorrow’s team selection; it shouldn’t affect it any time unless there is a sale on the horizon. Ozil, a week or so out of training, won’t be as fit as others. Ceballos is more likely to start unless Joe Willock gets another chance.

Emery’s dilemma is Ceballos. If he doesn’t start tomorrow, playing him at Anfield is a huge risk. Training cannot replicate the pressures and intensity of ninety minutes; it prepares them for some semblance of it but nothing, we’re told by former pros, gets close to the real thing.

Early Burnley Thoughts

Burnley will be a tough introduction for those not used to English football, Pepe included. Good, honest professionals, he says patronising them.

At home, they are good opponents for Ceballos and Pepe to meet English football. Newcastle were supine, nowhere near as intense as a home side should be on the opening day of the season. Burnley, fresh from a win over Southampton, will pose a sterner test.

Last season’s European misadventures cannot hinder them this season and they are primed for a top ten finish, maybe seventh if the wind blows in the right direction.

Sean Dyche’s side plays a bit more football than Stoke or Bolton ever did and will certainly ask more questions of the defensive side of our game. But we’re at home and given the history between the two sides, we ought to win.

And we expect to. The season is picking up pace, as much as one game per week for the first month permits.

Not quite quick enough; two games every week can’t come soon enough!

’til Tomorrow.

Kolasinac and Ozil: Are You Outraged?

The weekend is nearly upon us; Burnley are already dismissed as cannon fodder. Apparently, there is a stat which tells us Arsenal will end the weekend top of the Premier League. Only one stat tells us that: the final score.

Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac returned to training and navel-gazing, angst if you like, about supporter reaction or lack of it.

It’s certainly muted. In part, that’s due to the reporting. When The Stun and Heil lead the way in covering the story, you know the truth is in short supply. Or even shorter than is normal where the media is concerned.

There’s also the circumstances surrounding the problem. Kolasinac’s actions in the original incident saw him elevated to cult status. Maybe that reaction contributed to the bruised egos which dominate the reportage.

James Benge in the Evening Standard asks:

Where is the outrage this time? Where is the condemnation from fans’ groups or the sport’s authorities? After all, two players are fearful not to turn up for work. Clearly, sympathy in short supply.

James Benge leaves out the Fourth Estate in his question

I’ll add to that. Where is the media coverage? The media salaciously intrudes on a family’s grief, hacks a dead girl’s mobile phone but when footballers lives are threatened, it isn’t newsworthy? Benge called it “societal ills” but that doesn’t shift copy. Clearly, advertising sales in short supply.

He is right, however, to question why there isn’t more outrage. I observed a while back that I didn’t know enough about the circumstances to comment. I still don’t; all the reporting stems from The Stun; let’s be honest, it isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a reliable source.

A Very Millennial Reaction

Why am I not more outraged? I am concerned; I’ve said before that no family in any walk of life should be subjected to this intimidation.

It’s a very 21st Century word, outrage. If you’re not outraged, you don’t care. If those in authority don’t have a soundbite, where’s the outrage. Maybe the genuine seriousness of the situation elevates it beyond the faux outrage James feels about the lack of outrage?

He’s right; this is nothing like Mkhitaryan’s absence from the Europa League final. That was political and footballing incompetence colliding in wholly avoidable circumstances.

To conflate the two issues is disingenuous. It’s done in the name of sensationalism and for the sake of the two families involved now, is wholly unacceptable.

It is entirely possible that the nationality of the two players is partly responsible for the lack of press coverage. When Steven Gerrard was threatened after stating he wanted to leave Anfield for Chelsea, it garnered plenty of attention.

If this, god forbid, happened to the Rooneys, all hell would be breaking loose.

So, yes, nationality is part of it.

Were this the Ozil who first signed for Arsenal, I’d wager the coverage would be greater. That Ozil sold papers; this one doesn’t. When all’s said and done, the media exists for one reason: to make money.

And you thought it was for the news!

He doesn’t, however, make enough of the point about the players fear. If this humble blogger thinks there is an opportunity for football to be nobbled by ‘deselecting’ a star player, you can guarantee those with the means are way ahead.

Rock Steady Eddie

Ultimately, I welcome their return to training, that they are ready to return to football. Is it a signal that their lives are gaining some semblance of normality?

Has it already happened and been covered up by a convenient injury? A ransom paid to stop it happening, with the event covered up to prevent widespread recurrences? Is my mind awash with diabolical plans? I think so.

It doesn’t change my view of yesterday, however.

Meanwhile, Eddie Nketiah scored on his Leeds!Leeds!Leeds! debut. A simple tap-in albeit fortuitously as he looked offside when the cross came in. He didn’t care then, he won’t care now. The ref didn’t spot it and the camera angles were inconclusive.

Amid the hurly-burly of the Carabao Cup clash at Salford, the commentary team let slip that Leeds!Leeds!Leeds! watched Nketiah 22 times. Twenty-two times; Marcelo Bielsa loves watching a DVD, doesn’t he? Goodness knows what he’d make of Spurs online store; they also love a DVD.

Lambasted for Spygate, the Leeds!Leeds!Leeds! boss is a breath of fresh air. He had the balls to not only do what others only thought of but acted on it. His Powerpoint presentation explaining it all was a memorable moment of last season.

And Leeds!Leeds!Leeds! are strong at that, as Phil Hay reports in The Athletic. Arsenal demanded the suitors put together a profile of how Nketiah fitted into their plans before making a decision. This time, there was no indecision from Unai Emery such as that which nixed his move to Augsburg in January.

The article is a fascinating insight into the loans process and typical of those which make the site worth subscribing to.

Perhaps the most telling quote comes from Angus Kinnear, Leeds United’s chief executive. Arsenal did not countenance a permanent move; they were “categorical” that “they want him to be an Arsenal player.”

Will Nketiah make the grade at Arsenal? A season in a promotion-challenging team will serve him well in terms of experience. Is he the heir-apparent to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? This season will give a lot of those answers.

’til Tomorrow.

Transfer Gossip: Famous Five Head For Exit?

If Celtic fans want to tell me once again that they won’t miss Kieran Tierney, I’ll be here all day. I double-checked the line-ups when I saw the result, just to make sure we didn’t push a sneaky player-exchange for Shkodran Mustafi.

Mustafi is one of those whose name continually comes up when talk of sales arises. Of course, it comes as no surprise when the head coach makes it clear the player has no future at the club, as Unai did.

“I spoke with him when we finished last season,” he said before the trip to Newcastle. “I spoke with him when we started pre-season and I spoke with him also two weeks ago saying maybe there was the possibility he can leave.”

Even in non-footballing terms, that’s a P45 in the post, right there. Mustafi doesn’t have to leave; he can sit and reject every move but there’s a consequence: he won’t play unless there’s a massive injury crisis combined with a raft of suspensions.

This is Arsenal so those circumstances cannot be ruled out.

However, three separate conversations and still here? Mustafi is either stubborn or needs a new agent; his current one may be slacking.

Although if he entices a fee of €30m for Arsenal’s benefit, I take that back and doff my cap in not so silent admiration. I’d admit then that the man could sell ice to Eskimos. Or Innuits, I’m never sure what’s the PC ending to that phrase.

The German is one of a cluster of players but a rarity; he doesn’t divide opinion: everyone thinks he should be sold.

I’ll touch on the others shortly. Don’t worry; I need caffeine to continue with the rest…

It’s Football, Only Football

Wherever I start on these three, there are those who will defend them. Vociferously, that’s for sure. And with Mesut Ozil and Saed Kolasinac, the added nuance of their domestic situations interferes with any conversation on their futures.

Let’s make this clear: the despicable situation they find themselves in has nothing to do with my line of thinking. Nobody, footballer or otherwise, should find themselves in the same nightmare.

This is all for footballing reasons.

With Kolasinac, it’s not hard to make a case for either he or Nacho Monreal to be sold following the signing of Kieran Tierney. For me, the Spaniard remains, despite being a footballing OAP. Almost.

His versatility keeps him at the club, especially if we manage to offload Mustafi. We may need a centre-back even with Sokratis, Chambers, Holding and Luiz on the books.

Kolasinac is useful when you need a battering ram on the left but his delivery – end product, if you like – is woefully inconsistent. Usually in the same match.

For Mustafi and Kolasinac, there’s no reason for them not to be sold in August. For most people, selling the former makes this a 10/10 window. Getting a fee takes it one higher.

What of Mesut Ozil? Almost everything which can be said about him on a football has been written or spoken.

He is talented, technically gifted to the point of being world-class on his day; infuriating, too easily forced to the periphery of the game too often. I don’t think he’s lazy nor do I think his appetite for the game is dulled by his salary.

I don’t why he is inconsistent or doesn’t perform away from home. Let’s be honest though, we’ve been rubbish for several seasons and rather than him inspiring players, they dragged him down to their level.

It’s Now or Nev…Sorry, January

It happens and I think this is the time for a parting of the ways, which I said earlier this summer before the current madness engulfed him and Kola.

The press tells us he’s not interested in a move to the MLS. In the next breath, his agent, we’re told, is meeting DC United, having spoken to them regularly in recent years. Of course he’s interested in a move to the USA. It’s a retirement home and that suits his laconic style.

And let’s be honest, if his agent was meeting Bayern Munich, it would happen in Europe. There are plenty of cities where meetings could be held that throw the newshounds off the scent.

Timing clouds the issue. DC United lose Wayne Rooney in January; the timing suits us. It gives us time to see how Dani Ceballos settles, is Joe Willock really ready (yes). Any doubts and we keep Ozil unti the summer.

There is no way, however, he and Kola aren’t thinking of leaving London. Mrs K reportedly returned to Germany, according to the media. It highlights that the current situation cannot be ignored.

But if you think Arsenal should cynically exploit it, have a word with yourself.

Which brings us to Granit Xhaka. The millennial Steve Williams; in equal measure snarky, miserable and technically brilliant.

There is just one difference; Willow didn’t let the pace of the game pass him by. Xhaka…?

I thought he was poor at Newcastle, but Mkhitaryan was worse. Others think he and Mkhi did well; football and opinions, eh.

However, Torreira is a better defensive option. Xhaka isn’t a defensive midfielder; he wasn’t at Monchengladbach nor for the Swiss international side, on the occasions I’ve seen him. I do think he is in the XI more for leadership than anything else.

C’mere, There’s One More…

I mentioned Mkhitaryan earlier, which reminded me he was still here. Is he a ‘one-season wonder’? It’s interesting that in both his final seasons with Shakhtar and Dortmund that he hit 20+ goals. In between, he’s struggling to scrape half those totals.

I’d be happy if he scored 15 a season. In fact, I’d be clamouring for him to be in the side but let’s be honest, his form since moving to England is little short of wretched.

His miss at Newcastle pointed to a player shorn of confidence but the pass in setting Aubameyang free of the Barcodes defence was sublime. Definitely a Jekyll and Hyde player; sadly it’s more of the hideous monster performances than anything else.

Like Mustafi, I think a move will see confidence restored and is very necessary. Both will probably need to accept a salary drop; are they prepared to do so or is money more important than playing every week? That’s modern football’s dilemma. Winston Bogarde is no longer an unusual case.

Whether the club manages to sell any of the quartet which morphed into a quintet remains to be seen. European transfer windows close at the end of the month; in footballing terms, that’s a lifetime away.

But freeing up those funds from the wage bill and receiving fees allow us to spend in January. We may need to if the fickle finger of fate points bad luck in our direction.

’til Tomorrow.

Are The Kids As Good As We Think? Can Emery Get The Best Out Of Them?

This morning sees Unai Emery basking in the glory of the opening weekend win at Newcastle. Basking is probably too strong a term for discontent is simmering under the surface.

The football wasn’t stylish enough; the scoreline wasn’t convincing; most of the new toys found themselves on the bench. All these reasons and more were used as sticks to beat the Spaniard with.

Replacing Arsene was always a tough job but pushing Mikel Arteta out as successor? Unforgivable.

The first defeat will see blades flash through the air; “Sack him now! Save us the trouble at the end of the season!” the battle cry gurgling through the spittle-filled air.

It’s not going to happen. Emery is in the last year of his contract but it’s widely believed there is an option for a third year. Unless he fails to finish in the top four, the club is going to exercise their contractual right.

Why shouldn’t they in those circumstances. Ambition is in short supply beyond the burning financial need for a return to the Champions League. If Emery hits that target, he’ll get a new two-year deal; there’s no question of that in my mind.

He’s rebuilding the squad using the same approach as George Graham; youth promoted through the ranks, alongside experience.

Crowd favourites depart – for Aaron Ramsey, read Brian Talbot – as the manager brings new ideas to the table. Others – for Mesut Ozil, read Charlie Nicholas – are edged out with both sharing an adhesion to the club, much to the respective manager’s chagrin.

Focus naturally turns to the youngsters once the big money signings are dissected. Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock on Sunday joined Ainsley Maitland-Niles in balancing out a patchwork side, or so it is assumed.

Swap Shop

Pepe and Lacazette, it’s assumed, will return to the team against Burnley at the expense of Nelson and Mkhitaryan; Dani Ceballos replaces Willock. The former changes are easy to see; the latter probably happens but not as readily.

The youngster displayed the fight Emery desires in his players as this clip from Sunday shows:

That determination to win the ball back, to force a turnover in possession, will be a key factor for players during the season. Willock’s efforts aren’t going unnoticed and Ceballos faces a lot of pressure for his place.

Some believe this is the best crop of youngsters to emerge since the 2007-08 season. Maybe they will prove that good; at least they don’t have Capi Dipstick as their guiding light.

As Graham found, experienced players who knew their way around the pitch is vital for youngsters. Steve Williams was no angel nor Kevin Richardson. The teens need to know about the dark arts.

However, it’s also important from a fans point of view not to place too much expectation on their shoulders. Are we sure this year’s graduates are as strong as Adams, Rocastle and Thomas mentally?

The similarities between the Arsenal squads and their league standings is uncanny. That trio came of age as we pushed the top four finishes. Not that league positions meant anything; English clubs were banned from Europe and Arsenal felt the Screensports Cup as trashy as it sounds.

Can Emery get the best out of them? His team selections last year included the baffling and bewildering. This time, however, we’re likely to see very little of Shkodran Mustafi unless there is a calamitous injury situation. Even then, Calum Chambers is ahead of him in the queue. A long way ahead.

Brutal Truths

On announcing his appointment, Ivan Gazidis claimed the decision was heavily influenced by Emery’s track record in developing youngsters. The club’s financial model dictates the head coach must succeed in this area, probably more so than winning trophies.

That’s the brutal truth. Enos and Junior, Raul and Edu; they all talk about winning but in reality, it’s about making money for a variety of reasons. Increasing the club’s value and providing funds for the big-money deals next summer are just two of them.

Emery is tasked with delivering the foundations for that on the pitch. If FIFA ever poaches the UEFA marketing team and make the World Club Cup something worth winning, you can bet we’ll target reaching the finals in their proposed new format.

We may still do but winning the Champions League is a more distant dream than at any point during the past decade. Which is a vaguely impressive achievement for all the wrong reasons.

All this from one widely derided performance in the Premier League? Who says optimism is dead on these pages…?

‘til Tomorrow