Monday, 12 June 2017

One To Watch: Ainsley Maitland-Niles

In the 76th minute of the Under-20 World Cup final in South Korea's Suwon World Cup stadium, Ainsley Maitland-Niles clapped the hands of the substituted Ademola Lookman and entered the fray of the most important football match of his young career thus far. 

Up to that point it had been quite a week for the 19 year-old Arsenal man. On Thursday came the news that Maitland-Niles will make the jump from the academy to the first team to start the 2017/18 season. There wasn't much time to celebrate though, as Sunday brought about England's participation in the Under-20 World Cup final, as they faced off against a spirited Venezuela side. Maitland-Niles featured in midfield as a substitute and helped settle the young English side to see out a historic 1-0 victory, capturing the biggest international title in youth football and the first global success our country has experienced since 1966. A pretty remarkable few days for Ainsley all told.

The question for Maitland-Niles (and for Arsenal fans) is, what happens next? The versatile youngster will return from his enormously successful international duties and slot straight into pre-season training with the Arsenal first team, as they prepare for their tour to Australia in mid July. In some shape or form he'll already be in Arsene Wenger's plans for the new campaign but Ainsley will be keen to make an impression, and should be confident in doing so, riding the momentum of his Under-20 World Cup success. 

Arsenal have some stiff competition in central midfield, with Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Mohamed Elneny, Francis Coquelin and, when he returns from injury, Santi Cazorla all vying for a staring place, so Maitland-Niles will have his work cut out for him. However he does have a few factors working in his favour.

The largest of which is his versatility, which will bode him well in the near future. At just 19 years-old, he isn't expected to cement a position any time soon, but his flexibility across the midfield and even in defence will put him in good stead to fill in when injuries inevitably take their toll on this Arsenal squad. He can operate in central midfield, on the right wing, and even at right back if needed. Maitland-Niles must capitalise on any opportunity he gets over the course of the next 12 months.

During the 2016/17 season he spent most of his time playing for the under-23s, operating almost exclusively in central midfield. Maitland-Niles made seven senior appearances, featuring three times in the EFL Cup, three times in the FA Cup, and making a late cameo in the Premier League against Sunderland in late October. I was particularly impressed with his performance against Southampton in the 4th round of the FA Cup, when the Gunners routed the Saints 5-0 and young Ainsley put in a dominant 90 minute shift in the middle of the park. He was so composed and assured in possession, and combined effectively with Jeff Reine-Adelaide to cause Southampton a host of problems, never letting them have a sniff of the ball.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Maitland-Niles has ahead of the new season is the level of expectation resting on his shoulders. As in, the general football-going public and your casual Arsenal fan won't expect anything from him at all. This will benefit Ainsley as he can go about his business and continue his development at the right pace, honing his craft in first team training sessions and hopefully be rewarded with a run out in the first eleven from time to time. That would be the ideal situation for Maitland-Niles in 2017/18; anything else is either a bonus, or the rest of the squad have been so decimated by injury that Ainsley simply has to play (great news for him, but not so great for the club if they have to throw the 19 year-old in the deep-end every weekend.)

I don't expect I'll be the only fan keeping a watchful eye on Maitland-Niles' progress and I certainly hope to see him feature for the first team a bit more often in the new season. Best of luck to him.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

All Sead And Done: Kolasinac Signs

Arsenal have secured their first new recruit ahead of next season, sealing a deal for Bosnian left back Sead Kolasinac on a free transfer. The signing will be officially completed on 1 July when the transfer window opens.

Kolasinac joins the Gunners after spending the past six years with Schalke in the Bundesliga. He turns 24 years-old this month and will compete with Nacho Monreal for the left back position (or as the left-sided CB in a back three), or potentially start on the left wing if Arsene Wenger continues with his new formation. The addition of Kolasinac almost certainly spells the end of the road for Kieran Gibbs, with Newcastle one of the clubs interested in capturing the Englishman (for £15 million as well). I will be very sad to see Gibbs go, and I don't think his loyal service to the club is appreciated enough by fans.

Kolasinac is a Bosnia-Herzegovina international and was voted as the starting left back in the Bundesliga team of the season. In 36 appearances for Schalke in all competitions, he scored 3 goals and recorded 8 assists. The stocky and physical defender excelled as part of the Gelsenkirchen side's back line and he was often given the freedom to roam forward, which should suit him well in this attack-minded Arsenal side.

"I'm a player who will try to help the team as well as I can. My strengths are my mentality." I am especially encouraged by that last comment, as this Arsenal squad could certainly use an upgrade in the mentality department. Overall I am very encouraged by the signing of Kolasinac and especially with how quickly the club were able to complete the transfer. I'm hoping his speed and size will suit him well in the Premier League and adding a robust player of his calibre can only improve this team.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Seventh Heaven: Underdog Arsenal Win FA Cup

Saturday 27 May 2017
Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1
Sanchez 4', Ramsey 79', Costa 76'

Arsenal saved their best until last. They entered Saturday's FA Cup final as underdogs and their opponents Chelsea were hotly tipped to complete a domestic double, winning both the league and cup. But as that historic warning goes, football matches aren't played on paper. It's about who turns up on the day, and in that respect, only the team in red and white actually did.

As the afternoon wore on, there were a few indicators that made me feel like the day would be a good one. Seeing Tomas Rosicky in the player's tunnel greeting all his former teammates and friends was one of them. When young defender Rob Holding tangled with Chelsea's pantomime villain Diego Costa early in the game, and began gesturing at Costa by pointing at his head, you could see Holding was up for the battle and wasn't going to let the Spanish forward's notorious antics affect him. And finally, when Alexis Sanchez flung himself at a Chelsea clearance, handling the ball in the process, then bypassed an offside Aaron Ramsey to coolly finish past Thibaut Courtois to give Arsenal an extremely contentious 1-0 lead, I just knew it had to be our day. How often does a string of decisions like that go in Arsenal's favour? Chelsea fans were outraged, and had good reason to be, but this made it all the sweeter for me.

After Saturday's decisive victory, Arsenal have won the trophy a record 13 times, putting themselves back on top as the most successful team in the competition. Arsene Wenger is now the most successful manager in the competition's 146 year history, winning the cup 7 times. He's won it as many times in his career as Chelsea and Liverpool have in their entire history. It's an understatement to say that that's a pretty impressive achievement.

Here are my player ratings for the game:

David Ospina (GK) - 7/10

I gotta admit, I had my doubts. He's been perfectly fine as the cup keeper this season, and was quite good against Manchester City, but I just got it into my head that Petr Cech would start in the biggest game of the season. Credit must go to Ospina though, he put in a solid performance and made some huge saves. He denied Costa twice and both were at crucial stages in the game, as well as making great saves against Victor Moses and a tricky N'golo Kante drive that deflected. I thought he could have done better for their goal, as he did get a hand to it, but the small deflection definitely affected him, as he'd shifted his feet and body weight to the left in anticipation. Overall, he played extremely well and was deserving of his starting spot.

Rob Holding (CB) - 9/10

Exactly one year ago, what was the young Englishman doing? He had just been relegated to League One with an awful Bolton Wanderers team, on which he was the only shining light, winning their player of the season award. He was still nearly 2 months shy of signing for Arsenal. Now look how far he's come in just 12 months, winning the first major domestic honour of his career. Over the past couple of months Holding became an integral cog in Wenger's new 3-4-3 formation. His performance in the final was outstanding, shackling Diego Costa for much of the game and refusing to be bullied by him. All at just 21 years-old. He's got future captain material written all over him.

Per Mertesacker (CB) - 10/10

O Captain! My Captain! Mertesacker made his first Arsenal start since 30 April 2016 but didn't show any signs of rust, and arguably put in the best performance of his Arsenal career. He was an absolute rock in the centre of defence, and his leadership qualities shone through in a faultless display. The BFG needs a statue outside the stadium. NOW. Perfection.

Nacho Monreal (CB) - 8/10

Monreal worked in partnership with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to nullify Chelsea's attack down the left all afternoon. Despite not being a natural centre back, Monreal didn't shy away from the task at hand, as many players may have against the Premier League champions. He hardly put a foot wrong and was his usual tenacious self, working well with Mertesacker to marshal the back line.

Hector Bellerin (RWB) - 7/10

The young Spaniard got the nod ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right flank and kept his opposite number Marcus Alonso quiet all day. Bellerin was absolutely tireless and kept pushing until the final whistle. He was unlucky not to score towards the end of the match, when he sprinted the length of the field, skinning the hapless David Luiz in the process, and narrowly missed scoring in the bottom corner. How should he celebrate winning the cup? A trip to the barbers!

Aaron Ramsey (CM) - 9/10

The guy just loves an FA Cup final. Imperious in midfield against quality opposition in Nemanja Matic and Kante, and later Cesc Fabregas, Ramsey showed all of them how to play a complete game, a true box-to-box midfielder. Disciplined in defence and assured in attack, he was absolutely everywhere. When he popped up to meet Olivier Giroud's cross and nod home what would prove to be the winner, well I'm sure you, like me, went wild in celebration. The Welshman is making a habit of this trophy-winning-goalscorer lark.

Granit Xhaka (CM) - 8/10

He sure picked an opportune day to have his best game in the Arsenal red and white. Up against Kante, a midfielder most critics and fans would have preferred Arsenal had purchased instead last summer, Xhaka showed his true quality and left his French counterpart in his shadow. He was largely mistake-free and showed off his impressive range of passing skills, and I was amazed at his discipline defensively; gone was that reckless abandon he usually exhibits in his tackles, and instead was a composed, confident, and thoughtful midfield general. More of the same next season please Granit!

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (LWB) - 7/10

With Kieran Gibbs missing out due to injury, the Ox was called on to man the left flank, a position he's unaccustomed to. Nevertheless, Alex didn't balk at his new responsibilities, and put in a fantastic showing defensively. He didn't get forward as often as he'd probably have liked but I can't fault him for prioritizing his defensive duties, especially considering who he had to protect in the centre. Moses kept testing Oxlade-Chamberlain up until his eventual sending off, and the Englishman never wilted. A fine way to cap off what's been a great season for the 23 year-old.

Mesut Ozil (AM) - 7/10

It's been said time and time again, but the German superstar really does divide opinion, and no more so was that evident than this FA Cup final. I've seen quite a few reports that Ozil ran the show on Saturday but honestly, I didn't see it. He had some great opportunities to kill Chelsea off but he couldn't deliver. Yes, his passing was usually accurate as we've come expect, and his off-the-ball movement does set him apart from his peers, but I didn't feel any of his output was particularly incisive. I can't knock him too much but I still get frustrated by his overall style of play. Maybe I'm too hard on him, but when you're the club's record signing, very big things are expected and I'll admit that has got to be difficult for anyone.

Alexis Sanchez (AM) - 9/10

The Chilean wasn't my choice for man of the match but he was obviously still one of the best players on the park. His goal to open the game was clinically taken (always play to the whistle kids) and even if it was fortuitous, he still showed the will and desire to chase what a few players would have judged as a lost cause. His pass into Giroud to create the second goal was sublime as well. Sanchez was a menace all game, drifting in off the left flank, and you could tell Chelsea were scared of him. If it does turn out to be that Saturday was his final Arsenal game, then what a way to go out.

Danny Welbeck (ST) - 8/10

I had a feeling Wenger would opt for the Englishman over Giroud, purely for the extra level of danger his movement and pace can cause defences. His constant running and pressing really upset Chelsea's rhythm and he was at the heart of some of our best moves. Welbeck was so unlucky not to score with a header that clipped the post in the first half. His aim for next season should be to stay fit and work on his finishing, as he's so close to being an incredible centre forward for us. He's already a fan favourite.


Olivier Giroud - 8/10

First touch of the game and he sets up the winner. What more can you ask for? An impact sub for the ages.

Francis Coquelin - 6/10

Booked almost as soon as he got on the pitch and had the audacity to perform stepovers in Chelsea's corner. After that moment of madness he settled and helped see out the game.

Mohamed Elneny - N/A

The Egyptian didn't get much time but it was nice to see him make an appearance.


And now, reports today indicate that Saturday was not to be Arsene Wenger's swansong after all. According to various sources, Wenger will not be standing down as manager as some had predicted, and he has agreed on a 2-year contract which is likely to be announced officially by the club on Wednesday. Did you really think he was going to walk away? I'm honestly not surprised but I'm not unhappy either. I still believe the team could do with a fresh approach, because one trophy doesn't erase the last couple of years of staleness. Once he signs on the dotted line, the club and it's fans need to get back to supporting the team. Enough of this bullshit with flying planes and stadium protests directed at the manager. If you're gonna get angry, then by all means aim your vitriol at our silent owner, the one in the dodgy suit. However, I do hope that Wenger has taken note of all that has happened this season and vows for it not to continue. If he can get this team to play every game with the kind of spirit and intelligence they displayed on Saturday, then we'll be going in the right direction. I think, for me, that's all we can ask for.

Friday, 26 May 2017

End On A High: FA Cup Final Preview

Arsenal will face Chelsea at Wembley this Saturday to bring down the curtain on what's been a disappointing season, but the Gunners can bow out on a high note. If Arsenal are able to defeat the champions of England, it will go some way towards healing the wounds of this testing 2016/17 campaign.

With all of the uncertainty hanging over the club at the moment still occupying the thoughts of most fans, the real focus should be on who Arsene Wenger will be selecting for the final. Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has a full squad at his disposal whereas Arsenal have some glaring issues to address, namely at centre back. With Laurent Koscielny picking up a needless suspension thanks to a straight red card in the final league game of the season, and Gabriel stretchered off the pitch with a long-term knee injury in the same match, the boss has a situation on his hands. Combine the absence of Koscielny and Gabriel with the fact that Shkodran Mustafi is suffering from concussion and could be a major doubt to play, and we're now in the midst of a full-blown selection crisis.

So who can Wenger choose?

Club captain Per Mertesacker is finally back to full fitness after missing the entire season with a knee injury. He came on as a sub against Everton at the weekend but should he feature against Chelsea, he'll still be extremely rusty. Mertesacker is as experienced as they come, a real veteran who has played in some of the most high-stakes games imaginable, but this would really be chucking him in the deep end. At the very least, his leadership skills will be valuable in such a big game.

Rob Holding is likely to be a certain choice. The young Englishman has been in impressive form over the the final weeks of the season and nothing has fazed him since he was thrust back into first team action. I fully expect him to be at the heart of things in defence on Saturday.

With Wenger's recent transition to a back three in defence, the other choice would likely be Nacho Monreal. Not considered a natural centre back, the Spaniard has performed admirably in the position when called upon, and I'm sure Monreal will get the call once again.

The choice of who to play on the wings to support the back three presents yet another problem. Kieran Gibbs, the natural choice on the left, is also struggling with his own fitness issue. Gibbs has yet to return to training this week. Thankfully there are no injury concerns on the right flank, just a tactical headache instead. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been a revelation since adopting the wing back role in April, showing flashes of the player the club hoped he would develop into, and he's worked hard to recover from a recent hamstring injury. Alternatively Wenger could opt for Hector Bellerin, who has struggled a lot this season but has been closer to his usual self in the past few games. Defensively Bellerin would make the most sense, but Oxlade-Chamberlain can offer that bit more in attack.

The rest of the team should pick themselves, with the only real question mark being whether to start Olivier Giroud or Danny Welbeck as the focal point of the attack. We are all familiar with what Giroud can offer and, love him or hate him, the guy is a proven-goal scorer (and he's knocked in a couple at Wembley before). Welbeck on the other hand might trouble the Chelsea backline a bit more than Giroud would, thanks to his pace and movement in the channels. If he's fully fit I'd opt for Welbeck to start the game, as Giroud has been effective this season off the bench.

Alexis Sanchez has been a bit of an uncertainty this week with his own fitness problem, but you'd have to build a wall to keep him from playing at Wembley. The ever-tenacious Sanchez will be chomping at the bit to play his part in such a crucial match. On Wednesday, Wenger said: "He needs to go through some tests at the moment and we’ll see how well he comes out of that. Knowing the player, knowing his character and knowing his commitment to the club, which I don’t question at all, he’ll make absolutely everything to be fit for Saturday."

I've seen quite a few pieces about how this could be Sanchez's final game in an Arsenal shirt. I don't think he will leave this summer, but I've been wrong about this before. I also think the outcome of Saturday's game might play some part towards whether he stays or goes. I think I'm in the minority of Arsenal fans when it comes to Sanchez's situation; I don't care very much what he chooses to do. If he stays I'll support him still, and celebrate his goals. If he leaves, I'll shrug my shoulders and focus on who might replace him, rather than mourn his departure. The thing I always talk about with Sanchez is, he's one of the most frustrating superstar Arsenal players I've ever seen, perhaps the most frustrating. I cannot stand his constant need to prove to everyone how skillful he is and the way he takes unnecessary risks in dangerous areas. The amount of times he gives away possession drives me crazy, and I think for a player of his ability and intelligence, he can be better. But then he'll perform a piece of magic or come up with the winning goal and all if forgiven. It drives me nuts. I appreciate players of his calibre are designed to take the riskiest option in order to gain the highest reward, but for Christ's sake Sanchez, just pass the ball sometimes, please?

If it was me (and Mustafi misses out), this would be the first eleven I would opt for:


Holding - Mertesacker - Monreal

Oxlade-Chamberlain - Ramsey - Xhaka - Gibbs

Ozil - Alexis


And finally, will this be Arsene Wenger's final game in charge? After 20 years of service, will it all come to a close on Saturday? Part of me would love to see him bow out in glory, winning one more trophy, his seventh FA Cup. Riding off into the sunset with a cup under his arm is definitely the way to go, should he choose to. I honestly think regardless of what the result is, he will not leave. There'll be a vocal portion of the fanbase outraged if he doesn't go but I just don't see him letting go of the reins until he's good and ready. He'll do it on his terms.

Despite Chelsea being considered the favourites on Saturday, especially considering Arsenal's awful defensive situation, I just hope the Gunners can cause an upset. We've had a very good record at the new Wembley, and in this competition in recent times. Let's put this difficult year behind us and end the season on a high.

Thanks for reading.