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Challenge for the Title. Reset. Challenge Again.

Arteta is Arsenal's greatest disappointment of 2020/21 | Marca
Irrespective of what happens between Arsenal and Wolves on Sunday, the Gunners will end the season in second place, which is a massive improvement from the previous finishes of the earlier campaigns. The chart below shows Arsenal’s final position on the Premier League table since the second placed finish in that Leicester-winning fairytale season in 2015/16.

For six full seasons, Arsenal remained in the trenches, playing Europa League football, before even getting to the point where they failed to qualify for Europe entirely. For a club of our caliber, it was unacceptable, but we were transitioning from life after Arsene Wenger and we expected a few bumps along the way but we didn’t expect to stay in the wilderness for this long. Edu Gaspar and his team must be commended for the smart recruitments made in the last couple of seasons, as the club has signed some players whose contributions propelled them to become title challengers again – Aaron Ramsdale has been a very commanding presence in goal, while the likes of Ben White and William Saliba improved the defense. Oleksandr Zinchenko revolutionized our play with his left back / central midfield dual role, while Gabriel Jesus galvanized our waning attack. In January, Arsenal made three smart signings in Leandro Trossard, Jorginho and Jakub Kiwior, who did their own bit to contribute to the title challenge, even though the team ultimately fell short.

In an interview on the official website, Arteta shared his views on the campaign and his plans for next season,

“We have achieved reaching the Champions League with five or six games to go and we’ve finished second. I think we have developed a lot of players and taken them to a very different stage of their careers and they have contributed to the team exceptionally well. We have created and developed a huge relationship with our fanbase and created something special around the team.”

“So if I look at it that way, there are a lot of positives to take from the season, probably more than was expected with the capacity, ability and resources the team had. But, as well we spent 248 days on top of the Premier League, and at the end, we didn’t have enough, or show enough, to win it. 

“We tried our best, and we made some mistakes that have cost us, but the reality is there’s a team that you have to congratulate, and that’s Manchester City as well as Pep and the coaching staff. Throughout 38 games they’ve been more consistent and when that happens, you have to shake hands, say congratulations, take a lot of the things that you’ve done well over the season, keep them and learn from the others that need to change or improve to get to another level.”

“To be fair, they were much better than us. They raised the level like they did against Real Madrid the other day, and when they play at that level, it’s like ‘wow’. We could not reach it. That psychologically paid a big price on the team.”

“Looking back, even if we’d won at Anfield and against West Ham and Southampton, we could still have finished second. In the end, you have to beat them when you go toe-to-toe with them because that’s 12 points – six more that we would have than them, and they’d have six less.”

“I think we are in a moment of our journey where we have built a lot. We have a great foundation and we have become really competitive, but now I think it is time to press the reset button, and go again.”

“We have to be faster, more determined and ruthless because the dimension that opens up now is bigger but the margins are really small so we have to be really smart.”

Firstly, the gaffer acknowledged the juggernaut that is Manchester City, that has been a constant thorn in the flesh of opposing teams in the Premier League. In the past six seasons, they have won five, and even finished in second place when Liverpool managed to nick their first title in 30 years. Everyone knows how crazy and motivated Pep Guardiola is and the gauntlet has already been thrown for any team that has it in them to challenge Manchester City next season.

Finishing in second place has seen Arsenal return to Champions League football at the expense of teams like Liverpool and Tottenham, so Arteta would know that he needs to continue his coaching methods and tactical setup that almost got the lads over the line this season, even though injuries in key positions played a significant role in the final outcome of the league. 

It’s all about having the right levels of ambition, and to challenge for the Premier League and go all the way to actually win it, you need to have the right squad depth. Having a quality squad will get you over the line when injuries and suspension kick in, or when you just need to rotate to keep the squad fresh. Arsenal was knocked out of the Carabao Cup before the Qatar World Cup in November 2022, knocked out of the FA Cup in late January 2023, and crashed out of the Europa League via penalties in February 2023, which essentially meant that Arsenal only the Premier League to focus on.

Following that blip in February that saw the Gunners lose to Manchester City and Everton, as well as draw with Brentford, Arsenal won seven games in a row before going to that terrible period in April that saw the club drop vital points to Liverpool, West Ham and lowly Southampton before yet another loss to Manchester City. Fingers have been pointed on specific players as the ones responsible for the bad run of form, but the team clearly didn’t have the right level of depth to sustain the Premier League title charge.

To tackle the issue of squad depth, Arsenal will have to be smart with their recruitment, as well as some potential sales. 

On potential departures, Granit Xhaka seems to top the list of players set to leave the club with Bayer Leverkusen heavily linked with a move for the Swiss midfielder. Thomas Partey has also been mentioned as a potential departure, which will be surprising, bearing in mind that he has just been at the club for three seasons, and had been riddled with injuries, but he managed to be in good form early in the campaign, only to struggle towards the tail end. Reiss Nelson might leave on a Bosman if he doesn’t renew his deal, and the loan returnees like Nicolas Pepe and Ainsley Maitland-Niles don’t seem to have a future with the club. Emile Smith-Rowe is another player that has been used sparingly this season after his return from injury, and he can potentially be on the move, if you follow all these whispers.

The only potential arrivals so far, in terms of speculation, remain Declan Rice and Moises Caicedo, who would be amazing additions to the team, and the experience of Ilkay Gundogan might be poached, if he doesn’t decide to move to Barcelona or renew his contract with Manchester City. 

It’s going to be a long summer rife with loads of speculation, and I’m sure we will have some legitimate transfers soon. However, the expectation will be to challenge for the Premier League title again next season.


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Xhaka Leaving May be a Günd Thing

Arsenal: Granit Xhaka can't handle heat of high press

Granit Xhaka has been a household name at Arsenal and is just four games short of reaching 300 in seven seasons with the club. However, it’s looking likely that Xhaka may not be an Arsenal player anymore amid rife speculation that he is bound to join Xabi Alonso at Bayer Leverkusen for a proposed €15m fee. Following the defeat to Nottingham Forest, Xhaka dropped some striking words regarding his future,

“You will know the latest next week, for sure I think they (the fans) deserve that and I do myself as well. We have one more week of this Premier League season, the first thing is I want to enjoy and, for sure, you guys will know next week what happens with my future.

If next week we know much more about what happen with my future, I will be thankful to the fans because of how they treat me after this, I didn’t expect that if I am honest. I am thankful for that and I want to give them something back for maybe my last game on Sunday.”

You don’t need to read in between the lines to ascertain that Xhaka’s last appearance for Arsenal might probably be the home game against Wolves this Sunday, which will be rather emotional, because the fans have built all the bridges that were burnt and had a deep connection with him. One may look to the potential transfer and wonder where his ambitions lie, bearing in mind that he was vital in Arsenal finally returning to the Champions League after a six-season hiatus, only to leave to a team currently in sixth place in the Bundesliga and may be in threat to miss out on the Europa Conference League next season if VFL Wolfsburg gets a better result than Leverkusen in the final weekend of the season.

Maybe its a family decision to return to Germany, after leaving his four-year spell at Borussia Monchengladbach to join Arsenal in 2016. However, I trust that there would be no ill-feeling towards Xhaka because he worked really hard to get to where he is with the fans. His performances this season were exemplary, his output better than it has ever been for the club and his leadership on and off the pitch could not be over emphasized. 

Losing Xhaka will also create a massive crater in the Arsenal midfield, that can only be filled by the likes of Declan Rice or Moises Caicedo. But with Arsenal competing on four fronts next season, squad depth will be very important, which brings me to the latest speculation linking Arsenal with a move for Manchester City’s captain, Ilkay Gundogan. Ironically, Gundogan, like Xhaka, arrived in the Premier League from the Bundesliga in 2016, and while Xhaka amassed 296 caps for the Gunners, scoring 21 goals, Gundogan has played 301 games for Manchester City, scoring 58 goals.

Arsenal also has a healthy business relationship with Manchester City, with the Gunners selling the likes of Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor and Bacary Sagna to the Cityzens in their formative years as football superpowers, while Manchester City recently sold Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal last summer, as well as Pep Guardiola’s assistant manager leaving him for the Gunners a couple of seasons ago. Arsenal isn’t the only team interested in the services of Gundogan – FC Barcelona have been long-term admirers of the German maestro, and Manchester City are very much interested in offering him a new contract extension to keep him at the club for the foreseeable future. 

Despite his advancing age, we have watched Gundogan enough to know what he will bring to the table. His passing is top-notch, he’s a massive threat from set pieces, he has a good eye for goal and most importantly, he is an experienced seasoned professional that would bring his positive mentality to the side. He won a Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and German Super Cup with Dortmund before joining Manchester City, and with the Blue Half of Manchester, he has won five Premier League titles, four Carabao Cup titles, one FA Cup and two Community Shields.

Signing Gundogan would also mean that he could feature in Xhaka’s ‘left #8’ position alongside Partey in the starting XI. In as much I’d love me some Rice or Caicedo, Arsenal might stand a better chance with signing Gundogan on a free transfer than splurging some huge millions to get these other targets – even though we are hopeful the club is successful in recruiting these targets.

There would be a lot of speculation this summer and we are up for it with no meaningful to keep us distracted.

Xhaka leaving may actually be a Günd thing.


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Balogun a Yankee and Xhaka on the Move?

Arsenal to sell Xhaka, Tierney and Balogun

Just a couple of days ago, I shared my thoughts on the Granit Xhaka contract situation and expected that everything was going to be sorted at the end of the season, with only two games against Nottingham Forest and Wolves left before the curtains close on what has been a grueling campaign. To my surprise, the internet has been swarmed with stories confirming Xhaka’s potential exit from the club,

“Granit Xhaka, set to leave Arsenal at the end of the season. No negotiations over new deal and plan to part ways in June.

“Bayer Leverkusen are in advanced talks to sign him — €15m fee.

“Understand personal terms are almost agreed over four year deal — June 2027,”

We all know that Fabrizio Romano and David Ornstein are two journos that speak assertively when it comes to transfer news, and even though some don’t pan out as they proclaim, the chances are always high that they are absolutely correct because of the ‘sources’ they have in football clubs. 

Let me assume this is true for a minute and just think about the ripple effect of losing such a vital cog in the Arsenal midfield engine like Xhaka. First off, we would lose a very good passer of the ball that threads some sumptuous balls behind enemy lines. Thanks to the awesome comparison matrix at Squawka, I was compared his passing stats with his midfield partner in crime, Thomas Partey.

Xhaka created 47 chances and had seven assists, when compared to Partey, who generally had more passes than the Swiss midfielder, but not much in the attacking third. Losing Xhaka will also create a massive crater in the Arsenal midfield, that can only be filled by the likes of Declan Rice or Moises Caicedo. Another thing putting me off on the potential Xhaka sale is the asking price – surely Arsenal can do better than €15m for their 30-year-old midfielder, but when you think of the fact that its either we take the 15 mil this summer, or let him go for free, all grumpy next summer, we are better off letting him go.

I will be saddened to see Xhaka leave as the fans have gone full circle with the Swiss midfielder. It seems like yesterday when he had the bust up with the fans in the Crystal Palace game and already agreed a deal with Hertha Berlin that winter, only to stay after his engagements with the new gaffer, Mikel Arteta,

“I think he’s going to stay. I really like him. The way we want to play, if we get him on board then he can be a tremendous player for the football club.

“It’s his commitment, I like the way he focusses, I like the way he lives his profession, he’s willing to learn and he’s a great football player.

“It’s also his range of passes and I’m just delighted to have him.”

Xhaka stayed back and helped Arteta win the FA Cup that season and Community Shield the season after. He was also one of the major contributors to Arsenal’s title push this season, scoring five goals and supplying seven assists for his teammates, while playing a new role following the acquisition of Oleksandr Zinchenko, whose forays into central midfield allowed Xhaka to be more expressive on the pitch, hence his improved attacking output. 

Xhaka’s exit will certainly be on good terms, as he has fixed the bridges that were burned in the yesteryear, and I wish him the very best in his potential new adventure in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen.

Elsewhere, Folarin Balogun is another player that needs to sort out his future with the club, following his hugely successful loan spell with Stade de Reims that has seen him score 20 goals for the French outfit. Balogun would expect to either stake a claim for a first team berth next season, or go to the exit door for a permanent move elsewhere, with consistent first team football the priority, but what we know for sure, is that his international allegiances have been sorted out. 

Folarin Balogun celebrates a goal for Reims

Balogun was born to Nigerian parents and was raised in England. After playing a couple of games for England at Under-17 level, he accepted a call up from the United States Under-18s, and featured in the Vaclav Jezek Youth Tournament, scoring two goals in four games for the American youth team. Balogun then made a name for himself at the England Under-21 level, scoring seven goals in 13 games for the Young Lions. Last October, Balogun expressed his interest to play for the country close to his heart, Nigeria,

“I haven’t heard anything from Nigeria, but I’m open to anything because Nigeria is very close to my heart. My family’s from there. I always have love for Nigeria.”

“That’s a conversation that I need to have with people around me, my agent and obviously my family”.

“But if I was asked about the opportunity to play for Nigeria, then I can have that conversation. But first I need to be asked.”

However, Nigeria did nothing about this declaration from Balogun, as the Super Eagles played two friendlies in November 2022, where they lost woefully to Costa Rica and Portugal, as two African Cup of Nations qualifiers against Guinea Bissau in March 2023. These are four games Balogun could have had a chance to feature.

With Nigeria not reaching out and his prospects of featuring consistently for the England national team slim to none, Balogun has received approval from FIFA to play for the United States. The American head coach is over the moon with Balogun choosing to represent them, and has already confirmed that he will be in his plans for the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer. The United States are also co-hosting the next FIFA World Cup in 2026, so Balogun will get a chance to strut his stuff in the big time in front of his home fans. 

At least, his international football future is sorted. We will need to have a conversation about his club football future in the coming weeks. 


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