Classic11 Football Blog

 by Jacob Ambrose Willson @JacobAW_1994

Santi Cazorla has not featured for Arsenal since he limped off in the 57th minute of the 6-0 win over Ludogorets in the Champions league on October 19th. At the time, the injury seemed to be only minor, but now over a month later, both manager and player have admitted they do not know when a return is due, with the tiny Spaniard currently receiving treatment on his troublesome Achilles from a specialist in Barcelona.

During his absence, Cazorla’s importance to this Arsenal side has been underlined, as the midfield balance has been disrupted, which has affected the team’s attacking rhythm in particular. Prior to the 31-year old’s injury, the gunners had recorded 6 straight premier league victories, including a beautifully architected 3-0 deconstruction of Chelsea, with Cazorla partnering his old ally Francis Coquelin, and new boy Granit Xhaka in equal measure, and with similar success.

But since that home Champions League tie against Ludogorets, Arsenal have struggled to replicate the form they produced with Cazorla in the side, and although they have kept their unbeaten record since the opening day intact, Arsene Wenger is yet to find the correct balance in his central midfield pairing, despite having a number of options.

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In the 4 premier league matches since October 19th, Arsenal have recorded 1 victory, away at Sunderland, and 3 draws against Middlesbrough, Tottenham and most recently escaping from Old Trafford with a precious point on Saturday. In these games, Wenger has gone with a midfield pairing of Coquelin and Mohammed Elneny on 3 occasions, only using his £35 million man Granit Xhaka once from the start, in the North London Derby. In this time, Aaron Ramsey has also returned from injury and is another option to consider in midfield.

The Coquelin-Elneny axis has been criticised by fans for being too conservative, as both players are solid from a defensive perspective, but not very adventurous going forward. Whilst providing midfield security on paper, this duo has seemingly had a disruptive impact on Arsenal’s attacking play.

With Coquelin and Elneny in midfield Arsenal’s build up play through the middle becomes slow, predictable, and sometimes sideways, which has led to some disappointing recent performances, particularly against Boro and Man United. Clearly, Arsenal miss Cazorla’s ingenious ability to bring the ball forward and pass through the lines, which adds another string to the Gunners’ attacking bow.

Now, on the back of Arsenal’s lifeless offensive performance at Old Trafford, Wenger must be considering the option of bringing in Granit Xhaka to the base of the midfield on a more regular basis. The Swiss international’s outstanding attribute is his fabulous range of passing, with the ability to break through the lines with accurate passes from deep.

Xhaka has surprisingly been used sparingly thus far by Wenger, albeit he was robbed of the midfielder’s services for 3 matches as he served a suspension for a red card picked up in the

Premier League clash against Swansea. However, now the former Borussia Monchengladbach player could be the cure to Arsenal’s midfield ills in Cazorla’s absence.

Like the Spaniard, when in possession Xhaka’s first thought is always forward, and he has even chipped in with 3 goals across all 3 competitions. His incisive and accurate long passes can help Arsenal spread the play into wide areas, and can unlock defences with players such as Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and now even Mesut Ozil often looking to run in behind.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Wenger hasn’t used Xhaka more often is down to defensive and disciplinary concerns surrounding the Swiss star. Off the ball he is clumsy and concedes too many fouls, which accounts for his poor disciplinary record. Therefore, if Xhaka is to get the nod in midfield, he must try and improve this aspect of his game, and be paired with Francis Coquelin.

If the French enforcer can effectively cover the defensive lapses of Xhaka, than the two could thrive together, as the latter can undoubtedly return the favour by taking on full responsibility for distributing the ball from Arsenal’s midfield.

However, the two didn’t exactly flourish when paired together in the recent draw with Spurs at the Emirates, but do seem to offer the best current solution to Arsenal’s midfield conundrum. The best partnerships work by reducing each player’s individual weakness, therefore Coquelin and Xhaka have the potential to cover for each other’s deficiencies.

The fact is that Arsenal have won just 1 Premier League game from 6 without Cazorla, and with the Spaniard set to be out for at least the foreseeable future, Arsenal must solve their midfield puzzle sooner, rather than simply waiting for Cazorla’s return.

Now, it is down to Arsene Wenger to drop the conservative approach in midfield, and take a risk in bringing in the disciplinary time bomb Granit Xhaka, in order to jump start Arsenal’s attacking play from deep.



At exactly noon on Sunday, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur will lock horns once again, in the perpetual battle for superiority in North London. Recent matches between the two sides have reached even higher levels of importance, beyond just local bragging rights, as both teams have shared beady glances at the ultimate prize in English football.

This clash is no different, as Arsenal sit 2nd in the Premier League only by an inferior goal difference to Manchester City, whilst Spurs sit three places and three points behind their arch enemies. Whilst Arsenal have swaggered their way to the summit, Spurs have quietly assumed the position as the only unbeaten side left in the league, and have conceded just five goals in doing so. It is these contrasting features between the two sides that will make for a truly intriguing encounter.

Team news will have a huge impact on the game, as both managers have difficult decisions to make as key players slowly return to full fitness ahead of the match. Arsene Wenger will be waiting on the fitness of both of his left backs, Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal, with the latter most likely to start after recovering from a recent niggle, whilst Gibbs picked up a fresh knock in the Champions League on Tuesday night.

Crucially, Hector Bellerin should return at right back after not being risked midweek, whilst Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla have also recovered from minor knocks. However Cazorla did not train earlier in the week, which could leave him short for the derby, leaving Wenger with a conundrum at the base of his midfield.

Conversely, Tottenham have been hit by the news that key performers Toby Alderweireld and Erik Lamela are out of the derby, whilst Mousa Dembele is a doubt, and Moussa Sissoko serves the final match of a suspension. However, Mauricio Pochettino did provide some good news, in that star striker Harry Kane is fit enough to make the squad, but unlikely to start the game.

Therefore, Pochettino will have to field a much weakened starting XI, with Eric Dier continuing to deputise at centre-half, whilst youngster Harry Winks may have to step into the midfield if Dembele is ruled out. Victor Janssen is likely to start as Tottenham’s main focal point up front, with Kane to come on off the bench. Spurs attacking hopes lie largely with the creative duo of Christian Erikson and Son Heung-Min, who started the season in lethal form, but have dropped off recently.

However, Wenger must also make some important decisions to his starting XI. If Cazorla doesn’t play, he must choose his midfield pairing wisely. Will he continue with the conservative Coquelin-Elneny partnership, or introduce big summer signing Granit Xhaka into the mix. The Swiss midfielder will provide a better range of passing, allowing Arsenal to be more expressive, but is a ticking time bomb in a disciplinary sense. This may well play on Wenger’s mind as he prepares for a passionate and committed grudge match.

In addition, Olivier Giroud has staked a big claim for the centre forward position, by scoring three goals in his last two matches. But Wenger should revert Alexis Sanchez back to the role, as it has served Arsenal so well recently, with the Frenchman an option from the bench.

Therefore, looking at the potential starting XI’s and both side’s recent form implies a quite simple outcome of this match – An Arsenal win. Spurs haven’t won in six matches and have scored just three times in the run, whilst in the same period Arsenal have recorded five wins from six, scoring 17 goals in the process. But as we all know form counts for nothing in derbies. When the game commences on

Sunday, recent form will be forgotten as motivation and commitment levels take on a greater importance in the deciding of the game.

Looking back at recent North London derbies, honours are staggeringly even. In the last five matches, Arsenal and Tottenham boast one victory each, whilst the other three games ended as draws. Consequently, I predict a tight, low-scoring affair as Tottenham will make up for their poor form and weakened side with a combative performance, aided by a tight defensive unit. Having said that, Arsenal will get chances to score, as they aim to take home the bragging rights in this explosive and crucial North London Derby.

 By Jacob Ambrose Willson - @JacobAW_1994

Arsenal cruised into the 5th round of the EFL Cup on Tuesday night, beating Championship side Reading in a relatively comfortable night at the Emirates. In light of Arsenal’s multi-faceted schedule, Arsene Wenger opted to ring the changes, bringing in a whole raft of fringe players to the starting XI, as is policy for this competition.

Making nine changes from the side at the weekend served two purposes, first to give key performers like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil a midweek rest, second to allow others such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lucas Perez to stake their claims for a more regular starting berth.

On this occasion, Wenger’s decision to rotate was vindicated, as first-team outside Oxlade-Chamberlain netted a brace, giving the manager food for thought.

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But now the Frenchman must consider his priorities as his side are one win away from a cup semi-final. The EFL cup quarter final match will take place at the end of November, in the middle of a gruelling run of fixtures at a crucial period in the season.

As the premier league slowly approaches the half-way stage and Arsenal’s Champions’ League group campaign reaches its finale, Wenger will have to fully utilise his squad if they are to stay on track in all competitions.

Rotation will be even more key for Arsenal as opposed to some of their domestic rivals in the coming weeks. Liverpool and Chelsea have no midweek European exploits this season, which is a huge domestic advantage and showed last weekend as they won their respective Premier League matches, whilst their rivals suffered the much-clichéd European ‘hangover’.

Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino has already sacrificed the EFL Cup, fearing a fixture pile-up as his Tottenham side navigate simultaneous Premier League and Champions League campaigns for the first time.

Therefore, to maintain competitiveness with his less-fixture burdened rivals, and to prevent mishaps like last weekend’s uninspired 0-0 home draw against Middlesbrough, Wenger must rotate, but rotate effectively.

Against Boro, Arsenal seemed lethargic and out of ideas in their attacking play. This sort of performance is no surprise coming on the back of a midweek Champions League fixture, and was exacerbated by Boro’s committed and stout approach to the game. However, Arsenal must find a way to win these games, even if the team is not firing on all cylinders.

The Gunners attacking play so far this season has been based on quick, incisive and direct moves, which is a pleasure to watch. However, they had no ‘plan B’ as attack after attack failed to penetrate Boro’s rigid banks of defenders.

But, another seemingly crucial positive to emerge from the EFL Cup victory over Reading was the return of striker Olivier Giroud from injury. The French target man’s skills may well provide another way of winning matches.

When faced with large banks of disciplined defenders, Arsenal find it harder to break the door down with their trademark Wengerball approach. Therefore, with Giroud’s powerful aerial presence and intelligent near post runs, Arsenal are blessed with a ready-made alternative.

In this type of game, set-pieces, crosses and cutbacks towards Giroud may be the key to finding the net, and with Ozil and Cazorla, Arsenal have players with the quality to find the big Frenchman. A breakdown of Ozil’s assists last season will reflect this, as many were set-pieces landing on Giroud’s or Koscielny’s head.

So, for Arsenal to successfully compete on all fronts, they must embrace squad rotation as key players will inevitably tire in the face of a heavy schedule and under-perform. However, sometimes this will come down to more than just player rotation, but rather system rotation, as the Gunners will face teams who set up to stifle their free-flowing attacking play.

Arsenal undoubtedly have a squad big enough to perform on multiple fronts, as players under-used thus far, such as Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud all have the ability to make positive contributions to games. However, it remains to be seen how well Wenger can stitch together a ‘plan B’ approach, and what impact injuries will have on Arsenal’s season.

 By Jacob Ambrose Willson - @jacobaw_1994

Jack Wilshere, a figure of much scorn and mockery across the football world in recent months, completed 90 minutes of club football for the first time in over two years at the weekend, as Bournemouth held Spurs to a 0-0 draw on the South coast.

Much has been made of Wilshere’s long list of debilitating injuries and his inability to complete 90 minutes since his shock loan to the Cherries on transfer deadline day. However, the latter criticism seems to be very short-sighted, as fans and pundits are quick to reel off his injury record, but fail to realise that the 24 year old needs to be slowly built up back to full fitness before his performances can be fairly judged.

Wilshere came in for some criticism in a 4-0 drubbing to Manchester City last month, which was his first start for Bournemouth and only his second club start in two seasons. Unsurprisingly given these stats, Wilshere showed signs of rustiness and was at fault for a goal. Since this match, the England international has done little to turn heads, providing no goals and no assists and generally failing to impose himself on the pitch.

But for Wilshere to return to his classy best, this chastening early experience must be accepted as an inevitability as he slowly returns to full fitness. Now, with 6 games under his belt and one completed 90 minutes, he can look towards improving the nuances of his game and more importantly, finding an identity in the Bournemouth side.

One of the biggest conundrums for Wilshere revolves around discovering his strongest position. Once a guaranteed starter at Arsenal, his repeated spells on the side-lines meant that the Gunners midfield evolved without him, and when Wilshere did return from injury he became somewhat an outsider to the team.

His greatest performances have tended to come in an all-action midfield role, with a license to roam forward and instigate attacks. The Englishman’s top attributes include a wide range of passing, close control and dribbling, with the ability to drive forward past banks of opposing players.

However, even at his best Wilshere never brings a great goal threat, with his best Premier League tally coming in 2013/14, when he netted three times in 24 appearances. After signing Wilshere, Eddie Howe revealed his plan ‘to get him near their goal and see his creative ability’.

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Therefore, if Howe stays true to his word and continues to deploy Wilshere in an attacking midfield role, he will have to look towards improving his end product. A personal best goals and assist record this season will constitute a massive positive stride towards Wilshere becoming a more effective player.

Yet, achieving this will be a huge challenge in a Bournemouth side that plays similar football to his parent club, but are miles away from the quality throughout the Arsenal squad. Training with players of a lesser ability may well hamper Wilshere’s ability to improve as a player, but his position at Arsenal was far from guaranteed so the move away may do him better good than sitting on the bench would.

Overall, Wilshere must look at his loan spell in a similar way to his first time away from Arsenal at Bolton Wanderers in 2009/10. Whilst it is desperately sad that he has regressed to a point in his career 6 years ago, he must remain positive and make Arsenal sit up and take note of his performances.

Only playing regularly will give Wilshere the chance to find his position out on the pitch, as the experience of finding space and knowing when to drive forward will return with games under his belt. If Wilshere is able to find his groove, carve out a position of his own at Bournemouth and most importantly, stay fit, then we are likely to see his performances return to his own high standards.

 By Jacob Ambrose Willson @jacobaw_1994

In recent weeks Arsenal have grabbed the baton of early season form from initial pace setters Manchester City, with this metaphorical handover being displayed no more evidently in both clubs opposing fortunes in their Champions League match day three results.

In fairness to the Manchester Club there was a huge gulf in class between their opponents and Arsenal’s. City travelled to the five times European Cup winners Barcelona who welcomed back Lionel Messi to their starting 11 which already included the likes of Suarez, Neymar and Iniesta, whilst Arsenal welcomed the lesser known Bulgarian side Ludogorets to the Emirates.

However, the North London side were in no mood for mercy on the minnows and produced a scintillating performance firing in six goals to no reply, with the normally goal shy Mesut Ozil plundering home a second half hat trick. This near perfect performance, on the back of five straight league wins has left many Arsenal fans dreaming of real silverware.

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At the same time over in Spain, Pep Guardiola’s second return to the Nou Camp as an opposing manager went just as bad as the first, if not worse. In May 2015, His Bayern side were taken apart by the brilliance of Neymar and Messi, but this time, the latter went one more and grabbed a hat trick albeit against a City side down to ten men after Bravo’s peculiar red card.

Whilst it would be foolish to ignore the yawning gap in quality between Ludogorets and Barcelona, these results are rather telling of the inverse correlation between Arsenal and Manchester City’s recent fortunes. City have not won in four matches and are facing a ‘mini-crisis’, having won ten straight matches in all competitions prior.

Oddly enough as if the two clubs fortunes are tied to each other, at the beginning of City’s dominant early period, Arsenal found themselves in near-disarray, going down 4-3 at home on the opening day to Liverpool, not winning until match day three of the Premier League, and also struggling in their opening Champions League match, nicking a draw away to PSG.

So, it may seem as if Manchester City have already peaked, and Arsenal are in the ascendancy, but fans of both sides must remember that form is temporary. City will undoubtedly drag themselves out of this rut, as they are filled with quality in every position. At the same time, Arsenal current imperious form will not last, and is rather reminiscent of last season’s autumnal excellence, which eventually petered out in the New Year.

Therefore, my message to fans of both teams is this – Don’t draw conclusions now, it is only October! Arsenal and Manchester City arguably possess the highest quality squads in the league, yet what will define their seasons is their response to adversity. Injuries, suspensions and loss of form will invariably occur between now and May, but it will be the team who copes best with this that will achieve tangible success.

Finally, lets not forget the intense challenges that these two will face from the likes of a concrete-solid Tottenham side, a Klopp-inspired Liverpool, a Manchester United that should click into gear at some point, and an unpredictable Chelsea team. What a season this is going to be.

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