There were positives to take from Arsenal’s display in a ten-goal thriller against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night – which they eventually lost on penalties.
However, Unai Emery still has plenty to ponder on with the Gunners still needing improvement with the midway point of the 2019/20 campaign fast approaching.
The Gunners may have lost just three times in all competitions this season – ironically twice against the Reds – but they currently lie fifth in the Premier League – already a whopping 12 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s men at the top.
Quite simply they must be better defensively. They are shipping far too many goals – conceding ten in their last four games.
There have also been question marks over the club’s mentality and character over the last decade, something which was a recurrent theme especially during the latter stages of Arsene Wenger’s reign.
Following a 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United earlier this month, former Manchester United defender Patrice Evra labelled the Gunners ‘babies’ on Sky Sports – claiming he was always ‘so happy to play against them’ because he knew the Red Devils were ‘going to win’.
And despite holding a two-goal lead twice in Wednesday night’s clash they still came unstuck – with Emery’s decision to substitute both Mesut Ozil and Lucas Torreira particularly bewildering.
So, what needs to change? talkSPORT.com highlights several issues the Gunners boss must address in the near future if his side are to mount a genuine top-four push this season in the top flight.
Strip Xhaka of the captaincy and hand it to Bellerin
The whole Granit Xhaka affair has been a sorry episode and needs to be concluded sooner rather than later.
Everyone makes mistakes, we’re all human after all, and while the Swiss midfielder should be afforded the opportunity to turn around his Arsenal career – he must be stripped of the captaincy.
Emery needs to put his foot down and deal with the situation and draw a line under it – something the great Sir Alex Ferguson would have already down.
Criticism is part and parcel of football and as a professional footballer you have to be thick skinned – Xhaka should not have responded to the jeers and boss from the Gunners faithful when he was substituted during Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Watford.
Was the criticism over the top? Most definitely. But was Xhaka’s reaction justified? Absolutely not.
Hector Bellerin, who captained Arsenal in Xhaka’s absence at Liverpool. epitomises the word professional.
Rewind the clock back three years ago and he himself was getting some serious slack from some sections of Arsenal supporters for what they deemed was a series of poor performances.
He took on it on the chin and came back stronger for the experience – Xhaka must do the same now.
The 24-year-old always wears the Arsenal shirt with pride and has a connection with the fans – something Xhaka has never had. Quite simply Bellerin ‘just gets it’.
The Spaniard illustrated his leadership skills when stepping up to take Arsenal’s first penalty in the shoot-out at Anfield, which he dispatched with aplomb.
But that was an even more striking example of the full-back displaying his maturity earlier in the match.
As Gabriel Martinelli celebrated his second goal of the game – and seventh in as many games this season – to put the Gunners 3-1 ahead at Anfield after 36 minutes he looked across at Ozil who cut a dejected figure as he walked back to the centre circle.
Immediately, Bellerin headed over to the German to embrace him and offer some words of wisdom.
Those kind of things don’t go unnoticed. It was a very good audition from Bellerin to land the captain’s armband – that’s for sure. Emery must act on his intuition sooner rather than later.
Start playing Mesut Ozil
Emery selected the enigmatic German in his matchday squad for the first time in five weeks and he didn’t disappoint in a thrilling encounter in Merseyside.
Six games had gone by with Ozil nowhere to be seen, before he was a given rare start against Klopp’s men – a performance which could well reignite his Arsenal career.
Emery’s decision to withdraw the 31-year-old with 25 minutes remaining was a baffling one, considering the game was still hanging in the balance – he had also been his side’s biggest creative spark.
After the match Emery insisted it was always the plan to substitute Ozil in the second half, but in his absence they undoubtedly looked a weaker side.
Ozil’s stats from the game were very impressive, averaging a 92 per cent pass success rate, making 44 touches – a team high.
He also contributed two key passes with one an outrageous assist for Ainsley Maitland-Niles to put the visitors 4-2 ahead in the second half.
Emery has clearly had it in his mind for a while that Ozil doesn’t add much value to his side and he can do without him. A January move away from the Emirates has been mooted.
While Ozil can be incredibly frustrating at times, on his day he is still a top class operator and Arsenal’s best attacking player.
They can not afford to let him go to a Premier League rival such as Manchester United – look at what happened when Robin van Persie left the Emirates to join the latter in 2012. He was the final jigsaw in Sir Alex Ferguson’s puzzle – the last hurrah was complete.
Emery needs to ensure he keeps as many of his best players on the club’s books as possible.
Ozil is one of them, and despite what his critics claim, he is more than capable of performing at the highest level for at least a couple of years, yet.
Give Torreira a more prominent role
The misuse of the Uruguayan has had many in the footballing world scratching their heads – not just Arsenal fans.
Torreira has fallen well down the pecking order at the Emirates, following the arrival of Dani Ceballos on a season-long loan from Real Madrid and the emergence of exciting young prodigy Joe Willock.
Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi are preferred when it comes to defensive duties, which means more often than not Torreira has often himself sitting on the substitutes bench.
The current Arsenal midfield are desperately lacking some bite and creativity, which has left some fans questioning Emery’ tactical nous.
More bewildering has been the fact that when Torreira has been afforded first-team opportunities he’s been, more times than not, deployed further forward – with his strengths obviously lying in a deeper role.
Torreira has played a total of just 274 minutes on the pitch, starting just two Premier League matches.
That was evident when the Gunners played out a 1-1 draw with Manchester United before the international break, with Torreira effectively nullified Paul Pogba during the first half as he won back possession in several threatening positions.
Like Ozil, Torreira impressed in the thrilling encounter at Liverpool but was withdrawn with 18 minutes remaining and Arsenal leading the game. We already know how this one ended.
The over-reliance on Aubameyang is concerning
No-one can deny the fact he has been a major success for Arsenal since sealing a £56m move from Borussia Dortmund in January 2018.
The Gabon international has scored 39 goals in just 59 Premier League games for the Gunners – a mightily impressive return – while also providing nine assists during his stint in England so far.
And while Aubameyang is again proving pivotal to Arsenal’s success this season – notching eight in all competitions – his vital goals for the north Londoners last season were worth a whopping 19 points.
While Arsenal narrowly missed out on a Champions League spot in 2018/19, finishing one spot behind arch nemesis Tottenham in fourth, without Aubameyang’s vital contribution they would have finished eleventh – one point below West Ham.
While Aubaymeyang hasn’t found the net in his last four games for the Gunners, his overall total has accounted for 46 per cent of their top-flight goals this season.
Emery is far too reliant on Aubameyang, and you’d wonder just what they’d end up if the latter picked up a serious injury.
There’s plenty for Emery to do and he must get his hands dirty. Football is a demanding and ruthless business – already some fans have called for his head.
Arsenal chiefs demand a top-four finish and he must provide that – if he doesn’t he may well be looking for a new job come next summer.
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