Blog Written by Liam Stewart (@stevenstewart54):
The 6th of April 2014, Everton had just beaten Arsenal 3-0 to move a point behind the Gunners in the race for the final place Champions League spot, with a game in hand against bottom of the league Sunderland to come next. The Toffees won that game, narrowly edging past a spirited Black Cats display, which was undone with 15 minutes to go when Wes Brown diverted Gerard Deulofeu's cross into his own net while trying to clear.
After that underwhelming yet crucial win, Roberto Martinez’s side sat two points above a mournful and melancholy Arsenal side, whose title challenge had wilted away and unceremoniously died like a leaf in a vicious Russian winter. After their 3-0 demolition of the Gunners, in which Romelu Lukaku had made Arsenal’s defence, specifically the now imperious Nacho Monreal look as feeble as a twig, the blue half of Merseyside looked favourites to best the slacking Londoners and reach Europe’s most prestigious competition.
There were five games left remaining in the season and the Toffees had a tough run in which they would need to get maximum points to be sure of that venerated fourth spot. They faced a resurgent Crystal Palace side, toughened by Tony Pulis. David Moyes would also return to Goodison Park with Man United and leave without a job. Their remaining games included eventual champions Manchester City, Southampton and Hull City. Reaching Europe, for the first time since their 2005 qualifier against Villarreal, would be a demanding and austere process, but ultimately achievable.
However, it was not to be. The Toffees melted into a mouldy, tin-can caramel, losing to Southampton, Manchester City and Crystal Palace and winning just six points from a possible 15. One felt their collapse was partially that this side was not mentally prepared to be pace-setters in a race for such a revered position.
Yet, more importantly Everton were structurally flawed. Roberto Martinez has always been a coach who preaches the benefits of playing on the front-foot, driving forward attempting to slice and dice opposition defences apart with a Gordon Ramsey-esque ferocity. Yet, this savage, cut-throat style has left Everton criminally exposed defensively and still does now. In their 23 Premier League games this season, The Toffees have already conceded 34 goals, only five less than they conceded in 38 games in 2013-14.
In the Premier League world of constant buying and selling, some may argue that the Merseysiders defenders are the issue. However, I suspect the ‘buy better defenders’ line does not apply to Everton. John Stones though young and occasionally prone to overplaying, as he did at the weekend against Swansea, is still clearly talented. Though I find Jose Mourinho a rather distasteful and bitter man, he is a coach who knows how to coach and identify a quality defender. His career has been built on it. As a result, his much-publicized chase to sign Stones in the summer exhibits the 21-year-old’s quality, as does his performances.
Seamus Coleman is one of the best right-backs in the league and Leighton Baines experience and quality would be welcomed by many a team in Europe. The Argentine Ramiro Funes Mori, though lacking the much-cherished ‘Premier League experience’ by pundits across the land, has ability and athleticism and is thought of extremely highly in his native country.
Admittedly, questions are starting to be raised over 33-year-old captain Phil Jagielka, simply due to the natural process of aging. Despite this however, Everton have a defence capable of being in a top six side, especially in the madhouse that is the Premier League where results such as Liverpool beating Norwich 5-4 seem only slightly out of the ordinary.
Consequently, blame must be turned towards Martinez himself, who for all his advantages in his aim to entertain fans and observers alike; is too dogmatic in his approach and it’s hindering Everton who look set for another season in mid-table mediocrity. For a team, which boasts talents like Lukaku and Deulofeu, who epitomize Martinez’s style with their effervescent skill, flair and finesse, The Toffees could and really should be challenging for a top-four spot once again this season.
The promise of Everton’s first season and their ability to entertain, producing results such as their 6-2 thrashing of Sunderland and their 3-0 win over Southampton, has kept many fans on Martinez’s side so far this season. But they’ve now won just once in their last 10 games, a run of form which surely dictates the Spaniard channel his inner Mourinho (even his arch-nemesis Arsene Wenger has a pragmatic side) and make Everton less open.
I suspect at a club like Newcastle, considering their current predicament, Martinez’s attacking style would be accommodated and enjoyed right now. Yet, at a club with Everton’s history and stature in English football, winning whilst entertaining as opposed to just entertaining, needs to be The Toffees motto.
On Wednesday, Everton play Manchester City in their Capital One Cup semi-final second-leg. After winning the first-leg 2-1, Martinez has to make sure he finds a balance between the artistes he dearly wishes his side to be and the serious club his fans want them to be. If the former Swansea coach fails to do this and Everton once again fail in hearty circumstances, one fears that this may be his last season as leader of The People’s Club.
Arsene Wenger's longevity at Arsenal is what every top team around the world searches for in their managers. A truly selfless man, with his best intentions aimed toward the football club rather than himself. From 2004, when construction of the Emirates stadium began, to 2013, Arsene had a very limited transfer fund. Keeping Arsenal a top club in world football throughout this difficult period is possibly Wenger's most impressive achievement. Many would argue leading his team to an Invincible season would warrant that title. Arsenal remain the only team to go a full 38 game season without recording a single loss, and were rewarded with the only golden Premier League trophy to date. Both are rightly appreciated by Arsenal fans.
One major characteristic of Arsene Wenger is his stubbornness in directing his team's style of play over the years. Arsenal are famous for focusing on the technical side of the game, where they tend to have more of the ball in terms of possession and look to quickly combine with teammates through short passes. A manager with a taste for this kind of play is more attracted to players with great ball control and quick decision making, rather than bigger, more defensive minded players. Current players that exemplify these qualities are Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil. These two midfielders are an absolute pleasure to watch when Arsenal are in possession, but it's a gamble to play these players in games where you might not have as much of the ball. Özil and Cazorla aren't going to have as much of a defensive contribution as say Arturo Vidal, but that's what Wenger does; he takes risks. This is definitely one of the reasons Arsenal has such a vast fan base, as this beautiful approach to the game is both exciting and nerve wracking.
Despite competing against the financial powerhouses of Manchester United, Chelsea, and Manchester City, Arsenal never dropped out of the top four and consistently competed in the UEFA Champions League knock out stages, hugely benefitting the club. Not only does competing in the Champions League increase the club's financial power, but it makes luring the world's best player's to Arsenal much easier for Wenger, as the best of the best want to play in the most desired club competition in the world. Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League for an incredible eighteen consecutive seasons, the most of any English team, coming closest to lifting the trophy in 2006, as they lost 2-1 to Barcelona in the final.
Arsenal fan's would be lying if they said they weren't scared of the year Arsene Wenger chooses to pass the reigns on to another man. It seems an impossible task to fill his shoes, and while Arsenal will no doubt continue to compete among Europe's most elite, there's bound to be a few seasons of decline in transition. Just take a look at how Manchester United are fairing in their post Sir Alex Ferguson era. Despite some fans angrily expressing their problems with Wenger, he has stuck by this club, refusing offers from top clubs such as Real Madrid, Paris Saint Germain, and the French National team. These fans vent their frustration over a lack of signings and blindly blame the man in the suit they see every week, as if he's in control of the finances of the club. Wenger definitely has his faults, as he can show a bit too much loyalty to the players he's raised through the youth system. When players such as Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, and Wojciech Szczesny are fit, they have failed to string together consistent performances, but still get game time and contracts. This can be a liability to Arsenal, as perhaps a new manager, would judge players strictly on their attitude and ability, rather than past experiences and sentiment.
Arsene Wenger deserves the right to decide when he will leave and hopefully the club will show the due respect when the day comes. He has with a doubt earned a statue of himself outside the Emirates stadium alongside Theirry Henry and Denis Bergkamp.
Blog Written by Liam Stewart (@stevenstewart56):
Wouldn’t it be amazing if Leicester won the Premier League this season? Well, no, but I’m only saying that because I’m an Arsenal fan. But in a world where I wasn’t an Arsenal fan, yes it would be amazing if The Foxes maintained their remarkable rise.
Certainly Claudio Ranieri isn’t dreaming just yet. After their impressive 1-0 win against a sprightly and rather scary Tottenham side, the former Roma and Juventus coach was animated in his cautiousness. “I laugh, it’s January. What a pity! If it was May, maybe. We must continue to work hard, to keep our feet on the ground. It is a crazy, crazy league this year and we must continue.”
Despite their manager’s conservative attitude, nothing has been able to really slow the Leicester train down. Goals have dried up of late, just two in their last five league games, but Ranieri has made up for this by improving The Foxes defensively. Since November, the defense led by the experienced Wes Morgan and the wily Robert Huth has conceded just seven goals in their last 11 games. Considering that they conceded 19 in their first 11 games of the season, this is a remarkable improvement.
But can The Foxes really continue their hunt for the Premier League title? Logic says no, and my Arsenal driven heart also says no. However, Champions League qualification is certainly not out of their reach.
A 2008-09 Hull City collapse is extremely unlikely, firstly because of the sheer quality of Leicester’s players. The qualities of the rambunctious Jamie Vardy and the virtuoso Riyad Mahrez are there for all to see. N’Golo Kante’s energetic and hectic style would be a welcome presence in pretty much every Premier League side (including Arsenal, Arsene…), as would the increased penetration of Danny Drinkwater. Even the rather technically limited and awkward looking Marc Albrighton, is an extremely effective presence on Leicester’s left wing.
However, Ranieri’s low-risk, yet, clearly high-reward style is what I think will secure Leicester City a top-four finish. The Foxes, like Albrighton, play to and maximize their strengths. The pragmatic, yet effervescent Italian, is not interested in getting his side to play silky football. That’s not to say his players aren’t capable of playing in such a way, they have the technical ability. But what would be the point of taking the risk when their direct and, honest hard-working style gets the best out of his players.
However, fatigue and injuries could be a worry as the season end draws near especially considering Ranieri has only included 17 of his players in starting lineups this season. The ‘Tinkerman’ tag he used to be labeled with in his Chelsea days really is no longer apt.
Yet, Leicester’s impressive comeback in their 2-2 draw with Tottenham in their FA Cup 3rd round tie shows Ranieri has depth in his squad. The likes of Gokhan Inler and Yohan Benalouane have been underused this season, but their quality could become important later in the season. Furthermore, the additions of exciting winger Demarai Gray and highly-rated Ghanaian youngster Daniel Amartey, will excite and enthuse Leicester City fans, as well as further add to the strength of Ranieri’s options. If The Foxes could maybe find another striker to help take the weighty goal scoring load off Vardy, Mahrez and Shinji Okazaki, then Leicester would really have a squad capable of Champions League qualification. Leonardo Ulloa was useful last season but is increasingly looking out of his depth in this much-improved squad.
In response to my earlier question, yes it would be amazing if Leicester City won the Premier League this season but they won’t, sorry Leicester fans. However, Champions League is seriously not out of reach for this so-called ‘overachieving’ Foxes side. If Leicester really go all 1970’s and rise from last seasons admirable 14th place finish, to a top-four finish this season it would be an achievement unparalleled in Premier League history and one, in an age of financial heavyweights in football, that will be remembered for many years to come.
Many are questioning the depth and consistency of Arsenal Football Club this season as they hunt for their first Premier League title in over ten years. While the Gunners lead the race into the new year, one can't help but look back just a few seasons, 2013-2014, when, despite the promising first half of the season, Arsene Wenger and his team stuttered to the finish line, ending in a very familiar fourth place. Back to back FA Cups victories have definitely eased the mounting pressure on the manager, but the fans will no doubt be squirming in their seats to be named domestic league champions.
Having played twenty league games so far this season, Arsenal sit three points above their closest legitimate rivals, Manchester City (Leicester City are currently two points off the top, but will likely trail off in the second half of the season). City will definitely look for cover for Mangala and Otamendi with their seemingly endless transfer budget and their results will be more consistent in the second half of the season. More of a reason for Arsenal to do the same. Wenger revealed a deal for 23-year-old defensive midfielder Mohamed Elneny should be wrapped up in two to three days (possibly available for the trip to Anfield this Wendesday). Wenger will search for a center forward who would provide real competition and cover with Giroud for that number nine position. The lack of rotation in the squad contributes to injuries and lethargic performances such as the four nil drubbing at Southampton, drawing at Norwich and most recently, home to Newcastle, despite the unconvincing 1-0 win. Bulking up the squad would definitely lift the pressure off the players.
Arsenal's star player this season is without a doubt Mesut Özil, notching 16 assists and three goals, meaning he's has directly contributed to 19 goals in 19 Premier League appearances. That's already two more assists than his past two seasons combined. The Premier league record for assists in a single season is 20, set by Arsenal legend Thierry Henry in their famous invincible 2002-2003 season. Özil is just 5 assists away from breaking the record with 18 games to go. While many will claim that Özil is carrying the Arsenal team, consistent performers such as 10 million pound summer signing Petr Cech, Nacho Monreal, and Laurent Koscielny have all done their part to increase the solidarity of the defense. Arsenal currently have the third best defense in the league, conceding 18 goals, only to be bettered by Tottenham and Manchester United. The most successful manager in English history, with 13 top flight titles, Sir Alex Ferguson, once said "Attack wins you games, defense wins you titles." Petr Cech would surely agree with this, as he looks to extend his all time Premier League clean sheet record, which he broke at home to Bournemouth in late 2015. Arsenal fans will also be boosted by the news that last seasons player of the year, Alexis Sanchez, should return for their trip to Stoke City on the 17th of January. Whether or not he stays fit for the remainder of the season will play a huge part of Arsenal's season, as his desire on the pitch is infectious and rubs off on his teammates.
In a season where television deals have increased the financial power of all Premier League teams, the league has never been so competitive. With Chelsea off to a hilariously poor start, United boring the socks off everyone under Louis Van Gaal, and City showing defensive instability without their captain, Vincent Kompany, Arsenal haven't had a better chance in over a decade of lifting the ever so coveted Premier League title.
Predicted top 4:
1. Arsenal FC
2. Manchester City
3. Tottenham Hotspurs
4. Manchester United