Tag Archives: Arsenal

Why Pepe is shaping up to be worth every penny

Having arrived at the Emirates as Arsenal’s record transfer, costing £72m, Nicolas Pepe had a point to prove. Could he be the player to help restore the Gunners to glory after some of the darkest days in their history?

The French League is known in Twitter football circles as the Uber Eats League, a takeaway for some of Europe’s biggest clubs. In recent years, many of the Premier League’s most celebrated talents have arrived directly from France.

Eden Hazard, Fabinho, Bernardo Silva are just some of the stars to have hailed from French football, and Pepe joined the exodus last summer after registering 20 plus goals plus 11 assists in his second season at Lille.

Pepe had every top club in Europe vying for his signature. Arsenal were the ones who secured his services with that club record fee. A winger by trade, he can play along the front three and is a constant goal threat.

However, the early stages of his Arsenal career were perceived as being a little underwhelming, given his breakthrough campaign in the previous season. But is that a fair assessment?


Down to the stats

How does Pepe compared to other top wingers in their debut PL season:

Saido Mane: 10 goals, 3 assists

Heung Min Son: 4 goals, 1 assist 

Raheem Sterling ( first season at Man City):  6 goals, 2 assists

Riyad Mahrez: 4 goals, 3 assists

Nicolas Pepe: 4 goals, 6 assists (to date)

Even Alexis Sanchez in his first season registered 16 goals and 8 assists in 35 games as a starter. Pepe has been in and out of the side, playing for three different managers whilst still trying to acclimatise himself to the English game. Despite this, he has already become one of the most feared players in the league, with opponents often double-teaming and triple-teaming him.

Stone cold

Known for his ice cool demeanour in defiance of all the haters, Pepe said when asked which Premier League defenders he has struggled against: “Honesty, nobody,” garnering even more hatred from opposing fans.

I love it. A bit of arrogance never hurt anybody, especially when he’s shown it in every game he has played. Even if he’s not scoring or assisting, he is affecting the outcome. The only Arsenal player to get voted man of the match more than once (four times in fact), essentially he has been Arsenal’s best player this season

Learning curve

My only criticism of Pepe’s game is that although he has shown on many occasions that he is Arsenal’s most effective and dangerous weapon with the ball at his feet, he also has a tendency of overplaying. He wants to do too much with the ball and is heavily dependent on his favoured left foot.

Although being new to the league, Pepe has made quite the difference to the way Arsenal play. Manager Mikel Arteta has taken a liking to him and has been won over by his obvious quality.

In a team that is going through a process of rebuilding, the best of Pepe is yet to come. With a bit more fine tuning, he could turn out to be another one of the Premier League’s great players.  

Arsenal crest image by cactusbeetroot via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC 2.0

Granit Xhaka – Arsenal’s master of midfield mediocrity

A collective moan echoes around the Emirates as Granit Xhaka gives away yet another needless foul inside Arsenal’s half. Bournemouth were going nowhere, but the midfielder seems intent to turn nothing into something. A disgruntled fan shouts: ‘You’re brainless Xhaka, utterly brainless’ – it’s hard to disagree.

The Swiss international has borne the brunt of fan frustration in recent years, but manager Unai Emery’s decision to appoint him club captain – following a vote amongst players – has sent many over the edge.

Perhaps nothing better sums up the club’s current plight than Xhaka taking over a role once held by such greats as Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira.

The fact that Emery felt it necessary to ask the players who should be captain in the first place would suggest he was not entirely sure who should be skipper on a permanent basis – a damning indictment of Arsenal’s lack of leadership within their current squad.

On the face of it, Xhaka has everything he needs to make himself a cult hero. He’s a tough, passionate midfielder who’s not scared to put a tackle in and will always stick up for his team-mates. But unfortunately, that only tells half the story.

Flattering to deceive

Arsenal have taken an early lead through David Luiz and look in good shape to move up to third in the table. Bournemouth have yet to enjoy so much as a genuine attempt at goal; surely not even their much-maligned midfielder can’t cost them this time?

Frustratingly, for the hosts that is, he just can’t seem to help himself.

Bournemouth winger Harry Wilson appears to be going nowhere, and the home side have plenty of men back, but Xhaka decides to lunge in on the edge of the centre-circle and bring down the on-loan Liverpool man.

If this was a one-off incident, Arsenal fans would have no problem, but they’ve seen far too many mistakes from the man they signed for £35m back in 2016. Thankfully, for his sake, the resulting free-kick is wasted by the visitors.

As if on cue, just minutes later, the skipper gifts Bournemouth another opportunity, bringing down Dominic Solanke this time with a lazy nudge into the striker. This foul also fails to cost the Gunners, but against better teams the midfielder’s poor challenges could and have cost them vital points.

Just a few games previous, Xhaka gifted Tottenham a penalty in the North London Derby which ultimately ended up costing his side all three points.

And while it may be a rather simplistic way of looking at it, Arsenal would be playing Champions League football right now if it wasn’t for his lazy challenge in the box towards the end of their final home game last season, which saw them drop two points against Brighton which would have put them in the top four.

Justified frustration

Another foul follows just before half-time. The groans that reverberate around the stadium convey a fanbase who have lost all patience with the man they once hoped would solve their midfield issues.

Compared to previous weeks, however, this reaction is tame. Against Aston Villa a few weeks prior, with Arsenal trailing 2-1, their then stand-in skipper was subjected to sarcastic cheering as his name was called to be substituted. Not all fans agreed with this response – one objecting: ‘You can’t boo your own players!’ This generated a rather comical shout of: ‘He’s s***!’ from another.

While that reaction may have been a tad overboard, there is no doubt the frustration from fans towards both the player himself and Emery, who continually picks him, is justified. On that day, fellow midfielders Lucas Torreira and Joe Willock entered the game and, coupled with Matteo Guendouzi, helped inspire the ten men of Arsenal to turn the match on its head and win 3-2.

The truth is that on this day, however, Bournemouth lacked the quality to really expose the hosts struggling centre-mid. While misplaced passes followed in the second half, the away side were unable to pounce on them and Arsenal held on for a much-needed three points.

Midfield conundrums

The question remains though – how do you solve a problem like Granit Xhaka? Since he has now been given the armband and is unjustifiably one of the first names on Emery’s team sheet, it seems unlikely he will be dropped anytime soon.

The decision to make him captain is hard to understand. Yes, it was a decision by the players, but Emery had been selecting him as captain every time he had been on the field since the beginning of the season and several times last campaign. His leadership qualities may not be the worst, but if he’s the best leader in this squad then it’s no wonder the Gunners find themselves in the position they are, a long way off challenging for major honours.

The simple fact is that Arsenal look a much better side without the Swiss international in it. He lacks the pace and skill many of his teammates possess and has made the most errors leading to goals of any outfield player in the Premier League since 2016.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B3ILYPWH3yU/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Youngsters such as Willock and Guendouzi have flourished when given opportunities this season. Guendouzi has played so well he’s now virtually undroppable and was named the club’s player of the month for September, reflecting the young Frenchman’s excellent form. Uruguayan Torreira seems less fancied by Emery, but he has shown his quality numerous times since signing for the club last year.

Mesut Ozil’s Arsenal career seems unlikely to take off again under the current manager, but fellow attacking-midielder Dani Ceballos, on a season-long loan from Real Madrid, has had several exceptional performances this season, further complicating Arsenal’s midfield headache.

The amount of youth players brought through by Emery has certainly encouraged fans, but this encouragement is dampened slightly by the continued selection of several players such as Xhaka who have performed well below the levels required should the club wish to achieve anything this season.

Whilst most fans can see that the Gunners look a better team when their midfield consists of three young, energetic players, it seems Emery does not share that viewpoint. The manager makes multiple changes every week, clearly unsure of his best team, but Xhaka remains a constant, only missing for the occasional cup fixture

Perhaps the added responsibly of being named club captain on a permanent basis will bring with it a more sensible attitude on the pitch. Some fans may get taken in by the “pride” he expressed at being named captain, but it is his match performances which fans really care about.

Xhaka seems set to stay in Arsenal’s midfield for some time to come – fans can only hope he begins to show signs of improvement.

Feature image of Granit Xhaka courtesy of thesportreview via Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Chelsea prove the Europa League has the power to thrill

Rarely has a routine 3-1 win in the Europa League been so dominant, so elegant, so fun.

In an hour and a half on a breezy Thursday night, Chelsea quashed the well-worn adage that Europe’s secondary competition is nothing but a humdrum procession of drabness, and breathed colour into the grey.

It was a performance bearing the stamp of coach Mauricio Sarri, his philosophy embodied and epitomised by one player, Ruben Loftus-Cheek. This was Rolls-Royce football, beauty and brevity at once manifest in a scintillating marriage of flair and steely competence, a rip-roaring exhibition of attacking excellence awash with feints, flicks and nutmegs. This was edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

If BATE Borisov had arrived in London with anything resembling a game plan, it was blown to smithereens within two minutes. Davide Zappacosta’s low centre was met by Loftus-Cheek’s sweeping finish, and so the tone was set for what would become a lesson in humility for the Belarusians.

Loftus-Cheek’s second came moments later, his neat side-footed volley the premature nail in BATE’s proverbial coffin. And while Chelsea often failed to capitalise on their attacking dominance throughout the rest of the first half, this would ultimately prove to be a slow and painful death for Alaksey Baha’s side.

Dominance

Stamford Bridge has witnessed some scintillating football this season

Perhaps the most striking thing about this current Chelsea team is the marked contrast in style since Sarri replaced Antonio Conte.

Where once pragmatism ruled, the Blues’ new no-holds-barred approach is a breath of fresh air around Stamford Bridge. For Chelsea to play with such grace and elegance, with Eden Hazard given a spectator’s role, speaks volumes of the effect Sarri has had on this squad.

Suddenly, all 11 starters seem buoyed by their attacking potential. Cesc Fabregas and Mateo Kovacic, two traditionally deep-lying midfielders, were taking it in turns to drive at BATE’s rearguard. Full-backs Emerson and Zappacosta became auxiliary wingers, allowing Pedro and Willian the freedom to drift into open spaces.

As pronounced as Chelsea’s attacking intent is, there’s always a degree of measure. BATE’s best moments came on the counter, and yet the hosts never seemed outnumbered nor in danger.

Sarri’s side is one as comfortable making a gritty, professional foul as piecing together an intricate attacking sequence. This Chelsea team blends the fun of a cosmopolitan with all the balance and maturity of an aged scotch.

The early lead offered the freedom to experiment in attack. Loftus-Cheek’s two goals were the sharp and sweet appetisers before the long, savoured main course, as each attack brought forth another burst of flavour, every lavish flick and feint a new lesson in flair.

In some ways, the fact that the first-half did not turn into an all-out rout, as it could and possibly should have, made Chelsea’s performance all the more absorbing. There’s a certain mystique to the not-quite perfect.

Hat-trick hero

It didn’t take long for Loftus-Cheek to complete his unlikely hat-trick in the second half, his low, placed finish eluding the dive of Scherbitski in the BATE goal. The 22 year-old himself seemed unsure of how to celebrate the feat, sheepishly raising his arms to the air, as if stunned that it should be he who is Chelsea’s goalscoring hero.

But in a sense, Loftus-Cheek has the potential to be the perfect Sarri player, his movement with and without the ball mesmeric at times. He is a mystery thriller of a midfielder, suddenly driving through the gears when you least expect it, jinking and weaving through defenders as though they were training ground cones.

BATE Borisov failed to contain him, allowing him to dangle his hypnotic pendulum before their eyes. Time and again he evaded their desperate challenges, leaving fluorescent yellow shirts flailing.

Loftus-Cheek has given Sarri plenty to think about

There are few more popular players at Stamford Bridge. His name garnered the biggest cheer as the teams were read out before kick-off. His name was sung more than any other.

With Chelsea’s youth academy producing such fine yields, there seems a desperation among supporters for one to become a mainstay in the first team. Loftus-Cheek possesses all the requisite attributes, and after a successful loan spell at Crystal Palace and the experience of a World Cup, perhaps now is the time for him to stand up and be noticed. 

Simple pleasures

Aleksey Rios’ late goal provided some consolation for the visitors, but in truth it is nothing but a footnote. After two solid, if uninspiring 1-0 victories over PAOK and Vidi respectively in the Europa League prior, this was the game where Sarri’s side truly hit top gear.

In truth, Chelsea are above the Europa League. They should be rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite, but now find themselves ensnared in what is oft regarded as an intrusion on the weekly equilibrium at professional clubs.

But both they and Arsenal have proved this season that the Europa League boasts qualities the Champions League cannot. There is the opportunity to give playing time to younger or fringe players, for fans to see their side hand out a good spanking, to relax and simply enjoy football, free from the frantic importance of the weekly Premier League fare.

Meanwhile, the likes of Spurs and Man United have toiled in the Champions League, flapping and floundering in a vain attempt to keep their respective heads above water, battling against the humiliation of a potential group-stage exit.

Players like Loftus-Cheek arguably would not have such a chance if Chelsea were in the Champions League. Arsenal’s now 11 match unbeaten run would arguably not be so if they were playing stronger opposition each midweek.

At a time when the Champions League group stage has become increasingly denuded of its allure through predictability and repetition, perhaps we ought to take joy in the simple pleasures its little brother affords.

Photo of Ruben Loftus-Cheek sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence 

Premier League preview

Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal are all favourites – but there can only be one crowned champion.

Defending champions Manchester City will look to retain their title. However, the season ahead looks to be more competitive than the previous campaign.

The pressure is on for new managers Unai Emery of Arsenal and Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri. Both managers are new and will have to adapt to the Premier League

Manchester City

No manager has retained the Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 2009.

Pep Guardiola was the first to lead a team to 100 points in an English top-flight season, but retaining the trophy would arguably be every bit as special. “I am read,y” said the Spaniard ahead of the new campaign.

“The fear of losing the games makes me starving and hungry again. I don’t like the feeling of losing games. When you lose, you feel guilty, you feel bad. Your private life is not good. Your relationship with the players is not good. So that is why to avoid that. Just that simple fear of losing a game makes you hungry.”

Guardiola’s desire to continue winning was showcased in City’s win over Chelsea in the Community Shield. City will want to retain the title, but their supporters – and owners – also crave Champions League success.

“It’s important to be in it every season,” said Guardiola of club football’s biggest prize. “And we are going to try with all our effort to win it. But if you ask me what the most important competition is, it is the Premier League.”

A comfortable win at Arsenal in their first fixture was an excellent start is a great start, but not th one Emery was hoping for at the Emirates.

Manchester United

Manchester United were not able to challenge City in the title race last season despite spending £400m since Jose Mourinho took over. His side were 19 points behind their city rivals and even failed to play entertaining football for the Old Trafford faithful.

Mourinho had said his side face a “difficult season” unless they sign a new defender, but the Red Devils failed to add anyone new to their backline.

Despite their runners-up spot in the league and reaching the FA Cup final, which they lost to Chelsea, United still seem a work in progress and Mourinho appears to have a frosty relationship with some of his players.

Many pundits believe his pre-season negativity can only have a detrimental impact on his squad’s morale, and a failure to make a good start to the season could see the Portuguese considering exit strategies.

Tottenham

Spurs had a positive 17-18 season, finishing third in the league, but have failed to add any new players to the current squad.

Tottenham are the only side in the Premier League history to have not added anyone during the summer window.

However, manager Mauricio Pochettino feels they have, “achieved their objective” and did a “great job” by keeping their best players in the transfer window.

They did attempt to sign Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, but were unable to come up with a deal in time.

Spurs have had top-four finishes for the past three seasons, but delays in the completion of their new stadium could have a negative effect both on and off the pitch.

North London rivals Arsenal were restricted in the transfer market by the cost of their move to the Emirates for several seasons, and some Spurs fans fear the same happening.

Their team got off to a good start with an opening victory 2-1 at Newcastle, but bigger tests await them.

Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp spent over £100m in the transfer window with Alisson, Fabinho, Keita and Shaqiri all added to the Liverpool squad.

Klopp knows the pressure is on to deliver trophies, but said: “We are Liverpool; there is no-one on this planet that expects more of us than we expect of ourselves. I really love how the players have reacted this summer and I cannot praise them enough for the way they have stayed hungry.”

Liverpool had an outstanding run in the Champions League and losing 3-1 in the final to Real Madrid was devastating, however, the football played was certainly memorable.

Klopp added: “The attitude in training and in practice, matches have been outstandingly good, the highest level. And when you consider, as it has been for other clubs also, the build-up has been disrupted by players coming back at different times [after the World Cup], it is even more impressive.”

Liverpool hit four past West Ham in style in their opener and are favourites to win the Premier League according to a Sky Sports online poll.

Alisson is seen as player to end their goalkeeping woes and should create more confidence at the back where Klopp’s teams have been lacking in previous seasons.

Chelsea

New boss Sarri is looking to make his mark in the Premier League by getting Chelsea back into the top four after Antonio Conte’s reign ended in acrimony last season despite the FA Cup win.

Having spent £71.6m on 23-year old goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao, Sarri has been given the funds to get Chelsea back in the title race.

Their opening win against Huddersfield will build confidence, but they looked well short of Man City’s standards in their Community Shield defeat at Wembley.

Sarri has said simply “My job is to win matches”. But having kept hold of key players such as Eden Hazard and Willian, the Italian will be expected to deliver by Chelsea’s ever-impatient hierarchy.

 Arsenal

New manager Emery began his Arsenal venture with a comprehensive home defeat against defending champions Man City.

He has made it clear what he expects from his current squad: “I want ambition from this team, I want them to be ambitious in every match. I want for 90 minutes in every match for them to be in the game and to be working hard. I want this every day, this is my ambition”.

The Spaniard is under a lot of pressure from fans to perform well following the departure of Arsene Wenger, although the Arsenal board have made it clear, he will be given time.

Arsenal have failed to reach the top-four in the league for the last four seasons. New defensive midfielder Lucas and centre back Sokratis were among the players signed this summer on a fairly conservative budget, with fan favourite Jack Wilshere released and signed by West Ham.

To conclude, the Premier League title race this season could potentially be more competitive and exciting than ever before. Expect Manchester City to become the first team to defend the title since 2009, but also expect their rivals to push them harder, with Liverpool hot on their heels.

Jay Emmanuel-Thomas: from Arsenal highs to struggling at QPR

In 2009, Arsenal won the FA Youth Cup with an aggregate 6-2 victory over holders Liverpool, who were looking to lift the trophy for the third year running.

After that crushing victory, surely many of those young Gunners were destined for stardom?

It would appear that was not the case. Following Francis Coquelin’s transfer to Valencia last month, Jack Wilshere is now the only player from that Cup-winning side who remains an Arsenal player.

The captain of that successful side, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, scored in every round of their cup run that season, and eventually went on to make appearances for the first team in both the Premier League and Champions League.

However, after loans spells at Blackpool, Doncaster and Cardiff he left Arsenal permanently to sign for Ipswich Town in 2011.

A spell at Bristol City followed before he joined QPR in 2015, but after further loan periods at MK Dons and Gillingham, he is currently out of favour and playing the majority of his football for the under-23s.

So, with his experience of the ups and downs of football, what does the 27-year-old striker think about the English youth academy system?

The 27-year-old has been struggling for game time at QPR

Too much, too young?

“Some players do get too much too young, but it’s not their fault,” he told Elephant Sport.

“As a young kid if you get offered a big contract, you’re going to take it, it’s part and parcel of life. No-one will say that’s too much money, you will take it and there’s then a huge expectation on the player.

“It’s hard for some players depending on where they go. At the end of the day, it’s often down to not being able to turn down such a big contract, especially from the big teams.

“It’s not anyone’s fault, but the bigger the club, the more money they have to spend on players’ wages. Sometimes there is too much weight on players’ shoulders.”

Despite the recent success of England’s various age group teams, including winning the U-20 World Cup, Emmanuel-Thomas believes young players at big clubs stand less of a chance of succeeding at the highest level.

“The boys at smaller clubs will probably have a better chance of breaking into their first team, due to finances, smaller squads and so on.

“It’s all well and good someone saying a player has potential, but it’s in training where it counts, what the player is doing off the pitch, so that they have the right to play on the pitch.

‘I just want to be back playing every week, it doesn’t matter where or who for’

“It’s all a matter of timing, waiting and patience. Some people are more patient than others, some want to just go out and play. When the chance comes, you have to take it,” he said.

Having played with Wilshere at both youth and first team level, the East Londoner is  full of praise for the midfielder.

“Jack was always talented from a young age. You could see the ability he had was more advanced than the teams we were playing against.

“If Jack is at his best and fully fit he is potentially England’s best midfielder by a long stretch. It’s all down to him physically and mentally if he can get into that mindset.”

Wenger: a great mentor

Despite Wilshere being the only remaining player from the Youth Cup-winning side of 2009, the striker praised Arsenal’s youth system, and the effect of manager Arsene Wenger on his development.

“It was a great time for me as a player to be captain of a good team. We had some great players in our squad, and out of that entire team there’s only one player who’s not currently playing in the football industry at some level,” he says.

‘If Jack Wilshere is at his best and fully fit he is potentially England’s best midfielder by a long stretch’

“The youth system we had at the time was excellent. You can see from the players Arsenal have produced, and continue to produce now, the standard is incredible.

“I think Arsene Wenger evolved Arsenal as a club. He changed a lot, brought in certain styles of play, brought in players that nobody had heard of and made them into superstars.

“He’s been given these new contracts for a specific reason. As far as I’m concerned, he was a great manager to work with and to play for, and he should still be in charge.”

Moving on

Despite making his way into the first team at Arsenal, Emmanuel-Thomas believes he had to leave the club to further his career, and has no regrets in doing so.

“From our age group we had several players potentially getting a game for the first team.

“Just before I left, I was getting minutes in the first team, as were Craig Eastmond and Jack Wilshere. Coquelin was in and out. Kyle Bartley and Henri Lansbury played a few cup games.

“But it was a decision that I had to make. I could’ve stuck around at Arsenal, potentially never knowing what was going to happen. For me, I still feel like I made the right decision leaving Arsenal.”

For the man nicknamed ‘JET’, the youth team he captained at Arsenal was also triumphant in terms of players making their way into professional football.

“It was a successful team, I know players from the year above us and the year below us that are no longer playing football at all,” he says.

But what does the future now hold for JET?

“I just want to be back playing every week, it doesn’t matter where or who for. I have a family to provide for, it’s all about playing the game and providing for my family, that’s the main goal.”

You can follow Jay on Twitter @OfficialJET10

United take the spoils in a classic encounter

So much for parking the bus…

Aware that they could not afford to slip further behind their local rivals in the race for the title, Manchester United tore up the script and tore into Arsenal at the Emirates.

They were two goals up in 11 minutes against the shell-shocked Gunners, who pulled a goal back just after the break before a third for United made it 3-1.

Jose Mourinho is renowned for his spoiling tactics away from home against other teams towards the top of the table, but that approach was ditched in favour of one more in keeping with United’s rich attacking traditions.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger will be fuming that his side were caught napping by those two early goals, but in truth this was a deserved victory for his old rival.

The Frenchman and the Portuguese have been the best of enemies since the latter’s first stint at Chelsea, and they exchanged fiery words and a shove or two on the touchline a few seasons ago.

Buzzing

United celebrate Lingard’s second

Arsenal went in to the game in good form and full of confidence but were ambushed by Mourinho’s ambition to hit them hard straight from the off.

Within the first four minutes, Antonio Valencia took advantage of some slack Arsenal defending to put the visitors ahead.

With the Gunners still regrouping after that setback, Jesse Lingard made the most of Anthony Martial’s pass and chipped the ball over goalkeeper Petr Cech on 11 minutes to put United 2-0 up. Mourinho’s side were buzzing and bossed the first half of the game.

Whatever Wenger said to his troops at half-time clearly had an impact, and Alexandre Lacazette found the net in the 49th minute to give the disgruntled home fans hope of a comeback.

Nullifying the threat of Lacazette had probably not figured in United’s game plan. A few days earlier, Wenger had ruled him out of contention because of a groin injury, but the French striker was in the starting XI. Mourinho wasn’t alone in catching a whiff of something fishy…

Arsenal now had their tails up as that pre-match confidence flooded back, and United had David De Gea to thank for some outstanding saves in the second half. The Spanish stopper was rightly lauded as man of the match after keeping the Gunners at bay.

Sure enough, as the hosts pushed for the equaliser, they left the door open for United, and Lingard duly stepped through it to score his second.

On 64 minutes, a simple, rapid counter-attack instigated by Paul Pogba ended with Lingard side-footing home to give Arsenal a mountain to climb.

Lunge

The score remained 3-1 at the end of a breathtaking encounter, giving Mourinho a first win in his past 12 away fixtures against the Premier League’s ‘big six’.

However, it wasn’t all good news for United as they headed back north, with Pogba suspended for the vital Manchester derby clash on December 10th.

The midfielder was given a straight red in the 74th minute for a reckless lunge that saw his studs planted firmly into Hector Bellerin’s calf.

Mourinho, who is known for causing a scene when he disagrees with the referee’s judgement, perhaps surprisingly stayed in his seat rather than berate the fourth official.

Neither did Pogba’s team-mates seem to take issue with the sending off, and the general consensus among the travelling support was Pogba only had himself to blame.

Derby decider?

But United will go into the derby at Old Trafford buoyed this result and their performance at the Emirates.

Can they still catch City? Pep Guardiola’s team are widely viewed as champions elect this season, but it would be unwise to rule United out of the running just yet.

City also began last season at a blistering pace before slowing down after the hectic Christmas period.

Plus, United now seem better equipped to mount a serious title challenge. Apart from the occasion blip, their struggles of the previous campaign, as characterised by too many draws and uninspiring, narrow wins, seem to be behind them.

United are clearly getting more out of Pobga, now that the £85m midfielder has been given more freedom to roam forward, thanks to the summer signing of Nemanja Matic.

Lingard is now staking a strong claim to be a regular starter, with young talents such as Martial and Marcus Rashford improving all the time, and the likes of Phil Jones and Ashley Young realising their potential.

United can definitely challenge City this season if their current form continues, but the result of this weekend’s derby could go a long way to deciding the destination of the title.

The new ‘stability’ and the curious case of Arsene Wenger

There is a distinct feeling not only that any new deal will be a contract too far for Arsene Wenger, but also – sadly – that he is beginning to resemble a dying relative.

Wenger has become a shell of his former self. He is undoubtedly Arsenal’s most impactful and most celebrated manager. But his legitimacy has been irrevocably damaged by years of failing to identify and address weaknesses and being unable to adapt to the changes in contemporary football.

You begin to feel his weight on the club as he sits in the dugout with his head in his hands. He has become a financial and footballing burden on Arsenal, with fans realising that there is now no other way to for him to leave than for him to be forced out.

Pity has become the overriding emotion at The Emirates, with fans in increasing numbers now desperate for the Arsenal boss to go so as he is able to salvage what is left of his legacy.

Like the fans at matches, Wenger appears miserable and unable to inspire or be inspired by his team. We all know he is hurting; his expressions on the touchline and post-match interviews tell us this.

But what is perhaps even more worrying is the mockery being made of the demands placed upon modern football managers by the Arsenal board.

Pitfalls

Yes, the ‘hire em and fire em’ culture that has enveloped the game in recent years is quite extraordinary. Most football fans believe that their clubs do not show enough loyalty to managers, opting for short bursts of success over long-term project building.

“Sometimes swift, decisive change can instigate an upturn in form and the change of climate at a club that is desperately needed”

But from Wenger’s case, we can learn a lot about the pitfalls of pursuing the exact opposite policy: of idolising a manager, ceasing to apply pressure on him, and allowing him to decide when and how he leaves.

Just a few weeks ago, we were given a particularly cruel demonstration of football’s impatience at Leicester. Claudio Ranieri, a history-maker and record-breaker, was forced out by the players he had lost and by an unforgiving chairman.

But, callous though it was, the sacking proved beneficial to results on the pitch. The transformation of Leicester’s players has been really quite remarkable, especially given the significance that their former manager had in building the players and turning them into household names. Many were previously average and unknown.

What we are beginning to deduce is that, sometimes swift, decisive change can instigate an upturn in form and the change of climate at a club that is desperately needed.

Trigger-happy

Wenger, quite unlike Leicester’s chairman, is markedly more conservative, opting to keep around him favoured, loyal coaching staff and making subtle adjustments to the squad, both in terms of tactical organisation and transfers.

“The impatient, fast-paced, money-driven culture that has wrapped itself around modern football could actually be the new ‘stability’”

For years, pundits praised the determination with which Arsenal stuck to its principles. They maintained that the club was an example to others who perhaps were a little too trigger-happy when it came to firing managers.

This adoration has wavered somewhat, especially this season. Now they talk about Wenger in a much more resigned way, after finally subscribing to my long-held view that stability can no longer be expressed in the way that Arsenal think it can be, and that Wenger ought to step aside in order for the club to adapt and move forward.

It is poignant, for instance, that Wenger’s greatest years came when he himself was the source of change in the Premier League, and not in the years that he remained rigidly focused on his values, allowing himself to be bypassed and out-competed.

The impatient, fast-paced, money-driven culture that has wrapped itself around modern football could actually be the new ‘stability’.

Of course, not every club that ditches its manager after a few years of service or halfway through a season will reap the rewards of their decision.

But signs are showing (the sackings of Mourinho at Chelsea and Klopp at Dortmund) that a policy of severing ties with even big-name managers and sending a message that short term under-achievement is not good enough could well prove fruitful.

Desperate loyalty

Wenger’s free rein and effective self-employment at Arsenal is not defying the system as well as his club thinks it might be. Yes, Wenger has doubled share prices at The Emirates, but ultimately the football is what does the talking.

Actually, the message Arsenal’s embarrassingly desperate loyalty towards him shows is one of mockery. I believe that Wenger’s coasting along makes a mockery of the intense demands placed upon football manages in the modern environment.

Football management has changed, and with that, so too has the pressure on managers, who must live up to the fact that their use-by dates are now shorter and the patience of boards similarly so.

The lack of pressure being applied to Wenger is telling on the players, who appear starkly unmotivated and lacking in heart and leadership. The alleged stability that Wenger has provided, during a period that has seen Arsenal leave Highbury, angry protests from fans and a noticeable dilution of expectation and ambition, has been primarily characterised by a fundamental decline, both in terms of trophies and league positioning.

But, as Wenger reminded us in an interview with beIN sports this week, “It isn’t all about trophies.” Well, clearly. But at least Arsenal has its stability…

Gunners ‘need to be more clinical’ says Williamson

Leah Williamson says Arsenal are keen to add a ruthless streak to their attacking play for the upcoming WSL Spring Series.

The Gunners won the Women’s FA Cup last season, beating Chelsea 1-0 at Wembley.

But they could only manage a third-place finish in the league behind champions Manchester City and runners-up Chelsea.

Versatile midfielder/defender Williamson told Elephant Sport: “We have learned that we need to be more clinical, and we need a team of girls all heading in the same direction with the same will to win, which I believe we have.”

The England under-23 international added: “We want to retain our FA Cup title, win the Spring Series, and we want to best prepare ourselves for the winter league in September to be back in contention for Champions League places.”

Fighting fit

When the FA Women’s Super League was launched in 2011 it was as a summer competition, but it is now being synchronised with the men’s game.

“I want to prove that I am ready now, despite my [young] age and previous injuries”

To prepare for this, teams in WSL 1 will play in a Spring Series, with nine rounds of matches to be played from April to June.

Williamson, who has been at Arsenal since the age of nine, spent most of last season on the sidelines with an injury.

But the 19-year-old is currently fighting fit and eager to return to action.

“I want to stay fit and healthy to be in the starting 11 for Arsenal and then hopefully the football will take care of itself,” said the Arsenal No.6.

“I want to prove that I am ready now, despite my [young] age and previous injuries.”

Arsenal will kick off the Spring Series on April 23rd at home against Notts County Ladies FC.

What’s it like to be branded an ‘idiot’ by Gary Neville?

When Arsenal lost 3-1 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge recently, the Sky Sports cameras picked out a Gunners fan in the crowd with a ‘Time to go’ banner aimed at Arsene Wenger.

Former Manchester United and England defender turned pundit Gary Neville called the fan an ‘idiot’. This sparked plenty reaction, and the fan – Kane Hopps – suddenly found fame via social media.

Elephant Sport down with him to to get his side of the story, and his views on Neville, Wenger and Arsenal.

How the past few weeks been for you?

It has been pretty crazy. People have been calling me, texting me, tweeting me – even [Times football correspondent] Henry Winter, The Sun and TalkSport. It’s definitely not something I expected from just putting the banner up.

How have you dealt with being at the centre of a media frenzy?

It’s certainly been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. I’ve had to get on with my day job while it’s all been happening so it has been a bit difficult, especially getting calls left right and centre from various new outlets. But overall I think I have dealt with it pretty well!

You have received a lot of support from fellow fans. What does that say about Wenger’s current situation at Arsenal?

It shows the tide has most certainly turned and has become more vocal than it has ever been before. People who have previously been on Wenger’s side have even had enough now and it shows that more and more fans are not just going to sit there and accept it now.

Everybody knows about that banner now; will that recognition persuade you to bring it to even more games?

Definitely – that was the plan anyway. The Watford and Chelsea defeats have shown me nothing has changed. He goes on about how this squad is better and different this year, but it’s not. I don’t care what we do from now until the end of the season, we are not going to win the Premier League (which we were promised) so something has to change or the banner will keep on coming.

During games, has anybody come up to you in support of the banner?

Yes, quite often. At Chelsea I had people coming up to me and patting me on the back saying well done, who were in favour of the banner. We even managed to get a ‘Wenger out’ chant going for about 10 seconds or so. There are far more in favour of it than not, put it that way.

Has anybody come up to you who have not been in favour of the banner?

A few people approach me and ask me why I do it and tell me to ‘support the team instead’.  But they miss the point – I am supporting my team. I am supporting the club by doing what I believe is best for it! I respect their views whether I agree with them or not, so they should do the same with mine.

If you’d won at Stamford Bridge, would we have still seen the banner?

Yes. I know a lot of people will not believe me but win, lose or draw, that banner was coming out. The home game to Watford was the tipping point, and I cannot continue to sit here, pay all this money for the same mistakes to keep happening year in year out.

Can Wenger do anything now to prevent you from protesting/bringing the banner?

For me, no. That ship has sailed unfortunately. The FA Cups were nice but for a club like Arsenal to not win the league for over 12 years isn’t good enough and the manner in which we go about it. The way we capitulate year after year after year, nothing changes.

He goes into the transfer market and doesn’t buy the right players. We are short, again. Injuries hit us, again. We crumble in the big games, again. That will never change under him – otherwise, it would have changed already.

So when can we expect to see the banner next?

The next game!

Moving on to Gary Neville’s comment, what was your immediate reaction to being called ‘an idiot’ live on air?

First of all ‘wow’. I could not believe so much had been made of it. But I was quite shocked that he called me an idiot because  he has been quite vocal over Wenger, his failures, and how we are not title challengers.

So I ask for all that to change and all of a sudden he goes on the defensive and calls me an idiot! I thought it was very contradictory of him, especially from a top pundit to call a paying fan an ‘idiot’ for his own opinion, I was surprised.

Bearing in mind you didn’t take it personally, can you almost be thankful to Neville for the free publicity, even if it was unintentional? 

Yes, that would be fair. He has blown it up so much that it has ended up on the news, radio and national papers – the exposure it has had has been crazy. So I guess a small part of me does have to thank him for that!

Do his views towards fans like you change your views towards him as a pundit?

Not really. I still respect him as a pundit and think he talks a lot of sense when he is analysing the game. He is not biased and does not let personal views dictate that either. But this particular view makes me think he is less in touch with fans than I thought, that’s for sure.

If you were in a room with him in a ‘gloves off’ scenario, and he maintained his view that you or any Arsenal fan who brings a banner to a match to express their views is an idiot, how would you respond?

There are a load of things I’d love to debate with him – the main one being why he feels he can call me an idiot for having an opinion, and really press him to see if he actually feels that towards any paying fan, not just Arsenal fans.

I’d also like to ask him how he can continue to criticise Wenger (even throughout the Chelsea game) and then question me when I ask for the same things to be changed in a positive way! I also think managing Valencia has made him go soft on other managers – has he has seen first had how hard it can be?

He seems to sympathise with managers more nowadays after his experience at Valencia, so I would love to question him on that too.

Willock turns Gunners rejection into resurrection at United

Every season, many young footballers go through the dreaded experience of getting released by a professional club.

The realisation that they will not fulfill the dreams they have chased for years can be a hard blow to take and for many of them, the opportunity will have passed forever.

To rub salt into the wound, in some cases the judgment comes from the player’s favourite club, the one they will watch for the rest of their lives thinking ‘what if’.

Former Arsenal trainee and lifelong Gunners fan Matty Willock knows this scenario all too well.

After spending his formative years dreaming of emulating his hero Thierry Henry, at the age of 15 he was given the bombshell news that he would not be kept on as a scholar in the under 18s.

But it was not the end of the story, as amazingly he was offered a second chance – at Manchester United.

Contact

Despite the turn in events that got his career back on track again in Manchester, the pain of rejection by his first love was hard to take at first.

“I’m an Arsenal fan so I was dreaming of playing for them one day,” Willock said.

“But when I was 15 I got released. They told me they weren’t giving me a scholarship, so obviously I was without a club.

“Fortunately the head scout at Arsenal was in contact with United and he organised a trial for me to come up and play a couple of games. Luckily enough they said they wanted me, so I signed for United when I was 15.”

For many Premier League academy cast-offs, this type of career rescue act is unheard of. Some might drop down a division or two and have a mediocre career in the lower leagues; most will slip out of the professional game altogether.

Of course, grassroots football is where every player begins their journey to the top and the man from the capital’s East End was no different.

willock-city
Willock left his boyhood-club Arsenal at 15, but resurrected his career at Old Trafford

Connections

Recalling his pathway to Old Trafford, Willock said, “I started off in Sunday League when I was six or seven.

“I was at Ridgeway Rovers. David Beckham played for them and there are a few other players who have come through there. It was probably the best club around my area, Chingford, and they’ve got good connections with a few clubs like West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.

“Then I got a trial with Arsenal when I was about 10 or 11 and I just went up through the age groups.

Now 20, and an important figure within United’s under 23’s, Willock’s career is on the up.

Having trained intermittently with the first team squad, he further proved his worth to the Red Devils’ hierarchy with a 93rd – minute winning goal in the Premier League 2 fixture away at rivals Liverpool.

The Londoner’s header deep into injury time secured a 1-0 victory at Anfield, and three vital points for his team.

Siblings

The next challenge for United’s match winner on Merseyside, is to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s reckoning and make his first senior appearance; something another member of the Willock family has already achieved this season.

willock-anfield
The midfielder grabbed a late winner at Anfield for United’s U23s

“I’ve got two brothers who still play for Arsenal; Chris and Joe,” said Willock, proudly.

“We used to play together as kids in the park, my dad used to take us every day. It was just something to do. It’s good going home and being able to watch my brothers and they’re both doing well, so that’s a good thing.

“Joe (17) is playing for the under 18’s at the minute and Chris (19) made his [first team] debut in the EFL cup [against Nottingham Forest] which was obviously a big moment for him because he’s a proper die-hard Arsenal fan, it was a dream come true.

“I wasn’t there and it wasn’t on TV so I didn’t get to watch it, but he told me he did well.”

Whilst his younger siblings continue their development in North London the older Willock brother knows he must bide his time for the opportunity to feature in Mourinho’s plans.

Furthermore, to be considered for a loan move away from Old Trafford in order to pick up valuable minutes in a first team environment, Willock concedes that he must listen to the instructions and wishes of his club.

“I’ve been with the first team a bit in training, hopefully I can push my way forward. Patience is key, really. Sometimes as a player you really want something but you have to remember the club always knows best.”

Barriers

Mourinho is famously a manager who tends to utilise experience, rather than youth, within his squad and therefore the path to the first team will not be straightforward for any young player at United.

chris-willock-home-debut
Willock’s older brother, Chris, has featured for Arsenal this season

Yet Willock, in pursuing his dreams, has proven that he is not adverse to overcoming barriers placed in his way.

Having bounced back from his early experience of rejection and the harsh realities of competitive football at the highest level, what message would Willock pass on to youngsters who, like him, have been left high and dry by their academy experience?

As you’d expect, old-fashioned hard work is high on the list. But so too is keeping a level head and realising there is still time for things to change.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he signs off.

“It’s easy to give up and start thinking you’re not good enough when people say it by releasing you, but you have to keep believing in yourself and keep working hard. If you’ve got the talent you’ll come through.”