A Warm Return?
After a January of big changes to the Arsenal squad, the Emirates will be welcoming back one of their own on Saturday when Theo Walcott returns with Everton to face the club he once called his own for more than a decade. The rapid winger is likely to start for Sam Allardyce’s Toffees, and Arsene Wenger knows to expect a real goal threat from his former charge. Everton currently sit in 9th place in the Premier League, 11 points behind the Gunners, but have shown a marked improvement in form and consistency since Allardyce was hired at the end of September. Owner of over 100 goals in his Arsenal career and always a professional and loyal servant, Walcott should expect to receive a warm reception when he steps out onto the pitch on Saturday.
Mkhitaryan A Likely Starter, Aubameyang to Debut?
His first appearance in an Arsenal shirt, a 60th minute substitution for Mohammed Elneny on Tuesday in the dreary loss to Swansea, might have been forgettable, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan could get his first start for the club at home against Everton. Wenger seemed to suggest his inclusion in the starting XI was a serious possibility in his pre-match press conference, and fans are anxious to see their Alexis replacement get some quality minutes with the Mesut Ozil and the rest of the starters. It will be interesting to see who makes way for the Armenian creator, but Alex Iwobi has been cited as the player most likely to drop, meaning Mkhitaryan could open the match on the left of an attacking trio with Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette.
As for fellow Arsenal newcomer and former Borussia Dortmund star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he is unlikely to start his first match with the club after battling illness for most of the week. The Gabonese striker was able to train with his teammates along with fellow under the weather Gunner Jack Wilshere, so both are in contention to at least make the bench for Saturday’s clash with Everton. Alexandre Lacazette, who looks to be the player most likely to be affected by Aubameyang’s arrival, will likely get the start leading the line at centre forward. The Frenchman will be looking to break out of the slump he currently finds himself in, and with a legitimate contender now in the team to push him for his starting place, all eyes will be on him to see how he responds.
As every Arsenal fan surely knows by now, Mesut Ozil has officially signed a new contract with the club to take him through the 2021 season at the Emirates. The announcement (complete with a cheeky photograph of the playmaker busy signing autographs that hinted at his new deal) ends more than a year of intense speculation about his future, and will keep him at the club until he is 32. Asked a year ago, fans would likely have picked Alexis Sanchez as the star they hoped most to keep, but this season most fans seem to agree the club made the right choice. Ozil will make around £350k per week, making him the second highest paid player in the Premier League behind his former teammate at Manchester United. Fans of the Red Devils had been hoping that Ozil would join Alexis in the summer on a free transfer, but his loyalty for the Gunners shined through in the end, leaving many Manchester reporters, journalists and bloggers with egg on their face since their confident assurances to their readers that the World Cup winner would join them backfired spectacularly.
Sanllehi Starts With A Bang
Raul Sanllehi has barely been in the job at Arsenal for 48 hours, but already he has made the news for his summer ambitions. Sanllehi was hired from Barcelona last autumn, but stayed with the Catalan club until after the January transfer window closed on Wednesday. Despite only arriving this week, it seems the Head of a Football Operations already has big plans for his new club. Sanllehi has been reported to be intent on luring Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak to the Emirates in the summertime to replace the aging Petr Cech. Though he might be the best goalkeeper in the history of the Premier League, Cech has noticeably atrophied the last two seasons in the Arsenal goal, clearly losing those incredible reflexes that helped him dominate the Chelsea penalty area during his decade with the West London club.
Oblak is 25, still young for an elite goalkeeper, and has dominated in goal for Diego Simeone’s hard-charging Atleti. His talents are not exactly a secret around Europe, and any club that wants him should be prepared to fork over at least £80 million for his services as he only just signed a contract with a €100 million release clause in it. Still, if Arsenal are looking to upgrade at the back, they would be hard pressed to do better than the commanding Slovenian. PSG and Liverpool have also reportedly shown interest in Oblak, so quite a battle could be shaping up for his signature this summer, during which he is said to be open to considering his future.
Striking A Balance
In his press conference this week, Arsene Wenger was questioned about the club’s decision to pursue more attacking talent in January despite the obvious struggles the defence have had for most of the season. Wenger told the assembled reporters that he would have liked to sign a defender, but a move that made sense for the club never quite materialised. It was thought that Arsenal would try and sign Jonny Evans from West Brom, but the Baggies’ quoted price was reportedly almost double the £15 million that Arsenal expected they would have to pay. When West Brom decided to sign Daniel Sturridge on loan from Liverpool at the end of the window, the club felt their chances of avoiding relegation improved, and were reluctant to sell Evans on the cheap while they still had a chance to survive in the league.
Arsenal might have ended the month without any more defenders to add to the mix (aside from youngster Konstantinos Mavropanos), but Wenger is still confident that they can find internal solutions to the leaky back line. There is plenty of talent in the defence, but an overly aggressive attacking style has left them exposed at the back repeatedly this season. Wenger has used both a back 3 and a back 4 this season with similarly inconsistent results, so he does not have a radical formation in his back pocket this time to help turn the defence around. However, this is not the first time Arsenal have faced a steep climb to get back into the hunt at this time of year, and that journey starts Saturday against Everton.