Monday Verdict: Ominous signs at Chelsea; Wenger comfort blanket

Date published: Tuesday 4th April 2017 7:27

Arsenal face the possibility of losing their comfort blanket, while Chelsea and Sunderland’s futures are assessed on this week’s Monday Verdict.

Arsenal may be without familiar comforts as crisis continues

Arsene Wenger has always spoken about a top four finish in the Premier League as a trophy in its own right, purely because of how difficult it is to achieve.

If you believe that, then it’s fair to say Arsenal have had a lot of success, even in recent times. A Champions League spot has always been Wenger’s comfort blanket, even while the team hasn’t been challenging for the title and getting knocked out of Europe at the first knockout stage.

The hostility surrounding Arsenal Football Club seems to be getting louder at an alarming rate. The results just aren’t coming – and with Wenger’s future still up in the air, it threatens to put serious cracks in the foundations which the Frenchman himself has helped make so strong.

A pulsating draw against Manchester City was perhaps fitting of a game that required no exaggeration in the build up, but for Wenger it did very little to prove that he has what it takes to bring back that section of support which has turned so viciously against him.

If his intentions are to sign a new two-year deal with the club like some reports suggest, he has to turn this sinking ship around. The real threat now is that Arsenal may not even have Champions League football next season to fall back on, with the club currently sat in sixth place.

The game against City was one which quite rightfully demonstrated that top four is once again the best hope this season for Arsenal. Their performance left a lot to be desired, both defensively and in attack.

Where Guardiola’s stars such as Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero delivered the goods, Arsenal were left disappointed by lacklustre displays from Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil (again). If the evidence of their disaffection wasn’t clear a fortnight ago, it certainly is now.

If the Gunners fail to get into the top four, those two will likely leave. What position are the club in to replace them? Arsenal don’t have the same attraction any more. They are a club which recently has been ever so slowly regressing in appeal, but now that rate is starting to increase.

The last half hour of Sunday’s game was fairly indicative of Arsenal in recent times. Dull, restrained and surprisingly unambitious. This could be the season it bites them on the backside and they lose their most famous comfort blanket.

Oliver Fisher


Get ready for big summer transfer scramble

Jordan Pickford: Linked with a move away

Sunderland are going down and there really doesn’t appear to be any of their traditional ‘miracles’ on the horizon. However, there is one very interesting thing about the Black Cats, and it’s something that should interest fans of every top club in England – goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

Pickford has been an oasis of brilliance in a swamp of abject misery for Sunderland this season, and there will be offers for him this summer regardless of what happens between now and then.

The truth is, Pickford has one serious weapon in his arsenal – his distribution.

The Washington-born stopper passes a ball like Andrea Pirlo at times, spraying long passes to feet and into space for runners like a veritable midfield maestro. His distribution is so good, that even if he was an average goalkeeper, top coaches at top clubs who like a possession-based style of football would be clamouring to sign him.

However, on top of that, Pickford is a brilliant goalkeeper. His save percentage is outstanding, given the shambles that is in front of him, and he commands his box well too. Add in to the fact he is homegrown, and you have a formula that will result in a lot of admirers.

With uncertainty surrounding the futures of just about every keeper at every top club in England this summer, expect Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool, and Everton to all be making covetous glances to Wearside.

Michael Graham


If Chelsea are great now, next season they could be unstoppable

Chelsea might, traditionally, be one of the country’s most despised sides, but it’s hard not to look on with respect and admiration at the job Antonio Conte has done there this season. This won’t sit well with fans at Tottenham, Arsenal or West Ham – but dare I say the Italian maestro has actually brought a certain likability factor to the Blues this season.

Not only do Chelsea look like winning the title at a canter, despite their shock loss to Crystal Palace on Saturday, but they also, it seems, are already shaping their plans for next season and a return to the Champions League.

It’s strange to think that all said and done, this Chelsea side isn’t wholly different from the side that struggled so badly under Jose Mourinho last season. The personnel aren’t hugely different either – N’Golo Kante, Marcos Alonso and David Luiz the obvious execeptions, while the reintroduction of Victor Moses has, in effect, been like a new signing.

But if you think the class of 2017 look pretty menacing, you wait until Conte has been given a full summer to shape his squad.

Every squad has room for improvements. Chelsea are no exception. I full expect them to bring in Monaco powerhouse Tiemoue Bakayoko in a fearsome midfield engine room with Kante. Albeit different, the Frenchman will be an upgrade on Nemanja Vidic or Cesc Fabregas in the side…

Elsewhere, a long-term replacement for John Terry, and someone who puts Gary Cahill’s place in the side in jeopardy, could also come in, with Conte likely to look to an Italian to add that required defensive steel often absent since Terry passed his best.

Alexis Sanchez: Wanted by two clubs

And finally, the creme de la creme – a new forward to play behind Diego Costa and alongside Eden Hazard. There’s talk of course that Hazard could go; let’s just say, for arguments sake, he stays…. Just imagine him for one minute alongside Alexis Sanchez. Could it happen? Wenger says no, but Arsenal historically have lost their best players to direct rivals. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see Sanchez stay in the Premier League – so would a move across London to Stamford Bridge be totally out the question…?

And a forward line of Hazard, Sanchez, Willian or Pedro and Costa….

There’s been plenty of talk in recent years about how the Premier League, as a product, has suffered a dip in standards. Certainly the performances of our sides in the Champions League over the past few seasons suggests there is a weight to that theory.

But Conte and Chelsea can set about that change next season. If Conte gets the players in he wants – and keeps the likes of Costa and Hazard in tow – this Chelsea side might yet be the ones to restore the fear factor around English sides.

James Marshment


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