On Monday night, Arsenal travel to Middlesbrough against a backdrop of intensified angst and unrest. Their fans certainly hope this Monday night does not follow last Monday night’s script.
Gunners supporters have spent the last week trying to banish the pain caused by their latest performance from their minds as they were mercilessly whipped 3-0 by Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace.
Five days after beating West Ham 3-0 at the Emirates and seemingly restoring normal service, Arsène Wenger’s side were left to look helpless against an Eagles side who soared thanks to wingers Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha.
Arsenal are anything but soaring. Instead, once again, they look like they’re ready to spiral out of control, and the defeat to Palace has only raised further questions over several members of the squad.
Suddenly, a trip to the Riverside to face Boro has become a critical juncture for some Arsenal players. Here are four players who are fighting for their Arsenal future ahead of another hugely important match.
It’s faintly ridiculous that, in the not too distant past, the 22-year-old was being rhapsodised across Europe. But football moves too fast to remember the past and Bellerín, perhaps more than any other Gunner, has been a victim of that. Unfortunately for the Spanish right-back, performances matter, and his have been seriously below-par for much of this season, leaving an erstwhile assured future as one of the Premier League’s finest full-backs in serious doubt.
There has been speculation that Bellerín’s head has been turned by reported interest from Barcelona. Of course, the one thing a player can’t do in such a situation is let his head be turned, and recent displays – particularly against Bournemouth, Manchester City and Palace – have suggested that he’s far from settled and free from distraction.
The crushing nadir came at Selhurst Park last week. Bellerín bore the brunt of relentless cries of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ from disillusioned Arsenal fans when he arrived on the touchline to take a throw-in. Sections of fans went as far as to boo the defender when he applauded their support at the final whistle, leaving Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to console his teammate.
The statistics won’t help Bellerin’s plummeting confidence either. This season, he’s won only 17 tackles compared to 47 in the 2015/16 campaign. He’s also only won 39% of his aerial duels, a drop from 50% last year while he’s only managed 34 interceptions, compared to his last tally of 66.
Yes, to put it mildly, Bellerín needs a morale-boosting performance against Boro – assuming that he retains his place in the starting line-up – or that move to Barcelona may not materialise.
The Brazilian centre-back and Jamie Carragher won’t be exchanging Christmas cards in the foreseeable future. The Sky Sports pundit blasted Gabriel on Monday Night Football after the Palace game, claiming he was ‘terrified’ of Christian Benteke in the build-up to Andros Townsend’s opener.
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) April 11, 2017
We’ll never truly know if Benteke did strike fear into Gabriel’s heart, but nevertheless it was a withering assessment from Carragher, and only the latest in a grim campaign for the 26-year-old.
To say the former Villarreal defender is a ‘coward,’ as Carragher surmised, would be a tad harsh, but it’s fair to say that he hasn’t sufficiently cured Wenger’s problems in the centre of defence. Per Mertesacker is 32 and barely ever fit and Gabriel was signed as a long-term replacement for the German, but his lack of consistency and conviction has only cast doubt over his potential as a Gunners stalwart.
It hasn’t been all bad, though. Gabriel was solid against West Ham two weeks ago, while it was his introduction which tightened up Arsenal’s brittle defence against Manchester City at the start of the month. There is scope for Gabriel to improve and eventually blossom into a Laurent Koscielny-esque figure for Arsenal, but he may fall victim if the club acquires defensive reinforcements in the summer.
Read More: Assessing Danny Welbeck's Position at Arsenal
It may appear ruthless to highlight the deficiencies of a player who has spent the vast majority of the last two years on the treatment table, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Arsenal yearn for an upgrade in attack. The club had high hopes for the former Manchester United striker following his return from injury, and two expertly-taken goals in the 5-0 demolition of Southampton in the FA Cup only heightened anticipation over what he could achieve.
However, mirroring the bleak recent narrative of Arsenal’s other attacking players, Danny Welbeck has only added one goal since then – during the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool. He’s been afforded plenty of opportunities to prove his worth, too, starting in the last five Premier League games.
The writing may be on the wall for the 26-year-old, who was withdrawn after 60 minutes against Crystal Palace having hardly kicked the ball as he chased shadows up front. Therein lies the problem for the striker: the effort is always there, but the end product is often absent. Dating back to his time at Old Trafford, he showed flashes of genuine quality but they were often followed by baffling periods of inconspicuousness.
There is a minority opinion that the Welshman has got by on the scintillating form he showed in the 2013/14 season. Aaron Ramsey was the Gunner’ MVP that season (winning the club’s Player of the Month award four times in a row), but has failed to reach such dizzying heights since, with a mix of injury woes and poor form hampering his progress.
This season has seen the 26-year-old found out. After a stellar Euro 2016 with Wales, hopes of him bringing his best form back to England have been dashed as he’s struggled to re-establish himself, with his standout moment recently being acting as a punching bag for Alexis Sanchez’s boiling anger during the 3-3 draw at Bournemouth in January.
Since then, Sanchez has huffed and puffed his way through matches while Ramsey has struggled to even get a game. Ramsey hasn’t started since the 3-1 defeat to West Brom a month ago, when he was culpable for sleeping at a corner which led to the Baggies’ opener. That lapse in concentration clearly irked Wenger, who has preferred two of Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin in central midfield since.
However, while Xhaka was arguably Arsenal’s best player against Palace, Elneny struggled and was replaced by Ramsey in the 59th-minute, so Monday night’s trip to Boro may provide the Welshman with the opportunity he needs to stake his claim for a starting berth. Ramsey is a more naturally creative player than the aforementioned trio, but he will need to dig deep and reproduce his best form if he’s to get back into Wenger’s good books.