This week’s Monday Verdict focuses on why we could be witnessing Arsene Wenger’s last throw of the dice at Arsenal and also discusses Paul Pogba, Loris Karius and Celtic.
LAST ROLL OF THE DICE FOR WENGER
Over recent years, voices calling for Arsene Wenger to be axed at Arsenal have gathered momentum, with the club’s long wait for Premier League title success fueling those voices suggesting the club has gone backwards.
Damaging defeats as we witnessed in midweek at Swansea only adds fuel to the fire for those calling for the Frenchman to be culled, though those voices may have become a little muted after the Gunners five-star destruction of Everton on Saturday evening.
Let’s cut to the chase here; Arsenal were simply brilliant. And the display resembled the Gunners at their free-flowing best.
Granted, the early opener helped, together with some less than impressive Everton defending, but you can only beat what’s in front of you and Arsenal must be applauded for some fine, free-flowing football. Arsenal at their best? Quite possibly….
The architect for the win has quickly been placed on new signings Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, with the latter especially deserving of praise.
The Armenian looked like a star reborn at Arsenal as he made an instant impact with a hat-trick of assists – the first Premier League to do so in one game this season – on his full debut for the club.
😎 Taking the Mkhi!
Henrikh Mkhitaryan on Saturday became the first Arsenal player to provide three or more assists in a Premier League game since Santi Cazorla (4) vs Wigan in May 2013.
[Via @OptaJoe] pic.twitter.com/f1VIVeOPm3
— TEAMtalk (@TEAMtalk) February 4, 2018
Put simply, Mkhitaryan looks like the shackles are off at Arsenal, having been asked to track back and do too much defensively under Jose Mourinho at Manchester United.
Mkhitaryan will of course still be expected to dig in for the Gunners and do his share of the donkey work, but there’s a differently mentality at Arsenal, with far more emphasis placed on the attacking element of the game – and that is bound to suit Mkhitaryan and play to his strengths.
The link up too with Aubameyang was impressive and it was clear the duo knew one another’s games inside out as they rekindled their Dortmund partnership with the minimum of fuss. Some players clearly enjoy playing together – and Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan clearly have that strong bond and an understanding which is bound to serve Arsenal well.
The addition of these two players certainly makes for exciting times at Arsenal and, despite all the criticism, will offer renewed hope of a trophy double, with the League Cup and Europa League still very much in the Gunners’ sights this season.
Of course Wenger will be judged on Arsenal’s ability to reclaim a top-four spot and ultimately this is what could decide upon the Frenchman’s future more than anything.
Plenty of observers in the game feel the new two-year deal the Frenchman signed last summer was merely a smokescreen and a prelude to what will be his last full season in charge. Mikel Arteta has been heavily tipped as his successor and the Spaniard is certainly receiving the best education ahead of his possible appointment by his spell as No 2 to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
Whether Arteta (or anyone else for that matter) succeeds the Frenchman in the Arsenal dugout, however, isn’t the issue in hand here and while I believe a discussion on Wenger’s future will occur at the end of the season, his destiny quite simply depends on what happens from here on in.
In signing both Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang – as well as the tying down of Mesut Ozil to a new deal – Arsenal once again look like a team ready to make giant strides forward. We’ve seen false dawns at Arsenal before, but the arrival of their two big-name January recruits could not just fire Arsenal back into the Champions League next season, they could also earn their manager a stay of execution.
Having been given the money to sign two long term targets, Wenger absolutely can have no excuses now and the chances of his long record-breaking reign being extended, almost rest entirely on these two players’ shoulders.
It’s do or die, sink or swim, **** or bust time for Wenger and Arsenal now….
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KARIUS REPAYING KLOPP – BUT REDS NEED LONG-TERM ANSWER
After Jurgen Klopp’s public backing of goalkeeper Loris Karius, it’s fair to say that the German has repaid his boss after a string of good performances.
“He is the new number one,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said recently.
“With goalkeepers you have to commit yourself, in other positions you can change, as you want, and we do now – Loris is now in it.”
Klopp has previously alluded to the idea that Karius will become a long-term success at Anfield.
“I’m not interested in public pressure, I’m interested in the boy,” he said.
“There’s no reason to push him through the situation, he loses confidence.
“Karius has a lot of things that other goalkeepers want to have. We want to develop the players – we don’t want to convince people that he’s not bad.
“I know him really well and he’s much better than he has been. It’s a situation which Liverpool have as a long-term project.”
Confidence is a huge factor for goalkeepers, and you get the impression that Klopp’s words have boosted Karius. His performance against Tottenham certainly suggested so, at least.
The former Mainz man made a number of good saves, the most notable pair being the one to deny Heung-Min Son when through on goal, and saving Harry Kane’s first penalty.
In addition to that, he commanded his area reasonably well and certainly could not be faulted for either of the visitors’ goals at Anfield on Sunday afternoon.
One thing appears clear anyway: that Karius is definitely the best option between the sticks for Klopp and for Liverpool at the present moment.
However, this shouldn’t mask the problem that still exists. Karius may be publicly declared as the long-term option for the club, but that doesn’t mean Klopp won’t be looking for other options. It is of course only natural that a manager looks to strengthen his squad wherever possible, and the GK position is an obvious one for Liverpool.
Karius’ problem is not his ability – as Sunday showed – but rather his consistency. If he pulled off incredible saves week-in, week-out and wasn’t prone to quite so many errors, Liverpool’s goalkeeping quandary simply wouldn’t exist.
It is important that Klopp doesn’t lose focus of that. As loyal as he may be to the 24-year-old, there are better options out there. The recruitment under his tenure thus far has been varied, but recently it appears he has got the hang of what the true achilles heel of the team is, and it starts at the back.
He spent £75million on Virgil van Dijk – an investment which the jury still remains out on – as well as getting Joel Matip on a free and getting Andy Robertson for £8m (a fee which now looks like a snip).
Now, FSG should dig deep in their pockets again an pay the €50m Roma reportedly want for Brazilian shot-stopper Alisson.
The 25-year-old has been hugely impressive for the Serie A side this year, keeping 10 clean sheets in 23 starts – a joint league high.
Brilliant ball by Borja Valero to Perisic and an amazing save by Alisson from Icardi's shot that he tips on to the post and the Inter fans make their voices heard! #InterRoma #Icardi #Perisic #BorjaValero pic.twitter.com/syPqgvtsoq
— InterYaSkriniar (@InterYaSkriniar) January 21, 2018
He has demonstrated all the qualities of an all-round ‘keeper, and it’s no wonder that PSG are reportedly sniffing around too, having turned their attentions away from AC Milan sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma.
While Roma may not be too keen on selling to Liverpool again based on how well Mo Salah has done since moving to Anfield, but it’s definitely worth a shot. If they manage to bring him in, the quandary will finally be over, and attentions can firmly move to making sure the back five players gel and fix their defensive woes.
CLEVER FROM MOURINHO AS HE HANDS POGBA TIMELY WAKE-UP CALL
But as we’ve got to learn over the years, there’s often quite the discrepancy between what Mourinho tells the press and what the manager says to his players behind closed doors.
And there no doubting the disappointing performance from Pogba in midweek against Tottenham will have massively disappointed the United manager as the player struggled to make an impact on the match at Wembley.
Even so, it was still a major surprise to see the Frenchman benched for the clash with Huddersfield on Saturday. However, this was a clever piece of management from the Portuguese boss, who in leaving the club’s record signing among the subs, served as a reminder that no one is untouchable. Furthermore, it was a warning in no uncertain terms that the player has to maintain his own high standards at all times and that failure to do so will result in losing his place.
It’s often said that players have more control than managers these days, especially where big personalities like Pogba are concerned.
But Mourinho showed he isn’t afraid to make the big calls, and that no one player is larger than the whole. This was the United manager’s way of showing that if their talisman can lose his place in the line-up, anyone can….
Maintaining a top-four spot and pushing for glory in both the Champions League and FA Cup means United’s season is bubbling along nicely, and even if their title hopes look remote, there’s still a massive need from all to give it their maximum at all times.
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CELTIC’S INJURY ISSUES COULD REJUVENATE SCOTLAND’S TITLE RACE
Much has been made about the form Celtic have been in this season under Brendan Rodgers. With what looked like a closed shop as far as the title race is concerned, we now could see an unlikely title surprise with their lead at the top cut to eight points.
However, the Hoops’ 1-0 defeat by Kilmarnock on Saturday – only their second domestic loss of the season – cost more than three points. Injuries to central defenders Dedryck Boyata (groin) and Kristoffer Ajer (ankle) were further blows to their central defence with recent signing Marvin Compper already out with a calf strain and ineligible for their upcoming Europa League tie against Zenit St Petersburg in any case.
Furthermore, the absence of Craig Gordon, Leigh Griffiths, Jonny Hayes, Tom Rogic, Anthony Ralston, Stuart Armstrong, Patrick Roberts and Mikael Lustig going into the match at Rugby Park now sees the Bhoys short of 11 first-team regulars.
It’s an injury situation that would hit the hopes of any squad- and now Rodgers facing his first real domestic test since taking the helm at Celtic Park.
Their inferior goal difference means the lead is effectively nine points, but another reversal next time – coupled with another win from nearest challengers Aberdeen, could really set the alarm bells ringing.