Monday, December 14, 2020

Xhaka is an Emblem of Arsenal's Toxic Culture


"In terms of recruitment, don't even wait for January - make sure that Xhaka and Lacazette never play for the club again." - Your's truly from last week's blog.

I guess it's easy to be right about Arsenal at the moment. We keep starting the same players every week and every week they let us down. So why expect anything different? 

The club has a toxic culture that has dragged us into a bona fide relegation scrap. If you think we're too good to go down, I've got news for you - we ain't. The stats are brutal. We've lost four home games in a row. We haven't scored more than once in the league since early October. We can't keep a clean sheet. But stepping away from the numbers, just look at the players on the pitch. Their body language is terrible. They look confused. Their heads go down at the first hint of struggle. And they lash out in anger. 

A few week's ago it was Pepe, deciding to headbutt a player out of frustration. Today, it was a more predictable culprit. Arsenal's idiot-in-chief, the one, the only, Granit Xhaka. 

Look - Arsenals' troubles run deep, as I outlined last week. But if you wanted to put a face on our struggles in recent years, it's hard to look beyond Xhaka. Looking back, the summer of 2016 was a doozy: Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez signed for a combined 100m in what was a catastrophic outlay of money for the club. Holding, signed for 2m quid from Bolton, has probably given more to the club than those three combined.

It was the transfer window that ultimately got Arsene sacked. After failing to take advantage of the historically poor form or our rivals in 2016, and letting Leicester win the league, 2016 was meant to be the year we went big and pushed home our advantage. Xhaka was seen as a necessary upgrade on the middling Francis Coquelin, and I was excited by the prospect of his arrival after Xhaka impressed in the 2016 European Championships. 

Instead, he anchored the midfield that finally saw Arsene and Arsenal fall out of the Champions League. And it's all been downhill from there. For some reason, I thought Xhaka would be some form of defensive lynchpin to our midfield, closing down players and building our attacks from deep compared to the limited destroyer role that Coquelin played. 

In reality, Xhaka is an average player at best. He clearly does not have the defensive nous to read the game, spot patterns and break up play. He gives away half-decent tactical fouls to stop attacks and, even then, these are typically clumsy enough to earn him a card given his snail-like speed. He doesn't track runners or break-up play in an intelligent way. As a defensive midfielder, Xhaka is extremely limited, and typically compensates by dropping deeper and deeper until a chasm emerges where our midfield should be. 

This might be ok if Xhaka was some titan of midfield passing - but no. He is painfully one-footed, constantly working around the ball to get it onto his left foot. To boot he is incredibly susceptible to pressing. Put Xhaka under any form of pressure and he panics. 

What you're left with is a painfully slow player, who can't really defend, and who can only pick his passes when given time and space. These are not the ingredients of an elite premier league midfielder. Even if one looks simply at his player profile, it's beyond me why he's been given so many chances at the club.

And all this is before you get to the real heart of Xhaka - his temperament, or lack thereof. There are too many examples to name, but the ones that come to mind are his brain-dead penalty against Brighton in 2019 which helped put an end to our champions league tilt, and his infamous shirt throwing against Palace. The latter should have been the end of his Arsenal career. Instead, it merely hastened Emery's departure. 

The red card against Burnley was typical Xhaka, more concerned with playing the hard man than thinking about the team and the result. With a three-game suspension incoming, hopefully that is the last we see of him in an Arsenal shirt, but honestly who knows given Arteta's current proclivity to pick him. 

But Xhaka is emblematic of a broader poisonous streak running through the club. There is a cadre of experienced players who simply let Arsenal down over and over again. There was a reason why Freddie ditched half the first team for his last game in charge. He was trying to send a message that there is a group of professionals who are on fat contracts, who don't want to change, and who are prepared to sink the club rather than change their ways or leave. It's a toxic culture and Arteta has been throw in the deep end to fix it. These players have brought down Arsene, Emery and even Freddie and they are now sinking Arteta's ship. 

In a 'normal' environment, half these players would have been shown the door this summer. But we couldn't find buyers for even relatively premium assets like Guendouzi and Torreira, much less the likes of Ozil, Kolasinac, Lacazette, Mustafi, Bellerin, Sokratis, and Xhaka. If anything we've swelled the ranks of discontent by adding David Luiz and Willian. The former, as others have noted, almost seems to be a harbinger for dressing room unrest and managerial downfall wherever he goes. 

This is the problem facing Arsenal at present and it's massive. We have such a bloated squad that we couldn't even register the likes of Ozil and Sokratis for the prem. Yet the massive deflationary pressure placed on the European transfer market by COVID means we can't shift a group of toxic players that are dragging the club further and further down. To boot, we have a first-time manager, a Director of Football that is completely out of his depth, and a Chief Exec who has no record or experience to draw upon. Above that, we're basically being managed by a billionaire's son who's treating the club like a glorified internship. It's fun times all around. 

It's reached the point where some big moves have to be made in January. If there are players in the last six months of their deal and we can't shift them, cancel their contracts. Why have experienced pros hanging around the club spreading a poisonous atmosphere? Get rid or ban them from the club till their contracts expire. Promise agents fat premiums if they can get their players out of the club. Try anything.

At the same time, we have to sign some creative midfielders and hope that Partey can return to fitness. Until then, play some of the kids. Balogun looks like a baller - give him minutes. He's shown more presence in about 30 minutes of Europa League games than Lacazette has in three years. I'd rather see Reiss Nelson play than Willian. And,  as I said before, I think Smith-Rowe is a clever player who can create chances in the final third. Crucially, these *don't* always involve a cross. 

Much will depend on Arteta now. I am aghast that he keeps picking the same players in the league, no matter how well the Europa League players do. We need to do something different and that involves rolling the dice. If he doesn't, the future looks bleak and he deserves to go. 


Tuesday, December 08, 2020

What is the Path Forward for Arteta?


Where We Are

It's been a grim year and Arsenal are closing it out with a party of pure doom.

A derby loss, where we were comprehensively outplayed, is our sixth defeat in 11 league games. Even after 4,000 crosses, we can't buy a goal. The defensive solidity that Arteta briefly brought to the club has evaporated. We're fifteenth in the league and the prospects of Europa League football next year, let alone Champions League, seem distant. It's very hard to argue that the table is painting an unfair picture of where we are as a club at the moment. We're a mess. 

What we're seeing happen at the club is a toxic mixture of problems that are finally coming to a head. Some of these are long-term issues that have festered for years, while others are a result of the extraordinary short-term circumstances we all find ourselves in. Before I get into that, I think the simplest way of summarizing our current plight is this: it's not fun to watch Arsenal anymore. And it hasn't been for quite a long time. 

If the pandemic has taught us nothing else (and, living in America, it seems it hasn't taught our leaders anything at all) it's the importance of fun in our lives. Of distractions. Of novelty. Of spontaneity. 

What we all seem to be facing right now is the crushing monotony of social distancing, face-masking, sanitizers, temperature checks, closed pubs, empty grounds, FaceTiming friends and family, and the sheer, relentless need to be on your guard at all times. The need to be safe, predictable and boring. Because if you make just one misstep, you could find yourself on a ventilator. 

Watching football - let alone Arsenal - struggle forward in this environment has been both inspiring and depressing. The sheer profit motive that drives all modern sport ensured that any cessation in hostilities would be temporary. And, at least when compared to some other sports (I'm looking at your, NFL), the Premier League has done a half-decent job in setting up structures that protects its players. 

It's also been heartening to see football take a knee on racism. Perhaps this has been easier because fans were not in stadiums to complicate the picture, as we all saw with the booing at Millwall last weekend. But, for once, it seems like the game's authorities listened to players who wanted to make a simple gesture in defiance of the racism they have faced, and continue to face, in their lives and careers. 

The empty stadiums have been tough. At first, they felt like a temporary sacrifice to try and bring something pleasurable back to our lives. But now - even with 2,000 fans back - it's just a weekly reminder of how horrible everything is. 

How we Got Here and the Squad(s) We've Got

And on that positive note, let's talk about Arsenal. It's been two years since I last blogged. I wrote many times over the years about the danger of letting Arsene continue for too long. Any student of history will tell you that the longer a leader stays in power, the harder it is to replace them. Arsene was always going to leave a colossal vacuum in the club when he left - not just in terms of the loss of his own knowledge and experience, but also all the areas he had neglected for nigh on a decade when he was finally shown the door. 

Gazidis deciding to leave at the same time says a huge amount about that man - he was a chancer who hid behind Wenger. Ivan let the club drift while pocketing millions. He left the moment real responsibility fell at his door. Not before, of course, the disastrous appointment of Emery.

Since then, things have gotten genuinely dark at the club. Once Mislintat was shown the door, we became a juicy target for the true vulture of modern football - executives and super agents who realize that the biggest money to be made in the game is through player trading. What our absentee owners in Denver knew about what was going on, I don't know. But a well-run football club would not have signed-off on 72m for Pepe - a player who's not as good as Saka, an academy product - especially as it's not clear where all that money went. They wouldn't have given an exorbitant multi-year contract to Willian, a player in his early 30s, and they certainly wouldn't have let him sign his deal at the house of his notorious agent. They definitely wouldn't have signed David Luiz, a disaster of a player, as their replacement for Koscielny - our club captain who they had years to replace but singularly failed to do so.  

We got rid of Raul and that will hopefully ensure less money is wasted moving forward. But, let's face it - our transfer and contracts strategy has been a disaster for years. Just one stat. We signed Xhaka, Mustafi, Lacazette and Pepe for more than Liverpool spent on Salah, Mane, Firmino and Wijnaldum. That is bonkers. For a long time, the argument at Arsenal was whether we had money to spend or not. As we saw with Partey this summer and Pepe last year, the club does have money. Maybe not PSG/Man City levels of money, but we can compete for good players in the market. 

The club's fundamental problem is that we've not just bought mediocre players, we've rewarded these players with huge contracts. As Le Grove pointed out, we tried to even give Mustafi - MUSTAFI - a new deal this summer. A player who is surely, based on his transfer fee, our worst ever defensive signing. 

This approach is one of the reasons the pandemic has hit us so hard. We were already one of the big clubs who were most reliant on matchday revenue, yet we were also a club desperate to shift a load of overpaid players to rebuild the squad. Instead, we were hit by a devastating deflationary event in the transfer market just when we were looking to sell. Hence why Torreira and Guendouzi - two prime assets - went out on loan, and why the like of Sokratis and Kolasinac stayed put. 

This situation is why I do have some sympathy for Arteta. In 'normal' times, a new, midseason manager would work with the current squad to get the best results possible over the remainder of their first season. The summer transfer window would then be a ruthless rebuilding period, with players shipped out who the new manager doesn't fancy. Instead, Arteta essentially has three signings to his name - Willian, Gabriel and Partey. I think the latter two are quality, even if the first is rapidly entering 'financial disaster' territory. I will give Arteta a pass on Soares and Mari as I am not convinced he had a huge say in those signings, which seem to largely have Edu and Raul's fingerprints on them. 

With Partey clearly the best midfielder at the club by a mile, Mikel rushed him back for the derby, and then lost him to injury. So we finished the game with 9 players on the pitch who were Emery/Wenger-era players. That is the challenge facing us. Indeed, our the squad can roughly be divided into three groups:

Team Arsenal Retirement Village

Willian, Luiz, Sokratis, Ozil even - dare I say it - Auba at the moment. These are old players on fat contracts who are not currently pulling their weight. Three of these leave next summer, at least. I won't get drawn into the Ozil situation, but he should have left last summer and he's destroyed any legacy he had with the club based on his current antics. 

Team We Will Always Let You Down

Xhaka, Bellerin, Mustafi, Kolasinac, Lacazette, Ceballos, Pepe, Chambers, Holding. These players will always let you down in the long run. Yes, they can pull off a cup run when drilled to within an inch of their lives to play compact, counter-attacking football. But they are all fundamentally limited players.  Either let them leave next summer (Mustafi, Ceballos), or take whatever fee you can get. I'd honestly let Lacazette leave on a free tomorrow if we could cancel his contract. 

Team Hope

Saka, Tierney, Leno, Gabriel, Partey, Martinelli, Maitland-Niles (just) - these are the players who should have a future at the club. Notice how there is only one fit attacking player in this list, who's 19, when we're wondering why we can't create chances at the moment.

There are a handful of players here who are either inexperienced or who haven't played enough for the club to truly judge (Willock, Nelson, Nketiah, Smith Rowe, Mari, Soares, Saliba). Elneny also remains an enigma to me - sometimes hopeless, sometimes good. 

But this is what years of club management has wrought - about 5-6 players who are genuinely good enough to play for Arsenal in the long-term. That speaks to a colossal failure by the club's executives, and we've decided to ask a first-time manager to clean it up. 

Arteta's Problems

If I were to end on a truly dark note, it would be to ask whether Arteta has it in him. He's a very thoughtful and charismatic leader, who (I thought) had a clear vision of how he wanted the team to play. The FA Cup win was impressive and I thought we played good football at times in the league during the back-end of last season. He seemed to find a level of form in the likes of Xhaka and Mustafi that I didn't think possible, and had Auba firing on all cylinders. 

Things have completely fallen apart this season and I'd argue two related things are going on. Arteta, firstly, recognized that we were a mess defensively when he took over. Having played under Arsene, he would have known for years that defence has been undervalued at the club. The 3-4-3 we played for most of the end of last year got the job done in this regard. It gave players clear, defined roles, and made us defensively sound. We became harder to beat and harder to score against. With Auba providing the goals, things looked promising. 

This year, without a true transfer window to rebuild the team, the squad has collapsed due to its contradictions. Players have horrendously regressed to their horrible means. We have bad faith actors within the squad, as the likes of Ozil and his PR team stir the pot online. The signing of Willian seems to have been a complete disaster - destroying Pepe's already fragile confidence while saddling us with a huge financial liability. 

Teams have worked out that our players - even if coached more effectively - are still, largely, the rag-tag band of mediocrities they were before and have stopped being intimidated by our tactics. We've had no answer for teams that hit us quickly on the break with our collection of sub-par central defenders and midfielders. When in possession, we ponderously stroke the ball around. The relentless pressing of the opposition high up the pitch has disappeared. We've stopped waiting for players to commit before passing the ball, a hall-mark of our game from last year. 

Amidst all this chaos, the goals have dried up and Arteta has (bravely or foolishly, depending on your perspective) attempted to execute his pivot from 3-4-3 to either 5-3-2 or his preferred 4-3-3 to give us more attacking spark. The essential problem with this attempt is that it seems to be entirely predicated on the fitness of Partey, and his ability totally dominate whatever midfield he's playing in. I might venture that basing an entire tactical system on the fitness one player is, shall we say, a gutsy move.

Short of Partey, our tactics have devolved into endless probing down the flanks and ineffective crossing to forwards that can't head the ball. It's been a mess. 

The Path Forward for Arteta

There is no easy way out of our current situation. This is not a quick turnaround. Regardless of his cheerleaders in the press and in Kroenke HQ, if we're hovering around the relegation zone after another ten games, Mikel won't last the season. Arsene hung on for so long because he kept us in the Champions League and its associated money for so long, but was summarily removed once it was clear we'd failed to qualify for the second year in a row. Emery was similarly removed once things started to go south quickly. Arteta is one of the biggest prospects in European coaching, but he ultimately has a very short CV at present. I think he's on much thinner ice than public pronouncements might suggest. 

One card that Mikel does have up his sleeve is Edu: the one person demonstrably doing a worse job than Arteta at the moment. Recruitment has been shambolic since Edu joined, with half of the deals seemingly revolving around his connections vs. a defined strategy of finding the best player for the job. Moreover, for someone whose remit supposedly encompasses team harmony and acting as liaison to the squad, we have toxic employees aplenty. 

A no-brainer for me is to sack Edu, find a world-class Director of Football and give them whatever they want to join. We can't have two novices steering the club. We've seen with the appointment of Tim Lewis that the Kroenke's have some sense of the importance of decent corporate oversight and we need reinforcements. Look at the success of Liverpool, Leicester and even that mob down the road from us. Vinai seems a nice guy, but he needs help, and Edu ain't gonna cut it. Get someone i and give us the piece of mind that the long overdue culling of over half the squad is finally on the horizon. 

Until then, Arteta needs to back to basics. Look at what you have, not what you want. Re-start the season and go into damage limitation mode. If we have to grind out fifteen 1-0 wins to put some form of gloss on this season, so be it. I watched the dregs of the George Graham days, I'm ready for it again. 

In terms of recruitment, don't even wait for January - make sure that Xhaka and Lacazette never play for the club again. See if you can find someone in the Middle East or MLS to take Willian off our hands. Unilaterally cancel Ozil's contract in January (or before) if he won't leave. Ban him from the training ground if that's not possible - I'm being serious. High-profile, toxic employees destroy team culture. 

It's time to find out whether some of our youngsters are going to make it too. Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock are at make-or-break moments in their Arsenal careers - give them a run of five games in the team. See if Smith-Rowe can play #10 - he cannot be worse than Willian or Lacazette in that role. Up-front, start putting Balogun on the bench or give him a chance in the side while we wait for Martinelli to return. Supplement this lot with whatever you can get into the squad in January. It's time to roll the dice.


Personally, I think Arteta is going to ride this out. It may seem like he's in a Moyes spiral at the moment, but I think he will swallow his pride and make some biggish changes. More than anything, he - and the club - need to be honest about where we are. We have fallen out of the English, let alone European, elite and we are in the early stages of a long-term rebuilding project. That should be the guiding principle for all our future moves. 

Stop the short-term, agent-driven decision making and get smart. We need to cash in on whatever assets we have and rebuild. Give Arteta some proper help when doing so. And maybe then, in 2021, it will be fun to watch Arsenal again.